Nikolai Barinov tore his gaze away from the numbers on his computer screen to check who’d just come in the entrance to Everyone’s Mechanic. His professional smile changed to a genuine one when he saw his cousin Sergei standing in front of him.
“Hello, Nikolai. How’s my favorite cousin?”
“Uh-oh. You only call me your favorite cousin when you want something.”
Sergei placed a hand on his chest. “I’m wounded.”
Nikolai raised one blond eyebrow at Sergei, then sat back and waited. The smile fell from Sergei’s mouth.
“What happened to your face?”
“What?” Shit, can he see the bruise? I thought the makeup covered it.
“You have a bruise on your cheek. What the hell happened?”
“Would you believe I ran into a door?”
Sergei widened his stance and put his hands on his hips, giving Nikolai his sternest stare. Nikolai rushed to explain. “Seriously, I saw Brandon going into your building yesterday afternoon as I was leaving, and I was so busy watching him that I ran right into the doorjamb.” Nikolai grimaced. “Not my finest moment, to be sure.”
Sergei’s stern expression morphed into an amused one and he coughed into his hand while avoiding eye contact with Nikolai. When their gazes met, Sergei lost the fight and laughed until he had tears running down his face and had to lean against the counter to support himself.
Nikolai shook his head in disgust at his cousin’s antics. “Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. You do realize you probably just got grease on your suit, right?” Working at a garage had its advantages, including the apartment he was able to rent above the business, but spic and span cleanliness was not one of those perks. Oh, the owner, Kirk, ran a tight ship and everything was as clean as possible, but it was still a garage. It was Nikolai’s turn to laugh as Sergei looked down at himself to search for dirt on his custom suit.
Sergei took a swipe at his jacket before shrugging and looking back at Nikolai.
“So, why are you here?”
“I need a favor.”
“I figured.” Nikolai made a rolling hand gesture to try to encourage Sergei to spit it out.
Sergei’s forehead furrowed. “I’m a little concerned, though, that you won’t be able to complete this favor without causing yourself bodily harm.”
“I need you to work with Brandon on a project.”
“You need me to work with your personal assistant, Brandon Whitaker, on a project? But he hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you.”
“Doesn’t know what to do with me then?”
Sergei shrugged one of his massive shoulders as Nikolai wished for the thousandth time that he had gotten some of Sergei’s six-foot-plus height and size. Alas, he was stuck at a measly, svelte five-foot-seven. “I can’t deny that. You confuse him, for sure, but he does respect you. He loves the reports you set up for him while you were interning last summer.”
“He was shocked I could even do spreadsheets and reports, though. He thinks I’m an idiot.”
“Only because you turn into a nervous klutz whenever he is around. A doorjamb? Really?”
“What? There’s something about him that does it for me—brown hair, brown eyes, six feet tall, those broad shoulders… Yum. What’s not to love? I know intellectually that nothing will ever come of it. Have you seen the women who come to meet him for lunch?”
“Yes, I have, and I also know none of them last more than a month.”
“He’s not gay. The number of women he takes out makes that very clear.”
“I don’t think he’s as straight as he pretends to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he watches you when you aren’t looking.”
Nikolai waved his hand in the air. “He’s just trying to figure me out. As you said, I confuse him. He’s not a man who likes to be confused. He’s the man with a plan for everything.”
“Exactly my point—and I don’t think he planned for you.”
“Whatever. What is it you needed me to work on with Brandon?”
“I would like you guys to work on plans for an LGBTQ center—a place where teens can come to either hang out or to get help, counseling, the whole nine yards. I want to offer classes as well—financial ones like budgeting and checkbook balancing as well as cooking and other basics. Maybe you can talk to some of the instructors at that dojo you go to and see if they would teach some self-defense classes too. The statistics for homeless youth—especially gay homeless youth—are scary, and I want to do something about it. It will be open to all but mainly to support the community.”
Nikolai was getting excited about the project. The center was something that was desperately needed there in Raleigh and elsewhere. He felt a slight twinge at Sergei’s casual dismissal of his time spent at the dojo. He wasn’t sure what his family thought he did there three-to-five days a week, but obviously it wasn’t learning any of the skills they taught, but that was partly his fault as he’d never told them when he’d received his different color belts. It was something private for him.
