ROBERT CLOSED the door to his dressing room and sat on the sofa, shutting his eyes so he could have a few moments of peace. Not that he was likely to get that. There were too many damn people who wanted a piece of him, and they weren’t about to let something as inconsequential as a door stop them.

Performing usually sent him through the ceiling—the excitement of the crowd, being onstage doing what he’d always loved, what he’d dreamed about since his dad have given him his first guitar at seven years old. He still had that guitar. Didn’t play it anymore, but he still had it. He was starting to feel a little like that instrument: old, tired, and a maybe a little bit of a relic. Not that his career would reflect that. He was at the top of his game, in terms of audiences and the number of times his songs were downloaded. If that was the real measure of success in this industry, then he was certainly a megasuperstar. Not that he felt like it.

His real name was Robert Cummings, but his manager and the record label that had first signed him had thought that name was too plain and didn’t say “music star,” so onstage he was Avery Rivers. Over the years, that name had enveloped more and more of his life. From his start in the recording studios and onstage, it had taken over television, online, radio—you name it. Avery Rivers had become so big that plain old Robert barely existed at all anymore.

Like he knew it would, the door swung open. Robert didn’t bother to look up.

“That was something else,” his manager, Glenn Hopper, said, tugging off his cowboy hat to fan himself with it. “You were on fire, my friend.” He didn’t bother closing the door, which meant he was expecting more people.

Ray followed behind, hooking the door closed with one of his boots.

“We have a meeting tomorrow morning at eight. The record label and the tour promoter want to talk over what’s next,” Glenn said.

Robert ignored him. “What do you need, Ray?” he asked softly.

“Excuse me? I can’t hear you.” Ray stepped closer.

Robert didn’t raise his voice at all. “I said, what do you want?”

Ray turned to Glenn, confused. Ray was the representative of the company that had put together the tour that had just wrapped up. Tonight had been the final stop, and Robert was tired beyond belief.

“Can Glenn and I talk, please?”

Ray shot Robert a dirty look and scowled at Glenn, but he left the room. As the door opened, a wall of sound came in, then cut off when it closed again.

Robert sighed. “God, I hate that man,” he said. “Not that he’s done anything wrong. It’s just that he doesn’t have a right to be part of every goddamned conversation I have. Sometimes I swore he was going to show up in my bathroom.” He also gave Robert the creeps, but he’d never been able to put his finger on exactly why. Maybe Robert was just getting tired and less patient.

Glenn snickered. “He’s not a bad guy. Just a little nervous. This was the first tour he’d been put in charge of, and he wanted to make a good impression on his bosses. We all have that kind of shit to deal with sometimes.”

“Has Barry been on your ass again?” Robert asked, and Glenn shrugged.

“He is who he is. Barry makes stars in this business. That’s what he knows how to do. The rest of it is completely foreign, which is why he has us to handle all the people-skills end of things.” Glenn pulled over a chair, sat, and pulled out his iPad. “Anyway, I wanted to go over things for tomorrow, and then we’ll get you back to the hotel.” He tapped a few times. “Okay. As I was saying, there is a meeting at eight with the tour promoters, as well as the record label. Barry will be there too.”

“Not eight,” Robert said. “That’s too damn early.”

Glenn’s tapping on the screen stopped and his head came up. “That’s the time of the meeting, and….”

“Reschedule it to ten, please,” Robert said firmly. “It’s nearly midnight now, and it’s going to take some time before I can get to sleep. So make it ten.” He raised his gaze. “Tell Barry to reschedule the meeting at ten per my request. Because otherwise I’m not going to be there.”

“You know they’ll have the meeting without—” Glenn stopped when Robert held up his hand.

“No, they won’t. They’ll reschedule it.” Robert smirked.

Glenn started typing again, and sure enough, he nodded. “All right. We’ll meet at ten.” He set down the tablet. “Believe it or not, that’s the only thing I have for you tomorrow. The interviews and television spots have been taped.” He patted Robert’s shoulder. It ached something fierce, and Robert flinched slightly. Glenn didn’t seem to notice. “You did an amazing job through all of this. It’s been a whirlwind four months, and you were there and on point the entire time.”

