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Read on for CHAPTER ONE...
Many thanks to Emily Carrington for hosting FREE CHAPTER FRIDAY.
Remember to comment on the FACEBOOK POST or HERE to enter to win a free ebook copy of EARTHQUAKES - A NEW AMSTERDAM STORY.
Read on for CHAPTER ONE...
On the tick of 6:59 a.m., Ellis slapped the clock so the 7:00 a.m. alarm wouldn’t beep. He grabbed his phone, swiped through screens, and turned off his backup alarm before it went off at 7:01.
Ellis needed both alarms to get his sorry ass out of bed on regular days, but he didn’t need either of them on the days that mysterious Bryndon Rothe came to the range. Ellis had been lying in his lumpy bed in the two-room apartment over Miss Maggie’s Shooting Range, thinking of what to say to Beautiful Bryn, for the last hour. Ellis knew if he figured out the right combination of words and phrases, Bryn’s entire life history would come pouring out of that kissable mouth. He’d get more than a sneer or a smirk, more than a poker face and a grunt; he’d get a whole conversation. A back and forth, a chat, even an exchange of, God willing, numbers and a promise to text.
Hope, as Ellis’s mama would say, sprang eternal. Especially where hot dancer boys were concerned, Ellis would add. He would have said his piece silently, though. Mama didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny or being gay. She’d never understand what Ellis saw in Bryn, but that was okay. It wasn’t like Ellis would get invited home with his would-be boyfriend anytime soon. His father would shoot his ass on sight. That was all right too. Ellis had long passed the need for parental approval. He had the range and his nonblood family and semiregular visits from Pretty Boy Bryn. Pretty Boy, Very Silent Bryn.
It was a game they played, the Make Him Talk Game, though Ellis wasn’t sure Bryn understood they were, actually, playing. But they’d only been sparring for a few months. It was clearly too early to call it a draw.
“How’s it going today?” Ellis said softly to himself as he climbed out of bed. He stretched and rolled his left shoulder, the one with the metal plate holding together the bone. Damn ricochet. Damn war. Damn stiff son of a bitch. He needed to lift. Later. Right now he needed to get ready.
In the bathroom, Ellis took his morning piss. “What’s happenin’, man?” Ellis frowned. No, way too casual. He’d tried that tack before, and Bryn hadn’t responded well. Meaning, he hadn’t said a thing. The goal was more words, not less.
“How are you today, sir?” Ellis asked his reflection before stuffing his mouth with a toothbrush dolloped with paste. Better. He’d not tried the “sir” thing yet. When Miss Maggie had told him that a client had made arrangements to come to the range before official operating hours to shoot, she’d referred to Bryn as “Mr. Bryndon Rothe.” So the first time Ellis met Bryn, he’d said, “Mr. Rothe.”
It’d been the most natural form of address, seeing as how his best friend and mentor, Maxwell Call-Me-Clark, was “Mr. Clark” to Ellis. Well, Mr. Clark in public—just Clark or “Sarge” in private when they played games with rope and cuffs and pain.
Ellis’s eyes rolled back into his head. Visions of the last round of playtime at Mr. Clark’s townhouse swarmed Ellis’s brain in vivid, full-color flashes: Clark in nothing but cuffs, chain necklace, and hard-on; Clark’s husband and Dominant, Daniel Germain, in silky shirt, dark pants, and boots; both men smiling at Ellis like wolves over prey.
Ellis spat into the sink and exhaled. Would he have time to jerk off before Captain Gorgeous arrived? Ellis checked his phone. No, definitely not.
“Later,” he muttered to his morning wood, which had been reinvigorated by thoughts of fuckings past. He needed to focus on Bryn and unlocking the hidden mysteries buried in those haunted, honey-brown eyes.
Throwing on his good jeans, a black T-shirt, and a long-sleeved button-down the color of rust, Ellis searched for clean socks. It took a while. Laundry. He needed to do laundry. Shove all his shit into the army surplus and drag it to the ’mat a subway stop over.
