The Discerning Palate

 

The Discerning Palate
Chapter 2


 

Thank you, Reed, for the editing, you wonderful man, you! Wow, this is a long installment...

Please check out my other stories, The Groupie and Creative Employment, also located in adult friends.

I have a webpage at www.noelblue.com and also a yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NBstories/ where everything shows up first, and I chatter now and then.

Danke for reading, any comments, good or bad, welcome!

noelblue@gmail.com


 

The night after my encounter with the annoyingly still-sexy Alex Channing I slept poorly. I watched some TV, was unimpressed with my options, and then tried to read myself to sleep. Being the fact the book was a brilliantly written and dense tomb about Chinese orphans walking across deserts in bare feet uphill (okay, no, not quite, but close enough) and thus completely incompatible with my need for mindless distraction, I put it down quickly. I wished I had steady access to a computer; the internet really would have helped.

I popped open a bottle of wine and downed half of it far too quickly, although it did have the immediate impact I was looking for. Unfortunately, the long term effect was that I fell asleep drunk and got caught in what could only be aptly described as a restless, adult wet-dream.

It started with Junichi, all compact, controlled energy. Charisma and a touch of madness. In the dream, as in life, he was brilliant, sly and mercurial. Even asleep I could feel how upset I was to see him. Everything I wanted to pretend didn't happen flooded my brain.

He looked 30 at 40, wide, handsome face and a muscled, strong body that generated energy. We were in his beautiful Harujuku apartment, downtown Tokyo. It was small but immaculately decorated in blues and grays. We were fighting, per usual. Me angry and ranting and quickly becoming silent and sullen. He was quiet, baiting, mocking my American lack of emotional control while loving it; feeding on it gleefully. Our lips were close to each other - me snarling - him expressing he didn't give a crap about me or my tantrums - me telling him I didn't care about him or his shitty restaurant. He finally cracked, anger flaring, grabbing me by my shirt. And then we were kissing, practically tearing at each other. I knew this fight, the observer me noted. We'd had this fight once or twice. Or a dozen times.

I purposely bit at his neck and upper arm as he ripped my clothing off, damning him, as he bent me over his counter and fucked me. Fucked me hard; fingers digging into my back and my shoulder, my hair. Junichi had loved my hair. He used it as a handle. He also would drag his fingers on the tattoo on my arm. It'd been a point of contention in its very existence, a symbol of my last relationship of which he was very jealous. As he pounded inside of me, filling me with pain and pleasure as I pulled desperately at my own cock, he grunted my name again and again, speeding up as I started to feel myself ready to come, the cold barrier of the counter adding to the surreal combination of rage and sex.

And then it reminded me it wasn't a memory but a dream, because it changed. Now I was in the Nickel, bent over a pool table instead, the strokes of the cock moving into my ass not angry and pounding but slow, tender, sensual. And the voice was no longer Junichi's angry, possessive snarl but the deep, cocky tones of Alex. Whispering, echoes of when he leaned in next to me at the bar. The hand was larger, and it ran over my skin slowly. I came then, bucking against the wood, crying.

"Isaac," He said my name, gently, leaning his body down against mine. And I heard how young it was and turned my head and saw it wasn't the Alex who I had seen that night who had fucked me, but the Alex I'd known - by then barely - at 18, still a touch rounded of face, skin so fair and lips red that there was a touch of beauty to his masculine handsomeness. I made a noise of pleasure, reaching back to touch him, and brushed against my own body.

And, fuck all, it wasn't the body I had now. It was the body I'd had then, that of a chubby teenager. And then I felt him laugh, and....

I shot up in bed, eyes wide. "SHIT," I swore, bringing a hand up to my forehead. My skin was slick with sweat and, especially embarrassing, I had managed to cum in my sleep. Probably at the same time I came against the pool table in the dream. Being naked, it meant the sheets would need cleaning. "Fuck."

Seeing it was about 6:30 in the morning and already light I gave up on the whole full night of sleep thing and got up, stripping the bed and dragging the sheets to the laundry room; chagrined at myself for such an adolescent episode. Cumming in the middle of the night! For fuck's sake.

Getting myself some orange juice, I leaned against the counter, squinted at the rising sun and pondered my strange, erotic vision before it faded away.

Was it because of hormones? Yeah, that was definitely part of it, no doubt. I'd not had sex for, what, 2 months or so? After Junichi, that was a long time. Hell, after the whole of my 20s that was a long time. But it'd been a largely self-imposed break. Things had been pretty ugly there at the end of our relationship. I'd become a pet and a sex toy somehow, and that attitude of his had started to cross over into his kitchen where he was treating me markedly different than he was his other chefs. Maybe we'd both figured out at the same time that I didn't really like him overly much as a person despite my inability to tell him no in bed. And that viewpoint didn't improve as his treatment of me got worse. Somewhere he had convinced himself he loved me and it created a horrible mix of sex and angry, confused emotion. After breaking up with him, our working relationship became even more of a nightmare and I had received Kim's offer as almost a blessing. My friends in the industry thought I was an idiot; Junichi Tanaka was one of Tokyo's top chefs. And what sort of idiot left his kitchen of their own accord, ex-boyfriend or no?

