Concourse (A Five Boroughs Novel)
This title is part of the Five Boroughs universe.
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Ashton Townsend is the most famous celebutante of Manhattan’s glitterati. The black sheep of his wealthy family, he’s known for his club appearances, Instagram account, and sex tape. Most people can’t imagine him wanting for anything, but Ashton yearns for friendship, respect, and the love of his best friend—amateur boxer Valdrin Leka.
Val’s relationship with Ashton is complicated. As the son of Ashton’s beloved nanny, Val has always bounced between resenting Ashton and regarding him as his best friend. And then there’s the sexual attraction between them that Val tries so hard to ignore.
When Ashton flees his glitzy lifestyle, he finds refuge with Val in the Bronx. Between Val’s training for an upcoming fight and dodging paparazzi, they succumb to their need for each other. But before they can figure out what it all means—and what they want to do about it—the world drags them out of their haven, revealing a secret Val has kept for years. Now, Ashton has to decide whether to once again envelop himself in his party-boy persona, or to trust in the only man who’s ever seen the real him.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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I was sitting on the bench in the locker room at Cadet’s with my head in my hands. Lancing pain combined with lack of sleep meant that the sound of someone hitting the bag was pushing me so close to the edge that I was poised to fall off.
Normally, I heard the sound of the speed bag in my sleep. When I hit it at just the right rhythm, it was a staccato tap-tap-tap backed by steady hissing—my lullaby since birthday number seven when I’d first gone to Cadet’s Boxing Club with my father. A few years later he’d taken off, never to be seen again, on the night of my first competitive fight. Without his face in the crowd, I hadn’t cared about winning. The first indicator that I was in it for the wrong reasons.
Wincing, I dug my fingers into my hair and kept my eyes closed. In the gym bag at my feet, my cell phone vibrated. Again.
“Valdrin, what the fuck are you doing?”
My fingers dug grooves in my hair. It was too long, which I hated, but I hadn’t had time to go to the barber. When you didn’t have a lot of time, things like that took a backseat, but—
The phone stopped vibrating.
Relief sang through me for just a second . . . and then the phone started again.
My head snapped up, too fast and sharp for the current state of my back and shoulders, and I squinted. Through the sweat still trickling into my eyes, and the spots dancing before them, I saw Matt Lawrence. He was bigger than me by two weight classes and spent half his gym time training neighborhood kids instead of working on himself, which was partially why I’d gravitated to him in the first place. I’d wanted to know how I could help, before realizing I’d never have the time.
“You taking a nap?”
“I’m fucking dehydrated,” I said. “Can’t even focus and I haven’t done anything yet besides a workout.”
Matt braced his hands at the top of the door-frame, leaning into the locker room, and stared at me like I’d lost my marbles somewhere in the past thirty-six hours of all work and absolutely no sleep.
“When’s the last time you ate? Drank water? Took a vitamin or a nap?”
The questions made my head ache worse than it already did. “Uh. Last Tuesday.”
“You’re an idiot.” Matt exhaled loudly. “I’m ratting you out to Tony.” When I sat up straight, mouth dropping open, ready to unleash a ton of excuses and protests, Matt flipped me off. “If you step in the ring like this, you’re going to get your ass knocked out. I mean, you be doing that shit anyway, but at least it’s when you’re putting in work and not because you’re too stupid to hydrate and sleep before coming in.”
“Don’t tell.” I sounded like a five-year-old. “For real, man. I’ve been slacking, and Tony’s gonna drop me.”
“You spend your days driving a cab and doing handyman shit around your building. That’s not slacking.” Matt frowned as he considered me, genuine worry in his big brown eyes. “Tony would legit never drop you. He’s been your trainer since before you had pubic hair.”
My phone chimed loudly from my gym bag. I ignored it.
“He said my head ain’t in the game lately.”
“It’s not.” Matt jerked his chin at me. “You’re pastier than usual.”
Facts. I’d made the mistake of looking in the mirror as I’d taped up my fists, and I’d nearly cringed at what had looked back at me. My mother’s swarthy complexion was nowhere to be seen and my eyes had stared back like sunken coals. It was then that I’d realized my last two weeks of eating nothing but protein bars and NOS were going to ruin my body, and the three jobs I was juggling were going to shatter my already frayed mind.
Hunching forward, I dropped my head into my hands again. “Fuck.”
“It’s cool, man.” Matt rubbed a hand over his shaved head, shining it with the sweat that had accumulated after sparring with one of the older guys. “Spend tomorrow getting your life together, sleep in, and be ready tomorrow afternoon. I’m telling you—there’s no point in you doing shit in this condition. You’ll just get fucked up and hear a forty-five-minute lecture from Tony.”
My resolve had begun to crumble at the mention of sleeping in. Instead of dark, damp-looking concrete and gray walls, I could see my cramped apartment on 164th and the lumpy bed that was still a comfort despite the springs. How good it would feel to crawl under the sheet after a hot shower and a meal.
“Your eyes are faraway, which means you need to listen to me and get out of here.”
“Nah, let him stay. I wouldn’t mind watching Luis knock him out a couple of times.”
I looked over my shoulder just in time to see Bronson Maurer sauntering toward the door with his hair and skin still damp from the shower. He wasn’t wearing much despite it being cold outside, but maybe his mean mug kept him warm.
“You talk way too much shit for someone who doesn’t even fight,” Matt said with a snicker. “Like, you legit just come here to work out. How are you trying to say something?”
“Just ’cause I don’t fight in the ring doesn’t mean I don’t fight.”
“Aiight Fight Club. Get your ass out of here. Grown folks is talking.”
