Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Carlisle Cops Part 3 by Andrew Grey

Fire and Hail #5
Brock Ferguson knew he might run into his ex-boyfriend, Vincent Geraldini, when he took his first job as a police officer in Carlisle. Vincent's attitude during a routine traffic stop reminds Brock why their relationship didn't last.

What Brock doesn't expect is finding two scared children in the trunk of a Corvette. He's also surprised to learn the kids' mother is Vincent's sister. But his immediate concern is the safety of the two children, Abey and Penny, and he offers to comfort and care for them when their mother is taken into custody.

Vincent is also shocked to learn what his sister has done. For the sake of the kids, he and Brock bury the hatchet-and soon find they have much more in common than they realized. With Abey and Penny's help, they grow closer, until the four of them start to feel like a family. But Vincent's sister and her boyfriend-an equal-opportunity jerk-could tear down everything they're trying to build.

Fire and Fog #6
Carlisle police officer Dwayne knows what Robin is doing the moment he lays eyes on the young man at Bronco’s club. But he doesn’t know that, like him, Robin also comes from a family who cast him out for being gay, or that he’s still lugging around the pain of that rejection. Robin leaves the club, and soon after Dwayne decides to as well—and is close by when things between Robin and his client turn violent.

When Dwayne finds out Robin is the victim of a scam that lost him his apartment, he can’t leave Robin to fend for himself on the streets. Despite Dwayne’s offer of help and even opening up his home, it’s hard for Robin to trust anything good. The friendship between them grows, and just as the two men start warming up to each other, Robin’s sister passes away, naming Robin to care for her son. Worse yet, their pasts creep back in to tear down the family and sense of belonging both of them long for.

Will their fledgling romance dissipate like fog in the sun before it has a chance to burn bright?

Fire and Hail #5
I love Andrew Grey's Carlisle Cops series, they're fun, dramatic, loving, sexy - basically everything you hope for in a contemporary romance.  Throw in some kids and it just adds another layer of realism that tugs at your heartstrings.  Abey and Penny are absolutely adorable, how can you not fall in love with them as much as Brock does?  You definitely should have a box of tissues handy, you don't want to short out your ereader from falling tears.  And you will have a few tears, tears of heartache, tears of sadness, tears of laughter, and tears of joy.

Former loves reconnecting can be tricky to convey, especially when the breakup might not have been for the best.  You need to understand and believe why the connection is still strong as well as why it took so long to meet up again, the balance has to be just right and Andrew Grey has created a very realistic blend with Brock and Vincent in Fire & Hail.  Once Brock unlocked the trunk and found two pairs of innocent eyes staring back at him, I was hooked.  There was no way I was putting my Kindle down until I reached the last page.  Forget eating and sleeping, I just had to know their journey.

Each book in the series can be read as a standalone but I highly recommend reading them in order.  The ins and outs of the secondary characters from previous entries just make the flow of each story run smoother.

Fire and Fog #6
The Carlisle Cops are back!  In Fire and Fog we meet Dwayne, the newest cop in town.  He has been riding and getting to know the city with Red, who we first met in book 1, Fire and Water.  While trying to enjoy a relaxing evening at Bronco's Club he meets Robin.  Robin is just trying to survive and doing whatever he thinks he has to to accomplish that.  A chance meeting, or two, changes the lives of these two men in ways neither expected when the evening began.

As amazing as all the cops in this series is, Dwayne is quite possibly the nicest one yet.  To say he has a heart of gold would be a cliche of major proportions but its also entirely accurate.  Robin too has a heart of gold but being a few years younger, the family betrayal that set him on his current course as well as being taken in by a rental scam is still fresh in his soul, leaves his trust level pretty low.  Its no wonder he doesn't want to take Dwayne at his word when he says he just wants to help, I don't think I would be able to either.

Is their love rushed?  Perhaps.  For some that might be a turn off but for me, its not.  When written as well as Andrew Grey has done, its believable, interesting, heartwarming, and just plain entertaining.  One thing I really loved about Fire and Fog, the whole series really but in Fog more so, just because Robin is the younger one and his pain is fresher that doesn't mean Dwayne is without hesitation and doubts as well.  I love how the author shows us that just because someone is more set in their roles in life doesn't mean they have all the answers and are above being afraid, life is always changing, an ever-evolving journey and Carlisle Cops is a perfect example of that.  Throw in a little mystery to make this a tale with a little bit of everything and you have another winner that will keep you hooked till the very last page.

I suppose technically, this is a series of standalones since each installment centers on a different duo with their own story but I highly recommend reading Carlisle Cops in order as the featured couples from each one pop up throughout the series.  Reading them in order just makes the stories flow better due to the interactions with supporting characters.


Fire and Hail #5
TRAFFIC DUTY. Of course they assigned him traffic enforcement. Brock Ferguson was the newbie in the department in every way.

Hell, he wasn’t going to complain—he knew he was the luckiest guy on earth to have this job at all. When he’d applied, he was told there weren’t any openings and they’d put his résumé in the file in case something came up. He hadn’t had much hope, but then he’d been called for an interview just ten days later because one of the officers decided to move back South. He’d worked hard to make a good impression and seemed to have pulled it off. Of course, that meant he now got to sit in a patrol car watching vehicles as they passed by, their speeds registering on the radar system installed in the dashboard.

Vehicles of every description passed in front of him, everything from tiny Smart cars to huge semitrailers. He checked the speed of each one and yawned. Hours of sitting with the engine running, and even then the air-conditioning barely kept up with the heat from the sun pouring through the windows. It was like being in a tin can roasting in an oven, with no place to go. Brock hadn’t moved in forever. It seemed the word was out about where he’d been stationed. Everyone was slowing down, driving sedately past him, and probably speeding up as soon as they were out of sight. Still, he knew the purpose of him being there was to act more as a deterrent and get people to slow down in the first place.

A red sports car with the convertible top down passed, going fast enough that the radar peeped. Brock put the car in gear, flipped on his lights, and pulled out, joining the flow of traffic and keeping the offender in sight. As he drove, he called in to report the stop and gave the license plate to the dispatcher to make sure the car hadn’t been reported stolen. The other cars got out of the way, and when Brock stayed behind the offender, the driver pulled to the side. Now he needed to be careful. Traffic stops, while routine, could also be dangerous. He got out of his car and walked up to the other vehicle, where a head of thick black hair poked up above the seat.

“Could I see your license and registration, please?” Brock asked as he looked over the inside of the car, checking for any sort of weapon. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

The driver turned to him, and Brock stared into a very familiar set of eyes.

“Vinny,” Brock said, relaxing a little. “I see you still drive like a bat out of hell.” He waited for him to hand over his license. “I guess some things never change.”

“I prefer Vincent now,” he said.
Brock ignored the comment and went back to his car to run the information. Not that he needed the driver’s license. He knew everything there was to know about Vincent Geraldini. He’d learned enough while the two of them dated years earlier. Granted, it hadn’t been for very long, but just as Brock thought they might be getting serious, Vinny—Vincent—had backed away.

Vinny’s record came back clean, and Brock sat in his car a little longer than was necessary, thinking about what he was going to do. At the speed Vinny had been going, writing a citation was discretionary, so Brock was still debating. Maybe he could write him one for being a dickweed. Brock opened the door, got out of his car again, and returned to Vinny.

“Are you going to give me a ticket?” Vinny asked. He was always the kind of guy who tackled things head-on. It had been one of the things Brock had first liked about him. There was no backing down in Vinny. He always asked what he wanted to know and stared people down until he got an answer.

“I’m still deciding.” Brock opened his pad and began writing. Usually he’d do that in the car, but he wanted Vinny to squirm a little and wonder exactly what he was doing. Not getting the answers he wanted was one of the things Brock knew would get under Vinny’s skin, and he wanted that at the moment. Sometimes it was easy to do, such as moments like this when Vinny was not the one in control. “Are you visiting?” Brock asked, having noticed that the address on Vinny’s license read Shippensburg.

“No. I moved back to Carlisle recently and I still have to get the address on my license changed.” Vinny gave him his new address, and Brock added that to the information on the sheet.

Brock had to force himself to keep writing when Vinny turned his way once again, tilting his head upward just enough that Brock got a good look into his intense brown eyes with their flecks of gold. For a split second, he flashed on a memory of just how those eyes shone in the afternoon sun, his olive-colored skin contrasted against the blanket, covered with a light sheen of sweat as Brock leaned over him…. Brock took a deep breath, released it, and hoped like hell that Vinny hadn’t seen anything in his expression. What had happened between them had no bearing on today and how he was going to react.

“I’m going to give you a warning. But….” Brock leaned over the side of the car, his gaze zeroing in on Vinny, and he suppressed a smile when he saw him shudder a little. “This will stay in your file here, and if you get stopped again, this will turn into a citation, along with the one the officer is sure to give you then. So slow down and drive safely.”

“Of course, Brock.” The momentary heat in Vinny’s eyes dissipated as he took the slip of paper. “I’ll be careful.”

Brock glared for a split second. He wasn’t buying that act. Vinny had never been one of those guys who played it safe. Not at least as far as Brock knew.

He patted the door of the car twice and stepped back. “Have a good day.” He turned to walk back to his patrol car.

“Is that all?” Vinny asked.

