Friday, May 17, 2019

Book Review: Ten Count, Vol 5 by Rihito Takarai

Ten Count, Vol 5       

Author: Rihito Takarai
Publisher: SuBLime Manga
American release date: August 8, 2017
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/mangaGLBT/162 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Shirotani and Kurose are rescued from their elevator ordeal and emerge into falling rain. Cabs are scarce, so Kurose says he’ll walk, but Shirotani speaks up and offers to share a cab with him, which is a major step for him. Once inside the cab, Kurose prompts Shirotani to continue with what he began to say earlier, but Shirotani claims not to remember what that was, when the reality is he doesn’t feel comfortable bringing it up in that place. A disappointed Kurose has the driver pull over and gets out, since they are right by his apartment.  As he waits for the elevator, he’s surprised to hear his name and turns to find Shirotani there. Shirotani gives him an obviously fake story as to why he’s there before finally making what is a major admission for him, even if it’s phrased hypothetically. They go up to Kurose’s apartment and Shirotani requests that Kurose “make him dirty inside”.

As a child, Kurose’s parents were very busy, and he was left on his own most of the time. He strikes up an acquaintance with an older man named Nishigaki, and begins to hang out with him, even if the man claims Kurose is a pain. Kurose doesn’t understand Nishigaki’s idiosyncrasies, why he makes Kurose follow certain rules. Too late, he begins to understand what Nishigaki’s problem is. When Nishigaki disappears, Kurose blames himself. He studies all he can about germophobes, and makes a promise to himself to save the next Nishigaki.

Shirotani wakes the next morning in a strange bed. Kurose is already up and is very attentive to him, anticipating his every need. Shirotani tells Kurose he’s filled in number ten on his list and wants him to guess what it is, so then Kurose has to tell him why he is doing this. Kurose says he has feelings for Shirotani, but Shirotani knows there is more to the story than that, that it has to do with his being a germophobe. Will Kurose come clean with Shirotani?

The story is almost done, one more volume to go, and it’s so good as Shirotani and Kurose’s relationship grows stronger and stronger.  Now we know more about Kurose, and why he was initially drawn to Shirotani. It almost feels like closure for him with regard to Nishigaki. But he also says that Shirotani being a germophobe is not the only reason he is drawn to him, that he would love him anyway. Shirotani hasn’t told Kurose about his father, and what he witnessed that helped to make him the germophobe he is now. Hopefully he’ll do it in the next volume.  Ideally, I would love to see them move in together, and have an open and loving relationship. I think they can heal each other. I’m crossing my fingers for them.

Only one more to go, can’t wait!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wednesday Briefs: In Pieces #52 (12.6)

Good morning and Happy Hump Day! If it's Wednesday, then it must be time for more flash fiction from the Wednesday Briefers! We're a group of authors who bring you our finest flash fiction every week, 500 to 1000 words, inspired by one of our prompts.

Last week, as you'll recall, Abby's boyfriend Brandon made some rather rude and crude remarks to Ryan, concerning Ryan and Ben's relationship, which upset him greatly. Ben takes Ryan outside, on the band's break, to see what's up, only to have Abby seeking to discover the same thing. When she hears what he said, she punches Ryan. See what comes next in this week's chapter of In Pieces. Don't forget to visit the other Briefers and see what's up with them. Their links follow my tale! Enjoy!

In Pieces #52 (12.6)

“C’mon, Abs, it was just a joke,” Brandon continued to protest. “Baby, I’ll apologize to them. It’s no big deal, honestly. Okay, guys?” He took a tentative step toward her, then another  toward Ryan and Ben, only stopping when she raised her fist again.

“A joke? You call what you said a joke?” Abby repeated in disbelief. “You’re unbelievable, Brandon. And you’re a complete asshole.  I want you to go. As in now.”

Watching Brandon roll his eyes at Abby’s words, as if he didn’t take her seriously, Ryan wanted to go after the smarmy bastard and punch him in the mouth himself. But some instinct told him this was becoming their own personal fight, one which had nothing to do with what Brandon had said about him and Ben, so he held his peace, holding tightly to Ben’s hand.

