Raising the Ante
by Charlotte and Farad

Challenge: from May: Three words - 'wagon', 'map' and "I'm not kidding!"

Notes: This is a sort of founding story for the version of the Escorts universe that Charlotte and Stan Lee did where Chris and Buck are together. This takes place before JD comes in (those stories were written by Stan Lee and are on the DnF site), and basically explains how the other six got there, even though it's mostly Ezra who is coming in.

Warnings: Sex. Lots of references to sex. Lots of attempted sex. Lots of sex. And a little kink play.

"Goddammit, Buck, get your hands off me!" Chris tried to reinforce the words with action, tried to get his hands to push at the other man, reject the attentions.

But his body, led too often by his dick, had its own ideas about the situation; it always did when Buck's hands were anywhere near it.

The deep, rich chuckle Buck gave as an answer didn't help at all. "Just one little fuck, Chris, feels like it's been forever since we did this."

Chris snorted, trying once more to put some distance between them. Hell, it was a king-sized bed - why did he always wake up with Buck all over him? "It was last night," he reminded his lover, "after you got back from your date with Sheila - stop it! We've got the party tonight!"

But Buck was grinding against him, the other man's erection digging into his thigh. "That's hours away," Buck whispered just before his tongue started tasting Chris' ear. "And even more hours before you have to do Jennifer and I have to do whichever of her guests pays the most. You're getting this for free, stud, and you know I save my best work for you."

Hours away, he thought, his legs spreading instinctively as Buck stroked his erection. And more hours...

" 'Course, you are getting old," Buck murmured, but he didn't stop his assault. "And we are stretched pretty thin right now - Vin, Nate and Josiah are all going to be with us tonight, right?"

"I don't know," Chris said, trying hard to follow the thread of the conversation. "Nathan's still annoyed that so many people kept ordering drinks from him last time."

Buck's low chuckle tickled his ear canal while Buck's deft fingertips tickled his balls, the combined assault making him shudder. "I told him he needed a new suit," Buck breathed against his damp skin. "Hell, they used to do that to me too when I'd show up in cheap shit."

Chris doubted that was true, if only because Buck would have groused about it. "I've still got time to send him out for one, but I think..." Buck's hand meandered behind his balls, brushing the scattered hairs there and making him hump up against it. "I think..." He was trying to think. He was. He clamped his legs together to stop Buck's hand moving. "I think," he grated, determined to get it out, "that he's already tied up tonight. Couple of dates, in fact."

Buck's palm cupped his balls, gently rubbing, and Chris felt his eyes trying to roll back in his head. "He should reschedule," Buck whispered, still tickling his ear. "He needs to get used to rubbing elbows with these people. He'll make a great rep for himself if he just starts acting like he's better than them. Lesson him and Vin both need a little more help with, even though Vin's coming along pretty well."

The words were almost enough to keep Chris's attention, in spite of the thumb Buck kept brushing back and forth over the base of his dick. A distant part of him was grateful that he'd trapped Buck's hand low enough that it couldn't completely undo him, though it wasn't like he had much of an advantage here. "They don't think prostitutes are better than the people paying them, Nathan especially," Chris panted.

When Buck's hand left him and he felt the mattress shift, his eyes flew open just in time to see Buck rolling off the bed. "What? Where-" he swallowed. He wanted Buck to stop. Still, tell that to his dick. He glared down at it, red, angry, dripping precum onto his belly. This job could still annoy the hell out of him, at times.

"Nathan!" Buck hollered, as if the man would hear him through at least one floor and soundproofed walls. "Come on, pard, we're gonna get him some new clothes and I'm gonna have a little talk with him."

"But..." he looked down at his forlorn cock again, gripped it once in apology, then sighed and got up himself, following his naked partner out of their apartment. He grabbed a pair of jeans on his way out, hopping into them before he reached the stairs. You needed him to stop, he reminded himself.

Buck was way ahead of him now, not having wasted time on details like dressing. Chris caught up to him just inside Nathan's apartment door.

"Would you pay one of those people just to be rich?" Buck was saying.

"Huh?" Nathan stood back, dressed in a short red silk robe with a dragon design on the back, a gift from Josiah Chris assumed. Like them, he looked to have been rousted out of bed by Buck's appearance at his door.

"I said, would you pay one of those people to be rich?"


Chris grinned. Nathan had no fucking clue what Buck was going on about, his dark eyes trying to focus as much as his brain was.

"Exactly," Buck said, and Chris's grin widened. Carefully, he buttoned his jeans over his erection. "You wouldn't pay 'em just to be rich, but they'll pay you just to fuck them. They need you way more than you need them, Nate."

"Buck? What the hell are you talking about?" Nathan asked. He still looked like he had no idea what was happening, whereas Buck stood tall and unselfconsciously naked, ignoring the fact (or not even noticing it) that Nathan kept frowning down at his hard cock. Chris settled in to enjoy the show, propping up the doorframe with one shoulder and crossing a bare ankle over the other.

"I'm talking about these people at Jennifer's party, Nathan," he said patiently. "We've talked about this before. You let them know you think they're better than you and it costs us money and clients. And they aren't, so I don't know what your hang-up is. But there's nothing like one of Jennifer's parties to get over it, so buddy, you need to come with us tonight."

"I'm already working tonight," Nathan said, still frowning at Buck's cock. Chris felt the urge to frown at it too, but only for abandoning him.

"Change your schedule. Or come over as soon as you're done. Nathan, we bill Jennifer for standing around looking pretty and just talking to people. There's no better job than that in our line of work, if you'll just buy that Hugo Boss I told you to buy."

That got his eyes up to Buck's face. "Buck, I'm not spending three-thousand dollars for a damned suit."

"Yes, you are," Chris said, stepping up. "He's right, Nathan. This low-rent thing you keep aiming for isn't helping you and it isn't helping us. I could charge three-thousand a trick for you if you look the part. You're losing money by not spending money."

Nathan frowned between them, and Chris understood the feeling; he and Buck were hard to resist when they ganged up on somebody.

"Look," Chris said, pushing it, "we loaned Vin the money and got him started, and he's almost got us paid off - and it's only been two months. We can do the same with you."

"What's all the racket?"

Chris turned his head to catch Josiah leaning in the doorway, smiling. "We're taking Nathan suit shopping," Chris said.

Josiah looked at Buck, a cool eye sweeping down his body. "Don't you think he ought to get dressed first?"

Buck looked down at himself, surprised. "Uh..."

"I'm not paying-" Nathan started.

"I'll buy it," Chris said. "It'll prove my point. And I'll make it back in a week, if you'll listen to Buck and get your ass to that party tonight. In fact, you let me prove you right and I'll buy you a whole new wardrobe, you and Vin both." He should have done this months ago, he realized, when they'd brought Vin in. "It's a business expense, and a necessary one if you're going to keep working with us." It was also the only way he'd get the man dressed like he needed him to be, like he needed for all of his men to be.

All of them, he thought, because that was where this was going. What had started out as him and Buck, and then Nathan and Josiah part-time, had grown in the past few months. Josiah was giving more of his time to it, treating it more as his primary employment than as the hobby he had been claiming. He'd even started a rock garden in the back yard, a permanent addition to the property that told Chris more than anything else that the man was settling in for the long haul.

Bringing Vin in full-time had helped, he knew, the younger man making this more a home for all of them together than a place shared by men who worked or played in the same profession. At the same time, though, it also made it a real profession.

Nathan was almost full-time at it now, too, still going to school but his interest had been dropping off and all of them knew it. It was time for them to stop thinking of this as small scale and really put the investment into it.

Nathan was on his feet now, nervous. "Chris, I'm not letting you and Buck shell out that kind of money. There's no need, I do fine-"

Chris walked out in the middle of the sentence, leaving Josiah and Buck to explain the finer points of something he was sure Nathan understood, but rejected for reasons that had nothing to do with the price of clothes. He knew Josiah had been working on Nathan, trying to get him to wrap his head around the subtleties of their roles. He knew Buck had been giving Nathan no end of shit for turning five-hundred-dollar tricks and working more than he had to, taking on those people on the edges of their circles who liked the common-man thing or the discounted rate.

He strode back into his and Buck's apartment, a man on a mission. Nathan pulled his own weight but he did it the hard way, and Chris wasn't going to help him do it like that anymore. Pulling out a suit of his own, he slid on silk boxers and silk trousers, grabbed a pristine white shirt off a hanger and looked around for his phone. They'd take Nathan to that custom shop, get him kitted out for tonight, and maybe Buck and Josiah would spend a little time with him - and Vin, even though Vin was coming around pretty quickly, at the party, pointing out the obvious.

Besides, making Buck go shopping, getting him out of the house, was about the only way he could think of to keep his partner's hands off him, and he had been sure ten minutes ago that the top of his head would explode if Buck didn't stop playing with his body.

It was a training exercise, one that needed to be done and that he'd ignored for far too long.

* * *

Six and a half hours later, shopping trip out of the way, showered and shaved and blow-dried in their bathroom, he paused to adjust Buck's bow tie, smoothing his hands down the lapels. "You look good enough to eat," he whispered, strangely exhilarated.

"And you look good enough to fuck," Buck replied, fingers coming up to stroke along the backs of his hands. "What's got you so fired up?"

Chris shook his head. "Just finally acting like a business man," he admitted. "We've been coddling Nathan, and that ain't helping him any."


Chris frowned at him. "You know we have. If he's serious about staying with us, keeping this up, then he needs to learn how to breathe up here. How to move, how to talk. How to treat these people like shit so they'll come back for more and pay more to get it. He did okay the last party we were at, but that got cut short when the situation with Vin came up. This will be the first party we've worked with them since then. Time to get them both up to speed."

Buck chuckled, low and soft. "We don't treat those people like shit," he said. "Well, I don't. Hell, I like most of 'em. It seems to work pretty well for you, though."

Chris knew that it did. His natural disinterest in most people always bled through with strangers, seemed to make them want him even more. Buck's amusement with people did the same for him, and Chris knew it or something like it would do the same for Nathan and Vin, too.

Somehow, Buck's hands had worked their way up his arms and down his back, and a gentle pressure on his ass nudged their groins together. "Quit it," he said, but stepped closer.

"I like you all bossy," Buck grinned, ignoring him.

He resisted the urge to tease; they were all leaving in less than twenty minutes now, Nathan's client rescheduled for eleven tonight so he'd be free for most of Jennifer's party. "I should've been bossy before," he admitted. "Shouldn't have let him decide how he wanted to do it, should have started thinking seriously about this when we brought Vin in."

Buck shrugged it off, supremely unconcerned. "You're good to him, to all of us, you know."

Chris still thought differently sometimes, the shock sneaking up on him at odd moments that they had settled into a life of prostitution, and now, that he was actually running a stable. It was so much a part of Buck's past and his mother's, Chris supposed it shouldn't be so much of a surprise, but it was-that he could let Buck go to other people without losing his mind, that he could be paid to fuck and romance, and paid so damned well. Unimaginably well. "Okay," he said, ambivalent.

"Hey." Buck tilted his chin up, met his eyes head-on. "I'm happy and safe. We've got a beautiful home with doors that lock and the best fucking bed we've ever owned. You're doing great."

Chris nodded, accepting the reassurance even as he shook off the feeling. Buck was happy and safe, safe every night, never staying out and never anywhere near the same kinds of risks he'd been at before. Not now, not ever again. And getting rich damned fast wasn't hurting his prospects for the future, either. "Come on, let's go round up the others."

* * *

The driver phoned when he pulled up outside, and Chris stood back to watch Buck and Josiah herd Nathan and Vin into the car. Nathan looked damned good in his tailored suit, and Chris had plans to show him and Vin both some things he'd had to show Buck a few years back, to teach them that all of it was part of the game, not just turning the trick and satisfying him or her in bed.

They piled into the town car and Chris settled back with a whiskey, what would be his only one for the night. "No drinking tonight," he said, glaring at Buck. "I'd like you all to stay fresh and alert."

"Still ain't sure this is the best idea," Vin said, shifting in the seat beside Josiah. "Don't reckon your lady friend thinks right highly of me after last time."

Chris looked over at him, noticing the Josiah had placed a reassuring hand on Vin's leg. "Jennifer understands what happened, Vin, she knows Sandy Merrick, and she knows you work for me. You just act like we've been telling you - you and Nathan both."

"There's no reason for either of you to worry," Josiah said, and his hand moved slowly over Vin's leg. "You look wonderful, both of you. Very presentable. Just remain aloof and distant; the more untouchable you act, the more they'll want you."

"Yes, sir," Nathan said, sarcastic. Nervous, Chris knew, which was ridiculous; Nathan was skilled and plenty comfortable with the fucking part of his job. He'd be comfortable with the rest of it, if Chris had any say-which he did. Plenty. Chris listened with half an ear while Josiah lectured on the psychology of wealth and the benefits of sophistication, and Buck slipped one foot out of his shoe and walked it up the inside of his leg.

"That really necessary?" he asked, looking across at his partner, noticing that Vin was watching them even as Josiah continued to talk.

The foot made it to his crotch, toes kneading against his cock. "Yeah," Buck said, smiling easily. "Life or death."

Chris sucked in a breath and opened his legs. Maybe it was life or death; it sure as hell felt that way sometimes. Besides, the drive was less than fifteen minutes, and if he was simmering when he went inside that party it'd make Jennifer happy.

He was more than simmering when they pulled up in front of Jennifer's estate, and waved the driver back into the car. "They'll get the door, don't worry about it," he said, as a green-uniformed valet opened the door for them. He leaned back to let his men pile out in front of him, taking a second to adjust himself. Definitely more than simmering. He cursed himself for giving in to Buck, worried now that he'd be tenting his suit pants.

"Gonna ruin the lines," Buck grinned, goosing him as he crawled out. Chris smacked his ass as it went by, waited another few seconds to will his cock into submission, and climbed out after him.

"Okay boys," he said, glaring when Buck leered pointedly at his crotch. "Easy night. Nathan, you and Vin stick close. It's training day."

"I think I've done this a time or two," Nathan griped, but he subsided quick enough, sucking in a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. "Better than them, huh?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, Nathan," Josiah said from his other side. "Keep that in mind, because that's why they pay you."

They entered together, and Chris knew the picture they presented: five men, exceptionally groomed and exceptionally handsome, radiating confidence-well, not as much from Vin and hardly any from Nathan. He elbowed him gently in the ribs. "Relax," he said. Maybe he should get him a drink after all. He surveyed the ballroom from the stairs, acknowledging Jennifer with a quick smile and watching as Buck and Josiah waded into the crowd.

"Now watch Buck," he said, nodding his head toward his partner. "He goes straight for who he wants, chats them up. He does it before he even heads for the people Jennifer's asked him to pay special attention to. He does things his way."

"I do know how to do this, Chris," Nathan said, low, his eyes moving around the room. "Didn't we have this conversation the last time we were here, or something like it?"

On Chris' other side, Vin shifted then said with a little grin, "You mean, before you had to rescue the guy in the bad suit from the asshole manhandling him?"

Chris smiled and Nathan chuckled at the memory. "Lot of good came out of that," Chris said, reaching out to squeeze Vin's shoulder. "But back to the point: if you knew how to do this, we wouldn't be having this conversation or the argument we've been having all day about dressing the part." He wasn't annoyed, particularly, but he wasn't in the mood to listen right now either. "Look around, see 'em? Their money buys them their authority, but with most of them, it's really all they've got. They don't buy us just for our asses, Nathan, or our cocks. They buy us because we know who we are. They like that. They like that they don't own us, aren't responsible for us."

"He doesn't," Nathan said. Chris followed his gaze, eyes landing on a guy who looked so out of place it was almost laughable. Spiked red hair, angular features, and a waifish body couldn't cover for the Goth-styled outfit he wore, nor for the laughter singing out from the small crowd he stood with.

Vin frowned, uneasy. "He needs the same lessons we do, Nathan," he said. " 'Course, his suit is still better than the one I had on last time but - hell, ain't that - "

Chris smiled. "It sure is, just like last time." The crowd around the Goth-man had moved a little, so that the man standing to Goth-man's left was now visible.

"Well, hell," Vin muttered. "He done found himself somebody else to pick on."

"I don't think so," Chris answered. "Sandy's date tonight isn't someone new to dealing with him and his kind. Angel knows exactly what he's doing and how to handle someone like Sandy - watch and learn, Vin, watch and learn." Angel was Chris's particular nemesis, a Cockney asshole with a model's good looks and 'poor little rich boy' ways. He was naturally good at this job, much as Buck was, none of which bothered Chris one bit. No, what bothered Chris was that Buck liked the little cocksucker.

A waiter appeared then, a tray of champagne glasses in hand, and Chris took two, handing one to Nathan and one to Vin. He nodded as he took one for himself.

"Thought you said no alcohol," Nathan said, frowning even as he took the glass.

Chris tilted his head in acknowledgement, even as he said, "Like the suit, it's for appearances. In a setting like this, people are uncomfortable if you're too different." He swirled the glass in his hand.

Nathan nodded his understanding, but his eyes traveled back to Angel and Sandy.

"Angel's different in one way, a way that Sandy and some of the others here like because it makes them feel superior." He looked back, frowning as Sandy reached out one manicured hand to catch a handful of his 'date's' hair, winding it around his palm as he continued talking to his friends. He pulled, using it like a leash to force the young man to step closer to him. Chris grinned when Angel plastered himself against Sandy's side, closer than Sandy had wanted him and too close for Sandy to keep the grip on his long, colored hair. Wonder how much Angel got to let Sandy put that rinse in his hair? he thought, chuckling again.

"But if we look better than they do, and act better than they do, then they feel inferior?" Nathan asked, taking a step forward, his gaze on what was happening across the room.

"Exactly," Chris said, moving forward as well. "Or close enough." Josiah had told him they actually felt superior, more so because they could buy people like Chris or his men. "The better you are, the better they can pretend they are."

"Mr. Larabee?" The voice was cultured and soft and coming from past Nathan on the left. Chris looked to find an auburn-haired man, slightly shorter than he was, dressed in a custom-fitted Brooks Brothers' suit, the jacket of purple velvet over a gold and purple brocade vest. He was elegant in a way that made even Chris' entourage look a little common.

Chris lifted an eyebrow in acknowledgement.

"Ezra P. Standish," the newcomer introduced himself, holding out a perfectly manicured hand. "Mr. Wilmington suggested that I - "

"Ezra!" Buck's voice called from behind Chris, and the name clicked into place. Of course. As if Angel being here wasn't enough, as if Vin in his own house wasn't enough, now Chris had a third person here in the trade who Buck knew a hell of a lot more intimately than Chris wanted him to.

Then Buck was there, one of his hands slipping familiarly over Chris' shoulder as he joined them.

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, but he smiled, his perfectly white teeth catching in the room's bright light. "A pleasure to see you again. Might I assume that you have mentioned me favorably to Mr. Larabee? I was rather hoping so."

Buck laughed, looking to Chris. "I think Chris understood my point, even though I'm not sure that he wanted to hear the details."

Chris glared at him, ignoring the questioning looks he was getting from Vin and Nathan. "As Buck might have told you, we're not really in the market right now for another employee."

He saw the flash of surprise on Nathan's face and the widening of Vin's eyes, but that was in the background. It was Buck's gaze that he was holding, and it was the roll of those eyes that he paid the most attention to.

"Boys, mingle," Buck said, his hold on Chris' shoulder tightening a little. "Ezra - why don't you give Vin and Nathan a little introduction to the high-society here in Boston while I have a quick chat with Chris, all right?"

