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Double Standards

Chapter Text

Sophia Bloom Sinclair was contemplating the vista out of her majestic office that ruled her high rise corporation. She was deep in thought when the sound of muddled footsteps that advanced on her insanely expensive Persian carpet caught her attention. She turned around to sit on her black leathered desk chair, as she scrutinized her vice president’s face. He was definitely perturbed, which gave her the presentiment that he was baring bad news.

“Well, out with it,” she commanded in her usual strict cold voice, “Who won the bid?”

Her vice president sat down on one of the guest’s chair in front of her mahogany desk in defeat. His clenched fists expressed his frustration, and she needn’t hear him say that Payne was the lower bidder to know that they lost yet another project to this bastard.

“The investor is signing with him a contract for the construction of the new chain of hotels and resorts; we lost a contract of more than 5 billion dollars just because this Payne bastard beat our price by a lousy one hundred thousand dollars.” The vice president spat in wrath.

Only the thinning of Sophia Bloom’s strict mouth betrayed her inner anger. “That’s the what! … sixth time in a year that he’s won a major contract away from us. Quite a coincidence, I think not.”

“Coincidence!” the vice president hissed scathingly, “it wasn’t a coincidence nor it was cheer luck and you know it well Sophia. Someone in my division must be spying for Liam Payne. Some bastard is spying on us for him so he can bid lower than our price every single time. Don’t you think it is also strange that we always end up bidding on the same projects! Only five men that work for me knew the number we were bidding on, one of them must be the spy. We only have to find out whom.”

Sophia massaged her temple with her fingers and leaned back in her chair, she honestly did not know what to think.

“We ran a check on them… remember; all what we’ve learned is that two of them are cheating on his wife and another is actually gay, we didn’t find anything that incriminated them in any way!”

“Then it was not enough…there must be something.” The vice president ran his fingers through his shiny primed hair. “Look, Sophia, I know that Liam is your stepson, but you’re going to have to do something about him. He’s out to destroy you, his own father’s company… this is no normal competition this is vindictive.”

Sophia’s eyes narrowed to snake slits and her lips turned thinner as she retorted: “I’ve never accepted that fact that he’s my ‘stepson’, nor does my husband consider him his son for that matter, Georges has only one son and it’s Carter.”

She calmed down after having made that clear: “Now, specifically what do you suggest I do about our little problem.”

“For all I care… put a spy in his company…an eye for an eye, I really don’t care what you do, just do something. But we better put a stop to the spying done in here.”

Sophia looked at her vice president in amazement, spy on that Liam bastard…what a solution! However, her thoughts were interrupted by the buzzing on her desk.

“Hold that thought.” She said as she quickly replied to her secretary.

“What is it Stephanie?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt Mrs. Sinclair, but there is a Mr. Zack Malik, oh, sorry, Zayn Malik here, he has an appointment to discuss employment.”

“He does,” Sophia sighed irritably. “I agreed to interview him for a position with us. Tell him I’ll see him in a few minutes.” She returned her attention to the vice president who was regarding her with puzzled raised eyebrows.

“Since when are you conducting personal interviews?” he asked in a mockingly surprised manner.

“It’s a courtesy interview,” Sophia explained with an impatient sigh. “His mother was a faraway cousin of mine, from my mother’s Irish side of the family. She was one of the relatives my dear mother wanted to contact for our family tree, she located her and invited her and her family to a nice little weekend visit so that she could delve into their ancestry, discover if they were actually related to decide if they are worthy to mention in her book. We discovered she got married to some Indian man, who was an English professor in some school, and she was a musician, but she gave up concertos to raise her son. Well a few years ago, her husband died in a car accident… she called me two weeks ago to ask if I could find her son a job. She said there was nothing suitable for him in Missouri where they’re living now.”

“Rather audacious of her to call you, wasn’t it?” he said irritably… they did not need another incompetent employee in the company.

Sophia’s expression filled with the most bored resignation.

“I’ll give the boy a few minutes of my time and then I’ll send him back to his village. We don’t have a position for anyone with a college degree in art and music, and even if we did I wouldn’t hire Zayn Malik. I’ve never met a more outrageous arrogant ill-mannered child in my life. He was about nine years old, scrawny and short for his age with a mop of unruly black hair and with hideous thick rimmed glasses and so help me God, that boy looked down his nose on us… spoke Urdu disrespecting us all the time, I was relieved when the weekend was over.”

***

Sophia Bloom Sinclair’s secretary glanced at the insanely attractive young man sitting across her desk. He was wearing black immaculate slacks, with black blazer and a cream white shirt that complemented his exotic olive skin. The guy had jet black hair styled in an elegant mini quiff, a jaw freshly shaved to die for really. However his eyes were the most interesting feature, a long curl of dark lashes framing the almond shape of two luminous globes of honey that reflect ships of olive green in the lighting of the lobby.

Zayn sensed the pressure of the scrutiny of the secretary, he felt a little uncomfortable when people stared. It’s not that he was one of those clueless people that did not know their own attractiveness, but it still made him feel uneasy none the less, even when he was subjected to this kind of thing constantly since he hit puberty. So he looked up from his phone screen and flashed a big fake smile. The secretary woke up from her daze and smiled apologetically: “Madame Bloom-Sinclair will see you in a few minutes.” She said politely, careful not to stare again.

Zayn looked back to his phone after he replied with a polite “thank you”. He was trying to control his nerves; he dreaded the confrontation with Mrs. Sinclair. Fourteen years wasn’t enough to make him forget the bitter memories of the two days he spent with his mother at her magnificent Grosse Pointe mansion, where her entire family, her obnoxious husband and even the servants treated them with insulting contempt, because what they were not on their prestigious level.

The phone on the secretary’s desk buzzed again.

He wondered how things ended up there. If he had known his dear mother would ask favors of this robot of a woman he wouldn’t have let her. Nevertheless, by the time he knew about everything it was too late; the call had been made and the interview already arranged. His mother had said they did not know anyone else who could possibly help them and that Zayn doesn’t have a good reason not to go. He did not want to remind her of how they were treated fourteen years ago, so here he is in Detroit, trying to seek a job in order to help his mother pay her accumulating bills and her health did not really permit her to get a job to save herself. He found that his college degree in arts and music was actually useless when it came to a job with quick money. All the hours of practice and the concertos he participated in all over the states were in futile.

At the thought of his responsibility, Zayn felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulder. He needed a job and he needed the money, the sooner the better. He glanced up again, studying the posh reception area he was sitting in and tried to imagine him-self working in a big company like this, not that it mattered, if the pay was good enough he will take any job they offered because good jobs with high pay were near to non-existent back in Missouri.

The secretary hung up her phone and stood up: “Madame Sinclair will see you now Mr. Malik.”

Zayn followed the secretary to a richly ornate mahogany double door. As the secretary opened it, Zayn was muttering a hurried prayer that Mrs. Sinclair won’t remember him from that long ago visit, and then he stepped into the office. Years of performing the piano in front of a jury and an audience had taught him to keep his nervousness and emotions bottled, which empowered him to approach the robot lady with the composure of the young witty man he was.

“You probably don’t remember me Mrs. Sinclair,” he said with ease extending his hand across the desk, “but I’m Zayn Malik.”

Sophia Sinclair handclasp was firm, like her personality, but Zayn couldn’t ignore the fact that she kept her hand there more than it was necessary, batting her eyelashes in a disturbing way.

“As a matter of fact I do remember you very well, Zayn.” She said with dry humor, “you were an unforgettable child.” She observed him closely with her cold steely eyes, and Zayn felt really uncomfortable under her stare. “But look at you now; I’d be surprised if you did not make any music cover magazine yet.” She said with a flirty manner that made Zayn gulp. “Please take a seat.” She gestured to the chair in front of her desk.

“I’ve brought you my résumé,” Zayn said, removing an elegant envelope from his satchel.

He handed her the said paper, she took it, but her eyes were now in focus on his face.

“You know you resemble your mother quite a lot, but I guess your jaw line and colors are from your father.”

Zayn squirmed uncomfortable in his chair; he cleared his throat before answering hesitantly: “hmm yes I guess.”

Sophia nodded, and went to read his résumé. Zayn took his time observing the woman closely. She had nothing to do with his mother; she had light strawberry blonde hair, steely gray eyes, and a thin pair of strict lips. However he could not ignore the fact that she didn’t seem to have aged at all, unlike his mother who had a few aging line that complemented her warm face nicely, this woman looked more of a plastic robot than ever. She’d fool you from afar, but looking at her closely one would see she doesn’t look her real age, not at all. ‘The wonders of Botox and celebrities’ treatments’ He thought. Yet he couldn’t help but feel an uneasy chill about the way she was looking at him and her tone when she flirted with him, she was his mother’s age for God’ sake. Not to mention that he was gay; he figured his sexuality out since sixteen, thank you very much. All things considered, her gracious manner was respectful, and it seemed like all hard feelings were inexistent so maybe he should give her a chance right, maybe his child-mind gave him the impression that she was a conceited bitch when she was just being her business woman sophisticated self.

“Although your university grades are exceptional, I hope you realize that your degree is of no value in the business world.” She said regretfully, “But I see that you know quite a few useful languages which are an asset.”

“Learning new languages are kind of a hobby of mine… we other than music… Look I know that I majored in arts and music but I realized when it came to real life, well there is no actual future in it for me, I really need a job.” He stressed.

Sophia listened attentively, and then looked at the paper again: “You also took several business courses.”

When she paused expectantly, Zayn figured that she might be actually considering giving him a job, “Actually, I’m only a few courses short of qualifying for a business degree.” He said persuasively.

“And I see you worked while attending college after school during the summers as a secretary. Your mother did not mention that on the phone. Are you shorthand and typing skills are as good as it is claimed on your résumé?” she asked.

“Yes. But I don’t really want to be a secretary.” He said tentatively.

“Why not? It’s an important job; secretaries in large corporations like this one are from the first people actually aware of the next projects and action plans, you’ll be aware of the business in this position better than any other and you’ll gain more experience by observing how things work in here. Oh don’t look so glum,” she said trying to convince Zayn with this job, “the work won’t be boring. Why my own secretary knows more about our future plans than most of my executives do. Executives secretaries are privy to all sort of highly confidential information, they’re…” she stopped in her tracks at once, looking dreamy.

“A secretary,” she exclaimed as if she just had a light bulb illuminated on top of her head. “Of course they would never suspect a secretary; they wouldn’t even run a security check on one! Zayn, I’m about to make you a very unusual deal. Please don’t argue about it until you hear me out completely. Now what do you know about corporate or industrial spying.”

Zayn had this queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach: “Enough to know that it’s illegal and people have been sent to prison for it, and that I absolutely don’t want anything to do with it Mrs. Sinclair.”

“Of course you don’t,” Sophia said thoughtfully, “and please Zayn call me Sophia. After all we’re related somehow, and I’ve been calling you Zayn.” She said with a flirty smile that made Zayn want to puke a little. However he uneasily nodded.

“I’m not really asking you to spy on another corporation; I’m asking you to spy on mine.” When she saw Zayn’s puzzled expression she went on.

“Let me explain. In recent years, a company called Pay-co has become one of our biggest competitors. Every time we bid on a contract Pay-co seems to know how much we’re going to bid and they bid just a fraction of a percent less than our price and by that they win the bid away from us. And it just happened again today. There are only five men here who could have told Pay-co the amount of our bid, so one of them must be their spy. I don’t want to dismiss four loyal executives just to get rid of the spy. But if Pay-co continues to steal business from us this way, I’m going to have to begin to sack people.”

She continued on, “I employ more than twelve thousand people Zayn; twelve thousand families are relying on my corporation so they can have roofs over their heads. So there’s a chance you could help them keep their jobs. All, you have to do is apply to a secretarial position at Pay-co today. God knows they’ll need to increase their staff to handle all the work they stole from us. With your skills and experience they’ll be fools if they did not offer you a job with a high level executive.”

Against his better judgment, Zayn felt curious enough to ask: “But if I get the job, then what?”

“Then I’ll give you the names of the five men who might possibly be the spy, and all you have to do is to listen for the mentions of their names by anyone at Pay-co.”

She leaned forward in her chair, crossing her arms on her desk:

“It’s a long shot Zayn, I know, but I’m absolutely fed up with all this Pay-co bullshit that I’m ready to do anything in order to stop what they’re doing and save my company for the sake of my loyal employees. I was planning to offer you a secretarial position with a very attractive salary…” and when she mentioned the number, Zayn looked very interested, because with this salary, all their problems could be solved, Sophia noticed and smiled knowingly, saying that salaries in big cities are more considerable than salaries in small towns.

“Now if you applied at Pay-co this afternoon and they offered you the desired position, I want you to take it. The salary there is a bit lower from the one I just offered so you’ll get a monthly check from my company to make up the difference and if you succeed in learning the spy’s name or anything of value to me I’ll give you a bonus of 20 000 dollars. Six months from now, If you did not learn anything you can resign from their and come and work for us, and if you obtained a college degree I promise to offer you a better job, how is that?” her cold eyes traveled on his troubled face.

“Something’s bothering you?” she asked innocently.

“The whole thing is bothering me actually, I’m not very good at… the whole spying thing, I’m afraid I’m a shit liar and I….”

“Zayn I know I have absolutely no right to ask you to apply at Pay-co. It may surprise you but I’m aware of how unpleasant your visit were fourteen years ago. My son Carter was at a difficult age, my mother was obsessed in our family tree and my husband… well I’m sorry we weren’t more cordial.”

Under normal circumstances, Zayn would have turned her down. He did not like ruse and dishonesty, but now his life was in a state of complete mayhem and his financial responsibilities were overwhelming. “All right, I’ll do it.” He said and never sounded that unsure in his life.

“Good.” Sophia said pleasantly, she picked up one of her cell phones and dialed Pay-co.’s number and handed it to Zayn to make an appointment. Zayn secretly hoped that they’ll refuse him on the whim. However, according to the man he spoke to, Pay-co needed experienced secretary because of a big contract they just signed and since he’ll be working until later today he could see him in an hour.

When she put away her phone, Sophia stood up and thanked him, declaring the interview was over. She invited him to stay with them, but Zayn refused politely, but Sophia was adamant about him staying with them, declaring that she wanted to make up for their last visit. So she gave him no choice.

When the door closed behind Zayn, Sophia picked up the phone and dialed her son’s private office number.

“Carter,” she said with a gleeful voice, “I think we’re about to drive a spike into Liam Payne’s armor. Do you remember this boy Zayn Malik…?”

Chapter Text

By the time Zayn arrived at Pay-co.'s personnel office it was after five o'clock, and he had come to the conclusion that he couldn't possibly spy for Sophia Sinclair. Just thinking of it on the way had made him want to empty his already empty stomach.

Even though he would like to help Sophia a little, the intrigue and deception that would be involved petrified him, he was never good in these situations. His mother always told him he was a doe eyed young man among wolves, he hated that; he was not that innocent but he was not that much of a cunning persona either. His pride did not let him confess his cowardice to her.

While he filled out the endless forms and applications required by Pay-co, it occurred to him that the best way out of his predicament was to honor his promise to Sophia Sinclair by applying for a job—and then make absolutely certain that he wasn't offered one.

Accordingly, he deliberately failed every single test they gave him and did not mention any word of his college degree. He gave the interviewee the impression that he was just a pretty face no more. But his crowning achievement was the way he answered the last question on his employment application. The instructions said to list in the order of preference three positions he felt he was qualified to fill at Pay-co. Zayn had written "president" for his first choice, "personnel manager" for his second, and "secretary" for his third.

The real personnel manager, Mr. Vernon, graded his tests, and his face registered horror as he did so. He put them aside and picked up his application, and he watched his gaze glide to the bottom of the last page, where he had listed, among his three choices, Mr. Vernon's own job. When he read that his face shaded with red color, his nostrils flared and the vein on his forehead popped out scarily; Zayn had to bite his lower lip in order to stop his chuckle. He stood up abruptly and coldly informed him that he did not meet Pay-co.'s hiring standards for any position. Zayn thought that maybe he took it too far, but nonetheless his goal was achieved.

When Zayn emerged from the building, he discovered that the supposedly hot day of August evening had drastically changer into a prematurely dark and cold windy night. With a convulsive shiver, he pulled his dark blazer closer around his middle, he hated the cold.

Downtown traffic was backed up on Jefferson Avenue, a sea of multicolored cars speeding past him in both directions. While he waited for the light to change, fat raindrops began to splatter on the pavement around him. There was a break in traffic, and Zayn raced across the broad multi-lane boulevard, reaching the opposite curb in a reckless way.

Breathless and damp, he glanced up at the darkened high-rise building under construction in front of him. The parking garage where he had left his car was four blocks away, but if he trespassed across the area surrounding the high-rise, he could save himself at least a block. A fresh breath of wind blowing off in the air chilled his bones and made him make up his mind quickly. Disregarding the No Trespassing sign, he ducked under the ropes surrounding the construction area.

Walking as quickly as the uneven ground would permit, Zayn glanced up at the lights scattered here and there in the otherwise dark building. It was at least one hundred stories high, elevation covered completely in mirrored curtain wall that reflected the twinkling lights of the city. Where lights were on inside the building, the mirror surface became ordinary two-way glass, and Zayn could see boxes piled in the offices, as if the tenants were getting ready to occupy the space.

Close to the building he reckoned he was shielded from the wind, so he carefully stayed within its protection. As he hurried along it occurred to him that he was all alone in the dark in what was known as highly rated crime city. So he quickened his pace.

Heavy footsteps suddenly thudded in the dirt behind him, and he panicked. He was being followed by God knows who. He broke into a awkward run. Just as he flew toward the main entrance, one of the huge glass doors swung open, and two men emerged from the shadowy building.

"Help!" he cried. "There's someone—" His foot struck a pile of conduit that twisted around his feet, then tightened. Zayn soared through the air, his mouth open in a surprised soundless scream, his arms flailing for balance, and landed sprawling; face down in the dirt at the men's feet.

"You damn fool!" one of the men reproached in angry concern as they both bent down on their haunches and peered anxiously at him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Bracing himself on his aching forearms, Zayn lifted his bothered gaze from the man's shoes to his face. "Auditioning for the circus," he told him dryly. "And for an encore, I usually fall off a bridge."

A rich chuckle sounded from the other man as he took him firmly by the shoulders and helped him to his feet. "What's your name?" he asked, and when Zayn had told him, he looked apprehensive but added sounding worried, "Can you walk?"

"For miles," Zayn assured him unsteadily. His feet were protesting; his left ankle was throbbing as he tried to stand on both feet.

"Then I guess you can make it as far as the building so we can have a look at the damage," he said with a smile in his voice. Sliding his arm around his waist so he could help him walk the distance, Zayn felt embarrassed at that.

"Liam," the other man said sharply, "I think it would be better if I go in and call an ambulance while you stay here with Mr. Malik."

"Please don't call an ambulance!" Zayn pleaded quickly. "I'm more embarrassed by the fall than hurt, it’s just a small bruise it will go" he added, almost sagging with relief when the man called Liam began guiding him toward the immaculate lobby.

He briefly considered the inadvisability of going into a deserted building with two strangers, but when they entered the lobby, the other man switched on some small spotlights high in the ceiling, and most of his doubts were dispelled: he was in his mid-thirties, handsomely dignified and wearing a suit and tie. Even in the dim light, he seemed more like a successful business executive than a thug. Zayn looked at Liam, whose arm was still around him. His attire was more casual in reference to the other man. Judging from his shadowy profile, Zayn estimated him to be in his late twenties or early thirties, and there was nothing about him, either, that struck him as being threatening.

Over his shoulder, Liam spoke to the other man. "Louis, there should be a first-aid kit in one of the maintenance rooms. Find it and bring it up."

"Right," Louis said dully, striding toward a glowing red Stairs sign.

Zayn observed curiously the immense lobby. Everything was off-white travertine marble: the walls, the floors, and even the graceful pillars that soared two stories to the ceiling high above. Dozens of huge potted trees and lush green plants were lined up against one wall, apparently waiting for someone to move them to their proper positions on the vast lobby floor.

When they came to a bank of elevators set into the far wall, Liam reached around him and pressed the elevator button. The brass elevator doors slid open and Zayn stepped into the brightly lit elevator. "I'm taking you up to a furnished office where you can sit down and rest until you feel steady enough to walk unaided," Liam explained.

Zayn flashed a smiling, grateful glance at him— and froze with shock. Standing beside him, his features clearly illuminated now by the improved light, was one of the most handsome men he had ever had the fortune to encounter. Simultaneously, the elevator doors closed and Zayn jerked his gaze from his face. "Thanks," he said in a whisper, self-consciously pulling free of his supporting arm, "but I can stand alone." He said sounding more like the young man he is.

He pressed the button for the ninetieth floor, and Zayn suppressed his usual impulse to reach up and check if his hair was in place but it would be too obvious, too vain. He wondered if he had a busted lip, or if his face was dirty from the fall, then he caught himself up short. For a sensible young gay man, he was reacting very foolishly to what was, after all, nothing more than an attractive male face.

Had he really been that handsome, he wondered. So he decided to look at him again, but discreetly this time. Very casually, he raised his eyes to the light above the doors, which flashed the number of the passing floors. Cautiously, he let his gaze slide sideways… Liam was watching the flashing numbers; his head tipped slightly back, his face in profile.

Besides being even more handsome than he had thought, he was at least six feet two inches tall, broad shouldered and athletically muscular. His thick dark hair was coffee brown, beautifully cut and styled. Masculine strength was carved into his jaw, but his nose was adorable and his thick brown eyebrows gave his brown eyes a warmth that was absent in the way he conducted himself. His mouth was firm, but sensually molded having a bright reddish hue.

Zayn was still studying the mobile line of his lips when they quirked suddenly, as if amusement was lurking there. His gaze shot up, and to his utter horror he discovered that his sparkling brown eyes had shifted to watch him instead.

Caught in the act of staring at him and practically drooling over him, Zayn said the first thing that came to mind. "I—I'm afraid of elevators," he improvised but the lie was partially true he had an aversion of heights. "I try to concentrate on something else to, err, and keep my mind off the height."

"That's very clever," he remarked, but his teasing tone made it obvious the he was not buying what he said but he was applauding his ingenuity in inventing such a plausible lie.

Zayn was torn between laughing at his dry observation and blushing because he hadn't fooled him in the least. He did neither, and instead carefully kept his eyes on the elevator doors until they opened on the ninetieth floor.

"Wait here while I turn on the lights," Liam said. A few seconds later panels of ceiling lights flickered on, illuminating the entire floor, the left half of which appeared to be an immense reception area and four very large walnut-paneled offices. Liam put his hand beneath his elbow, and Zayn's feet sank into the emerald green carpeting as he guided him around the elevator wall to the opposite side.

This half of the floor contained another even larger reception area, with a circular receptionist's desk in the center. Zayn glimpsed a beautiful office opening off the right of the reception area. Mentally he compared it to his own steel desk at his old part-time job. That one had been in the middle of a cluttered three-person office. It was hard to believe that so much spacious luxury was here for the benefit of a mere secretary.

When he voiced that thought aloud, Liam gave her a derisive look. "Skilled professional secretaries take great pride in being just that, and the salaries they're getting are soaring every year."

"I happen to be a secretary," Zayn told him as they walked across the reception area toward a pair of rosewood doors. "I was across the street applying for a job at Pay-co just before I… ah, met you." Liam threw open both doors, then stood back for Zayn to precede him while he studied his limping walk.

Zayn was so acutely aware of his penetrating hardwood gaze on his legs that his knees wobbled a little, and he was halfway across the room before he actually looked at his surroundings. What he saw stopped him short. "Good Lord!" he breathed. "What is this, anyway?"

"This," Liam said with a smile at his awestruck expression, "is the president's office. It's one of the few offices that's completely finished."

Speechless, Zayn let his admiring gaze wander over the gigantic office. The long wall in front of him was glass from floor to ceiling, providing an uninterrupted view of nighttime Detroit’s skyline as it fanned out for endless miles in the distance below. The three remaining walls were paneled in satiny rosewood.

Thick cream carpeting covered the floor, and a splendid rosewood desk was off to his far right, facing the room. Six chairs upholstered in moss green were strategically placed before the desk, while on the opposite side of the office, three long, deeply tufted moss green sofas formed a wide U around an immense glass-topped coffee table.

"It's amazing," he said quietly.

"I'll fix something for us to drink while Louis is getting the first-aid kit," Liam said.

Zayn turned; watching bemusedly as the man named Liam walked over to a blank rosewood wall and pressed it with his fingertips. A huge panel glided silently aside, revealing a gorgeous mirrored bar lit by tiny concealed spotlights above it. Glass shelves held rows of Waterford crystal glasses and decanters.

When Zayn didn't reply to his offer of a drink, he glanced over his shoulder at him. Zayn lifted his amber eyes from the recessed bar to his face and saw the expression he was trying to hide. Obviously, he was vastly amused by his thunderstruck reaction to this luxury, and the knowledge made him suddenly realize something he had just noticed; while Zayn was acutely aware of his male attraction, Liam seemed completely oblivious to him as an attractive young man. He had this uneasy feeling that he considered him as young boy.

After six years of enduring women and men’s (whether they were gay or straight) gaping admiration, their leers and stares, he had finally met a man whom he desperately wanted to impress, and nothing was happening. Absolutely nothing. A little puzzled and definitely disappointed, Zayn tried to shrug the matter aside. Beauty was said to be in the eyes of the beholder, and apparently Liam's eyes beheld nothing of interest when he looked at him, well maybe he was strictly straight man. That wouldn't have been so awful if only he didn't find him so damned funny!

"If you'd like to clean up, there's a bathroom right there." Liam inclined his head toward the wall beside the bar.

"Where?" Zayn asked blankly, following the direction of his nod.

"Walk straight ahead, and when you get to the wall, just press it."

His lips were twitching again, and Zayn gave him an exasperated look while he did as he'd said. When his fingertips touched the smooth rosewood, a panel clicked open to reveal a spacious bathroom, and he stepped inside.

"Here's the first-aid kit," the man called Louis announced as he entered the suite just then. Zayn started to close the bathroom door but paused when he heard him add in a lowered voice, "Liam, as the corporation's attorney, I'm advising you that the boy ought to be seen by a physician tonight to prove that he isn't seriously injured. If you don't insist on it, some lawyer could claim he's been crippled by his fall and could sue the company for millions."

"Stop making such a big issue out of it," he heard Liam reply. "He’s just a nice wide-eyed kid who got the hell scared out of him in a nasty fall. An ambulance ride would terrify him even more."

"All right," Louis sighed. "I'm late for a meeting in Troy, and I've got to leave. But for God's sake, don't offer him anything alcoholic to drink. His parents could sue you for trying to seduce a minor, and—"

Feeling both puzzled and insulted at being called a wide-eyed frightened kid and a minor, Zayn quietly closed the door. Frowning, he turned to the mirror above the sink, and then stifled a yell of horrified laughter. His face was covered with wide streaks of dirt and grime; his previously styled hair was now wild and damp his fringe falling off on his forehead; wisps of hair were sticking out like scraggly spikes all over his head; and his blazer was hanging drunkenly off his left shoulder, and it was in no state to be wore ever again, his slacks were covered in dirt around his knees.

He looked; he thought with a hysterical chuckle, like a mischievous troublemaker schoolboy, the clown of the class, literally.

And for some unknown reason, it suddenly became necessary for him that he looked vastly different when he walked out of this bathroom. Hastily he began stripping off his soiled previously black jacket, highly anticipating the shock that was in store for Liam when he was cleaned up and presentable. He couldn’t ignore the fact that people would presume that Liam would be accused into seducing a minor boy, so maybe there was a little hope for him that Liam actually liked guys.

If his pulse quickened with excitement while he scrubbed his face and hands, he told himself it was only because he was looking forward to having the last laugh on him, and not because he longed for him to think he was attractive. So after his face was shining again, he picked up a small brush off his side bag, in order to restyle his messy hair. After he was glad with the result, he put his glasses on to give him a mature look, he folded the sleeves of his shirt to show some of the ink scattered on his arms. He hurriedly tried to clean his slacks of the dirt and voila, he was once more his recognizable self.

Satisfied, he turned away from the mirror, picked up his useless jacket and side bag and stepped out of the bathroom, closing the rosewood panel with a soft click.

Liam was standing at the mirrored bar, his back to him. Without turning he said, "I had to make a phone call, but I'll have these drinks ready in a moment. Did you find everything you needed in there?"

"Yes, I did, thank you," Zayn said, putting down his side bag and jacket. Quietly he stood beside the long sofa, watching his swift, economical movements as he took two crystal glasses down from the shelf and pulled a tray of ice cubes from the compact refrigerator-freezer recessed into the bar. He had removed his denim jacket and tossed it over one of the chairs. With each movement of his arms, the thin fabric of his blue knit shirt tautened, emphasizing his broad, muscular shoulders and tapered back. Zayn let his gaze drift appreciating down the clean line of his narrow hips and long legs, outlined by the comfortably snug jeans he wore. When he spoke, Zayn started guiltily, his gaze flying to the back of his brunet head.

"I'm afraid this bar isn't stocked with soft drinks or lemonade, Zayn, so I've fixed you a glass of tonic with ice."

Zayn suppressed a chuckle at the mention of lemonade and casually stuffed his hands in his slack pockets. Suspense and anticipation built inside him as he replaced the stopper in a crystal whiskey decanter, picked up a glass in each hand and turned.

He took two steps toward him and stopped cold.

His brows drew together as his narrowed brown eyes slid over the luxurious tumble of burnished raven black hair, restyled in respectable way. His stunned gaze shifted to his face, noting his vivid amber eyes sparkling with humor beneath thick, dark long lashes, his straight perfect nose, finely sculpted cheeks a very masculine cut jaw and soft full pink lips. His eyes then moved to his unbuttoned at the top shirt and the shocking but cool ink on his arms.

Now that was the reaction Zayn wanted from the man. But now that he got the reaction, he wanted him to flirt or to voice any compliment, but he didn’t, so Zayn was a little disappointed.

Without a word he turned on his heel, strode over to the bar and dumped the contents of one of the glasses into the stainless steel bar sink. "What are you doing?" Zayn asked confused.

His voice was filled with amused irony. "Adding some gin to your tonic."

Zayn burst out laughing, and Liam glanced over his shoulder at him, a wry smile twisting his lips. "Just out of curiosity, how old are you?"

"Twenty-three." Zayn replied amused.

"And you were applying for a secretarial position at Pay-co—before you threw yourself at our feet tonight?" he prompted, adding a modest amount of gin to his tonic.

"Yes."

He carried his glass to him and nodded toward the sofa. "Sit down—you shouldn't be standing on that ankle."

"It doesn't hurt, honestly," he protested, but he obediently sat down.

Liam remained standing in front of him, regarding him curiously. "Did Pay-co offer you a position?"

He was so tall that Zayn had to tip his head back in order to meet his gaze. "No."

"I'd like to have a look at your ankle," he said. Putting his drink on the glass coffee table, he crouched down and began taking off his shoe. The mere brush of his fingers against his ankle sent incredible pleasurable signals shooting up his leg, and he stiffened with the unexpected shock.

Fortunately, Liam was unaware of what he made him feel, as his strong fingers carefully explored up to his calf, moving slowly down toward his ankle. "Are you a good secretary?" he implored.

"My former employer thought I was." Zayn replied honestly.

With his head still bent, he said, "Good secretaries are always in demand. Pay-co.'s personnel office will probably call you eventually and offer you a job."

"I doubt it," Zayn said with an irrepressible smile. "I'm afraid Mr. Vernon, the personnel manager, doesn't think I'm very bright," he explained.

Liam's head jerked up, his gaze moving with frank appreciation over his vivid manly features. "Zayn, I think you're as bright as a shiny new penny. Vernon must be blind, which he is actually."

"Of course he is!" Zayn teased, "Or else he'd never wear a houndstooth jacket with a paisley tie."

Liam grinned. "Does he really?"

Zayn nodded, and for him the companionable moment became strangely charged with an unexplainable, deepening awareness. Now, as he smiled at him, he saw more than just an extremely handsome man. He saw a mild cynicism in his eyes that was tempered with warmth and humor. The hard experience of life that left a stamp on his features made him even more attractive. There was no denying the power of his sexual magnetism, either.

"It doesn't feel swollen," Liam commented, bending his head toward his ankle again. "Does it hurt at all?"

"Very little. Not nearly as much as my dignity." Zayn said in a small voice.

"In that case, by tomorrow your ankle and your dignity will probably be fine."

Still crouching, he cupped his heel in his left hand and reached over to pick up his shoe with his right.

Just as he was about to slip the shoe onto his foot, he glanced up at him and his lazy smile sent Zayn's pulse racing as he asked, "Isn't there some fairy tale about a Prince who searches for the one he likes whose foot fits into a glass slipper?"

He nodded her eyes bright, chewing on his bottom lip before he replied amusedly. "Cinderella."

"What happens to me if this shoe fits?"

"I turn you into a handsome puppy," he jested.

The older man laughed, a rich, wonderful sound as their gazes held, and something flickered in the brown depths of his eyes—a brief flame of sexual attraction that he abruptly doused. The companionable bantering was over. He buckled his shoe, and then stood up. Picking up his drink, he drained it quickly and set the glass down on the coffee table. It was, Zayn sensed with a sinking feeling, an unwelcome signal that their time together was at an end. He watched him lean over, pick up the telephone on the far side of the coffee table and punched a four-digit number.

 

"George," he said into the phone, "This is Liam Payne. The young man you were chasing as a trespasser has recovered from his fall. Would you bring the security car around to the front of the building and drive him to wherever he left his car? Right, I'll meet you down in front in five minutes."

Zayn's heart sank. Five minutes. And Liam wasn't even going to be the one who drove him to his car! He had an awful feeling that he wasn't going to ask how he could get in touch with him, either. That thought was so depressing that it totally shadowed his embarrassment at having discovered that he had been fleeing from a security guard tonight.

"Do you work for the company that built this high-rise?" he asked, trying to postpone their parting and discover something about him.

Liam glanced almost impatiently at his watch. "Yes, I do."

"Do you like construction work?"

"I enjoy building things," he answered briefly. "I'm an engineer."

"Will you be sent somewhere else once this building is finished?" he questioned curiously.

"I'll spend most of my time here for the next few years," he said.

Zayn stood up and picked up his tattered blazer, his thoughts confused. Anyhow, he probably wasn't going to see him again.

"Well, thank you for everything. I hope the president doesn't discover that you raided his liquor cabinet."

Liam shot him a wry glance. "It's already been raided by all the janitors. It will have to be locked to stop that."

On the way down in the elevator, he seemed preoccupied and in a hurry. He probably already had a date tonight, Zayn thought glumly. Or maybe Zayn hurried his deduction that he was interested in men anyway. He probably had a date with some beautiful woman—a model, at least, if she were to match his own striking good looks. Of course, he might be married—but he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, and he didn't seem like a married man.

A white car with the words Global Industries Security Division had pulled up on the packed dirt in front of the building and was waiting, a uniformed security guard at the steering wheel. Liam walked him out to the car and held the door open while he slid into the passenger seat beside the guard. Using his body to block the chilly air from him, he leaned his forearm on the roof of the car and bent his head to speak to him through the narrow opening. "I know people at Pay-co; I'll give someone a call and see if they can't persuade Weatherby to change his mind."

Zayn's spirits soared at this indication that he liked him enough to try to intercede for him, but when he recalled the way he had deliberately bungled her tests, he shook his head in genuine dismay. "Don't bother. He won't change his mind—I made a terrible impression on him. But thank you for offering." He said with a genuine smile.

Ten minutes later Zayn paid the parking-garage attendant and pulled out onto the rain swept boulevard. Forcing his thoughts away from Liam, he followed the directions Sophia's secretary had given him and somberly contemplated his forthcoming meeting with the Sinclair family.

 

In less than a half hour he was going to walk into their Grosse Pointe mansion again. Memories of his humiliating weekend at their elegant home fourteen years before invaded his mind. The first day had not been bad; she had spent it virtually on her own. The awful part had begun just after lunch on the second day. Carter, who was a teenager at the time, had appeared in the doorway of Zayn’s bedroom and announced that his mother had instructed him to get him out of the house because she was expecting some friends and didn't want them to see Zayn. For the rest of the afternoon, Carter had made him feel as miserable, insignificant and frightened as he possibly could.

Exhausted and dispirited, Zayn pulled up in front of the Sinclair' three-story classic mansion. He unlocked the trunk of his car and removed his suitcase. He had driven twelve hours straight in order to keep his appointment with Sophia Sinclair that afternoon. He had been through two job interviews, fallen down in the dirt, spoiled his clothes and met the most handsome compelling man he'd ever seen. And by deliberately flunking his tests at Pay-co, he had ruined his chances of working near him…

Tomorrow was Friday, and he would spend it looking for an apartment. As soon as he found one, he could leave immediately for Fenster to pack his belongings. Sophia had not mentioned when she wanted him to start working for her company, but he could be back here ready to report for work two weeks from Monday.

The front door was opened by a paunchy uniformed butler. "Good evening," he began, but Sophia Sinclair interrupted him.

Striding into the vast marble foyer his relative exclaimed, "Zayn, I've been worried to death about you! What's kept you so long?"

She looked so anxious that Zayn felt terrible for not contacting her earlier, and even worse for letting her down by not trying harder to get a job at Pay-co. In a few words he explained that things had "not gone very well" with his interview. Hastily he sketched in details of his fall in front of the Global Industries Building, and asked if he had time to freshen up before dinner.

Upstairs in the room the butler showed him to, he showered, changed into more casual clothes and he went back down.

Sophia stood up as he approached the arched doorway of the drawing room. She said, leading him over to his husband, whose glacial personality he recalled so well. "George, I know you remember Zayn."

Despite his personal prejudice, Zayn had to admit that with his broad shoulders, tall lean body, masculine jaw and silvery grey hair, Georges Sinclair was a handsome old man.

"Of course I do," George said with a pleasantly correct smile that didn't quite reach his matt brown eyes. "How are you, Zayn?"

"Obviously Zayn is very well, father," Carter Sinclair remarked, grinning as he politely got to his feet. His lazy, sweeping glance covered everything about Zayn, so maybe he was not the only gay man around!

Zayn kept his expression neutral as he was reintroduced to his childhood tormentor. Accepting the glass of sherry Carter had poured for him, he sat down on the sofa, eyeing him warily when he sat beside him instead of returning to his chair. "You've certainly changed," he said with an admiring grin.

"So have you," Zayn answered cautiously.

He draped his arm casually across the back of the sofa behind his shoulders. "We didn't get along very well, as I remember," he mused.

"No, we didn't." Zayn flicked a self-conscious glance toward Georges, who was observing his son's little flirtation, his eyes cool and inscrutable, and his expression regally aloof.

"Why didn't we get along?" Carter persisted.

"I, err, don't recall." Zayn feigned ignorance; he was the cause of a very chaotic dinner before they went back home fourteen years ago.

"I do." He smiled. "I was insufferably rude and thoroughly rotten to you."

Zayn stared in amazement at his frank, rueful expression, his prejudice against him beginning to dissolve. "Yes, you were."

"And you—" he grinned "—behaved like an outrageous brat at dinner."

Zayn's eyes brightened with an answering smile as he slowly nodded his head. "Yes, I did." A tentative truce was thereby declared. Carter glanced up at the butler hovering in the doorway, then stood up and offered his hand to Zayn. "Dinner is ready. Shall we?"

They had just finished the last course when his phone started vibrating in his pocket, he checked the caller, and it was an unknown number.

Sophia Sinclair’s face broke into a beaming smile. "I think it’s Pay-co, go on answer it."

The phone conversation was brief, with Zayn mostly listening. When he hung up, he raised amazed, laughing eyes to Sophia.

"Go ahead," she said, "tell us. Georges and Carter are both aware of what you're trying to do to help me."

Zayn was a little discouraged to learn that two other people were aware of his stealthy future, but he complied. "Apparently the man who rescued me when I fell tonight had a very influential friend at Pay-co. This friend called Mr. Vernon a few minutes ago, and as a result, Mr. Vernon has just remembered a secretarial position that he thinks is perfect for me. I'm to be interviewed for it tomorrow."

"Did he mention who'll be interviewing you?"

"I think he said the man's name was Mr. Styles."

"Harry styles," Sophia murmured softly, her smile broadening. "I'll be damned."

Shortly afterward Carter left for his own apartment, and Georges retired for the night. Sophia asked Zayn to remain in the drawing room with her. "Styles may want you to start immediately," she informed him when they were alone. "We don't want any obstacles in the way of you getting that job. How soon can you go home, pack and return to work?"

"I can't go home to pack until I've found an apartment here," Zayn reminded her.

"No, of course not," she agreed. After a moment's thought she said, "You know, a few years ago I bought a condominium in Bloomfield Hills for an aunt of mine. She's been in Europe for months now and intends to stay there for another year. It would be my pleasure to have you live at her place."

"No, really, I couldn't," Zayn said quickly. "You've already done more than enough for me; I can't let you provide a place for me to live, too."

"I insist," she said with kindly firmness. "And anyway, you'll be doing me a favor, because I've had to pay the gatekeeper at the condominium complex a sizable sum every month to watch the place. This way we'll both save money."

Zayn was hesitant. His mother needed every dollar he could send her, and as quickly as possible. If he didn't have to spend money for rent, he could send him that, too. Troubled and uncertain, he looked at Sophia, but she had already extracted a pen and paper from a drawer nearby and was writing something down. "Here's the address and phone number of the condominium," she said, handing him the piece of paper. "When you fill out your employment papers at Pay-co tomorrow, give them this information. That way, no one there will ever connect you with me."

Zayn slightly shivered, reminded of the dual role he’d be playing while working for Pay-co. Spying. His mind skated away in alarm from the word. No, he wouldn't really be doing that. He tried to convince his opposing heart. All he would really be doing was trying to find out the name of the treacherous person who was spying on Sophia's company. Seen from that viewpoint, his mission became not only justified, it became positively honorable. For a moment he felt quite righteous—until he sternly reminded himself of the real reason he was now so willing and eager to work for Pay-co: Liam Payne worked right across the street, and he wanted the opportunity to be near him.

Sophia's voice interrupted his thoughts. "If you're offered a secretarial position at Pay-co tomorrow, accept it and leave from there for Missouri. If I don't hear from you by noon tomorrow, I'll know you got the position, and I'll arrange to have the condominium ready for you within a week."

Chapter Text

The following morning at eleven-fifty, Zayn was lucky enough to find a parking space right across from Pay-co's offices, directly in front of the Global Industries Building. With a mixture of nervousness and anticipation, he got out of the car, smoothed his tight khaki pants, straightened the matching military jacket and crossed the street to see Mr. Vernon.

Despite his formal, almost ingratiating smile, Mr. Vernon was obviously annoyed.

"Really, Mr. Malik," he said, ushering him into his office, "you could have saved yourself, me and several others a great deal of time and trouble if you had simply told me when you came in yesterday that you're a friend of Mr. Payne's."

"Did Mr. Payne call you and tell you I was a friend of his?" Zayn asked curiously.

"No," Mr. Vernon said, trying hard to hide his irritation. "Mr. Payne called the president of our company, Mr. Sampson. Mr. Sampson called the executive vice-president, who called the vice-president of operations, who called my boss. And last night my boss called me at home and informed me that I had offended and misjudged Mr. Malik, who happens to be extremely bright and a personal friend of Mr. Payne's. Then he hung up on me." He finished the sentence with round saucer eyes, as if he was still shocked from last night.

Zayn could not believe he had stirred up such a furor. "I'm terribly sorry to have caused you so much trouble," he said apologetically. "It wasn't entirely your fault—after all, I did fail my tests."

