Juggernaut (A Strain Novel)
This title is part of the Strain universe.
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They helped destroy the world. Now they have to survive the new one.
For rentboy Nico Fernández, it’s a simple job: seduce a presidential advisor to help cement approval to launch Project Juggernaut. He’s done similar work for General Logan McClosky before, and manipulating people for his favorite client beats the hell out of being trafficked for slave wages in some corporate brothel.
Zach Houtman feels called to work with the most vulnerable outcasts of society. But his father, the Reverend Maurice Houtman, insists that Zach work for him instead as he runs for Senate. Zach reluctantly agrees, but is horrified to see his father leave behind Christ’s mandate of love and mercy to preach malicious zealotry and violence instead. Zach even starts to suspect his father is working with fundamentalist terrorists.
When Project Juggernaut accidentally unleashes a deadly plague that claims billions of lives, Nico and Zach are thrown together, each bearing a burden of guilt. With only each other for safety and solace, they must make their way through a new world, one where the handful of people left alive are willing to do anything—and kill anyone—to survive.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The rains had abated to a persistent but bearable patter that rapped against the car’s windows as it wound up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winds had died down enough that it was once again safe to venture out of doors, but the damage Hurricane Lilith had wrought on Virginia was readily apparent in the downed power lines and fallen tree branches lining the road. The Commonwealth was still tabulating the toll in both lives and dollars, but whatever it ended up being, it would be too damned much.
Of course, federal relief for the disaster would be considerably easier to get out here. The debris and damaged utilities would inconvenience politicians fleeing DC’s sweltering heat in the summer to come. Other areas smashed by the catastrophic storm would be shit out of luck.
“We’ve got about a half hour until we reach the cabin, Mr. Costas,” the driver informed Nico over his shoulder. “If you wanted some time to watch the news, you might do it now.”
Nico smiled with genuine warmth. General McClosky’s people were always friendly beyond mere professional courtesy, which wasn’t something he could say for the staff employed by some of his clients. He never got that cold, I’m looking down my nose at you but it’s not my place to say anything vibe from anyone when he had a contract with the general. And there was no question that the driver knew exactly what services “Octavio Costas” performed for McClosky; he was, after all, the one who had to clean the upholstery and air out the car whenever their contracts involved travel.
“Thank you, Darrin.”
“How’s your thesis going?” Darrin asked as Nico tucked his memory cards and projection glasses into his bag and tidied up the back of the car, where he’d been working for several hours.
“Slowly. How’s yours?”
He caught Darrin’s grimace in the rearview mirror. “Public course servers and connections were damaged in the storm,” he answered. “Everything has been offline for weeks. The only students getting any work done are the ones who can pay first-tier tuition. Apparently their servers are up and running just fine.”
Nico sighed and shook his head. Due to setbacks like this, Darrin had been working on his degree for as long as Nico had been seeing the general as a client—some six years now. Each delay meant his degree took longer, and he was paying for more terms than should have been necessary to finish it.
“I’m sorry,” Nico murmured.
Darrin shrugged. “Not your doing. It’s not like I plan to stop working for the general, anyway. Finishing it is mostly a point of pride at this point.”
Reading between the lines, it sounded to Nico like Darrin was giving up, or at least contemplating it. There was nothing he could say to that. The fact was, Nico could afford first-tier, private university tuition and all the preferential treatment it entailed, and both he and Darrin knew it.
“Anyway,” Darrin continued, “if you want to watch the news, go ahead.”
“Thanks,” he said again, and Nico raised the privacy partition. “Display,” he called. A heads-up display appeared on the partition. “Video. News. Politics,” he instructed. An image quickly came into focus on the HUD, revealing the familiar face of one of the ubiquitous Sunday-morning pundits, Daniel McNary.
“Here with us now is the Reverend Maurice Houtman, communications director for the Righteous Word Party. Reverend, with this latest wave of attacks, accusations are once again being leveled at the RWP, claiming the Righteous Action League is the terrorist arm of your party, operating with the RWP’s knowledge and cooperation. How does the RWP respond to this?”
“The same as we always have, Mr. McNary.” Even through the video screen, Houtman’s eyes burned with a zealot’s fire and the smile on his gaunt face stopped just short of smug. “The Righteous Word Party is dedicated to—”
Houtman’s diatribe—which had all the earmarks of becoming the same sort of sermon that was broadcast to millions of people every Sunday morning from Houtman Ministries mega-cathedral in Indianapolis—was overridden by the chime of a call coming in on Nico’s tablet. He pulled it from his bag and redirected the signal to the left half of the HUD, compressing Houtman’s creepy mug on the right.
“What’s up, Mom?”
“You rearranged the schedule.” On the display, Silvia Fernández’s artfully painted lips were pressed together in a tight line, her eyes narrowed with annoyance. Nico allowed himself a moment of amusement, wondering if the rest of the nation—who knew his mother as Marina Costas, owner of the wildly successful escort agency Costas Companions, outspoken advocate for sex worker rights, detractor of the corporate brothel system, and easily the most recognized madam in the western hemisphere—had ever seen her wearing any expression other than a charming smile. Certainly they’d never seen her play the role of mother hen. “Marcus was supposed to have the McClosky job tonight.”
“McClosky is my client.”
Silvia dipped her head, acknowledging the point. “For personal engagements, certainly, but this is one of his other jobs.”
“All the more reason for me to handle it.”
“Marcus has taken special jobs for Logan before.”
Nico blew out an impatient breath. “I prefer to do it myself.”
“Is there a reason you don’t want me to take this job, Mother?” he demanded sharply.
Silvia sighed. “The information Logan gave me made it seem like it wouldn’t be very pleasant. To the point where it seemed like he would rather I assign it to someone else.”
“Well, wasn’t that considerate of him?” Nico smiled softly. “I appreciate that the general was thinking of me, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s my client and we shouldn’t be distributing these special jobs to our other employees if we can avoid it. I don’t mind if it’s not the most enjoyable evening I’ve ever passed.”
Silvia’s eyes narrowed again, this time with an assessing look. “You don’t have to prove anything to Logan, you know.”
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m not in love with General McClosky.” He rolled his eyes, flicking a glance at the right side of the HUD where another talking head was heatedly countering something the Reverend Houtman had said.
“Of course not.” Silvia smiled with open amusement. “I know you’re not that foolish, and if you were, you’d never have another engagement with him again. But I do think you very much want to impress him, for whatever reason.”
Nico shrugged uncomfortably. “He’s been a good friend to me. To us. And my point remains: the fewer people we involve in these special jobs of his, the better. I’m fine doing it myself.” Nico reached for the controls on the armrest and turned up the volume on the talk show. “Are you watching McNary?” he asked, changing the subject.
On the left side of the display, he saw his mother reach for her own controls. “I am now.”
“He’s talking about the attack on the Buffalo Yes on 46 campaign office.”
Houtman was back to pontificating. “—bringing the Lord back into our system of government and overcoming the corrupting and immoral influences in our society by peaceful and legal means.”
Nico suppressed a snort. Houtman’s moral stance would be a lot more convincing if most of the funding for the RWP’s campaign against legalizing independent sex work didn’t come from the corporate brothels. For obvious reasons, enabling sex workers to operate as independent, contracted service personnel—which Costas escorts already did in states where it was legal—wasn’t a notion the brothels approved of. Because God forbid whores might work for something more than a starvation wage, operate outside of facilities that claimed most of their income in “fees” for leasing and managing their work space, schedule their appointments as though they weren’t on an assembly line, or have the right to refuse service to abusive clients.
Beside Houtman’s image on the HUD, it was Silvia’s turn to roll her eyes. “It’s all well and good for McNary to ask the question, but the RWP had too many highly placed supporters for any serious investigation of their connection to the Righteous Action League to get off the ground.”
Nico shrugged. “Someone is shunting money to the RAL, and it’s damned convenient that their targets just happen to be whoever is the subject of Houtman and the RWP’s rants du jour.”
Until last year, the league had only carried out their attacks on reproductive clinics and shelters for queer youth. Then they had branched out to hit the administrative offices for grassroots organizations trying to get sex work out of the hands of corporate brothels. Since Costas Companions was making significant contributions to those campaigns, and Silvia was acting as a spokesperson for them, this impacted Nico’s livelihood directly.
“So the RWP condemns these attacks?” McNary prompted on the display as Nico and his mother fell silent.
He smiled at the screen, letting his eyes roam over McNary’s chiseled jaw and piercing eyes. No political pundit had any business being so gorgeous. Unfortunately, according to all the rumors, he was completely devoted to his wife. Of course, many of Nico’s clientele were attached to similar rumors, but he had been to five functions at which McNary had been in attendance and he’d never gotten so much as a lingering glance from the guy.
McNary was also damned good at not letting people on his show off the hook when their responses reeked of bullshit, which made him a veritable treasure among pundits, as well as Nico’s favorite fix for his political-talk-show addiction.
Idly checking his immaculate trousers for lint or wrinkles, Nico flicked his gaze to the display as the reverend tilted his head in a half shrug, his expression obnoxiously complacent. “The RWP is in no way complicit in these attacks, nor do we know who the perpetrators are.”
“Sure you don’t,” Nico muttered, and the corner of Silvia’s mouth lifted.
“It doesn’t matter what they say, mijo,” she murmured. “Momentum is on our side. People can overlook the human rights abuses in the retail and industrial sectors, but once you add in the element of sex work, that brand of wage slavery becomes human trafficking, and that’s a lot harder to ignore.”
Nico chuckled. “That’s nice. Was that from the speech you gave at the last Yes on 46 fundraiser?”
