Excerpt: “The Melody Thief,” Chapter Two

August 24, 2012

Here’s Chapter Two of “The Melody Thief.”  It’s meant to be read back to back with the first chapter, and, oh what a contrast Cary Redding’s adult life is to his childhood!  This one is 18+ for sexual situations and language.

Don’t forget to stop over at my blog and comment to enter to win a t-shirt of your choice of the Blue Notes Series books covers and an ebook copy of the original novel in the series, “Blue Notes.”

Enjoy! -Shira

***************

Chapter Two: Best Laid Plans

Milan, Italy—Thirteen years later

“Oh fuck, yeah!” Cary shouted in English as he pushed back against the other man’s hips. The skinny Italian kid he’d picked up grunted and thrust harder, ratcheting up the pace, so Cary gripped the toilet to keep his balance. Sweat dripped down his neck. He never enjoyed kissing. He didn’t need it. He liked it like this: rough, fast, and anonymous.

Someone in the next stall laughed, but Cary didn’t give a shit. This was how it was supposed to be in a place like this, and someone else listening in only made it so much hotter. Here, he was just another nameless fuck, and that suited him just fine.

“That’s it. Oh God, yes!” he cried as the kid nailed his gland again. He stroked himself in rhythm with the young man’s thrusts, groaning as he came with a strangled gasp into his sweaty palm. The smell of come mingled with the faint scent of urine and toilet deodorizer. Years ago, the combination made him sick. Now, the seediness of it just made it more of a turn-on.

His partner grunted as he came hard, his body shuddering and his breaths coming in stutters. A minute later, the kid pulled out. Cary saw the used condom hit the water of the commode, and heard the sounds of a zipper and the latch being released on the stall door. He had already forgotten the kid’s face. It was better this way. He didn’t want anything but sex anyhow, and he didn’t want to be forced to make small talk. In Italian, no less.

He leaned against the grimy wall and wiped himself with the cheap toilet paper, then added it to the condom in the water and flushed it down. His stomach rumbled—a few more drinks and he wouldn’t remember he was hungry. He’d reheat something when he got back, or maybe he’d just sleep it off and grab something in the morning instead. It was usually better to nurse a hangover with an empty stomach. He knew from experience.

He walked back into the bar and sat at a table in the corner, making eye contact with the bartender. A minute or two later, he nursed a scotch and soda, his fourth that night, and leaned over to the man at the next table.

Sigaretta?” Cary asked.

The man grunted and handed him a cigarette, then lit it for Cary as they leaned toward each other to span the short gap between tables.

Cary hated cigarettes. He only smoked in bars, and only after sex. At least that was what he told himself. He preferred the unfiltered variety—it gave him a more immediate buzz. They were easier to find here than in the States.

His hand shook slightly as he brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled the acrid smoke. It was better than the drugs, right? He’d tried those too, but he’d given them up because they interfered with his playing. He could always sleep off the booze and the nicotine.

One of the regulars walked through the entrance, and their eyes met. Silvio. Nice ass. Terrific bottom.

It was turning out to be a great night.

***************

At nearly three in the morning, Cary stumbled out onto the empty Milan side street. His ass was sore and his thigh muscles were tight. He liked it that way. He needed to feel it in his bones the next morning or he hadn’t gotten enough.

A light fog hung over the city, the fall air cool and damp. Cary shivered, his thin T-shirt little help against the chilly breeze. His housekeeper was right—curse Roberta, she was always right—he should have worn his leather jacket. He looked around for a cab, but there were none in sight. He’d walk over to the main avenue, via Padova, to catch one.

Fuck, he thought, tripping over the uneven pavement as he turned the corner onto another small street. He didn’t notice the two men huddled in the doorway of a darkened building until one of them grabbed him by the neck. He caught the glint of a knife in his peripheral vision. Fucking hell.

Soldi,” hissed one of the thugs, the one standing in front of him smoking the remainder of a joint.

“I don’t understand,” Cary said in English. It was a lie. He was fluent in Italian. “I’m American.”

“Money,” the man repeated, in English this time. “Give.”

“Don’t have any.” He didn’t pull his wallet out and hand it over. Maybe it was the aftereffects of the alcohol. Or maybe it was the rough sex and the feeling of empowerment that still lingered at his frayed edges. Either way, he wasn’t going to let these assholes push him around.

