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Turn Up the Heat

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Chapter One

Shannon sighed as he waited for the light to turn green. With the truck idling, his exhaust rattled, meaning at least a new muffler if not more repairs in the near future. His buddy Earl would do the work in exchange for a six-pack, so it wasn’t the cost that was the issue, but the timing. Shannon hated knowing the whole works might drop off the bottom of the Chevy on his way to work next week. Ongoing issues were the price of falling for a classic, though he didn’t regret his choice. Last year he’d put more than a grand into body work, and it’d been worth every penny.

The light turned, and he cranked the radio’s volume as he stepped on the gas, neatly covering any suspicious sounds the truck made. Unfortunately, it also covered the sound of his phone’s GPS telling him to take a right onto the next street a moment later. He swore when he realized and corrected course, then slowed down and looked at the house he’d been directed to.

The motorcycle he’d come to see was in the driveway behind two sedans, so at least he knew he was in the right place. Shannon shut off the truck and got out. The front lawn was more weeds than grass, the only green near a leaking hose at the side of the house. It had been a hot summer, followed by a dry start to fall, and the bushes were brittle and brown. The paint on the stair railings had peeled away in long strips, revealing rotting wood, and oil spots darkened the blacktop. The place had an air of neglect, not that the houses nearby were in much better shape.

None of it was promising, but he was here for the bike, not the house.

He didn’t see any signs of anyone, so he wandered over to take a closer look at the bike, but before he’d done more than crouched down next to it, the front door opened with a screech of rusty hinges, then slammed shut.

“Hey. Shannon, right?”

Dragging his attention away from the bike with an effort, he turned his head to acknowledge the greeting. “Yeah. Rory?”

The guy nodded and held out his hand. Polite. Well, he knew his manners too. Shannon rose and shook it, conscious of a smear of oil on his knuckles and the roughness of his palm. Rory’s hand was smooth and clean. Good grip, though. Solid.

“Thanks for being on time.”

“You said you have a thing later.” Shannon didn’t remember if Rory had said what it was, and it didn’t matter. “You don’t live here?”

Rory looked surprised; he probably didn’t have a poker face. “I didn’t say that.”

He didn’t match the house, so he didn’t need to. A man wearing a button-down shirt white enough to make snow seem grubby and pressed suit pants with polished black leather shoes wouldn’t put up with this level of neglect. Though Rory’s sandy hair was appealingly tousled and the shirt was open at the throat, so he wasn’t a total neat freak. Maybe where he worked had a dress code.

“Who’s taking peeks at us through the blinds?” Shannon didn’t like being spied on, and the shadow of a watcher, face pressed against the slats of a blind sagging down on one side, made his skin crawl.

Rory didn’t turn his head. Either he didn’t mind being stared at, or he couldn’t take his eyes off Shannon. Gray eyes, with a hint of green to them. Unusual. Shannon didn’t go around studying eye color, but Rory stood close enough to make it easy. Rory triggered reactions of a more pleasant type when he licked and bit his lower lip before replying, leaving it shiny, inviting attention.

Yeah, take a long hard look, pretty boy. Like what you see? With an inward snort, amused by the porn-movie dialogue spooling through his head, Shannon dragged his imagination out of the gutter and focused on Rory’s answer.

“That’s Neil. He’s a friend of my brother’s. This is his house. Well, he rents it.”

A more curious man would have asked half a dozen questions. Shannon wasn’t that man. “But the bike’s yours?”

“Yeah. I don’t have a garage, so I store it here.” Calling the falling-down shack a garage was overly generous.

Shannon turned his attention back to the bike. “Six grand?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“It’s worth a lot more.” He knew he shouldn’t say that; if he wanted a good deal, it made more sense to claim the price was too high, though the words would’ve stuck in his throat. “Something wrong with it?”

“No.” Rory sounded hesitant, dragging the word out as if lengthening it made it true.

Shannon frowned at him reprovingly. “You’re a shitty liar.”

Rory smiled, a quick flash of humor Shannon responded to without knowing what he found so appealing. “True enough. Look, my name’s on the title, and I have every legal right to sell it, but I don’t know anything about motorcycles. I couldn’t tell you if it’s in perfect running condition or ready to fall apart. All I did was type in the make and model number on the Kelley Blue Book and post the listing based on what it said. If you want to take it to a mechanic and have it inspected, we can arrange that. As long as we arrange it fast; I need to sell it soon.”

“Why didn’t you take it somewhere yourself? Then someone with experience could have told you which side was up, at least.”

Rory shook his head. “I can’t ride it.”

“Then why the hell do you have it?” Shannon was a mixture of puzzled and annoyed now. The man didn’t make any sense.

“Long story.”

“Make it a short one.”

Rory gave him an exasperated look, clearly not intimidated by Shannon’s growl. He liked that hint of backbone. The tug of arousal became a yank, but he didn’t get too hung up on it. He saw a dozen men a week who interested him. Easy for him to hook up when he got the urge, which was often, because he wasn’t fussy. Size, shape, age didn’t matter too much. Show him a guy who was willing, and his cock was happy. Maybe Rory wasn’t interested, but it didn’t stop Shannon from picturing him bent over and demanding more in a voice that shook a little. Naked, he’d lose the subtle air of being too good for everyday use that rubbed Shannon the wrong way.

“It’s my brother’s. He’s, ah, he needs money fast, and he’s not using the bike much, so it’s—”

“If it’s his, why isn’t he the one selling it?” Shannon rolled his shoulders, tight muscles protesting. Yesterday he’d gone straight from an eight-hour day on a construction site to a night as a bouncer, with no time for more than a quick shower. He usually worked the club on weekends, but they’d been short a member of the security team and called him in. He was tired, grouchy, and in no mood for evasive answers.

“I own it. He rides it. Is this any of your business?”

“Attitude like that, good luck selling it.” Would Rory apologize, going for appeasement? Maybe flutter those hellaciously long lashes and pout those lips? He didn’t like flirts. Give him a man who knew what he wanted and asked for it. Shannon hoped Rory would go that route because it would kill his arousal. Then he could forget about screwing the man and instead concentrate on closing the deal.

He was out of luck. “If you don’t want it, someone else will.” Rory shrugged, projecting an indifference that had to be fake if he needed the money quickly, but was convincing on a superficial level.

“What I don’t want is to waste any more of my fucking time.” Rory probably had him pegged as an asshole, but Shannon didn’t care. “Show me the title and your driver’s license; then we can talk about the price.”

“I’m not lowering it.” Probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Rory had the title, neatly folded, tucked behind his license in his wallet. He handed both of them over and rested a hand on his hip in a way that would have screamed GAY to anyone who needed an announcement.

Shannon didn’t. He glanced at the title and license and offered them back. “You could sell this for fifteen hundred more than you’re asking.”

“Are you offering to pay me more? Because I’ll say yes.” There was a hint of a smile on the man’s lips, damn it, and his touch lingered longer than necessary when he took his papers from Shannon’s hand.

“Didn’t say that,” Shannon said, aware of a telltale roughness in his voice that spoke of his arousal. He forced it away. Rory wouldn’t look twice at him, so why go there? “And I don’t need a mechanic to look at it. I can do that myself. Might need more than five minutes, though.”

Rory glanced at his watch. Who the hell wore a wristwatch anymore? “Okay. Do what you need to. I can wait.”

Shannon refused to be rushed. This was his life on the line if the bike went out of control on a tight bend. The black Indian Scout was visually in good shape from a mechanical point of view, not surprising since it was only a couple of years old, but showed lack of care. He itched to polish it to a gleam, make it shine. Methodically, he went over it, ignoring Rory’s frequent glances at his watch as the minutes ticked by. For a man happy to wait, Rory exuded the need to be elsewhere. It was six o’clock, and the night hadn’t turned chilly yet. Maybe that somewhere else was a bar, a first meet-up with someone he’d connected with online. Or maybe Rory wanted to go home, change into something casual, and wait for his partner to join him.

So many possibilities and Shannon didn’t know which, if any of them, was the reality. Of course, he could ask, but they were doing business here. Best not to mix it with pleasure.

“Is it okay?” For the first time, there was diffidence in Rory’s voice. “I don’t think he maintained it much, to be honest.”

“Jesus, you could give lessons on how not to sell shit, you know that?” Shannon straightened, brushing grass and a few pieces of gravel off the seat of his jeans, then the knees. “Seems fine, but I’ll want to take it on a test-drive.”

“Drive off with it?” Rory shook his head, then frowned. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to imply you’d, uh, steal it, but suppose you crashed it? Or crashed into someone else? Or—”

Amused by Rory’s agitation, Shannon waved him to silence. “Relax, sunshine. I’ve been riding bikes with no accidents since I was a teenager.”

Unless he counted the time he’d swerved off the road and hit a trash can, and he didn’t. Getting his crotch grabbed by his passenger had been one hell of a distraction for a horny eighteen-year-old. First time that happened to him, but not the last. Bikes were powerful turn-ons for some people. He viewed them from a more pragmatic perspective, but there was no denying the thrill of having that raw energy between his legs, all noise and thunder.

“Okay. But it can’t be right now. I’m late, and my friends are blowing up my phone.” Rory gestured with it apologetically. Shannon hadn’t even seen him take it out.

“Checking to make sure the guy who wanted to buy your bike—sorry, your brother’s bike—isn’t a lowlife?”

Rory grinned. The smile had suited him, but the grin lit up his face in unexpected ways. “No, but that would have been a good idea. I’ll remember it the next time I need to sell something I know nothing about to a complete stranger.”

“Hey, you knew enough to get me here.” Shannon wasn’t always so generous, but he was about to save at least a grand on a bike. He could afford a little flattery. “When, then? I’m off Sunday. I could come by around three and—fuck!” Something had rubbed up against the back of his leg.

“Pretty sure that last part wasn’t an offer. That’s Oscar.”

Oscar was a pale orange cat with moth-eaten fur and half an ear missing. He jumped onto the seat of the bike as if it belonged to him. Shannon resisted the urge to shove him off; the bike wasn’t his yet, and while he wasn’t the biggest fan of cats, he didn’t support smacking them around.

“Let me guess: he lives here, but the vet bills are in your name.”

“Nope. I’ve got nothing to do with him. He lived next door, but the people got evicted. Pretty sure he sticks around because Neil gives him pizza crusts and cheese curls.”

The cat leaped down to the driveway, rubbed against Shannon’s legs on his way by, and collapsed into the grass, rolling over to show his belly as if asking for someone to stroke it. Rory and Shannon stood watching, neither making a move.

“No way,” Rory said. “I’m not making that mistake again.”

“Sharp claws?”

“Lethal. These are from three days ago.” Rory held out his left hand. The red lines scoring the back had faded, but Shannon guessed they’d stung plenty at the time.

“War wounds.” He pulled up his gray T-shirt, twisting to show off a thin scar snaking across his skin from hip to navel. It had healed well, but it would never go away. “Got that from falling against a bale of wire on the Stanton Tower job.”

Rory’s eyes widened. “Are you confessing to a robbery?”

That left Shannon in a rare state of speechlessness. Was he serious? Or was it a poor attempt at a joke? “I was on the crew building it,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I swiped candy from my mom’s purse until she caught me and spanked my ass, but other than that, my record’s clean, Officer.”

“I didn’t mean—” Rory sketched an apologetic wave. “Sorry. My sense of humor leaves a lot to be desired sometimes.” He stepped closer, tilting his head back more than he needed to, exposing his throat in much the same way Oscar had displayed his stomach. A sign of trust or submission? Or, like Oscar, was it a trap? “Can we forget I said it?”

“Sure.” Not like they’d become friends. This was a business transaction; in a year, Shannon wouldn’t remember what this guy looked like. “So. Sunday afternoon?”

“Three,” Rory agreed. “I can do that. I’ll see if I can dig up the paperwork from when we bought the thing. It wasn’t new, but we got it from a dealer. There were inspection forms, stuff like that.”

None of them would mean much now. “If your brother’s the one who rode it, maybe he could come too.”

Rory’s expression closed down. It was subtle, but Shannon caught it. “Maybe. I’ll see if he’s free.” The choice of words seemed deliberate, and Shannon was glad he didn’t need to waste time figuring out what was going on. Not his business.

“Great. Text me if anything changes.” They shook hands, and Shannon bent to pet the cat, who’d given up on asking to have his belly rubbed in favor of licking his fur. Oscar lifted his face in bliss, then opened his mouth in a silent meow that revealed a collection of broken teeth. “Whoa.”

“His teeth? Yeah, they’re a mess. I told Neil to take him to the vet, and he said he would, but he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry.” Rory crouched down and waggled his fingers at the cat, who promptly chose him over Shannon. Furry little traitor. “I thought about kidnapping him and taking him myself. I’m not sure how he’d respond to me shutting him in my car, though. What if he freaked out while I was driving?”

“That’s what those cat carriers are for,” Shannon told him.

“I can’t even pick him up.” In demonstration, Rory slid a hand under the cat’s belly. The cat yowled and struggled, then ran off a few yards and glared at Rory balefully. “See?”

“You’re not doing it right.” His hands were work-hardened, nicked and scraped by brick and metal. A scratch or two wouldn’t hurt. He took two strides, bent, and scooped the cat up with both hands, clamping them firmly around the animal. Skinny as it was, the weight was negligible, and after some wild twisting and an unearthly, rumbling growl, Oscar submitted to being held against Shannon’s chest.

“See?” Shannon asked, echoing Rory.

Rory raised his eyebrows, a gleam of amusement showing. “You’ve got him, but can you keep him?”

“What do you— Shit!”

Oscar went boneless, a fluid squirm of fur, and Shannon found himself holding air with the cat an orange streak heading for a hole in the fence separating the yard from its neighbor. The cat couldn’t talk, but scratches on his forearm were Oscar’s way of telling him to fuck off, written in blood.

“My dog would love him for breakfast,” Shannon muttered.

“He might end up with food poisoning.” Rory eyed Shannon’s arm with touching dismay. “I have a first-aid kit in the car. Let me clean those out so they don’t get infected.”

“Of course you do. What are you, a doctor?” That wouldn’t have come as a surprise, though surely the man would have loaned his brother the money he needed instead of selling his bike if that had been the case.

“No. Come on.” Rory led the way to his car, and Shannon followed, taking the opportunity to admire Rory’s long legs and tight ass.

He leaned against the side of the car, poking at his bloodied arm while Rory found the first-aid kit in the backseat. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Maybe not, but I have the supplies. Might as well clean it now instead of waiting. God only knows what those cat claws were digging around in before they got to your arm.”

It was a good point, so Shannon took the antiseptic wipe Rory handed him and scrubbed it across his forearm, hissing at the sting of alcohol.

“It’d hurt less if you were more gentle,” Rory said.

Shannon looked up at him. “Some of us don’t mind a little bit of pain.” He watched Rory’s face for his reaction, but Rory was expressionless.

“I think you need a Band-Aid on that deep one.” Rory gave him a tube of ointment and a wrapped bandage.

“So, not a doctor? What are you, then?”

Rory crumpled the tiny square of foiled paper the wipe had come in into a tight wad and didn’t reply. Shannon assumed he was avoiding the question, which was stupid—a quick search online would provide the information—but Rory answered eventually. “I’m an RDN. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.”

Nothing to be ashamed of in that. “Almost a doctor.”

“Not even close.”

Sticking the Band-Aid in place, Shannon asked, “How are they different?”

“Doctors go to school for like a decade, and go through residency. I have a bachelor’s degree, and I took a one-year program and passed an exam to get my certification.”

Shannon had a high-school diploma and a couple of years of college under his belt that hadn’t resulted in a qualification. “Good for you. So what’re your views on bacon, Doc?”

“Still not a doctor since the last time I told you, and what do you want me to say? It tastes good unless you’re making it into ice cream or cupcakes, in which case, I’ll pass, but four slices and you’ve blown past half your sodium allowance for the day. Like most things, it’s fine in moderation. I’m guessing you knew that.”

“So are you a vegetarian?”

“No, I’m a Pisces.”

Shannon blinked, thrown by the reply. Talking to Rory made him feel two steps behind.

Rory grinned at him. “Polite way of telling you it’s none of your business. We’re in a buyer/seller relationship. Let’s keep to what’s relevant, hmm? And I’ve got to go.” He checked his watch and moaned. “Late. I’m in so much trouble.”

“Boyfriend?” Now why had he said that? If what Rory ate was private, who he liked fucking had to be top-secret, need-to-know shit.

“A whole bunch of them,” Rory said cheerfully. “We have dinner every Thursday, and whoever shows up last without a good excuse has to listen to everyone else rag on him for the rest of the night.”

“And I’m not a good excuse?” Shannon tried to sound offended, but to his surprise, it came out more wistful than anything else.

“Not officially.” Rory pointed at Shannon’s arm as he walked backward toward the driver’s side of his car. “Wash that out again next time you take a shower, and go to urgent care if it looks infected.”

Shannon shook his head. “You can check it again on Sunday, Doc.”

“Still not a doctor,” Rory called and shut his car door before Shannon could reply.

Not that he had any idea what he would have said.

He drove home with the radio blaring, doing his best to ignore the rumble of the exhaust and the way Rory’s gaze had lingered. The man wasn’t even his type. No. That wasn’t the right way around. He wasn’t Rory’s type. Not that he knew what Rory went for. God. He was not thinking about this. He had better things to do with his time.

* * * * *

Tank was waiting for him at the front door, long tail slapping Shannon’s legs in greeting when he went into the house. “Damn dog,” Shannon said, as he often did. “Little less love, would ya?”

“He’s hoping I won’t tell you I already fed him dinner,” Luis called from the living room.

“With his breath, that’s not gonna fly.” Shannon tossed his keys onto the table by the door, littered with the junk three guys accumulated when none of them were interested in more than keeping the place clean. Dex sometimes tidied the living room and kitchen if he expected his mom to drop by, but from the sorrowful shake of the head she always gave when she walked in, it was wasted effort. Mrs. Connors always brought home-baked goods with her, but she refused to clean for them.

Your place, your mess,” she’d said once, averting her gaze from a stack of dishes, washed and left to dry that no one had gotten around to putting away. Why bother? They’d need them again soon. “I have enough to do keeping my home clean. No way am I cleaning yours.

Dex had grinned, breaking off a piece of apple-cinnamon muffin. “So you don’t mind me living like a pig, but you don’t want to see me starve?

She’d pursed her mouth and put the muffins away in a large ceramic cookie jar that had belonged to Shannon’s grandmother. “I don’t want your dad eating them and getting fat, that’s all. I’ve left him two, and by the time I get home, they’ll be gone; I know it.

Luis had planted a kiss on her cheek. “If they weren’t, you’d worry there was something wrong with them, Mrs. C. Which there isn’t.

Shannon sniffed the air, wondering if Luis had made supper. They had an informal rotation for cooking, but with the three of them working days, they often got takeout food, too tired and hungry to wait. What would that Rory guy think of that? Not a lot, probably. He and his friends were probably chomping salad sprinkled with quinoa. Not that Shannon was entirely sure what quinoa was, but it seemed to be in everything from cereal to burgers these days.

The faint smell of tomato could have meant several things, but tonight it meant pizza. “Sorry,” Luis offered when Shannon joined him in the living room. “I swear I was going to cook, but time got away from me, and there was a coupon under my windshield wiper when I got off work.”

“Oh, a coupon. How could you say no?” Not that Shannon was complaining. He loved pizza, and Luis, unlike Dex, always remembered he wasn’t a fan of green peppers. Snagging a slice, he sidestepped Tank and collapsed onto his chair. It creaked under his weight, and he reminded himself for the hundredth time that he ought to flip it over and take a look to make sure it wasn’t on the verge of collapse.

Tank sat next to him, eyes glued to the piece of pizza he’d bitten into, tail wagging hopefully.

“Onions are bad for dogs.” Shannon knew nothing he said would stop the mutt begging, but he was proud he’d managed to absorb even a little bit of knowledge about dogs when he’d never intended to have one in the first place.

They’d been living at the house for only a few weeks when they acquired Tank. A huge storm had been raging outside, the rain falling in sheets that slapped the windows in a way that had Dex fretting about leaks, and when it had let up, they’d heard a whimper from the front porch. It was Tank, though back then his fur had been threadbare in places and every bump of his spine had been visible. Shannon had looked from the dog’s worried face to Luis’s and Dex’s, and they’d made up their minds in that moment.

Let it in,” Dex had said. Luis had gone to get a towel, Shannon some food, and bang—they were dog owners.

It wasn’t all they had in common. Shannon, out since his teens, though he kept his preference for men quiet for the most part, had noticed Dex eyeing a man in tight suit pants bend over to retrieve a quarter, and exchanged a questioning glance with him when the man had walked away. Over drinks after their shift—they’d been working on the same construction crew then—they’d opened up to each other and become friends. Not with benefits. The attraction wasn’t there. Dex was physically imposing, a bulky, stocky bull of a man, and Shannon often chewed over the weirdness of not wanting to hit all that muscle, without figuring out why. Maybe they were too similar.

They’d moved in with Luis as friends, after Luis invited them to share the rent on the house he’d inherited from his uncle, and stayed that way.

Luis was another matter. Dex and Shannon both drooled over him, but Luis had made his feelings plain.

You two, you’re fucking hot. And I’d do either of you, or both at once, but that shit’s fun for a while; then it gets awkward. I don’t want awkward. I want to live with guys who won’t give me a hard time if I bring a man home.

We won’t,” Shannon had said, “but you date women too. Don’t bring them back if they’re gonna be riding our ass about being gay. Or coo over us.

And wear a towel when you come out of the shower,” Dex had added with a grin. “Cocktease.

Luis had skinned out of his shirt and posed, nipple ring glinting, his mop of dark, curly hair asking to be tousled. “I don’t mind you looking. And suffering is good for the soul.

That had gotten Luis pounced on and tickled until he damn near pissed himself laughing.

“How’d it go with the bike?” Luis asked, tossing Tank a piece of pepperoni. “Did you like the look of it?”

“Yeah. And I liked the owner too,” Shannon said, admitting out loud what he’d been stalling on admitting to himself. “Doubt it’ll go anywhere, but he had me at hello.”

“And you didn’t offer to take him out for a drink? I guess that could complicate things.”

“It’s already complicated. He’s not asking enough for the damned bike.”

“Why would that be…” Luis thought for a minute, then looked at him uncertainly. “You do like him.”

“Said I did, didn’t I?” Shannon sighed and split his attention between his pizza and the TV. “This is depressing.”

“What, the news? Or liking a guy you just met? You aren’t thinking about paying him more than he asked to be nice, are you?”

Shannon threw his half-eaten crust at Luis, who batted it away. Tank quickly moved to retrieve it, snapping it up and swallowing it. “I’m not a total idiot.”

“Maybe not, but you’re more softhearted than you like to let on.”

“Take that back.”

“No.” Luis was one hell of a stubborn man.

“Take it back, or I’m eating all the pizza by myself.” It was an empty threat and they knew it; Shannon couldn’t even summon up the energy to make it sound genuine.

“You should have taken him out for a drink.”

“Probably.” Morose and no longer hungry, Shannon reached for the remote control. “Let’s watch the game.”

Chapter Two

“I can’t believe you sold my bike.” Jude kicked the side of the toolshed in their parents’ yard, not out of anger, but sorrow, in a monotonous rhythm he could continue for far longer than Rory could bear to listen. “My bike, dude.”

Telling his half brother the deal wasn’t final until money changed hands would be a bad idea, so he didn’t. Better hope Jude didn’t follow him over to Neil’s later that afternoon, see Shannon arrive, and get into an argument with him. A fight between Shannon and Jude would be as one-sided as it got. And picturing Shannon was a distraction, so he needed to push the man out of his head. He’d been trying since Thursday and not succeeding, but maybe he’d manage it once the bike had been sold. It was the certainty of seeing Shannon again that kept the memory of him alive and potent. That body. Wet-dream material. God, and those strong features, enhanced, not obscured by a short beard, and vivid blue eyes, framed by dark, long hair pulled back with a thin strip of leather…

“Yeah, I’m sorry, but what else could I do? If I didn’t post bail, you’d still be locked up. I used my savings, and I can’t write it off. I need the money back.”

His parents had argued for the bail to remain unpaid, to rub it in that what Jude had done was wrong, but Rory couldn’t face it. Jude hated small spaces, and people who didn’t understand his limitations triggered his sullen side. That never ended well. His parents had looked into the current FAS research when Jude was younger, but not kept up with it. Rory had. There’d been breakthroughs, better options for dealing with children affected by it, and his parents were still operating on guidelines that were out of date. He’d discussed it with them and run into a wall. They were a generation older, sympathetic to Jude on one level, but deep down, he was sure they felt he could snap out of it if he tried. Jude had gotten help at school but refused a lot of it, not wanting to take his exams in a separate room to his friends, even if it meant he had longer to write his papers. He’d seen a therapist once and been so bored, the planned sessions had been reduced from twenty to six, the last two of which he’d blown off.

“Borrow the money from a bank. That’s what they do. They give people money all the time. I saw a commercial saying I could get seven thousand today.” Jude brightened, though he didn’t stop kicking the shed. “That would leave me some to spend. There’s this cool leather jacket in Sorenson’s, hand-painted with flames all over the back, and a dragon.”

And there it was in a nutshell. Jude didn’t see the world the way most adults did. Oh, he could hold down a job, not that he ever did for long, and he’d made it through high school without failing everything, but the mother who’d drunk her way through the months before, during, and after her pregnancy had left her only child subtly damaged.

Rory didn’t sigh. What was the point? Jude took things literally, trusting easily, never seeing the pitfalls in the decisions he made. “That was probably a place that gives payday loans, not a bank, and the interest they charge is through the roof. They’re no better than a scam.”

Jude gave the shed a final kick, then turned to face Rory. “Whatever. But why can’t I keep my bike? What if I need it to get to work?”

“They fired you, remember?” After Jude had stolen items he was supposed to deliver, selling them through Neil and getting ripped off in the process, then left facing charges while Neil slipped free. Jude’s loyalty, once given, was absolute, and he’d refused to incriminate his friend.

“Not them. I’ve got another job.”

He hated to ask for details, but if he didn’t, he’d surely regret it. “Doing what?”

“I don’t know. Something for a friend of Neil’s cousin. I’m supposed to meet him tomorrow morning.”

That sounded sketchy. “Meet him where?”

“The parking lot outside that mattress store on 110.” Jude seemed to think this was a perfectly acceptable way to begin a job for someone he’d never met before, as if it was how the world of employment normally ran. “I think it’s landscaping. I’ve done that.”

Yeah, for three weeks, until he’d gotten distracted on a ride-on lawnmower and driven it over some drainage stones, flinging one of them through a plate-glass window. Rory was hesitant to bring it up; Jude didn’t react well to reminders of past failures, and tipping him off balance now increased the chances he’d get himself in trouble. Again. For once, though, Jude read Rory’s silence as rebuke.

“You think I’m gonna screw up again, don’t you? Thanks, Rory. Thanks for nothing.” Jude turned away, and Rory grabbed his arm.

“I hate to see you getting taken advantage of, that’s all. If you get a solid job and take it seriously for a few months, let them see you’re reliable, things would turn around for you. I know you don’t want to go to jail.”

He saw Jude’s thought process flip from sullen teenager to scared child, Jude wrapping his arms around himself. “I don’t, Ror. I didn’t do anything! I mean, I did, but it wasn’t me!”

“I know, but you’ll be the one who takes the blame if you aren’t careful. So listen to me. Concentrate. You can do the right thing from here on out, and it’ll all be okay.”

Jude nodded. “Okay. I will. I promise.”

Rory wished he could believe this time Jude meant it, but it was a promise he’d heard dozens of times before.

“Mom and Dad are so mad at me.” Jude blinked rapidly, looking once again for sympathy and support, and, as always, Rory was there to provide them.

“They’re worried, not mad.” That might not be the complete truth, but Jude needed reassurance. “They’re afraid if you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions, you won’t learn the lessons you need to learn.”

“Being in jail won’t teach me anything. It’s a waste of time.”

Rory didn’t disagree, which was why he’d emptied his account to post bail. He was three years younger than Jude, but it’d never seemed that way, even when they were kids. He’d always known they shared a father, but not a mother, and it’d never made a difference to him or his parents. In every way that mattered, Jude’s mom was Tracy Brennan. She’d married Douglas, left to care for a small baby and out of his depth, and always treated that baby and the one she’d given birth to as if they were both hers.

But his parents didn’t know Jude the way Rory did. Jude needed help, not angry lectures, and after the last incident, that was about all his parents had to give. Rory and Jude usually went over on Sunday for a family meal that left them stuffed, complete with leftovers packed up for Monday. Even aware of how much butter his mom used, Rory couldn’t resist her cooking. Today, he had indigestion picturing the upcoming conversation over lunch.

“Well, you’re not in jail, and it’ll be a couple of months until the trial. In the meantime, do what you can to make yourself seem reliable, and maybe you’ll pay a fine or do some community service.”

Their dad walked around the side of the toolshed, joining the conversation. “With Jude’s record, that’s not likely, and he needs to prepare himself for it. You’re not doing him any favors, son.”

Rory turned, instinctively stepping in front of Jude to shield him. Which was ridiculous. His dad had never given them as much as a swat on the behind, not even when they’d gotten into his liquor cabinet and thrown up over the basement carpet a short time later, puking up expensive whiskey and the syrupy liqueur they’d added to make it taste better.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

“No, but we can look at things from a realistic perspective.” His dad had changed out of the dress slacks he’d worn to church and into jeans Rory was pretty sure his mom had ironed. “Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we want them to, and we have to live with that. The justice system exists for a reason.”

Rory didn’t want to hear what he was sure was coming next. They’d been through this before, and it would end with Jude shouting and their mom in tears.

“To fuck up people’s lives,” Jude muttered. “It was a mistake. Can’t people make mistakes anymore?”

“One, maybe. Not the same ones again and again.” Hearing the weariness in his dad’s voice, Rory found it hard to blame him for feeling that way.

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Jude’s hand clenched into a fist, and Rory tensed, ready to intervene if things became physical, but his mom called them into the kitchen through the open window, and the sound of her voice, cheery and full of hope, eased the mood.

His dad sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”

The meal was as much of an ordeal as Rory had expected. Beef and roast potatoes with vegetables and gravy was one of his favorite Sunday meals, traditional and comforting. Swallowing it without tasting as he argued Jude’s case with his increasingly tight-lipped father, his mom silent, her forehead puckered by a worried frown, was a waste of good food.

Refusing the key lime pie his mom had baked from scratch, one of her signature dishes since she’d developed a taste for it on a Florida vacation, he headed for the door.

“I don’t like you rushing off this way.”

He kissed his mom’s cheek, breathing in the scent of the floral soap she loved. “I’m not going away mad. I have to meet this guy who’s supposed to buy the motorcycle, and I don’t want to be late in case he has second thoughts.” He kept his voice low. Jude would probably head to the den to watch TV, but if he heard Rory’s plans, he’d want to tag along. That would make everything awkward, plus it’d mean driving him back home afterward, eating up even more of Rory’s day.

And he wanted to see Shannon without company. The man wasn’t dating material, but he sure as hell worked as a fantasy, and Rory needed something to sweeten his temper if he wasn’t getting pie.

* * * * *

Shannon was already at Neil’s house when he got there. “Cat’s back, but I learned my lesson.”

“Glad to hear it.” Rory made an effort not to ask about the scratches on Shannon’s arm, but in his attempt not to look found himself gazing at the man’s thighs instead. Solid, muscular, encased in denim that was a little bit too tight, they were worth a look. Jesus, he was staring openly, and from Shannon’s smirk, he’d noticed.

“Like what you see?”

“Don’t be an asshole.” It was meant as a mild admonishment, and fortunately Shannon seemed to take it as such. “Sorry I’m late. My mom makes a big Sunday lunch after church, and I never get out of there as quickly as I think I will.”

“Church?” Shannon pulled a face.

“Yeah. I don’t go—nothing against religion, it’s just not my thing, but my mom’s pretty into the whole social side of things. Bake sales, discussion groups, stuff like that.” It didn’t surprise Rory that Shannon was dismissive about church. Too much of a rebel for anything organized, he guessed. “I found that paperwork. Let me grab it for you.”

By the time he came back from the car with the folder, Shannon was kneeling on the driveway next to the bike, his driver’s license balanced on the seat as he checked the air pressure in the tires with a small portable compressor. “Figured you’d want that,” he said. “Since you’re gonna let me drive it and all.”

Rory still wasn’t crazy about the idea, but chances were good anyone interested in buying a motorcycle would want to test-drive it first, and there was no way he was starting over with another prospective buyer if he didn’t have to. He picked up the license and looked at it, noting the M and the older photo of Shannon with shorter hair. “Nice picture.”

“In the one before that, I had a mustache. No beard. Not sure what I was thinking.” Shannon stood and held out his hand for the license. “Unless you want to keep hold of it until we get back.”

“We?”

“I assumed you’d want to come along for the ride.”

Rory shook his head. “Um, no. That’s okay. You go ahead, and I’ll, uh, hang out here until you get back.” He didn’t want to explain he’d never been on a motorcycle, or that his first experience with one had been watching a friend of his dad’s lose control while riding and crash into a telephone pole. The man wasn’t seriously hurt, but the sound of the impact had freaked Rory out pretty thoroughly, and he’d never been able to forget it.

“It’s more fun with two. Like other activities I could mention.”

The way Shannon’s lips twitched told Rory he was holding back a grin. Deciding to attack, not retreat, he said, “Promise not to punch me for asking, but am I reading all this innuendo right and you’re gay?”

Shannon stepped in close and brought up his hand, curling it into a fist and grazing his knuckles across Rory’s jaw. Light-headed with arousal, Rory stood his ground, aware of his quickening breath and flushed face. “Yeah.”

“You promised not to punch me.” God, every word out of his mouth sounded like an invitation for Shannon to fuck him.

“No,” Shannon corrected him. “You asked before I said anything one way or another. So I taught you a lesson in patience.” He rubbed the back of his hand against Rory’s cheek, an open caress this time. “In exchange for an honest answer, I want your ass on the seat behind me. I’ve got a spare helmet and leather jacket you can borrow. Luis won’t mind.”

Rory swallowed heavily. “Who’s Luis?”

“Roommate. His bike was in the shop a couple of weeks ago, and he borrowed my truck. His stuff’s been in the backseat ever since.” God, Shannon smelled good, like incense and clove cigarettes. “I’ll get it. You have the keys?”

“Uh-huh.” Rory watched as Shannon walked over to the truck, studying the way his body moved instead of digging the keys out of his left-hand pocket. Shannon had to lean into the cab to find the helmets, and it afforded Rory a clear view of his ass. His jeans were definitely too tight, not that Rory was complaining.

They put on their helmets, and Shannon kicked over the engine. Rory mounted the bike, feeling uncoordinated and out of his element. He wrapped his arms around Shannon’s waist and held on when the motorcycle jolted forward. It was possible a small squeak escaped him, but he hoped Shannon missed it over the sound of the engine. Maybe the helmet muffled the noise. The sensation of moving without the safety of a car’s frame around him was terrifying at first, and he couldn’t force himself to loosen his grip on the man in front of him.

Shannon must have realized something wasn’t right; he made a second turn before slowing the bike to a stop and shifting half around to ask, “Okay?”

“Yes,” Rory managed.

“That’s not convincing.”

“I know. I’m—a little freaked out. But I can do this.”

“Hold on to me, that’s okay, but I need to breathe.”

“Sorry.” Rory hadn’t let go of Shannon when they stopped, but he did now. He smoothed his hands over his thighs, willing the tremor in his legs to subside.

Shannon raised the visor on his helmet with a flick of his wrist, and Rory did the same, grateful for the fresh air. “Move with me.”

“What?” The helmet made his head seem heavy and wobbly. He adjusted it to a more comfortable position. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re stiff as a board. When I lean, you lean, got it? Relax against me. The more space there is between us, the more unstable we are.” Shannon grinned. “Cuddle up close and let yourself go, Doc.”

Protesting the nickname would be pointless, but Rory pulled a face anyway and saw the grin broaden. “Fine. I’ll plaster myself to your back and cling like a limpet. But I’m not enjoying this.”

“You will.” Shannon closed his visor and revved the engine. “Ready?”

Helmet closed, Rory edged forward and slid his arms around Shannon’s solid, muscular body. With a desire for payback rising, he ground his crotch against Shannon’s ass as he settled into place, then moved his hands lower, fingers splayed, framing the promising mound of Shannon’s cock, before returning them to their original position.

Shannon took his hand off the throttle and rested it against Rory’s, linking their fingers and squeezing before bringing their hands down to cup the hidden swell. The intimacy of the gesture and the unexpected gentleness confused Rory, but a responsive tingle ran through him. He wasn’t used to such a swift, direct approach from a virtual stranger, but recklessness flooded him. Why not take what was being offered? Walk on the wild side for once?

God, he wanted to. Letting himself press the heel of his hand to Shannon’s growing erection, he closed his eyes and did what Shannon had told him—moved with him. For Shannon to start the bike moving forward again with Rory groping him was dangerous, something he wouldn’t normally go along with, but in that moment, it felt natural. Shannon drove the bike, and Rory drove Shannon, touching him as much as he could given their positions and the fact the man was fully clothed. He could imagine what that cock would feel like without the layers of fabric in the way, hot and eager, maybe even slick at the tip.

With every passing moment, the wind tore away another layer of his inhibitions, revealing his fantasies. Cool air; hot dreams. He allowed his fantasies to gain ground, filling his mind so completely, there was no room for doubt. Had he ever felt so exhilarated, so free? Ever been this hard, his body ready to act out every one of the lurid images swirling in his head?

The streets they drove along could’ve been mountain roads or a straight route through a desert for all he knew. He closed his eyes, reveling in the images, arms locked around the man responsible for them.

Shannon was rough, dangerous, exciting. His beard would leave Rory’s face chafed after a few kisses; his calloused hands would catch on Rory’s skin. He’d leave Rory marked, and God, how he’d treasure every bruise as a reminder.

The weeks since his breakup with Micah had been empty. He’d settled into a chill state of suspended animation when it came to sex. Shannon had thawed him with a look, heated him with a touch.

He bit at a fold of Shannon’s leather jacket, tasting bitterness, an alien tang that woke his mouth and left it watering. Pressed against Shannon’s back, he saw them fucking, a wild, harsh cry rising inside him that he kept from escaping by grinding his teeth.

Would Shannon refuse to kiss him? Be demanding, even cruel? Uncaring when it came to Rory’s pleasure, only interested in getting off? That level of selfishness should’ve been a huge turn-off, but part of Rory craved being used that way.

Once. This once. Overpowered. Overwhelmed. Lost in raw sensuality.

They rode for a few miles, then returned, going around the block and into Neil’s driveway. Shannon shut the bike off. Without the loud rumble of the engine, the spell Rory had been under was broken, his disappointment keen. Could it ever be recaptured? Or had it been a moment out of time, like slipping into an alternate universe before returning to everyday life?

Something about the way Rory climbed off the bike must have communicated his need to Shannon. “Is that it, Doc?” he asked.

Rory took off his borrowed helmet. The cool breeze ruffling his hair was a relief, but it didn’t help him answer the question. It was easier to pretend he hadn’t understood it. “I don’t know. Was that enough to tell you if you want to buy it? You can take it for a longer ride if you want to.”

Taking his helmet off, Shannon studied Rory. “It’s okay. I brought cash.”

“You brought six thousand dollars in cash?”

Shannon shrugged. “Didn’t know if you’d trust a check, and why make you wait for it to clear?”

“I guess, though it would have been safer for you. It’s a lot of money to carry around.” And yet that was what he’d end up doing when Shannon handed it over. He could take it to an ATM, but that seemed fraught with danger. Suppose someone came along and saw him stuffing the bills into the envelope? No, better wait for the bank to open tomorrow.

Some of his indecision must’ve shown on his face because Shannon said casually, “Why don’t we ride over to the nearest ATM so you can deposit it now, then get a drink together?”

More time on the bike? He’d come in his pants like a horny teenager. With the sense of being swept away, he shook his head, needing to assert some control over the situation. “That sounds good, but I should go in my car and meet you there.”

He expected an argument, but Shannon accepted his decision. “Fine by me. Which bank do you use?”

“HSBC over on Pleasant, near the grocery store. What about the bike?”

Shannon lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “I’ll have a friend drop me by tomorrow and ride it home.”

It occurred to Rory that it would’ve been simpler for Shannon to do that today. Why hadn’t he? Had he wanted to keep this meeting between the two of them?

He made the short drive to the bank with his head whirling with thoughts to the point where it might as well have been empty of them because nothing made sense. Shannon stood beside him in the vestibule while he made the deposit, a comforting shield. Seeing his balance made him wince. He’d gone overdrawn without realizing, incurring charges. They were minor, but it was a waste of money, and he hated that.

“Everything okay?”

The vestibule was empty, the air stale. Behind the locked glass doors, the bank lay in semidarkness. There’d be security cameras monitoring them, though Rory didn’t look for them, but he didn’t care. He met Shannon’s blue eyes, aware of the man in a way that left him half-scared, half-eager. “It will be when you take me somewhere we can do more than swap words and looks.”

Shannon blinked, a mildly astonished look crossing his face. “You want to go somewhere and fuck?”

Spelled out bluntly, it sounded awful, but Rory nodded, embarrassment holding him mute, that odd exhilaration stopping him from backtracking.

“Huh. Well, okay, I guess. Sure.” Shannon scratched his chin, clearly thinking it through. “I have roommates.”

“Yeah, you said. Are they home?” It was a stupid question, because the last thing Rory wanted was to go back to Shannon’s house whether his roommates were there or not. This wasn’t the start of a relationship. He wasn’t in the market for one, and he was sure Shannon wasn’t either. This was a one-time thing.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re not going there. What about your place?”

Rory shook his head. “No. A hotel?”

Shannon was doing that thing again, studying him like he was trying to figure him out. Rory wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “Okay.”

He waited, hoping Shannon would suggest a place. The only one he knew of was the run-down motel on the edge of town where Jude had rented a room a few times when he’d had a temporary girlfriend their parents hadn’t approved of. Jude had brought home bedbugs once, and it had taken months of pest control and the replacement of all the mattresses in the house before they’d gotten it under control. “Any ideas?”

“No,” Shannon said. “Never had a need to stay at a hotel locally. You?”

“No.” Dismayed, Rory tried to think of a solution before sighing, half-disappointed, half-relieved. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

Shannon stepped in close and rested a hand on Rory’s hip. His hand was big and strong, confident, and he used his grip to tug Rory closer. “Sounded like a good idea to me.”

“Yeah?” It was hard not to be breathless with Shannon’s warmth right there.

“Are you…” Shannon hesitated. “There’s somewhere. Not romantic. Not even close to it. But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re going for here.”

Rory laid it out so there was no room for misunderstandings. “I want you. In the short-term. Tonight. No strings.”

“Just sex.” Shannon wouldn’t switch off that considering gaze. It made Rory itch and squirm, though he kept the reaction mental, not physical. “Lucky for you, I keep supplies in the truck. Never know when I’ll get lucky.”

“Is that what you are today?”

“Fishing for compliments? Pretty boy like you must get them all the time.”

“Not even close.”

“Then, yeah, I’m lucky. But you get me, so you hit the jackpot.”

Rory drew in his breath. He’d gone this far, why stop now? Goading Shannon, he said, “Promises, promises. I don’t want words, I want action. You drive that bike like you know what you’re doing, but how do you fuck?”

Shannon moved his head to the side, angling it in a way that made his features seem harder, colder. “You’ll find out.”

The words were softly spoken, but the message they carried penetrated the thick silence like an arrow. Shannon stepped back, leaving Rory in too much space. He shivered from the loss of proximity and sent Shannon a look of pure appeal. It must have worked. The flinty tension of Shannon’s jaw muscles eased, and he smiled.

“Get in the truck. I’ll bring you back for your car when we’re done.”

Without thinking, he blurted out, “You like ordering me around, is that it?”

Shannon folded his arms across his chest, booted feet planted wide. He nodded slowly. “I can beg on my knees for you to get in the truck or pick you up and throw you in, and it won’t make any difference to what happens when we get where we’re going. I’m planning to fuck you raw whether you piss me off or not.”

Exhilarated, caught up in the fantasy of being someone else, someone who could meet an incredibly hot man and fuck him without even getting to know him, Rory was tempted not to argue. Still, he felt the need to push. “What’s the magic word?”

“Get your tight little ass in my fucking truck now.” Shannon reached out and caught a fold of Rory’s shirt, twisting it until it was pulled taut against Rory’s body, close as a kiss. “Please.”

Good enough.

They drove for ten minutes, neither of them touching each other or speaking until Shannon pulled the truck into the dirt entrance of a building site. “No one’s working today,” he explained, shutting off the engine. “Watch your knees.”

That didn’t make sense at first; then Shannon reached for the glove compartment, and Rory understood, shifting out of the way so Shannon could open it and get out condoms and some small packets of lube.

“You’re sure no one’s here?” The sun was low, but it was easy to see there were no other cars in the parking lot, no lights on in the building above them.

“I’m sure. Come on; let me show you around.”

Shannon had a key that unlocked the front door. Rory didn’t get why it would even be necessary until they went inside and he saw building supplies lined up carefully against the walls, grouped by type. Some of them, like copper pipes and wiring, must be expensive, and they’d be all too easy to steal before they were installed. Stairs led upward. “How many floors?”

“Eight. It’s gonna be offices for a call center.” There was no sign of the condoms now, or the delicious tension between them. Rory wondered if Shannon had changed his mind, but when they got to the top of the stairs, he found himself shoved up against the wall.

“How’s this for a place?” Shannon asked and kissed him.

It was a rough kiss, with little finesse, and Rory was hard in moments. So this was how it felt to have sex with a stranger, in a public place. Why hadn’t he done it before? His head spun the way it did after he’d drunk too much beer, a slow lurching unsteadiness to his body.

