If Tess didn't stop looking at him like that, Will was going to walk out.
He didn't want to go on the air tonight anyway. He had a headache. He needed a cigarette. And he sure as hell didn't feel qualified to dispense relationship advice when his own was...well, a disaster. There. He'd admitted it. Lyle Thomas was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Besides Brett, and Adrian, and oh-God-put-the-knife-down Yvan. His love life was one long fucking train wreck, and the tracks never ended.
He should know. He'd laid them himself. Was still laying them, every time he rolled over and took Lyle's increasingly brutal displays of tough love. His ass was still sore enough to ensure he'd do this show on his feet.
But Tess wasn't looking at his ass. She was looking at the bandage and the makeshift sling that supported his sprained left wrist. She was looking straight through his stupid excuses and directly at the ugly truth.
He couldn't look at her. “Are you going to give me the prod notes or not?”
“Sit down, Will.”
Her tone was soft, at once daring and heartbroken with concern. She knew he couldn't. He glared at her. “No, thanks. I'm in a hurry. Got a show to do, remember?”
“He hurt you. Again.”
“Don't insult me.”
He sucked in air through clenched teeth. “He didn't mean it, Tess.”
“Stop it! Stop making excuses for him. Will, you need to go to a hospital. And you need to leave that crazy-ass bastard before he kills you.”
“Hospital. Right.” She knew just as well as he did how pointless it would be. How did you hurt yourself, Mr. Ambrose? Oh, I fell off my bed. Yeah, into a couple of fists. Ha-ha, clumsy me. Let's just call the police--what's that? Oh, your boyfriend is a cop? Well, you should go home and tell him all about it, then.
Filling out a restraining order against a cop--especially Lyle--would only ensure him a nice, comfy spot in a cell. Or a cemetery.
Fuck it. Fire me if you want
. He pulled a half pack of smokes from his back pocket and winced at the resurgence of pain the slight contact caused.
“I saw that,” Tess whispered.
“Shut up.” Will managed to light up one-handed and deposited the rest of the pack on Tess's desk. “Look, just give me the notes, okay? Don't make me fall apart right before airtime. I'll do that after the show. We'll go out for drinks or something.”
A frown graced the corners of her mouth. “Promise? Because if you tell me you have to go home to him or else, I'm calling somebody, Will. I'm serious.”
“It's not like that. He's just...a little rough.” I think
. Lyle had insisted he didn't know how tight his grip had been when he threw him on the bed. He'd been appropriately apologetic, even tender, afterward. And Will--stupid, forgiving Will--accepted his advances, despite a cold suspicion that Lyle knew he'd pushed it and just didn't care. “I'm a grown-up,” he said to Tess, as much to remind himself as to reassure her. “Lyle is my partner, not my keeper. And if I want to go out and have a few with my slightly overconcerned friend, I can.”
He tried to crush a frisson of doubt with logic. They didn't have plans tonight. Lyle had just said he wanted to crash at Will's place because it was closer to work. He was probably asleep already. He hoped.
Tess laughed a little. “If I'm overconcerned, you haven't been smacked around enough.”
“Okay. You want to finish me off?”
“Will!” She colored prettily and pushed back from her desk. “Fine. We'll go out for drinks. But we're going to talk about you. No twisting the conversation to make me spill my guts so I'll forget about you spilling yours.”
He flashed an innocent expression. “I never do that.”
“Right. And I'm Oprah Winfrey.”
“Does that make me your fashion designer, or your cabana boy?”
“Get out there and do your show before I fire you, cabana boy.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Will tipped an imaginary hat, took the pages she fanned at him, and left her office before she could lapse back into mother mode.
He made the short trip down the hall to the studio without bumping into anyone and slipped inside. At least he wouldn't have to try explaining himself again to the rest of the staff. He'd managed to convince most of them that he'd taken up skateboarding, a story that covered the occasional bruise or scrape better than any tone of foundation. Tess knew the truth because she knew him.
