His Cocky Cellist (Undue Arrogance Book 2)

CHAPTER ONE

VIC NEWCOMB LAY WITH THE grass of Prospect Park tickling between his spread fingers and tangling in his hair and scratching at his ears, while overhead clouds scudded across a sky as blue and hard as a marble. Summer heat baked through his waistcoat and shirt, until he was a potato crisping in its jacket and sweat trickled down the back of his neck, seeping under his collar.

At least, he hoped it was sweat and not a particularly enterprising ant, beetle, or other nasty little creepy-crawly that was ninety percent exoskeleton and one hundred percent skittering horror.

“This,” he said flatly, “is not working.”

At his side, Ash laughed, light and carefree. He tilted his head back against the grass, glancing over at Vic, blue eyes sweetly merry. Little shit looked like he didn’t have a care in the world, when he should be a complete stressed-out mess trying to manage the global megacorporation his father had handed him just months ago.

Then again, why would Ash be stressed when the bloody behemoth of a valet—currently sitting rigidly on a nearby park bench—did all of the worrying for him?

Rolling over onto his side, Ash propped himself up on one elbow; shaggy black hair fell across his face. “You just don’t know how to relax properly.”

“I can’t relax when Forsythe fucking glares daggers at me if I get half an inch too close to you.”

“He’s possessive.” More than possessive, from the way Ash flushed, his smile turning shy. “He’s like that with everyone.”

“He knows me. He’s known me my whole life. And he knows I’m straight, and not interested in shagging my shiftless, irresponsible sod of a best friend.” Vic leaned in and pressed his fingertip to Ash’s nose. “So tell him to cut it the hell out. Bastard’s going to hex me, glaring like that.”

Ash crossed his eyes, then pulled back, laughing again and flopping down into the grass once more. “I’m not shiftless or irresponsible.”

“Yes, you are. Forsythe just helps you hide it.”

“Hey!” Ash’s shoulders shook with repressed laughter. “I take offense to that.”

“You don’t, because you know it’s true.”

“…only a little true.” Ash’s laughter trailed into a sigh. “But it’s not so bad being a little irresponsible, Vic. It’s the only way to keep from falling apart, when you do what we do.”

“I don’t have the time.” Vic stared up at the sky, lacing his fingers together over his stomach. “I shouldn’t be here. I’ve got six different board meetings this week, and—”

“—and six different prescriptions for hypertension, and if your doctor said if you don’t slow down you’re going to kill yourself before you’re thirty.” Ash shifted enough to bump his elbow against Vic’s arm. “I’m not really ready for you to die, asshole.”

“Then stop trying to bore me to death out here staring at the sky. What am I watching for, contrails?”

Ash let out an exaggerated groan. “No appreciation for nature at all.”

“A cultivated patch of grass in the middle of New York City is not ‘nature.’”

“You’re not the only one on a tight schedule. I don’t exactly have time to drag you out for a relaxing drive in the country.” With a snort, Ash sat up, leaning back on his hands and squinting up at the sky. “So if a day in the park isn’t your thing, what is?”

“I’m supposed to have a thing?”

“Everyone has a thing. Something that relaxes them. For me, it’s my horses. Managing the farm is work and I only get to do it on weekends, but it takes my mind off the company and lets me slow down.”

Vic grimaced. The warm affection in Ash’s voice when he spoke of that ridiculous bloody horse farm he’d just up and bought one day out of the blue… Vic wasn’t certain he’d ever had anything like that. “What do most people do to relax?”

“Um…go shopping. Go on vacation. Local tourism. Party. Get drunk. Fuck around. Take spa days.”

“What about spa hours? I can’t take an entire effin’ day off.”

“You could if you wanted to. You just don’t want to.” Ash chuckled. “Tell you what. I know this really great masseuse who can turn anyone into a puddle in less than an hour. If I book you an appointment with him, will you go?”

“Maybe.” Wrinkling his nose, Vic sat up and brushed his fingers through his hair, then plucked a blade of grass from his waistcoat. “So being a layabout for an hour while some bloke feels me up is supposed to be relaxing?”

Ash’s brows wiggled. He fished his phone from his pocket and started tapping away. “Sure as hell worked for me.”

“Not all of us cap our ambitions at being the town flirt.” He flicked Ash’s arm, then sighed, leaning on one hand. “Fine. I’ll go. I might have an hour free next week—”

“You’re booked in forty-five minutes.”