The man’s response came in the form of a knee to his gut. Cary doubled over, coughing and spluttering. Shit. Was that blood he tasted on his tongue?

“Money. Now.”

“You’re fucking insistent, aren’t you?” he blustered. The man behind him wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him upright once more, pressing hard on his Adam’s apple and making his vision swim with tiny specks of silver.

The man standing in front of him nodded. A hand reached into Cary’s jeans pocket, pulled out the soft calfskin wallet, and held it up to the light. “Expensive,” he told his partner in Italian.

“You come with us.” The other thug’s expression was one of triumphant glee. He pulled Cary’s ATM card out of the wallet and waved it in his face. “Bank.”

“No fucking way,” Cary shouted. He wrenched himself free of the headlock and backed toward the curb.

The lights of via Padova were visible a scant block away. If he could just make it there, he might be able to get help or maybe scare them off. He turned to run, but something hard hit him in the kidneys, and he fell to his knees. He struggled back to his feet.

Before he could defend himself, one of the thugs’ fists connected with his chin, and he staggered backward. He tried to maintain his balance but failed miserably. He hit the concrete hands first, and something in his left wrist snapped. He vomited up what little food was left in his stomach as a wave of intense pain washed over him.

“Asshole,” he spat.

“Get away from him,” someone warned in Italian. The voice came from nearby, but the pain in Cary’s gut was still so bad he couldn’t look up at the newcomer’s face. He heard what sounded like a scuffle, a groan, and then footsteps running down the pavement.

“Are you all right?”

He pushed the hand on his shoulder away without thinking. The world spun and the pain in his wrist shot up his arm. “Oh shit,” he groaned, clutching the wrist.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man said, this time in lightly accented English. “You need help.” The voice was calm, reassuring. “You need a hospital.”

“No hospital,” Cary gasped and tried to stay alert. “Leave me alone.”

He got back to his feet, and the lights from the boulevard blurred at the edges. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was two strong arms as they caught him.

***************

Cary awoke in an unfamiliar bed to the sound of muffled voices speaking in Italian. “… found him off via Padova. No identification. The man who brought him says he’s an American.”

He forced his eyes open and saw the metal sides of the hospital bed, the IV hanging from the pole, the needle taped to his hand, and the light-yellow curtains at the sides of the bed. The place smelled of disinfectant.

The last time he’d been in a hospital was when he’d watched his mother wither and die, her body wracked with pain from the chemo and radiation. He remembered his own guilt as he had sat by her bed, helpless to do anything. It had been the final insult, a coda, as it were, to their tumultuous relationship. He had never done anything right by her.

He reached for his right earlobe, jostling the IV, but not caring. The small diamond stud in his ear was still there, thank God. It had been a gift from his brother on his twenty-first birthday and was the only piece of jewelry he wore.

As he was getting his bearings, the shadows in the room shifted. No, not shadows—a man, seated in the corner. “How are you feeling?” he asked in English as he stood up and walked over to the bed.

Cary studied the newcomer through a haze of painkillers. Italian, judging by his accent, although his appearance was not classically Italian: blond hair, blue eyes, about the same height as Cary, early thirties, and hot as hell. Not that a man like that would ever look twice at Cary. Guys like him never did, and who could blame them?

“Do I know you?” Cary’s voice was hoarse, and his mouth felt full of cotton.

The man looked back at him with a mixture of concern and humor. “You could say we’ve met.”

“You… you’re the man from the street.” Cary recognized the voice. “How long have I been here?”

“A day,” the Italian answered. “Perhaps I must introduce myself,” he added. “I am Antonio Bianchi.”

Cary hesitated. “Connor Taylor.”

It was the name he used in the clubs. Or at least it had been since his agent had bailed him out of jail when a not-so-rainbow-friendly gendarme had caught him quite literally with his pants down outside a shithole of a Paris bar.

What you do with your life off the concert stage isn’t my business, Georges Duhamel had told him after he’d bailed Cary out, but you must at least use another name. I won’t have you toss your career in the toilet.

When all was said and done (and after he’d had a fake New York State driver’s license made under the name “Connor L. Taylor”), Cary enjoyed being Connor. Nobody gave a shit if Connor liked to fuck men in the restrooms or alleyways behind rundown bars. Why would anyone care? After a few years, Connor had become Cary’s excuse for the late nights and anonymous fucks—when he wasn’t practicing or performing, Cary Redding was Connor Taylor.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Antonio said.