Shannon’s kiss demanded more than most guys asked for during sex, in Rory’s experience. Demanding he open his mouth for Shannon’s tongue to explore, demanding the right to bite and suck until his lips stung. The moaning, clutching, and helpless rutting against Shannon’s hard body, though—he gave those things without needing to be asked.

“Hot for it, aren’t you?” Shannon’s lips were wet, painted shiny by the kisses. “How long has it been since you gave it up to someone?”

Micah, his last boyfriend, hadn’t enjoyed penetrative sex, giving or taking, so the correct answer was too long to be counted in months. He settled for a shake of his head.

“Not a virgin, though.” It wasn’t phrased as a question, but there was a hint of hesitancy to the words.

“No. I like being fucked, but it hasn’t happened recently.” It was a wonder Shannon understood him. His voice was muted, the weight of his lust squeezing the air from his lungs, filling him until there was no room for anything but the man before him.

“I’m gonna change that, Doc. You’ll crawl out of here by the time I’m through. Now get out your cock for me. Let’s see if it’s as pretty as the rest of you.”

The gentleness had gone, replaced by a blazing hunger Rory shared even as shock wiped his mind clean. This wasn’t him. Couldn’t be. Yet even as he thought it, he reached for his belt.

“Yours too,” he said, but Shannon shook his head.

“Later. I want you bare first.”

Rory shuddered with arousal, hands shaking as he undid the front of his pants and freed his cock. It stuck up hard and eager; it had been too long since anyone else touched him. He groaned when Shannon wrapped warm fingers around his length, squeezing it casually.

“Well, well. What’ve we got here? Is this for me?” Shannon’s voice was warm too. He kissed Rory again, biting his lower lip until Rory gasped. One slow stroke and Rory’s knees threatened to buckle. He was grateful for the wall behind him. Without it, he wasn’t sure of his ability to remain standing. “You like getting sucked, Doc?”

He didn’t have to answer. Shannon was already sinking onto his knees, mouth closing around the tip of Rory’s cock. Rory shut his eyes and concentrated on the sensation, torn between wanting to come immediately for the sheer relief of it and wanting to wait as long as possible because it felt so fucking good. Shannon had him pinned against the wall with one hand on his hip, taking him a little deeper with each suck.

He’d never seen getting blown as an act of surrender, only pleasure, but it was. Shannon made him quiver, had his fingernails biting into his palms as he fought for control. And with every swirling lick and squeeze of his balls, he lost that battle.

“Make as much noise as you want.”

The loss of Shannon’s mouth hurt. Rory stared down, drinking in the sight of Shannon aroused by blowing him. Half-closed eyes, a flush staining his cheekbones, and a chafed, raw look to his lips. Hot as hell.

Shannon jacked him lazily, seemingly at ease kneeling on the rubble-littered concrete. When Rory’s cock yielded a small surge of wetness, he lapped it away. It was a quiet moment, but Rory sensed the storm gathering, not receding.

“I mean it. Moan for me. Beg me for more. I’ve got it to give.”

“Suck me,” Rory whispered. Was he begging or giving an order? He didn’t know. “Please. Your mouth on me again. That’s what I want. Make me come.”

“If I do, it’ll hurt more when I fuck you.”

He rolled his head against the wall, the rough surface leaving grit in his hair, knowing Shannon was right, but not caring. He’d be tight as a fist anyway, and unless Shannon took it slow, he’d feel every inch.

Perfect.

“I don’t care. When you fuck me, I want…” He swallowed, words rising from a secret place, a hot darkness buried deep. “I want it to be about you. Not me.”

So many polite, considerate lovers, turning sex into an act as passionless as sneezing. He needed more, and a man like Shannon could give it to him, he knew it. And it was safe. He’d have this one time, then walk away. He’d know what rough, hard, merciless fucking was like, satisfy his curiosity.

Use me.

The words slammed around in his head, trying to escape.

“Yeah? Is that what you want?” Shannon sounded as if he was giving the idea serious consideration. Apparently making up his mind, he gave Rory’s cock one last caress, then released it. “We’re doing this my way. Turn around.”

Shaking, as desperate for bliss to take his life away from him as he’d ever been, Rory did as he’d been told. The sight of the wall, unfinished, did nothing to make any of this more real. Its uneven surface dug into his palms and fingertips as behind him, Shannon—someone he barely knew—did whatever he needed to prepare to fuck him.

He lifted up onto the balls of his feet when he felt the first brush of Shannon’s fingers in the crack of his ass. His pants were around his ankles, and he couldn’t spread his legs the way he wanted to, but he did the best he could, arching his lower back. Shannon pushed what might have been two or maybe three fingers into him, slow, relentless, not giving him enough time to adjust or protest.

“You like this.” Shannon’s mouth was by his ear. “You’ve been thinking about it since we met, what it would be like for me to use you like this.”

The pure shock of hearing his secret thoughts spoken out loud eclipsed the pain of having Shannon’s thick fingers up inside him, working him open in rough, slick thrusts. The wet sounds of skin and lube moving together were obscene in the otherwise quiet space, and after a few more moments, Rory moaned.

“There we go.” Another slow thrust, a twist of Shannon’s wrist that rubbed knuckles against Rory’s prostate. “Jesus, you’re tight. You sure you’re not a virgin?” He moved his hand the same way again, drawing another involuntary sound of pleasure from Rory, playing him expertly. “Doesn’t matter. I’d still fuck you.”

“Do it.” Rory barely managed more than a gasp. “Please.”

“You don’t even know how big I am. How hard you’ve gotten me.”

Shannon bit Rory’s earlobe, no tender, teasing nip, but a snap of teeth, creating a new hot spot on Rory’s body, sending him into a frenzy of need. Was that blood wet on his ear or spit? Would the bite leave visible marks, tiny bruises?

Rory reached back, groping for Shannon’s cock to map with his fingers, but Shannon knocked his hand away, then dealt out a sharp slap to Rory’s thigh. “You’ll find out when it’s in you. Hands on the wall. Keep them there. No touching your cock either. All about me, yeah? Might let you come, might drive you back to your car with your balls like rocks and your dick out for me to play with if we get stuck at a red light.” The image was so outrageous, he shook his head in protest, but Shannon chuckled. “I would. Trust me, I will if you misbehave.”

“Won’t. I’ll be good. Please.” Who knew desire this overwhelming existed? Separate from love or any real knowledge of the man about to fuck him, his need for rough handling took him over, free from captivity at last, given full rein for the first time.

In that moment, he didn’t know himself. It was the ultimate defense against doubt or guilt. This wasn’t him, bare ass pushed out, hole crammed with a stranger’s fingers, begging for a hard fuck. This was a stranger too.

Let it happen. Enjoy it. It’s the first, last, and only time, so don’t waste it.

Yeah. That made perfect sense.

When Shannon removed his fingers, Rory whimpered, but when he replaced them with his cock, the sound Rory made was more like a sob. God, it hurt more than anything he could remember; his whole body tensed, trying to deny Shannon entrance.

“Stop,” Shannon said. “Easy.” There was a hint of something gentle in his voice, and that gave Rory the space to breathe. Breathing helped him relax, and when that happened, Shannon moved deeper. It didn’t hurt any less, but the promise of pleasure was lurking too.

The condom and all the lube helped. Rory let the next few thrusts tip him forward until his forehead was resting against the wall and tried to focus on the bigger picture. He was having hot, anonymous sex with a man who had a huge cock and huge hands and who knew how to nail his prostate with each stroke, because now he was crying out and shivering and coming so hard he forgot his name.

“I’m not. Done.”

The words, separated by a harsh gasp, didn’t make any sense, and the deep thrusts continued without pause. Rory shivered and groaned. He was too sensitive for this to feel good. He’d already orgasmed, and there was no way he could continue, not when every nerve in his body was spasming in the aftermath.

Shannon shoved a hand up under Rory’s shirt and pinched his nipple. “Come on.”

It took a moment for Rory to realize Shannon was suggesting he come a second time. “No way.”

“I’m not asking,” Shannon growled. His fingers were tight on Rory’s nipple, clamped there, providing steady pressure, and his cock was still rubbing across Rory’s prostate without fail. God. Rory’s cock, which hadn’t quite gone soft, hardened again.

“I can’t,” he said, though his body told a different story.

“Sure you can.”

Shannon bit the back of Rory’s neck, finding the precise, exact spot to close the circuit. A lightning bolt shot from his neck to his nipple, down to his cock, and earthed in his crammed-full, aching ass.

His eyes had been closed for a while, but the blackness behind the lids intensified. He plunged into that darkness, a burning spark, his second climax consuming him.

“Still not done,” Shannon growled, the ragged edge to his voice telling a different story.

Tears slid down his face, as sweet a release as the spurts from his cock. He gulped air and tasted salt, begged for Shannon to stop and knew he’d die if he did. Shannon didn’t pause, the hammer blows of his thrusts speeding up if anything. Maybe because Rory had reached back, holding on to Shannon’s leg, his body more honest than his mouth.

Punctuating each word with a grunt, Shannon gave him reassurance in the form of three ground-out syllables. “When. I’m. Done.”

What was he, a robot? Rory squeezed Shannon’s ass behind him, awkward but better than nothing, and tried to move with him, difficult considering their position. It must have been what was needed, because Shannon roared and Rory felt him come, cock throbbing in an ass that had gotten the most thorough fucking of its life.

“God. Jesus. Fuck.” Shannon managed the words through clenched teeth by the sound of it and jerked his body into Rory’s one final time. “Oh my God.”

Rory’s thoughts exactly. He was glad of Shannon’s body behind his, holding him up. The moment of withdrawal would suck. “That was—” There might not be a word for it.

“Yeah.”

Neither of them moved.

“Do you think—” Rory hated to ask, but a cramp had taken up residence in his thigh.

“Sure. Hang on.” Shannon fumbled for a grip on the condom and pulled out carefully, patting Rory’s hip in apology when he hissed. “Sorry.”

“No. Don’t be.” His ass was raw and throbbing, but he’d take that over an apology. He wanted to savor this, not have it diminished by banalities. “What we wanted, remember?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess that’s true.”

By the time he’d fastened his pants and turned, Shannon had tugged his clothing into place and made the condom disappear. He was flushed and sweaty from his exertions and, Rory supposed, the humid air. A storm was coming in, making his head ache with the low pressure. A rumble of thunder sounded, far away for now, and a gust of wind swept through the empty windows, stirring up dust.

“So, do you want—”

“Can we go back to my car?” Rory asked, interrupting whatever Shannon had been about to say. “It’s time I went home. I’ve got laundry to do.” Shannon did that blink and stare again, and Rory, moved by an impulse he couldn’t define, bobbed forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“Jesus,” Shannon muttered before shaking his head and smiling at him, a stiff, painted-on smile. “You’re welcome. Anytime.”

Chapter Three

“You look rode hard and put away wet,” Dex commented when Shannon walked into the living room, beer in hand. Dex muted the TV—no loss in Shannon’s opinion since he was watching golf—and studied Shannon with a grin, long legs stretched out, bare feet propped on the low coffee table. Dex was wearing what were probably meant to be workout clothes that he must have shrunk in the wash. They were half a size too small, showcasing sculpted muscles and a flat, tight stomach. “Been to the gym? No, because that’s not your thing. Hmm. Go through a car wash forgetting you own a bike now? Possible, possible. Or—”

“I had the weirdest, hottest sex of my life.” Shannon slumped onto the couch by Dex, then took in half the bottle of beer in four long, greedy gulps. “Ever swap jackets on a book so it looks like you’re reading something educational when it’s not?”

“No, but I’m not much of a reader. Sex? Tell Uncle Dex all about it. My dry spell’s lasted so long, my dick’s forgotten what God put it between my legs for.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing, but you take my meaning.”

“Yep.” Dex scratched his head. His hair was buzzed short enough he didn’t need a comb. It didn’t suit him, and yet Shannon couldn’t picture him with longer hair. “You checked out Pride and Prejudice—impressed I know that one?—and got Sex Sluts from Saturn instead. ‘Sex’ spelled with three Xs.”

“See, the problem is, I’m not even sure what I meant to check out. Or maybe I thought I was getting something more along the lines of a hot romance, but the other guy thought it was sex with three Xs.”

“Wait, what? Back up a half dozen steps, and start at the beginning.”

Shannon didn’t know where the beginning was. “I liked him. I mean, he might not be my usual type, but…I liked him.”

“And now you don’t?” Damn, Dex was a little too smart for Shannon’s own good sometimes.

“Didn’t say that.” He drank more beer, trying not to glower at his roommate.

“So if the sex was as hot as you say, what’s the problem?”

Sighing, Shannon grimaced. “It’s complicated.”

“Well, either you aren’t ready to talk about it yet, or you’ve already decided it’s over and you don’t want to admit it.” Dex looked at him sternly. “So which is it?”

“I don’t know. That’s the part where it’s complicated.”

“It’s the guy who sold you the bike, huh?”

“Yeah.” Shannon tried to figure out how to put it into words, since it seemed clear Dex didn’t want to let it drop and he was stubborn when he got an idea in his head. “Rory—”

“Wait, long shot, I know, but is Rory the guy who works at my gym?”

“I didn’t ask for a résumé,” Shannon pointed out.

“He’s—what do you call it—a nutritionist or something. I mean, I don’t know if he technically works for the gym; he’s more a consultant. I had a free session with him when I started my membership. He had good advice, and he wasn’t pushy about me signing up for more sessions. I don’t remember his last name, but I’ve seen him around plenty of times. Seems like a solid guy.”

Yeah, Rory was solid all right. Shannon wasn’t sure he’d ever forget what it had felt like to drive into his willing body without fear he’d break.

“If you know him, this conversation’s over. I’m not sharing details behind his back.” He’d already said too much, but he’d needed to vent some of his confusion.

“I hear you.” Dex stretched, arms over his head, hands interlocked. “You’re such a fucking gentleman. Rory, though… He’s got a great body, and I knew he was gay, but he comes over as the buttoned-up type. Vanilla with a cherry on top.”

More like dark, bitter chocolate with a hint of chili.

“Yeah, well, he made it plain it was a one-time thing, so no big deal. It’s over.”

Dex whistled long and low. “The mighty Shannon struck out? Usually you’re the one giving the brush-off.”

Remembering that kiss on the cheek and the casual wave Rory had given him before driving away hurt like pressing a bruise. He took some satisfaction in remembering the careful way Rory had eased onto the seat of the truck on the ride back to his car. Rory might want to scrub Shannon from his memory, but for a couple of days, his aching ass would make that impossible. Not to mention the bite marks.

God, what had gotten into him? Not his type, not his kink, but he’d seen how much Rory wanted him, and playing along had seemed harmless, fun even. Until it wasn’t. Until he’d found himself in the dark with a cliff edge inches from his feet. Rory had begged him to stop and he hadn’t, trusting to that hand holding him close, not the shaking, broken voice. Right choice, but suppose it wasn’t? Jesus, what had he been thinking? Insanity, all of it.

Rory had been right to walk away.

Over the next three days, Shannon’s thoughts were consumed with the memory of something that had lasted barely more than half an hour. It didn’t matter where he was—picking up his morning coffee, at work, on his lunch break, walking the dog, getting ready for bed. Through all of it, he thought of Rory. He’d had plenty of casual partners, and none of them had gotten under his skin the way this man had, and he had no idea what to do about it.

“You’re a mess,” Luis said Wednesday night, coming into the kitchen where Shannon stood staring at the burgers he was frying up as they sizzled and spat.

“What?” Self-conscious, he ran a hand over his hair, but it seemed to be lying flat enough.

“That’s not what I mean. Did you even sleep last night?”

Shannon sighed. “Of course I did.” Restlessly, his dreams peppered with images of Rory naked, bound with leather, skin bruised hot from Shannon’s handling, but that wasn’t the question.

“You took Tank out at five. You didn’t need to be up before six.”

“Why were you up at five to notice what I was doing with Tank? Oh, that’s right, you had a booty call. Was it that redhead again? I should be the one asking you if you got any sleep. Sounded like she was having a good time, though.” Smirking, Shannon shut off the gas under the pan; it was plenty hot enough to finish cooking the burgers. “There’s a salad in the fridge. If you’re gonna be in here bugging me, you can help. Dex! Dinner!”

The three of them sat at the dining room table and ate. It was a welcome distraction to share a meal with his roommates. Tank sat in the doorway and punctuated the conversation with eager thumps of his tail against the floor every time he even suspected anyone was looking in his direction.

“Didn’t you feed him?” Dex asked.

“Twenty minutes ago.” Shannon looked at a bite of hamburger that had separated itself from the rest and was lying on his plate. He didn’t need it.

Luis frowned at him. “Don’t even think about it.”

Shannon kicked him under the table. “I wasn’t.”

“You were,” Dex said.

Luis launched into a lecture Shannon had heard a dozen times. “Dog food is for dogs, human food is for—”

“I get it.”

“Snappy,” Luis remarked to no one in particular. “Maybe someone needs to get—”

He stabbed his finger at Luis. “Don’t even go there.” Sex. That was all it’d been with Rory. And there was nothing wrong with that. Most of his partners lasted only a few months or so, if it even got that serious. Why was this encounter an issue?

Luis set down his fork. “If you interrupt me again, I’m taking you outside and pointing the hose at you.” He nodded at Dex. “I’ll need your help for that. Last night with Tricia was intense. I think I pulled something.”

“Count me out.” Dex pursed his lips. “Wait, Shannon all wet and spitting fire? I’m in. So in.”

“I’ll save you the humiliation of your guaranteed ass-whupping by apologizing.” Shannon picked up the scrap of meat, studied it and ate it, ignoring Tank’s disappointed whine. “Got some stuff on my mind.”

“Rory.” Dex shrugged, then doused his burger with ketchup, a thick, red splodge of it, oozing everywhere. “Call him. Ask him over for a beer. We don’t bite.”

“He doesn’t want to see me again.” Okay, he’d snarled that. Time to ease back on the aggression. “Sorry. Again. Jesus, he’s done a number on me.”

“I’d ask why he’s the one who sparked all this, but I don’t know if I can take hearing a list of his positive qualities, and I don’t think it’d do you any good either,” Luis said. “What you need to do is stop focusing on him and start getting interested in someone else. Go out tonight, have a couple of drinks, hook up. You’ll feel better.”

Shannon couldn’t imagine how that would make him feel better, but he said, “Maybe you’re right,” because it was easier than arguing with Luis.

After dinner he cleaned up the kitchen—they’d made it a rule that whoever’s turn it was to provide the meal had to clean up too, following a night when Luis and Dex had come close to blows because Luis accused Dex of being a slob on purpose—and took the dog out. It was a good distraction to walk Tank. Although the dog was probably mostly pit bull and looked like a monster, he had the heart of a teddy bear and would desperately try to make friends with any other dog they came across. Many of the other neighborhood dogs didn’t feel the same way, though, and Shannon had to keep an eagle eye out for any situations that might result in an altercation.

Tank panted up at him, openmouthed, tail wagging as they crossed the street, headed for the park. The sun would be setting in about an hour, and the sky was a pale orange near the horizon. The leaves were hovering on the edge of changing color.

They’d stepped onto the grass when Shannon heard a shout. A fraction of a second later, something crashed into his knees with enough force that he stumbled.

“Shit! Bailey, come here!”

Bailey seemed to be the name of the brown blur of a dog that was excitedly leaping around Tank, play-bowing and inciting him to join in on the fun.

“I am so sorry.” The man who ran up and joined them gasped for breath as he tried to grab Bailey’s leash. “I got her last week—from the shelter. She took off, the leash flew right out of my hand—”

“Tank, sit.” Shannon used his no-nonsense dog voice, and Tank, for once, obeyed, dropping his hindquarters down into the grass.

“Got her!” The guy dragged Bailey backward several feet, putting some space between them, though she continued to pull, trying to get at Tank. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. I mean, we’re lucky they’re friendly and didn’t want to attack each other.”

“No, she’s super sweet. She loves other dogs. Maybe a little too much.”

“They do basic training on the other side of town at Riverside Park,” Shannon offered. “She might be too old for some of the classes, but I’ve heard good things about the instructors.”

“That’s an idea. Thanks.” The man held out his hand. “I should introduce myself after knocking you over with my dog. I’m Elliot. And don’t I know you from Calypso?”

“Shannon. And, yeah, I work the door there sometimes. Construction’s my trade, but a little extra cash always comes in handy.”

Calypso wasn’t exclusively a gay club, but the warmth of Elliot’s handshake left Shannon certain Elliot’s preferences matched the majority of the customers, not the minority. And wasn’t that convenient? Good-looking without being memorable, a dog lover, and lived locally. They could ditch the dogs, get to know each other over a beer at one of the nearby bars on King Street, then flip a coin to see whose house they went back to.

And it would be boring. Predictable from the first kiss, to the position they used, to the sounds Elliot made with a cock inside him. Shannon didn’t know how he could be so sure, but he was, and it killed his interest.

He sighed inwardly, tuning out Elliot’s answer. He cursed himself for being hung up on a man who’d used him, gotten what he wanted, then walked away. Get back on the horse. That was the advice he’d give a friend if they were in a similar situation, so why couldn’t he take it?

“Maybe we could have a playdate sometime,” Elliot suggested hopefully, and for a few seconds, Shannon misunderstood. Then Elliot slapped a hand over his face. “For the dogs. I meant for the dogs.” He risked another look at Shannon. “If we thought they’d get along. It’d be great for Bailey to have a chance to get some of her energy out on someone other than me. I have a fenced yard.”

“We do too, but sure. That’d be great.” He used the word “we” deliberately, knowing Elliot would assume it meant he had a partner. He saw the moment that assumption crossed Elliot’s face, creasing it with disappointment.

He felt guilty because it was a lie. That wasn’t who he was, even if things weren’t going the way he wanted them to.

“I live with a couple of roommates; we all share taking care of Tank. I’d be happy to see more of you, but I’m in a weird space right now.” That was the truth, hopefully specific enough that Elliot wouldn’t ask too many questions. “Give me your number, and when things get a little less weird, I’ll text you and set something up, okay?”

“Okay. Sure!” Elliot sounded more excited about what was essentially a brush-off than he should have, but then, he looked like a nice guy. Probably ten years younger than Shannon’s thirty-three, but nice.

Not his type, but nice.

Bailey jumped at Tank a couple of times while Shannon was typing Elliot’s number into his phone. She was smaller than Tank, but sturdy as hell, muscular. It was a good thing Elliot had her on a harness in addition to her collar, or she might have strangled herself to the point of unconsciousness. To be fair, though, Tank was as into the idea of her as she seemed to be of him, and it would be nice for him to have a friend who could put up with his shenanigans.

Shannon headed home after some increasingly awkward small talk, letting Tank tug him along. Work tomorrow. With the place he’d fucked Rory right there, somewhere to walk past or avoid, depending on his mood. He’d gotten hard the first time he’d passed by, not enough to show under the loose jeans he wore to work, but enough to make him angry at his loss of control. It had been his idea to go there with Rory, he reminded himself. One of his more stupid ones in a long line of mistakes stretching back to crossing a creek by jumping on moss-covered stones at the age of eight. He’d slipped, cracked his head, and landed facedown in fast-flowing water. It might have been his last mistake if the icy water hadn’t shocked him out of his daze.

That daze was back, an ongoing state of affairs.

Enough. One fuck had screwed him up; maybe another would reset him to what he considered normal. He’d call Rory and ask if a repeat performance held any appeal. If it didn’t, he was no worse off than he was now. Better, because with any luck, he’d be able to move on. And if it did…

Tank paused to sniff at a gatepost he proceeded to piss on. The homeowner wasn’t around to glare, so Shannon let him go ahead. If Rory said yes, he’d bring him back, kick out Dex and Luis—they’d understand—and fuck Rory the way he usually fucked his partners. No hearts and flowers, but on a bed like normal people. Maybe even cuddle afterward. He might be six-three with muscles stacked on muscles, but he liked cuddling.

Rory’s wild keening, the scrabble of his hands against the wall, the dark, savage elation of biting into flesh and knowing he was close to drawing blood…

“Cuddling,” Shannon said firmly, earning a puzzled woof from Tank, who recognized the tone, but not the word.

He waited until he was alone in his room, Tank curled up happily with a chew toy on the couch downstairs, before making the call. He’d refused to let himself think about it at all once he’d decided to do it; he knew well enough he’d change his mind given half a chance. After checking the charge on his phone to make sure it wouldn’t die mid-conversation, he hit the screen on the contact he’d labeled ‘Rory - bike.’

“Hello?” Rory sounded uncertain when he answered, like maybe he’d forgotten to link Shannon’s number to a name.

Or maybe he wanted to forget.

That thought gave Shannon a jolt of anxiety. “Hey, it’s Shannon. I bought the bike?”

A pause. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He was tempted to let the silence hang there until Rory said something else—a conversation was about people taking turns, after all—but he’d been the one who made the call. It was probably only fair to say why. “I’ve, um. Been thinking about the other night.”

“Mm-hm. Me too.”

Hope was an improvement. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean… That wasn’t like me. To do something like that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I regret it. But I didn’t think we’d… I guess I thought whatever that was, was over. Isn’t that how this usually works?”

Shannon smiled. “Apparently not. At least it doesn’t have to be. It’s not like anyone handed us a script and told us to follow it.”

“True.”

“And it wasn’t like me either.”

“It wasn’t?”

A tinge of disappointment or relief? Shannon wasn’t sure. He was at the stage where he didn’t trust his instincts. Sleepless nights and feverish sessions where he jerked off without satisfying more than the physical demands of his body had left him on edge. “Let’s say I’m capable of more,” he temporized.

“Oh.” The drawn-out exhalation reminded Shannon of his young cousin unwrapping a gift to discover the latest, impossible-to-get toy; a mixture of disbelief and delight.

“So how about we meet up for a drink? Get to know each other?”

“Okay. If you’re sure you want to.”

“Sure that I’d like to see you again? I wouldn’t have called otherwise.” He was putting himself out there, and he knew it could lead to heartbreak, but he also knew if he didn’t, there was a chance he’d always regret it.

“Right.” Rory still sounded pleased, which was reassuring. “Tomorrow night? Shit, no. Tomorrow’s Thursday.”

Shannon tried not to be too disappointed. “You have to work?”

“No, I have a thing. With friends.”

“Right, the weekly dinner. We could meet before? Or after?” Part of Shannon hoped Rory would ask him to join them, though it would be awkward, but apparently that wasn’t happening.

“I could do after, if nine isn’t too late? Eight thirty, maybe?”

“Nine is okay.” Shannon would have agreed to ten or even eleven, even if it meant Dex prying him out of bed with a crowbar on Friday morning and at least an extra coffee to get him through the day. He tried not to wonder if Rory didn’t want to introduce him to his friends.

“There’s a bar I’ve always wanted to try…” Rory’s voice trailed away to nothing.

“Yeah?”

“Someone like you probably goes there all the time.”

Someone like him? Gay? A biker? A construction worker? “What’s it called?” He could be patient when someone was as patently nervous as Rory.

“Uh, Finn’s.”

Well, shit. It was a leather bar and extreme enough that it was the subject of a letter in the local paper once every few months, demanding its closure. Which wouldn’t happen. Menton was a small city that prided itself on being inclusive and tolerant. Shannon had been to Finn’s once with a boyfriend into the scene. It’d been their first and last date. He’d drunk his beer, enjoying the eye candy—who wouldn’t?—but felt out of sync with the ambience.

Choosing his words, he said, “It’s not one of my usual hangouts.”

“It isn’t? But you’re a biker and into, um, rough sex.”

Shannon closed his eyes, wishing this conversation was taking place with Rory in the room. “There’s some overlap of interests, I guess, but biker bars and leather bars aren’t the same thing at all. And I don’t go to biker bars much either. I’m not sure taking you there’s a good idea.”

“Are you saying that because you don’t think I’ll fit in?”

“I’m saying neither of us would fit in.” He pictured the looks they’d get walking into Finn’s. The regulars would assume they were tourists who’d come to stare at the freaks and freeze them out. He wouldn’t blame them. “How about the Crown Inn? They do craft beer on tap.”

There was a long, long pause. “Okay,” Rory agreed.

“Not convincing,” Shannon told him. “If you don’t want to go there, say so.”

Again, Rory seemed to be fighting with himself. “I don’t want to go to the Crown Inn. I want to go to Finn’s.” He swallowed audibly. “I want you to go with me.”

It was impossible to know what the hell the man was thinking, but deep down Shannon had a soft heart, and it was hard for him to say no. “There, see? That’s all you had to say. Do you want to meet there? Or I could pick you up.”

“I could pick you up,” Rory countered. “Oh, wait, if I do that, it’ll have to be even later.”

“Then let’s skip that part. What if I swing by wherever you have your group thing right at nine?”

“If you drive by slowly enough, you won’t even have to come to a complete stop,” Rory said with a hint of humor. “I’ll jump in. I’m more coordinated than I look.”

Shannon, who didn’t have any complaints about the way Rory looked, wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Pretty sure I can time it so the schedule allows me to put the truck in park. Where’s your dinner?”

“MacKenzie’s Pub. It’s on—”

“I know. I’ve been there a few times.” Once—on a casual date Luis had set up for him, though it hadn’t gone anywhere.

“Hang on, someone’s at the door. It’s my brother, I think. He said he’d— Yeah, it’s open!”

Shannon heard a male voice in the background, so he knew Rory wasn’t brushing him off, but the abrupt end to the call, with Rory making hasty apologies, then disappearing, left him unsettled.

Finn’s. Sweet Jesus, what was he going to wear? From what he remembered, and hadn’t blocked out, the dress code was leather or skin. Which were the same, in a way. He owned a leather jacket because riding a bike without protective gear was stupid, but that was it. His leather was ancient, battered until the original black was gray in places, and scarred here and there. It wasn’t fetish-worthy unless someone got off on grunge. And, yeah, it smelled good to him, but one boyfriend had tossed it out of the car window into the rain, claiming it stank. Which had gotten him dumped faster than anyone Shannon had dumped before.

A tap on the door roused him from his thoughts. “It’s me,” Dex called, not opening the door. House rule number six: thou shalt not walk in on thy roommate in case he is buck naked and jerking off. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Come on in.”

Dex turned the door handle, and Tank shoved the door open with his face and bounded into the room, jumping up onto Shannon’s bed, tail wagging furiously.

“No!” Shannon was laughing, which made his order useless. “Down! Bad dog!”

“Tone’s more important than the words,” Dex told him. It was a sentence they’d thrown back and forth at each other since they’d taken Tank to a beginners’ training class at the local SPCA. “Tank. Down.”

Quivering, the dog slid off the bed to the floor and sat.

“See? You’re too easy on him. What’s going on?”

“I called him. We’re going for drinks tomorrow night,” Shannon said.

“Well, good.”

“At Finn’s.”

Dex frowned. “Not good. So not his kind of place. Why the fuck are you taking him there?”

“He asked me to.”

“Does he have even the slightest idea what goes on there?”

“I think so.” God, he hoped so. “It was his idea. He said he wanted to go, and he wanted me to go with him. What was I supposed to do, say no?”

“I guess not.” Dex came closer and scratched Tank’s ears; Tank collapsed onto his side, asking to have his belly rubbed. “I mean, you could have tried to talk him out of it.”

“Believe me, I tried.” Shannon didn’t want to worry about the ways in which tomorrow night’s date could go horribly, horribly wrong. “Anyway, it’ll be fine. At least I get to see him again.”

“If he dresses the way most people there do, you’ll get to see a lot of him.” Dex grinned. “Though I guess you already had sex, so it won’t be anything you haven’t seen.”

A pale ass, curved tautly, reddening from his rough handling, a cock he’d left wet and dark-tipped, and Rory’s lower back. That was it. And none of that would be on show at Finn’s if he had anything to say about it.

“One drink. Assuming he doesn’t freak out at the door. Then I’m bringing him back here. Any chance you and Luis can give us some space?”

“Luis won’t be here. Staying over with the redhead. I can find somewhere to crash, but why? You don’t usually care about privacy.”

Because you know him. Because I want him to myself. Because I’m planning slow and sweet, and look how well everything else I’ve planned has gone.

“I won’t ask again, I promise. Just this once. Please?”

Tank whined, the plaintive sound echoing Shannon’s voice accurately enough that he and Dex cracked up.

“Fine. But you owe me a favor.”

“Call it in anytime.” Shannon held up his hand, and Dex slapped it, sealing the deal.

He let Tank sleep at the foot of his bed that night, something he didn’t often do because the damn dog was too big, but he was in a good mood and wanted to share it. It was a little depressing that a dog was the closest thing he had to a partner. He wouldn’t let himself dwell on that or the way a couple of weeks ago the thought wouldn’t have crossed his mind.

The early part of his shift at the site felt longer than usual, and Shannon was distracted, not paying attention the way he should have been when one of his coworkers asked him a question, and he paused, swinging around to answer. “Joe and Bill? I think they’re down on the first floor.”

“Thanks.”

He’d forgotten where he was, too close to the uncompleted elevator shaft, and as he turned away, he teetered on the edge of it, on the verge of falling, his height making the temporary barrier less effective than it would have been for a shorter man. There was a moment of sheer, oh-shit panic as he fought gravity, and then he won, wrenching himself back to safety. His heart pounded, and for a few seconds, he thought he might puke. It passed. He’d been careless, but he was okay.

It was a stark, sobering reminder of how dangerous his job was, and made him focus his attention firmly on the work for the rest of his shift. He wasn’t hungry for lunch but forced himself to choke down half a sandwich out of practicality; low blood sugar didn’t do anyone any favors.

He didn’t recover his good mood until he got home. It was hard to be morose around Tank, whose tail was strong enough to leave bruises in his excitement to welcome Shannon in the front door. “I know,” he said. “Good dog. Sit, Tank.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” Luis called from the kitchen. “I already took him out. We walked all the way down to the park and back.”

“Nice day for it.” Shannon bent to unlace his work boots. In retrospect, he was glad he had plenty of time to shower before meeting up with Rory.

And fuck, he still didn’t know what to wear. Which wasn’t a problem he was used to dealing with. Jeans and a T-shirt worked most of the time. Rory was complicating his life in all sorts of ways.

It’d better be worth it.

Chapter Four

Seeing Shannon again was bound to be a disappointment. Rory braced himself for discovering the man was shorter, less good-looking, less impressive overall.

He should’ve prepared himself for a rush of bone-melting lust instead. Shannon pulled up in his truck and stayed inside, engine idling, but when Rory climbed in, Shannon greeted him by pressing a palm to his cheek. The swift, light touch held so much possessive warmth Rory drew in a sharp breath.

“Good to see you again.”

Shannon pulled away from the curb without waiting for Rory to answer, taking him from his normal life and toward that new, exhilaratingly scary place. He’d spent two hours with his friends, talking about his job and theirs, looking at Tom and Keri’s New Zealand vacation photos, and struggling to eat a salad with Thai peppers too spicy for his taste buds. He’d sneaked into the bathroom before leaving and taken a slug of mouthwash from a sample bottle his dentist had given him, hoping to kill the tang of onion on his breath. Under the mundane talk, his anticipation had seethed and bubbled, and now he sat beside the cause, driving through the night to a bar he wouldn’t have dared walk into alone.

He’d told Shannon he’d always wanted to go there, but that’d been a lie. He’d never considered it, but it seemed to fit the Rory he was around Shannon, and he’d pushed to go there, determined to make the most of this unexpected second meeting.

And like sex in a building site, drinking in a leather bar was a fantasy, and so it was safe. No one would know him, Shannon would make sure no one laughed at him, and afterward they could, they could…

He stalled there.

“Good dinner?” Shannon asked, and Rory snapped out of his reverie, shocked to realize he’d been lost in thought instead of drinking in every moment of the next couple of hours. He’d certainly wasted plenty of time over the past few days turning each detail of their previous encounter over and over in his mind, examining it from different angles, delighting in memories of the sex as if it was the best he’d ever had.

It had been, but that didn’t mean Shannon felt the same way.

“Yeah,” he said now. “It was good. I always get the same thing, but tonight it was too spicy.” He mentally kicked himself for sounding predictable and bland. That wasn’t the Rory that Shannon would be interested in.

“What’s that?”

“Thai beef salad.” That was better; at least admitting that he ate red meat on occasion was less boring.

“I keep meaning to try Thai food, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Maybe you can take me sometime.” Glancing in the rearview mirror, Shannon changed lanes and slowed down.

That was hopeful but confusing. In the same way Rory had drawn a line under their previous interaction, categorizing it as a one-time deal, he’d assumed this would be more of the same. Maybe Shannon didn’t have any other prospects on the horizon, and apparently the sex wasn’t awful in his opinion, so he’d decided a second round would be a way to kill some time. That he was thinking ahead to a future date—a dinner date, even—was surprising.

“There are better places to have Thai, if you want to stretch your culinary legs,” he said. “Most of them would do a better job of hitting the heat level you wanted too.”

“I’d let you show me them.” Shannon pulled into the narrow parking area beside Finn’s. “Here we are. Last chance to change your mind.” It didn’t seem as if he thought that was likely.

“No, I want to do this.” He’d dressed in a way that had his friends exchanging curious looks, but no one had called him on his choice of black jeans and T-shirt, both tighter than he usually wore, with a braided leather necklace and a leather jacket it’d been too hot to wear on an unseasonably warm night. At least it gave him somewhere to keep his wallet and keys. They wouldn’t fit in the back pocket of the jeans. He’d managed to fit a condom into the front pocket, though getting it out would pose problems. If Shannon provided one, he’d have to remember not to wash the jeans with it still in there.

Shannon looked the same as before, in faded jeans and a dark-green T-shirt, scuffed-up boots on his feet. Clearly too confident to change his style no matter where they went. Rory wished he had that amount of self-belief. He’d fretted over an outfit that would work for both parts of the evening for a solid hour.

“If you want to leave, give me a nod and we’ll bail.” Shannon rolled his shoulders. “Okay, let’s go.”

Slipping deeper into the moment, Rory smiled at him. “Yes, sir.”

Hand on the door, Shannon jerked as if he’d gotten an electric shock. “What?”

“Master?” Rory asked doubtfully. That seemed on the extreme side, but he’d go along with it if it was what Shannon wanted.

“Shannon. My name’s Shannon. Use it.”

“Right. Okay. Sorry.” Shoved off-kilter, not fully understanding what had happened or why he’d gotten things so thoroughly wrong, Rory followed Shannon inside. He kept a careful distance between them, too nervous to stray but too uncertain about Shannon’s feelings for him to be as close as he wanted to be.

“Plenty of empty tables.” Shannon didn’t meet his gaze when he gestured at them. “Probably early for the regulars. Or maybe it’s like this during the week; I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Why don’t you grab one, and I’ll go get us some drinks. What do you want?”

“Beer’s fine. IPA if they have it.” He wasn’t a big drinker, and he couldn’t have named half a dozen types of beer if a million-dollar jackpot rode on it.

Shannon went over to the bar while Rory claimed the table with the most space around it and sat. Then, for the first time, he was able to focus on the other people nearby.

There were multiple men—and a few women—wearing clothes as minimal as the skimpiest bathing suit, and they all seemed comfortable in their various states of dishabille. One man was dressed, if you could call it that, in a tiny black leather speedo that barely covered his cock. He seemed to feel the weight of Rory’s gaze on him and looked up. Rory flushed as their eyes met, and the younger man smirked.

“I might as well have ‘innocent virgin’ tattooed on my forehead,” he said to Shannon when he came back with a beer and what looked like a mixed drink.

“I tried to warn you.” Sliding the chair next to Rory’s away from the table with one foot, Shannon sat and handed Rory the beer bottle.

“Thank you. For the beer and the warning. I should have listened.” That wasn’t entirely true. Part of him was excited to be here even if most of him was incredibly uncomfortable.

Shannon drank from his glass, then set it down. “What did you think it’d be like?”

An orgy. Someone in the corner being whipped. People on their knees. And maybe that was going on somewhere else, a back room or a basement, but here, if he looked objectively, people were wearing much the same as anyone would wear at the beach, but in leather, and talking over drinks.

“New to Finn’s?” A man appeared at the table, big, burly, bearded. He looked like Shannon might twenty years down the line, but the expression in his eyes was guarded, not welcoming. His leather pants were worn-in, part of him, and a harness of straps and D-links strained across his wide, hairy chest. Tattoos and piercings added to the look. Rory pictured him with a broadsword cleaving skulls in a previous existence.

“He is, I’m not, but it’s been years,” Shannon said easily, projecting friendliness. “More of a test-the-waters visit than anything else, if that’s okay.”

“We’re not a private club. Anyone can walk in and buy a drink.” The man’s gaze lingered on Rory. “But staring isn’t encouraged, and neither are personal questions.”

“Not planning to ask any, and if he steps out of line, I’ll handle it.” The warning edge to Shannon’s voice had Rory’s cock hardening.

Handle it? How? God, why had he called Shannon “sir”? Had it sent the wrong message?

“No discipline out here in the public space, and if you want to take him in the back, better be prepared to make good on that, or I’ll toss you out on your ass.”

Shannon reached out and stroked Rory’s hair, a casual tousle like a man petting a dog. “Doubt it’ll be necessary. He’s new, but obedient. Comes to heel nicely when I whistle. Don’t you, pup?”

“Yes.” It was the only word he could manage, arousal and anxiety tangling together in his throat, threatening to choke him.

“Good. Behave yourselves, and we won’t have any trouble.” The big man left them alone again, much to Rory’s relief.

Shannon gave him a minute to collect himself. “You okay?”

Rory nodded and took a sip of his beer to buy more time. “In over my head.”

“So I gathered. Think about something else.” Shannon nudged Rory’s knee with his, and Rory looked at him. “I’m serious. Tell me about your job.”

They were surrounded by scantily clad strangers, and he wanted to hear about Rory’s job? Still, it seemed better to focus on conversation, and the early getting-to-know-you stuff had presumably been the whole point of this date in the first place. “Um. I’m a dietitian. I told you that already, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. But I’m not sure I know what that means.” This time when Shannon nudged him, it was like a caress. “Come on, Doc.”

Ignoring the nickname, since Shannon seemed stuck on it, Rory sipped some more beer. “Well, mostly I help people who have medical conditions that can be managed—or at least helped—through dietary changes. Diabetes, IBS, those sorts of things.”

“Do you work at a hospital?”

Rory shook his head. “A medical office over in one of those old mill buildings on Lawrence Street.”

“What made you get into that?”

The genuine interest prompted Rory to give more than a rote answer. “Food’s one of the pleasures in life, but it’s complicated. I guess I like to make it less complicated for people. Make food a friend, not an enemy. A tool to create a healthy body, but also something you can enjoy.”

“I wasn’t expecting that.” Shannon sipped his drink, frowning as if turning Rory’s answer over in his head. “Makes sense. So you’re not a control freak about what you eat?”

“Not a freak, no. I eat healthy food most of the time; if I don’t practice what I preach, how will my patients trust me? But I drink now and then, and I order dessert if it sounds good. I’m not one of those people who thinks sugar is poison or that you have to ‘eat clean.’ I won’t smack a doughnut out of your hand or lecture you in a restaurant if you order a sixteen-ounce steak.”

“Wise move.”

“But if you ask me what my opinion is about how you’re eating, and you want to know for real, I’ll tell you. I’m happy to give advice. It’s not always what people seem to think it’ll be, just to warn you.”

“I’ll bear that in mind. Changing the subject, you know one of my roommates,” Shannon said. “He goes to Blake’s Gym. Name’s Dex. Shaved head, muscles?”

Rory rubbed his lower lip. “Yeah. I’ve talked to him a few times. I have an arrangement with the gym where I give free consultations to new members. People are happier to sign a contract if they feel like they’re getting a perk, I occasionally get a longer-term client out of it, and the gym gives me a discount. It’s a win-win. Anyway, I met Dex, then. He didn’t need a lot of advice—he seemed pretty knowledgeable—but he was interesting to talk to. He’s your…roommate?” It was difficult not to let doubt creep into his voice.

“Yeah. Only my roommate. Like Luis. We’ve been friends a long time, but that’s it. Well, and we share a dog.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Tank was a stray; he showed up on our front porch one night when it was pouring rain, and we let him in. The rest’s history. We did all the stuff you’re supposed to do: put up signs with his picture and had him checked for a microchip, in case he belonged to someone local and ran off by mistake, but after a couple of months, we gave up and decided to keep him.” Shannon leaned back in his chair, at ease in a way Rory couldn’t remember ever having felt.

“What happens if one of you moves out? I mean, who gets to keep him?”

Shannon shrugged. “Don’t know. We’ll worry about it if it happens.”

“I live on my own,” Rory offered in exchange. “A little condo, but it’s within walking distance of my office and backs onto a wooded area, so I can pretend I’m out in the country. We’re talking twenty trees and a pond, but no one goes there, not even to walk their dogs.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It is. I get blue jays and cardinals in the winter on my feeders.” Rory shook his head. “This is a surreal conversation in this setting. There’s a guy over there on a leash, for God’s sake.”

Shannon didn’t turn his head. “And he’s probably talking about sports or how much he hates his boss.”

“I doubt it. He’s gagged.” The snort of amusement Shannon gave had Rory smiling too. “Okay, I’ve got to ask: if I cross a line in here, would you take me into the back room?”

And wouldn’t it be helpful if he knew what answer he was looking for?

Shannon bent over, grabbed the leg of Rory’s chair and tugged it, shifting Rory away from the table and in front of him. The strength needed to move the chair with him on it was considerable. He’d felt that strength with Shannon moving in him, fucking him with relentless strokes. Mouth dry, their knees touching, he met Shannon’s gaze.

“Are you planning on misbehaving?” Calm interest, no threat. God, his eyes were blue.

