Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (5 page)

She dug out her compact. “Just for you, baby. After, I want to do a triple threat. All Lopez.”

“With ‘Papi’ at the end, I assume. Straight up, or remix?”

“Straight up.” Chenco needed a pure, hot channel of the good shit.

“Got it. Then…” He tapped his toe in the air as he pondered. “I’d say ‘Hynoptico’ for the faux finale, and ‘Goin’ In’ for the opener to the last set.” When she cast him a questioning look, he waved an impatient hand. “Yes, I’ll play Flo Rida’s half of the duet for you. Why do you even ask?”

“It’s nice to ask.” She curled her lip at the still-smudged liner. “Fuck, I’m going to need the kit.”

He fetched it for her and opened it up on the arm of the couch, watching as she began the process of makeup repair. “You’re in a real mood, baby.”

They hadn’t spoken since Booker’s awkward
sorry about your dad
text after the funeral, and Caramela wondered how much to fill him in. “It was a fuck of a day. Been a fuck of a month too.” She half-hoped Booker would prompt her to tell him what was wrong, but all he did was try to hand her a bottle of water with a straw. Annoyed and a little hurt at his lack of interest, she shook her head. “Can’t. I already have to piss.”

“You will drink this water, bitch, or I will pour it down your throat.”

Pursing her lips, Caramela took the water from him. “Fine. When my teeth are floating during the second number, I’ll be taking my venom out on you.”

Book brushed a delicate kiss across her hairline. “When spring break comes, we’re gonna kill them in South Padre. I got it all set up. And this summer, it’s gonna be us taking over Filthy Divas.”

Caramela made a face and picked at imaginary things in her teeth. “Book, I’m still not sure about taking the show out of the valley. Anyway, I can’t afford anything right now.”

“Padre is the valley, and it’s gonna be so great, you won’t want for money again.”

South Padre was semi-local, only an hour’s drive away. Filthy Divas wasn’t—it was in Los Angeles, and it might as well be on the moon. Not that Caramela—or Chenco—could get Booker to understand. If she argued too much, he’d get bossy and tell her this was his job to worry about where the gigs were. He’d pull all his BDSM shit—he loved having a daddy to boss him around, and he was convinced Chenco needed one too.

An image of Steve Vance and his triskele tattoo drifted into Caramela’s mind.

She dug her gloved fingernails into her palms.
No daddies. Chenco had been his own damn
since he was old enough to cry for one. He wasn’t giving control up to anybody again. Neither was she.

“I’m not discussing spring break. I have a show to do.”

She expected him to argue, but to her surprise, he only said, “We’ll talk about it later.”

His quick yielding made her give in too, more than she’d planned. When she leaned into him, he slipped an arm around her waist and drew her to him. “
Se fuerte, mi reina.

Be strong, my queen.
Shutting her eyes, Caramela drew a deep draught of Booker—sweat and spice and safe, strong man, the scent drawing into her belly and swelling out to her toes. She had a flash of Steve Vance and his heavy, heady presence, the memory of safety tinged with regret. “
Soy fuerte.

They argued about lights and strobes and confetti, Caramela with her shoes off and feet in Booker’s lap. Other staff wandered in and out, waving to the two of them, some of them Booker’s team wanting clarifications on the lighting, but mostly it was Caramela and Booker. When the set was settled, Caramela asked after Booker’s boyfriend, which made him brighten and laugh and launch into stories old and new, stories of kinky sex and wild times, stories of Booker’s submission and pleasure. He left out all the drug parts, which she appreciated, and the rough parts, which she worried about anyway. Caramela eased into her corner of the sofa, letting Book’s beautiful voice calm her and bring her back to ground, chasing her sorrow over Steve Vance away.

At a quarter to ten, it was time. Caramela strapped on her heels, touched her necklace and drew her focus. There was no more room for leather daddies and mysterious, dangerous strangers. There was only the queen.



When Caramela took the stage, the club roared into life. She stalked the perimeter twice, blowing kisses and drawing hearts in the air for her frenzied fans, making space for her persona and giving herself time to swell inside it. When she was ready, she saluted the light booth—Booker’s signal to swing into lyrics—and away they went.

Caramela lip-synched of course, but the fans didn’t care. What they loved was the illusion of Lopez on their stage,
their stage
, their club, a Lopez they could weep over and touch, a Lopez to whom they could babble fanatical praises in valley Spanish. Lincoln criticized Caramela for falling for the tawdry antics of RuPaul and incorporating them into her shows, but Caramela shut her ears whenever he started to wheeze about the perversion of drag. She didn’t care what the history of female impersonation was. She only knew her act was
the bomb

Her fans knew it too. For the forty-five minutes Caramela took the stage, JLo came to the valley, and she had a smile for every gay boy who had ever loved her. Club 33 swelled with worship for Caramela, and she took their supplication and transformed it into the divine.

As she finished the Nelly number, Booker joined her on the stage. Feeling flirty, she ground against him, Caramela in front, Booker bearing her up, playing wet dream for hundreds of watching men. When the music switched to the opening organ of the next song, Booker grabbed a cold mic, and the crowd went wild. Booker lip-synced along to Flo Rida’s command for them to put their hands up, the lights sliced the room like knives and the energy level strained the limitations of the roof.

Caramela made the movements of her body communication with the gods, and she constantly reached for thicker download cable to intensify that connection. Duets with Booker playing rapper allowed Caramela to focus on her moves, making the audience beg for more. The break from singing gave her the opportunity to collect tips too—the more she let Booker grab her crotch and ass, the more money they made. By the time the song came to a close and Booker returned to the booth, she had enough tips to get her dreaming of the thousand-dollar wig she’d dog-eared in a catalog.

The next song began, and Caramela saw Randy Jansen.

