SOMETHING LIKE THE REAL THING (Sing Out 4) – Jesse’s story

He always has a plan…

Jesse Preston is exactly where he always wanted to be: in LA, recording an album. So why does he feel like he’s about to lose everything? One thing he’s sure of is that he needs to keep his bisexuality hidden… but he never planned on falling for someone. Not just anyone–a TV star who’s one half of a famous, and straight, celebrity couple.

One kiss can change everything…

Grayson Adler is used to pretending. He’s an actor after all. So when he’s asked to keep his break-up with his troubled co-star a secret he has no problem playing along. He also has no problem showing Jesse around LA. Grayson likes spending time with him, likes making him laugh, likes him more than he’d ever expected. But they’re just friends, right?

In a town where everybody’s got secrets, how can they be sure of what’s real?

This novel can be read as a standalone. It’s complete at 60,000 words, with no cliffhanger and no cheating. It does feature ping-pong, hats, dance breaks, and explicit scenes between adult men.

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Read the first chapter!

CHAPTER 1

It was supposed to be his party, but looking around at all the glittering, brightly smiling people, Jesse didn’t see anyone he knew.

Billed as a listening party for the first single off his upcoming album, the record company had packed the place with “influential” people. Except, because Jesse’s claim to whatever fame he had was winning a television singing competition, everyone here was very much about TV, and how to get on it, and not so much about music.

Still, Jesse had to admit they filled up the room well, all these good-looking people milling around the club, laughing and drinking, eyes always scanning. Everyone here was thirsty, but it wasn’t for what Jesse was used to going to clubs for. It was like the tiny percentage of the world’s population that was young, beautiful, and incredibly ambitious had all converged here. Well, maybe not at Jesse’s party, since he really wasn’t that big a deal, but it was a nice sampling. He allowed himself a smile at the pretty girl who was giving him eyes across the room, and then turned that smile to the equally pretty waiter who was bringing him another drink, before he shut both of those thoughts down. This party was work after all; he needed to focus.

It had been six months since he’d won Singing Sensation live on TV, but he wasn’t used to LA at all. He’d spent the first few months on tour, hitting malls and theaters across the country, in carefully-packaged performances with a few of the other finalists from the competition. It had felt like a continuation of the weird bubble of being on the show, with cameras following him and someone always on hand with a schedule of exactly what was going to happen next. He liked that, having a plan. Then he had come back here to Los Angeles and plunged into the recording studio. Jesse had spent his whole life singing: in the church choir, then in any bar or band that would have him, but all the talk the producers and sound engineers threw around was confusing. Jesse believed in studying—never the subjects his parents wanted, of course—and so now he spent his nights learning the recording industry. He knew everything was against him. The music business was a mess, more about selling artists’ brands than their actual songs. The history of Singing Sensation winners having a career beyond one album was not reassuring. And Jesse was an R&B singer at a label that specialized in pop. This album was his one shot at proving himself.

There was also the matter of the album not being finished yet. Not even close. But everyone told him not to worry about that.

Telling Jesse not to worry was the same as asking the sun not to set, or how to avoid traffic in LA. It was going to happen, like it or not. He tried to put on a good face and be the easy-going guy—ready with a smile, not looking to make a fuss—while inside his head, wheels kept turning and anxieties piled up. He had always been good at planning, but now it was hard to figure a path that didn’t end in him slipping up.

Jesse sipped carefully at his drink, more for appearances than anything else, grimacing at the too-sweet taste of the cocktail. He wasn’t going to order something else or bolt it down. He wasn’t looking to relax and he definitely wasn’t looking to bring the pretty waiter back. He’d worked so hard to get here, given up so much; he couldn’t let himself give in to anything that might take his focus away.

“Jesse.”

He turned and his focus most definitely blurred.

Conor was standing there, red hair bright even in the club’s dim light, eyes warm and smile actually for Jesse rather than just at him. And if he was standing there, also representing everything Jesse had given up, well, that was Jesse’s own damn fault.

They’d been roommates on Singing Sensation, in competition with each other, though it hadn’t felt that way. Conor had never cared about the contest, more interested in drinking up every experience possible in a wide-eyed way that, at first, had made Jesse—then twenty to Conor’s eighteen—feel old. Jesse had three older brothers so he liked getting to play worldly and wise for once. But he’d never felt brotherly towards Conor.