Forming a reply with his tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth wasn’t easy. He swallowed, working up spit, licked his lips, and said, “N-no.”

Shannon nodded slowly. “Good. Then it’s not a question you need to ask. We were talking, Rory. Getting to know each other. Let’s focus on that.”

The reprimand, mild though it was, had him torn between disappointment in himself and resentment. He hated screwing up. He was the good kid, never in trouble unless he got there through helping Jude.

“And that look in your eyes says you’re pissed at me. Mind telling me why?”

“Not pissed. Confused. I want to do this right, and I don’t know how to. I don’t want to mess this up.”

Shannon was studying his face, carefully trying to read him, and instead of making Rory feel more uncertain, it made him feel safe. Like maybe Shannon cared about how he felt. That was stupid. Shannon didn’t know him well enough to care about him. “I’m getting the impression you spend a lot of time worrying about messing up.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Sure. Probably.” Did that mean Shannon was one of the rare individuals who didn’t? “Does it make your life better?”

“Being anxious and stressed out? Of course not.” Looking into Shannon’s eyes made everything else in the room fade into the background. “How could that make anyone’s life better?”

“A good question.” Shannon smiled encouragingly. “What would your life be like if you weren’t anxious and stressed out and worried about messing up?”

And if he weren’t worried about Jude messing up and how extra complicated that made his life? “I don’t know.”

“Well, when you’re with me, it’s hard to see how you could screw up. I like what I’ve seen of you so far, you’re hot as hell, and if I’m not sure where you’re going with this walk on the wild side of yours, I’m happy to keep you company while you explore.” Shannon spread his hands as if to say that was it, his cards on the table, and Rory allowed himself a deep, steady breath.

“That’s… That makes me feel better.”

“Excellent.” Shannon downed his drink. “Now that that’s sorted out, can we go? There’s a guy over there breaking the no-staring rule, and if there’s a no-drooling rule, he’s breaking that too.”

Assuming the guy was hitting on Shannon, Rory twisted around, ready to glare, but to his shock, the man in question, mid-forties, with a shock of dark hair greased back and a thick moustache, winked at him and beckoned him over.

Face burning, he shook his head vehemently, rejecting the invitation, then spun back to Shannon. “Leaving. Yeah. Let’s do that.”

Whatever he was looking for wasn’t here.

They went back out to Shannon’s truck, with Rory making no eye contact as he walked through the bar, though Shannon nodded an easy farewell to the bartender.

“I should have figured out how to get a ride to the pub,” Rory said once they were in the truck. “Then you wouldn’t have had to retrace your steps so I could get my car.”

“I’ll retrace whenever you want me to,” Shannon said. “But I hoped we’d go to my place for a while. We can go now, and I’ll drive you back to MacKenzie’s later. Or we can swing by there, and you can follow me home. Or we could call it a night. It’s up to you.”

Too many options. Rory was torn. Thursday night was a better night to stay out late than earlier in the week, since he only had to deal with one more workday before the weekend. He preferred to be in bed at a decent hour. Sleep was important. Being exhausted at work because he’d been deprived of his eight—or at least seven—hours wasn’t one of his favorite things.

Those were all the reasons he should suggest calling it a night. Instead, he said, “Sure. Let’s go to your place. You’ve got me curious now. Will I get to meet your other roommate?”

Shannon started the truck and pulled out of the parking area onto the street. It wasn’t late, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic. “No, he’s out for the night. Dex too. Tank, though… You’ll get to meet him. How do you feel about big dogs?”

If they bared their teeth and growled, or jumped up, all scrabbling paws and slobbery tongue, he wasn’t a fan, but in general, he liked dogs and said so, keeping back his apprehension since he couldn’t imagine Shannon owning a badly trained animal.

“He’s sweet as sugar.” Shannon scratched his nose. “Well, with people he knows. I’ll introduce you. Let him take a sniff before you pat him.”

“Can I change my answer to terrified?”

Shannon laughed, a deep, rich laugh that had Rory laughing with him. “If he scares you, and he won’t, get behind me, and I’ll fend him off.”

“I’ll climb you like a tree.”

In the end, that wasn’t necessary. Once inside the house, Tank skidded toward them, paws slipping on the hardwood, scarred here and there from his claws, making excited rumbles in his chest and focused mostly on Shannon.

“Easy, boy. Were you wondering where everyone went?” Shannon took hold of Tank’s head and shook it side to side gently. “Settle down, that’s it. Come say hello to my new friend Rory.”

Tank pulled free and gave Rory an inquiring glance from soulful brown eyes. Charmed despite himself, Rory said, “Hi, Tank,” and held out his hand, fingers curled under, for the dog to sniff and lick, as if testing his edibility rating.

Clearly, Rory made it onto the not-for-chewing list, because Tank thrust his head under Rory’s hand, requesting a pat, then wandered away.

“He sits at the patio doors for hours watching squirrels and birds. Never barks at them. Dog TV, I guess. There’s a dog door he uses, and the yard’s fenced in.”

Rory wiped his wet hand on his pants. “I like him.” He glanced around, taking in his surroundings for the first time.

The foyer they were standing in was spacious; when Shannon stepped through the wide doorway on the right and flicked on the lights, they revealed a large living area with several couches, a few padded recliners, a bookshelf that held a few books and a collection of other random objects, and a huge flat-screen TV on the wall. While everything appeared well used, the space was neat and clean. Rory wouldn’t have guessed a bunch of bachelors lived there.

“Do you want a tour?” Shannon made a follow-me gesture. “Come on and see the kitchen, anyway.”

The kitchen was reasonably tidy and big enough that a couple of grown men could work in it at the same time. There was a table pushed up against the wall with a chair on either side of it, but both chairs had clothing piled on them, so it didn’t appear they’d been sat on recently. Through another doorway, Rory could see a dining room.

“Glass of water? Luis put one of those filters on the faucet.”

“Sure. Thanks.” Rory wasn’t thirsty, but holding a glass would give him something to do with his hands other than touching Shannon, which was what he wanted to do. He was aware that they were alone in the house—well, except for the dog—but didn’t want to ask if that was deliberate or a coincidence.

Handing him his water, Shannon looked around as if seeing his home for the first time. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a good thing you have so much space,” Rory said honestly. “I can’t imagine you and Dex crashing around in a tiny kitchen like mine. Is Luis as big as both of you?”

“Pretty much. Not as tall, but he’s built. And we still bump into each other a fair amount. Especially upstairs. The hallway’s narrow up there. Throw the dog into the mix, and we’re probably lucky no one’s been hurt.”

“I miss being around my family, but not in the morning. Mom likes listening to the radio, Dad’s cheerful and loud, and Jude’s grumpy. Me, I need coffee and no one talking to me for the first fifteen minutes or so.”

“Jude’s the brother?”

“Half brother technically, though I don’t usually think of him that way. His mother took off when he was little, and Dad married my mom and they had me. But we’re one family. There’s no sense of Jude not belonging.”

“You feel that way, but does he?”

Rory opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. Jude was transparent when it came to his emotions, lacking a filter. If he was happy, the world knew it, and the same if he was angry or sad. But he didn’t talk about his feelings or reminisce about the past much. Jude lived in the moment. That didn’t mean buried emotions didn’t affect him.

“I can’t see why he wouldn’t,” he said. “We love him and look out for him.”

“Up to and including you buying and selling his motorcycle?” Shannon didn’t sound critical, more curious, but Jude was a subject Rory had learned to talk about as little as possible. His friends had heard every detail for years to the point where they didn’t want to hear any more, and Jude’s drama had been the major cause in the breakdown of Rory’s relationship with Micah. It was better to skirt the issue when possible.

“I was doing him a favor,” he hedged. “He’d do the same for me if our positions were reversed.” Not that they ever would be, but hypothetically it was probably true enough. “What about you? Siblings?”

“One sister,” Shannon said. “She’s eight years older and lives on the West Coast. She’s gay too.”

“For real?”

“Yeah. But she didn’t come out until after I did. She got married—straight-married—and had twins, then realized she was a lesbian, got divorced, and now lives happily with the love of her life and their three cats. My nieces are in college.”

Rory felt like he’d entered the Twilight Zone. “What do your parents think?”

“They’re fine with it. They’re pretty easygoing.”

“Mine are too. The first time I brought a boyfriend home was the most awkward hour of my life, with Mom offering him cookies like we were ten and he’d come over to play video games, but she relaxed after that.”

“We’re lucky.”

Rory screwed up his face. “Yeah, but that’s how it should be. It’s the people with assholes for parents who are unlucky.”

“You have a point.” Shannon moved closer. “I want to see you again.”

Hello, out of left field. “You do?”

“So surprised. Why?”

“I took you somewhere you didn’t want to go.”

“Don’t recall you dragging me in kicking and screaming.” Shannon put his hand on Rory’s shoulder. “Is it something you want too? If it isn’t, I’ll take you back to your car and leave it at that.”

“I didn’t think this would be more than that one time.” Made bold by the heat in Shannon’s eyes, he hooked his finger in the front pocket of Shannon’s jeans and tugged him closer still. “I acted the way I did because it felt safe when I knew I’d never see you again.”

“How do you feel now?”

Rory lifted his chin, putting his mouth in easy reach of Shannon’s. “You ask a lot of questions.”

“Yeah.”

“My turn. Do you want to kiss me?”

Shannon answered by leaning in and pressing his lips to the corner of Rory’s mouth briefly. “What do you think?” he murmured.

“I think kissing me’s not the only thing you want to do.” Rory rubbed his knuckles down the front of Shannon’s jeans, the denim soft and threadbare. “So here’s my last question, if you’re ready for it: want to show me your room?” He assumed Shannon didn’t want to fuck right there in the kitchen on the off chance either of his roommates came home, not to mention being interrupted by the dog wouldn’t be ideal. The thought made him glance around.

Shannon laughed. “Don’t worry. Tank’ll leave us alone. But yeah, let’s go up to my room. Wait a sec. There’s one thing I want to do first.”

Rory stepped back and was surprised when Shannon made a sound of protest, pulled him closer, and kissed him thoroughly enough that he found himself hanging on to the man with both hands.

“Yeah,” Shannon said. “That was it.”

The taste of him was addictive. One kiss and the craving he’d struggled with for the past few days overwhelmed him. Knowing this time he’d get to see Shannon naked, get to have that muscular body pressed against his, was enough to have Rory hard before they reached the bedroom.

It was neat in a perfunctory way, the wide bed made, but the navy cover on the quilt clearly not ironed. Rory never ironed his either, though he felt a twinge of guilt over it. At home, his mom would’ve left a cover off sooner than put it on the bed wrinkled.

Shannon drew the curtains and switched on a bedside lamp, throwing a soft light over the bed, leaving the rest of the room in shadow. “Get naked for me. I want to see you. Didn’t get the chance before.”

“You too,” Rory countered.

“That was the idea.”

Undressing with someone watching was awkward, but Rory’s eagerness and Shannon’s matter-of-fact approach to the task made it less so. With their clothes on the floor, Rory took his first proper look.

Shannon was built. Give him a loincloth and he’d pass for Tarzan, give him a sword and he’d be a dead ringer for Conan the Barbarian. Tall, wide shoulders, a broad chest with dark hair curling over it, a flat stomach, and long legs. Scarred here and there, but they added to the rough-hewn appeal.

Rory stumbled forward and fell to his knees, not out of subservience, but a simple desire to get up close and personal with Shannon’s cock, erect and flushed with color. He’d had this inside him? How the hell had he taken it balls-deep? It had to be nine inches long, thick, straight, the foreskin peeled back to expose the narrow slit in the smooth head. It was bigger than the dildo he used, for God’s sake.

“Well, since you’re down there…”

Shannon threaded his fingers through Rory’s hair, gently, so gently, encouraging Rory to lean in. He tilted his head to match his lips to the root, where the wiry fuzz of hair cloaking Shannon’s balls gave way to skin. Not the most sensitive spot, but he wanted this to last.

The taste of Shannon’s skin was as unique and addictive as his mouth. Rory wanted to lick every inch of him. For now, he’d settle for the area that was easily reachable on his knees, though, and he’d take his time exploring, inhaling Shannon’s scent, listening to the gentle sounds he made with each touch of tongue and lips.

He traced the length of Shannon’s cock from base to tip, then licked across the sensitive head, letting the sharp tang of precum awaken his taste buds.

“Good,” Shannon murmured, resting his heavy palm on Rory’s skull, testing the shape of it.

Good? Rory was busy, so he didn’t respond out loud, but in his head he was thinking “I’ll show you good.” Fuck, he’d show Shannon great.

In part because he and Micah hadn’t included penetrative sex in their repertoire, he liked to think he’d become an expert at giving head. He’d known how to suck Micah to draw out the session for an hour, and how to suck him to get him off in under a minute. Of course, that had been Micah, and this was Shannon, who might like completely different things, but part of learning had been listening and reading body language, and Rory could still do that even with a new partner.

One of the things most men liked best was being taken deep, so he experimented with how far he could take Shannon’s cock into his mouth without triggering his gag reflex—gagging was decidedly unsexy—and discovered that he could do better than he would have guessed, considering how big Shannon was. The floor was rough under his knees, but he didn’t care. He found a rhythm and stuck with it, focusing on the little exhalations Shannon made as his arousal grew.

“Yeah,” Shannon whispered. “Like that. God, like that.”

He was kneeling, servicing a biker, a man who seemed to own one pair of jeans and who worked two jobs to make ends meet. Micah, who had a snobbish streak, would’ve called it slumming. For Rory, it was an adventure. He knew what the men he dated would do, where their limits lay. With Shannon, he didn’t have more than a vague idea.

Would Shannon end this soon and drag him over to the bed for more of that rough, punishingly hard fucking? Come in his mouth or, God, on his face?

Rory only knew he was down with it, any of it. But this wasn’t a one-time thing now. This was date two, with more to follow. He couldn’t act that way with a regular boyfriend. It wasn’t possible. Outside the bedroom, how could they interact when Shannon knew what a kinky slut he was? Not that he’d come to terms with that himself.

And he wanted to have those brief hours stolen from his regular life. He needed them. Call it stress relief, or an inbuilt twist, but he did. Maybe he should end this and go looking for another man like Shannon. Indulge in a series of hookups. Risky, but tempting. He liked Shannon, though, liked him a lot, and there was no denying the man would be a hard act to follow.

His rhythm faltered, and his teeth scraped skin.

Aghast, knowing from experience how painful that was, he jerked back, wiping his mouth. “Sorry!”

“I’ll live.” Shannon inspected his dick, reddened, but with unbroken skin. “I zigged when you zagged?”

“Something like that.” He leaned and pressed his lips to the sore spot. “I am sorry.”

“I know. It’s okay.” Tugging at Rory’s sleeve, Shannon encouraged him to his feet, and Rory, willing, went along with it. He’d forgotten he was naked until the moment his bare skin touched Shannon’s, until he felt Shannon’s solid thigh against the erection he’d been ignoring. “C’mere.”

“Where?”

“To the bed.” Shannon jerked the covers back and pulled him onto the mattress, their legs tangling as they kissed. “I’d like to fuck you again, if that’s something you’d be into. I’m not opposed to bottoming on occasion, but after the other night, I can’t stop thinking about what it was like.”

“Yeah. I mean—I’d be into that.” Rory was breathless with wanting, eager to feel the stretch and burn of that huge cock shoving into him.

“Are you okay? Not sore?”

“I was for a day or two, but I’m fine now.”

“I’ll take it slow,” Shannon promised. “Like you’re made of glass, I swear.”

Rory caught his lip between his teeth, then smiled with an effort. “Sure. Thanks.” How could he tell Shannon that being considerate was a turn-off? He’d sound insane at worst, ungrateful at best.

Resigning himself to a tame, tepid fuck instead of the scorching sizzle he longed for, he met Shannon’s lips for a kiss, using it as a natural way to end the conversation. And it was a good kiss. Shannon wasn’t shy about using his tongue, even when Rory’s mouth still held the taste of his cock. No reason why he should be squeamish, but Rory knew from experience that people had hang-ups. And his hands were everywhere, stroking life into Rory’s skin until it tingled, sensitive to the slightest caress.

He shifted and rolled, maneuvering them so Shannon was mostly on top of him. That was better. Shannon’s weight pinning him down worked for him, reminded him of the dynamic he’d been hoping to recapture.

“Yeah? This good? You like this?” Thank God Shannon was quick to grasp what was going on. He got a hand on Rory’s hip and planted it there, thrusting slowly so their erections rubbed against each other.

Rory grabbed a handful of Shannon’s hair and dragged him down for another kiss. Maybe if he could get Shannon even more excited, things would continue to heat up. He wanted Shannon desperate for it, on the verge of being unable to control himself. Hell, maybe past the point of being able to control himself. He didn’t want careful or gentle. “Fuck me,” he muttered, lifting his hips in illustration.

“No hurry,” Shannon said, scraping his teeth along Rory’s jaw. “We’re not gonna be interrupted.”

And that was part of the problem. At the construction site, they’d been trespassing. Fucking out in the open. Anyone could’ve seen them through the open windows. Hell, a passing patrol car could’ve brought a cop to investigate. It was unlikely, but it’d added to the thrill. Here in Shannon’s bedroom, even if his roommates returned unexpectedly, they wouldn’t open the door uninvited and see them naked, having sex.

What would they do if they did? Back away with an apology? No. Not the men Shannon lived with. They’d chuckle, lean against the wall, and watch. Watch him get nailed, listen to him plead for Shannon to go faster, deeper. Maybe come over to the bed and do more than watch, dragging a hand over exposed skin, jerking off, the slap of hand on cock getting louder until spunk rained down over both of them, warm and wet.

“And I lost you.” Shannon supported himself on his elbows, staring down at Rory with a perplexed frown. “Where’d you go, Doc?”

“I don’t know.” It surprised him to hear himself admit it instead of insisting he was right there and everything was fine.

Shannon sighed, then moved off him entirely until only his knees were touching Rory’s thigh. He reached past Rory and shoved a couple of his pillows up against the headboard. “Sit.” He gestured to indicate that he wanted Rory to shift back and make himself comfortable, and after a moment, Rory got the message and did.

“I’m not a dog,” he pointed out.

“No, but it’s easier to be direct.” Sitting cross-legged, Shannon grabbed another pillow and pulled it into his lap. Interesting. Rory hadn’t figured he was particularly modest. “Talk.”

Again with the one-word order. “About what?”

“About whatever’s going on in your head. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a good time, get us both off, but I expect you to be here for it, not busy thinking about something that’s got nothing to do with me. I do have a little self-respect, shocking a concept as that might seem.”

“It is about you! God, it’s totally about you.”

“Not getting it.”

That flat denial would be hard to break down, but Rory was determined to make an attempt. Telling himself he had nothing to lose, though he did and it was sitting across from him, he said, “Don’t take this as a criticism, but the way we did it last time worked for me better. Blew my brain. What we’re doing now is nice, but it’s what I’ve always had, and I—I want more.”

A pause, then Shannon said slowly, “You like it rough. With some pain and risk and maybe even humiliation mixed in. Not the way the people at Finn’s do it. Your version.”

Pleased by Shannon’s insight but embarrassed to have it laid out so plainly, he nodded. “Yeah, I guess. And this is new to me, so don’t expect me to know anything useful like limits or specifics.”

“Huh.” Shannon drummed his fingers against the pillow. “That’s a lot to take in.”

Rory raised his shoulders an inch, then relaxed them with an effort. If he didn’t, he’d end up hunched, shrinking away from the awkward conversation. His erection had dwindled to nothing. Careful not to sound defensive, he said, “It was you who triggered this in me. You opened my eyes to a side of me I didn’t know I had. And I hate the idea of you holding back because you’re worried about me. You don’t need to be. I might not be a big, tough biker, but I can take as much as the other men you’ve been with. Let me prove it.”

“I don’t need you to prove anything to me. If anything, it’s the other way around.”

Frowning, Rory tried to make sense of that. He failed. “What could you possibly need to prove to me?”

Shannon grimaced. “When I thought the other night was a one-time thing and I’d never see you again, I didn’t have to be careful. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted you to have a good time, but I didn’t waste a lot of thought on proving anything to you. We both wanted it, and we both got off. It was fun. But it doesn’t mean it’s safe to assume I have a magic touch or whatever it is you’re thinking.”

“That’s not necessarily what I was thinking,” Rory protested, but when Shannon stared at him, one eyebrow lifted, he flushed and looked away. “Well. Maybe a little bit.”

Reaching out, Shannon wrapped his hand around Rory’s bare ankle. His grip was warm and reassuring, but after a moment he rubbed his thumb across Rory’s skin, and Rory’s cock responded.

“You do realize you’re doing the opposite of making your point,” Rory said. It wasn’t a complaint.

“How much is me, and how much is you? Are you reacting to my hand or to whatever fantasy is playing out in your head?”

That was direct enough to make Rory flush. “No fantasy.”

“Yeah? Maybe you need help with one.” He took hold of Rory’s other ankle and spread his arms as far as he could without releasing his grip. Sprawled back on the pillows, legs wide, Rory gasped, heat flooding him. “You got off on being screwed in public, but it was safe enough. I wouldn’t have taken you there if it wasn’t. So you got the thrill with no danger.”

“I— Yes.”

“And you’re safe now. Empty house, the two of us behind a closed door.”

Speech was impossible with arousal choking him, so he nodded. He glanced down at his erection, cock sticking up, begging for attention. God, Shannon’s hands were strong, his grip tight. Arm muscles bunching, Shannon managed the impossible and spread Rory’s legs an inch wider, until his inner thighs were taut to the point of pain.

“But maybe Dex or Luis—no, let’s make it Dex since you know him—maybe he’ll come back. Walk upstairs. Hear you moaning, begging, and knock on the door. What do I say to him, Rory? Tell him to go away or come in?”

He found his voice. “I don’t— Please. Touch me. God, touch me.” He raised his ass as much as he could, a blatant invitation, but Shannon ignored it.

“I think he comes in. Sees you naked, on your knees, mouth full of my cock. Or on the bed, ass up, getting pounded. And Dex likes pretty, slutty boys, so he’d come closer to get a better look.”

“No,” he whispered, but his cock jerked, stiffening even more. “You’d tell him to get out.”

“I wouldn’t. He stays. Not to touch you. You’re mine. But he can look at your face, all twisted up because I’m spreading your hole wider than you’re used to, eyes closed, that cocksucking mouth pouty and wet. And he can look at your hole while it’s being used. Maybe I’ll pull out all the way and let him see it gaping, begging for my cock. Ease back in, slow, slow, slow, until you’re clawing at the sheets, desperate for the reaming to start again. You like it hard and fast, don’t you, Doc? Like to know you’ve been fucked for days after. You can go back to your safe, boring life when I’m finished with you, but you’ll take the pain with you to remember me by.”

Rory was caught up in the picture Shannon was painting with his words, participating even as he protested by gripping the headboard as if his hands were restrained. “It’s not okay.”

“What, letting someone watch you like that?” Shannon let go of one ankle—Rory made no attempt to move his leg—and drifted his fingertips slowly upward, over Rory’s knee and along his inner thigh. “No. It’s not. Shameful, to secretly lust after it. Dex’s eyes on you, staring at your tight little asshole getting stretched by my big cock. And you too desperate to put a stop to it.” Shannon’s knuckle brushed over his hole, and Rory moaned. “What would it be like if anyone knew what you wanted? What would they think of you?”

Rory trembled, shaken by lust. He wanted to beg Shannon to fuck him, but he knew Shannon was right; he was ashamed of wanting what he wanted, and if Dex had come into the room at that moment, he might not have had the strength to do anything but let him watch.

“Maybe I’ll go get Luis’s digital camera. I think he’s got a tripod somewhere. I’ll set it up and record everything I do to you.” Shannon sounded casual, like he was mulling the idea over. “I won’t show it to anyone—at least, not right away. I’ll put it on my computer and keep it there until someday I decide to share it. Put it up on YouTube and see what happens.”

“No,” Rory whispered.

“No? You don’t think there are thousands of people who’d love to watch you getting your brains screwed out? Who’d love to listen to you making all those beautiful noises you made the other night when I was fucking you up against that wall?”

He shook his head, eyes wide, then mustered some defiance. “I won’t make them. I won’t.”

“Liar. Remember when I told you you’re a shitty liar?” Shannon let go of Rory’s right ankle, grabbed the left, and yanked him, twisting his lower body to partially expose his ass. Rory clung to the headboard, panting in harsh, loud gasps as Shannon rained down a series of slaps. They stung, but the shame of being punished for fucking up hurt more.

“Don’t! Please, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for lying to me?” The slaps continued, and Rory sobbed, squirming without strength, accepting the discipline with a secret excitement fizzing through him. Yeah. This. Perfect. “We both know you wouldn’t keep quiet. Couldn’t if your life depended on it. I liked those sounds. You’ll make them for me when I’m inside you, or I’ll stop and jerk off over your hole. You’ll get my cum but not my cock, and if you’re real sweet about apologizing, I’ll let you lick me clean. But it won’t come to that.”

The brief spanking ended. Shannon left his hand cupping burning flesh for a moment, as if he wanted the heat and pain to soak his palm, then pushed Rory back to his previous place, moved up the bed, straddling his chest.

“Going to hold still? No, not the mood you’re in. Defying me, arguing. Misbehaving until I want to fuck the sass and disrespect right out of you.” Shannon shifted position, pinning Rory’s shoulders down with his knees. With his arms over his head, the discomfort was real and not arousing in the least, but Rory found if he held on with his fingertips, the stress on his arms lessened to bearable.

His view was interesting. The underside of Shannon’s cock and balls and the curve of his ass filled his gaze and the musk scent his nose. He wanted to bury his face in all those dark, secret places, take that scent deep inside him, glut himself on the taste of Shannon’s skin.

“Can’t fuck your mouth in this position, but there are other ways for you to please me.” Shannon rubbed his thumb roughly across Rory’s lips. “Use your tongue.”

It was awkward, but Rory didn’t care. His cock ached as he lavished attention on Shannon’s, licking all the skin he could reach. The fuzz of Shannon’s pubic hair was soft against his chin as he nuzzled Shannon’s scrotum. He gave a tentative swipe of his tongue over Shannon’s hole and smiled when Shannon inhaled sharply.

“Yeah, like that.”

Shannon hadn’t told him not to talk, but it was easier not to anyway, and there was nothing he needed to say right then. He let one hand move to Shannon’s thigh, leaving the other where it was. If Shannon wanted him to keep both hands on the headboard, he’d let him know. Emboldened, Rory pressed the tip of his tongue against the tight entrance to Shannon’s body and then inside a little way. Again. The third time he did it, Shannon groaned softly, and any hesitation he’d had fled.

It would have seemed an exaggeration to call what he was doing “fucking,” but Rory knew some people would have called it that, and the knowledge turned him on even more. He shoved his tongue as far inside Shannon as he could, thrilled that he’d found the courage to try this for the first time and wondering why it had taken him so long.

The intimacy of the act broke down the walls he’d built around his desires. If he could tongue another man’s ass while his throbbed from a spanking, what couldn’t he do? What couldn’t he ask for?

Nothing. The limits of his experience were narrow, but the limits of what he’d let Shannon do to him seemed infinite.

His tongue and jaw soon ached, saliva wetting his chin, but that didn’t matter. He’d always been conscious of the need to look good during sex, even with the lights off. No contorting his face weirdly or making strange grunts, no awkward movements. With Shannon, appearances didn’t matter. Shannon wanted him raw and natural, and Rory was happy to oblige.

“Jesus.” With another groan, Shannon moved away, relieving Rory of his weight. “Enough or I’ll shoot.”

Rory took the opportunity to wipe his chin dry, exploring rubbery lips with the tip of his tongue. A sharp, earthy taste filled his mouth, not unpleasant, though he suspected that wouldn’t have been the case if Shannon hadn’t cleaned down there with some thoroughness. A trace of soap was definitely present.

He was relaxed despite his arousal, letting the pillows prop him up, watching Shannon with a combination of curiosity and anticipation as he got a strip of condoms and a small bottle of lube out of the drawer next to the bed.

Shannon squeezed out some lube and moved closer, sliding his hand between Rory’s thighs without fanfare and sliding a finger into his ass. “I’m gonna fuck you now. And once I start, I won’t want to stop, so decide now if you’re in or out. I can’t promise this won’t get interesting. Do you want a safe word?” He said it like it was his first time using the term.

Rory didn’t need time to make his decision. “I’m in. No safe word.” He took a deep breath, confident. “Let’s do this.”

Chapter Five

Managing to refrain from asking if Rory was sure—that would spoil the effect of the fantasy he’d created without understanding how—Shannon eased a condom onto his achingly hard cock. It’d been years since he’d had a rim job, and he’d come close to a climax twice with Rory’s tongue up his ass. He’d distracted himself by mentally calculating how many packages of shingles he’d need to reroof the shed out back.

Rory liked it rough; he’d figured out that much. He grabbed Rory’s calf below the knee and tugged him lower on the bed, then had second thoughts and flipped him over onto his stomach. Better if he couldn’t see the door.

“Door’s open,” he murmured into Rory’s ear. “When Dex gets home, he’s gonna call up here looking for me. When I don’t answer—or if he hears us—he’ll come upstairs.”

Oh yeah. That got Rory’s motor running sweet and hot. The whimper came from the heart, and the wriggle of his ass would’ve made a porn star envious.

“Let’s give him something worth seeing.” He fitted his dick into the groove of Rory’s ass, along with a drizzle of lube, and slid back and forward a few times, making sure the tight hole waiting for it got plenty of friction.

“Fuck me.” Rory ground the words out, demanding, not asking.

Shannon smothered a grin. Submissive, he wasn’t. In fact, Rory was in charge of the show and had been from the start, though whether he realized it was another matter. “Beg for it. Or are you scared now that you’ve seen it?”

The size of his cock was a problem for some guys, not the length as much as the thickness. He could hold off on going balls-deep, but he couldn’t slim it down.

It wasn’t an issue for Rory. He’d taken every inch and loved it. Moved by a rush of gratitude, Shannon let Rory have a taste of what he craved, jabbing the head inside, stretching Rory’s tight hole without penetrating far.

“Love it.” Rory sank his forehead onto the bed, breath choppy. “Fucking love that monster cock of yours, big boy. Would love it more if it was in me.”

Big boy? Oh, he’d pay for that.

Almost two decades of sex—he’d lost his virginity at fifteen—had given Shannon plenty of practice fucking, and he knew how to thrust inside a man’s tight ass without causing any damage. He had no interest in hurting Rory, but he knew Rory wanted at least the illusion it was a possibility, so he wasn’t quite as gentle as he might otherwise have been. After all, Rory seemed to have survived their first session. Not only survived, but come back for more.

This was gonna be fun.

Shannon eased himself inside a couple of times as if he planned to be careful opening Rory up; then the moment Rory’s tension subsided, he surged forward, burying himself to the hilt. Rory cried out and clutched at the pillow, but there was no trying to pull away. If anything, Rory spread his thighs farther, opening himself for more.

“That’s what you wanted, huh? Me fucking you?” Shannon hadn’t expected the sex talk to be easy, and it had been awkward as hell the first few minutes. Now he’d found the right switch in his brain, and it seemed natural. “How’re you gonna like it when Dex comes up the stairs and finds you like this?”

Rory whimpered. “No.”

“You can say that as many times as you want, but it’s not gonna stop it from happening. He’s walked in on me having sex before, so it’s not like I’ll be embarrassed. You, though, that’s a different story.” Pulling back, Shannon got both hands under Rory and lifted him onto his knees, then thrust into him roughly again. “He’ll stand there in the doorway and watch.”

Jesus, though it was clear Rory loved this, he was as tight as anyone Shannon had fucked.

Lost in the moment, Shannon took a few seconds to register his phone blasting out the first bars of “Highway to Hell” from the night table. He planned to ignore it, but an idea occurred to him. Reaching out, he grabbed it, slapping Rory’s ass when the guy howled a protest.

“Might be important. Do you good to wait.”

Cock sunk deep but holding still, relishing the frantic squirming from Rory, he answered the call.

A faraway voice asked if he wanted his air ducts cleaned. Fuckers. He tapped the screen, ending the call, then said, “Dex? Hi, bud, how’s it going?”

Rory froze, his frustrated whimpers cutting off midstream.

“Me? Nothing much. Taking care of business. Got something in need of attention.” Slow strokes now, angling each one until Rory groaned out a heartfelt sound, brimming over with lust. There? Good to know.

Nailing the spot over and over, building up speed, he continued chatting to thin air, hovering between doubt about what he was doing and the desire to get Rory’s rocks off big-time. “That moaning you can hear? I’m fucking that guy I told you about. Wish you were here to see him get split open. Wait, let me send you a picture. Want to see his face? Or my cock buried in his tight little ass? He’s taking every inch. Total slut. Loves being my bitch.”

Rory gasped underneath him, every muscle in his lower back tense. His ass clenched around Shannon’s cock. Shannon was grateful for the cell phone in his hand providing enough distraction that he was able to hold off coming right then; it felt incredible, everything about this was incredible, not least of all that Rory didn’t say no or push Shannon off him. If he had, if he’d given any indication that he wanted this to end, Shannon would have stopped, despite what he’d said earlier.

He pushed deeper into Rory’s ass. “Yeah, okay. Hang on, I’ll send it in a minute.” He turned on the camera app and took a photo of the wall that was sure to be out of focus because he was still moving. The click was audible, and Rory sobbed but rocked back to meet his next thrust. “I’m gonna send this picture to Dex,” he told Rory. “Nice one of your ass all stretched out from the pounding I’m giving you. Don’t worry. I’m sure he won’t share it with too many of his friends.”

Dropping the phone onto the bed, Shannon reached around Rory’s hip and found his cock. He figured he’d do the guy the favor of a couple of quick strokes, take him nearer the edge, but as soon as he touched him, Rory came, crying out in relief, and the concurrent tightening of his ass made Shannon come too, the orgasm pulled from him without warning.

They both stayed where they were, unmoving, breathing heavily, for at least a minute. Then Shannon eased back, gripping the edge of the condom so he didn’t lose it, his other hand on Rory’s hip.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. God.” Rory glanced back at him and shifted, untangling their legs so he could collapse onto the mattress. “You?”

“I’m good.” Shannon dropped the condom into the bin next to the bed and sat on his heels. “That was—”

“Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t take a photo.”

“I heard the click,” Rory reminded him.

Shannon picked up the phone and turned the screen toward Rory. “It was the wall. Or whatever.” In case that wasn’t enough, he handed his phone over. “Go ahead, scroll through them.”

Rory did. Shannon didn’t take it personally. Trust was built up over time, and the display of caution reassured him, if anything. Rory took too many risks as it was.

“But you were talking to him? To Dex.”

Rory eyed him with an expression neutral enough to have Shannon choosing his words. “No. It was a junk call. I hung up on them and faked the rest. Listen, I’d never put you in a position like that.”

“Oh.” Rory scratched his thigh, then drummed his fingers, his gaze everywhere but on Shannon.

Confused, Shannon asked, “Did you want it to be real?”

“When it was happening? Yeah. Now? I guess I’m relieved it wasn’t. I mean, I know him. It would’ve been embarrassing the next time I see him at the gym.”

“Dex would have gotten off on it,” Shannon said without thinking. “Uh, not that— I still wouldn’t have—”

“Forget it,” Rory said with a swipe of his hand. “So it’ll never be real?”

Going with his gut, Shannon shrugged and improvised, pleased by the idea of more dates like this. “I didn’t say that. I took advantage of an opportunity, but there’ll be times when I plan it and it’s real as taxes. Don’t assume you’re safe.” He pushed Rory to his back and lay over him like a blanket, allowing enough of his weight to rest on Rory that getting free would require effort. “I’ll take care of you in my own way. Trust me on that.”

He dipped his head and kissed Rory, swallowing the small, protesting murmurs, working at the kiss until Rory yielded, body pliant, arms around him, holding tight.

It was closer to what he’d planned, but too late. A second round would’ve been fun, but Rory was heavy-eyed and yawning between kisses, clearly wiped out, and Shannon knew any minute, he’d make his excuses and head home.

Next time they’d do it without the games. They spiced it up, sure, but who wanted fiery chili for every meal?

* * * * *

Sunday morning was cold, but the sunshine was bright, and by lunchtime, it was warm enough for a ride on the new bike. Shannon knew he needed to take advantage of the cooperative weather because soon it would be too chilly or even snowy, and he’d have to put the motorcycle away until the spring.

He didn’t have a plan in mind as he rode to the outskirts of town and down long roads with little traffic on them. Most of the few cars he passed seemed to be drivers out for a Sunday jaunt, much like he was. He was too hot in his leather jacket, but he’d seen the damage even a minor accident could do to a man’s skin, and he’d take sweat over road rash any day.

After about an hour, though, he got thirsty, so he headed back to the nearest gas station that had a convenience store attached and went in for a bottled sports drink. He came out to find a man looking at his bike. Not unusual, so it was odd to find himself on the defensive. Maybe the low price he’d paid was preying on his mind.

The man, late twenties or so, dressed casually, with a gold chain around his neck Shannon hated on sight, smiled at him.

Shannon limited himself to, “Hey.”

“Hi.” The man gestured at the Indian. “Sorry. I didn’t touch it. It’s so weird. This looks like my friend’s bike.”

“Maybe it was. I bought it last week.”

“From Jude Brennan?” The guy shaded the sun from his eyes with one hand, but didn’t offer to shake Shannon’s.

Shannon nodded. “Technically it was his brother who sold it to me.”

“Oh, right. I forgot Rory was the one who bought it. I went to their high school, and my ex-girlfriend used to hang out with Jude back before…well, you know.”

Curious, and a little guilty at digging for information Rory hadn’t provided, Shannon gave a noncommittal grunt, knowing a too-eager show of interest usually resulted in confidences drying up.

“He’s a nice guy, and a lot of fun when he’s drunk, but trouble sticks to him. Some people are like that. They make one bad mistake after another.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. There was this one time I—”

As he’d expected, the man wasn’t interested in listening but holding center stage. “When I read about his arrest, I thought, uh-huh, there he goes again, and guess who’ll come to the rescue same as always.” The guy raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Rory.”

That got him pursed lips and a slow, sad nod. “You got it. Jesus, I wish my brother was like that. If I got busted for stealing, he’d kick my ass, not pay my bail. But Rory’s a sucker when it comes to Jude. Says you have to make allowances for him.” Snort. “Allowances! Why? Because he’s not the brightest bulb on the shelf? So what? He’s not that slow. Because his mom up and left him? He was a baby, so I don’t see why that’s relevant. I doubt he even remembers her.”

Shannon decided the guy was an asshole, based on what he knew of him so far, and assholes produced shit, not gold. No point continuing the conversation, though it’d given him plenty to mull over. “Yeah, well, gotta go.”

“No, wait.” The man grabbed Shannon’s arm, then released it in a hurry when Shannon hissed a warning. “Sorry. Listen, if I’d known it was up for sale, I’d have made an offer. Always did like the look of it, but I figured Jude would wrap it around a post or something crazy. How about we talk money? I can give you a fair price for it. Knowing Rory, he let you have it cheap, am I right? Sweet, but clueless. I’ll go five hundred over what you paid, and we’ll both walk away happy.”

“Not interested.” This time Shannon turned and swung his leg over the bike, but even that wasn’t enough to shut the guy up.

“At least let me give you my number! You know, in case you change your mind. I might go as high as a thousand over what you paid—”

The rumble of the engine, mellow though it was, covered up the rest of the man’s protest, and Shannon pulled out onto the street without looking at him again. No idea who the guy was or how much of what he’d said was true, but it was hard to believe any of it had been deliberate falsehood. It increased Shannon’s lurking guilt about getting such a steal on the bike from Rory; he’d have to think about the best way to make that right.

They’d exchanged texts a few times over the past couple of days and made tentative plans to get together for dinner Tuesday night. Rory was slow to open up, which Shannon understood considering he’d apparently thought the first time they’d had sex would be the only time. That had to be an adjustment, going from a fling to a potential relationship. No wonder Rory had shrunk back into himself. He was glad he’d seen Rory’s wild side, though. Dating the quiet, sweet guy and never knowing what lay beneath would’ve been frustrating as hell in the long run. He would’ve sensed Rory’s dissatisfaction, he was sure of it, without knowing the key to unlocking his passionate side.

Looked at one way, he had a head start on every man Rory had dated. He knew what made the guy howl at the moon. The only trouble with that were his misgivings about what caused the howling. This intense role-playing would be difficult to keep up.

And he still didn’t know why Rory had assumed he was into all the kinky shit in the first place. Because of the way he looked? Or did Rory see something in him he didn’t know about himself?

It made for some in-depth thoughts, that was for sure.

After he parked the bike in its carefully manicured spot in the garage—he’d had to make a deal with Luis about rearranging some of the other crap piled up in there, most of which he couldn’t even identify—he went inside and texted Rory.

We still on for Tuesday night at 7? It wasn’t too late for dinner, and he was secretly hoping for an invitation back to Rory’s place afterward.

While he waited for a reply, he did a quick search on his phone for Jude’s name. The results confirmed what the man outside the convenience store had said, more or less. Jude’s name popped up in several local newspaper reports for being drunk and disorderly at his prom, when he’d been over eighteen, with unnamed friends, painting a picture of a troublemaker. Then more recently was the arrest for stealing from his employer and selling the stolen goods. Shannon suspected the gap between the two events held plenty the police would be interested in, but either Jude had been lucky and not gotten caught, or the misdemeanors had been minor enough that his name wasn’t connected to them in any news reports.

Maybe he was judging Jude too harshly.

Shannon’s moral code was flexible, and he was no saint, but stealing on the job was a betrayal in his eyes. He’d seen men on the crew casually appropriate tools and materials from time to time and always made his disapproval clear, though he’d never taken the next step and reported them. The thefts had been minor, and getting someone fired for taking a hammer or a sack of cement wasn’t in his nature.

Something told him that he wouldn’t like Jude much. He came across as a user, relying on Rory to get him out of trouble, then falling headlong into another crisis.

Shannon shook his head, impatient with himself. How often did people take one look at him—big, bearded, rough—and write him off as a troublemaker? There could be more to Jude’s story than he knew, and Rory’s loyalty admirable, not misguided.

A text from Rory popped up. Okay if I call you now?

That sounded ominous, implying the answer about dinner was no and there was an explanation to follow, but Shannon didn’t believe in procrastinating when it came to bad news, mild though it might be. Better to get it over with. Sure.

The phone rang moments later, and he picked up. “Hey.”

“Hi. How are you?”

“I’m good. Took the bike out for a joyride. What about you?”

“I’m okay.” Rory’s tone was uncertain, as if he was looking for reassurance of some kind but didn’t know how to ask for it.

Shannon had been in the living room, aware of Luis and Dex talking in the kitchen, but too focused on his phone to go back there and join them. Now, wanting more privacy, he started upstairs. Tank heard his footsteps on the staircase and ran past him, claws scrabbling on the floorboards. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah. I don’t know.” Rory sighed.

“Second thoughts?” Kicking his door shut, Shannon went over to sit on the bed.

“About what? No. Why would you think that?”

Jesus, they spent a lot of time asking each other questions. “Because I asked if we were still on for Tuesday, and you asked if you could call me, which wasn’t an answer.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess. No, it’s been one of those days.”

Shannon tried to think what that might mean. “Lunch at your parents’ house? With your brother.”

“It would have been. Jude didn’t show up.”

Even if Jude had been a model son, there were plenty of reasons for him to be absent, and Shannon offered a few, only to have Rory shoot them down.

“He lives with them these days, so no, he didn’t oversleep. He went somewhere in the morning and said he’d be back for lunch, so he didn’t forget, but he did forget his phone.”

“Then his business took longer than planned, or he bumped into someone and went for a drink that turned into three.” He wasn’t unsympathetic to the strain he heard in Rory’s voice, but it seemed like a fuss over nothing.

“I guess, but I worry, you know?”

Shannon went for blunt, not tactful. “No. He’s old enough to be in charge of his life and not need you hovering.”

“I don’t!” Sharp, defensive, Rory snapped out the words. “Why does everyone— Why am I the only one who can see—” He drew in a breath. “Never mind.”

Shannon screwed up his face, wishing Rory was in the room. He’d soon have him thinking about himself, not his brother. “Want to drive around places he might be, see if we can find him?”

It was likely Rory would do that anyway, and Shannon didn’t enjoy picturing him walking into some dive with questions and walking out with a bleeding nose or split lip.

There was a long silence, then Rory said, “Yeah. I mean, I’m already out looking. You don’t have to join me. I can do it on my own.”

“I know you can. I don’t want you to.” For once, he managed not to ask a question, and he went quiet after that to give Rory some space to think, some time for his words to sink in.

“Okay.”

“Where are you?”

Rory hesitated again; this conversation was taking forever. “In a shitty part of town. Over near the old train station. Jude has friends who live here, in a couple of different places, sometimes.”

It was an area where the police made not-infrequent drug busts and arrested people for squatting in abandoned buildings. The information did nothing to improve Shannon’s opinion of Jude. “For fuck’s sake. Are you still in the car?”

“No, I was about to go into this one place when I got your text.”

“Wait for me. I’m leaving now.” The last time that part of town was in the news was when a body had been found, and it was hard to imagine Rory dealing with stumbling across something like that without being upset.

“Text me when you get over here, and we’ll figure out how to find each other,” Rory said and disconnected the call.

Shannon was already at the front door. “I’m going out again!” he called back to Luis and Dex, feeling in his pocket for his keys.

The truck’s exhaust was even louder than it had been last week; he needed to get Earl to look at it before he got pulled over for an emissions violation or whatever ticket a rotted muffler earned a driver. He left his phone on the seat next to him in case Rory called back.

