“There are men you wouldn’t mind dying for, Brogan,” Timmerson said, his gaze distant, as if he were daydreaming about one of the good presidents. Lincoln, maybe. “Then there are men like Joel Henniton.”
Brogan Smith sighed. He’d been working for Security Division for three years now and this was the first time he’d heard his boss—polite, reserved Pete Timmerson—willing to bad-mouth a client.
“By that you mean…”
Timmerson reluctantly admitted, “He’s a dick.”
“And I’ve worked with dicks before,” Brogan said, resigning himself to another detail of annoying client behavior. Then he realized exactly what he’d said and added, “That’s not how I should have phrased that. Sorry.”
Timmerson’s lips twitched. He was tall and dark-skinned, with ears that stuck out and a low, soothing voice that he put to good use calming down people on the verge of violence. He could make joining the circus seem rational, which might be why Brogan kept showing up for work even though he spent most of his time following around assholes. Predictably, Timmerson was using that voice now.
“Joel Henniton is the COO here at Touring Industries.” Timmerson gestured to the room—and the building—at large. They were sitting in one of the tastefully appointed offices that Touring had set aside for Security Division’s temporary use—large windows, expensive mahogany furniture, fresh-cut roses in a glass vase resting on top of the low bookcase that housed thick tomes of classic literature that no one would ever read. Beyond the closed door, Brogan could hear the bustle of his colleagues in the big conference room they used as a base of operations.
Timmerson continued, “Henniton’s responsible for the day to day operation of the entire company, which manufactures armament. Mostly light arms for the military, until recently. Touring’s trying to grow their customer base, but they’re competing with defense contractors that’ve been around for decades and have way more money.”
“So they’re playing rough to catch up,” Brogan inferred, and Timmerson nodded.
“Henniton’s made some enemies in the process, and a few months ago, he received some death threats. That’s when Oriole Touring—the CEO—contacted me. Technically, the company is the client, but the threats target Henniton alone, so he’s the only one getting protection for now.”
“Sounds straightforward,” Brogan said, frowning. “On the surface, anyway.”
“The problem is that Henniton’s made very few concessions with his schedule and he refuses to call the cops.”
Brogan’s eyebrows flew up. “No cops? Oh, that’s not suspicious at all.”
“I’ve been told that they’re working on a project that’s vulnerable to industrial espionage and they’re unwilling to take the risk of leaks. We’re a precautionary measure only, and Touring Industries expects this situation to resolve itself as the project progresses.”
“I can’t decide if that’s naive or shady.”
Timmerson’s exhale seemed equally unsure. “Henniton’s given me next to no information, so I can’t even have my own investigators look into who’s behind the threats. Henniton hit the roof when he realized I was having the standard background research done into the employees here to find likely suspects, so that got nipped in the bud. He wants to be safe and he wants his secrecy, which is making my life hell, as you can probably imagine.”
“What about the CEO—Touring? He’s going along with this?” Brogan asked, shifting to sit up straight without thinking about it.
“So far. There’s been no violence and no signs that Henniton’s being followed, which leaves me without a leg to stand on. So right now we’re remaining vigilant while respecting his wishes. But that could change at any time, and I don’t expect that Henniton will handle the shift with any aplomb.”
“Ah. That’s where I come in,” Brogan said. “Okay.”
“I trust your judgment, Brogan.” Timmerson leaned forward, adding some heavy eye contact to his weighty tone of voice. Touring was a big client for Timmerson’s company—there was a lot of money at stake, in addition to the lives of the men and women on the detail. “I know you won’t let Henniton bully you into taking unnecessary risks. The fact that you won’t punch him in the face for trying is also a plus.”
Which explained why Brogan had been transferred from his post in Portland down to Salem.
The shift in location wasn’t an inconvenience—since Security Division had offices in both cities, Brogan had bought a house in Woodburn, roughly halfway in between. He liked Salem more, anyway.
That didn’t mean he was looking forward to the assignment. While the confidence his boss had in him was nice, Brogan couldn’t help thinking it might be time to start throwing some tantrums just to get an easy case for once.
Without any intention of doing so, Brogan had gotten a reputation for being drama-free and hard to rattle. A deserved reputation, if he was honest—after the way he’d been raised and six years of military service, petty concerns about clients rolling their eyes at him or who drank the last of the coffee seemed awfully…well, petty. However, that usually stuck Brogan with the nightmarish clients. His boss really needed a better reward system.
“If they want everything done their way,” Brogan asked, “why don’t they have us train their current security staff in personal protection techniques? I mean, I saw plenty of armed guys on the drive in, and they aren’t amateurs.”
“I suggested that. Mr. Touring repeated that this situation is temporary. He doesn’t feel it’s necessary for the company to develop a permanent protection department.”
“Money,” Timmerson agreed.
“Makes sense, assuming he’s right about that whole ‘temporary’ thing.”
Brogan lifted his eyebrows. “Is he right?”
“God, I hope so,” Timmerson said heavily. “Henniton’s only part of my headache. Ford’s…well, he’s his own brand of challenging.”
“Henniton’s executive assistant. I kind of like the guy, actually—he’s exacting, and he’s extremely good at his job. But Ford’s also very sharp-tongued and he doesn’t suffer fools. There have already been several altercations with Ark.”
Brogan made a face. George Ark was not his favorite coworker—the guy was eighty-percent ego, and a raving homophobe to boot. “What happened?”
Timmerson smirked—it wasn’t an expression Brogan had ever seen him make before. “Let’s just say Ford has a deft hand when it comes to criticism.”
“Made Ark see stars, did he?” Brogan asked, trying not to sound like he wished he could’ve been there to see it.
Timmerson would never talk shit about employees, but he couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eye as he said, “Ark will be taking over your old post in Portland.”
