(Watch Me) Body You
What if loving him…
After recent events that had his life flashing before his eyes, Israel Storm is re-evaluating everything. His friends. His priorities. What’s not going to change is the deep connection he’s developed with Reggie Turner. They’re comfortable with each other, partners in crime with no qualms about sharing women. Whatever Is needs, Reggie is the one he calls. Their bond can survive anything. But maybe not the kiss Reggie plants on him out of nowhere.
…Means losing him?
Despite what Is thinks, that kiss came from somewhere. An un-named current has been flowing between them for months. Reggie doesn’t bat for his own team, but the more time he spends with Is, seeing past the rough façade of the man leading The Rude Boys, the more Reggie loses sight of labels and where he fits. All he knows is there’s something there, something Is will never acknowledge. One kiss leads to a punch that lands Reggie in the ER, and sends Is digging through his darkest memories in search of himself.
Friendship is all that’s left if they bury the truth. If they ignore the pull that makes it impossible to do anything other than fight each other. But denials can be exhausting and hiding isn’t working, not when everyone can clearly see your heart’s desire. An enemy is out to make an example of Is, and his weapon of choice will leave this Rude Boy bloodied…and bodied.
“Hey, man. You okay?” Reggie frowned at Israel Storm. The big guy was twitchy, muttering to himself as he stripped out off his clothes with his back to Reggie.
At his question, Israel glanced over his shoulder, as if now realizing Reggie was there with him. They’d just disposed of two bodies in silence. Strangers, but united for this common purpose. Two men had shot at Mateo, Reggie’s friend and sort-of boss, and his husband. Teo had wanted to deal with them himself, but it had been Israel who’d ended up pulling the trigger, executing the two men.
Teo instructed Reggie to help the guy deal with the bodies, so here they were, in an open field out in Staten Island. Kinda weird, doing something as intimate as burying bodies with a man he’d met only hours before. Israel was the leader of The Rude Boys, the Jamaican gang running out of Queens. But he and Teo were also good friends. Of course, Reggie wouldn’t hesitate to help someone who’d helped Teo, but this watching Israel strip down to his skin business was beginning to freak him out.
“Blood. I don’t like blood.” Israel tossed his yellow shirt into the tall grass and began working on his jeans.
“Hey. Hey. Whoa.” Reggie waved his hands. “How can you not like blood?” All the stories he’d heard about this guy? He was a mad man, merciless, but here he was, body jerking as he fought to get his blood-stained clothes off. Reggie lunged at him and grabbed his shoulder, stopping his movement. Under his palm, small tremors worked its way through Israel.
Damn. This was no small dislike. “Israel, you have to—”
“Is.” He turned to face Reggie, dark eyes tormented, unfocused. “You’re watching me come apart.” The corners of his mouth hitched up. “You might as well call me Is.”
“Okay.” Reggie took a breath and glanced around. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere after having dumped two bodies, Is. Why don’t we get out of here, huh? I can take you someplace so you can wash up.” He shrugged off his red zippered hoodie, keeping on his black t-shirt. “Don’t think this will fit.” He eyed Israel critically. “But try anyway.”
Israel held his gaze for the longest time. “Don’t you want to know why I’m freaking out?”
Reggie snorted. “Oh, I do. Believe me I do, but right now, son? We need to get ghost.”
His companion nodded as if that was an acceptable answer. He put on Reggie’s hoodie, but it was tight and wouldn’t zip. Israel kept it on anyway then went about gathering the clothes he’d taken off.
They moved quickly, walking back to the car in silence. Israel opened the driver’s side door and Reggie frowned.
“You okay to drive?”
Israel got into the car and buckled his seatbelt then waited until Reggie climbed into the passenger seat before he scrubbed both hands over his face. “I’ve been better.”
They sat in the silence, unending darkness all around. Reggie cleared his throat, trying not to notice the way Israel’s hands shook. “So…You and blood, huh?”
“Me and blood.” Israel—Is—chuckled, a heavy sound filled with self-loathing. “We go way back.”