Everything would be fine, he told himself as he drove. Rory had been dealing with Jude and his problems for years, it sounded like, and he was a grown man who knew how to handle whatever situation he might bump into. Besides, even if he wasn’t as tall and broad as Shannon, he wasn’t a small man, and Shannon had seen the abuse he could take and still beg for more.

God. What a thing to think.

Shannon drove down four different side streets before he found Rory’s car. Shutting off the truck, he quickly texted Rory: I’m here, where are you?

He’d pressed Send when something banged the side of his truck. He jumped and swore, but when he turned there was Rory standing next to his window. Rolling it down, he said, “What the fuck?”

Rory grinned without looking amused. “Sorry. I thought you heard me coming. Anyway, he’s not here, and he’s not next door. Place is empty.”

Shannon jerked his thumb at Rory to get in. “So we hit the bars.”

“I hope that’s not where we find him. Alcohol and Jude don’t mix.” Rory glanced around. “I’m not leaving my car here. I’ll follow you.”

“Okay,” Shannon said with some reluctance. Not leaving the car made sense, but he wanted Rory with him. “Any ideas? There’s that place attached to the repair shop. Lot of bikers hang out there.”

“The Sprocket?” Rory bit his lip, a habit of his Shannon found distracting as hell. “I know he goes there, or he did, but he got banned a year ago.”

“New owners since then, so I doubt they’d care.” Before Rory walked off, Shannon asked, “What got him banned?”

Rory looked away, studying a weed growing through a crack in the sidewalk as if it were a rare orchid. “Cheating at cards.” He met Shannon’s gaze again. “But he didn’t mean to! He has trouble with numbers sometimes, and he thought he had enough money to cover the bet, but he didn’t, and I would’ve come over with it, but they didn’t give him time to call me, so it got ugly.”

The story didn’t add up, but Shannon nodded as if it made perfect sense. “I can see how it would. I’ll meet you there. Don’t go in without me if you get there first. I mean it. Stay in your car.”

Rory tilted up his chin, a spark of interest flickering through the worry. “Or?”

Shannon reached through the open window, grabbed Rory’s shirt, and yanked him in close for a hard kiss, over in a second but leaving his lips throbbing. “I fuck you and don’t let you come.”

Fingers touching his lip delicately as if testing for a cut, Rory asked, “How would you stop me?”

Good question. Bluffing shamelessly, Shannon said, “I’d twist your balls, Doc. Ever had that done to you? Hurts like hell and a total mood-killer, if you know what I mean.”

Rory swallowed hard, gave a jerky nod, and stepped back. “I’ll wait.”

Thank God. “Good answer. See you there.”

He waited until Rory pulled away, then followed him.

On the outside, the Sprocket didn’t look too bad. Sure, there was some broken glass in the poorly lit parking area and a trash can left unemptied for too long, not to mention the distinct smell of piss, but that was true about most of the bars in town. Shannon ignored the crumpled beer can he kicked as he got out of the truck and shut the door.

“Your truck’s loud,” Rory said, coming over to join him.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll get it looked at.” He eyed Rory appreciatively, liking the worn T-shirt he was wearing under his jacket. “Good job waiting for me.”

Rory flushed at the praise, and wasn’t that a pretty sight? “Um. Thanks?”

“You’re welcome. Now let’s see if we can’t find this wayward brother of yours.”

The entryway to the building smelled worse than the parking lot, and the lighting wasn’t much better. He blinked, trying to let his eyes adjust. Rory was already headed for the bar, a man on a mission, and again, their dynamic intact, Shannon followed.

“Excuse me,” Rory said. When he leaned farther over the bar to talk to the bartender, his khakis pulled tight over his ass in a way that was distracting, but Shannon knew better than to stare. It wasn’t that he cared what anyone thought; he figured they had bigger fish to fry right then. “Hi, I’m looking for Jude Brennan. Do you know him?”

“Jude? Yeah. He was here earlier. Haven’t seen him in a while.”

Deciding to make it clear Rory wasn’t flying solo, Shannon rested his hands on the bar, regretting it instantly. The surface was tacky with spilled drinks. He’d need to peel his palms off, then scrub them with soap and hot water. “How long is a while?”

The man’s eyes flickered, and he picked up a cloth, using it to polish a glass. Shannon figured he’d tripled the germs on the glass in the process. “What do you want me to say? He was here, he had a drink, now he’s not here, so I guess he left. Didn’t see him go, so I don’t know when it was. Are we done here? Because last I looked, this was a drinking establishment, not a dating service.”

A thickset man on a barstool guffawed, reaching out to grab a handful of peanuts from a bowl. The floor around him was littered with shells, but that seemed to be the norm. “Nice one, Denny.”

“I’m his brother.” Rory took out his wallet. “Look, I can pay—”

Shit. Worst way to go about getting information ever. Shannon took the wallet before Rory opened it and gave anyone nearby a look at the cash inside. “No need for that. These gentlemen don’t need to get paid to be helpful, do you?”

Denny rolled his eyes. “I’d be helpful if I had any information, but I don’t, so no amount of money would make a difference. No offense, but Jude’s a problem when he’s here nine times out of ten, and we haven’t even been open that long. I’m mostly relieved when he leaves.”

“Least this guy’s a nice change, saying he’ll give you cash instead of asking people for it,” the other man offered.

“He asks people for money?” Shannon returned Rory’s wallet, gesturing impatiently for him to put it away.

“Who, Jude?” This was from a short blonde woman walking by. She had an unlit cigarette in her hand, so she was probably headed outside to smoke. “Are you kidding? Have you met him? He owes C.J. forty bucks, and they barely know each other.”

Shannon turned and scanned the area of the bar she’d indicated. “Which one’s C.J.?”

“Short guy. Red shirt.” She shouted, “C.J.! These guys are looking for Jude.”

C.J. didn’t look intimidating until he stood. Even then, it wasn’t his height that was the issue; it was all about the attitude. He was the guy who’d gotten into fistfights since middle school. His nose had probably been broken at least twice, there was a scar in the middle of one eyebrow, and his expression made it clear he was pissed off at the world. “He owes you money too?”

Rory answered, “No,” at the same time Shannon said, “Yes.” Rory glared at Shannon and repeated himself. “No, he’s my brother. I’m looking for him.”

“Well, you don’t look like him.”

The peanut eater snickered. “Good one, C.J.”

“He’s my half brother.”

C.J. sneered. “Yeah? And if I ask again, will he be your second cousin once removed on your mom’s side?”

That got C.J. a slap on the bar from his appreciative audience. Shannon wished he’d choke on a nut long enough to shut him up. The tittering laugh rasped his nerves, and he didn’t care for the way C.J. was rolling forward and back on the balls of his feet. That usually signaled trouble, in his experience.

“I’m w-worried about him.” Rory was flushed now, stammering not through nerves, Shannon guessed, but concern for Jude. “If you’ve seen him—”

“Aw, and now you’re his mother? Worried about Jude? Give me a fucking break.” C.J. spat on the floor. The barman didn’t make even a token protest, which didn’t surprise Shannon unduly.

“Time to go,” Shannon said into Rory’s ear, taking his arm.

Rory shook him off. “Maybe he’s in another room. What’s that door over there for?”

He set off toward it, and the atmosphere in the room changed from uncooperative to hostile in the time it took for Rory to edge around a table.

What was behind the door? Illegal game? Drug deal? Loan shark? Whatever it was, C.J.’s job seemed to be making sure no one found out. He pivoted and took a few lumbering steps, catching up with Rory and stopping him dead in his tracks with a grab at Rory’s hair.

Rory yelled out in shock, head wrenched back, and Shannon, already moving toward Rory, slowed down, assessing the situation with a mind gone ice-cold with anger.

The worst he could do was add himself to the mix. He wanted C.J. away from Rory; punishing C.J. could wait. So he picked up a chair and threw it, aiming a yard to the left, hoping C.J. would register it as a threat and turn on him, letting Rory go.

And when that happened, he’d fucking pay for dragging that sound from Rory. Pay in pain and blood.

C.J. turned, quicker than Shannon would have anticipated, ran at him, and punched him. The crunch of knuckles against his jaw rocking his head back, Shannon processed the attack and blamed himself for being too fucking slow to react. Rory made a sound of protest, and Shannon, who’d been preparing himself for a second blow to follow the first, saw C.J. jerked backward, the collar of his shirt going taut against his throat.

The man stumbled but didn’t fall, following the movement and whirling around toward Rory. He was a practiced fighter—Shannon had already guessed it, but now he was sure—and didn’t let anything slow him down, not even two against one. The peanut eater at the bar shoved his stool away, its metal feet scraping the cement floor, ready to join the fight even if from Shannon’s point of view there was no reason for him to care.

Shannon stepped back and jerked his elbow into the man’s stomach. He heard the whoosh of air leaving lungs and turned his head for long enough to say, “None of your business,” before moving forward again, reaching for C.J.’s arm as he took aim to hit Rory. Rory’s eyes blazed with anger, face pale; there was a little blood at the corner of his mouth, and when Shannon stopped C.J.’s swing he didn’t hesitate, punching C.J. hard in the face.

Lifting a foot, Shannon kicked his boot into the back of C.J.’s knee. Yay for teamwork. Fighting fair? Not an option with Rory at risk. C.J. dropped like a stone, crashing to the floor.

“Cops are on their way,” the bartender announced. Shannon was surprised the man had made the call with something suspicious going on in the back room, but it could be a bluff intended to break up the fight. C.J. scrambled to his feet and fled out a side door with a flickering red EXIT sign above it. He was limping heavily, but it didn’t slow him down, proving his survival instinct was stronger than the pain.

Shannon let him go, throwing a warning glance at the peanut eater, who was back on his stool, recovering his breath. The man glanced away, signaling his submission, though he probably didn’t see it that way.

“You okay?” he asked Rory, going to him, worry making him rough when he grabbed Rory’s face to examine it.

“Fine.” Rory pulled his chin away from Shannon’s hand. “Don’t. I’m fine.

“Get away from him!”

The mystery door stood open, but as Shannon watched, it slammed closed again; the man who’d come through it was headed their way, anger and concern twisting his features. With his dark hair, messy and thick, and his brown eyes, he didn’t look anything like Rory, but Shannon knew it had to be Jude.

Shannon stepped back, hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m his friend, okay?”

Rory pushed in front of him. “Jude! Where have you been?”

“What the fuck are you doing here? And who’s he?”

“What am I— You were supposed to be at lunch, remember?”

“So you tracked me down? You overprotective asshole!”

Shannon tuned out after that. Brothers. Definitely. He wanted a drink, but not from here, not even a beer in a sealed bottle he opened himself. And he wanted to take Rory somewhere dark and private and fuck him until the adrenaline from the fight drained away because he was riding the high of it and the crash wouldn’t be fun.

Rory beneath him, no, on top, yeah, that worked, fucking himself on Shannon’s cock, hands tied behind him so he couldn’t touch his dick, leaving it for Shannon to play with or ignore. Oh, that would be so much fucking fun.

Maybe Rory was right and he did have a kinky side waiting to be discovered.

Distant sirens jarred him out of his reverie. Not a bluff, then. Though the cops could be headed someplace else. This part of town kept them busy.

“We need to get the hell out of here,” he announced. “Now.”

Rory looked, of all places, at the bartender. “Go,” Denny said, with a tilt of his head toward the door. “We won’t rat you out.”

“But—” The peanut eater tried to protest but relented when Denny glared at him.

“On the condition we never see any of you here again. Especially you, Jude!”

“Get off me! Rory!” Jude was struggling to stop Rory, who was bigger and more muscular, from dragging him out onto the sidewalk. It was like watching a tantruming child being removed from a store by his dad. “Let go!”

“Do you know what will happen if you get arrested tonight?” Rory kept a firm grip on Jude’s upper arm as he hustled him through the door.

“I didn’t do anything! I won’t get arrested!”

“Yeah? What was going on in that back room?”

Jude was still struggling, though he had to realize he wasn’t strong enough to break free from Rory. “None of your business!”

“Wasn’t he the one who put up the money to bail you out? That makes it his business.” Shannon hated to get involved, but the sirens were getting louder, and he and Rory both bore evidence of being involved in a fight.

“It was my bike he stole!” Jude whined. “I mean, sold!”

“Get him in the truck,” Shannon said grimly. There was obviously no reasoning with the man, and they needed to get the hell out of there. “Rory. Now.”

Rory must have understood the urgency because he didn’t continue arguing with Jude but dragged him over to Shannon’s truck—closer than his car—and shoved him in, putting him in the middle between them as Shannon started it up. He cursed the loud exhaust and pulled out the back of the parking area, neatly avoiding a trash can that had tipped over and was lying on its side in the street.

“If my car’s got so much as a scratch on it when I go back for it, I’m blaming you,” Rory snapped. “Did you hear me, Shannon?”

Shannon had assumed the threat was directed at Jude, but no. Somehow he was the bad guy. Well, okay then.

Aiming for soothing, he said, “We’ll go back for it in an hour or so. Cops won’t be there long, not for a bar fight with no one around to press charges and no damage to speak of. And whoever was in the back room will be long gone already. They’ll probably give that Denny guy a lecture on wasting police time.”

The road behind them was clear. He took a left turn at random, not headed anywhere in particular. Putting some distance between them and the bar was what mattered.

“This is kidnapping,” Jude announced, sounding gleeful. “You’re gonna be in so much trouble with Mom and Dad when I tell them.”

Rory made a disgusted sound. “Tell them I took you out of a bar with something illegal going on before the police arrived, you mean? I’d call that a rescue, not a kidnapping.”

“And if you want out of the truck, I’ll pull over right now,” Shannon offered.

“Yes,” Jude said instantly, at the same time Rory said, “No.”

“Okay.” Frustrating though it was to do something he knew would annoy Rory, Shannon wasn’t keeping an unwilling man in his truck. He slowed down and pulled over next to the curb.

Jude shoved at Rory. “Let me out.”

“No. For God’s sake, Jude, think for a minute.”

“Fuck you, Rory!” Jude slapped Rory, and although the blow was ill aimed and didn’t appear to have much strength behind it, Shannon had reached the limit of his patience. Rescuing jerks wasn’t a hobby of his. He opened the driver’s door and got out into the street, towing Jude with him without difficulty. Sometimes being big and strong was an advantage in life. And sometimes it got him labeled in ways he didn’t appreciate.

He shook Jude. “Your brother’s trying to help you, and you thank him by hitting him? Not on my watch.”

“It’s not your watch! Why are you even here?” Jude yanked himself away from Shannon’s grip. Rory had already gotten out of the truck on the other side and come over to join them.

Cars were passing them in the street. One of the drivers leaned on the horn as she swerved her car into the other lane to avoid hitting them. “You’re both crazy!” Shannon told them, and Rory and Jude whirled on him in tandem, similar expressions of outrage on their faces. For the first time Shannon could see in their appearance how they were related.

He was tempted to get back in the truck and leave them there. Only the residual arousal from the fight and his deep interest in Rory kept him from leaving. He got everyone onto the sidewalk, using force with Jude, then faced them, arms folded to remove any temptation to smack them on the head the way his dad had done to make a point.

Civility seemed the best way to bring the tension down. Worth a try, anyway.

“Jude, my name’s Shannon. I’m a friend of your brother’s.”

“Not his usual type.” Jude eyed him with interest. “More like what I’d go for if I was into guys, which I’m not. What’s up, bro? Taking a walk on the wild side now that Micah’s out of the picture?”

Rory tightened his lips to a thin line, then heaved a sigh. “Ignore him. Jude, he’s a nice guy, and he helped you out back there. Say thank you.”

To Shannon’s surprise, Jude did, then ruined it by adding, “And fuck you for stealing my bike.”

“We’ve gone over this!” Rory threw up his hands in frustration. “Listen, if you get a job and save up half of the money, I’ll match you dollar for dollar, and we’ll buy you a new bike.”

“What are you, his father?” Shannon couldn’t keep from interjecting, though he knew it would make things worse. He’d never claimed he was perfect. “Now you’re buying stuff for him?”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Rory said, voice tight with self-control. “He’s trying to turn things around, and he needs support.”

“Sounds to me like he’s had too much support and it’s time for him to stand on his own two feet.”

“Oh my God, are you my father? What the fuck?” Jude backed up, watching them warily, and Rory didn’t move to stop him. Not yet, anyway. “Stay away from me. I mean it. You too, Rory. I can’t take it anymore. I’d sooner go to jail than have you following me around.”

Rory looked like he’d been slapped. Well, like he’d been slapped again, only it hurt this time. “Jude…”

“I’m serious. I’m out of here.”

Shannon stepped closer to Rory as they watched Jude stalk off down the sidewalk back the way they’d come. Hopefully it’d take him long enough to reach the Sprocket that the cops would be gone by the time he got there, though maybe he was smart enough to avoid the place for a while and was headed somewhere else entirely.

“Well, that’s great,” Rory said.

“Us being alone at last? Yeah, gets my vote.”

“No!” Rory drilled a hole in Shannon’s chest with his finger. “We were looking for him, and now he’s gone again.”

He captured Rory’s hand in his to prevent the assault from continuing. “We were looking for him, we found him, and if you’re desperate to get insulted and yelled at some more, run after him. But I don’t see the point. He’s in one piece, and you can’t trail around after him indefinitely. And unless it’s with your cock, stop poking me.” With a warning squeeze, he released Rory’s hand.

“Everything isn’t about sex.” Rory was breathing hard, all fluffed up and indignant. Adorable.

“Between us, that’s not strictly accurate. If I’m honest, I’ve had thoughts of you naked in my head for the last half hour.”

Rory studied him, clearly caught between annoyance and something else harder to define. “It’s getting cold,” he said. It sounded like an apology.

“Uh-huh.” Now that the sun was low on the horizon, the temperature was dropping fast. Soon Dex and Luis would argue good-naturedly about whether it was time to turn on the heat yet, the way they did every year. Luis would win by playing the it’s-my-house card and lose the next morning when Tank came into his room to wake him up by burrowing under the covers and shoving his ice-cold nose against Luis’s bare skin. “You want a ride back to your car?”

“Would you give me a ride home instead?”

“Does that mean I get to see your place?” Here they went doing that question-and-answer thing again like it was the only way to have a conversation, like they’d never get anything out of each other without it. Shannon had no idea whether that was true.

“It means if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see more than that,” Rory said, and this time he was the one who reached for Shannon’s hand.

Chapter Six

On their way to his condo, Rory resolved to set aside his worry about Jude for at least an hour. Underneath everything, he was touched that Shannon had come to help him look for Jude, even if things had gone horribly wrong after that. “I have a couple of ice packs in the freezer,” he offered. “If you want one for your jaw.”

Shannon took his hand off the wheel and touched the area tentatively. “I think it’s okay. Your mouth looks worse.”

“I guess.” He hadn’t looked in a mirror yet, but the corner of his mouth felt puffy and tender. His fingers itched to check Shannon’s bruise-darkened skin for himself.

“Get in a lot of bar fights?” Shannon asked.

Rory snorted. “Never. Well. No never.” There’d been one time he and Jude had a narrow miss at a nightclub. He’d been too young to have any business there, but Jude had taken him as a belated birthday gift, using a fake ID Rory had disposed of the next day before his mom found it.

“You’ll have to tell me that story sometime.”

Talking and sharing memories? Rory had no idea if that was something Shannon genuinely wanted or if he was being nice, so he smiled and nodded and restricted his talking to giving directions.

“So this is your place?” Shannon surveyed the condo with what Rory realized was a professional eye. “Have much trouble when it rains? The gutters aren’t on right.”

“They aren’t?”

They got out of the truck, and Shannon headed for the side of the building, pointing not up but at the ground. “See the way the earth’s gouged out? That’s because the gutters are filling and the rain’s pouring over the edge here instead of going where it should. We have a bad enough storm, it’ll seep into the foundation, and the basement will flood.”

“Oh.” What happened to picturing him naked? This businesslike Shannon was disconcerting. “I’ll have to ask the condo association to take a look at it.”

“Good.” Shannon switched gears, thank God, turning to smile at him with more than a hint of desire showing. “So do I get invited in?”

“That was the general idea.” Only if you promise not to point out the cracks in the walls and the slow-draining kitchen sink, Rory thought, though he doubted Shannon would stick around long enough to notice those things. “Come on.”

He hadn’t turned on the porch light before he left earlier in the day, assuming he’d be home shortly after lunchtime, but his neighbor had put hers on, so he could see to unlock the front door. He hit both light switches with the flat of his hand, illuminating the porch and the small foyer.

“Home sweet home.”

Shannon looked around, taking it in as he crouched to untie his boots. “Nice.”

“Thanks.” He kicked off his shoes without bothering to untie them and rubbed his upper arms to warm them, then moved to adjust the thermostat. “I wonder if this means it’ll be a bad winter.”

Standing up, Shannon shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“I’d offer you a tour, but you can pretty much see the whole thing from here. No, I’m kidding, but it’s been fine. I’m not home all that much.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about how you doctors are workaholics.” Shannon snagged the hem of his sleeve and tugged him closer, kissing him, and Rory forgot to protest that he wasn’t a doctor or a workaholic and remembered why he liked kissing Shannon.

The kiss stung his lip, but he loved the way it took him back to the fight, Shannon all muscle and fury, throwing the chair as if it’d been made of cardboard, not wood, then wading in to rescue him. Annoying on one level, hot as hell on another. Still, he didn’t want Shannon viewing him as a damsel in need of a knight. Without thinking it through, he broke off the kiss and blurted out, “Can I fuck you?”

Shannon blinked rapidly, as if processing the request. “If you were in Mrs. Mahler’s English class, she’d tell you to make that ‘May I.’ Quickest way to get her ranting. But I’m more easygoing. Sure. I guess.”

“You don’t sound sure.”

“Don’t do it often, but I already told you it wasn’t off the table.” Shannon pulled him closer. “I wasn’t supposed to see you today, so this is like an extra doughnut in the box.”

“Yeah? And you like doughnuts?”

“Sure. Why, you gonna tell me I shouldn’t eat them anymore? What happened to everything in moderation?”

“Everything but doughnuts,” Rory said. “They’re evil. To be avoided at all costs.”

He’d been joking, but Shannon’s expression turned serious. “Yeah. That wasn’t where I was going with that—implying that you’re my extra doughnut, but when it comes right down to it, it might not be too far off the mark.”

“I don’t get it.” Rory didn’t want to waste time discussing it either. “In the bedroom?”

“What?”

“That’s where the condoms are. Or do you want to do it here?”

“I want…to maybe slow things down? I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere, so how about we clean up a bit.”

Disappointed, his arousal ebbing, Rory nodded. “Okay. I guess.”

“You don’t want to?”

“I want to fuck you, remember?” Rory pushed his hand between them, bold in word and action because with Shannon it was easy to ask for anything, and stroked Shannon’s cock, wishing his hand was on skin, not denim. “God, you were so fucking hot in that fight. I guess you’re used to them, but I’ll be honest, it was a huge turn-on.”

“Used to them? I don’t go around looking for trouble.” Shannon shook his head and sighed. “I’m gonna regret saying this, but I’m not sure we’re good for each other.”

Rory shrugged free and took a step back. “What? Why?” Unlike the kiss, the sting of rejection was impossible to spin into anything good. His vanity took a hit as well. He didn’t see being with Shannon as slumming, he didn’t, but he’d assumed Shannon would, would…

Be humbly grateful someone middle-class and educated allowed him access to their ass?

He winced as the jeering voice in his head summed up the situation with merciless accuracy. Oh yeah. That wasn’t condescending at all.

“I don’t think we’re looking for the same things,” Shannon said. It sounded like a diplomatic answer, and Rory wasn’t sure he wanted a more detailed one.

“So all of a sudden you’ll only sleep with people you’re long-term compatible with?” God, when had he turned into such an asshole? All he wanted was a decent guy to get off with, someone he could trust not to steal from his wallet when his head was turned or call him names when he didn’t do what was asked, and why the fuck was he thinking about Jude?

Shannon’s brow was furrowed. “You did it again.”

“Did what?”

“Went away. Your body is standing here, but your mind is somewhere else entirely.”

“Do you want a drink?” Rory asked, desperate to change whatever dynamic was happening, but Shannon shook his head.

“Maybe later. Look—it’s not that I think we have to be compatible to like fucking each other. That’s not what I was saying. I meant… Shit. I don’t know what I meant. Don’t listen to me.”

“Is it— Are you, uh, intimidated by me?” Maybe that inner voice had something going for it.

“Intimidated?” Shannon repeated slowly, as if testing the word out for structural integrity. “I’m gonna have to go with yes on that one.”

“You do realize I’m not a doctor? Yeah, I have a degree, and sure, my parents are well off by some standards, but I’m nothing special.” The bleak truth of the last part was difficult to accept.

Shannon tilted his head, voice deepening. “You think you’re better than me?”

Put so bluntly, it sounded awful. Rory shook his head. “I said I wasn’t! Exact opposite!”

“When I said intimidated, I didn’t mean by your social standing, Doc.” The sarcastic twist to his words confused Rory. “More like I can’t keep up with—”

“What?” Rory asked when Shannon ground to a halt. “Tell me! I don’t want this to end between us when it’s getting good.”

“You’ve got a lot of drama in your life,” Shannon said after a few seconds. “With your brother and all. I don’t get into fights often. That’s what I meant. Nothing else. I’m, ah, not wanting any attention from the cops, if you know what I mean.”

Shit. Shit. Rory wished he hadn’t let Jude stalk off earlier because right then he would have loved nothing better than to punch his brother in his stupid face. Jude fucked up everything. Not only his life, despite how hard Rory and his parents tried to keep it from happening, but Rory’s life too. First Micah, and now Shannon, who didn’t even want him for anything but sex, thought Jude was too big a burden to make Rory worth it.

It wasn’t hard to believe. It was what he’d been expecting and why he’d only been looking for something casual when this whole thing with Shannon started.

“Fine.” His voice was tight and angry. “Whatever. I don’t blame you. Don’t worry about me; I’ll get a cab over to pick up my car in the morning.”

“Okay, first off, if you wait until tomorrow morning, it’ll be gone. You don’t think Denny will call and have it towed? Second, you’re projecting or something. You’re the one who’s only in this for the sex, not me. I never said that. At least be man enough to admit it.”

“No.” It wasn’t a response to the last thing Shannon had said; it was a reaction to this whole situation. “No, no, no way. I’ve been through this before. I’m not doing it again, okay? No offense, you seem like a great guy, and God knows you blow everyone else I’ve ever slept with out of the water—” Damn, that was one of those things a man wasn’t supposed to admit. “But I know how fucked up my life is, and there’s no way I’m letting you in far enough to figure it out too because I know how that story ends. I don’t have it in me right now to watch another boyfriend walk out the door.”

He went quiet, out of words to say. Shannon was looking at him thoughtfully. Why? What had he said? It had been a jumble, thoughts he hadn’t made sense of before they’d spilled out.

“Thank you,” Shannon said.

“For what?” Rory genuinely didn’t know.

“For being honest. I figured it’d happen sooner or later.”

“Honest? I puked up more drama, and that’s what you don’t want.”

“Maybe I’m getting a taste for it when you’re part of the package.” Shannon leaned against the wall, his leather jacket grungy enough that it’d most likely leave a smudge on the cream paint. “So who’s this boyfriend who bailed? He got a name?”

“Micah.”

Shannon didn’t quite snort. “Figures. And what was his reason? Your brother? That’s not much of a push to the door.”

“You don’t know what Jude’s like. I love him, I do, and it’s not all his fault the way he is, but sometimes I wish he’d go a month without getting into trouble, and he never does.”

“Why not his fault? Seems to me he’s lucky. He’s got you looking out for him, for one thing.”

No sense putting it off. “His mother drank when she was pregnant. Did drugs too. He was born with mild FAS. Do you know what that is?” Shannon shook his head, meaning Rory had to give what he thought of as The Jude Explanation. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He’s not stupid—don’t ever say he is—but he doesn’t have the best judgment when it comes to reading people or situations. No filter. No social skills. Once, when we were teenagers, he jerked off next to me on the couch. Couldn’t understand why it wasn’t appropriate when I told him to stop. He was horny, and he wanted to take care of it. Tell him something, and he zones out or forgets it before you’ve finished talking.”

“And you’re younger, but you’re stuck with the responsible-older-brother role.” Shannon said it like he understood.

Exhausted, Rory gestured for Shannon to follow him into the kitchen. “We might as well sit down if we’re going to talk about this.”

The sunset was pink-purple through the small window over the sink, but Rory found it more depressing than anything else. It was a reminder of the last evening he’d spent with Micah. There hadn’t been a shouting fight; they’d run out of energy for fighting by then. They’d had the same argument a hundred times, and neither of them had it in them to repeat it. Micah had said he was sorry, and Rory had said he was too, and then sat rigid with loss at the kitchen table while Micah put the few belongings he’d kept at the condo into a bag.

“I hate it here,” he said now, conversationally. He waved at Shannon to sit while he went to the fridge and opened the door. “Okay, I have filtered water, green juice, herbal iced tea? Or I could open a bottle of red wine.” It was shoved to the back of the cupboard and covered with dust, but wasn’t wine supposed to age?

“Thanks, but I’m not thirsty. Why do you hate your place?”

“Well, apparently it’s about to collapse the next time we have a heavy rain.” Rory shut the fridge door without getting anything out and went to sit across from Shannon. “Can I ask you something?”

“It’d be weird to say no now.”

Rory sighed and leaned back. “Why are you here? I mean, you could probably find someone for no-strings-attached sex who has about a hundred fewer problems than me. The Jude thing…that’s huge, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.” He risked a glance at Shannon’s face, but it was hard to read. “I was honest with you. Be honest with me.”

“I like you. Like the sex, sure, though sometimes… No, what’s important is the sex is great. And you’re interesting, Doc. You’re not like anyone I’ve met before, and don’t let anyone tell you that’s not a good thing. I date uncomplicated guys because they’re predictable and safe, but I guess sometimes that gets old.”

“Safe?” Rory couldn’t match that word to the men he pictured Shannon with. “I thought you’d go for other bikers.”

Shannon pulled an exasperated face, then chased it with a grin. “You’ve got this weird set of ideas about bikers. Like you think we’re all heavy-drinking, violent types with a knife in our boots and ‘kiss this’ tattooed across our knuckles.”

“No, not at all.” That didn’t sound convincing even to him. “You hear stuff, though. About motorcycle gangs.”

“Well, I’m not in one, and I’ve never dated anyone who was. I’m the boring one in this relationship. I hold down two jobs, and since one of them puts me around people who are busy getting drunk and stupid, I tend to avoid following their example.” Shannon leaned back in his chair, making it creak. God, he made the room look small and dull. He was exciting, dangerous, and Rory wanted to see him naked. Strange how around him, life got simple that way. “So now we know more about each other. Still interested in me?”

Easy question to answer. “Yes.”

“And I’m still interested in you. Where does that leave us?”

Rory smiled. “I could take you out for dinner. Or I could take you to bed. Or both, I guess.”

“But not at the same time.” Shannon slid his chair sideways, reached out with his leg toward Rory’s, and used his foot to drag Rory’s chair across the floor toward him.

When he was close enough, he leaned in and pressed his mouth to Shannon’s. “It’s probably not a real tour of my place if I don’t show you the bedroom.”

“Show me, then.”

Calling it a bedroom was an exaggeration; it was more like a nook off the living area. When he’d been Micah’s boyfriend, they’d spent most of their time at Micah’s place, so he hadn’t cared that the condo was small, and he lived alone, so it didn’t matter that there was no bedroom door for privacy. Now he was self-conscious about the size of the place, but he didn’t let himself dwell on it because he was more focused on removing Shannon’s clothes.

“Easy there, Doc. I’m not going anywhere, remember.” Shannon’s voice was muffled as Rory tugged his shirt off over his head; the leather jacket was already draped over the chair Rory used more as a table than anything else.

“I figure if you’re naked, it’ll slow you down.” Rory leaned in and bit the thin skin over Shannon’s collarbone.

Shannon groaned softly. “Never let anyone tell you you’re not smart.”

“They don’t.” Rory couldn’t think of any time he’d been called stupid or slow to pick up on something. “But there’re plenty of other things to say about me.”

Shrugging out of his jeans, Shannon winked at him. “I can think of a few. Get me in a sweet-talking mood, and I’ll share.”

Naked, he filled the small space in a way Micah never had, dominating it. Rory swallowed. Why had he decided this was a good time to switch their roles? The way they’d done it before had worked perfectly.

Shannon grinned as if he sensed Rory’s doubt and found it amusing, and let himself fall facedown on the bed. He bounced, sending a pillow sliding to the floor. His ass was like the rest of him—big and solid with muscle. Jesus, Rory would need a crowbar to get between those cheeks. Shannon twisted around, eyebrows up. “You waiting for an invitation?”

“No. I, uh, no.” Rory stripped, noting his cock was half in the game, half on the bench. Shannon was mouthwateringly hot, but it’d been a long time since he’d topped someone, and they weren’t built like this. The discussion they’d had faded, something to worry about later.

He got onto the bed, then ran his hand over Shannon’s back. The contact helped steady him. Shannon’s skin was warm to the touch, making him realize how cool his hand was in comparison. “You’re sure this is okay?”

“You’ve done it before?” When Rory nodded, Shannon shrugged, his lack of concern plain. “My ass is like anyone else’s. Lube me up, and take it slow to start with. How do you want me?”

“This is fine.” If he could get hard, it would be even better.

Shannon rolled his nearest hip away to face Rory. “You’re nervous.”

The truth seeming best, Rory grimaced. “A little. I know this was my idea, but it’s been a long time.”

“Sometimes you can want something without being ready for it. We can save this for another night.” Bending forward, Shannon pressed his nose against Rory’s bare knee, breathing warm air that made Rory’s skin prickle and his cock stir. “Hmm. Maybe I’m on to something here.” He shifted closer still and blew his breath along Rory’s inner thigh. “Hello.”

“Mmm. Do that some more.” Rory dropped his hand to Shannon’s head, stroking his fingers through the long, dark hair that fell to Shannon’s wide shoulders. Shannon licked his thigh, and Rory spread his legs wider, not caring that it was awkward, because he was getting hard. It had been too long since he’d had regular sex, and he’d hate to have reason to think the dry spell had ruined something.

“You gonna slide this into my nice, tight ass, Doc?” God, Shannon’s voice might have been enough on its own to get him hard, saying stuff like that. His lips brushed Rory’s shaft teasingly. “Where are those condoms you mentioned?”

There were some in the drawer; he hoped they weren’t expired. No. It hadn’t been that long. Right then he was more focused on the slick of Shannon’s tongue across his glans. He couldn’t remember why he’d been worried about being able to get hard, because he’d gone rigid enough to ache within a minute, and now—Jesus—Shannon was sucking his cock. “Yeah. I’m gonna fuck you.”

He thought touching Shannon’s nicely rounded ass again would distract him, but he was wrong. It made him harder. Did he have lube? There, worrying about that was a good distraction that’d keep him from coming too soon. No way would he try to fuck Shannon for the first time without lube. The thought of Shannon doing it to him held some appeal, in fantasy at least. How would it feel? It would hurt, but would it drive him crazy or kill the mood?

A small bottle, mostly empty, lurked at the back behind the clutter that all drawers seemed to accumulate. Antacids, yeah, but what the hell were his sunglasses doing in there or a boarding pass from a skiing trip to Whistler three years ago? The dildo he used was there too, rolling around, but he shoved it aside. He didn’t need that when he had Shannon.

Condom on, he ran a finger between Shannon’s cheeks, the task made easy because Shannon reached back and held himself open with a complete lack of self-consciousness, head on the remaining pillow.

Breathe, he reminded himself, but it wasn’t easy faced with a view so profoundly erotic it could’ve been a still from a porn movie. The silky hair covering Shannon’s heavy balls petered out, leaving his crack smooth, the puckered flesh yielding to the hesitant push of Rory’s lubed finger.

“Don’t let me hurt you,” he said, then flushed. It was a stupid thing to say, though he meant it. He wanted this to be good for both of them.

“You won’t.” Shannon sounded confident enough. “Go slow.”

A finger and then two went in, the heat of Shannon’s ass warming Rory’s skin. If anything, he overdid it on the lube, and by the time he slipped his fingers free, everything was slick and easy. He lined himself up, adjusted the tilt of Shannon’s hips for better aim, and thrust forward.

He didn’t get anywhere. Shannon’s ass, moments ago opening willingly to his probing, felt impervious, locked tight against him. Rory pressed forward a bit more firmly, without any more success. Again. Nothing. It was like trying to push his cock into a solid body part with no entrance whatsoever, like trying to fuck someone’s thigh.

“Don’t dick around, do it.” Shannon rocked back at the same moment Rory thrust forward again, and his body gave up and let Rory in. Shannon groaned, more pain than pleasure.

Rory froze. “Okay?”

“Yeah. Keep going.”

If anyone else had said that, Rory would’ve ignored them and paused at least, but Shannon gave off an air of indestructibility, the nicks and scars on his body and his work-hardened hands proof not that he could be damaged, but that he didn’t care.

He knew how annoying he found it when a partner checked in on him over and over or stopped for whatever reason with him moments away from coming, so he trusted Shannon’s answer. He wanted to believe it was fine, because from his end, it was perfect. The intimate connection, the tight, hot clench around his cock, so different from the grip of a hand…

God, how had he gone so long without this? He’d respected Micah’s dislike of fucking or being fucked, but he didn’t share it. It was heaven to be with someone who enjoyed sex as much as he did.

Coasting on a wave of elation and gratitude, he gave Shannon what he would’ve wanted—a slow withdrawal, then a hard slam back in, jarring, powerful.

Shannon gave a strangled scream, garbled words spilling out of him as he writhed wildly. His ass muscles clamped down, squeezing Rory’s cock to the point where he wanted it out of there as fervently as Shannon obviously did.

“Sorry, sorry! Ow, ow!”

“Fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…”

In other circumstances, their babbling would’ve been funny, but Rory couldn’t find the humor in any situation where Shannon was in pain. He grabbed on to Shannon’s hips to hold him still and attempted to pull out an inch at a time.

“Goddamn it, shit, I’m so sorry.” Thankfully he’d used so much lube, there wasn’t a lot of friction. He slipped free and looked around for something to help the situation, as if he might have some numbing ass cream conveniently sitting at the foot of the bed. “Sorry. Are you okay?”

Shannon grunted. “I’ll live. Jesus, that hurt.”

“I’m so sorry. I thought everything was okay. You said to keep going.” Rory knew he sounded like an asshole, as if he was blaming Shannon, which wasn’t what he meant to do. “It was totally my fault. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”

“It is! We are never, ever doing this again. I mean it. I’m so sorry.”

“Shut up. I swear to God, if you tell me you’re sorry one more time, I’ll— I don’t know what I’ll do. Don’t.”

Rory bit his lip to stop himself using the forbidden phrase. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

“Giant ice cube in the shape of a dildo?” Shannon smiled, though it looked strained. “No. I’ll be fine. But I’m on board with not trying again right away.”

“Never again,” Rory assured him.

“I didn’t say that.” Shannon attempted to sit, winced and collapsed back onto his stomach. “Need a minute.”

“Take all the time you need.” Tentatively, he stroked Shannon’s back, making the caress less hesitant when Shannon sighed and relaxed. “I’ve done it before. I wasn’t lying.”

“I know. I tensed up, and then you rammed me like a pile driver.” Shannon rolled to his side, facing Rory. “I do that to you, and you love it. Tell me I’m not wrong, or I’m sticking to blowjobs for the rest of my life.”

“I do. God, you can do that to me as much as you want to.”

“Yeah?”

“Definitely.” Had his eyes gone dreamy? He glanced down at Shannon’s cock, a soft curl of sleeping flesh but still long and thick. He longed to touch it, suck it, coax it awake, but he accepted that the moment had passed.

What now? He couldn’t kick Shannon out because sex was off the table. A bath would help Shannon recover, but the condo had a shower barely big enough for him. Shannon would have trouble fitting into the narrow stall.

They couldn’t lie here naked and silent. That was weird.

They would have to talk. Oh shit. Talk.

He cleared his throat. “Do you read much? I’m halfway through the new Ernest Cline, Armada.

“I read the Walking Dead graphic novels. Some of them, anyway, and mostly because Dex keeps leaving them lying around. Tank chewed the corner off one, and Dex got mad but didn’t learn his lesson.” Shannon eyed him warily. “We don’t have to talk about books because you don’t want to throw me out.”

“I like to talk about books,” Rory protested, then sighed. “But I don’t want to throw you out. Not because it’s rude; I want you to stay. All we’ve done is had sex.”

“True. Okay. Let’s talk about books.” Shannon made an effort to look relaxed; Rory could see it in the way he reached back and found himself a pillow to lean against. “What’s that one about? Armada.”

“It’s science fiction. About a guy who’s an expert at video games, and then the planet gets invaded by aliens.”

“And he has a very particular set of skills?” It was a quote from a movie, though Rory wasn’t sure which one.

“Something like that. It’s good. You might like it.”

“Pass it on to me when you’re done, and I’ll give it a try.” Shannon stretched and scratched a spot over his ribs. “I like to read. I don’t go looking for books, that’s all.”

“What about movies?”

Shannon grinned. “Do I go looking for them? No. We’ve got a big TV, but we watch a lot more sports than anything else.”

“I like baseball,” Rory said. “My dad’s a fan. He used to take me and Jude to games all the time when we were kids.”

“Yeah?”

Damn, Rory thought. Should have known better than to mention Jude, but it was so hard not to. Their lives were intertwined and couldn’t be untangled, not as far as he knew. “What’s your favorite sport?”

“Probably football, but we watch them all.” Shannon tilted his leg sideways, kicking Rory’s knee gently. “It’s okay to talk about him, you know.”

Wait a few months, and tell me that again.

“I love him,” Rory said, fighting to keep his voice level and calm, “and people keep trying to make me see that as a mistake. My parents, Micah, my friends. No, that’s not fair. They don’t think loving him is the mistake. Helping him. They think if I stopped, let him reap what he sows or whatever, he’d learn from it and settle down.”

“But you don’t agree?”

“It’s like telling someone with a broken ankle they don’t need a crutch or a cast. He’s mentally affected by his mom’s drinking. He can’t understand what he’s doing wrong. You heard him talk about his bike. I had to sell it for the bail money, and I’m lucky you bought it, but to Jude, we’re the assholes who stole his bike for no good reason. It’s— It’s discouraging.”

His voice shook despite his best efforts. And there went his attempt to discuss Jude in a reasonable way.

“Hey.” Shannon pulled him in for a hug, enveloping him, providing a wide chest to lean on. “He was a dick to you today, but he must know how much you do for him.”

“Yeah.” The hair on Shannon’s chest tickled his cheek. A nipple, dark pink and flat, lay within reach of a kiss, but Rory resisted. “I guess.”

“On the other hand, following him around might piss him off and drive him to do something worse. Why don’t you try hanging out with him more instead?”

Everyone always thought they knew what to do with Jude. Everyone. “Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. Following him to a bar isn’t like asking him to go out for a drink with you.”

“He shouldn’t drink,” Rory said automatically, then forced himself to pause and think. It would have been easy to get offended by Shannon’s words, but Rory knew he meant well. “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. It’s like he’s mad at me all the time now.”

“Hard to blame him if your interactions with him are always about what he should do different or better.”

“You weren’t wrong about our dynamic being that I’m the older brother and he’s the younger one.” He relented and touched Shannon’s nipple with a gentle fingertip, watching as it reacted by tightening and rising as if asking for more. “So maybe you’re right about this too.”

“I’m right about lots of things.” Shannon hesitated, then said, “You want me to ask my boss if there’s anything on the job site Jude could do?”

God, tempting to take anyone up on any offer of employment for Jude, who could go through six or eight jobs in a year without even blinking. “You should give that idea some serious thought. You might end up regretting it.”

“I’d be honest with him. My boss has taken chances on guys before; sometimes it works out, other times not. Jude wouldn’t be anything new, trust me.”

Rory was still rubbing the soft pad of his finger over Shannon’s nipple idly, watching without thinking about it. “You say that, but Jude might surprise you.”

“Okay. You don’t have to say yes or no now.” Shannon caught his wrist. “There’s other stuff you could be touching if you wanted. Just saying.”

Rory smiled and let Shannon draw his hand downward to his cock. It was soft but responded when he settled his palm against it. “Are you sure?”

“I think you know the answer without asking the question.”

Yeah, he did.

Chapter Seven

Jude was late again. Shannon covered for him, distracting the foreman by asking about his daughter’s wedding the weekend before, then taking him over to inspect a cracked foundation, but it wouldn’t work for long. When Jude appeared, safety hat swinging from his hand, whistling airily, it was twenty minutes past the hour.

Shannon saw the foreman’s expression darken and stepped in. “I know, I know. Second time this week. Let me deal with it? You’ll scare the kid to death.”

Bill rolled his eyes. He was in his late fifties, and most of his muscle was hidden under a comfortable layer of fat. He was capable of pitching in when needed, but his job was supervisor and coordinator. “Yeah, I get that all the time. Uncle Bill, you’re so scary, Uncle Bill, put the head back on my Barbie. Fine, talk to him, but you know my rule. Three strikes and he’s out.”

“Being a few minutes late is more like a half strike, and I’ll have him make it up by working through his break. I’ll skip mine so he’s got someone to keep an eye on him.”

And that was needed. Jude was willing enough and had a certain tenacity, but left to his own devices, he tended to get distracted or forget basic safety procedures.

“Yeah?” Bill gave him a skeptical look. “You must have taken a shine to his brother, that’s all I can say.”

“I’ll skip my break again tomorrow if we don’t have to talk about that,” Shannon said and went off to intercept Jude.

Oblivious, Jude smiled at him as he walked up. “Morning!”

“Morning,” Shannon said. “You’re late. Second time this week.”

Jude’s face fell, and he fumbled for his phone, dropping his hard hat in the process. “I am? Are you sure?”

