Off Stage: Right

Set One

Book Cover: Off Stage: Right
ISBN: 978-1-62380-560-9
Print: $ 17.99
ISBN: 978-1-62380-559-3
Pages: 350

Damian Learner and his grunge band, Firefly, are on a meteoric rise to success. If they get the right break, fame awaits. Seeking more professional management, Damian independently strikes a bargain with the best agent in the business, Stanley Krane. Unable to afford the penalty for breaking old contracts, Damian agrees when Stan’s best friend, country and Western megastar Vance Ashcroft, offers to buy him out of his old contract.

Overwhelmed by a crippling loan, secretive guilt, Stanley’s expectations, and a volatile relationship with Lenny, Firefly’s lead guitarist, Damian disintegrates. Bad habits of too much sex, booze, and drugs create a rift in the band. Finally Vance, with his understanding of Dominant/submissive behavior, sees that submissives Damian and Lenny are falling into chaos, clinging to each other to try to avoid the inevitable crash.

When the pressure to perform becomes too much and the unthinkable happens, Damian and Lenny have to decide: accept that they need something they can’t get from each other, or burn out and take Firefly with them. Vance is ready to claim Lenny, but even Stan’s hesitant agreement to give Damian the direction he needs might not be enough for Damian—or the band—if he loses Lenny.

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artists:




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.

Stanley nodded.



“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.

“God, Van….”

“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.

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Stained Glass

Book Cover: Stained Glass
Editions:Digital: $ 6.99
ISBN: 978-1-61372-724-9
Print: $ 14.99
ISBN: 978-1-61372-723-2
Pages: 214

The violent implosion of Lawrence McKenna’s last relationship left him floundering at the bottom of a bottle. Recently unemployed and struggling with his newly discovered submissive tendencies, Laurie needs his best friend, Jeff, more than ever. One sleepless night of detox and a desperate kiss convince him that the attraction they’ve battled all their lives has become too hard to ignore, but Jeff has other responsibilities that take him far away from Laurie and his self-destructive behavior.

When Jeff leaves, all Laurie wants is to be left alone to wallow. Instead, he finds himself riding herd on his friends who have quit their jobs to achieve their dream of starting their own manga publisher. Those same friends return the favor by riding him: about the booze, talking about what happened, seeing a doctor—and about Jeff, whose abandonment left Laurie bitter and resentful. Laurie knows they can’t have a relationship without forgiveness, but when Jeff returns, can he be what Laurie needs?

Publisher: Titles Currently Out of Print
Cover Artists:

Chapter One



YOU know when you want, so bad, the exact thing you don’t want?

Well, that was exactly where he had me pinned. Everything I’d worked for, suffered for, striven to attain, stripped away in that moment, by that cruel whisper. Because I took it. Because I wanted his hands—and his control. The whispers came along with it. I let that poison into my blood as it heated under his touch. I let it in.

And now they tell me not to hate myself. That it wasn’t my fault.

But that poison whisper is in my ear, like it’s a part of me now, and I can’t ever hear anything past it.

“Laurie.” Someone called my name.

I blinked.


Not the velvet whisper in my head mocking me. Not that. Something… someone else.

“Laurie, how much have you had to drink?”


“Wha’?” I glanced at the bottle dangling from my hand. Nope. Not dangling. It had fallen and was lying on my rug in an amber puddle. Wasted. Ruined.

Like me.

“Come on.” Whoever bothered me now tried to lift me off my couch.

“Lemme alone.”

“Can’t, buddy. Come on. Get up. You’re going to have a cold shower, or I call an ambulance and get your stomach pumped. Come on.” That voice was getting more and more angry. “How much?”

“Dunno.” I squirmed out of the tight grip on me. Didn’t like tight grips. Not anymore.

“Oh no you don’t. You’re getting up. Now.”

The hands came back, then arms, wrapping around me, and a fog of everything I’d wanted to drink away crowded out the voice and the whispers came back.

I shut my eyes tight. No. I wasn’t going to give the fluttering voice in my head form. No words. Not this time.

“Make it go away.”

Was that really my voice? That couldn’t be me, pleading like that.

“Okay, Laurie. First things first. Shower. Come on.”

“Want a drink.” So maybe I had a one-track mind. I wanted what I wanted. And I wanted a drink. Even though I knew it wasn’t going to keep it away forever and I didn’t really want to pickle myself. I didn’t want to be this slovenly man passed out on his couch. But there it was again, wanting what I didn’t really want….

