Rent

an excerpt



Chapter 1


It always amazed Wren that Tricks could be so busy, no matter what time of day he stopped in. Today, for example, it was three in the afternoon, a Friday, yes, but still, three in the afternoon. And yet the stripper bar was crowded, mostly with older guys, but some like Wren, too. Younger-wearing snarky 'what am I doing here?' expressions on their faces even as they cast furtive glances up at the two buff guys dancing in G-strings to the latest Lady Gaga anthem.

Outside, Chicago in summer was in full swing, but once you entered Tricks, you forgot all about the city and the season. The traffic sounds at the intersection of Belmont and Broadway, the rumble of the el a few blocks west, and the voices of many pedestrians mingling on the street, disappeared. Tricks was a world unto itself, a universe where nearly naked men, alcohol fumes, colored lights, dirty floors, the clinking of ice in glasses, the husky music of men propositioning men, and mirrored walls all conspired together, creating something that was one part sleaze, one part gay, and one part home (at least for many of the men who frequented Tricks).

Tricks was all about escapism. Its dancers allowed you to free yourself from the shackles of your own body issues. Too skinny? Too fat? In-between but nowhere near remarkably ripped? It was okay at Tricks because the dancers were beautiful and one could imagine they got their ripped and muscular physiques effortlessly, from hanging out in bars, consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and tricking athletically with a parade of handsome strangers. The magic might work for you one day, too.

Or at least that was the fantasy they were selling at Tricks.

And...if your self-esteem tank was running a little low, a wink or a smile from one of the dancers was enough to kick it up a notch. The hunky bartender calling you 'Gorgeous' or 'Stud' didn't hurt either when he asked what he could get you. This kind of behavior from those who worked at Tricks was hard to swallow, yet easy to cling to, making you believe, if only for a second, you were hot. You were wanted.

It was all part of the make-believe. And sometimes, it was enough.

Wren Gallagher, all of twenty-three years old, today needed some of the escapism Tricks offered. Yes, he required it even at three in the afternoon. As the crowd jostled him, Wren kept his eye on the one open stool at the bar in front of him. It was like some sort of prize, an alcoholic holy grail, a place where he could park his skinny ass and maybe, just maybe, forget for a few hours what a crappy day he'd had.

Just as he elbowed his way through the laughing and chattering crowd of mostly middle-aged men and had managed to get within inches of the vacant stool, a heavy-set guy with a bottle of beer in one thick paw materialized out of nowhere to claim it. He was focused intently on the blond Adonis gyrating on the bar, so he did not see that there was a competition for the stool.

Wren stopped and regarded the man with his brown eyes, hoping his telepathy was in good enough working order that the man would feel the force of his gaze. At least one thing would go right on this shitty day, Wren thought, and that one thing-all I ask-is that this character makes eye contact with me.

Lo and behold, he did. Wren smiled prettily, trying to buoy up the older, balding man's ego with the combined force of his slightly gap-toothed, turned-up-at-one-corner grin and his shock of red hair, his slender hips encased in denim, and the geek allure vibe he knew he gave off. He knew because he had been told he was a sexy nerd on more than one occasion.

The guy did a bit of a double take when he saw Wren trying to make eye contact, smiling. He looked up at the dancer and back at Wren, as if he had to decide between one or the other. As if he had a choice...

Wren winked.

That was all it took. The older man stepped back, away from the stool, and gestured with his hands, the perfect gentleman, that Wren should take it.