Welcome To Blackhurst. Mr. Blink has been expecting you.

Tell me, reader, have you had misgivings and concerns about Mr. Blink? If so, you’re not alone.

“When I read Grim’s book, I didn’t like Blink. 
I thought he was authoritarian and just plain not worth it. He was the typical villain. I didn’t think he’d be able to get redeemed.”

“We’ve seen glimpses of Cyril in some of the other books and in the eyes of others and what we’ve been shown is a ruthless, cold control freak who isn’t liked by anyone. With a property is as unreachable as his heart…”

“You’ll be aware of his capricious nature, his dark soul, his impersonal manner and you’d be hard pressed to feel that he’s all that likeable to be honest. A difficult man, persnickety, paranoid about his safety, set in his ways, and obsessed with his wealth and his connections and his art work…”

“In Grim’s story, I positively grew to hate him with a major intense burning desire to set him on fire and watch him go down in flames.”

Behold my delight. I wanted Cyril Blink to send a chill down your spine and make your lip curl. Because it’s more delicious when the love conquers the hardest hearts and brings ruthless men to their knees. And I promise, Cyril’s fall is absolutely worth the wait.

How about a tour of Blackhurst and an…intimate peek at Mr. Blink? How about all of Chapter 4?

“I’m sure that feels much better,” Farris said as he settled the delicate sheet of vellum in the protective mat then carefully shut the frame. He traced the vivid ink colors through the glass and told himself he was lucky. How many people got to touch a Carolingian manuscript made in 816? Monks wrote bibles and liturgical documents by hand, decorated with intricate illustrations, and some of the most exquisite examples came across Farris’s table. There was a Cézanne on the table across the platform and a pair of $400,000 Tacca bronze figures were being delivered by a team of mercenaries in a few days. Farris curated and maintained the sort of collection his peers fantasized about. Blackhurst rivaled any gallery or museum in the country and Farris’s budget eclipsed the Smithsonian’s. “It doesn’t feel better,” Farris said and pulled in a deep breath. “Let’s give Blink the good news.”

Farris tucked the flat case under his arm and grabbed his coat off one of the leather armchairs. He dimmed the crystal lamps and chandeliers with the touchpad on the wall on his way out. He took the elevator to the foyer and used his foot to shut the ornate wrought-iron door before he jogged across the marble tiles and up the wide staircase. It was just after 10:00 p.m. and Farris decided he’d change and go for a swim after he delivered the manuscript. He might as well take advantage of a rare early night and sublimate some of his frustrations with laps. Blink didn’t hold Farris to a grueling schedule; he didn’t actually care as long as he continued to make a fortune. Farris sublimated his conscience and his bitter disappointment with work. He considered the selections of decanters in Blink’s office as he turned toward the master wing and shook his head. Blink often invited Farris to help himself but drinking before a late night swim wasn’t a good idea in his current mood. Just drop off the manuscript and get out.

The double doors to Blink’s private rooms were shut but Farris let himself in. Blink had no expectations of privacy or any modesty. He ignored the staff as they came and went and he was just as unconcerned about Farris. So Farris wasn’t surprised to hear a throaty moan when he opened the door and he kept his eyes on the silk Persian rug as he hurried to leave the manuscript in Blink’s private office.

“Ohhhh! Cyril!” It was breathless and shaking and Farris risked a glance at the bed as he passed the open bedroom doors. Blink growled drowsily as he crawled over a woman’s body and sucked on her nipple before he gave her ass a slap and rolled from the bed. He was naked, save for a condom, and Farris quickly averted his eyes as Blink strolled into the bathroom to dispose of it. Farris dismissed the rush of heat that washed over him and plunged into the darkened office and forced out a silent breath as he set the manuscript’s case on the desk. He turned and kept his head down as he rushed through the suite’s foyer. His hand reached for the door and Farris was almost free.

“Stay for a moment, Elliot,” Blink called and Farris groaned as his head fell.

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow morning?” He asked and squinted at the door hopefully.

“Cyril!” The woman pouted. It was a sultry invitation but Farris winced awkwardly. She was nothing. Blink had no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship, preferring to pay for companionship. And he never used the same escort—male or female—twice. 

“I’m done. Pull yourself together and get out,” Blink told her as he tied his robe. He cocked his head at the office and gestured for Farris to follow him. Blink turned on the Tiffany lamp on his desk and went to the sideboard. “Want a drink?”

“I was going to hit the pool for some laps,” Farris said and pointed over his shoulder.

“Have a seat,” Blink ordered as he poured but Farris shook his head.

“I’ll stand. You said it would just be a moment and I’d really like to get in a swim before it’s too late.

“You look tired, Elliot. Stop being difficult for the sake of being difficult and have a fucking seat.” Blink went to his chair and turned the manuscript’s case as he sat. He took a drink then rested his elbow on the desk as he inspected the manuscript through the glass. “I want you to hire another assistant,” he murmured absently but Farris frowned as he lowered into one of the seats opposite Blink.

“Why? I’m not working fast enough for you?” He asked and Blink shook his head as he sat back.

“You work too much and you’re going to burn out. Find someone to fetch your coffee and do your busywork. I thought that was the point of Matteo but you’ve just made more work for yourself because you’re teaching now, too.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need anyone to get my coffee.”

“And I’d rather pay someone fifty or sixty grand a year to keep you from losing your mind,” Blink said and Farris’s head pushed forward.

“You can hire a whole conservation and restoration team for what you pay me,” he pointed out then hissed. “Forget I said that.” He flashed Blink a wide smile and he laughed.

“I have a raw, uncut diamond that’s the size of a doorknob in one of my vaults. I’m not taking it to the mall and asking them to cut it for me, am I?” He asked and Farris shook his head. “The only person I trust is Sam. He’s been handling my diamonds for almost thirty years because he’s the best and I know I can trust him to find the perfect shape and cut and make me the most money. You have dual PhDs in Art History and Archeology and you’re a better than decent chemist. That’s a worthwhile investment for me because I have a very expensive obsession with art and history. This manuscript, in the wrong hands, could be ruined with one wrong stroke or the wrong solution. You have an excellent eye and I know I can trust you. Not to mention the time and worry it saves me, having my own in-house art and antiquities expert. Find yourself an assistant who doesn’t have to be trained,” he repeated firmly. Farris opened his mouth to argue but decided against being difficult for the sake of being difficult. He had a better idea. 

“Fine. I’ll hire an assistant.” A wide smile spread across his face. A little help would be nice but Farris could teach again. “I’m keeping Matteo,” he said and Blink’s brow slid up his forehead.

“Fine. Make sure you train him well so he can take your place once you’ve burnt out.”

“That’s always the point,” Farris stated. He couldn’t wait to find another student and Blink gave him a knowing look.

“You’ve already found yourself a student. Do something that makes your life easier this time.”

“Maybe,” Farris said dismissively. “I could hire an experienced art conservator but then I’d have to teach them how to do everything my way. I’d rather train them myself,” he stated and Blink held up a hand.

“I’ll fire them both if you fall behind or have a nervous breakdown,” he threatened and tapped his fingertips together. Farris snorted defiantly as he pushed off the armrests and stood.

“Watch. We’ll stay on top of things and they’ll be just as good as me in a few years. Maybe not as good. I don’t want to make myself that replaceable,” he said with a wink. “Matteo’s nineteen and he’s hungry to learn. He wasn’t going to work for his grandfather in your gardens for very long. I wouldn’t let him get away. I’ll start looking for another assistant after the new year,” Farris said. “Are we done here?” He asked and Blink chuckled as he rose. 

“We’re done. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He adjusted the front of his robe but he could have been naked. Farris looked away but he knew what was beneath the black silk and velvet and Blink was a striking man. He was tall and broad-shouldered and his body was lean yet well-muscled because he spent hours in the gym with a personal trainer and Alon. Blink lived and traveled with a security team and Blackhurst was a fortress because he took his personal security very seriously. A lot of people wanted Blink dead. For good and bad reasons. 

