The world gleamed in soft focus through jet lag and a prodigious high, but the dead bolt felt cold and smooth, reassuringly solid. Unlike the rest of the suite’s fancy trappings, it was meant to keep the world out, not Asher in. He turned it with a loud snick
As the heavy mahogany door opened, panic seized him. What if a psychopath was on the other side? He hadn’t looked through the peephole.
The Artificial Hearts’ manager, Crawford Hanlon, kept warning Asher he couldn’t act like a normal person anymore. Even five-star hotels like this one had security problems. How many times in the last year had he been stalked?
But it was hard to remember he was famous now. The unshakable dissociation of living someone else’s life rendered him strangely passive. Sighing in acceptance of his fate, he drew the door inward and faced his visitor.
Instead of a serial killer, a vision: beautiful and strange, the stuff of dreams. Vivid indigo eyes shone beneath perfect arches of black eyebrow. They peeked from behind a shock of chin-length, dyed-blue hair that only reinforced the depth of that gaze. It roamed over him, sizing him up.
“So you’re him. You look different up close. More human.”
After spending eight months of the last year in the UK, Asher recognized that accent as public school English—crisp, languid, snobby.
.”Asher’s own accent was almost the polar opposite, so liquid there was no mistaking his
Louisiana Creole for whatever textbook French Leo had probably learned at his fancy boarding academy.
The wiry Englishman lifted a black-manicured hand, pressed it to Asher’s bare chest between the folds of his wide collar, and shoved him back so the shorter man could follow.
Asher stumbled back until his shoulders struck the wall, making room. The unmistakable strength of that compact body simultaneously worried and aroused him. A misspent adolescence’s vestigial fears held more influence moment by moment than Asher’s recent ascent to something resembling power.
He couldn’t breathe. His rib cage shrank, lungs crushed with the weight of hope and anxiety. A question burbled and died on his fuzzy, unwieldy tongue. He stared, eyes open wide enough to burn.
That fine-boned, milky hand rested over Asher’s heart, six points of heat that drew Asher deep within his own body. It settled him. Something within him pushed up and out to meet that touch, gathering beneath his skin until his heartbeat vibrated every inch. Asher’s racing pulse chased a flush across the half-clothed expanses of his skin.
The hand on Asher’s chest slid upward to cradle the side of his throat, calloused thumb resting against his jugular as if to check his heart rate. “Goodness, you are
excitable. Then again, I expect it’s part of your charm.”
Seeming possessed of its own will, that hand hardly counted as part of its owner. Then it retreated, becoming once more merely mortal as the man turned to close the door behind him.
It had been foolish to smoke that much dope in the bath. No one warned him he’d have a visitor. Why hadn’t someone mentioned he shouldn’t get comfortable? No one expected him to keep track of his own schedule.
There must have been some miscommunication this morning while he was flying back to New York City from the Ellen
taping in Los Angeles.
After months of curated face time with fans and chaperoned visits to talk show sets, disorientation surrounded the simple act of being alone with an attractive stranger. Nothing felt real, but Asher was certain parts of this were happening. The trick was to discern which parts.
Maybe the touching was fantasy. It made no sense for a gorgeous man to walk in and feel him up. While it wasn’t unheard of for Hanlon to arrange female companionship for the band, he’d never risk this kind of damage to Asher’s heartthrob image. The unfounded gay rumors surrounding Scar, the lead guitarist, were bad enough. Even if Hanlon discovered Asher’s secret—and he would, given enough time—he’d never sanction a male groupie.
Licking dry lips, Asher squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, the man hadn’t disappeared, and he was still close enough to radiate body heat. Frowning, Asher tried to find words. They scattered like spilled beads, shooting across his mind in tiny, colorful bursts. He swallowed and pulled it together.
That hand pushed toward him again, this time under the auspices of its owner. “Leo Harpstedt, front man and lead guitarist of Antihero Cage Fighting League.”
Asher tilted his head to one side, took Leo’s hand, gave it too brief a squeeze, and dropped it. His palm felt blistered from the contact. Asher wanted it to burn him alive, but he couldn’t let this become that
“Don’t talk much, do you?” Leo laughed and slipped past Asher, body brushing his with a casual ease that only made Asher more aware of his state of dishabille.
“I talk, me.”
“And with such a charming accent.” Leo offered Asher a sidelong smile too brief to convey anything but amusement. “So have you even heard of my band, big shot?”
