Mark is done with flings. He is looking for something real, and he knows just where to find it. Years ago, he fell in love with Charlotte Elswood, but after saving her life, he made the difficult choice to stay in a cartel for the sake of his family.
Now, free of the bloodstained work, he’s ready to rekindle what he’s lost.
But in England, he meets someone who is also blond, blue-eyed, and irresistible. Problem is, Griffith Elswood is Charlotte’s brother. Should Mark even consider putting his hands all over an innocent who would push him away if he knew what kind of monster Mark is?
After years of homeschooling, Griffith wants nothing more than to finally spread his wings at university. Secretly, he dreams of meeting a man he can fall madly in love with. A man he would have all the firsts with. But it’s hard to trust anyone after witnessing his sister’s heartbreak.
When Mark moves in next door, Griffith reaches out despite his sister’s warnings. Mark is mysterious, experienced, cocky, and just oh-so-dreamy. Alternating between hot and cold, Mark’s presence sends Griffith into a frenzy of passion like he’s never known before. So hot in fact, it might just burn him if he isn’t careful.
Themes: mafia, organized crime, family ties, secrets, innocence, British setting, dance, homophobia, in the closet, coming out, coming of age
Genre: M/M romance
Length: ~125,000 words (Book 8 in the series)
WARNING: Adult content. Scorching hot, explicit love scenes. Dark humor.
The air smelled of sunshine. Warmth licked Griffith’s shoulders, and the scent of wild flowers filled his lungs with each breath. Percival’s strong muscles worked tirelessly with each step along the dirt road through the woods. Their steady rhythm lulled Griffith in the saddle until he leaned forward and rested his face on the thick neck of his mount.
His life was finally about to change. From this year on, he would be living away from his parents, free to make friends with whomever he chose, and taking care of himself like an adult. No longer bound by insistent questions and watchful eyes, his isolation in the countryside was finally over.
He looked back at his sister, Charlotte, who smiled as if she could read his mind. Seeing the heavy flush on her pale cheeks made Griffith wonder whether he’d put on enough sunscreen before the ride, since in terms of looks they were like two drops of water. Their fine hair just a shade off ivory, eyes a cool blue, and they even had the same small nose, with Griffith’s only slightly larger than Charlotte’s. Their familial resemblance ran so deep they’d been mistaken for twins in the past.
And now that Griffith had earned a place at the same University as his big sister, they would also be sharing a flat.
Charlotte rushed Snowflake, Percival’s sister, so that they were only inches apart. “You can’t be tired already, Griff.”
He grinned at her and patted his horse’s neck. “I’m never tired. I’m only now starting to live,” he said and pulled himself up, feeling energized and mentally refreshed after an hour of riding. “We should properly celebrate me finally moving out of Mum and Dad’s.”
She snorted and raised her eyebrows at him. “How about we celebrate once you’re eighteen, smartass?”
Griffith frowned at her. “There’s plenty of places where I could go without an ID. Or we could get me a fake one somewhere. I want to experience the city!”
“Somewhere? Look at you, delving into the criminal underbelly of Bristol!” In her attempts to tease him, Charlotte didn’t notice a branch in her way before it swatted her. Served her right.
Griffith exhaled loudly and pulled his leg out of the stirrup to nudge her thigh. “Come on, Charlie! You know how Mum and Dad are. I’ve never been to a club, or even a normal party. Let’s go somewhere fun before the classes start.”
Charlotte let her head roll over her shoulders, and her long hair cascaded down her back as she groaned. “What’s a ‘normal’ party anyway? Can’t we go grab a coffee somewhere nice? Or brunch! I’d rather do that.”
Griffith nudged Percival into a trot. “Oh, my God, you’re almost as boring as Chris. You two have a long life ahead of you, full of waffles, the missionary position, and cocoa.”
Charlotte made Snowflake go faster as well. “You did not just say that! I am lots of fun!”
Griffith snorted, trying to cover the extent of his annoyance. “You used to be. All those wild parties with your girlfriends, and drinking alcohol at fifteen. You had all the fun. And now that you’ve turned into a saint, you want to police what I do.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she grumbled as if she were a hundred years old, not twenty.
Griff was so done with this. As soon as she lagged behind, he urged Percival to go faster, and darted through the forest as if there were wolves chasing him. Standing in the stirrups, he galloped out of the woodland and toward the large complex where he and Charlotte kept their horses.
Griffith slowed down somewhat when he and Percival passed the paddock currently used for dressage training, and progressed all the way to the vast main building that contained all the stalls, grooming stations, and even a space for socializing.
Having tied his horse at one of the stations, Griffith hurried toward the kitchen area, since his mouth had gotten so dry during the ride it felt like he’d swallowed wood chips. The adjacent dayroom was finished in wood and decorated with old-timey prints depicting gentlemen on horseback. If Griffith weren’t the only one present, he’d have gladly sipped his water while exchanging a few words with a prospective new friend, but in the end he walked outside to stretch his legs.
Far off, across two empty paddocks, a stable worker transported bales of hay in a humming little vehicle, but the late summer scenery remained perfectly serene otherwise.
