After Conquest's long tour, singer Jesse Alexander is ready to head home with his partner, Evan Arden. When Conquest hits the studio again, Jesse finds competition from two new bands and tensions reach a breaking point. Facing challenges unlike any he's ever known, Jesse must somehow duplicate Conquest's success and reach his ultimate goal: showing NO FEAR and announcing his love of Evan publicly.
Unable to contain his excitement, Jesse paced quick strides back and forth across his dressing room. For more than a year, it'd become routine to go out on stage night after night, performing for thousands of raucous people. He woke to a new city nearly every morning, and often slept in one different than he'd awoken. But tomorrow, he would be back in Chicago, and tomorrow night, he and his love would sleep in each other's arms in their own bed. A smile rose of its own will to Jesse's lips. He stopped pacing. Home. They were going home. A wave of pure joy surged inside him, making him want to dance, sing, sprint around the room.
Through his thoughts, Jesse caught the voice of his guitarist and lifelong friend, Kenny Cooper. "He's left us again. He's back in Jesse's Happy La La Land."
"It's the Frappuccino he finished a little bit ago. He's always like a gerbil on speed when he drinks those things."
Jesse faced the two. His older brother, Brandon, met his gaze with a smirk. Of all the people in his life, there were only three he knew he could always depend on, and one was Brandon. Together, they had survived their father, from his fits of rage when they were young to his prejudice against them both for being gay. Brandon stood up to their father to protect him, but in all aspects of his life, Brandon always took care of him. The colorful names they used to address each other were more like pet names, their bickering more an act of play than seriousness.
While Jesse trotted around the world announcing himself as the next greatest singer to hit the scene, Brandon became one of the most popular stage actors in Chicago. Brandon wore his black hair long enough to sport a short, sleek ponytail, perfect for his role as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, which would be putting on its final performance just after the New Year, and he already had his next role lined up playing Billy Flynn in a large scale production of Chicago. Throughout their mutual success, they always sought to support each other, which was why Brandon flew out to New York for no other reason than to see him perform for this last concert.
Beside Brandon was the second person he knew he could always depend on. Jesse met Kenny's honey-brown eyes. Halfway through Conquest's tour, Kenny traded in his longish, shaggy dark blond hair for a cut shorter all around and spiky on top, claiming it wasn't as hot on stage and the fan girls liked the new style better, which he knew was Kenny's main motivation.
"You back with us now?" Kenny asked.
Jesse's smile widened. "No. My mind's already home."
Julian jumped into the conversation. "Just so long as your body and voice are still here. No one's interested in your mind, anyway."
Jesse's gaze turned to his keyboardist and pianist, Julian Forrester. Julian looked at him with a grin that reached his light blue eyes. The Julliard-trained classical pianist completely shocked him a few months ago when he traded in his perfectly groomed ponytail for a cut that made his pale blond hair look wild and messy. But no matter how rock-starred out Julian tried to get, he never could shake his distinguished air.
"There's one person who values my mind just as much as my body," Jesse retorted.
Julian, Kenny, and Brandon all burst out laughing.
"That's highly debatable," Julian said.
Jesse allowed a good-humored glare to settle on him. "You know, Jules, I'm starting to miss the quiet, polite, formal boy you were when we first met."
"Well you have no one to blame but yourself. After spending so much time with you, I came to realize it was a matter of sheer survival, both professionally and for my sanity, to become a smart ass."
As everyone laughed again, Jesse didn't catch the high laugh he was so familiar with from the other person in the room. He turned toward his drummer, Trish O'Connell. She sat at a small table with her back to them all, the fingers of her left hand expertly twirling a drumstick. Her dark red hair cascaded down her back in a braid. A white tank top patterned with pink roses revealed her toned arms.
"Hey, Trish," Jesse called. "Don't you want to join in on picking on me?"
"Sorry. I've got my mind on other things at the moment."
"Are you still mad at me for hiding your birth control pills? Because you know it was just a joke, and it was pretty funny. Well, I thought it was funny."
From the others chuckling, they seemed to agree with Jesse.
Trish smiled at him. "It was funny. And I can never be mad at you, Jess."
At the sound of the door opening, Jesse turned his attention away from her. His smile returned brighter than earlier as his gaze locked with the brilliant azure eyes of the third, and most important, person he knew he could always depend on, Evan Arden.