My type of idiot, obviously. But the break sexually had come naturally.... like I had to clear my palate. My mind skipped over to Alex. Sandy. That wasn't just hormones, or, well, it wasn't just pent-up ones. He'd been my first love, probably, truthfully, from the time before I was even a sexual being, and I wasn't prepared to see him again. Some emotions never die. The fact he didn't even recognize me, well... what could you do? It was doubtful he'd thought of me much in the last decade.

But I was now in Marrington and there were things about the first 20 years of my life that were going to smack me in the face now and then, and these were all emotions I'd need to handle. I looked around the apartment I was squatting in and had to admit I was grateful that at least I had this place to be comfortable in. Large, spacious, sparsely but tastefully decorated (albeit with a definite feminine bent), nice HD TV, large well-equipped kitchen (this would be invaluable as I put together a menu - no time like today, 'eh?) and a large door wall that led to a small balcony. Sure, not the best view as it looked into other apar-

It took me a moment to notice the woman who was watching me, since my mind hadn't yet fully engaged with the day. But there she was, across the small courtyard, a slender young brunette in her pajamas with coffee cup in hand. She was watching me with a bemused expression, and I had to wonder how long she'd been there, studying me in my naked contemplation. And, since I'd just been thinking about Junichi and Alex, I happened to be semi-hard. Fantastic.

Meeting her gaze, I winced and lifted my hand in both greeting and apology. Her face broke into laughter. She winked at me, gave me a thumbs up and then turned away. Thank god.

I rolled my eyes at myself and went into the bedroom to put some clothes on.

"This day better get less embarrassing, stat," I thought to myself grumpily, "or I'm crawling back into bed and never leaving."


 

"Hey, Isaac, construction guys are going to be in all day today, so I'd stay away. I left you the car outside, in case you need it. I'll call you tonight." Click.

Kim still sounded stressed; there was false cheer in her voice, but that was with an emphasis on 'false'. She'd left me the car? Without coming up to say good morning, get a cup of coffee? Weird.

Making a promise to myself to harangue her into telling me what was up the next time we met, I threw on jeans, a red T-shirt and my black baseball cap again. It was going to be another beastly hot day, although it wasn't quite there yet - the whole summer looked like it was going to be killer. Always a fantastic time to be playing around with deserts, chocolates, creams and pastries. (That was sarcasm)

I knew my budget wasn't going to be huge, so I pulled out some of my notebooks and cookbooks, jotted some notes in my fresh new binder for the cafe, made a list of what I'd need in terms of professional supplies so when I checked the website of the place in the city to see current price- shit, the internet. I'd have to swing by the cafe and steal Kim's laptop for a bit, sit in Starbucks. A bonus of the cafe visit was I could also check out the ass of the one construction worker with the dark hair. Mental capacity of a pile of bricks, but much sexier.

First I wanted to see what I actually had at hand in this godforsaken place so I went downstairs, briefly admired the warm summer air and the clear sky before re-applying my pissy cynicism and quickly found Kim's ugly white SUV. It was one of the few things she had gotten in the divorce from what's-his-fucking-face. Soon I was heading towards the shiny, new upscale supermarket a bit further out of town, blasting Black Flag and thinking about tarts.

I wandered in the front door, grabbed a basket and found myself whistling.

"Hi," I cheerfully greeted the middle-aged woman squeezing the lemons and she looked at me, startled.

"Hi?"

I grinned and she blushed. I moved on. Talking to random people meant I was in a good mood, I think. It'd been a while since I'd been in a good mood.

I was muttering over their piss-poor sugar selection, backing up to get a bigger picture view of my options when I ran into someone.

"Oh, shit!" I turned, eyes wide. "You okay?" I blinked. "Uh, oh, hey, Marian! Right?" I leaned down to pick up the small bag of flour she had dropped. "You're the one who works in the Nickel?"

She took the bag from me and smiled in amusement, and my deja vu concerning her face came back like a truck. She was no longer wearing makeup or a low cut dress; instead dressed simply in a sweater and jeans and simple wire glasses. She was more attractive that way, in my uninformed opinion. "Yes. And you're the one who got kicked out of the Nickel last night."

"It's true." For some reason, here in daylight, that embarrassed me. Also, uncharacteristically, that I had stated I was gay. I wanted this woman to approve of me, almost as if she mattered in some way. "It wasn't how I planned on ending my evening there, however, I swear."

She shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about it, it happens all the time. And both you and Alex are right - Robbie IS an ugly motherfucker. And a violent idiot. It was nice to see him NOT get what he wanted out of pushing you around for once." Her smile became a bit wicked.

I laughed. "Nice to hear it's a pretty commonly held opinion around here. But I could tell you had seen it all before; you had that look."

"More often than I'd like. But Alex really did help you, you know, Isaac; Rick and Tony - those guys always at the pool table - have always been big fans of gay-bashing." Her expression became thoughtful. "But I suppose Alex has always been saving your ass; at least he did when you were kids."

"Huh?" She peered sternly at me over the top of her glasses, eyes so piercing it was like she could see into my soul. "Holy shi- Mrs. Royce!"