Brock continued walking and got inside, watching as Vinny pulled out into traffic and guided his car up to the next intersection. Brock turned off his lights, merged as well, and made his way to his original location. He turned on his radar equipment and settled into his routine. He called in to let dispatch know he was back at his location and then tried to get comfortable.

That stop seemed to be his excitement for the morning. Well, that and the fact that now that he’d seen Vinny again, he couldn’t seem to get his mind back where it belonged. He watched cars go by and paid attention to the radar, but his mind kept wandering to the summer between his junior and senior year of college. Maybe he and Vinny were too young at that point to have really made a go of it, but Brock had fallen in love with the olive-skinned, vibrant, take-no-prisoners Vinny. But obviously the feelings hadn’t been returned. Either that or what they’d had was just some summer fling to Vinny that was over as soon as the weather broke and they went back to school. The heat of those summer months, both outside and between them, was something Brock wasn’t ever likely to forget. He grew warm and shifted in his seat just remembering it.

Not that he particularly wanted to spend part of his day thinking about Vinny and what he’d thought they had together. Brock had had other boyfriends since then, but none of them had made him feel quite the way Vinny did. Oh, they got him excited, and he even fell in love once, but in a less soul touching way, whereas Vinny could get his heart racing with just a coy look. They didn’t need to be in the same room. A text from Vinny would have Brock excited just to hear from him. Of course, as he looked back on it, he had been stupid to give his heart and become so invested in things with Vinny so quickly. In the end he’d gotten his heart broken, and Brock let that stew in his mind for a while in order to help him pull his head back onto the task at hand.

A message came through his in-car computer, telling him there were no pending calls, so he decided to go to lunch. Brock sighed with relief and pulled out of his spot, making a right onto Hanover and heading for downtown. Carter Schunk, a friend and fellow officer, had arranged to meet him at the Hanover Grille for lunch.

Brock pulled into town, drove past rows of historic homes and the colonial-era red brick courthouse with its white clock tower, and through the square with its impressive churches. He loved how the old town had a past, and she wore it well. Brock parked in the lot behind the restaurant in one of the spots designated for law enforcement vehicles, because of its proximity to the courthouse, and walked around to the front door. Carter already had a table, and Brock joined him.

“How did it go?”

“Boring,” Brock answered with a slight smile. “Exactly what you told me it would be.”

“I heard your call about a stop.” Carter handed Brock a menu but didn’t open one himself. The Grille was a regular lunch place and Brock pretty much knew the menu by heart. It had been the place his mom took him when they went out to dinner, and it hadn’t changed much over the years.

“I made one, and it turned out to be Vinny….”

“Someone you knew?” Carter leaned a little closer.

“Quite well at one time, if you know what I mean.”

Mary, the server they saw most days at lunch, brought them water, and they each ordered a burger with a salad and some ice tea. They thanked her, and she hurried to put in their orders.
“I gave him a warning because that’s what I think I would have done for anyone else.”

“Good. Always be fair. That’s the best we can do.”

“I try.” Brock smiled when Mary brought their drinks, and then took a sip, the liquid cooling his parched throat.

“I need to change the subject before I forget. You put in for some additional shifts and they’re coming your way. Red is going on vacation.”

“The big guy with the scars?” Brock was still learning who everyone was.

“That’s him.” Carter glanced around the room and even turned behind him. Brock did the same. It was good to know what was happening around you. They were still in uniform, and with all the shootings of police officers in the national news, they needed to be on alert.

“He was so intimidating the first time I met him, but he seems like a really good guy.”

“He’s leaving tomorrow to join his partner in Rio. Terry is on the US Olympic swimming team, and Red is going to watch him compete. I wish I could afford to go too, but with him gone, I put in for you to ride with me for a few weeks, and the captain agreed. So it looks like you’re off traffic duty, for a little while anyway.”

Brock was shocked. He hadn’t expected something like this so soon. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me just yet. You might wish you were on traffic duty after two weeks of second shift. It can be very active, especially during the summer. People hole up inside during the day and then come out once the sun goes down and it cools off, with a lot of pent-up energy and frustration. Tempers flare. We get a lot of domestic disturbance calls.”

“It has to beat sitting in a car all day, baking like a ham.”

Carter flashed him a look of amusement. “Pun intended.”

Brock blinked. He didn’t get it.

“Ham… pig….”

Brock groaned and changed the subject. “Do you know if Terry and Red had to take special precautions with the Zika virus and all?”

“Red said he had so many shots, he felt like a pincushion. He and Terry had to be inoculated for everything, and apparently, the US Olympic Committee is bringing its own drinking water for the athletes and their families. They don’t want anyone to get sick. Terry and Red briefly talked about him backing out, but Terry is old enough that this is his last shot at the Olympics. In four years he’ll be too old, so they decided to take the chance.” Carter grinned. “Red would move heaven and earth to see that Terry’s happy, and the reverse is also true.”

“How are things with you? How’s Alex?” Brock had met Carter and Donald’s son a few times, and the six-year-old was completely adorable.

“He’s growing like a weed and getting bigger every day. He’s so excited to be going into the first grade. Unfortunately, he didn’t like his kindergarten teacher, and Donald had to step in and get him moved into a different class. He loved Mrs. Bobb and made up the ground he was behind because of her. So this year he was apprehensive until Donald and I took him down to meet his new teacher. He stood behind my legs at first and refused to look at her because he still wanted Mrs. Bobb as his teacher again and didn’t understand why if he was going to first grade, she wasn’t coming along too. Mr. Keller was patient and gave Alex time. He’s still a little apprehensive around men he doesn’t know, but after a while, they started talking, and by the end, Alex turned to us and asked if school started tomorrow.” Carter took a drink of his tea. “Sorry, I slipped into proud parent mode.”

“Nothing to be sorry for. I asked.” Brock missed his niece and nephew—he hadn’t seen them since they were toddlers.

Mary brought their food and grabbed their glasses for refills. “There you are. I’ll be back in a minute. Can I bring anything besides drinks?”

“Looks good.”

“Thank you.”

She left, and Brock dug into his burger. He was so dang hungry, he could eat a mule whole. Their conversation drew to a halt for a while until the edge on their hunger seemed to have abated.

“So will we be working double shifts while Red and Terry are gone?”

“A few, maybe. But the plan is for us to work seven days, and some of the other guys will give up days off as well. The money will be good, and it’s only for a few weeks, so be sure to get plenty of rest when you’re off. These constant days can drag unless you’re eating and sleeping well.”

They returned to their food, and Mary brought drink refills. Once they were done, Carter excused himself to go to the restroom. Brock again scanned the room and saw Vinny come in with a group of guys. Vinny hadn’t seemed to notice Brock, which was fine.

Still, every few seconds his attention returned to Vinny and the group. Vinny couldn’t see him because his back was mostly to Brock, but Brock saw him talking animatedly, waving his hands before sitting back to laugh—a deep, rich sound he couldn’t completely hear, but knew anyway. The others around the table joined in, and Brock turned away. He wasn’t included in their fun, and even when he and Vinny dated—fucked, whatever it had been—he hadn’t been included in the other parts of Vinny’s life.

“Do you need anything?” Carter asked.

Brock shook his head and silently berated himself for not being more vigilant about what was happening around him. He hadn’t heard Carter come back because he’d let his personal thoughts drag him on a woolgathering expedition, and that needed to stop.

Carter sat down, and Brock went back to use the restroom. He did his business, washed his hands, and used a cold towel to sponge off his face. Once he was done, he rejoined Carter and they paid their bills.

“Have a good afternoon, and tomorrow we’ll ride together.” Carter walked with him to their parked cars. They got in and pulled out of the lot, each going their separate directions.

Brock spent the rest of the day in a few places around town that were notorious for speeders and wrote a number of citations. At least it gave him something to do. He checked the clock and smiled. He had less than half an hour before he could go back to the station and clock out for the day. Brock was very ready.

“All units,” he heard over the radio. “Please be on the lookout for yellow recent-model Corvette convertible driven by two women. Stop if seen, but use caution. There is a report that there are children in the trunk.” Brock blinked and listened more intently, making sure he’d heard correctly. “I repeat, there are reportedly children locked in the trunk of the car.”

“Holy shit,” Brock said to himself. He’d heard stories of what people would do to each other and to children, but this was a surprise even to him.

Brock returned his attention to the road in front of him, one of the main roads from Carlisle to Harrisburg, and sure enough, a yellow Corvette turned his direction from a block away. “I have a possible sighting of the Corvette on Harrisburg Pike headed east. Two women, top down, plate HUF–9080. I am about to intercept and will make it appear a routine traffic stop. Send backup.”

“I’m on my way,” Carter said.

Brock pulled out, maneuvered until he was behind the car, and then flipped on his lights. The Corvette kept going, so Brock put on his siren. Finally the women pulled over and Brock got out of his car.

Carter pulled behind him in his cruiser. He got out as well, and they converged on the women sitting in the expensive two-seater convertible. “May I see your license and registration, please?” Brock asked the driver. Muffled sounds from the back of the car gave him pause. “Please unlock your trunk.” He met the driver’s gaze, but she made no move to comply and stared at him with vacant eyes.