It was him, there was no question—Mitch’s friend was here, watching Caramela from the front row. Jansen stared at Caramela’s face and her neck, and everything in his gaze said,
I know you and all your secrets.

Caramela faltered.

Why was Randy here? How the
had he known about Caramela? What was he going to do? What was
going to do? The questions swirled inside her, and the opening bars of the song cranked in perpetual loop as Caramela was too stunned to shift into the first verse.

She cut Jansen a glare.
, are going to pay.

He raised an eyebrow at her and remained at his post.

With a deep breath, she shoved the panic and fear into the dark corners where they belonged. This was
damn spotlight. She led the crowd in handclaps, riffing with patter as she strove to find her feet again. She had steel in her now, and when she felt strong enough to look Jansen’s way again, she let him know in no uncertain terms what a
he was and how he would crunch under the force of her dice heels. Nobody fucked with her music—nobody, especially not this asshole.

As her eyes drifted across the crowd, Caramela saw Steve Vance.

He stood in the back by the bar, leaning against the wall but watching the room as if he were on guard. He tracked Caramela as she moved across the stage, seeing through her the same way Randy had. It was clear he knew she and Chenco were one and the same.

Except somehow, with Vance, everything was different.

Unlike Jansen, Steve Vance didn’t feel threatening. He was the man from the alley, whose stern, quiet command could center her, whose gentle smile called to her. He didn’t speak now, but he made Caramela remember how it had been in the alley. As she stared at him, all the doubts of the past few weeks seemed foolish. Steve made Caramela feel as if there was at least one safe space left in the world. He looked like he would beat down the room to keep that space of safety. He’d even beat down Jansen.

For Chenco. For her.

The crowd was used to a gap between her penultimate song and her finale, but tonight it went on too long, Caramela frozen in place, staring at Steve Vance. If she looked away, she was afraid she might drown.

Is Heide right? Are you someone I can trust, Steve Vance?

She didn’t know; she had no way to find out. She couldn’t move, couldn’t dance, couldn’t do anything but stare at the man by the bar. Any second the audience would get restless, and then it would all be over.

No control. No safety. No chance.

Steve pushed off the wall and came across the room.

The crowd’s cheers diluted, cut by a murmured rush, and even as the lull in her performance was terrifying, Caramela could barely breathe for the pleasure of watching him. It was stupid, this insipid, vapid fantasy of a butch boy in gleaming leather, and it had no right to mess up her act. Yet she couldn’t look away. Out of the corner of her eye, Caramela could see Booker leaning over the second floor rail, his body posture stiff with concern, but she couldn’t look at him to reassure him.

It was the
Randy Jansen’s fault. There was no question that
was anything but the full author of this shit.

Steve Vance strode up to Randy Jansen, and without so much as breaking his visual connection with Caramela, hauled Jansen onto the tips of his toes by his hair.

Jansen howled in protest, but when he saw Steve’s face, he went still. Onstage, Caramela lost her breath.

Sexy daddy, you can haul me to my toes anytime.

As if he’d heard her, Steve stared at Caramela with the intensity of a sun. He was not a threat—she
it now, like Gospel. He wouldn’t hurt her. In fact, every molecule of his being telegraphed sincerity and safety.

The spell around Caramela cracked. With all the promise and passion she had, she stared Vance right in the eye as she lifted the hot mic and said, “
Baila para tú Papi.

The crowd roared back to life, the music swelled and Caramela danced.

She marched across the stage, collecting the tips she’d neglected at the pause, the tips which were now all but pouring from her supplicants’ wallets. She collected them, but she lingered at Steve whenever she passed. It was him she moved her body for, Steve the sexy stranger who could command a room, who slayed her demons simply because he could. This was her signature song, but for the first time in a long while, her whole heart was in the performance, and she flashed Booker the sign to loop into an extended mix. He didn’t just give her an extension, he gave her full-on strobe, disco ball and rainbow gels. If he could have rigged quick confetti, he probably would have gone there too.

Caramela didn’t need the disco ball—she
fractured light tonight. It was a rush, nearly cracking apart but coming back together for a man so hard he was practically a walking erection. She never faltered in her “Papi” dance, a blend of Lopez’s moves and her own, but tonight every shoulder roll, hip thrust, every slide sizzled, spilling out onto the floor. Any whispers of danger, any sense that somehow she should remain on guard, died under the intensity of the performance, the freedom filling every cell of her body. She danced on the ashes of her father, on the sneering faces of the thugs in the trailer park, on the piercing gaze of Randy Jansen, whom she could still see writhing and cursing beneath Steve’s punishing grip.

She danced for Steve, her papi tonight, and she whipped the room into such a state they didn’t wait for her to come by and collect, they threw their tips on the stage. She danced until her body ached and even Booker couldn’t wring out another drop of shizzle. Making one last round, she waved and blew kisses, feeling like she floated fifty feet above the club until Booker came to the gate and held out his hand.

His face was as wild as hers, full of fear and excitement. Caramela let him wrap his big body around hers, leading her through the crowd and away. Except the crush was too much this time, and her adrenaline was already starting to crash. Booker couldn’t cut through, not until Vance flanked him.

Saving me again,
Caramela thought, but she couldn’t say anything, could hardly think for the thickness of the crowd. Her two men didn’t exchange a word, only worked in concert to get Caramela to safety. Steve didn’t so much as brush her arm to claim her, but Booker kept checking with Steve for direction. When Caramela had to stop to take off her shoes, Booker nodded to Steve in a silent request for help, having her lean on him until they were off and she could carry them with her free hand.

He was a goddamn rock, and sexy as fuck.

he’s real. Maybe I can trust him, at least.

Caramela tried to talk herself back to caution, but it was hard. She could smell him, standing this close, and he was good enough to eat.

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