Shades of Lust by E.M. Lindsey

CHAPTERONE

Seventeen years after the accident, Stone still occasionally leaned over to tie the running shoes that weren’t there. His hands would reach for laces, muscles tensed and ready to make that loop-swoop-pull he’d been taught when he was four. The tips of his fingers would brush against the chilly, flexible metal that made up his curved running prosthetics, and he’d blink. Then he’d stare down—his body and brain not quite connected. And he’d realize where he went wrong.

A few years after he’d spent the cash on the expensive legs, he’d considered having his prosthetist put some foam covers on—the ones shaped like creepy, B-movie, gore-flick mannequins’ feet—just so he could fit into running shoes and stop driving himself up the wall with this archaic ritual he’d only gotten used to for a few years. After all, at this point, he’d been legless almost as many years as he’d had biological legs.

It annoyed him, and he wondered if it would ever stop, but his therapist had told him that some habits died hard, and some refused to die at all.

Of course, not everything stuck with him. It had been at least ten years since he’d tried to step down on his missing legs, and he no longer fell trying to get out of the shower. Fuck’s sake, he’d been nineteen the last time he’d bought a pair of Nikes for his morning run. Not having to do shit like that was supposed to be one of the perks after the accident.

He didn’t mind it all that much, though. It was just a blip. He barely thought about it as one hand gently brushed over the top of the curved titanium, then he pushed up and headed into the kitchen for his spare arm band to hold his phone because he couldn’t remember where the fuck he’d put his nice Velcro one.

The morning light was filtering through the kitchen window, and fall was just starting to creep in, which meant the breeze would be less humid. It meant a nice long run, taking up most of his early hours. When he wasn’t trying to breathe through the hot wet towel the East Coast liked to call summer weather, he could allow himself to get lost on sandy trails that curved through thick, tropical forests. It let him forget—just for that little while—about responsibilities, and work, and trying to hold everything together because his life was complicated, to say the very least.

Then again, Stone hadn’t just chosen his life—he’d actively worked for it. He’d spent money and time and effort procuring the right licenses to operate his brothel. He’d spent years honing his own talents and seeking out others who could fulfill the very specific requirements his company had for the escorts that worked and lived on the grounds.

So he wasn’t quite sure he had a leg to stand on when it came to complaints—metaphorically speaking.

Leaning on the counter by the sink, he stared out the window at a couple of squirrels that were fighting over whatever the guys had left out by the bonfire the night before. He scratched his balls a little absently, which were a little full, but he had to leave them that way. He was on the last night with one of his clients who had a come fetish, and Stone had promised him a very happy ending.

It was rare these days that Stone even took clients. The Carnal Tower was bringing in enough high-end money that he could quit fucking for the rest of his life and die happy without a monetary care in the world. He’d made a good legacy for himself in the single county on the puritanical East Coast that allowed legal prostitution. And maybe it wasn’t exactly something society expected a man like him to do with his life, but he had also never really been the sort of guy who wanted to live up to someone else’s expectations.

If that had been the case, he wouldn’t have run away from home to join the circus. Or if he had—like some sort of eighties kid fantasy—he would have left that life behind before a semitruck hit their travel bus and changed the course of his life forever.

If he lived up to the expectations of others, he would have taken that settlement money and gone to law school instead of getting his doctorate in classics, then opening up a hell-themed brothel. Maybe he would have gotten married to some woman, and they’d have, like, four kids with a fenced-in yard and a schnoodle or some shit, and he’d wear a suit and tie every day, and have a best friend named Brian or Bruce.

But Stone was a man who lived with no regrets. He was a man who knew what he wanted, and if he didn’t, he dedicated all his free time to finding it. Which, he had, and it had only taken him a few years to accomplish all this.

His little empire was thriving, his employees had become his family—blood or not—and he was happy, which was a strange thing to say because how many people could? How many people would have been able to start something like the Carnal Tower and spend their lives fulfilling the most intimate desires of total strangers and say they were absolutely and utterly content?

He could count on two hands—with seven fingers—the number of people in his position, and the thought made him smile.

Running both hands through his hair, he turned and rummaged through the kitchen drawer until he came out with his old arm band. The pocket was too big for his current phone, but it would do for the run he wanted to go on. He’d gone a little hard during his boxing session with Jet, one of the Sins, the day before, and the man was a fucking beast. He’d been trained in the sport before he’d come to work for Stone, and every round, he proved time and time again that he was a better fighter.

