THE club could not have been any darker and still be considered lit, but Stanley didn’t think better lighting would improve the ambiance. Stage lights bounced over the chanting crowd, glanced off the shabby décor, and disappeared into the farther reaches of the low-ceilinged labyrinth of the bar.
The lead singer prowled downstage, front and center, and took up a position behind the mike. His sulk was infused with sex and the silent command to look at him, see him, and want him. Stanley glanced around the room. Everyone heard that slinky body language. Returning his attention to the stage, he stripped his usual veneer of music executive and watched the younger man through the eyes of the audience.
Narrow hips, long, lean legs encased in leather, broad shoulders and chest filled out just enough to not be skinny screamed the perfect, soundless note of bad-boy and danger. His clean, fine features were lost under the weight of makeup and spiked hair, but the drama of lean, sharp features accentuated with black liner and lipstick was more than enough to command the attention his undoubtedly pretty face might not get if he’d showed it off naked. And yet, Stanley wished he could see under the façade, because there was something innately provocative about the man his persona came dangerously close to ruining.
“Hey.” The singer’s voice, as dark as his hair and makeup, rolled over the crowd. He sounded sullen and angry, and beside Stanley, Vance Ashcroft shifted his feet and barely held back his signature country-star snarl.
“Why are we here?” Vance asked and made a face as he scooted past a high stool with something thick and sticky splashed across the black vinyl.
“Ignore the décor, Vance.” Stanley moved the stool out of their path with his foot. “We’re here for the entertainment. I want you to hear this guy.”
Vance glanced at the chair and grimaced. He pulled his dark glasses down over his distinctive, arched brows and honey gold eyes as a waitress did a double take. “This doesn’t look like a country crowd,” he drawled, his bass voice quiet, his expression dubious behind the glasses.
“And yet maybe she recognized you.” Stanley shot him a playful smirk. If Vance wasn’t an egomaniac, he still had enough vanity to want to be recognized, even in this dive.
“Because I’m known wherever I go. I am that awesome,” he shot back.
Stanley snorted. “It isn’t a country crowd. She probably thinks you’re freakishly tall.” And he was, rising a decent few inches over Stanley’s six feet two inches. The two of them, standing side by side, made an impressive wall of man, both broad and muscled, and the looks that followed them through the bar told him people noticed.
“Okay, so if I’m not here to listen to country music, then why am I here? What am I goin’ to be able to tell you about—”
“I need your gut reaction.”
Vance didn’t have any more time to argue, because the band they had come to listen to was finally looking like they were going to get around to making music.
“I’ll tell you what. They’re a bunch of drama—”
“Patience,” Stanley advised.
“This had better be worth it. This place is disgustin’.” Vance glared at the man behind the mike. “An’ he looks like a brat.”
“Noted.” Stanley maneuvered around a few milling patrons and positioned the two of them closer to the stage for a better look at the entire band, but not too close to the monitors or speakers. He noticed, too, that Vance’s gaze didn’t linger long on the lead singer. His expression turned interestingly speculative and his attention returned, more than once, to the guitar player standing slightly too far stage right to look like he was ready to go on.
“Get a load o’ him,” Vance grumbled, turning back to the singer. “He’s got too much guy liner on.”
“Don’t think it’s guy liner anymore when it gets that thick,” Stanley pointed out.
“No. Now it’s a gimmick, and usually, that means he’s tryin’ to hide somethin’. Most often, that he’s got no talent.”
Stanley smiled thinly. Vance was going to eat his words.
The drummer, typically burly, rugged, and fierce under his shining bald dome, shot off a few hard cascades of noise, and the bassist joined him, riffing in the offbeats. On the other side of the stage, the keyboard player jammed restlessly, gaze darting from one band member to the other as heavy synth sawed over the barely controlled chaos.
The lead singer ignored them all. His eyes, pale in the midst of all the black liner, were riveted on his guitarist as the pretty red-headed bombshell of a twink fiddled with his cord, volume, and whammy bar.
“Dude.” The singer wrapped long fingers in a graceful, be-ringed arch over the mike and considered the guitar player. His voice rumbled, low and sexy, through the bar. “Gimme.” Waggling his fingers in the air with a come-hither wink and a half grin got the crowd revved.
The guitarist grinned, an almost-shy expression lighting up his face. He didn’t look up, but he did skim his fingers over his strings and bring forth a surprisingly sensual roll of notes. Finally, he inched his way closer to center stage.
The singer’s chuckle carried over it, played through it, teased at it, the sounds evoking lovers tumbling through sheets. The intertwining music sent a shiver through Stanley.
Beside him, Vance straightened from where he was leaning on the wall. His languid stance changed as he turned watchful, almost predatory, his gaze fixing avidly on the guitar player. Every once in a while, he shot a glare at the singer.
