Jeremy Roberson sat in the reception room, awaiting his chance to interview for the advertised job, and pondered the disaster his life had become. Four years ago, life had been good. He’d been making money hand over fist and finally—finally!
—earning Papa Zeke’s respect. In the market craze of this past decade, boiler room tactics and pushing envelopes with little regard to the long-term vision had been the thing to do. And he’d done it every day, fearlessly and ruthlessly, because the market would hold.
Then came the day it hadn’t.
He heard the receptionist announce his name into her phone and thought about that dark day. History termed it the Great Recession and mentioned it was a disaster of epic proportions that spread worldwide. It was an act of malfeasance of greed begun by the stroke of the presidential pen. Bush II had naively removed the limits put on the banking industry after the Depression. He’d put his trust into the “good and common sense” of the market industry—a big laugh, that—and thereby unleashed unfettered greed that tore down a country.
Making money became the focus, the only
focus, even to the point of knowingly undercutting the stock market and buying and selling toxic debts. The market eventually coughed, had itself a seizure, went tits up, and nearly destroyed the global economy. There really wasn’t much he could say about that since he’d been one of the money-grubbing players who’d knowingly set up the economy to fall and repeat the horrors of the Depression. He’d been caught with his hands dirty and grubbing for still more.
How many millions did a person need, for God’s sake? It hadn’t made him any happier, come to think of it, just more pompous and pretentious. Karma had ripped him a new asshole in the form of a near worthless portfolio, empty bank accounts across the globe, and an overinflated mortgage for the one home he hadn’t sold. And things hadn’t improved in the following four years—not for him, at least.
So here he sat. Résumé in binder, briefcase in hand, in a suit and tie and ready for yet another job interview. A once wealthy, independent trader, but now, just another forty-seven-year-old man over his head in bills.
Worse, the job market wasn’t friendly to people his age. Sure, ageism was illegal, but it was happening all over the country. Even Congress had taken on the problem, not that it did him any immediate good. Nor could he use that underground fact as an excuse to his banks. I’m an old man. They won’t let me work. Can you waive this bill?
Hell, this job was a godsend if he could land it.
Karma. What a bitch.
The inner door opened, and he glanced up from his shoes. A laughing woman backed through the door and closed it behind her, blocking his view of whatever was happening inside the office. She turned toward him and approached, her lips firming into a hard line as she did.
Ah hell. JoBeth.
He sent a desperate glance to the receptionist-slash-secretary, but her head, with its steel-gray helmet of hair, was turned toward her computer. He guessed he wouldn’t be invited inside the office soon enough to avoid an unpleasant encounter. Just another example of his life in the crapper: a plush job opportunity that shared hallways with JoBeth…who hated him.
Not without cause, he reminded himself for the hundredth time.
She stopped in front of him, blocking off any chance of escape. She didn’t look friendly. In fact, her green eyes flicked scornfully over him. God, was she going to slice into him here? Now?
“Look.” He kept his voice low in hopes of not being overheard by…Marge? “I really need this job. I can do this job and do it well. Please”—the word burned across his tongue—“don’t fuck it up for me.”
Her stare didn’t waver for a moment or two. Then, to his relief, she visibly relaxed. Not sociable, no, but she no longer radiated hostility.
“You’ll have the same chance as everyone else,” she said, “but Travis is no fool. He knows the business, and he knows people. You won’t be able to chump him. He sees through masks.”
Since he wasn’t sure what to say, he offered the only thing he could come up with. “Thanks.”
JoBeth searched for and located a business card, which she pulled out of her inner suit pocket. A pen arrived in her hand as if by magic, and she began to write something on the back of the card.
One of those compact pens. A pocket pen, he thought they were called, if he remembered right, which was probably where she stowed it when not in use.
“Save your thanks. You might not be as grateful as you think.” She clicked the pen closed and tucked it away, then held out the card to him. It bobbed in the air mere inches from his nose. He stared at it, hesitating as a shiver of something traced ghostly fingers across his nape.
“Take it or don’t,” she said, “but never say I didn’t try to help you.”
A cigarette-roughened voice intruded into their conversation. Jeremy turned toward it and spotted Marge standing beside the door of the master suite. She wore an expectant, slightly impatient expression.
“Mr. Wentwood will see you now,” she pronounced and opened one of the doors.
JoBeth raised her eyebrows over her pointed nose. The high-gloss business card gleamed in the florescent overhead lights. Marge frowned. Crossroads, he realized.
