“I WANT to thank everyone for coming out tonight. You’ve been a great audience.” The couple at the center table looked up at me with almost identical grins. Despite this being an extra gig in a very busy week, I’d enjoyed playing for their bachelor party—even if it made me feel my loneliness more sharply.
“I’ll leave the happy couple with these words from an old Native American chief who, if he was smart, said them to his other half: ‘I will fight no more forever.’” I raised my glass of water and shouted over the noisy crowd, “To Sammy and Ned—may they have a long, happy, peaceful life together!”
The raucous audience at Stonewall Saloon whooped and hollered through my words and got even louder after my last sentence. Rising from their seats, Sammy and Ned raised their clasped hands like boxers who’d won a particularly hard bout but now were on their way to a great wedding.
As they gushed about how happy they were that everybody could make it to their wedding, I started to pack up my banjo and guitars. Tonight I’d left the fiddle backstage because I was so tired. I’d been burning too many candles from both ends. After locking away the instruments in the storeroom and breaking down the mic and the amps, I caught the end of Sammy’s speech.
“If you enjoyed Zeke Bandy’s guitar and banjo playing, remember he’s here at Stonewall Thursday and Friday nights. We’re honored to have him play at our wedding.”
When the crowd cheered, I stood, turned, and waved to the fifty or sixty bobbing heads on the other side of the stage. Whistles and catcalls joined the shouts and cheers. I had my fans and a lot of regulars in the audience.
“See ya tomorrow, Red! I love you!” some drunk yelled, and the crowd cheered louder.
“Oh, cut it out, guys! You’re making me blush.” And they were, with all their yells and waves and hoots and hollers.
A cry went up about more beer from one side of the room, and the night proceeded like all the others when I played. Attention spans flew out the window as the beer and hard drinks flowed. Completely sober, I put away the rest of the equipment and shut off the power on the platform that bar owner Guy Stone had designated as a stage.
Jimmy Patterson, Stone’s significant other and owner of Penny’s coffee shops here in Stone Acres, California, waved at me as I returned to the barroom from the storage area in the back.
“I got a table!” He was trying to shout over the noise.
As I limped toward him, men slapped me on the back and told me how much they enjoyed my playing. I kept moving, even though guys tried to stop me and give me requests for Thursday night. One guy even grabbed my face and kissed me, which would have been really flattering, even hot, if he hadn’t stopped, stared at me, and said, “You’re not Tom.”
I turned to walk away, only to hear him shout, “Red, you’re cuter than Tom.” I didn’t turn back but heard him yelp like he’d been hit.
I ended up sitting at a big table in the corner of the drinking area with a decent view of the tiny new dance floor. At the table with Jimmy sat four guys—flamboyant designer Fredi Zimmer and his husband, staid, reliable Max Greene, both of whom I knew fairly well, and two guys I didn’t know.
My eyes were drawn to the one who had strong cheekbones, long blue-black hair, and vibrant adobe-colored skin. He could easily have been a poster boy for the California Native American Heritage Commission. If I could pick a guy to kiss me unexpectedly, he’d be my choice. The libido I thought dead from overwork rose from its grave.
While the guys wrangled over who was paying for the next round, I took in the other man to the left of my preferred eye candy. This guy flaunted nearly white-blond hair, startling blue eyes, and a California tan, like the ultimate surfer dude. He did nothing for me, but I appreciated the effect he’d probably have on a lot of other guys here tonight.
I could easily see the humor in the three of us sitting at the same table, though. Considering I’ve got bright red hair, porcelain-white skin with a thick spattering of freckles, and cornflower blue eyes, this table covered a large portion of the rainbow.
Jimmy introduced us while he partially stood to get Stone’s attention. “Zeke, these are two of the groomsmen, Vic Longbow and Hayden Weller. Zeke Bandy.”
Both of them nodded, a nod I returned.
“Hey, man. Nice pickin’ up there.” Hayden, the beach god, waved his nearly empty glass of beer at me.
“Thanks.” I never knew what to say when someone complimented me after a performance. While part of me was floating on the post-performance high, the rest of me was critiquing what I’d done and what I’d like to do over.
“Are you recorded?” Vic’s voice was low and soothing, the kind of sound that oddly created a center of calm in the middle of the barroom noise. I gladly stepped into the peace and took a deep breath.
