LOVE & STITCHES at The Asylum Cover Reveal and Part One!

Happy October!

I hope everyone's doing well! Some of you may have heard about this in The Asylum Group but me and Tibby have been sneaky! lol

We have a new story for you just in time for Halloween!

And check out the gorgeous cover! The photo is credited to none other than Golden Czermak from Furious Fotog!

Here's another look, along with the blurb:


 

Blood, bruises, and a few broken bottles are on tap nightly at The Asylum. But if Jared McCleod is going to serve up the spookiest of all Halloween-themed birthdays for Wren Gibson, he’ll need more than run-of-the-mill mayhem.

Pulling off a surprise party under the nose of the club’s most in-the-know sub will take the assistance of all the Core members, and a little help from Mother Nature.

With a dash of carefully orchestrated chaos, a cache of costumes, and a setting out of Teen Scream XVI, everyone is guaranteed to have fun and come out in one piece…

As long as the past, or The Asylum’s ghosts, don’t come back to haunt them.


****

No more waiting, you can dive right in with Part One!

Happy Reading!




Another day in the Darwin Award mines.

Sterile gauze between two gloved fingers, a pair of tweezers in the other, Jared bent over the patient’s leg to pluck out another piece of gravel. The plink of the stone into the steel tray absorbed his attention, blocking out the sound of the teen’s cursing. Crying might have been preferable, but one couldn’t order patients like steak. At least not that he’d yet discovered in his nearly two-decade career.

“I don’t understand.” The mother, Brenda—or was it Kathy?—spoke from her perch on the plastic chair in the corner of the cramped exam room. “What could’ve possessed you to ride your bike off the garage roof?”

Ah, the age-old question. Was it genetics or coddling that produced stupid offspring? Jared encountered it at least once a day, and in his experience the problem only got worse not better with age. This patient?

I give a life expectancy of nineteen

“They should hire me to do actuarial tables,” he muttered to himself, plinking another stone into the tray. “Far more accurate.”

“Excuse me, old dude? What the fuck?” 

Correction. Fifteen.

Jared looked up, tempted to stuff gauze in the youngter’s first available orifice. His hand twitched, but somehow didn’t make the journey. Too much self control. Not enough whiskey.

“Bizzy!” His bellow made the kid jump three inches off the table. 

“I’m right here, Jared. You don’t have to shout.” Seth’s voice came from close behind him, far too steady and unperturbed.

I can fix that.

Gaze narrowed, Jared met his one-time friend’s sharp blue eyes. “You’re enjoying this.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” 

If only he were my sub..

Tilting his head, he recalled a fact that sometimes eluded him. He was the boss here. He owned one-hundred percent of the goddamn place. Which made Seth as good as his sub. While he couldn’t beat him, he could make him work overtime.

“Well, in that case, who am I to deny your pleasure?” Stripping off his gloves, instruments in the tray with a satisfying clatter, Jared made an executive decision Lawson himself wouldn’t be able to outdo. “Take over. I’m going home.”

No need to see Seth’s face to know he was being silently cursed out in several languages. The man had a way of conveying every ounce of his ire from pure presence alone. It was something Jared had found attractive, intriguing even...once. Maybe twice. Now it was merely entertaining.

Gloves off, he was free to soothe away the itch from the new beard growth along his jaw. The rasp of the stubble abraded his fingertips, a feeling he hadn’t indulged since he and Rhodey had been in their late teens. Of course, the effect back then hadn’t been nearly as satisfying.

Stepping past his office, he leaned in to grab his briefcase, noting his PA had left for the day. Seth would be on his own until eight when the clinic closed. Only the desk clerk to field the phones and files, as well as a waiting room full of crying, bleeding, humanity.

Yes. He pulled on his coat, adjusting his hold on the case’s leather handle. It’s good to be in charge. 

Outside, the air held fall’s brisk bite. Tendrils of fog slipped through the almost bare tree branches, the sun low in the sky. Running over the evening’s schedule in his mind, he barely noticed the short walk to The Asylum’s back gate. It was Wednesday, so a quiet night. Quint would be on cuts-and-bruises duty. Unless someone had called in sick, that would leave Jared free to spend the evening with Wren.

At the thought of his boy, his lips lifted. Perhaps tonight he’d be able to wrangle out of him what he’d like for his birthday. Though Jared had made previous attempts, Wren seemed especially preoccupied with whether his Dom had known his birthdate, and relating that his Aunt hadn’t thought it worth celebrating—a ritual retelling that they went through every year when Wren didn’t recall having celebrated the event the year before. Approaching the conversation when they had quiet time together would be best, so there would be no distractions. 