Chris noticed that Standish accepted the direction with grace, turning to Nathan immediately and holding out his hand in introduction. Vin caught Chris' eye, and Chris nodded. The younger man was loyal, something Chris had come to appreciate a hell of a lot.

Then Buck was pulling him to one side, his blue eyes full of laughter as Ezra strolled away, Vin and Nathan in tow. "You sure are possessive these days, boss," he said softly. "After all the attention I gave you today, you really worried about hiring on another man?"

"We just took in Vin," Chris said flatly. "We fitted out Nathan today, we're going to buy him a wardrobe, and if I fit him out, I can't make Vin pay us back - "

"This really about the money?" Buck interrupted. "Or is this about the fact that I've already vetted Ezra and you're jealous?"

"You didn't vet him," Chris answered shortly. "You felt sorry for him so you paid him for a blow job - "

"Just like you did with Vin, if I remember correctly," Buck cut in, but there was only laughter in his voice. "Yeah, I know, we actually had Vin together that first night, and he was already in the business - but Chris, look at them."

Buck cocked his head, guiding Chris to look at the three men who had just left them. Ezra was all elegance, his gestures fluid and graceful, smiling at people as he passed, talking all the while to Nathan and Vin like they were his closest and oldest friends, and Chris couldn't deny that the three of them looked good together.

"Nathan and Vin know the trade but they don't know the lifestyle. Ezra knows the lifestyle, but he doesn't know the trade. He's a fast learner, Chris," Buck chuckled at that, and Chris stiffened at the implication, "and he wants to learn. He knows people, can get us more contacts that Jennifer doesn't know or won't turn us onto. We've got the room, he's already got the clothes - it's a win-win situation."

Ezra had stopped in front of several women, introducing Vin and Nathan to them, and the women, wealthy socialites that Chris had been working on for a while, were giving him more time than they had ever given Chris. And one of them, Mrs. Angela Lanson, a middle-aged widow with more money than God, had stepped in close, flirting shamelessly with Vin.

She even touched his lapel, smiling at him in a very non-maternal way.

It was Ezra, of course, who suggested that Vin give her his card, and Ezra who smoothed it over when Vin fumbled the play, having forgotten to bring them.

"He'd be good with us," Buck murmured.

Chris sighed. "I'll talk to him. And to Vin - how the hell did he forget his cards?"

"Street boys don't carry them, Chris, and Vin still hasn't made the leap. He's trying, but it's not enough to be it just here, at this party. We all need to get out more, get them exposed, restaurants, theaters, other events that they'll be going to with their dates. And we need to bring it home, too. Ez can do that for us."

"I'll talk to him," Chris said again, a little more sharply. He was rewarded by Buck's soft chuckle, and a quick and subtle squeeze to his ass.

As they started away from the women, Lanson's eyes drifting along the lines of Vin's back with definite interest, Chris caught Ezra's eye and the three started back toward them. Ezra nodded to others he knew as they passed, still working with flawless aplomb. Buck, damn him, might be right.

As they neared, Buck stepped forward, catching Vin's arm and pulling him in close. "Hey, did you notice who's here?"

Chris rolled his eyes, knowing Buck was buying him time to think a little more, and soothing down Vin's worry. Chris would talk to Vin later, reassure him that he wasn't in the line of fire, but for now he had other things to worry about.

"My good friend Sandy?" Vin countered, playing along. "See he's got himself a date, too."

"You just watch Angel, he's got that asshole wrapped around his little finger," Buck said. "That boy is gold, and what he can't do with his mouth can't be done!"

Chris noted with more annoyance the pride in Buck's voice. "Stay away from him, Buck," he muttered, and Buck laughed.

"Jealous bastard," he said without heat.

"You know it. So stay away from him."

"Fine, fine." Buck waved a dismissing hand which, oddly, comforted Chris more than outright submission would have. He reminded himself that he didn't have anything to worry about; if over a decade hadn't calmed him down, Buck's easy acceptance of his new friendship with Vin--and Buck's not-so-easy jealousy there that they had worked out in private and to their great mutual satisfaction--had.

"So, Mr. Standish," Chris said, squaring his shoulders, "what can you offer me?"

"Ezra?" They all turned to find Ms. Lanson and one of her friends winding their way through the crowd toward them. "You have more friends here?"

Standish smiled at her then glanced to Chris. "Have you met my very dear friend Mr. Larabee?"

Ms. Lanson paused, looking at Chris, then Ezra, then her eyes slid to Vin. They lingered for a few seconds, Vin smiling at her while Buck chuckled, then she looked back at Chris. "I believe Mr. Larabee and I have met once or twice, but I didn't realize he was a friend of yours as well, Ezra. And if that's the case, perhaps we should get to know each other a little better, Chris, isn't it?"

Across the room there was an eruption of laughter followed by a loud Cockney-accented voice calling, "Hey, Sandy - where the hell's my drink? I'm thirsting to death here."

"That," Buck laughed, looking to Vin, "is how you handle Sandy Merrick."

Chris shot Buck a look that told him to clear out and take the rest of the guys with him, pasting on a professional smile for Angela Lanson.

"Ma'am," Buck said to Ms. Lanson, smiling like he wanted to eat her out and reaching for her hand, holding it between two of his own. "A real pleasure to meet you. If you'll excuse me?"

Chris swallowed a grin as her face remained stoically calm but her pupils widened. "Certainly, Mr. ..."

"Buck Wilmington, ma'am, at your service." He tugged her hand up gently and pressed his mouth to her wrist, then gathered up Vin and Nathan and wandered away, his arms around their shoulders so that his coat rode up, displaying one of his better features.

"Yes, Angela," he said, taking her hand to get her attention off Vin or Buck; he couldn't tell from this angle whose ass she was watching now, and even he found it a little difficult not to look. "It's a pleasure to see you again."

"How do you know Ezra?" she asked him, and Chris smiled, tilting his head Ezra's way. He wanted to see how the man would play this out.

"He's a close associate of our hostess's," Ezra said smoothly, "and we have other mutual acquaintances. He and I share a particular fondness for the opera, as well."

Chris smiled more broadly, shaking his head. Ezra was smooth as silk-and he'd better hope to hell Angela Lanson didn't ask him about the opera.

Once he'd exchanged pleasantries with Ms. Lanson and her entourage and passed out his business card, he left Ezra to chat with them and headed straight for Jennifer, grabbing a fresh glass of champagne for her on his way. He stood in her line of sight and waited for her to finish a pointless conversation with a guy he was pretty sure would be on their client list soon, then stepped up as the man stepped away, holding the glass out for her.

"Chris, I wondered where you'd gotten off to," she said, taking the glass from him.

"Just making new friends," he said easily.

"Anyone I'd be interested in?" she asked.

That was... a very good question. "Ezra Standish," he said, watching her closely.

She frowned. "He's trouble. Well," she shrugged elegantly, "his mother is. God knows she's married half a dozen of my friends." So that was where Ezra's connections came from. "I suppose a man can't be judged for his parentage," she said, and Chris chuckled at that; most of the people in this room, including Jennifer, judged people by their relatives plenty.

"He seems nice enough," he said.

"Oh, he is, I suppose," she said, bored with the topic as far as Chris could tell. "He's failed spectacularly of late in some business ventures, however. I'm surprised he's here tonight."


"Because half of the money he lost belongs to Evan Prescott."

Chris shrugged it off; if Prescott had trusted Ezra with his money, Ezra was either very good or as well-connected as he seemed. "The boys will be heading out around ten thirty. Do you know how long you'll need me tonight?" he asked.

She looked at him, reading him more easily than he liked. "You'd like to go home too, wouldn't you?"

"Not particularly," he lied, then flashed his own smile. "I was looking forward to spending time with you."

"You're very charming," she said thoughtfully. "But I'll make you a counter-offer. Leave with your men, and come back around one. I'll tell the butler to look out for you and you can wait for me in my room."

"You sure?" he asked, trying not to look too eager.

"Yes, I'm sure. And please, dump that suit. I'd like to take off something a little harder-edged." She smiled, and a flash of the shark behind the silk dress and diamonds sparked through.

He nodded, more than willing to play that game for her. "Anything in particular?"

"Surprise me. And bring Buck back with you, if you don't mind. I have a friend in from Paris and she seems to have taken a shine to him. She's in the purple dress by the quintet."

Chris scanned the room until he found her, wide-hipped and mature and very European, her hair short and straight, her breasts small and not quite exposed by the low plunge of her neckline. "He'll want to pay you," he joked.

Her laugh was lilting, practiced. "I try to spoil him for you, you know."

He took a step closer, glad she was backed up against the wall, and slid his hand to the bare skin toward the bottom of her backless dress. Walking his fingers just beneath the fabric, he answered, "I like to think I spoil you too."


Ezra caught Chris heading toward him and Vin at the door to the gardens, and glanced at his watch. It was a bit after ten o'clock--still early, by this crowd's standards. "You have plans for the evening?" Larabee asked.

Ezra sipped from his champagne, thinking about his answer. He'd spent the evening shepherding Nathan and Vin around the party, introducing them to people, hoping that Vin wouldn't speak often enough to truly embarrass him. He was pretty enough, they all were, but there was far more to dealing with this stratum of society than being pretty.

It seemed that Larabee understood this, and so did Buck, Ezra knew that already.

And it seemed that he was being put through his own paces here, proving to Larabee that he was willing to take the risks of this new career. It was a damned sight better than his other options.

"As it happens, I find myself unattached this evening," he answered. "Might I be of some service to you?"

Larabee ignored the question, as Ezra had pretty much assumed he would. The man had his own sort of style, if one could call it that, but it seemed to work. "Come back to our place, get to know the boys. Nathan's got a client this evening, but the rest of us are free for awhile. Before we go any farther, let's see how we all mesh."

'If' was implied but not said. "I look forward to it. What time and where - "

"Limo's outside, go with Vin. I've got a few things to take care of before we leave and the others will head that way in the next few minutes." He was already turning away.

"But I have my own car - "

"We'll get you back to pick it up," Larabee said smoothly. "Vin?"

"This way, Ezra," Tanner grinned. "Reckon it's all right to have a drink now."

For a few seconds, he hesitated. He hated leaving the Porsche. The car would be safe enough here, Jennifer was accustomed to having her garages full after one of her parties, often some of her bedrooms as well. With a sigh, he followed his companion out the door, nodding his goodbyes to a couple of people he knew along the way and several more that he didn't, just in case Chris Larabee was watching.

He also watched several of them watching Vin walk away, mentally noting who to mention to Larabee, and shaking his head with a certain disgust that Tanner wasn't making the same notes. The man seemed oblivious to his own appeal, and Ezra suspected that it wasn't feigned.

They made their way down the drive to a large white limousine parked toward the end. He winced as Tanner called out, "Hey, Ben, we're back and the others will be along. This is Ezra."

To his credit, Ben smiled in what seemed to be sincere appreciation of Vin's acknowledgment of him and opened the door. "You want me to pull the car around?"

"Nah," Vin said, waving off the question. "I found you easy enough; they will too."

Ben nodded. "I was talking to my cousin the other night, the one with the old Kawasaki? He's got a number for a guy he knows who does some Harley work. He said he'd ask the guy if it was all right for him to give out his number."

"Thanks!" Vin grinned, slapping the other man on the back. "Much obliged! I really need to replace that fuel pump soon if I'm going to have any hope of driving her more than just around the block."

"She's a good-looking bike," Ben answered. "Hate to see her stranded."

Ezra stood patiently, not looking around for fear that someone would witness this little informality and associate him with it. It was hard enough right now, what with the rumors themselves. He'd noticed several heads turn in his direction during the course of the party, heads that had never noticed him before. It could have been because he was with Larabee's boys, but he doubted it; given Tanner's behavior at the moment, he wondered how Larabee had made it this far in the business.

Then again, he'd heard the rumors there as well, knew that the man himself, and Buck of course, were damned good at what they did and discreet.

But he suspected that some of the attention he was getting was due to word making the rounds. The deal had been that he'd take the fall for the scandal as long as there was no legal intervention and as long as it remained quiet. Margie had promised that he'd see no real repercussions, other than that he was now drummed out of the profession he had worked so hard to master. That, and the temporary freeze on all of his assets until the FTC and the Feds had completed their 'investigation', which could take as long as two years. They had seized his bank accounts, his investments, his stocks, and anything that he could cash in. By the time they were finished he'd been lucky to have the money in his wallet and the clothes on his back, and most of those were in storage as, when the scandal had come out in the office, he'd lost his company-provided apartment lease.

So here he was, crashing one of Jennifer's parties on the off-chance that he could make time with one of the more notorious whores in Boston to try to get a job. It was either that, or make the drive to Virginia in the morning, while he still had the money for gas, in hopes of begging off his mother.

The very thought appalled him more than anything else in this whole sordid affair.

"You planning to stand out there all night, Ezra?" Vin's voice cut through his reverie.

"Sir?" Ben encouraged, smiling deferentially as he held the door. This man knew his job and these circles too-better than Vin Tanner did, in fact. He wondered if he could enlist their driver in some much-needed tutelage.

Ezra slid into the large seat opposite his companion, not surprised to find Tanner grinning and pulling on his tie. "Damned glad to be out of this thing," he said, letting the expensive piece of cloth fall to his lap. "Society people are a bunch of damned - masochists? Ain't that the word Josiah uses?"

"I suspect that it is," Ezra acknowledged, putting a lot of emphasis on the 'is', but it was lost on the other man who was already opening the sideboard to the small bar in the door console.

"They only keep the good stuff in these things, and Chris has to pay for it whether we drink it or not - what's your pleasure?" He was pouring something amber for himself, and Ezra was impressed at the quality of the crystal decanter and the glass. At least Larabee did understand the importance of appearances.

"Vodka?" he asked, looking at the other decanters.

Vin frowned, looking as well, then said, "Guess this is it - Grey Goose? That sound right to you?"

Ezra stared at the other man for several seconds, until those blue eyes met his, completely guileless. "Um, yes," he managed to say, and thought it was rather clear. "That would be one of the best vodkas available - do you not know..."

Vin had started to pour the drink but as Ezra's words trailed off he looked up, meeting Ezra's eyes again. After a second he smiled, but Ezra thought there was a slight hesitancy in it. There was no heat in his tone, though, as he answered the unasked question. "I know how to fuck and I know how to be fucked, and I reckon Chris and Buck think I do good enough to keep me in their house." He looked away at that, and Ezra nodded, wondering just how good Tanner was.

Vin went on, his voice still soft and pleasant. "I don't know a damned thing about swimming in these high-class waters, 'cept what I've been learning from Chris and Buck and 'Siah. Always figured that people were people no matter what, and the trappings don't make much more than shinier packages, but I might be a little too ignorant on that score."

He held out the glass to Ezra, then, as Ezra took it, Vin raised his own in a sort of toast. "Thanks for adding something else to my education," he said, taking a long pull on his whiskey.

Ezra sipped his own drink, watching as Vin settled back in his seat, leaned his head on the headrest and closed his eyes. They sat in silence for several seconds, until Ezra worried that he had somehow upset the other man. Ezra had also noted that Larabee had a fondness for Vin and it would hardly do to be on bad terms this early on.

"So how did you get into the employ of the Larabee-Wilmington house?" he asked, fitting himself more comfortably into the plush seat.

Vin snorted, opening his eyes. "You ain't figured it out?" He laughed a little, then took another sip before continuing. "I was living in Arlington, working at a garage and turning a few tricks on the side when I met Sandy Merrick. Knew he had money, but didn't realize how much until, 'bout a month after we'd been 'dating', he asked me to come to a party in Boston with him. Didn't realize he liked slumming 'til we got 'bout halfway here, in his daddy's private jet, when he pulled out this godawful monkey-suit that looked like a reject from a bad 80's wedding. He said it matched by eyes, and he told me that I was gonna wear it, reminded me how much he was paying me to do as I was told." He grinned and took another sip, and Ezra realized that oddly, Vin held no real grudge against the man. He couldn't say that he would have felt the same.

"Mr. Merrick is quite the showman," Ezra commented diplomatically. "The word 'drama-queen' does seem to apply most aptly, from what I understand in the society pages."

"Don't know about that," Vin said, "but he does like to cause big scenes and treat his dates like shit. Guess it makes him feel better."

Ezra hid his smile behind another sip of the wonderful vodka. "So Mr. Larabee rescued you?"

Vin grinned at that. "Him and Buck and Nathan. More like they rescued Sandy. I was ready to deck him, but Chris stepped right on in and put him in his place without throwing a punch. Hell, Chris didn't even muss his expensive suit. Chris has got some kinda class." He said it with a sort of reverence that both amused and confused Ezra. Obviously, Larabee had won a fan that night.

But in his way, Vin was right. Larabee did have some sort of class. He was elegant and charming when he wanted to be, certainly as arrogant as any guest at Jennifer's party, but hard-edged and just a little unpredictable, as smooth and sharp as a piece of broken glass. It was that latter part that put him into a class by himself.

"So he picked you up and took you home?" Ezra asked. "Just like that?"

Vin shrugged. "Just like that. You ain't no more surprised than I am. I'd never have thought to impress folks like him and Buck enough to be here now." He looked away then, back into his drink.

Before he could say anything, the door opened and a new person slid into the seat beside Vin.

He was big. His suit was perfect, like Larabee's, black with crimson accents in the tie and trim of the vest. He had salt and pepper hair and mustache, trimmed short and perfectly, and his smile carried an intimidation that made Ezra stiffen reflexively.

"Now, Vin," the older man chided lightly, "what did we tell you about bringing home strays?" But he held out a hand to Ezra. "Josiah Sanchez," he intoned, and Ezra knew without being told exactly what this man did in Larabee's little collection.

"This is Ezra," Vin smiled, and Ezra noticed the way the younger man seemed to relax. The image flit through his head of Tanner tied to a bed, Sanchez bent over him with a paddle or a riding crop, and something stirred in him even as his instinct disagreed with the vision. Vin didn't seem the type for those sorts of games, for any games really. He was far too direct and, in his way, ignorant of the more esoteric elements of human interaction. He'd proven that tonight, repeatedly.

"Ezra P. Standish," he said smoothly, taking the offered hand. Sanchez's grip was strong, but not quite painfully so. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Chris interviewing?" Sanchez asked, withdrawing his hand. With no hesitation, it came to settle on Vin's leg near his knee, and that same vision shot through Ezra's mind again.

"Reckon so," Vin said, and his smile was a little more forced this time. "You want a drink?"

"Whiskey," Sanchez answered, but Vin was already pouring it.

Their fingers touched as the glass was exchanged, and then Sanchez did something surprising; before he took a sip, he leaned in to Tanner, his lips catching the other man's easily. The kiss was chaste and followed by the words, "Chris isn't getting rid of you."

Tanner shook his head slightly, but grinned. "I know. I just... you sure about that?" Obviously, Ezra mused, Vin did not know.

"You're worrying about nothing," Sanchez said flatly. "You know Chris as well as I do, even though you haven't known him as long. If he had a problem with you, you'd have heard about it by now. So stop worrying about that." He lifted his glass to Tanner, then took a sip before turning to Ezra. "So you're Buck's new protégé?" he asked.

Ezra shrugged. "I couldn't say. I did have the good fortune to make his acquaintance recently."

Josiah arched one eyebrow, then grinned that toothy grin. "Well now, aren't you smooth. I can see exactly why Chris is thinking about bringing you in."

Before Ezra could decide whether to be insulted or amused, Sanchez turned to Vin. "This man is going to teach you a lot, Vin. But if you ever start sounding like him I will take you over my knee."

