Brave & Beautiful
M/M Romance – Coming October 2017 from Carina Press
Sexy, seductive and hiding dark secrets, the Sassy Boyz return to the stage in Brave & Beautiful
There’s only one relationship that matters to Tameron “Tam” Kis—his love affair with dance. Life’s been pretty shitty, but dance got him through it and now he’s ready to focus on what he loves. He doesn’t have the bandwidth for any distractions—especially not his sexy, not-quite-straight new neighbor.
Driver Ellis doesn’t need anything but his bike and the open road. He wouldn’t trade his drifter lifestyle for anything…until his friend calls in a favor and Driver suddenly finds himself pet-sitting. Driver isn’t thrilled being stuck in one place, though things start to look up when he sets eyes on the gorgeous girl next door.
There’s just one problem… She isn’t a girl at all.
All it takes is one spontaneous dance to turn both Driver’s and Tam’s worlds upside down. They might not have been looking for love, but as things heat up between them, it’s clear life has very different plans.
This book is approximately 75,000 words
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
“How long will you stick around this time?” Brandon asked as he counted the day’s take from the cash register. The bills made flick-flick sounds as they hit the pile.
Driver picked up the last stool and put it upside down on the bar, without meeting his friend’s gaze. He hated that question. “I don’t know, Harrison is away for a month. Why?”
Every light was off except the two fluorescents overhead, but the colorful vibe of Stage Left couldn’t be dimmed. Broadway posters and theatrical colors melded with the old oak and classic brass to make Stage Left the ultimate theater pub. It was the place to sing with a chorus and unwind with headliners and crew alike. Brandon worked hard to keep it that way. After chasing out the final straggler, they’d locked the doors. Without all the creative energy filling it up, the place felt too quiet.
Brandon shifted on his feet but kept his eyes on the money as he continued the tally. “Kinda nice not having to do all this shit by myself for once.”
“And here I thought you missed me. All you want is slave labor.”
“Slaves don’t get a cut of the profits,” Brandon said, pushing a small stack of bills toward him. “If you’d commit to six months I could put you on the books and even get you benefits.”
Driver shuddered dramatically. “Fuck, but that sounds a lot like adulting.” He picked up the money and counted his share. Close to fivehundred bucks for one night of bartending, on a weekday no less? He might have been out of the game a while, but that seemed high. He eyed Brandon. “I’m not a fucking charity case.”
“You earned it, fucker. Take it and shut up.”
Driver stuffed the stack of fifties into his pocket. “Thanks. And thanks for picking up the phone when I called.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“I haven’t exactly been the greatest friend lately.” Driver grabbed a discarded rag and began wiping down surfaces that had already been cleaned.
“True, you kind of suck.”
“Hey!” He threw the cloth at his friend, who caught it.
“Harsh but true.” Brandon tossed the damp rag back. “But, I’m a saint, so…”
“Yeah, Saint Brando, all fucking heart.”
Brandon laughed. “Think I could get a plaque?”
“Seriously though, thanks.” Driver had lost too many friends over the years, but the bond between him, Brandon, and Harrison ran deep like the roots of the old oak they used to climb.
“You’d do the same for me or Harrison.” Brandon walked into his office to stash the rest of the cash in a wall safe, and Driver followed. “Want to crash here?”
“Nah, I gotta get back to feed Michelangelo. Plus, I stink like a beer-soaked ashtray. I’m gonna take advantage of the obscene hour and do some laundry.” Driver grabbed his helmet from behind the bar.
“All right, see you tomorrow?” Hesitant.
Apprehension tightened Driver’s core. This floating from couch to couch and job to job shit took its toll. And not always on him. He’d gotten used to the uncertainty—the freedom. But his friendships suffered. Those few he had left were more precious than gold.
Still, he looked into his friend’s eyes and answered the way he always had before. “No promises.”
Brandon sighed. “Right, can’t cage the bird.”
Together they crossed to the front doors. “I’m just saying, some people find it comforting to have a home to come back to.”
