Trust in Me

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?"

Corey peered curiously across the utility truck cab at AJ. "No. Why?"

Casually spinning the steering wheel beneath his hands to make their next turn, he said. "We're doing a larger than normal spread, inviting a lot of friends this year. You'd be welcome." He glanced over then returned his attention to the traffic. "It's an open invite."

Corey plucked at his jeans. "Thanks. Yeah. That would be nice. To have someplace to be," he added. Someplace where I'm wanted.

AJ nodded. "I'll let Avery and the others know. You can bring something or not. No pressure if you can't."

"I'm not good in the kitchen," he murmured. He'd never really had the chance to learn. Life had been too much about survival for the last two years.

AJ chuffed quietly. "Neither am I," he said in agreement. "Not for something like Thanksgiving cooking. They cook, I clean. It's safer that way. Grilling though? That I have hands down."

Corey grinned at the teasing. He had a sneaking suspicion those packed lunches hadn't been put together by AJ, as pleasantly surprised as he typically was when he opened his lunchbox every day.

He'd been working with AJ for about six months as a helper-slash-gopher for his handyman service, since the end of summer, training as an apprentice. The pay was decent and he was learning a trade and skills. He'd known college was out of the question due to his circumstances, and had been grateful when he'd found the ad for the position through an online jobs board.

After sending his information and talking to AJ on the phone about the position, he'd bussed to Arbor Heights, California from Oregon and interviewed with AJ. A week later he had the job. With a little work and a paycheck in his pocket, he'd located a really cheap apartment in order to have a legitimate address. He didn't think he was doing all that badly for a just turned twenty, high school dropout.

Sunlight glared through the windshield when AJ parked in front of their next appointment.

"Wow," he breathed, taking in the ostentatious scale of the home.

AJ agreed with a shallow nod. "Puts us poor schmucks to shame, huh? Doesn't really matter. They still put on their pants the same way, and the money still spends the same." He grabbed the order case off the seat. "Let's go see what we need to do."

With his hands resting in his hoodie pockets to fight off the November chill, Corey stood behind and a little to the side of AJ while they waited for the echoing doorbell to be answered. The house was a red brick two-story with a matching front portcullis and rippling, serpentine stone steps dropping to the sloping front yard. It gave him the idea of a rocky waterfall as they'd approached from the work truck. A three-car driveway was met by a full-sized garage sitting as sentinel at the end of the drive. He knew without even stepping inside it would put to shame his present apartment, and the one he'd been kicked out of by his half-brother.

The door opened with a wrenched tug and a gasp. "Thank goodness!" The man panting on the other side appeared to be totally exasperated.

AJ nodded. "AJ's Home Service. You called in an emergency?"

The gentleman held out a hand in introduction. "I did. I'm Bradley Hauffman. You can call me Brad." He widened the door. "Please, let me show you. We found the water turn off, but I have no idea if there's damage." A growled grumble only amplified his frustration.

"Whatever it is, it's what I do." Corey saw AJ give a confident smile to the homeowner, instantly easing some of the man's stress. One of AJ's best bits of advice had been to always project calm confidence. If the job appeared to be more than he could do, he'd figure it out, but he always made the homeowner confident in his ability first.

Brad ushered them into the house and into a secondary hallway beyond the stairs. "It's this bathroom. It's not used often except by guests and I have no idea how long this has been leaking."

AJ frowned and silently requested for Corey to hold his order case before dropping down to the floor to get into the cabinets and dig around the toilet. The tiled floor was damp, a clear attempt at trying to mop up now that the water had been turned off.

AJ pulled a little flashlight from his belt to sweep it around the space, nodding, touching the pipes and the plumbing with his hands like he was reading braille.

After only a few minutes, he stood and said, "You have two issues. There is a rusted tank bolt that's dripping and the seal at the floor needs to be redone because of the water damage. Nothing that will take more than an hour or so."

Brad's relief was apparent in his exhale. "Thank heavens." He smiled. "We have company coming for Thanksgiving and I didn't need this on top of everything else."

AJ grinned. "Completely understandable."

They left the bathroom and Corey headed outside to the truck to collect the tools and parts they'd need while AJ dickered over the price. He was getting better at predicting AJ's repair needs. When AJ took the supplies and smiled, Corey kept that little nugget of praise and saved it in a pocket for later.

They were almost done when another voice was heard echoing through the house.

"Babe?"

AJ and Corey shared a look then returned to their job.

The voice was deep and definitely male.

Corey knew AJ was gay. It was one of the reasons he'd tried so hard to be available and truly willing to work for an apprentice's pay when they'd discussed the job and the benefits. He was terrified of trying to find a job that would force him to be completely in the closet. He wasn't dumb for having to drop out of school, it hadn't been his choice at the time. Life had already taught him plenty about protecting himself. Corey wasn't flamboyant by any means, but he didn't hide either. If someone asked, he told the truth. His mom had wanted that honesty and she'd loved him for it.

