Nothing in Joey Tall’s life is for real. Not his name, the background he supplied to his bosses at The Gates, or the energy and good health he exudes. None of it is true. And no one can ever know what’s really going on. Ever. Unpacking his secrets would truly end his life. Insult to injury, the incredibly handsome LAPD officer who’s been hitting on Joey is a dream come true. But no way in hell is he letting a cop into his life. He doesn’t have a death wish, and tempting fate is the last thing Joey’s going to do, no matter how much he yearns for a man he can’t have.
The amber liquid burned his throat as he swallowed, exactly the way he liked it. James scanned the crowd, as he’d done dozens of times since he’d arrived. The bar was busy with groups celebrating whatever the latest occasion was, or singles looking to hook up, trolling the crowds hoping to find a happy diversion.
James didn’t fit into either category. He wanted to be left alone to drink in peace and watch storylines play out, in front of him from his corner booth. The intentional deep-set scowl should’ve been enough to keep people away, but there were those men and women who took it as a challenge. Get the big grumpy guy to smile, one point. Laugh, two points. And so on.
James sat in his booth, ignoring the latest make-him-happy applicant until they finally gave up and left. Why was it so hard for people to understand he didn’t want to be social, didn’t want sex, and he sure the hell wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.
Peace. That was what he wanted most of all. Which sort of begged the question, what the hell was he doing in the middle of a noisy bar?
He picked up his glass, drained the remainder of his whiskey, and motioned at the server for another. It had been a month since he’d found his brother, Finn, at the receiving end of a gun their papa was pointing at him and his lover. James had given their crazy bastard father a chance to stand down, but the asshole was beyond reasoning. He was forced to kill his father in the middle of the woods, on a dark and moonless night.
As if that wasn’t enough to get him into the Guilt Olympics, his continued nightmares of what he’d seen through four tours of deployment played like a movie through his mind the moment his lids dropped. It wasn’t enough that he’d been left with a few bullet holes for his service, but now it appeared that PTSD had moved in. James wasn’t a roommate kind of guy.
“Here you go.” Peggy dropped off his double shot of whiskey. “How you feeling tonight?”
Peggy, one of the owners of Crandall’s Pub, had taken one look at James and decided he was her latest project. The only reason he hadn’t left and found a new watering hole was that the older woman had a huge heart and she got that twinkle in her eye every time she was cooking something up that had nothing to do with a kitchen. Tonight was no different. She patiently waited for him to reply.
“Have you been getting enough sleep?”
“Not in years. The enemy always waits for a moment of weakness.”
“But you’re not in the Army anymore. You need to find a way to deal with it and move on. Have you thought about seeing a therapist?”
Of course it had crossed his mind, but something was holding him back. “I have, and I’m still thinking on it.”
Peggy reached out to cover James’s much larger hand. “Okay, honey. But if you need anything, me and Henry are always here to help.”
“Thank you.” He hoped that’d end the conversation. He didn’t need to bring any more innocent people into his messed-up world.
She sighed as if she could tell what he was thinking, but accepted his reply with a nod before turning away to take someone else’s order. James wrapped his hand around the glass to steady himself. He was already on his fourth drink and had no plans on stopping anytime soon. The building where he was staying was only three blocks away. He could stumble that far.
The bell over the front door of the pub rang, causing James look up. He groaned loud and long, not caring if the new arrival heard him or not. Once that crystal blue gaze landed on him, James knew he was screwed.
Why wouldn’t this guy take the hint and leave him alone? Was he a glutton for punishment or plain stupid-stubborn? James didn’t know, but the bastard was headed in this direction with the same damn smile plastered on his puss he always wore. Shit. His long legs ate up the distance, and without so much as a May I?, he slid into the booth beside James.
“Hey, good looking, you come here often?”
James almost smiled. Almost. Peggy dropped off a black coffee and continued on her way with a knowing look.
“You can stuff that line up your ass, Ross. I’m not in the mood for your shit.”
“Is that any way to talk to your ride home?”
“I’ll walk the three damn blocks, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. It’s close to two in the morning and Finn has been trying to reach you for hours. Any particular reason you’re not answering your phone?”