"Ms. Paski, thank you very much. I'm divorced." She pushed her glasses back up her nose. "I wasn't sure you remembered me at all."

"How could I forget?" I gave her a lop-sided grin. "You were my favorite teacher! You hated us little shits, but you were so FUNNY."

"I didn't hate you." She sniffed, and now her dry, watchful demeanor was as familiar as an old blanket. A blanket from 6th grade to be exact. "I just think kids shouldn't be treated like little angels when they're anything but, that's all."

"I think I love you," I said, wide-eyed. "If only you were a man, I'd be all over you."

She did that peering thing again. "And I think you're a very different man than I thought you'd be back when you were a kid."

"Gay and all, huh?"

"Oh, no, not that... what with the way you were looking at Alex even then, I'm less than surprised." She suddenly jolted forward as an old man rounding the corner in what can only be called a distracted manner ran into her, and followed with a snort and a dirty look and shuffled on.

"Well," she watched the retreating back wryly, "maybe we should get out of the way."

"Eh, fuck 'em. If I'm paying 8 bucks for confectioner's sugar, they better be prepared for me to stand in their store for a bit."

"I always expected that smart mouth of yours would be beat down by the time you were an adult. Obviously not." Mrs. Ro - Ms. Paski sounded pretty approving of that fact and she went up another 20 points in my estimation. "I think I expected you to be... less happy."

"Why?" I lifted an eyebrow at her. "Because I was a sorry fat fuck with a crush on his hot and popular best friend and a mouth on him that kept getting him noticed by the assholes?" I grinned ruefully. "My future looked pretty bleak, even to me."

"Yes, approximately, although you weren't as hopeless as all that; my hope was your intelligence would win out over your discontent, as it obviously has. How'd you do it? I have some kids now who could use some help."

I thought about it for a moment. "I found cooking, found other friends, found being 'Goth' for a while, found the world outside Marrington was full of people who were worth my time, found exercise. It wasn't all that hard."

That was bullshit, of course. It'd been excruciatingly painful.

"Maybe I'm not surprised, then. You had that ridiculous mouth on you, but you could be just as charming as Alex when given the chance. And you might have been fat but you were never ugly, not even slightly. A truly ugly person doesn't end up looking like you do now." Holy shit, she gave me a once over. "You still have those amazing eyelashes and eyebrows, among others attributes."

There was no fighting the blush. "You trying to get in my pants, Ms. Paski?"

"No, I know I don't have Alex Channing's particular attractions, as I'm sure you noted. He's an asshole for not recognizing you, I want to note." She adjusted her glasses primly.

"Damn." I was in awe. "You're still a force to be reckoned with, Ms. Paski. So you are still teaching? Is the second job just for the summer?"

"God, no, it's all-year round. I couldn't afford to live alone and take care of my boys after I left Mark." She saw my facial expression and shrugged. "Teacher's salaries are not so hot."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It keeps me busy and some nights I can make great money. And summers are so boring. I can't wait for it to be over. I might want to kill my students, but I miss the little asses." She said this with a totally straight face.

"Miss the daily beatings of small children?" I teased.

"Something like that, yes. What do YOU do now?"

"Pastry chef."

"And you manage to stay so lean? Tell me you're not doing coke."

"You HAVE been working in a bar, haven't you? Shocking, but no." I grinned. "Interestingly enough, when you work around it for endless hours everyday, you're suddenly less interested in actually eating it."

She laughed. "That makes sense. She took a look at her watch. "But I do have a lunch shift over at TGI Friday's I should start getting ready for." She looked up with that wry smile of hers. "Good to see you, Isaac. I really am happy to see you doing so well."

I was strangely disappointed to end the conversation, as it was a lot of fun. But I was also relieved, because of the next thing I wanted to ask her. About Alex. And I just knew that would earn me another one of her famous gazes.

So I simply beamed at her, which I trusted she wouldn't read as sarcastic, as so many did. She was too observant for that. "You too. You look fabulous."

"Liar."

"Not really. And I'm sorry I can't come into the Nickel anymore without fearing for my life... it'd be nice to visit you."

"Well, if you want a drink, try the Horse's Head, down on Pratchett. It's newer and no one in there would have heard about what went down in the Nickel. And Robbie would never show up there." She adjusted her basket for better traction.

"Just not his kind of joint, huh?" I was curious; she'd put strange emphasis on that 'never'.

She didn't meet my eye, and there was a sense about her as if she felt she shouldn't have mentioned it. "Something like that." I didn't push it, not wanting to make her uncomfortable. "Have a wonderful day, Isaac, hope to see you again."

"You too." I smiled again, but she wasn't looking at me. She was moving quickly down the aisle towards the checkout. Hopefully she had gotten everything she needed. I didn't mean to derail nice, albeit highly sarcastic, former teachers of mine from their daily routine.

It had been wonderful seeing her, although on reflection I was a little more uncomfortable with the whole encounter than I had let on. It was more of that reflection of my former self that I felt I had left behind; that fat, and no matter what she said, ugly boy with a depressing crush on his best friend. And, damn, was it obvious I still thought he was hot? That was REALLY embarrassing.

