Andreas felt sick as he looked at the avid, hungry expressions of the beautiful people in the cheering crowd. Deep inside the stomach cramp of guilt remained, but at the same time his pulse pounded. He was as entranced and addicted as everyone else. He pumped his fist in the air and shouted until he was hoarse.
Down in the arena, the unconscious fighter was placed on a stretcher and taken away. The promoter raised Snake's arm high above his head, declaring him the official victor, and another roar of approval came from the crowd.
Timon leaned toward Andreas to complain. "You lucky bastard. There was no way he should've won over Redbeard. Now for the stakes."
"My sailboat," Andreas answered promptly. "I want it back detailed and pristine, the same condition in which you took it."
"Whoa, boy, you don't understand how this game works. The winner doesn't get to say what he's won. The loser tells you."
"That's ridiculous! Who'd give anything valuable?"
"We're all stinking rich," Timon pointed out. "None of us are going to be cheap about it. The point is to think up something extraordinary the winner would never have asked for on his own."
Andreas shook his head but laughed. Timon was nothing if not inventive. If he ever turned his considerable cleverness to something useful, he could change the world. "All right then, what have I won?"
His friend's slow, evil grin tipped him off that he might not like his prize. "Rule is you have to accept what you've won no matter what."
"Oh no, Timon, what are you up to?"
"Something good. Something fun and different. Trust me, you'll love it." He grabbed Andreas's arm and pulled him down the row, bumping people's knees as they went.
This was a small venue, nothing like the stadiums where full-scale battles were waged for the audience's entertainment. Still it took a few minutes to get out of the stands and reach the stairs leading to the lobby. Behind them the announcer called out the next pair of warriors' statistics while the excited murmur of the crowd swelled again.
"Your fighter showed mercy. He could've snapped Redbeard's neck. No holds barred in cage fighting," Timon remarked as he led Andreas across the lobby and toward the backstage. "Stay here a second."
Timon trotted ahead, spoke to the man guarding the off-limits area, and handed him some money before he gestured Andreas over. "Go with this guy. He'll take you down to meet your hero."
"What? No! I don't want--"
"Rules of the bet. You take what you've won, and, my friend, you've won one full hour to do anything you like with that hard-bodied beast. These guys have all had their shots, so you don't have to worry about catching anything. Just ride him hard and enjoy that sweaty meat."
"Timon, no." Andreas's stomach lurched and his mind raced. He knew it was common for people to pay for the pleasure of having sex with the fighters, but it seemed wrong on some fundamental level.
Timon grabbed his arm and pushed him toward the guard. "Go on now. My treat. You can fuck him or sit and talk philosophy with him for all I care, but the meter's running. Go!"
Because his will was weak, his curiosity stoked, and his libido roaring like an old-fashioned gas engine, Andreas followed the man down the corridor and another flight of stairs to the next level. His heart beat as fast as if he were about to be put in the arena himself. What the hell was he going to do with this guy? What could he say? You looked really hot out there tonight. I want to fuck you.
The guard stopped in front of a closed door, turned to Andreas, and gazed through him with bored eyes. "Like your friend said, you have an hour. I'll wait out here. Some like rough games, so I won't open the door if you yell. Jabez won't hurt you any more than you want, but if you feel things are getting out of hand or you really want to end it, call out, 'Finished,' and I'll let you out."
"Oh." Andreas's mouth was still a round circle of doubt when the man opened the door and ushered him inside. He drew a deep breath and looked around the rough, primitive room. Fake stone walls and flickering torches in wall sconces--not real flames but normal crystal-powered lights--gave the illusion of being in a dungeon. But the fantasy was blown by the large bed against one wall, its cushioned comfort a contrast to the rest of the barren cell.
Andreas took all this in with a glance before his gaze settled on the scarred fighter whom the guard had referred to as Jabez. He stood in the opposite corner, half hidden in shadow. He was absolutely still. Light played across his nearly naked body, illuminating hard planes and tawny skin, but the man's eyes were hidden beneath the shadow cast by his brow. Andreas felt him watching but couldn't see his expression. His pulse raced even faster, blood rushing in his ears.
Andreas cleared his throat. "Hello."
Jabez remained silent and still. Wasn't he supposed to set his client at ease, or was the intimidating tough-guy act part of the mystique the customer paid for?
"You were great out there tonight."
"My friend paid for this. It wasn't really my idea. I haven't done anything like this before." Andreas was embarrassed to hear himself babble like a kid caught shoplifting. He didn't have to explain himself. He was a grown man indulging in a perfectly legal sex transaction. "You probably do this a lot, huh?"
"Yeah." The man's voice was low and as rough as the fake granite walls. He stepped forward at last, and the light struck his face, the contrasting shadows making the angles even more severe. Blood still trickled from a cut on his cheek and abrasions on various parts of his body. The heady scent of sweat and blood teased Andreas's nose.
"What do you want? Bet you like it rough."
It was Andreas's turn to be silent. He was speechless. His cock throbbed, so engorged he felt it might explode in his expensive real-silk briefs.
Jabez continued to move forward, a slow saunter like his approach toward his enemy in the ring. The closer he got, the bigger he looked. It had been impossible to get a true reading of his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the power coiled in his muscles through the image-viewer lens.
He's going to kill me! Before I can call for help, he's going to tear my head off. Terror pumped adrenaline through Andreas's system, and he took a step backward.
At his movement, Jabez struck like the snake Andreas had dubbed him. He seized Andreas by the throat and pinned him up against the door. He towered over him, glaring down into his face, his hot breath puffing against his mouth. "Like it a little scary too, I reckon."