“Lawrence, please. Look at me.”

The voice was vague. I still couldn’t place it. But the hand on my chin, lifting my face—that was real. That was….

“Ungh.” I capitulated. Like always. The whispers would start soon enough, but oh God, those hands. My knees buckled. I hit the floor with a painful thud, kneecaps crashing into hard tile.


Alarm. Who was alarmed and why?

It was reason enough to focus, just for a moment, and a face came into view.


“Laurie. Thank God. Focus now. How much did you drink?”

I really, really didn’t know. So I shrugged.

“Did you take anything?”

God. I wish. I shook my head.

“So tired.”

“Mmm.” Jeff knelt beside me and once again took my face in his hands. It didn’t freak me out this time, though. He was gentle. Not like….

“Jeff.” Something was rattling. The noise inside my head was astronomical, and it took me several minutes to realize it was my teeth clanking as I shivered. “What’s happening to me?”


This was not normal. He was sitting on my bathroom floor. I was sitting on my bathroom floor. Freezing. I had no clothes on, and I had no idea why.

“It’s going to be okay.”


“We’ll get you in the shower, buddy. Can you get up?”

“D-don’t.” And there it was. Or rather, there I was, sprawled in his lap, clinging to his shirt and begging him not to get up. Not to make me get up. I didn’t want to move until the floor had swallowed me and I could forget the past two months had ever happened.

“We’ll go slow,” he promised. “I’ll run you a bath.”

“St-stay here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Instead of getting up to run the bath, he hauled a thick towel off the bar and wrapped it around me. For a few minutes, we sat there, me shivering, him petting my hair like I was a damn dog. And I liked it. He was my best friend. He was straight. Or might as well have been for all the interest he had in me. And he’d warned me about Nash. Yet here he was, petting my hair and not rubbing my face in the fact that I was a complete disaster.



AWARENESS. I felt as though parts of me had absconded. Not my head. Not my gut, either. Both of those were in hurtful, hateful evidence. But some other, less tangible bit of me had fled the building, and I wondered if I should mourn it. Or even try to figure out what it was.

Sounds slowly filtered into my brain. So my hearing, at least, wasn’t affected by whatever bits of me had fallen away. It took some time to identify the sounds as someone moving about in my kitchen.

No one ever used my kitchen. I certainly didn’t. Wouldn’t know what to do with the pretty appliances lined up along the wall. Nash would never condescend to acknowledge the overpriced food he ordered in even came from a kitchen of any sort. Except once. Way back in the beyond of the beginning of us, when he’d made me hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

Because I’d told him my big brother had always made it for me when we came in off the ski runs.

Pain shot through me. Brian. Brian, whom I’d adored with the worship only a little brother could bestow on an older one. Brian, who made me hot chocolate, bandaged my scraped knees in summer, and taught me to ski in winter. Who’d gone off to fight some war in some desert that shithead politicians wouldn’t even call a war, and who’d never come home.

Nash had taken that memory, that tiny scrap of my soul, swaddled and protected for years, and twisted it, shaped it to revolve around him, to cause pain now that he was gone. He’d tainted everything and I wanted to hate him for it. I just ached because none of it was even his fault.

Groaning, I rolled onto my side, pulled the pillow up over my head, but the sounds and smells from my kitchen continued unabated. Oblivious. Apparently uncaring that I’d shriveled past the point of needing that kind of mundane sustenance.

“You need to get up now.”

Jeff. My remorseless angel of calm and practicality.

“Go ’way.”

“Ass out of bed, piss tank.”

I flung a pillow in the general direction of the kitchen, cursed—silently—my choice of a studio apartment that didn’t have bedroom walls. The pillow sloughed off the side of the bed, mocking my efforts.

For the next few minutes Jeff just ignored me, cooked, and hummed softly. I didn’t know he hummed. Didn’t know he could even carry a tune. For a while I lay there and tried to figure out what he was humming.

“Mean.” My butch best friend was humming Taylor Swift under his breath, occasionally breaking out the words to her song about… about fucked-up, abusive relationships.

I rolled my ass out of bed and locked myself in the bathroom. And reflected that it must mean something that I recognized the song myself. I turned on the shower, but even that didn’t shut the lyrics out of my head or cover Nash’s voice, still whispering through my being.