Tension hunched Driver’s shoulders and clenched his jaw, because he knew what Brandon would say next.
“Have you called them yet?” Brandon asked, predictable as the fucking sun.
It wasn’t like he was avoiding his grandparents—much. He’d just arrived in the city that morning. He hadn’t had time to call them. His silence was all the answer Brandon needed to get on his case.
“Shit, D, they’re your family.”
“Sure.” Like he didn’t believe it. Like he knew exactly what Driver was thinking even though he couldn’t. He might have been there but he hadn’t lived it.
“Fuck you, I said I will.”
Brandon unlocked the door and held it open. “I’ll see you when I see you then.”
Damn, it was cold outside. A burst of icy wind hit him in the face and he sucked in a quick breath. Driver shoved his empty hand into his jeans pocket to keep it warm. The Zippo he always carried was cold against his knuckles. He pulled it out and flicked it open. No flame sparked to life. It was long dead, but he hadn’t been able to break the habit. It reminded him why he couldn’t settle down, why he couldn’t live a normal life.
“See you when I see you,” Driver repeated.
The sharp click of the lock sounded like an exhaust backfire behind him. It was the termination of an argument they’d been having for years.
The neon billboards flashed ads and posters for the latest musical hit, casting colorful auras through the heavy fog that hung over the city. New York in early November was a special experience, early enough in the season that leaves still clung desperately to the trees, displaying their vibrant colors like badges of honor. The holidays were just around the corner and already you could feel the spirit in the air.
No doubt, somewhere not far away people were already hustling to prepare for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But tonight, on a random street in the TheaterDistrict, there were only a few souls huddled in their winter garb wandering the sidewalks.
Guilt made his steps heavy as he walked away. It had been over two years since he’d visited.
Not that New York was home, but it was close enough. He’d grown up not far away in Connecticut. A short drive really. He could get on his bike now and be at his grandparents’ house in sixty minutes. Hell, maybe less. At this hour the streets would be practically empty. A ball of anxiety coiled in his chest and he shook his head.
No, not tonight. He needed to feed Harrison’s ridiculous turtle and clean up. He’d call them tomorrow.
Or the day after. By Friday, for sure.
Definitely, he’d see them before he left town.
He pushed on his helmet and swung his leg over to mount his baby, the Harley-Davidson FXR Cruiser he’d been riding since he was old enough to drive. She roared to life. Her purr settled the restlessness and unease that had tightened his muscles during his conversation with Brandon.
The open road was ahead and nothing else mattered.
* * *
Driver shrugged the old army bag full of laundry over his shoulder as the ancient fluorescent lights flickered on overhead. The building’s basement laundry room was deserted, as he’d expected. And just as well maintained as the rest of the building—so, not very.
Everything looked about thirty years old, even the cobwebs.
But Harrison had said the machines worked and wouldn’t rip his clothes to shreds, which was all he really needed.
It’d been weeks since he’d done a proper load and he was sick of sorting through his shirts to pick the one that stank the least. If nothing else came from this trip, at least he’d have clean threads for a while.
Out of the two washers, he chose the one that seemed least broken. And yeah, his grandmother had taught him to sort colors and whites, but what was the point when he only had a few of each? He stuffed it all in together, though he did make sure to double-check all his pockets.
After losing a few phone numbers to the evils of a spin cycle, he’d learned his lesson.
He’d definitely scored in that department tonight. Dropping the empty bag to the floor, he pulled the bundle of napkins from his pocket. Five in total. The faces and names were all jumbled together in his memory but it didn’t matter. He’d pick one at random and have a couple nights of fun, then he’d move on again with nothing holding him back. Exactly how he liked it. No strings. No commitments. All pleasure, all the time.
He placed the numbers on the lid of the unused machine along with the cash, his keys, wallet, and the Zippo. Sterling silver and engraved with detailed filigree, his father’s lighterhad probably been remarkable when it was new, all shiny and unique. Now it just looked old and dirty, worn down and useless.
