Copyright © 2012 Katie Porter
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Hey, Christmas cheer, remember?”
Kyle Wakefield looked up from his pint of Carlsberg and smiled at Steph. She was an extreme people person, at times almost obnoxiously cheerful. She even wore a pair of colorful jingle bell earrings.
Steph and her can-do attitude were very good for him and a million times better for their fledgling production company. He knew that on a profound, logical level, which was probably why they’d been business partners since undergrad days at Yale.
But that evening, Kyle was going to have trouble maintaining a happy face to match fifty percent of her enthusiasm.
“I know.” He smiled. “But you know how much tomorrow means.”
“Sure.” She shrugged then sipped Red Bull and vodka as if she needed external energy. “All the more reason to enjoy tonight. ‘The calm before the storm’ does not mean dwelling on the storm. It means having a pint and breathing. You remember how to breathe, yes?”
Triggered solely by her reminder, Kyle inhaled. She was a wonder, helping him to let go of the bad stuff. But not when their future depended on how well the next four weeks panned out.
“Okay, you’re in that sort of mood,” Steph said. “Spill it and we’ll clear it out of your head. Then you shut it down and have another pint. That one is depressingly full.”
Kyle looked her in the eye. Beautiful blue eyes, with blonde hair she kept in old-time-movie-starlet waves. He’d never seen her less than meticulous, but then the same applied to him.
He took another sip of the pale lager and exhaled. “To shoot the Christmas portion of Fast Money during the actual season was my idea. You know Peter wanted a decked-out set later in the winter.”
“Only to accommodate his holiday skiing schedule. Snow bunny number three was very disappointed. That isn’t our problem. Your reasons were sound, otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed. You know that.”
“Right. What was my bulls**t? Something about the ready-made magic of Christmas on Oxford Street?”
She chuckled. “Something like that. It’ll save money. Thousands of dollars on artificial sets saved. You know that. Plus there’s the crew—look at them. I mean it. Look.”
Kyle settled back against his leather-padded chair and took in the sights. A regular pub with a long, long bar turned at ninety degrees on either end. Glasses hung from the ceiling, with stout on tap. Lush booths, tons of tables and a fireplace ringed by couches were the final touch. The BBC evening news, soccer games and some prime-time talk show scrolled in closed caption on flatscreens, while Slade’s ubiquitous “Merry Xmas Everybody” added to the noise.
Why were the British so obsessed with that damn annoying song?
More than the details, the pub possessed an unnamable English atmosphere. Modern, and in the midst of an unabashedly urban setting, yet friendly in a small-town way. A warm haven against the damp cold of early December.
The pub had the extra advantage of an upstairs all-purpose function room, where he and Steph had set up shop for their roster of employees. The hotel was fine for sleeping and taking official meetings, but they needed a quiet space to escape when actual work—and the occasional emergency—popped up. The pub was also directly across the street from the boutique hotel they’d entirely booked for the crew.
Not that anyone seemed to mind the hotel’s economy accommodations. Kyle recognized maybe fifty faces out of the eighty crammed inside, all smiling and drinking. Three harried bartenders jumped and hustled to serve so many patrons. Kyle had covered that detail, making sure the pub and the hotel staff were prepared for such an influx, most of whom would keep ridiculously weird hours because of several night shoots.
“They look happy,” he said with a wistful smile. “Probably because Peter isn’t here.”
That made Steph laugh. “Cheeky man. I’ve always liked that about you.” She lifted her glass in mock salute. “We’ve done well, Kyle. I need you to relax now. Babysitting your anxieties hamstrings me.”
“Yup. Promise.” He nodded to her empty glass. “Just water, though, Miss Three Minimum. I need you on your game too.”
“Not water. Diet Coke. I’m on it.”
Kyle watched her weave through the crowd. Men stopped talking to watch her shapely ass wiggle past while she strutted on banana heel pumps. More of the ’40s retro she adored.
