How in the hell am I supposed to do that—huh, Pa?
“Seriously, Ko. You are not paying attention.”
Ko Takao inhaled deeply and tore his eyes from the women in bright-colored saris, walking together along the narrow lane. He’d been in India for three weeks but he still wanted to cry each time he thought back to burying his father. After Nobu’s death over a month before, he’d been putting off the trip and hiding in his house while he’d made arrangements for his father’s burial. But soon, Thaddeus Masterson and his husband, Ravinder, had flown into Bathsheba and all but kidnapped him.
He cleared his throat. He could tell Thaddeus that he was in fact listening, but knowing his friend, Thaddeus would only follow it up with ‘then what did I just say?’
That was a trap Ko knew very well.
“Sorry,” Ko said instead. “I didn’t mean to drift off like that. What were you saying?”
“You okay?” Ravinder asked.
Ko shook his head. “I don’t know.” He exhaled long and hard while rubbing his palms along his thighs. “There are so many things running through my head.”
“Like what?” Ravinder asked.
“The design for your suits for one.”
“If it’s too much, Ko, you don’t have—” Thaddeus began.
“Oh, knock it off, would you?” Ko snapped. “I’m designing the suits now. Shut up about it…” Ko glanced out of the window quickly before looking at Ravinder and Thaddeus. “Sorry. I’ve just been feeling inadequate lately.”
“How so?” Thaddeus was the first to speak.
“I’m not ready for this. Running Hansamu wasn’t my dream.”
“What was your dream?” Thaddeus asked.
For a moment, Ko thought about it. But he could come up with no clear answer so he merely shrugged and turned his gaze to the procession of beautifully clad women. After another round of food, the three exited the small restaurant on the roadside and wandered back to the house. As much as he’d like to run all the way there and toss himself into the air-conditioned interior, the humidity weighed Ko down. That, coupled with the food they’d just devoured, was like swimming upstream through molasses.
Heat waves rose from the asphalt, making the humid air around them even more stifling. Ko hated the heat—hated the way it made his head go dizzy when he stepped outside. Then to make things worse, within seconds, his sweat had his shirt clinging to his back. He disliked the smell of the heat—fire mixed with other scents he couldn’t quite place. But as he glanced around, Ko could honestly say the beauty of India and its people outweighed the smell and humidity.
Finally back home, he excused himself and immediately took a shower. He then wandered the air-conditioned house shirtless. Though it frustrated him to be wearing any clothing at all, Ko had to respect the fact it wasn’t his place. Some iota of modesty was required.
While Thaddeus went on a business call, he made himself useful in the kitchen by spreading his new designs for Hansamu on the island and studying them. Ko had no clue what he was looking for but something was off. Absentmindedly, he tapped his pencil against the side of his head. The label’s sales were through the roof and that was how his father had always kept it. The pressure now was to keep the company going at the size his father had always wanted. Hansamu was to remain small but giant in reputation and quality. Whenever his father had seen clothing lines filing for bankruptcy, he’d always shaken his head and muttered, ‘Baka wa shinanakya naoranai.’
Ko smiled at the memory. “You can’t fix stupid, indeed.”
Staring at the face of the model currently leading the charge for the company, Ko sighed. The same disappointment that had clouded his judgment after his father had announced who the model was filled him once more. The model was handsome with a nice body but he looked nothing like an everyday man. He wasn’t the kind of man Hansamu represented. No, the first thing Ko needed to do was find a new face. He turned the picture over so his mind could work, then went back to adding little things to his sketches. For a while, he managed to forget the enormity of the responsibilities now sitting on his shoulders. In the silence of the house, Ko merely went back to what he’d loved doing—creating.
Thaddeus had asked him what his dreams were, and sadly Ko couldn’t remember. So much of who he was and what he did was tied up in a company his father had started. He’d lost himself within the ranks and the nightly meetings. With his thoughts once again jumbled, Ko gave up on work and went looking for Thaddeus. Though his best friend was still on the phone, Ko took a seat on the large sofa and impatiently waited for Thaddeus to finish.
“Okay, you have my attention,” Thaddeus said, a smile grazing his thick lips. “What’s the matter?”
“I feel restless, unworthy—”
“Whoa! This again? Unworthy? Of what?”
“My father’s legacy.”
“I mean,” Ko continued as if Thaddeus hadn’t said a word. “He leaves me with this empire and I’m supposed to carry it on and make sure it stays in good standing. Damn. It’s a lot.”
“I get it.” Thaddeus walked around the desk to sit beside him. “And you know Ravinder and I are here if you need a hand. Between the two of us, I’m sure we could give you more help than your father would know what to do with.”
