chapter 1

 

 

JOE BUTTONED his shirt. He kept his back turned to the young man lounging on the bed, still naked even though Joe had showered already.

“I can’t believe how big you are,” the kid said. “I mean, fuck. The way you stretched my ass.”

“Thanks.” Joe responded out of politeness. The compliment was par for the course for the money this kid was getting. It was also untrue—both in terms of Joe’s size and the claim that the kid had felt it as much as his moans implied, and Joe didn’t hold with exaggeration as flattery. Joe looped his tie around his neck. “You signed your nondisclosure form, right?”

There was no real need to ask. The kid wouldn’t be in the room if he hadn’t. Joe knew better than to get in the way of Derek and his fanatical protection measures. He hadn’t bothered to get his new buddy’s name. Name, age… that was all up to Derek. As long as they were at least twenty-one, Joe didn’t care who they were or where they came from.

By dint of a miracle and Derek’s vigilance, Joe hadn’t been outed by any of them yet, but he was on borrowed time. He was smart enough to know that, and not just because Derek looked a little more peeved every time Joe told him to “find me some company tonight.” If he were really smart, he’d stop letting his dick rule his urges. It was too fucking dangerous.

“Yeah. You were worth it.”

Joe turned around and saw the kid grinning at him. Twenty years ago, Joe might have preened. Now his sexiness came from confidence, and he didn’t need to work it to prove he had it.

Joe didn’t bother with a reply. Getting the hint, the boy started to move. He pulled his track pants on—no underwear—and stretched his Gap T-shirt over his head. In the mirror, Joe caught a last glimpse of the finely haired torso. Then the kid bent to find his shoes jammed against the wooden support beneath the bed. Derek didn’t allow Joe’s tricks to bring their bags into the room. The kid’s shirt rode up in the back, showing off a sparse trail of brown hair leading down to his ass. Moments before, Joe had lain between his legs, licking down that trail. Joe’s cock sat flaccid in his jockeys now. At forty-four years old, it took more than a reverse strip show in a reflection to get him going again. He looked around for his own pants.

“You think I could get an autograph?”

Joe turned and stared at him. He wanted a souvenir?

“Please?”

He looked so starstruck that Joe forced himself to relax. Derek’s papers would keep the kid from blabbing. They promised prosecution to the signer and any person “or entity” he told. “Leave your address with Derek. I’ll have him send you something.”

“Okay. Great.” The kid flashed him an endearingly toothy smile.

“What’s your name?” Joe asked.

“Devon. Listen, Mr. Nestra….”

Joe put his hand up. “Go see Derek.” He kept his voice gentle. He liked this kid, but he still had to leave. “Tell him I said to give him your address.”

“You’ll send me an autograph?”

Devon’s eyes lit up, like having Joe’s two-dollar scribble meant the world to him. Joe almost felt bad for him.

“Sure thing, Devon.”

After Devon left, Joe found his pants and finished dressing. He could hear Devon and Derek in the hall. Derek walked in a minute later, having used Joe’s spare key to get in, which Joe had dutifully handed over at check-in. He gave Joe the once-over, his expression disapproving from Joe’s head to his toes.

“What have I told you about leaving them alone while you shower? Are you trying to get cleaned out?”

Joe shrugged. “You took his bag. What’s he gonna do, stick my wallet up his ass? Besides, I watched him get dressed.” Derek chewed his cheek and muttered something. Joe bit back a smile. “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

Derek recited the last bit along with him.

“Okay, okay.” Joe grinned. “I mean it this time.”

Looking toward the ceiling in silent supplication, Derek asked, “So, what did we think of Devon?”

“Put him on the repeat list.”

“Very funny. No repeats.”

Joe forced a smile and faked a careless wave. “I know, I know. But it would be nice sometimes, you know? To have a regular.”

“You want a ?regular,’ you get yourself a real live boyfriend. I’m not risking you getting outed by a rent boy who gets too far into your head and then decides to take your bank account for a ride. You pay me so that doesn’t happen, remember?”

“I know. I just want more sometimes. I’ll get over it. Always do.”

Derek’s face took on the scrunched sour-candy expression that appeared whenever he came within two yards of discussing an emotion.

Joe wasn’t surprised or upset—talking actual feelings wasn’t his ideal either—when Derek changed the subject. “How was your physical therapy today?”

