Tad’s reflection stared back at him from the glass panel next to the station where he’d stood for the last eight hours, and with five more minutes of work to go, he could barely stand to look at it. Things in his life had gone off the rails since a coworker at his last job was murdered.
He couldn’t get Alicia’s face out of his mind, her body, her young, sexy voice. She was the only escort down at Arm Candies who had gotten repeat requests just because of her voice. As he was once told by the owner, it was because the older men liked the sound of jailbait without the risk.
Tad knew not all men worried about risk. If there was something they wanted, they’d get it, or take it, whenever they pleased. Or, at least, they would try.
Alicia had been a victim to something of that sort, he had no doubt, and he hoped they’d find out who had cut her up. When they did, he hoped it wouldn’t be linked to him somehow.
Waiting was the hardest part. He hated not knowing if his past in Virginia, that stupid and twisted thing he’d done, would come back to haunt him. However hard, living with this kind of dread wasn’t something new to him. He’d done it for years.
“You can go now.” The familiar sound of his manager’s voice turned his head, and he was met with glaring eyes and a snotty, curled-lip expression. It wasn’t front page news that Lewis, his boss, didn’t like him. He’d begrudgingly hired him at the owner’s request and hadn’t forgiven him for existing since. Or for being straight.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to stand here and smile these last thirty seconds. I don’t mind, you know? It is part of my job.”
“I thought I’d be generous and get you off. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean let you off.” The manager looked Tad up and down, and it wasn’t in the way most people looked him up and down. Lewis was well past wanting to fuck him. Now he seemed to want to do him bodily harm.
“Careful, Lewis. I’ll have to report you for sexual harassment.”
Lewis’s mouth popped open, and Tad walked away. The guy was an asshole, and he had no time for them. One asshole in his life was plenty, and strangely enough, he was the man who’d given him the job, which he’d taken as begrudgingly as Lewis had hired him. Bay Collins could go to hell, too.
The only reason Tad was still putting up with the guy’s shit was because this murder investigation was hitting too close to home. Every minute since Tad heard about it, he’d been waiting for Darek Blake to show up and arrest him, but that wouldn’t happen because if he went down, so would Blake, for the same crime.
Even though Bay and Darek were both blasts from his past, they were very different people. Darek was fighting his own demons and trying to get through life, but Bay was a demon, a vicious, manipulating puppet master who still had them all on his strings.
He walked to the office off the kitchen and punched his time card. Then he headed out the back to find his car where he’d left it. His black, GT Mustang was the only thing in his life that was truly his, and every single time he looked at it, he had hope that things could be better. He’d bought it back at a time in his life when everything was right. He’d been a male model for one of the top agencies in New York, and at one time, he’d been in high demand. Then the lifestyle, drugs, and pressure had gotten to him and tore him down.
As he looked over his shoulder at Bakes, he shook his head. That wasn’t where he wanted to be in life; stuck in some shitty job, working for Bay, and driving home to Hannah’s house instead of his own. Now that he was clean and sober again, he wanted more from life.
There had to be a better way. He wasn’t allowed to go back to Arm Candies, not that he’d want to, but Bay would have his head on a platter. Then again, what did he need the agency for? They were just a middleman. Tad had acquired lots of clients who would be eager to cut them out, as well as their commission. If he took some of those clients during his off time, he could make enough to save up and be much better off when the time came to leave his sister’s place as soon as the heat from Alicia’s murder died down.
He drove the twenty-minute commute home to Hannah’s and parked out front. His sister had done well for herself and had always wanted the same for Tad. Being older than him by a few years, she’d pushed him away as a teen but mothered him as an adult, especially when their own mother died from a drug overdose just two days after his twenty-first birthday.
He walked up the weed-grown path and realized he should probably mow the grass, but he wasn’t even sure if his sister owned a lawnmower. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done the task. Maybe there was a kid down the block who would do it for some extra cash.
As he walked up to the front door and put his key in the door, a memory hit him. The last time he’d pushed a mower was at his Uncle Roddy’s house. As was the first time.
When his old man had bailed, he went with his mother and Hannah to live with his uncle for a short time. Uncle Rod, his father’s brother, was a man’s man, tall and strong; a hard-working mechanic who loved to tinker with just about anything, including lawnmowers.
Tad remembered that first day, walking into the backyard and finding the man covered in sweat, his hands black with grease, and his long, dark hair hanging down his back in a ponytail that had about four different colored bands keeping it together, as well as a faded black bandana that wrapped his forehead.
“Come over here, boy,” he’d said, not even taking time to leave the project to welcome them to his home. “I’ve already told your mama the rules, so I expect you to mind them.” His mother had gone over the rules a hundred times while packing the other house, and then another hundred in the car on the way over.
“Yes, sir.” He was a tall and lanky kid, and so pretty his mother had often told him he should have been a girl.
His uncle looked him up and down. Tad could see the resemblance between his father, who had been a worthless piece of shit, and his uncle, who he’d always admired. He could also see a little of himself in his uncle’s eyes.
