Dark & Dazzling
M/M Romance – Coming Soon from Carina Press
Z doesn’t need a hero…
Azariah “Z” Hayes is a diamond. Equal parts strength and sparkle, he’s more than capable of standing on his own stilettos. So if waiting tables and stripping at The Vibe are what it takes to keep a roof over his head, well, there are worse ways to earn a living.
Connelly is a white knight with a badge…
For NYPD detective Connelly Reid, to serve and protect is just another day at the office—even if that means protecting himself from his own true desires. He’s been curious about Z, his waiter, for months, but it’s not until he sees him in his makeup and heels that the curiosity becomes a fierce attraction. Z, despite all his over-the-top dazzle, might just be the man Connelly has been waiting for his entire life.
But when Connelly investigates underground porn and drug activity with ties to The Vibe, one thing becomes very clear—acting on what he knows is going to hurt Z, financially and emotionally. And though Connelly would love nothing more than to fix all of Z’s problems, no amount of mind-blowing sex can make Z comfortable becoming dependent on his lover. Yet if there’s one thing Connelly knows from his years on the force, it’s this: when things go bad, you need a trusted partner to have your back.
Book two of the Sassy Boyz series
This book is approximately 87,000 words
Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Deborah Nemeth
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise! Find out more at CarinaPress.com/RomancePromise.
His phone rang. Connelly didn’t bother glancing at the screen to check who was calling. It could only be one person.
“Hi, Janie,” he said. “What’s the problem now?”
“I don’t know. I think there’s something wrong with the water heater. We can’t get any hot water in the shower.” Even though his sister’s tone was apologetic, it was also tinged with frustration. She’d break down soon if he didn’t help her out. Janie wasn’t good with stress. Or adult responsibility beyond the day-to-day care of her two boys.
He stopped midstride, pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. The last thing he needed was to spend the rest of his afternoon fixing her problems—plural—because he knew there’d be more once he got out there.
It had already been a tough day. He and Raoul had finally closed the robbery case they’d been working for weeks, but it had come at a cost. The thug they’d been chasing had stabbed a tourist in the stomach. The guy was in the ICU getting prepped for surgery now. Plus, they’d been assigned to an ongoing burglary case because Martin and Hopkins were getting nowhere, which put a shitload of tension between them. Of course they didn’t think they needed help and resented the captain’s orders.
He didn’t want to think about all the other cases piling up on his desk while he tried to tiptoe around their bruised egos. It’d been a shit day, plain and simple.
Connelly just wanted lunch. Was that too much to ask? The busy sounds of the city swirled around him like the chaotic symphony that it was. Car horns blaring, people shouting and sirens ringing in the distance. If he listened hard enough he could probably make out the low rumble of the subway. Maybe that was his stomach. He’d been headed to his favorite diner but it looked like that was out of the question now.
He turned on his heels ready to head back to his car. “I’ll—” He barely kept a grip on his phone as he collided with something solid.
Without thinking Connelly flung his arm out and wrapped it around the slim woman who was seconds away from falling. A breath later that body didn’t seem so slim—it was lithe and firm and solid against his own. He looked down into startled eyes framed by the thickest lashes he’d ever seen. Jesus, he’d never been into women but this lady was gorgeous.
His lips parted on a breath. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you.”
Something nagged at the back of Connelly’s mind even as the stranger’s lush mouth thinned into an irritated frown.
“You can let me go now,” she said.
That voice. There was something about that voice. It shivered down Connelly’s spine in a way that had his grip around her waist tightening instead of releasing.
“Don’t make me knee you in the balls, Hot Fudge.”
It wasn’t unusual to meet a woman who cursed like a sailor, not in New York City, but what was with the nickname?
Something didn’t sit right.
All his detective warning bells went off as he let the stranger go. Absently, he pushed End on his phone screen and shoved it in his pocket.
He studied the woman as he stepped away. She was about five foot six, wearing purple knee-high boots, tight-as-sin jeans and a loose black T-shirt with glittering ruby-red lips on the front. It was loose enough that it hung off one shoulder to reveal smooth pale skin. But, as provocative as the outfit was, it was the silky long black hair, thick lashes and deep red lipstick that confused the shit out of Connelly.
Because he could have sworn he knew that voice.
“Are you okay?” Connelly asked.
She searched the ground as the crowd parted around them, and didn’t bother looking up to reply. “No thanks to you.”
“Do I know you?”