“Thanks, Glenn.” Robert sighed and sat back on the sofa, closing his eyes again. “I want to get something to eat, something thick and juicy, and then I’m going to go to bed. So let’s go.” He stood and got ready to leave the room.

“How about we get you to the hotel and I’ll order you up some room service? You can relax and take it easy while you eat, and there isn’t going to be a crush of people asking for your autograph.” Glenn opened the door, and Robert stepped out of the dressing room.

“Avery, when do you expect to release your next album?” a reporter asked. She didn’t identify herself but had just the right earnest, yet smug, tinged-with-desperation look about her that was a dead giveaway.

“Soon,” Robert answered without stopping.

“Is it true that you haven’t actually written a single song for it and the label is getting worried?” she pressed as they continued down the hall. Those things were true, but Robert didn’t acknowledge them. It wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t had two minutes of peace in four damned months.

They reached the stage door, and Robert passed through as security joined them, freezing out the reporter. A group of men and women waited there, all screaming as he emerged, thrusting pieces of paper at him.

Just like that, Avery burst through and he was on, the same way he’d been on during the performance. Every ounce of fatigue vanished as he smiled and took the papers to sign the name that wasn’t really his.

“Hey, darlin’,” he said to a girl standing next to a man who had to be her father. She was probably ten or eleven, with big blue eyes and pretty blonde hair. “What’s your name?”

“Lisa,” she said. She wasn’t jumping and screaming like the others, but the excitement in her eyes spoke volumes. Her father put his arms around her protectively, and when the others made a little space, Robert saw the braces on her legs.

“Well, Lisa….” He flashed her a smile as she handed him a souvenir program that they’d sold out front.

“Will you sign it?” she asked.

Robert nodded. He took the book, opened it, and found a page with one of his pictures. He turned to Glenn, who handed him a black Sharpie, and signed the picture to her. Robert then remembered he was still wearing a tour cowboy hat. One of the companies had sent a hundred black hats with white bands. Robert wore them at performances and threw them into the crowd, which sent everyone into a frenzy. He took it off, signed the white band, and handed her the hat.

She held it as though it were the Holy Grail. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, darlin’.”

For a few seconds, the crowd around him had dissipated, but it came roaring back as soon as he finished with Lisa. Robert signed a few more autographs as his security helped him get closer to the waiting car. The door was open, and he ducked inside. When the car door closed, he could be Robert again, slumping back on the seat. He turned, peering out the tinted windows at the already dispersing crowd. Robert watched as Lisa and her dad became visible. She waved, and Robert lowered the window to wave back at her as Glenn got in from the other side. He raised the window as the car pulled away.

“Take us to the hotel. We’ll use the back entrance,” Glenn told the driver, giving her all the details.

“Of course,” she answered quietly, and Robert finally relaxed once again. Dinner, sleep, and then that damned meeting, and he was done and could go home.

 

 

“GOOD, WE’RE all here,” Barry Stroheim said from his seat as Robert walked in.

Robert strode past the single empty seat halfway down the table and stopped at the head of the table where some guy he didn’t know sat, leaning back in the chair like a bored toddler. He tapped him on the shoulder, and the man turned to look at him.

“Yeah?” the guy asked.

“Avery, this is my nephew, Lindon,” Barry said.

“Nice to meet you, Lindon. Now get your ass out of my seat.” Robert pointed to the other chair, and Lindon slowly stood, his perfect dark blue suit falling into place on his tall frame. Nepotism was never a good idea as far as Robert was concerned. He took the now-empty chair and smiled as Barry glared at his nephew. Glenn sat next to him, and Robert nodded to Barry, folding his hands together. “Can we get started?” he asked quietly.

“Of course,” Barry said, and turned to Ray.

“The tour has been a huge success. There have been sellout crowds in every city for every concert. In some places we made adjustments to the ticket prices for the first eight to ten rows, nearly doubling them for later dates, and they sold out completely.” Ray grinned, and the others looked pleased.

