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Tabloid scandals have driven TV star Ryan Hertzog to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where he’s hiding out doing summer stock at his cousin’s seaside theater. When a hookup with local handyman Trey Donovan results in Ryan being photographed butt naked, he vows to keep his pants on and his hands off Trey. How was he supposed to know Trey would turn out to be the summer stock set builder?
Trey isn’t looking for a relationship; he’s still recovering from the emotional fallout of an abusive marriage. But Ryan’s laughter draws him in again and again, and he’s not about to say no to fooling around.
As the summer heats up, the paparazzi catch Ryan in increasingly compromising situations. Ryan might be too much drama for a summer fling—and Trey might be just an intermission from Ryan’s Hollywood life. But if they take their cues from Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well.
This title comes with no special warnings.
discussions of domestic abuse and assault, discussions of past drug use
Spoilery warnings (click to read):
brief racist incident
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Ryan woke in a strange bed with a splitting headache and a stale mouth.
Shit. What happened? He had a vague memory of a brawny townie smiling at him over a margarita laced with jalapeño peppers, and then later—how many drinks later?—spicy-hot kisses and a low chuckle and a pool of want in his gut. A promising beginning—too bad he couldn’t remember what had come next. He rolled onto his back and flinched as his muscles protested the movement.
A glance to his left granted him a peek at his hookup from the night before. Soft golden stubble on a square jaw. A cauliflower ear. Ryan blinked—had he gone to bed with a boxer? Then his eyes traced the high, chiseled cheekbones, ruddy from sunshine. They flanked a nose that could charitably be called distinctive, and soft, full lips twitched around a snore.
For about half a second, Ryan looked at those lips, remembered jalapeños, and thought about waking the guy up for another round—one he’d be sober enough to remember. Then it hit him like a freight train.
He was in North Carolina. Not to shoot a TV show or a movie or anything real. No, his ass had been banished to this backwater in disgrace. To do summer stock.
So what if he’d gone willingly? If he’d asked—begged—his cousin Caro to get him a job like they were teenagers again and he was too shy to ask the manager of the Piggly Wiggly if they needed weekend baggers?
He wouldn’t have had to ask if there hadn’t been an ultimatum.
“Stay out of the tabloids or find another agent. You’re on your third publicist in a year. I can’t get you work if I’m constantly bailing you out of trouble with the press.”
Ryan glanced down at the snoring townie. Having drunk hookups with strangers—of any sex, but particularly male strangers—might be exactly the sort of thing Mike would consider trouble. What exactly had they done the night before? Had there been drugs? The room didn’t have the stale smell he associated with regular pot smoking. He looked around. No bongs. Better still, no mirrors lying out on the horizontal surfaces. It appeared the damage from their party was confined to margaritas and that lamp they’d knocked over on the way to the bed.
But where were his clothes?
Gingerly, he eased himself out of the bed and peeked underneath it. A single white sock—not his—and a pair of filthy Converse, again not his. The dark-stained hardwood floor was clean except for the lamp, and his clothes were nowhere to be seen. He racked his brain for a memory, any memory, of their arrival at the townie’s apartment. Did the guy have roommates? If Ryan opened the door and walked into the living room, would someone see his wedding tackle hanging out?
He tried the door anyway, freezing when a muffled groan emerged from the blankets. But the townie just pulled a pillow over his head and rolled onto his stomach. Poor bastard was probably as hungover as Ryan.
Oh so slowly, Ryan eased the door open, wincing as it creaked. He was in luck. His shirt was on the floor outside the bedroom door, and when he picked it up, he discovered one of his socks, a little smelly, but no worse for wear. He pulled on the T-shirt and kept moving. He came around the corner into a bright living room dominated by a massive sectional. His attention was immediately drawn to a flat-screen that would be the envy of any home theater aficionado, but then he spied the other sock beside the couch.
No sign of roommates or family members. So far, so good. When he spotted his jeans thrown over the back of the sectional, he grabbed them, then froze again as a memory washed over him.
“Keep your hands on the back of the sofa,” in a rumbling coastal drawl.
The pants fell to the floor as he remembered the stranger’s rough hands on his body and a stubbled kiss along his spine. The recall evoked a flash of mind-bending pleasure, and he nearly moaned out loud. Clearly, they’d had a good time. But where the hell was his underwear? He dropped to his knees and peeked under the sofa. Nothing.
A quick stroll around the couch didn’t reveal their whereabouts either.
