CHAPTER ONE

Present Day

 

A coarse tongue caressed Cooper’s jawline with feral precision. Teasing whiskers tickled his skin, gently luring him out of an alcohol-laced slumber. A warm and woolly weight rested on his chest. It shifted and repositioned, emitting a throaty rumble as it moved.

With a measure of trepidation, Cooper eased open his eyes. The incessant licking stopped. A pair of gold eyes peered back at him, brimming with affection and curiosity. Purring with seductive satisfaction, a fat, white cat sat squarely between his bare pecs, like his chest was a mountain peak that had been claimed and conquered.

“Get off me,” Cooper scolded in a half whisper. He shooed the feline dominatrix with one hand and wiped his jaw with the other. The animal sized him up with a cocked head, rose, and sauntered off his chest, dropping to the floor with a soft thud.

God, he hated cats. Unfortunately, his true nature was like catnip to them. They sensed things in him that people didn’t. Dark things. A draft drifted over his bare skin, sending a chill through him. He propped up on his elbows and scanned his unfamiliar surroundings.

The morning sun slipped through half-open, white plantation shutters, reflecting off white bedding, white walls, a white club chair in the corner—lots of white. Where the hell was he? What time was it? And where the hell were his pants?

He eased back down on the mattress, and the naked body lying next to him stirred. Oh, right. Marco? Matthew? Mario? Whoever it was, it rolled over and slung a lithe arm over Cooper’s chest.

Shit.

He stared up at the ceiling and then closed his eyes tight. If he didn’t look, there wouldn’t be anybody there. At least that’s what he told himself in times like those. He opened one eye and peeked over at sleeping beauty. As usual—still there.

Cooper sighed and studied the angular face of the Latino boy who just a few hours earlier had been priority target number one on his hunt. A nameless, personality- deprived young stud without an intellectual thought in that pretty little head. Just the way Cooper liked them. Easy to bed, easy to leave, and nothing of substance to tempt him otherwise. He reconstructed the events of last night in his head—the thumping music, the gyrating go-go boys, the nagging vibration of the phone in his pocket.

Dammit. The missed calls. Dismissed was more like it. What had he been thinking? He ran his hand through his hair and exhaled a quiet sigh. Jesus. He hadn’t been thinking. Not with his head anyway. Lillie Mae would be worried that he never answered. He needed to call her back.

Sliding his butt stealthily across wrinkled sheets, he edged toward the side of the bed. He was nearly free until the guy’s hand fell from Cooper’s chest onto the mattress and he opened his drooping, dark eyes.

Let the awkwardness begin.

The guy rubbed his sleepy eyes and directed them at Cooper. “You looking for the bathroom?” The accent was just slight enough to remind Cooper of the desire that had stirred inside him when he first hit on the guy at the bar.

“Actually, I was looking for my phone.” And his shirt, and his underwear, and any shred of dignity he had left. Why couldn’t Mateo, or whatever its name was, have just stayed asleep? That usually made this easier on everyone.

“Ah.” The guy propped himself up on one elbow and turned his perfectly proportioned body toward Cooper. He ran smooth fingertips over the ripples of Cooper’s stomach, reigniting a flicker of desire. “I finally caught the eye of the elusive, hot ginger I’ve been stalking for a month, and now he’s having buyer’s remorse.” A smirk twisted the guy’s lips. “Just my luck.” His gaze drifted down Cooper’s torso and stopped when it arrived at his exposed morning wood.

Heat rushed to Cooper’s cheeks as he pulled the mangled top sheet up over his midsection. “Look…Mattias…”

The guy cocked an eyebrow at him. “Manuel?” This wasn’t going very well.

The guy rolled his eyes, chuckled, and sat up, not bothering to cover his nakedness. “Really? We talked for an hour at the bar before we left together.”

“We did?” Cooper couldn’t remember the guy’s name, much less the finer points of their no doubt banal conversation. He slipped out from under the sheet and stood with his back to the bed, though it was a little late to play the modesty card at this point. His clothes were scattered on the floor, on a chair, over the lampshade, but his phone was nowhere in sight. Neither was his underwear.

