He was born to con—born to lie ... all that was needed was for him to get his feet wet.
|Daniel Østberg knows he’s not quite pretty enough to turn a real profit whoring, and anyway, since hooking up with Cooper, the work’s become as unsavory as he suspects it might always have been.
So when Cooper suggests that he quit the life—while he’s so far up Danny’s ass, Danny expects to taste foreskin at any second—Danny moans out a completely sincere yeah, manly, anything for you.
Yet even as far-gone as he is, his prostate damn near rubbed raw, he’s still aware that Cooper doesn’t believe him. But then, Cooper never believes anything anyone says without hard proof.
And so Danny soon finds himself free of his pimp and at loose ends. He’s in a monogamous relationship for the first time in his life and he’s not especially confident in his ability to keep both Cooper’s interest and his affection. In fact, he’s certain that, in short order, when the novelty of the sex wears off, Cooper will kick him to the curb like the trash that he is.
The thought of being alone in London scares Danny, but not as much as the thought of losing Cooper does. Every night, while Cooper is asleep—one arm thrown possessively over Danny, huffing soft snores in Danny’s hair—Danny makes a quiet resolution to do whatever it takes to keep Cooper happy. Whatever. And he clutches Cooper’s hand like it’s a talisman.
It’s the only promise he’s ever made. The only promise he ever will make.
So, a few weeks later, Danny finds himself in another new situation: He’s in the very upscale L’Monde bistro, dressed in a thrift store tweed suit that’s three sizes too large, and thus makes Danny seem even smaller and shabbier than he already is. He’s just had the best meal he’s ever eaten and could only barely pronounce. Standing up from the decimated remains of said lunch, he dusts imaginary crumbs off the tweed jacket—which itches like a bastard—and picks up the violin case at his feet.
He can sense the intent gaze on his back, and even though he knows the most important part of the con is for them to seem completely unknown to each other, he can’t help glancing over his shoulder.
He receives a wink and a lazy, promising smile before he’s summarily dismissed from the other’s attention.
Okay, then. Okay.
The check clutched in one sweaty, trembling hand and the violin case in the other, he makes his way to the maitre d’s station, trying his best to look humbly dismayed, when all he really wants is to be done with this whole thing and back at their tiny flat pinned under Cooper.
But he steels himself. Reminds himself: whatever it takes, and lets out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding.
As he gets closer to the maitre d, the more his nerves ramp up, till he’s actually shaking and sweating lightly. When the man spots him, Danny adjusts his tie, further crumpling the damp, wrinkled check. The glance he receives from the maitre d, who looks vaguely like Ricardo Montalban, is at once scornful and resentfully subservient.
In that moment, as he and the maitre d sum each other up and find each other wanting, Danny realizes something freeing and amazing:
The con’s going to work.
His shakes and wide-eyed fright are replaced with something similar, but imperceptibly artificial. The gibbering capuchin that passes for Danny’s nerve is replaced with the first, burgeoning spark of confidence he’s ever felt in his life.
He can do this. He really, really can.
“Excuse me,” he says in his best Knightsbridge, as taught to him by a very patient Cooper. “But I seem to have run into a problem, sir, and I was wondering if you might be able to help me resolve it. . . ?”
In the end, the resentful, snobbish maitre d falls for the con, hook, line, and sinker, just as Cooper had said he would.
(“Rather, he’ll fall for it if you can stay cool and keep your shit together,” Cooper had added, frowning thoughtfully. “Now, let’s have some more of that Knightsbridge, petal.”)
And, in the end, he realizes that the reassurance, though sweet, and reinforced as it was by cripplingly fantastic sex, was really unnecessary, after all.
Danny was born to con—born to lie, and all that had been needed was for him to get his feet wet.
“Why don’t we switch it up, next time, manly? Do something different for next time?” Danny asks after the twentieth, or maybe the thirtieth such con.
They’re lying in bed in a B&B in Dublin—they’ve successfully performed cons all over the UK and parts of France, and can now easily afford such niceties. Once, they’d even spent the weekend at a five star hotel, getting pampered by an attentive staff and spending themselves repeatedly on silk sheets—and basking in the afterglow of a successful medium con and amazing adrenaline-sex. Cooper is lying on his back, smoking one of his thin, evil-smelling cigars and Danny is on his stomach, one arm under his head, the other draped over Cooper’s waist.
“It’s a lovely thought, my dove, but there’s one problem.” Cooper glances over at him. “I’ve not got a trustworthy face. At least not as trustworthy as yours. Even when you’re lying your pretty little arse off, you still look as if ice cream wouldn’t melt in your mouth. You’re a natural for the role of the shill.”
