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Forever Grayson Chapter One

Grayson

 

“Why do you look like a raccoon just yanked your dick off?” 

 

Leave it to my best friend and bandmate, London Kerr, to not only notice that I was feeling off, but to make it sound so colorful. 

 

Every night we told ourselves that this could be the night our lives changed, but it never was. It always turned out to be another night of playing in a shithole bar for drunk people. Usually, it wasn’t a lot of drunk people either.

 

London insisted that it didn’t matter how many we played to. We were playing which meant when someone finally wanted to manage us, we’d be ready. He called these nights our practice for when we made it big. According to him, we could make all our mistakes now and get them out of our system. That way when we were huge, we’d be legends.

 

Big talk that we all wanted to believe, but there was a problem with the way he continued to hype us up.

 

Dreams of hitting it big sucked when they never came true. For us, they hadn’t.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told him without meeting his eyes. 

 

“Sure, you don’t.” He snorted. “But I’ve known you long enough to know when something’s going on, and it better not fuck this up for us.”

 

I shook my head at him. As if I’d ever let anything get in the way of the band or my part in it. Though, if we did fuck up, there wasn’t a single person out there that would notice.

 

The five of us were in this small room down the hall from the restrooms that for some reason smelled like corn chips. I didn’t know why and probably didn’t want to. Maybe it was because five men in a sardine can tended to funk things up and we weren’t the first band in this room.

Not by a long shot.

 

Cody’s might’ve been a dive bar that drew people in with their cheap beer and easy lays, if that was what you were looking for, but they kept a steady stream of music flowing right along with the alcohol. No one wanted to drown their sorrows in a beer while in complete silence and dive bars could bring a crowd. Just not for us and not tonight.

 

Lennox Weaver, Thatcher Hoffman, and Jamison McCall were dicking around on one side of the room while I was still getting dressed. Hadn’t even noticed London coming my way.

 

“Those guys are idiots,” London told me as we watched the other guys pushing each other around like we were all in fifth grade. 

 

They were just having fun. 

 

London and I tended not to participate in their antics right before a show. They might’ve needed to let off steam but he and I preferred getting serious.

 

I gave him a wide grin. “Yeah. Who isn’t?” 

 

He shook his head and sighed like an exasperated parent. Of all of us, London acted mostly like the dad of the group probably because this whole thing was his idea—the band that is. He and I’d been messing around one day when the idea came to him. We’d been best friends since elementary school so there was no fucking way I’d let him do this without me. Luckily, it turned out that I could sing.

 

Since we didn’t have a manager, London took on that role as well. He booked the gigs and set the schedule. We followed his lead. Well, most of the time.

 

“You guys ready?” he called out to the others, bringing them all to a sudden stop.

 

“Tonight’s the night,” Jamison called out. “I can feel it in my bones.”

 

His bones have been wrong before.

 

Every time we played, there was a chance that someone important would hear us. Though as the months passed, I thought I was the only one admitting to himself that those chances were dwindling.

 

“You know this is our biggest gig yet, right?” 

 

I furrowed my brows. That couldn’t be right. When we played here it was to maybe ten people total. 

 

“Moneywise,” London corrected. “They’re paying us a bit to be here.”

 

No idea why they’d do that, but we’d take it.

 

London was surer than the rest of us that we’d eventually hit it big. As the founding member of Forever 18, he took his job very seriously and we made some cash out of it, at least.

 

But we needed a manager. Climbing the ladder wouldn’t happen without a real manager and so far, that was a bust.

 

We played gigs around Detroit for a while, even though we lived two hours north. Once there was a nice little hum about us locally, we started to expand. Chicago, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and a few a little further away got us more gigs. We vowed to continue hustling until something happened, but I was thinking the time was getting very near for us to hang it all up.

 

Sure, we played dive bars that paid OK and sometimes we played some nicer places that somehow paid worse. Even with all of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more. Maybe I should’ve been grateful for what we have accomplished, but my eyes were always on the next step.

 

“Let’s do this!” Thatcher howled right after getting us all hyped up for this show.

 

Each of us contributed our voices to the preshow routine though I held back compared to the others. As the lead singer, I needed to save that for later.

 

There were several faint calls from the sparse audience when we first settled in and those beginning thumps from Jamison’s drums alerted everyone that we were starting. Lennox added his rhythm guitar for a couple of bars before we all joined in.

 

The energy of the crowd amped us up as we began to play. There may not have been a lot of them but at least they were paying attention.

 

I belted out the first lyrics of our opening song. One that people could dance to if they wanted to and apparently tonight, they did. They might not have been dancing well but they were having fun. Every show, no matter the size of the audience, we played like this was the Garden in New York. Like these people were here to see us and not to get their drinks on.

 

At least they enjoyed the music.

 

A few drunk people hooted and hollered when we finished the first song then slid seamlessly into another. This one, six of them were on the floor to dance.

 

When we were done, I felt like I was on top of the world and based on the other guys’ expressions I could tell they did too. That’s what happened whenever we played well.

 

It wasn’t the crowd that gave me this feeling. It was the music. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, and the crash was harsh. The reality of the fact that we were in a hole in the wall bar in Detroit slapped me in the face.

 

“That was an amazing set,” Jamison said as he dropped his arm around me. “You were really feeling it tonight, weren’t you?”

 

“Are you saying that I don’t always feel it?”

 

He snorted and took his arm back. “From what I hear, you feel it a lot.”

 

I chuckled but gave him a light shove. “Fuck off.”

 

He wasn’t wrong though. I did feel it a lot and he wasn’t talking about the music. All of us enjoyed how much women loved musicians, even shitty bar playing musicians.

 

“Seriously, though,” London interrupted our ribbing once we were all inside the room that smelled like corn chips. “I think this was pretty epic.”

 

“You say that every time,” Lennox called out.

 

“I do.” London nodded. “But it’s always true. I think we get better and better all the time.”

 

This was just a break for us between sets. We had to do another one in half an hour and right now, I really fucking needed a beer. Plus, we’d have this conversation again after the second set.

 

While the guys did whatever the fuck they were doing, I headed out to the bar and slid onto the first stool I came to and asked for a beer. Chances were, they wouldn’t charge me, because I was playing tonight. They didn’t usually and it was hard not to take advantage of that when I was feeling proud, like we’d really done something tonight. Some sets were like that.

 

“Beer in a bottle. I really don’t care what kind,” the sweetest voice said from beside me just as my own bottle touched my lips.

 

I took that first pull as I glanced over at her so she wouldn’t notice me noticing her. Her long dark hair hung down her back in waves of chocolate. That was the problem with also being a songwriter. Sometimes I thought shit that one of the guys should’ve kicked my ass for thinking.

 

The bartender pushed the bottle over to her and I noticed he hadn’t checked her ID. She looked young as in possibly not quite of legal drinking age, but maybe he knew her and didn’t need to. Who was I to question it?

 

The gorgeous woman beside me sucked down half the bottle before she took a breath and set it back on the bar with a thud.

 

“Bad night?” I asked, causing her to finally see me sitting there. Have to say, that usually wasn’t an issue with women and me.

 

She tucked a piece of brown hair behind her ear as her hazel eyes took me in. I was just glad that there was enough light in here for me to really see her. 

 

“Nope,” she deadpanned. “It’s fucking fantastic.”

 

I snorted. “Same.”

 

She took another drink before speaking again. “What makes yours so wonderful?”

 

“I’m with the band playing tonight.” She glanced behind us like she wanted to confirm there was actually a band playing tonight. “And as you can see, it’s a sold-out crowd. I’m beating the fans off with a stick.”

 

“You any good?”

 

I snorted. “No. I obviously think we suck.”

 

“Hey.” She held up a hand. “Not all bands are good.”

 

“We’re good. Being good isn’t the problem.”

 

“Then what is?” She took another drink, and I was seriously considering pouring my heart out to this complete stranger. Say things to her that I haven’t even said to the guys.

 

“Not sure. We just can’t seem to make any progress.”

 

“So, you play shithole bars, but really want to be the next Kissing Cinder?”

 

Shit. That was quite the reference. Everyone knew Kissing Cinder and could probably name at least one song. Those guys had been around for decades though they’d recently taken a break. “I would take being Kissing Cinder every day of the week. But I just want to play for more than twenty people. Maybe have a few sing along when we perform.”

 

“Hmmm…” She tapped her nails on the glass of the bottle. “So, it’s the size that matters.”

 

I bit back a smile. “Size always matters, doesn’t it?”

 

“No,” she said honestly. “It doesn’t, but I can see what you mean. You want it to be your career. Make actual money. Be famous.”

 

I shook my head. “I don’t care about being famous, but I would like it to be my career. Make a living from it. Can you imagine working at something you love forever?”

 

Her eyes darkened. “I can actually. It’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.”

 

So many questions swirled in my head, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her. “I feel like there’s a story there.”

 

Now she snorted and took another drink. “Everyone has a story.”