Shannon let him check the screen before he continued. “Bill says he told you when you started that the rule is three strikes. Three and you’re out. Trust me, he means it.”

“But he likes you,” Jude said. He shoved his phone back into his pocket and picked up his hat. “He wouldn’t fire me for being a few minutes late.”

“Okay: One, he likes me, and that still doesn’t mean he wouldn’t fire me if I slacked off. Two, you are not me.”

“But you’re dating my brother!” Jude always seemed to have a dozen reasons why things ought to go his way.

“We’re not ‘dating.’” There were moments Shannon wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he was sure it wasn’t dating. Dating was what traditional couples did. It was dinner and a movie and a chaste kiss on a doorstep. It definitely wasn’t fucking half-dressed against the same wall he’d be walking past thirty times the next day, remembering what it had felt like to be buried balls-deep when he was supposed to be thinking about the job. “And we’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you.”

“My clock at home must be set wrong. There was a lot of traffic on the way over here. It won’t happen again.” It sounded like Jude was reading off a list of excuses.

“Maybe you’re confusing me with your brother. Look at me, Jude. Good. Now read my lips: I don’t give a shit about the reasons, I care about the result. Which is you and me working through our breaks to make up for the time you wasted. Which means you’ve gotten my day off to a bad start. Think about ways to change that.”

Jude’s gaze fell. “I don’t understand. Why should we miss our breaks?”

“You’re paid to work a certain amount of time. You weren’t here for some of it. So you make it up. And you’re new, so you need a supervisor, and that’s me.”

So far, he hadn’t worked with Jude directly. His current job was bricklaying, and Jude had been given the simplest of tasks, hauling away debris or cleaning up.

“I’m sorry,” Jude said. “That sucks.”

“Now, see? That’s halfway there. You apologized. Now go the whole way and take responsibility for it.”

Jude rolled his eyes but gave him a good-natured grin with enough charm Shannon saw some of Rory in it. “I’m a lazy asshole who slept in. My bad. And it won’t happen again. I’ll set my alarm earlier. How about I buy you a drink after work to make up for stuff?”

“How about you put some effort into impressing me and save your money? Now put on your damn hat and follow me. You can be my assistant today. I’ll clear it with Bill.”

“Okay.”

The rest of the day ended up going a lot better than Shannon had expected; with enough supervision and clear instructions, Jude was a decent worker, or maybe laying bricks was where his particular talent lay. The outdoor patio they were building had already been planned out, the area prepared with a layer of sand tamped down with a plate compactor, and now it was a matter of setting the bricks into place, following the pattern that had been chosen. Once Shannon trusted that Jude understood the job, he let him work on one section alone, glancing over to double-check every few minutes.

He took a brief bathroom break, and when he came back, Jude was standing up, hands on his hips, surveying what they’d done so far.

“Something wrong?” Shannon asked.

Jude was frowning. “It doesn’t look right.”

“What do you mean? We’re following the blueprint.” He pulled it out of his rear pocket and unrolled it so they could look. “See? Don’t worry; you’re doing okay.”

“No. I mean the blueprint’s wrong. If we keep going with this pattern, it’s not gonna come out right when we get to the front door. It won’t be a complete pattern.”

“Jude. It’s not up to us to alter the plans; we follow them.” That wasn’t strictly accurate, but he didn’t want to give Jude the impression that he had license to get creative.

“I get that, but I’m telling you, something’s not right. Check with Bill to be sure. He’ll be mad if we finish this the way it is. We’ll have to redo the whole job.”

Uncertain but unwilling to discourage Jude’s interest in the work, Shannon nodded. “I’ll check. But if he says that’s the way it’s gotta be, we do it.”

“It’ll still be wrong,” he heard Jude mutter as he walked away.

Bill listened to what Shannon had to say, a hint of impatience in his eyes when he realized the objection came from Jude. “If this is his way of getting a break while you talk to me…”

“I don’t think so. He’s bent out of shape over it. Remember how that guy Lorenzo could tell if something was a sixteenth too short by eye and raised hell if anyone argued with him? It was like that.”

Bill beckoned to him. “Gimme the damn plans.” He studied them in silence, then tapped the date at the bottom. “Why’re you using these? They’re out of date. Got a new set in at the end of last week when the measurements for the lobby changed. Girl in the office was supposed to hand them out to everyone affected.”

“Then she missed me.” Shannon didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, but he wasn’t taking the blame for something that wasn’t his responsibility. Not when Julie was too busy texting her boyfriend to do her job properly.

“Here, let me get my copy. No, better yet, I’ll find yours.” Bill had a desk in the Portacabin next to Julie’s but preferred to be outside with the crew. He walked away, leaving Shannon to stretch an aching back. Did Rory do massages? God, he could go for one right about now, strong fingers digging into tight muscles and drawing out the tension.

Except tonight was Rory’s night with his friends, and after being together for weeks, Shannon was still waiting on an invitation. He’d established that Micah used to go to the standing Thursday dinner, so he wasn’t sure why he didn’t qualify.

Being used for sex sounded great in theory. In practice, it was doing a number on his self-esteem.

He took his new copy of the plans over to Jude and showed him. “So the good news is, you were right. They made some changes, and I didn’t get the newest version until now. The bad news is, we’re gonna have to adjust the measurements of the patio on the left side there.”

“We’ll have to take apart some of what we’ve already done.” Jude took the printout from him and studied it thoughtfully. “Not the whole thing. This section here can stay. We’ll need that machine again… What was it called?”

“Compactor.” Shannon clapped Jude on the shoulder, gently, aware that the other man was slighter than most he interacted with. “Good job.”

Jude beamed. “Thanks. If we’re quick, I don’t think we’ll lose too much time. I can stay an extra half hour at the end of the day if it helps.”

“We’ll see how it goes.”

How it ended up going was slowly, since they had to spend an extra hour and a half replotting the patio area and tamping it down—though he was able to show Jude how to use the plate compactor, a skill that would come in handy in the future, assuming Jude stuck around—and then rebuild the brick pattern on the left-hand side. Still, by five o’clock, they’d caught up to where they’d been when Jude discovered the mistake.

“Good thing you realized it when you did,” Shannon told Jude again as they wrapped up.

“It’s a thing I can do. See stuff like that.” Jude took off his hard hat and ruffled his hair. “Okay? I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“On time.” He didn’t make it a question. Give Jude wiggle room, and he did exactly that. Give him limits and expectations set in stone, and it seemed like he accepted them and adapted.

Shannon was under no illusions he could handle Jude better than Rory based on such a short time with the guy, but maybe he had an objectivity Rory lacked.

That, or he was patting himself on the back because that way he could pretend he was good for more than fucking Jude’s brother raw.

Irritated by his growing resentment at being compartmentalized, he called Rory after walking Tank and taking a quick shower. In that order. Walks with Tank tended to leave him muddy and sweaty.

They usually texted, but for this, he wanted to hear Rory’s voice. Seeing his expression would’ve been even better. Or would it? Could he handle watching Rory’s gaze shift, a telltale flush rising as he blurted out an excuse?

“Shannon? What’s wrong? Is it Jude?”

Jesus, the man had to ease back on the worrying. “No, he’s fine. Needs to be more punctual, but he spotted something wrong today and saved me a shitload of work, so he’s in my good books.”

“That’s great. Not about being late, though. Maybe I could swing by the house and pick him up in the morning. It’d mean getting up an hour earlier, but—”

“Are you nuts? No. He can handle getting here himself.”

“Since he doesn’t have the motorcycle anymore, he’s stuck with that junker car. It doesn’t start half the time. I could look into cosigning a loan for him so he could get something better.”

“Rory. Stop.”

A sigh told him Rory had gotten the message. “Okay. Anyway, if you weren’t calling about Jude…what’s up?”

“I was hoping I could see you tonight.” It wasn’t quite as direct as asking to be invited along to the friends’ dinner.

Apparently he’d need to be that direct, because Rory didn’t get it. “I have my regular Thursday night thing. Sometimes it runs late, and I have an early meeting tomorrow. But I guess you’re working tomorrow night. Shit. Our schedules are a challenge to coordinate.”

“True,” Shannon agreed. “And we could wait and hang out on Sunday like we’d planned. Or…”

Rory waited for him to finish, then said, “Or?”

“Or you could invite me to come along tonight. For fuck’s sake, I’m not begging to be included.” Except that was what he’d done. Apparently he wasn’t as proud as he’d thought.

“God! Yes, come with me. The only reason I didn’t ask before was because I thought you wouldn’t want to. You have your own friends; why would you want to have dinner with mine?”

Unwilling to expose himself as needy, Shannon didn’t point out that when people were seeing each other, they shared friends as well as bodily fluids. “I’d like to meet them.”

“It’s Indian tonight, and we made a reservation, but there are five of us and the table will seat six, so that’s not a problem. And don’t worry if you don’t like spicy food; there’s plenty on the menu that’s mild, and the naans are to die for.”

“If it isn’t still mooing, baaing, or clucking, I can eat it.”

“And there’s a page of vegetarian options if you’re feeling adventurous.”

The mischief in Rory’s voice had Shannon smiling, relaxing for the first time since making the call. “I get plenty adventurous with you in bed.” Or up against a wall, or over the kitchen table…

“You can get as wild as you want with me.”

Was that a hint? A complaint disguised as a suggestion? Time to up his game. He didn’t want to lose Rory by being boring. Somewhere over the short time they’d been together, Rory had gone from intriguing to an addiction. Why, he didn’t know. He missed him on the days they didn’t see each other, felt a tingle of anticipation build to a sizzle knocking on Rory’s door. And that first kiss was always like coming home, key sliding into a lock built to take it.

Meeting Rory’s needs got easier every time too. Sometimes he wasn’t sure he wanted the slow, sweet lovemaking he’d pictured. Not if it cost him Rory—wild, gasping, a writhing, needy mess of lust and passion, taking every thrust as if the hard fucking was air and water to him.

“I’m working tomorrow at the club, but why don’t you drop by? It’s not far from where you live, and if I give you my break schedule, we could hang out for half an hour.”

“No offense, but I’m not a fan of clubs, and I’d feel weird going in on my own.”

“When I said we’d hang out, I meant I’d find a way to blow your mind like I did the first time. Pretty sure you wouldn’t want a friend along for that.”

How he’d blow Rory’s mind he wasn’t sure, but he had time to work out the details. They didn’t matter. The sucked-in breath, the stammer from Rory, all eagerness now, that mattered. “Okay. You talked me into it.” As if that wasn’t obvious. “Do you want me to come pick you up?”

“Now? No, I can meet you there.”

He thought about changing his shirt—he’d thrown on a T-shirt when he got out of the shower—but decided not to. Rory’s friends would like him or not based on who he was, not what he wore.

* * * * *

It was hard not to cringe over the truck’s loud exhaust as he pulled into the parking lot and saw Rory waiting for him. Pity Earl couldn’t fix the muffler this week and they’d had to put it off until Monday.

“Hi,” Rory said as he got out. “I figured I’d spare you the part where you had to walk in alone.”

“Thanks.” Shannon glanced at his phone to check the time. “At least we’re not late.”

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Rory was wearing a button-down shirt and khakis that had probably been pressed at the beginning of the day, though they showed signs of wrinkles now. Part of Shannon wished they could go somewhere alone so he could peel those classy clothes off Rory and reveal the man underneath, the man who wasn’t as proper on the inside as he looked on the outside. His Rory. “I texted the group and let them know you were coming.”

“You said sometimes people bring—” Shannon didn’t want to say “significant others” because that would imply more of a relationship between them than he thought Rory was ready for.

“Boyfriends or girlfriends? Yeah.”

“Is that what I am? Your boyfriend?” He hadn’t planned to ask, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

They walked toward the building, but Rory turned and looked at him, brow furrowed. “Do you not want to be?”

“We haven’t talked about it.”

“We’ve had other stuff to do.”

“It wouldn’t have been a long conversation,” Shannon pointed out. “Why don’t we have it now so we know where we stand before I meet your friends?”

The frown seemed to have settled in for a long stay. “If it matters to you.” He straightened up, assuming an air of formality, clearly humoring Shannon. “Dear Shannon, please can we make this an actual relationship, yours sincerely, Rory.”

Not bothering to answer in kind, Shannon said, “Yes.”

“Well, okay then.”

Shannon intercepted Rory, who was edging toward the sidewalk and the restaurant door. “So we’re, uh, exclusive?”

Rory paused, and the frown returned, along with a suspicious, wary look Shannon didn’t like. “We always were, as far as I was concerned.”

“Me too,” Shannon said hastily. “Just checking. You’re it. The one and only.”

“Glad to hear it. Can we go in now? I’m starving.”

Shannon wasn’t. His hunger had become a roiling ball of nerves. This was a stupid idea. No, a good one, but he should’ve flipped it and introduced Rory to Dex and Luis first. Home-field advantage and Dex knew Rory already, so it would’ve been stress free.

The Grain of Salt was classy, with dark-red wallpaper and wooden flooring, the wide planks stained black. The pictures on the walls were bright with jewel colors, showing Indian scenery. Shannon liked the one by the reception desk featuring an elephant calmly uprooting a tree. It reminded him of work. The plaintive music was less appealing, but it was turned low.

A tall man, smiling a welcome, greeted Rory by name, giving Shannon a friendly nod. “Your friends are here.”

“Hi, Sanjay. I see them.”

Three people were already at a table near the window: two men, and a woman with dark hair tipped pale blonde. The woman raised her hand when she saw Rory.

“That’s Keri. She and Tom are a couple—they’ve been together for years,” Rory explained, but they’d already arrived at the table in the amount of time it had taken to say that much. “And that’s Christopher. Guys, this is Shannon Ware, my new boyfriend.”

“Hey,” Shannon said, even more uncomfortable than he’d already been with all three of them checking him out.

There was a moment of silence, surprise showing on three faces. No hostility, but definite shock.

“Boyfriend? Since when?” Keri pushed her chair back like she was trying to decide whether to get up and hug Rory or maybe punch Shannon. It was hard to tell. No, he was overreacting, had to be.

Sanjay melted away, giving them time to settle down, and Rory gestured at an empty chair, seemingly oblivious to anyone’s discomfort. “Why don’t you sit there, Shannon. Since five minutes ago. We signed an agreement in the parking lot. It hasn’t been notarized yet, of course.”

“Ha-ha, you’re hilarious.” Tom rolled his eyes. “Hi, Shannon. Nice to meet you. Spenser texted me to say he’s running late.”

“Good. At least it’s not me this time.” Rory sat, and Shannon eased himself down into a chair that seemed too fragile for his bulk. “Could we have two Kingfishers, please?” Rory asked the waitress who came over to check on them. “Don’t worry, you’ll like it,” he told Shannon.

“You’re drinking?” Keri screeched, as if it was front-page news. Shannon decided he didn’t like her. “You never drink and drive.”

“One with as much food as I plan on eating won’t hurt,” Rory said, placating her instead of telling her to mind her own damn business.

Shannon noticed Keri had made serious inroads into her beer and wasn’t too surprised when she called the waitress back to ask for another.

“It’s good to meet you, Shannon.” Christopher extended his hand across the table, and Shannon shook it, so on edge he squeezed harder than he’d intended.

“Sorry, Chris. Didn’t mean to do that. Nervous, I guess.”

Christopher grinned and waved aside Shannon’s apology. “I’m sure I’ll regain use of it in time to pick up a fork. And I say this to everyone, so don’t take offense, but it’s Christopher, not Chris. If it was good enough for Marlowe, it’s good enough for me.”

“Christopher’s doctoral thesis is on the Baconian question,” Tom put in. “You know, did Bacon write the plays, not Shakespeare. It’s been done to death, but he thinks he has a new spin on it. Anything you ever wanted to know about the Bard of Avon? Ask him. And he’s got a man crush on Marlowe. Thinks he was the Elizabethan 007. Ignore the full-name crap. Marlowe called himself Kit, after all, and he knows it.”

“Maybe Shannon doesn’t know what in heaven and earth we’re talking about,” Keri said with a glance at him under lowered lashes.

Hamlet, Act One, Scene Five,” Christopher said and pretended to yawn, prompting an outbreak of chuckles that even Rory contributed to, though he broke off quickly.

“Sorry. We’ve gotten into the habit of working Shakespeare quotations into the conversation, hoping to stump Christopher. That one was way too easy.”

Lost, uncomfortable, and wishing he were somewhere else, anywhere else, Shannon manufactured a polite smile. “Sounds like fun.”

For people with the most fucked-up definition of the word ever.

Rory sniffed his hands and grimaced. “I used strawberry-scented soap at the office, and it’s all I can smell. I’m going to wash it off. Order my usual, will you?”

Shannon wanted to follow him, but he told himself to man up and make nice.

The waitress came back, thank God, and everyone else ordered with barely a glance at the menu, including appetizers and naan for the table, while Shannon tried to make a quick decision to avoid holding them up. “Um, I’ll have the coconut soup and the goat vindaloo.”

“Goat? Really?” Tom sucked in his breath, head tilted to the side. “You strike me as more of a traditionalist. I expected you to go for chicken.”

“Never had it before. It’s good to try new things.” Shannon wasn’t putting on a front, but he made an effort to sound nonchalant.

“Is that what you’re doing with Rory?” Keri held up her hands. “Sorry. That came out wrong. Blame it on the beer.”

“You’re wondering what he sees in me? Or me in him?” He shrugged. “We click. It’s that simple.”

“He’s still getting over Micah.” There was as much appeal as warning in her voice. “Don’t do anything to leave him hurting.”

“Not planning on it.” Fucking him raw didn’t count.

Rory came back to the table, and the conversation cut off abruptly. “Did you order? Thanks. What did you get, Shannon?”

“Vindaloo.”

“Vindaloo’s pretty hot.” Rory grinned at him. “You might need another beer.”

He might need another half dozen to make it through the next couple of hours with his sanity intact, but he doubted Rory would be too crazy about having to take care of him if he got drunk. “I like spicy.” That was true enough; he ate Mexican all the time, and Luis’s mom made some pork dish with a habanero sauce and pickled red onions hot enough that his mouth burned and his eyes watered. He could take a little Indian spice.

“So, Shannon, what do you do?” Keri asked. “Or should I channel Sherlock and deduce it?”

“You could try, but why bother? It’s not a secret. Construction. And I play bouncer a couple of nights a week at Calypso, but that’s for fun.”

“You own a business?”

Did he look like a suit? No. And she knew it. No one was being rude, but he sensed them closing ranks. “I work on a construction team as a bricklayer. The company’s Bennet and Sons. We’re pretty well known around town.”

Tom nodded. “My friend’s an architect, and he did some work with your company a year back.”

Nice of him to phrase it that way, as if Shannon was management, not a lowly crew member.

Two men arrived at the table, preventing anyone from asking him his shoe size or thoughts on climate control. Shannon glanced up, smiling, prepared for round two of the grilling.

The man on the left, a redhead with a striped scarf wound around his neck twice and still falling to his knees, returned his smile. “Well, who do we have here? Nice to meet you. I’m Spenser.”

Nice to meet you. They all said that, but did they mean it?

At Spenser’s side was a man with a wild tangle of blond hair and a scowl.

“Micah.” Rory said it like he’d been punched in the gut and had the wind knocked out of him. Even if Shannon had never heard Rory’s ex’s name, he would have known there’d been something between them.

“No, Rory, this is Micah,” Spenser said patiently, pointing at the blond. Was that supposed to be funny? “We all know him already, remember? I was talking about the hot new guy. Introduce me?”

When Rory didn’t answer right away, Shannon pushed his chair back and stood, holding out his hand. “Shannon. Not the new guy. New boyfriend. And thanks, but I’m taken.”

Spenser shook his hand and winked at him. “Rory’s moved on? This is interesting.”

“That’s one word for it,” Micah said. “Hi, everyone. Thought I’d join you for once. Sorry I’ve missed a few weeks. You know how it is when you’re adjusting to something major in your life. Or maybe you don’t, Rory.”

What the hell did that mean? Shannon’s sister had once been into reading auras. According to her, his was orange, showing he was creative, friendly, and brave. If she’d been in the restaurant, after punching out everyone at the table for making her brother feel bad, she’d have gone for puke green with spikes or something.

“I—” Rory fell silent, gaze on the table, shoulders hunched.

“Nowhere for me to sit,” Micah announced. “Shannon’s in my usual spot.”

And that did it. Shannon’s hold on his temper slipped away, leaving him a simmering mass of fury. He’d never taken an instant dislike to someone before. So this was what it felt like. Not that he showed it. Any steam coming out of his ears was metaphorical. He sat, not offering to give up his chair—you snooze, you lose—and took a long drink of his beer, closing himself off from the building hostility emanating from Micah. Not bad, but not much body to it.

“We can pull over that table next to us,” Rory offered.

“But then I’m facing no one,” Micah objected. “I hate that.”

“Sit at the end,” Shannon said. “At the head of the table. Then you can look down on all of us, not just me.”

No one responded for what felt like way too long.

“Or I could leave. You know, if me being here is throwing things out of whack.”

“No.” Rory reached out and caught his hand in a tight grip. “If anyone has a problem with Shannon being here, I’m gone too.”

“None of us have a problem,” Keri said with a glare at Micah. “We’re glad to see you happy.”

Relief flooded Shannon, so strong a force that he missed Micah’s response.

“Okay,” Rory said. “Then play nice, Micah. Because I won’t hang around if this gets messy. It’s not worth it to me.” He sounded stern, no-nonsense, like he wouldn’t put up with any crap. Shannon wanted to kiss him. With tongue. Maybe even dip him.

“Sorry,” Micah said with as much sincerity as a politician promising to make the world a better place.

Breaking the tension, the waitress came back with the appetizers, including Shannon’s soup. Young and pretty, her brown eyes sparkled as if she enjoyed her work.

“More people! Welcome, sit. Do you want me to have another table moved over?”

Micah shook his head and stole a chair from the nearest empty table. He seemed chastened, which was an improvement on asshole, but he stared at Rory too much for Shannon’s liking. Spenser and Micah ordered food without looking at the menu, and under the cover of their conversation with the waitress, Rory murmured to Shannon, “Do you want another beer?”

“Better not,” Shannon said, patting Rory’s knee.

“Funny,” Micah said without turning his head. “I thought men like you could handle their drinks.”

Rory’s show of support had doused Shannon’s temper, and the soup smelled great, so he didn’t rise to the bait. “I weigh two-twenty. Trust me, I can handle a couple of beers. If I got pulled over, I wouldn’t even blow a .05.”

Tom chimed in then, talking quickly as if to drown out any response from Micah. “Speaking of being pulled over, I got ticketed this week for making an illegal left on Dixon. New sign’s gone up. No turning between three and six on weekdays. That’s the route home for me!”

“That sucks.” Shannon was genuinely sympathetic. “I know where you mean. It caught a guy on my crew, and he’s planning a letter to the local paper to protest.”

“Written in crayon?” Micah asked under his breath.

Spenser sighed. “Micah, unless you want to walk home, behave. Last warning.”

Shannon ignored the gibe, which earned him a return pat from Rory, much higher up on his leg than his knee.

Micah leaned in, blue eyes wide and innocent. “So how did you two lovebirds meet?”

“I bought a bike off him,” Shannon said when Rory stayed silent.

“Oh, you’re one of Jude’s friends.” Micah glanced around the table with a smile that said he understood everything. “That makes so much more sense.”

“Not really,” Shannon said. “I know Jude now, sure, in fact he works with me, but I didn’t know him before I bought the bike.”

Micah reached over and stole a samosa off Rory’s plate. “Whatever,” he said dismissively.

Shannon saw an opening and decided to take it, aware he might regret the decision later. “You don’t like Jude?”

“No one likes Jude,” Micah said, then caught sight of Rory’s face and recanted. “God, that came out wrong. I meant, he ends up being the center of a lot of drama. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be. He can’t help it.”

Rory hadn’t moved, was still holding his fork frozen over his plate.

“I’m sorry,” Micah said.

“You should be,” Shannon told him.

“No one needs your thoughts on the matter.” Micah dropped the stolen samosa he’d only eaten half of onto his plate. “I was apologizing to Rory, not you.”

“What crawled up your ass and died?” Shannon asked, deliberately blunt. “You don’t know me, and I’m sure you’re too damn liberal and tolerant to judge me on my looks, so the only crime I’ve committed in the five minutes we’ve known each other is to be the man your ex is with. Was he supposed to tie a knot in it once you’d ditched him and never have sex again?”

“What? That’s ridiculous! No, of course not. We want to see Rory with someone again. But someone like us.” Micah glanced around the table again as if seeking approval and support from his friends. He’d done it a few times, and it made Shannon wonder how secure he was. Judging by the frowns, he wasn’t speaking for anyone at the table but himself. “Educated. Presentable. Not some greasy biker who’ll get him in trouble and be a bad influence.”

“You only just fucking met me,” Shannon growled. “I hold down two jobs, I’ve never had so much as a parking ticket, and I got Jude a job he’s doing well at instead of looking down on him. Plus, I make Rory happy. Tell me one thing on that list that’s a problem.”

“You’re not good enough for him,” Micah said. “I mean, look at you. That beard? Your clothes? And the muscles don’t impress me.”

“Who the fuck are you to judge?” Rory shoved back his chair but didn’t stand. “You’re the one who broke up with me; why do you care all of a sudden who I’m with?”

Keri reached across the table to take Rory’s hand, but there was too much distance between them. “Rory, don’t listen to Micah. He’s upset because he hoped you two could maybe get back together. He’s showing it in an awful way, but he cares about you. We all do.” She sounded sorry, as if she’d realized how far out of hand things had gotten. “We want you to be happy.”

“Then maybe start by asking me if I’m happy! This used to be my favorite night of the week. Now I’m thinking I ought to replace it with something else entirely.”

Since Rory had found his voice, Shannon kept quiet, waiting to see how this would play out. He wanted to think it wouldn’t end in the sudden loss of the boyfriend he’d so recently acquired.

Christopher muttered something to Spenser under his breath. Rory didn’t fail to notice it. “What? I’m pretty sure we all want to hear it, Christopher.”

Flushed, Christopher said, “I told him it might not have been the best idea to bring Micah along, knowing how things ended between the two of you.”

“Okay, first of all,” Spenser said, directing his words at Rory, “I didn’t know you were bringing your new boyfriend. Second, if there was a memo about keeping you and Micah apart, I never got it, so that’s not my fault either.”

That seemed fair enough, but Shannon wasn’t in the mood to grant points to what felt like the opposition. Nothing would make this meeting anything but a disaster, and he hated how his insecurities had led to Rory being hurt and at odds with his friends.

He pulled out his wallet, took out thirty bucks, and placed them on the table. “That should cover my bill and share of the tip. Enjoy the goat.” Rising, he rested his hand on Rory’s shoulder, part reassurance, part holding him in place. “Rory, you stay. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“You don’t get to give him orders,” Micah said sharply, interrupting Rory’s protest.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Shannon slammed his hands on the table and got in Micah’s face, wryly amused at the flinch he got. Funny how he didn’t feel big and scary. More like a bullied kid in need of a security blanket to hug. “You want to pick a fight so you can call the cops on me for beating you up? Not going to happen. I might not know much about Shakespeare, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking I’m stupid.”

He strode from the table before anyone could protest—or not, maybe no one would bother—but risked a glance back when he reached the door. Rory was still sitting there, his back to him, leaning over the table and saying something Shannon was too far away to hear.

That told him everything he needed to know.

Or so he thought. He’d barely been home fifteen minutes, sprawled out on the couch, pretending to watch the hockey game with Dex and Luis, Tank settled on the floor with a rawhide, when the doorbell rang.

“Last one home gets it,” Dex said, not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Since when?” Shannon asked. “No one ever comes here!” That wasn’t strictly true, but since he was barely paying attention to the game anyway, he got up and went to open the door. On the other side stood Rory, in the dark, since Shannon had forgotten to turn the outside light on when he got home. He quickly flicked the light switch, and Rory blinked.

“Hi.”

“Hi. Um. How did you get here?” He’d wondered if Rory remembered where he lived after one visit some time ago.

“Never underestimate the power of GPS,” Rory said.

“That’s only slightly creepy.” Shannon stepped back, unsure of where this was headed, too churned up from the dinner to trust himself to react reasonably. “Want to come in? Or is this the official delivery of the breakup notice, in which case, don’t bother.”

“I want to talk to you,” Rory said. “That doesn’t mean you have to invite me in.”

“It’s too cold to stand outside without a jacket, and I do. Already hit my rudeness quota for the day. Come in.”

Luis and Dex provided the perfect example of how to behave when their friend introduced them to a new love interest, giving Rory casual, but welcoming, waves and offering him a beer and the bowl of chips before he’d crossed the threshold.

“Cancel the chips,” Dex ordered. “This is the guy who knows all the crap that’s in them, isn’t that right?”

“Yes,” Rory said, taking a handful. “Which means I can tell you what makes them taste so good.”

Dex chuckled and headed for the kitchen. “Beer, beer, or beer?”

“Hate to be fussy, but could I have a beer?”

“I like this one,” Luis said cheerfully and made room on the couch. “Sit and tell me if Dex is lying about what he can bench-press. Anytime I’m at the gym with him, he makes some excuse why he can’t prove it, like an ingrown hangnail or the weights are too round.”

“I’m only there as a nutritional advisor,” Rory told him. “I don’t go into the weight room often.”

“Damn. The lie still stands,” Luis said, getting a smack on the head from Dex along with a fresh beer.

Shannon grabbed the armchair, not because he didn’t want to sit next to Rory, but because he didn’t trust himself to keep his hands off the man. He was torn between the desire to hug him or shake him. Or spank him. After a night like this, it had a certain appeal.

He admired the way Rory accepted their conversation wouldn’t happen until after the game. He could’ve taken Rory into his room for some privacy, but why the hell should Rory get to dictate what happened? Let him wait.

Though as the game dragged on, the appealing glances Rory sent his way—face flushed, biting his lip, fidgeting with his half-empty beer—made waiting a shared torture.

When second intermission rolled around, he took pity on both of them and stood. “Come upstairs for a minute.”

“He wants to show you his etchings,” Dex said, snickering, and Shannon threw a cushion at his head. “Ow! Jeez, sorry.”

“Yeah, you’re sorry, all right.” Shannon led Rory up the stairs, glad for once that Tank was half-asleep and disinclined to follow, then into his room, shutting the door behind them. Before he could start the conversation, Rory shoved him against the wall and kissed him.

“Thank you.”

Shannon blinked and wiped his mouth. “What for? Inviting myself where I didn’t belong, arguing with your ex, walking out before dinner even arrived? Pick one.”

“Standing up for me. I know Micah was an asshole tonight, and I won’t blame you if you don’t believe me that he’s not always like that. He was in rare form.” Rory was pressed against him, still wearing his dress shirt.

“Were you wearing a tie?” Shannon asked.

Rory looked puzzled. “Earlier?”

“Way earlier. Like, for work?” He hadn’t seen Rory before or immediately after work yet, so he didn’t know what his usual office clothes consisted of.

“No. I don’t usually wear a— Wait, why?”

Hooking his finger inside the top edge of Rory’s shirt, Shannon tugged him in until their mouths touched. “I can think of some fun things we could do with a tie, Doc.”

Rory froze in place, breathing suspended for a moment, before making an eager sound nowhere near a word.

“Or more than one. Because you need a lesson in patience, going by the way you were wriggling your ass on the couch downstairs. You think you can walk in during the game and expect me to drop everything to see to your needs?”

“That’s not why I came.” God, that anxious, pleading look got to him, rousing a darkness he didn’t know he had. Or maybe it was his hurt speaking up, demanding retribution.

“Liar.” Shannon grabbed Rory’s wrists and pinned them against the wall over Rory’s head, spread wide. “No ties. But I guess this works.” He kicked Rory’s feet apart, then used his body to hold Rory against the wall, a broken-winged butterfly. “Stop struggling, Doc.”

“Let me go.” It was a whisper, the three words cancelled out by the complete lack of resistance in Rory’s body, every muscle pliant as far as Shannon could tell. “Please. They’ll hear.”

“Hear what? Me teaching you to behave?”

“I’m not— You don’t need to—”

“Could get a hammer and nail up a few hooks on this wall. Wouldn’t take a minute. Tie your wrists and ankles the way they are now and call the boys up here to watch me open up your pants and pull out your dick, all nice and hard.”

Rory shook his head, shaping a no, eyes wide, shocked. By the idea or how he reacted to it? Because that was one solid erection he was packing.

And this was Shannon’s power play; this was his trump card. None of those fuckers in the restaurant could give Rory this. Didn’t know he wanted it even, that was how little they understood him. Not even Micah, that limp-dicked asshole.

He roughened his voice, made it strong, compelling, Rory soaking up every word like dry earth taking in rain. “But why should they miss the game? Maybe I’ll play with you until you come in your pants instead, too impatient to wait for me to pull them down. Yeah. I’d tell you to go fetch me a beer and make you walk past them, stinking of spunk, big stain spreading, cum dripping down your leg. They’re not like your fucking friends. They wouldn’t laugh at you. They know it’s not easy being a slut. They’d make you stand in front of them so they could see for themselves what a dirty, messy boy you were, maybe slap your ass or squeeze your cock to see if it was still hard, and I bet it would be, but they wouldn’t laugh.”

“N-no.”

“No?” Shannon released one wrist, freeing his hand so he could illustrate by grabbing Rory’s erection through his slacks. “You trying to tell me you’re not hard? Because I don’t want to hear any more lies out of you.”

Rory’s eyes searched his, desperate. “I don’t want that.”

“Yeah, you do.” Shannon gave Rory’s balls a twist, not enough to cause real pain but enough to make him whine. “We both know you want it.” He let go but didn’t step back. “I’m not gonna give it to you.”

“You’re—” Rory swallowed and grimaced. “You’re not?”

Shaking his head, Shannon said, “Not tonight. Tonight I want you to go home hard. I want you to go to sleep hard, and tomorrow morning, I want you to wake up hard. And every time you notice that ache and wish you could come, I want you to think about me and how I’m the one who gets to decide when. I make that call. Not you.”

Part of him wondered if he was taking the game too far, but the relief on Rory’s face, as if the rules were what he’d been hoping for, reassured him.

“The answer I’m looking for here is something along the lines of yes,” he prompted.

“Yes. I understand.”

Shannon allowed himself the pleasure of giving Rory’s cock one long, last squeeze. “Good. Now go downstairs, say good night to my friends, and go home.”

Rory drew in a shaky breath and nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the club?” The “please” was unspoken.

Shannon nodded. “I’ll text you when I know what time my break is. Now do as I told you.”

Letting him leave without kissing him one more time was difficult, but not as gut-wrenching as being the one walking away earlier had been.

Chapter Eight

Calypso was packed when Rory arrived, dressed in tight black jeans and a plain white T-shirt. The air was cool, but he knew it would be too hot inside to make a jacket a good idea, so he’d left his in his car and made the short walk from the lot with anticipation warming him.

Shannon’s break was due to start in ten minutes. Time for him to join the line, pass by Shannon’s assessing gaze, then go inside and wait for Shannon to find him.

Part of him loved the idea of evading Shannon and paying the penalty when Shannon tracked him down, but Shannon’s break was thirty minutes, and he didn’t want to waste that time. He’d position himself where Shannon could see him, not scared prey but willing sacrifice.

The waking hours since he’d left Shannon’s house had been spent in futile attempts to wipe the scene in the bedroom from his mind. He’d seen clients, chatted to coworkers, even called his mom and listened to her enthuse over Jude’s improved attitude, and it’d been surface ripples, nothing more. Deep down lay a dark well of arousal, unstirring, waiting for the rock that was Shannon to disturb it. He could submerge himself in those depths soon.

Or, to put it bluntly, the way Shannon would, he’d get his mind blown and his balls emptied.

God, he hoped Shannon let him come.

Shannon was checking IDs at the door, so Rory got out his wallet. Barely glancing at the ID, Shannon instead leaned in close and murmured, “I want to see you on the dance floor when I come in.”

Jesus. Rory could have been asked to take off his shirt—in a club where everyone was fully clothed, except for the young woman in the top that looked more like a bra—and he would have felt less on display. He wasn’t a dancer. He couldn’t dance. He could shift his weight back and forth from one foot to the other in something approximating rhythm, and he could slow dance if all he had to do was shuffle in a circle with his arms around someone, but that was the best he could do. Having to do it in the middle of a dance floor with dozens of people, none of whom he knew, was, frankly, terrifying.

On the other hand, he was sure that if Shannon came inside and discovered he wasn’t obeying orders, his night wouldn’t end the way he hoped.

The club was on two levels, a balcony running around the vast, dark space, and with a noise level that slammed into him like a blow. The beat resonated in his chest, his heart pounding with it. High overhead, spotlights spun giddily, sending shafts of multicolored lights across the heaving mass of bodies on the dance floor.

The air was ripe with sweat and dense with heat. He inhaled, adjusting to the environment, mouth dry with excitement, nervous but insulated by Shannon’s proximity. His friends saw Shannon as dangerous and had told him so at the restaurant until he’d lost patience and walked away. He saw him as a shield.

He stepped out onto the dance floor, joining all the people who clearly knew what they were doing when he hadn’t the slightest clue. The song playing was one he’d heard before, though he didn’t know the singer. The lyrics were a blur, but the chorus of “Give it, give it up, up; Give it up, up, baby” was yelled out by everyone around him, hands punching the air, so he at least knew that much. After a few awkward movements, he bumped into someone; he turned to apologize, but everyone had already danced into another spot, and if whoever it was had even noticed, they gave no indication.

“Hi!” A tall, slender woman with brown hair twisted into a braid moved closer, yelling into his ear. “I’m Olive! Like on Popeye?”

Rory had no idea what she was talking about. “Okay. I’m Rory.”

She nodded, eyes unfocused, as if the answer had slid into her brain and out, leaving no trace. Winding her arms around his neck, she began a slow dance with no connection to the music playing, which was now a frenetic bass beat with no words.

If Shannon found him like this, it wouldn’t start the night off well. Rory grabbed her hands and broke the embrace, keeping hold for a moment, and smiling to soften the rejection.

She pouted, then smiled back. “I’m happy tonight!”

“Good.” He hated carrying on a conversation at this volume, missing half of what was said and straining his throat. “Any reason? Is it your birthday?”

“It is! Want to share what I got? Then it can be your birthday too.” She held out her hand, showing him a round purple tablet stamped with a design he couldn’t make out in the lights.

Ecstasy, most likely. He’d never taken anything more potent than cold-and-flu meds, and he planned to keep it that way. She pushed the tab at him, and he hesitated. Take it and dispose of it? Refuse and hope she didn’t do anything stupid when her high wore off, like taking more?

Shit. With the sense of walking into a trap, he took it off her and brought his hand to his mouth, pretending to swallow the pill.

Someone yanked him hard, spinning him around so the tablet fell to the ground, crunched to powder a moment later by a booted foot. Shannon’s boot.

The shock and disbelief on Shannon’s face hurt to see.

“Come with me,” Shannon said grimly. He hadn’t let go of Rory’s upper arm and used his grip to drag him off the dance floor, down a hallway, and into a room that seemed to be an office, kicking the door shut behind them. “What the hell was that about?”

Rory refused to let himself feel defensive. “I went on the dance floor—like you told me to—and that woman decided I’d have a better time if she gave me a happy pill like the one she’d taken. I figured if I let her give it to me, it’d be one less for her to take later. I intended to slip it into my pocket when she wasn’t looking, not swallow it. I’m not that stupid. You know I’m not.”

Loosening his grip on Rory’s arm, Shannon exhaled slowly out his nose, then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. Sorry.” He rubbed knuckles across his eyebrow. “Give me a minute. There’s protocol for stuff like this, and I can’t let it go. I’ll be right back.”

“What if”—Shannon had already disappeared into the hallway, so Rory finished saying—“someone who works here comes in and wants to know what the fuck I’m doing?” to an empty room.

It was definitely somebody’s office. A large desk took up one wall, with a computer on it and a wire tray full of paperwork. Another wall held a filing cabinet, spray-painted dark green, with a sad-looking fern on top of it, desperately in need of watering.

He hated to think what would happen if its owner came in. There was no way his parents could handle their second son having a police record too. The idea freaked him out enough that, after a few minutes, he went back out into the hallway, where there were half a dozen doors. Two of them led to restrooms, one male, one female, and one, standing open, was a closet filled with cleaning supplies. The others were a mystery, and he wasn’t in the mood to explore. He returned to the office and fretted for a long fifteen minutes, checking his phone compulsively for a text from Shannon. Eventually, he gave in to his sympathy for the plant and watered it, using a coffee mug he rinsed and filled in the restroom. He wanted to piss, but he was too wound up to try. Nerves at breaking point, he waited another few minutes in the office, then, hearing footsteps, poked his head out.

The lighting wasn’t the best, and a shadow loomed. Rory’s heartbeat blipped, then went back to normal when he saw it was Shannon.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Shannon shuffled him back into the office, locking the door this time.

“Where have you been? What happened?”

Tersely, his expression grim, Shannon said, “The girl you were dancing with collapsed—dehydration and hyperthermia, by the look of it—so I took her to the manager’s office. She’s on her way to the hospital now, and the police will take it from there. We’ve got a good rep with them. Zero tolerance for drugs and they know it. I kept you out of it, so you won’t need to give a statement. Told my boss I noticed her weaving around and went to investigate.”

Relief swept him, making him lightheaded for a moment. “Thank God. No, thank you. For believing me and taking care of me.”

Shannon’s expression softened. “You can always trust me to do that.”

“I do.” He meant it. In any stressful situation he could picture, he wanted Shannon by his side. The man projected calm competence and strength. And hotness. So fucking hot.

“You’re off the hook officially, but if the boss checks the security cams and sees you with her, I need to cover my ass.”

“What? How?”

“Strip search, cavity search. I need to know without a shadow of doubt that you’re not carrying.”

It had to be a joke. Payback for him screwing up their brief time together. He chuckled uneasily, backing away. “That’s ridiculous. You know I’m not.”

Shannon pulled out a pair of thin, surgical gloves and gave him a cool look, lips tightening. “Undress. I won’t ask nicely again. If you struggle, I’ll call in one of my colleagues to hold you down.”

A shiver went through Rory, from his scalp all the way to his toes. For a moment, he remembered Shannon pretending to have a conversation with Dex on the phone, how convincing he’d been, and in the pit of his stomach he knew this was more of the same, but he pushed the knowledge away. It didn’t exist. This was what was real: a bouncer at a club, threatening to search him forcibly and turn him over to the cops if he didn’t cooperate.

He swallowed past a lump in his throat and reached for the hem of his T-shirt, tugging it off over his head. He let it fall to the floor next to the desk—a scared man wouldn’t worry about it getting dirty—and undid his jeans, then hesitated.

The look on Shannon’s face—stern, angry—and the sound of his words, “I won’t ask nicely again,” ringing in Rory’s ears kept him going. He slid the zipper down, the sound of it covered by the faint pulse of dance music through the closed door.

“Please don’t do this. I swear I don’t have any drugs.”

“You can swear as much as you want to,” Shannon told him. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not gonna risk being left holding the bag if it turns out you’ve been dealing in this club.”

With shaking hands, Rory did as he’d been told: he stripped to the skin, which meant he had to kick off his shoes too, until he was standing barefoot on the filthy, thin carpet, naked and about to be searched. He moaned softly, and Shannon moved in, grabbing his chin in one rough hand.

“Open your mouth.”

Heat, dizzying heat, flooded him. His cock was rigid, responding to the situation with an emphatic statement of approval. He should be asking what was wrong with him to be this turned on by rough treatment and humiliation, but questions could wait. He was enjoying this too much to be distracted.

Shannon probed his mouth, running a finger along his gums and under his tongue, then pushing two fingers slowly into his throat, choking him. His eyes watered, drool gathering, and it ceased to be a game but a reality.

“Nothing there.”

His hair came next, Shannon running his hands through it with brisk impersonality, the drag of his fingers on the sensitive skin behind Rory’s ears the only hint this was an act between lovers.

Rory stood, outwardly passive, inwardly a quivering mess. He raised his arms, spread his fingers, showed Shannon the soles of his feet, all with that insistent pulse of lust thrumming through him.

“This is where it gets fun for me, less so for you. Tell me if it hurts. I won’t stop, but I want to know.”

Please,” Rory said desperately. “Isn’t that enough?”

“You’re kidding, right?” Shannon put on the gloves with a snap of latex, then grabbed Rory’s cock, squeezing the head so the thin slit gaped wide. He peered into it, thumb passing over the head to clear the fluid spilling out. The feel of the glove, insulating him from Shannon’s skin, enhanced the sense of degradation. Shannon didn’t want to touch him directly. He was suspect, dirty. “Need a flashlight and a mirror for the next part, but I’m not leaving you to get them. Might run, huh? Like a scared little rabbit.”

“No, no, I wouldn’t. I’m innocent, I swear.” Was he supposed to offer sex to get out of what came next—the enforced squat, the rectal examination? He was right. It wasn’t a game. Not when he didn’t know the rules.

“Turn around, and put your hands on the desk.”

Cheeks burning with humiliation, Rory did as he’d been told. It was bad enough to have to do this in front of one man; the possibility that another might be called in to physically restrain him was more than he could bear.

“Spread your legs,” Shannon barked, nudging his foot with one boot. “Wider, if you know what’s good for you.” Impatient gloved hands pried his ass cheeks apart. “You hiding something in here?”

“No. No, sir.” Rory could barely get the words out.

“Have to do this without lube.” Shannon hadn’t finished muttering to himself before he pushed a dry finger into Rory’s hole, the intrusion making Rory whimper and clutch at the edge of the desk. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would risk this, no matter how much money they stood to earn selling drugs.

Shannon added a second finger, probing deep. It was clinical—no, procedural—but that didn’t stop another bead of fluid from forming at the tip of Rory’s cock, signaling his arousal.

