Read Me True

an excerpt



Chapter One: Kindred Spirits

Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are.

– John Ruskin



The chill of anguish seeped deeper into his bones, haunting and all-consuming. Of Ethan Blair, former bookstore owner and expert at self-deception, nothing remained but guilt. He deserved it, and so much more, for what he'd done.

Or rather, for what he'd failed to do.

No matter how much he paced, he just couldn't stop shivering. The voice of reason reminded him that being cold meant he was alive, but the constant chill had very little to do with the lack of insulation, and the whole concept of living had lost its appeal anyway.

"Whether you knew what you were getting yourself into or not is irrelevant now, Ethan."

"Please stop being helpful, okay?" Reeling from another onslaught of memories, puzzle pieces from a happier time, he balled his hands into fists and shoved the lid back onto the past, onto those haunted, mesmerizing green eyes. "I just wish--" Without conscious thought, he pressed a thumb to the burn mark running up his right arm. "If only I--"

"You can't change the past."

"No, I can't." Ethan choked out the words like so many blades stuck in his throat. "Funny how I can't stop thinking about it either, huh?"

"Clinging to memories won't bring him back," came the frosty reply. "You have to move on."

Ethan stepped in front of the window to stare off into the vastness of Russia's steppes. His skin felt too tight. The heartache was still expanding, pushing at the walls of the decaying shell he wished he could leave. He clutched his chest, all wound-up in knots of self-loathing.

Rage welled up inside him. How could it have been wrong to dream and hold on to that dream? How could it have been anything but right, when the dream had smiled back and liked him too?

It hurt so much to remember. To feel.

"I should have done more," he whispered hoarsely. Screwing his eyes shut, and trapping the tears threatening to break free, he cut himself off from everything: the billowing clouds gathering in the sky, the woman in the room, and the vivid memories of empty eyes and lips of ash. "I should have protected him better."

It was the only truth that mattered.

* * *

Eight months earlier

This was getting ridiculous.

"Ms. Fair. As I've told you plenty of times already, the Drihten doesn't sell romance."

"Oh." It was a calculated pause, that Ethan filled with fantasies of the woman's permanent disappearance. "You really don't have a copy somewhere, Mr. Blair? Every bookstore--"

"No."

Ms. Fair puffed up her cheeks in annoyance. For a woman bearing that name, she could have used a lot more mercy from Mother Nature. "No?"

"No!"

What did I ever do to attract idiots? Ethan Blair, owner of the Drihten, thought wearily as his least favorite customer batted her eyelids at him. Some people just didn't take no for an answer, and thus deserved to be thrown out of a window. At least, that had been amongst his father's favorite threats, before his misguided affection of the bottle did him in for good.

"Ms. Fair." Ethan always prided himself in not letting aggravating individuals bother him in the sanctity of his business and home, but this small plump woman with the fashion sense of a stray cat never lost faith in the impossible. "I will tell you one last time: I do not sell, have never sold, and will never sell romance, all right? Now if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do."

A familiar glare followed him as he vanished behind two tall bookcases. "Well, Mr. Blair...perhaps you ought to leave your lair one day, see if someone beside yourself is interested in your relics." Sneering on the last word, she adjusted her shiny pink purse against her brown-clad hip and stormed out of the Drihten.

The sound of the door clicking shut was music to Ethan's ears. He walked back to the main desk to resume the search a certain witch had interrupted. The third drawer yielded nothing beside a collection of old receipts, much like the first two.

"Where's that damn brochure?" he muttered to himself, crouching to yank the fourth drawer open.

He still felt insulted on behalf of his bookstore. No: his amazing, over-the-top, fantastic bookstore. The two-story storage facility hadn't been much to look at back when he'd first bought it from a bewildered real estate agent five years ago, but months of efforts into styling up the place had put it back to rights. Yes, the wooden floor creaked ominously in places, and some of the tiles clearly had been on the menu for a few mice last winter, but every little flaw only added to the genial charm of the place.

The Drihten might not be comparable in size or gross income to the likes of Barnes & Noble, but it was who he was, stretched out and divided into thousands of old stories held together by time and knowledge. At barely thirty-eight, Ethan Blair--his driver license said Ethaniel Blair, but self-preservation instincts kept most people from using his full name--possessed an extensive collection that some rich intellectuals would gladly sell their own mother for, and possibly their father, too.

