I don’t know how you talked me into this,” Rory grumbled as Benny made wide, innocent eyes at him from the passenger’s seat of the SUV. His best friend and bandmate’s “who, me?” expression was getting old. Fast.
Rory had to admit, Benny’d gotten the group an amazing gig—a chance to play a really small venue and try out some of their new music in an intimate setting. Three consecutive shows for their band, One Wish—and one was actually going to be a cappella, Austin City Limits-style. Being booked in for three performances spread over a week with rest days in between shows—without having to travel—was a huge plus as well. The topper? A staggering remuneration package, and Rory sure needed the money right now.
Too good to be true, right? The only fly in the ointment was the weird conditions in the contract they’d just signed with the group they’d be performing for. It was essentially a private performance for some kind of religious organization or something, and they’d laid down some very bizarre ground rules. Not just requests either, but actual deal-breakers in the fucking contract.
No photography or videography. That one Rory was really bummed about. It would’ve been fantastic to tape the small-house shows for a music video or promo piece or at the very least something to stick up on the website. Especially, he thought wistfully, the a cappella performance.
Once the band arrived at the property containing the venue, they could not leave until after their last show. That was all kinds of fucked up. Like volunteering—by contract, no less—to be a prisoner.
And everyone involved had to be in a committed relationship.
Rory snorted and rolled his eyes. And they said performers had freaky conditions in their contracts.
It was this last one that Benny had tried to slip past Rory, mumbling it at the last second.
“What?” Rory had exclaimed incredulously. “First of all, what the hell? And secondly, duh! Both of us are single. And wait. Does that mean the roadies and tech guys too? Shit.”
“So we only take the married or practically married ones.” Benny had turned on his persuasive charm. Which usually worked. Damn it.
Rory waited impatiently for his roommate to continue and address the obvious. When nothing more was forthcoming, he rolled his eyes. “And us? Kinda pointless to leave us at home.” When you had a group of four, two missing would be a tad noticeable. Especially the lead singers.
“Well, we are in a committed relationship.” That was when the butter-wouldn’t-melt look had started. Benny used his long, elegant fingers to tick off his supporting arguments. “We live together. We own the house together. We’ve got the band together. Hell, we even have sex more often than some of our married friends. If that’s not committed, what is?”
Rory took a deep breath, striving for patience. “Now, I realize I don’t know exactly why they want it that way, but I’m ninety-nine percent sure that’s not what they meant. And you know it.”
“Aww, c’mon, Ree. Seriously. This is a great opp. Don’t go getting all righteous on me now.” Benny had really turned on the charismatic, give-in-to-me-you-know-you-want-to eyes that would have had ninety-nine percent of the population tripping over themselves to do whatever Benny wanted. Unfortunately, Rory had never been one of the one percent. He could feel himself caving. Damn it.
“Okay, but let’s keep it cas’ in private. I’m not in the mood for one of our weird little messed-up now-we’re-screwing-and-can’t-be-friends episodes.”
“Keep it friendly, but not too friendly. Got it.”
The GPS mellifluously reminded Rory to turn right in two hundred feet, which was a good thing, because otherwise he might have missed the very low-key and overgrown side road. Glad of the four-wheel drive when he saw the condition of the gravel road ahead, he held on to the steering wheel with white knuckles as he tried to avoid the worst of the potholes.
“Nice road,” he muttered under his breath after a particularly hard jolt. “Hope the crew made it up here with the equipment okay.”
“They did,” Benny confirmed nonchalantly, swaying easily as if getting tossed around didn’t bother him in the slightest. “I got a text a half-hour ago. Everyone’s waiting on us.”
Rory grimaced as the slight dig hit home. “Hey, it’s not every day you pass straight through a damn National Park. So I needed to take a few pictures. Sue me.”
Benny had snorted loudly at the word “few.” “Just as long as you don’t do it up here,” Benny shot back. “These guys probably would sue.”