He nodded in emphatic agreement. "I told my boss you didn't know which end of a pencil to write with, but he said he didn't give a damn if you typed with your toes." Heaving himself out of his chair, he said, "Now, if you'll come with me, I'll take you up to Mr. Styles' office. Mr. Styles is our executive vice-president and his secretary is moving to California. He wants to interview you for the position."

"Is Mr. Styles the executive vice-president who called the vice-president of operations, who called—" Zayn began uneasily.

"Exactly," Mr. Vernon interrupted.

Zayn followed him, beset with the unsettling thought that even if he detested him, Mr. Styles might offer him a job because he had been intimidated by his superior. But minutes later he abandoned any such idea. Harry Styles, in his late twenties, had the brisk, authoritative air of a man who would never be anyone's puppet. He glanced up from the documents he was reading when Mr. Vernon brought Zayn into his office and nodded coolly toward the leather chair in front of his large desk. "Sit down," he said to Zayn. To Mr. Vernon he said curtly, "Close the door behind you as you leave."

Zayn sat as he'd been told to do and waited as Harry Styles stood up and came around in front of his desk. Leaning back against it, he crossed his arms over his chest, and his penetrating gaze swept over him. "So you're Zayn Malik?" he said dispassionately.

"Yes," Zayn admitted. "I'm afraid so."

Amusement flickered across his face, momentarily softening the cool, businesslike features. "I take it from that remark that you're aware of the uproar you caused last night?"

"Yes," Zayn sighed. "In every excruciating, embarrassing detail."

"Can you spell 'excruciating'?"

"Yes," he said, completely taken aback.

"How fast can you type—when you aren't under testing conditions?"

Zayn flushed. "About a hundred word a minute."

"Shorthand?"

"Yes."

Without taking his eyes from his face, he reached behind him and picked up a pencil and tablet lying on his desk. Handing them to the young man, he said, "Take this down, please."

Zayn stared at him in amazement then recovered and began to write as he dictated swiftly with a deep raspy voice:

"Dear Mr. Malik, as my administrative assistant, you will be expected to perform a variety of secretarial duties and to function efficiently and smoothly as my personal liaison with my staff. You will, at all times, adhere precisely to company policies, regardless of your acquaintance with Liam Payne. In a few weeks we will be moving into the Global Building, and if you ever attempt to take advantage of your friendship with Mr. Payne, either by shirking your duties or ignoring the rules that apply to the rest of the staff, I will fire you on the spot and personally escort you out the front door. If, on the other hand, you show interest and initiative, I will delegate as much responsibility to you as you wish to accept and are capable of handling. If this meets with your approval, report for work here in my office at 9:00 a.m. two weeks from Monday. Any questions, Zayn?"

Zayn raised dazed eyes to him. "You mean I have the job?"

"That depends on whether you can type that memo without errors in a reasonably short time."

 

Zayn was too stunned by this cool, unemotional offer of a job to be nervous about transcribing his dictation. In a few minutes, he returned from the desk, the freshly printed paper in his hand and walked hesitantly into his office. "Here's the memo, Mr. Styles."

He glanced at it and then at him. "Very efficient. How did Weatherby ever get the idea that you're a feather-brain?"

"It's the impression I gave him," Zayn said obliquely.

"Care to tell me how that happened?"

"No, not really. It was all a… a misunderstanding."

"Very well, we'll leave it at that. Now, is there anything else we need to discuss? Yes, of course there is—your salary."

The salary he named was less than Sophia had offered, but Sophia had promised to make up the difference.

"Well, do you want the job?"

"Yes," Zayn said with a faint smile. "And no. I would like to work for you, because I have the feeling that I could learn a great deal. But I don't want the job if the only reason you're offering it to me is because of… of…"

"Liam Payne?"

Zayn nodded.

"Liam has nothing whatsoever to do with it. I've known him for many years, and we're good friends. Friendship, however, has no place in business matters. Liam has his job and I have mine. I do not presume to tell him how to do his, and I would not appreciate his trying to influence my choice of a secretary."

"Then why did you decide to interview me today, even though I failed my tests?"

His green eyes twinkled. "Oh, that. Well, as a matter of fact, my former secretary, for whom I have the greatest respect, struck sparks off Vernon from the very first. When I heard that a bright young secretarial applicant hadn't hit it off with him yesterday, I thought perhaps you might be another Thomas. You aren't, but I think you and I will work together even better, Zayn."

"Thank you, Mr. Styles. I'll see you two weeks from Monday."

"Call me Harry."

Zayn smiled, accepting his handshake. "In that case, you may call me Zayn."

 

"I thought I had been."

"You have."

His lips twitched. "Good for you—don't let me intimidate you."

Zayn emerged from the building into the dazzling sunlight of a wonderful August day. As he waited for the traffic light to change from red to green, his gaze was irresistibly drawn to the Global Industries Building across the street. Would Liam be there working, he wondered. He longed to see him.

The light changed and he crossed the wide boulevard to his car. But if Liam had wanted to see him again, surely he would have asked for his phone number. Perhaps he was shy. Shy! Zayn shook his head derisively as he reached for the car door handle. Liam Payne was not in the least shy! With his looks and lazy charm, he was probably accustomed to women (or men) who took the initiative and asked him out…

The glass doors of the building swung open, and Zayn's heart soared as Liam himself strode into view. For a joyous moment, Zayn thought he'd seen him standing at his car and had come out to talk to him, but he turned to his right and started toward the far corner of the building.

"Liam!" he called impulsively. "Liam!"

He glanced over his shoulder, and Zayn waved at him, feeling absurdly happy when he headed toward him with those long strides of his.

"Guess where I've been?" he beamed.

There was a warm, teasing light in his brown eyes as they swept over his styled raven hair, his elegant beige suit, his smooth black shirt and shiny black boots. “Modeling for a Burberry fashion show?" he ventured with a grin.

Zayn glowed at the compliment, but he hung on to his composure. "No, I've been across the street at Pay-co, and they offered me a job—thanks to you."

He ignored his reference to his help. "Did you take it?"

"Did I! The money's fantastic; the man I'll be working for is terrific, and the job sounds interesting and challenging."

"You're pleased, then?"

Zayn nodded… then waited, hoping Liam would ask him out. Instead he reached down to open his car door for him. "Liam," he said before his courage could desert him. "I'm in the mood to celebrate. If you know a good place for sandwiches and a cold drink, I'll buy you lunch."

 

He hesitated for an unbearable moment, and then a smile dawned across his tanned features. "That's the best offer I've had all day."

Rather than give him directions, Liam drove the car. A few blocks away he turned off Jefferson and pulled into a parking lot behind what looked like a narrow, renovated three-story brick house. The sign above the back door, made of dark wood with gold letters etched deeply into it, said simply, Tony's. Inside, the house had been converted into a dimly lit, charming restaurant, with dark oaken floors, tables polished to a glossy shine and copper pots and pans hanging artistically on the rough brick walls. Sunlight illuminated the stained glass windows, and red-and-white checked tablecloths added to the warmth and charm.

A waiter stationed near the door greeted Liam with a polite, "Good morning," then showed them to the only unoccupied table in the entire place.

An older waiter appeared at their table, greeted Liam with an affectionate pat on the shoulder, a cheery, "Good to see you again, my friend," and began to hand them huge, leather-bound menus. "We'll have the special, Tony," Liam said, and at Zayn's quizzical look, he added, "The specialty is French-dip sandwiches—is that all right with you?"

Since he had offered to buy his lunch, Zayn thought he was asking his permission to order something that cost more than a regular sandwich. "Please have whatever you like," he insisted graciously. "We're celebrating my new job, and I can afford anything on the menu."

"How do you think you're going to like living in Detroit?" he asked when Tony, who was apparently the owner, had left. "It's bound to be a big change for a small-town boy from Missouri."

A small-town boy? Zayn was puzzled. That wasn't the impression he normally conveyed to people. "Actually, we lived in a suburb of Chicago until my father died, when I was twelve. After that my mother and I moved to Fenster, Missouri—the town where she grew up. She took a job teaching music in the same school she'd attended as a girl. So you see… I'm not completely a 'small-town boy' after all."

Liam's expression didn't change. "Were you an only child?"

"Yes, but my mom remarried when I was thirteen. Along with a stepfather, I also acquired a stepsister two years older than me, and a stepbrother one year older."

He must have caught the note of distaste in his voice when he mentioned his stepbrother because he said, "I thought all little boys liked the idea of having a big brother. Didn't you?"

An irrepressible smile lit Zayn's vivid face. "Oh, I liked the idea of having a big brother. Unfortunately, I didn't like Lenny at the time. We detested each other on sight. He teased me unmercifully; he used me as a punching bag and stole money from my bedroom. I retaliated by telling everyone in town that he was gay—which no one believed because he turned out to be an absolute lecher! And well then I discovered I was the one who turned out to be gay and he took revenge by outing me to anyone who’d listen."

Liam chuckled, and Zayn noticed that when he smiled, his eyes crinkled at the corners. Matching to the warm golden tan of his face, his eyes were a warm chocolate brown. Beneath his straight dark brows and thick spiky lashes, they glinted with humor and keen intelligence, while his firm full lips promised excitingly aggressive male sensuality. Zayn felt the same delicious stirring of arousal that he had experienced the night before and cautiously lowered his gaze to the tanned column of his throat.

"What about your stepsister?" Liam asked. "What was she like?"

"Gorgeous. All she had to do was stroll down the street and the boys positively drooled over her."

"Did she try to steal your boyfriends?" Liam asked jokingly, so he wasn’t affected by his admission just now about his sexuality.

Zayn's eyes kindled with humor as he gazed at him across the narrow table. "I didn't have many boyfriends for her to steal—at least, not until I was seventeen."

One dark brow lifted in disbelief as his gaze moved over the uncommon perfection of his features, over his eyes like shining honey colored stars beneath their heavy fringe of dark curly lashes, to linger on his thick jet black hair. Sunlight streaming through the stained-glass window beside their table bathed his face in a soft glow. "I find that very hard to believe," he said finally.

"I promise you, it's true," Zayn averred, dismissing his compliment with a smile. He remembered with great clarity the homely little boy he had been, and while the memories were not particularly painful, he really couldn't place much importance now on anything as unreliable as surface beauty.

Tony put two plates down on the red-checked tablecloth, each containing a crusty loaf of French bread that had been sliced lengthwise and piled high with wafer-thin rare roast beef. Beside each plate, he placed a little bowl of beef juice. "It's delicious—try it," he urged.

Zayn tasted his and agreed. "It's wonderful," he told him.

"Good," he said, his round, mustachioed face beaming paternally at him. "Then you let Liam pay for it! He has more money than you. Liam's grandfather loaned me the money to start this place," he confided before bustling off to chastise a clumsy busboy.

They ate their meal in companionable silence interspersed with Zayn’s questions about the restaurant and its owner. From what little he could gather from Liam's brief answers, his family and Tony's had been friends for three generations. At one point Liam's father had actually worked for Tony's father, yet somehow the financial situation must have reversed itself for Liam's grandfather later had enough money to lend to Tony.

The moment they were finished Tony appeared at their table to whisk away their plates. The service in the place was much too good, Zayn thought with dismay. They had only been here for thirty-five minutes, and he'd hoped to have at least an hour with Liam.

"Now, how about some dessert," Tony said, his friendly dark eyes on Zayn. "For you I have canoli—or some of my special spumoni. My spumoni is not what you find in stores," he told him proudly. "It is the real thing. It is ice cream of several flavors and colors, arranged in layers. Then into it I put—"

"Bits of fruit and lots of nuts," Zayn finished, smiling warmly at him. "The way my stepfather makes it."

Tony's mouth dropped open, and then he minutely scrutinized his face. After a long moment he nodded decisively. "You are Italian?," he proclaimed with a broad smile.

"Nope…it’s my stepfather…I have a mixture of Irish, British and Pakistani origins," Zayn corrected.

In ten seconds Tony had pried his full name out of him, the name of his stepfather's family and had discovered that he was moving to Detroit where he knew no one. Zayn felt a little guilty for not mentioning Sophia Sinclair, but since Liam knew people at Pay-co he didn't think he should risk mentioning his connection with Sophia in front of him.

He listened to Tony with a glow of happiness. He reminded him of his stepfather with his accent and passion for food.

"You need anything, Zayn, you come to me," Tony told him, patting his shoulder as he had Liam's.

"A handsome young man like you in the big city needs some family he can turn to when he needs help. Here there will always be a meal for you—a good Italian meal and I can customize only for you with some spice," he clarified with a wink.

"Now how about my great spumoni?"

Zayn glanced at Liam and then at Tony's expectant face. "I'd love some spumoni," he announced, ignoring the groaning protest of his full stomach in the interest of prolonging their lunch.

Tony beamed, and Liam winked conspiratorially at him. "Zayn is still a growing boy, Tony."

Zayn's eyes darkened with exasperation and confusion at his words, and for a minute he idly traced a large red check on the tablecloth with his slim finger. "Liam may I ask you a question?" he said quietly.

"Of course."

He folded his arms on the table and regarded him directly. "Why do you talk about me, as if I'm some naive teenager?"

Wry amusement twisted his lips. "I didn't realize I was. But I suppose it's to remind myself that you're young, that you come from a small town in Missouri and that you're probably very naive."

Zayn was irritated by his answer. "I'm a grown man, and the fact that I grew up in a small town doesn't mean a thing!" He paused as Tony served his spumoni, but the moment he turned away he added crossly, "And I don't know what gave you the idea that I'm naive, but I'm not."

The teasing light in Liam's eyes was extinguished as he leaned back in his chair and studied him speculatively. "You're not?"

"No, I'm not."

"In that case," he drawled smoothly, "what are your plans for this weekend?"

Zayn's heart somersaulted with delight but he asked cautiously, "What did you have in mind?"

"A party; some friends of mine are having a party this weekend at their house near Harbor Springs. I was about to leave for their place when we met today. It's approximately a five-hour drive from here, and we'd return on Sunday."

Zayn had planned to drive directly to Fenster that afternoon. On the other hand, it only took a day to drive each way, and he could easily pack all his belongings in less than a week. He had more than two weeks before he was to start his new job, so time was no problem, and he desperately wanted to go with Liam. "Are you certain it won't inconvenience your friends if I come with you?"

"It won't inconvenience them; they were expecting me to bring someone with me."

"In that case," Zayn smiled, "I'd love to go. In fact, my suitcase is already in the trunk of the car."

Liam glanced over his shoulder and nodded at Tony, signaling for their check. The older man brought it over and placed it on the table near Liam, but Zayn deftly covered it with his hand and pulled it toward him. "I am buying lunch," he stated, carefully concealing his shock at the total on the check—rather exorbitant for the amount they had eaten. As he reached for his wallet, however, Liam laid several bills on the table, and he watched helplessly as Tony swept them away.

Tony saw his disappointment and chucked him under the chin as if he were eight years old. "You come back often, Zaynie. For you I will always have an empty table and something good to eat."

"At these prices," Zayn teased him, "I'm surprised all your tables aren't empty."

Tony leaned closer confidingly. "My tables are never empty. In fact, you cannot even reserve one in advance unless your name is on my list. I will have Ricco place your name on our list." He lifted an imperious arm and three young, darkly handsome waiters glanced up, and then came to Zayn's table. "These are my sons," Tony said, proudly introducing them. "Ricco, Dominic and Joe. Ricco, you put Zayn's name on the list."

"No, please don't bother," Zayn interjected quickly.

Tony ignored him. "A nice boy like you needs a family to protect and guide him in a big city like Detroit. You come often to see us—we live on the floors above the restaurant. Ricco, Dominic," Tony ordered them sternly, "When Zayn comes, you keep an eye on him. Joe, you keep an eye on Dominic!"

To Zayn, who had burst out laughing with a tint of red brushing his cheeks, Tony explained, "Joe is married and Ricco is straight."

Repressing his mirth with an effort, Zayn looked at his four appointed "guardians" with happy gratitude shining in his eyes. "Who should I keep my eye on?" he asked teasingly.

In perfect unison, four dark Italian faces turned accusingly to Liam, who was lounging in his chair, observing them all with an amused expression. "Zayn tells me he can take care of himself," he said imperturbably as he pushed his chair back and stood up.

Liam said he had to make a phone call, and while he did so, Zayn walked down the hall to the toilets. When he emerged, he recognized his broad shoulders and tapered back at a phone in the entranceway. His deep voice was lowered, but one word drifted to his ear as clear as a bell: "Niall."

What an odd time for him to be calling another guy, Zayn thought. Or was it? He had said that their hosts were expecting him to bring a friend, and he would have undoubtedly arranged to take someone with him long before today. He was breaking a date!

Liam slid into his car, turned on the ignition, and then frowned at the generator warning light that glowed red on the dashboard. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the generator," Zayn hastily explained. "On the way up here I stopped and had a mechanic check it. He couldn't find anything wrong, so it's possible it's just a short in the warning light itself. The car is only six months old."

"Why don't we take it up north and see how it runs," Liam said after a brief pause. "That way you won't be alone on the highway en route to Missouri if the generator does go out."

"Wonderful," he readily agreed.

"Tell me more about your family and you," he said as they pulled out of the parking lot.

Zayn turned his face to the front, trying not to show his tension. The little web of deceit he'd woven was already growing larger and more entangled. Since Liam knew people at Pay-co, and he'd deliberately omitted mentioning his college degree on his application, he was hesitant about telling him he'd been at college for the last five years.

Staring out the window at the splendid glass Renaissance Center, he sighed. A person who was innately honest, he'd already lied to him about his age, because he wouldn't really be twenty-three for another three months. And he'd told Tony in front of him that he had no friends or relatives in Detroit. Now he was going to carefully "forget" the last five years of his life.

"Was that a tough question?" Liam joked.

His smile did crazy things to his heartbeat. He wanted to lift his hand and lay it against his hard jaw and to trace the line of those sensual lips. His shirt collar was open at the throat, and he wanted to touch the dark hairs that curled crisply just above the deep V of the third button. Even the scent of his spicy cologne was teasing his senses, inviting him closer.

"There isn't much more to tell you. My stepbrother, Lenny, is twenty-four now, and he's married and starting his own family. My stepsister, Melissa, is twenty-five, and she got married in April. Her husband is a mechanic who works for the Pontiac dealer where I bought this car."

"What about your mother and stepfather?"

"My mother is a music teacher. She's brilliant and wise. My stepfather is a chef; he’s very nice and completely devoted to her."

"If your mother's a teacher, I'm amazed that she didn't urge you to go on to college, rather than letting you work as a secretary."

"She did," Zayn replied obliquely, vastly relieved when Liam was obliged to direct his attention to the intricacies of changing lanes and negotiating the wide curve that brought them down the entrance ramp onto Interstate 75. The expressway took them through the inner city before the scenery changed from urban factories and housing to small suburban homes, followed by a huge shopping center and far more opulent suburbs.

"What about your extra clothes?" Zayn asked suddenly. "Won't you need to pack a suitcase?"

"No. I keep some clothes at another house in Harbor Springs."

The breeze through the open car window lightly teased his thick, coffee-brown hair. Although it was cut and styled to lie flat at the sides, it was just long enough at the nape to brush his shirt collar—just long enough, Zayn reflected wistfully, for fingers to slide through it… his fingers. Tearing his eyes from his profile, he pulled his sunglasses down onto his nose and turned his head to gaze at the passing scenery on the interstate, only dimly aware when the endless suburbs gave way to long stretches of open countryside.

Liam positively radiated bold sexual expertise and confident virility. Even now he was disturbingly aware of the length of his hard, muscled thigh only inches away from his and the way his powerful shoulders seemed to dwarf his. Everything about the way he looked, and the way he looked at him, warned him that he could be very dangerous to his peace of mind.

Dangerous? Agreeing to go away for the weekend with him had been completely out of character for him—as out of character and unexplainable as this deep compelling attraction he felt for him. It was also a rash, reckless thing to do, he admitted to himself. But was it dangerous? What if Liam was a demented killer who intended to murder him, mutilate his body and bury it in the woods? If he did, no one would ever know what had happened to him, because no one knew he was with him—except Tony and his sons, and Liam could simply tell them he'd gone back to Missouri. They'd believe him. Literally and figuratively, Liam could get away with murder.

Zayn stole a swift, apprehensive glance at his chiseled profile, and his features relaxed into a faint smile. His instincts about people had never let him down before, and he knew instinctively that he was not in any physical danger.

The next three hours passed in a delightful blur. The car ate up the miles, sending a balmy breeze to touch their faces and ruffle their hair, and they talked companionably about everything and nothing.

Liam, Zayn noticed, was extremely evasive when it came to actually talking about himself, but positively insatiable when it came to probing into his background. All he learned about him was that his mother had died when he was four, and that his grandparents, who had raised him, had both died a few years ago.

In the town of Grayling, which Liam said was about an hour and a half's drive from their destination of Harbor Springs, he stopped at a little grocery store. When he came out, Zayn saw that he was carrying two cans of Coke and a package of cigarettes. A few miles down the road, he pulled over at a roadside picnic table, and they both got out.

"Isn't it a gorgeous day?" Zayn tipped his head back to gaze in delight at the lacy white clouds drifting across the brilliant blue sky. He glanced at Liam and found him observing him with an indulgent expression.

Ignoring his blasé attitude he said, "At home the sky never seems to be this blue, and it's much hotter. I suppose because Missouri is so far south of here."

Liam opened both cans of Coke and handed one to him. He leaned his hip casually on the picnic table behind him, and Zayn tried to pick up their conversation where it had been interrupted a few minutes ago. "You said your mother died when you were four, and your grandparents raised you—what happened to your father?"

"Nothing happened to him," he replied. Putting a cigarette between his lips, his thumb rolled the lighter, cupping his hands around the flame to protect it from the breeze.

Zayn stared at the vital thickness of his dark brown hair as he bent his head to the lighter, then he quickly lifted his amber eyes to his. "Liam, why are you so uncommunicative about yourself?"

"Uncommunicative? I've been talking my head off for a hundred miles."

"But not about anything really personal. What happened to your father?"

He laughed. "Has anyone ever told you that you have incredibly beautiful eyes?"

"Yes, and you're prevaricating!" Zayn said as he pried the cigarette from Liam’s finger and took a drag himself.

"And that you're extremely well-spoken, too?" he continued, ignoring his remark.

"Which isn't surprising because my real father was an English teacher, as you've already discovered." Zayn sighed, exasperated by his deliberate evasiveness, giving him back his cigarette.

Liam glanced up at the sky, his gaze drifting over the trees and the deserted highway, before he finally looked at Zayn again. "I didn't realize how tense I was until three hours ago, when I finally started to relax. I needed to get away like this." he said calmly.

"Have you been working very hard?" Zayn asked curiously.

"About seventy hours a week for the past two months."

His expressive eyes filled with sympathy, and Liam smiled at him—one of those warm, engaging smiles that quickened his heartbeat. "Did you know that you're very relaxing company?" he asked softly.

He was not particularly pleased to hear that while he found him electrifying, Liam found him relaxing. "Thank you—I'll try not to put you to sleep before we get to Harbor Springs." He said sardonically.

"You can put me to sleep after we get there," he said suggestively.

Zayn's heart slammed into his rib cage. "What I meant was… I hope I'm not boring you."

"Believe me, you haven't bored me." His voice deepened with sensuality. "As a matter of fact, there's something I've wanted to do ever since last night, when I turned around with your glass of tonic in my hand and saw you standing there, trying very hard not to laugh at my shock."

Even in his state of heightened nervousness, Zayn knew he intended to kiss him. Liam took his Coke from his limp fingers and calmly put it on the picnic table beside him, and then he reached out and drew him purposefully between his legs. His hip brushed the inside of his hard thigh, sending shock waves of alarmed awareness through his entire nervous system. His hands slid up his arms to gently imprison his shoulders. In helpless anticipation he watched his firm, sensual lips slowly descend to his.

Liam’s mouth covered his, moving and probing in a kiss that was lazily coaxing, yet breathtakingly insistent. Zayn tried desperately to hold on to his fleeing sanity, but the moment his tongue slid against his lips he lost the battle.

With a smothered moan, he leaned into him and let Liam part his lips. His response was instantaneous. His arms tightened around him, imprisoning him against his chest, while his mouth opened hungrily, his tongue plunging into his mouth and stroking against his. Something exploded inside Zayn; his body arched against him, and his hands lifted compulsively to caress his neck and slide through the soft hair at his nape as he eagerly responded to his hungry mouth.

By the time Liam finally lifted his head, Zayn felt branded by that kiss, permanently marked as his possession. Trembling with arousal, he leaned his forehead against his shoulder. Liam’s warm lips drifted across his jaw to his temple, trailing downward until his teeth playfully nipped his earlobe. He chuckled huskily against his ear, "I think I owe you an apology, Zayn."

He leaned back in his arms and looked up at him. The warm brown eyes gazing back at him were heavy-lidded and smoldering with passion, and although he was smiling, it was a wry smile of self-mockery.

"Why do you owe me an apology?" Zayn asked breathless.

Liam’s hand slid up and down his back in a lazy caress. "Because despite your assurance that you aren't naive, until a few minutes ago I was worried that this weekend might be more than you could handle—and more than you bargained for."

Still dazed from their kiss, Zayn asked hesitantly, "And now what do you think?"

"I think," he murmured dryly, "that this weekend might turn out to be more than I bargained for." He gazed into his glowing amber eyes, and his own eyes darkened with response. "I also think that if you continue to look at me like that, we're going to be about two hours late getting to Harbor Springs."

His glance flicked meaningfully to the motel across the highway but before Zayn even considered panicking; Liam reached up and firmly pulled his sunglasses down onto his nose. "Those eyes of yours are going to be my undoing," he said with grim humor.

Then he took his hand and led him toward the car.

Zayn collapsed into his seat, feeling as if he had just been through a cyclone. The car engine roared to life, and he forced himself to relax and think logically. He had two immediate problems facing him: the first was that it was now obvious Liam intended to take him to bed this weekend. In his mind it was already a forgone conclusion. Of course, he could simply say no when the time came, but the second problem was that he wasn't at all certain he wanted to say no. Never before had he been so attracted to anyone before, or so affected by a kiss. Never before had he so wanted someone to ravish him with passionate sex.

He looked at Liam's strong, capable hands on the steering wheel, and then lifted his eyes to his ruggedly handsome profile. He was so attractive, so blatantly virile, that women and men probably took one look at him and eagerly went to bed with him without ever expecting any emotional commitment from him. Surely he himself wouldn't be such an easy conquest. Or would he?

A rueful smile touched Zayn's lips as he turned his head toward the window. Everyone always said he was so intelligent, so sensible, yet here he was, already planning to make Liam Payne fall in love with him… because he knew he was already stupidly falling in love with him.

"Zayn, this trip is getting a little lonely on my side of the car. What are you thinking about?"

Filled with thoughts of their destiny, Zayn turned to him and, smiling, slowly shook his head. "If I told you, it would scare you to death." He said playfully.

Chapter Text

Zayn's gaze strayed admiringly over the panorama of Lake Michigan's sparkling blue waves crashing with white foam on the sandy beach. "We'll be there in a few minutes," Liam told him as he turned off the highway onto a well-maintained country road that wound through towering stands of pine trees. Several minutes later he turned left onto an unmarked blacktop driveway. For at least a mile the smooth private drive wandered gracefully between stately mountain-ash trees, their branches laden with magnificent hanging clusters of bright orange fruit.

Zayn looked at the manicured landscape on both sides of the drive and realized that the ordinary lake cottage he'd originally envisioned when Liam invited him here for the weekend was not going to be what he would find. Nothing prepared him, however, for the sight that greeted him when they shot out of the dappled shadows into the golden glow of the setting sun and pulled to a stop behind a long row of expensive parked cars.

In the distance, against the backdrop of a steep bluff, sprawled an immense, modernistic three-story glass-and-stucco house. Acres of lush green lawns, dotted with colorful umbrella tables, sloped gently to a sandy beach. Waiters in light blue jackets were passing trays among what had to be at least a hundred guests, who were lounging on chaises around a gigantic kidney-shaped swimming pool, talking and laughing in animated groups on the lawn, or strolling on the beach.

Liam got out of the car and came around to open his door. With his hand at his elbow, Zayn had no choice but to walk beside him along the winding row of racy foreign sports cars and luxurious sedans toward the throngs of guests.

At the edge of the lawn he stopped and surveyed the people with whom he was about to mingle. Besides several famous movie stars, there were other vaguely familiar faces—faces he'd seen repeatedly in magazine articles about the international jet set and the fabulously rich.

He glanced at Liam, who was slowly scanning the crowd. He looked neither impressed nor intimidated by this glittering assembly of the beautiful and the rich; in fact, he looked irritated. When he spoke, his voice was tinged with the same annoyance he saw in his expression. "I'm sorry, Zayn. If I'd known Tracy's 'little gathering' was going to be like this, I'd never have brought you here. It's going to be noisy, crowded and frenetic."

Although he felt rather ill at ease surrounded by such famous people, he managed an air of nonchalance and gave him a jaunty smile. "Maybe, if we're lucky, no one will realize we're here."

"Don't count on it," he warned dryly. They strolled along the perimeter of the lawn, which was bordered by dense woods. When they came to a bar that had been set up for the use of the guests, Liam stepped behind it. Rather than staring at him like a besotted idiot while he made their drinks, Zayn forced himself to turn and observe his surroundings. As his gaze moved over to a chattering group nearby, a gorgeous brunet tall man glanced up and saw Liam.

 

With a smile dawning across his familiar features, the man left his friends and hurried toward Liam and Zayn. "Liam, darling!" he said, laughing, his slim hands already sliding up his arms as he leaned forward to kiss him.

Liam put the liquor bottle down and obligingly curved both his arms around him, drawing him to him to return the kiss.

Even after he released him, Zayn noted that the brunet kept his hands on Liam’s arms while smiling warmly into his brown eyes. "Everyone has been wondering if you were going to disappoint us and not come," he said. "But I knew you'd be here because the phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from your office. The servants and everyone else have been taking messages for you all afternoon. And who's this?" he asked brightly, at last taking his hands from his arms and stepping back to regard Zayn with open curiosity.

"Zayn, this is Nick Grimshaw," Liam began the introductions.

"Call me Grimmy—everyone does." The man turned back to Liam and continued, almost as if Zayn wasn't there, "I thought you were bringing Niall."

"Really?" Liam mocked lightly. "And I thought you were in Rome with Alex."

"We were," Grimmy admitted, "but we wanted to see you."

When he left a few moments later, Nick started to explain, "Grimmy is—"

"I already know who he is," Zayn admitted softly, trying not to sound awed. Nick was an internationally famous radio host, and he was known also for his gossip columns in international magazines, he was married to a fabulously rich French industrialist. "I've seen his pictures in magazines and newspapers dozens of times."

Liam handed Zayn the drink he had mixed for him, picked up his own and inclined his head toward the couple who were striding quickly toward them, arm in arm. "Do you recognize either of those two?"

"No," Zayn admitted. "They don't look even slightly familiar."

Liam smiled at him. "In that case, I'll introduce you. They happen to be our host and hostess, as well as very good friends of mine."

Bracing himself for the inevitable round of introductions, Zayn studied the beautiful brunette in her thirties and the rather heavyset man beside her, who was close to sixty.

"Liam!" The woman laughed delightedly, flinging herself into Nick's arms in utter disregard of the drink he was holding and kissing him with the same intimate, enthusiastic familiarity that Nick had. "We haven't seen you for months!" she scolded as she stepped back. "What on earth have you been doing?"

"Some of us still work for a living," Liam told her with an affectionate smile. Reaching out, he caught Zayn's arm, drawing him into the circle of friends. "Zayn, I'd like you to meet our hosts, Tracy and George Middleton."

"Zayn, I'm so happy to meet you," Tracy said then she demanded of Liam, "Why are you two standing way over here by yourselves? No one will even realize you're here."

"Which is precisely why I'm standing over here," Liam told her bluntly.

Tracy's breath came out in a rueful laugh. "I know I promised you this was going to be a small gathering. I swear we had no idea that nearly everyone we invited was actually going to come. You can't imagine the problem it's created up at the house."

She glanced at the purpling sky and then over her shoulder. Following her gaze, Zayn saw that nearly all the guests had begun to stroll toward the house or down to the pier, where motor launches were waiting to take them out to their yachts. Waiters had started to set up tables under a huge striped canopy, and torches were being lit around the pool. Musicians were moving their instruments onto a large portable stage that had been erected at the far end of the pool.

"Everyone is already dressing for dinner," Tracy stated. "Are you two going over to the Cove to change, or were you planning to change here?"

Zayn's mind reeled. Dressing for dinner? He had absolutely nothing that was even remotely suitable to wear if they were going to dress formally for dinner!

Ignoring Zayn's urgent grip on his forearm, Liam said, "Zayn will change here. I'll go over to the Cove, return whatever phone calls can't wait and change there."

Tracy smiled at Zayn. "The house is bursting at the seams; you and I can use our room, and George will find somewhere else to change. Shall we go?" she invited, already starting to turn away.

Liam glanced at Zayn's expression with a wry gleam of understanding. "I think there's something Zayn wants to discuss with me. You go ahead, and he'll join you."

As soon as the couple strolled out of hearing distance, Zayn said desperately, "Liam, I don't have anything suitable to wear. Surely you don't, either?"

"I have things over at the Cove, and I'll find a suit for you there too," he assured him calmly. "I'll send it over, and it will be in Tracy's room by the time you're ready to put it on."

Inside, the house was a cacophony of voices and bustling activity. Laughter and conversation drifted from twenty different rooms on three different floors, while servants hurried in every direction carrying freshly pressed clothing draped over their arms and trays of drinks in their hands.

Liam stopped one of the servants and asked for his office phone messages. In an instant they were in his hand, and he turned to Zayn with a warm smile. "I'll meet you outside by the pool in about an hour. Can you manage without me for that long?"

"I'll be fine," Zayn assured him. "Take your time."

"Are you certain?"

With his compelling brown eyes searching his, Zayn wasn't certain of his own name, but he nodded anyway. When he left, he turned to find Nick watching him with open curiosity. Quickly wiping the dreamy expression from his face, Zayn said, "Is there a phone I can use somewhere? I'd like to call home." He had low battery on his cellphone…and well the reception here was not really good anyway.

"Of course. Where's home?" Nick inquired casually.

"Fenster, Missouri," Zayn told him, following him into a luxurious study near the back of the house.

"Fenster?" Nick sniffed, as if there was an offensive odor associated with the name of the town. Then he left, closing the door behind him.

The long-distance collect call to his mother didn't take long because they were both acutely aware of the expense involved. But his mother laughed with pride and astonishment when he heard about his new job and salary, and he was relieved when he told her that Sophia Sinclair had insisted he live in her aunt's condominium, rent free. He didn't mention his bargain with Sophia because he didn't want to cause his mom any anxiety. All he wanted her to know was that their financial burden was now eased.

After hanging up Zayn crossed the study and partially opened the door, pausing at the sound of a cheery female voice raised in greeting at the end of the hall. "Nick, darling, you look marvelous; it's been ages since I've seen you. Did you know Liam Payne is supposed to be here this weekend?"

"He's here," Nick answered. "I've already spoken to him."

"Thank heavens he came!" The other woman laughed. "Carlton dragged me here from a divine beach in Bermuda because he wants to talk to Liam about some business deal."

"Carlton will have to wait his turn," Nick replied indifferently. "Liam is the reason Alex and I are here too. Alex wants to talk to him about building a chain of international hotels. He's been trying to call Liam from Rome for two weeks, but Liam hadn't returned the calls, so we flew here yesterday."

"I didn't see Niall out there," the other woman said.

"You didn't see him because Liam didn't bring him—but just wait until you see what he brought instead." The derisive laughter in Nick's cultured voice made Zayn stiffen, even before he added, "You won't believe it! He's about eighteen years old and straight off a farm in Missouri. Before Liam could leave him alone for an hour, he had to ask him if he would be all right by himself…" The voices faded as the two people moved away.

Nick's verbal attack stunned and irritated Zayn, but he calmly pulled open the door and stepped out into the hall.

Seated at Tracy's dressing table an hour later, Zayn brushed his hair and styled it in his usual perfect hairdo. He put on his father’s watch, it had more of a sentimental value for him, but it was an old expensive watch.

By now Liam was surely down at the pool waiting for him. The thought brought a glow of sheer happiness to his amber eyes as he leaned closer to the mirror and carefully put on his small silver loop earrings.

When he finished, he stepped back to study the effect of the elegant Armani suit that had arrived from Liam while he was taking a bath. He had never had the fortune to wear such a luxurious suit…a suit that probably costs more than a year worth of his salary.

"Perfect!" Tracy grinned. "Turn around so I can see."

Zayn obediently complied.

"You certainly look as if you just got out of an Armani commercial.” his hostess complimented. "Well, shall we go down?"

As the two of them walked along the balcony, Zayn could hear the sounds of the poolside revelry below floating in through the open windows. Dozens of laughing voices blended together, and then mingled chaotically with upbeat orchestra music.

Five seconds after they walked outdoors onto the patio, Tracy was surrounded and whisked away by a group of her friends, leaving Zayn standing alone. He craned his neck, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of Liam. He took two steps forward and immediately saw him standing amid a large group of people at the far end of the pool.

Keeping his eyes on his tall form, Zayn carefully proceeded his way around the obstacles of guests, waiters, torches, umbrella tables and pool. When he was closer, he could see that Liam was standing with people who were speaking animatedly to him. With his head tipped toward them, he appeared to be listening with rapt attention, yet periodically his gaze would flicker up and slide over the crowd, as if he was looking for someone.

He was looking for him, Zayn realized with an inner glow. As if he sensed his nearness, he lifted his head sharply, and his eyes met his across the knots of humanity. With an abruptness that bordered on discourtesy, he nodded to the people who were talking to him and without a word simply strolled out of their midst.

 

When the last group on the patio parted to let him through, Zayn had his first full-length view of him, and his breath caught. His raven black tuxedo fit his tall, splendid frame as if it had been made specifically for him by the finest tailor. The dazzling whiteness of his frilled shirt contrasted beautifully with his bronzed face and formal black bow tie, and he wore the elegant attire with the easy assurance of a man who was thoroughly accustomed to it. Zayn felt absurdly proud of him, and he made no attempt to hide it when he finally stood in front of him.

"Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are?" Zayn asked softly.

A slow boyish smile spread across his features. "What would you think if I told you no?"

Zany laughed. "I'd think you were trying to appear modest."

"Then what am I supposed to do now?" he teased.

"I suppose you should try to look a little flustered and embarrassed by the flattery."

"I don't fluster or embarrass very easily." Liam said in a matter of fact way.

"In that case, you could try to fluster me by telling me how I look," he hinted broadly. He turned slowly so that he wouldn't draw the attention of the other guests, showing him his fitted suit. As he completed his turn and then waited while Liam's gaze moved over his glowing face, his luminous honey eyes and softly full lips and then swept downward on where his suit pants hugged his thighs perfectly.

"Well?" he teased in turn. "What do you think?"

The brown eyes that finally lifted to his were flaming darkly, but instead of answering, he flicked his burning gaze down his length again. He hesitated, and then said abruptly, "I think that the suit fits you perfectly."

Zayn burst out laughing. "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you have a way with flattery, because you don't."

"Is that right?" he mocked, his eyes challenging. "In that case, I'll tell you exactly what I think: I think that you're exquisitely lovely, and that you have the fascinating ability to look like an extremely sexy, sophisticated young model and an utterly angelic young boy at one and the same time. And I wish to hell that we weren't trapped here with a hundred other people for the next few hours, because whenever I look at you I become… uncomfortably eager… to find out how you're going to feel in my arms tonight."

Zayn's olive skin flared with slight rosy blush. He wasn't that angelic, and he understood what he meant by the phrase "uncomfortably eager." His gaze slid away from his mocking brown eyes, and he looked at the guests, at the yachts lit up like brilliant white Christmas trees—at anything except Liam's tall, hard body. Why had he been so blunt? Maybe he suspected that he'd never slept with anyone before, and he was deliberately trying to panic him into admitting it. Would it even matter to him that he was a virgin? Of course he was not that inexperienced, he made out and messed around with his boyfriends of the past, but he never went as far as having full sexual intercourse. He never felt this intrigue, and blind trusting in someone before.

Judging by his frank attitude toward sex; there probably wasn't anything he hadn't done or didn't know. Where sex was the subject concerned, he doubted if there was a single fiber of innocence left in Liam's entire aggressively virile body. Even so, Zayn had the feeling that he wouldn't want to seduce and fuck a virgin. Of course, this particular virgin wanted very much to be "seduced" by him, but not quite so soon, and not with so little effort on his part, either. He should make him wait until he genuinely cared for him. He should, but he wasn't certain he was going to do it.

Firmly, taking his chin between his thumb and forefinger, Liam turned his face up to his, forcing him to look into his teasing brown eyes. "If I'm so beautiful, why won't you look at me?"

"That was a silly thing for me to tell you," Zayn apologized with quiet dignity, "and…"

"It was definitely a gross exaggeration—" he smiled, taking his hand away from his chin "—but I liked it. And, in case you're interested," he added, his voice turning husky, "no one has ever told me that before." He glanced up as someone called his name, then pretended he hadn't heard. Putting his hand beneath his elbow he steered him toward the striped tent on the lawn, where waiters were serving hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. "Let's get something for you to eat and drink."

In the ensuing five minutes, six other people called his name. The next time it happened he said irritably, "As much as I'd like to spend the evening alone with you, we're going to have to socialize. I can't keep pretending I'm blind and deaf much longer."

"I understand," Zayn said sympathetically. "They're very rich and very spoiled, and because you work for them they think they own you."

His dark brows drew together in surprise. "What makes you think I work for them?"

"I accidentally overheard Nick tell someone that his husband came here from Rome because he wants to talk to you about building international hotels. And the other woman said that her husband, whose name is Carlton, is here to talk to you about some kind of business too."

Liam threw an annoyed look over the entire crowd, as if each person there constituted a personal threat to his peace. "I came up here because I've been working myself into the ground for two months, and I wanted to relax for a weekend," he said angrily.

"If you really don't want to talk to anyone about business, there's no reason why you have to do it."

"When people have come thousands of miles to talk to you, they can be damned persistent," he responded, glancing at the other guests again. "And unless I miss my guess, there are at least four other men who have come here to do exactly that."

 

"Just leave them to me," Zayn said with a bewitching smile. "I'll hold them off."

"You will?" He grinned. "And just how will you do that?"

Beneath their luxuriant black lashes, Zayn's amber eyes were twinkling. "The moment anyone starts talking to you about business, I'll interrupt and pretend to distract you."

Liam's gaze dropped to his soft pink lips. "That shouldn't be difficult—you always distract me."

And for the next three hours, Zayn did precisely as he'd promised. With a tactical brilliance that would have done credit to Napoleon Bonaparte, he smoothly extricated Liam from at least a dozen business conversations. The moment the discussion began to get too deeply involved, he interrupted to sweetly remind him that he had promised to get him a drink, take him for a walk, and show him the grounds or whatever ploy occurred to him at the moment.

Liam let him do it, observing his highly effective tactics with a mixture of frank admiration and veiled amusement. With his drink in his left hand and his right arm around his waist, he kept him by his side, shamelessly using him as a voluntary shield. But as the evening progressed and the liquor flowed, conversations became louder, the laughter more hilarious, the jokes more bawdy. And the men who wanted to detain Liam became more persistent.

"Do you really need to walk out a cramp in your leg?" Liam asked in a teasing whisper as they strolled away from a florid-faced yachtsman who wanted Liam to tell him everything he knew about some oil company in Oklahoma.

