Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (7 page)

“There’s no clear access to the front this way. Also there’s a lot of glass, and I’m barefoot.”

“You can’t go through the front. They’ll mob you, and you’re already about two shoves away from coming apart.” He glanced around, then at her bag. “Any chance you have ballet flats in there?”

“No. My other shoes are in the car.”

Steve turned Caramela gently so she faced him. “I would like permission to carry you.”

“You keep messing everything up and fixing it at the same time. You scare me. You make me feel like I’ve gone crazy. I don’t do this. I don’t let total strangers drive me home then over to their house. I certainly don’t let them carry me in character across a parking lot full of fans.”

Steve said nothing. She let out a breath then started to crumble. Steve didn’t reach for her this time. She had to make this leap herself, or it wasn’t going to work.

“Okay,” she said at last. “I’ll do it, but explain to me exactly what’s going to happen, please. I know you said you were going to drive, but can you…spell out what happens now?”

Steve spoke slowly, his voice soothing but firm. “I’m going to carry you to your car. I’ll drive you to your house. I will wait while you change into Chenco, and then we’re going to talk, you and me, before we meet your brother. We can do it in a neutral space, or in the car, or at a coffee shop before we head to my house.” He hesitated. “Or I can drop you off and we can do the meet-up tomorrow.”

“No. I’ll keep avoiding.” Caramela rubbed her arms and looked over at him reluctantly. “Probably shouldn’t have told you that.”

Yes, but she had, and her urge to confess to him made something deep and pleasing hum in Steve.

She rounded her shoulders, hunching her body into a protective stance. “I really thought you were all in on Cooper’s scam. I know you’re not now, or at least I’m pretty damn sure, but Mitch…well, I’ve lived in mortal fear of him for years. That emotion is hard to shake off on somebody else’s word.”

“If Mitch or anyone else were to attempt to harm you in my house or simply on my watch, there would be some serious hell to pay. Words are all I can give you right now, but I mean them.”

“All right. Your house is fine.” Her hand trembled, however, when she brushed a lock of hair out of her face. “I feel a little weird. Like I might throw up or float away. Or melt into a puddle, or blow up.”

“You’ve had a big scare tonight. You’ve had a hell of a time lately too, from what you told me the last time we met.” He took a step closer, not touching her but making a gentle, subtle wall around her. “I’d prefer to stay with you while you change. I’ll wait in the kitchen if you want, but I need to be able to hear if you go into shock, as I’m not entirely convinced it’s off the table. When you’re Chenco again, we’ll talk and reassess whether it would be better to meet Mitch and the others tonight or wait.” He pursed his lips. “If we wait, though, I don’t think you should be alone.”

Her nostrils flared. “I’m not
that
unstable.”

Steve didn’t dignify the lie with a reply.

She lifted her head and looked him in the eye—defeated, but she held his gaze. “You’re right. I’m not very okay just now. I shouldn’t do this. I don’t know you, but I’m tired and scared so I’m doing it anyway. You may carry me to my car. I warn you now, though, if this ends up being the opening act to some sick game, I’m gonna fight you like hell.”

The declaration made him want to smile, but Steve didn’t allow himself the indulgence. Instead he inclined his head in a small bow and held out his hands.

She stared at his hand, drew a shaking breath and stepped into his open arms.

 

For the first time since he’d started drag, Chenco went out of character while still in women’s clothes.

Flashes between personas like the one when Mitch had come backstage were common, and those instances always stemmed from Chenco growing too nervous or upset. As Steve hefted Caramela into his arms and carried her out the door of Club 33, however, it was she who did the abandoning. She held on for about five seconds in Steve’s grip before sliding away, and Chenco had no choice but to move forward.

“We’re heading into the parking lot now,” Steve said as he rounded the building. “If you can’t bring her back, do your best to fake it. You’ll regret it later if you don’t.”

How had he known the difference in the personas? The exposure made Chenco feel dizzy as he let out a breath. “I can’t.” He tried again, but she was water in his hands. “She’s gone.”

