Chapter 1

 

CRIS PETERS fumbled to make the call, not willing to take off his gloves in the icy chill of the evening, but the touch screen defeated him, and he had to remove one glove. The second he pressed Send, Cris tucked the phone under his ear and pulled his glove back on. He waited impatiently for the call to connect.

“Hello?” A deep male voice rumbled in his ear and reminded Cris why he’d been attracted to Paul in the first place.

“Hi, Paul. It’s Cris Peters.”

“Oh yeah. Hi.”

Cris couldn’t fail to notice the mixture of wariness and indifference in Paul’s voice. He’d already canceled one date with Paul, and he was not going to appreciate Cris doing it again simply because his idiot manager couldn’t sort out his schedules. He sighed and launched into an explanation of why he had to rearrange their first date again.

Five minutes later Cris no longer had a date to rearrange. Paul had better things to do with his Saturday night than wait in for a guy who wasn’t interested, and no amount of apologies would convince him otherwise.

“You’re a stripper, not a surgeon. It’s not life or death if you don’t turn up for work,” Paul sneered as he disconnected.

“It’s the difference between a bed and the streets, asshole,” Cris snapped, but Paul had already gone, and he was left talking to himself.

Cris sighed as he slipped his phone back into his pocket. He really needed a beer, so he pushed open the door to Cowboys and Angels and was immediately hit by a wave of noise and heat and the seventies rock music that blasted out to deafen anyone within a five-block radius. The bar was packed with men ready to drink away their Friday night. A year ago he’d never have thought he’d be seeking a night out at Cowboys and Angels, a blue-collar bar a few blocks from where he lived. It had an extensive list of great beers, but with a reputation for barroom brawls, it wasn’t a place where Cris had wanted to spend his nights off. He shook his ass to screaming women for a living. He preferred a quiet evening out with his buddies.

But times had changed, and he came in without more than a quick look around to see if any fights were brewing. There were still skirmishes, but Dan, the new owner, stopped them before more than a few fists flew. The former cause of most of the trouble worked behind the bar now. Between her studies and her work, Ariel, the owner’s daughter, no longer had time to stir up the clientele.

He pushed through the crowd toward the bar and greeted some of the customers as he passed.

“Lionman!” One of the men clapped him on the back, and he staggered. Fortunately Cris had excellent reflexes, and he recovered his footing and pasted a smile on his face for the young construction worker who’d accosted him.

“Pat. Good to see you, man.”

“My girl saw your show last week.” Pat laughed raucously, and his friends joined in. “Now she wants me to dress up in a jockstrap, a cowboy hat, and a ginger wig.”

Cris remembered that show, and he remembered Pat’s woman, all lush curves and huge dark eyes. “You’re a lucky man, Pat.” He winked at him. “If you want me to give you lessons on how to strip….”

Pat’s friends whistled and jeered, and Pat flushed but grinned good-naturedly. “Maybe I will.” He managed a bad hip shimmy.

Cris grinned and left behind a still wildly blushing Pat and a chorus of whistles and cheers. He pushed his way through to the bar and waved at Dan, who came over with a smile and a raised eyebrow.

“Aren’t you supposed to be working tonight?” he asked as he pushed a beer across the bar.

Cris took a long swallow. “Mix-up with the schedule. They want me tomorrow night instead.”

“Didn’t that happen last weekend?”

“And the one before that.” Cris rubbed his eyes tiredly. He hadn’t been thrilled to discover yet again that the manager of his strip club, Forbidden Nightz, had screwed up his weekend with little more than an apologetic smile and an indifference to how it might affect his life. “Marlon’s fuckin’ useless, man. And my date didn’t appreciate being canceled twice.”

“You ought to come and work for me.” Dan winked at him.

Cris took another swallow of the honey-based beer. “I keep telling you, you don’t pay enough.” He grinned to mitigate the sting.

Dan had been suggesting almost since they met that Cris come work at Cowboys and Angels, but Cris’s answer was always the same. He could make way more money in tips stripping than he could behind the bar, and he needed every cent just to pay his rent at home and at the studio to indulge in his first love—his painting. Cris stripped to live, and as the red-maned Lionman he was very successful, but the manager’s disorganization was messing with his head.

Dan just snorted and handed him a beer. Then he went away to serve another customer. If Dan was on duty, Cris never paid for a drink at Cowboys and Angels. He protested, but Dan ignored him. Cris had helped a friend of Dan’s at the strip club when she became unwell. As far as Dan was concerned, Cris was golden. Appropriate, really. Cris had a flaming mane of unruly red hair, hence Lionman as his stage name. But tonight Cris felt more like a stray alley cat than the king of the jungle.

Cris finished his first drink, picked up the second, and turned around to look at the room. He recognized a lot of the customers now, and a couple of them gave him a sloppy wave. There was a scuffle as the wave smacked into another guy’s face, but they settled down after a bellow from Dan. Cris turned away hastily. He didn’t want to attract the attention of one of the men. He’d met him before, at a speed-dating evening held at Cowboys and Angels, and he had one foot and the rest of his body in the closet. Mr. Seventeen. Why the guy attended the event, Cris had no idea. Mr. Seventeen, whose name was Mikey, panicked every time he saw Cris. As though Cris would out anyone against their will. He knew more secrets than a hairstylist.