Bronson flipped Matt off and cast me another evil eye before walking out.
I shook my head and said, “That dude has hated my ass ever since my sister decked him back in high school.”
Matt’s face lit up at the mention of my sister but all he said was, “He’s just an angry white boy trying to overcompensate for his lack of athleticism with his attitude.”
I stood, grabbed my gym bag, and swung it over my shoulder. My hands were still taped up, but I could mess with that later. Right now, my mission was a shower, a meal, and sleep. The three words repeated in my head in a mantra before blending together like another language. God, I could practically taste the lamb casserole my sister had dropped off earlier in the day. I hadn’t been there to receive it, but her cheerful text message had announced her conning my super into letting her into my apartment so she could force food on me. I pretended to be offended by it, but she knew I cherished her efforts.
“Thanks, man.” I slapped Matt on the back and forced a grin. “Sometimes I need a good voice of reason.”
“Nah, what you need is to start dating. Someone to take care of your ass.” He smirked. “And I don’t mean your sister. Hana can take care of me.”
“Ha. Do me a favor and text her that. She doesn’t believe when I say you have a crush on her.” My phone started ringing again, and my fingers closed tighter around the strap of my bag. “But I don’t have time for dating. I don’t even have time to eat.”
“Then stop fucking up your body and start winning fights. If you go pro, you’ll start making that green paper. You need it, brother.”
That was also a fact, but I would never admit it. Especially since I was the only boxer, probably in the world, who didn’t dream every night of going pro. Of the big day in the future when I had fights on pay-per-view. The idea made me cringe.
“See you tomorrow, Mattie.”
While Matt went to shower, I walked down the short hallway and into the open space of the gym. More gray concrete splattered with sweat and grime, peeling wallpaper decorated with a collage of yellowed newspaper clippings, signed photographs of famous boxers, Polaroids of Tony’s dad—Anthony Cadet—with the guys he’d trained over the years. Memory after memory that meant something to people who weren’t around anymore to reminisce. Back in the day, I’d stared at the pictures and quotes in a state of awe. It’d told a story my overactive imagination had turned into an epic tale. But the truth was, Cadet’s hadn’t been anything special then, and I knew it wasn’t anything special now. Just another tiny boxing gym in the Bronx—down Grand Concourse from a more famous one—that generally spawned guys like me instead of real champions.
The gym’s subpar rep was why Tony had originally questioned my father’s reasoning for bringing me, a supposed prodigy, here. Even as the gym owner, Tony had known better gyms would have loved to get their hands on me. I’d overheard them talking once and had wondered the same. As it turned out, in the short time my dad had spent being my father, he’d realized I didn’t have the killing instinct. And I hadn’t developed that winner’s ambition in the past decade, either.
I walked so fast past Tony’s office that my surroundings were a blur. I vaguely saw Luis Ramos—the guy I should have been gearing up to spar—glaring from across the room.
Not just wasting Tony’s time. Wasting other people’s too.
“You going somewhere, Val?” Luis called from across the gym. “I been waiting for my rematch all damn day.”
Guilt sunk me faster than my exhaustion, and I stopped walking. Nearby, someone started in on the speed bag. The strap to my bag dug into my fingers so hard that I thought it would rub off the skin. And then the goddamn phone started ringing again. Over and over again, never ending, never leaving a message or sending a text. It would go on all fucking night until I caved and picked up. It occurred to me that maybe I was avoiding the wrong call despite it being like clockwork every Friday night, so I glanced in the side pocket of the bag.
One look at my phone showed me a flash of platinum blond hair, long and silky beneath a floppy hat, large dark sunglasses, and a wide mouth wrapped around a cigarette. I’d been right. This was the call I’d been avoiding, but now that I saw his name, it was hard to look away.
I didn’t know why I’d used that picture of Ashton instead of the millions of images he regularly uploaded to his Instagram, but it nearly melted my resolve. The real Ashton—the quirky bastard with the smart-ass smile and thrift-store style—could get me to do anything. The Ashton he played for the rest of the world didn’t have the same power.
And no doubt that was the Ashton who was calling me right now.
“Ay, you deaf over there?”
I dropped the bag at my feet. “Nah. I’m here.” I adjusted my tank top, taped in the back to get rid of the extra fabric. “Let’s do it.”
* * * * * * *
I left the gym after eleven with a bigger ego to compensate for the purpling bruise on my solar plexus and some bumps and scrapes. Even half-asleep, I’d knocked Luis down twice. My footwork had been slow, and my pauses had been too long, but I’d easily drifted into the beat of a fight.
Even so, Tony had still looked at me with flattened lips and hard blue eyes.
Where the other guys saw a challenge, he saw sloppiness. And he was right. Especially since he had his heart set on me going to the Olympic trials in a few months, and every fight leading up to that mattered. I wasn’t as keen. Olympic trials meant traveling for fights nationwide and internationally, and being that far from Hana and Ashton made me nervous. Even if I’d been trying, and mostly failing, to not see Ashton on a regular basis for the past several months. Especially if I’d be seeing him while he was drunk and frisky and handsier than usual.
The expression on Tony’s face nagged at me as I walked to my apartment with hunched shoulders and my hands shoved in my pockets. The street had a ton of traffic even after eleven o’clock, but that was always the case. My neighborhood had the unique position of being surrounded by Yankee Stadium, three courthouses and central booking, and a solid knot of would-be gentrifiers who stuck out like sore thumbs in a neighborhood that had always been a little rough. I greeted six people on my way from Cadet’s to my building, and was grateful for the tomblike silence of my apartment after I shouldered open the door.