This man could do anything to him, and he couldn’t stop it.

“Can’t get all the way in with my fingers, and God knows what you shoved up here. Tell me. What was last up this tight little ass of yours?”

When in doubt, go for the truth. “My boyfriend’s cock, sir.”

A slap landed on his ass, a bright sting of pain. “That’s for having a smart mouth,” Shannon said evenly. “I don’t care if you were at a gang bang last night with a dozen guys feeding your mouth and ass with cum. I’m interested in the drugs you’re hiding.”

“I’m not hiding anything! Haven’t you checked enough?”

“No. I’ll have to use something longer. Harder. If that doesn’t turn up anything, I guess I’ll take your word for it and let you go. Gonna be painful, though, so I need your verbal permission.”

“Yes. Do it. Please. I want to go home.” His voice broke on the last word, a genuine crack, as if the situation had gotten intense enough to fool his mind and body into accepting the danger as real.

“Home to that boyfriend of yours? Gonna tell him how the big, bad bouncer made you cry?”

“I’m not crying.” He could never give in without a fight. He wanted to be forced, not to submit.

Shannon grunted dismissively. “Might change soon. And don’t bother asking him to fuck you better. By the time I’m through stretching your ass, his needle dick won’t touch the sides.”

Rory heard the sound of Shannon’s pants being unfastened, his cock pulled out, then felt the blunt head at his hole.

“It’d serve you right if I fucked you dry,” Shannon said. “That’s what you deserve.” He threaded his still-gloved fingers through Rory’s hair and jerked his head back so he could murmur in his ear. “Rip you all up, make you bleed. Is that what you want?”

The thought of it was horrifying, in that moment as real as anything Rory could remember. “No,” he whimpered. “Please, sir. Please don’t hurt me.”

“Oh, it’s gonna hurt all right. You better hope you don’t have anything hidden up there; you’re gonna regret it if you do.” Without further warning, and with what felt like no lube, though Rory had heard the snap of a bottle, Shannon pushed into him, a slow, steady entry without pause.

He cried out, hating that the sound had been forced from him, but unable to contain it. He moved forward instinctively, bumping into the desk in his effort to escape the pain. Shannon grabbed on to his hips and held him still, going deeper until there was nowhere else to go. Rory panted, reminding himself he could breathe. Shannon’s cock filled him completely.

“If you can take all of me, guess you were telling the truth.” Shockingly, Shannon pulled out, leaving him empty. “Okay, we’re done here. Next time be careful—”

“No!” It exploded out of him, a rejection of a rejection, a demand for his prize, because he’d been good, damn it, he’d done everything right. He clenched his hands on the edge of the desk. “You can’t stop. Fuck me!”

Shannon held him down, hands strong, pushing on his shoulders. “What about your boyfriend?” The soft question struck deep, and Rory realized this was his punishment for the scene at the restaurant. Or maybe the final resolution to the god-awful mess. He’d told Shannon they were dating; then Micah had spoiled it, staking a claim. Shannon needed to know where Rory’s loyalties lay.

And he wanted to tell him.

“He won’t mind.”

“Yeah, he will. Pretty little slut like you? A man wants to keep you around. I’d keep you on a leash. Tie you to the bed so I knew where you were if I wanted to get off. He ever do that to you? Leave you there, let you listen to him watching TV or taking a shower, and all the while you’re praying he’ll remember you, open the door, use you the way you were meant to be used, then walk away and leave you hard and aching, hoping next time he’ll let you come?”

Jesus. The thought of it broke his mind into glittering shards of lust and need. He stammered out a response, playing the fantasy over in his head, words emerging from the chaos like anchor points. Waiting. Patient. Hard. Desperate. “I don’t care about him. Don’t want him. I want you.”

“Beg,” Shannon said into his ear, following it with a sucking bite to his neck that left it throbbing hotly. “Beg me to fuck you, and maybe I’ll steal you from him. Take you home, teach you to please me.”

“Fuck me, and I’ll do anything you want. Anything. Please.” In that moment, he meant it. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone.”

“Yeah?” That voice, turned on and eager, was the one Rory had been hoping to hear. “You want to belong to me?”

He nodded frantically. “Yes. Please fuck me. Own me. Please.”

“Well. Since you asked so nicely.” Shannon rubbed his cock along Rory’s hole and then pushed inside.

Rory wailed, clawing at the desk, so grateful he thought he’d explode but wanting more at the same time, not knowing if Shannon would pull out and leave him hanging again. “God. Yes.”

“Yeah. You like that, don’t you?” Setting a punishing rhythm, Shannon thrust hard enough that the desk shuddered underneath them—it was supporting most of Rory’s weight, and he was grateful for it, uncomfortable though it was to have his cock trapped against the hard surface. “You love it.”

“Love you.” He said it without thinking, words he’d expected to share in a romantic setting, on a special occasion like an anniversary. He’d never said them to any boyfriend before, and he bit hard on his lip, willing them unsaid because it was too soon, not the right time or place, and he hadn’t earned the right to have them believed. Not yet.

The hard, perfect strokes never faltered. Maybe he’d whispered the words low enough that Shannon had missed them. Then Shannon leaned over, changing the angle his cock slid through Rory’s hole so that a climax was ripped out of him with a giant hand, leaving him shuddering with pleasure.

“You’d better mean that next time you say it,” Shannon murmured against his jaw.

He nodded, incapable of speech, and felt Shannon come, a silent, intense climax, their bodies locked together.

Easing away, dressing, straightening the room; all of that would push them apart again, but for a moment, they were one, and Rory shaped it into a lasting memory to savor later.

Chapter Nine

“And citrus fruits,” Rory added. He barely needed to glance at the printed-out list before he handed it over to his newest client, a woman in her forties who’d been diagnosed with GERD. “You won’t know for sure until you’ve kept the food diary for a few weeks, but those are the most common culprits.”

“Do strawberries count?”

He shook his head. “Technically, strawberries belong to the rose family. I know, crazy, right?”

“I don’t care what family they are. I can already tell you they’re a problem. I finished off my daughter’s smoothie a couple of days ago and was up half the night drinking Gaviscon,” Liz said. She’d assured him he could call her by her first name. “I’m glad about the coffee, though.”

“Part of that’s because you drink it in the morning, but the low-acid kind will help too.”

“I’ve been trying to cut back. I’m confident about my ability to get down to one cup a day. Less than that, I can’t make any promises.”

“You don’t have to. It’s not an instant fix, but I think you’ll see enough improvement over the next week to give you hope. If you realize you have any questions in the meantime, let me know.” Rory had given her a stack of papers a quarter of an inch thick; they ought to keep her busy for a while, and if she was the client he thought she was, she’d find answers to most of her questions in that paperwork or online.

“I will. And I’ll follow all your guidelines to the letter.”

“Do your best,” he said. “Don’t get discouraged if something slips by or it’s harder than you think to cut back.”

His phone rang, not his cell, but the landline on the desk. He ignored it, but Liz stood. “No, you get that. And thanks again!”

She left with the air of a woman armed with weapons, not leaflets, and Rory smiled as he answered the phone. He loved clients like Liz, who came in determined to make changes and full of resolve. Some referrals from doctors were far more resistant, even scoffing at the idea a change in diet could have the same effect as medication.

“Rory Brennan.”

“It’s Mom.”

“Oh, hi, Mom. How’re you?” Unusual for her to call him at work or use this number. He took out his cell. Ah. Battery dead. That explained it. The charger was plugged into a socket behind him, and he fumbled to attach the lead to his cell with the other phone wedged between shoulder and head. Fluff and grit on the beige carpet caught his eye. The cleaning service was supposed to vacuum twice a week, but he’d suspected for a while they were skimping their duties. He would mention it once, then change companies if there wasn’t a visible improvement.

“I’m fine, but what’s this I hear about a new boyfriend?”

The metal end of the charger wouldn’t fit into the tiny socket on the cell. He gave up and straightened, tossing his cell phone onto the desk. “I don’t know. What do you hear?”

“Ro-ry.”

His name drawn out that way meant stop messing around with your mother and answer. Surrendering to the inevitable, he stared out of the window at a maple tree turning scarlet in a final defiant show of beauty before an autumnal gale stripped it bare. “I’m seeing Shannon, yes. For a while now. I’ve mentioned him. He bought Jude’s bike and got him the job at the construction site.”

“For which I’m grateful, but is he the sort of man you should be involved with? Micah called, and he’s concerned about you. He says this Shannon is, well, rough around the edges at best.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. Are you serious? Micah called you to tattle on me? What is he, twelve?” He’d have said he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so exasperated, but in truth it had been the other night at the restaurant.

“He was worried about you.”

“I can assure you that wasn’t the reason behind his call. Did he tell you he showed up to dinner Thursday night with Spenser?”

“Yes, and that Shannon was there. He said, well, that Shannon didn’t get along with your friends. That he started an argument.”

Rory pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead; he could feel a headache threatening and knew it was from stress. “Shannon wasn’t the one who started the argument.”

He heard his mother’s gears turning. “Honey, I’m calling to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine. Shannon’s great. It’s everyone else who’s lost their minds, apparently, and turned into judgmental snobs because of the way Shannon looks. I can’t believe Micah called you! Seriously, has he called a single time since he and I broke up?”

“Well. Just this once.” His mom sighed. “Your dad and I want to meet him.”

“Shannon? What a coincidence that all of a sudden you’re interested in him.” It was impossible to keep the sarcasm from his voice.

“That’s not fair; you know we would have wanted to meet him sooner or later. Bring him for Sunday lunch tomorrow. It’ll be the four of us since Jude has other plans, and we can get to know him. No judging. If you like him, that’s good enough for us.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable request if he didn’t factor in Micah’s interference. His parents, especially his mom, loved making his friends welcome, and his boyfriends were treated like family members as soon as they walked through the door. Now, though, it seemed like the kind of meddling that would’ve been too much when he was sixteen, let alone when he was an adult.

“I don’t know what he’s doing. He works late Friday and Saturday nights.”

“He has to eat, and you know Sunday lunch isn’t until two.”

“I’ll ask him, but if I show up by myself, no nagging.”

“I promise. And speaking of work, why are you in the office? And why weren’t you answering your cell?”

“Battery dead, new client who couldn’t make it any other time,” he explained briefly. “I wasn’t doing anything this morning, so I opened the office for an hour. Might catch up on some paperwork since I’m already here.”

“Don’t work too hard.”

“And don’t you go all out on the meal tomorrow.”

“Does Shannon have any allergies I need to know about?”

“I don’t think so. He was preparing to eat goat vindaloo when Micah threw a tantrum a three-year-old would be ashamed of.”

“Now who’s nagging?” she asked and hung up before he could formulate a reply.

His paperwork could wait. From memory, he called Micah, a simmer of anger driving him past the point of common sense.

Micah sounded cautious when he replied. “Rory? What’s going on? You usually text, not call.”

“Not since we broke up. You remember we did that, right? It hasn’t slipped your mind?”

“Don’t be silly. Look, what do you want? Because I’m headed out.”

He knew Micah’s schedule wouldn’t have changed. Saturday after lunch, he grocery-shopped. Rigid, organized shopping with a list, never giving in to the temptation to throw anything new into the cart, tutting over a price increase of a cent or two as if it mattered to him.

“You called my mom, Micah. What the hell?”

“She needed to know who you were seeing. She has enough to deal with cleaning up after Jude. I didn’t want you to add to that. We might have split up, but I’m still on good terms with your parents.”

Outrage choked him. “You make it sound as if we dated for years! You went over there about six fucking times.”

“Language. Or is this the new Rory? The Shannonified version?”

Rory sucked in a breath. It fueled his anger rather than calming it. “If you think I didn’t swear plenty when I was dating you, putting up with your crap—”

“Oh please. I ended it. You’d still be clinging to me if I hadn’t scraped you off.”

“Yeah? Then I guess I owe you. Because I’ve never been happier. You were boring, Micah. In bed and out of it. Boring, boring, bor—”

“How dare you?” Micah’s voice trembled, but Rory didn’t think for a moment it was through hurt. “I’m ending this call and blocking your number. You’re insane. Out of control. This is him speaking, not you.”

“Fuck off,” Rory said and slammed the phone down, briefly grateful his cell was charging and he’d used the landline. Pressing a button wouldn’t have been half as satisfying as that wrist-jarring slam.

He stood, pacing around his office, reaction setting in, leaving him shaking and nauseated. The things he’d said. God. And they’d felt good to say, but venting like that had left him hollow. He needed to replace the bitterness with sweet.

He needed Shannon.

And he had the perfect excuse for calling.

“Hey, Doc, how’s it going?”

Rory relaxed back in his chair, peace settling over him. “So-so. How about you?”

“I’m wet. Soaking wet. Gave Tank a bath after he rolled in mud and made the mistake of wearing clothes when I did it. He’s clean and the mud’s on me, so I’m about to hit the shower. Can I call you back?”

“Can I watch?”

“Huh?”

He was on his cell now, the charging cord stretched taut. He moved to the floor, his back against the wall, out of sight. “Take your phone with you in there, and we can do a vid call. I want to see you.”

There was a brief hesitation, but as always, Shannon seemed willing. “Okay. Give me a minute to figure things out.”

It took more than a minute for both of them to untangle the complications of technology. By the time they had, Rory was more than ready to focus on Shannon, and—he told himself—not just because he so desperately needed to think about something other than Micah.

“How’s that?” Shannon asked, stepping back from where he’d propped the phone.

“Good.” He could see the shower stall, even if it wasn’t an ideal angle. Most of his view was blocked by Shannon’s side and abdomen, the chiseled line leading down to— “Yeah, that’s good.”

Shannon had pulled down his jeans after a struggle; they were damp and muddy and seemed to want to cling to his skin. “What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t just call to chat, and I didn’t get the impression that phone sex was on the list of things that get you hot.”

“It’s not. Or it never has been. You, though. You get me hot.”

Shannon paused, thumb tucked into his briefs. Tight, black, clinging, they barely contained his huge cock, and the tease of seeing only the shape of it had Rory panting for more. “Evasions get you a nice view of the tiles. Spill, Doc.”

“I called Micah.” It was difficult to even say that name without a flare of annoyance. “Yelled at him. Swore. Told him to fuck off and hung up.”

“Don’t think I like that.” Shannon hissed out an impatient breath. “Are you sure you’re over him?”

“Yes! God, I didn’t call to hear his voice or anything like that. I called because he told my mom we were dating, as if it was any of his fucking business, told her to cause trouble, and I lost it.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. So that’s why I’m worked up. And if it’s a choice between punching the wall or jerking off, I know which one will make me feel better.”

“I could come over after my shower.”

“No. I need you now, Shannon.”

The pleading must’ve gotten through because Shannon peeled down his briefs, and the screen was filled with an image so deliciously obscene, Rory wanted to lick it.

“You’re a hard one to say no to.” Shannon turned away to twist the shower faucet to the on position, and the only thing that kept Rory from protesting was the sight of Shannon’s cock in profile, thick and half-swollen. “You know that, right? So where are you?”

“Office.” Rory swallowed and adjusted his own erection inside his pants.

“You’re alone.” It wasn’t a question. Shannon pulled the shower curtain aside and stepped under the water, cringing when it hit his skin. “C-cold.”

Rory wouldn’t have been able to guess that—his view wasn’t good enough to see something like Shannon’s nipples pebbled from the chill—but he tried to focus on the conversation. “Yeah. We’re not usually open on the weekends. Today was an exception.”

“Describe your office. The layout.”

“Um. There’s an outer waiting room; then we each have our own little room where we meet with clients.”

“You don’t call them patients. I noticed that.” Shannon’s hand moved toward the wall, then back toward his body. He rubbed a bar of soap in circles over his bare skin, and Rory ached with the need to be there with him.

“No, because I’m not a doctor.”

Shannon seemed to dismiss this comment, as he so often did. “So there’s an outer door. To a hallway? Or does it lead outside?”

“A hallway.” Rory wasn’t sure where Shannon was going with this.

“Are you sure you locked that outer door when you came in?”

He thought for a second. “No. I mean, I know I didn’t because I was meeting a client and left it unlocked for her.” Liz had shut the inner door when she left to give him privacy for his phone call with his mom, but she couldn’t have locked the outer door on her way out.

“Taking a chance, then. This isn’t me dreaming up a fantasy for you. This is real. You leave that door unlocked, and someone could walk in and find you, cock in hand, jerking off while you drool over your naked boyfriend. How does that make you feel?”

Heat washed over him, his cock rigid, pressing against his zipper. “I don’t want to get caught.”

“But you love the idea you might.” Shannon gripped his cock, working it lazily. “Get yours out. Now. Don’t take off your pants. I want your dick sticking up, your balls trapped inside.”

It was awkward, and touching himself almost triggered his climax, but he eased his erection through the slit in his boxers and the gaping zipper.

“I did it.”

“That’s because you’re a slut.” Shannon’s face wasn’t visible, but Rory heard the smile. “Not a good boy. We know you’re not that, even if you pretend you are, doing as you’re told. Because look at what you’re doing, huh? Exposing yourself. Licking your palm—do it, yeah, that’s it—and getting your cock nice and slippery. If I were there, I’d use my spit. Lean over and let it drool out. Cover that sweet little prick until it was shiny and sparkly. Cute as hell.”

Humiliation seared his skin, flushing it hot. “I’m not—”

“You are. You’re anything I say you are.” Shannon’s cock was dark with arousal, beaded with water, foamy with soap. A thick, stiff pole Rory wanted driving inside him, mouth, ass, he didn’t care. “I’ve seen lube with glitter in it, all different colors. Could smear it all over your ass, your balls, that pretty little prick.”

It was easy to imagine it. The glitter might look pretty, but it would be rough, scratchy, the hand tight around his cock pressing it against tender flesh until it rasped like sandpaper. It would hurt in the most perfect way.

“Shove a couple of fingers inside your ass. Turn so you can’t see the door. Anyone coming in’ll get a nice view of you on your knees, see your hole stretched, hear you whimpering and begging to be fucked.”

Rory did whimper then, picturing it. He didn’t let himself jerk off too fast, didn’t want it to be over too soon.

Shannon’s hand moved up and down, steady as a ticking clock. “Who’d come in?”

God, now he was supposed to think? “Um…one of my partners?”

Easily dismissed with a snort. “No. They have better things to do on a weekend than show up at the office. Some new client you’d forgotten you made an appointment with, maybe. He comes into the office all innocent, thinking he’s going to get some advice on how to build up those big muscles of his. Not realizing he’s going to walk in on you with three of my fingers up your ass. What’ll he think of you?” Shannon’s tone made it clear what the man would think of Rory—that he was a slut.

“No.”

“Yeah. God, wish I was there with you now. Wish I could feed you my cum, watch you lap it from my hand like a fucking—” Shannon broke off, panting, cupping his heavy balls, the dark hair on them sleek with water. His cock jerked, and he flicked the head with his thumb. “Close. So goddamn close.”

“Please. Let me see.”

“If you were here, I’d paint your face with it.”

“I’d let you. God, Shannon, don’t ever stop—”

“Can’t hold it back much longer.”

That wasn’t what he’d meant, but he pretended it was. Watched the creamy jets of cum pool in Shannon’s cupped hand, then drip through his fingers, washed away by the water. Let his climax rip through him on Shannon’s command, blotting out the anger, the frustration, and leaving him sated, relaxed.

It was only after he’d cleaned up as best he could, obsessively checking the floor, his desk, the chair for stains, that he realized he’d forgotten to invite Shannon to dinner.

Sighing, he picked up his phone and sent a text.

* * * * *

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, it turned out Shannon was free to join them for Sunday lunch. Rory had briefly dreaded what it would be like to show up without him, but that had quickly been replaced by a different dread: that maybe everyone else’s reactions to Shannon were the accurate ones, and his parents would feel the same uncertainty when they met him. That feeling had soon passed, wiped away by what he knew of the man. Shannon fell short in his knowledge of Shakespeare, maybe, but in every quality that mattered, he exceeded expectations. He was a decent guy, kind, honest, and genuine. That counted for a lot with Rory, and if it didn’t with anyone else, they were the ones who needed to rethink their standards.

“Taking me home to meet the ’rents,” Shannon said solemnly as Rory pulled into the driveway. “I feel like a giddy teenager all over again.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“They’re gonna love me.” Shannon sighed at the look Rory shot him. “I’m mostly kidding, okay? Yeah, sure I’m nervous. It’s not like your friends welcomed me with open arms. What are you gonna do if this is more of the same?”

“It won’t be.” Rory shut off the engine but made no move to get out of the car.

“What if it is?” Although Shannon had said he was nervous, he sounded more curious than seeking reassurance.

“I won’t care. It’s none of their business who I’m seeing.”

Shannon rested a hand on his knee. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a terrible liar?”

“Yes, you, lots of times. Now kiss me. I want one good thing to remember about today.”

“Sweet,” Shannon murmured and planted a kiss on Rory that made him wish they were headed home.

Chapter Ten

Shannon had never been in a situation like this. Nervous didn’t cover it. His confidence had been eroded by the snarl-and-snap session on Thursday, and he’d lost count of the times he’d almost texted Rory to cancel Sunday lunch only to delete before hitting Send.

He’d washed his hair, contemplated shaving off his beard and decided against it, and applied deodorant lavishly, certain he’d break out in a cold sweat at some point in the proceedings. He’d dressed in clean, newish black jeans, and after asking Luis’s advice—Dex had given him an incredulous look and walked off shaking his head—he’d foregone a T-shirt for a navy shirt with faint light-blue lines in some soft, heavy material. It’d been in his closet unworn for two years, a birthday gift from his sister, who should’ve known better. He’d hit the liquor store and splashed out twenty bucks on a bottle of red wine and been persuaded by the motherly woman at the checkout to waste another two on a gift bag for it.

He was as prepared as it got, but since when did that guarantee success?

Rory opened the front door as casually as if he still lived there and walked in, calling out a greeting. Shannon followed, flinching back from a spindly legged table with a fragile vase on it filled with peach and yellow roses.

“Rory, darling.” A woman came out of a room leading off the hall, arms wide, and gathered Rory in for a hug. She was pretty, blonde hair waving around a heart-shaped face, wearing a deep-red dress that showed off her slight curves in a classy way. “And this must be Shannon.”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Brennan. Thanks for inviting me.” He held out the hand clutching the gift bag for her to shake, face burning as he realized what he’d done. Shit. Perfect start already blown.

“Is this for us? How thoughtful.” She took the bag from him and then shook his hand; her fingers were slender, like the rest of her seemed. It was hard to understand how she’d managed to deal with Jude’s shenanigans over the years, or maybe having to do so was how she’d become so fragile. “Doug? Come meet Shannon.”

Jude and Rory’s dad came down the hallway from what was probably the kitchen, since he was drying his hands with a dish towel. “She has me well trained,” he said and shook Shannon’s hand with his damp one. “Good to have you.”

“Thanks.”

“He brought wine.” Tracy gave the gift bag to her husband and smiled. “Would you open it so it has time to breathe? Rory, give Shannon a tour while we finish getting lunch together.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rory told him under his breath, leading him into the living room. “They won’t be this formal the whole time, I swear. They’re feeling you out.”

“Don’t be sorry—they’re nice.” He was glad he’d brought the wine, though. “Wow. Lots of books.” One entire wall was covered in them, huge built-in bookcases that went from floor to ceiling.

“Now you know where I get it from.” That wasn’t even something that made much sense, because Rory only had room in his condo for one little bookcase. “That’s the den back there, do you want to see?”

“Your mom did tell you to give me a tour.”

The den was a shambles; seeing it made Shannon feel more at ease. There was a large-screen TV on a nice wooden stand, but beneath it the game systems and controllers were a tangle of cords, and there were stacks of game cases all over the floor. Only one of the two seat cushions was on the couch, and a sweatshirt with its sleeves turned inside out was jammed into the space where it should have been.

“Jude took it over a while back,” Rory said, grinning.

“I like it. My level of tidy.”

Rory hunched a shoulder. “I take after Mom. If it isn’t neat, I fret. But I’ve learned to live with Jude.”

The tour was of the ground floor only, and after a detour outside to admire the yard, bright with color even this late in the season, they rejoined the Brennans in the kitchen. Shannon had sneaked one kiss under an apple tree, Rory clinging to him tightly for a moment before breaking the hug, and found it steadied him.

After sniffing the air appreciatively—roast beef? Had to be—Shannon offered to help with the meal preparations, confident he’d be turned down. Instead Tracy beamed at him and thrust a stack of warm plates into his hands. “If you could put them out, that’d be great, hon. Dining room is through there. And Rory, get the man a drink before he dies of thirst.”

Okay, that was a lot less stuffy. What had caused the thaw? Then he glanced out of the window and saw the apple tree framed like a picture. They’d seen the kiss? Had to be that.

Praying he wouldn’t drop them, Shannon distributed the plates on a table set in what he termed fancy style—heavy silver cutlery, cloth napkins, gleaming crystal glasses, and everything matching. He’d been to weddings with less effort made, but he supposed if it was in the house, why not use it?

Rory appeared in the doorway, holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a beer in the other. “Choose.”

“Beer, please.”

“I’ll find you a glass.”

About to say there was no need, he’d drink it straight from the bottle, Shannon took another look at the table and closed his mouth.

Five minutes later, they were sitting around a spread that rivaled the one year Shannon’s family had eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant (there’d been a fire in their kitchen, and they were in the middle of renovations, with Shannon’s mom furious the holiday rituals had been ruined). There was roast beef, gravy, red-skinned potatoes, carrots in a buttery glaze, and what Shannon had to hope weren’t homemade rolls or he’d feel guilty for all the work that had gone into them.

“Oh, the salad!” Tracy had barely sat before she leaped to her feet again. “I can’t believe I forgot.”

“It’s not usually this fancy,” Rory said.

“Lies! Don’t listen to a word he says, Shannon.” Tracy came back into the living room with a glass bowl of greens and other vegetables.

“Normally we make do with paper napkins,” Douglas said, handing Shannon the basket of rolls. “Only special guests warrant the cloth ones.”

Shannon was sure that wasn’t meant as a hint, but he quickly put his napkin in his lap.

“Anyway, don’t let her fool you. She wanted to make a good impression.” Serving himself some potatoes, Douglas passed the serving dish to his wife.

“Color me impressed,” Shannon assured her. It was touching to think she’d cared, and the way she was looking from him to her son made him believe she approved. So far, at least.

“There, see? Job done.” She smiled around the table, a wicked one, inviting them to smile back. “And next time, I can feed you all frozen pizza, and you’ll let me get away with it because I pushed the boat out today.”

“Frozen pizza?” Shannon shook his head. “Not a chance that plan’s gonna work. Now, if you’d cooked it…”

Rory’s mom had a good laugh, he decided a moment later, rich and unrestrained. “Point to you. So tell me, since he’s not here, is Jude settling in okay at his job? Be honest, please. We’re anxious he keeps it, and if there’s something he’s not handling well, we’d like to know.”

“He was late a few times, but I had a word with him, and I think it did the trick. Aside from that, yeah, he’s doing fine. Spotted a mistake I was making and saved me a shi-uh, a lot of time fixing it. He gets distracted, but not if he’s interested in the job the way he was helping me lay a brick patio area.”

Jesus, was this what it was like on the teacher’s side of the table on a Parent-Teacher night?

She exhaled, relaxing as if he’d taken something heavy from her. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your putting in a word for him.”

“If he can’t maintain an acceptable work rate, it won’t reflect on you?” Doug asked.

Shannon shook his head. “The foreman hired him. Ultimately, it was his decision, and he’s too fair to blame anyone if Jude screws up. But I don’t think he will.”

Doug and Tracy exchanged glances, with Rory stiffening as if about to protest, but Doug made a comment about the carrots being homegrown, and the conversation drifted from gardening to fishing and a recent flood that had damaged the local theater, with Shannon contributing when he could, trying to strike a balance between yammering on and imitating a gatepost.

“Have some more, Shannon, or poor Doug will be eating the leftovers for days,” Tracy said, gesturing at the food.

“It’s delicious. Best meal I’ve had in years, though you shouldn’t think that means you have to go to all this trouble on a regular basis.” Shannon helped himself to another slice of roast beef.

“It’s the least we could do considering how generous you’ve been with Jude, but I enjoy cooking, and it was nice to have an excuse to make a big fuss. We wanted to spoil you a little bit.”

“You wanted to check him out after Micah called,” Rory said. He didn’t sound annoyed, but matter-of-fact.

“That too.” Doug finished the wine in his glass. “You can’t blame us. We love both our sons and want them to be happy.”

Rory bit his lip, obviously holding something back; Shannon made a mental note to ask him about it later.

“And what about your parents, Shannon?”

“They want their kids to be happy too,” Shannon said. “No, I know that’s not what you were asking. They live in Ohio, where I grew up. I came out here to go to college. I dropped out junior year, but I already had friends and a job, so I stayed. I have one sister, older. She’s in Oregon with her partner.”

“Partner?”

“She’s gay like me.” He was used to this conversation, prepared for the surprise on Rory’s parents’ faces. “It took her longer to figure it out. She got married and had two kids—twins—before she realized.”

“With Rory, it was never something to learn about himself, was it, hon? He always knew.”

If his mom’s statement seemed something for Rory to say, not her, it didn’t bother Rory, judging by his unchanging expression. He nodded and addressed Shannon directly. “Does she visit with her kids?”

“She used to, when they were younger. They came for Thanksgiving a few years ago,” Shannon said. It had been awkward. He loved the twins, but now that they were in college themselves, they had their own lives, and there didn’t seem to be room in them for him. “We’re hoping to all get together at Christmas, in Ohio.”

“Well, if your plans fall through, please consider yourself invited here,” Tracy told him.

It was far enough away for him to follow Rory’s example and nod, murmuring a thank-you, without feeling he’d committed himself to anything. Would he still be with Rory? Or would his novelty value have worn off?

He’d meant it when he discounted Rory’s saying “I love you.” What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, and what a person said mid-fuck was passion speaking, no more than that. Still, it’d jolted him, taking their fledgling relationship into a whole ’nother place. Too soon, too fast? Maybe.

Then why did you bite your tongue to keep from saying it back to him?

Telling his inner voice to put a sock in it, he applied himself to a raspberry pie with a scoop of velvety orange-ginger sorbet melting over the crisp, sugar-coated crust.

He was still trying to think of something he could say when the sound of the front door opening and then shutting with a bang made Tracy glance in that direction anxiously. “Jude?”

“Yes. Sorry, I forgot you were having Shannon over. Hi, Shannon.” Jude wore what looked like a new leather jacket and a guilty expression, not that Shannon was an expert in the many expressions of Jude.

“Hi. Your mom’s a great cook.” He remembered, too late, that Tracy wasn’t Jude’s biological mother. He wasn’t sure how Jude referred to her, but Jude nodded.

“She is. I’m not stopping. I forgot my wallet and didn’t realize until I was already across town.”

“You don’t want to risk getting caught behind the wheel without your driver’s license,” Rory pointed out, setting down his fork.

“I know,” Jude said, rolling his eyes and turning away. The back of his leather jacket looked hand-painted, complete with flames and a dragon. “That’s why I came back. Pretend I’m not here.” Easier said than done with the way he stomped upstairs; after that, it sounded like he was tearing his room apart.

“He doesn’t realize how loud he’s being,” Rory said, following a particularly cringe-worthy crash.

Jude came back a minute later, flushed and angry. “I can’t find it.”

“Well, think about the last place you saw it,” Doug suggested.

“I did! I looked! It’s not in yesterday’s pants, and it’s not on my dresser or the table near the front door, and I can’t even find my— Oh. Shit. Never mind, I know where it is.” He disappeared again, slamming the door shut behind him.

Rory tossed his napkin onto the table, narrowly missing his plate. “I’ll see if he’s okay.” Adding a belated, “Excuse me,” he left the table and followed Jude, leaving the door ajar.

Shannon would’ve needed to have his eyes closed, his ears blocked, and be knocked unconscious to miss the hike in tension.

“You think he’s overprotective?” he offered, too used to speaking his mind to be politely oblivious.

“Rory’s always looked out for his brother.” Douglas said it with an air of resignation. “Sometimes it helped; sometimes it made Jude rely on him too much.”

“And Shannon doesn’t need to hear the details of our family issues on his first visit.”

“Did I overstep? Sorry.” He wasn’t, but he didn’t want to leave them thinking he was nosy.

Tracy gave him a smile that moved her lips without warming her face, then sighed. “No, I’m sorry. It’s silly to pretend with you when you know both of them. Yes, Rory needs to back off. Jude won’t learn to behave if Rory cleans up all his messes for him.”

Shannon nodded, unsure of what to say to that. Did he agree? Yes, but factor in Jude’s issues and the picture shifted, more gray in the mix.

“You, though,” Tracy said, “you’re a pleasant surprise after Micah…”

“After Micah what?” Shit, he’d growled and startled her.

“After Micah, period.” She tipped her wineglass, sending the puddle at the bottom sloshing dangerously close to the brim, then set the glass down. “I never liked him.”

“Tracy…”

“No, Doug, I’m entitled to my opinion. He was sweet on the surface and pure selfishness underneath. He never cared what Rory wanted or about making him happy.” She looked directly at Shannon. “You’re not like that.”

Lady, you’re judging me as fast as his friends. I get him off, fulfill every jerk-off fantasy he dreams up. Is that making him happy? For now, sure, but long-term?

Rory saved him from replying, rushing through the door as if speed would hide his exit from the table. “Left it in his old jacket.”

“Where did he get the one he has on?” Tracy held up her hand. “You know what? I don’t want to know. If we’re finished with dessert, I’ll serve coffee in the den so you boys can watch the game.”

“Mom. Have you seen the den?”

“Seen it? Yes. I don’t step over the threshold. Go on, now. Get out of my way, all of you.” She smiled to make it clear she was being serious but nice about it.

The three of them went into the den, where Douglas muttered under his breath as he and Rory straightened things up enough so they could all sit down. Doug took the recliner, leaving Rory and Shannon the couch. They left a careful amount of space between them in unconscious agreement while Doug turned on the TV and changed the channel to the football game. “You like football, Shannon?” he asked.

“Watching it? Sure. I haven’t played much since high school.” He’d liked football well enough, but he’d enjoyed watching the jocks changing in and out of their tight pants more.

“Rory played until senior year.”

“Seriously?”

“No, he’s lying to you,” Rory said. “Yes. Is it so hard to believe?”

“I guess I never thought about it.” Once he did, it wasn’t hard to believe at all. Rory was built for all kinds of things. No reason football couldn’t be one of them. “Why’d you stop?”

“Long story. I’ll tell you some other time.”

That sounded more like something he’d never get around to than a promise. “I’ll hold you to that.”

It was a pleasant enough way to spend the afternoon. He had another beer after the coffee since Rory was driving, and got into a debate with Doug about baseball, which seemed weird while watching another sport but left them shaking their heads in united disapproval. He stayed away from the classic no-go areas of politics, religion, and money, only coming close when Doug asked if he owned property.

Explaining he lived with two guys and was saving for a place of his own got him a neutral nod, as if he’d earned points for the intention, but negative ones for not doing more at his age.

He supposed buying somewhere was a good investment, but he liked living with Dex and Luis. It was cheap, he loved them both, and it worked. Why mess with it?

When the game ended, they made their excuses and left, Shannon startled but pleased to get a hug from Tracy and a kiss on the cheek that left him smelling of her perfume.

“That went well,” Rory said when the house was out of sight. “Amazingly well. God, I’m glad it’s over.”

“You and me both. They’re nice people. I like them.”

“They loved you.” Rory reached across and gave him a friendly shove. “Sweet-talker. Charmer.”

“Words I hear a lot,” Shannon said complacently. Good food filled his stomach, along with a mild buzz from the beer, and he was pretty sure sex was imminent. Maybe it was time to let go of his doubts. If Rory saw him as nothing more than a walking fantasy, how likely was it that he’d take him home to meet Mom and Dad? He was Rory’s boyfriend. They were dating. Where it was headed, he didn’t know, but for now, like his living arrangements, it worked.

He turned his head and smiled at Rory, picturing the two of them in bed, lazily necking, maybe jerking each other off slowly. “Your place or mine?”

Rory bit his lip. “I don’t mind, but you know what would be fun?”

Bracing himself, Shannon asked warily, “Yeah?”

“You said you wanted to tie me up and, uh, play with me. I’m down with that.”

He ought to say no. Ought to counter Rory’s idea with his plans to take it nice and slow, even romantic. But he nodded, already seeing Rory splayed out, begging, broken, beautiful.

He’d say no next time.

An hour later, with Rory unconscious facedown on the bed and Shannon pleading with him to wake up, he wished he’d had the presence of mind to refuse. Shit. Should he call an ambulance?

Rory stirred, opening his eyes. “Oh my God,” he said, slurring the words.

“Are you okay?” Shannon had already untied Rory’s ankles because they were closer; now he focused on untying Rory’s wrists, but his hands were shaking. “What the fuck happened? You were out for like thirty seconds. More. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m fine,” Rory said, laughing. The asshole was laughing. “Don’t be sorry. It was amazing.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

He wrapped both arms around Shannon and pulled him down into a hug. “I’m sure. Better than okay.”

Shannon let Rory’s embrace and his obvious pleasure in what they’d done reassure him, but it didn’t last, and he couldn’t let go of the regret at having let himself be talked into something he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. They ordered Chinese, watched TV, and went to bed again, this time to sleep, but throughout it all, the knot in Shannon’s chest didn’t ease. Rory was fantastic, the sex itself was fantastic, yet he’d gotten in over his head.

He lay in bed next to a peacefully sleeping Rory, listening to his boyfriend’s gentle breathing, and wondered if it were possible to fix something when he wasn’t sure he understood how it was broken.

Chapter Eleven

Rory did his best not to wince as he got out of his car in the parking lot outside the gym, though it was early enough that no one was around to notice. The sun had risen about half an hour ago, and he’d only had one cup of coffee, which wouldn’t be sufficient for the day, not after the night he’d had. He and Shannon had gone back to the condo—“Maybe I can help you hate it a little less,” Shannon had murmured—and had sex for hours.

First Shannon had tied his hands behind his back and forced him to kneel and suck his cock. Shannon’s fingers in Rory’s hair and that rough, impatient cock in his mouth, fucking deep into his throat, choking him, had been amazing, but not as amazing as what had followed. With wrists and ankles tied tight to the bed frame, facedown, Shannon fucking his ass, Rory had come so hard, he’d passed out. Only for a few seconds, he was pretty sure. He’d loved it so much, he’d laughed in the face of Shannon’s brief concern.

Are you sure you’re okay?” Shannon had asked, untying him.

Rory had wrapped his complaining limbs around the other man and held on. “I’m sure. Better than okay.

They’d had a quiet night after that and slept until Rory’s alarm had gone off a little while ago. He’d had to rush around like a crazy person to get out the door with time to drop Shannon off at home before heading to the gym, where he was scheduled to provide four fifteen-minute slots of free nutritional evaluations to new members.

He spotted Dex’s ride, a battered Jeep that had to be ten years old easy, in the parking lot, but didn’t see him on the way to the office he used for the consults. The first two went smoothly; then the manager of the gym put his head around the door. “Sorry to disturb you, but your next two cancelled.”

“Both of them?”

“Transport truck tipped over on the highway. Traffic’s piled up for miles. They’re not getting into town anytime soon.” Having delivered his message, he gave a shrug. “Guess you can head off. Or use the free time to work out. Whatever.”

With his ass throbbing, anything strenuous didn’t appeal, but thirty minutes in the sauna, followed by a refreshing cold shower did. He headed for the steam room, giving the weight room a casual glance. No Dex. Pity. Dex and a lot of heavy metal made a mouthwatering picture, or so Rory had discovered. Though now he was with Shannon, lusting after his best friend was best avoided.

With that resolution in mind, he stripped down in the locker room, grabbed a towel, and headed for the wood-lined steam room.

Dex sat on the top bench, his towel beside him. Big, practically bald, sweaty, naked, naked, naked.

So much for good intentions.

Opening his eyes, Dex grinned at him in that way he had. “Hey.”

“Hey.” If he’d been able to sneak out without being seen, he might have tried it, but now there was no way. “How are you?”

“Okay. You?” Dex shifted on the bench; Rory did his best to keep his gaze anywhere but on his cock. “You gonna stand there all day, Doc?”

Rory shook his head. “It’s Rory.” At first he’d been slightly irritated at the nickname. Now he associated it with Shannon and had decided he liked it, but that didn’t mean anyone could use it.

“Right. Sorry. Shannon calls you that. It kinda got into my head. Won’t happen again.”

“Thanks.” The conversation was, so far, made up of some of the shortest sentences Rory could remember. He stood immobile near the entrance, then shook himself free of his frozen state and moved to sit where his view of Dex’s crotch would be blocked by Dex’s thigh.

They sat in slightly awkward silence for a few minutes before Dex asked, “Good workout?”

Rory thought about lying, but he didn’t like to do that, even when it was an unimportant lie. “Good in the sense that it didn’t happen. I had a couple of appointments get cancelled, and the block of time it left free was enough for a sauna and a quick shower before I have to get into the office. What about you?”

“Felt my shoulder twinge bench-pressing two hundred, so I figured it was time to stop. If I can’t do that much, there’s something wrong.” Dex pressed his fingers into the hollow where his arm met his chest. “Yeah, definitely sore. You could take a look at it maybe?”

Get close? Touch? Wearing a thin towel that would hide nothing? Not a chance in hell. “I’m not that kind of doctor. Not any kind, in fact.”

“Bet you’ve got the magic touch.” Dex nudged Rory’s bare thigh with his foot. “Going off the blissed-out look on Shannon’s face when he’s been with you, I’m sure of it.”

Blessing the location that gave him a reason to have a red face, Rory went for an uneasy chuckle. “Yeah, well. Um.”

“Don’t get the idea he kisses and tells. He doesn’t. It’s good to see him happy, that’s all.”

That was a relief; Rory couldn’t bear the thought of Shannon telling anyone, even a close friend with solid boundaries, about the sex they had. “You’ve been friends for a long time.”

“Yeah. Since before we met Luis, even. I’ve seen it all.”

Intrigued, Rory found himself being drawn into the conversation. “Ex-boyfriends, you mean?”

“Sure, not that there’ve been all that many, and the last long-term one was a few years back.”

“Long-term?” Shannon had been evasive about his previous relationships, though interested to hear as many details of Micah as Rory was willing to share. “What was that like?”

“What are long-term relationships ever like?” Dex scratched himself in a spot too intimate for Rory’s gaze. “You know: they spent every night together, talked about buying a house. Shannon talked about going back to school to finish his degree. Then things got messy, and next thing I knew, they broke up. Seemed like it happened overnight. I mean, I never heard any fights or anything. Anyway, he seems a lot happier with you.”

Rory knew he should feel something other than glad the unnamed ex had fled the scene—sorry for Shannon that things hadn’t worked out, maybe—but Dex chose that moment to press one foot against his thigh again.

“A lot happier.”

He decided he’d chance pretending he didn’t notice. “Good.”

“I care about him too, you know?”

Wait, was this Dex’s way of trying to tell him something? “Did you two ever, um…”

“Fuck?” Dex shook his head. “Nah.”

He went for bold since Dex seemed to be in a sharing mood. And wasn’t this a surreal conversation to have before most people were awake? But the privacy of the small room and the billowing steam had the same effect as large amounts of alcohol when it came to lowering inhibitions, it seemed. “Why not? He’s not your type?”

“No. But you are.” Dex slid down to sit next to him. “And I’ve seen you watching me. So I’ll lay it out: are you interested?”

Shock held him still; then he recovered, standing too fast, dizzy from it, his towel slipping to the floor. “I wouldn’t— No! I’d never cheat—”

Dex reached out and grabbed his arm before he bolted. “Not talking about cheating. I’d never do that to anyone, let alone a friend. I’m talking about sharing you between us now and then. A threesome.”

What? He scrambled to process it. A joke? A test? Or a genuine, serious, honest-to-God proposal to put him between them in bed? Jesus. That was… He didn’t know what it was.

Then he became aware of his cock, open to view, thickening with a sweet, tingling rush, and he knew what it was.

It was as hot as the sauna. As hot as hell. And if it was on offer, he wanted it.

Carefully, Dex released his grip on Rory’s arm. “I’m a good guy. I don’t fuck anyone who isn’t on board, and I don’t have a hard time finding partners. It’s an idea. I mentioned it to Shannon, and he seemed interested, so I figured I might as well ask you. You don’t have to say yes or no now. Think about it. Or ask questions, if you’ve got any.”

His head spun. To buy himself a few seconds, he bent and picked up his towel, holding it in front of him to hide the growing erection Dex must’ve seen. There was nothing shameful about it, he told himself firmly. “You asked Shannon if he’d be into the idea of you, and me, and him?”

“Sure. No reason not to. If he didn’t like the idea, he could tell me to fuck off—no harm, no foul. I wouldn’t be pissed off. I figure, you don’t get what you want if you can’t man up enough to ask for it.” Dex’s eyes met his. “Think about it.”

“I will. Thanks. I’ve got to get to work. See you around?” Rory fled for the shower, shutting the door of his stall so he could shove his head under water that was shockingly cold against his heated skin and think. Think about it? He wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. The fantasy Shannon had created of Dex watching them mixed with the reality of Dex suggesting a threesome confused and—there was no denying it considering his erection—aroused him.

Shannon liked the idea? That probably shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. He’d had the impression that Shannon was at least moderately committed to their relationship, and while he could imagine a future in which they might playfully open things up to include someone else on occasion—to keep things interesting—he wouldn’t have thought it necessary or wise a few weeks in.