Stone, of course, loved it, but his ribs were aching with more than just pride.

Grabbing his water, Stone made his way to the back door, which swung out just as he reached for the handle, and he stumbled a step back as Flint shouldered his way past. The man’s face was very red, though his expression was as level as it ever was, and he cast Stone a single quirked brow before walking to the fridge and pulling out an energy drink.

“Help yourself,” Stone said dryly.

Flint snorted and rolled his eyes as he cracked the top and gulped it down. “That fucker just left. Just left.” No one complained more about their clients than Flint did, but it was to be expected. He was Wrath—the most volatile of the Sins—and it fit. Long before Stone knew what would become of his life, he had seen the simmering anger living deep under Flint’s skin.

Of course, he had years to know the man and watch as he’d grown into the person he was today. Flint was his brother by both choice and blood. He and Stone were the youngest of six and the only two that spoke to each other anymore, not that it was a surprise. He and Flint were the only two that had cracked—the only two who had bothered to escape.

Neither one of them particularly appreciated the way they’d grown up, and they still struggled to live with the reasons why their parents had been the way they were.

Long before Stone was born, his parents had purchased seven acres of land and set up a three-bedroom trailer for their six kids, keeping them safely ensconced in the middle of the woods in Nowhere, USA. Their parents had been fundamentalist Christians who homeschooled them, and it wasn’t until Stone escaped their claws that he realized just how little he really knew about the world.

As a kid, Stone spent his days teaching himself tumbling tricks in the small meadow about a mile away from their backyard, and six months from his eighteenth birthday—like some sort of fucked-up indie film—he’d run away with a circus. It had been a small band of traveling aerialists who had seen him climbing a massive tree just behind the one convenience store on the road near their family ranch.

To this day, Stone wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the universe or if it was just luck that he’d stumbled on that little group of people stocking up for their show. And he didn’t know what had come over him—how he’d managed to find the courage to run home, sneak in through his bedroom window, and pack a bag. But he’d done it.

Of course, he also had no idea how much his life was going to change in less than two years either. Mostly, he just remembered the heartbroken look on Flint’s face after he refused to come with him. He remembered the way his brother’s voice shook when Stone said he was going anyway.

“I can’t stay here,” he’d told him.

Flint had just stared back, eyes wide. “They’ll blame me.”

Stone knew—God, he knew that—but he also knew if he stayed there any longer, he was going to die. “Come and find me the second you turn eighteen,” he said, and then he hitched his bag over his shoulder and left.

It had taken him a full year of studying and training to be good enough for a show, and then he had six glorious months before the semitruck driver fell asleep at the wheel and changed …well…everything.

A seven-million-dollar pay-out hadn’t given him his legs back, but it had paid for his PhD, and then for the midtwenties crisis that had led to him buy an old, abandoned Spanish cathedral in the middle of nowhere that had once been a convent.

It sat for two years, a sort of empty relic he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with. He’d occupied one of the front rooms that had once belonged to a nun who had left behind a Bible, which was half-eaten by beetles, pages covered in her own minuscule handwriting debating the words of God.

Her name was embossed on the front: Sister Francis.

Sometimes, on really lonely nights, he’d make up stories about what happened to her, about what had caused the convent to fall, abandoned to the wilds.

Maybe she was a miracle worker. A humanitarian. Well on her way to becoming sanctified as the powers that be kept track of all the good things she had done and all the rest she was going to do.

And then one night one of the Sins—Lust—crept in through the window and for seven eternal days, broke her vows.

Over.

And over.

And over.

It was a germ of an idea, which quickly spread into something bigger. The fiction he’d crafted consumed him until he had only one choice: create the fantasies of the fallen. He just had no idea how much it would change him and those he brought into the fold of the brothel.

Some days, Stone struggled to follow the line of events that led him to where he was standing now, but most of the time, he let the memories of his past wither away in the small, dark boxes living inside his head.

“Did your client pay for the entire night?” Stone asked, dragging his attention back to his brother. “Because you could have just called me, and I would have had him escorted out.”

