Matthias


Book Cover: Matthias
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Wealth and power were promised.
Hell was given.
Can he give up everything to break free?

From Louisiana swamp rat to revivalist huckster to skilled con artist, Matthias Krall clawed his way out of poverty using his natural gifts of grift and manipulation to become the leader of an exclusive retreat center. Exploiting the guise of spiritual guru, Matthias seduces the rich and powerful into turning over their lives and fortunes to his control. But wealth and a small cadre of loyal followers can’t protect Matthias from the betrayal he knows is imminent. Everyone wants what Matthias has, except for one man who wants to destroy it. Dylan Connelly is a reporter who’s determined to prove the charismatic recluse is not only a fraud but a murderer.

Irresistibly drawn to Dylan despite the warnings in his gut, Matthias lures Dylan to his island retreat, determined to destroy his enemy once and for all.

Author:
Published: November 2, 2016
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Excerpt:

Chapter One

“DISAPPOINTING,” MATTHIAS said, and clicked off the video feed to his computer that allowed him to observe his guests as they gathered in the lounge for cocktails. So far he’d heard nothing of interest out of the mouths of the movie star, her capitalist husband, the representative eyeing the Senate, or any of the other dozen elites his team had vetted and flown in for his perusal.

Of course his guests didn’t see it that way. They thought they were interviewing Matthias Krall, touring the facility, and judging whether or not they wanted to become members of the exclusive Rising Star Retreat Center. What they didn’t know was everyone Matthias approved of signed up before leaving, and no one who failed to capture his interest was allowed to linger for longer than the ridiculously expensive one-week stay they’d come for.

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Archie Hogue, Matthias’s business partner since the beginning, polished off a shot of bourbon and set the glass on the black marble bar in the corner of Matthias’s private living room. “Portella is pretty sharp. She’s dumbing it down for Hollywood.”

“I hope so.”

Matthias fastened the last pearl button on his gray silk shirt and smoothed down his collar. This might be San Juan Island, but none of his guests would ever catch Matthias looking less than immaculate.

After meeting Matthias and spending an hour with a man of impeccable taste, most of them would appear the next day in much sharper attire. It was a subtle but important acknowledgment of his superiority. One of many to come. The process started with something as trivial as style and ended with how they viewed God.

“You’re in a mood,” Arch said. He looked in the mirror above the bar and imitated Matthias’s movements, checking his buttons and adjusting the cuffs of his jacket. Arch was what one might call ruggedly handsome, with dark brown hair he kept short and a scruff of two-day beard on his square jaw. He had the unfortunate tendency to wear too much cologne but otherwise presented well. Tailoring sleek lines to the bulky body of an ex-offensive lineman was no easy task, but with no expense spared, Arch managed to look sophisticated in a casual navy jacket, slacks, and white shirt, even while the expensive fabric strained subtly against his bulging pecs.

Matthias wore a Versace shirt and black slacks that fit him perfectly. Both men had captured the essence of what Matthias called no-nonsense casual. His guests would feel oddly underdressed but not put out by a display of unexpected formality.

Normally Matthias enjoyed the ritual of meeting the marks and feeling them out. He always hoped someone interesting might appear on his horizon. Since the ousting of his last favorite, the volatile rocker Jason Vaughn, his bed had been woefully empty.

“I noticed a disappointing lack of hot young things in tonight’s crowd.”

“Tonight is all about the money. If you wanted a fresh fuck, you should have told me.”

Matthias glowered at Arch, who smiled back at him. No one else at Rising Star would dream of speaking to Matthias so freely, or calling him on his bullshit. This made Arch invaluable to Matthias’s sanity. If not for his childhood friend, Matthias might start falling for his own con.

“Since when do I not want a fresh fuck?” he asked, keeping his tone serious.

“I don’t know. Ever since you gave bad boy the boot you’ve been pulling the gloomy monk routine.”

“I had hopes for that boy,” Matthias sighed.

“We all did. Too bad he turned out to be such a liability.” Arch had fucked Jace too. Matthias was rarely possessive of his recruits, not after the induction period anyway. Some of them resented this lack of exclusiveness, but none were willing to make an issue of it and risk their membership in Rising Star. Not until Jason Vaughn, who thought he deserved all of Matthias’s attention. Just when Matthias was getting bored, Jace had decided he was in love. Damned inconvenient.

