It takes a strong man to be this fabulous.
Crescencio “Chenco” Ortiz pulled himself up by his garter straps after his father’s will yanked the financial rug from under his spank-me pumps. He doesn’t need anyone, yet when Steve Vance steps into his life, the prospect of having a sexy leather daddy on tap begins to take on a certain appeal.
There’s a hitch when he learns Steve is friends with Mitch Tedsoe—the half-brother Chenco never knew except through his father’s twisted lies. Despite his reservations, soon Chenco is living his dreams, including a performing gig in Vegas. Now if only he could get Steve to see him as more than just a boy in need of saving.
Steve’s attraction to Chenco is overshadowed by too many demons, ones he knows his would-be lover is too young to slay. Yet as he gets to know the bright, determined young man whose drag act redefines fierce, Steve’s inner sadist trembles with need. He begins to realize Chenco’s relentless tough love might be the only thing that will finally set him free.
On a steamy January afternoon deep in the rat’s asshole of south Texas, Chenco Ortiz opened the envelope taped to his trailer door and watched the last of his cobbled-together dreams turn to dust.
Had it come via his post office downtown instead of flirting at him in the afternoon breeze, the letter would have gone unopened into the laundry basket with the rest of his mail. The unorthodox delivery threw him off his game, but the handwriting sealed his fate. After a long day of bending out the window handing people their tacos to go and suffering the Rio Grande Valley’s perpetual irritation with a man named Ortiz who couldn’t speak Spanish, the lure of Crescenciopenciled in feminine scrawl was too much to resist.
It reminded him of home.
When Chenco had still lived in his mother’s carefully manicured subdivision, she’d left notes on his door when their schedules didn’t match. Sometimes the missives had been to ask him to pick up his sister, but sometimes they were simply Carmelita Ortiz’s special brand of love.
You are strong and good, my son. God gave you to me perfect. I am so proud of you, and I love you just the way you are.
Intellectually Chenco knew there was no chance this particular letter was from his mother. He’d learned all too painfully just the way you are was code for so long as you stay the way I want you to be. But today he was hot and tired, and he stank of grease and failure. He wanted the note on the door to be from his mama, saying she forgave him and he should come home. Honestly, as grisly as things had been lately? He’d take an angry tirade, so long as she spoke to him again.
Chenco opened his mail.
The letter was from a lawyer.
Dear Mr. Ortiz: As executor of your father’s estate, it is my duty to inform you of the current status of your residence at 369 Charity Place in the city of Donna, Texas.
Ah, yes, the trailer. Chenco shut the door behind him, setting his keys down on the kitchen counter. He should have looked this lawyer up in Cooper’s papers and sorted things out himself instead of making the guy hunt him down. He had the deed in the safety deposit box at the bank, but he supposed he’d need to file it officially. Hopefully doing so didn’t cost a lot of money, because paying for the leathery old skinflint’s pine box had not been cheap, and Chenco hadn’t exactly started out with a trust fund.
It would be good to have the ownership settled at last. As castles went, it was a pretty pathetic one, but Chenco had clawed his way into this heap of rust, and he had nowhere else to go. He’d take any victory he could get right now, especially over the mean old son of a bitch he’d called father.
But as Chenco read on, he went cold to his core as Cooper Tedsoe, dead and buried these three weeks, stole triumph from his son’s trembling hands.
“He can’t do this.” Chenco’s whisper, raw and hollow, echoed inside his ringing ears. “This can’t be right. He said…”
Well, he’d said. When had Cooper ever told the truth?
How could he lie about this?
Setting his teeth, Chenco grabbed his keys and stormed to his Nova, letter in hand. By the time he drove into McAllen and parked outside the lawyer’s office, he’d so girded himself with inner steel he made knights in armor look pathetic and bulky. Before the politely smiling receptionist could say anything, Chenco slammed the half-crumpled paper onto her desk. “This is wrong.”
Her smile wavered. “I’m sorry, sir?”
Chenco poked his finger at the paper. “Someone taped this on my trailer door. It’s a mistake.”
A flicker of recognition and fleeting sense of sadness lit the receptionist’s eyes. Without looking up, she pressed a button on the phone system in front of her. “Mr. Cuevas, I’m sorry to interrupt your meeting, but Crescencio Ortiz is here.”
A whisper of sanity suggested to Chenco perhaps he’d done this badly, but as Cuevas emerged from a closed door behind the receptionist, the last dregs of control ran out of Chenco’s fingers. He shook the letter in the lawyer’s face. “This is horse shit.”