“Tell you what, I’ll wait for you at the motel,” Brandon said. “Let you guys finish the last set.” He rubbed his jaw, moving it about as if to test how much damage she’d done. “We can grab a quick bite when you get off. Whatever you want. Sky’s the limit.” He offered her a cheesy smile, but Ryan noticed no sincerity in his eyes.

“Are you kidding me? I am not going back to that motel with you,” Abby said, disbelief evident in her voice. How dense was this man, Ryan wondered, that he would think she’d want to, after all of this. A smarter man would have given her time to cool off before he tried to get back into her good graces, tuck his tail between his legs and get out of her sight, but obviously Brandon wasn’t that man.
Ryan noticed someone round the corner of the building, coming up behind Brandon. Spying a brown monk’s robe, he realized at once who it was. Now there would truly be hell to pay.

Aiden’s casual stroll became a brisk stride as he took in the tableau before him. He hurried to his sister’s side.  “Are you all right? What’s going on? Do I need to kick someone’s dumb ass?”

“Brandon was just leaving,” Abby said.  “Weren’t you, dickhead?”

Even in the questionable light thrown by the lighting standards in the parking lot, Ryan could see the building fury in Brandon’s face. He glanced around him, as if wondering what the odds were he’d get his ass kicked if he started anything. By this time, Deacon and Keanu had also arrived. They glared at Brandon menacingly. He obviously decided if he ran away, he’d live to fight another day.

“Safety in numbers, I see,” he sneered. “That’s okay. I don’t need you motherfuckers. Or should I say brotherfuckers?” With that last moment of stupidity, he beat a hasty retreat , narrowly dodging Keanu and Deacon. The usually placid Deacon looked ready to strangle him, while Keanu’s face was a veritable storm cloud. Of one accord, they chased after him, out of sight.

Ryan and Ben hurried to Abby, who was already encircled in Aiden’s arms. Her brave front had collapsed and she was sobbing quietly. Aiden stroked her hair, attempting to calm her. “It’s okay, he’s gone. Shh, shh…”

“Abby, I’m so sorry.” Ben gently touched her arm. Ryan felt helpless, unsure what he could or should do, so he let Ben take the lead.

Abby turned her head. Mascara and tears streaked her cheeks as she struggled to bring her breathing under control. “Don’t be. It’s not your fault, either one of you. This has been a long time coming. A long time.”

“It’s not your fault,” Aiden echoed. “I’m sorry about the things he said to you. He’s just a dick, always has been.”

“You deserve better than him,” Ben said. “He isn’t good enough for you by a long shot. You’re an amazing woman. Thank you for standing up for us.”

“I’d fight anyone for you, Ben. You’re like family.”

The next thing Ryan knew, Abby had pulled Ben in and Ben pulled in Ryan, until all four were involved in a large group hug. Ryan’s heart filled with love—a protective love for Abby and Aiden, as well as an everlasting love for Ben. He would fight for these people, no matter what.

“We should probably get back in, break must be over,” Abby said. “How bad do I look?” She gave Aiden a searching look.

“A little repair, nothing major,” he said. “You sure you’re up to it?” He glanced at Ben.

“Maybe we should cancel the last set,” Ben began, but Abby shook her head adamantly.

“No, no way. I can handle this. We have a job to do, and we’re going to do it.”

“Abby, it’s the last set, we can—”

At that moment, Deacon and Keanu reappeared, breathing hard, as if they’d been running. Keanu wore a particularly satisfied expression. “He won’t be coming around any time soon.” Ryan noticed he cradled one hand in the other.

“Let me see that, killer,” Deacon took Keanu’s hand and brought it to his lips, kissing it. “I wouldn’t want to get on your bad side.”

Keanu laughed. “Like you could.”

“What did you do to him?” Aiden asked.

“Just taught him some of the manners his mama neglected to teach him,” Keanu said. “Not enough to cause any real damage, but enough to make him think twice about coming around.”

“Good,” Abby said. “Thanks, guys. You’re the best.”

“Yeah, I know.” Keanu’s statement elicited laughter, lightening the tense atmosphere somewhat.

“Give me a few minutes to get to the lady’s room and I’ll be ready,” Abby said, her voice thickening.

“What’s wrong? You okay?” Aiden asked with concern.