All the things he never went anywhere without laid out like pieces on a game board. Or clues to a mystery.
The mystery of a drifter running away from his own past.
He pulled off his shirt and tossed it in with the rest of the laundry. Brandon must have really gotten in his head with all his sentimental crap. Or maybe it was being back after such a long time.
Maybe this was why he’d stayed away. Maybe some piece of him had known all this bullshit would surround him. Hell, he hadn’t even been in town for a full twenty-four hours and already his stomach twisted with guilt.
Jesus. Fucking asshole Brandon.
Old resentment made unbuckling his belt jerky and he whipped it off with an angry flick. There was absolutely no sane reason to be filled with these negative emotions. He knew that. He did.
But he couldn’t help it.
Twisting the old leather in his fists, he took a deep breath. No. Stop it. Fuck this fucking spiral. He wouldn’t be tumbling down it again. His shoulders relaxed, he dropped the belt with the rest of his stuff and unsnapped his jeans. They were around his knees when he heard a soft gasp come from the doorway behind him.
The sound startled him so much he twisted to look without letting go of his pants. The resulting tangle landed him on his ass, staring up at a stunning woman with long blond hair and beautiful wide eyes.
“Are you okay?”
They spoke at the same time. Her voice was like honey, thick and syrupy. It oozed over his senses.
“Only thing bruised is my ego,” Driver answered. Actually, his ass was throbbing like a motherfucker. The ground was solid cement. At the moment though, he was too focused on the newcomer to care.
What a view. He’d always been a sucker for big eyes and long hair. Okay, she was shorter than he preferred but her legs looked amazingly fit in those teeny-tiny jean shorts. Maybe not the curviest on top from what he could see under the oversized T-shirt that hung off her in enthralling folds, but he was an ass man anyway. Her cheeks were rosy and her lips shone like she’d licked them recently. Sexy, for sure, in an innocent kind of way that made Driver imagine sneaking out of the house to makeout and getting laid in the backseat of his grandparents’ Lincoln. Yep, he might just lose all those numbers and have a little fun with the girl next door instead.
It’d been a long time since his heart beat this fast at the idea of hooking up.
As he stood, her gaze wandered over his bare chest and arms, then lower to his boxer briefs and thighs. He flexed, he’d admit it. He wasn’t shy and liked to show off. Except it wasn’t exactly desire on her face. No. He knew desire. This was something else, more like curiosity mixed with wonder, as if she were wrestling with something she didn’t quite understand. Strange as it was, her inspection filled him with heat he couldn’t deny.
“Didn’t mean to shock you.” Driver covered his junk, mostly because he’d started to get a stiffy and didn’t want to shock her. Then he gave his best self-effacing laugh to put her at ease.
She didn’t even smile.
“Oh.” Snapping out of her perusal, she furrowed her brow. “I guess I can come back later.” She turned to leave.
Damn. That move always worked. “No, um. It’s okay. You don’t need to go on my account.” He kicked off his pants, tempted to chase after her like a crazy person. “I’m not self-conscious.”
She paused in the doorway but didn’t turn. So fucking strange, but he felt like something important hung in the balance.
Driver held his breath.
* * *
Tam clenched his teeth and tightened his grip on the basket at his hip, annoyance stealing the calm he’d maintained all day. He’d just wanted to do his laundry in peace, was that too much to ask? He looked over his shoulder.
The stranger invading the quiet stillness of the building’s basement laundry room was everything Tam went out of his way to avoid. Everything about him was rough, from the five o’clock shadow to the tattoos that colored his skin in a kaleidoscope of artwork. Except his voice, which was smooth as silk and he knew it. Arrogant as all hell, standing there in his tight boxerbriefs like it was no big deal. And, worst of all, he’d looked Tam over with interest.
His friends might think him naive, but Tam knew what lust looked like. He couldn’t do what he’d doneand not know.
