Outed and dumped on national television by his rising star boyfriend, Joey Nichols must face the bigotry of the locals in his small Southern town alone. His dreams of a happy ever after lie crushed at his feet.
Novelist Troy Steele has an axe to grind against Hollywood heartbreaker types. Transforming Joey into a gorgeous, unobtainable hunk would be payback worthy of Troy’s poison pen. It’s a brilliant way to get back at Joey’s image-obsessed ex-boyfriend and the movie producer who’s mutilating Troy’s novels.
What begins as simple revenge may tangle them together in something far more complicated. Living well may be the best revenge, but Troy and Joey could rewrite that to loving well.
The second edition of this Lambda Award Finalist is available for preorder now, ready to read October 6, 2016.
The Nichols’ dining room table could easily seat six people if it weren’t covered with business records, homework, and car parts. Instead of clearing it off, the family assembled in the living room, parents on the couch, Joey and his sisters on the floor. Overloaded plates balanced on each lap.
“Hush, it’s starting,” Joey’s mom warned, mostly to thirteen-year-old Stacey.
“Oops! Gotta go!” Stacey disconnected her call and dropped her phone onto the floor.
Joey and Jackie were quiet already, Joey afraid he’d miss something important if he so much as blinked.
Ten years separated him and his twin from Stacey. Mom often joked that it had taken her that long to forget the horrors of giving birth enough to try again.
Dad blamed his cousin’s homebrew.
“Good evening, I’m Evelyn Hugh. Welcome to Hollywood Seen. Tonight’s hottie, err, I mean, hot story”—the show’s hostess began, grin unapologetic—“is a young man who’s got all of Hollywood talking. Riker Sanderson has what it takes to survive in this town: looks, talent, and a legion of screaming fans.”
On cue, the camera focused on the audience, where the legion, mostly young and female, chanted, “Riker! Riker!”
“Sorry to disappoint you girls. Rumor has it that Mr. Sanderson is taken.” Evelyn pouted for the camera. “Or is he? Joining me tonight is none other than Riker Sanderson, star of the action thriller, Something to Die For.”
Taken? Joey swallowed hard. Surely she couldn’t mean…
The camera zoomed out, showing the beautiful man who’d stolen his heart and who’d shared his apartment up until a few months ago. Riker, more muscled thanks to a heavy training routine for the movie, sported gold highlights in his now much shorter hair. He looked downright sinful in tight-fitting T-shirt and jeans.
Joey idly toyed with the silver band on his middle finger, a nervous habit, before noticing its mate missing from Riker’s hand. Maybe he’d taken it off for the movie. It didn’t mean anything. No, nothing at all.
All worries disappeared when Riker slowly raised a simmering gaze to the camera. Something clenched deep in Joey’s insides. Those dark eyes hypnotized him, even if they were on a TV screen and not actually in the room. Bedroom eyes intense enough to cause instant paralysis. How many times had Joey lost himself in them, lying in a sweaty, satisfied tangle with Riker?
“Thank you for joining us,” the bleached-blonde hostess gushed, a woman Big Joe said gave him gout.
“Why does she do that to her hair?” Mom asked. “She’s ruined it.” She added the tried and true statement guaranteed to grant forgiveness for any unkindness spoken by a Southerner: “Bless her heart.”
With her whiney voice and constant fawning, Evelyn Hugh reminded Joey of one of the teenaged fans. “I can call you Riker, can’t I?”
“Sure, if I can call you Evelyn.” Her ordinary name sounded exotic when spoken in Riker’s deep tones. That was his gift. He could make anyone feel like the most important person on the planet just by talking to them. Joey had warmed himself by Riker’s fire on many a cold winter’s night.
“I loved you in the romantic comedy, Trying the Knot, filmed in your home state of Georgia. Although only a minor supporting role, your portrayal of the obnoxious cousin at the wedding turned out to be a real scene-stealer and resulted in your big break, didn’t it?”
Riker hadn’t really wanted the cousin role that required him to wear a fat suit and play a backwoods redneck, even if he’d had to beat out a lot of other hopefuls for the part.