‘I’m fine,” she assured him. “Just thinking how much I love you all.”

“Back at you,” Ben said. 

Forming a phalanx around Abby, who walked beside her brother, they headed back inside to finish their final set.

to be continued

Now go visit the other Briefers and see what's up with them!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Book Review: Bleach, Vol 1 by Tite Kubo

Bleach, Vol 1      

Author: Tite Kubo
Publisher: Viz Media
American release date: May 19, 2004
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/Manga/Supernatural/200 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Ichigo Kurosaki can see ghosts. This is something he’s lived with all his life, so dead people are a normal part of his existence. He’s sensitive to their sufferings. When punks break a floral offering for a young child, Ichigo shows them the error of their ways by beating it into them.  Ichigo lives with his father and two sisters, Karin and Yuzu, his mother having died some time ago. They run the Kurosaki Clinic. His father is strict, in that he demands the teen-aged Ichigo be home by 7, and he has a disconcerting habit of attacking his son without warning. It’s become something of a male ritual with them, each trying to get over on the other. The girls just roll their eyes and shakes their heads at them.

When a mysterious girl in black robes appears suddenly in Ichigo’s room, he is thrown for a loss. She is equally flabbergasted that not only can he see her, he was able to kick her. She explains to him that she is Rukia Kuchiki, and she is a Soul Reaper from the Soul Society. When Ichigo tries to have his dad remove the intruder, his father looks at him like he’s crazy. Apparently no one can see her but him, lending credence to her story. Rukia explains to Ichigo that there are two kinds of souls – the normal kind, whom she performs konso on so they can pass on to the Soul Society, and the hollows, who must be vaporized. Rukia is looking for a hollow now, in Ichigo’s house.

Ichigo realizes to his horror that his family is in danger, and they are being attacked by a Hollow. His guilt only grows when Rukia surmises the Hollow is looking for Ichigo because of his strong spirit pressure, unlike other humans. Ichigo is determined to fight for his family. Rukia only intends to lend Ichigo half of her power so he can combat this enemy, but to her dismay, he absorbs all of it, rendering her unable to use them.

The next day Ichigo is confused to find his family have no memory of the attack and believe a truck drove into their home, causing extensive damage. He goes to school, wondering what’s become of Rukia. Did she return to her Soul Society? To his surprise and dismay he finds her as a new student in his class. What’s up with that? He confronts her in private and asks why she didn’t return to where she belongs, only to learn that she can’t because he took all her powers. So until she can get them back, he has to perform soul reaper duties in her place!

Ichigo and Rukia run into Ichigo’s friend, Orihime, who is something of a space cadet and a klutz but a super sweet girl. Rukia notices a strange bruise on Orihime’s leg, which she laughingly attributes to clumsiness, but Rukia isn’t sure that’s really the case. That night, Ichigo’s sister questions him about some missing items, such as her pajamas and a dress, but he has no idea where they are, why should he? In his room, he hears a phone go off, which turns out to be Rukia’s, and she is sleeping in his closet? No time to argue, a Hollow is nearby and they must confront it! When they find the monster, Ichigo is appalled when he recognizes who it is!

I’ve been watching the anime for several months now but am just starting to read the manga. It’s every bit as good as the anime, and I love seeing the characters in print. One thing I didn’t realize from the anime is that Ichigo has a nickname, which is Strawberry. My daughter explained that it’s because his name translates to strawberry. Learn something new every day!

In this first volume, we are meeting people, such as Orihime and Chad, and of course Rukia. Her sensing Ichigo’s spirit pressure is what starts everything moving.  The Kurosaki family is great, I love their interactions. Dad is really something else. But everything is done with love, and it shows. Ichigo may have been reluctant to take on the duties of a soul reaper, but once he’s agreed to do it, he goes into it wholeheartedly, as it’s his nature to stand up for other people who might not be able to stand up for themselves. He’s a good boy, he is.  The only criticism I can make (and it’s not something unusual to Kubo alone, it’s most of the male manga artists) is the tendency to draw women with huge breasts. But what can you do? I guess their primary target audience are teen-aged males.