“Gee, thanks,” Danny rolls his eyes, but leans over to lick Cooper’s right nipple. Which earns him an absently interested grunt and a warm, rough hand on his ass, stroking-stroking-stroking. “But there has to be some con where I get to be the lead . . . or where I at least don’t have to be a shill.”
“Hmm.” Cooper blows out three successive smoke rings, one through the other, and pats Danny’s ass possessively. A quick glance shows he’s getting hard again, and when Albert Cooper wants to fuck, he wants to fuck, which means Danny’ll be getting no further tonight on this particular subject. . . .
And sure enough, Cooper stubs out his cigar decisively and leans over to kiss him, soft and teasing, till Danny moans and spreads his legs.
As Cooper explores him slowly with hands and mouth, Danny’s own desire not to be the shill anymore is lost in another desire entirely. He shivers and squirms, releasing the bit of pillow held between his clenched teeth to breathlessly grit out: “Fuck me, manly.”
Cooper chuckles and pins Danny to the bed, his solid body all hot, heavy muscle. He seems to thrum with strength and power . . . things Danny has never had, but always been attracted to. “Beg me for it, darling,” Cooper whispers in his ear, licking the shell delicately. “Like a good little slut.”
Danny begs . . . until he’s near tears for a number of reasons—frustration, desire, shame, yearning, awe. Danny begs until Cooper finally relents, and gives him what he’s asked for with a bruising grip and a punishing pace.
At first, as always, Danny isn’t sure whether the discomfort is bad enough to be pain. But soon enough, the pain is good enough to be pleasure and he’s lost . . . as lost as he’s ever been—perhaps more so. If he could have anything, in this moment, it would be eternity spent like this: conning rubes, spending money like it’s water, and fucking like there’s no tomorrow.
Because, when all’s said and done, there isn’t, is there? Not for people like them?
Afterwards, Cooper is all sweet, solicitous words and tender, gentle touches. Quite unlike the assignation immediately prior. But then, Cooper never loves him as sweetly as after he’s been cruel.
This time is sweeter than most.
It’s not so much that Danny’s good at reading people—not like Cooper is, anyway. With Cooper, it borders on an almost psychic ability to get inside others’ heads—as it is that he’s adept at believing the lies he tells them.
In other words, for the moment, he is a struggling art student. One who studied architecture in Paris, and currently makes his living by selling “original” paintings of scenic areas of the aforementioned city. Every day, Danny walks away with a cool few hundred pounds and the rubes walk away with pretty, quirky pieces of trash that make them happy—never mind that they aren’t one of a kind.
It’s the Art Student Scam, a harmless little bread-and-butter sort of con. The kind that keeps Danny and Cooper busy whilst planning or implementing larger, more risky cons. And Danny is especially good at it.
Today . . . is another story.
Today, he and Cooper are at a local art bazaar working the con together, instead of Cooper having his own set-up across London. Danny has been looking impoverished and a little desperate all afternoon, with Cooper in the foreground acting as a prospective buyer and general charmer-of-random-tourists.
But today, not even Cooper’s insane charm is enough to send the marks Danny’s way. The few kind-hearted ones who do let themselves be tempted are put off by the prices of the paintings.
Americans, Danny thinks ruefully, ironically, as a pair of older women move on, laughing. Granted, Danny didn’t paint the damn things himself, but he nonetheless feels stung by their assessment of “his” talents.
He signals Cooper, who drifts over from a rather charming Eiffel-Tower-At-Night painting, looking a bit sulky, himself.
“The fish aren’t biting, today, manly,” Danny says, unnecessarily. Cooper snorts.
“I find your penchant for understatement bloody adorable,” he replies dryly, and Danny grins, leaning across the small folding table that acts as his center of operations. He grabs Cooper by the front of his Johnny Quid t-shirt—tight in all the right places—and pulls him close.
“Why don’t you take me home and we’ll find other ways to keep busy?” he murmurs softly. Cooper glances around them—they are, Danny knows when Cooper leans in closer, unobserved—smiling mirthlessly.
“May as well, since this lot are so bloody tight. Your countrymen are quite appallingly cheap today, my love,” he adds, tsking. Danny accepts the kiss that comes on the back of that tsk.
“Hey, those last bitches were Canadian,” Danny lies glibly, quite without realizing he’s going to do it. Cooper raises an eyebrow.
“Remember what we discussed about conning ourselves or each other?” He puts his hands on Danny’s waist and squeezes fondly. Danny loves the implicit (and explicit) power in those hands, if not the intent, dead-serious look in those hazel eyes. “If we can’t trust each other, petal, whom can we trust?”
“White lies don’t count,” Danny says, then smiles bemusedly as Cooper kisses him again, very, very gently.
“I’ve never lied to you about anything, white or otherwise, darling.” Each word is a kiss. “I’m a big believer in keeping my professional and personal lives separate.”