Perhaps this year they’d make more of an occasion of it so his boy would be able to recall it for decades to come. The idea putting a spring in his step, Jared rounded the corner of The Asylum’s sturdy brick exterior. Yes, he could get the entire core involved, and do something more than the quiet cigar and brandy celebration followed by a play session in the dungeon. He didn’t know exactly what yet—planning a cocktail party or other events he’d always left up to a few of the club’s particularly trusted service subs back in the day. It had been cold, impersonal, and exactly the way he’d liked it. Then.

Now... I have family. 

The Asylum’s front door buzzed then clicked, admitting him, and the scent of sugar and bourbon drifted out. Tobacco’s earthy sweetness wafted around the cigar lounge’s closed door. Jared’s fingers curled as if they already held the meaty length of a fat Cuban.

NoDr. Freud. Don’t get excited. It’s just a cigar.

He chuffed at the internal humor, bringing the attention of the bar’s occupants to him. A few spun back around as soon as they saw him, and he mentally congratulated them on their good sense. 

A flash of silver and orange fabric at the bar alerted him to Reed, Curtis leaning over to give his boy a slow kiss. The two had been doing much better lately. Satisfaction and the sense of rightness made Jared’s gaze linger there, drinking in the way Reed’s eyes took on the soft glow of happiness that never failed to materialize with his Dom’s attention.

On the stool to Reed’s left, back to the bartop, Jacks sat with his knees spread to accommodate his sub between. Soft brown hair rumpled around his face, cheeks a bit too sallow, Danny shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, trying to hold still as his Dom attempted to tie a complicated piece of leather costuming to his head. Resembling the antlers on the beleaguered dog in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the getup was more than an animal—or sub—should have to endure.

Behind the bar, Rhodey caught his eye, and Jared allowed himself the barest hint of an eye roll that needed no interpretation. Those damned baby Doms would be the death of Danny, and the only reason they were tolerated was because for some reason they made the sub ridiculously happy. 

But the moment that ceases

“Sir!” Danny started forward, as though he’d been torn from whatever zone Jacks was trying to get him into the second he spotted Jared. Then he stilled, chewing on his bottom lip. “Uh... Can I have a moment, sir? I know I’m not supposed to call him for no good reason, but this is a good reason and he’s right here.”

Jacks smoothed his hands down Danny’s slender shoulders, the worried pull to his brow registering as one-hundred-percent frustrated costume designer and zero-percent perceptive Dom. “I don’t understand why the snap won’t snap.” He gave it another tug, the strip of leather threatening to throttle his boy, and Danny made a little gurgling sound. “It fit at home. What did you eat? Are you having an allergic reaction to something? You can’t have gained weight since we were upstairs.”

Eyes narrowing, Rhodey wrapped his hand around the neck of a whiskey bottle, looking like he very much wished it was Jacks’ throat.

Lips parting, Danny shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir? But maybe I’m bloated. Shea made me eat a whole half a burger. But maybe you can reason with him? Is he still bleeding? He shouldn’t put his finger in his mouth, it’s going to get infected and that can cause...some kind of damage. Wren showed me a picture. Is his skin black yet?”

Necrotizing fasciitis was the least thing the two Doms would have to worry about if Rhodey actually broke the whiskey bottle he still held and decided to sever an artery with it. Weaving around a few tables, Jared stepped up to the unfolding drama and rested his briefcase on the floor against the bar.

“The strap—and your brain—are twisted.” Reaching out, Jared plucked the leather from Jacks’ fingers, put it to rights, and fastened it smoothly as he leaned down to claim a quick kiss from Danny’s lips to distract him from counting calories. “Hello, my boy.”

Sucking in a breath, Danny gazed up at him as though unsure if he was hallucinating. “Sir? Jared? I shouldn’t have touched those nuts. Now I know why Quint won’t let Pike eat them. They have something in them, don’t they? I might be dehydrated, too. Also...hello, sir.”

“Well, if that’s how my attention makes you feel, I must not have Rhodey’s touch.” Jared teased, winking at Jacks’ and Shea’s boy. “Now that I’ve done my exam and established there’s nothing wrong with you—at all—tell me what’s wrong with your other Dom. That I don’t already know about.”

“So many things.” Rhodey’s tone was gruff as he glanced at Shea, who was on the phone and bleeding on a stack of papers that looked like they’d been pulled out of a trash can. His mood visibly lifted a bit as he leaned across the bar to where Pike was eating some fries and chugging a bottle of beer. “I’ll make you a bet. Your cousin can match me for a respectable amount of shots. Let’s see if it runs in the family.”