The man was right. Andreas swallowed beneath the hand gripping his neck, scared shitless but completely turned on. Every cell in his body felt electrified, alive in a way he'd never felt before. It was only adrenaline and lust, yet it felt like more than that. He could swear some kind of vibration poured from Jabez's hand into his body.
Dark spots spun in his vision, not from being choked--the hand on his windpipe wasn't all that crushing--but because he'd forgotten to breathe. Jabez released his throat but kept him trapped against the door with the length of his body. Waves of heat pulsated between them. Jabez gave a little grind with his hips, rubbing against Andreas's erection and making him groan. Andreas closed his eyes and parted his lips, reaching for a kiss. He felt the heat of the other man's breath, moist and close. Any second now their lips would touch.
Then, just as quickly as he'd pinned Andreas, the gladiator stepped back and let him drop onto his feet.
Andreas's eyes opened to meet Jabez's hard gaze. The man's eyes were narrowed, angry, and Andreas could finally see their color as a shaft of light struck them--blue, although right now they were so dark they appeared almost black.
"Is that what you want?" The man spat the words like hard pellets.
Shame flooded through him at the tone and the look. Was this the way a client was supposed to be treated? Jabez was quickly losing any tip he might have earned from their encounter.
"I told you. My friend paid for it. I didn't expect..." Andreas shut his lips tight as he reminded himself he need make no apology to this man. It was part of his job. "If you don't feel like fucking, that's fine." He made his voice cool and much calmer than he felt inside.
"Maybe I don't." The big arms crossed over his slab of a chest, and the fighter resumed his imitation of a statue.
Andreas swept his gaze the length of the man's body and noticed his erection beneath the black fabric of his briefs. Despite his nonchalance, Jabez was aroused from their encounter too. The knowledge made him feel better, cockier, and a lot less ashamed. He folded his own arms and stared back.
"I guess it would be a pain to have to have sex with people when you're not in the mood. Part of your job, though, right? You guys get some kind of commission?"
The other man's lip curled in scorn, as if he couldn't believe the idiocy of the question. "No, we work off our indenture--unless we die first."
Andreas frowned. "What are you indentured for?"
Jabez's laughter was a harsh, humorless bark. "Whatever trumped-up reason they can come up with. On this planet it ain't too hard to lock a man up for just about anything." He dropped his gaze to Andreas's pants and changed the subject. "So what do you want? Blowjob? Fuck? Top or bottom?"
Andreas's cock twitched in response to the suggestions, but his brain had emerged from a lust-induced fog and he was full of questions. "I thought you did the after-fight visits for a little extra cash on the side. I didn't know it wasn't your choice."
"Didn't say it isn't my choice." The man's eyes seemed to burn through his trousers like blue lasers, scanning every inch of him. "But I don't do it for cash. It's more time off my sentence."
Andreas considered that. "You'll do anyone who comes in here then--man, woman, it doesn't matter?"
"But what's your preference? What do you like to do?" Andreas could almost feel the moment when the balance of power shifted. Jabez looked uncomfortable. He didn't like to be questioned.
He reached for the fly of Andreas's pants. "You want to fuck or talk the whole time?"
Andreas pushed his hand away. "Talk. Answer the question. What do you like?"
"Whatever the client wants." His jaw clenched so hard it bulged. Every muscle in his powerful body looked as tense as a cat facing a bathtub full of water.
"How do you feel about fighting? Do you hate it or do you get a charge from it?"
He shrugged. "I just do it. Now do you want me to suck you off or what?"
Andreas would've liked nothing better, but he was more intrigued to hear Jabez's answers to his questions. He didn't believe the man had no thoughts or feelings about the things he did. Suddenly, he was determined to know more, and curiosity was more powerful than his sexual urge.
"Do they ever rent out your services here? Could someone buy your contract?"
Jabez finally lifted his eyes from Andreas's groin to his face. His eyes were wide except for the droop caused by the scar. "What?"
"Say I wanted to hire you as a personal trainer or a bodyguard. Would that be possible?"
A scowl twisted his brows, and his eyes narrowed once more. "Only way out of here is in a body bag."
"Or when your indenture is up."
"It's never up." His mutter was so soft, Andreas strained to hear the words.
He wanted to ask, Then why do you do it at all? Why fight or entertain clients if you really believe your sentence will never end? but a flash of hopeless misery across the man's battered face kept him silent.
Andreas's chest ached in sympathy for the plight of the fighter. He'd been to cage matches and other combat events his entire life and had never questioned the terms of the gladiators' employment until now. Fights were just another entertainment like vids or races or any sporting event--something to pass the time. Andreas hadn't been raised to consider the ethics of what the underclass did to make a living. He had his place in life, and his people were all that was important.
"Are we finished here? Or do you want something else?" The fighter moved closer to Andreas, once more boxing him in by the door. "I think you do. I think all this talk is 'cause you're scared to ask for what you want."
Andreas's erection had flagged as questions and guilt distracted him, but it stiffened again at the man's husky voice and the proximity of his body. He inhaled the powerful odor of his sweat, as sharp and tangy as fresh-cut grass. He wanted to lean in and lick his gleaming chest, tasting salt and oil.
Jabez reached for his fly, and Andreas didn't bat his hands away this time. The man cupped the bulge in front, his hand heavy and hot, and gave a little squeeze. Andreas sucked in a breath.
"Yeah. This is what you want." The other man's voice was a low, sultry caress and as powerful as his touch. "This is what you need."