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The Square Peg

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Chapter One

The Square Peg looked dingy and rundown from the outside, but Ben told himself that on a gloomy February day, with the sun hidden behind clouds and a brisk wind flinging trash along the sidewalks, most places wouldn’t look their best.

Not that he could blame the weather for the tattered poster in the filthy front window, advertising a Pride parade that had taken place two years earlier, or the way the bar’s main door had a loose handle and a series of dents that looked as if they’d been made by a fist.

Fair-sized parking lot behind it, though, and a cab company on the corner, close enough for even the drunkest customer to stagger to safely.

Potential, he told himself as he finally got the handle to work and opened the door. It’s got potential.

Which was more than he could say for his love life or his job, but he wasn’t going to think about either of those. Jenson had finally collected the last of his belongings two days ago. They’d been stacked neatly in a box by Ben, who’d methodically searched their apartment for any item to which Jenson could legitimately lay claim. He had enough reminders of their five years together in his head without needing to wince at the sight of a memento from a vacation or a forgotten T-shirt.

Work, well, his job was the same as it’d ever been. Which was, according to Jenson, the problem.

“You add up numbers all day, and you’re starting to look like one. A big fat zero. Zero personality, zero fun, zero— Oh, what’s the use? It’s over. Find yourself an accountant like you to fuck, and get each other off quoting statistics. And when you forget his birthday, apologize by telling him the percentage of men who do that, and I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”

“Jesus, my father had just died, and you hate celebrating your birthday.”

“It doesn’t mean you’re allowed to forget it!”

Not the first argument they’d had, but it’d ended up being their last.

The carpeted area just inside the door was an indeterminate color, and it was sticky, forcing Ben to work to peel his shoes off it. The scuffed wooden floor beyond it wasn’t much better. Didn’t anyone ever mop up the spilled drinks?

It was dim enough that Ben wanted to walk around flicking on every light switch he came to. Ambiance was one thing, but customers needed to see what they were drinking. A half-empty glass on a table caught his eye. There seemed to be something floating in it. He peered at it as he walked past. A lemon slice, limp and raggedly cut, paper-thin at one end, thick at the other. Which meant the slice next to it had been ruined too.

Lemons were about fifty cents each. Assume the bar used ten a day… Ben shook his head. No, somewhere like this wouldn’t get through that many. Even so, not paying attention to the details was what sent many a business under. A wasted lemon slice didn’t sound like much, but Ben could spot a red flag even in this poorly lit a room.

Sitting on a stool behind the long, laminate-topped bar—where the lighting was decent, at least, but it would have to be, or the bartender wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing—was a young man so pale he probably needed vitamin D supplements. He was leafing through a thin local newspaper, a bored look on his face. At the end of the bar, two men and a woman were talking quietly, and in the corner underneath a dart board that had seen better days, four men sat at a round table having what sounded like a good-natured argument.

The place wasn’t empty, but no one could call it busy either.

Ben approached the bar, and the young bartender looked up from his paper, showing some faint signs of animation as he was faced with a customer. “Hi. What can I get you?”

“Actually, I’m looking for the manager,” Ben told him. “Shane Brant? Is he here?”

The bartender nodded, and a lock of his straight blacker-than-black hair fell in front of his eyes. “In the office,” he said, gesturing at a door in the wall behind the bar. “Go around to the side, and I’ll let you in.”

Ben smiled his thanks as a section of the bar was raised to allow him to walk through. Still, he was surprised at how easily he’d been allowed to walk into the private section of the bar. Maybe he looked so safe and respectable he didn’t qualify as a security threat—and wasn’t that a depressing thought?

There was another young man behind the bar, crouched, counting bottles and making notes on a piece of paper. He was blond, pure twink, with eyes green enough that he had to be wearing tinted contacts. He gave Ben a flirtatious wink that didn’t seem sincere and a curious once-over that did.

“Hi there. I’m Patrick.”

“He’s not interested,” the bartender said, rolling his eyes and saving Ben from coming up with a response. “Get back to the inventory.”

Patrick pouted but did as he was told. Ben cleared his throat and walked through the door to find himself in a corridor with an open door to his right that was clearly an office.

Inside the room was a massive desk that had to weigh five hundred pounds. A man sat with his back to the doorway, studying a clipboard in his hands. As Ben watched, he made a notation, then turned. “Vincent, do you think—” He stopped when he saw Ben wasn’t Vincent. “Can I help you with something, mate?”

“That depends,” Ben told him. From indifference to wary suspicion in the space of a minute. Neither attitude was what he’d expected. “Are you Shane Brant?”

“Since birth.”

The man was mid-thirties, his hair cropped so close to his head it was difficult to see its true color. Light brown, maybe. Pale gray eyes and a calmly competent expression were both off-putting and reassuring. The man exuded intimidation without trying, but there was no anger or dislike in his appraising stare. A good man to have at your back and a bad enemy, Ben decided. He felt better once he’d slotted Shane into a category.

“Benedict Lozier. You’ve probably been wondering when I’d show up.”

Shane scratched his nose. “Haven’t been able to sleep worrying about it. Thank God you’re here now.” He had an English accent, not strong enough for Ben, whose secret vice was British TV shows, to be able to narrow it down to a region. But it was unmistakable.

He was being sarcastic, Ben thought. Once he’d thought it, his brain took hold and circled it around for much longer than it should have, leaving him standing there staring. “Uh, right. So. You knew my dad.”

“That I did. Better than you, or at least that’s the impression I got.” Shane set his clipboard on the desk. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”

“No. Not wrong.” Ben sighed and looked around the room. It contained a haphazard collection of horizontal surfaces on which other things were stacked, often precariously. This wasn’t going the way he’d imagined.

“Is there something in particular I can do for you, Benedict?” Shane tilted his head and studied Ben with the same thoughtful gaze he probably wore when deciding which shirt to wear.

“I thought we should talk,” Ben said.

“And so we are.” Shane blinked patiently.

“About the business.”

“The bar,” Shane corrected him. “The bar I’ve managed for six years, working my backside off to keep it open and out of the red. The bar you’ve inherited as a reward for—what was it again? Oh yeah. Being the son of the owner. Would you even have recognized your dad if you’d passed him in the street?”

No. Probably not. Ben had been a toddler when Jenna, his mother, had given Craig—Ben couldn’t think of him as Dad—an ultimatum: stop using or get out. Craig Lozier had always taken the easiest choice, innate laziness guiding him instead of any sense of responsibility toward his wife and young son.

Or at least that was the impression Ben had gotten from the little his mother had told him over the years.

“I inherited half,” he said, the need for accuracy prompting the correction. That was another habit of his that had irritated Jenson. And he tried to restrain himself when it really was a trivial matter, but this didn’t qualify. “You got the other half. That was very generous of Craig, in my opinion.”

“Not sure you’re entitled to an opinion on this matter.” Shane shook his head and stood. “I built this place, okay? It was Craig’s money, but the hours and sleepless nights and advertising decisions were mine. I appreciate Craig made me a partner in his will, but I also know I deserved it. And that you’ve got a lot to learn.”

“You’re right about that.” Ben wasn’t sure if admitting it would get Shane on his side, but it was the right thing to do either way. “I intend to learn it. I sort of get the impression Craig was happy being a silent partner, but we were different in about a thousand ways.”

Shane snorted. “Yeah, you don’t strike me as the silent type.”

“I don’t usually have arguments with people I’ve just met, though.” He meant it as an apology.

That got him a raised eyebrow with some skepticism showing. “I’ll take your word for it. Start over, shall we? Nice to meet you, Benedict. Sorry about your dad. I’m sure you’re gutted. Now piss off so I can get back to sorting out the payroll, yeah?”

The hostility Shane was showing left Ben off balance and lost for words. It was so unfair and unwarranted that he had no defense.

“I’m not gutted, as you put it, because I haven’t seen Craig since I was a kid. He wasn’t there. He left. He did. Not us. Not that it’s any of your business.” He tried one more time to be conciliatory. “I’m not much of a drinker. I’m not sure what goes in a gin and tonic, to be honest.” That didn’t get a smile. Well, it wasn’t very funny. “But I can help you with the accounts and the payroll if you point me at your computer.”

Shane’s pale eyes narrowed. “No need. Like I said, you can piss off now we’ve done the introductions and all that. I’ll send you a check every month with your cut, just like I did with your dad. Someone like you doesn’t want to hang around a gay bar on the dodgy side of town. Not exactly your cup of tea, is it?” Shane moved closer. He was shorter than Ben by an inch or two, but that didn’t stop Ben from taking an involuntary step back. Shane was wearing black jeans and a denim shirt over a gray T-shirt, with battered leather lace-up boots. He looked tough without trying, and his exposed forearms were muscular in a wiry way, a faded tattoo decorating his right arm, some kind of bird that had been brightly colored once. “Or don’t you trust me? Is that why you want to breathe down my neck? You think I’d skim off the top and do you out of your share?”

“Whoa, what?” Ben held up both hands in surrender. “What happened to starting over? First off, I don’t know you, but that doesn’t mean I’m assuming you’re dishonest. Second, you don’t know me either, so you have no idea what my cup of tea might or might not be. And for the record, I’m gay, and I’m not interested in a monthly check. I want this.” He waved at the space around them, then his eyes focused on the piles of paperwork and boxes of liquor bottles stacked halfway to the ceiling. “Okay, maybe not this specifically.”

“I know you’re gay. Your dad told me. Doesn’t mean you’re going to fit in here.” Shane’s gaze traveled over Ben, appraising enough that he had to fight the urge to pull back his shoulders and suck in his stomach. “You’re wearing a suit, for God’s sake.”

“I spent the day at work and came straight here.” Okay, that’d sounded perilously close to an excuse, and there was nothing to apologize for in wearing a perfectly ordinary suit. It wasn’t a three-thousand-dollar bespoke one, just an off-the-rack suit marked down in the January sales. “I’m an accountant. This is practically a uniform. Sorry if I don’t meet the dress code. Next time I’ll be sure to wear my leather pants.”

Shane’s eyebrows quirked. You’d still look like an accountant.”

“And what does an accountant look like?” Ben demanded, giving way to his rising temper. He was standing in a bar he half owned, and he was damned if he was going to be marginalized by some mouthy thug with an attitude problem.

Shane grabbed him by the shoulders, surprising a yelp out of him, and spun him around so he was facing a small mirror on the wall, spotted with age and with a chipped corner. “Take a look.”

Ben swallowed, seeing not himself, but Shane’s hands, curled over his shoulders, gripping him tightly. Large hands, the fingernails short and ragged as if they’d been bitten. He was acutely conscious that Shane was standing close enough that their bodies touched, his elbow nudging Shane’s ribs when he brought his hands up, forming them into fists.

“Pretty little boy,” Shane said into his ear, all easy scorn. “You don’t belong here. It’s not one of the clubs you’re used to, all clean and expensive and safe. This is a bar, mate. There’s a fight once or twice a week, the cops keep coming in to check the nasty queers for drugs, looking for an excuse to shut us down—or a blowjob to look the other way, depending on who’s on duty—and the punters would take one look at you and piss themselves laughing.”

Under other circumstances, Ben would have found Shane’s phrasing charming, if incomprehensible. Instead, he was wondering how much it would cost to buy out Shane’s share of the business so he wouldn’t have to deal with him. “You don’t know where I belong,” he said stubbornly, looking at Shane’s reflection instead of his own. “Do you get off on this?”

“On telling you what you need to hear? I’m trying to do you a favor.”

“You’re full of shit if you think this is a favor. Do you have a problem with me specifically, or is it that you never learned to share?”

Abruptly he was left standing alone, his shoulders still feeling the weight of Shane’s hands. Shane had retreated—no, not that—Shane had moved to lean against his desk. There wasn’t space for two desks in the cluttered room, but somehow Ben couldn’t see Shane being amenable to rearranging the space regardless.

Well, if this turned out to be the only suitable office space, maybe Shane wouldn’t have a choice.

“Call it what you like. This is my place. It’s not much, maybe, but it’s somewhere people can come and have a drink without being worried they’ll get stared at for who they’re with or what they look like. It’s a safe place, and there’s not many of them around. I can already tell you’re gonna want to change things. Improve us. Bet you’ve got a nice long list already, just from five minutes in the place.”

“Yes, and a regular cleaner and a few more light bulbs are at the top of it,” Ben said, opting for a pleasant smile he knew would be infuriating. “Why don’t you give me the guided tour first? Then we can discuss what else is going on the list. I’ll make sure I include therapy sessions for you or a personality transplant. You pick.”

“Asshole,” Shane muttered.

“Hey, good for you. You’ve learned to speak American.”

“Been here long enough.” Shane hitched himself up to sit on the desk, knocking a flutter of papers off onto the floor. He wasn’t glaring, not quite, but it was a close thing.

“Too long, maybe.” Ben never thought of how something was going to sound before he said it, so wincing was a familiar action. “I just mean, it might be good, having someone new come in. You know, fresh air, shake things up?”

“Not all that big a fan of change,” Shane told him. “Place is fine as it is. People like it.”

“I saw the financial statements, okay? I know things could be a lot better. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t like it if the business was a huge success with huge profits.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait to buy a Rolls-Royce and a place in the country.” Shane gave him an exasperated look. “Listen, suit, there’s only so much money the people around here have, and some of them spend too damn much here as it is. Not that I’m complaining, but I remember when my dad used to drink up his wage packet on a Friday, and we’d go short the rest of the week.”

“That’s very…” Ben faltered. Telling Shane he had a social conscience would probably sound condescending. He hurried on. “So we make the bar popular outside this area, bring in a new clientele, turn the place into something more attractive—”

Shane straightened, his frown on the menacing side. “Kick out all the faggots and tart it up for a bunch of losers who’d come here for shit and giggles, then wander off to the next hot place to be, leaving us with no one, you mean? Yeah, you’ve got a real head for business.”

“I’m an accountant. Business is my business.”

“Another thing you didn’t get from your dad,” Shane said. “He was a good bloke, but there was a reason he let me run things. Kind of thought you might be willing to leave things as they were.”

“I should have called first or something,” Ben conceded. He was willing to concede a lot if it meant they could have a civil conversation. “Rather than springing this on you.” He wished it had occurred to him Shane might not want things to change or might not welcome a motivated partner with open arms.

“I could have called you when he died.” Shane sighed. “I was scared shitless you wouldn’t have heard, and I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”

“Were you friends?”

Shane shook his head. “Don’t think I’d put it like that, no. But we were friendly.”

“Friendly enough he told you I was gay.” Ben frowned. “Though how he knew that, I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly warbling Judy Garland songs when he left. Hell, I was only coming to grips with ‘the cow says moo.’”

“He left, sure. Doesn’t mean he didn’t keep tabs on you and your mum. His sister’s the gossipy sort. Kate, is it? Your auntie?”

“Aunt Kate. Yes.” Ben saw her a few times a year, dutifully driving over to her suffocatingly warm, cluttered house and pretending to be interested in her three yappy dogs. “I didn’t know she’d kept in touch with Craig.”

Or that she was reporting back to him.

“He was sad when your mum passed. Not gutted; I won’t lie. He hadn’t seen her for over twenty years, and what they had, well, it’d faded, I guess. But it upset him. Came in here and got hammered a few times, told me a few stories about her. His way of dealing.”

“Don’t.” Ben knew he’d stiffened, the memory of his loss rolling over him, a gray wave of desolation. His mom had been taken from him slowly, by degrees, the cancer playing cat and mouse, but when the end had come, the shock had been as sharp and cutting as if she’d been killed in a car crash out of the blue. “He wasn’t there for her. Ever. He didn’t have the right to be sad, to be anything.”

Ben would never admit there’d been part of him who’d felt a savage pleasure when he’d heard cancer was what had taken Craig too. That was something he’d keep locked carefully inside. He suspected its existence meant he might be a horrible person, so he tried his best not to think about it.

Shane was studying him, and when their gazes met, he nodded. “Right. Well, anyway. Sorry. Tricky subject, I suppose.”

“You could say that.” Ben’s shoulders and upper back were tense.

“Shall I show you around, then?” Shane offered, and Ben felt the tension ease. He was beginning to suspect that underneath the bristly exterior, Shane might actually be a pretty nice guy, and that possibility combined with the fact that he wasn’t hard on the eyes made the whole thing just a little easier to take.

“Sure. I’d like that.”

“It’s bigger than it looks,” Shane said. “Craig and me, we talked about expanding the bar, maybe putting in a snug.”

“A what?”

“I don’t know what you call them over here. Kind of a smaller room, quieter, with its own bar. In my local, it was where all the old men went, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we could do snacks in there. Don’t do that now. Another bar would take some of the pressure off when things get busy.”

Ben blinked as Shane rattled off his ideas in clipped tones, his accent stronger. “That’s certainly something we could look at,” he said cautiously, unwilling to commit fully to what would be an expensive renovation, but glad Shane wasn’t completely against change. Even if it was only a change he’d suggested. Somehow he thought Shane wouldn’t be as keen to adopt any of his ideas.

“Yeah,” Shane said flatly, his brief burst of enthusiasm fading. “Whatever. Okay, so through here’s the storeroom, with a door to the yard in the back.” He weaved his way through cases of drinks and unlocked the exterior door. Like every other painted surface in the place, it needed attention. A cool breeze swept in, making Ben shiver. “I put a ramp in. Makes it easier when we have deliveries, see? They can wheel them in.”

“Great idea!” Ben said, realizing he’d gone too heavy on the approval. Oh, what a wonderful picture of the doggie! Let’s hang it on the fridge for Daddy to see…

Shane slammed the door, the bang underscoring his feelings nicely. He stalked out of the storeroom with Ben on his heels and went down a short corridor with two doors opening off it. “Loo for the staff through there, not filthy, but don’t get any ideas about eating dinner off the floor, because you’d be lucky to survive the first bite. There’s a room for them here where they can hang out when they’re on their breaks. Couch, a telly, that kind of thing.” He indicated at the door but put his arm out to block Ben’s attempt to open it. “It’s a dump; take my word for it. You don’t need to check it out. Not as if you’ll be spending any time in there.”

If Shane hadn’t seem so determined to keep him out, Ben would have let it go, but curiosity reared its head, and he pushed past Shane’s arm and opened the door.

In the small, crowded room, the young bartender was just pulling a maroon polo shirt over his head. His eyes widened when he saw them. Swiftly, he kicked at something on the floor next to the lumpy plaid couch until it was out of sight. “I was just changing,” he said, picking up a similarly colored wad of fabric. “Shane, that tap that was leaking, well, it’s not dripping now. It’s practically a stream.”

“Good thing we keep spare shirts,” Shane said, with a glance at Ben that seemed more than a little bit suspicious.

There was a blanket draped along the length of the couch and a second one balled into something resembling a pillow. It was easy enough to guess the young man had been sleeping there, and the worried glances he and Shane were exchanging told Ben there was some reason he wasn’t supposed to be. He cleared his throat.

“Right, sorry,” Shane said. “Vincent, this is Benedict Lozier. He’s got a half interest in the bar.”

“Since when?” Vincent seemed shocked.

“Since his father was the old owner and left it to him,” Shane said. “This is Vincent.”

“Vin,” Vin said. “He calls everyone by their full names. It’s a thing.”

“I noticed. Nice to meet you properly.” Ben shook Vin’s hand.

“Uh, yeah. You too.” Vin plucked at the shirt with a grimace. “Black’s better. Doesn’t show the dirt.”

“So change again when your shirt’s dry.” Shane sounded more patient with Vin’s outraged fashion sense than he had with Ben. “If you’re done here, maybe you should get back behind the bar.”

Vin scratched his bare forearm, drawing Ben’s attention to a display of ink that was both intricate and, to Ben’s eyes, painful. Shane’s much smaller tattoo was one thing, but he couldn’t imagine sitting still for the hours it would take to have that kind of artwork etched into skin. It was a dragon on a bed of skulls, all in black, apart from a single baleful red eye. Vin seemed to go in for decorating his body with more than ink. Multiple silver studs glinted dully in his ears, along with a dragon earring, and there was a small hoop in his eyebrow. They were probably the tamest examples. Yeah, there was the shine of a tongue stud.

Ben, who didn’t have a tattoo or a piercing to his name, felt nakedly normal and uncomfortably curious about what else Vin had embellished. Nipples, navel, cock? Okay, now he was the one grimacing.

“Not exactly fucking hopping out there, but sure.”

Vin edged past Ben as cautiously as if boring would rub off on him, and Ben sighed, halting him with a gesture. “You’re sleeping here? Why?” he asked bluntly.

“Me? Sleep here? No way.” Vin wasn’t a good liar in Ben’s opinion, and Shane’s exasperated sigh showed he thought so too.

“He got kicked out. New landlord looking to improve the image of the place. I’m letting him doss down here for a few nights. Already got feelers out for a place down on Austin Street that might open up soon.”

“He shouldn’t be staying here,” Ben said. “It’s just not suitable even in the short-term. I’m not telling you to kick him out onto the street, but you have to see that.” He could see chip crumbs on the floor by the couch, and a stack of pizza boxes on a table. The room smelled funky. He was willing to bet the staff washroom was doubling as Vin’s bathroom.

“I could stay with you upstairs,” Vin said with a hopeful look at Shane. “I wouldn’t be in the way.”

Shane shook his head. “I like my space, thanks. I don’t share. If I did, my couch, this couch—what’s the difference?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because no one should be living here? And not just because it’s probably illegal. Where do you take a shower?”

Vin, gaze firmly locked on the floor, shrugged.

Ben sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He was starting to suspect he’d have to find a chiropractor. “Okay, you can stay with me tonight.”

“What?” Vin and Shane both spoke at the same time as if they’d rehearsed it.

“Well, he can’t stay here; it’s ridiculous.” Ben looked at Shane. “Plus he looks like he hasn’t had a real meal in forever.”

“I’m not looking for a handout,” Vin protested, but it was hard to read his expression.

“I’m not offering one. But you can’t sleep here, and the couch in my den folds out into a bed that’ll be a hell of a lot more comfortable than this.” Ben knew he was being impulsive and didn’t care. This was the new him. No more boring Ben; from now on he’d be a risktaker.

“You don’t know him,” Shane said. “He could rip you off, trash the place—”

“Hey!” Vin protested. “I wouldn’t. Any of that.” He turned to Ben. “He’s right, though. You don’t know me.”

“Yes, I do,” Ben said. “You’re one of my employees.”

It was worth any amount of future inconvenience to see Shane’s face when he said that, laying claim to the place and the people in it and daring Shane to argue.

Craig might have kept his distance from the bar and let Shane do things his way, but Ben didn’t intend to, not now he’d seen how lax things were. Sticky carpets, peeling paint—no.

His turn to take charge.

He met Shane’s gaze squarely, projecting the same brisk confidence he used to control an evasive client. “Show me the rest of the place; then I’ll take a look at that paperwork you were struggling with.”

Shane chewed on his lip for a moment, worrying at it with his teeth. He was handsome as hell when he looked uncertain, a thought Ben wasn’t sure what to do with. “Yeah. Whatever. You’ve seen most of it, anyway. Upstairs is my place, all of it. Need someone around to keep an eye on things.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Ben said and awarded himself another point when Shane scowled.

As he followed Shane out, he realized how much fun he was having, the sensation novel enough to make him wonder if Jenson had been right.

Maybe he had been too stuck in his ways…but that was all about to change.

He caught his foot in a hole in the carpet and had to work to keep from falling flat on his face.

Lots of things were going to change.

Chapter Two

Shane’s stomach grumbled again, and he ignored it again, though he wouldn’t be able to do that for much longer. Benedict seemed determined to see and evaluate every inch of the bar, exhausting and irritating him in the process. Now Benedict was settled at Shane’s desk with a stack of paperwork that would hopefully keep him occupied for at least half an hour.

“Boss? Just opened the last case of Absolut.” Shelly, the part-time bartender who was the most blessedly no-nonsense woman Shane had ever met, did a great job keeping on top of things they were running low on.

“There’s a delivery in the morning.” Shane straightened from where he’d been slumped against the wall outside the office and added, “I’m going to phone in an order at India Palace.”

“I’ll tell Vin,” Shelly called over her shoulder.

Shane went into the office—his office, still his, whether Benedict liked it or not—to grab the tattered paper menu tacked to the corkboard.

“Oh good, are you ordering food?” Benedict asked without looking up. “Pizza?”

“Indian.”

“Hm. Saag paneer and garlic naan. Extra rice.” Still without looking up, Benedict leaned forward in his chair, took out his wallet, and held some bills toward Shane.

Bloody cheek. Shane knew his mouth was screwed up tight enough that it had to look like his arsehole, but he couldn’t help it. Benedict rubbed him the wrong way. Everything about him grated, from the suit jacket hanging, perfectly aligned, on the back of Benedict’s chair, to the soft tap of Benedict’s pen against his hand as he read.

Physically, Shane couldn’t find much to sneer at. Benedict’s body was shaped by a gym, not hard work. An hour shifting cases of bottles would probably leave him wiped out, but he wasn’t soft, not really. The dark hair, thick and unruly—that was Craig’s hair, though his son probably wouldn’t take kindly to being told that. His brown eyes weren’t like Craig’s in anything but color, though, and neither was his personality. Craig had never had that much intelligence and warmth in his eyes when Shane had known him, the knocks he’d taken leaving him depressed, the life squeezed out of him. Not a bad bloke, but not much fun.

Benedict, for all that he had a stick up his arse and would need reining in before he gutted the place and turned it into somewhere Shane wouldn’t be seen dead drinking in, was at least enthusiastic.

He found himself studying the shape of Benedict’s mouth—the thin upper lip and the surprisingly lush lower one—and shook himself out of his reverie long enough to take the money from his partner’s hand.

Partner. This just wasn’t going to work.

After twenty minutes of watching Benedict shuffle paper, he was on edge, gritting his teeth every time Benedict gave a low, considering hmm after totting up a line of figures.

“Will you stop doing that?”

Benedict looked up, blinking at him. His eyelashes were too long for a guy’s in Shane’s opinion, dark and silky. “Doing what?”

“That! All those—” Shane made an exasperated gesture. “Those thoughtful sounds, as if you’re some sort of Zen master. Let me guess: you’re into yoga, and your inspiration is Gandhi.” He knew he was being absurd, but he couldn’t help it, not when Benedict seemed determined to swoop in and improve everything and everyone’s lives when they were just fine the way they were, thank you very much.

“You realize you sound like a crazy person, right?”

“Hi, excuse me?” An uncertain delivery guy holding a paper bag peered around the corner of the doorframe. “The Goth guy at the bar said I should bring this back here?”

“I love you,” Benedict told him, sounding so genuine Shane’s stomach twisted in confusion. “I’m starving. Here, take this; give me that.” He was waving a ten-dollar bill at the delivery guy, who had to be new, since Shane ordered from India Palace all the time and hadn’t seen him before.

The guy looked at Shane worriedly, slipped past him, and traded the food for the money. “I just need you to sign the slip?”

“No, that would be me,” Shane said, and did so, making sure to draw a line through the place where he would have added the tip. “Thanks. Benedict, if you eat my food, I’ll seriously consider killing you. Just for the record.”

As the delivery guy fled, Benedict grinned, already shoveling food into his mouth and making new sounds, happy sounds. “God, this is good,” he said.

“You Yanks don’t know how to do curry, but it’s not bad.” Since the India Palace was owned by two brothers, Vijay and Deepak Patel, who’d emigrated from Birmingham a few years before Shane had left Liverpool, that wasn’t surprising. But Shane didn’t share that with Benedict. More fun to needle him.

Shane peeled the lid off his shrimp vindaloo—he liked his curry mouth-searingly hot—and inhaled the aroma appreciatively.

They ate in silence for a while. Then Benedict pushed a sauce-soaked piece of naan into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and said, “You’re bleeding cash. I give you six months before you go under.”

The juicy, tender shrimp in his mouth lost none of its succulence, but Shane gulped it down without tasting it. “You what?”

“You heard me.” Benedict smiled at him. “Your accent…I couldn’t work out where you were from, but you’re a, um, a Scouser, is that right?”

The careful way he said Scouser made Shane roll his eyes. Jesus. Another one who thought his accent was cute. Cute. God. He’d spent a year working in a London pub, and no one in the Smoke had thought it was cute. He’d suffered through endless jokes about whippets down his trousers and the assumption his football team of choice was Liverpool.

“I’m from the Wirral. Part of Merseyside, yeah, but we’re on the opposite side of the Mersey to Liverpool. Go back to what you were saying about—”

Right on cue, Benedict asked, “So you support Liverpool? Steven Gerrard plays for them, right? Good old Stevie G.” Benedict was beaming as if he thought he’d earned major brownie points or something.

“No. I’m a Toffee. Wouldn’t exactly be welcome at Anfield, now would I?”

“Toffee? Huh? Is that Brit slang for gay? What’s that got to do with soccer?”

Shane snorted with amusement. Too easy. “It’s football in every other part of the world but here, you know. And it’s the nickname for Everton. My team. The Toffees.”

“Why? The name, I mean, not why you support them.”

Shane started to explain, then paused. He was being distracted. He could yammer on about his footie team for hours—any fan could—but Everton were currently mid-table and doing fine, whereas his pub was about to go into receivership by the sound of it. “Forget the football. What the fuck do you mean we’re going under? You can’t just waltz in here and say that.”

“I’m just repeating it,” Benedict said, tapping a pile of paperwork with the edge of his thumb. “It’s right here in black and white. Maybe it’s easier for me to read, maybe you’re just used to being balanced on the edge of a cliff, but it’s easy to see if you know what you’re looking at.”

“There’s a profit every month,” Shane protested.

“It only looks that way. Craig was paying all the taxes to the city, and that’s small potatoes compared to the bill to the wholesaler.” Benedict must have seen the dismay Shane could feel washing over him on his face. “You didn’t know?”

Shane pushed his food aside, any trace of hunger gone. “Show me.”

At first, the pages Benedict had made notes on didn’t make sense, but he was patient about explaining what they meant. “And here, this is what he was paying to the wholesaler. Well, that’s a monthly estimate, based on the past twenty-four months’ bills.”

“But that’s almost as much as the profits!” Shane slumped back in his chair, numb. “And I was keeping half of those as my wages. Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Benedict sighed. “Better, under the circumstances. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

Numbness didn’t last. Shane had always preferred to lash out than endure stoically. “Yeah, seems to me you’ve come out on top here.”

“In what way?” There was a reserved tightness to Benedict now, a sharpness in his eyes. “My inheritance just went from being the only good thing Craig ever did for me to just another kick in the teeth.”

Even reeling from the prospect of losing his job and his home in the near future, Shane wasn’t going to let that pass. “He didn’t mean it that way. He was chuffed to bits he’d got something to pass on, a legacy. I don’t know why he didn’t tell me how bad things were, but he had his reasons.” He rubbed his forehead in an attempt to stave off the headache stress always brought on. “Fuck knows what they were, mind you.”

“It’s possible we could salvage something if we did the place up and sold it.”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Slap on some paint, make a quick profit, and bugger off, laughing all the way to the bank.”

“Make your mind up,” Benedict said evenly. “You were mad because I wanted to stick around, now you’re annoyed I might not? Let me make it clear where I stand. I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll fight to keep this place open for the sake of the people who work here—including you, even though you’re clearly going be a huge pain in the ass—but our chances of keeping the place going are slim to none, so don’t get your hopes up.”

“Easy for you to say,” Shane muttered. “You’ve got another job.”

“I’d rather have this one, if we can figure out a way to work together without you being pissed off all the time. I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve it.”

Shane, still feeling as if he’d been punched in the gut by reality, let the papers he’d been holding drop onto the desk. “You haven’t. It’s a lot to take in all at once.”

“I get that. You should have seen my face when I got the paperwork from the lawyer. I’m supposed to go sign some stuff tomorrow, actually.”

“Yeah.” Shane had been putting off dealing with it. “All right, so suppose we decide to go all out, make changes, sort out how this place can make enough money to be worth the work. What are we looking at?”

“In terms of what? Time, investment?” Benedict shrugged. “We’d have to do a lot more research before we’d have the answers to any of that. Financially, I could put fifty grand into renovations. Craig had a life insurance policy I’m going to get that much out of.”

“Fifty—” Shane whistled long and low. “Jesus, I couldn’t put in fifty thousand fucking matchsticks. I don’t have that kind of money.” He bit his lip, a habit he knew should stop. The skin was ragged from his teeth, and that just made him want to worry at it more until it was smooth. He caught Benedict staring at his mouth and stopped nibbling, a wave of heat flooding him. Embarrassment, shame—who knew? “I don’t have any money. Two, three thousand maybe if I sold my bike. That’s it.”

“Maybe we could approach a bank for a loan using the bar as collateral. We own the building free and clear; that’s something.”

“Yeah, your dad was lucky. He bought it when interest rates were low and the area was even more run-down than it is now. Real estate was cheap as chips. He paid off the mortgage about three years ago.”

“Well, that helps.”

Shane didn’t deal in airy-fairy pink-tinted dreams. “We’re still screwed.”

“No. We can handle a lot of the renovations ourselves to keep the costs down. The secret is not to necessarily buy new. There are businesses going under all the time and selling off their assets at auctions. A friend of mine set up his restaurant for a fraction of the cost by snapping up equipment from failing restaurants.”

“Yeah? How did he make out?”

Benedict grinned, his face transformed by the smile. “He had a vision. Let’s just say the area wasn’t ready for his belief all food should be presented as geometric shapes. Waiting half an hour for your meal because the fillet of fish is being measured and trimmed to a perfect triangle…”

“Jesus.” Shane laughed, couldn’t help it. “What a plonker.”

“Ade’s nuts, but he’s a nice guy. And the idea’s sound.”

Shane didn’t like the idea of profiting from someone else’s failure, but he resigned himself to the necessity. “Yeah, I suppose so. I’m fine with painting the walls ourselves, and I can do some wiring, but I’ve learned when it comes to something major, it’s faster and cheaper in the long run to let the pros do it. It’s just, who’s got the time to go to these auctions? And where do we store it all, assuming we buy anything?”

“I have some vacation time I can take when we’re ready to start looking, and we can hire a storage locker for a month or two. We’re not ready to do any of that until we have a solid budget and a business plan.”

Shane sighed. “Fine. Just no more business tonight, okay? I need to take this in. Fuck, I need a drink. One perk of this job is you never have to walk far to fill your glass. What about you? What’s your poison?”

“Gin and tonic?” Benedict suggested, which came as a surprise. Shane would have guessed Benedict would prefer something trendier, one of the currently popular martinis or maybe a Cosmo.

“You wouldn’t rather something else?”

“Believe it or not, I’m not much of a drinker. I’m pretty boring, actually.” Benedict looked anything but boring, his dark eyes warm with humor and his curling hair tousled. It was easy enough to picture him stretched out on a mattress, the sheets tangled round his feet and the sweat cooling on his skin.

And where had that come from? Maybe the way they’d been fighting since they met. Shane got turned on not by violence, no, but the high of confrontation and the struggle. If it got to the point where he wanted to put his fist in someone’s face, it’d gone too far. He didn’t want to punch Benedict. Shutting up that humming with a quick, hard kiss, though…

Reminding himself Benedict was Craig’s son and it’d be well out of order to chat him up, let alone fuck his brains out, even to get that spread-out-in-a-bed image to come true, he shrugged. “You’re an accountant. Comes with the territory.”

Benedict flinched, looking, for a moment, as if he had felt the crunch of a fist against his nose or jaw, a flash of hurt showing. That had struck a nerve. Shane started to apologize, but Benedict stood.

“Being an accountant is what I do. It’s not what I am. It’s not a vocation, for God’s sake. I’m good with numbers, with how they fit together. I can see when they don’t and the pattern’s just…wrong.” He smiled, a sour twist to his mouth. “Being boring has nothing to do with my job and everything to do with me. I’ll skip that drink. Vin’s shift should be over soon. He can ride back with me if he doesn’t have a car. I’m only twenty minutes away.”

“He’s got this beat-up van. He was thinking about sleeping in it, but it’s too bloody cold. Just give him your address, and he can follow you over.”

Shane wanted to say more, to find out why Benedict thought so little of himself, but the man was already leaving, pulling his jacket on with sharp, efficient tugs.

Shame, really. It would’ve been a nice view of his arse if he’d left it off.

Chapter Three

“I’ll give you the spare key for now,” Ben said, unlocking his front door as Vin stood patiently on the stairs behind him. “But it’s the only one I have, so try not to lose it.”

“I won’t,” Vin said, following him inside. Ben kicked the door closed, and Vin looked around, his face studiously blank, offering no comment on the neutral walls and furnishings. “I don’t get why you’re doing this.”

“For one, no one should have to sleep in that break room or whatever Shane calls it. I don’t even want to think about how many dust mites that couch is harboring.” Ben gave a shudder for effect and pointed toward the hallway. “The guest room’s upstairs on the right. There’s only one bathroom, and it’s down here, across from my bedroom. The house was built back in the days when people were just happy not to have to use an outhouse, I think, so we’ll have to share.”

“Three older sisters at home,” Vin said ruefully. “I learned how to share when I was still a baby.”

“I can imagine. The kitchen’s over here. I eat at this little table, unless I’m watching TV.” Ben paused in the tour to look into the dining room, where the formal table and chairs he’d bought along with the house were piled with books, junk mail he kept thinking he’d get through, and a bag of beach things from when he and Jenson had taken a long weekend.

Vin peered past him and took in the clutter. “Hey, look. I’ll feel right at home.”

“Old house, not very many closets,” Ben explained. “I keep meaning to get it cleaned out, but you know. It always seems as if there are more important things to do.”

“Life’s a series of choices,” Vin said with the solemn wisdom of someone who could still remember when his age ended in teen. He redeemed himself by grinning. “I generally choose not to clean.”

“I like it clean, but messy seems to happen on top of it.” Ben showed Vin to his room and backed out, not wanting to hover.

Jenson had said he did that.

It wasn’t long before Vin joined him in the TV room. Ben was nursing a glass of wine and feeling absurdly self-conscious, as if he were the guest, not Vin. He jumped up when Vin came in, spilling wine over himself, not enough to warrant changing, but enough that he had a damp spot on his shirt.

“Damn. Sorry. Do you… Can I get you anything?”

Vin eyed him, a hint of bewilderment in his dark eyes. “Just water, thanks, but I can get that from the faucet myself. You’re really on edge, man. Second thoughts?”

“No.” Ben sat down again, setting his wine on the coffee table where it would be safe. “It’s been a stressful day, and I’m still trying to process it all. The bar wasn’t what I expected, and finding out I owned half of it came out of the blue.”

Vin joined him, sprawling out on the couch with the natural grace and assurance of a cat, a sleek black cat. He’d shed his long coat and boots and changed into a T-shirt with a lot of skulls on it and no sleeves. His tattoos were spectacular, inviting the eye to look and the hand to touch.

“Sorry about your dad,” Vin offered.

“Thanks. I didn’t know him; he left when I was a kid.” Ben leaned back and turned slightly toward Vin. “Shane knew him better than I did.”

“Shane doesn’t know anyone,” Vin said. “I don’t mean it in a bad way. He just doesn’t get involved. I think he cares more about the Square Peg than any actual people.”

“You wouldn’t know it to look at the place.” Ben regretted it as soon as he’d said it. Vin must have some degree of loyalty toward Shane, as his boss at least, and even though he’d said as much to Shane’s face, Ben didn’t want Shane to discover he’d also been talking behind Shane’s back. “Maybe he just needs someone to do the organizing.”

“I don’t know. It’s kind of a mess, sure, but it’s a bar. It’s not supposed to look like a five-star hotel.” Vin wrinkled his nose. “Not that I’d know what a five-star hotel looks like.”

“Tell me more about the bar. What it’s like, what the customers are like…”

“It’s pretty mellow, mostly. I mean, it’s not a dance club. It’s low-key, and everyone seems to get that most of the customers are gay, so we don’t get a lot of straight people trying to cause trouble.” Vin made it sound as if straight people were aliens from another galaxy.

“So…you’re not?”

Vin laughed. “Straight? God, no. I’ve been out since junior high. Are you kidding me? I hope you didn’t have plans to set me up with some friend’s daughter or something.”

“How old do you think I am?” This was a good-natured argument. Ben found himself grinning. “Most of my friends don’t even have kids yet.”

Vin squinted at him, giving the question some thought. “Thirty? Forty?”

“All us old people look the same?” Ben asked, his voice dry. “I just turned thirty.”

“I’m twenty-two,” Vin said. “Dropped out of school to find myself, and I’m still looking.”

“That sounds like a line you use a lot.” Ben had the satisfaction of seeing some color show under Vin’s skin. “Does it work? Are you seeing anyone?”

“No. I don’t do that. Sex. Relationships. Don’t drink, smoke…” Vin’s gaze dropped, and he rubbed at his forearm, stroking the dragon absently. “Body’s a temple.”

“Don’t the tattoos kind of cancel out that theory?”

“No! They’re an expression. They’re art.” Vin leaned closer and turned his wrist, pointing at the swirled end of the dragon’s tail. “They’re initials, see?”

Ben frowned, trying to read them. He thought they were an R and a W. “Not yours?”

Vin traced them with a finger. “No. They’re…a reminder. Of the first boy I ever loved. Not that I’d forget him, but I wanted something visual.”

“Did something happen to him?” Ben asked gently, and Vin shook his head.

“Just the bad luck—from my perspective—of being born straight. God, he was beautiful. I used to follow him around, watching him with his friends. They were all the popular kids, you know? Plenty of money, smart, good-looking.”

“You’re not exactly hard to look at,” Ben pointed out, sympathy easy to find, because he’d gone through something similar himself. Gay or straight, who hadn’t?

“The Goth look works for me. It’s who I am, but my high school had this strict dress code, and I used to feel as if I was in a costume every day. Halloween was the only time I turned up looking the way I wanted to. If I couldn’t be myself around him, how could I ever make him see me?”

“What is it with all the black? I’m not prying or being judgmental, I swear. I’m just curious.”

Vin’s answer was readily given, as if it was another speech he repeated often. “Black’s pure. You can dirty white up, because anything you add to it stains, but black just keeps getting blacker and more intense.” Vin shrugged. “Darkness swallows everything in the end. Embrace it.”

“That’s an interesting point of view.” And from Ben’s perspective, on the depressing side, but he supposed that only added to the appeal for Vin.

Vin smirked as if he’d read Ben’s thoughts. “I know I’ve got a fucked-up way of looking at the world. I grew up dirt poor. Family moved up from Mexico when I was a baby. My mom’s Mexican; my dad’s white. He was a student working down there, and he met her, they fell in love…violins and hearts. Except she was engaged to an older man and shouldn’t have been even looking at someone else.” Vin shrugged again, a fluid gesture, his silky hair falling over his face. “Love screws you up. That’s why I don’t go there. And sex is just a complication.” He gestured toward Ben. “What about you? Anyone special screwing up your life?”

Ben found himself responding with some confidences of his own. Vin was easy to talk to somehow, just because he didn’t know Ben. And it wasn’t as if Ben had many friends left to confide in. Most had apparently been closer to Jenson than to him, judging by the way invitations to socialize had dried up since Jenson’s departure.

“Not at the moment, but recently, sure. There’s still stuff of his sitting around, I’m sure, even though I spent hours trying to collect it all. He was great, but I wasn’t good enough for him. Or something. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t know what happened. Just that he wanted me to be someone I wasn’t, someone exciting and unpredictable, someone who knew how to live. Some shit like that.”

“You don’t seem boring to me.” Vin was examining his fingernails now. “I mean, you decided to let a complete stranger stay at your house. That’s unpredictable.”

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing he meant.” Other than the fact that Jenson had thought his job was boring, though, Ben wasn’t sure how, exactly, he had failed to live up to expectations. Extensive questioning hadn’t provided an answer. In the end, it hadn’t mattered why he wasn’t what Jenson had wanted. He just…wasn’t.

“Sounds as if he’s got shit for brains.” Vin yawned, showing off white teeth and a deep pink tongue. Ben had to admit it looked healthier than the fur-coated one he sometimes saw when he was brushing his teeth. “Sorry. Pulled a double shift yesterday. Needed the money. Speaking of which…”

“You don’t need to pay rent since this is temporary, but you can contribute to the food and keep your room reasonably clean.” Ben made sure his voice was firm without being bossy or confrontational. “If you have friends over, well, fine; just don’t make me feel as if I’m the outsider.”

Vin stared at him for long enough that Ben felt a blush rise, heating his face. “I respect things,” he said finally. “Lines, boundaries, limits. I don’t need them, but I know people do. No worries.”

The implication that those limit-restricted people were lesser beings had Ben biting back a smile. God, had he ever been this young and earnest, so certain he had all the answers? Probably. Once.

Vin stood and walked past him, pausing when he was level with Ben to reach out his hand. Surprised, Ben took it, finding it warm and strong against his.

“You’re not as boring as you think,” Vin said gravely, squinting again as if it allowed him to see Ben better. “You own half of the Square Peg. We’re all about embracing your wild side. It’ll rub off on you.” He released Ben’s hand and grinned. “So will a few of the customers if you bump into them in the men’s room.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Ben said and hoped his bravado was convincing.

He hung out in the living room, trying to concentrate on a thriller he’d been reading for weeks with a hopelessly complex plot.

Vin went upstairs to the guest room, then came back down to use the bathroom.

“Night,” Vin called from the foot of the stairs.

“Night!” When the house was quiet, Ben shut off most of the lights—he left one on in the kitchen just in case Vin got up in the middle of the night—and went to brush his teeth. It felt weird having someone he didn’t know just upstairs, and it occurred to him they might have to make some rules about extra overnight guests to avoid embarrassment. Not that he had any plans to bring someone home, but sometimes his plans went awry.

He didn’t realize how tired he was until he put his head on the pillow. A full day’s work at the office followed by a solid five hours at Square Peg had exhausted him, and there was an endless future of similar days to come. Sure, he could hope in six months the bar would be turned around, making good money so he could quit his office job and focus on it full-time. However, whether that would happen was anyone’s guess.

Either way, he was in for a hell of a year.

* * * * *

The nightmare that woke him shredded like cobwebs when he turned on the bedside light, angling it away to save his eyes. Ben could remember he’d been running, falling into deep water, then sinking. Yet even as he tried to control his harsh, ragged breathing, the dream was fading. It still left him shaken, sweat cool on his back.

God.

He wasn’t prone to bad dreams, but they had plagued him when he’d been under stress. The day before had certainly qualified.

The clock told him it was just past three. Too early to get up by far, but the thought of falling asleep again, with who knew what waiting for him in his dreams, didn’t appeal either.

It was stupid of him to think he needed to put some space between himself and the nightmare, as if falling asleep in an hour would be safer. Still, in the middle of the night, logic wasn’t as strong as instinct.

So. Face his demons while he was awake and maybe they’d flee from him in his dreams? Worth a try.

Moving quietly, not wanting to disturb his houseguest, he went over to the tiny built-in closet and took down a shoebox full of photos he’d found when he went through his mom’s belongings.

There were only two pictures that were genuinely old, black and white with the edges fragile. One was of his mother as a toddler. Her hair was pale and wispy, her expression wide-eyed, lips parted. She had a stuffed animal clutched in her chubby hands and looked as if she’d been focused on some story in her head only to be startled by the photographer. The second photo was of her as an older child. When Ben turned it over, his grandmother’s handwriting spelled out, Jenna’s first day of school.

The rest of the pictures were in color. Some of them were Polaroids, thicker and a little bit faded, of his mother and father together. She looked like a hippie in her seventies blouse with its ruffles and orange flowers, her hair long and loose, an arm around a young, bearded Craig’s waist. She was pregnant with Ben, but no one would have known it from that photo, her untucked cotton top hiding her waistline. They were both smiling, happy.

A small collection of pictures chronicled the first few days of Ben’s life. They shared the same hospital backdrop, white walls and pillowcases, brown fabric chairs and blue blankets. Here was one of his mother propped up in bed, cradling him in her arms, gazing down at him with an expression of wonder. She looked exhausted; there were dark circles under her eyes, and she was thinner than he remembered her, but she was smiling. Then another where she was looking at the camera or whoever was behind it. Craig, maybe?

Ben went through the photos slowly. He wished he had more memories of his father from when he was a kid. There were only a few pictures—and none he could be sure were actually of Craig rather than some other male relative. He had a scent memory of a man’s cologne on a shirt collar, and another of being tickled by large hands as he giggled uncontrollably. And another of flying up into the air, a man standing below him and tossing him high, the sky blue and the grass green. He’d been scared and excited at the same time.

He’d sometimes thought about finding Craig when he was going through the turmoil of adolescence, confronting him, punching him maybe, making him see how his selfishness had ruined two people’s lives.

It’d never occurred to him then that the total was three.

Now he wondered how Craig had overcome his addiction and if he’d had help. How hard the struggle had been and if Craig had ever considered returning to them once he was clean.

Questions he’d never have the chance to ask, never know the answers to.

The middle of the night was the worst time possible to get melancholy. Ben found his eyes hot with tears, a painful constriction in his chest making it hard to catch his breath. When he let the tears fall, it was for all three of them and what might have been.

He shoved the photos back into the box and put it away, out of sight.