Timmerson rummaged through a drawer. “Look, Henniton’s going to treat you like furniture unless you annoy him. Ford, on the other hand, will notice every single thing you do. Neither one of them is easily appeased. Watch your step and don’t take anything personally.”
“Sure,” Brogan said, resigned. Laid-back or not, he suspected he’d be spending the next few months trying not to punch people. Hell of a way to kick off the new year.
“I’ve got you scheduled as backup escort for this first week so you can get used to everything without having to take lead. You’ll be shadowing Mario today, but this afternoon I want you to familiarize yourself with the layouts of both of Henniton’s properties.”
Timmerson handed Brogan a ring of keys and a thick sheaf of paper held together with a large binder clip. “Client packet. It’s got the usual—addresses, floor plans, and what little info on Henniton’s staff, family, friends, competitors and suspects I was able to scrape together before he shut that down. The Touring NDA is a bit draconian—I’ll give you a few minutes to read and sign it. Join us in the morning briefing next door when you’re done. You can leave the form on the desk.”
“Okay,” Brogan said. Timmerson clapped a hand on his shoulder as he headed out, and then Brogan was alone. He took a minute to half-heartedly consider the pros and cons of getting a job at Best Buy or something, but as much as Brogan disliked drama, he loved his job—and the all-important feeling of being needed that he got when he did it well. He resigned himself to a few shitty months, and flipped back the cover of the packet to find a series of photographs of the client.
Joel Henniton was in his midforties, fit and good-looking in a slick, capped sort of way, but in most of the photos he was either glaring or wearing a sharp-toothed smile. With his golden tan, confrontational blue eyes, and red-blond hair, he looked like one of those pompous rich guys who lounged around country clubs playing tennis and bullying the wait staff. Not that Brogan had ever been to a country club.
Brogan turned the page and began reading about all the awful things Touring would do to him if he shared company secrets. It didn’t faze him. Non-disclosure agreements were very common. Bodyguards saw a lot of shit that clients wouldn’t want shared, and whether it was personal, embarrassing, or downright illegal, if it was covered by the NDA, it was one hundred percent confidential. Brogan signed it without thinking twice.
It was part of the job.
When the morning meeting broke, Brogan headed for the equipment cage. He swapped his personal firearm—a Colt 1911 A1, a .45 that he had a permit to carry concealed—for an M9 Beretta registered to Security Division. He preferred his own weapon, but if he had to shoot someone, it would make his life a lot easier if he was using one of Timmerson’s. He knew the M9 from his time in the army, so it was no hardship. He grabbed an earpiece and radio, too. There was a button on the cord that could be toggled to activate the mic clipped to his lapel, allowing for constant hands free use, or so it only picked up what he said while he was pressing the switch.
He depressed the switch. “Buenos dias, Mario,” he said, which was officially all the Spanish he knew.
“You’re supposed to say ‘testing,’ idiot,” Mario said into his own mic from across the room. Brogan was unconcerned by Mario’s complaints. Their conversations often had an air of Mario playing the exasperated older brother, even though Brogan was only a year younger—something he rubbed in with pleasure now that Mario had hit thirty—but Brogan liked it. Brogan had spent his childhood raising his younger siblings, so it was nice having someone boss him around for a change.
Mario was a mixed bag of genetics. He said that if you went back far enough he had a relative from every country in Europe and more than a few in South America as well. He wasn’t exactly handsome—his chin and cheeks were a little too round—but women loved him anyway. Mario said it was because the blood of a thousand sexy conquistadors thundered through his veins. Brogan said it was because he looked like a chump.
They met at the elevator to head upstairs, bullshitting as they went. They’d been friends since his first day at Security Division, and they worked well together. Once on the twenty-first floor, they entered Henniton’s personal reception area, a large alcove lined with small couches and low tables that gleamed from the attentions of some devoted janitor. Financial magazines were posed on a wooden rack in the corner, and an older woman sat typing behind a big desk. The night shift guys filled them in then took off, and Mario entered Henniton’s office quietly.
With Mario inside, Brogan took up his position at the door. The basic gist of their protocol was that the primary—Mario today—would shadow Henniton. As backup, Brogan’s duty was to ensure that nothing interfered with Mario’s ability to keep bullets away from the client. He made sure the car wasn’t tampered with, that their route was safe, that points of egress remained open, and he reviewed anyone who wanted access to Henniton in order to weed out trouble.
When the elevator dinged again, Brogan got ready to clear whoever stepped out, only to freeze in place when the doors opened.
The man who emerged was absolutely, excruciatingly exquisite.
For three entire seconds, Brogan couldn’t breathe. If the stranger had pulled a weapon, he’d have had the hit no problem because Brogan was standing there staring like a complete fucking idiot, barely able to keep his mouth from dropping open in full advertisement of his own stupidity.
The stranger was in his early to midtwenties, whippet-lean and graceful in a brutally tailored dark blue suit with a sharp vest and nearly obscene trousers that made his legs look ten miles long. Night-dark hair had been slicked into a conservative style and provided sharp contrast against pale, creamy skin. He had aristocratic features—high cheekbones, a slim, straight nose, a hard jaw and slashing brows that give him a somber, intent air—but his mouth, by contrast, was sweet, almost delicate.
Brogan’s brain finally woke up, and he took a second glance at the stranger, this time searching for signs that he was a threat. He carried a brown leather briefcase in one hand, staring down while he thumbed the buttons on a smartphone with the other. There were no bulges in his clothing to suggest he was carrying, and there was nothing overtly menacing about him.
The receptionist paused in her typing to say, “Good morning, Mr. Ford.”
“Suze,” he said politely, looking up.
His eyes were big, black and shrewd.
His gaze traveled to Brogan, cool to the point of disdain, and then he walked past him without hesitating.
Brogan fumbled to find his tongue. “Sir, if you could wait a moment.”
“I’m on the list,” Ford said without stopping.