I flipped all four locks, did up the chain, and then microwaved a giant bowl of casserole without taking off my jacket. The smell of lamb, gravy, and onions pulled a ferocious growl from my stomach. By the time the microwave beeped, my hands were shaking with the need to devour something. Anything. Especially a meal made of good memories and warmth. Hana always knew what to bring me when I was going through a rough patch.
I chewed while picturing Tony’s disapproving stare, so much like my father’s, and wondered if he mimicked my old man on purpose. Ever since dear old dad walked out on us, and my mother had been forced to take the job as a nanny for the Townsends, my relationship with Tony had very often fluctuated between trainer-fighter, mentor-mentee, and something a little more paternal. In the past, I’d craved that attention. Especially with my own mother practically living half the week in a mansion on the Upper East Side to clean up after rich WASPs, and take care of their sons instead of her own kids. But one of those sons had been Ashton, and now that she was gone, he was still the responsibility of the Leka family. Well, at least one member of it.
The meal vanished within a couple of minutes, I took a fast shower only because I was beginning to sway on my feet, and crashed to the mattress in my towel with my messy, wayward friend on the brain.
Was friend the right word for a rich kid who’d grown up with only his nanny’s son to talk to?
But when he called me again at three thirty in the morning, my hand reflexively shot out to answer before my brain woke up enough to order me not to follow through.
“What?” I rasped.
“Val.” Ashton’s voice was always a little low and hoarse, like he’d been born with a cigarette habit, but the way he extended the consonant made it clear he was drinking. “Are you still avoiding me? I’ve been trying to talk to you all day.”
“Are you sleeping?”
“Uh. Yeah.” I tried to blink my way awake, shifting minutely on the tangled sheets. My body was weighted to the bed with the strength of several minutes of sleep being stolen with each of his questions. “Ashton, what do you want? It’s late.”
There was a hesitation and the sound of laughter, music, and clinking glasses in the background. His pause gave me pause, because even with the tension of the past few months, he rarely stopped to consider what I might be doing before begging me to put it on hold for him. Entitled? Bratty? Or maybe just . . . desperate for me to give him what no one else would. Friendship.
There was a deep inhale on the other end. “Hey, never mind, okay? Get some sleep.”
My eyes opened fully. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, babes,” he said, forced cheer faker than a tan in February. I could hear the strain in every syllable. “You sleep. I’ll figure it out.”
“Shut up and tell me what’s wrong.”
“Val . . .”
“Are you drunk?” He made a little sound, like a verbal shrug, and I pressed on. “High?”
“I shouldn’t have called.”
“No fucking shit you shouldn’t have called at three in the morning.” There went the temper only he could rip out of me. “You’ve been calling me since seven o’clock in the evening, way before you got to wherever you are now, so don’t pull this coy bullshit with me. Tell me why you’re acting weird.”
“I just . . . I wanted to talk. I don’t have anyone to ask for advice, and I thought . . .” Another pause, this one punctuated by a clicking sound. “I thought you could help me make a choice, and you didn’t pick up, so I made it on my own.” A sardonic laugh filled his end of the line, and that sound was all Ashton. My Ashton. Not the one he’d created for the socialite crowd. “But then again thinking isn’t my strong suit, right?”
“I don’t want to hear this bullshit.” I slid out of bed, my head spinning from the abrupt motion, and reached blindly for a pair of jeans. “Where are you?”
“Val, just forget it. You’re right. I’m a teeny bit tipsy and I need to just stop calling you every time—”
“Tell me where you are or I’ll just use the Find My iPhone app.”
“Ashton, I swear to God, I’m not in the mood. Tell me now if you’re just jerking my chain because you’re drunk and emo, or if you’re stranded again at some crazy party and need a ride.”
His answer, when it came, was barely above a whisper. “I need a ride.”
The knowledge that I’d likely be driving for over an hour to get to wherever he was that didn’t have a taxi or a subway didn’t anger me. All I felt was the cool relief that this godforsaken conversation could end, I could complete the task of retrieving him, and eventually go back to bed.
Ashton murmured an address in Long Island and ended the call with a very faint, “I’m sorry for being like this.”
Those six words echoed in my ears the entire way as I stumbled out of my apartment, jogged down the stairs, and sat heavily in the driver’s seat of my battered black Camry. It wasn’t the first time I’d be going to rescue Ashton from a glitzy party so far out of my zip code that they’d practically ask to check my documents at the door, but it was the first time his voice had sounded so regretful and pained.
The last time he’d spoken to me in that tone had been nearly a year ago on the night of my mother’s funeral. He’d begged me not to go, but I’d walked out of his apartment without looking back and had proceeded to avoid his calls for nearly three months.
Actually, no, it’d been more recently. After Valentine’s Day, when I’d seen pictures on Instagram of him and some dude named Caleb Stone. I’d had no idea who the guy was, but he’d looked . . . normal. Normal enough to be potentially permanent. It had freaked me out to not know that Ashton might have had an actual boyfriend.
That gap in knowledge after a lifetime of knowing everything about him had pushed me into ending my radio silence. I’d down shifted from my post-funeral ice to the wishy-washy avoidance dance I performed with him now. He’d been so grateful to hear my voice that he’d nearly cried. And that had broken me. It was why I told myself to keep my distance but could never manage to stay away.
He needed me. I wanted him in my life. It should have been simple.
But us spending time together meant never forgetting what had happened on the night of the funeral.
And, fuck, I had to be tired to be traveling so far up that road.