Pike cocked his head, reaching out for the nuts Quint usually jerked out of reach, taking full advantage of his co-sub’s absence as he stuffed a handful in his mouth. The flush to his cheeks made it obvious the beer he’d finished hadn’t been his first. He jumped off his stool and tripped a few steps away from the bar. “I gotta hit the little boy’s room, but then bring it, my dude. It’s blood deep, I can take whatever you throw at me.”

 “No alcohol poisonings tonight, if you don’t mind, merc.” Jared spared Rhodey a glance. 

Rhodey’s brow lifted slightly as he lined up a dozen shot glasses. “If I wanted to poison him, I’d call Keiran over. My boy needs to keep himself sharp.” He tipped the whiskey bottle, pouring it in a long stream to fill all the glasses. “I’m sub-sitting.”

“Some days I think we should trade jobs.” Bringing Danny with him toward Shea, Jared shook his head. “I’d love to see you handle a teen who likes to ride his BMX off garage roofs.”

That made Rhodey snort. “My son isn’t an idiot. Also, when I suggested he try it off the barn just to test it, Tracey almost punched me in the mouth. Poor Todd made himself scarce. He might still be hiding.”

Jared smirked. Todd had been well hooked before he’d met the rest of the Asylum crew. Otherwise, the poor man wouldn’t have lasted a week. A wise tactic on Tracey’s part. They’d each of them had fun chasing off her various suitors over the years. To be fair, none of them had been good enough for her, and she already had a club full of men to do the heavy lifting around the farm.

Why complicate matters?

Finally done sucking oxygen from Reed’s lungs, Curtis lifted his head. His boy’s face was flushed, eyes glazed. Curtis’ heavy lidded stare broke with obvious reluctance from Reed’s to scan the room. He flicked past Jared, then darted back.

“Reed, if Jared tells you he has a locked room you’re not supposed to go into, believe him.” A saucy grin tipped up one corner of Curtis’ mouth, his chin resting on his hand. “Though he might have to borrow Pike’s hair dye. Graybeard  doesn’t have as much cachet as Bluebeard.”

Shooting Curtis a dirty look, Danny lifted his hand to Jared’s face, trailing his fingers lightly over his chin, then along his jaw. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir. And neither do you. Jared looks dignified. Some people comment like that when they’re jealous. It’s okay, my beard would be patchy and make me look like a teenager trying too hard too.”

Curtis straightened, the vee at the bridge of his nose appearing. “Why would I be jealous because you can’t grow a beard, little mongrel?”

“I think he needs that translated, Jared.” Rhodey gave Curtis a level look. “Careful, mob rat. Your own size right here.”

“You’re joking, right?” Danny snugged to his side, Jared took Curtis’ measure. “I’ve seen you both naked.”

Blowing out a breath, Reed pulled himself up and put his hands over Curtis’ ears. “Will you two—you three—cut the ish? He’s only grown a beard one time and not by choice. And if Danny can’t take it, he shouldn’t make a real sideways attempt to dish it.” His gaze locked with Danny’s. “You get one pass. Tread carefully.”

“He was insulting Jared.” Danny hiked up his chin. “Where are your loyalties?”

“With my fiancĂ©.”

Good to know. 

Not that Jared found Reed’s loyalties surprising. Though this was more of a joke than an argument, things at The Asylum could heat up quickly and Reed should know that more than anyone. If Curtis threw sparks hoping to start a fire, nine times out of ten the thing caught and nearly brought down the building with it. 

“Okay, but…” Danny bit hard into his bottom lip and dropped his gaze. “Nevermind.”

Lowering his mouth to Danny’s ear, Jared whispered for him alone. “Thank you for defending me when my own boy wouldn’t, Danny. Curtis is trying to start trouble. Let’s ignore him.”

“Yes, sir.” Danny turned a bit, burying his face into Jared’s chest in the way that always made his heart turn startlingly gooey. “Jamie used to always tell me to do that with Trevor, but I was really bad at it. He ruined Twinkies for me.”

“Who?” Leaning back a bit, Jared scowled. “Jamie ruined Twinkies for you? How?”

Eyes going wide, Danny  quickly shook his head. “No way! Trevor did. He would read out the ingredients and the calories and I would hear him whenever Jamie snuck them into our room. Trevor’d say with how easy I gained weight I wouldn’t fit into any of the custom stuff and my dad would have to replace it all. It made me feel sick.”

Jared’s gut twisted with anger, his blood pressure skyrocketing so the vein at his temple throbbed. He took a deep, calming breath and closed his eyes as he let it out. Focused on Danny again, he tipped the sub’s chin up with two fingers to look him in the eyes. Two clear pools—one green and one blue—sheened from memory’s sting, stared up at him like he held the secrets of the world.