Socks found and boots laced, Ellis made his bed and took the three seconds he needed to tidy his room. He used to be a horrible slob. Shit just everywhere. Then Clark had pointed out that a man’s environment was a reflection of a man’s mind. Ellis hadn’t been able to get that out of his brain, and as he’d gone to the support meetings Clark ran for vets with PTSD, and as Ellis had gotten calmer and better and smarter about life, he noticed that his room got neater. It was the strangest thing. Almost like one day he could barely wade through the dishes and clothes and magazines on the floor, and the next day he was installing shelves and buying containers. And hangers. And fucking organizer labels.
It was nuts, but Ellis liked it. Mostly because Clark approved. Ellis might not be the needy bitch he’d been when freshly discharged and looking for a place to go that wasn’t back to Oklahoma, but he kind of lived for Clark’s approval nonetheless. He’d made peace with the need. Clark was one of the best men Ellis knew. What the hell was wrong with getting such a man’s nod of acceptance? It made
Ellis feel good, and precious little ever did.
Ellis retrieved his Colt Defender from the second drawer of his pressboard night table. He checked the Wilson Combat seven-round mag and the standard safety. He strapped on his holster, secured the weapon, and turned out the lights before dashing down the narrow stairwell to the main level of the shooting range. The stairs came out in a long storage room filled with cleaning supplies, range merchandise, crates, boxes, and God only knew what. Miss Maggie wasn’t exactly the most organized of owners, and Miss Jillian, Maggie’s wife, was no help. Jillian’s idea of organization was to file membership forms under “C” for “Care.” As in “We care about our members.”
The sheer chaos the place must have been when Jillian and Maggie lived in Ellis’s rooms was hard to imagine. They had their own place now, though, thank goodness. Ellis knew they could both shoot the balls off a gnat at a thousand yards, and Miss Maggie probably knew more ways to kill somebody than Clark did, but Ellis still didn’t like to think about the women alone at the range at night by themselves. They deserved their safe, cozy home with their six cats. Ellis was more suited to the pad above the range. It made more sense: Ellis as semi-expendable sentinel.
Ellis went through the storage-room door and shut it behind him, listening to the electronic lock beep as it engaged. He flipped light switches, and the fluorescents flickered to life. The range’s main room was a big one, and it stood in an L-shape around the insulated indoor range. Round racks full of T-shirts stood near the front of the room. They had hats on shelves and trinkets on endcaps. Jillian loved to put the range’s logo on pretty much everything from pop bottles to keychains to plastic bobblehead bulldogs. The stuff sold surprisingly well. Every lesbian in the world wanted one of Maggie’s gun-range shirts. Miss Maggie offered discounted memberships to members of the LGBTQ community. She also taught self-defense courses in the shop and did a three-day-long, intensive crash course to get a carry permit. Revenue was good.
The weapons for rent and for sale and the ammo for all of the above were kept in several glass cases. The glass was bulletproof, and each case was locked with folding metal cages after hours. It took an electronic passcode and a key to undo the cages. If Miss Jillian was flighty, then Miss Maggie was paranoid. At least, that’s what she said she was. To Ellis, it seemed more like Miss Maggie had enough money to indulge her security fetish. Miss Maggie loved making life hard on would-be thieves and intruders. They’d had a few over the years, but not since she’d installed the roll-down, garage-style metal doors to fit behind the range’s front door and glass windows. The emergency exit had more bars on it than a jail cell. Even the bathrooms had a code.
Ellis unlocked the ammunition case and one of the display cases. He went to the front and undid the security mechanism so the metal door would glide up and unblock the main entrance. He kept the door lock engaged for now. It was still early, or late to the all-night New Amsterdam crowd, and the crazies would be out looking for a place to roost until twilight. Most of the homeless or the clinically insane who’d accidentally entered the range looking for food, money, or their lost wits had been harmless enough. But with so many weapons lying around, Ellis couldn’t be too careful.
The other counter jockey, Chuck, wouldn’t be in until the shop opened officially at nine, so Ellis had the place—and Sinful Bryn—to himself. Or, well, Lord, Ellis hoped Bryn was sinful. It’d be a shame for somebody who looked like that ever to be lonely.
