Val Reising knew that look. He could spot that look from across the city. Probably even from the other side of the world. And he could certainly spot it in the two seconds it took for him to open his door four inches and recognize the face it was attached to before promptly shutting the door again.
Unfortunately, the man knew Val just as well and managed to get his hand inside the door to brace it open in that small amount of time. Val glared into the dark gap. "Go away, James; you're not coming in."
James Montrose grinned back at him, right hand firm against the door, his stance one of extreme patience. Val pushed harder against the door, determined that James was not going to destroy his life. Again. The door did not budge. His glare darkened, and, not for the first time, Val cursed James's uncanny strength. At 5'8 he was five inches shorter than Val and several pounds lighter. But he was built like a rock. With the strength and fortitude to match.
Which made denying his entrance—especially in this instance—difficult. Not that it ever kept Val from trying. He was bound and determined that he would succeed one day. From the look James was giving him, he could only hope today would be that day. But he doubted it. He tried once more to make the door shut, noting with some annoyance that his freshly ironed shirt was fast losing its crisp edge. His glare darkened.
Yes, there would be hell to pay.
"You're wasting your time, James. I'm not doing it."
James remained unfazed by the dark look being sent his way. "You know neither what I want, nor if I even want it."
Val's expression asked what kind of fool James took him for. James merely shrugged. "There's little other reason for you to have come all the way out here."
"Must I always have a motive?" Val gave up trying to shut the door. He instead reached for his gun, keeping one arm firmly braced against the door to prevent its opening further. "Can't a friend drop by to say 'hi'?"
"I've warned you about using that word to describe our relationship."
"You know, you'd be a lot happier if you'd just succumb. 'Acceptance is the first step—'"
"I will shoot you." There was a sharp click and a snap as Val loaded the chamber.
James rolled his eyes as the barrel of a gun appeared in the gap, aimed directly at his head. "Aren't we overreacting just a bit?"
"Step away from the door, James." Val's voice—in conjunction with the gun—brooked no argument.
James released a bored sigh, but otherwise made no move. His right hand held steady on the door. "Must we always go through this, Val?"
"Must you continually try to ruin my life?"
"Val…" James' tone was half-frustrated, half-amused. "You act as though I come here every day." Then in an undertone, "And I only ruined your life once…"
Val still heard him. Another click. "Close enough. Move, James."
"It's been almost a year!" James said exasperatedly.
"Eight months, one week, six days. You're not moving, James."
"Oh for Chrissakes, Val…"
Val glared through the gap. The bastard also had lightening-quick reflexes. It seemed impossible for someone of James' frame and structure, but somehow, the bastard managed it anyway. Damn him.
James grinned up from where he was crouched down, right hand still firmly against the door. The bullet was safely lodged in a hole of its own making in the plaster of the wall directly opposite Val's door.
Amongst a multitude of other, similarly sized holes that dotted the otherwise smooth surface.
James straightened up, brushed the dust from his shoulders, cast a glance up and down the hallway, and turned to meet Val's heated glare with a grin. "May I come in now?" Val released a weighted, angry sigh—much like a bull preparing for the charge—and stepped back, opening the door to allow James entrance.
"I reserve the right to say no." Val shut the door with a calm that belied the tantrum he had just thrown and stalked into the kitchen. Where he had been preparing his breakfast. Before one James Montrose decided his life could do with further destruction. Val swore under his breath.
James shrugged as he removed his jacket and hung it on an empty peg beside the door. The calendar might say May, but the weather screamed January—temperature and all. He pulled a stool out from the counter and sat down. Val pointedly ignored him. "So I notice the neighbors no longer kick up a fuss…" James intoned dryly.
"I told you they'd learn."
James quirked an eyebrow. "What? To be afraid of or to ignore the irritable, young, trigger-happy aristocrat?"
The only thing that kept Val from slamming the mug down was the steaming contents within. "You're getting tea; I have neither the humor nor the inclination to cater to your damned coffee fetish."
"Tea's fine, thanks." James smiled, unbothered by Val's angry glare. He was never bothered by it. The man was infuriatingly indifferent to the dangers that hung around him
Val left James to his tea while he set about preparing his—and he supposed James's now—breakfast. He knew he should not have answered the door. Had briefly entertained that very idea. Instead, he had defaulted to that voice in his head that said it might be important.
