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Authors: Cherie Noel

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BOOK: Worth a Thousand Words
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Chapter Two

Adrien followed the nutty, honey-rich scent of freshly baked baklava out of his bedroom and into his kitchen. He thankfully found only his parents, both sitting at the pale pine table there, looking for all the world like they were about to stage some sort of dessert intervention with him. He sighed, wondering how best to break it to them that their youngest child was about to be the victim of fratricide. Before he could speak, his mom leapt into the silence with the very last thing he expected to hear.

“Sit down, honey. Your step-dad—”
Adrien cut across her. “Papa.”
His mother smiled, patting his hand. “Yes, dear, he

is your papa in all the ways that count, isn’t he?” She paused to throw a wide smile at her husband.
Carlos winked roguishly at her, and suddenly Adrien was
choking on a burning spear of anger lodged squarely in his
throat. His mother patted his hand again.
“Breathe, Adrien. You’re turning a very alarming
shade of puce, and I for one don’t care for that color at all.
Breathe, Adrien. Carlos and I want to talk to you about
Sam and this latest fiasco.”
Adrien whimpered, plopped down on the woven rush seat of one of the kitchen chairs. He carefully scooted until he was equidistant from both parents, so they both could reach him quickly if he fucking died from
embarrassment and they needed to resuscitate him. “Kill me now. You guys saw the video.” His papa patted his shoulder. “Yep. Good technique
by the way, son. Makes a man prou—”
Adrien choked, leaned forward and began
rhythmically thunking his head against the table top. His mother reached over and smacked the back of
his head. “Stop that. I didn’t bring my medical bag with
me, Adrien, and I shudder to think what sort of medical
supplies you and your brother keep here.”
Adrien rolled his head to one side. Squinting up at
his mom through the scant camouflage of his frosted bangs
he—“Mom, why do they call it frosting. I mean, it’s not
like I’m a cake or something.”
His mother’s eyes widened and she let out a huge
snort of laughter. On the other side of Adrien his papa
loosed a rumbling chuckle. Adrien mouthed the words as
his papa spoke them.
“Thomas’ son, from the top of his pretty head to the soles of his clumsy feet… I don’t think it’s possible he could be any more like the man.”
Adrien’s eyes burned when his papa reached over to tousle his hair and then let his hand slip down to briefly squeeze his shoulder. Lifting his chin, he turned his head to look Papa Carlos in the eye.
“What would he have said?”
Papa Carlos regarded him steadily out of nearly black eyes, and smoothed his silky black moustache over his top lip before answering. “First, he would have called your mother to find out how long he had before she found someone to cover her shift at the hospital. And then he would have taken your brother down to the gym and kicked his ass in the boxing ring. After that? He would have done exactly what I’m going to do.”
Adrien blinked hard, pushing himself upright and snuffling a little to clear his nose. “What are you going to do, Papa?”
Carlos held his gaze. “I’m going to get permission from your landlord to have your locks changed, and add a better deadbolt to your door. I’m going to put in a landline, and I’m going to tell your brother that he’s lost his god damned mind, and that if his mother hadn’t cried and begged me not to I’d be giving him the ass-kicking he deserves. What he did went from being kinda funny if a little bratty with the Stupid Shit Adrien Does videos to thoughtless endangerment of someone he should be first in line to protect. Your mother and I are here to move Sam back home—he’s in his room, packing up right now. He’s obviously not grown up enough to give the people he lives with the respect any adult ought to give his house-mates, so if he wants us to keep paying his tuition, he can move his spoiled little rear-end home. Don’t worry about having to make his half of the rent and utilities. Your mother and I will cover that.”
Adrien gaped at his papa. “But, Papa, We have a landline. I put it in after the third time Sam hid my cell phone and then went to his study group… and Sam doesn’t have a car. He uses mine, or bums rides from his friends.” Carlos smiled thinly. “Yes, I know. He’ll have to make arrangements with your mother and I to get rides to and from school.”
Something hot and wet slid down Adrien’s face. He dipped his head, scrubbing the side of his face against his shoulder. “It was just such a douche thing to do—sorry mom—you know? He knows I’m seeing someone, and I really like Devon.”
Adrien realized his mistake when his papa’s eyes widened and darted to his mother. Crap. His mom squealed
and grabbed his hand.
“Oh, honey, what’s he like? Do his parents live
around here? Should I make dinner this weekend so you
can bring him over? Or maybe Spaghetti Warehouse would
be better? Everyone loves Spaghetti Warehouse, right?” Squeezing her bird-boned little hand, Adrien smiled
ruefully. “Chill, mom. I like him a lot, but we haven’t been
dating long enough for him to meet the ‘rents, you know?” Her crestfallen expression made Adrien feel like
he’d kicked a blind cocker-spaniel puppy. He turned
imploring eyes on Papa Carlos. Thankfully, his papa was
uber skilled at dealing with Lynn Jimenez in melt-down
mode.
“Lynnie, Corazon, he’ll bring his young man to
meet you. Of course he will. But for this young man to
meet you, in your son’s eyes that is a privilege, si? And if I
know our Adrien, one he does not give out lightly.” Adrien blew out a relieved sigh. “Yes. Exactly that,
mom. Exactly that.”