But, it wasn’t just his body. Blink was in phenomenal shape for a fifty-two-year-old man —he was in phenomenal shape for a thirty-year-old man—but it was the whole package, for Farris. If anyone had cared to ask Farris what his type was, he would have told them that older men with silver or salt-and-pepper hair, a little fur and a lot of gravitas got him hot. He would have laughed at the thought of sex with a student, if anyone bothered to ask Farris.

I might have risked it all for a man like Blink, he admitted to himself as he left. The escort was gone, when Farris passed the bedroom. He wondered if he’d have the nerve to ask her if they crossed paths. He passed a young man on the stairs, once, and walked in as Blink dismissed two women who looked like they might have been twins. Farris wanted to ask what it was like fucking Blink. All that power and experience… All that history. The streaks of silver in his jet black hair and at his temples and the creases at the corners of his eyes drew Farris, even when he didn’t want to look. The dark dusting of hair on Blink’s chest and thighs made Farris’s shirt stick to his body and made him anxious in a way a smooth twenty-year-old never could. And Blink was…impressive in other ways. Farris tugged at his tie as he made his way down the hall and recalled Blink as he dropped his robe as he strode into the bathroom. His semi-flaccid cock swayed and bounced against his thigh and Farris’s mouth watered as he imagined swallowing it.

“Gross,” Farris muttered under his breath. He turned toward his suite and his lip curled. It wouldn’t be gross until the next morning—he corrected—when Ferris had to look himself in the mirror and face Blink in the vault.

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Welcome To Blackhurst. Mr. Blink has been expecting you.

Are you ready to meet Cyril Blink?

If you’ve been following along through See How They Run and Like Grim Death you might be wondering and possibly worrying. Is Mr. Blink a bad guy? Is he secretly a good guy? If you’ve learned anything about me, you know the answer is definitely both. Mr. Blink is a hard, hard man but there’s a lot going on, once you see behind the curtain. For instance, here’s a whole glimpse of Chapter 7, where Cyril’s discovered a very different kind of treasure’s been hiding right under his nose. He’s not one to let something precious and enticing slip through his fingers but he’s deeply conflicted when it comes to a certain cranky professor…

Chapter 7

“You cannot go down there,” Cyril whispered to himself. He already made a complete ass out of himself during his video conference with London. Elliot walked past the study on his way to the elevator and Cyril wandered away from the camera and nearly followed him. He was so desperate to get another look at Elliot’s ass. His coat was draped over his arm and Cyril hurried into the foyer to get a look before Elliot got in the elevator.

“Did you need something?” Elliot asked but he didn’t wait for Cyril to respond before he slammed the gate closed and jerked the lever to the right.

“An explanation would be nice,” Cyril grumbled as he reclined in his seat and steepled his fingers. “It seems like the sort of thing I should know about,” he said under his breath and another shocked gasp burst from him.

Apparently, the professor—Cyril’s professor—was utterly breathtaking beneath his itchy suits. Literally breathtaking, even. Cyril slipped into the pool and found Elliot on his back and panting. He snuck closer to make sure Elliot didn’t need assistance and Cyril was winded as he stood over him. Jesus fucking Christ and the motherfucking apostles. Cyril’s hands dragged down his face and his eyes went to the foyer. His feet longed to carry him to the elevator and his body ached. I would have had him right there on the floor.

Elliot had the kind of body Cyril could really dig into and lose himself in. Cyril stood over Elliot, mesmerized and starving as his brain struggled to get his head around it. Elliot’s chest and ribs stretched and rose as he fought to catch his breath and he was beautiful. His skin glistened in the moonlight and drops of water caught in the stubble along his jaw and the thin dusting of hair on his chest. Elliot’s body was sleek, lean and tightly muscled and Cyril yearned to taste him. Sprawled on his back with his arm thrown over his eyes, he looked like temptation incarnate. And that bright orange bikini…

“Fuck!” Cyril spat and bit into his knuckle. He dreamt that Elliot stuffed it in his mouth and rode him like one of the Furies. Cyril rarely dreamt about sex and assumed it was because he had so much of it, so often. But that dream was hotter than anything Cyril could recall doing with any of his past partners. Then again, he couldn’t remember any of his past partners. The woman from two nights ago was named… Cyril rubbed his lips together as he strained. “Jocelyn? Jasmine? Josephine?” She had dark olive skin and long black hair and her pussy tasted soft like melon. She moaned like a fire truck and Cyril pulled out and came on her breasts but he couldn’t remember her name. The boy the night before was named Simon. Or Silas. He babbled about his student loans and wanted Cyril to pee on him. Cyril sprayed him down in the shower then fucked his throat. Cyril liked variety and he liked forgetting names because sex had its time and its place and that was after dinner and until he said goodnight. Sex didn’t interfere with Cyril’s routine or his work. It certainly didn’t interfere with Blackhurst and Cyril’s other great passion: collecting.

“Was something wrong, sir?” Alon asked as he hovered behind Cyril’s shoulder.

“Why would anything be wrong?” Cyril replied and his attention sharpened. Alon’s head canted and his brows pulled together.

“I heard an expletive,” he said.

“Right…” Cyril nodded and waved vaguely over his shoulder. “Release the dogs,” he said. Alon raised his wrist and paused.

“Should we warn Mr. Grim and Dr. Hawkesworth? They complained after last time,” he murmured but Cyril waved dismissively.

“They don’t pay rent.”

“Fair enough,” Alon replied and his lips tilted into a grin. “Tell Hector to let the dogs loose for a run,” he whispered into his sleeve. “Is there something else I can do to help?” He asked hopefully but Cyril shook his head.

“Everything’s fine. Do you know if the professor’s had a chance to look at the bronzes?”

“According to the logs he accessed his safe an hour ago and left a note stating that he was taking them out for an initial inspection,” Alon said and punctuated it with a nod. He admired Elliot but Cyril wondered how much of that was due to a shared love of logs and procedure.

“I think I’ll see how his initial inspection went,” Cyril decided loudly as he sprang to his feet and Alon’s head pulled back. Why do I sound like I’m up to something suspicious? It’s my house and those are my bronzes. Cyril stuck his nose in the air and gave the front of his coat a tug. “I’m very interested in those bronzes.”

“Of course.”

“Did the oysters arrive for dinner?”

“Of course,” Alon repeated as he bowed and exited through the hidden door behind the suit of armor.

“What the hell am I doing?” Cyril groaned and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He had a very strict policy about fraternization. It didn’t necessarily apply to him specifically but he had one and it stated that employees were not to engage in anything that might be considered sexual congress on the grounds of Blackhurst. They were free to do whatever they wanted off the property on their own time but not while they were on Cyril’s property, while he was paying them to protect it. And Elliot was a consummate professional, despite his extremely prickly demeanor. His taste was unparalleled and his instincts were impeccable. The Blackhurst Collection was renowned and Cyril was getting a better return on investment with Elliot’s picks than with real estate and much of his portfolio. “It won’t hurt to look,” he reasoned. He ignored his brain as it berated him and stepped into the elevator and swung the gate shut then pulled the lever. The antique elevator jumped before it carried Cyril down and he forced his face into a bored mask. The elevator stopped and Cyril took a deep breath before he wrenched the door open and stepped out. His footsteps should have echoed on the marble and bounced off the rows of bookshelves and the tall columns but it was lost as Beethoven filled the cavernous hall while Cyril slowly prowled to the platform in the center. Elliot still heard him coming and Cyril saw him stretch his neck and shoulders. Elliot mumbled something to himself and Cyril bit back a smile. The constant edge of hostility was a turn-on, if Cyril was honest.

“They were worth every penny,” Elliot said but he stayed bent over his table with his eye pressed to his magnifying glass, oblivious to Cyril’s gaze as it clung to the sharp corner of his jaw before it skated down his back. It settled on Elliot’s ass and Cyril licked his lips as he recalled a tightly muscled cheek, dripping and wrapped in garish tangerine.

“I thought so as well,” Cyril said as he drifted closer.

“The detail…” Elliot murmured. Cyril nodded and his head fell to the side as he appreciated the way Elliot’s trousers hugged his ass as he leaned over the table.

“Exquisite.”

