The show went on, the other two forgetting about the dancer’s odd behavior. Lee couldn’t. The performance was almost over, and Lee was sincerely grateful it was coming to a close. He wanted to get back to his hotel room, alone, to collect his thoughts, which were currently a mixed-up jumble of disbelief and wariness. He knew who the dancer was, all right. Coincidence? He hoped so. To consider that it might not be unnerved him.
It was obvious Gevan had had no idea he’d be there tonight and hadn’t been the one to send the tickets. Because that was, unmistakably, Gevan Sinclair, the younger brother of his childhood best friend. His best friend who, when they were thirteen, was taken by a stranger, never to be seen again. Lee had seen it happen.
Stefan had long been presumed dead. When he was older, Lee came to understand why it was Stefan who had been taken, not him. With his blond hair and blue eyes, Stefan had been beautiful. He and Lee had been best friends since they were five, and though Stefan had become popular and sought after by everyone, he’d never left Lee behind. Where Stefan went, Lee went. That’s how it was.
Lee shouldn’t have been there that day. His mother had been too hungover to take him to his guitar lessons, so he’d decided to ride his bike instead. Never mind the guitar studio had been almost a thirty-minute bike ride away. He hated to miss his lessons.
When he’d passed the park and seen Stefan playing with his dog, a little mutt named Sparks, he’d stopped to talk to him. The rest of what had happened was just choppy, fractured images in his mind. He’d tried over the years to piece it all together but no longer honestly knew what was real, what was imagined, what had been put into his head by others. He had continued on but looked back in time to see a man talking to Stefan. The man’s face was a blur to him; he’d been unable to come up with enough detail to get a good description. That had plagued him ever since, his inability to remember. The man had been holding Sparks, then undid his leash and sent him off.
The man saw Lee coming back and came after him. His bike was turned the wrong way, and he was carrying his bass guitar, unwieldy while walking, near impossible to carry on a bike. He tripped over his bike when he tried to turn it, but he couldn’t drop his precious bass. He’d had to beg and borrow and, yes, even steal quarters from his mom’s purse to get enough money to buy it.
Lee didn’t remember anything else of that night.
When he’d woken sometime later, he was in the park, his bicycle and bass gone. Bruised, cut, ribs broken, his left eye nearly swollen shut, he’d pushed himself to his feet and stumbled toward the street, where he’d collapsed. Next time he woke up, he was in the hospital, alone. The days after he’d finally gone home were a blur. He couldn’t remember much except for the endless questions he hadn’t been able to answer. When it was clear Stefan would not be found, Lee had wanted to die. Without Stefan, life was unbearable.
Lee closed his eyes and pushed the memory away. He’d not gone down that path in many years, but seeing Gev again brought it all back. Or most of it. The pain, the confusion, the overwhelming loss. It tore through him still.
“Lee? You okay?”
He opened his eyes, realized Nick and Mutt were both looking at him oddly. He took a deep breath and pushed his reactions back into their box in his mind. “Fine. Sorry. Just a little tired.”
Nick yawned gracelessly. “Had enough?”
“Sure, let’s leave,” he said. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see Gev dance again. “I’m hungry.”
Nick rubbed his stomach. “Me too. It’s not too late; maybe we can find a McDonald’s or something.”
Mutt groaned at that. “Please. I’d rather have a steak, myself.”
“I thought you wanted pancakes,” Lee said, not really caring where they went, as long as it was out of there.
“Oh hell yeah.”
Lee stood, but at that moment an usher walked into their box. “Lee Nelson?”
Lee stilled. “I’m Lee Nelson.”
The usher waved him out. Mutt and Nick immediately followed. “What is it?” Nick said.
She handed Lee an envelope. “This is for you.” It wasn’t anything remarkable, only a regular white envelope.
“Open it,” Nick said.
He slid it open, his heart beating faster. Briefly he wondered if he should be careful about prints. Too many episodes of Criminal Minds
, he supposed.
He removed the piece of paper that was inside. The handwriting was unfamiliar, but the message somehow didn’t surprise him.