 

“You know mine.” I raised an eyebrow at her.

 

She sighed and said, “Fine.” The bartender set another bottle in front of her and she took yet another long drink before she continued. “I just dropped out of  fashion school because it sucked balls.”

 

“That bad?”

 

“Big, huge gorilla balls.”

 

“Yikes. You really didn’t like it?”

 

Her hazel eyes settled on mine. I could just see the hints of green in this lighting. “I love fashion. I love designing, but those teachers have no vision. I just couldn’t figure out how to make myself fit into their mold. So, I left.”

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t try to fit into their molds.”

 

“Exactly, but who’s going to take me seriously if I don’t have that degree.” She shook her head and sighed again. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’ll figure it out. Most of my family already thinks I’m a flake. This just makes it worse.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what?” 

 

“Why do they think you’re a flake?” There was something about this woman that said she absolutely wasn’t a flake and I wanted to know more.

 

Being drawn to her this way was surprising. Usually if I was drawn to a woman and wanting more from her it was sex. Don’t get me wrong, this mystery woman was sexy as hell. Curvy in all the right places. Pair those curves with that face, a smattering of freckles over her nose and soft mouth, and she was enough to make any man drool.

 

I wasn’t drooling, at least not yet. Yeah, the idea of fucking her had crossed my mind, but this was different. I wanted to know what she was thinking about. 

 

“They just do. It’s another mold that I don’t fit into.” If I knew her better, I’d say there was some sadness there that she didn’t have when talking about not fitting in at school. Shaking herself out of her own thoughts she added, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I don’t even know your name.”

 

“Grayson,” I told her quickly. 

 

She smiled shyly. “Lilah.”

 

The corner of my mouth ticked up. Shy wasn’t how I would’ve described her up until this point, but I had a feeling that Lilah had many sides to her. I suddenly wanted to get to know every single one of them.

 

“Grayson!” London called out. “We’ve got to do this.”

 

“I have to go,” I told her, though it was the last thing I wanted to do right now.

 

“Go. Make all your dreams come true.”

 

After glancing around the bar again, I said, “That is highly unlikely, but I might be forming a new dream that I’m hoping is a little more attainable.” I gave her a wink. Deep down I thought it was corny to wink at a woman, but I’d had more than one tell me that it made them swoon.”

 

Pink crept into her cheeks like she’d just come in from a brisk winter day. 

 

“You staying for the second set?” I asked her so she wouldn’t have to respond.

 

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth, her teeth scraping over her red lips. The bold color of her lipstick seemed to match her personality, at least until I made her blush. 

 

“I think I will.”

 

Now I gave her a real smile and told her I’d see her in a bit.

 

I didn’t think there was any confusion over why I asked if she was staying or why she said she would.

 

I wanted to see Lilah after the set and hopefully see a whole lot more of her before the night was over.

Love by the Slice Chapter One

My propensity for lateness was something I inherited from my mother so I could argue it wasn’t my fault. She always blamed it on living at the beach. Said it could be too distracting. It worked for her.

 

I tried the excuse, too, but she could flash a sweet smile and get out of anything while making everyone fall in love with her. A trait I hadn’t inherited. The clear water on the other side of the beach sparkled like a giant diamond under the morning sun making it difficult to ignore. As was weaving around early-bird tourists already in town even though the season hadn’t officially begun yet. Some liked to arrive early to get a jump on the others.

 

I missed the quiet mornings. 

 

Seeing Romano’s, my family restaurant, up ahead, I kicked it into high gear. Gramps would’ve already opened but I should’ve been there to help with the prep. Our primo location continued to be highly sought after but Gramps managed to stay put for four decades no matter what larger chains offered him. And there had been a lot of offers over the years. 

 

Instead, I burst through the door ten minutes past opening to find the new girl, Carly, with her Technicolor dream coat hair (reminding me of my best friend, Bailey) setting up tables. Even the ‘deviant’ high schooler who’d been on the job one day beat me in.

 

Damn it

 

“Hey, Carly,” I said with a smile, making my way to the counter where Gramps stood casting a stern eye at me with the corner of his lips turned up, and he couldn’t hide it. “I know, I know,” I held a hand up as I got to him. “Eight and two, Gramps.” Gathering my light blonde hair in my hands, I pulled it back then twisted it into a messy bun.

 

“Eight and two and you never go wrong, Bianca.” Gramps had a theory—eight minutes early and stay two minutes late. This would lead to a successful life. He loved to rub it in especially knowing how I ran behind so often. 

 

“I said I know. Here’s a thought… ever think you could knock on my door as you leave in the morning?” Biting the inside of my cheek to keep my own smile at bay, I already knew his answer. It wasn’t the first time we’d played this particular game. 

 

“I’m an old man and can drag my sorry butt out of bed all by myself. You’re grown, Bianca, you can do it, too.” 

 

I shrugged. “I blame my upbringing.”

 

It got an actual laugh out of him and the guy standing next to him, who leaned against the counter as he watched this playful exchange. Those strong, muscled arms had a slight pop of vein belonging to a man who worked with his hands. Tattoos covered one from his wrist to shoulder though I couldn’t see all the way up because the sleeve of his shirt obstructed the view. The other arm had a few scattered around. Either way, it was all kinds of sexy. 

 

“This is Gio Diamati.” Gramps indicated the tattooed man next to him. “Just hired him for the kitchen. He throws dough with the best of us. I figure he’ll piss Joe off pretty well.”

 

Nodding, I picture the scenario in my head.

 

Joe Kelly had been with Gramps for years and he’d been one of Gramps’ best friends my entire life which meant I knew him well. Gramps’ mission had always been to find the next kid who could turn Joe’s face purple. Even though they were both in their sixties, they acted like frat boys. 

 

“Hey.” I shook his hand as his eyes roamed my body from top to bottom which warmed my blood.

 

Yeah, it probably should have bugged me but it didn’t. I didn’t mind him looking even if I only wore shorts and a tank top.

 

I’m pretty sure Gio could’ve been wearing a trash bag and it would’ve been the hottest trash bag in the world. The man was gorgeous. 

 

Standing six feet, maybe a touch more, Gio looked like a mountain next to my five feet and a couple of inches. The way the white t-shirt stretched across his chest led me to believe I wanted to see what was underneath and it’d be worth any wait. On top of all the hotness, Gio had a face that made you want to slap your Italian grandma. Nice olive skin perfectly complementing short black hair and dark, almost black, eyes.

 

I was light where he was dark. I was soft where he was hard. And boy was his body hard. 

 

“So, are you Mama Romano?” He smirked then glanced down to where, like a complete dork, I hadn’t let go of his hand.

 

I pulled mine back but the heat of his skin lingered. I rubbed my hands together to ease the feeling and hoped he didn’t pay attention close enough to notice. 

 

“Hardly. She would be my Grams. I can’t hold a candle.” 

 

“Only woman more beautiful than you and your momma.” Gramps eyes sparkled when we spoke of his dead wife. It’d been a while since she died but the mention of her brought everything to the surface for both of us. “This is my granddaughter, Bianca. She hangs around to keep the old man sane.” 

 

I snorted. “Please, Gramps, as if I have that kind of power.” I spun around on my heel and started toward Gramps’ office. “I’m gonna run to the post office before we open.” I grabbed the stack of mail needing to be sent, grabbed some petty cash, and went back out. “Nice to meet you, Gio,” I called over my shoulder as an afterthought. 

 

When I got back, Gramps had the whole group in the kitchen showing Gio around and giving the returnees from last summer a quick refresher course on how we did things at Romano’s. 

 

With only a handful of customers in the restaurant, I decided to check on all the stations to make sure they didn’t need any help. I knew how to work them all. 

 

As I slipped through each area, the beachside window moved like a well-oiled machine and the kitchen wasn’t behind. I could use the time to catch up on the paperwork I did for Gramps but a high-pitched squeak from the front of the restaurant grabbed my attention instead.

 

A pitch that said someone was about to reach her maximum on the frustration meter. 

 

Nope. Not time for paperwork. I turned toward the sound instead.

 

One of the new girls… needed some more training.

 

Grabbing an order pad, I jumped in sending her off to do drinks for each table until she learned the job a little better. We almost always had a line waiting which could easily overwhelm the newbies. Luckily customers were typically easy-going. 

 

“I need an extra-large with pepperoni,” I said entering the kitchen during our first lull. And by lull, I mean half as busy as usual.

 

“No problem,” Gio grabbed a round of dough and using those well-defined arms to start pushing it out.

 

We’d been swamped and I’d momentarily forgotten he’d be in the kitchen when I went in there. 

 

“Oh, I wasn’t done.”

 

His eyes flashed to me.

 

“Pepperoni on all of it, half with green pepper, a quarter with pineapple. On the other half, I need black olives, ham, and a quarter anchovy.” 

 

His face dropped while Joe snorted in the background. Joe didn’t balk at our orders anymore.