Then he got back into bed and turned off the light, falling asleep without fear, a measure of peace filling him, though he knew he’d wake with a headache.

It seemed a small price to pay.

* * * * *

Answering a ringing phone at his desk had been second nature for so long Ben didn’t have to think about it. “Ben Lozier.”

“Benedict, Shane Brant here. Sorry to bother you at work. I won’t keep you; I just had a quick question.”

It took long seconds for Ben’s brain to wrench itself from the task at hand to the voice in his ear. “Shane. Yes, hello. Is Vin okay?”

“You’re far too young to think every phone call means bad news,” Shane told him. “Yes, he’s fine, of course. I’m not sure how I feel about you letting him move into your house, but that’s neither here nor there.”

“No, it’s not. You aren’t my boss, and you have no say in what I do unless the bar is involved.” Ben tried to keep his voice pleasant, but Shane was rubbing him the wrong way already.

“Vincent is an employee of the bar,” Shane pointed out.

“Well, he’s not working at the bar when he’s at my house.” Ben leaned forward and rested his elbow on his desk. “Look, this isn’t why you called. What did you want?”

There was a short pause; then Shane said, reluctance clear in every word. “There’s a bill due. Electricity. It’s not much, but I just paid a fucking fortune to the wholesaler, and I’m going to go in the red if I pay this. Trouble is, it’s the final warning, so…”

“You want me to pay it?”

“I need the business to pay it,” Shane corrected. “Problem is, the business is you and me.”

“Right.” Ben doodled absently on some scrap paper, sketching out a wall, solid and high, each brick the exact size of the one beside it. “How much is it?”

“Well, they’re charging us interest, so it’s just over a thousand.”

Ben closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the weight of his legacy press down on him. A thousand dollars wasn’t a lot as such, but if there was one unpaid bill, there were bound to be more. “Why wasn’t it in the papers you showed me yesterday?”

“I was planning to pay it. It wasn’t something you needed to see. Then I went online to check my balance and, well, yeah.”

At least Shane sounded abashed, but that didn’t stop Ben’s temper rising. “What else is there in that dump you call an office you mistakenly think I don’t need to see?”

“Never mind,” Shane said, his voice clipped and sharp. “Forget about it. Sorry to have bothered you.” Before Ben could respond, the sound of the dial tone was echoing in his ear.

Swearing under his breath, Ben hit the buttons on the phone that would redial the number Shane had called from and waited.

Shane answered after two rings. “If I’d wanted to talk, I wouldn’t have fucking hung up.”

“Yeah, well, if you didn’t want to have the conversation in the first place, you shouldn’t have started it.”

“That’s the best you can come up with? Seriously?” Shane sounded both angry and amused. “‘You started it’? I’d expect that sort of thing from a school kid, not a grown man.”

“Coming from the man who just hung up on me, that’s pretty funny. I asked a valid question, and since we’re stuck with each other—for the moment, at least—I’d appreciate an answer.”

“I had a hard time hearing the question, what with all the nagging,” Shane said. “You sounded like my mum. What was it again?”

Ben compressed his lips and controlled his voice, so his annoyance didn’t bleed through. “The bills. How many are there?”

There was a long pause; then Shane said, “You saw most of them. It’s the electric that’s the issue.”

“Yes, that’s exactly the kind of responsive answer I wanted.” Ben waited, but Shane didn’t reply. “I’m coming over,” he said finally. “I want to see everything, Shane. Do you hear me? Everything. How the fuck do you expect me to prepare any kind of plan when you’re hiding—”

“Lozier? Is this a personal call?” Ben twisted around in his chair and met the mildly disapproving gaze of the senior partner of Mulholland and Barnes, Justin Mulholland.

Justin was well past retirement age, but he kept postponing the time of his departure. Ben suspected once his ties with the company were severed, Justin would have nothing to live for and would fade away, and Justin knew it. He had an incisive mind, his ability to do his job undimmed by age. He was a kindhearted man on the whole, but he expected a full day’s work from each and every one of his employees.

“It’s concerning my inheritance. Urgent matter I have to attend to.”

Justin raised his bushy white eyebrows, his gaze flicking meaningfully to the clock. Ben wasn’t expected to work nine to five—he wished—and his day could often end alarmingly close to the time when the next day started. For Justin to cavil over a few minutes spent on a phone call was infuriating given the hours Ben put in.

“Make it quick,” Justin said. “The Mallerton audit should be your top priority, not this.”

Ben supposed that, from Justin’s perspective, a company that owned three hotels and, somewhat bizarrely, a small chain of yogurt shops, did rank higher than a half interest in a bar that was about to go under. But it didn’t rank higher from Ben’s perspective.

He gave Justin a tight smile, and when the man had moved off, walking slowly as if his body needed oiling, he turned his attention back to Shane.

Who’d hung up again.

Chapter Four

“Vincent?”

“Yeah, boss?” Vincent was drawing a pint from the one tap that wasn’t leaking, handsome as ever, and looking better for what Shane presumed had been a good night’s sleep. Patrick was examining nails he’d painted a glittering pink, his pretty face vacant. Shane would’ve fired his lazy arse a long time ago, but there was no denying the customers liked him, and he responded well to direct orders with no possibility of misinterpretation.

Terrible taste in men, though. Shane had lost count of how many times Patrick had waltzed in, eyes sparkling, a well-fucked romantic glow about him, only to crawl through the doors a few days later, crushed by a rejection he hadn’t seen coming. He needed someone patient and steady, not the flashy posers he was drawn to.

“I’m going up for a bit of dinner. If that Benedict Lozier shows his face, tell him I’ve gone out.”

“Okay.” Vincent’s tone was less than convincing. So it was like that, was it? Loyalty bought with a bed and a hot shower. Charming.

Shane glared at his errant employee, ignoring Patrick’s stifled giggle. “Vincent.”

“Okay! When Ben shows up, you aren’t here. Got it.”

Shane made his way up the back staircase. The bar was quiet in the afternoons, nothing Vincent and Patrick couldn’t handle. Benedict didn’t strike him as the type who’d hang around waiting, and Shane had been careful to lock the office door, so there’d be nothing to occupy him on the off chance Benedict did decide to wait.

He told himself he didn’t intend to avoid Benedict forever. He just needed a bit more time to sort things out in his head. And it wasn’t as if this was his fault; he hadn’t realized what Craig had been doing behind his back. Maybe he should have known, but he’d no idea. It made him angry at Craig for playing him a fool, treating him as if he was a child to be coddled and protected from the harsh realities of life.

Treating him like…a son.

Shane froze in the middle of turning the door handle. “For fuck’s sake,” he whispered, then went into the apartment and sat down on the nearest chair, which happened to be half on the thin carpet that delineated the entryway and half on the cheap linoleum of the kitchen.

It was starting to sink in that his life was about to change in ways he hadn’t yet anticipated.

He was still sitting there when he heard footsteps on the wooden stairs—angry footsteps. “Shane?” he heard Benedict ask. Then the man swung the unlatched door open and stormed in. “You are the most annoying, high-blood-pressure-inducing man…” Benedict’s voice trailed off, and he frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“You… Your dad…”He couldn’t get any words out past the tightness in his throat. He turned his head to the side and stared hard at the kitchen table with the wobbly leg. It was smeared with butter and toast crumbs at the place he usually sat, and that morning he’d had cereal, so he was a slob as well as totally fucking stupid. Good to know.

Benedict touched him, his hand light as it rested against Shane’s shoulder. “You want to blame him for all of this? You think it’s his fault?”

He shook his head, blindly staring at that sheen of butter, that random scatter of crumbs. There was meaning in everything, a teacher had told him once. He couldn’t think of what that messy table meant beyond the obvious fact that he’d put a knife down on it when it should’ve been put on his plate, nice and tidy, the way his mum had taught him.

“My fault.”

“Maybe.” Benedict didn’t move his hand, but it felt heavier, not weighing Shane down, but keeping him grounded. “Maybe a little. You let him take control.”

“Easier that way.” He was so detached from it all. Craig’s death, the threat of losing everything… It retreated, leaving him empty.

Benedict’s thumb moved, a slow rub Shane could feel through his shirt. How long had that hand been on him, touching him? With a surge of panic that he’d been so easy, and rolled over for the guy without a fight, Shane knocked Benedict’s hand away, snarling up at him, not needing words to get his message over.

He stood, the light, rickety chair tipping over to hit the ground, and squared up to Benedict, his body finding a fighting stance automatically.

Wide, calm brown eyes met his. Benedict didn’t seem worried or threatened, and the anger that had been in his step and voice when he’d come in seemed to have drained away. He exuded patience, understanding. “Tell me what you want to do,” Benedict said quietly.

Shane was trembling with adrenaline, wanting to hit something—or someone, but he wasn’t going to hit Benedict. He’d hit plenty of men in his life, always, he liked to think, because they deserved it. Benedict didn’t like this situation any more than he did, hadn’t asked for this any more than he had, and something told Shane he’d forever regret it if he let his fist connect with Benedict’s face.

He realized Benedict was still waiting for an answer. “I don’t know. I don’t—God.” He exhaled shakily. “Turn back time. I don’t suppose you know how to do that?”

Benedict shook his head, his lips twisted ruefully. “You look more like you want to hit something.”

“Who are you?” Shane asked, incredulous. “Sorry, just… One minute you’re shouting at me, and the next you’re like this.” He made a helpless gesture with his palm upturned.

“Like what?”

“This. Nice.”

“Oh great. That’s the kiss of death.” Benedict looked at him steadily. “I don’t want to fight with you, okay? I want to see if we can figure all this out. But we can’t if you aren’t on board.”

“I am. I’m on board.” Shane looked around him, at the small rooms, the tatty furniture and dingy paint. “This is my home at risk, not just a paycheck, and yeah, I know it’s a dump, but it’s mine. It goes with the job, or it always used to.” He bit at his lip, welcoming the sting as punishment, however mild, for being such a fucking dickhead. “That’s probably not fair now, is it? Should be paying rent or something the way you have to.”

“Possibly in the future it’s something we can look at, but right now, that’s the least of our problems. We should be uniting to pay off outside debts not creating new ones between the two of us. We’re a partnership. One unit, our interests aligned. We’re not competitors.”

“Makes sense.” Shane nodded, every brisk, matter-of-fact word calming him. He grinned, trying to lighten the mood. “I’d say it’s like a marriage, but in my experience that involves a lot of throwing things and fighting.”

“We’ve done that too,” Benedict pointed out with a small smile. He held up his left hand. “So where’s my ring?”

“I was under the impression we can’t afford one,” Shane said. “Speaking of which, how is it you can leave your office job in the middle of the day to come shout at me? You’d better not get sacked. You’re the only one of us with a proper income.”

“I’d better be careful,” Benedict agreed. “I was planning on keeping my regular job until we can turn this place around. I don’t want to think what would happen if I didn’t have health insurance and I got sick.”

“Suffer like the rest of us.” Shane knew he was lucky to be healthy. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had anything worse than a mild head cold. “Is it reasonable to think you’ll be able to manage two jobs?”

“As reasonable as thinking we’ll be able to get this place to make a profit,” Benedict said, then looked sorry he had. “No, don’t worry; we’ll figure it out. I think the first thing we need to do is take a good hard look at our expenses and see where we can cut costs. It’s possible we can save some money buying from a different wholesaler. And I was thinking…”He hesitated.

“Go on, say it, whatever it is.”

“I was thinking, one way to cut costs is to eliminate staff.”

“No. No fucking way.” Shane knew he was getting up in Benedict’s face again, but this wasn’t something he was prepared to allow. “We’re open seven days a week, and we’ve got two shifts running. Even if I worked every day and most shifts—and hell, some weeks I do—we can’t get by on less than we have. You haven’t seen us at the weekend when it gets busy. We need three behind that bar, easy.”

“No, but I’ve been here twice and seen more people behind the bar than in front of it.”

“In the day, midweek, yeah, it’s quiet, but we go laying people off, good people, with experience, when we turn this place around and need more staff again, they won’t come back. Why would they?” He counted off on his fingers. “Me, Vin, Dave, Shelly, Patrick. That’s bare bones. How the hell can we cut any of them?”

“Well…” Benedict didn’t look convinced, but Shane stood his ground, knowing he looked pugnacious, but not caring. They were his people, his friends. He could be tough with them when needed—he was no pushover—but he knew them, and he wasn’t sacking them. No fucking way. If this ship sank, they’d go down together.

“Right then, let me put it this way: I’m willing to bend like a fucking sapling when you say things need to change, but there are a few things I won’t be able to compromise on, and this is one of them. These people are Square Peg. They stay.” Shane folded his arms over his chest.

“Okay, I get it.” Benedict leaned against the table, then rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “What are the other things?”

“What?”

“The other things you can’t compromise about?”

“Well, I don’t know yet, do I? I won’t until the situations arise.”

Benedict gave him a suspicious look. “That’s convenient. No, I’m kidding, I swear!” He was laughing now. “I’m sorry, I have a screwed-up sense of humor. I can’t help it.”

“Yeah? Maybe you should try harder.” Shane winked as he said it, trusting Benedict to get he was joking too. Christ, the man was appealing when he laughed.

“There are a few things I could work on,” Benedict agreed, smooth as silk. “Like getting you to bend for me.”

Shane caught his breath, unsure how he was meant to take that. Normally, he didn’t have to guess if a man was coming on to him. The hard-on straining the front of their jeans, the hand grabbing his ass, and a slurred out “Wanna fuck?” weren’t easy to misinterpret. Having his innocently meant words turned back at him like that, though…

“Okay, well, my day at the office is shot, so I think we should take advantage of the time and do some brainstorming, maybe divide up the stuff we need to look into.” Benedict spoke as if nothing had just happened. Maybe it hadn’t. “If we’re going to plan some renovations, we should talk about how much money we want to put into them—”

“How much you want to put into them,” Shane corrected him.

“Sure, whatever. We need lists. And to find someone qualified to do the renovations but desperate enough to do them cheap.”

There, finally something Shane could do. “I know a bloke. Does good work, but he’s on the dole right now. He’d be glad of the money.”

Benedict looked around as if seeing the flat for the first time. “Do you have a notebook or something?”

“Somewhere, sure.” Shane opened the kitchen drawer that held odds and ends, and rummaged until he found a pad of paper. He’d bought it to write letters home to his mum and sent maybe one or two before she’d asked why he didn’t just e-mail her, because she’d had a computer for months. The drawer stuck as he tried to push it in, and he shoved at it hard, then gave up. “Needs tidying,” he told Benedict, who was standing by the kitchen table, politely waiting for an invitation to sit. “And the table needs wiping.”

“Mmm.” Benedict didn’t comment directly, but the look of relief on his face when the table had been cleaned told its own story.

They settled down, with Benedict producing a slender silver pen from his jacket pocket and taking possession of the writing pad. Shane didn’t argue. His writing was at best a scrawl, and Benedict’s was neat enough that even with the paper upside down, Shane could read it.

Over the course of an hour, Shane’s backside got numb, and his brain started to shut down from boredom, but they thrashed out a rough plan of action.

“So that’s settled. We’ll put off trying to serve food, because we can’t afford to hire anyone to cook it or get the kitchen into any reasonable kind of shape, but we’ll keep it in mind for the future?”

“Yeah, sure.” Shane smothered a yawn, and Benedict made another note.

“As far as the renovation work, if you call your friend and get him to give us a quote, that’s fine, but I think we should get a few more too.”

“Rob’s a good guy. He won’t cheat us.”

“This isn’t about how nice he is or how much you want to help him out. It’s about getting the changes done cheaply but competently. The bulk of the money is going on dividing the space to give us the snug or whatever you called it, and it needs to be done right.”

“But it isn’t just it needs to be done right. It needs to be done quickly before we’ve run out of cash, doesn’t it?” Shane had certainly gotten that impression from the way Benedict had been speaking.

“Yeah.” Benedict put down his pen and leaned his forehead on his hand. “Where’s my guardian angel when I need him?”

“Guardian angel?” Shane couldn’t help but be amused.

Benedict nodded. “Isn’t everyone supposed to have one? Trust me, if I did, it would be a guy.” He lifted his face and spoke at the ceiling above them. “This would be a good time. Wave your magic wand. Fix this place up.”

For the first time, Shane found himself thinking about Benedict’s life outside the Square Peg, which, to be fair, was most of it. “What about a boyfriend?”

“You mean, do I have one? No. I did, until pretty recently, but it didn’t work out.” Benedict glanced at him. “I’m too boring, apparently.”

Shane snorted. “Yeah, right. For a boring guy, you’ve shaken my life up plenty.” He eyed Benedict curiously. “Boring how? Did he want a threesome and you wouldn’t play, or couldn’t he look past the accountant suit and see you’re hot?”

“He saw me out of the suit plenty of times, and our sex life was none of your business.” Benedict tapped his pen on the notepad. “All the smaller stuff, painting, refinishing the floors, replacing that godawful bar, has to wait until the construction’s done, so that’s our priority. We’ll have to shut down for a few days, but if the staff is prepared to come in and help, there’s no reason for them to lose any money. There’s plenty of work. We’ll need to empty the bar. All those bottles and glasses…”

Benedict’s voice died away. Shane sighed, seeing, as Benedict did, just how much work lay ahead. Well, he’d never been accused of being lazy.

“I’ll call Rob, get him over here tomorrow, before we open, so he can do some measurements and work out the numbers. You call whoever you want to do the same.”

“Agreed.” Benedict smiled at him, his dark eyes lively, as if he’d enjoyed the number games. Shane was glad one of them had. “Now if you’ll give me any bills that just can’t wait, I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Okay, but I’ve made a note of them, and I’ll pay you back my half.” How, he wasn’t sure, but he would. Asking Benedict, a complete stranger, to put his hand in his pocket like that had been one of the more humiliating experiences of Shane’s life. Paying off the debt would go a small way toward erasing that humiliation.

Benedict nodded without commenting, which was a relief. He stood, tucking the pen away, then picking up the notepad. “I’ll get this written up and give you a copy.”

“Thanks. Thanks for all of it.” Shane stood and offered Benedict his hand, impelled by the need to seal this with a handshake.

Benedict’s shake was firm without being painful, his palm smooth enough that Shane wondered if his felt like sandpaper to Benedict. He’d picked up more than a few nicks and calluses over the years. Benedict’s touch lingered longer than it should have, and Shane found himself reluctant to pull away too. What might those smooth palms feel like on his bare skin? He felt genuine regret when Benedict let go.

“Tomorrow’s Friday,” he said as Benedict opened the door.

“Today’s Thursday, so yes, I can’t argue there.”

Shane smiled, slow and mischievous. “You should come over. See the place when it’s hopping. Come around ten when it’s really lively and mingle with the punters.” The thought of Benedict’s face when he saw what went on at the weekend amused him.

“You just want to torture me,” Benedict complained, and Shane clapped him on the shoulder.

“It’ll be fun,” he said.

“Yeah, but for who?”

Shane was sure he knew the answer to that question.

* * * * *

By the time Benedict showed up the next evening, they’d already talked several times on the phone, but Shane was still strangely glad to see his face in the crowd. Benedict was wearing a casual blue button-down shirt with the top two buttons undone, a dusting of dark chest hair showing as he came toward where Shane was sitting at the end of the bar closest the office.

“You weren’t kidding,” Benedict said, joining him.

“Weekends are a completely different story to weeknights,” Shane agreed. “I’d imagine the restaurant business is much the same. I wanted you to see it for yourself.” He patted the stool next to his. “Saved you a seat.”

“Thanks.” Benedict sat facing the room. To their left, Vincent and Dave were working hard pulling pints and mixing drinks, and Shelly was loading the dishwasher. There wasn’t an empty table in the place.

“It’s noisy,” Benedict said, leaning in close so he didn’t have to shout. Shane didn’t mind. He got a whiff of an expensive citrus-based cologne and the warmth of Benedict’s breath on his face. Around the room, many couples were kissing, hands busy, eyes closed, or heading off to the men’s room together, not troubling to be discreet. But that soft brush of air against Shane’s skin felt more intimate than any of it.

Shit. Getting involved with Benedict wasn’t a good idea. Things between them were strained and complicated as it was. Giving in to an arousal that was probably more to do with a recent dry spell than with Benedict himself would be stupid.

Plus, he’d most likely get turned down, and that would be hell on his ego.

He nodded and smiled in reply and gestured to Vincent when the lad glanced over, holding up two fingers.

“I’m driving,” Benedict said.

“Hope you parked your car around back, or it’s probably minus its tires by now.”

“What? Seriously?”

Shane grinned at Benedict’s yelp of alarm. “Relax. Though you can move it if you want. Leave it there overnight and get a cab home. It’s Friday night, mate. Let’s get you hammered.”

“I don’t understand half of what you say.”

It was Shane’s turn to lean in, the atmosphere around him making him reckless, the beer he’d drunk making him randy as any of the kids in here, barely legal some of them. “Want to see you with a beer or two inside you, Benedict. See your wild side.”

Their pints arrived, the glasses cold enough that ice was forming on the outside, sliding down the glass, fragile shards destined to melt within seconds. The bar was hot, the bodies crammed into it raising the temperature nicely. Most of the customers were male. This was Friday. Friday and Saturday people knew not to come in unless they belonged or were willing to look the other way.

Shane liked looking. Liked seeing the way people relaxed as they walked in, the way they got brave enough to get close. Liked it when a man walked by, his T-shirt hanging from his back pocket, bare skin on display, sweat-shined and hot. Liked the knowing glances, the silent communications going on, coded glances, questioning touches.

He wasn’t running a brothel here. He caught someone fucking in a stall, and they were out on their ear, but he didn’t go in there to check all that often.

Benedict seemed to like watching the crowd too, which was convenient because it meant Shane could study him at the same time. The bar wasn’t comfortable to lean against—one of the reasons Shane spent so many hours in the office—but Benedict didn’t seem to mind.

His eyes were a rich chocolate brown under normal lighting. In the dim glow of the bar, they were so dark they were almost black. His throat moved enticingly when he swallowed, but he set his glass down again to focus on the people surrounding them. The song on the speakers had changed to something a tiny bit louder, so when he leaned in to speak in Shane’s ear again, his lips were very close. “What about straight couples?”

What about them? “Sure. Not so many on the weekend, though. Drink your beer.”

Benedict picked up his glass again. “You’re a bad influence.”

“Ah, but I sell beer for a living,” Shane told him. “I’m meant to be a bad influence.”

It would have been the perfect opportunity for Benedict to remind him he’d been doing a shit job selling beer, but he only looked into Shane’s eyes searchingly for a long moment.

A man passed behind Benedict, jostling him so that for a moment, Benedict was leaning against Shane, his hand gripping Shane’s upper arm, his lips close enough to kiss.

Shane froze, his lips parting, ready for something he was certain he wanted and equally sure he shouldn’t have. The man, no one Shane recognized, tapped Benedict’s shoulder in a wordless apology and continued on.

Benedict straightened with a jerk, his eyes wide, a flicker of discomfort showing. He took a hasty gulp from his pint, draining it, and signaled to Vincent for another.

Message received and understood, Shane thought. He watched Vincent slouch over to take Benedict’s glass, a rare smile softening Vincent’s angular features.

Suspicion and a pang of loss struck Shane like a blow as he watched the two of them chat. No. Not Vincent. Vincent didn’t sleep with anyone, shrugging off flirtatious invitations and more serious offers alike. No way he’d go for someone like Benedict— older, conventional, and as clueless about Vincent’s lifestyle as Shane was about astrophysics.

Vincent turned to him, nodding at Shane’s glass with a questioning lift of his dark eyebrows.

“Whiskey,” Shane said. “Make it a double.”

Chapter Five

Ben’s hand was trembling around his glass as he hurriedly swallowed half the beer in it in a series of desperate gulps. His tolerance for alcohol was low, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had more than one drink in a night. Actually, that was a lie. It had been the night Jenson and he had gone to a friend’s wedding, and he’d had a gin and tonic and two glasses of champagne. They’d gone home early and had amazing, mind-blowing, alcohol-fueled sex before he’d passed out and slept until noon the next day.

He’d started the first beer out of a sense of obligation and finished it out of nervousness. He was drinking the second to try to cool the burning heat in his gut, a heat that was crawling lower into his balls and threatening to give him a hard-on right here in this bar, with Shane sitting next to him, close enough to touch.

If Ben touched him, Shane’s thigh would be all muscle, solid, warm. His hand sliding up that thigh would feel the age-softened seam of Shane’s jeans before brushing against Shane’s cock. Christ. Ben gulped down the rest of the glass. “Be right back,” he said loudly, not leaning in too close.

He had to push his way past people on his way to the bathroom, most of them men, half of them worthy of a second or third glance if he hadn’t been so focused on Shane. His head was spinning, and he felt blinded by lust. It was the beer; it had to be the beer.

“Whoa, careful there,” a dark-haired man said, steadying him. Ben apologized and went into the bathroom, letting the door swing closed behind him. It muffled the sound of the music, which made it a little easier to think.

Ben went over to the small window and pressed his forehead against the glass, cooling his heated skin. There was another sound, a familiar one. The wet sound of lips against skin, accompanied by soft moaning.

“Yeah,”a man whispered. “Suck me. Jesus, you’re so fucking hot.”

Cock hardening further, Ben stumbled to the sink and splashed water on his face. He needed another drink but couldn’t figure out how to get one without going back to where Shane was sitting. Shane had wanted this—well, he probably hadn’t wanted to become the object of Ben’s lust, but had wanted him to get drunk. Loosen up. Get wild.

Ben looked at his reflection in the mirror. He looked wild, his pupils large in the dimly lit room and his hair out of control. He heard the groan as the man in the bathroom stall came, presumably into his partner’s mouth.

He couldn’t concentrate on anyone else as he went back out into the main room. His focus was locked on Shane, on Shane’s shoulders and lips and his big, rough hands. He wanted to feel those hands on his bare skin. If he’d been sober, the intensity of his craving might have concerned him, but in that moment, it felt totally reasonable to want Shane this much.

Shane wasn’t there. It was like a second dash of cold water in his face. Ben went up to the bar and tried to get Vin’s attention, but he was dealing with three friends squabbling over what beer to put in the pitcher they were ordering. Shane’s glass and his had been tidied away, and the dense crowd made it impossible to see where Shane had gone.

As a co-owner of the bar, Ben approved of Shane wandering around, talking to customers, and being friendly. As a man with a voyeuristically enhanced hard-on and an urgent need to get Shane naked and moaning, he found it inconvenient to say the least.

He wove through the crowd, looking for Shane, but even a more thorough search of the office and back rooms was unsuccessful. Ben gave up. Wherever Shane was, he wasn’t in the bar. Shit. Ben went outside, shivering as the cool air hit him, the drop in the noise level a shock to his ears. He wandered around outside for a while, but Shane hadn’t come out for a smoke—if he even did smoke—or a break from the heat and the music.

Ben sighed and tilted his head back to survey his property. Lit up and lively, it didn’t look so bad. He was getting some curious looks from people walking by, but the way he was swaying probably told its own story, and amused sympathy went along with the curiosity in most cases.

As he stared up, craning his neck, he saw a light was on high up enough that it had to be Shane’s apartment. Ben would have slapped his forehead, but he was fairly sure he’d miss.

There had to be another entrance than the one he’d used before, but he didn’t have the mental energy to deal with finding it. Instead, Ben went back through the bar and up the steps to Shane’s door. It was closed so he knocked. Loudly.

“I told you,” Shane said from the other side almost immediately. “They’re in the—” The door opened, and he blinked at Ben. “Sorry. I thought you were Vincent.”

“Right.”

“Thought you’d gone home.”

“Really. Even though I said I’d be right back?” Ben was pretty sure he didn’t believe Shane, but not a hundred percent sure. He didn’t like being unsure. And Shane was the one who’d done this—insisted he come see what the bar was like on Friday night, given him beer, looking like a fucking wet dream in jeans.

Okay, he’d lost the thread of that analogy somewhere along the way. “I need a glass of water.”

Whatever Shane had been thinking, that got his attention. “Come in. Sit down. Did anyone give you anything?”

“I’m tipsy, not an idiot,” Ben said as Shane pushed him toward the chair he’d occupied the day before. “What are you doing?”

“You just said you wanted water.” Shane turned back toward Ben, the cupboard door still open behind him, a glass in his hand.

“I don’t.”

“You’re maddening,” Shane said. Ben watched Shane’s lips as he spoke, wondered what they’d taste like on his. “Well, what do you want, then?”

“You,” Ben said desperately, and grabbed on to Shane’s upper arms and kissed him, pushing him back against the countertop.

Shane struggled, giving Ben a taste of how much strength was held in that wiry body. It seemed more of an instinctive reaction to being grabbed, because when Ben immediately released him, letting his hands drop easily enough, but truly reluctant to lose the kiss, Shane pulled him closer, muttering “idiot” under his breath. Ben didn’t know which of them Shane meant. Maybe both of them. They deserved it.

“Want something, do you?” Shane said, his lips twisted in a sneer Ben longed to wipe off with another kiss. He put his hands back where they’d been, mirroring Shane’s hold on him. They were touching each other, but still at arm’s length, tangled in mixed signals like they’d been from the start.

“You know what I want.” Ben glanced down and smiled when he saw evidence that he wasn’t the only one aroused. “Yeah, you want it too.”

“What if I do? Doesn’t mean I want it from you.” Shane licked his lips, his eyes wide, his breath coming in quick, choppy gasps, as if he couldn’t pull in enough air. Ben liked that look on him—a mixture of defiance and panic. “What’s lit your fucking fuse anyway?”

“You’ve got men sucking each other off in your bathroom,” Ben told him. “It’s not what I’m used to. I thought you should know.”

“Liked listening, did you? Kinky bastard.” There was a flush rising, staining Shane’s cheeks and his neck. Ben wanted to strip Shane’s clothes off him and see how far down that flush went, trace it with his tongue, taste the heat, the need.

Instead, Ben slid a hand up along Shane’s arm. He traced the line of Shane’s jaw slowly, then moved his thumb down to rest on Shane’s throat. “You have no idea,” he murmured.

“Show me,” Shane said, and it sounded like a challenge.

It also clipped short whatever had been holding Ben back. He leaned in again, intent on Shane’s mouth, letting his hips pin Shane’s against the countertop. The solid shape of Shane’s erection made Ben groan softly into the kiss, and Shane willingly parted his lips and let Ben lick his way inside. Shane’s mouth was warm and tasted like beer.

“What about you?” Ben asked. He bit Shane’s lower lip, then released it, watching it go from pale to reddened. “If you don’t want this, with me, this would be the time to tell me.”

“Want it. Doesn’t mean we should.”

Ben could understand that. He nodded. “Let’s do it, get it out of our systems, and forget it.”

Shane’s eyes narrowed, a sexy fucking smolder going on that whetted Ben’s appetite as much as the kissing. “I’m not that easy to forget, but you can try. Course, your brain’s gonna be fried by the time I’m done, so that might help.”

“Promises, promises.” The taunt felt like flirting, the rough edges of this encounter just perfect. Sex with Jenson had been smooth, predictable, mildly satisfying at best, looking back at it.

This wasn’t going to be mildly anything. This felt raw and intense, and they’d done nothing but stare at each other, kiss, and mouth off.

“Fuck you.”

Ben let Shane know just what he thought of that idea with another kiss, combative enough that when he pulled back, his lips stung. “Did you bite me?” he asked, rubbing at his lip with his thumb and checking it for blood. There wasn’t any, but his lip still hurt.

“Maybe.”

The smirk on Shane’s face was infuriating, but in an exhilarating way. Shane had no hair to grab, but Ben could still cradle Shane’s head in his palm and tilt it until the line of Shane’s neck was a taut, inviting curve. He set his teeth into that curve and bit it, sucking at the captured skin until it felt hot against his tongue. Shane’s hands flailed at him, curses spilling out of Shane’s mouth. He might have stopped if Shane hadn’t been grinding his erection against Ben’s leg, riding his thigh.

He eased back when Shane’s hands settled onto his ass, urging him closer, some begging mixed in with the swearing, Shane pliant enough against him that Ben knew Shane’s head would stay tilted even without his hand holding it in place.

Jenson had never let Ben lead the dance like this. He’d gotten snappy if Ben had asked for a blowjob with Jenson on his knees, saying it was demeaning and insisting it happen on the bed, both of them lying down. But Jenson seemed like a shadow fading in the sunlight now, a vague memory, not a recent heartbreak.

Shane filled Ben’s senses, overwhelming him. He’d never wanted anyone this much, this intensely. If they’d been in the bar downstairs, a hundred people watching, he’d still have kissed Shane like this. Hell, he’d have bent Shane over the fucking bar and slid his cock into that tight, firm ass, telling the crowd to hush so they could all hear Shane’s desperate, anguished, pleading groans of pleasure as he was fucked.

The thought of fucking Shane in public, with an audience, made Ben shudder. He was caught between wanting to tug Shane’s shirt off him and not wanting to move away far enough to make it possible. He settled for shoving it upward and rubbing knuckles over Shane’s spine until Shane gasped into his open mouth. It was good to know he wasn’t the only one into this; it made Ben a little bit crazy.

“God, I want to fuck you,” he growled into Shane’s ear. “Turn you around and do it right here.” He couldn’t imagine stopping his slow, grinding thrusts against Shane’s pelvic bone long enough to relocate.

“Yeah?” Shane threaded his fingers through Ben’s hair and kissed him harder. Fuck stubble burn. They were both going to have bruises at this rate, not that Ben cared.

What he wanted was for Shane to say yes, to give him some hint there was a chance of more than what they were currently doing. He’d met guys who wouldn’t be the receiving partner, guys who didn’t fuck at all, but kept their activity to handjobs and oral sex. If Shane said rutting against each other fully clothed was as far as he’d go, Ben would accept it. But he wanted more.

Shane moved his mouth to the side, breaking the kiss. “Want to make me bend…”

It took a moment to remember his words to Shane the day before, spoken unthinkingly, regretted immediately. Now he was wondering if he’d been speaking a wish aloud, because yes, that was exactly it.

“I want to make you beg.” Had he said that? To Shane, tough-as-nails, hard-as-rock Shane? Maybe he had a death wish, but he didn’t feel boring now. Just wild, free, and horny as hell.

Shane choked on a sound that wasn’t a scornful laugh, but more of a needy groan, smothered quickly. He tipped his head back so Ben could see his face, the craving in his pale eyes, the stark hunger there, a flush of arousal suffusing his skin.

“Make me…” It hung between them, the inflection at the end almost a question, as if Shane had gone as far as he dared and needed a push.

Ben could push Shane. Oh God, yes, he could.

“You’ve got condoms, lube in here somewhere. Get them and get your ass back here so I can fuck it.”

Shane’s eyes slid closed, his breathing ragged. Ben put his hand against Shane’s cheek and ran his thumb over that trembling lower lip, dragging his thumb back and forward until Shane whined a protest, arching against Ben, rubbing off on him.

“Get them,” Ben said. “And get naked too.”

He didn’t let himself tremble until Shane had left the room. When he did, he had to brace himself on the counter with both hands. He was so fucking hard. Ben took a couple of slow, deep breaths and unfastened the front of his pants, reaching inside to grip his cock in his fist. He couldn’t chance stroking himself, because he didn’t want to get any closer to the edge than he already was, and he wanted this to last as long as possible.

Shane came back and paused in the doorway. His expression didn’t give him away—he didn’t look worried or anxious or eager—but every other part of him did, and his gaze went immediately to Ben’s hand around his cock.

Ben didn’t take his hand away, but he did turn slightly toward Shane to get a better look at him. Shane swallowed as Ben’s gaze took in his bare skin. Not a lot of body hair, wide shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and hips. Muscular thighs. Hard cock upright, flushed.

“Come here,” Ben said, and Shane obeyed, setting the lube and a strip of condoms on the counter.

“Let me do that?” Shane offered, reaching for Ben’s hand and cock. Ben let his hand fall to his side, all the permission Shane needed. Shane sank to his knees and pressed his face to the front of Ben’s slacks, rubbing his cheek against Ben’s thigh. Ben wondered what it would feel like to have Shane suck him off right there, hot mouth wrapped around him.

Shane slid his hand into Ben’s, linking them, then kissed the swell of Ben’s cock though the fabric of his pants. “Want to get this in my mouth before it goes in my arse. Gonna let me?”

Ben bit back a fervent “God, yes!” and used his free hand to caress Shane’s head, the short hair soft when he stroked in one direction, a rougher prickle of stubble against his palm the other way. “Maybe. Ask me nicely. Maybe I don’t want to give you anything. Maybe I just want to use you.”

Shane glanced up at him, a flicker of amusement showing, knowing, complicit, as if he guessed how new Ben was to these games, and didn’t care because it was turning him on as much as it was Ben. “So use my mouth first.” Shane’s fingers tightened; then his grip slackened and his hand slid free, coming to rest, like his other, on his thighs. “Please,” he said with deliberation, never looking away from Ben’s eyes.

Feeling as if he were caught in a dream, Ben took out his cock and pushed it slowly between Shane’s willing lips. Shane’s tongue moved as he swallowed around the shaft, and Ben thrust deeper to feel it, heat and slick flesh clinging as if it welcomed him, wanted him there. “Good,” he murmured. “You’re so good.”

Shane tilted his head a little bit to improve the angle, then pulled back with a soft suction that made Ben’s balls draw up. He wished Shane could do this and talk to him at the same time. There was something about Shane’s accent that did it for him, made him hot and bothered. Ben knew he was in a world of trouble, standing in Shane’s kitchen with Shane on his knees, but he couldn’t end the encounter. He was falling, only one direction open to him.

“You like this,” he said, and Shane made a muffled sound of assent before pulling his mouth away. Ben’s cock, wet with saliva, bobbed in the suddenly cool air as Shane licked and sucked on his balls. “You want me to fuck you.”

Shane groaned and ran his tongue up to the tip of Ben’s cock, licking the slit. “Yeah.”

That was good enough for Ben. He’d had a plan in his head about having Shane put the condom on for him, then fucking him standing beside the counter, but suddenly he didn’t care about his plan. He grabbed a condom and smoothed it on, shivering at the way the latex felt over damp skin, then slicked his fingers with lube and got down on the floor next to Shane. He kissed him, just once, then pushed Shane down onto his hands and knelt behind him, opening him with gentle fingers as Shane gasped and cursed.

“For God’s sake, get on with it.” Shane trembled and pushed back, forcing Ben’s knuckles deeper inside him.

Ben pulled his fingers free and lined himself up. With one hand on Shane’s hip, he eased himself forward through taut muscles that tried to keep him out. “Fuck. God. ”Shane was so tight, clenched around him, trembling. “Okay?” No answer. “Shane. Are you okay?”

“Yes.” It was a growl, raw and low, and it made Ben shiver, the urge to shove in deep and claim the strong body under him close to an imperative. With control sliding through his hands like water, he took a deep breath and drew back, then pushed in again, gaining ground. The smooth, tight clench of Shane’s hole felt incredible. Jesus, it’d been so long since he’d felt this, and now he wondered why he’d ever let himself be persuaded to always be the one where Shane was.

Though as he reached around to map the thrust of Shane’s cock, the soft, liquid roll of his balls, Ben knew he would want Shane to fuck him at some point. He saw Shane lying under him as he rode Shane’s cock slowly, languid rolls of his hips, Shane tied down to the bed, his eyes wide…

Throwing caution to the wind, Ben moved faster and more roughly, driving himself into Shane’s body with enough force that Shane’s knees shifted on the floor beneath them. He tugged at Shane, pulling him upright so they were both on their knees. There was something glorious about being able to thrust up into him and bite the tender spot between neck and shoulder at the same time, hand still wrapped around Shane’s erection to coax him closer to the edge.

Shane was whining with every thrust and grinding down onto Ben’s cock, but when he started to come, it surprised Ben anyway. The dick in his hand pulsed, warm slickness trickling down over his knuckles, and Shane’s ass clenched ever more tightly around Ben’s cock. “Fuck, fuck,” Ben chanted, squeezing his eyes shut and shoving himself deeper.

“Yeah, come on.” Shane turned his head and kissed the corner of Ben’s mouth.

“Don’t want to.” Ben panted desperately, trying to hold off his climax. “Not yet.”

“Want to feel you let go.”

And he could, couldn’t he? Shane didn’t seem to care that they were fucking on the floor, Shane’s knees chafed from friction, his skin marked from Ben’s teeth. Shane was reaching back to scrabble at Ben’s thigh, urging him to speed up, go deeper.

“Fuck me,” Shane said through his teeth. “God, give yourself that, will you?”

Ben wrapped his hand around the back of Shane’s neck, where the skin was damp from sweat, and hot, so fucking hot. He pushed Shane’s head toward the floor, Shane going with it. It changed the angle just enough that the next thrust of Ben’s cock went a fraction deeper, drawing a grunt from them both. The sight of Shane bent over, offering himself up to be fucked in an undeniably submissive pose was intoxicating. Ben wanted to howl out his triumph, but he couldn’t spare the breath for more than a few inarticulate words.

“Fuck. You’re making me… Shane—”

He came in a hot rush that left him starved for oxygen and light-headed as a result, shoving his dick into Shane’s willing body a few more times as the last shudder gripped him. He had to hang on to Shane, or he would have collapsed to the floor. Once he’d gotten himself a little more under control, he eased free of Shane’s ass and did it anyway, the scuffed wood blessedly solid and cool against his skin.

“I think,” he said, a gasp between every few words, “this is the first time I’ve ever had splinters in my knees.”

“First time for everything,” Shane observed, lying down next to him with a wince. “Lord, this floor’s bloody hard.”

“And splintery.” Ben turned his head to look at Shane. “So this isn’t a common occurrence?”

“Letting someone fuck me on the floor of my kitchen?” Shane snorted. “Not common, no.”

Ben smiled and let his eyes close for a few seconds.

Good.

Chapter Six

Rob kicked at the wall with a foot that looked giant-size in his steel-capped workman’s boots. “This comes out, and the ceiling comes down. We can’t take it down.”

Shane scrubbed his hands over his face. Monday mornings were usually his lie-in day, the only chance he had to catch up on a sleep debt he’d probably die still owing. Getting up at seven to show Rob Carson around wasn’t his idea of a fun replacement for a luxurious snooze.

Nothing would be. Well, maybe waking up with someone next to him, all warm and randy, ready to start the day with a bang. Benedict would’ve done nicely, turned down a notch, maybe, but Benedict had pulled his trousers back up, washed his hands, and buggered off before the sweat had dried on Shane’s back. He’d muttered something that’d sounded like a thank-you, then visibly changed from the relentless, commanding fucker who’d left Shane’s arse raw and throbbing—God, he’d missed that ache—to the accountant, composed, efficient, chilly.

Whether he’d driven home or caught a cab, Shane didn’t know, but Saturday and Sunday had passed without a word.

Right. He got the message. He was good enough for a wild ride when Benedict was drunk and in the mood, but he didn’t rate a follow-up call. Fine.

No, not fine.

Generally, a quick exit and no empty promises suited him, but not with Benedict. The man had torn away every protective layer Shane had and seen through him, then given Shane just exactly what he wanted. No one had ever done that before. With other men, to get what he wanted, he’d had to ask for it, and fuck, he’d hated it. Hated seeing the surprise or laughter or scorn, hated the way they’d never quite done it right.

Benedict had been fucking perfect, rough without being cruel, there with him all the way, seeing to him and not leaving him hanging, giving him a climax that—

Shane shook himself free of the memories and gave Rob a halfhearted glare. “I’m making a new room. We just need to cut in a door. Why the hell would we be knocking down walls, you pillock?”

Rob rolled his eyes, bright blue and clear, unlike Shane’s bloodshot ones. The man was six-four easy, long dark hair caught back into a ponytail, a permanent five-o’clock shadow rough along his jaw. “You said you wanted the bar extending into the new room. That means knocking down. Never mind. I think I see what we can do. If we curve it around here…”

His mind drifting off again almost immediately, Shane didn’t pay proper attention to the conversation until Benedict was mentioned. “What?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger! I was just repeating what I heard.” Rob held up his hands to demonstrate his innocence.

“Repeat it again,” Shane said grimly.

“Patrick said the new guy’s kind of an asshole.” Rob looked at him with an eyebrow raised, waiting for his reaction.

“Well, Patrick doesn’t know his arse from his elbow, so he’s hardly one to judge, is he?” Shane made a mental note to talk to Patrick about his attitude and knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

“I was the one who asked,” Rob explained. “He wasn’t complaining or anything. I was just curious.”

“I don’t know the new guy—whose name is Benedict, by the way—very well, but he seems nice enough.” Shane had no idea why he was defending Benedict, though it was just the same as what he’d been doing in his head the past few days, alternating irritation and admiration until he’d no idea which way was north. “Did Patrick mention Benedict’s letting Vincent stay with him?”

Rob nodded. “Yeah. Well, actually, Vin did.”

Obviously Vincent and Patrick needed more ways to fill their time during work hours. Shane added Make a list to keep staff busy so they don’t run their mouths to his mental to-do catalog and held himself firmly to focus on the job at hand. “So how long will it be once you’ve taken all the measurements?”

“I can have it for you tomorrow,” Rob said.

“Good enough.” Shane reluctantly added, “Benedict—my partner—wants to get a few other quotes too.”

“I bet he does.” Rob sniffed, a sharp emphatic sound. “He’s got a point. Makes sense. He won’t get a more competitive price, though.”

“I’ll make sure you get the job if I can,” Shane promised. He owed Rob that.

“If you can? He’s got you whipped already? This is your place, Shane, not his.”

Remembering how he’d gone to his knees for Benedict and how much he’d loved doing it, even as he’d hated himself for revealing so much to a virtual stranger made Shane snappy. “Not according to Craig’s dying wishes, so button it.”

Rob’s eyes widened. “Yes, sir.”

The sarcasm was laid on with a trowel, and Shane felt his lips thin, his temper already frayed. “Just give us the quote and make sure you put both our names on the top, okay?”

Easygoing usually, Rob was already backing down. “Shane, look, I didn’t mean—”

“I know,” Shane said tiredly. “There’s a pot of coffee on in the back room. I’ll get us both one, okay? Wake us up.”

Rob’s smile was relieved. “Sounds good. Three sugars and cream if you’ve got it.”

“We don’t. It’s milk or nothing.”

Rob held up hands as battered and nicked as Shane’s, but easily half again as big. “Milk’s good.”

Shane relaxed, giving Rob a sheepish smile as he walked away. Not the big guy’s fault. He filled two big mugs, fire-engine red and thick enough to survive multiple washings, and took them back into the bar. “Here you go,” he began, then stopped dead in his tracks.

Benedict. Suited up, carrying a fucking briefcase, that dark hair smoothed down. He looked as out of place as a ballerina in a tutu would’ve done.

“Shane. Good morning. I thought I’d drop by on the way to work and meet Mr. Carson.”

Shane was still frozen. It was stupid; he shouldn’t be surprised to see the man who would continue to be his business partner for the foreseeable future standing in his bar. Their bar.

“That would be me,” Rob said, stepping forward and offering Benedict his hand. “Call me Rob.”

“I’m Ben,” Benedict said. “Thanks for looking at this. It’ll be a hell of a job. I think some of the wiring might be from the fifties. We could really use your help.”

“Well, I could really use the work, so hopefully we can come to an agreement.” Rob stepped over to the table where he’d set his scribbled notes and picked the papers up. “Do you have a minute? It helps, when there’s more than one client, to just make sure we’re all on the same page. My quote will be more accurate if I’m clear on everything you want.”

“Sure.”

Rob led Benedict to the end of the bar and started describing what they’d outlined as Shane did his best to recover from his shock. He felt like an idiot. He went to sit not too far from where they were standing. He’d no idea what he’d say to Benedict when the time for conversation inevitably arrived, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave the room either.

“And then the electrical, but I won’t be doing that myself,” Rob was saying. “I’ve got a guy who does that. He’s licensed and insured, and if you want it, I can give you a list of references as long as my arm. I think Shane knows him: Charlie Lawson?”

“Right.” Shane did, indeed, know Charlie Lawson. Charlie had a reputation as a hard worker during daylight hours and an even more thorough player at night. Shane would be willing to bet on any given night half the men in the bar had been to bed with Charlie Lawson. Most of them would probably go to bed with him again if given the chance. It was a mystery considering everything Shane had heard about what a lousy lay the man was, but somehow it always managed to sound like sour grapes.

“This all sounds good,” Benedict said. “Did Shane tell you—”

“That you want to get some other quotes? Sure.” Rob shrugged, his broad shoulders impressive. “Word of warning, though. With me, well, I’m family. Gay,” he added when Benedict looked blank. “So’s Charlie. Doubt anyone else you brought in would be, and they’d be making a lot of comments about the customers and you two.”

Benedict frowned. “It wouldn’t be any of their business what the clientele of the bar was like. Or the fact Shane and I are gay.”

“No, but they’d still have plenty to say under their breath or just loud enough that you could hear it, but not loud enough for you to call them on it.” Rob sounded matter-of-fact, not bitter, but Shane still felt a stab of anger. Rob had told him stories of the way he’d been treated on some construction crews or jobs, and it wasn’t pretty.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Benedict said slowly. He glanced at Shane, an appealing look Shane couldn’t help responding to.