It would’ve been so much easier. So much easier. Why not fall in love with Stephanie Penn, his closest friend for the last twelve years? His life would’ve been as orderly as his closets.
But not the one he still hid in.
His body simply didn’t work that way.
He caught his fingernails in a coarse gouge on the table’s varnished wooden surface. Apprehension that had only a little to do with his business ventures, here on the brink of embarking on Pennfield’s third big-budget film, settled like a bonfire under his breastbone. Hiring Second Chances—a fearless stunt crew comprised of ex-cons on the hunt for another shot at life—had been his decision too.
When shooting started, he would see Nate again.
Nathan Carnes. His name didn’t waft through Kyle’s brain like a ghost, although the man did haunt him. No, it slammed against him like cannon fire. Always did. It was inevitably followed by regret and desire, nostalgia and pain. And a hot, bone-shaking anger that wore away at the best memories of their two years as high school lovers.
Nate had run scared like the f**king stubborn asshole he’d always been. Kyle had left for Yale. End of story.
He needed to get out of that suddenly claustrophobic place. But Steph returned to the table. She wiggled her fingers toward a smokin’ guy in a tight black T-shirt.
“Waving up the wrong tree,” Kyle said as she sat down.
“What was that?”
“Gay as I am.”
She blinked. “S**t. What a waste.”
He grinned down at his lager then tipped her a glance from under his brows. “I wouldn’t say so.”
“No, I insist. A waste. Because you sure as s**t won’t go—what is it they say here? Chat him up? I’d cheer you on if you did.” She leaned over, hands flat on the table.
Other than past lovers, Steph was the only person who knew Kyle’s sexual orientation. It was something he’d needed to reveal to her. Couldn’t be helped. They split an L.A. apartment, an office and sometimes twenty hours a day of one another’s time.
He wasn’t in the mood for the cute stranger. Thoughts of Nathan, what they’d shared, what they’d thrown away with both hands, would not leave him be. Kyle had roughly eight hours to get his s**t together before a 6 a.m. shoot—before he’d see Nate again.
Steph took his hand. “Kyle. This isn’t Virginia. This isn’t someplace where your parents will stroll in and turn your life to s**t with their goddamn issues.”
“Not that they’d deign coming in here in the first place.” His parents weren’t the only problem. While there were more and more openly gay Hollywood players, few operated at the level Kyle intended: owning a large-scale production company that operated at the top level, making giant, famous pictures. He refused to settle for anything less than a blockbuster career. That meant he couldn’t gamble his future on the whims of an industry that ought to know better than to judge anyone’s sexuality.
“That’s totally true. But my point stands. This is England. It’s nearly Europe. Sometimes. Look, no one’s giving those guys a second glance. No fuss.”
He nodded. “I know.”
“But…still no go.” She sighed. “I hear you, my dear.”
“Slumming it with the rabble, I see,” came a voice that would make nails scraping down a chalkboard sound like Beethoven’s Fifth.
In tandem, Kyle and Steph looked up to find Peter Upton, boy-wonder director, standing beside their table. Fabulous. How about layering ouch on s**t on worry? Perfect for an evening meant to be full of holiday cheer.
“Slumming it,” Kyle muttered, “would be if we let you sit down with us.”
“Shut it,” Steph hissed under her breath.
The dull roar in the pub kept their exchange private. Then again, Upton wasn’t known for being particularly observant of others’ moods. Being so wrapped up by one’s ego must be rather smothering.
“Good to see you, Peter.” Steph was the master of quick recoveries. Otherwise Pennfield would’ve collapsed in something like 2008. “And not slumming it, making sure we have the whole crew on board. We’re stoked for tomorrow.”