 

“Are you fucking with me?” he asked.

 

I shook my head no.

 

“What bipolar customer ordered that?” 

 

I plastered the biggest smile across my face and pointed at my chest. “Me.”

 

Realizing his mistake, his lips opened and closed twice as he struggled to come up with something to say. Since it was his first day, I decided to give him a break.

 

 “Actually it’s for all of us out there. It’s easier than making a bunch of different ones. When it’s done, could you put it in the break room and let me know so we can start rotating lunch?”

 

He nodded. 

 

“Oh, don’t look sad. You can have some, too.” A quick pat on his back as I walked by got Joe laughing even more. Then I returned to the dining area where I tried not to think about how his muscles felt under my hand or how much warmth soaked through his shirt. 

 

These were not things that would help me do my job. 

 

Twenty minutes later, we started lunch breaks. Gramps sent Carly and me together. Not sure if we both looked like we were about to chew off an arm out of hunger or if he decided to be nice but we weren’t complaining. 

 

Half-way through my first slice, Gio shuffled in and plopped down across from me. Most days laughter and voices filled the room while we ate but now only the sound of chewing filled the air.

 

“Haven’t seen you around, Gio.” Carly broke the silence. “Are you local or a summer transplant?” 

 

“Transplant but I haven’t decided if it’s only for the summer or not.” He raised a slice to his mouth but didn’t get a chance to take a bite. 

 

“How old are you?” Carly pushed in again. 

 

“Twenty-five.” He tried lifting the slice again but Carly stopped him. 

 

“Did you go to college?”

 

“Yes.” He shifted his weight in the chair, uncomfortable with the fifth degree she gave. 

 

“Where?” 

 

“Jesus, Carly.” I couldn’t watch him squirm under her inquisition any longer nor could I watch the slice go up then down one more time without him getting a bite. “Let the man take a breath. You’ve met new people before, right?”

 

Gio gave me a thankful smile. 

 

I could imagine how it felt being new to town let alone a job and some little pipsqueak decides to grill you like you’re the prime suspect in an infamous crime. 

 

“So, are you local?” His deep voice caught me by surprise, I flinched and looked up. His gaze landed on me. Those eyes unleashed a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. 

 

With one look this man flooded my body with warmth and sent my heartbeat into double time. The hard line of his chin looked like it had been created by Michelangelo himself.

 

Corny but true. 

 

“Sort of.”

 

One of his eyebrows quirked up.

 

“I spent summers here growing up but lived in Michigan with my parents.” 

 

“And now?” 

 

“I live here.” Hopping onto my feet, I tossed my paper plate and napkin into the nearby trash can and headed for the door. “I’m heading back in.” 

 

I could’ve sat there and looked at Gio Diamati all day but Gramps didn’t pay me to look at Gio. If I gave any indication I already knew the answers to Carly’s questions, I’d have to admit to pulling his application after we met this morning to get said information and maybe reading it more than once. 

 

No thank you. 

Making Her Mine Chapter One

Zoey

 

I tossed my head back along with the clumps of blond hair that had fallen in my face then blew out a large breath to try to get my bangs off my sticky forehead. This was so gross. Winter in Michigan wasn’t supposed to be so hot and when I stepped outside it for sure wouldn’t be.

 

I didn’t want to be stuck in the garage with the heat turned up to the scorching level of hell with my brother insisting I learn the basics of car maintenance or die trying. I told him that’s what mechanics were for but saying that only got me a hard noogie to the head. Riley was serious on the or die trying part because the heat just might have killed me if I stayed in there too long. He wanted that garage to be like the tropics in the middle of winter.

 

 

“Come on, Zo, it’s changing a tire not rebuilding a motor,” my brother, Riley, said sounding more exasperated with me than I was him but that couldn’t be possible. Riley used a shop rag to wipe the sweat from his forehead and neck. Gross.

 

I wanted to waterboard him with the gas from one of the spare cans. It was like being held hostage at this point. He’d called me out there over an hour ago and the only thing we’d accomplished was the sweaty, smelly aroma around me. The tire hadn’t moved an inch and honestly, I thought he’d actually tightened it a little each time I couldn’t get it loose.

 

Why does someone need the heat so fucking high?

 

“You’re using the tire iron like a girl,” he said.

 

“I am a girl, Asshole.”

 

“Language, language. You’ve got some mouth on ya.”

 

“Haven’t had any complaints about it yet.” I gave him my best sassy smirk.

 

“Oh god.” He bent over, hands on his knees, pretending to gag. His whole body jerked like he was having a major seizure. Until finally he stood straight. “What would Mom think of that?” he asked with mocked outrage.

 

Ok, maybe for him it wasn’t mocked.

 

“Why don’t we go ask her?” I jabbed a thumb toward the house, more than ready to give up.

 

I should’ve been apartment hunting instead of spending this time with my brother trying to change a flat tire. Looking for my own place and getting the hell out of my parents’ house held a lot more appeal than dying in the garage on a cold winter day. I loved my parents but living with them again had never been part of the plan and felt too oppressive after being on my own for most of the last four years.

 

In fact, coming back to my hometown wasn’t even on the radar once I graduated from college. But since I hadn’t found a job anywhere else, even with the better part of a year trying and the part-time positions weren’t enough to pay the bills, I hadn’t had a choice. I needed the paycheck.

 

My dad and Riley promised to help financially until my job as a high school English teacher started in March. I hated needing the help and promised myself to stop the aid as soon as humanly possible.

 

Teachers didn’t normally start a new school in the last third of the year but the one I’d be replacing died. You can’t plan for that and the school had been making do with a long-term sub. As soon as that contract expired, I’d jump in. The position fell into my lap kind of perfectly, minus the death part, even if it meant moving back home.

 

“Maybe I should go shopping. Apartment hunting. Donate a kidney. Something a little more fun than this,” I offered.

 

“Damn it, Zoey. You’re doing this.”

 

“Why are you so bossy?”

 

“Lots of practice. Try again.” He pointed at the tire again.

 

I groaned and bent down to fit the tire iron back on the lug nut with absolutely no hope of loosening it.

 

Riley left home right after his high school graduation to enlist in the Marines. We stayed close even though I’d only been fourteen and sometimes he was deployed. He’d call whenever he could and said my letters while he was in Afghanistan helped him keep a level head. Helped him remember he had someone he loved back home. After he got out he decided to open a mechanic shop. He’d always been good with mechanical things and after the service had the experience.

 

“Come on, Zoey,” Riley prodded again. “You don’t want to be reliant on some fucking guy your whole life, do you? What happens if you get a flat in the middle of the night on the highway?”

 

“Um, call you?” I smiled up at him widely.

 

“Try again.” He pointed back at the tire as he backed up toward the door. His hair was just as damp as mine so if he went outside I figured it’d freeze to his head. Served him right.

 

I could’ve slinked away once he left but Zoey Goodrich didn’t slink. Fitting the iron on the lug nut once again, I tried with everything I had, but the damn thing still wouldn’t move.

 

That was it. I wanted to give up for real.

 

I popped straight up and decided to go look for Riley. He couldn’t keep me there like a prisoner. I’d been humoring him because I liked hanging out with him but he could never know that. Since he wasn’t in the garage with me, I went to look inside the house.

 

“Hey, Riley,” I called out as I stepped inside and shut the door behind me. “I don’t think I have the body weight to make this work. I’ll have to be content to asking for help.”

 

The tall man standing next to my brother in the dining room made me want to swallow those words back down my throat. His russet hair was messier than it had been the last time I saw him, but his dark eyes could still see right through me and make my knees weak. He shouldn’t have been able to affect me so many years later, yet my heart sped up and a new kind of sweat dotted my forehead.

 

At first, I refused to believe it was the man that flipped my eighteen-year-old heart on its axis four years ago. That could not be a plausible reality for me. Him back after all this time? It had to be someone else even though I could clearly see it wasn’t.

 

Three steps closer confirmed it. As if I needed less distance between us to know it was Wyatt McCann, my brother’s best friend standing in my parents’ dining room.

 

He’d put on probably thirty pounds of muscle since I’d last seen him. His waist still narrowed and his arms were still the strongest part of him. The swimmer’s body I’d always loved. Those broad shoulders looked like they could carry the weight of the world. Maybe they had. I wouldn’t know because it’d been over four years since we’d spoken.

 

“Hey there, Small Fry.” Wyatt McCann’s trademark smirk as his eyes traveled from my face down them back again made me want to punch him in the face. Though, logically, I knew I’d be the only one hurt during that transaction.

 

That look made a girl want to commit violence against his shins if not more sensitive parts of his body. But with his height, shins and balls were about all I’d be able to reach. I determined not to think about any of that but fuck, I still wanted to do it.