“Tell me he’s settled down into quiet obscurity.” A tiny, annoying twinge of guilt pricked at Matthias when he thought of Jason’s wrecked career. Sometimes Matthias’s ego stroking and message of divine privilege took hold too effectively. Jason had come to believe the world—and Matthias—should bow down before his artistic genius.

“Julian is keeping him placated.”

Matthias’s mood continued to darken. “With his experimental drug concoctions?”

“Jace still has too much money to be sensible.”

“He was a better artist when he was hungry.”

“That can be arranged. He sunk everything into a new project. If it tanks, he’ll disappear off everyone’s radar.” Arch leaned against the bar and eyed the bottle of bourbon but didn’t reach for it. He discussed ruining lives as casually as he discussed the Seahawks chances at a playoff berth. Had it always been this way? They were richer than they’d ever dreamed of, but instead of security, more money seemed to breed more threats and harsher responses.

Matthias didn’t know why he was worrying about Jace. They’d had a good time together, but then Jace’s emotions had spiraled into irrational behavior and rebellion. He represented one of Matthias’s very few failures. A mark he couldn’t control. That Julian was now controlling Jace with drugs set Matthias’s teeth on edge.

“Leave him be. Maybe a little success will help him move on.”

Arch frowned, obviously disagreeing, but he nodded. His walkie-talkie chirped, and he removed it from his belt as he moved to the door, leaving behind a trail of manly pine scent, intent on some minutia about making the newcomers content and compliant.

Matthias watched Arch’s back, suspicion nagging at him. The castle he and Arch had built only had room for one king. Tensions and power struggles were bound to flare up, but Matthias needed to know his inner circle was secure. He relied on them to protect, manage, and organize daily operations. The con at the heart of the operation—manipulating and winning over the marks—took most of his energy and attention.

Whatever else might come up for debate, Matthias had final say over what happened to his recruits. Most of them became loyal followers for life, happy for whatever scraps of attention Matthias gave them. They went out into the world, followed orders, and sent money, if that was their role. That was the con, and it worked. Until it didn’t.

A typical con relied on one thing: greed. Rising Star mostly targeted people who already had money, and so setting the bait in the trap was trickier. What do people with power and wealth want? Status. Assurances they’re successful because they deserve it, because it’s their destiny. Because God wills it. Like a title bestowing nobility or a knighthood, membership in Rising Star assured elites they were at the pinnacle of society, or soon would be, because of the divine fire within them.

Matthias’s role was to convince them of this and to convince them the road to paradise went through him. A few of his most devoted followers called him their archangel.

If they’d known him back when he was a scrawny Louisiana swamp rat, they might reevaluate their devotion. He’d ruthlessly removed all traces of the wild misfit he’d once been, expunging any evidence of his upbringing except for the faintest hint of a Southern accent. Most people couldn’t guess his creole background and were content to consider him exotic.

He’d been blessed with thick, black hair that always looked good no matter what he did or didn’t do to it. Mostly he didn’t. A certain rakish lack of styling took the edge off the perfection he’d mastered in every other area. Boyish charm, his mother once told him, was a better weapon of manipulation than overly intimidating beauty. Matthias knew his looks could be intimidating to some—he’d had enough people tell him so—but he didn’t rely on it. Outward appearance was only one step in becoming the kind of leader people were eager to follow.

His compact, muscular body was made for designer clothing, and when he wanted, he found it easy to disguise his innate strength to appear elegant and nonthreatening. But his most powerful tool was his eyes. Blue eyes were always surprising in someone with a dark complexion. He’d received this gift from a mix of Spanish, French, and Senegalese ancestors—pirates all, according to his mother.

Matthias had learned to put this unique feature to his advantage, catching and never letting go of his prey once he held them in his gaze. He’d formally studied hypnotism, but he was a natural. He’d faced down a snarling pit bull at the age of nine, reducing the trained man-killer to a submissive pet in the matter of a few tense minutes.

That’s when his mother, a conjure woman and revivalist huckster who understood the power of manipulation, had decided to take Matthias to Doc Moliere in New Orleans for formal schooling.