“Paraphrased,” Silvia said with a blithe wave of her hand. “The point stands.”
Yes, the point stood. Getting corporate brothels legalized some fifty years ago had been an easy sell; they’d campaigned on a public health and safety platform, claiming it would reduce crime and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. But the more the brothels began operating like the industrial tenements, the more obvious the human rights abuses in the whole system became. The sex element got people’s attention like nothing else did, which made it harder for the brothels to resist grassroots efforts to legalize independent sex work. That was why most of the arguing against legalization efforts was coming from religious fundamentalists like Houtman, quietly backed by the brothels. And now, apparently, the extremist terrorist groups were getting in on the act.
“How is security at the fundraisers you’ve been doing?” Nico asked with a frown. “Do you think they could—”
“Not likely.” Silvia shook her head. “We’ve got the entertainment industry taking our part. Too many notable names at those events. They wouldn’t dare.”
That was true. Attending awards ceremonies and opening nights with a Costas Companions escort on one’s arm had become a status symbol, a way for cinema, televid, and music bigwigs to revel in being shocking and controversial. Some flaunted the fact that they were hiring a rentboy or call girl for the evening, while others truly appreciated the services Costas Companions offered beside the obvious. His mother’s contractors were trained to provide far more than just a sexual experience.
Nico was about to caution his mother to be careful of her security anyway when something Houtman was bloviating about on the HUD caught his attention.
“—Nevertheless, it must be said that one need only look at the targets to discern the hand of God behind the tragedies. The United States has become a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. The more corrupt and dissolute we become as a society, the more often we will see the Lord allowing His servants to smite the wicked in His name . . .”
Nico’s jaw slowly dropped. “Oh my God. Did he just . . .?”
Zach choked, coughing as he stared in disbelief at the video monitor. He frantically looked down at the computerized notepad of talking points they had gone over before the broadcast. The reverend was off script. As usual.
A headache began to throb in Zach’s temples, and his stomach started to burn. Fumbling, he tucked the notepad under his arm and dug into his inner breast pocket, withdrawing a prescription bottle. He stuck one of the quick-dissolve tablets under his tongue and resumed perusing his notepad, waiting for the pain to ease before he put the bottle away. By then, his father had doubled down on his hardline rhetoric, prompting Dan McNary to call for a commercial break, ending the reverend’s segment.
Zach produced a handkerchief, holding it out before his father arrived at his side. The reverend dabbed his sweating brow, and Zach saw the disgruntled look in his peripheral vision.
“Look up and greet me properly, Zacharias. Don’t just fling a rag at me like you can’t be bothered.”
“Sorry, sir.” Zach lifted his gaze from the notepad and fixed it on his father. “I was just checking our notes. You veered off the talking points.”
The reverend spared an indolent shrug. “The audience wants to hear something exciting, something that will get them charged about the message we’re putting out.”
“By ‘the audience’ you mean ‘the voters,’ don’t you, sir?” Zach shook his head, accepting the now-damp handkerchief back and tucking it into his pocket. “Yes, I’m sure people will get plenty excited over the implication that God is working through terrorists. If you’re serious about running for Senator Davis’s seat, those are not the sort of quotes you should be making headlines with.”
His father gave him a repressive look. “The people want God back in our government, Zacharias. That means they need to see His hand, active among us, and know that He will not abide the current, immoral status quo.”
Zach’s headache renewed and stabbed at him again, like an ice pick drilling into his eye. His vision blurred, making his father swim before his eyes. He wanted to get out of this studio and get home to his dark, quiet bedroom.
“I can guarantee you, no one is going to vote for a man who claims innocent people died because God decided to use terrorists to smite them.”
The reverend scowled. “The targets of those attacks were not innocents.”
Zach hung his head. Why did he bother? There had once been a time when his father would listen and heed the voice of moderate reason, a time when the message he preached from his pulpit had been about God’s love and mercy, but since he’d helped found the Righteous Word Party, those occasions were becoming increasingly rare. Now his sermons were about God’s wrath bringing down the wicked.
“They were a cancer in our society, corrupting us, and it needed to be destroyed,” the reverend continued. “I won’t compromise my beliefs to get votes. If the people can’t handle God’s truth, if they are happy with a government that sanctions the fornicators and sodomites and idolaters, then they’re not going to vote for me anyway.”
“God’s truth includes ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘love thy neighbor,’ and ‘vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ When does the voting public get to hear that truth?”
“It also says ‘honor thy father,’” came a sneering voice behind him before the reverend could spit out the blistering retort twisting its way to his lips. “Or are we ignoring that commandment today?”
Zach turned to see his little brother standing there with a smug smile. Jacob was seventeen, the youngest of Maurice Houtman’s five children, and as such, Zach knew his brother had a tendency to feel shorted and overlooked. Unfortunately, he also had a habit of trying to offset that feeling by currying favor with their father. Or so Zach carefully reminded himself when he grasped for the love he was supposed to feel for all God’s children, especially his little brother. In his less charitable moments, though, he was inclined to accuse Jacob of being a suck-ass. It had become worse since their father’s dogma began to take on more shades of fire and brimstone, too.
Zach forced himself to smile. “Of course not,” Zach conceded. Locking horns with Jacob was just as futile as trying to sway his father, and it certainly wouldn’t help get rid of his headache, so he kept that bland smile pasted on and turned to retrieve the reverend’s coat.
Still aghast at the Reverend Houtman’s faux pas on the McNary show, Nico ended the call with his mother and idly skimmed from one broadcast to the next for the remainder of the drive.
“. . . I think we need to look at the economic conditions that led to these efforts to begin with, Michael. The tenements operate like the mining camps of the late-nineteenth century before unionization forced reform. Employees amount to little more than feudal serfs serving at the mercy of their corporate overlords . . .”
He was about to change the channel again when Darrin called back to him over the intercom, interrupting the congresswoman’s rant. “We’re almost to the cabin, Mr. Costas.”
“Thank you, Darrin.” He smiled and sat up straighter, smoothing his hair and then the fine wool of his suit coat. He switched off the HUD, popped a mint into his mouth, and shifted into the rear-facing seat of the limousine.
The car decelerated with a soft whine and turned off the two-lane mountain highway onto a long, wooded driveway. Five minutes after that, they came to a stop before a cozy, rustic-looking cabin. Nico remained seated as Darrin parked and got out of the car to ring the doorbell. He waited patiently for nearly another ten minutes before a broad-shouldered man with graying black hair opened the door. Darrin escorted him to the limousine and opened the door, then returned to the cabin and emerged with a suitcase, which he stashed in the trunk while McClosky slid into the seat opposite Nico and closed the door.
“Nicolás. It’s good to see you.” A warm smile split the general’s ageless face, and Nico ducked his head at the reminder that this man—the first and favorite of his clients—had known him long before he’d adopted the professional pseudonym Octavio Costas. To the general, he was still Nicolás Fernández.
“It’s always a pleasure, General,” Nico replied with complete sincerity.
“You know you can call me Logan.” As General McClosky looked Nico up and down, Darrin returned to the wheel and pulled the car away from the cabin.
“It wouldn’t feel right, sir.” Nico’s formality in no way diminished his fondness for the general; any more casual form of address just rubbed at his nerves, chafing.
The general gave him a fond look. “Thank you for coming out all this way to meet with me. I wasn’t going to have time, otherwise.”
“I didn’t mind the ride at all. It was relaxing.”
“Still working hard on your thesis?”
“Yes, though, I think I’ll be done with it before the holidays. But of course, my schedule is usually booked fairly tight with clients, so finding time for something other than school or work can be a challenge. A nice afternoon drive in the mountains is a refreshing change of pace.”
McClosky favored him with another warm smile. “And how is Silvia?”
“Devoted to you, as always, sir.” Nico grinned, settling back against the soft leather. “She sends her regards and hopes you’ll be able to come by and see her sometime soon. She also asked me to assure you that the usual precautions to make the transaction untraceable are all in place.”
“Excellent. I might be able to arrange a visit sometime next month. Worst-case scenario, I definitely wouldn’t miss her midsummer celebration.” McClosky reached for his briefcase and pulled it into his lap, popping it open. He withdrew a memory card and handed it to Nico. “This is the man. You’ll find all the information you need and a picture so you’ll be able to spot him. He’ll be staying at the hotel after the convention tonight, and he’ll be in the bar looking for companionship. All you need to do is make sure he has a smile on his face in the morning for our meeting with the joint chiefs. I very much need this recommendation to go my way.”
“And should subtle hints and pleasing smiles not work?” Nico’s hand drifted almost unconsciously to the vial of oil in his pocket.
“You have my permission to use whatever means are at your disposal.” McClosky knew exactly what was in that vial. Hell, he’d provided it specifically for occasions such as this.
Nico took his HUD glasses from his bag and put them on, then slotted the card into them and fell silent, perusing the file. His intended mark looked like an appealing enough man. He’d certainly entertained far less attractive clients. He ejected the card and handed it back to McClosky, folding and putting away the glasses. “As usual, I can’t guarantee his vote, or recommendation, or whatever you’re after from him, but I can certainly guarantee he’ll have a smile on his face and he’ll be feeling reasonably amenable.”
“I have every confidence in your abilities.” The general nodded and relaxed in his seat, his knees parting. Nico slid out of his coat and laid it on the seat beside him before slipping to his knees on the floor of the limousine. McClosky reached out to stroke the side of Nico’s face as Nico reached for the fly of his uniform. “It’s been too long, my boy.”
“It’s always a pleasure, sir,” Nico repeated, smiling, and dipped his head to suck the general deep into his mouth.
