Syncopation (Twisted Wishes #1)
There’s no resisting the thrum of temptation in this male/male rock-star romance from genre-favorite author Anna Zabo!
Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.
Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.
Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.
Goodreads (My review has some trigger warnings behind a spoiler tag)
Rep: Ray is gay. Zavier is pansexual, aromantic, and kinky
Ray Van Zeller stared at the tabloid website headline on the tablet their band manager held out for him. “What the fuck is this?”
DRUNKEN VAN ZELLER ATTACKS SCHMIDT AS TWISTED WISHES IMPLODES
“What does it look like, Ray?” A sigh and a hint of a sneer, but then Carl always assumed Ray needed to be spoken to using small words, the prick.
Ray wasn’t stupid. He was, however, too pissed to see straight. The text on the screen blurred and tumbled, just like his gut. Just like his life. “It looks like a shitty, lying headline.” He hadn’t been drunk at all. And he hadn’t attacked Kevin, their drummer—ex-drummer now.
Carl heaved another sigh. “They have a video of you.” He set the tablet down on the coffee table between them.
Of course they did. Fucking paparazzi. Ray clamped his mouth shut and shook his head.
“Ray wasn’t the one who was drinking,” Domino said. He was dressed casually—looked more twink in his button-down and glasses than guitar rock god—but that was Dom. Out of sight, like in this fuckhole of a hotel, he stripped his persona off. “Kevin started in on that bottle before the encore. Ray didn’t touch a drop!”
Mish grunted her agreement.
Their no-good band manager knew that, too. They’d been excited to get a manager when the record label had sent Carl. Not so much now. Didn’t know why, but Carl’s animosity rose damn quick, like the band, and Ray in particular was wasting his time.
Fucking thing was that Carl knew Kevin had been drinking on their tour. Hell, Ray had even approached Carl and asked for help, but no—he’d blown Ray off.
You’re the leader, Ray, Carl had said.
He was. That night, he’d been the bandleader when he’d stalked after Kevin, off the tour bus, a two-thirds-empty fifth of Jack in his hand. It had been full before the concert. There’d been yelling—Ray at Kevin to get his act together, Kevin back at Ray, all about how he didn’t give a fuck about the band anymore and a trained monkey could play his sets.
Wasn’t true. Kevin had been a fantastic drummer back when they’d started the band, his rhythms complex and stunning. Then he’d started celebrating a little too hard and never stopped. Maybe it was a way to cope with the pressure they all felt after “Dark Dreams” had hit the top five, but it didn’t matter.
His playing had gone to shit. Kevin now drummed out simple patterns that barely matched the songs they’d built around his original complex drumming. The more he drank, the worse they sounded.
The small tour they were on was supposed to show the label that Twisted Wishes could hack a major one. It had only proved they couldn’t play in a fucking Walmart parking lot.
Yeah, Ray had taken that mostly empty bottle of Jack and thrown it at the wall behind Kevin. Felt so good, the crash and splash, the shimmer as glass and golden liquid burst against the concrete wall. Like razor-edged confetti. Kevin had gotten quiet then. Told Ray to go to hell. He’d replied that it was rehab or leave the band. Kevin marched back into the bus, packed his bag, and left that night.
Ray scrubbed his face. The tablet had gone dark, but the headline still swam in his vision. “How bad is the video?”
The snort that came from Carl set Ray’s teeth on edge, and he ground them together while Carl woke the tablet, scrolled, and clicked the video clip.
After one of the most excruciating forty-five seconds of Ray’s life, the clip ended and he didn’t look up. Couldn’t, especially since he knew Carl wore that fucking smirk of his. Yeah, the video was that bad. Whoever had shot it had been far enough away, but the yelling, the anger, those had carried even if the words hadn’t. And from the angle, it did look like he’d thrown the bottle at Kevin.
“Fuck.” It came out like a mantra, slow and long, and the word echoed in his aching head. So much for being in control. Being a leader.
“And now you have no drummer,” Carl said. “Whatever will you do?”
Ray lifted his chin and met Carl’s gaze, and lo and behold, the fucker flinched. Guess Ray still had that I’m going to murder you look down. “Hire a new one.” Ray didn’t look away from Carl’s dark eyes. “I would think a manager of your caliber would know that.”
Silence in the room until Carl cleared his throat. “Of course. And there’ll have to be some other changes as well, to smooth things over in the press.”
Dom shifted next to Ray, and Mish muttered something low that was probably profanity. She had a mouth worse than his and Dom’s put together.
“What changes?” Ray ground the words out.
“No more drinking for you,” Carl said. “And you’ll make some kind of statement about getting help for your problem.”
The hell he would. He opened his mouth, but Mish beat him there.
“That some fucking bullshit and you know it.” She rose from her seat at the edge of the bed, and all six foot one of her towered over Carl. “Why the fuck are you punishing Ray for Kevin being a drunken piece of shit?”
Carl craned his neck back to take in Mish, his immaculately styled blond hair shifting into imperfection. “Because without a fucking drummer and with this”—he waved at the tablet—“making the rounds, we have to control the damage.”
We meant the record label. It never meant the band.
