Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (28 page)

It had been several years since he’d given himself sharps, so he took things slow. He kept his phone out, ready to dial Mitch or Randy if something went wrong. As messed up as he felt inside, he didn’t want to leave anything to chance. He wasn’t so fucked up he couldn’t take care. Order, discipline and caution—it was what he craved, so he’d give it to himself.

That and a good, hard sting.

He let the second needle go deeper, a 25 this time, but no blood. It burned, but the depth gave it an edge of throb that soothed raw edges of his soul.

Once the third needle was in, he stopped thinking, just let himself float. Alone he couldn’t let go too far—he made himself drink water, made himself touch his wrist every few sharps, testing his pulse. After twenty needles and four different gauges, he began to feel slightly human, so he gave himself a few fourteens and a hard poke that bled as a reward.

He was better by the time he cleaned up and headed to the house, a long shirt hiding the evidence of his indulgence, but he still felt off-center, especially when he found out Ethan and Randy were with Crabtree, still trying to bring Gordy down. Sam was shopping, and Chenco was at work, but Mitch was there. He took one look at Steve, grabbed his cigarettes and motioned to the orchard, declaring it was a nice day for a walk.

They walked, and Steve talked, more than he would have if he hadn’t given himself a session. They smoked like chimneys. Steve unloaded everything freaking him out, and Mitch listened. Steve confessed too what truly had begun to eat at him—he didn’t really know this man he’d given Gordy to, didn’t know he could trust him, yet didn’t have any other choice.

Mitch grunted and tapped out a new Winston. “I’ll be the first to tell you I hate Crabtree more than I love him. You want to bitch about him ever, I’m your man. But I’ll also testify he would have your back even if it meant his own was on fire, once he takes you in. And Crabtree does know his way around a wounded sub. He plays harder than you, and he’s been doing it longer. Jesus, Monk, he’s been doing it with
since we were fucking babies. He’s lost a lot too, and the reason he rides Ethan so hard is he had to give Ethan his baby. The casino is the most precious thing in his life, everything he’s stood for, all his dreams. He had to give it away, and he couldn’t have done better in Ethan, but it still makes him lose his goddamned mind.”

Steve snorted, kicking at a clod of dirt.

Mitch laughed softly and continued. “Yeah, well, go ahead and enjoy that. Point is, he knows what you’re going through. I know it sucks, but this probably is for the best. Honestly, buddy, we could all see as soon as we got here you were at the end of your rope over Gordon. I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth.”

Steve didn’t want to hear it, no, but he didn’t doubt the truth of it either. “Figured you’d ride me for focusing on Gordy instead of your little brother.”

“What? Oh hell no.” Mitch paused to light up a new cigarette before passing his pack over to Steve. “Before I could be square with Sam, I had to sort out my past with Randy. Three people in bed is a trick and a half. You gotta have your shit together, all your demons out of the closet.” Mitch pocketed his cigs again and took another heavy drag. “Shit,
plays with us too. It’s such a fucking nightmare ready to happen, and I always think, today’s the day it’s all gonna go to hell.”

Mitch drew in his cigarette, sending the smoke out in a sharp exhale before he continued.

“My point is, I had to deal with my past before I could get to my future. That’s part of why I’m staying so long here, trying to heal the last of my crap so I don’t fuck things up with Sam. I figure it’s why you’re sorting out Gordy, so you can be with Chenco.”

Steve exhaled his own cloud. “You shouldn’t encourage me to be with your brother. I’m way too old.”

Mitch rolled his eyes and blew out smoke. “Fuck, Monk, you’re only a little older than me, and I’m with Sam.”

“I was on my way to the goddamned Persian Gulf when Crescencio was
. The first fucking Gulf war, the one nobody fucking remembers anymore. When the second one started, Chenco wasn’t a teenager yet, and I was

“Well, way to fucking add. He’s not a teenager now, as you might have noticed, and he’s about the most solemn, sober twenty-four-year-old I’ve ever met. Age matters, sure, but sometimes it ain’t that simple. Sometimes the difference is good.”