She glanced up with a scowl. “Maybe.” Those painted lips transformed into a condescending smirk. A second later, the search continued and those dark eyes were refocused.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The stranger picked up a cell phone from the gravelly sidewalk. “Thank fuck.” The sigh of relief tickled more than Connelly’s oversensitive nerves and for a moment he couldn’t blink.
“Azariah?” No. It couldn’t be…could it?
The waiter. His waiter.
He didn’t look familiar at all. Instead he looked…wicked. Tempting.
Something must have given his secret thoughts away because those luscious lips tipped up in a wry smile that lit Connelly up like a torch soaked in gasoline.
“What’s wrong, Hot Fudge, choke on your own tongue?” His sinful laugh was full of amusement and a little grit, but mostly scorn.
This was a rock star—full impact, aggressive and beautiful. There wasn’t anything average about him now. For a guy who claimed to be great at his job, Connelly was having a difficult time merging the two versions. They didn’t fit and it was disturbing his need for everything to make sense.
He stood there staring while his mind reeled.
“Don’t worry, it’s not airborne. You can’t catch queer.” With a roll of his eyes, Azariah strutted away with an intoxicating swagger that was so full of confidence and strength it blew Connelly’s mind. His palms were sweaty and his chest ached from holding his breath too long. He’d been watching the waiter he knew only as Azariah since he’d transferred to the 23rd three months ago and started eating lunch at Sal’s. Something about the guy had captured Connelly’s interest. A puzzle he hadn’t been able to solve. Now he knew what he’d been missing.
Bright red lips and a pair of killer heels. Damn.
Talk about a puzzle. The Azariah mystery had just gotten interesting.
The problem was, Connelly couldn’t solve this one. He couldn’t pursue Azariah no matter how appealing he found his daring personality. If he did, everything he’d worked for since his father passed would be ruined. Still, instead of making his way back to his car like he’d planned, he followed Azariah into the diner.
Hell, he needed to eat didn’t he? It didn’t have to mean anything.
* * *
Z stomped into the restaurant in his take-no-prisoners purple stiletto boots. He was going to kill Landon. Fucking asshole, leaving without a word and saddling him with the whole goddamn rent. Motherfucker. Seriously, his roommate was going get a big surprise when he got back from wherever the hell he’d disappeared to—a pointy-toed boot up his ass.
If Sal didn’t give him extra shifts, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. He didn’t like asking for help, especially from someone who’d already done so much for him, but it wasn’t like he was asking for money or anything. He didn’t do handouts. He wasn’t a mooch.
Everything he had now was because he’d worked his ass off.
That wasn’t going to change anytime soon.
He found his boss in the closet he called an office. Sal was hunched over the computer keyboard, pecking at it with two fingers. Z knocked on the door frame, but didn’t wait to be acknowledged. He strolled in and sat in the only chair available—a metal fold-up with a tied-on cushion.
“Fuckin’ computers,” Sal said. “Hate the damn things.”
“Hire a bookkeeper.”
Sal grunted and finally turned to look at him. “What do you want?”
Sal sighed and picked up the calendar he used to schedule the staff shifts. “You’re in luck. Jimmy just asked for two weeks off, the little shit.”
Z didn’t hide his amusement because as gruff as Sal looked, he was actually a big softy, especially with Jimmy. The kid was his nephew and the only boy in his generation, so of course Sal spoiled the crap out of him.
“He was supposed to come in this morning but since you’re here, you can take his shift.”
Sal looked up from his work and squinted at Z. “Yeah, now. Is that a problem?” The lift of one thick, unkempt eyebrow told Z that if he wanted to take the rest of Jimmy’s shifts too, he’d better not complain.
Did he have a choice? After the conversation with his landlady that morning, he didn’t think so. She was a decent old woman, but she wouldn’t have any alternative but to kick his sorry ass to the curb if he didn’t come up with the money. As it was, he had until Monday to get her the rent that stupid fucking Landon was supposed to have paid.
It was already Wednesday and he had no idea how he was going to come up with the money to keep a roof over his head.
Finding a decent apartment on his budget was difficult enough, but add the fact that he was a moody bitch who also happened to be fantastically queer made it almost impossible.
He’d put out ads for a new roommate, but that wasn’t going to help his current problem. Besides, Landon hadn’t technically moved out, he’d just gone off on one of his wanderlust adventures. And because of his irresponsibility, Z was about to get his ass thrown out.
“Perfect.” He smiled as sincerely as he could.
The boys would understand, hopefully—it wasn’t like they’d never skipped rehearsal before. Still, he could hear Tam’s lecture in the back of his mind and tried not to cringe. After Ansel’s drama a couple months ago everyone was still on edge. He didn’t want to disrupt the tenuous calm if he didn’t have to.