“I know it’s sensible to get the three bids in and go for the middle one, but I can vouch for Rob, and big though he is, he knows I’ll kick his arse if he cuts corners or tries to put one over on us, don’t you, mate?”

“I’ll bring you a stepladder so you can get a real good swing at it,” Rob said, his lips curving in a grin.

“Cheeky bastard,” Shane said affectionately. He raised his eyebrows at Benedict. “Well?”

“Do it,” Benedict said and offered his hand to be swallowed up by Rob’s. He checked his watch, an expensive one from what Shane could see, elegant and fancy. “Okay, I need to make tracks.”

“I’ll start drawing up a rough estimate.” Rob wandered off, mug of coffee in his hand, whistling tunelessly between his teeth, and Shane headed after Benedict, already halfway to the door. They needed to talk.

“You planning on taking off without even talking to me?” he asked, catching up and turning so Benedict had no choice but to look at him.

“I said good morning.” Benedict had his gaze focused somewhere around the collar of Shane’s shirt.

“And that’s meant to let you off the hook? I don’t think so.”

“Look, the other night—” Stepping closer, Benedict lowered his voice, presumably so Rob wouldn’t be able to overhear. “It was my fault, okay? I get that. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

Benedict’s gaze finally met his. “It was me. I let things get out of control. I should have called to apologize. I just…didn’t know what to say. But I promise it won’t happen again. We’re going to work together. You can’t always be worrying that I’ll have a couple of beers and jump you.”

“That’s the least of my worries.” Benedict gave him a blank stare, and Shane sighed. “I had fun, okay? One-off, never happen again—sure. But don’t go beating yourself up over it. I’m a big boy. I could’ve told you where to shove it.” He chuckled, though he wasn’t feeling all that amused, rebuilding the defenses Benedict had torn down since it was clear Benedict had no interest in what he’d laid bare with his words, his body, and those strong, certain hands. Shane could fake casual indifference as easily as breathing. “Well, I did, didn’t I?”

“I don’t—” Benedict shook his head, a bewildered, resentful look in his eyes, as if Shane wasn’t reacting the way he’d expected. “I’m going to be late for work.”

“Can’t have that,” Shane said. He didn’t move, though, still blocking the way to the door, a foot behind him. If Benedict wanted to leave, he was going to have to brush past the man he’d fucked raw before buggering off. Shane didn’t see why he should make it easy for Benedict to cut and run a second time.

“It’s not that I don’t—” Grimacing, Benedict shook his head. “I have to go.”

“So you’ve said.”

“No, I mean it. I’ll come back at the end of the day, okay? We can talk then.”

Shane tilted his head to the side. “No one’s stopping you, Benedict. Go on, then.”

Benedict flushed, his lips thinning; then he nodded at the door. “Open it for me, or get out of my way, Shane. I’m not playing games with you.”

“Not like Friday? Pity.” Shane had to give the man points for not backing down. He turned to the side, giving Benedict ample room to pass. “On your way then, mate. Don’t rush back. We can manage without you.”

Benedict paused, his hand on the door, and turned his head to meet Shane’s eyes. “I’m coming back, Shane. Get used to it. This place is mine as much as it is yours, and I don’t walk away from something I own. I control it. I get the best out of it. I make it work for me.”

“I’m not included with the bar,” Shane snapped, his heart thudding as Benedict finally got a fucking backbone. God, he was one sick fuck for getting off on it, but he couldn’t help himself. His cock was filling, aching for a touch it wasn’t going to get from the man who’d made it harden. “I don’t work for you, and I never will.”

“No, you’re supposed to work with me, but you keep fighting me instead.” Benedict looked tired, his brown eyes shadowed. Shane would have to grill Vincent on what Benedict had been like over the weekend, if he’d been eating right, sleeping well. “Stop fighting me, Shane. It’s not helping the situation, and it’s getting old. I’ll see you later.”

The door swung closed, and Shane drew in a sharp, aggravated breath.

It was beyond maddening that a man he’d met less than a week ago had the ability to occupy his thoughts the entire morning based on a three-minute conversation. Shane found himself replaying Benedict’s words over and over in his head even though each time he did so, a fresh wave of anger and frustration washed over him.

“What the hell is your landlord’s problem?” was the first thing he asked Vincent when the young man turned up for his shift.

“Ben?” Vincent frowned and turned back from hanging his coat. “Nothing. Why?”

“Because he came in here and acted like a prat this morning.”

“Huh. I don’t know why,” Vincent said. “It seemed like he was in a good mood when he left the house.” Vincent seemed to be in a good mood as well, and his often lank hair looked freshly washed and combed. “What did he say?”

Shane sighed as he heard the delivery truck pulling up out back. The guttural rumble of its engine was unmistakable. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“We still on for poker on Wednesday?” Vincent asked. “Stephanie said she and Cara will bring those weird fruitcake cookie things you like.”

Shane brightened. “Yeah? That’s nice of her. Yeah, I’m in.”

The Wednesday game was for the off-duty staff, any of their close friends, and anyone on duty who could persuade their fellow shift worker to mind the bar solo for a short while. The bar was usually empty enough that night that Shane often set up the table in a corner instead of using the break room. It meant the visitors spent money on drinks and snacks instead of bringing their own, and it gave the place the illusion of being busy. If there was an unexpected influx of customers, the game relocated. Shane had learned the hard way not to include any customers who asked to be dealt in. The last time it’d happened had cost him some grazed knuckles, six broken glasses, and a table reduced to kindling.

The guy he’d punched for cheating had never returned, so he didn’t know if the lesson in etiquette had stuck. Probably not. A skull that thick, he’d have needed to use a sledgehammer.

“I asked Ben to drop by.” Vincent grinned and shook his head, long hair flying. “He asked what game we were playing. Think he was joking, though. I mean, who plays anything but poker?”

Shane followed Vincent out into the bar area, going over to a table to pick up a forgotten glass. He had to squeeze past the pool table as usual, and he struck his thigh on the corner. “Fuck!”

“You okay?”

“This fucking table!” Shane glowered at it, less pissed off about the bruise he was going to have than the idea of Benedict showing up at the game, clueless, asking questions, slowing them all down. “We’re moving it,” he decided.

“During the renovations?”

“Right the hell now.”

“It’s too heavy,” Vincent objected. “Wait for Dave to show up. And where are you going to put it?”

Shane glanced around, but Vincent was right. Until the renovation redefined the space, the pool table wasn’t going anywhere.

“So we leave the pool table and get rid of one of these small tables. Make more room around it. I’m sick of a fight every third week because someone’s cue got jiggled and ruined their shot.”

“Okay,” Vincent said agreeably. “We could rearrange them a little bit, I guess.”

Halfway through, Shane lost interest, but they couldn’t leave the place as it was, chairs shoved off to the side, some tables touching, some in yards of space. His back aching, keenly aware of how grubby the place was in the unforgiving sunlight that made it past the grimy windows, he felt depression settle over him. Too early for a drink, no one around to fuck—staff were off-limits—so his usual antidotes weren’t available.

“Ben sure had a hangover on Saturday,” Vincent said with a reminiscent grin, dusting off his leather pants. Shane couldn’t swear to it, but he thought Vincent had added another piercing to his right ear. How the hell the lad kept his head upright, with the weight of all the metal adorning it, he didn’t know. “I don’t think he drinks much.”

“That’s what he said.”

“He was nervous about Friday night.” Vincent shook his head when Shane looked at him. “No, he didn’t say it, but I could tell. He probably thought a few drinks would take the edge off.”

It had certainly taken something off, Shane mused, though clearly not what Benedict had expected. “Was he ill?”

“Throwing up, you mean? I don’t think so. But he slept half the day, then lay on the couch all afternoon taking ibuprofen and drinking water as if he’d just been rescued from the desert. And when I got back from here, he was asleep on the couch with the TV still on. I had to wake him up and send him to bed.” Vincent seemed more amused by the incident than anything. “This is kind of a different world for him.”

“It is,” Shane agreed grimly.

“He’s like a kid in a candy store. Excited. It’s adorable.” Vincent pushed another chair under a table to get it out of the way. “You should hear him when he talks about it.”

“What makes you think I haven’t?”

Vincent grabbed the broom from where he’d leaned it against the wall and went to put it back where it belonged. “Because he doesn’t want you to think he’s totally clueless.”

“He is totally clueless.”

“He’s not. He’s smart. And he’s a nice guy.” It was odd hearing Vincent defend Benedict. “He’s learning, you know? He’s going to—” Vincent closed his mouth abruptly, looking guilty.

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m not supposed to tell you.” Determinedly, Vincent went to work wiping down the bar.

Shane could’ve put some pressure on Vincent—he knew the man’s weak points—but it would’ve felt like cheating. He settled for a noncommittal grunt and promised himself he’d get Benedict to share with him later.

Learning. Learning what? How to hold his fucking drink?

Shane rubbed at his shoulder, the bite mark Benedict had given him no longer visible, though he knew just where it’d been, and wondered if he’d ever get the chance to see Benedict like that again.

Probably not, and it was probably for the best. It’d been fun, but the fallout wasn’t worth the big bang.

He realized he was still touching his shoulder, more of a caress really, and that Vincent was staring at him, eyebrows raised.

Shit.

“You missed a bit,” he said and walked off with as much dignity as he could salvage.

Chapter Seven

Ben wasn’t sure what a poker night entailed in the way of clothing or contributions. Since the game was set in a bar—his bar—the usual gift of a bottle of good wine was redundant, and though there was no menu as such, the bar did sell bowls of chips with sour cream and salsa.

“No cooking, takes a minute to get ready, and it makes them thirsty, so they drink more,” Shane had explained with admirable brevity.

Yes, they needed to provide food, especially at lunch. He’d been wrong to push that to the future. There were a lot of businesses in the area around the bar with staff who might like to have something hot and fresh to eat instead of sandwiches or a predictable slice of pizza. They had to find a way to fill the bar every day, afternoons as well as evenings. Ben had plenty of ideas for that, none of which he’d shared with Shane yet.

Baby steps. Shane was so resistant to the idea of change…

He flashed on a memory of Shane bending over for him, letting Ben manhandle him into any position, and shuddered with arousal.

No. He wasn’t thinking about that. He wasn’t. He’d jerked off multiple times since Friday and very firmly kept his fantasies Shanefree. Well, mostly. He’d tried. If every nameless guy he pictured had an English accent and light eyes, that didn’t mean anything beyond the fact Shane was, naturally, in his thoughts because they were business partners.

There weren’t very many people in the bar when he went in: just a few older men who Shane swore were straight but who seemed to like Square Peg just the same. God, that was such a shitty name. He had to come up with something better, then somehow convince Shane that it was time for yet another change.

From behind the bar, Vin raised a hand in greeting. Ben went over to say hi.

“Quiet night,” he observed.

“That’s why it’s poker night,” Vin said. “Shelly’ll be in any minute to keep an eye on things out here. After the first half dozen times when she lost her whole paycheck and ended up in tears in the bathroom, Shane said he’d pay her time and a half if she’d sit it out and cover the bar instead.”

“Lost to who?” Ben was pretty sure he could guess.

“Shane. He’s really good.” Vin gave him a long look. “So be careful, okay?”

“Vincent,” Shane said from behind him. “I’m sure Benedict knows how to handle himself.”

Ben found himself standing up straighter as he turned around. “I brought some snacks,” he blurted and thrust the paper bag of groceries he was holding at Shane, who took it.

“Ta. You didn’t have to, though.”

“I wanted to contribute,” Ben said and realized how stiff he sounded. He tried again. “Thought it’d be a good idea to soak up the beer with something.”

Okay, that was even worse. Shit. Now Shane had to be thinking about Friday, and yeah, judging by the cool smile Ben was getting, Shane definitely was.

“Won’t argue with that seeing as how you keel over after sniffing a soggy beer mat. We do sell nonalcoholic drinks, though.”

“I’m not driving,” Ben said through his teeth, humiliation rising. He wasn’t that much of a fucking lightweight when it came to drinking, and he guessed for Shane it was definitely a failing not to be able to drink vast amounts.

“Listen to you two,” Vin said with a shake of his head. “Hopeless.” He held out his hand for the bag of snacks. “I’ll find some bowls.”

Ben watched Vin leave with the same emotion a drowning man would feel watching a lifejacket drift away.

“So,” Shane said with a smile spreading across his face. “You play poker often?”

“I’ve played it once or twice,” Ben said cautiously. He’d spent a week in Vegas with Jenson to celebrate Jenson’s thirtieth birthday, and they’d hit the tables most nights. He didn’t intend to share that with Shane, though. Let Shane see him as an easy mark if he wanted to. Ben planned to be the one walking away from the table with his pockets heavy.

“Well, if you just want to watch, we’d understand.” Shane seemed way too amused by this whole thing, which threw Ben off balance. He’d expected Shane to be mad at him, since that emotion had been the underlying thread in all their interactions. Shane being amused was a change.

Unless he was amused because he planned to get even. Considering that made Ben even more determined to win. He knew he was setting himself up to feel like shit if he lost, but he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t going to let Shane walk all over him.

“I don’t mind playing,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll all be nice to the new guy.”

“Hey, Steph!” Vin called. Ben turned to see two women, one with a haircut so short it was almost a crew cut, coming through the door. He pasted a polite smile on his face, already feeling the chilly awkwardness of being the new guy, the outsider. But Steph and her girlfriend Cara were too welcoming for his shyness to last much past the introductions.

“Fresh meat,” Cara explained when he mentioned it. Her hair was a wild froth of blonde curls that made Ben think of cotton candy. She took the seat beside him and gave him a beaming smile. “We’re so fucking bored of taking money off this bunch because we know every tell they’ve got. You’re going to make things interesting.”

“But we’re still going to take all your money too,” Steph said serenely. “Sorry. We’ve got three cats to keep in tuna.”

“Are they always like this?” Ben asked Shane, laughing, forgetting in the moment everything that lay between them.

Shane pursed his lips. “Not really, no. They gave you a warning. That’s new.” He smiled, cracking open a pack of cards, then shuffling them with a dexterity that was another warning. “They must like you. Can’t think why. You’re definitely not their type.”

“It’s not all about sex,” Steph said. She tilted her head. “Wait. Can I take that back in case a deity I don’t believe in strikes me down with a bad case of celibacy?”

“I’ve got a cure for that,” Cara said with a demure smile.

Vincent made a gagging sound and tapped the table. “Deal. Before they go at it on the table.”

Ben let himself sit out the first two hands, just to get a feel for the dynamic and because he honestly needed the reminder—not of the basics, but of how players studied one another while pretending not to. Playing with people who knew one another had to be different than playing against strangers in Vegas.

“You see, Ben? What did I tell you?” Vin threw his hand down on the table in disgust. “They’ve got some kind of secret sign language going on.”

“You’re the sorest loser I’ve ever met in my life,” Cara said, collecting the chips from their haphazard pile in the middle of the table and neatening them into stacks. “Shane, if you eat any more of those, you’re going to get sick.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Your lack of faith in my stomach’s capacity wounds me.” He emphasized his comment with a hand on his chest, then shoved the rest of the cookie into his mouth.

“Okay, are you in?” Steph asked Ben, and he nodded.

“As long as everyone promises not to laugh at me when I suck,” he said.

Vin had told Ben he didn’t have to worry about losing big. “We have a limit of a hundred bucks maximum; minimum is twenty. You can’t buy more than a hundred dollars’ worth of chips, but if you start with, say, fifty and lose it all, you can buy another fifty—but you have to sit out two hands first.”

“Why?”

Vin had shrugged. “Shane says it’s to let you think about whether you can afford it. From a few things he’s dropped, I get the impression his dad used to lose a lot at the bookmakers, betting on the horses. So bring a hundred if you can afford it, but you can come with twenty and still have fun.”

A hundred dollars wasn’t out of Ben’s range by any means, and he swapped cash for chips, then settled back in his chair, Shane opposite him. Shane’s face wasn’t set in an expressionless mask. He was grinning at something Cara had said, and there was a cookie crumb in the corner of his mouth. As if he’d felt Ben staring at it, Shane reached up and ran his thumb across his lips, taking care of the crumb and leaving Ben blushing for no reason.

Shane was the dealer for the hand, and Ben let himself settle into the rhythm of the game. The five of them all played quickly, with no irritatingly long pauses for thought, but there was a relaxed air about the table. No one was maintaining a steely silence, though Ben was too experienced to believe the heavy sighs of disgust at their hands from people who went on to scoop up the pot.

He bet modestly, more interested in buying himself time to observe the four players. Steph and Cara were playing as a team, he noticed. They would cheerfully win from each other, but he got the sense once they walked out the door, their winnings would be divided evenly. They knew each other’s tells; he saw Steph’s eyes flicker when Cara changed her grip on the sheaf of cards she held, saw Cara smile when Steph chose to sip from her glass during a hand.

Vin was too reckless, but he was lucky with it. He’d bought the minimum amount of chips, saying without embarrassment that it was all he could afford, and Ben had expected to see him lose them all over the course of the first five hands or so. Instead, Vin had won three of the first five hands and was grinning.

When it came to Shane, Ben soon realized he was up against a man who knew what he was doing. Shane watched the cards as they were dealt, and Ben could almost see Shane mentally subtracting each face-up card from the list of fifty-two in his head, so he knew, to a certain extent, what was left in the pack and what each player held.

Ben did that too. Couldn’t help it. Poker was all numbers when it was reduced to basics—numbers, odds, probability. Ben was good with numbers.

Of course, he thought ruefully, as he crashed out of a hand, unable to complete his flush, it didn’t necessarily follow that he was going to win because of it.

They had to take a break between hands then because of a sudden influx of customers at the bar. Vin went to help Shelly, leaving the rest of them to talk among themselves. Ben was content to listen to the good-natured ribbing, peppered with references to incidents he knew nothing about, and accusations of cheating. It would have been awkward if it hadn’t been obvious everyone genuinely liked each other. As it was, it made him a little bit envious of the group’s closeness.

“Remember those cupcakes?” Cara asked, laughing.

“Bitch!” Steph smacked Cara lightly with the back of her hand.

“They were like plaster!” Cara snickered and shoved Steph’s shoulder.

“It wasn’t my fault you put that leftover cup of bread flour in the jar that was supposed to have baking powder,” Steph told her.

“They tasted fine,” Shane said. “They were just heavy.”

“Understatement of the decade. We could have driven nails with those things.” Cara gave Shane a glance. “Speaking of which, Vin says you’re gearing up for some major renovations.”

“Vincent needs another lecture in keeping his mouth shut,” Shane grumbled, but when both women frowned, he shook his head. “No, I know. It isn’t as if it’s a secret. It’s his job. He’s entitled to talk about it if he wants to.”

Ben kept quiet, though the renovations were the first topic to which he could contribute something. He’d seen the plans, approved the suggestions, and was paying for the work, after all. Still, he knew Shane wouldn’t appreciate anyone knowing who was footing the bills. Shane might be grateful Ben was trying to save the bar, but his pride tainted his gratitude with resentment.

It wasn’t fair of him to blame Ben for helping, but Ben understood it. If their positions were reversed, he’d feel the same, he guessed.

He let Shane give a brief summary of their joint plans—the new room opening off this one into what had previously been a junk room, the repainting, refinished floors, and new bar.

“And the women’s bathroom,” Cara said with an emphatic nod. “The mirror in there is freaking tiny, and the whole place is just…” She shuddered. “I hold it until I get home sometimes just to avoid going in there.”

Shane looked mortally insulted. “It’s clean.”

“You go in there and do a white-glove inspection twice a day?” Steph asked skeptically. “It’s not filthy, but it doesn’t make me want to linger, if you know what I mean.”

“Why the hell would you want to stay in there longer than you need to do your business anyway?” Shane looked genuinely baffled.

Vin snorted. “They gather there like wild animals at a watering hole. They chat. They compare notes on who they’ve got their eye on.”

“Really?” Steph said, a dangerous glint in her eyes. “You’re an expert, are you, Vin? So what wild animal do you see me as? Even think warthog, and you’ll be wearing this beer.”

“I’ve never gone in there,” Ben said, surprising them all and saving Vin from Steph’s wrath. He flushed as everyone focused their attention on him. “If it’s as, um, dingy, as you say it is, I’m sure we can do something to brighten it up a bit.”

“We can, can we?” Shane asked, his mouth grim. “Good to know. I’ll order the gold-plated taps first thing in the morning.” He swept up the cards and began to shuffle them, fast and choppy, the stiff rectangles blurring in his hands. “Now can we play fucking poker? Unless someone’s got some paint chips they’d like to show me, or just happens to be an expert in feng shui and thinks this table’s aligned all wrong, in which case they’re fucking barred, and the rest of us can get on with the game.”

“Don’t be so grouchy.” Cara ate a kettle chip and smiled at Ben. “Ben’s not grouchy, and he’s the one stuck with us all.”

“Benedict hasn’t had his entire life turned upside down in the last few weeks,” Shane said.

It wasn’t the first time Ben had cut Shane slack for the position he was in, but it was the first time he’d thought of the situation in precisely that way. It distracted him when he shouldn’t have been distracted. The result was his losing the next hand he played, not because he was dealt bad cards but because he made bad decisions.

“Unlucky,” Shane said, doing a shitty job of hiding a grin. It made Ben want to punch him in the face. It was his fault, not Ben’s. Actually all the stuff making Ben crazy was Shane’s fault. The fact that this poker game existed was Shane’s fault.

Ben would show him. At that moment, he didn’t care that Shane seemed to be a basically decent human being who’d been dealt—excuse the appropriateness of the comparison—a crummy hand in life over this whole bar situation. He didn’t care that Shane was a hard worker, or smart, or the fucking hottest thing on two legs. He just cared that Shane seemed compelled to push him like this, and be so fucking competitive.

They played three hands with Ben’s fierce exhilaration never abating. Even when Ben’s fortunes wavered momentarily, he held his nerve, rewarded by pulling off a successful bluff that saw Vin and Cara both leave the game, out of chips.

“I’m out,” Steph announced thirty minutes later and put her cards facedown on the table with a sigh of disgust, all her chips in the growing pile occupying the center of the table. Shane was the winner of the hand this time, but he and Ben had about the same number of chips left. “Tell me again how this is supposed to be fun?”

Cara chuckled and gave her a kiss. “You love it.”

“I love winning,” Steph grumbled, but her face softened, and she slid her chair closer to Cara’s to hug her.

Ben barely noticed them. All his attention was on Shane as Shane shuffled the cards deftly.

“Just you and me left, partner,” Shane said.

Ben smiled at him, too certain of victory to waste time on banter designed to psych Shane out. It wouldn’t work anyway.

Shane dealt, and Ben picked up his cards. Two sevens, both black. Not wonderful, but not bad. He let the hand progress, betting cautiously until Shane had set out the fourth card in the center of the table, adding the seven of hearts next to a pair of red queens and the three of diamonds.

Shane had the indefinable look of a man with a good hand. Ben wasn’t sure what Shane’s tell was, or if he even had one, but he’d seen that look on Shane’s face before. It hadn’t been tamped down then, but blazing bright.

And Shane had been kneeling, begging, eager.

Of course, Shane could be bluffing. The hell with it. He pushed five chips forward, and Shane matched it. Ben rapped the table; Shane burned the top card of the deck, then dealt out the final card to the middle. The queen of clubs.

Certain now of a full house, aware it wasn’t a guaranteed winning hand by any means, but filled with a reckless daring, Ben shoved his chips forward.

“All in,” he said, keeping his voice steady, a little bored.

“Careful,” Shane said, a mocking smile showing. ”You sound as if you know what you’re doing.”

“I never said I didn’t,” Ben retorted.

Shane shrugged. “It’s your money. All in, it is.”

Vin grinned, lounging back in his chair. “We need dramatic music. Want a drum roll?”

“Shut it,” Shane said without heat. He met Ben’s gaze squarely and said, “Show me what you’ve got,” his voice imperious.

It was a challenge, but was it more than the game at stake? Ben couldn’t decide if he wanted it to be or not. Shane disturbed him, made him want things he’d never wanted before. While he could cope with the discovery that he liked being in charge during sex, he wasn’t sure he could handle Shane’s issues about money. It would taint any relationship, even one as casual as theirs, to have Shane resent him for saving their business single-handedly. He wanted them to be equals, and when it came to money, they weren’t and never would be.

He almost regretted his need to win this pot. How would taking money off Shane improve matters between them? What the hell was he trying to prove? This wasn’t a high-stakes game with a huge crowd watching, just a few old friends playing for fun in a bar that by now was close to empty. Win or lose, he’d shown Shane nothing that would impress the man.

Ben laid out his cards and waited for Shane to curl his lip and produce a straight flush, his confidence draining away. Steph and Cara leaned forward to see his cards, their expressions studiously neutral, though Ben couldn’t see any reason for them to want him to win. He knew whose side they were on.

“Full house,” Ben said. “Well?”

Shane flipped his cards, a wry smile on his face. Two threes were revealed, drawing a groan of sympathy from Vin. “Same here. But your sevens beat my threes.”

Cara let out of a whoop and offered the flat of her hand. Ben gave her the requested high five, unable to keep the ridiculous grin off his face; he didn’t know why she was glad he’d won, but he was grateful not to be celebrating alone. At least she wasn’t one of Shane’s employees; she didn’t have to pretend to be sad Shane had lost.

“Sorry,” he said to Shane, because he was, a little bit.

Strangely, Shane was smiling at him. “You win some, you lose some, right? Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Ben collected his chips, automatically sorting them into colors to make them easier to put away, and tucked the money they represented into his wallet.

“I’m not playing anymore if this is how it’s going to go,” Vin complained, but he clapped Ben on the shoulder as he left to go back to work.

Shane was packing the cards and chips in a plastic storage container. “Rob made up a list of a few things we have to go over before the weekend,” he said to Ben. “Assuming you want to keep things on schedule.”

Since Ben was the one who was pushing to keep them on track, that was a pointed comment. Still, he just nodded and followed Shane to the office.

Shane put the container in a cupboard with every shelf crammed full of odds and ends, then sat sideways on the edge of the big desk, one foot on the floor, the other swinging slowly. Ben took a flimsy plastic chair that put him much lower than Shane and refused to let Shane’s choice of seat get to him. He wasn’t sure if it was deliberate or if Shane just liked the informality of it. Though in a way, making the meeting casual could be seen as an attempt by Shane to control it. He had to know Ben preferred business to be conducted in a more formal setting.

And maybe he was overanalyzing this too fucking much to distract himself from the way Shane’s jeans were pulled tight over his thigh, and how Shane’s hand, resting high on that thigh, drew attention to the sketched shape of his cock under the denim.

Shane turned, exposing the taut curve of his ass, and sifted through a pile of papers on his desk. “Here,” he said, drawing out a single sheet and passing it to Ben. “What do you think?”

Ben scanned the list, pushing his inappropriate thoughts aside. Yes, bending Shane over that huge desk of his—of theirs—and fucking him would be the perfect victory celebration, but with the bar still open and staff wandering around just outside the office, it wasn’t going to happen. He was damned if he was going to be caught with his pants down by Vin wanting a ride home. It would make breakfast together the next day awkward as hell, for one thing.

Rob had suggested that to keep costs down, they did as much of the prep work as possible. Given the amount of dust cutting into the walls would make, the bar would need to be emptied of every glass and bottle, or huge sheets of plastic taped up.

“I say we move everything,” Ben said. “No matter what we do, the dust will get in, and if we’re going to close down, it’s the perfect opportunity to clean the place.” He tapped his finger against the paper. “We can store everything breakable in the staff room and close it off. Given how much alcohol will be in there, lock it. The tables and chairs need replacing anyway. We can donate them to charity if anyone will take them. The pool table, hmm…”

“Slow down.” Shane looked annoyed. “You’re so fucking eager to gut the place, aren’t you?”

“I just think it makes sense to do it all at once. If we do some now and put off the rest of it, it’s going to mean more days when we need to close the place in the future, and I thought we were focusing on making sure no one lost any more work hours than they had to.” Ben looked at the page with Rob’s sketches. “He said we can do the painting ourselves to save money?”

“Yeah. Figure even you can hold a paintbrush.” Shane gestured for Ben to hand the papers back to him, but Ben pretended not to see.

“I’m sure I can handle it.” To be fair, Ben probably hadn’t painted anything since a watercolor in grade school, but how hard could it be? He wasn’t freakishly uncoordinated or anything. “Do we have to buy the paint, or is he going to do it?”

“Said I’d take care of it,” Shane told him. “Give me those, would you?”

“I’m still looking at them. What color?”

“White? There’s a reason it’s a classic.”

“There are probably studies on which colors make people spend more money. I’ll do some research. Don’t buy anything until I get back to you on that.” There was no reason not to take advantage of information collected by other people, after all.

“They’re my fucking walls. I get to stare at them all day. I get to choose what goes on them.”

“They’re our walls,” Ben corrected him, “and white will show every mark and need repainting before the year’s over. Maybe a neutral shade, a light taupe…but as I said, there’s no harm in looking at the research.”

“‘Taupe’?” Shane made it sound as disgusting a choice as using shit to paint with. Ben stiffened, ready to do battle, even though it’d been just a random choice and not one he was wedded to. He liked the idea of a rich, dark red in places, something to make the bar feel welcoming, warm. Not on every wall, maybe, or it would be too dark. Shane gave a scornful snicker, jolting him out of his musings. “You mean beige. Boring, safe beige. Thought you were sick of safe, Benedict. Thought you wanted a walk on the wild side.” He reached out with his foot as he said it, kicking Ben’s shoe with his boot, not hard, but dismissively enough that Ben shot to his feet.

“Don’t make the color of the walls mean something when it doesn’t. And keep your feet to yourself.”

Shane stayed where he was, but his relaxed sprawl against the desk had become a frozen pose, like a runner poised to spring into action. He stared up at Ben, his expression hostile.

“You don’t want me touching you? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I don’t want you touching me like that.” Ben leaned forward and braced one hand on the desk next to Shane’s thigh, looming over him. “You’re the one that likes it, aren’t you? Not that you want to admit it.” He wasn’t sure where this thread of knowledge was coming from, but it had basically been a rhetorical question—they both knew the answer.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Shane’s voice was low and husky.

“No? I’m pretty sure I do.” Shifting his right hand close enough that his wrist touched Shane’s leg, Ben smiled. It probably wasn’t a nice smile.

“Then you’d be wrong.”

“Hmm.” Ben leaned in closer. “I don’t think so. I remember the other night. What you liked. I find it hard to believe you changed this fast.” He could feel the heat coming off Shane, the scent of him, hops and citrus.

“I’m not part of your winnings,” Shane said, his chin tilted arrogantly. If Ben hadn’t been able to feel the answering pressure against his wrist as Shane’s leg moved, just an inch, he might have thought Shane wasn’t interested in anything but a fight. “Back off.”

Of course, given the way that shift of position opened Shane up to his view so perfectly, showcasing the muscular body, the captured, eager heat of the man, maybe not.

For the second time, Ben felt a sizzle of lust ignite every tinder-dry fantasy he had. That Shane could do this to him, reducing Ben from a clear-thinking, calm, and rational human being to a man with only one focus, was terrifying and exasperating.

He would care about that later, he supposed, after lying in his bed, replaying every feverish moment, his hands locked around his cock and balls, drawing an echo of pleasure from the memories. Right then, he only cared about making Shane’s power to arouse him a two-edged sword.

“If I walk out now, you wouldn’t get what you want.” He moved his hand until it lay across Shane’s thigh, his fingers spread. Slowly, never looking away from Shane’s eyes, he drew his hand along Shane’s thigh and up, over a flat, hard stomach and chest. He paused to thumb Shane’s nipple until it hardened obediently, then wrapped his hand around Shane’s throat, lightly, possessively.

Shane let him do it. When they were like this, Ben thought Shane would let him do anything. And he was back to being scared and exhilarated.

Shane swallowed, the ridges of his throat pressing against Ben’s palm, his Adam’s apple rising, falling. Ben didn’t want to scare Shane, if that was even possible when all Shane had to do to break free was lean backward. But he liked the fantasy that he was controlling Shane’s breathing, that every exhalation, every inward gasp was his gift.

God, he was out of his depth here. He remembered being in a boat once, maybe a mile off shore, fishing with a friend, Darren, and Darren’s father. The fish hadn’t been biting in the hot noon sun, and Darren and he had stripped down to their swim shorts and dived off the boat to cool off. They were strong, confident swimmers, and the ocean was calm, but Ben had suddenly realized just how much water lay beneath him. He’d kicked his legs, frantic, scared by the immensity surrounding him, then touched the side of the boat with his hand.

Sanctuary was there if he wanted it, but angry at his fear, he’d swum out, away from the boat, just to prove he could. And out there, he felt the ocean cradle him, cold, exciting water, salt against his lips, stinging his eyes.

No swim had ever matched that one. He dreamed of it sometimes.

“You want me to go?” he said and leaned in closer so Shane didn’t have to do more than whisper his no.

Shane inhaled, shaky. The look in his eyes was wild, untamed, as if he was feeling the same exhilaration that Ben was, the high of it providing a rush like no other. “No,” he whispered, but a knock at the door frame and the sudden appearance of Shelly shattered the spell.

“Hey, we’re losing pressure on the soda machine again.” She stopped and looked from Shane, sitting on the desk, to Ben, standing in front of him. “Is everything okay?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?” Shane blustered. He stood, giving Ben no choice but to step backward quickly. “I’ll be right there to take a look at it.”

“Cool. Thanks.” Shelly hesitated in the doorway for a moment as if she was thinking of saying something else, but decided against it and left. Bright girl, Ben thought. Either that, or being around Shane had taught her well.

Fuck knew what it was teaching him.

“Got to go take care of this,” Shane said. He was standing close, but they weren’t touching.

“Yeah, I know.” Ben wasn’t sure what he was feeling—disappointment whatever had been happening was interrupted? Relief? But when Shane left the room, the night was over, he knew that. He didn’t feel right leaving it like this, without a specific plan.

Shane was still standing there, seemingly reluctant to leave. That was reassuring. “You could come up to mine?”

Even more reassuring, but he had a stack of accounts a foot high to deal with at home. “You have no idea how good that sounds. I can’t. Work stuff. The other work, I mean.”

“You and me.” Shane scrunched his face up, his exasperation with his lack of eloquence clear. “What the fuck’s going on?”

“I wish I knew.” Ben appreciated Shane’s refusal to pretend nothing had happened, but he was at a loss. “I’m not like this with anyone else.” He rolled his shoulders, feeling the tension cramping his muscles. They hadn’t felt like this when he’d been leaning over Shane. He’d felt warm, alive, his body humming with a delicious anticipation. “It’s freaking me out. I mean, I want it. Want you, but I don’t know what this is. And it’s really not a good idea for us to—”

“Fuck like bunnies?” Shane waved dismissively. “Forget it. It’s not you; it’s me. I’m irresistible. I get this all the time. Have to beat men off with a stick most nights.” The words were lighthearted, but his expression was bleak, weary.

Ben chewed the inside of his cheek, a bad habit of his that his dentist gave him hell about. “I can’t forget it, but maybe we can concentrate on work.”

“Do you ever forget it?” Shane snapped, then sighed before Ben had time to snap back. “Sorry. I can’t fault you for working hard, I suppose.”

Ben’s phone beeped. With an apologetic look at Shane, too much its slave to ignore it, and partially grateful for the interruption, he dug it out of his pocket and checked the text.

“Oh, that’s great!” He showed the text to Shane, who squinted at the phone, then gave him a questioning look. “It’s from Ade. The one who owned a restaurant, remember?”

Shane nodded and said succinctly, “Square food.”

Ade was never going to live that down. “That’s the one. He promised to listen out for any auctions that might be useful for us—tables, chairs, kitchen equipment—and he says there’s one on Friday at three o’clock, at Faraday’s Auction House. It’s about an hour away. I’ve gone there in the past when I was looking for bits and pieces for my place.” Ben raised his eyebrows, willing Shane to agree to go with him. He wanted them to do something together that didn’t involve fighting or bone-melting lust. Something he understood. “I can take a half day. We could drive out there together, have lunch, then go to the auction. They deliver too, if we do buy anything. It’s not cheap, but it would save us hiring a van, and they do all the loading and unloading. What do you think?”

“I think it sounds like a modern form of torture,” Shane sighed. “Yeah, all right, fine. Let’s do it. Since you’re so determined to have things your way, who am I to argue? But you’re buying lunch.”

“I can live with that,” Ben said and set about scribbling down the details on a piece of paper.

Chapter Eight

Shane was feeling a bit like a teenage girl, or at least what he imagined a teenage girl might feel like on the verge of a first date. Not that going to a work-related auction counted as a date, but it might be the closest thing to one he and Benedict would ever have. It was impossible to know what Benedict was thinking, and while normally that drove Shane mad, in this case he found it intriguing.

He’d considered lounging upstairs in his flat until Benedict arrived to pick him up, forcing Benedict to climb the staircase to collect him, but in the end decided that was taking things a bit too far and trudged downstairs to lean against the front of the building.

Benedict was on time—no surprise there—and didn’t get out when he pulled up in his car. “Hey,” he said as Shane got in. “Ready for an afternoon of excitement?”

“You’ve been at the Peg on a Friday night. You ought to know this will pale in comparison.” Shane found himself grinning.

“Well, this should be less likely to break out into a drunken brawl,” Benedict admitted, pulling out onto the street. “Seat belt.”

“Oh God, don’t tell me you’re one of those,” Shane groaned.

“I’m one of those,” Benedict said without emotion. “Put it on.”

Shane obeyed slowly, so Benedict wouldn’t forget it was in protest. “Your mum made you wear a helmet when you went ice skating, didn’t she?”

“She hardly knew what I was up to most of the time.” Benedict glanced at him and smiled. “One of the benefits of growing up in a broken home. She was always working, so I got away with a lot.”

“Yeah, it was like that for me too.”

Benedict gave an inquiring grunt, encouraging Shane to expand without pushing. Because he didn’t feel boxed-in or pressured, Shane decided to share. “Never really knew my dad. In and out of prison most of the time, petty theft, nothing big, and when he was home he did as little as possible and drank or gambled his dole money away. Real charmer. Except he was, because my mum would never divorce him. Can’t say I knew what she saw in him.”

“Sounds unpleasant,” Benedict said after a pause. Shane supposed he’d made Benedict feel uncomfortable.

“Could’ve been worse,” Shane said lightly. “One of my friends had a dad who was too friendly, if you get my drift.”

“God. That’s just—” Benedict shook his head, his hands gripping the wheel tightly. “How can people be like that?”

“Dunno. Don’t care. Just wish they weren’t living on the same planet as me.” Shane sniffed. “Course, my dad said much the same to me when I told him I was into lads, not girls. Not one of your tolerant, live-and-let-live types. A Pakistani family moved in two doors down, and if he hadn’t gone away for a six-month stretch a week later, he’d probably have chucked a brick through their window as his version of a welcome basket. Luckily for them, they had a win on the lottery and moved to a semidetached before he got out.”

“Your mom must’ve been nice,” Benedict offered.

Shane worked that through and decided he’d been complimented. He smiled, the shadows of the past thinning. “Yeah, she’s all right. Daft cow’s still convinced the sun shines out of my dad’s backside, but that’s never gonna change. I talk to her now and then. Birthday, Christmas. She never asks if I’m coming home, though.”

“Do you want to?”

“What, go home? I like it here well enough. I’m settled. No need to go traveling around the world just to end up back where I started.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it.” Benedict sounded doubtful. “You must have friends back there you miss?”

“Not really. Just a boyfriend, and I followed him here.” Shane wasn’t sure why he was talking about any of this. He wasn’t much at sharing. “He wanted to go to university here, and I wanted to be with him. Would have gone to the moon if he’d asked me.” He found himself smiling ruefully.

“What happened?”

“What always happens. We broke up, he went back to England, and I stayed here. I’d got licensed as a bartender by then, and I’d been working at the Peg for a couple of years. And to be honest I didn’t fancy the idea of going home in disgrace.”

Benedict gave him a look that might have been concern. “Why disgrace?”

“Well, because none of them were happy about the way I left.” Shane ducked his face to hide any hint of flush in his cheeks. “There may have been an impassioned speech about true love.”

“From you? I don’t believe it.” Benedict reached over and patted Shane’s knee. “I’m kidding. It’s cool. It’s sweet to think of you all young and head over heels.”

“Sweet?” Shane snorted. “Yeah, somehow I don’t think Romeo’s going to give up his day job over me. Looking back, I was more in lust than love. The guy gave great head. What do you say over here? He could suck the chrome off a bumper or something like that?”

“You’re always deflecting,” Benedict said, changing lanes and speeding up as if to underline his words with the roar of the engine. “I know what it’s like when you’re young, and yes, the sex is intense, but the romance is the important bit. The feeling you’ve met the person who completes you. It doesn’t last, and you feel stupid for getting it so wrong, but at the time…”

“I didn’t know what love was,” Shane said flatly. Benedict wasn’t being perceptive, he told himself, just generalizing, but it still made him feel as if he were under a bright light. “Neither did he. Not sure anything’s changed since then. Maybe I’m just not the type to fall for someone. I’ll settle for getting laid when I can. Got no time for all the hearts and flowers.”

It was a warning, but he wasn’t sure if it was directed at Benedict or himself.

Benedict was quiet for a moment. “So I was thinking,” he said slowly, “about this place I used to like. I haven’t been there for a while, but it was good. You game?”

“As long as it’s not sushi,” Shane said.

“Yeah, you don’t strike me as the sushi type. Don’t worry. It’s regular food.”

Shane snorted. “What’s that mean?”

“I don’t know, normal for here, I guess. Burgers, chicken, classy salads for women who are too embarrassed to eat a meal in front of a date. They used to have this lemon dessert thing that was out of this world.” There was a faraway look in Benedict’s eyes, as if he was remembering a better time. It made Shane want to laugh at him, which in turn made Shane feel like a prat.

“Sure,” he said. “Sounds good.”

By the time they’d reached the restaurant and been shown to their seats, Shane was on edge to the point where he didn’t like being around himself. He chose a burger and fries at random from a long list of choices. Maybe it was like this back home now, with even something as simple as a burger complicated by the potential addition of one of three types of cheese, or bacon, or mushrooms. He doubted it, though. Here, a proliferation of options seemed to be expected, along with portions that made him feel uneasy. He’d been brought up to finish everything on his plate, but the amount on that plate was obscene. Shane hated waste, but he kept himself trim, the memory of his dad’s beer belly overflowing his belt enough incentive.

He fiddled with the saltshaker until he’d spilled some and had to toss a pinch over his shoulder, bringing a grin from Benedict. He slid his hands under his thighs to keep himself from fidgeting.

“If I ask what’s wrong, will it make it worse?”

“Depends on why you’re asking.” Shane scanned Benedict’s face, seeing nothing but concern in his brown eyes. Kind eyes, but he liked them better when they were focused on him for a different reason and held nothing but desire. He could cope with Benedict fancying him. That wasn’t anything new. He understood arousal. “Don’t go psycho-fucking-analyzing me, and we’ll get along fine.”

Benedict’s eyebrows shot up. “Was that what I was doing? I thought we were playing a game of whose dad screwed us up more. If I say you win, can we go back to enjoying my afternoon off?”

Belatedly, Shane remembered Benedict had taken some precious time off work to do this. Well, he supposed he had too, but it wasn’t quite the same. He’d had an exciting afternoon of laundry planned. If the thrill of that hadn’t overwhelmed him, he might’ve gone wild and cleaned the bathroom before soap scum covered every square inch of the bath.

He gave Benedict a remorseful smile. “Sorry. I’m a miserable bastard at times.” He nodded at the room. “They’ve done a good job with this place. Classy but casual. Nice.”

And boring enough to give him indigestion, but he was being polite, not truthful.

“Yes, it is.” Benedict leaned forward, his face lighting up. “Don’t you think that could be a good direction for the bar?”

Christ. “If I did, I’d have done it by now.”

“You didn’t have the resources.” Which was a polite way of saying that Shane was broke. “Now we do. If it’ll turn things around—”

“Can’t we do something else?” Shane sounded desperate, and he knew it, but it was difficult to be angry in the face of Benedict’s enthusiasm. “Hire a popcorn machine? Put in a…a cigar bar?”

“I’m pretty sure there are laws about smoking,” Benedict said.

“A clown to make balloon animals?” Shane asked, an edge to his voice now.

“For all the parents who like to bring their kids when they go out drinking,” Benedict agreed. “Did something happen when we were in the car? Some kind of mental breakdown? Because no one warned me about that when we got thrown together.” He was studying Shane’s face, probably for a hint of humor.

Shane’s face was burning. This was embarrassing. He kept his voice low. “Look, I know it’s your money we’re using—”

“Can we pretend it isn’t? Please?”

Benedict was frowning now, his lips pressed tightly together. Stern and forbidding was a good look on him, Shane thought. Well, it was when he knew what a thin coating it was. Scratch Benedict and you’d be down to kind and well-meaning in no time. Shame he was so fucking clueless along with it.

“I don’t want this to be an issue between us. We’ve agreed that unless we do something, the bar’s going under, and we both lose out if that happens. I have some capital to invest, and you’ll pay me back out of your share of the profits when you can. It’s not a favor, and it’s not charity. It’s a business deal, plain and simple.”

“No, it’s a gamble.” Shane didn’t like the way Benedict seemed to think a splash of paint and new chairs would magically fill the bar from opening to closing every day. “You could lose every penny. I’d be out of a job, but you’d be—”

“Exactly where I was a few weeks ago. I never counted on inheriting anything from Craig, and that includes his life insurance money. If I lose it, well, I’m no worse off. And yes, it’s a gamble, but it’s one I’m willing to take. Now stop trying to be funny, and tell me what you want the theme of the bar to be since you obviously don’t like my suggestions. We need to agree on this before we buy any furniture.”

Shane sat back as their food was placed in front of them, welcoming the pause in their conversation. He couldn’t fault Benedict’s sincerity, and the man was being considerate in treating them as equal partners, but he didn’t feel like one. He couldn’t bring anything to the table but his experience managing a bar—and without noticing, he’d let it slide into the red, so that wasn’t much of a contribution.

“I feel like your employee,” he said, sprinkling salt and the vinegar he’d asked for over his fries and squeezing out a dollop of ketchup. He’d been here for long enough that he didn’t call his fries chips, but he was never going to eat them without vinegar.

“Well, I don’t plan to pay you any wages, so if I were you, I’d think again.”

“Then I want final say in the changes.” It wasn’t fair, but Benedict was asking, and Shane had never been averse to telling, even when his input wasn’t requested.

“You’re on crack,” Benedict said calmly.

Shane dipped a french fry into the puddle of ketchup. “Yeah, probably.”

Benedict sighed and ran a thumb along his lower lip in a gesture that had to be innocent even though it drew Shane’s attention as surely as flame drew a moth. He studied Shane, waiting as if he expected Shane to say something else to support his case, and Shane waited too. He might seem like an impatient sort of bloke, but he could be patient when it mattered.

“Okay,” Benedict said finally. “Okay, fine. You win. Final say. But.”

“There’s always a but,” Shane muttered.

“But you have to promise you’ll listen to my ideas. Really listen, and think about them, and remember I care what happens to this business too. I mean…” Benedict trailed off and looked at his chicken entrée without any pleasure. “I know I’m not as emotionally invested in the bar as you are. Maybe I never can be. You’ve got a hell of a head start, and there are a hundred things you know I’ve never even thought of. But there’s other stuff I know. Stuff that can help. I want this to belong to both of us—not just on paper. For real.”

Wanting to belong… Shane could relate to that, but it was a yearning that had long since withered for him. He hadn’t fit in at home, at school, or at any of the places he’d worked before the Square Peg. Now that he had found a niche where he was accepted, even liked, it was too late for him to enjoy it without reservations, because he had the superstitious feeling if he did, it would get taken away from him.

Maybe that was exactly what was happening now.

He didn’t fool himself into thinking that if the bar closed he’d stay in touch with people. The staff, the friends he’d made with some of the regulars…they’d drift away. People did. He’d done it himself.

“Shane?” Benedict touched his hand tentatively.

Shane drew in a deep breath. What the fuck was wrong with him? Wallowing in self-pity wasn’t the answer. “Yeah. I can see that. It’s the last thing you’ve got of your dad’s. And don’t tell me you hated him, because even if you did, and even if he screwed up, he was a mate of mine.”

“You’re very loyal.” Benedict ate a few mouthfuls of chicken, then set his fork on the plate. “We should look at it from the point of view of the customers, not just our own preferences. What type of customers do we want to attract? What would appeal to them in the way of, well, ambiance, though that sounds pretentious as hell?”

Put that way, it made sense. Shane gave it some thought. “I want it to be a gay bar. Straights welcome, sure, but I’m not going to have the balance tipped so people like us are in the minority, looking around to make sure no one’s watching if they want to hold hands.”

“Agreed,” Benedict said immediately. “Though I’m not happy about sex in the bathrooms. It could make some people uncomfortable, and we don’t want to drive people away. It’s unacceptable.”

