Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (10 page)

This was actually happening.

“Hush.” Steve’s hand grazed his ear, trailing the outside of the fleshy curve. “You may shut your eyes, boy. Shut your eyes and know you’re safe. Rest. Rest, let everything else go, and accept this safe space, this pleasure of being petted.”

Chenco shut his eyes, relaxing into the touch, letting his worries, his fears, his anxieties flow out with each stroke of Steve’s hand. Part of him still worried this wasn’t smart, wasn’t safe, but eventually this concern died down too, lulled to sleep by the lure of a master’s fingers. Pulling a blanket over his worry, Chenco sank deeper into his trance and willed himself to memorize every single moment.

 

Steve stared down at Chenco’s pretty, serene face and thought,
You’re in a world of trouble, Vance.

The boy was still under, which turned Steve on all the way to the back of his balls. Stroking Chenco’s hair a little more, he asked, “How are you feeling?”

The sweet, sleepy smile made Steve’s whole body hum. “Good. Really good. Thank you.” He started to drift off, but then his eyes snapped open as he added, “Sir.”

Jesus, he was goddamned
precious
. Steve stroked the dark, silky hair, never wanting to let it out of his fingers. “I never gave you protocol on how to address me, and I’ve been sloppy about starting and ending the scene.” Like now, ending it but not really ending it. He ran his fingers along Chenco’s temple. “My apologies.”

“I don’t have any complaints.” Chenco blinked slowly, trying to come out from under, but Steve was being a real prick, not letting up on the petting, therefore keeping him nicely in place. “Are we…done?”

With a sigh, Steve rested his hand on Chenco’s shoulder. “We need to be. You still haven’t eaten, and we have to drive all the way to my place on the far side of McAllen. Unless you want to put meeting your brother off until tomorrow?”

“No. I want to be introduced to Mitch properly, tonight.” Chenco sat up, but he swayed, drifting to brush Steve’s leg a couple times. He smiled, still easy and light. “Thank you. That was amazing. I won’t ever forget it.”

Steve lifted an eyebrow and ran his thumb along Chenco’s cheek. Butter-soft, it was the color of Jansen’s beloved Bailey’s. “Seemed to me you enjoyed our scene.” He ran his knuckles up to Chenco’s temple, loving the way those long, dark lashes drifted closed at the sensation before popping open to obediently hold his gaze.
So. Fucking. Perfect.
“I did too. I think we should have another one some time.”

God, Steve could drown in those soulful, hopeful brown eyes. Chenco didn’t say anything right away, though he opened and closed his mouth several times before speaking. “Okay—I know you got upset before when I mentioned this, but…if we kept doing this, there
would
be sex eventually, right?”

Mayday. Mayday.
“If it was something we both wanted, yes. But as I said, it’s not required.”

Also, it’s been over five years since I’ve been in a relationship of any kind, so this might not be a good idea full stop.

Chenco looked at him as if he’d grown a second head. “You’d seriously have a relationship with me without sex
or
pain?”

Leaning forward, Steve pinned Chenco still with his gaze. “BDSM, boy, is
not
about sex. Neither is pain an absolute requirement.” He stroked his boy’s jaw, distracted by the beautiful line of it. “Patience. There’s not a damn thing wrong with taking our time.”

He rose, offering Chenco his hands and helping him to his feet, steadying him as he wobbled. Chenco blinked, trying to come out of his trance. “I think I need to eat something.”

“You went under pretty deep, which is your biggest issue right now, but yes, I’d like you to eat. Did you decide to skip your shower?”

Chenco looked down at himself as if surprised to see the clothes there. “Oh.” He touched his hair, which was a little wild from being teased in Steve’s fingers. Steve had to check an urge to delve in there.

Stop.
Steve cleared his throat. “I don’t think it matters either way, so if you want to take one still, I’ll wait.”

It made Steve sad to watch the last dregs of Chenco’s serene bliss fall away, his usual worries returning, however muted. “I think I’m fine. Anyway, I’d rather eat.” He let go of Steve, wobbling a second before heading for the door.