Ko sighed and dragged a hand over his face. “Yeah. Both of you have your life to deal with right now. Shouldn’t you be looking into kids?”
Thaddeus smiled. “We are not Darius and Feng.”
“So, you don’t want kids then?”
“Of course. But since we’ve been married just two years, we’ve barely had time to be together. Between us staying on at Rajput longer than we were supposed to, me starting an actual firm and Ravi building his company, we’ve been crazy busy. We haven’t spoken at length about children yet.”
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying, you’re getting old.”
Thaddeus laughed. “I could say the same for you.”
“Me?” Ko sputtered as if Thaddeus had said something so blasphemous it warranted bulging eyes and a gasp. “Nah. Husband and kids are not in the cards for old Takao. I’ve tried.”
“Maybe you should try again. It has been a while since I’ve seen you with anyone.”
“No. Love isn’t for the Takao men. Mom left Dad for some politician when I was four. He raised me on his own. He never dated after that. I guess Mom leaving the way she did really tore a piece off him.”
“I know the story. And yes, your father was hurt and I don’t think he could have risked it again, especially with a child he had to look out for. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find a lover who adores you.” Thaddeus eased back into the seat. “If an old dog like me could find someone, why not you?”
“Because karma is a son of a bitch.”
“I thought karma was a woman.”
Ko groaned and stood. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Maybe you could see if Abhay wants to go out tonight or something. He would make a pretty decent wingman.”
“No. He hasn’t seen Priya in almost six months. I’m sure there are better things he’d like to do tonight. And besides, I need alone time to think. I’m trying to figure out a way to get a new face for Hansamu. The one we have isn’t quite right.”
“When you say ‘new face’…”
“The current model we have heading the line isn’t—I don’t know. I don’t like the way he looks. He doesn’t represent the men the line is for—that the brand is for. Dad didn’t like it, either, but it was a last-minute thing and he didn’t have a chance to do an extensive search to find the right fit.”
“Well, maybe you could try Jackson.”
“Who is that?”
Ko arched an eyebrow. “You mean Kent Stark’s son? How old is he? Seventeen?”
“Yeah. Like nine years ago.” Thaddeus laughed. “He’s twenty-six now.”
“I don’t know if he’s grown into those jeans I saw him in the last time,” Ko scoffed. “He was this lanky kid. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him. What’s he been doing?”
“He went to university for business and graphic design. Now he’s working for Darius. He designed and produced Together We Rise.”
“As in, the video game?” Ko asked.
“Seriously?” Ko fell back into his seat. All thoughts of going for a walk were gone and he couldn’t get enough information, it seemed. “You’re kidding.”
“I love that game!” Ko said. Of course, he knew if he met Jackson he’d probably never admit to it. “It’s so…so…real.”
Thaddeus nodded. “Yeah. He started the concept for a project in university but nothing ever came of it because he had to focus on school. Once he was finished, Darius made him come up with a full proposal for it, including a business plan, then went over it. Apparently, he liked what he saw because Together We Rise is now one of the highest-grossing video games of the last two years. I think he’s working on a follow-up but I’m not big into video games.”
Ko nodded. “All right. I’ll take a look at him.”
Thaddeus went back behind his desk and tapped away at his keyboard. He turned the laptop so Ko could see the screen. What he saw caused his eyes to widen. The last time he’d seen Jackson was at the launch party of Thaddeus’ new security software. He barely remembered the kid, but back then he had been skinny with big brown eyes, large hands and a smile that seemed to encompass his whole face.
Not the man on the screen.
Ko stared silently, allowing his eyes to trail over Jackson’s face. His smile was still as big as ever but didn’t look so out of place as before. Jackson Stark seemed to have grown into himself with a sleek, muscular body, and wide shoulders that held the Hansamu design perfectly.
“He’s wearing one of Daddy’s suits,” Ko managed. His voice cracked only slightly. Hopefully Thaddeus would see it as emotion over the loss of his father and not arousal.
“Yeah. So, what do you think?”
“I’d have to see him without his shirt,” Ko said before he could stop himself. “The underwear shots will have him shirtless.”
“Well, I could make a few phone calls. Not sure if he can take time off from Stark right now, but since you’re going home in a week, anyway…”
“Yeah.” Ko cleared his throat and stepped away from the screen. “I can have a meeting with him. It would save me time and money to have go-sees set up and the flood of models coming into the office. Ugh.”
“Awesome. Let me talk to him first, okay?”
Ko nodded. “I’m going to head out for that walk. Give you and Ravi some time alone. I’ll be back.”
“Ko, you don’t have to…”
“I know,” Ko said. “I need the air.”