Flint groaned. “Unfortunately, he booked the overnight package. This is Avan’s fault, though. He said he vetted the guy, and I assumed he wouldn’t pass on someone like that to me.”

Stone crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes narrowed at his brother. His protective instincts were stronger than most people’s, which was why he preferred not taking clients and instead keeping a close eye on their clients, making sure none of them crossed lines.

“What did he do?” They had the man on file, and if he’d broken rules, if he’d hurt Flint in any way…

Flint snorted and took another long drink before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “He had a pain kink.” Stone nodded along with his brother’s words. A pain kink for Wrath was nothing out of the ordinary, but he knew there was more. “He wanted to turn it around on me, which wasn’t in our agreement, but he looked like he was on the verge of falling apart, so I let him.”

Stone looked at him another long moment. “You know you…”

“I know,” Flint bit out. “It was a mistake, especially because I wasn’t in the right mindset for it. I just…He was a lot. He was overwhelming, and I couldn’t make myself tell him no. It wasn’t so bad until he wanted to use implements.” Flint licked his lips, then glanced away because he had to know how Stone would react. “He lied about having used a crop before.”

Stone’s face went red—he could feel it crawling up his cheeks like someone pouring magma into his veins. “He hurt you.”

Flint rolled his eyes again, but Stone could see the vulnerability underneath his brother’s sarcasm. “It wasn’t anything I couldn’t take. I stopped him when I realized he had no idea what he was doing, and he listened before I had to safeword. But he needs to be on the list. He’s volatile, and he’s out to hurt someone. This is more than just a kink.”

Stone marched over to his laptop, which he had laid out on the breakfast table, and dropped into the chair, his morning run forgotten. Logging into the system, he pulled up Flint’s schedule from the night before and clicked on the client’s name. Mark Wilson.

The profile loaded. His little ID photo looked a bit like a mugshot with his mussed hair and stoic expression. The man was older, married, wife unaware he was booking with them. He worked at a local accounting firm, and that was only unusual because Stone knew what a job like that paid, and the overnight fee at the Carnal Tower was at least one full month of this guy’s salary.

He checked to make sure Mark’s payment had gone through, and when he confirmed it had, he sat back and looked over at his brother.

They didn’t resemble each other much, though they had when they were younger. Flint was shorter, though—and not just because Stone had surreptitiously had his prosthetist add half an inch to his legs. Flint was lithe and thin, standing barely five ten.

He had assumed the sin of Wrath, and Stone always liked watching the clients go in a little cocky like there was no way Flint could give them what they wanted and come out like their entire world had been turned on its head. He trusted that his brother could take care of himself, especially against a guy like Mark, but Stone also knew from firsthand experience that getting complacent was dangerous.

His men had been hurt before—that was part of the risk in this job. It didn’t matter how big they were, or how strong, or how sure of themselves.

Sometimes, some psychopath would slip through their rigorous vetting, and then shit went wrong.

But it was rare, and Stone usually got the jump on it before anything like that happened.

It was also why the Carnal Tower had its cardinal rule: the client only ever got seven days with each one of the Sins. It meant that after forty-nine days, they could never book the Carnal Tower again.

Most people liked to draw it out. Hell, Stone had a client who had first booked with him three years before, and he was only on his fourth night. But some of them—the ones who had no control over themselves—rushed through it all.

With a sigh, he dragged himself out of his thoughts and quickly flagged Mark’s account. “It looks like he’s got three more nights booked. I’m going to cancel them and have Hen give him a call to explain why we termed his contract. Unless you want to do it,” he added because sometimes the Sins did.

Sometimes they felt guilty, even if the situation was wrong or unsafe, and it alleviated some of that weight by holding the responsibility of the former client’s pain. It was in those moments that Stone wondered if maybe they weren’t growing into their personas a little too well.

Flint shook his head though, waving him off. “Nah, fuck that guy. Let Hen handle it.”

Hen was one of six employees that worked outside of the compound, and he was good at his job. He was no-nonsense and had never in his life been moved by a single sob story. He was essentially their over-the-phone bouncer, and Stone fucking loved that about him.

Quickly typing up a message and forwarding the account to him, Stone closed the laptop and stood up again. “Wanna run with me?”

Flint pulled a face. “You know I hate running. But why are you going? I thought Jet beat the shit out of you yesterday.”