He’d lost track of the number of people—male, female, and all points in between—he’d pleasured, but McClosky would always stand out from the masses. When Nico had declared his intention to work for his mother’s escort agency once he turned eighteen, Silvia’s first order of business had been to hire one of her best rentboys to tutor him. Then, for his first job, she’d booked Nico for a week with McClosky. That engagement had been something of a graduation, and it had taught Nico more than six months with his “tutor” had.
He supposed he would be in love with the general if he were idiotic enough to fall in love with anyone at this point in his life and career. There was an edge of danger to McClosky, despite the fact that he was always very proper and courteous outside the bedroom. Nico suspected that people who dealt with McClosky on a daily basis would say he was not a good man, that he was firmly convinced that the ends justified the means, but moral ambiguity had a certain appeal.
Pushing all that aside, Nico refocused his attention on the cock in his mouth, on the general’s groans, taking him deeper, working him with tongue and lips and throat, using every bit of skill he’d acquired since that first week-long engagement. McClosky shuddered and came down Nico’s throat. Nico rocked back on his heels, smiling as he wiped the corner of his mouth. McClosky’s fingers gently petted his hair, and Nico closed his eyes in pleasure at the touch. He wondered if the general noticed he was doing it.
“Will you be going straight to your town house in Arlington, sir?”
McClosky nodded, tucking himself away and fastening his trousers before he dug through his briefcase for a tablet and his own HUD glasses to plug into it. “Yes. Though, of course, you’re welcome to have Darrin drive you into DC if you need.”
Nico discreetly pressed his own unattended cock into a more comfortable position in his trousers and moved back into his seat. Clearly McClosky had too much going on to make this more of a mutual encounter, and Nico wasn’t here for McClosky’s pleasure this time, anyway. The blowjob had simply been a freebie. “Thank you, sir, but I’ll take my own car. I know it’s not likely anyone will notice me stepping out of the limousine and trace it back to you, but why take the chance?”
“Very well. If the secretary doesn’t attend to your accommodations tonight, take a room and add it to my bill.”
Nico contained a frown. He’d really hoped the general might invite him back to his house after he’d done his job. “As you wish, sir.”
One corner of McClosky’s mouth tipped up, and his eyes passed over Nico slowly from behind the projection goggles. “Will you be heading back to Princeton in the morning?”
“I have no reason to remain in DC, but I certainly have the availability. You told my mother that the secretary can be a little rude when he plays with his toys, so I don’t have any clients scheduled for a few days.”
“I told her that in the hopes that she would send someone else for the job. I wouldn’t want to see you hurt.”
Nico licked his lips, smiling slowly. “I don’t mind some wear and tear. You taught me to enjoy that, if you recall. Though, it has been a while. I find I rather miss it.”
“Well, then, I hope the job doesn’t disappoint.” The general’s eyes darkened, his nostrils flaring slightly. “But just in case, come back to the Arlington house after you check out tomorrow. There’s no reason you can’t stay there a few days to recuperate. I’ll leave instructions with Peter to let you in if I’m not home yet.”
A tingly surge of anticipation seized Nico’s nuts and squeezed gently. His ass clenched almost greedily as his hands gripped his knees. “Like I said, it’s always a pleasure, sir.”
Having dinner guests had become a nearly nightly event since the reverend had thrown his hat into the political ring. Strategists, consultants, fund-raisers, and donors all seemed to converge upon the Houtman’s Indiana home, an overdone—to Zach’s eye, at least—mansion in the country, surrounded by corn and soy fields. They all seemed to have an agenda, and very little of that agenda appeared to have anything to do with the Lord. His father assured him that their motivations were irrelevant, but Zach couldn’t accept that God’s work was being done by people whose only interest was earthly power and wealth.
Not for the first time, Zach wished he’d stuck to his guns and gone to seminary. But by the time he was getting ready to choose his major in college, his father had been laying the groundwork for establishing the Righteous Word Party and moving Houtman Ministries into the political arena. The reverend had insisted that Zach could do far more good studying political science and marketing, working as an aide and adviser to the RWP than he could as a pastor. It hadn’t been the work Zach felt called to by God; he’d wanted his own ministry, perhaps do some missionary work in the tenements or inner cities. But the reverend had been relentless. He’d painted a rosy picture of Zach shaping a movement to redirect the government toward principles according to Christ’s teachings, principles of charity and compassion. The actual party line had been quite a disappointment.
Zach would be expected at dinner. He wasn’t sure why his father insisted on it, since his input as one of the RWP’s political advisors—which was his official title, though more often than not he just held the reverend’s notes—was uniformly disregarded.
With a reluctant sigh, Zach concluded a brief, silent prayer for patience, a necessity before these dinners. Then he adjusted his tie, straightened his glasses, and made his way toward the den where his father’s colleagues were enjoying a drink.
“. . . instant polling shows a strong response to your appearance on McNary’s show this morning,” said George Welshman, a media consultant so greasy Zach needed a shower after shaking the man’s hand. Welshman had no principles, much less anything as powerful as ethics or morals. All that mattered was winning and getting his consulting fee. If Zach truly had the influence his father had promised him, firing Welshman was the first thing he’d do.
“It’s as I’ve been saying all along,” he continued. “The harder you come out swinging, the more impact you’re going to make. Building momentum right now is crucial.”
“That all depends on the kind of impact you want to make,” Zach replied, coming to a stop in the doorway. He felt his father fix him with a narrow-eyed look for interrupting, much less contradicting, the consultant, but he refused to meet it. “What sort of momentum is a negative impression truly going to build?”
Welshman waved the question off with a negligent flap of his hand. “Doesn’t matter. At this point we’re after brand recognition. Maurice could go on the talk shows promising drugs and orgies for everyone who votes for him and it wouldn’t matter what he said so long as the voters remembered his name once he declares his candidacy.”
A low chuckle rumbled from across the room, and Zach’s stomach twisted. Jacob was sitting next to their father, practically beaming at being admitted to the inner circle. The avarice in his smile made Zach uneasy, as always. He’d tried for years to reach out to Jacob, tried to counter that sense of entitlement and superiority and model humility and compassion for his younger brother. But Jacob’s spite was just too strong, and Zach didn’t have the energy to be the voice of reason in his father’s campaign and be continually rebuffed by his brother.
“We need to keep hammering this prostitution business,” another voice added. Zach glanced over to see Bishop Karl Craven nursing a tumbler of whiskey. “The liberal media is determined to make a tragedy out of those bombings. We need to focus people on the positive side of these acts.”
“Positive side?” Zach blinked incredulously. “I wasn’t aware there was a positive side to wanton slaughter.”
The bishop’s mouth pulled into a tight, disapproving line. “The targets of those bombings were panderers and whores.”
“Yes, they were, but when Christ came upon the adulteress about to be killed, He invited anyone without sin to cast the first stone. He told her to go forth and sin no more. He didn’t tell His apostles to firebomb her home.”
His father’s gaze bore down on him, making his chest tighten. Sweat beaded on his forehead, but he refused the silent command to back off.
Jacob jumped in before the reverend had a chance to dress Zach down. “No one wants to see God as some toothless old geezer who lets sinners traipse off with only a stern lecture.”
Zach smiled tightly. “I’m fairly certain that only applies to children who have inflated ideas of their own self-importance.”
A ruddy flush darkened Jacob’s acne-marked cheeks. A rash retort twisted his lips, but their father laid a hand on his arm before he found his voice.
“Enough, boys.” He stood and gave them each a quelling look, the fury in his pale blue-gray eyes carefully masked until his back was to the room. His voice was perfectly modulated, just the right tone for patronizing affection. “Despite his blasphemous phrasing, Jacob is making much the same point I made to you earlier, Zacharias. Clearly you’ve been working too hard lately and the stress is beginning to tell. We can do without you at dinner tonight. Why don’t you go check in on your youth group, see how they’re managing since you retired?”
Being summarily dismissed was as infuriating as being required to attend in the first place. Having the reverend use his youth group as an excuse to get rid of him—the same youth group he’d made Zach sacrifice to free up more time to work on the campaign—was the final insult. Zach glowered at his father for a moment before he spun on his heel and strode from the den and toward the front hall.
“I’m going downtown,” he threw over his shoulder. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be helping out at the Center Street Shelter.”
Predators and Prey
Secretary Littlewood was unfortunately named. It also didn’t describe his physical stature very accurately. It remained to be seen whether the name was apt in other regards or not.
What Littlewood was not—at first glance, at least—was the brute the general had led Nico to believe he was. He seemed a quiet yet charismatic man, cautious when Nico started chatting him up. But there was something lurking in his eyes, a predatory gleam, avid and hungry. Held in check but definitely there.
He was also sending out so many mixed signals that even Nico, who was adept at reading physical cues and the subtext beneath the banter, was bewildered. The general’s dossier had said Littlewood would be seeking companionship, and he certainly looked keen whenever Nico caught the secretary studying him, but the more amenable to passing time Nico let himself appear, the less interested Littlewood became.
“I guess I’m just in the mood for an adventure,” Nico remarked, trawling out careful bait when the opportunity arose over their second drink.
Littlewood cleared his throat, his eyes darting to the side as if concerned someone might be listening in. “What kind of adventure?”
Nico looked down at his glass, flicking a few rapid glances at Littlewood without meeting his eyes. It would come off as covert admiration while Nico surreptitiously assessed the secretary. This was where he’d normally come right out and tell a client he was perfectly amenable to being held down and pounded into the mattress, maybe even bruised and welted a little, but the vibe he was getting warned him against it. If he came on that strong, Littlewood would walk away, he was sure of it.