It was a lie and even if Thaddeus sensed his bullshit, he didn’t call Ko out on it. Ko didn’t need the kind of air India had. But since he’d been to India he always seemed to be with Ravinder and Thaddeus. He knew they’d missed each other, that they needed time to be alone together—even though they hadn’t said so. Besides, Ko hated being a third wheel and he sometimes got a little jealous of the love he saw between Thaddeus and Ravinder.
Shoving his fingers deeply into his pockets, he exited the large gates to the Mastersons’ Raja property and turned left. He wandered down the long outer driveway then headed right along a freshly paved street. Before Thaddeus and Ravinder had bought the house, the street had been nothing but dirt and gravel. Thaddeus had paid to have the road paved so he and his fiancé could have something that wouldn’t destroy their vehicles.
With the late evening sun bearing down, the asphalt was soft beneath his shoes and the air was rich with the smell of tar. Deep down he knew that couldn’t be safe but he was so far into his mind that Ko didn’t particularly care. He was too busy wondering what Jackson Stark looked like underneath that suit. Ko was curious about stripping off Jackson’s clothing with his teeth and watching that dark flesh come to light.
“Son of a bitch,” Ko muttered, drawing his shoulders up to his ear and quickening his steps. “What in the hell is wrong with me?”
He received no answers to that except a cow mooing from somewhere to his left. Squinting, he turned his head in that direction, trying to see the animal. All he saw were small houses littering the landscape, along with huts, long since empty.
Finally, he came to a roadside bar. Indian music blared from a television set on an upturned bucket on the front stop step. He peered over and realized the sounds were coming from what appeared to be a Bollywood movie. Ko had seen his fair share of them since becoming friends with Abhay and Priya Chetan.
Speaking of Priya—Ko stopped to watch the actress gyrate across the screen before stopping to glide her neck left to right as her eyes darted from side to side—Priya would look amazing posing with Jackson. With design concepts dancing around inside his head, he entered the muggy bar and found a seat close to the very end on the far side.
“Soda?” Ko asked.
The man wiggled his neck with a smile. “Coming right up!”
True to his words, the bartender quickly returned with a bottle that must have been in the freezer. He handed over some money and unscrewed it. When he took a drink, the soda was basically a slushie. Ko didn’t mind. It worked wonders to soothing his overheated body. He paid no attention to the rumble of at least three different languages happening around him. It didn’t matter, anyway, for he understood none of them. Ko nursed on his soda until his bottle was empty, bought three more and headed out. He was tempted to keep walking away from the house but his body just didn’t want to do it.
Halfway back home, his cell rang and he picked it up without checking the screen.
Ko groaned. “Hey, Merrick. How’s it going?”
“Spectacular. Listen, have you given any thought to what I ran by you?”
“Not yet. I just buried my father and my best friends kidnapped me for a vacation. All business is on hold right now until I get back to town.”
“Aw-right, cool. How you doing, anyway?”
Ko hated that. His welfare shouldn’t be second fiddle. Still, he said nothing to that. “Better, thanks. Look, I gatta go. I’m in India right now and—”
“Oh, right! Okay, talk to you when you get back.”
Ko grunted and hung up. There was no way in hell Ko was going to let anyone design a line of men’s thongs for his company. Men had way too much junk to be wearing ass floss. And who thought that was sexy? If you had to wear something like that, just go without!
Irritated, he made his way back into the yard and turned to watch the gate close silently. He then jogged up the front steps, around the side of the house and sat on the pool deck. For a moment, he debated just leaving the others until he was ready to go in. But he figured they’d get warm so he carried them inside and stuck them into the fridge. As he was closing the fridge, he could hear the sounds of lovemaking coming from upstairs. Ko sighed, grabbed a glass and filled it with ice then pulled out one of the beers. After wringing off the cap, he dumped the content over the ice and swirled it around as the moans grew louder. Opting to give them more time, Ko carried his beer back to the deck. He sat with his feet in the water, cold glass in one hand, trying to remember the last time a man thought enough of him to make love to him.
* * * *
When his trip came to an end, India left him more than a little better—physically anyway. Emotionally he was still a bit off. He returned to Bathsheba earlier than he’d told everyone and merely hid out at his place. It was partly because he had an appointment and him partly needing to be alone to breathe and grieve.
The first morning he woke up feeling as if he had been run over by a garbage truck. The jetlag mixed with the messed-up time zone and the alcohol from the plane left him drained. Ko toyed with the idea of hitting the gym but settled for going on a run. The way his body was, he knew he’d wind up dropping a ten-pound weight on his foot or something. The run didn’t last very long, half an hour and he was back. That had been a horrible idea, too. Maybe Ravinder was right—he needed to give his body time to heal before he started pushing again.