For God’s sake, do something!
He took the card and tucked it into his suit pocket. JoBeth stepped back from him, allowing him to collect his binder and briefcase and stand. The path between him and the guarded wooden door was cleared of impediments.
His Italian loafers swished almost soundlessly as he crossed the thick carpeting. The gargoyle standing at the entry offered a chilling, businesslike curl of her lips that tried to be a smile but broke on this side of a warning. When he came abreast of her, she preceded him into the office and stood with her back to the closed door.
“Mr. Wentwood?” she said to the figure inside the room. “This is Mr. Jeremy Roberson.”
He crossed the threshold.
TRAVIS LOOKED UP from his sideboard when he heard his door click closed. He turned and found Jeremy standing in the area vacated by his secretary. Jeremy examined the office and furnishings and he looked vaguely uncomfortable beneath his mask of professionalism.
He ran his own gaze across his interviewee and passed judgment on the visual presentation. It mattered in this business. Success, certainty, and confidence must be indicated at that all-important first glance.
Roberson made the cut. From the shiny, hand-sewn Italian shoes, the tailored suit fitted across his ample frame, the stickpin, exquisite silk tie to the business cut of his struggling hairline and manicured beard, he exuded solidity, trustworthiness, and competence. That was the persona he demanded of his employees to offset money anxieties, which were especially prevalent in this complex market.
Ultimately, though, one question crept into his mind and lodged there. Cuddly butterball? Unquestionably. Sweet?
That part of the equation had yet to be determined. If not, he’d sweeten him up soon enough.
Christ! Where the fuck did that come from?
He tossed back the shot of Wyborowa’s Exquisite Vodka—his guilty pleasure and, yes, JoBeth had unsettled him enough that he needed it—and exhaled his tension as it burned its way down his throat and into his stomach, where it started a pleasant bonfire.
A BDSM Master, he reminded himself.
A closeted gay man, JoBeth whispered in his memory.
He caught hold of his thoughts and sent a mental curse to JoBeth for fucking up his afternoon so royally. The man was here to interview for a job as one of his wealth management specialists, damn it, not as his plaything.
Travis set down the empty shot glass and crossed the room to extend his hand in greeting. “Mr. Roberson? Welcome. Please call me Travis.”
“Thank you, Travis. I’m Jeremy.”
They shook hands, and he couldn’t help but notice the lack of challenge in Jeremy’s grip. When their hands separated, Travis swept his toward his desk space and the comfortable chairs before it.
“Have a seat,” he offered. “Either chair is fine. Coffee? Tea? A soda? Water?”
“Thank you, no.”
Travis caught a hint of cologne as Jeremy moved past him on his way to the chair of choice. His dick twitched, causing him to set his back teeth and take a firm grip upon himself as he followed Jeremy across the room.
Information stormed him.
Nice shoulders. Good sweep of his back, strong and stable. There was a small waddle to Jeremy’s walk due to his thighs scraping together because of excess weight. But it didn’t detract from Travis’s appreciation. No sharp, bony edges to leave bruises or muscles to test his dominance. Jeremy’s frame and padding could take his strength and power as he surged into his ass. A cuddly butterball.
Just what he liked.
He bit his tongue and forced his thoughts back into line. Résumé. Job interview. Nothing more. Financial skills were the question and the need, not bedroom habits and certainly not the status of his gayness.
He needs help to do this before he hurts someone else like he hurt Annabel.
Résumé. Job interview.
He watched Jeremy take a seat and settled himself into his chair, pulling the résumé over in front of him as he did.
“So, let’s begin,” said Travis. “If chosen, what would you bring to this company?”
* * * *
The interview was as exhausting as it was long. Travis Wentwood knew what he wanted and how to reveal the true character of his applicants. He was neither impressed by nor fooled by industry buzzwords, or the inauthentic, unimaginative answers that sounded wondrous but said nothing. The way those beautiful—no, penetrating—
hazel eyes tightened at the corners every time he worked that game warned Jeremy away from cliché usage. So, after the third time he’d annoyed—no, tested the waters—
with those pat phrases, he chose to forego their use and let the interview continue organically. In the end, it was after five o’clock when the interview ended, and he felt emotionally naked and somewhat puny.
Travis stepped into the concluding ritual by asking, “Do you have any questions for me?”
Jeremy took a moment and thought about it. He’d done his research, both on the company and its owner. He’d memorized thought-provoking and hopefully impressive questions for days, as well as on the way over, but had a sinking feeling those manufactured bits of gloss would only return impatience to the expression of the man across the desk. He’d prefer not to have that as the final impression, all things considered.