Lee handed it to him. Nick moved under a light so he could see better. “‘Dressing room ten. Gev.’” Nick handed back the note, then repeated, “Gev. That dancer.”
Mutt said, “It was you he recognized, then.”
The usher interrupted. “If you’ll follow this hallway, there’s a red door at the end. Open it, and tell the guard your name. He’ll know you’re expected.” The usher stopped Nick and Mutt. “Not you.”
Lee stiffened. “They’ll come with me.”
He hadn’t realized it until that second, but he really wasn’t up to facing Gev alone. Yet he realized, as the usher hesitated, then walked briskly off, that the second he turned to face Nick, there would be questions. Lots of questions.
He wasn’t wrong about that.
“What’s going on, Lee? How do you know him? Why the shock and surprise? What--”
Mutt laid a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Let the man think. He’s in shock, like you said.”
Nick looked at Lee. “Sorry. You know me.” He touched Lee’s arm. “Lee?”
Lee tucked the note back into the envelope, folded it, and stuck it in his back pocket. He wasn’t sure how much to tell them nor how long they had. He didn’t want to say anything here, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The box was secluded, but with all the music and dancing going on--a rousing number, from the sound of it--that wasn’t the place to go.
“If you don’t want to say...” Nick said, his words encased by a please-tell-me sigh.
“No. It’s all right.”
“The dancer, Gev?” At Lee’s nod, Mutt went on. “He obviously had no idea you were coming.”
Lee took a few steps toward the other side of the hall. There were a few people around but not many. That was good. “I had no idea he was here, either.”
“Well, who is he?” Nick demanded.
Lee closed his eyes for a moment, then decided to tell them the easy stuff. Delving deeper was impossible. He opened his eyes, ran a hand through his hair. Hell. He looked at Nick, the singer’s eyes dancing with curiosity. No avoiding it now, but the words--how to find the right words? Make them come out when they’d been trapped for too many years? Articulating the first seemed impossible.
Nick looked like he was about to burst. Lee took a deep breath. “His brother was a childhood friend of mine. That’s how I recognized him. He hasn’t changed much.” He took another deep breath, looking at Nick now.
Nick stilled, his normally animated face going intentionally bland.
Lee looked away. It would make saying what he was about to say easier. “When we were thirteen--I think Gev was ten, maybe eleven--Stefan disappeared.”
Nick flinched. “Oh, God, no. That’s horrible. Did he run away? Did they find him?”
Lee didn’t say anything for a moment. Couldn’t through the lump in his throat. He shoved it angrily aside. He had no intention of ever admitting the full truth of what Stefan’s disappearance had done to him.
Nick’s hand squeezed his arm. He hadn’t realized Nick was touching him. He cleared his throat. “No. He didn’t run away. They never found him.”
Nick’s eyes went blank, then darkened in the dim hallway light. “You were there?”
“I was. I wasn’t the target, though. I happened on the whole thing accidentally. The man saw me, and...I blacked out. There’s a lot I don’t remember.”
“Oh, God, were you okay?”
Lee snorted softly. No. Hell no. He hadn’t been okay since.
Mutt crossed his arms over his broad chest. “He wanted Stefan.”
Lee cleared his throat, relieved when he almost sounded normal. “He played every day in the park, exercising his dog. He was teaching him obedience. I was going to guitar lessons when I saw him. The man had picked up his dog.”
“It must’ve been terrible for you,” Nick said, reaching for Lee’s hand and squeezing it. Nick was the only person he’d ever let do that. Guilt stabbed him when he tried to pull away. Nick held tighter.
“I’m sorry I never told you, Nick.”
Nick squeezed his hand once more before releasing it. “No. No, I’m not surprised you didn’t. Damn, when I was kidnapped, you must’ve been insane.”
Lee smiled. “A little, yes.”
“Never caught, I assume,” Mutt said.
“No. Never caught. Stefan’s presumed dead.”
Mutt stroked his chin, his expression thoughtful. “So, now tickets enticing you to meet with Gev were delivered to you. Not from Gev, who obviously was shocked as hell to see you. Do you keep in touch with authorities? His family?”
“No. It’s been too long. His family moved on, I guess.”