Ellis had just finished putting the coffee on in the communal pot when he heard a taxi pull up directly by the doors. Ellis had never asked if Bryn took the train into the borough and then a car to the shop, or a car all the way from point A to point B. He figured it’d be rude to ask something like that, dealing with money and all. Clearly the guy had no cash-flow problems. He was paying Maggie to open the shop for an extra half hour of business.
The man dressed like money too. As Ellis went to the door to unlock it and Bryn—the man, the mystery, the daydream, himself—climbed out of the car, Ellis took in Bryn and the day’s ensemble.
Bryn was a couple of inches shorter than Ellis’s five feet ten. But where Ellis was broad and rounded out with farm-bred muscle, Bryn was long and lean and solid, even in clothes. With his neck straight and his chin held high, Bryn carried an air about him. Not arrogance, exactly. Not even confidence.
Bryn was more untouchable. Unreachable. And, strangely, sort of sad. Or, if not sad, definitely contemplative. It was like the man was lost in a private world. He was so far down that his movements through this reality were on autopilot. Bryn was the beautiful man on the street who could stop traffic, but if he ever paused to observe the wreckage behind him, he’d have no idea what caused it. Bryn moved with the grace of a dancer. All his height was in his legs, and his arms, hands, and fingers were also long. His thick brown hair was tousled, as though hasty hands had swept product through the strands and then let it dry in the May breeze. His eyes were wide-set; his clean-shaven jaw pointed like the tip of a Valentine heart.
Today Bryn wore dark slacks with cuffs over heavy black boots. His shirt was camel-colored with a zip up the front. His jacket was also tan, sleek, and tailored to fit to his body, and the collar was turned up. Spring in New Amsterdam was brief and chilly in the mornings, so in addition to the coat, Bryn had on fingerless gloves. One hand was clasped around the handle of his weapon case. Bryn shut the car door with his other hand, and Ellis made haste to let Bryn inside the range.
“Good morning, sir,” Ellis said, holding the door for Bryn’s entrance. He closed it after Bryn, engaging the lock while he was at it.
“Bryn,” he corrected, his back to Ellis as he approached the ammunition counter. “It’s Bryn.” His voice was surprisingly deep and pleasant, if a little flat.
“Yes. Sorry.” So much for the formal attempt. Ellis made note and swept behind the counter. His heart fluttered and his nerves fired as though he were twelve again and about to confess that yeah, it’d been Ellis who’d punched out Scott Harding in the middle school’s parking lot. And no, he hadn’t been a damn bit sorry he’d broken Scott’s cheekbone. Scott had called Ellis’s best friend a fag. Ellis didn’t truck with that.
Bryn grunted and put his weapon case down on the floor. He reached for his wallet and plucked a credit card out of a pocket. “The usual.”
“Can I interest you in anything new today?” Ellis asked.
Ellis waited a beat to see if Bryn would make eye contact. Bryn rarely did, choosing to focus somewhere off to the left or right of Ellis’s shoulders or occasionally the dead center of Ellis’s chest.
“Well, all right,” Ellis said at last.
Bryn fired a Ruger SR22. It was a good choice for target practice, a fun little weapon, but Ellis didn’t think Bryn fired for the fun of it. Nor was he a gun nut. Most enthusiasts loved firing shit they’d not shot before. Or they loved bringing in their crazy weaponry to let everybody squeeze off a few.
Ellis had a hard time imagining Bryn smiling, much less laughing or eagerly picking up a new weapon to try. The only time Ellis had successfully managed to get Bryn to rent a different kind of gun, Bryn had taken it, used every bit of the two boxes of ammo he’d bought to go with it, and then returned the weapon with the same solemn air of a man doing penance. Bryn never again agreed to a different weapon choice. Ellis was pretty sure he’d only done it that one time to get Ellis to stop asking.
Bryn wasn’t the kind of man who fired for fun or practice. He fired to exorcise his demons. Ellis had seen it before.
“Two boxes.” Ellis plunked the ammunition onto the counter and hit buttons on the cash register. He accepted the credit card, swiped it, and waited for the server. His brain skipped over about a dozen stupid small-talk questions. He’d tried them all. “Anything else I can get you?” Ellis finally asked. He ripped off the receipt for Bryn to sign.
