Phil watched as Rose Winter took the stage at Temples. She worked it like she always did. He took a rag and wiped away a wet ring on the glossy wooden bar. Assholes need to learn how to use the coasters we provide.
The wanker hadn’t even left him a good tip. Customer always right, my ass.
“And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for.” Definitely the moment Phil had been waiting for. “The sexy, the sensual. The nubile. Neoooooooooo!” Rose played some heavy dance tune that was Neo’s style.
Neo strutted down the pathway to the stage as though he owned the bar, planted a kiss on Rose’s cheek with a smile that looked fake, and leaped on the stage with a single bound. He was wearing leather chaps and a flowing white button-down shirt. Neither of which would be on long.
Neo’s dark skin contrasted against the white of his shirt. He’d told Phil once that he had Native American blood in his veins. It had been watered down, but Neo was dark enough that he probably never burned. His hair was straight, glossy black, and pinned back in a queue at the moment. He’d probably shake it out at some point during the dance. He didn’t have obscenely long hair. But it was long enough to grab in the throes of passion. His body was hard, muscles well defined. Devyn said he had to exercise several times a week to keep the definition and tone for dancing. Whatever he did, it was working. There were always gasps from the audience when Neo revealed his body. Like he was doing now.
Phil had seen this act before. Yet he stood, compelled, watching the limber man own the stage. He could stay there all day and watch Neo do his act. It was always something he paid attention to.
True to form, Neo ripped open the button-down shirt and started teasing the audience with taking it off by sliding it on and off his shoulders the whole time he danced, until he finally dropped it to the floor. A few women giggled with their gasps. Probably a bride-to-be celebrating her bachelorette party.
Phil’s fingers petted the bar until he realized what he was doing and balled his hands into fists. Not like he was going to touch Neo anytime soon, so he might as well not dream.
Neo was off-limits.
Only because you screwed up with him. Or rather you screwed him and then left him.
“Barman. Hey!” A voice intruded into his introspection.
He turned to see one of the regulars looking at him with amusement. Ally was a friend of Rose, or rather of Devyn. They’d met in college or some such, and she came every other week to the show. “Sorry to yell at you.” She looked a little chagrined. “But I couldn’t get your attention.”
“Sorry.” He glanced over at Neo to see him teasing with taking off his pants, an even better show than his shirt. “What can I do you for?”
Her smile was as genuine as they came. “I’d like a…Dr Pepper, please.” She shot Phil a cheesy grin.
“Coming right up.”
“Yeah, and I’ll have a beer.” A tall man sat down by her and winked. “She’s buying.”
She rolled her eyes. “Tucker, you’re amazing only in your ability to never have any money.”
Another regular. Another friend of Devyn’s from college. The three of them had apparently “survived” together. Considering the straight vibes rolling from Tucker in a gay club, he obviously was pretty damn comfortable with himself. Of course, most of the dancers in Rose’s revue were straight. A few were bi. And Neo was the flaming queer.
“What’s your name again so I don’t have to call you ‘barman’?” Ally stuck a straw in the drink as Phil set it in front of her. “I’m sorry. I know we were introduced a while ago, but I’m horrid with names.”
Phil sat Tucker’s drink in front of him. “Phil. Are you paying for his? Or two separate tickets?” He was all business, trying to finish the transaction and get his attention back to the stage.
She glanced Tucker’s way and blew out a sigh. “I’m paying.” She sounded resigned, but it was with fondness.
“Thank you, Ally.” The man’s grin was mischievous. He probably got away with a lot due to his boyish looks.
She grumbled, but it was all good-natured. There was no malice or real animosity. Yet it couldn’t hold his attention for long.
Phil couldn’t help but glance at the stage. Neo had pulled off the pants and danced in a thong. No one was allowed to take it all off. Underwear was as far down as the guys could strip. Neo, bumping and grinding on the stage, showed off his ass and assets as much as possible.
Phil swallowed, his throat constricting as always when he saw how far Neo pushed it. Phil became lost in the world that was Neo dancing. Only then could he pretend that maybe he had a shot, because it was the only time that Neo wasn’t directing glares Phil’s way.
A knock echoed on the bar in front of him.
He swiveled around to see Ally staring him down. Now the amusement was evident in her eyes and smile. She didn’t have a poker face. “Phil, if I could go ahead and get the check, I can’t stay until close tonight. Sorry.”
