Title: Settling the Score
Author: Eden Winters
Publisher: Rocky Ridge Books
Release Date: 10/6/2016
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Length: 86,000 words
Genre: Romance, Humor, Age Difference, Movie Star, Author, Small Town, Mechanic, Getting Even
Outed and dumped on national television by his rising star boyfriend, Joey Nichols must face the bigotry of the locals in his small Southern town alone. His dreams of a happy ever after lie crushed at his feet.
Novelist Troy Steele has an axe to grind against Hollywood heartbreaker types. Transforming Joey into a gorgeous, unobtainable hunk would be payback worthy of Troy’s poison pen. It’s a brilliant way to get back at Joey’s image-obsessed ex-boyfriend and the movie producer who’s mutilating Troy’s novels.
What begins as simple revenge may tangle them together in something far more complicated. Living well may be the best revenge, but Troy and Joey could rewrite that to loving well.
Although Joey’s favorite club lay right outside of Atlanta, he’d never ventured this far into the city itself. He craned his neck, watching the tall buildings out of the car window.
With a sudden jerk of the steering wheel, Erica propelled the Toyota into a parking garage, winding up and up to the sixth level. Joey’s stomach churned.
He wanted to grab her hand, or Troy’s, like a small child when they crossed the busy intersection leading from the garage to an imposing gray stone building. Erica breezed by a sign listing businesses and their locations, then trotted down a long corridor. The kind of music Troy played at home drifted from hidden speakers.
“Ready?” Erica opened the door at the end. Modern rock tunes like Stacey loved flooded from the salon, drowning out Mozart or Bach or whoever.
The strangest creature Joey had ever seen charged the door, with bright blue plumage and jeans riding so low that a step on the hem and whoot! No more secrets.
“Cher!” it screamed, launching itself at Erica, who squealed and launched back.
Troy backed up a step or two, yanking Joey out of harm’s way.
After a rushed conversation involving a lot of hand gestures and punctuated by loud shrieks, Erica and the creature quieted. Erica grabbed Joey’s arm and dragged him closer. “Joey, this is Cher.”
Ah, maybe “Cher” was also its name, not just its mating call.
“Cher? Like the actress?” Joey found himself pressed against a cabinet filled with shampoos and lotions.
“No, silly. I’m from the bayous of Louisiana,” Cher drawled in an accent so thick Joey barely understood. For a boy from South Georgia, where accents could be cut with a knife, that was saying something. “Down there, cher is an endearment. The actress is called Cher because her given name was Cherilyn La Pierre.”
The colorful little man batted his eyes. “Darling, whatever are they teaching in Gay 101 these days? Everyone knows that!” He put hands, decorated with more rings than even Erica’s, on his skinny hips and turned puppy-dog eyes on the woman who’d lost the ring competition.
Another conversation followed, also in their own language. Joey inched closer to his boss—his best chance for sympathy.
The edges of Troy’s thin lips lifted. “Don’t worry. He had that effect on me, too, at first. Rest assured, if he’s a friend of Erica’s, he’s harmless.” Did Troy have to add, “Relatively speaking”?
The conversation, if that’s what you called two people talking at once, ended suddenly.
Cher scrutinized Joey’s body, narrowed gaze coming to rest on the tangled mass of blond curls. “Yes, girl, you were right. It is an emergency. We have got to do something with that hair, boo.” Joey wondered what caused others to circle, stare holes through his body, and mutter, “Hmmm…” as Cher did now, and Troy and Erica had a few weeks ago.
“Told ya!” Erica flashed a grin at Troy, patting Joey’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, hon, you’re in good hands. Cher’ll release your inner swan in no time.”
Inner swan? Did he have one of those? Joey eyed the wall posters, models with hairstyles that would get them beaten up back home. He gaped at the image of a man, hair molded into sharp spikes—pink spikes. Until now he’d never really appreciated a certain barber back home with a “one haircut fits all” approach to male grooming. At least his mom’s efforts left his hair more stylish.
