The antiquities shop looked like every other little storefront along the colorful, busy marketplace. It was a bit worn, the paint starting to fade and the front picture window a little dusty and smudged with fingerprints. The once dark green canopy over the open doorway was a paler shade of moss, frayed at the edges. The building showed the signs of either neglect or a shop owner too busy to notice the wear and tear.
Unable to decide which from the sidewalk, Brandon stepped through the open doorway and down two steps into the store. The temperature immediately dropped ten degrees. Brandon shook off a little shiver as it scurried down his spine.
Cautious of the numerous shapes and tables around him, Brandon fumbled his way deeper into the coolness of the store, vision momentarily cloaked in gray shadows and blurry outlines as it adjusted to the extreme change from brilliant sunlight to relative sudden darkness.
Once his eyesight cleared, he became fascinated by the structured chaos around him. Everywhere he looked a broken clay pot, a chipped porcelain plate, or some other seemingly ancient piece of some supposed long-forgotten culture stood on display. He remembered enough from his college days to know these were real, but probably not very valuable, pieces of history.
Many were from the Native American tribes, but he thought the masks and stone figures belonged to the rain forest cultures, primitive and beautiful in their raw, artistic states. It had been a long time since he'd called on those few ancient civilization courses he'd indulged in before deciding on a career in law enforcement. He didn't regret his decision to become a cop, but occasionally he found he missed having friends who talked about something more involved than shooting range scores, football scores, and just plain scoring.
The store appeared empty of other human life, no shopkeeper or cashier manning the glass-topped service counter or the large, old, brass cash register. He reached out to touch several wonderful, but delicate-looking, pieces, but resisted the urge at the last moment. Brandon carefully wove his way through the maze of tables piled with artifacts, tools, and old books. On the counter lay a pile of posted letters and mailed business fliers, with one large manila envelope layered between the white edges and stamped corners. It looked like any ordinary business envelope, but it registered with his detective mind. Brandon had one like it folded and stuffed into his back pocket.
He glanced on the floor behind the counter, naturally suspicious of possible foul play in an unattended store. Finding nothing but crates of partially unpacked items, he started a stealthy walk toward a drapery-covered doorway in the back.
"Hello? Anyone here?"
Brandon started when a husky, rich voice answered out of the shadows off to his left.
"Good morning." A man stepped out of the gloom and Brandon wondered why he hadn't seen him the moment his eyesight had adjusted. Even among the hundreds of objects, tall cabinets, and stacked tables, this man stood out like a wet dream.
He was at least six foot two, tall compared to Brandon's slight, five foot ten inch, one hundred sixty-pound frame. The man was at least two hundred twenty pounds and all of it, from what Brandon could see, was toned, tanned, and rippling under the snug, gray denim work shirt and faded blue jeans, which molded to firm, muscular thighs. Even the scuffed brown moccasins on his feet were sexy.
His black hair fell in waves to his collar and the V of chest hairs visible between the edges of the open neck of the shirt were the same rich color, moderately thick and just as curly. His eyes were a pale shade of gray flecked with threads of black that made them look like polished marble.
Right now those eyes, combined with a sultry smile on full, parted lips, held an expression Brandon read as somewhere between attraction and amusement. Both made him feel a little uncomfortable, each for a different reason.
"Sorry. I didn't realize you were there. Didn't see you when I came in." He felt a tingle of warmth at his cheekbones. "You know, bright sunlight to dark shop. It threw me off."
"I should have said something. I was enjoying watching you explore my shop. I like it when a person knows enough about what he's looking at to appreciate and respect it." He gave Brandon a head to toe appraising look that took longer than politely acceptable. "You'd be surprised how many try to handle precious things like they're cheap clutter off their grandmother's mantel. You're not one of those." The man stuck out his hand in greeting. "I'm Christian Carter, part-time shop owner, full-time archaeologist, and occasional chief procurer of artifacts and antiquities."
They shook hands, Christian's grip a little firmer than it needed to be. It lasted a bit longer than necessary, too. The smile on his handsome face was playful and engaging enough that Brandon found himself returning the pressure, and even let his fingers trail over the man's palm as their hands fell away. A tingle of pleasure warmed his fingertips.
