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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Obsession

Copyright © 2017 by Theophilia St. Claire

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2017

Edited by: Jason Bradley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com

Printed in the USA

First Edition

December, 2017

Also available in paperback, ISBN: 978-1-947904-47-7

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, scenes of graphic violence, rape, and murder, mentions of childhood sexual abuse, and depictions of kidnapping, captivity, and domestic abuse.

Obsession

Theophilia St. Claire




Table of Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

About the Author

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my father, for my passion and his mercy. To my family, for their continued love and support. And to Mom. I can't believe I'm letting you read this.

Acknowledgements

I'd like to thank NineStar Press for choosing me and this story!

Also, a huge thank-you to my editors, Jason, Barbara, and April. You guys are amazing to work with.

I'd like to thank all the bloggers who have such wonderful writing and business advice. You have no idea how much you're helping this lurker out.

Big shout out to my role-playing buddies at Midnight Trinity, and especially to Jen, for giving me a fun, creative outlet for the last seven years.

Last, but not least, I'd love to thank my fans—past, present, and future. This story is for you.

Chapter One

“Christian?”

Nick glared at the fingers on his arm, the grip tight enough to be offensive. His gaze crawled its way up to the owner’s face. Handsome guy. Tall. European-looking with stylish dark-blond hair and piercing hazel eyes. He stared at Nick expectantly, waiting for his response. His full mouth parted slightly.

I’m at work, Nick reminded himself. He couldn’t go off on a rude customer again. Not if he wanted to keep his job. Nick shrugged off the stranger’s grip. “Sorry, no.” He carried the empty water pitcher through the lively crowd toward the bar.

His best friend, Eric Ruiz, raised a brow at him. “What was that about?”

“No clue. He called me Christian.”

Eric frowned, stroking his goatee. “Christian? What? The name or the religion?”

“Do I care?”

“Sounds like a poor attempt at hollering at you, hermano.” Eric sneered as he took in the customer’s appearance. “Upper East Side boys ain’t got no game.”

Nick glanced over his shoulder, back at the table he’d just walked by. Even though he had company, the stranger focused on Nick. His expression hardened, dangerously so. “What the hell is his problem?”

“Don’t worry about it, yo. Let’s get back to work before Phil sees us slacking.”

Nick agreed. Taking his thoughts away from the man, Nick headed off to check on his tables.

It was Valentine’s Day, so Jenkins’ Jazz Bar was busier than usual. Loving couples and groups of friends celebrating their singleness occupied every table and booth. Food and drinks flew from the kitchen at a rate almost too quickly to comprehend. Hell, Nick wasn’t even sure the house band had taken a break yet. Since the bar opened that evening, it’d been one fast-paced blur.

Nick checked on a stylish older couple who should have been dining on Madison Avenue, not a basement joint in East Harlem.

That guy too, Nick thought. He stole a glance at table nine, which Mercedes tended. The stranger wasn’t looking his way anymore, so Nick studied him a moment. The guy was groomed and decked out in top-notch designer clothes. Everything about him—from the way he sat to the way he sipped his cocktail—screamed money. He probably owned a penthouse on Fifth Avenue too. Nick gave a wry smile at the thought.

“We’ll take two rum cakes. And I’d love another glass of this wine, if you don’t mind.”

Nick brought his attention back to the smiling woman. “Sure thing.” He headed to the brand-new station to key in their orders.

The front door opened.

A young man wearing a black hoodie paired with loose-fit jeans stepped inside.

Nick sucked in a deep breath, inhaling the mingled scents of soul food. The visible tattoos on the guy’s knuckles and neck did not bode well for Nick. Had they found him already? After only a year?

“Shit.” Nick needed to check on two tables, but he didn’t care about anything other than staying out of the guy’s sight. He rushed into the kitchen, glad for the safety of the steel double doors.

“You okay? Look like you saw a ghost.” Mercedes Shaw was the eighteen-year-old niece of Phil Jenkins, the bar’s owner.

“Yeah,” Nick replied. “Actually, you mind taking these rolls to table seven for me? I need a breather.”

Mercedes’s brown eyes softened with understanding. “Yeah, I got you. It’s been like this all day, huh?”

Nick nodded, even though the fast pace wasn’t the problem. He hurried out the back door with a sigh of relief.

The temperature had dropped into the low twenties, but the cold air soothed his flustered skin. Nick leaned against the building, raking a hand through his hair while trying not to think about the tattooed newcomer inside. Instead, he focused on his immediate surroundings, though there wasn’t much to look at. The back door led to an alley that smelled like trash and piss. Police sirens and the occasional gunshot created life’s soundtrack there in his corner of Manhattan. That, he was used to. He didn’t want to give up the life he’d found there. Not yet. More than anything, he dreaded being back on the streets.

Nick didn’t stay outside long. He wasn’t looking to give Mr. Jenkins any reason to fire him. He just hoped the asshole had left already.



Nick’s shift ended at one in the morning. Fortunately for him, the night flew by without further incident. Only the staff remained, bussing tables and cleaning floors, while the band put away their instruments and wiped sweat from their foreheads.

“Good job, everyone,” Phil called out. He draped the towel onto his graying ‘fro and glanced about the space with a hearty smile. “Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve played back-to-back like that. Stamina ain’t what it used to be. I’m getting too old for this.”

Nick nodded in agreement as he took a seat at the bar. He was only twenty-four, but all the running around had him feeling like a middle-aged man.

Eric set a shot of something in front of him. “You wanna stay at my place tonight?”

Nick barely peered up. He sifted through his tip money, calculating how much he needed for Amy’s medical expenses and to get caught up on his rent. The night had been packed, but his tips were only marginally better than what he usually made on a good night. Most of the couples had probably bought expensive gifts first, then came out to dinner. Nick inwardly groaned. He was still short a few hundred dollars.

“Yo, Nicky. You ignoring me?”

“My bad.” Nick grabbed the shot glass and downed the alcohol in one go. Tequila. He stuffed the money back into his pocket. “I’m just gonna go home. Coming with me to the bus stop?”

“Naw, I’m here ’til two. Inventory and shit. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good luck with that.” Nick gathered his things and left the bar.