His eyes were heavy, sad when they met Reggie’s then Is looked away quickly. It was the height of uncomfortable, being here with this guy who’d been a fucking legend in the streets for so long. Learning this about Israel Storm, seeing this side of him was…
Reggie wished he hadn’t witnessed it, wasn’t witnessing it. “Listen, we don’t know each other, but you can trust me to keep this,” he waved a hand, “between us.”
Is laughed. He leaned back in his seat and tilted his head up. “I’d just kill you.”
Reggie couldn’t even be offended at that. In this business, any kind of weakness, any hint of vulnerability was pounced on. A man in Is’ position, at the top? Only one place to go.
“You wanna get outta here?”
“Not yet.” Is shook his head and grabbed on to the steering wheel with both hands. “I need…a minute.”
They needed to get out of there. Distance themselves from the dead men they’d dumped into that swamp, but Reggie nodded. “Take your time.”
Is lurched forward, forehead banging against the steering wheel as he tried to put his head between his knees.
Ah, fuck. Reggie lifted a hand to pat his back, but thought better of it and spoke instead. “Maybe, maybe we should—Dunno—talk it out?” Jesus. He knew nothing about this guy other than what the streets had to say, and he was what? Offering to listen to him confess his darkest secrets? “Why don’t you tell me why you hate blood so much?”
He almost flinched when Is’ head snapped up, his face a mask of pain, eyes gleaming.
“I— I mean, we don’t have to. I just figured…” He tried back-pedaling, but Is didn’t let him.
“Nah, you right.” He unbuckled his seat belt and opened the car door. “You drive. I’ll talk.”
He did, Is talked, and Reggie listened without saying a word. All the way from the back of Staten Island to Queens. He listened as Is shared some heavy shit about his parents, his childhood. Blew his mind.
He followed the directions Is gave and finally pulled up in front of Is’ place. Reggie let the car idle as he cleared his throat.
“That’s some fucked-up shit, son.”
Is’ laugh was bitter. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.” He stared out the window before turning to stare at Reggie. Just…stared at him, as if he couldn’t understand where they were and why. “Yo, you wanna come inside for a bit? Smoke some’n, drink some’n?”
“Yeah?” From his tone, Reggie couldn’t decide if Is wanted him to say yes or no. “What kinda shit you got?”
“Fuck you, man. You know I gotta have that good good.”
Reggie chuckled. “Aight then, I can smoke a lil some’n. Wouldn’t mind drinking some’n, either.”
So after a slight hesitation, Is got out the car and Reggie parked properly then followed him up the stairs to his house. The inside didn’t match the quaint exterior. The place was large, but barely furnished. A large TV was mounted to the wall in the living room, and Reggie browsed the huge selection of games while Is went about getting fresh clothes and their beers.
Is’ phone went off as he walked back into the room, and he fished it out of his jeans pocket and checked the caller ID before ignoring the call.
“Girlfriend?” Reggie nodded at the phone, and Is chuckled.
“Nah, son. Mi nah do dem ting dey. I don’t have girlfriends.”
Reggie lifted an eyebrow. “I feel that.” He wasn’t one for relationships either.
“That was one of my regular chicks, though.” Is held out the phone, and Reggie gaped at the photo. The woman was slim and dark-haired, exotically gorgeous with big eyes and pale skin.
“Damn.” He whistled. “That’s all you, son?”
“That’s Ilana. We have an understanding.” Is’ teeth flashed. “We fuck. I leave.”
“Cold.” Reggie licked his lips, still eyeing the photo. “She’s hot.”
“Watch yourself, rude boy. I see you drooling over there.”
Reggie rolled his eyes. “What? I can appreciate a beautiful woman.”
Is grunted. “If you’re good, she might show up in your stocking this Christmas.”
They bantered back and forth as they smoked and drank. It weirded Reggie out how close they’d gotten in such a short time. Why had Is decided to tell Reggie what he did? He didn’t have to, that was for sure. Seated on the soft-carpeted floor, game controller in hand, Reggie finally made himself ask, “Why did you tell me?”