“Glad you are. But there’s a problem in the hotel. Robert is having a meltdown. He’s too drunk. The tabloids will have a field day. Again.” His thin face was exceedingly tan, as if holding on to the USC film school vibe he’d perfected to a T. He hid his receding hairline under an ever-present baseball cap. Only twenty-seven, he was the lucky-ass prodigy of Hollywood—for now. He had as much hinging on this project as anyone. Many banked that his blockbuster success wouldn’t last, that he was too young and too full of himself. And enjoyed a little too much cocaine.
Steph took a gulp of her Diet Coke that only Kyle interpreted as a tiny sign of nerves. “Robert Durant has three assistants. Aren’t they holding his hand?”
“I want one of you to handle it.” Peter was in full-on pout mode. “I don’t want him hungover on the first day. He’s a f**king prima donna, and his s**t is the last thing we need.”
We. An interesting word, Kyle thought.
Prima donna. That was interesting too.
What an asshole.
He leaned away from the table, one arm hitched over the back of his chair. “We’ll handle it,” he said calmly. Steph was the public face, but Kyle was the money. And the heavy.
Peter looked down at Kyle with a tiny smirk. “If you don’t, losing Durant could shut this whole show down. I won’t work without him.”
“You won’t work without our cash either.” Pennfield was a relatively new production company, but Kyle’s money helped, as did the backers he brought in through his family connections.
Steph flashed a grin as bright as the Christmas lights strung along the ceiling in a checkerboard pattern. “I think what my crabby-as-hell partner means is, I’ll take care of it. Rest easy, Peter.”
The man glared at such an undeniable dismissal, but he left anyway.
“You could’ve handled that with a little more tact.”
“Nah. Score one for being rude. I don’t like it, but you know how the game is played. One half smooth as cream, one half flaming gasoline.” He finished his beer. “You’re the cream, Miss Penn.”
“You’re full of s**t. You do like it. It’s the only time you let loose.” The laugh in her voice took the sting out of the accusation. “Just…watch it. We need him too.”
Kyle offered her a chagrined nod. He stretched his aching neck and happened to glance toward the front door of the pub.
And froze. Solid. Except for his heart, which kicked up speed like a jet barreling down a runway.
Steph caught the direction of his gaze and turned. “Oh, cool. The stunt team. Maybe at least one of them won’t be gay. You may be a complete stick-in-the-mud, but I’d at least like second base tonight.”
“Bull,” he said past a desert-dry throat. “You never go to bat without scoring.”
“Quippy gay man with his sports lingo. Nice.”
“C’mon. Let’s go introduce ourselves. Talking on the phone isn’t the same.”
Kyle followed her lead, standing. His legs were like barn-door hinges left too long without oil. “Sure.”
Across the crowded pub, his gaze locked with Nate’s. Shock registered on that nearly familiar face as plainly as a volcano bursting. He hadn’t known who backed Pennfield Productions. He’d only ever dealt with Stephanie during negotiations.
Closely shorn dark blond hair with short, neat sideburns. Canny blue eyes so pale as to be almost silver. Rough features, but classically proportioned, with a brawny bruiser’s body suited to a Special Ops stud.
Or an ex-con who made his living defying death.
He wore a midnight-blue wool coat over a white shirt, open to reveal the lean, toned muscle of his neck. Dark jeans clung to thick thighs, and Doc Martens boots added to his bad-boy cool. Only when Kyle and Steph wove closer, pulse slamming in his ears, did he see a new tattoo. Pure black, it climbed like fire to lick beneath Nate’s right ear—like an intentional arrow pointing toward his small diamond stud.
He’d never been afraid of wielding his sexuality like a machete.
Kyle swallowed. They stood close enough that he could smell a hint of aftershave. And the scent of the boy he’d once known—the angry, clever boy who’d matured into such a toughened man.
A golden-blond man with a distinct resemblance to Robert Durant stood next to him. Probably the stunt double. Kyle only noticed him when Steph shook his hand.
She turned toward Nate next. “Mr. Carnes. I recognize you from your stunt reel. So good to meet you in person. Let me introduce my business partner, Kyle Wakefield.”