“What? Where?!” Vic leaned in, peering at Ash’s phone. “Ash, what the hell did you do?

“Not give you any choice. I know you hate backing down on commitments, so…” That unrepentant brat just grinned wider. “It’s in the Bronx, so I suggest you get moving.”

Vic sighed. “I hate you.”

“You’ll thank me when it’s over.” Ash elbowed him. “His name’s Amani. Amani Idrissi. Be nice.”

Vic leaned back, eyeing Ash sidelong. “Did you actually make a friend other than me?”

“I have friends!” Ash spluttered, then glowered when Vic just snorted. “I do. Um, well, he would never sleep with me and he was always nice to me, so that counts as being friends, right?”

“You adorable little case of arrested development.” Vic playfully caught Ash by the back of the head, cupping his scalp to bring him in and plant a teasing kiss on the top of his head. “You’re an arse and a shit. Fine. I’ll go. Good thing I drove today.”

Laughing, Ash shoved him back. “Your car might not even be there. Who the hell parks a Benz at Prospect Park?”

“I do.” Shrugging, Vic pushed to his feet and straightened his waistcoat, then plucked the creases on his slacks back into place. “If they steal it, I’ll just buy another one.”

“And you call me spoiled and wasteful.”

“You are. I’m just practical. Roll with the punches.”

“You do not roll with the punches.” Ash snorted. “You are a complete control freak, and the second one thing steps out of line you lose your shit.”

“Over the important things. Not over a potential random act of vandalism that may or may not have happened.” Vic stretched, rolling his back, then winced when it popped and crunched. Maybe a massage would do him good. And if it ended up being a waste of time, he’d just stay late at the office tonight to make up the lost hour. “Catch you later, you little shit.”

Smirking, Ash climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. “You do know how to sweet talk a boy.”

“It’s part of my charm.”

But when Ash pulled him in for a tight, thumping hug, Vic didn’t pull away. In so many ways Ash was like a brother to him, no matter what a half-reformed degenerate the pretty little bastard was—a better brother to him than the brother Vic actually had. Ever since life had thrust both Vic and Ash out from university and into the real world, they just didn’t see enough of each other, not like those boarding school days when they’d shared a room and shared a life and practically shared a brain.

He pulled back and lightly knuckled Ash’s cheek, making him snicker and squint one eye up. “You give me a call soon, all right?”

“Will do.” Ash shoved him lightly. “Get moving.”

With a snort, Vic pulled back, turning away and lifting a hand in a wave. “Ta for now, brat,” he said, then raised his voice to carry to the giant of a man perched stiffly on the bench. “Good to see you, Forsythe.”

Brand Forsythe pushed his glasses up, eyes gleaming. A frosty “Good day, young Master Newcomb” floated across the park. Vic only shook his head, slipping his hands into his pockets and strolling across the grass toward his car.

His life, some days. His life.

Yet he couldn’t think of much he’d change about it. It was what it was, and…well…

Some things were inescapable, so there was no point in anything but just dealing with it, and trying to survive.

l

AMANI PAUSED IN WIPING DOWN the massage table as his phone vibrated in his pocket with the chime particular to his appointment management app, letting him know a client had claimed one of his open slots.

And the moment he saw the name that popped up for his two PM, he groaned, threw the towel down on the table, and ducked out into the reception area of the parlor.

“Mama?” he called, when he didn’t see his mother behind the desk. It was a slow afternoon, and the owners were out, only two other clients in occupied rooms with other masseuses, but his mother should be staffing the reception station. Instead the front foyer was empty, dimly lit in golden tones and shadows with a touch more brightness coming through the tinted glass door and front windows, catching on the refractive edges of tiny dangling lamps of amber crystal scattered at different heights throughout the room. “Mama, where are you? I’ve got an appointment.”

“Coming, habibi.” Her musical voice drifted from the back storage room. Amani turned just in time to catch her shouldering the door open and emerging with a stack of clean towels taller than her head, almost fully hiding her petite body.

“…Mama.” With a mock-exasperated sigh, he crossed over to relieve her of half the stack, piling it into his arms. “You could have made two trips.”

