Liam West had just finished a ten-hour stint at the hospital and wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and cocoon himself under the duvet for the next week. But first he had to speak with Katie. What had happened between them yesterday afternoon had nagged at him all the way through the night shift. So much so, he’d lost his temper at a couple of drunken revelers who’d turned up at A&E bruised and bloodied as a result of a fight. Prior to that, he’d had to wheel a twenty-year-old girl to the morgue.
After putting the kettle on, he went to Katie’s door and tapped rather than knocked. Anything to avoid the wrath of Martin, who hated to be woken before ten. Woe betide anyone who interrupted his beauty sleep. Not that he needed much, the vain little shit.
“Katie? Can we talk?”
It occurred to him then that when she’d stormed out yesterday afternoon she might not have come back. She’d already stayed out four of the last five nights, so one more wouldn’t make any difference. He knocked again, harder. “Katie? You awake?”
Liam opened the door.
Sunlight seeped around the partially open blinds and threw a sharp beam across the bed. Highlighted in this radiant glow was the flutter of golden eyelashes spread upon a pale cheek. Beneath a button nose, full lips rested together and formed a petulant pout that may or may not have been the result of collagen injections.
Wait a minute.
What was he doing staring at Martin Bailey’s lips? Especially when those lips were pouting in his best friend’s bed. Liam forged inside the room, ready to eject the bastard short shrift. Then the golden lashes flickered open.
Martin lifted his arms in a lazy stretch. The move elongated his torso, displaying the fine arc of his ribs and the smooth dip of his taut belly. From there Liam’s attention was drawn to where the covers met his groin.
Wait another minute.
Was he naked under that quilt?
“Liam?” Martin slurred, suggesting he’d been in the midst of a deep sleep. “What’re you doing here?”
“You’re starkers in Katie’s bed, and you ask me what I’m doing here?”
“Katie’s…” Martin looked blearily around. “Oh. Hell.” He pushed the quilt aside and swung his legs out of the far side of the bed.
Liam flipped on the light.
Martin threw an arm across his eyes. “Man. You have to do that?”
“Yes.” Liam clenched his teeth. “Why are you in here? What’s wrong with your own bed? And where’s Katie?”
Ignoring every question, Martin stood and stretched both arms high above his head. As he did so, Liam’s gaze fell to the small, pert peach of his backside. Dark patches bloomed on the pale skin, harsh blobs that looked very much like finger-shaped bruises. “Have you had someone here?” he asked the bruises. “A…” What were they called? Customers? Clients? Johns? “A punter?” Liam clung to the word with both hands. “You had a punter in here?”
Martin didn’t laugh at the term, but neither did he offer up an answer. Instead, he bent to pick up his clothing as if Liam had ceased to exist. As he did so he let out a pained groan and pressed a palm to his belly.
“What’s wrong?” Liam asked, knowing he shouldn’t give a shit. Especially after finding the bastard in his best friend’s bed. But he couldn’t ignore the fact Martin was in pain. And considering those bruises, and what he did for a living, Martin’s pain must get pretty bad at times.
“Nothing.” Martin straightened, using the bed post as support. “It’s just the bloke from last night.” His blue eyes shimmered from under a mop of tousled hair.
Liam’s rage dissolved. What the hell had gone on in here? “What happened, Martin? You can tell me.” He edged another step closer. “Did he hurt you? Or…?” Or worse?
“He…” Martin sucked in another sharp breath. “God, Liam. He…” His plump lower lip trembled, then parted from his equally plump top lip to form a manic grin. “He’s got a cracking great knob on him. Knows how to make thorough use of it, too. My arse is flaming like a Catherine wheel on bonfire night.”
Every bit of sympathy Liam held in his body boiled away. “You are a sick, fucking…”
Martin let out a cackle of ear-grating laughter then reached under the pillow. He spun around, waving a shock of notes in the air. “Not bad for half an hour’s graft, eh?”
Half an hour? The steam from Liam’s anger thinned to disbelief. There was as much there as he earned in a week. How fair was that? Then again, thinking back to the bruises, the money wasn’t so great.
“Where is she?” Liam asked as his temperature once again set to simmer.
“Katie. Who’d you think?”
“I reckon she spent the night with her boyfriend. Her well fit boyfriend, from what I saw.”
“You’ve met him?” That Katie had broken her promise to stay home last night was bad enough, but paled into insignificance when contrasted with the fact that Martin had met this elusive new bloke of hers.
“Yeah.” Martin idly flicked through his takings. “Why?”
Liam paused. He refused to show just how much of a slap in the face that was. “So while she’s out you thought you’d, what? Take advantage of her absence? You really are pathetic.” Liam itched to shake a sense of decency into the little shit. But there wasn’t much to grab a hold of except his half-erect cock, and Liam was keeping well out of the way of that thing. “I want you out of here. Now!”