Tanner laughed loud at that before answering, "Ain't never gonna happen, 'Siah. And not 'cause of your threats, neither."

Ezra had flinched every single time the word "ain't" had left Vin's mouth tonight, but here in the privacy of the car it didn't bother him so much. Still, he privately agreed; there was a great deal he could teach this man. And, he hoped, a great deal of money he could make by doing it.

The door opened again and Nathan, Buck, and Chris piled in. "Ben!" Buck hollered, far too loud for the man sitting three feet from him, "take us home!"

"You bet, Buck," Ben said, humor and familiarity in his voice that would never have flown with most of Ezra's kind. Ben pushed the button to raise the partition between the back and the front of the car, and started the engine.

The car pulled out while Vin poured for the new arrivals: whiskey for Buck and Chris, and soda for Nathan. Well, Chris had said Nathan still had work tonight. "So, Ezra," Chris said, "tell us about yourself."

He shrugged. "There is little to tell. I'm an investment banker, or was, and the favored stepson of Evan Prescott. Until recently I was living in New York."

"Still favored?" Chris asked him.

"Excuse me?"

"You don't lose millions of a guy's dollars and stay friendly with him, not in these circles," Chris said, and Ezra flinched, feeling like he'd been knifed in the back. How had Chris learned of this so quickly, and what did it say that enough of the people at this party knew about it? "Relax, Ezra," Chris said, reading him too easily for Ezra's comfort. "I didn't get any details and didn't say anything to embarrass you."

"Would you know if you had?" he asked, deciding for a little bluntness of his own.

Buck chuckled. "Don't worry about Chris," Buck said easily. "If he ever embarrasses you it'll be on purpose. Damn, you looked good in that suit, Ez. I don't think most of our boys could have pulled it off half as well."

"Most of you couldn't," Ezra agreed, and threw him a grin. Buck was the easy mark in this entourage, he'd realized that from the start: easy-going and affable, comfortable in his own skin and clearly unsuspecting of, or uninterested in, people's baser instincts. But while Buck wasn't stupid, Ezra didn't think he was the one who would ultimately make decisions. "It takes a special person to carry this kind of flamboyance, Mr. Larabee," he said, turning his attention back to their leader. "I am most definitely that person."

"You're most definitely full of hot air, too, Ezra. What makes you think you want to turn tricks? It's a big step down for someone like you, isn't it?"

Ezra had pondered that question for days-since shortly after he'd met Buck, actually. "I would say," he began slowly, uncomfortable in the silence of the car and the attention of the other five men, "that it's a more respectable employment than I was engaged in previously. And perhaps one with less potential for physical incarceration."

Buck frowned, but Josiah and Chris were nodding. "It's not for everybody, though," Chris told him. "It can be a tougher job than it might seem, and I'm not talking about the problems street walkers have."

"But a more lucrative one," Ezra said, spreading an arm to take in the limousine and their attire. "Certainly, it's not the gamble other professions might well be."

"It's its own kind of gamble. You make a name for yourself as a whore in these circles, there's no going back."

"Mr. Larabee," he said, "I'm already a courtesan in these circles. Quite a number of the people you met tonight are also on the market, spending substantial amounts of their unencumbered time exploring new and different ways of selling themselves. I merely have the benefit of understanding that."

"You can cut out the hundred-dollar word shit now," Chris said, eying him.

Ezra wasn't so sure. "A lifetime of conditioning, Mr. Larabee, is difficult to overcome."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you."

Ezra raised his eyebrows, then his glass, biding his time. Chris Larabee didn't appear to need an answer, and Ezra was in no mood to give him one. So he kept his mouth shut and turned his head to watch the other men, Josiah and Nathan, as they sat side by side and recapped the evening comfortably. Josiah had obviously been trying to impress upon Nathan and Vin the need for sophistication, which really, they should have learned before they showed up at a party like this.

He turned back toward Chris and Buck, flinching back in his seat at what he saw: the two of them were wrapped around each other, jaws open wide to a kiss that didn't look like it would be stopping any time soon. As he watched, Chris's hand cupped and held Buck's head in an unmistakably intimate gesture that was somehow more shocking than a hand to the crotch would have been. He knew these two were partnered, by Buck's own admission and by answers to a few careful questions he'd asked of people he knew had hired one or the other of them, but somehow he hadn't expected prostitutes to be sexual with each other when money wasn't involved. Certainly not this blatantly. Or this intently.

Nathan cleared his throat. "Boys. Boys! You're scarin' the company," he said.

"No, you're not," Ezra said when they broke the kiss and both their heads swiveled his way. "The company is fine." He waved a hand, trying for a sophistication in this arena that he didn't feel. "Do carry on."

And damn it, they did. He tried to listen to what Josiah was saying and ignore the way their cheeks touched as they whispered things to each other, things Ezra wanted to hear and most definitely did not want to hear, by the look of them... but he couldn't help wondering if they were talking about him. When their fingers laced and their mouths returned to the kissing, Ezra decided that no, probably they weren't discussing his future. They looked-they looked... his balls shriveled at what he was seeing, much as they'd done when he and Buck had started that night because this was two men and feelings, which seemed to him so much worse and more threatening than the crass demands of the body alone. But he'd gotten through that, with flying colors if Buck was to be believed... though watching the passion stirring between these two, he began to wonder if Buck hadn't been embellishing with his compliments. It was a decidedly unsettling thought.

"Come on now," Chris ordered gruffly, and tugged on Buck's fingers. "Later," he promised. Then he grinned. "If you're good now."

"I'm great now, and you know it."

"Yeah," Chris breathed, and Ezra fought down the shudder. If their words were some sort of professional display, they were better actors than he had imagined. If they weren't, then it was a grotesque display of intimacy that had no place in front of guests.

He looked around, noting that Josiah and Nathan were ignoring the scene before them as if it were a common occurrence, while Vin was watching it with poorly hidden arousal. More unsettling was Josiah's big hand that had crept higher up Vin's thigh, resting now at the crease between leg and groin.

"Okay," Buck breathed, his voice rich with something Ezra would have preferred to label lust.

Chris turned slightly away from Buck, but kept their hands clasped on his knee. "You needn't stop on my account," Ezra said, aiming for and achieving the bored sound of the very jaded.

"And we wouldn't," Chris said, but there was no hint of threat in his tone. "We need to stop on mine. I've got to work later. So do you," he told Buck pointedly.

"Yeah, but I'm better'n you," Buck said, laughing and nudging their joined hands up toward Chris's crotch. Chris slapped his hand, then tugged it against him, holding it loosely against his stomach.

"Calm down, boy," Chris ordered him. "We're almost home."

"But that's not gonna get me any closer to what I want." Ezra recognized the whining tone in Buck's voice, and somehow it put him at ease.

Chris's chuckle was wicked and intimate, as if he'd forgotten other people were in the car. "No, it isn't. But you can fuck me in the morning, okay?"

Buck settled further into the seat, a boneless sprawl that belied the tent of his trousers. "I can live with that."

"More like can't live without it," Vin joked, but one of his hands had fallen over the one on his thigh, rubbing it slowly.

"That's right," Buck agreed, unoffended. "Wouldn't dream of trying."

Chris looked to Ezra like he'd just remembered he was there again. "The first rule is that you never do something you're not willing to do," he said. "That sound familiar?"

"No," Ezra said, thinking of all the things he'd done recently that he emphatically hadn't wanted.

"Well then, it starts now. People are sharp, your kind maybe sharper than a trick you'd pick up on a street corner. They'll know if you're not interested, and they're paying you to be interested. You understand that, don't you?"

Buck laughed again, low and amused, and Ezra shot him a glare. "I'm far from stupid, Mr. Larabee."

"I don't know, Ezra," Chris said thoughtfully. "You want to move from Wall Street to our world. That's not something I'd call particularly brilliant."

Buck thumped their joined hands on Chris's belly. "Are you kidding, Chris?" he asked. "There's not enough money in the world to make me want to play those games."

Ezra barely resisted rolling his eyes. Before he could reply, however, the car pulled smoothly to a stop.

Buck glanced out the window and opened the door before the driver could exit the car. "Come on in," he said to Ezra, and climbed out.

The building was an older three-story brownstone in need of some attention, but from what he could see by the streetlights, in generally good repair. He got into line behind Josiah, who brought up the rear, walked through a solid core door into what looked like office space, and frowned. "Converted?" he asked.

Josiah shrugged. "It was this way when I came here. Come on through, we live in the back and upstairs."

Ezra nodded, looking around the office as they strode through it, seeking signs of wall safes or expensive veneer, and found neither. It was simple, utilitarian, with two unimpressive desks and green lamps, still turned on low, on each of them. He followed on through the back and down a short hallway into a large room that had obviously once been several, probably a manager's unit. The carpet was clean and comfortable furniture was spread around it, overstuffed couches and a big loveseat with a bar and sink in the back corner.

Chris headed directly for it. "Another drink, Ezra?" he asked.

"Thank you, no," Ezra said, aware that he was still being tested-or that he should be being tested. He cast a furtive look at the five men, wondering what form that test might take.

"Okay." Chris poured one for himself, but Ezra noticed that he barely sipped it before setting it on the bar. "Buck."

Buck trotted over and sat down on a barstool, pulling Chris back against him. One hand dropped unerringly back to Chris's crotch.

"Ezra," Chris said, ignoring the hand on his groin, "you want to show me what you've got?"

Ezra licked his lips and looked around at the other four men. "Certainly," he said. "How and with whom would you like me to show you?"

"I'll volunteer," Buck said, and started to push Chris forward. Chris leaned back hard against him, holding him in his seat.

"Try again," Chris said dryly.

Nathan stood up and nodded all around. "I need to get changed and get going," he said, and cleared out fast enough that Ezra wondered if he'd done something wrong. But the look on Buck's face and the grin on Chris's said he hadn't, so he let it slide. He didn't want Josiah touching him; the man's authority and apparent tastes made him nervous. That left Vin Tanner, who really, shouldn't be able to afford him if he were getting a tenth of what he deserved.

He turned to Vin. "Would you mind...?" he asked as he shrugged out of his jacket.

"Would I mind what?" Vin asked him, grinning slyly. He had taken off his own jacket and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, and he was now sitting on the loveseat, his long legs stretched out before him. Sanchez was sitting in a nearby chair, his tie loose but otherwise dressed, his legs crossed at the knees and his expression one of bemused tolerance. It wasn't difficult at all to think of him holding a riding crop or some other implement of discipline, and Ezra almost shivered before he caught himself.

"Well," he said, playing the game, "that really is the question, isn't it?" Ezra removed his cufflinks and set them carefully atop his jacket, then sauntered over to where Vin sat. He smiled, thinking that this would have been much easier if Chris had let Buck out of that damned chair. Buck would have helped him out a little, guided him toward what Chris wanted. But then, that was probably why he was sitting with a lap full of Larabee at the moment and Ezra was stuck with the pretty but illiterate boy he would have to explain everything to. Despite that, he asked teasingly, "What don't you mind?"

"Guess I wouldn't mind a little head," Vin said, coarse but still smiling. "That is, if you don't mind givin' it."

"No," Ezra said, forcing a smile, "I don't." He was getting off easily and he knew it. Hesitating, remembering some of the things Buck had said during their brief liaison, he bent down over Vin and pressed his lips to the man's throat, breathing in. He smelled rich, whatever cologne he was wearing mixing pleasantly with the smell of the man.

He could do this. He could even do it for an audience. Easing one hand down between their bodies, he trailed his fingers over Vin's package, a little surprised, given the way Vin had been watching Buck and Chris in the car, to find him flaccid. "Buck has told me," he breathed into Vin's ear, "that I'm really pretty good at this." He rubbed a little harder, pleased when he felt the first twitches of response and grateful for the fabric that separated his own skin from Tanner's.

"Well, Buck's a damned fine judge," Vin said. Hands ran through Ezra's hair, pulling his head back, and Vin looked at his mouth, eyes heavy-lidded and speculative.

"I do kiss," Ezra said, smiling kindly.

"Yeah?" Vin's fingers tugged at his head. "I do too."

And damned well, Ezra thought a few seconds later, when his tongue was reaching so far into Vin's mouth that he thought he might be swallowed up entirely. Some things became patently clear in those few minutes, not the least of which was why Chris kept Vin around, despite his lack of couth. That mouth... that mouth was distracting - good enough to make Ezra forget for a few seconds that he was kissing...

He tensed, trying to control his repugnance at the sudden reminder that he was kissing another man. But the shock of it edged past his control, and he jerked back, sickened at the fact that he had liked it. Behind him, he heard Buck laugh, the sound cut off abruptly as Larabee said, "Your clients are also going to pay you to pay attention to them, too, Ezra." But he sounded more amused than annoyed.

Vin opened his eyes, blinking languidly, then said warmly, "Don't mind them. They're just jealous that they ain't in the spotlight."

Before he could find an answer, something solid landed on his butt and he jumped, grunting, as his head snapped around. Josiah was grinning at him as well, his fingers caressing the hard muscle of Ezra's cheek.

"Nice material," he said in a deep rumble that vibrated all the way through Ezra's belly. "I need to have some."

He stared at the wide, grey eyes, the grin that was more teeth than lip, and his pulse pounded in his head.

Beneath him, Vin shifted, long body pressing up against Ezra's, his erection, very prominent now, brushing against Ezra's groin.

It wasn't nearly as repugnant as he had thought it might be before he'd met Buck, not nearly as repugnant as his enjoyment of the kiss. But then, there were layers of silk and linen between them now, between the parts of their bodies that made them men.

"Could fuck me," Vin said softly, his pupils so large that his eyes looked black. "You know how to do that?"

"Good question," Chris' voice called from across the room. "But more to the point, you have been fucked, right, Ezra?"

Ezra swallowed, his erection faltering immediately. This was exactly what he had worried about, the one thing that he doubted he could do.

"Chris," Buck's voice came back, wheedling but also amused, "Ezra probably hasn't had much practice with that - he's probably still got some fear about it."

He heard Chris sigh, saw Vin's slight grin, the twitch of his nose, as Chris said with a certain exasperation, "Dammit, you're probably right. That is the hardest thing to teach a man." Another sigh, and Ezra leaned down, thinking that maybe if he kissed Vin again, it might distract them, at least long enough for him to come up with an alternative Larabee might find acceptable. Or long enough to steel himself for the inevitable.

"Josiah?" Chris called, his voice distant. "Fuck him 'til he learns to like it."

Ezra was up off the couch so fast Chris could feel the man's butt cheeks clenching from across the room, and his face had gone pale.

Buck laughed, long and rolling, and Chris grinned in spite of himself. "Hell, Ezra, they're not gonna rape you. It's just conditioning."

"Conditioning?" Ezra repeated dumbly, staring at Chris as he backed closer against the wall.

"Most people," Josiah said, taking on a certain lecturing tone, "can respond to most sexual cues, Ezra, but when you've got a lifetime of heterosexuality behind you, you need to let your body learn the other cues. It's really not difficult."

"Difficult." Ezra's eyes were so wide that Chris thought they might pop out of his head and roll across the floor.

Fortunately, Ezra was so focused on Chris that he didn't see Vin failing to contain his laughter, rolling to one side on the loveseat and turning his face into the cushion so he wouldn't be heard.

Buck, however, laughed hard and loud, giving it away. Chris finally surrendered as well, trying to be more angry than amused, but it was hard, what with the gaping and horrified look Ezra was giving him.

Buck pushed up, forcing Chris out of the way, and with a quick squeeze to Chris' arm he stepped past him and up to Ezra, who stiffened. He dropped one arm around Ezra's shoulder, his free hand sliding over Ezra's belly. Buck leaned down, breathing directly into Ezra's ear, "Not difficult. Just schoolin'."

Ezra pushed at him, still not getting it, and Chris thought that had Buck not had a hold on him, the other man would have been running all the way back to Jennifer's before they could even get to their own car. Which would probably be the best thing, for Ezra if not for them.

Then Vin rolled off the couch, laughing too hard, and Josiah was laughing as well, and Buck - Buck was leaning on Ezra, trying hard not to laugh and failing miserably, and Ezra was looking across the distance at Chris.

He saw exactly when the green eyes narrowed, the other man finally getting it.

Chris lifted his drink off the bar, taking a slow sip as the howling and cackling went on around him. His gaze never left Ezra's, and he was almost gratified when Ezra finally flushed.

"The first rule," Ezra muttered, but before he could go any further the other three choked out in varying degrees of unison, "you never do something you're not willing to do."

Chris let the laughter fade a little, smiling himself, before saying, "So tell me why I should hire someone who can't remember the most important rule of this house for fifteen minutes."

Buck had stopped laughing, down to a wheezing chuckle. He pushed himself up and off of Ezra, who was tugging at his shirt cuffs, a learned habit of distraction.

Buck started to speak, but Chris flicked a glance at him and Buck picked up the signal.

"Ezra?" Chris prompted, twirling the ice in his glass.

Standish gathered himself quickly, and his voice was even as he answered, "There is no reason why you should."

It was true and it was the last thing Chris had expected the man to say.

Chris tilted his head, acknowledging Ezra's concession. "You ready to learn now?" he asked, pushing himself off the bar.

Ezra was confused, but he hid it well. Instead, squaring his shoulders, he asked flatly, "Does that mean I still have a chance of working for you?"

"Depends," Chris answered, ignoring the glare he as getting from Buck. Peripherally, he was aware of Josiah pulling Vin off the floor, the big man's hands guiding Vin to settle against him in the chair. "What do you think I'm planning on teaching you?"

Ezra hesitated, his face impassive but his eyes darting around. Finally, he said, "I doubt that you are planning to teach me how to appreciate anal penetration."

Chris lifted his glass in a mock toast. "You're getting there. Josiah?"

As he moved back around the bar to top off his glass with soda water, he listened to Josiah explain certain basics of the business. He could have done it himself, probably would have to do it again at some point, but for now it was good to have his older associate present it in the straight-forward, lecture mode of a professional educator.

"We are what we are, whether it's genetic or socially induced or a combination of both - the nature/nurture debate. What we like sexually, what excites us and gets us to release, is something that is out of our direct control. We can be trained to a certain extent to appreciate certain stimuli and certain coding, and we can be trained to perform certain ways. But it's training, not instinct. We're not spies looking to save the world or sex machines, we are simply men who look to make an honest living off of our ability to please others. To that end, we cannot be anymore than we are. On a scale of zero to six, with zero being belligerently heterosexual and six being belligerently homosexual, most of us fall within the 2 to 4 range. There are very few on either end. Oddly, in the professional sex business, there are more in the 2 to 4 range than any thing else. Most of us in the house fall there, as in most houses. Our strength is in knowing where we are and mastering our talents there. I happen to be much closer to a 1 or a 2. I can," he glanced up at Vin and grinned, his hand resting comfortably on Vin's belly, "have very good sex with another man, but I do not enjoy being penetrated. I suspect, Ezra, that you're a bit like me. Nathan is as well, though you might not know it to if you ever see him work."

Chris glanced at Buck, noting that Josiah had not attempted to qualify the other three men in the room.

"What he's saying," Buck picked up the thread, grinning at Chris, "is that it takes all kinds to be successful and we don't expect you to be all things to all people. Lord knows we're not."

Ezra seemed to gather himself, looking from Buck to Chris. "Then what is it you would expect of me?"

Chris started to answer, then stopped. He glanced at his watch: 11:30. They didn't have to be back at Jennifer's until one.

He glanced at Josiah and Vin, watching the way Josiah's hand was moving on Vin's belly and the way Vin was leaning back against the older man.