Oh it had been important, all right. Important that he not answer the damned door. Now his life was probably going to be irrevocably altered—again. Given that last time it had culminated in an explosion that could only be described as 'awesome,' Val had little hope that this time would be any better.
And James had the audacity to call them friends. Hell, James had the gall to show up smiling. How anyone could still smile after that incident was beyond him. Then again, this was James Montrose, and the man himself often appeared beyond the realms of normal comprehension. A good part of that being why Val continued to tolerate his presence.
Why he always changed his aim at the last second.
Though the largest mystery lay in that, for all he claimed the right to say 'no', Val knew he would not. Not once in the nine years they had known each other had Val ever declined. Were it anyone else, he could say, 'go to hell,' and never hear another word about it.
Here in lay another aspect of James's charm. After all the messes they had gotten themselves into—and by leaps and bounds out of—after all the promises Val had made following that last incident, Val apparently had not yet learned his lesson. As soon as he had opened the door, he had known, despite all the hell raising beforehand, and no matter what James asked, he was damned to do it. And James, the sorry bastard, was perfectly aware of that.
"If it's all the same to you, you can wait to tell me what new disaster you have in store for me until after I've eaten."
"Always the optimist," James observed over his mug.
"Fireball explosions do that to you," Val answered dryly.
James rolled his eyes, "The way you act, one would think it was your house that blew up."
"And the way you talk about it, one would think you enjoyed the experience."
"Well, I did get a new house out of the deal," James shrugged.
"I was on fire, James."
"Well, if you didn't use so much starch..." Val shot him a dark look; James blinked back innocently. "What?"
Val sighed and shook his head. "It is not a crime to prefer to dress presentably."
"It certainly does win you points with Stratton." James grinned, "Speaking of, office rumor has it you're just out to win Luc's favor." He winked, "I wouldn't get my hopes up though. Luc's eyes are only for Gabe." Val practically threw a bowl down in front of him. James eyed the contents dubiously. "I know you don't keep pets, so I'll assume this is for me." He gave Val a wry grin. "Special cuisine you keep on hand for special guests?"
"It's kasha. Eat it and be grateful." He hardly saw was James found so distasteful. It was little more than oatmeal. Just with a foreign name.
"I'm not hungry."
"Eat it anyway."
"Because I want to eat," Val was speaking through gritted teeth now, "and as your host, it would be rude and inhospitable not to extend you the courtesy."
"So you eat this stuff willingly."
"James, I'm trying to enjoy my meal."
With a frustrated growl, Val stood up, grabbing both their bowls and stalking over to the sink where he dumped them and left them to soak for cleaning later. He did not sit down when he returned, opting to remain standing, arms crossed and assuming a stance that belied his lost patience. "What are you here for, James?"
James smirked. "Not hungry after all, eh?"
James laced his fingers together over the counter top, teasing air replaced by the demeanor of the businessman Karl Stratton paid him to be. "I need a favor."
Val raised a brow. "A favor? I don't think our relationship—"
"Acquaintance," Val snapped at James' interruption, "qualifies for the granting of favors."
"We've known each other for almost nine years, Val. How doesn't it qualify?"
"I told you in September I never wanted to see you again."
"I thought you were kidding."
"I was soaking wet, and my clothes were still smoking. What part of that seemed funny?"
"Well, sure when you put it into context..."
James rolled his eyes. "We've come this far, Val. What more do you have to lose?"
"I thought you would say pride."
"I lost my pride that day in economics."
"When you should have but didn't?"
"A common occurrence with you."
"It's my irresistible charm," James grinned, "Not even you are immune."
Val sighed in defeat, finally taking his seat. He refused to admit to that. But James obviously knew the truth of it, anyway. Bastard. "What do you want?"
"This is actually more to do with my nephew, but I need—"
Val gave James a reprimanding look. "You might recall the incident in the grocery store, James. I don't do children."
"He's not a child, Val. He works in Luc's office—during the summer, anyway. I'm sure you've seen him around."
"Over a dozen people work in Luc's office." Val made a face. "And they're usually all hiding behind their desks when I'm in there."
"Yeah, odd that." James smirked as Val scowled. "Anyway, he's one of Luc's gophers, occupies that little desk in the back corner, with all the filing cabinets."
