Meteor barrelled out of the chute, seven hundred and fifty kilograms of pure bovine fury.
Christophe’s heart pounded as he ranged around with the other bullfighters, not too close, not too far from those kicking hooves and twisting back. He had a healthy respect for every bull he shared the arena with. But Meteor was a bull to fear.
Meteor snorted and reared, springing up, bucking and rolling, nearly vertical before he crashed down again.
And on his back, the rider held on. Hand in the air, moving almost smoothly with Meteor. Flashes of bright hair from under his dark hat, a face so composed he was nearly smiling.
Victor Nikiforov, the favourite for this rodeo. For the whole season. The Silver Star, everybody called him.
Christophe had been in the arena with Victor before too. He always drew Christophe’s eye. Not just because Christophe was there to keep him safe, but his skill, his beauty. Even through the rising dust, the clang of the cowbells, through Meteor’s raw power, Christophe could feel the force of Victor’s charisma.
The crowd cheered, a roar that went on and on under the baking summer sun. A bead of sweat escaped the band of Christophe’s hat and rolled down his face as he moved around the churned up ground. He hardly noticed; he was with the bull and the rider for these eight seconds that seemed to stretch out forever. Heating his blood, making his nerves sing, a thrill that nothing else could match.
Meteor jumped, back arching so far, Victor was almost horizontal. The bull twisted and bucked, more frenzied than any other ride this weekend.
Still Victor hung on, silent and calm. In that moment, Christophe wouldn’t have been surprised if Meteor calmed too, resigned himself to the mastery of the Silver Star.
In the next, Victor was flying through the air, the rope falling from his hand, a look of faint surprise on his face.
He thudded to the ground almost underneath the bull’s rampaging heels. The crowd screamed.
Christophe lunged, diving though the dirt. He grabbed Victor and rolled just as Meteor’s vicious hooves crashed down beside him.
Next thing he knew, Christophe was blinking away sweat, heart hammering at his ribcage while he stared into Victor’s shocked eyes. They were chest to chest, lying in the dust, Christophe’s arms tight around Victor.
They looked at each other for long seconds and Christophe thought he could feel the shake of Victor’s heart too, beating against him.
Then Victor slumped, his muscles going slack, his face dropping. “Goddammit,” he said and rolled away.
Christophe picked himself up and watched Victor running for the fence. “Goddammit,” he echoed and ran the other way.
Christophe drained his glass and reached for the pitcher. “Too early for such cheap beer,” he called down the table to the other bullfighters.
“You’re into that artisanal shit?” another man said. Travis, Christophe had worked with him a few times before. “If you show up with one of those lumberjack beards, you know we’ll shave it off you, right?”
The table laughed and Christophe laughed too. “Like I’d hide my perfect face.” He ran a hand over his carefully shaped stubble. then tilted his head to the side and gave the man an appraising look through lazy eyelids. “Especially now I know you need to see it that much.”
More laughter but Travis’s was a little strained. Maybe Christophe should follow up with a bit more flirty needling, just for fun. To blow off steam and, who knew, maybe more. They deserved it. Christophe deserved it.
He was already feeling that post-rodeo let-down, all the adrenaline drained away and real life looming like grey clouds building on the horizon.
“You want the hipster microbrew, you pay for it.” The head bullfighter worked most of the medium to big rodeos, in the west at least, and he always bought the first round of beer and wings when they were done.
“Do they have a barrel-aged avocado lager on tap?” Christophe said. Truth was, he probably shouldn’t spring for even a pitcher of the cheap stuff. Not when he was going to have to be up early to chase down another day job.
Two years of work for that company and they’d just dropped his contract. They’d claimed they were phasing out remote work and if he could just come into their offices four thousand fucking kilometres away, they could squeeze him into their crowded dev pit. Which probably was filled with artisanal beards and ball caps and protein shakes. But the reality was they were downsizing; they didn’t really want him.
The reality was he should probably be working his side job right now. Back home in front of the camera, putting on a sexy show for the men who watched his stream. Chasing big tips instead of big bulls. He’d already missed last night, away too long and his cam audience would drop off.
But he was too tired, too restless. And it was going to take more than noisy bullfighters and sticky hot wings to get his mind off his work situation tonight. He scanned the bar for a likely candidate, someone hot, more importantly, someone fun. Someone who needed a post-rodeo hookup as much as Christophe did. Who would make that adrenaline flow again, an echo of the rush of the arena. Especially the thrill of that near miss with Meteor.