 

If I did anything out of the ordinary with him, Riley would know that something had happened between the two of us. Not that there was something between them, or ever really had been. Ugh, I wanted to kick my own ass now. The heat of crimson edging its way onto my cheeks would give away where my thoughts had drifted if either of them cared enough to look closely. Damn it, it had only been a kiss.

 

“Don’t call me that,” I finally said back more out of habit than anything else although this time I added a hard edge. It wasn’t exactly intentional.

 

“Calm down, Zoey,” Riley gave me that chastising brother look with his eyebrows squished down yet his mouth pulled back so I rolled my eyes. “Give the guy a break. He just got back.”

 

I didn’t need my brother to tell me that Wyatt had been deployed again a few months ago. That seemed to be a constant loop of him leaving, coming back for a while, stationed further away, then deployed again. Thankfully, I’d never been back home when he’d come to town.

 

I bit the inside of my cheek before saying, “Sorry. Glad you didn’t die.” Then I hauled ass away from them. Standing in front of the man who’d once been the center of my every thought while being sweaty and gross was likely to cause me to die of embarrassment.

 

There had been an image in my head for years that if I ever saw Wyatt McCann again, I’d be dressed to bring a man to his knees. Make him see what he’d once walked away from. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my luck. When he showed up I was in jeans that were too big, a T-shirt that had seen better days, and hair matted to my head.

 

I ran up to the bathroom attached to my bedroom and hopped in the shower. Slightly cold shower because that man caused liquid heat to pool between my legs just by being there. Unlike anyone else I’d ever met, Wyatt turned me on. Even though I despised him. Probably especially because I despised him.

 

With school and his deployments, I’d been able to avoid him for the last four years. If only that had continued.

 

The night of my high school graduation party went down in history as the most humiliating of my life thanks to Wyatt McCann. When things happened in college that other girls cried over, I’d ask myself, “Was it as humiliating as that night with Wyatt?” If the answer was no, I got over it. Moved on.

 

The answer had never been yes.

Last Good Thing Chapter One

When I got to his house that late Saturday morning in May, I couldn’t bring myself to pull into the driveway. Which was ridiculous, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I came to a stop next to the curb and turned the car off to look at my father’s house for the first time in four years.

 

It looked the same as it had my entire childhood.

 

The same well-kept lawn and unchipped white paint that stood out among the less-taken-care-of houses in the neighborhood. The only thing different from last time was that he wasn’t inside anymore.

 

He never would be again.

 

The last time I’d seen that house was the day my mother left him with me in tow right after junior year ended. I hadn’t wanted to go. I mean, yes, it wasn’t the best neighborhood, but the school was in a nicer area and I’d been getting a decent education. Not to mention East Branch had all my memories and all of my friends. Most of whom I was sure no longer lived around there. But this was up to me. I had to do it. For my dad.

 

Unhooking my seatbelt meant nothing was left holding me back and that scared the shit out of me. For the first time ever, I wished Dad would have remarried because then… then this would’ve been up to his new wife. Instead, it was up to me. I was his only next of kin, so the job fell to me. Walking across that street and up the stairs I’d played on as a child was easier than him dying but still so incredibly hard. My fingers lightly brushed against the railing that I’d hit my head on when I was seven, which had resulted in five stitches just into my hairline.

 

Then I stood in front of the door knowing I had no more excuses not to go in.

 

Until someone called my name.

 

Someone familiar.

 

Someone I should’ve known would still live next door.

 

He never would’ve left. And suddenly I was incredibly thankful that I’d picked out a sundress that flattered my body and had taken the time to put a few curls in my long, blonde hair. If I had to see him the moment I stepped foot in town, I may as well look good.

 

“Laney Douglas? Never thought I’d see you around here again.”

 

Turning slowly, I got my first look at him in four long years. The boy I had thought about more than I cared to admit in that time.

 

“Hi, Zac.” Even though I tried to keep the smile from my face, I couldn’t.

 

The man had grown even more beautiful as he’d grown older. Thick, dark locks that, while still messy, were also shorter than they’d been, and chocolate brown eyes that I’d wanted to drown in every single day of high school. Everyone always wonders what happens to the insanely hot guy after high school ends. Now I knew. He got even hotter.

 

I thought about what I could say to him as I made my way down the sidewalk and met him right between my father’s house and his. It was a moment so awkward that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. I folded and unfolded my arms. Tried not to look nervous. Instead, I decided to act as if he hadn’t crushed me four years ago.

 

“How are you?” I asked.

 

“Good. Good. You?” He did that obvious thing guys do when they take in every detail of the pretty girl in front of them. Not that I had been the pretty girl in high school, but when I moved to Pittsburgh, I found a friend who’d taught me to have a sense of style and I’d definitely filled out in all the right areas.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“What’re you doing back in town?”

 

“Well… um… ” This was the worst part. Dad was gone. I’d accepted that—I grieved for him every day—but telling people sucked. Thankfully, Mom was calling the few friends he’d wanted notified. Of course, I’d never met any of them. Even still, my eyes started to water, and I swallowed hard. “My dad died.”

 

The smile fell from his face.

 

“Seriously?”

 

I nodded once while trying to hold back the tears continuing to burn my eyes. Oh, how I wished it were a big hoax. But I’d seen him lying on the hospital bed not moving—not breathing. He was dead. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was a great guy.”

 

Everybody had loved my dad, even Mom.

 

An uncomfortable silence hung between us unlike anything we’d experienced when we’d hung out together before. Before, it had been easy. Zac had been my friend. If I still knew him, I’d say he looked like he wanted to hug me. If he wanted to keep his balls where they were on his body, he wouldn’t do it. Not after the way he just cut me out of his life.

 

“So, you’re back… ” he said, not moving.

 

I guess he did like them where they were.

 

“Just for the summer. Maybe less. I have to take care of all of his things.”

 

Zac nodded slowly. He hadn’t changed much. He was a little taller, but he’d always been tall, six feet when I’d left that summer, so now I’d say six-two. And fuller. He wasn’t bulky like a bodybuilder, but the long, lean muscles that roped his arms and thickened his thighs couldn’t be missed. But I needed to stop thinking about his thighs.

 

Four years was a long time.

 

“It’s weird to ask, but is there going to be a funeral? When did it happen?”

 

All normal questions. Normal questions that I didn’t want to answer.

 

“No funeral—”

 

“Daddy,” a little voice called out from behind him, cutting me off. I welcomed the interruption. At first. This small version of Zac ran at him, slamming into that thick thigh and wrapping his tiny arms around Zac’s leg. “I’m hungry.”

 

“Sure, buddy, I’ll be right there.” Zac lovingly rubbed the boy’s head, then looked back to me and my wide eyes with raised eyebrows.

 

Zac had a kid.

 

All kinds of emotions ran through me at the thought of Zac procreating with someone. Not all of which I was proud of. But I chalked any thoughts of jealousy up to the instability already there by my dad dying. There was no other reason that one of those feelings would be jealously.

 

Zac wasn’t mine.

 

He’d never been mine in that way.

 

But I was pissed. This wasn’t something I should have been left in the dark on and I wondered what else I’d missed out on. What else I hadn’t been told in the last four years.

 

“Laney, this is my son Dylan. Buddy, this is my friend Miss Douglas.”

 

“Oh, please don’t tell him to call me that.” It made me feel old. Zac having a kid was doing a good enough job of that on its own.

 

Zac chuckled and with the amusement still on his face he said, “OK. Dylan, this is my friend Laney.”

 

“Hi, Laney.” Dylan waved, then looked back up at Zac. “Mac and cheese, please.”

 

“Sure. I’ll be right in.” Another ruffle of the hair and Dylan ran off back into the house I used to hang out with Zac in.

 

Finally, Zac looked back up at me. It may have been years since we’d seen each other, but I was pretty sure judging by the look on Zac’s face, he felt guilty. Over what, I wasn’t sure. There were so many things to choose from.

 

“Oh… are you married?” I shouldn’t want to know that.

 

He laughed. “No.”

 

Well, that was interesting. Now I had to know more.

 

“How old is he?” I asked because I wanted to do the math.

 

I didn’t fool him. He took a deep breath and a nice, long blink. He knew exactly what I was doing.

 

“He’ll be four in a few months.”

 

“Four?” My eyes narrowed as I went through every memory I had from before I’d left, and it hit me. At least I thought it did because the last girl he’d dated, at least the last one he’d told me about, might not be the mother of his child. But since my luck was shit, I knew I’d be right. “Oh.” It wasn’t impressive, but it was all I could manage. “Maddie Preston?” He nodded. That ugly green flashed through me briefly. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. “Ah, the girl every guy wanted.” I shrugged, trying to play this whole thing off while making my escape plan.

 

My stomach turned at the thought of two of my former friends together. It shouldn’t have. I’d moved on, so of course they had too. Though I’d never know why moving on for them meant no longer being friends with me. I may have wanted more from Zac at one time, but I’d never asked for it. I’d never scared him off.

 

“She wasn’t the only one every guy wanted.”