He was just about to give up and go commando, when a low snarl ripped through the air. Turning slowly, he cupped one hand protectively over his junk.
In a corner of the room, on what appeared to be a twin-sized mattress, the biggest dog he’d ever seen was growling at him.
It had to weigh two hundred pounds. Pendulous jowls shook as the dog emitted another threat. There, clutched between the dog’s gigantic paws, was Ryan’s favorite pair of briefs. As he watched with growing horror, the hellhound leaned over, snuffled his prize, and started chewing on them.
Speechless, horrified, and naked from the waist down, Ryan did the only thing that occurred to him.
Sheer terror swamped him as he shoved open the front door. Was the dog going to decide to come straight for the source of his new favorite snack? Ryan didn’t care if roommates, neighbors, or the baby Jesus himself saw his wedding tackle. He was not about to stick around and get eaten by a dog. No matter how tempting those flashes of bend-me-over-the-couch-and-have-your-way-with-me sex were.
It wasn’t until he was halfway down the driveway that he realized he’d left his pants on the floor, and his phone was still in the pocket.
And that was when the paparazzi showed up.
* * * * *
Trey pulled the pillow down over his ears. Ryan had scrambled out of bed without so much as a peck on the cheek and an It’s been nice. At first Trey had wondered if he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, but then the front door had slammed with a sordid finality.
And a little insulting. Trey didn’t have much of an ego to bruise—he knew he wasn’t a catch—but he thought they’d had fun. He wouldn’t normally even try to hook up with a guy who looked like he could be in movies, but the way Ryan had stared at him last night had gone straight to his head. Both heads. And from what he’d been able to tell, Ryan had been into it—laughing and flirting and kissing like he’d die if they didn’t. God, those kisses. Trey hadn’t kissed like that in years. With Ryan’s hands in Trey’s hair and whimpers in his throat and his chest heaving like he’d just dashed the two hundred meter. A spike of pleasure at the memory had soured into resentment when Ryan snuck out of the house. Hell, maybe beautiful people didn’t go in for morning cuddling and pancakes, but they could at least say good-bye, right?
Trey flopped over onto his back and winced at the frisson of pain slithering from his skull down his spine. He’d had too much to drink, and he’d pay for it the rest of the day.
One of Ferdinand’s thunderous barks ripped through the house. Someone was knocking—at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning? Throwing his pillow to the side, he sprang up out of bed before the dog really got going and tore up the coffee table again. He grabbed a pair of boxers out of the basket of clean laundry and pulled them on.
Ryan was at the front door.
Without his pants.
Had he taken a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and ended up outside? Trey’s heart leaped. Ryan hadn’t been sneaking out without saying good-bye after all. They could still have pancakes and some cuddling. He wanted to explore that cute constellation of freckles on Ryan’s shoulders more closely, and hear him laugh, and maybe kiss him until they forgot their hangovers.
Trey started to open the door, but Ryan shouted, “Whoa!” and held up his hands in the universal signal for stop.
It was like cold water thrown in Trey’s face.
So, no pancakes then.
“What do you want?” Trey asked.
Ryan looked over his shoulder, then back at Trey.
“Can you hand me my pants? And my Birks?”
“Were you in so much of a hurry to get away that you forgot your pants?”
Ryan actually smiled. “Yes! Exactly. Do you mind just passing them through the crack in the door? You can keep the underwear.”
You have got to be kidding me.
“Did you hit your head on something while I was sleeping?” Trey gritted his teeth and glared as his headache roared back to life.
“Not that I know of.” Ryan glanced around, clearly agitated. “My pants? Please? There’s a kid out here taking pictures.”
Trey scanned the room. The sandals were by the door; he picked those up and thrust them through the crack at Ryan. When he crossed to the couch to collect Ryan’s fancy designer jeans, the door closed with a bang behind him.
That’s it. He grabbed the jeans, stalked to the front door, flung it all the way open, and tossed them right in Ryan’s face.
“Have a nice life, asshole.”
He slammed the door shut and locked it. Behind him, Ferdinand barked once, then whined.
Trey turned around and looked at the dog, who was sitting with his head tilted to the side and long strings of drool hanging from his mouth.
“Yeah, I don’t get it either, Peanut. Let’s make pancakes.”
He should have known Ferdinand would be a better breakfast companion than some pretty boy anyway.