“What happened to you after, Lee?” Nick asked.
“Moved away, poured myself into my music. Got into trouble a lot.”
“Believe it or not, yes.
A dreamy look came over Nick’s face. “Yeah. And then you found me and Brandon.”
Lee took a deep breath. “Yes. You have no idea how much I needed you guys back then.”
Nick punched him in the arm with surprising force. “No, we didn’t! Geesh, man, you could’ve told us. We never knew--” He cringed when Lee rubbed his arm. “Sorry about that.” To Mutt he said, “I can’t believe I did that.”
Lee shook his arm out. For a small guy, Nick had a hell of a lot of force. And he’d needed that smack anyway. “No problem. Actually, I might ask you to do that again. It helps clear my head.”
At that moment, people started to come out of the theater.
“Over,” Nick said, then jerked his head toward the door they’d been told to go through. “Ready for this?”
Lee headed for the door. “Ready as I ever will be.”
Mutt stopped him. The bodyguard’s casual demeanor from earlier in the evening was gone. “I think it might be a good idea if you tell me all you can about the situation later. This might be nothing--”
“Or it could be the start of something bad,” Nick pointed out.
Lee gave his name to the guard, who let them pass into the back of the theater. They’d stepped into a different world now, one that was familiar in many ways but surreal in its differences.
Dancers rushed around, chattering and hugging each other over a job well done. The theater’s musty smell faded, replaced by the scents of sweat and old flowers and, he swore, french fries. The male dancers had stripped off their tops, their well-toned chests gleaming in the backstage lights. Quite a feast for the eyes, one Lee would’ve enjoyed in different circumstances.
“Great job, everyone!” a voice called out. It was the ballet director who had invited them for drinks. Margot. She saw them standing at the fringe and waved, though she looked slightly surprised to see them there. But she turned away when someone distracted her--two female dancers, half-undressed, sharing some private joke. One of them looked their way, smiling shyly. The whole atmosphere of celebration was familiar to Lee, but it was completely different too. The way the dancers moved--glided--along the floor, so subtle and graceful he didn’t have the words really to describe it. But as they took off their shoes, and costumes started to be replaced by street clothes, casualness took over, a loose ease as the atmosphere began to shift. They became normal people once again.
It was fascinating, but there was no time to dawdle around backstage and watch. “Room ten?” Mutt asked the group in general.
“This way,” one of the dancers said, smiling broadly at Mutt. He looked the bodyguard up and down, eyes dancing appreciatively. He was the one Gev had danced with. Lee wondered if Gev had danced again or if that was the only number he’d been in all evening.
“Thanks,” Nick said.
The dancer nodded at Lee. “You’re here to see Gev, right?”
Lee startled. “How’d you know?”
The dancer elbowed him. “You think I didn’t see that look he gave you? Man, you’re so his type.”
“Sorry, Lee’s not into boys,” Nick said. His gaze traveled down the dancer. “But I am.”
The dancer leaned forward like he was going to kiss Nick, then stopped and pulled back in mock suspicion. “Oh no. I know who you are! You’re taken.” He turned back to Mutt. “What about you, though, big boy?”
“He’s taken too,” Nick said with a pout, making the dancer laugh. He strode away, leaving Nick staring appreciatively after him, and Lee still wondering what the hell was happening here. That the dancer had caught Gev’s shock didn’t surprise him. He imagined his own face had looked exactly the same when their eyes had met. A poetic moment that could’ve been, if only, as the dancer had assumed, it had been a glance of desire.
More like a mutual glance of terror.
Lee was glad for the distraction, but now he wanted nothing more than to get on with whatever the heck was going to happen.
Leaving Nick and Mutt to follow, Lee walked down the hallway as indicated, looking for number ten. It was at the end of the hall, the door closed. He waited for the others to catch up, then took a deep breath and knocked.
Nothing happened for a moment. Then a terse “Come in” came through the door.