But not pink.
After completing several passes around Joey, filled with much “hmmmm”ing and “oh my”ing, Cher clapped his hands. “Yes, I can do much with this one.” One heavily be-ringed hand, each nail buffed and shiny, landed on Joey’s shoulder, and the stylist hauled him toward the back of the room and through a door.
“The master needs privacy!” Cher exclaimed, with the same amount of drama Stacey used to explain how once more her life was over due to some embarrassment caused by a family member in front of her friends.
Joey caught a final glimpse of Erica waving before the door closed, cutting off his silently mouthed, “Don’t leave me!” Cher scared the living daylights out of him, especially while ranting about the things to be done with a straight razor.
The door snicked shut and Cher’s voice dropped a full octave, shooting from the Deep South to the Far North. “Hi, I’m Steve,” Cher said in a deep voice holding a touch of Yankee twang. He pushed Joey down into a beautician’s chair, one of two in the room.
“Huh?” Joey looked in the mirror at the man behind him, a man becoming more masculine by the second.
“Steve Cromer,” the man said, eyes twinkling. “You look like you can keep a secret.”
Joey parroted, “A secret?”
Steve leaned in close, breath washing over Joey’s ear. “I’m not really gay.”
“Say what?” The hate mail, the slurs, the bashed eggs. Why would someone voluntarily sign on for homophobia?
“I guess you could say that I’m gay for pay minus the porn.” Cher, make that “Steve”, snickered at his own joke.
The chair flipped back. Joey sat upright one second and laid with his head draped over a sink the next. Steve turned on the water and tested the temperature with one hand. “Ever since that Queer Eye show a few years back, a straight hairdresser has a much harder time in this business. It’s in to have a gay man do your hair.”
“Do Troy and Erica know?” At times, Troy could be oblivious to anything besides his laptop. Erica, on the other hand, struck Joey as someone who’d see past what might fool others.
Strong fingers massaged Joey’s scalp, and he relaxed into the unexpected pleasure, missing his mom and their many heart-to-hearts over a shampoo bowl. “Troy, no. He’s too much fun to mess with. Erica and I go way back.”
Steve stopped talking long enough to rinse the shampoo from Joey’s hair and wrap a towel around his head. “Back in the day, she had a role on a soap, I was an assistant, and we became friends. Erica helped me create Cher.” Despite his newly announced heterosexuality, Steve giggled like Stacey and her gaggle of friends. “She’s my fag-hag, going to parties with me and helping perpetuate the myth.”
He beamed into the mirror while dragging a comb through Joey’s hair. “A few months after getting the soap job, I began dating my wife, Lisa. Erica used to sneak her onto the set to see me.” He placed the comb on the counter, shifting his wary gaze back and forth as if he expected to find someone hidden in a corner. He whispered, “Wanna see something?”
Had the man been in full “Cher” mode, Joey would have been nervous. “Sure.”
Steve produced a picture of a lovely blonde woman and three little carbon copies. “That’s her and the girls. Aren’t they beautiful?” He gushed like a smitten schoolboy.
There’d never been a time when Joey got bent all out of shape because of a woman, but Big Joe did it often enough about Joey’s mom. “How do they handle you acting gay?”
In the blink of an eye Cher returned, fluttering his lashes at Joey in the mirror. “Everyone acts, darling, all the time, anywhere. Lisa knows, and the girls never see my alter ego. All they know is that Daddy has pretty nails. Even my mom has seen me in action. They also know why. I’m an actor playing a role.” He pressed one hand against his heart. “I play it brilliantly too.” Right before Joey’s eyes, Steve changed, the differences subtle at first, a little less widening of the eyes, a bit less pouting of the lips, less jutting of the hip. Very seriously, Steve said, “The world sees what you want them to. You’d do well to remember that.”
“What you talking about?” Had the subject changed?