Zayn was sipping his third glass of a delicious after-dinner drink that had the taste and consistency of chocolate malt, but that he was beginning to realize was far more potent than he had imagined. "Of course not—my legs are perfect," he announced gaily, turning to watch six exuberant people playing doubles tennis on a single court. One of the women, a French movie star, had removed her skirt and was clad in a sequined top, lacy black underpants that peeked from under the edge of it and high heels.

Liam took Zayn's empty glass from his hand and put it down on an umbrella table beside his. "Shall we walk down to the beach?"

A party was in progress on one of the brightly lit yachts. They stood together on the beach, listening to the music and laughter, watching the shaft of moonlight streaming across the lake. "Dance with me," Liam said, and Zayn walked obediently into his arms, loving the feel of them sliding around him.

Laying his cheek against the smooth fabric of his black jacket, he moved with him in time to the orchestra's love song, vibrantly aware of his legs shifting intimately between his.

Since he'd gotten up that morning he'd been through a session with Mr. Weatherby, an interview with Harry Styles, lunch with Liam, a long drive and now this party where he had drunk more than he ever had before in his life. In one day he'd experienced tension, excitement, hope and passion, and now he was spending the weekend with the man of his dreams. The emotional merry-go-round he'd been on had taken its full toll; he felt exhausted and more than a little lightheaded.

His thoughts floated to the French movie star, and he laughed softly. "If I was in that woman’s place playing tennis, I'd have left my skirt on, and taken my shoes off. And do you know why?"

"So that you could play better?" Liam murmured distractedly, nuzzling aside the silken hair of his fringe that fell over his forehead.

"Nope, I don't even know how to play tennis." Abruptly lifting his face to his, Zayn breezily confided, "The reason I'd keep the skirt on is because I'm modest. Or am I inhibited? Well, anyway, I'm one of the two." he laid his cheek against the solid muscles of his chest again. Liam chuckled against his hair, and his hand splayed low against his spine, pressing him closer to his body.

"Actually," he continued dreamily, "I'm not modest or inhibited. What I am is the confused product of a semi puritanical upbringing and a liberal education. Which means that I think it's wrong for me to do anything, but I think it's perfectly all right for other people to do whatever they want. Does that make sense?"

Liam ignored his question and asked one of his own instead. "Zayn, by any wild chance are you getting drunk?"

"I'm not certain."

"Don't," he commanded.

Although quietly spoken, it was an order, and he meant it to be obeyed. Intending to protest his authoritative attitude, Zayn snapped his head up, but his lips instantly captured his attention.

"Don't even consider it," he muttered harshly. Then his mouth opened over his in a shattering kiss that sent him spiraling off into darkness where nothing existed except the sensual male lips locked fiercely, demandingly, to his. His hand ruffled into the soft hair on his nape, and his tongue plunged into his mouth, stroking and caressing his, retreating to plunge again, until Zayn instinctively gave him what he wanted. His lips softened and began to move with his, stimulating the desire already flaming between them. Against him, Zayn felt the bold evidence of his rising passion, and shudders of pleasure raced through him as he got aroused as well. His kiss did crazy things to his body, demolishing his control. Mindlessly he arched himself upward in a fevered need to please him more, and Liam’s arm tightened across his hips, hands going further back to cup his ass, pulling their crotches even closer…

He dragged his mouth roughly across his cheek, and even his whisper was hoarse with desire. "Baby, you don't kiss like any puritan," he said, and pressed his lips to his again.

 

Slowly the pressure of his mouth gentled and then was gone. Slightly trembling with excitement and fear, Zayn weakly leaned his forehead against his shoulder. He was sinking into this abyss of desire too fast, and too deeply, to get free. His next words confirmed it. "Let's go to the Cove."

"Liam, I…"

His hands slid up his arms to his shoulders then tightened, moving him an inch away. "Look at me," he said gently.

Zayn raised his dazed darkened honey eyes to his dark brown gaze.

"I want you, Zayn."

The quiet, straightforward statement sent fire racing through his entire body. "I know," he whispered unsteadily. "And I'm glad you do."

Liam’s eyes smiled his warm approval of his candor, and he laid his hand against his cheek, moving it caressingly over his temple to the hair to the back of his head. "And… ?" he prompted.

Zayn swallowed, unable to tear his gaze from his or to lie to him. "And I want you," he admitted unsteadily.

His fingers slid into his thick hair, pulling his head nearer to his descending mouth. "In that case," he murmured thickly, "why are we standing out here?"

"Hey, Liam!" A friendly voice boomed out from a few feet away. "Is that you?"

Zayn jerked away as if he'd been caught in some unspeakable act then almost burst out laughing when Liam pulled him back and said smoothly, "Payne left hours ago."

"No, did he? Wonder why?" the man asked, stepping closer and peering suspiciously through the darkness at them.

"He obviously had something better to do," Liam drawled.

"So I see," the man agreed good-naturedly. Having now identified his prey, he showed absolutely no inclination to take the rude hint and go away. Wearing a sociable smile on his jowly face, he sauntered out of the shadows, a stout, swarthy man who instantly reminded Zayn of a teddy bear. His tuxedo jacket was hanging open, his frilled evening shirt was unbuttoned at the collar and his formal bow tie was dangling loosely around his neck. He looked… lovable, Zayn decided, as Liam introduced the man as Dave Numbers.

"How do you do, Mr. Numbers," he said politely.

"I'm doing pretty well, young lad," he replied with an affable grin. Turning to Liam he said, "There's a hell of a blackjack game going on aboard Middleton's yacht. Nick Grimshaw just dropped $100,000. Tracy Middleton is shooting craps at $10,000 a throw, and George was dealt four of a kind in two different hands. The odds against that happening once are 4,000 to one. The odds against that happening twice must be roughly…"

Keeping a courteous smile on his face, Zayn rested his head against Liam's shoulder, moving closer to him for warmth, while he pretended to listen to Dave Numbers summing up the results of the gambling in progress. He was not only cold, he was getting sleepy, and Liam's hand moving up and down his back in a lazy caress was having an almost hypnotic effect on him. He stifled a yawn, and then another one, and a few minutes later his eyelids drooped closed.

"I'm putting your young lad to sleep, Liam," Numbers apologized in the middle of quoting the odds on a forthcoming football game.

Zayn straightened self-consciously and tried to put a bright smile on his sleepy face, which Liam observed with a gleam of humor. "I think," He said, "that Zayn is ready for bed."

The older man glanced at him then winked at Liam. "Lucky you." With a brief wave, he turned and strolled off toward the house.

Wrapping his arms around him, Liam cuddled him tightly to his muscular chest and buried his face in his fragrant hair. "Am I, Zayn?"

Zayn snuggled closer into the warmth of his arms. "Are you what?" he murmured.

"Going to be lucky tonight?"

"No," Zayn sleepily replied.

"I thought not," he chuckled against his hair. Leaning back he looked down at his tired face and wryly shook his head. "Come on—you're already half asleep." He put his arm around his shoulders and started walking him back to the house.

"I like Mr. Numbers," he commented.

Liam's sidelong look was filled with amusement. "Actually, his name happens to be Mason. Numbers is a nickname."

"He's a mathematical wizard," Zayn remarked admiringly. "And he's very nice. He's friendly, and he's—"

"A bookie," Liam provided.

"He's a what?" Zayn almost stumbled in his surprise.

Despite the lateness of the hour, the house was lit up and the party was at a fever pitch. "Don't these people ever sleep?" Zayn asked when Liam opened the front door, and the noisy laughter exploded around them.

"Not if they can help it," he answered, casually surveying the scene. He asked a servant which room Zayn had been given, then led him up the staircase. "I'm going to stay at the Cove tonight. We'll spend the day there tomorrow—alone." He opened the door to Zayn's room and added, "The keys to your car are with the butler. All you have to do is turn north out of the driveway and come two miles to the first road on the left. The Cove is at the end of that road, and it's the only house there—you can't miss it. I'll expect you at eleven."

His arrogant assumption that he would be perfectly willing to come to the Cove—and do anything else he wanted—filled Zayn with exasperated amusement. "Shouldn't you ask if I want to be alone with you there?"

He chucked him under the chin. "You do." Grinning at him as if he were an entertaining nine-year-old, he mocked lightly, "If you don't, you can always turn south out of the driveway and head for Missouri." Curving his arms around him he claimed his lips in a long, smoldering kiss. "I'll see you at eleven."

Annoyed, Zayn contradicted flippantly, "Unless I decide to leave for Missouri."

When Liam left, he sank down onto the bed, an unwilling smile forming on his lips. How could any one man be so outrageously self-confident, so arrogant—and so utterly wonderful? He had been too busy with school, his job and his music to ever become deeply involved with men in this way, but he was now old enough. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted Liam. He was everything he wanted in his boyfriend—strong, gentle, intelligent, and wise—and he had a sense of humor. He was handsome and sexy…

Picking up his pillow, Zayn happily wrapped his arms around it and hugged it to his middle, rubbing his cheek against the white material as if it was his shirt. Liam was playing a game with desire, but he wanted to make him care for him too—he wanted to win him. If he was going to make him care for him, if he was ever going to be special to him, he had to be different from the other men or women he'd known.

Zayn flopped down on his back and gazed at the ceiling. He was entirely too sure of him, he decided. For example, he was perfectly confident that he would come to the Cove. A good dose of uncertainty might throw him off balance and help his cause. Therefore, he would be just late enough to make him think he wasn't coming. Eleven-thirty would be perfect—by then he would have decided he wasn't coming, but he wouldn't have left yet to go anywhere else. With the pillow still wrapped in his arms and the smile still on his lips, Zayn fell asleep.

Chapter Text

In accordance with his plan to arrive at the Cove a bit late, Zayn asked the butler for the keys to his car and walked out onto the drive at eleven-twenty, only to find that there were at least six cars blocking his way out.

By the time the owners had been identified, the keys found and the cars moved, it was eleven forty-five, and Zayn was a little frantic. His hands clenched the steering wheel as he swung his car out onto the main road. What if he had decided not to wait?

Exactly two miles from the Middletons' he saw a blacktop driveway on the left with a small wooden sign that read The Cove, and he turned in to it, racing up the steep winding incline, sending startled rabbits and squirrels into the dense forest as he drove by.

An L-shaped house loomed into view at the end of the driveway, a spectacular structure of glass and rough-sawn cedar that looked as if it belonged on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Zayn braked the car to a jarring stop beside the house, grabbed his side bag and hurried up the wide flagstone walk to the front door.

He rang the bell and waited then he rang it again and waited even longer. But when he pressed it the third time, he already knew that no one was going to answer. No one was there.

Turning, Zayn gazed despondently at the small manicured lawn. There was no point in going around to the back because the house was perched on the very edge of a bluff, with nothing behind it but a sheer drop of a hundred feet down to the water and a cedar deck that was breathtakingly suspended in midair.

Liam hadn't been willing to wait very long for him, he thought bitterly. When he didn't arrive on time he must have thought that he'd left for Missouri. He didn't have a car of his own, so he must have gone off somewhere with the owner of this magnificent home.

He started walking back down the path, feeling very stupid and very much like crying. He couldn't just sit down on the doorstep and hope Liam eventually came back there to sleep that night, and he couldn't return to the Middletons', since he was there as his guest. He should have known better than to try to play games with a man who was obviously a master at them. Because of his scheming, he was going to end up spending this glorious day driving back to Missouri after all.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Zayn opened the car door and put his bag on the passenger seat. As he paused to look once more at the wild beauty of his surroundings, his gaze locked onto some steps carved into the rocky bluff just beside him, and he heard a strange metallic sound coming from far below. The steps obviously led down through the trees to the beach—and someone was down there. With his heart slamming into his ribs he hurried down the steep steps.

On the bottom step he stopped, paralyzed with joy and relief at the sight of Liam's lithe, familiar form. Clad only in a pair of brief white tennis shorts, he was crouched down, working on the motor of a small boat that had been pulled up onto the narrow crescent of sandy beach. For a long moment Zayn simply watched him, his eyes delighting in the sheer masculine beauty of his wide shoulders, muscular arms and tapered back, gleaming like oiled bronze in the sun.

As Zayn stood there, Liam stopped working on the motor and looked down at his wristwatch. His arm dropped, and he slowly turned his head to stare at something on his right. Zayn finally tore his eyes from his profile and followed his gaze. When he saw what he had done, tenderness overwhelmed him from head to toe; Liam had spread blankets on the sand and placed a huge beach umbrella behind to screen them from the sun. A linen tablecloth had been carefully set with china, crystal goblets and silver. Three wicker picnic baskets were off to one side, and a bottle of wine was protruding from the open lid of one of them.

He must have made half a dozen trips up and down those steep steps, Zayn realized. Considering that a few minutes before he'd thought he didn't even care enough about him to wait until he got here, this evidence of how much he actually did care was doubly touching.

Not that touching, he hastily reminded himself, trying unsuccessfully to banish his smile. After all, what he was really looking at was the carefully prepared scene of his very own seduction… Attempted seduction, he corrected, with an inward grin.

Smoothing down the olive green V-necked t-shirt that complemented his light beige pants, he decided he would say something witty by way of greeting. And Liam would, of course, be very casual and pretend he hadn't even noticed that he was late. With that scenario in mind he stepped forward. Unfortunately, all witty thoughts vanished as he approached him.

"Hi," he called out cheerfully.

In his crouching position, Liam slowly pivoted around, the wrench still in his hand. He draped his arm across his bent knees and stared at him with cool, inscrutable brown eyes.

"You're late," he said.

That was so far from what he'd envisioned that Zayn had to gulp back a stunned giggle as he walked over to him. "Did you think I wasn't coming?" he inquired innocently.

His brows lifted sardonically. "Wasn't that what I was supposed to think?"

It wasn't a question, it was a cool accusation, and Zayn's first impulse was to deny it. Instead he nodded his head, an irrepressible smile teasing his lips. "Yes," he admitted quietly, watching his Liam’s now chilly brown eyes turned warm with fascinated interest.

"Were you disappointed?" Instantly he regretted the question, because he knew Liam would now retaliate by saying something cutting.

"Very disappointed," he admitted quietly.

A treacherous heat was seeping through Zayn's face as he gazed into those mesmerizing merry brown eyes, and as Liam put the wrench down and slowly stood up, he cautiously backed away a step.

"Zayn?"

He swallowed. "Yes?"

"Would you like to eat first?"

"First," he whispered hoarsely. "Before what?"

"Before we go sailing," he replied, studying him with puzzlement.

"Oh, sailing!" His breath came out in a light chuckle. "Yes, thank you, I would like to eat first. And I'd love to go sailing." And that was also half a lie since he was slightly afraid of the sea…and the ocean for that matter, but he did not want to ruin his plans any further.

***

Zayn had never known a more glorious day than this. In the two hours since they sailed away from the Cove, a warm friendship had sprung up between them—a companionship that was made up of spontaneous comments and shared laughter, punctuated with long relaxed silences.

The brilliant blue sky was decorated with puffy white clouds, and the wind caught the sail, sending the boat shooting soundlessly through the water. Zayn watched a sea gull screeching overhead then glanced at Liam, who was seated at the tiller, facing him. He smiled and Zayn smiled back, then he lifted his face to the sky again, basking in the sun's golden warmth and in the knowledge that Liam's lazy, admiring gaze was on him.

"We could drop anchor here and do some sunbathing and some fishing. Would you like that?" Liam said.

"I'd love it." Zayn watched him roll to his feet and begin taking in the sail.

"We should get some bass and blue gill for our dinner," he said a few minutes later as he rigged two fishing poles. "There's great salmon fishing here, but we'd need downriggers, and we'd have to troll."

Zayn had fished with his stepdad many times from the banks of Missouri's verdant creeks and rivers, but he'd never fished from a boat. He didn't have the faintest idea what a downrigger was or what trolling was either, but intended to find out. If the man he liked wanted to fish from boats, he would learn to like it too.

"I've got one," Liam called a half hour later as his line played out with a whir.

Zayn dropped his rod and went racing toward his end of the boat, unthinkingly shouting directions: "Set the hook! Keep your rod tip up. Don't let the line go slack. He's running—loosen the drag."

"God, are you bossy!" Liam grinned, and Zayn realized with a sheepish smile that he was handling the fish with expertise. A few minutes later he leaned over the side of the boat and scooped the big perch into a long-handled net. Like a proud little boy who was showing off his trophy to someone special, Liam held up his flapping fish for Zayn to properly admire. "Well, what do you think?"

One look at that boyish expression on his ruggedly chiseled features, and the feelings that had budded inside Zayn burst into full bloom. You're wonderful, he thought. "He's wonderful," he said.

And in that outwardly casual moment, Zayn made the most momentous decision of his life. Liam already owned his heart; tonight it was right that he have his body too. Yes he was stupidly smitten, head over ass in deep love with a man he barely met two days ago…he couldn’t help it!

The sun was setting in a blaze of crimson when Liam let out the sail and they started back to the Cove. Zayn again felt his gaze on him as he sat at the tiller, facing him in the fading light. It was getting chilly, and he drew his legs up against his chest, wrapping his arms around them. The question of how they were going to spend the night had been completely resolved in his mind, but it bothered him that he was about to take such an irrevocable step with a man whom he was falling for, but about whom he knew so very little.

"What are you thinking about?" Liam asked quietly.

"I was thinking that I know very little about you." He said sadly.

"What would you like to know?"

It was the opening Zayn desperately wanted. "Well, for a start, how do you happen to know Tracy Middleton and the crowd at her party?"

As if he was delaying his answer, Liam took a cigarette from the package in his pocket and put it between his lips. He lit a match and cupped his hands over the flame, lighting it.

"Tracy and I grew up next door to each other," he said. "Near where Tony's restaurant is now."

Zayn was astounded. Tony's restaurant was in what was today a fashionably renovated downtown neighborhood. But fifteen or twenty years ago, when Liam and Tracy were growing up there, it couldn't have been very nice at all.

Liam watched the play of emotions across his features and apparently guessed the direction of his thoughts. "Tracy married George, who is nearly twice her age, in order to escape from the old neighborhood."

Cautiously, Zayn approached the topic that Liam had avoided earlier and that interested him the most. "Liam, you said your mother died when you were four, and that your grandparents raised you. But what happened to your father?"

"Nothing happened to him. He went back to live with his parents the day after my mother's funeral."

Oddly, it was his complete indifference that alerted Zayn and made him study the brunet man sharply. His handsome face was composed, a neutral mask. Too composed, too unemotional, he thought. He didn't want to pry, but he was falling in love with this compelling, enigmatic man, and he desperately needed to understand him. Hesitantly he said, "Your father didn't take you with him?"

The curtness of Liam's tone warned him that he was not pleased with the direction of the conversation, but he answered, "My father was a wealthy, pampered Grosse Pointe guy who met my mother at a party. Six weeks later he jilted his plain but wealthy fiancée, and he married my proud but penniless mother instead. Apparently he regretted it almost immediately, because his parents did not approve of the marriage, you see my mother was not from the high class. My mother insisted that they live on what he could make, but he hated that, and blamed her for that. Even after his business was doing better, he despised his life, and he despised her for what he lost since their marriage. However he did not want to leave her because he loved her…or that what I’ve been told."

"Then why didn't she leave him?"

"According to my grandfather," Liam responded dryly, "there was one area where she found my father irresistible."

"Do you resemble your father?" Zayn asked impulsively.

"Almost exactly, I'm told. Why?"

"No reason," Zayn said. But he had a rueful feeling that he understood exactly how irresistible Liam's father must have been to his mother. "Go on with the story, please."

"There isn't much else to tell. The day after my mother's funeral, he announced that he wanted to forget the pathetic poor life he'd led, and he moved back to his parents' house in Grosse Pointe. Apparently I was part of what he wanted to forget, because he left me behind with my grandparents. Three months later he married his former fiancée and within a year they had another son—my half-brother."

"But he did come to visit you, didn't he?" Zayn asked already afraid of the answer.

"No."

Zayn was slightly horrified at the idea of a father abandoning his baby boy and then living in luxury only a few miles away from him. Grosse Pointe was where the Sinclair’s lived, too, and it wasn't far from the neighborhood where Liam had grown up.

"You mean you never saw him again after that?" he asked in a whisper.

"I saw him occasionally, but only accidentally. One night he pulled into the gas station where I was working."

"What did he say?" Zayn breathed.

"He told me to check the oil," Liam replied imperturbably.

Despite his outward attitude of total indifference, Zayn couldn't believe that as a younger man he'd been so invulnerable. Surely having his own father treat him as if he didn't exist must have hurt him terribly.

"Is that all he said?" he asked tightly.

Unaware that Zayn was not sharing his ironic humor in the story, he said, "No—I think he asked me to check the air in his tires too."

Zayn had kept his voice neutral, but inwardly he felt sick. Tears stung his eyes, and he turned his face up to the purpling sky to hide them, pretending to watch the translucent clouds drifting over the moon. He was getting emotional because of the unfairness of the story, and also because he knew how lucky he was, even after losing his father, he had a wonderful stepdad that nearly filled his void becoming the father figure he needed while growing up.

"Zayn?" His voice sounded curt.

"Hmmmm?" he asked, staring steadfastly at the moon.

Leaning forward, he caught his chin and turned his face toward his. He looked at his brimming eyes in stunned disbelief. "You're crying!" he said incredulously.

Zayn waved a dismissing hand at him, he was slightly embarrassed. "Don't pay any attention to that—I cry at movies too."

Liam burst out laughing and pulled him onto his lap. Zayn felt strangely paternal as he put his arm around him and soothingly stroked his soft brown strands. "I suppose," he said in a shaky voice, "that when you were growing up, your brother got all sorts of things that you could only dream of having. New cars and everything."

Tipping his chin up, he smiled into his somber amber eyes. "I had wonderful grandparents, and I promise you that I don't have any emotional scars from what happened with my father."

"Of course you do—anyone would! He walked out on you then practically before your eyes lavished his attention on his next son…"

"Stop it," he teased, "or you'll have me in tears."

With quiet gravity Zayn said, "I was crying for the boy you were then, not for the man you are now. Despite everything that happened—no, because of it—you became a strong, independent man. Actually, the one to pity is your half-brother."

Liam chuckled. "You're right—he's an ass."

Zayn ignored his humor. "What I meant was that you've succeeded on your own, without wealthy parents to help you. That makes you a bigger man than your half-brother."

"Is that why I'm bigger?" he joked. "I always thought it was in my genes. You see, my father and grandfather were both tall…"

"Liam, I'm trying to be serious!" he whined.

"Sorry."

"When you were young, you must have dreamed of becoming as rich and successful as your father and his son."

"Richer," Liam confirmed. "And more successful."

"So you went to college and got your engineering degree," Zayn concluded. "Then what did you do?"

"I wanted to start my own business, but I didn't have enough money."

"That's a shame," Zayn said sympathetically.

"That's also enough of my life history for now," he finished evasively. "We're almost home."

Chapter Text

The warm closeness that had developed between them as they sailed back was still enfolding them as they dined by lantern light on the cedar deck suspended out beyond the bluff.

"Don't bother," Liam said quietly when Zayn stood with the intention of clearing the china and crystal from the table. "The housekeeper will take care of it in the morning." He picked up a bottle of Grand Marnier and poured some liqueur into two fragile glasses. He handed him one, then leaned back in his chair. Raising his glass to his lips, he contemplated him over the rim.

Zayn rolled the stem of his glass between his fingers, trying to ignore the atmosphere of expectation that was hanging over them. His time was running out; Liam had satisfied their physical hunger, and now he was lazily preparing to satisfy their sexual hunger. He could see it in the way his possessive gaze lingered on him as he sat across from him, and in his warmly intimate smile when he spoke to him.

He raised his glass and took a fortifying swallow of the orange-and-cognac drink. Any moment Liam would stand up and take him inside. He glanced up as he lit a cigarette. In the flickering glow of the lantern, his dark handsome features seemed shadowy and almost predatory. A chill that was part fright, part excitement danced up his spine.

"Are you cold?" he asked softly.

Zayn quickly shook his head, afraid that he would immediately suggest they go in. Then he realized he must have seen him shiver, and he added, "I mean I was a little chilly just then, but it's so nice out here I can't bear to go in yet."

Several minutes later Liam stubbed out his cigarette and moved his chair back from the table. Zayn's heart lurched. He drained his glass and held it toward him. "I'd like a little more."

He saw a flicker of surprise in his expression, but he obligingly poured more Grand Marnier into both their glasses, then he lazed back in his chair again, openly watching him.

Zayn was too jumpy to either meet his gaze or endure it. He stood up, smiled shyly and walked over to the edge of the deck, gazing across the black lake at the lights twinkling in the hills. He wanted to please him always, and in all ways, but what if he failed tonight? Liam was so alarmingly and blatantly experienced that his inexperience might seem like a nuisance to him. He knew he was tallying and he did not want him to wait any longer but he could not help his nerves.

Liam's chair scraped against the wooden deck, and Zayn heard him approach, stopping right behind him. He put his hands on his shoulders and he jumped. "You're cold," he murmured, drawing him back against his chest and wrapping his arms around him for warmth. "Is that better?" he asked his lips brushing his temple.

The imprint of his legs and thighs pressing against him from the back seemed to rob Zayn of the power of speech. He nodded, and then goose bumps took over his skin.

"You're shivering." His hands shifted to his waist, and he turned him with gentle insistence toward the house. "Let's go inside where it's warm."

Zayn was so nervous that he didn't realize the sliding glass doors Liam led him to, were not the ones that opened into the living room but the ones that led straight to a luxurious bedroom decorated in shades of caramel, white and brown. He stopped in his tracks, his eyes on the huge king-size bed across the room. He heard Liam close the glass door with a final, deathlike thud, and his whole body tensed.

His arm slid around his waist from behind, drawing his rigid form against him. With his other hand he caressed his neck slightly tilting his head to the side, exposing his skin. Zayn's breathing became shallow and rapid as his lips touched his nape then drifted tantalizingly toward his ear, while his hands began moving lazily over his waist, going down…

"Liam," Zayn protested inanely, "I—I'm not at all tired yet." He was panicking for no reason…it’s just sex.

"Good," he whispered, while his tongue sensuously traced the folds of his ear. "Because it's going to be hours before I let you go to sleep."

"What I meant was—" Zayn gasped as his tongue plunged deeply into his ear, sending warmth spreading through his limbs. Weakly, he leaned back against him and felt the hard evidence of his rising passion pressing against his back. "What I meant," he clarified shakily, "was that I'm not ready for… for bed yet."

His deep voice acted on him like an aphrodisiac. "I've waited an eternity for you, Zayn. Don't ask me to wait any longer."

The meaning Zayn read into those words banished his last doubts about how deeply Liam really felt about him. He made no move to stop him when his hands slipped under his t-shirt, fingers lightly dancing on his now overly warmed skin, but when he removed it and turned him in his arms to face him, his heart was racing like a mad thing.

"Look at me," Liam coaxed softly.

Zayn tried to lift his eyes to his and couldn't. He swallowed convulsively.

Cupping the side of his head, Liam turned his face up to his, his mesmerizing warm brown eyes gazing deeply into his own. "We're going to do this together," he said quietly. Taking his hand, he placed it against the front of his shirt. "Unbutton my shirt," he urged gently. Somewhere in the chaotic turmoil that was his mind, Zayn realized that Liam apparently thought he was hesitating because his other lovers were less experienced and that he was now trying to coach him about well…the basics. He knew the theories alright, he just was nervous because it would be his first time to…he sighed inwardly.

Zayn's long lashes flickered down, casting shadows on his flushed cheeks as he did his bidding with fingers made clumsy by a mixture of panic and joy. Liam was now caressing his bare back, as he slowly undid each of his buttons, unknowingly heightening his excitement by his slowness.

His fingers moved of their own volition, pushing his shirt open, exposing his bronzed, muscular chest. He was so beautiful, and he was his to touch, Zayn thought, so intoxicated with the knowledge that he scarcely noticed when he lost his pants as well.

"Touch me," Liam ordered hoarsely.

He required no more urging and no more instruction. Guided by arousal and instinct, he slid his hands through the dark hairs of his chest, and leaned forward to kiss his hard, muscular flesh, and grew more bold and peppered kisses on his chest not forgetting his nipples. A shudder ran the length of his body at the brush of his lips, and his free hand sank into the soft short hair at his nape, he tilted his face up to his. For a moment he just gazed at him his eyes smoldering with the desire he was holding back, and then he bent his head.

His lips were warm and exquisitely gentle at first, tasting and shaping his. And then they slowly parted, and his tongue began to explore his mouth with a languorous hunger that drove Zayn dizzy with pleasure.

He arched against him, trying to rub their crotches together, his hands gliding over his bare chest, and he lifted his head. Liam’s flaming brown eyes burned into his, seeing his own desire reflected in their amber sparks. He drew a labored breath, visibly trying to slow his passion, and lost the battle.

"God, I want you!" he said fiercely, and his demanding lips crushed down on his, his tongue parting his lips and driving into his mouth in a kiss that sent fire exploding through his body. His tongue plunging repeatedly into his mouth, mimicking the act he deeply desired to do later.

Zayn moaned, molding himself to his hardened thighs, and Liam’s hands moved over him, sliding down until they went back, tightly cupping his ass cheeks in each hand, pulling him even closer to him, to let him feel how big and hard he was. Zayn gasped at the feeling, he just realized how hard he was, he just wanted some friction…some relief.

The world tilted as he swept him up into his arms, he supported his backside urging Zayn to circle his legs around his middle and that what the smart lad did, his mouth was devouring his while he moved him onto the bed, following him down and covering him with his body.

The older man hands cupped his hardened shaft, stroking him through the fabric of his boxers until Zayn buckled up to increase the friction, but soon Liam lowered his head to ravish his neck, working persistently on a love bite, until he moved down to his nipples, turning them with his fingers into aching tightness before his lips closed on them. His lips came back to his, and he opened his mouth hungrily with his own, his knowledgeable hands exploring and exciting and tormenting him. Zayn was in deep euphoria that he did not even notice when he lost his last piece of clothing. He was laid there naked for Liam hungry eyes to eat him. As for Liam, he was still clad with his designer boxers.

He shifted on top of him, parting his legs apart forcing them to bend at the knees, scrutinizing his most private parts, and despite his lust he felt embarrassed. He tried to close them back, hide away from his burning gaze but he wouldn’t let him.

“Don’t.” he ordered, his hands stopping him anyways.

He moved down again to catch his lips with a kiss that was meant to drug him once more in heightened ecstasy, while his hand fondled his balls and went further down to his pink tightness.

Zayn's entire body jerked into rigid, involuntary alarm. "Liam!" he gasped. "Liam, wait I—"

He overruled his belated refusal with two hoarse words: "Don't, Zayn."

The ache in his voice shattered his resistance, so he lifted his legs once more to give him access. Liam looked at him in awe, smirking but the fire of lust was dancing in his darkened brown eyes. He lowered his head to level his tight entrance…and Zayn gasped when he felt the wetness of his tongue there…where no one but himself has ever touched him. He moaned as he felt Liam’s tongue lapping around the area, then circling his rim incessantly, until his muscle relaxed enough for him to start plunging his tongue inside his heat. His hands clutched the bed sheets tightly for anchor because he was sure he was losing his mind, he did not lost gravity. After a while Liam’s strong arms flipped him around so he was on his stomach, he pulled his hips up a bit so he was bracing himself on all fours. He groaned again as he felt Liam’s thumbs parting his cheeks further…his lips on his rim, he was literally eating him out. He couldn’t stand it anymore…

“Liam please…” he nearly sobbed, he wanted him inside him this instant.

He felt a finger probing at his entrance next to the lapping magical tongue, the stretch wasn’t bad at all, and he relaxed even more…

“More Liam I can take…ahhh” a second finger breached him, both digits going deeper, massaging his walls, stretching him even more. The fingers left him for a second and he poked his head up and looked behind him to see Liam with a bottle of lube rubbing the substance on his fingers. Zayn rested his head on his arms as Liam came back with three fingers, probing at his insides…searching for his pleasure point. The pain was there…but Zayn did not want him to stop until…

“Oh…ungh…Liam…oh God…yes there keep on doing that!!” Zayn did not even know what he was saying. He shamelessly whined in disappointment when the fingers were gone.

A gasp of surprise left his mouth as Liam flipped him easily again on his back. Zayn’s shaft trembled in pleasure at this thought…how easily Liam manhandled him into the positions he wanted. He shuddered slightly a high excitement coursing through every fiber of his body, at that moment he knew what it really meant to be achingly hard as rock. He was surprised to find Liam already ready with a condom on, only stroking himself coating his hard on with lube.

“I want to see your pretty face when I’m fully inside you.” He whispered huskily into his ear as he probed him with the head of his hardened shaft. Liam pulled his legs up far, until his ankles were resting on his shoulders…and he slowly plunged into his tightened heat. He felt him, every inch fighting to be entirely embedded inside him. Zayn face scrunched in pain, Liam worried and asked him if he wanted him to stop, but he shook his head.

“You can move…”Zayn said breathlessly after a while…the pain was still there but he found it strangely arousing. What helped tremendously was when Liam took his half hard dick in his hand, stroking him lazily until he was hard enough. He started moving with tormenting slowness within him, backing all the way out, then plunging slowly all the way in again. He was also watching with pure lust where he disappeared inside him.

“God…Zayn you’re so tight.” He said as he started picking up his pace. "I've only been waiting a few days for you, but it feels like an eternity," he rasped, and began steadily increasing the tempo of his driving plunges, pushing him closer and closer to the edge, he was relentlessly slamming into his prostate…until Zayn was a mumbling moaning mess under him. Zayn wanted to be touched…but his brain and body had lost all sort of communication.

“Liam I’m …c-close.” He wanted to continue…but with the force of Liam’s thrusts he was rendered speechless.

Liam seemed to get his message though, because his fingers went to his balls tugging on them lightly. Zayn moaned…he wanted his dick to be touched…he needed any kind of friction. His eyes started to shine with tears of frustration until he felt Liam’s finger rub his stretched rim…

“Oh Liam…” he was thrown over the highest cliff so suddenly that he did not know what was happening. His body convulsed of its own accord as he emptied his load with four long shots coating his stomach and chest with his seed. Liam tightened his arms around him and with one final plunge; he joined him in the wild, sweet oblivion where he had just sent him…

Dreamily descending from the misty euphoria where he was floating, sated and happy, Zayn slowly became conscious of the warmth emanating from Liam's body beside him, and the weight of his hand resting atop his stomach, messing through his mess. But as he lay there, a vague uneasiness slowly crept into his fogged mind. He tried to shut it out, to keep it from disturbing the bliss of the moment, but it was too late. He remembered that Liam had been holding him tightly in his arms, his body driving into him when he had whispered, "I've only been waiting a few days for you, but it feels like an eternity."

Zayn's boneless contentment gave way to harsh reality. He had misinterpreted what Liam had meant when he told him he'd been waiting an eternity for him. What he meant was that the few days he'd had to wait to have sex with him seemed like an eternity. It didn't change the way Zayn felt about him, but it made him uneasy.

Had he deduced now that he was virgin? How would he react? What if he asked him why he had decided to have sex with him? He certainly couldn't tell him the truth yet—that he was in love with him, and he wanted him to love him.

Zayn decided he would have to avoid the subject altogether. Hesitantly he opened his eyes.

Liam was lying on his side, propped up on his elbow, gazing intently at his face. He looked puzzled, dubious, and distinctly amused…

He knew now, well it was obvious who he was kidding; he just acted like one anyways... And judging from his expression, he intended to discuss it.

Zayn gulped…he did not want to talk about it…wasn’t he embarrassed enough.

Zayn rolled away from him and hastily sat up, keeping his back to him. He reached for the pack of tissue on the side table, cleaning himself clumsily before grabbing Liam’s discarded shirt at the foot of the bed, he plunged his arms into the sleeves in an effort to cover his nakedness. He was thankful his shirt was long enough to cover his crotch.

I'd love some coffee," he mumbled, seizing on that as an excuse to escape his questions. "I'll make it." He stood up and looked at him, then flushed as his warm gaze slid down his thighs and legs before lifting to his face.

Never had he felt as self-conscious as he did at that moment standing there, stark naked under his shirt, that didn’t cover much to begin with…but it was better than nothing because he had no idea where his underwear was at the moment. "You… you don't mind sharing your shirt, do you?" he asked, fumbling with the bottom buttons.

 

"I don't mind at all, Zee," he solemnly replied, but with a gleam of laughter in his eyes. His amusement was so unnerving that Zayn's hands began to shake. Concentrating on rolling up the shirt cuffs, he asked, "How do you like it?"

"Exactly the way we did it." He replied with a taunting voice.

Zayn’s gaze shot to his face and the blush on his cheeks deepened. "No," he corrected with a quick, nervous shake of his head. "I meant, how do you like your coffee?"

"Black."

"Do… do you want some?"

"Some what?" he asked suggestively, grinning wickedly at him.

"Some coffee!" Zayn replied exasperate.

"Yes, thanks."

"For what?" he quipped jauntily, then he pivoted on his heel and hastily left before he could reply.

Despite his bravado when he'd left the bedroom, he felt precariously close to tears as he walked into the kitchen and turned on the lights. Liam was laughing at him, and he had never expected that sort of reaction from him. Had he been that inept, that amusingly inexperienced…He wished he was more experienced in these matters now…why was he so reluctant to…he sighed again.

Behind him, he heard Liam walk into the kitchen, so he quickly busied himself spooning coffee into the percolator. "Why are these cupboards so empty? Except for what we ate tonight, there's no food."

"Because the house is being sold," Liam replied. His hands settled firmly on his waist, drawing him flat against him until the denim of his jeans pressed against the backs of his bare legs. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked him quietly.

"Tell you what?" Zayn asked feigning ignorance.

"You know damned well what." Liam said against his ear, his teeth tugging on his earlobe a little too harsh.

He stared out the window over the sink. "I forgot about it, actually."

"Wrong," Liam chuckled. "Try again.

"Because the subject never came up," he said with an indifferent shrug, "It’s not something you just share without being asked the question right and because I didn't think you'd notice."

"The subject never came up," he said dryly, "because twenty-three-year-old virgins in this day and age are rare as hell. And twenty-three-year-old virgins who look like you, rarer still. As far as the rest—well, it was obvious."

Zayn turned around to face him, his shiny amber eyes searching his. "But before that… that point, you didn't realize that I hadn't… hadn't… before?"

"I had no idea that it was you’re first time until it was too late to make any difference to either of us. I knew because you were so reluctant…scared and I knew it was not because of me" Putting his arms around him, he added, "But you should have told me you were before we got into that bed."

"If I had told you, would you have changed your mind?" Zayn asked, loving the sound of his voice and the feel of his arms around him.

"No, but I would have been more gentle with you." Leaning back, he stared at him in genuine puzzlement. "Why should I have changed my mind?"

"I don't know," Zayn mumbled uneasily. "I thought you might have some, well, reservations about… about…"

"About what?" he mocked tolerantly. "About 'stealing' your innocence? Don't be ridiculous. Nobody expects of his boyfriend to be virgin anymore…in the contrary…the more experienced the better Zayn, the world is more liberal right now, no body sticks to one person for the rest of his life…nobody will expect from you to be his one and only.”

Zayn cautiously lowered his eyes to the silver medallion hanging on a long chain around his neck and asked, "Have you ever cared, really cared, for any of person in your life?"

"Some of them, yes."

"And you didn't mind if they'd had sexual relationships with lots of other people?"

"Of course not."

"That seems like a very… coldblooded… attitude."

His lids flickered down to his face, lingering on his deliciously bruised lips. "If I've given you the impression that I'm coldblooded, I think it's time we go back into that bedroom."

Zayn wondered if he was deliberately misinterpreting his use of the word because he wanted to avoid the issue. If he had really cared for those other lovers, shouldn't he have felt more possessive about them? If he really cared for him, shouldn't he be pleased that he was the only one he'd let touch him in that intimate way? Zayn raised his troubled eyes to his. "Liam?"

He looked down at the perfect young beautiful man in his arms. His hair was tousled from his fingers earlier, his face was tinted with a slight blush, his mouth was soft and generous, the ink on his arms was as amazing as ever and the love bite he marked him with was shining so evident on the side of his neck. Liam’s arms tightened around him, and he bent his head. "What?" he murmured, but his mouth opened on his in a deep, drugging kiss that silenced his voice.

Sometime after dawn, Zayn rolled over and saw Liam’s head on the pillow beside him. With a dreamy smile of satisfaction, he closed his eyes and sank back into the deep slumber of blissful exhaustion. He did not awaken again until Liam put a cup of coffee on the night table beside him and sat down on the bed.

"Good morning," he said his smile fading as he realized that he had already showered, shaved and dressed in tailored gray slacks and an open-necked gray shirt.

"Is something wrong?" he asked, he tried to search for his boxers with his eyes as he tried to find a nice sitting position that did not remind him of their activities of the night. He felt awkward being stark naked when he was dressed, but Liam seemed unaware of his discomfort. For that matter, he seemed unaware of his nakedness.

"Zayn, I'm afraid we're going to have to cut today short. A… a business associate of mine phoned this morning and will be here in an hour. I'll find another ride back to the city."

Zayn was terribly disappointed, but forty minutes later, as Liam walked him out to his car, his disappointment had grown into confused alarm.

Gone was his passionate, seductive lover of the night before. Today Liam was friendly but impersonal, treating him as if they'd spent a pleasant but meaningless night playing cards instead of making love.

He hoped he would take him in his arms and kiss him goodbye at least. Instead he put his hands in his pockets, looked at him levelly and said, "I hope I didn’t tire you so much for the ride…have a nice trip to home!”

Zayn was too embarrassed to speak. He nodded, and he opened the car door for him. By the time he put the car into reverse, he was already striding back into the house.

As he was driving down the way Zayn’s mind was whirling with what just happened…Liam did not even ask for his number, nor for that fact did he part with him saying see you around…or see you later…nothing.

In a way Zayn felt like something that had been used and then thrown away. They had laughed together and gotten to know each other; he felt so close to him—surely he felt close to him too. Surely he couldn't intend to just walk away and forget about him.

He thinks he loves Liam, and he knew he must have at least liked him. Perhaps he had already begun to love him… Perhaps that was why he had become so withdrawn and impersonal this morning! After so many years of independence and after being abandoned by his own father, Liam wouldn't like feeling dependent on someone for his happiness. The more he felt himself caring, the more he would probably fight it, Zayn decided.

The sky was streaked with a pink sunrise as Zayn drove across the Mississippi River into Missouri. He was weary, but optimistic. Yesterday, when they'd been talking about him move to Detroit, he had managed to casually impart the information that he would be back in Detroit on Friday, and that in the meantime the phone was being connected in his name. Liam could reach him on Friday simply by picking up the telephone and asking the operator for his new number, and he knew it. When he got back to Detroit on Friday, Liam would surely call him. He might even hold out until Saturday or Sunday, but surely no longer.

Chapter Text

Zayn's optimism stayed with him through the busy days of packing, and blossomed into excited anticipation on Thursday morning as he waved goodbye to his mother and stepfather and started for Michigan.

With the directions Sophia Sinclair had given him he had no trouble locating the elegant suburban community of Bloomfield Hills that night. He did have a little trouble believing that he was actually going to live there. One magnificent home after another flashed by as he drove down the immaculate streets.

It was ten o'clock at night when he pulled to a stop at the gates of a breathtakingly lovely Spanish-style condominium complex. The gatekeeper came out and peered at him through the open car window. When Zayn told him his name, he said, "Mrs. Sinclair drove in half an hour ago, Mister."

Zayn forgot his weariness as he pulled to a stop before a lovely courtyard with an arched entryway displaying the number 175. Sophia had promised to meet him here and show him around, and her Cadillac was parked in the driveway leading to the private garage.