Matthias wondered what his guests would think if they knew he compared them to a pit bull when assessing how much of a challenge they might present. Most of them would be far easier to subdue than a dog, whose instinct was unclouded by the need for prestige, wealth, or privilege.

Arch pocketed his walkie-talkie and turned back to him. “Ready to make your entrance?”

Matthias tweaked his already perfect cuffs. “I don’t want Jace hurt.”

“Too late for that,” Arch groused.

A hint of jealousy tinged his attitude. He’d protected Matthias since their tent show days, and sometimes he didn’t know when to back down. Matthias didn’t mind a little jealousy, usually. Even Archie shouldn’t be allowed to get too comfortable in his role at Matthias’s side.

Matthias glanced up at him. “You know what I mean. He’s weak and stupid but not dangerous.”

“I’m not sure I do. Weak and stupid equals dangerous. You taught me that. That’s why the herd culls the injured.”

“My relationship with him became too public. You know we can’t risk being connected to any violence. Ask Alexandra to pay Jace another visit, and let him know his comeback will go more smoothly if he keeps his mouth shut about Rising Star.”

“He knows that already, but like you said, stupid.” Archie sighed. “This is when a drunken car wreck would come in handy.”

Matthias flashed him a dark look. Archie chuckled, then sighed again. He wouldn’t take extreme measures without Matthias’s permission. Jason would have to screw up even more phenomenally before he crossed that line.

“You took care of that reporter who was egging him on?”

“We’ve got a member on the board of the paper, so killing the story was no problem.”

Matthias shook his head. He’d been in the paper much more than he liked lately, which had motivated Arch and the others to make inroads into as many media outlets as possible. Matthias left the publicity to his celebrity followers. All he wanted was the money and connections celebrity fostered. Jace Vaughn had generated too much publicity, too little money.

Still, Matthias missed the little spitfire in bed. His sexual liaisons of late tended to leave him dissatisfied and hollow. Many people would be surprised to know that adoration could quickly grow tiresome. He knew from experience boredom made him reckless and just a tiny bit stupid himself, on the hunt for the challenge he longed for but never encountered. Well, almost never.

“Let’s get it over with.” He stalked out of the room toward the elevators that would take him from his private quarters to the ground floor of the building referred to as the tower. A short walk would get him to the main rooms of the center. A glance out the wide windows at the thickly forested grounds of his minor kingdom soothed his restless spirit.

Chapter Two

“SO WE meet again, Matthias,” Dylan Connelly said in his best imitation of a James Bond voice. He clicked the Zoom button to increase the size of the image on his screen and tilted the monitor to reduce the glare of the overhead fluorescents. The resolution was low and the photo grainy, typical tabloid quality, but he couldn’t mistake the dark-haired, blue-eyed man lurking behind the main subject: struggling rock star Jason Vaughn.

Dylan leaned back in his creaking office chair and let out a long, slow breath. Looking at Matthias, even at low res, brought it all back. The agonizing pain of the most intense crush he’d ever endured, the months of pointless longing, the humiliation of rejection. Mostly it brought back the longing, and Dylan squirmed as his body reacted in its usual cock-jerk way to the sight of the mesmerizing creole con man, Matthias Krall.

“If that really is your name,” he muttered. Dylan had yet to uncover Matthias’s background. He’d appeared, as if sprung from the earth fully formed, ten years ago on the campus of the University of Washington. Matthias hailed from Louisiana. Dylan had learned that much in one of their few conversations way back when, when they’d both been students. Correction. When Dylan had been a student and Matthias had been pretending to be a student.

Now Matthias was an über-rich businessman, some sort of spiritual guru at the head of a swanky members-only retreat on San Juan Island. Until recently he’d been dating a rock star. This irritating fact was just too natural and made the bile rise in Dylan’s throat. Matthias had been way out of Dylan’s league in college and now was even more so. Mysterious, powerful, and apparently up to no good.

Why else would Amanda Arno, his senior editor, instruct him to dig up any photo he could of the reclusive businessman? There weren’t many. Matthias kept a low profile even while he mingled with jet-setters. Most of the photos Dylan uncovered were thanks to tabloid coverage of Matthias’s brief affair with Jason Vaughn. A few others showed him with senators, CEOs, and movie stars. All were incidental. Matthias was never the focus of the shot, merely a bystander.