“Trevor’s medical file came across my desk while he was in town. Let’s just say, without releasing personal information to you, that anyone as ugly as that on the outside is equally ugly on the inside.” Jared worked his jaw side to side. “You know what? To hell with patient confidentiality. He takes supplements to rev his metabolism, and they’re eating that little black heart right out of his body. He’d be better off eating a Twinkie.”

Shock spilled over Danny’s face as he absorbed Jared’s words. He swallowed hard, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. “Is he going to be okay?”

Let’s hope not.

Keeping his feelings to himself, because they’d only hurt Danny’s sensitive soul, Jared pretended to weigh the information. “If he stops taking them before he’s much older, perhaps, but he’s been on them since you were in your mid-teens. It takes a toll on both the body and the mind.”

“I didn’t know… That explains a lot, though. I should be nicer when I think about him, it’s not his fault.” Danny frowned, glancing toward Curtis. “And he probably has reasons for saying mean things, too. I should apologize.”

“Don’t you dare.” Jared tapped Danny on the nose, speaking plainly. “I’ve known people who were terminally ill who behaved all the better because they had empathy. It doesn’t matter what life hands you. If you can’t be kind, then you’re bringing more misery on yourself and those around you. Nobody needs to put up with that kind of crap from anyone. No matter the reason.”

Danny seemed unsure, but he nodded, smiling a little as he touched Jared’s beard again. “Either way, I really like it. You look very handsome, sir. I bet he thinks so, but he doesn’t know how to say it. Like a little boy tugging a girl’s hair that he likes because he was taught all the wrong things.”

“Thank you, my little Despereaux. And I think you’re right.” Winking, Jared lowered his voice again. “Reed has enough troubles without both me and Lawson Domming his Dom.”

Another nod, Danny ducking his head and stifling a giggle. “Yes, sir. You definitely shouldn’t spank Curtis for being rude.”

Jared’s answering bark of laughter carried across the bar, his head tossed back so he saw Avery lounging above listening to every word he and Danny said. Wiping the mirth from his eyes, Jared studied the sub’s face. A flash of metal showed him twirling a couple of darts, a question in his gaze, along with a spark of mischief.

“Don’t tempt me, my boy.” Jared slid his gaze to Curtis, who smirked in his direction, clearly full of Loki that evening. “I’ll send you to Lawson if I need to.” He shook his finger at the man with mock sternness to lighten the mood. “Straighten out.” Years ago, he would’ve taken a more detached approach, but he knew this man. And the last thing he wanted was for him to regress. They’d all come so far.

Curtis flushed to the roots of his blond hair, despite Jared’s playful tone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Bracing both his hands on the bar, Rhodey caught Curtis’ eye. “I don’t have your Dom’s need to protect your status. If you want to play, I’m game. Or you can apologize to Jared, who deserves your respect. And Danny, who you’ve put through more than enough—” He made a sharp motion at Reed when he opened his mouth. “—quiet, Tinker Bell, I’m making a list. And me, because I was in a good mood. Since you amuse me sometimes, mobby boy, I won’t make you do it on your knees.”

“Oh hell.” Jared watched Curtis’ flush darken to a mottled purple, praying the man saw sense, and deciding to stay out of it. The man tended to react poorly when he felt ganged up on. 

“You want an apology from me, you’ll get it the way anyone else here does.” Curtis nodded at the fight book, murder in his eyes like Jared hadn’t seen since his early days with Noah. “In the ring.”

“And there we go…” Palming his face, Jared shook his head, wondering if he should send Danny over to Jacks, who surfed his phone, oblivious. Hopefully these two fools would sort themselves out without adding new scars.

Or the entire liquor supply needing to be cleaned up. And replaced. Again.

Rhodey snorted, pushing away from the bar. “No, I don’t want it bad enough to put on a show in your little circus. But thank you. Love seeing how much you’ve all grown. And how little.”

“That’s what I thought.” Curtis leaned back on his stool, turning his attention to Jared. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Jared. The beard looks great. I didn’t realize it was a sensitive subject.” His gaze flicked to Danny. “You’re fine. Nice work sticking up for your friend.”

Shifting uncomfortably, Danny stared down at his sneakers. “Thank you, sir. And...maybe it’s not a sensitive subject to Jared. Probably not, he’s strong and confident and very powerful. But I...don’t like it when people say mean things about looks because...because it’s something someone used to do to me and Jamie a lot. So please try not to?”

There were so many openings in Danny’s honest, heartfelt statement, that Jared didn’t know how Curtis could possibly avoid taking one and running with it. If he did, God help him, Jared swore he’d unleash the dogs of war on the man’s ass. Along with giving Rhodey’s sub permission to do the same. 

After several long moments during which he might’ve searched his ass for his brain, Curtis, inhaling deep, licked his teeth in a fair imitation of Lawson. “I’m sorry, Danny. I was joking with Jared, but I can see how it came off wrong. Thanks for letting me know.”