Great first volume, lots to go, looking forward to it!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Blue Morning, Vol 1     

Author: Shoko Hidaka
Publisher: SuBLime Publishing
American release date: May 14, 2013
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/Manga/Yaoi/192 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Akihito Kuze inherits the title of viscount at the tender age of ten, on the death of his father. Because of his mother’s frail health, he has always lived with her, apart from his father, who allowed Akihito to stay with her so she wouldn’t be lonely. Having never lived in his father’s home, he’s in for something of a shock on his arrival at the large mansion which is now his and meets the man who is in charge of raising him—butler Tomoyuki Katsuragi. Before he died, Kuze’s father told him to listen to Katsuragi on all things. Akihito is surprised to discover how young the butler is—only eleven years separates their ages. A reception is held in honor of the new viscount, who feels very much out of place. He notices, to his surprise, that most of the people there are drawn to Katsuragi, and actually seek him out. What sort of a man is this butler? Confiding to Katsuragi that he has never learned Western manners, the butler covers for him by telling everyone he is ill and sending him to his room.

Katsuragi takes control of Kuze’s education, and Kuze finds him a stern taskmaster. One day he notices a carriage belonging to a wealthy family seems to come to the estate often, bearing Master Shigeyuki. Curious about his reason for being there, Kuze investigates, and witnesses a kiss between Shigeyuki and Katsuragi! He also overhears the other man trying to entice Katsuragi to send Kuze away and come to live in his house! Kuze is overheard and the meeting comes to an end, Shigeyuki taking his leave. Kuze tries to get Katsuragi to explain things to him, but a clear explanation is not forthcoming. He merely asserts his desire for Kuze to be as perfect as possible.

A few years pass. Now seventeen, Kuze is taking classes at a prestigious academy, but he has permission not to sleep in the dorm. Arriving home early one night he learns Katsuragi is with a visitor and not to be disturbed. Kuze disturbs him anyway, only to find him with a woman of the noble class. Katsuragi insists that everything he does is for the Kuze family, even this. He purposely opens the door to reveal the woman’s presence, thus ensuring her cooperation in future matters concerning the Kuze.

Kuze has always sought Katsuragi’s approbation, but there’s more to that now. He finds himself attracted to the man. And when Katsuragi implies that all he has to do is command him to go to Kuze’s room, he will obey. Does he mean what Katsuragi hopes he means?

This is my first time reading this author. I especially enjoy the artwork, it’s very well drawn, and Katsuragi is certainly easy on the eyes. There is so much more here than the average yaoi manga, wheels within wheels, and I find myself as confused as Akitio at times. I’m sure things will become clearer as we go along. Katsuragi is indeed an enigma. He entered the service of Kuze’s father when he was nine, and was told in no uncertain terms not to go to the Katsuragi house ever again, which he hasn’t. Akihito particularly doesn’t understand this, especially now that Katsuragi’s father is in failing health. He begins to ask questions, and even arranges a meeting with Katsuragi’s older brother, who is in banking.

Kiku has been the housekeeper for the Kuze household since before Akihito’s arrival, but she is older now and in ill health, so has left their service. She is the only servant left from the time of Katsurago’s arrival, the only one that knows about him. But what does she know?

Katsuragi drives Akihito crazy with his cold, inflexible exterior, and yet Akihito wants nothing more than to please him. What will it take to get through to the man? Ordering someone isn’t the same as having them want to do it. Will he be able to make Katsuragi want him the way he wants the butler?

I enjoyed this volume very much and look forward to reading more of the series.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Wednesday Briefs: In Pieces #51 (12.5)

Good morning and Happy Hump Day! If it's Wednesday, then it must be time for more flash fiction from the Wednesday Briefers! We're a group of authors who bring you our finest flash fiction every week, 500 to 1000 words, inspired by one of our prompts.

If Ryan disliked Brandon before, that's nothing compared to what he's feeling now after Brandon shows up at Salvation's gig and has the nerve to make certain accusations regarding Ryan and Ben. Can Ben make everything right again, and what will they do to Brandon? See what's going on in this week's chapter of In Pieces. Don't forget to visit the other Briefers and see what's up with them!  Their links follow my tale! Enjoy!