“Ah, yeah. I want to be left alone.”
“Keep this up and you’re going to get your wish.”
“Go to hell, Ross.”
“Already have an express pass. Now finish up your drink so I can get your drunk ass home before your brother calls in the National Guard.”
“How does he even know I’m not at the building? It’s not like he lives there anymore.”
“He and Miguel came over to watch the game with Saint, Max, and you, if your ass had been at home.”
“That’s not my home.”
“Touchy, and don’t care. Let’s go.” Ross swallowed the last of his coffee and stood, waiting for James to join him.
“Whatcha gonna do, arrest me?” James laughed without humor.
Ross reached behind his back and pulled out his handcuffs. “If I have to.”
James didn’t know if he was pissed off or turned on.
Finn took a sharp left down the short hallway, through the hub and into his room before shutting and locking the door behind him. He felt like a child pulling a tantrum but his emotions were too raw and he needed time to lock them away. Finn had gotten used to being an afterthought back home, but over the last few months, he’d begun to believe it would be different here. Or maybe that was only a Saint thing.
He threw his bag on the bed on his way to his bathroom. Velcro went ahead and jumped into the tub, waiting for him to turn on the water. Since he’d given her a bath two weeks ago, the cat seemed to have changed her opinion about getting wet and jumped in every time Finn took a shower. After an impatient meow from his roommate, Finn reached down and turned his shower on.
In a few economical movements, Finn discarded his clothing, checked the water temperature and stepped into the warm stream. Velcro sat in her usual spot in the back corner of the tub while he let the warmth soak into his sore muscles. He’d spent most of the day moving stacks of lumber up to the first floor and his body was feeling the strain.
He pushed the power button on his in-shower speaker, flooding the bathroom with the familiar whine of a Fender guitar accompanied by a serious set of drums. Finn loved rock music, from Jimi Hendrix and the Doors to Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, and Rival Sons, he listened to them all. It helped him to block out the world when he didn’t want to be a part of it.
Finn let the music and water soothe him until he could finally think straight again. Yeah, he’d overreacted. There was no reason for Miguel to tell him any of his plans. Finn knew sometimes he got carried away and became too attached to people. Sure, Miguel was his friend. That didn’t necessarily include knowing what he was doing or where he was going. It didn’t matter that he felt an instant connection to the man. Finn had to get his head on straight.
His anger at being rejected soon turned into embarrassment, and he hoped no one had caught on to his dramatic exit. At least it’s not as bad as the night I offered myself to Miguel and he refused. God, when could he stop acting like a frightened child? He was a grown-ass man and needed to start acting like one. No wonder Miguel didn’t view him as a potential partner.
Finn stayed in the shower long after Velcro had abandoned him for dryer digs and his fingers had begun pruning. He raised his face up into the stream of water one last time before turning off the taps and the music and exiting the tub. After a quick wipe down, he wrapped the towel around his waist, ran his fingers through his short hair and stepped out into his bedroom.
The high-pitched, less-than-manly scream he let loose upon finding Miguel laying in the middle of the bed, fully clothed, with Velcro purring up a storm on his chest, was horrifying enough. But he had to go one step further by losing hold of his towel, allowing it to fall to the floor and leaving him naked in front of the man of his dreams.
God had to hate him, cause this shit wouldn’t keep happening otherwise. As Miguel looked away, Finn reached for his worn track pants and slid them on.
“What the hell are you doing in my room?” Finn shot out as soon as he was covered. “I know I locked that door.”
“Locks, really? There’s nothing I can’t get through. You should know better than that.”
“Just because you can get through them, doesn’t mean you should. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were a creep.”
“Come here,” Miguel beckoned as he opened his large arms wide, and Finn was helpless not to crawl into them. “I’m sorry. That was an asshole move. I should have told you first. And, yeah, I couldn’t leave without making sure you were okay and saying goodbye.”
Finn calmed in Miguel’s strong arms. Wrapped in the warmth and safety of his strength, Finn worried at how this one man could have such a pull over him. One day, Miguel would have someone of his own to hold. How was Finn going to feel then, the day he saw Miguel with someone else in his arms?