Lee opened the door and walked in, Mutt and Nick behind him. Gev sat on the dresser, wearing ratty sweats, chest bare, feet bare, his dark blond hair damp from dancing, Lee supposed. He looked as he had in the poster, same narrow beard, but without the makeup that made him appear older. Costumes were piled here and there, some hanging in colorful array on a hanging bar. The room was tiny, cell-like, but warm and bright. Lights surrounded the mirror, and assorted containers full of makeup were placed out. The room smelled like powder-scented sweat.
Gev had his arms crossed over his smooth bare chest and was watching them warily. An open bottle of wine sat next to him.
“Why are you here?” was the first thing Gev said, directed to Lee. He picked up the bottle.
“I have no idea,” Lee said. “I was sent the tickets anonymously.” He put one hand out. “This is Nick--”
“I know who he is. Who’s he
“Mutt. Nick’s bodyguard.” With that, Mutt leaned against the door.
Gev looked back at Lee. “Anonymously, huh?” He blinked, pressed his lips together. “When I saw you up there, I about shit onstage. Damn good thing I didn’t see you until I was through.”
He lifted the bottle and chugged some down, but his wince proved to Lee immediately he wasn’t usually a drinker. Couldn’t be, not with that body. The price would be too damn high.
“So you had no idea about this,” Lee said, though it was obvious Gev hadn’t.
“How could I?” He set the bottle down, reached for a shirt, and slowly pulled it on, stomach muscles rippling. Lee yanked his gaze away. “I can’t imagine who would send you those tickets. No one knows I know you.”
“No one knows I knew you either, Gev.”
Gev straightened at that, and for the first time the light was angled correctly and Lee could see Gev’s eyes. They looked scared before he schooled himself. As practiced as me.
Lee realized the dancer was taller than he’d thought, only a couple of inches shorter than Lee was. Not bulky but obviously strong. There was no shadow of the pudgy little boy he’d once been. It was amazing how he’d hurled himself into the air with such exquisite height, such incredible control. Almost like magic, the amount of power that took.
Lee tore his gaze away guiltily when Gev gestured to Nick, who had somehow refrained from saying anything. “What about them, then? You must’ve told them about my brother and what happened.”
“Only what they needed to know.”
Gev stared at him. “So, you think we’ve been set up to find each other for some twisted reason?” He turned to Mutt. “You a cop?”
“I retired from the force to provide services to Mr. Kilmain.”
Gev shifted his attention back to Lee, expression grim. “You had to have done something, said something.”
Lee tensed. “No. Maybe you mentioned me to one of your friends.”
“Hell no. They know nothing about me. And definitely not about you.” He gestured at Nick and Mutt. “You told them
“Not until I got your note.”
Nick stepped forward. “We’ve known five minutes, tops.”
Gev took another swig of wine as Lee bit back his growing anger. “Well, I sure as hell didn’t tell anyone.” Gev leaned toward Lee, his eyes hard. Angry. “I never wanted to see you again.” He turned away.
Lee clenched his hands into fists, but words failed him. Why not
? he wanted to demand, but hadn’t he been the same? “Then we’re done here.”
Gev waved his hand at Lee, dismissing him, and reached for a towel sitting on the table. “That’s right.”
Lee realized Gev was shaking. That stopped the retort he’d been about to hurl at Gev.
“Okay, guys, enough
,” Nick said, spreading his hands, his expression hard as he pushed between them in the tiny room. Lee stepped back, feeling like an idiot. “Calm down, okay? This is puzzling as hell, but why are you so angry at each other?”
Lee pressed his palms to his eyes. Hell. He dropped his hands, sighed. “Sorry. You’re right. This is”--he gestured toward Gev--“difficult. I haven’t talked about Stefan to anyone. In years. I don’t understand why this has happened now. All right?”
The fire in Gev’s eyes calmed. “You’re right, of course.” He rubbed the towel over his face, the back of his neck, then balled it up and threw it into a basket full of towels.
Nick said, “That’s better. You guys were kids when you saw each other last, right?” Lee nodded. “Well, then, you should be happy to see each other. I mean, it’s kinda awesome, right?”
He looked from Lee to Gev, back to Lee. Lee knew he was right.
But it was Gev who spoke first. “It’s a surprise to see you. A shock, really. You’re looking good, at least.” He smiled briefly. “Figures you’d come out so well. My brother always thought you were amazing.”