“I think so,” Elliot said as he turned and Cyril’s mouth pulled into a dreamy smile as he remembered how well he filled out the front of his Speedo.

“Delicious.”

“What?” Elliot asked as his head pushed forward. “Don’t lick those things!” He scolded as he pointed at the table. “The oxidized metals…! And the acids in your saliva…! Ugh!” He spun back around so he could search the sculptures with his magnifying glass. Cyril bit down on his lips and shook his head as he begged himself to get out before he said something truly stupid.

“Sorry. I was just thinking of a certain prime minister’s face once I told him how much these are going to cost him,” Cyril said brightly. Elliot’s face fell and he sighed as he went back to his inspection.

“If there’s nothing else, I’ll get back to it. I suppose you want these dusted and polished but you want the patina intact,” he said and Cyril hummed as he backed away.“I trust your judgment.” Cyril replied as he turned the prospect over in his head. It might be worth putting the idea to Elliot. Later.

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Are you ready to meet Cyril Blink?

Something Wicked This Way Comes… Ready to meet Mr. Grim?

It’s just about that time of year, spooky readers!

I’m tired of being hot and sticky and I’m ready for cardigans and foods with copious amounts of gravy. It’s almost October so I decided it was time for a creepier “hero” to have a shot at UnHappily Ever After. Are you ready to meet Casper Blink? The first chapter of Like Grim Death is included at the end of See How They Run. Here’s ALL of chapter 2:

“Welcome to Blackhurst,” Mr. Blink declared as the driver got out and went around to get the door. It opened on Blink’s side and Hawk leaned so he could see and immediately spotted the armed footmen and guards in tuxedos as they waited at the door and on the stairs. Blackhurst was a massive, elegant Beaux-Arts Gilded Era mansion but it was being guarded like a fortress. Hawk was warned but he was still thrown as Blink stepped out and murmured something to the driver—who was also armed. Blink turned and bent so he could see inside the car.

“Will you be joining me or should we bring the patient to you?” He asked. Hawk’s tongue pushed against the inside of his cheek. He didn’t like Blink and the feeling only grew, becoming an overwhelming desire to break his nose. Hawk couldn’t quite explain it but remembered that they were surrounded by Blink’s personal army and got out of the limo. “I thought we’d walk so we could discuss a few more…sensitive matters,” Blink said and gestured for Hawk to follow him as he strolled away. Hawk frowned as they left the gravel drive and crossed the front lawn. A young Hispanic man in a lab coat jogged to intercept them as they came around the side of the massive house and headed for the woods, beyond a row of stables.

“Sir! He stopped screaming but he hasn’t come out. I tried to get a look but he threw something at the door and threatened to burn the cottage down if I didn’t go away.”

“Thank you… Matteo?” Blink asked and the young man grinned as he nodded. He was gorgeous and he blushed as he ducked his head at Hawk.

“That’s correct! I work with Professor Elliot,” he stated quickly and waved at Hawk. “My uncle said someone heard screaming from the Widow’s Cottage and sent me to look. He’s in charge of the grounds,” he added excitedly and Hawk smiled as he offered his hand.

“Dr. Hawkesworth, Matteo,” he said, since it appeared Blink wasn’t in a hurry to introduce them. The younger man’s face fell.

“You’re going in there?” He realized, his face paling as he looked behind him at the woods. Hawk remembered Lavender’s concern and slid Blink an expectant look.

“That will be all, Matteo,” Blink said dryly and Matteo’s gaze darted to Hawk’s then to the main house.

“Is he going in alone?” He asked in a hushed whisper, as if he was urging Blink to reconsider.

“That will be all, Matteo,” Blink repeated a touch more firmly and Matteo flinched before he took off for the house. Blink cleared his throat and turned back to Hawk. “Please,” he said and his arm swept out elegantly. “It isn’t too much of a walk,” he murmured then pushed his hands into his pockets as he strode for the woods. Hawk’s shoulders tightened with tension and the hairs on the back of his neck stood as he followed. He was wearing a pea coat and pulled it tighter around him as the chilly darkness of the woods swallowed them. Blink appeared immune and whistled softly as he stepped over a gnarled root. “There’s a road but I enjoy these woods at night. It’s almost a straight shot from the kitchen terrace, if you choose to walk,” he told Hawk and he hummed as he looked behind him. He could see the house’s lights through the trees.

“You said we needed to talk about something sensitive,” he said. “We were alone in the jet and the car. What was so sensitive it had to wait until it was too late for me to turn back?” He didn’t like the way Blink chuckled as he stopped in a shaft of moonlight. The shadows made the hard angles of his face more severe and the grey at Blink’s temples more pronounced. He was even more ominous but it was the calculating sharpness in his black eyes as they read Hawk that rubbed him the wrong way, he realized. There was no doubt that Blink was as brilliant as he was rich but Hawk didn’t like the blatant way the man wallowed in his omniscience. Blink didn’t hide that he knew everything about Hawk nor that he minded finding leverage wherever he could.

“More than a gifted surgeon, I see. I appreciate a man who sees the forest for the trees but mind your step, doctor.” It was just smug and patronizing enough to flick Hawk’s temper. He barely had a temper but the one thing that was always sure to trigger it was rich pricks.

“You didn’t go to boarding school, did you? You’re the petty, resentful kind of rich because you were so poor it almost killed you,” Hawk guessed as he held Blink’s stare. Blink smiled as he stepped closer.

“And you’re the boring kind of rich. You didn’t care about all that money and privilege until you had the good sense to be embarrassed by it,” he drawled then gave his head a dismissive shake. “We’re not here to discuss all the reasons why you don’t like me.”

“I didn’t have to get out of bed to do that but I don’t care how powerful you are or where you keep your giant laser. You’re still a bully beneath your smooth new manners and none of that’s going to work on me,” Hawk explained. “Tell me whatever it is I need to know and don’t ‘warn me’ to keep whatever’s going on here to myself. I’m not going to sell you out because I don’t need the money and I’ve learned the wisdom of minding my own business.” He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled back at Blink. There was just a quick twitch of his eye before Blink turned on his heel.

“Let’s hope that your visit will be limited and brief,” he agreed and avoided a branch as he signaled at the clearing ahead. “You’re going to see many things while you’re at Blackhurst and I’ll trust you to keep them to yourself. But the most sensitive of the things you’ll encounter will be Mr. Grim. He is held together with whatever the medical equivalent of duct tape is and is absolutely mad. Homicidal, obviously. I chose you because of your impressive surgical abilities and your combat background. You’ll need to stay on your toes and on guard. Your SIG Sauer isn’t a bad call and while I hope you never have to use it, please don’t kill him if you can avoid it. Casper Grim is an extremely dangerous man but he is also staggeringly gifted and I see very big things in his future. I’ve invested a great deal of money in him and it would be a shame to see it go to waste because he’s destroyed himself.”

“Destroyed himself? Is he suicidal?”

“Regularly,” Blink replied.

“Jesus,” Hawk groaned and blew on his hands as he rubbed them together. “Will I be able to finish his leg before he kills himself?” He asked and Blink swatted vaguely.

“I don’t think he’s planning to off himself in any specific way. But he’s never been particularly careful and one gets the idea that Grim wouldn’t mind if he accidentally blew himself up,” he explained. He nodded and they stepped over large stones and fallen branches until they reached the clearing and Hawk shivered.

“Are we still on your property?” Hawk asked as he spun and squinted. He could barely see the main house’s lights through the trees…

“Yes!” Mr. Blink hissed and gave Hawk’s arm a hard jerk. “I just had this historic house refurbished two years ago and he did this in weeks,” he grumbled as he waved but Hawk’s nose wrinkled. It used to be a charming cottage with a wrap-around porch and stone path but now frayed sheers fluttered in cracked panes and the front door hung on its hinges.

“Really?” Hawk cringed at the scorched corner of the front porch and the busted bow window. “What happened there?” He asked. Blink sighed and it was weary.

“I sent repairmen to fix the window and he threw Molotov cocktails at them.”

“Really!” Hawk laughed in shock. Grim didn’t sound like he’d be a willing patient, if he didn’t like the window guys. “And you said he was amenable to getting his leg fixed?” He asked and Blink’s lips pulled into a grin.

