The year is 1936, and Val Svenson just can’t win. Mixed up with mobsters, he witnesses something he really shouldn’t have and has to literally run for his life. He takes the first bus out of New York for anywhere and winds up in Alabama—of all places to land for a tough city kid and a glamorous drag performer stage-named Sugar. To make matters worse, he becomes ill and has to be hospitalized.
A year later, he’s finally out of the hospital after being given up for dead, but he has no money and no place to go. A good friend he made in the hospital asks him to come home with him until he gets back on his feet. But is rural Alabama, and his friend’s handsome brother, a tough country sheriff, really ready for this much gorgeous foul-mouthed trouble?
Instant chemistry, a volatile attraction, and too many questions that Val can’t answer are a recipe for trouble that follows Val all the way to his new home, threatening not only his life but the life of the ones he’s coming to love.
"God, I hate guys like you!”
Ben just looked amused. “Really? Tell me more.”
“More about what? Why I hate your questions or why I don’t care much for you in particular?”
“Why guys like me?”
“You try to use your size and your muscle to get your way about things. I’ve been fighting that all my life.”
“I guess you have good cause not to be too fond of that kind of thing, considering what you told me about your old man and what you used to do to get by, but I have a feeling we’re not really talking about that. What is it you don’t like about me?”
“I told you. You’re too damn bossy! You make a lot of quick judgments about people based on the way they look.”
Ben put back his head and laughed. The soft throaty chuckle made little butterflies start up in Val’s stomach.
“Maybe you have a point, but I do like to be familiar with the people who are living in my house.”
“Then I’ll find another place to live, because I won’t stay here to be bossed around and questioned.”
“I’m not asking you to leave,” he growled softly. “I just want answers.”
“Look, I-I can’t talk about it right now. I promise I’ll tell you everything later but let me rest a while. I’d never do anything to hurt Lennie. I haven’t so far, have I? I wouldn’t.”
“Before you go, I want to ask you a question and tell me the truth, because I can tell if you’re lying.”
“What is it?” he said, his voice tired and resigned.
“Do you take money to have sex with men? I’m sorry to be so blunt, but the way you look and the way you talk...I understand you’ve had a rough time, and I suppose I couldn’t hold it against you, but I need to know if that’s going to be happening, because it’s illegal, obviously.”
Val sighed. “No, I’m not a-a prostitute. Just a waiter. I used to serve drinks in a couple of different speakeasies. Which, admittedly, in some of the places I worked in New York amounted to much the same thing. But once I left New York, I never did anything like that. I worked in a café, like I said. And then I got sick and for the past year, I was in the sanitarium.”
“But you used to be a…what did they call them? A pansy boy?”
Val gave him a long look, a little surprised by his casual use of the term. But then, maybe he wasn’t so surprised after all. Ben had a particular interest in that area from what Lennie had just told him.
“Yeah, I guess. But not when I first came to New York. I starved for a while at first. Back then the clubs were wide open, though. All over Harlem and the Village. I was…amazed by them. I’d never even heard of boys like me being so out in the open. Prohibition had forced most of the bars to shut, but speakeasies sprang up in their places run by the mob. Jean Malin had just been killed when I came to New York. Have you heard of Jean Malin?”
“He was a drag performer?”
“Yes. He got his start in the Drag Balls of the late 20’s—big parties in Harlem where people showed up in drag to party and have a good time. They even had contests for the best costume, which was a drag costume, of course. Malin used to win a lot. Then later, he worked at place called Club Abbey as a performer. He helped a lot of it get started. Anyway, it was the height of the pansy boy and drag queen craze when I arrived in New York. It was easy enough to get a job first in Harlem in the jazz clubs and then later in the speakeasies. Nobody gave a shit how old you were—only what you looked like. If you were pretty and feminine looking, or could act that way, then you could make some money. And I needed the money. Besides, it was fun, and it didn’t hurt anybody.”
A long, uneasy silence fell between them, with Ben examining Val’s face in the moonlight, his eyes reflecting some of the moonlight. Finally, he sighed and released Val’s gaze. “I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”
Val gave a brittle laugh. “Yeah, well, that’s life, they say. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, I had a good time for a while.”
Ben stared steadily back at him, no trace of humor on his face. “All right, then. Go to bed Val. Get some rest.”
Val got up quickly and headed for the door, his knees trembling a little, though he didn’t want Ben to see it. He hadn’t talked about his life as a kid for years. And of course, he hadn’t told Ben the whole story of his time in New York. He hoped he’d never have to.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Ben said softly, his voice stopping him at the door. “I understand you don’t like to be bossed around, as you call it. But you’ve been on your own for a long time, and here’s the deal—you’re not on your own anymore, living the best way you can. You’re living here in my house, and for as long as you do, I’m responsible for you. I make the rules, because I pay the bills and I feed you and take care of you. I’m trying to keep my brother safe and healthy, and I’m beginning to get a very good idea of just how important you were in keeping Lennie alive during that time he was in the hospital. After I had to give him up for dead… So I want to keep you safe too. I appreciate what you did for Lennie more than I can ever tell you, and I feel like…I feel like I owe it to you.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know that. But I want to. Because I think you’re a little lost right now, I guess I’m taking over the job of taking care of you too. For now, at least, if you’ll let me. Until you can get back on your feet. Okay?”
Val’s face burned, but he nodded his head and turned back to the door. Ben caught hold of his hand. “But if I find out you’re lying to me, Val, or flaunting my rules, I’ll kick your little ass out of here. Understood?”
“Understood,” he said, biting out the word.
“Oh, and Val,” he called out to him as he stepped inside. “If you won’t tell me what you’re so afraid of, I can’t help you.”
“I...I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. And I told you, I don’t need any help.”
“Are you sure about that?” Ben asked softly.
Val nodded, mortified when tears actually sprang to his eyes. He practically ran inside, and this time, Ben let him go without another word. Once in his room, Val threw himself across the bed. He wanted to leave his past in New York behind forever, not dredge it up, not when parts of it were so dark and frightened him so much. Ben seemed to be sincere when he said he wanted to help him and even ‘take care’ of him, not that he needed that. But he was a deputy sheriff, and Val didn’t trust any lawman. The police hadn’t been able to help him before, and there was no reason to think anything had changed. His only chance was to lay low and hope Tony would forget about him or think he’d died inside the sanitarium. And maybe if he had it would have been the best for everybody all the way around