Phil nodded and punched a few buttons on the register. He never got to watch Neo’s dancing. Always had to work. It was what paid the bills, but it sucked. That wasn’t why you got the job.
Yeah, but it was a perk, being able to watch Neo from the safety of the bar where Neo wouldn’t notice and call him out. After all this time, Phil was still a coward. It was why they’d never settled this “thing” between them. That and the fact that Neo hated him.
“He’s a hot dancer, isn’t he?” Ally took a sip of her soda.
Tucker snorted. “I could dance like that.”
She snorted. “Only in your dreams.”
“Is for horses, so my dad said.”
Phil tucked her ticket in front of her, interrupting their banter, and turned back to the stage. The song strains ended, and Neo gathered up his dollar bills from the floor where he’d tossed them when his hands were full. He always had a lot to collect. Yet again, Phil had missed most of Neo’s act.
Phil turned back to see Ally laying down her money. “You didn’t answer me. About him being a hot dancer?”
He still didn’t answer but couldn’t help a glance at the stage where Neo had finished collecting all his ones.
“Do you two know each other?” She sat forward a little, arms coming toward the inside of the bar as though she was trying to shield their conversation from anyone else. Tucker was a nosy SOB from what Phil had seen. “I mean, you seem to watch him a lot.”
Was it that obvious? Shit. Fuck. Damn.
He’d tried to keep his attention at a minimum. “I…screwed up with Neo. We do know each other.”
“Well, your attention is obvious.” She gave a nervous laugh. “If I could tell, anyone could. I’m usually oblivious. You ought to try talking to him. Work things out.”
Phil closed his eyes. “He doesn’t want my explanation.”
“Have you tried?”
Phil made some noncommittal noise and moved on to another customer. If only people would leave him alone for two seconds. You never get to watch him dance. Why would tonight be any different? Course if you hadn’t screwed up, maybe he’d be dancing for you in private…
Neo would never accept any explanations for what happened. Phil wasn’t even sure the reasons were good ones.
Phil pinched the bridge of his nose before using both hands to make the mojito that the next customer ordered.
Shoulda coulda woulda did nothing. Shit. The past was the past.
* * * *
Neo slipped on a pair of jeans and put all the tips on the small table in front of him. Time to count it up. He’d done well at his two solo dances and at the male revue at the end. About damn time. Tips had been lacking lately.
He heard a hushed voice outside his door, which was the door to all the back rooms. Temples had a better staging area than most. He was the only one in the back right now. Otherwise they’d all be in this main dressing room. Only Rose got her own. Everyone else had to share. He leaned back in the chair trying to listen.
Rose’s voice, which could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. She spoke in a whisper. “Phil…” Her voice lowered on the rest, so all Neo heard was “pssstlslsjkdjd.”
Neo frowned and lowered his head in an attempt to hear what the hell the old bitch was talking about. He didn’t often think of Rose that way, though he had her number, but Phil’s name always set him on edge.
A woman replied, but the voice was even fainter than Rose’s. He couldn’t make out any words.
Why the hell were they talking about Phil? An even better question, why were they talking about that freak in front of his door?
Neo got up and stalked to the door. He flung it open and arched a brow at the redhead who stood talking to Rose. He didn’t have on a shirt, and both sets of gazes moved down his bare chest. “Something you two want?” He sounded like a grumpy old man. Hard to believe he was the youngest of the three. He felt old some days, and today in particular.
Rose’s smile was wide and disingenuous. “Ally here wanted to meet you. She’s a friend of mine. And a big fan of yours.”
“I did…want to meet you.” Ally shot Rose a look that plainly said Rose was a liar. “It’s a pleasure. Devyn and I have known each other since college.” Rose motioned with her hand, and Ally continued. “Been a fan of yours several months now.”
Neo had seen her before in the crowd and talking to Rose. He’d never been formally introduced to this friend of Rose’s. “Hello, Ally.” She’d better not become another groupie. He didn’t need any fag hags hanging around him. The last one who’d tried had been nothing but drama. And more drama Neo didn’t need. That still didn’t explain their discussion mentioning Phil, though. Whatever.
“Nice to meet you.” He did try to sound friendly. After all, this was the boss’s friend and a potential fan, though he had his doubts as to her true interests.