Joe’s knee injury had come in the middle of filming his third movie as the title character in the Thom Gilroy series, putting him on light duty—no running, jumping, kicking, falling, or fighting—for the rest of the film’s principal photography. For three weeks after his on-set accident, he’d spent two hours a day with a physical therapist. Under the condition he continue his physical therapy and because filming didn’t conflict with his existing contract, the studio allowed him to accept an outside role in The Hard Soul, the indie film that had brought him and Derek to Canada. By the time filming wrapped on it, he should be fighting fit again and ready for the Thom Gilroy 3 pickup shoot.

Joe’s regular therapist was a short-haired, friendly, but take-no-prisoners lesbian. Vancouver had presented him with a muscle-bound German man with gentle hands who nonetheless manipulated him into angles he didn’t want to bend, especially less than an hour after getting off a plane. Derek had Devon waiting in Joe’s room when he returned.

After a decade and change together—closer to two decades—Derek was scarily good at anticipating Joe’s needs. In this case, the need was to work out some tension before he walked onto a new set and took the biggest risk of his career.

It had seemed like a good idea when his agent had mentioned the project. As soon as Joe was laid up, Miranda started talking him into it. Rad Fisher was a rising young writer-director with a reputation for films that squeezed emotions by the balls. It was the polar opposite to the films Joe did, and after Miranda said she’d floated his name to Rad and Rad was interested, it seemed it might work.

That was before she’d told him what the “little Canadian indie” was about.

“PT was fine,” he answered Derek. “I’ll be ready for the pickup shoot.”

“They’ll be glad. You know the producers will think you owe them for dropping you a break to do this movie.”

Joe rubbed his face. He needed a shave, but he was under instructions not to. Once he got on set, the hair and makeup wizards would sculpt him into the character. “I know. And they’ll be right, but they would’ve been waiting on my knee to heal either way.”

Derek offered a half grunt of acknowledgment. “The car will be here in five minutes. Are you ready?”

“I don’t know where my script is.”

Derek produced it from a stack of papers in his arms.

“Thanks.” Sitting on the bed, in the very spot where he’d made Devon cry out for his Lord and savior, Joe flipped through it. He’d memorized today’s lines on the plane, but his stomach still flipped with an unpleasant rhythm. “I can do this, right?” He looked at Derek for reassurance.

“Of course you can,” Derek said.

“It’s a lot of words, and nothing explodes.”

“Hey.” Derek folded the quilt aside to bare the bedsheet—his face politely did not crinkle with disgust over his knowledge of what bodily fluids freshly anointed the quilt—and sat down. “Change will be good for you.”

“I’m a closeted action star about to take on the gayest role ever written. And all because I’ve got a bum knee that’s keeping me from doing my own stunts.” And because I was too proud to back out once I got the full story. That wasn’t all of it, though. Maybe this would be good for him, help him face his fears, both over his acting and over being gay—albeit for “pretend”—in front of people. The experience might be a good thing if he could stop being so scared of it.

“Not the gayest. Did you see Priscilla?” Derek asked.

“You know what I mean. People are going to talk.”

“Listen,” Derek said. “This is going to be good. Trust me.”

He slapped the bed close to Joe’s hand and spread his fingers apart over the sheet, stopping short of contact with Joe. They’d never declared a taboo on touching, but Derek wasn’t a tactile guy, and Joe took his cues from him. Derek showed his affection by giving Joe things he needed, and Joe reciprocated by acknowledging that most of the time Derek was right.

“I’m scared.” Joe put in words what he couldn’t say to anyone else. Derek was his right-hand man, with him 100 percent, the only person Joe trusted with every aspect of his life… with his life, period.

“I’m right here, man. All the way. And you? Are going to kick ass. Fuck anyone who doesn’t think so. This will change your reputation in the industry, but it’ll be a good change. People will take you seriously after this.”

“I don’t care if they take me seriously. I just want to work.”

Usually Derek would have retreated into his “no emotions allowed” stance by now. The fact he hadn’t made Joe nervous. Derek on a roll was difficult to stop, though.

“You’re good, Joe. You just haven’t let anyone see it yet. Including yourself.”

Joe turned his discomfort into a smile. “Thanks.”