You. Are. Nothing. Mine to throw away when I tire of you….

Not “if.” He never said “if I tire of you.” Just “when.” And I hadn’t noticed that fine point until it happened.

I shut off the shower again without getting in.

A soft knock interrupted my thoughts. “Laurie?”

My angel. “What?”

God, did I really sound that gross?

“You spent an hour in the shower last night. I think you’re clean, buddy.”

Filthy. Little. Slut.

I closed my eyes. That self-imposed darkness just brought back the ghost memory of Nash’s hand on my chin, holding me still, with my face turned so he didn’t have to look at it, so he could whisper his derision into my soul without ever looking into my eyes.

“Laurie.” Jeff again. Ever Jeff. Didn’t he need to go away to work or something? “Come out here. Eat.”

Reluctant, I opened the door and shuffled out, unable to ignore the conditioning that made me respond to his soft command.

The floor still tilted under my feet slightly, and I had to catch myself on the doorframe.

“You all right?”

“I’m fine.” I swept his hands away. I was not interested in having anyone touch me. But when I swayed across the expanse of my apartment, he was there again, hand at the small of my back, and it didn’t bite into my ego and crush. It simply held me up and warmed that spot of skin under my shirt.

My knees creaked and complained as I lowered into the chair at the table. “Ow.” I touched fingers gingerly to the left one and winced. “Why do my knees feel bruised all to hell?”

They’d felt that way before, but I knew I hadn’t been on them. Not in the past week. Not for Jeff. He’d never want me in such a position, and Nash…

Well, Nash was gone, wasn’t he?

“Oh.” Jeff set a plate down in front of me. “Yeah. That was my fault. I didn’t think. Sorry.”

“You?” I squirmed in my chair. What wasn’t I remembering?

He tilted his head. “You don’t remember.”

“Remember what?” Queasiness invaded my gut, and I stared without seeing the plate of food in front of me.

“Lawrence….” That voice again, so much like Nash’s, but so much softer and deeper and… more.

He watched me. I could see in his eyes he had things to say and no way to say them. No words. No way to breach a subject he knew I would shut down before he got started.

“What is this?” I couldn’t quite center on the food. Not just that my eyes were misting. My mind slid out of focus. Sideways. Skittered away from confrontation.

“Eggs and butter toast.” He gave the plate a tiny shove in my direction. “Your favorite hangover food.”

“I’m not hungover.”

“No.” He picked up my fork and held it out until I took it. “You’re probably still drunk. Get something into your stomach to soak it up.”

“What are you even doing here?” I asked, forking up a mouthful, unable to resist his order. Did he even know what he was doing? How just the timbre of his voice reached inside and turned me to his will without his having to even try? I doubted it. He wasn’t like Nash.

I glanced up at him. He watched me, steady, calculating, waiting for me to take a bite. I did, and he nodded slightly, his lips twitching into a more relaxed expression, and began to eat himself.

“Andy called me. He said you haven’t been in to work all week,” he said after a few minutes.

“I don’t work there anymore. Remember?”

“You didn’t go in to pick up your personal shit.”

I poked at the food. “What do I want with used staplers and hole punches?”

“Or the two-hundred-dollar pen your father bought you—”

“To celebrate my getting that job? Right. How proud he’ll be when he finds out how I lost it.”

“He’s just worried about you, Laurie. We all are.”

“I’m fine.”

Jeff pushed at the side of my face until I turned my head to the kitchen sink and the collection of empty bottles stacked beside it. Dozens of them—beer bottles, whiskey, wine. My stomach rolled over.

“You are not fine, my friend.”

“How many of those did you dump out?” I asked, finally spearing another bit of eggs, which I picked off the fork with my teeth.

“Not as many as I might like.”

“You know me.” I swallowed and plucked another tiny bite off the plate. “High tolerance.”

“No one has that high a tolerance, Lawrence. I should have taken you to the ER.”

“Now you’re overreacting. It’s not like I drank them all last night. Or even this week.”

Jeff shook his head and went to the stove for the dirty pan. “You deny you’ve been drunk for a week?”

I took a nibble of toast.


“What?” I slammed the fork and toast down. “What do you want me to say? Deny it? You want me to lie to you? Or do you actually think you need me to answer?”

He crashed dishes around in the sink for a few minutes.

“Stop acting like you’re shocked or appalled or something.”

“You drink too much.”