Stone flipped him off as he grabbed his water bottle and then checked his right socket to make sure it was holding. His leg had been shrinking a little bit over the summer, but it felt steady. “Yeah, he did. But I’m not slacking off because of a few bruises.”

Flint grinned at him, looking young suddenly, and Stone had a momentary blip, wondering if he’d fucked up his brother’s life yet again, this time by dragging him into his world instead of shutting him out of it.

It only lasted a second, though. He knew every one of the Sins was there because they wanted to be. Whatever the reason, they’d made their choices, and Stone knew they were happy.

“Call me if anything comes up,” he said. “And don’t eat my fucking food.” He shoved his earbuds into his ears, then headed out the back door and began a slow warm-up jog toward the far east gate.

The compound retained most of its original fencing, though the first thing Stone had done was hire a company to bring the gate all the way around to the front. Although the cathedral was tucked away in the woods, it wasn’t far from the main road, and more than one tourist had come up to the front gates like they thought it was an active church.

Considering what was just inside the nave doors, the last thing he needed was some old Catholic grandma stumbling into the former narthex to light a candle for her loved ones. He could live with a lot of things on his conscience, but an old lady’s heart attack from watching some client with an exhibition kink being flogged where the sanctuary had once been wasn’t one of them.

Of course, they got their fair share of people trying to come in through the gate—just like they got their fair share of townie teenagers trying to hop the back fence on a dare. Stone had two Rotties who were nothing more than giant fluffballs without the fluff. They made a lot of noise and kept most of the unwanted elements off the property—but not always.

The place still looked like a church, which was the point.

He wanted his clients a little unnerved. He wanted them to think they were stepping into the second circle of hell—a mockery of everything society and religion professed was good and pure. He wanted them to feel dirty and stripped down to the core. He wanted them to leave satisfied, maybe a little eager to sin again, and rebuilt from the ground up.

Once his idea had taken root, it hadn’t taken Stone long to get the place looking the way he’d imagined it. They’d gutted the nunnery and built seven short corridors that fed into the nave. Each corridor had rooms for each one of the Sins.

Lust, Sloth, Wrath, Greed, Pride, Envy, Gluttony.

His guys each had specialties that had been honed and perfected over the years, so much so that the elite among every walk of society knew where to find them, knew that almost no request was too intense to fulfill.

It also kept the details of what they did behind the gates safe from most people in town. The fee to spend a week with one of the Sins was astronomical, so it was rare someone from town could afford more than a night. A single hour would set them back two grand, and some of their clients saved for months to pay for those sixty minutes.

Stone thought maybe he should feel guilty, but it was hard to when he knew what they did was worth it.

It was more than just the money, though. It was so much more than the business. Their life provided a sense of peace that men like the Sins couldn’t get anywhere else. They were all outcasts—shattered by their pasts in some way—brought to their knees by things just outside their control. It was the sanctuary Stone had set out to find and perfect, and he wanted to share it with the people he cared about most.

It allowed them to live in Norwich without being part of it and without being asked to share too much of themselves with strangers they’d never trust. The property was huge, surrounded by massive trees and thick clusters of Spanish moss making it feel lost in time. It allowed people the chance to simply ignore what they knew went on behind those walls, and they could coexist as peacefully as something like that would allow.

Most people didn’t talk to him when he jogged into town, but they were friendly enough. He’d get the occasional wave and sometimes a nod. When he’d stop for water, the bravest dog walkers would ask how his morning was with a hint of trepidation like he might actually sprout demon wings and cast a spell of lust over the park, turning it into a massive orgy.

It would have been amusing if it wasn’t so exhausting.

But he still liked his life. He didn’t mind people gawking at him for his tattoos, or his muscles, or his legs. He damn well knew most of those people secretly hoped they could afford his fee one day, waiting to see just how quickly he could bring them to their knees—and that was a power trip he liked.

The only thing that ever got to him—and it was rare he let himself think about it—was how lonely it could all be. He could hardly expect a partner to accept his life, especially because he had no plans to give it up, and he was a bit too notorious to trust anyone’s motivations when they tried to get to know him.

It put him in an impossible spot. It was one that had him resigned to knowing he’d probably die surrounded by his chosen family but no one closer than that. It was a bitter pill to swallow some days and some longer nights when he couldn’t quiet his brain.