I shook my head, smacked my own cheeks, and then pulled up the GPS in my phone to guide me toward my destination. The trip duration read nearly an hour, and I vowed to myself, as I managed to squeeze out of the tight parking spot I’d snagged earlier, that I’d pick him up, take him home, and then return to my own apartment. That was it.
I repeated it to myself multiple times as I took off toward the Cross Bronx Expressway.
I’d get him out, get him home to Manhattan, and come back to my world in the Bronx. No lingering. No cuddly heart-to-hearts while he caressed me and stared into my eyes. No more joining the ranks of people who were infatuated with Ashton Townsend. Or, more accurately, not allowing him to find out I was already in those ranks.
It was a promise I’d made to myself once I’d emerged from the fog of grief that had allowed me to fuck him wildly on the floor after the sparsely attended burial. What he didn’t know was that I’d avoided him because I couldn’t bear the realization that I’d treated him like everyone else. I was supposed to be different but, at the end of the day, I desired him just as badly as whoever he was with tonight.
* * * * * * *
The mansion was somehow more ridiculous than I’d expected it to be. Growing up as the pseudo best friend of a filthy rich kid had guaranteed I’d gotten dragged along to many a glitzy event in my teenage years, but this place took the cake. It didn’t even look like a house. The structure was so contemporary that it resembled an office building that also doubled as a spaceship. If there was ever a real War of the Worlds, I knew exactly where the first pods were going to show up. At this goddamn place right here.
After a minute of glaring through the gates at the four-level building, I guided my Camry to the guard tower.
“I’m here to pick up Ashton Townsend.”
I’d expected a guard who looked bored and sleepy, but this guy looked like a member of Delta Force. So fucking odd. Everything about this night was odd.
He gave my car a not-so-discreet once-over. “You’re his driver?”
My jaw clenched. “No. Just check your list, man. You had to have seen him today. Tall, blond, slender. Looks like a movie star, but he’s really just a former model with a huge Instagram following and a sex tape.”
The guard’s mouth twitched. I grinned, trying to appeal to his inner working-class motherfucker in the most basic way even though every word tasted like poison. I was saying the things other people said about Ashton, and I hated that. I hated bringing up the sex tape even more. It’d been secretly recorded by one of his former lovers, and a hacker had snagged it from the dude’s online cloud. Now it was all over the internet with no way to get it back. It’d been loosed into the world six years ago, but that tape had started so much shit, it would never be buried.
Even so, saying things like this usually helped me bypass the red tape, which would help me get to Ashton faster.
“Just let me pick the kid up. He’s probably puking on someone’s family heirloom by now. Your boss probably had him summon me to fetch him and clean up the mess.”
“Heh. I hope someone is paying you well to be working so hard to take care of some rich punk.”
I cringed inwardly. “You gonna do me a solid?” I pressed. “I just drove from the Bronx, man.”
“You really are devoted to the cause.” The guard jerked his head at the gate. “Go get your guy.”
The phrase put my back up, but I managed a tight smile. “Good lookin’ out.”
As I guided my car away, I noticed the driveway was lit on either side by tiny dome ornaments, which made it seem like a silver ribbon leading to the enormous home. Up close it was larger. Like a mismatch of different Lego pieces stuck together any which way by a kid who liked monotone colors. The inside was probably banging, but I couldn’t see what would have initially attracted a buyer. Or maybe that was just my bitterness because I paid a cool fourteen hundred for two rooms and a kitchen that barely worked.
My fingers curled around the wheel again, and I swallowed my resentment. My struggle was my problem. It wasn’t the bastards who owned this joint’s, and it definitely wasn’t Ashton’s.
Parking in front of the massive entrance, I swept my eyes over the place. Every window seemed to be lit, and I could hear music emanating from the door. Tinkles of laughter came from everywhere on the property, as if couples were wandering through the shadows to secret places to be alone. But if I knew anything about the crowd Ashton tended to run with, it was that they weren’t shy about getting busy in front of an audience.
I shot him a text—Where you at?—and got no reply. After several minutes of drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, I sent him another—Come the fuck on, Ash. I haven’t slept in days.
When that one didn’t get a reply, I gnashed my teeth together and jammed my finger down on the call button. Voice mail. I realistically knew this meant his phone had died, but a tinge of worry edged its way down my spine anyway. There had been times in the past when Ashton had gone missing. He’d wander off on his own without telling anyone, and would pop up a few days later with an explanation as simple as, I just needed to get away. My concern had always gone unheeded, and he’d kiss my face and call me overprotective, but there had been times when I’d expected him to not come back at all. Or not in one piece. Ashton didn’t always attract the best people.
Footsteps nearby drew me out of my tense reverie, and my eyes strayed to the passenger’s-side window. Ashton’s long blond hair caught on the lights, making it seem like a sheet of streaming gold, as he hurried down the steps in his clattering motorcycle boots. He looked slimmer and taller than usual in a black dress with a deep V-neck and black leggings or stockings. My relief was short-lived because two things became immediately clear: he was hurrying away from someone, and that person was following him.
The man had mostly silver hair, and looked normal enough, but the way he grabbed Ashton’s arm made me want to knock his teeth out. I sat up straight, adrenaline coursing through me. Ashton’s eyes met mine immediately, and I stopped. He shook his head before turning to face his pursuer.
The man drew Ashton close enough for a deep, crushing kiss.
“For fuck’s sake,” I muttered and willed myself to look away. But I couldn’t.
My pulse was still racing out of control, temper not chilled in the least even when Ashton’s jaw moved enough to indicate he was responding. I scanned him for a sign of what the hell was going on, but only saw the conflicting sight of his tense back and slack fingers as his lips moved enthusiastically against the man’s.