Then he glanced at Buck and read the same idea in his dark blue eyes.

He grinned, nodded, and Buck chuckled. "Come here, Ezra," Buck said, his arm settling once more over Chris' shoulders. "Might be better to show you than try to tell you."

Chris took a long sip of the club soda, thinking about this. He had noticed that Vin and Josiah were getting close, maybe as close as he and Vin were. Maybe closer.

He heard Buck and Ezra moving, and opened his eyes. He wasn't at all surprised to find himself looking into Josiah's eyes, finding the question, and a few other emotions, hiding there.

"You mind?" he asked.

Josiah arched an eyebrow. "Do you?"

He didn't mean to tense, didn't mean to show his annoyance at the challenge. "Would I have made the suggestion if I did?" he answered.

Josiah merely smiled, blinked, then turned to Vin who was looking at him, confused. "Do you mind?" Josiah asked him, and Vin's frown deepened.

"You mean, do I mind you fucking me?" Vin asked.

Josiah smiled at him and didn't look at Chris. Behind him, Chris heard Buck snort.

"Do you mind me fucking you?" Josiah asked, his voice light, his eyes never leaving Vin's.

Vin laughed. "Ain't minded it so far - you going to have performance issues in front of this crowd?"

Chris didn't want to think about it - and apparently neither did Josiah who answered by pulling Vin down into a long, mouth-fucking kiss that was much prettier to look at than the one Vin had given Ezra, if only because Chris knew this one was real. Then Josiah grinned and said, "I seriously doubt that."

"Watch," he heard Buck say in a familiar voice low with pleasure and sexual preoccupation, "watch how they love what they're doing. Vin loves to take it - but watch Josiah. He's a het like you, he wants the control. But he don't at all mind that who he's enjoying has a cock attached. You need to get there, at least, Ezra, to make it in our business. If you get further, that's even better."

"Further," Ezra repeated dumbly, and Chris decided he liked the man better when he was reduced to one-word answers. Then Buck pulled Chris in, cuddling him and nibbling on his throat, and Chris gave up trying to resist. Buck wouldn't push him over, not so close to them both having appointments with women, and he'd come to appreciate a long, slow simmer more than he'd ever imagined he could. He didn't at all mind enjoying it.

Ezra had settled onto a bar stool not far from them, trying not to look like he was protecting his backside but Chris knew better, knew absolutely as Josiah tugged Vin's suit pants and boxers down and off him, leaving him with just his shirt which was open and framing his body in the soft light of the room. Ezra's mask was a good one, but it wasn't perfect, and his repulsion for men on men showed through. Chris shook his head, wondering what in hell would bring a straight socialite into the working side of his world. Ezra would have to get over that if he really wanted to work here.

But then, he thought, pressing his ass back against Buck's firming package, if he worked here he really wouldn't have much choice, with all the exposure he'd be getting. "Hey," he whispered, turning around in his partner's arms.

"Yeah?" Buck's eyes were glued to the action, and Chris tapped his cheek to get his attention.

"Jennifer wants me in something harder," he whispered. "Why don't you go upstairs and change-your date's European-and fetch me something?"

"Why don't you?" Buck groused, eyes drifting back to Vin and Josiah. Josiah knelt, still fully-clothed, between Vin's legs now, tongue dipping into Vin's navel while Vin writhed beneath him, head thrown back. It was a pretty sight.

"I'd say we could go up together, but I don't trust myself alone with you," he said seriously. "Need you to fuck me something awful," he admitted.

That got Buck's attention, and the thin ring of dark blue in his eyes narrowed further. "You sure know how to get under my skin," he said, mostly not complaining, and bent to press a kiss to Chris's mouth. "Something dangerous-looking?"

Chris nodded. "Reckon it'll do."

"Okay." He squeezed Chris's ass. "Be right back."

Ezra watched Buck leave the room, looking a little lost, and Chris understood that feeling. Of all of them, Buck and Josiah had the most skill at making a person comfortable when they wanted to, and Josiah was otherwise occupied. Josiah hadn't seemed to want to make Ezra comfortable in the limo either, Chris reflected, and knew he'd have to find out what that was about.

He walked slowly over to where Ezra sat, noting how the man tensed as he got close. "You want that drink now?" Josiah had moved lower, his tongue licking at Vin's erection, giving him the head he had requested earlier. Josiah's eyes were wide open, staring up into Vin's with an intensity that was almost palpable as his lips parted and he sucked at the flared head.

"Please," Ezra nodded, meeting his eyes. "Vodka, if you have it." He glanced to the show, then back, clearly uncomfortable.

"We have it." He poured and pushed the glass into Ezra's hand, then leaned on the bar next to him. "How the hell did you manage to blow Buck if you can barely look at what's in front of you?" he asked, sincerely interested in the answer; he'd watched Ezra's eyes land on Josiah and Vin briefly, then skitter away, over and over again.

Ezra tilted his head and caught his eye, and Chris wondered if he were really seeing the man now or just another layer of his act. He looked honest enough. "Your partner is very accommodating. And," Ezra frowned, "he talks a lot. I didn't have time to get nervous."

"What did you think of him?" Chris asked, tamping down his jealousy. Buck had been doing the man a favor, nothing more.

"I thought..." Ezra seemed unguarded at first, but his eyes narrowed and he glanced back to the couple on the loveseat. Vin moaned long and low, his hands in Josiah's close-cut hair as Josiah's mouth slid up and down his shaft. "It was a business transaction and I believe I performed satisfactorily."

"That's not what I asked you, Ezra," Chris chided mildly. "What did you think of him?"

"Why do you want to know?" Ezra countered. He looked back toward the other two, actually watching them now--probably just to avoid looking at Chris. He winced as Josiah knelt up, opening the zipper on his pants and pulling free his erection. Chris watched him swallow, knowing what he was seeing; Josiah's cock was proportioned to the rest of him, and contrasted by clothing, it seemed even larger.

Maybe honesty would get him honesty, especially with the distractions at play. "Because I'm a jealous bastard and couldn't stomach hearing it from him. I'm hoping it'll sound better coming from you."

Ezra grinned at that and shook his head, refusing to look away from Josiah touching himself as he rolled on a condom. "Prostitutes in love. I can't imagine it." He sobered quickly enough, though, when Vin spread his legs a little wider, edging farther down the chair to give better access. "He made it a game, talked me through it with an ease that made it all seem normal at the time, complimenting my effort no doubt more than it deserved. He was funny and kind, and I daresay more generous than any client who will pay me what I need to be paid."

"You can bet on that." Chris looked at Ezra, and almost smiled as Ezra actually looked back to him. Josiah was stretched over Vin, one hand between Vin's legs, getting him ready. The lubricated condom he wore was neon blue, but instead of being obscene it added color to the setting as it gleamed against Vin's tanned thigh. "And?"

Ezra hesitated, looking away from Chris as he fought for the answer. "Yes, well. He..." His eyes roamed back over to Vin and Josiah, Vin's grunt at Josiah's first penetration into him obviously getting Ezra's attention. Frowning at the scene before him he said, "I don't have to tell you he's a consummate sex partner. He made it easy, brought me off with great skill, and bade me return the favor."

Chris tensed, but Ezra, his eyes on the fuck in front of him, didn't catch it. They were wide with disbelief as Josiah pushed steadily and unrelentingly into Vin, the younger man arching for it, his heels catching at Josiah's back to encourage the invasion.

Vin was, of course, almost begging for it to be harder and faster, and Chris shook his head in a sort of wonder of his own. He cleared his throat, as much to draw Ezra's attention as to check his own libido, particularly as Josiah sighed and stopped moving, waiting for Vin's body to open even more. The older man's face was a study in pleasure, not as clearly joyous as Vin's but waging a war between outright elation and severe control.

"He was very pragmatic," Ezra said, his voice detached, "told me if I couldn't bed a man I wasn't worth much to you or your organization. I don't know if-if blowing him quite counts for that, given what I'm witnessing now."

Chris turned toward Josiah and Vin, appreciating how Vin was spread wide, arms and legs, chest flush with pleasure, hips rising and falling with Josiah's powerful movements in him. He knew that feeling, knew what it was to be in Josiah's place; Vin was generous with his body, almost as wanton as Buck but nowhere near as willing to try anything. Still, though, Vin was a pleasure to fuck.

"He's really straight?" Ezra asked, and Chris turned his head, confused. "Josiah," Ezra clarified. "He's really heterosexual?" At this moment, one of Josiah's large hands was fisting Vin's cock, timing it perfectly against the snapping drive of his hips. His eyes were open again, and even though he was biting his lower lip to focus his attention, he held Vin's gaze, his desire unmistakable.

Chris chuckled at the question, given what they were witnessing. "He's more straight than gay, yeah. Hell, most of us are except for Vin there. He's good with women but he has to work at it the same as Josiah has to work at it with men."

"I don't believe it," Ezra said quietly, returning his stare to Vin and Josiah.

Buck came back then, dressed in black pants and a purple silk short-collared shirt, open at the neck, and low-heeled black boots; it was his idea of how Europeans dressed, and it still amused Chris. He'd look better in a New York City club than on the streets of Paris, Chris reckoned.

Buck paused in the doorway, smiling fondly at Josiah and Vin. Chris watched Buck turning his back on the scene, liking the way his body wriggled in appreciation. He grinned in spite of himself. "Hey," he called, to get Buck's attention.

Unfortunately he got Josiah's too; Josiah stopped thrusting and turned his head to look at him, which caused Vin to groan and slap the loveseat with one hand. "We aren't taking requests," Vin mock-growled, grinning at him and Ezra.

Chris shook his head. "Sorry boys, I wanted him." He tilted his head toward Buck.

"Nothing new there," Vin said, and reached a long hand up behind Josiah's neck to tug his head back around. "Hey," he smiled up at the man.

Chris smiled at Buck, shaking his head. "Come here," he mouthed, and opened his stance and his arms, leaning back against the bar. Buck trotted over quickly, dropping a pile of clothes onto the empty barstool before he wrapped his arms around Chris's waist and nudged their groins together.

"How's it going, Ezra?" Buck asked, smiling down into Chris's eyes.

"I'm... somewhat overwhelmed," Ezra said, his voice blank enough that Chris turned to look at him. He did seem a little pale.

"You want to head on into the kitchen?" he asked quietly, willing to give the man a break-and himself and Buck one, too, because Buck was humping against him with a purpose, hard cock slipping and sliding and nudging at his through the silk of their trousers.

"No, no..." Ezra cleared his throat. "I need to acclimate." Vin had started moaning, a steady background noise that Chris knew, one that Buck recognized too by the pleasured look on his face; Vin was getting close. Josiah was talking to him, the words too low to make out distinctly, but the bass rumble of his voice adding a counterpoint that was almost musical.

"It's not as much of a challenge as you're making it sound, Ezra," Buck said, his voice heavy with lust. "Just think about what a good time we had."

Chris's hands had found their way to his partner's ass; at the easy reference to the session with Ezra, he squeezed. Hard.

Buck dropped his head and licked at the shell of Chris's ear. "Don't be that way, now," he chided in a whisper that sent shivers down Chris's neck.

"I'll always be that way," Chris growled, knowing it was true.

Buck grinned saucily and slid down to his knees, mouthing along the hard bar of Chris's erection. Beside them, Ezra cleared his throat. "Is your performance for my benefit too, Buck?"

Buck tilted his head, rubbing his cheek against Chris's cock. "No, it's for mine. I haven't touched him since last night."

"You touched him in the car forty minutes ago!" Ezra spluttered. "You were touching him three seconds ago!"

"Yeah, but I haven't gotten him off," Buck said, like he was pronouncing the death of a loved one. "Gotta keep the magic going, Ez." He had popped Chris's suspenders off before Chris could stop him, but Chris got his hands between Buck's and his trouser button.


"You've gotta change clothes, Chris," Buck grinned at him. "I'm just helping."

"Helping to give me a heart attack." He slid down the front of the bar, knees outside Buck's, and took Buck's face between his hands. "I'm too hot. I can't..."

Buck's eyes softened, then his mouth as well, in a sensual appreciation of what he did to Chris just by being his horny self. "I can't wait til we're done tonight," he breathed, and Chris pulled him into a kiss to stop the flow of words. But Buck wasn't in the mood to quit. "Fake it with Jennifer," Buck ordered him, and molded his hand over Chris's erection. "Save this for me."

"Wait-wait, you pretend with women?"

Buck shrugged and eased back a few inches. "Sure, when we need to. Why not?"

"I thought-" Ezra's teeth clamped shut, and Chris wondered what exactly he thought. But a cry from Vin recaptured everybody's attention and he and Buck sat on the floor, arms tucked around each other, and watched Ezra watch as Vin came.

It was a damned pretty sight, Chris thought. Vin gave everything he was and had into it, his body taut and smooth, glowing in the light, his eyes closed, his mouth locked in a moue of surprise. Josiah had pulled away, working to get the perfect angle of penetration, so that Vin's ejaculation was almost unobstructed, pearlescent ribbons stuttering through the space between them to splatter Vin's skin.

Ezra wasn't so appreciative. His mouth was set in a grim line, and frown lines marred his forehead. Yeah. Not appreciative at all. More like freaked out or disgusted, which meant Ezra didn't have a fucking clue what he was trying to get himself into.

"You all right, Ezra?" Buck asked, concerned.

"I'm... yes, I'm fine. It's an orgasm. It's the most natural thing in the world."

Chris frowned, jealousy twinging again; that sounded exactly like something Buck would say. Definitely not something Ezra seemed to believe. "You get used to it," he said, noncommittal. Because the truth was, you did. He remembered the first time he'd let himself be paid for sex, remembered the dissonance of doing it for money that made it different, even though fundamentally it was the same: getting someone off, getting off. He hadn't been sure he could do it-not the act, the act was just fucking and he'd paid hookers in his day. But the selling of his body had seemed so foreign, even with Buck there making it feel a little more like a wild party.... He'd only done it because he'd found out that Buck had been doing it already, keeping him afloat financially, and he hadn't been able to live with that knowledge, not without evening up the score.

So he'd let himself be paid by none other than Jennifer herself, and the rest was pretty much history.

Josiah was moving again, long, deep strokes into Vin that worked quickly into short, sharp thrusts. Vin had pulled his knees up as far as they could go, opening himself so completely that he was almost doubled up. His arms were locked around Josiah's shoulders, holding him close, and his head was bent forward, curled along the tight line of Josiah's neck.

With a power that was breath-taking, Josiah's hands caught at Vin's ass, lifting him at the same instant that Josiah thrust up hard then pulling Vin back so that he was so deeply impaled, Chris thought Vin might break in half.

Josiah wasn't as beautiful as Vin in release, but he was power and strength, his muscles locked, his lips curled into an almost violent snarl. Chris suspected there would be bruises on Vin tomorrow, but Vin didn't seem to be in any pain at the moment, his head back now, hair hanging in a curtain. They looked like some sort of Greek or Roman artwork, hard lines, sharp angles, flexed muscle. They were frozen there for a long moment, and Chris could almost imagine the pulsing of Josiah's cock, of his blood, the thrum of it submerged into Vin's very being.

As the tension passed, Josiah eased Vin back onto the chair, handling him like fine crystal. Buck's hand stroked through Chris' hair, and his breath blew warm against Chris' ear as he whispered, "It is the most natural thing in the world, don't you think?"

Chris turned, not sure what he would say, but not getting the chance to find out because Buck's tongue was in his mouth. This kiss, though, while full of passion, wasn't about sex as much as love. When they broke apart, Buck said softly against his lips, "You watch those two, see if it don't get more natural for them like it did with us."

Chris shook his head, but smiled, drawing back to look across the room. Josiah and Vin were close, kissing and touching intimately. Josiah was still inside Vin, waiting to soften some before pulling out, which Chris knew was necessary. It had amazed him that Vin could take him so easily, but then, he knew there'd been a lot of practice with that as of late.

"Ezra?" Buck said quietly, and Chris looked over to find Ezra staring into the living area. His gaze was empty though, and Chris knew he wasn't looking at Josiah and Vin but past them.

Chris pushed himself to his feet, reaching to help draw Buck up but keeping his eyes on Ezra. The other man didn't change his expression, but Chris could almost feel him pulling himself back together.

Eventually, he turned and looked at them, his face closed, but his tone light. "A most spectacular performance."

Chris straightened, but Buck was there, as always, smoothing it out. "Think you can do that, Ezra? Think you can enjoy it as much as Josiah did?"

Standish took a deep breath, looking back to Josiah and Vin. Vin was still on the chair, his shirt rucked up under him and his eyes drowsy. Josiah had drawn away and was putting himself back together, zipping his pants and wiping his hands on a silk handkerchief that Chris noticed did not get returned to any of the pockets of his tux. His hair was a bit mussed and he looked sated and tired, but otherwise one wouldn't know he'd just fucked a man.

"It is a possibility," Ezra answered, but his voice held a sort of flatness in it that Chris suspected was his way of dealing with confusion.

"But not a big one," he said with a snort.

Ezra turned finally, looking at Chris. His expression was grim, but his voice was still level as he said, "I would ask again if Mr. Sanchez truly does enjoy that."

"It wasn't clear?" Josiah asked, approaching slowly. "I can promise you, I didn't fake it." He moved behind the bar, opening the refrigerator and taking out a Corona and a bottle of water. He turned back to Ezra, tilting his head slightly. "I don't enjoy being penetrated, as I suspect you don't--or think you don't. But I do very much enjoy fucking something hot and tight, and men got that as well as women. Sometimes, it's hotter and tighter, and if all I have to do is handle a dick to get it? Yes, Ezra, I can do that." He smiled. "And for the right price, I suspect you can too."

He walked away, the lines of his tux falling into place as if he had just walked out of the fitting room, and Chris smiled. This was why they paid for the best.

"You need help changing?" Buck said, leaning in close enough for Chris to feel his breath on his neck.

Yes. "No," Chris groused, still too hot for his own peace of mind. He had to get back to Jennifer's, probably wait around, then play the dark and dangerous thing while she played with him. He had to get her off, a couple of times at least, and already his brain was cataloguing the easiest, fastest ways to do that: eat her out, definitely; fuck her slow and try like hell not to think of Buck too much; eat her out again, maybe. Slide his fingers into her when she was wet with the lube he'd use, and try not to think of sliding his fingers or his hand or his cock or his tongue into Buck...

He cursed under his breath and grabbed up the clothes Buck had brought down. No way should a man be this horny for something he wasn't going to get for hours, at least. He stepped into the hallway to change, much to Buck's amusement if the laughter was anything to go by, but it was as much to keep Buck off him as it was to defer to Ezra's overwhelm. The guy had already seen his dick, and would again if they decided to bring him in. But still. Buck. His cock ached as he slid the soft leather pants on, which would make Jennifer happy at least. Damn it.

He went back into the den, ignoring Buck's knowing smirk and focusing instead on the fact that everybody but Vin was dressed again and drinking comfortably together.

"Yes, I'm mainly straight, Ezra, but a man would have to be dead not to appreciate someone like Vin." Josiah was sitting on the couch, legs once more crossed at the knee, and while he was smiling, his eyes were showing a rare annoyance as the looked across the distance to Standish.

Ezra looked dubious at best, which amused Chris more than it should have. "Let's say for the moment that I agree with you, Mr. Sanchez. You'd have to admit nonetheless that most of our clients won't be quite as attractive or appreciative as Vin."