“You’re welcome, sir.” Danny rubbed his hands on the oversized sweater he was wearing, bringing his gaze back to Jared. “Things are weird now.”

“Then we must be home?” Jared gave Curtis an approving nod, then resumed the original topic. “Now, tell me what’s going on? Knife fight?” He stood to one side of Shea, Danny tucked under his arm, and spoke in a mock-hushed tone. “Or did you bite your Dom again while you were in pupspace?”

Paling a little as he watched Shea put his finger in his mouth again, talking around it to whoever was on the phone, Danny shook his head. “I think there may be razors attached to the receipts, sir. I didn’t know those could be booby-trapped, but I knew something would go wrong when Shea brought extra work home with him. I’ll know to expect this next time.”

A quick examination of the paper pile, which was clipped together with a sturdy black binder clip that had a jagged strip of unfiled metal protruding off one side, revealed the likely culprit. His mental scan of Shea’s file turned up a need for a tetanus shot in addition to the minor first-aid. “Nothing a butterfly bandage and some disinfectant won’t fix, my little Despereaux.”

“Thank you, sir.” Danny reached out and tugged on Shea’s sleeve. “Sir, could you call Connor back?”

Holding up his bloody finger in a ‘wait a second’ gesture, Shea mumbled something into the phone, then met Danny’s eyes. “Tell Jacks I don’t know where the fucking biscuits are and if he didn’t keep everything in seperate damn bags to match his outfits, he wouldn’t lose half your shit. I’ll be there in a bit, I’ve gotta finish this…” He sighed, turning his attention to the phone again. “No, I didn’t let them pay under the table, but I left the damn papers in your truck. Look again.”

“Danny, love?” Spinning the sub gently around, Jared sent him toward Rhodey. It would be better if the boy was out of range when he killed his other two Doms. “Go tell Rhodey I asked him to babysit you too. We’re opening a daycare, a doggy one. And he’s not to feed you alcohol. Or anything Stephan wouldn’t approve of.”

Not moving a muscle until Jared had finished his instructions, Danny gave a sharp nod and scampered over to Rhodey, likely relaying every word, from Rhodey’s chuckle. Patting Danny’s head, Rhodey reached over the bar, snatching his toy bag from Jacks. He took out his play collar, putting it around his neck before glancing up and snapping his fingers.

Avery dropped from the rafters in front of his Dom in a liquid glide. “Sir?”

“You’re going to play with our puppy, my little viper. See if Keiran’s got any of those special treats tucked away in the galley.” Rhodey motioned for Danny to sit, which had the sub disappearing behind the bar. “Toss his ball for him, he gets a treat every time he manages to trip someone.”

Already halfway to the galley, Avery pivoted to scoop up Danny’s ball. “C’mon, boy.” He whistled, patting his thigh, the glow of warm affection in his eyes showing the task was no hardship. “Let’s get those treats and then we’ll play.”

Trampling after Avery like a puppy who still hadn’t grown into his paws, Danny let out a happy yip. Rhodey’s methods might leave much to be desired, but he’d adapted to handling a more fragile sub better than expected.

“Maybe that’s where they got the new pale ale.” A sub with delicate features and russet brown hair snickered, head together with his companion in a booth by the window. “Tastes like dog piss.”

Jared gritted his teeth. One problem at a time.

“Shea?” Plucking the phone out of the Dom’s hand, Jared disconnected the call. “If you ever disrespect your boy in front of the rest of this club again, I’ll take him away from you and have Lawson kick your ass out of here.” He waggled the phone in Shea’s face. “Nothing, I repeat nothing, is more important than him.”

Lips parting, Shea looked toward the galley, then to where Jacks stood, finally meeting Jared’s eyes. He sat a bit straighter, nodding slowly. “You’re right, I’m sorry, my man. I got all wrapped up in work and I’m not being as careful as I should be. I know how upset he gets when we hurt ourselves, even if we don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Not releasing his stare until Shea felt its full weight, Jared nodded once. “Clean up your language. Swear all you want at Jacks. He tempts me at times. Never at your sub.”

“Hey…” Jacks ran a hand through his golden brown waves, looking around the bar. “Where’s Danny?”

That got Jacks a cold look from Rhodey. “I sold him to the fucking circus. What did I tell you two about not keeping track of him? Serve you right if I make sure you can’t find him for a damn month.”

“Jared had him.” That absolutely wasn’t a whine in Jacks’ tone. “I was fixing his—” A strip of braided leather that looked suspiciously like a cock cage dangled loosely from two of his fingers. “—muzzle.”