At the sound of a hoarse groan, I stopped watching. The guy might not be hurting Ashton, but I still had a growing desire to crush his face.
Brett tasted like cigarettes and champagne, but I ignored the unpleasant combination and thought about something else. The warm summer breeze, the distant sound of the ocean lapping at the shore, and the fact that Val was behind me. Val was watching me. Watching this.
I turned my face, and Brett’s lips skewed sloppily across my cheek. Years of practice kept me from cringing.
“I’m sorry,” I said, bowing my head. Hair spilled forward, and his hands flew up to push the strands away. They fell through his fingers like blond water, and I knew he loved the sensation. There were three things that made me desirable to Brett Decker: my long hair, my fine-boned face, and how delicate and slight I appeared beneath the safety of loose cloth or layers. Brett liked his boys weak and pretty, the way he imagined most women should be. It made him feel less queer for wanting to nail me. Sometimes, I wished he’d meet Meredith Stone or Stephanie Quinones so they could tear him to pieces for being such a sexist pig. Other times, I wished I could do it myself.
“Why are you leaving already?” he asked. “It’s early.”
“It’s nearly five.” I peered at him through my hair, biting my lip just the way he liked. His eyes dropped to my mouth, and he moved closer. “I’m feeling really unwell. I tried to tell you before . . .”
A glimmer of frustration crossed his face. “You look fine. I’ve been waiting to see you for days.”
“I’m on antibiotics,” I protested. “I only forced myself to come so I could see you, even for a little while. But I’m so tired now.”
“Sleep here,” he said automatically. “That’s what I’d planned.”
My mouth curved up. “You planned to fuck me all night. That’s not really sleeping . . .”
“Sleep after, and I’ll take care of you in the morning.”
“And get you sick?” I shook my head, adopting another sad expression. “I was bedridden for five days, darling. Can you miss that much time at the office?”
His growing frown made it clear contracting a mysterious and invented illness wasn’t something he could fit into his schedule, so he conceded by brutally kissing me again. His fingers dug in too hard, his teeth clashing against mine too violently. It felt more like an assault than a sign of affection. Judging by the heavy and disgusted sigh drifting over from Val’s car, it was obvious he concurred.
Brett ripped away, breathing hard. “Is that your driver?”
I shook my head. “A friend.”
Brett’s attention shifted to Val’s car, and the gears began to churn. Estimating the Blue Book value of a fifteen-year-old dented Camry, likely trying to see Val inside and only catching a glimpse of eyes so green they shone like emeralds. Wondering who he was. Why he’d decided to make his impatience so clear . . .
“I woke him up and begged a ride,” I explained, cocking my head. “My usual driver is also sick, so . . .”
Brett lost interest and went back to groping me. One hand clamped around my wrist as he guided me down the wide staircase, simultaneously treating me like a toddler while doing his best to exert his dominance. So interesting how many men like Brett I’d met in my life. Very odd how they called me beautiful, perfect, fragile like porcelain, and spent every moment making it clear that they wanted to control me.
He nudged me closer to the car, and I made a soft sound of pleasure at the unwanted help. I let him kiss me again with Val only three feet away. His irritation swarmed audibly like a disturbed beehive, and my stomach knotted. Don’t say anything. Please don’t start anything.
“I’ll call you,” I promised Brett. “We’ll see each other soon.”
“We better. I’m not in the habit of waiting.” Brett gave me a slow once-over. “But you’re worth it.”
“As soon as I’m well, we’ll be together.”
“Promise me, Ashton.”
Reaching behind me, I curled my fingers around the door handle. My escape was so close, but Brett was still watching, waiting, and figuring me out. I prided myself on being a good actor, on giving men what they wanted and whispering sweet lies in their ears, but this one was smart. Smart enough to know why I was spending time with him, but not quite catching on to why I was fleeing before following through on the planned seduction. Like most people who were familiar with my name, he probably expected me to be capable of anything, fucking anyone, and not letting it keep me up at night.
“Next time,” I said, still smiling and looking at him beneath my lashes. “I won’t disappoint you.”
From the car, I heard a muttered, “Jesus Christ,” but Brett was oblivious as he stared me down, likely thinking about all the things he wanted to do with me. He’d told me some of them after our first encounter—a business dinner where my role had been to draw his attention, hold his gaze, and leave him wanting to know more about me. Easiest assignment ever, and it had helped when he’d mentioned his gay nephew who was having trouble adjusting to being out in a wealthy family. I’d instantly become intrigued, earnestly asking for details and showing true concern after learning the kid had run way from home.
I’d thought our conversation had been purposeful, so I’d given him my number in the hopes we could continue it later, and maybe I could help in ways other than letting him get in my pants. His messages had focused on his concern for a while before they’d turned into pleas to see me again, earnest messages about his loneliness, and then more explicit messages about what he could do to me in the bedroom. Cock shots had uploaded pretty soon after.
The whole thing still gave me the creeps because I couldn’t decide if he’d used his nephew as a lure, or whether his lust and his concern weren’t mutually exclusive. I hoped they weren’t. Or that the kid wasn’t just a story he’d made up.
Brett relinquished his hold on me, and by the time I’d slid into the passenger’s seat of Val’s car, weariness had settled in my bones. The locks clicked loud enough to startle me in the silence because there was no music playing, which was uncharacteristic. Val always had the station set on one that played nineties hip-hop and R&B. I stole a glance at him while buckling my seat belt, and grimaced. Even with his face cast in shadows, those green eyes were flashing judgment as he gripped the steering wheel.
“You’re so fucking fake.”
