Lenny Stevens was the lead guitarist of the up-and-coming grunge band Firefly until he crossed the line with the band’s lead singer. Now he’s faced with the impossible task of rebuilding his life without the music that had kept him together. Struggling with his fear and rage, he creates the same damaging patterns in his relationship with his lover, Vance Ashcroft.
Vance knows that Lenny is the submissive meant for him. He is convinced he can save Lenny from his demons and puts faith in his ability. But when Len’s temper leads to him physically hurting Vance and destroying property, both men realize Len’s issues are too big for them to work through alone.
Seeking the help of the people who know Len best, Vance invites his former bandmates to the ranch for Len’s belated birthday party. Together, they try to create a safe haven for Len to come apart and, hopefully, rearrange himself into a man who can live with his past and create a future worth having.
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.
THE club could not have been any darker and still be considered lit, but Stanley didn’t think better lighting would improve the ambiance. Stage lights bounced over the chanting crowd, glanced off the shabby décor, and disappeared into the farther reaches of the low-ceilinged labyrinth of the bar.
The lead singer prowled downstage, front and center, and took up a position behind the mike. His sulk was infused with sex and the silent command to look at him, see him, and want him. Stanley glanced around the room. Everyone heard that slinky body language. Returning his attention to the stage, he stripped his usual veneer of music executive and watched the younger man through the eyes of the audience.
Narrow hips, long, lean legs encased in leather, broad shoulders and chest filled out just enough to not be skinny screamed the perfect, soundless note of bad-boy and danger. His clean, fine features were lost under the weight of makeup and spiked hair, but the drama of lean, sharp features accentuated with black liner and lipstick was more than enough to command the attention his undoubtedly pretty face might not get if he’d showed it off naked. And yet, Stanley wished he could see under the façade, because there was something innately provocative about the man his persona came dangerously close to ruining.
“Hey.” The singer’s voice, as dark as his hair and makeup, rolled over the crowd. He sounded sullen and angry, and beside Stanley, Vance Ashcroft shifted his feet and barely held back his signature country-star snarl.
“Why are we here?” Vance asked and made a face as he scooted past a high stool with something thick and sticky splashed across the black vinyl.
“Ignore the décor, Vance.” Stanley moved the stool out of their path with his foot. “We’re here for the entertainment. I want you to hear this guy.”
Vance glanced at the chair and grimaced. He pulled his dark glasses down over his distinctive, arched brows and honey gold eyes as a waitress did a double take. “This doesn’t look like a country crowd,” he drawled, his bass voice quiet, his expression dubious behind the glasses.
“And yet maybe she recognized you.” Stanley shot him a playful smirk. If Vance wasn’t an egomaniac, he still had enough vanity to want to be recognized, even in this dive.
“Because I’m known wherever I go. I am that awesome,” he shot back.
Stanley snorted. “It isn’t a country crowd. She probably thinks you’re freakishly tall.” And he was, rising a decent few inches over Stanley’s six feet two inches. The two of them, standing side by side, made an impressive wall of man, both broad and muscled, and the looks that followed them through the bar told him people noticed.
“Okay, so if I’m not here to listen to country music, then why am I here? What am I goin’ to be able to tell you about—”
“I need your gut reaction.”
Vance didn’t have any more time to argue, because the band they had come to listen to was finally looking like they were going to get around to making music.
“I’ll tell you what. They’re a bunch of drama—”
“Patience,” Stanley advised.
“This had better be worth it. This place is disgustin’.” Vance glared at the man behind the mike. “An’ he looks like a brat.”
“Noted.” Stanley maneuvered around a few milling patrons and positioned the two of them closer to the stage for a better look at the entire band, but not too close to the monitors or speakers. He noticed, too, that Vance’s gaze didn’t linger long on the lead singer. His expression turned interestingly speculative and his attention returned, more than once, to the guitar player standing slightly too far stage right to look like he was ready to go on.
“Get a load o’ him,” Vance grumbled, turning back to the singer. “He’s got too much guy liner on.”
“Don’t think it’s guy liner anymore when it gets that thick,” Stanley pointed out.
“No. Now it’s a gimmick, and usually, that means he’s tryin’ to hide somethin’. Most often, that he’s got no talent.”
Stanley smiled thinly. Vance was going to eat his words.
The drummer, typically burly, rugged, and fierce under his shining bald dome, shot off a few hard cascades of noise, and the bassist joined him, riffing in the offbeats. On the other side of the stage, the keyboard player jammed restlessly, gaze darting from one band member to the other as heavy synth sawed over the barely controlled chaos.