“You price-gouged the fans?” Robert said, scowling at him.

“These tours are expensive, and we need to recoup all of the costs. Which we’ve done…,” Ray explained.

“And the tour has driven CD sales and downloads through the roof, even on older material,” one of the label guys said. They seemed to change all the damn time, and Robert was barely able to keep up with who they were. “Avery Rivers is the hottest thing with a guitar.” They all sat back smugly as though that was their doing.

“Yes, and we’d like to keep that going,” Ray said. “So the tour organizers and sponsors want to exercise the option in the contract for six additional stops, with two concerts in each location.” He passed out papers, and Robert took one that explained the proposed tour additions. “We’ll use the next two weeks to get the word out and sell tickets, which we’re sure will burn up the internet. The venues are thrilled to have us and will go into publicity mode just as soon as we give the okay.”

Barry looked things over and then turned to Glenn. They both nodded as though the decision was theirs and Robert wasn’t even in the room.

“Robert can rest up over the next two weeks, and then he’ll be ready to go,” Barry said.

At least Glenn had the courtesy to look worried, but he nodded as well. They weren’t the ones who were too damn worn out to think straight half the time. Robert held his breath, his hands shaking, as they all talked around him.

“Then we’re all on board, and I’ll get the wheels in motion.” Ray sat back as one of the record label guys cleared his throat.

“We need some—”

Robert had had enough. He smacked his hand on the table, the sound filling the room. Everyone except him jumped and all talking ceased. “That’s better. Now….” Robert turned to Ray. “The tour contract states that additional dates can be added by mutual agreement.”

“Yes,” Ray said. “We want to exercise the option, and your people have agreed.”

Robert switched his gaze to Barry. “I’m tired and running on empty. I haven’t been able to write anything new in months. My throat hurts and my head aches. I’m living on Red Bull and whatever I can get to eat after the concerts.”

Barry turned to him. “You’ll have two weeks to rest.” Then he looked away.

“Look here, you self-absorbed pain in the ass,” Robert said without raising his voice. He needed to get everyone’s attention, and more importantly, he needed to get his manager’s head back where it belonged. “I know you don’t know this, but I read my contracts too. The concert schedule can only be extended by mutual consent, and I will not agree.” He turned to Ray. “You’ve done a great job managing this entire process, but I’m worn out. So last night was the end of this tour. It’s time.”

“But, Avery, it will—”

“I mean it. I’m done and can’t take any more.” Robert turned to Barry. “You’re my agent, and it’s your job to watch out for me. Our contract is up in six months, and if you wish to remain my agent, some things are going to have to change or I’ll find new representation.” Robert leaned across the table. “And I’ll order a full audit of every penny for the last seven years.” That was also within his rights. Not that Barry had ever given him any reason to suspect he was anything but aboveboard with the finances, but it represented a huge pain in the ass that Robert could use as a club to get his way. “I want to write and take some time for myself.”

“You can do that after these additional dates. You’re the hottest ticket out there right now. We need to keep that moving.” Ray seemed as sincere as he could get. Suddenly Robert knew why he’d never trusted him—that arrogance.

“We will by letting me return to my music,” Robert said. “Thank you, Ray, for everything. But there will be no additional dates. I need some time. Maybe in a few months we can go back out on the road, but I just can’t do that right now.” He scanned the expressions of every man in the room. “Just so I’m being clear, this isn’t negotiable.” He turned to Barry. “I mean it. You all talk around and over me as though I don’t exist, but it’s because of me that all of you have jobs. So I’m putting my foot down and will be making some decisions about my future.” Robert was pretty proud of himself that he never raised his voice.

“You’re going to write new material?” the record exec asked, seeming pleased. “That’s good news. We’d like to get you recording again soon. So that sounds like a good decision to us.”