Scoffing, Val looked away. He took off fast enough to burn rubber, steering back toward the gate and leaving Brett’s colossal mansion in our dust. It felt freeing, except for the way I could still taste him and feel the imprint of his hands on my skin.
“Do you have any gum?”
“Trying to get the scumbag out of your mouth?”
“He’s not a scumbag,” I said. “Well, I don’t think so. Not entirely.”
“Uh-huh.” Val felt around in the center console, found a pack of gum, and tossed it at me. “He’s a scumbag, and he’s old as hell. AARP style.”
I popped the tablet of gum into my mouth and snorted a laugh. “You’re so dramatic.”
“Yeah, right, I’m the dramatic one.” Val slumped back in the driver’s seat, driving one-handed, his other hand slack on the center console. Oh so tempting . . . “Was there a reason for him to drag you around like a ragdoll?”
“Older guys usually treat me like a fragile young thing they have to lead around.”
Val didn’t need to speak for me to pick up on the overprotective streak that had led to him installing Find My iPhone on my phone several years ago. Not that I’d protested. Things were better now, but there had been a time when I’d been in constant need of finding. A time when I’d been reckless with myself and others because no one had seemed to give a damn about anything I did. My brothers were the ones who brought value to the family. I’d been the embarrassment. So I’d done whatever, whenever, and then vanished until someone found me. Usually Valdrin.
I gave up on resistance and grabbed his hand, bringing it to my lips. I kissed each swollen and busted knuckle and watched him the entire time. Waiting for a twinge of something, discomfort or irritation, but he just shook his head. I didn’t know what was more disappointing—that the sparks I sometimes felt between us were likely nonexistent or that he seemed to think I was this affectionate with everybody.
“I thought you were over this, Ashton.”
“Over what?” I asked between kisses. “Partying? Drinking? Begging you to rescue me?”
He pulled his hand away. “Over letting old pervy men use you.”
“He’s not even old. He’s maybe forty-five.”
“Right.” Val’s eyes flicked over to me, scanning up and down, before returning to the road. “Do you want me to go through the list of older rich motherfuckers you let defile you in the past ten years?”
“It has not been ten years,” I protested. “I would have been fourteen. I didn’t start sleeping with older guys until I was sixteen.”
“Whatever, Ashton. Every old bastard on the board of Townsend Telecom has had a piece of you, and I thought you were over playing these stupid games.” Val glared straight ahead, his shoulders hunching as the car sped along toward the Long Island Expressway. There were no other cars on the road, and his features were only illuminated by random street lights that lit on his stubbled jaw, the slope of his nose, and his short dark hair. Although it was longer since I’d last seen him. “When are you going to find something else to do with yourself besides keeping a tally of how many straight billionaires you can seduce?”
My back straightened, and I ripped my starved gaze away from his face. The relief I felt in his presence crumbled until I was wrapping my arms around myself and turning slightly away to lean against the door. There was nothing but darkness outside, so I rolled down the window and rested my head against the open frame. The wind tore at my hair, whipping blond strands out into the night. I pretended the strength of the wind could blow away the remnants of Brett’s touch and jumped when a strong hand slid up to brace against the column of my neck.
I knew Val was trying to guide me away from the window so he could close it and keep talking to me, but I didn’t move. Having his fingers on me was much nicer than hearing his angry words. He must have understood that, because his attempts to pull me in devolved into him massaging the side and back of my neck until I was a puddle of contentment. Luckily, the rush of the wind and purr of the engine hid my sighs of pleasure.
When Val finally retracted his hand, I followed. Shifting over the center console to lean my head against his neck and press into his side, forcing him to drape his arm around my shoulders. Déjà vu hit me suddenly, and I saw us together in this very same car on the weekend of my eighteenth birthday. Summertime in the Hamptons, and an unchaperoned party so lavish that it’d been overwhelming. I’d gotten drunk fast, and Val had been there because I’d begged him, hiding in the pool house with an Xbox, until I’d crawled into his lap crying about having no friends but him. He’d driven me away from my own party and we’d sped down this same highway with me sniffling into his shirt. And then he’d taken me home, fallen asleep tangled up with me, and I’d woken up so turned on I’d nearly lost my mind.
God, I’d been pathetic for the majority of my life. So desperate for him to see me as something besides a whiny rich kid he had to take care of, and always failing. I had been a whiny rich kid. Now, I was a messy one. Not exactly boyfriend material, which had been my secret desire since we’d been ten.
My eyes closed as the memories washed over me, and I pressed a light kiss against his shoulder. He didn’t react, so I trailed feathery brushes of my lips all over him—a line up the junction of his neck and shoulder, to his jaw—as he guided the car along the highway. His shoulders didn’t tense until my lips brushed the corner of his mouth, which is when I realized he’d been fighting tonight.
“Your lip is busted,” I said in his ear. “Are you okay?”
“Did you win?” I asked, not keeping the disapproval from my own tone. “If you’re going to hurt my favorite person’s face, you better be winning.”
I felt more than saw his smile. “Yeah, I won.”
I traced his puffy lower lip with my thumb and found where it was split. “Does it hurt?”
He smiled again, bigger this time, and turned his face just enough for me to kiss the part of his lip that was split. When he didn’t shove me away like he always did, I flicked my tongue against it.
Two things happened at once—Val’s lips parted and a horn blared loud enough to startle me into releasing an alarmed cry. I scooted back into my seat as Val twisted the wheel to swerve into the other lane and around a car with broken taillights. I leaned out the window and flipped him off.
“Fix your fucking lights, dickhead!”
I ducked back inside and rolled up the window as Val’s laughter filled the car.