The lead singer ignored them all. His eyes, pale in the midst of all the black liner, were riveted on his guitarist as the pretty red-headed bombshell of a twink fiddled with his cord, volume, and whammy bar.
“Dude.” The singer wrapped long fingers in a graceful, be-ringed arch over the mike and considered the guitar player. His voice rumbled, low and sexy, through the bar. “Gimme.” Waggling his fingers in the air with a come-hither wink and a half grin got the crowd revved.
The guitarist grinned, an almost-shy expression lighting up his face. He didn’t look up, but he did skim his fingers over his strings and bring forth a surprisingly sensual roll of notes. Finally, he inched his way closer to center stage.
The singer’s chuckle carried over it, played through it, teased at it, the sounds evoking lovers tumbling through sheets. The intertwining music sent a shiver through Stanley.
Beside him, Vance straightened from where he was leaning on the wall. His languid stance changed as he turned watchful, almost predatory, his gaze fixing avidly on the guitar player. Every once in a while, he shot a glare at the singer.
Stanley smirked. It seemed that little ginger man had caught his friend’s attention, and Vance was not appreciating the way the singer eyed his bandmate.
Stanley leaned close so Vance could hear him. “Wait for it.”
Slowly, the guitar ramped up, trilling through the small bar and drawing attention, pulling the bass after it, taunting the drums until they found a rhythm, and the singer was standing behind his mike, swaying, rings glittering, eyes closed. His shoulders folded forward, he cupped himself around the mike stand and the first notes between his lips were a throaty hum, raw and intimidating yet full of wordless need.
Stanley shifted, trying to adjust his stiffening cock without drawing notice. It was incredible to him that one man’s voice could dig into his brain, into his being, and turn him inside out, but every time he’d heard this kid sing, it happened, tonight included, and he had yet to utter an actual word.
“Fuck me, I’ve heard that before,” Vance said, snapping his fingers and grinning. “This little shit—”
Stanley nodded. “Was almost The Next Big Thing, yes. Damian. So he calls himself.”
Then Damian opened his mouth to sing, and Vance closed his. The song was hard-edged, thumping, and vitriolic, sung with the voice of a fallen angel. He hit every note true, even the ones that should have bottomed out in his throat or soared too high for his range. He turned trash garage grunge into something more and deeper and infinitely better.
Every time he glanced up, those pale eyes of his sweeping the crowd from under long, black lashes, his lips curled in a sardonic half smile, Stanley could practically hear the girls sigh through their screaming and cheering. Stanley’s cock responded to the heavy beat, the crooning voice, the high notes. Music always got his blood pumping, but this was something special.
The guy knew how to wrap his audience up in ribbons of want and expectancy. He had next to no experience, but he had an instinct that got the crowd humming with need. The dancing ramped up to frenetic, constant motion. Every gaze was riveted on the stage.
“How did he not win?” Vance called over the noise and the music, his lips close enough to Stanley’s ear to send another, more immediate shiver skittering through him.
Stanley rolled his eyes. “Out and proud never gets the vote. Why I keep telling you to stay the fuck in the closet. Especially you. Country fans don’t do gay.”
Vance shifted away and turned his attention back to the stage without replying.
The set revved up with more of the hard-rocking, razor-edge guitar and throbbing bass. The crowd lapped up every second of it, even the outrageous flirting between the singer and the guitar player, who looked too young, too innocent to be playing guitar like the devil.
The chemistry between the band members electrified every note. It brought out the wild in the crowd and the predator in Vance. It touched something primal in everyone in the room. It was impossible to stay impartial for long. Stanley had come to make a final evaluation of the band, of the singer, and the music. By the middle of the second song, he was too lost in the swirling vortex of keyboards and bass magnetism to be impartial. Even Vance was swaying his hips in circles, arms up and a grin on his face as females gravitated to his perfect ass and broad chest. That was evaluation enough for Stanley. When the man’s man of country music got his groove on, the music was good.
Sooner than he liked, the set wrapped and the band wrestled each other off the stage. It was obvious they had enjoyed playing as much as the screaming crowd had enjoyed listening. In fact, the entire bar was roused into chants calling for more, but the house speakers and canned music overrode them.
Stanley couldn’t blame the crowd. He already knew it would be a long time before he tired of watching the younger man weave that web of complete control over his audience. It was odd that he wanted to join in the begging for more. Vance had been absolutely right. This was not his music. Not what he knew, not what he had grown up listening to and emulating. Certainly not what he had made a career out of selling. But there was something utterly gut-wrenching and authentic about it. That was what would sell it. All Stanley had to do was put it in front of the right people.