Bryn shook his head, scribbled a signature, and picked up his weapon case. He waited. Bryn’s one expressive feature was his left eyebrow. That sucker could lift, twist, and articulate like a mofo when it wanted. Right now, the thing was up, as in, Hurry it up, asshole, I’ve got things to do.
Ellis retrieved safety glasses and ear protection and held them out to Bryn. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” Bryn said softly. The manners were a rarity, and Ellis rewarded them with a smile.
“No problem. Let me know if you need anything,” Ellis said, but Bryn was already heading toward the range’s door. Ellis pressed the button behind the counter to admit Bryn into the firing area, and a second later, Bryn had been swallowed by darkened, shatterproof glass and solid concrete. Ellis glanced at the security camera feeds that Miss Maggie kept on a computer monitor perched on a desk facing so customers couldn’t see it. Bryn took his position in the lane farthest from the door and started setting up.
So that was it. One-half of this week’s opportunity to win the game was over. Ellis would have to do better in round two, or he risked being completely defeated for the ninth week running.
Ellis got his coffee and stood watching Bryn on the security feed until he felt too much like a creep. He retrieved the broom from the closet and started sweeping the floors. It’d been his first job when Miss Maggie had hired him—cleaning. He did the floors, windows, and the weapons. He’d have done anything Miss Maggie asked, really. He’d landed in New Amsterdam after spending two weeks in an overseas hospital after an IED had taken out three vehicles in a convoy, immediately killing two men and injuring a half dozen more, including Ellis. His buddy, Marks, had been shredded. So much raw meat in strips had scattered across the ground like they’d been trying to attract carnivores with fresh food. Ellis’s calf had a hole in it. The puncture had been sewn up on the field and left a nasty, knotted scar. His shoulder had taken a hit that fractured the bone.
And that’s what passed for lucky.
So he’d been discharged after serving through two tours that were a hell made of sand, waiting, boredom, and desperate humanity. He’d had a layover in NA International, and instead of making his connecting flight home, he’d collected his gear and started walking. He had some cash for a shitty hotel room and some much better food. God. Real food. It’d been heaven. He’d probably have eaten his way through his funds and been on the streets if he’d not found Maggie’s. He’d been in a bar, and he’d struck up a conversation with the other guy who was drinking at two in the afternoon. The guy had served in a war a couple of decades old but still fresh in his memory. He’d told Ellis about Miss Maggie’s—best place to shoot in the whole fuckin’ city. Only long-range shooting this side of the state line. Perfect for jarheads and men with twitchy, itchy fingers.
Ellis had taken the train. He’d walked in to find a tall, stocky woman in jeans and a T-shirt behind the main counter. She had short, dark hair, piercing dark eyes, thin lips, and an expression that gave new definition to the word “determined.”
Miss Maggie had given Ellis the once-over, and after she heard his story with all its rough starts and stops, she’d asked Ellis where he was sleeping and what he’d been eating.
“Nowhere special and anything I can find, ma’am,” Ellis had answered.
“Then drop your bag, get that broom and pan, and get to work, Parker. I got a cot in the storage room that’s rent-free, but I don’t give it to the lazy or the stupid.”
Ellis had gotten to work, completely unsure about his good luck but smart enough to take it without too many questions asked. Miss Maggie had told him later that he’d looked like a big puppy, wet behind the ears and red around the eyes from lack of good in his life. Miss Maggie had let Ellis work short hours for a week, and he’d slept the rest of the time, when he wasn’t stuffing his face with Miss Jillian’s cooking. The two women felt like family so fast, Ellis had been terrified of losing them. He hadn’t understood in those days how much that had to do with them being gay and together and accepting him. He’d only known he needed them to like him.
After the initial trial period was over, Miss Maggie gave him the terms: steady work and a roof over his head in exchange for him getting his ass to support-group meetings. Miss Maggie had gotten Ellis’s number on first sight but hadn’t let on. So it’d shocked Ellis’s socks off when he realized that with one or two exceptions, Clark’s support group was entirely made up of gay men. Like Ellis, of course, but he had never been out to anybody, least of all himself.