Cuevas held up his hands. “Mr. Ortiz, there is no need for such language. I’m in an important meeting right now, but in a half hour I can—”
“This says you’re giving my trailer to the—” Chenco choked and swallowed the rush of pain before switching tactics. “Is this some kind of joke? You think this is funny?”
The lawyer had the same look of pity on his face as his receptionist. “I would never joke about probate. I will point out also it isn’t I who gives or takes anything. Our office is simply executing our client’s directive. However, I understand why you are concerned. If you could wait twenty minutes—”
“Your directive is wrong. Even my father wasn’t that big of an ass. This whole thing reads like something out of The Onion. Really, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan? As if they’re heroes instead of racist, murdering assholes? Why them? What the fuck does the KKK want with my trailer?”
With a weary nod to the receptionist, the lawyer opened the door to his office and leaned inside. “I’m very sorry, Steve, but I need a few minutes. Maria will get you some coffee.”
“No worries, Luis. I’ll take a walk and get my own. I could use a chance to stretch my legs.”
A man emerged from the office—a white man, an inch shorter than Chenco but twice as broad and swelling with muscle. Sometimes men wore chaps and motorcycle boots as a fashion statement, but Chenco suspected there was a bike to go with this guy’s gear. His shaved head, tattooed arms, and heavy leather said badass without so much as a stutter. The letter’s invocation of the KKK still ringing in his head, Chenco retreated, blind rage giving way to wariness.
The man met Chenco’s gaze and held it. He didn’t threaten, but at the same time everything about him said, Behave, boy.
Chenco wasn’t behaving. He was being an ass. Lowering his gaze in shame, Chenco loosened his posture.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard the white man grunt quietly in approval.
“No need to rush,” Cuevas’s client said as he headed out the door.
The lawyer ushered Chenco into his office, shutting the door behind them. He indicated the chair across from his desk, and when Chenco sat, he found the leather still warm from the man whose appointment he’d interrupted, the one who’d silently scolded him. When Cuevas settled into his own seat, threading his fingers together over the desktop as he leaned closer with a grim expression, the last laces of Chenco’s defenses came undone.
“Mr. Cuevas. This can’t be right. I put money toward the lot fees for the trailer. I paid the taxes. I paid Cooper’s goddamned hospital bills.”
“I understand, and I’m truly sorry. Unfortunately this does not change the contents of your father’s legal documents.”
Behave, boy. “Sir, his will didn’t say this. I saw it. If he did write this, he did it after his stroke, and it can’t stand up to anything.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this dictate does in fact come from the valid legal will for your father, dated before his stroke.” The lawyer’s countenance brightened. “However, if you could produce this alternate document, and if it were dated after the copy we have on file, it might be possible to contest.”
Chenco had gutted the trailer and safety deposit box after Cooper went to the nursing home. He had no letter. “Maybe he filed it with a different lawyer.”
“No other will has been filed. I can provide you with the original copy, if you should care to verify this yourself, or I can provide one to your attorney.”
“I don’t have an attorney. I have the trailer.”
“Mr. Ortiz, I’m afraid you do not.”
Why couldn’t the lawyer yell at him, call Chenco names and threaten him? Why was he as grandfatherly as Mr. Flores at the funeral home had been?
How was Chenco supposed to fight back?
Chenco dug his fingernails into his leg. “Why would he do this? Why would he tell me he was leaving it to me, let me pay for everything and then…”
He trailed off, arrested as terrible recognition dawned, hollowing him out as if he’d been shot from the inside. When the lawyer passed over a box of tissues, Chenco pushed them away, dragging himself from the empty cliff of hurt and shame with a shake of his head.
“No.” The word felt like steel in Chenco’s mouth, and he clung to it. “I haven’t cried for him yet, and I’m not letting him have any tears now.”
Cuevas nodded and put the box aside. “I could put in a request for an extension, using your revelation of a potential additional will as cause. I doubt the other party is in a great hurry to claim a fifty-year-old mobile home in Donna, Texas.”
No, but they certainly wouldn’t grant any favors to a homosexual half-Latino, to say nothing of what they’d do when they found out about Caramela. “I won’t be able to find the will, sir.”
“You are upset, Mr. Ortiz, and grieving. I’m sure the court will allow you ample time to exhaust the possibility of an alternate will, especially when I speak up for you personally.”
Now Chenco felt like shit. “You don’t owe me such a courtesy, not after how I’ve behaved.”
Cuevas let out a huff and sat back in his chair. “I’ve been waiting to mitigate this damage for years. You didn’t make helping you very easy. I’ve sent you several letters, some registered, but from your reaction I’m taking it the one I had taped to your door in the flats is the first one you’ve opened.”