“You’re gettin’ that look!” Vance shouted at him over the bar beats that rose to inadequately fill the void the band had left.
“What look?” Stanley wound through the milling people toward the exit and the washrooms, but Vance snagged his arm and stopped him.
“Where you goin’?”
Stanley grinned. “I’ve seen all I need to, dancing bear.”
“You’re leavin’?” Vance ignored the jibe. That lack of shame over his dance moves was a sure sign he had totally gotten into the music. That was all the stamp of approval Stanley needed.
“Got what I came for,” Stanley told him. There was no more honest reaction from Vance than him dancing or showing willingness to stay through piped-in dance mixes for the next set.
“I’m dancin’.” Vance tightened his grip on Stanley’s arm and hauled him toward the stage. He pointed to the groupies who huddled near the edge of the floor to watch him.
“Don’t let me stop you.” Stanley didn’t try to escape, though. The music had gotten into his blood, and he was a little high on it, more than ready to see where Vance’s dancing and getting sweaty might lead. He eyed the throng of young women all but throwing themselves at the tall singer. “You are gay,” he reminded his friend, lips close to Vance’s ear. “In case you’d forgotten.”
“My manager won’t let me pick one o’ them.” He jerked a thumb at a substantial knot of young, buff men closer to the stage. There was no doubt by the way they groped and gyrated they had no interest in the women.
“Your manager is a wise man,” Stanley pointed out.
“Well, wise or not, he’s also horny, an’ he’s only getting laid if he dances with me first.” Vance’s fingers tightened, and Stanley’s cock immediately responded.
He could hardly say he didn’t want to accept the handsome singer’s invitation, even if they had to disguise it by surrounding themselves with fawning groupies. It wouldn’t be the first time. He wouldn’t be averse to staying for another set from the band, either. He knew he was going to sign them, whatever he had to do to convince them, so technically, his job here was done.
That left the rest of the night to see where the music could take them.
“One thing first,” he told Vance, and quickly got out his phone. He sent an already-prepared e-mail to his assistant, Miranda. She would get things in motion for a meeting with the lead singer Monday morning. Once he hit Send, he was officially off the clock.
He stuffed the cell back into his pocket and gave in to the hands hauling him out onto the floor. If one or two of those hands were Vance’s, he decided not to comment. He was hardly going to say no to that action. Not on the dance floor, and not afterward. When the girls whooped and hollered for the “straight” boys to dirty dance with each other, it was as good an excuse as any to shed his manager hat and take advantage of the fact no one here recognized Vance Ashcroft, one of the biggest country and western stars on the planet. There was something to be said for grunge rock and the dives where it flourished.
“NNGH.” Stanley rolled over to encounter the sticky bulk of Vance’s body blocking his way to the bathroom. “G-up,” he mumbled, giving the other man a heave. He might as well have been shoving a house for all he managed to move the brick-hard, muscled body out of his way.
“Go over.” Vance’s eyes flickered but didn’t open.
“Jerk.” Stanley dragged himself up and proceeded to crawl over Vance’s back only to be hauled back and rolled under the bigger man as he wrapped a thick arm around Stanley’s middle.
“God, your breath stinks.” Stanley wiggled, but gained no freedom. “And I gotta piss. Lemme up.”
“Kiss me first.”
“Brush your teeth first. You smell like a still.”
“Good fucking mornin’ to you too.” Vance rolled off him and flopped onto his back.
“Don’t pout.” Shimmying out of the bed before Vance could rethink allowing his freedom, Stanley hurried to the bathroom and closed the door.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to kiss the man. Just that the morning after always left him wondering if the night before had been a very bad idea. His backside, as he hobbled to the bathroom, agreed with him. He was finishing his oral hygiene and contemplating the multi-head shower—at least they had checked into a good hotel, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember why they hadn’t gone back to his place—when Vance knocked and walked in.
He didn’t say anything, just opened a toothbrush package, slathered on paste, and spent five silent, glaring minutes scrubbing the hangover fuzz from his mouth.
“Now?” Vance asked once he’d spit and rinsed.
“Now what?” Stanley eyed him, having very little confidence that playing dumb would get him anywhere.
Vance rounded from glaring at him in the mirror to glaring straight at him and stalked him across the cold tiles until his back fetched up against the shower doors.
“Now,” he growled.
The moment Stanley opened his mouth to protest, Vance descended, taking possession and running a hand midway up Stanley’s torso, stopping at his waist and pressing him back against the frigid glass. He pushed back, struggling for air and freedom but drowning in the tide of testosterone rolling off Vance.