And there, at the bar, was Victor Nikiforov.
Christophe stared, he couldn’t help it. In a room where the loud laughter and the top-forty country swirled around like a dust devil, Victor looked cool and calm. Not like he belonged, not exactly, but like he brought his own bubble of belonging with him and everyone else in the bar was an outsider.
He was dressed like most of the people here. At least he wearing the same type of clothes: boots, jeans, long sleeves, hat. But the jeans were dark new and starched into a sharp crease, the white shirt was perfectly fitted to Victor’s slim frame and pressed so smooth, Christophe couldn’t find a single wrinkle. The dark hat set just so over the sweep of silver hair. And, like Victor meant it to match, the belt buckle with the single silver star.
He was leaning easily, as though his long legs and all too beautiful ass were perfectly displayed by accident. Tipping up a glass of bourbon to show the line of his throat and jaw.
Christophe swallowed hard. That warm curl of what if inside him would usually have him picking up his drink and sauntering over, leaning in with his best smile and his best line in his best deep purr.
But with Victor what if was more like if only. Not that Christophe had ever been rebuffed by Victor; he’d never even made the attempt. Something about that bubble kept him away: one long look, one deep sigh, then on to a more approachable target.
Christophe drew in a breath for the first part of the sigh. Then Victor turned his head.
They locked eyes. The air in Christophe’s lungs stopped, like they were back rolling in the dirt together, away from Meteor’s vicious heels. He froze, twisted in his chair, a little annoyed by his deer-in-the-headlights reaction. Half-wishing—quarter-wishing, really—that Victor would just leave him alone to a normal evening.
But the gaze stretched out until Christophe’s diaphragm got impatient and just breathed for him. Christophe turned back to the table, into the noise, and tried to pick up the thread of conversation. Tried to keep his glance roving around the bar, looking for someone else, anyone else.
But he could still feel those eyes on him, looking at him so deliberately. Not the first time Christophe had stared at Victor in a crowded bar. But the first time Victor had stared back.
Never mind, not tonight. No need to complicate his life even further. Just some drinks with the boys, then find himself someone as tired and wound up as he was. Bang it out, sleep it off.
But instead of checking out the rest of the room, Christophe glanced over his shoulder again. Victor was still looking at him. And, apparently, Christophe was still looking back. His heart thumped, like he was back in grade seven, checking out his crush instead of his math quiz.
Victor inclined his head, raising his glass, and his intention was plain. A royal command.
And obeying it would be a terrible idea. Last thing Christophe needed right now was to get tangled up with someone he might want to keep longer than breakfast in the morning.
But he didn’t look away and neither did Victor.
Fuck it. At least this way he might get over his weird awkwardness with Victor. Christophe left his beer and his wings and his drinking buddies and went over to the bar.
“I should at least buy you a drink for saving my life.” Victor slid a glass of bourbon over to Christophe.
“A free drink I didn’t even get to pick.” Christophe arranged himself at the bar, a nonchalant pose like he didn’t care, not that much, anyhow. Up close, he still felt that bubble around Victor, a cushion of elegant air he wasn’t sure if he could penetrate. Probably for the best. “Good to know the value of your life.”
“It’s the best they have, so it’s what we’re drinking.” Victor picked up his glass. “To Meteor,” he said. “That bastard.”
Christophe clinked his glass against Victor’s and sipped the bourbon. It was good, smooth, with a honey note. “To Meteor. For saving me from cheap beer and cheaper jokes.”
“Maybe we should bring him the rest of the bottle.” Victor drew his hair back from his forehead in a slow gesture that looked like a habit. “He probably wants to toast his victory over me.”
“Bad luck with the draw,” Christophe said. “He’ll win this season again, easy. I thought you were going to make it, though.”
“Me too.” Victor smiled ruefully, “I was glad to draw him, really. The only good thing about an easy win is the prize money.” He took another drink. “Sorry to miss that, though.”
“Season’s just starting,” Christophe said. “Maybe we’ll have another roll in the dirt next weekend.”
“You, me, and Meteor.” Victor shifted, turning so he was leaning on the bar with both elbows. “Maybe you should tell me your name, so I don’t have to keep calling you ‘that hot bullfighter who saved my life’.”