Is froze. “What?”
Reggie shrugged. “You didn’t have to, could have told me to go fuck myself or worse, so,” he held Is’ gaze, “why did you tell me?”
Is didn’t answer right away. He took a pull on the joint and tipped his head back. “Not sure why. I was freaking out, you were there, and you wanted to know…”
“But you don’t know me,” Reggie pointed out. “I could turn around and use this against you at any point.”
Is smiled. “My aversion to blood doesn’t hinder my ability to take lives, as you witnessed earlier. Besides, Teo likes you.” He waved a hand. “That gives you an automatic pass in my book.”
Reggie nodded. Loyalty was hard to come by in their line of work, even harder to keep. “Well, you can rest easy. We’re good.”
Their gazes held as Is brought his beer to his lips. “Never doubted that for a second.”
“Tek is on his way to you, give him what you owe me, Mackie.” Israel Storm stood in the middle of the small cabin, glancing around as he spoke into the phone. His face hurt a little, his jaw, too, but business needed to be conducted even in his absence.
“What the fuck is this, a negotiation?” Is spun around when the door behind him opened. His best friend, Reggie, stepped into the place and dropped a bag onto the nearby couch.
“We need to talk,” Mackie said quickly.
“Not now, we don’t.” Is didn’t have time to discuss anything if it wasn’t about his money. “Deal with Tek. Give him everything, otherwise you and I will have a falling out.” He ended the call.
Awkward wasn’t the word to describe the mood between him and Reggie as they’d driven up to the cabin Is didn’t even know his friend owned in the Adirondacks.
“How come you didn’t tell me about this place?” he asked. He’d been trying and failing to engage Reggie in conversation for the better half of a day and his friend wasn’t having any of it.
Reggie shrugged as he brushed past Is and pulled open a closet door. “Didn’t come up.” He waved a hand at the small closet. “So you’ll have the bedroom and I’ll sleep out here. Sheets and stuff are here.”
“I can stay out here.” The last thing he wanted was to make Reggie more uncomfortable than he apparently already was. “Reg.”
Reggie didn’t look at him. Instead he started fussing with whatever was in the closet.
“Reggie, come on, man. We gonna do this the entire time we’re here?”
“Do what?” But Reggie still didn’t look up from his task.
“You ignoring me, or being mad at me for whatever you think I did. Or whatever.” Is threw up his hand in frustration. “I don’t know. You’re giving me the cold shoulder.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Reggie got to his feet and stared at Is. “I’m not one of your bitches.”
Is rolled his eyes. “This is getting old. We’re gonna be here for a minute. Let’s just figure out what the hell is wrong.” Normally Is wouldn’t give two fucks about some shit like that, but this was Reggie. His best friend. They’d grown as close as brothers over the past few months. At least he thought so.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?” Reggie cocked his head, the muscles in his arms bulging under the dark gray t-shirt he wore.
Fuck. Is glared at him. “I don’t want to talk about feelings and shit. I just want to know what the hell I did so I can fix it.”
Reggie’s lips twisted. “Maybe there’s nothing to fix.”
Yeah, right. “I know you, Reg.”
Reggie scowled. “Maybe you don’t know me as much as you think you did, Is. Ever thought about that?”
Well, this was getting them nowhere. “You don’t want me here, is that it? I can leave, you know. I don’t have to stay.”
Reggie snorted and spun away, stalking to the front door and walking out into the cloying dark night. The door slammed behind him, shaking the cabin.
Exhaustion beat at Is so he stumbled the few feet to the couch and collapsed onto it. On his back, hand behind his head, he stared up at the ceiling. The change in Reggie’s attitude appeared the instant Is woke in the hospital.
The reminder of why he’d been there in the first place only made him want to pound somebody’s face in. As the head of The Rude Boys gang in Queens, he’d gone head to head and toe to toe with lots of other gangs over the years. Lots of different reasons. For territory, to prove his merit. Whatever. He’d gone up against the Russian gang in Coney Island to gain access to the highly profitable Coney Island streets, but that Russian bastard Zhirkov was as cold as they come. Is liked to think he could handle his, but he’d looked into Dima Zhirkov’s eyes and knew he was about to die.