“He didn’t really have a choice,” he finally confided. “Grim’s hip’s dislocated and he can’t escape. He can either die at the bottom of the stairs or let you fix his leg,” Blink explained and Hawk swore as he ran for the porch. He carefully bounded up the burned and busted steps and negotiated the broken planks on the sinking porch with Blink at his back.

“I doubt he went very far,” Blink mused before he grabbed Hawk’s arm. “It might be booby trapped.” He raised his brows at Hawk in warning but he snorted.

“I remember reading something about that. The briefing was thorough,” he chuckled but it was true. At Mr. Lavender’s insistence, their hacker, Reginald, provided Hawk with the dossier he’d built for Casper Grim. It was all digital but it was still a hefty stack of autopsies, investigative reports and a partial psychological profile by Dr. Aiden Sharp. “But he might be dead,” Hawk warned and Blink’s head cocked.

“It was just his leg. And possibly a few broken ribs and a twisted arm,” he guessed but Hawk shook his head.

“And rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure,” he scolded and held Blink back as he stretched for the handle.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Blink murmured. “If it helps, I didn’t have any trouble with that door six hours ago. Aside from its…state,” he said as he waved at the cock-eyed door, hanging from the jamb. Hawk held his breath as he turned the handle and leaned back as he pushed it open. It creaked before it snapped off its hinge but Hawk was able to peek around it and see a clear path. He squeezed through and took a cautious step as he looked for any wires or triggers but all he saw were chunks of crumbled plaster, cracked walls and soot-stained upholstery and wallpaper. What Hawk didn’t see was any sign of Grim. Well…aside from the general state of the house. But there was nothing at the bottom of the stairs but a crumpled rug and a stain on the field stones. “Fuck!” Blink whispered as he carefully stepped around Hawk. “Grim?” He called and swayed forward as he listened. Hawk tiptoed behind him and hunted for anything that looked suspicious but all he saw was destruction. Every chair was smashed and the table legs were ripped off and stacked in and around the hearth in the living room.

“Get out! I don’t want his help!” It was a furious shriek from upstairs but it was thready and shredded.

“Up there!” Hawk whispered as he pointed and skipped through the foyer to avoid the mess. He took the stairs two and three at a time and avoided the broken planks. Hawk noted the deep gashes in the wood and the smears of blood on the posts. A rope was looped around the banister and a massive hunting knife was lodged in the top step. “He climbed this!” Hawk said and Blink shook his head in disgust.

“I offered to carry him to what was left of the sofa but he told me to fuck off, so I went to find help,” he muttered and they peered around the corner once they reached the top. “I didn’t think he’d be able to go anywhere on that leg and he was bleeding profusely from the head,” Blink explained and gestured vaguely.

“Jesus!” Hawk spat at him then ducked when they heard a large crash.

“He’s in his lab,” Blink groaned and waved at the door to their left.

“Stay out! I don’t need help!”

“You don’t sound well and you can’t work if you’re dead,” Blink called as they edged closer. Hawk glanced back at the other door and spied a bedroom but it was dark and didn’t appear to be in use.

“I came all this way, Casper,” Hawk said loudly as his neck craned and he reached for the door. It was cracked just enough for him to slip around it and glass crunched under Hawk’s boots as he eased into the room.

“No! Get out!” Grim roared and Hawk didn’t have a chance to find him before glass shattered by his right shoulder.

“Damn it!” Blink yelled but he stayed behind Hawk. “I told you, I’ll have you scooped up and dumped into the sea if you don’t get that leg fixed!”

“Do it, you meddling piece of shit!” Grim dared and Hawk’s eyes watered as he bit into his cheek to keep from laughing.

“Grim!” Blink screamed then held up a hand and took a cleansing breath. “Don’t tempt me. I’m only doing this because I want what’s best for you. Dr. Hawkesworth knows how to rebuild legs. He’s one of the best,” he added. Hawk snorted at Blink before he sidestepped into the center of the room.

“I’m the best but I’ve got a lot of baggage. I can fix that leg and anything else that’s broken, though,” Hawk said as he scanned the shelves and counters around the room. He could make out microscopes, beakers, tubes, bottles, scales, and all the other usual lab detritus as he searched the shadows then dodged to his right as something flew past his ear. Blink gasped as it smashed and green gel oozed down the wall behind them.

“What was that?!” Blink demanded as he pointed at the shadows and they heard a soft hum from the far-right corner.

“Ummm…” It was a raspy growl that made the hairs on Hawk’s arms stand but he finally saw Grim. He was bent and shrouded in soggy, soiled rags as he spilled over the edge of the counter. His dark hair was greasy and clung to his forehead and cheeks with perspiration as he panted and gasped for breath. Hawk didn’t like how chalky his skin looked or how grey Grim’s lips were but he didn’t know how much of that was just him. According to Aiden’s profile, Grim viewed himself as an object of scorn and had severe masochistic tendencies. He was described as pale, emaciated, scarred and caustic so there was no telling what was new or normal for Grim. He searched the jars, tubes and Petri dishes around him and Hawk saw Grim’s thin, wide lips pull into a grin. “Just soap. But this…” He laughed as he swiped another bottle off the table.

“No!” Blink barked; it was sharp and pierced the air like a gunshot. Grim raised one of his thin, dark brows and Hawk caught a peek of a glowing red eye beneath his stringy black hair.

“No?” Grim challenged but he was almost drunk with fever and Hawk suspected that he was being deprived of oxygen as his kidneys struggled to clean his blood and fluid filled his lungs. He swayed and set the bottle on its base and laughed as he tripped toward the opposite counter and reached for a hammer. Hawk saw his chance. He dove and crashed into him and immediately regretted the way they slammed into the floor but took advantage of Grim’s shock and his weakened state. They writhed and wrestled for several moments but Hawk was mindful of Grim’s brittle, straining limbs as he bucked beneath him.

“Just…hold…still!” Hawk huffed and used his forehead and pelvis to pin Grim down as he swiped at his arms and their legs kicked and tangled.

“Get off!” Grim howled. He thrashed and sputtered but his body trembled as he went into muscle failure. Hawk found Grim’s loose hip and his hand curved around it. He bucked hard, keeping Grim’s groin immobile as Hawk rotated the flaccid leg until he felt resistance and grinding. He gave Grim’s hip a hard jerk and he jumped and gasped beneath Hawk as the joint popped.

“You need an IV with Ringer’s and X-rays so we can see how much we can salvage,” he advised. Their breaths mingled as they panted and sized each other up. The sodden clumps of hair fell away from his face and Hawk finally saw the shimmering pink ripple that spread across Grim’s left cheek and jaw. His ear was a shriveled curl against the side of his head and Hawk understood why Grim didn’t want anyone to touch him, why Grim didn’t trust anyone. “I’ll take that other room. Send someone to clean up and replace the furniture,” Hawk told Blink but his eyes held Grim’s. One was raging, red and lidless. The other was wide, wary and grey like a winter’s day as Grim stared up at Hawk.

“That’s a terrible idea,” Blink replied and shook his head. “I said I couldn’t guarantee your safety but I hoped you’d survive the night, at least.”

“I’ll be fine!” Hawk said and winked at Grim. “That hip is going to hurt like hell for days and he needs to stay off of it. I’ll make him a bed on the floor in my room and I’ll shoot him if he moves during the night,” he offered then tossed a grin over his shoulder at Blink.

“No!” Grim protested as he began to thrash again.

“I’m almost sad I won’t be here to watch this…” Blink murmured before he shrugged and turned to leave. “You have my permission to shoot him if he doesn’t listen. Good luck, Dr. Hawkesworth.”

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Something Wicked This Way Comes… Ready to meet Mr. Grim?

A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

This one’s a wild ride, my loves! I won’t waste time being indulgent since we’ve got a lot to cover and new characters to meet but I will warn you that See How They Run is just the beginning of a bigger mystery. Expect to see more Lake Cliff over the next few months, including Adjacent romances for Mr. Grim and Mr. Blink! Ready for the FIRST THREE CHAPTERS of See How They Run? Buckle up and hang on.