Being bisexual wasn’t something Jesse liked to dwell on. It didn’t exactly fit the brand, even before Jesse knew what that brand was. He’d grown up in a working-class neighborhood outside of Detroit, with strict parents who were all about school and church, while his brothers and friends were all about sports and girls. Jesse’s singing brought him teasing, but he did well enough with the ladies that no one ever suspected. The guys Jesse hooked up with usually wanted it kept quiet just as much as he did. He thought of these hookups as indulgences, something that he enjoyed, but that—from Jesse’s perspective at least—would never be serious. Until Conor.

Even then, he’d held himself back. Jesse told himself that it was about concentrating on the competition, or proving his own self-control, but really, he’d been scared. Conor wanted to come out, Conor wanted someone to be out with him, and, when it came down to it, Conor wanted someone else.

Jesse didn’t fool himself into thinking that even if he’d done everything right and stepped up, Conor would have chosen him. It wouldn’t have gone that way. But it would have felt a lot better if Jesse had been brave enough to try.

“How’s the party going?” Conor asked as they hugged—brief but friendly.

Jesse shrugged, letting his mask slip a bit. “Oh, you know, a bunch of strangers telling me I’m great, all the while looking around to see if someone more important is coming in the room.”

Conor laughed. “That’s LA. Speaking of—” He looked behind him to where a tall white guy was standing, frowning over his phone. “Grayson?” Conor said to him. “This is Jesse Preston. Jesse, Grayson Adler.”

The man, who Jesse never would have noticed—just another asshole more interested in his phone than people, probably some junior agent or wannabe producer—looked up and Jesse found himself caught in a sudden intense gaze. He re-evaluated. Actor. The guy smiled. Big name actor, Jesse thought, though he didn’t recognize him—a star. He was glad the dim lighting hid his sudden flush.

“Grayson’s on The Drama,” Conor was saying as they shook hands. “You know, the show I’m quote-unquote acting on. Grayson’s the lead.”

“It’s an ensemble show,” Grayson added in a practiced way. He had the usual slim body and big head combination that most actors seemed to have, topped off with a thick shock of brown hair. His face was narrow, almost sharp, but his wide smile changed it completely into something warm and inviting. Jesse had seen better-looking men, but there was something about this Grayson’s face that made it impossible to look away.

The phone in Grayson’s hand buzzed and he dropped his gaze. It was like a dash of cold water.

“Sorry,” Grayson said. “I’ve gotta take this. It was awesome meeting you. The song is great.”

He moved away, phone at his ear.

Jesse sighed. “They haven’t actually played my song yet.”

Conor winced. “Sorry. He’s usually not like that at all. He really wanted to come.”

“Thanks for bringing him.” Jesse knew they’d have come in the front where the photographers were. Having the star of a network TV show at his party would get Jesse more press. “I owe you.”

“It’s not a favor thing. He actually is a Singing Sensation fan. He was excited about tonight. And I’m here because I’m your friend.”

“I know.”

“I’m glad we didn’t miss hearing your song. If it’s as good as that audio file you sent me, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You sounded amazing.”

“Yeah, well, there’s been some tweaks since then. Production values beefed up.” In truth, all the beats and effects made it so Jesse’s voice was barely recognizable. It could be anyone singing, but everyone assured him it would be a hit.

Conor’s eyes were too knowing. Jesse changed the subject quickly. “What about you, man? How’s your album going?”

Conor’s mouth twisted wryly. “Eight tracks down, three more to go. I’d like to sneak on an extra song, but that’s supposed to be impossible. Everyone is telling me it has to be released before the show’s done for the season. Apparently, I need buzz.”

They shared a look and both rolled their eyes. Jesse laughed, but inside, a little part of him was dying. Conor had finished eight songs, songs he wrote himself, while acting on a TV show? Jesse knew their styles of music were very different, and that Conor’s songs would be likely just him and a guitar. But still.

“You doing any writing? Got any songs of your own on the album?”

“Nah, that’s not my thing. I sing other people’s words.” Jesse spread his hands wide and tried to call up his charm. “But you know whatever I sing, I make it my own.”

“That inimitable Jesse style,” Conor agreed. His voice was gentle and Jesse knew he hadn’t managed to pull off the self-confident act. Damn, he was tired. Then Conor reached up and adjusted the trilby hat Jesse was wearing and Jesse felt his stomach flutter.

“I like the hat,” Conor said.