He inhaled sharply.
The Russian had trapped Is long before he’d openly declared war, sending one of his women to Is’ bed. So Is had a soft spot for ladies. So he rarely ever turned down free pussy. He was a fan of women, been a fan from way back. Only Ilana had been a plant, fucking Is—and occasionally Reggie—while feeding information to Zhirkov. And in the end, she’d drugged Is and handed him over to the Russians. It was a wonder he didn’t wake up dead after killing the Russian’s brother.
Dude had to die though. ’Course, Is hadn’t been the one to make that call. His cousin and partner behind the scenes—former partner now—had done that. Xavier had also gone and fallen for the Russian. Talk about fucked-up.
So Is got worked over pretty good. He’d come away with a broken nose and a concussion. His face was still tender after that whole pistol-whipping incident. He didn’t even want to even think about the Russian Roulette that had his life flashing before his eyes. But he’d lived. Here he was. Things needed to change, he knew that, starting with Reggie if his friend would just tell him what had him so upset.
X had recommended Is stay under the radar while he recuperated. The last thing Is wanted, but here he was anyway. He slid his tongue over his front teeth. One had gotten chipped. Maybe he’d get it fixed. Who knows? Tawnya had liked it when she’d dropped by the hospital.
Reggie didn’t like that, Is had noticed. Maybe his friend thought Is should be wary of females after what that rank bitch Ilana did, but Is wasn’t going to stop being him because some THOT sold him out for money. He and the ladies had a certain understanding. They all vied to see which one could lock him down, and he allowed them the opportunity to try. Sometimes more than once. Who was he to tell them no one would ever tie him down?
Let them try. Relationships weren’t his thing. Never were. And he wasn’t about to stray from that mantra. He could have fun. And since he was a huge fan of fun, he didn’t see that changing anytime soon. The life he led was violent. Filled with drugs and guns and blood on any given day. He took his reprieve wherever he could find it, which was more often than not between some woman’s legs.
Nothing wrong with that. Despite that conniving Ilana.
The cabin door banged open, and Reggie stepped inside. He stood with his back against the closed door and stared at Is.
“You over your tantrum?” Is asked.
“Fuck you.” But there wasn’t any heat behind the words. “You good? In pain or anything?”
“Nah.” Is shook his head. “Look, can I say something?”
Reggie shrugged. “Yeah.”
Is sat up. “I tend to fuck up. It’s my thing, but aye, sorry if I did.” He didn’t remember, but he couldn’t be sure. “And thank you for bringing me here.” He looked around. “Even though you kept here a secret from me.” He winked and Reggie chuckled.
“There was nothing to tell.” He walked over slowly. “My grandfather built his place then passed it on to my dad. He used to bring me here every summer.” His smile went away. “We haven’t been back since I turned sixteen and started running the streets, but it’s been here.”
Is nodded. He knew Reggie and his pops had a very tumultuous relationship. Still, that always made him jealous. At least Reggie had a dad around. He cleared his throat. “And the other thing?” He lifted an eyebrow and waited.
“What thing?” Reggie looked away.
“At the hospital. You were…mad when Tawnya showed up. I know why.”
Reggie jerked as though he’d been hit by a cattle prod. “What?” Something flashed in his eyes. Fear? Maybe. Trepidation? Could be.
“Yeah. I mean, Ilana fucked me over so I guess you feel I should watch myself with the others.”
Reggie pursed his lips and shook his head. “You’re a grown man, Is.” His voice changed. Went huskier? “Who you fuck is—” He broke off and rubbed both hands on his jean-clad thighs. “Who you fuck is not my problem.”
“But it is when we share them.” Like it always did when he thought about it, Is’ body stirred. “Ilana had both of us duped.”
“No. Actually, she didn’t.” Reggie’s jaw ticked. “Listen, can we do this another time? I’m wiped out.”