For Jesse, when Conquest headlined their own sold-out tour it was a dream achieved. Then to be Evan's opening act on his Addiction World Tour surpassed it. Nothing compared to his joy at being with Evan every day, every night, watching him perform, learning from him, loving him. Evan's music, his voice, his gift, was a source of unending inspiration.
Labeled as a musical and vocal genius, Evan brought elegance to rock music and his concerts themselves were a work of art, with pyrotechnics, light shows, perfectly choreographed routines with professional dancers, and a mini symphony. Evan could match moves with the best dancers, change between playing guitar, piano, violin, and drums with the ease of breathing, and still hadn't tapped out all the instruments he was skilled in. He'd sprint across the stage, then blast out his baritone not the slightest bit winded. He could lift an audience up; he could bring them back down. During his time on stage, thousands of people became Evan's willing captives.
Jesse's gaze coasted down Evan's body. A light blue shirt of fine silk formed around Evan's lean torso. With half the buttons undone, he admired Evan's smooth chest, the curves of his solid pectorals. Black leather pants hugged Evan's narrow hips and cloaked his legs down to a pair of black snakeskin boots. He returned his gaze to Evan's face, his refined cheekbones, his slender jaw. At twenty-eight years old, the superstar vocalist hardly looked twenty-three. His dark chestnut hair shone with highlights of gold and copper, the layers lightly touched with styling wax to have a slight wave, the length falling to the middle of his neck in back.
For all their days together, Evan still managed to take his breath away.
"Hey," Jesse said, his voice soft.
A smile shone across Evan's lips. "Hey, gorgeous."
Evan closed the door, muting the sounds of the audience chanting for entertainment. He walked toward Jesse, his gaze moving over him. Jesse wore a pair of stylishly faded Diesel jeans that fell off the tops of his slender hips, and the tight, V-neck, dark purple T-shirt gave his indigo eyes a violet tint. His Jesse, his savior, his shining warrior. The only person who knew all his secrets, who had seen all his flaws, who he trusted completely and fully.
Jesse moved to meet him. The distance between them closed as Evan slipped his arms around Jesse's waist.
Jesse embraced Evan's neck. "You appreciate my mind just as much as my body, don't you?"
A thoughtful expression crossed Evan's face. "That's a difficult question. I guess it depends on the situation."
"Point proven!" Julian called out, Kenny and Brandon laughing with him.
"That's not what you were supposed to say!" Jesse said over their snickering.
"Well, you have to set the scenario up better." Evan dipped his head down and laid a gentle kiss on Jesse's neck. He drifted one hand lower on Jesse's back, his fingers tracing the curves of his ass. "Like how long has it been since we've had sex? Or what are you using your mind for when I'm supposed to appreciate it?" He raised his head to meet Jesse's eyes. "Are you using your brilliance to create beautiful music, or are you babbling about old gods and ancient people? Because if it's the first, we could not have had sex for months and I would still appreciate your mind. But if it's the latter and we haven't had sex within twenty-four hours, then I might be forced to put something thick, long, and hard in your mouth to express my appreciation for your other qualities."
Jesse's attempt to maintain a serious countenance withered as a chuckle slipped from his throat.
Julian and Brandon broke into hysterics. Even Kenny snickered. Trish stood up and headed toward the door.
Jesse looked over Evan's shoulder at her. "Don't go too far. We're hitting the stage in twenty."
Trish flicked her hand in acknowledgment and opened the door, nearly running into Conquest and Evan's mutual producer, Greg Hansen.
Greg glanced back at her in confusion over her hasty retreat, then aimed a scowl at Jesse and Evan while closing the door behind him. "Roadies, groupies, security, performers, and countless other people running all over here and you two can't keep from wrapping around each other."
Evan dropped his arms from around Jesse's waist. "The door was closed."
"And doors don't accidentally get opened with this many people trying to find their way around a new venue every night? You could at least lock it."
Evan sat on the tan leather couch. "If only I had remembered."
From the glare Evan gave Greg, Jesse caught his meaning, and from how Greg's scowl deepened, he saw Greg did as well. Greg hadn't traveled with them on the tour except for meeting them at special events and award shows. His role at Phoenix Records was steadily shifting to his taking on more administrative duties, and Jesse felt it was just as well.