Steve’s grip tightened on him. “Breathe,” he commanded.

Chenco did. “I think—I think it’s because she hurt Randy. She’s threatened it before, but she’s never actually done it until now.” The white-hot moment returned, and he found the shadow he’d been trying not to look at. “She almost put it in his neck.”

“Almost isn’t doing. May be best, though, we let her rest. What would she do right now if she were okay?”

Chenco tried to think. He was in the arms of a hot leather daddy Caramela had sung her heart out to. Thinking took some work. “She’d wave and ham it up, blowing kisses and drawing hearts in the air. Except she wouldn’t. No way in hell would she go off with a stranger.”

“Would they think she would?”

Chenco considered. “They liked me singing to you. I think we’re writing a new chapter for Caramela right now, so anything goes from a fan perspective.”

“You’re switching pronouns. Is she back, or are you getting lost?”

Chenco honestly didn’t know. “Both, maybe.”

He shifted his grip and leaned down to Chenco’s ear. “Caramela,” he said, his Spanish accent achingly perfect. “I want you to come back from here to the car. Chenco will hold you, but he needs you right now. We need you until we clear the lot, and then you can rest. Do you understand?”

Chenco shut his eyes, dizzy as the full weight of his battered queen filled his headspace. She wanted to cry, but she held on, for Chenco, for Steve. “Yes. I understand.”

Steve’s lips brushed Chenco’s ear, bleeding the tension out.

It was Caramela who waved, but as he never had before, Chenco felt himself prop her up, aware of her limits, of his own, conscious of how bizarre the whole situation was and how much trust he’d blindly given Steve, trust based on a few glances, a conversation and a projection of strength. Who was this guy who carried him? Why did he keep showing up? Why should Chenco trust him?

With no answers, Chenco couldn’t calm himself. So as Steve climbed into the Nova and Caramela slipped away, Chenco went about getting some.

“How do you know Mitch? How do you know my dad?”

Steve pulled into traffic as he answered. “I knew Mitch when he was first out, which meant knowing Cooper a little. I know your brother a lot better than I do your father.” He glanced at Chenco. “Mitch isn’t his dad. Just looks a fuck lot like him. He’s not a gay-basher. He’s a gay, married man.”

Chenco nodded, still processing that. Mitch was gay too, and married. The idea made Chenco’s brain sort of shut down.

Steve continued to speak as he drove. “It was just Mitch and Cooper since Mitch was eight. Mom ran off, which has always been hard on Mitch. He went through a dark phase where he tried to bully his way out of his orientation. Hated everything and anyone gay in high school from what I was told. I would suppose that’s when he wrote those journals.”

Chenco rubbed his arms and stared at the dashboard. “They’re fucking terrifying.”

“Whatever you read in them, remember all that vitriol was how he thought of himself. You don’t grow up with Cooper Tedsoe and come out with your head on right.” Steve eased his hands into a casual position on the steering wheel. “By the time I met Mitch, he was out, at least to himself, though he was involved with some not-so-good BDSM. Some of us from the local scene found him, shaped him up as best we could, taught him how to play safely. He got into trucking and started coming and going from the valley, and eventually he returned with Randy. Shit, but they were a pair. Two north ends and nothing but trouble. I did my best to help, but I had my hands full with something else at the time.”

So his brother was into BDSM too, and this Randy. And Steve, and Booker. Chenco frowned. Was there something in the water in the valley, or what?

Steve went back to his story. “Mitch left the valley, but he kept coming home, and he could not stop trying to get his dad’s attention whenever he was in town. Take him out of the RGV, and he’s strong enough to make most men bend just for looking at him, but bring him here and he’s eight years old again, wondering why his mama didn’t love him enough to take him too. Cooper made Mitch the reason for everything wrong in his life, and he put it all on him, right up until the day Mitch beat him down. Stopped short of killing him, and then Mitch left and never returned. Seven years he’s been gone, but back ten minutes, he was the same as the day he’d left. The old fuck is dead, but he’ll haunt his boy forever. Cooper was a brute, an ass, the kind of shit-heel who gives sadists a bad name.”