“Christophe Giacometti.” Christophe turned too, mirroring Victor’s body language. He still felt that distance from Victor but he was relaxing all the same, falling into familiar patterns that Victor seemed to share. “But everybody knows me as ‘that hot bullfighter’.”
“With good reason.” Victor looked Christophe up and down. Then he reached out and touched the side of Christophe’s face, two fingers brushing a tender spot on Christophe’s jaw. “You’re bruised, Chris.”
A tingle went through Christophe at the touch and he felt buzzed, tipsy, even though he’d barely drunk enough to loosen up. “You should see the rest of me.”
Victor flashed a smile. “Are you going to tell me which ones are my fault?”
“I haven’t catalogued them yet,” Christophe said. “Maybe you can help me with the tally.” The bruises were a bit of a problem, though. With his dev job gone for now, he was going to have to hit the cam sessions harder to make up the difference. And the banged-up look didn’t appeal to most of his audience. Cover-up and low lighting, that was going to be a pain.
“Another drink?” Victor said.
Christophe shook himself back to the present. Time enough to worry about his finances when he wasn’t drinking — and flirting — with the Silver Star. He pulled up a bar stool and sat down. “Please.”
Victor settled himself too and they sipped and laughed their way through another bourbon. Christophe let Victor set the pace with both the liquor and the flirting but after the second time Victor let his hand linger on Christophe’s shoulder, Christophe leaned closer.
“Couldn’t hear you,” he said and rested his hand on Victor’s back while Victor spoke into his ear, the brim of Victor’s hat brushing Christophe’s hair. He didn’t take his hand away when Victor sat back for another drink.
He was inside the bubble now, he and Victor isolated from the rest of the bar, from everything but the natural progression of a fun evening into a fun night. How many bruises did Victor have on his pale skin? Christophe was going to find them all, kiss them if Victor wanted it soft, press them if he wanted more.
But even while Victor gave Christophe wicked looks from under his eyelashes, while he slid his hand onto Christophe’s thigh, Christophe sensed that Victor was playing a role. Not one he didn’t want to play, more like a public persona he never dropped.
It was probably just as well. Christophe could feel the warning signs, the small scorches the sparks between them left. If there were a tear in that perfect shirt sleeve Christophe could put his finger through, a crack in that perfect smile Christophe could kiss.
But this was no time to fall for someone, especially not someone like Victor. It was time to get out of here. So, slide the hand down Victor’s back, press the knee into Victor’s thigh. “Do you want to see those bruises now?”
“I’m waiting for my boyfriend,” Victor said.
“What?” Christophe reared back, like Victor’s words were a kick from a vicious bull and all Christophe could do was let his body try to dodge.
“He was supposed to meet me here.” Like that was a normal thing Christophe should have expected Victor to say.
Had he completely misread the situation? But no, this was not some mixed signals screw-up. Christophe knew people, he knew how they reacted. He knew when a man wanted to sleep with him. “Are you just fucking with me?”
“No,” Victor said. “It’s fine, we have an arrangement.” He smiled again and put his hand on Christophe’s arm. “We can still hook up but if I just text him that I’m leaving before he gets here, he’ll be so pissy, it’s not worth it.”
“He has to approve me first?” Christophe didn’t pull away again even though he really should just get up and go back to his table. Or leave entirely, get some actual sleep. But Victor was enticing and Christophe really wanted to see what he was like in bed. If he fucked as gracefully as he rode. And a Victor who was already attached was far less dangerous.
“That’s not how it works,” Victor said. “If you really want, we can leave now. But if you maybe want a threeway, he would definitely be into that.”
“Definitely?” Maybe that would take the pressure off, have the sex while reminding himself Victor was not for him. Plus, hot threeway. Possibly.
“Ninety-five percent definitely. At least ninety.” Victor grinned. “You are very hot.”
“You are very correct,” Christophe said. “Okay, if we’re both into it, then sure.” More bodies in the bed, more to take Christophe’s mind off things. More appreciation for Christophe’s skills. And they’ll all be rolling on tomorrow anyhow.
“Good choice,” Victor said. “He can be pissy but in a hot way. In bed, at least.” He picked up his glass, then set it down and pulled out his phone. “Aaaaand he’s not coming.” He looked back at Christophe.
Christophe slid his hand up Victor’s thigh. “We still could.”