Jesse put a hand on his arm. For a second he wanted to ask Conor to get out of here with him. To forget everything that had happened between them and everything that had happened since and just… run. Instead, he cleared his throat and said carefully, “Conor, you need to know—Kai’s here.”

Conor followed his gaze as he looked to the front of the club. There was a minor commotion at the doors as someone held them open long enough for the shouts and lights of the photographers to bleed into the room.

“I’m sorry,” Jesse said. “They put him on the guest list because of the Singing Sensation thing. I didn’t know about it ’til tonight, and then I was hoping he wouldn’t show.”

Conor’s face was closed and unreadable. “He wouldn’t pass up a chance to get his picture taken.”

Kai had been a judge on Singing Sensation. The cool rock star judge, there to keep things real, or something like that. Except Kai had played the rock star part too well. He’d seduced Conor, despite being more than twice his age, and then had tried to intimidate him when Conor wanted to end it. It had all been handled, but Jesse still felt guilty about the whole thing. When it came down to it, Jesse may have stood by Conor, but he hadn’t spoken up.

“Let me get him out of here,” Jesse said. “He’s had his pictures—he needs to go.”

“Jesse, it’s okay. We’re all grownups. It’s not a big deal. Seriously. Except—” He looked across the room anxiously.

“Don’t tell me Derek’s here?”

Conor gave him a small smile. “He heard there was an open bar. I’d better—”

“Go,” Jesse agreed, and Conor hurried off to find his boyfriend.

Jesse was left to sigh over his party. To his surprise, Grayson came wandering back. “Where’d Conor go?”

“The bar.”

“Oh.” Grayson’s charisma was more subdued now, but he was friendly. He pointed a finger upwards. “Is this your song?”

Jesse blinked at him. “Man, that’s Justin Timberlake.”

“Oh,” he said again. Then his face lit up. “This is a good song. Are you going to dance?”

“What?” There was a dance floor, but people were mingling on it, not dancing. “No.”

Grayson smiled and Jesse wondered if he’d imagined the dazzling star, or even the asshole with the phone, because this Grayson was completely different. He was like a puppy that had just seen a ball. “Someone’s got to dance,” he said, backing away, eyes on Jesse like he was daring him to follow. “It’s a party.”

Jesse shook his head. He needed to find that waiter and get at least three more drinks. He needed to find his publicist and find out when they were actually going to play his song so he could go home. He needed to stop tracking Conor’s red hair across the room.

He looked towards the dance floor. Above the crowd of people, he could see Grayson’s head bobbing and occasionally jumping up. He might as well head over and see if the boy actually had any moves—

There was a shout near the bar and Jesse turned to see some kind of scuffle break out, with Conor right in the middle of it.

Jesse started moving, pushing people out of the way, but before he got close, a swarm of black t-shirted security guards came in, spreading deftly into the tangle of people like muscular spiders. Within seconds, they had swept up everyone involved and moved them towards the back of the club. Jesse couldn’t see Conor but he caught a glimpse of Derek’s face, pale and furious.

He went after them, but found himself firmly blocked by the icy, blonde wall of his publicist.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” she said. “It’s being taken care of.”

“But what’s going? Is he—is anyone hurt?”

A harried-looking man, who Jesse remembered being introduced as the club’s manager, came over. “It’s all fine, Mr. Preston,” he said to Jesse, though his eyes were on the publicist. “Just a misunderstanding. The involved parties are being shown to separate private rooms. They can enjoy some drinks there until they’re ready to leave.”

The publicist pursed her lips. “We may need use of the back exit for that.”

“Of course.”

This was not how fights were handled in the bars Jesse used to go to. “Okay, but I should see how they’re doing.”

She hooked her arm in Jesse’s, turning him around. “I think it’s best if you work the room a bit more. This is all for you, remember? There are some people you need to meet.”

Jesse let himself be drawn away, hating himself more with every step. Suddenly, Grayson popped up, mercifully pressing a beer into Jesse’s hands before turning his thousand-watt smile to the publicist.

“Risa, it’s so good to see you!” Grayson said, kissing her cheek and beaming like she was the person in the world he most wanted to see. She practically began to melt. Jesse realized that he had both forgotten her name and had never seen her smile before. “Mind if I borrow the big guy?”

“Grayson, oh. I didn’t know you’d met…” Jesse wondered if she’d forgotten his name too.