“All right, big man.” Martin raised a dismissive palm. “No need for the ‘tude.” He set about gathering the rest of his clothing from the floor, then paused in the doorway on his way out. “You reckon you could give the sheets a rinse through? They’re a little…crusty.”
Liam surged toward him, fists clenched, but being twice Martin’s size meant an unfair advantage right from the off. And since Liam despised violence more than he despised Martin, he stood there and seethed instead while Martin continued down the hall like nothing was up other than his dick.
“And I mean out,” Liam yelled, trying not to stare at the pert cheeks of that perfect, if bruised, arse. Out of the flat and out of their lives. For good.
“Then have a word with Katie.” Martin flashed another exaggerated grin from over his shoulder. “It’s got to be unanimous, or I’m going nowhere.” He disappeared into his room then, and slammed the door behind him.
Martin placed his earnings into his night-table drawer then lowered himself gingerly to the bed. Falling asleep in Katie’s bed had been a mistake, a big one. He’d only used her room because pink suited his alter-ego’s personality. Feminine, chic fairy lights and a patchwork quilt beat wallpaper made of porn stills and the half bottle of whiskey sitting on his chest of drawers.
As he made to rise from the bed, he caught his reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the door. Martin Bailey—all bedhead and bloodshot eyes. But if he fluffed up his blond hair and lowered his lashes, if he parted his lips and licked them until they glistened, then there was Button. The sweetly innocent sap hardly clued in about sex, and forever oblivious of the effect his young body had on the men who were willing to pay to explore it. The kid Roy wanted to buy and keep purely for pleasure.
Like that was going to happen. He couldn’t play the naïve piece of fluff twenty-four-seven. Mainly because his pathetic alter-ego’s saccharine willingness to please pissed him off no end. He’d taken his frustration out on Liam this morning and now would have to heal the atmosphere. He liked living here, more than most of the other places he’d stayed. But before he did anything else today, he needed that shower.
Standing under the hot water jets, he cleansed the grime of his job with a generous slather of Katie’s strawberry shower gel. She never minded him using her things, unlike Liam staring daggers across the Weetabix of a morning. Liam minded he dare breathe half the time. Granted, breakfast was usually dinner time for them both, but, no matter what time of the day or night, the sad fact was he and Liam would never become friends.
He’d grown to appreciate the big guy over the past few months of living here, despite the constant complaints and not-so-subtle digs about his job. However hard he tried, he wouldn’t be able to wear an eternal grin for minimum wage in a supermarket. He could smile for a two hundred quid shag, no problem. He could please any man on a fifty quid blow job. He’d perfected the art in cheap hotel rooms and narrow alleyways for going on almost three years now, and before then in the privacy of his home.
Not all his punters were totally undesirable, either. Roy had his good points. He was never violent or overtly kinky. He insisted on bringing Button to orgasm every single time. A lot of others weren’t so generous. Even so, last night Roy had become extra pushy, extra keen to claim Button’s flesh as his own.
After switching off the water, Martin wrapped a towel around his waist. Bath rather than hand. Usually he’d deliberately parade around in a much smaller towel just to flaunt himself in Liam’s company. Irritating the big guy had proven to be quite the leisure pursuit lately. Precisely the reason he’d not-so-casually dropped meeting Katie’s latest boyfriend into the conversation. In reality, their introduction had been little more than a brief hi and bye when passing in the hall, but Liam didn’t need to know that.
Martin grabbed his toothbrush and scrubbed the remnants of Roy’s taste from his mouth, then made his way through to the kitchen. Liam was sitting at the table nursing a coffee. He might be fuming like a midsummer’s dung heap, but he smelled much nicer. Sweaty but clean, with a frisson of some ocean-themed aftershave. Aesthetically, he wasn’t too bad on the eye, either. Tall, broad and black-haired, he exuded a soothing presence. A quiet, underlying strength, a protective presence that Martin liked. A lot. Mainly because Liam was totally straight and remained so even when wasted. Every now and then, though, Martin liked to wobble the boundaries to see how safe his walls were. The reason he found Liam’s smoldering presence quite so warming was best pondered another day.
He set five crisp ten-pound notes on the table then pulled out a chair. Perhaps he should have dressed first, but this bad atmosphere needed tackling sooner rather than later.
Liam eyed the notes. “What’s this?”
“An apology.” Martin fixed on his brightest grin. “I shouldn’t have taken Katie’s bed, and this is my way of saying sorry.”