That skirted an edge that made Lee uncomfortable. “We were good friends.”
Gev’s eyes fixed on his. “I know. I know you were. You were always nice to the bratty little brother too.” He cocked his head. “I haven’t changed much, I’m afraid.”
Lee wouldn’t argue with that. He found himself smiling. Maybe it would be all right. Not such a disaster, seeing Gev again this one time.
Nick rubbed his hands together. “Okay, that’s better. See? Not so hard to be civil.”
“Nick,” Lee warned.
“Sorry, sorry. What do you ballet types usually do after a performance, Gev? You don’t mind if I call you Gev? You can call me Nick.”
“The ones that don’t have anywhere to be, they go out and get drunk if there isn’t a performance the next day. I don’t.”
“Don’t drink?” Nick indicated the wine bottle, one eyebrow raised. Gev turned it around--sparkling cider. “Well, how about you join us tonight? We’re tired, so don’t plan to be out late. We have a plane to catch in the morning.”
Gev slipped off his sweats. The move was so fast, Lee couldn’t stop himself from looking. Gev had only the barest of briefs on. Lee turned away quickly--to see Nick frowning at him. Lee stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Gev was oblivious. Lee figured the dancers were well used to changing in front of each other. Not that he himself was modest, but... Gev’s resemblance to his brother, faint as it was, was something he would have to figure out how to deal with, and soon, if they were going to spend some time together. He was glad his plane left in the morning. One evening would be all he could take.
“Sure, if y’all don’t mind. I’ve nothing to do tomorrow except visit my sister.”
“Nina?” Lee asked.
Gev broke out into a genuine smile, finally truly reminding Lee of the boy he had known. “Oh yeah, Nina’s married, has three whiny brats who are the most awesome kids in the world. They’re almost ten now. Triplets.”
“Ouch,” Nick said. “Wait. Ten?”
“Stepmom. Her husband’s first wife left him when they were two weeks old, hasn’t been seen since. The kids are great, and I am required to spoil them. I don’t mind. Nina feeds me enough food in one visit to last a week, though she doesn’t realize that’s practically all I eat. Ballet doesn’t pay much.”
“Our treat,” Nick said. “If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.” Gev grabbed his jacket, then paused. “My car’s here, though. Bring me back later?”
Mutt said, “No problem.”
“Thanks. So, Lee, do you think we were pulled together for a reason?”
Lee relaxed a little again. It didn’t feel as dire as it had earlier, now they’d actually started talking. “I don’t know, honestly. Mutt thinks there’s a possibility we’re being manipulated.”
“But why?” Nick asked. “The... Your brother disappeared years ago.”
“Because the bastard who took him and killed him is still out there,” Gev said, yanking open the door.
Lee stopped him. “They found him?”
Gev paused. “Found--” His eyes widened. “No, no, that’s not what I meant.” Lee let his breath out in a whoosh. “Far as I know, the case is still open.” Gev adjusted his jacket. “Mom still thinks he’s alive, though she doesn’t say so.”
Lee asked the next question before he realized what he was going to say. And immediately regretted it. “How is she?”
Gev looked at him, his eyes clear and hard. “Same as always. Let’s get out of here. Got a lot of catching up to do with Lee.”
Nick’s eyebrows rose. “Oh. Do you want us not to go, Lee? We can catch something somewhere el--”
“I don’t mind,” Gev said quickly.
Lee felt a little disappointed, which also made him a little confused, as the last thing he wanted to do was be alone with Gev and talk about the past. “Fine with me. Where should we go?”
“IHOP? I’m starving for some pancakes.”
Nick threw his hands up in the air. “Pancakes! A man after my own heart. Been craving ordinary drenched-in-syrup pancakes for ages.” He made a face. “Greg always insists on putting in wheat germ or protein powder or whatever supposedly makes them good for you. Completely ruins them.”
“Such a travesty,” Mutt said.
“Exactly.” Nick bolted out of the room.
“Is he always like this?”
Mutt grinned, placing a hand on Gev’s shoulder. “Wait until those carbs hit.”