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By A.M. Arthur
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 A. M. Arthur
All rights reserved.
"Damn, Linc, you're worse than my mom when she's expecting guests." Roxy Bounds leaned against the now-sparkling kitchen counter and crossed her arms. "It's not the president, dude, chill."
Lincoln West kept scrubbing the sink with Comet, determined to get the thing to shine before he gave up. "Unless you want to grab a rag and help, go away."
"I told you when we moved in that I dust and vacuum. I don't do kitchens or bathrooms."
"Like I could forget." He worked another small spot of rust out of the metal basin. "You also don't kill spiders."
"That thing wasn't a spider. It was an evil minion from hell come to haunt the bathtub."
Lincoln chuckled at the high pitch Roxy's voice took on at the memory of finding a camel cricket in the bathtub last night. The thing was ugly as fuck and as big as a poker chip, and having spent half her life in a nice house in the Philadelphia suburbs, Roxy was no longer used to finding big bugs in the bathroom.
After spending the last six years living in cheap-ass apartments in inner-city Philly, Lincoln was used to finding all kinds of creepy-crawlies around him.
They were spending the summer at the shore, using the apartment that his best friend's boyfriend kept as a home base for when they weren't traveling the country performing. Lincoln and Roxy had the run of a three-bedroom apartment that took up the bottom floor of a three-story, renovated house only a few blocks from the ocean. They'd been there for a week, and while Roxy had been successful at finding a job as a waitress in a local seafood restaurant, Lincoln kept striking out.
No one wants to hire someone with your issues.
He cleaned so he didn't have to think about it. Besides, having Dominic home for a while would make him feel less like a complete and utter failure.
Roxy's big brother Dominic Bounds and his boyfriend Trey Cooper had been hot shit for almost a year now, after performing together at a national music competition in New York City. Their act, called Off Beat after the quirky bar where they first met, was a big hit, because they combined Dominic's stunning talent on the violin with Trey's singing voice and keyboard skills to create some pretty fucking awesome music.
They were also disgustingly in love, which played well to more liberal audiences. Twice Dominic reported that they'd had to cancel in the South for safety concerns.
Lincoln adored the fact that Dominic was happy and doing what he loved, even if it made Lincoln feel like a car on cinder blocks — stuck, unable to move forward, thanks to some asswipe who ran his car off the road and sent him headfirst into a telephone pole last summer.
"Don't you have to work?" he asked.
"Not for, like, another hour, so I'm free to torment you a while longer."
The last bit of stain came off the steel basin. Lincoln rinsed it with warm water, then surveyed his work. Perfect.
"Seriously, Dom isn't going to care if the sink is spit-polished," Roxy said.
"No, but I do."
Despite the shit-tacular way his relationship with his parents had ended, Lincoln had grown up in a very well kept house. Not a speck of dust or spot of grime on anything, ever. Partly to do with his sister Mercedes's severe mold and dust mite allergies, and partly because his parents were all about appearances, some habits died hard. Lincoln had taken care of every bad apartment he'd ever lived in with the same tenacity he was showing Trey's kitchen.
Plus it wasn't his place, and he didn't want the actual tenants to think he was taking advantage of their very generous offer to live here for the summer rent-and utility-free. The only things Lincoln had to pay for were food and fun; hence the need for a job. He wasn't going to freeload off of Dominic's parents forever.
He was twenty-five years old, damn it. He'd been taking care of himself since he was seventeen.
A slim brown hand covered his too-pale forearm and squeezed. "Just don't clean yourself into a migraine, okay?" Roxy said. "Then Dom will get mad at me for letting you work too hard."
He winked, then tucked the Comet container back under the sink. "Heard and understood."
"Dom loves you, Linc. That's not going to go away because he's out there performing with Trey ten months out of the year."
"I know." In his head, he knew it. His heart was having trouble getting on board with the idea. He and Dominic had been best friends for eight years, and they knew all of each other's worst secrets. Almost all of them, anyway. What went unsaid sometimes left Lincoln feeling so isolated he ached from it.
Roxy pinched his biceps. "Maybe one day you'll say it and I'll actually believe you."
He swatted at her, but she darted out of range.
Sink done, he turned his attention to the stove top, keeping his thoughts firmly on the task at hand. A while later Roxy shouted good-bye and the front door slammed shut. He was running a Swiffer mop over the kitchen floor when the first tiny pricks of a headache flashed behind his eyes. He put the mop away, then washed a pill down with water, hoping to stop the migraine before it started.
Fucking pain in my ass.
Around four his cell blared out with Dom's ring tone, Off Beat's violin cover of "My Immortal" because the song was fucking beautiful. "Hey, man, you guys still waiting to board your flight?"
"Hey, babe." Dominic's voice wasn't right, even without the background noise of what had to be a crazy, crowded airport. A lot of people traveled on Memorial Day weekend, and he and Trey were supposed to be boarding a connecting flight to BWI at ATL any moment.
