Playing You by Claire Cullen

Chapter One

Brendan usheredthe last candidate out the door, holding back a sigh of frustration. He returned to his desk and flicked fruitlessly through the pile of resumes. With a growl of frustration, he picked the whole lot up and dumped them into the shredder, feeling a sense of satisfaction as they were torn to pieces.

“Not fit to make a cup of coffee,” he grumbled, gathering up the bag of torn paper to take down to the recycling.

He’d had a part-time assistant last year, a beta in the middle of a college degree who’d preferred helping him out to waiting tables. When Alan could no longer balance work and college, Brendan had been sad to see him go. This was his second attempt to recruit a replacement, and a full-time one at that. The position paid well, though it did require the assistant to put up with him and his way of doing things. The fact that most of those who applied couldn’t even type said a lot about the expectations of the city’s youth these days.

Brendan took the stairs to the first floor and stepped out of the back of the office building, making his way to the recycling bin. Just before he turned the corner, he heard a voice speaking hurriedly and with no small amount of fear.

“Philip, please. I know you’re angry, but none of it’s true. I never touched him. Never let him touch me. I’m yours, you know I am.”

Brendan paused, listening intently to the argument, resigned to avoiding any interruption while he let the couple’s drama play out. He didn’t hear any response, but the voice spoke again. This time, he was pleading.

“No, Philip. I’d never. You’ve got to believe me. They’re lying. They’ve always hated us together. Can’t you see that they’re trying to break us apart? He kissed me, and I pushed him away…”

Brendan swallowed. Uh-oh. He did not see this playing out nicely. No alpha—and it had to be an alpha this man was talking to—would react well to the admission that their love had been kissed by another.

“Philip, no!”

At the man’s strangled cry of fear, Brendan leaped around the corner, ready to act. An omega stood there, facing him, one arm thrown up as if to protect his face. Otherwise, the alleyway was empty.

The stranger looked as shocked as Brendan, stumbling back a step as he let his arm fall.

“Who are you talking to?” Brendan couldn’t see any sign of a phone, let alone another person.

“Um, no one.”

The omega took another step backward, eying him warily.

“You know, talking to yourself is generally considered a bad sign,” he commented, taking a wide berth around the omega as he emptied his bag of recycling into the appropriate trash can.

“I wasn’t talking to myself,” the omega muttered.

As he turned back around, Brendan caught sight of a bag resting on the ground. There were a few stapled pages balanced on top.

“Then what are you doing?”

He already had a fairly good idea. The whole fourth floor of his building had been taken over for the morning by a theater company holding auditions. More than once, Brendan had wondered if the betas he’d been interviewing had taken a wrong turn.

“Just running some lines for the audition.” The omega’s cheeks turned pink, and he avoided Brendan’s eyes.

“The ones going on upstairs?” He jerked his head back toward the building.

“Yeah.”

“I think they’re done for the day. Closed up shop and headed out about twenty minutes ago.”

The man did look at him then, letting out a startled cry of dismay. “But they told me to come back at two.”

Brendan glanced at his watch. It was one-thirty.

“I guess they found what they were looking for already.”

The omega looked away again, but not before Brendan caught sight of tears glistening in his eyes. Damn it. If there was anything he hated, it was being around crying people.

“Maybe they’re coming back,” he tried to suggest. In his experience, once they packed up for the day, that was it.

“I guess there’s no harm in checking,” the omega said with a sigh. He grabbed his bag and turned toward the front of the building.

“The reception will be closed until two. Come on, I’ll let you in the back. If the signs are gone, we’ll know they’ve cleared out.”

The omega hefted his bag onto his shoulder and reluctantly followed Brendan around to the back entrance. As Brendan stepped inside, he glanced back in time to see the man stretch out a hand to catch the door. His sleeve pulled up to reveal a blue band. Huh.

Brendan gave the omega a closer look. Clean-shaven, neatly dressed, hair trimmed and styled. He gave him points for managing all that despite the obvious deficiencies of his living conditions. The band was worn by those living in the nearby omega hostel. Those places, no matter how hard people tried, were always risky. Constantly underfunded and overcrowded, with high levels of drug and alcohol use. New omegas, especially those who weren’t streetwise, were prey to alphas looking for vulnerable ones they could exploit. This omega appeared clean-cut and maybe a little naive. At a guess, he hadn’t been out on the streets long. Brendan wouldn’t like to see what would happen to him a few months down the line. Maybe he’d be one of the lucky ones who made it out. Or maybe he’d be just another statistic.

They took the elevator to the fourth floor, the omega’s foot tapping nervously on the ground as they made their slow way up.

“Think you’ll get the part?” he asked, hoping for the omega’s sake that he was wrong about the auditions being done.

“I doubt it. I can’t even get hired to wait tables.”