“Oh well.” Nico shrugged awkwardly, as if making a shy admission. “You know, something . . . maybe a little unusual. Possibly even dangerous.”
“Oh.” The secretary’s mouth tightened, and he tipped back his whiskey, giving Nico an irritated look. “I’m not interested in that.”
Nico blinked. Was Littlewood ashamed of his predilections? But no, that didn’t track, either. Nico was used to smoothing the way for clients who were embarrassed to admit what they truly wanted. Hell, he was good at it. The key was putting them at ease with it, making them feel like it was all normal and that Nico wouldn’t be repulsed by anything they requested of him. But any attempt Nico made in that direction with Littlewood had the opposite effect. He didn’t like Nico being comfortable and open-minded and unapologetic.
He accepted his third glass of wine, his other hand lightly brushing Littlewood’s knee. Perhaps the secretary didn’t know how such games could be played with the consent and satisfaction of all involved. But Littlewood didn’t come across as that naive. He hadn’t seemed confused by Nico’s hints, but rather, annoyed. That hungry look in his eye was being replaced with disinterest. In fact, the more worldly Nico acted, the less engaged Littlewood became.
What was his kink? Did he want an ingenue? Someone he could instruct? A virgin? Someone maybe a little reluctant that he could “convince” to play his game?
“That? You mean— Oh no, not that.” Nico laughed lightly, pushing on Littlewood’s knee as though the secretary was joking with him. He couldn’t quite manage a blush, but he ducked his head to convey embarrassment. Maybe even inexperience. “Not anything, you know, perverted. Just . . . exciting. Out of the ordinary. I’m making a fool of myself, sorry. I, um, don’t usually do this.”
There. That did it. The interest was back and stronger than ever. He looked at Nico like he wanted to devour him. Instead of satisfying Nico that he was finally on the right track, though, his nerves started jangling with unease. Suddenly he didn’t feel safe, and that hungry look in Littlewood’s eye was far less sexy than it should have been with Nico’s admitted penchant for alpha males. His smile wobbled, and Littlewood’s eyes grew darker in response to that hint of fear. Something wasn’t right; all his instincts were screaming at him, telling him to be careful. And Nico’s mother and tutor had hammered into him the importance of listening to those instincts.
Littlewood liked it rough, but he didn’t want Nico to like it rough?
Everything fell into place, and a shiver ran through him.
Littlewood wanted someone innocent and unworldly, someone shy and easily embarrassed, someone with no taste for rough play, so that he could—what?—force it on them?
Oh. Oh shit.
The general’s dossier hadn’t prepared Nico for this.
One of the first things he had learned when he’d started training to work for Costas Companions was spotting the warning signs of a potentially violent or abusive client. It was standard training for all his mother’s employees: how to avoid dangerous situations before they became dangerous. That was what had him alert. If Nico was right, he was looking at a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a true predator beneath that understated demeanor. Possibly even a criminal predator who hadn’t yet been caught, or against whom charges never managed to stick. A white man with enough money could get away with everything up to and including murder, especially if the victim was brown. A charge brought by a Latino rentboy would be laughed out of court if Littlewood had the money to hire a half-decent attorney.
No self-respecting practitioner of the arts of pain and dominance would have anything to do with this man. Littlewood’s desires had nothing to do with games of mutual pleasure agreed to by both parties. He wanted to hurt Nico, and he didn’t want Nico to enjoy it. He didn’t even want Nico’s consent.
Nico swallowed hard, draining his glass faster than he’d intended. Had McClosky known about this? That Littlewood was so dangerous? No, surely not. He would never have sent Nico here if he had. Would he?
With an uncertain smile that Littlewood lapped up, Nico turned away under the pretense of ordering another drink, his mind racing. He should get out of here. His mother would kill whatever Littlewood left of him for carrying through with the job knowing what the secretary was. She’d refund General McClosky and that would be the end of it.
But then McClosky would be left without the recommendation he needed, and Nico desperately didn’t want to disappoint him.
Nico made a show of craning his neck, stretching out the sudden tension while looking for the waiter. Anything to avoid that predator’s gaze Littlewood had fixed on him, while he quickly weighed his options.
Okay. Littlewood wouldn’t kill him. He likely wouldn’t even injure him seriously. He just wanted to force something unpleasant upon Nico against his will. But . . . the secretary was hesitant about that desire. Did he feel guilty, perhaps? No. That didn’t ring true. More likely, he was afraid of being caught and charged. Or even just exposed. He knew he should lay low, but hurting others was a compulsion for him. He had to have it.
Someday he could be truly dangerous if he had nothing to lose by cutting loose. But right now he had other forces keeping him in check.
That’s what Nico needed to use to his advantage.
He turned a self-conscious smile on Littlewood. “Oh God. I was so hungry and tired and stressed out when I got to the hotel that I forgot to check in. Would you mind waiting here for a moment while I take care of that?” If he was going to do this rather than call the whole thing off, he needed to get the secretary alone in a space he controlled.
“How long are you here? Do you live with parents? Roommates?” Littlewood asked. His smile was attractive, even a little charming now that he thought Nico was what he wanted. But there was something sinister under the question. What Littlewood might very well really be asking was when he was expected elsewhere, who might notice if he was hurt or scared or showed up late and worse for wear. Did Nico have anyone to look after him, and how much trouble could they make for Littlewood?
“My plane doesn’t leave until late tomorrow morning. I’m heading home to see my parents.”
Nico watched the secretary do the math. Jesus, he was scary now that Nico could see how much of what was going on behind his eyes was a cold calculation of the amount of hurt he could inflict, and for how long, without risking anything.
“You didn’t say what brought you to DC, did you?” Littlewood ventured, and Nico had to stop himself from squinting as he tried to figure out the point to the question. Leverage, maybe? Looking for something he could use to coerce Nico into not making any waves for him?
“Oh, right! I’m here for a job interview. I graduate in the winter, and I might have something lined up. But gosh, you know, DC . . . Being raised in upstate New York never prepared me for living here!” He chuckled and ducked his head shyly, playing it just right. Harmless enough to keep Littlewood on the hook, but with enough of a hypothetical support network to keep him from getting reckless with whatever he had planned. “Stupid, huh? I was trying to impress you, acting like I was all sophisticated. I should have known better.”
“That’s fine. You don’t need to impress me. You’re charming just the way you are. Very sweet.” Littlewood’s indulgent smile made a cold knot of fear settle in Nico’s stomach. The hungry look in his eyes flared into something downright voracious.
Nico stomped the urge to get the hell out of there under his heel and continued playing the innocent. “So, would you mind excusing me for a moment? I’ll get checked in and then . . . I don’t know, would you like to . . . maybe . . .”
“Come up to your room?” Littlewood lifted a smug eyebrow, amused and magnanimous. Of course, the idea of having a naive target was even more appealing than the idea of having a street-smart one. “I’d like that very much.”
“All right.” Nico bit his lip, feigning the nervous habit that he’d long ago broken. “Just give me a few minutes? I’ll be right back.”
Fuck, his mother was going to kill him when she found out he was playing this close to the edge. He’d be lucky if she didn’t fire his ass. But he wasn’t about to let McClosky down. He couldn’t.
He quickly checked into a room, charging it to his personal account rather than the Costas corporate one—he’d still bill McClosky for it, but he didn’t want it directly traceable back to the general or Costas Companions—and sent his small bag up with a bellhop before rushing back to the bar.
“Done!” he declared, looking breathless and hoping the flush from scurrying would make him seem excited rather than afraid.
Littlewood unfolded himself from his chair and rose, reaching to hook one hand around Nico’s hip and tug him closer. Playing it like a seduction. “Good. Let’s go, then.”
The whiskey on his breath as his lips brushed Nico’s face smelled rich and heady, which was horrifying because it seemed like he should be foul in all ways. The only thing that made him appalling was the knowledge of what he was.
Whatever Littlewood was being cautious about, being seen with another man wasn’t it. The elevator doors had no sooner closed behind them than the secretary pushed Nico face-first against the wall, gripping his ass hard, gnawing on his neck. Not quite enough to be painful, but if this was the starting line, Nico knew he was in for some hurt.
It wasn’t hard to come across as nervous, though he tried to play it off as shy. “Wait. What if someone else gets on the elevator?”
“So what?” Littlewood grunted. “I thought you wanted something exciting. Different.”
“I know, but . . .”
“Just shut up and go with it. I know what to do with you.”
Nico swallowed hard and closed his eyes, his forehead pressed against the cool metal wall of the elevator. The nipping at his neck was replaced by suction. Not pleasant, teasing suction, but hard and merciless, leaving what Nico knew would be a vivid mark on his skin. Branding him.
He had no expectations that he would enjoy what was going to happen once they reached Nico’s room. Yes, he could take pleasure in some rough play, but this wasn’t that. On Littlewood’s part, at least, it was entirely real, an act of violence and corruption, and even if Nico did like his sex that edgy—which he didn’t—knowing it wasn’t a game for Littlewood was enough to strip any potential for pleasure from it and just creep him right the fuck out.
He’d had clients who hadn’t bothered with his enjoyment before. He’d had clients who had been rough and hurt him before. But it had all been negotiated in advance, part of the fee, with boundaries firmly established. His mother insisted on it for all their clients, citing the abuses of the brothels as her rationale for conducting business differently. A couple of clients had wanted to renegotiate on the fly, but Nico had shut that down quickly—per her rules—and anyone who had tried to press the matter beyond that had ended up watching Nico walk out the door and hadn’t had their money refunded, as stipulated by their contract.