"Well, what do you think?" she said a half hour later as they completed the tour of the luxurious apartment.

"I think it's wonderful," Zayn said, carrying one of his suitcases into the bedroom, where an entire mirrored wall concealed closet space. He opened a closet door and his gaze swung back to Sophia. "What should I do with these clothes?" It and every closet he opened were filled to capacity with wonderful designer suits and dress alike. Zayn recognized some of the designer labels. Most of the things still had tags on them and had obviously never been worn. "Your aunt certainly has very youthful tastes in clothes," Zayn commented. An aunt…interested in young men clothing…curious…very curious.

"My aunt is a compulsive shopper," Sophia explained disinterestedly. "I'll phone some charity and have them come over and take all this stuff."

Zayn ran his hand down a gorgeous wine velvet blazer then he glanced at the tag hanging from the sleeve. Not only did the woman have very youthful taste in clothing, but she also bought young men clothes of the same size Zayn wore. "Sophia, would you consider letting me buy some of these clothes?"

She shrugged. "Take whatever you want and give the rest away; you'll save me the trouble."

She had started down the stairs to the living room below, and Zayn turned off the lights and followed her. "But those are very expensive clothes—"

"I know what they cost," she interrupted irritably; "I paid for them. Take whatever you want—they're yours."

After helping him call the caretaker carry in the rest of his things from the car, she turned to leave. "By the way," she said, pausing with her hand on the doorknob. "My husband doesn't know I bought this place for my aunt. Georges feels that my relatives impose on us financially, so I've never mentioned it to him. I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention it either."

"No, of course I won't," Zayn promised.

After she left, he looked around at the luxurious apartment that was now his home, at the marble fireplace, valuable antiques and gracious silk-upholstered furnishings. The condominium looked as if it had been decorated for a magazine layout. A vision of the alluring clothes hanging in the upstairs closets superimposed itself in his mind. "My husband doesn't know I bought this place for my aunt; so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention it…"

A knowing smile slowly dawned on Zayn's face as he glanced again at the beautiful room and wryly shook his head. Not her aunt—more like her lover! At some time in the recent past, Sophia must have had a Lover. Zayn shrugged the matter aside; it was none of his business.

He walked over to the telephone, sighing with relief when he heard the dial tone. The phone was working. Tomorrow was Friday, and Liam might call.

Early the next morning he sat at the kitchen table, making out his grocery list. Besides all the essentials, he needed two special items for when Liam came over: bourbon and Grand Marnier. Picking up his wallet, he glanced at the telephone. The thought that he might never call him pushed forward in his mind, but he shoved it aside. Liam had wanted him very badly in Harbor Springs; he had made that obvious. If nothing else, sexual desire would bring him back to him.

Two hours later he carried in the groceries he'd bought. He spent the rest of the day sorting through the clothes in the closets, trying them on and separating those that fit from those that had to be altered. Liam hadn't called by the time he went to bed, but he consoled himself with the thought that he would surely call tomorrow, which was Saturday.

He spent the next day unpacking and staying close to the phone. On Sunday he sat down at the desk and worked out a budget that would enable him to send home as much money as possible. Both Lenny and Melissa were helping too, but each of them had mortgages and other financial obligations he was free of.

The 20,000$ bonus Sophia had promised him was certainly tempting. If he could only find out the name of that spy, or else learn something that would be of real value to the Sinclair’s' company… Zayn shied away from the latter alternative. If he gave Sophia confidential information, he would be no better than the spy he was trying to unmask.

Apart from his parents' debts there were; his electrical bill, phone bill, groceries. He had a car payment to make and the insurance… There seemed to be no end to the list of obligations.

He spent the following week, convincing himself that Liam would surely contact him any day now.

The following Sunday night, as he laid out the clothes he would wear for his first day at work, he told himself that tomorrow he would call—he would call him at his new job to wish him luck. He still had hope.

***

At the end of the day, his new boss, Harry Styles, joked -with his lazy slow tone when he talked out of business. "Well, are you ready to quit? Or do you think you want to stay on?"

Zayn sat across the desk from him, his shorthand notebook loaded with dictation. Liam hadn't called to wish him good luck on his first day, but he'd been so busy that he hadn't had much time to be miserable about it. "I think," Zayn said, laughing, "that you're like working with a whirlwind."

He grinned apologetically. "We work so well together that after you'd been here an hour, I forgot you were new."

Zayn smiled at the compliment. It was true, they did work well together.

"What do you think of the staff?" he prodded, and before Zayn could answer, he added, "It's the consensus among the women here that I have the most beautiful secretary in the corporation. I've been answering questions about you all day."

"What sort of questions?" Zayn asked stunned.

"About your sexual orientation and marital status mostly—whether you're married, engaged, available, straight or gay." With an inquiring lift of his brows he said, "Are you available, Zayn?"

"For what?" he quipped, but he had an uneasy feeling he was indirectly asking about the status of his relationship with Liam. Standing up, he said quickly, "Do you want me to finish this dictation tonight before I leave?"

"No, tomorrow morning will be soon enough."

Had he only imagined it, or had Harry's questions been for himself rather than for the sake of general information, Zayn wondered as he cleared off his desk. Surely he couldn't be thinking of asking him out. According to what he'd been told at lunch today, Harry was bisexual and three of his secretaries had made the mistake of falling for Harry's charismatic appeal, and he had promptly transferred them to other divisions.

According to the gossip, Harry was socially prominent, wealthy and infinitely eligible, but he did not believe in mixing business with pleasure. He was certainly good-looking, Zayn thought dispassionately. Tall, with wavy brown hair and big emerald eyes.

He glanced at the clock and hastily locked his desk. If Liam was ever going to call, he would surely do it tonight. He would call to ask him how his first day on the job had been. If he didn't call now, after two weeks and a day, he obviously had no intention of ever calling him again. He felt sick at the thought.

He drove home as quickly as the heavy traffic permitted. It was six-fifteen as he rushed into the condominium. He made himself a sandwich, snapped on the television set, then sat down on the blue-and-white striped silk sofa, staring at the phone…willing it to ring.

At nine-thirty he went upstairs and showered, leaving the bathroom door open so that he could hear the phone in his bedroom. At ten o'clock, he climbed into bed. Liam was not going to call him…Ever.

He closed his tear-shrouded eyes, and his handsome, bronzed face was there before him.

Obviously, he did not want him anymore. Zayn turned his head on the pillow, and hot tears trickled from the corners of his eyes. He was surely mistaken about him… he meant nothing to him…nothing at all.

***

The next morning Zayn threw himself into his work with more determination than success. He made errors on the emails he typed, disconnected two of Harry's calls and mislaid an important file. At noon he went for a walk past the Global Industries Building, hoping against hope that Liam would materialize. But it proved futile, and what was worse, in doing so he sacrificed what little was left of his broken pride.

So much for sexual liberation! He thought miserably, sitting on his desk typing yet another important memo on his office computer. He was not capable of treating sex casually he deduced…in fact he must have known that about himself since he dated Anthony.

He would still feel confused and disappointed if he hadn't slept with Liam, but at least he wouldn't feel used and discarded like an old shoe.

"Having a bad day?" Harry asked late that afternoon as he handed him a report he'd had to retype twice before it was correct.

"Yes, I'm sorry," Zayn said. "I don't have them often," he added, with what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry about it—it happens to the best," he remarked, scrawling his initials across the bottom of the report. He glanced at his watch then stood up. "I have to take this report over to the controller's office in the new building."

Everyone there referred to the Global Industries Building as "the new building" so there was no doubt in Zayn's mind what he meant.

"Have you seen the space we're going to occupy over there?"

Zayn felt as if his smile was plastic. "No, I haven't; all I know is that on Monday morning we're all supposed to report for work over there."

"Right," he said, shrugging into his suit jacket. "Pay-co is the smallest and least profitable of the Global Industries subsidiaries, but our offices are going to be very impressive. Before you leave," he said, handing Zayn a folded sheet torn from a newspaper, "would you show this to Susan Brook in public relations and ask her if she's seen it? If she missed it, tell her she can have this copy for her file."

He turned back as he started from his office. "You'll probably be gone by the time I get back. Have a nice evening."

A few minutes later Zayn headed rather listlessly for the public relations department. He nodded and smiled at the other staff as he passed their desks, but in his mind he was seeing Liam. How was he ever going to forget the way the breeze had ruffled his brown hair when he caught that stupid fish? Or the way he looked in a tuxedo?

Fighting back his desolation, he smiled at Susan Brook as he handed her the sheet Harry had torn from the newspaper. "Harry said to ask you if you'd seen this. If not, he said you can have this copy for your file."

Susan unfolded the paper and glanced at it. "I didn't see it." Grinning, she reached into her desk and extracted a very thick folder crammed with magazines and newspaper clippings. "My favorite job is keeping his file updated," she said, laughing as she opened the folder. "Look—isn't he the most gorgeous hunk of male you've ever seen?"

Zayn's gaze slid from Susan's irrepressible smile to the coolly handsome masculine face looking back at him from the cover of Newsday magazine. Shock froze his entire body into rigidity as he reached compulsively for the magazine. "Take the whole file back to your desk and drool at your leisure," Susan suggested knowingly, unaware of Zayn's state of alarm.

"Thank you," he answered hoarsely. He fled back to Harry's office and, closing the door behind him, sank into a chair and opened the file. His sweaty hands left fingerprints on the glossy cover of Newsday magazine as he traced Liam's arrogant thick brows, the faintly smiling red lips that had caressed and devoured his.

"Liam J. Payne," the caption below the picture read. "President and Founder of Global Industries." He couldn't believe what he was seeing; his mind refused to accept it.

Putting the magazine aside, Zayn slowly unfolded the page Harry had torn from the newspaper. The paper was dated two weeks ago—that would be the day after Liam had sent him home from Harbor Springs because a "business associate" was coming to see him.

The headline read: "FINANCIAL EAGLES AND THEIR BUTTERFLIES GATHER FOR FIVE DAYS OF PLEASURE AT PARTY IN HARBOR SPRINGS." The entire page was devoted to the pictures of and commentary about the party. In the center of the page was a picture of Liam lounging on the cedar deck of the house at the Cove, his arm around a beautiful blond guy who hadn't been at the party while Zayn was there. The caption said, "Detroit industrialist Liam J. Payne and longtime companion, Niall Horan, shown at Mr. Horan's home near Harbor Springs."

Longtime companion… Mr. Horan's home…

Pain ripped through Zayn, cutting and tearing at his already aching heart. Liam had taken him to his boyfriend's house and had fucked him in his boyfriend's bed!

"Oh, my God," he whispered aloud, his eyes filling with burning unshed tears. He had sex with him, and then he'd sent him away because his boyfriend had decided to join the group at Harbor Springs.

As if he needed to further torment himself, Zayn read every word on the page, and then he picked up the issue of Newsday and read the entire eight-page article. When he finished, the magazine slid from his numb fingers to the floor.

No wonder Nick Grimshaw had been so hostile! According to the magazine story, Liam and Nick had once indulged in a widely publicized torrid affair that had lasted until he dropped Nick for a French movie star—the same woman who had been playing tennis in her high heels that night in Harbor Springs…

Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside him. While he had been driving back to Missouri, Liam had been having sex with his boyfriend and God only knows how many other people were involved with him. While he had been sitting by the phone day and night last week waiting on him, he had been attending a charity ball with Niall in Palm Springs.

Humiliation washed over him in drowning waves. His shoulders shook with silent sobs as he folded his arms on Harry's desk and buried his face in them. He wept for his stupidity, for his shattered illusions and broken hopes. How could he be so stupid…so blind?

Shame sent more tears pouring from his eyes—he had sex with a man he had only known for four days—and he hadn't even known his real name and who he truly was!

He remembered the angry hurt he had felt because his father had abandoned him as a young boy, and he cried even harder. His father should have drowned him!

"Zayn?" Harry's voice interrupted his crying session of self-misery.

He jerked his head up just as he reached his side. "What's wrong?" he demanded in alarm.

He dragged his gaze to his concerned face. His luxurious lashes were spiky with tears and his amber eyes were swimming. "I thought—" he stopped to draw a deep breath to try to calm down "—I thought he was an ordinary engineer who wanted to start a business of his own someday. And he let me think it!" he choked. "He made a fool out of me!"

The compassion in Harry's face was more than he could bear. He stood up. "Can I get out of here without anyone seeing me? I mean, has everyone gone home?"

"Yes, but you aren't driving in this condition. I'll take you—"

"No," he said swiftly and firmly. "I'm fine, really! I can drive."

"Are you certain?"

He finally got control of his voice. "Positive, I was just shocked and a little embarrassed, that's all."

Harry gestured lamely at the file. "Are you done with this?"

"I haven't read it all," he said distractedly.

He picked up the magazine from the floor, put it in the folder with the newspaper clipping and held the thick file toward him. Zayn took it automatically, and then fled. He thought he would cry again when he got to his car, but he didn't. Nor did he cry during the three hours he spent reading the file and then everything he could find on the web about him.

***

Zayn pulled into the parking lot past the sign that read, Reserved for Pay-co Employees. After what he'd read the night before, the name Pay-co had a new meaning: Payne Electronic Components. The company had been founded, according to The Wall Street Journal, by Colin Payne and his grandson Liam twelve years before, in a garage behind what was now Tony's restaurant.

He parked his car, picked up the file on Liam J. Payne from the seat beside him and got out. Liam had built a financial empire, and now he kept it alive by employing spies among his competitors. Obviously he was as deceitful in his business dealings as he was in his personal life, he thought fiercely.

The women in the office smiled cheerful greetings at him, and Zayn felt guilty because he was going to play a part in destroying the company for whom they worked. No, not destroying it, he corrected himself as he put his side bag in his desk. If Pay-co was fit to survive, then it should be able to compete honestly for contracts. Otherwise it deserved to die before it destroyed its honest competitors, companies like Sophia Sinclair's.

He paused outside Harry's office. Did he know that Pay-co was paying spies? Somehow he didn't think he did. He couldn't believe that he would approve of such a thing.

"Thank you for letting me take the file home," he said softly, walking into his office.

His gaze leaped from the report in his hand to his pale but composed face. "How do you feel this morning?" he asked quietly.

Self-consciously he put his hands in the pockets of his blazer. "I feel embarrassed… and pretty foolish."

"Without going into painful detail, could you give me some idea of what Liam did that hurt you so much? Surely you weren't crying like that just because you discovered he's wealthy and successful?"

Zayn felt a fresh stab of pain at the memory of how willingly he'd collaborated in his own seduction. But he owed Harry some sort of explanation for his nearly hysterical behavior yesterday, and he said with a lame attempt at indifference, "Because I thought he was simply an engineer, I said and did some things that are extremely embarrassing to remember now."

"I see," Harry said calmly. "And what do you intend to do about it?"

"I intend to throw myself into my job here, and to learn everything I can," he replied with bitter honesty.

"I meant, what do you intend to do when you see Liam?"

"I never want to see him again as long as I live!" he retorted tersely.

A half smile tugged at Harry’s lips, but his voice was solemn.

"Zayn, next Saturday there's a private cocktail party being given in the revolving restaurant atop the Global Industries Building. All the chief executives of our various companies are expected to attend, along with their secretaries. The purpose of the party is to bring together all of us who have worked in different buildings in the past, so that we can meet face to face. You'll have an opportunity to meet the secretaries you'll be dealing with in the future, as well as their bosses. Liam is the host."

"If you don't mind, I'd rather not go," Zayn said flatly.

"I do mind."

He was trapped. Harry wasn't the sort of boss who would allow his personal life to interfere with his job, he knew. And if he lost his job he'd never find out who Liam was paying to spy on Sophia Sinclair’s company.

"Sooner or later you're going to have to meet Liam face to face," Harry continued persuasively. "Wouldn't you rather have it happen on Saturday, when you're prepared for it?" When Zayn still hesitated, he said firmly, "I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."

Chapter Text

Zayn's hand shook as he perfect his hair style and then put his pointy black earing. He glanced at the swatch he found lying around in his drawers; Harry would be there in fifteen minutes. Walking over to one of the mirrored closets, he removed a perfect brand new Dolce & Gabbana suit, the one he'd finally chosen that afternoon after trying on all of his newly acquired evening attires.

Now that he knew what an unprincipled, deceitful, arrogant bastard Liam really was, he probably wouldn't find him the slightest bit attractive, he decided, buttoning up his jacket and stepping into his shoes. Even so, his battered pride demanded that he look his best tonight.

Closing the closet, he stepped back to survey his full-length image in the mirrored doors. He did not want to sound arrogant…but wow he looked sexy as hell, damn he looked good in designer clothes, he’s going to miss that when his deal is over. He shook his head at his self-admiration.

He tried to feel excited that he was going after all to some sophisticated party, but he couldn’t. Not when he was about to confront the man who had effortlessly seduced him and then tossed him away like yesterday garbage; a multimillionaire whom he'd invited to lunch and assured him that they could afford anything on the menu.

Considering how low and cynical Liam was, it was amazing he hadn't actually let him pay for the expensive meal, Zayn thought, searching through his bag for his father’s watch.

He paused to mentally rehearse the way he was going to treat him tonight. Because of what had happened, Liam would naturally expect him to be hurt and angry, but he had no intention of letting him see that he was either. Instead he was going to convince him that their weekend in Harbor Springs had been nothing but an amusing little escapade to him…that he was experimenting, just as it had obviously been to him. Under no circumstances would he treat him coldly, because by coldness he would show him that he still cared enough to be angry. Even if it killed him, he was going to treat him with casual, detached friendliness—the same sort of impersonal friendliness he would show the gatekeeper or the janitor at work.

That should throw him off balance, Zayn decided, still searching for his father's watch.

But where was it, he wondered a little frantically a moment later. He couldn't have lost it— he was always so careful with it. It was the only things of his father's he had. He had put it in Harbor Springs, he remembered… and the next day at the Cove. And that night in bed Liam had been kissing him and he bumped him accidently with it so he removed it from his wrist to avoid more accidents…

His father's watch was somewhere in Liam’s boyfriend’s bed!

Zayn leaned his hands on the dresser, and his head fell forward as a fresh surge of anger and pain raged through him. Liam's boyfriend probably had his father’s watch.

The doorbell rang downstairs, and he straightened up with a jerk. Taking a deep breath he walked downstairs and opened the door.

Harry was standing in the doorway, looking every inch the impressive business executive in an attractive dark suit and tie. "Please come in," Zayn said quietly. He stepped into the foyer, and he added, "I'll just get my wallet and keys, and we can leave. Or would you like a drink first?"

When he didn't immediately answer, he turned. "Is something wrong?"

Harry’s gaze moved over his perfect features and his styled hair. Appreciatively he examined his figure in the perfectly fit suit he wore. "Nothing that I can see," he said with a grin.

"Would you like a drink?" Zayn repeated, surprised but not insulted by his frank appraisal.

"Not unless you need one to bolster your courage to face Liam."

Zayn shook his head. "I don't need courage. He means nothing to me." Harry shot him an amused look as he ushered him out to his dark green Jaguar.

"I gather you want to convince him that you no longer have any romantic interest in him, is that it?"

Zayn had the uneasy feeling that Harry was not deceived by his facade of indifference—but then he had witnessed him crying his heart out. "That's right," he admitted.

"In that case—" Harry shifted gears as they thundered onto the expressway "—I'll give you some unsolicited advice. Why don't you spend a few minutes chatting with him about the party or your new job and then, with a very charming smile, excuse yourself and walk over to someone else—me, if I'm close at hand, and I'll try to be."

Zayn turned toward him with a soft smile of gratitude. "Thank you," he said. Feeling calm and confident, he relaxed. However he wondered why Harry would be so willing to help him.

But when the elevator doors swept open at the elegant revolving restaurant on the eighty-first floor, Zayn took one look at the animated crowd milling around, and a rope of tension coiled around his stomach. Liam was somewhere in this room.

At the bar, Harry ordered their drinks, and Zayn cautiously glanced around just as a group of people shifted to one side.

And there was Liam…

He was standing across the room, his brunet head thrown back as he laughed at something being said. Zayn's heart pounded uncontrollably as his gaze took in his handsome, tanned features; the elegant ease with which he wore his impeccably tailored dark suit; the casual way he held his drink in his hand. He noticed every painfully familiar thing about him. And then he noticed the beautiful blond guy who was smiling up at him, his hand resting familiarly on his sleeve.

Anguish poured through Zayn's veins like hot acid. It was Niall Horan, the man with Liam in the newspaper photograph. The suit he was wearing resembled the one Liam sent Zayn to wear at the party in Harbor Springs…he could be mistaken but they had the same size.

He jerked his gaze away and started to speak to Harry, but the taut set of his jaw as he, too, saw the beautiful blond man across the room stopped Zayn cold. On his face he saw angry desolation and helpless yearning—the same emotions he'd experienced a moment ago when he'd looked at Liam. Harry, he instantly concluded, was in love with Niall.

"Here's your drink," he finally said, handing it to Zayn. "It's time to begin our little charade." With a grim smile he took his elbow and started to guide him toward Liam and Niall.

Zayn drew back. "We surely don't have to rush right over to them, do we? If Liam is the host, it's his responsibility to make certain he greets everyone at his party."

Harry hesitated then nodded. "All right, we'll make them come to us."

During the next half hour, as they circulated among the guests, Zayn became increasingly convinced that he was right about Harry and Niall, and that his boss was trying to make both Liam and Niall jealous. Whenever Niall glanced in their direction, Harry would smile at Zayn or tease him about something. Zayn cooperated by trying to look as if he was having a positively wonderful time—but he did so for Harry’s sake, not for his. In his broken heart he knew that Liam didn't care what he did or with whom he did it.

He was sipping his second drink when Harry suddenly slipped his arm around him. He was so surprised that he overlooked the warning squeeze of his hand at his waist. "The group standing over there," he said with a deliberate smile, "is the board of directors—all wealthy, industrialists in their own right. The man on the left is Niall's father, Horace Horan. Horace's family," he explained, "has been in oil for generations."

"How dreadfully uncomfortable for them," Zayn joked, comically batting his eyelashes to make him laugh.

Harry shot him a warning look then he continued, "The man beside him is Crawford Jones. Crawford's family, and his wife's family, as well, are in bonds."

"I wonder why someone doesn't cut them loose?" Zayn teased.

"Because," said an achingly familiar, laughing voice right behind him, "Crawford and his wife are both ugly, and no one wants them running around loose, frightening little children."

Zayn's whole body stiffened at the sound of Liam's deep voice, and then he forced himself to turn. One look at the amusement in his brown eyes as he waited for his reaction made his pride come to his aid. Although he was crumbling into a thousand pieces inside, he managed to smile as he put his hand into his.

"Hello, Liam." He was so grateful that his voice was steady and his tone played on the edge of amused.

His fingers closed around his. "Hello, Zayn," he said, grinning.

He carefully pulled back his hand then turned a bright, expectant smile on Niall, whom Harry promptly introduced to him.

"I've been admiring your style all evening Zayn," Niall said. "I thought you were an invited model at first."

"Thank you." Without looking at Liam, Zayn added, "I noticed your attire the moment we walked in so classy." Then he turned to Harry. "Oh, there's Mr. Simon. He's been trying to talk to you all evening, Harry." With the last remaining ounce of his vanishing poise, Zayn raised his golden eyes to Liam's inscrutable features and said politely, "Will you excuse us, please?"

Shortly afterward Harry became absorbed in a conversation with a vice-president, so Zayn made an effort to be charming and witty and to manage on his own. He was soon surrounded by a flatteringly large cluster of interested, admiring females and males, and for the rest of the evening he scrupulously avoided looking in Liam's direction.

Twice he accidentally turned and encountered his piercing stare, and both times he casually looked right past him, as if he was searching for someone else. But after three hours, the tension of being in the same room with him had become unbearable.

He needed some solitude, a few minutes' respite from the constant pull of his presence. He needed to clear his mind with some fresh air. He looked for Harry and saw him standing near the bar, talking to a group of men. Zayn waited until he caught his attention, then he tipped his head slightly toward the sliding glass doors that opened onto the outdoor patio portion of the restaurant. He nodded, his expression telling him that he would join him there.

Turning, he slipped out doors into the welcome quiet of the cool evening. Wrapped in the velvet blackness of the night, he walked over to the chest-high wall that surrounded the patio restaurant and gazed at the glittering panorama of lights fanning out for miles, eighty-one stories below. He had succeeded—he had managed to treat Liam with a perfect combination of impersonal friendliness and smiling disregard. No blames, no justifiable indignation because he hadn't called him. He must have been amazed by his attitude, Zayn thought with tired satisfaction, as he lifted his glass and sipped his drink.

Behind him, he heard the whisper of the sliding glass door opening and closing, and he resigned himself to the loss of his badly needed solitude. Harry had come out to join him.

"How am I doing so far?" he asked, forcing a cheerful lightness into his voice.

"You're doing very well," Liam's voice mocked. "I'm half convinced that I'm invisible."

Zayn's hand shook so that the ice cubes in his glass clinked together. He turned slowly, trying to gather his scattered wits. He should be unconcerned and cultured, he reminded himself, as if what had happened between them had meant no more to him than it had to Liam. He forced his gaze upward past his white shirt and striped tie, to his humor-filled eyes. "It's a lovely party," he commented coldly.

"Have you missed me?"

Zayn's own eyes widened with pretended innocence. "I've been very busy."

Liam walked over to the wall, leaned his elbow on it and studied him in silence. He scrutinized his body closely before he shifted his gaze back to his face.

"So," he said with a smile, "you haven't missed me at all?"

"I've been busy," Zayn repeated, but his composure slipped a notch and he added, "And why should I miss you? You aren't the only willing and available gay man in Michigan."

His dark brow flicked upward in amused speculation. "Is that your way of telling me that after you tried sex with me, you decided you liked it and you've been… ah… adding to your experience?"

Dear God! He didn't even care if he'd gone to bed with others.

"Now that you've had other men to use as a basis for comparison, how do I rate?" he teased.

"That's an adolescent question," Zayn retorted derisively.

"You're right. Let's go." Tossing down the remainder of his drink in one swallow, he put his glass on one of the tables, took his and put it beside it, then caught his hand. He twisted his wrist and laced his strong fingers through his, and Zayn was so dizzily aware of his warm fingers firmly clasping his that he didn't stop to think until he had started to lead him toward an unidentified door around the corner of the building.

When he reached out to open the door, sanity returned, and he drew back.

"Liam, I would like to ask you a question, and I want an honest answer." He nodded and he said, "When I left you in Harbor Springs, did you ever intend to see me again—I mean… to take me out?"

Liam looked at him calmly. "No."

He was still reeling from the blow of that one word when he reached out again to open the door. "Where are we going?"

"To my place, or yours, it doesn't matter."

"Why?" he asked stubbornly.

He turned and looked at him. "For a smart boy, that's a very stupid question."

Zayn's temper exploded. "You are the most arrogant, egotistical…!" He stopped long enough to draw a steadying breath and said tightly, "I can't handle casual, unselective sex, and what's more, I don't like people who can—people like you!" he said with a high voice…exasperate…it was the first time that his vocabulary bank didn’t help him.

"You liked me rather well four weeks ago," he reminded him coolly.

His color rose and his eyes blazed with amber fire. "Four weeks ago I thought you were someone special!" he shot back angrily. "Four weeks ago, I didn't know you were a licentious millionaire playboy who changes beds as often as you change clothes. You're everything I despise in a person—you're unprincipled, promiscuous and morally corrupt! You're ruthless and selfish, and if I'd have known who you really were, I wouldn't have given you the time of day!"

Liam's eyes raked the wild young attractive boy standing before him in all his scornful defiance. In a dangerously soft voice, he challenged, "But now that you do know who and what I am you don't want anything to do with me? Is that right?"

"That's right!" Zayn hissed, "And I'll—" In one swift motion Liam caught his shoulders, jerked him into his arms, and captured his lips in a kiss of savage, insolent sensuality. The instant he touched him, every fiber of Zayn's being quickened with longing to know again the incredible pleasure of his hard body driving deeply into him. His arms went around his neck, and he arched against his hardening length. Liam groaned, gentling the kiss and deepening it hungrily.

"This is insane," he muttered, his mouth tormenting his with promises of his possession. ''Anyone could walk out here and see us."

And then his mouth was gone. He let him go, and Zayn leaned weakly against the railing behind him. "Are you coming?" he asked. Zayn shook his head. "No, I told you—"

"Spare me your lecture on my morality," he cut him off icily. "Go find some guy as naive as you are, and the two of you can fumble in the dark and learn together, if that's what you want."

Like a deep, clean cut that doesn't bleed for several moments after the wound is inflicted, Zayn was blessedly numb to the pain of his words; he felt only fury. "Wait," he said, as he pulled the door open, "your lover, or your boyfriend, or whatever Niall is, has my father’s watch. I left it in the bed, in his house, with his lover. He's welcome to you—I don't want you. But I do want my father’s watch back." The pain was beginning to seep through him like a steady ache, intensifying with each moment until his voice shook with it. "I want this watch back…"

The ceiling above Zayn's bed was a shadowy void as dismal as his heart as he went over the parting scene with Liam. He had brought Niall to the party, but he had wanted to leave with him. At least tonight he must have desired him more than he desired Niall. Perhaps he'd been a fool not to go with him.

 

Furiously he rolled onto his stomach. Where was his pride and self-respect? How could he even consider having some fleeting, sordid relationship with that arrogant, unprincipled Dom Juan? He would not think of him anymore. He would put him out of his mind. Permanently!

Chapter Text

With that resolution firmly implanted in his mind, Zayn drove to work on Monday and threw himself wholeheartedly into his job.

At noontime some of the other secretaries invited him to join them for drinks after work at a local pub, and Zayn happily agreed. When he returned from lunch, the phone on his desk was ringing. Putting down his side bag, he glanced over his shoulder into Harry's empty office, and then answered it. "Mr. Malik?" It was Mr. Vernon. "Please report to me in the personnel department immediately."

"We haven't much time, so I'll be brief," Mr. Vernon said five minutes later, when Zayn was seated in his office. "To begin with, I should explain that the information contained on every employee's application for employment is automatically fed into the Global Industries computers. Then, whenever a project requires someone with specialized skills or talents, the personnel department is notified and a computer search is made. This morning the director of Global Industries personnel received a top priority call for an experienced, skilled secretary who is fluent in Italian. You are the computer's selection. Actually, you're the computer's second choice. The first was a woman named Lucia Palermo, who has worked on this project before, but she is on sick leave. You should expect to be away from your regular position every afternoon for the next three weeks. I will notify Mr. Styles of your reassignment when he returns from lunch, and I'll arrange for another secretary to work for him in the afternoons while you're working on this project."

Zayn's objections to this arbitrary reassignment tumbled out in a flow of disjointed words. "But I'm still trying to learn my present job and Har—Mr. Styles—isn't going to be at all pleased about—"

"Mr. Styles has no choice," he interrupted coolly. "I don't know the exact nature of the project that requires your fluency in Italian, but I do know it is top priority, confidential." He stood up. "You are to report to Mr. Payne's office immediately."

Zayn’s eyes nearly went out of their sockets."Whaaat?" He gasped, leaping to his feet in alarm. "Does Mr. Payne know I'm the one who's being assigned to him?"

Mr. Vernon gave him a dismissive look. "Mr. Payne is in a meeting at present, and his secretary did not feel that he should be interrupted to discuss this minor substitution."

An atmosphere of suppressed excitement seemed to pervade the eightieth floor as Zayn walked across the thick, emerald green carpeting toward the circular desk in the center of Liam's private reception area. "My name is Zayn Malik," he told the receptionist, a beautiful brunette. "Mr. Payne requested a bilingual assistant, and I've been sent here from personnel."

The receptionist glanced over her shoulder as the doors to Liam's office opened and six men emerged. "I'll tell Mr. Payne that you're here," she said politely. As she reached for the telephone it began to ring, and she picked it up. With her hand over the mouthpiece, she whispered to Zayn, "Just go on in. Mr. Payne is expecting you."

No, Zayn thought nervously, he's expecting Lucia Palermo.

The tall rosewood doors to Liam's office were slightly ajar, and he was standing behind his desk, his back to him, talking to someone on the telephone. Drawing a deep breath, Zayn walked into the immense cream-carpeted suite and silently closed the doors behind him.

"Right," Liam said into the telephone after a pause. "Call the Washington office and tell our labor relations team that I want them at Global Oil in Dallas tonight."

He put his disregarded ear piece to talk more at ease as he picked up a file from his desk and began reading it. He had removed his suit coat, and as he slowly flipped the pages, his white shirt stretched rippling across his muscled shoulders and tapered back. Zayn's hands tingled as he recalled the rippling strength of that powerful body, the feel of his warm, tanned skin beneath his fingertips…

Tearing his gaze away, he tried to still the treacherous sensations unfolding inside him. Off to his left were the three moss green sofas that formed a wide U around an immense glass-topped coffee table. Liam had knelt there to examine his ankle the night he'd met him…

"Notify the Oklahoma refinery that they may have some problems too, until this gets straightened out," Liam said calmly into the phone. There was a brief pause. "Fine. Get back to me when you've met with the labor relations team in Dallas." He hung up the phone and flipped over another page of the file he was reading.

Zayn opened his mouth to announce his presence and then stopped. He couldn't very well call him Liam, and he absolutely refused to humbly and respectfully call him "Mr. Payne." As he started toward his rosewood desk, he said instead, "Your receptionist told me to come in."

Liam turned abruptly. His eyes were unreadable as he casually tossed the file folder onto his desk, shoved his hands deeply into his pant pockets and silently contemplated him. He waited until he was standing directly across his desk from him before he said quietly, "You've chosen a poor time to apologize, Zayn. I have to leave for a luncheon appointment in five minutes."

Zayn almost choked on his outrageous presumption that he owed him an apology, but he merely favored him with an amused smile. "I hate to bruise your ego, but I didn't come up here to apologize. I came because Mr. Vernon in personnel sent me.

Liam's jaw tightened. "Why?" he snapped.

"To help with some special project that requires an additional secretary for the next three weeks."

"Then you're wasting my time," he informed him bitingly. "In the first place, you aren't qualified or experienced enough to work at this level. In the second place, I don't want you here."

His contempt brought Zayn's simmering fury to a rolling boil, and he couldn't stop himself from goading him.

"Perfect!" he said brightly, backing away a step. "Now would you just be kind enough to call Mr. Vernon and tell him that? I've already given him my reasons for not wanting to work for you, but he insisted that I come up here."

Liam jabbed at the intercom. "Get me Vernon," he snapped, and then his gaze sliced back to Zayn’s. "Just what 'reasons' did you give him?"

"I told him," Zayn lied wrathfully, "that you are an arrogant conceited unemotional playboy, and that I'd rather be dead than work for you."

"You told Vernon that?" he asked in a low, threatening voice.

Zayn kept the smile fixed on his face. "Yep." He said popping the P.

"What did Vernon say?"

Unable to endure the icy blast of his gaze, Zayn pretended to study his nicely cut fingernails. "Oh, he said that a lot of people you've slept with probably feel that way about you, but that I should put company loyalty above my understandable revulsion for you."

"Zayn," Liam said silkily, "you're fired."

Inside, Zayn was a churning mass of rage and pain, but he held on to his composure. With a regal inclination of his head, he said, "You know, I was positive you wouldn't want me to work for you either, and I tried to tell Mr. Vernon that."

He started toward the rosewood doors. "But he felt that when you realized I'm bilingual, you'd change your mind."

"Bilingual?" Liam scoffed contemptuously.

Zayn turned toward him with his hand on the doorknob. "Oh, I’m not just bilingual I’m multilingual, but so it happens that I can tell you exactly what I think of you in perfect Italian." He saw a nerve jerk in his tightly clenched jaw, and he added in a low, biting voice, "But it's much more satisfying to say it to you in the language you can understand: you're a bastard!"

Wrenching open the door, Zayn marched across the luxurious reception area. He was punching the button to summon an elevator when Liam's hand clamped over his wrist. "Get back into my office," he growled between his teeth.

"Take your hand off me!" Zayn whispered furiously.

"There are four people watching us," he warned. "Either you walk into my office on your own, or I'll drag you in there in front of them."

"Go ahead and try it!" he raged right back at him. "I'll sue you for assault all four of them as witnesses!"

Unexpectedly, his threat wrung a reluctant, admiring smile from him. "You have the most incredibly beautiful eyes. When you're angry, they—"

"Save it!" Zayn hissed, jerking violently at his wrist.

"I have been," he teased suggestively.

"Don't talk to me like that—I don't want any part of you!"

"Little liar. You want every part of me." Liam retorted in a knowing low voice.

His mocking confidence knocked the breath, and the fight, out of Zayn. Defeated, he leaned his shoulder against the marble wall and looked at him with helpless pleading. "Liam, please let me go."

"I can't." His forehead creased into a dark frown of irritated bewilderment. "Whenever I see you, I can't seem to let you go."

"You fired me!" he retorted incredulously.

Liam grinned. "I just rehired you."

Zayn was too weakened by the turbulence of the last few minutes to resist that devastating puppy smile of his, and besides, he desperately needed this job. Resentfully, he shoved away from the wall and accompanied him into his secretary's office, which connected to his by a door.

"Mary," he said to the gray-haired woman whose sharp, bespectacled glance instantly lifted to him, "this is Zayn Malik. Zayn will be working on the Rossi project. While I'm at lunch, get him settled here at the spare desk and have him start translating the letter and email that came from Rossi this morning." He turned to Zayn with a warmly intimate smile in his eyes. "You and I are going to have a long talk when I get back."

Mary Callahan, as the nameplate on her desk proclaimed, did not seem any more enthusiastic about Zayn's presence in her office than Zayn himself was. "You're rather young, Mr. Malik," Mary summarized, her pale blue gaze scraping Zayn's face and figure.

"I'm aging quickly," Zayn replied. Ignoring the older woman's piercing look, he settled into the secretarial desk opposite Mary's in the large office.

At one-thirty, Mary's telephone rang, and Zayn got up from his desk to answer it.

"Mary?" a cultured male voice asked doubtfully.

"No, this is Zayn Malik," he said in his best secretarial manner. "Miss Callahan is away from her office. May I take a message?"

"Oh, hello, Zayn," the voice said with friendly surprise. "This is Niall Horan. I don't want to interrupt Liam, but would you tell him I'm arriving on the late flight from New York tomorrow? Tell him I'll go directly to the Recess Club from the airport, and I'll join him there at seven o'clock. He has this weird habit of shutting his personal phone when he’s at work…"

Zayn's astonishment that Niall obviously remembered him was outweighed by his resentment at having to take messages from Liam's boyfriends. "He's still at lunch, but I'll give him the message," he promised briskly. He hung up the phone and it instantly rang again. This time it was woman with a low, husky Southern drawl. She asked for "Liliii."

Zayn squeezed the receiver so hard that his hand ached, but he said courteously, "I'm sorry, he isn't in at the moment. May I take a message?"

"Oh dahm," the sexy voice breathed. "This is Vicky. He didn't tell me whether the party Saturday night is formal or not, and I haven't the foggiest notion what to wear. I'll call him at home tonight."

You do that! Zayn thought, almost slamming the phone down.

But by the time Liam returned from lunch, he was calm again. For the next three weeks, he promised himself, he was going to stick to his original plan and treat Liam with the polite friendliness he would show any of his colleagues. If he pressed him, he would merely act amused, and if that annoyed him—well, good!

The intercom on his desk buzzed. Liam's rich voice sent a delicious little shiver through him but he repressed the feelings. "Zayn, will you come in here please?"

He was obviously ready to have their "long talk" now. Zayn picked up his messages and walked into the office.

"Yes?" he said, lifting his dark brows in inquiry.

Liam was perched on the edge of his desk, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Come here," he said quietly.

Zayn warily contemplated his relaxed stance and the lazy, caressing look in his eyes. He came forward, but stopped just out of his reach.

He said, "That's not close enough."

"It's more than close enough."

Amusement gleamed in Liam’s brown eyes, and his voice deepened coaxingly. "We need to straighten out some personal matters between us. Why don't we do it over dinner tonight?" he suggested.

Zayn courteously refused with a half-truth. "I'm sorry, I already have a date."

"All right, how about tomorrow night?" he asked, holding out his hand for his.

Zayn plunked his messages into his outstretched palm. "You already have a date—Mr. Horan at seven at the Recess Club."

Liam ignored that reminder. "I'm leaving for Italy on Wednesday—"

"Have a good trip," Zayn interrupted lightly.

"I'll be back on Saturday," he continued with a trace of impatience. "We'll go—"

"Sorry," Zayn said with an amused little smile that was intended to annoy him. "I'm busy Saturday, and so are you. Vicky called to find out if the party Saturday night is formal or not." And then because he was thoroughly relishing his visible frustration, he added with a dazzling smile, "She calls you Liii. I think that's adorable—Vicky and Liliii."

"I'll break the date," Liam stated tersely.

"But I won't break mine. Now, is there anything else?"

"Yes, dammit, there is. I hurt you and I'm sorry…"

"I accept your apology," Zayn said brightly. "Anyway, the damage was only to my pride."

He studied him with narrowed eyes. "Zayn, I'm trying to apologize to you so that—"

"You already apologized," Zayn interrupted.

"So that we can go on from here," he finished implacably. After a thoughtful pause, he continued, "For both our sakes, we'll have to be discreet in order to avoid gossip within the corporation, but I think if we're reasonably cautious when we're together, we can manage."

Fury, not pleasure, tinted Zayn's perfect cheeks, but he managed to sound merely perplexed. "Manage what… a sleazy affair?"

"Zayn," Liam said in a warning voice, "I want you and I know you want me. I also know you're angry with me for initiating you sexually and then—"

"Oh, but I'm not!" Zayn protested with deceptive sweetness. "I wouldn't trade that night for the world." Taking a cautious step backward, he added lightly, "In fact, I've already decided that if I ever have a son or daughter my age, I'll give you a call. If you're still 'active' I'd like to send them to you so that you—"

One step wasn't enough. Liam lunged forward, seized his wrists, and jerked him between his legs, his muscular thighs clamped against his slim ones. His eyes were burning with an alarming combination of anger and desire. "You pretty outrageous…" His mouth swooped down, seizing his lips with raw, devastating hunger and ruthless insistence.

Zayn clamped his teeth together, resisting the shattering persuasion of his kiss. With a supreme physical effort, he twisted his face from his. "Damn you, stop it!" he choked, burying his face against his chest.

His grip on his shoulders eased slightly, and when he spoke, his voice was rough with confusion.

"If I could stop this, believe me, I would!" Threading his fingers through his hair, he cupped his face between his hands and forced him to look at him. "After you left Harbor Springs, I kept thinking about you. All during the meeting at lunch today I couldn't concentrate on anything but you. I can't stop it."

His admission shattered Zayn's resistance, subduing and seducing him in a way that no kiss could have.

Liam saw his capitulation in the trembling softness of his lips. He stared at them, the banked fires in his eyes leaping into flames as he slowly lowered his head again.

"Is this the 'top priority confidential' project that required Zayn's presence up here?" Harry's amused drawl aborted the kiss, and their heads snapped around toward Mary's office, where he was lounging in the connecting doorway.

Zayn wrenched free of Liam's arms as Harry straightened from the doorway and strolled into the office. "This makes things rather awkward for Zayn," he continued thoughtfully to Liam. "In the first place, I'm afraid Mary witnessed a bit of this scene, and since she's blindly loyal to you, she's bound to blame Zayn."