Stanley smirked. It seemed that little ginger man had caught his friend’s attention, and Vance was not appreciating the way the singer eyed his bandmate.
Stanley leaned close so Vance could hear him. “Wait for it.”
Slowly, the guitar ramped up, trilling through the small bar and drawing attention, pulling the bass after it, taunting the drums until they found a rhythm, and the singer was standing behind his mike, swaying, rings glittering, eyes closed. His shoulders folded forward, he cupped himself around the mike stand and the first notes between his lips were a throaty hum, raw and intimidating yet full of wordless need.
Stanley shifted, trying to adjust his stiffening cock without drawing notice. It was incredible to him that one man’s voice could dig into his brain, into his being, and turn him inside out, but every time he’d heard this kid sing, it happened, tonight included, and he had yet to utter an actual word.
“Fuck me, I’ve heard that before,” Vance said, snapping his fingers and grinning. “This little shit—”
Stanley nodded. “Was almost The Next Big Thing, yes. Damian. So he calls himself.”
Then Damian opened his mouth to sing, and Vance closed his. The song was hard-edged, thumping, and vitriolic, sung with the voice of a fallen angel. He hit every note true, even the ones that should have bottomed out in his throat or soared too high for his range. He turned trash garage grunge into something more and deeper and infinitely better.
Every time he glanced up, those pale eyes of his sweeping the crowd from under long, black lashes, his lips curled in a sardonic half smile, Stanley could practically hear the girls sigh through their screaming and cheering. Stanley’s cock responded to the heavy beat, the crooning voice, the high notes. Music always got his blood pumping, but this was something special.
The guy knew how to wrap his audience up in ribbons of want and expectancy. He had next to no experience, but he had an instinct that got the crowd humming with need. The dancing ramped up to frenetic, constant motion. Every gaze was riveted on the stage.
“How did he not win?” Vance called over the noise and the music, his lips close enough to Stanley’s ear to send another, more immediate shiver skittering through him.
Stanley rolled his eyes. “Out and proud never gets the vote. Why I keep telling you to stay the fuck in the closet. Especially you. Country fans don’t do gay.”
Vance shifted away and turned his attention back to the stage without replying.
The set revved up with more of the hard-rocking, razor-edge guitar and throbbing bass. The crowd lapped up every second of it, even the outrageous flirting between the singer and the guitar player, who looked too young, too innocent to be playing guitar like the devil.
The chemistry between the band members electrified every note. It brought out the wild in the crowd and the predator in Vance. It touched something primal in everyone in the room. It was impossible to stay impartial for long. Stanley had come to make a final evaluation of the band, of the singer, and the music. By the middle of the second song, he was too lost in the swirling vortex of keyboards and bass magnetism to be impartial. Even Vance was swaying his hips in circles, arms up and a grin on his face as females gravitated to his perfect ass and broad chest. That was evaluation enough for Stanley. When the man’s man of country music got his groove on, the music was good.
Sooner than he liked, the set wrapped and the band wrestled each other off the stage. It was obvious they had enjoyed playing as much as the screaming crowd had enjoyed listening. In fact, the entire bar was roused into chants calling for more, but the house speakers and canned music overrode them.
Stanley couldn’t blame the crowd. He already knew it would be a long time before he tired of watching the younger man weave that web of complete control over his audience. It was odd that he wanted to join in the begging for more. Vance had been absolutely right. This was not his music. Not what he knew, not what he had grown up listening to and emulating. Certainly not what he had made a career out of selling. But there was something utterly gut-wrenching and authentic about it. That was what would sell it. All Stanley had to do was put it in front of the right people.
“You’re gettin’ that look!” Vance shouted at him over the bar beats that rose to inadequately fill the void the band had left.
“What look?” Stanley wound through the milling people toward the exit and the washrooms, but Vance snagged his arm and stopped him.
“Where you goin’?”
Stanley grinned. “I’ve seen all I need to, dancing bear.”
“You’re leavin’?” Vance ignored the jibe. That lack of shame over his dance moves was a sure sign he had totally gotten into the music. That was all the stamp of approval Stanley needed.
“Got what I came for,” Stanley told him. There was no more honest reaction from Vance than him dancing or showing willingness to stay through piped-in dance mixes for the next set.
“I’m dancin’.” Vance tightened his grip on Stanley’s arm and hauled him toward the stage. He pointed to the groupies who huddled near the edge of the floor to watch him.
“Don’t let me stop you.” Stanley didn’t try to escape, though. The music had gotten into his blood, and he was a little high on it, more than ready to see where Vance’s dancing and getting sweaty might lead. He eyed the throng of young women all but throwing themselves at the tall singer. “You are gay,” he reminded his friend, lips close to Vance’s ear. “In case you’d forgotten.”