The other man walked toward the living room as if at home. Asher followed, racking his brain. He recalled a quote in this month’s Paste
magazine bearing Leo’s name, and smiled as the pieces fit together. “New Wave Revival influenced by Interpol, the Libertines, and me?”
“Well done, you. For the bonus credit, can you name one of my songs?” Grinning, Leo sprawled across the massive sofa. He hooked athletic, denim-clad legs over one overstuffed leather arm. Creamy, lightly haired skin flashed from artful rips in expensive jeans.
Asher’s brain went off-line as he stared at the inner thigh revealed as Leo shifted farther down the couch.
Is he wearing drawers?
“Ash? Hey, mate. Eyes up here.”
Asher’s skin heated with embarrassment. Total stranger, probably not hitting on me, definitely not sanctioned.
What was he thinking? The last thing he needed was to wreck this tour before it began. Everyone was counting on him to keep them out of the trailer park for good.
“You’re properly wasted, aren’t you?” Leo’s head rocked on the cushion with the force of his laughter until bright tresses splayed across the leather. Leo’s mouth shone a deep pink, and the upper lip was almost as thick as the bottom one. Each word he shaped only accentuated his kissability.
That one’s dangerous.
Asher surprised himself by getting out a coherent question. “You’re here why?”
Leo took a moment to parse Asher’s words, seeming to translate the singsong elision of the bayou into Received Pronunciation. Then he shrugged. “Hanlon sent me to have a little chat. Said we’d get on famously. I’m opening for you this leg of the tour.”
A surge of arousal shot through Asher at the thought of Leo opening
for him. He averted his gaze. “You should go.”
Leo’s huff of amusement simultaneously irritated and charmed Asher. The couch squeaked. Coffee and night-blooming flowers filled Asher’s senses as Leo brushed past him on his way to the door. “Well, it was a pleasure, I’m sure. Very informative. Collaborative, even. See you around, big shot. Try not to OD.”
Asher held his breath until the door clicked shut. Then he sank onto the cushions, letting Leo’s residual warmth seep into his body. He needed that, the sense of connection. Without it, the past five minutes were a hallucination, and he needed them to be real. His loneliness was too much to bear.
With Leo’s scent in his nostrils and the leather radiating the other man’s heat, Asher took a chance. It was rare he could get off alone. His fantasies detoured ugly places and left him shaken and flaccid.
This one, though…
Asher wanted him enough to obsess.
He closed his eyes and spread his thighs, then pushed aside the flap of his robe. He wrapped his fingers, still tingling, around his shaft, imagined Leo’s full lips at the head, those vibrant eyes looking at him up the length of his body, and gave himself over to folly.
* * * *
, there he is.”
Asher squinted from behind dark lenses as he stepped into the practice room. Strangers crowded the rented space. Their English-accented murmurs suggested the meeting was Antihero inclusive.
A sick knot formed in his gut. What if he gave himself away in front of everyone?
As soon as the thought processed, Asher dropped his gaze, not wanting to look at Leo, wherever he might be.
Unfortunately, when Asher’s gaze dropped, Leo caught it. The blue-haired guitarist was sprawled on the ground by the drum kit, Allen wrench in hand, as he adjusted the tremolo on his Stratocaster. His button-front flannel shirt hung from one shoulder like a drunken girlfriend.
Asher’s shades were a nonissue. Leo stared right into his brain. There was no fighting it.
The other man said nothing with his tongue and everything with that smirk. Asher noted that Leo wore glasses now too—specs, not shades. Thick, black frames accentuated fine cheekbones and a strong jaw. He must have been wearing contacts earlier.
He needed to stop noticing Leo. He needed not to think about how hard he came inside that man’s fantasy ass.
“Afternoon, sleepyhead.” Scar, lead guitarist for the Artificial Hearts, elbowed Asher, punctuating the greeting. “Antihero wanted to collaborate on some material.”
Asher shoved Scar with a shoulder and turned toward him for safety. His voice emerged as a faraway drawl, embarrassingly swamp rat. “Play me what y’all got.”
Everyone except Leo and Asher grabbed their instruments. The half-seen Artificial Hearts drummer, Lander, sitting on the throne behind Leo counted them down. “One, two, one-two-three-four!”
The beat began low and harsh, thump–thump
on the bass drum from one side, rat-a-tat
on the toms. Asher’s muscles twitched as the rhythm took hold. It snaked through his neural pathways and made his fingers form chords and slap imaginary bass strings.