I looked down, fleetingly taking in the scarred tabletop, and balanced momentarily on the pinpoint of serenity Vic had presented me.
“No, no recordings. I haven’t ever had the time or energy.” I shrugged. I owned and ran the historic hotel in downtown Stone Acres. When was there time to record?
“Where do you get the songs? Are they yours?” Vic was focused on me so much that the rest of the table dimmed.
“No. God, no. They’re all old tunes that have been knocking around forever, mostly by bluegrass and folk groups. I take it you don’t listen to this kind of sound?”
He smiled. “You’ve opened up a whole new door for me, and I can’t wait to explore what’s inside this new music room.”
His look caressed me enough that my dick perked, and suddenly I dared to believe my dream of finding a boyfriend and possibly a husband wasn’t as nebulous as I’d always thought. If someone this fine could look at my skinny ginger self and respond even half as much as he was, I was on the right path. I grinned at him and he at me.
Yeah, he was too hot for me with his high cheekbones and exotic hair, but I could practice on him and dream, right?
Stone cut off my wishful thinking by zooming in on our table with more glasses and another pitcher of beer. While Stone gave Jimmy a kiss, then asked if we needed anything else, I poured myself a glass and took a sip.
Around us, guys danced and drank and toasted the happy couple. The noise level had risen from active listening when I was playing to frontier barroom now that the music boomed from the old-fashioned jukebox. As the old song went, all my rowdy friends seemed to be here tonight.
As Jimmy poured, Vic leaned toward me. “Gotta ask. You related to Bandy’s Finest Hotel?”
I laughed at the aptness of the question.
“Yup, she’s my mistress and my heritage. She takes most of my time, all of my money, and gives little in return.”
Vic laughed at my answer, his eyes sliding to Hayden, then quickly away. “Yeah, Hayden and I know about living in the footsteps of family obligations.” Before I could ask for an explanation, he added, “I heard you’ve got a collection of historic photos and journals at the hotel.” He looked intent and very interested.
“Yeah, photos, journals, letters, you name it. Enough to fill the walls and the reading room shelves. Some of it is in boxes on the third floor.” I shrugged, watching his eyes narrow. His small smile spread into a full-fledged shit-eating grin, and I was hooked. My body was ready for a fling.
“Can you give me a tour?” Vic asked.
“You kidding?” Fredi broke in. “Zeke’s always trying to get people to come down to the hotel and listen to him drone on about the stuff he’s got there.”
I was used to the teasing, so I didn’t rise to the bait.
Hayden gave a light laugh. “Well, then, they’ve got something in common. My brother Vic may be a financial wizard, but his heart is buried in history.”
My eyes swung back to Vic’s. He nodded and his eyes gleamed. He raised his glass to me. “I wouldn’t say buried exactly, but yeah, history’s my passion. Well, that and musicians.”
Now I was the one being enticed. I wanted to say, “Hey, take me. I’m easy.” But I knew that wasn’t done, even at Stonewall.
Hayden’s laugh cut through the noise of the crowd. “I’m thinking you two should be real good friends, bro.”
“Sure, I’d love to give you a tour. No problem. Stop by and a personal tour is all yours.” I winked at Vic. Then I blinked in surprise. Shit. I don’t think I’d winked at another person in my life.
Hayden chuckled. “Considering we’re staying at your hotel until after the wedding, you’ll probably have trouble getting rid of us.”
“Oh? Are you guys hanging around Stone Acres after the wedding?” Someone had put a couple bowls of peanuts on the table and I grabbed a handful. The after-performance munchies had set in.
“Yeah, I’m opening a branch office of a national brokerage firm here in Stone Acres. Right now Hayden’s just sightseeing.” Vic’s smile dazzled me. Hot damn. He was making all the right moves to go home with me tonight.
“I’m deciding whether to put together an art gallery here,” Hayden added, though I barely heard him.
At that, Fredi sat up. “Where? Are you looking for artists?”
Hayden briefly glanced at him. “Oh, I know all about you, Mr. Zimmer. I’ve had my eye on you and your work for quite a while.”
When Fredi leaned across Vic to talk to Hayden, Vic got up and gestured to his brother to switch seats. Suddenly, I was sitting next to the intense Vic, who turned his body and rested a hand on the back of my chair. My natural instinct to clam up in the face of incredible charisma threatened to overtake me, while my dick pleaded with me to ignore my innate shyness.