“Yeah,” Brogan said, turning to follow gracelessly. He recognized the name from the conversation with Timmerson, and the fact that the receptionist knew him was verification of his identity, although Brogan still needed to give Mario a heads up. He was just a few seconds behind, though, and those trousers were as perfectly cut in the rear as they were in the front. Frankly, Ford had an ass that made Brogan’s mouth go dry all over again, because fuck—
Ford entered Henniton’s office without knocking.
And Brogan stood there like a stupid bastard and let him.
“Everything clear?” Mario’s voice sounded through his earpiece, the question vague enough, fortunately, that support wouldn’t realize that Brogan fucked up.
“Uh, clear,” he said, activating his mic.
It took him a good five seconds to recover.
“He is on the list, if that makes you feel better,” the receptionist—Suze, apparently—said, hints of a smile curving her lips. “He’s Mr. Henniton’s executive assistant.”
“Yeah,” Brogan managed. He gave her a flustered shrug. “He’s not gonna try to shoot Henniton, then.”
“Less likely than most,” she replied, the hint of a smile becoming a full grin. “And don’t be too embarrassed. More than a few of the women have had that same reaction.”
“Great,” he said, shaking his head. Now he’d broken protocol and outed himself in the same thirty seconds. An auspicious start to the day.
Brogan sat back down and Suze resumed her typing, the click-click of her fingers on the keyboard disappearing into the background. He studied the hall, determined not to mess up again, angry with himself for mishandling a simple thing. Verifying identity and telling Mario that Ford was here, that was all he’d had to do.
Brogan had never been that guy. He didn’t think with his cock, didn’t let himself get distracted. He wasn’t married to the rules or anything—he could improvise with the best of them, even preferred it at times—but he was a professional, for crying out loud. His brain had never stopped functioning just because something gorgeous walked by, and he’d be damned if he’d let it now.
Another issue was that Brogan wasn’t out at work. His family and a couple friends, Mario included, knew he was gay, and he didn’t live in the closet. He pulled at gay bars when he wanted to and he didn’t do a damn thing to conceal who he was beyond keeping his mouth shut on the topic around his colleagues. It was one of the few things that Brogan actively disliked about his job—a hyper-masculine field like security wasn’t even close to abandoning old-school bigotries about orientation, and while he doubted he’d be in danger if he were outed, he really didn’t want the hassle.
All in all, he wasn’t pleased with himself for how he’d reacted.
He had his game face on by the time lunch rolled around and he got his first look at Joel Henniton in person. The guy was six-and-a-half feet of brawn with shoulders that could put a freight train in its place, and hands like mallets. He made Brogan feel small—something he wasn’t used to—and towered over Ford, who was, unfortunately, every bit as impossibly beautiful as he’d been the first time he walked past.
As Timmerson had predicted, Henniton didn’t deign to notice Brogan.
Brogan held the elevator doors for the others, ensuring that he and Mario stood in front for the ride down, and he ignored the quick once-over of concern that Mario threw his way.
Henniton said, “I don’t like Neeley for this. He’s disloyal. He’ll turn on us as quickly as he’ll turn on them.”
“It’ll be free market information in less than six hours,” Ford replied. “If we don’t go with Neeley, we’ll lose our head start while we search for another source.”
Brogan listened with half an ear. Most of his attention was on his radio, where he’d hear about any trouble that might meet them beyond the elevator doors when they got to the lobby. Henniton considered Ford’s words then said, “Okay. Call him.”
“All right. Now, about facilities management. We need a new director. I’m not working with that idiot anymore.” Ford’s voice was pleasantly deep—not that Brogan cared—but his words were astringent.
“You put up with him for longer than I expected,” Henniton said. Given what he’d heard about Henniton, Brogan half expected fireworks. The tone didn’t seem to offend the man, though. If anything, he sounded amused. “Fire him, then. Although I’d like to point out that I’m supposed to be the cutthroat one, Embry.”
“Thank you,” Ford said.
The elevator stopped on the fourteenth floor, but Mario told the woman waiting there to catch the next one.
When they were on their way again, Ford said, “We should promote Kensing to the position.”
“Which one is he?”
“She is the one who argued for the new plumbing system in buildings ten through sixteen last year.”
“That cost a fortune, didn’t it?” Henniton mused.
“$26,755.” Ford rattled off the figure like recalling numbers from a year ago was nothing.
“Too much,” Henniton said.
“Not compared to the fortune it would have cost us if we hadn’t done it. The great flood of last winter, remember?”
“Oh, that. God, what a nightmare,” Henniton said. He heaved a melodramatic sigh.
“She’s my choice, and she’ll leave if we try an outside hire. Promote her.”
“Fine,” Henniton said.
Ford made a satisfied noise and typed something into his smartphone.
It appeared Joel Henniton allowed his executive assistant—someone who didn’t look old enough to rent a car—to dictate a surprising number of his business decisions. At least Ford seemed viciously competent so far.
The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and Brogan and Mario exited into the busy lobby first, surveying the area as Henniton stepped out behind them. The atrium rose several stories high and people on upper floors could look over the railings all the way to the lobby. The south wall, where the main doors were set, was entirely glass-fronted, letting plenty of gray January overcast in, and the lush greenery, mahogany reception desk and leather couches extended a quiet elegance to visitors.
Gorgeous, but a security nightmare. Too many lines of sight, too much space and cover. Brogan’s skin crawled.
“I’ll be back at one,” Henniton told Ford. “And don’t forget, we’ve got the evening meeting tonight.”
Brogan, in the midst of sweeping his gaze around the lobby, caught the quiet nod Ford gave Henniton.
Then Henniton was striding away, Mario at his side, and Brogan only got one last glimpse of dark, cool eyes and a lovely, unsmiling mouth before Ford vanished into the crush of people bustling through the lobby.
Stop looking at him, asshole, Brogan told himself. And get focused before you get yourself killed.