Choking on his shot to the point that Rhodey came around the bar to pat his back—and possibly leave a hand-sized bruise Seth would not be pleased with—Pike stared at Jacks like he’d lost his mind. “You’re putting a muzzle on Danny? Dude, why?”

“We’d talked about an evil witch rescue scene and every evil witch needs a torture device.” Jacks shrugged, frowning at the sad piece of costuming. “It seemed better than what I’d originally intended it for?”

Jared opened his mouth, then closed it again, looking at Rhodey. What temperatures would be required to incinerate both leather and metal? Would it be advisable to attempt in the bar? 

“If you’re going hardcore on that boy to try to keep up with me?” Rhodey snatched the muzzle from Jacks and tossed it over his shoulder, hitting a random member in the head. He moved in, close enough to force Jacks to tip his head back to hold his gaze. His tone was sharp. “Don’t. He enjoys your fun roleplaying. The lighter shit. Do that.”

The Dom who’d gotten clocked with the cock-muzzle—as Jared rapidly came to think of the piece of leather—looked it over with interest. He held it up. “Hey? How much?”

Glancing between Rhodey and the man, Jacks shrugged. “Twenty-five bucks to cover the cost of the leather?”

At the end of the bar in his usual spot, Curtis observed the goings on, Reed on his lap. “Someone has a chafing fetish.”

“Shea.” Jared motioned to the man, who’d gone silent. For once. “Go to the clinic. Let Quint take care of you.” The message was clear: Get while the getting is good. “And you need a tetanus shot.”

Shea groaned as he pushed to his feet, but he didn’t argue. Fisting his hand in his shirt to stanch the blood, he patted Jacks on the shoulder as he passed his partner. “He’s in the galley with Avery. I won’t be long, then we can...find something to do with him that’s more...us.”

“Sure. Sorry.” Jacks cleared his throat. “It just seemed like he liked it, so I thought I needed to—” A sidelong and wary glance at Rhodey had his green eyes catching the overhead light and turning a brilliant shade of emerald. “—make sure he didn’t get bored with the same-old same-old.”

The door to the galley opened, steam and the scent of roast beef and potatoes wafting out. Avery’s sharp whistle preceded the toss of a ball that whizzed past Shea’s ear and bounced off the door to the cigar lounge. The rebound had several members ducking, and another few placing bets on who’d get tripped first.

Bounding after the ball, Danny barked at it, and at any members in his path. His whole body wiggled as he jumped after the ball, trying to catch it in his mouth. When he got a good grip on it, he crawled back to Avery, dodging the other sub a few times before letting him take it for another throw.

Rhodey gave Jacks and Shea a level look. “Does he seem bored? Don’t reinvent the fucking wheel. Use your damn heads.” He patted Pike’s shoulder, then pointed at the shot glasses. “You had a head start. Keep going.”

The music in the bar amped up a notch, the sound system automatically timed to increase the volume until the bass beat vibrated the liquid in the glasses on the bar. It would go down again once the night wound to a close. Until then, the lowering lights and a heavier crowd than normal for a Wednesday would create a party atmosphere some seemed to enjoy.

Gaze narrowed, Jared spoke for Rhodey’s ears alone. “What are you up to, merc?”

The attempt to appear innocent was strange on Rhodey’s face, and he didn’t bother with it for long. Grabbing another shot glass, he clinked it to Pike’s before tossing it back. “Making friends. Aren’t you proud of me? I’m sure Quint will be relieved his little pet was taken such good care of.”

Sometimes it was difficult to tell if Rhodey acted out of malice, a need to test loyalties, or to get across some twisted point only he knew about or understood. “Just see that you’re not hurting someone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt in the process. The boy is just that. A boy.”

“He’ll live. I like him now.” Rhodey ruffled Pike’s hair, then went back around the bar as the orders were shouted a little louder. Not that Rhodey acknowledged a single one. Everyone was getting either beer or tequila. When one member asked a question, Rhodey frowned at him. “Lemons? Does this look like a fucking fruit store? Next!”

Crossing to Curtis’s side, Jared planted a surprise kiss on Reed’s cheek, enjoying the scent of candy and powder that drifted around him like a cloud. “Mhm. Someone had a bath. Bubbles or no bubbles?”

“Always bubbles, sir. It’s not a real bath without them, just a tub full of depression.” Reed adjusted a bit on Curtis’s lap, giving Pike a look that held a bit of amazement and maybe some envy. “He’s gonna regret that and I won’t be able to challenge him when I can finally drink again.” Sighing, he slumped his head forward onto Jared’s shoulder. “I could kill for some fireball. Or one of Matt’s candy apple martinis. Or a blowjob.”