There was not a single thing that reminded him of his childhood amidst the cushioned leather chairs, the carved wooden bookcases, the imported Persian carpets, and the high ceilings painted by talented artists who could, and had, reproduced the style of long-dead masters. The bland white walls had been painted a deep gold and forest green, and beige columns were interspersed with replicas of famous tableaux. Ethan's personal favorite was Gericault's Le Radeau de la Meduse, which held the place of honor above the fireplace.

Ethan basked in the silence, the other half of his focus on the smell of old leather-bound books. It wouldn't do for him to get all worked up over Ms. Unfair, or the lost brochure; that one advertised a book he wasn't even sure he would acquire anyway.

Eventually, the atmosphere of the Drihten worked its magic once more, and Ethan retreated to the back of the store, where a spiral staircase led to his private quarters one floor up. Both the twenty-four stairs and the rails were painted black, a mistake from an amateur painter that Ethan had let slide, if only because the color had met with Ekaterina's approval.

His quarters were of modest dimensions: a single bedroom, where a king-sized bed took most of the space; a tiny bathroom barely big enough to fit a shower, a sink, a toilet, and a few shelves; his office, which also doubled as a living room; and a small corridor seemingly designed for people much smaller than himself. Not that Ethan was very tall for a man, but his broad shoulders tended to brush against the walls. The piles of boxes littering the floor sure didn't help navigating the narrow space.

The dimensions, however, were the only humble thing about this refuge within a refuge. A comfortable leather chair faced a custom-made mahogany desk, and a luxurious, fully programmable espresso machine was set on the matching low table beside a black designer recliner couch. More tableaux decorated the walls, as well as vases filled with roses and lilies. Those had been Ekaterina's contribution to his ‘dull taste in decoration' (her words, not his), and she'd inherited her father's dislike for refusals.

Smiling somewhat affectionately at the expensive vase over his state-of-the-art printer, Ethan fixed himself a cup of espresso, grabbed a pile of contracts and requests he should have gone through last week, and plopped down on his office's couch with a satisfied groan.

He still felt pleasantly worn out from last night, in all the right places. Although he never saw someone twice, he spent half a second mourning those never-ending legs, and the firm breasts in between which he had squeezed his cock before painting the mewling creature's lips in white. That one had liked to be manhandled all right.

Ethan flicked through the pages with an easy grin. One-night stands offered all the perks he wanted, without the dangerous rollercoaster of promises and emotions that actual relationships required. Good sex should always be anonymous and messy; that was the mantra he lived by.

He managed to sort through ten different documents--one of them a printed email that spanned all of two lines--before his mind unhelpfully sought out a distraction. Digging his shoulders into the couch and propping his feet on the low mahogany table, Ethan shifted the stack of files to his lap and decided to ignore it for a while. His gaze drifted to the people on the street below, and his mind labeled and judged them as they walked from one side of the circular window to the next. Tourists, families, friends. Boring.

Two women paused in their stroll to kiss under the crimson canopy of a maple tree.

Couples, Ethan thought with a grimace, brushing the rim of his cup with his lips. Even more boring.

He shuddered. The prospect of paperwork seemed much more appealing now, and Ethan threw himself back into the task with the first real inkling of enthusiasm.

The rest of the day went by smoothly. Two tourists came in around three, dressed in the kind of clothes that let Ethan know not to bother turning on the charm. After they left, he called back one of his clients. While he waited for the Chinese businessman to pick up, he munched on a granola bar. It was expired, but Ethan was pretty sure it would have tasted just as bland fresh out of the factory.

As he sipped his second cup of coffee, he did his weekly citizen duty and watched the news on his laptop. The American President was attempting to negotiate a new trade agreement with the Russian Premier, which Ethan already knew about because of his connections. Another civil war was looming in Lebanon, an earthquake had killed thirteen and wounded thirty in Turkey, forest fires were spreading in Western Canada...All in all, nothing out of the ordinary for the week before All Saints' Day. Ethan was considering closing the tab as the big-breasted blonde journalist switched to the suicide of some Italian bigwig, a renowned fashion designer who'd made himself even more famous by leaving behind a letter addressed to his favorite model and muse.

The designer's fate mattered little to Ethan, but the muse in question gave him pause--black-haired, green-eyed and fair-skinned, she was much prettier than the one Ethan had fucked last night. She'd also died under nebulous circumstances.

"What a shame..." Ethan clicked the window shut. His espresso machine called to him, and his computer was begging to install some updates that would leech on his RAM for the foreseeable future anyway. He might as well get more caffeine.

The sun had already set when the doorbell rang again. In the process of outbidding his favorite enemy for one of Da Vinci's surviving notebooks, Ethan dismissed it as another lost tourist in downtown New York. The Big Apple was a crossroads for lost souls, after all.