"Not as attractive, maybe," Josiah said, "but in plenty of cases, equally appreciative. Hell, more so maybe," and Chris grinned again at Ezra's increasingly doubtful look. Josiah chuckled too. "They're paying you to let them off the hook, to let them not worry about appearances or anything else but indulging their oftentimes too-inhibited desires. Still," he said, casting a sly smile Vin's way, "you could be right. Vin is pretty damned appreciative."

Vin laughed, standing as he finished pulling his boxers back on. He'd wiped himself off, probably with Josiah's silk handkerchief which was on the table with his neatly folded tux pants, and Chris thought he saw a slight blush in his friend's cheeks. Vin wasn't shy with his body, he knew what his assets were, but he was a little uncomfortable with all the words that were going along with this event.

"If any of us can teach you what's good about fucking a man," Buck said, smiling himself, "it'll be Vin. But you ain't gotta worry about that yet. There's lots more we can work on before we get to that part."

Ezra took a deep breath, hiding it behind the empty glass he was holding. "Are there now?" he asked, cutting his eyes to Buck.

Chris jumped in before his lover had a chance to answer - and to make promises he wasn't ready to let Buck honor. "We can talk about it in the car - we've got to be back at Jennifer's. Buck?"

Buck was chuckling, but he gave a mock salute to Chris. "Ready when you are, chief."

Chris glared at him, but there was no point in saying anything. Instead, he turned to Vin who was grinning as well. "You mind taking these up to our room?" he asked, dropping his clothes into a nearby chair.

"No prob," Vin drawled, settling onto the couch beside Josiah. They were a study in contrasts, Josiah still fully dressed and mostly unruffled, Vin in just his shirt, which he had buttoned over his belly, and boxers, his hair unruly and wispy around his face. "When should we start to worry?"

"Buck and I should be back no later than five, but I suspect more like four; Jennifer's had a long day and I don't see her having a lot of stamina tonight." Not if he did as he wanted, anyway, and got out of there as quickly as possible.

"Now Chris, you ain't gonna short the woman after all she's done for us?" Buck was close, but not touching. This was one of the things that his lover was serious about. "I said don't come for her, I didn't mean for you - "

"She'll get what she pays for," he interrupted, ignoring Vin's chuckle and Ezra's confusion. "Why don't you and Ezra head on to the car?" Chris asked even though it wasn't a suggestion.

Buck turned to Ezra who was already moving fast for the door.

"Night, Ezra," Vin called. "Nice to meet ya!"

"Yes, likewise Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez." But Standish hadn't looked back at them and Chris frowned. That was a rudeness he didn't take well, not from someone like Standish who obviously knew better.

"Shocking day for him," Josiah said blandly, but his hand was once more on Vin's thigh, playing with the silk material of the boxers. "Might need a little time to adjust to things."

"He can do it on his own time," Chris said bluntly, but he softened a little as he met Vin's eyes. "What do you think?"

Vin shrugged, leaning against Josiah's shoulder. "He knows people - I don't think there was a person at the party who he didn't call by name. Better, though, most of them know him and at least speak to him. He said he could give you a list of people who were checking us out as we left the party, and it's probably got more women on it than men." He yawned, but talked through it, and Josiah's arm rose to settle around Vin's shoulders. "He could bring in a lot of contacts, Chris. And he'll fuck for money, no doubt about that. He wants this. Hell, he's more use to you than I'll ever be."

Chris frowned and took two steps toward the pair, not realizing until this second that Vin might have had doubts. He shook his head, started to say something, then realized he didn't know what to say that wouldn't sound idiotic. It could wait. He glanced to Josiah for help, and the big man shrugged. "Vin's right. But I'd say that Ezra's motivations are a little more complicated than that. This isn't his first choice, unlike with some of us." He pulled Vin a little tighter against him but went on. "But it's a better option than whatever his other option is, which I suspect has something to do with asking help from someone he'd prefer not to be indebted to. You have a lot of leverage with him right now, and as Vin says, he's got contacts. That might not be enough in and of itself, but if you think he has future potential, then the two coupled together might make it worth your while. And he can show Vin and Nathan a few things, too. Probably all of us."

Chris snorted, shaking his head, but he knew better than to disregard Josiah's advice out of hand. He also knew that there wasn't a damned thing about human nature or the hierarchies of money or power that Ezra could teach Josiah. But Josiah was more polite than the rest of them, and Chris actually appreciated it. "He thinks a lot of himself," he said shortly.

Vin chuckled. "Should fit in right well here," he said, and Chris glared at him.

"Nathan should be in by 2 a.m.," he went on, ignoring the matching smirks on the couch. "If he's not -"

"We know what to do, Chris," Josiah said with exaggerated patience. "You run on along and make us some money. It'll be hard, but Vin and I will try to find some way to survive until you get back."

Smartasses, he thought, but out loud, he said calmly, "Don't know that spending all this time with him is doing you any favors, Josiah." He cut his eyes at Vin who was grinning.

Josiah chuckled. "Oh, I'd say exactly the opposite; I delight in his favors."

Chris rolled his eyes and walked out, trying not to grin as Vin groused, "What the hell are you talking about?"

By the time he got to the car Ben was holding the door open for him, the man's grin a sure sign that Buck was in the middle of one of his many tales. As Chris slid into the seat, keeping distance between himself and his lover, he wasn't surprised at the words that were rolling through the car.

"… and Chris was just staring at her like he was gonna eat her alive. She loved it - loved it! We've been at every one of her parties since then - hell, she introduced us to Josiah, didn't she, Chris."

What a night that had been, he thought, Josiah cool and aloof and bored enough that Chris had thought little of him. Until Jennifer had casually mentioned Josiah's intimate knowledge of riding crops, and Chris had seen the interest spark in the older man's gaze.

Had felt his own spark of interest, sexual, but not directed at Josiah. There were things he'd done to Buck, more things he'd wanted to do, but he was a man who knew at least a few of his limitations, and the idea that here was somebody who could help him out, make him better at making Buck love what Chris wanted to do to him…

"You consider that a good thing?" Ezra asked, bringing Chris back to the present with a jolt.

"You think it's a wise idea to question me on my staff?" he countered, settling back in the seat and crossing his legs. The leather of the pants pulled at his inner thighs, but the burn was a nice distraction at the moment.

He didn't have to look to know that Buck was grinning beside him.

Ezra was quiet for several seconds before saying evenly, "I am at a loss, Mr. Larabee. I admit to it. I still believe that there are things I can do for you - in terms of your business. And if, or when, I suspect, it becomes necessary for me to adapt to your methods, then I shall endeavor to do so. But for now, I fear that I am without a doubt in shock."

Chris snorted, noting that Ezra's vocabulary had become progressively more expansive, so the shock was wearing off. "Rent some gay porn, get used to seeing it. If you got any hope of surviving in this business, you're going to see a lot of it, and lot of it less attractive than what you just watched in our living room."

For once, Buck didn't butt in to try to soften it up. Instead, he said, "Chris is right, Ez. It don't get much prettier than it was back there. If you find that hard to take, you ain't gonna be able to make it in the business no matter how good you get at sucking cock."

With no thought, Chris reached the distance between them, catching one of Buck's hands in his own and squeezing. Get. Buck had said get. Not are. That tiny distinction gratified him, eased him a little.

"Do not misunderstand," Ezra said with a sigh. "It is not that I am unappreciative of their efforts. Or of yours. If allowing that is what I must do -"

"It's more than allowing," Chris interrupted, irritated with the man's patent ignorance. "Did Vin look like he was 'allowing' it? Did Josiah? Yes, more than half our clients are female. But it's a slim majority. And even more significantly, it's not the percentage that pays the best. In the breakdown of 'per hour' profit, we make more money and spend less time with our male clients than our female ones. Our male clients are more likely to want a couple of hours late at night alone in a hotel room than they are to want a dinner and date companion before that."

Ezra, as expected, picked up on the point that Chris, himself, would have asked about. "If that's the case, then why not cater solely to men?"

Buck squeezed his fingers and Chris let him answer. "Because," Buck said patiently and with a grin that Chris could hear in his voice, "some of us like fucking women."

It was a little more complicated than that, of course. "And because women still make up the majority of our clientele. We need them, we need their money and their good will. They're more dependable then men - once they find someone they like, they want to stay with him for a long while."

"Whereas men are more given to variety," Ezra conjectured, rightly. "Mr. Sanchez may well find someone else to play with at any time."

"You offering?" Chris asked, wondering if he had misread Ezra's disdain of what had gone on in the living room for jealousy.

"Not on your life," Ezra snorted, and there was a touch of fear under his disdain that told Chris more than the words themselves.

"We do have regular male clients, don't get me wrong. But they aren't as reliable as our female clients and they don't tend to stick with us as long. We need our women, but we need our men too. We need them all, and I need people who understand that."

Ezra took a deep breath, then nodded. "It makes excellent business sense."

"It's a matter of survival in this business," Chris said flatly. "And if you want to survive, you better get that clear in your head right now."

Buck stirred beside him, but didn't say anything, not about that. After a short silence, he did ask, "You got somewhere to stay tonight?"

Chris stiffened, knowing damned well he didn't want Buck vesting any more into this than what he had already. A blow-job was one thing, but putting him up was another. He knew his partner; once Ezra was in the house, Buck would end up doing everything he could to help the other man, then end up getting hurt if it didn't work out.

Fortunately, Ezra didn't test the issue. "I am capable of seeing to my own needs," he answered, his shoulders straightening against the seat.

"Don't go getting all snippy on me," Buck sighed, "I didn't mean to suggest anything, other than that - "

"He knows what you meant," Chris said shortly. "Now how 'bout we focus on the rest of the evening?"

"I got the dark-haired one in the purple dress?" Buck asked, allowing himself to be directed.

Standish, while pleasant, was distant, and Chris didn't know what to make of that. It was a pretty big turnaround from the man's sophisticated but obviously hard-sell at the party.

As the limo eased up the to main door of Jennifer's home, Chris looked at their guest. "Give it a couple of days, maybe even a week. Then, if you're interested - seriously interested, call me."

Ben was already opening the door so Chris turned that way, only to feel Ezra's hand on his knee. "I'm seriously interested," Ezra said, his eyes direct in the new light of the portico. "I wouldn't have introduced your men around tonight if I weren't, and you can take that to the bank. I'll be in touch soon."

Chris nodded, climbing out of the car. He shimmied a little as he stood, trying to get the leather to settle properly, and then tensed as Buck's hand ghosted over his ass, his partner chuckling as he, too, climbed from the car.

"Remember," Buck murmured, his words low and deep, sparking in Chris' belly, "don't come for her. You save it for me."

Before Chris could answer, Standish was beside him, pointedly not looking at them but studying the front door as he said, "I thank you gentlemen for this evening's enlightenment. I look forward to future tutelage." He glanced at Chris, then smiled at Buck, a quick flex of his lips that seemed sincere.

"Night, Ez," Buck laughed, even as his hands caught at Chris' hips, pushing him forward to the door. "We'll be in touch!"

"I'll be in touch," Standish corrected smoothly, but he was walking away as Chris turned to look over his shoulder. Before he could say anything, Buck was ringing the bell and murmuring, "You just remember who's gonna be fucking you in just a few short hours."

"Ain't like I can forget," he grumbled as Jennifer opened the door herself.

It was easy to forget about Ezra, for the most part. Easy to focus on the job because Jennifer was a sophisticated and interesting woman who liked what she liked and made no apologies, and tonight she wanted a little rough play. Chris, wound up to hell and back from Buck's teases and the show on his own living room couch, was all too happy to give her that. He wondered what Buck's European liked, and asked Jennifer while he held her hands over her head.

"He doesn't kiss and tell?" she asked him, coy.

"I don't like to hear it from him," Chris said honestly, and dropped his mouth to her breast.

"She is..." Jennifer paused to pant, "tediously boring, I hear. As puritanical as a woman can be and still actually have an orgasm."

Chris thought that was funny, given that the lady was bedding a hooker somewhere in this house, but he didn't say anything, just let go of Jennifer long enough to roll a rubber on and drive into her. He was looking forward to bedding that same hooker somewhere in his own house later, after all.

After he'd done his time with her and thought to ask a few more casual questions about one Ezra Standish, Chris asked to use her shower, taking his time to get the smell of her off him. He liked her, he did-but he didn't like taking her home with him. She was one of their customers who was already too involved in his life and his business, and this was one simple place Chris liked to draw a line.

He toweled himself dry and strode out of the shower naked to find Jennifer dressed in a silk nightgown and reading a book atop her covers. "You know when your friend will be finished with Buck?" he asked, looking around for his clothes.

Jennifer dropped the book to her flat belly and sighed, watching him with the eye of a connoisseur, so Chris slowed down a little in getting dressed. She liked to look and he didn't mind being seen, so it worked out pretty well between them. "He was finished before you were; he's in the study. James said he'd asked to wait, to keep the driver from having to come back again."

Chris smirked at that; James, her butler, was as queer as a three-dollar bill and probably chatting Buck up right now. Not that it would get him anywhere; James wasn't Buck's type, didn't have that kind of money, and Buck knew better anyway.

After he pulled his shirt back on, he pressed his body against Jennifer's, pushing her into the mattress. "Thanks," he smiled, and kissed her.

"Thank you, dear," she replied. He slid off her and slipped out the door.

Buck was indeed in the study, smilingly fending off the butler; Chris rolled his eyes. "Buck, you ready?"

"Sure am, Chris. Thanks for the drink, Jim," he said to the butler. Chris didn't spare the guy a word, convinced that speaking to him at all only encouraged him.

When they got to the car, Buck waved Ben back inside and opened the back door himself, sidling up to him for a second. "So, you waited for me, right?" he asked, voice low and husky.


"Good, because Chris I swear to God if we don't come together pretty soon I'm going to blow a gasket."

Chris grinned; they'd come together barely more than a day ago, but sometimes, especially since they'd started up this business, even a few hours could feel like forever. The difference between fucking for money and anything at all that he and Buck did together was like night and day. He needed it too, to shake off the work and get back to what was real-not that he'd admit it to Buck. "You'll survive."

"You won't," Buck challenged, and squeezed his butt cheek, hard, goosing him into the car.

Two minutes later Chris found himself with his hand wrapped around Buck's hard cock and breathing hard, while Buck's hands kneaded firmly at the mounds of his ass, one finger tickling in the crease over his hole; he'd turned on fast, too fast, and while he wasn't interested in stopping, he wasn't interested in rushing to finish before the car pulled up outside their door.

Ben would wait, he reminded himself, or drive around the block until one of them opened the opaque glass pane between the driver's compartment and the passengers'... but Chris didn't want that either. He gave Buck's cock one last, urgent squeeze, and dragged his hand out of Buck's pants. "We'll be home in a few minutes," he panted. "There's a bed there and everything."

"I just left a bed. I don't need a bed, I just need you," Buck said, his voice breathy with urgency.

"I know..." Chris sucked in a deep breath and resisted the urge to hump his ass back into Buck's big hands. "I know. But I don't want to rush it, either." He grinned in the dimness. "Not after you've been waiting so long."

Buck's hands stilled on his ass. "You got special plans?" Buck asked, intrigue and amusement coloring his voice.

He hadn't, really. "I could... you interested in something special?"

Buck's slow hiss of breath was answer enough, and Chris felt his belly tighten in anticipation. While they'd taken the time to make it last, make it damn good last night, they hadn't really gotten creative in a while. He could be very creative. "What do you want?" he breathed, a new kind of urgency settling into his gut. "Toys? Games? A nice spanking?"

Buck's chuckle ruffled over his ear. "Whatever you want, Chris," he said, and Chris knew from long experience that Buck meant it without reservation. Meant it in ways that could make Chris feel like his cock was going to explode just watching Buck take what he wanted to give him. Sometimes-hell, most of the time-Chris liked to give Buck that gentleness that made them both ache with it, telling him the things he didn't like to say out loud. Sometimes though, Chris liked to give him harder things, darker things.

"I could tie you up," he said, warming to the idea. "Turn your ass a nice warm red, rim you..." Buck's breathing picked up just from the words.

"Wouldn't have to tie me up to do that," Buck promised him, and Chris spent the rest of the short trip home tossing out ideas, listening for what made Buck's breath catch in his throat, what made his hands tighten at Chris's waist where he'd primly moved them.

"You could whip me," he offered, and Buck's hands tightened hard enough to bruise. Chris chuckled. "You like that, do you?" he whispered. "Taking me down a peg?"

"Never, Chris. Never want to take you down, not even a little bit," Buck said, and Chris didn't doubt the emotion in his lover's voice. "Take you under, maybe," he said, and his tongue swiped a long trail up Chris's neck. "Get you all soft and sweet and gooey, open you up, get you begging for it... me," Buck went on, and Chris could tell he was getting lost in the pictures his mind drew.

"You usually do," he conceded, softening up already. It made some part of him squirm, but that was also what made it so good with Buck-that squirming, that need to give himself up, give himself over and let Buck splay him wide open, body, ass, head, mouth, heart. Any way Buck wanted. Buck had never needed toys to get Chris begging, but under Josiah's tutelage they'd both learned a thing or two about themselves and each other.

"Aww. You're sweet when you're horny," Buck said, teasing.

"That why you're so determined to keep me horny all the time?"

"Not like it takes much effort on my part," Buck chuckled, confident as always of his charisma and his charm.

No. No, it didn't.

When they got home, he had to chase Buck up both flights of stairs. Buck went straight for the cabinet that held their kinky shit, and Chris grinned when Buck turned around, holding a soft leather belt and a pair of padded cuffs. Buck almost never restrained him, knowing him well enough to understand that keeping his own body under control was worse for him, and better. Buck, on the other hand, needed to be hobbled when he was feeling too playful or he'd wrestle Chris onto his back and fuck him long before Chris would have been done otherwise.

Chris nodded, unbuttoning his shirt, and watching Buck just stand there, happy smile stretching his mustache straight, belt in one hand and cuffs in the other. "You'd best strip fast," he ordered with a grin, and Buck shed his clothes like they were on fire, picked up the belt and the cuffs, and stood there, half-hard already and quivering.

He ran through the list of stuff he'd suggested as he took the cuffs from Buck's hands and bound his wrists together in the front. It wouldn't slow him down much if he really wanted to get away, but then, Buck didn't want to get away. No, the soft cuffs would just keep him focused, so that every time he started to act on his own initiative he'd remember, and settle down. Turning Buck's hands facing out, he whispered, "Play with my balls," and then just stood there while Buck did, fingers stroking and tickling, rolling and massaging until his whole groin tingled and Buck's breath came short and fast. It didn't take much when playing like this, and that was probably the most important lesson Josiah had taught him; he paced the things that made him fly now, the dominating and the pain. He held himself back and teased more, swatted less. And he waited, because the waiting-for whatever he ultimately did, and delaying Buck's orgasm-was pleasure all in itself.

Yeah, bringing Josiah in had been one of the smartest moves he'd ever made.


Chris closed his eyes, breathing slow and deep while Buck's fingers kept moving between his legs, just on his balls, doing as he'd been told. "Yeah?"

"Chris, I-"

"Be quiet," he said, grinning in the darkness. That was maybe the hardest on Buck, not talking, not sharing everything he was feeling, everything he wanted.

A sigh, and Buck's fingers clamped a little tighter, almost tight enough to make Chris jump. Telegraphing so Buck wouldn't accidentally squeeze his balls off, he lifted the belt out high and swung it around and forward, snapping it across Buck's ass from the side. He heard the smack of leather, the tiny grunt, and sighed when Buck's hands loosened automatically, practice making him behave just right. Solely for the pleasure of the sound, he smacked Buck's ass again, listening to the loud slap of the soft leather on smooth, tanned skin.