But she had done a good job stroking my ego, I had to say that. If I was going to be stuck here without any one to fool around with, at least I could flirt with my hilarious 6th grade teacher, right?

Laughing at myself at the thought, I headed downtown to steal the laptop from Kim, blasting the rock/punk/alternative station from the city probably louder than was a good idea. But, hell, I was actually getting that creative tingle about putting together the menu, that focused excitement, and it gave me energy. Working for Kim meant I had a freedom, a carte blanche that I'd never had before. And even with the budget constraints and the necessity not to get too wacky it was exhilarating.

I parallel-parked about a block away, and walked down the street smiling like a crazy person. The air was getting humid, clouds appearing in the sky, and I welcomed the thought of a nice summer rain. A self-important man in a suit narrowed his eyes at me and I gave him a jaunty little eyebrow lift, which just confused the hell out of him. Fantastic! There were quite a few people out shopping, getting their coffee, even a couple of student types (oh, yes, I'd heard it was becoming a popular, cheaper rent-zone for the liberal arts college a town over) and I was feeling kindly towards them today. "I love you, my little future customers," I thought kindly. "All your yuppie bullshit is forgiven if you embrace me and buy my wares."

I pushed open the front door of the cafe, noting with amusement the brown paper now covering the windows just high enough so no one could view the drama, and walked in.

There were several men in the room working. Four, to be exact, and they looked diligent, having already finished (and most likely fixed) my imperfect tiling, and were doing something to a couple of walls.

But...

"Hi?" I said to a grizzled man closest to the door, puzzled. He was looking at a piece of paper in his hand and had the air of someone in charge.

"Yeah?" He gave me a once over and his expression didn't really give much of an opinion. "Can I help you?"

"Um, I'm Kim's cousin, I'll be doing the food?"

"Yeah?" He didn't sound like he believed me. What was with the people in this town? I didn't have this much trouble convincing people elsewhere of my profession. "So?"

This man was killing my good mood. "So who are you?" I looked around at the crew. "You aren't the company that started the job." It was true. The last crew had been a group of affable, youngish men; Hispanic, headed by a rotund fellow who liked to talk about his kids. I would not describe this man as "Fatherly" and his crew, well... I couldn't tell how affable they were, but they were mostly white dudes. And they were big, serious; and they were now all looking at me.

He gave me a little smile. It wasn't very warm. "You're right, we're not."

"So who the-"

"Isaac?" The back door opened, Kim appeared. She looked like shit, unusually undone for her. "What are you doing here?"

"Don't sound so damn happy to see me," I said dryly.

One of the workers chuckled, and they all went back to looking busy. Kim just stared at me, somehow... panicked. The girl really was crazy exhausted, so I decided to cut the sarcasm.

"Uh, can I grab your laptop?" I asked gently. "I'd like to order a few things, get started on the menu."

She started as if coming out of a trance and gave me a weak smile. "Oh, yeah, sure. Come on back." She moved back into the room and I followed, giving the supervisor a dirty look, which he returned with the same blank expression as before.

I closed the door behind me, and sat in one of the beat up old office chairs she had across the desk. "Kim... what's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Kim."

"I'm just tired, Isaac." Even her angry defense didn't have much fire behind it. She still wasn't meeting my eyes, and there was defeat in her shoulders. "Why can't you leave me alone?"

"Because you're being weird. Is it because you took out another loan?"

Pause. "Yes, exactly. It's just too much stress."

This wasn't how she usually manifested stress. Not at all. She should be kicking and screaming and then, after calming down, plotting someone's downfall. I looked closely at Kim, really paid attention to her, and was deeply concerned.

Kim looked like a stereotypical 31-year-old yuppie woman, blond hair - dyed - always carefully made-up, well-dressed but not flashy. It was a look she cultivated, mild and pretty, and I think she did it so they never saw her coming. Tough, confrontational, sometimes brutal, she could go from sweetheart to nightmare in 2.2 seconds. It was fascinating.

And she really was a sweetheart in the bruising way balls-out people were. Maybe I recognized it because I was so similar, if a hell of a lot less calibrated than she was. In high school I'd watched in awe (being two years younger) as football players followed her around like a puppy, cowed by her strength and attitude. She saved my high school experience, becoming my champion, basically making me her mascot, daring her cheerleader and jock friends to screw with me. By the time she'd left, I'd found my unique niche as a chubby, punk-haired oddball that didn't really have any enemies, and, bless her, it was probably only so because of Kim. She'd kept me from being beat into an emotional pulp and given me the opportunity to make friends with people who would have usually ignored my ass, if not beaten it blue.

After the nightmare divorce from one of those football player-types, she'd picked herself up instantly using it as a gateway to pursue her cafe dream. Not once in the last year had I seen her look defeated. Not during the circus-like divorce proceedings where she was lambasted by her husband's very flashy lawyer who used Kevin's financial support of her MBA as an argument for her to get nothing. Not when it came out her dick husband had gotten another woman pregnant. Not when she had to move out of the house she loved. Not when her mother expressed her deep disappointment in her failing to keep her marriage going.

However, now, at this moment, in this little, badly ventilated office, sitting under the merciless halogen lights? Now she looked beat. And older than her years. She looked, god forbid, depressed.