 

Zac did that. He always had. Said things to try to make me feel better, but it wasn’t going to work this time. I never cared what the other guys had wanted. Back then, I’d wanted Zac Walsh to want me. He hadn’t and I’d accepted it because having him in my life as a friend had been enough. But then I hadn’t even had that when it counted.

 

“Guys didn’t want me in high school, Zac. They wanted what they thought or heard I might do with them, but they didn’t want me.” Somehow a rumor had gotten started and though I had my theories as to how, I’d moved, so it didn’t matter after a while. But Zac had gotten into more than one fight over what was being said about me because he’d been my best friend who would defend me no matter what. Always had been. Fuck. “Wait… If Dylan’s going to be four, then Maddie was already pregnant when I moved.” Zac rubbed a hand over the top of his head, tousling his hair, then nodded quickly. “And you didn’t tell me.”

 

And that made me angry. Like crazy angry. He’d told me every freaking other thing in the world. Why not that?

 

Zac, Maddie, and I had been in the same grade, which meant that he’d become a dad at the start of his senior year. That would’ve been tough. But I also wondered why no one, including my own father, ever told me.

 

It shouldn’t matter, I told myself, but it did.

 

I’d moved to a new place where I had no friends and within a couple of months the two people I thought were my friends and I’d stay in touch with were no longer answering my calls. No explanation. They just disappeared from my life. More than once I’d wondered if they ever thought of me or missed me.

 

I guess I just no longer fit into their lives.

 

And that sucked.

 

“Sorry,” I said. “That was rude. You don’t owe me any explanations. I’ll see ya around, Zac.”

 

Turning on my heel, I said a silent prayer that he’d let me get away with shutting our conversation down like that, but knowing Zac, I shouldn’t have expected it to be easy.

 

“I wanted to tell you,” he called out, causing me to stop and turn back. He closed the distance between us. “But I fucked up and couldn’t.”

 

“Why?”

 

We told each other everything. He knew I was still a virgin when I moved and I knew he wasn’t.

 

He would’ve known when that status changed if he’d been talking to me at the time and I should’ve known when he’d become a dad. All in all this conversation was starting to piss me off even more. Being pissed off wasn’t really something I wanted to deal with right then.

 

“I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me. Laney, you were really the only person who thought I could do more… be more. I didn’t want to hear the disappointment in your voice when you found out you were wrong.”

 

There was no comeback for that. I would have been disappointed, but not for the reasons he thought. I’d been a stupid kid who’d thought that one day the hot next-door neighbor would realize that the girl who’d been his best friend almost all of his life was the one for him. The one he wanted to have babies with.

 

Yeah, I’d always had the clichéd crush on the boy next door, the boy who now had ink on at least one arm. That was new too. And even though I never had a chance with Zac—our relationship just wasn’t that way, even if he’d given me my first kiss—it would have hurt to have known that he and Maddie were so serious. Hell, they were probably together even now. I wasn’t going to ask. I didn’t want to dislike Maddie more than I already did. Even if my crush had been such a tightly guarded secret that she wouldn’t have known about back then.

 

“I’m kind of surprised your dad didn’t tell you. He played with Dylan all the time.”

 

I swallowed hard. That was a punch straight to the gut and I had to get away from him. “Yeah, I don’t know. But I’m going to go get started on the house. See ya.”

 

This time… This time I didn’t give him the chance to stop me. One upside to running into Zac before entering my father’s house was that I no longer had a problem getting through the front door and shutting it behind me.

 

Slumping against the wood, I took a minute to compose myself before looking around the house I’d grown up in. The living room had been updated at some point because when I lived here there wasn’t such a big TV on the wall. The black leather sofa and loveseat were new as well. Just like always, the house was clean. Dad had been a neat freak.

 

The first thing I did was move down the hallway that leads to the bedrooms and shut his door. I couldn’t deal with that on day one. Maybe on day eighty.

 

For now, I just couldn’t.

Highest Bidder Chapter One

Why I chose to go to school in Michigan was a question I asked every winter. Not because I came from some tropical paradise. Far from it. But the Midwest in winter got ass cold. Who was I kidding? I knew why. It was the place that accepted me the furthest from home. And whose idea was it to take a communications class at nine-thirty in the morning all the way across campus? Right. Me again.

 

On that one, there weren’t many choices because by the time I got around to registering, most classes were either taken or I needed a prereq I didn’t already have. I got stuck with Nonverbal Communications, Intro to Sociology, Human Biology, and Women in Literature. Overall not completely terrifying and a somewhat light semester.

 

Plows went out early the first morning of the semester making the walk actually pretty quick, still cold as fuck, though. I didn’t even slip or fall once which would’ve been morbidly embarrassing and also a tragedy if anything happened to the beloved Converse Chucks Mom sent for Christmas. I didn’t go home. I felt bad about that. Mom understood I couldn’t swing the money, neither could she. I talked to her, briefly, and an empty campus was a rarity I enjoyed. Peaceful even. The town had been rather quiet too without the college crowd covering every inch.

 

Since the classroom was completely empty when I arrived, I could pick where I wanted to sit. I liked to sit near the door, that way I could leave without too much interruption should the need arise. Three seats back, I plopped down and rested my head on the desk for a quick nap before class started.

 

It didn’t last.

 

Unfortunately, other early birds started filing in after only three minutes. Not even enough time for a power nap.

 

“Hung over, Tate?” Adam Burger tapped my head with a spiral notebook as he passed to the seat right behind me. I met the blond douche at dorm orientation freshman year. To my complete shock, the dorms were co-ed by floor. I’d been in such a rush to leave Washington that I hadn’t paid any attention to some of the particulars. And he wasn’t a complete douche even if I liked to tell him he was. He’d become a pretty good friend by then.

 

“I wish.” A yawn escaped before I could do anything about it.

 

“Christ. Your mouth is huge. Big enough—”

 

“Go no further.” Throwing up my hand to cut him off, he laughed hard at me, barking like a dog.

 

Hanging out with guys, as I had most my life, I’d developed a sixth sense for when they were going to get gross. And with Adam it was a sure bet he’d always get gross.

 

“Kendra in here, too?” I asked, expecting to see one of my best friends trailing behind him.

 

He shook his head. They’d been all freaking over each other since Halloween. I hardly ever saw one without the other. They were my little group. Me, Adam, Kendra, and Ava, who brought Jared when they weren’t broken up. There were a few other stragglers, like Casey, who the guys called the hot lesbian because she was, in fact, hot and a lesbian.

 

More students filtered in, most of whom I recognized by face if not by name. The last few shuffled in a minute before the professor, filling the room. All so we could discover what each other’s body language was telling us.

 

Dr. Hendrick went through all the normal first-day stuff. What he expected from us, when things were due. Boring. Then he started explaining the semester project. As his voice droned on, I made a mental note to leave early every morning to get coffee. It would be the only way I survived this class. My ears perked back up when he mentioned that the project, which counted as two test scores, by the way, would be a group endeavor. I hated group work. Most of the students I’d been put into a group with slacked off at some point, leaving me and maybe one other person to do everything. Awesome.

 

As Hendrick roamed the room throwing four into each group, I looked around trying to predict who I’d end up with. It wasn’t long before he got to us. Sweet. Adam was in my group. He wouldn’t slack. I’d make sure of it.

 

“Ok,” Hendrick raked his fingers through thick brown hair, making me realize for the first time how young he actually was. Not particularly good looking. But young. “These last fifteen minutes I want you to get together, introduce yourselves, and exchange information. In short, get comfortable. A good portion of your study time will be spent with these people.”

 

Several groans came from the far corner. Come on people, this is college, work is involved. I quickly swung my desk around and while the others did the same, I wrote my name, phone number, and email three times on a piece of paper then tore it into sections. I also kicked Adam under the table to spur him into getting the lame introductions started.

 

“Christ, Flannery, that better not bruise.”

 

“Why? Got a swimsuit competition this week?” The two guys in the group with us snorted. I loved that it was me and three guys. I’d have no caddy Ms. Perfects to deal with. Things were starting to look up.

 

“I’m Adam. This bitchy little thing is Flannery.”

 

I kicked him again for good measure. I wasn’t bitchy all the time. I don’t think.

 

“Ow. Ok. This sweet, docile young lady is Flannery.” He looked over at me. “Happy?”

 

I nodded with more energy than necessary.

 

“Flannery? What’s your first name?” Why I didn’t know this kid, I don’t know and I couldn’t even put his face into context.

 

He seemed young, but I suspected he was a sophomore like Adam and me. He was scrawny, too tall for his weight and, dare I say, a touch nerdy. I wasn’t being mean; he had this pocket protector, tape on the bridge of his glasses quality to him.

 

“Flannery,” I said back without blinking. I got that all the time. It stood to reason since my mom strapped me with her grandmother’s maiden name. It got confusing.

 

“Your first name is Flannery?”