* * * * *
Mason dropped the newspaper on his desk and glared at Ryan. In Mason’s office, a tiny room behind the box office, mosquitoes congregated on the one grimy window, lending the place a sinister vibe, but aside from the front page section of the Banker’s Shoals Herald, Mason’s desk was clear.
As was his point.
“Do you think this press is what Shakespeare by the Sea needs?”
Ryan flinched at the steely cold in Mason’s voice. He’d known Mason since they were kids—Mason had been best friends forever with Ryan’s cousin Caroline. Ryan had idolized Mason for years, and was embarrassed to be called into the office for a dressing down. He couldn’t meet Mason’s gaze, so he looked at the newspaper, where his own pasty-white ass cheeks were plastered across the front page. Below the fold, of course. This was a family-oriented town. But there they were. And they did not give credit to the million hours a week Ryan spent at the gym. As for that headline . . .
Hollywood Playboy Bryan Hart Caught Streaking in Banker’s Shoals!
“You are here because Caro said please. You are here because Caro promised me you would stay out of trouble. You are here because my goddamn theater is bleeding money and you agreed to work for free. Do not hammer the nail in my coffin, boy, unless you plan to share it.”
The unfairness of it all soured in Ryan’s stomach. Shame boiled under the surface, the kind of shame that would usually make him lash out, but Mason was right. He was here because Caro had offered him a safe place to land when he’d fallen, and he wasn’t going to repay her by putting her theater out of business. So, humiliating as it was, he sucked it up and told the truth.
Well. Sort of.
“I wasn’t streaking. I met someone,” he began. “I know you don’t understand, because you’re a monk.”
“I am not a monk.” Mason’s nostrils flared.
“Asexual, then. Whatever.” Ryan waved it away.
“Don’t use words you don’t understand. Keep talking.”
“I met someone. And yes, I slept with them on the first date; we do that in Hollywood sometimes.”
One of Mason’s eyebrows quirked up at the pronoun, but he didn’t say anything.
Ryan didn’t want to inadvertently out anyone, so gender-neutral pronouns were best. He brightened a little—maybe Trey was in the closet and this would never go beyond the two of them. Ryan’s face burned hotter. It was hardly fair to hope his hookup was closeted just because his own bisexuality was inconvenient.
“I was really into them, and somehow on our way to bed, I missed the fact that they have this enormous man-eating dog.”
Was that a bit of a smile lingering around Mason’s lips? Mason was a good-looking dude: a big black man with gleaming white teeth, a shaved head, and a propensity for wearing tight T-shirts. Ryan liked Mason’s smile—had always liked Mason’s smile—so he played to his audience.
“Mason, man, I’m telling you, this beast was four hundred pounds and already snacking on my Andrew Christians. I was running for my life.”
Mason did smile then, and Ryan felt a twitch of relief. Short-lived, because Mason pointed down at the picture, the one where Ryan was banging on the front door of Trey’s duplex with his ass exposed.
“I admit, here in the theater, we don’t know much about cinematography, but this doesn’t appear to be an action shot, Ry.”
Nicknames. Nicknames were good. Snide comments about theater versus film were bad. Jesus, talking to a pissed-off Mason was like walking a tight rope.
“I forgot my phone,” Ryan mumbled.
“I see. So let me get this straight: you were running for your life from a four-hundred-pound, man-eating beast who was flossing with your Andrew Christians, and you returned straight into the jaws of certain death in order to retrieve your phone?”
“Well, the nearest Apple store is in Raleigh and that’s hours away.”
“Remind me why I cast you again?”
“Because I’m working pro bono?”
Mason’s smile fell. “I told you not to use words you don’t understand. Your cousin—who is worth a dozen of you—thinks the sun rises and sets out of this—” Mason’s finger landed on the paper, right on Ryan’s butt “—lily-white ass. So grow up. Get your shit together, Ry. I don’t want to see your stage name in the Herald unless it’s in the context of a ‘who knew he could actually act?’ review. Got it?”
“Good. Now get out of my sight. Call is at seven Monday morning for the read through.”
“I’ll be there.”
“In pants, please.”
Ryan flushed. He was never going to live this down. Nodding, he started for the door.
“One more thing,” Mason said.
“Yeah?” Ryan looked over his shoulder. Mason didn’t meet his eyes, instead he was scribbling something in a notebook.
“The cast and crew are off-limits. You want to screw around, do it elsewhere. I don’t need drama in my theater.”
“No problem. I don’t date people in the business.”