“Why make two when one is fine?” she teased in fluid English; they almost never spoke Dariji in the shop, but sometimes it still caught him off guard. Chuckling, she led him into one of the empty massage rooms; he trailed after her and deposited his stack of towels on the empty table, while she set hers down on one of the service carts and, pausing to pull her orange-to-amber ombre embroidered gandoura up where it had slipped over her shoulder, began arranging the towels in neat little rolled stacks. “What did you need, dearest?”

“Either a chastity belt, or for you to take my next client.”

Nahla Idrissi peered over her shoulder at him with an indulgently amused look. “It’s not one of those dirty old men again, is it?”

“Worse,” he groaned. “It’s Ashton Harrington.”

“Oh, that boy.” His mother laughed, gathering up the leftover stack of towels and bustling toward the door. “He’s harmless. Mostly.”

Mostly.”

“You can handle him.” She bumped him with her hip as she passed. “Come on. Help me replenish the other rooms before His Exalted Lord Harrington arrives.”

Amani rolled his eyes and piled his stack of towels in his arms once again, turning to drag after his mother. “You know he’s never once noticed the condition of the rooms. It’s not the rooms he’s looking at at all.”

“I suppose that’s my fault,” she said airily, tossing her head, sending her glossed waves of deeply black hair rippling down her back, stark contrast against rich sienna brown skin. “I raised such a beautiful son.”

“Sure. Take all the credit.” He bumped her back with his shoulder, and then edged around her into the next empty room. “We should hurry. He’ll be here in half an hour.”

His mother’s merry laughter trailed him, as they settled into work. Between them it didn’t take long for them to replenish the unused rooms, punctuated by the sound of his mother’s soft singing along with Yasmine Hamdal on the radio, and the murmurs coming from the occupied rooms. By the time they’d finished turning out the rooms, one of the other masseuse’s clients had checked out, and Amani was just helping Yadira turn out her station and clean the room when the bell over the door jingled, and the faint creak of the door hinges floated through from the front foyer, followed by a low, rumbling voice with a soft-edged, almost gentle British accent, cultured but not unkind.

“Erm. Hello?”

Amani caught a glimpse of his mother flashing past in the hallway, before her voice joined the man’s, warm and friendly, slipping into her professional mode where she put on that voice she and Amani only used with Americans, adopting their accent and diction to blend in and nearly swallowing the accent that made her voice so beautiful. “My apologies, we were just turning the rooms. Welcome to Dehbi; do you have an appointment?”

“Er…sort of,” that low voice said. There was a velvety edge to it, a sensuous thing, almost throbbing, like a heartbeat in words. “My friend Ash booked an hour for me. With…Amani?”

Amani blinked, setting down the bottle of massage oil he’d been topping up and leaning out of the room, peering around the doorframe.

The man who stood at the front reception desk most definitely wasn’t Ash Harrington. Ash was a small, fey, pretty thing—while this man was tall, a few inches over six feet, with a rangy, broad-shouldered build, rough around the edges but smoothed into the slick shape of a waistcoat, button-down, and crisply pressed slacks. His dark brown hair was swept back from an aquiline face with starkly Roman lines, grace and beauty mixed with strength and a certain unfinished harshness, a straight nose above full lips that already creased at the corners with stress although he looked like he couldn’t be more than a few years older than Amani himself, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. Those same lines edged his eyes, giving him an air of gravitas beyond his years.

“Oh,” Amani said, frowning, then smoothing his hands over his caftan tunic before catching his hair up in both hands, twisting it quickly into a messy knot and retrieving the slim, carved wooden clips tucked against his collar to pin his hair into place. “Mr. Harrington’s not coming?”

A curious glance flicked toward him; the man had pale, warm blue eyes, quiet and thoughtful and sensitive, with long, curving eyelashes that softened the sharpness of his face. Those eyes lit up as he offered an easy smile, completely at odds with the graveness he projected. “Nah. He just bullied me into it. Looks like you’re stuck with me for the next hour.” He slipped one long-fingered hand, with its square, blunt knuckles from the pocket of his slacks and offered it to Amani. “Victor Newcomb. Vic.”

Oh, thank anything that would listen. Amani wouldn’t have to spend the next hour fending off Ash’s advances.

Although if men were known by the company they kept…

But he plastered on his most professional smile, and stepped forward to clasp that offered hand. Victor Newcomb had warm hands, with a callused palm hardened almost sharp enough to cut at the edges. Although his clothing was finely tailored and well-fitted, wealth radiating off him like an unconscious aura in the poise with which he carried himself and his impeccable grooming, that hand said he was no stranger to hard work. The grip of his fingers was sure and confident, and held just a little too long before letting go and drawing back.