Curtis snorted, one side of his mouth tipping up in a way that emphasized his knife scar but did nothing to detract from his good looks. “Rhodey, my man?” He raised his voice above the din, and Jared wrapped an arm around Reed’s shoulders to caress his back. “Shot of fireball, if you please?”

“Curtis…” Jared growled the man’s name.

“Don’t worry, Doc. I got this.” Curtis’s reassuring wink wasn’t all that reassuring.

Halfway between uncapping a few bottles for waiting members, Rhodey abandoned them, going to the back bar, his gaze scanning it for a moment before he snagged the bottle. He came over and poured the shot for Curtis. “Here you go. I’m taking my break.” He arched a brow at those closest waiting for their drinks, cutting off their groans. “Five fucking minutes. Call it edging.”

Shot to his lips, Curtis blew out a laugh. Whiskey spattered in a neat arc over the top of the bar, but he quickly downed the alcohol and ignored the mess on the glossy surface in favor of taking Reed’s face between his palms and giving him a long, deep kiss.

“Mmm.” Reed licked Curtis’s lips, letting out a sigh of pleasure. “I think I like it better this way. Can I have a blowjob too? I mean the drink, but my gratitude will so be the real thing.”

“Hmm.” Still stroking Reed’s cheekbones with the pads of his thumbs, Curtis tilted his head. “I mean, I don’t think I have the guts to ask Rhodey for a blowjob, but—” He cast Jared a sidelong glance. “—rumor has it he wouldn’t mind the request coming from you.”

At that moment, Danny’s red rubber ball whizzed past Jared’s head, impacting a few of the top-shelf bottles. One of the subs who’d complained about the pale ale stood on the table doing a fist bump with his companion. “Rim shot!”

“Shit.” Dropping the shot he’d been taking with Pike, Rhodey swooped down to grab Danny before he could bolt into the broken glass. As he straightened with the sub in his arms, his glare snapped to the one who’d thrown the ball. “Avery. Deal with that. Don’t kill him.”

Jared stepped between Avery and the table. “I’ve got this, Kaa.” Referencing the Jungle Book snake, he pressed Avery back with two fingers, then rounded on the subs. “Both of you.” He pointed between them. “Lawson’s office. Now. Tell him to review your membership. You’re on probation and not allowed in the club without an attending Dom member for six weeks.”

Hopping off the table, the sub hiccoughed up at him. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t aim right.”

“No,” his smaller companion said with all the seriousness a drunk sub could affect. “You threw it left.”

“Go.” Jared pointed toward the door. “And tell him what you did.”

The subs tumbled after each other like the wobbly toys he vaguely remembered one of his foster brothers carrying everywhere until Rhodey decided to take a look inside to see what made them stand upright. Jared had been the attending surgeon. Their surgical instrument, a hammer. 

“Okay, my little pup. You can go back to playing in a minute.” Rhodey huffed out a laugh as Danny wiggled and licked his cheek, then handed him right over the bar to Jacks. “Don’t put him down until I deal with the glass. Avery, serve these impatient fucks before I start stuffing shot glasses right down their throats.”

Using the beams as a walkway to get over rather than through the crowd, Avery dropped down behind the bar for the second time that night and began pouring drinks. Jared looked around the bar, wondering where his own little raven might’ve gotten to. 

“The ball got away from me, sir.” Avery admitted, in his own kind of apology without saying the word Rhodey hated most. “It won’t happen again.”

“I know.” Rhodey swept up the glass, scowling at the floor like its inability to become instantly spotless was a personal insult. “We don’t usually have to deal with unexpected idiots, but keep an eye out for them. If he can’t play because of their bullshit, I’m going to have Keiran bake them a pie.”

If Jared didn’t know how big Rhodey’s cock actually was, he’d have said the overcompensation was compensating for something. He also knew the man protected his own with a ferocity of someone who’d had very few loyal friends or a family to call his own for the better part of a lifetime.

“I’ve got this.”  Coming up behind Rhodey, Jared gently took the broom and dustpan from him. “Get back to pissing off Quint. You’re shirking on the babysitting.”

Rhodey chuckled, bumping lightly against Jared’s side as he looked to where Pike was having what sounded like a very drunken conversation with Reed, Reed nodding at him indulgently, swirling his finger in Curtis’s empty shot glass and licking his fingertip. Picking up the fireball, Rhodey tipped it in Jared’s direction. “Can’t have that.” He refilled the line of shot glasses in front of Pike. “How about we switch things up and have a few in Reed’s honor.”

“Yes!” Pike almost tipped off his stool as he faced the shot glasses, raising one high and spilling half over his hand. “To Reed!”

Glass clinked, some rounder pieces rolling away from the broom as Jared crouched behind the bar to clean up. At least only two bottles—one being Lawson’s last of bourbon—had broken. Things were quieter behind the bar, down this low, and he saw what Danny found appealing about the space under the bottom shelf of the el. 