"I'll be with you in a moment," he called out, typing one last insult in the chatroom of the bidding website. The notebook would be his. "Feel free to look around."

"Thank you, I appreciate it."

A man's voice, deep and cultured. Ethan paused. Now that could be an interesting way to wrap up the day. He gave himself two more minutes to secure his purchase, then left his stool and joined his visitor.

Even in the dim light, he could make out a tall and slim figure clad in dark jeans and a slightly lighter shirt. Green, perhaps. The man's jet-black hair was arranged in an artful ponytail. He had his back to him, so Ethan couldn't see his face, but the voice had told him a lot already: British, probably from the London area; at the end of his twenties, or in his early thirties; not a lost tourist, and perhaps an intellectual; polite...

Ethan barely avoided tripping over his own feet as he rounded the desk. The one-of-a-kind clock made of cogs hanging over the door chimed nine o'clock. While the Drihten didn't keep a regular schedule, Ethan usually closed by that time.

Not tonight, he mused, eyeing the man's backside appreciatively. He adopted a relaxed stance and infused his voice with warmth, and the barest hint of suavity. It wouldn't do to scare his prey before he'd fully ensnared it.

Careful, Ethan. "Good evening, sir."

The slender man froze in place, one long finger hovering over the cover of a book in Old Norse that Ethan had acquired just last week.

"How may I help you?" Ethan asked, his tone lacking its usual sharp inflection.

The man didn't answer, and Ethan could hardly blame him, for he was too busy staring. Now, Ethan had bedded his fair share of good-looking people over the years. With his short brown hair always curled into messiness, his almond-shaped chocolate eyes, square jaw, full lips, slightly muscled shape, and tanned skin, it hardly mattered that genetics kept him under six feet, or that his goatee wasn't always trimmed to perfection. His attractiveness was a weapon Ethan used on both genders alike, enticing one sex or the other according to the ‘phase' he was in. For a period ranging from twenty-four hours to several months, he would focus on either men or women, and then his interest would shift, for no reason he could explain.

He'd been in a woman phase just before seeing his visitor's face.

The stranger had aristocratic, well-defined features. His skin tone was a white so pure, so smooth, without hint of a beard or mustache, that Ethan instantly wished to reach out and mark it with his ink-stained fingertips. He held his breath as he took in the high cheekbones and the straight bridge of the man's nose, picturing himself touching instead of looking. It took him a moment to notice that one of his hands was already extending with precisely that design, and he snaked it back to his side with a hiss.

Please let him be gay, or bi, he thought, yearning to caress the sensuous curve of the man's jaw, sharp-angled and strong-lined and worth a thousand brush strokes. The man's mouth, red and soft-looking, was made to be kissed. Devoured.

Ethan cleared his throat. Words lined up at a snail's pace. "Were you...looking for something?"

"Oh." The single phoneme sounded like an apology. The man ducked his head. "Perhaps. These are all...lovely books you have here." He parted his lips, letting out the tip of a pink tongue. "Mister..."

"Ethan Blair, the owner." Hopefully, none of his delicious shock showed. "Welcome to the Drihten. So, you're interested in Old Norse books, or the historic period?"

The man's eyelids fluttered shut on a pair of stunning viridian eyes. Ethan couldn't help but notice the long, dark lashes, and how prettily they caressed the man's cheeks.

"Old Norse, actually. I was wondering if you had other books by that author?" The Englishman gestured at the book that had first caught his interest.

Ethan rubbed his hands together. He really, really liked knowing so much about books, even if Old Norse literature was not exactly his forte. Showtime. "Let me see what I can get you..."

Over the course of the next hour, he learned more about Old Norse than he'd ever thought he would, and he enjoyed every single explanation on declensions, kennings, and mythology. His visitor was delightful in his enthusiasm, eyes blazing with passion and hands flying around wildly to illustrate a point, and yet he would get this look about him at times, a strange mixture of vulnerability and fierceness. As if he expected Ethan to laugh, or to turn his back on him in dismissal.

The frequency at which Ethan had been told of his own shortcomings as a kid helped him recognize the signs. He didn't care about strangers as a rule, but these bouts of insecurity hit a little too close to home. He had to wipe that uncertainty off his extraordinary interlocutor's face, he just had to. Besides, men with both looks and brains were such a rare species nowadays they ought to be protected...or at the very least, showered with admiration.