“Mr. Newcomb,” Amani said. “It’s a pleasure. I’m Amani, and I’ll be your masseuse for the day.” Turning to one side, he gestured toward the room he generally claimed for his own, set out with his service station and the tools and oils he preferred to use, decorated with his particular ambience. “If you’ll come this way, please.”

“Of course.”

Mr. Newcomb ducked past him, flashing another of those smiles, but it slid off Amani like water off glass; it was the kind of smile that rich men generally reserved for service people whom they didn’t actually see, but felt an obligation to be nice to. He started after Mr. Newcomb, only for his mother to lean over the reception desk, catching his arm and moving in to murmur in his ear in soft Dariji.

Ask him if he’s married.”

“Mama!” Amani protested, then flicked her arm and followed his client for the next hour into the room.

He found Victor Newcomb standing awkwardly in the middle of the room with his hands stuffed almost doggedly in his pockets, like a scarecrow that didn’t quite know what to do with itself, staring at the padded massage table as if not sure if he should just jump right on or wait to be told what to do. His self-possession, Amani thought, was entirely a façade; he was no doubt entirely in control in an executive meeting or at an expensive restaurant with clients—but take him out of his element in a small corner massage parlor in the Bronx, and he was utterly at a loss.

It might almost be cute, and most certainly hinted at certain possibilities…

But Amani didn’t mess around with clients, and he wasn’t going to change that today.

He crossed to the sink, turning on the warm water and pumping a quick foaming dollop of pleasantly scented green tea soap into his palm before scrubbing his hands off quickly. “First time, Mr. Newcomb?”

“Er…yeah.” He laughed sheepishly, the sound as warm and deeply velvety as the way he spoke, with just a hint of a husky burnt edge to it. “Is it that obvious?”

“You’re still wearing your clothing, so yes.”

He made an odd sound in the back of his throat. “I’m supposed to strip?”

“Most people generally do, yes. It’s hard to give a good deep tissue massage through your clothing.” Amani glanced over his shoulder at him; was this tall, sharp-looking arrow of a man actually blushing, or was that just the pale pink light filtering through the gauze-covered lamps? “If you’re not comfortable, though, I can work around your clothes. The goal is to relax you, not to upset you further.”

“No! I…er…I can deal with being nude.” Newcomb cleared his throat and caught the first button of his waistcoat, only to freeze when Amani shook his head, biting back a laugh.

“Behind the screen,” he said, and nodded toward a standing screen of narrow bamboo slats painted with a minimalist watercolor design. “You can leave your clothing on the shelf there. You’ll find towels for your convenience. Wrap one around your waist when you’re done, come out, and lie face-down on the table.”

“Right then.” The way Victor Newcomb squared his shoulders and cleared his throat, clearly an attempt to regain his composure and illusion of control, bordered on adorable. He gave Amani an odd look, then nodded once in a stiff, short jerk and vanished behind the screen.

Shaking his head, smiling to himself, Amani finished washing his hands and dried off on a towel, before starting to flex his fingers out, stretching and working them, rolling his wrists. “Would you rather try a massage with oil, or without?”

The sound of rustling clothing came from behind the screen, Newcomb a faint silhouette against the bamboo. “I don’t really know the difference.”

“Some people prefer just the warmth of bare hands on skin. Others find oils therapeutic, especially deep penetrating blends and aromatherapy infusions.”

Newcomb made an amused, self-deprecating sound. “I’ll leave it in your hands.”

“We’ll try a light warmed argan oil. Most find the scent pleasant and soothing.” Amani selected a bottle of oil from the little tiered bamboo shelf where he kept his supplies, and emptied a small amount into the warmer before lighting a taper and circling the room to refresh the vanilla pillar candles scattered about the room—just a little light for ambience, and the scent of the vanilla tended to mix well with the argan oil for relaxing aromatherapy. “Music or none?”

“Depends. What’ve you got? Wouldn’t mind a little Zeppelin or Stones.”

“You’ll have to suit yourself to ambient sounds, mostly. Rain, waterfalls, fire crackling, Tibetan singing bowls.”

“What about what was playing on the radio in the foyer?”

“Yasmine?”

“Is that who she is?”