“Thanks. For last night, I mean.”

His wrist ached, throbbing to a dull beat like an insistent drum. His head felt like it was filled with jagged rocks. He looked down and saw the cast on his left arm. He vaguely remembered falling. Right, he had tried to catch himself before he hit the pavement.

Oh God.

“My wrist.” He spoke the words aloud and his voice cracked. He tried to move his fingers, but the pain was so bad he gasped. A broken wrist meant he couldn’t play. Without his cello, he was nothing. His stomach clenched and his eyes burned. In an effort to master his emotions, he turned away and bit his cheek.

“The doctor says your wrist will be fine,” Antonio said, perhaps sensing Cary’s distress.

This can’t be real. I’m going to wake up and….

“I need to get out of here.” The hospital room was suddenly too small. Panicked, Cary tried to sit up, but Antonio put a firm hand on his shoulder.

“The doctor… he says you may leave when you are ready, but you have this—” He struggled to find the word. “—commozione cerebrale,” he finally said. He pointed to his head. “You know, from falling?”

“A concussion?” It explained the killer headache. Cary lay back in the bed. He felt overwhelmed, defeated. He lifted his hand to his face, and the IV line caught on the edge of the bed.

“Sí. A concussion,” Antonio said as he freed the line for Cary. “He says you must not be alone tonight. Is there somewhere I can take you? A person who can look by you, then?”

There was no one. No family or close friends. He had no one, really, except his housekeeper, Roberta.

“If you wish, you may stay with me.”

Cary realized Antonio had guessed, correctly, that Cary had no one to stay with him.

You shouldn’t be surprised. You look like street trash.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He knew he looked like one of the hustlers he sometimes paid for sex, and he wondered what kind of man would willingly take someone like that in, knowing nothing about them.

But then again, it’s not like someone with a broken wrist and a concussion would be a danger to a big guy like him.

He considered the offer for a moment. It wasn’t as if he had anything to fear from Antonio, either. The guy had taken him to the hospital, after all. The offer was far more tempting—no, make that Antonio was far more tempting—than asking his housekeeper to play nurse and mother.

He looked away from Antonio. He hoped it would come across as though he were thinking things through, but the truth was that the realization that he was entirely alone hit him harder than he’d expected. He’d never been weak. He’d been on his own for years. He hadn’t needed anybody’s help. And yet now, he felt vulnerable. He hated feeling vulnerable.

He took a slow breath, doing his best to hide his emotional turmoil. “I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said, trying to sound casual, confident.

“Not at all, Signor Taylor. It would be my pleasure.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Antonio said. Then, as if realizing why Cary might hesitate to accept the invitation of a complete stranger, he added, “But if you are not confortevole—ah, what is it?—comfortable with this, I think you can stay here longer. I will not be insulted.”

Was it any different to go home with a stranger for a night of fucking? Guys who come charging in on white horses don’t usually rape you the next day.

He closed his eyes and saw his mother’s face. She had predicted this. You won’t be happy living that way, Cary, she said when he came out to her. It’s not natural. It’s a sexual… perversion. It’s sinful. An addiction.

He had defended himself. I’m not a pervert, Mom. This is me. This is what I am.

How can you say that, Cary Taylor Redding? How can you risk everything we’ve worked so hard for?

Funny, how he’d starting cruising the bars to show her he didn’t give a shit about what she thought. But he’d come to crave the sex, booze, and smokes. They satisfied a hunger his music could not. She hadn’t wanted to listen, and in the end he’d just proved her right. He had lost the only thing that really mattered to him: his music.

It’s not forever. It’ll heal. The thought did little to allay his fear, and he moaned softly.

“Are you all right?” That voice again. Right. Antonio.

“Sorry,” Cary said, embarrassed. “I guess I’m still a little sleepy.”

“It’s okay. I will ask about getting you to leave this place and perhaps something for the pain. You must rest now.”

“Thank you.” Cary watched as Antonio pulled the covers back over him and walked out of the room. His white knight.

And you’re about as far from a princess as they come.

***************

A few hours later, having spoken with the doctor, Cary was released from the hospital with a bottle of painkillers and instructions to come back in six weeks to have the cast removed and begin physical therapy. While Antonio went to retrieve his car, Cary quickly provided the hospital staff with his home address. He was grateful the police had taken him to a public hospital—there was no bill to speak of for emergency patients. He wasn’t sure how he’d have felt if Antonio had insisted on paying for his stay.