He debated his choices for as long as it took for the challenge in the stranger’s eyes to get under his skin.
He could either wait until tomorrow night to wash his clothes, which would throw him off schedule and might be a problem because he was down to his old ratty briefs, or face the issue head-on.
Ugh, he hated getting off schedule. And it wasn’t like he couldn’t defend himself if necessary. His best friend, Ansel, the unofficial leader of the Sassy Boyz, had taught him self-defense years ago.
Grinding his teeth, Tam crossed the threshold, and the guy smirked liked he’d won. Tam, never one for violence, had the sudden urge to punch this stranger right in the mouth.
But, damn. He’d walked right into it, hadn’t he? Tam glared, which only made that irritating smile grow.
Focus on the task and get the hell out of here.
Tam dropped the basket to the floor. “Would you mind?” He waved a hand at the random crap that littered the top of the second machine.
“Sorry.” In short order, the items were stuffed into the army-green duffel on the floor. “I didn’t expect anyone else to be down here this late. It’s not like I have some kinky fetish to corner strangers in my skivvies. I promise.”
Tam ignored him.
“It’s just that this is the first time I’ve had a chance to wash my clothes in a couple of weeks and I wasn’t sure when I’d get another opportunity, so I figured I’d take advantage, you know?”
Tam didn’t. He had a plan that had carried him through his stay at Prism Center and now to his very first apartment. It had taken some adjustment, but his routine had settled into a simple schedule that allowed him to avoid his neighbors, most of the time, and still keep his belongings clean. It was the only way. He’d never go a whole week without doing laundry.
Yeah, his plan also meant he was washing his intimates tonight. Had to be, right?It couldn’t have been towel day? Tam pinched his lips together and did his best to hide each strip of silk and lace as he loaded the machine.
No such luck.
The stranger tilted forward to get a peek. “Cute panties.”
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
His fist tightened on the scrap of fabric in his hand and he focused a steady stare at the guy. “Do I look like I care what you think?” Nice, he’d sounded way more confident than he felt. His voice hadn’t even shaken.
The guy straightened. “You’re right, that was out of line. Sorry.”
The sincere apology threw Tam. “Uh, okay.” His gaze caught on the stranger’s wide leather wristband. It looked worn and beloved as if he wore it every day. Soft. Supple.
“Seriously, I’m not usually such an ass. Yet here I am practically naked in the middle of the night.”
“It’s okay.” Man, why’d it suddenly get so hot? Tam fanned his shirt but it didn’t help.
“I freaked you out.”
“I wasn’t freaked.” More like embarrassed. The only people who saw his underwear were the boys and even then he usually kept his more itty-bitty lacy options to himself.
The stranger continued like Tam hadn’t replied. “Because who wouldn’t be nervous when a naked stranger corners them in the basement? I’m such a dick.”
“I’m not nervous.” Not exactly a lie, he was annoyed that his routine had been interrupted, not scared. He knew a number of ways to protect himself. But still…
“I mean, you’re half my size and here I am commenting on your adorable panties? Total douchebag move.”
Tam couldn’t help it, he laughed. It was loud in the quiet hollowness of the basement. “Calm down, it’s not the end of the world. Apology accepted.”
The corner of the stranger’s mouth tipped up and snared all of Tam’s focus. “Yeah?”
Breath caught, Tam nodded. Why hadn’t he noticed before how full those lips were? Or how stormy his eyes were? Or the thickness of his brown hair at the top, so full Tam suddenly wanted to feel how soft it was. Shit.
“Sure.” Tam tore his gaze away and stared into the machine as his stomach fluttered. No, hell, this wasn’t butterflies or anything weak like that. It was as if a whole herd of wild antelope were stampeding through his insides. Not at all enjoyable.
He finished loading his laundry in silence. As he was adding the soap, the stranger spoke again.“So, I’m a bartender. What’s your excuse for late-night laundry duty?”