Usually, by now, Wren came down to greet him and to take his briefcase upstairs if they didn’t go up together. Frowning, Jared peered over the top of the bar, then walked around it before returning to look behind and under it. “Rhodey, did you put my briefcase somewhere?”

“Because I plan to moonlight as a doctor?” Rhodey shot him an amused look, pouring his share of the fireball whiskey into the sink and switching it for his usual. “I don’t think I have the temperament, my man.”

Not replying, Jared straightened, gaze flitting over each of the members and the tables. None held his black satchel with its leather handle. He bent down to look under the bar again, upending the carefully folded bar towels and moving about the lined-up boxes of straws and napkins. He stood again. “Has Wren been down here?”

“He’s in the cigar lounge with Matt.” Rhodey braced his hip against the side of the bar, his brow furrowing slightly. “You know I’d make sure he’s safe.”

“Yes.” A sick feeling in his stomach, Jared tried to remember how many times the front door had opened and closed since he’d walked in, but couldn’t recall. He leaned the broom against the bar and made for the cigar lounge. “Check on Seth.”

The mention of his Dom seemed to have Pike sobering a little. He stumbled off his stool. “I’ll go get him, sir.”

Making a frustrated sound in the back of his throat, Jared pointed at Curtis. “Do something useful.”

“Aye aye.” Standing, Curtis set Reed on the stool. “Time to swab the deck. It’s a pirate’s life for me.”

“I meant Pike.” This time, Jared did roll his eyes. It was an uncomfortable sensation, and one that tended to irritate him more than Curtis’s puns on a Sunday morning. “He doesn’t leave the bar.”

Curtis slung an arm sloppily around Pike, making Jared realize he had been watching after his cousin in his own way by sneaking shots when Rhodey wasn’t looking. “C’mon, Smeed. You’re with me.”

“Ho boy.” Reed shook his head, then gave Jared a little smile. “Don’t worry, sir, I’ve got ‘em. Guess there’s some benefits to not being able to drink.” He slipped off the stool, ducking down to catch both Pike and Curtis’s gazes. “I don’t know if you can smell it, but the roast beef is ready. Wanna try a few bites? Keiran talked me through it.”

Leaving the bar and the core to sort itself out, Jared rushed to the cigar lounge, pushing open the door a little too hard so it banged against the wall. “Wren?”

“Yes, sir?” Looking a bit startled, Wren didn’t jump, but he quickly grabbed the cigar Matt had dropped before it could roll off the table. “Am I late? I didn’t think I was on the schedule tonight...I should double check.”

Heart settling back into its normal rhythm, Jared shook his head and attempted a smile for Wren. “No, love.” He briefly met Matt’s concerned gaze. “I need you to both stay in here and lock the door from the inside. It’s probably nothing, but I want to be safe. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Matt’s “Yes, sir,” followed a surprised blink that would’ve been more noticeable even a year ago. “I’ve got this.”

“Thank you.” Backing out, Jared gave Wren a reassuring smile before he shut the door and returned to Rhodey’s side and spoke low. “My cell phone. I had some trouble with it and had to take the passcode off this morning. It wasn’t working. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it was inside my briefcase...”

Rhodey inclined his head, beckoning Avery over and putting an arm around him. “Go bring Wren what he needs to double check the system, I’m going to go get Keiran and Dallas. Stay alert.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll grab the spare tablet.” Avery slipped away, up into the rafters, using the shortcut to the security room.

Jared pulled his palm over his face, breathing deep. “I’m an idiot.”

“Only when you say stupid shit like that.” Rhodey patted his shoulder, snapping the  fingers of his other hand at Jacks. “Come keep these people bearable with a few drinks. Danny can stay in the galley with Reed, he’ll keep a good eye on him.”

Around the back of the bar, Jacks started to pull down a glass, then cried out in pain. “Dammit!” He hopped around on one foot, holding his ankle. “Who the fuck left broken glass back here?”

“Stop.” Jared reached over the bartop, attempting to keep him from hopping on the rest of the glass. “What kind of a moron wears sandals to a bar?”

Jerking out of pup space, Danny stood and grabbed Jacks’ arm, trying to keep him still. One ear flopping over half of his face, he glanced over at Jared. “They go really well with the outfit, sir. And he just got his toes done all nice. I’ll get him to Quint.” He winced as he looked down at Jacks’ ankle. “I knew tonight would go horribly wrong. I should’ve said something, we could’ve all stayed in the loft, where it’s safe. Mostly.”

For once, Jared was inclined to agree with Danny’s paranoia. 

This night wasn’t going the way he’d envisioned. At all.

**** 

 

Part Two

 

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