Clark had changed all that. Clark had changed everything, really.
With Clark’s help, Ellis had found himself. He’d found friends, stability, and even pride. The good kind of pride, that is. The sort that helped Ellis get out of bed in the mornings with his head high. The kind that allowed Ellis to get involved with the LGBT Center and not look over his shoulder every two seconds, expecting his father to be there with a belt in hand.
It’d been Clark who helped Ellis accept all parts of himself, even the ones that liked belts and buckles, but not when they were swung at him in hatred. Pain inflicted out of love… Ellis had never thought anything like that was possible until Clark.
Ellis supposed he had been and still was a little in love with Clark. Maybe a lot in love. But so was everybody who knew him. Clark owned a bar, Glow, in the Fashion District of New Amsterdam, and he was the epitome of the friendly barkeep. He loved talking to people and figuring out how they ticked, and just, well, he loved people. Period. Not everybody, of course, but the worthy, sure. With Ellis it was a forever loyal kind of love but not the romantic kind. Clark kept those lines clear, and Ellis had never gotten hurt, and besides, he didn’t want Clark like that. Ellis’s affection for Clark wasn’t Love, with the capital. That sort of Love was what Ellis wanted. Eventually, that is. If he ever found somebody who looked at him that way.
For now, he had what he felt for Dancer Boy Bryn. It wasn’t Love. That would be crazy. But it was longing. Curiosity. Lust.
Ellis’s flip phone buzzed in his back pocket. Clark teased him mercilessly about the old thing, but Ellis didn’t like technology. He didn’t own a computer, didn’t do online anything, and the idea of his phone working like a homing beacon for anybody who wanted to find him freaked him out.
The tiny readout on the front said MISS JILLIAN. Ellis answered with a smile. “Hi, Miss J.”
“Hi, sweetie,” Miss Jillian answered. “How are the kitties?”
Ellis winced and started walking toward the rear exit, where he kept a bag of cat food for the alley cats Miss Jillian insisted on feeding. “They’re fine, I’m sure. I’ll get ’em fed.”
“Oh, good.” Ellis could hear the smile in Miss Jillian’s voice. “I appreciate it so much.”
When the phone stayed silent for a few beats too long, Ellis asked, “Was there anything else?”
“Oh! Sorry. There’s this hippo that walks into people’s homes in Australia.”
“Er, Miss J, I think you mean Africa.”
“I think that’s where they live.”
Ellis paused with his hand on the scoop in the cat food. “Well, yes, and hippos.”
“It’s some country with an A. Anyway, Jessica just joins them for breakfast.”
“They named the hippo Jessica?”
“I know. Not a hippo-sounding name, is it?”
Ellis smiled. “You watching Animal Planet again?”
“Mmm-hmm. Mags has already left me for the kitchen.”
“Oh, that’s right. Tonight’s the—”
“—family dinner at the Center,” Jillian finished. Maggie and Jillian were the unofficial lesbian moms at the LGBT Center. They served dinner, offered ears to listen and shoulders on which to cry, passed out fliers, and helped kids who’d been kicked out to find beds and jobs.
“Mags is making lasagna,” Jillian said, drawing Ellis’s wandering thoughts back to the cats and the range.
“Tell me it started out frozen,” Ellis said, finally getting through all the security measures on the rear door. He dumped a heaping pile of cat chow in the bowls and heard yowls announcing that soup was on.
“It did. I made it, froze it, and she’s thawing. But you know how she likes to think that’s cooking.”
“It’d be cooking to me,” Ellis said, and Miss Jillian laughed.
“So,” Jillian said, dropping her voice to a whisper. “How’s the boy?”
“I got a ‘thanks’ today after I gave him ammo.”
“I guess. He still isn’t talking. Or noticing me.”
“Keep trying. He will. He should.”
If Ellis and Bryn were playing the Make Him Talk Game, then Ellis and Jillian were playing the Waiting Game. Everyone knew Ellis had a thing for the dancer boy. There were no secrets in Ellis’s circle. Maybe some men would find that irritating, but Ellis found it comforting.