Doubt crept up on him, killing the arousal. This would complicate everything, and for what? An hour in bed with the three of them fumbling around, working out the logistics of making three cocks happy without bumping noses or falling off the bed. He’d watched threesomes in porn movies and gotten off on them, for sure, but the careful choreography had stood out more than it usually did.

On the other hand, Shannon had been incredibly accommodating with him and his fantasies. He had the right to turn this down, and he knew neither of them would make him feel guilty if he did. It wasn’t in their power anyway; he held an unwavering belief that everything between sexual partners should be consensual and wanted by both. That didn’t mean closing himself off to potentially new experiences, though.

Realizing he was getting nowhere, he shelved the issue. He’d discuss it with Shannon at the earliest opportunity, and until then, he had work to do and rush-hour traffic to navigate. The highway accident would mean more cars than usual taking alternate routes through town. Groaning at the thought of inching along, bumper to bumper, for two miles, he dried off, dressed, and left, keeping his head down to avoid another encounter with Dex.

* * * * *

After swallowing a piece of chicken in black-bean sauce, Rory said casually, “So I saw Dex at the gym yesterday.”

Shannon scooped up some noodles and deposited them on his plate. He’d arrived on Rory’s doorstep with takeout and a smile, saying he was starving and hated eating alone, so could he come in? Rory’s evening had gone from boring to full of potential in the space of time it took Shannon to walk in, kiss him, and settle down at the kitchen table. He’d already eaten—grilled wild salmon and salad—but Shannon had told him to help himself to the takeout, and he couldn’t resist.

“Yeah, he mentioned it. Along with some feedback on how good you looked in a towel.”

God, this conversation was like dancing, and he wasn’t any good at that either. “Is that how you two usually talk to each other? About each other’s, um, boyfriends?”

Shannon shrugged. “Sometimes. It’s not like I mind hearing he thinks you’re hot. It’s true.”

It was so tempting to let himself be distracted by flattery. “Do you talk about his boyfriends like that too?”

“He doesn’t so much have boyfriends as a never-ending stream of one-night stands.” Shannon picked up some more food with his fork, then seemed to reconsider. “Well, sometimes they’re two- or three-night stands.”

“But do you like his taste in men?”

“I guess. I never thought about it, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. He’s my friend; I’m not responsible for him.” Shannon frowned. “Why the sudden interest in Dex’s sex life?”

Ugh, and Rory had thought he was being subtle. “He brought it up.”

“What, out of the blue? At the gym? That doesn’t sound like him. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll overshare with the best of them, but he’s usually a little more discreet.” Shannon leaned back in his chair, studying Rory.

“We were in the sauna,” Rory admitted. “So it’s not like he announced it to the whole club. He said he’d already talked to you about it.”

“About what?”

Bracing himself for the conversation, Rory said, “A threesome. You, me, him.”

Noodles slithered from Shannon’s chopsticks and landed in the delicate blue-and-white bowl Rory had set on the table for him to use. Shannon had been ready to eat from the containers to save on dishwashing, but Rory couldn’t bring himself to do that. “What?”

“I’m in,” Rory said, a decision solidifying as he spoke. If it was what Shannon wanted and would keep him happy, he’d have figured out a way to be interested in plenty of stuff. “Not as a regular thing, but I’m willing to try it. Since you want to.”

“Why would you think I want to?” The words dropped like stones, cold, heavy.

“Because you said so?”

“When? When did I ever say I was into the idea of sharing you?” Shannon was flushed, eyes snapping, voice a deep growl.

Rory blinked at him, uncertain now. “Uh, all those times you suggested inviting your friends to watch while you fucked me?”

“That was a— I didn’t— Jesus, Rory, that wasn’t serious. I thought you knew that! It was to get you going. I’d never do that to you.”

Uncertainty metamorphosed into pure confusion. “Dex said he asked you.”

“Yeah, I guess he mentioned something about it when we were clearing away supper, but I thought he was fucking around. I don’t even remember how I answered him. I’m sure I was sarcastic as hell.” Shannon looked angry, sounded angry, and Rory understood it was genuine, not one of their games. “You thought I was cool with the idea of sharing you?”

“He said you were, and you said— I thought you wanted to. I would’ve turned him down myself. Hot in theory, but not reality. Doesn’t matter, though. Not if you like the idea.”

“And as long as I wanted to, you were okay with that? Being passed around like a…like a fucking sex toy? You’re a person, Rory. You don’t have to do anything because you think someone else wants you to, and if you don’t understand that, then—” Shannon threw his hands up in the air and pushed his chair away from the table, standing up. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Rory didn’t understand what was happening; Shannon was correct about that. “Wait, what? You can’t do what?”

“I can’t…” Shannon pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “I can’t be with someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue about his worth and how to protect himself. You put yourself last every time, and I never know if it’s because it’s what you want or if it’s because you learned to do it and you—you don’t know how to unlearn it. Does any of this even compute?”

“So now I’m the bad guy because I wanted to do something to make you happy?” Whether or not he had wanted it himself wasn’t the point, apparently, and he couldn’t focus on that if analyzing his character was required. “How is that fair?”

“You know what I’m sick of?” Shannon asked. “All the fucking questions. I don’t know why it’s like that with you, but it is, and I can’t take it anymore. I thought we were together, an actual couple, but now I get that that doesn’t mean anything to you. You’re in a relationship with who you thought I was, not who I am.”

“That’s not true!” Rory found himself on his feet, both hands clenched into fists.

“Yeah? You saw me, and you thought the exact same thing your asshole friends did. Rough, tough, able to hold your hand for a walk on the wild side because that’s where I belong. You pushed me into sex I’m not comfortable with—”

“Wait, now I’m the one making people do stuff—”

Yelling over him, as if what he said didn’t matter, Shannon kept on, breaking his heart with every word. “Tell me, Doc, if you knew I was as vanilla as the image you project, if my dick was five inches not nine, would you still be interested in me? Because I don’t know who you think you’re dating, but it isn’t the man I see in the mirror. It isn’t me. And you were too busy getting your rocks off to notice I was uncomfortable.”

“You said you liked what we did. Most of it was your fucking idea.” He was hyperventilating with sheer rage and humiliation. Not the hot kind Shannon had given him, but the real, skin-crawling, squirmy sort, born of making a complete fool of himself. “Why did you do it if you didn’t like it?”

They were close enough to touch, but the wall between them was solid, unbreakable.

Shannon sighed, shoulders slumping. “Because I liked you. Because it was my best chance of keeping you in my life a little longer. I knew it wouldn’t last, but I wanted as much of you as I could get. Should’ve known it was a mistake. Can’t build on sand and expect it to hold up when the tide comes in.”

When the fight went out of Shannon, it went out of Rory too. He sank onto his chair. “Is that what this was? All this time? Both of us making the other happy by pretending to be something we weren’t?” He’d thought it was real, but maybe he’d been fooling himself. Maybe that was all he ever did.

Shannon made no move to sit again. “I don’t know.”

“No, I’m serious. I mean, if it’s over, I get that; it sucks, but it happens. Was it always both of us trying to build something out of nothing? Or were we using the same space to try to build two completely different things?” So many questions, and neither of them ever had enough answers.

“I wish I knew.”

Rory grimaced. “Do me a favor and give me five minutes. Help me figure it out.” When Shannon hesitated, he kicked the chair Shannon had been sitting in and said sharply, “You owe me that much.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.” Shannon sat. “For what it’s worth, if I knew this was coming, I didn’t want to admit it. Even to myself.”

“I still don’t.” He didn’t think he believed it yet because it didn’t hurt. He was numb. That was okay. He’d rather be numb than have to accept it was over. “Can we… I don’t know, not make a final decision here? Give it a week or something?”

“Not sure what’s gonna change in a week.”

“Me either. But if you wanted this to last, if you cared enough that you wanted to hang on to me as long as you could—” Hard to imagine that was true, but God, he wanted it to be. “And if I’m not ready for it to be over…” He didn’t know how to end the sentence.

“Sometimes we want stuff that’s not right for us,” Shannon said quietly.

Quick to sense where this was going, Rory said, “I’m not letting you shame me over the sex I like. What we did was new for me, but I wasn’t faking how much I loved it, even if you were. And I’ll want it from the next man I’m with. I’m not settling for tame and boring ever again.”

“I wouldn’t do that. You enjoying yourself when I fuck you is the hottest, most perfect—”

“It’s exactly what you’re doing.”

Shannon tilted his chin, giving him a quizzical look. “The sex. It was never like that with anyone but me?”

“Never. God, you must have known that by the way I reacted.”

“You wanted it like that before me, but you couldn’t find someone to deliver?” he persisted.

More of those questions Shannon claimed to hate. Rory scrubbed at his face. “I don’t know. Maybe. That first time, when I assumed it was a one-night stand, it was an opportunity to live out a fantasy, and I took it. Then you turned up wanting more, and I thought we were on the same page.” He leaned back in his chair and studied the ceiling for a break. Staring at Shannon was painful, seeing no warmth in those blue eyes. “I don’t know how I got it so wrong.”

“Not entirely wrong. It was as new to me as it was to you, but you never got that. You didn’t want us both to be newbies. You needed to trust I knew how to catch you no matter how high you jumped, and instead I was praying you didn’t slide through my hands.”

He heard the pain behind the words; a wave of dismay made his stomach churn. “You never said. I didn’t know.”

“Would have spoiled the fantasy.”

“I’d have given it up to keep you.” It was a rash statement, contradicting what he’d said, and he knew it, but right then he would have promised lots of things he might not be able to deliver.

Shannon sighed. “I didn’t want you to have to.”

Trying to see it from an outsider’s perspective, Rory said, “That was a lot to put on yourself, though, if you hated it so much.”

“It wasn’t that. I didn’t hate it. No, I’m serious. Rory, look at me.” Shannon had used his actual name rarely enough that it got his attention, and he did as he was told, meeting those vivid blue eyes squarely. “I didn’t hate it, okay? I liked it, I did. It was more that I got swept up in it and never had a chance to think more than one step ahead. I was fumbling around in the dark with no idea if my instincts were good or bad, or if I was fucking it all up. I still don’t know.”

Rory laughed without humor. “Well, don’t look at me. I thought you were the one who knew what he was doing in this equation. I mean, now I get it, but at the time, you were doing such a great job, I didn’t have a clue. You get an A-plus.”

“Don’t.” Shannon moved over to him, hand hovering, as if Rory was a scorching surface it would burn him to touch. “I was with you. I was. I liked it too, but it isn’t all I can give.” The doubt and confusion pouring off him made Rory wonder how he could’ve missed so many signals and hints.

Because in retrospect, he was sure they’d been there, but they must have been subtle. Hesitations, broken-off sentences, a fraction of a second in which Shannon had braced himself like a man about to sit in a dentist’s chair instead of a man about to have sex?

“So what have you kept back?”

“Being…being nice to you.” Shannon stepped back, arms folded across his wide chest, a forbidding presence, closed-off and distant. “I’ve got a romantic side. Yeah, funny, I know, looking at me, but I do. Would’ve been great to make love to you once in a while, not fuck you through the floor each and every time.”

“I didn’t— That wasn’t all on me.”

“Then how come every time I tried for it, you turned up the heat?”

“You liked it too!” He couldn’t get past that certainty, the memory of Shannon groaning with pleasure, hands tight, cock owning him so completely. It hurt to think he’d missed so much of what was going on in Shannon’s head.

“Liked it, yeah, but I like cake too. Not for every meal.”

Too emotionally strung out to endure another moment of ripping each other apart, spoiling what they’d had, Rory stood and stalked over to the door, flinging it open. “Then you should have fucking asked for a change. If you ever regain the power of speech, give me a call.”

Shannon left without another word. It felt great to slam the door after him.

Thirty seconds later, it felt like hell.

* * * * *

Rory wouldn’t have guessed that losing Shannon would hurt so much. They hadn’t been together long, and their lives had been separate. They hadn’t shared friends the way he had with Micah, and there’d been nothing of Shannon’s at his condo to put in a box and return at a future date. Once he was gone, it was like he’d never been there at all.

If only it were that simple.

He went through the motions. Work—where Georgia and Ava, his partners, were clearly worried about him but gave him space, seeming to understand that he didn’t want to talk about it—and chores. He made himself cook normal meals, though he could only choke down half of them, and he sat in the laundry room watching his clothes go round and round in the dryer because he didn’t have anything else to do with his time.

Sunday night he went to dinner with his friends, a change from the usual day because Tom had come down with a cold earlier in the week and was only now past the violent, sloppy-sneezing stage. He was glad Christopher had requested they go to an Italian place for a change, but as soon as he saw them all around the table, it didn’t help anymore; he still pictured the time before, when he’d walked in with Shannon. At least the meal had given him an excuse to skip Sunday lunch on the grounds of not wanting to overeat. He hadn’t broken it to his parents that Shannon was history.

“You look terrible,” Keri said, then glared at Tom when he nudged her. “What? I won’t pretend. Even when you coughed so much you threw up, you didn’t look that bad. What’s wrong?”

“He and Shannon called things off,” Christopher said. He knew because when he’d texted Rory to ask if Shannon would be joining them again, Rory had figured he might as well tell him.

“Shit.” Keri looked genuinely dismayed. “I’m sorry; no one told me.”

“Apparently no one needed to, if I look that bad.” Rory sat and offered the waiter a smile when he sidled up to the table. “Could I have water, please?”

“At least you’re not drowning your sorrows in liquor,” Tom offered.

“A hangover’s the last thing I need with this headache.” He counted chairs. “No Micah? Good. Because I can’t promise to be polite to him next time we meet.”

“Now what did he do?” Christopher shook his head, clearly disapproving, but whether that was directed at Micah or Rory wasn’t clear.

“Called my parents to stage an intervention,” Rory said bitterly. “As if I was dating a serial killer. I phoned him and gave him hell for it.”

From the lack of reaction, they already knew. How had Micah spun it? To put him in the role of innocent victim, for sure.

“He was worried about you,” Spenser said, breaking a breadstick in half, crumbs scattering over the dark-green tablecloth. “Can’t blame him for that.”

“Watch me.”

Spenser pointed the breadstick at him. “Now see, that hostility is new.”

“Shannon’s influence. I ran over three kittens deliberately on the way here.”

“Before you punch me, let me finish. I like it.” Spenser fitted the pieces of breadstick together, then bit into one. “You let Micah get away with a lot. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still my friend. But you had a spark about you with Shannon.”

“Then why did you let Micah treat him like shit last week?”

Keri grimaced. “We’re sorry we didn’t come down harder on him. Not that it matters now.”

They’d been his primary support system for a decade, and he couldn’t walk away from them. In fact, he’d take shameless advantage of their friendship. “You guys know why Micah and I broke up, right?”

“Are you kidding? He complained about Jude for weeks before he got up the balls to say something to you,” Tom said, and now it was Keri’s turn to reprimand him for his choice of words, though hers took the form of a slap on the arm. “Ow! Jesus, Keri, what the hell? It’s true.”

That explained why it had seemed to come out of left field to Rory; Micah had given himself plenty of time to work out his feelings and none to talk to Rory about them. It wasn’t all that different from how things had gone with Shannon. “Is it that I’m too hard to talk to?”

Spenser shook his head. “No. It’s—” Someone—Rory couldn’t tell who—kicked Spenser under the table, and he went silent.

“For fuck’s sake, someone tell me.” No one did, and finally, finally Rory understood. “You all think he’s right about Jude.”

“Well. Yes.” Christopher fiddled with his napkin. “It’s tough on the people around you, you know that. Not because so much of your attention is on Jude, but because we hate to see what it does to you. Whether or not Micah was right for you, it’d be difficult to blame him for feeling like he always came second to your brother.”

“Jude needs me.” Why was he the only one who saw that?

“Does he?” Christopher shrugged. “Or do you like thinking he does?”

“So this week it’s my turn to be attacked?”

“You asked us to be honest,” Keri said. “Think about it. All your support—has it made him stronger or weaker? Be there for him, sure, but as a brother, not a cross between a helicopter parent and a bodyguard.”

“I can’t listen to this.”

Keri leaned across the table. “Shannon. He’s different from everyone you’ve dated, yes?”

“Not as much as you think, but I guess. Why?”

“What did he think about you and Jude?” With the air of a woman sure of the answer, she sat back again, waiting for his reply.

“He helped,” Rory snapped, ignoring the times Shannon had told him outright to back off Jude and give him space. “Got him a job, put in a good word for him when he was late. He helped.”

Keri sighed. “Okay. Fine. If that’s how you want to play this, you do what you need to do. But until something changes between you and Jude, you’ll struggle to find someone who’ll stick around. I’m saying—”

“You’re not saying anything I want to hear.” Rory’s cell phone bleeped, insistent, sounding loud even in the busy restaurant.

He glanced at the screen and saw a text message from his mother. Call home now.

With trembling fingers, he hit the button to call his parents’ house. “Mom?” he said, as soon as the other end was picked up, before she could even say hello. “What’s going on? Is it Jude?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She spoke in a low voice, barely above a whisper, like she didn’t want someone to overhear her. “I mean, yes. Someone stole some things from the building site where he’s been working, and the police think it was him. They’re here looking for him, but we haven’t seen him since this morning. Have you heard from him today?”

Rory had turned away from the table while he was listening; now he turned back, looked at his friends, then rose and strode toward the entrance. “I don’t know. Shannon would know what’s going on. I’m on my way there now, okay? I’ll be right there.”

“No.” She cut him off. “There’s nothing you can do here. Find him, Rory. He’s got a chance to put this right, but not if he runs.” Her voice shook. “I can’t do this anymore. Why can’t he see what he’s doing is wrong? What it’s doing to us?”

“He doesn’t mean to hurt you.” It was no comfort, and he knew it. Tom had stood, uncertain, about to come over to him. Rory waved him off and concentrated on his mom. “I’ll find out what I can from Shannon. I’ll call you.”

“I have to go.” She took an audible breath. “They asked for permission to search his room. They don’t have a warrant yet, but they can get one. What do they think they’ll find in there? They stole power tools and ladders. They took a cement mixer!”

Telling her to calm down would probably have the opposite effect. “I’ll do what I can, okay? I’ll fix this.”

He ended the call and glanced back at the table. His jacket was over his chair. He had to get it, but with his head full of questions, answering theirs was the last thing he needed on his plate. He collected his jacket, shrugging into it quickly, avoiding their gazes. “Sorry. Got to go.”

“You can’t disappear without telling us what’s wrong,” Keri said, with a murmured chorus of agreement from the others. “Can we help? Don’t shut us out.”

“It’s nothing you’d be interested in.” His mom wouldn’t want him sharing the details until they knew more. He’d heard the shame in her voice, as if Jude’s actions reflected on her or were her fault.

Christopher rolled his eyes. “That means it’s Jude. Again. What’s he done now?”

The disdain in his voice brought Rory up short. This was his brother they were talking about, someone he loved despite the obvious challenges Jude brought with him. “I’m going,” he said. “Have a nice dinner.”

No one came after him, and by the time he got into his car, phone still in his hand, he’d mentally set them aside. If they weren’t good enough friends to be in this with him, it told him everything he needed to know.

He put the key in the ignition without starting the car and called Shannon. On the third ring, he wondered if Shannon would even answer when he saw who was calling, but a moment later, he heard the other end of the line connect.

“Hi,” Shannon said.

“Hi,” he replied, and launched into an explanation. “Listen, I know we were taking some time to think things through, and I wasn’t going to call you this soon, but I need your help.”

Shannon was quiet for a few moments. “What’s wrong?”

“The police are looking for Jude. They think he stole some stuff from your job site, and they showed up at my parents’ house wanting to question him, but no one knows where he is. Have you heard anything?”

“No. I would have called you if I knew any of this was going on.” Shannon’s ability to flip a switch from surprised to practical was something Rory envied. “Bill wouldn’t touch base with me in particular, though, not on a Sunday, unless they were questioning everyone, I guess. What will you do?”

Rory closed his eyes briefly. “What I always do: try to find him.”

“Come over to my place first,” Shannon said. “I’ll call Bill and find out what’s happening.”

The relief of getting unquestioning support without judgment or meaningless exclamations of shock or sympathy steadied him. “I will. And thank you. I know I’m imposing—”

“You’re not. And if it’s a work issue, it concerns me too.”

Shannon ended the call abruptly, leaving Rory to listen as the echoes of his voice faded from his mind. He’d see him again soon. That would be both an ordeal and a comfort, but if it’d been undiluted agony, he’d do it for Jude’s sake.

Shannon answered the door, dressed in his customary jeans and T-shirt, but with his boots on and his leather jacket in his hand. “Hi. Do you want to come in or talk in the car?”

The sounds of the TV, or maybe a computer game, drifted through from the living room. If Dex was in there, Rory didn’t want to see him. Maybe the breakup would’ve happened without Dex’s interference, but he blamed Dex for misleading him about Shannon’s opinion of the threesome idea.

“In the car, if that’s okay.”

Shannon nodded, pulled on his jacket, and stepped forward, taking Rory by surprise. They didn’t collide because Shannon paused, but they ended up close to each other. Rory breathed deep, the smell of old leather and Shannon achingly familiar, making him realize how much he’d missed it. He’d gotten over Micah easily in comparison, yet Micah had been a longstanding partner and Shannon a series of brief encounters. It didn’t make sense.

Shannon reached out, giving Rory not the hug he longed for, but a swift pat on the arm. “We’ll fix this, Doc.”

Maybe, though with each time Jude screwed up it seemed less likely, and Rory was becoming disillusioned. What was the point of resolving this situation when it would be followed by another, and another after that?

No. He had to focus, not get lost in depression about future possibilities. He fumbled for his keys as they reached the car, fingers busy typing a quick and what he hoped would be a reassuring text to his mother. Shannon made an impatient sound.

“Give me those.” He gestured for Rory’s keys.

“What? No.”

“Then let’s take my truck, and I’ll drive. They made it illegal to text and drive, you know.”

“Jude’ll hear us coming a mile away.”

“No, he won’t. I had the exhaust fixed this week. You trust me enough to call me and ask for help, but not enough to drive your car? I have a perfect driving record.” Shannon didn’t sound offended.

Rory’s first instinct was to argue; then he realized there was no point to it. “Okay. Let’s take yours, I guess.” Jude was less likely to recognize Shannon’s truck, hopefully. Assuming they’d be able to find him at all.

“Good. Get in.” Shannon waited until they had both doors closed before continuing. “Where to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will he know you’ll be looking for him?”

“It depends. He might not even be thinking that far ahead, to whether anyone will have noticed the stuff is missing or if anyone will suspect him. His brain doesn’t work that way.”

“I talked to Bill,” Shannon told him. “The cops called him this morning after someone walking their dog reported signs of a break-in. The thieves cut through the padlock, took a bunch of stuff, then tied a piece of wire around the gate to make it look locked from a distance. Jude would probably be a suspect anyway because of his history, but then they found a friend of his selling some of the smaller power tools at a flea market. Trying to get rid of them fast, I’d guess. He told them Jude helped find the best stuff to take.”

Rory felt sick. “Before, they played him for a fool, but even Jude can’t have thought this was okay.”

“Yeah, it’s not good. We’re a medium-sized company, and we’re insured, but this could put us behind schedule, and we’ll pay penalty clauses that’ll eat into the profit.”

“He had a new jacket. He said one of his friends gave it to him,” Rory remembered. “A bribe?” It sounded stupid when he said it out loud, though it was one of those things he could imagine Jude’s friends doing.

“Won’t know until we find him.”

“I’m texting him now,” Rory said, even as he was hitting the keys. “Not that I think he’ll answer.”

Shannon started up the truck and backed it out of the driveway, looking carefully over his shoulder so he didn’t hit Rory’s car, which he’d done a shitty job of parking parallel at the curb. “Want to head over to where we looked for him last time? Are there other bars he likes?”

Under other circumstances, Rory would have thought it was cute that Shannon believed Jude wouldn’t go back to a place he’d been thrown out of. Now it highlighted how little Shannon understood how Jude’s brain worked. “Um. I don’t know. Shit.”

“Don’t swear, think. Take a deep breath and try to think like Jude.”

“All of a sudden you have a problem with swearing?” Rory’s phone bleeped a response, but it wasn’t Jude, it was his mother.

The police left; they didn’t find anything suspicious in Jude’s room. Your dad’s going out to look for him.

He sent back: Okay. Keep me posted.

“My mom. The police didn’t find anything suspicious at their house.” Rory tried to get back on track. “Think like Jude? Are you kidding? If only it were so simple.”

“But that’s the point, right? Come on, Doc. You’re too smart to be this stupid.”

“Fuck you,” Rory said, in part because Shannon had told him not to swear.

“That didn’t work out for us so well before, remember?” Shannon turned left at the next intersection and kept driving, though Rory didn’t think they’d settled on a destination. “Close your eyes.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Close your eyes.” Shannon waited, keeping his gaze on the road, and after a moment, Rory huffed in frustration and obeyed.

“Fine. Now what?”

“Now think. You’re Jude. You helped your friends break into the place you work and steal a bunch of stuff. What do you do next?”

“I wouldn’t be involved in anything else,” Rory said slowly. “I don’t have the contacts or the street smarts for making deals to distribute it. So I’d get a cut of the profits—a small cut—and I’m all about the instant gratification, so I’d settle for cash in my hand without wondering how much everyone else made on the deal. And I wouldn’t think it through and realize losing my job meant I’d end up worse off even if I didn’t get caught.”

“Does he expect to get away with it?”

Rory gave a hollow laugh, opening his eyes again. “Oh yeah. In fact, if he hadn’t gotten word the police were after him, he might have shown up for work tomorrow, pretending—badly—to be surprised at what went down.”

“Okay, so who told him?”

“What?”

“His friend got taken into custody and gave the cops Jude’s name, yeah, but he’s still locked up, and I doubt they let him call around warning people. So who told Jude? What made him run?”

“Good point. Survival instinct kicking in? Guilt?”

“Or he hasn’t gone anywhere, and he’s goofing off, not answering his phone.”

“Shit.” Dismayed that he hadn’t thought of that, Rory rubbed his knuckles across his mouth and resisted the urge to bang his head against the window, then scrabbled with his phone to see what he’d texted to Jude.

WHERE ARE YOU? Mom and Dad are freaking out.

Okay, that wasn’t so bad. It probably hadn’t given the game away; at least he hadn’t mentioned the police. And luckily Jude could be easy to fool, though it was something Rory had been careful not to take advantage of since they were kids.

Come on, I was messing with you. Want to grab a late dinner? My treat.

“Maybe if I act like everything’s fine, he’ll reply.”

“Maybe.” Shannon pulled into the parking lot of the burger place they were passing and got in line behind two other cars.

“What are you doing?” Rory asked.

“Um, getting some fast food? I know it’s not your first choice as far as healthy meals go, but I didn’t get dinner, and I’m pretty sure you haven’t eaten in a while either.”

“Why would you think that?” It was true; he’d had lunch more than five hours ago, and he’d been hungry when he’d joined his friends for the dinner he’d never even had a chance to order.

“Your hands are shaking.” Shannon’s observation was probably meant to be matter-of-fact; Rory could still hear the concern behind it.

“Oh.” He set his cell phone down on the lip of the dashboard and laced his fingers together to stop the trembling.

The car in front of them moved ahead, and Shannon pulled up to the speaker. “What do you say, Doc? Gonna be good and order a salad, or throw caution to the wind and have a burger?”

Chapter Twelve

Sitting next to Rory wasn’t the place he’d expected to find himself this Sunday evening. After days of getting over losing him, having him nearby, if only as a friend in need of help, took him back to square one—hurting, raw, angry. So what if it’d been a handful of days apart? He’d woken each morning to the sick rush of realization that he’d blown it. Losing the first man he’d fallen in love and seen a future with sucked. Rory had captivated him with his enthusiasm, gotten him addicted to a wild, hot lovemaking like nothing he’d experienced before. And if Rory’s loyalty to his brother was irritating at times, it wasn’t the worst fault the guy could have.

So easy to forget those negative emotions, though, and return to the effortless back-and-forth they’d established so quickly, spiced with awareness of how—not to fancy it up—fucking hot Rory was. Responsive, eager, passionate, inventive… Shannon could make a list and run out of room on a sheet of paper before he ran out of ways to describe Rory as a lover and a man.

He watched Rory yield to a different hunger and order a chicken sandwich dripping with mayo, a limp piece of lettuce and a slice of tasteless tomato the single nod to vitamins, and a large fries.

Once they had their food, he pulled into a space in the parking lot for long enough to unwrap his burger and take a few bites, but Rory’s need to move was evident in his tense body and the hurried way he ate, snapping at the sandwich and swallowing after a few chews.

“Calm down, or you’ll be no use if this goes on for hours.”

“I want to know where he is.” Rory looked at his half-eaten sandwich and wrapped it back up, tucking it next to his leg. “What if something happened to him?”

“I think it’s safe to say something happened to him,” Shannon said, then realized how that sounded when Rory looked at him, horrified. “No, I don’t mean— I meant he’s either on the run, or he’s holed up somewhere, but until we find him, we won’t know how he was involved with the theft. Don’t go imagining anything more sinister than that. If he’s guilty, it’s nothing new.”

Rory shoved some fries into his mouth and chewed them like they were responsible for everything wrong with the world. When he’d swallowed, he said, “It’s always new. That’s the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even if it’s something he’s done before, like stealing, or cheating someone, or helping someone else break the law, it’s always new. Another negative to add to a huge pile of negatives, sure, but every time it’s like the first time, because every time I think he’ll learn. But he never does.”

Shannon didn’t approve of the resignation in Rory’s voice. “For some people, it takes longer.”

“How long am I supposed to keep propping him up?” Rory shoved his knee against the dashboard, hard, angry. “I’m sick of it! Why does it have to be my fucking job?”

“It doesn’t. You can let this one go. You don’t need to carry it anymore.” Shannon tried to sound soothing, not because he thought there was anything wrong with Rory being angry, but because this wasn’t the time when the anger would be useful to him.

“But who’ll pick it up if I drop it?” Rory asked. “No one else thinks it’s a job worth doing.”

God, Shannon wanted to grab him, kiss the hopelessness and bitterness away until nothing was left but the essential sweetness at his core. Not something he could do now. This emergency didn’t alter what had split them apart. Rory was still a wild card sexually, and Shannon was still unsure Rory wanted him as he was. That Rory even knew who he was beyond the rough biker with the ability to make him come his brains out on demand.

“It is worth doing, but it needs to be done by Jude.” It seemed simple to Shannon, but maybe he was missing something. “He’s capable of it if you give him guidelines instead of boxing him in so he feels trapped and lashes out.”

“So this is my fault?” It was a genuine question, the words weighed down with guilt.

“We don’t know what happened yet. Save the angsting until then.”

Rory stared at him, a frown creasing his forehead, a few strands of hair falling into his eyes to be brushed away impatiently. “You think I’m being melodramatic?”

Shannon held his finger and thumb an inch apart. “Little bit. Not much.” He spread them as wide as he could. “You get to this level, and we might have a problem.”

“Yeah.” Rory sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I—” His phone bleeped, and he snatched it up, reading the screen. “He’s with some girl. He met some girl.”

“Probably more appropriate to refer to her as a woman,” Shannon pointed out, even as Rory began typing furiously. “I mean, one would hope.”

Rory shot him a fulminating look. Okay, so maybe humor wasn’t the way to go. “That’s the least of my worries, thank goodness. I’m asking him where he is.” He waited, then shook the phone in his fist as if that would make Jude reply faster. “God, he types so slow.”

“Take deep breaths,” Shannon advised. The look Rory gave him darkened further. Jesus, Rory was scarily hot all worked up like this. “Or, you know, not. Hyperventilating and freaking out, that works too.”

“I’m not freaking out.” His phone buzzed. “He’s at her apartment. Chase Village?”

“I know where that is.” Stuffing the last bite of his burger in his mouth, Shannon glanced over his shoulder and backed the truck up. “What will you tell him?”

“If I tell him the police are looking for him, he’s gonna run,” Rory said. “It won’t matter if he’s innocent or guilty. I’m texting: why didn’t you answer your phone?

“Then stretch out the conversation until we can get over there. Will it be easier to know if he’s telling the truth or lying if you can see his face?”

“Probably. I should call the police and tell them where he is. Let them deal with it.” It was hard to blame Rory for sounding like he’d given up.

“But you won’t because you don’t want to risk getting him in trouble on the off chance this is some misunderstanding.”

“How can it be? He’s out on bail for stealing from his employer, and stuff goes missing at his new job site. Do the math.”

“Did he like his old job?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Answer the damn question.” Okay, it was cheating to use that voice on Rory when he knew it got the man’s motor revving, but he wasn’t above getting sneaky when the end result was Rory’s peace of mind.

“No. He hated it. He was on his own for hours driving, and he likes being around people. Plus his boss was an asshole. Called him stupid. So? That doesn’t make what he did right.”

“No, but it meant he didn’t have to do that job anymore.”

Rory gaped at him. “You think he deliberately did something that would get him fired instead of quitting?”

“Ever tell him quitting was an option? Or did you rub it in that it wasn’t?” Before the stunned look on Rory’s face became words, Shannon pushed home his advantage. “He loves working on the site. Good money, people like him, and he isn’t only able to do the job, he’s good at it. Great, sometimes. There was nothing to gain by screwing up, so why would he?”

The phone bleeped again. “He shut off his phone because they were—um, busy.”

Shannon didn’t have any trouble guessing what that meant. They were passing a speed-limit sign it turned out he wasn’t obeying, so he eased the gas pedal down a little more. It didn’t sound like Jude was planning to make a run for it, but better safe than sorry.

I’ll take you both out for dinner if you want to meet me in the parking lot? Which building?” Rory glanced at Shannon. “I’ve been over there before. Wherever he parked his car won’t tell us much. You think he’s innocent?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I know he seemed happy at work. Hard to believe he’d risk that for, what, a leather jacket and some friends that left him holding the bag last time around?”

“Maybe you’re right.” Staring down at his phone, Rory added, “Talk about role reversal.”

“Someone else trying to convince you he deserves the benefit of the doubt for a change?”

“Yeah. Ugh, he doesn’t want to go to dinner, he’s ‘having too much fun.’”

Shannon grinned. “Well, he’s your brother. I’ve known you to get single-minded during sex too.”

“Shannon!” Rory’s shock was adorable. “I don’t— This isn’t the same.”

Giving up on teasing him, Shannon said practically, “Worse comes to worst, we stake out his car. Eventually he’ll run out of steam and go home.”

“I can’t wait around for hours!”

“Then one of us stays with his ride, and one of us knocks on doors until we find him.” Shannon accelerated through a changing set of lights with seconds to spare. “Every problem has a solution.”

“Do we?”

The question was asked quietly enough he barely caught it over the roar of the engine. When the words registered, his assurance dropped away, leaving him as adrift as Rory.

“What went wrong between us wasn’t a problem. It was a—” What had it been? He couldn’t define it in a snappy phrase or shape his chaotic emotions into a recognizable grievance. “We weren’t on the same page.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get there.” Rory picked up his sandwich again but only fussed with the paper wrapping, folding it more neatly until it made a compact bundle.

“I suppose not.” Shannon had spent much more time than he’d like wishing things had gone differently, but not much trying to figure out how they could have. He’d been more focused on accepting that some relationships weren’t meant to be—though his subconscious apparently had other ideas, if his vivid dreams were any indication.

“I wish—” Rory cut himself off when Shannon pulled into the entrance to Chase Village. “Do you see his car?”

It wasn’t easy or safe to study the darkened parking lot while trying to drive, so Shannon didn’t attempt it. “No.”

“Pull in there.” Rory indicated an empty spot. “I’ll message him and tell him to come outside.”

“Will he?”

“I don’t know, maybe, if I say I have something for him. God, I hate lying to him, but if I let slip that anything’s going on, I think he’ll take off.”

“It’s okay to choose to do what’s right for you, you know. You don’t always have to put him first.”

Rory seemed to wait until Shannon had shut the truck off to reply. “Yeah. I’m here in the parking lot. Come outside for a minute? I need to talk to you about something.

“There you go. Not a lie, not enough of the truth to make him suspect he might be in trouble.” Shannon patted Rory’s knee approvingly, and Rory, lightning fast, caught hold of his hand. “What are you doing?”

“What’s right for me, like you said.” Rory closed his fingers so tightly, it hurt Shannon, but the good kind of pain that made a man realize he was alive, like an icy breeze stinging his cheeks on a winter day with the sky vivid blue and the sunlight bouncing off the snow. “Grabbing hold of someone I want in my life.”

“You don’t want me.”

“Only the sex? That’s what you think, and it might have been true early on, but it stopped being true after the first couple of times. I wish I could make you see that.”

“You didn’t help suggesting a threesome.” Rory’s grip slackened at that reminder, and Shannon drew his hand free, flexing his fingers. “I gave Dex hell for that, in case you were wondering.”

“It wasn’t his fault. Another failure to communicate.”

“Yeah, well, he’s fucking lucky I didn’t communicate my opinion of that bright idea with my fists.”

Luis had been horrified, rounding on Dex and ripping a strip off him so effectively, Shannon hadn’t needed to do anything more than nod his agreement. Dex had offered to talk to Rory and smooth things over, but Shannon had stopped him. What had broken them up went deeper than Dex’s offer.

“He didn’t know you didn’t want to,” Rory said slowly.

“No.” Shannon had tried to remember the conversation they’d had, but it had been early in the morning and he’d only been half listening, so it had been partially his fault. Dex had honestly thought he was into the idea, and was apologetic when it had been made clear to him that he’d had it wrong. “And neither did you.”

“I’ve thought about it a lot.” Rory rubbed a thumb over the knuckles of his opposite hand. Shannon was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining hitting Dex, but it was impossible to be sure. “Whether I wanted to—because maybe it was a fantasy, maybe there was some truth to it, you know?—or if I was telling myself I did because I thought you wanted to, and I wanted to make you happy.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear your conclusion.”

“I think you do. Because what I realized was it’s the fantasy I’m into. Which means you didn’t want to have a threesome with Dex, and I didn’t want to have a threesome with Dex. Or anyone else. The reality is, I want— Shit, there he is.” Rory flung open the passenger side door so fast, he risked falling onto the pavement.

Shannon resisted the urge to punch the steering wheel—he was growing as a person all the fucking time, thank you very much—and got out too. He kept back as Rory headed for Jude, wanting to give them a little privacy, but ready to dash after Jude if he ran off.

“Hey, what’s up?” Jude seemed happy enough to see his brother. “I could only find one of my shoes.” And had apparently decided to wear it. His one bare foot must be freezing. “Hi, Shannon. Wait, I thought you guys broke up.”

“We did,” Shannon said before Rory opened his mouth. “This is work-related.”

Jude’s face fell. “I lost my job? Is that it? And you wanted Rory here when you told me?”

“Why would you lose your job? Did you screw up recently?” Shannon spread his hands, projecting friendliness. “It happens, trust me, buddy. First week on the job, I backed up, tripped over a hammer, and landed on wet cement. Ruined the floor, everything I had on, and I had to shave my head to get it out of my hair. Plus, they hosed me down to avoid cement burns, and I damn near had hyperthermia.”

The story was true in essence but wildly exaggerated. Jude snickered, losing the crestfallen look. “No shit? Wish I’d been there to see that. No, the last time I fucked up was coming in late, and you know I’ve been on time since then.”

“Yeah, I thought so. I told your brother here you were doing well.”

“So I’m not fired?” Jude hopped on one foot, curling his toes. “Cold! What do you want to tell me, then?”

“The police are looking for you,” Rory said, ruining Shannon’s attempt to ease into the discussion gently. “Someone stole a bunch of stuff from your work site, and one of your friends said it was your idea.”

“What?” Jude looked angry, not afraid. “No way! I’m out on bail, remember? Besides, Bill’s been nice to me. I wouldn’t do something like that to him.”

“They caught Neil trying to sell some of the power tools. He says you told them what to take so they’d know what was easy to carry and would be worth something.”

“I’d only know what to carry if it was a tool I’d worked with, and so far there haven’t been many of those,” Jude said. “And how would I know what was worth a lot? There aren’t price tags on the stuff that’s lying around.”

All good points.

“I know I’ve screwed up before, but this time I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“You have a new leather jacket,” Rory told him. “Where’d you get it?”

“Neil gave it to me! I told you that the other day. He said—” Jude faltered, wrapping both arms around himself. “He was asking me a lot of questions about my new job. I thought he was happy for me being in work. Usually he’s not interested in listening to me talk.”

That was all Shannon needed to hear. “Right. Get in the truck. We’re going down to the police station so you can explain to them what happened.”

Jude shuffled backward, suspicious, but stopped when his bare foot hit the decorative drainage stones on the edge of the sidewalk. “No way! They won’t believe me!”

“They will because Rory and I will stay there with you until everything gets straightened out. Tell Rory which apartment is your friend’s, and he’ll go find your other shoe.”

“It’s okay. I can get it,” Jude said instantly.

Shannon knew the way that story ended. “Jude, you don’t know me well, but I’ve been straight with you, right?”

“Yeah. I like you. Wish you two were still together.”

In a perfect world. “Let’s concentrate on you. If you mess this up, I’ll lose you at work, and I’ll be pissed if that happens, because you’re good. Now, you want to run. I know it, Rory knows it. You go back for that shoe, and you’re in the wind, and I’m tackling that west wall solo.”

“You need me for that!”

“I need you for that,” Shannon agreed. “And I’m a man who likes to get what he needs. So hop in the car and let me take care of this bit of trouble the way I took care of Bill when you were late.”

“What if they don’t believe me?” Jude wrapped his arms around his chest and rocked back and forth, shivering. “Why would they? They already think I’m a thief.”

“You’re not a liar, though. Even if it gets you in trouble, you usually tell the truth.” He’d noticed that. The tendency had led to some awkward moments at break time because Jude didn’t seem to grasp the idea of social white lies.

Jude bit his lip, then seemed to make up his mind. “It’s apartment 2B. On the second floor in the back. Her name’s Kelsey. She’s nice.”

“I’ll make some excuse, and you can call her later,” Rory promised. “Do you have her phone number?” When Jude shook his head, he said, “I’ll get it.”

“Come on,” Shannon said. “You’re freezing.”

While Rory went into the building, Shannon got Jude into the truck. Noticing Jude’s teeth chattering, he started up the truck and turned the heater on full. “It’ll be okay. You trust me, right?”

“Yeah. I don’t get why this keeps happening.”

“Because sometimes you trust the wrong people. People who aren’t your friends even if they say they are.”

“But you’re my friend, right?” Jude sounded so pitiful, Shannon was quick to reassure him.

“Right.”

“And you’re still Rory’s friend, even if you’re not his boyfriend anymore? Why’d you break up, anyway? Rory wouldn’t say.”

Shannon tried to think of a simple way to put it.

“Did he do something wrong?” Jude asked.

“No. No, he didn’t. Why would you think that?”

Jude shrugged and held his hands to the dashboard vents to warm them. “He was sad, so breaking up must have been your idea.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Shannon said. “It’s complicated. Sometimes two people don’t want the same things out of a relationship.”

“Sure, but everyone wants to be happy, and you made him happy. Not like Micah.” Jude gave a cat-throwing-up-a-hairball impression. “Jerk. He used to smile at me like he was picturing me dead and being eaten by worms.”

Shannon didn’t even try to hold back his laugh. “Yeah, he wasn’t too crazy about me either.”

They shared a fist bump and settled back to wait for Rory in a comfortable silence.

* * * * *

Dealing with the cops was made easier by Shannon knowing the man on the desk from a fund-raising event. Shannon had volunteered to build an outdoor stage for a talent show, and the officer’s twin daughters, delighted to discover Shannon was uncle to twins, had danced on it and won a small prize.

It didn’t remove all the difficulties, but with Shannon vouching for Jude and pointing out that he was cooperating fully and had voluntarily come to offer information, what might have been an interrogation changed to an interview.

Rory spent half the time supervising every interaction Jude had and the other half texting and talking to his parents. Shannon hadn’t expected Rory would need to convince them to stay home—he’d been solidly under the impression that they’d thrown up their hands and were content to let Jude stand or fall without them—but apparently the slightest hint that their son was innocent and they were eager to help.

“We don’t want to have to come looking for you if we have any more questions,” Officer Henderson told Jude sternly. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” Jude said, looking at Rory for translation. He’d handed over his new leather jacket, which Rory had also retrieved from Kelsey’s apartment, without complaint.

“You’re either at home or at work, or on your way from one place to the other.”

“Not forever, though?”

“For the next few days,” Henderson said, and Jude nodded, though he didn’t look happy about it.

“Okay. I can do that.”

When they got to the doorway of the building, Rory shrugged off his jacket and gave it to Jude. Wearing it, Jude looked like a little kid in his much older brother’s clothes. It hadn’t struck Shannon until that moment how significant the size difference was between them.

“Will you take me home?” Jude glanced at Rory when he said it, then at Shannon, as if the two of them had become a single unit during the past few hours. “I’d like to go back to Kelsey’s, but I guess that’s not gonna happen.”

“Yeah,” Shannon said. “Your parents want you home so they can see for themselves you’re okay. And you’ve got work tomorrow, don’t forget.”

“Won’t forget, won’t be late.” Jude ticked them off on his fingers, grinning. “Won’t tell Bill he needs to lose weight. Won’t fall into wet cement, like some people—”

“You can forget that story before tomorrow, if you want to thank me for saving your ass,” Shannon said, fighting to hold back an answering grin. “Besides, it’s old news to most of the crew. Either they were there, or they heard about it from someone who was.”

“How long did it take your hair to grow back?”

“Too long.” Shannon led the way to the truck, keeping an eye on Rory as he drove them back to their parents’ house. A silent, withdrawn Rory, who clearly had more on his mind than his brother, for once.

Douglas and Tracy were waiting for them and ushered Jude inside, thanking Shannon for his help.

“We’re so, so grateful,” Tracy said again.