Dylan had lost track of Matthias, had tried to put him out of his mind, but now that Amanda had stirred the slumbering coals of his obsession, he was determined to find out what he couldn’t back in college. Who was Matthias, and what the hell was he up to?

As a journalism major and stalker-in-training, Dylan had quickly discovered that, although Matthias attended classes, he wasn’t a registered student at UW. That was as far as Dylan’s research got. Matthias had disappeared from campus and from Dylan’s life, until now.

The loose papers on his desk lifted and skittered sideways in the tidal force generated by Amanda as she marched up behind him and dropped a fat stack of file folders on his keyboard.

“All yours,” she said and continued walking toward her office.

“Hey, hang on,” Dylan called after her. The tall, honey-skinned woman spun around. By the glare and the tight lips, Dylan guessed her interview with editor in chief Marley Hawkins hadn’t gone well.

“I knew Matthias Krall in college,” he said, hoping to distract her from whatever argument still brought rose-colored splashes to her cheeks.

“I don’t give a shit,” she said. She blinked a few times as her reporter’s instincts kicked in. “I never found anything about Krall attending UW.”

“There’s no mistaking him.” Dylan wisely resisted mentioning his crush. “I had a class with him when I was a sophomore. It was an upper-level course, so I assumed he was a senior.”

“And of course you took advanced classes,” Amanda huffed. “Listen, boy wonder, the plug has been pulled on the Rising Star story. Pure speculation, no hard facts, according to Marley.”

Amanda’s eyes blazed, and she looked like she wanted to hit something. Dylan rolled his chair back until he was out of striking range.

“He wasn’t registered. He just attended classes. Either he was improving his mind or preying on rich kids. Or both.”

Amanda’s lips thinned as she processed this. “Preying on rich kids. Sure. One of his first big-time investors was Markus Fenton, son of Senator Fenton and prominent UW alum.”

“Maybe we could talk to Fenton, see how his investment turned out—”

“No. We’ve been shut down. Irritating a senator’s son won’t help.”

“But what about all this?” He nodded toward the teetering stack of files.

“A phenomenal waste of time. Rising Star’s remarkable influence over the rise and fall of politicians and rock stars is mere luck. The fact their members occupy positions of power all through our government and big business is purely coincidental.” Amanda crossed her arms over her chest and took a deep breath. She glanced over her shoulder. This late on a Friday afternoon, the usually teeming newsroom was mostly empty. “If you ask me, Krall’s influence has reached this paper.”

“Seriously? You think Marley killed the story because—”

“Because he was ordered to from on high. Yeah, I do.”

Despite her anger Amanda leaned over Dylan’s desk to inspect the photo he’d enlarged on his desktop.

“That’s him all right. No man should be that good-looking.”

“You think the enemy is hot?” Dylan asked, giving him an excuse to make the image larger. He swore Matthias could see him right through the screen.

“I might despise him and his fake spirituality, but I’m not dead. Why, don’t you think he’s attractive?”

Dylan shrugged. “Like you said, too pretty by half.”

“Ha! You’re such a liar. Did you date in college?”

Heat crept up Dylan’s neck, and he hoped she didn’t notice. “No. He ran with the Ferrari, fraternity, Armani underpants crowd, even back then. I was a scholarship nobody from the sticks.”

“Too bad. An old school connection might be the trick to scoring an interview.” Amanda dropped her chin with a sigh, tight, black curls obscuring her face. “Damn. If there was still a story to pursue, that is.”

“An interview would still be a win. He’s such a recluse, and yet he’s obviously a mover and a shaker.”

“Good luck with that. I’m done. Finito.” She straightened her spine, lifted her chin and waved a banishing gesture across Dylan’s desk. “Speaking of interviews, you might as well call Mr. Hot Rocks Vaughn and cancel my interview. No reason to dredge through that mess now.”

“But it took you weeks to convince Jason Vaughn to meet with you.”

“That relationship has been done to death by the tabloids. I only hoped to ferret out a few facts about Mr. Wonderful’s chichi retreat. Jason lived there for almost six months before his big crash. He must have some dirt to share, but there’s really no point now. If you want to play fan boy and do a piece on Jason’s hard road to recovery, go ahead, but the Matthias Krall angle is dead.” Amanda massaged her forehead for a moment. “Unless someone not under scrutiny wanted to keep poking around. Off the clock.”

