Toby couldn’t get much further away from angelic, no matter how he played up his looks. Golden blond hair spilled over his shoulders in soft waves. He wore a silk shirt tonight, light and billowing. “A romantic’s shirt,”
he’d claimed as he stood in Carlin’s door, but the black leather pants and silver-studded boots gave the lie to ideas of romance. Toby wasn’t interested in serenades and poetry. He inspired wicked thoughts and hotter fantasies. He liked it that way.
He draped his arms around Carlin’s shoulders and straddled his left hip, one leg on either side. He rocked against Carlin in time with the beat and made a low purring sound of pleasure. No way could he be an angel. Angels didn’t tease.
“I met a guy who knows a guy. Surprise, baby.”
Carlin’s good mood disappeared as he tilted his head, tucking his ear out of reach when Toby went for an earlobe nip. Predictable, if uncomfortable. “Don’t.” He shrugged his shoulders to loosen the other man’s grip and sidestepped out of his embrace.
Toby heaved a sigh. “You know I’m just playing, Carlin.”
“Yeah. I know.” And that was the problem. Carlin pushed his hands into his pockets. He made an easy target, the odd man out among their group of friends. The only man not in a relationship. The only one who didn’t wear his preference of bedmate on his sleeve.
Not that he wanted that kind of attention, not from his friend. Friend, he reminded himself forcefully. There’d never be more between them. Not for lack of wanting. Not for lack of dreams.
But Toby didn’t have plans to settle down. He liked his freedom too much. He enjoyed letting his whim, and his eye, dictate his plans. He didn’t want to be tied to one man when a better might come tomorrow.
Carlin didn’t want to be anyone’s “just in case”.
Toby leaned against his shoulder. Sometimes the man did
behave. He didn’t hold, rub, or fondle. “Please don’t tell me I got all dressed up and you’re going to back out. You said you’d trust me. I told you I was going to blow your mind. You won’t let me blow anything --”
“No.” Carlin stopped him with a laugh. “Hell no. Are you kidding? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.” He wound his arm around Toby’s shoulders in turn and squeezed, felt him relax into the brief one-armed hug. “I owe you, man.”
Like flipping a switch, Toby’s mood brightened again. He beamed and slung an arm around Carlin’s waist, fingers knotting in the back of his jacket. “Least I could do, considering that you’d have birthed a small mammal if I threw a surprise party. Still, five years of gainful employment deserves more than a beer and a cupcake.” He tugged them both forward. “So come on, stop being chicken. Let’s celebrate.”
The bouncer at the door didn’t crack a smile as they strode up, despite Toby’s outrageous flirting. With a job like his, he’d have to be incorruptible. The Baseline boasted an exclusive crowd, maintaining its reputation as the
place to be seen. No doubt he’d heard it all, been tempted by the best offers, and learned to ignore even the greatest temptation.
Carlin had to admire his willpower. He definitely respected his size. No small man himself, Carlin still found himself looking up. Only a fool would tangle with a bruiser like this.
The big man smirked as if he’d heard the thought, then opened the door without saying a word. Toby murmured something and flashed another megawatt smile, but Carlin missed the details, abruptly lost in a wash of lights and noise.
Not noise. Music. Music Carlin could feel against his skin, in his heart and teeth. The baseline throbbed, vibrating through the air around the mass of bodies twisting and swaying below the balcony where they stood. Colored lights pulsed on and off, illuminating the dancers for an instant, then casting them into darkness again. Someone lifted his arms in a burst of yellow. The color reflected in the sheen on his partner’s shirtless chest as he wound his arms around the exposed torso and ducked his head to taste skin.
Carlin groaned. He couldn’t help it. The place was full of every indulgence he couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- allow himself. Hard-bodied men wearing just enough put themselves on display. Even from up here, Carlin could see slender, almost fey young things with their hips locked tight against partners with broad, muscled backs and thick, tattooed arms. It was a gay man’s paradise. A stereotype. A fantasy.
Toby bumped his shoulder again. “I want to dance,” he shouted over the music. “You coming with me?”
The dance floor beckoned. Carlin wanted to be down there, lost in a sea of bodies where it didn’t matter that he couldn’t dance to save his life. The music would move him, and he’d find a rhythm. He’d give in before the night ended, of that he had no doubt. He could already feel his hesitations melting away.
But for now, he shook his head and leaned close to be sure Toby could hear. “I want to look around awhile. I’ll find you.”