The accusation was barely a whisper. Once again, he’d left me with nothing to say in response. He didn’t want me to agree with him, because he didn’t want it to be true. But he was Jeff, and I would never, ever lie to him. So I kept my mouth shut.

“Maybe you need to talk to—”

“Did you check my underwear drawer?” I asked to cut him off. He was the king of therapy. Given his past and the crap he’d lived through, that was probably a good thing. It was probably the reason he was one of sanest, steadiest forces in my life. But not everyone needed to “talk to someone.”

“Stop acting like it’s a joke!” He whirled on me, and suds and water flew everywhere. Some landed on my plate, and I watched the pile of white bubbles slump and spread towards the eggs.

“Who said it was a joke?” God. That stung. He had no idea how deadening it was to spit that out at him just to shut him up. Just to give him what he wanted. Just to let him save me from myself because we both knew I couldn’t do it alone.

For a long moment he stood there, hands on his hips, and stared at me with what I knew was a wounded, frightened, furious glare. I could feel the heat of his anger issuing from his huge brown eyes. I concentrated on scooping eggs away from the encroaching suds and forcing myself to eat.

After a heavy silence, getting nothing else from me but the serious, honest response he wanted, he stormed off to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and rooted around.

He didn’t quite stifle the curse.

I was only giving him what he wanted—the truth. He just wanted the truth to be something else. We made a great pair that way.

“Check my old cowboy boots in the clos—”

He slammed the dresser drawer. “I already got that one.” Hard as flint. Cold. It was easier when he was mad. I could deal with mad. The thud of his feet on the floor echoed hollowly as he stomped back to the kitchen and poured that bottle down the drain too.

I ate a few scraps of toast.

He washed the dishes, then brought the big blue recycle bin from the foyer closet and started piling bottles into it.

I couldn’t eat even half of what he’d made for me without the risk of bringing it all back up again. I carried my plate to the kitchen and began the ritual of composting the food and wiping down the dishes.

“Soon as you’re ready, we’ll go get your things from the office.”

“You really expect me to troop through there and let everyone watch me pack up a bunch of shit I don’t care about? Listen to them whisper and snicker?”

“You’re a jackass. Andy already packed everything. We’ll call him when we get there and he’ll meet us in the lobby.”

“Big of him.”

“You!” He turned on me then, shining green wine bottle held out like a club. “Have no idea, shithead! He called me because he was worried. Because he didn’t want you to have to walk that gauntlet, but this is the last day he can help you avoid it.”

“I’ll go on Monday. He can do it then.”

“He won’t be there Monday!”

“Why?” I put my utensils in the drainer and finally looked up at him.

“Because he tendered his own resignation the day Nash’s brother fired you. So did Sofia and Jeremy. And Reggie. And she is some pissed at you for not telling her what was going on.”

I stared at him.


“Are you a complete idiot?” At least he didn’t look as mad now. Just confused. “After what he did, do you think any of them were really going to stay there?”

“After what I let him do, you mean.”

“You can’t blame yourself because Nash—”

“Can we not, please?” Talking about it was just making me want another drink. And another until the whispers and the memories were obliterated behind the red haze of perma-drunk.

Thankfully, Jeff nodded. “Get dressed,” he said, his voice quiet and that calm, even cadence instilled in me a strange desire to just do what he wanted. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.”



WE MADE the drive in silence.

In the lobby, Andy met us with relief. He had boxes and boxes of stuff. Most of it was his. His job as a graphic designer entailed a lot more paraphernalia than mine as a personal assistant had, and he was not the world’s most efficient packer. As we loaded the boxes into Jeff’s trunk, Andy told me the girls, Reggie and Sofia, had tendered their resignations the day they all found out I had been fired, and then had called in sick every day since. Andy and Jeremy had packed up everyone’s desks and taken it all away from the firm over the past week. No one in the office had raised even a hint of complaint.

“So.” He picked up the last box from beside the guard’s desk in the lobby and grinned at me through the forest of T-squares and desk guides bristling from the ill-packed box. “We’re all free and clear. Maybe it’s time to start that graphic novel you keep talking about, huh, Laur? Jeff here can write the story, Reggie can draw, I can color. It’ll be like school, but better. We’ll make some money. Sof’s got the first stages of promotion all worked out.”

“Right. And what do I do?” I mumbled as I ducked into the front seat.