“Mm. She’s a pretty popular Lebanese singer.” Amani fished his phone from his pocket and flicked through his iTunes playlist until he found one of her albums, then put one of his favorite songs, Hal, on low volume and set the phone on the table. Her throaty, softly alluring and yet quietly defiant voice floated over the room as she drifted in and out of one Arabic dialect after another, mingling with winding, sensuous notes. “Is that all right?”

“Yeah.” Newcomb sounded hesitant, and after a moment his head rose over the top of the screen. “Do I…ah…just come walking out like this?”

Amani arched a brow. “Are you wearing a towel?”

Yes.”

“Then…” He swept a mocking bow, gesturing toward the table. “Your throne awaits.”

“So Ash booked me with the sarky masseuse. Good to know.” Yet Newcomb hovered a moment longer, before stepping out from behind the screen, all his grace seemingly shed with his clothing to leave him elbows and angles everywhere.

Elbows, angles, and a surprisingly powerful body that had been hidden beneath the smoothing, sleek lines of the waistcoat and slacks. His shoulders were broad and cut in those exaggerated angles that made the muscles of his chest and arms seem to leap out from the sculpture of those shoulders, tapering down to a very firm and precise line at his waist, which followed a straight, chiseled flow his hips—and vanished into the towel wrapped around him, only for that tight interplay of muscle to continue in tightly crafted thighs and calves. Where most men with his kind of build would be almost puffy, he was compact and sharp, enough to look almost like a painting—as if some artist had drawn him in in the geometry of paint slashes in pale ivory touched with flushes of peach and pink to soften his most cutting points, everything from the peaked contours of his abdomen to the gliding curves of his iliac crest a little too perfect.

Or he might be perfect, if not for the old remnants of faded scars over his chest and arms, things that looked as though they came from crashing fists, cutting blades, crushing impacts—things that turned him from a glossy, untouched sculpture into something rougher, more masculine, an animal hiding under the smiling charm.

Amani sighed. No wonder he had that easy charm, that confidence that could be knocked off-kilter so easily just by exposing him to something unfamiliar.

Gorgeous men just didn’t know what to do when the world didn’t orient itself to them without them even having to ask.

“Face down on the table,” Amani repeated, and turned away to test the temperature of the oil.

When he turned back, Victor Newcomb had settled himself a bit stiffly on the table, resting on his stomach with his cheek propped against folded forearms and the towel riding a little too low on the dip of his hips. His back was just as starkly articulated as his chest, with the same faded hints of scars so ancient they’d blended into the color of his skin without a hint of pink. His hair had fallen out of its slicked back gloss, tumbling across his brow and into blue eyes turned luminous in the shadows.

Blue eyes that were currently locked on Amani, watching him as he poured a small, coin-sized pool of oil into his palm and began rubbing it between his hands.

“You seem irritated,” Newcomb murmured.

Amani flashed a perfunctory smile. “Just preoccupied.”

“Are you sure? I know Ash rather booked this at the last moment, and—”

“It’s fine. My appointment calendar was open for the day, and when we don’t do business we don’t make money.” Amani picked up the oil warmer and tipped it so the lightest dribble of oil pooled between Newcomb’s shoulder blades; the man tensed subtly, a soft hiss in the back of his throat. “Now hold still. This works better if you’re still, relaxed, and quiet.”

Newcomb chuckled, broad shoulders vibrating, the oil slithering and flowing down toward the channel of his spine. “That’s one of the more roundabout ways of telling a fellow to shut up.”

“I can be more direct, if you’d like.”

“I can take a hint.” An odd, almost melancholy smile played about Newcomb’s lips, and he closed his eyes. “I’ll behave. Do your worst.”

Amani rolled his eyes, and curled his fingers against those broad shoulders, and began working his thumbs into his trapezius muscles in slow sweeps. It was usually the best place to start, when most people carried their stress there like it was backpacking with them through everyday life. Start to release the tension here, and it would flow down through the body to relax and warm and encourage other muscles to loosen before they had even been touched. Newcomb was stiff under his touch—holding himself tense, but there were also knots of rigid, deep-ingrained tension under his palms, that felt like they had been building for far longer than they should considering Newcomb’s apparent age.

“I need you to relax for me,” he murmured, keeping his voice low, coaxing, as he stroked his thumb up from the nape of Newcomb’s neck to just below his hairline, applying the gentlest possible pressure, before sweeping down to gather the oil spreading in the channel of his spine and gently streak it upward. “This won’t work if you keep yourself locked up. I can’t force you to relax. I can only help you.”