"You gonna stay quiet now?"

Another sigh, and he opened his eyes in time to see Buck drop to his knees, watched as Buck stared hungrily at his hard cock in obedient silence. "You can tongue it," he said after a minute, and felt his belly tighten when Buck's mouth opened wide and his tongue slipped out. Buck just slid his head forward a couple of inches and let the tip of Chris's cock rest against his open mouth, tongue barely laving the underside. Yeah, he'd learned a lot about patience and anticipation, more than they'd ever have learned on their own. As kids they'd been so eager, so hungry for each other that waiting-even for each other-hadn't been much on the agenda. As adults they weren't all that much better. Most of the time. He smiled and cupped his hand under Buck's chin, not guiding him but just feeling Buck's throat move as Buck licked at him.

Buck's fingers sneaked further between his legs, tickling his perineum, and one stroked back into the crease of his ass, seeking his hole. Chris snorted and stepped away, loved the look of disappointed annoyance on his partner's face. Buck might have learned to like all their games, but he wasn't truly what Josiah would call submissive. He displayed his frustrations all over, in so many ways, and Chris had learned to read him well and make sure not to push too hard or make him wait too long, and it was only rarely that he screwed up these days.

"Hey," he whispered, smiling when Buck did.

"Hey," Buck whispered back, technically breaking Chris's order to stay quiet, but Chris loved that whispered voice and Buck knew it. Buck glanced longingly toward the bed, and Chris felt his smile widen.

"You in a hurry?"

"Hell yeah," Buck said, sounding almost indignant.

Chris kissed him and nodded, decisions made from a multitude of choices. "Go on then." Buck hopped up and lunged for the bed. "Hands on the mattress," he said, watching as Buck did as he was told, standing straight-legged at the edge of the bed and bending at the waist to put his hands out in front of him. Buck was beautiful, supplicating, and Chris felt his cock jump and pulse all on its own, just from the view of Buck's rounded ass pushed up high. He almost dropped the belt but at the last second tightened his hand over the leather; he'd made a few promises he intended to keep.

He strode over and draped the belt across Buck's back, then used both hands to knead at the densely-muscled ass. Maybe they'd gotten a little too relaxed lately, a little casual with the new influences in the house, he thought, and bent low to lick a stripe up the crease of Buck's ass. Buck shuddered and jumped at the touch, then slowly reeled himself back under control.

Chris picked up the belt.

He didn't wait with this slap, letting Buck know his mood and his desire with the weight and speed of it: medium. He wanted this, but he wanted the tease of it.

Buck grunted, a low sound that held some pain and some desire.

The red line that appeared in its wake was vertical and straight along one cheek and Chris smiled. The second slap was just like the first one, same intensity and depth, leaving a matching line down the other perfect half of Buck's ass.

He draped the belt over his shoulder and reached out with both hands, letting them cup the hot flesh - and it was hot, smoldering in the aftermath.

Buck made a noise then, but it wasn't a grunt, more like a low moan of want. The muscles under Chris' hands flexed, an invitation that enticed, and before Chris even thought, his thumbs slipped into the crease, parting the muscled roundness to tease against the soft pucker.

"Chris," Buck hissed, the sound low and needy. He squirmed, pushing back to force penetration, and Chris grinned even as he pulled away.

The belt was in his hand again and he stepped back at the same time that his arm raised. This blow was harder, and horizontal, the line straight even over the natural curve of the muscle. Buck sucked in air, surprised, Chris thought with pleasure, and he brought the belt down a second time before returning it to his shoulder.

This time, he touched with just the tips of his fingers, tracing over the new lines with just the faintest contact.

Buck tensed under him, the contact, Chris knew, tickling, not in the funny way, but just on the edge of it, the tickle that sent thrills through the groin and belly.

"God," Buck moaned, his head hanging low between his arms, "can't stand it."

He could, Chris knew, at least just a little longer.

This time, he moved slower, drawing the belt off is shoulder with a slow pull, so that Buck could hear the soft rasp of it on Chris' skin, then the gentle thunk as the end hit the floor. He drew it back and forth a few times, hearing it whisper along the varnished wood before lifting it quickly.

This hit was hard, the sound of it sharp in the echo, the welt almost instant. The second blow was just as fast, just as hard, and the deep red imprint rose just as fast.

Buck had made no noise at the impacts, but the muscles of his shoulders bunched tight, sweat coating them in a soft sheen that Chris noticed as he bent down, blowing a fine stream of air over the heated skin.

Buck quivered then, flinched even, the softness of the air such a contrast to the pain that it was stunning him. Chris knew that feeling, the tension, the thrill and the want and the struggle to surrender.

He slid one index finger into the thin space between Buck's thighs, barely touching the sensitive skin just behind his balls, and Buck moaned. One finger, hardly touching, skimming along the soft skin, and Buck spread his legs, offering everything.

The welts were still raised, still red, and Chris was leaning close enough to still feel the heat of them. He trailed the finger back into the warm crease, but before it reached the small hole, he placed both hands again, pulling the tight ass open. Giving Buck no time to think, he used just the tip of his tongue to graze the satin ring, and Buck cried out. Yeah. That was what he wanted to hear. He licked again before dropping to his knees to settle into the nastiest French kiss he knew of, and listen to Buck.

Buck whimpered or cursed or cried out with every stroke inward, and Chris knew he could make Buck come without much effort-he wanted to, but he hadn't been lying earlier tonight and he knew Buck hadn't either. He needed to be fucked and Buck needed to fuck him, so when he figured he'd gotten Buck's ass as hot and wet and sensitive and hungry as he could make it, he drew back and swiped his hand across his wet mouth.

"Turn around," he said, urgent now, feeling his own cock and ass throb with a powerful and sympathetic need.

"Damn it, Chris-" Buck complained, turning around anyway, trembling with want. His cock stood thick and hard out from his body, as flushed red as the stripes Chris had laid on his ass.

Chris kissed the tip while his hands reached for the cuffs, fumbling the buckles. "You can fuck me now," he panted, trying to make it an order.

Buck's cock jumped against his upper lip and Chris felt the tremor that ran through that long, tall body. "Oh, can I now?" he asked, newfound freedom giving him back some of the control he'd fought hard to hand over.

Chris looked up, grinning. "Yeah."

"On the bed, you cock tease," Buck ordered, but it was all urgent humor and want, and no domination play at all.

"Anything you say, boss," he replied, his smile widening all on its own.

Buck didn't waste much time prepping him, but then Chris didn't want much; he kicked his legs wide as Buck lubed two fingers and pushed them perfunctorily inside his asshole, gasping at the quick, slick intrusion. "You need more?" Buck asked him, his face a tight frown of concentration.

"Yeah, a whole lot more," Chris urged, pulling at Buck's arms to drag him down.

Buck laughed, landing heavily atop him and just barely avoiding mashing either of their dicks too hard. "Bastard," Buck said with affection, bumping his cock against the crease of Chris's ass but not taking the time to line up and get in there.

"Hurry up!"

"Where's the fire?" Buck asked, and dropped for a deep-throated kiss before Chris could answer. He thought he'd stoked the fire pretty damned well with the cuffs and the ass kissing, but Buck had a way about him that Chris couldn't easily overcome. Even when he wanted to, which was damned rarely. His own damn fault, he figured, for indulging Buck so much....

Unguided, his fingers danced down Buck's back and over his ass, feeling the slight rise where the belt had smacked him. Buck flinched forward, not from pain, and that was pretty much all it took; he gasped and panted as Buck pushed into him in one smooth, sure stroke then dropped to kiss him again, locking them together at ass and mouth and everywhere in between. When Buck stopped still and sighed into his mouth, Chris wished he'd left the damn cuffs on, because Buck was going to take his own sweet time. He could tell it from that soft explosion of air, and the way Buck's weight settled a little heavier onto him.

"Buck..." he tried to warn him.


"I'm-I can't-I'm not-"

"I've got you," Buck said, breath cool against his wet mouth, and pulled out of him before sliding home again. "Don't you worry," another thrust, long and strong, "about anything."

He wasn't. He couldn't and it half-annoyed him that Buck could still string coherent thoughts together. But then that was another of his partner's talents; he could run his mouth while doing pretty much anything else in the world. Buck settled into a sweet, strong rhythm, and Chris felt himself falling into it, humping up to meet each thrust, fingers digging into Buck's biceps. He'd pretty much lost interest in anything else-even Buck's continued whispering and dirty talk-when Buck stopped and pulled out of him. Chris just sighed; bitching wasn't going to get them there any faster.

He let Buck nudge him up the bed until he half-leaned against pillows and headboard, moved his legs where Buck wanted them, and sighed again when Buck slid back inside. "You gonna settle down, now?" he asked, desirous but lazy in spite of himself. Long nights, too much waiting, and the certainty that they'd get where they wanted to be resolved into a tightness in his gut and an ache in his chest, made all the sweeter when he touched those marks he'd given Buck.

"Maybe," Buck said, and kissed him again.

It took a few minutes-longer than it should have-to realize how Buck had positioned him. Curved against the pillows, his legs were pulled up as far as they would go, his heels resting on the upper curve of Buck's hips... just like Vin had been under Josiah earlier.

He'd have laughed out loud if it weren't so damned hot.

Josiah and Vin had been hot, no doubt about it, Vin pinned down by Josiah's sheer size and the angle - just as he was here.

They were like Vin and Josiah in some ways, Buck larger and heavier than Chris, and Buck was strong, no question of that. Strong enough to catch Chris just at the point where his thighs and ass met, lifting him in much the same way Josiah had lifted Vin, pushing him up, then pulling him back.

Hard. And if Buck had to work a little harder to manage it, well, Chris didn't mind the effort and Buck sure as hell didn't mind the work.

"You..." Buck lifted him again and dropped him down, hard, onto his cock before he'd come close to figuring out what he was going to say. It didn't hurt, not quite, but it burned and gave him that little discomfort that was just on the edge of pain, too much, too soon. He wondered passingly how Vin did it, took Josiah's girth so easily, but then Buck wasn't much smaller, and right now, he was just as ardent as Josiah had been.

He had to dig his fingernails into Buck's biceps to get his attention, but Buck paused for a second. Long enough. "Remembering?" he asked, staring at Buck's wide-open eyes.

"Making a new memory," Buck assured him, and lifted him again. "I never minded taking Josiah's lead, you know," he grinned, panting through his effort, and Chris stretched to reach Buck's ass, to touch the belt-warmed flesh there. No, Buck had never minded Josiah. They both had cause to appreciate him, and Chris hoped there was half as much growing between Vin and Josiah as Buck thought there was. They both deserved something better than what they'd had.

And then Buck found that perfect angle. The first jab against Chris' prostate was almost electric, jolting him right to the edge of an orgasm that he could feel coming, and knew would likely blow the back of his head off. He was barely aware of arching back, trying to get more of Buck inside him, but he was pretty sure that it was almost exactly as Vin had done. Like anyone would have done with a partner who offered up so much.

He was more aware of Buck's teeth on his nipple, biting hard enough to hurt, hard enough to keep him dancing on the edge but not going over.

One of his hands caught in Buck's hair, the other pulled at his shoulder, trying to encourage a faster rhythm, but in that way that he had, Buck chuckled, low and thrumming, and pulled away and almost out.

"My turn to be in control," he said, his hands pulling once more on Chris' ass, lifting him. "Figure you could stand a little man-handling, don't you?"

Buck had figured right, but before Chris could answer, Buck had pulled him back down, seating him completely on Buck's cock. This time, the angle had been perfect, rubbing over his prostate on the way to filling him as completely as possible with a cock alone.

Chris arched back as much as he could into the pillows, the movement drawing him up until Buck caught him once more and pulled him back.

This time it was too much, and he was coming, his body seizing with the pleasure. Buck kept right on thrusting through it, eyes squinted but still open, teeth bared now as Chris's ass clamped down around his cock, wanting to give everything, get everything, and see it all at the same time. Chris cried out, distantly embarrassed that he fell apart so easily but glad of it too. When he could, when his climax started to let go of him, he twisted sideways to reach again for Buck's ass, finding his hole to stroke over it, push a finger into it, give Buck something more and make him lose that precious control the man was so proud of.

Buck did, shuddering and shaking and sweating, pumping furiously as his come slickened up Chris's ass even more. Chris held on, feeling the bed shake and bounce as the intensity of his orgasm faded, changing now to that deeper pleasure, the one that stayed with him long after coming was just an echo in his groin and the feel of Buck's cock in him just a memory.

Buck pushed deeply into him one last time and held there, then dropped heavily onto him, pushing him into the mattress. It was damned hard to breathe with almost two hundred pounds of dead weight on him, but Chris didn't care. He just let one leg slide down the back of Buck's thigh, and tucked the other over Buck's hip, holding on. It took a lot of effort to lift one arm, but he did, using just a finger to trace the shivers that coursed through his partner, following a line of sweat down his spine. He lay like that for a while, listening to Buck's breathing slow, feeling the scratch of beard and the tickle of breath against his throat but too satisfied to do anything about it.

This was why he needed the man so much, maybe especially now that they were in this line of work; he could be paid to fuck just about anyone now, but no money in the world could buy what Buck gave him. What they gave each other.

If he didn't watch it he was going to start sounding like a school girl, and he couldn't handle that even in the privacy of his own head. "You're getting fat," he said, and grinned when Buck stiffened and pulled away, offended.

Buck snorted then, reading the joke or the love in his eyes, and propped up on his elbows, still close. "Asshole."

Chris squeezed the body part in question and Buck grunted, sensitive now that he'd come. "You break it, you bought it," Buck warned him, and ground his pelvis lazily against Chris's ass.

"I already bought it," he smiled, and Buck's eyes softened, going so tender.

"Yeah, you did," Buck agreed, happy.

"You want to get off me before we start sticking together?" Chris asked; he'd be cramping if he let Buck keep him pinned like this for much longer.

"Too tired to move," Buck said, and dropped down hard enough to push the air out of Chris's lungs, so Chris pinched his ass for him. "All right, all right! Damn, you'd think you'd take better care of your merchandise," Buck told him as he pulled out.

"I take plenty good care of you," Chris said, rolling onto his side and tucking back into Buck's front.

"You're not the one who got his ass whipped today," Buck reminded him, sounding plenty satisfied with himself.

"Would've been, if you'd wanted it," Chris said, and smiled when Buck settled down. They lay there like that in silence, Buck's fingers tracing the come on Chris's belly, Chris's fingers tracing the back of Buck's hand, until Buck went and ruined the moment.

"So. About Ezra," Buck said, nuzzling against the nape of his neck.

"What about him?"

"I think he's worth bringing in"

"I think he's too much trouble."

"You think everybody's too much trouble," Buck grumbled.

Chris heaved Buck off him and rolled, pouncing-or it would have been a pounce if he weren't so wrung out. As it was he sort of flopped onto his partner, propping his chin on Buck's chest. "Not everybody," he assured, rubbing his spent cock, his whole spent body, against Buck's.


Chris loved it when Buck was reduced to humming in pleasure.

Buck tucked his ankles behind Chris's knees and slid big, warm hands up and down his back. "I think Ezra's got real potential. You know as sure as you're layin' on me that he can help us."

"Yeah... yeah." Chris sighed. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."


Getting in the next morning was surprisingly easy. Ezra arrived at the front of the brownstone at ten sharp, smiling pleasantly at the older woman who greeted him as he entered the foyer.

"I have an appointment with Mr. Larabee this morning," he said smoothly as he handed her the business card he had printed out just an hour earlier on the small but expensive printer he had purchased for his laptop just before he became unemployed.

Mrs. Blake, as the nameplate on her desk announced with a clear and elegant script, barely glanced at the card before looking him in the eye, smiling politely, and answering, "I sincerely doubt that. Mr. Larabee doesn't make appointments that I don't know about and he never makes appointments before noon."

Of course he didn't, Ezra thought, how stupid of him to forget that this business didn't operate on banking hours. He was still having difficulty thinking of it as a business.

"Perhaps I misremembered the time," he said casually, smiling at her.

She didn't smile back. "Perhaps you should leave and I'll have Mr. Larabee call you if he has any interest in seeing you - what are you selling again?"

Before he could answer, the outer door opened and he thought he could kiss the newcomer - until he turned to find Vin Tanner grinning at him.

"Morning, Ezra! Surprised to find you back so quick." Tanner was dressed in sweats and an old t-shirt, sweat forming a dark 'v' over his chest and dripping down his forehead. His hair was pulled back, looking tangled and damp as well, and Ezra had a hard time recalling his appearance from the previous night, clean and crisp and polished in the elegant tux.

He had a harder time forgiving himself for enjoying that kiss, for touching Vin's groin.

"You know this person, Vin?" the receptionist wasn't smiling, but her tone was decidedly less hostile.

Tanner glanced to her and his smile grew. "He's a friend of Buck's, and - well, reckon he knows us all now, don't ya, Ezra. Probably better than he'd like!"

His eyes seemed bluer in the light of day, but they were just as open and direct, and Ezra couldn't stop the relief that took some of the tension. "I was hoping to talk to Chris again, but I seem to have difficulty remembering the vagaries of his business," he explained, hoping that Vin understood him.

Vin shrugged. "Chris and Buck ain't up yet, but you're welcome to come back and hang out with me. Josiah's gone into his office at the college, and Nathan's over at his college, but they'll be back in a while."

Ezra hesitated, but only for a second. If he was going to commit to this, he couldn't be afraid of being alone with them.

As if reading his mind, Mrs. Blake arched one eyebrow at him and said, "You sure you should be alone with him, Vin?"

Vin chuckled. "I reckon my virtue's safe, ma'am," he said, but he squeezed her upper arm as he moved past, his running shoes squeaking a little on the hardwood floor. "Coming, Ezra?"

Ezra didn't hesitate, giving the receptionist a polite nod and a wide berth as he passed.

Vin moved into the kitchen, heading straight for the refrigerator where he grabbed up a bottle of water. "Help yourself," he said, gesturing about. "Coffee's on, but probably pretty strong by now - Josiah made it before he left." He twisted off the top to the water and leaned back against the counter, taking several long swallows.

Ezra found himself watching the bob of the other man's adam's apple, studying the long neck. Vin was an attractive man, Ezra supposed, despite his current appearance. But nothing about him drew a sexual response, no matter how many ways Ezra tried to picture him. The memory of kissing him did a little more, but that was more the physical memory than the visual one, and he once more found himself unsettled by his pleasure in it. The memory of Josiah and Vin together was aesthetically interesting but he couldn't get past the layer of repugnance he felt.

"Mrs. Blake seems very efficient," he said, shaking himself away from the image of last night's festivities. "Does she know what you do here?"

Vin drew the bottle away from his lips, looking over to meet Ezra's eyes. "You mean, does she know we fuck for money? Reckon it'd be hard for her not to know. She handles all the calendars." He tilted his head to one side, frowning. "You decided what you are, Ezra? Or you still thinking on this as a hobby?"

Ezra stiffened, annoyed. "I have never considered it to be a hobby," he said shortly.

"But you ain't to the point of considering it to be a living, either," Vin filled in, lifting the bottle again.

"Why does it matter what I consider it to be?" he countered. "If it supports me, then it is what it is."

Vin swallowed, then chuckled. "Let me ask you - if I offered you $25,000 right now to put my dick in your ass, would you take it?"

Ezra arched one eyebrow. "Do you have $25,000 dollars?" he countered, but even as he did, he saw the other man's grin.