Chapter 1

“Let me try that again,” Ezra said as he grabbed Denver’s wrist and pulled it toward his mouth. 

Try your own.” Denver yanked his cone away as Ezra’s neck and tongue stretched and they laughed as they wrestled and danced into the alley. Denver checked to make sure they were alone before stealing a kiss. They often cut through the alley after visiting the market on the weekend or while walking home from dinner. The neighborhood was posh and popular with hipsters and older wealthy liberals so they could let their guard down and flirt and occasionally kiss, whenever they found a moment of privacy.

“I think I like yours better,” Ezra murmured and groaned as Denver’s lips covered his. Ice cream dripped over their fingers and onto the pavement as Denver licked Ezra’s lips and it was surreal, that a night could be so perfect. Ezra stepped into him and his free hand slid under Denver’s coat. Their breaths plumed around them as a busker’s guitar picked out “Stairway To Heaven” in the distance. He tasted like pistachio ice cream and Denver ached as he sucked on Ezra’s tongue but his senses prickled and his head snapped over his right shoulder as two men wandered into the alley. Ezra looked and Denver felt him tense. “Let’s go,” he said and gave Denver a shove. Denver nodded as he glanced behind Ezra and four men ambled into the alley and did their best to look casual as they made eye contact with the men behind Denver. He looked back and snarled as a van blocked the alley and the door was pulled open. “Oh, fuck…” Ezra whispered as he used his arm to shield Denver but he laughed.

“I’ve spent years hoping for another shot at this. Whatever happens, don’t let them take you. Call Reginald for help and get away,” he ordered under his breath and his eyes were hard as they pinned Ezra’s. “Don’t argue. Help me by getting away,” he urged and waited until Ezra gave him a quick nod but Denver knew he was panicking.

“I can’t let them take you!” Ezra whispered urgently but Denver smirked.

“It’s part of my plan. Trust me,” he said and pressed a quick kiss to Ezra’s lips. Ezra squeezed him tight then dropped his cone.

“Go!” One of the men called as Ezra pulled his phone from his pocket and Denver spun as they were surrounded.

“We’re in trouble!” Ezra yelled into his phone before it was slapped out of his hand and he was pushed against the wall. Two men grabbed each of Denver’s arms and he roared as he swung his torso and shoulders as hard as he could and shoved the man on his right into the bricks. He let go and Denver snatched the man on his left by his hair and drove his knee into his face before he heard the whine of a Taser.

“No!” Ezra screamed as he got loose. He dove at the men crowding around Denver and tackled the first one he could reach. There were muffled curses but Denver couldn’t get to Ezra as the shouts and grunts around them got louder and closer. Denver was elbowed in the ribs as his arm was twisted behind him and he swung and punched as hard as he could.

“Stay down, Ezra!” Denver ordered and jumped and kicked off the body in front of him, sending it flying and creating an opening so he could find Ezra. He was pinned to the ground and thrashing until the men holding him let go and quickly stepped back. Denver heard the Taser just before Ezra arched and howled. “You fucking…!” Denver growled before the back of his head exploded with sharp, bright pain. Denver’s legs buckled but he stayed conscious as his arms were caught and he was dragged away from Ezra, which was exactly what Denver needed. He gave his head a quick shake to clear it and willed Ezra to cooperate. 

“We’ve got him! Let’s go!” Someone yelled in French and there was a loud whistle just before Denver’s legs were picked up and he was rushed through the alley. Denver saw the open door of the van and he flashed the driver a promising grin as he was thrown inside. Bodies fell in, on top of him, and Denver waited for the door to slide shut and the sound of the tires peeling. He took a quick count—two in the front and six in the back—and Denver laughed as he reached for the closest man. He easily snapped his neck and pushed him into the man blocking the side door. Denver heard the Taser warming up and kicked the man holding it, sending him crashing into the back of the van as Denver was punched hard in the ribs. He heard a gun cock next to him and Denver rolled and grabbed the arm holding it and pointed it at the man with the Taser. Denver forced the finger around the trigger to squeeze then elbowed the man holding the gun in the face. The hand around the gun loosened and Denver slipped it from the man’s grasp and shot another man in the chest before he could fire his gun. Denver was tackled and pushed onto the floor but he rolled, so they couldn’t pin him. He hit the side of the van as it swerved and Denver grunted as a boot crushed his chest. He wound his arm around the ankle and jerked hard and blindly fired into the torso as it swung toward him.

“Pull over!” The man in the passenger seat yelled as he pointed his gun at the melee in the back. “He’s gonna kill us! I can’t get a clear shot!” He screamed and Denver grabbed the last conscious man. He locked his arm under his neck and used him as a shield and put a bullet between the eyes of the man in the passenger seat. Denver gave his shield a quick jerk, breaking his neck before he pushed him away, and launched himself at the driver. Denver slammed his fist into the driver’s face and wrapped himself around the seat and held on tight as he pulled the wheel hard. The van slammed into a parked delivery truck and Denver braced as the front crumpled and he was sprayed with bits of glass, metal and plastic as the driver’s airbag burst from the steering wheel. He swore as he was thrown forward and pain radiated from his right. Denver shook it off and made sure everyone else was down before he lurched at the sliding door and flung it open. He scrambled over bodies as they spilled out and hobbled over them. Denver squinted at the lights and the street signs and smiled. They didn’t get very far.

“Hey! Are you alright?” Someone called but Denver kept his head down as he dragged himself away from the wreck as fast as he could. He spotted Ezra as he came sprinting around the corner and waved with his good arm.

“Holy shit! You’re alive!” Ezra cried as he reached for Denver then swore.

“Is it that bad?” Denver chuckled but it was strained as he hugged his side and did his best to keep Ezra moving away from the van.

“You look like hell but what about…?” Ezra asked as he looked behind Denver. “Holy shit,” he whispered at the crushed, smoking wreck and the battered bodies. “We better go. Reginald said to get to Lake Cliff and that they’d be ready for us.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Denver said as they heard sirens and people began to gather on the sidewalks. “We’re definitely in trouble.”

Chapter 2

“This should cover the basics and we can get anything we’re missing here by tomorrow morning,” Wilder said and Toly snorted as he stepped back and made sure the screen was level.

“Unless Denver needs a transfemoral procedure, we should be fine.”

“I have to make sure we’re ready for anything. I can’t carry you into Lake Cliff’s clinic or an ER in Chicago. And you never know, mom might want to stay with us more,” Wilder argued as he arranged fresh boxes of gloves, gauze and pads on the counter. Toly hummed softly as he touched the switch on the side of the screen and frowned when it stayed dark.

“I am always happy when your mother visits but I believe she enjoys working in the garden and cooking with Sage. She might visit more if you stopped asking her to give me checkups and run my labs.”

“I know. But I worry about your blood sugar and cholesterol and who knows how much radiation you’ve exposed yourself to. I’m going to talk to Hawk, after he’s checked Denver out. He’d be cool,” Wilder said and Toly gave him an impatient look. He was hoping to make a good impression, when he met Dr. Hawkesworth. His resume and credentials were impressive and he was a decorated veteran. His experiences were featured in a bestselling novel about a Special Forces unit’s deployment to a particularly hostile province in Afghanistan.

“I don’t need a doctor,” Toly stated pointedly. “I’d like to pretend I’m normal and he’ll have his hands full with Denver. He insists he’s fine but Ezra said it’s very likely that he’s got a concussion, broken ribs, several deep lacerations and he is severely bruised.”

“He’s pretty tough,” Wilder argued and Toly blinked at him.

“Ezra said he has an open head wound and will need stitches in several places,” he informed him and Wilder’s eyes tightened as he stared over Toly’s shoulder before he held up a finger.

“Sutures!” He whispered as he went to the cabinet and began pulling out anything else Hawkesworth might need. “I know that you, Ezra and Sage won’t like hearing this, but Denver’s been through worse. He’d probably consider it a typical day in the field. I’ve seen his X-rays. He looks like a fucking appliance and all Denver cares about is whether he got the job done. He whooped their asses and Ezra’s safe. He’s not feeling any pain. Yet,” Wilder added with a wince. Toly pushed out a disgruntled breath and shook his head as he checked the cord then unplugged it. He grabbed the reader and checked the outlet.