"Why did you replace Mario and his crew?" I asked.

"These guys were cheaper." It came out wrong, guilty.

"Is that really a good thing? You trusted those guys. These guys..." I threw a significant glance at the door. "They're, uh, interesting. That supervisor-"

"Is fine," She cut me off, almost angry. "They'll be great."

Allllrighty then.

"Kim. Maybe you need to get away for a couple of days, either stop construction or leave it in my hands. You're fucking worrying me." I reached forward and touched her arm. "But financially, we'll make it work, girl. Fuck, we'll be unstoppable." I gave her a cocky grin. "You've got me."

She finally smiled back. "I do, huh? You think you're such hot shit?"

"I KNOW I'm hot shit." I sniffed, and brushed back invisible sleeves in a mock-arrogant gesture, showing my capability. "You got the best, bitch."

"MMmmm, I know I did, thank god." She squeezed my hand. The spark of fun was already gone. "I just hope, just... I don't want to let you down, Isaac. Just." One of her hands ran through her hair quickly, her movements short and tense. "I hope I didn't drag you away from the job of a lifetime to waste your time, your talent. To..."

"Shut UP," I commanded. "You know I had my own reasons for that; I'm not Mother-fuckin'-Theresa. Stop it, we've been through this."

"And I know how much of your own money you're putting into this; all that you've saved up to pay for things until I can pay you, and -"

"You keep at this and I totally quit." I said dryly.

She nodded, and I finally got a chuckle. "Alright. Let me get the computer together for you." As she turned to grab the case and the cord, I watched her.

"Kim. Are you sure there's nothing else going on?"

Her hands stopped for a moment before she continued backing the laptop, and she didn't respond. I let it lie.

It wasn't until she handed me the case and we'd both stood up she spoke again, finally looking me straight in the eye. Her expression was so serious I stopped dead. "Tonight... can we talk? Like, around 6 or so? There is something I need to tell you, you're right. Something I should have told you yesterday."

So there was something. Thank god she was finally going to open up. "Of course. Your place?" She now lived with a good friend, another divorcee who was living up her own freedom partying like she was 20 again.

"Yours, please. Martina has a boyfriend who's always around and I can't stand him. He's so smarmy."

"Wasn't that one of the problems with her drug-addicted, insider-trading ex?"

"Yes; not that she'll listen to me as I point that out. CONSTANTLY. Unfortunately, she's got some bad habits when it comes to men."

"Don't we all." I smiled, and squeezed her arm. "I'll see you tonight. And I should have some ideas by then to bounce off you for how we're going to blow some fuckin' brains with our food." Got a chuckle for that one.

I headed out; glad we were finally going to talk, albeit a bit disquieted by her intensity on the subject.

Once again, the beefy construction dudes were watching me blankly and I gave their leader my patented fuck-you smile. "Have a great day!"

He lifted an eyebrow in response and I swear I saw some amusement there. "Sure, kid."

Kid? I was fucking 29 years old. Sure, I looked young, but that was pretty ridiculous. No point in being antagonistic with someone I'd have to deal with for a while, I guess.

I re-entered the day and found there was a light, misty drizzle in the air. Making sure the laptop was nice and secure I moved quickly to the car, jumped in, and turned it on, opening the window with the goal to only have it open briefly and let some fresh air in. Dark grey leather seats were not conducive to a comfortable environment in summer.

Truthfully, I hadn't even noticed how loud the music was as I strapped myself in, figuring I'd be closing the windows shortly and blunting the effect considerably. But, as I had my head up my ass, I didn't notice the fact that the car behind me was a cop car until the cop got out of it and approached my window. "Fuck," I muttered, and turned it down instantly and took off my hat in some last-ditch attempt to be respectful. Too late, of course.

He strode up. A very tall man, took off his sunglasses and leaned in.

"Well, fuck me then." -was the first thing out of mouth. My swearing wasn't meant to be disrespectful. It was just me verbalizing my instant instinctual sense that this wasn't going to be a pleasant experience.

"Excuse me?" Jason - how could I forget the name of such a beautiful man? - said, eyes instantly narrowing in anger. There was also a tinge of disbelief, like he couldn't actually accept that anyone would be dumb enough to start off a conversation with a cop like that. "What did you say?"

"Nothing." I tried to look innocent, but I know I didn't sound like even I believed myself. Half-hearted effort.

"Get out of the car."

I did so and stood next to the SUV, hands shoved in my pockets. It was starting to come down, and hard. I looked up at it, letting some hit my face; it felt good, refreshing.

"Head down!"

I snapped my eyes to him. This wasn't hard, as he looked fantastic in uniform. In the daylight, even the overcast daylight, I could see his strong and yet slightly boyish features clearly; the broad, strong nose, the just-thin-enough lips, the piercing blue eyes.

"Hands where I can see them!"

I complied. "Haven't we been through this?"

"Yeah." He wasn't amused, voice clipped and professional. "I recognize you from yesterday. You're that punk, construction worker cousin of Kim's."

"I'm not..." I was going to say 'a construction worker', but he cut me off.

"Do you know we have noise pollution laws here in Marrington?"