“Well, Evelyn,”—Riker turned puppy dog eyes on the hostess—“I’d originally auditioned for the role of Chuck.”
“The pain-in-the-ass playboy who seduced several bridesmaids? Oh, you’re too sweet to play such a cad.”
“You’re too kind.”
A better-known actor had won the honors of playing asshole Chuck. Riker had stormed around the apartment for days.
Riker smiled like he’d hit the jackpot by missing the role. “Actually, I found the cousin part more intriguing. I mean, it stretched my acting skills to play someone so unlike myself.”
“Oh, please, I’m trying to eat here,” Jackie spat.
Joey flashed her a quick evil eye and went back to watching TV.
What a tantrum Riker had thrown about “playing a hick nobody.” In the end he took the money, and assurances from his agent of appearing with a few big stars being a good career move and a way to get noticed.
But he’d done the part enough justice to bring Hollywood knocking.
“What an amazing experience,” the man of Joey’s dreams replied, though that’s not what he’d called it to friends. “It really helped me grow as an actor.” He’d privately referred to the part as beneath someone of his talent and his own personal hell.
“What’s it like working with powerhouse actress Clair Clancy?”
Joey lost the battle to keep a straight face. He’d gotten more earfuls about “Clair, the air-headed bitch.” She’d only spoken to Riker twice during filming when their roles overlapped.
Onscreen, Riker described her as, “An amazing actress. A true professional.” He waved at the camera. “Congrats on the birth of your little girl, Clair. You’ll be an amazing mother.” This from the man who’d wanted to pass a law making it illegal for the woman to breed. Wow, what a good actor. For a moment even Joey believed him.
“In a real-life Cinderella story, a relatively unknown actor is chosen for the lead role of Mitchell Keller in the biggest film of the year. How’s that working out for you?” Evelyn leaned her head on Riker’s shoulder, eyeing him through batting lashes. How dare she? She needed to back off.
A punch to the shoulder brought Joey back to reality, breathing hard and fingernails digging into the palms of his clenched fists.
“She does that with everybody,” Jackie murmured. “What’s your problem, anyway?”
Joey took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a flush creeping up his cheeks.
After what could have been two years, or more probably, two seconds, Riker answered, “It’s really amazing.”
“Doesn’t he know any adjectives besides amazing?” Stacey cut in. “I mean, really! He’s an actor, he’s supposed to be good with words.” Oops, the last holdout in the family swayed to the “We don’t like Riker” side.
Joey ignored her. He’d show them. Soon he’d be living the good life, basking in the California sun. He and Riker had even talked about getting married.
“…and my producer, Ian Hagan, is amazing,” Riker was saying.
Stacey made an “I told you so” face.
Their mother swatted her arm, nipping in the bud whatever sarcastic remark she’d been about to sling.
Riker plowed on. “He took a huge chance in hiring an unknown for such a major role, and I’m grateful he believes in me. I’ve done everything I can to make sure he doesn’t regret taking a risk. We’ve wrapped up the final scenes. Now it’s in post-production, where they’ll add the Hollywood magic.”
What? Riker said a few hours ago that they were still shooting. Well, maybe they had to reshoot some parts.
“Oh, that’s fabulous.” Evelyn’s fake smile lost its battle to look sincere.
Joey knew how she felt. The standing local rule: Never mention acting around Riker unless you had a least an hour and didn’t mind listening. Folks in town phrased their words very carefully.
“Now, Riker, I know you’ve heard the rumors and seen the pictures posted on the Internet of yourself with someone who is apparently very close to you.”
Joey’s heart pounded and his ears rang. Rumors? Pictures? He peeped over at Jackie, who sat up straighter and put her plate down on the floor.
The smile fled Riker’s face, and he wore the same pleading expression he’d used to get out of cooking. “Yes, I have. For the record, I’d like to state that my personal life isn’t anyone else’s business.”
Oh, shit! What had they found out?
“Breathe, Joey,” Jackie urged.