It was pessimistic. It was…

Stone’s thoughts cut off when something slammed into his legs, and then they were no longer underneath him. He sucked in a quick breath as the ground rushed toward his face. Fast.

He didn’t fall very often anymore. His prosthetics weren’t just walking aids—they were his limbs. They’d been part of him almost longer than his natural legs had been, and as a grown-ass adult, it was rare he ate shit on the pavement like some hyper two-year-old.

The ground met his elbow first as he lifted his arm to break his fall. The pain radiated through his entire body, and his breath was forced out of his lungs. Stone tried to cry out as he rolled onto his side, but he couldn’t seem to make a sound louder than a quiet rasp as he tried to pull in air. It took him several long seconds as he stared up at the blue sky peeking through the tree canopy to regain his composure.

Flexing his hands, then his arms, then his thighs, he was satisfied when he realized he could move. The pain was a dull roar in his already sore ribs, but he’d live. Turning onto his side, he propped up on his elbow and glanced around with wide, pained eyes for some clue as to what the fuck had knocked him on his ass. Then his gaze settled on a dog sitting with its tongue lolling out about three feet away.

It was some black, shaggy mess of a thing—definitely a mutt and definitely intelligent if the glint in its eyes was anything to go by. Stone forced himself to cough just so he could get his lungs working again, and he groaned loudly as he rolled up to sit.

His vision was obscured a second later, then a wet, slobbery tongue dragged over his cheek.

“Thanks, asshole,” he grumbled. Pressing his hand against his side, he was pretty sure nothing was broken. His breathing began to come easier, and he pushed onto his knees, glancing around the empty park to see who the damned mutt belonged to. “You got parents?” he asked.

The dog’s mouth opened wider in a big puppy smile, and he wanted to be annoyed, but it was damn near impossible in the face of something so cute. It took him a second to climb to his feet, and then another to regain his balance after being thrown, but the dog stayed in close like it knew he might need support.

That was…interesting.

Stone pulled his earbuds out, shoving them into his pocket as he shielded his eyes from the sun and turned in a half circle. It wasn’t until he squinted hard that he realized there was a man in the park, pressed against the trunk of a cypress tree, staring at him.

Stone felt a little pissed then. Was he seriously so intimidating that the guy couldn’t even come over and check to see if he was alright after his dog straight up tried to murder him?

“Is that your dad?” he asked.

The dog let out a quiet woof, then took off running in the direction of the man. Stone picked up speed, and as he got closer, he saw the stranger’s eyes go wide. He was definitely on the older side—maybe late thirties—with shaggy dark curls that held just the first hints of grey at the temples—and very pale skin like he rarely saw the sun. He was wearing a long-sleeved sweater that looked far too thick for late-October’s temperate weather, and his feet were bare, digging into the grass like he could dig his way down as a means of escape if Stone attacked him.

His offense only grew. “Is this your dog?”

The guy swallowed and didn’t speak for so long Stone almost asked him in sign in case the guy was Deaf. “Um. Yes.”

Stone eyed the beast and shook his head. “So you saw what just happened?”

“She…” The guy licked his lips, and Stone immediately noticed two things—the man was gorgeous, and he was petrified. “I’m sorry. Please…please don’t call the cops.”

Stone took a step back, startled by the plea because there was no way in hell he looked like the kind of guy who would call the cops. “Yeah, I’m not gonna do that. But you know if she can’t control her shit, she should be on a leash.”

The man pulled one hand from behind his back and held out the evidence—a leash, a cheap one, that was frayed at the end. Stone looked back down at the dog and saw the clasp still hanging from her collar. He let out a tired sigh, then dropped to one knee and beckoned her close.

She needed no other invitation to crawl into his arms, and he felt all his irritation drain away in spite of the ache in his side. “What’s her name?”

The guy was quiet again. “Cannelle.”

Stone’s lip twitched. French wasn’t his strongest language, but he’d been given a language choice during his degree between French and German, and since he’d learned Latin before, he’d stayed in the family. “Cinnamon?”

He glanced up just in time to see the shadow of a smile flicker at the corners of the stranger’s mouth. It made him look less like some lost fae trapped in the human world but only for a second. When he realized Stone was staring, he shrank back again.

