Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (2 page)

Was Mitch’s return to the valley part of this double punch? Had he known what Cooper would do and was in town to hunt him down and finish the blow? What if Chenco hadn’t run off when he’d seen Mitch at the funeral? Would he be rotting slowly into the mesquite instead of wallowing over how badly their father had fucked him over?

The thought made his feet heavy, disorienting Chenco so much he inadvertently circled the block, landing on the street parallel to where he’d parked. Slipping into the alley, Chenco wrapped himself in the darkness, sliding down the relative coolness of the brick wall as he sat on the ground and hugged himself. Three stray cats scuttled from beneath a pile of newspaper, the smallest bearing a dead rat in its mouth. From the street, sounds of lazy afternoon traffic drifted into the alley, and above him an air conditioner whirred and complained in the heat.

He should call Booker, or Lincoln. Even in a month he wouldn’t have enough money saved to rent so much as a shoebox on the corner. He’d have to live in someone’s spare room or sleep on their couch. Except what was he supposed to do with Caramela’s things? Lincoln would let him store some stuff, but he had roommates, and Heide took up all his extra space. Was Chenco supposed to trust Booker’s boyfriend not to rip Caramela’s wardrobe up for fun some afternoon when he was high? Hope nobody went through his bins in the storeroom of the club?

What in the hell was he going to do?

Chenco rocked gently, taking slow, careful breaths as he soothed himself. He wouldn’t let the fucker win, not now when this was the final battle. He shut his eyes and imagined Caramela on the stage of a bright, beautiful hall, the best in the world, a thousand admirers roaring and screaming her name. Yes, he’d get there, and he wouldn’t let his asshole father stop him.

You are good. You are strong. You are perfect the way you are. You will figure this out, one way or the other.

Chenco murmured the words out loud when they failed to take simply by repeating them inside his head. He
would
beat this. He wouldn’t let anyone stop him. He’d claw his way into the sun. He didn’t know how he’d do it yet, but he’d find a way.

All those years. All the time, all the money, all the visits to the nursing home—he laughed at me. He never loved me. He never even liked me. He hated me so much he went out of his way to destroy me.

Swallowing, Chenco drew his bottom lip into his mouth and bit, sucking on the soft flesh until it hurt, until he could focus on the pain instead of the hollow wounds inside him. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t cry.
He wouldn’t—

“Are you all right?”

Chenco looked up, releasing his swollen lip as he stared at the mouth of the alley. The man from Cuevas’s office stood there, his shaved head silhouetted against the sun. Leather creaking, he closed the distance between them and crouched in front of Chenco.

 

The boy from Cuevas’s office reminded Steve of Gordy.

It was the facial expression, the look in the kid’s eye. A hunch of his shoulder, the huddled, haunted body language, determination and grit leaking out around despair. The echo of his best friend called to Steve, leading him to the stranger.

“Are you okay?” Steve repeated the question, gentling his voice and resisting the urge to touch the young man’s arm in reassurance. “Do you need any help?”

The boy’s shoulders let go of some of their tension. “I’ll be fine, sir, thank you. I’m very sorry for interrupting your appointment.”

“That’s not a problem.” When the kid remained curled against the wall, clearly hoping Steve would get up and leave, Steve held out a hand. “Steve Vance. Pleasure to meet you.”

The boy accepted the hand with a slight but steady grip. “Crescencio Ortiz, but everyone calls me Chenco.”

“Chenco, not Chencho?”

The boy blushed. “My little sister mispronounced it, and the wrong version stuck.” Letting go of Steve’s hand, Chenco withdrew and wrapped his arms around himself again with a curt nod. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Vance.”
Now please go away,
his expression telegraphed.

Steve pretended not to notice the dismissal. “Likewise, Mr. Ortiz.”

In his pocket, Steve’s phone buzzed, and he murmured an apology as he pulled it out. Canceling the incoming call, Steve opened a text window and tapped out a reply.

“Sorry. One of my houseguests needs directions.”