“Get out of the car and keep your hands where I can see them, both of you,” Carter barked, hand on his weapon and ready to draw, and Brock stepped away to give the driver space while the women did as he asked.

“You can’t do this,” the passenger said as Carter had her place both her hands on the hood of the car, her legs spread.

Once Carter had eyes on both women, Brock reached inside the car and found the trunk release. He pressed it, went to the back, and opened the tiny trunk lid. Two sets of eyes peered out from inside.

“It’s okay, sweethearts. No one is going to hurt you.” He pushed the lid all the way open, and a little girl in a pink sundress and white-and-pink-striped tights stood up. Brock guessed she was about three. “We need assistance at Harrisburg Pike near East. I can confirm two children in the trunk. They seem okay so far.” He kept his voice as calm and level as possible.

A boy, about five years old, carefully climbed out of the trunk. “Mama,” he said, pointing to the woman who had been driving the car.

Brock glared at the woman. He had trouble imagining how anyone could be so heartless and cruel as to lock two small children in the trunk of a car on one of the hottest days of the year and then go out joy riding. Not only was it a miracle that they weren’t hurt from being tossed around inside the confined space, but it was lucky they hadn’t been injured from the heat.

He escorted the children onto the grass and into the shade of a nearby tree, then knelt down so he could be more on their level and less intimidating. “I’m Brock. What are your names?”

“Abey, and this is Penny,” the little boy answered and then pointed to the car. “It was scary in there.”

Penny had her thumb in her mouth and stayed close to Abey.

“Is Penny your sister?” Brock asked, and Abey nodded. “Did you take care of her while you were in there?”

“Yes. I held her when we rolled around.”

“You were a very brave big boy.” Brock didn’t know what else to say, but Abey nodded. “Can you stay right here with Penny?” Brock asked as he heard cars approaching. He stood to watch the scene but stayed close to the children.

Two other police vehicles stopped nearby. Both Kip Rogers and Aaron Cloud got out of their vehicles. Aaron was the ranking officer and he’d probably take charge of the scene. Brock stayed where he was as Kip helped Carter handcuff both women and get them loaded into the back of separate police cars. Then Aaron made his way toward Brock and the kids.

“Did you find out why they were in the trunk?” Brock’s heart went out to both children as Aaron stepped away a few feet.

“The car belongs to the passenger, Brenda Weaver, and apparently she’d just bought the car and drove it over to show Rhonda Geraldini. Rhonda wanted to take the car for a spin, and since there was no backseat and she didn’t have a babysitter, she put the kids in the trunk and the women decided to go for a ride.”

“My God,” Brock said softly. Vinny’s sister. Sometimes it was a small, sick world.

“Her excuse was that she thought the kids would be fine and that they weren’t going very far or very fast. Oh, and that there was no backseat in the car for the kids to ride in anyway.” Aaron rolled his eyes.

Brock turned back to the kids and forced a smile. “This is Abey and Penny. Abey held and protected his sister while they were in there so that she wouldn’t get hurt. He’s a very good big brother.”

“Where did they take Mama?” Abey picked at his sleeve, swaying from foot to foot.

“It’s all right. She shouldn’t have put you and Penny in the trunk, so the officers are going to talk with her.” He turned to Aaron, floundering.

“Carter called for some help, and his husband, Donald, is on the way.”

Brock nodded. “I’ve met his family.” That was a huge relief. Donald would know exactly what to do and how to help make sure the kids remained calm. “I’ll stay with the kids here in the shade if you want me too.”

“Perfect. We’ll handle the rest.” Aaron left them, and shortly after, Penny pulled on Abey’s sleeve.

“Penny has to go potty,” Abey said.

“Okay.” He caught Aaron’s eye and motioned to the gas station next door. Then he took each of their hands and gently led them across the grass and into the store. There was just a single bathroom, and Brock waited outside while Abey took Penny inside. He kept watch and listened for any issues. Soon the heavy door moved, and Brock helped open it. They came out, Abey holding Penny’s hand.
“Did you wash up?” Brock smiled when they both nodded, and he led them back through the store. At the register, Brock bought two boxes of animal crackers and handed one to each of them. He also got some bottles of water, then walked the kids across the parking lot to where Donald was waiting for them. “Abey and Penny, this is Mr. Donald. He’s going to be your friend and he’ll help you. I promise. He’s a very nice man.”

Abey’s lower lip quivered, and Penny stepped behind her brother. Brock suspected that all this was way more than they could handle and fear was really setting in.

“I’m going to take both of you to stay with a friend of mine. Okay?” Even Brock found Donald’s voice soothing.

Abey shook his head, turned to Penny, and put his arms around her to shield her from Donald. “No strangers. Mama says so.”

“Am I a stranger?” Brock asked, and Abey turned to look at him but didn’t move away from Penny.

“Yes,” he answered. “But you’re a nice stranger.” He turned and held his box of cookies close to him, and Penny mimicked her brother.

Brock wanted to cry right there by the side of the road. He blinked and had to turn away. Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to get emotional when he was on the job. Take whatever you see, bury it, cover it up, and make it stay there. That’s what he was supposed to do. But how in the hell was that possible when he was looking into two pairs of wide, frightened blue eyes?

“Do you want me to go with you?”

Abey thought a second, screwing up his face in a look of concentration, and then finally nodded. Abey seemed to trust Brock, at least initially.

“Will you stay here with Penny?” Brock asked Abey, and he nodded, holding his sister’s hand. Then Brock and Donald took a few steps away. “I can ride with you to where you’re taking them.”

“That’s the problem. I don’t have a single home with room for two kids. All I have are two separate emergency foster care homes, and they are limited to taking one each at the moment.”

Brock’s gaze hardened and he glared at Donald. “You can’t split them up. They just saw their mother taken away in a police car. Look at him—he’ll fight you tooth and nail if you try to separate him from Penny, and the poor little thing will come apart. She’s already got half her hand in her mouth, she’s under so much stress.”

“Emergency foster homes require special certification, and I can’t just make things up as I go along. I have to go by the book. These are court matters.”

“Crap….” Brock wished he could do something—anything—about the fear in their eyes. “You do what you have to do, but so help me God….” Maybe this profession wasn’t the right one for him. “I took an oath to protect and serve, and if I can’t help little ones like them, then what the hell good am I in the first place?” Brock couldn’t just walk away.

Donald sighed and turned to look to where Carter was searching the car. Brock saw the moment Carter realized Donald was looking at him. He could almost see the zing of awareness that passed between them, it was so strong.

Carter and Donald seemed to communicate with each other without saying a word, and Brock saw Carter nod to Donald, who smiled and then turned back to him. “Carter and I will take them in. I’m certified as an emergency foster home, and we have enough room for the two of them if they share a room.”

“I doubt you’re going to get them to sleep apart.”

“You’re probably right, though I think Penny is going to need a bed with a rail to ensure she doesn’t roll out, but I can accommodate that.”

Brock turned to the kids, who were still frightened. Penny had ripped open her box of crackers and was eating them while Abey still held his with the handle clutched in his fists. He looked about as defiant as a five-year-old could when fear was stalking close by.

“Mr. Donald is going to take you home with him.”

Abey once again shook his head and moved closer to Penny.

“Would it be okay if I went along with you?” Brock asked, and Abey nodded his agreement after a few seconds, looking from Donald and then to him.

“I’ve got a car seat as well as a booster in my car, so the kids can ride with me.”

“I need to clock out, and then I’ll be over to your house as soon as I can get there.” Brock knelt down. “Mr. Donald is going to take you to his house, where he has a lot of really fun toys, and his son, Alex, will be there for you to play with. I promise I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Brock took both kids’ hands, led them to Donald’s car, and got them buckled in. “I promise I’ll be over to see you soon.” Brock closed the door and stepped away from the car. As soon as Donald pulled away, Brock hurried to where Carter and Aaron were comparing notes.

“Are you clocking out?” Carter asked.

“Yes. The kids are with Donald, and I told him I’d be over as soon as I could.”

“Why?” Aaron asked.

Brock thought that was one of the dumbest questions he’d ever heard but kept his reaction off his face. “The kids trust me for some reason, and they’re suspicious of Donald. So I want to make sure they’re okay.”

“Good. Tell Donald I’ll be home as soon as we button things up here and I can get the paperwork done on our ‘mother of the year.’”

Brock got in his car, radioed in, and headed to the station. Once there, he clocked out and left as soon as he could. He made a quick stop at his apartment over Victorian Antiques on Hanover Street, where he changed clothes. Then he headed out, walking the few blocks to Donald’s as fast as possible. He knocked, and Donald answered the door with Penny in his arms, tears streaking her face. She reached for him, so Brock took her and rubbed her back to try to soothe her as he stepped inside.

Abey sat on the sofa, staring at nothing, his little legs sticking out in front of him. He seemed so forlorn, but when he saw Brock, he perked up, slid to the floor, and walked over.

“Penny is fine, little protector,” Brock said, sitting on the sofa. Abey climbed up and sat next to him. “Where’s Alex?”

“He’s at the neighbors’ house, playing with a friend. I have to go over and get him, but I wanted to wait for you. I’ll be right back.” Donald left, and Brock gathered Abey to him with his free arm.

“Are you hungry? You can eat your crackers if you want.”