“It’s Miguel,” the guy said with a huff. Cooper looked over his shoulder. Miguel slung his legs off the bed and scratched his dense, curly mop of dark hair. “It’s fine. Your reputation precedes you. I knew what I was getting into.” Miguel stood, rubbed his bare ass, and disappeared into the bathroom.

Cooper gave up trying to find his underwear and pulled on his jeans. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He scanned the floor. “Where the hell is my phone?” A flash of silver caught his eye just under the side of the bed. Dropping down to his knees, he peeked under the frame. Two familiar, gold eyes stared back at him, just a claw swipe away from his phone, which was partially hidden under his hastily discarded boxer briefs.

Cooper reached a hand under the bed and shooed the cat away. It didn’t move. “Beat it, you nappy little pussy.” He swatted again. The cat shot out from under the bed with a hiss and disappeared into the front room.

“Cooper Causey…” Miguel called over a healthy jet stream of liquid hitting the toilet bowl. “…a great lay and you don’t even have to make him coffee. He’ll be gone before the sun’s up. That’s what they say about you at the bar.”

Cooper grabbed the phone and stared at the blank screen, Miguel’s words sparking only minor irritation. What the hell did he care? He’d never see this guy again anyway. He got up, sat on the edge of the bed, and held down the power button on the side of the phone. A toilet flushed, and Cooper glanced over his shoulder toward the door.

Miguel ambled into the room sporting a tiny, yet well-filled, black thong. “Don’t get me wrong. It was damn well worth the wait.”

“I am so glad I don’t disappoint,” Cooper replied with a sarcasm-laced mumble.

His phone finally came to life. A gray notification box in the center of the blue screen tracked six missed calls and one voice mail, all from the same number. Guilt swelled inside him.

Lillie Mae never liked leaving voice mails, opting to call multiple times to see if she could make a personal connection instead. She’d called three times while he was at the bar before he turned the thing off and shoved it into his pocket and out of his thoughts. But six calls plus a voice mail was not like her, especially since she knew he planned to visit her soon. He’d put it off as long as he could and run out of excuses. Something had to be wrong.

A pinch of pain shot through Cooper’s fingertips, like the simultaneous pricking of a hundred needles. The cat reappeared and weaved in and out of his legs, soaking up the errant discharge. He nudged the cat away with his foot, shook his hands, and looked over his shoulder.

Miguel stared at him with a wrinkled brow and a crooked grin. “You okay?”

Cooper grabbed his shirt off the back of the club chair and slipped it on, stuffing the balled-up boxer briefs in his front pocket. He was definitely not okay. Hadn’t been in years.

“Sorry,” he said. “I have to get going.”

“Oh, right. The dissertation you told me about. Smart and sexy. I am such a sucker for smart and sexy.”

God, he needed to get out of there. This guy might actually like him. Those were the worst ones. He connected half the buttons on his shirt and sat down to put on his shoes. Before he could get the laces tied, he sensed Miguel hovering over him.

“Not good with personal stuff after the deed is done are you, Professor?”

“Never going to be a professor unless I get that dissertation done.” Cooper paused and looked up, his eyes level with Miguel’s bulging crotch. The guy was trying to tempt him with round two. That never worked on him. “Sorry to rush out. Really.” Not really. He couldn’t get out fast enough. He stood and almost put a hand on each of Miguel’s arms in a vain attempt at sincerity. The irritating heat in his palms made him think better of it. He clenched his fists. “I’ll call you. I promise.” The words rang so hollow in his own ears, he almost choked them back.

Miguel rolled his eyes. “And guys really believe that shit?”

Cooper gave up. This guy didn’t know him, and he wasn’t worth the effort. He shook his head and made his way toward the front door.

“You can’t use that hot body as a shield forever, Cooper Causey,” Miguel called after him.

“Whatever.” Cooper couldn’t help but slam the door behind him when he stepped out of the apartment. He leaned against the door and took a deep breath of fresh Tennessee morning air. The cookie-cutter apartment complex was quiet except for a few birds playing chase in the treetops across the street in Centennial Park.

The phone weighed his hand down. He flipped it over and stared at the screen again, his fingertips still throbbing. A familiar anxiety rumbled inside him as it did every time he made contact with his past. With that place.

He took another deep breath, pressed listen, and lifted the phone to his ear.

 

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

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