****

By the time Devon and Rose made it to the security office, the video had been disabled on the YouTube channel featuring a slew of other similar videos… but Adrien had been named by name in the comments. Following a link in one of the comments, they found an intact copy of the original video on a Tumblr account. It had been reblogged repeatedly, and the comments ranged from raunchy and mostly harmless to some that were downright threatening.

Devon pointed to one particular comment, quickly taking a screen-shot of the page where the innocuous seeming comment was. Rose tapped him on the shoulder.

“Sarge? What’s so special about that one?”

Saving the screen shot to the thumb drive he kept on his key chain to use at the campus library for school projects, Devon spoke with his face still turned to the computer.

“He commented on YouTube too. This guy knows Adrien. On YouTube, he praised Adrien’s beautifully sleepy technique… and then said, go Orangemen. Here he quotes from My Fair Lady—the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before—Rose, he knows where Adrien lives, or at least the vicinity. Freddy from My Fair Lady was, like, the original stalker. This is bad.”

Devon swiveled around, the rolling office chair bumping back against the desk behind him. Rose filled the space behind he needed to stand up in, leaning forward to peer at the computer’s screen. Devon pushed to his feet, shoving Rose back with a broad palm to his chest.

“Hey, you have time to come with me and check on Adrien? I want to make sure he’s onboard with understanding how serious this is.”

Before Rose could answer, the distinctive strength of Roseanne Cash’s voice rang out from his phone. “Hang on a sec, Rose—hello? Oh, hey, Dieterman, how’ve you been—no, no, it’s okay.”

Holding one finger up, Devon tipped his head toward the coffee pot in the corner. He mouthed the words “It’s fresh”, and mimed drinking a cup, his brows raised.

Rose snorted at him. “Sarge, you’re kinda a dick, you know that, right?”

Devon flipped his middle finger up just as his new boss came in the door. Leon lifted a well groomed black eyebrow.

“Mr. Soto. I wasn’t aware we’d changed the customary greeting from yesterday.”

Tilting his head slightly to one side, Devon searched Leon’s face for clues. Ah, there. The corner of his mouth was twitching, and the spot just under his left eye was not.