“Why did you ask whether I would prefer a dog or a cat as a pet?” The moronic question fell from his mouth before he could stop it. Jeremy forced himself not to groan and brazened it out.
A grin edged up one side of Travis’s delicious—no, manly—
mouth. Humor chased through his eyes like a flash of sunlight on an overcast day.
“It tells me how you relate to your coworkers in an office environment,” he said.
Jeremy blinked and struggled to understand that answer. And failed. “Then why the question about guinea pigs?”
Travis wrapped those long, elegant—no, strong, competent—f
ingers of his around his coffee mug and lifted it to his mouth. He took a sip and swallowed, the muscles along his neck moving with a mesmerizing—nothing amazing; all is normal—
fluidity. He returned the mug to the desktop and wiped a napkin across his mouth before answering.
“I watched you think through that puzzle,” Travis said. “It educated me on your ability to work with the unexpected toward a harmonious goal.”
Should he stop now? Was he annoying the man again? Travis didn’t seem averse to answering questions…
“And the drawing assignment,” he asked, “with the accompanying story?”
He’d been startled by the request to draw an abstract picture using no established forms. No triangles, circles, or the like. However, he’d been as startled as the following request to narrate a story about the goofy swirls he’d made on a piece of printer paper. He’d probably fumbled that part of the interview, as well as the actual artwork requirement. He hadn’t expected the request. Who would?
For fuck’s sake, doodling at a job interview?
A wide smile warmed Travis’s expression and brightened the lighting of the late-afternoon sun. It eased him much more than the hints of humor that had edged into their conversation a time or two.
“One,” Travis said, as he held up his index finger, “it tests your creativity. Two”—his middle finger joined the first one—“it demonstrates your problem-solving. Both are necessary elements in this business and critical prerequisites for this office.” He paused, looking as though considering whether to continue, then did so.
“You did well, by the way. Much better than most applicants who sit across my desk. Impressive. Butterfly wings. Interesting.”
His cheeks went hot. “Uh…thank you.”
Then there was only the ending. Travis shook his hand and said, “We’ll be in touch,” and Jeremy’s reply of, “Thank you for the opportunity.” Followed by an escort to the inner doors. One was pulled open, the repeat of the surprisingly strong handshake, and the door clicked closed behind him.
Marge was gone for the day, her workstation dark and tidied. JoBeth, however, sat in a wing chair and watched his exit. She stood and walked past him toward the office, pausing to tap his pocket meaningfully as she passed. She didn’t do much more than rattle her fingernails on the surface before she slipped inside.
Jeremy clutched the business card in his hand while he exited the downtown tower. It wasn’t until he’d slipped into his car, locking it and starting the engine, that he succumbed to the urge and looked at the message.
She’d written the name of a bar, The Pirate’s Cove, and a note beneath: every Friday after 7.
The name registered in his mind, and he winced. The Cove was a well-respected and safe gay bar on the west side of town. Why would Travis go there every Friday after seven p.m.?
The answer arrived, and in that instant, everything changed.
Travis, respected businessman and business owner, was a gay-bar crawler on his leisure time.
A menacing voice roared in his memory.
He asked himself if it really mattered who Travis played headboard shuffle with on his free time. And if it did, then was it enough for him to reconsider working for the guy?
You’re just like them, you sick, sick freak!
He slammed the door on those memories and breathed through the sudden ball of tension in his stomach. Focus, he told himself. Papa Zeke, his brother’s father and his adopted curse, was halfway across the country, tucked comfortably in his corn-country casket and sleeping with his intolerance.
Did he, Jeremy, really care about Travis’s sexual orientation? No, he did not. He did, however, admire the man for his guts to live his life the way he wanted it. Jeremy was forever trying to live up to Zeke’s expectations. He was forever hearing the verbal abuse in his brain, snarling, snapping, and hating.
“Get hard, boy! Stop your damned crying!”
“Why can’t you let me be me, Papa Zeke? Why do you hate me so much?”
Jeremy struggled to regain his emotional balance. The interview. Had he screwed it up? He’d finally earned some semblance of respect from the old bastard but…now?
The Pirate’s Cove. A gay bar. JoBeth’s unexpected assistance. Would he let a drinking establishment block this golden opportunity? Papa Zeke would roar…
Fuck it, and fuck him. He’d go to The Cove.