Supposed to be.
Lincoln's heart plummeted. "Don't say it."
"I'm so sorry, Linc, but they changed our plans."
"Just now. They got us a last-minute gig in Memphis, three shows over the weekend starting tomorrow, plus a daytime show on Memorial Day."
Tomorrow being Friday. Lincoln swallowed back a bunch of curses, because making Dominic feel bad about the schedule change wasn't going to help. He didn't want Dominic to know how much he'd been looking forward to this. How much he'd needed a weekend with his brother.
"And then you start that stint in Austin all next week," Lincoln said, proud of his even tone of voice when he was shaking inside.
"Yeah. I'm not sure when we'll be able to get back to visit."
"Are you sure?"
Not even a little bit. "Of course. You gotta do what you love, man."
"I promise we'll be down to the shore sometime this summer."
"Shit, they called our section to board. Love you, man."
Lincoln hung up, then gently put his phone on the couch so he didn't fling it across the room in a fit of rage. He stared at the far wall, hands clenched, arms shaking, while he tried to keep it together. The intensity of how much he missed Dom and needed to see him, to talk to him in person instead of over Skype, hit him so hard he almost fell over.
Once the small fit passed, he texted Roxy about the change of plans, then shut off his phone. He didn't need to see her reply text asking if he was okay. She mothered him just enough that it wasn't smothering, but he didn't want it. Not tonight.
With no more need to clean, he ordered a pizza, grabbed a beer from the fresh six-pack he'd forbidden Roxy from touching, and hunkered down with Netflix and his own shredded emotions.
After an entire day spent filling out applications and doing on-the-spot interviews, Lincoln was done. He was hot, sweaty, and pretty sure he'd never work again. It wasn't even his medical issues, it seemed, as much as the fact that finding a job at the beach at the end of May was next to impossible unless you were a pretty girl or a decent line cook. Everyone started hiring help early in the spring.
Shit out of luck, as usual.
He was also riled up and kind of horny, so he took a shower, and then did something he hadn't done all week — he went out. Specifically, he found himself staring at the fake barbershop exterior of Off Beat, a hidden gem of a club known mostly to locals because it didn't look like a club at all. Even once you entered the strip-mall doors, the top floor was all funky couches, piped-in music, and a giant chalkboard for folks to write on with buckets of sidewalk chalk.
It always reminded Lincoln of a dormitory common room on an acid trip.
The Atlantic Bell telephone booth in the rear housed another door. This one led down a set of cement stairs to the actual club. Lincoln didn't care that he looked like a diva wearing wraparound sunglasses in a dark bar; he needed the protection from the flashing lights or he'd be in pain within five minutes.
The small room had a U-shaped bar to the right and a sea of tables and chairs — some pub height, some shorter, all mismatched and different. The bar itself had a cheesy surfboard theme that worked for the quirky place.
The crew was setting up the stage for the eight o'clock performance, whoever that was. He hadn't bothered to check on his way in. The owner, Beatrice Westmore, played three gigs a night at eight, ten, and midnight. Thursday was always an open-mike night, something Lincoln kind of wanted to come out for.
Maybe next week.
He'd played here once, just about a year ago, with his former band XYZ. It was the first time that he met Trey Cooper and the rest of Fading Daze — another band still out there, making music with Lincoln's former lead singer Benji Moore. XYZ's drummer, Tyson Reed, had kind of faded off the radar, occasionally poking his head onto social media to say hi, but that was it.
The place wasn't too crowded yet, so Lincoln snagged a spot at the bar. He vaguely recognized both the male and female bartenders from last year. It didn't take long before the guy, a hot number with spiky black hair and very sharp cheekbones, asked what he was drinking.
"What local on tap would you recommend?" Lincoln replied.
The bartender winked, then grabbed an empty glass. He returned a moment later with a pale ale with a light head. "Tab?"
He didn't plan on getting wasted, but it was easier than sliding his debit card over and over. Not that he had an endless amount of money in there, either. He hated knowing every penny in his account was a gift from Dominic's parents and tried to use as little as possible. Tonight he needed to fucking unwind.
"You look familiar, man," the bartender said while he mixed another drink order. Just Lincoln's luck he sat near the man's workstation. "Been here before?"
"About a year ago."
"Thanks." Lincoln sipped his beer. Perfectly chilled, malty with a nice, crisp finish. Not bad. "What is this?"
"Dogfish Head," the guy replied without looking up from his garnishes. "Firefly Ale."
"Weird name." But a good beer.
Hot Bartender handed off his two drinks, then took cash to the register. On his way back, he said, "Named it after a local music festival."
Ah-ha, that made sense. Lincoln had been to the Firefly Music Festival two years ago as part of the general audience, and it had been amazing. It had also been a dream of his to see XYZ perform there, and that wasn't happening ever.