“Fifty quid’s worth of sorry?” Liam swept the cash to the floor. “I’m not your pimp, Martin. You can’t pay me to keep my mouth shut, either.” He powered to his feet. Fists pushed to the table, knuckles big as bolts. “In fact, I’ve got a good mind to show you exactly what I think of you.”
“Go ahead.” Martin pushed back his chair and stood, too. “I can take a fist. Just be aware I charge an extra hundred for the privilege.” He stuck out his chin and readied for the glancing blow he probably deserved. Not that he believed Liam would cave his face in, bolt knuckles or no bolt knuckles. Liam just wasn’t the violent type. His gamble paid off when Liam slumped in his chair and picked up his mug.
“Will you tell Katie?” Martin resumed his seat. His adrenaline fizzled to a sickly slither of nerves. Katie wouldn’t want him to leave, would she? She was an easy-going girl, but there had to be a limit to even her level of acceptance. Using her bed to entertain his clients wouldn’t go down well, no matter how close their friendship.
Liam hunched his shoulders. “Depends.”
“The reason you did it.”
Like that’s any of Liam’s business. “One of my regulars wanted to see where I live. He’s been hassling me for exclusive use, and I—”
“Exclusive use? What does that mean?”
“Just that he wants to buy me. Like, full-time. So I’d get to be with him and no one else.”
“You mean he wants to own you?”
“No way. I ain’t nobody’s slave.” Martin scowled. “I just thought if he could see that I don’t live in squalor with a bunch of junkies and rapists, he’d stop worrying about my living conditions and—”
“You could’ve used your room for that. You could’ve made do with a single. In the past I’ve had to…” Liam shut his mouth.
“You’ve had to what?”
“Nothing.” Liam dragged his mug closer. “We’re talking about your bedroom habits here, not mine.”
Only because Liam probably didn’t even have any bedroom habits. Not past his right hand, anyway. For as long as they’d known each other, Liam had never brought anyone back to shag. He’d never brought anyone back, ever.
“Roy—that’s my punter—he clocked the naked meat pinned to my door and wasn’t impressed. So I had to tell him my room was my flatmate’s, AKA, yours.”
Liam spluttered a mouthful of coffee halfway across the table. “You told your trick that porn infested hell-hole was mine?”
“Of course I mind, dipshit.” Liam pushed out of the chair and fetched some kitchen towel from the roll on the wall. “Like anyone is going to believe you kip in a pink fairy grotto, anyway.” He swiped the towel across the puddle but only succeeded in spreading it further. “You’re not that camp.”
“I ain’t camp, full stop.” Martin bit down on his anger. Trying to communicate with Liam was a total waste of time, as always. But he owed an explanation. Wouldn’t be an acceptable one, but it would be the truth. “I’m not. But Button is.”
Liam paused his mopping. “Who’s Button?”
“Me. Sort of. He’s, like, a persona. Button’s seventeen. A dumb twink who swaps bum fun for cash ’cause he’s too thick to work a proper job.”
“Sounds like you, never mind this Button character.” He deposited the soggy towel in the bin. “Apart from you being twenty-one and a long way from dumb, that is.”
He’d take that as a compliment, even if dumb probably referred to his mouth rather than his intelligence. “Yeah, well, in my line of work, the younger and more inexperienced you appear the more you can charge and the more the blokes are willing to pay. They lap it up, trust me.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Liam shot him another disapproving look before sitting back down. “How old are they, then? These blokes who pay fake seventeen-year-olds for sex. What about him last night?”
“Sixtyish?” Liam’s disgust flared again, in full uniform regalia of the likes not seen since some passing neighbor had thrown up in the hall directly outside their front door. “You bring sick old fucks who like teenage boys to mine and Katie’s home, then give them what they want in Katie’s bed?”
The earlier compliment meant absolutely nothing if Liam thought this of him now. “I only brought Roy back, and he ain’t even that sick a fuck.” Roy treated him with respect. Roy also fucked hard enough to bruise, but the bruises were of the energetic, not the violent, variety. “Seventeen is legal. I could play younger if I wanted, but I got my principles, too.”
Liam snorted out a laugh.
Martin chose to ignore it. “Roy’s harmless enough and he tips well.”
“Yeah, well. Whatever he is or isn’t”—Liam stabbed a finger down on the table—“you bring any more of your desperado perverts here, and I will throw you out myself. Personally. Rental agreement or no rental agreement. Understood?”
“Sure. I get it.” Martin slipped from the chair to the floor and set about gathering his money together. He stuffed the cash into his pocket then levered himself upright. A fresh spark of fire seared through his pelvis and he couldn’t prevent a whimper that made Liam’s upper lip curl in distaste. Now there was an expression he’d caught on a variety of different faces over the years, and was more than used to ignoring. “Time I was going, anyway. There’s a half price breakfast down the pub with my name on it.”