An imposing gate impeded their progress, and Rory pulled up to the expensive-looking monitor, glaringly out of place in the back of beyond. It flashed on, and he was faced with a militaristic-looking guard.
“Private property. Please turn around and go back the way you came.” The gruff request was spoken in a bored recitation.
“No, uh, we’re supposed to be here, I think. We’re with One Wish, the band….”
He was interrupted as the guard looked down at something out of view. “State your names.”
“Rory Dean and Benny Oshiro.”
The eyes narrowed and shot up to peruse him intently, seeming to measure him and find him wanting. The guard shook his head, and for a moment, Rory thought they were going to be turned away.
Then, with a clank and shudder, the huge gate began to slide open. Rory put the rude guard out of mind and drove through as soon as the gate cleared. At this point, the nerves for the coming performances—both of his purported relationship with Ben and the actual shows—had settled with a hum into his gut, making him eager to get on with it. Continuing on, they finally crested the seemingly Everest-sized mountain they’d been working their way up, and Rory got his first view of their destination.
“Compound” was the first word that sprang to mind at the sight of the sprawling collection of houses and buildings, all surrounding a gorgeous mountain lodge. The whole thing was nestled in a verdant valley, surrounded by the mountains on all sides but the one beyond the river winding away in the distance. It looked like something out of a movie cut-away.
“Holy shit, will you look at this place.” For once, even Benny sounded impressed.
Rory was too. The lodge alone wouldn’t have looked out of place in the National Park they’d just passed through, and the effect of the whole privately-owned complex set against such a stunning backdrop screamed “money.” Suddenly Rory let go of part of the tension he’d been carrying around. Obviously these people would be able to afford the promised compensation. Part of him had been afraid the gig was some elaborate hoax or scam of some sort. Not that he didn’t trust Benny or Les, their new manager, but still….
After a careful, and much less bumpy, descent to the grouping of buildings, Rory pulled up to the logical stopping point—right in front of the stone entrance to the main lodge. Cars and trucks filled the parking lot and spaces in front of the other buildings, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. The whole area had an abandoned feel to it.
Reaching for the door handle, he glanced at Benny, who shrugged, looking just as puzzled by the deserted area as Rory felt. As he turned to step out, his heart gave a jolt. A tall, muscular man had appeared out of nowhere, assisting him in holding open the door.
Rory jumped and swore. “Shit. Oh, sorry, you startled me.” He automatically held out a hand. “Rory Dean.” Rory recognized the serious visage as the guard who had appeared on the monitor at the gate. Then he really looked at the man.
His hand was swallowed in a firm grasp. “Welcome. I’m Jared Salinas. And this must be your partner, Benny Oshiro?”
Having momentarily forgotten the ruse, Rory just stood and gaped, speechless, hand forgotten in Jared’s. On the video screen, he had looked like any other military type, but in person the details transformed him. Short hair was revealed to be chestnut, the red tones glinting warmly in the natural light. A touch of wave would prove troublesome at a longer length. The intense, serious eyes were a rich amber, almost the same color as his hair—warm and compelling. Rory was tempted to reach out and stroke the masculine jaw line, which begged to be traced, Jared’s strong neck inviting Rory to come find his pulse with his tongue. The man was classically gorgeous and built, but more than that, he exuded a charismatic and commanding presence that had Rory weak at the knees.
Benny inserted himself into the conversation smoothly as he rounded the vehicle. “That’s me. We spoke on the phone. Beautiful place you have here. Should we grab our stuff?” He pointedly removed Rory’s hand from Jared’s, pulling Rory up against his side in a possessive parody of ownership. Back in the right mindset, Rory had to work to fight back a grin. Live-and-let-love Benny was probably the least jealous guy he’d ever known. Thankfully, he was getting right into character.
The sudden, intense frown on Jared’s handsome face would’ve been a little scary if he didn’t immediately follow it with a rueful smile. “Sorry for staring. You guys aren’t at all what I expected.”