Ellis secured the rear door and headed back into the main part of the range. He glanced at the firing area. “I guess he should pay attention.”
“Don’t guess, sweetie. Know it.”
Jillian sighed loudly enough to interrupt, and Ellis grinned before he continued. “Lucian says he’s not worth it.”
Lucian Gray was a good friend of Clark’s and the son of the corrupt New Amsterdam mayor, Hendrick Gray. Lucian was vain, amoral, and an utter snob. He was ridiculously beautiful and notorious for being a control-freak Dominant at the kink club he owned called Break. He owned the club with several members of their circle, including Clark. Ellis and Clark had played at the club many times before Clark and Daniel hooked up. Ellis had also played with Lucian, so he had firsthand experience under Lucian’s intensely detail-oriented and famously lavender eye.
Despite the long list of flaws, Lucian could be tender, and he was loyal, brilliant, and determined to clean up the streets of New Amsterdam. Anything to undermine his abusive asshole of a father, really. Ellis could understand that impulse for sure.
“That man can wave all the gay-rights flags he wants or donate more millions to charity or whatever it takes for him to sleep better at night. Lucian Gray should be nobody’s compass for anything in life,” Jillian said.
Ellis remembered the way Lucian’s chilly touch could go from granite to velvet in an instant. “He’s not that bad.”
“He’s a snot.” In Jillian’s world, that was the equivalent of calling someone an ass-faced motherfucker. “A dangerous snot.”
Ellis would never win this argument, but he had to defend his friend. “Maybe, but—”
“What are you even doing talking to Lucian about your love life, anyway?”
“It came up.”
Ellis took a seat on a stool behind the weapon counter and watched Bryn fire off rounds with a steady grip and practiced stance. He even made that look like an art form more fit for swans than humans.
“It was a while ago at one of the poker nights at Glow. I don’t remember how it came up—”
“Clark,” Jillian said, amused.
“Probably. Somebody said something, and I said there was a guy coming to the range. I gave his name, and Lucian did that thing where he sucks air through his teeth—”
“Snot. Total snot.”
“And I asked him what was up, and he said he’d met Bryn before.”
“Of course he has.” Now Jillian did not sound amused.
“Not like that, Miss J.”
“How do you know? Before Shea, Lucian had everyone in the city like that.”
It was true that before Lucian and his childhood-friend-turned-lover Shea became an official thing, and everyone had been reminded that Lucian did actually know the definition of the word commitment, Lucian had been a notorious playboy. Men, women, vegetables—if it was pretty and could get fucked, Lucian had been there and done it. Usually after beating it senseless and making it beg at Club Break.
“Maybe,” Ellis agreed. “But he didn’t have Bryn.”
“Oooh,” Jillian said. “Now this is interesting. Go on.”
“Lucian met him after some finale for one of the ballets. I don’t know which one. But they were backstage, and Lucian was there, and he got to meet Bryn.” Ellis could only imagine what Bryn would look like up close in tights, cup, and costume. Sweaty. With lip gloss and eyeliner. Jesus wept, but not as hard as Ellis would. “Lucian didn’t go into details, but he said, and I quote, that Bryn was a ‘consummate ass.’”
“Which means Bryn wouldn’t go home with Lucian.”
“He didn’t say, and I don’t like to guess—”
“I don’t have to guess.”
“But then Shea spoke up and said, ‘Takes one to know one’—”
“I always did like that boy.”
“—and Lucian didn’t do the if-looks-could-kill thing. Instead he sniffed and won the hand.”
Jillian cackled. “So your dancer boy resisted Lucian. That’s good news. Lucian’s a snot, but he’s an appealing snot to a certain kind.”
“You mean like Shea?” Ellis asked.
“Shea’s special,” Miss Jillian quickly amended.
“He’s Lucian’s soul in another body. Without Shea, Lucian really wouldn’t be a snot; he’d be a monstrous snot. I’m happy they have each other.”
“Yeah, Shea’s a Good Man.” Ellis made sure he gave the title the capital letters it deserved.
“You and your Good Man Radar.”