"What can I help you with, Brandon King? A gift for a history lover or maybe ... just for a lover?" He smiled and cocked his head to one side, his question somehow made more intimate by the small gesture. "What's her taste run to? Ancient Chinese or southwestern Native American? I can show you some lovely pieces from both cultures."
"My lover wouldn't know an ancient Chinese urn from a department store knickknack." Recognizing the probing question for what it was, Brandon smiled back at Christian and gave him what he was looking for. "Intriguing history for him is last week's hockey scores."
"Ah. Well. He's missing out on a lot of great ... adventures." Christian winked at Brandon, putting more husky emphasis on his last word and changing the entire meaning of it in that instant. He relaxed his stance, hands spread wide on his hips, an openly teasing expression on his tan, chiseled face.
"Exploring the unknown and discovering new things can be a very..." His gaze wandered over Brandon's face and down his body before coming back up to stare into Brandon's eyes. "...satisfying and enjoyable experience."
Flattered and slightly off balance at the overt attention, Brandon gave a dry chuckle. "I'll bet you say that to all your customers."
"Only the handsome, exciting ones." Christian's gaze became intense, full of desire, a blatant, but charming, invitation to more. Phil was pretty good at saying the right things at times, but he didn't have the casual charm and sincerity Christian did.
A thrill ran through Brandon, turning his palms sweaty and heightening the warmth in his cheeks. He felt his own jeans grow snug as his dick responded to the sensual implication of Christian's come-on. It had been a long time since he felt immediate chemistry with anyone like this. Not even Phil had made his cock jump at their first handshake.
Brandon especially liked the sharp angle of Christian's cheekbones. It gave the man's appearance a bold strength that made Brandon want to taste the bronzed skin caressing the planes of his square jaw and dusky rose lips.
A phone behind the counter rang, breaking the moment.
Brandon laughed, nervous and uncertain as to what reply he should make. It sure as hell couldn't be the reply he was thinking of. He doubted "Let me lick your lips until the color comes off" could be interpreted as a mildly friendly gesture. He couldn't believe he was standing here thinking these things when he had come to this man to help him find a way to keep Phil at his side.
"Hang on a minute, okay?" Christian didn't move toward the insistent ringing until Brandon nodded his agreement.
He wandered around the shop, glancing into corners and inspecting items big and small, anything that piqued his interest. Nine times out of ten it was something so bizarre he didn't have any clue what it was and his cop's instincts clamored to be satisfied with a full investigation. In this shop, he figured it would take him a lifetime to check out all the unknowns. It was a pity he wasn't going to be around longer. This shop, and its owner, would be very attractive to spend some of his off-hours exploring. The thought made his already firm dick jump, increasing the delicious pressure inside his pants.
For the third time since he'd entered the shop, his hand wandered to his jacket pocket looking for candy that wasn't there. He should have hit the twenty-four hour convenience store for coffee and a bag of the needed sweets before he came. He made a mental reminder not to be in such a big hurry that his nutritional needs suffered. Not that sugar and caffeine counted as nutrition, but it was all he felt like stomaching for the last day and a half.
Emotional stress ate at Brandon like the cancer that had taken away his mother and chased his father away from his mother's side when she got sick. He could lose Phil. It would eat him alive just like a disease. He didn't want to be alone again and he didn't have the energy to start a new relationship. Even promising moments like this one with Christian would end up nothing more than a one-night stand if he let it get out of hand. Experience had taught him men as attractive and self-confident as this man didn't stay interested in Brandon for long. Cops who didn't like to use their cuffs at home in the bedroom, read books besides police manuals, preferred the theater over the football field, and men over women, were doomed to spend a lot of nights doing those things by themselves. It would be better if he just concentrated on business and forgot about the thrill that Christian's heated glance gave him.
Taking advantage of Christian being distracted on the phone, Brandon used the moment to subtly rearrange himself in his jeans, trying to will his swelling cock back down to a less noticeable bulge. It would make thinking easier, too. Brandon needed to focus on the job he came here to do and fantasizing about Christian while yearning for Phil didn't make sense.