“Good. Then that’s what we’re going to do.” Robert stood. “This meeting is over. If any of you have any questions, you can forward them to Barry or Glenn. Otherwise, we’re done here.” He waited while Ray, Lindon, and the other executives stood, clearly wondering if they could speak with Barry. They didn’t like being told no, and Robert was pretty sure they were already trying to figure out angles they could use to get what they wanted. Robert motioned for Glenn and Barry to sit where they were, and eventually everyone else left.

The door closed on the last person, and Robert sighed, leaning back in his chair.

“They aren’t going to be happy,” Barry said.

“So what? They don’t give a damn about making me happy. The tour company is a bunch of penny-pinching vultures who don’t deserve to be made happy.” Robert glared at both of them. “I want you both to get that through your heads. You work for me and no one else. And….” He stared at Barry. “I. Do. Not. Work. For. You! Please remember that. I call the shots, so you do what I want you to. Otherwise I’ll find different representation.” He pushed back from the chair and stood. “Harvey with the record label is happy, and he’s the only one we need to worry about.”

“Not true. What about the next time we need to tour?” Barry asked.

“They’ll be there with their damned hand out and you know it. Besides, they needed to be knocked down a peg or two. They treat their people like crap, and I had to step in more than once.” Robert yawned and stretched. “I’m going back to the hotel to pack.”

“Do you want me to make travel arrangements for you to go home?”

“To Nashville?” Robert rolled his eyes, then shook his head. He hated the house there. “I’ll make my own decisions for a while. What I want you to do is figure out how I can have some time to write and produce new songs. That’s what you need to worry about.” He stood and wandered over to the windows of the rented conference area, peering down into Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain. “It’s what we all need to worry about, because I haven’t written a note in six months. The music in my head has been silent for so long, I don’t know if it will ever start again.”

Robert clasped his hands behind his back, staring. He needed to find himself once again, and that wasn’t going to happen in the back of a tour bus, on an airplane, or in a hotel room. Robert’s music had always been a well that had bubbled up from inside. It had started when he was seven. That guitar from his dad had started the flow. Robert had learned to play in a matter of weeks and was playing the songs that were in his head by the time he was ten years old. Thankfully, Dad had sent him to music class, and he’d learned how to write his songs down, and from there the well had gushed up toward the light. Now it was dry, and he felt as brittle and parched as desert sand.

“Okay,” Glenn said as Lindon returned and closed the door.

Robert closed his mouth and shook his head. He turned to Barry, saying nothing until Barry motioned for Lindon to leave again. “I know he’s your nephew, but he is to have nothing at all to do with my business. I hired you, not your family.”

Barry groaned. “My sister’s kid, and you know how it is.”

“Put him to work in the mail room or something. He isn’t to have access to any of my business. Not contracts… nothing. I pay for your time and attention… not your nephew’s.” Robert was really feeling pissy and he hated it. “I’m sure he’s a nice enough man, but he hasn’t proven himself… the way you and Glenn have.” He turned back to the view and tried to calm himself down and get his head back where he needed it. “Remember those first venues you booked for me six years ago?”

Barry chuckled. “The VFW halls and small-town theaters.”

“Those were amazing times. Everything was new, and I threw myself into every performance, trying out new material and….” Robert’s blood had pumped then, and everything had been ahead of him. “I had one cowboy hat, a single pair of good jeans, and the boots I picked up at a secondhand store. That’s what I played in every night. I wore those jeans and boots until they fell apart.” They’d been like old friends. The hat had been replaced years earlier after it was lost in travel. He missed all of it. “That’s why I work with you. Because you were with me then, and somehow I need to feel like that again.” He shook his head. It was the best way he could explain how he felt.

Barry put up his hands. “All right. I can understand that. What are you going to do?” He stood next to Robert, bumping his shoulder. “We’ve been through too damned much already, and I don’t want to see you burned the hell out.”

God, it felt good to know that Barry and Glenn, who now were both standing beside him, had his back.

“I don’t know where I’m going. But, Glenn, I need for you to see that the stuff I don’t take gets home and make sure everything is okay there.” Glenn already had his pad out and was making notes. “Then call a Realtor and have the house put on the market.” Robert expected a fight from both of them, but to his surprise, Barry patted his shoulder.