Cary said little as they rode the elevator down to the ground floor. The painkillers had begun to wear off, and he was feeling anxious, tense.

“This broken wrist,” Antonio said, perhaps sensing Cary’s dark mood, “it will make it difficult for your work, no?”

“You could say that.” Impossible, really. He pushed the thought from his mind. He would get through this. He reminded himself again that the doctor had said his wrist would be fine in a few months.

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m between jobs now.” The truth, although not the entire truth. It was late October, and his next gig was in Rome in four weeks. He had also been scheduled to teach a series of master classes in early December.

It could have been worse, he reminded himself as he climbed into Antonio’s car a few minutes later. A hell of a lot worse.

So why was his gut tense? He tried to focus on something else. It wasn’t that difficult. Antonio’s broad shoulders were an easy distraction.

***************

Antonio’s apartment was nearly as big as Cary’s own. The high-ceilinged rooms were tastefully decorated in an eclectic mixture of modern Italian furniture and antiques. Photographs of smiling children and adults adorned the tabletops and bookshelves. From the abundance of blue eyes and blond hair, Cary guessed these were Antonio’s family.

“You look tired,” Antonio said as he shut the door behind them. “Perhaps I make dinner while you sleep?”

“Thanks.” Cary caught a glimpse of a large bed through a doorway to their right. He rubbed his arm above his broken wrist without thinking and winced. The dull ache had now become an angry throb.

“May I get you some pills? For your arm?” Antonio held up the doggie bag of chemicals the hospital had sent home with Cary.

“That would be great.”

“Perhaps you like to use the telephone while I get it for you?”

Cary stared blankly at Antonio.

“You know,” Antonio continued, “if there is a person who might… ah—” He struggled to find the word. “—worry for you?”

“No,” Cary answered as understanding came. “I’m fine. There’s nobody.”

Worry about me? Other than a geezer of an agent and a brother halfway around the world?

Justin would care. In fact, he would worry a lot. They were brothers, after all. But Cary didn’t want to bother him and his family. And Georges, Cary’s agent, would have a cow when he learned Cary had broken his wrist, but only because he’d need to cancel a few months of gigs while it healed. Yeah, he’d have to tell the idiot at some point, but why rush it?

He thought briefly of Roberta. She’s your housekeeper. What does she care if you stay away for a few nights? It’s not like you haven’t before. But he knew he was lying to himself. Roberta was far more than an employee. He’d call her after he’d had a chance to rest. He’d tell her he was spending the night out so she wouldn’t worry.

Something akin to compassion or maybe pity flashed through Antonio’s eyes, but he said only, “Please. Use the bed. I will bring you the medicine.”

Cary was almost asleep when Antonio came back into the room with a glass of water and a few pills. “This will help with pain,” he told Cary. “I will arouse you when dinner is ready.”

“Mmm,” Cary murmured, repressing a grin in response to Antonio’s faulty turn of phrase. It wasn’t all that difficult to control himself, since he was damn near asleep already and his wrist hurt like hell. Still, the thought made for some very sweet dreams.

Excerpt: The Melody Thief, Chapter One (PG)

August 24, 2012

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One of “The Melody Thief.”  A quick look back at Cary Reddings childhood (not a very happy one, either).  When I wrote this scene, I imagined a young Cary, back to me, facing the audience, all alone on the stage.  Lonely.  Awkward.  Feeling unloved and undeserving of the audience’s applause.

Don’t forget to stop by my blog and comment to enter contests to win a “Blue Notes” t-shirt and an ebook copy of the original novel in the series, “Blue Notes.”  -Shira

First, the blurb:

Cary Redding is a walking contradiction. On the surface he’s a renowned cellist, sought after by conductors the world over. Underneath, he’s a troubled man flirting with addictions to alcohol and anonymous sex. The reason for the discord? Cary knows he’s a liar, a cheat. He’s the melody thief.

Cary manages his double life just fine until he gets mugged on a deserted Milan street. Things look grim until handsome lawyer Antonio Bianchi steps in and saves his life. When Antonio offers something foreign to Cary—romance—Cary doesn’t know what to do. But then things get even more complicated. For one thing, Antonio has a six-year-old son. For another, Cary has to confess about his alter ego and hope Antonio forgives him.