In Pieces #51 (12.5)

Leaving the bar, they noticed some of the customers had also gone outside. They stood in a cluster, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other. Obviously because smoking wasn’t allowed in the bar. As they passed, Ryan thought he heard someone say “goddamned president”, but he didn’t have the time or inclination to worry about politics at this moment.  Rounding the corner of the building, out of sight of the others, they came to a stop by mutual consent. Ben immediately wrapped his arms around Ryan and held him tightly against him. For this moment, not a word was spoken between them. Ryan closed his eyes and rested his face against Ben’s neck, closing out everything and everyone else.

Ryan felt Ben’s fingers stroke his hair gently, felt Ben’s lips caress his head. He felt himself on the verge of purring like a contented can when Ben drew back slightly, looking into Ryan’s eyes. “What’s wrong? Did something happen in there?” he asked in concern. “You don’t usually drink like that, you scared me.”

Ryan took a long shuddering breath, willing himself to calm down. “It’ll be okay,” he said, not wanting to upset Ben any more than he already seemed to be, but unwilling to withhold the truth either. “I know I shouldn’t let him do it, but that man just gets to me.”

“What man?”

“Abby’s boyfriend. Brandon.” Ryan breathing began to even out as he began to relax, now that he was away from the cause of his upset. Being out in the fresh air didn’t hurt either, but mostly it was the influence of Ben’s presence, and he knew it.

Ben’s brows drew together angrily. “What did he do? He didn’t touch you, did he?”

“No, but I think he would have if I’d agreed to come outside with him.” The very idea was disgusting. “It’s the comments he made… about you and me. Talking about us, about incest, like we were…  I mean ….” Ryan stumbled over the words he hadn’t expected to say, ever. “Ben, I never wanted to punch someone so badly in my life. I had to walk away.”

Ryan quickly glanced at Ben to gauge his reaction to his words. There was an expression in Ben’s eyes that he couldn’t quite read—disgust? Shame?—but the next moment it was gone and Ryan couldn’t swear he’d seen anything at all.

“Ben,” he began, hesitantly. “I’m… sorry I upset you… I’m sorry—”

“Don’t be sorry!” Ben said fiercely. “You didn’t do anything wrong. And neither did I. We’re not wrong, and neither is our love.” He claimed Ryan’s lips in a passionate kiss that quelled any lingering doubts Ryan may have had. He knew Ben loved him, with all his heart. They were meant to be. Mere words couldn’t hurt them, if they didn’t let them. Especially since they weren’t true.

They clung together, leaning against the weathered brick of the building for support. Occasional bursts of music reached them from time to time as people wandered in and out of the bar, reminding Ryan of his previous plans to dance with Ben. Right this minute, he didn’t care if they got to dance here in this place or not.  What mattered was that they were together.

“I guess I never thought of us that way,” Ryan said at last. “You were always more of a friend than a brother.”

“After you stopped hating me for not being a dog?” Ben teased. Ryan was glad to see that he had calmed down as well. The storm had passed… at least, for now.

“I was horrible, I know,” Ryan said with a small laugh. It was easy to laugh about it now, but he’d certainly been angry at the time as only an eight-year-old boy can be angry when he doesn’t get what he expects. “And stupid. I got something much better than a puppy. I got you.”

“Oh God, Ryan, I needed to hear that so much.” Ben squeezed Ryan tightly, and this time he buried his face against Ryan’s chest, holding onto him for dear life.

“And I need you, Ben,” Ryan assured him. “And if there’s ever—” But the thought went unfinished, their solitude broken by an ill-timed arrival. Ryan turned his head to find Abby making a beeline for them, skirts lifted from the ground to reveal her black stiletto boots. Hot on her heels was Brandon. He tried to grab her arm, but she brushed him aside, never slowing.

She drew up to Ben and Ryan. Ryan had never seen her so angry. Her eyes blazed with fury, but he suspected her anger was not directed at them. When she spoke, her voice was far more contained than he’d expected.

“Tell me what he did,” she demanded. Ryan wasn’t sure if the question was for him or Ben until she finally fixed her gaze on him. Maybe she had seen something of what went down inside?

“I’m telling you, you’re overreacting,” Brandon interrupted before Ryan had a chance to reply. “I was just flirting a little, that’s all. Teasing. No need to get so bent out of shape.”