From my other side, Jimmy leaned a little over me to ask Vic, “When do you start work? Are you looking for clients? Guy and I want to put our portfolios together.”
A professional smile overtook Vic’s face, but he didn’t back away from me. “Why don’t you come in and see me when you both have time? I start in a few weeks. I have to find a temporary place to stay and somewhere to set up my office.” I could feel one of his fingers running down my neck and onto my shoulder.
I turned to him, and he seemed much closer than I’d thought. I pulled back a bit and told him, “The hotel has some weekly rental rooms on the third floor if you want to stay in Old Town. Otherwise, there are motels on the state roads and a few apartment complexes near the mall outside town.”
Vic nodded. “Actually, I’d like to keep my room at the hotel. A guy I know said he saw an old photo of a man who looked just like me in tribal dress. He thought the Native American in the photo appeared to be Navajo. I’m looking for that picture here because the guy was vacationing in the area. I’d like to see if you might have a copy of the photo.”
“Oh, sure. There are old pictures all over the place in Stone Acres. We’ll see if we can find it.” Maybe because of the lazy stroking of his finger, the third post-performance phase had begun. I was getting tired and maybe a little light-headed. While it’d be nice to get a date, not to mention get laid, my body said it was time to turn in.
Stone swung by the table, taking away the empty pitcher and switching it for a full one. He bent and kissed Jimmy quickly again, then leaned in so I could hear him.
“You’re not answering your phone. Something’s happening at your place.”
So much for snagging a potential boyfriend or bringing him back to the hotel with me tonight. Because of my 24-7 mistress, the length of my love life was never as long as my dick.
I nodded to Stone. God only knew what kind of trouble had cropped up at the hotel. No point in pulling out my phone since the hotel was across the alley from the bar.
I said a quick good-night to everyone at the table.
As I got up, thankfully not knocking anything over, I felt the last of the adrenaline draining from my body. The post-performance low was firmly established, and I sighed. I didn’t want to deal with any crises. I wanted to go back to my room and zonk out if I wasn’t getting some tonight. Was that so much to ask?
Apparently. I took a step back from my chair and nearly stumbled. I could feel my weaker leg let go. Then as quickly as I felt the dip and thought I might fall, I felt a strong chest against my back and a hand steadied me.
“Here. You need some help?” Fuck, Vic’s seductive voice nearly reactivated my dick and my desire. I let myself lean into his linebacker arms for a moment, then pulled my slightly shorter and much thinner self away. Beer dreams were nice, but a hotel crisis was calling. Time to find out what had happened in the few hours I’d been gone.
“Uh, thanks. I’m okay.” I took an experimental step, and the world returned to normal.
The taller and broader Vic bent, and I felt his breath on my neck. “Sure you’re okay?”
Someone behind him gave us a little shove. Vic turned and growled a few words at them.
I took a step toward the Employees Only doorway on the side of the stage. “Yeah. I’m good.”
He nodded, but I felt his hand lightly on my back. I wondered what his reaction would be if I stopped and turned to kiss him.
I shook myself. Damn, I didn’t need beer thoughts when I had to deal with a problem.
As I weaved my way through the crowd toward the door, I could feel Vic behind me, pushing back the men who flung compliments and requests my way. I zoned out from the male voices and jukebox music swirling around me and took a second to bask in having someone momentarily taking care of me. What a luxury.
When Vic and I got to the door to Stonewall’s backstage and liquor storage, I took a deep breath and turned.
“You’re going back to the hotel?” He sounded like he was concerned about me. What a strange, surreal night this had turned out to be.
“Yeah. Home.” What an odd word that was for the historic frontier hotel where I’d lived almost my entire life. “Gotta go to work.”
Vic gave me a quick hug. “Will you have time to show me around tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure. No problem. Just ask for me at the front desk if you don’t see me.” While he explored the photos and papers, maybe we could get to know each other—depending on how serious this latest problem at the hotel was. “Good night. Thanks.”
I punched the code into the door lock, turned quickly, gave him a smile, and slid into the back room.
As I made my way back to the hotel via the storage area, Stonewall’s backyard, the gate, and the hotel’s back door, I could have kicked myself. The very least I could have done was exchange phone numbers. Yeah, Zeke Bandy, playboy, was definitely off his game tonight. I laughed at the playboy part and walked a little quicker, feeling the pain start in my hip and left leg.