“As long as we’re clear on that.”
Trey sat in the tiny waiting room, staring at the Bible verse on the wall, with the smell of lavender heavy in his nostrils. He didn’t find Bible verses or lavender comforting, but Dr. Wharton’s new-age music wasn’t so bad. It suited the soothing blue walls and the seashell paintings. Across the room, a sullen teenager glared at him and shoved earbuds into her ears.
He looked down at his knee, which was bouncing with the nervous energy he couldn’t quite hold back whenever he sat here.
The door in the corner opened, its familiar creak drawing Trey’s gaze. The doctor smiled at him, all big hair and kind eyes. “Come on, Trey.” She turned to the teenager. “Ava?” The girl tugged one of her earbuds out and glanced up. “Katelyn’s going to do your med check today, okay?” The girl nodded, shoved the earbud back into place, and returned her attention to her phone.
Trey followed Dr. Wharton down the hall to her office, where she gestured at the chair and sat behind her desk. He perched on the edge of the seat, not ready to sink into it and let go of the gnawing irritation of pride.
“How was your week? How’s Ferdinand?”
She was fighting dirty today. He straightened his spine and studied his fingernails. “He’s fine. The lump was a benign cyst.”
“Good. I know that was weighing heavily on you last week. How is work?”
He glanced up at her then, and she smiled, dimples carving grooves into her tanned cheeks. Slumping back in the chair, he sighed. “It’s fine. The actors are coming in for the read through on Monday morning, then my crew is going to start the sets for Julius Caesar.”
“So, Ferdy’s fine. Work’s fine. And how are you, Trey? Are you fine too?”
Resentment pushed at him, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. “I hooked up with someone a couple nights ago. A tourist, I guess. I met him at that tacky place on the beach with the jalapeño margaritas.”
“That tacky place that your sister owns?” The laughter in her voice tugged his lips up in answer.
“Yeah, that one.” He loved his sister, loved that she and her husband had opened one of their restaurants here on Banker’s Shoals so they could be close to him—but the reason why rankled.
“Are you going to see him again?”
Jesus, what part of hookup didn’t she understand? “No. I didn’t even get his number. It was a hookup,” he repeated, as if that explained the sudden flare of anger that had him tightening his grip on the chair’s arm.
“What drew you to him?”
His laugh. His face. He stared at my lips like he was hungry. Being wanted is such a turn-on. Trey shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“So, why did you bring him up?”
He glared at her. “You’re my shrink, you tell me.”
She folded her hands on her desk in the way that meant she wasn’t falling for his shit, the way that meant he was going to fucking cry, again.
“He was laughing. You know, like—” Trey threw his head back and laughed in a gruesome imitation of Ryan’s carefree cackle. “Like he didn’t care what he looked like or who was watching. Like he was having the time of his life. It was fun.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you had fun. How’s your sister?”
“Overworked. Bossy. Pregnant.” He smiled, relieved at the change of subject, because Kim’s pregnancy announcement was the best news he’d had all year. He’d been high-spirited, giddy even, for the first time in months. It was no wonder Ryan’s laugh had drawn him in that night—a good mood, shared, seemed to multiply.
Her eyebrow shot up. “Congratulations. That’s exciting.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna be an uncle for the sixth time.”
“And you feel good about that?”
“Of course. I love kids. Ferdy loves kids too, so.” He relaxed back into the chair a little more. “I’m really happy for Kim and Danny.”
“Please give them my congratulations.”
“So, have you made any progress on the garage?”
He’d known the question was coming, had felt it hovering over him like the blade of a guillotine, but hearing the words out loud in the office still tightened his chest until he couldn’t—
“Breathe,” she reminded him.
He choked in a gasp, then exhaled it as he shook his head. “I can’t. I started clearing off his toolbox, and I got all panicky. I took a Xanax, and I started to feel better, but then I got sleepy. I can’t do it if I’m not awake for it, and I can’t do it without the Xanax. It’s too much.”
“Okay. That’s okay. What did you do after you took the Xanax and got sleepy?”
“I locked the door and watched TV with Ferdy.”
“Good. Are you going to try again this week?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, panic and shame tangling in his gut. “I don’t want to.”
“I know you don’t want to. But think how good it will feel to reclaim that space for yourself. He’s not coming back, and it’s okay to use that space.”
“I know. I’m just . . . I see his things. I see them, and it’s so awful, Doc. I don’t know how to do it.”