Ben stiffened in Ryan’s arms. He drew himself up and turned to face Brandon, his own anger beginning to show. “You… how dare you talk about us like that? You don’t know us and you have no right to accuse of… of things that aren’t true. And you dare to say you  were teasing?”

Brandon narrowed his eyes at them, his mouth tightening into a thing line, but he made no reply.

“What did he say?” Abby looked between Ryan and Ben. “Please tell me!”

“Incest,” Ryan spoke up quickly. “Accused us of incest.”

Abby turned without another word, and threw a balled fist directly at Brandon’s jaw. He staggered backward, almost losing his balance. His hand flew to his jaw and he stared at her in disbelief.

“Get the fuck away from us,” Abby said.

to be continued

Now go see what's up with the other Briefers!

Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: Ten Count, Vol 4 by Rihito Takarai

Ten Count, Vol 4    

Author: Rihito Takarai
Publisher: SuBLime Manga
American release date: May 9, 2017
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/manga/glbt/178 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Shirotani has gone to Kurose’s apartment, ostensibly to watch a movie, but did he seriously think Kurose wouldn’t try to take advantage of the situation to touch him in some way? On some level, he must have known that would happen. So when Kurose introduces him to an anal plus, Shirotani’s protests are weak at best. Once the plug is in place, Shirotani is both disgusted and turned on. When Kurose removes the plug and suggests he replace it with himself, Shirotani fights against the idea, claiming Kurose is manipulating him. To his surprise, Kurose claims that Shirotani is the one who is actually in control. Shirotani worries that if he becomes cured of his germophobia, Kurose will lose interest in him.

Shirotani leaves, but doesn’t get very far in his turgid condition and, against his better instincts, enters a public lavatory, torn between not being contaminated by his surroundings and relieving his need. As he fantasizes that Kurose is touching him, he replays memories in his mind, of his childhood, and the incidents which were the start of his germophobia.

Avoiding Kurose, Shirotani throws himself even harder into his work. The weather has turned ugly and there is talk of an impending typhoon. Shirotani’s boss apologetically asks him to deliver some urgent documents to a client, which of course he does.  Leaving the office of the client, heading down in the elevator, he sees Kurose come on but keeps his back to him, assuming Kurose won’t know him. Unfortunately, a power outage halts the elevator, and Shirotani is forced to face his fears, as well as Kurose. Can they reach a new understanding of their relationship together?

Another great volume of this series. More and more we are beginning to understand what drives Shirotani to be the way he is. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, and also to hope he can be cured of his fixation. I believe he is fixable, and that Kurose is the key. I suspect there is more to Kurose than meets the eye. He’s already admitted to being attracted to Shirotani in large part because he is a germophobe, but there must be more to the story than that.

Some people might argue that there is some dubious consent here, but after careful consideration, I don’t believe that to be the case. While it might appear that Kurose is going against what Shirotani says, I believe he is receiving his cues from Shirotani, as he claims, and Shirotani is actually setting the pace and controlling the action. There is also the matter of Item number ten on the list, which has yet to be named. I’m not sure it ever will, but I hope so.

Looking forward to the next volume!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wednesday Briefs: In Pieces #50 (12.4)

Good morning and Happy Hump Day! If it's Wednesday, then it must be time for more flash fiction from the Wednesday Briefers! We're a group of authors who bring you our finest flash fiction every week, 500 to 1000 words, inspired by one of our prompts.

Salvation is playing at a small bar in New Orleans, last gig before they go on the road. Ryan is looking forward to having a good night with Ben, but will something disrupt those dreams? See what's going on in this week's chapter of In Pieces. Don't forget to visit the other Briefers and see what's up with them! Their links follow my tale! Enjoy!

In Pieces #50 (12.4)

The first two sets went very well. The audience was small but appreciative. Some had even dressed as the various members of the band, including a couple of priests and nuns and even one pope. When Ryan had attended concerts with Cassie, he’d often worn that band’s T-shirt as a symbol of unity, but he’d never gone so far as to imitate their dress.  Then again, most bands didn’t dress quite as distinctively as Salvation. At least not in his experience. Maybe New Orleans was more open to that sort of thing than St. Louis.