Steve followed Chenco down the hall, tracking him carefully to make sure his boy truly had his feet back. When Chenco headed to the kitchen and opened the fridge, Steve frowned. “I can take you through a drive-through, if you don’t want the trouble.”

Chenco’s soft laugh rolled inside Steve and nestled in his belly. “I don’t do fast food unless I’m very desperate.” He pulled out a stack of sealed containers, each one full of vegetables. “My money goes to two places: drag and food. I suffer in neither department. Everywhere else, I’m completely impoverished.”

It was an impressive array of high-quality food. “Are you vegan?”

“No, but I eat veg a lot. I’ll occasionally do a bit of flesh, but only chicken and I keep it to a minimum. I simply find that when I eat the way I do, I have more energy, more focus, and my skin and hair are a lot better.” He paused with a hummus-laden piece of cauliflower halfway to his mouth. “Well, the hair part isn’t such a big deal, but Caramela will have nothing but healthy skin.”

This, right here, this was the problem—Steve loved discipline in all its forms, and to see Chenco applying it so naturally to himself drew Steve in on a fishing line. He longed to compliment Chenco daily, to tell him he was good, to stroke him and preen him and make him slide into pleasure, to facilitate his natural self-discipline and make it stronger.

“Take all the time you need to eat,” he said instead.

Chenco did, giving his full attention to the food, and after declining an offer to share, Steve watched him stuff himself with the vegetables and the hummus, finishing up with what appeared to be homemade nut milk of some kind. Chenco cleaned up after himself too, not only putting away all the food in tidy stacks, but also washing his plate and cup in the sink.

The entire trailer, in fact, was radically transformed from the last time Steve had seen it. Not a whiff of old smoke lingered, and every bit of Cooper’s clutter and junk had been eradicated, replaced only with simple, serviceable, and above all clean markers of Chenco’s residence. Chenco took pride in his home, humble as it was.

Goddamn it, but it made Steve a little hard.

As they drove back into McAllen, he tried to figure out what about Chenco had snagged him. Steve had always admired strength, and Chenco had serious steel. The boy wasn’t just tough. He was tooled leather, yielding and bending while enduring. Some of Steve’s admiration came from the way he could tell his dominance had made something bloom inside Chenco, something which had lain dormant—it massaged his ego to think he’d been the one to bring it out, and not another man.

He passed the cannery as he acknowledged this, and the building cast a shadow over his thoughts. There was a good reason for his celibacy and his solitude. Jansen and the others called him Monk as a joke, but for Steve, his removal was serious. Important. He had, quite firmly, closed this door.

Steve found he’d consider opening it for Chenco.

Nothing was settled yet, he reminded himself as he turned down the road to the ranch. Chenco had a lot of misgivings, and even handled patiently, those might never be eased. Yet despite this knowledge, Steve knew the fallout from Chenco turning out to be Cooper’s secret son was nothing on what was going to go down between the two of them.

He was afraid, very afraid.

The fear, and the promise of what might lie behind it, tasted so, so good.

Chapter Six

Instead of living in a development or in an older neighborhood as Chenco assumed, Steve lived on ranch property on the edge of town, a sprawling set of buildings separated from the road by a rusted metal gate. When they pulled up to the barrier, it was closed, but Steve pushed a few buttons on his smartphone and the hinges creaked open.

Chenco arched an eyebrow. “Nice.”

“Thanks.” Steve put the phone down on his thigh.

Glancing around the property, Chenco couldn’t help noticing it was a bit of a mess. Arid, unkempt land and sagging sheds surrounded them as they wound their way to the house. A few green ash and Texas olive trees stood like lonely sentries in the middle of fallow fields, but other than this, the ranch was a wasteland. “Was this an orchard?”

“Up until the freeze.”

Chenco had heard of this, vaguely. “This the one in the ’80s?”

Steve nodded. “There were two, actually. One in ’83 and another in ’89. They thought the first was the Big One, the hundred-year freeze as bad as the one in 1888. Then came 1989 and made ’83 look like a summer day. Killed everything and changed the economy of the valley forever.” He gestured at the ruined land. “My parents were about done anyway, so they retired to South Padre and let me have the hacienda. We have an old cannery too down the road. Passed it on the way here.”