Val thought for a moment, glare temporarily receding to a puzzled frown. "Dark hair, kinda scrawny?"
"I think he'd take exception to being called scrawny, but yes."
"You honestly expect me to believe he's your nephew." Not on his life would he ever believe that one. The kid was far too old.
James shrugged. "He's actually my step-sister's son, but she never gave two shits about him. And after Dad died..." James trailed off. He shook his head, "That's not the point." James paused, once again assuming the pose of a businessman working the deal. "He needs a place to stay for the summer."
"It's just the summer."
"Three months out of your life."
"You have the space."
"And you don't?"
"Not at the moment."
"I thought you got a new house."
"They've barely started work on it."
"It's been eight months, one week, and six days."
James sighed, rubbing a hand across his forehead. "Hell, Val, it was still smoldering two weeks later. And then it took them a month just to get that truck out of the basement." He paused. "Actually, it was really just a crater at that point." His brow furrowed in irritation. "There really wasn't much they could do once winter hit, and so far spring has been very accommodating. They haven't had enough clear, dry whether to start laying the foundation."
"I'm not a baby-sitter." Change track, new argument. He was not doing it.
"Val, he's not a kid, anymore," James rolled his yes; Val glared at him. "You've seen that closet the insurance company put me in. As is, I'm surprised I got as much as I did in terms of quality from them, and they sure as hell aren't going to fork out for anything larger—especially as I'm not legally listed as his guardian." He massaged his temples, taking a sip from his now tepid tea. "And whatever spare funds I had were thrown into that damned project up north last spring, and until something comes of it, I won't be seeing its return. So there's no way I can afford a place for him right now."
"So you're asking me to take him in."
"You have the space. And it's only three months. Then he's back on a plane and out of your hair."
Val sighed. "How old is he? You said he was under twenty..."
"He just turned nineteen."
"How is that not a kid?"
"You'd have to know him." He slanted an amused look at Val. "You're not exactly old and wizened yourself."
Val shrugged. "He's still a kid."
James rolled his eyes . "And seven additional years gives you such worldly knowledge."
"When I've spent nine years in your acquaintance it does."
James grinned. "Point." He stood up then, accomplishment written clearly on his face. "Well, now that's decided I'll leave you alone." He walked towards the door, taking his jacket from where he had hung it and shrugging into it, though from the looks of it, he would not need it immediately. The rain had stopped. For the moment.
"Name." Val stood and asked after him.
James stopped and looked back, "I'm sorry?"
"Well, you don't call him 'nephew,' do you?"
"Oh." James shook his head. "Alex. Alexandre, really, but everyone calls him Alex. Montrose." He gave a small smile. "Sis never was certain which of her toys he belonged to…" An odd silence filled the air for several seconds. James shook his head again and shrugged into his jacket. "Anything else?"
"When should I expect him?"
James hesitated. He turned around to check something behind him, spared a glance at his watch, and looked back at Val. "Well. His flight is scheduled to get in at two, but taking weather into account, it'll probably be closer to five. Tack on the two hours from the airport—provided traffic is low—I'd say…" he paused as if in thought, "sometime around seven or eight."
Val saw red, but James was already ducking out the door when he came to his senses and reached for his gun. The bullet exploded into the molding of the door, precisely where James's head would have been were the bastard still standing there. Tiny splinters of wood rained down on the floor as Val swore up a storm in languages he was barely aware of switching to.
Son of a bitch.
Alex Montrose shifted in the passenger seat and rubbed his eyes, fighting the exhaustion that was threatening to flatten him. He had been up all the previous night helping his roommate pack and haul his stuff down three floors to his truck. There was also that early morning haul to carry his stuff to the storage place before Brad had had to take off. And all those exams and papers before even that. He was tired, and if he had thought to make up for lost sleep on the plane, he had been wrong.
If ever he came into a position of power, he was writing a law banning all children under the age of fifteen from air travel. Them and people who could not sit still. If that woman had needed to get up one more time…
And now his uncle was listening to whatever obnoxious brand of music he labeled as 'good'. Some kind of random banging—it sounded like pan lids to be perfectly honest—combined with what might have been a guitar and the occasional harmonica. He was hard-pressed to name the genre. He was not even certain it was a genre. It was probably something Jay had picked up from a random booth on the street as a means of annoying Val Reising.