Abey looked down at the red box covered with circus animals and slowly opened it. He ate one of the animal-shaped crackers inside and then handed one up to Brock. He ate it and thanked Abey for sharing. Penny’s box was on the table, so he leaned over, got one, and handed it up to her. She took it but continued holding him tight, like she had no intention of letting him go.

Donald returned with hurricane Alex, who blew in amid a flurry of storytelling. “Mark said that he was the bestest at bike riding and I said unh-uh, and he said he was, but I beat him so I was right. But he….” His conversation cut off midsentence when he saw Brock and the kids.

“Alex, this is Penny and Abey. They’re going to be staying with us for a little while. Is that okay?”

Alex looked up at Donald and then at the two youngsters as though he were thinking. Then he turned back up to Donald. “Are they like me?”

“They’re like you were when you first came to live with me. They need my help. Is that okay?” Brock liked the way Donald always seemed to ask questions rather than forcing the kids to do what he wished. Granted, in the end, Donald got what he wanted, but he always made Alex part of the process.

“I still get my room, right?” Suspicion clouded Alex’s adorable face.

“Of course. They’re going to sleep in the room next to yours.”

“Okay.” Alex walked right over to Abey. “Do you want to play Legos? I got lots of ’em.”

Abey hesitated and then slid down off the sofa, handed Brock his animal crackers, and followed Alex to the corner of the room where his toy box was.

“Do you want to play too?” Brock asked Penny, but she seemed content to stay right where she was. She did lift her head, though, watching the boys.

“They’ve been through a lot in a very short time. All we can do is give comfort. If I knew them, I’d try to find out their routine and stick with it. But we’re going to have to wing it.” Donald approached slowly. “Are you hungry, sweet girl?”

Penny nodded slowly.

“Do you like macaroni and cheese?” Donald asked, and she nodded again.

“I’ll go make some. Do you want to help me?” Donald extended his hand, and Penny looked at it for a while. Brock didn’t think she was going to go for it, but then she took Donald’s hand, and Brock let her go into Donald’s arms. “There you are. Let’s go make some dinner.” He carried Penny into the kitchen, and Brock sat where he was, watching the boys play. Abey seemed content to spend time with Alex and wasn’t fussing as they scooted around the floor, chattering like they were old friends.

Brock pushed to his feet and walked to where Donald had gone. “I think they’re settled now, so I’ll get out of your hair.” There really wasn’t a need for him to be there any longer. Penny and Abey were safe, and Donald knew how to take care of them and would shepherd them to a more permanent living location.

“Stay for dinner. Once the kids are fed, I have some steaks marinating and there’s plenty.” Donald moved around his kitchen with practiced ease, even with Penny in his arms.
“I don’t want to impose, and—”

Donald interrupted him. “Nonsense. You did a great thing today, and the least I can do is feed you. Besides, what are you going to do? Go out and eat more fried stuff, or heat up a TV dinner and sit in front of the television?” Donald pulled out a plastic bag and set it on the counter. The marinating steaks looked dang good, and Brock’s belly let him know it. “And I could use your help. I don’t know when Carter will be home exactly, and I need to log in and see what I can find out about these two, as well as get them in the system, so you’d be doing me a favor.” Donald smiled, and Brock caved and returned to the living room.

It wasn’t long before Donald called the boys in, and Alex held Abey’s hand as they went to eat. Brock followed and took a seat at the table. “I can stay here if you have things to do,” Brock offered.

“Awesome.” Donald hurried out of the room.

“How are you, pretty Penny?” Brock asked. She was getting more of her dinner on her than in her so Brock gave her a hand, using the spoon to feed her. He got smiles for that and even a few giggles. Abey seemed contented enough to chat with his new friend Alex.

The kids were almost done eating when Donald returned. “I was able to get a court time for tomorrow.” Donald’s tone didn’t betray any of the seriousness of what he was saying, and the kids didn’t pay any attention to him. “We can talk more once they’re in bed.”

Brock nodded and returned to the “open the barn door” game duty as he fed Penny.

Carter got home as they finished, and the boys went back into the living room to play. Carter leaned over where Donald sat at the table and kissed him soundly. “I got home as fast as I could.” Carter shook Brock’s hand and sat down himself. “I have the information you’re going to need. The kids’ last name is Geraldini. I was able to search birth records. Their mother is Rhonda Geraldini, who is currently our guest and is likely to remain that way for a while. They might have different fathers, and Rhonda has never been married.”

“Thanks. I’ll check on them in the system in a few minutes.”

“Rhonda has a—”

“Brother…. Vincent,” Brock supplied, and Carter paused, looking at him in astonishment.

“Okay. You’ve either developed ESP or something is going on.” He turned to Donald, who shrugged.

“I used to date Vincent, but that was some time ago. He left town and moved to Shippensburg, but he’s back now and we have his address.” Brock grinned. “Sometimes small-town living is priceless. I gave him a warning for speeding this morning.”

“Okay. Let me call the station and see if we can get his phone number so we can contact him as a possible guardian.” Carter kissed Donald one more time and left the room.

Soon Brock heard him talking on the phone in the other room. “Is it always like this with what you do?” Brock asked.

“Sometimes. People don’t always neglect or hurt their children on a nine-to-five schedule.” Donald got out a plate. “The grill is out back. Would you mind going to light it? Or we’re never going to get some dinner.”

“Sure.” Brock found the grill on the patio in the backyard and easily got it lit. He closed the lid to let it heat and returned to where Donald had started the rest of dinner. Penny sat in her chair, eyes drooping, and Brock figured it was best to let her sleep. He checked on the boys and saw they were having a good time. Legos were strewn all over the living room floor, but the boys seemed to have moved on to playing cars and trucks.

“Alex, buddy, why don’t you pick up the Legos?”

Alex looked at him like he’d just said the dumbest thing ever. “They’re the track.” They zoomed the cars around the room, and it took them a few moments to realize the Legos didn’t make a very good track. Alex gathered them up, and they ran the cars and trucks along the floor, playing like they had known each other forever.

Carter finished what he needed and passed the address information to Donald, then took over kitchen duty while Donald grabbed his laptop and sat next to Brock on the sofa. It was like a balancing act between Carter and Donald. They instinctively seemed to know what the other needed to do and made a way for it to happen.

From where Brock sat, he could see Penny asleep in the high chair and watch Abey and Alex, so he kept vigil while the two of them did what they needed to do.

“Got it.”


“A phone number.” Donald grabbed his phone and made a call. He left a message and then hung up. “At least I have the right number, according to the voice mail.”

Donald returned to the kitchen, and Brock watched the children and did his best to stay out of the way. “Don’t the kids need clothes?” Brock asked.

“I have some they can use for the time being, and tomorrow we’ll have to see about getting them some more.” Donald stayed in the kitchen, and Carter approached and sat next to Brock on the sofa.

“Their mother is being charged with multiple counts, and while she may get out on bail, it isn’t likely she’s going to be getting the kids back easily. Not with her history. But that will be up to the courts, of course. Donald and I will keep the kids here until they either get a more permanent placement or are awarded back to their mother.”

“Mama,” Penny suddenly cried from the kitchen, whimpering.

Brock got up, lifted her out of her chair, and carried her back to the living room. Abey stopped playing and stood next to Brock, protecting his sister like he had earlier in the day. Penny continued to cry on Brock’s shoulder.

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Brock soothed. Her cries must have agitated Abey, so Carter picked him up and set him on his lap. Alex climbed on the sofa, and soon the children surrounded them. It was an amazing feeling to be needed like this.

Penny’s cries eventually died away, and the boys’ energy got the best of them so they returned to their play.

The phone rang in the other room and Donald answered it, then sent Carter out with the plate of steaks. Donald continued talking as he worked and then hung up.

“What is it?” Brock could see Donald’s agitation.

“That was the kids’ uncle. He said that he and his sister are estranged and that he hasn’t seen Abey since he was eighteen months old and has never met Penny. He was shocked to know he had a niece at all.”

“Is he going to come see the kids?”

“I know you and he have a history, but I need to do what’s best for the kids, and having a relationship with family members is the best thing. So I invited him over in an hour. At least he can meet the kids.” Donald paced slowly. “I was hoping for someone the kids knew so that this whole thing would be less of a shock.”

“I don’t think there’s any way around that now.” Brock turned to where all three kids were playing. “They deserve so much better than what happened to them.” He was having a hard time letting go of the image of opening that trunk and seeing those sweet children in there. He’d been warned, but nothing could have prepared him for that. Nothing at all. Brock turned away and reminded himself that no matter what he might have thought of their uncle, what was best for Penny and Abey was what mattered.

Donald called him in to eat. The dining area was open through an archway to the living room, so they could easily see the kids as they ate. None of them talked very much, their attention focused on the three kids. Eventually Penny came over and stood next to Brock’s chair. He lifted her onto his lap, and she settled in. She didn’t seem hungry, even though he offered her some of what he was eating.

“It looks like you made a real friend.”

“I have no idea why,” Brock told Carter.

“Because you helped them. They had to have been terrified being in that trunk, and you got them out and were nice to them.”

Abey approached the table, stood next to Donald, and whispered to him. Donald got up, took Abey by the hand, and led him out of the room. Then Donald returned and sat back down.

“Is he okay?” Brock figured he needed to be shown where the bathroom was, and Donald confirmed his suspicion.