The road leading to Touring Industries was guarded by a squat structure and a thick yellow rail only raised once visitors had been cleared by the two guards on duty. The cameras peering down from the roof were monitored by the Touring security department and, now, by Security Division employees in their support office. Past the guardhouse, the road wound up a long hill toward the administration building, twenty-six stories of silver and glass shining even in the winter-dull sun amid acres of unenthusiastic grass. The sixteen outbuildings—warehouses, manufacturing plants, and the like—sprawled out in the distance, all of them connected by gravel paths and lined with large parking lots.
It would’ve been a stunning place, Brogan thought, driving Mario and Henniton back on grounds after a lunch meeting, but for the razor wire atop the chain link fence lining the perimeter and all the armed guards and dogs on patrol.
Brogan resumed his position outside of Henniton’s closed office door, watching reception and the elevator. Mario had his mic open, and occasionally Brogan overheard bits of Henniton’s phone conversations.
When Ford returned, Brogan looked him over once for signs of distress or trouble, and when he found none, said into his radio, “Mr. Ford entering.”
“Copy,” Mario said.
Brogan held the door for him. Ford never looked up from his smartphone, although he did offer a frigid, “Thank you.”
Brogan nodded. He did not turn to watch Ford’s very firm ass in those exceedingly flattering trousers, because he was a fucking professional, and professionals didn’t do that sort of thing no matter how much they might want to.
After the door closed behind Ford, Brogan thought, that’s how this morning was supposed to go.
When the escort portion of his shift ended, Brogan drove to Henniton’s home to familiarize himself with the property. After he announced his presence to the guys on shift with Henniton’s wife, the black iron gates lumbered open and Brogan guided his truck between massive oaks down a long, curving drive to a mansion—there was really no other word for it.
He was met at the front door by Wiley Santos, a shrimp of a guy who was nonetheless an excellent operator. Together, they made their way through the house, discussing potential problems on the grounds, like the ridiculous amount of foliage that blocked line of sight from the first floor windows. When Brogan asked Wiley if Henniton would let them cut some of the branches back, all he got in reply was a snort. He’d sort of anticipated that answer anyway.
Brogan met the wife as well. Alyssa Henniton was in her late thirties, excruciatingly well-maintained but apologetic anyway, like she’d failed the world at large by daring to approach her forties at all. She patted her hair or smoothed her silk blouse every thirty seconds and her eyes roamed around as if she anticipated the arrival of the second trophy wife at any moment.
Brogan met the household staff as well, learning their names and their routines so he could instantly identify if someone was allowed on the property. Then he wandered outside, learning the boundaries and fences, testing the range of the motion-sensor lights and the potential hiding spots where someone might conceal himself. He would mostly be scheduled at Touring, but just in case, it was important that he know his way around.
Once he’d finished at the main house, he drove to the Hennitons’ other property, a small but lavish apartment in a luxury building downtown. Security Division had someone stationed in a van in the parking lot 24-7, monitoring cameras that Mr. Touring had paid to have installed. After stopping at the van to check in, Brogan introduced himself to the manager, who peered at his ID and called support to confirm his identity. While he waited, Brogan decided that this whole setup was further proof of Henniton’s demanding nature—rather than give up visiting the apartment until the death threat situation was resolved, Henniton had his boss paying through the nose to ensure that he had the option to drop in any time he liked.
After he was approved, Brogan went upstairs and let himself in with his brand new key.
It was an elegant place—deep cream carpets, lots of light and space, a wrought iron railing around a spacious balcony. The furnishings were stylish in that bland way that spoke to the tastes of an interior decorator working for someone he or she hadn’t met: beige walls, couches and chairs with button-tufted backs, and a discreet entertainment center, shelves appointed with refined bric-a-brac.
It was also deeply suspicious.
Someone was living here full time, for one thing: while the place was neurotically neat, a dirty coffee cup rested in the sink, fresh produce chilled in the fridge, and a novel sat on the bedside table with a bookmark two-thirds of the way through. There were two toothbrushes in a cup in the bathroom.
This, Brogan realized, was an apartment for a mistress.
No wonder Alyssa Henniton looked so damn twitchy.
Brogan wasn’t here to snoop, but part of him was curious about the woman. He’d never met an actual mistress, and he wondered about the kind of person who got into this sort of arrangement with a married man. A good quarter of the books on the shelves were written in French, and she had a comprehensive collection of Nina Simone on vinyl that Brogan stared at for a long minute with pitiful lust. There was a print of Madonna of the Pinks hanging on the wall behind the sofa and a small, melancholy oil painting over the bed—a woman sitting in a field, her parasol discarded beside her.
He tried to avoid the thought of Joel Henniton in the enormous bed with the mystery woman. He did not need that image in his head.
There was only the one way in and out, and the apartment was on the sixteenth floor, several stories higher than any of the surrounding buildings, so there was little risk of sniper fire through the windows. The alarm system was sophisticated enough that an invader would need significant skills to enter without alerting anyone, and the Security Division guard out in the van was in contact with the support desk.
The place was reasonably secure.
Brogan was torn about working an evening shift now, because while he was mildly disgusted at the idea of waiting outside while Henniton cheated on his wife, he was also intrigued by the mistress. He imagined a Frenchwoman in black silk, probably with enormous boobs and a sultry laugh.
With a last glance around—the mystery woman should hold out for someone better, he thought—Brogan left.
The rest of the week went by in much the same pattern. Brogan worked day shifts, mostly as the backup escort or in support, but sometimes he was sent to inspect restaurants and hotel conference rooms before Henniton was scheduled to be there. During his support shifts, he made headway with his orientation packet, which outlined the people most likely to be trouble—rival VPs and such—although Timmerson was right. There wasn’t much information available, and it bothered him that there was so little to cover.
Thin research meant things slipped through the cracks. He wanted to kick Henniton for being a secretive, pouty bastard.