God, the band. They needed the tour the label dangled in front of them, needed it far more than Ray needed his dignity or ego. “Fine. I’ll do it.” He rarely drank anyway, and he did need help—some way to keep from destroying the chances they’d been given.
Silence. Carl sat back against the ugly hotel chair and stared at him. Mish sank down to the bed. “Ray, honey, are you sure?”
He nodded and locked eyes with Carl. “But I’m not admitting I’m an alcoholic when I’m not. I’ll—say something about anger management. Or stress therapy or something.”
Carl raised his chin. “That would be an acceptable alternative.”
“And we need to put out a call for a drummer. Schedule auditions.” God, where they would find someone who could play as well as sober Kevin, Ray didn’t know. But they had to.
“We’ll have that ready to go, once you make your statement.”
Wonderful. Ray swallowed bile and the urge to throttle the man across the table. “Guess I better go write one, then.” He rose, put his back to Carl, and marched out of the room.
Outside the rundown hotel, the air was hot and dry. Scrub and dust and too much sky as far as the eye could see, plus the ever-present roar of the nearby highway. They were somewhere in the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t even sure what state they were in—only that it was off the beaten path so they could avoid the press.
He hoped, anyway. Because he probably looked like shit. Felt like it. Wanted to scream or curse or cry. They’d made it this far, the strange little band he’d put together. Dom, his best buddy from high school. Mish, the red-haired, bass-playing crooner he couldn’t stop watching at a bar because her performance had been so exquisite, and Kevin, the kid on YouTube who’d rapped sticks against whatever he could to beat out such intricate patterns.
He’d brought them all together and they’d done the impossible.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and stared at the wavering heat mirage in the road. Kevin hadn’t survived the pressure of a surprise hit, all the publicity and touring. Maybe that was Ray’s fault—he’d gone on and on about practices and looking and sounding their best. They hadn’t had a break in months. Hell, it wore him down.
Like Kevin, he’d turned to his favorite vice after too many sleepless nights. Once he’d discovered which of the men in the road crew didn’t mind being drilled down into a mattress, meaningless sex had become his escape from the stress of being in the spotlight nonstop. He didn’t worry too much about being caught. The gossip sites expected gratuitous sexual exploits from rock stars, and he’d been open about his sexuality from day one. The crew had kept silent about it, though.
On the nights he’d fucked the stress out of his nerves, he slept.
Ray wiped the sweat from his brow and paced.
He didn’t know what to write. I’m sorry I’m such a shitty bandleader. I didn’t ask for this. It’s hard. That wasn’t any good. Sounded like a whiner, and he could just imagine the responses. Oh yes, you poor thing, becoming famous is so very difficult.
He kicked a stone across the parking lot, and much like with lyrics, the right words began to form and merge and break apart and connect. He whipped out his cell phone, opened the note app, and started typing.
He didn’t know how long it took to write the damn thing, only that the door to his hotel room opened and closed twice. The second time, boots scuffed against the pavement, and Mish’s Doc Martens came into view underneath his phone.
“Honey, you’re going to fry to a crisp or drop from heat exhaustion if you stay out here any longer.”
He typed the last words and looked up. “I’m done.”
Fleeting horror shimmered like heat across her features. “The band?”
“God no.” He rocked back, and maybe she was right about the heat. Or it was the stress that had his head spinning. “My apology to give to the press.” He handed the phone over to her.
It took her far less time to read it than he’d taken to write it. When she finished, her shoulders dropped. “You sure you want to do this? It’s bullshit.”
“It’s bullshit that will allow us to get a drummer and keep going. This is—a little thing.”
Something in his voice must have given him away, because Mish stepped forward and wrapped him in a hug. “Oh, hon. Don’t do this for us.”
At five foot nine, he could press his eyes against her shoulder, so he did. “But I am sorry.” Sorry he couldn’t keep them together. Sorry he couldn’t keep himself together.
The words might be bullshit, but the feelings behind them weren’t.
There are times in my life that replay over and over in my mind. Points when my life cracked apart, broke, and rearranged into something new and terrifying.
By now, you’ve all seen the video posted of an argument that occurred between me and Kevin Schmidt.
I don’t have an excuse. I want to. I want to tell you that it was a farce, that Kevin and I are fine. Best buddies. That he’s not leaving the band. I would love to explain that the pressures of touring for the first time ate at both of us, and that night was a spat brought on by stress.
It was more than that. There are some things friendship can’t endure. Times when splits must occur. There are unresolvable differences between Kevin and the band.
I let them happen.
Leaders are people who forge bonds, strengthen ties, and help those in need. I failed both as a leader and Kevin’s friend. What I had that night was anger rather than love. Nothing comes from anger but broken bottles and broken ties.
I apologize to all our fans, but most especially, to Kevin for my lack of control.
Anger is a personal fault and one I need to fix. For the love of the band, and all of you, I will, and I promise we’ll back on the road, better than ever.
—Ray Van Zeller
Well now, that was an interesting read. Zavier Demos studied his laptop screen and scrolled through Ray Van Zeller’s confessional apology one more time.