“One step at a time. Three months ago you couldn’t open the door. You’re doing fine. Maybe next time, try taking Ferdinand with you. See if his presence helps you feel safe, okay?”
“Yeah.” That was a good idea. He could try that. Ferdy was almost as good as Xanax.
He looked up at her again. “Yeah?”
“You’re doing fine. You know that, right? You’re doing fine.”
“Okay.” He didn’t feel fine. He felt like a mess. A mess who couldn’t even walk into his own garage without having a panic attack.
“Recovering from your physical injuries was easy compared to the work you’re doing now. You’re a strong man, Trey. You’ve accomplished a lot. But it’s hard work.”
“I know.” He did. Therapy left him wrung out and exhausted and most weeks he left with his eyes swollen from all the tears he couldn’t seem to stop. Angry tears, ashamed tears. He could feel them now, pricking at his eyes and stinging his nose.
“What happened to you wasn’t your fault. Vincent is the only one to blame.”
The name hit him like a punch to the face.
“He—” No matter how hard he swallowed, he couldn’t speak around the lump in his throat.
“He’s not coming back, Trey. He’s in jail, and he’s never going to hurt you again.”
* * * * *
“I brought tequil— Wow.” Caro took two steps into the house and froze, jaw hanging open. “This is the nicest rental house I’ve ever seen. Holy shit, how much are you paying for this place?”
Ryan flinched. “Um, it’s not a rental.”
“You bought it? You bought a house? Are you fucking kidding me? You told me you would never move back to the island. You told me—”
“I didn’t buy it; it’s West Brady’s place.”
She closed the door behind her and spun in a circle, clearly taking in the magazine-ready decor. “Has anyone ever told him his name is backward?”
A swell of affection rose in Ryan’s chest. Of course Caro would go there—irreverent, unfazeable Caro. As much a part of Banker’s Shoals as the sand and the salt and the sea air. Caro had no fucks for West Hollywood or West Brady. If he weren’t her cousin, would she have any fucks to give for Bryan Hart?
“I honestly don’t think anyone would dare.”
“How do you know West Brady? Doesn’t he direct all those teenage romantic comedies? The next John Hughes or something like that?”
“Yeah. We met at a party a few years ago; we’re friends-ish.”
Raising an eyebrow, Caro crossed her arms over her chest. “Ish?”
“He dated Ali for a few years—she introduced us.” It was still weird for Ryan to think of West and Ali’s relationship in the past tense—their recent breakup had stunned him. “He practically lived in our house when he wasn’t on location.”
“West Brady dated your girlfriend. And he owns a house on Banker’s Shoals by coincidence?”
“She’s not my girlfriend; she’s my roommate. And no, he owns a house on Banker’s Shoals because I talked about it so much he vacationed here last year and decided to buy a place. Look, he’s a good guy. He let me borrow his house for the summer.” And if I get my shit together, he might have a role for me when I go back to LA.
“Okay. I’m sorry. One of these days you’ll have to explain the whole Ali thing, but I’m not going to grill you about it tonight. Margaritas?” She held up the bottle of tequila, and Ryan flinched, remembering jalapeños and a hangover.
“Why don’t I open a bottle of wine instead?”
“Ryan Hertzog drinking wine? What is the world coming to? Do you even know the difference between a Chardonnay and a Chablis?”
“I learned from Bryan Hart.” Ryan took the bottle of tequila from Caro’s hands. “Get comfy and pick a movie. Prosecco okay?”
“Sounds fab.” She kicked off her shoes and dropped onto the couch with a contented sigh, reaching for the remote.
West Brady’s kitchen was a work of art. All gleaming metal and marble. Ryan set the tequila on the counter and made his way to the glass-fronted Sub-Zero wine fridge. He recognized the labels on many of the bottles from a trip to Napa with West and Ali. West had been madly in love with Ali, willing to do anything she wanted in bed, and when she’d said that she wanted to watch him and Ryan together, he’d laughed and gamely collected Ryan and brought him into their circle of gentle affection. They hadn’t loved him the way they loved each other, but they’d made him feel good, and he’d done his best to give back in return. The three of them had spent idyllic nights sprawled together in a giant bed and their days soaking up sunshine and wine lore.
With a sudden pang, he missed Ali—his roommate, his confidante, and the best damned friend he had. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and shot her a quick text.
I miss you, baby.