“Yes. Just needed to go to the bathroom.” Donald kept an eye out, and sure enough, Abey returned and began playing with Alex once again.

The doorbell rang just as they finished dinner. Donald took his plate into the kitchen and then went to answer the door. Brock’s tension rose instantly, and when he saw Vincent following Donald into the living room, he wasn’t so sure how he felt about seeing him again. But the near-frantic expression on Vincent’s face pushed aside his own discomfort for the sake of the kids.

“I’m Donald, a social worker with child services, and this is my husband, Carter. And I believe you know Brock already. He and Carter work together.”

Vinny nodded, his attention going right to the little girl still on Brock’s lap. Her little thumb stuck in her mouth and she turned away, hiding her face against Brock’s chest. “I haven’t seen Abey in years, and this little girl….” The hitch in Vinny’s voice caught Brock’s attention.

“Then why don’t you come meet both of them.” Donald led the way to the living room and invited Vinny to sit down. Brock lifted Penny before standing, followed Vinny, and sat next to him. Penny hid once again, but Brock hoped she’d get over the initial shyness if he were patient.

“Were you the one who helped them?” Vinny asked.

“Yes. Do you know what happened?”

Vinny shook his head. “Just that they were taken away.”

“I thought it best to tell him face-to-face rather than on the phone.” Donald sat in one of the two leather recliners and motioned Abey to come over. “This is your Uncle Vincent. He’s your mother’s brother.”

“I met you when you were a baby.” Vinny smiled.

“I’m not a baby anymore. I’m a big boy.” Abey leaned back against Donald. All of this had to be a lot for these kids.

“I can see that.” Vinny kept glancing around the room, confusion reigning.

Abey stared at Vinny and then went back to join Alex where he was playing.

“I think he’s really confused. The kids saw the police take your sister and her friend away.”

Vinny didn’t move as though not sure what to do.

Donald stood, walked over to where Brock sat on the sofa, and lifted Penny into his arms. “I think it’s time for this one to have a bath and then go to sleep.” Donald headed upstairs, and Brock watched as Abey continued to play.

“Apparently a friend of your sister got a new car and they decided to take it out for a ride. It was a Corvette without a backseat, so your sister put the kids in the trunk.” When Vinny gasped, Brock nodded to confirm what he’d said. “Someone reported her, and I stopped the car and found the kids.”

“Where is Rhonda now?”

“She’s in jail, pending a hearing in the morning.”

“Can you get her some help?” Vinny asked as Carter joined them. “My sister has mental health problems. She sometimes hears voices and she’s supposed to be on medication, but she doesn’t always take it. But even when she does, her ability to make sound judgments is compromised.”

“I don’t know. At the moment it’s pretty much up to the courts and social workers. But what about her friend? I would hope that one of them would be able to think clearly.”

“Rhonda doesn’t pick her friends for clear thinking. She picks them based upon their ability to go along with her ideas and notions. So any of Rhonda’s friends aren’t likely to be the kinds of people to act as voices of reason. Is she being tested?”

“Yes. We’re running a number of tests to see if she was impaired in any way. She didn’t seem particularly lucid when I took her into custody.”

Vinny nodded and sat back, putting his hands over his eyes. “I was always afraid of something like this. I knew she’d had Abey, but I didn’t have a clue about Penny. I think I talked to her last about six months ago, and then maybe a year before that. She’d only call when she wanted something, and the last few times, I’ve had to tell her no. I wanted to help, I really did, but she bled my parents dry and ran them into debt. What should have been relatively comfortable retirement years turned into hard ones for them. She pestered and begged for whatever they had, and because Rhonda was their daughter, they gave her what they could.” Vinny seemed about ready to fall apart, which was eye-opening for Brock. Vinny took a deep breath and blinked. “At least the kids are safe.” He released his breath. “So what happens now?”

The trepidation in Vinny’s voice touched Brock. He really cared about these kids and that said something about him. Brock wanted to think of Vinny as being selfish and uncaring. That made the earlier rejection easier to handle. But he wasn’t, and Brock was relieved for Abey and Penny’s sake, but it left him wondering what he’d done wrong.

Fire and Fog #6
“HEY, RED, you alone again? Where’s Terry?” Dwayne Rappaport sidled up to the seat beside Red at the counter of the Hanover Grille. Red had been showing him the ropes over the past few weeks. Dwayne was no spring chicken when it came to police work. His dad had been sheriff of the Kansas county he grew up in, and he’d gone to the academy and served in Topeka originally, but it hadn’t been a particularly good fit for him.

“Yeah. Terry’s in New York doing some sort of photo shoot. Apparently it’s been decided that my boyfriend looks great in whatever underwear they’re selling, and because he can swim, they figure he can sell the stuff. I half expect they’ll have him blown up forty feet tall on some billboard in Times Square in his skivvies.” Red gulped his beer and went back to shoveling french fries into his mouth. “I know it’s the price that comes with winning, and I’m proud of him.”

Dwayne could hear the “but” just waiting to come out. “With that sort of thing, I suppose he has a short time to capitalize on it. He isn’t going to the 2020 games, is he?”

“No, thank God,” Red grumbled. “I love watching him compete. He’s like a fish when he’s in the water, all fluid motion and grace.” He pushed his empty plate to the side. “I hope he never gives up swimming. It’s when he’s at his most beautiful. But it’s the rest of the stuff that comes with it that bothers me. What I really want is to have him home with me. I don’t like it when he’s gone for weeks at a time because his agent has him booked as part of some victory tour. How many parades can he possibly ride in without having his head explode?” He finished his beer and motioned for a refill, and Dwayne wondered if that was a good idea.

“Red, how about I take you home? I’m sure Terry’s going to call you tonight, and the last thing you want is for him to know you’ve been drinking.”

Red seemed to think about it and asked for the check when Theresa came by. “I’m fine.”

“I’ll take you home. You don’t want to have to walk all the way back to city hall for your car, do you? Your car will be okay where it is.” He made sure Red paid his bill and got him off the stool and outside, and then they walked toward Dwayne’s old Focus.

“I’m sorry,” Red said as soon as Dwayne got behind the wheel. “I shouldn’t be bellyaching to you about my problems.” He hiccupped, and Dwayne wondered just how much he’d had to drink. Dwayne was used to being a shoulder to cry on. For years before his parents’ divorce, he’d been the one to whom both of them had complained about the other. Hell, neither of his parents had had to tell him they were separating. By the time it actually happened, Dwayne was relieved that the bickering and pulling at him was over.

“It’s no problem. If I had a boyfriend, I’d certainly want him home too.” That was a definite. Dwayne had met Terry a few times since he’d been working with Red, and in the looks department, Terry was most definitely Dwayne’s type. Not that he’d ever poach from another guy, and besides, despite whatever Terry and Red were going through at the moment, it was clear from the way they looked at each other that they cared deeply. Besides, Red was upset Terry was gone simply because he wanted Terry home with him. There were much worse things to be upset about. Just ask his parents. “When does Terry return?”

“Soon,” Red mumbled, scrubbing his big hands over his face. “God, how much did I have to drink? I hate getting maudlin. It really sucks.”

Dwayne started the engine and drove Red home, then made sure he got inside before heading to his own apartment.

Brock, one of his brother officers, had been living there until a few months ago, when he’d moved in with his boyfriend, Vincent, and needed to find a tenant for his old place. The timing had worked well, and Dwayne had been able to move right in.

After Topeka, Dwayne had been about to drop law enforcement altogether and take up another profession. Then he’d spotted a listing in Carlisle. He’d never heard of the place, but talking to a few friends and researching online had turned up an incredibly friendly place to work for someone of his persuasion. He’d been shocked to say the least, but he supposed if an agency created a welcoming atmosphere, they were going to get applicants looking for just such a place. Dwayne was tickled pink to have found a bureau packed with gay men, even if all of them were taken. But still, he’d despaired of finding a proper home after what he’d already been through, so the department here was a godsend.

Dwayne tossed his keys onto the secondhand kitchen table, grabbed the mail out of the box, and sorted through it as he climbed up the stairs. There was nothing but bills, so he added them to the pile of things he needed to pay. He wanted to go out and find something exciting to do. It was a Sunday night, and by some miracle, he wasn’t on shift. He’d thought of asking if there were any clubs in Harrisburg but realized there had to be some. Instead of calling one of the other officers, he grabbed his computer. Google was an amazing thing, and it took only seconds before he’d found Bronco’s and was hurrying to change.

GOD, LIFE here was different from Topeka. First thing, there was a gay bar back home, but dang, one had to know about it in order to find it. At least that was how it seemed. This was completely different. He could see the green dome of the state capitol building from the front door, and everyone was excited and jovial as they waited in line, with none of the trepidation he’d felt the one and only time he had the guts to track down the tiny bar in a back alley in Topeka.

The man at Bronco’s door was huge, and the scowl on his lips did not say welcome.

“Stop it, Bull,” a smaller man said as he sidled right up to him. “You’re scaring the patrons.” The slight blond man gazed up at the large stoic guy, and danged if that strict face didn’t break into a smile that could light half the city.

“I’m working, Zach.” Bull tried to growl but couldn’t pull it off with the smile. He turned to Dwayne and nodded, letting him pass on through. “No trouble.”