Steve tucked the photo away and picked up the comb and a pair of scissors. He snipped, offering advice along with the shearing. “I know who you are, and I think your ex-boyfriend is an ass. I also saw you walking in the door, all shy and unsure. Don’t let anybody do that to you.”
Not knowing what to say, Joey listened.
“Although I’m straight, I’ve been in the business of enhancing Mother Nature’s gifts for a long time.” Steve locked stares with Joey in the mirror. “Long enough to recognize that you are a very attractive man, a lot finer than Riker Sanderson, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“I am?” If anyone else said those words, Joey would be hurt, because they’d have to be mocking him. Steve? So far he didn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body, or a reason to lie—other than about the gay thing.
“Yes, you are. You’re honest and unspoiled. Erica wouldn’t be wasting her time on you if you weren’t. Beauty starts from within. Haven’t you ever heard that? With the right clothes, the right style”—Cher dropped the lid over one eye in a playful wink—“and the right attitude, you’ll take the world by storm.”
After much cutting and more talk, Steve wrapped pieces of Joey’s hair in foil and placed him beneath a dryer. A nervous young woman who giggled a lot buffed Joey’s nails. She chattered nonstop. Thanks to the dryer, Joey didn’t hear a word.
“Close your eyes,” Steve instructed, after settling Joey back into the reclining chair. Warmth touched the spot over Joey’s nose.
The warmth jerked free with no warning. “Ow!” Joey yelled, glaring at the man who’d ripped off half his face.
Steve’s glower offered no apology. “It needed killing.” He waved Joey’s former uni-brow connector, now attached to a piece of fabric. “Lie back. I’m not finished.”
After the agony ended, Joey sipped lemon water with his face slathered in some minty-smelling goop. It almost made up for the torture. Steve scraped the mint stuff off and peeled the foil from Joey’s hair.
What a relief, knowing his curls no longer risked attracting lightning. Next came a rinse, blow-dry, brush, and some sweet-scented gel. Before Joey managed one glance in the mirror, Steve turned the lights off and hissed, “Don’t you dare peek!”
The door opened and Cher called out, “You can come in now.”
Three things happened at once: the lights came on, Erica shrieked, “Oh, my God!” and Troy demanded, “What the hell did you do to Joey?”
Okay, he’d wrestle Cher to the floor if he had to, but Joey had to see in a mirror. Heart pounding, he stared straight ahead. Who the hell was that? Sitting where he should be was a handsome man with dark-blonde hair, highlighted in gold that made his eyes appear larger. The tousled cut, or maybe the diet and exercise, resulted in slimmer-looking cheeks. Now Joey’s face matched the slightly angular features of his much thinner twin.
The whole morning had to be trick or a dream he’d soon wake up from. That didn’t stop him from admiring his reflection, basking in Steve’s words, “You are an attractive man, a lot finer than Riker Sanderson…”
For a moment, Joey let himself believe.
You will know Eden Winters by her distinctive white plumage and exuberant cry of “Hey, y’all!” in a Southern US drawl so thick it renders even the simplest of words unrecognizable. Watch out, she hugs!
Driven by insatiable curiosity, she possibly holds the world’s record for curriculum changes to the point that she’s never quite earned a degree but is a force to be reckoned with at Trivial Pursuit.
She’s trudged down hallways with police detectives, learned to disarm knife-wielding bad guys, and witnessed the correct way to blow doors off buildings. Her e-mail contains various snippets of forensic wisdom, such as “What would a dead body left in a Mexican drug tunnel look like after six months?” In the process of her adventures she has written sixteen m/m romance novels, has won several Rainbow Awards, was a Lambda Awards Finalist, and lives in terror of authorities showing up at her door to question her Internet searches.
When not putting characters in dangerous situations she’s a mild-mannered business executive, mother, grandmother, vegetarian, and PFLAG activist.
Her natural habitats are airports, coffee shops, and on the backs of motorcycles.
One lucky winner will win an ebook copy of Settling the Score and an ebook copy of Diversion.