But that wasn’t what Littlewood wanted. He didn’t want a playmate, or a toy, or a masochist, or a submissive.
He wanted a victim.
Nico’s hand shook as he fumbled with his card, trying to swipe it past the scanner. He got it on the third try and opened the door, turning on the light as he stepped inside.
“I have a diffuser,” he stammered, playing his near-virgin role to the hilt for the secretary’s benefit. “You mind a little cannabis oil?”
“If you wish.” Littlewood smiled. Nico knew that idea would appeal to him. It had been nearly seventy years since marijuana was legalized across the nation. Sonic diffusers had become a popular means of getting the effects of THC. And anything that could lower Nico’s guard and weaken his ability to fight back would appeal to Littlewood.
What the secretary didn’t have to know was that the oil was laced with a drug that wasn’t even remotely legal. Officially, it didn’t even exist. McClosky had entrusted it to Nico and his mother for times when he needed an intended mark to be particularly suggestible. After plugging in the diffuser, Nico slid a data card into the entertainment unit and turned on some low music, playing off the puttering as nervous dithering. Nico had programmed the playlist that afternoon, layering a subliminal message under the songs that extolled the virtues and benefits of McClosky’s new project, Juggernaut. Nico had no idea what it was, but it didn’t matter; that was McClosky’s business. His job was getting Littlewood on board with it.
And the opportunity didn’t get much better than this. The secretary was so focused on the assault he had planned for his victim, he’d never even suspect he was being influenced.
“That’s enough.” A harsh note of cruelty crept into Littlewood’s voice now that they had privacy. His eye was on the prize, and the predator was beginning to emerge from behind that unassuming facade. “Take off your clothes.”
Nico affected a pout, then shrugged and began stripping. “Jeez, that’s not very romantic.” From beneath his lashes, he watched Littlewood’s eyes narrow dangerously. The secretary jerked his tie from his collar and tossed it, along with his coat, on the bed. He pulled his belt out of the loops and ran it almost lovingly through his hand before dropping it on the bed too. He began unbuttoning his shirt, revealing a chest that looked like it had a substantial slab of muscle underlying an inconsequential layer of middle-aged paunch. It was enough to make Nico’s lithe twink’s physique seem fragile in comparison.
When Nico was down to his minuscule briefs, he stepped closer to Littlewood with a flirty smile, hoping the fear he knew showed in his eyes would come across as inexperience and nerves. “I, um, I haven’t done this much,” he murmured, ducking his head. “What do you . . . What would you like?”
Littlewood grabbed Nico by the arm and shoulder, and tried forcing him to his knees. “I want you to suck my dick.”
“Ow! Not so rough!” Nico tried to jerk away, making a display of his wince when Littlewood’s grip tightened. He half wished Littlewood would react angrily. It would be comforting to see some sign of human emotion, but the secretary’s eyes were reptile cold.
One hand released Nico, the other still digging in hard enough to leave bruises on Nico’s russet skin, and Littlewood backhanded him almost casually. Nico didn’t have to feign the cry of surprise or pain. He would have fallen against the bed if not for the grip on his arm.
“Shut up and do it.” Littlewood took advantage of Nico’s momentary disorientation to drive him to his knees, jerking his fly open and shoving his trousers and underwear down with one hand.
Shit. The name wasn’t apt. Not at all. It would be worse than Nico had anticipated. For a moment, he considered calling the whole thing off, incapacitating Littlewood, and getting the hell out of that room. Only the fact that the job was for McClosky kept Nico from sweeping the secretary’s legs out from under him, breaking his kneecaps, and running away.
Littlewood wouldn’t kill or maim him, he told himself, fighting back the panic and drive for self-preservation. McClosky wouldn’t send him into a situation that dangerous. Anything else was endurable—as long as he chose to endure it—and no matter what Littlewood thought, Nico was choosing this, however little pleasure he might take in it.
Littlewood’s cock jabbed at Nico’s mouth. “Suck it.”
“No—” Nico began to shake his head, but the secretary grabbed a handful of his hair, yanking hard. Nico cried out in pain, and Littlewood took the opportunity to ram his dick down Nico’s throat. He didn’t even have time to suppress his gag reflex.
“That’s right, you bitch, choke on it.” Holding Nico by the hair, Littlewood began to pump his hips, fucking into Nico’s mouth as reflexive tears streamed down Nico’s face with each barely suppressed effort his gorge made to rise. Time ceased to mean anything, each instant drawing out into an eternity as Nico wondered if he’d critically, maybe even fatally, underestimated Littlewood. His battered throat convulsed around the secretary’s cock as he gave one last brutal thrust and came with a groan. He jerked out almost immediately and let Nico collapse to the floor, coughing and gagging and trying desperately not to retch.
Littlewood panted feral breaths, his fists clenching at his sides. Nico cringed, forgetting everything he knew about self-defense for that vulnerable instant. He wondered if Littlewood was going to beat him.
He lay there longer than he actually needed to, trying to collect his thoughts and strategize. He heard the soft music in the background under the rushing of his own pulse in his ears. He could smell the pungent cannabis oil as the diffuser vibrated molecules of it into the air. The longer he kept Littlewood in this room, the greater his suggestibility would be.
He had to keep Littlewood distracted while the oil and recording did their work. If McClosky wanted Littlewood smiling and content when he went to their meeting in the morning, Nico was in for a long night.
Coughing against the slime of cum that still coated his throat, Nico rolled to his knees and pushed to his feet.
“What the hell?” he protested. “You didn’t need to do that. I would have gone down on you. You didn’t need to—”
Another careless backhand sent Nico sprawling back on the bed. Littlewood straddled him, pinning him down before Nico had a chance to do anything more than roll onto his back.
“How many times do I have to tell you to shut up?” the secretary snarled, his hand clamping around the front of Nico’s throat, cutting off his air. Terror screeched through Nico, and he began to thrash desperately. “You say another word, you even think of screaming, and I’ll wring your neck, got it?”
Frantically, Nico nodded, and Littlewood released the grip on his throat just as black spots began to speckle his vision. He snuck in a breath before Littlewood stuffed his discarded tie in Nico’s mouth. The secretary seized Nico’s wrists in one large hand, stretching them out above his head, then grabbed the belt and wrapped it around his wrists, cinching it until his fingers went numb.
“Don’t fucking move,” Littlewood growled, and set his teeth in Nico’s shoulder.
With the end of the belt pulled taut and the secretary’s weight pinning him down, Nico was helpless to fight as those gripping teeth sought a handle on his flesh over and over. He didn’t break the skin, thank God, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t agony. Nico screamed around the wad of silk in his mouth, thrashing to the full extent of his limited mobility as more and more hot, throbbing rings of pain ignited on his neck, shoulders, arms, and chest. Even now, Littlewood hadn’t done anything that Nico wouldn’t have allowed for fun in other circumstances, or under negotiated terms with another client, but knowing what Littlewood was, what his intentions were, made it something else, something entirely horrific.
He found himself trying to mentally escape it by focusing on other matters. Shit. He was going to have to cancel his clients for at least a full week with as bruised as he was going to be. How long could he hide out of his mother’s sight so she wouldn’t know the extent of the situation he’d deliberately placed himself in?
Damn you, McClosky. This had better fucking be worth it.
It would help if he could dissociate totally. Detach his mind from the ordeal, let his body’s own pain-dampening responses kick in, and let go, but he didn’t dare. Littlewood was too dangerous to relinquish control to him like that. When there wasn’t a single inch of flesh showing above Nico’s waist that didn’t burn and ache from the biting, Littlewood flipped Nico onto his stomach and began work on his back.
Nico didn’t have to feign the tears. They dripped into his nasal passages, clogging his already compromised breathing. He choked on them each time Littlewood seized him by the back of the head and ground his face into the pillows, muttering all the painful things he’d do to Nico if he so much as hinted at fighting or crying for help. Nico fought against the surges of panic that kept trying to rise, telling him—not inaccurately—that he was in danger. He tried to convince himself that he was in control of this, that he had chosen it of his own free will for a reason. He would be fine when it was over, but the animal drive for survival and safety was having none of it.
The drug-laced oil was affecting him as well, heightening his own suggestibility. He hadn’t considered that before, hadn’t realized just how merciless and violent Littlewood would turn out to be and what the ramifications of that combo were. No doubt that was why he was having a hard time remembering that Littlewood wouldn’t actually kill him. All the secretary’s threats and insults were going to take root and fuck over Nico’s psyche for ages if he didn’t do something to overwrite them. The last thing he needed was to go all post-traumatic every time he entertained a client. He tried to block out the secretary’s vicious words and shouted a mantra in his own mind.
I’m safe. I’m in control. I’m no one’s victim. Nothing happens to me that I don’t choose. I’m safe. I’m in control . . .
The mantra screeched to a halt when Littlewood jabbed two thick fingers inside his dry ass, a jagged edge on one of the nails scratching his sensitive tissue.
Nico’s panicked thrashing resumed, more violent than ever, as Littlewood sawed those fingers in and out. He wasn’t trying to prepare Nico. No. This was just to add another layer of pain. No matter how knowingly he’d gone into the situation, he was not going to be able to endure it if Littlewood fucked him without lube, especially if he was already abraded from the rough fingering. He kept struggling until the secretary ground his face into the pillow again and he nearly lost consciousness. He was still clearing the oxygen-deprived fog from his brain when Littlewood dragged him up to his knees and attempted to drive his dick into Nico’s dry, aching hole.