“Sorry.” Newcomb’s voice came out muffled as he buried his face in his arms. “I’m a wreck. My doctor told me if I don’t calm down I’ll have a heart attack.”

“You’re too young for a heart attack.”

“Tell that to my heart rate,” Newcomb retorted with a touch of bitterness. “Dying when the ticker kicks out isn’t exactly at the top of my list, but seems pretty unavoidable right now since I can’t exactly slow down.”

There it was—talking about it seemed to get him to unwind a little, body softening a touch. It worked that way for some of Amani’s clients; they didn’t realize the stress they were carrying until they spoke it out loud, making him an impromptu therapist more often than not. But the more Newcomb spoke, the easier it was for Amani to work at the deep knots of tension and stress that seemed stitched into his body, slowly playing his way out from the trapezius muscles to his shoulders, occasionally dipping down toward his shoulder blades in a circular, sweeping rhythm that used just enough pressure to coax those knots to unravel. He’d come back again later for a second pass, once the muscles were looser and more malleable, to work the massage deeper without forcing it so much that it would bruise or otherwise cause pain. In some ways this was just as soothing for him as it was for his clients, and even though he preferred to remain clinical there was a quiet pleasure in the feeling of a man’s body coiled hard and taut underneath his fingers, only to melt as he guided them and led them where he wanted them to go.

“You can keep talking,” he murmured. “Tell me about what’s causing you so much stress.”

“Mm…in a minute.” Newcomb sounded much more content already, breathy and low and relaxed, and he let out a sensuous, purring groan. “Bloody hell, that’s good.”

“Is it?” Amani smiled slightly. “You’re pretty tight. Do you want to try a facial massage to relax you a bit more before I try your back again? I can keep working like this, but the looser you are, the better the effect.”

“Ah?” Newcomb lifted his head slightly, glancing over his shoulder at Amani; his eyes were heavy-lidded, dark. “Sure. What do you need me to do?”

“Just roll over onto your back.”

Newcomb complied, his body rippling languidly in an easy flex of strength and power as he twisted himself over, supporting himself on his hands as he settled sitting half upright, half leaning back.

And exposing the rather prominent rise beneath his towel, thrusting upward and hard enough to make a draped tower underneath the terrycloth.

He colored hotly, cheeks crimson, and made a spluttering, undignified sound, covering his crotch with both hands and staring at Amani with wide, mortified eyes.

“Oh God. Oh, God.” He shifted to start to climb off the table, then froze as his towel started to slip, grabbing at it with one hand and keeping the other over his groin. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it, I swear I’m not some bloody creeper—”

“Calm down. Breathe.” Amani hid a smile behind his hand, meeting Newcomb’s eyes. He was like a puppy in the body of a Great Dane, really. Had his own erection really crept up on him that easily? “I see a dozen of these a day. It’s just a natural reaction to physical stimulation. It doesn’t mean you’re creepy. It means I’m doing my job right.” He tilted his head, arching a brow, tapping a finger against his lower lip. “Unless you are a creeper.”

“No!” Newcomb spluttered, that red in his cheeks deepening. “I’m…uh…I’m straight, anyway. So, uh, sorry.”

“Sexuality has nothing to do with it. It’s not about me.” Amani curled his hands against Newcomb’s shoulders—loosely, so he could easily twist free if he wanted—and gently nudged him down. “You’re relaxed and your body had a reaction. That’s all. But if you’re uncomfortable, we can stop.”

Awkwardly, Newcomb lay back—but didn’t move his hand from over his crotch, as if he could flatten it back down if he just pushed hard enough. “No—no, it’s all right. It…kind of defeats the purpose, anyway.” He sounded almost miserable, and he avoided meeting Amani’s eyes. “I’m supposed to be relaxing, so I’m going to relax. Like I said, do your worst.”

Amani leaned against the edge of the table, looking down at him with a small smile. “How about I try to do my best, instead?” He swayed in a little closer. “And how about you shift your arms to your sides? Any longer, and you’ll be touching yourself.”

“Er. Yes. That.” With a strangled sound, Newcomb dragged his hand away from the towel with clear reluctance; his fingers clenched into fists as he rested his arms at his side, before he slowly uncurled them. “I’m sorry. I’m balls at this. I don’t know how to relax.”