But Brogan was settling in. He worked with Mario every third or fourth day, and while Henniton had yelled at plenty of his own employees, he’d only ever ignored Brogan.
In short, everything was going fine.
Well, except for Ford.
He showed up in hurried bursts, appearing out of nowhere to update Henniton on one thing or another before vanishing again. Each time, Ford seemed oblivious to Brogan’s existence, which bugged him considerably.
The problem was that Brogan had always been the kind of man who found competence sexy. And Ford was, quite possibly, the most competent person he’d ever met, especially for someone who should’ve still had zits (but didn’t) from tripping over the last vestiges of puberty. In fact, Ford’s mastery of his environment meant that he’d single-handedly terrorized half of Touring’s middle management into excellent work performances as well.
It wasn’t that he said anything rude or personal or mean, because he didn’t. He simply annihilated excuses and attacked poor logic in a calm, cold voice while staring at people as if they’d spilled soup all over themselves. The only thing that didn’t prompt his palpable scorn was flawless proficiency, so everyone busted their asses to provide it. He was not well-liked by his coworkers (Brogan had seen more than one dart in the opposite direction when they saw Ford coming), but the reason Ford always had whatever Henniton asked for was that he ran the tightest operation Brogan had seen since he got out of the army.
And he did it while looking perfectly put together: shoes shined, shirt starched and every hair in place. Brogan managed to avoid staring at Ford all the time, but it was difficult to resist. He’d never had such a powerful, instantaneous reaction to someone.
Brogan had never had a serious relationship at all, actually, which was a polite way of saying he usually wandered away with a friendly smile around the time the condom came off. Brogan said this was because he was the independent, lone-wolf type. Mario said this was because Brogan picked shallow, needy people to fuck and then wondered why he didn’t want to talk to them.
Mario also said Brogan could do better, which was usually the point when Brogan changed the subject.
Brogan knew he had his good traits: his face was respectable, even if his bottom teeth were sort of crooked, and he had a small but gnarly scar through one eyebrow due to a work incident with a shattered plateglass window (long story, and fuck pot-bellied pigs). He kept muscle on easily. He was capable of being charming, and he supposed he was loyal and giving with the people he cared about.
That was pretty much where the list ended, though.
His head was still a little fucked when it came to the war, and he wasn’t exactly going places—he didn’t have any goals beyond paying his bills and catching the Amazing Race marathon this weekend. He also had such a powerful aversion to small talk that he’d walked away from someone midsentence twice before (he was drunk both times, though, and he figured it was at least partially the other person’s fault if Brogan got so uncomfortable that he had to bail on a conversation) and yeah, that was more than a little rude.
Perhaps worst of all, Brogan very rarely wanted things, which meant that when he did come across something he wanted, he had next to no capacity to resist. Which explained why Brogan kept biting holes in his lip when Ford ignored him. The fact that Ford could ignore him was proof that this pheromone insanity was one-sided.
Brogan’s personality defects aside, there was also the question of Ford’s orientation. The obvious assumption would be that a man as meticulously dressed, and well-groomed as Ford would be gay, but Brogan was the poster boy for straight stereotypes and the thought of bare tits made him shudder. He was well aware that how a person looked had little to do with what was happening in their pants. And gay or not, Ford seemed the type to insist that the people he was dating took their trash out.
Not that Brogan had put any thought into this.
He knew this whole crush-thing with Ford was stupid. Brogan and relationships of any kind did not mix, and he’d learned that the hard way growing up. Brogan’s sense of self-preservation tended to get a bit thin on the ground when it came to the people he cared about, and that meant that the easiest way to avoid doing stupid shit was to avoid caring about people.
Despite the occasional burst of loneliness, Brogan preferred it that way. His life was simple and painless. If it was also a bit empty, and if he sometimes wondered what it would be like to come home to someone…well.
There was no such thing as perfection.
On the following Friday Brogan worked his first evening shift. He lingered nearby as Henniton greeted board members in the first floor atrium with Oriole Touring, the president and CEO, at his side. Touring was dour-faced and white-haired, shrunken next to Henniton’s hulking frame, but that didn’t keep Henniton from speaking to him with great deference. Brogan hadn’t met Touring and didn’t care to—he found the old man disquieting.
Brogan was the primary escort and technically should’ve been right at Henniton’s shoulder, but Henniton had refused to allow Security Division staff into the confidential board meeting, which meant Brogan would wait in the lobby. Considering the alternative—dry fiscal conversation—he found it hard to mind.
Several minutes before six, when the meeting was due to start, Ford arrived, looking as cool and composed as ever, passing a folder to Henniton with a nod. Henniton nodded back, saying something that Brogan didn’t catch, and then he went into the conference room, the door shutting behind him.
Ford came over to the waiting area, laptop bag under one arm, a knee-length, black wool coat over the other, and hesitated when he saw Brogan sitting there. Ford glanced over his shoulder as if he’d rather go anywhere else, but Brogan didn’t take it personally. Ford didn’t seem to like anyone.
“How’s it going?” Brogan asked, aiming for professional courtesy.
Ford sat down on the loveseat next to Brogan’s so they were separated only by a small end table, but there was no friendliness in this—it was the only other seat near the outlet. He bent down to plug his laptop in and Brogan admired the long line of his neck until Ford caught him. One of Ford’s graceful black eyebrows lifted imperiously before he turned away, ignoring him and his question entirely.
It didn’t piss him off—as Timmerson had noted when putting him on this detail, Brogan wasn’t, by nature, inclined to anger easily. He freely admitted, on the other hand, to being kind of juvenile, and Brogan couldn’t have felt more provoked to start shit if Ford had double-dog-dared him.
“What a time for a board meeting, huh?” Brogan asked. “Six on a Friday? You’d think guys important enough to be on a board would be gearing up for the weekend.”
Ford ignored this, too, pointedly tilting the screen of his laptop away before entering his password, the intended insult obvious enough that Brogan found his lips twitching against his will.