"Don't matter. You done answered the real question. It's all about the money to you - which is fine, believe me. But it does matter what you call it, because that's how you think of it and yourself for doing it. I ain't got no problem with what I am - I'm a whore. I've been one for a long time, 'cause my body was all I had to live on. Right now, I'm in a ritzy place with good friends watching my back - this is a whore's paradise. I don't expect you to understand that, though. You ain't never had to worry about putting food in your belly, and despite what you think right now, you still don't." He pushed out of his lean, turning to face Ezra straight on. "You got choices, Ezra. Just 'cause you don't like 'em don't mean they ain't there. If this is what you want to do, you need to be damned sure, 'cause once you start, you can't never turn back. Right now, you don't think you can get a worse reputation than you got, people thinking you stole from 'em and lied." Ezra stiffened in annoyance. Had Larabee thought it necessary to tell his problems to everyone? "But let me tell you, they'll forgive that a lot quicker than they will you letting them fuck you for money. No one ever forgives that."

Vin started walking then, water bottle in hand. As he moved past Ezra toward the door, Ezra touched his arm lightly, getting his attention. Vin paused, meeting his gaze. "If you dislike it, why do you do it?"

Vin frowned. "Didn't say I disliked it - hell, I love it." He grinned then. "You don't understand. I don't give a damn what people think of me, not most people anyway. They don't know me. Only people I worry about are my friends, and most of them are here now, in this house." He glanced around, his smile growing. "Chris and Buck, Josiah, Nathan - they're the best friends I ever had. What they think of me is all that matters to me. But you got more worries about what people think than any man I've ever met who wasn't paying me." He shrugged. "You need to be damned sure you can live with how that's gonna change."

"Is this what Mr. Larabee wanted me to think about?" he asked, watching Vin's eyes.

Vin shrugged again. "Don't know. Probably. I do know that Chris don't like to have his business taken lightly. If you want into it, you gotta believe in it, and in what it really means. We know what we are, and we're damned good at it. That's mostly 'cause we like it. If you don't like it, you ain't gonna be any good at it, and the only way to like it is to put aside what people think and do what feels good." He grinned. "And then take the money."

Ezra shook his head. "You make it sound so simple."

"That's because it is." Vin moved on then, and after several seconds of thought, Ezra followed him.

Vin was sitting on the couch, remote in hand, watching a rerun of JAG on the big screen television when Ezra joined him. Ezra started toward the chair, remembered what had happened there just last night - this morning? - and detoured around it and around the back of the couch. By the he got to the other chair, Vin was smirking but he didn't say anything until Ezra had settled into it.

"Chris keeps leather in here 'cause it cleans up easy," he said, not looking at Ezra. "Just last week, he and Buck were going at it hot and heavy in that chair - you'd be amazed at the things they get up to. Don't think I've ever seen so much spunk and sweat in one place. But it sure does give it a nice shine, don't it?"

Ezra couldn't stop the automatic reaction, his body tensing to bolt from the chair. But he did manage to keep his seat, merely clenching his hands into fists. "You are most devious, Mr. Tanner," he said dryly.

Vin chuckled. "Thing that confused me is that you ain't a prude. So something else about this is worrying at you, and the only thing I can figure is that you're scared you might find out more about yourself that you know how to handle. Is that it? You afraid you might like it?"

The denial was instantly on his lips, but as Vin turned and looked at him, he paused, thinking. Giving Buck a blow-job hadn't been nearly as difficult as he'd anticipated - had he enjoyed it? Had watching Josiah fuck Vin last night been uncomfortable because he could imagine doing the same thing, imagine touching another man's erect penis while he was buried inside him? He'd always had a propensity for anal sex with women; surely it wouldn't be so very different.

The thoughts were teasing and strange and he let them roll around in his head for a while. Vin didn't push for an answer, instead turning his attention back to the television.

The ideas frustrated and they did make him uncomfortable. He didn't grow aroused - he wasn't that worried about his sexuality, but he did find that he wasn't as repulsed as he had thought he should be. It should have been a good thing, in terms of his proposed new employment venture. And - it was.

"Ezra!" Buck's voice startled him out of his reverie and he looked over to find the other man standing in the doorway, scratching his bare belly and yawning. He was wearing a pair of - something, Ezra honestly wasn't certain what, but they were very skimpy and very shiny, very green, and barely containing what Ezra knew to be a rather impressive package. "You're here awful early - come for a little early-morning action?"

Ezra smiled, actually finding humor in the man's teasing words. "Your stamina is to be commended," he answered. "I would have thought you would be exhausted of all vim and vigor."

"It's a new day!" Buck pushed out of the door, ambling over, his long legs flexing athletically. "Got all my vim and vigor back!"

"What you ain't wasted on the old man upstairs," Vin said dryly, but he was grinning, then laughing as Buck slapped at his head on his way past the couch.

"Waste some on you right now," Buck laughed, then leaned over the back of the couch, sniffing loudly. "Love me some sweaty-boy sex."

Vin pushed at him, grumbling, "Ain't no boy, and you can damn well get over that!" but he was grinning and Ezra thought again about Josiah and Vin and the nature of their - whatever it was.

"Buck!" Chris' voice carried loudly into the room, and it took Ezra a second to realize that it was coming through an intercom. "Where the hell did you put my green underwear?"

Buck blinked, trying for innocent, but Vin snorted a laugh that was as contagious as the flu, then said loudly, "Least he ain't naked!"

"Goddamit, Buck! Those are one of the last pairs I have that you haven't stretched out of fit! I need a treasure map to find my own damned clothes, in my own damned place!"

"Well, been telling you you wear too many of 'em!" Buck yelled back.

"Wilmington, I swear to God, I'm not kidding! If you don't leave my underwear alone, what I did to you this morning isn't gonna-"

"We got company, Chris," Vin called, cutting off the threat.

"Wha - who the hell - "

"Ezra is here," Buck called out happily. "Looks like he really loves this place."

There was a silence that had Ezra wondering if he had overstepped his privilege, but Buck's smile grew bigger and he looked at Ezra, giving a 'thumbs up' as Chris finally sighed and said, "I'll be down in a minute - as soon as I find some underwear!"

There was an audible click that Ezra assumed meant that Mr. Larabee had taken his finger off the intercom button.

Vin said with a chuckle, "You really ought to let the man have his underwear, Buck. There are some things that are personal to people."

Ezra almost laughed at the sincere look of incomprehension on Buck's face. "Where in the hell did you come up with that idea? Chris and I been together so long, I know more about him than I know 'bout myself sometimes."

Vin snorted, rolling his eyes. "Don't see how that's right possible. Everything you are is always right out there for any body to see - hell, Buck, you got more on display than any body I ever met!"

Buck laughed, again ruffling Vin's hair, but Ezra had no doubt that Tanner was correct about the man. He was proven right when Buck strolled over and leaned down as if to kiss him, grinning shark-like when Ezra stiffened. "Now, you were a lot friendlier when we first met. For most people with me, it's the other way around," he teased.

Ezra sighed and tilted his chin up, accepting the peck and covering his surprise that it turned into no more. Buck was... affectionate hardly covered it. But for now, Buck was merely kind, patting him on the shoulder before turning back to launch an obviously false assault on Vin.

As the two men continued their playful banter, Ezra ran through his argument again. He'd spent the better part of the time since he'd parted company with them at Jennifer's house this morning preparing his rationale for why Larabee should hire him. It had to work, had to.

Larabee appeared, dressed quite differently from the other two men. The suit was black Armani, the shirt tailored grey with a black silk tie to match, and black tasseled loafers that Ezra was pretty certain were Italian. Larabee wore it with the same assurance and comfort that he had worn the tuxedo last night. He knew his clothes and he knew how to wear them, though Ezra couldn't even begin to imagine the client who would want to peel off that suit and find neon green briefs beneath it.

"You two have things you need to be doing?" Larabee demanded even before he reached the bottom step of the stairs. "And clothes to be wearing - hell, I know Buck's got clothes, I trip over them often enough. Vin, do I need to invest in new sweats for you?"

"Hell, no," Buck answered before Vin could. "These are just getting to the comfy stage." He ran his hand appreciatively over the sweat-damp tee shirt as if testing his assertion, and Ezra noted that Vin did not draw away. Quite the contrary, the man grinned and arched his chest out as if inviting far more.

"Comfy for Vin or for you to stare at his ass?" Larabee shot back. "Leave him the hell alone, Buck," Chris said, and Ezra found himself hiding his own smile. It was a different world here, these men as comfortable in their sexuality as he was in his. Or as he had been.

"I ain't in need of no clothes," Vin said, rising to his feet. "But if you want to buy me something - "

"I don't," Larabee held up a hand, stopping the words. "I want to get some work done before my appointment this afternoon. So you two find something productive to do - Buck, you could start with cleaning up the bedroom, alone, please, and in the process, see if you can find my missing underwear? Vin - "

"I'm going," Tanner said, waving a hand over his shoulder as he moved to the stairwell. "Good to see you again, Ezra."

"Likewise," Ezra said, also rising. "If you have a moment, Mr. Larabee - "

"Come on," Larabee gestured, but he was glaring at Buck who was grinning as he watched Vin move up the stairs. "I'm not kidding around, Buck." His voice was cutting, but Wilmington either didn't notice or didn't care.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, turning to follow Vin up the stairs. The green of the satin briefs seemed to glow in the soft light of the corridor.

For a second, Larabee glared up the stairs after his retreating lover, and Ezra thought he might follow. But with a sigh and a shake of his head, the head of the house started toward the front of the house and Mrs. Blake.

She smiled as they entered the reception area, her eyes for Larabee who had the grace to smile at her, the expression seeming genuine.

"I've put most of your calls through to your voice mail," she said, but she rose from her desk to hand him several envelopes and a newspaper. "Everything on the calendar for today is confirmed, and I believe that there's been a last-minute request for Vin to have a late dinner with - well," she hesitated, glancing at Ezra, "I put it through to your voice mail, but you may not wish to delay checking your messages."

"Thanks, I'll do that," he nodded to her as he moved past her desk to the doorway on the far wall. "Ezra?'

Ezra nodded, couldn't help but smile a little as he once more walked around the woman's desk, this time into the office itself.

As with everything else about the man, Larabee's office was tasteful yet direct, his desk a solid mahogany with a burgundy leather desk chair. The carpet was a navy and burgundy blend, as were the wingback chairs facing the desk, and all the lamps and fixtures were brass, aged to a nice patina. The walls held bookcases and several pieces of modern art, not too avant-garde but not too traditional either.

An executive's office, but stylish.

"So how much do you need?" Larabee asked as he walked around his desk, sorting through his mail.

"I beg your pardon?" Ezra asked, caught unprepared by the bluntness of the question.

Larabee looked up, his jaw clenched a little. "The first rule of the house is that you don't do anything you don't want to do. But there's another rule that's damned close, and anyone here can tell you: don't waste my time. You didn't waste any time getting back here this morning, which means you're desperate. For a man like you, that means you're out of money - completely out. I understand that your assets are currently frozen and that you might have access to some sort of income, but you'd rather borrow money from me than pay whatever price it costs for the other loan. So how much do you need, and how do you propose to pay me back?"

It was abrupt to the point of being rude, and for half a thought Ezra allowed himself the luxury of irritation. But there were far more important issues to address and Larabee was, after all, correct. "A short-term loan would, indeed, be invaluable. I would propose to offer myself as collateral, physically, if you will."

Larabee waved a hand, settling into his chair. "We'll get to that. Let's talk about how much, first."

Ezra met his gaze directly. "Fifteen-thousand," he said, "returnable to you in exactly fifteen days."

Larabee's eyebrows arched high into his forehead. "A thousand a day? You planning to do that with your body or you got other plans I need to know about?"

Ezra arched one eyebrow of his own. "To demonstrate my good faith," he continued, reaching into the pocket of his suit coat and pulling out an envelope, "I give you these." He dropped it in front of Larabee with a sort of flourish, then sat down in one of the wingbacks. "That is the list of people who were eyeing Mr. Tanner, Mr. Jackson, or Buck on our way through the party last night. The ones denoted with the red asterisks are people I know well enough to negotiate an introduction, for you and for any of them. If you'd like, I could do that today, with the stipulation that I get a ten-percent mediation fee that will be applied against my debt to you."

Chris had opened the envelope and was reading through the list, which was several pages long. "These are, I presume, sorted first by wealth and then alphabetically within?" he asked, turning from the first to the second of the four pages.

"Indeed," Ezra answered, crossing one leg over the other.

"And the blue stars?" He flipped the second page.

"Women who I have interests in - and who have interests in me." He let himself smile at that; he wasn't a complete novice, not at that aspect of the business.

"Impressive list," Larabee commented, on the last page now. "Lot of blue stars. Why do you need me if you think you can do this well on your own?" He flipped the pages closed and looked over them to Ezra.

"I know little of this business, Mr. Larabee, as I have said before. But I also observed something last night, and it was mentioned again this morning by Mr. Tanner: there's a level of security, of protection if you will, in working with others. While I don't fear the women themselves, many of them do have husbands, sons, and even occasional boyfriends who might not take well to what I am prepared to provide. And to be honest, I don't know how many of them are truly interested in anything more than an experiment or occasional interlude."

"So you're not sure how steady this would be?" Chris grinned, the expression reminding Ezra of a shark. "Welcome to the disadvantages of the business." He dropped the papers to this desk and clasped his hands together over his belly. "So this is the collateral against your loan?"

"If you will," Ezra agreed. "But I will repay the loan as well, or what I owe you once the commissions are deducted."

Chris stared at him for a few seconds, his gaze flinty. "How else are you planning to make money?" he asked. "What am I financing?"

Ezra held the gaze but his control slipped just a little. "Whatever do you mean?"

Larabee barked a short laugh. "You running drugs? Guns? What? What do you need fifteen-thousand dollars to get your hands on to redistribute?"

Ezra kept his temper, but it was a little harder now. "I assure you, sir, that I have no intentions of acquiring anything of the sort - "

"That's a lot of money just to need to live for two weeks, Ezra. What the hell are you planning to do with it - and bear in mind, I'm not loaning you one red cent until you answer this." He was twirling his thumbs around each other, his face hard.

There wasn't a decision to be made, of course, but he still had to take a second to commit to it. With a sigh, Ezra answered, "I have need of the money as a stake, if you will."

"Stake for - what?" Larabee sat forward and Ezra had the desire to sit back, but he was already pressing into his chair. "What sort of scam are you running?"

Ezra glared then, started to rise, but Larabee cut him off.

"Don't play the wounded innocent, it doesn't suit you. At least have the balls to tell me you're a professional gambler and that you're using the money to buy in somewhere." He sat back in his chair, giving Ezra a sudden sense of freedom.

He took a deep breath then asked, "How did you know?"

Larabee shook his head. "Do you honestly think I'd invite you into my house without knowing everything there is to know about you? You think I'd let you touch Buck?"

Tanner's words came back, but this time, they were underscored with a heavy bass: 'I'm in a ritzy place with good friends watching my back - this is a whore's paradise.'

"I know you're good, not a gambler so much as a professional conman. That's fine, I got no problem with that. But I do have a problem with people lying to me. So how about we cut the crap before I lose my temper entirely and kick you out on your ass so you do have to run home to mama."

It could have been figurative, but Ezra didn't think so. Larabee did know too much about him for it to be off the cuff. "Very well," he answered, keeping his voice level. "There is an invitation-only game starting tonight. The entrance ante is ten-thousand dollars. There's another one starting next week, entrance ante of fifteen-thousand. I have played at these two particular events before and performed quite well. That, in tandem with a few other things," he glanced to the papers on the desk, "should put me ahead for a while."

Larabee watched him for a few seconds, unreadable. It was something in the man that made Ezra uncomfortable and wary; he wasn't accustomed to being unable to at least anticipate someone's reaction.

"Why are you interested in hooking?"

The question wasn't expected but it wasn't a complete surprise. "It is sex," Ezra answered bluntly, recalling Tanner's words about respecting the profession. "And it is money. An almost perfect combination."

"And it doesn't require you to invest in it first?" Chris asked.

It seemed like an easy answer - and he caught himself. "It's a different type of investment," Ezra answered slowly. "Gambling, if you will, requires a capital outlay, just as most ventures do. The role of professional escort obviously requires some investment," he gestured around the room, "but the major investment is in one's body and one's self-confidence."

Larabee's lips quirked in a sly grin. "Nice save. And good answer. But there is an investment that you didn't mention: investing yourself. I get the sense that you don't know how to do that, Ezra, because I don't think you've figured out what it means. To you, working for me is going to be a sideline until you find something better." He shrugged, the gesture fluid and easy. "I don't really give a damn about that, not at this point. What I do give a damn about is you completely understanding what it means to be one of us. This isn't a game or an adventure, it's a lifestyle." He tapped the papers. "This is good, really good, especially if you're not bullshitting me about what you can do. It's worth the risk of the loan, if you're backing it with your personal introductions."

Ezra's breath caught but he nodded. "I am. We can start today if you wish."

Larabee opened a drawer on one side of the desk, pulling out a checkbook. "Tomorrow. Coordinate with Mrs. Blake to determine when the boys are free for the next few days, set up some meetings. If it turns into dates, then you get the commissions." He was scribbling on one of the checks. "In fifteen days, you pay me back. Do we need a contract?"

Ezra blinked. "That is entirely up to you, sir, I - "

"Then we don't." Chris tore the check from the book and stood up, handing it across the desk.

Ezra stood as well, taking it. It was drawn on Larabee's personal account, he gathered from the fact that only Buck's and Chris's names appeared at the top, the handwriting neat and tidy like the man himself. "Thank you," he said, sincerely grateful and relieved. "I shall have it all back for you."

Larabee held out his hand, then, the gentlemanly handshake to seal the deal. Ezra didn't hesitate, hardly even thought about what he was doing.

Until the iron grip caught at his knuckles, almost breaking his hand. "Damned right you will," Larabee agreed. "Don't do anything stupid, Standish, and don't run out on me, don't even think about it."

Ezra tried not to wince as the handshake ended, tried not to shake out the pain. "Of course not," he said, ignoring the little thoughts running around in the back of his head about how far he could get on this money. Not, in fact, far enough. The man standing across the desk from him no doubt knew that.

Larabee picked up the pages and handed them to Ezra as he pushed a button on the speaker-phone on his desk. "Dorothy?" he called, and Mrs. Blake answered immediately.


"Mr. Standish is going to need some blocks of free time for Nathan, Vin and - for me and Buck as well, for the next two weeks. He's doing some meetings for us. Get him a list of available times for all four of us and for us in groups of two and three, please. He's also bringing out some pages that I need copied - make about five sets, I want to let the boys look at them."

"Will do," she answered and rang off.

Ezra nodded his understanding. "I'll start working on things this afternoon," he said. "Thank you."

Chris waved him off. "I'm investing in my business, Ezra, the same as you are in yours."

Later that night, as he sat on patio of Rennard's private club sipping cognac from a crystal stem, it occurred to him that Larabee had demonstrated an eminently foolish characteristic: trust. The downfall of the mighty, he thought.

But it tickled at his conscience a little.


"Thought you had a meeting with Ezra tonight," Chris said, stopping in the living room doorway.

Vin looked up from the couch where he was flipping channels. "Thought I did, too," he answered, waving a hand toward the tie and nice outfit he was wearing. "He called a little while ago, said something had come up."

Chris shook his head, sighing as he moved into the room. "Losing, I take it," he muttered, heading toward the kitchen.

He had two hours before his ten-o'clock date. Buck, Nathan, and Josiah were already gone, Vin should have been but wasn't, now that Ezra had cancelled. Again.

