Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (6 page)

Booker led them to the back, and Steve came along.

Randy came too. And Mitch.

Caramela tripped, heart seizing as she saw the big, blond man fill the doorway to the dressing room. The sight was so jarring Chenco fell forward for a flash, tripped out of his composure by terror. His own personal boogeyman stood before him—a practical body double of Cooper, his mean and nasty big brother.

While Chenco wore a dress.

Chenco cut a glance to Steve, the knife in his chest twisting as he met the gaze of the man Chenco had let betray him
twice
.

There was another man with Mitch, however, a cute twink with a fuck-me faux hawk and a crude blond dye job. Chenco braced himself, ready for Armageddon, but Mitch and the twink simply stood together, looking confused as fuck, the twink’s hand tucked into Mitch’s arm.

What the
hell
?

In the confusion, Randy approached Chenco. Chenco panicked and Caramela took over again. She was ready to take this fuckhead down with her if need be. But Randy simply stood before her, rude and strange and dangerous, and inside, Caramela could feel Chenco wanting to cry.

No.
No.


Get the hell away from me.
” Shrugging out of Booker’s hold, Caramela shoved Randy into the wall.

The goddamn bastard didn’t flinch, just kept staring. He looked down at her neck, and she watched something ease in his face, like he’d been trying to solve a puzzle and finally figured it out.

“You’re his son.”

Caramela couldn’t breathe.

Randy’s eyes glittered. “You are. You’re his son. You have to be. Your father died last month, same as Mitch’s. You live in a trailer in the flats in Donna. Your eyes wrinkle the same way as Mitch’s when you’re angry.” Randy shook his head in disbelief. “You’re wearing the fucking necklace.
You’re his son.
It’s the only explanation that fits. You’re Cooper Tedsoe’s fucking
son
.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Caramela saw Mitch pale, his whole body rigid.

He’ll kill you, your brother, if he ever finds out about you. He’ll string your faggot ass up on the goddamned flagpole and let you rot in the south Texas sun.

Caramela dug for bedrock strength. She and Chenco were not going down, not after all her work. She didn’t care how big or mean these assholes were. She’d take them all out, one fucker at a time.

She glared at Randy.

Starting with this one.

Randy opened his mouth to speak, but Caramela swore in her broken, fucked-over Spanish, gripped the left heel of Heide’s dice shoes and slammed the point with the full force of her fury into Randy Jansen’s shoulder.

Chapter Four

Steve hadn’t seen a scene go to shit this bad so fast in a long time.

The bouncer who’d led Caramela offstage pulled her off Jansen, waving the second shoe threateningly as blood from the first stiletto soaked Randy’s shirtfront. Sam cried out in alarm, shrugging Mitch off to run to Randy’s side. He went right into nurse mode, shouting for gauze and room to get to the couch. Mitch remained still, dumbfounded by Randy’s reveal.

The bouncer glanced at Steve, a blatant cry for help, and Steve relaxed, knowing now what he needed to do.

When Steve stepped forward, the man turned her over without so much as a blink and went to help Sam and Randy. For one dark moment, Caramela went hellcat, fighting Steve’s grip. Hauling her rough to his body, Steve dug his fingers into her shoulder and bent to her ear.

“Hush.”

She gentled, but not all the way, not until Steve added the sharp pressure of fingernails, half-moons digging into her cappuccino skin. The pain stilled her, made her relax—a little too much, though, and Steve could feel the shakes and sobs threatening to push out of the anger she’d leashed.

He lessened his grip enough to draw her back against him. “Stay with me.” He turned the hold into a steady massage. “Listen.”

Caramela choked on a sob, but she held it in and nodded. Yes, she’d listen.

“Jansen is an ass, and he fucked this up. Yet he’s not a bad man, and you’ve hurt him in front of friends, friends who are already on edge. If you strike him again, you will deal with me. Do you understand?”

Her whole body tensed, and she blew angry breath from her nostrils. Steve tightened his grip, pushing his fingernails in with more authority, and she calmed down, back to the edge between cracking and exploding.

Steve had to check the instinct to brush his lips over her hair and whisper
good girl
.

He cleared his throat.

“Bleeding out Jansen will not stop what you’re trying to hold back. Fear of these people is unnecessary. Mitch and Sam are good folks, Randy too. Whatever Cooper did to you, they are the other end of the map.”

She almost broke—two sobs, but she swallowed them with no tears, and when the smooth skin beneath Steve’s fingers began to pucker from pressure, she eased back into control.

Steve forced his attention to the room at large. Caramela seemed stable, going back to the bouncer to fold herself into his arms. Sam had Randy under control, and Sam himself was stable, at least for now. Mitch, however, needed a leg up.

The trucker stood a head taller than Steve did and was a little bit wider, but he had the same uneasy edge he’d always carried in the valley. Right now he pirouetted on a knife point, not looking at Caramela. Steve grimaced, wishing Randy would have checked with him before he decided to play secret baby.

That Chenco was Cooper’s son blew Steve’s mind too, but there was no denying the confirmation on Caramela’s face when Randy confronted her. It was the truth. It was out in the open. Now they had to deal with it, Mitch included.

“Tedsoe, we need water and probably a whiskey for Randy. In a minute Sam will need you.”

Mitch nodded. He couldn’t look away from Caramela, though, trying to see Chenco, his brother. Trying to see Cooper.


Mitchell Allen Tedsoe.
Go to the bar, get the drinks and get your shit together.”

This time Mitch gave Steve a curt, grateful nod and disappeared from the room.

A glance at the couch revealed the shoe was out. Sam held a heavy packet of gauze over the wound, watching the angry red pool beneath his hand as he shouted for more bandages. Randy was pale but conscious and reassuring Sam he was fine, telling him to calm down.