Chenco tried to imagine the land as a thriving orchard, and it made him sad. “I was born in 1989. If Cooper were here, he’d tell me I brought the freeze because I’m a devil child.”

“If you can control Arctic air masses, we’ll hire you out.” Steve shook his head. “Born in 1989. I was seventeen then. About to run off to school. A few years later I went to the Persian Gulf.”

Chenco glanced at him. “Are you serious?”

“About being that old or in the Army?”

“Both.”

“I was born in 1972. Joined the Army in 1990 and went off to keep the peace. Drove trucks mostly and dumped snakes out of my sleeping bag.” He adjusted his wrist on the steering wheel. “Went back to college when I came home and learned computers. It’s what I do now, that and selling scrap metal. Sometimes I fix bikes.”

It was too bad they reached the house then—Chenco would have liked to hear more about Steve, or maybe even tell some of his own story. As soon as he saw the lights on above the front door, he remembered what he was in for, and all desire for small talk fled.

Steve pulled up alongside a big blue semi cab without a trailer and killed the engine. Before he opened the door, he turned to Chenco. “You still have the necklace?”

Chenco had it in his hand, in fact, and he looked down at it now. “You said this was Mitch’s mother’s?”

“Yeah. It was how Randy put the last pieces of the puzzle together. Mitch kept it in his room to remember her, and then one day it was gone. Cooper said he didn’t take it, but Mitch always thought he had.”

“Either he took it or Mitch forgot he’d hidden it in the bottom of a drawer in Cooper’s bedroom.”

Steve looked grim. “Such a fuck. I hope he’s on a fat spit about now.”

“I hope he’s trapped in the skankiest gay club in history.” Chenco let out a breath and closed his hand over the necklace. “Okay. So I’ll give this to Mitch and hope it helps us start off on a better footing.”

“From what I understand, it’ll win Mitch and Sam both, and I already told you Randy’s cool.” He put a hand on Chenco’s shoulder. “You ready?”

Hell no. “Sure. Let’s go.”

The house was bigger than Chenco’s stepfather’s, which was really saying something. It was old, though, a true hacienda with sprawling additions and adobe and a tiled roof and fancy windows. Like the rest of the ranch, it was run-down, but it wasn’t as decrepit as the rest of the property. Clearly someone had put effort into keeping things put together as much as possible, but there was no escaping the overbearing sense of weariness the house carried.

The porch light was on, illuminating a rounded door. Light pooled from the first-floor windows, and occasionally shadows moved across them.

I’m about to meet my brother.
Chenco’s gut clenched.

Steve put a hand at his elbow and led him through the door.

The foyer was brightly lit by an ancient, beautiful chandelier, and it spilled open into a living room full of white leather furniture over heavy terra-cotta tile. Though old and showing wear, the furnishings were clearly high quality. In its day, this had been the showplace.

The room was full of plants and light—and people. Randy sat in the corner of a long couch, Sam beside him in caretaker mode. Mitch Tedsoe stood off to the side in the archway to a formal dining room.

He looked like a younger, healthier Cooper, except when Mitch saw Chenco enter the room, the associations with his father ended. Mitch looked tired, wary…and hopeful. Reminding himself of Steve’s stories about how Mitch had changed since those journals, and arming himself with what courage he could muster, Chenco crossed the room to his brother and held out his hand.

“I heard this belongs to you.”

The fear his brother might be anything like Cooper evaporated as Chenco watched Mitch with his mother’s necklace. It was exactly as Steve said—the grown man, who couldn’t be a whole lot younger than Steve, stared down at the necklace with the eyes of a young boy. A wounded young boy, and Chenco tried to imagine what fun Cooper must have had with him. Nothing about this man before him matched the menace Cooper had promised Chenco would find in his elder brother, nor the hate and violence of those journals.

Once again Cooper had given him nothing but lies.

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