They stood in the hallway a few more seconds in total silence. Ally was the only one who looked nervous, shifting back and forth on her feet.
“So, umm, I should get back to getting ready to leave.” Neo cleared his throat, finally giving in before Rose. Damn diva.
He had money to count and a bed to find. Alone.
Ally waved a hand. “Of course. Don’t let me hold you up.” She looked back at Rose as if to say, “What now?”
He started to shut the door, when Rose said, “Neo.”
And there it came. Whatever it was that she wanted. “Yes, Rose.” While he appreciated her giving him the chance to dance and make his rent, and he admired her for having made it in this town, she could be a real bitch. And a diva. She wasn’t anyone he wanted to be on the bad side of. Not to mention she was influential in the area. If she blacklisted you, your balls might as well be cut off. Because you’d never work again.
“I’m doing a special male revue tomorrow night. Putting it together at the last minute. Are you in?”
“Where is it?” There were some places it didn’t pay for him to dance. He’d not make his gas money back. He only danced here, considering who worked the bar, because the money was too good to turn down. Another gay bar across the river, the pickings were so lean, it didn’t make sense to even show up unless Neo had other motives. Like not seeing a certain bartender.
Phil’s day off at the bar. Even better. “I’m in. Anything special?” Sometimes there was a theme that required different attire.
“Nope. Just do the dancing you do so well.” Rose air kissed. “Thanks, Neo, for being in. I appreciate it.”
Neo air kissed back. “Thanks for inviting me, Rose.” It might help him do more than pay rent this month. Maybe he’d be able to pay his electricity bill on time. Money fluctuated like a bitch on her period for the shows he did.
He shut the door behind him. Looked at the fading paint and dust on the floor. The building had seen better days. He was about to move away when the whispering resumed.
“Are you sure he’s interested?” Rose’s voice.
“Quite.” Ally’s voice.
“Good.” The click of heels as Miss Diva walked away.
Rose Winter was up to something. He patted his chin thoughtfully. Probably wasn’t a good thing for Neo. He’d have to be on his guard.
Maybe she wants to fix you up.
Oh God, that would be a nightmare. Hell, no.
Had he ever told anyone here of his past with Phil? He tried to think back to his conversations with Rose or anyone else.
He’d told Rose about Phil and him when she was her alter ego, Devyn. He’d been drinking one night after a show, and Rose had changed back into Devyn already.
Phil had been walking out of the club. “Bye, Rose. Bye…Neo.” He’d said the words quickly and almost seemed to run past them.
“Bye, Phil.” Devyn had looked back and forth between Phil and Neo for a few seconds. “You two know each other? That’s the only time I’ve seen Phil stumble over his words. And run like a bat out of hell.”
Neo had had a few mojitos in him by this time. He was feeling warm and fuzzy—maybe only fuzzy. So he’d thought, fuck it, and told the truth. “Sort of.”
“We had a ‘thing’ about five years ago.”
“Really? I wasn’t even sure Phil was gay.”
“Oh, yeah. Bastard spent months chatting me up, and then when he finally did me, he left me in the morning.” His voice had been raw and jaded. “Didn’t even say good-bye.”
“Bastard.” Devyn had shaken his head. “Had a few of those myself. Before I met the man.”
“You’re lucky.” Neo had laughed with a bitter undertone. “To have your man. Sad thing is, up until he walked out, I was considering dating Phil. And I don’t date.” He threw back another mojito. Bastard.
No other man had ever walked out on Neo. Ever. Usually they came flocking back to dip in seconds.
He’d been whammed, bammed, and thank-you sirred. Left in the fucking bed all by himself.
He rubbed a hand across his face. He had contemplated their future after sex that steamy night. And thought he might try Phil for a while.
Which had made the disappearance all the more galling. He, Neo von Brade, had thought about hanging on to a guy for more than three seconds, and that guy had booked it the other way.
At least Rose/Devyn knew about the event. So maybe it wouldn’t be a blind date setup. He still couldn’t believe Phil had come to work where he danced. They’d hardly spoken since Phil had taken the job. Phil had given him some sultry glances. Which Neo had promptly ignored.
Whatever Rose’s plan, it better not include Phil. Or Neo would go diva all over her ass.