Steve snorted and took another drag.

Mitch grimaced at the dirt. “What’s eating at you is what eats at me. You know the one getting the better deal out of this is you. You’re the one old and tired, and here’s this bright young thing smiling at you like you’re not old or tired, and you want it so bad your teeth hurt. You tell yourself you should burn them and run. You do everything you can to throw them off the scent. Except they keep coming, partly because for every road you burn, you throw out breadcrumbs too. Me, I got lucky. Fucking
. Maybe I’m guilty of wanting this to all come together tidy and nice, get my family and friends in one basket, but I’m hoping you get lucky too.”

Steve considered this awhile as he finished his cigarette. Eventually he ground it out and sighed. “It’s not only age. You saw how I fucked up with Gordy. How can you let me play with your little brother, knowing what I’ve done?”

Mitch shook his head. “Monk, you’re the only one in the whole world who believes the fault there was with you.”

Steve said nothing. He couldn’t. He looked away, out over the orchard, over the barren fields toward the cannery.

Mitch clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s head to the house.” He coughed, spat up some phlegm and grimaced. “Shit, that was too many cigarettes. I can’t seem to stop lately, since I know I’m about fucking out of time.”

Steve turned to his friend, alarmed. “Are you sick?”

Mitch laughed ruefully. “No, man. Ball and chain’s making me quit. I was supposed to by our anniversary, but then the old bastard kicked off and I got a reprieve. June first, though, it’s all fucking over.”

They headed to the house, and all the way there Steve thought about what Mitch had said, about the age thing, about Gordy, about Crabtree. What rang in his head most, though, was his friend’s last confession—shy, sweet little Sam had Mitch Tedsoe, who swore they’d take his cigs out of his cold, dead, cancerous hand, obediently kicking his habit.

If Mitch could learn to bend, if he could give just to make his partner happy—well, maybe somehow this

If only Steve could be strong enough to believe.



The move to Las Vegas happened faster than anything Chenco could have predicted.

Apparently Mitch, Randy and Sam really had been hanging out for Chenco, because the second he agreed to let them turn him into a Las Vegas casino act, they started making arrangements to go within a week. Except it turned out this wasn’t as simple as getting in Mitch’s rig and Ethan’s incredibly sexy car and driving. First of all, it turned out the Mercedes
Ethan’s incredibly sexy car, it was a rental.

“Seriously?” Chenco said when he found out.

“Seriously,” Randy replied, putting a heavy hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “I told him he should get something sexier than an Infiniti, which is what he actually drives.”

?” Chenco was crushed.

Ethan gave Randy a hard look. “It’s rated third in its class. It has excellent handling, and its lack of a brand name only brings down the price, making it a good bargain.”

“This is the moral of the story, Crescencio,” Crabtree said, his cane
the floor. “Ethan has one of the few profiting hotel and casino outfits in Las Vegas during an economic downturn. He didn’t get there by spending his money foolishly.”

Ethan rolled his eyes. “And you wouldn’t let me drive you here in it.”

Chenco couldn’t stop feeling bummed out. “So you guys are driving it back, then turning it in?”

“No.” Crabtree tugged at his cuffs. “There has been a change in plans. We’ll be turning the car in here instead. Randy is finding us an alternative means of transportation.”

Chenco turned to Steve. “How are
getting to Las Vegas?”

Steve glanced at Crabtree. “I’m not certain, but I think you might be riding with Sam and Mitch.”

While the idea of riding in the semi with his brother sounded fun, he couldn’t help but ask, “Not you?”

“Steven will go with you as well,” Crabtree said. “Mitch will need a relief driver, after all, and I require Randy with me and our additional guest.”

For some reason this upset Steve—it was the first time Chenco had seen him flustered. “But I thought—”

Crabtree’s cut-off reply was so sharp it made Chenco startle. “You handed the matter to me, Mr. Vance. You will not dictate how I proceed.” When Steve started to turn red-faced, clearly biting back a retort, Crabtree jerked his head to the side yard. “Shall we move somewhere more private for this discussion?”