Eventually, Ethan stopped focusing on the man's physique entirely. The Englishman knew a lot about books--almost as much as Ethan, it turned out--and he talked of obscure and grand authors and asked intelligent questions about the Drihten's collections, commenting on Ethan's answers with quick wit and polite humor even as he flushed at the praise. It became obvious pretty fast that both of them read and appreciated similar books, activities and intellectual ventures.

Baring his exotic friendship with Ekaterina, Ethan hadn't felt this strong of a connection to another human being in more than a decade.

"...so, I arrived from England a week ago to lead the negotiations of a merger."

"A merger?" prompted Ethan, eyebrows going up. "I thought you said you were a linguist?"

The Englishman huffed softly. "I work in sales and investment for a national company. I usually stay at the head office for my work, yes, but negotiating a merger falls under my purview." A muscle jumped in his jaw. "It was the CEO's wish that I..."

He trailed off. The longing in his eyes as he closed the book they'd been discussing tugged at something inside Ethan. It felt suspiciously like empathy.

He should have kept his mouth shut.

"I did work in linguistics once upon a time, Mr. Blair," the Englishman amended, as if the thickening silence coaxed truths to the surface. "But dreams are meant to embellish one's inner landscape, never to threaten the rules of the tangible world."

Really? Why? The Drihten was my dream; still is. Ethan swallowed back the words, and all the follow-up questions to his visitor's depressive statement. Whatever that man's professional issues were, however they had come to be, none of it was any of Ethan's business. To thwart his own plans by letting free rein to curiosity would be the height of stupidity.

Still, he really should have kept his mouth shut.

"Soooo..." He leaned further into his desk, inviting himself into the other man's personal space just enough to truly get his attention. "Do you plan on visiting the city during your stay here?"

"Unless I receive directives to the contrary, no."

Ethan cocked his head, appalled at the terminology. "Directives?"

"I may be in charge of a merger overseas, but I still answer to the CEO." The other man plucked at the cuffs of his shirt. "He might...request that I fly back to the head office at any time. The company did undergo many changes recently, and I've...I've been there through it all."

"I see." Ethan didn't see anything, didn't get it at all. Looking at the other man, it was obvious that this merger, this job, didn't inspire him even a hundredth of the passion literature did. So why do that work? Why mention his displeasure to him, a practical stranger?

And why, why was Ethan showing so much interest in a possible fuck's personal life? Was their moment of bonding over books sufficient to justify such sympathy?

Ethan shook his head as if to dislodge the thought. He didn't care about people he'd just met. He was honest enough to acknowledge that he mainly cared about himself, and because he liked his head attached to his neck, Ekaterina. The only thing he wanted from that gorgeous, intelligent, complicated man, he told himself firmly, was a good fuck. He wanted memories of him moaning in that luscious accent of his while he fucked him breathless, nothing more.

If the other party was amenable, of course. Which meant turning up the charm a few notches to trick his prey into revealing their preferred gender.

"But surely you will have some free time to enjoy the city, in the evening perhaps?" he crooned, grinning at the sight of a cute blush spreading on the other man's cheekbones. Blushes were always a good sign.

"Perhaps...Perhaps I will." His visitor turned around to look through the window at the autumn scenery. Red leaves twirled in the wind, splotches of blood under the glare of streetlamps. "Mr. Blair, I must apologize."

"Whatever for?"

"I'm afraid I kept you long enough."

Ethan was quick to reassure him. "I was enjoying our conversation," he said honestly. "It's been a very long time since I've met such a brilliant mind as yours. Your smile's just the cherry on top."

The other man blinked, his lips slowly curling upwards. Ethan moaned inwardly; unless his gaydar was way off, this one was as interested as he was interesting.

"I enjoyed our conversation as well. I--Thank you for your time. I wish I could...To be perfectly honest with you..." The Englishman rubbed the back of his neck with a shy smile. "The trip has worn me out."

"I understand." And Ethan did. Nothing kept a man from being both understanding and disappointed at the same time. "You should come back tomorrow, though," he added a tad too hurriedly. Smooth, Ethan, real smooth. At least, he had the man's full attention now. "Most of my collections are displayed for the public eye, but I keep my treasured possessions upstairs, for connoisseurs. I'm sure there would be... something of interest for you."

It took Ethan a fraction of a second to remember that double entendre was perhaps not the best way to go about seducing a shy man into his bed, but by then it was too late. To his relief, the Englishman just smiled wider, exposing two perfect rows of white teeth. Ethan wondered if drinking too much coffee could really explain the frantic thumping of his heart. His own smile frozen in place, he steadied himself with a hand on the counter.

"It's a very generous offer. I shall consider it." The Englishman extended one hand. It was very white, long fingered and pretty all over. "It's been a pleasure, Mr. Blair. Really."