Chenco shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want to keep you.”

“Not at all.” Steve eased himself onto the ground as his knees were starting to protest. He sent the text.
In the middle of something. Can you give me fifteen?

The response came a few seconds later.
Okay aisle just keep getting lost a little hunger.
Another text came through almost immediately.
Fucking voice texting.

Steve replied with a link to Find My Friends and gave instructions on how to use the app to locate him. When he was satisfied his friend wouldn’t end up in Reynosa, he pocketed the phone and returned his focus to Chenco. “These are old friends back in town after a long absence, but they’ve lingered to sightsee. I don’t mind putting him off a bit longer.”

The look on Chenco’s face said he was dubious about the merits of sightseeing in the Rio Grande Valley. As an RGV native, Steve had to agree with the sentiment.

Chenco rubbed his arm in a self-conscious gesture. “You have your appointment, so I understand if you have to go.” His tone made it clear he wished Steve would.

Probably Steve
should
go, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the alley. Partially it was remembering how upset the boy had been in Luis’s office, but mostly it was the eerie way Chenco was so determined to button up now that got to him. Clearly Chenco was used to having to solve his problems on his own, to making himself okay by sheer force of will. Steve couldn’t shake the desire to be the guy who made it easier, at least this one time.

“I know you’d
rather
I leave you alone, but I saw how upset you were. I can tell you still are. Humor an old man and reassure me I’m not going to read about you on the front page of the paper tomorrow.”

Chenco’s cheeks burned, but his body posture eased in quiet surrender. “My father passed away three weeks ago. He wasn’t a very nice man, but…it turns out he was more of an asshole than even I predicted. It upset me is all.”

“As I left, I thought I heard you say something about your father leaving his property to the KKK. Your home?”

Instead of replying, Chenco glanced at Steve’s smooth, shaved head.

Steve laughed and touched the back of his scalp. “Wrong tree you’re barking up there, boy.” He could see the hesitation in Chenco’s expression and decided he might as well lay down all his cards. “I’m not Klan, Chenco. They don’t let gay men wear the sheets.”

Chenco’s expression softened in surprise. “Oh. I didn’t—” He deflated the rest of the way, flummoxed by Steve’s confession. “Oh.” He rubbed his arms self-consciously. “Me too. I’m gay, I mean. Which is why my dad left the trailer to the Klan. To be an asshole.”

“Sounds like he succeeded. I’m sorry.”

Grimacing, Chenco averted his gaze. “I should have known he was only using me. I never loved him, but I thought we had an understanding, that maybe he hated me but respected me in his own fucked-up way. No chance. He did this
just to hurt me
. He knew I couldn’t afford to move out of the trailer and my mother would never take me back. He was fully aware what a nasty kick in the face it was to give a gay half-Latino’s only piece of security to the fucking KKK. He did it to bleed me out.”

So fucking like Gordy.
The comparison chilled Steve to his core. “Do you have a place to go?”

“Mr. Cuevas bought me some time. I’ll find something.”

Steve didn’t like the vagueness in Chenco’s tone. “If you have trouble, let Luis know. He can hook you up with some agencies, maybe make some phone calls for you.”

“I don’t want to bother him any more than I already have.”

“Luis is a family friend—I know he’d be more upset over executing a will that helped send a kid to the streets than he’d mind being bothered.”

Chenco gave Steve a hard look. “I’m twenty-four.”

Steve’s lips curled into a wry smile inside his goatee. “I’m forty-one. You’re a kid.”

“Yes, sir.” Chenco’s tone was wry, but his gaze slipped to the tattoos on Steve’s arm.

Steve cleared his throat. “If it comes down to it, I know a few affordable places you could rent. I can talk to the landlords, maybe get a six-month discount to get you on your feet.”

The offer sent Chenco’s walls right back up. “Thank you, but I’d never expect anyone to do that for me.”

“Likely why I offered.”

“But why? You don’t know me.”