And there was Benedict being clueless about how the world worked, right on cue. Shane smirked at him, remembering how hot to trot Benedict had been after that overheard blowjob. If Shane ever found out who the two men were, he’d buy them a pint. “Yeah? Got you going, though.”

“That’s not the point. I’m not saying we should turn the place into something it isn’t. I want the people who’ve been loyal customers for years to be happy about the changes. To feel like we did something good for them, made things nicer. I don’t want them to think they turned around and ended up in an alternate universe.”

“Aside from the fact I’ve no idea what you’re talking about half the time, I agree with you,” Shane said. “I think. So, same general idea, spruced up. None of that’s going to change the location, though.”

Benedict pushed his pasta around on his plate. “It’s not a bad location.”

“No, but it isn’t a brilliant one either. Most of the regulars live within a couple of miles. Half of them within walking distance.”

“It’s a city with a population of a quarter of a million people,” Benedict said. “There are hundreds of potential customers within walking distance, gay and straight. We just need to figure out a way to help them find us.”

“Lots of straight people aren’t going to want to hang out at a gay bar,” Shane pointed out, a little annoyed he had to. Benedict was a bright man; these things shouldn’t have to be spelled out for him.

“And lots of people aren’t going to care. They just want a comfortable place to hang out with their friends, have a couple of drinks, and not have to worry about walking in on an orgy when they open the bathroom door.” Benedict seemed to be considering what he’d said, though. “We can be subtle without being deceptive. I have a cousin in advertising, I’ll check with him and see if he has any advice, how to word things.”

“Fine,” Shane said with a sigh. Benedict seemed to know a lot of people, but unless they were going to drop by and order champagne every night, he wasn’t sure they were going to be as useful as Benedict seemed to think they were. “Look, we need to stand out. We’re not the only gay bar in the area. Vincent says a lot of his mates go to some dive called Dregs. I went once, and Jesus, it makes our place look like the fucking Ritz, but it was packed.”

“Why?”

“Well, it probably had a lot to do with all the drug dealing going on in the bathrooms—makes a blowjob between friends seem pretty tame, doesn’t it?—but they like it because everything’s painted black; you can’t see your hand in front of your face, or hear yourself think, because the music’s so loud, and their Happy Hour is from ten to midnight.”

Benedict shook his head. “That’s not the way I want our place to be,” he said decisively.

“Nor me, but they’ve got a hook, see? We need one. Hook and bait.”

“We’re going around in circles and getting nowhere.” Benedict glanced at his watch, then signaled to their waiter. “We need to leave. Ade said we should make sure we gave ourselves enough time to look around before the auction starts. Maybe something we see will spark an idea for a theme, but if not, well, we go for chairs we’d like to sit in ourselves.”

“We’re not the customers,” Shane couldn’t help pointing out. “And you and me are so different, if one of us likes it, the other won’t.”

Benedict closed his fingers around Shane’s wrist, pinning it to the table for a moment before releasing it, the action so out of the blue, so quickly over, Shane jerked with shock, his heart rate increasing. His wrist felt warm where it’d been held, a heat that pulsed through him, leaving him aching for something he couldn’t have.

“We agree on some things,” Benedict said meeting Shane’s gaze calmly. “Don’t we, Shane?”

“You and me,” Shane said when he could speak without his voice betraying him, “we’re going to have a little chat later. Count on it.”

He pushed away from the table and walked out, leaving Benedict to settle the bill. He needed the chilly February wind to cool his face, a moment alone to get control of himself.

Chapter Nine

Ben was starting to wonder if this auction thing had been a good idea. He didn’t doubt they’d be able to get some quality items at reasonable prices. He was more worried he and Shane might glare each other to death before the night was over.

They’d managed to get through the preview part before the auction started without any arguments. However, now they were walking on eggshells, as careful as a parent waiting for a toddler to have an inevitable tantrum but hoping it could be put off until after Grandma’s hundredth birthday party. It was stupid because Ben knew they were both too mature to do anything stupid in public.

At least, he hoped they were. He kept reminding himself Shane wouldn’t have run the Square Peg so successfully—from a community standpoint if not a financial one—if he started throwing punches every time he got annoyed. Shane came across as someone who got annoyed on a semi-regular basis, and that would have been a lot of punches.

They had one bid paddle between them and a shared catalog that detailed all the lot numbers of the items being offered. Ben had made a lot of notations in the catalog when they’d been wandering around, but somehow Shane had ended up with it as the auction started and didn’t seem eager to hand it over. Ben wasn’t going to rip it out of his hands. Shane probably just hadn’t realized what he’d done, but Ben knew if he said something, there was a chance it would come off wrong, so he waited.

He was uneasily aware he’d crossed a line in the restaurant, a line he’d drawn, which made his actions inexcusable. He couldn’t seem to keep his hands off Shane, and when Shane kept needling him, he didn’t want to. He knew what Shane was capable of, and it was frustrating as hell to sit beside him and pretend to ignore what lay between them.

Shane had been furious when he got into the car, slamming the door with a closed-off expression that dared Ben to comment. It’d taken the twenty-minute drive to the auction for him to calm down, and Ben couldn’t help wishing they’d been somewhere less public. He had a feeling their differences could have been resolved pretty easily then.

Except they’d agreed sex would complicate an already fraught relationship.

Ben glanced down at Shane’s thighs and wanted to run his hands over them, push Shane’s knees wider and make Shane hold them there while he looked his fill. He could picture Shane’s lost, vulnerable expression changing to a desperate, hopeful trust as Ben stroked his cock, making it go harder, thicker, ready for him to taste…

“It’s those fucking chichi bar stools you wanted,” Shane hissed and elbowed him in the ribs. “Wave your paddle, or you’ll miss them.”

“What? Oh!” Ben shot his paddle into the air and got a nod from the auctioneer.

“I have one hundred dollars—do I hear more? One hundred on this set of six bar stools, ladies and gentlemen—one twenty-five, thank you, sir. Do I have one-fifty—”

Ben lowered his paddle and gave Shane a questioning look. “Do you really hate them?”

Shane shrugged, a sulky, mutinous pout on his face. If the bid paddle hadn’t been a flimsy piece of wood but something more substantial, Ben would’ve been tempted to apply it to Shane’s ass. And God, thoughts like that weren’t helping his concentration.

He rejoined the bidding until it went beyond the limit he’d placed on them in the pre-auction walk around. He let them go. Damn. He’d liked them. Solid, and yes, perhaps the carving on the legs had been on the ornate side, but they’d catch the eye. Illogically and unfairly, he blamed Shane for their loss even though they’d gone for twice what he’d been willing to pay.

“Thought you said we’d get some bargains,” Shane said. “Overpriced junk, if you ask me.”

“At least we didn’t overpay for them.” It was time to concentrate on what was important. He’d worry about this thing with Shane later. “Okay, what about these chairs?” He held the catalog so Shane could see it.

Shane deigned to glance at the tiny photo. “They’ve got arms.”

“And?”

“And drunk people don’t do well in chairs with arms.” Rolling his eyes at Ben’s confusion, Shane went on. “They tip them over, then get mad at us, and we end up having to give them free drinks to soothe their wounded pride.”

“Oh. Right.” Ben felt like an idiot for not having realized. He handed the catalog to Shane and asked meekly, “Would you pick some that might work?”

Shane sighed and reluctantly starting leafing through the pages. “These look sturdy enough,” he said, pointing to some wooden chairs with upholstered seats. “Padded vinyl’s not as long lasting as wood seats, maybe, but it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable. Don’t want people deciding to make an early night of it because the chairs make their delicate little bums sore.”

Trust Shane to put it in simple, crude terms. “Okay, good. What else?”

“We’re going to need long seats against the walls for the snug, but we can shake it up a bit.” Shane tapped his finger against a picture of a booth seat, upholstered in black, and with a pale wood surround. “Comfortable, yeah, little bit posh, but not stuffy. We can use these smaller bench seats and break them up with tables set between them, little rectangular ones, built-in, so people can put their drinks down beside them, then have lower tables in front of them, instead of the more usual higher ones. Make them feel like they’re at home—but better.”

“That sounds good,” Ben agreed, ready to go along with anything within reason that got Shane involved and eager. “I’m happy to bid on the bench seats. But we’d have to custommake the dividing tables, and that could be expensive.”

“Nah.” Shane patted his arm reassuringly. “You’re not the only one who knows someone. Charlie’s brother’s a carpenter, and he could knock them up for us in a day or two, cheap as chips.”

A wave of happiness swept over Ben. He could’ve been in the office, breathing in dry, stale air and making numbers dance. And yes, he enjoyed that, but it was so fucking familiar. Instead, he was out here, preparing to do battle for some tables and chairs, and, if they didn’t go over budget, an industrial-sized deep fat fryer and freezer to put in his bar. No, their bar.

When it came to his personal life, that was in flux too. He might wish Shane didn’t affect him so strongly, but though the intensity of his response to Shane disturbed him as much as it aroused him, he’d take it over the tepid dissatisfaction left in the wake of his breakup with Jenson.

Things seemed to be working out. It was a heady realization that no one would call his life—or him—boring now.

“You’re sure you want them?” he asked Shane, who nodded. “Then I’ll get them for you no matter how high we have to go.”

Shane raised his eyebrows, a speculative gleam in his eyes. “Well, aren’t you in a determined mood.”

“I can’t help it,” Ben admitted and threw himself into the bidding wholeheartedly.

They ended up getting good deals on the chairs and a fantastic one on the deep fryer—maybe a side effect of the fact that people were struggling to eat healthier these days, maybe it would end up being a waste in the long run because no one would order mozzarella sticks or boneless chicken wings, but in the heat of the moment, Ben couldn’t bring himself to worry for more than a fleeting second. They didn’t get quite as good a deal on the large freezer that would let them store bulk purchases, but it was fair, certainly.

By the time the lot of bench seats was offered, Ben was riding high and starting to suspect he would be willing to pay far more for the seats than they were actually worth. It felt like an opportunity to prove something to Shane. Not that he needed to prove anything—he knew that intellectually—but on an emotional level, in his gut, it felt different.

“Six,” he said, lifting his bid paddle. It reminded him of being a little kid in first grade and having to raise his hand to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

“Seven,” said a woman with thick streaks of blonde in her light brown hair. She’d been one of the most persistent bidders all night, and focusing on some of the same stuff they were interested in. She was not, Ben decided, going to get Shane’s benches, even if he had to spend a fortune on them.

Well, there was no way he was going to spend a fortune, because he didn’t have one.

“Eight.” Ben tried to sound bored, as if he didn’t care whether he won or not. He had no idea if that might actually be an effective way of winning.

“Nine!” the woman snapped before the auctioneer had time to open his mouth. Considering the speed at which he rattled out his words, that was quite an achievement. Ben noticed she was frowning, though. A man he worked with got that identical look on his face when he was doing sums in his head.

She’s reached her limit, he realized with a flash of pure glee that, in the heat of the moment, was unaccompanied by guilt. He raised his paddle with a casual lack of urgency, nodded in answer to the auctioneer asking if he’d go to a thousand, and a few seconds later, the hammer came down, and he owned a job lot of fifteen bench seats.

The echo of its strike against wood had barely faded when Ben turned to Shane. “We did it! We—”

He got no further than that. Shane, grinning, clasped Ben’s face, drew him closer, and planted an exuberant kiss on his mouth, effectively silencing Ben.

“Good one. You handled that like a pro,” Shane said approvingly and settled back in his chair. Ben glanced around, his face burning, but no one seemed to care about the kiss, their attention on a frankly hideous crystal chandelier that was being displayed on the small stage.

He felt shaken, and that was stupid. It had been a celebration of their small victory, that was all, as unthinking as the hugs soccer players exchanged after scoring a goal, jumping on each other, boisterous as puppies, tangled in a heap. It shouldn’t have left him feeling some major shift in their relationship had occurred. It had surprised him because Jenson would never have done that. Not in public and not in private either. Jenson had kissed Ben on the cheek as a greeting, on the mouth during sex, but an emphatic, openly affectionate kiss like that…? No.

“We’ve finished bidding now, right?” Shane asked, keeping his voice considerately low. “Just need to handle the paperwork.”

Ben nodded, still mute, and once the chandelier had been sold, they worked their way to the end of the row and went to pay for their items and arrange delivery. That took long enough that by the time they were back at the car, Ben had persuaded himself to forget about the kiss. He’d have put money on Shane forgetting it seconds after it happened.

“We lucked out with that fryer,” he said as he started up the car. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if it went for twice what we paid.”

“Now we have to find someone who can use the thing.” Shane put on his seat belt without comment this time. “Unless you have skills I’m unaware of? A history as a short-order cook?”

“Sadly, no. I learned to cook when I was pretty young, but never graduated from the basics. The job market’s not that great right now. I’m sure we can find someone. There’s that culinary arts department in Westwood University. They might have recommendations.”

“Because that’s what we need: some student still wet behind the ears,” Shane said.

“Vin’s young,” Ben protested. “And you couldn’t ask for a harder worker.”

Shane nodded. “I’m not saying a word against Vincent. I just think we’d be better off with someone a bit more experienced than you’re suggesting.”

Sometimes it seemed as if Shane disagreed with him just for the sake of disagreeing. Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay. It’s your call.”

He’d driven about a mile when Shane said casually, “So I was thinking, and you’re right—white’s a crap color for the walls. I’m seeing kind of deep, buttery yellow for the bar and a bronze for the snug. Just popped into my head when I saw the furniture. What do you think?”

“I’ve seen a range of those metallic paints and they can look spectacular, but they’re expensive,” Ben said, trying for neutral as he pictured the colors. They’d be an improvement on whatever the hell the color was now—hard to tell under the accumulated grime—but anything would be. He just couldn’t get over Shane suggesting something as sophisticated as bronze. Maybe he’d dated an interior designer, and something other than the designer had rubbed off on him.

Okay, now he was being bitchy.

“We could price it up first or buy a small can and see what it looked like?”

“Sure.” Shane drummed his fingers against his thighs, back to the bored drawl. “Sounds like a plan.”

It didn’t take a genius to work out that paint wasn’t uppermost in Shane’s mind. Ben took advantage of a quiet stretch of road and risked a quick sideways glance. Shane’s jaw was set in a way he was beginning to recognize meant trouble, the shadow of stubble along it making him wonder how it would feel to kiss Shane. He’d end up with chafed skin, but it’d be worth it. He wanted to run his palm over that stubble-rough jaw and feel the rasp of hair, rough, male, so very Shane.

“If I ask why you can’t pick a mood and stick to it, will you remember I’m driving and punching me isn’t in your best interests?”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Shane stiffen, then relax, sighing as if he’d been holding on to that breath for a while. “Yeah, I’m a fucking pain in the arse today, aren’t I? Sorry. If it helps, when we stop, you can punch me if you want.”

“You know that’s not what I want.”

“Do I?” Shane shrugged. “Don’t want to punch me, don’t want to kiss me… Running out of options here, Benedict.”

“That’s insane.” He was going too fast, but aggravation seemed to require it. Ben eased off the gas to prove to himself he was in control here. “Why are my choices fight or fuck? Can’t we just be…” He trailed off, the banality of the obvious third choice striking him.

Shane filled in the blank without any trouble at all. “Friends? Doubt it. Not as if we’ve got a lot in common, is it?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said honestly. “I think we’ve spent so much time arguing that it’s hard to tell. It seemed as if…when we… We had enough in common there.”

“You can’t even say it.” Shane sounded frustrated, and it was hard to blame him. “You fucked the hell out of me, and yeah, I liked it. Thought maybe you were the one who didn’t like it, what with the way you ran out of there as soon as you got off.”

God, it was too hard to have this conversation and drive at the same time. Ben pulled the car over onto the side of the road, half on the grass. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but getting rear-ended in the middle of it wasn’t going to make this discussion any easier. He put the car in park, considered leaving it running, and shut it off anyway.

“Doesn’t look like Lover’s Lane,” Shane commented, glancing out the window at the trees.

“Don’t do that,” Ben said. “This is hard enough. I know it’s…I don’t know…easy for you or whatever, but it’s not for me.”

“Sorry.” Shane looked abashed.

“Don’t be sorry. Just let me figure this out. I want—this. You. I can’t totally explain it, and I don’t like it.” Obviously he couldn’t even begin to explain it. “I was dating this guy once, and he had kind of a temper. As far as I know, he never hit anyone. He never hit me. But some stupid little thing would set him off, and he’d yell, and that was the end of it for me.”

“What we did,” Shane said carefully, “was different. You know that, yeah?”

“I know.” Ben turned in his seat so he could look at Shane. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

“I’d make a joke about the Spanish Inquisition, but you’d probably think I was nuts.”

“Monty Python,” Ben said impatiently. “I like British shows. We’ve got that much in common too.”

“Should make a list.”

“Do you ever stop being like this? Ever?”

“Now you’re yelling.” Shane unfastened his seat belt and turned to face Ben as much as he could in the tight space. “It’s the way I am, love. I don’t let stuff show. You’ve seen more of me than most—and no, I’m not talking about my bare arse. If you think that’s not keeping me awake at night, you’d be wrong.”

The seat belt was cutting into his chest. Ben released the catch, freeing himself, and mirrored Shane, shifting sideways in his seat. “I don’t know why you let me do it.”

“Take control?” Shane’s eyes were like shoaling water lit by sunlight, rippled by the wind. They held Ben’s gaze, drawing him in. “I like it. Gets me off. You want it to be complicated, and it isn’t.”

“You don’t like it all the time. You fight me every step of the way.”

Shane’s lips curved in a knowing smile. “Didn’t say I liked making it easy for you.”

“True.” Ben sighed and reached out. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I thought this—the job—would be a good distraction from life, romance. I bumped into my ex at the coffee shop this morning. He was so nice to me, as if he felt sorry for me for not being good enough for him.”

Shane came to him, yielding easily, fitting himself into the shape of Ben’s arms as best he could. Ben tightened his grip, then realized he didn’t need to. Shane wasn’t fighting him now. Shane rested his forehead against Ben’s for a moment, then tilted his head, dropping a kiss on Ben’s cheek, light as rain. “I can beat him up for you,” Shane murmured, leaving more kisses between words. “Teach him a lesson in appreciating a good thing when he sees it.”

Unbearably aroused by the light kisses, Ben couldn’t concentrate enough to reply with anything more than a grunt. Shane was caressing him, one hand sliding inside Ben’s jacket, the other on his face, his neck, slow, yet eager touches, as if Shane couldn’t help himself. God, it was such a turn-on to be wanted.

“Course, I don’t want him to see he’s made a mistake.” Shane’s lips were hot against Ben’s neck, the kisses more demanding now. “You might go back to him, and then where would I be?”

Ben couldn’t let that go. There was too much tension in the body he held. He forced words past lips that wanted to kiss, not talk. “I wouldn’t. No matter what happens with us. That’s over.”

Go back to that sterile, polite, passionless relationship? Ben shuddered.

“Want you.” Shane licked Ben’s neck, the wet drag of his tongue ending with a nip at Ben’s earlobe that left it stinging. He groaned, the sound pure frustration to Ben’s ears, his hands rough on Ben now, not demanding, but imploring, the intensity of his need making him clumsy, the subtlety of his earlier kisses lost. “God, you’re killing me here. Give me something. Need you.”

Again, Ben felt the rush of knowing he’d done this to Shane. Unflappable, reserved Shane. It went beyond soothing his damaged ego. It was wrapped around his compulsion to win this complete surrender from Shane, even if it was a battle he’d have to fight all over again the next day.

He scraped his teeth along Shane’s jaw just to feel him shudder. “Not here,” he murmured. “If we’re going to do this again, we’re going to do it right. I want you naked so I can look at you. So I can touch you however I want.” He pulled back so he could look into Shane’s eyes.

“What, are you waiting for an answer? Yes. Of course it’s yes.”

Chapter Ten

“Pull in here,” Shane said as Benedict slowed the car. “We can go in the back.”

Neither of them had specifically stated they wanted to keep this quiet, but it seemed to be understood. In the long run, if it worked out, they wouldn’t be able to hide it. For now, it was simpler to not have to answer any questions. Shane’s hands were trembling as he latched the back door to his flat and shut out the world.

Before he could turn, Benedict’s arms were around his waist, Benedict’s chest pressed to his back. Shane wished he’d had time to take off his coat. “Gonna do all those things to me?” he asked. “The ones you were talking about?” Below them in the bar, people were drinking and dancing and probably fucking in the bathroom. He and Benedict were no different.

Benedict’s hand found the front of Shane’s jeans, thin with age and pulled tight across the swell of his cock. “I’m sure as hell not going to fuck you in the kitchen this time.”

“No?”

“No. Show me the bedroom.”

“It’s a mess,” Shane warned him as they walked through the bedroom door, without supposing Benedict would care. Benedict hadn’t let go of him, making their progress slow but enjoyable. Shane relished the feel of Benedict’s body pressed against his, the way Benedict was touching him freely, intimately, taking Shane’s earlier yes as license to do whatever the hell he liked. Shane liked that. It kept things flowing, stopped him from doubting Benedict’s ability to make this good for them both. If he needed to set a limit, he would, but Benedict hadn’t come close to one yet. Early days. “I was going to do laundry.”

The curtains were still drawn, the floor strewn with clothes, some clean, some not, and the bed was unmade.

“You live in chaos,” Benedict said, disapproval edging his words.

“Yeah.” He turned his head, offering his neck up to be stroked by Benedict’s fingers, stealing a kiss. Benedict tasted so fucking clean. Shane wanted to lick every inch of him, find where that soap and water turned to an earthy musk, put his tongue against skin that had probably never been kissed. God, if Benedict wanted it, he’d rim him for as long as it took to make Benedict come, use nothing but his tongue to make Benedict’s cock spurt and spill. He imagined it, his hands tied behind him, kneeling on the floor, Benedict standing over him. He’d nuzzle between Benedict’s cheeks to find that small, secret opening, begging Benedict to hold himself open so he could do a good job. He’d end up breathless, his jaw aching, his face smeared with spit; then Benedict would turn, come on him, paint his face and neck white. Shane turned fully, winding his arms around Benedict’s neck. “Gonna make me tidy up before you fuck me?”

“I might make you change the sheets. They smell…ripe.”

Shane grinned, rubbing his erection against Benedict’s thigh, shamelessly humping his leg. Benedict might sound prim and proper, but his hands were kneading Shane’s arse avidly. “That’s because I jerked off on them this morning, and in the middle of the night, and yeah, things got messy. I was thinking of you, though, so it’s mostly your fault.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” Benedict said. He had already slid Shane’s coat off his shoulders and was tugging at his shirt. Shane lifted his arms cooperatively, feeling his nipples harden as the cool air chilled his skin.

He gasped as Benedict’s warm hand settled on the small of his back and pulled him closer. Benedict was hard as nails under his expensive, well-cut trousers, and his mouth didn’t allow for anything but obedience. His kisses were forceful and impatient. Shane longed to be overwhelmed by him, swept away by lust and need.

“Gonna fuck you so hard.” Benedict used a hand to tilt Shane’s chin up and bit his throat over the jugular. The nip of his teeth took Shane’s breath away. “You should grow your hair. Nothing to hold on to.” His palm slid over the base of Shane’s skull in illustration.

“Yeah?” Shane wanted to sink his fingers into Benedict’s dark curls and tug him down onto the bed, wanted to feel Benedict’s solid weight on top of him. “Christ, hurry up.”

Benedict’s head jerked back, eyes shrewd. “Patience. No, stay there. I’m going to sit,” he said, and did, ignoring the tangled sheets. “And you’re going to take off the rest of your clothes. Slowly.”

Fingers trembling, Shane did as he’d been told. Taking off his jeans generally took about four seconds and ended in them lying in a heap on the floor. This time, it took longer, though it was hard to go as slowly as he should have, because he was so fucking eager. Standing there naked didn’t seem erotic—it was the same bare skin he saw every day before he went to bed or took a shower—but the way Benedict’s eyes studied him did. He could feel Benedict’s gaze like a caress.

“I like making you do this,” Benedict said, quietly enough that Shane wondered if Benedict was talking to himself, working things out that in Shane’s opinion just were, end of story.

“Make me do something else,” he suggested.

Benedict arched his eyebrows. “Like shut up?”

“That’s probably never gonna happen.”

Benedict snorted with amusement. “I can think of a few ways without even trying.”

So could Shane, but he wasn’t sure he’d enjoy them all. He tried a smirk, knowing that would provoke a reaction. He was so hard he was shaking with it, needing to come, to take the edge off things so he could think straight. His skin felt hot, too tight. He was going to fucking explode soon if Benedict didn’t get his cock where it belonged. “Just don’t use a sock if you go for gagging me. They’re all in need of a wash.”

“Thanks for the input.” Benedict crooked his finger. “Get your cute little English ass over here and kneel down.”

“I can do that.” God, he just couldn’t shut up. He felt like shoving a sock in his mouth himself, just to stem the nervous babbling. He wanted this, so why the jitters? They’d done it before, after all.

He went to his knees in front of Benedict, his balls throbbing. Naked and kneeling, and Benedict was all neat and tidy, fully dressed. The mildly humiliating difference was deliciously arousing. He bit back a moan, waiting with the last shreds of patience he possessed.

Benedict unzipped his trousers, stood, and without ceremony shoved his dick into Shane’s mouth, deep enough that Shane’s eyes watered. Benedict hadn’t bothered to push his trousers down. There was something raw and obscene about the way his dick stuck out from those pressed trousers, darkly red, thick and hard.

Shane breathed through his nose and tried to relax, since he was sure fighting it wasn’t going to make it better. Not that he wanted to fight it. As soon as he was able to work a little saliva up on his tongue, Benedict pulled back and thrust forward again. Shane grunted. Christ, Benedict was so hard, and he smelled fucking unbelievable, like lust and laundry soap. His cock was big. Shane had remembered that from having it shoved up inside him, big and thick. No foreskin, something Shane was used to now, though it’d surprised him when he’d first arrived in the country.

“Get me good and wet,” Benedict instructed. He sounded as calm and in control as if he were doing something boring and mundane instead of getting his dick sucked. “I bet you’d like it if I came in your mouth, wouldn’t you?”

Shane’s eyes flickered up to meet Benedict’s along the expanse of his perfectly ironed dress shirt.

“Of course you would. But then I’d have to wait to fuck you, and I don’t think I’m in the mood to wait.” Benedict slid his hand forward and took hold of the base of his cock. It meant Shane couldn’t take him in deeply anymore, so he concentrated the attention of his tongue and lips on the reddened, slick tip. “I’m gonna push this right inside you, open you up. And I’m gonna fuck you for a long time, until you’re so sore you can’t stand it.”

The noise that escaped Shane’s lips, pressed to the thin skin of Benedict’s cock, was closer to a whine than anything else. He knew what that felt like, to have a raw, stretched hole, because he’d been fucked to the edge of his limit. He wanted it. He wanted the knowledge that each twinge belonged to Benedict.

Something told him Benedict had never come close to doing this with anyone else, hurting them so beautifully, and so it had to be perfect. If his was the first arse Benedict had fucked hard and deep, nothing held back, then he was going to make sure Benedict got the ride of his bloody life. He’d had a taste of what Benedict was capable of, but this wasn’t a drunken, spur-of-the-moment shag. They were both sure of each other now, and it changed so much.

“And when I stop and ask you if you’ve had enough, if you say yes and I haven’t come, I’m going to keep going,” Benedict said. “In your mouth if you tell me your hole can’t take another second, but I’m going to come with my cock inside you one way or another.” He drew the wet, smooth tip of his cock across Shane’s lips, back and forth, carelessly enough that Shane’s cheeks ended up smeared too.

Shane threw back his head, offering his face up, his body. His vision blurred one moment, sharp and vivid the next. Blood roared in his ears, his senses overloaded. He could taste the clear drops beading the slit of Benedict’s cock, smell them with every breath he took. He wanted to keep sucking Benedict until his mouth was flooded with that taste, that smell, but more than that he wanted to be pierced and filled by what had shaped his mouth.

Benedict jacked his cock, his hand sliding over the skin Shane had left slickly gleaming. He dried his hand on Shane’s hair. “Really need this to be longer.”

“I can grow it.”

“I think I’d like that,” Benedict said thoughtfully. “Or to see you in something smart. You’d look stunning in a suit.”

“Your own little doll to play with.”

Benedict inhaled sharply and pulled back his hand as if he thought he’d done something wrong.

Shit, he needed to learn when to zip it. Benedict was too new to this not to spook easily.

Shane closed his eyes. “I didn’t say I minded,” he whispered, a weight leaving him as if he were confessing a sin, though he didn’t need forgiveness. Words he’d never spoken aloud, never even let himself think, and Benedict was drawing them out of him, freeing the tangle of fantasies and yearnings from the darkness inside Shane’s head. “Play with me. Use me. Just don’t make me wait much longer. Please.”

Benedict’s eyes were suspiciously wet. He knelt on the floor beside Shane and gathered him close, kissing him hard enough it hurt. And oh, it was the best kind of hurt, sharp and threaded through with heat. It made Shane want to crawl into Benedict’s lap, inside his shirt, until they were barely two separate people anymore.

“Get on the bed,” Benedict said softly. “Lie on your stomach.”

It felt good to have his insistent cock trapped between his belly and the mattress, but Shane couldn’t help but look over his shoulder to see what Benedict was doing. Benedict was already almost undressed, his clothes falling onto the floor to join Shane’s in what had to be a hopeless tangle. Shane didn’t care.

“Put your head down.”

Shane obeyed, closing his eyes. The thrum of noise from the bar downstairs was steady, the heartbeat of the building. He was so used to it that he could fall asleep to it when he needed to. He spared a brief thought for what it must sound like to Benedict, to wonder if it was distracting or irritating. Then Benedict’s hand touched the back of his calf, and he forgot to think about anything else.

Benedict ghosted his hand along Shane’s leg, into the sensitive, almost ticklish hollow behind his knee, then ruffled the hair on his thigh. It gave Shane goose bumps. Benedict’s fingertips traced the curve of his arse and the seam between his buttocks before Benedict’s palm came to rest on one cheek, cupping it. “You have a great ass,” Benedict said, and he squeezed it. “I can’t wait to fuck it. Haven’t been able to stop thinking about what you felt like before.”

Involuntarily, not sure what he was looking for, Shane started to lift his head.

“No,” Benedict said sharply and slapped Shane’s arse. The blow wasn’t painful, but it was surprising enough it made Shane gasp. “Don’t move.”

Shane relaxed as he felt Benedict move away. He heard the sounds of drawers opening as Benedict no doubt found his collection of lube and condoms. He knew he would have let Benedict fuck him without a condom right then, with no discussion, but maybe that was a safe thought precisely because he also knew Benedict wouldn’t do it.

Benedict’s weight settled on the mattress again, and a moment later there was the drizzle of lube dropping slickly into the space where Shane’s thighs met.

“Don’t move,” Benedict told him again, but there was a playfulness to it, as if Benedict knew damn well what was coming would make Shane wriggle and squirm and was daring him to hold still.

The lube itself was cool enough to make him shiver, the liquid finding its way deep into his crack and down to coat his balls. The sheets were definitely going to need washing after this. Then coolness became a rising heat, and he yelped, recognizing the sensation. “Bugger! You used the fucking fancy stuff.”

“It’s your lube,” Benedict pointed out. “If you choose to spend your hard-earned money on the kind that, let me see, Heats up on contact for that extra-spicy dash of sizzle, then who am I to judge?”

“I only used a bit of it once, once, not the whole fucking bottle!” He didn’t know what was in the stuff, but it reacted strongly with his skin, the mild warmth the bottle promised turning out to be more like the blazing heat of the noonday sun. He’d still come and enjoyed it, with no aftereffects, but it’d been on the intense side.

“Oh, I’ve got plenty left, don’t worry. Do you jerk off with it, Shane? Use it on your cock or your nipples, or that dildo I saw at the back of the drawer? It says it’s safe with a condom, so I can certainly make sure it gets in all the right places.”

“What part of ‘used it once’ didn’t you get? If you dare fuck me with it—”

Benedict dropped down onto Shane’s back, his cock riding the crease of Shane’s arse, his hands tight around Shane’s wrists. “If I dare?” Benedict repeated. “I don’t need to dare. If I want to, I’ll do it.”

He kissed the back of Shane’s neck, a light brush of his lips even as his fingers tightened their grip, dragging Shane’s hands up until they were level with the pillow. “And I want to, so roll over.”

Shane wanted to protest, but his cock was hard as hell, and his balls were starting to ache with delayed orgasm. Just a hint of it, nothing like it would be in an hour if he didn’t come, but he wanted to come. He wanted to come even if it meant heated lube pushed inside his hole. He rolled over.

Immediately, Benedict’s hand closed around his cock. Shane groaned as Benedict stroked him slowly, Benedict’s hand slick and warm and coaxing. For a man who didn’t have a foreskin himself, Benedict knew just what he was doing, how to work the looser skin over the ridge and sensitive head.

“It’s hot,” Shane murmured. He lifted his hips, rocking into Benedict’s grip. “Fucking Christ.”

“Could you come like this? Right now?” Benedict asked.

“Yeah.” Shane’s heart stuttered in his chest, beating faster.

Benedict’s hand slid down to the base of Shane’s cock and gripped it hard. “Don’t.”

Shane groaned in frustration. “You’re a bastard. Did anyone ever tell you that?”

“Actually, no.” Benedict let go and sat back on his heels, then rolled on a condom. His fingers, still slick, probed for Shane’s opening. He pushed one finger inside Shane’s arse, deep, finding Shane’s prostate and pressing on it firmly. “You might be the only one. I think I like it that way.”

“You’re only going to be a bastard to me?”

“Not that,” Benedict said. He spread Shane’s legs wide and lined the tip of his cock up, teasing Shane with it. “I think I’ll only fuck you. Just you.”

For a moment, Shane felt tied down, trapped, but it was a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of being in the kind of relationship where a little bit on the side was a betrayal, not a bonus. On its heels came a warmth that had nothing to do with the liberal application of liquid fire to his groin. The idea of being all Benedict wanted or needed was a pleasantly satisfying one. He smiled up at Benedict. “Yeah? And what about me? Do I get to fuck—”

“Me?” Benedict paused, the head of his cock barely lodged inside Shane’s hole, earning himself even more points on the Benedict’s-a-bastard scale. Shane was sweating now, squirming against the sheets, the burn and glow close to unbearable. He wondered what it would feel like to have it spread over every inch of his arse—then have that arse spanked. The single slap Benedict had given him had been on dry skin, so he couldn’t begin to guess what it would feel like. “On my terms, maybe. We’ll see. Someone else?”

Benedict leaned down and bit Shane’s nipple, hard enough the pain became his world, filling him, owning him. He rode it, a strangled cry tearing at his throat, on the verge of a climax he’d been forbidden.

“What do you think?” Benedict asked and pinched the nipple he’d bitten. “You know, you should get this pierced.”

Jesus, it was like dating Jekyll and Hyde. The Benedict who’d bid on the furniture, the nicely dressed businessman with the polite smile had vanished. Shane dragged in some air, his vision reduced to darkness and sparkles, and rubbed the side of his knee against Benedict’s hip.

“I think you’re not just a bastard. You’re a sadistic, possessive bastard.”

Benedict worked his cock farther inside Shane and started to fuck him slowly, his thrusts shallow. “Is that a problem? A deal breaker?”

“Not if you’ll do this.” Shane didn’t want to look away from Benedict’s face. A curly lock of his dark hair had fallen forward, and the itch in Shane’s hand to brush it back was as mind-boggling as any of the other things that had happened in the past hour.

“Do what? Fuck you?” Benedict paused, then drove forward deeply.

“God! Yes. Yes, fuck me. Just me, like this. Don’t stop.” Shane hardly knew what he was saying and was bloody sure he didn’t care.

“I’m not going to stop.” Another strong thrust; Shane could feel the friction burn of the sheet beneath his arse as he slid an inch toward the headboard. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Shane could barely remember his name at that point, with Benedict’s cock stretching him open, filling him up. “What question?”

Benedict stopped moving, deep inside him, and leaned down to bite Shane’s nipple again. This time it really hurt, as much as if his teeth had drawn blood. Shane’s cock, trapped between them, throbbed. “Is it a deal breaker,” he repeated, “that I don’t want you fucking anyone else?”

Oh. “No,” Shane gasped. “Not…Christ, please move. I won’t fuck around.” He lifted his hips as best he could with Benedict’s weight pressing down on him. If Benedict wouldn’t fuck him, he’d bloody well fuck himself on Benedict.

“When you get desperate like this, I want to…” Benedict shook his head, that lock of hair falling into a new place. Shane still wanted to touch it. He gave in, reaching up to brush his fingers over it, willing Benedict not to flinch or forbid it. Instead, Benedict turned his head and kissed the inside of Shane’s wrist. “I want to make you beg,” he whispered. “Drive you out of your fucking mind.”

“You’re doing that now,” Shane told him, his voice hoarse, shaking, as he ran his hands down Benedict’s back to cup his arse. He was careful not to urge Benedict forward. The mood Benedict was in, he might pull out altogether, and Shane would die, plain and simple, burn up from the inside out, consumed by desire. “Anything you want. Ink your name on me. Pierce me. Collar me. Anything. Just fuck me now.”

He meant it as he said it, but how much of this would carry over to the real world, when they were dressed, cocks soft, squabbling over spreadsheets and profit margins? He wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t planning to stop to ask. It didn’t matter, not when his words had made Benedict’s face light up like that.

Benedict shifted back, and Shane whined in protest, but Benedict was just changing their position, getting up onto his knees and lifting Shane by the hips. It was the perfect way to be fucked—Shane let his knees fall apart, gravity stretching him open so Benedict could drive into him.

Shane’s body was already coiling in anticipation of release. He could feel his muscles contract, gripping Benedict’s cock.

“No,” Benedict gasped—he must have felt it too—and grabbed on to the base of Shane’s dick again, squeezing. “Not until I do. Just a little longer.”

“Fuck. Can’t.”

“You have to.” How Benedict was able to put that edge of steel into his voice while fucking Shane was a mystery. There was sweat beaded on his upper lip and a determined set to his jaw.

“Then come, damn you!” He was feverish with want, the lube no longer a factor, its effect fading against the true burn of getting fucked with ruthless, hammering strokes. This might not last as long as Benedict had promised, but the fucked-raw part was already true.

And Shane loved it. He spread his knees wider, shameless, wanton, panting out Benedict’s name between curses and pleas, meeting each thrust eagerly. He glanced down at his cock, bobbing and jerking, rigid to the point where it felt as if it would crack like ice if it was struck.

He’d never been fucked so comprehensively, to the point where he couldn’t focus on anything but the man taking him. Benedict was pounding into him, his hands on Shane’s knees, forcing them wider still, his face contorted, his teeth gritted. The sounds that escaped him began to match Shane’s, hoarse, sobbing gasps, Benedict’s control shredding.

“You feel so fucking good, so hot… Shane—” Benedict froze, then surged forward, unbelievably speeding up for a final few strokes as he came, the angle perfect, sending a message to Shane’s balls that came close to overriding Benedict’s command to wait.

Shane grabbed Benedict’s hand and dragged it down to touch his cock. He wanted Benedict to feel him come, to make him come. He pressed Benedict’s palm against the straining length of his cock and held it there, grinding against it, wild with need.

“Do it,” Benedict gasped. “Now.” His fingers closing around the upper half of Shane’s cock felt clumsy, uncoordinated, and that made it better. Everything was hot, burning hot, slick and wet, the sounds their bodies made together obscene, arousing.

Deep inside Shane’s arse, Benedict’s cock gave one last throb. Shane came. He threw his head back, his eyes squeezed shut tightly so he could concentrate on every moment. His nerves were on fire, zaps like electricity surging through him and making him twitch. He wanted to scream but stayed almost silent, shaking. It was hard to believe two bodies could do this; for maybe the first time ever, he was aware of how intimate sex was. In that instant, it was impossible to think he and Benedict could go back to being anything but this—this fusion they’d created.

“God,” Benedict said when it was over. He laughed a little bit, and Shane winced as the movement tugged at his tender arsehole. “Sorry! Here, let me.” Benedict withdrew slowly, though no amount of care would have prevented the raw sandpaper feel of the condom scraping along Shane’s tender flesh. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Shane grumbled. “Get rid of that thing and lie down, would you?”

Benedict didn’t leave the bed, so God only knew what he did with the discarded condom. Shane hoped he wouldn’t find it on the floor, in the dark, with his bare foot. “Come here,” Benedict said, lying next to him and tugging him closer, and Shane went willingly enough, resting his head on Benedict’s shoulder.

Usually, Shane hated this part. The more intense the sex, the quicker the retreat from intimacy as he or his partner realized how much they’d revealed of themselves and embarrassment set in. He’d sometimes been dressed and out the door—or zipped up and walking away—before his dick was dry. With Benedict’s arm around him, his hand against Benedict’s chest, feeling the rapid heartbeat gradually slow, Shane waited for the crash and burn.

It didn’t come. As the euphoria of a spectacular climax ebbed, he became uneasily aware there was a physical price tag attached to being fucked that hard, but with it came a growing contentment. If he’d been a cat, he’d have stretched out long and purred.

“It’s never been like that,” Benedict said.

Shane smiled, unseen. Blew you away, he thought with satisfaction before it struck him that Benedict hadn’t said it with wonder, awe, or gratitude, but more a baffled resentment.

“Yeah?” he ventured, running his hand down Benedict’s chest to his hip soothingly, over warm, sweat-damp skin. “It was good for me too, if you were asking.” Which you weren’t. “Feel like an apple that’s been cored, but it was worth it.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Benedict sounded angry. “I mean. Yeah, I’m glad. Of course I wanted it to be good for you. But I didn’t know it could be like that for me. Or for anyone, I guess. I didn’t know you could be taken over by it like that.”

“Sounds as if you had a lot of crap sex.” Shane rubbed his hand over the solid knot of Benedict’s pelvic bone, fitting it to the curve of his palm and fingers.

Benedict sighed. “Maybe. I didn’t think it was at the time. I guess I didn’t know any better. Stupid.”

“You’re not.” Shane felt the need to defend Benedict no matter who was speaking ill of him. “Not knowing something because you’ve not been exposed to it—that’s ignorance, not stupidity.”

“So now I’m ignorant? Great, that’s so much better.” Benedict sat up and slid to the edge of the bed.

Shane endured a sharp pang of regret, then blurted out, “Don’t go.”

“Why? It’s not as if you want some ignorant partner, in business or in bed.”

Shane groaned and covered his eyes with his hand for a moment. “I shouldn’t have used that word. If I say I didn’t mean it and apologize, will you come back to bed?”

Benedict turned to look at him. The lighting in the room wasn’t good; he couldn’t see the expression on Benedict’s face, but Benedict must have been able to see his. “You want me to stay?”

“Astonishing as it might seem, yeah. Get yourself back here. My legs are too fucking wobbly to chase after you.”

Benedict hesitated, then nodded. “Okay.”

He lay beside Shane again, but there was no move to cuddle close. Shane rolled his eyes. The one time he was in the mood for something that verged on romantic, and Benedict decided to flip the switch from gloriously demanding and confident to whatever this mood was.

“I’m not much for begging when my dick’s soft, but I will if it’s what you need to hear.”

“Huh?”

“Arm. Around me. We were having a tender moment before you decided to start whining or beating yourself up, whatever the hell that meltdown was.”

“I wasn’t—” Benedict pushed his hair back from his face, leaving it messier than it had been before. Finally, he gave in, raising his arm in an invitation Shane accepted at once.

He slung his arm over Benedict, anchoring him to the bed in case Benedict got any more daft ideas about dramatic exits, and settled himself comfortably. “See?” he murmured. “This is nice. Never done it much before, but it’s nice.”

“Yes.” Benedict sounded doubtful, and the kiss he gave the top of Shane’s head was so clearly dutiful Shane was torn between the desire to laugh and the urge to cry.

“Let me guess. You didn’t go in for this either?”

“Neither did you!”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t living with someone for years. What the fuck did you see in that Jenson of yours anyway? Hung like a horse, was he?”

Benedict relaxed at that, a soft huff of amusement escaping him. “You’re bigger, if that’s what you want to know.”

“It wasn’t, but thanks.”

“It’s not a compliment. You were born with it. It’s not as if you can make it bigger through clean living and exercise.”

“Tell that to my in-box.”

“You know what I mean.” Benedict rolled to his side, bringing them closer, his hand finding a place to rest against Shane’s arse. The gentle strokes that followed felt good, and Shane showed his approval with kisses, ending a conversation he wasn’t sure was getting them anywhere.

Benedict might have taken a while to wake up to the fact that he was a kinky bastard, but now that the penny had dropped, well, they could both enjoy making up for lost time.

No need to stress over the past when the future—and the present—were looking so promising.

And no need to worry over how willing he’d been to let Benedict control him in bed. They were just playing. Getting off. It didn’t mean anything more than that.

His bitten, bruised nipple throbbed as he rubbed against Benedict’s chest, and he winced, remembering Benedict saying he’d like to see it pierced. That would hurt like hell, and the ring would catch on everything and be a pain in the arse. No fucking way he’d ever do it.

Unless Benedict told him to and meant it.

Fuck.

Chapter Eleven

“Careful, it’s—”

The crash that followed made the whole place shake, and Ben glanced at the ceiling, worried in case it was going to come down and crush them.

“Christ! Watch what you’re doing, will you? You just about took me out.” That was Shane’s voice, and after that came a muttered apology from Dave.

The renovations were going… It wouldn’t have been accurate to say well. In fact, every time they turned around, they discovered something else that had to be fixed before they could move to the next step. The list of what they needed to complete before the reopening the following week was getting longer, not shorter, and Shane’s temper was getting shorter right along with it.

Ben tried to force his concentration back to the file he was working on. The secondhand computer they’d picked up at a computer repair shop down the street was settled on Shane’s desk. The constant grinding sound of the paper shredder in the break room was getting on his nerves, but he couldn’t complain because he’d been the one to give the job to Shelly in the first place. The amount of paperwork Shane had let pile up was ridiculous. Most of it was trash, but sadly it was the kind of trash that couldn’t just be chucked into a Dumpster.

Together, he and Shane had figured out they could afford to pay the staff their regular hourly rate during the renovations if they were willing to help in whatever ways were necessary. Sitting in front of the heavy-duty shredder and feeding old paperwork into it a few sheets at a time was boring, but Shelly had agreed to it without complaint. In private, she’d confided in Ben she was saving for a trip to her sister’s wedding on the other side of the country. “I’ll scrub floors if that’s what it takes,” she’d said cheerfully, and Ben believed her.

He rolled his shoulders, still aching from the mammoth task of emptying the bar and the large storage room that was being transformed into a snug.

He had to persuade Shane to call it something else, but the name had caught on with the staff and the workmen, so it might be too late.

It had taken five of them hours to finish the task, and it was impossible to move anywhere without bumping into stacks of boxes piled precariously high. Even Shane’s apartment had been called into service, giving him something else to complain about.

“It’s only temporary,” Ben had told Shane as they stood on the one clear piece of floor in Shane’s living room.

“So’s the pain from a punch on the nose. Want me to demonstrate?”

If the couch hadn’t been occupied by six pool cues, a bucket, and a forlorn arrangement of silk flowers in a basket—the latter destined for the trash—Ben would’ve bent Shane over it and fucked the sulky look off his face.

Maybe it was because he hadn’t that Shane’s bad temper had worsened. Since the day of the auction, there hadn’t been an opportunity to reprise their encounter. Ben was suffering from sexual frustration to the point where even hearing Shane’s voice yelling at someone got him hard as he considered ways to curb Shane’s impatience.

God, the way Shane had responded to him that day… Ben had watched Shane striding around, barking out orders to Rob, who towered above him, or to Charlie, who didn’t but still looked like a man who could handle himself in a fight. Shane was in charge, deferring to no one. It was difficult to reconcile that Shane with the man who’d told Ben to use him, play with him, hurt him.

Ben closed the file he couldn’t concentrate on and pushed it aside. He was hard. He was sitting in an office, in broad daylight, with people wandering by, and he had an erection. Inappropriate didn’t begin to cover it.

A shadow fell across the desk, and he glanced up, hoping it would be Shane. He was hungry enough for a taste of Shane’s mouth that he was willing to take his chances on someone noticing them going upstairs to Shane’s place. He didn’t care if it was cluttered. He just needed a wall to lean against with Shane kneeling in front of him, lips parted.

“Hard at work as ever, I see. Got a minute?” Charlie held up a sheaf of blueprints. “Need to make sure I’m putting the wall lights just where you want them.”

“Sure.” Willing his cock to behave, Ben slid his chair out from under the desk enough so he’d seem accessible but not enough so Charlie could see his erection. “Grab that chair.”

Charlie sank down on the wooden chair that was, surprisingly, more comfortable than it looked, and spread the blueprints on the desk. Sure, he had to do it on top of a bunch of other stuff that was already there, but Ben reminded himself they were making progress. It wouldn’t look like this forever. “Okay, so here’s what the snug will look like. Outlets here. Not much choice about those. Building code says there has to be one every so many feet. They say jump, I jump.” Charlie grinned.

“Sounds like city government for you,” Ben said.