The door opened, letting in a blast of cold air. Cris saw Mikey—no, not Mikey, but someone who looked like him—come in and look around. He took off his hat and swept a hand through his thick hair, leaving it rumpled. He was older than Mikey, and he wore a deep frown. For some reason Cris itched to smooth the rumpled hair and the frown. The patrons started to grumble, so the man hastily shut the door and headed over to Mikey, who didn’t look pleased to see him. Cris watched curiously as they had what looked like a heated discussion. The older guy pointed to the door, but Mikey shook his head and took a step back, his expression resolute.

“Another beer?” Dan asked.

Cris dragged his gaze away from the tableau. “Thanks. Who’s Mikey talking to?”

Dan flicked a glance their way. “Bennett. Mikey’s older brother. He’s probably trying to get Mikey home before he gets himself into trouble.”

“Does it work?”

“Mikey gets into trouble just by breathing.”

“They look like each other,” Cris observed.

“Yeah, but in personality, they’re oil and water. Bennett is a steady guy. He works for the family business.”

Cris looked at Bennett. His face was set and angry as he tried to persuade Mikey to leave. “And Mikey’s the prodigal son?”

“Something like that.”

From the angry set of his shoulders as he stormed toward the door, Bennett had given up on his wayward brother.

“Lionman!”

Cris rolled his eyes, pasted a smile on his face, and turned to face Gideon, the former owner of Cowboys and Angels, who strode across the room to him. Cris was just over six feet tall and muscled, but Gideon could make three of him. He made Cris feel small, which was a rare feeling, and Cris wasn’t sure he liked it. “Hi, Gideon.”

He was always wary around Gideon. He’d made the mistake of showing his interest in Dan just as Gideon declared his own. Dan was head-over-heels in love with Gideon, and there had never been any real contest, but Gideon obviously viewed Cris as a rival.

Gideon smiled at him. “Aren’t you working tonight?”

“Another mix-up with the schedules,” he said flatly.

Gideon frowned. “This not the first time, is it?”

“No.” Cris leaned against the bar. “Getting tired of it, you know? Now they want me to work tomorrow night, and I’d planned to go out. But I’ve gotta work. I can’t afford to turn down a shift.”

“You should come and work for me.”

“Thanks, man.” Cris meant it. “I’m grateful for the offer. It’s just the money. I can earn a lot more at the club, and I need it to pay my rent. No offense,” he added hastily.

“None taken.”

Gideon eyed him speculatively, but Gideon just said, “Enjoy your evening. Gotta be visible or Dan gets annoyed.”

Cris hid his amusement until Gideon turned away. When Dan became the manager, he’d insisted Gideon show his face in the bar. Gideon complained loudly to anyone who would listen, but they all knew he’d do anything for Dan. Now Dan was the owner, it seemed he still had Gideon on a tight leash.

Cris turned and waved his glass at Dan. “’Nother?”

“Is that a question or a request?”

“Just fill it up.”

Dan took the glass and refilled it with Cris’s favorite beer. “Do I need to get Gideon to pour you home?”

“I’m not wasted on three beers, dude,” Cris protested.

“’Kay. He can give you a ride home if you need it.”

Cris mumbled his thanks, and Dan went off to serve someone else. Cris sighed. He was used to being the focus of attention on stage, not the sad sack at the bar. Maybe it was time he went home and crashed out in front of the Hallmark Channel to watch sappy romances.

“I really am that sad,” he muttered into his glass.

“Lionman!”

Cris cursed under his breath. Thanks to Gideon’s incessant use of his stage name, no one called him Cris. He turned to see Mikey lurching toward him and hastily put down his glass. “Lionman.” Mikey wafted beer fumes in Cris’s face as he swayed.

Cris caught him by the biceps, afraid of getting smacked in the head. “Whoa, big man, steady.”

Mikey didn’t seem to notice. “You look sad, Lionman. Are ya sad?”

He gave Cris a sloppy smile and tried to pat his face, but only succeeded in smacking Cris in the nose. Christ, it was early for the guy to be that trashed. No wonder his brother was trying to get him home.

Cris caught Mikey’s wandering hand before he could inflict more damage. “I’m okay, Mikey. Just fed up.”

“You don’ wanna be tha’. You gotta be happy, like me.”

There were a lot of ways Cris could have responded, considering Mikey was the unhappiest man he’d ever met, but Mikey meant well, and Cris made an effort to smile. “Thanks, Mikey. I’m gonna take a leak and go home now. You take care.”

Mikey took a moment to focus on him as his eyes seemed to want to go in different directions. Then he blinked, focused, and nodded. “Okay. ’Night.”

Cris squeezed Mikey’s arm, ensured he was steady on his feet, and headed off to the bathroom. He pushed the door and was about to walk in when he was shoved from behind, and for the second time that evening, he struggled to stay on his feet.