Just when Cary thinks he’s figured it all out, past and present collide and he is forced to choose between the family he wanted as a boy and the one he has come to love as a man.

*************

God, grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change….

—“Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr

Chapter One: The Melody Thief

Tulsa, Oklahoma

He screwed up his face, trying to ignore the bright lights at the edge of the stage, which burned his eyes and left multicolored imprints on his retinas. Cary Redding was barely fifteen years old, but he sat straight-backed, schooling his expression to reveal only calm resolve. Unlike some of the well-known performers he had watched on video, he did not move his body in time to the music, nor did he bend and sway. The cello became a physical extension of his body, and he had no need to move anything more than his fingers on the fingerboard and his bow over the strings.

When he played, he was transported to a place where it didn’t matter that his face had begun to break out or that he seemed to grow out of his shoes every other month. When he played, he forgot his fear that he was different—that he was far more interested in Jerry Gabriel than in Jerry’s sister Martha. When he played, he felt the kind of warmth he had horsing around with his brother in the backyard, chasing after a football.

For the past three years, he had studied the Elgar Cello Concerto, a soulful, intensely passionate composition, and one he adored. His cello teacher had explained that it had been composed at the end of World War I, and the music reflected the composer’s grief and disillusionment. At the time, Cary hadn’t been really sure what that meant, but he felt the music deep within his soul, in a place he hid from everyone. In that music, he could express what he could not express any other way, and somehow nobody ever seemed to understand that although the music was Elgar’s, the sadness and the melancholy were his own.

At times he was terrified the audience would discover his secret: that he was unworthy of the music. But then his fingers would follow their well-worn path across the fingerboard, and his bow would move of its own accord. The music would rise and fall and engulf him entirely, and the audience would be on their feet to acknowledge the gangly, awkward teenager who had just moved them to tears.

Tonight was no exception. The Tulsa Performing Arts Center was packed with pillars of the community come to hear the young soloist The Chicago Sun-Times had proclaimed “one of the brightest new talents in classical music.” Cries of “bravo” punctuated the applause, and a shy little girl in a white dress with white tights and white shoes climbed the steps to the stage with her mother’s encouragement and handed him a single red rose.

He stood with his cello at his side and bowed as he had been taught not long after he learned to walk. The accompanist bowed as well, smiling at him with the same awed expression he had seen from pianists and conductors alike.

In that moment, he felt like a thief. A liar. The worst kind of cheat.

“Young man,” the woman in the red cocktail dress with the double strand of pearls said as she laid her hand on his shoulder, “you are truly a wonder. You must come back soon and play for us again.”

He knew how to respond; he’d been taught this, as well. “Thank you, ma’am.” His voice cracked, as it had on and off for the past six months. His face burned. He was embarrassed he could not control this as well as he could his performance.

“He’s booked through the next year,” his mother told the woman, “but if there’s an opening, we’ll be sure to let you know.” She would find an opening, no doubt, even if it meant sacrificing his one free weekend at home. His mother never passed up a chance to promote his career.

Back in the green room, his mother looked on as he wiped down the fingerboard of his instrument and gently replaced it in its fiberglass case, then carefully secured his bow in the lid. He’d barely looked at his mother since they’d left the small crowd of well-wishers who had gathered in the wings. He didn’t need to see her face to know she was displeased. He didn’t really want to know what he’d done wrong this time, so he started to hum a melody from a Mozart sonata he’d been studying. Humming helped take his mind off his guilt at letting her down again.

“You rushed through the pizzicato in the last movement,” she said. “We’ve been over that section so many times, Cary Taylor Redding. You let your mind wander again.”

He tried not to cringe; she only used his full name when she was very disappointed in him. “I’m sorry.” His voice cracked again, and he inwardly winced. He didn’t have to fight back the tears anymore. He’d stopped crying years ago.

“We’ll just have to practice it some more.”

He’d also long since stopped asking her why she always said “we” would practice something when he was the one doing the practicing. The one and only time he had pressed the issue, she had responded with a look of long-suffering patience. For days after, the guilt had pierced his gut and roiled around inside until he had apologized for several days running.

“Hurry up now,” she told him. “We have a long drive back home.”

“Did Justin call?” he asked with a hopeful expression.

“Why would your brother call?”