She waggled her eyebrows at him and left. Dylan pulled the first folder off the stack and flipped through it. When Amanda had recruited him to do some legwork for her Matthias Krall piece, his heart had skipped several beats, but he’d tried to convince himself it wouldn’t be the same man. Now he knew otherwise, and the unsettled feeling returned, along with the quickening of his breath and tightening in his gut.

He glanced up and found himself staring into Matthias’s mesmerizing eyes. Not that a pixelated photo could do them justice. Still, Dylan felt like Matthias could reach right into his soul and rip out all the juicy bits. Dylan wasn’t the only who felt that way. From what Amanda could glean from the very few Rising Star members willing to talk, Matthias led private guided meditations that unlocked a person’s potential and sent them back into society even more successful and shiny than before.

Dylan snaked his hand out and clicked away from the image. Instinct told him to drop the whole thing. The story was dead. But instinct also told him Amanda was onto something. Rising Star felt every bit like a high-end cult.

And his body told him any chance to get close to Matthias was worth the risk.

No really, Dylan, didn’t we learn this lesson ten years ago?

“God, I am hopeless.” He sighed and planted his elbows on the desk, running his fingers through his hair. Back in college he’d convinced himself he was in love with Matthias even before they’d exchanged two words. He’d confused infatuation with love. At least he’d figured out that much eventually, but he’d never rid himself of the punch-to-the-gut desire he experienced whenever Matthias invaded his memories.

Matthias had run with the richest of the rich kids. Like the photos, he never seemed to be in front of the pack but always firmly in the middle, surrounded by wealth and privilege. Men and women both fawned over him, deferred to him, ogled him when he wasn’t looking. Even the professors. Dylan knew he was at the end of a long line of suitors. He had nothing to offer that Matthias didn’t have in droves. Gorgeous, rich, intelligent partners rotated on and off his arm. Dylan found it both fascinating and sickening to watch.

But young, horny Dylan couldn’t help fooling himself into believing he had a chance. Matthias had given himthe look, after all. That unmistakable “I see you, and I want you” look. Dylan had been on the receiving end of the look many times from other men, but he’d never felt so powerful a tug as when it came from Matthias.

Because he was a sucker for punishment, Dylan brought back the photo of Matthias to his computer screen and allowed himself to delve deeper into the memories. They’d remained so fresh he probably should talk to a therapist about his lingering obsession, but he didn’t want to banish Matthias from the dark corners of his mind. The images were always good for an intense, if painful, jack-off session.

The rows of empty desks, the whirr of a printer in the other room, the smells of stale coffee and tobacco smoke carried in on the damp clothes of smokers, all faded into the background as Dylan conjured up the lecture hall where he’d first seen Matthias. Old wood polished with lemon oil and the musty funk of students caught in a fall deluge replaced the sensory impressions of the newsroom.

The class was upper-level art appreciation. Dylan was an attention-fearing sophomore who’d recently transferred from a small community college. He’d been thrust into advanced classes by high test scores and demanding parents, so he tended to hunker down in the last rows. Until he started wanting the gorgeous senior to notice him. He even started getting up in time to shower before class and attempt to do something sexy with his unruly thatch of blond hair.

Apparently it worked because one rainy day that Dylan recalled with embarrassing clarity, Matthias had walked into the auditorium with his usual retinue of expensively dressed pals and scanned the half-filled seats until his blue-eyed gaze landed directly on Dylan’s face. Dylan was so accustomed to being invisible he’d been staring at Matthias without thinking. He swore his heart had stopped beating and his world shrank down to nothing except Matthias’s amazing eyes.

Like a mouse mesmerized by a snake, Dylan was paralyzed. One, two, three seconds. Then he lowered his gaze to his notebook, face burning. He rested his forehead in his hand and pretended to take furious notes for several minutes before he was brave enough to peek up between his fingers. Matthias had taken a seat and faced the lectern, clicking and unclicking a sleek, black pen.

God, even his pen was expensive. Dylan watched the long fingers in subtle rhythmic motion as saliva pooled in his mouth. He writhed in the hard wooden seat, his jeans suddenly much too tight.