He’d known the man for only six months and the thought of Miguel finding someone else struck enough fear into Finn that he began to pull back. Miguel allowed him to put space between them but his arm remained around Finn’s waist. “Easy. What’s got you so spooked?”
Dense much? Miguel had to know what Finn was feeling on some level, especially after admitting to being an asshole. “Spooked? Is that what you call it when someone you care about decides to throw out like it was nothing that he was leaving on a mission to fight bad guys and didn’t know when he’d be back?” Miguel smiled at the term, but Finn pushed on, not succumbing to the handsome smirk. “And then you break into my room when I’m in the shower and have the nerve to ask me why I’m spooked. Seriously?”
Miguel pulled Finn back against the hard wall of his chest. In truth, Finn hadn’t fought that hard. “I’m sorry. You’re so adorable when you get riled up.”
“Adorable? Adorable. I’m a man, not some kid. You could say handsome and adorable, but not just adorable. I have a man card I’m carrying proudly and I don’t need you destroying it.”
Miguel’s arm tightened a second before he flipped Finn on to his back and pinned him under the Marine’s much larger body. “You don’t have to remind me you’re all man. I have a pretty good handle on that already.” His eyes were the dark blue of the summer sky during a storm. The intimate position and those effin’ eyes drew Finn in until their lips were only an inch apart.
Finn wanted this so bad his body ached for Miguel, but at the last moment the big guy pulled back and lay down back to his original position. He gathered Finn close to his side once again and said, “It’s late. We both need to get some rest.”
“But—” Finn began but was quickly cut off when the frustrating man turned off the lamp on his bedside table.
“Go to sleep, Finn. Big day tomorrow.”
Finn’s heart felt heavy and his throat closed up as he thought about tomorrow. Miguel would leave and there was a chance he might not return. “Please be careful, wherever you’re going.”
Miguel’s arms tightened. “I’ll be back.”
The slam of his office door shook the dust from the old paintings still clinging to the walls of plaster, and the sound of breaking glass confirmed one had lost its battle to hold on. Saint threw yet another folder into his recycling bin before leaning back into his chair and looking up at the stained ceiling. Was he asking too much?
“You send another one packing, boss?” Larry asked as he stuck his head in through the now opened door.
“There has to be one contractor out there who sees my vision for this dump,” Saint groaned.
“They want to gut everything.”
Larry walked all the way in and sat on one of the high-back, upholstered chairs from the lounge area. Saint didn’t even know the guy’s last name, but that hadn’t mattered when he’d found Larry sleeping in the corner of his building’s entryway. Larry had needed help and so had Saint. It worked out for both of them. At first, Saint had kept an eye on the young homeless man as he helped around the building, but after two months, Saint had learned to relax a bit. If Larry had intended to steal from him, he would have done it by now.
Saint looked down at his leather-covered hands. The black, fingerless gloves were designed to support and protect his still-healing hands from the wounds that had changed everything. Larry had been indispensable, so Saint had provided him with a room of his own in the back of the building as well as a cash allowance of sorts. Considering Saint paid for all the expenses and food, Larry was pocketing enough to take care of himself without resorting to other means.
“They can’t gut what makes this old building unique. My grandpa used to say there was too much conformity in the world,” Larry answered as he wiped his sweaty, dust-covered face, leaving one clean streak down the side. Saint wasn’t sure where Larry had been raised, but his accent suggested the mid-west.
“Damn straight,” Saint agreed before standing with a soft hiss of pain.
“Your side hurting again?” Larry asked.
There had been three bullets that day. One for each hand and a third through his stomach, tearing a hole in his small intestines that had required over ten hours of surgery to repair.
“It’s not bad.” Short and to the point, Saint refused to talk about his injuries. The quicker he healed, the faster he could put that chapter in his life to rest once and for all.
Larry followed him out of the office Saint had created from the old storage room behind the solid oak bar. He had been surprised no one had ripped it out considering it looked like it dated back to the building’s beginnings. The wood was carved into various palm leaf shapes and covered an entire wall complete with mirrors. There was no way in hell he’d allow someone to destroy it, which was one of the many stupid things the last contractor had suggested.