I’m no one’s victim. Nothing happens to me that I don’t choose. I’m safe . . .
Eventually, Littlewood grunted with discomfort and gave up the agonizing struggle to force his oversized cock into Nico. He spat into his palm, rubbing it along his length before trying to shove it inside Nico again.
Nico wasn’t sure if he was tearing or if it just felt that way, but whatever it was, his awareness was limited to white-hot sheets of pain washing over his body, radiating from his ass outward. The brush of Littlewood’s dick across his prostate did nothing to make it better; Nico was flaccid and had been since before they started, not even the smallest bit of arousal present to ameliorate the pain. All he could do was weep and scream into the pillows, trying to drag his mind back to his mantra and program the affirmations into his subconscious.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Littlewood went still and groaned, pulsing hot semen into Nico’s guts. Good thing he was up-to-date on all his immunizations, as all licensed and registered sex workers had to be. There was nothing Littlewood could give him that couldn’t be cured with antibiotics or postexposure prophylaxis.
Perhaps the worst part of it was the way Littlewood changed once it was over. Suddenly he was jolly and indulgent, as if he and Nico had just had a mutually delightful roll in the hay. He flopped over onto his side, released the belt that still bound Nico’s bruised wrists, and patted Nico’s ass.
“That was great, baby. Thanks.
Nico wriggled his hands free of the now-loose belt around his wrists and pulled the spit-soaked tie from his mouth as Littlewood rolled off the bed and strutted to the control panel on the wall, his clothes still open and in disarray. He called down to room service and ordered a bottle of whiskey, apparently unconcerned that it would be charged to Nico’s room.
Nico moved carefully, every muscle in his body aching as he sat up and pulled his knees to his chest. It took all his self-restraint not to lash out now that he was free. Even hurting as he was, he knew at least a dozen ways he could have Littlewood on the floor in seconds, writhing, bleeding, nursing broken bones and dislocated joints. Fury at the sick fuck was clawing inside Nico’s chest, screaming to pay back the man who had hurt him, but he had to quash the instinctive reaction and consider his options. While Littlewood undressed, humming contentedly, Nico rested his forehead on his knees and centered himself so he could think rationally.
He still had a job to do, and if he didn’t do it, everything he’d just gone through would be for nothing. The longer Littlewood lingered in the presence of the additive-enhanced THC oil and the subliminal recording, the more effective the tactics would be. The ideal situation would be for Littlewood to fall asleep here.
Fuck. That meant Nico had to keep him happy and complacent.
Nothing happens to me that I don’t choose. I’m safe. I’m no one’s victim . . .
But that was what Littlewood wanted—a victim. A hapless innocent to abuse and defile and degrade. The more vulnerable Nico made himself seem, the more satisfied Littlewood would be.
Nico’s injured sniffle was affected, but the tear he wiped away was genuine as he braced himself for more. “Why did you do that?” he whispered plaintively, his voice raspy with the abuse his throat had received. He gave Littlewood a saddened, bewildered mien, trying to appear every inch the sacrificial lamb. “Did I do something wrong?”
Jesus. Littlewood looked amused by the question. Even fond. He finished stripping off his clothes, and he was already half-erect again. “That’s just the way I like it, sugar. You wanted to make me happy, didn’t you?”
Nico widened his eyes, trying to appear sweet and desperate to please even as loathing twisted his stomach and threatened to make him spew up the load Littlewood had shot down his throat. “Yes, but—” He shook his head as though confused. “You won’t do it again, right? You’ll be nice, now?”
The secretary looked away, his smile barely disguising a sneer. “Only thing you need to do is what I tell you. You just stay right there while I shower, baby. I’ll be out in a minute. I’m not done with you yet.”
Nico nodded and lay down on the bed, curled into a fetal ball, and watched Littlewood with wary, wounded eyes. Littlewood practically lapped it up. Nude, he strode to the bed, grabbed Nico by the throat and hair again, and seized his bottom lip between his teeth, biting until Nico tasted blood.
“You behave yourself when they bring my whiskey, or I’ll make you very sorry, little boy. This is Washington, and I’m an important man. I even have the president’s ear. If you’re not here when I get back, or if you do anything to upset me, that company you interviewed with today will find out you’re a hustler picking up tricks at the Watergate Bar.”
“But that’s not true!” Nico suppressed the urge to laugh at the irony and aimed for hurt and confused outrage. Even if it were true, he would have broken no laws here in DC and being a sex worker should have no more impact on his employability than having spent his college years manning a fast-food counter, but he pretended not to know that. Littlewood smirked, clearly thinking he’d found a way to ensure Nico’s compliance.
“Think that will matter?” He licked Nico’s bleeding lip and sauntered away, closing the bathroom door behind him in a gesture so idiotically arrogant and self-assured that Nico wanted to pummel the guy’s face in.
The whiskey arrived while the shower ran. Nico wrapped himself in a hotel robe and answered the door, keeping his face turned away to avoid drawing attention to his split lip or what he suspected was the beginning of a swollen bruise on his cheekbone from that first backhand slap.
It alleviated some of his despair to know that underneath it all, Littlewood was dancing to Nico’s tune. Honestly, his manipulations couldn’t have gone more perfectly. Littlewood was so egotistical, so secure in his power over others, it never occurred to him that he was being corralled into the position Nico wanted him in. That would help offset some of the trauma and feeling of helplessness, and keep him on an even psychological keel, Nico thought, checking his bruises in the mirror. Of course, it would be even better if he didn’t need to dance to McClosky’s tune in this, but at least he’d chosen that dance willingly.
He could have dug in his bag for a drug to knock Littlewood out, which was a common self-defense measure Silvia Fernández made sure her employees had access to if they needed to get out of a dangerous situation. But if Littlewood awoke in the morning suspecting he’d been drugged, it would unravel all that Nico was attempting to do here. His only choice, other than to declare the job a failure and let his favorite client down, was to endure the rest of the night as best he could.
I can do this. Just because I’ve chosen not to fight back doesn’t mean I’m helpless. I’m no one’s victim.
He repeated the mantra as he poured Littlewood a drink and folded back the covers on the bed, grimacing at the pink-tinged smear of semen on the bedspread. Damn it.
He was still staring at the stain, wondering if he could actually go through with the evening, when Littlewood emerged from the bathroom, already stroking himself erect.
Nico didn’t have to fake the fear in his eyes when the secretary ordered him to get on his knees on the bed and not to even think about taking his face out of the pillow.
# # #
Littlewood must have been on some performance-enhancing drug—probably Khumitrol or Climaxxis, depending on if it was legal or if he’d gotten it off the street—because he managed to fuck Nico’s ass and mouth seven more times before he collapsed into a short, exhausted slumber. Now welted from the belt, and bruised from bites and slaps, Nico passed out as well, and awoke with a scream when the secretary drove three fingers into his wet, torn ass, then rolled him onto his stomach again for one more go.
Littlewood departed before dawn, his mood jovial, even gregarious. As he dressed, he seemed doting and half-smitten.
“You were amazing, baby,” he hummed, kissing the top of Nico’s head as Nico continued to play his half-fearful, half-eager-to-please role of the injured innocent. “I don’t remember the last time I had someone as good as you.”
If he asks, Was it good for you? I’m going to puke.
Nico smiled wanly and tried to look bashfully pleased by the praise. “Thank you.”
“I sent my code to your tablet. Call me when you move here for that job. I want to see you again. You won’t disappoint me, little boy, will you?”
His gorge rising, Nico shook his head emphatically. He’d inadvertently put himself in an even more perilous position. Littlewood now saw Nico as the ideal victim for an ongoing association. He’d pleased the secretary too well.
“I know your parents live out of state. You have any other family anywhere nearby?”
Nico’s gut clenched at the question. Was Littlewood asking if he had anyone who would miss him, or was the man merely making conversation?
It didn’t matter. Nico had absolutely no intention of ever being alone and within arm’s reach of Littlewood again. He tried to brighten his responses a little, matching the secretary’s ebullient mood and maintaining the fiction that he wasn’t going to protest what Littlewood had done.
Besides, Littlewood didn’t realize it, but he’d just given Nico an opening.
“Just a brother. He’s on deployment, fighting over in Russia. I worry about him.”
“Where does he live when he’s not on deployment? Is he involved in your life? Protective big brother?”
Translation: would the fictional brother prove an impediment to Littlewood’s desire to establish a brutally abusive, long-term relationship with Nico?
Nico shook his head. “No, we’ve never been close, really. We just kind of live our own lives. Still, I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him.”
“Well.” Littlewood ran a tender finger over the bruise on Nico’s cheek, his smile almost doting. “I’ll see what I can do about keeping him safe. But you’ll owe me a lot of favors for it. Don’t forget to call, or I’ll come looking for you. You don’t want me to have to do that.”
“I understand,” Nico whispered with a shudder, cold, animal terror swelling in his chest despite knowing he would never again put himself at this man’s mercy. “I’ll call.”
Littlewood seemed thrilled by Nico’s fear, his face alight. “Good.” He kissed Nico on the forehead and left.
Nico sat there on the bed in a defensive ball for what seemed to be hours, his knees drawn to his bare chest like a shield. Shivers racked his aching body. He could feel the wetness of the sheets beneath him, soaked with more than cum. A slight tang of iron underpinned the musk of semen and sweat. When he moistened his upper lip, he dislodged a flake of blood from beneath his nose.
Finally certain Littlewood was long gone, he rose from the bed and crossed to the control console on the wall, calling down to the front desk.
“Concierge. How may I help you, Mr. Fernández?”
“Do you have a medic on call?”