“I hear you. And the lights will be two rows here and here. They’ll be wired separately, so if someone’s cleaning up behind the bar, the ones out here can be off. Every little bit counts when it comes to the electric bill.” Charlie pointed to the area near the bar. “Switches here and here, emergency lights that’ll be on when nothing else is, so no one trips in the dark on their way out of the door.”

“Good.” Ben tried to look as if he understood what was being explained when in reality he barely had a clue. Screw it. “Look, I trust you. If you think it makes sense, just go for it. I don’t think my input’s required. In fact, if I suggest something, you probably ought to do the exact opposite.”

“That’s not the impression I was under,” Shane said from the doorway.

“This is an exception to the usual rules,” Ben told him severely.

Shane rolled his eyes. “A little bit of power and it’s all gone to his head. I’m all for you getting his input, Charlie. Just remember the final word’s mine.”

Ben didn’t appreciate being undermined in front of Charlie, and from the way Shane flushed, his gaze dropping, he suspected his expression was getting that message across.

Charlie glanced between them and whistled, a grin spreading over his blandly good-looking face, the businesslike attitude disappearing. “Trouble in paradise, boys? Want me to be the in-between man and negotiate a settlement? Just tell me who’s on top.”

It was clear Charlie could wring a double entendre out of the most innocuous phrase. Ben suspected that would wear thin very soon, but so far he found Charlie reasonably entertaining and his attempts to flirt harmless enough. The main thing was that Charlie was both efficient and cheap.

“You’ll be six feet under if you don’t put a sock in it. He’s not interested. Go bat your eyelashes at Rob. Course, you’ll need a stepladder first.” Shane’s chin jutted out pugnaciously, and Ben realized Shane was staking a claim.

That was…sweet. Unnecessary, but sweet.

Ben decided the best way to distract Shane would be to change the subject entirely. “How are the walls coming?”

“Slowly.” Shane gave Charlie a pointed look, and Charlie took the hint and left even though he had nothing to do with the walls. “This had better be worth it, Benedict.”

“It will be.” He hoped.

“Shelly’s overheated that shredder. We’re lucky it didn’t set the place on fire. So I sent her to pick out some things for the ladies’. New soap dispensers, hot air blower, paint for the walls, the lot.”

“We’re going to have to resurface the walls before we can paint. They look as if someone took a hammer to them.”

“They’re fine,” Shane said with a scowl. “Stop being so fucking fussy. You’re like an old woman.”

He was what? Ben stood, his lingering arousal shot through with irritation at Shane’s persistent refusal to see what was in front of him. “Come with me.”

He led Shane to the women’s bathroom and pushed the door open a crack.

“Anyone in there?” he asked, which was stupid because the light wasn’t on, and it was dark enough that it had to be empty. No one answered, so he went in and flicked the light switch. “Get in here.”

“Why?” Shane asked, and Ben grabbed his wrist and dragged him over the threshold.

“Look,” he said, pointing to where the wall was crumbled. “Pretend you’re a woman for a few seconds. Oh please. Don’t roll your eyes at me. Just do what you’re told. Women don’t want to come in here to fix their makeup or whatever women do. They probably want to run back out as soon as possible.”

“Good. Means they’re in the bar buying drinks instead. We don’t make money out of them in here.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t imply alienating customers is in some way good for business, because that would mean you were stupid, and I know you’re not.”

“Whatever.” Shane looked around him. “It’s a bit tatty,” he admitted staring down at a rip in the linoleum. “Still don’t think it’s make or break—”

“Well, it is,” Ben said. “I asked a couple of women I work with what they judged a bar or a club on, and they both said it was the state of the washroom. I’m not saying we spend a fortune in here, but I can’t tell what color that flooring is supposed to be.” He pushed open one of the stall doors, covered with graffiti explicit enough to make him blink, and he grimaced. The toilet was a bright yellow, the lid to the tank cracked. “Jesus, I wouldn’t sit on that toilet unless I was wearing a hazmat suit. And there’s no toilet roll!”

“Yeah, well, there’s supposed to be.” Shane peered into the next stall. “Some in here. Mostly on the floor in a puddle of…something. Let’s call it water.”

“Whose job is it to clean the toilets and check on them during opening hours?” Ben demanded.

Shane backed out of the stall and wiped his hand on his jeans. Ben didn’t want to know why Shane thought that was necessary. “We have a cleaner who comes twice a week, and someone’s supposed to check them over at the start of a shift, but I’ve always delegated it.”

“From the look of the place, it’s turned into one of those jobs people assume someone else is doing, which means no one is. I want the cleaner fired and a proper rotation drawn up, with hourly checks, and people initialing to say they’ve done it.”

Shane walked over to one of the two sinks under a small mirror dim with dust and leaned against it. He looked impatient and bored. “Okay, we can do that. No need to get worked up about it.”

“We could get shut down! It’s filthy in here. It’s fucking disgusting, and you just let it slide—” Ben had been annoyed with Shane before, but this was the first time he’d been genuinely angry. He slammed his hand against the stall door, the hollow thud as the door struck the flimsy interior wall echoing in the small space.

“Jesus, Benedict, don’t demolish the place with your bare hands.”

Ben rounded on him. “It’d improve it if I did. We’re not opening until both washrooms are spotless. Have you got that?”

Shane shrugged, the suspicion of a sneer twisting his mouth. “What do you want me to say? Yes, sir, you’re the boss? Don’t hold your fucking breath.”

It was one thing for Shane to disagree with him—this was willful defiance, and Ben wasn’t going to put up with it. He grabbed the front of Shane’s shirt, dragged him away from the sinks, and pushed him up against the wall. “I don’t talk to you like that,” Ben snapped, shoving at Shane’s shoulders so his head bounced on the wall. “I might not be your boss, but I deserve some fucking respect. If you can’t manage that, I’m out of here.” In that moment, he meant it.

Shane lifted his chin and stared back, anger flaring in his eyes. “Respect doesn’t mean I have to bow to your every whim.”

“Maybe it does,” Ben said. He felt a thrill of desire as he realized Shane was already hard, just from being pushed around a little bit. “What if that’s exactly what it means?”

“You can’t…you can’t just—” Shane closed his eyes, but not before Ben saw the shock of desire there, the heat. “Jesus.”

Ben felt his world lurch the way it did when he was around Shane like this, both of them turned on, in need of something he wasn’t sure either of them could define. His anger transformed to lust, potent and consuming. He didn’t want to yell at Shane now. No, he wanted to give orders and watch Shane obey them.

“You’re going to show me how sorry you are,” Ben said. His cock was rigid, as hard as it could get. Days of frustration, then Shane’s attitude, insubordinate, antagonistic, when Shane should’ve been apologizing for the state of the bathrooms—he couldn’t take it. “For the way you’ve let things slide, for speaking to me like that.”

Shane swallowed, the ripple of his throat drawing Ben’s gaze. Shane’s eyes were still closed, and that wasn’t good enough. Shane wasn’t allowed to hide from him.

“Open your eyes,” Ben said and slapped Shane’s face, lightly enough not to mark it, relying on the gesture itself as enough to get those pale eyes staring back at him. “That’s better.”

He watched Shane’s eyes go from hazy, dazed, to focused. Focused on him. Shane wet his lips and forced out a hoarse, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

There was a moment when Ben thought that was it, that they were done, but Shane’s eyes flickered, a faint frown showing, as if he was disappointed with how easy it’d been to gain forgiveness.

“But I told you to show me,” Ben said, and he put his hands on Shane’s shoulders, pushing down firmly.

Shane resisted him, twisting in Ben’s grip without making a genuine effort to break free. Ben was under no illusions about which of them would win a fight. He was taller than Shane, but Shane was infinitely tougher. If he was doing this to Shane without getting a knee buried in his balls or a fist in his stomach, he hadn’t crossed a line, though he wondered how close he was getting.

“Fuck you!”

“Not what I had in mind.”

“You’re a sarcastic son of a bitch when you put your mind to it,” Shane spat, but another shove at his shoulders had him sinking to his knees, hands already moving to undo the front of Ben’s pants. “Bastard.” Shane pushed pants and briefs down together and pressed his lips to the base of Ben’s cock. The dry drag of skin on skin made Ben groan.

“Show me you’re sorry,” he said. “And do a good job.”

Shane licked a wet line the length of Ben’s cock to the tip, then closed his mouth around the head and sucked. He wasn’t being gentle, and when he glanced up at Ben’s face, something in his eyes was eager. One hand on Ben’s hip steadied him against the wall, and he found a rhythm, bobbing his head to take Ben’s cock in deep, almost to the base. His other hand rubbed Ben’s balls, tugging at them.

Ben wanted to be able to thread his fingers through Shane’s hair and fuck his mouth. That would have to wait, sadly. Instead, he slid a hand around to the back of Shane’s skull and pushed forward with his hips, just a little bit, watching for Shane’s reaction. They were getting in deep here without having talked about it, and he didn’t want to take it too far. God, Shane’s mouth was perfect, warm and slick, and he relaxed and let Ben do what he wanted, not fighting it.

“Good,” Ben said, more because he wanted to than because he thought Shane needed it. “I’m going to come in your mouth. Tell me if that’s not okay.”

Shane’s gaze lifted to meet his; then Shane’s eyes closed, and he moved forward, taking Ben in even deeper. It was a clear answer.

Ben wondered what he would have done if it had been a different one. He could see himself pulling out of Shane’s mouth, but not letting Shane rise, holding him there, letting his climax leave Shane’s face dripping.

“You make me want to come just by being like this,” Ben told him. It might be ruining the mood to break out of his self-imposed role as stern employer disciplining an errant worker, but he had to say it. “I feel as if I’m the one on my knees, not you.”

Shane didn’t stop the fiercely adoring licks he was somehow managing to give Ben’s erection even when it was fucking his throat. His shoulders moved, a restless shrug that seemed to say he wasn’t buying it.

It wasn’t the time to start an argument. Not when Ben had reached the point where staving off his climax to enjoy another minute inside Shane’s warm mouth was impossible. He let pleasure take him, his final thrusts rougher, deeper, until Shane’s teeth scraped his shaft and the flash of pain triggered his orgasm. He emptied his balls into Shane’s throat in a stuttered gush, the sensation exquisitely satisfying, then drew back just far enough to let Shane swallow.

Shane started to pull his mouth away completely, his lips wet, swollen, his face flushed, but Ben stopped him, his hand still cupping the back of Shane’s head.

“Clean me first,” Ben said.

Shane moaned around Ben’s cock, the sound sending a shiver of renewed lust through Ben. Shane tried to obey Ben’s final order, but after no more than a few sweeps of his tongue across Ben’s still-stiff cock, he jerked his head free, panting harshly, his chest heaving. His hand dropped to his groin, clutching desperately at his cock, outlined through his jeans. Ben had seen his share of porn over the years, but nothing had ever turned him on as much as staring down at Shane, fully dressed, his lips slick with Ben’s spunk, droplets of it beading the stubble on his chin.

“God, need to come, need to—”

“Don’t,” Ben ordered, but his voice cracked as he adjusted himself so he could sink down onto his knees next to Shane. The floor was hard and unyielding. “I want it. It’s mine.”

Just like you’re mine. In some ways, it was the most terrifying thought he’d ever had.

He kissed Shane fervently, licking the inside of Shane’s mouth until he could taste Shane and not just himself. With eager hands he undid Shane’s jeans and pulled out his cock. Shane gasped and turned his head, biting down on Ben’s shoulder through his shirt and hanging on as he came in hot pulses. Ben stroked him through it, loving the throb of Shane’s dick in his hand so much he wished it could have gone on much longer than it did.

Shane clung to him even after it was over, mouth pressed to the sensitive spot under Ben’s ear. Ben didn’t want to let go of Shane’s softening cock, but he kept his other arm wrapped around Shane’s lower back, holding him up. He wanted to say something and had no earthly idea what. His hand was sticky, and he was starting to wonder if his heart rate would ever return to normal.

He was starting to wonder if anything about this relationship—if that’s what it was—was normal.

“Really am sorry,” Shane said.

Ben turned his head and caught a glint of humor in Shane’s eyes. “Yes, you look it.”

They were talking in low voices, on Ben’s part, less from a desire to be discreet than a need to prolong the sense of intimacy he felt. Shane wasn’t trying to move away, and if he had, Ben knew he would’ve tightened his arms instinctively before reluctantly releasing his hold.

“We good?”

Ben gave Shane a helpless look. “I don’t know. I’m not mad at you now. How could I be? But what we just did…” He uncurled his fingers from Shane’s cock, his hand too messy to use to zip Shane’s jeans up. He wanted to, though. Taking care of Shane afterward seemed like part of the deal. He wanted to clean Shane’s skin, ease his clothing back into place, help him to his feet and brush him down.

Your own little doll to play with…

Fuck. Ben scrambled to his feet, leaving Shane staring up at him, a puzzled, hurt look on his face. “I’ll just… You said there was toilet paper in here?”

He went into the stall and pulled a few pieces from the roll hanging forlornly from a bent piece of wire, absently noting that it was cheap stuff, too thin to be useful, the kind that shredded easily. That would change too. Shane had gotten to his feet and pulled up his jeans. He shook his head when Ben held out the pieces of tissue.

“I’m going to take a shower and get changed.”

“That’s probably a good idea.” Ben glanced at the doorway and grimaced, dreading the prospect of walking through it and finding a crowd of grinning people just outside it. “Do you think anyone heard us?”

“Don’t give a rat’s arse if they did.”

“We have to work with them! Hell, Vin lives with me,” Ben protested.

“Vincent says one word about us, and I’ll ban him from wearing black at work. Not that he would. He minds his own business, that one.”

Ben got a look at his reflection and was relieved to see he didn’t look too messed up. Of course, one look at Shane, and anyone would know what had happened in here. Shane reeked of sex, and he looked wellfucked, a sleepy, sated glow in his eyes.

Ben cleared his throat. “You could maybe, uh, wash your face? You’ve still got…” His voice trailed off.

“So I have.” Shane seemed amused by the streaks of drying spunk on his chin, not embarrassed. How much of his insouciance was an act and how much genuine? Ben wished he knew.

Shane splashed water on his face and dried it with his shirt. “Good as new.” He walked over to the door, a swagger in his step. “You coming?”

“Shane—” Ben bit his lip. “What I just did—”

“We,” Shane corrected him. “What we just did. And I don’t want to talk about it. Christ, if you psychoanalyze every blowjob, it’s no wonder what’s-his-name said you were a pain in the arse. Give it a rest, will you?”

Shaken, Ben nodded and pushed his way past Shane, almost shoving the other man out of his way as he left the bathroom and headed toward the office. Shane didn’t want to talk about it? Fine. They wouldn’t talk, but Ben sure as hell wasn’t going to keep doing it. It was too much, too fucked up, and he couldn’t keep being part of it if they were going to pretend it wasn’t happening.

He heard Vin, who was sanding one of the old walls flat, say something that started with his name, but he was focused on getting out the back door before he lost it completely. “Just getting something from my car,” he managed to call out.

It was cold outside when he stepped into the alley, though the sun was shining brightly. There wasn’t much to see, just concrete and brick walls and the big Dumpster that Shane called a skip. Ben finally glanced down at himself and was relieved to find he’d at least fastened his pants; he couldn’t remember having done it. He wanted to sit, but there wasn’t anywhere to sit except the pavement, which was littered with cigarette butts.

Behind him, the door opened, and Shane stepped out through the doorway. They looked at each other for a long moment; then Shane gestured for Ben to come closer, and Ben went to him, let himself be enfolded into Shane’s arms.

“I’m sorry,” Shane murmured into his hair. “Warned you I could be a bastard, didn’t I?”

“I’m kind of freaking out.” Ben wasn’t sure why he said it, since it had to be clear to Shane that’s what was happening.

“Yeah, me too.” Shane tightened his arm around Ben’s back.

Ben closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of Shane’s detergent from his collar. “I can’t do this if we can’t talk about it. I don’t know how to do it even if we can. I don’t know what we’re doing. I don’t—”

“Shh. Stop, now. You’re just winding yourself up.”

He was right, but Ben felt as if he’d explode if he couldn’t get this out. It was eating at him. “It’s like a double-edged sword. I don’t want to be who I was, but I don’t think I want to be this either.”

Shane gave him a little shake. “There’s nothing wrong with you—you hear me? Nothing. Not before and not now.”

“There is,” Ben said slowly, “if I made you do something you didn’t want to do.”

The derisive snort Shane gave was more reassuring than words, but Ben got those too. “You and whose army? You’re not a pushover, mate, but there’s no way you could make me do anything.”

“Not physically, maybe, but you’re not—” Ben wet his lips and asked a question he’d been fretting about for a while. “You’re not doing this to kind of…repay me for investing my money in the bar? Giving me what you think I want?”

As soon as he said it, he knew he’d finally found that line he shouldn’t cross and walked over it. Shane broke free of their embrace and stepped back, shock distorting his features. “Say that again.”

Panic made Ben speak too quickly to be convincing, words spilling out. “No, forget it. It was stupid of me. Really. Forget it.”

Shane gave him an incredulous look as if he’d been asked to do something profoundly stupid. “Forget you just asked me if I was playing kinky little games with you, letting you push me around, because I don’t have a penny to my name to match your investment, but I do have a mouth you like to use and an arse you enjoy fucking? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“I didn’t mean it like that! I just need to know this is something you want too. I couldn’t do it if I thought… God, I’m not sure we should be doing it anyway.” Ben rubbed at his face, his hands shaking. He couldn’t meet Shane’s gaze, shame and guilt filling him at what they’d done and what he’d said. It didn’t help that his body still felt deliciously relaxed, the echoes of his orgasm thrumming along every nerve.

“Is that right?” Shane sounded dangerously quiet. “I was sure. I was fucking enjoying it, you stupid git. I’ve got a mouth. I can use it for more than sucking your dick. If I’d had a problem with it, with any of it, can you really see me keeping quiet?”

“No, I see that, I do, it’s just—”

“Easier to call me a whore? Weak?” Without warning, Shane took two steps forward and slammed his fist against the brick wall, the action more shocking because he wasn’t yelling or drunk, just wrapped in a cold anger. “Fuck you,” he said through his teeth, sweat damp on his forehead, pain etching lines into his pale face. The skin on his knuckles was shredded, and as Ben stared, horrified, blood welled up, fat scarlet beads of it, gathering and rolling down Shane’s hand.

“Don’t. Please.” He reached for Shane’s hand and flinched when Shane jerked it away from him, but determinedly went for it again. This time, Shane let him capture it. “It wasn’t about you. What I said. It was about… It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry. You can hate me later, but let’s get some ice on this before it starts to swell.”

Shane nodded. “All right.” His voice was hoarse. “But upstairs, yeah?” He didn’t have to say that he wanted to keep this hidden, private; Ben might not know Shane well, but he understood that much at least.

Upstairs in Shane’s apartment, Ben pushed Shane down into one of the kitchen chairs and moved to the freezer. It was an old-model refrigerator, nothing as fancy as automatic defrost, so the inside of the freezer was coated with a thick layer of ice. There were cubes in the trays, though. Ben dumped some of them onto the cleanest dishcloth he could see and wrapped it into a clumsy ice pack.

“Here, put this on it. Do you have a first aid kit?”

Shane winced as he eased the ice onto his injured hand. “In the bathroom. Under the sink.”

It was easy to find. It was one of those fully stocked kits that could be bought at the drugstore for twenty bucks. There was a faded sticker on it that showed it had cost a little more than half that price, and when Ben opened it he could see that Shane—or someone else—had been pilfering items from it for years without replacing them. There were some gauze pads, a rolled bandage, and one lone Band-Aid, and that was all. Ben looked in the medicine cabinet and found a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

He went back to the kitchen and knelt down in front of Shane. “Here’s a change, huh?” he asked. “How’s it feel?”

“How the bloody hell do you think it feels? It hurts like hell.” There was no heat behind Shane’s words. He sounded tired.

“Let me see.” Ben wasn’t squeamish, so it didn’t bother him to look over Shane’s scraped and bloodied hand. He cleaned the scrapes with hydrogen peroxide, pointedly ignoring Shane’s hisses of pain. “Who knows what kind of infection you could get if we don’t clean it.”

“Not sure how many germs hang around on brick walls.” Shane sighed as Ben put the Band-Aid on over the worst scrape. The rest would have to scab over. They were all minor to the eye, though Shane would probably end up with a lot of bruising.

“Does that feel better?”

“No. It’s not going to feel better for a while. It’s going to swell and throb, and every time I use it, I’m going to wish I hadn’t done it. But right then it was the wall or you.”

That did nothing to ease Ben’s guilt. “Next time, hit me. I’m softer.”

“Walls don’t bleed. And you’re underestimating yourself.” Shane pointed at the cluttered countertop. “Bottle of vodka over there. Pour me some?”

“I’d prefer to get you some painkillers. Something to help with the swelling.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll take vodka over pills any day of the week. Neat. Don’t bother with ice.”

Ben found a glass in a cupboard and poured a reasonably generous measure of vodka. Shane knocked it back, shuddered, and held out his glass again.

“No.” Ben folded his arms. “When I’m gone you can drink the bottle if you want, but I hope you don’t.”

“So you’re back to giving me orders? Make your mind up. Or is it okay when it’s just bossing me about and sex isn’t involved?”

It was a fair question, but Ben didn’t have an answer. “What I said earlier was stupid. I didn’t mean to imply… Look, can we just wipe it out? Please? It wasn’t meant to insult you; it was just my…my insecurities playing out, I guess. I was trying to find a reasonable explanation.”

“And me paying off a debt with sex is more reasonable than the two of us both getting off on the same thing?” Shane shook his head. “You’re nuts.”

“Yes, it is!” Ben insisted. “What we’re doing is so far past normal it’s difficult for me to accept that you want it. Why would you? I’m humiliating you. Hurting you. And it scares me how much more I want to do to you. If I told you half my fantasies, you’d probably call the cops. I’m scaring myself.”

He sat in a chair close to Shane, needing to be on a level with him and aware of how unsteady he felt, as if he’d been the one knocking back vodka shots.

Shane scratched his chin and gave Ben a quizzical, impatient look. “Really doubt you’d ever do anything to damage me. You’re not thick; you know the difference between a fantasy and something that would leave me screaming.” He hitched his chair closer to Ben and put his uninjured hand on Ben’s knee. “And it’s not my usual way of getting off either, you know. Oh, sure, I’ve had times when I’ve wanted something close, or I’ve been with someone who picked up on a signal I was giving, and things got a bit out there, but none of them ever made me feel the way you do.”

“How do I make you feel?” Ben asked. “I’m not looking for compliments; I want to know,” he added.

“Confused,” Shane said with a small smile. “I don’t know, all right? It’s hard to put it into words. You make me feel…more myself, I suppose. Closer to whoever I really am than I manage most of the time.”

“Until I piss you off.” Ben reached for Shane’s good hand and turned it over, running his fingertips over the palm. “Then you go around punching walls.” He studied Shane’s face, wondering if his father had anticipated there might be something between them. It was an uncomfortable thought, though, so he set it aside.

“I’ll make an effort not to do that again,” Shane said. “If you’ll try to refrain from calling me a whore.”

Ben nodded. “Deal. But that wasn’t what I meant.”

“I know. Just trust me when I say I don’t go to bed with anyone unless I want to, and that includes you, no matter how much money—or how little—you’re putting into the bar.”

“And what we’re doing works for you? The, um. You know.”

“Think you ought to be able to say it if we’re going to do it,” Shane said. He seemed amused. “S and M, I suppose, if we need to give it a name. And yes, it works for me. Did it look like I wasn’t enjoying myself?”

Ben could feel himself blushing. “I can’t believe we did that in the women’s bathroom. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were thinking you wanted to get off.” Shane shrugged. “So did I. We did. End of story as far as I’m concerned, though I’d agree there are better places. I’m not keen on the idea of someone walking in on us.”

Imagining that made Ben blush even more. He wasn’t a prude, but these were people he had to work with. The thought of one of them seeing him naked made him feel faintly ill. Something occurred to him, and he cupped Shane’s face before he said it, needing that point of contact. It didn’t hurt that Shane went still when he did it, barely breathing, as if holding himself ready for whatever Ben had in mind. Neither of them were aroused—at least Ben knew he wasn’t, and he didn’t see how Shane could be feeling anything but the pain of his hand—but he could still feel the connection they’d forged.

“I wasn’t pretending to be angry with you when we started, you know. I was mad as hell about the way you’d let the place slide.”

“I got that,” Shane said wryly. “Nice to know how to get back on your good side.”

Without thinking, Ben moved his hand down to Shane’s chin, using his grip to shake Shane’s head from side to side in a reprimand. “No. That’s not what happened.”

“Isn’t it?” Shane murmured. “Seem to remember someone telling me to show him I was sorry.”

“Yes, and it was because you were willing to do it, not what you did, that counted.”

“Splitting hairs.” Shane tilted his head back, freeing himself from Ben’s grip. “You could’ve had me kissing your shoes, not your dick. You didn’t.”

“Don’t give me ideas,” Ben said, meaning every word. He couldn’t resist asking, “Would you have done that? If I’d asked?”

Shane yawned, his eyelids half-closed. “If you’d asked? No. If you’d told me to, yeah, maybe, though given the state of that floor, I’d have brushed my teeth afterward. With bleach.”

“Well, if the floor was filthy, whose fault is that?” Ben asked.

Shane smiled, slow and sleepy, and leaned in to kiss Ben’s lips, the kiss penitent, respectful. “Mine, Benedict, all mine.” Shane stood and stretched his arms over his head, providing an unconscious display of his body that Ben appreciated. “Now piss off and let me take a shower and a nap. There’re plenty of people downstairs to order about if you’re still in the mood.”

“I’m not,” Ben said, but he patted Shane’s hip and started downstairs.

Sometimes even he could do as he was told.

Chapter Twelve

The din in the bar was deafening, but Shane continued to remind himself it would be worth it in the end. The last of the new walls was going up today—or so he’d been told. Charlie had done right by them. The man was a stickler for keeping to the schedule, though Shane didn’t envy the man’s employees when he heard Charlie’s barked orders and insistence that they stay late when necessary.

Shane bent to dip the paint roller into the paint again. His hand was much better than it had been last night, when he’d worried he might have chipped a bone and what he’d do if he had to go to hospital. He didn’t have the money for medical bills. He’d gone to bed with a fresh makeshift ice pack wrapped around his knuckles (and woken with all the ice melted and soaked into his mattress) and the swelling was far less significant as a result. Benedict had been right about the bruising being impressive, but he could live with that for a few days. He could still work, so it was all right.

The walls were starting to look good with a fresh coat of paint. Once that was done, the floors could be sanded and refinished, the rest of the fine details of the snug could be sorted, and they’d be ready to open again.

“Careful, that’s still wet,” he heard Patrick say.

“Thanks,” Benedict said. He gave Patrick an apologetic smile. “I know we met the first time I visited the bar, but I don’t think I got your name.”

Shane turned and set the roller down in the tray. “This is Patrick. He’s the part-timer.”

“I like to say my day job is as a DJ, but really it’s a night job,” Patrick said cheerfully. He’d been painting trim, something it had turned out he could do without nearly as many mistakes as any of the rest of them. “I’d shake your hand, but you look as if you came from a photo shoot.”

“I had to go into the office.” Benedict didn’t look happy about that, and why would he when he’d booked the week off? “Urgent meeting with a client. I’ve got something to change into so I can help, though.”

“You can change in my place if you want,” Shane offered. “If you do it down here, chances are you’ll end up with paint on your suit no matter where you leave it.”

“Thanks,” Benedict said. He looked around and nodded slowly, a smile replacing the stressed frown. “It’s looking good. Really good.”

“Yeah.” Shane felt proud of what they’d accomplished in a short time and on a shoestring budget. The paint lifted the whole place, and with the windows open and a few fans running, the paint smell would have faded by the time they reopened. “Got a plumber coming in tomorrow to install new toilets and sinks in the washrooms. Shouldn’t take him long. I went with plain white, nothing fancy, but they’ll be night and day to what’s in there now.”

“Good job, Shane.” The warm approval in Benedict’s voice flustered Shane. He liked it, but he hated that he liked it. It was one thing to get off on what Benedict did to him, but rolling over, paws waving, tail wagging at a word of praise…no.

He hunched his shoulder irritably, then picked up the roller and brought it over to the wall without getting rid of the excess paint. Paint dripped over his hand and down his sleeve, pooling on the dust sheet. “Fuck!” He dropped the roller back into the tray and tried futilely to wipe the paint off with a rag, only succeeding in spreading it around.

“Looks as if we’ll both be getting changed.” Benedict nodded at Patrick and walked away, his dark suit and crisp gray shirt out of place in the bar, but perfect on him, leaving Shane with no option but to follow him.

Watching Benedict’s arse as they made their way up the stairs was some consolation. Under the smooth, no doubt expensive, fabric of his suit trousers, his rounded cheeks were mesmerizing. It was all Shane could do not to reach out and caress them, but there were half a dozen reasons not to, the first of which was that he’d no idea how Benedict would react if he did. The man was an enigma, difficult to predict. That was probably why Shane couldn’t stop thinking about him.

“Change in the bathroom if you like,” Shane said, but Benedict was already stepping into the bedroom and setting the sports bag he’d brought with him on the chair near the door. Actually, if he were being accurate, Shane would have to admit the bag was on the crooked tower of things on the chair. “Or here is fine.”

Benedict shrugged out of his jacket and draped it on the end of the bed. “Is it okay if I leave this stuff up here until later?”

“Yeah, of course.” Shane reached for the hem of his shirt.

“Don’t.” Benedict was watching him.

Shane let his hand fall at his side, waiting.

“I want to do it.” Stepping closer, Benedict rubbed a thumb against Shane’s lower lip. Shane felt his dick start to harden and wondered if Benedict could tell he wasn’t wearing anything under his jeans. Benedict’s hand slid slowly down over Shane’s chest to his stomach, fingers taking hold of his shirt and toying with it. In fact, Shane had the distinct impression that he was being teased.

Abruptly, Benedict moved.

Shane found himself spun around, the front edge of his shirt pulled over his head and down to his elbows before it was twisted, trapping his arms. “What the fuck?” He struggled. What the hell was Benedict playing at?

And Benedict tightened his grip.

It made Shane’s shoulders ache, but he stopped moving.

“Quiet,” Benedict said. His hand found the front of Shane’s jeans and rubbed his erection. “I want to fuck you. I’ve wanted to fuck you all day.”

Shane groaned and let his head tip forward as much as it could, given his position. He wanted to feel Benedict’s hand on his bare skin, stroking his cock or tugging at his balls. “You think wanting something means you automatically get it?”

“Yes. Actually, I do. When it comes to you.” Benedict pinched one of Shane’s nipples hard, while rubbing his cock slowly against Shane’s arse. “What if I decided I wanted to fuck you without a condom?”

“You wouldn’t.” Shane wasn’t a bit convinced that was true. He lurched forward without warning, and Benedict shoved him another three steps into the wall so he had to turn his face to the side. The wall was hard against his cheekbone and jaw.

“I would,” Benedict said. “I think I will.”

There was the smooth sound of leather against fabric. Shane felt his arms tugged backward even more; then Benedict’s belt was tightened around his wrists. He hadn’t thought Benedict would take it this far, but it was too late to do anything about it now. He was well and truly restrained.

“Don’t. Please. God, what’s brought this on, anyway?” Shane couldn’t see Benedict, but he could smell the faint citrus of Benedict’s cologne, and feel the warmth of his breath as Benedict crowded in closer, trapping Shane between the wall and his body.

“I had a truly shitty morning,” Benedict said and bit the curve where Shane’s neck became shoulder, a savage dig of teeth that left Shane’s skin throbbing. He moaned, a sound that brought a satisfied grunt from Benedict. “You’re going to make it better. Be the scapegoat for that stupid fucking client who doesn’t know what he wants but thinks he knows more than me. I can’t fuck him up against a wall and make him lick my dick clean after I’m done with him, but I can do that to you.”

Shane concentrated on steadying the rapid thud of his heart as he processed that, his head a chaotic jumble of images and fragments of words he couldn’t form into sentences. Benedict’s sudden assault had left him unbearably excited and wound up, but the thought that he was in this position, his shirt cutting into his arms, about to be fucked, used, because another man had pissed off Benedict…

He rubbed his face against the cool wall, reduced to nothing but an outlet for Benedict’s frustration and soaring on the rush that gave him.

“Yeah,” he said, too aroused to care that his voice was shaking. “Yeah, you can.”

“I know,” Benedict said and bit Shane’s neck again, sucking hard at the captured flesh so that when he pulled back, he left heat with the pain and wetness.

Two fingers were suddenly pushed into Shane’s mouth. “This is all the lube you’re getting. Do a good job.”

Shane was trembling and grateful he had the wall and Benedict propping him up. Benedict was rough, shoving his fingers over Shane’s tongue and teeth as Shane did his best to work up saliva in a mouth suddenly gone dry. Good thing he’d mastered his gag reflex years ago. A moment later Benedict was finger-fucking him, working his arse open, his knuckles huge and dry inside Shane.

“Enough.” Benedict pulled his fingers out, ignoring Shane’s whimper. He dragged Shane backward by his bound hands and toward the bed, then pushed Shane’s jeans, which had been caught around his knees, to the floor. “Get rid of those.”

“Make me,” Shane growled, and Benedict slapped the side of his head so hard his ears rang.

“Really? I can do whatever I want to you, and you’re still mouthing off?” Benedict shoved him down onto the bed on his stomach. Shane hadn’t been expecting it, and it knocked the wind out of him. By the time he’d recovered his breath, Benedict had pulled off his jeans and kicked his feet apart.

“Fuck…you,” Shane gasped.

Benedict was pushing inside him, his cock stretching Shane’s hole. Shane wasn’t relaxed enough for such a rapid entry. His body clenched tight in protest of the invasion, a strangled cry forced from his lips, but the pain was nothing compared to the pleasure of Benedict’s cockhead rubbing his prostate. Shane’s hands were behind him, his shoulders strained. His cock was pressed against the edge of the mattress, and with Benedict’s weight behind him, there was nothing he could do but lie there and take it.

It wasn’t a dry fuck, even though the little bit of saliva on Benedict’s fingers had been next to useless. Benedict must have used lube. It had been years since Shane had someone inside him without the thin layer of a condom between them, but he still remembered what it felt like very well, and he was sure Benedict was wearing one despite what he’d threatened.

“This is what you need,” Benedict said, thrusting so hard Shane thought the bed might slide across the floor. “Say it.”

Shane whimpered. Benedict’s cock felt huge working its way in and out of him, his body having no choice but to yield. “Yes.”

“Not good enough,” Benedict growled. “Say it.”

“Need this,” Shane panted. “Need you to fuck me. Come inside me.”

Benedict put his hand on the back of Shane’s neck, the gesture so possessive that Shane felt the hot sting of grateful tears. He’d have been ashamed of them if it wasn’t for the knowledge that as much as he needed what Benedict was dishing out, it went both ways. His face was being held against the sheets, making breathing difficult, but he didn’t want to lose the weight of Benedict’s palm, the oddly gentle caress of Benedict’s thumb.

“I’ll come, but you don’t get to,” Benedict warned him. “Mallerton’s representative screwed me around for hours. You’re going to have to wait the way I did. Go back down there with your asshole raw and your cock hard and get back to your painting until I decide you’ve suffered enough and let you beg me nicely to come.”

Shane shook his head as best he could, given his position, mutely pleading for mercy. Waiting a few hours when he was away from Benedict and distracted by work was one thing, but he wasn’t sure he could stave off his climax right now. His balls were drawn up tightly, every hammering thrust he took driving him closer to the point where good intentions and commands counted for nothing.

“Do you need some help obeying me?” Benedict murmured. “Yeah, I think you do.”

Benedict moved his hand from Shane’s neck to his cock, taking him by surprise yet again. The anticipated torture of a light caress didn’t come. Instead, Benedict cupped Shane’s balls in his hand and squeezed them, his fingers clamped tightly, the twist of his wrist brutally effective in killing Shane’s imminent orgasm.

Shane screamed into the sheets, the sound muffled, his world reduced to the darkness behind his eyes and the raw, red pain radiating from his balls. He couldn’t breathe in after the scream had emptied his lungs, dizziness making him lose his bearings. Then Benedict’s grip slackened, and Shane felt awareness of something other than pain seep back. He turned his head to the side to take a shuddering breath.

He barely registered the final thrusts as Benedict reached a climax, or the familiar sensation of a cock pulling free of his swollen, hot hole, his body reluctant to relinquish the thick hardness. He lay on his stomach, exhausted, still trussed by his shirt, drying paint making his hand and forearm itch as it flaked off, listening to Benedict’s breathing slow.

If he’d had to describe how he felt, he’d have gone for empty and maybe peaceful. Not getting to come didn’t matter somehow. He was sure if he kicked up a fuss, Benedict would let him, though. That had been intense, and Benedict would probably overcompensate in the other direction, fussing over him anxiously and asking if he was all right until Shane felt like screaming again.

He didn’t plan to ask, but he was happy to beg later, if that was still what Benedict wanted.

Benedict carefully freed him. It hurt to bring his arms forward again, and when he moved to get up, Benedict hovered just behind him without touching him. “Okay?” Benedict asked.

“Yeah.” Shane’s throat was dry and his legs more than a bit shaky. He needed to sit down, but he knew it would hurt like hell if he did. “Just going to lie down for a minute.”

“I’ll be right back,” Benedict said and left the bedroom. He came back quickly enough with a glass of water and a damp washcloth. “I thought you might be thirsty. And I thought—” He gestured with the cloth toward Shane’s midsection.

“Thanks.” Shane held his hand out for the cloth. Benedict couldn’t possibly think he’d be the one doing the cleaning up. “You’re not going to stand there all afternoon, are you?”

Benedict flushed. “No. Sorry.” He went around to the other side of the bed and sat on the extreme edge.

Shane wiped himself clean and tossed the linen through the doorway into the hall. He’d pick it up later. Rolling onto his side so he could see Benedict’s face made him wince, but he did it and tugged the sheets over them. “Look,” he said, and Christ, he sounded awful, his voice hoarse. “That was great, and I’m shattered. I don’t have it in me to sort out whatever’s going on in your head right now. Could we just have a bit of a nap and talk about it another time?”

“Do you…you want me to stay?”

“I expect to get to use you as a pillow after all that,” Shane grumbled, tugging at Benedict so he’d lie down. “They’ll miss us downstairs if we’re gone too long. I think we’ve got about half an hour until someone comes looking for us.”

Benedict’s shoulder was surprisingly comfortable under Shane’s head, and he smelled fantastic, like citrus and sex. Shane slung an arm over Benedict’s waist and closed his eyes.

* * * * *

By the time Shane had finished painting, he was wishing he’d used his left hand to punch the brick wall. Holding the roller with his knuckles swollen and bruised was painful, so he’d tried painting with his left hand for the most part. That had left his shoulders aching.

Or maybe the time he’d spent with his arms behind his back getting fucked was responsible for that. Which reminded him of how much his balls ached too. Christ, it would be quicker to list the parts of him that didn’t hurt. He wrapped his roller and the paint tray in plastic bags to keep them from drying out. No point in washing them when the daylight would show a dozen places that needed touching up.

“You’ve worked hard.”

He turned to see Benedict leaning on the bar, still wearing his work clothes, a sweatshirt and jeans in good enough shape that in Shane’s opinion they didn’t rate being suitable to paint in.

“Thought you’d gone with Vincent.”

“He’s using one of my bedrooms. We’re not joined at the hip.” Benedict cleared his throat, running his hand over the bar as if he were checking for splinters. Not likely now that it had a fancy granite surface that’d cost more than Shane considered reasonable for a car, let alone a countertop. Benedict had said it was an investment and a statement piece, whatever the hell that meant. The black surface swirled with flecks of gold and rust did look spectacular. “Now everyone’s gone home, I wanted to talk to you.”

“If that’s a fancy way of saying you want another fuck, I’ve got to tell you, I’m not in the mood.” Shane rolled his shoulders, groaning as tired, taut muscles protested the movement. “Can barely walk, let alone bend over for you again. Never realized how much work painting is. I’ll be glad when I’m back to pulling pints, I can tell you.”

Too late, he saw Benedict’s wince, the man’s assurance slipping away, guilt taking its place.

“Don’t,” Shane told him wearily. “What we did… Well, note the we? I wanted it. All of it.”

It was said in a mutter, Benedict’s head ducked, but Shane heard it clearly enough. “Not all of it.”

Well. “Not being fucked without a condom,” Shane admitted. “But that was just a threat, wasn’t it?”

“I wanted to.” Benedict hesitated, then grabbed the chair Shelly had been using to paint the top of the wall and dragged it closer. “Sit.”

It wasn’t a suggestion. Even if it had been, Shane was too worn out to argue. He sat, and Benedict moved behind him and rested a warm hand on his shoulder right where it ached. A folded piece of paper was put over the other shoulder.

“Read it,” Benedict said and started to massage his shoulders. Christ, that felt good. It made Shane want to close his eyes and drift off, but instead he unfolded the paper and looked at it. It was a medical report stating Benedict had tested negative for HIV the week before.

“What’s western blot?”

“A more accurate test, I guess. It’s what my doctor recommended.”

Shane looked over his shoulder at Benedict. “You went in to see your doctor and asked which HIV test to take?”

“That’s…what doctors are for?” Benedict said slowly.

“I know that,” Shane said. “Just can’t imagine you going in and having a conversation like that.”

“How repressed do you think I am?” Benedict sounded irritated and dug his thumbs into Shane’s taut muscles a little bit harder.

Shane was quite sure Benedict wouldn’t like the answer to that question. “I think we’re getting off track. You tested negative. Great, but that doesn’t mean I am.” He was 99.9 percent sure he was, but that wasn’t the point.

“That’s why I used a condom.”

“But you let me think you were going to fuck me bare.” Shane remembered feeling the press of Benedict’s cock against his hole and realizing it was sheathed in latex. Remembered the mix of relief and disappointment.

“And you didn’t stop me,” Benedict pointed out. “That worries me.”

“Does it?” Shane gave himself over to the strong fingers massaging the stiffness from his neck and shoulders. “You worry a lot, mate. Too much.”

“I like that you trusted me,” Benedict said slowly. “I-I got off on knowing you’d let me, even though I wouldn’t have done it.”

“And we’re back at you feeling guilty for what turns you on,” Shane snapped. “I could set my watch by you, you’re that regular. I told you I didn’t want you to do it; remember that? I think as soon as I said it, part of me knew you’d listen.”

“You shouldn’t trust me that much.”

Shane twisted out of Benedict’s grasp and stood, turning to face him. “Well, I do. And yeah, it’s stupid of me, but this thing we’ve got going on won’t work unless we trust each other, so if you’ve got any doubts about me, spit them out.”

Benedict’s hands made abortive gestures, then stilled. “No,” he said. “No doubts about you. None at all.”

“About yourself, then?” That made it both easier to take and more difficult—easier because he didn’t like the thought of Benedict doubting him, harder because what the fuck was he supposed to do about something that was going on inside Benedict’s head?

“About…all of this. I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.” Benedict sat down on the chair Shane had just vacated and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. His untamed hair was even messier than usual; Shane wondered what it would be like to run a comb through it and found himself neatening it with his fingers instead. Benedict sighed and leaned into his touch.

“It’ll be all right,” Shane said. “We’ll make sense of it.”

“I hope so.”

“Isn’t that what you do? Take horrible messes like this place and organize them?” Shane massaged Benedict’s scalp with the tips of his fingers. “You’ve only been here a few weeks, and it’s like a different world.”

Benedict raised his head and looked at Shane. “Different doesn’t mean better.”

“When it comes to the bar, it does.” Shane hated admitting he was wrong, but he had too much self-respect to hold back. “I fought you on that because I didn’t want you to take away something that meant a lot to me, but the changes, they’re going to work. Even with it all torn up still, I can see that.”

He was rewarded by seeing Benedict’s face light up. “Thank you. And I don’t want to make the regulars feel uncomfortable, as much as I want to get new people in. I think we can find a balance.”

“It’ll sort itself out in time.” God, he was tired. He wanted Benedict to stay, walk upstairs with him, climb into bed beside him, but Shane didn’t dare ask for that. Vincent would wonder where Benedict had spent the night, and discretion aside, it felt too soon.

Shane leaned over and kissed Benedict’s cheek, taking a secret pleasure in the way Benedict turned his head and kissed him back, a gentle easy touch of lips, no passion behind it for once. “You want me to get tested? I can make time tomorrow. They’re working on the floor, so there’s not much we can get done with all that dust around.”

“I’d like that.” Benedict bit his lip. “We’re moving fast here. Too fast?”

Shane walked around the chair and crouched down in front of Benedict, his hands on Benedict’s thighs for balance. “Getting tested is a good idea anyway. Committing to just being with you isn’t a hard call either. I can’t picture wanting anyone else. If that changes, I’ll tell you.”

“I’ll do the same. I feel the same.” Benedict stroked Shane’s face with his fingertips, the light touch leaving Shane’s skin tingling. He might be exhausted and sore, but he’d stay like this for as long as Benedict wanted to touch him and never complain. “You’re incredible. I came to you today in a foul mood, but I didn’t… I know what I said to you, but I wasn’t really taking things out on you or making you pay for someone else being an asshole. I just knew you’d make everything feel better, and you did. Thank you.”

“I needed it just as much as you did,” Shane told him. Strangely, even though he hadn’t come earlier, he felt no need to do so now. Maybe he’d wake up in the morning with a raging erection. He’d worry about it then.

Benedict yawned. “God. I’d better go and get some sleep. Floors tomorrow.”

“And they’re delivering the stuff from the auction,” Shane reminded him. “Christ, where the hell are we going to put it?”

“I guess we can throw everything we’re not keeping into the alley and pile the new furniture in the break room. It’s not as if you’ve had a problem piling stuff up before.”

Why did Benedict insist on saying things designed to piss Shane off? “Not everyone is as compulsive about keeping things organized as you.” Shane stood and scratched at a bit of paint near his wrist.

“Someone has to be,” Benedict said, standing as well and pushing the chair over nearer the wall. “Speaking of which, I had an idea about the name.”

“What name?”

“Of the bar. We need to make a decision about it before we have the posters printed for the reopening.” Benedict was looking at him as if the conversation was of little importance when inside Shane was seething.

“What makes you think we’re changing the name?” Shane tried and failed to keep the anger out of his voice. “It’s been called the Square Peg for ages. Decades.” Almost. “Why would we want to throw that away?”

“Because it’s a new place. New place, new name. I was thinking something British.”

“No,” Shane said. “We’re not changing the name. I’ve agreed to the reopening on St. Patrick’s Day—against my better judgment, you’ll recall—but the name stays.”

Benedict went over to pick up his bag. “We can talk about it tomorrow.”

“No need. It’s already decided.” Irritated beyond measure, Shane headed for the stairs. “Get the lights on your way out. And don’t forget to lock the door.”

He didn’t wait to see if Benedict did as he asked.

Chapter Thirteen

Ben adjusted the collar of his pale green shirt—his sole concession to St. Patrick’s Day—and smoothed his hair. The bar was due to reopen in precisely thirty minutes, and though he didn’t expect a flood of customers through the door this early, he was hoping they had a profitable first day.

That they were ready to reopen was a small miracle, so he supposed it was appropriate that they were starting fresh on a saint’s day. Not that he was religious, but he’d take any help he could get.

Taking another day off had required a lot of groveling, but there was no way he was missing it. The bar was…well, it was fun. It was his. He supposed the novelty would wear off, but he still intended to quit a job that was boring him more than it satisfied him these days and come to work at the bar. His clients were intent on screwing the system to make more money, and that left Benedict feeling grubby, even if nothing he did broke the law.

Though some of his clients would have liked him better if he had. There was one, a property developer with a reputation for ruthlessness. Tony Carter had made it plain that he would’ve been appreciative if Ben had gotten creative with his accounts. When Ben had met increasingly less subtle hints with bland incomprehension, Carter had asked for someone else to deal with his accounts. That hadn’t done much for Ben’s standing at the company, but he didn’t regret his choice.

He wandered around the bar, trying to view it as a customer would, contrasting it with his first impressions on that dull, chilly February day. Now, midway through March, the city was enjoying a patch of good weather warm enough to make it feel more like summer than spring. Winter coats had been shed, trees were in bud, and the sky was a deep, dazzling blue.

And on a practical note, the smell of paint and the lingering dust had been erased by the steady flow of air through wide-open windows.

Ignoring the amused looks from Vin, polishing glasses behind the bar, Ben stood still, gazing around him. The rich, deep yellow of the walls looked stunning with the nut-brown wooden floor and the granite bar. The tables and chairs invited people to sit, and the floor space had been increased by repositioning the pool table. Ben walked over to it and picked the white ball out of a pocket. Smooth and heavy in his hand, it tempted him to try a shot or two. But there wasn’t time.

He walked through the snug, adjusting a chair here, a painting on the wall there. He’d already checked the washrooms, not without a reminiscent shiver of arousal.

Memories were one thing, but he was looking forward to creating more, assuming Shane ever stopped sulking over the issue of the name.