Zayn's shame at Mary's having seen them was totally eclipsed by his shock over Harry's next announcement. "In the second place," he lied with a bland grin, "the date you wanted Zayn to break on Saturday happens to be with me. Since I am one of your oldest and closest friends, and since there are seven nights in a week, I don't think it's very sporting of you to try to usurp my night."

Liam's brows drew together in annoyance, but Harry continued serenely. "Since we both intend to pursue Zayn, I think we ought to establish some ground rules. Now," he mused, "is he fair game here at the office or not? I'm perfectly willing to abide by—"

Zayn finally recovered his power of speech. "I refuse to listen to another word of this," he exclaimed as he stalked toward Mary's office.

Harry stepped out of his way, but kept his challenging smile aimed directly at Liam. "As I was saying, Liam, I'm perfectly willing—"

"I really hope," Liam interrupted shortly, "that you have a valid reason for this unscheduled visit of yours."

Harry relented with a chuckle. "As a matter of fact, I do. Curtis called while I was out. I think he wants to talk about a deal…"

Zayn was already through the doorway of Mary's office when the name hit him. Curtis. His palms began to perspire. Curtis was one of the six names Sophia Sinclair had asked him to listen for.

Curtis wants to talk about a deal.

He sank into his chair, the blood pounding in his ears as he strained to hear more from Liam's office, but the voices had dropped and the furious clatter of Mary's keyboard made it impossible.

Curtis could be a first name rather than a last name. Michael Curtis was the name Sophia had given him, but Harry had merely mentioned Curtis. Zayn groped for the Global Industries telephone directory in the desk drawer. Two men named Curtis were listed—perhaps it was one of them. He couldn't believe Harry would act as an intermediary for the spy whose treachery was strangling Sophia's company. Not Harry.

"If you don't have any work to do—" Mary Callahan's voice was like an icicle "—I'll be happy to give you some of mine."

Zayn flushed and doggedly resumed his work.

Liam was in meetings for the rest of the day, and at five o'clock Zayn breathed a sigh of relief. Back downstairs on Pay-co's floor, the sounds of raised voices and closing drawers signaled the end of another workday. Zayn nodded absently at the group who reminded him to join them at the pub. His eyes were on Harry as he came striding around the corner to his desk.

"Want to talk?" he asked, inclining his head toward his office.

"Well?" he teased when Zayn was seated in the leather chair in front of his desk. "Go ahead—we've certainly passed the point where we need to maintain any sort of formality between us."

Zayn nervously pushed his falling hair from forehead. "What made you stand there and… and listen to everything? What made you say the things you did about us—you and me?"

Harry leaned back in his chair, a wry grin tugging at his lips. "When I came back from lunch and found out you'd been reassigned to Liam, I went up to be certain that you were doing all right. Mary told me that you'd just gone into Liam's office, so I opened the door and looked in to see if you needed rescuing. There you were—smiling angelically at him while you gave him messages from other people and turned down his offer of an 'affair.' "

Resting his head against the back of his chair, Harry closed his eyes and laughed. "Oh Zayn, you were magnificent! I was just about to leave when you pushed him too far and told him you'd call him when your child was of age, so that he could, err… initiate them, as I gather he initiated you?"

He opened one eye, saw Zayn's scarlet cheeks and waved a dismissing hand.

"Anyway, you seemed to be resisting Liam's physical retaliation well enough. I had just decided to leave when Liam put on the pressure and told you he couldn't concentrate on anything but you. You swallowed the line and started to sink, so I stepped in to give you time to recover."

"Why?" Zayn persisted.

He hesitated for a suspiciously long time. "I suppose because I saw you crying over him, and because I don't want you to get hurt. For one thing, if you do get hurt, you'll resign, and I happen to like having you around." His green eyes warmed with admiration as he studied him. "Not only are you extremely decorative young man, but you're witty, intelligent and capable."

Zayn acknowledged the compliment with a smile, but he wouldn't let the matter drop. He had explained why he'd interrupted, but not why he'd deliberately made Liam think there was something between Zayn and him. "And," he speculated boldly, "if Liam thinks you're interested in me, I'll become even more of a challenge. If that happens, he'll spend more time and effort pursuing me, won't he?"

Before Harry could reply, Zayn finished smoothly, "And if he's busy chasing me, he won't have much time to devote to Niall Horan, will he?"

Harry's eyes narrowed. "Liam, Niall and I went to college together. We've been friends for years."

"Close friends?" Zayn prodded.

He shot him a piercing look, and then dismissed the matter with a shrug. "Niall and I were engaged, but that was over years ago." He gave a devilish grin. "Maybe I ought to do exactly what I told Liam I was going to do and pursue you myself."

Zayn smiled. "I have a feeling you're as jaded and cynical as he is." Harry looked so stung that he added teasingly, "Well, you are—but still very attractive, for all that."

"Thanks," he said dryly.

"Were you and Liam fraternity brothers?" he asked, helplessly longing to learn more about Liam.

"Nope, Liam was at college on a scholarship. He couldn't have afforded to belong to my fraternity. Don't look sorry for him, you lovely idiot. He didn't have money, but he had brains—he's a brilliant engineer. He also had the girls and the guys including several I wanted."

"I wasn't feeling sorry for him," Zayn denied, standing up to leave.

"By the way—" Harry stopped him "—I spoke with Mary and set her straight about who was seduced by whom a few weeks ago."

Zayn sighed defeated. "I wish you hadn't…"

"Be glad I did. Mary worked for Liam's grandfather, and she's known Liam since he was a baby. She's fiercely loyal to him. She's also a staunch moralist with a particular dislike for aggressive young women and men who pursue Liam. She'd have made your life a living hell."

"If she's such a faithful moralist," Zayn said defiantly, "I can't imagine how she can possibly work for Liam."

Harry winked. "Liam and I are great favorites of hers. She's convinced that the two of us aren't beyond redemption."

Zayn stopped in the doorway and turned. "Harry," he said awkwardly. "Was I the only reason you came upstairs? I mean, did you make up that excuse about Curtis wanting to talk about a deal?"

Harry's emerald eyes leveled curiously on him. "No, that was the truth. But it was just an excuse." He chuckled as he opened his briefcase and began shoving papers into it. "As Liam rather bluntly informed me when you left, the Curtis matter wasn't urgent enough to justify my coming up there and interrupting him. Why do you ask about Curtis?" he added.

Zayn's blood ran cold. He felt transparent and obvious. "No reason, I just wondered."

He picked up his briefcase. "Come on, I'll walk you outside."

They crossed the marble lobby together, and Harry pulled open one of the heavy glass doors for Zayn to precede him. The first thing he saw when he stepped into the sunlight was Liam striding quickly toward a long, sleek silver limousine waiting for him at the curb.

As Liam turned to slide into the back seat, he glanced toward the building and saw them. His gaze sliced over Harry before settling on Zayn. His chocolate brown eyes smiled a promise at him—and a warning: tomorrow he would not be so easily put off.

"Where to, Mr. Payne?" the chauffeur asked as Liam settled back into the luxurious car.

"Metro Airport." He turned his head to watch Zayn cross the wide boulevard with Harry. With sheer aesthetic appreciation he contemplated the gentle sway of his hips as he tried to catch up with Harry’s fast stride. There was a quiet self-confidence, a pride, in his posture that lent grace to his movements.

Now that he thought about it, Liam realized that everything about Zayn appealed to him. In the time he had known him, he had amused him, infuriated him and sexually excited him. He was laughter and sensuality, gentleness and defiance all wrapped up in an extremely alluring package.

Leaning back against the soft seat, Liam considered the affair he was planning to have with him. It was insanity to get involved with one of his employees; if he'd known it was going to happen, he'd have gotten him a job in one of his friends' companies. But it was too late now. He wanted him.

He had wanted him since that first night, when he had turned around to hand him a glass of tonic and had found not a disheveled teenager but an exquisitely attractive man. Liam smiled, remembering the expression on his face when he'd observed his shock. Zayn had anticipated his surprise, and he had openly enjoyed every instant of it.

He had decided that night to keep him at a distance. He was too young for him… he hadn't liked the unexplainable surge of desire he'd experienced when he laughingly warned him if his "shoe" fit, he was going to turn him into a handsome puppy. If his desire hadn't overridden his reason when he'd taken him to Tony's for lunch, he'd never have invited him to Harbor Springs. But he had taken him there.

And he had been a virgin…

Liam's conscience pricked him, and he sighed irritably. Hell, if he hadn't have sex with him another man would have, and soon. Harry Styles wanted him. So did a dozen others, he thought, remembering the calculating, avidly admiring way that many of his executives had watched him at the party on Saturday.

A vision of Zayn standing outside on the balcony that night materialized in Liam's mind. "Four weeks ago, I thought you were someone special!" he'd burst out, looking like an angry angel. "Four weeks ago, I didn't know that you were unprincipled, promiscuous and morally corrupt!" He certainly knew how to express his opinions, he thought mockingly.

Every instinct he possessed warned him that an affair with Zayn would complicate his life. Already he had gotten under his skin. He should have stuck to his decision to avoid all further contact with him, the decision he'd made when he sent him away from Harbor Springs. He would have stuck to it if he hadn't seen him at the party Saturday night, looking so sexy and glamorous in that suit.

Zayn had wanted him that night even though he'd denied it. And he'd wanted him today in his office too. One of the first things he was going to teach that lovely, exasperating pretty boy was to accept his own desires. Then he was going to bathe his senses in every exquisite sensation he could give him in bed. He would teach him everything he knew. He remembered his sweet, inexperienced attempts at doing so that night in Harbor Springs, and suddenly his pants were too tight for his liking. The effect he had on him was incredible, he thought grimly as he shifted position.

What if he couldn't cope emotionally with an affair? What if he fell apart when it was over? He didn't want to hurt him. Contrary to Zayn’s beliefs he was not that heartless.

Liam reached down and opened his briefcase, extracting the contracts for the land acquisition he was about to negotiate with the men who were flying in to meet with him. It was too late to worry about the possible consequences; he wanted him too badly—and Zayn wanted him.

Chapter Text

At one o'clock the next afternoon, Zayn went up to the eightieth floor and was informed by Mary that Mr. Payne wanted to see him immediately. Fighting down his nervous tension, Zayn smoothed his blazer, checked his quiff, and walked into his office. "You wanted to see me?" he said politely.

Liam tossed the documents he was reading down on his desk, leaned back in his chair and lazily surveyed him. "You styled your hair the same way you had the day we left for Harbor Springs," he said, his deep voice pitched seductively low. "I like it."

"In that case," Zayn replied lightly, "I'll start discarding the wax."

He grinned. "So that's the way we're going to play it, is it?"

"Play what?"

"This little game we started yesterday."

"I am not playing your game," he said with quiet firmness. "I do not want the prize." But internally he did. He wanted him forever, for himself. And he despised himself for that same stupid weakness.

Liam observed his troubled expression with a feeling of satisfaction and nodded toward the chair in front of his desk. "Sit down. I was just about to review a file I had sent up."

Relieved that he was ready to get to work, Zayn sat down, but his breath caught in his lungs when he picked up the file and opened it. CONFIDENTIAL—PERSONNEL FILE was stamped across the front, and beneath it was a typed label that read, ZAYN J. MALIK/EMPLOYEE NO. 98753.

A flush tinted his perfect cheekbones as he remembered deliberately failing his tests and listing president as his first preference for a job. Liam would see that and—

"Hmmm," he said, "Zayn Jawad Malik. Jawad is a strangely beautiful name and so is Zayn. They suit you."

Unable to endure the bitter sweet torment of having Liam flirt with him, Zayn said repressively, "It means horse…Jawad means horse."

Liam ignored that and continued aloud. "Color of eyes, brown." He regarded him over the top of the file, his brown eyes intimate and teasing. "They are definitely Amber not just brown. One could lose himself in those eyes of yours—they're gorgeous. "

"My right eye used to wobble unless I wore my glasses," Zayn informed him casually. "They had to operate on it."

"A little boy with wobbly amber eyes and glasses on his little nose," he reflected with a slow grin. "I'll bet you were cute."

"I looked studious, not cute."

Liam's lips twitched as if he knew exactly what he was trying to do. He turned over the application, and Zayn watched him scanning it, his gaze nearing the bottom where he had listed his job preferences. Zayn knew the exact instant he spotted what he had written.

"What the Hell!" he said, astonished, and then he burst out laughing. "Vernon and I are going to have to be careful. Which of our jobs do you want the most?"

"Neither," Zayn said shortly. "I did that because on my way to the interview at Pay-co, I decided I didn't want to work there after all."

"So you purposely flunked your tests, is that it?"

"That's it."

"Zayn…" he began in a soft seductive voice that instantly put him on his guard.

"I've had the dubious pleasure of reading through your file," Zayn cut in coolly. "Your public-relations file," he clarified, at his stunned look. "I know all about Nick and the French movie star. I even saw the picture of you that was taken with Niall Horan the day after you sent me away because a 'business acquaintance' was coming to see you."

"And," he concluded evenly, "You were hurt."

"I was disgusted," Zayn shot back, refusing to admit to any of the anguish he'd felt. He caught hold of his temper and said with a measure of his former calm, "Now can we please get down to work?"

A moment later Liam was called into a meeting that lasted the rest of the afternoon, so Zayn was left in peace…a peace that was disturbed by Mary Callahan's frequent thoughtful glances.

***

At ten o'clock the next morning, Harry, looking harried, appeared at Zayn's desk. "Liam just called. He wants you up there right now, and he's going to need you for the rest of the day." Sighing, he gestured toward the report he'd been preparing for him. "Go ahead. I'll finish that."

Mary was gone when Zayn arrived, but Liam was seated at his desk, his suit coat and tie removed, his dark head bent as he concentrated on the notes he was writing. His shirtsleeves were rolled up on his tanned forearms and his collar was unbuttoned. Zayn's gaze drifted to the tanned column of his throat. Not so long ago, he remembered, he had pressed his lips to the hollow there at his pulse point…

He looked at his beautifully styled brown hair and the ruggedly chiseled angles of his jaw and cheek. He was the handsomest, most captivating man he had ever seen, he thought with a pang of longing. But when he spoke, his voice was calmly detached.

"Harry said you needed me up here right away. What do you want me to do for you?"

Liam turned and looked at him, a smile sweeping across his features. "Now there's a question," he teased.

He pointedly ignored his sexual innuendo with an eye roll.

"I understand that you have an urgent task for me."

"I do."

"What is it?"

"I want you to go to the coffee shop and get me something to eat."

"That—" Zayn choked. "That's your idea of urgent?"

"Very urgent," Liam replied coolly. "I happen to be starved."

Zayn clenched his hands into fists. "To you I may merely be some frivolous, amusing sexual object, but downstairs I have an important job to do, and Harry needs me."

"I need you, baby. I've been here since—"

"Don't you dare call me baby!" he burst out, reeling with unwanted joy at the casual endearment.

"Why not?" he coaxed, a smile lighting his face, "You're a sweet lovely baby."

"You won't think so if you call me baby again," Zayn spat threateningly.

His brows drew together at his tone, and Zayn had to remind himself that he was still his boss.

"Oh all right!" he capitulated ungraciously. "What do you eat for breakfast?"

"Irritating secretaries," he mocked.

Zayn stalked back to his temporary office and discovered that Mary had returned. "You won't need money, Zayn," the woman said. "We have an account set up at the coffee shop."

Two things hit Zayn at once: the first was that Mary had just called him Zayn instead of her usual frosty Mr. Malik. And the second was that she was smiling—and what a smile Mary Callahan had! It seemed to glow from inside her, lighting her face and softening her austere features in a way that made her seem absolutely lovely.

Zayn found himself returning that contagious smile. "What does he eat for breakfast?" he sighed.

Mary's eyes twinkled. "Irritating secretaries."

As if to compensate for sending him on such an unimportant errand, Liam thanked him for the sweet rolls he brought him and gallantly insisted on pouring him a cup of coffee.

"I'll fix it myself, but thank you anyway," Zayn said firmly. To his sublime discomfort, Liam strolled over to the bar and casually leaned against it, watching him add cream and sugar.

When he reached out to pick up his cup, Liam put his hand on his arm. "Zayn," he said quietly, "I'm sorry I hurt you. Believe me; I never intended to do that."

"There's no need for you to keep apologizing," he replied, carefully pulling his arm away. "Let's just forget the whole thing happened." He picked up his cup and started toward his desk.

"By the way," he said casually, "I'm leaving for Italy tonight. But beginning on Monday, I'll need you up here in the mornings too."

"For how long?" Zayn asked, appalled.

He grinned. "For as long as it takes me to win this game of ours."

***

He had scarcely put down his coffee cup when Liam buzzed him on the intercom and asked him to come into his office and take an email to Rossi, the Italian inventor. "And bring your coffee," he invited.

In the middle of his rapid-fire dictation he said softly, without pausing, "When the sun reflects your eyes shines like spun gold with freckles of olive green," and launched back into his dictation. Zayn, who had inadvertently typed half of the compliment down on the keyboard, gave him a killing glance and then deleted it with loud angry thuds, and he chuckled.

At one o'clock he asked him to sit in on a meeting in his office and take notes. In the middle of the meeting, Zayn glanced up to find his heavy-lidded gaze on his legs. His whole body turned warm, and he shifted in his seat. He looked into his eyes and Liam smirked knowingly.

When the meeting adjourned Zayn stood to leave, but Liam stopped him. "Have you finished typing your Italian translation of that list of questions I dictated, so that Rossi will understand what I want to know?" Flicking a charmingly apologetic smile in his direction, he added, "I hate to rush you, baby, but I have to take it with me to Casano."

Why, Zayn wondered resentfully, did his stupid heart turn over when he called him baby? "It's ready," he answered.

"Good. And have you figured out from the work you've been doing what the Rossi project is all about?"

He shook his head. "No, not really. It's all too technical. I know Rossi is a chemist who lives in Casano and that he's invented something you're interested in. And I know you're considering financing his research as well as producing his product in the future."

"I should have explained it to you before. It would have made your work up here more enjoyable," he said, changing unexpectedly from seducer to considerate boss. "Rossi has developed a chemical that appears to make certain synthetic materials, including nylon, completely waterproof, fireproof, weatherproof and soil-proof, without changing the appearance or texture of the original substance. Carpeting and clothing made of these synthetics would be virtually impossible to wear out or ruin."

He was treating him like a business associate, and Zayn relaxed in his company for the first time since their weekend together. "But does the chemical really work, without changing or harming anything?"

"Damned if I know," Liam admitted wryly. "But I intend to find out on this trip. So far all I've seen are demonstrations. I need a sample to bring back with me for testing in a legitimate lab, but Rossi is paranoid about secrecy. He says he's testing me. "

Zayn wrinkled his nose. "He sounds a little crazy."

"He's eccentric as hell," Liam sighed. "He lives in a little cottage in Casano, a tiny Italian fishing village. He keeps dogs to protect him, but his laboratory is in a shed a half mile away, protected by nothing."

"At least you've seen demonstrations."

"Demonstrations don't mean much without thorough testing. For example, his chemical may make something waterproof—but what will happen if milk is spilled on it? Or a other liquids of different density?"

"But what if it's everything he says it is?" Zayn asked.

"In that case I'll put together a consortium—an alliance between Global Industries and two other cooperating corporations—and we'll present the world with Rossi's discovery."

"He's probably afraid that if he gives you a sample to test, someone at the lab will analyze it and learn what chemicals he's using. Then they could steal his discovery."

"You're right," he replied with a grin. Without warning, he put his arm around his and tipped his chin with his free hand. "I'll bring you a present from Italy. What would you like?"

"My father’s watch," Zayn said flatly. With a sharp jerk backward, he freed himself from his arms, and then he whipped around and marched into Mary's office. Liam's throaty chuckle followed him.

As he watched him walk away, Liam felt a strange, unfamiliar emotion budding deep inside him, a tenderness that made him feel vulnerable. The sight of Zayn pleased him; his special smile warmed him and touching him sent desire exploding through his system. He had self-confidence and a natural, artless sophistication. In comparison to the other people in his life, Zayn was doe eyed innocence and he wore his heart on is sleeve—and yet he had the courage to openly defy him and the strength to resist the pressure he was putting on him.

His smile faded. He was pressuring him, and he had never done that to anyone in his life. He was stalking him, backing him into corners, and he was disgusted with himself for it. And yet he couldn't stop… He felt more for him than just lust; he genuinely liked him. He admired his defiance and his stubbornness, and even his idealism.

That unnamed and unwanted emotion stirred inside him again, and Liam mentally cast it aside. He wanted him because he was an attractive enigma. He liked him and he desired him…Nothing more.

At 4:55 a joint conference call that Liam had scheduled came through from California, Oklahoma and Texas. When Mary told him it was ready, Liam asked her to send Zayn in to take notes.

"He's putting it on Voice Call," Mary explained. "He'll only need you to take down any figures that are discussed."

The call was already under way when Zayn walked into his office. Liam gestured toward his chair and got up so that he could sit at his desk and take notes. Two minutes after Zayn sat down; Liam leaned over him from behind, braced his hands on the desk on either side of him and brushed his lips across his hair.

Zayn's self-control snapped. "Damn you, stop it!" he burst out.

"What?"

"What?"

"What?" Three masculine voices chorused.

Liam leaned toward the speaker and drawled, "My secretary thinks you're talking too fast, and he'd like you to stop it so he can catch up."

"Well, all he had to do was ask," one offended male replied.

"I hope you're satisfied!" Zayn whispered furiously.

"I'm not," Liam chuckled in his ear. "But I'm going to be."

Fully intending to leave him to take his own notes, Zayn slammed his notebook closed and tried to shove his chair back. Liam's body blocked the chair. He twisted around to say something scornful, and Liam’s lips captured his in a kiss that forced his head against the back of the chair, tripled his pulse rate and robbed him of any intelligent thought. When he took his mouth away, he was too shaken with desire to do anything except stare at him.

"What do you think, Liam?" a voice asked over the speaker.

"I think it gets better every time," he answered huskily.

When the call was finally over, Liam pressed a button on his desk, and Zayn saw the door leading into Mary's office swing shut electronically. He then grasped his arms and drew him out of the chair, turning him to face him. His mouth came closer to his, and Zayn felt helplessly drawn into his magnetic spell. "Don't!" he pleaded "Please don't do this to me." He could not resist him…why was he so weak!

His hands tightened on his arms. "Why can't you just admit you want me and enjoy the consequences?"

"All right," he said shamefully, "You win. I want you… I admit it." He saw the gleam of triumph in his eyes, so he lifted his chin in challenge. "And when I was eight years old, I also wanted a monkey I saw in a pet store."

The triumph faded. "And?" he sighed irritably letting go of him.

"And unfortunately I got him," Zayn said "Jojo bit me, and I had to have twelve stitches in my leg."

Liam looked as if he was torn between laughter and anger. "I imagine he bit you for naming him Jojo."

Zayn ignored his mockery. "And when I was thirteen, I wanted sisters and brothers. My mother obliged me by remarrying, and I got a stepsister who stole my boyfriend, and a stepbrother who stole my allowances."

"What the hell does that have to do with us?"

"Everything!" He raised his hands in a gesture of appeal then dropped them in defeat. "I'm trying to explain that I want you, but that I'm not going to let you hurt me again."

"I won't hurt you."

"Oh, yes you will!" He said, fiercely. "You won't mean to, but you will. You already have. When I left you up north, you went off to Palm Springs with one of your bed partners. Do you know what I was doing while you were there?"

Liam shoved his hands in his pockets, his expression guarded. "No. What were you doing?"

"I," Zayn said on a note of hysterical, choking laughter, "was sitting by the telephone waiting for you to call. I even brought your favorite drinks for when you’d visit and a lovely brown sweater that I thought would match your eyes." He looked at him, his eyes pleading with him to understand. "If we have an affair, you won't be emotionally involved, but I will. I can't detach my emotions that way. I can’t do the friends with benefit thing you’ve got going with God knows how many people. I'd want you to care, and I'd care. I'd be jealous if I thought you were with another. And if I knew you were, I'd be hurt and furious."

If Liam had mocked him or tried to persuade him, he would have burst into tears. But he did neither so he gained strength from that. He even managed a sad smile. "If we had an affair, when it was over you'd want us to be friends, wouldn't you? You'd expect it."

"Naturally."

"Then since our 'affair' is over, can we be friends now?" His voice shook as he added, "I—I would really like to think of you as my friend."

Liam nodded, but he didn't speak. He simply stood looking at him, his sparkling brown eyes enigmatic.

Afterward, Zayn walked to his car, congratulating himself on the maturity with which he'd handled the situation. He had been honest and direct; he'd withstood temptation and sustained his principles. He had done the "right" thing, and he was a stronger, better person for it.

He folded his arms on the steering wheel and bumped his head repeatedly on them. He felt miserable.

Chapter Text

Zayn spent the rest of the week working like a fiend at the office. At home he alternately thought about Liam and worried about his parents’ financial situation. The hospital was demanding half of the fee at once. The only thing he could think of doing was to sell his mother's splendid grand piano, but the thought broke his heart. It was his piano too, and here in Michigan he missed it. He missed being able to play, to work out his frustrations and disappointments at the keyboard as he used to do. On the other hand, his mother was far from being well, and if she needed to go to the hospital again, he couldn't risk having her turned away because her last bill wasn't paid.

Late Friday afternoon, Susan Brook stopped him in the public relations department. "Harry's birthday is next week, on Thursday," she told Zayn. "It's sort of a custom here to bring a cake for your boss." With an irrepressible grin she added, "Cake and coffee is a terrific excuse to quit working fifteen minutes early."

"I'll bring a cake," Zayn quickly assured her. He glanced at his watch, said good-night to Susan and quickened his pace toward his desk. Sophia Sinclair had called and invited him over for dinner that night, and he didn't want to be late.

On the way to his apartment to change his clothes, Zayn considered telling Sophia about the Curtis deal. He felt uneasy about it, however. Before he interfered with anyone's reputation and job, he ought to be certain of what he actually knew. It occurred to him that Sophia might consider news of the Rossi project "valuable information," and that she might pay him the $20,000 she'd offered, but his conscience screamed at him for even contemplating the thought. He decided to write to the hospital and offer $5,000. He might be able to borrow that much from a bank.

Over dinner later Sophia asked him if he liked his job at Pay-co. When Zayn replied that he did, she said, "Have you heard mentioned any of the names I gave you?"

He hesitated. "No, I haven't."

Sophia sighed with disappointment. "The most important contracts we've ever considered bidding on have deadlines only a few weeks from now. Before then I've got to know who's leaking the information to Pay-co. I need those contracts."

Zayn immediately felt guilty for not telling her about Curtis or Rossi. More than ever he felt confused, torn between his loyalty to Sophia and his desire to do the right thing.

"I told you Zayn wouldn't be able to help," Carter put in.

Zayn didn't know how he'd ever let himself get into this mess. In his own defense, he said, "It's too soon to know, actually. I've been reassigned to work on a special project on the eightieth floor, so I haven't been working full time for Pay-co until yesterday, when Liam—Mr. Payne—flew to Italy."

Liam's name sent a bolt of electricity through the entire room, and all three Sinclairs stiffened perceptibly.

Carter's eyes gleamed with excitement. "Zayn, you're fantastic! How did you manage to get yourself assigned to him? Hell, you'll have access to all sorts of confidential—"

"I didn't manage anything," Zayn interrupted. "I'm there because I happened to put down on my application that I can speak Italian, and he needed a temporary secretary who was fluent in it to work on a special project."

"What kind of project?" Sophia and Carter demanded in unison.

Zayn glanced uneasily at Georges, who was watching him intently over the rim of his glass. Then he looked at the others. "Sophia, you promised when I agreed to work for Pay-co that all you would ask me to do was tell you if I overheard one of those six names. Please don't ask me about anything else. If I tell you, I'll be no better than the person who's spying on you."

"You're right of course, dear," she instantly agreed.

But an hour later, when Zayn had left, Sophia turned to her son. "He said Payne flew to Italy yesterday. Call that pilot friend of yours and find out if he can get access to his flight plan. I want to know exactly where in Italy he went."

"Do you really think it's that important?"

Sophia studied the brandy in her glass. "Zayn obviously thinks it's very important. If he didn't, he would have told us about it without a qualm." After a pause she said, "If we can trace him, I want you to send a team of investigators over there to pick up his trail. I have a hunch he's working on something big."

***

Zayn glanced at the weather application on his cellphone as he pulled on a mustard sweater and pulled it on top of his white shirt, and then he put on matching brown slacks. Despite the sunny late autumn Sunday afternoon, despite his luxuriously furnished apartment, he felt lonely and isolated. Shopping for Harry's birthday present would give him something to do, he decided. He was debating what to buy him when the sudden shrill ring of his doorbell interrupted his thoughts.

When he opened the door he stared in amazement at the man whose tall frame seemed to fill the doorway. Dressed in an open-collared cream shirt with a rust-colored suede jacket hooked negligently over his shoulder, Liam looked so unbearably handsome that Zayn wanted to cry. He forced himself to sound tranquil and only mildly curious.

"Hi. What are you doing here?"

His cute thick eyebrows drew together in wonder. "Damned if I know."

Unable to suppress his smile Zayn said, "The usual excuse is that you happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to drop by."

"Now why didn't I think of that?" Liam mocked dryly. "Well, are you going to invite me in?"

"I don't know," he said honestly. "Should I?"

Liam’s’ gaze traveled down the entire length of his body, lifted to his lips and finally his eyes. "I wouldn't if I were you."

Breathless from his glance, Zayn was nevertheless determined to abide by his decision to avoid all personal involvement with him. And judging from the way he had just looked at him, his reason for being here was very, very personal. Reluctantly he made his decision.

"In that case, I'll follow your advice. Goodbye, Liam," he said, starting to close the door. "And thank you for stopping by."

He accepted his decision with a slight inclination of his head, and Zayn made himself finish closing the door. He forced himself to walk away on legs that felt like lead; reminding himself at the same time how insane it would be to let Liam near him. But halfway across the living room he lost the internal battle. Pivoting around, he raced for the door, yanked it open and bumped straight into Liam's chest who was lounging with one hand braced high against the doorframe, gazing at his flushed face with a knowing, satisfied grin.

"Hello, Zee. I happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to drop by."

"What do you want, Liam?" he sighed, his amber intelligent eyes searching his.

"You." He said in a sensual whisper.

Resolutely he started to close the door again, but his hand shot out to stop him. "Do you really want me to go?"

"I told you on Wednesday that what I want has nothing to do with it. What matters is what's best for me, and—"

He interrupted him with a boyish grin. "I promise I'll never steal your allowances or your boyfriends either." Zayn couldn't help starting to smile as he finished, "And if you swear never to call me Lili again, I won't bite you."

He stepped aside and let him in, then took his jacket and hung it in the closet. When he turned, Liam was leaning against the closed front door, his arms crossed over his chest. "On second thought," he grinned, "I take part of that back. I'd love to bite you."

"Pervert!" Zayn returned teasingly, his heart thumping so much with excitement that he hardly knew what he was saying.

"Come here and I'll show you just how perverted I can be," he invited smoothly.

Zayn took a cautious step backward. "Absolutely not! Would you like some coffee or a Coke?"

"Either would be fine."

"I'll make some coffee."

"Kiss me first."

Zayn shot him a look over his shoulder and walked into the kitchen. As he made the coffee, he was acutely conscious that he was standing in the kitchen doorway, watching him.

"Do I pay you enough to afford this apartment?" he asked casually.

"No. There's a burglary problem here, so in return for watching the place, I get to live here free." He heard him start toward him, and he hastily turned to the table and put out cups and saucers. When he straightened, he knew he was standing right behind him, but he had no choice except to turn around and face him.

"Have you missed me?" Liam asked.

"What do you think?" he evaded smoothly—but not smoothly enough, because he chuckled.

"Good. How much?"

"Is your ego in need of boosting today?" he countered lightly.

"Yep."

"Really, why?"

"Because I got shot down by a beautiful twenty-three-year-old, and I can't seem to get him out of my mind."

"That's too bad," Zayn said, trying unsuccessfully to hide the joy in his voice.

"Isn't it," he mocked. "He’s like a thorn in my side, a blister on my heel. He has the eyes of an angel, a body that drugs my mind, the vocabulary of an English professor and a tongue like a scalpel."

"Thanks, I think." Zayn rolled his eyes.

His hands glided up his arms, then curved around his shoulders, tightening as he drew him to within a few inches of his chest. "And," he added, "I like him."

His mouth was making a deliberately slow descent, and Zayn waited helplessly for the physical impact of his lips on his. Instead he bypassed his lips and began to explore the soft exotic skin of his neck, his warm mouth nuzzling his pulse point and sweet spot then slowly wandering upward toward his ear. With the kitchen table behind him and Liam's body in front, Zayn was incapable of doing anything except standing there, grateful for the table to support his trembling legs. Liam’s mouth left a burning trail of kisses up to his temple, and slowly began to drift toward his lips. A fraction of an inch above his he stopped and repeated his earlier command. "Kiss me, Zayn."

"No," he whispered hesitantly.

He shrugged and began leisurely kissing his other cheek, stopping to linger sensuously at his ear, his tongue tracing every curve and hollow. He nipped his earlobe, and Zayn lurched forward in a startled movement that jolted their bodies together. A current leaped between them, and they both stiffened with the delicious shock of it.

"God!" Liam muttered under his breath, and his lips began to trail down his neck to his collarbone.

"Liam …please," Zayn whispered weakly.

"Please what?" he murmured against his throat. "Please put us both out of this torment?"

"No!"

"No?" he repeated silkily, raising his head. "You don't want me to kiss you, and undress you, and have slow sizzling sex with you?" His lips were tantalizingly close, and Zayn was almost faint with the desire to feel them crushing down on his own. Instead Liam bent his head and lightly brushed his mouth over his, first in one direction, then the other. "Please kiss me," he coaxed huskily. "I dream about the way you kissed me in Harbor Springs, about how sweet and warm you felt in my arms…"

With a silent moan of surrender, Zayn slid his hands up his muscular chest and kissed him. He felt the tremor that ran through his body, the gasp of his breath against his lips in the instant before his arms closed around him, and his mouth opened passionately over his.

Desire was racing through him like a wild fury by the time he finally pulled back. "Where's the bedroom?" he whispered hoarsely.

Zayn drew back in his arms and lifted his eyes to his. His face was dark with passion, and demand was blazing in his eyes. He remembered the last time he had looked into those insistent eyes and had yielded to his fiery passion. Memories flashed through his mind in chilling sequence. He had learned to his own shame and anguish that he was completely capable of making tender, passionate, shattering love to him for the sheer physical pleasure of it—without feeling the slightest emotional involvement with him.

He wanted him more now than he had in Harbor Springs—Zayn knew that. He could feel it. He was also half convinced that he felt more for him than just lust, but then he'd foolishly believed that in Harbor Springs too. This time he wanted to be certain. His pride would not permit him to let him use his body again.

"Liam," he said nervously, "I think it would be better if we got to know each other first."

"We already know each other," he reminded him. "Intimately."

"But I mean… I would like us to know each other better before we… before we start anything."

"We've already started something, Zayn," he said with a hint of impatience in his voice. "And I want to finish it. So do you."

"No, I—" He gasped as his hands cupped the evident bulge in his trousers and started to message it.

"I can feel how badly you want me," he told him. His hands swept around him grasping his ass, holding him tightly against him and making him forcefully aware of his hardened manhood by grinding them together. "And you can feel how much I want you. Now, what else do we need to know about each other? What else matters?"

"What else matters?" Zayn hissed, pulling free of his arms. "How can you ask me that? I told you I couldn't handle a casual, unemotional affair with you. What are you trying to do to me?"

Liam's jaw tightened. "I'm trying to get you into that bedroom so that we can ease the ache that's been building inside us for weeks. I want us to have sex all day until we're both too weak to move. Or, if you prefer it more blunt than that, I want to—"

"And then what?" Zayn demanded hotly. "I want to know the rules, dammit! Today we make love, but tomorrow we're no more than casual acquaintances, is that it? Tomorrow you can have sex to another woman or man if you want to, and I'm not supposed to care—right? And tomorrow I can let another man make love to me, and you won't care—is that right?"

"Yes," he snapped.

Zayn had his answer—he didn't care about him any more now than he had before. He merely wanted him more. Tiredly he said, "Coffee is ready."

"I'm ready," he said crudely.

"Well, I'm not!" Zayn stormed. "I'm not ready to be your Sunday-afternoon playmate. If you're bored, go play your games with someone who can handle a casual fuck in bed with you."

"What the hell do you want from me?" he demanded coldly.

I want you to love me, he thought. "I don't want anything from you," he said. "Just go away, leave me alone."

Liam's insolent eyes raked over him. "Before I go, I want to give you a piece of advice," he said icily. "Grow up!"

Zayn felt as if he had slapped him. Infuriated past reason, he struck back at his ego. "You're absolutely right!" he blazed. "That's what I should do. Beginning today I'm going to grow up and start practicing what you preach! I'm going to sleep with any man who appeals to me. But not with you. You're much too old and too skeptical for my taste. Now get out of here!"

Liam pulled a small dark elegant box from his pocket and slapped it onto the kitchen table. "I owed you a watch," he said, already striding out of the kitchen.

Zayn heard the front door slam behind him, and with trembling fingers he picked up the little box and opened it. He expected to find his father’s old watch, but instead there was a Rolex that must have cost a fortune. Zayn snapped the box shut.

He marched upstairs to get his wallet and his jacket to protect him from the chill in the air. He would go shopping for Harry's birthday gift exactly as he'd planned, and he would put the last hour out of his thoughts—permanently. Liam Payne was not going to haunt him anymore. He would erase him from his mind. He jerked open his bottom drawer and stood looking down at the beautiful brown sweater he'd bought for that… that bastard!

Zayn removed it from the drawer. Harry was almost exactly Liam's size, and he would probably like it very much. He would give it to him, he decided, ignoring the sharp stab of anguish that shot through him.

Chapter Text

Zayn walked into the office the next morning wearing a stylish burgundy velvet blazer with tight black slacks and a determinedly bright smile. Harry took one look at him and grinned.

"Zayn, you're gorgeous—but aren't you supposed to be upstairs?"

"Not anymore," he replied, handing him his mail. He had assumed that because their "game" was over, Liam would no longer want him upstairs in the mornings.

He was wrong. Five minutes later, as they were discussing a report Zayn was working on, the phone on Harry's desk rang. "It's Liam," he said, passing the receiver to him.

Liam's voice was like a whip crack. "Get up here! I said I wanted you here all day and I meant it. Now move!"

He hung up on him, and Zayn looked at the receiver as if it had just bitten him. He hadn't expected Liam to sound like that. He'd never heard anybody sound like that. "I—I think I'd better go upstairs," he said, hastily standing up.

Harry's face was a study in incredulity. "I wonder what the hell has gotten under his skin."

"I think I have." he saw the thoughtful smile that slowly spread across Harry's attractive face, but he had no time to ponder it.

Only a few minutes later, Zayn tapped on Liam's door and, with an outward calm he didn't feel, walked into his office. He waited a full two minutes for him to acknowledge him, but after having practically shouted at him to get up there, he continued writing, ignoring his presence. With an irritated shrug Zayn finally went over to his desk and held the little elegant box toward him.

"This is not my father’s watch, and I don't want it," he told his rigid profile. "My father’s watch was an old Omega. This watch isn’t worth a fraction of what it was to me; its only value was sentimental, to me it’s priceless. It means so much to me, and I want it back. Are you capable of understanding that?"

"Perfectly capable," he replied icily, without looking up. He reached out and buzzed for Mary to come in. "However, your watch is lost. Since I couldn't get it back for you, I gave you something that had sentimental value to me. This watch belonged to my grandfather."

Zayn's stomach knotted sickly, and the resentment left his voice as he said quietly, "I still can't accept it."

"Then leave it there." He nodded curtly toward the corner of his desk.

Zayn put the box down and went back to his temporary office. Mary followed him a minute later, closed the door to Liam's office behind her and came over to Zayn's desk. Smiling kindly, she relayed the instructions Liam had obviously just given. "Sometime during the next few days he's expecting a call from Signor Rossi. He wants you to be available to act as translator whenever the man decides to call. In the meantime, I would be very grateful for your help with some of my work. If you still have time to spare, you could bring some of Harry's work up here to do."

During the next three days, Zayn saw sides of Liam that he had only imagined existed. Gone was the teasing man who had held and kissed and pursued him so relentlessly. In his place was a powerful, dynamic businessman who treated him with a brisk, aloof formality that thoroughly intimidated him. When he wasn't on the phone or in meetings, he was dictating or working at his desk. He arrived before he did in the morning and was still there when he left at night. Acting as his auxiliary secretary, he grew petrified of displeasing him in any way. Zayn had the feeling he was merely waiting for him to make a mistake so that he would have a legitimate reason to fire him.

On Wednesday, Zayn made the mistake he'd been dreading: he left an entire paragraph out of a detailed contract Liam had dictated to him. The moment his summons snapped over the intercom he knew his time had come, and he walked into his office with limbs shaking and hands perspiring. But instead of flaying him alive, which he could see was what he wanted to do; he pointed out the error and shoved the contracts toward him. "Do it again," he snapped, "and this time, get it right."

He relaxed slightly after that. If Liam hadn't fired him for that blunder, he obviously wasn't looking for an excuse to get rid of him. He must need him at hand for that call from Rossi no matter how poorly he performed.

"I'm Vicky Stewart," a breathy voice announced to Zayn at noon that same day. Zayn looked up to see an incredibly glamorous brunette standing in front of her.

"I happened to be downtown and decided to stop by and see if Lili I mean—Mr. Payne—is free for lunch," she informed Zayn. "Don't bother announcing me, I'll just go in."

A few minutes later, Vicky and Liam strolled out of his office together, heading toward the elevators. Liam's hand was resting familiarly at the small of her back, and he was grinning at whatever she was telling him.

Zayn swung back around to his computer screen. He hated Vicky Stewart's drawl; he hated the possessive way she looked at Liam; he hated the woman's breathless laugh. In fact, he loathed everything about her and he knew exactly why—Zayn was hopelessly, completely, irrevocably in love with Liam Payne.

He adored everything about him, from the aura of power and authority that surrounded him, to the energetic confidence in his long strides, to the way he looked when he was deep in thought. He loved the way his eye crinkle when he laughs. He loved the way he wore his expensive clothes, the way he absently rolled his gold pen in his hand when he was listening to someone on the telephone. He was in his eyes the most attractive man in the world. And he had never seemed further beyond his reach.

"Don't worry too much, my dear boy," Mary Callahan said, getting up to leave for lunch. "There have been many Vicky Stewarts in his life in the past. They don't last long."

The reassurance only made Zayn feel worse. She'd suspected that Mary not only knew everything that had happened between Liam and him in the past, but that she also knew exactly how Zayn felt about Liam now. "I don't care what he does!" he said with angry pride.

"Is that right?" Mary retorted with a smile, and left for lunch.

Liam didn't return until afternoon, and Zayn wondered furiously whose bed they had gone to—his or Vicky's while nearly snapping the pen in his hand.

By the time he left the office, he was so overwrought with jealousy and so filled with self-loathing for loving such an unprincipled libertine that he had a splitting headache. At home he wandered aimlessly around the elegant living room.

Being near Liam was hurting him more every day. He had to leave Pay-co—he couldn't bear to be so close to him, to love him as he did and have to watch him with other people. To have him look at him as if he was a piece of office equipment whose presence offended him but whom he was obliged out of necessity to have nearby.

Zayn had a sudden wild longing to tell both Liam Payne and Sophia Sinclair to go to hell, to pack up and go home to his parents, his friends. But of course he couldn't do that. They needed…

Abruptly he stopped pacing, his mind seizing on a solution that should have occurred to him before. There were other large corporations in Detroit that needed good secretaries and that paid high salaries for them. When he bought Jim's birthday cake that night he would also buy a newspaper. Beginning immediately he would start looking for another job.