Saint had to hand it to Larry—the man worked hard. “This room looks so much better without all the debris and broken furniture. Were you able to find room in the dumpster out back?”
“Yep, it’s all ready for pickup. No wasted space.”
“Good job. Are you getting hungry?” Saint asked as he looked down at his watch and discovered it was already early evening. Another day gone and nothing to show for it. Why was finding a general contractor such a pain in the ass? It wasn’t as if he was asking for the Taj Mahal to be rebuilt.
“I can keep going, boss.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Larry looked down at his shoes before mumbling, “I could eat.”
Saint knew the young man was doing everything in his power not to be a bother. Sometimes it seemed as though Larry would make himself as small as possible to avoid attention. Saint had been working on the young man’s confidence, which seemed ironic considering he’d lost his own.
“You need to tell me the truth when I ask you questions. It’s the only way this arrangement is going to work. If I lose track of time, you are free to tell me it’s past supper and that you’re hungry. At least until we can work a small kitchen in here somewhere so you can make whatever you want whenever. Take a shower and we’ll figure out something to eat,” Saint instructed, bringing a smile to Larry’s face before he took off to his room.
Saint had thought to add more to the common space when they’d cleared out the back, or hub, as they began calling it. Their efforts had yielded a space that included a television, couch, his easy chair, a small dining table set, a coffee table, microwave, electric coffeepot, and a small bar fridge.
Looking around, he wished he had more to show for two months’ worth of work, but it wasn’t as if he had much else to do. Sure, he could have stayed in a comfortable hotel while working out the basics of his design concept, but if he was starting a new life, he needed to jump in with both feet.
The buzzer for the front door sounded—another new addition—and Saint changed direction and headed toward the thick wooden doors. He’d hired the Sentinel crew to install a security system in the building. It was worth the small fortune he’d paid for the peace of mind. While a lot of DTLA had been or was in the process of being renovated, there were as many places that were derelict and some were hard-core dangerous. Saint had vowed never to be caught unaware again.
He looked at the monitor embedded into the wall a few feet from the front doors, checking to see who was out there. He flipped the locks and walked out into the waning sunlight. The warm air hit him and he shook his head. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to LA’s climate. Early spring back in New York City would hold the possibility of one last grand snowstorm or two, typically after everyone had removed their snow tires, making traffic worse than usual.
Saint walked the ten feet to the imposing gothic wrought-iron gate that enclosed the front vestibule area of the building. He’d had the gates fixed the day after he’d found Larry sleeping in the entryway. A courier was waiting for him, but instead of opening the nine-foot gate, he simply held out his hand for the man to place the envelope in it.
“Dr. Francis Jeffrey?” The busy street noise and mass of people moving along the sidewalks was almost deafening, and Saint quirked a brow at the kid. He asked the question again and Saint nodded. He was no longer a surgeon and wanted people to address him as mister, but this kid wouldn’t know that.
The kid handed a handheld device through the gate’s bars. “Sign here,” he said in a bored monotone voice. Saint hated this part. Carefully, he took the stylus from the courier and wrapped his fingers as far as he could around the plastic. No matter how hard he tried, he could only make his index finger reach his thumb and scribbled something illegible on the digital pad. When he went to hand back the device, the expression on the kid’s face wasn’t surprising. Saint growled and shoved the pad in the guy’s hands, took the white envelope, and stormed inside before relocking the door.
He wondered if one day it would get better when he saw the shock and pity in their eyes. If the stabbing pain ripping through his heart would ease over time.
“You should have let me get that for you, boss,” Larry said as he came running to the front doors. His hair was still damp but at least he was dressed. All Saint needed was a twentysomething traipsing around in a towel.
He treated Larry as he would his brother Johnny, and made that clear after the one and only time the man had made a pass at him. Saint knew it had to have been tough on the street, and Larry probably assumed there would be a price for Saint’s kindness. It took some reinforcing, but it seemed Larry believed Saint wanted nothing more than an honest day’s work for Larry’s efforts. The fact that he felt responsible for Larry and treated him like Johnny, the brother he’d protected by staying away, was a matter Saint didn’t want to look at too closely.
