On the tick of 6:59 a.m., Ellis slapped the clock so the 7:00 a.m. alarm wouldn’t beep. He grabbed his phone, swiped through screens, and turned off his backup alarm before it went off at 7:01.
Ellis needed both alarms to get his sorry ass out of bed on regular days, but he didn’t need either of them on the days that mysterious Bryndon Rothe came to the range. Ellis had been lying in his lumpy bed in the two-room apartment over Miss Maggie’s Shooting Range, thinking of what to say to Beautiful Bryn, for the last hour. Ellis knew if he figured out the right combination of words and phrases, Bryn’s entire life history would come pouring out of that kissable mouth. He’d get more than a sneer or a smirk, more than a poker face and a grunt: he’d get a whole conversation. A back and forth, a chat, even an exchange of, God willing, numbers and a promise to text.
Hope, as Ellis’s mama would say, sprang eternal. Especially where hot dancer boys were concerned, Ellis would add. He would have said his piece silently, though. Mama didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny or being gay. She’d never understand what Ellis saw in Bryn, but that was okay. It wasn’t like Ellis would get invited home with his would-be boyfriend anytime soon. His father would shoot his ass on sight. That was all right too. Ellis had long passed the need for parental approval. He had the range and his nonblood family and semiregular visits from Pretty Boy Bryn. Pretty Boy, Very Silent Bryn.
It was a game they played, the Make Him Talk Game, though Ellis wasn’t sure Bryn understood they were, actually, playing. But they’d only been sparring for a few months. It was clearly too early to call it a draw.
“How’s it going today?” Ellis said softly to himself as he climbed out of bed. He stretched and rolled his left shoulder, the one with the metal plate holding together the bone. Damn ricochet. Damn war. Damn stiff son of a bitch. He needed to lift. Later. Right now he needed to get ready.
In the bathroom, Ellis took his morning piss. “What’s happenin’, man?” Ellis frowned. No, way too casual. He’d tried that tack before, and Bryn hadn’t responded well. Meaning, he hadn’t said a thing. The goal was more words, not less.
“How are you today, sir?” Ellis asked his reflection before stuffing his mouth with a toothbrush dolloped with paste. Better. He’d not tried the “sir” thing yet. When Miss Maggie had told him a client had made arrangements to come to the range before official operating hours to shoot, she’d referred to Bryn as “Mr. Bryndon Rothe.” So the first time Ellis met Bryn, he’d said, “Mr. Rothe.” It’d been the most natural form of address, seeing as how his best friend and mentor, Maxwell Call-Me-Clark, was “Mr. Clark” to Ellis. Well, Mr. Clark in public—just Clark or “Sarge” in private when they played games with rope and cuffs and pain.
Ellis’s eyes rolled back into his head. Visions of the last round of playtime at Mr. Clark’s townhouse swarmed Ellis’s brain in vivid, full-color flashes: Clark in nothing but cuffs, chain necklace, and hard-on; Clark’s husband and Dominant, Daniel Germain, in silky shirt, dark pants, and boots; both men smiling at Ellis like wolves over prey.
Ellis spat into the sink and exhaled. Would he have time to jerk off before Captain Gorgeous arrived? Ellis checked his phone. No, definitely not.
“Later,” he muttered to his morning wood, which had been reinvigorated by thoughts of fuckings past. He needed to focus on Bryn and unlocking the hidden mysteries buried in those haunted, honey-brown eyes.
Throwing on his good jeans, a black T-shirt, and a long-sleeved button-down the color of rust, Ellis searched for clean socks. It took a while. Laundry. He needed to do laundry. Shove all his shit into the army surplus and drag it to the ‘mat a subway stop over.
Socks found and boots laced, Ellis made his bed and took the three seconds he needed to tidy his room. He used to be a horrible slob. Shit just everywhere. Then Clark had pointed out that a man’s environment was a reflection of a man’s mind. Ellis hadn’t been able to get that out of his brain, and as he’d gone to the support meetings Clark ran for vets with PTSD, and as Ellis had gotten calmer and better and smarter about life, he noticed that his room got neater. It was the strangest thing. Almost like one day he could barely wade through the dishes and clothes and magazines on the floor, and the next day he was installing shelves and buying containers. And hangers. And fucking organizer labels.
It was nuts, but Ellis liked it. Mostly because Clark approved. Ellis might not be the needy bitch he’d been when freshly discharged and looking for a place to go that wasn’t back to Oklahoma, but he kind of lived for Clark’s approval nonetheless. He’d made peace with the need. Clark was one of the best men Ellis knew. What the hell was wrong with getting such a man’s nod of acceptance? It made Ellis feel good—and precious little ever did.
Ellis retrieved his Colt Defender from the second drawer of his pressboard night table. He checked the Wilson Combat seven-round mag and the standard safety. He strapped on his holster, secured the weapon, and turned out the lights before dashing down the narrow stairwell to the main level of the shooting range. The stairs came out in a long storage room filled with cleaning supplies, range merchandise, crates, boxes, and God only knew what. Miss Maggie wasn’t exactly the most organized of owners, and Miss Jillian, Maggie’s wife, was no help. Jillian’s idea of organization was to file membership forms under “C” for “Care.” As in “We care about our members.”
The sheer chaos the place must have been when Jillian and Maggie lived in Ellis’s rooms was hard to imagine. They had their own place now, though, thank goodness. Ellis knew they could both shoot the balls off a gnat at a thousand yards, and Miss Maggie probably knew more ways to kill somebody than Clark did, but Ellis still didn’t like to think about the women alone at the range at night by themselves. They deserved their safe, cozy home with their six cats. Ellis was more suited to the pad above the range. It made more sense: Ellis as semi-expendable sentinel.
Ellis went through the storage-room door and shut it behind him, listening to the electronic lock beep as it engaged. He flipped light switches, and the fluorescents flickered to life. The range’s main room was a big one, and it stood in an L-shape around the insulated indoor range. Round racks full of T-shirts stood near the front of the room. They had hats on shelves and trinkets on endcaps. Jillian loved to put the range’s logo on pretty much everything, from pop bottles to keychains to plastic bobblehead bulldogs. The stuff sold surprisingly well. Every lesbian in the world wanted one of Maggie’s gun-range shirts. Miss Maggie offered discounted memberships to members of the LGBTQ community. She also taught self-defense courses in the shop and did a three-day-long, intensive crash course to get a carry permit. Revenue was good.