Antihero’s bass player picked out his notes in a sloppy, modern style. Asher grunted irritation and shook his head but didn’t say anything. Then Asher’s bandmate Johnny layered his rhythm guitar over the bass, coming in with a thick melody more metal than anything Asher could convince the Hearts to try.
When Scar’s lead and Antihero’s rhythm came in on the next bar, the wall of sound hit Asher like an irresistible force. He felt naked without his instrument. He needed to play—to be part of this—like he needed to keep breathing.
Leo’s sexiness forgotten, Asher made for the far wall where his five-string J bass hung from her hook. He flicked on amps and pedalboard, adjusted knobs, and propped his ass on the stool beside the bass cabinet. With the maple curve of his baby pressed snug against his thigh, Asher felt the creative tide drag him under.
He focused on Lander, watching his drummer for the right moment to plunge in. As Lander attacked the snare, Asher popped a meaty series of notes, palm muting the high end near the bridge to give it punch and differentiate his bass line from the brighter, more distinct notes coming from Antihero’s P bass. Once Asher felt the lines meld into a rational whole, he closed his eyes and let the music pour forth.
A foot tapped against his, sharp and purposeful. Then a voice that could only be Leo’s soared over the previously wordless song.
Asher opened his eyes. Close beside him, Leo stood with mic in hand and vocalized without lyrics for a measure before pointing the mic at Asher.
Inside him, something snapped. He was tired of performing like a circus monkey. Tired of carrying more than his share of the burden of success. Tired of wealthy people with brainy accents making him feel like a backwater peon.
More than anything, he was tired of the knowledge that he wasn’t who everyone said he was.
Words slid around the melody like angry tendrils choking the tune and morphing it from glitter metal jam to revolutionary anthem. “We are the dogs of war. We are the droids you’re lookin’ for. Faceless minions of the system, we are the voices; you don’t wanna listen…”
Asher half screamed, half crooned lyrics he invented on the fly. Leo shared the mic, and his impromptu background vocals reinforced the menacing sensuality the song took on line by line.
Asher’s baritone and Leo’s tenor tangled and broke apart only to entwine again as Asher crafted the bridge. Leo lent perfect support before Asher even knew what he needed.
By the time the last note stopped buzzing in Asher’s ears, he knew they had a hit. The lyrics wouldn’t matter; the delivery clinched it. There was magic there. Real feeling, not some bullshit penned to follow a trend or appease the producers’ desires for marketability.
Leo leaned against Asher’s side as they caught their breaths. The proximity of that athletic body stirred Asher’s senses. With his ears overstimulated, his eyes traced the fat beads of perspiration dripping from Leo’s jawline. His nostrils flared at the expensive aftershave mingled with musky sweat. He could almost taste the salt of Leo’s skin.
With every other sense satiated, Asher’s fingers curled inward with the profound craving to touch Leo everywhere he could persuade the man to allow. Instead, Asher shoved him away. He hung his bass on her hook before standing and clearing his throat.
“Y’all write that shit down?”
“Got it.” Hanlon smiled too widely for Asher’s comfort. The man reminded him of a con artist, always watching Asher as if he knew things about him that he couldn’t possibly know. “But you aren’t going yet, are you, Ash? You just got here!”
Asher looked to his bandmates. All three stared back, weighing him with their gazes. It was a dick move to leave, but a raw nerve ran through his center. Asher didn’t want to be in company when he lost what was left of his detachment.
Shrugging, he toed off the power to his pedalboard and leaned down to flick off his amps. “Was a late night.”
“Right,” Lander replied, voice tight. “Late Show
. We were there too, y’know. I guess you’re just way more worn out, what with getting swept into after-parties and management talks while we’re waiting for you to show back up. It’s hard work being so special. Talking to the host like the fancy folks. Did you keep the mug? Or did you lose it between the interview and when you finally dragged ass back to the hotel?”
Asher shot the drummer a dangerous look and started forward, ready to yank him from behind the drum kit. They’d never been friends, and he didn’t think it would hurt anything to put his fist through the burly man’s teeth. Lander might have started the band, but he wasn’t untouchable.
Leo stepped between them, compact frame laughably inadequate as a barrier to violence. “Let’s go outside, Ash.”
For a moment, Asher heard the statement as a come-on. His lips curled, almost a smile; he’d follow Leo anywhere. Then he realized this wasn’t a prospective lover angling for action. This was a weary bartender urging a belligerent drunk to go home.
A flood of vertigo swept Asher against a wall. “Fuck off.”
Leo’s tentative hand squeezed his biceps. “Let’s take a walk, yeah?”