“Not likely,” Dwayne said and out of courtesy showed his law enforcement ID.

“From Carlisle.” Bull nodded and leaned close. “You let me know if you see anything that shouldn’t be happening. I appreciate it, and you have a good time!” His lips curled upward slightly, and Dwayne walked into the building.

The club was not what he’d expected. The one he’d been to was dingy and old. This was hot and new, with amazing splashes of color and a lighting system that danced to the beat of the music, adding to the pulse, excitement, and rhythm of the club. Dwayne inhaled the scent of beer, sweat, and raging testosterone. It sent a surge of desire running through him, and he plumped in his pants as his heart rate increased. He pressed his way up to the bar and ordered a beer, paid cash, then moved toward the tables, which were of course packed.

Zach, who he’d seen out front, sat with a group of guys, all sipping pink drinks, chatting wildly, and gesturing frantically until another group of men approached. They each wrapped their arms around one of the seated men, with the exception of Zach, who watched the front door.

Dwayne sipped his beer and scanned the club floor, trying to get the lay of the land. A tap on his shoulder startled him, and he turned and lowered his gaze to Zach.

“You can join us if you want.” He motioned to the table. “I heard you tell Bull that you were a police officer, and Angus is a firefighter. You looked new, so we thought….” Zach tilted his head toward an empty seat.

“Thanks.” This was all a little more than he was expecting. He followed Zach to the table.

“This is Kevin and his partner, Angus.” Zach pointed to each in turn. “Jeremy—his partner, Lowell, is around here somewhere, but it isn’t likely you’ll see him. He’s good at seeing without being seen. Tristan and his partner, Harry, who is Bull’s business partner in the club.”

“Dwayne,” he said, shaking hands with each of the guys.

“He’s a police officer in Carlisle,” Zach supplied.

“I moved here from Kansas a while ago.” Dwayne sat in the empty chair and wondered why he’d been asked over. It was clear all of these guys were spoken for, judging from the introductions and by the proprietary touches and the way the others seemed to watch specific places in the club, probably keeping an eye on their guys. “This is very different from back home.”

“Different good?” Zach asked, and Dwayne nodded.

“What was it like being a gay cop in Kansas?” Angus asked. “If anyone gives you trouble, I know plenty of people in your department who can help you.”

“Red’s been showing me the ropes,” Dwayne said and took a sip from his beer.

“Good man—the best.”

“And his partner is hot!” Jeremy fanned himself.

“You have a hot partner already,” Zach scolded.

“I know. But a boy can look, even if he doesn’t have any intention of developing wandering hands… or other body parts. Terry’s still hot, and he’s out-and-proud gay. He got some crap about it from what I understand, but he showed them all and won.” He raised his glass, and the others clinked it in a gay solidarity moment.

“Terry’s a real nice guy. Busy, though.” Dwayne kept the details of anything he and Red had discussed to himself.

“I bet he is…,” Zach said, his voice trailing off as something caught his eye.

“What is it?” Harry followed Zach’s gaze, then growled under his breath, pulling out his phone.

“What’s the issue?” Dwayne asked, gazing around until he zeroed in on a guy who seemed too young to have been allowed inside. “Underage?”

“Yes,” Zach said. “Bull’s removed him before, but he keeps sneaking back in. I’ve never seen him drink, though, but you have to be twenty-one to get in.” He shook his head. “I talked to him once.”

“What’s his deal?” Dwayne asked, unable to take his gaze off him.

Zach sighed. “Near as I can tell, he’s one of those kids who came out and got thrown away. Dad found out he was gay and his welcome at home evaporated. I’m willing to bet he’s attempting to hustle to pay the bills and feed himself. It happens too often.”

“I’m going to see what’s going on,” Dwayne said. He set his glass at his place and made his way through the crowd to where the guy was looking around. Dwayne saw the kid turn toward him, and instantly attraction pinged him deep down, like an electric current. Blue eyes the color of a tropical bird met his, and damn, he found it hard to pull air into his lungs.

“Dwayne,” he said.

“Heaven,” the kid said. “As in, I can take you there.”

Dwayne rolled his eyes at the cheesy line. “I don’t think so.” He flashed a smile and his ID, and took Heaven’s arm so he couldn’t get away, though he didn’t want to hurt the kid. “You know, what you’re doing is only going to get you sent to jail, or worse.”

“Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Nope. I’m out of my jurisdiction. Let’s drop the cheesy lines and start with your real name.”

“A guy has to eat, you know.” He tried to shrug away from Dwayne, but that wasn’t going to happen.

“There are better ways to get some food in your body than selling it.” Dwayne moved them out of the center of the dance floor and turned Heaven so he could once again see into his eyes. “Now, your name.” Dwayne wasn’t sure if he was going to get it or not, but he held Heaven’s gaze until he blinked.

“Robin,” he finally answered, and damned if that wasn’t the perfect name for him.

“Now let me see some ID.” Dwayne noticed Bull making his way over. “I can turn you over to the guys from the club and they’ll put you out.”

Robin’s jaw set and he finally reached into his pocket to pull out a driver’s license. He handed it over, and Dwayne checked it closely. It looked real, and according to the date of birth, yesterday was Robin Cartwright’s birthday.

“Problem?” Bull asked without looking at Dwayne, who handed him the ID.

“It seems legit.”

“Of course it is,” Robin protested. “I’m old enough to be here.”

“Maybe, but hustling isn’t allowed and you know it.” Dwayne stared bullets at Robin because it would be a damn shame for a guy as pretty as him to get messed up with crap like that.

“You can’t blame a guy for trying,” Robin said with a shrug.

“You got this?” Bull asked, and Dwayne nodded.

“If I need anything, I’ll get someone,” he promised, and Bull hurried back to the front door. “You need to quit that shit. It won’t end well.” God, he felt like a father giving his kid a lecture.

“What would you know about it?” Robin snapped.

“Plenty,” he shot back, though he wasn’t up to sharing his personal story with a complete stranger.

Robin studied him and seemed to see what he needed to, because his posture relaxed a little.

“Now, can you play by the rules?”

Robin huffed and nodded. “I won’t try anything. I really came here to dance anyway.” Dwayne wasn’t sure how much of that he bought, but he released Robin and stepped back.

“You know I’ll be watching.”

Robin turned and made his way through the crowd. Damn, Dwayne hated to see him go. There was something in those eyes that mirrored the shock and pain Dwayne had been dealing with, but there was nothing he could do. He’d already learned the hard way he couldn’t fix everything and everyone.

He went back to the table and sat down.

“Hard to forget, isn’t he?” Zach asked.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Dwayne forced his attention back to the guys next to him rather than scanning the floor to see where Robin had gone. He intended to keep an eye on him but figured any misbehaving would happen later in the evening.

“How long have you guys been friends?” he asked to change the subject.

“Long time. The four of us used to go trawling for guys together. That was before Zach met Bull and decided we all needed to get paired up. It was like his mission.”

“Are you complaining, Jeremy?” Zach asked, and Jeremy shook his head. “I didn’t think so. We all got pretty lucky in the man department.” He turned to Dwayne. “What about you?”

“I’m single and still trying to figure things out. Kansas was so very different.” That was an understatement. “By and large people are nice there, and I had some good friends, but when push came to shove, it turned out it wasn’t the place I thought it was.” Dwayne finished his beer and thought maybe he should just go home.

Zach, who was clearly the ringleader, had other ideas and grabbed his hand. “Let’s all dance.” He jumped off his stool and downed the last of his drink. “Don’t worry. I’m just being welcoming.”

“But what about Bull?” There was no way Dwayne wanted to tangle with him. “Why don’t you guys go and I’ll watch the table.”

Zach laughed. “No need. Lowell is around somewhere, and no one is going to take our table. It’s like one of the rules.”

“Yeah. No one wants to tangle with Bull, so everyone leaves Zach alone,” Tristan explained after downing the last of his drink, and turned to Harry. “Let’s go have some fun before you have to go back to work.” Tristan tugged Harry away, and soon he was nearly hanging off him. A pang of jealousy shot through Dwayne as he wished he had someone to hold on to him like that.

“Come on. We’ll find you someone to lerve… at least temporarily,” Zach teased, and they all headed for the dance floor. Zach moved his lithe body, and Dwayne turned away so he didn’t stare. It was difficult, but it soon became apparent Zach had his eyes on a different quarry, when Bull sauntered up and whisked Zach off his feet, almost literally.

One thing Dwayne knew how to do was dance. His mother had loved it, but his dad hadn’t, so Dwayne had been her dance partner more than once. Soon a guy danced up to Dwayne. Dwayne let the music take him, run through him, transport him with its throbbing beat. He closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them, the guy was closer, right in front of him. But he quickly turned away, and Dwayne realized his disappointment must have registered on his face. He’d wished the guy was Robin.

Dwayne turned to the other guys to dance as a group, hands above his head, having a good time and letting go of his trepidation.

The song ended and another began, this one slower. He didn’t have anyone to hold, so he moved back to the table while the guys paired up. A man, probably Lowell, held Jeremy in his arms, and Dwayne did his best not to let jealousy and loneliness wash over him. He sat down and ordered a beer from one of the servers before scanning the club. It didn’t take him long to find Robin, who stood off to one side, talking to a rather big guy. Alarm bells went off in the back of Dwayne’s mind. He’d been around enough men and worked in law enforcement just long enough to know who was very likely trouble. His foot bounced as he kept an eye on them.