Outside, the temperature had dropped from earlier, but the cold didn’t faze Nick as he slid into his worn puffer coat. The bus stop was a half mile away on East 116th Street.

The darkness seemed heavy whenever Nick left work alone around that time. Sometimes, listening to music helped him not to notice the lack of streetlights in the area or imagine what lurked in the shadows, waiting to jump out at any moment. But he wouldn’t be listening to anything, not after earlier. He pulled the hood of his coat on top of his head and tucked his hands into the pockets like he clenched something other than his MP3 player. He looked menacing, no doubt about it. The defense mechanism surprisingly kept him from being bothered most times.

Nick quickened his pace to the bus stop. He didn’t enjoy being alone out there. Heavy footsteps followed closely behind Nick, noticeable without the sound of traffic. Nick glimpsed over his shoulder.

There, following a few feet behind him, was the tattooed gangster from earlier.

Nick’s heart pounded. He almost stumbled as he continued to move forward, even while gazing backward.

The guy reached into his coat pocket.

Nick ran.

Chapter Two

Claude slid into his Ferrari with all the grace of a baby taking its first steps.

Jenkins’ Jazz Bar had been the last place Claude would have chosen to meet with a business client. He rarely ever traversed that part of town, but Claude was required to oblige what the client requested. Showing up there, he hadn’t expected much, certainly not the biggest surprise of the past twelve months.

Christian was back.

Unable to think clearly, Claude had stared upon his face, letting himself be assailed with memories. Christian’s hair was shorter and darker than he remembered, but he hadn’t forgotten those piercing green eyes that appeared pitch-black whenever angered.

He’d watched Christian long after his client had gone home. A part of him was relieved. Christian was all right. Claude had been worried for so long, though it appeared to have been for nothing.

The other part boiled with anger. Anger that Christian had walked away from him without a word. Anger that Christian had pretended not to recognize him.

Claude clenched the steering wheel. He wanted to hurt Christian for the pain, grief, and agony he’d cost him in the past year.

Several workers exited the bar for the evening, but Claude kept an eye out for Christian.

His cell phone rang. Claude answered without looking away from the dimly lit building. “What?”

“Mr. Vanderpoel?” It was Hannah Aldridge, his personal assistant. “I just received a call from Mr. Leibowitz. He’s interested in doing business with us, sir, and he’s put in quite a large order.”

Well now, that was fast.

“Fax me the details. I want our best contractors handling Mr. Leibowitz’s request first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No, sir, that’s all. Have a good night.”

Claude hung up in time to witness a hooded male exit the bar. Though too dark out to tell, he knew it was Christian. Every synapse in his body came alive at the thought.

Putting his car into drive, Claude followed him at a snail’s pace with the headlights off.

Christian moved quickly along the sidewalk, as if anxious to get somewhere. Where was he headed? Claude wanted to know about the sort of life Christian had been living since they’d last seen one another. Shocking still was the fact Christian had gotten himself a job. He’d never held one in the years they’d been together.

All of a sudden, Christian took off at a dead run.

As he rounded the corner onto Pleasant Avenue, a man followed not too far behind him. He appeared to be struggling with something in his pocket.

Claude’s gaze narrowed at the scene. He reached into the glove compartment for his firearm, a Walther P22 with a silencer. Although upset by Christian’s betrayal and confused by his sudden reappearance, Claude would never allow anyone to hurt him.

He would die first.

Claude sped up to catch them. He drove beside the thug, who had yet to take notice. Rolling down the window, Claude took aim and fired.

The thug dropped with a pain-filled cry.

Christian spun around, his gaping mouth the only clue Claude needed to perceive his thoughts.

Claude parked beside him. “Get in the car.”

Christian hesitated, but after glancing at the injured man struggling to his feet, he obeyed. Even in the silent darkness of Claude’s car, Christian trembled visibly.

“Are you hurt?” Claude asked, visually checking him for any injuries. Besides his frazzled appearance, he seemed unharmed.

Christian shook his head. “No, I—I’m okay.”

Claude nodded. He glanced out the window, only to note the thug had limped off somewhere. He stepped outside. “Wait here.”

He was going to make sure the bastard never threatened Christian again.

Not waiting for a response, Claude chased after him. Cold air and the scent of car exhaust filled his lungs as he jogged up the street.

Claude wasn’t entirely sure, but he believed the bullet hit the thug somewhere high on his leg. Maybe near his hip. He couldn’t have gotten far.

It wasn’t long before Claude spotted him making his way behind the Love Café. He wasn’t exactly quiet, nor subtle. Most likely, he would try to gain attention from a patron in a nearby restaurant.

Claude sprinted after him. He knew he needed to put an end to this before someone saw them. Or worse, they crossed onto East 116th Street. Fortunately for him, the thug had disappeared beside the café, into the darkness.

Claude caught up with the limping man. He grabbed hold of his hooded jacket and shoved him onto a trash heap. The young man groaned in pain and clutched his upper thigh.

“Please, man. Let me go.”

“Why were you chasing him?”

“Please, man. Please don’t kill me.” Disregarding Claude’s query, the thug continued to babble incoherently, with tears spilling down his cheeks.

Claude put a bullet in his head.

Chapter Three

Nick wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. His heart hadn’t stopped pounding since he’d hopped into the car.

Who the hell was that guy?

More importantly, what did he want? Nick sank against the leather seat while he tried to figure out if the asshole who’d chased him had been sent. For all he knew, the guy could have been a petty thief who’d seen an opportunity and thought to take advantage of it. God knew there were enough homeless drug addicts in East Harlem who wouldn’t hesitate at killing a man for their next fix.

Nick exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Tension melted away, but it did nothing to alleviate his worries. He was alone in a strange car in the middle of a darkened street with a man who potentially wanted to kill him out there somewhere close.

Nick checked the ignition for the keys. They were gone. He checked the dashboard. A pair of expensive Ray-Bans and a shiny Patek Philippe watch that probably cost a small fortune sat there. Nick blinked twice, finally allowing himself to calm down enough to notice his surroundings more clearly. The car was a Ferrari. A newer model. Whoever his savior was, the guy was loaded. Nick frowned. He couldn’t even picture the man’s face. He’d been so afraid of being killed in retaliation, everything else had faded into the background. The only thing Nick remembered was a stern but smooth voice talking to him. Eloquent. Maybe even with an accent.