“I’m sorry I talked you into buying that place,” he whispered. “I thought you’d like it.”

“It was never me.” Robert turned and headed toward the door, then pulled it open. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Where are you going to go?” Barry asked again.

“I don’t know. I think I’m going to hit the road on my own for a while.” Robert grinned at the horrified looks on their faces. “Don’t worry. I’ll still have my phone. But I need to know that both of you are there for me.”

They nodded, and Robert left, heading to the elevator and down to the parking garage, where the limousine waited. He got in and told the driver to go to the nearest Ford dealership.

“Sir?” she asked.

“I wanna buy a truck.”

 

 

THE FOLLOWING day, Robert was out on his own. He had a used truck loaded with the things that were important to him: some clothes, a guitar, his hat, and his boots. Everything else was on its way back to Nashville, because he didn’t need it now, and he knew Glenn would take care of all of it. He headed west out of Chicago and kept going, driving all day, racing toward the sun. When it got dark, he pulled on a baseball cap and checked into a highway wayside hotel. The woman behind the desk looked at him again and again as he checked in, and Robert hurriedly grabbed his key when she offered it to him and headed to his room.

He should have thought more carefully about the possibility of being recognized.

In the hotel room, he pulled his kit out of his suitcase. Not finding what he needed, he went and got a disposable razor and trial-size shaving cream out of the vending machine, then shaved off his signature black scruff. Next, he used his beard trimmer on the longest setting to cut away his neck-length black curls. It was difficult for Robert to recognize himself in the mirror, so he doubted anyone else would know who he was. Robert cleaned up the mess into a plastic bag, tied it off, and shoved all of it in the trash. Then he left and went to get dinner.

In a small sports bar a half mile down the road, he took a seat, and the server brought him a menu. It must have been a slow sports night, because half the televisions were tuned to CMT.

“Ruthie, can we change the channel?” the man in the next booth asked as one of Robert’s music videos began to play. Robert held his breath as Avery Rivers sang and played on half a dozen screens.

“No. I love this one,” she said, swaying to the music. “He can eat crackers in my bed any time he wants.” She turned away to take Robert’s drink order, still paying half attention to the television. Robert asked for a diet soda, watching her watch him. It was surreal, and the perfect test that his change in appearance was sufficient.

“Come on, Ruthie…,” the guy said, and she smacked his shoulder.

“You’re just jealous because you don’t look like that, and you certainly don’t sound like him. Let me tell you,” she sighed, “that man is God’s gift to women.”

Robert picked up his menu, staring at it intently. If she only knew how wrong she was about her last statement. He loved women and treated each one who worked with him with respect and didn’t allow anything else from anyone. But he had never been interested, romantically, in them.

Once the video ended, she took his order for some hot wings and hurried away without giving Robert a second glance.

If he were honest, he was a little disappointed. There was something heady about being famous and having the rest of the world screaming for him and wanting to catch a glimpse of him. When he’d first started out, Robert had soaked in the attention and adulation like a sponge. That had led to some problems. Thankfully Barry had been there to provide advice and to stop him from going down the path of destruction that happened to so many.

“Where are you from?” the man at the next table asked as Ruthie brought his plate of food.

“Nashville,” Robert said, then added quickly, “And Chicago before that.” He needed a way to easily explain his accent. “Just passing through on my way west.” He started eating, watching the television as the station broke into some news.

“With his tour over, Avery Rivers seems to have disappeared. A source has said that he declined to add six additional stops to his record-breaking tour.”

Robert’s appetite suddenly flew out the window.

“According to our source, Avery is worn out and wanted some time to rest and compose.” The woman smiled into the camera. “Not that we can blame him. Personally, I’m waiting on pins and needles for his next album. If he has decided to take some time for himself, we wish him well, wherever he is.” The program went on to the next story, and Robert pulled out his phone to send a quick text to Barry.

He got an immediate response. I’m already on it. I’ll roast that weasel Ray over a spit for this.