 

 

RAD FISHER made his films on his own property. It was a sprawling former farm outside Vancouver that he’d purchased with a combination of family money and the proceeds of his first two movies. He had converted the livestock buildings, including an actual old-fashioned barn, into stages that had room for two or three sets inside. When he wasn’t using them, he rented them out. The Barn Studios not only saved him money, it made him money. Joe’s driver pulled up in front of the barn itself. Its tractor-trailer-sized wooden door stood wide open. Rather than horses and chickens inside, crew members ran back and forth dragging wrist-thick cables behind them. Bright lights hung from the ceiling, strung up to rafters, and others dangled from poles.

“Probably different from what you’re used to?” Mac the driver called back to him. He’d been sent by the production company in a Lincoln Town Car and cheerily told them he was assigned to Joe “for the duration.”

“Very,” Joe said. He was getting nervous again. He had Derek next to him, though. It was difficult to stay nervous with Derek around. Derek had enough confidence for himself and a small village. Principal photography had started four days ago, which meant the production would be running with machine precision by now. There was no space for anxiety.

“You’re meeting with Rad, then you head to makeup and wardrobe, then you shoot your first scene,” Derek said. “Mac, can you take us to the director’s trailer?”

“No problem.”

Mac eased the car around the south side of the barn where seven trailers were parked in a line. Six were the same sort that Joe was accustomed to—nondescript white, long, and narrow. They drove past two double-sized trailers for the cast and crew. He read the pieces of printed paper taped to the doors of the other four as the car crept past: Hair & Makeup, Costume, Eli, and Jack. The last two single-sized white trailers would be for Joe and his costar, identified by their character names. The final trailer resembled a silver bullet. Mac stopped in front of it. Instead of a printout, someone had painted “RAD” in red diagonally over the door. Gold, pink, and blue glittery paint specks surrounded it, giving it the appearance of a six-year-old’s art project. “Here you go.”

Derek handed Joe his script and a pen. “You want me to come in with you?”

Even though his nerves wanted him to keep Derek at his side, Joe resolved to be an adult about it. “I’m fine, Dad.”

The majority of actor’s assistants never left their employer’s side, but Joe and Derek had never been like that, not even at the start. And now, this many years on, they had their system worked out so well it had become a secret language between them.

Derek grimaced. “A ‘Derek is overbearing’ joke. Very funny.”

Joe waved toward the window where a few people walked past. “Go meet the locals.”

“Yep.”

Derek got out of the car. Joe clutched the script and got out too. Over the car’s roof, Derek gave him a face, his “it’ll be fine, I promise” face. Joe had been seeing that one a lot lately, ever since his doctor told him “No more running, no more jumping, and for the love of God, no more landing.” Joe managed a weak smile in response.

He noticed a woman wearing a headset watching them. Guessing that this was the assistant director assigned to meet them, Joe raised a hand in greeting. She smiled. Then, seeing that he was headed for Rad’s trailer, she redirected herself to approach Derek.

Still with the death grip on his script, Joe knocked on Rad Fisher’s door.

Rad, whose name was derived from Gerard “but more awesome,” looked like shit. More so than usual, as he always carried around a perpetual air of “roadie who’d gotten lost following the band and stumbled into directing film.” He gave Joe a bear hug anyway and said something like good to see you, but his yawning at the same time made it unintelligible. Although they’d never worked together, Joe and Rad had met a few times. Joe didn’t necessarily consider himself a close acquaintance, but Rad didn’t seem to know how to be anything except best friends with anyone, no matter how briefly he’d known them. He tugged Joe inside. His smallish hand and thin, pale fingers maintained an unexpectedly crushing grip on Joe’s wrist. The trailer had been gutted of its original furnishings and replaced with, apparently, a mash-up of Rad’s grandmother’s living room and a college dorm room. After assessing his options—beanbag chair, oversized cushion, and patchwork rocking chair—Joe moved a crocheted black and gold afghan out of the way and sat down in the rocking chair.

“How was your flight? Did you just get in?”

“Some turbulence over the mountains, but otherwise fine. We got in this morning. I met with my physical therapist already.”