She wouldn’t get the text right away. She wasn’t allowed to have her cell phone in rehab. He had no idea when she’d get the message, but the thought of her face, and how she’d smile when she finally saw it—and she would, she’d smile that special smile that was only for him—it made him smile too. He grabbed two glasses and a bottle of the prosecco he loved—something below Bryan Hart’s or West Brady’s pay grade, but perfect for shy Ryan Hertzog from Banker’s Shoals, North Carolina—and made his way back to the living room.
Caro was sitting on the couch with her long legs crossed under her and her hair tumbling in wild curls around her shoulders. “Beach House is on Netflix.”
“Oh no. No, no, no, no.” The “reality” show he’d done four years ago, the one where he and Ali had been paired as the celebrity—him—and the average Jane—ha, like there was anything average about Ali—competing against nine other pairs was an embarrassment to his career and hers. It had given him the best friend of his heart, but it wasn’t exactly a bright spot on his résumé.
“Come on, it’ll be so much fun.”
“It’s gross. I can’t believe it’s still available for streaming.”
The familiar title music blared from West’s surround sound, and Ryan shook his head, resigned to the humiliation because it was Caro, and yeah, he could sit through this for some quality time with his cousin.
“You guys were so cute.” She hugged a pillow to her chest and cackled as he poured the wine. “Look how young you were!”
“Yeah, yeah.” He handed over her glass.
“Thank you.” She took it from him and smiled before raising it high. “To summer stock, and having you home.”
“To summer stock and home,” he echoed, clinking their glasses together. Joining her on the couch, he took a deep sip of the wine and let the bubbles wash over his tongue. She cuddled up to him and laid her head on his shoulder, and for the first time since his plane touched down in Raleigh, he really did feel like he was home.
The start of summer stock season reminded Trey of the first day of school when he’d been a kid. Nervous anticipation fluttered through his body as he turned off his alarm and pulled on a pair of shorts. A 7 a.m. call meant his morning walk on the beach with Ferdy coincided with a stunning red and gold sunrise over the Atlantic. Trey kicked off his sneakers and let the cool surf wash over his feet, as he shivered with delight. The morning felt special, in no small part due to his eagerness to hear the season’s plays for the first time. He’d worked for Shakespeare by the Sea every summer for the last five years, building sets and helping Caroline Hertzog with whatever she needed. Aside from a few regulars, the cast changed year by year, but the crew? They were family.
Nothing could dampen Trey’s mood as he strode through the doors of the playhouse, not even being handed a nondisclosure agreement for some second-rate TV actor who was padding out his résumé doing live theater. Trey scribbled his signature at the bottom of the form, handed it back to Mason’s assistant director, and went searching for Caro and Mason.
And then he heard that laugh.
The last time he’d heard it had been in his bedroom, sated and sleepy. How anyone could make a sound filled with that much joy was a wonder to him, and he couldn’t help a rueful smile as he rounded the corner into Mason’s office.
“Trey! Come meet my cousin, Ryan.” Caro perched on Mason’s desk, facing the door while Mason sat behind the desk like a king in his throne room, grinning at the man opposite him. Ryan.
Trey’s breath caught in his throat when Ryan turned to greet him. He had thought maybe he’d embellished in hindsight, that his hookup couldn’t have been that handsome, but there was no denying Ryan was the most beautiful person he’d seen in his life. And the way he was looking at Trey now, with surprise and warmth and a hint of shyness—it struck Trey down to his bones. How was it possible this was the same guy who’d scurried out of his house so fast he’d forgotten his pants?
“We’ve met, actually.” Ryan stood up and shone the full wattage of his smile on Trey, holding out his hand. “It’s nice to see you again.”
Ryan’s hand was warm and dry, softly callused, like he worked out in a gym without gloves, but not like Trey’s own tool-roughened hands.
“Yeah, it’s . . .” Ryan’s playful hazel gaze stopped Trey in his tracks. Who was this guy? “. . . nice.”
“I can’t believe you know Trey Donovan, Ry!” Caro practically screeched, drawing Trey’s attention away from her cousin. “Mase, did you know about this?”
Mason’s eyes widened slightly, then he opened his hands and shrugged. “I had no idea, Caro.” His voice seemed too pat, too unconcerned, and Trey glanced back at Ryan to see an embarrassed flush creeping up his face.
“We met at Kim’s place,” Trey volunteered—anything to cover the awkward moment between Ryan and his cousin. “You know she’s got those new jalapeño margaritas.”