“What are you working on there?” Brogan asked, and when Ford looked up, long-suffering and impatient, Brogan smiled back at him with empty-headed charm, so innocent and pleasant that a Keebler elf would look sinister in comparison.
Ford was, impossibly, unmoved by this. “Do you often lurk outside of meetings to annoy people?” he asked.
Brogan grinned. “I’m making friendly conversation.”
Ford scowled. “You call this friendly conversation? You’re trying to fuck with me.”
“I think you just called me a liar,” Brogan said, amused despite himself. No, Ford didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he found the sharpness refreshing. “That’s not very nice.”
“I’m not a nice person,” Ford replied, and Brogan had to concede that to be a fact. Not that this bothered Brogan. Niceness, in his experience, was frequently a facade, easily stripped away in the face of prejudice or anger, and boring to boot.
“I bet you could be, if you wanted to,” he said, still playing the simpleton, if only because it seemed to be keeping Ford’s attention. “Being nice is a good thing. It makes people think well of you.”
“You’re like a fucking Care Bear,” Ford said, rolling his eyes.
Brogan couldn’t help laughing, and now he had a problem, because in addition to finding Ford beautiful, it turned out that he liked this cranky little shit so far. Which put him in a troubling position, because this was no longer a case of messing with someone who had a stick up his ass.
This was flirting.
On the one hand, flirting with someone he was strongly attracted to wasn’t wise for a man who wasn’t out at work, but Brogan was starting to realize that Ford tended to make him rather stupid. After years of making fun of people in books and movies and songs for doing reckless things because of pants-feelings, it was a little embarrassing to realize he wasn’t so superior after all.
On the other hand, if he was going to do something stupid, Ford was probably the safest option. Brogan’s first couple weeks at Touring had taught him that Ford was the definition of closemouthed. He didn’t complain to others when he was frustrated, didn’t make polite conversation in the elevator, and he never gossiped. Who would he gossip to? He never talked to anyone about anything less work-related than who had left the break room microwave smelling of fish.
And the fact that Ford hadn’t told Brogan to fuck off and get back to work was reassuring in its way. The man certainly knew how, but instead of threatening to get Brogan fired, he was sitting here glaring and sneering and being downright adorable.
“A Care Bear. Hmm. That’s one I’ve never gotten before,” Brogan said. Then, carefully considering his footing, he added, “It’s not a classic sort of come on, is it?”
“I am not coming on to you,” Ford said.
“That’s a relief,” Brogan said, wondering what a come on from Ford would look like. Something pretentious and stiff and painfully sincere, no doubt. The man needed a substantial kick in the composure. “I hate turning people down in a work environment. It’s awkward.”
He caught the tiny hesitation in Ford’s response—wait, you would’ve said no? Who do you think you are?—and Brogan nearly bit his tongue off trying to keep his expression bland. Then Ford huffed and returned to his laptop.
“What do you like to do?” Brogan asked, as if Ford wasn’t doing everything possible with his body language to discourage conversation.
“Sit in silence,” Ford responded promptly, and Brogan couldn’t help grinning again, because that was perfect.
“Now you’re just spurring me on,” Brogan warned him cheerfully.
Ford lifted his head and, for what might be the first time, really looked at Brogan. Those dark, dark eyes surveyed him from tip to toe, shrewd and slow and judgmental, and Brogan felt that gaze like a weight, warm and solid along every inch of his body. He had to swallow, because he’d had sex that was less affecting than this long, intense perusal. And when it was done, Ford met Brogan’s gaze, gave an indifferent shrug and said, “Let me take this opportunity to say that you’re wasting your time with this charming wastrel routine. It’s not my cup of tea, and frankly, you’re not that good at it.”
Now that was evidence of same-sex orientation. A straight guy trying to put him off would’ve simply said that he was straight. Done and done.
For the next minute or so, Ford stared at his laptop screen and Brogan stared at Ford, giving himself the freedom to study the crafted, masculine lines of his features, the way his hair was still neatly groomed after a full day, and the fact that the man must have a lint roller somewhere in the building because his trousers and suit jacket were spotless.
He wasn’t flawless, Brogan decided. Ford was uptight, and he probably spent hours each week ironing, which in Brogan’s mind was sheer insanity. He had a slight bump on the bridge of his nose in profile, although it wasn’t large enough to distract from the aesthetic pleasure of looking at him. Brogan had already seen that Ford had a nervous tic of tapping his left thumb against his thigh or the table when he was thinking hard. He supposed it could get annoying given enough time. Ford was sort of an asshole, but Brogan was having fun with it, so he couldn’t call that a defect. So no, not flawless, but there was nothing that would make Brogan run screaming, either.
“You’re staring,” Ford said finally.
“So stop it.”
“Because,” Ford snapped, clearly aware that it was hardly a stunning comeback, but he was getting flustered now, something that Brogan appreciated. If firing a screaming incompetent from his job as facilities director didn’t faze the guy, it was flattering that some mild flirting did.
“You like carnivals?” Brogan asked, thinking about the ad he’d seen in the paper that morning. Not that he had any intention of asking Ford to go, because trying to date someone from work was a horrible idea if he wanted to stay in the closet, and Ford seemed more likely to cut him with something sharp than say yes. Brogan was just running his mouth, but he couldn’t help enjoying the way Ford exhaled loudly and aimed a vicious glare in Brogan’s direction.
“They’re absurd and they abuse animals and the food is shit.”
“Valid reasons,” Brogan acknowledged. “But there’s also rides. Ferris wheels, you know.”
“I don’t like heights.”
“He feels fear?” Brogan said, pretending to be shocked. “My illusions of you are shattered.”
“You’re a dick,” Ford said, but his lips had quirked up on one side. It wasn’t a smile, not remotely, but it was the closest he’d ever gotten in Brogan’s presence. “I’m not afraid of heights. I just don’t like them.”