Nick popped open the glove compartment. A Louis Vuitton wallet tumbled into his lap. He didn’t think twice about looking inside. Platinum credit cards and a wad of crisp cash greeted him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that much money at once. Nick glanced at his savior’s driver’s license photo. His savior: the European-looking man from the bar. The one who’d called him Christian. His name was Claude Vanderpoel and he lived on Fifth Avenue.

“I called it,” Nick mumbled.

Claude was also only twenty-eight years old.

Nick put everything back the way he found it. He hoped he had his shit together by the time he reached Claude’s age.

A moment later, the driver’s door opened. Claude slid inside and locked them in together.

Nick tensed. Physically, Claude wasn’t much bigger than him. Probably two or three inches taller, and maybe packing a little more muscle beneath his clothes. But for some reason, Nick was…intimidated.

Claude’s presence loomed over him like some superior force while he regarded him quietly with laser-like eyes prodding through Nick’s exterior.

Nick cleared his throat. “Did you find him?”

“Don’t worry. That man won’t be threatening you again.”

Where Nick came from, that usually meant the person was dead. He didn’t have the gall to ask Claude if he’d killed his assailant. Especially since Claude carried around a gun he wasn’t afraid to use.

Claude scanned him over once more before putting the car into drive. “The police will find him.”

Nick nodded. “Could you take me to the bus stop? It’s right up here on 116th.” He’d give away his least favorite appendage to be home, putting that entire night behind him.

“No. It’s not safe.”

“What?” Nick arched a brow. Had he heard him correctly?

“You’ll be safer with me. I’m taking you home.”

Nick stiffened. “You know where I live?”

“No,” Claude said through clenched teeth. “And as dismaying as that is, I meant that I’ll be taking you to my apartment.”

Though Claude seemed agitated, Nick didn’t care. He wanted out of that car. No way he was going with that guy to his place or anywhere. “I don’t think so, pal. Stop the car.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Stop the fucking car now.” Nick preferred not to walk alone after what’d happened, but he didn’t trust Claude’s eagerness to get him to his place. Maybe he should text Eric, find out how close he was.

Claude pulled the car to a stop in front of the Love Café. Nick pushed the passenger door open. Before he could leave, Claude grabbed his arm, his expression a mixture of sadness and displeasure.

Nick shook his head in confusion. What the hell was that guy’s deal?

“I’ll take you wherever you need to go. Just don’t leave again.” Claude stared at him, unblinking and unmoving while waiting for a response.

Nick met his gaze for all of ten seconds before he directed his sight toward the orange overhang on top of the café’s dark exterior. “Fine.” He closed the door again, glad when the inside warmth swallowed the cold air. “The bus stop up ahead.”

They rode the short drive in silence. On the way, Nick thought about the things he’d learned about Claude, a man he’d been curious about since their first encounter back at the bar. Outside of the whole gun thing, the one detail Nick kept coming back to was the fact Claude was loaded. And Nick was short a few hundred dollars.

Don’t do this, Nick…

Nick scrubbed at his face. What would it be like to go home with Claude? To do what he used to do for money before he chose to leave behind his old life?

Claude parked his Ferrari beside the bus stop. “I’m not sure when the bus arrives, but I’ll wait here until you board safely.”

Nick gazed out the window. There were a few others waiting. Two young women dressed scantily despite the cold, though the way they clutched their purses in their lap, they might be packing. A Latino man in a hoodie blabbed away on his cell phone in Spanish. Nick recognized a few of the insults. The trio eyed the car.

Claude unlocked the door, but Nick didn’t move. He squeezed his eyes shut. “Take me to your place.” He hoped he wasn’t making a big mistake.



Claude’s “apartment” ended up being a huge penthouse in a skyscraper building on Fifth Avenue.

Just as he’d called.

The concept was open floor plan with a house theme of black, charcoal gray, and glass. Lots of glass. The floors were black-veined marble. Nick surveyed the living room, slack-jawed at its leather sectional and recliner and frosted-glass tables—one of which stood behind the sofa, with an expensive-looking black vase filled with white oleanders. A sixty-inch plasma television was mounted on the wall in its own niche above a cozy electric fireplace with an ornate black gate.

“You got this whole floor to yourself?” Nick asked.

“The entire floor, but you knew that.” Claude disappeared into the kitchen.

“I pretty much guessed it.” Nick followed him, his gaze landing on the large crystal chandelier hanging above the fancy dining room table. Claude’s home was easily the most expensive place he’d ever been inside. The kitchen was a gourmet chef’s dream, what with all the black and stainless steel appliances.

“Are you hungry? I have some parmesan chicken pasta from last night.” Claude pulled open the damned near industrial-size refrigerator and retrieved a silver container.

Nick took a seat on one of the heather-gray stools at the island. He tried not to fidget with his hands. “I’m starving, actually.”

Claude wasted no time serving up a hot helping to Nick in a decorative glass plate. It smelled divine, like cheeses and herbs. Nick shoved a forkful into his mouth with a satisfied moan. Though they were leftovers, the pasta still tasted fresh. The meat was tender.

“This is good. You make this yourself?”

“Yes.” Claude filled two champagne glasses with red wine. He handed one to Nick. “Do you want to tell me why that man was chasing you?”

Nick swallowed the food in his mouth. He kept his gaze lowered to the black granite countertop while he sipped the smooth wine. It tasted like plums and strawberries. “You’ll have to ask him. I don’t know.”

“You don’t know him?”

“No, I don’t.” Nick ate another forkful of the pasta. The second bite wasn’t as good as the first.

Claude retrieved a silver cigarette case from his pocket. Placing a loose one between his lips, he lit up and inhaled deeply. The scent of exotic spices and earth drifted in the space between them.

Usually Nick hated the smell of cigarettes, but that wasn’t like anything he’d ever smelled before. “What is that?”

Claude exhaled a cloud of white smoke away from him. “This is one hundred percent Turkish tobacco. Not the American blend you find here.”

“Smells good.”