“You’re ridiculous,” he said, shoulders shaking. “Slurring drunkenly about someone else’s bad driving.”
“That’s really dangerous,” I said indignantly. “And I’m not even that drunk.”
He was still laughing, but he grabbed my shoulder and hauled me close to him again. I’d honestly expected him to yell at me for distracting him while driving, but instead he pressed a brief kiss to my forehead and kept his arm around me.
He squeezed my shoulder. “I like it when you’re my Ashton and not that other guy.”
I closed my eyes again. “I know.”
I woke up to find Val parking in front of my building and talking to the doorman.
“—take him upstairs but don’t want to get towed if I park here.”
“No worries, Mr. Leka. Kevin can move your car to the garage, if that’s okay with you?”
“It’s been okay all the other times,” Val said with a laugh. “And stop calling me Mr. Leka.”
Blinking awake, I ran a hand through my windblown hair and didn’t bother to look at myself in the mirror. Realizing what a mess I looked like wouldn’t do anything besides send me scurrying into the building before Val could see me. And I wanted him to walk me upstairs. Doing my best to moisten my lips and rub sleep from my eyes, I glanced at him now that we were beneath the street lights of Manhattan. He was way more worse for wear than I’d thought, and there was a massive bruise on his jaw.
He rolled his eyes. “Let’s go.”
Protests filled my mouth, but I hung on to them until we were alone. I waved at Rick, the doorman, and fumbled in my pockets for a random wad of cash. It was probably a ridiculous amount, but he didn’t have time to refuse it because I was hurrying to catch up with Val’s long-legged strides. Now that I’d slept, I felt soberer, but my head was swimming from the combination of alcohol and a broken REM sleep. I vaguely remembered dreaming only moments ago of Val’s body beneath mine, which was distracting with him walking ahead of me. His body was incredible, and I couldn’t stop staring at his ass. He’d turned into a gym rat when we were teens, and since then I’d been entranced by how delicious and round his butt was.
“When are you going to quit fighting?” I asked.
Val jammed his thumb against the Up button on the elevator, and the doors whooshed open. We slid inside, and I wilted against the wall, frowning at him.
“You don’t even like it that much! The money can’t be that good.”
“I haven’t made a dime yet, Ashton. It won’t happen unless I go pro, which is the point of me working this hard for so long.”
Talking about boxing with Val was never easy, because I was the only one who knew he wasn’t really into it. He did it because he had natural talent, and since he was a child, he’d seen it as an eventual way out of the financial crunch he’d been born into and never been able to escape. Just thinking about it caused my chest to constrict. “But when will that even happen? You’ve been fighting for years . . .”
“If I qualify for the Olympics, I have a good shot.” Val’s shoulders tensed, and he crossed his arms over his chest. The position made his biceps bulge and his T-shirt draw tighter to his chest. “But that’s all a dream right now. Qualifying is complicated. I’d have to win here and then internationally, which means beating everyone in my weight class. The point is, if I was doing it for money right now, I wouldn’t be driving a cab and taking jobs off my building’s super.”
The elevator stopped on the ninth floor, and we stepped out. He strode ahead of me, body still taught with tension now that the conversation was focused on him. It was a sign for me to stop asking questions, and to stop myself from saying out loud what was already going through my mind, but I couldn’t.
“Why do you put yourself through this? The two jobs and all your training . . .” We paused at my door, him facing away and me staring at the back of his neck. “I know we never talk about it, but why won’t you consider that job offer from my father? It’s been floating in the air for the past year, and you just pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Val tensed. “We’re not talking about that. I’m serious, Ashton.”
I bit my tongue as he used his own key to unlock my door.
“Okay, I’ve escorted you home safely. Now I’m leaving.”
I shoved him inside the apartment and kicked the door shut with the bottom of my boot. “Not allowed, sir.”
When Val finally faced me, I was relieved to see there were no storm clouds shadowing his brow. Just unease that had never been there before. “Is that so?”
“That’s definitely so. It’s five thirty in the morning, you look just terrible, and you’re probably going to fall asleep if you keep driving.” I put my hands on my hips and widened my eyes. “Stay here with me and I’ll tend to your wounds.”
He looked between me, the door, and then outside at a sky that was already showing subtle traces of daylight. It was clear he wanted to leave, but a yawn nearly cracked his jaw. Eyes watering, he asked grouchily, “Are you going to quit talking about my money situation?”
He rocked back on his heels, a muscle in his cheek ticking. I hated how reluctant he was to spend time with me, but internally cheered as he nodded in agreement.
“Fine. I don’t have to be up tomorrow morning, anyway.”
Val let me pull him across the hardwood floors of the living room and into my bedroom. There were clothes all over, and I’d left a lamp on and music playing. He didn’t argue when I shoved him down onto my messy bed. There were a million pillows and a mismatched sheet set, but everything was soft and smelled good. I was convinced it was the only reason he ever spent the night. Or at least, why he had before his mother passed away. After that, and the night we’d spent together, he’d kept careful distance from me. No more sleepovers. And he only came around if I seemed exceptionally pathetic. Like tonight.
With him compliant and stretched out, I went to find a first aid kit and shed my own clothes along the way. The sweaty dress that had absorbed a dozen spilled drinks, and the boots that stomped noisily around my quiet apartment. I located the tiny red-and-white box Val had forced me to buy when I’d first stocked the apartment, and brought it to the bedroom. His eyes were halfway closed.
“You really don’t have to do that,” he said. “I already cleaned up.”
“Yeah, but you’re bleeding again.” I straddled his legs and pointed to the various nicks on his face and torso. He tensed, putting his hands on my knees as if to shove me away, but didn’t. If me sitting on him in my underwear made him uncomfortable, he didn’t say it. He also didn’t move his hands. “How does that even happen?”