He tried to say something akin to “stop it” and succeeded in a moan that gave more the impression of “harder, deeper” than “no.”
That’s obviously what Vance heard because he clamped his other hand over Stanley’s ass, jerking him in close so their hard-ons ground together. This time, when Stanley found his voice, it was to groan his pleasure at the force of the contact.
Stanley had never considered himself an exclusive top, but when Vance gripped his hair, tilted his head back, and glared into his eyes, he knew he was in for a deep, hard pounding. Again.
“Yes ’r no?” Vance asked, his golden eyes glittering and uncompromising.
“Does it even matter?”
Vance grunted, propelled him back to the bedroom, and more or less threw him facedown on the bed. Not very many men had the size or balls to manhandle Stanley. He wasn’t exactly small or pliable.
He didn’t complain.
He could have. If he had, Vance would have wrestled him down anyway, and sooner or later, he’d let the singer have his way. He’d sported enough bruises over the years to know when Vance wanted it this bad, it was best to give it up. He pushed a pillow under his hips and lifted his ass, which Vance promptly slapped. Hard.
“Oomph.” Stanley flinched and Vance smacked the other cheek.
“Bossy—ow!” Another slap left his ass burning and his ears ringing. “What—”
Vance’s fingers, slicked with nothing more than spit, invaded him and he bit down on the questions.
“Jesus. Vance….” A low moan escaped as Vance eased his fingers out and back in. “Fuck.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
The fingers disappeared and Stanley craned his neck to watch his lover roll on a condom.
“Lube?” he asked.
“Not goin’ to hurt you,” Vance muttered, leaning over him for the lube on the bedside table.
Stanley lay still and listened to the snap of the lid and the squirt of the near-empty bottle.
“Well?” Vance asked.
Stanley shuddered. He could never decide if he hated this side of his friend or just needed it. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached back, parted his cheeks, and waited. A moment later, he felt the blunt pressure of Vance’s cock, and it was all he could do to relax and breathe through the long, slow slide and stretch.
Once in, Vance proceeded to pump, slow and steady, mercilessly, but not cruelly.
Stanley closed his eyes and let himself feel the heat rising in his body, the sweat trickling down his sides, the heady fullness and comfort of Vance’s weight. At last, he gave in and swung his arms up to lay one hand atop the other above his head.
Just one of Vance’s hands was big enough to curl around both of Stanley’s wrists and the contact released the last of Stanley’s reticence. He relaxed into the bed and Vance really began to move.
Hard and fast. Punishing, even, until the sound of flesh slapping and Vance grunting filled Stanley’s world. The slick, heavy slide of cock in and out of his body pushed him hard up against his orgasm, but he willed himself still, waiting.
“You wanna?” Vance asked.
Stanley squirmed, thinking to free a hand and try to reach under himself, but Vance tightened his grip.
“You want to?” He asked again, voice hardening as he panted the words out and pumped more determinedly.
“Good,” Vance growled, thrusting hard and deep. “Me first.”
He pulled at Stanley’s shoulder, ramming them together as close as two people were ever going to get, and snarled something too garbled to make out. His cock throbbed, hard and hot inside Stanley, making him moan.
“Not yet.” Vance rocked into him, moaning and grinding and finally shuddering out the last of his release.
“Now,” he said, pulling out and discarding the condom in one deft movement. He tipped Stanley over and wrapped one huge hand around his cock, leaned down, and licked at his tip. Stanley dug the back of his head into the pillows, blinking at the ceiling, and humped into Vance’s big, inadequate fist. Wet heat engulfed Stanley. Vance’s mouth, then his throat, closed over him in one long swallow. The shock of his body being emptied one second and his cock sucked down a throat the next was almost enough to send Stanley careening over the edge into orgasm.
Vance growled permission, the hum vibrating into and through Stanley. His eyes rolled back in his head, and dark oblivion clashed with white hot orgasm. Stanley arched up into Vance’s mouth and everything disappeared behind the immediacy of brutal release.
When Stanley managed to get a handle on reality a few moments later, Vance was watching him. His lover’s gaze was a weight across his chest; expectant. It was a long time before he could risk opening his eyes, before he rounded up the courage to see what he always saw there.
No longer harsh or angry or aggressive, the singer’s golden eyes glowed with the familiar, unsettling mixture of hope and confidence. Confidence he’d scrambled Stanley’s brain, and hopeful that this time, he was sated enough to remain scrambled and under Vance’s sway.
He never did.
That utter capitulation to anyone never happened. Never, except with Vance, on rare occasions when the singer demanded every ounce of control, and only rarely did Stanley give it to him. Usually, the sex ended up rough and bruising and exhausting, but not submissive.