They shook hands. When the Englishman meant to pull back, Ethan let his thumb glide and linger. The brief interlude of silence had a pleasant quality to it, and to Ethan's relief and returning arousal, the other man's eyes darkened.

"The pleasure was all mine, I assure you, Mister...?"

"Read. Thomas Read."

They were standing so close now, with nothing between them except air and social conventions, or rather, what distance Ethan still deemed necessary to get Thomas where he wanted him: closer.

Thomas averted his eyes. "Thank you, I..." His lips thinned to a tight line, but a flicker of something hopeful crossed his face. "I really must be going now."

Just as Thomas stepped back, Ethan lifted the pale hand to his mouth and pressed his lips to his knuckles, grinning around the kiss as the man's eyes, Thomas's, widened. "It really is a shame." And, to put him at ease, he added, "Trust my taste; I own books in Old Norse."

The Englishman was smiling and blushing as he exited the bookstore in a rush.

Wow.

Leaning into the front door, Ethan spent a few minutes convincing his heart to stop trying to firework its way out of his chest. "Stop drooling," he muttered to himself. "He's just a man, for crying out loud."

Once it became apparent that self-chastisement would achieve nothing, he brought the old book that had interested Thomas behind the counter. He wasn't sure yet what he intended to do with it, but he wanted the book...safe. Thomas Read, a man among so many others, had touched it. Thomas Read, the man at the forefront of his mind, had wanted it.

Ethan wanted him more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life.

He climbed the stairs four at a time. The gears in his brains were turning at full speed as he retrieved a bottle of his finest scotch from his cabinet. The bed would be more comfortable than the couch, but he didn't want to wait. The desire in his loins had siphoned all the blood from his brain, and it had to be here, now.

Read. Thomas Read.

He twisted open the bronze cap and lifted the bottle to his lips. By the time he'd poured a few ounces down his throat, he was imagining Mr. Read, no, Thomas, sitting on his lap, blushing that pretty blush of his, stammering out of desire rather than nervousness. Oh, the unspeakable things Ethan wanted to do to him...

With his free hand, he unzipped his trousers and pulled impatiently at his boxer briefs, swearing inwardly at the notion of underwear. His cock bobbed free, already glistening at the tip. Ethan shuddered as his mind supplied him with vivid pictures of Thomas wrapping his long fingers around his erection. How nice it would feel to have Thomas stroke him, to have that deliciously shy linguist asking how Ethan wanted it, how Ethan wanted him.

On your knees, Ethan replied in his fantasy. You'll look so pretty with my cock in your mouth.

He pictured Thomas just like that, sinful lips stretched around his girth. He would still be wearing all his clothes, whereas Thomas would be stark naked, his pale skin flushed and shiny with sweat. Ethan would let him find a cushion for his knees, and then he would grab a handful of dark hair and pull.

Deeper. Yes, just like that.

Would Thomas be good at giving head? Would he be able to deepthroat him until the only words Ethan remembered were more and please? Would he cry and moan as Ethan fucked his mouth like there was no tomorrow? Ethan imagined Thomas's face smeared with tears, saliva dripping down his chin as he tried to take as much cock as he could, so polite, so eager, it was no wonder Ethan was completely charmed. He would caress his neck, offering praise even as Thomas choked, because he choked.

So good for me, Thomas...

He wasn't sure he would be able to resist coming all over that pretty face. Would Thomas lick his lips, or would he ask Ethan to push the taste into his mouth with his tongue? Ethan grunted as he pictured those red lips parting for further plundering, for thorough fucking. The whimpers he could already hear...

He sped up the strokes, the bottle of scotch hanging loosely from his fingers. He wouldn't mind blowing Thomas off either. Maybe the man didn't know how to suck cock; maybe Ethan would have to show him, and what a delight that would be. He pictured Thomas sitting on the desk downstairs, naked from the waist down. He would kneel between his thighs and suck him off until the Englishman's legs spasmed, and then he would lock those white heels behind his neck and lick further back, tasting the hidden flesh of his ass.

Would Thomas beg for his cock if Ethan shoved his tongue inside, too?

He climaxed with the picture of Thomas's soft smile branded on his eyelids. Panting heavily, he stared at the mess on his lap. Neither the taste of scotch nor his orgasm had alleviated his hunger for a very specific body, and the mind therein. A man among so many others...

As if.

"Fuck." Fuck indeed.

He took another swig, grunting as the strong liquor burnt down his throat. He'd just met the man, and he was already losing his mind.