Hello to you, discerning reader of fine MM romance, and a huge thanks to Open Skye Book Reviews for letting me drop by for a visit so we could meet! Ever wonder where ideas for some of the hot guys in romance stories come from? In the case of Raising the Bar, my inspiration for Tonio lived right next door. I don’t know his real name, but I tagged him “Bad Boyfriend” because, well, he was the next-door neighbor’s boyfriend, and he was as bad as they came. Loud, cocky, volatile, devilishly handsome, and irresistibly charismatic—a perfect recipe for a drama-filled relationship. He needed to be in a story, and now, by George, he is. The excerpt comes right after Tonio has ruined a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant by getting drunk and a little too honest. Then again, it’s always nice to know where you stand with a guy, especially if there’s kissing involved!
Tonio managed to get all the way out of the dining room and down the front steps without looking more than a tiny bit tipsy. Only the exaggerated precision of his movements gave him away.
“Hey. You know what I didn’t tell you?” Tonio said as they crossed the parking lot.
Destin’s heart lurched. “No. What?”
Tonio turned around and walked backward, facing Destin. “You’ve got really gorgeous blue eyes.”
“Uh, thanks.” Destin put a hand on Tonio’s shoulder and steered him away from the shrubbery before he could back into it.
“You should wear blue. Gray doesn’t do crap for you.” Tonio stopped walking, so abruptly that Destin nearly crashed into him. Instead of drawing away, Tonio leaned forward, and before Destin could react he planted a quick, warm, boozy kiss on Destin’s mouth.
Heat, equal parts embarrassment and desire, enveloped Destin’s body. He stepped back, blinking, words tumbling through his head in a useless jumble.
Do I really turn him on?
Impossible. No way was he Tonio’s type. Flattering as the idea was, it had to be the wine talking. Even so, the ghost of that kiss burned on Destin’s lips.
“You know, that Land Rover is a pretty slick car,” Tonio said.
“Uh, yes, it is.” Destin pressed the fob, confused but relieved by the sudden change of topic. The Rover beeped and flashed.
Tonio held out his hand, palm up. “Here, lemme drive it home.”
Destin’s jaw dropped. “Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
“Aw, c’mon. Let’s have some fun with it.” Laughing, Tonio made a surprisingly quick grab for the fob. Destin jerked his hand away before Tonio got it, but if Tonio hadn’t been slowed by alcohol, Destin suspected he would have succeeded.
“No!” Destin snapped. He didn’t mean to speak so sharply, but Tonio was starting to scare him.
Tonio’s laughter vanished in an eyeblink. “Oh right, you’re fucking George Washington’s next-door neighbor,” he sneered, his voice suddenly icy. “I’m not good enough to drive your limo. Fuck it. I’ll walk home.”
“No, you won’t!” Destin shot back, trying hard not to yell. “It’s a long way, it’s dark, and it’s not safe. Get in the car. Please.” He reached for Tonio’s elbow, but Tonio whipped his arm out of Destin’s grip and stumbled toward the road.
“Tonio, get in the damn car.”
Tonio paused just long enough to flip Destin the bird, then continued down the driveway.
“If you get out on that highway, I’m calling the police!” Destin shouted at Tonio’s retreating back.
Tonio stopped. Destin could hear him talking to himself, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know what Tonio was saying. Then Tonio about-faced and came back. Without a word, he jerked the passenger-side door open and flung himself onto the seat.
Destin, slightly shaky with relief, got behind the wheel and started the engine. “Better buckle up,” he said, pointing at the warning light.
Tonio crossed his arms over his chest and looked out the window.
“Fine. Whatever.” Destin put the Rover in gear and rolled onto the highway
Blurb: Destin Bellingham has inherited a problem. Thanks to his late playboy father, Destin faces putting a For Sale sign on his family’s historic horse farm. Getting his talented stallion, Black Sambuca, into the Grand Prix show ring would put Bellmeade back on the map—if only someone could make “Sam” behave like a show horse.
Disgraced top rider Tonio Benedetto has his own problems, but he can work magic with difficult jumpers, so Destin hires him despite his bad-boy reputation. The street-smart, openly gay loudmouth from Miami and the closeted, buttoned-down son of Old Dominion Virginia make a rocky pairing, but time is running out to save Bellmeade from bankruptcy.
Opposites attract, sparks of tension grow into flames of passion. But if Tonio fails to tame Sam, will true love become a lost cause too?
Bio: Leigh Dillon is a native of horse-happy North Central Florida but has deep family roots in the Virginia and West Virginia areas. Coming of age in the dinosaur days of cable television, when fledgling channels filled their empty blocks of programming time by airing entire equestrian competitions, Leigh’s young brain became infected with a lifelong mania for show jumping, three-day eventing, and other exotic horse sports. Though tragically denied a pony of her own in childhood, Leigh has wreaked her revenge by including equine characters in almost everything she writes.
A bookbinder and librarian by trade, Leigh has also worked on local thoroughbred horse farms. Leigh’s short fiction has been featured twice in the Florida Writers Association annual story collection, and one of her book-length works received Book of the Year honors at the 2017 Royal Palm Literary Award.