Will switched on the midlevel lights and sighed. A wrinkled wrapper lay on the edge of the console, leaking crumbs everywhere. No doubt courtesy of Liza Jewel. She hosted Lovin' Ladies
in here from six to eight, and she always left some remnant of whatever excuse for dinner she'd grabbed at the corner store behind. And they said men were slobs.
He cleaned up the mess and glanced over the prod notes. They were brief--just his standard intro and a few lines inviting callers to phone in and spill their guts on the air. A couple of familiar riffs to fill gaps, if he had any. Open-question shows made things easier for him, since the callers did most of the talking. Sometimes Tess demonstrated moments of psychic foresight that astounded him, like tonight, when the last thing he wanted to do was struggle through a monologue and then defend his so-called expertise when the crazies started calling.
The ready light flashed a two-minute warning. Will queued the intro track, flipped three lines open, and jammed the cans on. He pushed the boom mic up a few inches to accommodate his standing position and shoved the stool away to prevent taking an unconscious seat during the show.
He passed two minutes not thinking about his throbbing wrist. When the on-air light came on, he rolled the intro, only half listening to the snippet he'd long since memorized, which started with a bass-infused beat and ended with a welcome to The Truth Will Out.
“And we're taking your calls tonight from all across the city.” Will jumped into the flow over the fading strains of exit music. All three lines lit within seconds. No fill tonight, then. “Whether you're gay or bi, curious or tri, I want your questions and confessions.”
Tess came through his ear. “Line one. A little sketchy, but try it.”
He held the kill switch, said, “Gotcha,” and opened the first line. “You're on the air. Question or confession?”
“I am?” A high-pitched and jumpy voice squeaked through the headset.
Will nudged the in-volume down to four. “Yes, you're on. Got something to say?”
“Oh. This is really Will Ambrose? I mean, I'm not talking to a recording...”
“No way, baby. I'm live and in person.” Will forced cheer into his tone and rolled his eyes. Live call shows always ran the risk of drag, since the callers couldn't be scripted or edited. This one seemed like a dud already. His finger hovered over the disconnect. “What'll it be, question or confession?”
“Sorry. Question.” The guy giggled. Someone shouted something in the background. “I saw your picture on the Web site, hot stuff. You available?”
Definitely a dud. He cut the call first, to preempt any wiseass retorts, and said, “Not for you, sweet cheeks. I'm a one-horse cowboy. But thanks for asking.” He switched over to Tess. “You called that one. Got any more winners?”
“Line three.” She was brisk, dismissive. “Sounds like he'll need a little coaxing.”
“Great.” He opened three. “Hey, you're on. Question or confession?”
Silence greeted him. Terrific. Two for two, and he'd been on all of sixty seconds.
He gave it one more shot. “Hello...anybody in there? You're on The Truth
, my friend. Question or confession?”
The husky, restrained voice sent a shiver through him. His radio instincts deemed this call golden, but his empathy cringed at letting it through. The man was in obvious pain.
“Go ahead,” Will almost whispered. “Unburden yourself. I'm listening.”
A shuddering breath, perfectly timed. He couldn't have scripted it better. “I pay men for sex.”
. Will practically heard a thousand listeners sitting up straighter. He could go a few different ways with this. Hoping to let the caller off the hook, he chose the lighter route. “Why's that, darlin'? You got a face made for radio?”
“If only. Attraction is not my problem. I've plenty of offers.”
A sliver of disgust chipped at Will's empathy. Another God's gift, center-of-the-club drama queen. “Maybe it's that oversized ego of yours. But hey, true love is only an insecure slob away. Try lowering your standards.”
He almost hung up before the caller said, “Men who love me get hurt.”
“What?” Something in the delivery tore him apart. He tried to stay professional, keep it on the easy track. “Do they get hurt, or do you hurt them? Bet you're a real heartbreaker.”
“I shouldn't have called.”
“Wait.” Will reflexively rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, man. You call me looking for comfort, and I tear you down. Let me confess something to you. I'm no Casanova myself, you know? So tell me your troubles.”
The hesitation was exquisite. “I can't.”
“Yes, you can. No one knows who you are, friend. Not even me.” He spoke gently, desperate to rectify his own goading. Ratings be damned. “Let it go. Don't punish yourself. Whatever happened to your lovers, I doubt it was your fault.”