“Have they been talking about you behind your back or something?” He didn’t give the other man a chance to respond. “Besides, carnivals have clowns. Everybody loves clowns.” He paused. “Actually, everyone hates clowns. Clowns are creepy. I don’t know why anyone ever willingly spends time with clowns.”
Ford gave him a baleful look. “Do your conversations always proceed so ridiculously?”
“In Left 4 Dead 2 you can hit a zombie clown in the face and make its nose honk,” Brogan offered.
“Amateur stuff,” Ford said coolly. “Talk to me when you’ve completed the gnome-carrying mission online. That takes skill.”
Brogan’s heart thumped in his chest. Playing a survival-horror video game? It was an utter contradiction of everything Brogan had seen so far from this responsible, painfully serious young man, and Brogan liked contradictory people. They were never boring.
He said, “I carried that gnome the whole damn way through the Dark Carnival.”
“You must be at least halfway decent, then,” Ford replied, the chill in his expression finally beginning to thaw, even if his spine remained poker-straight. “It’s not easy.”
“I don’t care how hard any of the secondary content is. I’ll take anything over the Hard Rain campaign. I hate witches.”
Ford released a puff of air—not a laugh, not really—and quietly volunteered, “That’s my favorite campaign.”
“You’re a glutton for punishment, then. Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t seem the type to play video games online with a bunch of teenagers and frat boys,” Brogan said. He thought for a second. “Or nearly thirty-year-old men who should have better things to do with their time.”
Ford shrugged. “Everyone needs a hobby. When I was fourteen I set out to find an appropriate one and it eventually came down to Xbox or the violin. I figured video games would actually give me time to get laid. Shows what I know.”
Brogan laughed. He realized he was leaning forward over the table between them and that it had been several long minutes since he even looked around the atrium. Thank God there were Touring guards in with Henniton or he wouldn’t even know if his client was still alive. He was starting to think that Ford might be his Kryptonite. He wasn’t sure he cared; his pulse was thrumming and he was having trouble tearing his eyes away from Ford’s profile.
It felt good. Amazingly good. A million times better than anything he’d ever felt picking up some random guy in a bar.
He forced himself to take a long sweep of the area before turning back to Ford.
“You set out to find an appropriate hobby? How very systematic of you.” He tried to imagine a fourteen-year-old Ford and ended up with a skinny kid in a spartan bedroom debating the merits of various activities, his forehead scrunched up in serious contemplation. Brogan found the image absurdly charming. “Did you make a pro/con list with your choices?”
Ford didn’t answer for a second. Then his lips twisted in a wry, embarrassed smile. “A spreadsheet of my criteria,” he confessed. But Brogan barely heard it, because Ford had fucking dimples. The frost had vanished, replaced with the warmth and approachability of…God, Brogan didn’t even have a word. He just knew his mouth had gone dry. Christ. As if Ford needed more ammunition to make Brogan crazy.
Brogan stared at him, and after a moment Ford tipped his head, as if wondering what could’ve provoked Brogan’s startled captivation. Whatever he saw in Brogan’s face had the smile sliding away. For a second he stared back, his eyes deep and dark and uncertain. A pink flush stained his cheeks, and the blush was shy and lovely, and Brogan was hit with such a surge of want that he nearly stood to yank Ford into his arms, close enough to taste that mouth. Very nearly.
And then something almost like panic crossed Ford’s face before it was hidden. He swallowed and turned back to his laptop.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said in a low voice.
“How am I looking at you?”
“Like…” He made an impatient, annoyed sound, as if he were struggling to find the right words. The sweet uncertainty was entirely gone, replaced by tight lips and a narrow glare. “You know how you’re looking at me. You have to stop.”
“Why?” Brogan was self-aware enough to know that he was riding a line that he shouldn’t cross, but he couldn’t remember ever being this tempted to push. “I like looking at you.”
Ford closed his eyes for a heartbeat even as his cheeks flushed again, and fuck if that wasn’t playing havoc with Brogan’s self-control. “I’m not interested, all right?”
Brogan didn’t believe that for a second, so he said mildly, “Last I checked, I haven’t asked you out.”
“I can’t talk to you anymore. I have work to do.”
“At almost seven on a Friday night? Even you can’t be that much of a workaholic.”
“What do you want?”
Brogan smiled. “Now that’s a dangerous question to ask a man. Some might take it as an offer.”
“No more bullshit,” Ford snapped. “What’s all this for? What do you want?”
There was discernable apprehension beneath the anger in those three sentences, so Brogan shifted gears. “This,” he said truthfully. “To talk to you.”
“To talk to me,” Ford repeated.
“Is that a new one for you?” Brogan asked, legitimately curious.
“You’re full of shit,” he said. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Whether you do or not, it’s true. You’re pretty enough, that’s for sure. Kind of skinny,” Brogan added, biting back a grin when Ford’s head jerked up and a ten megawatt scowl emerged, though it wobbled as Brogan finished, “I’ll bet you don’t have a shortage of people who want to get in your pants. Not going to lie and say I’m not interested in that, because you’re too smart to think otherwise. Still, as much as I like to look at you, you’re far more entertaining to talk to.”
Ford glanced at him again, and Brogan was taken aback by his expression. While clouded by anger and defensiveness and suspicion, underneath there was a hint of something else, something far more upsetting. As if Ford was scrambling for solid ground while the world fell apart beneath his feet.
Brogan sat up straight, troubled. Then that elegant jaw hardened and all emotion disappeared.
“Mr. Smith,” Ford said, and Brogan was startled to hear his last name, because he had, after all, spent the last week thinking that Ford didn’t know who he was. “I’m flattered. But I wasn’t lying when I said I’m not interested. And I think you should practice more caution. This isn’t appropriate, and Touring isn’t a tolerant company.”