In the meantime, he would phone Jonathan Van Slyke, whom he had studied under for the past year, and offer to let him buy his grand piano. He had wanted it the moment he'd laid eyes on it.

Despite the ache he felt at the prospect of selling it, Zayn felt peaceful for the first time in weeks. He would find an inexpensive little apartment and move out of this place. Until then he would do the best job he could at Pay-co—and if he happened to hear one of the names Sophia had given him, he would forget it just as soon as he heard it. Sophia was going to have to do her own dirty work. He could not and would not betray Liam.

Chapter Text

Zayn walked across the marble lobby the next morning, carefully balancing the box with Harry's birthday cake inside it as well as a gaily wrapped package that held the brown sweater. He felt relaxed and lighthearted, and he smiled as an elderly man wearing a brown suit stepped back in the elevator to give him more room.

The elevator stopped on the thirtieth floor, and the doors opened. Zayn noted that directly across the hall was an office door bearing a nameplate that read, Global Industries Security Division.

"Excuse me," the man in the brown suit said. "This is my floor."

Zayn shifted to one side, and he maneuvered past him. He watched him walk across the hall to the security office.

The security divisions' primary function was to protect Global Industries' manufacturing facilities, particularly those outlying facilities throughout the country where actual research was under way, or where government contracts were involved. However, here at headquarters the security division mostly processed paperwork from the field. As director in Detroit Jack Collins felt rather bored, but his failing health and advancing age had forced him to leave the field and accept this desk job.

His assistant, an over-eager, round-faced young man named Rudy, was sitting with his feet propped up on his desk when Jack walked into the office. "What's up?" the younger man asked, hastily sitting up straight.

"Probably nothing." Jack slid his briefcase onto the desk and removed a file that was labeled "SECURITY INVESTIGATION REPORT/ZAYN J. MALIK/EMPLOYEE NO. 98753." Jack didn't particularly like Rudy, but part of his job before he retired was to train him. Reluctantly he explained, "I just got the report from an investigation we ran on a secretary in the building."

"A secretary?" Rudy sounded disappointed. "I didn't think we ran security checks on secretaries."

"Normally we don't. In this case he was assigned to a top priority, confidential project, and the computer automatically reclassified him and issued a security clearance request."

"So what's the problem?"

"The problem is that when the investigators in Missouri checked with his former employer, he said that he worked for him part-time for five years while he went to college. Not full time, as Weatherby at Pay-co assumed."

"So he lied on his application, right?" Rudy asked, becoming interested.

 

"Yes, but not about that. He didn't actually say he worked there full-time. The thing is, he lied and said he had never attended college. The Missouri investigators checked with the university, and he not only graduated, he also got a Master's degree."

"Why would he say he hadn't gone to college if he had?"

"That's one of the things that bothered me a little. I could understand if he said he'd gone to college when he actually hadn't. I'd presume he must have figured that a college degree would help him get hired."

"What are the other things that bother you?"

Jack glanced up at Rudy's rotund face, his avid eyes, and shrugged. "Nothing," he lied. "I just want to check him out for my own peace of mind. I have to go into the hospital for some tests this weekend, but on Monday I'll start working on it."

"How about letting me check him out while you're in the hospital?"

"If they decide to keep me in for more tests, I'll call you and tell you how to handle it."

***

"It's my birthday," Harry announced as Zayn walked into his office. "Normally a secretary brings a cake for his boss, but I don't suppose you've been here long enough to know that." He sounded a little dejected.

Zayn started to laugh. He hadn't realized how much his promise to Sophia had burdened him until now. Suddenly the weight of it was gone. "Not only did I buy you a cake, I have a present for you too," he informed him happily.

Harry unwrapped the package he handed him, and he was boyishly delighted with the sweater. "You shouldn't have—" he grinned, holding it up "—but I'm glad you did."

"It was to say happy birthday and thank you for helping me with… things," he finished lamely.

"Speaking of 'things,' Mary tells me that Liam is like a keg of dynamite ready to explode at the first spark. She says you're bearing up under the strain marvelously. You've won her wholehearted approval," he added quietly.

"I like her too," Zayn said, his eyes clouding at the mention of Liam.

Harry waited until he had left to go upstairs, then he picked up his telephone and punched four numbers. "Mary, what's the atmosphere like up there this morning?"

"Positively explosive," she chuckled.

"Is Liam going to be in the office this afternoon?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because I've decided to light a match under him and see what happens."

"Harold, don't!" she said in a low, sharp voice.

"See you a little before five, beautiful," he laughed, ignoring her warning.

***

When Zayn returned from lunch there were two dozen breathtakingly gorgeous red roses in a vase on his desk. He removed the card from its envelope and stared at it in blank amazement. On it was written "Thank you, sweetheart," followed by the initial H.

When Zayn looked up, Liam was standing in the doorway, his shoulder casually propped against the frame. But there was nothing casual about the rigid set of his jaw or the freezing look in his eyes. "From a secret admirer?" he asked sarcastically.

It was the first personal comment he had addressed to him in four days. "Not a secret admirer exactly," he hedged.

"Who is he?"

Zayn tensed. He seemed so angry he didn't think it would be wise to mention Harry's name. "I'm not absolutely certain."

"You aren't absolutely certain?" he bit out. "How many men with the initial H are you seeing? How many of them think you're worth more than a couple hundreds of dollars in roses as a way of saying thank you?"

"Hundreds of dollars?" Zayn repeated, so appalled at the expense that he completely overlooked the fact that Liam had obviously opened the envelope and read the card.

"You must be getting better at it," he mocked crudely.

Inwardly Zayn flinched, but he lifted his head. "I have much better teachers now!"

With an icy glance that raked him from head to toe, Liam turned on his heel and strode back into his office. For the rest of the day he left him completely alone.

At five minutes to five, Harry walked into Mary's office, wearing his brown sweater and balancing four pieces of birthday cake on two plates. He put the plates down on Mary's empty desk and glanced at the doorway to Liam's office. "Where's Mary?" he asked.

"She left almost an hour ago," Zayn said. "She said to tell you that the nearest fire extinguisher is beside the elevators—whatever that means. I'll be right back. I have to take these reports in to Liam."

 

As he got up and started around the desk, he was looking down at the letters in his hand, and what happened next stunned him into immobility. "I miss you, babe," Harry said, quickly pulling him into his arms.

A moment later he released him so suddenly that Zayn staggered back a step. "Liam!" he said. "Look at the sweater Zayn gave me for my birthday. I brought you a piece of my birthday cake, he bought me that too." Seemingly oblivious to Liam's thunderous expression, he grinned and added, "I have to get back downstairs." To Zayn he said, "I'll see you later, love." And then he walked out.

In a state of shock, Zayn stared at his retreating back. He was still staring after him when Liam spun him around to face him. "You vindictive little slut, you gave him my sweater! What else has he gotten that belongs to me?"

"What else?" Zayn repeated, his voice rising. "What are you talking about?"

His hands tightened. "Your sexy little body, my sweet boy that’s what I'm talking about."

Zayn's amazement gave way to comprehension and then to fury.

"How dare you call me names, you hypocrite!" he exploded, too incensed to be afraid. "Ever since I've known you, you've been telling me that there's nothing promiscuous about satisfying our sexual desires with anyone we want. And now—" he literally choked on his wrath "—and now, when you think I've done it, you call me a dirty name. You of all people—you…you should be mentioned in Guinness book for the number of people you slept with.

Liam let go of him as if he had burned him. In a low, dangerously controlled voice he said, "Get out of here, Zayn."

When he'd left, Liam walked over to the bar and poured himself stiff bourbon, while fury and anguish twisted through him like a hundred snakes.

Zayn had a lover. Zayn probably had several lovers.

Regret shot through him like acid. He was no longer a starry-eyed little fool who thought people should be in love before they had sex. That gorgeous body of his had been thoroughly explored by others. His mind instantly conjured up tormenting pictures of Zayn and Harry together.

He tossed down his drink and poured himself another to blot out the pain, the images. Carrying it over to the sofa, he sat down and propped his feet up on the table.

The liquor slowly began to work its numbing magic, and his rage subsided. In its place was nothing, only an aching emptiness.

***

"What possessed you?" Zayn demanded of Harry the next morning.

 

He grinned. "Call it an uncontrollable impulse."

"I call it insanity!" he burst out. "You can't imagine how furious he was. He called me names! I—I think he's insane."

"He is," Harry agreed with complacent satisfaction. "He's insane about you. Mary thinks so too."

Zayn rolled his eyes. "You're all insane. I have to work up there with him. How am I going to do that?"

Harry chuckled. "Very, very cautiously," he advised.

Within an hour Zayn knew exactly what Harry meant, and during the days that ensued he began to feel as if he were walking on a tightrope. Liam began to work at a demonic pace that kept everyone, from his top executives to the lowest mail boys, rushing frantically to keep up with him and trying to avoid the lash of his temper.

If he was satisfied with someone's efforts, he was coolly courteous. But if he wasn't satisfied—and he usually wasn't—he tore into the offender with an icy savagery that chilled Zayn's blood. With democratic impartiality he spread his displeasure from switchboard operators to vice-presidents, ripping into them with a caustic sarcasm that made the vice-presidents perspire and the switchboard operators cry. High-powered executives walked confidently into his office, only to slink out a few minutes later and exchange warning glances with auditors who in turn soon scurried out, clutching their ledger sheets and computer printouts protectively to their chests.

By Wednesday of the following week the atmosphere on the eightieth floor had deteriorated to a strained, crackling panic that stretched its tentacles from division to division, from floor to floor. No one laughed on the elevators or gossiped at the copy machines anymore. Only Mary Callahan seemed serenely impervious to the mounting tension. In fact, it seemed to Zayn that she grew more elated with every harrowing hour that passed. But then Mary escaped the cutting edge of Liam's tongue, while Zayn himself did not.

To Mary Liam was always courteous, and to Vicky Stewart, who called him at least three times a day, he was positively charming. No matter how busy he was, or what he was doing at the time, he always had time for Vicky. And whenever she called he would pick up the phone and lean back in his chair. From his desk Zayn could hear the lazy, seductive huskiness that vibrated in his deep voice when he spoke to the woman, and his heart twisted every time.

That Wednesday evening Liam was scheduled to leave for Chicago, and Zayn was eager to see him go. After so many days of tension, of being treated as if the sight of him revolted him, he felt his composure crumbling, and he restrained his temper from lashing by nothing but sheer force of will.

At four o'clock, two hours before his departure time, Liam called Zayn into the conference room to help Mary take notes during a meeting of the financial staff. The meeting was under way, and Zayn's attention was riveted on his shorthand notebook, his pen flying across the pages, when Liam's voice slashed into the proceedings. "Anderson!" he snapped murderously, "if you can tear your attention from Mr. Malik lips, the rest of us will be able to finish this meeting." Zayn flushed a vivid pink, but Anderson turned a purple hue that might be indicative of an impending stroke.

As soon as the last staff member had filed out of the conference room, Zayn ignored Mary's warning look and turned furiously on Liam. "I hope you're satisfied!" he hissed furiously. "You not only humiliated me, you nearly gave that poor man a heart attack. What do you plan to do for an encore?"

"Fire the first person who opens his mouth," Liam retorted coldly. He walked around him and strode out of the conference room.

Outraged past all reason, Zayn started after him, but Mary stopped him. "Don't argue with him," she said, gazing after Liam with a radiant smile on her face. She looked as if she had just witnessed a miracle. "In his present mood he'd fire you, and he'd regret that for the rest of his life."

When Zayn hesitated, she added kindly, "He isn't coming back from Chicago until Friday night, which gives us two days to recuperate. Tomorrow we'll have a long lunch out of the building—maybe at Tony's. We've earned it."

Chapter Text

Without Liam's electric vitality, the executive suite seemed hauntingly empty the next morning. Zayn told himself it was blissfully peaceful and that he liked it this way, but he really didn't.

At noon he and Mary drove to Tony's, where Zayn had phoned for a reservation. A headwaiter wearing the usual formal black was stationed at the entrance to the dining rooms, but Tony saw them and hurried over. Zayn stepped back in surprise as he caught Mary in a bear hug that nearly swept her off her sensibly shod feet. "I liked it better when you worked for Liam's grandpapa in the garage behind us," he was saying. "In the old days, I at least got to see you and Liam."

He turned to Zayn with a beaming smile. "So…my little Zaynie, now you know Liam and Mary and me. You are becoming one of the family."

He showed them to their table then grinned at Zayn. "Dom will take care of you," he said. "Dom thinks you are beautiful—he blushes when your name is mentioned."

Dom took their order and blushed when he put a glass of wine in front of Zayn. Mary's eyes twinkled, but when he left she looked directly at Zayn and said without preamble, "Would you like to talk about Liam?"

Zayn choked on his wine. "Please, let's not ruin a lovely lunch. I already know more than enough about him."

"What, for example?" Mary persisted gently.

 

"I know that he's an egotistical, arrogant, bad-tempered, dictatorial tyrant!"                       

"And you love him." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.

"Yes," Zayn said angrily.

Mary was struggling obviously to hide her amusement at Zayn's tone. "I was certain that you did. I also suspect that he loves you."

Trying to suppress the anguished hope that flared in his heart, Zayn turned his face to the stained-glass window near their table. "What makes you think so?"

"To begin with, he isn't treating you the way he normally treats the people of interest in his life."

"I know that. He's nice to the others," Zayn said bitterly.

"Exactly!" Mary agreed. "He's always treated his lovers with an attitude of amused indulgence… of tolerant indifference. While an affair lasts he's attentive and charming. When the person begins to bore him he courteously but firmly dismisses them from his life. Not once to my knowledge has any person touched an emotion in him deeper than affection or desire. I've seen them try in the most inventive ways to make him jealous, yet he has reacted with nothing stronger than amusement, or occasionally exasperation. Which brings us to you."

Zayn blushed at being correctly categorized with the other conquests Liam had taken to bed, but he knew it was useless to deny it.

"You," Mary continued quietly, "have evoked genuine anger in him. He is furious with you and with himself. Yet he doesn't dismiss you from his life; he doesn't even send you downstairs. Doesn't it seem odd to you that he won't let you work for Harry, and simply have you come upstairs to act as translator when Rossi's call finally comes through?"

"I think he's keeping me up there for revenge," Zayn said grimly.

"I think he is too. Perhaps he's trying to get back at you for what you're making him feel. Or possibly he's trying to find fault with you, so that he won't feel the way he does any longer. I don't know. Liam is a complex man. Harry, Niall and I are all very close to him, and yet he keeps each one of us at a slight distance. There's a part of himself that he will not share with others, not even us… Why do you look so strange?" Mary interrupted herself to ask.

Zayn sighed. "If you're matchmaking, and I think you are, you have the wrong man. You should be talking to Niall, not me."

"Don't be silly—"

"Did you see the newspaper article about the party in Harbor Springs a few weeks ago?" Zayn's sheepish gaze drifted away from Mary's face as he added, "I was in Harbor Springs with Liam, and he sent me home because Niall was coming. He called him a 'business acquaintance.' "

"Well, he is!" Mary said, reaching across the table and giving Zayn's hand a squeeze. "They're close friends, and they're business acquaintances— and that's all they are. Liam is on the board of directors of his father's corporation, and his father is on Global's board of directors. Niall was buying the house at the Cove from Liam. He's always loved it, and he probably went up there to close the deal."

Zayn's heart soared with sudden relief and happiness, even though his mind warned him that his situation with Liam was still hopeless. At least he hadn't taken him to his boyfriend's bed in his boyfriend's house! He waited while Dominic served them their food, then he asked, "How long have you known Liam?"

"Forever," Mary said. "I went to work as a bookkeeper for his grandfather when I was twenty-four. Liam was four years old. His mother died six months after that."

"What was he like when he was little?" Zayn felt helplessly eager to learn everything he could about the man who owned his heart and didn't seem to want it.

Mary smiled reminiscently. "We called him Li back then. He was the most charming little devil you've ever seen—proud like his mother and stubborn occasionally. He was sturdy, cheerful and bright—exactly the sort of little boy that any father would be proud to have; Except his own," she added her face sobering.

"What about his father?" Zayn persisted, remembering how reluctant Liam had been to talk about him in Harbor Springs. "He didn't say much about him."

"I'm amazed that he spoke of him at all. He never talks about him." Mary's glance strayed slightly as she thought back to the past. "He was an extraordinarily attractive man, as well as being rich, spoiled, pampered and moody. He was like a Christmas-tree ornament—beautiful to look at, shallow from the inside. Li loved him tremendously, despite all his faults.

"Right after Li's mother died, he walked out, leaving Liam with his grandparents. For months after he left the house, he watched out the window, waiting for him to come back. He understood that his mother was dead and couldn't come back to him, but he refused to believe that his father wasn't coming back either. He never asked about him, he just waited for him. I mistakenly thought his grandparents wouldn't let him come, and frankly, I blamed them for that—unfairly, as it turned out.

"And then one day, about two months before Christmas, Li stopped waiting at the window and suddenly became a whirlwind of activity. By then his mother had been dead for nearly a year. His father had remarried, and he'd just had a baby boy with his wife, though none of us knew about the baby. Anyway, Li became a bundle of energy; he did every chore he could think of that would earn him a nickel for doing it. He saved up all his money, and about two weeks before the holidays talked me into taking him shopping for 'an extra-special present.'

 

"I thought he was searching for a gift for his grandfather, because he dragged me in and out of a dozen stores looking for something that was 'just perfect for a gentleman.' Not until late in the afternoon did I discover that he wanted to buy a Christmas present for his father.

"In the bargain section of a huge downtown department store, Liam finally found his 'extra-special present'—a lovely a vintage silver ring that had a black stone. Li was ecstatic, and his enthusiasm was contagious. In five minutes he'd charmed the salesclerk into gift wrapping it, and me into taking him over to his father's house so that he could present him with the gift."

Mary glanced at Zayn with tear-brightened eyes. "He… he intended to bribe his father into coming back to him, only I didn't realize it." She swallowed and then continued, "Li and I took the bus to Grosse Pointe, and he was so nervous he could hardly sit still. He kept making me check to see if his hair and clothes were tidy. 'Do I look all right, Mary?' he kept asking me again and again.

"We found the house without any trouble—a palatial estate that was beautifully decorated for the holidays. I started to ring the doorbell, but Li put his hand on my arm. I looked down at him, and I have never seen a child look so desperate. 'Mary,' he said, 'are you sure I look okay to see him?' "

Mary turned her face toward the restaurant window and her voice shook. "He looked so vulnerable, and he was such a handsome little boy. I honestly believed that if his father saw him, he'd realize that he needed him, and he'd at least visit him from time to time. Anyway, a butler let us in, and Li and I were shown into a beautiful drawing room with an enormous Christmas tree that looked as if it had been decorated for the window of a department store. But Li didn't notice that. All he saw was the shiny red bicycle with the big bow on it that was beside the tree, and his face positively lit up. 'See,' he said to me, 'I knew he didn't forget me. He's just been waiting until I came to see him.' He reached out to touch the bicycle, and the maid who was dusting the room almost snapped his head off. The bicycle, she told him, was for the baby. Li pulled his hand away from it as if he'd been burned.

"When his father finally came downstairs, his first words to his own son were, 'what do you want, Liam?' Li gave him the present and explained that he'd chosen it for him himself. When he started to put it under the tree, he insisted that he open it right then…"

Mary had to wipe her eyes as she finished, "His father opened the package, glanced at the ring and said, 'I don't wear rings, Liam— you know that.' He handed it to the maid who was dusting the room, and said, 'Mrs. Edwards can give it to Mr. Edwards though I’m sure he’d like it.' Li watched his gift go into the maid's pocket, and then he said very politely, 'Merry Christmas, Mrs. Edwards.' He looked at his father and said, 'Mary and I have to go now.'

"He didn't say anything else until we got to our bus stop. I was fighting back tears the whole way, but Liam's face was… expressionless. At the bus stop, he turned to me and pulled his hand out of mine. In a solemn little voice he said, 'I don't need him anymore, Mary. I'm all grown up now. I don't need anybody anymore.'" Mary's voice quavered. "It was the last time he ever let me hold his hand."

After a moment of painful silence, Mary went on, "From that day forward, to the best of my knowledge, Liam has never bought a gift for a man, even if he dated a few— other than his grandfather and Tony. According to what Niall has heard from Liam's boyfriends, he is extravagantly generous with his money, but he never gives them gifts, no matter what the occasion is. He gives them money instead and tells them to pick out something they'll like; he doesn't care whether it's jewelry or clothes, cars or anything else. But he doesn't pick it out himself."

Zayn remembered the watch he'd given him, and the way he'd contemptuously informed him that he didn't want it. His heart turned over. "Why would his father want to forget about him, to pretend he didn't exist?"

"I can only guess. He was from one of the most prominent families in Grosse Pointe. He was a man who people expected from him a great future. To people like that, bloodlines mean everything. They all have money, so their social status is based on the prestige of their family connections. When he married Liam's mother, he became a social outcast from his own class. However, that’s changed—money is its own prestige. Liam moves in his social circles now and completely eclipses him and his wife. Of course, being handsome in addition to being outrageously rich doesn't hurt him a bit. At any rate, in the early days Liam must have been a living reminder of his fall from social grace. He didn't want him around, and neither did his stepmother. You would have to know the man in order to comprehend such coldhearted, utter selfishness. The only person, who matters to him, other than himself, is Liam's half-brother—he positively dotes on him."

"It must be painful for Liam to see him."

"I don't think it is. The day he gave his present to the maid, his love for him died. He killed it himself, carefully and completely. He was only five years old, but he had the strength and determination that enabled him to do it, even then."

Zayn had a simultaneous urge to strangle Liam's father and to find Liam and lavish on him his own love, whether he wanted it or not.

Just then Tony materialized at the table and handed Mary a small piece of paper with a name on it. "You've had a phone call from this man. He says he needs some papers that are locked in your office."

Mary glanced at the note. "I guess I'll have to go back. Zayn, you stay and finish your lunch."

"Why did you not eat your pasta?" Tony frowned accusingly at both of them. "Does it not taste good?"

"It isn't that, Tony," Mary said, putting her napkin on the table and reaching for her purse. "I was telling Zayn about Georges Sinclair and his wife, and it ruined our appetites."

The name roared in Zayn's ears and pounded in his brain. A silent scream of denial echoed in his mind and got stuck on his throat as he tried to speak. He was in utter horrified shock.

 

"Zaynie?" Tony worriedly squeezed his shoulder as he continued to stare in paralyzed horror at Mary's retreating back.

"Who?" he whispered frantically. "Who did Mary say?"

"Georges Sinclair. Liam’s papa."

Zayn raised his troubled eyes to his. "Oh God," he breathed hoarsely putting his head in his hands. "Oh God, no!"

Chapter Text

Zayn took a cab back Home. The shock had faded slightly, leaving in its place a cold numbness. As he was on his way to the apartment he called Mary.

"Mary?" he said when the woman answered. "I'm not feeling well—I'm going home."

Wrapped in his blanket that night, he sat staring into the empty fireplace in his apartment. He pulled the blanket to his shoulders, trying to ward off the chill, but it was inside him. It shuddered through him every time he thought of his last visit to the Sinclairs: Georges Sinclair serenely presiding over an intimate little gathering where three people were plotting against his own son. His son. His handsome magnificent son. Oh God, how could he do that to him!

Zayn shivered with impotent fury, he wished he could slap him on the face.

If there was any spying being done, Zayn felt sure it was Sophia, not Liam, who was doing it. But if it was Liam, if he really was paying someone to leak information on the Sinclair Enterprises bids, he wouldn't blame him. If it had been within his power at that moment, he would have brought Sinclair Enterprises crashing down around Sophia's ears.

Liam might love him; Mary thought he did. But Zayn would never know. The moment Liam discovered he was related to the Sinclairs, he would kill whatever feelings he had for him, exactly as he had killed his feelings for his father. He would want to know why he had applied for a job at Pay-co, and he would never believe it was coincidence, even if he lied to him.

Zayn cast a bitter, contemptuous glance around the silken love nest where he was ensconced. He'd been living like Sophia Sinclair's pampered boy toy. But no longer. He was going home. If he had to, he would get two jobs and teach piano too, to make up for the difference in salary. But he couldn't stay in Detroit. He’d go insane watching for a glimpse of Liam everywhere he went, wondering if he ever thought of him.

***

"Feeling better?" Harry asked the next morning. Dryly, he added, "Mary said she was talking about Georges Sinclair, and it made you ill."

Zayn's face was pale but composed as he closed his office door and handed him the sheet of paper he'd just printed out.

He unfolded it and scanned the four simple lines. "You're resigning for personal reasons—what the hell does that mean? What personal reasons?"

"Sophia Sinclair is a distant relative of mine. I didn't know until yesterday that George Sinclair is Liam's father."

Shock jerked Harry erect in his chair. He stared at him in angry confusion then he said, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you asked why I was resigning."

He watched him silently, the rigidity slowly fading from his features. "So you're related to his father's wife," he said finally. "So what?"

Zayn hadn't expected an argument. Exhausted, he sank into a chair. "Harry, when is it going to occur to you that as Sophia Sinclair's relative, I could be spying on you for her?"

Harry's green eyes turned sharp and piercing. "Are you, Zayn?"

"No."

"Has Mrs. Sinclair asked you to?"

"Yes."

"And you agreed?" he snapped.

Zayn didn't know it was possible to feel this miserable. "I thought about it, but on my way to be interviewed here, I decided I couldn't do it. I never expected to be hired, and I wouldn't have been…" Briefly, he told him how he had met Liam that evening. "And the next day you interviewed me and offered me a job."

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "I wanted to be near Liam. I knew that he worked in this building, so I accepted your offer. But I have never relayed one bit of information to Sophia."

"I can't believe this," Harry said shortly, rubbing his fingers over his forehead as if he was getting a splitting headache. The moments ticked away in silence. Zayn was too desolate to notice or to care. He simply sat there, waiting for him to pronounce sentence on him. "It doesn't matter," he said finally. "You aren't quitting. I won't let you."

Zayn gaped at him. "What are you talking about? Don't you care that I could be telling Sophia everything I know?"

"You aren't."

"How can you be sure?" he challenged.

"Common sense. If you were going to spy on us, you wouldn't walk in here to resign and tell me you're related to Sinclair. Besides, you're in love with Liam, and I think he's in love with you."

"I don't think he is," Zayn said with quiet dignity. "And even if he is, the minute he discovers who I am related to, he won't want anything to do with me. He'll insist on knowing why I happened to apply for a job at Pay-co, and he'll never believe it was coincidence, even if I was willing to lie to him, which I'm not…"

"Zayn, one can confess almost anything to his lover if he chooses the right time to do it. Wait until Liam comes back, and then—"

When Zayn refused with a firm shake of his head, he threatened, "If you resign without notice like this, I won't give you a good reference."

"I don't expect one."

Harry watched him leave his office. For several minutes he was very still, his brows drawn together in a thoughtful frown. Then he slowly reached out and picked up the telephone.

***

Mr. Payne." The secretary bent down beside Liam, her voice lowered to avoid disturbing the seven other major U.S. industrialists seated around the conference table discussing an international trade agreement. "I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but there's a Mr. Harry Styles on the phone for you…"

Liam nodded, already sliding his chair back, his face betraying none of the alarm he felt over this emergency interruption. He couldn't imagine what disaster could have arisen that would warrant Mary's having Harry call him here. The secretary showed him to a private room, and Liam snatched up the telephone. "Harry, what's wrong?"

"Nothing, I just needed some guidance."

"Guidance?" Liam repeated in angry disbelief. "I'm in the middle of an international trade meeting and…"

"I know, so I'll be quick. The new sales manager I hired can come to work for us three weeks from now, on November fifteenth."

Liam swore in irritation. "So what?" he snapped.

"Well, the reason I'm calling is because I wanted to know if it would be all right if he reports for work in November, or if you'd rather have him wait and start in January as we originally discussed. I—" Harry babbled.

"I can't believe this!" Liam interrupted furiously. "I don't give a damn when he starts, and you know it. November fifteenth is fine. What else?"

"That's about all," Harry replied imperturbably. "How's Chicago?"

"Windy!" Liam snarled. "So help me, if you've gotten me out of this meeting just to ask me that—"

"Okay, I'm sorry. I'll let you go. Oh, by the way, Zayn resigned this morning."

The announcement hit Liam like a slap in the face. "I'll talk to him on Monday when I get back."

"You won't be able to—his resignation's effective immediately. I think he plans to leave for Missouri tomorrow."

"You must be losing your touch," Liam gritted sarcastically. "Usually they fall in love with you, and you have to transfer them to another division to get them out of your hair. Zayn saved you the trouble."

"He's not in love with me." Harry sighed exasperate at how thick his friend could be.

"That's your problem, not mine."

"The hell it is! You wanted to play bedtime games with him, and when he wouldn't, you worked him until he was pale and exhausted. He's in love with you, and you've made him take messages from other women and men, made him—"

"Zayn doesn't give a damn about me!" Liam snapped furiously, "and I haven't got time to discuss him with you."

He slammed the phone into the cradle and stalked back into the conference room. Seven men glanced up at him with a mixture of polite concern and accusation. By mutual agreement, none of them was taking calls except in extreme emergency. Liam sat down in his chair and curtly said, "I apologize for the interruption. My secretary overestimated the importance of a problem and had the call forwarded here."

Liam tried to concentrate on the business at hand and nothing else, but visions of Zayn kept floating through his mind. In the middle of a heated discussion over marketing rights, he saw Zayn laughing, his face turned up to the sun, his skin shining gold as they sailed on Lake Michigan.

He remembered looking up into his captivating face.

"What happens to me if this shoe fits?"

"I turn you into a handsome puppy.”

Instead he'd turned him into a raving maniac! Jealousy had been driving him insane for two weeks. Every time his phone rang, he wondered which lover was calling him. Every time a man or a woman looked at him in the office, he had a wild urge to put them straight and claim Zayn as his.

Tomorrow he'd be gone. On Monday he wouldn't see him. It was best for both of them. It was best for the whole goddamned corporation; his own executives were sidling out of the way when they saw him coming!

The meeting adjourned at seven o'clock, and when dinner was over, Liam excused himself to go up to his suite. As he walked down the main corridor of the fashionable hotel toward the elevators, he passed the window of an exclusive jewelry shop. A magnificent silver watch surrounded by glittering diamonds caught his eye and he paused. Perhaps if he bought Zayn this watch… Suddenly he felt like a small boy again, standing beside Mary, buying the silver ring.

He turned away and stalked down the corridor. Bribery, he reminded himself savagely, was the lowest form of begging. He would not beg Zayn to change his mind. He would not beg anyone for anything.

He spent an hour and a half on the telephone in his suite, returning calls and dealing with business matters that had arisen in his absence. When he hung up, it was nearly eleven. He walked over to the windows and gazed out at the twinkling Chicago skyline.

Zayn was leaving. Harry said he was pale and exhausted. What if he was ill? Or what if he was exhausted from his multiple lovers he claimed he’d sleep with. He casted the painful thought aside.

He thought of the Sunday afternoon he'd gone to his apartment to give him his grandfather’s watch. When he'd tried to get him into bed, he'd exploded at him. Most people would have been satisfied with what he was offering, but not Zayn. He had wanted him to care, to be involved emotionally with him as well as sexually. He had wanted some sort of commitment from him.

Liam stretched out on the bed. It was just as well that he was leaving, he decided furiously. He should go back home and find some small-town jerk that’d grovel at his feet, tell him he loved him and make any commitment he wanted.

***

The meeting reconvened at precisely ten o'clock the following morning. Because all the men present were industrial giants whose time was extremely valuable, everyone was punctual. The chairman of the committee looked at the six men seated around the conference table and said, "Liam Payne will not be here today. He asked me to explain that he was called back to Detroit this morning on an urgent matter."

"We all have urgent matters pending," one of the members growled. "What the hell is Liam's problem that he can't be here?"

"He said it's a labor relations problem."

"That's no excuse!" another member exploded. "We all have labor relations problems."

"I reminded Liam of that," the chairman replied.

"What did he say?"

"He said that nobody has a labor relations problem like his."

***

Zayn carried another armload of his belongings out to his car, and then he paused to look up at the overcast October sky. It was either going to rain or snow, he decided dismally.

He walked back into the apartment, leaving the door slightly ajar so that he could nudge it open with his foot when he carried out the next load of his things. His feet were damp from splashing through the little puddles on the sidewalk, and he mechanically bent down and took off his Vans. He was planning to wear them when he drove home, so he'd have to dry them quickly. He carried them in front of the electric fireplace and turned it on.

Upstairs he put on another pair of shoes and closed the last suitcase. All he had to do now was write a note to Sophia Sinclair, and then he could leave. He sighed. Picking up his suitcase, he carried it downstairs.

Halfway across the living room he heard footsteps coming from the kitchen behind him. He swung around in surprise then froze as Liam stalked out of the kitchen. He saw the reckless glitter in his eyes as he came toward him, and his mind screamed a warning; he knew about Sophia Sinclair.

Panicked, he dropped the suitcase and started edging away. In his haste he caught the backs of his knees on the arm of the sofa, lost his balance and landed flat on his back on the cushions.

His eyes gleaming with amusement, Liam looked at the attractive young man sprawled invitingly across the sofa. "I'm flattered, baby, but I'd like something to eat first. What are you serving—besides grilled shoes?"

Warily Zayn scrambled to his feet. Despite his humorous tone, there was an iron grimness in the set of his jaw, and every powerful muscle of his body was tensed. He took a cautious step out of his reach.

"Stand still," he ordered softly.

Zayn froze again obeying his command mindlessly. "Why… why aren't you at the international trade meeting?"

"As a matter of fact," he drawled, "I've asked myself that same question several times this morning. I asked myself that question when I walked out on seven men who require my vote on vitally important issues. I asked myself that question on the way here, when the woman in the seat beside me on the plane threw up in a bag."

Zayn choked back a nervous chuckle. He was tense, he was angry, but he wasn't furious. Therefore he didn't know about Sophia.

 

"I asked myself that question," he continued, advancing a step, "when I practically jerked an old man out of the back seat of a taxi and took it myself, because I was afraid I'd get here too late."

Zayn tried desperately to decipher his mood and couldn't. "Now that you're here," he said hesitantly, "what do you want?"

"I want you."

"I told you—"

"I know what you told me," Liam interrupted impatiently. "You told me I'm too old and too cynical for you. Right?"

He nodded.

"Zayn, I am only two months older than I was in Harbor Springs. Even though I feel a hell of a lot older than I did then. But the fact is you didn't think I was too old for you then, and you don't really think so today. Now, I'll unload your car and you can start unpacking your things."

"I'm going home, Liam," Zayn said with quiet determination.

"No, you're not," he said implacably, "You belong to me, and if you force me to, I'll carry you up to bed and make you admit it there."

Zayn knew he could do exactly that. He backed away another step. "All you would prove is that you can physically overpower me. Nothing I admitted there would count. What does matter is that I don't want to belong to you in any way!"

Liam smiled somberly. "I want to belong to you… in every way."

Zayn's heart flung itself against his ribs. What did he mean, belong? He knew instinctively that Liam wasn't offering any kind of long time commitment, but at least he was offering himself. What would happen if he told him now about Sophia Sinclair?

Liam spoke, his coaxing voice tinged with desperation. "Consider what an amoral, unprincipled cynic I am—think of all the improvements you could make to my character."

The simultaneous urge to laugh and weep snapped Zayn's control. He was going to do it; he was going to let himself become that sordid cliché—the secretary in love with his boss, having a secret affair with him. He was going to gamble his pride and self-respect on the chance that he could make Liam love him. He was going to risk having him hate him when he eventually told him about Sophia.

"Zayn," Liam said hoarsely, "I love you."

His eyes shot up to his. Unable to believe his ears, he stared at him through teary-glazed eyes.

Liam saw his unshed tears and his heart sank with bitter defeat. "Don't you dare cry," he warned tersely, "I have never said that to a man before, and I…" His words trailed off as Zayn unexpectedly threw himself into his arms, his shoulders shaking. Uncertainly, he tipped his chin up and gazed at his face. His thick lashes were spiky with tears of what he hoped were of joy. He tried to speak and Liam tensed, braced for the rejection he had dreaded all the way from Chicago.

"I think you are so beautiful," He whispered secretly. "I think you are the most beautiful—"

A low groan tore from Liam's chest, and he smothered his mouth with his. Devouring his lips with the insatiable hunger that had been torturing him for weeks, he crushed his melting, lean body to his muscular one. He kissed him fiercely, tempestuously, tenderly, and still he could not get enough of him. At last he dragged his mouth from his already bruised lips, fighting down the rampaging demands of his body, and held him in his arms, pressed against his pounding heart.

When he didn't move for several minutes, Zayn leaned back in his arms and raised his face to his. Liam saw the question in his eyes and the willing acceptance of his decision. Zayn would lie beside him here, or anywhere else he chose.

"No," he murmured tenderly. "Not like this. I'm not going to walk in here and rush you into bed. I did something like that in Harbor Springs."

The bold pretty boy in his arms smiled one of his bewitching smiles. "Are you really hungry? I could fix you some sautéed socks to go with the shoes. Or would you prefer something more conventional, like an omelette? but I have to warn you I’m shit at conventional cooking."

Liam chuckled and brushed a kiss over his forehead. "I'll have my housekeeper fix something for me while I shower. Then I'm going to get some sleep. I didn't get any last night," he added meaningfully.

Zayn gave him a look of sham sympathy, which earned him another kiss.

"I suggest you sleep too, because when we come back from the party tonight, we're going to bed, and I intend to keep you awake until morning."

In fifteen minutes he had unloaded his car. "I'll pick you up at nine," he said when he was ready to leave. "It's black tie; do you have something a nice formal suit to wear?"

Zayn hated to wear the clothes that had belonged to Sophia’s boyfriend, but for tonight he didn't have any choice. "Where are we going?"

"To the Children's Hospital Benefit Ball at the Westin Hotel. I'm one of the sponsors, so I have tickets every year."

"That doesn't sound very discreet," Zayn said uneasily. "Someone may see us together there."

"Everyone will see us together. It's one of the social highlights of the year, which is why I want to take you. What's wrong with that?"

 

If the benefit ball was an elaborate society function, none of the other employees at Global were likely to be there, which explained to Zayn why Liam wasn't worried about causing office gossip. "Nothing's wrong with it. I'd love to go," he said, as he raised his head to kiss him goodbye. "I'd go anywhere with you."

Chapter Text

Liam looked breathtakingly elegant in his raven black tuxedo, snowy shirt and formal black bow tie when Zayn answered his door that night. "You look wonderful," he said softly, unconsciously licking his lips.

Liam’s own gaze moved with glinting admiration over his vivid features, over his shiny and perfectly styled hair, his gorgeous black suit with his thin black tie, he looked as if he just got animated out of a fashion magazine.

"Don't you like it?" Zayn asked self-consciously.

Liam gave him another once over appreciating how his slacks hugged his thighs perfectly.

"I love it," he said with a glint dancing in his eyes, and Zayn slightly blushed when he realized what he was referring to.

The Westin Hotel was located in downtown Detroit's magnificent Renaissance Center. In honor of the ball, a red carpet had been laid from the curb to the hotel's main entrance. Television cameras were positioned on both sides of it. As Liam's chauffeur pulled his limousine to a stop, newspaper photographers and paparazzi jostled their way to the front, their cameras raised.

A doorman stepped forward and opened the door for Zayn. When Liam followed him out of the limousine and took his elbow, flashlights exploded on both sides, and cameras tracked their progress up the red carpet.

The first person Zayn saw when they walked into the crowded ballroom was Harry. He saw them too, and he watched them approaching with a look of visible glee on his face. Yet when he put out his hand, Zayn noticed that Liam hesitated before acknowledging the greeting.

"You're back early from Chicago," Harry remarked, seemingly oblivious to his friend's cold reserve. "I wonder why?" he continued his teasing.

"You know damned well why," Liam retorted grimly.

Harry's brows lifted, but he turned his emerald, appreciative gaze on Zayn. "I'd tell you how gorgeous you look, but at the moment, Liam is already restraining the urge to knock my teeth down my throat."

"Why?" Zayn gasped, his own gaze flying to Liam's rigid face.

 

Harry answered with a deep chuckle. "It has something to do with two dozen red roses and a kiss he witnessed. He's forgotten about a guy I was in love with once but couldn't quite get up the nerve to ask to marry me. He got tired of waiting for me to bolster my courage, so he sent Niall two dozen—"

Liam's breath exploded in laughter. "You bastard," he said good-naturedly, and this time his handclasp was sincere.

For Zayn it was a truly magical night, a night filled with the scent of flowers, of twinkling chandeliers and glorious music. A night of dancing in Liam's arms and standing by his side while he introduced him to the people he knew—and he seemed to know everyone. People surrounded them the moment they stepped off the dance floor or paused to have a glass of champagne. It was obvious to Zayn that Liam was greatly respected and well liked, and he felt absurdly proud of him. And Liam was equally proud of him—he could see it in his warm smile when he introduced him to his acquaintances, and in the possessive way he kept his arm around his waist.

"Zayn?"

It was well after midnight. He slightly tipped his head back and smiled up at him as they danced. "Hmmm?"

"I would like to leave now." The lust in his chocolate brown eyes told Zayn why. He nodded, and without a protest let him lead him off the dance floor. He could not deny; he was excited as well.

He had just decided that this was the most perfect night of his life when a familiar voice struck panic through his whole nervous system. "Liam," Sophia Sinclair said, her voice raised slightly, her face a mask of cordiality, "It's nice to see you."

Zayn's blood ran cold. Oh no! Not here, not like this! He internally prayed.

"I don't believe we've met this young man," Sophia added, her thin brows lifted toward Zayn in a politely inquiring manner that made him feel dizzy with relief.

He dragged his eyes from Sophia and looked at Georges Sinclair and then Liam. Father and son faced each other like polite strangers; an exact but young replica of his father, although they were so different on so many levels. With cool courtesy, Liam introduced them as "Sophia Sinclair and husband, Georges."

In the limousine a few minutes later, Zayn could feel Liam watching him. "What's wrong?" he finally asked.

He drew an unsteady breath. "Georges Sinclair is your father. Mary told me a few days ago."

His expression didn't alter. "Yes, he is."

"If I were your father," Zayn said in a suffocated whisper, turning his head away. "I would be so proud of you. Every time I looked at you, I would think, that handsome, elegant, powerful man is my—"

 

"Your boyfriend," Liam whispered, dragging him into his arms and kissing him with fierce tenderness.

Zayn slid his fingers through his lovely brown hair, holding his mouth to his. "I love you," he whispered quietly.

A sigh of relief seemed to go through Liam's body. "I was beginning to think you were never going to say that." He said with a gentle smile tugging on his lips.

Zayn snuggled in his arms, but his contentment was short-lived. His relief that Sophia Sinclair hadn't exposed him slowly gave way to alarm. By pretending not to know Sophia or Georges in front of Liam, Zayn had participated in a flagrant deception that in a way made a fool of him. Panic rose in his chest and squeezed the breath out of him. He would tell him tonight, after they made love. He had to tell him before the web of his deception entangled him more than it already had.

When they reached his apartment, Liam removed his suit jacket for him and put it on a chair nearby. His hands went to the buttons on his own tuxedo jacket, and as he started to take it off, Zayn experienced a thrill of excitement; he was already half hard thinking about what Liam would do to him. Turning, he walked over to the windows, trying to steady himself. He heard Liam come up behind him. "Would you like a drink?" he asked in a hesitant voice.