“He said he’d let me know if his team won tonight.” He pulled on his thick winter jacket, grabbed the handle of the cello case, and dragged it across the floor on its roller-skate wheels.

“He can tell you all about it tomorrow.”

He fell asleep in the front seat of the minivan as they headed back to Missouri. He did not dream, or at least, he didn’t remember what he had dreamed about. He never did.

Release Party: “The Melody Thief,” by Shira Anthony

August 24, 2012

Happy Friday and welcome to my celebration of release day for my new Blue Notes Series novel, “The Melody Thief!”  I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the second book in the series in print at last, especially with the gorgeous cover by Catt Ford and that wicked little grin on Cary Redding’s face.  I’m running several giveaways on my blogthis weekend, so stop by and comment to be entered to win.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Blue Notes Series, each book is a standalone novel that takes place in the same classical music universe.  What does a “classical music” universe look like?  It’s a place where performers share connections and friendships through their music.  Characters include performers, entertainment lawyers, agents, and the people they know and love.  Stories are often set in places where performers congregate—large cities like Paris, New York, Milan, and Chicago feature prominently in the series.

The original book in the series, “Blue Notes,” features a jazz violinist and a former musician turned lawyer, and is set in Paris.  This new installment, “The Melody Thief,” features a classical cellist with an international career and an entertainment lawyer, and is set in Milan.

The Melody Thief” is the story of cellist Cary Redding, a former child prodigy and a budding superstar on the classical music scene.  Cary’s career is skyrocketing, but his personal life is a disaster.  He’s addicted to anonymous sex and flirts with alcohol addiction.  Everything comes crashing down around Cary when he’s mugged on a deserted Milan street while coming home from a gay bar.  Things look grim until he’s rescued by Antonio Bianchi, an Italian lawyer (for those of you who have read “Blue Notes,” you’ll recognize Antonio as Rosalie’s lawyer).

Cary doesn’t want a relationship, although he’d be happy to end up in bed with Antonio.  Things get complicated because Cary lies about who he is and pretends to be an out of work composer.  The last thing Cary expects is to fall for Antonio.  There’s also another complication: Antonio has a five year old son, Massimo.  But when Antonio adds a little romance to Cary’s life, Cary falls hard.  Now if he could only come clean about who and what he is.

I hope you’ll enjoy “The Melody Thief!”  Be sure to stop by my blog today at www.shiraanthony.com for a few contests.  Comment to be entered to win an ebook copy of the original “Blue Notes” or a “Blue Notes” t-shirt (your choice of covers).  And join me here throughout the day for excerpts from the story.  -Shira

Awakenings, by Tara Larson, released today!

January 6, 2012

Hi everyone! Today my first book is being released by Dreamspinner Press. I will be posting excerpts throughout the day and will be giving away copies of the book to some lucky readers out there. ;-) I hope you will like it.

Excerpt #1 from Awakenings, by Tara Larson

WHEN Sean walked out of the elevator, he found himself in the bustling,
high-ceilinged lobby that looked like it was ripped right from the pages
of a high-fashion magazine. He remembered seeing a bar when they
checked in and went in search of it. When he found the swanky Cuban-style
lounge, the music was thumping so loud he couldn’t hear himself
think. People were everywhere, and he didn’t think he’d be able to make
it through the crowd up to the bar, much less order a drink. He felt
uncomfortable being there alone, so he turned around and left.

At the other end of the lobby was another bar. The sign above the
doors read “The Rose Bar.” A much milder atmosphere oozed from this
room into the lobby, so he walked in the direction of the soft pink light.
As he entered he instantly felt soothed. The entire room was drenched in
dark-red upholstery, and the lighting was a muted, golden-rose color. A
soft, ambient groove poured into the room from hidden speakers.

He exhaled. Finally, someplace to chill.

In the corner booth, a couple whispered intimately to one another.
Sean started toward the large, espresso-colored, leather-upholstered bar
that had several soft pink miniature chandelier pendants hanging
strategically along the length of it. The bartender looked up at him as he
entered the room, and their eyes met. Time slowed to a crawl as Sean
took in what he saw: a strikingly handsome and exotic-looking man, only
slightly older than him, tall and fit, very tanned skin, with dark, tousled
but cropped hair and sea glass green eyes. He had a chiseled jaw line and
a devilish patch of dark hair that reached from just under his full bottom
lip to his chin. He wore a glossy black button-down shirt that was
unbuttoned just enough to reveal his well-developed chest. He wore two
necklaces that had small silver medallions hanging from them, dangling
on his sternum. Both his ears were pierced, and he wore a small silver
hoop earring in each ear. He’d been cleaning a glass with a rose-colored
cloth and stood frozen in place like a Roman statue, staring back at Sean.