Joe wasn’t going to tell Rad that afterward he’d taken advantage of his afternoon call time to get a fuck in. Rad had probably intended he spend it sleeping. Rad, with his limp hair and sorry-looking jeans that sagged at his ass and squeezed too tight around his stomach, looked like he’d consider anyone who passed on a nap to be certifiable. Joe almost wanted to push him into the beanbag chair, throw the afghan over him, and tiptoe out. Instead, he watched as Rad unfurled a sheet of paper to cover his desktop. It was a shooting schedule that consisted of a chart of scenes broken into location and the number of represented cast.

“We’re here.” Rad pointed, using a capped pen while he brushed dyed-black hair out of his eyes with his other hand. “By the end of the week, we need to be here.” He dragged the pen down, taking in five scenes, worth eleven script pages.

“End of the week? As in, tomorrow? For eleven pages?” Joe started to wish he’d actually looked at the shooting schedule Derek had given him.

“Yep.”

Joe let out a rush of breath. “In my experience, we’re lucky to manage a page a day.”

One side of Rad’s mouth quirked up. “This isn’t Demon Force.” He named one of Joe’s high-intensity movies. “We can do this, but it’ll be difficult for you. I need to know you’re ready for it.”

“You hired me,” Joe said.

“Miranda’s the one who recommended you. If I’m honest, you weren’t on my radar. Nothing against you. This just isn’t your normal thing.”

Somehow hearing that he was only considered due to Rad’s relationship with Joe’s agent didn’t sound cruel when Rad said it, and his soft smile tempered it some.

“Yeah.”

“But you showed great things in the reel she sent. You didn’t have to do that, you know. If it were up to my producers, you had the job as soon as she said your name.”

“I wanted to get it on my own merits.”

“I don’t hire actors for their names. I hire for talent. So, get out there and prove me right.” He pumped his fist in the air, like a rallying coach.

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, half teasing because Rad was almost half his age and half due to an upbringing where he responded to an order with respect. Rad waved him toward the door. “I’ll see you on set.”

Joe let himself out. The AD was waiting for him.

“I’m Cindy. One of your friendly ADs.” She held out her hand.

Joe shook it. “Joe.”

“Wardrobe is waiting to do your fittings. Do you need to go to your trailer first?”

“We’re not doing it in mine?”

“Not today. Is that all right?”

Joe shrugged. “I guess I don’t care. We can go straight there.”

Cindy walked with him to the wardrobe trailer. She knocked and introduced him to the two people inside. Then she left him alone with Hal, Eve, and a few dozen clothing options. He emerged several minutes later dressed almost exactly as he’d been when he stepped inside, but in clothes that weren’t his.

“Hair and makeup next,” Cindy said.

He looked for Derek, but he was nowhere to be seen. Inside the hair and makeup trailer, Cindy introduced him to Lucy, who would do his makeup, and Boris, who would do his hair. Lucy asked, “Are you excited?”

“It’s my first time in Vancouver,” Joe said as he turned his smile on her.

She got to work. Joe succumbed to his travel fatigue and tuned out. When she finished, Boris took over. He was almost done when the door opened, and Derek stuck his head in.

“There you are. Come on, time to go.”

“Am I finished?” Joe asked.

“All done,” Boris said.

Joe left with Derek. “How’s Rad?” Derek asked.

“In serious need of a nap. Do you have any idea where we’re going?”

“It can’t be that hard to find. This isn’t Universal Studios.”

“You’re going to the home set,” Cindy said, stepping up beside them. It’s right through here.” She pointed through the barn doors. “Follow me.”

“This is Derek.”

“We met,” Derek said. “Cindy gave me the key to your trailer.”

“Thanks,” Joe said.

They were almost to the set when another person fell in beside them. Joe recognized Hunter Starling in his peripheral vision. He turned his head, and Hunter came into focus. He was Joe’s costar, the Jack to Joe’s Eli. Gay in real life, out, proud, and married since it was legal in Canada. And gorgeous. Joe wasn’t hard on the eyes himself, but Hunter was flawless. Green eyes, ruddy cheeks framed in day-old stubble, dark blond hair clipped short but still long enough to grab hold of, and… Joe cleared his throat, hoping it would pass for a precursor to speaking and not as his paltry attempt to cover up the blush he was far too old to have heating his cheeks. “I—”

He didn’t get far in his greeting. Hunter, staring flatly at him, said, “You have your lines memorized? I don’t want you to ruin my takes because you aren’t ready.”