 

“Yes. Flannery Tate. Here,” I passed the small sections of paper to each one, “all the ways you can get a hold of me. You guys should do the same. Ah … what’s your name?”

 

“Matt Mazer.”

 

Yeah, nothing. I didn’t delude myself into thinking I knew everyone on campus or even in my class but being there full time I did meet a lot of people. And I had a great memory for faces. For example, the other guy in our group I’d seen before even if we’d never met and I didn’t know his name. He’d been around.

 

“Cain Dorsey.” The guy on my right offered as he scribbled into his notebook. Looking over, my eyes noticed his broad shoulders first, the way his thin V-neck sweater strained against his chest. Then I traveled up, past totally kissable lips, perfectly proportioned nose, and finally found deep brown eyes. A couple shades darker than his hair even. Our eyes locked long enough to make my cheeks flush and I hoped he couldn’t see it. He was hot, jeez, and far too … manly to be around our age. Where the frig had he been hiding?

 

“Oh right,” Adam perked up, snapping his fingers. “You’re Sam Allen’s roommate, right?” Cain nodded. “Flan, remember that Halloween party?”

 

“The one where your tongue spent most of its time down Kendra’s throat?”

 

“Yeah, that one. It was at their place off campus.”

 

That attitude is what drew me to Adam after we’d started hanging out. He never cared if his business got out there or when I put it out there. Which I only did as a joke and never serious stuff. He was cool about everything.

 

“That’s where I’ve seen you.” I knew it. The corner of his mouth turned up a notch.

 

After glancing up at the clock, I started shoving everything in my backpack.

 

“Gotta run.” I almost forgot to grab Matt and Cain’s info before heaving my winter coat on. When I balled the papers up and put them in my bag, Adam shook his head.

 

“Hot date this early, Flan? I’m scandalized.”

 

“Yeah, Adam. Hot date with my bed. Ava’s crying and whining kept me up all night. Again.”

 

He chewed on the inside of his mouth, eyeing me like he was trying to make a choice.

 

“Why do you look constipated?”

 

“Trying to decide.” He sat back stroking his chin. “I want to make a completely inappropriate joke about joining you in bed but also want to hear what’s up with Ava.”

 

“Well since you have no chance of getting in my bed … Ava and Jared broke up over Christmas. It’s a nightmare.”

 

“I take it you two already know each other.” I kind of forgot Cain was listening to all this. He must’ve thought we were nuts with our verbal sparring. His playful look made me smile but I played it off, of course.

 

“Yeah, I’ve been cursed with him since the first day of college.”

 

“The word you’re looking for, Flan, is blessed.”

 

I rolled my eyes as we started out the door with Matt and Cain snickering behind us. I threw a quick goodbye to them all and headed back to my dorm where I got another two solid hours of sleep before getting ready for the next class.

 

The first week of a semester is usually a poorly choreographed dance of rushing to class, sleep, eat, and basically not a lot of fun. Except I got four-day weekends. Just how I wanted it. Crazy class hours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but nothing on Thursday and Friday. By the second week, it became routine.

 

And I was right.

 

Coffee became part of my routine for my only morning class.

 

Rolling over, my eyes didn’t want to open. When I forced them, I could see how much time I’d still get to sleep.

 

The clock had to be wrong.

 

“Nine ten? Fuck.” I threw the covers off, hopped up, and put on the first things my hands touched. I could hear Ava in the shower and hoped she’d alone because I needed to go in to brush my teeth but she’d brought company in there before.

 

She wasn’t.

 

“Gross, Flannery, get out,” she called.

 

“Unless you want to hop in,” Jared teased. Immediately after, a hard slap on wet skin rang into the air. Go, Ava. She hadn’t told me they were back on.

 

“I need to brush my teeth. Maybe you guys can corral all carnal activities to your bedroom.”

 

I wasn’t going to have time to put on any makeup or wash my hair so I pulled the long brown tresses into a loose braid that hung over my shoulder to mid-chest, hoping I didn’t look gross enough to scare anyone.

 

“What is she talking about?”

 

I could only roll my eyes. Jared was cute enough but he came to school more because of his ability to tackle than any academic contributions. I got out of there before she could respond.

 

The worst part of running late…no time for what I’d come to call my “communications coffee”. Walking as fast as I could without running, I made it to the Brown building with three minutes to spare.

 

Adam leaned back in his chair with his feet propped up on mine. I kicked his hoofers off so I could sit.

 

“No coffee?” He didn’t try to whisper or anything.

 

I thought the class rather enjoyed the twice a week comedy we provided. They watched us close enough but could also have been trying to decide if we were a couple.

 

We tried once.

 

Just a kiss but I imagined it was what kissing a blood relative would’ve been like. So, it didn’t work out. It wasn’t an unrequited love kind of thing either. He’d laughed equally as hard as I did. Then he hooked up with Lara Sanders, the village bicycle in West Hall.

 

“Overslept.”

 

“That stinks.” I knew he was messing with me by the tone of his voice. The next thing I heard was loud slurping as he emptied his very large cup of coffee. He even did a satisfied “ahhh” at the end, the rotten son of a bitch.

 

Turning enough for him to see me, I gave my absolute best dusty eyeball. “You suck.”

 

“You can have mine,” the warm voice beside me suggested.

 

Cain Dorsey was offering me his coffee?

 

“I can’t take your coffee.”

 

“Why not? I don’t have cooties. Plus, I haven’t taken a drink yet. Take it.” He reached the cup out allowing me to smell the roasted goodness lurking beneath the plastic lid. The black silk seduced me with one sniff.

 

Trying to stifle the smile breaking out across my face, my natural talent for witty come-backs disappeared. I started thinking that maybe his cooties wouldn’t be so bad to catch anyway. My stomach tingled slightly under his gaze.

 

“Take the fucking coffee so we’ll be able to stand you,” Adam interrupted and I reached back with a playful, yet significant, smack to the top of his head.

 

In the end, I took the coffee. It felt good going down and the effects started immediately. I became awake and sharp.

 

“Oh god.” My eyes rolled back in my head in a slightly orgasmic way. Yup, I loved coffee that much. “I think I need to marry you,” I said to Cain without thinking.

 

Used to sparring with Adam, it didn’t occur to me that Cain might not take my comments as intended.

 

My nerves calmed when he broke into a hearty laugh, filling the entire room and drawing Hendrick’s attention.

 

He didn’t seem to notice the added attention.

 

“If I’d known it’d be that easy …”

All I Want Chapter One

Harrison

 

When James, the manager of the restaurant I worked for, asked me to work the job fair for him, I honestly wanted to say no. Or hell no. Or even fuck to the no. The last thing I wanted to do was spend my Saturday in a huge gymnasium with a thousand other people—alone. But we needed staff and James’ daughter had broken her arm this morning, so he’d asked me to handle it. I was going to be here anyway, at least for a while, which meant taking over wasn’t such a big deal.

 

I’m just saying that this wasn’t how I would’ve chosen to spend my Saturday. At least if James had been with me, I’d have had someone to cover for me while I grabbed a drink or ran to the restroom. I did pack up a cooler with a bunch of bottles of water and ice. I was going to be there all day, after all. But as assistant manager, I supposed this was part of the job description.

 

For a brief minute I thought about calling my best friend Beckham and harass him until he came to keep me company but decided against it. This was my job.

 

Setting up wasn’t bad. The booths were already arranged. I got my assignment and found the right one without a problem.

 

After hanging the banner—a large rectangle that only had the restaurant name, The Crown Grill, sprawled over it in a silver font with a black background—arranging applications and business cards along with a cup of pens, there wasn’t much else to do but wait for the doors to open. Though I did do a fair amount of people watching.

 

Other businesses seemed to have a more complicated setup and for once, I was grateful for James’ minimalistic ways.

 

Not long after the doors opened, all the booths were relatively busy, which left me thankful for the times when there was a lull. At least then I could grab a drink. This huge job fair seemed like a good idea, but damn, it was a lot of work. I had to keep reminding myself that I was getting paid for this.

 

“It’s nice when there’s a break, huh?” a feminine voice said from the left of me.

 

I’d just tipped a bottle of water against my lips to wet my mouth and froze as my gaze swung in her direction. All this talking was drying me out.

 

This woman from the booth beside me, who hadn’t been there before because I would’ve noticed her, also held a bottle of water in her hand as she waited with a small smile on her full lips for a response. Her light blonde hair hung over her shoulders in curls that almost went to her waist and her blue eyes looked like two sapphires watching me.

 

I pulled the bottle from my lips and swallowed and glanced at the sign they had hanging in the back. Your Day Made Massage Therapy. “Yeah, it is. Probably the only thing getting me through this.”

 

This woman was wearing, what I think my mom would call a sundress, which hung to just above her knees. Her shoulders were tan and bare due to the thin straps. This dress probably shouldn’t have looked so good but damn she was beautiful and everything about her called out to me.