Sean had sometimes found other men attractive, but he usually kept
those thoughts to himself. To him it was completely natural to find
another person—male or female—good-looking or attractive. But the
family environment he had grown up in, and the social environment he
was currently living in, in deep-South Charlotte, strongly discouraged
any open displays of appreciation of the same sex, especially a man for
another man. He’d never acted on any previous attractions before, of
course. He wouldn’t even know where to start. His only experience in
courting the affections of another was with women. But this man, he
thought, was a seriously handsome, even sexy, guy. He wondered how he
could talk to him, maybe get to know him a little, without embarrassing
himself, of course. There was just something about him that seemed
intriguing. Little did Sean know that the bartender was also thinking the
same thing about him.

Sean’s appearance often turned heads, though he was rarely aware
of it. He had a casual, down-to-earth style that most people found
irresistibly disarming. A stud in soft jeans and flip-flops, by all accounts,
he was a knockout.

When Sean arrived at the bar, he chose a seat near the far end,
adjacent to the handsome bartender. The bartender greeted him in a
deeply masculine, yet soothing, voice, with just a slight hint of a Latin
accent. His eyes studied Sean carefully as he sat almost immediately in
front of him. He greeted him formally, but seemed to be speaking the
words out of habit while his mind was busy trying to comprehend this
new stranger at his bar on a deeper level.

“Hi. I’m Adam. What can I get for you tonight? Are you waiting
for someone to join you?”

Sean responded a little embarrassingly, “Oh—no, I’m not. I’m by
myself tonight.”

Adam smiled a little, but played it cool. “Okay. How about a beer,
then? We have several on tap and a huge selection of bottles in the
cooler.” Adam gestured toward the beer taps.

“No, I’m not in the mood for a beer,” Sean said. “What else do you
have that’s good? I’m in the mood for something… I don’t know,
different.” As the word slid off his tongue he shifted his gaze to Adam,
only to find him staring at him curiously, with his lips slightly parted and
his glass polishing completely stopped mid-polish. Sean felt a little
anxious, a little excited, and a little daring.

Whoa. What is this? Sean thought. Is he giving me a vibe? He
looked around the room, trying to defuse the suddenly hot feeling in his
face.

There was an electric current of chemistry in the air between the
two men. Adam was curious about this intriguing guy at his bar. He
decided to break the ice. “What’s your name?” Adam asked.

Sean’s gray eyes came back around to Adam, who was still
watching him intently. A little uneasily, he said, “Ah, I’m Sean. Sean
Morgan.”

Adam paused and narrowed his eyes, as if sizing him up. “I think I
know what you need, Sean Morgan,” he said, turning back toward the
mirrored wall of bottles.

“Oh yeah?” Sean said, curiously and somewhat disbelievingly.
“Please tell me it’s not Captain Morgan’s.”

Adam replied with a chuckle, “Ha ha, no, don’t worry. I know
people, it’s my job. You seem tense, like you need to relax, loosen up. I
know the perfect drink for you.”

“What’s it called?” Sean said, interested.

“A ‘caipirinha’—it’s Brazilian. It’s kind of like a margarita, but
better. You’ll see.” Adam began cutting and squeezing limes into a tall,
frosted glass. He moved quickly, professionally.

Sean was thinking that Adam had an exotic look to him and
remembered hearing a slight accent. Sean asked, “How do you say that
drink again? Are you from Brazil?”

Without looking up from his work, Adam said, chuckling, “Me?
No, I’m not Brazilian. I’m Puerto Rican. Well, half-Puerto Rican,
actually. My father was full-blooded Corsican. And the drink is called
‘kai-peer-een-ya’.” He looked up and enunciated the word slowly for
Sean, his full lips expertly forming around the strange word.

Sean’s eyebrows rose up, and Adam continued explaining while he
prepared the cocktail. He had become accustomed to curiosity about his
unusual lineage and had a rehearsed elevator speech about it. “I’ll tell
you the story if you’d like to hear…”