Claude eyed him a long moment with heat dilating his pupils. Nick knew what he wanted. He’d seen the look too many times.

He finished his food in five minutes flat and drained the remainder of his wine. “Thanks for the meal.”

“You’re welcome,” Claude mumbled. He took Nick’s dishes and placed them in the dishwasher.

“Could I use your bathroom?”

“Down the hall.”

“Thanks.” Nick headed there, admiring the modern chic décor he passed by. He’d always wanted a similar place for himself. Maybe with some more color, of course. The monochromatic scheme wasn’t bad, though. Oddly enough, he found it suitable for Claude.

Nick found the guest bathroom, filled with white marble, polished chrome, and glass. He shut himself inside and twisted the shower dial. While the water heated, he stripped out of his uniform.

He took a deep, calming breath.

It’d been a long time since he’d done this. And never with anyone remotely equal to Claude—a man so powerful, successful, and direct. No one he’d ever hooked up with had been as eloquent or handsome as him, either. Hopefully, the shower soothed his nerves.

The stream of water was blessedly hot when he stepped inside, instantly relaxing the tension in his muscles. Nick reclined his neck backward, letting the water rain on his face. He’d missed hot water. At his apartment, water got tepid at best, and it didn’t last long.

Even though he wanted to live in there, Nick cleaned himself with the expensive bodywash and shampoo available. He dried off and wrapped the towel around his waist.

Nick went looking for him.

Though the penthouse was pretty large, he didn’t take long to find Claude in the master bedroom. It was the only door opened wide. Inviting. Nick studied Claude from the doorway. He’d taken off his shirt and worked on removing his belt.

Nick’s cock twitched at the sight of all that tawny, muscled skin. He cleared his throat.

Claude glanced over his shoulder, pausing at the sight of him. He licked his lips.

Nick took the gesture as his invitation to come inside. “I hope you don’t mind I took a shower.” Nick browsed around. The master bedroom alone was bigger than his apartment. The walls were floor-to-ceiling windows with a panoramic view of the lit city and Central Park. A king-size bed with black silk sheets and pillows was perched on a raised marble platform. A black bureau stood beside the bed, and on the other side of the room sat another beautiful fireplace. A lighted tray ceiling with an elegant chandelier hovered above him. The room smelled faintly of cologne and the cigarettes Claude had smoked earlier. Nick headed straight for the windows.

“Of course not,” Claude answered, his voice octaves lower.

Nick splayed his fingers across the glass, staring out at the view. He’d walked the streets of New York City for years, never understanding the hype from his vantage point down there. Up high, though…it was pretty majestic. Everything below resembled a jeweled spectacle.

The room was suddenly plunged into darkness. Nick didn’t move. Heat from Claude’s body engulfed him as he stood behind him. The towel slid off his waist. Nick sucked in a deep breath.

Claude’s hands were steady as they glided across Nick’s chest, down his abs, and finally took hold of his semi-erect cock. Claude sucked his earlobe between his teeth.

“I missed this,” he whispered.

Nick moaned. He didn’t want to speculate what Claude meant by that. Hell, he could barely think straight with Claude’s deft hand sliding up and down his shaft. Nick didn’t remember any of his clients ever trying to make him feel this good. No, they usually couldn’t wait to throw him on the seedy motel beds and get their money’s worth.

Meanwhile, Claude made his blood boil with his sensuous caresses and soft kisses to his heated skin.

Nick arched into his hand, wanting more. More stroking. More touching. More everything.

Claude spun him around. It wasn’t difficult to see his face with the moon at Nick's back. Nick swallowed as he peered into that hard, indiscernible gaze. He couldn’t guess what Claude was thinking, but the way he stared at him…like he was soaking him in. Burning him into memory.

Nick squirmed.

Claude cupped his cheek. “Are you nervous now?”

Yes. “No,” Nick lied.

“Good.” Claude pressed their lips together.

Nick didn’t hesitate to return the kiss. Claude’s lips were soft and tender. He tasted like spice and scotch. And danger. The way he kissed Nick with so much passion and heat made Nick feel less like a cheap male whore and more like the most desired man in all of New York City.

Claude pushed him face-first against the cool glass. “Wait here.” He placed a chaste kiss between Nick’s shoulder blades before leaving him.

Nick’s stomach knotted in anticipation. He contemplated the city through half-mast eyes, wondering if anyone could see him—legs spread and body ready to be fucked by a stranger for money. And if someone were looking at him, even from this height, would they know what he was?

Claude’s fingertips sliding across his butt brought him back into the moment. Claude made shuffling movements behind him before sighing deeply, likely after he tore open a condom wrapper and slipped the rubber on.

Nick licked his lips. Claude drizzled lube on his ass. He worked the cold, wet substance into him with his fingertips until Nick dripped precum.

Claude buried his face against Nick’s shoulder, raining kisses to his bare flesh. “Relax. I’m going in.”

Nick nodded. He braced himself.

The first thrust was slow and painful. Nick clenched his teeth hard enough to hurt his jaw. Claude was hot and so thick, he filled him completely. It’d definitely been a while since Nick had done this with anyone.

Claude nudged apart his legs farther and bent him slightly. A satisfied groan escaped him as he pushed deeper inside.

“Jesus,” Nick moaned. Claude slid in and out of him with controlled, deep strokes. Nick’s sweltering breaths fogged up the glass as he rocked his hips to Claude’s smooth cadence.

Claude easily took the lead, touching and stroking him, positioning him around for optimal gratification.

Meanwhile, Nick’s head spun, dizzy with pleasure. His body was so hot, he thought he might have a fever. The dark, musky scent of their sex was intoxicating. Nick’s mouth was suddenly dry.

As if reading his mind, Claude repositioned Nick’s head until their mouths met.

Nick moaned into him.

“Are you ready to come, mijn lief?

Nick nodded. He probably looked crazy in that moment, his chin wet with saliva and his eyes glazed. He didn’t care. He’d never felt so good in his entire life. So treasured. Only Amy filled him with any kind of warmth, but that was different. Claude made him hot. The way he handled Nick as he kissed him and thrust into his body made Nick think of a considerate lover. Not at all like they were strangers who’d met a few hours before.