“I can’t deal with this. I don’t have any money saved, not after paying his—” Chenco stopped, not trusting himself to go on. His throat felt thick, his stomach raw. “I work two jobs already, but I don’t make enough money to pay rent on my own.”
“Do you have friends, perhaps, or other family where you can stay? Your father did have another son by his wife—”
“God no.” Chenco shuddered. “My older brother doesn’t know about me, I don’t think, but if he did, he’d kill me. If you thought Cooper hated a gay half-breed, wait until you get a load of this guy. He’s been in town since the funeral, and I’ve worked like hell to avoid him. If I have to stay with someone, it’s not going to be Mitch Tedsoe.”
“I don’t know the man, so I’ll have to defer to your judgment. As I said, I’ll file for an extension. Hopefully this gives you time to make alternative arrangements.”
Chenco’s stomach wasn’t raw, it was rancid. “I can’t pay you.”
The lawyer’s smile had dark edges. “Oh, you won’t. The estate and its beneficiaries will receive my bill, and I intend to be thorough regarding this matter.” He handed a card over the desk to Chenco. “Please leave your number at the desk in case we need to be in touch. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to call if something comes up. I wish you luck in your endeavors, Mr. Ortiz.”
Recognizing he was being dismissed, Chenco thanked the lawyer and returned to the main lobby, where he left his cell number with the receptionist. On his way out, he glanced to see if the man he’d interrupted was in the waiting area, but it was empty, which was a relief. All Chenco wanted to do was get out of McAllen, head back to Donna, and soak in his tub. While he still had a tub.
The impact of what the lawyer had revealed closed over Chenco in a slow, choking fog. The trailer isn’t mine anymore. Cuevas would buy him some time before the inevitable, but there was no way out. Cooper had seen to that. First he’d bled his son dry, then he’d left the only thing Chenco wanted to an organization who would never in a million years do anything but kick Chenco hard and fast into the street.
Was Mitch’s return to the valley part of this double punch? Had he known what Cooper would do and was in town to hunt him down and finish the blow? What if Chenco hadn’t run off when he’d seen Mitch at the funeral? Would he be rotting slowly into the mesquite instead of wallowing over how badly their father had fucked him over?
The thought made his feet heavy, disorienting Chenco so much he inadvertently circled the block, landing on the street parallel to where he’d parked. Slipping into the alley, Chenco wrapped himself in the darkness, sliding down the relative coolness of the brick wall as he sat on the ground and hugged himself. Three stray cats scuttled from beneath a pile of newspaper, the smallest bearing a dead rat in its mouth. From the street, sounds of lazy afternoon traffic drifted into the alley, and above him an air conditioner whirred and complained in the heat.
He should call Booker, or Lincoln. Even in a month he wouldn’t have enough money saved to rent so much as a shoebox on the corner. He’d have to live in someone’s spare room or sleep on their couch. Except what was he supposed to do with Caramela’s things? Lincoln would let him store some stuff, but he had roommates, and Heide took up all his extra space. Was Chenco supposed to trust Booker’s boyfriend not to rip Caramela’s wardrobe up for fun some afternoon when he was high? Hope nobody went through his bins in the storeroom of the club?
What in the hell was he going to do?
Chenco rocked gently, taking slow, careful breaths as he soothed himself. He wouldn’t let the fucker win, not now when this was the final battle. He shut his eyes and imagined Caramela on the stage of a bright, beautiful hall, the best in the world, a thousand admirers roaring and screaming her name. Yes, he’d get there, and he wouldn’t let his asshole father stop him.
You are good. You are strong. You are perfect the way you are. You will figure this out, one way or the other.
Chenco murmured the words out loud when they failed to take simply by repeating them inside his head. He wouldbeat this. He wouldn’t let anyone stop him. He’d claw his way into the sun. He didn’t know how he’d do it yet, but he’d find a way.
All those years. All the time, all the money, all the visits to the nursing home—he laughed at me. He never loved me. He never even liked me. He hated me so much he went out of his way to destroy me.
Swallowing, Chenco drew his bottom lip into his mouth and bit, sucking on the soft flesh until it hurt, until he could focus on the pain instead of the hollow wounds inside him. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t—
“Are you all right?”
Chenco looked up, releasing his swollen lip as he stared at the mouth of the alley. The man from Cuevas’s office stood there, his shaved head silhouetted against the sun. Leather creaking, he closed the distance between them and crouched in front of Chenco.