Ryan smiled slyly. “And I had a few too many of them, so Trey made sure I didn’t try to sleep on the beach like when I was in high school. But I don’t remember you from high school. Did you go to BS High?”
Trey shook his head. “Nah. I moved here from Savannah with my . . .” swallowing hard, he muscled through the words “. . . with my ex-husband. I’ve been working for Caro and Mason for five summers. I mean, I do other stuff the rest of the year. Donovan Remodeling.” He fished a card out of his pocket and handed it over, worried it might be covered with sweat, but who the fuck cared at this point? “Here for all your household needs.”
“Good to know.” Ryan tucked the card into his pocket. “Well, call is in fifteen and I haven’t met the rest of the cast yet, so I’m gonna mosey out to the stage area. It really is nice to see you, Trey.”
Trey would have been fine with that, would have considered himself dismissed, except that just as Ryan was walking out the door, he paused and glanced over his shoulder, lower lip caught between his teeth.
The movement would have seemed practiced on anyone else Trey knew, but on Ryan it appeared sweet and utterly guileless. Innocent.
And one thing Trey knew after their explosive night together? Ryan was far from innocent.
“I’d better go make sure he doesn’t get in any trouble.” Mason gave Caro a weak smile, then hurried out of the room after Ryan.
Folding her arms across her chest, Caro watched him go with an expression that hovered somewhere between exasperated and bemused, then she focused on Trey, and he was struck by the family resemblance. The upturned hazel eyes that looked fey and enchanting on Ryan were more careworn and lined on Caro, but just as playful. Her brown hair was streaked by sunshine and salt air, and Ryan’s by peroxide and professionals, but the effect was the same. The genuine kindness in her smile was every bit as warm as Ryan’s, and he wondered if they learned that kindness from each other. He’d gotten the feeling before that Caro had had a rough childhood—her knowledge of navigating the justice system for victims of domestic violence had been a godsend to him eighteen months ago, but since she’d never explained how she’d come by that knowledge, he’d never wanted to pry.
“Hey, you okay?” She prodded his knee. “I lost you for a minute there.”
He smiled back at her. “Yeah. I was just thinking how much you resemble your cousin. I’m surprised I didn’t see it when I met him.”
A blush spread across her freckled cheeks, and she studied her hands. “Thanks, Trey. You’re very sweet.”
Well I’ll be damned. Trey hadn’t ever thought of Caro as the kind of woman who would be easily flattered—but he’d never imagined she’d blush at a simple observation either.
“You’re a beautiful woman, you must know that, right?”
She swallowed and glanced at the door. “It’s hard to believe other people think so. I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of girl. I always have been, and I always will be.”
Rubbing her hands together, she jumped down from the desk. “Are you ready to go listen to the read through? I’d love to hear some of your set ideas for this year’s plays, and we have a new lighting designer who studied at UNC-Asheville and knows theater in the round techniques. We can all sit in the back and pass notes.”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
* * * * *
“You knew, didn’t you? Who my hookup was when I told you that story about the dog?” Ryan cornered Mason outside the theater during a break in the read through. Mason lit a cigarette and grinned at him.
“Why else do you think I made you promise to stay away from the crew?”
“Bastard.” Ryan reached for Mason’s front pocket and snatched the pack. “Gimme your lighter.”
“No.” Mason grabbed the cigarettes back. “Caro would kill me if you start smoking again.”
“So I can’t get laid and I can’t smoke?”
“You can get laid all you want. But stay the fuck away from Trey Donovan. He’s too good for you.”
That felt like a punch to the solar plexus. “Wow, that’s a shitty thing to say to an old friend.”
“You have no idea how many shitty things I want to say to you.” Mason’s finger came out and poked him in the chest. “Your cousin has been worried to death about you for years. Drugs, drinking, partying. God only knows what the hell else with that woman.”
“Ali is my best friend,” Ryan gritted out. “And she’s a brilliant actress.”
“She’s in rehab, and you should be too.”
“I’m not— God, it’s not like that. I don’t even really like all that shit. I just . . . I just went along with Ali. Sure, I’d do a bump here and there, but I’m not some cokehead. Hollywood is a hard place. It’s hard work.” He ran a hand through his hair. It sounded like he was complaining about a life other people envied, people like Mason, who instead of directing movies, was directing summer stock in North Carolina. “It’s harder for women, like it is for black guys.”
Mason’s head came up at that. “What do you know about—”
“Ali needs to let go sometimes, but she never knows when to stop. I was there to protect her. That’s what friends do.”