Toby grinned. “Can’t miss me,” he boasted, throwing his arms wide. The back of his hand bounced off a passing shoulder. The offended man turned back, paused, and grinned, showing off a gorgeous smile. Toby beamed back, and the stranger offered a hand. When Toby took it, they disappeared into the darkness of the club. Carlin was left alone without so much as a backward glance.
Shaking his head and squaring his shoulders, Carlin braced his hands against the balcony railing and took another look around. No point in wasting the opportunity.
Staircases angled down to the dance floor on either side of the balcony, but the Baseline had more to offer than a single space. It sprawled in all directions, taking up many floors. Carlin knew, from rumor and report, the light filtering through the windows that circled the floor above came from private suites that were rented out months in advance. Parties were planned, secret rendezvous occurred, and what happened behind closed doors never left the room. Those who talked guaranteed they’d never be invited back again, and that was a penalty no one wanted to pay.
He watched from above for another few moments, but there was too much energy in the air to be still for long. He drifted, moving with the flow of other traffic, and followed the crowd to another set of stairs. Open steelwork spiraled down to the lower level. When he reached the bottom, he found himself in a hallway with no visible exit to the dance floor. The music pounded and pulsed just on the other side of the wall, tempting and frustratingly out of reach.
All right, so he’d have to spend some time getting his bearings. He turned back toward the stairs, meaning to retrace his steps, but stopped for the man coming down toward him. Carlin wasn’t in a hurry. No need to crowd a stranger.
The other man slowed and lingered on the bottom step when he spotted Carlin. Even in shadow, Carlin could see him hesitate, then decide, shoulders squaring as he stepped down the final distance and drifted toward him. “Hiding or lost?”
Closer now, Carlin could tell he was smiling. Carlin ducked his head, mouth curling in response. “Just looking around. Figured I’d get where I wanted to go eventually.”
The stranger laughed, more breath than sound, and breezed even closer. Some sort of sweet spice wafted from his skin. “Want a tour guide?” He stood inside Carlin’s personal space without apology. He was shorter and narrower than Carlin, one of the throng of almost delicate boys. Another step closer and he lifted his hands, sliding them between Carlin’s jacket and shirt, long, thin fingers dancing over his ribs.
Don’t tense up,Carlin told himself, even as he caught the other man’s wrists and stopped him, careful not to grip too hard. “I’m not looking for company.”
The stranger laughed again. “Just want to watch, huh? That’s too bad. But I know what you need. Follow me.”
He stepped back, and Carlin let go, watching him turn with a stunning sort of grace. He glanced back once, then opened a door Carlin would never have found on his own.
A new song spilled out of the opening, clashing and conflicting with the beat from the dance floor. This one moved faster, too quick for dancing, Carlin thought, and people shouted, calling out words he couldn’t quite understand. He moved, though, curiosity urging him through the door.
The kid was a mind reader. This was exactly where he wanted to be.
Two dozen men sat at small round tables, faces and expressions lost in shadows and low light. Some sat alone, others in groups of two or three, but they didn’t bother talking to each other. Every man’s gaze followed the figure on stage.
As if there could possibly be anywhere else to look.
The dancer had already lost his shirt and left it crumpled on the floor behind him. The buckle on his chaps dangled open. The top few buttons of his jeans were undone, revealing some sort of dark fabric beneath, but the striptease wasn’t the thing that held Carlin’s gaze.
He’d seen performances like this before, in movies, flipping channels late at night, in privacy. As dancers went, the guy was good, but fancy footwork didn’t get Carlin worked up enough to make his breath short and his jeans too tight. It hadn’t, not until tonight, in this place, with this man.
He was tall and lean-muscled, the picture of physical perfection without going overboard. He flowed as he moved, muscle shifting smoothly beneath bronzed skin. His taunts and temptations were subtle: the roll of a shoulder, the twist of a hip. His grin, startlingly white and more than a little wicked, set off pulses of heat that fanned out from a knot of pressure low in Carlin’s groin and spread to his scalp, making his skin tingle in their wake.
He was as dark as his complexion promised, the stubble of beard growth shadowing his cheeks and sparse hairs arrowing down his stomach to disappear beneath the waistband of his briefs. He wore his hair pulled back in a ponytail that swept his shoulders as he rolled his hips and turned his back to the crowd. Carlin had never before considered a back a thing of beauty, but for this man, he would make exceptions.
“Sit,” his tour guide prompted, nudging him lightly with a narrow hip.