“Odd,” he noted then raised a shoulder. “I need to check the fuse box,” he told Wilder and he nodded as he tossed a pack of sterilized tools next to the pads.

“Need help?”

“I think I can find the box and flip the proper switch,” Toly replied tartly and Wilder held up his hands apologetically.

“I know. I just like going with you,” he said and Toly groaned as he hurried across the breakfast nook/clinic.

“We might not have time later,” he whispered as he reached for Wilder’s eyes and he laughed as he captured Toly’s face and kissed him.

“I love you and Denver’s going to be fine,” he promised. Toly’s cheeks puffed out as he nodded.

“I believe you but I have a feeling we won’t have a moment like this again for a while,” he said then shut his eyes and rose on his toes. He stole a quick kiss and hurried off to check the fuse box. He whistled and wondered how far out Hawk was and squinted through the lenses of his glasses then rolled his eyes. They were off because he’d disconnected himself before working with the house’s electricity. But he checked Dr. Hawkesworth’s ETA just before he went dark. Hawk was on the northeast side of the city when Wilder called and based on his phone and car’s last location, Hawk was approximately seventeen minutes out. “I know that you and Denver won’t like hearing this, but you are not invincible and we will always be hurt when you are hurt. Poor Ezra,” Toly murmured as he passed through the garage. He grabbed the side door and paused when he heard a twig snap in the woods. He leaned and checked the trees but everything was quiet so he skipped down the steps. The fuse box was next to the door and Toly clicked his teeth when he checked the switch for the breakfast nook’s north wall. It was still on so he shut it off and went back in to check the outlet. Wilder was still doing his mental checklist and topping off the soap dispenser. Toly frowned as he recalled saying they didn’t need a breakfast nook that could convert into an operating room. The table’s legs collapsed and locked beneath the top and it was mounted against the wall to make room for a hospital bed and the chunky retro-style chandelier hid adjustable surgical lamps.

“I think we’re ready,” Wilder said to himself then glanced at Toly. He laughed wryly under his breath as he lifted the monitor off its brackets and Wilder hurried to help him lift it.

“I don’t need your help!” Toly protested. It was a large screen but it wasn’t that heavy.

“Sorry. I’m right here, though,” Wilder said as he held his hands out and spotted Toly as he lowered the screen and rested it against the wall.

“Thank you,” Toly said and ducked his head. “I will let you know if I need assistance.” He pulled the screwdriver from his hoodie pocket and waved it at Wilder thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter, if you’re used to broken ribs and busted noses. Those are my ribs and that’s my nose now and you’ll take better care of them, because I need you. Same goes for Ezra, Sage and the rest of them,” Toly added and poked Wilder in the chest with the screwdriver’s handle. Wilder laughed softly as he pulled Toly close for another kiss.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’d do, if I was in Ezra’s shoes but it sounds like he held his own,” Wilder said and Toly made a dismissive sound as he went to check the wires in the outlet.

“Of course he did. Ezra’s not a soldier but he’s observed soldiers in war zones and I suspect protecting Denver was his only priority.” He shook his head again as he removed the outlet cover. “I would have died before I let them take you. They tased Ezra and he sounded so scared when he called us back and told us they had Denver.”

“I know!” Wilder said soothingly as he rubbed Toly’s shoulders. Toly held up a hand and gestured for him to move back. Wilder’s head cocked and he gave Toly an amused look. “We wired this house ourselves. If anything’s failed, it’s that junction box or the circuit breaker’s defective,” he guessed but Toly raised a shoulder.

“I don’t play with electricity. I’m an appliance,” he reminded Wilder as he slid the junction box out of the wall and let it hang. He touched the red, positive wire and his vision filled with bright, flaring light and heat exploded in his arm as he was thrown back, into the china hutch.

“Toly!” Wilder screamed and everything went dark.

Chapter 3

“You’re sure we can trust this Dr. Hawkesworth?” Reginald asked and Aiden exchanged a loaded look with Paul.

“We can trust him,” Paul said as he watched the windows. “Wilder said he’s seen him pull off miracles on the street and I’ve read his file.”

Sage chuckled wryly as he arrived with an armful of pillows and throw blankets. Ezra said Denver was in rough shape so everyone was settling in for a long night.

“Sometimes, Chicago’s as dangerous as Kabul and Hawk’s the kind of guy who lives for that. He hangs around emergency rooms looking for gunshot wounds but he just got his operating privileges revoked at half of Chicago’s hospitals for assaulting a chief of medicine,” Sage explained and Paul snorted.

“I looked into that. They wouldn’t let him operate over a billing issue and he lost a patient.”

“Sounds like he won’t give us any trouble over the odd unexplained gunshot wound or laceration…” Lavender observed as he strolled past the windows and checked behind the curtains. Sage gave him a hard look before shaking his head at Aiden.

“Let’s not make this a habit,” he said and Lavender bowed his head in agreement.

“Of course. I don’t know who Denver’s pissed off but we’re putting a stop to this right now,” he insisted and widened his eyes at Reginald. Aiden couldn’t tell if there was more to that look but he pushed out a hard breath as he dropped into an armchair.

“We just got back. It was so quiet at the cabin and Lane’s still got a little vacation time left. We were going to do S’mores with Robin and Rose, when they got back this weekend. I don’t melt my marshmallows or eat them with anything but I like Hershey’s bars now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and Reginald snorted as he lowered onto the sofa and opened his laptop.

“I was expecting trouble but I can’t see why Denver would be caught up in this,” he said as he interlocked his fingers and cracked them then reached into the front pocket of his sleeveless hoodie.

“That sounds like something you should share with the group,” Paul said. He checked the clock and his cheeks puffed out as he turned on his heel and went to do another lap down the hall. 

“I’m not sure if there’s anything to it, yet. And we have our hands full with Denver, now,” Reginald said as he found a small baggie of powder and frowned at the laptop’s screen. “What in the hell?” Reginald muttered to himself as he tapped powder onto the back of his hand, along his thumb, then swung toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender and Aiden looked and saw the last of a flash of light and glanced at each other then at Reginald. “He’s gone silent. That can’t be good,” Reginald said then sniffed loudly as he dragged his nose along his thumb. He raised his head and his brows pulled together. “Oh. No…” He swatted at his face as he rose and pitched toward Paul. “Wrong,” he said before his eyes rolled and all the color drained from his face. He tried to grab the arm of the sofa but went limp and spilled onto the floor.

“Fuck!” Paul gasped and bounded over an ottoman and tore down the hall, to the guest room.

“Reginald!” Lavender called as he rushed around the coffee table and Reginald’s shoulders twitched hard as his body convulsed. Foam trickled from his mouth and Lavender swore as he rolled Reginald onto his side and patted his cheek. “Stay with us!” He ordered. Aiden hurried around the sofa and kneeled next to Lavender. He recognized the symptoms of an overdose and Aiden quickly compiled a list of the drugs that would cause this type of immediate reaction and how to provide emergency care.

“Make sure he still has a pulse!” Aiden ordered and Lavender nodded as he checked. It took a moment for him to find it as Reginald thrashed wildly. His eyes were rolled back into his head and he made gurgling, wheezing sounds. Reginald’s phone rattled on the table and Lavender swore.

“My phone’s ringing too,” he said as he pulled it out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. Wilder’s face and number flashed on Reginald’s phone but Lavender couldn’t help him. Aiden grabbed Reginald’s hand and it was clammy but it looked like he was fighting hard to hang on. His jaw was clenched as his neck stretched but his lips were turning blue.

“I’m here!” Paul said as he slid next to Lavender and Aiden fell back and scooted away. Paul checked his pulse then bit the cap off an injector pen before he stabbed Reginald in the thigh. “Hold on!” He begged as he found Reginald’s other hand and pulled it to his lips.

“Narcan?” Aiden asked and Paul nodded as he watched Reginald.

“I have an epi pen,” Sage said but Aiden shook his head.