I think I did, actually. Admitting that would be bad. "No."

"And that you're parked next to a fire hydrant?"

That I didn't know. "Oh, crap, no, I didn't." I gave him a big smile. "Sorry about that, officer."

His face flushed a bit. "You think you're funny, don't you?"

"No, what?!" I was starting to get really soaked, the rain saturating my jeans and working cheerfully towards my boxer briefs. It wasn't so pleasant anymore. Of all the cops in Marrington.... Were there many cops? Maybe he was the only one! The thought amused me, and I might have smiled a more private smile that almost certainly screamed 'I'm laughing at you'. Me and my lack of self-control.

Suddenly he was in my face, Nordic features under now-dripping blond hair glaring at me. "Do you want me to give you a ticket for disrespecting an officer of the law?"

"Yes?" Jason - the officer, I mean (Jason suddenly seemed way too informal for someone who'd never offered me that name himself, and seemed to have developed a deep loathing for me based on little exposure) looked close to rage, stepping back, as if he was controlling himself. Fucking hell, he was hot. The rain was affecting him too, soaking his thin blue uniform shirt against his skin, outlining his impressive, smooth muscles, his perfectly proportioned torso. "No?" If my cock let me down by giving me a hard-on I was going to be SO upset at it later. I looked at his lips, inches from mine, tight with anger, and the bastard between my legs started to twitch. Argh. Angry straight cop + wet pants over an erection = bad shit all around.

I took a deep breath. "Look, officer..." I searched for his last name from when Kim had said it the day before. I tried to sound soothing. "Michaels. I'm sorry, I didn't notice the hydrant, and I didn't think about the music, which is no excuse." He didn't say anything, just continued that stone-cold gaze. "I would understand if you gave me a ticket, although I'd rather you didn't. But... sorry." Contrite did not come easily to me. "I'm very sorry. I won't do it again."

Officer Michaels kept staring at me. And for a moment I was confused, wondering if maybe he was seriously considering beating the crap out of me. And then I noticed.

It wasn't my face he was looking at. His eyes were falling somewhere around my chest where my very light cotton red t-shirt was now soaked to my skin, somewhat translucent, sinking into the crevices of my muscles, my abs. My hair was plastered around my face, and I flipped it back, wondering if I was nuts.

The movement caused him to start and jerk his gaze up to mine. What I saw there was a flash of - guilt, of sorts, a slight flush on his cheeks. He didn't look so badass anymore. He looked really amazingly fuckable and just a little vulnerable. Just a very little.

And fuck me if I didn't want him to prove to me, right then and there against that stupid SUV, how vulnerable he wasn't.

It passed between us right then. My eyes must have slid up and down his body inadvertently, noting his erection; maybe my gaze lingered. My breathing deepened.

And he didn't quite meet my eyes. "You can go."

"You sure?" I crossed my arms and lifted an eyebrow at him, stance wide, slight smile.

His eyes widened, and there was a distinct pause. "You're fucking nuts, you know that?" He sounded in awe.

"Probably." I shrugged, and was proud of myself for pulling myself together without making it apparent on the outside. Figured his instantaneous loathing of me did not overcome the apparent lust. "Thanks, won't happen again, officer." I gave that honorific a small bite.

I was opening the door and was about to hoist myself in when I felt a warm body pressed against my back, and the distinct feeling of a cock against my jeans. My ass pushed back slightly, automatically. "I don't know, maybe it will, if you're lucky." His breathe was warm on my wet, cold ear. "Happen again, I mean. Since you're such a smart-mouthed, trouble-making asshole."

Somehow, he managed to make that particular application of the word 'asshole' roughly sexy.

And then he was striding back towards his car, as fast as that. I would have gaped at him for a bit if it didn't mean getting even wetter.

It took me a moment to drive away, letting his cruiser pass by and then wondering how tacky it would be to jerk off in a car that wasn't even mine. Very tacky. And dirty. Didn't mean I didn't consider it very seriously before shaking the thought (and a great deal of water) out of my head. Ah, well. For better or for worse the cold wetness of my clothes was turning sexy into un- fast enough.

It lingered in my brain for a good, long time, however, pulling at my consciousness, whispering about his beautiful body, the feeling of his erection against my ass, whispered words. As I sat in my comfortably air conditioned apartment I did my damndest to concentrate, and I got some notes and ideas out, even ordered a few things online, but not half as much as I should have over a period of 4, 5 hours. I finally flung my pen across the room with a muttered curse.

Was he gay? Confused? Just fucking with me? Did I really want to find out?

Hell, yes. Fuck, I needed to get some. Maybe it was time to pursue a speeding ticket or two.

How asinine an idea that was pulled me away from my throbbing desire and I chuckled; standing up to stretch and poke in my cupboards. Not much there. It had somehow escaped me that morning in the grocery store that maybe I needed some staples also.

Hmmm. Maybe I should just go into the city. It was worth the 40 or 50 minute drive if I could get some good food, and maybe, some companionship. It'd been a while since I'd picked up anyone. But I certainly felt I was ready for a relapse. I'd wait for Kim to come by and then see if maybe I could drag her with me. It might affect my pulling capabilities, but she needed to have a good night out more than I needed to get laid. If only barely.