Earlier in the day, while Ben and the others were rehearsing, Ryan had found a few minutes to call Cassie and say hello. They didn’t get to talk long, but he promised her a longer call as soon as he could. It was good to hear her voice, see how she was doing… and tell her about Ben and him. She practically squealed over the phone, she was so pleased at the news that they were together at last. She said she was doing well and keeping busy but she missed him. She told him they would definitely have to find time to come visit her, which idea Ryan seconded. He couldn’t wait to show Ben off, and for Ben and Cassie to get to know each other. Hopefully Ben wouldn’t mind.

Between sets, the band signed autographs and posed for pictures. Ryan stood proudly by, watching. Ben was certainly in his element, smiling and charming and gracious to everyone. They didn’t get a chance to dance, but Ryan still had hopes that might happen after the last set. The bar had a juke box that was kept busy when the band wasn’t playing. He was pretty sure he could find something on it that was slow and romantic if he looked hard enough. If not, they could always improvise.

He took a few photos for the book  , but Ben had told him not to worry about taking too many —they’d be playing New Orleans again at least once or twice before the tour was done—so he kept the number down. Afterward he claimed a spot against the wall where he could stand and watch the band to his heart’s content. Ben had warned him that this gig would run later than usual since bars stayed open all night here. It might be past two before they got out, but Ryan didn’t mind. They could always sleep in a little tomorrow.

“Hey, tiger, how’s it going?” a voice broke into his thoughts.

Ryan glanced over to find Brandon standing beside him, drink in hand, cheesy grin firmly affixed. Ryan wasn’t entirely surprised. After all, Abby had warned them he might be there. He’d hoped that wouldn’t happen, but now all he could do was make the best of a potentially bad situation.

“Good,” he replied politely. “You?”

“Never better. How about we go outside? Get a little fresh air? Kinda stuffy in here, don’t you think?”

Ryan pushed down his annoyance at the other man’s presumption. “Thanks, I’m good right here,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on Ben. Maybe Brandon would catch a clue…

“Ah, afraid lover boy will be jealous? I get it. He does tend to be possessive when he’s in love, doesn’t he?”

Ryan turned startled eyes in Brandon’s direction.  Brandon was openly smirking. Was he deliberately provoking Ryan? To do what? And why?

“So tell me something, is incest like legal now? I mean it seems to be all the fashion. You see it on TV, in books… and in real life.”

Ryan’s cheeks heated. He clenched his fists, resisting the urge to punch Abby’s boyfriend in the mouth. What did she even see in this guy? Whatever it was, he couldn’t see it.

He also wasn’t going to let Brandon get the better of him, either. He took deep breaths until he felt calm enough to respond without anger. “Ben and I were stepbrothers ten years ago. We have no blood ties. If you’ll excuse me…” He pushed off from the wall and walked away from Brandon, still seething internally. The bar was right in front of him, as he maneuvered across the room. Why not?

He stood at the bar for a few minutes before the bartender was able to get him, wiping his hands on a cloth around his waist. “What can I get you?”

“Shot of whiskey,” Ryan responded. When the bartender set it in front of him, he bolted it, feeling the liquor burn along his throat as it went down.

“Another one,” he said, pushing the empty glass forward. The bartended obliged. This time, Ryan sipped at it, determined to keep his wits about him. “What do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” came the immediate response. “I know you’re with the band. It’s all good.” He gave Ryan a gap-toothed smile. Ryan tried to smile back, but it felt stiff.

“Thanks,” he said. Just then, he felt an arm about his waist and he started to stiffen until he realized the band was no longer on the stage. When had they stopped playing?

“Hey, what’s going on?” He heard Ben’s familiar voice in his ear and realized Brandon hadn’t followed him to the bar, as he’d first thought. He directed his gaze to Ben’s beautiful blue eyes which were  perturbed.

“Can we go outside?” Ryan asked.

“Sure. We just went on break before the last set.”

Ryan knocked back the remnants of his drink just before Ben drew him close and kissed him, long and hard. By the time the kiss ended, Ryan felt better. “I needed that.” He took Ben’s hand in his and led him out the front door, never looking around to see where Brandon might be. He didn’t really give a shit.

to be continued

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