Danny lets his own eyebrow do some talking. “Uh-huh. Which is why we run cons by day and fuck at night?”
Another mirthless smile and Cooper is leaning away, glancing around them again with a sigh. “That’s different, and you know it. You’re different.”
“Oh, really?” Danny tilts his head doubtfully. “And how’s that?”
“Can’t you guess how?” Cooper sounds exasperated and a little sad. His eyes meet Danny’s again and he seems . . . disappointed when Danny shakes his head no.
Not overly alarmed—Danny is used to disappointing people. Somehow, he always falls short of expectations, no matter how low they are—tries to jolly his suddenly pensive boyfriend with a sexy smirk.
“We could go home, and you could tell me all about how I’m different, hmm? Or . . . you could make me beg all afternoon as . . . penance.”
Cooper sighs again and closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, they’re hooded and unreadable. Which is odd, since he never looks at Danny that way. “I’m more of a punishment sort of bloke, myself. And dirty little boys who tell dirty little lies deserve dirty little spankings.”
Danny shivers in anticipation, and gazes into Cooper’s eyes, not bothering to guess at what’s behind the hooded hazel or Cooper’s previous statements. “And w-what do dirty little boys deserve when they tell big lies?”
“Mm. Tell a big lie, and I’ll show you,” Cooper murmurs, and Danny suddenly laughs, feeling light and free. It’s a feeling he’s never experienced before Cooper.
“You make me happy,” he says, in a sudden and rare burst of honesty. But instead of smiling and maybe even saying it back, Cooper momentarily looks pained, as if someone punched him in the gut. His mouth opens and closes twice, and finally he sighs for a third time, taking Danny’s hands in his own calloused ones.
“Not that big, darling,” he says softly, and leans in to kiss Danny again—but stops millimeters away when a throat is cleared behind him.
“Excuse me,” a woman’s soft, accented voice says, and both Danny and Cooper look over Cooper’s shoulder. Standing there in casual but fashionable clothing is a ridiculously beautiful couple, holding hands and smiling like movie stars: she, in a white and gold sun-dress; he, in a white linen suit.
“Er, hullo,” Cooper says, clearing his throat and straightening up. He doesn’t let go of Danny’s hands, another oddity that makes Danny wonder if the con is still on. “May we help you?”
The woman—who’s so perfectly lovely, even Danny feels it like a freight train, because who, in real life, is that fucking perfectly lovely?—steps forward without letting go of her man’s hand, and points at a rather pretty, post-Impressionist painting of the Seine and its surrounding environs.
Danny tends to sell a lot of that one . . . as evidenced by what the woman says next:
“Three days ago, you sold my husband a painting that looks exactly like this. He was told it was a one-of-a-kind by its supposed painter—you.”
She’s looking at Cooper as she says this, and Cooper . . . looks almost ashen, though his face is still perfectly composed. “I’m certain you’re mistaken,” he says in a pleasantly confused tone. “I’m certain—“
“And I’m certain that the little scam you’re running is quite illegal,” the woman says in equally pleasant tones. She doesn’t seem put out at all, however. Either she has a poker face to rival Cooper’s or she’s enjoying this for some reason. Here grey-blue eyes are lit up playfully—almost mischievously. Her peachy complexion is flushed ever so slightly.
Danny glances at Cooper, more than willing to take his lover’s cue in this, as in all things.
But Cooper is merely squinting at the couple, half of whom squint right back.
“Right. What ya want?” Cooper asks lowly, his mostly purged Cockney accent edging into his voice. The couple glances at each other, and if anything, they smile even wider. And this time, when those gazes return to Cooper, they’re . . . excited.
“To discuss your future,” the man says mildly, his suddenly penetrating blue eyes flicking to Danny briefly. Danny, a largely shameless individual, blushes, and would take a step back, but for Cooper’s comforting, protective, possessive hand around his own.
“And what’s my future got to do with you, then?” Cooper‘s voice is still low and flat, whereas Danny would be gibbering out conflicting lies at light-speed, by now.
“We would prefer to discuss that over lunch—our treat,” the woman temporizes, and holds out her slim, delicate hand. When Cooper doesn’t take it, she shrugs delicately, and extends that hand to Danny, the first time she’s even acknowledged his presence. Her round eyes are knowing and amused. “I’m Dominique Horvath, and this is my husband, Geoff.”
“Edwin Nash,” Danny says, taking her cool, fine-fingered hand and pumping it once. (The Nash-identity is one he uses only occasionally for the Art Student Scam. Now it comes to his lips as naturally as if it was his actual name.
He figures they either know his real name . . . or they don’t. But if they don’t, he doesn’t mean to hand it to them.)
“Who are you?” Cooper asks suspiciously, his pleasant-face replaced by a cold, stony, too-still one . . . the one he’d worn while he’d beaten Danny’s former pimp to a pulp, then—dragging a sickened and horrified Danny with him—left said pulp bleeding to death in an alley.