“His heart hasn’t stopped yet and he’ll keep overdosing until the Narcan knocks out whatever this is,” he said as he gestured at Reginald. He suspected very high-grade heroin. Possibly cut with fentanyl or fentanyl cut with heroin.

“Can you see what Wilder needed?” Lavender asked tightly. Sage nodded as he pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Lavender looked furious and concerned as he held onto Reginald’s shoulder, as if he was willing him to shake it off and get back up. “I’m sure this was an accident,” he stated as his eyes flicked to Sage’s.

“I hope so,” Sage said quietly and Paul threw him a disgusted look.

“He said it was coke, so he’d be on his toes. He wouldn’t do anything that would take him out while Denver needed him.” He tugged on Reginald’s eyelid and swore under his breath.

“Yet you’ve got Narcan on hand,” Sage pointed out as he held the phone to his ear and Aiden shook his head.

“Reginald’s too controlling to enjoy heroin and he prefers uppers when he’s working,” he recalled and Lavender pointed.

“I told you, it was an accident,” he repeated and Sage winced then became alert.

“Hey, Wilder. Is everything ok? We’ve got a serious situation over here and…” He threw Lavender a startled look. “Oh, God. I’ll tell Jeremy and someone will be right over to help.” He was pale as the phone fell from his ear. “I don’t think it was an accident,” he said and swallowed hard as he looked at Reginald. “Toly’s hurt. He was getting everything ready for Hawk and Denver and shocked himself. Wilder said the fuse box must have been tampered with and Toly’s hurt pretty bad.”

“Jesus Christ!” Paul whispered as he looked over his shoulder, toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender’s nostrils flared and his eyes were hard with fury. Aiden swallowed hard and fought back a snarl as he put the pieces together. “We’re blind,” Paul realized.

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A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

The most beautiful story you’ll ever read about a $20 bill.

Of all the animals we meet in Beautiful Animal, the story of Arlen Woods is one of my favorites but it was also the hardest to write and go back to. His chapter still haunts me. Especially when I open my wallet, but in a beautiful way. I thought I’d share Arlen’s chapter with you because he’s the kind of romantic hero we often forget about and just one of the many beautiful clients we meet as Darby follows Channing.

Chapter 11

Rendition

Featuring: “Thanks for the Memory” by Bob Hope

Channing didn’t throw himself into Arlen Woods’ arms as soon as he opened the door and there wasn’t the immediate, familiar intimacy —like a lover coming back to bed— that Darby was coming to expect with Channing and his clients. Arlen was a very small, elderly man and he was frail and bent and Darby didn’t hide his confusion when Channing introduced him to the older man. Darby’s eyes were wide and blinking and his brows shot up his forehead but Arlen didn’t seem to care or notice as he shuffled through the living room.

Channing drove them to a modest two-story colonial home almost an hour outside of the city. He parked in the driveway and he was absurdly out of place but he slid his hand in his pocket and whistled softly as he walked up the path and climbed the porch steps. An envelope was clothes pinned to the mailbox and Channing unclipped it and tucked it into his coat pocket before softly tapping on the door.

“Arlen?” He called as he pushed it open and leaned inside then nodded when the older man turned off the television and rose from his recliner. He needed a cane and Darby’s mouth opened and closed as he debated asking Channing and Arlen if they were completely sure this was appropriate. Then, he saw the hospital bed in the dining room and he raised his Leica as his feet carried him past the sofa. She was so, so tiny and her eyes were so far away. Her mouth was open and slack and there was a shiny spot of saliva at the corner as she dreamed. There was nothing to her, her body was jagged lumps beneath a faded quilt.

“That’s my Rosamund,” Arlen rasped and Darby turned to find him leaning on his cane and holding onto the door. The dining room table was pushed against the wall to make room for the bed and Arlen’s hand shook as he pointed at it. “She’s there,” he said and urged Darby to look at one of the framed pictures among the pill bottles on the table.

“This is her?” Darby asked. His voice wavered and he cleared his throat softly as he picked up one of the frames. Darby’s eyes stung and his nose burned as an energetic and dapper Arlen and his young bride posed on the porch of the house they were standing in. “Well, she’s stunning,” Darby said as he touched the glass. Rosamund was gorgeous with her victory rolls and polka-dot dress.

“She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed,” Arlen said. He was wearing a wool cardigan over his pajamas and his hair was still wet from his bath. Darby hummed thoughtfully as he picked up another picture of Rosamund. She was seated on the edge of a stage and she was laughing.

“If you had to pick just one…” Darby said then whistled appreciatively.

“She was in the chorus and I played the piano and they almost fired me because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the music. I asked her out every day for a month but she kept telling me she didn’t date musicians. So, I finally broke down and swore I’d never touch a piano again if she’d let me take her to the movies and maybe hold her hand.”

“That’s some Excalibur level shit, Arlen,” Darby said in awe and he heard Channing’s rumbling chuckle as he hovered behind Arlen. “What did she say?”

“She said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard and that I could pick her up at 7:00 p.m.,” Arlen recalled and Darby gasped as he turned to the bed.

“You just knocked him clean off his feet, didn’t you?” He asked her. She didn’t blink or move but he could see her now. He saw the laughing girl on the stage and had to clench his jaw and breathed very carefully so Arlen wouldn’t catch on behind him. Darby waited until he could trust his voice then smiled as he turned. “Is it ok if I take some pictures in here? I won’t take any of her face or your pictures…”

“Take pictures of her. She loved to have her picture taken and I know she’s hoping you will,” Arlen told him, knocking Darby clean off his feet. He nodded jerkily as he turned and his hands were shaking and tears rolled down his cheeks as he wound the film.

“Our tea should be just about ready,” Channing said softly and his hands hovered around Arlen protectively. He helped lead Arlen away and Darby set his hand on the bed and breathed through another tremor of sadness. Darby’s head fell to the side as he stepped closer to Rosamund and carefully brushed her hair away from her face. It was fine and white and fluttered softly with the mist from the humidifier on the bedside table. Darby curled it around her ear and used a tissue to wipe her lip then straightened the collar of her nightgown. The quilt was pulled up to her chest and he gave the edge a careful tug so there weren’t any wrinkles.

“There,” he whispered then held up the camera. “You look lovely, Rosamund.” The flash popped and he watched through the lens for any response but she was still. Darby watched her pupils and pressed the shutter button but there was nothing and it hurt in his chest. He almost touched the back of her hand but her skin was like crepe paper and he was afraid it would tear so he took a picture of the tiny wrinkles and the smudgy purple stains then the jagged lumps in the quilt. Darby focused on the roses on the other side of the bow window then looked at the pictures of Rosamund on the table and noted the roses. He had a feeling she was living in the dining room to make her care easier for Arlen and because of the roses. A single cut rose stood in a drinking glass on the bedside table and Darby smiled. “How about one for Arlen?” He asked as he tapped the water off the stem and broke it so he could slip the end behind her ear. He did his best to mimic a victory roll with her hair but it was too limp and thin so he settled for more of a swoop. He stepped back and considered then raised the camera and took the shot. “I won’t tell Arlen so it’ll be a surprise,” he said then turned when he heard a few soft notes from a piano. Darby followed it into the living room and around the stairs and past the kitchen. He found a small den and Arlen and Channing were at the piano with their tea cups.

“I thought you didn’t like Bob Hope,” Channing said and his fingers crawled over the keys and playfully hopped over Arlen’s so he could hit a higher key with his pinkie. Arlen shook his head as he gave him a teasing shove with his elbow.

“You know I hated George Burns. He stole a cab from me. He called me ‘kid’ and threw a nickel at me like I wanted to shine his shoes and then he stole my damn cab. I missed a job interview so I had to go into the Navy,” Arlen complained. Darby hung along the wall and moved in so he could get their tea cups and their hands on the keys. They talked and laughed in hushed tones and a bit of a song would drift from the piano every now and then. Channing was rapt as he sat next to Arlen and listened to his memories. He set his elbow on the piano and propped up his chin and Darby envied Arlen for a moment. He was the sole focus of Channing’s undivided attention and anyone would believe that he was utterly smitten and Arlen was the most fascinating man on the planet.