"No." His arm slid around his waist, drawing his back against him as he bent his head a little and pressed a tantalizing kisses against his temple.

“Unbutton your shirt babe, I want to feel you, I missed all the ink you have under this stupid shirt.” He whispered into his ear.

Zayn's breathing became shallow and rapid as his warm lips touched his ear as he started unbuttoning his shirt quickly. Those sinful lips then traveled down his nape, and his hands began moving lazily over his middle. One hand angled down over his stomach to curve around his hip, while the other slid down and gently cupped the now evident growing bulge in his pants.

His touch was exquisite delight, and when his knowing fingers slipped his white shirt off his shoulders to the ground and began to tease and pinch his nipples, Zayn could not but moan and grind into the hand that was lightly stroking him, as well as feeling Liam’s hard on pressing on his behind.

By the time his hands went to his shoulders, turning him into his arms, Zayn’s entire body was shaking with how much he wanted Liam. His parted lips touched his as his arms drew him gently to grind their hardened lengths together, in an excruciatingly slow manner. He kissed him with a slow, melting hunger, which deepened moment by moment to a burning insistence and then burst into a ravenous urgency. His tongue plunged into his mouth in a deep, raw kiss, and Zayn this time, less nervous rubbed his tongue on his, savoring his taste as well.

 

Driven by a mixture of love and the fear of losing him, Zayn arched upward in a fevered need to share and stimulate his passion. He felt the gasp of his breath against his mouth as his tongue teased his warm lips, felt the reflexive clutching of his hands on his ass and hips as Zayn caressed the hard muscled flesh of his back and shoulders.

Somewhere in the recesses of his aroused-drugged mind Liam was aware that Zayn was kissing him as he had never kissed him before, and that he was sensuously moving his crotch against his, deliberately inciting the tidal waves of desire that were surging through him. But he didn't actually compare the uninhibited man in his arms with the shyly uncertain guy he had been in Harbor Springs until Zayn pulled back and started to unfasten the buttons of his shirt.

He looked down at his graceful hands, and his traitorous mind instantly replayed the same moment in Harbor Springs—except then he had had to put his own hand on his shirt and urge him to unbutton it. That night Zayn had been inexperienced and shy. He had obviously gained a great deal of experience since then.

Icy regret and disappointment poured through him, and he covered Zayn’s fingers with his hands, stopping him.

"Fix me a drink, will you?" he said, hating himself for what he was thinking and the way he was feeling about him.

Taken aback by the tired, defeated bitterness in his voice, Zayn dropped his hands. He went over to the bar, fixed him a bourbon and water and gave it to him. He saw his lips twist in a humorless smile when he noted that he remembered exactly what he preferred to drink, but without commenting on it, he lifted it to his lips and drank.

Zayn was bewildered by his attitude, but he was utterly stunned by his next words. Lowering the glass, he said, "Let's get it over with, so I can stop wondering. How many have there been?"

Zayn stared at him blankly. "How many what?"

"Lovers," he clarified bitterly.

He could hardly believe his ears. After treating him as if his standards of morality were childish, after acting as if promiscuity was a virtue, after telling him how people preferred experienced partners, he was jealous, because now he cared…

Zayn didn't know whether to slap him, burst out laughing or hug him. Instead he decided to exact just a tiny bit of revenge for all the misery and uncertainty he had put him through. Turning, he walked over to the bar and reached for a bottle of white wine.

"Why should the number make any difference?" he asked innocently. "You told me in Harbor Springs that people don't prize virginity anymore, that they don't expect or want a partner to be inexperienced. Right?"

 

"Right," he said grimly, glowering at the ice cubes in his glass.

"You also said," he continued, biting back a smile, "that everyone has physical desires, and that they have the right to satisfy them with whomever we wish. You were very emphatic about that—"

"Zayn," he warned in a low voice, "I asked you a simple question. I don't care what the answer is; I just want an answer so I can stop wondering. Tell me how many there were. Tell me if you liked them, if you didn't give a damn about them, or if you did it to get even with me. Just tell me. I won't hold it against you."

Like hell you wouldn't! Zayn thought happily as he struggled to uncork the bottle of wine. "Of course you won't hold it against me," he said lightly. "You specifically said—"

"I know what I said," he snapped tersely. "Now, how many?"

He flicked a glance in his direction, implying that he was bewildered by his tone.

"Only one."

Angry regret flared in his eyes, and his body tensed as if he had just felt a physical blow.

"Did you… care about him?" he asked with a hoarse voice.

"I thought I loved him at the time," Zayn said brightly, twisting the corkscrew deeper into the cork.

"All right. Let's forget him," Liam said curtly. He finally noticed his efforts with the wine bottle and walked over to help him.

"Are you going to be able to forget him?" Zayn asked, admiring the ease with which he managed the stubborn cork.

"I will… after a while."

"What do you mean, after a while? You said there was nothing promiscuous about one satisfying his biological—"

"I know what I said, dammit!"

"Then why do you look so angry? You didn't lie to me, did you?"

"I didn't," he said, slamming the bottle onto the bar and reaching for a glass from the cabinet. "I believed it at the time."

"Why?" he goaded.

 

"Because it was convenient to believe it," he bit out. "I was not in love with you then."

Zayn loved him more at that moment than ever. "Would you like me to tell you about him?"

"No," he said coldly.

Zayn’s eyes twinkled, but he backed a cautious step out of his reach. "You would have approved of him. He was tall, tanned and handsome, like you. Very elegant, sophisticated and experienced. He wore down my resistance in two days, and—"

"Fuck, stop it!" Liam grated in genuine fury.

"His name is James."

Liam braced both hands on the liquor cabinet, his back to him. "I do not want to hear this!"

"Liam James Payne," Zayn clarified.

The relief Liam experienced was so intense that he hardly knew how to cope with it. He straightened and turned toward him. Zayn was standing in the center of the room, an exotic half naked angel.

Zayn was in love with him.

He could make him his boyfriend, or he could make him his husband. In his heart he knew that he belonged at his side as his fully longtime partner; anything less would destroy his pride. That beautiful lean body of his had been offered only to him. He could not accept his gift and his love and in return offer him some obscure, tenuous thing called a "meaningful relationship." Although he was very young he loved him, and he was wise enough not to play games with his life. He was also stubborn, willful and courageously defiant, as he had learned to his intense fury and frustration during the past several weeks…

He looked at him in silence, and then he drew a long deep breath. "Zayn," he began gravely, "I would like to adopt children with you that have wobbly amber eyes and studious horn-rimmed glasses on their little noses …" He saw the tears of joyous disbelief filling his eyes, and he jerked him into his arms, crushing him against his heart. "Babe, please don't tear up. Please don't," he whispered thickly, kissing his forehead, his cheek, the tip of his nose and finally his lips. Reminding himself that this was only Zayn's second experience with sex, and that he was not going to rush him, Liam leaned down, lifted him into his arms, while Zayn ankles crossed behind his back and arms circled his shoulders for support, and the he carried him upstairs.

With his mouth still locked to his, as he followed him down on the mattress, his hand sliding up and down his thighs. The exquisite sensation of his hips thrusting up to grind them together made him catch his breath sharply. While he removed his clothes, Zayn undressed the rest of his close before his burning gaze. And when his soft boxers finally drifted to the floor, he lifted his face to his and stood before him boldly, looking at him in seductive manner.

 

A shattering feeling of tenderness made Liam's hands shake as he cupped his beautiful face between his palms, his fingers trembling over his lovely features. After weeks of stubbornly defying him and coldly denying him, Zayn was looking at him now with unconcealed surrender. Love glowed in his eyes, a love so quietly intense that he felt both humbled and profoundly proud.

"Zayn," he said his deep voice raw with the new, unaccustomed emotions inside him, "I love you too." He confessed surrendering in his turn to his own emotions.

In answer, He slid his hands up his bare chest, wrapped his arms around his neck and pressed himself against his hardness, slowly rubbing himself against him, moving his hips in that sexy manner he did earlier, and sending flames of desire shooting uncontrollably through his bloodstream. Trying to restrain his exploding passion, he bent his head and kissed him. His lips parted; his tongue slipped between them for one sweet arousing taste, withdrew… then hungrily, urgently, plunged again, and suddenly it was all out of control. With a low groan he pulled him down onto the bed and rolled him onto his back, pressing him into the pillows, his hands and mouth fiercely urgent as he kissed and stroked him.

Somewhere in the commotion of his twirling senses, Zayn realized that Liam's lovemaking was different tonight. In Harbor Springs he had handled his body as a maestro handles a familiar instrument, his hands deft, skilled; tonight there was a tormenting gentleness, a subtle tremor in the way his hands caressed and stroked him. In Harbor Springs his passion had been carefully controlled, restrained; tonight Liam was as desperate for him as Zayn was for him.

His lips and tongue touched nipples, circling them, and Zayn lost the ability to think at all. His fingers clenched convulsively in his hair, holding his head to his chest and arching towards the tormenting mouth of his, then glided over the bunched muscles of his shoulders and arms.

"I want you," Liam whispered hoarsely. "I want you so much!"

His hoarse words of passion inflamed him, and his whispered endearments stirred him to his soul. He was suddenly so overwhelmed that he needed to show him how much Zayn also wanted him…how much he’d give to him…

He unexpectedly flipped them over, so he was straddling Liam’s thighs, Liam’s eyes locked on his in confusion but then he understood.

“You don’t have to.” He said with a hoarse voice.

“I really want to taste you Li.” That said Zayn went down and started to stroke him lightly. Liam did his best to stay put, to not violently and desperately thrust up in his hand. His control seemed to vanish however when Zayn's tongue fiddled with his tip, licking the gathered pre-come at the head, before slowly sucking him in the sinful warm mouth of his. Seeing those insanely pink bruised lips wrapping around him, while they stretched to accommodate his girth, Liam thought he was totally gone. It was a beautiful torture to restrain his body from bucking up into Zayn’s invitingly tight throat. Zayn moaned through his full mouth as Liam’s hands came to caress his head and his fingers started to fiddle through his raven black hair. So he started bobbing his head with determination, each time Liam groaned in pure pleasure; Zayn wanted to take more, he wanted to show Liam how good he can be, so he sank down even further until he choked, making Liam tug on his hair to withdraw his mouth off him.

“Babe…take it easy yeah!” he said with a hint of amusement mixed with awe in his voice.

Zayn nodded and intended to get back on what he was doing but Liam tightened his grip in his hair and brought his face up to his to capture his lips in yet another breathtaking kiss.

When his hand parted his thighs, Zayn moaned in his throat and lifted his legs for him. Liam's restraint broke. His lips captured his in a deep, raw kiss, then he went to coat his fingers with lube, coming back to continue the mind-blowing making out session while he slowly fingered the shuddering boy under him. "Move on my fingers, babe," he coaxed thickly, and when Zayn did, he groaned and could not hold back anymore he replaced his fingers with his length embedding himself slowly but fully inside Zayn’s warmth. It started with painfully slow thrusts, but then it accelerated into something wild. The fierce hunger of his deep strokes, the urgency of each thrust, sent waves of shivering ecstasy shooting through Zayn, a high that finally exploded with a force that tore a low scream from his throat. Liam’s hand snaked to stroke him in time with his thrusts, prolonging his bliss, and then he tightened his arms around him, crushing him to his body, and with light and erratic strokes, while groaning his name, he joined him in blissful oblivion.

Early the next morning he was jarred awake by the harsh ringing of the phone. Reaching across Liam's naked chest, he picked it up and answered it. "Liam …It's Harry" he said, handing him his phone.

After a brief conversation he hung up, then swung his legs off the bed and combed his hands through his hair. "I have to fly to Oklahoma today," he explained with a mixture of regret and resignation. "A few months ago I bought an oil company owned by a man who over the years had alienated all his employees. My people have been trying to negotiate with those same employees on their new contracts, but they're used to promises being made and not kept. They're demanding to talk to me, or else they're going on strike." He was already pulling on his trousers and shrugging into his shirt.

"I'll see you tomorrow at the office," he promised a few minutes later at the front door. He drew him into his arms for a long, drugging kiss then reluctantly released him. "I may have to fly all night to get here, but I'll be back tomorrow. I promise."

Chapter Text

Dozens of watchful, speculative faces turned to watch Zayn's progress through the office Monday morning. Bewildered, he hung up his coat and continued to his desk, where he found Susan Brook and a half dozen other staff gathered around it.

"What's up?" he asked. He felt radiantly happy; Liam had called him twice from Oklahoma, and sometime today he would see him again.

"You tell us," Susan said gaily. "Isn't that you?" She plunked the Sunday newspaper down on Zayn's desk and smoothed it out.

Zayn's eyes widened. An entire page had been devoted to the Children's Hospital Benefit Ball. In the center was a color picture of him—with Liam. They were dancing, and he was grinning down at him. Zayn's face was in profile, tilted up to his. The caption read, "Detroit industrialist Liam J. Payne and companion."

"It does look like me, doesn't it?" he hedged, glancing at the excited, avidly curious faces surrounding his desk. "Isn't that an amazing coincidence?" he didn't want his relationship with Liam to be public knowledge until the time was right, and he certainly didn't want his co-workers to treat him any differently.

"You mean it isn't you?" one of the women said disappointedly. None of them noticed the sudden lull, the silence sweeping over the office as people stopped talking and keyboard noises went perfectly still____

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Liam's deep voice said behind Zayn. Six stunned people snapped to attention, staring in fascinated awe as Liam leaned over Zayn from behind and braced his hands on his desk. "Hi," he said, his lips so near his ear that Zayn was afraid to turn his head for fear he would kiss him in front of everyone. He glanced at the newspaper spread out on his desk. "You look beautiful, but who's that ugly guy you're dancing with?" Without waiting for an answer, he straightened, affectionately rumpled the hair on the top of his head and strolled into Harry's office, closing the door behind him.

Zayn felt like sinking through the floor in embarrassment. Susan Brook raised her brows. "What an amazing coincidence," she teased.

Liam came out of Harry's office a few minutes later and asked Zayn to come upstairs with him. Once they were in his office, he pulled him into his arms for a long, satisfying kiss. "I missed you," he whispered then he sighed and reluctantly released him, linking his hands behind Zayn’s back. "I'm going to miss you even more—I have to leave for Casano in an hour. Rossi couldn't reach me, so he called Horace Horan in New York. Apparently some Americans are snooping around the village, asking questions about him. I have a security team checking it out. In the meantime, Rossi's gone into hiding, and there's no phone where he is.

"I'm going to take Harry with me. Niall's father panicked and sent Niall to Casano to try to soothe Rossi. He speaks some Italian. I'll be back on Wednesday, or Thursday at the latest."

He frowned. "Zayn, I never explained to you about Niall—"

 

"Mary did," he said, managing to look cheerful even though he felt miserable about his leaving. Besides missing him, he would also have another three or four days of anxiety, waiting to tell him about Sophia. He definitely couldn't tell him now, when he was about to go away. His anger would ferment and simmer for days. He had to tell him when he could be with him to soothe it. "Why are you taking Harry?"

"When the president of Pay-co retires next month, Harry is going to take over the position. By taking him with me, we can discuss immediate goals and long-range plans for Pay-co." He grinned at him. "Also," he admitted, "I'm feeling very grateful to Harry for his interference in our lives, and I've decided to interfere with his. By taking him to Italy, where Niall is… I see you understand my thinking," he said when Zayn started to smile.

With a final hug he let him go, then he went over to his desk and began shoving papers into his briefcase. "If Rossi calls again, I've told Mary to transfer his call to you wherever you are. Assure him that I'm on my way and that there's nothing to worry about. We have four labs testing samples of Rossi's formula right now. Within two weeks we should know whether he's a genius or a fake, and until we know which he is, we'll assume he's not a fake and pamper him."

Zayn listened to his rapid-fire monologue with an inward smile of admiration. Being married to Liam was going to be like living on the fringe of a tornado, and he was going to be caught up in the whirl.

"By the way," he said, so casually that Zayn was instantly on guard, a magazine reporter called me this morning. They know who you are and they know we're getting married. When the story breaks, I'm afraid the press will start hounding you."

"How did they find out?" Zayn gasped.

He shot him a glinting smile. "I told them."

Everything was happening so quickly that Zayn felt dazed. "Did you happen to tell them when and where we're getting married?" he chided.

"I told them soon." He closed his briefcase and drew him out of the chair in which he had just sat down. "Do you want a big wedding with a cast of hundreds—or could you settle for a little cozy one with close friends and family? When we come back from our honeymoon we could throw a huge party, and that would satisfy our social obligations to everyone else we know."

Zayn quickly considered the burden a big wedding would place on his mother's health and nonexistent finances, and the highly desirable alternative of becoming Liam’s husband right away. "You and a small cozy wedding," he said with a small smile.

"Good." He grinned. "Because I would go quietly insane waiting to make you mine. Patience isn’t one of my virtues I’m afraid."

 

"Really?" he straightened the knot in his tie so that he'd have an excuse to touch him. "I never noticed that."

"Brat," he said affectionately, then he added, "I've written a check and given it to Mary. Put it in your bank, take a few days off and use it to buy any clothes you need while I'm gone. It's rather a large check. You won't be able to spend it all on clothes. Use the rest of it to buy something special as a memento of our engagement. Jewelry," he said, "or a watch."

When he left, Zayn leaned back against his desk, his smile tinged with wistful sadness as he remembered Mary's words at lunch. "From that day forward Liam has never bought a gift for a man… He gives them money instead and tells them to pick out something they'll like… he doesn't care if it's jewelry or clothes…"

He shoved the gloomy thought aside. Someday, perhaps, Liam would change. In the meantime he had more to be thankful for than anyone else. He glanced at his sporty wristwatch. It was ten-fifteen, and he still hadn't done any work.

***

Jack Collins stared dazedly at the big round clock on the wall across from his hospital bed, fighting the grogginess he always got from the hypodermics they gave him before they took him down for tests. He tried to focus, to concentrate. The clock said ten-thirty. It was Monday. Rudy was supposed to call with the results of the investigation on the bilingual secretary who'd been assigned to Liam Payne.

As if he had conjured up the call, his phone began to ring. He groped for it then brought it to his ear.

"Jack," Rudy’s voice said from the other end.

Jack slowly composed a mental image of Rudy's round face, his beady eyes. "Did you check out that Malik boy?" he asked.

"Yeah," Rudy said. "I checked him out, just like you said. He's livin' in a fancy condo in Bloomfield Hills, and some old Lady is payin' his rent. I talked to the gatekeeper, and he said this lady keeps the place for her boyfriends. The last man who lived there was a blond model. Madame Sinclair came calling on him one night and found him entertaining another woman so she threw him out.

"The gatekeeper says Malik lives nice and quiet—he can see his condo from his gate." Rudy's chuckle was lewd. "The gatekeeper said Mrs. Sinclair isn't getting his money's worth out of him, because she's only been there once since he moved in. The way I figure it, Mrs. Sinclair is gettin' old and…"

Jack struggled against the fog that seemed to cloud his senses. "Who?"

"Sinclair," Rudy said. "Madame Sophia Bloom Sinclair. I figure she's lost her—"

 

"Listen to me, and shut up!" Jack rasped. "They're taking me downstairs for tests, and they gave me a shot that's putting me to sleep. Go to Liam Payne and tell him what you've told me. Have you got that? Tell Liam—" dizziness washed over Jack in waves "—tell him I think he's the leak in the Rossi deal."

"He's what? He is? You gotta be kidding! That broad is…" Rudy's tone changed from scorn to military self-importance. "I'll take care of it Jack, you leave everything to—"

"Shut up, damn you, and listen to me!" Jack rasped. "If Liam Payne is away, go to Louis Tomlinson, the corporation's chief attorney, and tell him what I said. Don't talk to anyone else about it. Then I want you to watch him. I want his office calls monitored. I want you to keep track of every move he makes. Get another man to help you…"

***

Zayn was staring dreamily into space when his phone rang on Tuesday morning. He was so happy and so excited that he could hardly concentrate on the mundane tasks of his job. Even if he had wanted to get Liam off his mind, which he didn't, it would have been impossible to stop thinking of him, because the office staff was teasing him constantly. He answered the phone and absently noted the tiny click that had occurred every time he'd picked it up since yesterday. "Zayn, my dear," Sophia Sinclair said smoothly, "I think we ought to have lunch together today."

It wasn't an invitation, it was an order. With every fiber of his being, Zayn longed to tell Sophia Sinclair off and hang up on her, but he didn't dare. If he angered her, there was always the chance that Sophia might tell Liam who and what he was before he had a chance to tell him by himself. Then, too, he was living in Sophia’s apartment, and he couldn't move away now and Liam would ask qustions. If he called him he could tell him he was moving into a motel, but he'd have to invent a reason, and he didn't want to add an outright lie to his deceit. "All right," he agreed unenthusiastically. "But I can't be away from the office for very long."

"We can hardly dine in your building, Zayn," Sophia reminded him sarcastically.

An inside alarm took over him at her tone. He felt uneasy about being alone with her, uneasy about what she wanted to say to him. Then he remembered Tony's and felt better. "I'll meet you at Tony's restaurant at noon. Do you know where it is?"

"Yes, but forget it. You can't get a table there unless—"

"I'll make the reservation," Zayn said briskly.

The restaurant was jammed with people waiting to be seated when he got there. Tony saw him and managed a harassed smile from across the room, but it was Dominic who took him to his table. The young man blushed furiously at Zayn's pale smile of greeting. "Your table is not so good, Zayn. I am sorry. If you will call sooner next time, you will have a better one."

 

Zayn understood what he meant when he led him toward the tables at the back of the dining room that adjoined the cocktail lounge. The dimly lit lounge was separated from the room by nothing more substantial than stained-wood trellises covered with climbing plants.

Sophia Sinclair was already seated, idly swirling the ice cubes in her glass, when Zayn walked up to the table. He sat down facing. She looked very calm, very composed, very… pleased, he thought, as he noted her expression.

"Now then," she said, "suppose you tell me how things really stand between you and our mutual friend…"

"You mean your stepson!" Zayn corrected bitterly, angered that she still intended to mislead him.

"Yes, my dear," she responded quickly, "but let's not use his name in this very public place."

Recollections of the way she and her husband had treated Liam ripped through Zayn until he was seething inside. He tried to remember that Sophia had not actually mistreated him, however, and his voice was carefully tempered.

"Within the next day or two you're going to read it in the papers, so I'll tell you now that we're going to be married."

"Congratulations," she said pleasantly. "Have you told him yet about your… relationship with me? He obviously knew nothing about it when we encountered you two at the charity ball."

"I'm going to tell him very soon." Zayn said between clinched teeth.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Zayn. He feels a certain animosity toward my husband and me—"

"With very good reason!" Zayn said heatedly before he could stop himself.

"Ah, I see you already know the story. Since you do, consider how he will then react when he discovers you've been living as my boyfriend, wearing clothes I purchased for you."

"Don't be ridiculous! I'm not your boyfriend I’m not even straight—"

"We know that, but will he believe it?" Sophia said with glee in her voice.

"I will make him believe it," Zayn said in a low, taut voice.

Sophia's smile was coolly shrewd, calculating. "I'm afraid you'll find it impossible to convince him if he also thinks you told me about his little project in Casano."

Panic was streaking through Zayn in paralyzing waves, and alarm bells were clanging in his mind. "I told you nothing about Casano, absolutely nothing! I've never told you anything confidential."

 

"He will believe you told me about Casano."

He clasped his hands on the table to still their trembling. Slowly, relentlessly, fear was churning his stomach. "Sophia, are you… threatening to tell him I’m you boyfriend, to tell him those other lies?"

"Not threatening you, exactly," she replied smoothly. "We're about to strike a bargain, you and I, and I merely want you to understand that you are not in a position to argue with my terms."

"What bargain?" Zayn said, but God help him, he already knew.

"In return for my silence, I will occasionally ask you for information."

"And you think I'll give it to you?" he said with scorn. "You honestly believe that?" his voice was shaking from seething of anger mixed with terror. “I would die before I'd do anything to hurt him, do you understand me?"

"You're overreacting," she said sharply, leaning forward. "I don't want to put the man out of business—I'm only trying to save my own company. It's faltering badly because of Pay-co's competition."

"That's just too bad!" Zayn hissed.

"It may mean nothing to you, but Sinclair Enterprises is Carter's birthright, his inheritance, and that's very important to my husband. Now, let's stop arguing about whether or not you're going to help, because you have no choice. Friday is the deadline for getting bids in on four major contracts. I want to know the amount Pay-co is bidding." She produced a small piece of paper with the names of four projects written on it, uncurled Zayn's fingers, placed it in his hand and squeezed his fingers around it. Then she gave his hand a friendly pat. "I'm afraid I have to get back to the office," she said, moving her chair back quietly before getting up and her expensive purse on her arm.

Zayn looked at her, so immersed in rage that he felt nothing else, even the fear vanished . "These bids are very important to you?" he asked.

"Very."

"Because your husband wants to preserve the company for his son? That's very important to him too?"

"More important than you can imagine. Among other things, if we tried to sell the company now, which is our only alternative, our finances would become a matter of public record. It would be most embarrassing."

"I see," Zayn said with deadly calm. To convince her for the time being that he intended to cooperate, he added carefully, "And you promise not to tell any of those lies to Liam if I help you?"

"My word of honor," she said.

Zayn scoffed but nodded. Fingers crossed under the tablecloths.

Zayn walked into the office still in a state of cold, murderous rage. Georges Sinclair wanted to acquire his beloved second son's "inheritance" by destroying what his first son had built. They actually expected Zayn to help. He was being blackmailed, and the blackmail would never end, he knew. The Sinclairs were greedy, ruthless and unprincipled. Before they were finished, Global Industries would become another part of Carter's inheritance.

A few minutes later, the phone on his desk rang. Automatically he picked it up. "I hate to rush you, my dear," Sophia's voice said smoothly, "but I want that information today. You'll find the bids that you need somewhere in the engineering department. If I could have the cover sheet it would help us immensely."

"I'll do my best," Zayn said tonelessly.

"Excellent. Very sensible. I'll meet you down in front of the building at four o'clock. Just run down to the lobby, and I'll be waiting in the car. The entire matter will take you only ten minutes."

Zayn hung up and walked through the offices to the engineering department. For the present, he had no concern about acting suspiciously. As soon as Harry returned, he would tell him what had happened. Perhaps he would even help him tell Liam.

"Mr. Styles would like the files on these four jobs," he told the secretary in engineering.

In a matter of moments Zayn had all four files. He took them back to his desk. In the front of each file was a cover sheet showing the name of the job, a summary of the technical equipment that would be provided if Pay-co was awarded the contract and the amount Pay-co was bidding.

Zayn removed the sheets and went over to the copy machine, then he took the copies and the originals back to his desk. He put the originals back in the files, removed a corrector from his desk drawer, and very carefully, very calmly changed the amounts Pay-co was bidding, increasing each figure by several million dollars. The correction fluid was visible on the copy he was working with, but when he ran duplicates of it, the fluid was invisible and the changes impossible to detect. He was just turning away from the copy machine when a young man with a round face stepped forward.

"Excuse me, mister," he said, "I'm from the company who services this photocopy machine, and it's been having problems all day. Would you mind running those originals through the machine again so I can see if it's working properly?"

A vague uneasiness stirred in Zayn, but the machine had been breaking down regularly, so he complied. He removed the copies produced from the tray, glanced at them, and nodded. "Looks like it’s really fixed this time," he said.

Zayn saw him drop the copies in the wastebasket as he turned away.

He did not see him stoop to retrieve them a moment later.

***

As he walked across the lobby, a Cadillac pulled up at the curb. The window on his side moved down, and Zayn leaned into the car and handed Sophia the envelope.

"I hope you understand how important this is to us," she began "and—"

Fury roared through Zayn, boiling his blood. He whipped around and ran back into the building. He almost knocked over the young man with the round face… who hastily concealed a camera behind his back.

Chapter Text

"Thank God you're back!" Mary burst out late Wednesday afternoon when Liam strode swiftly into his office, followed by Niall and Harry. "Louis Tomlinson needs to talk to you immediately. He says it's an emergency."

"Have him come up," Liam said, shrugging out of his suit jacket. "And then come and join us in a toast. I'm about to whisk Zayn off to Las Vegas to get married. The plane is being refueled and checked out right now."

"Does Zayn know about this?" Mary said, frowning. "He's downstairs in Harry's office, hard at work."

"I'll convince him of the wisdom of the plan."

"When the plane is airborne and he has no choice," Niall put in with a knowing smile.

"Exactly." Liam grinned in high good spirits. He had missed him so much that he'd called him three times a day, every day, like a lovesick schoolboy. "Make yourselves comfortable," he added over his shoulder. Reaching into a wide closet that held several changes of clothing, he took out a fresh shirt.

Five minutes later, he walked out of the bathroom, freshly shaven, and glanced at Louis Tomlinson and the round-faced man who were standing near the couch where Harry and Niall were seated.

"What's up, Louis?" he asked, going over to the bar and removing a bottle of champagne, his back to the others.

"There's a security leak in the Rossi project," the attorney began cautiously.

"Right. I told you that."

"The men in Casano trying to find out about Rossi were Sinclair's men."

 

Only a momentary stillness in Liam's hand as he unwound the wire from the plastic champagne cork betrayed his tension at the mention of Sinclair's name.

"Go on," he urged evenly.

"Evidently," Louis continued, "there's a man on our payroll who appears to have been spying for Sinclair. I arranged for Rudy here to listen in on the extension of his office phone and to keep him under surveillance."

Liam took down four champagne glasses from the bar, his mind dwelling on Zayn's smile, his beautiful face. Tonight was going to be their wedding night. After tonight he and he alone would have the right to take him in his arms, to join his starved body with his, to kiss and cuddle him… "I'm listening," he lied. "Go on."

"Yesterday he was photographed passing Sophia Sinclair copies of four of Pay-co's bids. We have in our possession a set of the copies he passed to Mrs. Sinclair to use as proof in court."

"That filthy bitch—" Liam fought down his blaze of fury, trying not to let his animosity for all the Sinclairs spoil his mood. This was his wedding day. Coolly he said, "Harry, I'm going to do what I should have done five years ago. I'm going to put them out of business. From now on, I want Pay-co to bid on every job she bids on, and I want you to bid below our cost. Is that clear? I want this bitch out of our hair!"

When Harry murmured agreement, Louis continued. "We can make a warrant for the young man's arrest. I've already discussed the matter with Judge Spath, and he is ready to do so as soon as you give the word."

"Who is he?" Harry demanded when Liam seemed more interested in pouring champagne into his glasses.

"Sophia’s Sinclair lover!" Rudy burst out eagerly, his voice ringing with pompous self-importance. "I checked him out personally. The guy is living like a pampered prince in a fancy Bloomfield Hills condo that Sophia's paying for. He dresses like a model, and…"

Dread exploded in Liam's chest, and his whole body tensed against the agonizing certainty already pounding in his brain. His mind formed the question, but before he could force the words out, he had to brace his hands on the bar for support. With his back still to them, he whispered, "Who is he?"

"Zayn Malik," Louis said, cutting off a further descriptive outpouring from the eager security man. "Liam, I know he's been working for you personally and that he's the boy who practically fell at our feet that night. The publicity involved in his arrest will definitely help discourage anyone else who might consider spying on us, but I waited to talk to you before we pressed charges against him. Shall I—"

Liam's voice was strangled with fury and pain. "Go back to your office," he ordered, "and wait there. I'll call you." Without turning, he jerked his head in Rudy's direction. "Get him out of my sight, and keep him out—permanently!"

 

 

"Liam—" Harry spoke to Liam's back.

"Get out!" Liam's voice lashed like a whip crack, and then became dangerously controlled. "Mary, call Zayn and have him come up here in ten minutes. Then you go home. It's nearly five."

In the deadly silence that followed their departure, Liam straightened from the bar and tossed down the champagne he had poured to celebrate his marriage to an angel. A prince with laughing magical amber eyes who had walked into his life and turned it upside down. Zayn was spying on him, betraying him to the Sinclairs. Zayn was Sophia's pampered boy toy.

His heart shouted a denial, but his mind knew it was true. It explained the way he lived, the clothes he wore, even his virginity…he wondered how much Sophia gave him to pretend that he was even gay.

He recalled introducing him to the Sinclairs on Saturday night, and as he remembered the way he'd pretended not to know them, he felt as if he was shattering into a million pieces. Fury and anguish poured through his veins like acid. He wanted to crush him in his arms and make him say it wasn't true; he wanted to pour his love into him until there was no room for anyone in his heart or his body but him.

He wanted to strangle him for his treachery, to murder him with his own hands.

He wanted to die…

***

Zayn glanced at the three security guards who were standing in Liam's private reception area as he hurried toward his office. They watched him, their expressions strangely alert, wary. He smiled slightly as he passed them, but only one of them responded—he nodded, a curt unfriendly inclination of his head.

At Liam's office door he paused took a deep breath. His hands trembled with a mixture of delight at seeing him again and fear over how he was going to react when he told him of his involvement with Sophia. He had intended to tell him tonight, after he'd had time to relax, but now that Sophia was blackmailing him he had to tell him right away.

"Welcome back," he said, walking into his suite.

Liam was standing at the glass with his back to him, one hand braced high against the frame, staring out across the city. The drapes were drawn over the remainder of the glass wall, and none of the lights had been turned on to dispel the gloom of a prematurely dark and rainy night.

"Close the door," he said softly. His voice sounded strange, but his back was toward him as he walked to him and he couldn't see his face.

 

"Did you miss me, Zayn?" he asked, still without turning.

Zayn smiled at the question he always asked him when he had been away from him.

"Yes," he admitted, boldly sliding his arms around his waist from behind. His body seemed to tense at his touch, and when he rubbed his cheek against his muscular back, it felt as hard as iron.

"How much did you miss me?" he whispered silkily.

"Turn around and I'll show you," Zayn teased.

His hand came down from the window, and he turned. Without looking at him he walked over to the sofas and sat down. "Come over here," he invited smoothly.

Zayn obediently went over to the sofa and stood looking down into his handsome, shadowed face, trying to read his strange mood. His expression was impassive, almost aloof, but when he started to sit beside him, he caught his wrist and pulled him onto his lap.

“Show me how much you missed me.” Liam said, his hand snaking between Zayn’s legs, stroking him lazily there until he started to moan.

There was an odd note in his voice that sent unexplainable alarm dancing down Zayn's spine, but it was promptly squelched by the commanding insistence of his mouth on his. He kissed him thoroughly, expertly, and Zayn helplessly surrendered to the torrid demands of his lips. He had missed him. Zayn started to pepper little kisses on his jaw, neck and then captured his lips in his again.

"Show me how much you want me," he urged, his hand going under Zayn’s unbuttoned pants, stroking lazily his hardened length. His other hand sneaked up his shirt, fingers running through his nipples.

His mouth was forming a love bite on the side of his neck, while his hand kept on the slow and steady rhythm.

"Do you want me now?"

"Yes," Zayn gasped, writhing on his lap.

“Show me Zayn how much you want me?” Liam said, eyes going to stop on the evident bulge in his trousers.

Zayn hurriedly went down on his knees facing him, his fingers going to open his pants pulling him out, he was not ready yet, but Liam grabbed him by the hair rubbing the head on his lips.

“Do you like to suck my cock Zayn?”

Zayn gulped audibly and then nodded before he admitted loudly: “yes.”

“Then show me what you can do with your mouth!” Liam commanded.

Zayn was taken aback by his tone of command, but he decided to cast this aside, he was really turned on and he wanted to make Liam feel good. So he wrapped his lips around the head, running his tongue around it, and then sank down on his length. He couldn’t fit it all in without gaging yet, so he stroked the base with his hand.

However Liam’s hand tightened on his hair, pushing his head further, he started to gag so he eased his pull.

“Take it all in and stroke yourself in time, I want you to get off on sucking me.”

Zayn nodded obediently and got to bobbing his head on Liam’s dick, he struggled to take him wholly into his mouth, down his throat; he was wrenching every time he tried, he couldn’t stop his gaging noises, and he didn’t stop his thrusts into his own fist. He loved the taste of Liam in his mouth and this only could make him come in no time.

Liam started to slowly thrust in his mouth, making him choke a bit, and suddenly he felt it, the coiling in his lower stomach, it only took a minute before he shot his load covering his hand with his seed. Liam noticed this and smirked, he pulled his hands off his head, he tucked himself back and zipped his pants and then grabbed him, hand in his hair, and kissed him hard on the lips, a kiss that was purely made of hungry lust.

His hand tightened on his hair painfully until he moaned.

“Open your eyes, baby," he ordered softly. "I want to be sure you know it's me who's kissing you, not Sophia Sinclair."

Zayn eyes opened wide in horrified terror.

"Liam… !" Zayn's frantic cry was strangled as Liam lunged to his feet, twisted his hand in his hair and cruelly jerked him up with him.

"Listen to me. Please!" Zayn cried out, terrified by the black rage, the lethal hatred blazing in his eyes. "I can explain everything, I—" A low scream tore from his throat as he tightened his grip in his hair cornering him harshly back into the wall.

"Explain that," he ordered in a terrifying whisper.

Zayn's gaze froze in terror on the papers scattered across the coffee table: copies of the four bids he had given Sophia; enlarged black-and-white photographs showing him leaning into her car; the license plate on the back of his Cadillac, and the State of Michigan registration showing Sophia E. Sinclair as the owner of the vehicle.

"Please, I love you! I—" he choked.

"Zayn," he interrupted in a menacingly soft voice. "Will you still love me five years from now when you and your girlfriend get out of prison?"

"Liam, please listen to me," he implored brokenly. "Sophia isn't my girlfriend, she's a relative, I swear, I don’t like women. She sent me to Pay-co to apply for a job, but I swear I've never told her anything." The rage drained from Liam's face, replaced by a terrible contempt that alarmed Zayn so much his words tumbled out in a disjointed frenzy. "Until… until she saw us at the dance, she let me alone, but now she's trying to blackmail me. She threatened to tell you lies if I didn't—"

"Your relative," Liam repeated with freezing sarcasm. "Your relative is trying to blackmail you."

"Yes!" Zayn feverishly tried to explain. "Sophia thought you were paying someone to spy on her, so she sent me here to find out who, and—"

"Sophia is the only one paying a spy," Liam jeered scathingly. "And the only spy is you!" He released him and tried to push him away, but Zayn clung to him.

"Please listen to me," he begged wildly. "Don't do this to us!"

Liam jerked his arms loose, and he crumpled to the floor, his shoulders racked with deep choking sobs. "I love you so much," he cried dejectedly. "Why won't you listen to me? Why? I'm begging you to just listen to me."

"Get up!" he snapped. "And button your pants." He said throwing at him a pack of tissues that hit him on the shoulder; he had already started toward the door.

His chest heaving with convulsive, silent sobs, Zayn straightened his clothing, braced a hand on the coffee table and slowly pushed himself to his feet.

Liam wrenched the door open and the security guards stepped forward. "Get him out of here," he ordered icily.

Zayn stared in paralyzed terror at the men coming purposefully toward him. They were taking him to jail. His gaze flew to Liam, silently imploring him for the last time to listen, to believe, to stop this.

With his hands in his pockets, Liam returned his gaze without flinching, his chiseled features a mask of stone, his eyes like chips of hard wood. Only the muscle jerking in his tightly clenched jaw betrayed the fact that he was feeling any emotion at all.

The three armed guards surrounded him, and one of them took him by the elbow. Zayn yanked free, his amber eyes swirling with the pain he felt in his heart.

"Don't touch me." He shouted venomously. Without looking back, he walked with them out of his office and across the silent, deserted reception area.

When the door closed behind him, Liam went over to the sofa. Sitting down with his forearms resting on his knees, he stared at the enlarged black-and-white photo of Zayn handing Sophia the stolen copies of the bids.

He was very photogenic, he thought with a stab of bittersweet pain. The day had been windy, and he had not bothered with a coat. The photograph had captured his attractive features in profile with the wind whipping his styled hair into glorious abandon.

It was a picture of Zayn betraying him.

A muscle moved convulsively in Liam's throat as he swallowed over the constriction there. The photograph should have been taken in color, he decided. Mere black and white couldn't capture his olive skin or the sparkle of his vivid amber eyes. He covered his face with his hands.

Chapter Text

The silent guards escorted Zayn across the marble lobby, which was crowded with late-departing employees. In the press of so many people, Zayn was spared the humiliation of curious onlookers. Everyone else was rushing home, absorbed with individual thoughts. Not that he particularly cared who witnessed his shame; at the moment, he cared about nothing, he felt nothing.

It was dark outside and raining, but Zayn hardly felt the icy sting of the rain pelting against his thin cotton shirt. He looked disinterestedly for the police car that he expected to see waiting at the curb, but there was none. The guard on his left and the one behind him stepped back. The guard on his right also turned to leave then he hesitated and said with curt compassion, "Do you have a coat, Mr. Malik?"

Zayn looked at him with pain-dazed eyes. "Yes," he said inanely. He did have a coat; it was with his satchel bag in Harry's office.

The guard glanced uncertainly at the curb, as if he expected someone to pull over and offer him a ride. "I'll get it for you," he said, and walked back into the building with his companions.

Zayn stood on the sidewalk, rain plastering his hair down his face and pelting his face like a million icy hypodermic needles. Apparently he wasn't going to be taken to jail, after all. He didn't know where to go, or how to get there without money or keys. In a kind of trance he turned and started to walk down Jefferson Avenue, just as a familiar figure strode swiftly out of the building toward him. For a moment hope flared and burned painfully bright.

"Harry!" he called when he and Niall were about to pass without seeing him.

Harry turned sharply, and Zayn's stomach clenched at the bitter, accusing fury in the single scathing glance he passed over him.

"I have nothing to say to you," he snapped.

All hope died inside of Zayn and with its death came a blessed numbness. He turned around, shoved his frozen hands into the pockets of his trousers and started walking down the street. Six steps later, Harry's hand grasped his arm, turning him around. "Here," he said, his expression just as hostile as before. "Take my coat."

Zayn violently jerked his arm away from his grasp.

"Don't touch me," he said calmly. "I don't ever want to be touched."

Alarm flickered in his gaze before he extinguished it.

"Take my coat," he repeated tersely, already starting to remove it. "You'll freeze to death."

Zayn found nothing unpleasant about the prospect of freezing to death. Ignoring his outstretched coat, he lifted his gaze to his.

"Do you believe what Liam believes?"

"Every single word," he averred.

With his hair plastered to his head and the rain driving into his pale face, Zayn said with great dignity, "In that case, I don't want your coat." he started to turn then stopped. "But you can give Liam a message for me when he finally discovers the truth." His teeth chattered as he said, "T-tell him not to ever come near me again. T-tell him to stay away from me! Tell him I don’t wanna see his face again, EVER."

Without thinking about where he was going, Zayn automatically walked the eight blocks to the only people who would take him in without being paid. He went to Tony's restaurant.

With frozen knuckles he rapped on the back entrance. The door opened and Tony was staring at him, his black tuxedo a discordant contrast to the noise and steam of the kitchen behind him.

"Zaynie?" he said is gaze observing his ashen face, his blue lips and shivering limbs. "Zaynie! Dio mio! Dominic, Joe," he shouted, "come quick!"

***

Zayn awoke in a warm comfortable bed and opened his eyes to a charmingly quaint but unfamiliar room. His head was pounding ferociously as he struggled to his elbows and looked around. He was in the house above the restaurant, and Dominic had put him to bed after a hot bath and a warm meal. He had not died of exposure, he realized. How disappointing—how anticlimactic, he decided morbidly. His body ached as if he'd been beaten.