“Fuck if I know, Ash. I didn’t notice a lot of the damage until now.” A shadow crossed Val’s face, and he closed his eyes fully. “I guess I thought I’d evaded more than I actually did.”
“Hmph.” I swabbed, dabbed ointment, and applied tiny butterfly Band-Aids as Val idly stroked my knee. “So, why don’t you take a job at Townsend Telecom?”
“Ashton, can you stop?”
“It’s a good question. It’s not like he’s offering you a handout. It’s a job.”
“He’s never even said what kind of job. It’s just this vague position with a six-figure salary that would make me beholden to him for-fucking-ever. And as far as I’m concerned? It’s as good as a handout.”
“Val, that’s ridiculous. You have connections. Use them. Who cares what the position is for? He’ll probably create a position for you, and it sounds a hell of a lot better than you breaking your neck trying to live in this city while paying Hana’s tuition at Fordham. It’s outrageous.”
“It’s reality,” Val snapped. “Real people have to work for what they want. I know that’s not your life, but it’s ours.” I flinched, but he kept going. “I didn’t want Townsend money and neither did she.”
“I know you didn’t want it, but you grew up with us! No one argued when my father pitched the idea before he and my mother moved away. Everyone knows you’re practically part of the family. Even Dylan,” I said, trying not to cringe at my oldest brother’s name. After my earlier conversation with him, the one that had led to me going to the party in the Hamptons, the thought of him put me on edge. “So why shouldn’t you get the same perks as they di—”
“Ashton, I know you like to block it out of your mind every time I say it, but I hate your father. I still hate him now that he and your mom are living the good life in the Caribbean somewhere. If I took his magical job, I’d donate every dime of my salary to charity.”
I wanted to be shocked and angry, but I wasn’t. Just disappointed that he got nothing out of having been forced to be around my fucked-up family for most of his life, and that he still had to struggle because he hated the Townsend name so much that he wouldn’t allow himself to benefit from having been attached to us. Which was probably why he never accepted my birthday or Christmas presents.
This time when I bit my lip, it wasn’t for dramatic effect. It was to keep it from trembling.
Val’s eyes softened. “It has nothing to do with you, Ashton. You’re part of the reason why I despise him so much. The way he treated you.”
“I deserved it. I’m an embarrassment.”
He smacked my thigh hard. “Don’t start.”
“I can say what I want.”
“You’re right. You can. But it’s bullshit. Your father treated you like a brainless bimbo, or he ignored you while fawning over Dylan and Mackenzie. And that’s only half of the reason I can’t stand him.” Val pushed himself up on his forearms. “Him not bothering to show up to my mother’s funeral, after she spent twenty years taking care of his family, was the final straw. Or did you forget?”
“I didn’t forget.”
How could I? Val’s mother had also been more of a maternal figure to me than my own, who’d also considered me an embarrassment. It’d only been a year, and my chest still constricted at the memory of her kind face and warm eyes. Her death had crippled me, and I’d only pulled it together enough to try to comfort Val.
Although my way of comforting him on the night of her funeral had led to us not speaking for months. A shiver tore through me, and I backed away until my ass was on the bed instead of his thighs. “I get it, Val. You don’t have to explain.”
“Are you sure you get it? Because you have weird ideas about how family works. Like, for example, thinking either of your siblings seriously considered the nanny’s son to be part of their own.”
I looked down, hair curtaining my face. “I did.”
“I know.” Val grabbed my chin and tilted my face up. “That’s why I’m still here even though you drive me insane.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me. I’m just—” His fingers tightened as his brows knitted together. “I just wish I understood why you let people treat you like shit all the time. Why you pretend to be someone you’re not.”
“How do you know it’s make-believe? Maybe I like it.” I twisted away from him, and stared down at the piles of clothes strewn across the room. Most of it was black. “Maybe I like being held down and fucked by someone who doesn’t give a shit about me. Maybe I don’t care about being passed around when they’re done. Maybe I still think it’s all in good fun.”
“Yeah, and maybe you’re full of it,” Val said shortly. “I could tell you wanted to throw up every time that creep put his hands on you. Just because other people believe your Paris Hilton act doesn’t mean I ever will. I know every inch of you, Ashton. And I know you couldn’t wait to get in the car with me and drive away.”
“Paris Hilton was okay until she revealed her political views,” I muttered. “Next time compare me to Kim K.”
“Be serious, Ashton.”
I wrapped my arms around myself, digging my fingers into my skin.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” When I didn’t answer, he scooted closer and slid his hand up to cradle the back of my head. I kept staring down at my clothes. “Help me understand. Please?”
“Why is it so important?”
“Because I hate being angry at you. And you letting people mistreat you drives me fucking nuts.”
“Is that why you’re still avoiding me? Because I keep thinking we’re over all that and then you go back to dodging my calls. I never know where we stand anymore.”
I wasn’t sure if it was the bleakness in my tone, or the defeated way I sagged in his grip, but after another of those long hesitations, Val pulled me to his chest and encircled me in his muscular arms. Nothing like the way Brett touched me. Or anyone else for that matter.
“I’m just . . . trying to figure some things out,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on with that joker at the Lego mansion.”
“Just leave it alone, Val.”
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll find out.”
Sighing, I pressed my face against his chest and let him guide me down to the bed. There was no point arguing with Val once he set his mind to something. Better to just enjoy feeling warm and protected by the circle of his arms, and go to sleep.
Maybe he’d forget this conversation in the morning.