Chenco couldn’t see Steve’s triskele from the passenger seat, but he knew it was there. He touched the place on his shoulder still burning from those fingernail indentations. “You’re a sadist. A BDSM sadist. You’re into pain.”

Steve nodded, eyes never leaving the road. “I am. You’re changing the subject, but if you need to go here, I don’t mind questions.”

“Well, there’s a lot of subject matter flying around.”

This brought out another one of those half smiles. “Do you have questions about BDSM? If your friends have given you a negative impression, I wouldn’t mind a chance to clear things up.”

No, Chenco didn’t want to discuss BDSM, not yet. Did bringing it up mean Steve was into him, though? Sinking into the seat, he put his hand on his face and shocked himself when he felt the heavy makeup and fake lashes. “This is really weird, being me in her clothes.”

“Just about to the flats.” He switched lanes, heading for the exit into Donna.

“How much are they going to hate me for stabbing Randy?”

“Randy’s already forgiven you, and he’ll also respect the hell out of you from now on. He doesn’t normally misjudge people’s limits, and he’ll want to make amends for reading you wrong. Mitch is in a little shock at finding out he has a brother, so I think Randy’s shoulder is the least of his concerns now.” Steve nodded at Chenco’s lap. “Do you have your phone handy? You should probably let someone at the club know you’re okay. That bouncer or someone else.”

“Booker? Oh shit, I should.” Chenco pulled his phone out of Caramela’s clutch and fumbled with the keys, removing the gloves so he could manipulate the phone easier. He sent the text and put it away. “So Mitch and Randy are cool. What about the other one?”
Mitch’s husband.
God, that would never stop being weird.

“Sam? He won’t care for your hurting Randy. From the stories I’ve heard, however, he understands the impulse. I suspect an apology and a little explanation of why you were so scared to meet someone connected to your father would probably set everything right.” Steve turned the Nova into the flats and grimaced. “This place has gone to shit since I last came through, and it stank then. Given the gangs it likes to produce, I suppose I should have suspected.”

“It’s mostly meth labs, I think. And yes, the crime is horrible.”

He waited for Steve to ask why he lived there, but Steve didn’t. He simply drove to the trailer, parked the Nova in the drive and killed the engine.

Immediately, Chenco realized what he’d forgotten and began to panic.

“My hoodie,” he managed to get out when Steve’s hand closed over his arm, bringing him back to earth. “I have to cover her up. If they see me—”

“I need to know where the hoodie is, Chenco.”

“Backseat, but I always put it on before I get here, and I can’t get the sweatpants on in the car, not here—”


Breathe.

Chenco took one breath, then another. Something hot and tight let go inside him, and a delicious pressure pierced his left arm. He looked down and saw Steve’s hand on his arm, the skin white beneath his grip. It hurt, he realized.

It hurt, but it felt a little good too.

A different fear lit up in Chenco as he met Steve’s gaze. “Why do you keep doing that? Digging your nails into me?”

The guilt on Steve’s face surprised Chenco. “Instinct. And effectiveness. It keeps being the only thing to calm you down.”

What, you can’t try shushing me and telling me everything’s fine like a normal person?
Chenco replayed Steve’s flash of…conscience? Embarrassment? Contrition? Was this a warning sign Chenco should heed? As discomfort leached back into Steve’s expression, Chenco did worry, thinking
see, he is another psycho and I just called his bluff,
and then something else whispered at him, surprise stilling Chenco to his core. Surprise and a sense of…power.

It wasn’t guilt he’d seen. It was vulnerability.

Flattening his lips inside his goatee, Steve reached into the backseat, grabbed the hoodie and tossed it into Chenco’s lap. Vulnerability was gone now, as was the sense the reins had landed in Chenco’s lap for more than a flickering second.

Chenco slid into the garment in a daze, drawing the hood up tight.

Steve nodded at the house. “No one is here right now, and I’ll keep an eye out. I think your legs aren’t a big deal, but without shoes I’ll have to carry you unless you want to write off these stockings.”

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