Ray could write. Zavier tapped his keyboard lightly, not enough to type, just enough for that soothing clicking. Then again, even as a freshman and sophomore in high school Ray had worked wonders with words. His poems had been regularly tacked up on the wall outside the English department, and he’d sung a hauntingly sweet song about pining after love for the school talent show Zavier’s senior year. Came in first place, too. Lovely melody and elegant lyrics that even Zavier could appreciate, even if the sentiment wasn’t anything he understood.
Zavier had sat out of the competition. He’d already gotten a scholarship for percussion to Juilliard. Not like he’d needed to impress anyone, and he’d had senioritis to the limit that year. He was done and he’d let the entire school know it, especially Ray. Turned him down flat when Ray had asked him to join the little garage band he’d been trying to put together.
Better things to do with his time than be a glorified metronome, even if Ray did have a lovely voice.
Zavier snorted. Ah, the righteousness of youth. That had served him well, right up until he’d set foot in New York City, where everyone was young and talented and no one gave a damn.
Oh, but Ray gave a damn, he was sure of that. From the words on Zavier’s screen to the lyrics underneath the driving melody and impressive rhythms found in every song on the Twisted Wishes album. A little rough around the edges, but that only added to the breath-catching charm. He’d followed Ray’s career, mostly because he’d never quite gotten over the nerve of that cocky sophomore who’d asked a Juilliard-bound musician to play in his rock band.
The first incarnations of Ray’s band were mediocre—Zavier’d watched a few shows from the back of dark bars when he’d been home to visit. But over time, and with the right people, Ray had created something new and different and special.
Except now Ray had lost his shit and the band had lost a drummer.
The keys under Zavier’s fingers were smooth and warm. He ran his index finger over the little raised bump on the J.
The Twisted Wishes drummer had been getting worse and worse lately, so maybe there was more behind Ray losing his cool than “the pressures of touring for the first time” or any of the other reasons he didn’t want to lay claim to.
A touch on the track pad brought up the band’s call for auditions for drummers, and Zavier’s fingers itched. Hell, his arms—his blood—swam with the need to tap out those delicious rhythms. Embellish them. Improve on them.
He hadn’t been on any stage in three months, not since he’d walked away from his position as principal timpani of the Silverton Orchestra.
Damn Maestro Dimitri Ferbran. Regret was an odd thing. It stung and swirled and twisted against Zavier’s innards. He should never have tied Dimitri up and fucked him.
Conductors weren’t known for letting go of control, so Dimitri’s surrender had been entirely too sweet and tempting. Zavier had given in to that, lost his own self-restraint, even though he’d been clear at the start: this was fun and games and fucking. Not a romance. No ties. No future.
Dimitri had planned otherwise, of course. Expected wine and flowers and a long-term commitment. Romantic love. The one thing Zavier couldn’t give.
Saying no proved disastrous. He didn’t even bother to explain to Dimitri that he was aromantic, that he wasn’t ever going to fall in love or go out on dates or send him heart-shaped boxes of chocolates or whatever nonsense Dimitri wanted, not when the man was incapable of hearing anything he didn’t want to hear. They weren’t even friends, just bed partners. And while Zavier could master Dimitri in bed, the man was still a maestro outside of it, and he never let Zavier forget that. Every rehearsal, every performance had become as much of a battle as their little sexual escapades. Each practice had turned into a fucking lovers’ spat where Dimitri shouted criticism over the heads of their colleagues.
Zavier understood stress. He hadn’t lobbed a bottle at Dimitri as Ray had at Kevin. He’d merely turned in his resignation and walked away.
Three months later, he still hadn’t found another orchestral position. He’d never expected how fast Dimitri would poison the well. All Zavier had found during his job search were shut doors and dead ends.
No one wanted a timpanist who fucked the conductor, then dropped him like a hot potato.
During that time, he’d listened to the Twisted Wishes album, to Ray’s voice and clever lyrics, and wondered what would have happened had he said yes to that ballsy sophomore back in high school.
Zavier stilled. Maybe it was time to find out. He’d kept his hand in drumming on a rock kit, and he did so love the beats underneath Ray’s songs. He could do worse than a tour around the country with an up-and-coming rock band, and that would solve both his problem and Ray’s.
So. Submit his CV. Type up a statement of intent. And click.
The tumble in his soul was the sheer opposite of regret—giddy anticipation.
They’d call, he knew. They had no choice. Wouldn’t find a better drummer, mostly because there weren’t any. He leaned back and tabbed to the apology. Above it was a photo as haunting as that little melody all those years ago. Ray, his lovely brown hair all cut and jagged. He didn’t wear eyeliner like Domino did—didn’t need it. Not with those wide golden eyes of his, like the whiskey he’d thrown at the drummer. His full lips were pressed into a line, and the tension was so bitter and sweet in the set of his shoulders.
No longer the gangly sophomore. Had Ray been older back then—well. Maybe Zavier would have joined the band, at least for the summer. Same amount of years lay between them now, but back then, Ray has been barely sixteen to Zavier’s well past eighteen. Too young to fool around with, even for a summer fling.
Once more Zavier’s fingers itched, but for very different reasons. Except now he knew better than to lose control and fuck where he worked.
He had no doubt he’d be working with Ray very soon.