“I’m ready,” Joe said. He forced a smile, making it as obnoxious as he could through his gritted teeth.

“Good.” Hunter increased his speed, leaving them behind.

Apparently Joe wasn’t the only person who’d wondered if he was there as stunt casting. Hunter had a solid reputation—one Joe would have been jealous of twenty years ago if he’d wanted his career to go in a different direction—that included accolades and statuettes. Joe would have to bring his A game, or he’d hear about it from Hunter.

“He always like that?” Joe asked.

“Wouldn’t know,” Cindy said. “We’re all too scared to talk to him.”

“I’m not,” Joe said.

“Joe,” Derek said quietly. His tone held a hint of warning.

“I’m fine,” Joe muttered.

“Here you are,” Cindy said.

Nodding good-bye to her, Joe walked to a director’s chair with his name on it. Derek stayed at his side until he sat down; then he gave Joe another “don’t be an idiot” look and veered off to find a position where he’d be both out of the way of the crew and always in Joe’s eyeline. Hunter already stood next to his chair, two feet away. “Are we going to have a problem?” Joe asked.

“Not if you do your work,” Hunter said.

“You let me worry about myself.”

Hunter aimed his gaze at Joe’s knee. “So, what, you’ve come slumming on the queer Canadian film because your action hero days are behind you?”

“I’m just trying something different.” Joe kept his tone measured and forced what he hoped was a placid smile. Based on Hunter’s there-and-gone confused expression, it probably came out looking constipated. He looked for Derek and found him tearing open a sugar packet with his teeth as he balanced a mug in his hand, vigilantly ignoring Joe in favor of his caffeine fix.

“How lucky for all of us,” Hunter said.

Rad’s arrival on set interrupted Joe’s response—a good thing, since it would have been his fist in Hunter’s smug face.

“Gentlemen, time to rehearse,” Rad said. He gestured Hunter and Joe onto the set.

In the scene, Eli told Jack that Eli had tested positive for HIV. The movie was set in the early nineties, and Eli would die at the end. Jack reacted to Eli’s news by trashing the place. Joe stood in the center. They ran through it a few times with Hunter miming knocking over the set dressing. Once Rad was satisfied, they began the actual scene for shooting.

The steadicam operator pivoted around Joe, taking in Hunter’s destruction. The scene was emotionally intense, more than Joe was accustomed to, but maybe it was a good thing, a smart thing, to start with this one as Hunter seemed to have aggression to work out surrounding Joe’s presence. When Hunter completed his circle of the room, he stopped in front of Joe. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Joe stared at him, stunned. With the camera behind him, Hunter gave Joe a look that said “fuck you” better than words. Then he flung himself at Joe, wrapped his arms around Joe’s shoulders, and wept against his neck. Joe slowly brought his hands to rest on Hunter’s back. He gazed out, numb, at the destruction around him.

“Cut!”

Hunter leapt back as if Joe were poison. His eyes were already dry. Joe felt like he’d been smacked with a tire iron. “Holy shit.” He couldn’t keep the admiration from his voice.

As much as he wanted to deny it, Hunter was good. The script had the dialogue and “Jack reacts.” Joe hadn’t anticipated this. A few artful tears, maybe a sob, but Hunter had exploded into another level. Joe stepped off his mark, needing to distance himself from the force that had surrounded that spot.

“That’s how acting is done,” Hunter said.

At a loss for words over Hunter’s attitude, Joe could only stare.

“Well, fuck.” Rad brought Joe back to focus as he wandered the set, nudging broken sugar glass ceramics and books with his foot. “You better hope we don’t need another shot.”

“We don’t,” Hunter said.

Out of spite, maybe, Rad made him do it three more times. Set Decorating bustled in identical set dressing, Hunter crumpled against Joe’s shoulder in the same place each time, and each time felt just as real as the one before. Derek appeared behind Rad during the second take. Joe went to talk to him while they set up for the third.

“How’s it going?”

“Hunter hates me. Other than that, it’s fine.”

Derek dismissed the concern. “From what I hear, Hunter hates anyone who gets in the way of his quest.”

“His quest?”

“He’s going for gold.”

“Oscar?”