The bed creaked and sank, tipping Stanley’s weight to one side. He rolled, once again pressed tight to Vance’s sweaty, sticky skin.
“Take your time,” Vance whispered, caressing his cheek with soft touches of fingers and lips.
Stanley let out a sigh. “You did that thing….”
“Just made an offer,” Vance corrected. “You took it.” It was almost a question.
Stanley almost didn’t have the heart to answer this time. But he couldn’t lie. Finally, he opened his eyes to find Vance leaning over him, watching, expression softly neutral for an unsettling change.
He didn’t have to say anything. Vance dipped his chin, the tiniest movement, acknowledging that yes, he’d had his way, Stanley had given him the power, but he wasn’t going to be allowed to keep it. “Shower?” he asked softly. His way of releasing them from the awkward non-conversation.
Stanley nodded. “If I can walk.”
Vance grinned, forcing the jovial expression past the darker disappointment in his eyes. “I’m not goin’ to let you down. Come on.” He got up and held out a hand.
Taking the offer, Stanley managed to limp his way to the shower where he only had to lean on the wall while Vance took very good care of him, soaping him up, rinsing him off, and spending a lot of time kneading out kinked muscles.
“Spoilin’ me,” Stanley muttered.
“Givin’ back,” Vance replied. “Now shut up an’ turn round so I can get at your shoulders.”
Stanley closed his eyes, enjoying the touch and his friend’s drawl as he gave soft instructions and did his best to remove all trace of where he’d been.
In The Wings #2
LEN BREATHED shallowly, afraid if he pulled air in too deep, the sticky mass rolling in his gut would rise and choke him. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine himself splitting in two. It was a gory, flesh-and-blood division and fucking hurt like hell.
He wanted to punch Vance in the face. He wanted to curse him. He wanted to leave him. The hollow space inside him deepened and yawned emptier than ever at the thought, and the sticky mass teetered on the edge of it. If it fell in, filled the hole, nothing else could ever live there. The edges of the abyss pushed outward, and Len clung to the ugly mass of emotions, desperate to control it as that expanding blackness made it ever harder to breathe.
He couldn’t leave. Vance had given him that small taste of what could be.
Boston had been… heaven. Tranquil, despite the horror of “breaking up” with Trevor. As painful as that had been—as painful as it still was—it had, at the time, seemed to have a purpose.
His gaze drifted across the magazines strewn over the coffee table. He wondered absently why they were there. Surely no one sat in here waiting for anything. No one needed reading material to pass the time. One glossy cover in particular caught his notice. The man depicted on the cover was as familiar to him as his own face: Trevor—Damian—for this was a picture of the lead singer of Firefly in full stage persona. This wasn’t Len’s childhood friend Trevor but Trevor’s stage mask, Damian.
Trevor’s face was hidden under Damian’s caked-on goth makeup, false lashes, spiked hair, but the eyes, like shards of broken glass, peered out, bereft. Lonely.
Lenny felt the stab of rejection as if the image was glaring directly at him, full of blame and anger.
The picture had been taken recently, possibly leaving a venue where the band had played, or maybe it was Damian on the way out of a bar. The headline, even half-hidden under another magazine, speculated on the bandages peeping from under leather gloves on both hands and the haunted look in his eyes.
Was he in trouble? it asked. He could just imagine what the article would say: Did the injuries have anything to do with the band’s lead guitarist making a sudden exit from the band? Had they been in a fight? Was there bad blood?
Yes, yes, and a heaping helping of fuck yes.
Lenny, said lead guitarist for Firefly, had attacked Damian in a fit of uncontrolled rage, done that damage to his hands, hurt him so that when he looked out from behind the safety of Damian’s badass goth exterior, Len could see the hurt and helplessness his friend Trevor had felt. He could feel the recrimination that the rest of the band had heaped on him just before they’d kicked him out of the band and told him to get his shit together before even thinking about coming back.
Leaving the band—no. He shook his head against that thought. Getting kicked out of the band had been humiliating. It had hurt. It had, he knew, been necessary.
But Vance had been there, steady and reassuring.
Len started. Across the coffee table, his therapist watched him over the black plastic rims of her glasses. He liked her. Liked her glasses and her lip gloss and the way she pulled her dark hair back into a tight bun, liked her neat cardigans and pencil skirts. He even liked her name: Lenore Stanton. It was a nice, no-nonsense sort of name that fit the rest of the image. It was all so severe and serious, and yet, her blue eyes were soft, and she reminded him a little bit of Alice. He’d put money on this woman wearing garters and lace under all that severity, where no one could see. He often wondered which side of the cuffs she preferred.