Brendan winced at the resignation in the omega’s voice. The elevator doors opened, sparing him the need to reply, but it was clear seconds later that his assertion had been right. The floor was empty; the only evidence of the theater’s brief incursion was some tape still stuck on the wall.

“You were right. They must have found what they were looking for.”

The omega’s voice was heavy with dejection as he stepped back into the elevator, his head down. Brendan followed, giving him as much space as possible in the cramped interior. A single tear dripped down the omega’s face and fell to the floor. Damn it.

The other man sniffled and scrubbed at his cheeks, turning his head away. Brendan got a good look at the band on the omega’s wrist—enough to see it was scuffed around the edges. He’d been at the hostel a while, then. Long enough to be desperate for a way out.

“You got some family to go home to?” If he’d come here chasing an acting dream, maybe it was time to let it go.

“No, no family,” the omega said woodenly. The lack of emotion in his voice made it clear this had been a question asked and answered many times. Either he didn’t have a family, or he was better off without them, even if it left him in a shithole like that hostel.

A terrible idea occurred to Brendan, but once he’d had it, he couldn’t seem to shake it. The elevator arrived on the first floor, and just as the doors opened, he spoke.

“Can you type?”

“Huh?” That got the omega’s attention alright. The young man turned to him, self-consciously swiping his fingers across his cheeks to hide the telltale signs of tears.

“Do you have a resume?” Yep, he really was going with it.

“Um, yeah.”

The omega dug a hand into his bag and pulled out an envelope, handing it over. Brendan drew out the folded resume, opening it to see a short but neatly typed recitation of the highlights of this omega’s life. Riley Summers. Twenty years old. Raised by the state. It didn’t say that, not obviously, but Brendan knew the telltale giveaways to look for. To most people, the frequent school changes might have suggested truancy or bad behavior. But to him these were more reminiscent of being shunted around the foster care system. Especially those last four years in the one place—that screamed group home.

“Diploma in secretarial studies. So you can type, then?”

The omega, Riley, shifted from foot to foot as he watched him. “Um, yeah. I mean, yes, sir.”

Brendan raised an eyebrow at that.

“We can forgo the titles. My name’s Brendan. Brendan Fairchild.” He passed the resume back to Riley with one hand and held out the other.

“Riley Summers,” the omega said, taking his hand in a tentative grip. Brendan gave it a firm shake and let go, reaching for his ID and PI license.

“I’m a private investigator. I work out of the third floor. And I’m in need of an assistant. Been interviewing all morning without any luck. Think you might be interested?”

It was an awful idea. Maybe the worst idea he’d ever had, and yet he plowed forward anyway.

“Um… I don’t know if I’m qualified,” Riley admitted, shrugging shyly.

“Judging by that resume, you’re more qualified than anyone I’ve seen so far today. Come up to my office. I’ll explain a little more about the role and what I do, and let’s see if this would be a good fit for both of us.”

If Riley had any sense at all as an omega, he’d be running out the elevator door and not looking back. But desperation did funny things to people, so Brendan wasn’t all that surprised when the omega merely gave a quiet agreement to his suggestion. “Okay.”

He seemed to rethink that when the elevator reached the third floor. Brendan stepped out, but Riley hesitated.

“Why would you want me and not a beta?” he asked. “Aren’t omegas more trouble than they’re worth?”

It sounded like something he’d been told often. Probably from everyone else he’d handed his resume to over the previous few weeks. What had he said? That he couldn’t even get someone to hire him to wait tables. It didn’t help that he had no stable home and his resume had an air of juvenile delinquent to it, no matter how untrue that might be.

“Alpha, beta, omega—it doesn’t matter to me, so long as they can do the work. And actually, having an omega around can be an advantage.”

Riley’s eyes went a little wide at that, and Brendan inwardly winced when he realized how it sounded.

“Now and then, when I’m investigating someone, it helps to have an omega by my side. It opens doors I wouldn’t get through otherwise and throws off people’s suspicion.”

“What do you normally do in those cases if you don’t have an omega?” Riley looked interested but skeptical.

“I’ve used betas in the past. Asked an omega friend of a friend to help out. Even hired someone once. That did not work out the way I’d planned.” He’d paid money to an escort who’d been far more interested in getting into Brendan’s pants than acting the part he’d needed him to play.

Riley looked torn, eying the elevator buttons like he wanted to make an escape.

“You like playing roles, right? This is another way to do that. Plus, I’ll pay you a bonus for any role you take on. Overtime for every hour over what you’re contracted for.” He stepped back from the elevator. “The choice is yours. If you’re interested, let’s go.”

The doors started to close, and still Riley hadn’t moved. At the last second, he stuck his hand out and the doors opened again. He stepped out, seesawing between excitement and skepticism.

“I want to hear more.”