Good, Robert sent. Find out if he did it, and if so, just take care of it. He put his phone back in his pocket and finished his dinner.

“You headed anywhere particular?” the man asked, cutting through Robert’s thoughts.

“Not especially. I thought I’d take some time, go out west, see the sights, and maybe have some fun for a while before returning to work.” Robert sat back, his plate empty, and drank some of his soda to relieve the burn in his mouth from the sauce. Dang, that was good.

“Colorado,” the man said. “Beautiful place. Either that or head on up to Wyoming. Yellowstone is stunning, and there’s nothing like those wild spaces to make a man feel alive again.” He raised his beer glass, and Robert lifted his soda, finished the last of it, and left Ruthie a large cash tip when she brought the check.

“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.” He smiled and left, heading back to the hotel.

Robert spent the evening doing little, just lying on the bed and resting. Downtime was so foreign that he actually felt guilty for doing nothing.

He went to bed early and slept soundly before getting up and on the road once again. He spent most of the day crossing Nebraska. God, was it flat and uninteresting. He drove as fast and as much as he could, waiting until mountains appeared on the horizon. He veered slightly north, figuring he’d try Wyoming first, and made it as far as Cheyenne before calling it a day.

Dusty and tired from the road, Robert pulled up in front of the Plains Hotel. He parked and went inside, carrying his bag up to the front desk, marveling at the geometric coffered stained-glass ceiling.

“Do you have a reservation?” the man behind the desk asked.

“No,” Robert answered, and the man pulled an “I’m sorry” face like he was going to say they were full. Avery Rivers would have been welcomed and fawned over, but Robert was just another guy.

“Let me see what we have.” He typed and worried his lower lip. “How long would you like to stay? It’s rather busy this weekend because of the rodeo.” He sighed as he looked. “I have only two rooms available. They are both king suites with a separate parlor.” He bit his lower lip once again.

Robert handed over one of his personal credit cards. “Book me in for the rest of the weekend, leaving on Monday morning.”

 

 

THE BAR was hopping, and Robert squeezed his way in to get a drink, then snagged a stool, turning away from the bar to take in the scenery, and man, there was plenty of it. Men in Wranglers, huge belt buckles catching the light every now and then, Stetsons in every color, and boots in every type of skin available. The sight was gorgeous, and damn it all if his own music didn’t fill the place. Someone was certainly a fan, because one song after another played, the dance floor to the side packed with people having a great time.

“You here for the rodeo?” a man next to him asked, trying to get the bartender’s attention.

“Here to watch,” Robert answered as his eyes darted over the compact, cool drink of water with eyes the color of the sky on a cloudless day. Fuck, he was one gorgeous guy. “It looks like it’s going to be one great weekend. You got tickets too?” They were apparently hard to come by at this point. Robert hadn’t minded paying, even if he had only a moderately good seat. Still, he was here for some fun and relaxation, and to immerse himself in the country life once again.

“Oh yeah. This is a great event.” The man finally got the bartender’s attention and placed his order. “You here alone?” he asked, turning once again to Robert, his eyes sparkling, causing heat to build at the base of Robert’s spine. It had been a damn long time since he’d allowed himself any type of carnal pleasures, and hell if his dick didn’t stand up to remind him just how long it had been and that this was a man who pushed all his buttons.

“Yeah.” Robert saw some of his desire reflected in the other man’s eyes, and it sent his heart racing a little faster, the pit of his belly zinging and fluttering slightly. “I just got into town a few hours ago and needed something to eat.” He also wanted to drink and relax. Robert had no illusions that Cheyenne was going to have any rainbow-type nightlife, but it looked like some might have found him. That was, if he could still read the signs.

Robert got a refill and slipped off his barstool to wander toward the back of the bar, where a bunch of people were watching the dance floor. The cowboy came right along with him, which in Robert’s mind was a sure sign of interest. He leaned against the wall as couples line-danced their way across the floor.

“I love his music,” the cowboy said from next to him.