He jumped again and met her gaze.
“You said”—she glanced at the pad of legal paper in her lap—“He had been there.” She looked back at him. “I assume you mean Vance.”
“And that had been reassuring? His being there for you?”
Len swallowed but nodded again and reached for the bottle of water she always made sure was handy for him.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said, then took a drink and carefully screwed the lid back on.
“Tell me again.”
“Why?” he asked this time.
She lifted one nicely plucked brow.
Drawing in a deep breath, Len focused on his hands and rubbed one thumb over the calluses on the tips of his left-hand fingers. “He’s strong,” he said, hoping that would be enough.
“Strong.” She smirked, a feminine sort of expression that wasn’t quite mocking, but conveyed something more like amusement. “I would imagine. He’s what? Six foot four?”
“But that isn’t what you mean, is it?”
Again, Len shrugged.
Lenore leaned forward. “Ace was strong too, wasn’t he? He was a big man?”
Len squirmed deeper into his chair, as if he could weasel out from under her gaze. “Bigger than me, yeah. So?” So wasn’t everyone bigger than him? Hell, Lenore, with her safe little flats and prim, comforting office wear, was bigger than he was.
“So you go for big guys.”
“Sure. I guess.” Trev wasn’t that big. Tall, but hella skinny.
“Why?” Her question knocked thoughts of Trevor away.
“What the fuck does it matter? You’re supposed to be trying to help me figure shit out with Vance. What has that got to do with Ace? He’s dead anyway.”
“I’m here for you, Len. If Vance is good for you, fine. But I’m here to help you figure out you.”
Len stared at her. He could feel the tearing inside again, imagine his rib cage splitting in two, blood and guts spilling out onto her nice, geometric-pattered rug.
Vance kept him together.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she said.
Len looked out the window at the skyline. Which part? The macabre belief his entire being was slowly ripping apart? Or the certain knowledge only Vance could hold him tight enough to keep him in one piece?
“No is not an option, Mr. Stevens.”
“You’d think I’m crazy.”
She smiled, and it was a kind, understanding expression. One that said, That’s why you’re here, without making it an insult or a judgment.
“You ever hear that Adam Lambert song? ‘Underneath’?”
“I quite like Adam.” She wrote a brief note on her pad. “Do you think that song applies to you?”
He shrugged, caught himself even as she pursed her lips in disapproval, and let out a snarl. “Only the bloody, screaming bits.”
True to form, she didn’t flinch. “Not the part about inviting someone to see that in you?”
Len clamped his lips shut.
“Do you think you’re the only one to feel this way, Mr. Stevens?”
“Well, I didn’t write the song, so probably not, no.”
“Whoever did write the song found a healthy outlet.”
“Goody for them.”
“So it’s not impossible.”
I have an outlet.
He wanted to say it.
I have Vance, only he doesn’t want….
The wet, ripping sound that came next proved to be a groan from Len’s lips. It wasn’t his heart separating from his body. It only felt that way.
“Tell me about Ace,” Lenore said, startling Len out of his pain.
“You were with him a long time?”
“Few years.” Len went back to studying his hands, picking at the calluses and twisting his rings, trying to remember the last time he’d played his guitar, failing, and moving back to the calluses.
“You stayed a few years with a man who abused you.” She wasn’t asking, like it was a question. She just said it, bald and nonjudgmental. Fact. Truth.
So she wasn’t asking, because it wasn’t a question. He had stayed. Why?
Which, of course, was the question, and he stared at her a long time.
“He was strong,” Len said quietly.
“A strong man who couldn’t face the world without drugs in his system. Who couldn’t control his temper or his jealousy.” She leaned forward, elbows resting on her notes, her pen lightly balanced between her fingers. “A strong man who hurt a weaker man because he could.”
“He wasn’t perfect.” A bright-red spot had appeared on the back of his right hand. He rubbed at it, trying to get it off. “I never said he was perfect.” The tingle began near his wrist bone and shimmied through the back of his hand up his fingers just before it began to sting.
“Does that help?” Lenore nodded to his hands.
Heat scrabbled up Len’s neck and into his cheeks. He dropped his hands to the chair arms and gazed out the window.
“Sometimes, physical pain takes the focus away from what else is going on,” she offered, along with a tissue from the box on the table between them.
He stared at the transparent scrap of white and the way the sun shined through it.
“The hurt can be a distraction.”
Len took the tissue and pressed it to his hand, watching the small spots of red seep through.