Nick’s breathing grew erratic. He reached behind him, needing to hold something. Anything. His hands met with a fistful of Claude’s hair. He gripped the dark-blond locks, thrusting back in sync with Claude’s strokes.

“Gonna come,” he exclaimed. The sounds of their moans and pants, their skin slapping one another’s while they fucked, grew louder and more intense.

“Good. Let’s go together.”

“Fuck.” Nick squeezed his eyes shut. He strained and cried out as jets of hot semen spurted from him.

Behind him, Claude shuddered and released a long-held breath as he filled the condom.

Nick slumped to the floor in a panting mess, but Claude caught him. He picked Nick up bridal-style and carried him to the bed.

Nick would be offended if he wasn’t so exhausted.

The silk was heaven on his skin. He eyed the elaborate ceiling, even though his lids grew heavy.

Claude pressed a damp cloth against his cock. Nick shivered as his sensitive bits tingled. He hadn’t realized Claude left the room. Once he finished wiping him clean, Claude pulled Nick against him, his back to his chest, and entwined their legs together.

Nick stiffened. He’d never been spooned before.

Claude kissed his head. “I missed you.”



Nick didn’t sleep long. No matter where he was, he had a hard time falling asleep in unfamiliar places.

Two hours had passed. Claude was still sleeping, his arm thrown over Nick’s side. Nick gently pried him off and settled at the edge of the bed, staring out the window. The sun had yet to break over the horizon, so the sky was still dark.

Nick gathered his clothes. They were actually washed and folded neatly on the black bureau. Once dressed, he peered at Claude, who still hadn’t moved, and thought about what happened hours before. He bit his lip at the vivid memories. A part of him didn’t want to go through with it. The guy had protected him, fed him, fucked him, and didn’t seem to want anything in return.

But when he thought of the money he needed for Amy, Nick knew he didn’t have a choice. He tried not to think about it while he rummaged through Claude’s drawers of mostly underwear and some X-rated stuff. His fancy clothes were probably hung up in his huge walk-in closet. He spotted Claude’s cigarette case, filled with his Turkish tobacco. Nick pocketed one. If he ever lit it, he hoped he’d remember the short but sweet time he shared with Claude.

In the last drawer, Nick found what he was searching for: a gold money clip holding together a wad of cash. All crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. Nick didn’t bother counting. He took two hundred, refusing to let guilt creep up on him. That was just payment for last night, he told himself.

Nick left the penthouse and prayed he never saw Claude again.

Chapter Four

Claude was awake.

He’d been awake the entire time Christian had rifled through his things and stolen money from him. Once Christian had left, Claude hadn’t been able to get out of bed to start his day properly.

“I guess some things never change,” he said aloud.

Honestly, he didn’t know why he was so surprised. That wasn’t the first time Christian stole from him. Oftentimes in the past, his lover would steal cash and buy gifts for other men he’d taken a liking to.

It’d been foolish to hope that after all that time things would be different.

Claude sat up in bed, raking a hand through his hair. He finally noticed the scent of bacon, eggs, and roasted coffee. Vicky and Yesenia, his maids, had let themselves in without his knowing.

Damn Christian for clouding his mind like that.

Disappointed, Claude moved to shower and dress for the day. In the kitchen, he filled a thermos with black coffee before leaving his apartment.

Sundays were usually his day off to relax from a stressful workweek, but he slid into his Ferrari and headed to work anyway. He needed the distraction. Traffic wouldn’t be too bad, and he’d have enough time to think about Christian.

Christian…

If last night was any indication, Christian obviously owed money to somebody. Who was the question. Had that thug been sent after Christian for what he owed?

Claude frowned in distaste. It wasn’t Christian’s status quo to deal with street rats.

Though a bit disappointed, Claude couldn’t make himself be too upset. After all, Christian was back. It’d been too long, and last night had been a revelation.

Claude sped down the street right as the light changed red. He planned on seeing Christian soon. And this time, he wasn’t ever letting him go.

Chapter Five

“Your admirer is inside.”

“What?” Nick frowned at his best friend, Eric, and his stupid grin. He’d just interrupted his outside break.

“You know. Upper East Side from the other day, yo. The guy who was slick trying to holla at you.”

“Fuck.” Had Claude found out what he’d done already?

Eric folded his muscled arms across his thick chest. “What’s he here for anyway? You talk to him?”

“Not exactly.” Nick didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, he trudged inside. The bar was only moderately packed. Low jazz music played in accompaniment with the mood created by the dim lights and nude/chocolate furniture.

Nick stayed in the back, peeking through the double doors until he spotted Claude. He sat alone in a booth, legs crossed, head tilted back as he scanned the bar. He didn’t look too happy, either. Nick’s heart pounded.

“Yo.”

Nick nearly jumped at the sound of Eric’s voice behind him. He’d forgotten his friend was there. “What?”

“What’s going on with you and him anyway?”

Nick scowled in distaste. “Me and him? Nothing.” He blocked off images of the other night from his mind. “On Saturday, this fucking guy tried to rob me on my way to the bus stop.”

Eric gaped. “What the fuck?”

“I know, right? Some crackhead probably looking for money for his next hit or something,” Nick lied. He couldn’t tell Eric who his would-be attacker might actually be. His friend didn’t know about his past life, and Nick intended to keep it that way. “Anyway, that guy out there, the one in the booth, he happened to be there to chase him off with a gun.”

Eric laid eyes on him, his dark gaze unreadable. He stroked his goatee like he was deep in thought. “So it was you,” he said.

Nick arched a brow at him. “What do you mean?”

“The pigs were in the area because someone had been attacked. They were arresting some thug.”

Nick sighed in relief. “That must have been after I left.”

“I guess. Anyway, why didn’t you tell me?”

Nick shrugged and tied his apron around his waist. “It was no big deal. I went home after everything.” He hated lying to Eric, but there was no way in hell he was telling him about where he’d gone and what he’d done with Claude. Just thinking about it made him feel dirty.

“You could’ve stayed at my place.” Eric gave him a lecherous grin as he threw an arm around his shoulder. “I could’ve protected you.”

Nick shrugged him off. “Vintage Eric Ruiz, always trying to get me to your place.”