Steve didn’t say anything, just headed out the front door.

Chenco turned to Randy and Ethan, who appeared to be waiting for his question. Chenco threw up his hands. “

“You’ll need to talk to Steve about it,” Ethan said, before Randy could.

Randy snorted. “Steve’s not going to tell him.”

“Oh yes he will,” Ethan replied with heat. “He’s long overdue as it is.”

Chenco thought he’d go crazy, trying to figure out what this talk would be about. Who was this additional guest? Why was Steve so upset about riding with Chenco? He tried not to jump to conclusions, but until Steve did come to him, saying they needed to talk, he was a mess.

They rode in silence together over to the cannery, and they sat in the weed-riddled parking lot as Steve told his story.

“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Steve said, his voice tight. “Something important. It doesn’t affect the two of us, but it affects me personally a great deal, and you deserve to know about it.”

Play it cool,
Chenco scolded himself, but he felt anything but. “What’s that?”

Steve sat in silence for a full minute, clearly reluctant to have this conversation. “There’s this guy, an old friend of mine.”

Chenco’s stomach lurched.
There’s another guy.

The weariness and guilt on Steve’s face as he closed his eyes reminded Chenco of the night he’d caught him in his office looking old and tired. “It’s not like that. If it were, this would be easy. I’d tell him to go. Gordy isn’t easy, though. He never has been.”

Gordy. “Wait—this is the homeless guy?”

Steve turned to him, alarmed. “How do you know about Gordy?”

“Sam told me. But not much.” Chenco tucked his hands under his armpits and tried not to hunch his shoulders. “Please just explain.”
Are you sleeping with him? Are you cheating on me?

“Jesus, I wish I knew how to explain Gordy.” Steve stared across the empty lot. “We grew up together. We figured out we were gay together. We found pain together. He’s my best friend, or rather, he was. He got messed up, though. Fell in with a bad crowd, and I came back too late to help him. It’s…” He ran a hand over his head and grimaced. “I know this is cliché, but it’s complicated. It’s really fucking complicated.”

Chenco glanced around. “Is he home?”

“Oh—no, he’s not here anymore. Crabtree has him in a house not far from downtown. He’s trying to…settle him.” He rubbed his head as if against an oncoming headache. “I’m coming with you to Vegas. But I can’t leave Gordy behind. I don’t…I don’t know what to do with him, but I can’t leave him.”

Chenco was starting to think it’d be easier if Steve
been sleeping with someone else. Then Caramela could just stiletto them and move on. “So what are you going to do?”
What are we going to do?

“I’m not doing anything, as I’ve been told to stay out of it. Crabtree’s bringing him along to Vegas, keeping him at his house. Gordy can’t do a plane, though, and neither can Crabtree, so they’re taking my truck, the four of them together.”

Steve had started giving himself a massage on his neck. Chenco displaced his hand and took over, loving the way Steve melted into his touch without thought. “Well, he’s not a madwoman in your attic anymore, Mr. Rochester. I think it’s a good start.” Steve looked at him like he’d grown an extra head, and Chenco slapped lightly at his neck. “Hey. I’m not so stupid I can’t make a
Jane Eyre

“I’ve never thought you’re stupid, nor am I surprised you alluded to Brontë.” Steve frowned, but then he sank into Chenco’s fingers. “That said, I’m feeling like eight kinds of hell that I’m Mr. Rochester in this scenario. Because I am.

Chenco shifted so he could kneel behind Steve and use both hands for his work. Goddamn it, this Gordy guy didn’t get to fuck things up for him, not when they were just starting to get good.
You can’t take him away from me. This is

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m sure there’s more to the story than this, but from what I’m hearing, you did your best. You weren’t hiding him away. You were protecting him the only way you knew how. You didn’t lock him up and burn him down. You set up surveillance video and turned him over to a guy who gives casinos away.”

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