“Of course.” Most high-end hotels kept a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant on staff should important guests suffer a mishap and their families get litigious.
“Please send them to my room in, say, a half hour. And have housekeeping come freshen the room and change the linens while I’m in the shower.”
“Yes, Mr. Fernández.” Not so much as a lilt of surprise in the concierge’s voice, no indication this was anything other than a routine request. Nico had been in the business long enough to know it actually was routine.
After he ended the call, Nico took a long moment to inventory his injuries, shaking his head ruefully at what his impulsive decision to take McClosky’s job had gotten him. Some escorts demanded top dollar to endure what he had spent the night suffering, and worse. A few years ago, the FBI had broken up an international snuff ring, where a service arranged contracts with desperately impoverished people who agreed to being sexually murdered by wealthy perverts in exchange for a generous payment to their families.
Of course, Littlewood wouldn’t have wanted anyone who was willingly in the rough trade like that.
Nico’s gut clenched again, and he dragged his aching body to the bathroom. After he was done shoving his finger down his throat to get rid of as much of Littlewood’s spunk as he could, he douched to get rid of the rest, which felt like passing shards of ground glass. He dug in his toiletry kit for the empty hypodermic syringe he used when clients got a little too enthusiastic. Sticking it into the worst of his bruises, he aspirated some of the blood beneath the skin to help them fade faster. Then he climbed into the shower to wash away the last traces, and let the hot water sooth some of his soreness.
The bed was freshly made, the soiled linens gone, when he emerged from the shower. A soft rap came at his door, and Nico crossed the room to let in the medic. She lifted an eyebrow at the bruises peeking out from under Nico’s robe and asked dutifully if she should call the police.
“There’s no crime to report here,” Nico said with a brusque shake of his head. He sat still, letting her apply first aid to the places where Littlewood had drawn blood. She left him with a full course of broad-spectrum antibiotics and antivirals, as well as a medicated ointment for his anal tears.
When she was gone, Nico sank gingerly into a chair and reached for his tablet to make one final call.
“General Logan McClosky’s home.” Nico recognized the butler’s punctilious voice.
“Peter, this is Nicolás Fernández. The general said you would be expecting me today?”
“Yes, Mr. Fernández. We’re looking forward to having you stay with us, as always.”
“Thank you. I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans. I’m not really able to drive out there as I intended to.”
“Would you like me to arrange for a car to pick you up, sir?”
Nico closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. He didn’t really want McClosky seeing him in this shape, but returning to his mother before he had healed up a bit was out of the question, and he desperately didn’t want to be alone. “Yes, Peter, thank you. That would be perfect. Send it to my hotel around noon?”
“I’ll do that, sir.”
Once he disconnected the call, Nico refreshed the THC oil in the diffuser, complete with its special additive, and made a voice recording of the mantra he’d been chanting in his head all night, trying to offset as much of the psychological trauma from his ordeal as he could.
I have power. I am free. I am safe. I choose my own trials and my own destiny. Littlewood is an insignificant blip on the chart of my life, and nothing he has done matters. I am not his victim.
He set the recording to play on a loop and crawled between the fresh, clean sheets. The cannabis oil calmed him, and he willed his brain to absorb the programming. Lying there, he closed his eyes and listened to his breath as he meditated, sinking into a hypnosis-like trance and finally drifting to sleep.
“Father wants to see you in his study.”
Zach blinked, pulling his wandering thoughts back to the here and now. The itinerary he’d ostensibly been perusing swam back into view before he looked up at his brother.
“Yes, of course, now.” Jacob rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why you even pretend to work for him anymore.”
Zach considered arguing, but Jacob had a point. He wasn’t sure why he still worked for his father, either. He looked back down at the itinerary, unwilling to let Jacob know just how astute his statement was. In the three months leading up to their father declaring his candidacy—the press conference was scheduled for next week, and it would be followed by a grueling whistle-stop tour—Zach had become less and less a part of the reverend’s campaign. Now he was little more than a glorified gofer.
Working downtown at the shelter had become his refuge, and he’d been letting matters with the campaign slide to make time for it. Even now, the thought of leaving town to accompany his father on the press tour was making pain spike behind his eyes.
He turned his back and shrugged off Jacob’s needling. From the family room, he could hear his sisters—Mary, Naomi, and Rebecca—watching a vid. His mother was in the kitchen, telling the cook who would be attending tonight’s dinner and what their requirements were.
It was so cliché and antiquated an arrangement that Zach could have vomited. Nothing about the Houtmans’ lifestyle had anything to do with the reality most Americans faced. How on earth did his father believe he could represent the public?
It had become a reflex to straighten his clothing before entering his father’s presence. Zach wasn’t sure why he bothered with that anymore, either. He certainly wasn’t going to win any approval, and it was impossible for him to remain silent when the reverend’s dogma got out of hand. Their arguments had been getting increasingly explosive, usually resulting in a headache and Zach yielding the field when it wasn’t worth pressing his point.
Jacob appeared behind him in the hallway mirror as Zach checked his reflection. “He said I can go on tour with you next week,” Jacob announced with a gloating smile.
Zach fought to keep the grimace off his face. “Don’t you have school?”
“He’s arranged with the principal to let me take my finals early.”
“Then shouldn’t you be studying?”
Jacob smirked. “Father made it clear he isn’t paying my tuition and donating to the school to have them fail me.”
Zach blinked and did a double take before he could stop himself, and Jacob’s expression grew even smugger. Had their father seriously threatened to withdraw his support from the West Haveland Bible Academy if they didn’t give Jacob a passing grade?
He shook his head and fumbled in his pocket for his prescription bottle, then checked his watch after he’d taken the tablet to see how long he had until he could leave for tonight’s shift at the shelter. This was how his days often went: trying to hold his own against the reverend and Jacob, and then waiting impatiently for his chance to escape.
From the sound of it, his father was on a vid call with the door cracked open. Zach hesitated outside, torn between appearing as instructed and interrupting.
“I don’t give a damn how impatient your people are, Dennis. You’ll sit on them until after my press conference.”
“Move the press conference forward.” The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but Zach couldn’t place it. “I’m telling you, Maurice, this opportunity is too good to pass up. The midsummer party—”
“That wasn’t the plan. We talked about the campaign headquarters.”
“But this is better. If you can time your conference so it’s just before the party, stir people up a little—”
Zach knocked without waiting to hear any more. To hell with interrupting. If he had to listen to one more person encouraging his father’s misguided and frankly unchristian rhetoric, he’d scream.
“Hold on, Dennis.” The reverend blanked the display and muted the sound quickly when Zach pushed the door open.
“You wanted to see me, Father?”
“Have a seat.” His father gestured toward one of the chairs opposite his desk. It was a rigid, uncomfortable thing. The reverend’s office wasn’t about working with others; it was about authority. If he called someone in here, he wanted them at attention, even when he made a pretense of telling them to settle in. Zach had endured any number of dressing-downs sitting in those miserable chairs, and his backside had met the business end of his father’s belt more than once as he braced his hands on that desk.
It occurred to him—not for the first time—that all his efforts to make himself acceptable to the reverend had failed. At first he’d tried because filial obedience had been drilled into his head from the time he could talk. Then he’d tried because he sensed that his father considered him a deficient son, and Zach had wanted to correct whatever it was he lacked. That drive had eventually been replaced by pure guilt. All his life, each time he dissented with his father, he pushed the blasphemy down with a sense of shame and redoubled his efforts. But it had never worked. Maybe he was born flawed, or maybe his father just couldn’t be pleased.
Now, though, he recognized the futility of it all. He was tired of trying to convince himself that his own judgment was wrong and his father’s was always right. He didn’t even want to be the son the reverend wanted—unquestioning of his dictates, pandering to his sense of self-importance. Jacob was good at it, but even watching Jacob do it made Zach feel dirty. He wasn’t about to try to emulate his younger brother.
Where did that leave him, though?
The reverend resumed his call, leaving it on voice-only as if he didn’t want Zach to see whom he was speaking to. “Dennis, I’ll get back to you. You make some good points about the midsummer events. I’ll see what I can do about rescheduling.”
Zach frowned as his father disconnected. “What’s this about midsummer?”
Something—distress? annoyance? guilt?—flickered in the reverend’s eyes. He wouldn’t quite meet Zach’s gaze when he answered. “Some of my advisers think it would be a good idea to formally declare my intent to run as a counter to the midsummer paganism, since it’s such a tenet of my platform to highlight the way our society has drifted away from God.”
Zach rubbed his temple. He should let it slide, but technically it was still his job to manage his father’s campaign. “The midsummer celebrations are largely secular. They have no more to do with whatever rites they originated from than Christmas or Easter do.”
“If we tolerate any hint of paganism, it will make us look weak,” the reverend insisted. “Besides, there is a lot of media attention focused on the midsummer affairs. We can capture some of that vid-news time and capitalize on it.”
“If you’re looking to turn off potential voters, then go right ahead,” Zach grated. “Or perhaps we could try to understand and acknowledge that Christmas became too expensive for many to celebrate. The retail and industrial tenant workers needed another holiday, something where the emphasis wasn’t on buying presents or traveling to be with family. If you try to take that away from them—”
“It’s not your concern, Zacharias.” His father gave him a withering look. “We know what we’re doing. Besides, most of the tenant workers give their proxy votes to their residence managers. They’re the ones we need to impress, and they’re the ones who have to clean up the mess when the celebrations get out of hand in the tenements.”
Zach bit his tongue on another torrent of protests.
“If you didn’t want my advice as your campaign manager, what did you want to see me about?” Zach finally asked, surrendering the urge to argue in favor of ending this conference as soon as possible.