“Can I…Is there anything I can do? Um. Are you hurt?” the man asked. His gaze cut down to Stone’s prosthetics, and he couldn’t even bring himself to be irritated at the sight of how nervous the poor bastard looked.

Stone pushed back up to stand, brushing his hands down his sides and ass to make sure he wasn’t carrying around clumps of dirt from the fall. “I’m fine. I’ve had worse.”

Like yesterday when Jet had beat the crap out of him. But at least Jet was a human, not a fuzzy dog who was looking a little bit too smug about what she’d done.

“Can I…Is there something I can do to make up for…for her behavior?” The guy was wringing his hands hard enough that Stone started to feel bad for the poor fucker, and he finally took a step back and let his shoulders relax.

“I’m all good.” He hesitated, then stuck out his hand on a whim and watched the battle between manners and nerves play out in the man’s eyes. “I’m Stone, by the way.”

“August.” He gave his name before letting his hand press against Stone’s. The shake only lasted half a second before he yanked his hand back, but it left the strangest impression.

“August,” he said. He’d always like that name. Maybe it was the fact that he and his siblings had all been named after rocks and minerals that he had a sort of attachment to nature, but the man also seemed a bit like the month. Flighty and maudlin, the edge of summer before the cold. “How well trained is this beast?”

August blinked, confusion in his eyes before he realized what Stone was asking, and then he flushed. The color was a stark contrast to his pale skin, and Stone was a little worried for the guy’s vitamin levels. “Oh, uh…I’ve had her for two years, but she came from a shelter, so she’s…” He trailed off, then let out a sheepish laugh, which was low and gravelly and kind of delicious. Something Stone had no business thinking. “She’s working on it.”

Stone raised a brow at the dog who was perched in a prim sit at August’s feet. “Want me to walk you home, then?”

August choked a bit.

“I swear I’m not some creeper trying to find out where you live,” Stone added in a rush, aware that made him sound exactly like some creeper trying to find out where August lived. “You just seem a little shaken.”

August let out another small laugh, decidedly less nervous sounding this time. “I guess I’m obvious. It’s been a rough week, and I think Cannelle just picked up on it.”

“Do you live close?” Stone wasn’t super familiar with the neighborhood but only because work kept him busy, and it wasn’t exactly easy to mingle with the townsfolk when he ran a hell-themed brothel and everyone knew about it.

“Just up the road. I’m at the gallery today,” August said, then bit his lower lip. “It’s where I work.”

Stone knew of exactly one gallery in town. It was a little place on the strip of shops in buildings that had most definitely been built before the turn of the century. A lot of Norwich had been updated, but the city had been trying to preserve as much of the history as it could. Stone liked that for the simple fact that it added to the mystery of his own business, especially when clients came in from the West Coast.

“The Ash Tree Gallery?” he asked.

August’s eyes went a little wide. “You know it?” Then he bit his lip so hard, Stone thought he might draw blood. “Sorry, God, I…Of course you…” He gestured at Stone’s arms. “Clearly you appreciate art.”

And well, that was different. Most people who saw his ink most definitely didn’t think it had to do with art appreciation. He rubbed his right hand up his left shoulder. He’d gotten his tattoos as a tribute to his own recovery from his shitty family, and his accident, and then everything else that had come along with his life.

“It’s a long story.” He almost offered to tell it to him sometime, which was also fucking different because he didn’t do that, but August—assuming the guy knew who Stone was—was also the first person who didn’t fumble through invasive questions about the fact that he was a sex worker either.

Not that it was a requirement, but Stone did appreciate the reprieve.

“Anyway, this little beast seems like she might give you trouble, and with a busted leash…” he began.

August held it up in his hand again and looked at it a little forlorn. “That might be good.”

Without warning, Stone seized the thing from August’s fingers and dropped down to a knee, looping the leash around the collar and tucking it through the handle. It wasn’t perfect, but it would at least keep the pup from running off into traffic if she got startled.

“Better?” he asked when he handed it back to her owner.

August offered him a shy smile. “Yeah.”

There was no reason for Stone to walk him back now, but August also didn’t protest as he slipped on his shoes, then started up the path after Stone. The ache in his ribs started to fade a bit the more his body got moving, and while it wasn’t his planned run, it was something.