“I can tell. You’re rock hard.” Amani turned away to fetch a hot, damp towel from the steamer, folding it into a square, then glanced back. “No pun intended.”

Oi,” Newcomb spluttered, half-snicker, half-gasp.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. And it got you to relax and laugh.”

“I’m not like that!” Newcomb protested, then darted Amani a nervous look. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being like that if you are, I just…”

Amani folded his arms over his chest, towel dangling from his fingertips. “You’re protesting quite a bit for someone who doesn’t have a problem with it.”

“It’s not about me.” Newcomb shifted uncomfortably; he was practically chasing his own tail, all the circles he was running himself into. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, s’all. I thought it might be easier to know I can’t possibly be attracted to you.”

“…insulting me to make me feel better. Yes, that’s quite the effective strategy.”

“That’s not what I meant! It’s not that you’re not attractive. You’re gorgeous. Stunning. It’s just that I’m—you—I don’t swing—oh, balls,” he groaned, deflating and covering his face with one hand. “I give up.”

Amani dropped the damp towel on top of the hand splayed over Newcomb’s face, rested his elbows on the table at his shoulder, and leaned in with a smirk. “It’s like batting a toy mouse between my paws. You don’t even put up a fight.”

Newcomb dragged his hand—and the towel—down enough for tired eyes to peer up at Amani. “I’m too worn out to fight.”

“What do you do that’s so stressful?”

Newcomb quirked a sardonic brow. “I’m the twenty-four-year-old CEO-in-line of an international textile empire, though my father’s practically checked out and left it all on me anyway while he faffs about in Bali or Bora Bora or some such.” He snorted. “Barely out of uni, and billions of dollars ride on my every decision. I could start trade wars by skipping my morning coffee.” He trailed off, eyes glassing over subtly. “I have to do everything right. To be perfect.”

Amani lingered on the pensive lines of his eyes, his mouth, then nudged his hand down gently to lay the steaming hot towel over his face. “So the opposite of Mr. Harrington.”

Newcomb’s chest shook in a restrained laugh, his voice muffled behind the towel. “He’s a bit notorious, eh?”

“I used to see him weekly, before he apparently decided to take his life seriously. It’s been a while, now.” Amani wrinkled his nose. “He used to flirt with me constantly, but I’d rather not reinforce stereotypes about masseuses if I can help it.”

“Don’t think there’ll be much of that anymore. He’s gotten rather settled. With my former family valet, of all the effin’ people.”

Amani blinked. “That’s…surprising.”

“You’re telling me.” Tensing, Newcomb hooked the towel with a finger and pulled it down enough to look at Amani. “Shit, don’t like, sell that story to TMZ or anything. They’re supposed to be undercover.”

“I,” Amani said firmly, pulling the towel back up over Newcomb’s eyes, “am not so far behind on my tuition that I’d do anything so unethical.”

“You’re still in uni? How old are you?”

“Twenty,” Amani answered, tipping oil into his palms again. He might as well get started on his shoulders from the front, while the towel steamed against his face.

“Enjoy being twenty while it lasts.” Newcomb groaned. “God, I miss being twenty. Not that I wasn’t an uptight sod then, either.”

Amani gripped Newcomb’s shoulders, sweeping his thumbs in along his collarbones. “You’re tensing up, old man.”

“Sorry. Sorry!” Newcomb shifted against the table, then fell still. “So, er, what are you studying?”

Pausing, Amani eyed him. He wasn’t used to customers asking him about himself, except the ones who wanted to sleep with him—and that was usually rather obvious flattery, an attempt to insinuate themselves into his good graces so he would feel grateful that someone who could afford to hire a masseuse was paying attention to him. He always deflected them in whatever way he could, when he preferred to keep his private life private and some things were sacred. Work was work. Life was life, and the two didn’t need to meet.

He didn’t really get that vibe off Newcomb, though, despite the fact that the lady did, in fact, protest too much. This was more guileless awkwardness, stripping that charm away to reveal a man who wasn’t as old and worldly-wise as he thought he was, just trying to speak to another human being on the same level because they were in proximity to one another.

And so cautiously, Amani answered, “Musical composition and performance theatre.”

“You play?”

“I used to play cello.”

“Really?” Even lying still under Amani’s touch, Newcomb perked, a touch of breathless interest in his voice. “I’ve been taking cello lessons since I was a sproglet.” He paused. “Wait. Used to?”