He also didn’t want a concrete pillow and gravel mattress.
“So what are you still doing here?” Sal’s half-smile contradicted his words and made Z grin for real as he rose from the seat.
“I just can’t get enough of your pretty face, boss.”
With a deep chuckle and a shake of his head Sal said, “Get out of here, smart-ass. We’ve got customers.”
As he made his way to the unisex bathroom reserved for staff, Z pulled out his phone and sent a quick text to Ansel, letting him know he wouldn’t make it today.
The reply was a string of angry and sad emoticons accompanied by half a dozen question marks. Z didn’t want to explain how badly he needed cash. The cost of living, even in his rat-infested two-bedroom crap hole, was higher than a rent boy on Molly. Dancing one show a night with the Sassy Boyz barely provided enough for his makeup kit and shoe addiction. And the tips had been meager lately. Two of his regulars had gone and gotten hitched, the pansy-asses.
Stupid fucking marriage equality, messing with my income.
But there was no reason to share all that shit with the boys, so he ignored Ansel instead, shoving his phone in his bag. With that done, he grabbed his makeup kit and went to work toning down his sparkle.
The light above the mirror always made him look sickeningly yellow. He eyed his smoky eye shadow critically. Had it been the makeup that had shocked Hot Fudge so badly he hadn’t been able to speak? Or was it the boots he’d pulled on that morning as a much-needed mood boost?
Maybe it was the whole package. It wasn’t like Hot Fudge had ever seen him in anything other than his standard waiter garb before.
Why did he care? Yeah, the guy was one of his favorite regulars. He was a great tipper. Plus, he was easy. He had a weekly pattern. On Mondays he always ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with extra mayo. On Tuesdays it was the meatball sub, on and on for the whole week. And every single day he ate a sundae for dessert.
He knew exactly what he liked and saw no reason to change. Z respected that.
Too bad that would end now. Hot Fudge had gone as yellow as Z’s reflection when he’d gotten a good look at him. Just another example of why Z removed his glorious paint and did what he could to butch himself up every shift even while his stomach clenched in revolt.
He carefully peeled off his lashes and stored them away for later, then he took his wipes and cleaned off his eyes and lips. A couple of pumps of his favorite travel facewash and a few rinses later and his face was as naked as ever.
When he’d first started working at Sal’s he’d donned his heels and lashes as usual. That was just who he was, and at first he was stubborn enough not to care what anyone thought. Sal had never said he couldn’t be dolled up at work, and most of his coworkers took their lead from the boss. But Z learned the hard way that most people preferred their servers invisible. Normal waiters got bigger tips.
It was the only part of working here that he hated but he needed this job and he didn’t want to let Sal down. So he tamed his inner diva even though it went against everything he stood for. Each time he heard his mother’s voice telling him to shine bright and never let anyone control him.
And each time he convinced himself it was okay, as long as he made the decision himself.
Pulling his long hair into a tight bun at the back of his head, Z sighed. Maybe it wasn’t okay, but was sleeping in the cold any better? His mother had been a dreamer. She’d died thinking that the world would protect her son just like she had.
She’d been wrong.
Z wasn’t anything like her. He was a realist.
He pulled off his heels and changed into his standard uniform of black slacks and white shirt. To keep warm and fed, he’d do a lot more than pretending he was normal. That was what survivors did.
He was pinning his name tag onto his apron when Becca came in.
“Z, what are you doing here this early?”
“Taking Jimmy’s shift. He’s on vaycay. Again.” He added emphasis into the last word because Jimmy’s escapades were always the topic of conversation at Sal’s.
She laughed. “Of course he is. What’s he doing this time? Swimming with sharks?”
“I didn’t ask, but knowing him it’s gotta be something like that.”
“I wish I could be mad at him, but really I just envy his guts.”
“Must be nice having a family who’ll pay for all the crazy shit you want to do.”
“That too.” She was much faster getting ready than he was and they left together to check the table assignments.
“Of course, Jimmy would get the tables near the door,” Becca complained. “Even when he’s not here, he’s still getting the best pick.”
“I’ll switch if you want.” The tables nearest the door had a tendency to be full and more people meant more tips. Z could really use those tips. But Becca needed the money too and he’d feel guilty all day if he didn’t offer.
“Nah, but I will be talking to Sal later.”
“Good luck.” Z picked up his order sheets and a couple menus.
Battle Tips was a game they invented based on Battleship. They had a floor-plan game board with all their tables marked, and the winner had to buy drinks for everyone else on shift.