“You know,” he said after the first five minutes of total silence, “you can tell me to fuck off if you want to.”

August made a small, startled noise. “What? Why would I?”

“Because I’m some weirdo from the park?” Stone said with a grin. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “Trust me, I won’t be offended. People say a lot worse when they think I can’t hear them.”

“Because of the whorehouse?” August said.

Stone tripped over a small crack in the sidewalk. At least, that’s what he planned to tell people. He righted himself, but the look of absolute mortification on August’s face had him bursting into laughter. “Sorry,” he said when he caught his breath. He couldn’t stop himself from reaching over and gently touching August’s elbow. “It’s just…I don’t think anyone’s called it that since the thirties.”

August shrugged, his blush so bright he was almost glowing. “I didn’t know the PC term for it.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Stone said, still grinning. “On the books it’s called a brothel, which is to keep the shit legal and get all the proper inspections and licenses.”

August’s eyebrows lifted. “Like…health inspections.”

Stone’s cheeks were now aching with how hard he was smiling. “Among other things. I’m not in the business of trying to get shut down considering it’s my sole income.”

“That’s…fair,” August said. Stone could tell he was biting the inside of his cheek from the way his face went sort of gaunt. “So…what do you call it?”

“The Carnal Tower,” he said. “Second circle of hell.”

“It’s not shaped like a penis,” August blurted, then his eyes darted away, but Stone was helplessly charmed by the man.

Stone’s grin widened so far, his cheeks ached. “A man who knows his Dante.”

August shrugged one shoulder and didn’t quite meet his gaze. “I spent a lot of my childhood reading. And the illustrations were…captivating.”

Stone bit his lip and tried not to be so goddamn charmed by this man, but it was next to impossible. “You know, I actually had plans drawn up, but it’s a historical site, and I didn’t want to lose the integrity of the structure.” It wasn’t a lie. He’d hired an architect to come up with blueprints to recreate Dante’s actual Carnal Tower, but it would have ended up gauche and tacky, and part of what people were paying for was the experience. “You should drop in sometime if you like old architecture. It’s actually quite beautiful. My brother found an artist who flew in from Spain, and he did a bunch of restorations on the stained glass and the statues.”

August looked surprised. “You restored it?”

Stone hummed softly, nodding. “As much as I could. We tried to keep it traditional, but I did draw the line at using piss to color in all the spots where the images of Jesus’s halo wore off.”

August huffed a soft laugh. “Fair enough. I bet that was a lot of work, though. To put it back to right.”

Stone nodded. “The place was pretty gutted when I bought it. It had been abandoned for like fifty years, and the neighborhood kids had kind of trashed it. I’m hoping the diocese—whoever the fuck they are around here—took the paintings. There’s a lot of open spaces on the walls where they used to be.”

August almost looked sad at that, but he said nothing until they rounded the corner and the shops came into view. “What would you hang there if you could?”

“Fallen angels,” Stone said. He didn’t even have to think about it. “I don’t know how much you know about our theme, but we provide people a way to bring their deepest, darkest sins to life. I always imagined them as angels that fell for giving in to their desires.”

August let out a breathy sigh and nodded. “I didn’t know much, but it’s what I pictured.”

Stone winked at him as they came to a stop in front of the gallery doors. The place was obviously closed, but August had keys in his hand. “Well, if you want to see for yourself, you can always stop by.” He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and offered the matte black card with his name and number on the back. He only carried a dozen at a time with how rarely he gave them out—and with this one, it left him eleven. “That’s me.”

“Stone Brice,” August read out loud, then looked up at him. “Pseudonym?”

“Hippie parents,” he answered back with another wink. “It was nice to meet you, August.” He stuck out his hand again, and this time, August’s touch lingered. When the man pulled away, Stone dropped to one knee for the last time, tugging Cannelle’s leash very gently, though she didn’t need a lot of prompting. She swiped her fat tongue over his cheek, and he scratched her ears. “Behave for your dad.”

He pushed to his feet, and something urged him to keep the conversation going, to tell August he’d had a strange but wonderful morning, and that it was entirely unexpected. But he didn’t. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, so instead he pulled his earbuds out of his pocket, offered the man a wave, then took off without starting the music back up on his phone.

It was better that way.

An encounter like that almost called for silence.