Steve arched an eyebrow. “You don’t think someone can do something nice just because it needs to be done?”

Chenco pursed his lips. “Everyone wants something.”

How did someone get so cynical at twenty-four? “So you don’t have any friends who would help you simply because they like you?”

“Yes, but you’re not my friend.” Chenco looked away. “I’m sorry. Probably you
are
being nice, and I’m spitting in your face.”

Leaning forward, Steve put his left hand on the ground near Chenco, not touching him. “You’re right to be cautious of strangers. But I do want to help you if I can.”

Chenco drew back. “But
why
? I’m just some guy who interrupted your meeting.”

“You’re a human being in need, and I can see a way I could possibly help you. That’s why.”

“But no one is that noble. Nobody ever helps me.”

The naked yearning underneath his tough exterior, the need clawing over iron resolve, made Steve burn with an answering fire. “Maybe this is your turn to be saved.”

Their gazes met and held, and Steve felt his whole being go still. Chenco had let him in, just a little, and Steve knew what a gift that was. He planned to treat it with respect, hopefully get that wall torn down some more.
Let me help you, boy.
He could see their friendship expanding in front of him, and he wanted it in a way he hadn’t wanted anything in a long, long time. One more minute, one more reassurance, and he could give Chenco his phone number, maybe get Chenco’s in return.

A disturbance at the mouth of the alley broke the spell.

“Monk, this is the fucking coolest app ever. It took me right to you. I’m making Ethan download it the second I see him. Oh—hey there. Sorry, didn’t realize you had company.”

Swallowing his irritation at the interruption, Steve pushed to his feet and gestured between Chenco and the man who approached them. “Chenco, this is Randy Jansen, one of my houseguests. Randy, this is Chenco Ortiz.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” Randy extended his hand.

As Chenco accepted Randy’s handshake, however, Steve realized something was wrong. Chenco looked wary again. It was almost as if he recognized Randy—except Randy didn’t seem to recognize him back. Jansen was his usual cheeky self, pumping Chenco’s hand harder than he should have as he winked.

Chenco looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

Randy picked up on that but played the scene as cool as he would a poker hand, deftly switching his focus to Steve. “Got a text from Sam on the way over. We might want to swing past the house before we do the grocery store. Something came up on the feed. Sam wasn’t sure if it was a big deal or not, so Mitch went over to the cannery to check—”

Movement out of the corner of Steve’s eye drew his attention, and he motioned Randy to be quiet. Chenco had backed away, stumbling over an upturned box.

The prickle at the back of Steve’s senses morphed into full-on alert. Yes. Something was very wrong here. “Chenco?”

“You’re in on it.” Chenco’s expression was full of hurt and pain as his gaze moved from Randy to Steve. “You didn’t want to save me. You’re in on it. I was right. You do have an agenda, and it’s
his
.”

Steve closed the distance between them. “Chenco? Who are you talking about? What’s wrong?”

The boy took off like the hounds of hell were on his heels. Scaling turned-over trash cans and scattering stray cats, Steve chased him, but the kid was younger and leaner and fueled by terror. By the time Steve got to the street, Chenco had climbed into a beat-up brown Nova and peeled away.

Randy came up beside Steve and put a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun. “What the fuck was that?”

“I don’t know.” Steve played his mental tape backward, trying to find the source of what had made the kid run. Everything was fine, right up until Randy came into the alley. He turned to his friend. “It was you. He was upset at
you
.”

“I don’t even know the kid.” Randy glared at him. “What the hell, Vance?”

“He burst in on my appointment with Luis, upset about something in his father’s will. I gave them a minute to sort it out, and when I went back, I found Chenco in the alley. His dad’s an ass, he’s about to lose his house. He’s proud and hurt and lost, and he’s got nowhere to go. Now he’s upset with me, and I don’t know why.” He caught Randy regarding him with an odd expression. “What?”

Randy put a hand on Steve’s arm. “Oh, Monk. He isn’t Gordy.”

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