“Not after you say something like that.” Is frowned. “You knew Ilana was up to something?”
“I didn’t know anything,” Reggie snapped. “I just had a feeling about her. I couldn’t come to you with that, could I? Not when you were so blinded by the thought of fucking her. You didn’t act the way you should. You should know better.”
“What?” Is rose from the couch slowly. “You saying I should have known she was a plant, I should have seen it?”
Reggie laughed. “You had blinders on when it came to that woman, Is. You took her at face value when you should know better.” He shook his head. “You, of all fucking people, should know better.”
“That has nothing to do with it.” For the first time he regretted sharing his childhood with Reggie.
“No? What have you learned, Is?” Reggie got in his face. “Ilana set you up to get killed. You almost died, Is. Died. You have no idea what that felt like, watching my best friend lie in that hospital bed. But the instant you wake up, there’s another woman next to you. As if it’s nothing. What the fuck have you learned?”
Is stared at him, at the surprising emotion in Reggie’s eyes. “You think I should have seen through Ilana’s lies?”
“You should have, but you didn’t.” Reggie’s rant echoed throughout the cabin. “You didn’t, Is. You’re fucking blind, man.”
Wow. Is reared back at the intensity in those words. “Yeah. Aight.” He nodded. “Now I know how you feel.”
“No.” Reggie’s chest rose and fell. “No. You still don’t know how I feel.” He balled his fists, and Is’ gaze dropped.
He stared at Reggie’s hands, trying to place the sudden tension that permeated the air. Violence, yes, but something…other. It swirled around them in the quiet. Thick, lifting the hairs on his forearms and nape. He yanked his gaze up to meet Reggie’s. His friend’s eyes were wide and shining, and they pierced Is. He almost stumbled backward. What—
“You don’t know how I feel, Is.” Reggie’s words rumbled, grated. “Because you’ll never look deep enough.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means go to bed, Is. I’m tired.” Reggie walked past him.
“Reg, what the fuck, man? Talk to me.”
“Go to fucking bed, Is!” Reggie’s roar stunned Is. “I’m done talking to you. It doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s just get these few days done and go back to Queens.”
Something churned in Is’ gut. “And then what?” he asked. “What happens when we get back to Queens?”
Reggie picked up the blanket off the back of the couch and shook it out. “I don’t know, Is.” He sounded tired, weary. “I just…I need you to go to bed so I can go to bed.” He didn’t look at Is when he asked, “Can you do that please? I want to be alone.”
His head was bowed, and Is wanted to go to him. To touch him, put his palm at Reggie’s neck. Maybe hug him, tell him they would be fine. He’d had no problems touching Reggie before. None. But suddenly there was a tug of war going on inside his head.
Go to him.
Don’t. That voice was louder, for some reason, but he chose to ignore it. With one step forward, he did it. Put his palm there, at Reggie’s nape. Felt his hot skin.
Reggie stiffened then jerked away. “Don’t.”
Is gaped at him. “What the fuck is happening, Reggie?” They’d never been this combative with each other. On more than one occasion, he’d done just that, touch Reggie’s nape and that had helped to calm Reggie down from whatever mood he’d be in. What was different today? What had been different since he woke up in the hospital?
“Here, now?” Reggie answered him. “Nothing’s happening, Is. Not a damn thing.”
“Your attitude says different.”
“Yeah?” Reggie spun to face him, eyes flashing fire. “My attitude? Step back, Is.”
Is didn’t move.
“Step back or I will drop you, Is.”
“You threatening me, bruh?” Is narrowed his eyes.
“I’m telling you to step back, otherwise you’ll be on the floor.”
“You’ll be down there with me.” Is couldn’t grasp what was happening, but whatever it was it made his spine vibrate. “Reggie—”
Reggie’s nostrils flared. “It’s late. I’m tired. And this conversation is over. Go away, Is.”
“Go the fuck away, Is.”
Is stood there and watched Reggie stretch out on the couch. There wasn’t much to say, at least anything that wouldn’t turn into another senseless argument, so he walked away.