He opened the refrigerator, mentally counting the days. Five left until the money was due.

"Most of his meetings have worked out for us," Vin said quietly from behind him. "Can't really fault him for having to miss a few."

"I could have scheduled you for tonight," Chris said sharply, pulling out the meat-and-cheese drawer. "We can't afford for him to be planning then canceling - hell, I bill clients when they do that."

Some of them, anyway, the ones who did it repeatedly. And who he didn't like. And who stood up Buck.

"If it's the money, I can always go walk the streets, Chris, ain't like I don't know how."

Chris turned at that, irritated. "It's not about the money, it's about - "

"It's about the money," Vin grinned at him. "Just ain't about my ass working the street."

Chris caught himself, then grinned back. "Your ass is worth a hell of a lot more than you'll make on the street, and we don't want you back out there." He didn't, really, but he didn't mind hiding a little behind Buck's big heart. The thought of what could happen to Vin made him a little queasy.

"So what's the deal then? Why you so angry with Ezra?" Vin moved into the kitchen to lean on the counter by the sink, one of his favorite places. He was dressed in grey tailored slacks, a dark brown shirt that brought out the darker tones in his hair, and a grey tie with brown stripes that brought it all together. He looked good, subdued but sharp, even with the tie loosened now, the kind of man these conservative women would want to have on their arm in public.

Chris shook his head, turning back to the fridge. Three cheese slices, he noticed, and if Buck hadn't eaten all the crackers...

"How much did you loan him?" Vin asked, moving to the cabinet and pulling out a box of Triscuits and a box of wafer crackers.

"That any of your business?" Chris asked, glaring at the other man but it did no good. He got out a cutting board and a knife. "Fifteen-thousand. Ante money."

"Figured it was something like that." Vin grinned again, picking up a green apple from the fruit bowl on the counter, tossing it toward Chris. "Poker player? He's got the way about him."

"Promised to get it all back to me in fifteen days, after the big games he's playing in. Figure things aren't going well and he's having to play longer." He cut the apple into slices, scattering them around the perimeter of the cutting board, then opened the package of cheese slices, helping himself to several.

"He sounded all right when he called," Vin said, opening the Triscuits and pouring some onto the counter beside the cutting board. He snagged an apple slice and some cheese, leaning back on the counter as he munched. "You think he's in trouble?"

Chris shrugged. "Doubt he'd tell us if he was. But he didn't take the money and run - not yet, anyway. Up until the past few days, he's been consistent - and the meetings he's arranged have brought in several new clients, for all of us. So he's cut the debt by several thousand already."

"So - what, exactly, are you worried about? Him, or the money he owes you?" Vin took another apple slice, grinning.

"Fuck you, Tanner," he answered, but he grinned back.

"Would, but you're working later, ain't ya?" Vin countered.

They teased back and forth for a few minutes, all talk though, as Vin gloated a little about his unexpected evening off.

But as they were cleaning up from the light snack, Vin asked, "You want me to scout around, check on Ez?"

"You know where he is?" Chris asked, watching as Vin washed off the cutting board and put it in the drainer.

"Think so," Vin answered. "Ain't that many gold Porsches parked in front of cheap hotels. I was talking to one of Ben's cousins about my bike and he mentioned seeing it over at a Super 8 near the interstate couple of days ago. I can ride over that way, check it out."

Chris thought for a few seconds. "He probably won't be in, not if he's playing in a serious game."

"No, but I reckon I can talk to a desk clerk. Knowing Ezra, he's managed to be a little too snooty one too many times, 'specially if he's been there for more than a week."

Which he probably had been. Chris looked at his friend and nodded. "But be careful, Vin. I don't need you getting into any trouble over this. Just find out if Ezra's staying there, nothing more."

Vin nodded, wiping his hands on a clean dish towel. "Will do, boss," he grinned. "I'll wait 'til I get to the HoJo's at the airport to start cruisin'. Better class of johns there."

Larabee glared at him, and Vin laughed. Until Chris said, "Maybe I should call Josiah and see if he needs help with one of his demonstrations. Good whipping might teach you a thing or two."

Vin arched an eyebrow at him, still grinning. "Don't you worry none, cowboy. 'Siah's teaching me more than enough!"

Yeah, Chris thought wryly as Vin strolled out of the room and up the stairs, Josiah probably was.


Christ, how could he have been so stupid? Ezra thought once again as he double-checked the lock on the cheap door of the motel room, putting a chair in front of it as well. It was stupid, of course; Barrett would have no idea where to find him, and it wasn't as if the man would come looking. He'd gotten what he wanted.

More or less.

Ezra checked once more, unable not to, then moved over to the room's long bureau where he had left his bottle of scotch the night before. His hands were still shaking, he noted with some analytical ability, but he had enough control to keep from spilling the stiff shot he poured.

And the next one.

By the third he was calmer, more so because of the focus; the liquor hadn't yet hit his system, but it had eradicated the nasty flavors in his mouth.

Unfortunately, it also gave him time to think about how badly he had fucked this up, too.

He'd had the money after the first tournament, seventeen-thousand, enough to pay back Larabee and to tide him over for a couple of weeks. But he'd needed more, needed to develop enough to see to himself. So he'd done the second tourney.

He should have known after the first several hours that it wasn't going to end well, should have cut his losses and backed out. But he'd been just on that line, winning enough to stay on the break-even point.

And then Barrett had shown up.

They'd known each other for years, been in company on and off, not close but friendly. Something about Barrett had always put Ezra off, something in the way he leaned into Ezra's personal space, the way he liked to touch. The way he held Ezra's gaze too long and too deeply.

As they had played, they were pleasant and competitive, friendly. At first they paced each other, both losing the same hands, then their luck changed, each of them winning every few hands. But Barrett had pulled ahead after a point.

During one of the breaks, Barrett had joined Ezra at the bar, chatting, talking not a lot about the game but a lot about nothing. Until Barrett had mentioned New York and made a thinly-veiled reference to Ezra 'recent embarrassment'.

And made an offer to 'assist a good friend in a time of need. It would be enough merely to have some uninterrupted time alone.'

Ezra hadn't said 'no'. In fact, he'd said nothing, just smiling and thinking of everything Buck and Chris had said.

As the game had progressed and he'd lost more, Barrett had countered with 'suggestions of a loan'. More 'assistance'.

They'd both lost big in that last hand - Ezra's last hand, as it were. He'd had two pair, and good ones, a pair of eights and a pair of jacks. It was the best hand he'd had all night.

Barrett had had a pair of queens.

The winner had had three threes, bastard, and it was the first winning hand he'd had all night.

Ezra left the table then, holding on to twelve thousand. He guestimated that his commissions to Larabee were worth about two thousand at this point, so realistically he was down a thousand. And right back where he'd started.

'Five thousand, perhaps?' Barrett said casually in his ear. 'I could lose that much in the next half hour here, and have a far less interesting time. Shall we retire to my room and discuss it?'

It was what he would be doing for Larabee, Ezra reasoned, what he would have to do at some point so he might as well get it over with, learn the ropes with someone he liked.

It had been nothing like being with Buck. Nothing.

He shivered, moving into the bathroom and turning on the shower, as much for the heat as for the thought of washing this all away. Not that there was much to wash away - he'd never managed to get to the point of letting Barrett fuck him. The best he'd been able to manage was letting Barrett finger him, and that had been more than he could stand.

But not all Barrett wanted, of course, not once he'd realized that Ezra was untouched there. The offer had gone from five to seven to ten and Ezra had tried, truly had tried.

Right up to the point that Barrett had tried to stretch him, and it had hurt, and his body had rebelled completely at the idea.

Barrett, however, had pushed - too hard, too fast, and too demanding, and Ezra had pushed him off more forcefully than was polite. In truth, he'd probably left a few bruises, and there had been some blood from a cut on Barrett's lip.

He'd made up for it as best he could, giving the second blow-job of his life. It had taken longer with Barrett than with Buck, and Ezra wasn't certain whether that was good or bad.

And at the moment, he didn't care. He just wanted to get the smell of the man off of him, the taste out of his mouth, the slick goo spreading along his ass and thighs off. And out.

He turned the water on, letting it get hot as he stripped out of his clothes. They would need to be cleaned, twice at least, and the silk boxers - he didn't hesitate, wadding them straight up and dropping them into the trash. He didn't want to think about the lubricant on them, on him, smelling of some sort of sickly sweet berry flavor that Barrett had thought to be 'a dash exciting - the smell is simply wicked'.

He stood under the spray for a long time, until the water grew too cool to be welcoming. He'd taken the five thousand, deeming that he'd earned it even though Barrett's parting words were less than warm. But Barrett had repeated the ten thousand dollar offer for Ezra's virginity, not in the least put off by the fact that Ezra obviously didn't know what the hell he was doing and didn't want to learn. Now he knew the going price.

It was comfort, in a horrifying way. He had an asset, at least one, that was temporarily worth ten thousand dollars. An asset... he huffed in dark amusement. What would it be worth once he'd gotten over his virgin fears and forged ahead with this business? If he did. If he could.

As he dressed, he wondered what Larabee would think of the offer, wondered what the other five men had been paid for their first times. Tanner, he suspected, might have made one percent of that, probably gave it away that first time. Jackson would have made someone pay, but probably not a lot. Sanchez - he shuddered, almost tripping on the clean boxers he was pulling on. He might have charged twice as much, given the clientele who might have been interested.

Larabee - he was sure Larabee had given it away, but to Buck, and vice versa no doubt.

Whores in love. The thought was repulsive. But sweet.

He felt better once his belt was tightened, his loose jacket buttoned over his shirt, and his shoes on. He'd brushed his teeth twice and was pouring another drink, this one with water, as he hadn't made it to the ice machine, when the knock on the door made him spill some of the scotch on the counter as he jerked the bottle.

Barrett, he thought, adrenalin flooding his system. But that made no sense. Barrett didn't now where he was staying - but then, no one did. It wasn't as if he'd advertised it.

The second knock, followed by someone calling his name, had him across the room before he realized it, then slowing, scared.

The chair was still in front of the door, and he knelt on it to use the peephole.

Larabee, handsome even through this distorted fish-eye-lens, stood in the hallway glaring straight at him, his men flanking him.

And Ezra didn't have the money. He did have most of it though, and he might be able to stall for a little more time, or he could pretend he wasn't home -

"Ezra, open the door, I know you're in there. Very few Super 8's have Porsches with personalized plates parked in front of them."

'Don't waste my time' - wasn't that what he had said two weeks ago or so in his office?

At least it wasn't Barrett.

Ezra sighed, pulled the chair from in front of the door, then unchained it, unbolted it, unlocked it, and, smoothing the line of his shirt, opened it. Best to be direct.

"I don't have all of your advance. You'll have to get in line with the rest of my creditors," he said, even as the other four muscled past him and into his tedious, nondescript room. A room that was still more than he could afford without his mother's help.

And the bitch hadn't even returned his calls yet.

"I didn't come here for the money, Ezra," Chris said, cool and obviously very, very angry. "Do it, boys."

Ezra stiffened, unaccountably afraid even though he had no sense of physical danger with any of these men. Really, not even Josiah. But the other four sprang into action, Vin heading toward the bathroom while Buck took on the closet and Josiah and Nathan gathered his things off every exposed surface.


"I'm gonna say this one time, Ezra," Chris said, stepping close and keeping his voice low. "Don't ever do that again. Don't ever run out on me and don't ever try to cheat me and don't ever let someone push you for more than you can do. You may be good at what you did, but you aren't good at what I do, not yet. If you're coming on board, you'd damned well better understand that."


"Barrett Wilkerson hired several of us on different occasions. He's a lot like Sandy Merrick, only he hides it better. The only one of us he gets now is me, because I won't put up with his shit, not for any price. He's a boor, but worse, he's a gossip. He called me as soon as you were out of his room, wanting to know what I knew -- and wanting to brag."

Even within the chastisement, Ezra was startled enough at Chris's use of that word that his lips twitched into a smile. Chris's glare deepened.

"If you're so sure you're better than us, Ezra, you won't be with us long."

"But I am? With you?" he asked, evading the accusation that was, mostly, right. "I told you, I don't have all of the money I owe you and I don't know when I can get it to you. Do you still want me working for you?"

"That depends," Buck said, coming up beside Chris and slinging an arm around his partner's shoulder. Ezra cast a quick look to his suits, which Buck had laid with at least a modicum of care on the bed. "You gonna listen to us? Learn what we're trying to teach you?"

Ezra looked between Chris and Buck, then cast his eyes around the room to each of the other men. They were all looking at him, all waiting for an honest answer, and the hell of it was that Ezra didn't know if he had those anymore. He hadn't been less sure of himself since the day before he'd been shipped off to boarding school.

"I'll try," he said. Chris raised his eyebrows. "I will. I apologize Mr. Larabee, but in all sincerity it's the best I can offer you at this point."

Chris nodded once and then the others went back to packing Ezra's things, and only then did Ezra understand that the contract was essentially signed. The four other men swept out of his hotel room with every single thing he had with him in Boston, while Chris hovered in the doorway. Ezra watched his hand touch each man in passing: Nathan's shoulder, a slap to Josiah's back, a touch of fingertips with Vin, and a kiss to Buck.

"Get checked out of here and back to our place in half an hour if you want a shot at picking your own apartment. Otherwise, you get what we give you."

Ezra stood still, turning to look at the empty room he had been calling home for the past three or more weeks. There was not a trace of him left in it that he could see; someone had even picked up the scotch bottle and killed off the drink that had been in his glass. The bed was made, his things were gone. There was nothing here for him.

As there was nothing in New York.

"Ezra?" Larabee asked again, his tone quieter. "You with us?"

With a nod, Ezra turned to face him. "I can't think of one place I'd rather be," he answered with an honesty that he actually felt.


Chris left Ezra to wander the empty suites with Buck and the others, looking for the one he wanted. He had other things he needed to do, the first of which was to call Barrett and officially thank him for pointing him toward Ezra. It would stick in Barrett's throat that Ezra was now under Chris' protection - and thus, out of Barrett's reach. Bastard. If Ezra ever got over his masculine phobias Chris would be sure to let Barrett know which of his whores Ezra had given his ass away to.

It was little more than an hour later when he felt someone hovering at the door to his office and looked up to find Ezra standing there.

"Forgive the intrusion," Standish started, ever civil. But there was a tiredness about him now that took the edge off Chris' annoyance.

"You find one?" he asked, putting down his pen and rubbing at his eyes.

"Indeed," Ezra nodded, stepping forward. "You're too generous. At Vin's suggestion, I took one on the third floor, far corner. I hope this is acceptable?"

It was as far from Chris and Buck's room as he could get and still share that floor with them, which was probably why Vin had picked it for Ezra. He nodded. "Good choice. Furniture all right for now? It's a little spare but you can scavenge as you need to - "

"I have things in storage that I will move as I need to. I assure you, the furnishings are adequate." Ezra quirked a tired grin. "A step up from the Super 8, if a small one."

Chris wondered how long it would be before he started seeing Ezra's own things showing up in the house. Soon, he hoped, as he knew it would be the real sign that Ezra had accepted this.

Ezra reached into his pocket and took out an envelope, one very similar to the one he had come in with fifteen days ago.

"That's what I have - it's almost all there, once you deduct the commissions for the dates. I'm shy several thousand, but you may take it out of the first several dates that I have."

Chris stared at the envelope, then after a few seconds he picked it up, opened it, and flipped through the stack of bills in it. Counting through it again, he took out some of it, then held the rest of it back to Ezra. "Here," he said, "we're even."

Ezra frowned. "That was hardly the deal." But he took the offering, and quickly and efficiently counted the bills inside. "Five thousand? That's what..."

"I told you. I'm the only one from this house who takes Barrett. You did it before you worked for me, so it's yours. From this point on, though, he's off-limits to you unless you go through me. Are we clear?"

Ezra swallowed but met Chris' eyes. "Is that part of the deal? That you know of all my dates and get a percentage of everything I do?"

Chris sighed, wishing it were that easy. "No, it isn't. You do what you want, within reason. But the big thing is that you don't do anything you don't want to do. Do you want to let Barrett do you - really? You want him to be the one who fucks you the first time?"

From the way Ezra's face paled at the suggestion, Chris knew the answer. But he waited, wanting Ezra to admit to it.

"No, I don't suspect that I do," he said finally.

"I don't suspect that you do, either. Part of what this is about is protection. You work the dates I give you unless you don't want to and have a good reason not to. For now, you have only women, until you get a little greedier and a little more familiar with other types of sex. Your gambling is your own, do what you want as long as it doesn't interfere with your work for me. Same with other dates, if you want them. Just be sure that someone knows where you are and when to start looking for you if you don't get back. We watch out for each other - always."

"In the business, you mean," Ezra said, but there was a question in it.

Chris got up, moving around his desk so that he could look directly into Ezra's eyes as he said, "Always. There's more to life than this business, and everyone who lives under my roof is a part of my life as well as my business. Make them a part of yours as well, if you want this to work out in the long run. I'm not saying to take Vin out to a nice party with your mother - not only would you be mortified at the thought, but he wouldn't want to go, anyway. But the next time you decide to go to one of your Formula 1 races, see if he doesn't want to go to that. When you find a cheap card game, invite Buck and me. We'll enjoy it and he'll liven up the room. If you don't piss him off he'll even distract the talent for you, give you a better chance at winning. These men are my friends as well as my employees. They'll be yours too, if you let 'em."

Ezra didn't say anything, but he didn't do that little sneer that Chris had come to despise. "I will pay you back the rest of what I owe you," he said instead.

Chris shrugged. "I won't say no, but I won't ask about it either. For now, though, get settled in. I'm gonna put you on the schedule starting next week, give you some time to get adjusted and get your other affairs in order." He moved toward the door to his office, Ezra following along. "And to play in that tournament over at the Laredo this weekend - you were planning to play, right?"

He was rewarded with a smile from the other man. "Now that I have the ante."

Chris closed the door to his office as Ezra passed him. The television was blaring from the living room and he could hear Buck and Vin calling to each other. Baseball, of course, the one sport the whole house seemed to gather for.

Josiah was in his usual chair, the recliner next to the couch. He was holding a book, trying to read and maybe even take notes, given the pad beside him. But he was watching Vin and Buck, and grinning. Nathan sat opposite Josiah, also with a book open, but he was watching the game.

Vin and Buck were on the couch, facing more towards each other instead of the television, arguing about a call made by the ref. A typical late afternoon in his house.

"Are they always so excitable?" Ezra asked, but there was humor in his tone, and Chris looked over to him.

"You a baseball fan?" Chris countered.

Ezra arched one eyebrow at him, and answered by calling to the room in general, "A true fan would never bet against his team. Odds are four to one on this game - any takers?"

Chris chuckled at the looks of surprise on Vin and Buck's faces, then laughed harder as they looked at each other, then back at Ezra who was moving into the room among them. He strolled into the room himself, sliding onto the couch beside his partner and sliding a hand between his legs, intent now on relaxing a little and distracting Buck a lot. Ezra watched for a moment as if he really couldn't believe the pair of them, and Chris shook his head, feeling indulgent with Buck tucked against him and his friends around him. Maybe a new friend, a valuable one if he didn't bite the hands that fed him. He raised an eyebrow Ezra's way.

"Well, gentlemen?" Ezra asked, shaking himself out of his stare. "Four to one odds are a generous offer on my part, I assure you. I'm risking my last pennies to make this game interesting. Who's in?"

It was going to be an entertaining several weeks. And hopefully more.


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