I'd just changed into my nicer, dark jeans and a couple of thin, layered shirts, wrestled my hair under control, when my cell rang. It was Kim.

"Hey, you," I said cheerfully. "You coming over soon? I'd get dressed up for a night out, if I were you."

"Isaac..." her voice was low, strangled. She sounded very upset and might have been crying. Kim never cried.

"What's wrong? Where are you?"

"Someone, they've..." she took a deep breath. I could hear cars; it sounded like she was outside. "They've broken the glass at the front, and there's graffiti all over, and, and..." she made a strangled noise. "Oh, Isaac..."

"I'll be right there, go to Starbucks, or to Cosi, get some coffee. I'll be right there." I repeated.

"Okay," she practically whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"Sorry?" I was puzzled. "What do you have to be -" but she had already hung up. My concern shot up about 20 points.

I flew out the door, slammed into the car, almost sideswiped a Lexus and roared down the street. Why? Marrington wasn't a high-hooligan town, at least not downtown. That was where all the cops played. And it was 5 in the afternoon! It was crazy bright outside! Who was stupid enough to vandalize now, there must be a million witnesses!

"Little shits," I swore, sure it was some gang of evil teenagers. "We'll get those fuckers..."

I found a parking spot down the street and parallel parked quickly, not really caring that I was miles from the curb. Jumping out I ran and when I reached the cafe I groaned so audibly the young woman smoking outside the drug store who had been idly looking at the damage next door gave me a look of pity. "That fucking sucks, yeah?" she noted conversationally. I ignored her.

Kim's assessment of the damage had been mild compared to the reality. The glass must have been smashed several times, the high sun reflecting off the glittering remains of our storefront. The graffiti was chaotic, pointless, as I had expected. The vandals had had no time to finish their work.

"Why aren't the police here?" I turned to the young woman and she just shrugged. "Did anyone see who did this?" She shrugged again, not looking at me, and took a quick drag from her cigarette.

"Isaac..." Kim came out from the back of the store, moving so quickly she almost tripped over a pile of paint cans. I rushed forward and steadied her. "Oh, Isaac..." she sounded like she was having trouble breathing, her chest rising in small, slow bursts. She was panicking.

"Come on, Kimmy, it'll be okay. Come on, we'll get through this; it isn't a big deal..."

"Yes it IS." She stared at me, wide-eyed, her expression crazy.

"OW." her fingers had gripped me so tight her long nails dug into my skin and I moved my hand to attempt to dislodge it. "Kim... Did you call the police?"

"No." She shook her head quickly. "They said they'd take care of it."

"They? Who's 'they'?"

"Our...." She took a deep breath. "Backers."

"The bank? Wouldn't they want you to file a report?"

"Oh, god, Isaac..." she put a hand to her forehead. "I can't believe I didn't tell you. I'm so sorry."

"Kim, what the hell is-"

The light was covered by a shadow behind us, and I turned... to see Alex Channing and two other men walk through the door. And fuck, one of them was that ugly motherfucker Robbie. The other was a tall, stocky African-American man, middle-aged; they were all wearing button up shirts and slacks. Robbie's was noticeably more tacky than that of his companions. They were all wearing sunglasses and entered like they owned the place.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" I asked, dumbfounded.

They stopped. Alex's gaze landed in our general direction. I hated it when people wore sunglasses inside.

"Isaac. Isaac Kiersted." It was said as a greeting, business-like and short. "Good to see you again."

I furrowed my brow. "Uh, sure, okay." I felt like there was a whole chunk of conversation missing, like the part where he knew who I was and we'd politely acknowledged that fact. There was a pause. I tried not to stare at him; at how beautiful he was. I wondered if I would ever not have that reaction to him. Kim wasn't saying anything, fingers still digging into my arms, staring at them... defiantly? Fearfully? Both.

If no one else was going to talk..."What are you doing here?" I looked down at my cousin and back at him. I tried to put the pieces together. "Do you work for the bank? The Insurance company?"

Robbie chortled, an ugly sound. A small smile played on the lips of the stocky man. The pieces fell apart again.

"Not exactly. But we are... the investing party, so to speak. Kim told you about it, I'm sure." He looked back over his shoulder at the damage, his wide lips pursing in disapproval. "We also think we know who did this to your store."

That wasn't quite as important now. "Invested... party? What do you mean? Kim?"

"Oh, fuck, Isaac." She whispered. Her face was full of pain. "I really should have told you..."

"Tell me what?" I practically hissed. There was another nasty snicker from Robbie. "Why are they here? Why haven't you called the police?"

"Isaac..."

"What is going ON?" I turned to them, angry. "What did you do to her? If you forced her to sign something-"

"No. NO. It was my idea. My stupid idea." Kim interrupted me. "I... borrowed money from them, Isaac. I'd always... heard you could go to them, and when the banks didn't lend me any money, I.... they said yes. Fuck me, they said yes."

"Kim." I was getting impatient, she wasn't making much sense. "What did you do, sell your soul to the Devil?" I looked at the stranger who'd once been my best friend. "Who the fuck are you?"