“Hey, I try.”

“There you are.”

Both of them glanced up the same time the double doors swung open. A flush-faced Mercedes strode toward Nick, hands on her slim hips. “There’s a customer at table twelve who keeps asking for you. Says he won’t accept another waiter.”

Nick scrubbed his face and stared out the window. He didn’t want anything to do with Claude, but maybe that was the perfect opportunity to apologize for what he’d done. He should have asked in the first place.

Mercedes continued, “And who the heck is Christian anyway? I kept telling him there’s no waiter here by that name, but he wouldn’t listen. I asked him to explain what this Christian looked like, and he described you, Nick. Did you lie to him about your name or something?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll deal with him.” Nick pushed open the doors and marched into the front of the house. The music was louder there, though not loud enough to be disturbing. The smell of smothered pork chops, potatoes, honey ham, cheeses, and all other sorts of soul food made his nose itch as he passed by tables with customers in the middle of their meal.

His nerves tingled the closer he got to Claude. That same stern frown hadn’t changed, even though Claude noticed him.

Nick stopped at his booth. He pulled out a pen and pad. “What can I get you?”

“Christian.”

Nick frowned. “Why do you keep saying that? What exactly are you asking?”

Claude’s golden-green eyes narrowed. “You’re not funny.”

“No, I’m not. I’m also not Christian, either. I haven’t been Christian in a long time. Not really.” He’d stopped praying to God the moment God stopped listening to him. “I’m Nick.”

Claude gawked at him, confusion etched into his features.

“I’m sorry I stole from you,” Nick blurted. “I promise to pay you back every dollar.”

Claude waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t care about that. I have money. Lots of it.” He crossed his arms while practically boring a hole through Nick with his intense gaze. “What I’m curious about is why you took it in the first place? Who’s the money for?”

Nick bit his lip. He never ever talked about his family with anyone, especially someone he’d fucked with no intention of seeing again. Still, he owed the man an explanation, and that was the only one he had.

“My little sister. She has leukemia. I need money to pay for her treatments because we don’t have health insurance.”

“I didn’t know you have a sister.”

Nick cleared his throat. The conversation was over. “So what can I get for you?”

“Come home with me tonight.”

Nick bristled at the authoritative way he spoke, practically demanding him. Claude was definitely the type used to getting his way. Nick scoffed. “No thanks.” He’d done enough self-flagellation. He didn’t need to go down that road again. Not even for a night of incredible sex.

Claude frowned in exasperation. “You’re telling me no again?”

Nick closed his pad and stuffed his pen behind his ear. “You can call me back when you’re ready to order.”

Chapter Six

“Mr. Vanderpoel, this came for you earlier.”

Claude stopped on the way to his office to glance at his blonde assistant, Hannah Aldridge. She retrieved a three-piece stainless steel case from inside her desk.

Claude froze to the spot, his gaze riveted to the familiar box. He knew exactly what it held.

Though Hannah schooled her features into indifference, her brown eyes were filled with sympathy at his latest plight.

“Thank you, Hannah.” Claude took the case from her. “Is that all?”

“Mr. Finch called. His wife’s ill so he needs to reschedule his meeting. Also, Abri called. The bocote wood arrived last night for Mr. Leibowitz’s boat.”

“I want the contractors out there first thing tomorrow morning.”

Hannah made a note of it. “Your father also called. He said he would like to set up a meeting with you soon as you’re available.”

Claude’s shoulders stiffened. He had no interest in sitting with his father, and he planned to be as unavailable as possible. There were more pressing things on his mind then. “I’ll be forwarding my calls to you.”

“Yes, sir.”

Claude shut himself inside his office. Alone in the dimly lit space with its modern-chic amenities, he allowed the boiling rage he’d been suppressing to reach its surface. Claude focused on the box, hoping it would be empty inside, though he knew it wasn’t. The case was too heavy. He pried it open. The Zannetti Regent Dragon timepiece he’d purchased stared back at him. Claude’s fingers brushed along the engraved Sapphire anti-reflex glass and the hand-stitched Louisiana alligator leather strap. The watch cost nearly seven grand.

Christian had sent it back.

Claude slumped into his seat. Nearly a week had passed since his initial offer, and since then, he’d made a point of sending gifts to Christian’s workplace in an attempt to not only sway him, but to let him see Claude’s feelings where he was concerned. He was no longer angry at Christian for leaving him a year before. In fact, he hoped to resume their relationship with no hard feelings.

Yet Christian had returned every single offering with no explanation. Claude was dumbfounded. Even if Christian wasn’t looking to continue a relationship with Claude, he never turned away an expensive trinket. Especially if Claude paid for it.

Claude shut the watch inside his drawer, refusing to stew over it any longer. However, he’d begun to grow tired of Christian’s stubbornness, and he planned to let him know it.



Christian left the bar where he worked at nearly midnight.

Claude sat in his car across the street as his former lover pulled up the hood on his coat to protect himself from the bitter cold. Another man exited behind him. That one, Claude recognized. He was the Puerto Rican bartender.

The two laughed together as they walked down East 114th Street. A red haze filled Claude’s vision. He jumped out of the car before he thought about it. “Christian!”

They noticed him. Though hard to tell their expressions, Claude imagined what they might be as they glared in his direction. He wasn’t deterred in the slightest.

Christian said something to his friend that Claude couldn’t hear. Though the bartender seemed reluctant to leave, he finally walked off on his own, much to Claude’s instant relief.

He approached Christian, noticing the annoyance on his face. Claude positioned himself in front of the younger male. “I think you’ve avoided me long enough.” He peered in the direction the bartender had gone. “Is he your new lover now?”

“Why are you here?”

“Why do you keep returning the gifts I send?”

“Because I’m not impressed with them. What? You think you can buy me or something?”

Claude frowned, genuinely perplexed by the hostility emanating from Christian. He hardly thought that at all. For as long as they’d been together, he’d always spoiled Christian with luxury items. He never asked for recompense, either. Only hope for Christian’s loyalty and faithfulness to him. Claude wasn’t there to argue semantics, however. If Christian didn’t want them, there was nothing to be done about it.

“I want you to come home with me. Where you belong.”