Grayson slung an arm over Jesse’s shoulders. “Jesse? We go way back. But he’s been so busy we haven’t had a chance to catch up. We’ll just be hanging over here. Give us a heads up when they’re playing the song, okay? Have you heard it? It’s blowing my mind. Huge hit.” The whole time, he was pulling Jesse away, towards a table in the quietest, darkest corner of the club.

Jesse settled into the booth gratefully. “Thanks, man. I just—I guess I’d had enough.”

Grayson was quieter again, face turned thoughtful. “I’ve been to a lot of things like this. Sometimes you just need—” He waved his hands around the space in front of them.

“Yeah,” Jesse said, taking a long drink.

“Rest up and then once more unto the breach.”

“You think Conor’s okay?” Grayson looked at him and Jesse glanced away, trying to keep his voice light. “I try to look out for the kid.”

“If Derek was there, I think our thoughts and prayers should be with anyone who tried to bother Conor.”

“True,” Jesse said grimly, and finished his beer.

The song got played and there was applause and more people to talk to. Grayson drifted off, and was instantly surrounded by people, but Jesse saw him looking over every so often, giving him a nod or a smile.

Jesse was thinking about asking Risa—who was considerably warmer to him now—when he could leave when Conor found him. Well, it was Conor with Derek practically hanging off him, but at least he was okay. He looked better than okay actually, with his face flushed and eyes bright. Both he and Derek looked wild and young and stupidly happy. It made Jesse feel tired.

“Sorry about that,” Conor said. “We kinda messed up your party.”

Derek snorted. “And I definitely fucked up Kai’s face.”

“Looks like he got one in,” Jesse said. One of Derek’s eyes was starting to swell, but it suited him. The guy always looked like somebody’s bad boy fantasy.

Derek smiled lazily. “Did you see Kai?”

“Think he went out the back.”

“Yeah, take my word for it, he looks worse.”

“Anyway,” Conor said firmly. “We’re sorry. It was really stupid and childish.” He didn’t seem angry at Derek or regretful. The two of them looked like they were about to start giggling any second.

“No worries,” Jesse said. “I’ll probably get better buzz now for this single. We’ll make it like a riot broke out or something.”

“I still want to hear your song,” Conor said. “Send it to me.”

“Sure.” He wasn’t going to. Jesse had already decided he didn’t want to hear the stupid song again. How was he supposed to sing it on tour when he was already sick of it?

“You’re gonna come see me on set, right? Like we were talking about?”

“Sure,” Jesse said again.

Conor raised his chin. “You are, Jesse. It’s the only time I have to hang out. No arguments. I’m emailing you about it tonight—er, tomorrow.” He looked as firm as a person could when another guy was whispering or sticking a tongue in his ear—Jesse was trying not to look too closely at what Derek was doing at the moment.

“I’m in,” Jesse said, figuring it was easier to agree. “Looking forward to it.”

“Good,” Conor said, and then let Derek pull him out of there.

Jesse watched them go.

“They seemed okay.” Grayson had come over again. Jesse was surprised he was still there; the rule seemed to be the bigger the celebrity, the less time they actually had to stay at these events. “Conor and old Dean Moriarty.”

“What?”

“Sorry,” Grayson said, “I was attached to a young Jack Kerouac biopic for a while, did all this research. It pops into my head at weird moments.”

Jesse still had no idea what he was talking about. “I think they had sex in the back room.”

Grayson laughed and clapped Jesse on the back. “Your party really did have it all. Thanks for inviting me,” he said, as though Jesse actually had. “It was fun.”

“It was something alright.”

“I hear you’re coming by the set next week?”

“According to Conor.”

“Then it’s happening. I’ll see you.” He turned away with a cheery wave, but then almost immediately pulled out his phone. Head down and shoulders hunched, he radiated a leave me alone vibe that effectively put off any people who were looking to talk. Jesse shook his head—he couldn’t figure that guy out. Maybe it was an actor thing.

He looked around the emptying club. It may have been his party, but at least he didn’t have to clean up.

“Anything else I can get you?” It was that waiter again, the one with the pretty face. He was probably an actor, too. The look he was giving him right now made it seem like he wasn’t asking if Jesse wanted another drink.

It would be good not to have to go home alone, to get out of his tired, anxious head for a while. But he stepped away.

“Nah,” Jesse said. “I think I’m done.”