“I met Bob Hope when I was in the Navy,” Arlen said and Channing nodded.

“It was one of his USO tours and you got to meet him and he pissed you off,” he recalled. His eyes sparkled and his lips pulled at the corner as he watched Arlen. Channing gave every client his undivided attention, to the exclusion of everything else in the room, but he was a tamer, more soothing seductive with Arlen.

“They needed a piano player and I got volunteered and I was so damn excited and ready but he just ran his mouth and did his bit and he never even needed me. I was ready and praying that he’d tell me to play ‘Thanks for the Memory’ but I just sat there like a dummy for twenty minutes,” Arlen muttered. Channing shook his head and clicked his teeth.

“Absolutely unforgivable,” he said then tipped his head toward Arlen. “Would you play it for me?” He asked but Arlen shook his head.

“I don’t think my fingers or my voice are up to it,” he said.

“Then I’ll play for you,” Channing decided. Arlen clasped his hands together in delight then sat back so Channing could have the keyboard. The keys tinkled and Channing leaned toward Arlen. “Thanks for the memory of rainy afternoons, swingy Harlem tunes…”

“Motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes,” Arlen attempted but it was a faint rasp so Channing kissed him softly.

“How lovely it was,” Channing crooned smoothly then touched his forehead to Arlen’s. “Thanks for the memory.” He laughed softly and pecked at Arlen’s lips. Darby held onto the camera and held still because he didn’t want to interrupt them with the flash. He found it was hard to watch Channing go back in time with Arlen so he distracted himself by staring at the dust motes as they caught in the setting sun as it filtered in through the blinds and the pulled-out sofa bed. The bed was made and there were two pillows but the one by the end table with the pill bottles, Kleenex and another quietly whirring humidifier had a round divot in the middle while the other pillow was propped and waiting with a perfectly smooth pillowcase.

“I think I’d like to lay down for a bit,” Arlen told Channing, pulling Darby back to the piano. Channing laughed tenderly as he kissed his cheek.

“I think I would too.” He took a quick sip of his tea then swung his legs around the bench and stood. He gave the lapels of his coat a dashing tug then smoothed his sleeve before he offered Arlen his arm and helped him to his feet. Channing took Arlen’s tea cup then patiently strolled with him to the sofa bed. He helped him lower and sit then set Arlen’s cup on his end table. Channing dropped a kiss on Arlen’s forehead then shrugged out of his coat as he turned to Darby. “Not too many pictures of this, all right?” Channing said quietly as he draped his coat on the piano and Darby nodded as he backed away. Darby leaned against the wall by the door and braced himself as Channing eased off Arlen’s cardigan. He folded it and set it on the coffee table at the foot of the sofa bed then stood in front of Arlen as he slowly pulled off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt.

Darby took one picture. Arlen’s hands rested in his lap and his eyes were full and glowed as he stared up at Channing and watched him undress. Darby took a picture of Arlen as he went back in time and adored Channing with a younger man’s heart and eyes.

Channing took his time removing his shirt and trousers and set them next to the cardigan on the coffee table. It wasn’t a sultry strip-tease or particularly sensual. He was just a shockingly handsome man slowly undressing but the rise and fall of Arlen’s chest became more rapid as Channing stepped close. Arlen was old and frail again as Channing supported his arms so they could slide around his body and hold him. Then, Arlen shut his eyes and hummed drowsily and he was young as he rubbed his cheek against Channing’s stomach and breathed him in. Arlen kissed around his navel and nuzzled his semi-hard cock then sat back so Channing could help him to his pillow. Channing went around the bed and eased onto the quilt, facing Arlen, and scooted close, until their noses were touching. He took Arlen’s hand and guided it to his lips and kissed his fingers.

“You’d better not be thinking about the shoes,” Channing said and Arlen laughed as he cradled his face and kissed him. It was clearly an inside joke and Darby wanted to catch it with his camera but he knew it would be too intimate and hurt in the darkroom. He knew the whole roll would hurt but he made himself watch and suspend the moment with his eyes so it would hang in his head.

Channing guided Arlen’s hands to his erection and they murmured and teased each other until it was hard and straining. Channing waited until they were both restless and impatient then slid his hand into the front of Arlen’s pajama pants. Darby understood that this was how Arlen remembered sex with men. It was the hands in pants and hushed laughs and kisses of a close quarters rendezvous in a secluded corner of a battleship or the backseat of a car. It probably wasn’t as breathless and urgent as Arlen remembered but his breath turned into frantic hisses as he came and he gasped and giggled as Channing’s cum spilled over his fingers.

Then, Arlen was too tired to be young and he was heavier and drowsy as Channing discreetly cleaned the mess in his pajama pants then lovingly tucked the quilt around him. He took his time and sat on the edge of the bed as he dressed and Channing rambled quietly about baseball as Arlen drifted off to sleep. A nurse was coming in, just as they left.

“How’s your father feeling tonight?” She asked Channing and he grinned easily as he held the door for her.

“He’s sleeping in the den,” he said and she nodded and made small talk as she took off her coat and went to check on Rosamund. Channing wasn’t relaxed and he didn’t whistle as he walked to the car and Darby felt heavy as he lowered into the passenger seat.

“How?” Darby’s voice cracked and he had to turn his head away as the pressure built in his chest. He knew what the sob would sound like if he released it and Darby did his best to hold the door shut. He knew what he was afraid of and why it hurt but he mentally pressed both of his hands against the door and pushed back as hard as he could.

“His son found me,” Channing said and Darby’s head swung around.

“His son?” He wished he hadn’t asked and he knew Channing was struggling with his code and his grief as the muscle in his jaw twitched and his nostrils flared.

“Rosamund and Arlen made a pact,” he whispered and there was a pause as his chest shook. Channing checked the rear-view mirror and changed lanes and his cheeks puffed out before he continued. “I think most couples make a similar pact, in the event that something should happen to one of them. Rosamund knew it was taking her and she had a very honest talk with her son. He said…” Channing’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. “He said the only thing she was afraid of was leaving Arlen alone. She knew Arlen wouldn’t be able to hold up his end of the pact but she didn’t want him to be lonely. So, she told her son that if Arlen couldn’t date again, to do what he could to help him find some kind of comfort. Arlen’s son agreed but he didn’t bring it up or even think about it until he started to get scared. He saw Arlen slipping away from him too as his grief became steady and unrelenting. It’s all around him as he waits for the love of his life to die the slowest death imaginable.”

“But why did he pick you? Why a man?”

“He let Arlen pick. He gave him two numbers and told his father that it didn’t matter to him, as long as Arlen found something that helped.” His voice caught again and Darby nodded in agreement and used his sleeve to wipe his cheek.

“He chose a man because he didn’t want to replace Rosamund?” He guessed but Channing sighed.

“I think he chose me because he could connect to the young man who went into the Navy when he was nineteen, before he came back and lost his heart to Rosamund. He can keep her as the core of his emotional and sexual self and still find pleasure by connecting with his past and dwelling there for a bit. I think it helps him, feeling young again. He’s not the fading hopeless man I met, when I arrived for our first appointment,” he said and Darby nodded again. He didn’t take the pictures but his photographer’s eye catalogued the wet hair, the fresh pajamas, the crisp pillowcase and the tea cups that were definitely the “good china”. Arlen prepared for their date and it would have been the highlight of his week.

“What about Rosamund? Why didn’t they prepare for that?” Darby asked and Channing held up his hand.

“I don’t know and I’ve left it alone. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d cope with watching the man I love slowly die.” His hand remained in the air as he looked at Darby and their gazes clung for a moment before Channing looked back at the windshield. “I don’t know what the hell I’d do if I was in his shoes so I just do whatever I can to help. And I hope that she’s exactly where Arlen thinks she is, and that she’s young and waiting for him to join her,” he said then reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope then handed it to Darby. It was light and flat and Darby’s fingers were shaking as he looked inside.

“There’s only twenty dollars, Channing.”

“I know,” he whispered and Darby grabbed his hand and they cried for much of the drive back to the city.

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