“All of them. He’s got an Emmy and a Grammy already, so that leaves Oscar and Tony.”

Hunter’s Grammy Award was for narrating an audiobook, not singing. Joe felt mildly smug about that, even though the emotion made no sense. It wasn’t like he had a Grammy for anything.

“So, if I want him to like me, I have to help him get an Oscar?”

“Do you want him to like you?”

Joe glanced over his shoulder. Hunter stood a few feet from the stage, talking to a dark-haired man who wore the ugliest sweater Joe had ever seen. He seemed to be trying to force a cup into Hunter’s hand. Despite Hunter’s refusal, they were both smiling.

“Is that Chris?” Chris was Hunter’s husband.

“What?” Derek looked. “No, that’s Miccah, Hunter’s assistant. They’ve been together forever.”

“I’m surprised anyone would stay with him.”

Derek handed Joe a power bar. “A lot of people think that about us.”

“Yeah, but I’m not the difficult one in our relationship.”

“So, do you want Hunter to like you?” Derek returned to his initial question.

“I don’t care, but I don’t want to mess anything up for Rad. So, I’m going to do the best I can for him.”

“That’s the spirit.” Derek gave him a big fake grin.

The final take went the same as the others, but Hunter changed one thing. Joe didn’t catch it at first, not until they stopped rolling. Then he turned around and saw that this time Hunter had included a digitally manipulated photo of the two of them at the Grand Canyon in his rampage. Joe stared down at it in its broken frame. When he looked up, Hunter stood a few feet away, watching him. It felt like a dare.

“I don’t need to tell you how good you are,” Joe said. Hunter tilted his head, half acknowledgment, half waiting. “But I am going to show you how good I am.”

“Looking forward to it,” Hunter said.

 

 

THE NEXT scene took place in a car. It was an old sedan, with a green screen rigged behind it, so they could add the moving background in later since the car wasn’t actually going anywhere. Joe got behind the wheel. Apparently there had been an argument prior to his arrival to determine who would “drive.” Rad argued for Hunter’s character because Jack wasn’t sick, and Hunter argued for Joe’s because “Eli would drive. He’s older, plus if Jack drives, it shows he thinks Eli is too weak, and Jack would never do that.” The scene was one of the lightest in the film, a boisterous sing-along with the radio that ended in a kiss. The sound tech cranked up “Living on a Prayer.” Joe belted it out. His voice was nothing to write home about, but Hunter’s was nice. He had a smooth bass tone that Joe could picture hearing in a smoky bar, the kind of voice that aided beer in washing troubles away. He let himself float in it, going with the scene and the emotion. He turned to Hunter, grinning.

Hunter smiled back.

He leaned in, touched Joe under his chin, and came closer, mouth open. He sang the last couple of words close enough for Joe to taste his breath. Joe’s stomach tightened. Hunter pressed the kiss lightly on Joe’s lips, joined by his smile that made the kiss tickle.

It all registered in that moment—the thing that Hunter’s singing had soothed him into forgetting, the thing that all the pressure, all the “take this film, it’ll be good for you” made him choose not to think about. He was about to kiss a man in front of cameras, and then it would be in the film, and then Joe would be ruined. The whole fucking world would look and know he enjoyed it, would know that he loved a cock up his ass, and fuck fuck fuck, good-bye career, good-bye years of hard work and reputation, and everything he’d worked for. Joe shoved Hunter backward, difficult because of Hunter’s angle across the car seat, but Hunter got the message.

“What the fuck?” Hunter touched his lip. A drop of blood appeared—he must have snagged it on Joe’s teeth when Joe shoved him. Joe was too busy scrambling for the door to care. He tumbled out of the car and, ignoring Rad’s cries, took off for his trailer. He’d gone ten steps before he realized he was turned around and didn’t have a clue where his trailer was. He stopped. Derek joined him, solid and confident, and smart enough not to touch him when Joe was a hair’s breadth from hyperventilating.

“Five minutes,” Derek yelled.

If anyone thought it was odd for an assistant to give an order, Joe didn’t stick around to find out.

“Trailer,” he said quietly, for Derek’s ears only.

Derek started walking. Joe followed, close to Derek’s side. When they turned a corner, out of sight of the disaster, Joe allowed himself to breathe. Derek guided him into th