Christian didn’t respond. Instead he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. “I knew you would show up sooner or later.” Christian shoved the money into Claude’s palm. “Here. It’s not two hundred, but I’ll have the rest of it soon.” Christian walked away from him.

Claude growled low in his throat. Every cell in his body begged him to go off on the boy. To pull him into the car and take him by force, then lock him away so he could never leave again.

He took a deep breath to calm himself. Being angry with Christian would get him nowhere. Christian never responded well to anger. Claude hurried after him and pulled him to a stop. He searched Christian’s visage for signs of interest in rekindling the flame between them. There were none. Christian seemed as confused as he was.

Claude pulled the younger male into his arms and kissed him. His lips were cold and dry. Unwelcoming. Claude would give anything to explore them again. To make them hot and moist and swollen from his love.

“Why do you do this to me?”

Christian shoved him away. “I don’t even know you,” he shouted. Before Claude could say another word, Christian ran off.

Claude stood there, stunned, his chest aching. As much as the words pained him, he wouldn’t let Christian go. Not when Claude finally had him within reach.

He got into his car and drove to East 116th Street in time for Christian to board the M102. He was unable to tell where exactly Christian sat, but Claude trailed the bus. He followed it for five stops until Christian got off at the Malcolm X Boulevard stop.

Christian kept his hood up, ignoring everyone else around him while he disappeared into the subway station. Claude stayed behind him a good distance as he took the Number 2 subway line to wherever.

Claude was familiar with the route. He knew the stops and time frame adequately. The farther he drove, the worse the area became. Poverty, high crime, and drug addiction were leading social problems in that corner of the world. Public housing units filled almost every block. Claude pitied the sad souls who called that place home.

He spotted Christian exiting the station on 96th and Broadway. He resembled a menacing figure with his hood down low over his eyes and clutching something in his pocket as if it was a gun. A pocketknife was more likely, though Claude could see how one would think he carried a firearm for protection. As he walked toward West 95th, Christian eyed his surroundings warily, as if waiting for someone to attack or mug him.

Claude surveyed his surroundings for an entirely different reason.

How could Christian possibly have made a living down there? Watching his back every second to make sure it wouldn’t be stabbed? He passed by all manner of homeless people and shady characters. Trash littered the streets and graffiti covered multiple surfaces. Police sirens roared a few blocks away. The air reeked of filth. During their time together, Claude sometimes thought Christian needed to be taught a humbling lesson in economics. But he wouldn’t choose this for him.

Christian entered an old, outdated public housing unit. Two police officers stood outside with several tenants. Claude shut off his engine. Christian slowed his brisk pace as an officer approached him. They spoke. Claude wasn’t close enough to hear what they conversed about, but he knew the instant Christian grew upset. The boy went rigid. He stared in the direction of what Claude assumed to be his apartment in that godforsaken place. Christian broke into a sudden run up a short flight of stairs and disappeared into one of the apartments.

Claude’s heart raced. He had no clue what was going on, but he needed to be there for Christian.

Stepping out of his car, Claude approached the same uniform who’d spoken to Christian. The man eyed him warily. “Stop right there, sir.”

Claude stopped and made a show of holding out his hands so the man would see he was unarmed.

The officer looked him up and down, taking in his attire. He knew Claude did not belong there. “Sir, are you lost?”

Claude didn’t have time for that. “I’m with a friend. He just ran into his apartment and I’m concerned for him.”

“Oh.” The officer relaxed a degree. “Poor kid. It’s pretty bad up there.”

“If you don’t mind my asking. What happened?”

“Break in. Vandalism. Don’t know if they took anything, but the perps were looking for something, that’s for damn sure. I hope it’s not drug-related. You deal with people like that and they’ll do anything to get back what belongs to them. This was just a warning.”

Claude nodded. He’d wondered the same thing the night the thug had chased Christian outside his workplace. Not only that, but Christian had stolen from him. Although he’d told Claude the money had been for his sick sister, it was obvious he’d been lying. Someone was after him. Some unsavory person likely involved with gangs and drugs.

“I’m going up to see him now.”

The cop nodded. “Oh, by the way, tell your friend to make a list of what’s missing, if anything. He also needs to go down to the station to make a statement. He ran off before I could say anything. Here’s my number.”

Claude took the card from him. “Thank you, Officer Finlay.” He left before they asked anything else. It wasn’t hard locating which apartment belonged to Christian. Of them all, his was the only one left wide open. Claude stepped inside and was floored by the sight. Besides the fact the tiny apartment desperately needed updating and a good thorough cleaning, the space had been destroyed. Clothes and trash were strewn about. Furniture lay in broken pieces. The thin walls were slashed through with a knife, so much so he could see into the neighbor’s house. Food splatter decorated the entire kitchen. More broken glass.

In the midst of the chaos, Christian sat near the upended sofa with his back facing him, gazing at something Claude couldn’t glimpse.

Claude approached. When he drew closer, he noticed Christian’s trembling. Claude placed a careful hand on his shoulder. “Christian…”

“Look.” Christian spun around to face him. Hatred darkened his features. Unshed tears filled his eyes as he glared at Claude. He held up a picture of a girl. A beautiful young girl with the word SLUT written in bold ink beneath her rounded chin.

“I’m sorry.”

“Who would do this? What sick, twisted fuck would say this about a little girl?” Christian trembled even more, hysterical.

Not knowing what else to do, Claude wrapped his arms around Christian and held him. “It’s all right now. I’m here.” He kissed his head, hoping to comfort him. Despite his earlier words, Claude could never leave Christian when he needed him most.

Christian stiffened but didn’t pull away. A good sign. Minutes ticked by. Possibly a half-hour’s worth. Claude continued to hold him until he’d relaxed somewhat. “I’m taking you home with me tonight. You shouldn’t be here alone.”

Christian wiped at his red-rimmed eyes. “No. I need to call Eric.”

“Eric?”

“I need to tell him what happened.” Christian walked off. He retrieved the cell phone from his pocket and moved outside.