Matthias stopped his clicking and glanced over his shoulder. He found Dylan and winked.

Caught. Dylan’s cheeks burned even hotter, and he wanted to slink under the desk and crawl out of the room, never to return. His grades were good enough his GPA could absorb an incomplete.

But…. Matthias Krall knew he existed. He’d initiated contact. He’d… flirted. Sure, Matthias might find it amusing to tease a geeky nobody in torn jeans and a secondhand Huskies sweatshirt, but some contact had to be better than nothing.

The wheels of Dylan’s hyperactive fantasy churned. By the end of the class, during which Dylan heard nothing except the thud of his heart, he’d ended up in the back of Matthias’s Porsche. Imagination made sex in a sports car not only possible but fantastic. Of course, he could suck Matthias off in the broom closet and it would be fantastic.

When class ended Dylan sprinted for the doors at the rear of the auditorium so he wouldn’t have to face Matthias. And then spent the rest of the afternoon wishing he’d faced Matthias. Said something charming, witty, sexy. What a joke.

The looks continued over the course of the semester. Dylan slowly became less terrified, more likely to smile at Matthias and even nod, as if they were acquaintances. He never did get the nerve to talk to the object of his obsession, and suddenly the term was over. No longer able to rely on twice-weekly contact with Matthias, Dylan started to stalk him.

He was a journalism major, after all, and decided to make Matthias an unofficial project. Treat him like a politician or rock star. He discovered Matthias didn’t live on or even near campus, and Dylan had no way of following the Porsche when it roared out of the parking lot. Matthias’s major was a mystery, as he attended an eclectic handful of classes. Dylan tapped his friend in the registration office for a favor, and that’s when he found out Matthias wasn’t a registered student.

This odd nugget fueled Dylan’s determination, but he couldn’t find out anything about Matthias other than he was rich, popular, and well connected. Dylan resorted to snooping, surreptitiously following Matthias and his group but keeping well back. If Matthias found out, Dylan would be beyond mortified, and yet he couldn’t face a week without Matthias in it, no matter how unreal the contact. Lust morphed into obsession.

He found out Matthias took a martial arts class off campus three mornings a week and actually got up early enough to almost cross paths with his quarry. At least once a week, Dylan crossed the street in front of the dojo to a nonexistent appointment, nodding or even lifting a hand in half greeting as Matthias emerged from his workout, attractively flushed and sweaty in designer workout gear.

Then there came the day Dylan mistimed his street crossing and realized he was going to come face-to-face with Matthias on the sidewalk.

Say something intelligent like “good morning and keep walking. Don’t stumble. Don’t stutter, and for Christ’s sake, don’t blush.

Of course he had no say over what his body decided to do, and his face instantly heated when Matthias spotted him and smiled. A slow, easy, bedroom-sexy smile. White teeth bright against creamy, coffee-toned skin.

“What brings you out so early, Connelly?” Matthias asked after the usual friendly exchange of nods. He stopped walking and shouldered his gym bag, forcing Dylan to stop as well and face him.

He knows my name.

“Coffee. Coffee with a friend. At Mocha Joe’s.” Funny, his first word to Matthias was coffee. Who would’ve guessed? At least it came out without as stutter or nervous laugh.

Matthias shifted his wrist to check the time on a black-and-gold watch that probably cost more than most students’ cars.

“I could use a jolt. Mind if I join you?”

Ho-ly crap.

“Of course not. I mean, sure.” Dylan managed a casual smile and then remembered his friend didn’t exist. Well, shit. Guess he was going to get stood up today.

They fell in side by side. Matthias stood a shade taller than Dylan, his body lean and compact. Although they were similar in size, Dylan guessed Matthias outweighed him by thirty or forty pounds. Dylan was a swimmer and practiced yoga, whereas Matthias lifted weights in addition to his martial arts training. The slick material of his workout clothes accentuated the taut lines of his muscular chest and ass. Dylan’s brain ceased to function. Small talk had never been his forte. Naturally Matthias wasn’t the least bit nervous.

“So what did you think of Baker’s critique of the surrealist movement in the thirties?”

What? Oh, yeah, art appreciation. They’d shared three months of uninspired lectures in Baker’s art history class.