Still sipping water from the cup, Griffith decided to have a look at the large indoor riding space before taking care of Percival. He could hear the distinct sound of a horse stomping beyond the metal wall of the building as he approached.
He sped up when he heard the horse inside do the same, but the moment he stood in the open doors, all and any thoughts drained out of his head. A huge mountain of horseflesh stormed straight at him. He dropped his cup, panic turning him into a statue of muscle and bone. The horse was black like Satan’s own stallion, and when it rose to its hind legs, hooves the size of Griffith’s head boxed through the air, about to take him into the infernal abyss.
The beast let out a terrible, wheezing sound and missed Griff by inches when he finally darted to the side, but its rider fell to the ground with a dull thud. With his hands still trembling, Griffith took a further step back, torn between helping the stranger and keeping his distance from the gargantuan horse, which paced away, throwing around its wavy mane and snorting.
The fallen rider stirred, but it was the groan he made that finally snapped Griffith back to reality. With the enormous stallion no longer posing a threat, he kneeled next to the stranger and leaned over him, barely breathing with worry. Had it been him who’d startled the horse? What if his presence in the wrong place and at the wrong time ended up with this guy breaking his back? It would have been such a terrible start to Griffith’s new adult life.
“Are you all right?”
The man grunted and sat up, meeting Griffith’s gaze with something akin to recognition flashing across the handsome face. He smiled as if he’d just met an old friend. “I think I’m fine, give me a sec,” he said with an accent Griff couldn’t put his finger on even though it sounded vaguely American. But there was something far more distracting about the stranger.
He wore an eyepatch—simple and made of black cloth—over his left eye. But as unusual as the sight was, Griffith found it hard not to focus on the man’s healthy eye when it pierced him with an intense gaze.
It was like looking into a cup of the smoothest, creamiest chocolate that Griffith wanted drizzling over his tongue. He might have stared too long, but the stranger didn’t seem to mind and squeezed Griffith’s hand in greeting. They were so close his warm breath touched Griffith’s skin, and the tanned fingers sucked Griffith’s hand in like warm sand on a tropical beach that he never wanted to leave.
“You frightened me there. You sure nothing’s broken?” he asked, trying to keep his gaze on the stranger’s eye instead of letting it roam down the wiry neck.
Only then did he realize he was still holding the man’s hand and pulled away in panic. What if his interest was noticed? He’d surely have to move his horse to another stable to avoid any more awkwardness.
“No, I think I’m fine. Unless it’s one of those situations where you’re fine for a few hours, and then your brain suddenly hemorrhages, and you die.”
The man laughed, as if death was nothing to him, and stood up, a couple of inches taller than Griffith, his torso a harmonious inverted triangle that met long, strong legs. When he pulled up the edge of his top to rub dirt off his face, Griffith might have gasped. He didn’t even know anymore.
“Don’t say things like that,” Griffith whispered, with a shove to the stranger’s shoulder. Still, he couldn’t deny himself a glance at the picture-perfect abs.
Was this guy even real, or had Griff been trampled after all, and this was his personal hell where he’d be taunted by men he couldn’t touch until the end of times?
As if he wasn’t charming enough already, the guy ruffled his hair to brush out the sand. Even his haircut was cool, with short sides and a mess of dark curls on top. They looked so soft Griffith wanted to push his fingers into the locks and feel them slide against his skin.
“Why not? You scared of insurance claims? I should get your number, just in case,” the guy said. Had he just winked? It was hard to tell since he only had one eye, but Griff was pretty sure the eye closed for long enough that it couldn’t have been only a blink.
Griffith was bright red. He could feel it in his cheeks. “Uh… okay.”
“I’m Mark.” The stranger pulled out his phone. “You? So I don’t have to put you in as ‘porcelain boy’.”
Griffith stared at the hand holding the device and the pronounced veins going down the sturdy looking forearm. And the dark hair on it. How would it feel if he touched it?
“Very funny. I’m Griffith Elswood.” His mouth was getting dry once more. “Friends call me Griff.”
“Gri…ffith.” Mark said, looking into his phone, and as Griff dictated his number, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was being flirted with. But would anyone be so straightforward with a perfect stranger in a space as sexually neutral as the stables? Maybe Americans were. They could be so direct sometimes.
Mark glanced back at him with a smile. “Great. Now I just need your address too, so I can put out a hit on the dark web.”
Griffith sucked in a lungful of air, and for the briefest moment he could sense the cold steel of an imaginary knife against his neck. Then, Mark’s smile was there to lead him back into the light.
“You’re the worst. For all I know, you could be a professional hitman yourself.”
Mark’s grin only widened, and if it wasn’t the most enticing thing Griff had ever seen, he definitely couldn’t remember any sight more inviting. Mark’s lips were so full they begged to be kissed, and with Griff’s luck, they were no doubt often enjoyed by a hot girlfriend.
Mark spread his arms. “You never know, right? Maybe I already know where you live.”
Griffith glanced over his shoulder when the soft stomping of hooves approached from behind. The massive horse was back, steady and calm as if it hadn’t just tossed its rider to the ground. “I very much doubt that. I only moved to Bristol last week.”