“That’s my boy. You’ll do good around here. I need you to help me with something. Do you think you can?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
He stood up and pointed to the red mower he’d been working on. “Give it a start.”
Tad’s eyes widened. His old man had never trusted him enough to do anything, and since they didn’t own a mower, he’d never started one before. Lucky for him, he’d seen the neighbors do it enough.
He walked over to the thing and yanked the string hard. After a couple of hard pulls, it fired right up. Uncle Roddy praised him, “Great job, Tad.”
It was the first time his uncle had called him by his actual name. “You’ve never called me Tad before.”
“I figure Tadpole is for babies, but you’re a man now, Tad. Old enough to do a man’s job and make a man’s decision. Besides, you’re going to have to be a man for your sister and mother now that your father’s gone away, and I know you can do it.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.” His uncle had given him the warmest smile, and that was the first time he’d ever truly felt like a human being. Not just someone who could grow into a man one day, but an actual human being, living and breathing, with feelings. His own father had made him feel like an unwanted pet, and his own mother didn’t do much better. Hannah had been too busy with her friends back then, and he sometimes wished that she had at least paid closer attention to the things Uncle Roddy was teaching him.
By the time Tad had come out of his head, he had made it all the way into the kitchen. He spent some time sifting through the cabinets and wondering when Hannah would get the time to go grocery shopping again. She hadn’t gone in over a week, and though they were supposed to be taking turns, he was going to go ahead and pick something up the next time he went out. He settled for plain toast, not daring to go near the jar of peanut butter in the cabinet and wondering how his sister could still eat the stuff.
His mother had raised them on it, and sometimes, when things were bad before he’d moved in with Uncle Roddy, that was the only meal they’d have for weeks. Their mother never failed to buy cigarettes, though, but that was the only luxury afforded the family.
Hannah had learned to make and keep friends, but Tad was such a skinny little shit who had never been much for sports, and he hadn’t been accepted much by others. It wasn’t that he was an introvert—he longed for attention and for someone to notice him—but instead, because he was so small and his voice was really high, he was accused of being gay, which made him an outcast growing up. In the less enlightened times of his youth, no one wanted to be around him.
Having Uncle Roddy was a godsend. Or so he thought.
Tad’s stomach tightened, and the pain seared through him. It was worse than hunger pangs, and he remembered the first time he’d ever gotten it. His mother had told him that he wasn’t allowed in the basement. That was Roddy’s personal space, and he’d converted it into a master suite. But it was Roddy himself who had given him the tour.
It was a few days after they’d moved in, and Tad was in the kitchen cooking corndogs in the microwave when Roddy came in. “What you got there, champ?”
“I hope it’s okay; they were in the freezer.” With certain parts of the house off limits, he wasn’t sure what he could do, so he’d spent the first few days walking on eggshells. The last thing he wanted to do was upset his uncle.
“Sure, it’s okay. Feel free to eat anything you want and make yourself at home. As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking. There’s a whole other house under this one, and while I know I set the rules for that being my private place, I figure a fellow man like myself should be welcome. I know it’s not easy being the only guy with a bunch of women. Let’s face it, they just don’t understand us, do they?” He gave a little laugh, and Tad joined in.
“Not really.” The microwave went off, and Tad took out his plate. He sat at the table with Roddy.
“You’ll learn that there’s going to be some things that we men, as men, keep to ourselves. For instance, man food.” He reached over and picked up a corndog. He pushed it toward Tad’s mouth. Tad recalled not realizing at the time what the gesture represented for his uncle, but that was how life went. Hindsight was everything.
His uncle was a special kind of abuser. He hadn’t ever laid a finger on Tad, not in any kind of sexual way, but he’d used him just the same, in every other way possible.
“Go on. Open as wide as you can.”
Looking back, Tad felt stupid that he’d been so naïve; he’d done exactly what his uncle asked. He opened his mouth wide, trying hard not to giggle too much. Then his uncle stuck the thing into his mouth.
“There you are!” Hannah walked into the kitchen, freeing Tad from the grip of his memory. “I’ve been calling you. Did you not hear me?”
“I’m sorry. I was thinking.” Tad tried to shake off the image and the manipulations that had happened next.
“I hope you were thinking about how wonderful your sister is for getting you an interview.”
“Please tell me it’s not in the food industry.” He’d had enough of working around food all day and the people who went out to eat it.
“Nope. You know Lexa, right? She’s dating this guy, and he’s a photographer for Dos. He wants you to come in. I showed her a picture of you, and he recognized you from Jades.”
Hannah walked over and gave him a big hug, and all the while, he couldn’t help but worry if he got back into modeling, would the addiction follow? He’d been clean now for almost a year, and he hadn’t modeled in two. With all the ghosts of his past appearing in one form or another, he wasn’t sure it was the right time, but he couldn’t tell her no.
“That’s awesome, sis. I’ll look into it.”