“It’s fine,” Saint answered, but his voice came out more like a growl. “Did you grab the card, Larry?” He had opened a bank account for everyday expenses and gave Larry a card tied to the account so he could pick things up when they needed them.
Larry’s dark brown eyes looked troubled as he nibbled on his lower lip and Saint was about to question him when the kid blurted out, “My name isn’t Larry.” Saint tried his best to look shocked, but obviously he hadn’t pulled it off. “You knew?”
“I’ve been in some of the toughest barrios in Central and South America. I would have been more shocked if you’d told me the truth without knowing who the hell I was. So, what is it?”
“Finn…Finley, but I prefer Finn.” The kid shrugged.
“Well, Finn, did you grab the card?” Saint asked again, as if the name thing wasn’t a big deal. Even though the trust in sharing it was.
“Yeah, boss.” Finn smiled wide.
“Okay, go grab us something you like and I’ll meet you back in the hub,” Saint instructed before heading for the commanding central staircase.
“Um, maybe you’d like to come for the walk.”
Saint stopped in his tracks and spun around. “Why?”
Finn found a spot in the faded carpeting unusually interesting. “It’s… well… You never go out, really, other than doctors’ visits.”
The fact that Finn noticed was one thing Saint hadn’t expected. That the kid sounded as if his concern was genuine was surprising. “I prefer to stay in at the moment. Thank you for asking.”
“Okay,” Finn said with his usual smile in place before taking off for the back of the building. Typically, they used the delivery entrance to come and go.
Saint waited until he heard the beep of the back door closing and relocking before he began climbing the stairs to the first floor. While he lived on the ground floor, he dreamed of the day that he’d have his own space on the top floor of his building. Unfortunately, without a contractor, his dream had stalled.
This staircase had sold him on the building. Grand, majestic, ornamental, and stunning, it had the odd squeak, but the grand wooden staircase was solid. When he’d first arrived, Saint remembered thinking it reminded him of a toothless grin with its missing parts, but the thick carved railings that opened up like arms gathering you in as you ventured higher were unique and magical. The banisters depicted the elegant curves of a cello, but the one thing Saint loved the most were the slight grooves in the wood from years of wear. His imagination raced at the thought of who might have run their hands over the same surface in the more than hundred years of its existence.
Saint had done a fair amount of research before choosing this building. It had lived many lives in the twentieth century. When the railroads had made it out west, the people who had built downtown Los Angeles had come to this desert by the sea as part of the oil boom in the early 1900s. They built, then set up shop downtown in this four-story stone building with its elegantly chiseled façade, high windows, and ornate detailing. Over the years, it had changed hands numerous times. After the oil barons moved to a larger and more prestigious space, a couple of Hollywood producers had turned the building into an elegant nightclub with private rooms for those who wanted their indiscretions to stay behind closed doors. When World War II hit, the building was shuttered, and in 1946 it became a small department store. In the late 1960s, when LA sprawl moved into the Valley and took retail with it, the building changed hands and became a hotel with a kitschy restaurant. The hotel became seedy and the building fell into total disrepair at the turn of the twenty-first century. The grand dame had sat empty until Saint came along.
His plans included a restaurant and lounge on the ground floor, and condominiums on the upper three floors with a roof garden with lounges for the owners’ use. Plans. Saint scoffed at the word. As if he had any real plans other than getting as far away from his old life as he could.
He looked down at the envelope still crumpled in his damaged right hand. When were they going to stop sending these letters? Saint pushed the offending paper into his pocket. He’d add it to the pile when he got back to his room.
Door after door stood open, revealing the four would-be condominium units on the first floor: one studio apartment, two one-bedrooms, and a large two-bedroom in the corner unit. Another set of four apartments mimicking the floor plan on the second floor was part of his vision, and he intended to occupy the entire third floor.
Which was where he stood now, the peeling linoleum tiles buckled in a few places, leaving glimpses of the wood planks underneath. Large, full-length, top-hung windows flooded the faded and stained rooms with light. Saint regretted they had to be replaced and hoped he could find something comparable. He walked up to the windows that would be front and center in his new loft-style home and looked out at the city before him.
The city of angels.