Brogan studied him for a second, not bothering to ask what Ford was scared of. Ford would only deny being scared at all. And besides, even a truthful answer wouldn’t lead anywhere good. Brogan’d started out intending to pick at Ford’s straight laces a little, and ended up flirting despite his better judgment, so the slope was already slippery. He needed to remember his priorities, and none of them involved prying into the business of a smart-mouthed office drone, no matter how lovely he looked when he blushed.
Then the door to the conference room opened and Ford slid his laptop into his shoulder bag and stood. He was as remote as he’d ever been, everything approachable and human neatly tucked away. Brogan got up more slowly, trying to shift his attention to work while Henniton made his way over after shaking a lot of hands and nodding a few good-byes.
“Good meeting, sir?” Ford asked. All business.
“Short and to the point,” Henniton replied. “Just as they should be. Do you have what you need?”
Ford nodded, tucking his coat over his arm, and Henniton looked at Brogan. “Are your people ready?”
“One moment please, sir.” Brogan radioed his backup—Wiley Santos—to bring the car around. The meeting had let out early so it took a few minutes and Brogan tuned out the discussion between the other men during the wait. When Wiley was ready, Brogan escorted Henniton down in the elevator, and Ford came with them, a terse, cold presence on the ride down. They walked out to the car together and Brogan stalled out at the passenger side rear door, because he assumed Henniton would stop to say good night to Ford here. Henniton had plans to see his mistress, but Ford wasn’t walking away. He was standing there with Henniton, and it took Brogan a second to realize that Ford was going with them to the second property.
Almost on autopilot, Brogan opened the door for them. Henniton got in first, chattering about something that no one else was listening to. Ford followed, meeting Brogan’s gaze for the length of a heartbeat, his chin lifted against the expectation of judgment, and then Ford was in the car next to Henniton.
Brogan slid into the front passenger seat. Wiley made a couple attempts at conversation, but Brogan’s responses must’ve left something to be desired because he gave up. The rest of the ride was silent but for the muted tones of Henniton and Ford talking in the backseat on the other side of the privacy partition.
Brogan didn’t know what to be shocked about most—that the person Henniton was cheating on his wife with was male, that he was a subordinate, or that it was Ford.
No, actually he wasn’t shocked about the first two at all.
And it wasn’t only shock that he felt about the last one, although he wasn’t firing well enough to think of the names for the other things he was feeling.
He found himself going back over every interaction he’d witnessed between Henniton and Ford, looking for hints of the relationship, wondering how he’d missed it. Wondering if he’d missed other signs as well. He thought of words like coercion and sexual harassment and pretty much drove himself crazy the entire way to the apartment.
After all, it wasn’t like Henniton made Ford particularly happy. Brogan would’ve noticed that for sure. But Ford never laughed, and until tonight, Brogan had never seen him smile, so he couldn’t be ecstatically in love. And he’d bet a thousand bucks that Henniton had never played a video game in his life.
Granted, Brogan’s ability to observe Ford had been limited to working hours until now. Maybe Ford loathed his job so much that even the private worship of his lover couldn’t make him chipper during the day. Or maybe they were just that good at hiding it. Henniton was married, after all, and Ford was his employee. They had excellent reasons to keep it a secret.
Which brought Brogan back to sexual harassment.
And here was another word that kept springing up: unfair.
It seemed very unfair indeed that the first man that Brogan had ever shared such potent, instant chemistry with was not only already taken, but taken by a raving asshole who apparently left Ford apprehensive at the idea of flirtation with someone else.
Not that any of this mattered, he told himself. Because Brogan was going to do his job and keep his personal life separate and simple, just like always.
He tried to tune out the voices of Ford and Henniton behind the privacy partition.
When they arrived, Wiley remained with the car and Brogan, once more blank-faced, led the way inside. Ford was stiff and quiet. Henniton didn’t say anything, but he kept glancing at his executive assistant—or whatever Ford was now that he was on his second job. Brogan wasn’t sure if there was a male term for mistress, which seemed a glaring failure of the English language at the moment.
On the sixteenth floor, Brogan walked down the empty hall, hyperaware of Henniton and Ford at his back. Brogan used his own key, and began to clear the apartment.
Brogan thumbed in the security code when the alarm started beeping, and then he took a moment to center himself before working his way through the rooms and balcony, keeping his right hand free in case he needed to go for his gun. He saw the place anew as he went, checking the bathroom and the bedroom, and finished by peeking in the armoire—full of gorgeous suits, which would’ve been a dead giveaway had he bothered to look on his first visit—before hesitating in front of the enormous bed. Standing there, he realized that Madonna of the Pinks and Nina Simone and the French poetry and the painting over the bed, which Google had since informed him was called Summer, were all Ford’s choices.
“Apartment’s clear,” he told support, and got a confirmation.
When Brogan returned to the living room, Henniton was easing Ford’s suit jacket off his very rigid shoulders. Not for the first time, Brogan noted that Henniton was a giant compared to Ford, who stood slim and straight-backed in his considerable shadow.
Brogan cleared his throat. Ford jolted away and Henniton’s hands closed hard on his upper arms, forcing him still and making Ford’s cheek jerk in a small wince.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Henniton asked Ford, who shook his head.
“The apartment’s clear, sir,” Brogan said, his tone as professionally neutral as possible.
Henniton spat, “Then you can get the hell out, can’t you?”
Brogan left with no small amount of gratitude to be out of there.
He stood in the hallway, tracing the pattern in the tasteful but boring wallpaper with his eyes, doing his absolute damnedest not to think about Henniton’s hands on Ford’s body. Tried hard to forget that just twenty minutes ago, he’d been thinking if he played his cards right, he might be able to convince Ford to let Brogan touch him. Definitely ignored the nagging voice saying, Ford is scared. Ford doesn’t want to be here. All things considered, Brogan was unsurprised at the size of the pit in his stomach.
Excerpt from Bad Judgment by Sidney Bell, copyright 2016, published by Carina Press, TM.