“It’s okay. I was glad to help.” Shannon was at the point where he wanted to get out of there, not because it was late or because he’d struggle to get through the day tomorrow—both of which were true—but because he was worried Rory was fading fast and wouldn’t be safe behind the wheel by the time they got back to his house. “Jude, I’ll see you in the morning.”

“On time,” Jude promised.

Rory closed his eyes on the drive back to Shannon’s house, head resting against the window. He didn’t open them until Shannon shut the truck off.

“Come inside and have a cup of coffee or something,” Shannon suggested. “Or let me drive you home. I’ll pick you up in the morning, and you can take your car then.”

“I don’t know if I can take more people right now,” Rory said, looking toward the house where a couple of lights were still on. “But I don’t want to go home.”

Shannon didn’t want that either. He studied Rory’s face in the dim light from the porch, taking in the tired lines around his eyes and the weary set of his mouth. “Sleep here,” he offered. He wouldn’t think about whether it was the right thing in the long term; in the short term, he wanted to go to bed with Rory’s solid warmth against him, wanted to give Rory that much comfort at least.

“What does that mean? On the couch? With you?”

“With me. Sleep, nothing else. You’re exhausted.”

“And you don’t want anything else,” Rory said dully. “Not with me.”

“If you think I don’t want you, that’s something else you’re wrong about. It was never a case of that. But let’s not go there tonight. Come inside and crash.”

Rory shook his head and got out of the truck, moving like a man underwater, struggling to stay upright. Exasperation and pity had Shannon rougher than he’d intended when he caught up to Rory and grabbed his arm. “Did you hear me? You’re staying here.”

Rory twisted in his grip and lashed out with a fist, delivering a glancing blow to Shannon’s chest. It didn’t hurt much—he’d had worse from Dex when they wrestled for the remote—but the rejection stung.

“Let me be there for you,” he said, close to begging. He stroked Rory’s face, finding it damp with tears. No. Hell no. Rory wasn’t walking away, wiped out and crying. “Jesus, Doc, you’re killing me here.”

For a long moment—too long—Rory stood like a statue, rigid, refusing to yield, and for too long Shannon fought with himself about what the right thing to do might be, but Rory sighed and let his head fall forward, coming to rest against Shannon’s collarbone. Not the most comfortable pillow, but Shannon had never been so grateful to be used as one.

“I shouldn’t drive,” Rory muttered. It wasn’t what Shannon wanted to hear, and even in his exhaustion, Rory must have recognized it. He lifted his head again, eyes worried. “I—”

Whatever apology he was going to offer, another thing Shannon didn’t want right then was Rory trying to take care of someone else. He’d had enough of that for one day. “Shh.” He touched Rory’s lips with his. “Come on.”

Rory didn’t try to argue anymore but let himself be led inside and upstairs to Shannon’s room. Dex’s bedroom door was ajar, his light on, but he didn’t call out to say hi, and luckily there was no rustle of dog’s nails on the floor, no Tank coming to investigate.

Shannon shut his door and gestured at the bed. “Take off whatever you don’t want to sleep in. Do you need anything?”

“No. Just sleep.”

Toeing off his shoes, Rory let his clothes fall where gravity took them, not even hesitating about his boxer briefs. Naked, he crawled between the sheets, and when Shannon, who’d decided to take his cue from Rory and sleep nude, joined him, he curled close, seeking warmth and comfort.

There was no passion in their embrace. Intimacy, yes. Rory fitted his body to Shannon’s in what seemed an instinctive way, arm wrapping over Shannon’s chest, one leg flung over, bringing his groin in contact with Shannon’s thigh. The softness there told its own story. Shannon was used to Rory at a constant simmer of lust, boiling over at a touch. This was new.

And it was what he’d wanted. They’d sleep; then in the morning, drowsy, relaxed, they’d wake before the alarm and snatch time for a sweet release, hands and mouths working to bring each other off without fevered intensity or forceful possession.

It could go that way. He saw it as clearly as if it were a memory. And it came with a tinge of regret.

Because that kind of sex they could have with anyone. It was good, and it was romantic, and it appealed to part of Shannon, but what they’d had before had been… God, it’d been spectacular. Epic. That first time had set the bar high, and Rory had cleared the jump over and over and taken him along for the wildest of rides.

And, yeah, Rory had gone too high with the threesome deal, but wasn’t that what he’d asked Shannon to do? Take control? Why hadn’t he told Rory no, forget it, you’re fucking mine, Doc, no one else gets to touch, instead of freaking out like he had? Why hadn’t he manned up and told Rory when it went too far and pushed his limits until they snapped? He had a voice, didn’t he?

“I’m sorry,” Rory said quietly. His lips were inches from Shannon’s skin, and in a different moment, the prickle of his breath would have awakened arousal. “For everything.”

“Don’t be sorry.” The way things had gone down had been as much his fault even if he was only admitting it to himself now.

“Too late. I already am.” Rory sighed. “Thanks. For tonight. For this.”

Shannon wouldn’t have guessed it was possible for his heart to ache any more than it already did, but Rory kept on surprising him. When he tried to imagine a future where they were nothing more than friends for a few months, growing apart the way people did when there was too much time and space between them, it was impossible. “Yeah. Don’t thank me either. I didn’t do it for you.”

“Jude probably won’t stay grateful. In a couple of weeks, his good intentions will fade.” Pressing himself closer, Rory brought his mouth near Shannon’s ear and whispered, “I won’t forget.”

“Yeah? Good.” There were so many things he could have said, lighthearted jokes, but instead of saying any of them, he pulled back a couple of inches, took Rory’s face between his hands, and looked into his eyes. He hadn’t turned off the small lamp in the corner; it was easy to see the man who’d twisted him into knots and left him there, liking it. “You know I’m crazy about you, right?”

Rory’s expression went from grateful to confused and back again. “Y-you are?”

“Yeah,” Shannon said, and kissed him.

He didn’t get kissed back. Rory’s lips moved, but in an attempt to speak. When Shannon gave up trying to coax a response, Rory said, “So what, we’re on the same page now? Or will you change your mind again tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow we can talk. After work, anywhere you like. And I’m not, uh, seducing you, or going back on what I said about staying over with no strings attached.”

“But I like strings on me.” Rory gazed at him, drowsy enough to yawn, but coherent. “You holding me down, making me take you any way you like.”

“It was usually any way you liked,” Shannon pointed out. His cock stirred, thickening, breaking the truce. Traitor.

“Yeah? So if it’d been zero input from me, then what? You’d still have fucked me against that wall and damn near split me open. If you can’t admit that, there’s no point in having this conversation now, tomorrow, or this time next year.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, knowing Rory was right. “Yes. Yes, okay?” He wrapped a hand around the back of Rory’s neck and squeezed gently, affection, not frustration. “You’re right. I liked it too. As much as you did. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Rory nodded. All the tension went out of him, and he made a soft sound of relief like he’d been holding on to it for so long, he hadn’t even realized he was still carrying it. He closed his eyes and let Shannon’s arm beneath him support the weight of his head. “Then can we do the rest of this tomorrow? I’m so tired.”

Shannon kissed Rory’s hair. “Yeah, Doc. Tomorrow. You sleep now.”

Chapter Thirteen

Rory woke up slowly, knowing only that he wasn’t at home in his bed. The room was quiet except for a faint ticking sound he couldn’t identify; he had to open his eyes to make sense of it, and once he had, he discovered he was in Shannon’s bed, in Shannon’s bedroom, and the sound was coming from the radiator under the window. From his position, with only the top half of his head sticking out from under the covers, he could see the air shimmer as waves of heat came off the old-fashioned steam radiator.

He was alone in the bed. Listening hard, he was reasonably confident he wasn’t the only one in the house.

Rory sat up. His clothes, which he’d dumped on the floor, were gone, but there was a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, neatly folded, at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t find a clock or his cell phone. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled on the clothes—they fit fine—and went out into the hallway, still listening hard. The second step he took made a floorboard creak under his foot, and a moment later, there was the alarming realization that Tank was thundering up the staircase toward him.

He liked dogs, but seeing one the size of Tank running at him made him grit his teeth. Tank wagged his tail furiously, wide mouth open and panting in a smile, and the dog stopped inches before crashing into him.

“Shannon?” he said, hoping his voice would carry. “Save me! Tank looks hungry.”

“I thought he must have heard you,” Shannon called from downstairs. “Did you find the clothes?”

“Yeah. Thanks. Do you know what time it is?”

“Eight. I planned to get you up in a few minutes anyway, but last night was so rough, I figured you could use the extra sleep.”

Rory had gone to the top of the stairs at the same time Shannon was walking to the foot of them. Their eyes met, and Shannon smiled at him. “Thanks.” It was insufficient gratitude, but any words would have been.

“Your clothes are in the dryer. It’s possible the dog broke into the room after we went to sleep and used them as a bed and left them covered in hair and slobber. They’re almost dry. I figured if you wanted to go right to work in what you were wearing yesterday, you could, as long as it wasn’t covered in dog hair.” God, Shannon looked good in his work jeans and navy hoodie, hair pushed back.

“Aren’t you late?”

“Called Bill and said I’d be in by nine. He’s cool with that after what happened last night. The cops called and think they have a lead on some more of the equipment. That’s good news because we need it to stay on schedule. We can get by, but only up to a certain point.”

“Won’t the police keep it for, I don’t know, evidence?” He went downstairs and followed Shannon into the kitchen.

“They’re prepared to be reasonable since it’s vital to the business. They’ll photograph it, log it, then return it.”

“Good.” Rory knew Jude should be uppermost in his mind, but with Shannon around, his brother was a shared responsibility and one he could set aside for the moment. The relief was incredible. “Shannon—”

Shannon interrupted him. “We’re a granola-free zone, and good luck finding yogurt in the fridge, but there’re waffles in the freezer, and I could make eggs? With unhealthy white toast, but still. Eggs.”

He gave in easily, knowing that this wasn’t the time for them to work through what they needed to. Half an hour talking wouldn’t cut it. “Sure. Eggs sound great. Thanks.”

“Sit. I’ll bring you coffee.”

Wearing Shannon’s clothes, with his hands wrapped around a mug and the smell of butter sizzling in a frying pan, Rory felt taken care of. It had been a long time since he’d felt that way, so long that he’d forgotten it was something he was capable of feeling. Tank had joined them and was curled up on a thick dog bed in the corner, chewing determinedly on a bone.

“Scrambled or fried?” Shannon asked. He’d turned away from the stove and was holding a mint-green spatula.

“It doesn’t matter. I like every version of eggs. Thank you.”

“That’s the second time you said that. Maybe the third. You don’t have to keep thanking me.” Cracking eggs directly into the pan—a man living on the edge—Shannon glanced over his shoulder at Rory. “How’d you sleep?”

“Good. I don’t remember waking up at all until right before I got up. Your bed’s comfortable.”

“I like it better when you’re in it,” Shannon said, and it took longer than it should have for that to sink in.

“I can wait until tonight to talk this out, but I can’t go all day wondering if we’re together again or not.”

Shannon had his back to Rory, but his stillness was eloquent enough. “I want us to be. More than I know how to tell you.”

“Then don’t tell me. Show me. One kiss. Please?” Knowing he was being unfair, Rory walked over to him and hugged him from behind. It was like hugging a rock. Then Shannon twisted around, alive, warm, and took Rory’s mouth in a kiss.

Rory closed his eyes, savoring every second, small, delighted sounds escaping him until he ran out of breath. Shannon’s tongue flickered against his, a commanding presence, weakening his resolve. They could be late, couldn’t they? How long would it take for Shannon to fuck him and seal their reunion? He pressed up against Shannon, writhing shamelessly in search for friction to drive his arousal higher.

“One kiss,” Shannon said and put space between them without ending the hug. He stared down at Rory, a delicious sternness hardening his features. “You get what you ask for, Doc. No more, no less.”

God, it felt good to voice his need, blatant and shameless and honest. “What if I beg?”

“Won’t change the fact we have to leave for work in twenty minutes max. Sit. If you distract me so I burn the eggs, you’ll have to go without breakfast, and I’ll be unhappy.” If anything, Shannon sounded pleased about the threat, and Rory thought it best to obey.

He didn’t have any underwear on under Shannon’s borrowed sweatpants, and his cock seemed to like that, even if he was determined to ignore it until Shannon told him otherwise.

He managed to get through the next fifteen minutes, eating and then changing into his own clothes after Shannon retrieved them from the dryer.

“What time do you get off work?” Shannon asked when Rory came out of the bathroom, erection carefully tucked into his slacks.

He had to check his phone, which had been rescued from a trip through the laundry when Shannon checked his pockets. “Five thirty. Lots of times it’s five, but tonight I have a client who couldn’t come until then.”

“I want to take you out. I could come pick you up at your place at six thirty? Would that give you enough time to get ready?”

Rory nodded. “Where are we going?”

“Haven’t decided yet.” Shannon looked at him, then stepped in close and pressed his palm against Rory’s cock. “Gonna save that for me, Doc?”

He swore his hair stood on end from the resultant sizzle of lust. “All day,” he promised rashly. Okay, maybe that was physically impossible, but he knew his thoughts would have one focus, one compelling reason to wish the hours away.

“Yeah?” Shannon smiled at him, eyes narrowed, fingers moving slowly, mapping the rigid length. “So if I text you and ask if it’s hard, the answer will be yes?”

“If it wasn’t, you asking me that would make it be.” Rory blinked, replaying the sentence in his head, trying hard to block the sensations threatening to make him choke out his next words. “Did-did that make sense? God, stop that. No, don’t stop.”

“See, I can’t give you anything if you don’t know what you want.” Shannon spun him around, the movement executed too fast for Rory to resist. A slap landed on his ass, leaving it smarting, hot. Shannon gathered him close, hand back on his cock, his beard tickling Rory’s neck. “That’s for making my life more difficult than it needs to be. From now on, I want it simple. Every filthy, depraved, perverted, wet dream you’ve ever beat off to, you share with me, and I’ll make it happen if I like the sound of it, or tell you to keep it a fantasy if it isn’t. But I’ll always want to hear what you have to say, Doc, so don’t hold back.”

He shuddered and groaned softly, not trying to hold the noise in, a wordless confirmation. He was as turned on as he’d ever been in his life, and it was all a tease. It would have seemed normal to be frustrated; instead, he was grateful. In that moment, if Shannon had told him to drop to his knees and suck him for hours, Rory would have done it.

“Good. Now get yourself to work. I’ll see you at six thirty.”

* * * * *

It was the longest day Rory could remember on multiple levels. After lunch, exhaustion hit him hard, making his eyelids heavy, and he had to have a rare afternoon cup of coffee to revive himself. He’d finished it when his phone buzzed a text.

Still hard for me?

Yes.

Making his way through several more hours of office visits with an erection, even if it waned at times, was a challenge, but Rory focused on each client, determined not to shortchange any of them because he was desperately horny. When he said good-bye to Andrea DeAlto at the office door, it was a relief. One more hour.

He scribbled some quick notes and rushed home, heat blasting in the car to make up for his lack of a jacket. Jude still had that. A scalding-hot shower drove any lingering chill from his bones. Shaving carefully, not wanting to cut himself, he studied his expression in the mirror. What was it about him Shannon wanted? It was something below the surface, something impossible to see in his reflection.

He drank a glass of water and was sitting on his couch, a small love seat, with a nutritional supplement catalog he’d never order from, when Shannon knocked on the door.

Opening it, he was conscious of the symbolism of the act. He was welcoming Shannon into more than his home, opening more than a slab of wood. Being with Shannon meant a transformation he wouldn’t be able to keep secret forever. His family and friends didn’t need to know he enjoyed rough sex, but even in the short weeks he’d known Shannon, the face he showed the world had altered, depicting his inner changes.

He was happy now. Fulfilled. Or he had the potential to be. It hung on the discussion they’d planned for tonight. Would it clear the misunderstandings or create new ones? He wished he knew. The downside to the passion between them was that their arguments turned intense fast.

Then he saw Shannon, and his doubts became a single, rock-solid certainty. This was the man for him. It didn’t matter how long they’d known each other or how different they appeared on the surface. They fitted together snugly.

Shannon smiled, gaze dropping to Rory’s aching erection, and memories of how that fitting together was accomplished in a physical way had his face heating.

“Come here,” Shannon said, stepping over the threshold and kicking the door closed.

Rory kissed him, hands swarming over the big, solid body like a climber seeking a hold on a steep cliff. Shannon met his assault with an enthusiasm that flattered and reassured. Previous boyfriends had been so fucking tepid about sex, as if it didn’t count for much in their lives. Shannon’s hunger was real and raw.

“Thought we were going to talk,” he said when they broke for air, a tease, not a complaint.

“For us, this is a conversation.”

“What do you want? Anything.” Rory meant it with all his heart. If Shannon had told him not to touch him for the rest of the night, that he wanted them to go to dinner and then shake hands chastely at the door, he’d have figured out a way to accomplish it.

“Want to kiss you,” Shannon said. He did, a dozen times and then a dozen times more. Their arms were wrapped around each other, one of Shannon’s hands on Rory’s ass possessively. “Tell me you thought about this all day.”

“I did.” No, that wasn’t the whole truth. “Not just this. You.” Rory clung to Shannon, wanting him to at least take off his jacket but not wanting to let go long enough to allow for it.

“Me too. God, why are you wearing so many clothes?” Shannon tugged at Rory’s shirt ineffectually, and Rory laughed.

“No, I know. I was thinking the same—here, take off your jacket—”

They stripped to the waist, which was an improvement. “I bought condoms,” Shannon said, kissing a spot under Rory’s ear that made him shiver. “And lube.”

“When?” It was a stupid question, but too late, he’d already asked it.

“On my lunch break. Didn’t want to get here and learn you’d run out. Or thrown them all away.” Shannon pinched one of Rory’s nipples, and he gasped.

“Why— God! Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know.” Pulling back, Shannon looked at him. “After this, we’ll talk.”

“After,” Rory agreed, rocking his erection against Shannon’s hip and moaning at how good the pressure felt through layers of fabric. “Not now.”

Talking was risky. Sex wasn’t. Naked, they spoke the same language.

With speed, if not efficiency, they finished undressing, leaving their clothing strewn across the floor.

“Bed?” Rory asked, pressing openmouthed kisses and bites across Shannon’s chest. “Anything you like, any way you like.”

“Save the bed for when we want to sleep.” Shannon took Rory’s head between his hands. “Trust me?”

“Yes.” Rory wanted to jerk his head up and down, emphasizing his answer, but Shannon’s grip made that impossible.

Shannon’s blue eyes burned hot. “Kill the lights.”

Shivering with anticipation, Rory plunged the room into darkness, then turned to find Shannon close behind him.

“Want the world to see you the way I do.” Shannon’s face was a blur, Rory’s eyes adjusting slowly to the lack of light. “See you take my cock and ride it until your ass screams for mercy.”

Shannon’s cock. Thick, huge, driving into him with uncompromising strokes… God, he wanted it. Fuck foreplay. Ram it in. He swallowed, then rallied. “I’d scream for more, not mercy.”

“Want to bet?” Shannon asked softly.

“Please.” It was a whimper, his dignity stripped from him with his clothing, his need a consuming fire only Shannon could quench. “Make me scream. God, I’ve missed you. It was only days, but it might as well have been months.”

“Missed this?” Shannon drew Rory’s hand to his cock, allowing Rory to fondle it. “Or me?”

“It’s not separate from you,” Rory pointed out. “But, yeah, I’ve dreamed about you using it to fuck me.”

“Might not next time.” Shannon caressed Rory’s ass, pinching and squeezing. “Could rim you till you shoot. Both thumbs in that greedy little hole, spreading you wide, then licking you until you’re so fucking tender, I’d only need to breathe on you to make you come.”

He whimpered again. A few words and Shannon reduced him to an animal state of need, grateful for anything he was given, but always wanting more. “Please.”

Shannon wrapped one hand around the back of his neck and used to it guide him not toward the bed but over to the sliding glass patio doors that led to the large area behind the building. “How’d you like it if I fucked you right here? Put your palms against the glass.”

Trembling, Rory obeyed. The glass was cold, and he was naked. He heard the sound of Shannon unrolling a condom onto his dick, the slick of lube, then felt the wet chill as it brushed the back of his thigh.

“Anyone who looks this way’ll be able to see you,” Shannon murmured, pushing inside him softly, the tip pressing into his hole, waking up every nerve he had. “They won’t see me, but they’ll know what’s going on in here. That you’re being fucked up the ass and loving every second of it.”

“No.” He meant yes, of course.

“It’s not up to you; it’s up to me.” Still being careful, Shannon pushed deeper. “I’m the one who decides. You’re the one who takes it. Turns you on, knowing that you’re on display.”

“No.”

“Liar.” Shannon reached around and squeezed Rory’s balls, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes but not enough to make him cry out. “You know what happens to liars, Doc?”

It had been the answer that worked so far, so he went with it again. “No.”

“I fuck ’em till they scream,” Shannon said sweetly, and thrust in all the way.

Rory wailed, sure he’d been split open, legs shaking. There was nowhere to go to get away from Shannon, pinned between the man and the glass door the way he was, and when he instinctively moved forward, it meant the cold glass against his nipples and cock ratcheted his confused arousal higher.

“You can take every inch,” Shannon told him. “Every fucking inch until I’m out of cock to feed you. And I’ll pull out and hear you make those sad little sounds, like we don’t both know you’ll get it back, slammed into you, over and over until your hole’s stretched like taffy.”

“Do it. Do it! Please, God, fuck me, fuck me, please, oh God, oh please—” He ground out the plea, hammering his fist against the frame of the door to the point where the glass could shatter and he wouldn’t care. The thickness owning him hurt in a way his body interpreted as pleasure. Agony would be Shannon walking away.

“Jesus, you have no idea what you do to me when you beg like that.” Shannon’s voice shook, but his hands on Rory were sure and steady, stroking heat into his skin, altering his position to make the next stroke easier to take. The stiffness tunneling into his body rubbed over sensitive, sensitized flesh, setting off a chain reaction, culminating in an explosion. There. Right there. Oh yeah, magic spot nailed.

“Touch yourself,” Shannon commanded. “Work your cock. I want to see your cum decorating the glass. Make you lick it off after I’ve come, hands and knees, while I see how many fingers I can cram into you. It’ll hurt like hell, but I’ll keep them in you until you’ve cleaned up every drop.”

“Yeah, make me do that. Make me do it. Jesus, please.”

His voice broke, but inside he was healing, hidden, ignored fragments of fantasies flowing together to form a perfect whole.

“Anyone outside who looks in will see what a slut you are. That you’ll do anything to come, anything I tell you to.” Shannon hit that perfect spot again. Again. “Because you’re mine.”

Rory came, screaming Shannon’s name, cock throbbing in his fist. Every throb made his ass clench around Shannon’s cock, and it hurt so fucking much, he wanted to collapse to the floor. Shannon had an arm around his waist now, holding him up when his legs threatened to give out on him.

“Jesus, Doc. Gonna—” Shannon’s turn, and Rory felt every ripple of orgasm though it wasn’t his. He panted for breath and concentrated on staying upright, unwilling to disturb Shannon’s pleasure.

Shannon didn’t allow himself to bask in the afterglow for more than a few seconds. Then he pulled out—God, it felt like he was scraping Rory’s ass raw—and said, “On your knees.”

Rory, unsure he was serious before, turned and looked at him uncertainly. “But—”

“You heard me.” Shannon put weight on his shoulder, helping gravity, and after a moment, Rory sank down to the floor. Shannon joined him and, as promised, immediately pushed what felt like three fingers into his sore hole. Rory whined. “That’s okay. Make as much noise as you want. No words. And I’d better see you licking that glass.”

This was the first time Shannon had turned words spoken to whip their arousal higher into reality, and a flash of rebellion had Rory closing his mouth firmly. With their cocks softening, what was the point? The act didn’t need to be performed; nothing could diminish the pleasure he’d felt moments earlier.

But if he never knew which of Shannon’s words would become an expectation and which would stay fantasy, that would silence the voice reassuring him that he was safe, the irritating, lust-killing voice. He needed to believe Shannon would truly fuck him in public, humiliate him in the name of an intense, ball-wrenching climax, hurt him in beautifully brutal ways. And if Shannon never carried out any of his plans, that belief would wither.

Slowly, reluctantly, he extended his tongue, lapping the cooling trails of spunk from the glass, goaded to work faster by the twist and prod of Shannon’s fingers.

Those fingers moved deeper and found his prostate. At first he thought there was no point to that either. He wasn’t likely to get hard again, and even if it felt good, it wouldn’t—oh. His cock stirred, and Shannon said, “There. See?”

He was sure Shannon was talking about a bigger picture he was supposed to grasp. This was a lesson, and he’d learn it sooner or later. Right then, the steady pressure was arousing him, making him ache with the promise of pleasure even while his raw hole was nothing but pain.

“Maybe I’ll fuck you again later,” Shannon said. A minute ago, Rory would have thought it an empty threat, another twist of fantasy. Now, with Shannon’s fingers shoved inside him, rubbing his swollen gland, hardening his dick, he knew it might happen. “Take you out to dinner, fuck you in the parking lot. You forget you were supposed to do something there?”

The window. Rory hurriedly finished licking it clean and let his head fall forward, bumping the glass, as Shannon rewarded him with another firm press, wrist twisting so knuckles rubbed and wrung a groan out from between his lips.

“Can you come again?” Shannon sounded curious, but Rory shook his head, remembering at the last second that he wasn’t supposed to use words. “I’d be willing to bet you can.”

Shannon reached around and cupped Rory’s balls, adding a different sensation to the mix, rolling them gently, the caress soothing, then clamping them with his hand, the tight clasp a shock. He cried out from a dry throat, nerves strung out, thrumming, held captive by two hands and Shannon’s determination to wring out more from him than he had to give.

The challenge wasn’t to get his cock to spit out a few more drops, but to please Shannon, and Rory, driven to succeed, took everything Shannon gave him and used it to build toward a second climax.

“That’s it,” Shannon told him as he panted, fucking himself on those merciless fingers, his cock rigid now, primed by pain. Shannon’s voice was deep, harsh, betraying his excitement. “Go for me again. Love seeing you take it like this. Love you. Love you, Rory.”

“Oh God—” Not supposed to talk, not supposed to— But the words Shannon spoke drew an answer from him, and he came with a rush, what left him insignificant, what remained more important. Shannon gathered him in before he slumped to the floor, supporting him, cradling him in his lap. A vast calm filled him, every part of him relaxed, the agony of being fucked raw and squeezed dry wiped away by two hands and three words.

He lay angled so his abused ass touched air, sweaty, cum drying on his stomach and thighs—that stuff got everywhere—Shannon’s fingers tacky with lube, catching on his skin with every caress. Discomfort crept back, pain at its heels, but he’d never felt happier.

“Got you, Doc,” Shannon whispered against his hair. “Safe and sound.”

It was tempting to close his eyes and let himself sleep right there, but despite the lethargy that followed two incredible orgasms, he was hungry. Plus he hated the thought of waking up if he slept without showering first. Still, he stayed where he was a lot longer than he should have, not wanting to move.

Shannon said, “You’re probably gonna want a shower.”

“Yeah.” His voice was rough. “Food too.”

“I’ll order something and have it delivered. What’re you in the mood for?”

Rory tried to think, but he was moving in slow motion. “I don’t care. There’s a basket next to the fridge with some local menus.” He kept meaning to throw them away because everything was online now anyway, but when they arrived in the mail, he always tucked them into the basket instead of tossing them into the recycling bin. “Surprise me.”

“I’ll try.” Shannon helped him to his feet, looking concerned when he winced. “You okay?”

“Mm-hm.” He’d gotten into the shower before he realized he could have asked Shannon to join him, even if the stall wasn’t big enough for two, but he figured he’d be forgiven. He was rinsing off the soap when Shannon, distorted by the rippled glass, loomed in the doorway.

“Hope pad Thai’s okay.”

“It’s fine. You want me to leave this running so you can have a turn?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

When Rory stepped out onto the bath mat—good thing it was absorbent—Shannon kissed him and wrapped a towel around him. “Here you go. Temperature’s dropping out there.”

It was only a few days until Halloween, so that was to be expected. “They were saying there’s a chance of snow.”

“A slim one, I hope. I’m not ready to say good-bye to fall.” Shannon got into the shower, shutting the door behind him. Rory used his foot to shove the mat into a spot where it’d do more good. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten we need to talk.”

“After food.” Though contemplating the upcoming talk blunted his appetite. Despite the perfect sex and that declaration of love, he knew they had plenty to discuss.

During the meal, they talked about nothing subjects—the food itself, the roadworks around town, and their dream vacation, prompted by a flyer for a local travel agency in Rory’s mail peppered with dazzling photos of tropical scenes and snow-covered mountains. The conversation of strangers when every shift in the chair reminded him of Shannon’s use of his body. Dishes in the sink, leftovers in the fridge, they settled onto the couch.

“So,” Shannon said. “Talk.”

“I don’t know where to start or what to say.” Okay, so not helpful, but he got marks for honesty, he hoped.

Shannon pushed his damp hair back, and Rory followed the movement of his hand, remembering it inside him. “Yeah, this isn’t easy. I’ve never analyzed a relationship before. I’ve met guys, hung out with them, fucked them until we got bored, and it was simple. Even had relationships end, and that was simple too. You’re not simple. You make me not simple. And I panicked. Saw a different side of me I hadn’t expected.”

“What side? Because all I see is a—a kind man. To me, to Jude, to your friends. And I can’t imagine you disappointing me by being selfish or cruel or even mean in a petty way.” Rory exhaled. “Okay, that sounds like I think you deserve a halo. But I wouldn’t change anything about you, if it helps to know that.”

Shannon patted Rory’s knee, then sighed. “It does. I’m not sure the view you have is based in reality.”

“I’m not trying to say you’re perfect. I’m sure as hell not, no one is, and I’m sure there are things about each other we’ll learn as the years go on that make us crazy or…disappointed, or whatever.”

“Years?” Shannon was surprised, that much was easy to hear in his voice. “Is that what you’re picturing?”

He was probably supposed to deny it, but that would have been a lie. “Yes. It’s what I’m hoping for. You said— You said you love me. And I didn’t think it was sex talk, though if it was, this would be the time to tell me, before I keep going saying more and more stupid things like a lovestruck teenager who doesn’t—”

Shannon shut him up by turning, pulling him close, and kissing him. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t like it when you get like this,” he said quietly. His arm was wrapped around Rory’s chest across the front, hand holding loosely to Rory’s shirt. “The endless stream of words, I mean. I like it. And it wasn’t sex talk. But I’ve only said it to one other person before, and that didn’t work out so well.”

Rory had never said it, but in the long run, he’d still ended up single, like Shannon. “When we first met, I thought if I was lucky, it’d be a little hot sex and that would be the end of it. I’d given up on the idea of a real relationship. Stuff with Jude… It took a long time for it to sink in that he’d get between me and other people, whether we were dating or friends.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that with me.”

Settling into a more comfortable position with his head against Shannon’s shoulder, Rory said, “Yeah. It’s not. I’m not sure why. Not that I’m complaining.”

“I get that.” Shannon’s thumb rubbed across one of Rory’s ribs. “The sex stuff…”

“I don’t want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, even if you think I want it. Even if I do want it. I don’t want it at the expense of your mental health.”

“I did it to make you happy. To keep you interested in me. Used it to chain you close. And it got to be too much. It scared me how far you’d go and how tempting it was to follow you in the heat of the moment. Because when we were doing it, oh God, it would’ve taken a gun to my head to stop me. It was after. I’d lie in bed at night, and the stuff we’d done would play back, and I’d shudder. I saw all the places I could’ve hurt you, or where we could’ve gotten caught, exposed, and I’d hate myself for putting you at risk and you for making it so goddamn good.”

Shannon paused, more for breath than anything, because Rory saw he had more to say. Before he did, Rory jumped in. “You hated me?”

“Wrong word. Stupid word.” Shannon kissed him, the soft press of his lips conveying an apology. “And saying I love you was stupid too. I should’ve waited until now, when we aren’t naked and focused on one thing. So: I love you. Not sure when it happened, but it did. I need you in my life. We’re at the start of something here, and if you asked me where we’re headed, I wouldn’t have a clue, but it’s gonna be one hell of a wild ride.”

“I thought that when you took me on the bike.”

Shannon chuckled, tracing Rory’s jaw with his fingertips. “You clung like a limpet. I could feel your heart beating through my jacket.”

“I was so scared. It’s a miracle Jude never killed himself on the thing, though to be honest, I think he liked the idea of having it more than he ever liked riding it.”

“Well, I like riding it. And I promise I won’t risk my neck doing anything careless.”

“You’re nothing like Jude.” Rory knew he’d never have to take care of Shannon the way he’d always had to take care of Jude. Maybe Shannon would get the flu, or even get hurt on the job—he’d have to ask some more questions about the likelihood of that at some point—but it wouldn’t be the same. He’d be protecting Shannon from the world, not from himself.

“It’d worry me if I was,” Shannon said. “But I hope that’s not the only reason you like me.” He seemed to choose the word hesitantly, as if he’d wanted to use a different one.

Love you,” Rory corrected him, because if Shannon was brave enough to say it and mean it, so was he. “I should have waited too, instead of springing it on you the way I did.”

“I liked hearing it.” Shannon hugged him a little more tightly. “But yeah, I wondered if you meant it, considering the timing.”

“I did mean it. I do. I’m not sure how it happened either.” Maybe it didn’t matter how or when, only that despite the fact they sucked at romance, they’d ended up here.

“If I put on the brakes…”

“I’ll be fine with that.” Rory shook his head. “Do it. Stop me if I get a little crazy. This is new to me, wanting this. And I’m like a kid who doesn’t know a bucket of candy at Halloween isn’t meant to be eaten before November first. If I push for something risky, stop me. Say no. Don’t let me argue. I’ll— I’ll enjoy that too. You limiting me.”

“Won’t be easy, but I’ll try. I’m the brakes, you’re the turbocharger.”

“If you say so.” Rory grinned at him, at ease with Shannon in a way he’d never been with another partner. “You do realize I know nothing about bikes or engines or cars in general beyond what it takes to drive one?”

“I could teach you to ride a bike,” Shannon offered. “Maybe in the spring when the roads are clear. We could start now, but it won’t be long before there’s frost.”

“No. I want to ride behind you.”

“You get off on hugging me.”

“Is that a crime?” Rory snuggled in, loving Shannon’s sheer size and strength. “Better cuff me for breaking the law, Officer.”

“You don’t need to give me ideas.” Shannon reached out and took Rory’s wrists, his fingers tightening, living cuffs. “Got plenty fantasies of my own with you front and center, Doc.”

Rory couldn’t wait to hear about them.

Chapter Fourteen

Shannon kicked aside a lump of snow and saw fresh grass underneath. The spring blizzard the day before had taken everyone by surprise—the weather channel included—but he’d shoveled the snow away in a T-shirt, a light breeze bringing an undefinable scent of green with it.

Spring meant new beginnings, and for once, his life mirrored the season. It had been the last time he’d clear the pathway leading up to the house he shared with Dex and Luis. Rory and he hadn’t found a place that suited them yet, but it was only a matter of time. The delay was partly down to conflicting want lists. Rory was happy in a shoebox, and Shannon loved room to spread out in. Rory wanted move-in ready, and Shannon was happy to take on the challenge of a fixer-upper.

They were dancing around the subject of Tank or getting a pet if Tank stayed where he was.

Other than that, their relationship was solid. Looking back over the past six months, Shannon recalled a dozen spats, one serious argument, and a hellish night spent wondering if Rory would forgive him for punching Micah. That had taken place when Rory, suffering from a heavy cold, had left Christopher’s birthday party early but insisted Shannon stay on. Micah, drunk and in the mood to kiss and tell, had shared an impression of Rory climaxing that reduced the room to stunned, disapproving silence. Shannon had expressed his feelings by walking over, hauling Micah out of his chair with one hand, then putting him back in it with a fist to the jaw. He’d walked out after saying, “And that’s how you sound whimpering like a baby. Good to know.”

That night of agonizing was followed by an unplanned late arrival at work when Rory turned up on the doorstep the next morning, eyes blazing, to push him upstairs and demonstrate his feelings about the punch.

He approved. Shannon wasn’t sure he would, but he did.

Didn’t mean Shannon would ever do it again. If nothing else, he hoped not to find himself in a position where it seemed like the right thing to do, though Rory’s friends, who were gradually becoming his too, seemed to be helping with that. They’d seen Micah once since, at a bigger party they’d all ended up at, and Keri and Tom in particular had done a good job playing buffer between them, but otherwise Micah didn’t seem to be included the way he used to.

Jude was another issue that had resolved itself for the most part. Shannon didn’t try to stop Rory from worrying over Jude’s lapses in common sense, but he did his best to reduce the number of times it happened. Jude liked him and didn’t resent Shannon’s advice or feel the need to rebel against his authority. He was happy at work and hanging around with friends from the crew, men who knew how to have a good time without crossing the line. He’d cut all ties with his old friends. Not difficult, since one of them was in jail after the investigation into the theft at the site and the others blamed Jude for that. No loss.

Shannon was realistic about the situation—Rory fretted, Jude screwed up, and he picked up the pieces and acted as a buffer.

“I’m letting the dog out,” Dex said from the front door, while Shannon was still standing next to the mailbox, and did. Tank, delighted, rushed to join Shannon, feet kicking up little clumps of snow. The dog bent down, snuffled at the frozen white, and sneezed.

“Your other dad’s a jerk,” Shannon told him. He always had a leash tucked into his pocket these days, so he was able to call Tank over and clip him on. “You’d think he’d never heard of leash laws. I’m barely even home.”

“Hi again,” someone called from over in front of the neighbor’s house. The voice was vaguely familiar, and Shannon turned to see the guy he’d met at the park last fall, his caramel-colored dog standing politely at his heel as Tank headed straight for her, half dragging Shannon behind him. “Shannon, right?”

“And Tank.” He searched his memory. “Elliot?”

Elliot’s grin was infectious. “Yeah! You getting home from work?”

“Yeah. My team finished early today. We got to the point where we needed fresh supplies, and the delivery was held up to the north of us by the storm, so our boss let us go. Parkhurst got six inches from what I hear, and they didn’t sand, so it’s chaotic.”

“Spring’s on its way, though,” Elliot said. He glanced behind Shannon. “Is that your boyfriend? I can see why you never called me.”

“Rory?” He spun around and saw Dex walking toward them, smiling with easy charm. “No, that grinning ape’s one of the guys I live with.”

“What he means is, Luis gave him a room because he needed the rent, and I moved in to give the place some much needed class and sophistication.” Dex joined them, aiming a slap at Shannon’s head he dodged without effort. “Hi. I’m Dex. Not his boyfriend, because hello, standards, and currently free and available.”

Elliot blinked at him, clearly torn between attraction and shock at Dex’s blatant approach. The man had to dial it back a notch, Shannon reflected.

“Hi. I’m Elliot.” Elliot and Dex shook hands. “This is Bailey.” The dog was still sitting politely, though her tail was wagging so fast, Shannon wouldn’t have been surprised if it made swishing noises.

“Tank, sit,” he said sternly, and Tank did. “Good boy. She’s a lot calmer than she was the last time I met her.”

“I took her to those classes you recommended. And then the advanced one after that.” Elliot’s gaze lingered long enough Shannon understood that he’d been hoping to run into him again.

A year ago, he would have been flattered, maybe even tempted, but now he felt a little sad for the guy. “Yeah. Sorry I never texted you. I meant to; things got…complicated.”

Elliot shrugged. “It’s okay. Life’s like that sometimes.”

Other times, Dex crouched down in front of Bailey, talking to her, drawing Elliot’s attention. “She’s so pretty. What a good girl. She’s nice with other dogs? Want to bring her into the backyard so they can play?”

“Sure! I mean, if I’m not keeping you from anything.”

“Nope. Dude, give me the leash.” This last was directed at Shannon, who handed it over with a bemused smile and a mental note to get it back later.

“Have fun,” he said, and headed for the front door as Elliot and Dex took the dogs toward the gate that led to the side yard.

“Shannon!”

This time when he turned, it was Rory, jogging toward him. He’d gotten a Fitbit for Christmas from Jude and was meticulous about hitting his daily target. Sometimes it got ridiculous. He’d been a thousand steps short and planning a walk at eleven at night, with the sidewalks slick with ice. Shannon had protested, then, with Rory about to head out anyway, had blocked the way.

“Say the word, and I won’t do this.”

“Won’t do what?”

Shannon had smiled at him. “You’ll find out if you don’t say it. If you do, you’ll damn well wait for me to get my coat, because when you break your ankle, you’ll need someone to carry you home.

Rory had bitten his lip, clearly torn between his objective and his curiosity. They didn’t have a safe word as such; Rory got off on the fantasy that once they started, only Shannon held the power to call a halt. It wasn’t true in one sense. If Rory’s pleading for mercy tipped into genuine panic, Shannon would slam the brakes on. One day it’d happen. But Shannon insisted on Rory giving him the green light at the start.

It’s not that bad out…” That was a lie, but Rory had said it out loud to himself, not to Shannon, so Shannon didn’t call him on it. “Okay. You win.

They’d both ended up the winners. Shannon had made Rory stand behind him, both arms around his waist, and jerk him off, the quick wrist movements counting as steps as far as the Fitbit was concerned. Rory’d had the opportunity to slide his dick along the crack of Shannon’s ass, though the slight difference in their heights had meant Rory had to lift up onto the balls of his feet to get the right placement. Afterward he’d been slick with sweat, panting with the effort he’d gone to.

Shannon, gathering him close, had murmured, “There, see? You got in all your steps without any broken bones. Who’s a good boyfriend?” The word still gave him a thrill.

You are,” Rory had said obediently.

“You’re early,” Shannon said now, more a guess than anything.

“I came straight from work, or I would have been late,” Rory explained. He grabbed the front edge of Shannon’s jacket and kissed him quickly. “What’s up with the dogs?” They went up the front steps together.

“Playdate, I guess.” He couldn’t remember if he’d ever told Rory about Elliot. “Are we going out?”

“I thought we were, but we don’t have to. Are you tired?” Inside, Rory reached to help him take off his leather jacket, solicitous.

“No, not at all. When am I ever tired?” Especially not with Rory snuggling in close for a kiss, his lips cool at first but warming quickly.

“Good, because there’s a house up for sale I want you to see. Not sure how we missed it.”

“Then why take off my jacket?”

Rory shook his head. “We don’t need to go over there; we can do a virtual tour. If you like the look of it, we can see it for ourselves tomorrow. I set up a tentative appointment with the Realtor in case you like it as much as I do.”

“Show me.” It had reached the point where Shannon was willing to make compromises. He wanted Rory with him, part of his everyday life, not living somewhere else. He’d miss Dex and Luis, but the town was small enough that wherever he and Rory ended up wouldn’t be far away.

Settled on Shannon’s bed, with his laptop between them, Rory called up the estate agent’s listings and navigated to the page.

Shannon noted the price first with a wince. Inside their limit, but barely. It wouldn’t leave much wiggle room for renovations, especially since he was determined to pay the closing costs by himself to make up for getting too good a deal on the bike when Rory sold it to him.

Then he focused on the photos of the house and fell in love in the space of a heartbeat. It had a fucking turret, for God’s sake, a solid jut of stone over the porch, whimsical but practical, adding space and interest. An old house but well kept up, the yard around it lush with color and life, though that wouldn’t be the case now. If the photo had been taken in summer, it’d been on the market awhile. They could offer a low-ball figure, free up some space in the budget.

“I know it’s a lot, but the previous owner put a ton of work into it, so there’s not much left to do when it comes to improvements. Look at the kitchen.” Rory scrolled through the pictures until he found the ones he wanted. “See the island? And the cabinets have all been refinished. Old-fashioned linoleum, the kind made from linseed oil.”

Shannon reached over and clicked to the next photo. “Hardwood floors, what do they call that, reclaimed wood? Looks like it came from a barn or something. Not your style.”

“No, but it’s yours. And I like how it looks here. Check out the upstairs bath—huge claw-foot tub and a custom shower stall. Big enough for two.” It was what Rory always complained about at both their places, that the showers weren’t comfortably sized for more than one. “Three, even.” He gave Shannon an arch look, challenging, and then shrieked when Shannon set aside the laptop and tackled him, pinning him to the bed.

Impossible not to get hard with Rory squirming underneath him. “You know better.”

“Hey! Get off me!” Rory struggled and bucked, but he was only playing.

“You boys be nice, now!” Luis called from downstairs. “Don’t make me come up there!”

“And what would you say if he did?” Shannon asked. “If he wanted to join us?”

Rory opened his mouth, a wicked gleam in his eyes; then his gaze softened. “I’d tell him I’ve got everything and everyone I need right here. I’d tell him to go away so you could fuck me. I’d tell him—”

“I love you.”

“No, I wouldn’t tell him that at all. Weren’t you listening? Ow! Shannon! No tickling!”

“Tell me,” Shannon demanded.

Rory’s next squirm was calculated to arouse, his lithe body rubbing against Shannon’s in all the right places. “Love you. Love you. Love you. I can say it a thousand times, or I can use my mouth a different way and show you. Choose.”

“You make my life so complicated sometimes.” Shannon set the laptop on the floor, then reached for the waistband of Rory’s slacks. “How about I go for option three? Hold on to the headboard, and don’t make a sound while I blow you, or I’ll gag you with a sweaty sock.”

“Three’s my lucky number.”

He might not feel that way once he had the promised sock crammed into his mouth—even if the one Shannon intended to use was reasonably clean—but Shannon knew the idea of being taken to the point of needing to be kept silent was key. The fantasy of being caught was, for Rory, a more powerful aphrodisiac than anything else.

It had been smooth sailing since Shannon realized that.

“Love you too,” he murmured, and set to work proving it.

* ~ * The End * ~ *