They just looked at me. No, Alex was looking away, coolly inspecting the area where the counter would be. Robbie was grinning, sneering. The third man was simply silent, but there was a knowing lift to his eyebrow. They were a bit ragtag, they didn't look like business.

"I'm sorry..." My cousin said again, with a deep note of despair. Somewhere in her tone I found the answer, or some semblance of it.

They stared at me. I stared at them, incredulous, as understanding dawned.

"You're the fucking MOB?" I stared at the top of Kim's head in disbelief. "You borrowed money from ORGANIZED CRIME?" I looked at Alex, at Kim, then again at Alex. That meant that he was organized crime.

Holy shit.

"You're not Italian." I accused him. It was a stupid statement, but my mind was whirling too fast to get out anything more intelligent.

The noise he made might have been a laugh, might have been a statement of contempt. "Glad you noticed, and you're right, we're not Italian." A definite laugh from the black man this time. "We work differently. We're not the Costa Nostra."

Finally, the stocky man spoke up. "We're simply businessmen." He broke into a shark's grin. "businessmen who have invested in your little venture here."

"Then why..." I pointed at the window, trying to keep it together. The situation was so surreal - Marrington, fucking stupid little Marringon had organized crime? WTF? - I couldn't do anything but ask simple questions. "Did this happen? Did you do it?"

"Why would we fuck up our own joint, asshole?" Robby spit out. Literally. I was glad I was too far away to get his spittle in my face. "Don't be a stupid fuck."

"So..."

"The competition," the man said, with a 'what-can-you-do' shrug, "obviously caught wind of our involvement here. We will, of course, be taking care of it. Your window should be fixed by tomorrow."

"Competition?" I crossed my arms across my chest, as Kim had pulled away from me, and appeared to be trying to get herself together. I hope she was aware that as soon as we were alone I was going to kill her. Slowly. "What the fuck do you mean?"

"We're not the only 'investors' downtown." Alex had put his hands in his pockets, body language perfectly casual. He was a cold, beautiful statue, and now I saw what made him different from the old Alex... Predator. He carried himself like a predator, something smooth and dangerous. I clamped down on a shudder. "They're obviously not happy we got here first."

My mind was starting to work again. I looked at Kim. "How much did they lend you?"

"Isaac..."

I whipped my head around. "How much do we owe you?"

"$200,000." The older man answered with that smile.

I practically had a heart attack; it felt like someone had smacked me in the gut. "What?!" I stared at Kim. "We didn't need that much! Why...What the fuck were you THINKING?" She looked just as shocked as I felt.

"No." She shook her head. "No, no. It was only $100,000. That was it. With some interest. It wasn't $200,000." She was starting to be like the old Kim again and stood up straight looking at Alex accusingly. "What do you mean $200,000? That's not what we agreed!"

"It went up." He stated simply. Robbie was having a field day.

"Went up? Went UP? That's... I can't afford that! Even if the cafe is a raging success I can't afford that!"

"If you take more than 3 months it goes up to $300,000." The older man finally took off his glasses, showing warm, friendly eyes. It was disconcerting, married with his calculated, cold words. "And so forth and so on."

"What the fuck?" I broke in. I didn't know who I was talking to, Kim or this bastard threesome, or Alex, who I still couldn't completely see, mentally, as part of this whole thing. It didn't compute. "What the FUCK? Kim!"

"It's not fair, I never meant to - you fuckers!" I could tell she was fighting tears. "You stupid fuckers!"

"Watch it, you dumb-" Robbie started.

"There is a way to get it back down to $100,000," Alex interrupted Robbie smoothly, holding up a hand. "Something very simple."

"What?" Kim asked, seething.

He pointed at me. "You."

"Me?" I asked, dumbstruck. "What?"

"You. You and your award-winning talents. We need you."

"You need... huh?"

"We're opening a restaurant." His wingman said, putting his glasses back on. "Down the street. Marrington's first real fine-dining experience. We want it to be award winning. We want people from the city to venture out. We want it to be a success, so successful... well. So we need you. More exactly, we need your notable skills as a pastry chef."

"Fuck that." I said instantly, with a snort. "I'm not working for a half-assed mob restaurant." I think Robbie actually growled. Twat.

"He has nothing to do with this!" Kim's voice was filled with startled rage, her eyes darting to me and back to them. "I'm the one who made the deal; it's my cafe! Don't drag him into this!"

"Too late." The black man gave a smile that spoke a world of polite regret. "He's involved, and if he doesn't agree to help us with the restaurant, your interest will go up. And up."

I stared at Alex, stunned.

Robbie looked delighted. "Don't you get it, bitch?" his ugly face beamed. "We own you. We own your stupid ass, totally."

I think Kim might have started crying. Alex stood there, perfectly calm. His face was a handsome, smooth mask. His gaze turned to me, and there was nothing, not even a flicker over his features.

Before he could blink, before anyone could stop me, I flew forward and slammed him in the stomach, full of a rage and sense of betrayal so deep I thought it would consume me. I didn't give a fuck that he was mob, that he was a dangerous bastard, or that he was the beautiful man that had once been my best friend.

Or maybe I cared too much.

At that moment, I pretty much wanted him dead.


To Be Continued...