No matter how he tried, Joey couldn’t, because Evelyn dropped a bomb. “Are you gay?”
Oh, my God! They’d been careful since Riker signed the movie deal. How had anyone suspected? Sure, in a few months maybe, when they were ready. Not now!
Jackie stiffened and Joey held his breath.
“Yes, Evelyn, I am.” Riker sighed, his anguished eyes filling with tears. Joey had never seen anyone who could cry on demand quite so convincingly, not even Stacey. “I’m not ashamed of being a gay American, and I don’t see how my orientation has any bearing on my acting ability.”
“I knew it!” Stacey shrieked. Jackie shushed her. Joey ignored her again.
Evelyn scented blood and went for the throat—her trademark. “The man shown with you in the pictures, is he your boyfriend?”
Man in the pictures? Boyfriend? Surely it couldn’t be… Who the hell were they talking about? If it wouldn’t have given too much away, Joey would have made a mad dash to his parent’s aging computer to find out. Evelyn Hugh moved much too slowly. Stomach too queasy to eat, Joey plopped his uneaten meal down on the coffee table.
Riker sat quietly gazing into the camera and Joey almost heard the wheels turning under that mop of highlighted hair. Finally, his lover became his ex-lover with the casually spoken, “I guess you could say we were in a relationship at the time. Nothing serious. We’ve decided to cool things down while I focus on my career.”
What!? Nothing really serious?! Joey gaped at the screen, a flash fire creeping up his cheeks all the way to his ears. Did Riker mean him? A boulder formed in his throat.
They’d talked about forever. He gasped for breath, unable to turn away from the train wreck of his life unfolding on national television.
“Yes, it’s true.” Riker used the same sorrowful tone the hick cousin had during a big scene in Trying the Knot. “I mean, he’s back home, I’m here. It wouldn’t work out.”
Jackie might have snapped, “Oh, cry me a river!” Joey was too caught up in his own personal drama to know for sure.
He knows I’m watching! He knows I’m seeing this! Why is he coming out now? Why couldn’t he tell the nosy woman it’s none of her damned business?
Riker focused directly on the camera, as if seeking Joey out. “Yeah, we kind of grew out of each other. It’s time to move on.”
“I certainly appreciate your candor, and I’m sure there’s plenty of people around town willing to keep you company.” Evelyn sat up, patting at her hair. “We all look forward to your upcoming movie. It’s sure to be a blockbuster. Thank you for joining us.”
Joey dared not dart out of the room like he wanted to and give too much away. At the moment the family only knew that he’d had a gay roommate. Should he act surprised?
The camera left Riker and zoomed in on the hostess. Joey saw her through a glaze of tears and fears. “Remember that you heard it first on Hollywood Seen.” Her goofy grin dimmed a few watts. “Now, here’s another Hollywood Seen exclusive, the photographs that started it all. Last month they began circling the Internet. Until tonight, spokesmen for Mr. Sanderson firmly denied their authenticity. A pity, really. They made such a handsome couple, don’t you agree?”
Joey’s reality crumbled, replaced by a nightmare. The TV screen filled completely with an image of Riker and himself dancing at the club in Atlanta, Riker’s leg wedged between Joey’s, Joey’s mouth locked to his lover’s neck and his crotch pressed against Riker’s denim-covered thigh.
Oh dear God! He looked like a humping vampire!
The image lasted forever. Enough already, take it down! He’d been stripped naked. Laid bare, all his deepest, darkest secrets exposed.
Calm down, no one can tell it’s you. Maybe they’ll think it’s someone out in Hollywood. That hope dashed to pieces with another picture, probably taken shortly after the first. In it, Joey and Riker both faced the camera. The hostess delivered the killing blow. “Our sources tell us that the man in the picture with Riker Sanderson is Joseph Nichols, Jr., with whom Riker lived in Georgia before moving to California.”
Joey fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket and barely managed to hit the right number. Instead of one of the ever-changing heavy-metal ringtones Riker used, a recorded message stated flatly, “The number you have dialed has been disconnected…”