“Sometimes we think we deserve it. Or that it’s easier to let it happen, or that if we let the beating happen, it will be the last time and the person will feel better. Do better.” She touched the backs of his fingers. “Or because it feels so good when it finally stops.” She shifted forward on the sofa and touched Len’s knee. “Sometimes, it’s because we like to feel the pain, and when it goes away, it takes all the mess inside with it and we feel new again for a little while.”
He looked at her hand, wondering why she’d touched him, at the tissue now stuck to him by blood, and finally, at her face. “So what does that make me?”
Lenore set her pad and pen aside on the couch as she sat back and clasped her hands in her lap. “No different from the rest of us, Len. Masochism isn’t abnormal. It’s just another way to be. Like gay, or musically inclined.” She smiled. “Or short.”
Len stared at her for a long moment before looking away out the window again. “Ace.” He eased the tissue off his hand and checked for bleeding. “It wasn’t about that.”
“So what was it about?”
“I didn’t make him happy.”
“Translation: you made him angry, and he hit you.”
Another shrug. “I guess.”
“So if my daughter drops my favorite vase and I get angry, it’s okay to hit her.”
Len snapped his head around. “Of course not!”
Lenore smiled. “Of course not,” she repeated gently.
“A kid doesn’t know any better,” Len said. “I wasn’t a kid that time. I should have been able to figure it out. Figure him out.” It was a pretty lame excuse.
“I didn’t say how old she was. Or if she’d dropped it on purpose. Even still, I’m an adult, and I do know it isn’t okay to hit someone in anger.”
Len said nothing.
“Or frustration, or impatience, or for any reason outside a negotiated arrangement.” She paused and Len swallowed. “Safe, sane, and consensual, Len. Do you know what that means?”
He nodded. “Sure.” Vance had talked about it, but it was only talk.
She waited, watching him.
“What?” he said after a while.
“Is that the sort of arrangement you had with Ace?”
Len snorted. “Nothing about Ace was sane,” he said.
She waited some more.
“Or safe,” he admitted.
Still, she waited, and watched him carefully.
He sighed. “Or consensual. Not all the time.”
“And what parts of your relationship with him weren’t consensual, Leonard?”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Len said quietly.
She was very good at waiting.
Shrugging himself deeper into his chair, he bit at his lower lip and found himself once more rubbing at his hand, now smearing the blood over the unblemished skin. “So he knocked me around a bit,” he mumbled. “And no, I didn’t like it.”
“Knocked you around a bit.” She handed him a new tissue.
God. Why did she always repeat what he’d said? He glared at her notepad, still sitting on the sofa next to her, but she didn’t move to pick it up.
“Exactly what does that mean, Len?” she asked at last.
“What it says.”
“He pushed you?”
“Hit you? Punched you?”
“Yeah. ’Course.” He rubbed that hand with the tissue.
Lenore leaned forward again. “Choked you?”
Len realized he was, in fact, touching his throat with his maimed hand and swallowed hard under his fingertips, remembering. He nodded. Or he tried. He wasn’t sure if he actually managed movement.
“It must be terrifying, knowing someone has your life in their hands and you can’t do anything to take it back.” She spoke softly, and very, very gently.
Len nodded once more. “He was so strong. He could hold me down and—” He shook his head violently. “His one hand fit around my neck.” He demonstrated with his own, remembering the reach of Ace’s big hands and feeling the difference where his fingers were smaller, shorter. Weaker. “What was I supposed to do? Let him kill me? So I just let him”—he dropped his hand to his lap—“instead. So what? It was better to submit to him.”
“Leonard, that isn’t submission. That’s—”
“Don’t!” He got up abruptly and stalked to the window. “It was whatever it was. He’s dead now, so what difference does it make?”
“Does Vance know?”
Len turned to face her. “He doesn’t have to know. Ace is dead and gone. It’s in the past.”
“No one knows,” she said, studying him.
Len faced the window again and stared out. “You do.” That should be enough. But parts of him ripped away inside, and it didn’t feel like enough. He looked at the sidewalk, a floor below.
Vance was sitting on a park bench talking to a woman who was young-looking. She had a stroller and a dog with her, and he was petting the dog as she spoke animatedly and smiled into the stroller. He’d be nice to her, and coo at the baby, but it was the dog he cared about. It was always the dog, or the cat, or the horse, or whatever animal was a part of the moment. It was almost like people, to him, were just big, two-legged, really dumb animals he had to deal with sometimes.
“It was between me and Ace,” Len said, “and it stopped when he died. What difference does it make now?”