“Only for idiots like my pal, Rose over there, sir. Sorry about the one finger salute.”
Leon nodded, looking past Devon’s shoulder to the computer screen. Both eyebrows rose. His eyes snapped back to Devon’s, noticeably cooler in their regard.
“Explain.”
Devon nodded. “Hold on Dieterman. Yeah, it’ll be fine just—well, shit. He hung up…”
Leon’s nostrils flared. He lifted a hand toward the computer screen. “Now, Soto. Explain now.”
Sighing, Devon sat back down with a thump. “I can explain.”
Just then, Evertt Carson, the shift lead stuck his head in from the other office in the suite.
“He’s assessing a situation that’s likely to impact things here on campus, Leon.”
The video looped back to the beginning. Leon’s dark brown eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
“Wait a minute. I know that kid—shit, that’s Adrien from Stupid Shit Adrien Does—fucking hell, over half the kids on this damn campus keep up with the new videos on that YouTube channel.”
Devon dropped his head into his hands, groaning. “Christ, Rose. You didn’t say that many people here watch that—I’m gonna kill his brother. What kind of damn idiot—”
The smell of fresh coffee brought Devon’s head up. Leon stood with his arms folded across his broad chest. A small muscle in his jaw flexed.
“Soto. Explain why you’re here on off hours, playing that video on my computer.”
Devon looked up farther, locking eyes with Leon. His stomach did a slow roll. The older man’s dark brown skin stretched tautly over his high cheekbones.
“Adrien’s my boyfriend, sir. I need to ask if I can rearrange my work schedule so I can drop him off and pick him up from work.”
Leon rolled his eyes, blowing out a cigarettescented breath. The lines around his eyes suddenly seem much deeper. “Well, Christ, I sure know how to pick ‘em. Didn’t something similar happen with your wife, Evertt?”
Evertt’s shock of bright red hair preceded his purselipped expression around the doorframe of his office. “Carla did not have a YouTube channel dedicated to her by a bratty younger brother. She had a vindictive ex who’d been making clandestine videos of their entire relationship—especially the sexual aspects of her worst mistake ever—and used them to ruin any chance Carla had of teaching in an elementary setting. Fucking prick. I hope he’s enjoying his prison sentence.”
The whole office fell silent. Even the coffee pot stopped gurgling. Leon cleared his throat.
“Ah, right. So, basically, pretty similar situations. Didn’t Carla have to withdraw?”
Everett made a sharp jerking motion with his head. “Yeah. Fucking about killed her. The school she was student teaching at wouldn’t even let her say goodbye to the students.”
Devon leaned forward, peering around the monitor of Leon’s computer. “How’d you catch the guy?”
Everett’s whole face paled. He shook his head, his pale green eyes fixed on Devon’s. “Nah. You don’t even have a stalker situation for sure. You just have an idiot in the family, and a smoking hot partner who just got exposed doing very private, very sexual things. Yeah, I can see he’s hot, don’t look so surprised. Just because I bat for the co-ed team doesn’t mean I can’t spot an all-star on the other team when I see one.”
Leon cleared his throat again. Devon craned his head around to look at the man.
“Alright, we’ve established the need to be on guard against a potentially explosive situation. He’s not in teaching too, is he?”
Devon shook his head, opening his mouth. Leon held up a roughly callused hand, forestalling him.
“Fine, we’re all on the same page. Now could someone get that nice bit of soft-porn off my god dammed computer before the Dean walks in and I lose my job?”
The corner of Devon’s mouth curled upward involuntarily as he turned back to the computer, exiting the Tumblr site and clearing the computer’s cache to remove any unwanted cookies. Rose snickered over by the coffee pot, and the scent of well-brewed dark roast tantalized Devon’s nostrils.
“Rose, look under that cabinet and see if we have any to go cups left. We gotta hit the road.”
Devon was half out of his chair when Leon placed a hand on his shoulder, gripping it lightly.
“You take tonight off, Soto. Get your guy’s schedule and bring it in. I’ll schedule you around the school schedule for both of you and his work schedule. I’d want someone to do the same for me if it was my Trina. And you let me know if any of the guys give you a hard time. I don’t abide any kinda discrimination from my guys. Zero tolerance. You understand me?”
Devon’s eyes burned as warmth from Leon’s big, rough hand seeped into his shoulder. When he came out to his madre, and by extension the whole family, every one of his uncles had stopped touching him. They didn’t sneer, or threaten him… they just stopped touching him. At all. Ever. Devon swallowed hard, firming his solar plexus before he spoke.
“Yes, sir., I’m picking up everything you’re throwing down.”

Chapter Three

As he waited to pull his beloved Jeep off of East Genesee Street into the long driveway running in front of the complex where Adrien shared an apartment with his brother, Devon began to catalogue the possible changes he could effect to keep Adrien safe. His gut ached just thinking of how many people would see Adrien sleepy, sexy and just about to come. The knowledge that far too many would also know exactly who Adrien was? Mierda.

“I hope I don’t end up in jail for killing someone. I—Rose, you know I have a little bit of a temper.”