“Huh?” Andy glanced from me to Jeff, then clambered into the back. “You run the joint, asshole. Keep us on schedule. Set deadlines, make budgets. You do what you’re good at.”

What I was good at. I snorted. What I had been good at was spreading my legs. Letting Nash lead me around by the nose while he whispered toxic lies in my ear and I believed him.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Jeff said quietly. He started the car and headed downtown toward Andy’s apartment.

“Yeah, well.” How was that for noncommittal?

We’d talked about it so often. Dreamed about it. There was money in graphic novels, if you did it right. If you hit the right market and had the right skills. Between the six of us, we had all the skills we needed and then some. Reggie was pure talent when it came to the manga art style, and Andy genius at bringing things to life with color and placement. Sofia and Jeremy were a marketing dream team, and Jeff never ran out of ideas for plots and their dangerous and sexy twists and turns. I’d seen it all as we’d worked for Nash and his brother, as we gelled as a team doing ad copy and the mundane crap that went along with corporate advertising bullshit.

I’d watched them all strut their stuff in Nash’s employ and stretch their wings in off hours when we hung out, and I knew they were all destined for way better things than that stink hole of an advertising firm. I’d longed to pull them all together, to make the team last and do something that meant more than selling hotdogs and tampons to people who were going to buy the shit anyway.

I suppose what I’d really longed for was a chance at something more important than being a personal assistant and sex doll for a cocky, demanding, and, as it turned out, psychopathic boss in a midlist ad firm. I wanted more, and they were the talent I could use to get it.

“Think about it,” Jeff said, still soft. Still gentle. He glanced at me to see if I’d heard.

I could only offer a shrug. They would do it anyway. Obviously they had talked about it. They didn’t really need me. I was a tagalong. The sympathy recipient of a pointless job so they could feel like we were all still together, like school. Only school was ten years gone, we were all ten years older, and Jeremy and Reggie had a kid to pay for. Some things you could never get back.

Jeff pulled into Andy’s parking lot, and we hauled all the boxes up two flights of stairs to his dinky walk-up bachelor pad.

“Hey, thanks, guys.” Andy took the last box from me and set it on his table. “Lord knows where I’m going to set any of this up.” He glanced at his drafting table, cluttered with folded laundry and a stack of Superman comics. “Guess I’m going to have to clean this dump up.”

Jeff snickered. “Good luck with that.”

“You guys want to stay for a beer?” Andy went to the fridge and pulled out three brews.

I said, “Hell yes.” at the same time Jeff told him, “No, thanks.”

“Your loss,” Andy said, handing one of the beers to me.

Jeff intercepted it and handed it back. “We have to go,” he said to me, not offering even a nook of opportunity for me to argue. “Get your stuff back to your place.”

“It’s not going anywhere.” I reached for the beer again, but he stepped forward and fixed Andy with his hands-on-hips look that said he was not going to back down.

“I found him on his couch last night,” he told our friend. “Passed out cold. Too soused to fucking know his own name. He’s been drunk for a week.”

Andy nodded and set all three beers on the counter. “I’ll make some coffee.”

“Fuck you both!” I headed for the door.

“I’ve watched enough people drink themselves to death,” Andy said in a matter-of-fact voice. He hauled a few more beers out of his fridge and proceeded to pop all the tops and pour them down the drain. “I’m not helping you, Laur. You want to do it, do it somewhere else.”

“You don’t have to waste your beer.”

He stopped and looked at me. “You know how many bottles I found in your desk and your office and your locker at work?”

In fact, I probably didn’t know the exact number. But that was just proof of what they were both saying.

“If the temptation’s not there, we can’t give in to it,” he said, pouring out the last bottle. Methodically, he loaded them into a case of empties and folded the flaps closed. “There.”


He stood in front of the sink, staring at the drift of foam seeping down the drain, but didn’t say anything or look at me.

“You both are overreacting,” I finally said, watching the tense set of Andy’s shoulders.

Andy didn’t even turn around but remained fixated on the sink for a long, silent moment.

Jeff lifted one of my arms straight out in front of me and told me to hold it there. He let go. “You think so?” His quiet but husky words got Andy’s attention.

We all watched my hand tremble for the few seconds I held it there.



“I AM not going to any twelve-step fucking meeting!” I shouted.