He was snapped out of his ponderings by the ding of the door sensor as someone else came in. He opened his eyes wide when he realized it was Brandon. He went to stand, the chair slipped back too fast and he almost fell, catching himself with a hand on the desk, just in time. Nikolai flushed with mortification as his cheeks got hot and he ducked his head, pretending to search for something on his desk in a sad attempt to seem like he had everything under control. Snagging a pencil, Nikolai pulled his long, wavy blond hair up in a messy bun on top of his head, and shoved the pencil in to secure it.
He glanced up after a moment to find Sergei staring at him in exasperation then turning to greet Brandon. “Hey, Brandon, thanks for giving me a minute with Nikolai before coming in. Nikolai is really excited about the project.”
Nikolai took a deep breath to compose himself then turned to face Brandon. “Nice to see you again, Brandon. This should be an interesting project. I look forward to working with you on it.” There. That wasn’t too psycho.
“Yeah. It will be a challenge, but I think we can come up with something great. I know you’re pretty busy with school and here, so when do you think we can meet to get started?”
“Well, I’ve already successfully defended my thesis, so my load at school is pretty light. I’m just waiting on graduation now.”
Sergei’s gaze snapped back to Nikolai. “Wait! When did that happen?”
“A couple of weeks ago,” Nikolai said with a shrug.
“Why didn’t you say anything? We should have celebrated.”
“Well, first you were in London at that big conference, then you hibernated with your hubby for the weekend and didn’t come to family dinner. It just kind of got lost in the shuffle.”
“Did your family go to your thesis defense, at least?” Sergei asked, frowning.
Nikolai couldn’t quite hide his grimace. “Um, your parents and Sasha came. My parents couldn’t make it. It wasn’t a big deal.” Nikolai didn’t even believe himself, so he knew Sergei didn’t.
“We’ll discuss this later.”
“Nothing to discuss.”
Sergei scowled at him. “There’s a lot to discuss, but first, do you definitely want in on this project?”
“Of course, I’m in. It’s important.”
“Agreed. So, when are you available to meet on it?”
“I have sessions at the dojo tonight and tomorrow morning, but I’m free after that. I know tomorrow’s Saturday, so we can postpone to next week if you guys need to.”
“Saturday afternoon works for me. What about you Brandon?”
“Yep. That works. I have somewhere to be in the morning as well, but I will be free about noon.”
“Great. How about we meet at my house then? I’ll feed you all lunch.”
“Sounds good,” Brandon and Nikolai answered together. Nikolai could only shake his head at himself after the bolt of arousal that went through his system when he made brief eye contact with Brandon’s brown-eyed gaze. He hazarded a small smile at the man, but Brandon didn’t respond, instead breaking the connection and turning toward Sergei. “Okay. Glad that’s settled. We need to get moving. We have that meeting at two o’clock with the planning commissioner about your new property on Fayette Street.” Brandon then turned and walked out of the door after a head nod to Nikolai.
“Plan to stay after the meeting to continue our discussion about your thesis defense.”
“It really wasn’t a big deal, Sergei. You know my family doesn’t understand or approve of me and my ways.” Nikolai put air quotes around the ‘my ways’, as it was a common phrase from his mother. His mother and father were not the warm and supportive parents that Sergei’s were. Nikolai’s father was very much about toxic masculinity and a woman knowing her place in the world. Nikolai did not fit his father’s definition of a good son at all, so he was ignored—and that was fine with him. It really was, but Sergei never understood, mainly because Nikolai’s father was always on his best behavior whenever Sergei was around, thinking he could use his connection with Sergei for his own needs in some way.
The truth was—and one his father would never admit—that Nikolai’s father was both scared and jealous in equal parts of Sergei’s power. He felt that as the older Barinov male, he should have been the one to have the influence and wealth that Sergei had accumulated and that Sergei should seek his council like he was smarter, because of his age. Sergei was actually one of the most intelligent people Nikolai knew, and that was saying something because Nikolai had been going to school forever.
Sergei was also one of the hardest-working people he knew, with Brandon being right up there with him. Brandon was truly Sergei’s right-hand man, and Nikolai wasn’t saying that because he had a major crush on the man either. Part of the reason he had such a crush on him was because he worked so hard and was so dedicated to Sergei. Nikolai’s father was lazy and dedicated only to himself. Sad, but true.
Sergei interrupted his thoughts, and Nikolai scrambled to remember what they were talking about. “Not. The. Point. I don’t care how your parents feel about things. This is about communication between you and me. We will discuss it Saturday. Da?”
“Da, Sergei,” Nikolai conceded grudgingly.
“Good. I will see you tomorrow.” Sergei then followed Brandon out of the door.