 

“Me too.” She dragged a stool over to the side of her booth and climbed on. By the looks of her, she was maybe seven or eight inches shorter than me, which would’ve made her around five feet four inches or so, but on that stool, I couldn’t be sure. “How’d you get roped into this?” she asked, then she glanced at our banner. “Or do you own the restaurant?”

 

I chuckled and brought my own chair over to the side of the booth closest her. The way the booths were set up, we still had a countertop between us. It was one our booths shared. But damn, the closer I got to her, the more I noticed how beautiful she was.

 

“The owner’s nine-year-old daughter broke her arm this morning,” I told her. “He had to go.”

 

“Ouch,” she said as she cringed. “I broke my wrist when I was eleven. Right before school got out. It sucked.”

 

Summer had just started, so Hannah, James’ daughter, would probably be in a cast for most of it. “Yeah. That wouldn’t be fun. How’d you break it?”

 

She winced. “It’s not a fun story.”

 

“No?”

 

She shook her head, those long curls bouncing against her skin. “I tripped at school and used my hands to catch my fall. Snap.”

 

“Damn.” That was something people did all the time. Trying to catch their fall was a natural reaction.

 

This woman gave me a smile and I was about to ask her name when someone approached my booth.

 

“Duty calls,” she said, pointing to the person waiting on me at the same time the woman with her said, “Hey could you help me a minute?”

 

I had to stifle a sigh. I would’ve much rather continued chatting with this beautiful woman than talk to a prospective waiter or busboy or whatever. But that wasn’t why I was here. Summer was just getting going and Lake Shores got a lot of tourists, which meant the restaurant would be extra busy. We needed the people.

 

The large room had gotten noisier by the minute as more people filed in and past booth after booth, sometimes stopping to apply for jobs and others just to talk. I assumed they wanted more information.

 

There was a vast array of people stopping to talk to me. Most of them appeared relatively fine. There was one that reeked of marijuana and I knew he’d never pass the drug test James required of his employees. He was funny as hell though and I laughed more with him than I had the rest of the day. His questions were ridiculous. Did he really have to show up every day he was scheduled? Dumbass.

 

There was a steady stream of people at my booth as well as the one next to me. I could hear her voice as she talked to their own prospective employees, her laugh as she spoke to some of them. She wasn’t alone. There was another brown-haired woman with her, roughly the same size as her and I thought I heard her call out the name Jess.

 

Jess looked like a coworker, or at least what I’d overheard she had an answer for every question that had been asked. I hadn’t talked to her all. She’d given me a glance here or there when I was talking to her friend but other than that she’d had her eyes on her phone if she wasn’t talking to someone at the booth.

 

It was really hard to focus on what I was doing sometimes.

 

It was another hour before we both had a down moment at the same time.

 

“So are you the manager, then?” she asked, picking up right where we’d left off. As if we hadn’t just spent an hour talking to other people about other things.

 

“Assistant manager.”

 

“Do you like it?”

 

I shrugged. It’d be bad form to say I hated the job I was representing, but I also didn’t hate it. Managing a restaurant just wasn’t my passion. “I like it fine.” She gave me a look, like she knew what I was really saying. “Not what I hope to do with the rest of my life, but it’s good. What about you?” I pointed at the banner behind her. It was simple, purple and white, with the company scrolled over it. “Do you like your job?”

 

“Yes,” she said right away. “I love massage therapy.” She tucked her hair behind one ear and took a deep breath. “It might sound stupid to some, but I help people. Being able to work out all the knots and kinks from someone just to make their day better is awesome, but sometimes I work with people who have cancer and releasing the muscle cramps helps their pain.” She shrugged. “I can’t imagine anything better.”

 

Fuck. My gut tightened when she said kinks, but also, she made my love of food and wine seem trivial, to be honest.

 

“I bet it does,” I told her.

 

Then it was back to talking people into applying for our respective workplaces. This went on for a while. We’d talk for a few minutes then our attention was pulled. But every time she laughed at something someone said, I’d look over at her.

 

Shit. I hadn’t even asked her name.

 

“Hey,” the beautiful woman said, suddenly standing in front of my booth. My estimate of her size had to be dead on as I looked down at her. “I’m going to grab a sandwich and notice that you don’t have anyone with you so you can take a lunch break. Would you like me to grab something for you?”

 

My brows raised as I realized this perfect stranger was asking if she could get me lunch. Meaning she’d thought about me and my situation at least long enough to determine that she wanted to do this for me.

 

“You know,” I began, “that actually would be great. I can’t really leave.”

 

She nodded. “That’s what I was thinking. I, at least, have Jessica with me even if she’s spending her time texting her boyfriend. What do you like?”

 

“I’m not picky. Just get me whatever you’re having.” I reached into my back pocket for my wallet, but she was already backing away.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” she called out before turning away.

 

About half an hour later, this beautiful woman brought me a sandwich and a bag of plain chips. After dropping them onto my counter, she went inside her stall and pulled up to our shared space. As if it were a given that we’d share lunch. It was what I wanted, but damn, I needed to ask her name. Her co-worker had already grabbed her own lunch before this and was now manning their booth, so my lunch date didn’t need to worry about prospective employees. I, on the other hand would keep one eye on her and the other on the front. Just in case.

 

“Thank you,” I told her, then I took my first bite. This fantastic medley of flavors exploded in my mouth. It was just roast beef and swiss, but I was so hungry that it tasted like the finest meal I’d ever eaten. The condiments had been on the side, but I’d already added the mayo and mustard.

 

“Oh my god,” she said with a moan. “I wouldn’t have thought a regular sandwich could taste this good.”

 

I chuckled. “Right?” I took another quick bite. “It’s the hunger. If you’re hungry enough, anything will taste like the best meal you’ve ever had.”

 

She nodded. “That’s so true.”

 

“By the way,” I began because again I was reminded that I’d never introduced myself and neither had she. “I’m Harrison Flynn.”

 

She froze as her big, blue eyes widened and a flush crept across her face. “I can’t believe I never told you my name.”

 

“Still haven’t.”

 

She slapped a hand over her face. “Luna,” she finally said. “Luna Love.”

 

I cocked my head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Luna Love?”

 

“Yeah,” she said, as if this weren’t the first time she’d had to explain it. “I secretly think my parent’s high hopes were for me to be a stripper.”

 

A piece of bread got stuck in my throat, causing me to cough. Definitely hadn’t expected that to come out of her mouth. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t that. The coughing kept up.

 

“Are you OK?” she asked, concern replacing anything else on her face. “Take a drink.”

 

I snagged my bottle of water and did just that. The cool liquid pushed down the stuck food and I could breathe normally again.

 

“Sorry,” I said, but my voice didn’t sound right. It had that weird kind of quiet quality that was typical after almost choking to death. I cleared my throat a couple of more times and took another pull of my water bottle before trying to talk again.

 

“Surprised you, huh?” Humor tugged at the corners of her mouth.

 

“Absolutely. I wasn’t expecting you to say that.”

 

She shrugged those slim shoulders. “It’s true, though. Why else would they strap me with a name like Luna Love?”

 

I shook my head because I didn’t have an answer for her.

 

“Anyway,” she continued, “is restauranting what you’ve always wanted to do with your life?”

 

“Not like this,” I told her honestly. “I love food and wine, but managing isn’t really my thing. I don’t hate it, like I said before, but it’s not what I want to be doing in ten years.”

 

“What do you want to be doing in ten years?”

 

“Hopefully, I’ll have gone through sommelier school and be working in an upscale restaurant that can appreciate my talents.”

 

“Hey, Luna,” the other woman who was working their booth butted in. “When you’re finished, I could use some help.”

 

Luna and I both looked over and saw that a small group of people had just appeared at their stall.

 

Luna glanced over her shoulder a second time than looked back with a cringe. “Sorry,” she said to me. “Looks like I have to go.” She gave me a smile as she quickly picked up all of her trash from lunch then dropped it in their bin.

 

Over the rest of the afternoon, I heard words like administrative, office personnel,and janitorial as they worked their way through that first group and everyone else that had stopped by. They must’ve needed support staff at their spa. Or clinic. Or whatever they called it.

 

Finally, the job fair was over around three and I began to pack everything up, as did Luna and her friend beside me. I worked slowly as I didn’t want to leave before she did. Or because I was working up the nerve to shoot my shot. Not sure which.

 

“Thanks for hanging out with me during the downtime,” Luna said as she came to stand in front of my stall. She had a bag over her shoulder while her coworker was pulling a case behind her. The co-worker kept walking.

 

“Yeah. You too. It was nice talking to you.” You’re a dumbass, I screamed inside my head. Just ask her out already. But we hadn’t talked much about ourselves that didn’t involve our jobs. Luna could’ve had a boyfriend. Been married with a gaggle of kids. I didn’t know.

 

“I wanted to give you this.” She had a card in her small but strong hand. As I took it from her, she said, “Just call if you want to use it to make an appointment.”