Jeff was carrying my lone box of office detritus—and a large gym bag slung across his chest—into my apartment. I’d tripped rounding the car from my passenger seat to the trunk, and he’d refused to let me carry my own shit. Like I was some sort of useless invalid.

“No one said anything about twelve steps,” he replied, all calm and unruffled. He set the box down and pulled the strap of his bag over his head to drop it on the floor at his feet. “Just that I think it might be a good idea to go see a doctor.”

“I don’t need a shrink.”

Jeff just smiled a smile that might have been considered angelic under other circumstances. “Didn’t say you did. I meant a physician. A GP. You can get something to help you sleep.”

“I don’t have any trouble sleeping.”

“Not when you drink till you pass out, probably not. Where do you want this box?”

“Burn it,” I muttered, flopping onto my couch. I noticed a discolored spot on the hardwood and wondered if he’d had to clean up puke. The realization that I didn’t know sent a cold chill through me, and I studied my shaking hand again. I rubbed my stocking foot over the spot on the floor as he settled beside me.

“Spilled whiskey,” he informed me, as though reading my mind.

I nodded.

“Make you a deal.” He picked up the remote before I could, and held it on his far side. “If you have no trouble sleeping tonight, I’ll drop it. But if you can’t sleep, you come see my doctor. Tell him what’s going on and see if he can help.”

I glared at the blank TV screen. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? It wasn’t like I’d never gone on a drinking binge before, and he’d never said boo about it.


“Fine!” I reached across him and plucked the remote from his hand. “Whatever.”



THERE was no hiding the fact I couldn’t sleep. He was still there, stretched out on my couch while I lay in bed. I could faintly hear the sound of whatever he was listening to on his headset from across the room. If I looked over, I was sure I would see him watching me toss and turn.

I was cold. Not a shocker. My apartment was always cold, and I’d given Jeff one of my comforters. Not that he would accept that as good reason for my sleeplessness.

“You awake?” he asked, his voice drifting over the soft tinkling emanating from the earphones he’d removed.

“What are you listening to?”

“Don’t laugh.”

I sat up, arranging my pillows against the wall at the head of my bed. “As if.” We were far beyond laughing at each other, I thought.

“Taylor Swift.” He reached over and yanked the cord of his headphones out of the iPad sitting on the coffee table. The last few guitar riffs of something rang through the room, and he sighed. The next song was “Mean” again, and he fumbled to turn the thing off.

“Sorry.” He flopped back so I couldn’t see anything but one knee and one elbow peeking over the back of the couch. “Not my favorite song right now.”

“Is that what you think it was like?” I asked him. My breath caught somewhere in the depths of my chest. I didn’t want his answer so very much. “With Nash, I mean?”

“What do you think?”

“I—” I still couldn’t breathe. I closed my eyes. “I didn’t want to think. I got drunk.” Was that an admission of some sort? I wasn’t sure.


There was rustling. I couldn’t open my eyes, though. I still heard Nash’s smooth-as-chocolate voice in the back of my head. Whispering. Condemning.

“You’re not drunk now.”

God. Was he always so relentless?

“I want to be,” I whispered. Maybe he wouldn’t hear it. If I said it quietly enough, maybe it would slip past.

“But you’re not.” I could tell from the tone of his voice, from the way it dug right into me, that he’d sat up and was looking at me over the back of the couch, probably. Assessing.

I hunkered down. Trying to hide, I supposed. Not that there was anywhere to hide or that he’d actually let me.

“What do you want me to say?”

“The truth.”

Jeff walked heavy. His feet thumped on the hardwood-covered concrete, making those hollow, echoing noises as he moved across the room. My bed sank, and I had to readjust my weight so I didn’t fall into him. I was still off-kilter, and I almost did anyway. His hand on my upper arm steadied me.

It was a familiar grip, one Nash liked to employ because, like Jeff’s, his hands were big enough to get a good, tight grip that hurt.

I winced and cringed away before it could. It wasn’t voluntary. There was no way to contain the movement or explain it away. Not to Jeff. He knew that kind of cringing.

“The truth,” he said again. “Laurie, look at me and tell me what he did to you.”

I shook my head.

“It’ll never go away if you don’t.”

“What would you know about it?”


“It wasn’t like that!”

It was his turn to flinch. Raised voices did that to him. Maybe reminders of his violent past did too. It was a shitty thing to do.