Danny squeezes Cooper’s hand reassuringly, and when Cooper looks at him, worry showing just a little on his face, Danny smiles, and in a burst of inspiration, steps out of his role as the shill.
“Lunch sounds good,” he says brightly, still looking Cooper in the eye for a long moment. Then he turns back to the couple watching them so intently. “It sounds great, in fact.”
“Magnifique, gentlemen!” The woman exclaims, with an almost little-girl charm that could give Cooper’s charm a run for its money. Then she’s rummaging in her expensive-looking purse, only to come up with a business card. She hands it to Danny, who takes it wonderingly. It has her name and phone number on the front, and an address and time on the back. The address is a trattoria where he and Cooper have eaten (but where they have not, thankfully, tried the fiddle scam).
The time is three p.m. this afternoon.
“Be there, or be square,” the man says, still mildly, but his eyes tick meaningfully back and forth between them, settling, finally, on Cooper. He holds out his hand, too, and this time Cooper takes it, grasping it firmly. A little too firmly, for the man winces and squints, and returns it just as hard.
Dick-measuring at its finest, Danny thinks wryly. Then he waves as the couple wander away, still hand-in-hand. They look, to even Danny’s discerning eye, like any young couple in love and simply going for a walk on one of London’s rare sunny days. Her ash-blonde head inclines itself toward his russet-brown one, and he kisses her temple.
Soon, they’re swallowed by the shifting crowds.
“Huh,” Danny says, and Cooper looks at him incredulously.
“Is that all you have to say? ‘Huh’?” he snorts and pinches the bridge of his nose like a man staving off an impending migraine. “Right, then, they don’t want to meet until three, so that gives us nearly an hour to get our shit and get on our way to France. Or maybe Germany. . . .”
“No,” Danny says, as firm as the dick-measuring handshake. Cooper’s mouth drops open in surprise, and Danny blushes again, but forges bravely on. “Look, we’ve gotta find out what they want with you. They’re not cops. They’re not in the game—I don’t think—so who are they?”
Cooper shrugs stubbornly, almost petulantly. “Don’t know, don’t care. Curiosity killed the cat, Edwin.”
“But satisfaction brought his ass right back.” Danny laughs, putting his hands on Cooper’s elbows. “C’mon, manly, at the very least, it means a free lunch . . . please?”
Cooper snorts again, catching Danny’s hands in his own and bringing them up to his face. He kisses them gently before letting go. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, my dove.” But he steps around the folding table and pulls Danny into his arms, pecking him on the lips. “Let’s get this rubbish sorted and into the lorry . . . then I shall march dutifully off to my doom, since you insist so sweetly—”
“No. Together.” Danny narrows his eyes sternly, and pokes Cooper in one muscular, defined pectoral. “There’s no fucking way I’m letting you do this alone. We do this together or not at all.”
Cooper blinks his surprise, the second such blink in as many minutes. Then his eyes go solemn once more, intent and searching.
Finally, he smiles a little.
“Alright, then. We go together.”
Danny whoops quietly, bouncing in Cooper’s arms. “Sounds like a plan to me, Symes!”
That eyebrow quirks again, taking its partner with it. “’Symes,’ is it?”
“Yep. Roger Symes,” Danny announces proudly, and Cooper’s eyes sparkle with undisguised amusement.
“I see,” he says, clearly biting back a chuckle. He’s humoring Danny, as he often does.
But that’s okay. For in Danny’s mind—a subtle shift has taken place, and a new con is about to be born. For all intents and purposes, Daniel Østberg and Albert Cooper cease to exist. In their stead is Edwin Nash—a wise-ass former exchange student from the US, who came to study architecture at University College London . . . but who instead dropped out to pursue his dream of being a starving artist—and a sexy braggart and gambler called Symes, who wears expensive cologne and cheap, loud sports jackets that only accentuate his amazing physique.
Symes speaks three languages fluently, and four others well enough to get by. He’s been all over the world, but considers . . . Monaco to be his true home. He—
“Enough day-dreaming, lovely. Lunch waits for no men.” Symes kisses him again, fondly, teasingly. Edwin, as usual, blooms under such attention, winding his arms around Symes’ neck. In his cheap tennies, his toes curl with a whirling giddiness that threatens to sweep him away.
A new, wonderful chapter in their lives is beginning. He can feel it. . . .
But for now, he and Symes separate with one more regretfully brief kiss, and quickly pack up their gear. They stow it haphazardly in their lorry and make their way to Savona’s which, in London traffic, takes damn near the whole hour to get to.
At two fifty-eight p.m., standing in the entrance to Savona’s, they share a final kiss, link hands, and step into the trattoria together.