He didn’t even have a reason to sulk, for God’s sake. He’d continued to be grouchy and unpleasant even after time constraints had meant Ben had to order the signs and posters with the bar’s original name or risk not having them at all. Ben had conceded to keeping things the way they were for now. If in the long run he decided to insist on the name change, they could have another event that would hopefully draw still more new customers. Shane apparently hadn’t liked the sound of that either, and his mood hadn’t lifted even though Ben had avoided the subject since.

Ben wandered over to the bar where Vin was now slicing lemons. “You have everything you need?”

“Maybe for the first time ever,” Vin agreed. He paused, the edge of his paring knife pressing against the bright yellow peel of a large lemon. “Did you and Shane have a fight or something?”

Ben sighed. “Not really.”

“He was used to doing things his way.” Vin finished slicing the last lemon, then tossed the ends of the lemons into the trash. “I guess it’s hard when someone else comes in and wants to change things.”

“I changed a lot. Maybe too much. I don’t know. I want this place to be profitable for all of us. Successful.” None of this would come as a surprise to Vin.

“I wouldn’t complain if my tips doubled.” Vin grinned at him. “Or tripled. Then I could get my own place and get out of your hair.”

Ben shook his head and wiped at a nonexistent spot on the granite. “You can stay as long as you want. It’s not a problem. It’s kind of nice having someone around. I should have gotten a roommate a long time ago.”

It was different than sharing with a lover and in some ways less stressful. Vin was under no illusions that he had a say in how the house was decorated, or what went in which cupboards, or even the brand of shower gel in the bathroom. He was welcome to buy his own shower gel, of course, but so far, Vin had simply accepted the state of affairs without showing anything but a gratitude that was sincere without being over-effusive.

When Ben compared it to Shane’s prickly combativeness, he should’ve preferred Vin’s easygoing attitude and demeanor. But he didn’t. Vin was far from boring; Ben had enjoyed some spirited discussions with him on a multitude of topics from politics to music to the tattoos covering so much of Vin’s skin, but he never had the slightest urge to put his hands on that skin and mark it in a less permanent way.

Even if he had, Vin was so settled in his celibacy he would’ve turned Ben down—and that was one subject Vin refused to discuss.

Vin smiled at him, the stud under his lip catching the light. “You’ll probably have to pitch in and help when it gets crazy later on. How are you at pulling a pint of Guinness?”

“Me?” Ben felt a flutter of panic. “No, I wasn’t planning on that. Clearing the tables, restocking when needed, that kind of thing, but I don’t have a clue how to mix drinks.”

“You own half the bar. It’s about time you did.”

Ben turned to see Shane leaning at the other end of the bar, his expression still guarded, but with a glimmer of amusement in his eyes that looked promising for a reconciliation. Shane looked sexy as hell in tight black denim jeans and a short-sleeved black T-shirt advertising Hobgoblin Ale clinging to his muscular chest.

“It’s what I’ve been telling him,” Vin agreed. He sauntered down to Shane, reached over, and pinched his arm. “You’re not wearing green,” he explained when Shane yelped and glared at him.

“You Yanks do realize this is a load of fucking bullshit that no one in Ireland gives a toss about, don’t you?” Shane growled.

“It sells beer,” Ben said. He could see the faint red spot on Shane’s upper arm from the pinch. It disturbed him just how much he resented the fact that someone else had put it there. “You don’t have to wear a lot of green, but people will expect to see it on you somewhere. Get in the spirit of things.”

Even Vin had opted for a green cotton scarf threaded through the belt loops of his ink-black pants and an emerald stud in his left ear.

Shane blew out an impatient breath. “Fine, I’ll put on a green T-shirt or something, but only because if anyone else tries pinching me, they’ll be wearing whatever they’re drinking, and I don’t need you to tell me that’s bad for business.”

He stomped away upstairs and came back five minutes later wearing a faded green T-shirt that had probably fit him ten pounds ago but was now just a little too tight. It made Ben want to thumb his nipples until they could be seen through the thin fabric, made him want to push Shane to the floor and lie down on top of him until their warmth had seeped into the material. He wished he could bite Shane through the worn cotton and know without seeing them that the man wore his marks, the imprints of his teeth tattooed on skin.

Shane’s attention turned toward Ben, and their eyes met. Ben would have been willing to bet a million dollars that somehow Shane knew exactly what he’d been thinking. He looked away, face hot, and gave Vin his attention.

“Okay. Is there anything I can help with? Put me to work.”

Vin shook his head. “It’s all done. This was the last of it.” He was washing his hands at the new sink behind the bar, gleaming and clean like everything else in the place.

“Show him how to pour a pint,” Shane said abruptly, jerking his thumb at Ben.

“I don’t think—” Ben began, reluctant to make a fool of himself in front of them.

“It’s not difficult,” Shane told him. “Most of the pumps, you just put the glass under and open the tap. I’ll show you how to change a barrel another day. Concentrate on the Guinness for today. It’s what most of them will be drinking. Can’t stand it myself. Feels as if I should be chewing it, not drinking it. Go on then; get yourself behind the bar. Move your arse and get him a Guinness glass, Vincent.”

The note of authority and confidence in Shane’s voice was intriguing, and Ben responded to it with something approaching relief. He needed this reminder that when sex wasn’t involved, Shane was more than prepared to take the lead. God, a therapist would have a field day with Shane and his issues.

The view from behind the bar wasn’t completely new to Ben; he’d helped restock the shelves, after all, but to stand there in charge of things was a novel sensation. He took the glass and stood with it in his hand, giving his audience an expectant look.

“It takes about two minutes to pour one properly,” Shane said, “and it’s supposed to come out cold. Forty-two point eight degrees, to be exact. What you do is fill it, let it settle, then give it a nice, thick, creamy head. The double pour, they call it.”

“Perfect drink for us,” Vin said with a wink. “Nothing like a creamy head.”

Shane grinned. “Don’t fluster him.”

“If you’re both finished…” Ben said, but he couldn’t work up a glare. The sun was shining, the bar looked stunning, and Shane was smiling at him, heat and a promise in his gray eyes.

He screwed up his first two attempts and drenched his hand, but the third pint was perfect.

“What now?” he asked, admiring the glass as it stood on the bar, its dark contents gleaming in a shaft of sunlight.

“Now you drink it. Or you do when we’ve got everyone in here and fixed up with whatever they want.” Shane nodded at Vin. “Go round them up and get them in here for a toast.”

It didn’t take long for Vin to do that—the bar was the same size it had been, despite the extensive renovations and the staggering bill that had eaten nearly every cent of the life insurance check Craig had left behind—and a few minutes later they were all standing with a glass in hand. Benedict lifted his and looked around at the small group clustered around Shane. Dave, Shelly, and Vincent. Ben wasn’t sure how he felt about being part of this little family Shane had created. He appreciated it, of course, but he didn’t want to feel like one of the gang. He wanted to be special to Shane.

That thought floored him and made him late to say Cheers when everyone else did. He’d missed Shane’s entire speech, he realized. Shane seemed to realize it too, if the puzzled look he was giving Ben meant anything.

But all Shane said was, “Patrick’s late. Should have been here twenty minutes ago.”

“And that’s my fault somehow?” Ben was starting to feel mentally unstable and more than a little obsessed. He couldn’t seriously be jealous of Patrick, whom he’d barely recognize again.

“No. You’re—” Shane broke off in frustration as Patrick came in. “You’re late,” he growled.

“Not very.” Patrick sounded as cheerful as Ben remembered. “You haven’t even opened the doors.”

“It’s only nine thirty,” Vin pointed out. “We can’t start serving alcohol until eleven.”

“But we can sell coffee,” Dave said, his voice quiet. Ben hadn’t gotten to know Dave well, though the man was friendly enough. Older than the others, in his late forties, he worked efficiently, but with a distant look in his eyes. Shane had told Ben privately that Dave’s partner of fifteen years had left him six months before, and he hadn’t taken it well.

“Yes, we could,” Ben said. “On the house. With some food, though we’ll charge for that. Get them in here; then they’ll stay when we start serving alcohol.”

“We weren’t planning to do food today,” Shane said dubiously.

“There must be something we could serve them. Something Irish?”

Shane snorted. “Such as?”

“Liverpool’s not that far from Ireland—”

“Not in miles, maybe, but let me tell you—”

A sharp whistle from Shelly interrupted them.

“What?” Shane asked.

“If you two have finished flirting, can I put in a suggestion for bacon sandwiches? My granddad was from Dublin, and he said he used to have them for breakfast on Saturday when they couldn’t afford a full fry-up, whatever that is.”

Shane nodded. “Bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding, fried tomatoes—never mind. Bacon butties. Yeah. That could work.”

Sometimes Ben didn’t have a clue what Shane was talking about. “I think it’s up to Dave. He’s the one who’d be doing the cooking, right?”

“It’s okay with me,” Dave said. He’d gone the week before to a class that had ended in his being certified to prepare food safely—as far the government was concerned—and they’d gone through the inspection process. There was no technical or legal reason why they couldn’t serve food. “We’d need a few things, but there’s time for someone to run out and get them.”

Shane seemed to be considering the matter; then he nodded decisively. “Do it.”

The next hour passed in a flurry of work, and by the time the bar opened its doors, the smell of bacon was still lingering in the air despite the high-quality fans that had been installed in the kitchen. Customers came in, many of them sniffing appreciatively. Even Ben recognized some of them, but Shane seemed to know them all by name, shaking hands and welcoming them like old friends. People seemed happy enough with coffee, and many of them walked around the bar exclaiming at the changes. Shane had a strange expression on his face as time went on, as if he didn’t know whether to be happy at the compliments or irritated that the place had been so run-down before.

“What do you think?” Ben asked, going over to join him where he was leaning against the wall.

“I think I’m going to need a few drinks myself by the time the day’s over.” Shane rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and grinned at Ben. “It’s good.”

“Think Patrick might be willing to come on full-time?” He was just making idle conversation, enjoying the fact Shane was in a good mood.

Shane shook his head. “He likes his proper job too much.” His hand dropped down to his side between them, and Ben felt Shane’s little finger touch his. “What about you?”

“What about—” Ben swallowed and curled his hand into Shane’s. “Yeah. I’m here for the long haul. Assuming you can stand having me around.”

Shane studied him in silence for a moment, taking the question seriously. Ben appreciated that on one level, but part of him would’ve preferred an instant reassurance.

“You’re an easy man to get used to,” Shane said finally. “I miss you when you’re not here, for what it’s worth. I’m not talking about the sex.” He sketched out a gesture, pointing vaguely. “That’s off there somewhere separate. I’m talking about the…the quiet moments.” He shook his head, a bemused look on his face. “I’ve had too much to drink. Listen to me drivel.”

“You’re not,” Ben said more emphatically than he’d intended. The background music gave them some privacy, and more people were arriving every few minutes, seemingly deciding that the crush of bodies in the bar was a good reason to stay, rather than take the sensible option of finding somewhere else to drink. The buzz of their conversation hung like fog in the warm room. “I love it here. Working with you, making this place popular. It feels real, not just fiddling with numbers so someone rich can get even richer.”

Shane’s mouth twisted cynically. “You’re an accountant to the bone,” he objected. “This is a working holiday. Fun for a month, but you’ll get sick of it soon enough. Wait until someone throws up over you, or realizes he’s in a gay bar and gives you an earful about how sick and perverted queers are.”

“I know it’s not all fun and games; don’t worry,” Ben said. He looked at the crowd, enjoying the way every face was lit up with pleasure. Sure, copious amounts of green alcohol were partly the cause, and yes, here and there sections of the crowd were pushing the limit of what Ben wanted to see done in public, but the mood was festive, and no one was actually naked or fucking.

Yet.

Deciding to stop tiptoeing around and just ask for what he wanted, Ben said, “Speaking of fun, Vin’s not staying at my place tonight. Maybe you could come over after we close? Or I could stop here? And, yes, I’m talking about having sex, assuming you’ve forgiven me for daring to suggest the bar needed a new name.”

Shane chuckled, the sound lost, but his amusement plain. “Yeah, I’ve forgiven you. Next time I get moody, don’t wait for me to get over myself. Just boot me up the arse and tell me to put a sock in it. We won’t close until the early hours, though. You’ll be too knackered to fuck me the way I deserve. Tomorrow night’s better. I’m on the early shift, so I’ll be free from around eight.”

Ben could think of exactly what kind of sex Shane deserved after his prolonged sulk. His breath caught as he saw Shane bent over the pool table, covered now with a board to provide a makeshift table and to protect the cloth. He’d make Shane spread his legs wide, that pale ass waiting to receive whatever Ben thought was suitable punishment. Maybe he’d use his hand, spank Shane’s skin red and rough, maybe unscrew a cue and use the tapering piece of wood as a cane to draw blurred lines of scarlet on suffering, shrinking flesh.

Or maybe he’d crouch down and use his mouth to reduce Shane to nothing but shameless begging, licking at dark, secret places, fucking Shane’s hole with soft stabs of his tongue, sucking marks into tender skin, leaving it bitten and bruised.

“Okay,” he said, thankful the noise covered the fact that his voice was shaky. “Tomorrow night.”

“Shane?” Vin called from behind the bar. “Could you grab another bottle of Jameson for me?”

“Duty calls.” Shane squeezed Ben’s hand and went off to the small storage area.

Ben grabbed a tray and started making the rounds picking up empty glasses. They were everywhere, but he was trying not to get too hopeful about how busy the place was. It was one night and a big one for drinking. The crowd of customers eager to spend money might only be temporary. It was dangerous to get his hopes up.

If they were successful in turning the bar around, he and Shane would probably work things out between them, but if the bar failed… Who knew what Shane would do? Move back to England? Chances were he wouldn’t want to stick around for nothing more than a relationship with an accountant.

After he’d loaded the dirty glasses into the dishwasher, he went looking for something else to do. A woman with a determined expression came toward him. She was holding a small pad of paper and had an indefinable air of being a visitor. “Hi,” Ben said. “Can I help you?”

“The girl over at the door said you’re the owner. Is that right?” Her eyes were a dark brown and her lipstick an odd shade of peach.

“One of them,” Ben said.

“Mary Jaffarian with the Tribune,” she said, offering her hand. It felt small and kind of alien in Ben’s. “I was hoping to get a quick interview?”

“Ben Lozier. My partner’s around here somewhere, I’m just not sure where.” He sounded apologetic.

“And when you say partner, you mean…?”

“His business partner,” Shane said, having appeared as if summoned. “Shane Brant.”

It was stupid of him to take Shane’s clarification as a rejection. They’d decided to keep their relationship—and that bland word didn’t come close to describing their passionate clashes—secret, and Shane was just saying what he thought Ben would want to hear.

“I see.” Mary introduced herself to Shane, then gave them a tight, perfunctory smile. “Busy day for everyone, so I’ll keep this brief. The Tribune wanted to do a small piece on the restoration of the bar. I’ve got a photographer on the way too. He just texted to say he’s stuck in traffic.” Her tone made it plain she didn’t buy that excuse for one moment.

“It’s hardly news,” Ben objected, before he realized as a business owner, publicity was a good thing, and he shouldn’t try to discourage her.

“We’re not the New York Times,” Mary said. “We’re a local paper who focuses on local news. The last few weeks, we’ve been doing articles on this area and how it’s experiencing an upswing. The factory on Stevenson Street that’s been converted into high-end lofts. The creation of the park down by the river. That kind of thing. Have you read them?”

“Been a bit busy, love,” Shane said, saving Ben from a polite lie. “Not sure us doing the place up a bit is going to make much of a difference to the area though.”

“I hear you’re providing homemade food, locally sourced and organic.”

Shane’s eyes widened. “We’re doing what?”

Ben, more used to buzzwords, nodded. “I suppose we are, yes.” There was a farmers’ market not far away that was close to Dave’s house. It sold vegetables, cheese, and meat. Dave planned to buy what he needed fresh each day and bring it in to work to cook with. Shane and Ben’s idea of food had been considerably more basic, but Dave’s enthusiasm had changed that.

“I spoke to a few of the local businesses, and they feel that might increase their customers too. People shopping want to take a break to eat, and until now, the options around here have been limited. Having an exciting lunch menu here will encourage them to stay in the area longer.”

“We’re a bar, not a restaurant.”

“Of course you are!” She turned her smile onto Shane. “A gay bar, is that right?”

Shane nodded. “Has been for over a decade. Not just for gays, of course. We get plenty of straight customers too.”

“We welcome anyone who’s open-minded,” Ben chimed in. “But one of our priorities is definitely making sure that gay people who live locally have a safe, comfortable place to have a drink or a meal.”

“And what about drag shows?” Mary asked.

Ben glanced at Shane, not sure how to answer that.

“It’s a gay bar,” Shane said, frowning at her, “not a club. We haven’t got a stage, so where were you imagining these drag shows would happen? On the pool table? The bar?”

Mary shrugged. She seemed unconcerned by their reaction to her question. “Oh good, here’s Josh. Hmm, maybe we could get some pictures of you behind the bar? Maybe with a few of the employees? Gay ones.”

The look on Shane’s face might have been a mystery to Mary, but Ben could read it in a glance. Shane was pissed off. No, Shane wasn’t just pissed off. He was working his way to furious, and if Ben didn’t do something to stop him, this was all going to go down very, very badly.

“Why don’t you ask Vin—the guy behind the bar, with the black hair and tattoos—a couple of questions, and we’ll be right back,” Ben said and dragged Shane toward the office. As soon as they were out of earshot, their voices swallowed up by the sounds of the bar, Ben turned and spoke into Shane’s ear. “We need this, Shane. This publicity could make a difference for us, so just keep it together.”

“She’s a fucking bitch,” Shane snarled. “We’re just some fucking joke to her. I can just picture her saying, Let’s write an article about the queers.

“Not the point.” Ben clenched his jaw and thought for a few seconds. “Don’t talk to her—do you hear me? Not another word, and as soon as they’re gone, I’ll take you in the office and give you the best blowjob of your life.”

“I’m not a fucking kid you can buy off with a toy or a trip to the zoo,” Shane said, stiffening up. “Don’t bribe me with sex.”

“Why not? It’s going to work.”

For a moment it hung in the balance; then Shane grinned, his ire melting away. “Can I hold out for a fuck?”

“You in me?” Ben shook his head. “Not in the office. And not yet.”

“What, I’ve got to earn that or something?” Shane was so close, so warm. Ben wanted to touch that hot skin and taste Shane’s mouth, kiss the last of Shane’s bad temper out of him. “Want to see me be good? Seems a waste when we both like it better when I’m a bad boy.”

“You’re perfect either way,” Ben said with conviction, then shook his head. “God, Shane, shut up before I lose it.”

“I like that idea even better.” Shane undid the top two buttons of Ben’s shirt and bent his head to kiss the exposed skin. “Lose it. Blow me right here and tell me I can’t move, not a muscle, can’t come until you tell me to. And I haven’t, you know.”

“Haven’t what?” The silky tickle of Shane’s lips and tongue was distracting. And his hair was getting longer.

“Come. You wouldn’t let me, remember?”

“Huh? That was days ago!” Ben had jerked off plenty since then, Shane in a starring role every time, each climax explosive and still never enough.

“Yeah.” Shane breathed the word against Ben’s skin. “Believe me, I know.”

“You’re unbelievable.” Ben ran both hands up over Shane’s shoulders, pushing him away to see his face. He slid his hands along Shane’s throat until both thumbs rested on Shane’s pulse points. The steady thud-thud was reassuring; Ben squeezed a little bit, watching Shane’s face for a reaction, but all that happened was Shane’s eyes went darker and his pulse quickened. “You have no idea how much I want you.”

Shane swallowed, and Ben felt that in his thumbs too. “It can’t possibly be as much as I want you right now.”

“Then be a good boy,” Ben said. “Come out and smile pretty for the camera, and I’ll make it worth it to you.” He wouldn’t let Shane fuck him, not yet, but the thought that Shane had been waiting all this time for an orgasm because of a casual comment on his part was arousing beyond belief. He’d have to untuck his shirt to hide the evidence before they went back out there. “Can you do that?” No, that was the wrong question. “Will you?”

“I’ll do it for you,” Shane said, meeting his gaze. “God knows I wouldn’t for anyone else.”

“Okay. Let’s get this over with.” Untucking his shirt, Ben headed back out into the relative chaos of the bar, Shane at his heels.

Mary was still jotting down notes and nodding at whatever Vin was saying. Ben should have realized someone from the paper might come to the opening, and he should have coached the staff on what to say. Who knew what the hell Vin was telling her? And God, if she got hold of Patrick—indiscreet, giggling, and distressingly frank Patrick…“There you are!” she said brightly when she caught sight of them. “Can we get a photo? I thought maybe sort of behind the bar…”

“No, over here,” Josh said, gesturing with the camera. “That way we can get customers in the background.”

“Right, good.” Mary stood behind Josh and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe try to get those guys over there? The one with the blue hair and all the chains.”

“Maybe ask if they want to be in it first?” Shane sounded as if he was rapidly sliding back into annoyance, but as Ben opened his mouth to say something conciliatory, Shane pasted on a smile. “Just saving you from some legal problems. For all you know, the guy wearing the leather straps and studded collar over there could be your boss’s son.”

“Right,” Josh said, drawing the word out. “Because that’s what this day is all about, yeah? Freedom from inhibitions, celebrating the coming of spring…”

“Getting drunk and puking in shades of green,” Shane added into Ben’s ear, making him laugh.

Everyone, when asked, seemed happy to be included in the photographs. There was even some reasonably good-natured jostling from people who really wanted their picture in the paper. Ben and Shane were placed front and center, their staff around them, the customers framing them, and Ben smiled as naturally as he could for an interminable length of time.

“That’s enough now,” Shane said. “People are getting thirsty.”

“Thank you so much for coming,” Ben added, shaking Mary’s and Josh’s hands. “We appreciate it.”

It was a relief when they left, and Ben jumped in behind the bar to help Vin and Shelly get caught up. He might not have known what he was doing, but any idiot could unload and reload a dishwasher. He was aware of Shane standing at the end of the bar making conversation with two young men. Both of them were beautiful enough to be models—thin, though. Ben suspected with their shirts off, it would be clear they could stand to gain twenty pounds.

He remembered being that age, his metabolism so high he could eat four thousand calories a day and not gain an ounce. He’d slowed down some since then, but his stomach was still flat. Not like those boys, though. They were both blond, and Ben was pretty sure they were flirting with Shane. It was provocation enough for him to say to Vin, “Shane and I have some things to go over. We’ll be in the office if you need us.”

Stopping at Shane’s elbow, Ben smiled at the boys—which was what they were, even if they were old enough to drink—and said, “I’ve got to borrow him, sorry.” Into Shane’s ear, he said, “Come with me. Now.”

They went into the office, Shane silent, walking a step or two beside Ben. Ben gestured at the door. “Lock it.”

Shane did, and when he turned to look at Ben, opening his mouth to say something, Ben hit him across the face. Hard enough to hurt, not hard enough to leave a mark. Shane went with the slap, a smile flickering across his face, his eyes serene, no hint of shock showing.

“Is that what you call being good?” Ben spat out. “Flirting with kids? You’re old enough to be their father.” He moved closer and pulled Shane to him, then kissed him. The kiss went on for a long time, Ben opening Shane’s mouth with his and licking his way inside, hands on Shane’s ass. Shane tasted like beer, and he kissed back eagerly, arms locked tightly around Ben. Ben could feel Shane’s erection through their clothes, solid and as eager as his lips. It belonged to Ben as surely as the rest of Shane did, and Ben didn’t like to share. He didn’t want anyone else so much as looking at Shane with interest, and the knowledge he couldn’t stop it made him angry. It made him blame Shane even though there was nothing Shane could do about it either. The whole thing was ridiculous, but Ben’s emotions were stronger than his ability to think right then.

“Take off your clothes and sit on the desk,” he said in a low voice, and Shane pulled back far enough to look at him with wide, surprised eyes.

“What?”

“You heard me. I want to fuck you, and I want to fuck you on the desk.”

For the first time there was uncertainty in Shane’s eyes. “People will come looking for us. The place is packed, and they’re going to need every pair of hands out there.”

“If you had time to flirt, you’ve got time to be fucked.” It came out as an accusation, not an observation, and Ben bit the inside of his cheek, well aware he’d given a lot away in a few words.

“So that’s it.” Shane sounded thoughtful, calm even, and it was maddening when Ben was desperate with jealousy and lust. “We’d better get a bed in here if you’re going to want to go all caveman on my arse every time I’m chatting with a customer, because it happens a lot.”

“Not chatting. Flirting. There’s a difference.”

Odd how even when he knew he was being ridiculous, he couldn’t stop.

Shane snorted with amusement. “Those two? They’d snap if I breathed on them, and they’re barely legal. And yeah, I carded them. They’re not my type, okay? And even if they were, well, I’m taken.” Shane raised his eyebrows. “Still want to do this? Because I will. Hell, I’d let you do it out there or in the fucking ladies’ again, if it’s what you fancy. But you don’t need to prove anything. I’m yours. I know it. I’ll get it tattooed on my arse if you want.”

It was impossible to doubt Shane’s sincerity. Ben kissed him hard, craving another taste, then said, “No. Get your nipple pierced instead and let me watch it being done.”

“Christ.” Shane shuddered and mouthed at Ben’s jaw, the edge of his teeth dragging over skin. “Is that what you want?”

“Yes.” Ben pushed Shane’s T-shirt up to his armpits and looked at both nipples. They were small—did that mean it would hurt more when a needle went through?—and seeing them made Ben’s cock ache. He leaned in and licked one, sucked at it, worried it with his teeth. Shane moaned softly and slid a hand up into Ben’s hair. “Will you?” Ben asked.

“You’re a hard man to say no to, Benedict.” Shane sighed as Ben turned his attention to the other nipple. “And I fucking love your hair, in case I never told you that. I’ll grow mine if you promise not to cut yours.”

Ben didn’t answer that. He knew Shane was going to grow his hair out either way. He teased both of Shane’s nipples between thumbs and forefingers, pinching them. “I think this one,” he said, scraping his nail across the right nipple and sliding his other hand down Shane’s belly to his cock. “You really haven’t come for days?”

“What do you think?” Shane’s eyes were half-closed, and his lower lip looked soft, ready to be bitten hot and swollen.

“I think I’m impressed,” Ben said. “And I think the next time you do, it’s gonna be so good. And all mine, so don’t even think about doing it without me.”

Shane whimpered as Ben squeezed his cock through his pants. “Fuck. Benedict. I can’t wait much longer. I’ll fucking come in my sleep.”

“Hey, guys! We need you out here!” It was Patrick’s voice through the locked door, bright and chirpy as ever.

“Be right there!” Shane called back and pulled Ben in for a desperate, hungry kiss. “Jesus, you’re going to be the death of me.”

Ben shook his head and moved Shane’s T-shirt back into position. “You can wait. I have faith in you.”

“You’re probably the only one who ever has.” Shane smoothed the front of his T-shirt, following the path Ben’s hand had taken. “You’re not pissed I turned you down?”

There was enough concern behind the question to make Ben want to draw Shane close again for another kiss, but if he did, he wasn’t sure they’d be able to stop themselves from taking things to the logical conclusion.

“I’m kind of relieved one of us has some sense,” he said lightly.

Shane gave him a shrewd glance as he unlocked the office door. “You mean you’re glad to know I’ll tell you to put the brakes on.”

“That too,” Ben admitted. “But I can tell you now, I don’t care how late we close, or how tired we are—I’m not going home until I’ve seen you come.”

Shane smiled at that, a small, pleased smile. It stayed with Ben through the long hours that followed, keeping his arousal simmering—and flaring—when Shane deliberately flirted with a few men, always making sure Ben was watching before putting his hand on a broad shoulder or laughing up into a good-looking face.

It made Ben even more determined to hang around until closing time.

Chapter Fourteen

Shane was used to working until the small hours of the morning. He didn’t do it every night—didn’t think anyone could—but he did it often enough that he wasn’t exhausted by the time Vincent and Patrick finally left for a party, a few minutes after Shelly and Dave. He locked the door behind them, then stood there for a moment, replaying the day in his head. It had been a huge success, and while they’d all worked hard, they basically had Benedict to thank for it.

He turned and switched off the main lights, leaving on only the ones at the back of the room. It was plenty of light to see by, but the sudden change created shadows on the walls and floor, dark tendrils stretching toward him. If he’d been a less practical man, he might well have frightened himself with them.

Slowly, feeling the ache in his feet that no high-quality trainers he’d yet bought could stave off, Shane walked across the floor toward the bar. He and Benedict were the only two left in the building; he assumed Benedict was in the office since he hadn’t seen him for ten minutes or so. Shane glanced behind the bar to make sure there weren’t any lingering chores that had been neglected and became aware he was looking for excuses to put this off.

This, of course, being whatever Benedict had planned.

Shane was worried that in the time since Benedict had told him to strip off so he could be fucked on his desk, Benedict might have changed his mind. He didn’t want that, and he’d rather put off finding out it was happening if possible.

“Has everyone gone?” Benedict asked, and Shane turned toward his voice, the movement made before Benedict had started to speak. He was always aware of Benedict’s presence. It’d reached the point where he could walk into the bar, and no matter how crowded, he knew if Benedict was there. Which was woo-woo as hell, but he didn’t care.

“That’s the last of them,” he agreed. “Are you as tired as I am?” It was an attempt to give Benedict an excuse for going home if that was what Benedict wanted to do.

“Not so tired I forgot our plans,” Benedict said. He was standing in the shadow near the pool table, so Shane walked toward him. “I did change my mind about something.”

Shit. “What’s that?”

Benedict stepped forward and ran a hand along the edge of the pool table. “I think I’d rather fuck you here.”

They’d taken the cover off toward the end of the night when the crowd had thinned. A group of four men had asked to use it for a best-of-three game of doubles, and from what Shane had overheard as he’d walked by, the winners were going to be fucking the losers. Since they’d paired off in couples, it was going to be an interesting evening for the four of them, but Shane wouldn’t have swapped places with them or anyone else who’d been in the bar that night.

Shane felt arousal strike like a blow. If he was fucked in here, he’d never forget it. Every time he walked past the pool table, he’d picture himself spread out, bent over, squirming, begging…

“Do it,” he said, ready to fall to his knees on the spot if Benedict wanted a thank-you in advance.

“Oh, I will. But it doesn’t seem right to just dive in.” Benedict picked up one of the cues that’d been left on the table. “Grab a cue, Shane. If you beat me at eight-ball, I’ll let you choose.”

“Choose what?” God, his hands were shaking already, as if he were an addict jonesing for a fix. He was confident of his ability to win, even if the rules over here were different in many ways. He’d been playing pool since he was thirteen, learning the game at a working man’s club at the end of the road while his mum played bingo. Geoff, his tutor, had been a tall, stooped man, his mustache drooping sadly, but he’d been kind. His pension had barely stretched to cover a pint of beer a couple of nights a week, but he’d always had a few spare coins to feed into the pool table.

Geoff would’ve given him hell for messing up the cloth. Shane sent the long-dead man a silent apology.

“You didn’t seriously think I’d let you get away with your little game, did you?”

Oh. That. Shane grinned, unrepentant and ready to pay for his fun. “Thought you might like a reason to show me who’s boss.”

“Not really.” Benedict held the cue in the middle and tapped the chalk-tipped end against his palm. “And you’re going to choose between my hand or this on your ass before I fuck it. If I win, I’ll just give you both.”

“You want to—” Shane shook his head, the lurch in his stomach down to excitement, not apprehension. “I’ve never done that.”

“Neither have I. Better hope you enjoy it, because one way or another, your ass is going to find out how much I appreciate you deliberately disobeying me.”

Benedict picked up the cube of chalk and fitted it to the tip of his cue, the squeak as he ground it down loud in the silence between them. “Set them up,” Benedict said.

Biting his lip, Shane obeyed. He didn’t play often these days, but the routine of fitting the balls into the rack was second nature, something he’d never forget. He probably could have done it in his sleep. It was easy to rack the balls and pay attention to Benedict at the same time; Benedict’s gaze on him was warm and made his skin tingle with anticipation. He set the front ball on the foot, pushed the balls forward into contact with one another, and lifted the rack away.

He looked at Benedict, waiting for further instruction. Benedict waved at the table. “Break.”

“Don’t you want to flip for it?” Shane asked, and Benedict’s face went cold.

“If I did, I would have.”

Shane turned and chose a cue. He didn’t like seeing Benedict’s disapproval, but at the same time it made him hot, and he wasn’t sure it mattered why. He was hard as a rock again after having been half-hard all night. At least his hands were steady as he lined up his cue and hit the apex ball with a solid, satisfying sound. The balls scattered across the table like buzzing bees, bouncing off the felt sides of the table and each other, and the nine ball hovered on the edge of a pocket for a second before tipping over and falling neatly in.

“Nice,” Benedict said, as if he didn’t care one way or the other but knew a response was expected. Shane wondered what Benedict would say, how his voice would sound, if he wasn’t focused on what he thought was expected of him.

He hoped he’d get to find out.

The stripes were placed so Shane only had one shot open, the twelve sitting next to the top left pocket, needing just a tap to sink it. He made the shot, and the next, then ran into trouble trying to double the fourteen across the table.

The trouble wasn’t with the shot, but the way Benedict was staring at his arse when Shane bent over. He was tempted to wiggle it, but he wouldn’t put it past Benedict to dish out a slap or two ahead of the main event. This was foreplay, not pool.

They played in silence, the snick of the balls as they were struck an oddly calming sound. Shane relaxed and had fun, slamming the cue into the white in a shot that sent the thirteen careening around the table and juddering in the pocket before coming to a halt on the rim. It wasn’t a complete disaster; Benedict had been left snookered, the white tucked between the only other stripe left on the table and the cushion.

“That was a reckless shot,” Benedict said, still using that cool, reproving voice. A headmaster’s voice. Shane’s headmaster had been old-school and was wont to bemoan the fact that legislation made it impossible for him to use a cane on his pupils. Mr. Sayle would have approved of Benedict’s plans. Well, some of them. Not the fucking part. Sayle had hated women, foreigners, the Labour Party, and queers equally and vocally. “You could easily have torn the cloth.”

Pride, not defiance, made Shane object. “I’ve played drunk out of my skull a hundred times and never done that.”

Benedict propped his cue against the table and held out his hand. “Give me your cue.”

Why? trembled on Shane’s tongue, but he left it unvoiced, proving Mr. Sayle had been wrong when he’d called Shane stupid.

“Put your hands in your pockets and keep them there.”

Curious, Shane obeyed, though he rolled his eyes first, just to get a flash of annoyance directed at him. It felt like a kiss. He wasn’t sure where Benedict was going with this, but he was already falling into that warm fog of trust.

“Over to that table,” Benedict said, pointing at a small table with four chairs around it. They hadn’t been pushed under the table, and there was room between two of them to allow Shane to stand with the edge of the table pressed against his thighs.

Benedict came up behind him and threaded the cue through the space between Shane’s arms, then gripped it at either end.

“Down,” Benedict ordered, and when Shane froze, he pushed on the cue, using it to propel Shane forward and pin him against the table.

Shane could’ve freed himself by simply sliding his hands out of his pockets, but that would’ve been cheating. Given how much the cue hurt where it dug into his spine, cheating was looking better with every passing second.

“Do you have any idea how you look, bending over like that?” Benedict let go of the cue with his right hand and slid his palm up the outside of Shane’s thigh instead. “No, don’t move.”

He was going to be bruised—he knew it. He didn’t care. His cock was so hard he suspected he would come if Benedict asked him to, just where he was, leaning over the table with an unfinished game of pool behind him.

Benedict’s hand moved to Shane’s arse and cupped it, squeezed. “I want to peel off all your clothes one piece at a time,” Benedict said, voice low and hypnotic. “I want to taste every inch of your skin. I want to leave marks on it that last for days.”

Shane groaned and closed his eyes, listening to Benedict.

“Next time I think I’ll have you play naked. So I can watch you.” Coming closer, Benedict pressed up against Shane’s arse. Shane could feel Benedict’s erection through their clothes. “Do you think you could play like that? Knowing I was looking at your ass?” Benedict rubbed his cock between Shane’s arse cheeks slowly, and Shane found himself pressing back. He had to arch his back to do it, which hurt like hell, but it was worth it.

“What if I touched you?” Benedict reached around and cupped Shane’s erection. Shane couldn’t help it; a whimper escaped him. “Distracted you? Stuck a finger in your ass? Would you be able to play then?”

“I’d try.” Shane was panting heavily, caught between Benedict’s cock and hand. “If it’s what you wanted.”

“Do you think you’d succeed?”

Shane wet his lips. “Not sure. Finger up my arse might make me miscue if you wiggled it at the wrong time.”

That got his face pushed against the table, until the taste of the cleaner Vincent had used to wipe it down filled Shane’s mouth. It smelled of orange, but it didn’t taste of it. “I might shove my cue up there instead.”

It was the idea of it that had Shane moaning, even as his mind shunted it onto the list of things Benedict wouldn’t really do. At least, he didn’t think Benedict would.

“Even the blunt end’s not that thick,” Benedict said, with a hint of reproof. “Long, of course, but not enough to stretch your hole the way I want to see it. We’ll have to experiment with that. I’m curious how much you can take, both length and thickness.”

Oh God. Shane squeezed his eyes shut, picturing Benedict with a notebook, jotting down dimensions of butt plugs and dildos before shoving them up his arse and seeing how loudly he screamed.

“You left me with a tricky shot to make.”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t going to apologize for that.

“You can watch me take it, but I think between shots, you can be on your knees, and I really like this way of holding your cue.”

Dazed with lust, Shane let himself be hauled to his feet, then pushed down to his knees, far enough away from the pool table that he could see the cloth, though the angle wasn’t good. His hands were balled into fists in his pockets, the weight of the cue resting against the crook of his elbows. It was still digging mercilessly into his spine. He was going to have an interesting crop of bruises there.

Benedict didn’t even try to get out of the snooker. He made a deliberate foul, then gestured for Shane to rise. It was difficult to do it with any grace, but Shane managed to stand without falling over. Benedict withdrew the cue and gave it to him.

“You could probably win from here.”

“You think?”

Shane studied the lay of the table and shrugged. Benedict was right. All easy shots, and the black was the easiest of all. Ignoring the ache in his back and the presence of Benedict behind him, he pocketed the remaining stripes quickly. “Black in the top right,” he said and bent over the table.

He was just ready to slide the cue forward when he felt the solid thwack of Benedict’s cue across his arse. Predictably, Shane jumped and missed the cue ball entirely—better than fucking up the shot, but it made him whirl round and glare at Benedict.

“Problem?” Benedict asked, all innocence.

“Not from where you’re standing, apparently,” Shane growled.

Benedict reached down and grabbed hold of the front of Shane’s trousers, gripping his cock through the fabric. “It’s your turn,” he said, as if he was reminding Shane of something he’d forgotten.

“Bit difficult to take it with your hand on me.” Christ, he was so fucking hard. He hoped Benedict wouldn’t continue; the chances of him coming in his pants were increasing every second.

“I think you can manage,” Benedict told him, not letting go.

“First you hit me with your fucking cue, then this,” Shane complained. “You really are a wanker, you know?”

“Maybe, but I’m the wanker in charge, so stop bitching and take your shot.”

Benedict moved with him and unfastened the front of Shane’s jeans, standing behind him. It was awkward to bend forward over the table to line up his shot with Benedict’s hands all over him. He could barely concentrate, not when he’d been aroused so long. He was being treated like a fucking toy, teased and tortured.

“You’re panting.” Benedict’s hand slid up to press against Shane’s heart. “This is beating so fast. Are you scared, Shane? Or just turned on?”

“Nothing to be scared of.”

“I could leave you like this. That isn’t scary?”

“Please.” He hardly knew what he was saying. Benedict was pinching his nipple now. Not the halfhearted fumbles other partners had gone in for. No, Benedict made it count, gripping teased-hard flesh firmly and twisting or tugging until Shane’s nipple was a blaze of agony.

“Please stop? Please go? You’re not very coherent, Shane. And you’re not taking your shot. I might start to think you’re scared of what happens when the game’s over. Your ass getting spanked, then fucked, remember?”

“Not likely to forget.” With an effort, Shane ignored the slide of Benedict’s hand into his jeans, fingers spread, groping him casually, and took his shot.

He miscued, but by some fluke, the ball came off the side cushion, and the black ball went just where Shane had said it was going to go.

“Well, look at that,” Benedict said. “You win. So choose. My hand or the cue? Don’t keep me waiting for an answer.”

Shane had already worked out what he wanted, thank you very much.

“Both. Hard as you fucking like.”

Benedict’s face didn’t change. He nodded. “Take off your clothes. Put them there.” He indicated the nearest chair. “And bend over the pool table.”

It was possible Shane had never moved so quickly. He whipped off his T-shirt and pushed both jeans and boxers to the floor, then realized belatedly he was still wearing his shoes and had to kick those off to get rid of the rest of it. The thought of leaving the whole mess on the floor instead of putting it on the chair as he’d been instructed was tempting, but he suspected the night’s activities would already be pushing Benedict to the limit of his patience.

Five minutes later, Shane’s estimate of who would be pushed to the limits had changed utterly. He was leaning over the pool table in a position designed to keep his erection from being crushed, and his arse was on fire with the force of Benedict’s blows. Any doubts he’d had about being spanked had fled two minutes in; he was wincing with every loud slap of Benedict’s hand and rapidly starting to slip into the space in his head that he was aiming for.

The next blow drove a soft groan from him. He let his forehead drop down onto the felt and closed his eyes, inhaling through his nose as he waited for the sharp contact of Benedict’s hand. Benedict had spectacular hands. At that moment, Shane wanted to kiss them, suck on the long fingers, let Benedict push those fingers inside his arse. He shuddered as the thought of Benedict’s entire hand stretching him open was accompanied by a slap so hard it made him cry out in surprise.

There was a pause. Benedict rubbed Shane’s arse—not gently, more as if he were testing for something, though what it might be, Shane had no idea—and murmured, “I’m going to move on to the cue now. Unless you changed your mind?”

Shane knew this was a line in the sand, and knew just as surely he wanted to cross it. He shook his head resolutely, but still felt Benedict hesitate before picking up the cue.

Time for a nudge. His throat was sand dry, but he managed to ask, “Are you holding back because you want to fuck me or you don’t have the balls to give me what I won fair and square?”

“Neither. I can fuck you now if I want, not let you come, then use the cue. My choice. My rules. And when you’ve got them in your mouth, you’ll find out how big my balls are.”

The fact Benedict could show a flash of humor pleased Shane, even though he was dreading what was to come.

“I’m taking a moment to look at you,” Benedict continued. “You’re quite a sight, ass up, bright red. Maybe I should cool it down a bit.”

Shane didn’t turn his head, stubbornly refusing to give Benedict the satisfaction, but he regretted that a moment later when a handful of ice landed on his arse, the shock of it against his scalding-hot skin taking his breath away.

“Patrick should’ve emptied the ice bucket. I’ll speak to him about that tomorrow. He’s too flighty, that boy. You’ve let him get away with a lot.”

Water trickled down Shane’s thighs, warmed from its fleeting contact with his arse. He drew in a shuddering breath and exhaled it in a scream when another handful of ice was rubbed over his backside.

“Stop it! You sadistic fucker, it’s bloody freezing!”

“That’s such an accurate description that I’ll let you off being punished for your disrespectful tone.”

Shane opened his mouth to tell Benedict where he could shove the ice, the bucket, and his tone, but the cue cracked against his wet, hot skin, and he cried out instead. It was a blunt, harsh pain, the strokes heavy. Benedict was using the thick end of the cue and putting his weight behind each stroke.

Shane wasn’t sure how many he could take, but they kept coming, measured slashes, wood striking skin until the pain grew too great to bear.

He wanted to tell Benedict to stop—beg him for mercy—but he had no breath with which to form words. His lungs burned, and his throat ached, but they were nothing compared to his arse. The skin felt thin, fragile, as if the next stroke would split it open. He was still hard, but it was more of an annoyance than a source of pleasure, another ache to be endured.

And yet…he was enjoying it. If the next blow broke him open, he’d welcome it. The pain buoyed him, cushioned him. It was their pain, not just his. Behind him, Benedict’s arm had to be aching, sweat pearling on his forehead. He could hear the harsh, panting breaths Benedict was taking, could picture Benedict’s flushed face, intent, intense expression.

The pain was their creation.

One more stroke.

Shane went away then, just for a little bit, becoming the pain, and it was brilliant. The world had gone white, and when the pool cue clattered to the floor, it came as such a surprise that he would have jerked upright if Benedict’s hand hadn’t been splayed across his lower back, anchoring him. Benedict’s fingers, slick and cool compared to Shane’s heated skin, pushed inside him. Shane moaned, low and desperate. Benedict’s fingers withdrew, which hadn’t been what Shane wanted at all; then Benedict was tugging him upright, turning him around.

“Okay?” Benedict asked, lifting Shane’s face and studying it.

Shane nodded. He was wrapped in what they’d done and couldn’t possibly find a single word. He leaned forward, begging silently for Benedict’s mouth.

Benedict’s eyes were on his lips as if he wanted to kiss Shane every bit as much as Shane wanted to be kissed, but instead he propelled Shane backward a few inches until Shane’s raw arse came into contact with the pool table. “Lie back,” Benedict said, and Shane did.

Christ, it hurt. At any other time it wouldn’t have been uncomfortable—might even have been pleasant, if a bit odd—but with his arse having been both spanked and beaten, it was like lying down on hot coals. Heat rose up around Shane like a pyre, and when Benedict unzipped his trousers, rolled on a condom, and pushed inside him, it was better than perfect. Shane could feel tears running down the sides of his face.

“God, don’t cry.” Benedict sounded as shaken as Shane was, his fingers brushing frantically at the tears as if they were burning Shane’s face.

“Fuck me,” Shane growled. He wanted this. He was prepared to slam Benedict down on the floor, the bar, or the pool table and ride Benedict’s cock until he was as raw and open inside as he was on the surface if Benedict showed even a hint of backing away. “Now.”

His back was arched painfully, and the felt was like sandpaper on his back. On his backside, it was like sandpaper dipped in lemon juice, but he’d never felt better, apart from the seething impatience filling him. A voice in his head was chanting Now! Now!, and he wasn’t sure he wasn’t saying it aloud.

Benedict’s expression changed, indecision wiped clean away, passion replacing it. “Be careful what you ask for.”

It was slow to build. The hammering Shane had braced himself for never came. Instead, with Benedict’s hands under Shane, supporting him, easing the agony of his arched back, Shane was fucked open, each deliberate thrust sinking deeper, the angle ideal. Pleasure sparked across his skin, dancing fireflies that stung him, left him burning up.

He felt his climax approach and knew nothing could stop it, not even Benedict’s withdrawal. Though God help them both if Benedict even tried to pull out.

Benedict’s movements quickened, losing their relentless rhythm at last. Shane stared up through tear-blurred eyes at Benedict’s flushed face, his eyes half-closed, the muscles on his neck rigid. Benedict looked strong. Powerful. In charge.

He proved it a moment later by reaching blindly for Shane’s cock just as it hardened a fraction more, the caress permission enough for Shane’s mind and body to find a release as shattering as the caning had been and as welcome.

“Fuck,” Shane gasped. “I can’t…can’t hold off—” It was pointless to say it. He was already coming, his arse contracting around Benedict’s cock as his spunk shot out over Benedict’s fingers and his chest and stomach. It had been so long, and he’d been hard off and on for days; coming was as much relief as pleasure.

He felt Benedict freeze, and the cock in his arse pulsed five or six times before Benedict moaned and dropped down on top of him. Benedict’s weight was welcome. Shane put an arm around his waist and hung on, supporting him in case Benedict lost his balance, and encouraging him to stay where he was. Shane knew when Benedict withdrew, it was going to hurt like hell, and he’d had enough pain for now.

“You’re so fucking perfect,” Shane breathed into Benedict’s hair. Benedict even smelled perfect. Shane wanted to wrap himself around the man in his arms and never let go.

Propping himself up on an arm, Benedict looked at Shane with warmth. “Not even close, but I love you for saying it.” Benedict hesitated, then reached down, gripped the bottom of the condom, and eased out. “Sorry, sorry,” he said when Shane winced.

“S’okay.” Shane suddenly decided he couldn’t stay on his arse for another second. “Give me a hand?”

Benedict helped him get back on his feet, keeping a hand under Shane’s elbow even when he was standing again. “You want to go upstairs? We should get something on this.” He brushed his fingers lightly over Shane’s arse, and Shane shivered.

“Yeah, suppose so.” Shane watched as Benedict retrieved his clothes, then followed him up the back staircase to his flat. He went immediately to the bedroom and lay down on his stomach, grateful to be off his feet with nothing touching his backside. In a minute or two, Benedict came into the room and sat on the bed. Shane turned his head to look at him, a languid twist. He was so tired.

“Can I put this on?” Benedict held up a tube of some kind of ointment.

“Sure. Just be careful.”

Benedict worked in silence, only hissing in sympathy when Shane moaned as a particularly tender spot was dealt with.