Carlin didn’t need a second invitation. He lurched forward, then regained some grace, threading his way through tables as he angled toward the row of stools hugging the stage. A few other men sat there, expressions intent and necks craned. Carlin nearly missed his seat when he looked up again.
The chaps were off, forgotten in a lump. The dancer skimmed a hand down his chest and, judging by his expression, very much enjoyed his own touch. His hand continued, over his abs and beneath the edge of his jeans. Another twist of his hips and he doubled as he pushed them off, revealing a black Speedo, long, elegantly muscled legs, and an ass that begged to be touched.
“His name’s Zaid,” the tour guide said as he settled on the stool beside Carlin’s. As if he’d heard, the dancer turned his head, flashed them both a grin, and winked.
Amber eyes. Carlin startled and stared hard. No, not amber. Copper, streaked with gold. It had to be a trick of the light. No one’s eyes shone that way. Contacts, maybe. They couldn’t be real. He couldn’t have seen that much detail from this far away. Could he? Look again,
he found himself willing the dancer. Look at me.
“He likes you,” the imp at his shoulder announced, mouth close enough to Carlin’s ear that he could feel breath against his skin. “Not many people get the flare.”
“The flare?” Carlin couldn’t look away. Zaid now twined around one of the poles built into the stage. Whether his hair had come loose or he’d taken it down hardly mattered. Carlin’s fingers itched to rake it back, to make fists in it, and pull him close enough to crush their mouths together. Never before, never like this, not even in his wildest high school fantasies had he wanted a man -- a stranger -- the way he wanted Zaid.
And again it seemed he’d been heard, though this time Carlin knew he hadn’t made a sound out loud. Still, the dancer’s gaze snapped back to his, and one corner of his mouth quirked before he made another turn around the pole.
“You know, that color thing he does with his eyes.”
“He did --” Carlin turned his head and found the other man had leaned close enough to kiss. He set his hands on his tour guide’s shoulders carefully and urged him back onto his own stool. Space between them, he tried again. “He did that on purpose?”
“I don’t know how much he controls,” his guide admitted with a shrug and a crooked smile, “but some of these guys are here every night, hoping for the look you just got. You managed first time through the door.” He clucked his tongue. “He likes you, all right. I’m impressed.”
The dance ended, and Zaid took his bows to a storm of applause and whistles that twenty men, no matter how enthusiastic, shouldn’t have been able to make. It echoed off the walls, and Carlin’s ears rang. Zaid’s prowl across the stage toward him made his heart stutter and leap.
Zaid sank into a crouch, one hand bracing his weight. The glow had gone out of his eyes, but they still stunned. Rich caramel and honey, they were framed by long, dark eyelashes. Amusement danced in them, and he grinned again. “Impressing Dash isn’t easy either. He’s picky,” he teased, reaching down to muss the slender man’s hair the way an affectionate brother might torment a sibling. “And he talks too much. You distracted me.”
“No one noticed,” Dash argued.
“That,” the dancer answered, almost purring, “is because I’m a professional.”
His gaze shifted again, and Carlin struggled not to gasp. Something in those remarkable eyes made his insides twist tight in anticipation.
Carlin didn’t want it to stop.
“Zaid, but you knew that,” he said as he held out a hand in offer to shake. “So the only one out of the loop is me. What’s your name?”
It took two tries to pry his tongue loose enough to answer. He slid his hand into Zaid’s, and the hairs on his arm lifted the way they did when he first slipped into a warm bath. Another pulse that centered in his balls before it spread had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end too. “Carlin. Carlin Rhodes.”
“The pleasure’s mine. Relax,” he added, a chuckle escaping him. “I only bite when I’m really
feeling frisky.” That said, he rose and went to collect his clothes. “Time to change.” He glanced over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow. “Coming?”
Carlin startled again and glanced at Dash. “Me?”
“You,” his companion confirmed. “I’m not allowed. Too young, he claims. I call that discrimination.”
“My room, my rules.” Zaid’s voice was rich with amusement. “Come on, Carlin. Don’t make me wait.” He took one last glance over his shoulder at the lingering crowd, then disappeared between curtains that seemed to part before him without a touch.
Dash sighed and slid off his stool. He caught Carlin under the elbow and pulled him to his feet, then slipped around behind him and propelled him toward the dark end of the stage. “Through the door, take a right and you can’t miss it.” He paused until Carlin found the knob and pushed it open. Then he sighed. “Have a little bit of fun for me.”