“It is my fault,” the caller insisted. “I'm cursed.”
That was a new one. Will floundered for something sane to say. “You just haven't found Mr. Right yet. Trust me on this. There's a man out there waiting for you to save him from the big empty, and he won't charge you for it. Take your time.”
“Good-bye, Will.” A scant breath sketched the words. The caller hung up.
Tears pricked his eyes, and for a moment he forgot Tess, the show, the hotlines, even Lyle. The caller's tortured confession filled his being. Those final words had seemed so personal. He wanted to be the one he'd told the caller to look for--Mr. Right, true love, no charge. He wanted to be hurt, and healed, by the owner of that haunted voice. And to heal his doubt in return.
Will shook himself. It was just a call, and there were more waiting. On with the show.
* * * * *
Cobalt glowered at the lump of plastic in his hand. The damned phone mocked him with silence. Why had he called? Stupid, to believe a voice he found pleasing would bring him comfort or salvation. He would have neither.
“Don't punish yourself
.” Easy enough for Will Ambrose to say. But how could he not hold himself responsible? He'd driven two men to insanity and one to his death. A commitment to him spelled disaster. None of them were strong enough. None would ever be.
A knock at his door bled the contemplation from him. “Hey, Cobalt. Your nine o'clock's early. Want her to wait?”
“Yes. And tell her to buy a watch.” Cobalt smiled despite his lingering bitterness. Apprenticing Malik had been one of the few things he'd done right. Most shops had turned down the youth because of his age--a barely legal eighteen--but in just a few weeks Malik had become indispensable at the Grotto. He followed every rule, without question, no matter how bizarre it seemed. Of necessity, Cobalt set strange rules. He could not risk discovery.
“You got it.” Malik retreated into the shop.
Cobalt sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He hadn't planned to degrade himself with a whore tonight, but after his foolish indulgence in self-pity, he craved release. He reached for the phone.
He frowned. No one had his private number. Will?
Perhaps the radio host with the irresistible voice had lied about not knowing who he was--or at least where he was calling from. He debated not answering, but curiosity prompted him to pick up with a brusque “yes.”
“Ciaran. Have you found satisfaction?”
Cobalt closed his eyes against the needle of familiarity that lanced his belly. “I don't want to know how you found me. Leave me alone.”
“It was not difficult. These human devices are simple enough.”
He almost hung up then. After a decade of forgetting, contact with the Fae who had orchestrated his punishment after he'd left the bastard threatened to overload his senses. “What do you want?” he made himself say.
“Everything you denied me.”
“I'm banished, Eoghann. Is that not enough for you?”
“You know it is not.”
A shudder wormed through his core. He'd forgotten how cold Eoghann could be--his voice, his touch. Frigid as a winter wind. It took everything he had to reply, “My answer is the same. I won't be yours.”
“Ah, Ciaran.” The reproach in his tone was unmistakable. “Ten years submerged in human filth, and still you deny your place. How much further must you be punished?”
“I'll not play this game with you.”
“Things have changed. I have changed.” Eoghann's voice softened to a purr. “Let me come to you. Invite me inside.”
His heart stammered. How close was he? At least the Laws still held. No other Fae could enter the Grotto without an invitation from his lips. He would be safe. “No, Eoghann. I'll not see you. A thousand decades won't change my mind.” He clenched the phone so tight, he feared he'd break it. “Don't contact me again.”
He disconnected. An urge to destroy the device that had wounded him twice tonight came and left, and he dropped the phone on his desk. Eoghann
. Why now? After ten years, the Unseelie queen's consort should have found another lowborn wretch to amuse himself with. Perhaps he'd just been feeling nostalgic and another decade would pass before he bothered to torment him further. Time meant nothing in the Fae realm. And Eoghann was too shallow and self-absorbed to expend much effort in the pursuit of one worthless plaything when there were so many he could choose to break instead.
Regardless of his plans, Eoghann couldn't touch him as Cobalt. He'd realize that soon enough and give up wasting his time. Ciaran no longer existed.