Alex wanted no part in that.
He shifted again, brushing the hair from his face, and closed his eyes, willing his headache to go away.
James said something, but Alex missed it over the... was that a cowbell? He opened his eyes and looked up. "Sir?"
Much to his relief, James reached over and turned the volume down. "I asked if you would like me to turn it down."
"Oh. Yeah, thanks…"
"Rough everything," Alex glowered over the pounding in his head, "since last Monday. Between writing papers and helping Brad and Tucker move their shi—er… stuff—out, I haven't gotten much in the way of sleep." He attempted to stifle a yawn and failed. "I just want to go home and die in my bed."
James chuckled at the word choice. "Well give it another hour or so, and you can do just that."
"Sounds like a plan." Alex closed his eyes and sank back into his seat. Several minutes passed in relative silence. The only noises that of the stereo and James' accompanying hums.
Alex brushed the hair from his face again and dreamed of the bed that awaited him. Outside, the rain pounded down, drumming steadily against the roof of the car and shrouding the surrounding lights in a glistening haze. Atrocious music aside, it was rather peaceful. And slow. A nice change from the fast-paced life he had been leading for the past two weeks. Everyone in and out, scrambling over finals and research and 'Oh my god, the computer ate my paper!'. Slow was nice, even if it did make the journey to home and bed a lot longer.
The song changed to something slightly more tolerable—it did not have cowbells, at any rate—and James changed from humming to tapping out the beat with his fingers on the steering wheel. Alex brushed another stray hair from his face. A sudden thought roused him from his drowsy musings.
"Wait." Alex opened his eyes and sat up, brows furrowed in thought. "Uncle Jay…?" James stopped tapping and looked over at him. "Where exactly will I be sleeping?"
James grinned and turned back to the road. "Finally dawned on you, has it?"
"Well it's not every day that one's house goes up in a glorious ball of flame…"
James slanted him an amused look. "I know several people who would not agree to your describing it as 'glorious'."
Alex shrugged. The car hit a bump, jarring both passengers in their seats. Alex raked a hand through his hair, brushing the scattered, messy locks back from his face. "So, am I sleeping in the crater?"
James laughed. "I'd briefly considered that, but no. I've got it all arranged, so you can actually live somewhere decent and not in that rat hole with me. I'm sorry we can't be in the same place, but under the circumstance, I think you'll be better off. "
Alex waved him off. "That's fine. I get sick of looking at your ugly mug all the time, anyway." He laughed at the look James sent him. "So, anyway, who is the lucky stiff? Mark? Luc? … Stratton?" His face fell. "Please tell me it's not Stratton."
James shook his head. "Mark flew out to the islands this summer—how he got Luc to sign off on that one, I'll never know. Luc and Gabe are… otherwise occupied, let's say," Alex chuckled, "and Karl would hand me over to Xavier Lord(!) if I so much as hinted at hinting at needing a favor of him." He gave a slight shudder.
Alex smirked. "Luc warned you not to cross him."
"It was Val's idea."
"I'll bet it was," Alex scoffed.
"You weren't there."
"Luc was chasing Gabe."
Alex shrugged and brushed back another stray hair. "The man's proficient at multi-tasking. Who did you think told me about it?" He leveled a pointed gaze on his uncle. "Val was only part of the problem."
James looked as though he wanted to counter that, but then changed his mind and shook his head. His face took on a more contemplative frown. "Actually… this segues rather nicely." He turned to Alex. "Do you really know Val Reising?"
The look Alex gave him asked just how stupid his uncle thought he was. "Self-preservation demands that one know Val Reising. At least by face."
James quirked an eyebrow. "Self-preservation?"
"I think you refer to it as 'being friends'."
"Right," James tone still sounded uncertain.
"Just because you consider bullet-dodging a proper greeting, it does not mean the rest of the free world does."
"Don't even pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"He's never serious."
"They're live bullets."
"Yes, but he never hits anyone." An awkward silence. "So far as I know…"
"The defense rest."
"Val's a good guy."
"I'll take your word on that."
"That's good." James's cleared his throat. "Because that's where you're staying."
(!) Xavior Lord of Amaretto's Paradise, part of her Lord Enterprises series.