Benny laughed, letting his hand idly roam Rory’s side and hip. Even though Rory wasn’t romantically interested in Benny anymore, it still felt good—a caring, familiar touch. “We get that a lot. We look pretty ordinary without our stage makeup and wardrobe, I guess.”
“Ordinary? Hardly.” Jared’s eyes flicked down to the vicinity of Benny’s hand, now with fingers hooked through Rory’s side-most belt loop. Though his smile remained, his eyes looked cool, and Rory began to wonder if their host had some latent homophobic tendencies. He’d seen that before, guys who were cool with you being gay—unless you had the temerity to actually look at or touch another guy in front of them. Then all bets were off.
“As for your bags, I’ll have them brought up to your suite.” Jared held a large hand out, evidently for the keys, continuing in an apparent non sequitur, “Curtis?”
This time, Benny jumped in tandem with Rory as the new, deep voice came unexpectedly from behind them. Damn, these guys were fast and quiet. He took a closer look at Curtis: fast, quiet—and huge. Rory and Benny were each just under six feet tall, but both Jared and Curtis seemed to tower over them and were solid walls of muscle compared to Benny’s lithe, slender build. And Rory’s own body? “Skinny” by his own word, “lean” in the popular press. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
“I’m a bit surprised to see you out here, son. Shouldn’t you be inside with the rest?”
The newcomer, Curtis, cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. I just—needed some fresh air. So I, ah, thought I’d see whether you needed any help with the visitors.” A slide of his eyes toward Benny, then Curtis’s gaze snapped back to Jared, a tinge of red creeping up his cheeks.
Suddenly Rory understood. Curtis must be a fan. The incongruously uncomfortable shuffle from the otherwise mature-looking young man confirmed his suspicions.
He decided to make things easier on the kid. “Hi there, Curtis. I’m Rory and this is Benny.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” Curtis eagerly replied, then shot Jared a sheepish look.
Jared’s expression had softened just a touch, but now it seemed colored with—concern? Which didn’t make sense to Rory. He looked at Curtis a bit more closely. On second glance, he wasn’t as young as Rory had originally thought—probably well into his twenties, for all his awkwardness. Which would make him around Rory and Benny’s age chronologically, although he currently seemed years younger.
Rory shook his head in disbelief. He felt positively ancient next to this young man with his naïve vibe. He guessed that was what the touring lifestyle did for a guy. He wearily wished for a mirror so he could check for wrinkles.
“Son? Wow, you must’ve had him young,” Benny chimed in, giving Curtis an appraising once-over and his best seductive voice. Great. Way to convince them we’re together.
Jared’s brief flash of puzzlement turned into his first genuine grin. “Ah. Son. No, just a figure of speech.” He focused over Rory’s head. “Curtis, if you want to help, you can bring their bags up to the Phoenix Suite and then park their car. But then, you really have to get back to the others,” he chided gently. “No special privileges. Okay?”
“Yes, sir.” With a satisfied grin, the dark-haired young man gave Benny one last surprisingly heated glance—returned by Rory’s “partner” in full measure—and turned back toward the rear of the SUV with a strut.
Curtis either didn’t get the memo on the monogamous relationship thing or didn’t care. Jared looked fit to be tied, and Rory would have been loving it if the successful outcome of this gig hadn’t been so urgent. Time to remind Ben of how they needed to appear. He snaked his arm around Benny’s waist and gave him a pinch—hard—at the waistline. Benny gasped and tried to squirm away, to no avail.
“Why don’t we go check out our room, babe? I could use a… nap after that drive.” Rory let his hand slide down to Benny’s hip, then gave him a loving caress and pat before leaning in to grab his laptop case out of the SUV. When he emerged, he had an audience of three with expressions ranging from apologetic to forbidding to wistful.
God, he loved to entertain.