But it was never that easy—it couldn’t be. Ko had to maintain Hansamu and find a way to not get buried under his father’s shadow, even in death.
Once he was dressed, Ko stopped long enough to brew some coffee, take a couple of sips, then gathered his keys and wallet and headed out of the door. Thaddeus had given him the heads-up to one of Jackson Stark’s shoots and Ko had managed to talk the photographer into letting him watch. It was homework—not because he was super curious about what Jackson looked like while the cameras were flashing. The fact that seeing Jackson’s pictures aroused him had absolutely nothing to do with anything.
But even as he sped through the rain-damp streets, he couldn’t make himself believe those lies. The photo shoot was at one of Bathsheba’s prized historical houses. Back in the day, Burnham had been a plantation house—slavery, owners, the whole nine. But the owner had found Christianity and after years of a tarnished reputation, he had begun fighting for slavery to be outlawed and had used Burnham house as a refuge for slaves seeking freedom. Ko had read all about it on his flight over from India—it wasn’t as if he’d had anything else to do.
The pictures did Burnham house no justice. The large structure stood as a testament of time before him as the gates swung wide to admit his car. He slowed to a crawl, keeping his eyes on the property, from the gargoyles on the highest parts of the roof, to the rounded windows and almost ancient walls. The staircase leading up to the massive wooden door was grand and made of stones. Ko wondered how they had managed to move those back then.
Finally, he got himself together and followed the signs to the parking and eased in between a motorcycle and a silver BMW. After quick check of his face in the car mirror, he eased from the vehicle and closed the door while glancing around. Apparently, he couldn’t enter through a back door so he hurried around the side. He jogged up to the front door and had to brace his feet to pull it open. Once he was inside, the wonder didn’t end. But he was a man on a mission. He finally found the location of the shoot and stood in the back to see what was happening. In the center of the large room was a single chair—like a throne of sorts. The photographer was fiddling with her camera as Jackson entered from a side door. The two talked for a little, then Jackson removed his robe and stood perfectly sculpted, facing the throne. The photographer gave a few instructions and the shoot began.
“More intensity in the eyes,” the photographer barked.
Is that even possible? It already feels as if when he looks at me, I’m liable to implode.
“Good!” she hollered. “That’s it. That’s it!”
Ko was drawn by the change in Jackson’s body. Suddenly he wasn’t just Jackson anymore but a king—neck elongated, shoulders straight and strong. Every movement seemed like something a man of power would take. Ko leaned his back into the wall, folded his arms across his chest. Jackson rose from the throne and took a step down. He made his way to the foot of the steps, then turned as if he was going back to his seat.
“Beautiful!” the photographer called. “Straighten your back just a tad—yes! Yes!”
Ko couldn’t breathe. Jackson had a nice ass.
“Lift your chin a bit,” she continued. “Perfect! Now, go to the top. Stand beside the throne, and remember, Your Highness—this is your land!”
That seemed to be the motivation Jackson needed to turn it up a notch. He did as the photographer instructed and the shots that came afterward, Ko knew were spectacular. Then his gaze locked with Jackson’s and Ko figured if he hadn’t been propped against something he would have toppled over. For that moment, breath wasn’t important. The connection he had with the model was all the life support he required.
“I’m Idris Elba and you want to do me!” the photographer hollered.
“Yes!” she cheered. “Wonderful!”
In that short time, Ko had done so many deliciously naughty things in his mind to Jackson. In his head, Ko had his young lover tied to the banister at his home and drove into his body from behind like a beast in heat. He had grabbed the rail on either side of Jackson then slammed forward until Jackson was shouting. He had Jackson bent over the hood of a car, leaning against his office desk, spread wide in the sand on a beach somewhere. In that short instant, all the delectably devilish sins one could commit were carried out.
“Okay, we need you to change,” the photographer said and Ko could have strangled her with his bare hands.
The hold Jackson had over him broke and he gasped softly before staggering out of the door again. There was no way he could talk to Tasha and Jackson about his plans then. Confusion and arousal mingled inside his head and stormed through his body. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as a shiver trailed through him. Ko’s heart hammered so loudly, he swore everyone could hear it.
He’d gone too long without a lover. That was the only explanation that made any sense. All the years he’d spent hiding from love, pushing lust away and burying it beneath the obligation to please his father, the need to fulfill all his other obligations, were coming back to haunt him. All he wanted to do was go home to some heated lube, porn and his hand.
After a good self-work session, he’d be right as rain.