A little more than a year had passed since rumors erupted in tabloids alluding to just how intimate Jesse's relationship with Evan was. The rumors forced Evan to leave him, believing he needed to let Jesse go to protect him. And he walked away from Evan for fear his presence would hurt Evan's comeback. But the devastation their break-up caused made them realize their hearts, their spirits, their minds, their bodies, no longer belonged to themselves. They were no longer whole without the other. Though the innuendo in the media calmed with them not giving the paparazzi further fodder, they had enough stress watching their actions in public without Greg yelling at them every time they sat too close in a private situation.
Jesse lowered his gaze, his bright mood sobering. For as perfect as their relationship was, the one black spot of having to keep it silent from the public hung over it. At times it seemed like a void that threatened to swallow all happiness that neared it.
He understood, or at least understood in part, the need to stay silent until his career grew stronger, and Evan was the main advocate as he didn't want to affect Conquest's success, but Jesse yearned for the day when he would have Evan's full support in coming out together. He didn't blame Evan for their secrecy; there were other obstacles too, such as convincing his band their coming out wouldn't destroy Conquest and making sure they had Phoenix backing them, but he felt if he had Evan's support, no obstacle could hinder them. It really was rather funny how they both cared more for each other's careers than they did for their own. Soon though, he wouldn't have Evan's career to worry about.
Jesse met Evan's gaze. He saw in Evan's eyes that he knew his thoughts as if he'd spoken them aloud. Evan raised his left hand to him. Jesse went to him and took it. On Evan's left ring finger was the gift Jesse gave him for his twenty-seventh birthday, a ring of white gold holding a finely faceted, round cut alexandrite stone, its color a rich burgundy at the moment, but would change naturally to deep bluish-green in the sunlight. Eight diamonds, four on each side, embraced it. On the inside of the band, hidden from all eyes but always touching Evan's skin, was the inscription, Forever Yours, Jesse.
Of all the rings Evan had a penchant for wearing, only two were ever-present on his fingers; the alexandrite, and on his right index finger a ring that had belonged to his father, also made of white gold and featuring an eagle in flight atop a square cut onyx, gripping a blood-red, marquise cut ruby in its talons.
Evan took Jesse's left hand so he held them both. His gaze went to the ring he gave Jesse on the Christmas night they reunited, white gold trimmed in yellow gold, shining with a square cut diamond of a size that always brought attention. Nestled in the yellow gold trim were diamond chips, and the Greek meander wrapped around the band. The inside of the band bore the inscription, All My Love Forever, Evan.
He had watched Jesse in many interviews where he was asked about the ring, and always Jesse answered the same. With a sad smile on his lips, he'd say it was a gift from the person he loved most in the world. Jesse may have bent slightly in upholding the wishes of everyone to keep their relationship on the down low, but he refused to yield fully. If Jesse were single or dating a regular guy, his sexuality might not be as much of an issue, but Evan being Jesse's partner made things more complicated. Evan feared because of his place in music and the straight persona he'd put up during his career, his fans would react with hostility toward Jesse.
But even with the suspicion floating around, twenty-two year old Jesse had conquered a large portion of the world with his music and beautiful tenor voice, and he knew Jesse wouldn't stop until he claimed the entire world. Jesse's inner strength, his confidence, his pride, were just a few of the characteristics Evan loved so dearly about him, and it broke his heart that he couldn't give him the one thing Jesse wanted most. Only reminding himself it wouldn't be this way forever eased the pain.
Evan felt Jesse squeeze his hands. He looked up. Jesse gazed at him with a warm smile. He returned Jesse's smile, then with a hard tug, yanked him forward so Jesse fell half on him, half on the couch, laughing. He silenced Jesse's laughter by covering his mouth in a deep kiss.
Greg exhaled a loud sigh and dropped into a chair. "I don't know why I bother."
Evan drew back from the kiss, looking into Jesse's eyes.
Jesse saw from the playfulness in Evan's gaze, the kiss was his way of telling Greg to back off.
"I don't know why either," Jesse said, shifting on the couch to sit beside Evan. "We've done pretty damn good this past year without having you being our watchdog."
"And this is the last concert," Evan added. "It's a little late for you to start criticizing us now."
"Plus, I thought you came to New York on Phoenix business that had nothing to do with us. You shouldn't add to your workload by nagging at us."
Greg ran a hand through his dark brown hair, more peppered with gray than the previous year. "You guys can stop the double team routine. I get it."
Evan laid his arm across the back of the couch. His fingers sank into Jesse's hair, absentmindedly toying with it. "You never did say what your official business was."
"That's because it's being kept quiet for now."