“My manager won’t let me pick one o’ them.” He jerked a thumb at a substantial knot of young, buff men closer to the stage. There was no doubt by the way they groped and gyrated they had no interest in the women.
“Your manager is a wise man,” Stanley pointed out.
“Well, wise or not, he’s also horny, an’ he’s only getting laid if he dances with me first.” Vance’s fingers tightened, and Stanley’s cock immediately responded.
He could hardly say he didn’t want to accept the handsome singer’s invitation, even if they had to disguise it by surrounding themselves with fawning groupies. It wouldn’t be the first time. He wouldn’t be averse to staying for another set from the band, either. He knew he was going to sign them, whatever he had to do to convince them, so technically, his job here was done.
That left the rest of the night to see where the music could take them.
“One thing first,” he told Vance, and quickly got out his phone. He sent an already-prepared e-mail to his assistant, Miranda. She would get things in motion for a meeting with the lead singer Monday morning. Once he hit Send, he was officially off the clock.
He stuffed the cell back into his pocket and gave in to the hands hauling him out onto the floor. If one or two of those hands were Vance’s, he decided not to comment. He was hardly going to say no to that action. Not on the dance floor, and not afterward. When the girls whooped and hollered for the “straight” boys to dirty dance with each other, it was as good an excuse as any to shed his manager hat and take advantage of the fact no one here recognized Vance Ashcroft, one of the biggest country and western stars on the planet. There was something to be said for grunge rock and the dives where it flourished.
“NNGH.” Stanley rolled over to encounter the sticky bulk of Vance’s body blocking his way to the bathroom. “G-up,” he mumbled, giving the other man a heave. He might as well have been shoving a house for all he managed to move the brick-hard, muscled body out of his way.
“Go over.” Vance’s eyes flickered but didn’t open.
“Jerk.” Stanley dragged himself up and proceeded to crawl over Vance’s back only to be hauled back and rolled under the bigger man as he wrapped a thick arm around Stanley’s middle.
“God, your breath stinks.” Stanley wiggled, but gained no freedom. “And I gotta piss. Lemme up.”
“Kiss me first.”
“Brush your teeth first. You smell like a still.”
“Good fucking mornin’ to you too.” Vance rolled off him and flopped onto his back.
“Don’t pout.” Shimmying out of the bed before Vance could rethink allowing his freedom, Stanley hurried to the bathroom and closed the door.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to kiss the man. Just that the morning after always left him wondering if the night before had been a very bad idea. His backside, as he hobbled to the bathroom, agreed with him. He was finishing his oral hygiene and contemplating the multi-head shower—at least they had checked into a good hotel, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember why they hadn’t gone back to his place—when Vance knocked and walked in.
He didn’t say anything, just opened a toothbrush package, slathered on paste, and spent five silent, glaring minutes scrubbing the hangover fuzz from his mouth.
“Now?” Vance asked once he’d spit and rinsed.
“Now what?” Stanley eyed him, having very little confidence that playing dumb would get him anywhere.
Vance rounded from glaring at him in the mirror to glaring straight at him and stalked him across the cold tiles until his back fetched up against the shower doors.
“Now,” he growled.
The moment Stanley opened his mouth to protest, Vance descended, taking possession and running a hand midway up Stanley’s torso, stopping at his waist and pressing him back against the frigid glass. He pushed back, struggling for air and freedom but drowning in the tide of testosterone rolling off Vance.
He tried to say something akin to “stop it” and succeeded in a moan that gave more the impression of “harder, deeper” than “no.”
That’s obviously what Vance heard because he clamped his other hand over Stanley’s ass, jerking him in close so their hard-ons ground together. This time, when Stanley found his voice, it was to groan his pleasure at the force of the contact.
Stanley had never considered himself an exclusive top, but when Vance gripped his hair, tilted his head back, and glared into his eyes, he knew he was in for a deep, hard pounding. Again.
“Yes ’r no?” Vance asked, his golden eyes glittering and uncompromising.
“Does it even matter?”
Vance grunted, propelled him back to the bedroom, and more or less threw him facedown on the bed. Not very many men had the size or balls to manhandle Stanley. He wasn’t exactly small or pliable.
He didn’t complain.
He could have. If he had, Vance would have wrestled him down anyway, and sooner or later, he’d let the singer have his way. He’d sported enough bruises over the years to know when Vance wanted it this bad, it was best to give it up. He pushed a pillow under his hips and lifted his ass, which Vance promptly slapped. Hard.
“Oomph.” Stanley flinched and Vance smacked the other cheek.
“Bossy—ow!” Another slap left his ass burning and his ears ringing. “What—”
Vance’s fingers, slicked with nothing more than spit, invaded him and he bit down on the questions.