Tam had to bite his lip to stop the answer from spilling out unedited. Details he hadn’t noticed before were suddenly his center of attention. The bright yellow light played over the guy’s muscles, making them glow like painted marble. His sculpted pelvic bone seemed so hard where it disappeared into tight black briefs. Tam’s mouth went dry.
What. The. Hell?
He closed his eyes and shook his head. Nope. Not going to happen. He started his machine with a shaky hand.
“Habit,” he said.
Those full lips twisted wryly. “Right. Sorry to push.”
Tam picked up his basket. Against his better judgment he added, “I…I’ve done it this way for years. No matter where you go, the machines always seem to be free at this hour. I used to dance and tend to get home really late. I’m usually too wired afterward to sleep right away, so I clean instead.” He didn’t know why he’d elaborated, except that he hadn’t liked the disappointment in the stranger’s gray-blue eyes.
“You dance, like, a stripper?” He studied Tam a moment and then his nostrils flared. “Jesus.”
There was that interest again. Only this time, warmth spread through Tam and his pulse began to race.
“Now that’s something I’d pay to see,” the stranger said.
Never gonna happen. “Not a stripper. And anyway, I said used to. Remember?” Unless he could work a miracle and find the Sassy Boyz a new home. He crossed to the doorway. The reminder of their current lack of options soured his mood even further. It had been another crap day auditioning for assholes who hadn’t appreciated their uniqueness and talent. Another day of failure.
“Hey? Um, how long does a load usually take?”
“About an hour.” He headed out, ready for the day to be over.
Tam stopped, heart thundering, palms sweaty. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought the tempest, but it didn’t feel like an oncoming panic attack and his usual relaxation mantra wasn’t working.
“I, uh, I didn’t get your name.”
Tam turned. “What?”
“I’m Driver.” The stranger held out his hand. “I’m a bartender-slash-construction worker-slash-freelance photographer. I’ve been to every state at least twice. I like cookies and sunsets and dogs.”
Tam stared at the outstretched hand like it might bite him. Even from here he could see it was rough with calluses and littered with scars.
“Tam.” He slipped his smaller hand into Driver’s and ignored the heat that crawled up his spine. “I’m a dancer-slash-choreographer. I don’t travel, but I like cookies and sunsets and dogs too.”
“I promise I’m not a psycho. I’m turtle-sitting for my friend Harrison Givens. He’s on the third floor, Apartment 33. Do you know him?”
Apartment 33. Right across the fucking hall. Of course he was. Tam pulled his hand away. “I believe you and no, I don’t.”
“Which apartment is yours? Just in case I need to borrow a cup of sugar.”
There was no way out of that direct question. “32,” Tam said. The surprise that widened Driver’s gray-blue eyes transformed some of Tam’s agitation into amusement. “Freaky coincidence, isn’t it?”
Right, luck. Tam’s terrible luck. Still, his curiosity got to him—sometimes he was too nosy for his own good. “Is turtle-sitting really a thing?”
Driver pushed the flop of hair off his forehead, making his biceps bunch and flex and the bright swirls of the tattoo dance. Tam blinked away. God, what was with him tonight?
“It’s Harrison’s way of being generous without making me feel like a mooch,” Driver said. “I needed a place to crash and he just happened to be traveling for work. I know nothing about reptiles unless they’re teenage mutant ninjas.”
Tam smiled at the reference. “What’s its name?”
“Michel-fucking-angelo. I’m not even kidding. He literally does nothing all day.”
“When you’re watching. I bet he’s practicing his nunchuck skills while you’re away.”
“Maybe I should set up a spy-cam just to make sure.” He winked and Tam’s belly quivered. Christ. Was he going insane? “So, Tam? Is that short for Tammy?”
Oh. Right. There it was. The bucket of cold water that shut his strange attraction down.
Driver looked at him and saw a girl.
Weird disappointment curdled Tam’s stomach and he pressed his fingernails into his palm. “Don’t wait too long to get your clothes or you might find them on the floor.” He walked away as fast as he could on shaky legs.