Ellis had always known a good guy when he met one. Or a good woman, for that matter. Just a good person. It was an intuition thing. He’d told Clark about it once, and Clark had said Ellis was an excellent judge of character, just usually not for himself. Meaning, Ellis could pick out two good people who deserved to be together, but he had a hard time finding a good man for himself. Clark said they were out there. The problem was Ellis didn’t recognize that they wanted him. Ellis wasn’t so sure.
Clark was a good man, after all, and one of the qualities of being good was believing in the best of people. Clark, in a lot of ways, was the Superman of good men. Daniel was good too, just socially awkward. He had a hard time shutting down his professor mode.
Lucian was not a good man. He was the Batman of the bunch. Bruce Wayne by day and the Dark Knight by the light of the moon. Batman wasn’t exactly good, but he got shit done. That was Lucian.
“The radar comes in handy,” Ellis said.
“Clearly. If it pings on Bryn and he resisted Lucian, then I believe in it even more than I did yesterday.”
On the monitor, Bryn took off his hearing protection and began to pack.
“You need anything for the Rainbow Center?” Ellis asked.
“No, I think we’re good. See you there?”
“Make him talk, sweetie.”
“Gonna try, Miss J.”
“Loves.” Miss J hung up, and Ellis shoved the phone in his pocket just as Bryn came into the main room. He tossed his targets full of nicely clustered holes into the recycle bin the range kept for them. Bryn never bothered letting Ellis see the targets. Again, he wasn’t there for bragging rights. He knew he was good at shooting. He didn’t need Ellis to confirm it.
Bryn strode to the counter and handed over his hearing protection. He lingered, putting on his coat, and Ellis despaired. There was nothing he needed to say except to thank Bryn and let him out the door. Weeks of being alternately silent, polite, or flirtatiously casual had gotten Ellis nowhere. He knew Bryn was gay. Ellis’s gaydar was highly tuned from all those years on the farm and trying to find boys to blow who wouldn’t kill him later. He knew Bryn was single, because Clark, being naturally curious and almost supernaturally connected in the city, had asked around and confirmed the fact. Bryn couldn’t be a closet case. Having boyfriends wouldn’t be a problem for Bryn’s job. He was a ballet dancer, for Chrissakes.
Ellis wasn’t too bad to look at. Not like Clark was handsome or Lucian stunning or Daniel mysterious, but he was okay. He had a nice body, and he kept the red hair under control by cutting it short. He’d taken out the lip and eyebrow rings that had always looked like they’d been put on the wrong face, but he’d kept the nipple rings. He liked them, and his lovers tended to like them too. Because Ellis had had lovers. Plural. He’d slept with both Clark and Lucian, for fuck’s sake. Surely if those men didn’t think Ellis was a troll, then neither would Bryn.
“How was it today?” Ellis asked, trying to minimize the desperation in his voice.
Maybe Ellis wasn’t Bryn’s type. At this point, Ellis wasn’t sure he cared if they ever got it on. He could settle for simply knowing the guy. Blowing him would be icing on ten cakes. But maybe Bryn was celibate. He kept himself pure for his art. Didn’t have time for relationships. Didn’t date ex-soldiers. Had Bryn even thought Ellis might be former military? Did Bryn think anything about Ellis at all? Was it fair to ask him to without offering up his own personal details?
A light went off in Ellis’s brain. He stepped in front of Bryn, blocking the exit. “I grew up in Oklahoma,” he said.
Bryn took a step back. He met Ellis’s eyes and blinked. He seemed confused, but at least he seemed something other than preoccupied.
“On a farm. Not a big one but a poor one. Corn. Tobacco. There were a lot of chickens too.”
Bryn’s head tilted, and he licked his lips. “Um…?”
“Do you like chickens?”
“As what?” Bryn asked.
Bryn studied Ellis as though attempting to locate the source of insanity. “I’m not a vegetarian.”
“So you eat chicken?”
“Yes,” Bryn said, drawing out the word.
“Red meat is in my diet.”
“Do you ever eat chicken or steak with people?”
Something that Ellis hoped to hell was amusement danced in Bryn’s eyes. “Like as a side dish?”
Ellis laughed. “No, like for company.”