"Come on!" Jesse said. "What do you think we're going to do if you tell us? Go running to the media? And since Phoenix would've gone under if it wasn't for Conquest, I think I have a right to know more than anyone else."
Evan cleared his throat.
Jesse grinned at him. "Your album sales and tour helped a little too, I guess."
Evan laughed softly and shook his head at him, then looked to Greg. "But he does have a point. Phoenix wouldn't be here right now if Conquest and I hadn't shoved the label into the black."
Greg stared at them for a moment. He glanced at Kenny, Julian, and Brandon. "I guess it really doesn't matter. It won't be a secret once the contracts are signed, anyway. I'm here to help finalize bringing Black Heart Down under Phoenix. They were having some major issues at their label and turned their attorneys loose to get out of their contract. Their agent called us expressing BHD's desire to come under Phoenix, and we weren't about to say no to a band who's been as successful as they have for the past seven years."
Jesse took a long, deep breath in an effort to maintain his composure. Black Heart Down had been one step behind Conquest all year. Admittedly, they were a hell of a rock band, and he had nothing against the majority of them. He thought their lead guitarist, Robbie Russo, was awesome, both as a musician and as a person. Their drummer, Adam Hunter, and bass player, Kevin Moore, seemed like great guys, but when it came to Kyler Christenson, the lead singer, there were some issues.
The first issue: it disgusted Jesse how Kyler sold-out on their last album and used a songwriter to write all their material. Yes, it was a common practice, and maybe Jesse was of an old school mentality in believing musicians should create their own original music, but it bothered him all the more with Kyler because he knew Kyler had the talent in him. For Black Heart Down's first four albums, Kyler and Robbie wrote all the material. Jesse didn't know why Kyler went with a songwriter for the last one; whether he hit a mental block, became too lazy to do it himself, or thought he could make more cash by having someone else write songs for him, none of the excuses were valid enough for Jesse personally.
The second issue: Kyler knew what Evan looked like naked, and especially a certain choice part of Evan since Kyler had wrapped his lips around it. Evan had told him about the incident. It happened back when Evan was traveling the world on his own. He returned to the States for his mother's wedding, but throughout the ceremony he couldn't shake his anger in believing she was betraying the memory of his father by remarrying, and what was more, his new step-relatives sickened him.
After the ceremony and five glasses of champagne at the reception, Evan left, deciding he needed to let his frustration out. He knew Black Heart Down was in New York, and his name got him in the door and backstage without a ticket. Kyler took Evan to his apartment, but when Kyler grew uncomfortable with the things they were doing, Evan stopped and left.
Jesse looked at Evan. "So Kyler will be signed under Phoenix. Isn't that a special little treat?"
"It was a long time ago," Evan said softly. "And just because Black Heart's under Phoenix doesn't mean we have to associate with them. Chances are they'll record in New York where they all live and we'll never see them."
"And if they end up recording in Chicago, then what? Even though he doesn't officially know we're a couple, I'm pretty sure he suspects it and still has a thing for you since at award shows he always looks at me like he's picturing me under the wheels of his Range Rover."
"He wouldn't dare touch you," Evan said, his voice carrying a protective edge.
Brandon chimed in, "Maybe you guys could introduce him to me. He's painfully hot."
Jesse scowled at him.
"You're not my enemy, so I wouldn't do that to you," Evan replied.
"And what about the waiter at the little cafÃ© up the street from your apartment you've been telling me about?" Jesse said. "That Christopher guy. You don't like him anymore?"
"No, I do, I just haven't made a move on him yet." Brandon laughed under his breath. "He's so cute. Every morning when I go in to grab my usual bagel and mocha, even if he's not working the counter, he always comes up to take my order and make small talk. He's been trying so hard to get my attention, he really deserves a reward."
Jesse looked away to hide the concern on his face. Brandon, always desperate to please the men in his life, had been taken advantage of more than once. He knew he didn't have any reason to not trust this Christopher guy, but with how Brandon's bank account had swelled with the success of his career, and he now lived in a very nice neighborhood on the North Side, Jesse wanted to meet the guy as soon as possible to make sure he wasn't out for Brandon's cash and status.
Greg's talking brought him back to the moment.