The reverend grimaced again at Zach’s informal tone. He wasn’t sure when he’d stopped using the more deferential “sir” when addressing his father, but he was determined not to pander any longer.
“I called you in here to tell you that you are to stop volunteering downtown.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re mingling with the wrong sort of people at those shelters. If word gets out about where you spend your time—”
“No, I won’t stop volunteering.” He tried to soften the refusal by appealing to his father’s ambition. “Charity work always looks good for a candidate, especially one espousing Christian values, and you’ll be too busy to do it yourself. If I’m perceived as your representative there—”
“And will you also be perceived as my representative when you’re dispensing aid and counsel to sodomites?”
The trap snapped shut around him, and everything inside Zach went cold. “I— Is that what this is about? Bryan Mitchell’s court case?” He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t even want to know how you know about that.”
“It’s my business to know what my representatives are up to.” The reverend drummed his fingers on his desk, looking utterly unconcerned about having his son spied upon. “I’ve built my entire campaign on bringing morality back to this nation. You should know, you helped me build it.”
“No. I helped you build a campaign based on bringing the Lord’s word back to this nation. His true word. Christ’s message of love and mercy. Not this warped, sensationalist excuse for hate- and fear-mongering that your consultants and advisers are pushing on you.” Zach shook his head. “What happened to you, Father? You were always a little too judgmental at your pulpit, but never to this extent. Are you so fixated on your ambition that you’ve completely forgotten what Jesus taught us?”
“Don’t presume to teach me God’s word.” There was something cold and vicious in the reverend’s voice, and Zach hugged himself before he could stop the defensive gesture. “The bottom line is, you cannot be seen helping a faggot. It looks bad.”
“What I’m doing for Bryan has nothing to do with his sexuality. His husband was murdered a year ago by the guards in the tenements while trying to prevent his little brother from being mugged, and when Bryan tried to protest the cover-up, he was fired and evicted. I just want to help him find justice—if there even is such a thing anymore—and an opportunity to get out of the shelter.”
“Whatever the excuse, it ends now,” the reverend decreed. “Now go.”
“No.” Adrenaline surged through Zach in a sickening, gut-twisting rush, and he folded his hands together to hide their trembling. Never had he outright defied his father like this. He forced himself to hold the reverend’s gaze without flinching. “I promised my help, and I’ll give it.”
His father’s face flushed an ugly shade, and his voice grew even colder. “Zacharias, I would advise you to think very, very carefully before you flout my authority. Our ministry and political donors have provided for us generously. We live well here. What employment prospects do you think you’ll have as a failed political adviser who parted on bad terms with his candidate? You never went to seminary, and you can be certain no congregation Houtman Ministries is affiliated with will offer you a job if you abandon us. Are you willing to join your street-trash friends living in the tenements, working for one of the retail or industrial corps?”
Zach blinked slowly. “Are you honestly saying you would throw me out simply for helping the less fortunate?”
The reverend sighed tragically. “It would be with a heavy heart, but I won’t let you damage my campaign.”
Zach rose on shaky legs, turned, and walked carefully to the open door. Jacob scurried away outside in the hallway, pretending he hadn’t been eavesdropping. Zach looked over his shoulder at his father.
“So your campaign is more important than doing what’s right. More important than your own son. Nothing you’re doing here has anything to do with God,” he said softly. “None of it.”
He closed the office door behind him and met Jacob’s smirk.
“At least Father still has one son he can rely on,” Jacob gloated before he pushed past Zach to let himself into the office without knocking.
To hell with waiting for his scheduled time. Clenching his fists, Zach reached for the nearest comm panel and called for a car to take him to the shelter.
Costas Companions always hosted a midsummer bonfire at Silvia’s New Jersey estate. Even celebrities vied for invitations, which were generally only extended to favored clientele. Logan McClosky had been attending for more than twenty years.
The moment Nico saw the general walk into the reception under the pavilion, he knew something wasn’t right. He glanced at his mother, whose eyes had narrowed. She gave McClosky a venomous look, and Nico took a step toward the general.
Silvia caught his wrist and stopped him. “I need to have a word with Logan,” she said with ice in her tone. “Go see to the other guests.”
Before Nico could argue, she strode across the pavilion alone, the jet accents on her sleek pantsuit glinting and flashing. Nico grimaced, then followed her.
“I don’t recall sending you an invitation,” she said without even a greeting. It was a small mercy that she pitched her voice low enough that the other guests couldn’t hear. Anyone observant enough to notice the way her fists were clenched at her sides, however, would pick up on the tension.
McClosky flicked a look toward Nico, who was hanging back, close enough to overhear without Silvia realizing he’d followed her. It had been about three months since the general had returned home to find Nico covered in bruises from his job with Secretary Littlewood. Aching, Nico had attempted a lopsided smile for McClosky and had muttered, “Someday that asshole’s going to kill someone.”
“How is he?” McClosky asked, turning back to Silvia.
“As if you care,” she snapped. The general steadily met her angry eyes. “How dare you send one of my employees—any of my employees—into such a situation? I’ve trusted you with my people for years, Logan. Don’t tell me you didn’t know what that man would do to him. Your information is always far too thorough for me to buy it.”
“Silvia, I swear to you that there was nothing in his dossier to suggest he would go as far as he did.”
Her chin lifted. “And if there had been, would you still have sent one of my employees to him, much less my son?”
McClosky opened his mouth only to close it again, his face neutral.
Silvia stared at him for a moment, then gave a jerky nod. “That’s what I thought. While we thank you for your years of loyal patronage, General McClosky, I regret to inform you that Costas Companions will no longer be contracting with you.”
“God willing, Silvia, I won’t need to do it again.”
“Good. If you do, find someone else. Feel free to stay and enjoy the celebration. Your hasty departure would be conspicuous. But when you leave, don’t come back. Do not contact any of my people again, and do not ask my son to do any more jobs for you.”
That was more than enough. Nico closed the discreet distance between himself and his mother, speaking over her shoulder. “I’ll thank you to remember that I decide with whom I contract my services.” She jumped when he spoke and looked back at him with an argument already forming on her lips. “If you don’t like that, fire me. I’ll go independent, and I’ll take my client list with me. But don’t carry on as though this is the general’s fault. I’ve told you before: I could have removed myself from the situation and refused to carry out the job. I chose not to. When you blame him, you take away the validity of my choice and make me a victim, and no one does that to me, Mother, not even you.”
Silvia’s eye widened, and she gave him an entreating look. “Nicolás—”
Nico gentled his words with a smile and kissed her cheek. “Why don’t we just enjoy the party, Mamá, okay?” He squeezed her hand and turned his soft smile to Logan. “Let’s get you a drink, sir.” Nico slipped his arm through McClosky’s and led him away.
“What can I get you, General? Wine? Beer? Port? Vodka? Brandy? We don’t have whiskey tonight, sorry. I really can’t stand the smell of it just yet.”
“Beer will be fine.” McClosky frowned as if troubled that Nico was still so traumatized that he’d developed such an aversion. “How are you, Nico?”
“I’m fine, sir.” At the general’s sharp look, he smiled. “I mean that. I’m not just trying to be comforting. I won’t say it’s been easy or that I don’t still flinch and have nightmares from time to time, but you hired me to do a job and I got it done. I did everything I could to take care of myself afterward. I started therapy as soon as I got home, and that’s been good. It helps that I chose to go through with it, really. Knowing I had that much control matters. When I work on reprogramming the memories in therapy, that’s what I hold on to. It was my choice.”
McClosky accepted his beer and set it aside, fondly stroking a hand over the soft, dark waves of Nico’s hair. “You’re a remarkable man, Nicolás Fernández. I regret what happened, and I owe you a debt that goes far beyond money. I can’t get into details, but what you did helped save a lot of lives. If there’s anything you need, anything I can do . . .”
Nico grinned and sipped his champagne. “Sure there is. You can come back with me to my apartment tonight after the bonfire and fuck me through the mattress.”
“I beg your pardon?” The general blinked, and Nico’s grin widened.
“Even though my mother hasn’t put me back on the list of active employees yet—not until we’re confident I won’t freak out with a client—my sex drive’s doing just fine. I’m horny as hell, but it just hasn’t seemed worth the bother to find someone. So what do you say? Help a guy out?”
McClosky looked genuinely caught off-balance, and after a moment, Nico realized he was blushing, of all the ridiculous things. That wasn’t a reaction Nico had ever anticipated causing. “I think we’ve already established that your mother is quite irritated enough with me,” the general argued.
“And I think we already established that I make my own choices. Don’t you start trying to make me into a victim, either.” Nico put some steel into his voice. “I know what’s best for me. Respect me enough to honor that.”
McClosky sighed and cupped a hand around the back of Nico’s neck, brushing his lips in a light kiss. “All right, then. Find me after the bonfire. For now, though, I should let you get back to your guests.”
Nico nodded enthusiastically, and he opened his mouth to reply.
That was when the world exploded around them and all hell broke loose.
I couldn’t stop reading this book. Just excellent.
This was one of those reading experiences that sunk its talons in deep, refusing to let go until the very last sentence.
[T]errific writing and top-notch storytelling from Amelia C. Gormley. The consistency in this series with it’s fast pace and quickly evolving, complex world is really impressive.
I’m very impressed with everything Amelia C. Gormley has achieved in these books. Her writing is masterful, her characters multi-dimensional and her devastating story-line draws you in and holds you captive long after you’ve finished reading the last chapter.
[R]eading how and why [the world fell apart] was a true pleasure.