“Is it worth it?” Benedict asked, his voice subdued. “After, when you came and there’s nothing left but this?” He touched a fingertip to bruised, hot flesh, and Shane shuddered, an echo of pain sounding through his body.

“At the time it is. I need it. It still feels good even now. Hurts, but I asked for it to.” Shane reached back with his hand, knowing it would be taken and held. “Want a mark out of ten?”

Benedict squeezed Shane’s hand gently, his thumb brushing over Shane’s palm. “I’m not sure my ego could take it if I failed. Lie to me.”

“Never going to do that. Ever. I’ll give you an eight. How’s that?”

He felt Benedict’s mouth against his shoulder, kissing the place Benedict seemed to love biting. The kiss was light, but the bruised skin throbbed, a sweet, wistful ache. “Why do I get an eight when you get an eleven?”

Shane smiled against his pillow, basking in Benedict’s admiration. “Don’t want you to get cocky and think there’s no room for improvement.”

“Hmm.” Benedict rubbed his thumb over the back of Shane’s neck. “Thirsty? I can see what’s in your fridge.”

Shane became aware of how dry his mouth and throat were. “Juice sounds good.”

“Juice it is.”

Benedict began to slide his hand free, but Shane grabbed tightly. “Don’t go yet. I wanted to tell you something. Didn’t get the chance downstairs.”

The pause before Benedict answered was short but noticeable. “What?”

“I got my test results back. We’re good to go.”

“Oh!” The exhalation that followed was a relieved one. “That’s great news.”

“Yeah. Should’ve told you, but there was never a quiet moment.”

“It’s been a busy day,” Benedict agreed, then cleared his throat and said, imitating Shane’s accent, “You were running around like a blue-arsed fly.”

Shane snorted. “That sounded nothing like me, you cheeky git. And it’s not blue now, is it?”

“No, it’s red and purple. Still gorgeous, though.”

“I’ll take a look at it later.”

“You will?”

“Sure. Why not?” Shane wasn’t planning to stand staring at his reflection for hours, but he wanted to see what all the heat and pain looked like on the outside.

“No reason, I guess.” Benedict stood. “I’ll get you that juice.”

Shane stayed awake for long enough to hear the quiet gurgle of the juice being poured, but he didn’t get to drink it. Sleep took him, and when he woke, Benedict had left for work, leaving a business card propped beside the coffeemaker.

Shane picked it up and studied it, absently rubbing his still-throbbing backside. It was for a local tattoo and piercing parlor—the one Vincent used. On the back of the card, Benedict had written Make an appointment for your next evening off. I’ll drive.

Chapter Fifteen

“Did you see this?” The first thing Shane did after getting into Ben’s car was throw the newspaper at him.

“Hey!” Ben held up a hand too late to deflect the paper, then picked it up off the floor and shoved it back at Shane. “Yes, I saw it. You were right about her, okay? Rub it in all you want. I should have let you yell at her when you wanted to.”

Shane still hadn’t shut the passenger side door. “I doubt it would have done any good.”

Ben had spent half the day pissed off about the article and only recovered midafternoon when he’d focused on work hard enough that he’d forgotten about it. Now he found himself getting pissed off all over again.

“She makes it sound as if we’re some kind of dive bar with people fucking in the bathrooms and snorting cocaine off each other.” Shane flicked the paper open to the article and stabbed at it with his forefinger. “I don’t know how she managed to make us sound like complete deviants without actually saying it.”

“It’s a rare skill.”

“And it’s right near this other article about some stupid rich mogul called Carter and his million-dollar loft apartment renovations. Makes what we did look like nothing in comparison.” Shane sounded disgusted.

Ben sighed. “Shut the door, will you?”

Shane did, with more force than was strictly necessary. The car’s frame shuddered. “It’s not just me,” he said. “I know it’s not. Everyone who’s come in today’s said the same things.”

“It’s not just you,” Ben reassured him. He wished he’d had someone to commiserate with earlier in the day, but his relationships with his coworkers were so focused on work they barely knew more than each other’s names. “Seat belt.”

“Fuck seat belts,” Shane muttered, but he put it on anyway so Ben could finally pull away from the curb.

“Are you sure you want to do this today? At all?” Ben asked as they pulled into the plaza that housed the tattoo parlor. The plaza was busy, but most of the shoppers had chosen to park close to the supermarket that dominated it, and it wasn’t difficult to get a spot close by the parlor.

“Are you having second thoughts?”

“A few,” Ben answered, opting for honesty instead of projecting the calm decisiveness that Shane seemed to like from him. He’d been doing some belated research, and some of the images of infected nipples had been the opposite of arousing. “I didn’t realize they can take six months—or more—to heal. And there’s the risk of infection, or the piercing moving or getting ripped out…”

“All true. Why do you think I’ve never done it? Though Vincent’s happy enough with his. That boy’s a metal detector’s dream date.”

“I just thought it’d be hot,” Ben confessed. “Hot making you do it, watching you when it happened…fun to play with later.”

“Fun to torture me with, you mean.” Shane rubbed his nipple through his T-shirt. “This one’s still bruised. God help me if you ever get your hands on some clamps.”

Ben took note of that, seeing it as a broad hint, not genuine apprehension. Shane had his own way of asking for things. “I’m not wasting my money on ordering some off a sleazy site,” he said. “I’ve got some clips for sealing bags that would work just as well.”

“Cheap and sadistic. I don’t half pick them.” The fond look Shane gave him saved the words from being anything but a gentle tease, and Ben responded by leaning over and kissing that smiling mouth.

“Want me to change?” he murmured, his fingers finding the nipple Shane had planned to pierce and tweaking it sharply. “Be nice to you?”

Shane sucked in a sharp breath. “Not particularly.”

“Okay. Then let’s go.”

The inside of the place held the lingering smell of cigarette smoke even though Ben was pretty sure it’d been illegal to smoke indoors for, like, ever. There was flash all over the walls, a couple of couches that looked as if they’d been there for decades and were probably at least partially responsible for the smoke smell, and haphazard stacks of photo books everywhere.

Shane went over to the desk. Behind it sat a young woman with long dark hair shot through with blue and purple dreadlocks—real? some kind of extensions?—and a bored expression. “I’ve got an appointment,” Shane said. “Brant.”

She leaned forward and ran her finger down a page in the open book in front of her. “Uh-huh. Jasper will be done in a few. Then he’ll take you. Piercing?”

“Yes.”

“All the jewelry’s over there.” She waved at a large case on the wall. “It’s all labeled. Just pick out what you want.”

There was a selection of rings and rods to choose from. Ben and Shane stood with their shoulders touching and looked at them. After half a minute, Shane shrugged. “Your idea. You choose.”

“You’re the one who’s going to wear it,” Ben protested, but he tried to imagine what a few of the rings would look like pushed through Shane’s nipple and felt his cock stir in response. God, what would it be like to tug on a ring that went through Shane’s skin? What sounds would Shane make while he was doing it? “How about that one?” He pointed to a fairly plain but solid-looking gold-toned ring.

“Yeah, sure. It’s fine.” Shane turned to him. “I don’t care all that much, to be honest. I’m doing it because you want me to. And I’m a bit curious, I suppose.” He rubbed the back of his neck and tilted his head to look at Ben with a smile.

Ben lowered his voice. “About how it’ll feel?”

Shane nodded. “During and after.” Ben glanced down and saw Shane was half-hard inside his jeans. He wished they were somewhere alone so he could reach out and cup Shane’s erection, encourage it to grow.

Instead, he changed the subject. “Tattoos aren’t like that, I hear. I mean, it hurts while you’re getting them done, but then it’s over.” Vin had told him that afterward it wasn’t any worse than a bad sunburn.

“Ever think about getting one?” Shane asked.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to guess what I wouldn’t get sick of after a few years. Anything I’d have picked when I was twenty would be embarrassing by now.”

“Brant?” Jasper had come out from the hallway behind the desk that led back to a handful of doors.

“That’s me,” Shane said. He jerked his thumb at Ben. “He wants to watch.”

“Fine with me.” Jasper was a walking advertisement for his job, muscular, his arms covered in a swirl of color, dense and detailed. Ben wondered if it was possible to tattoo yourself, but decided he didn’t care enough to ask.

After telling the receptionist which ring they’d chosen, they followed Jasper. The back room was cluttered but clean enough, a chair that looked disturbingly like a dentist’s chair in the middle of it, a stool nearby.

Ben swallowed, his stomach uneasy. The smell in here was predominately antiseptic. Add in the chair, and he was left fighting memories of painful sessions getting cavities filled.

Without being told, Shane took off his jacket, a beat-up leather, and peeled off his T-shirt.

Jasper eyed him appraisingly, and Ben felt a twinge of possessiveness that was ridiculous under the circumstances. Jasper wasn’t gay—or at least Vin hadn’t said he was—and his gaze wasn’t at all inappropriate given that he was staring at Shane’s chest.

It didn’t matter. He had to bite his tongue to keep from snapping out an order for Shane to get dressed again.

“Ever had a piercing before?”

“No.”

“Hmm.” Jasper stepped closer, squinting at Shane’s nipples. “Which one? Or both?”

Shane tapped his right nipple without speaking.

“Not inverted. Should be okay with a CBR…yeah, okay,” Jasper murmured to himself. “Sit down.”

Shane got into the chair and curled his fingers around the armrest, his knuckles gleaming white for a moment before he relaxed his grip. To Ben, Shane didn’t look any less tense after his death grip had slackened. God, was this a good idea?

Jasper drew a table on wheeled legs over to the stool he was sitting on. “Let’s get the paperwork done. You’ll need to sign a consent form, and I need to tell you about the risks and get your medical history.”

The next few minutes passed by in a blur for Ben, though he tried to pay attention to the guidelines about aftercare and cleaning, guessing Shane would be too strung out to retain them. The permission forms signed and the ring brought in, Jasper snapped on some gloves and cleaned Shane’s nipple with antibacterial soap on a piece of gauze. The attention to cleanliness was reassuring to Ben, but Shane’s face was still paler than he liked.

“Okay, now I need to mark where it’s going to go. Stand up.”

Shane stood, swaying slightly, his mouth set in a line. Ben couldn’t catch his breath. The windowless room felt hot, airless, and his ears were buzzing. There was a wooden chair by the wall, and he sat in it, dropping his head between his knees for a moment.

“You okay?” Shane asked, concern sharpening his voice.

Ben sat up and pasted on a confident smile. “Of course.”

Jasper was playing with Shane’s nipple, frowning as he decided where to make the marks. Again, Ben felt that wave of annoyance, grateful for it because it cleared his head. The marks made, Shane sat again with a thud, as if he were glad to be off his feet.

“Let’s get you on your back for the piercing,” Jasper said. He pressed a lever on the side of the chair, tilting it so that Shane was reclined. “Good. Now for the forceps. This is gonna hurt a bit, but I need to line up the marks, okay?”

The clamp went on, and Shane moaned, a small sound, more arousal than pain, and Ben’s control shattered. That whimpered, throat-caught moan was one he’d heard before—one he’d caused—and it felt wrong for anyone else to have heard or caused it.

“No,” he blurted, speaking before he’d realized he was going to. “Wait.”

“What?” Shane asked. He hadn’t moved but was looking at Ben intently.

“I changed my mind.” Ben said it quietly, then a little more loudly to Jasper. “We changed our minds.”

Shane cleared his throat. “Um…we did?”

“Sounds as if you two might need a minute to talk about this,” Jasper said. “I’ll be right back. Don’t touch anything.” He left, swinging the door most of the way closed but not latching it.

Standing, Ben moved closer to Shane and laid a hand on him just under his clamped nipple. “I can’t… I don’t want him touching you. Not like this. I didn’t think about what this part would be like. I don’t…”

“Hey, no. It’s all right.” Shane’s warm hand covered his. “Whatever you want.”

“I don’t want anyone putting marks on you but me,” Ben whispered, and Shane nodded.

“Best take this off then,” he said, gesturing at his nipple. “Care to do the honors?”

Ben hesitantly, carefully unclamped Shane’s nipple, then rubbed it when Shane winced. Seeing Shane hurt from something like this…Ben didn’t get any pleasure from it. It was completely different from what they did together. “It isn’t the same,” he said.

That wasn’t a clear enough statement to make sense, but Shane seemed to understand it anyway. He didn’t have a chance to say anything before Jasper knocked and came in. “Okay, so what’s the deal?”

“Not today,” Shane said firmly. “Sorry.”

Ben had already taken out his wallet. He’d intended to pay for the piercing since it was his idea in the first place, and he was just as happy to pay now to keep on good terms with a man who might send friends to the bar or mention something to Vin. He handed Jasper some cash. “If we change our minds—again—we’ll come back.”

“Thanks.” Jasper slid the money into his pocket as if he’d expected it.

Maybe people did this all the time, changing their minds, chickening out—or just to get a kick out of it, playing with the idea but never quite committing. “Want to take the ring with you?” Jasper asked. “You paid for it, after all.”

“Yeah,” Shane said, scooping it up. “I do. And no, I won’t try to do this at home.”

Jasper chuckled, rolling his eyes. “People do. They’re fucking nuts, but they do.” He nodded at Ben. “Just realized where I know you two from. Friends of Vin, right? You own that gay bar where he works. I saw you in the paper today.”

“We do,” Ben said, ignoring the reference to the article. “In fact, we just renovated the place. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, your first drink’s on us.”

“Might take you up on that.”

With another nod, he walked out, leaving Ben to give Shane a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry. Really sorry.”

“Shut the fuck up.” Shane came closer, pressing up against him, kissing Ben with enough passion behind it that Ben felt an urgent need to get them somewhere private. Shane was never passive, but right then he was avid, demanding, his tongue sliding deep into Ben’s mouth, his teeth dragging over Ben’s lower lip when the kiss ended. Shane drew back, his face showing some color now, his eyes gleaming. “Want you.”

“I kind of got that.” Ben was halfway to hard just from the kiss, his hands warm from touching Shane’s bare back. “Vin’s working, so my place is empty.”

“I’m empty,” Shane said, still so close, his hands gripping Ben’s shoulders as tightly as they’d held the arms of the chair. He winked. “Gonna fill me up, Benedict?”

“Jesus, just get dressed, and let’s go before I do it here.”

Shane took his time shrugging into his T-shirt and jacket, throwing Ben a couple of sidelong glances as if to make sure Ben was watching him.

In fifteen minutes—Ben didn’t speed when he was driving, even with Shane’s hand on his thigh—they were in Ben’s bedroom. “Not gonna fuck you,” he said against Shane’s lower lip. “Not tonight.”

Shane whined and ground his cock against Ben’s hand, which was shoved inside the front of his unfastened jeans. “Why the hell not?”

Ben reached around with the other hand and slapped Shane’s ass, only hard enough to sting because Shane hadn’t completely recovered from the other night. He could sit without wincing, at least, but his skin was still faintly bruised. “Saving it.”

“I’m fine,” Shane said.

“That’s not why.” Ben pushed Shane’s jeans over the curve of his ass and let gravity take them as much as it would.

“Then what?”

“Because the first time I fuck you,” Ben said between kisses, “without a condom, I don’t want to hold back.”

Shane took a step backward, and they fell down onto the bed in a tangle of limbs. “You wouldn’t have to now.”

“Stop arguing,” Ben told him. He pushed Shane’s underwear to somewhere around his knees and licked his erection before taking the head of it into his mouth. God, Shane tasted good, and felt good; he even sounded good, moaning and swearing as Ben teased him.

Shane struggled, probably trying to kick off his shorts and give Ben full access, but Ben chose to take it as an attempt to break free. He took the loose skin of Shane’s balls between his thumb and finger and pinched it sharply. “Stay still.”

Shane yelped. “That fucking hurts!”

“Does it?” Ben did it again, a slow, relentless squeeze of the small piece of flesh, knowing just how intense the pain would be. “Your piercing would’ve hurt more.”

“Stop it. Please.” Shane was holding still—he didn’t have much choice—but his hands were fisted in the sheets, and his body was rigid.

“No.” Ben bent and lapped at the head of Shane’s cock, wet with more than saliva, and kept up the pressure. “I’m going to leave you with bruises all over you tonight. My marks. This is the first.”

“God, yes.” Shane was panting now, hoarse gasps, his chest heaving. “Hurts.”

“Mm. Good.” Ben took Shane’s cock in deep, enjoying himself. After another ten seconds or so, he opened his thumb and finger and rode out the involuntary jerk of Shane’s hips that drove Shane’s cock deeper into Ben’s throat. Ben came close to choking, but he didn’t mind. Shane was making those sounds again, sexy, pleading, unbearably arousing sounds, but this time they were all his.

Just like Shane.

Chapter Sixteen

Shane adjusted the collar of his shirt self-consciously as he and Benedict went into the Square Peg. They’d managed to snag a prime parking space right out front when someone else had pulled out, which was a piece of luck. The bar was moderately crowded for a weeknight, a definite improvement on what it would’ve been like before. One table of guys near the bar seemed more than a bit raucous, but they weren’t causing any trouble.

“Loud,” Benedict commented, then as Shane adjusted his collar again, “Stop. No one can see anything, and if you keep doing that, they’re going to start wondering why.”

He was right, Shane knew, but he could still feel the sting of the eighteen marks Benedict had left on him. Benedict had made him count each one as it was made, from the mouth-sized bruise under his right nipple to the three on his inner thighs. By the time Benedict had finally let him come, he’d been sobbing with need and grateful for every mark.

Each bruise was hidden by his clothes, though. Shane knew it was true, even if he felt rather on display as they crossed the floor to the bar.

“Hey, there you are,” Vincent said, grinning as he took cash from a customer and made change. “I was starting to think you got lost.”

Shane wasn’t about to justify that with an answer. “How’ve things been?”

“Pretty busy. They’re keeping us hopping.”

Shelly was pulling pints and chatting up the customers. She did have a way with them, a natural sort of bartender quality that meant she’d always have a job no matter where she went.

“I think we’ve got some new regulars,” Vincent continued, gesturing at the table of loud young men.

“Weren’t they in here last week?” Benedict asked, and Vincent nodded.

“Don’t worry—I carded everyone, and they’ve got a designated driver. I think the skinny guy is kind of trashed. Shelly found him in the back hallway near the door to the alley. He was looking for the bathroom.”

Shane grimaced. “Keep an eye on him, yeah?”

“I will.” Vincent was doing half a dozen things at once as usual, and Shane thought he was lucky as hell to have the small group of loyal employees he’d somehow managed to amass.

He was still getting used to the place being full in the middle of the week, still marveling at how much money they were making. It would take a while to offset the cost of the renovations—and for Shane to repay Benedict—but if things kept on like this…

Surreptitiously, Shane looked around for a piece of wood to rap, settling for the leg of one of the tall stools at the bar.

It was his night off, so he didn’t have to stay in the bar. Still, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be—unless it was back in bed with Benedict. Trying to keep his gaze unobtrusive, he glanced over at Benedict, who was arguing with Shelly over the proportion of vodka to vermouth in a vodka martini. His money was on Shelly, who prided herself on her cocktails. She sometimes invented her own, most of them strong enough to make Shane’s throat go numb after a few swallows.

Benedict’s face was animated, his hair ruffled from the kiss they’d shared before getting out of the car. Shane felt a yearning ache, poignant enough to make him unable to look away. It wasn’t based wholly in desire—though he couldn’t look at Benedict and not want him—but something bigger.

God, I’m in love with him.

The thought should have terrified Shane—you loved someone, and in his experience you were opening yourself up for a world of hurt—but it didn’t. Not loving Benedict, losing this feeling, was far scarier.

He probed the revelation as he would a tooth that’d been filled, its shape rendered unfamiliar, the edges still rough. He knew they’d gone from strangers to lovers with relative ease, and he trusted Benedict not to two-time him with nothing to base that trust on but his gut and the way Benedict took care of him. Benedict exuded integrity and reliability—even when he was turning Shane’s backside into an inferno or fucking him raw.

He knew from today that Benedict was possessive about him—and God, how much did he get off on that?—but did Benedict love him?

Shane couldn’t see himself asking that question when he was sober. He dragged his gaze off Benedict and turned to signal Vincent for a drink, only to find Vincent staring at him, an amused smile on his face.

“What?” he snapped, heat rising in his face as if he’d been caught peeping through a window.

Vincent widened his eyes innocently and shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Then get back to work and get me a fucking drink.” Shane gestured at Benedict. “You, get over here.”

Benedict blinked, but came over willingly enough, and settled on the stool next to his. Feeling defiant, Shane slung an arm around Benedict’s neck and tugged him closer, then kissed his temple. The expression Benedict turned toward him was shocked. “What—”

“Not allowed to kiss my boyfriend in public?” Shane growled, in a tone that didn’t permit disagreement. The slow smile that spread across Benedict’s face was well worth it.

They sat there for a few minutes, neither of them saying anything until Shelly groaned behind the bar. She was peering into the just-run dishwasher. “Broke another four,” she announced. “We either have to get someone in here to adjust this thing or buy some different glasses, because these keep cracking.”

It wasn’t the first time Shane had heard the complaint. “Benedict ordered some. Not sure where they ended up.”

Benedict was already standing. “I’ll grab a box.” He headed for the hallway, and Shane moved to help Shelly wrap the broken glassware so it could be taken to the big recycling bin out back without cutting anyone.

Another group of men came in and ordered drinks from Vincent. Shane had never seen them before either. In fact, half the patrons in the place were new faces. Christ, this was a different world in more ways than one.

Shelly frowned at something behind him, and Shane turned to see Benedict frozen in place, holding a cardboard box in front of him like a shield and staring at the men who’d just come in. He saw Shane looking at him and swallowed, smiled what might have been the least convincing smile Shane had ever seen, and started walking toward them again.

“Do you want to just get rid of those?” Benedict asked, sounding bloody awful. “If they’re just gonna break anyway.”

“Seems a waste. Maybe we can just let the staff take them home. They’d be okay if they were washed by hand.” He took the box from Benedict and set it down on the floor, out of the way. “What’s wrong?” he asked, lowering his voice and automatically moving to shield Benedict from view.

Benedict closed his eyes for a second, breathing in deeply. If he started intoning om, Shane was getting him out of there. “Nothing. No, don’t glare at me. That group who came in—the tall blond is my ex, Jenson. Looks as if he’s with someone.”

“Yeah? Well, so are you.” Shane had to do some deep breathing of his own. If Benedict was going to do some comparisons between the old and the new and decide he preferred vintage…

He turned his head and gave Jenson a critical once-over. Good-looking, bland, clothes a little too matchy-matchy, a hint of petulance in his expression as he settled for Gordon’s with his tonic because they were all out of Blue Sapphire. Shane made a mental note to get more in and discovered his fists were clenched when he tried to pick up a glass and get himself a shot of vodka.

Shit. They couldn’t both go to pieces. He rolled up his right sleeve, high enough to expose the small, dark bruise just below the crook of his elbow, and angled his arm so Benedict could see it. “You put that on me,” he said softly, brushing it with his fingertip and feeling a thrill go through him. That one had been the ninth. “You never did that to him, I bet. You might have wanted to, but you wouldn’t have dared. You’re different now. Stronger. You know who you are. Show him.”

“I wanted him,” Benedict said, and Shane felt his heart drop down somewhere near his knees.

“Do you still?” God, it killed him to say it. It killed him a little bit more when Benedict didn’t answer right away. “Benedict. Look at me.”

Benedict reached out and touched the bruise on Shane’s arm, then lifted his face and shook his head. “No. I don’t want him anymore.” His voice was barely above a whisper, but it might as well have been shouted from the rooftops as far as Shane was concerned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. About how you’d feel. God. I’m so fucking sorry.”

Shane slid a hand up along Benedict’s jaw into his hair. It curled wild around his fingers. “Don’t be sorry. Be here. With me.”

“I am,” Benedict said. “You’re right. I should listen to you more.”

“Yes, you should.” Shane gave in to temptation and slipped his other hand into Benedict’s hair as well. He shook Benedict’s head back and forth gently. “Deep breaths, now. Get hold of yourself. He’s just another bloke. And he’s certainly not good enough for you.”

Benedict’s mouth twisted. It wasn’t a smile, but it was a start. “Thank you,” Benedict said and leaned in to press the sweetest kiss Shane had ever imagined against his lips.

“Go on then. Show him you don’t need him.”

“That’s going to be easy,” Benedict said, his voice strengthening with every word. “Because I don’t. Not if I have you.”

“Oh, you’ve got me,” Shane told him. “Body and soul. Yours.”

Benedict sighed. “Now I want to ignore him and take you upstairs so you can show me how true that is.”

It was tempting, even if they’d only just had sex an hour ago, but Shane shook his head. “Well, you can’t. Go and rub his nose in what he’s lost out on.”

That got him an eye roll. “Because that’s not petty at all.”

Benedict squared his shoulders and walked to the end of the bar with a confident stride. Shane didn’t join him, but he picked up a cloth and began to wipe down the bar, the action familiar enough to be soothing, and gradually drifted closer so he could eavesdrop.

“Jenson! Good to see you in here.”

“Ben. Hi.” Jenson had his arm around a guy with short dark hair and an expression Shane didn’t like. “I wondered if we’d see you here. I figured you’d be more behind the scenes.”

“No,” Benedict said. “I’m right out here on the front lines.”

“It’s not a war, Ben.” Jenson laughed, and Shane wondered if he was always this much of a prick. He sounded so dismissive.

Benedict picked up a used empty glass from the bar and stood there holding it. Keep it together, Benedict, Shane thought. “This isn’t your scene, is it?” Benedict asked.

“I wouldn’t have thought so, but that article in the paper…I was curious.”

So they had that bloody reporter woman to blame for Jenson’s appearance. Add it to the list of ways in which she’d fucked them over.

Jenson’s new boyfriend cleared his throat, and Jenson had the decency to look embarrassed, at least. “Sorry. Ben, this is Andrew. My boyfriend.”

“Nice to meet you.” Benedict finally put down the glass he’d been holding, and Vincent reached to pick it up. Good to know Shane wasn’t the only one who’d noticed something going on; it was a talent of Vincent’s, the ability to read people and know which ones were aiming for alcohol poisoning and which were itching for a fight.

Introduce me. Shane wondered if Benedict would hear him if he concentrated hard enough.

After shaking Andrew’s hand, Benedict turned slightly and smiled at Shane. “I’d like you to meet Shane. He’s my business partner and co-owner of the bar.” Shane’s stomach lurched, but before he could open his mouth to point out that most people didn’t suck their business partner’s dicks on a regular basis, Benedict continued, “More importantly, though, he’s my boyfriend. I’m a lucky man.”

Shane dropped the polishing cloth and went to join Benedict, resisting the urge to hurry. Casual, he told himself. Don’t show off; don’t swear; don’t grab Benedict’s arse just because it’s there and you can. Be classy.

He shook hands with Jenson and Andrew. The couple they’d come in with had gone over to the pool table, examining it as if it were something on display in a gallery. “Pleasure to meet you,” he said with a complete lack of sincerity.

“Love the accent,” Jenson said, his insincerity equally plain. “Scottish, right?”

“English,” Shane said flatly.

“Oh. Sorry.”

“I’m not.” He felt the pressure of Benedict’s heel against his toes, a gentle reminder that could turn painful if Benedict bore down. “I mean, no need to be sorry. Easy to get them mixed up.” If you’re deaf.

“Well, the whole place is so tiny, it shouldn’t have room for accents.” Jenson snickered at his joke, Andrew joining in, then waved dismissively. “Britain’s a fading power politically and economically. You made a wise move coming here. I take it you are here legally?”

Bloody cheek. Shane said curtly, “Been here for years, all above board.”

“Well, isn’t that nice.” Jenson picked up his gin and tonic, the slice of lime a vivid green, jostled by the ice, and raised it in an ironic toast. “Here’s to new partners. Business and…otherwise.”

Christ, what a fucking arsehole the man was. It was hard to imagine why Benedict had put up with him for long enough to eat a meal, let alone plan a life together. Assuming that’s what they’d done. Shane made an excuse as fast as he could think of one and dragged Benedict away. “He’s a prick,” Shane told Benedict once he’d got him to the office. He pushed Benedict up against the wall and kissed him, ran eager hands over his chest and arms. “Doesn’t deserve you.”

Benedict made a little sound of encouragement and kissed him back until they were out of breath. “Thanks,” Benedict said, tilting his head so their foreheads were touching. “That was—thank you.”

“Don’t be a moron,” Shane said. He patted Benedict’s hip. “I can’t believe he turned up here. Do you believe he didn’t think he’d see you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. He’s pretty sure he’s right about everything.” Benedict sighed, and Shane realized neither of them was hard. That had to be a first.

“Did you have dinner?”

“No. I figured we’d grab some after the piercing place, but…”

Yeah, they’d gone back to Benedict’s house and had crazy, desperate sex instead. “Let me order you something now. You won’t make it to closing if you don’t eat.”

“I might not anyway,” Benedict said, but he agreed to a sandwich from the shop up the street whose employees would deliver because they knew they could count on Shane for good tips.

Two hours later, Benedict having eaten and relaxed, they were sitting on either side of the desk and arguing about the best use of their limited advertising funds.

“I think more gay guys read the Advocate,” Benedict said. “Plus, look at the kinds of ads that are in here.” He shoved the newspaper back across the desk at Shane, who’d already read it.

“Yeah, they’re the kinds of places we’d go, but we don’t just want guys like us coming in here. There are just as many lesbians who’d like a safe place to have a few drinks; getting them through the doors has never been easy.”

Benedict tapped the paper. “Okay, what if we do this—split the cash between ads in the Advocate and that free gay magazine or whatever it is, then do some kind of poll of new customers to see what percentage of them saw the ads in either place?”

Shane snorted. “That’s what people want when they come in for a drink, to have to fill out a fucking poll.”

“I’d do it,” Benedict said, and what the hell was Shane supposed to say to that? He wasn’t going to imply people like Benedict were as rare as endangered species. Benedict was sure to take it as an insult instead of the compliment it was.

“You’re the kind of man who gets involved,” he said. That was diplomatic, wasn’t it? “Most people just can’t be arsed.” An idea occurred to him. “How about the ad has a space for a name and phone number? Something people can tear out. We can have a box on the bar, and people can drop the bit of paper in there, and each week we’ll draw a winner, and they get, I don’t know, a meal for two or something. But what we’re really doing is seeing what paper they read.”

“I like it,” Benedict said, after taking a moment to mull it over. “It’d give us a rough idea, anyway. Fine, we’ll do it.”

“Good.” Shane leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. “Want to go back into the bar and have a nightcap?”

“Drinking up the profits?” Benedict frowned at him, mock-serious and sexy as hell. “I’m not sure I approve of that.”

Shane held up his hand and mimicked a mouth opening and closing. “La-la-la, can’t hear you. Or did you say Make mine a double?”

“You love pushing me, don’t you?” Benedict shook his head. “Our foreplay isn’t like anyone else’s.”

“Yeah,” Shane said. “But we’re having fun, right?”

“Oh yes.” Benedict was staring at him, his eyes hard, intent, and Shane felt anticipation build, slow and heavy, hardening his cock and making him feel alive. “Lots of fun.”

They slipped back out into the bar, where the group of new guys from the week before was still at it. New regulars, maybe. That was always good. Shane and Benedict sat shoulder to shoulder at the bar and shared a beer between them—a compromise Shane could live with, and as far as he knew, Benedict planned to go home for the night, so it wouldn’t do to get him drunk.

“Work tomorrow?” he asked.

“Sadly, yes.” Benedict sighed and handed him the glass. “I wish I could just do this every day. Number crunching is a valuable skill, but being at that office is starting to feel like being locked in a cell.”

Shane frowned; he didn’t like to think of Benedict stuck behind a desk. “So quit.”

“I can’t.” Benedict took the glass back from him and drained it, then set it down on the bar with a click. “We… I need the income, at least until it seems as if things here are stable. Right now it’s looking good, though. Better than I expected.”

Vincent had already announced last call, and now he and Shelly were making the rounds of the tables, clearing up empty glasses, scattered napkins, and other things left over after a night of drinking. The renovations had made the place nicer, but it was still rather small as far as bars went, one benefit of which was that it didn’t take too long to clean up for the night.

“Where’d the new guys go?” Benedict asked. “You know, the ones who were sitting over there?”

“They left at last call,” Vincent said with a shrug as he followed the last two customers to the door. “Night, guys.” He locked the door, then turned and added, “I figured they had somewhere else to be. One of them had a couple of arguments with someone on his cell.”

“Fight with the boyfriend?” Benedict suggested.

Vincent shook his head. “No way. He was straight. I figured it was a girlfriend, and she was mad he went out with his friends.”

Coming back with a tray of dirty glasses, Shelly said, “I thought they were all straight. The one with the blond hair was flirting with me off and on, and I think I must have seen the short stocky one somewhere else because he looked really familiar.”

“Huh,” Benedict said. “Maybe they were just curious. You know, having a little field trip to check out the queers.”

Shane started loading the dishwasher, taking care to put the older, more fragile glassware on the middle rack where it hopefully wouldn’t get broken. At least the water wouldn’t be aimed directly at it. Benedict piled a collection of empty bottles into a bin to take back to the recycling. He looked tired; he shouldn’t stay so late at the bar, Shane thought, when he’d have to get up early to be at the office. Selfishly, Shane liked having him there.

Shelly was sweeping over near the front door when she gasped and dropped the broom with a clatter. “Ben! Your car’s on fire!”

For a moment, Shane tried to process her words into something that made sense, because clearly, obviously, Benedict’s car wasn’t on fire. Why would it be? Even after years over here, when people spoke quickly or slurred their words, he sometimes had trouble understanding them. It worked both ways. He’d once left a restaurant, scarlet-faced and furious, after trying to give his order to a woman who’d stared at him blankly when she wasn’t asking him to repeat himself, speaking to him slowly, as if they were using different languages. He could’ve pointed at the menu, but he’d been talking English, just like her, for God’s sake.

The note of panic in Shelly’s voice didn’t need translating, though, and before Shane realized he was moving, he was running toward the door, instinct and adrenaline spurring him on.

“Shane! Be careful,” Benedict called out, doing the sensible thing and taking out his phone.

“Careful my arse.” Anger rose in him as he reached the sidewalk, Shelly and Vincent on his heels, and saw the group of straights from the bar standing a safe distance away, grins on their faces, ready to scatter at the first siren, but wanting to watch what they’d done. Then the crackle of the flames drew his attention to Benedict’s car. They’d started the fire by shoving a rag into the gas tank and setting it alight, and from the stink of gasoline in the air, they’d poured some over the car too. He tried to remember how much gas was in the tank. Not much, because Benedict had been talking about stopping to fill up on the way over, and Shane had protested, pointing out that it was late and Benedict still had a quarter of a tank left. Yeah, a quarter of a tank; that was it. Except that wasn’t good news. It gave the flames air as well as fuel, and that could add up to a bang.

“The emergency services are on their way,” Benedict said, appearing at his side. “They told us to stay away from it and not try to put it out. We should get back inside in case it explodes. God, I can’t believe this! Who’d do something like this?”

“They would,” Shane said, nodding at the watching young men.

Benedict grimaced, grasping the situation at once, disappointment and hurt showing briefly on his face before he rallied. “Well, they’re barred. For fucking life.”

“Too bloody right.”

“So we know who it was, and I can remember their faces. Come back inside.” Benedict turned to Shelly and Vincent. “You two. Inside. And stay away from the windows. Shane, did you hear me?”

“Not yet,” Shane said and took out his phone. He knew he didn’t stand a chance in hell of getting the culprits to stick around long enough to be arrested, but he could at least capture them on video. He held up his phone and started to walk toward them, zooming in as much as possible. They were standing under a streetlight, which helped, though he wasn’t sure how useful the images would be. He knew they’d done it, but they’d claim someone else had and they were just witnesses.

Grinning witnesses, nudging each other gleefully as if they’d done something clever.

“It’s gonna set those trees on fire in a minute,” Vincent said grimly.

“Maybe we should get some water?” Shelly was hugging herself, and Benedict was standing closer to Shane than he had been a few seconds before.

“Not with a gas fire; it’ll just spread,” Benedict said. “Shane…”

“Here.” Vincent had come back from inside with a fire extinguisher and was offering it to Benedict, but Shane shoved the phone at Benedict and took the extinguisher himself. Vincent was right—if the blazing car set on fire the medium-size trees that lined the sidewalk, they were going to have an entirely new problem.

It took less than a minute to discharge the fire extinguisher. The powdery contents blew all around them and did douse the flames somewhat, but didn’t come close to putting the fire out. By the time Shane let the canister fall to the pavement, the guys had disappeared, and Benedict was tugging at Shane’s shirt.

“Come on,” Benedict said. “You’re freaking me out. Please.”

Shane stifled the cough that inhaling the chemicals caused—hopefully they weren’t toxic and he wouldn’t drop dead at any moment—and let Benedict lead him a few feet from the car. He’d tried to aim the extinguisher at the gas cap. Maybe that would be enough to keep the car from blowing up.

“Shane.” Shelly came back outside and Shane opened his mouth to shout at her for it when he saw her stricken face. “It’s inside—”

He had no idea what she was on about, but he pushed past her and ran inside, heart pounding with adrenaline, to discover the bar was on fire as well. The air was already thick with smoke, and the flames had spread along the back hallway and were licking at the floor near the bar. Holy fucking Christ, they were going to lose the whole place if the fire trucks didn’t arrive soon.

“Oh my God,” Benedict said behind him.

Shane whirled and grabbed on to Benedict’s upper arms. “Get out—do you hear me? Don’t argue. Go.” He shoved Benedict toward the front door, where Vincent stood framed in the doorway.

“And what about you? Where are you going?” Benedict was yelling now, his face close enough that Shane should have been able to feel the warmth of his breath, but the air was so hot that it would probably have felt cool. Shane opened his mouth to reply and choked on smoke. “Need to do something. Save something. God, all tonight’s takings—” He looked around him, bewildered. Ten minutes ago, it’d been a freshly painted, comfortable room, every surface gleaming, a welcoming space. Now, it was being consumed, tainted. Smoke was seeping into every crack. Flames and heat were warping straight lines into twisted nightmarish shapes. In the few moments they’d spent screaming at each other, the flames had leaped, eager as a lover, to caress the ceiling, the new paint crackling as it blistered.

“It doesn’t matter! Jesus, Shane, we need to go. Listen, I hear the fire trucks coming.”

Shane couldn’t hear anything but the fierce rumbling roar of the fire. He nodded, though, and gestured at the door. “Well, go on then.”

Benedict’s eyes were running with tears. From the smoke, Shane guessed. His eyes were streaming too, but not from grief. He hadn’t reached that stage yet.

He was stuck between shock and murderous fury.

Benedict turned to leave, clearly expecting Shane to follow him, but he couldn’t, not without saving something. Everything he owned was in this building, and he doubted any of it would be salvageable, so it was up to him.

The bar was lit up, the bottles a glittering display. In a few minutes, the labels would peel and char, and the glass would melt when the fire got hot enough. As a kid, he’d tossed beer cans and bottles into bonfires lit on Guy Fawkes night and watched them disappear as if by magic, sparks flying up into the cold November air, like tiny fireworks. Those bonfires had been too hot to get close to, built on wasteland in the week before the day itself, guarded closely because there was always someone who wanted to spoil the fun and light them early.

A bottle. He’d rescue a bottle. It didn’t matter which one.

It wasn’t until he’d dashed behind the bar, grabbed on to a bottle and turned to leave that he realized the risk he’d taken was too great. The heat was so intense it was physically impossible to make himself take a step forward, the flames already too high to pass through. Shane glanced toward the door and saw two shadowed figures—Benedict and Vincent?—struggling with each other, one trying to hold the other back.

Bolting for the far end of the bar, Shane jumped up onto the granite and spun around, then pushed himself off onto the floor. The fire was moving faster than seemed possible, but he could still make it.

He’d barely reached the nearest table and chairs when the world exploded.

“Shane! Shane!” There was a hand on his face. Benedict, looming over him. Everything was muffled. Shane’s ears felt stuffed full of cotton wool, and his head was in a vise; that was the only explanation for the pressure. The ground beneath him was cold and very hard. Benedict had tear tracks through the dark smudges on his face, and above him the sky was dotted with stars.

Shane blinked and reached up clumsily to grab Benedict’s hand. Benedict caught his hand between both of his and brought it to his mouth, kissed his knuckles.

“Ow,” Shane said.

“Don’t try to move,” Benedict told him. Thank God his ears seemed to be clearing. “Just stay where you are. I swear, if you move, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

He hurt too much to move. Felt as if he’d been stretched on a rack, put through a wringer. Something like that. He coughed, and that hurt too.

“The paramedics are coming,” Benedict said. “Okay? God, what the fuck were you thinking?”

The air was thick with smoke. Made it hard to breathe. Fuck, the bar. Shane twisted, turning, and all he could see was fire.

“It’s gone,” he said, punctuating each word with a cough. “All gone.”

“Don’t talk.”

Shane lost a few minutes then, blacking out, and reviving when he felt the pressure of an oxygen mask against his face. His world jolted, and he rose, helpless as a turtle on its back. He struggled, but strong hands held him down. A stretcher. He was strapped onto a stretcher, strange faces above him.

“They’re taking you to the hospital,” Benedict called out, his face drawn, smudged with dirt. He looked exhausted. “You and one of the men who started this. I need to talk to the police, but I’ll be there, Shane. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Questions, protests formed in his head, but never reached his lips. He was tidied out of the way with a brusque efficiency, and the ambulance doors slammed, cutting off his view of the scene, the wail of the sirens rising to drown everything out.

Chapter Seventeen

Standing and watching the ambulance drive away with Shane inside wasn’t easy, but Ben had done plenty of hard things in his life, and it was obvious he was going to have to do more in the near future. He’d do this too.

“Sir, please move away from the building.” One of the police officers gestured at him, and Ben went over to stand with Shelly and Vincent.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Shelly looked worried, the cloud of dark curls around her face hanging limply, her blue eyes reddened. She hugged Ben tightly, and he returned the embrace, grateful for it.

“They think he has a concussion, and he inhaled a lot of smoke. But he’ll be okay.” Ben glanced in the direction the ambulance had gone.

One of the guys responsible for the fires had ended up splashing some gas on his pants leg, and it had gone up in flames. He had some pretty serious burns and had been taken to the hospital too, but the other three were still there and in handcuffs. They’d hung around too long waiting for their friend to rejoin them, not knowing he was lying on the pavement on the other side of the building groaning in pain.

“You the employees?” a cop asked, coming over to them.

“Yeah,” Vin said, jerking his thumb at Ben. “And he’s one of the owners.”

The cop sighed. “Any idea why they’d want to do something like this? Did you have some kind of argument?”

“No,” Ben said. “I don’t even know them, except they’ve been in for a drink a couple of times.”

“It’s a fucking hate crime,” Vin said hotly. “Bunch of straight guys burning up a gay bar? They probably wish we’d been in there.”

“They aren’t saying much,” the cop said.

“They’re probably waiting for their lawyer.” Ben rubbed at his eyes, stinging from the smoke. He could smell it in his hair, his clothes. He should go home to shower and change before he went to Shane, and spare Shane the reminder of what had happened. He didn’t want to, though. It might be selfish of him, but he needed to be with Shane, to see for himself that Shane was okay. The hell with how filthy he was.

He brushed at his shirt and saw ash flake off, white and gray. No hospital would let him walk in like this. Weariness rose up in him as he struggled to decide what to do. It wasn’t like him to be mired in indecision.

“Look, I need to go home, change, then get over to the hospital. I’ll come in and make a statement tomorrow, as early as you want, but there’s nothing else I can tell you now. Please. I need to see how Shane is.”

The cop nodded. “Okay. Just give me your details so we can contact you.”

“Sure.” Ben reeled them off automatically, cell, home number, work number…

“The work number—it’s not the bar?”

“No. Shane and I inherited the bar from my father, but I’m an accountant at Mulholland and Barnes. I don’t think I’ll be there tomorrow, but you might need it, I guess.”

There was a subtle shift in the cop’s expression, as if being an accountant meant Ben suddenly deserved better treatment or was more credible as a witness. It was ridiculous and wrong, but Ben had no compunction about using it to his advantage.

He pulled his keys out of his pocket. “Okay, I’m going then. Vin, do you need a…” His words trailed off as he stared at the keys he held. The keys to a burned-out piece of scrap metal. “Oh God.”

The cop patted his shoulder, some sympathy showing now. “Yeah, guess you’re the one needing a ride, huh?”

“I’ll take him home,” Vin said, stepping close to Ben, Shelly moving to Ben’s other side. He felt their concern and loyalty warm him, but it was a distant heat. He was shivering, chilled to the bone. Even knowing it was shock didn’t help. He ached for Shane. The desolation in Shane’s eyes, the loss that was so much worse for him than for Ben…

“Hurry,” Ben said. “Please. I need to get clean, or they won’t let me see him.”

“They will.” Shelly slid her arm around him, and the three of them walked to Vin’s van, luckily parked on the street for once. “I’ll see you both at the hospital.”

“You don’t need to come, either of you,” Ben said.

Vin snorted. “Shane might be your boyfriend—and trust me; that wasn’t a big surprise—but he’s been our friend for longer. We’re going.” He sniffed his sleeve and grimaced. “Don’t use all the hot water. You’re not the only one who stinks.”

Ben felt as if he was in a daze as they drove home. He was glad beyond belief that Vin had been living with him, had a key, and knew where everything was. He wouldn’t have been capable just then of giving directions. Vin kept throwing concerned glances in his direction, but he didn’t have the brain power to be reassuring. All he wanted was to get the smoke and ash washed off him and to get himself into some clean clothes.

“Go,” Vin said, propelling him toward the bathroom. “I’ll be ready when you are.”

The hot water pouring over him made Ben shake; all the adrenaline that had been coursing through him had fled, leaving him numb. Low blood sugar, he thought. He could barely manage shampoo and soap, but he concentrated on doing at least a cursory job, then let it go. He couldn’t worry about any of it now—all that mattered was that he pass for clean.

There was a scrape on his cheekbone, he noticed when he looked in the mirror. He’d already let the towel fall to the floor after scrubbing it over his skin, and he walked out into the hallway, then his bedroom without thinking about the fact that he was naked. Vin was in the kitchen running water. Ben pulled on some clothes and went out to find Vin, who had left a couple of wadded dish towels in the sink and had a clean face and hands and damp hair.

“I just scrubbed up here,” Vin said. “I didn’t think you’d want to wait. Here, take this.” He pushed a granola bar into Ben’s hand. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah.”

The ride to the hospital and the walk from the parking garage felt like some sick dream. None of this was real, was it? They stopped at the front desk, and Ben was completely unable to communicate with the woman sitting there; thank goodness for Vin, who took care of everything and led him upstairs to Shane’s room.

Standing in the doorway, looking at Shane lying pale and motionless but alive on the hospital bed, Ben could finally breathe. He didn’t know how he got from there to the bed, but he was sitting in a chair and holding Shane’s hand.

“Shane?” God, he sounded awful even to his own ears, and he should just let Shane rest. But he needed some kind of acknowledgment.

“Benedict.” His name was a ragged whisper, separated into syllables, but it was accompanied by a squeeze from Shane’s fingers that was reassuringly strong. “Can’t…fucking…talk. Hurts.”

“So don’t talk. Jesus.”

“Hey.” Vin walked over to stand at the other side of the bed. “You’re going to be okay, boss. Guess you’re feeling out of it now, but by tomorrow you’ll be fine.”

Shane turned his head away, managing somehow to convey a world of dejection in the gesture. His hand slipped free of Ben’s.

“Shane? Listen to Vin. He’s right. They’ve caught the bastards who did this, and God, I know you must feel like hell, but it could’ve been so much worse, Shane. You could have died in there and—”

Horrified, he closed his mouth. He could feel the angry words boiling up, born of fear, not true annoyance, because he’d nearly lost Shane, and they’d only just met, for God’s sake, and that would have been so fucking unfair… And maybe Shane did need to know how dreadful Ben felt, but not now.

Vin cleared his throat. “I’m going to let you two just—yeah. I’ll call Shelly, tell her Shane’s awake.” He slipped out of the room, but Ben didn’t watch him leave. He couldn’t take his gaze off Shane, who was stubbornly looking the other way now, averting his face from Ben.

Ben felt helpless. Under normal circumstances, if Shane had acted like this, he’d have dealt with it easily, and yes, it would probably have been the kind of solution where they ended up naked. With sex out of the question, he was floundering. God, was their relationship so shallow they had no way to communicate that didn’t involve heated—verging on violent—sex?

“I can’t do this.” He didn’t know what he was saying. He didn’t care.

Shane turned his head and looked at Ben, groped for his hand. “What?”

“God, don’t talk. Okay, just…just lie there and listen to me.” Ben laid his head down on the mattress and left it there. “Please. Please, okay? I don’t know how to do this, and you aren’t making it any easier.”

Shane’s fingers slipped free of his again, only to touch Ben’s hair tentatively.

“You don’t know how it felt. Seeing you run in there and then… I thought you were dead. I thought you were dead.” Ben couldn’t manage more than a whisper. “Do you know how that felt? I couldn’t… Time just stopped. I was so fucking scared.”

He was still scared.