"Well, don't get yourself too wound up over BHD, Jess. It seems you'll have some other competition from a group out of L.A. called Swiller. They're new, but they show a lot of promise from what I've been told. I'm not sure when they're supposed to come in, or if they even will. They may end up staying in L.A. to record because apparently the guitarist is on probation for a DUI. I guess the court hit him pretty hard since he's underage and his license was already suspended. I've known their manager, Jon Kurtz, for a long time. He called me the other day and said he thinks this group is a â€˜Conquest killer.'"
Jesse's right hand balled into a fist. "No band can take us down."
Kenny leaned toward Greg, speaking in a pleading voice. "Greg, c'mon man. Don't get him riled up, or he'll drag us straight from the airport to the studio. I need a break!"
"I'm not trying to fire him up." Greg looked at Jesse. "Actually, I hear the lead singer is quite a fan of yours."
Evan flung his arms around Jesse and rocked him. "Awe! You see? You do have a fan!"
Jesse let out a couple chuckles, though there wasn't much humor in them.
Evan kept his arms around him and looked at Greg. "I think that's enough business talk. He needs to finish getting ready so he can hype up the crowd for me, and if you keep talking, you're going to completely ruin his mood."
Greg held up his hands innocently as he stood. "Sorry. I didn't mean to break your concentration for the stage, but you wanted to know."
Brandon, Kenny, and Julian all rose to follow Greg's lead out. Silence filled the room in their wake.
"Have you warmed up your voice yet?" Evan asked.
"No," Jesse grumbled.
He moved to stand up. Evan caught him by the back of the shirt and pulled. Jesse flopped heavily back down, then felt Evan's hand drift under his shirt. The single touch was all it took to shift his mood from irritated into an opposite direction.
Evan leaned close to him. "Then I'll help you." He licked down the outside edge of Jesse's right ear to the two small silver hoop earrings in the earlobe.
Jesse closed his eyes. A hushed moan hummed in his throat. He tipped his head away from Evan, offering his neck.
Evan moved his lips from Jesse's ear to his neck, placing a line of tender kisses down to the curve. "I'll make you hit every note you're capable of." He pushed his hand between Jesse's legs, and at the same time, took the skin near the curve of his neck between his teeth in a firm bite. A high groan broke from Jesse's throat. Evan grinned and lifted his head. "And some you didn't know you could hit."
"I'm pretty sure you've discovered my whole range a thousand times at this point in our relationship."
With a light push, Evan directed him to lie on his back. "I still think you have more talent hidden away and I'm determined to find it." He eased on top of him, softly stroking Jesse's hair near his temple. "Have I put you in a better mood?"
"Almost." Jesse placed his hand behind Evan's head and guided him to his lips.
Evan's tongue glided into his mouth. Jesse massaged it with his own and tightened his hold around Evan's back. A dizzying rush spun through him at the strength he met, Evan's body, so firm, so warm.
Evan passed a pleased sigh into his mouth as Jesse worked his tongue. He shifted his hips, pressing their erections together through their clothes, and pushed Jesse's shirt up. Evan kissed down Jesse's throat. His lips moved over the two black leather cords of the choker around Jesse's neck, from which dangled a gold pendant of the sixteen-rayed Vergina Sun. He moved lower to Jesse's chest, licking and sucking at one nipple. Jesse groaned and pushed Evan's head to his chest. Evan smiled and gave him a light bite.
Jesse sucked in a sharp breath, then laughed. "That's the second time you've bitten me. You're in one of those moods, aren't you?"
Evan tugged the button loose on Jesse's jeans and lowered the zipper. "Maybe."
Jesse glanced at a clock on the wall. "It's too bad we don't have enough time to get into playing like that. I have to hit the stage in ten."
"If you're late going on, it'd just keep to the pattern of half the other nights on this tour."
"True, or you could always let me unleash my youthful impatience. That is, if you think you could keep up, geezer."
Evan paused in reaching inside Jesse's boxers. "I guess my mind must be going with old age, because I seem to have this memory of a certain someone crying out a few nights ago, â€˜Ev, please! I'll die if you keep doing that! I can't take it!'"
Jesse pointed an accusing finger at him. "I said it that night and I'll say it now, next time, we're going to see how long you can take being tied down while I'm teasing you with my mouth and shoving a vibrator up your-"
Evan silenced him with an index finger to Jesse's lips. "Shhh, you shouldn't let talking ruin how pretty you are."
Jesse laughed and pushed on Evan's shoulders. "You're so denied!"
A knowing grin curved Evan's lips. "Is that so?"
A mischievous smirk graced Jesse's lips as he wrapped his arms around him. "Well, maybe not."