“Jesus. Vance….” A low moan escaped as Vance eased his fingers out and back in. “Fuck.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
The fingers disappeared and Stanley craned his neck to watch his lover roll on a condom.
“Lube?” he asked.
“Not goin’ to hurt you,” Vance muttered, leaning over him for the lube on the bedside table.
Stanley lay still and listened to the snap of the lid and the squirt of the near-empty bottle.
“Well?” Vance asked.
Stanley shuddered. He could never decide if he hated this side of his friend or just needed it. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached back, parted his cheeks, and waited. A moment later, he felt the blunt pressure of Vance’s cock, and it was all he could do to relax and breathe through the long, slow slide and stretch.
Once in, Vance proceeded to pump, slow and steady, mercilessly, but not cruelly.
Stanley closed his eyes and let himself feel the heat rising in his body, the sweat trickling down his sides, the heady fullness and comfort of Vance’s weight. At last, he gave in and swung his arms up to lay one hand atop the other above his head.
Just one of Vance’s hands was big enough to curl around both of Stanley’s wrists and the contact released the last of Stanley’s reticence. He relaxed into the bed and Vance really began to move.
Hard and fast. Punishing, even, until the sound of flesh slapping and Vance grunting filled Stanley’s world. The slick, heavy slide of cock in and out of his body pushed him hard up against his orgasm, but he willed himself still, waiting.
“You wanna?” Vance asked.
Stanley squirmed, thinking to free a hand and try to reach under himself, but Vance tightened his grip.
“You want to?” He asked again, voice hardening as he panted the words out and pumped more determinedly.
“Good,” Vance growled, thrusting hard and deep. “Me first.”
He pulled at Stanley’s shoulder, ramming them together as close as two people were ever going to get, and snarled something too garbled to make out. His cock throbbed, hard and hot inside Stanley, making him moan.
“Not yet.” Vance rocked into him, moaning and grinding and finally shuddering out the last of his release.
“Now,” he said, pulling out and discarding the condom in one deft movement. He tipped Stanley over and wrapped one huge hand around his cock, leaned down, and licked at his tip. Stanley dug the back of his head into the pillows, blinking at the ceiling, and humped into Vance’s big, inadequate fist. Wet heat engulfed Stanley. Vance’s mouth, then his throat, closed over him in one long swallow. The shock of his body being emptied one second and his cock sucked down a throat the next was almost enough to send Stanley careening over the edge into orgasm.
Vance growled permission, the hum vibrating into and through Stanley. His eyes rolled back in his head, and dark oblivion clashed with white hot orgasm. Stanley arched up into Vance’s mouth and everything disappeared behind the immediacy of brutal release.
When Stanley managed to get a handle on reality a few moments later, Vance was watching him. His lover’s gaze was a weight across his chest; expectant. It was a long time before he could risk opening his eyes, before he rounded up the courage to see what he always saw there.
No longer harsh or angry or aggressive, the singer’s golden eyes glowed with the familiar, unsettling mixture of hope and confidence. Confidence he’d scrambled Stanley’s brain, and hopeful that this time, he was sated enough to remain scrambled and under Vance’s sway.
He never did.
That utter capitulation to anyone never happened. Never, except with Vance, on rare occasions when the singer demanded every ounce of control, and only rarely did Stanley give it to him. Usually, the sex ended up rough and bruising and exhausting, but not submissive.
The bed creaked and sank, tipping Stanley’s weight to one side. He rolled, once again pressed tight to Vance’s sweaty, sticky skin.
“Take your time,” Vance whispered, caressing his cheek with soft touches of fingers and lips.
Stanley let out a sigh. “You did that thing….”
“Just made an offer,” Vance corrected. “You took it.” It was almost a question.
Stanley almost didn’t have the heart to answer this time. But he couldn’t lie. Finally, he opened his eyes to find Vance leaning over him, watching, expression softly neutral for an unsettling change.
He didn’t have to say anything. Vance dipped his chin, the tiniest movement, acknowledging that yes, he’d had his way, Stanley had given him the power, but he wasn’t going to be allowed to keep it. “Shower?” he asked softly. His way of releasing them from the awkward non-conversation.
Stanley nodded. “If I can walk.”
Vance grinned, forcing the jovial expression past the darker disappointment in his eyes. “I’m not goin’ to let you down. Come on.” He got up and held out a hand.
Taking the offer, Stanley managed to limp his way to the shower where he only had to lean on the wall while Vance took very good care of him, soaping him up, rinsing him off, and spending a lot of time kneading out kinked muscles.
“Spoilin’ me,” Stanley muttered.
“Givin’ back,” Vance replied. “Now shut up an’ turn round so I can get at your shoulders.”
Stanley closed his eyes, enjoying the touch and his friend’s drawl as he gave soft instructions and did his best to remove all trace of where he’d been.