“Please don’t do that to me again. Not ever. I think… I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t live like that.” Ben finally found the courage to lift his face and look at Shane.

Shane was looking at him with so much warmth and acceptance, and Shane was beautiful. The lines on his face, the light gray of his eyes, the way his bottom lip always looked as if he’d been biting it.

Perfect.

“I’m so fucking in love with you it hurts,” Ben breathed.

Shane looked surprised. That hurt somehow. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find out someone loved you. They should have shown you in a dozen different ways, saying the words with their hands, their eyes. If Shane didn’t know how quickly and deeply Ben had fallen in love with him—

“Beat me to it.” Shane’s lips moved, the barest whisper giving their movement meaning. “Wanted to tell you that. Wasn’t sure you—” He broke off to cough and couldn’t stop, the paroxysm continuing so long Ben’s heart was thudding by the time he’d helped Shane sit up, cradling Shane against him.

“You need to rest,” he said. Shane needed a shower. His hands and face had been wiped clean, though there were traces of grime showing. But his hair reeked of smoke. Even after his shower, it was all Ben could smell, as if the smoke had crawled inside him.

“Need you.”

Tears, clean, salty tears, stung Ben’s eyes, but he blinked them away. “Well, you’ve got me. They’re keeping you in tonight for observation, but you should be able to come home tomorrow with me. Just rest now, Shane.”

“That an order?”

“Yeah.” He kissed Shane then, not the long kiss he wanted to give him, taking Shane’s mouth with his, but a kiss all the same. “I’ll be back in the morning, okay? Go to sleep.”

Shane nodded, his eyelids sliding closed, as if he’d needed Ben’s words to push him over.

Ben stood, vaguely aware he still felt unsteady, but past caring. He had to find Vin and reassure Shelly, go home to sleep, then give a statement. Find something for Shane to wear, set the insurance claim in motion—thank God he’d kept copies of everything important at his house—call work…

He sat again and dropped his head into his hands, overwhelmed.

A hand touched his shoulder, and he jerked up. Shelly stood beside him. Her voice lowered, but not whispering, she said, “You need to rest too, boss. Time to go home. Vin’s waiting outside. The smell was getting to him. He doesn’t like hospitals much.”

“You’ve never called me that before.” And now, there’s nothing for me to be the boss of, he thought.

She shrugged. “I take a while to judge people. I like to get to know them first.”

Ben turned toward her arm and rested his head against it for a few seconds. “Thank you. I don’t know…I don’t know what we’re going to do. About the bar, and…there’s insurance, but—”

“Stop,” Shelly said, encouraging him to his feet and toward the hallway. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it now.”

It was a generous, kind attitude to have considering her job had just gone up in smoke, but Ben was literally shaking with exhaustion. He could put off worrying about what the fuck they were going to do until tomorrow.

Vin drove him home and told him to go to bed, and Ben did. He managed to take off his pants and to kick his shoes into the corner, but that was all. He fell onto the pillows and was instantly asleep.

* * * * *

When he opened his eyes again, there was a damp spot on his pillow where he’d drooled, and he could hear voices on the other side of the bedroom door. For a few seconds he was so disoriented he had no idea what was happening, but a faint hint of smoke reminded him, and he sat upright fast enough that the room spun.

Ben pulled his pants back on and stumbled out into the kitchen, where Vin and Dave were sitting at the table with a note pad and their cell phones. “What’s going on?”

“Damage control,” Vin said. “Patrick wanted to come too, but I thought he’d be more than you could handle. He’s freaking out about the fire and Shane, and when he gets that hyper…”

“We want you to be able to concentrate on Shane,” Dave explained. He picked up the notepad and handed it to Ben. “If you can give us the number of the insurance company, I’ll call and see what we have to do to set things in motion. Already talked to the cops, and they said you can go in before lunch to give a statement.”

Ben leaned against the wall, wondering what he’d done to deserve Vin and Dave. “What about—”

“Shane’s fine.” Vin grinned. “What, you think we didn’t know you’d ask? They said he’ll be released later today, which in my personal experience means by dinnertime if you’re lucky. He knows to call so one of us can pick him up if you can’t. Shelly dropped by the hospital this morning and left him her spare cell. Don’t worry.”

Ben didn’t go around hugging people often, but he needed to show them how grateful he was, and he needed some physical contact. He walked over and hugged them as they sat, the embraces brief, but the gesture helping him.

“There’s coffee made,” Dave said. “Does that get me another hug?”

Ben grinned at him, his mood lifting. “Depends if it’s good coffee or the rocket fuel Vin makes.”

“Coffee should get you moving,” Vin said. “You drink flavored water.”

“I made it,” Dave said. “Vin, zip it and let the man wake up.”

“I’m awake,” Ben said, pouring himself a mug of coffee. He took a sip, not caring what it tasted like as long as it was hot. He tried to organize a mental to-do list. “I need to call work. They’re not going to be happy about me taking more time off.”

“But it’s an emergency,” Vin said, frowning. “They’ll understand, won’t they?”

“Yes, but they’ll still think their needs come first. There’s this big client…” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Not today.”

His employer didn’t agree with him. Mulholland’s voice was testy and filled with impatience as he brushed away Ben’s explanations. “I’m sure it was a dreadful experience, and I’m very glad no one was hurt, but you’re needed in the office, Lozier. There’s no possibility that you’ll be able to come in later, after you’ve spoken to the police?”

“None whatsoever,” Ben said and didn’t even try to sound apologetic. “My partner will be discharged from the hospital later today, and I’ll have to meet the representative from the insurance company on site. I need to get over there to see what’s left of the building, so if you’ll excuse me…”

“This inheritance of yours has been nothing but trouble,” Mulholland snapped.

Ben thought about Shane, the friends he’d made, the satisfaction he’d felt in restoring the Square Peg, and shook his head, rejecting that judgment without hesitation.

“Not to me, sir. I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up, knowing he’d need to look for a new job soon. They wouldn’t fire him over this—it wouldn’t look good—but he’d labeled himself unreliable, and that meant no more big clients, no pay raises, and no hope of promotion.

Once, that would have kept him awake at night, but not now. To most people, going from being an accountant to running a bar would seem like a mistake, but Ben knew it wasn’t.

“I’ve got the info here for a rental car,” Vin said. “Your car insurance will reimburse you for it until three days after they make you an offer on your old one. Assuming the old one is totaled, but I think that’s a pretty safe bet.”

“Sadly, I agree with you.” By the time they’d left last night, the car had seemed little more than a smoking shell of a vehicle, but Ben figured there was a slim chance it had looked worse than it was.

“If you want, I can run you over there so you can pick up a car,” Dave offered. “They’re holding a compact for you. I didn’t want to chance you getting over there to find out they didn’t have anything available, but you can change it to something else they’ve got if you’d rather.”

“I think I need to hire you both to run my life,” Ben said honestly. “Shit, sorry. We’ll get everything straightened out, okay? I don’t want you to think you’re screwed job-wise.”

Vin had the most serious expression Ben could remember seeing on his face. “Don’t. There are more important things to worry about right now. We totally get that.” He grinned suddenly. “Besides, it’s not as if I’m going to get evicted.”

“I’m going to make you some breakfast,” Dave said. “Go do whatever you need to get ready. The last thing you need’s to pass out because you haven’t eaten.”

By the time Ben got back from a quick shower, Dave had made him a cheese omelet and some toast. Vin had changed into the oldest clothes Ben had ever seen him wear. “I know, this shirt’s practically transparent,” Vin said. “But we figured we’d get in there and see if anything can be salvaged.”

Ben alternated taking bites of food and arguing with Vin about that being a terrible idea. “It’s dangerous.”

“Fine,” Vin said finally.

Fine means you’re going to do it anyway, doesn’t it,” Ben asked.

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds it might incriminate me,” Vin said. “Or whatever.”

“I mean it,” Ben said, wondering if what worked on Shane would also work with Vin. “If something in there is still in one piece, well, it’ll still be in one piece once the building’s been declared safe.” Something else occurred to him. “And it’s a crime scene. It’s probably covered with yellow tape.”

That got through to Vin—or diverted his attention, at least. “Those vicious little fucks. I don’t get how anyone could do that. We could’ve all been killed!”

“I don’t think that was the plan,” Ben said, thinking it through as he spoke. “They waited until the bar was closed, and they set my car on fire to draw us outside. I think they wanted to burn the place down, yes, but not necessarily kill anyone.”

“That doesn’t get them off my shit list,” Dave said flatly.

“No,” Ben agreed. “What they did was terrible.” Four young men, four families dealing with the knowledge that their sons had committed a major crime—and one of them gotten badly hurt doing it… He wasn’t the only one who’d woken to a world that’d gone dark.

“All that work to do again.” Vin shook his head as if the lion’s share of it would fall on him, from clearing the debris to rebuilding the walls. “Still, this time we can choose a different color for the walls. How about black? It doesn’t have to look dark.”

“In what world do black walls ever make a place look bright?” Dave demanded.

Ben let them squabble for a few moments, then cleared his throat. “So you’re expecting us to rebuild?”

They exchanged worried looks. “You’re not?” Vin asked. “I mean, we haven’t seen it yet, but even if they have to tear the whole thing down, you can rebuild with the insurance money, right? And you could sue those assholes too.”

“It was insured, wasn’t it?” Dave put in. “Shane’s hopeless with paperwork, but not about the big stuff.”

“It’s not the money, and yes, I made sure the policy was up-to-date and reflected the investment we’d made. It’s just…” Ben shook his head. “This isn’t any time to be making rush decisions.”

“But if it was? Do you want the bar back?” Vin was staring at him intently, as if he could see the answer inside Ben’s skull.

Ben pushed aside the mountain of work that would be needed and focused on the end result, the bar open again, himself working side by side with Shane…

“Yeah,” he said, and felt the surety that came from making the right decision. “We’re rebuilding.”

Chapter Eighteen

Shane was in a terrible mood—no surprise, that—and it seemed likely that was why the nurses were working at top speed to get him discharged. Not that he cared. He wanted out. There was no real need for him to be there. He was still coughing, but his oxygen levels were within range of normal, and a mild concussion was no reason to submit to the torture of constant monitoring. He’d reached the point where he was tempted to just walk out.

He used the cell phone Shelly had left with him to call Benedict.

“Hello?” Benedict sounded harried.

“Hi, it’s Shane. They’re going to let me out of here in about half an hour. Think you can pick me up? I can get a taxi if—”

“Don’t be stupid. I can come get you. Hang on.” Benedict said something, muffled, to someone else. “I’ve just got to finish this paperwork; then I’ll be there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure. I’m getting the rental car now, and I’ve got to call the police department about making a statement. But I should be there in, hmm, twenty minutes. Can you wait that long?”

“If I know you’ll be at the end of it? Sure.”

“Okay. See you soon.” Benedict hesitated, then hung up without saying anything more.

The paperwork was a nightmare, and Shane didn’t realize until he’d finished it that he didn’t have any clothes to change into. Of course, he’d leave hospital any way he could, even wearing a cotton robe with his arse hanging out, but Benedict turned up with some things in a paper bag.

“I only had a minute,” Benedict said, apparently explaining to the nurse as much as to Shane. “At least it’s something.”

“It’s great,” Shane said gruffly and took the sweat pants and T-shirt into the bathroom to get dressed. When he came out again, Benedict and the nurse were talking about him.

“And make sure he gets enough rest. In a few days he should be back to normal, but for now he shouldn’t push it,” she said.

“He’s right here.” Shane dropped the robe onto the bed. “And capable of looking after himself, thanks.”

The nurse gave him another one of the looks he’d been getting all morning. “Right. Well, good luck.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “I think she was talking to you, not me.”

“I’m sure she was.” Benedict frowned at him. “Have you been giving the staff a hard time?”

“Depends on what you mean by hard time. I’ve been putting my foot down when they treat me as if I’m ten, and I’m not going to put up with it from you, just so we know where we stand.” Shane’s head was aching, the relentless stab through his skull when he moved too quickly making him irritable. Benedict not giving him as much as a hug wasn’t helping either. So much for being in love with him.

“I’ve got no intention of treating you like that unless you act like that, so the solution’s in your hands.”

“Whatever,” Shane muttered. “Can we get the fuck out of here?”

Benedict stepped closer, and for a moment Shane though he was about to get the hug he wanted—or a slap on his backside—but Benedict just reached for the plastic bag filled with Shane’s smoke-tainted clothing and picked it up. “Sure.”

Shane blew out an impatient breath and stormed out, knowing he was being unreasonable—but locked on course, unable to free himself from his bad mood.

And why should he? His home and job had gone up in flames. Everything gone. Even the man walking beside him wasn’t going to be around for much longer. The bar had tied them together, and with that bond severed, what was left?

They were in the rental car and driving before he spoke again, Benedict apparently content to let him stay silent. Maybe he thought Shane was likely to cough up a lung if he said too much. Or maybe he just didn’t care what Shane had to say.

“We going back to yours, then?”

“Yes.” Benedict signaled a turn, his attention on the road. “I was supposed to go and make a statement, but they wanted to speak to us both. I told them I wasn’t going to take you to the station, and they’d have to come and see us. We’re the victims here, after all. They’re sending someone over in an hour or so. I planned to go over to the bar, but they said the criminal investigator was there and it wasn’t a good idea.”

“They’re not going to try to say we torched the place, are they?” Shane demanded. “Bloody cops—and I know what insurance companies are like. You pay them, year in, year out—then something happens and they don’t want to know. If they fucking dare to screw us over on this—”

“Calm down.” Benedict shot him an exasperated look. “No one’s suggested that, but this is arson we’re talking about, Shane. It’s serious. They need to investigate so they can prosecute. And the insurance company’s been great. They arranged this car for me, and you’re entitled to be put up in a hotel since your apartment’s gone, though I told them that wouldn’t be necessary.”

“Maybe it would be better.” Shane felt as if he were being shadowed by a dark cloud. “You’ve already got Vincent living with you; you don’t need an extra roommate.”

“I’d kick Vin out before I’d not take you in, not that I’m going to.” Benedict slowed the car and glanced at him. “What’s going on?”

“Other than the business I’ve put my life into, not to mention my home, burning to the ground because a couple of spoiled pricks don’t like the thought of a bar full of queers?” Shane sounded just as bitter as he felt. “I don’t have anything left, do I?”

Benedict swallowed but kept his eyes on the road. “You have me.”

And what the fuck was there to say to that? Shane was ashamed of himself. They were both silent for the rest of the drive. When Benedict put the car in park, Shane got out and followed him to the front door, then inside.

“I’m going to put these in the wash,” Benedict said, gesturing with the bag that held Shane’s filthy, smoke-blackened clothes.

Shane wanted to reach out to him, to take his hand and pull him in for a hug, to apologize, but it already felt too late. It wasn’t as if Benedict wouldn’t be better off without him. It had been a rough few weeks of work what with the renovations, but Benedict could just go back to his old life without repercussions.

“Just throw them out,” he said. “They’ll probably just stink up your machine, and you’ll never get the smell out.”

Benedict gave the bag a doubtful look, then shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. If you’re up to it tomorrow, we can go shopping for new clothes. Shelly’s out now getting you some basics to tide you over—you know, toothbrush, razor, underwear—so if you don’t feel like it, you’ll be able to get by.”

“She’s doing what?” Shane shook his head. “I can get my own fucking toothbrush. I’m fine.”

“Really?” Benedict arched his eyebrows. “Because you look like shit.”

The words slipped out before he could stop them. “That why you haven’t touched me?”

“Why I—” Benedict bit his lip. “No. It’s not.”

“What then? Regretting what you said last night? Don’t worry; I won’t hold it against you. Heat of the moment and all that shit. It’s forgotten.”

“Stop pushing me,” Benedict said, enough force behind the words to make Shane brace himself for a fight. “I can’t deal with you the way I usually do.”

“Sure you can.” Shane jerked up his chin, advancing on Benedict, all swagger and sass. “You’ve got to be feeling like hitting someone, and you know I like it. Smack me around. Fuck me. Get it out of your system.”

Benedict looked stricken. Shane hated himself for putting that much hurt in those dark brown eyes. “You think that’s what we do? Just that?”

No, Shane wanted to say. You break me apart and put me back together right, so everything fits; everything’s smooth. You put your hands on me, and you hurt me, but you do it so fucking carefully. Trust you. Love you. Need you.

All he could do was shake his head, but Benedict seemed to understand. How was that possible? A man with more sense who could see into Shane like that would run in the opposite direction as fast as he could.

“Come here,” Benedict said gently. He took Shane’s hand and led him into the bedroom. “Sit.” Kneeling at Shane’s feet, Benedict slipped off his shoes and peeled off his socks. Then Benedict got up, went around to the other side of the bed, lay back on the pillows, and made a come-hither gesture with his fingers.

God, Shane was grateful Benedict wasn’t a man with more sense.

He curled himself into Benedict’s arms, letting the other man’s chest serve as a cushion, and sighed and closed his eyes when Benedict pulled him closer. “It’s too much.”

“I know. Just leave it for now, okay? Until the insurance makes some decisions and we can decide what to do from here. Don’t stress yourself out. You heard the nurse.”

“I hate the nurse,” Shane grumbled.

“I’m sure she hated you too, by the time you left.” Benedict stroked his hair. God, it felt good. Shane’s whole body hurt as if he’d climbed a mountain, and he wished he could just take a bunch of pills and sleep for a week until he felt like himself again.

He drifted off, dozing, not sleeping, the soft sound of their breathing gradually aligning, until it felt that they were one person, one heartbeat.

He could’ve stayed like that for hours, but an imperative knock on the front door jerked him out of the warm fog, and he jerked upright, his tranquil mood shattered. “Fuck!”

“It’s okay,” Benedict said sleepily. “Just the police.” He sat up, yawning, and swung his legs to the side. “I’ll let them in.”

The knock was repeated before Benedict reached the door, making Shane mutter crossly to himself, but he put a polite smile on his face when he joined Benedict and the two policemen in the living room.

The older of the two cops, a burly man with hair cut as short as Shane’s used to be, and dark skin, nodded at him. “Mr. Brant? I’m Detective Ellis, and this is my partner, Officer Denton.”

Denton smiled at Shane, then cleared his throat and looked abashed. He was a redhead, freckles sprinkled across his nose and cheeks, skinny as a beanpole.

Shane nodded back and took a seat on the couch next to Benedict. “I hear you caught the sons of—uh, the people responsible for the fire.”

“It wasn’t very difficult,” Ellis said drily. “Usually, criminals don’t stick around, but these four weren’t even bright enough to run.”

“The three of them were waiting for their friend to finish setting the fire,” Denton told them. “They didn’t have much choice.”

“Why was that?” Benedict asked.

Ellis permitted himself a smile. “He had the car keys.”

Shane snorted. “Well, I already knew they were brainless thugs, but that proves it.”

“They’ve been very frank with us, at least until their parents and a team of lawyers arrived, but by then the damage had been done.” Ellis scratched his chin. “It wasn’t a hate crime. Not in the true sense.”

That was too much. “What? Of course it bloody was! We were running a gay bar, and they were straight. What other reason could they have for torching the place? There wasn’t any trouble with them. No fighting, no one got thrown out, nothing.”

Ellis rubbed his fingers and thumb together, the gesture universal. “Money. The ringleader was Tony Carter’s son. Does that name ring a bell?”

Shane shook his head, but Benedict leaned forward. “Yes, of course. The company I work for does his accounts, though he’s not one of my clients now. I stuck to the rules too much for him.” He turned to Shane. “He’s the man behind the loft development near us. The paper ran an article about him, right next to the one about the bar, remember?”

“He’s behind more of the changes to the area than that,” Ellis put in, “though it’s not common knowledge. He’s got a lot of money invested in making the west side the new inplace to live and work.”

“And he doesn’t like the idea of a gay bar on his turf,” Benedict agreed.

“We don’t have any reason to think Tony was behind this in a direct sense.” Denton leaned back in his seat. “Not that he’d be stupid enough to admit it if he was, but one of the kids probably would have.”

“They’re all adults,” Shane protested mildly. His throat was feeling sore, and he wondered how much longer this would take. The thought of going back to bed was a lot more appealing than dealing with this shit. What was the point of it anyway? The bar was destroyed, and while he hoped the men responsible would have to pay—hopefully in prison for a very long time—it wasn’t much as far as consolation went.

“Right, sorry,” Denton said, flushing. “You’re right; they’re all over twenty-one. It seems as if they got it into their heads that they could get away with this and not get caught. Maybe they figured Carter would be grateful, or maybe Marco—his son—was just hoping to reduce his dad’s stress.”

Benedict growled. “By putting other people’s lives in danger? Great. I’m so glad to know that’s what the neighborhood is like.”

“It’s that reporter who got us into this mess,” Shane reminded him.

Ellis raised an eyebrow. “Reporter?”

“Mary Jaffarian,” Shane offered. “With the Tribune. She wrote a piece on our reopening and made it sound as if Square Peg was a dive bar for lowlifes. Hard to blame Carter for being stressed out with the way she described the place.”

“It probably didn’t help,” Ellis agreed. “Well, the criminal investigator seems to think that given what she saw at the scene matches what Marco said he did. This isn’t something she’s going to spend much time on. She’s liaising with the civil investigator, and you’ll need to meet with the insurance company to draw up a claim.”

“Is there much left?” Benedict asked. “The bar, Shane’s place…”

Shane compressed his lips, willing himself not to give way to the emotions flooding him as he waited for the answer.

“The structure’s sound, she tells me. The flames traveled from the exterior door and into the bar, following the line of fuel Marco put down. He didn’t have time to do more than that, but he did splash accelerant on the walls. The fire trucks arrived in time to save the building, and although there’s considerable smoke and water damage, it’s not as bad as it could be.” Ellis smiled at them. “I hope you’ll be open again soon. I dropped by one night to see what you’d done with the place, and I was impressed.”

“You came by? Why?” Shane demanded, suspicion replacing relief. “We don’t let people do drugs, and I’ve told you cops that a dozen times. If you’re going to keep hassling us—”

“Relax,” Ellis told him and got to his feet. “I’m just an overprotective father; that’s all.” He offered his hand to Benedict, who’d also risen. “My daughter says you do a good lunch menu. She’s fond of your chicken salad sandwiches.”

“She’s a regular?” Shane frowned, searching his memory. “Chicken salad…Wait, you’re Jackie’s dad?” He looked up at Benedict. “She runs that beauty salon at the end of the road. We do a takeout order for her and her staff most days. Nice girl. Keeps trying to make me come in for a mani-pedi, God alone knows why. She didn’t say her dad was a cop, though.”

“It’s not a legal requirement,” Ellis said drily. “She keeps it quiet.” He pursed his lips, a glint of humor in his eyes. “I don’t know why, but it makes some people nervous.”

“You make me less nervous than the thought of a mani-pedi,” Shane told him.

Ellis smiled and held out a business card, which Benedict took. “Here’s my card. Call me if you think of anything else, or if you have any questions. Let me know how things go.”

“Thanks,” Benedict said, sounding grateful. “We appreciate your help.”

“Just doing our jobs,” Ellis said. He gestured for Denton to leave. “Good luck.”

Benedict leaned against the door for a few seconds after he shut it. He looked almost as tired as Shane felt. “God, what a relief.”

“What, that the cops don’t blame us for what happened just because we’re gay?” Shane asked.

“No.” Benedict gave him an odd look. “That it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I thought the whole place would be a total loss and we’d have to start from scratch, maybe even knock down the building first. But it sounds as if we can get things together in a couple of months, open by the end of June?”

Shane sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m done, Benedict. I can’t do it again.”

“Then I’ll handle everything. You can take some time off to recover, maybe go away somewhere warm for a week.”

“You’re insane,” Shane told him. “Do you seriously think you can manage that on top of your full-time job? You’d be better off forgetting about the whole thing. Take the insurance money and walk away while the going’s good.” He did his best to sound casual, but inside he felt sick. He could do anything, go anywhere, take a different job. That would be easy. Watching Benedict walk away—that would be the hard part.

“I’m insane?” Benedict, still standing near the door, jumped when there was a knock on the other side. “Christ, what now?”

Opening the door revealed the last person Shane wanted to see: Mary bloody Jaffarian. “What the hell do you want?” he snapped, standing and moving closer to Benedict.

She looked taken aback, but recovered quickly. “This isn’t a social call. I was hoping to get a statement for the paper about the fire.”

“I think we learned our lesson on that one,” Benedict said.

“You wouldn’t like the kind of statement I want to give you,” Shane added.

Mary came inside as confidently as if she’d been invited. “It must have been a shock. And I heard you had to go the hospital?”

“What part of us not wanting to give you the time of day, let alone a statement, didn’t you get?” Shane demanded. “Your last smear job was what led to the bar getting torched. Do you know that? If I’d died in there, you’d have been as much to blame as the idiot who lit the match.”

A flicker in her eyes showed she was startled, but she hid it well. “That’s not true. I just report the facts. I’m not responsible for how people deal with them.”

“Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that anything we say is off the record,” Benedict said.

Her reluctance was plain, but she nodded. “Fair enough.”

“You slanted that piece,” Benedict told her, his voice icy. “Made it seem as if we were running a sleazy dive, not a neighborhood bar with an open door policy.”

“You can’t blame people for not wanting a gay bar on the doorstep. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it myself, but it’s an understandable attitude.”

Shane snorted. “No, it’s not. It’s a fucking atrocious attitude. And the people behind the arson live miles away, on some posh estate, most likely, so you can forget all the on-your-doorstep crap.”

“As you pointed out to us yourself, the local businesses were very supportive of the new direction the bar was taking,” Benedict said. “Or weren’t you being sincere when you said that?”

“Her? Sincere? I doubt it. Do me a favor?” Shane was itching for a fight, his headache and the tightness in his chest forgotten.

“What?”

“Throw her out of here.”

Benedict looked grim. “In a minute.” He stepped closer to Mary. The door was still open, and Benedict was imposing enough that she moved backward to create some space between them. “Have you ever thought about what it might be like to be different?”

She swallowed. “Different?”

“Gay,” Benedict clarified. He was exuding control, of the conversation and the room. “Is it that hard to understand there are people who need a safe place to have a drink or a late dinner?”

Mary rallied, lifting her chin and meeting Benedict’s gaze steadily. “I just report the facts. It’s not my fault if people read something into it.”

“Is that the response you trot out every time someone confronts you on the shit you pull?” Benedict sounded furious. “You just don’t care about anyone but yourself, do you? I can’t believe I actually defended you when you came to the bar.” He glanced at Shane. “I should have let you get rid of her when you wanted to.”

“I’m allowed to do my job,” Mary said.

“Please. So as long as you’re doing your job, it doesn’t matter how many people’s lives you fuck up? There are people in our community who need somewhere to go where they don’t have to worry some bigot will beat them up for kissing their partner, or jump them in the parking lot for having the nerve to not be heterosexual. If you had a fucking clue what that was like, you’d be more understanding.” He seemed to run out of steam then; he sighed, and his shoulders dropped. “Well, I don’t care what you write. If I have to be the only one on board with these renovations, I’ll figure out a way to do it, but I’m not taking this place away from our community. People need it too much.”

Her face sharpened. “That sounds as if you were considering not rebuilding. Is that the case?” Her gaze shifted to Shane. “You don’t want to, do you? Scared of reprisals?”

Unbelievable. Shane put his arm around Benedict, feeling the tension in the man’s body. Benedict needed to relax before he got a stress headache. Shane had a few ideas about how that could be achieved if he could convince Benedict he was fit enough to do more in bed than cuddle.

“We’re both committed to getting the Square Peg up and running again. It will reopen, it will be a safe place for gays, and it will welcome anyone who’s not a homophobic idiot or out to cause trouble. Which means you’re barred, lady. For life.” Shane jerked his thumb. “Get lost. Now.”

For a moment Shane thought she might actually refuse, but she hesitated and frowned. “Great. Well, I’ll make sure to put that in the article, then.”

“If you screw it up, we’ll sue you for everything you’ve got,” Benedict said, and that was enough, finally, to send her packing.

Shane shut the door with more force than necessary and turned to kiss Benedict. “You were brilliant.”

“Wait, what? I thought you didn’t want to rebuild.” Benedict looked so upset Shane had to kiss him again.

“Thought I didn’t,” he admitted. “Until I heard you talking about how people need us.” He pushed Benedict’s crazy hair back from his face. “If you’re in, I’m in.”

Benedict’s eyes searched his. “You’re…not just talking about the bar.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. Shane took a deep breath and shook his head. “No. I’m talking about us. If it’s not what you want—”

“I’m going to blame that momentary insanity on your concussion,” Benedict said tenderly. “You’ll always be what I want.”

It was exactly what he needed to hear, but Shane still hesitated before replying, doubts rising. If it was too good to be true, he didn’t trust it, never had. Benedict was everything he’d ever hoped to find in a man, the perfect partner, so there had to be a catch.

“You’re thinking about something and frowning.” Benedict was doing some frowning now. “Am I pushing too hard, too fast? Because I can give you some space.”

Just the thought of it gave Shane the shivers. He didn’t want space or breathing room. He needed Benedict close. That didn’t leave room for doubts. “Yeah? Not seeing that happening somehow.”

“I can,” Benedict protested.

“So you’d be okay with me seeing someone else now and then? Fine with me flirting with the punters for real? Is that what you’re saying?” Shane watched Benedict fight to hold back his reaction, and he smiled. No, Benedict wouldn’t like it at all. Thank God. “Possessive son of a bitch,” he said softly, making the words a caress. “Come here. Kiss me like you mean it, and tell me I’m yours—because I am. And in case you’re wondering, I can get pretty fucking territorial myself, so you’d better not—”

That was as far as he got before he was silenced by a kiss. Benedict’s mouth was warm against his, the kiss short and sweet, passionate without force. Shane might have craved more, but breaking off to cough wasn’t exactly romantic, so he appreciated Benedict’s restraint.

“When you’re better, I’m going to show you what being mine feels like,” Benedict said, running his fingertip along Shane’s jaw. “Just in case you’re unclear on the concept.”

Shane wet his lips, catching a faint taste of Benedict. “Yeah? Any time you’re ready.” God, he sounded shaky. When it came to Benedict, he was a total fucking pushover, and they both knew it. His cock was hard from the kiss and Benedict’s promise, eager for a touch it probably wouldn’t get. Benedict was treating him as if he were made of glass, and it was totally unnecessary in Shane’s opinion. The hospital had told him that, judging by the blood test results and his chest X-ray, he’d escaped serious damage to his lungs. He’d been given an inhaler to use if needed and painkillers, but the doctors had seemed optimistic that he’d recover quickly and completely. The residual headache and cough weren’t fun, but he was feeling better with every passing hour.

“I don’t think either of us is ready right now,” Benedict said. He didn’t sound happy about it, but he looked happy. “Come on, back to bed with you.”

“Only if you’ll keep me company,” Shane countered, and Benedict nodded.

Benedict’s bed was nice. The mattress was firm, and he had plenty of pillows. Shane found himself thinking Benedict had been with that arsehole Jenson in this bed, and he burrowed closer into the warmth of the blankets.

“Did you think you’d be with him forever?” he asked.

“Who, Jenson? Why would you want to…” Benedict sighed and rubbed his hand along Shane’s back and shoulder. “We never talked about it. Well, I didn’t. Sometimes he would, but it was more about what he’d be doing. His career, stuff like that.”

“But did you think it?” Shane knew he was setting himself up, but somehow he couldn’t help it. He wanted to hear he was special to Benedict.

“I don’t know. Sometimes, maybe. But I think I always knew he wouldn’t hang around forever. I wasn’t that surprised when he said it was over.”

“He’s an idiot,” Shane said firmly.

“Maybe.” Benedict kissed Shane’s head. “Quiet, now. Get some rest.”

* * * * *

When Shane woke again, he was alone in the bed, and it was dark. He felt as if he’d slept for days, but a glance at the clock showed it had only been a few hours. He ached all over; stretching was a relief that made him groan softly, and he got up and shuffled out into the hallway.

Benedict and Vincent were sitting in front of the television, Benedict on the sofa and Vincent in an oversize chair.

“Zombie attack,” Vincent said. He pointed at Benedict. “His brains are tastier. Eat him first.”

“I don’t look that fucking bad,” Shane grumbled, though he had to admit as he shuffled across to join Benedict that he was moving like an old man. “I just stiffened up a bit sleeping. I’ll have a shower.”

“A bath would be better. Hot, and soak for a while. Put some Epsom salts in it.” Benedict spoke with the subtle twist to his voice that made it an order Shane had to obey. Shane shot Vincent a glance, wondering if he’d picked up on it, but Vincent’s attention was back on the television.

“All right if I eat something first?” He didn’t try to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He wanted Benedict to hear it; to turn his head, surprised; to see the knowing glint in Shane’s eyes and realize what Shane was telling him.

“There’s veggie lasagna in the fridge that Shelly brought over,” Vincent offered. “I can reheat you some in the microwave if you want.”

Shane liked Vincent a lot, but right then, he was in the way.

“Yeah, okay,” he said grudgingly. “Thanks.”

Vincent’s going to the kitchen gave Shane a few moments alone with Benedict, at least. Shane tucked his legs up onto the sofa and curled toward Benedict, half on his lap, mouth pressed to the soft T-shirt over Benedict’s belly. He breathed warmly into the fabric and felt Benedict’s hand slide to cradle his skull.

“You should have stayed in bed,” Benedict said.

Shane shrugged as best he could in the position he was in. “Woke up. Wanted to see what I was missing.” He nuzzled at the bottom hem of Benedict’s T-shirt until it rode up a little bit and exposed bare skin, then lifted his chin and pressed his lips against it.

Benedict shivered. “Not much. Just bad TV.”

“It’s all bad, far as I’m concerned.” Shane had never been much of a TV watcher, but he could see the appeal if it meant being with Benedict like this.

“Not all of it. Have you seen Queer as Folk?” Benedict sounded distracted, which was Shane’s intention.

He licked Benedict’s skin and grinned when Benedict’s cock hardened under his cheek. “Tell me about it.” There was something incredibly appealing about the thought of sucking Benedict’s cock while he tried to explain something, of hearing his voice crack and his breath catch.

In the kitchen, what Shane assumed was the microwave made a beeping sound. “Maybe later,” Benedict said.

Shane could put a commanding note in his voice too, but when he said, “No. Definitely later,” it came out as a plea. “Need you,” he added and found he didn’t care how desperate he sounded, because it was no more or less than the truth.

“Later,” Benedict said, and made it a promise.

After Shane had dutifully eaten the best part of what was on his plate, he carried it out to the kitchen and rinsed it, listening out for Vincent, who’d gone to the loo. When he heard Vincent walking by, he called to him.

“Yes, boss?”

“You don’t have to call me that now.”

“Still true.” Vincent shrugged. “Might have to get a temp job somewhere else, but as soon as you’re up and running again, I’ll be back.”

“Wouldn’t be the Peg without you.”

“I do give the place some street cred,” Vincent agreed.

“Well, that’s a matter of opinion, but fine, if you say so.” Shane beckoned Vincent closer. “Look, I don’t want to kick you out when you live here, but if you had somewhere to be for a few hours…”

Vincent’s mouth dropped open. “Are you asking me to disappear so you can have sex?”

“If you even think the word gross, you’re fired.”

“Hey, just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean I mind other people getting naked and sweaty. You and Ben are great together. I don’t want to think about what you get up to because it’d be weird, but I’m all in favor.”

“Good to know.” Shane eyed Vincent, curiosity getting the better of him. “So why don’t you?” he asked. “I know you had a thing for that boy you knew in high school, but you can’t have him, so isn’t it time you moved on?”

Vincent’s eyes hardened as if Shane had crossed a line, but then he sighed, reaching up to play with one of his earrings, the dragon, the one that always hung from that hole, though the other earrings changed frequently. “Would you move on from Ben if he dumped you? Find someone else and forget about him?”

Shane sighed and shook his head. It wasn’t possible to compare a high school crush to what he had with Benedict, but it wasn’t as if he could say that to Vincent without sounding like a prick. He settled for saying, “It’s a long time go without. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Gets easier after a while,” Vincent said, grinning and patting his upper arm. “Don’t worry, I’m going. Have fun and never, ever tell me about it.”

“Never,” Shane agreed.

Benedict came out of the dining room holding two plastic bags as the front door was closing. “Was that Vin? Why aren’t you sitting down?”

“Yeah. Benedict, I had a bit of smoke inhalation. I’m not a paraplegic.” Shane gestured at the bags. “What’ve you got there?”

“Some stuff Shelly picked up for you,” Benedict said. “Come on, let’s go in the living room, and I’ll show you. Did Vin say where he was going?”

“Out, I suppose. Said he’d be back later.” Shane sat on the sofa and watched as Benedict took a package of briefs out of one of the bags. “Christ, you had Shelly buying me underwear?”

“It’s not a dildo,” Benedict said mildly. “She offered.”

“She offered to buy me underwear?” That was a disturbing thought.

“Not specifically, but you needed it. And here are some jeans—hopefully the size will work. I based it off your old ones. Shirts, socks—we can get you whatever else you need, but this is something to start with.” Benedict looked at him. “Are you tired? We should probably get you into the bath for a soak.”

Shane smiled. “I’m not tired,” he said slowly. “But I’ll have a bath if you’ll keep me company.”

Benedict raised his eyebrows, already smiling. “Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to seduce me?”

“Because I am? And if I have to try any harder, I’ll start thinking you’ve gone off me.”

“Never going to happen.” Benedict bit his lip. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“No,” Shane said and slid off the couch to his knees, bracing his hands on Benedict’s thigh. “Dying of frustration. It’s making my legs go weak, see?”

“Get up,” Benedict said, laughing, but with something in his eyes that told Shane Benedict liked seeing him down here.

Shane rested his head on Benedict’s leg, loving the feeling of peace that washed through him when Benedict stroked his hair at once, the caress gentle without being hesitant. “I want to be with you. I know we can’t push it as much as we usually do, but it doesn’t mean we have to act as if we’re just good friends.”

“I suppose not.” Benedict’s voice was already husky with arousal, his fingers sliding to the back of Shane’s neck, making Shane shiver and close his eyes, pleasure replacing peace, as they curled around it possessively. “Those bruises I put on you—they’re still there?”

“Along with a few new ones.”

Benedict’s fingers tightened until Shane had to moan, the sound slipping from him as easily as a breath. “They don’t count. Do they?”

“No. No, they don’t.”

“Good.” Benedict dragged his fingertips up into the hair at the nape of Shane’s neck. “Come on. Let’s get you into the tub.”

Ten minutes later, Shane was lying with his back against Benedict’s chest, arse between Benedict’s spread thighs, in hot water up to his collarbone. The heat had been on the verge of unbearable at first, but Shane trusted Benedict to know what would help, and the thought of soaking the ache out of his muscles would have been appealing even if it hadn’t been coupled with being pressed to Benedict’s naked body.

“Relax,” Benedict murmured into his ear.

“Not sure I have much choice in the matter.” Shane sighed in appreciation as Benedict slid a hand down his chest.

“That was my evil plan.” Benedict’s hand moved an inch lower.

“You don’t have to get me into the bath to have your way with me,” Shane pointed out. He closed his eyes and focused on the feel of the hot water and Benedict’s touch. Fuck, he was hard already.

Benedict licked the edge of Shane’s ear. “I can have my way with you whenever I want,” he agreed.

“How did you manage before? When you weren’t with someone like me?”

The lick became a bite, the tiny darting pain making Shane hiss with pleasure. “There isn’t anyone else like you,” Benedict told him.

“That’s not an answer.”

He felt Benedict’s reluctance as clearly as if he could see the frown he was sure was puckering Benedict’s forehead. The body he lay against shifted restlessly; then Benedict sighed. “I didn’t know I wanted this.”

“You had to. On one level, at least.”

“Did you?” Benedict countered.

“I tried to get it, but I didn’t know what to ask for, not really, so it didn’t work out all that well.” Shane moved his hand slowly through the clear water, feeling the resistance as it pushed against his palm. “It was frustrating as fuck.”

“If it ever is with me, I want you to tell me.”

Shane smiled, unseen. “That an order?”

Benedict’s hand was resting low enough on Shane’s stomach now that another inch south, and he’d be touching the head of Shane’s cock. Maybe if Shane moved… Even as Shane thought it, Benedict slid his hand sideways to one of the bruises he’d caused, dark on Shane’s hipbone. Benedict ground his thumb against it, awakening a throbbing pain that had Shane’s cock hardening with a twitch and a jerk.

“Oh yes,” Benedict said. “It definitely is.”

“Touch me,” Shane begged. “Make me come.”

“That sounded like an order. It doesn’t work that way.”

“How does me groveling sound like a fucking order?” Shane snapped.

“When you don’t say please.

Oh. Right. Shane let his hands sink under the surface of the water until they came to rest on Benedict’s thighs. Slowly, he pushed backward against Benedict’s erection until Benedict gasped. Then he said, “Please touch me.”

Benedict let his fingers linger over Shane’s bruise. “Tell me when you think about me.”

“When I—” Shane broke off when Benedict’s hand closed around him. “All the time. I think about you every time I think about anything. Your hands, like this. Your prick, inside me.”

Benedict groaned and squeezed, his grip tugging upward along Shane’s shaft. “I think about that too. And about sucking you.” His lips dragged along the side of Shane’s throat. “Holding you down.”

“Don’t stop,” Shane pleaded. “Christ. Benedict.”

“I’m not stopping.” Benedict’s hand was moving steadily now, his thumb slipping over the head of Shane’s cock deliciously. “I don’t want to stop. I want you to come like this.”

“Going to be soon if you keep doing that.”

“Thanks for the warning, but I’m not feeling patient.” Benedict bit down on Shane’s shoulder, the softness of his lips making the sharp dig of his teeth more intense by comparison. “Don’t keep me waiting, Shane. I want to see you. Feel you shudder, hear you moan.”

“God—” He was gasping for breath, his skin flushing from more than the heat of the water. “Please. Faster.”

The slow rock of Benedict’s wrist didn’t change tempo. “No. You can come from this. I can feel how ready you are.”

“Need—”

“You need me,” Benedict told him, the rhythm of his strokes unrelenting. “You’ve got me. I’m not going anywhere, Shane. Now come for me.”

Shane cried out at the command, closing his eyes and riding out his climax, held safe in Benedict’s arms, his world reduced to heat and water and the strong body cradling him. He felt the warm, light rain of spunk against his damp chest, barely noticeable.

“My Shane,” Benedict whispered into his ear and moved his hand, gently rinsing Shane clean. “Mine.”

For once, Shane had no reason to argue with Benedict. He nodded. “Yeah. Yours.”

Epilogue

Ben dragged a stool behind the bar and slumped on it. His feet were aching. It was a good ache—the kind that came from hard work—but it was still a relief to get off them for a few minutes. The bar was crowded, the bartenders working feverishly and Dave dropping one basket of french fries after another in the kitchen. The smell of crisp, salty potatoes filled the air, and according to Shane it increased the number of drinks people bought.

Dave wasn’t alone back there. They’d hired two new people to help him because business was going so well. No matter how dedicated the staff was to the bar, none of them was crazy about the idea of working a hundred hours a week. Somehow Shane had found a young British woman who was full of ideas and suggestions but managed to express them without offending Dave.

“Christ, I’m tired,” Shane said into Ben’s ear, and Ben felt the warmth of his partner’s chest lean against him.

“You can go home,” Ben said. He checked his watch. “Patrick and Helen’s shift starts in half an hour, and I can hang out until later.”

Shane shook his head—Ben felt it rather than saw it—and said, “Not that tired.”

“We don’t both have to be here all the time.” Ben stood, nudged Shane down onto the stool, and started to rub his shoulders. Truth be told, Ben loved being at the bar, even when he was tired. Since they’d reopened—again—six weeks ago, he’d officially left his office job and thrown himself full-time into running the bar with Shane. He’d even taken a weeklong intensive class at a bartending school and gotten his national liability certification. Even though his getting qualified hadn’t been a surprise to Shane the way Ben had originally imagined, he knew Shane was proud of him. Which was why Shane’s next words came as a surprise, even if they were said mildly.

“If I’m not here, who knows what’s going to happen to the place?” Shane said.

“You don’t trust me?” Considering what they’d done together on their last joint day off, it wasn’t really a question he needed to ask. He remembered the yielding quiver Shane had given as Ben finished tying him down, any pretense at reluctance just that. Ben wasn’t under any illusions, though; Shane would surrender his body willingly to be marked, taken, owned. But the bar was a different story.

“You’re not the one I worry about.” Shane turned his head, and Ben followed his gaze to where Vin stood, chatting to a customer. “Suppose he throws a party and the place gets trashed? Or has a lockdown and things get out of hand?”

“He lives here. He works here. Why would he risk any of that for the sake of a party?” Promoting Vin to assistant manager and letting him rent Shane’s apartment, with Shane moving in with Ben, had seemed the ideal solution to a handful of problems. It still was, but if Shane was fretting…

“Do you want to move back here?”

“Honestly?” Shane rubbed the back of his neck and looked up at Ben sheepishly. “No. Not that I didn’t like being on top of things, literally, but I like being with you better. It’s a relief to have some peace and quiet.”

“Good thing Vin doesn’t seem to mind. Oh, here’s Helen.”

She lifted a hand in greeting to them as she dodged her way through the crowd to join them. “Are you both here tonight? Not that I’m complaining.”

“I’m trying to talk this one into going home early, but I don’t think I’m succeeding.” Ben patted Shane’s shoulder. “How are you?”

Helen smiled; she had a slow, appealing smile that was probably sexy as hell to anyone who was attracted to women. Her hair was long and sleek on one side and shaved short on the other, and she wore two wedding bands on her left hand but had skillfully avoided talking about why even when Vin had asked. “I’m good. Oh no, wait, I forgot. The right answer is Ready to get to work, right, Boss?”

“Clever girl,” Shane said.

“I aim to please.”

She walked away, and Shane grinned. “Think she stole my line…Boss.”

“Don’t call me that unless you want me to act like it,” Ben told him, already feeling his body respond to the promise in Shane’s eyes.

“Details, please,” Shane said, then added a deliberately provocative boss, flirting so shamelessly that Ben couldn’t help grinning back at him. He loved Shane in a playful mood.

Lowering his voice and leaning in close so that they couldn’t be overheard, he murmured, “Details? Hmm, let me see. Maybe I could send you home and tell you to strip naked and shove that blue dildo up your ass as far as it’ll go. And I know you can take most of it, you slut. You can call me when it’s in. Maybe show me on your phone, just so I know you’ve been a good boy. Then you can lie there on our bed and wait for me to come back and finish you off. If you’re not hard and squirming for me, the way I like, I’ll spank you with it in and not let you come until tomorrow.”

“You fucking bastard,” Shane said exhaling through gritted teeth. “If you wanted me so hard I can’t walk, congratulations. Job done.”

“Yay,” Ben said, and stole a quick kiss. “Sit here until you feel better; then think about going home, okay? You were up early this morning. I’m not surprised you’re tired.” Shane had a propensity for insomnia, and when it struck he’d creep out of bed before the sun rose and busy himself with whatever appealed to him at the time. That morning it had been rearranging the kitchen cabinets. He glanced toward the door and caught sight of a slender blond guy in a blue shirt who would have been unremarkable but for the look of sheer terror on his face. “Hey. Newbie.”

“Christ, look at the virgin,” Shane agreed. “How long do you think he’ll stand there before he turns around and makes a run for it?”

“He’s so scared I’m surprised he’s conscious.” Ben frowned. “Maybe I should go say…I don’t know, something reassuring?”

“What might that be?” Shane asked.

“Yeah, I have no idea.” Glancing around, Ben tried to spot someone he knew who would be able to help the poor kid. The blond guy was still standing frozen in place, but now his gaze seemed to be locked on someone else’s. Ben’s eyes followed his to the bar, where Vin was standing and staring back. “What the hell is going on?”

Shane shrugged. “Vanilla meets Goth. Maybe they’re both in shock. Go and throw cold water on them if they haven’t moved in five minutes.”

“You’re not helping,” Ben told him. Slowly, conversation by conversation, the bar was falling quiet, the silent communication between the blond and Vin drowning out every other voice.

Just as Ben decided he should say something—anything—the newcomer took a step forward, then glanced around at the curious faces studying him. He flushed scarlet, shrinking into himself, and spun around, disappearing into the night.

“Fuck, no. No fucking way are you running,” Vin said into the expectant hush, his gaze fixed on the door. He tossed aside the damp cloth he’d been using to wipe down the bar and turned to look at Ben and Shane. “Boss? Both of you? I’ll be back in a minute.”

Shane raised his hand in acknowledgment and stood. “Guess I’m not going home early after all. You’ll need me to fill in for Romeo.”

Ben watched Vin stride across the bar floor, a man on a mission—or stalking his prey. Images of nature documentaries flashed through his head. They never ended well for the wildebeest, but he had high hopes for this particular hunt.

Because he’d realized who the blond was. Vin was chasing a happy ending, and even if all he got was closure, it was better than the holding pattern his crush had stranded him in.

Ben watched Shane pull a pint, chatting to the customer with an easy smile on his face, relaxed, confident.

His.

A square peg in a round hole. It shouldn’t work, but sometimes it did.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~