“Friends don’t get each other’s cars impounded because they stashed their drugs in them.”
“She paid to get the car back. It’s not like it stayed in the impound lot forever.”
“The car she borrowed from you.”
This conversation was getting nowhere. Nobody seemed to understand Ryan’s relationship with Ali, and very few people seemed to try.
“Why do you say Trey is too good for me?”
Mason dropped his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it, then picked it up and tossed it in the garbage can. “He’s not the kind of guy you should be toying around with. He’s— Ah shit, Ry. I can’t talk about his business. I care about him a lot. Caro and I both do. You can’t even decide if you’re gay or straight. He doesn’t need to be dragged into your identity crisis du jour.”
“I’m neither. I’m not gay, and I’m not straight. It’s pretty fucking simple. I’m bisexual. And you know what, Mason? You of all people should know what it’s like.”
Mason rolled his eyes and crossed his big arms over his chest. “I don’t want to keep fighting with you. Keep your hands off the crew and your ass out of the papers, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll forgive you for the heartache you’ve given your cousin.”
“What about the heartache she’s given me?” Ryan scowled. “You don’t seem to mind that, do you?”
“You’re a spoiled brat. One time in your life you didn’t get what you wanted.”
“I wanted my best friend to come to California with me. I wanted a new life for both of us.”
“She didn’t. She likes our life. And it didn’t take you long to find a new best friend and flaunt her on the pages of every gossip rag and tabloid in the country.”
“It’s not like I try to get photographed by the paps.”
“You didn’t try very hard not to. Let’s go. Time to read through act three.”
* * * * *
Ryan was wonderful.
Trey watched with wide eyes as the actors read through their lines together for the very first time, bringing the story to a sort of half-life. Despite his youthful charm, Ryan managed to inhabit the role of Antony like a second skin. His voice rang out, and though he was seated, he tensed and arched his body with his words, portraying the type of dynamism he’d likely bring to the stage once they began blocking.
“Wow, he’s really good,” Trey whispered to Caro. “Is he even looking at the script?”
“He played Antony for the first time when he was sixteen. He loves this role.”
“He was born for it.”
Caro laughed. “I’m glad to hear other people recognize his talent. Before he got cast on that sci-fi show, I wondered if I only thought he was fabulous because he’s my cousin and one of my best friends in the world.”
“He’s on TV? He’s the guy I signed an NDA for?” Trey searched his memory for the name. “But the form said ‘Bryan something.’”
“Yeah, Bryan Hart. That’s his stage name. Ryan’s his real name. So you mean to tell me you were having drinks with one of Hollyweird’s most eligible bachelors, and you didn’t even know it?”
He shook his head and watched as Ryan hissed out the words “You all did love him once” with such passion and anger that the building seemed to shake with it.
“I only watch sports. I’m a bro cliché.”
“Explains why he likes you so much. He’s used to people wanting to use him for his fame. If you didn’t recognize him, he would have found it easier to relax with you.”
Her statement caught him by utter surprise. “He likes me?”
“You couldn’t tell? He doesn’t flirt with just anybody. I mean, I can’t say for sure, but you could probably totally hit that.”
Trey had been lifting his water bottle to take a swig and jerked it away from his mouth before he could spew it across the room and embarrass them both. “Um.”
“Oh my god, you did. You boned my cousin. Why does no one tell me anything?”
Trey slumped back in his seat. “He ran out of my house in such a hurry he forgot his pants. I don’t think he found my performance as impressive as I find his Mark Antony.”
“I am dying to hear his version of this story.” Caro cackled. “Oh, I think you are exactly what he needs. But wait—what did he think of Ferdy?”
“Um. I didn’t introduce them. We were busy, and Ferdy was out back when we got home.”
Caro’s eyes got huge. “Ryan is absolutely terrified of dogs. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Trey glanced at the stage. Terrified of dogs? But Ferdinand had been in the living room that morning after, and Ryan hadn’t said anything. He’d . . . oops. He’d just told Trey to keep his underwear. The yellow briefs Trey had found all chewed up in Ferdy’s bed. Oh hell.
The story runs the full gamut of emotions: the laughter is in abundance at the start, and eventually it makes way for hurt and sorrow. At the conclusion, it all evens out and a fabulous romance with two male leads is told.
A steamy book in which nuanced friendships are as central as the romance between two star-crossed lovers.