The server returned, and Dwayne paid for the beer. When he swung back to where Robin had been, he didn’t see him any longer. Dwayne sent a silent wish that whatever Robin was up to, he came out of it all right.

The music changed once again, and the boys returned to the table, their conversation even more energetic and frenetic, if that was possible.

“Where’s Lowell?”

“He went back to work,” Jeremy explained.

“Lowell’s worked in areas that skirt the edges of society, and now he helps Bull with security and keeping undesirable elements outside the doors.”

“Was he some sort of spy?” Dwayne asked, intrigued and definitely curious.

“It’s hard to say. He left that life some time ago.” Zach caught the attention of one of the waiters and ordered another round of drinks. “I don’t know the details.”

“I don’t know a lot of them either,” Jeremy said. “I think it’s for our own safety.”

“See,” Zach began, pulling the conversation back to him, “the club has had trouble in the past with guys who try to come in here to deal and stuff like that. Harry and Bull don’t allow it, and they’ve been waging a near-constant battle. You know how it is—get rid of one rat and more move in. Lowell spots their activities, and we get rid of them and call the police.”

“What about guys like Robin who try to sell themselves?”

Tristan groaned. “Those are the really sad ones. Bull and Harry try to remove them, but this is a place filled with hundreds of gay men, and sometimes they get in, just like the dealers. It’s why Lowell, Bull, and Harry are so vigilant. I mean, this is the hottest club in town and they want to keep it that way, but without the influences that could ruin it.”

“The city isn’t always happy with having a gay club that’s so high profile. So they’re sometimes looking for a reason to shut us down. Fights, drugs, prostitution, and things like that are all reasons they could use. But we’re pretty good at taking care of ourselves.” Zach sipped his drink, his attention moving toward the door. After a few minutes, he picked up his glass and left the table without a word.

“What’s going on?”

“Watch,” Kevin said, bumping his elbow. Zach made his way across the dance floor, behind the bar, and through a door. “It’s Bull’s break time.” He snickered. “The two of them like to spend some quality time together.”

“Come on. Leave him alone. The two of them are so much in love, it’s amazing,” Jeremy said. “There’s nothing dirty going on. Zach always packs Bull something to eat, and they have a late-night snack together. They work really different hours, so this is a chance for them to see each other.” Jeremy glared at Kevin, who shrugged.

“Then you explain the just-fucked look he has when he comes back sometimes,” Tristan said.

“You’re just jealous. It’s been a while since you had that look,” Jeremy teased Tristan. Dwayne got the idea this was their usual banter and had probably been going on for years. He appreciated Zach including him in the group, so he waited until Zach returned before finishing his drink and saying good night. He left the club, stepping out into the humid summer air.

He said good night to Bull and thanked him for a great time.

“I hope you had fun.” This time Bull’s expression wasn’t so serious, and Dwayne wondered if maybe Tristan was right about what happened during his break.

“I did. Thanks.” The evening hadn’t been what he was expecting, but it had raised his spirits. He’d met some great people.

“Drive carefully.”

Dwayne nodded. He’d been very judicious about the amount he’d had to drink, and he figured he’d walk around for a little while to clear his head. Two beers in an evening weren’t much to be concerned about, but as a police officer, he’d seen the ravages of drinking and driving and had no intention of becoming a statistic.

The capitol complex shone like a beacon, and Dwayne headed in that direction. Light meant safety, and this wasn’t a familiar neighborhood for him. There were others on the street, some couples walking close together. It was a great summer night to be outside. He walked a block or so, the beat from the club still pulsing through the ground at his feet.

“That’s not what—” a voice called. Dwayne listened for more. “No!” Fear spiked the air, and Dwayne was on alert, listening for where the sound had come from. He heard the rip of fabric between passing cars. “I said no!” The voice got louder, and Dwayne picked up his pace.

“I paid, and you’re going to put out.”

Dwayne reached the alley entrance, stopped, and peered around the corner. A huge guy stood near a dingy brick wall. It was hard to see, but Dwayne could just make out another man pressed to the brick, the side of his face against the unyielding wall.

“That’s enough.”

“Get out of here. He and I have business,” the guy growled.

Dwayne stepped closer, ready for action. “You need to leave now!” He used his cop voice and saw the guy flinch. He might be big, but as Dwayne got a closer look, he saw the beer gut and flabby arms. This guy probably was used to throwing his weight around, but there really wasn’t much to him.

“Fuck off. I paid and I’m getting my money’s worth.”

“So you’re admitting to soliciting someone for sex… to a police officer. That makes my job very easy.” Dwayne pulled out his phone, and the lug took a step back and then ran the other way. Well, he sort of waddled fast, but the response was the one Dwayne wanted. He made sure the guy was gone and then helped the smaller man, who had crumpled to the alley floor.

“It’s all right. He’s gone.” Dwayne lifted the guy, who wasn’t verbally responding, off the concrete and carried him out to where there was more light. As soon as the glow from the street shone on golden hair, Dwayne knew who it was.

“Robin.” He caressed his cheek, and Robin groaned. Dwayne set him down and waited for the shock to wear off. “You want to tell me what happened?”

Robin managed to stand and rubbed the side of his face, then pulled the remains of his tattered shirt together. “No.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea already.” Dwayne half expected Robin to try to bolt, but instead he just shook, and Dwayne held him upright. “Let me guess. For all the bravado, this was the first time you’ve done anything like this.”

“Shit… I can take care of myself.” The defiance was back, and Dwayne was glad Robin was able to manage it, even if he knew it was all just a front.

“Like you did back there.” He wasn’t in the mood for nice at the moment. “I’m not dumb. I know what you were doing and what nearly happened. So you can tell me about it, or I can call some friends of mine and you can talk to them about prostitution.”

“You’re a real jerk, you know that?” Robin’s stomach rumbled loudly, and he put his hands over it as though it ached.

“No. The jerk was the guy in the alley. I’m the man who saved your ass from God knows what.” Dwayne saw some of the fire go out of Robin’s eyes. “And you’re acting defensive to the guy who saved your ass, quite literally, from what was about to happen. So I think you can open up and tell me what’s really going on.”

Robin quivered once again. “I was about to leave the club because I wasn’t going to get anything in there. Too many people watching. That guy approached me and asked if I was up for a little fun. We left, and he paid me fifty bucks. I figured I could blow him as long as I was careful, but it turned out he wanted more than that, and I wasn’t going to give it to him, so he was planning to take what he wanted anyway.” Robin sniffed. “He stank and shuffled all the time, like he might have been sick or something, but fifty bucks will feed me for like two weeks. And….”

“How long has it been since you ate?” Dwayne asked.

“I don’t know. Probably yesterday.” Robin suddenly seemed even smaller and weaker. Dwayne knew he should be a little ashamed, but Robin’s vulnerability seemed to make him more attractive.

“Come on, then.” Dwayne guided Robin down the block to the corner. “There’s a diner just that way. We can get something to eat and then you can tell me what’s really going on.”

Robin snickered. “I could get you something.” He reached into his pocket. “I still got the fifty bucks.”

Dwayne pursed his lips and kept quiet. He wasn’t happy about how Robin got the money, but if it meant he could eat for a while, then so be it. “Come on. I’ll buy and you talk.” That was the deal, and he wasn’t backing down from it.

He guided Robin to the all-night diner, and they went inside the island of light. Dwayne blinked in the brightness and found a table. The server, who looked as old as the diner itself, approached the table. Dwayne ordered two burgers, fries, and two coffees. She took the order, turned away, and returned with their drinks. Dwayne waited until she poured before meeting Robin’s gaze. It was time for some answers.

“I got kicked out, okay?” Robin hissed. “My dad found out I was queer and kicked my ass to the curb.” He nearly knocked the cup over as he tried to slide out of the seat.

Dwayne held his arm, tilting his head to the side. He wasn’t letting Robin off that easy. “Settle down, Cisco.” He waited while Robin crossed his arms over his chest, staring defiantly back at him.

“My dad, well, stepdad… is a real douchebag. Like I said, he kicked me out, and my mom didn’t say shit about it. She let him put me on the street like I was a sack of garbage. I have, well, had a job and got a room to live in, but I got ‘laid off’”—he made air quotes—“last week. The boss said it was cutbacks, but I know it was because I didn’t say yes to his extracurricular activities. I don’t have any money and I’m going to get kicked out… so I needed cash and I figured I….” Robin put his hands over his face.

“It’s all right.”

“Bullshit, man. It’s not all right. My mom didn’t do anything. Don’t you get that? Yeah, my stepdad is a real tool, but my mom….” The pain in his voice rang in Dwayne’s ears. “She was supposed to take my side. How could she just turn away like that?” He leaned forward. “I’m her son. She raised me. Am I so useless and unlovable that she could simply give me up without a second thought?”

Dwayne didn’t have any answers for him. He wished to hell he did. “People do shit to each other all the time. I see it every day at work, and I don’t know what to tell you. Except that self-destructive behavior is something you’ll regret and pay for later. It comes with a cost, and it’s usually something you don’t understand until it’s too late.”