Mark clicked his tongue, and grabbed the horse’s reins once the beast came closer. When his fingers rubbed the black flesh, Griffith realized he wouldn’t mind being a horse, gently petted, pampered by those capable hands, feeling the weight of a man on his back—
“Maybe we should go for a ride together sometime then. With that outfit, you must be a keen rider.” Mark took a step back and scanned Griff from head to toe, leaving him damp with sweat as if he’d been licked.
Griffith looked down at the tips of his snug riding boots. He wore his favorite breeches today—pale brown plaid, comfortable without compromise in the visual department. “You should have seen me at one of the competitions this summer,” he said, unable to keep from boasting when Mark so clearly was into horses too.
“You do dressage, I bet. A bit of horse dancing, Guerrero?” He asked his horse with a smile, but the beast only snorted and stomped its hoof.
The suggestion smacked Griff right in the breastbone. Was this some kind of insinuation that he wasn’t manly enough to participate in other competitions? “Jumping, actually,” he said, somewhat subdued.
“You should teach me then. This guy doesn’t do shit unless he feels like it. He’s a mustang mix. Pretty, but a mutt.” Mark stroked the horse’s mane with affection. “And in return I’ll teach you how to hire hitmen on the dark web. Deal?” He held out his hand.
Griffith shook it before he could think. “And we could do some sightseeing.”
Was it Griff’s overactive imagination, or had Mark held his hand for a bit longer than strictly necessary? At this point, Griff’s brain was frying in the heat of Mark’s charm anyway. Where he was panicky and on the verge of a stroke, the guy in front of him seemed perfectly at ease, as if he hadn’t just fallen off a horse.
Mark winked again. “Is that a date or is my virtue safe?”
And yet the cocky way he smiled told Griff that it was his own ‘virtue’ that was in danger. Mark oozed sexuality in a way Griff had never experienced. He was choking on the sweet, thick air of possibility, and in a single moment of absolute bravery, he tapped Mark’s shoulder, pretending he was offended.
“Is that how you joke around with everyone?”
Mark opened his lips, but his gaze settled over Griff’s shoulder, and before Griff could look back, a pull on his arm snatched him out of Mark’s proximity. It felt like having his skin stripped away.
“Let’s go,” Charlotte hissed.
Griffith stared at her, stunned by how rudely she was acting. Not sure what to do, he let his gaze return to Mark, who watched Charlotte with his lips open.
“I— uh… I’ll be with you in a moment,” Griffith said, desperately wishing to make this right somehow.
“No, we’re going now,” Charlotte growled through her teeth, once again yanking at Griffith’s arm as if he were a five-year-old. This was a disaster, and the fact that Mark was witnessing his humiliation only added to the heavy feeling in Griffith’s chest. He needed to leave before Charlotte got even more mental.
Driven by a desperate need to apologize, he glanced Mark’s way again, forcing a little smile. “Uh, I’ll see you around. We’re here almost every day.”
Mark nodded and tapped the pocket where he had his phone.
To try to keep at least some dignity, Griff followed Charlotte, unwilling to yell at her before they were out of Mark’s sight. His cheeks burned even hotter than when Mark suggested they would go on a a date. He had suggested that, hadn’t he? It couldn’t have happened only in Griff’s head.
“Is this about Percival? I was about to go back to him anyway. Why do you need to make me look like an idiot in front of a new acquaintance?” Griff half-shouted, half-whispered once they entered the stables. In here, the horses were the only witnesses to their argument.
Charlotte stared at him, her blue eyes strangely bewildered. “Perci… val… what? No. And that guy is not your acquaintance,” her voice was climbing in register, even though she was trying to stay quiet.
Griffith attempted to push away her hand, bus she kept digging her fingers into his shoulder, which left him at a loss. Charlotte was his sister, which used to excuse a little bit of violence when they were younger, but what was he to do now? “Why are you acting so mental? He’s such a pleasant person.”
Her eyes went so wide she looked as if they were about to pop out of her head. “‘Pleasant’? I don’t want you anywhere near that guy. I know him, and he… he’s shit, okay? He’s awful. He… You know my friend Morwen? He’s her ex, and he dumped her as soon as she had sex with him. He’s a total asshole. He ran over her cat and didn’t even apologize. He’s the worst. I’m not kidding, Griff.”
Her words hit Griff on the head like an old-timey wooden ruler. That sounded nothing like Mark. “That’s her side of the story.”
Charlotte shook him, only getting more frantic. “He’s a total con man, Griff. He knows we have money, and he chatted you up on purpose.”
Griffith stilled, watching her with his heart thumping fast and seemingly rising up in his chest. “I just… talked to him. He fell off his horse.”
Charlotte raised her eyebrows, but at least she finally let go of him. “So you just happened to conveniently be there? Trust me, Griff. I know what I’m talking about. This is exactly why he hangs out in places like this. Morwen met him at a casino. Just… you can’t be this naive.”
Griffith stared at her for a long, painfully silent moment, then turned on his heel and rushed off toward the grooming station where his horse awaited his care.
“I am not naive.”