His half-brother had been the other side of the coin. More than eight years older than Corey and not often home for the whole night, he was rough and had a mean streak that Corey saw right through. Thankfully, that whole not being home part meant there'd been limited amounts of friction between the two as Corey had hit his teenage years.

Raw pain made his chest ache when he remembered the last time he spoke to his mother, when his entire world had been torn apart two and half years ago.

"I'll be home right after this shift, Corey. Tell Martin, if he's home, to start the oven at five thirty, okay?"

"I will. As soon as I get home."

"Love you."

"Love you too, Mom."

He'd stuffed his hand-me-down phone into his backpack and waited for his bus stop, staring out the large windows at the passing landscape of buildings and vehicles. Three months until graduation. He was so done with homework, the stress of looming finals, and school. Summer was looking really inviting. No concrete plans for after graduation. College really wasn't an option because there wasn't money for it, but he knew he could get a quick job at any of the drive-thru places. They were always looking for bodies because bodies simply didn't stay for long. He didn't blame them. It was hard work and crappy hours, but money would be money once he graduated. His mother was expecting him do something: either work, or find a way to contribute.

As expected, Martin wasn't at the apartment when he got home, so he started the oven like she'd asked. He baked the frozen premade casserole that was for all of them then ate by himself. At six, he was still the only one there. And seven. By eight, he was pacing the little two-bedroom apartment. The boys shared one room and his mother had the other.

Two things happened that night.

Caught in the middle when Martin's gang had chosen their mother's store to rob, Martin was arrested. Tragically, their mother was killed by a wild bullet from one of Martin's – or in his thug world, Dawg – gang members' guns as they were fleeing the scene of the robbery.

Martin and two others were caught and arrested for the robbery. Though he wasn't charged when he somehow convinced the police that he'd tried to stop the robbery because it was his mother who worked the store. He also hadn't been seen with a gun on the surveillance cameras. Petty cash, beer and cigarettes. A senseless murder that destroyed the foundation Corey had under his feet.

It would be three days before Martin was informed that she'd died that night because he was incarcerated while it was investigated.

Beyond worried when neither came home, Corey still went to school the next day. Overheard whispered comments and snide sneers shook him to his core.

The corner store on Halston had been robbed? What? That was his mother's store. His brother had been one of the shooters? Had he known his brother was a sliming skeeze? So sorry to hear about your mother. None of the day after made sense. Every passing hour piled more worry and stress of the unknown on his too young shoulders.

Shocked, numb, and drowning in his own uncertainty and terror, he walked out of school and never went back.

Once Martin was released from custody, he made sure Corey never went home, either. That was how Corey had found himself in Oregon from Idaho. He managed a few menial jobs, the kind that paid cash for a day's work. When he spotted AJ's ad for a helper-slash-apprentice, he'd guessed there was nothing to lose in calling the man. Whether AJ had felt pity or not after their phone call and eventual meeting, dumb luck and the kindness of one man was keeping him off the streets.

"Corey? Earth to Corey," AJ teasingly poked.

He blinked, sinking back into the now with a dry mental thud. "Sorry." He looked around and reached for the door handle automatically when he realized AJ was parked at the curb of his apartment complex.

"See you in the morning," he offered.

"You didn't have to bring me home." He always felt sheepish when AJ did. He usually grabbed the first bus in the morning to be picked up at the corner outside of AJ's subdivision then did the same to get home.

"Not a problem. It's on the way today. See you in the morning."

"Yeah. Thanks."

The rumble of the work truck driving away faded as he strode through the breezeway of the closest building. His stomach tightened as hunger twisted inside. It wasn't much but he had a roof and a little to eat. And in two days, he'd be at AJ's with him and his husband.

Keeping his head down to be unassuming, he wound his way to his own doorway, a very small single room economy with a miniscule bathroom. It had a tiny kitchen with a beat up stove and scratched and burned countertops. But it had running water and heat. Those were precious in his life.

Searching from under his lashes, he scanned the shadows ahead of him and listened intently for any sounds that weren't caused by the wind. This wasn't the best area, or the safest. He lived alone. A person didn't come out after dark unless they were going to be hunting for smaller, weaker targets, or unless they wanted to be human prey. Maybe his only saving grace to not being robbed yet was he had absolutely nothing in his apartment.

His door was in his sights when he heard a graveled and slurred voice. "Hey boy, whatcha got'n 'em pockets?"

He ignored the voice, flinching when he caught the sluggish movement in the shadows surrounding the other doors. He'd had the luck, fortunate or not, to learn a few evasive moves in the last two years. He didn't answer. Predators hated being ignored, but when you acknowledged them, it only gave them more power, or so it seemed to him.

The clutched key trembled in his hand but he managed to cram it into the lock and dive inside before anything else happened. He shoved the door closed with a sharp smack, locked it up tight and then leaned against it, waiting for the shakes in his limbs to subside.