Bryn’s eyebrows knitted together, and he glanced left and right before returning his gaze to Ellis.
“Are you asking me out?”
“No,” Ellis said. He was sweating so much he would need to change both shirts. “Not exactly. Not… No. I’m trying to get to know you.”
Bryn blinked rapidly. It was adorable. “Why?”
“Because you come in here to shoot.”
“And you get to know all the people who come in to use the range for its intended function?”
“Only the ones who dance and make us open early.”
Bryn’s features grew chilly. “You know who I am.”
“You’re Bryn. The guy who comes in to shoot by himself once a week and doesn’t like to be called by his full first name. Or by sir, for that matter.”
Something Ellis said had helped to ease Bryn’s shoulders down a notch. He blew a brief sigh. It might have been exasperation. “Nobody uses my full first name.”
Bryn’s lip curled. “My mother. That’s it.”
“You have a mother.” Ellis wished he hadn’t made that sound like a cry of triumph.
“Yes,” Bryn said dryly. “The aliens who grew me in their life pod left me with one on Earth so I wouldn’t get lonely.”
“You believe in aliens?”
“No! Of course not. Could you please get out of my—”
“You don’t like to shoot.”
“What?” Bryn asked, voice an octave higher than usual.
Ellis took the first good breath he’d managed since Bryn started talking. “You don’t look like you’re having fun is all.”
Bryn made a quiet sound of aggravated confusion. He dropped Ellis’s gaze. “What does fun even look like?”
“If you don’t know, you’re not having it often enough.”
“That’s not—okay.” Bryn squared his shoulders and gestured toward the door. “I’m leaving.”
Ellis didn’t budge. He swallowed around his heart. “So if it’s not fun, why do it?”
“You’re in my way.”
“Whatever you need to think. Now move.”
It was like Ellis had punched Bryn. He flinched and took another step away from Ellis.
“Some people like the power and control it gives them,” Ellis said hurriedly. “It takes concentration and discipline to learn a weapon and use it well. Most handgun injuries in this country come from improper use and lack of safety training. And people being stupid. You’re not stupid. You’re not having a good time. You obviously like a schedule and training. So, power thing. Maybe?”
Bryn seemed to realize his mouth was hanging open. He closed it. “Or I could like to feel safe.”
Now Ellis felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. If Bryn chose to use weapons to feel safer, that implied he didn’t feel secure without one. A lot of people felt that way. Ellis had dealt with more paranoid preppers than he could shake a stick at, but Bryn wasn’t paranoid. He was grim. Like he knew his fate was sealed and he was simply waiting for it. “Was it because of something that happened?”
Ellis refrained from dancing with joy that Bryn knew his name. “Ellis. I’m Ellis.”
“I’m done with being polite.” Bryn’s chilly eyes flashed. “Now move.”
Ellis stepped out of the way, responding to the command not just as an employee reacting to a customer, but as a guy who liked being ordered around jumped when an attractive man said to jump.
Bryn was out the door in a flash and into the waiting car with a slam of the door.
Ellis watched Bryn leave, half-aroused and more curious than ever. “Beautiful Bryn 89, Ellis 1.”
Ellis Parker is a lucky man: he escaped his persecuting family, survived his tour of duty, and met Maxwell Clark in the city of New Amsterdam. Clark showed Ellis more than the ropes: Clark helped Ellis figure out who he is – a gay submissive with a massive fixation on a beautiful, mysterious ballet dancer named Bryn Rothe. Ellis knows a Good Man when he sees one, and he wants nothing more than to score a first date with Bryn.
Little does Ellis know that Bryn has a violent past that is crawling out of shallow graves to haunt him. Even his hectic schedule and beloved stage aren’t enough to distract him. It’s impossible for Bryn to figure out how he feels about Ellis with his demons between them, but when Ellis saves Bryn not once but twice, Bryn is forced to admit that there’s something about Ellis that Bryn might not merely want but need.
Together, they journey to the scene of Bryn’s original crime – Charles Towne, South Carolina. There they will dig up secrets that might explain Bryn’s tortured life but might also be his – and Ellis’s – undoing.
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