Claude closed his eyes, deliberately counting to ten while tamping down on the jealousy threatening to rear its head at the mention of the male name. He decided to take a look around. Inspect the damage. There were no bedrooms in the apartment, though there was a single full-size bathroom. Claude stepped inside. The bathroom was outdated with cheap blue-and-white tile and an old-fashioned claw-foot tub. Besides a few toiletries on the floor, the area was spotless. Though appalled by Christian’s living conditions, Claude refused to show the expression when he joined Christian outside.

Christian shut off his phone and palmed his forehead. “I can’t reach him.”

“Is there anyone else you can call?”

“No.”

“Will you stay with me tonight?”

Christian hesitated. “Yes.”



Claude was glad to be back home on Fifth Avenue. More than that, he was ecstatic to have Christian with him. As they rode the elevator up to his suite, Claude kept a protective arm wrapped around Christian’s shoulders. He’d yet to let him go since they’d walked out of Christian’s housing unit together.

The doors slid open and Claude led him inside. “Welcome back.”

Christian glared at him but otherwise had no snarky comeback. He peeked around, clearly uncomfortable with his “new” surroundings.

“Let’s put your things away.” Claude reached for Christian’s overnight bag, but Christian pulled back before he made contact.

“I want my own room,” he stated.

“Of course you do.”

“I’m serious.”

Claude analyzed his hard stare, desperate to figure out Christian’s feelings toward him. Why was he being so damned difficult? “All right. I’ll give you your space. You can take the guest room if that’s what you prefer.”

“Thanks,” Christian mumbled. He slunk off without another word.

Claude watched him go before he, too, disappeared into his office. He had much work to do…

It was nearly four in the morning when Claude undressed for bed. Throwing himself into work had been mind-numbing at best. The perfect distraction from the fact that Christian was back home, sleeping in the guest bed a few doors down.

Though he should be with me.

Still, it was a miracle to have him back. He would take that.

Claude pulled the silk sheet over his nude body when a soft knock sounded on his bedroom door. Claude rolled onto his side and eyed it. “Come in.”

Christian pushed open the door. “Were you sleeping? If you were, I can come back—”

“No, I wasn’t. Not yet. Come in.”

Christian closed the door behind him. He approached the bed with hesitant, unsure steps.

Claude’s gaze skimmed over Christian’s lean figure clad only in a pair of boxers and a T-shirt. Claude’s cock twitched. Christian had the type of body he preferred for his lovers.

Christian stopped a foot away from the raised platform. His breaths were shallow and unsteady. “I can’t sleep. I can’t stop worrying about everything.” He paused. “I don’t want to be alone right now.”

Claude sucked in a deep breath. He knew where the conversation was headed.

Christian continued, “I need you to take my mind off this.” He licked his lips. “Fuck me.”

Claude groaned. Those two words sent a lance of heat straight to his penis. He’d forgotten how direct Christian could be. Claude pulled back the blanket, urging his younger lover to climb inside. When he did, Claude wrapped around him from behind, pressing the front of his body flush against Christian’s back.

Christian moaned softly as Claude pressed against him.

“I swear I will. But first, let me hold you for a while.” He wanted to savor that moment. That victory. At Christian’s nod, Claude burrowed his face against his neck, inhaling the crisp scent of ginger-and-citrus body product. Claude couldn’t help a big smile.

Christian needed him again.

Chapter Seven

Nick woke up alone in bed. The curtains were pulled open, giving him a panoramic view of New York City in the daytime. He scrubbed his face.

Shit, he was at Claude’s.

He’d been hoping last night had been a dream. Despite everything that’d happened at his place, Nick hadn’t wanted to come home with Claude again. Not because of the sex thing, but because Claude’s persistence freaked him out. Claude acted like they knew one another from a past life or something. Still, Nick had to admit that last night had been nice. He’d been so worried about Amy, wondering if his past had finally caught up with him, that he’d been unable to sleep. Claude touching him in a soothing way actually helped calm him. He’d managed to fall asleep before they even got to the good stuff. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had held him…assured him everything would be okay. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d truly relaxed.

Nick threw off the sheets. He sniffed the air, the scent of homemade breakfast floating into his nose. Still dressed in his T-shirt and boxers, Nick left the room. The scent grew stronger as he proceeded down the hallway that led into the kitchen, joined by the sound of clanging pots.

“Claude.” Nick entered the kitchen.

Two women turned in his direction with startled expressions. The older one—a short, robust woman with gray-peppered hair worn in a bun—jumped. “Ay, Dios mío,” she exclaimed. “You frightened me.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Please, it’s all right. Señor Claude didn’t mention he had an overnight guest.”

Nick took a seat at the island, uncomfortable in only his underwear. “Where is Claude anyway?”

“He left already. Probably for work. I’m Vicky. This is my daughter, Yesenia.” She pointed to the slightly taller, younger woman beside her. Yesenia was beautiful and curvy, with long jet-black waves and pouty lips. She appeared around Nick’s age. “We work for Señor Claude as his maids,” Vicky continued.

“Oh.” Nick refrained from rolling his eyes, though he was tempted to. He knew rich people were often busy, but maids? Seriously?

“Would you care for some breakfast, too?” Before Nick could say no, Vicky set a plate in front of him. There were apple cinnamon crepes with whipped cream, scrambled eggs, a fruit salad, and homemade hash browns. His stomach growled at the divine smell. Yesenia poured him a glass of orange juice.

“Thanks.” While they finished cleaning, Nick scarfed down his food, emptying his entire plate in five minutes flat.

Vicky gave him a warmhearted smile. “Did you enjoy the meal?”

“Everything was delicious. Claude is a lucky guy if he gets to eat like this every day.”

Vicky laughed heartily. “I said the same thing when he hired me, and he’s kept me around since. Thank you for the compliment.”

“Thanks for the meal.” Nick left them to their work and headed for the bathroom. He’d only slept four hours, so he hoped a cold shower would revitalize him. The master bathroom was done up in white marble, chrome, and glass. Beneath the lighted vanity mirror, the countertop was veined marble with two unique sinks that were essentially large crystal bowls with steel, bamboo-style faucets. In the center of the space sat a marble Jacuzzi tub surrounded by four pillars, reminding Nick of ancient Roman or Grecian design. The earthy, spicy scent of whatever expensive cologne Claude wore lingered in the air.


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