A derisive snort answered him. “Sarge, that’s putting too fine a point on it, don’tcha think?”
Devon cut his eyes to the side, glaring at Rose at an angle. “Rose, you might want to cut the lip. I’m still pissed at you about the lack—”
“—oh shit, that’s Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez putting stuff into a moving van. Holy fuck, give me a sec to find out what’s going on.” Rose craned his head around to look over his shoulder, cracked his door open and slid out in a flash. He walked around the front of the car, crossing two lanes of oncoming traffic without seeming to look.
The place under Devon’s eye—he’d started to think of it as being reserved for Rose and his bunch—began to jump again. He ran one hand back and forth along the top of his steering wheel, digging his fingers into the soft leather surface of its cover. “That’s it. As soon as I get somewhere we can both safely get out of my baby for longer than it takes us to run to wherever the fire we have to put out is—I am so kicking the shit out of him. Mierda, kid, you’re gonna give me a whole head of grey hair before I even turn thirty.”
A white sedan with a big ding in the right side of its bumper turned left turn signal on up ahead of him. Devon jumped at his chance, whipping his car into the driveway to Adrien’s building without hesitation. He slowed as he neared the small yellow Penske truck pulled half onto the sidewalk right in front of Adrien’s door. Rose stood talking to a younger, slightly taller version of Adrien. The slender, pretty youth could only be Sam. Dammit, there was no way Devon could lay a finger on that waif in anger. He’d feel like some kind of puppy killer. Next to Sam was a petite beauty with rich black hair, creamy caramel skin and a face every bit as expressive as Adrien’s. She turned to say something to the man emerging from the door to the stairwell leading up to the second floor where Adrien lived.
Devon burst into helpless laughter. With that plump, heart-shaped booty poking out from under her stylish red winter coat, she could be none other than Lynn Jimenez, Adrien’s madre. Ay-ay-ay, he was not ready to meet the parents. Then the man she spoke to came fully into view, and Devon’s laughter cut off abruptly. Tall, at least six-four or six-five, the man easily outweighed Devon by twenty or thirty pounds of muscle, with only the slightest bit of extra padding around his middle. He was young, probably no more than five or six years Devon’s senior. He disliked the man on sight. With a curt nod to Rose, he eased his Jeep forward. A shout from behind drew Devon’s attention. He spied Rose in the rear-view mirror, waving as he ran after Devon’s shiny black Jeep.
Rose loped over, tapping impatiently on the passenger side window. “Sar—Dev, Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez wanted to say they’re sorry they can’t stay to meet you, cause she’s got a shift at the hospital in two hours, and he’s gotta go into the office of his construction company for a meeting with a potential client.” Rose paused, his panting breath making puffs of white in the air. “Mrs. Jimenez wants to know if you’re going home for Christmas, or if you plan on staying around Syracuse for the holidays.”
Devon gazed into his rear-view again. Adrien’s madre stood with her hand on the handle of the moving trucks passenger side door, gazing intently toward the back of his vehicle. The man—Mr. Jimenez—stood just at the front of the truck, but his gaze was firmly centered on his wife. The muscles at the back of Devon’s neck that had tightened on his first sight of this man who looked so much like his uncles eased a little.
“I’m not going home. I bought mi madre and her best friend a cruise. She hates being cold, so I gave her an excuse to go to Puerto Rico and see her family there without me. She enjoys them more when she’s not angry about the way they treat me.”
Rose chortled. “Hah, you poor sap. Mrs. Jimenez is going to eat that up with a spoon. Bet you twenty bucks she’s already picked out china for you and her precious Adrien.”
Before Devon could answer, Rose turned and trotted back to Mrs. Jimenez. He turned, gesturing toward the Jeep, and then spoke for a moment. Mrs. Jimenez threw back her head and laughed, and then nodded vigorously. She patted Rose’s arm, pulled open the door next to her and disappeared into the truck’s interior. Rose turned to fully face Devon’s Jeep, laughing as he pulled a beanie cap from his pocket. Pulling the hat down over his sandy brown hair, he continued to laugh. Then he pointed to the Jeep, and up toward Adrien’s apartment. Devon grumbled as turned his attention to pulling the Jeep into one of the visitor spots at the back of the building.
“Well, shit. We haven’t even had a second date yet, and his mother is inviting me for Christmas dinner. That’s a six to nine month relationship rite of passage. What the hell is wrong with these boys from Syracuse?”

BOOK: Worth a Thousand Words
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