He wondered when Liam would discover that he'd changed the figures on the bids. If any of the four contracts were awarded to Pay-co, Liam would surely wonder how that could have happened. He would wonder why Sophia Sinclair hadn't bid less than Pay-co had, and he might compare the copies of the bids Zayn had given Sophia with the originals.

 

Then again, there was also the possibility that other companies besides Pay-co and Sinclair would be awarded the contracts, in which case Liam would always believe he'd betrayed him.

Zayn threw back the heavy quilts and climbed slowly out of bed. He felt too sick to care what happened.

He felt even worse a few minutes later, when he walked into the family kitchen and heard Tony on the telephone. His sons were all seated at the table. "Mary," Tony was saying, his face furrowed into stern lines, "this is Tony. Let me talk to Liam."

Zayn's heart thumped, but it was too late to stop him because he was already launching into a nonstop monologue. "Liam, this is Tony," he said. "You better come over here. Something happened to Zaynie. He came here last night almost frozen. He had no coat, no money, no nothing. He wouldn't say what was wrong. He wouldn't let any of us touch him except for—What?" His face turned angry. "Don't you use that tone of voice with me, Liam! I—" He was perfectly still for a moment, listening to whatever Liam was saying, then he took the receiver away from his ear and looked at it as if it had just grown teeth. "Liam hung up on me," he told his sons.

His amazed gaze encountered Zayn standing uncertainly in the doorway. "Liam said you stole information from him, that you're his stepmother's lover," he told him. "He said he never wants to hear your name, and if I try to speak to him about you again, he will have his bank foreclose on the loan they made for improvements to my restaurant. Liam said that to me—he talked to me like that!" he repeated disbelievingly.

Zayn started forward, his face pale with remorse. "Tony, you don't know what's happened. You don't understand."

"I understand the way he spoke to me," Tony said, his jaw clenched. Ignoring him, he turned back to the phone and dialed with furious intent. "Mary," he said into the phone, "you put Liam back on the line right now." He paused while Mary apparently asked him a question. "Yes," he replied, "you bet your life it's about Zayn. What? Yes, he's here."

Tony handed the phone to Zayn, his expression so angry and hurt that he felt ill. "Liam won't talk to me," Tony said, "but Mary wants to talk to you."

With a mixture of hope and fear, Zayn said, "Hello, Mary?"

Mary's voice was like an icicle. "Zayn, you have done enough damage to those of us here who were foolish enough to trust you. If you have any decency at all, you'll keep Tony out of this. Liam is not making idle threats—he meant what he said to Tony. Is that clear?"

Zayn swallowed the lump of desolation in his throat. "Perfectly clear."

"Good. Then I suggest you stay where you are for the next hour. Our corporate attorney will deliver your possessions, to you and explain your legal situation. We were going to notify you through Sophia Sinclair, but this will be vastly preferable. Goodbye, Zayn."

Zayn sank into a chair at the table, too ashamed to look at the men who would now be watching him with the same bitter condemnation that Harry and Mary had shown him.

Tony's hand clamped reassuringly on his shoulder, and Zayn drew a long, unsteady breath. "I'll leave as soon as the attorney arrives with my satchel." He dragged his gaze upward. Instead of despising him, the boys and Tony were looking at him with helpless sympathy.

After everything that had happened to him, Zayn felt better able to cope with animosity than kindness, and their compassion wrenched his heart, weakening the dam that was holding back his emotions. "Don't ask me to explain," he whispered. "If I did you wouldn't believe me."

"We would believe you," Dominic said with blushing fierceness. "I was standing behind the screen where the coffeepots are kept, and I heard every word that… that bitch said to you at lunch, but I did not know her name. Papa recognized her and he came to stand with me, because he wondered why you would be eating with someone Liam hates."

Zayn's composure slipped another notch toward tears, but he blinked them back and said with a tremulous smile, "The service must have been terrible that day, with both of you standing guard over me." He’d never seriously cried until he'd met Liam. After last night there would be no more tears. Ever.

He had wept at his feet, begging him to listen to him. Just thinking of it made him cringe with mortification and fury.

"I tried to call Liam after you left that day," Tony said, "to tell him that Mrs. Sinclair was threatening you and that you were in trouble, but Liam was in Italy. I told Mary to have him call me as soon as he came back, but I did not ever believe you would really give Liam's stepmother the information."

Zayn heard the reproof in Tony's voice at that, and he lifted his shoulders in a weary shrug. "I didn't give her what she wanted. Liam only thinks I did."

Half an hour later Tony and Dominic escorted him downstairs to the restaurant, which wasn't open for business yet, and stood protectively behind his chair. Zayn instantly recognized Louis Tomlinson as the man who had been with Liam the night he'd literally fallen at their feet. He introduced the man who was with him as Jack Collins, the head of Global's security division in Detroit. Then both men sat down across from him.

"Your satchel," Louis said, handing it to him. "Would you like to check the contents?"

Zayn kept his face carefully expressionless. "No."

"Very well," he said curtly. "I'll come directly to the point. Mr. Malik, Global Industries has sufficient evidence against you to charge you with theft, conspiring to defraud and several other serious crimes. At this time, the corporation is not going to insist on your arrest. However, if you are ever again seen on the premises of Global Industries, or any of its subsidiaries, the corporation can and will press charges against you for the crimes I just mentioned. A warrant for your arrest has already been prepared. If you are seen on our premises, the warrant will be signed, and you will be arrested. If you are in another state, we will insist on extradition."

He opened a large manila envelope and withdrew several sheets of paper. "This is a letter stating the terms I have just set out." He handed him a copy of the letter, along with an official-looking legal document. "This—" he indicated the document "—is an injunction, signed by the court, which now makes it illegal for you to set so much as one foot on Global property. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly," Zayn retorted stoically.

"Do you have any questions?"

"Yes, I have two of them." Zayn rose, then turned raising a hand to pat Tony's shoulder and to press a kiss to Dominic's cheek. He knew he would break down under the strain of an emotional goodbye; he was saying farewell to his two friends now, when it was easier. He turned back to the attorney and asked, "Where is my car?"

The attorney inclined his head toward the door of the restaurant. "Mr. Collins here drove it over. It's parked right outside. What is the other question?"

Zayn ignored the attorney and asked Jack Collins, "Are you the one who discovered all this 'proof' against me?"

Despite his pallor, Jack Collins's eyes were inquisitive and sharp. "A man who works for me conducted the investigation while I was in the hospital. Why do you ask, Mr. Malik?" he inquired, watching him closely.

Zayn picked up his satchel from the table. "Because whoever did was an amateur."

He pulled his gaze from Jack Collins and managed a brief teary smile at Tony and Dominic. "Goodbye," he said softly. "And thank you."

He walked out of the restaurant and never looked back.

Both of the men from Global Industries watched him leave. "Stunning young man, isn't he?" the attorney said.

"Very handsome," Jack Collins agreed, his brows knitted thoughtfully together.

"But treacherous and deceitful as they come."

Jack Collins's frown deepened. "I wonder if he is. I kept watching his eyes. He looked angry and he looked hurt. He didn't look guilty."

Louis Tomlinson heaved himself impatiently out of his chair. "He's guilty. If you don't think so, go look at the file your assistant put together on him."

"I think I will," Jack said.

"You do that!" Tony said angrily, shamelessly eavesdropping. "Then you come talk to me, and I'll tell you the truth. That Sinclair slut made him do it!"

Chapter Text

Liam leaned back in his chair, watching while Jack Collins, Mary, Harry and Tony filed into his office. He had agreed to this meeting about Zayn only because Jack had insisted that it was vitally necessary for the corporation's sake, in case Zayn should decide to sue them.

Sue them for what, Liam thought bitterly. He wished to God he were somewhere else right now…anywhere else. They were going to talk about him, and he was going to have to listen. Zayn had been gone for a month, and he still hadn't been able to tear him out of his mind.

He kept expecting to look up and see him walking into his office, his shorthand notebook and pen in hand, ready to write down his instructions.

Last week he had been deeply engrossed in the corporation's new financial statement, and suddenly some young employee in the reception room had laughed. It had sounded like Zayn musical laugh, and he had leaped out of his chair, telling himself that he intended to drag him into his office and warn him for the last time to stay away. But when he strode into the reception area and saw that it was some other guy, his heart had sunk.

He needed a rest, he told himself—some relaxation and the right sort of diversion. He had been pushing himself too hard, trying to drive him out of his thoughts by working until he was mentally and physically exhausted. All that was going to change now. In a few hours he was leaving for Chicago to attend the international trade committee meeting— the meeting he had walked out on to go rushing after Zayn, and which had now been rescheduled so that the committee could conclude the business they'd been unable to resolve without his vote. On Sunday, three days from now, when the meeting adjourned, Vicky was joining him in Chicago, and they were flying to Switzerland for three weeks. Three consecutive weeks of skiing during the day and having meaningless sex at night should solve all his problems very nicely. Spending Christmas in Switzerland again, as he had three years ago, was also a vastly appealing idea.

Whom had he spent it with three years ago? He tried to remember.

"Liam," Jack Collins said, "may I begin?"

"Yes," he said shortly, turning his head toward the windows. How long would it take before he could blot out the memory of Zayn weeping at his feet?

"Please don't do this to us," he had sobbed. "I love you so much."

He rolled his gold pen idly between his fingertips, aware that Tony was watching him angrily, just waiting for the slightest opportunity to plead Zayn's defense. He couldn’t believe that Tony was on Zayn’s side.

His defense, Liam thought sarcastically. What defense? Because Zayn stepbrother was Italian, Tony was automatically biased in his favor. Because he was so heartbreakingly beautiful, Tony was blind to his treacherous nature. He couldn't blame Tony, because he himself had been just as blind, just as stupid. Zayn had captivated him, fascinated and enchanted him. From the very first, he had been enthralled by him, rendered senseless by his uncontrollable, fiery desire for his…

"I realize," Jack Collins was saying, "that Zayn Malik is a very unpleasant topic to all of you, but the five of us in this room have all known each other for many years, and there's no reason we can't speak openly among ourselves, is there?"

When no one replied, Jack sighed with frustration. "Well, he's a damned difficult subject for me to discuss too. The investigation on him was technically my responsibility, and I'm going to tell you now that it was done very poorly. The young man who handled the security check while I was in the hospital was inexperienced and overeager, and that's putting it politely. If I hadn't been back in the hospital twice since then, I'd have looked into this before.

"Now that I have," he continued doggedly, "I'll admit that I still can't figure this young man out—at least not completely. I've already talked to each of you separately. Now I'm hoping that by bringing all of us together we can resolve some of the contradictions that keep bothering me. Perhaps each of us has a part of the puzzle, and now we can fit them all together. Tony, for the time being I'm going to address myself only to Liam, Mary and Harry. I'd like you not to comment until the end."

Tony's black eyes narrowed with impatience, but he clamped his mouth shut and sat back on one of the green sofas.

"Now then," Jack said, directing his attention to Liam, Harry and Mary. "All three of you have told me that you believe Zayn Malik applied for a job here because he wanted to spy on us for Sophia Sinclair. And all three of you have indicated that he was an extremely intelligent young man with superior typing and shorthand skills. Right?"

Mary and Harry said yes. Liam nodded curtly.

"Then the next question I would ask is; why would an intelligent, skilled secretary fail every single clerical test he was given and claim that he had never been to college when in fact he has a master's degree from a university, which tells us he's a gifted pianist?" When everyone remained silent, he continued, "And why would an intelligent, educated man who wants a job so that he can spy, do one of the silliest damned things I've ever seen—write on his application under positions desired the jobs of president and personnel manager?"

 

Jack looked around at the withdrawn expressions, of his audience. "The obvious answer is that he did not want to get the job. In fact, he did everything in his power to make certain he wouldn't be offered one, didn't he?" No one answered and he sighed, "As I understand it, he was on his way back to his car from the interview when he met Liam, who interceded on his behalf that same night. The next day Harry interviewed him, and in a complete about-face, Mr. Malik decided to work for Pay-co and accepted Harry's job offer. Why?"

Harry leaned his head back against the sofa. "I've already told you and Liam what Zayn told me. He said he met Liam that night, and he accepted the job because he wanted to work near him. He said he thought he was an ordinary engineer who worked for Global."

"And you believed him?" Jack asked.

"Why wouldn't I?" Harry sighed disgustedly. "I saw him crying when he found out who he really was. I'm the same idiot who also believed that Sophia Sinclair was a relative of his, and that even though she had asked him to spy on us, he wouldn't do it."

"Actually," Jack said, his mouth twisting with grim amusement, "Sophia Bloom Sinclair is his relative. I checked it out, and according to the Bloom family tree, which was traced about thirteen years ago and recorded in a book used mostly by society snobs, Zayn’s mother is a fifth or sixth cousin of the Blooms."

The uncontrollable spurt of joy that Liam experienced was instantly quashed. Cousins or not, Zayn was still his stepmother's lover.

"I understand," Jack said, massaging his temple as if he had a headache, "that Mr. Malik did not request to be assigned to you, Liam. In fact, I understand from Weatherby that he was adamantly opposed to the idea."

"He was," Liam gritted. He couldn't stand much more of this. Talking about him was twisting his gut into knots.

"If he truly wanted to spy for Sophia," Jack persisted, "why would he argue against being assigned to you, when working for you would have given him much better access to confidential information?"

Liam picked up a file on his desk and began reading it. "He didn't want to work for me because we'd quarreled about a personal matter." He didn't want to sleep with me, Liam added silently.

"That doesn't make sense," Jack said firmly. "If you'd quarreled, he should have relished the opportunity to retaliate by coming up here and spying on you."

"Nothing about that boy makes sense," Mary said hesitantly. "When I told him about Liam's father, he turned as white as a—"

 

"I don't have the time for this!" Liam cut in curtly. "I'm leaving for Chicago. Jack, I can clear this up in a few sentences. Zayn Malik came to Pay-co to spy. He's Sophia's lover. He is a consummate liar and a magnificent actor."

Tony opened his mouth to argue, and Liam said in a low, thunderous voice, "Don't defend him to me, dammit! He let me introduce him to my own father and stepmother! He stood there letting me make an ass of myself by introducing him to his accomplices, one of whom is his lover! He betrayed all of us; not just me. He told Sophia about Rossi and had Sinclair's people swarming all over Casano looking for him. He provided bidding information to Sophia that is going to cost Pay-co a fortune in profits. He—"

"He wasn't Sophia's boyfriend," Jack interrupted when Tony leaped to his feet to protest. "I know that's what my investigator told you, but the truth is that, although Sophia does own the apartment, she only visited him there once, on the night he arrived, for perhaps thirty minutes."

"Yeah well Zayn is real quick in—"

"You stop talking about Zaynie like this!" Tony spat out furiously. "I—"

"Save your breath, Tony," Liam snapped.

"I got plenty of breath to spare, and now I'm going to have my say! Dominic and I heard what Sophia said to him the day they had lunch at my place. Zaynie told her right off that you and him were getting married, and he told him that he was going to tell you he was related to her. As soon as he said that, Sophia started talking about how you might think that he was her boyfriend and that you might think he told him about this Casano. Zaynie got upset and told her he didn't say nothing about Casano, and he wasn't her boyfriend because he was not even straight. Then he asked her right out if she was trying to blackmail him. She said she was bargaining with him. She said she'd keep quiet if he would give her information—"

"Which he did," Liam snapped. "Within an hour! He did it because he intended to keep right on lying to me until Sinclair’s finally put us out of business."

"No!" Tony shouted. "He told him he would die before he'd do anything to hurt you. He—"

Liam's hand slammed down on the desk as he surged to his feet. "He's a treacherous slut and he's a liar. That's all I need to know. Now all of you get out of here!"

"I'm going!" Tony almost shouted, stomping across the office. "But there's one more thing you need to know. What you did to him hurt him worse than I've ever seen anybody hurt. You threw him out with no coat, no money, no nothing, and does he call Mrs. Sinclair? No, he walks eight blocks in the cold and rain to collapse in my arms. So I'm tellin' you now—" Tony drew himself up to his most impressive height and slapped his hat on his head "—from now on you're off my list, Liam. If you wanna eat in my restaurant again, you better bring Zaynie with you!"

Chapter Text

"Mr. Payne." The secretary in Chicago bent down beside Liam, her voice lowered to a whisper to avoid disturbing the seven other major U.S. industrialists seated around the conference table discussing the final details of an international trade agreement. "I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but there's a Mr. Harry Styles on the phone for you…"

Liam nodded and slid his chair back. Seven men glanced up and looked at him with irritated accusation. Except in matters of extreme emergency, none of them was taking calls. During the last meeting and now this one, only Liam had received an urgent call, and the last time the meeting had to be aborted and rescheduled because he had abruptly walked out on them.

Liam strode from the conference room, gripped by the memory of the last time Harry's call had interrupted him in this meeting. That time Harry had fabricated some silly damned excuse for calling, so that he could say that Zayn had resigned.

"Yes, what is it?" Liam said, angry at the memory of him, angry at the pain that thinking of him always evoked.

"There's quite a celebration going on over in the engineering department," Harry began, his voice hesitant and confused. "Liam, even though Zayn gave Sinclair’s copies of our four bids, we have just been awarded two of the four contracts. The low bidders on the other two contracts still haven't been announced." He paused, evidently waiting for Liam to answer. "I can't figure it out—what do you think?"

"I think," Liam snarled, "that the stupid bitch isn't smart enough to win a poker hand with a deck of marked cards."

"Sophia is conniving and sly and anything but stupid," Harry argued. "I think I'll get the file from Jack Collins in security and go over the figures that Zayn—"

"I told you what I wanted you to do," Liam interrupted in a low, deadly voice. "Regardless of who gets the remaining two contracts, I want Pay-co to bid on every job that Sinclair bids on, and I want you to bid it below our cost if necessary. I want that bitch and her husband out of business in one year!"

Liam slammed the phone down and stalked back into the conference room. The chairman looked at him with ill-concealed reproof for the interruption. "Now, may we resume?"

Liam nodded curtly. He voted carefully on the next three issues, but as the morning drifted into afternoon, and afternoon darkened into early evening, it became more and more impossible to think of anything but Zayn. Snow fell outside the windows of the Chicago skyscraper as the meeting continued, and Tony's outraged voice played through his mind… "You threw him out with no coat, no money, no nothing, and does he call Sophia? No! He walks eight blocks in the cold and rain, to collapse in my arms."

 

Eight blocks! Why hadn't the guards let him stop to get his coat? He remembered the thin shirt he'd been wearing. He remembered the sheer perfection of his olive skin; the exquisite taste of his lips; the way he had kissed him and sucked on him…

"Liam," the chairman said sharply, "I assume you are in favor of this proposal?"

Liam dragged his gaze from the windows. He had no idea what proposal was being discussed. "I'd like to hear more about it before I decide," he prevaricated.

Seven surprised faces turned toward him. "It's your proposal, Liam," the chairman scowled. "You wrote it."

"Then naturally I'm in favor of it," he informed them coolly.

The committee dined as a group in one of Chicago's most elegant restaurants. The moment their meal was over, Liam abruptly excused himself to return to his hotel. Snow fell in thick flakes, dusting his tan cashmere overcoat and clinging to his bare head as he strolled down Chicago's Michigan Avenue, glancing disinterestedly into exclusive shops whose brightly lit windows were decorated for Christmas.

He shoved his hands into his coat pockets, mentally cursing Harry for calling him this morning about Zayn, and cursing Zayn for walking into his life. Why hadn't he called Sophia to come and get him when the guards forcibly removed him from the Global building? Why in God's name had he walked eight blocks in freezing weather to go to Tony?

After he had hurt and degraded him, why had he wept at his feet like a heartbroken angel? Liam paused to take a cigarette out of his pack and put it in his mouth. Zayn's voice drifted through his mind, choked with racking sobs. "I love you so much," he had sobbed. "Please listen to me… Please don't do this to us…"

Fury and pain blazed through him. He could not take Zayn back, he reminded himself forcefully. He would never take him back.

He was willing to believe that Sophia had blackmailed him into giving her the bids. He was even willing to believe that Zayn hadn't told Sophia about the Rossi project. After all, if he had, Sinclair's men wouldn't have been swarming all over the village asking questions about Liam's activities—they'd have been asking about Rossi. Apparently they didn't even know the chemist's name. Even if they found out, it wouldn't matter. The lab tests had proved Rossi's formula to be only a fraction as effective as he'd claimed it was, besides being a skin and eye irritant.

Liam stopped at the light on the corner, where a man in a bright red Santa Claus costume was standing beside a black iron pot and ringing a bell. Christmas had never been particularly pleasant to Liam. It was a holiday that invariably called to mind the visit he had paid to his father as a boy; in fact, he never thought of him except at Christmas time.

 

Cars glided past him, their tires crunching in the fresh snow. This Christmas could have been different; it could have been a beginning. He would have taken Zayn to Switzerland. No—he would have spent it at home with him. He would have built a roaring fire in the fireplace, and they could have started their own traditions. He would have made love to him in front of the fire, with the lights from the Christmas tree glowing on his smooth olive skin…

Liam angrily jerked his mind away from those thoughts and stalked across the street, ignoring the horns that blared their protest and the headlights flying toward him. There would be no Christmases with Zayn. He wanted him badly enough to forgive him for almost anything, but he could not, would not, forgive or forget the fact that he had betrayed him to his father and stepmother. Perhaps in time he could have forgiven him for conspiring against him, but not with the Sinclairs…Never with them.

Liam inserted his key into the double doors of his penthouse suite.

"Where the hell have you been?" Harry Styles demanded from the Queen Anne sofa where he was lounging with his feet propped on an antique coffee table. "I've come to talk about the bids Zayn gave Sophia."

Liam jerked off his coat, furious at having his suite invaded, his privacy infringed upon and particularly at being forced—even for the moment it was going to take to get Harry out of here—to talk about Zayn again. "I told you," he said in a low, deadly voice, "that I wanted Sinclair out of business and I told you how I wanted it done. When you explained your part in Zayn's complicity, I excused it, but I will not—"

"You don't have to put the Sinclairs out of business," Harry interrupted quietly as Liam stalked toward him. "Zayn is doing it for you." From the sofa beside him, Harry picked up copies of the original bids and the altered copies that Zayn had made to give Sophia. "He changed the figures, Liam," he said somberly.

***

The meeting of the committee on international trade reconvened at precisely nine o'clock the following morning. The chairman of the committee looked at the six men seated around the conference table. "Liam Payne will not be present today," he informed the thunderous-looking group. "He asked me to express his regrets and to explain that he was called away on an urgent matter."

In unison, six outraged faces turned to glare with impotent hostility at the vacant chair of their missing member. "Last time it was a labor relations problem. What the hell is Payne's problem this time?" a jowly man demanded unsympathetically.

"A union," the chairman answered. "He said he is going to try to negotiate the most important union of his life."

Chapter Text

Being at home, Zayn never felt like he was out of place, it was his comfort zone, his shelter from the outside world. Home never felt so strange until now. He tried to stumble back into his routine, searching for a job, giving piano lessons anything to help a little and to keep his mind wandering far away from the ghosts of memories that haunted him at night. He finally found a job it was not as his previous one, in fact it had nothing to do with his previous job; he was now a substitute music teacher at a primary school. He found it satisfyingly stress-free. Music was his passion; consequently he enjoyed it enormously. It had been just a week or was it two before they took the break. He lost track of time, or forced himself to, he needn't wait on anyone. He was better left alone; in fact he wanted to be alone.

His parents are aware of everything naturally, he was so open explaining what happened to him excluding the embarrassing parts. They did not actually say it out loud but he could see the sympathy in their eyes. Except for his brother, Lenny, he was furious on his behalf because nobody treats my brother that way!

He was fine really, he just needed to learn to move on and the wounds that were fresh a month ago are beginning to heal leisurely, how ugly the scars they left would be, God only knows.

***

Fenster, Missouri, was covered in a white blanket of snow with Christmas decorations hanging at all the town's intersections; Fenster had a Norman Rockwell quaintness about it that reminded Liam rather poignantly of Zayn's initial shyness about sex.

Aided by the directions a taciturn old man had given him a few minutes before, Liam had no trouble finding the quiet little street where Zayn had grown up. He pulled to a stop in front of a modest white frame house with a swing on the porch and an enormous oak tree in the front yard, and turned off the ignition of the car he'd rented at the airport five long hours ago.

The slow, treacherous drive across snow-covered roads had been the easy part; facing Zayn was going to be the difficult part...an extremely difficult part.

His knock was answered immediately by a wiry young man in his mid-twenties. Liam's heart sank...and his inside twisted. Never in his worst imaginings during the drive down here had he considered the possibility that Zayn might have another man with him.

"My name is Liam Payne," he said, and watched the young man's curious smile change to open hostility. "I'd like to see Zayn."

"I'm Zayn's brother," the young man retorted, "and he doesn't want to see you."

His brother! Liam's momentary relief was followed by an absurd impulse to hit the younger man on the face for stealing Zayn's allowances when he was a little boy, but did he really have the right, what he did to him was a lot worse and he wanted to make sure he lived his live making up to him.

"I've come to see him," Liam stated implacably, "and if I have to walk over you to get to him, I will."

"I believe he means it, Leonard," Zayn's stepfather said, stepping into the hallway, his finger in a closed book he had been reading.

For a long moment, Robert Danner studied the tall, determined man in the doorway, his penetrating blue eyes observing the lines of strain and tension etched deeply into his visitor's features. He had the set of blue eyes that could x-ray your body...showing your very soul.

A faint, unwilling smile softened the stern line of Mr. Danner's mouth. "Leonard," he said quietly, "why don't we give Mr. Payne five minutes with Zayn to see if he can change his mind. He's in the living room," he added, tilting his head over his shoulder in the direction of the Christmas carols playing on the stereo.

"Five minutes, and that's all," Leonard grumbled, following right on Liam's heels. If this man wanted to talk to Zayn he'll have to be there to protect him.

Liam turned to him. "Alone," he said determinedly.

Leonard opened his mouth to argue, but his father intervened. "Alone, Leonard."

Liam silently closed the door to the cheerful little living room, took two steps forward and stopped, his heart hammering uncontrollably in his chest. He felt like a nervous little boy again and the angel in view did not help his hearts fluttering in crescendo.

Zayn was standing on a stepladder, hanging tinsel on the upper branches of a Christmas tree. He looked heartbreakingly young in his trim slashed on the knees faded jeans and bright red sweater and poignantly, vulnerably beautiful with his hair perfectly styled but going in every direction all the same, it bizarrely reminded him of a cat.

He ached to pull him off the ladder and into his arms, to carry him over to the sofa and lose himself in him, to kiss and hold and caress him, to heal his pain with his body and hands and mouth.

Stepping down off the ladder, Zayn knelt to pull more tinsel from the box lying beside the gaily wrapped packages beneath the tree. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed a pair of gleaming brown men's shoe.

"Lenny, your timing is terrific," he teased softly with his musical voice. "I've already finished. Does the star look all right on the top, or should I go to the attic and bring down the angel?"

"Leave the star on top," said an achingly gentle, deep voice. "There's already one angel in the room."

 

Zayn's head jerked around, his gaze riveted on the tall, solemn man standing a few feet away from him. The color drained from his face as his mind registered the determination carved into every masculine feature, from his straight brown brows to the tough jut of his chin and jaw. Every line of his well-remembered body was radiating power and the same forceful magnetism that he ran from in his dreams at night.

His features had been seared into his brain; he still remembered him perfectly. He also recalled in every excruciating detail the last time he had seen him: he had been on his knees then too, weeping at his feet. Humiliation and fury sent him surging upright.

"Get out of here!" he blazed, too blinded by his own torment to see the tortured regret, the sorrow that darkened his brown eyes.

Instead of leaving, Liam advanced toward him.

Zayn instantly backed away one step in unwanted fear and then held his ground, his whole body shaking with exploding violence and wrath. Liam reached for him, and he swung, slapping him full force on his face. "I said get out!" he thundered venomously. When he didn't move Zayn lifted his hand in an incensed threat, "Fuck you! Get out! I never wanna see your face again! Go away or I'll call the cops!"

Liam's gaze shifted to his raised fist this time.

"Go ahead," he said gently, surrendering to his punishment he knew he deserved this...he deserved so much worse.

Trembling with frustrated rage, Zayn jerked his hand down and wrapped his arms around his middle, trying to protect himself moving sideways to escape him, trying to sidle around the tree, away from him, out of the room. He could not bear to be in his presence.

"Zayn, wait," He stepped into his path and reached for him. He could not, would not let him get away...he wanted Zayn to forgive him, he needed him. Zayn should see the shame he felt, and he knew somehow that Zayn needed him to fix what he broke.

"Don't touch me!" Zayn almost screamed, recoiling wildly from his hand. He moved sideways to take the remaining three steps that would enable him to circle past him and out of the room.

Liam's heart was breaking into thousand splinters from the fear and contempt he was distinguishing in Zayn's eyes. No, Zayn was not afraid of him, he hated his touch because Zayn had never shown him cowardice. He always confronted him with poise and self-assurance. Liam was willing to let him do anything, anything to him, except to leave him. That he could not let him do.

"Zayn, please let me" he started.

"No!" he shouted hysterically. "Stay away from me! You did not give me a chance and you didn't listen to me why should I?"

 

He tried to run, and Liam caught him by the arms. He felt like they were in an absurd animated movie of a mouse and cat. Zayn turned on him like a demented angry wildcat, struggling wildly, striking out at him.

"You bastard!" He screamed in hysterical, maddened pain, pounding painfully on his ribs, his shoulders. "You bastard! I begged you on my knees!"

It took all of Liam's strength to hold him until his fury was finally spent and he collapsed against him, his slim body racked with wrenching sobs.

"You made me beg," he wept brokenly in his arms "you humiliated me."

His tears tore at his heart, and his words slashed him like knives. He regretted the pain he inflicted like he never regretted anything in his life, well except the gift he bought to his father so long ago.

He held him, staring blindly ahead, remembering the beautiful, laughing boy who had walked into his life and turned it upside down with his beaming smile.

"What happens to me if this shoe fits?"

"I turn you into a handsome puppy."

His eyes stung with remorse and he closed them as the tears of his guilt threatened to come down. "I'm sorry," he whispered hoarsely his voice quavering from his frankness. "I'm so sorry."

Zayn heard the raw ache in his voice, and he felt the wall of icy numbness he'd built around himself begin to melt a little. He fought to blank out the exquisite pleasure of being in his arms again, of being pressed against his body.

In the lonely weeks of sleepless nights and angry desolate days, he'd come to the quiet conclusion that Liam was cynical and hard beyond cure. His father's desertion had made him that way, and nothing he could do would ever change him. He would always be capable of shutting him out of his life and coldly walking away from him, because he would never really love him. He just loved the idea of having him so at the first chance of doubts lurking between them, he gave in; his skeptical mind believed the lies and no matter how it looked, he should have given him the chance to defend himself, yet he did not because it was easier to just shut down because his mind said so, his mind ruled his life, not his heart. Liam had learned at five that a person-no matter how close he was to him-was not to be entrusted with his heart. He would offer Zayn his body, his affection, but nothing else. He would never let himself be completely vulnerable again. He would never expose his heart to anyone.

His hands were moving up and down his back in a gesture of helpless comfort, spreading warmth wherever they touched him. Summoning the last vestiges of his self-control, Zayn firmly pushed away from him. "I'm fine now. Really." He dragged his gaze to his obscure brown eyes and said quietly but firmly, "I want you to leave now, Liam."

 

His jaw tightened and his whole body tensed at the calm, deathly finality in Zayn's voice, but instead of leaving, he seemed to block his words from his mind, as if he had spoken in a language he didn't comprehend. With his eyes still holding his amber ones, he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a square box wrapped in silver paper.

"I've brought you a present, I picked it for you" he said with a gentle gruff voice that showed helplessness.

Zayn stared at him in disbelief. "What?"

"Here," Liam said, lifting Zayn's hand and putting the box in it.

"It's a Christmas present. It's for you, go ahead and open it." He said with determination.

Mary's words suddenly rang through Zayn's mind, and his whole body began to slightly tremble.

"He intended to bribe his father into coming back to him. He gave him the present and insisted he open it right then."

"Open it now, Zayn," he pleaded. Although his face was carefully blank, but Zayn saw the desperation in his eyes and the rigid tension in his powerful shoulders, and he knew that he expected him to reject his gift...and him.

Zayn pulled his gaze away from his and shakily removed the silver paper from the elegant leather box, which was discreetly embossed with the name of a Chicago jeweler, followed by the name of a Chicago hotel. He opened the clasp. On a bed of white velvet was a spectacular silver ring preciously carved with small geometrical motifs and an amber precious stone was embedded in the middle.

It was a bribe.

For the second time in his life, Liam was trying to bribe a man he loved to come back to him. Tears of tenderness filled Zayn's eyes, and sweetness made his heart lighter.

His voice was hoarse and tight, as if the words were being wrenched from him.

"It reminded me of your eyes. Please," he whispered. "Please" He jerked him into his arms, crushing him to his lean, hard length, burying his face in his fluffy hair. "Oh please, baby please."

Zayn couldn't believe that Liam was actually begging him to take him back, voice all choked up...cynical, hard unforgiving Liam. Zayn's defenses crumbled completely.

"I forgive you, but you should learn to trust me Liam. I can't pour my heart out to you when you give me nothing back!" he said brokenly, winding his arms tightly around his neck, running his hands over the bunched muscles of his shoulders, smoothing his brown hair.

 

"I will. I swear I'll learn to. I bought you a watch too," he coaxed hoarsely, urgently. "I'll buy you a piano, your college said you were a gifted pianist. Would you like a grand piano or would you rather have..."

"Don't!" Zayn said as he silenced him with his lips. A shudder ran through Liam's body and he wrapped his arms around him, his mouth opening on his with hungry desperation, his hands moving over his back then sweeping lower, pulling his hips to his as if he wanted to merge their bodies into one.

"I've missed you so much. I'm truly sorry for believing these lies. I was an awful person. I should have listen to my heart, but the evidences and rage blinded me." he whispered, trying to gentle his kiss, his mouth moving on his parted lips with tender, melting hunger as his hand sank slowly into the thick hair at his nape. I know this is no excuse, nothing I can say could erase what I did, but I'm hoping for your full forgiveness and I'll make sure to live my life in the purpose of making up to you.

After those words, Zayn responded enthusiastically into his kiss, so his control snapped almost instantly and with a groan, he tightened his hand, his tongue driving into his mouth with fierce, compulsive urgency, letting Zayn battle him freely with his own tongue.

Zayn kissed him back with all the bursting, aching love in his heart, arching closer to him, holding him tightly to him.

An endless time later, Zayn surfaced to reality, his arms still wrapped around him, his face pressed against his neck, his hand resting to feel the convulsive beating of his heart.

"I love you," he whispered, and before Zayn could answer he continued in a husky voice that was part pleading, part teasing, "You have to marry me. But before that I'll court you, we'll get engaged and I'll prove to you that I can be better. I think I've just been voted off the committee on international trade, they think I'm unstable. And Tony took me off his list. Mary says she'll quit if I don't bring you back. Niall found your watch, and he gave it to Harry. He said to tell you that you can't have it unless you come back for it, you see everyone would be furious at me if I didn't succeed on having you back, everyone wants you back. I love you so much baby."

Zayn's mind still felt unsure but his heart was yelling for him to jump back into Liam's rollercoaster and he always followed his heart.

Chapter Text

Tiny colorful and glimmering lights twinkled on the giant Christmas tree in the immense sunken living room of non-other than a famous and a very rich industrialist. Stretched out on the carpet, in front of the hearth with pillows scattered around them, Liam held his sleeping husband that was laid on top of him, his head resting on his shoulder, hand outstretched over his strong chest. He watched him sleeping peacefully, the light of the tree dancing on his beautiful skin, giving him a colorful aura. He looked so angelic, with his full pink lips and his amazingly long eyelashes that casted shadows over his slightly pink cheeks. Liam was still not over the fact, that this amazing man was his husband; yes they had been married for three days. Three days that had passed like a blink of an eye. Liam could not remember a time in his life where he had been happier.

Zayn stirred in his sleep, snuggling closer as if trying to burry himself in him for more warmth. Liam carefully drew the soft cashmere blanket up around his shoulders. Worshipfully and softly, he caressed his cheek, afraid that his touch will tarnish this beauty. Zayn had brought joy to his previously stressful and meaningless life. He was so precious to him. Zayn thought he was beautiful. He knew that was probably true, because whenever Zayn looked at him with all that killing fondness in his eyes, he felt beautiful.

In some part of his huge house a clock was ticking announcing midnight, the whole sound resonated in the place. Zayn’s lashes slowly flickered open, he was somehow mouthing at his shoulder when he looked in his eyes. Liam looked back and lost himself in his beautiful amber globes and whispered: “It’s Christmas, babe.”

Zayn smiled up at him, and sighed contently, gently stroking his bare chest in circles that made his muscles twitch. He certainly didn’t expect what was his husband going to say next, and the answer made his throat tighten, overwhelmed.

“No,” he said softly in his sultry voice, “Christmas came three days ago.”

Liam held his breath for half a minute, gently stroking Zayn’s back, lips brushing on his forehead. He was in the mood to tease a little. He theatrically gasped making Zayn look at him with big surprised eyes. Liam wanted to kiss him so much until they both were breathless.

“Where’s my Christmas gift Zee?” he asked with a husky seductive voice that made Zayn shiver slightly when his breath reached his ear.

Zayn chuckled lightly smacking his hand down his chest.

“After today you still want a Christmas gift, man you are insatiable.”

“Hmm, nothing wrong with that! Have you looked at you? How can I even contain my urges when you‘re around baby?” He whispered peppering Zayn’s face with tiny little kisses and pecks that made him squirm in his arms and giggle.

He held Zayn up, until he was positioned straightly on top of him, and cradled his face in his hands, caressing gently his jaw with his thumb. Zayn knew he was going to kiss him, because he didn’t wait for it, he slowly closed his eyes, his lips opening on his, gliding smoothly, until the fit on his, and he took over immediately, licking to taste, plunging to caress and explore. Zayn’s hands were resting on his shoulders in a painful grip, but he liked it, he was not going to complain, when he felt Zayn grinding on him desperately and moaning in his mouth wantonly. Their shafts rubbed together and they both groaned from the delightful friction. His hand slithered down Zayn’s spine until it reached the swell of his ass, gripping one of his cheeks to pin him closer to his crotch. Zayn moaned beautifully and Liam wanted to give him more, he wanted to extract a symphony out of him before they were done. He wanted to take it so slow this time, so slow that Zayn would be begging for it and Liam would just give him anything he asked for, wouldn’t he?

His fingers moved to dip through his crack and Zayn moans turned up a pitch. He gently rubbed a finger over his rim, slowly and gently circling it, just touching lightly while Zayn’s mouth went slack and he stifled his whine by sucking avidly on his neck. This went on for a while, and Liam was just content with this. Until Zayn’s whine turned into a chant begging for him to just put his fingers in.

“Please, lee-yumm, come on, I want more… I can’t.”

“Shh, babe it’s okay…” Liam comforted reaching for the bottle of lube that was discarded earlier next to him.

“He slicked his fingers with the slippery substance and continued his previous activity. This time he was kissing Zayn like a starved man, while slowly slipping his index finger in his heat, breaching the tight muscles then retreating only to go in again. He continued his ministration until Zayn was begging for more again, so he gave him a second finger, purposely ignoring his sweet spot, saving this for later. His spaced his fingers, stretching him open, and massaging his walls gradually. Zayn was writhing and fucking himself back on his fingers and Liam thought that he could come just from seeing Zayn react in this way.

“Babe, look at me.” He commanded stopping his movement with his fingers, until Zayn looked at him with lustful hooded eyes. Liam moved his fingers in again, but this time with three, crocking them the right way that made Zayn’s face contort in blissful pleasure, his lips parting in a moan that never left them because Liam sucked it out into his mouth.

Liam stopped after a while, removing his fingers out, rolling them over so he was on top of Zayn, locking his eyes on his, just looking at him in wonder.

“How do you wanna do this babe huh? Wanna try riding me for a bit?” Liam whispered near his ear, because what they had now is a precious secret, that only Liam will know about, only him was allowed to see Zayn in this state.

Zayn stared at him in glazed eyes, biting his lower lip between his teeth. He looked so debauched and so sexy.

“But, what if I mess it, I mean… I never…”

Liam shut him up with another hungry kiss that took the rest of his breath away.

“You won’t baby Zee, I’ll help.” He said as he rolled them into their previous position again; letting Zayn straddle his hips as he lightly pinned the sole of his feet to the carpet under him.

“Why don’t you get me ready for you baby?” Liam asked while running his hands up and down on Zayn’s side, making his breathe shudder. Zayn went down to gently peck his lips and to pick up the lube that was next to his head. Liam couldn’t retain the buck of his hips when he felt Zayn’s gentle hands slithering his hard cock. He gripped Zayn’s hips helping him settle himself on him, as the head of his cock started to glide in his tightness, Zayn groaned lightly, hands supporting him on Liam’s abs, his eyes tightly shut from the initial burn.

He gradually and slowly impaled himself on Liam’s cock, until his ass touched Liam’s crotch, it was impossibly hot, and the way Liam was fully inside him, filling him up in an unprecedented way. Liam shut his eyes too, because another minute of watching Zayn riding his cock will toss him unceremoniously over the edge and he did not want that; he wanted this to last, as long as it can last.

He opened his eyes again, to see Zayn looking fondly at him; he started moving his hips slowly, in circles, not really pulling off.

“You said you’ll help!” He said reproachful.

“I know, come here!” Liam told him, pulling him so that their chests touched, and he could finally kiss him again. He slowly pulled back a little and then plunged again, knocking the breath out of his husband.

“Zayn, babe, you push back, meet me halfway okay.”

Zayn moaned loudly, and pushed back on his dick, and slowly but surely they built up their rhythm together, synchronizing to perfection. Liam wanted this to last as long as their stamina will let them, so whenever he felt close he’d slow back again, and Zayn would mimic his pace. This went on until Zayn was practically sobbing from pleasure.

“Li… please… harderrr… I need to… please” He was moaning between the incomprehensible words, but Liam knew perfectly what he needed, so he doubled his efforts, quickened his pace. Zayn’s body rocked on top of him, he started sucking on his neck again, a gentle mantra of “ah, uh, uh” leaving his mouth whenever it wasn’t attached to his skin.

Liam felt the familiar feeling stirring in his lower abdomen, he fought it; he needed Zayn to come first.

“Are you close baby?” He groaned between clinched teeth.

Zayn only managed to whine, trying to reach for his dick for relief. Liam took his hand in his stopping him for touching.

“Please…” he barely heard the whisper, he suddenly flipped them over, so he was hovering over Zayn, still inside him.

“Zayn babe, I want you to come for me, yeah, without touching…would you do that for me …huh.” He grabbed one of Zayn’s legs, raising it to rest on his shoulder; his thrusts reached an inhuman pace by the moment and Zayn’s face was damp with tears of pleasure.

He felt him start to clench on him as he repeatedly slammed into his prostate; he cried out, shouting Liam’s name to the world as he reached his high, coming untouched.

Liam fucked him through it all, until he also joined him in the joyful bliss of love, coming deep inside him, filling him with his seed. Liam crumbled on top of him, making him huff as he nearly crushed him with his weight. He moved to his side, bringing Zayn’s slack body with him.

He held him closely, embracing him; he never wanted to leave his arms that slowly held into him too. He heard Zayn’s gentle blissed sigh near his ear, and his whisper “Liam, I think you fucked me into oblivion, because I have no words to just express what just happened.”

Liam chuckled softly, “So the English teacher’s son is finally out of vocabulary?”

“Oh you wish, just give me a few more minutes to recover.” Zayn replied with playful smirk.