“What the fuck would you know about it?” Robin’s gaze raked over him.

“You’re not the only one who’s had to pay a price for being who they are,” Dwayne told him. “And I know it hurts like hell. But you have to figure out a way to get past it.”

“How in the hell do I do that? I have no job, and in a few days, I’m going to be homeless. The fifty bucks I traded my dignity for is all I have between me and starvation.”

The server brought their plates and set them on the table without a word. Robin stopped his grousing and ate a french fry before reaching for another. Soon his hands moved with a speed Dwayne didn’t know possible. The fries disappeared, and the burger didn’t last very long either. Dwayne ate his burger and put most of his fries on Robin’s plate, and he ate those too. By the time he was done, there wasn’t a crumb left.

“Come on.” Dwayne paid the check, and then he and Robin left the restaurant. “My car is over here, and I’ll take you home.”

Robin hesitated, but then followed Dwayne to his dark blue Focus. They slid inside and Robin gave him directions. Dwayne eventually pulled up to a run-down house on Fourth Street with half the shutters missing, and those that were there hung haphazardly as though they, too, were waiting to give up the ghost. The paint was peeling badly and the soffit had holes in it, allowing God knows what to get access to the attic.

Robin got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride and the food and, well… for everything else.”

Dwayne hated leaving Robin in a location like this. As he looked at the forlorn building, he wondered just what was up with the place. “Who’s the landlord?”

“It’s the guy who owns the building,” Robin answered.

“Does he live there?”

“No. There are six people, and we each have a room. The owner comes each week to collect the rent, and we better have the cash or we’re out.”

“How come there aren’t any lights?”

“Wait…. The power must be out.”

Dwayne looked up and down the street, but the lights were on everywhere else. “I bet your landlord didn’t pay the electric bill.” He put the car in park and got out.

“What are you doing?”

“Going in with you.” Dwayne followed Robin to the door, where he inserted his key and pushed it open to reveal complete chaos. The inside of the house was trashed, with stuff littering the floor everywhere. Robin raced inside and up the stairs, feet pounding. Dwayne trailed behind more carefully and caught up with Robin as he unlocked the door to a back room. “You need to get your things out of here.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m willing to bet your ‘landlord’ doesn’t own this building and has been scamming all of you. He put you up here and collected rent. I suspect the owner got wind of it, had the power turned off, and cleared everyone out while you were gone.”

“Shit….” Robin groaned. “Now what do I do?” He started shaking again.

Dwayne sighed. “Get your things together and we’ll load them in the back of my car.” It didn’t look like there was much. Robin had been sleeping on some sort of foam mattress pad, with a few blankets. There were some boxes stacked in the corner, but otherwise the room was empty.

“Hey!” someone called up the stairs. “Anyone in here needs to get out before I call the police.”

“Are you the property owner?” Dwayne called back.

“Yes. I’m clearing all you squatters out.”

Dwayne’s suspicions had been confirmed. “I’ll go talk to him while you get your things. You can stay on my couch for tonight and figure things out in the morning.” He turned and carefully made his way down the stairs.

“We’re clearing out,” Dwayne said as he reached the main floor. “The people here were told the guy who rented them the rooms was the owner.”

“He wasn’t,” the owner snapped. “I reported him to the police, and they said they’d watch for him. Meanwhile, the building has been trashed and I’m going to have to clean it up before I can sell it and…” He went on. Dwayne didn’t pay too much attention to his grousing. The house had obviously been neglected for some time. Dwayne figured the owner would use the squatters as an excuse with his insurance company. “Now clear out so I can lock the door up and get out of here.”

Robin came down the stairs with his arms full.

“Is that it?” Dwayne asked.

“There’s one more box.”

“I’ll get it.” Dwayne hurried back up and got the box from the room. Then he went down and followed Robin to the car. They loaded his things into the trunk and headed out of town. Dwayne drove and wondered what in the hell he was doing. This was a guy he’d just met, and fuck all if this wasn’t going above and beyond just because he found the guy amazingly attractive. Maybe he needed to have his head examined. He’d just invited a complete stranger to stay at his house. This could turn out badly, very badly.

“Where do you live?” Robin asked as Dwayne made for the freeway.

“Carlisle. I have a single-bedroom apartment there.”

“I get it,” Robin said quietly. “You saved me so I could warm your bed instead of the slimebag’s.”

“No,” Dwayne said firmly. “You’ll be sleeping on my sofa until we can figure out what we’re going to do. I’m not going to leave you to stay on the street. And remember, I’m a police officer. I don’t bring guys home to ‘warm my bed,’ as you put it, in exchange for something. I don’t prostitute people, and you aren’t a prostitute—at least not yet.” He turned, letting Robin see his anger, then focused his attention on the road as the light in front of him changed to green.

“Then what do you want?” Robin crossed his arms over his chest.

“How about a little gratitude and maybe letting go of the chip on your shoulder? Oh, and a small attitude adjustment would be in order. People are more likely to help you if you don’t act like a dick to them.” He reached the freeway and took the on-ramp toward home.

Robin sat silently as Dwayne drove, arms still folded over his chest as though he was just waiting for something bad to happen. “Fine,” he eventually muttered. “How long you been a cop?”

“I moved here a few months ago, and just because I’m a cop doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.” Hell, he’d stopped Robin and pulled his ass back from the brink of what could have been a life-altering or ending mistake. “I could have ended up exactly where you are.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Robin asked.

“Sheer luck. My family wasn’t too happy I liked guys, but they never talked much about stuff, and when they found out, they figured it was a phase or something and it would somehow go away. I never brought it up with them, and as long as they didn’t see it, the gayness didn’t exist. I guess silence and denial were my friends until they weren’t.” Everything had fallen apart very quickly. “The thing is, I’m not someone out to take advantage of you. I don’t want anything other than for you to be on your best behavior. I have some friends who might be able to help you if you let them.”

“Yeah? What will they want, ’cause everyone wants something and no one does shit for nothing.” The skepticism rolled off him as he turned away.

Dwayne tightened his hands on the wheel. “First, clean up your mouth, and second, my friends are cops who’ve seen enough bad stuff that they try to help those they can. They aren’t going to want anything from you other than you not acting like a dick. Are you starting to see a theme here?” He tightened his hands on the wheel.

“Fine. I’ll pretend you’re my mother and put on my best manners, waiting for when you, like everyone else, decide I’m not worth anything.” Robin turned away, looking out the window as lights passed by.

Dwayne didn’t have an argument for him. He couldn’t change Robin’s past, and though he’d do his best to try to help him, Dwayne wasn’t sure what he could do. “Take things one day at a time.” That was what the counselor had told him after all hell had broken loose at home. It had been really helpful when the shit kept getting deeper and deeper by the day, with no end in sight.

“Just try a little gratitude and less snark. It isn’t going to hurt you, is it?”

“No.” The answer was short but without the accompanying commentary, so maybe that was an improvement.

The tires hummed as he continued down the freeway. It took a good twenty minutes to get out to the Carlisle area, then off at his exit and through the traffic lights to the main intersection of town. Dwayne made the partial trip around the block to his parking space. It was late and he was tired, but he needed to get Robin settled.

“Let’s get your things,” he said, popping open the trunk. He grabbed a box and left the other one for Robin. “You can leave the bedroll. You won’t need it, and it’ll be fine in the trunk for now.” He closed the lid and led Robin around the block to the front of the building. He unlocked the door and climbed the stairs, listening to the heavy trudges of Robin’s feet. For God’s sake, he wasn’t leading him to the gallows.

“Where do you want my stuff?” He indicated the box he held.

“Set it by the side of the sofa. I’ll get you some blankets. The bathroom is right in there, and I’ll see if I can find some things for you to use if you need them.”

“I got stuff,” Robin said, putting his box on top of the one Dwayne had already set down.

Dwayne went to his room and found his extra sheets and a blanket and a pillow, then took them to the living room and set them on one end of the tartan plaid sofa. “I’ll get you a bottle of water and then I need to go to bed.”

Robin looked so confused as he stood and stared at the sofa and then back at Dwayne, as though he really couldn’t believe that Dwayne didn’t want something from him.

Dwayne got the water and handed it to him. “Just get some rest, and we’ll talk in the morning.”

Robin nodded but seemed lost.

Dwayne made up the sofa and finally left the room, went to his bedroom, and closed the door. He undressed and pulled on clean boxers and a T-shirt. Then he used the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to get into bed. He listened to the sofa springs squeak a little in his otherwise quiet apartment. Dwayne tried to imagine what Robin was doing, and then footsteps sounded outside. The door to the bathroom closed, and Dwayne shut his eyes. He was nervous as hell. Dwayne had actually brought a near stranger home to his apartment and was letting the guy sleep on his sofa. Good Lord, had he completely lost his mind?

“Good night, Dwayne,” Robin said once the bathroom door opened again. Then soft footfalls headed to the living room, the light switched off, and the sofa springs squeaked again.

Dwayne sighed and tried to go to sleep. The problem was, every time his mind started drifting off, he saw images of blue eyes and blond hair, and Robin swinging his backside as he danced. He knew the dancing part was all his imagination, but the danged thing kept him up well into the night.

Author Bio:
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.

Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.


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