“Me too,” Robert said about his own song. He had loved it when he wrote it and recorded it, but now he’d heard it and sung it so many times…. He needed something new to get the creative juices flowing. “I’m Robert.” He held out his hand.

“Zeke,” the cowboy answered, shaking firmly, his touch lingering just a little longer than normal, which only upped the flutter of excitement. “I never got to see him when he was in Denver. Me and some friends talked about getting tickets, but they were sold out in minutes.” Zeke sipped his beer as the song came to an end, and Robert did the same, trying not to be too obvious about watching him. “I wonder if his voice really sounds like that or if it’s Auto-Tuned or something.”

Robert pulled a face as his temper threatened to rise. He had never used Auto-Tune or any of that synthesized shit in his music. That was cheating as far as he was concerned. What was heard on all his recordings was truly him and nothing else. “I suspect it’s real. It sounds it.”

Zeke nodded. “True. How can anyone conjure up those soulful rich undertones that get you just right?”

Robert shrugged. He certainly didn’t want to get too deep into a discussion of himself. It seemed wrong and was way too close to home.

Half the place was dancing, and a pretty girl in boots and a Western denim skirt came up to him, all smiles and huge eyes. “Do you dance?” she asked Robert, fluttering her eyes at him.

Robert smiled and nodded. Then he held the lady’s hand and led her onto the floor. It took him two seconds before he was into the moves, and he danced to her delight, adding a little extra spring to his step.

The song ended and Robert was about to head off the floor when another lady, this one a little older, approached. She smiled and took a turn, with Zeke dancing just one person over. Robert loved line dancing. It was fun, active, and exciting, while at the same time allowed him to basically dance with the person he wanted to, in plain sight, even if it wasn’t particularly socially acceptable.

“You’re a fine dancer,” the woman said once they’d danced their number.

“So are you.” Robert excused himself to sit the next one out—or stand, as the case may be.

Zeke came over shortly after Robert took his place to watch. “Not up for more?” Zeke asked.

Robert smiled. “I’m up for quite a bit. I like to dance, but it’s been a long day.”

“Were you able to find a place to stay? With the rodeo in town, it can be difficult. Most of the hotels are full and have been for some time,” Zeke said.

“I think I got lucky. I’m at the Plains. They had a few rooms available, and I was able to get one of the last ones. Maybe they had a last-minute cancellation or something.” Robert wasn’t going to admit he’d gotten one of the most expensive rooms in the hotel.

“Fancy,” Zeke said softly. “I’m staying with some friends.” He lowered his gaze and then slowly raised it. Robert felt it like a heated touch. “Would you like another drink?”

Robert turned to the bar, which was at least four people deep, and Zeke did the same. “There’s a bar near the hotel that seems quieter,” Robert offered nervously. It had been a long time since he’d played this particular game, and Robert knew he probably wasn’t very good at it.

“I think that would be a good idea.” Zeke’s gaze traveled across the dance floor, and Robert saw a group of ladies talking together and glancing over at them.

Robert turned to leave the ever-more-crowded bar and was relieved to be outside. He inhaled the fresh, dry air deeply and waited for Zeke. He didn’t want to seem like he was desperate, standing there, but only a minute later, Zeke stepped out into the night. They walked toward Robert’s hotel quietly until Zeke cleared his throat.

“Have you been to Cheyenne before?” Zeke asked.

“Yes, once, some time ago.” Robert smiled as they crossed the street, the marquee for one of the smaller venues he’d played years ago just down the block. Sometimes that seemed like another lifetime. “I like it here. This is a very nice, small city.” He glanced at Zeke as they walked past the bar he’d intended to stop at, heading to the hotel. Robert’s nerves built until they were inside and in the elevator. His doubts drifted away when they reached his floor, and as Robert unlocked the door, he wondered if this was actually going to happen.

They stepped inside, and Robert closed the door. As soon as it latched, Zeke cupped Robert’s cheeks in his work-roughened hands, kissing him with all the intensity of a hurricane, and still Robert wanted more.