Steve caught the bouncer’s gaze, indicating Caramela and the door.
She needs to get out of here.

The man nodded in relief, surrendering her with his indifference. When Steve blinked in surprise, the bouncer only murmured something about “
Can’t handle the blood, man
” and ducked out of the room.

Who tossed his friend off to a total stranger?

With no other real option, Steve took over herding Caramela. She didn’t fight him—she’d slid under his command pretty hard, but she was still in character, which impressed him. Remembering the fury with which she’d landed the heel in Jansen’s shoulder, he directed her patiently to find her bag and keys. She didn’t put up any resistance until he led her down the hall toward the back entrance.

“Stop.
Where
are we going?” She stiffened in his arms. “You mean you’re taking me
out
of here? I don’t even know you.”

It was good to hear
she
at least had some sense. Steve relaxed his grip so she could move away and face him. “You needed out of the room. I was going to settle for a little fresh air for now. But now that we’re talking—yes, we need to work out what happens next.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “Nothing happens. You can all leave me alone.” When Steve only stared back at her, not in the mood to dignify this with an argument, she glared back for a few seconds then crumpled. “Why are you here? Why did you follow me? Is this part of his sick game?”

Steve frowned. “Whose sick game?”

Caramela’s lip curled. “
Cooper’s.
Mitch’s. Whoever else is in on the fun of ruining my life.”

“Mitch isn’t playing any game. He had no idea you existed until two minutes ago. He’ll come around in a minute. He’s not a bad guy.”

She was not convinced. “I have his old journals where he wrote incoherent essays full of rage and homophobia. Cooper loved to tell me how someday my big brother would come back and kick the shit out of me. This was
before
he found out about the drag.”

“For the record,
Mitch
is gay.”

She stilled, studying Steve hard. “Bullshit.”

“No shit. Mitch is queer. Loves cock as much as you and me.” Steve jerked his head back toward the dressing room. “Sam—the young one—is his husband. Randy’s gay too. Hell. Every last one of us is. So you can stop worrying on that score. As for the drag thing—” Steve shrugged. “I doubt it’s a big deal. He’s not exactly a judgmental kind of guy. Maybe he was when he lived with Cooper and when he denied the truth about himself, but not now.”

Caramela said nothing, only continued to hunch over, holding her arms over her chest.

Steve’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Pulling it out, he found a text from Randy. Steve smiled. When Caramela frowned, he waved his phone at her briefly before lowering it to text back. “Jansen says he’s sorry.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “What?”

“Jansen can be a real ass. He knows it too.” He finished his message, waited for Jansen’s reply, then looked up once he got it. “He’s inviting you to the house.” Which was Steve’s house, but he’d let the technicality slide for now. Especially since this was exactly what he wanted, to get to know Chenco, to help him. Caramela too.

Caramela didn’t recoil, which was a good start. “
Why?

“Because he wants to meet you.”

“Jansen, or my brother?”

“Everybody wants to meet you, Caramela.”

The comment caught her up a little. “You can call me Chenco.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Figured you were still in character.”

“Yes, but…” She eased a fraction. “Thanks. Not many people get it.”

Steve gave a curt nod. “As you pointed out, you don’t know me, but if I may offer my advice—I think you should come meet Mitch. Meet all of them. You struck me the other day as someone looking for family. I’m telling you, you hit the fucking mother lode.”

“I put a stiletto through the shoulder of the mother lode?”

“Well, once you get to know them, you’ll realize this was probably the best way in. If you knew how Jansen introduced himself to Sam, you’d give him a matching wound in the other side.”

Caramela bit her lip and smoothed her hands over her dress. “I need to change.”

“Do you do this here, or at home?”

“Home.”

“How about I take you, wait, and drive you to my house to meet everyone?”

She gave him an arch look.

He gave it right back. “I think you’re holding yourself together with your sequins. You shouldn’t really be driving.”

He expected a barrage of
you don’t own me
and
who do you think you are
, but she surprised him. “You’re leather, aren’t you? You’re one of those BDSM tops or whatever.”

He crossed his arms lightly over his chest. “I take it that’s a problem for you?”

“Let’s just say Booker has a boyfriend into the same, and I’m definitely not interested.”

Steve wanted to hear
all
about this, but not now. “Helping you has nothing to do with bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, masochism and sadism.” He paused. “All right, it has a
bit
to do with discipline and dominance, but it’s more about my personality than anything else. I want to give you a ride because you’re probably in shock and shouldn’t be driving. I’m inviting you over to my house to meet your brother who doesn’t want to bash you. I am
not
suggesting anything to do with sex.”

He watched her face as she digested his speech. “The stuff you rattled off—bondage, discipline, dominance…” She frowned. “You said two D words and two S words. It doesn’t make sense.”

Steve was about to ride her for focusing on the alphabet when the real point was he meant to reassure her, but she wavered, and he realized she’d latched on to the acronym because everything else was too scary to contemplate.

Yeah. No fucking way she was driving a car.

“Your options are,” he began, his voice quiet but firm, “I drive you, your friend drives you or I call you a cab.”

“I can’t afford a cab.”

“I said
I’d
call you a cab. I’d foot the bill.”

Her head jerked up again, her gaze heavily suspicious. “It’s over twenty dollars at the rates they charge to take me all the way to the flats. Why would you do that?”

“What I’ve gotten to know of you so far I like, for one reason. You’re Mitch’s little brother, for another. I also enjoyed our conversation the other day, and I’d want to help you on your own merits as well.”

She rubbed at her arms, clearly not calmed by the idea of kindness from strangers. Eventually she said, “You can drive me.”

He’d been ready for her to tell him to go to hell. Pleasantly surprised, Steve pushed off the wall and came to her side. Right off they had trouble—when he herded her to the back exit, she balked.

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