“Being forced into any kind of intimacy you don’t want is a big deal, Len.” Lenore joined him at the window. “It can make you very afraid to share that kind of closeness with anyone else.”
“Wasn’t having any issues with that until you brought all this shit up again,” Len spat. “Vance and I were just fine.”
As if the power of his name drew his attention, Vance looked up at their window.
He was so beautiful. And anxious. It was there in his eyes, the set of his jaw—even under the wide, affable Texan smile he flashed at the woman—and in the hitched set of his shoulders. He hunched as though he was dragging a yoke attached to something heavy, and the heavy was Len. Still, he looked up and he waved. Len touched fingertips to the glass and smiled.
Outside, Vance nodded, but didn’t smile. He rarely smiled lately.
“Why do you think that is?” Lenore asked.
“Why do you think he doesn’t smile?”
“Did I say that out loud?”
Lenore rested a hand on his shoulder. It was such a clinical gesture. Maybe she meant it to be comforting, but without crossing any lines into intimacy or friendship, it meant nothing. “You talk to yourself sometimes. Do you ever wonder what you say out loud that he hears and wonders about?”
“Didn’t know I did that.” He twitched and she removed her hand.
“Funny thing about behaviors, Leonard. We can’t change them if we don’t acknowledge them.”
That drew his attention, and he looked over at her. “You saying I should quit talking to myself?”
“Stop lying to yourself, is perhaps the more immediate issue.” She went back to her sofa to gather up her notes and pen. “Something to think about for our next session.”
“Time’s up, huh?” Len looked back at the bench outside. The girl, dog, and stroller were moving down the sidewalk. Vance had disappeared. Len wondered if he had told her he had to go because it was time to collect his messed-up boyfriend from the therapist.
“I think we made some progress today,” Lenore said. “Don’t you?”
Len wanted to shrug. Vance hated it when he did. It wasn’t a proper answer, he said. You couldn’t sit on the fence. You had to pick one thing or the other. There was no room for maybe or I’m not sure.
Was it progress to admit he’d been too weak to stop Ace taking whatever the hell he’d wanted? How did that fit with knowing he’d give Vance the exact same thing? Anything the man asked for. If he’d only ask for something. Anything.
“Seems like you have a lot to think about.” Lenore was using her kind voice again.
Confusion pushed Len back into his chair. “What’s the difference?” The whole thing was just too heavy, like that sticky ball of emotion. Too unwieldy. “It was my choice with Ace, same as Vance.”
Lenore was shaking her head before he’d finished speaking. “Vance doesn’t hurt you to get what he wants.”
Len opened his mouth and closed it again. She was right. He didn’t. What Len might want—or wish for—was a different matter.
“Wanting pain isn’t the same thing as having pain inflicted upon you. Ace took your choices away, one by one, until you only had one left. The one he wanted you to choose.”
It wasn’t that this was a difficult concept to grasp. Len wasn’t an idiot. He knew the difference between rape and submission, being hit and being given the pain he craved.
Admitting what had happened was one thing and not the other took away the last bit of power he had. Ace was dead. There was no way to take back from him what he’d stolen.
The sound of knocking made him jump, and he realized he’d been staring into space.
“Time’s up,” he said, stretching the faintest of smiles over his face.
“For today,” she agreed.
“You going to tell him all of this?” That fear sat like lead in his gut and added to the weight of the messy ball. It dragged him down, pulled at the fragile connections he’d managed to stitch himself together with over the session. If Vance knew, he’d be even more cautious, maybe refuse everything Len wanted, everything he hoped for.
“You’ll tell him yourself,” Lenore replied with confidence. “When you’re ready.”
She opened the door, a professional, friendly smile on her face for Vance.
“Mr. Ashcroft. Come in. We’re just finishing up.”
Slowly, Len stood, dragging that lead ball with him.
“Hey, darlin’.” Vance’s smile was stretched, forced. Still, it was a smile, and he held out his hand.
There was no part of Len that did not want that offered comfort. If his stumbling rush to it was undignified, so what. If he knocked Vance back a step throwing himself at him, still, Vance caught him, held him, kept him, one more day.
With most of the hours in the day taken up by a part time job and the full time occupation of raising and schooling two kids, writing is somewhat of an indulgence, but it's the indulgences that keep us sane, right? When not otherwise occupied, like most writers, reading is my relaxation method of choice, and you can find my reviews at Kuriousity.com and Dark Diva Reviews to let you know what I liked (and occasionally, what I didn't). And just in case there are an extra few minutes in the day, I also help out the admin team abelong to a writer's critique group: Dreaming in Ink. After all, idle hands and all that.
In the Wings #2