“I think it’s easy to use hindsight to concoct motivations for artists who worked almost a hundred years ago.”

Matthias chuckled softly, his low, throaty purr tickling something deep in Dylan’s core.

“I find that those who teach rarely understand those who create. So much safer to analyze and critique than actually do. What about you, Dylan? What do you do?”

Here’s your chance to say something smart and sexy.

“I, uh, major in journalism.” He licked his lips and shifted his book bag so it nested more comfortably against the small of his back. Sexy words eluded him.

“Do you, like most journalism majors, have a novel brewing?”

“Several.” Dylan hoped Matthias wouldn’t ask him what they were about. Dylan had yet to figure that out himself.

They’d reached the glass door of Mocha Joe’s, the coffee shop where Dylan picked up a coffee every time he stalked Matthias at the dojo.

Matthias put a hand on Dylan’s arm to stop him from entering. A tingling sensation radiated from the touch, warming Dylan’s skin like a sunbeam.

“I didn’t mean to intrude on your meeting with your friend,” Matthias said, voice smooth as massage oil and oh so polite with that whisper of a Southern drawl. “I thought it might be nice to exchange a few words after eyeing each other all last semester.”

Dylan’s heart dropped into his high-tops, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

This is it. He’s going to ask you out. Wait until he asks before you say yes.

“It’s okay. My friend and I talk every day. I mean, every other day. Sometimes he doesn’t even show up. You wouldn’t be interrupting anything important.” Dylan held on to the metal bar across the door for support. If anyone wanted in or out, they’d damn well have to wait.

Matthias moved a little closer until his chest bumped Dylan’s shoulder. He smiled, a little like Elvis with a touch of sneer at the corner of his mouth, as if he found Dylan amusing.

He knows exactly what you’re feeling and thinking and probably knows the whole friend thing was a lie and that you’ve been following him. You’re easy pickings, Connelly, but who cares? As long as it gets you into Matthias’s bed—

“Is the friend a boyfriend? Can’t imagine someone as tasty as you staying single for long.”

“No boyfriend,” Dylan said, too quick, too breathy.

“Matthias!” A loud voice carried from across the street, jarring Dylan out of his spiral into addle-brained lust.

Matthias’s eyes narrowed in irritation, and he stepped back. A large man darted across the street. For a giant he was light on his feet, and Dylan pegged him as a football player but didn’t recognize him from the Huskies’ lineup.

The man reached the sidewalk and strolled up, tilting his head toward the black Porsche of Dylan’s fantasies, parked along the curb down the street.

“Hey, Matthias, did you forget our appointment?” He had the same soft drawl as Matthias, slightly more pronounced.

“Alexandra can wait. Christ knows she’s—” He cut himself off, irritation vanishing as he turned back to Dylan. “Archie, this is Dylan Connelly. We appreciated art together. Dylan, Archie Hogue, a childhood friend.”

Archie Hogue inspected Dylan from head to foot, and apparently not finding anything of interest, nodded curtly and turned toward Matthias. He didn’t initiate a handshake, for which Dylan was grateful. Although Archie kept his mitts tucked inside the pockets of his leather jacket, Dylan could imagine how the meaty paws would crush his finger bones.

“Are you ready to go?” Archie asked with a hint of impatience. “You know how she gets when we’re late.”

In all his weeks of stalking, Dylan hadn’t seen this childhood friend before. Was he a new lover? Dylan’s knees weakened at the thought of the two powerful men wrestling for dominance. Wrestling for him. No way would they all fit in the Porsche.

Matthias reached into a zippered side pouch on his gym bag and pulled out a business card case. Of course someone like Matthias would have business cards on him at all times. He handed one to Dylan.

Expensive linen, elegant, simple design. Dylan’s hope to find out what Matthias really did for a living faded. The card had Matthias’s name and phone number, nothing else. Not even an e-mail address.

“Call me sometime,” he said and walked off with Archie following behind him like a bodyguard.

What kind of college student, even a fake one, needed a bodyguard? Dylan forced himself not to stare as the two men climbed into the Porsche. He pushed open the door of the coffee shop and headed for the first empty table in his path. He dropped his bag on a chair and inspected the card.

Shit. The ball’s in your court.

Would he ever be brave enough to call Matthias and invite him on a date?

COLLAPSE