“It’s okay.” I felt him move from the very edge of the bed where he’d been perched to my other side so he could lean against the wall next to me. “But that I still flinch, even though it’s been a hundred years since I was twelve, it’s just proof. It doesn’t go away. Not really. You just learn to deal. But that doesn’t happen in a bottle, Laurie.”

“You really think I’m a drunk?” Finally I opened my eyes, turned my head just enough to see his lips move as he spoke. No way could I look in his eyes.

“I really think you’re in trouble. Nash might be gone, but his ghost is still here. I can feel him.” His hands moved, drawing my attention to how he picked at the calluses caused from constantly holding a pen. “I’m not trying to be an asshole, Laurie. I’m not.” A flake of thick skin came free, and he held it between thumb and forefinger, like he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t want to drop it in my bed, maybe, or flick it away.

“You’ve seen it all before,” I suggested, handing him a tissue.

“Well.” He took the offering, wrapped up the fleck of skin, and tossed the whole thing in the trash. “You can be flip, or you can agree I mig

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Paying the Piper

Book Cover: Paying the Piper
Part of the Short Stories series:
Editions:Digital: $ 1.49
ISBN: 978-1-61372-488-0

Michael isn’t used to casino blackjack dealers telling him to cash in, but that’s what Daniel Aldaine does, recognizing the group of men waiting to collect what Michael owes them. He even fronts Michael the money he’s short to get the goons off his back. It’s the beginning of the best relationship Michael’s ever known, but a problem he doesn’t even recognize he has could end it all.

A Bittersweet Dreams title: It's an unfortunate truth: love doesn't always conquer all. Regardless of its strength, sometimes fate intervenes, tragedy strikes, or forces conspire against it. These stories of romance do not offer a traditional happy ending, but the strong and enduring love will still touch your heart and maybe move you to tears.

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artists:

I’VE never liked those old love story movies where the girl decides she’s had enough and the guy has to chase her down at the bus stop, the train station, or the airport to beg, plead, and grovel to get her to come back and give him another chance. This is not one of those love stories anyway; first, because neither Daniel nor I would ever cop to being the girl in this relationship, and second, because I refuse to grovel. He can leave. He decided he’s had enough, and so fine. He can fly back to Queven, or wherever the hell he came from, and I will just go on with my life.

His plane will take off in thirty-six hours. I don’t know where he is right now, and I don’t care. Except I know where he’s not. He’s not at the apartment. Most of his stuff is gone too. And he’s not at work. That’s where I met him, eight months, seven days, five hours ago. Not that I’ve been counting.


He works at the casino dealing blackjack. He’s a good dealer. The way his fingers dance over the cards, slide the chips around, it’s something else. I don’t really have a hand fetish or anything, but when you’re as far back as I was that night, and those hands are the ones dealing the cards that will determine the fate of your kneecaps, you tend to notice. And I did, believe me. I watched those hands closely as they dealt out my fate. And I won too. For the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I won. Thing is, I would have kept going, lost it all in the end, but he stopped dealing. When I looked up, that’s when I discovered his eyes.

“You should cash in,” he told me quietly.

I laughed at him and tried not to pay attention to the eyes or the hands anymore, definitely ignored the accent because that would set me off, and I made a motion with my fingers over the table. “Just deal.”

He hesitated, and I had to look into those eyes again.

“Isn’t telling a customer to cash in just a little bit against your job description?”

He smiled, the most disarming of all disarming smiles, and jutted his chin out, past me to a knot of men at the far end of the room. “They’ve been watching you.”

I turned to look and had that dropping sensation in the pit of my stomach you read about in suspense novels. My hands went clammy, sweat popped out on my upper lip, and my whole body seemed to turn a little jelly-like around the edges.

“Just cash in, give them what you owe them, and call it a night.”

“That’s a good idea.”

He nodded and dealt the rest of the table back into the game. I gathered up my winnings and headed for the cashier. They met me there, collected all I had, which was just about what I owed, and ushered me out into the street, around back, probably to collect the rest out of my hide.

I might have lost my kneecaps, and my mobility, if Daniel hadn’t taken a smoke break at that moment. Right from the beginning, his timing has been impeccable. He approached me with a smile and a nod to the “gentlemen” with me and pulled out his wallet.

“Glad I ran into you, finally. Got paid, so, here.” He handed me a wad of bills while I tried not to look as confused as I felt. I didn’t know this guy from a hole in the ground, and he was handing me a fistful of money like we were old friends.

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