Amani hesitated. Even if Newcomb was relaxing under his palms, it was as though his tension was soaking into Amani, heavy and dark. “Injury,” he finally said. “I’ve been playing since I was six. I had early onset carpal tunnel by the time I was fourteen. Then I was out from fourteen to sixteen with surgery and recovery.”

Newcomb remained silent for several moments, then said softly. “I’m sorry. I’m a stranger and a customer, and I shouldn’t be prying if this topic upsets you.”

The odd thing was…he actually sounded like he meant it.

“It’s all right,” Amani murmured, working his way down Newcomb’s chest. “I promise. I’m not upset. I just…don’t play anymore. But I can still compose.”

Anything else he might have been about to say stilled when Newcomb suddenly caught his wrist, long fingers wrapping around it, encircling fully and stopping him; Newcomb pulled the towel down from his face, scattering damp hair across his brow and against the padding of the table, darkened eyes searching Amani.

“Is this hurting you?” he asked. “What you’re doing right now?”

Carefully, Amani pried his wrist free and stepped back, out of reach. Mr. Newcomb’s concern was kind, but all the masseuses had rules about letting clients lay hands, and Amani wasn’t about to break those rules for a confused straight boy who had good intentions, devastating eyes, and no clue what he was blundering into.

He deflected by plucking the towel Newcomb had discarded from the edge of the table and tossing it into the linen bin, then fetching a fresh one from the steamer. Honestly, it would help if Newcomb knew how to hold still. “No,” he said as he worked, ignoring the feeling of Newcomb’s gaze trailing him, intent and focused. “It’s actually good for my hands. It keeps them strong and limber without putting the wrong kind of repetitive strain on the tendons and joints, and the surgery corrected the majority of the damage.”

“So your hands are better?” Newcomb asked. “You could play again, if you wanted to?”

Amani stilled, staring down at his hands, the towel clasped between them. They seemed such unassuming things, long and slender and brown and work-worn, but one way or another they were everything to him. They’d been everything when he used to play. They were everything now, as he worked his way through college one massage at a time, eking out money for tuition and textbooks and anything else he had to in order to get his degree. They’d be everything in the future, when he used these hands to guide musicians with more of a future than he could ever have in making beautiful things, in coming together in harmony, some great confluence of lyrical gestalt energy that was so much more than they could ever be alone.

“If I wanted to,” he said numbly.

“Then teach me.”

He jerked his head up, staring at Newcomb. “Excuse me?”

The man had pulled himself up again, sitting up, leaning forward, almost straining toward Amani as if some invisible tether held him back. “I’m out of practice. I remember playing used to relax me like nothing else. I’m under doctor’s orders to get my stress down, so maybe if I take lessons with you…” He offered that disarming smile, self-deprecating. “I’ll pay you, of course. You need tuition money, eh? That’s why you’re working here?”

“Yes…”

“And it’s not enough? You said you were behind on your tuition.”

“…yes.”

Newcomb’s smile brightened as if that was that, easy and simple. “So teach me. I’ll pay you the difference. Or all of it.”

Amani only stared at him. Of all the egotistical, oblivious, privileged—and he just sat there smiling like he thought he’d done something good, like he was going to stroke an ego even bigger than that erect cock by swooping into Amani’s life and airily fixing all his problems when he knew nothing about Amani or who he was, what he needed, what mattered to him. This—this—rich asshole, this stranger who thought he even had the right—

Taking a slow, deep breath, Amani forced his voice to even calm, keeping his tone firm. “I’d like you to leave.”

Newcomb blinked. “I…why?”

“Because you’re an arrogant, self-centered asshole,” Amani snapped, flinging the towel down on his service cart, “and I am not a charity case.”

“I…I don’t understand what I did…”

“Of course you don’t.” Amani dragged the door open. He had to get out of here, or he would lose his temper—and he never lost his temper. He prided himself on his control, but with one presumptuous demand—not even a question—this man had him simmering and swirling inside like a firestorm. “People like you never do,” he flung back, already turning away. “I’ll leave you to dress yourself. And then I want you gone. I’ll tell the receptionist to refund the service cost to Mr. Harrington.”

“Amani…” drifted after him. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand, but I’m sorry.”

Amani couldn’t even bring himself to look back at him.

He just walked out, and let the door slam closed in his wake.