He hummed a few verses of "Don't Dream It's Over" while he sipped his beer and crowd-watched. Groups of women at the tables, a scattering of guys. Eight was pretty early for the typical bar crowd, and he had no idea if the place attracted a lot of queer patrons. Lincoln was just as interested in the music as in a physical talent search.
His phone buzzed with a text alert. Photo from Dominic. Cute selfie of him and Trey outside of some Memphis bar advertising Bar-B-Q in bright neon.
Hope you guys have a redneck set for that crowd.
He sent a thumbs-up emoji as reply.
Movement right in front of him made Lincoln jump and nearly elbow his drink. The male bartender was grinning at him while wiping a glass with a towel. "Thought I recognized you, man."
Lincoln raised an eyebrow.
"You were in that band XYZ," the bartender went on. His smile faded away. "Shit. You were in that accident, right?"
"Yeah, I was in that accident." Lincoln held his temper, waiting for the pity or the sad looks, questions about his general health.
The guy surprised him by offering his hand. "Van Holt."
Lincoln shook. "Lincoln West."
"Look, next one's on me, okay?" Van pointed at his half-empty glass.
"I appreciate it, thanks."
Van went about his work, smoothly dancing around the back of the bar with a short female. He had a seriousness about him that gave his angular face an almost angry look, but he smiled and flirted with his customers, lining his pockets with tip money. Lincoln no longer trusted his gaydar after getting it blown to pieces by Trey coming out last summer, so he shelved Van under Undetermined.
The eight o'clock act ended up being a girl with a guitar doing folksy renditions of pop hits. She wasn't awful, but Lincoln wasn't sure that anything other than local stages were in her future. He spent most of her set picking apart her arrangements and redoing them in his head on a guitar he could no longer play.
Not that he'd forgotten how or had lost control over his hands from the concussion. Traumatic brain injuries were crazy tricky, and for some reason that his neurologist could not explain, the vibrations of the guitar strings made him dizzy. It sucked ass, because he loved guitar. It had been his focus instrument since he was ten years old, and now his sat in its case in a closet at the Bounds house. Doing nothing.
Should've pawned the damned thing.
A slinky female number in a tight blue dress eased onto the empty stool next to his, angled toward him. "What are you doing out all alone on a Friday night?" she asked.
Lincoln leaned his elbow against the bar, too bored to shut her down right away. "Nothing much. Listening to some music. Enjoying a local brew. You?"
"Same. Except I don't seem to have a drink to enjoy."
Oh yeah, she was hustling him for a drink. But Lincoln didn't swing that way, and he wasn't wasting good money on something he had no hopes of banging later tonight. "You might want to get on that, then."
She pulled out her very best pout. "Someone's not feeling generous tonight."
"Someone's not fishing for your brand of talent tonight."
"And what brand is that?"
"Seriously?" She dropped the pout and just looked ... tired. "You're gay?"
"Why can I never flirt with the right people? Why?"
Lincoln laughed. "I don't know you well enough to make a guess about that one, sorry."
"Don't be." His companion flagged down Van and ordered a vodka sour. "Melody."
"My name. Melody Thompson."
"Lincoln West." His second introduction in less than an hour. Maybe he wasn't so bad at this socializing thing.
Van returned with Melody's drink. She immediately ate the cherry garnish. "So, how come someone as hot as you doesn't have a boyfriend?"
Lincoln blinked. Despite Roxy's blunt nature, he wasn't used to hanging around chicks who said whatever was on their mind. It was kind of refreshing, given the way most people in his life treated him — like they wanted to wrap him in bubble wrap so he didn't fall over and break. "You're not so bad-looking yourself," he replied. "How come someone as hot as you doesn't have a boyfriend?"
"I'm too picky, I guess. Plus, you know, this tendency I have of sniffing the wrong tree."
He wasn't sure that was the right metaphor, but whatever. "Ever try online dating?"
"I'm not that desperate yet."
She sipped her drink, and Lincoln took the pause in conversation to study her. Melody had a pleasantly round face, no sharp angles, and plump lips perfectly shaped with lipstick. Just enough makeup to accent her eyes and cheekbones without being over-the-top. Curly dark hair that barely brushed her shoulders. Slim body with not a lot of curves, small tits she made the most of with that tight dress. Someone tonight would definitely want to hit that.
Just not him.
"Want to man-watch together?" Melody asked.
"Sure, why not?" Dominic would be so proud of him for making a friend. Even if only for a few hours of bar conversation. "You have a type?"
She winked. "Blond."
He ran a hand through his unkempt blond hair that was probably a month past needing a decent trim. "Shocking."
Excerpted from Steady Stroke by A.M. Arthur. Copyright © 2016 A. M. Arthur. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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