 

I glanced down at the piece of cardstock she’d handed me.

 

It was a free couple’s massage. My gaze hopped right up to hers. Joke was on her because there was no couple where I was concerned. Hadn’t had a girlfriend in about a year. I’d been dating, but that wasn’t the same thing.

 

“Thanks,” I told her and meant it then decided to reciprocate. I grabbed one of my cards out of my bag and scribbled on the back. “Same here. Just call for a reservation and I’ll make sure it’s taken care of.”

 

She took my card and after reading it, she smiled. “Thank you. I’ll see you later then.”

 

As she walked away, I realized she hadn’t commented on the fact that I’d put on there a complimentary dinner for two. Fuck.

 

Someone like her obviously had a boyfriend. I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I spent the next three days kicking myself for not at least attempting to ask her out.

Heavy Hitter Chapter One

Fiona

 

“Can’t they just get this over with already?” I slouched back into my seat in the stadium. Mom chuckled. She was far more patient than I’d ever been a day in my life.

 

Came with the territory, I supposed. Being married to a ballplayer couldn’t have been easy. He’d been gone a lot with road trips, was constantly in the news even when he’d been home. He’d drawn attention wherever he’d gone back then. Hell, he still did.

 

Dad was part of a pre-game ceremony before the game, which was why Mom was with me today. I came to the games all the time. Much more often than she did. It was kind of part of the job I currently had running my dad’s foundation, which had close ties with the team in Detroit. Plus, I did love the game.

 

“You know the team loves their ceremonies, Fiona.” Mom had her blonde hair up in a messy bun. A hairstyle that my dad always commented made her look like a slightly older version of me. More than once, Mom and I had been mistaken for sisters. She always rebuked that, saying that after what she’d been through, she’d earned the right to be known as my mother.

 

Maybe I hadn’t been the easiest teenager.

 

“What’s this one for again?” she asked. Most of the time, I knew more about this stuff than she did because of the foundation.

 

“It’s just a recognition thing for Perez, the catcher, and the work he’s been doing with a literacy program in the city.”

 

“Literacy?”

 

I nodded. “He grew up pretty poor in Central America and said that he didn’t know how to read when he got here. It’s important to him.”

 

“It’s a good cause.”

 

It definitely was and that was something the foundation loves—a good cause. Dad had always had a lot of privilege in his life, he said, so when he got even more by being drafted, he knew he’d always give back. He was retired now, so he did that work through the foundation and was very hands-on. But not so involved that he encroached on my job. No. He trusted me to run the thing and I appreciated that. Most people didn’t have that kind of position at twenty-four, but I’d been working my way up since I was thirteen and it helped that my dad was the boss. Once he’d been inducted into the Hall of Fame, even more attention had fallen on us.

 

We’d been ready for it.

 

Once the ceremony ended, Dad talked to a couple of reporters, then joined us for the game. There’d be a proper media conference after the game was over.

 

“Did I sound dumb?” Dad asked after he dropped a kiss to the top of my head. At this point, I think he did it out of habit.

 

“Never,” I told him.

 

He’d been leery of doing interviews like this, but his comfort level had grown in the last two years. It was funny to me that he’d played baseball for forty thousand fans every night, but the idea of talking to a reporter sent him running. Dad was pretty tall, six feet with dark blonde hair and blue eyes. That was where I’d gotten my eyes from. Hair from Mom. Eyes from Dad. Height from Mom as well, I supposed. Mom was average height for a woman, but I hadn’t grown past five foot three inches.

 

We ate hot dogs throughout the game and cheered for our team as they played their hearts out and won. Man, I loved everything about baseball. Mom had asked Dad why he didn’t buy a box, but he’d said he liked to be down where the action was. Every game, I was glad he had these season tickets. We actually had four, but most of the time only used three at most if my dad or I had a friend that wanted to come.

 

Once the game was over and we’d won, the three of us headed up to an empty office where we could wait for the reporters to get settled in the conference room but for now we were waiting and watching the live interviews of the players who were down in the clubhouse.

 

Our team had played a good game and the players were reflecting that in their interviews.

 

Until there was some yelling in the background as the big sports channel talked to the third baseman, Zev Cohen, who’d hit a grand slam tonight. That guy had a bunch of talent, even if it’d taken him longer than usual to get out of the minors. Best of all, he was one of the nicest players I’d ever met. And I’d met a lot, though I didn’t know everyone on the team just yet.

 

Then the yelling got louder and a fight broke out.

 

Zev put his hand over the camera and pushed it down so they couldn’t record any of the fight.

 

“Fuck,” Dad muttered before he ran out of the room.

 

Dad wasn’t the owner of this team, but this was his team. I imagined he’d burst into the clubhouse like the Kool-Aid Man breaking that brick wall and help put an end to whatever was happening. Dad’s best friend was the skipper, so they talked a lot about the team and how to handle things.

 

“What do you think happened?” Mom asked, as if I’d know the inner workings of that room.

 

I knew a lot, but I didn’t know what went through players’ heads in moments like this. Fighting with your own teammate didn’t look the best and didn’t normally turn out well.

 

“How would I know?” I asked back. “These guys are all jacked up on testosterone and adrenaline. Maybe someone brushed by someone else too closely.”

 

She snickered. Mom had her own experience with players, Dad included. Sure, he’d learned to manage everything that came with being in the Major Leagues, but Mom said it hadn’t always been that way. It just all happened long before I’d come along. He’d still been playing when I was born, he’d just already found himself by then.

 

“It’s probably a couple of rookies.” I shrugged. “I would guess, anyway. Do you want a water or something?” I offered. “I can grab some from the refrigerator next door.”

 

“Sure. It was pretty hot out there today.”

 

“Day games can get oppressive,” I agreed. Mom didn’t love the game like I did. She didn’t hate it, but hers was more being tolerant than actual love.

 

I loved it. If I would’ve been a boy, I’d be playing it. Since that couldn’t happen, I did what I could through Dad’s foundation to spread the love. Though I did try my hand at softball for a while but it just wasn’t the same.

 

“I have no idea how you did it,” I said as I handed her the bottle.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The early years. When Dad was a hothead. These guys are so dumb.”

 

Mom snickered. “They are, but think about it. They’re young and living their dreams. It makes them feel invincible.”

 

“But they’re not.”

 

“Of course they’re not.” She took a small drink before continuing. “I know you had a bad experience, but they’re not all Andy.”

 

I groaned. “Why would you bring him up?”

 

Andy. The ex-boyfriend baseball player that had screwed me over more times that I could count. Though I hadn’t known it at the time. When everything had come out, I’d been devastated.

 

“Because I think you let what happened with him hold you back.”

 

I snapped back as if she’d slapped me. “Wow. We’re just dropping truth bombs right now, aren’t we?”

 

“I mean… you kind of brought it up.”

 

I scowled at her. “Sounds like you’ve had that one locked and loaded for a while.”

 

“I have.”

 

Mom!”

 

“Hear me out.” She moved over to one of the chairs and patted the one across from her. I’d hated it when she’d done that when I’d been a teen because it meant we were having a serious discussion. Back then, it could’ve been anything from the birth control talk to when my grandpa had died.

 

“It’s not like I have a choice.” I dropped onto the chair in front of her, sounding more like a teenager than a twenty-four-year-old woman.

 

Mom snickered. “You don’t. We have to wait for your dad to talk to the press, right?”

 

I sighed. “Right.”

 

“All I was saying, Fiona, is that you had a really bad experience with a guy. He happened to be a baseball player, but he was an asshole.”

 

“All true.” I whirled my finger in the air as if to hurry her up.

 

“But there are just some guys out there who are like that. It has nothing to do with his job.”

 

I squinted to tell her I didn’t believe her. “I’m pretty sure that professional athletes have a higher percentage of assholes than the general population. Remember the football player who punched his girlfriend so hard that he knocked her out?”

 

Mom shivered. We’d both seen that video and it had given us chills. “Of course I do, but that’s not every guy. It was that guy.”

 

“What are you saying?”

 

“It’s not only that you’re letting the one experience with Andy sour you against players, but it’s also that it’s soured you against men in general. Have you dated since him?”

 

Since we’d broken up, I’d gone on dates, but I hadn’t dated. There was a difference and she didn’t need to know that.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

Mom!”

 

“I’m calling a spade a spade, Fiona. You might’ve gone out a few times, but your father and I haven’t met a single one of them, which means they didn’t last long.”

 

Also true. Mom and Dad had met anyone I’d been dating, usually before I’d had sex with them. My parents were a big part of my life and I wasn’t going to wait six months or a year before the guy I was with hung out with them at least at a game.

 

“You really had to do this here?” I waved my arms around the room. “This is technically work for me.”

 

A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “You’re on a break.”

 

“OK, Mom. I hear you.” I tapped my fingers against my leg like a little set of drums.

 

“How long do you think they’ll be?”

 

“How would I know?”

 

“You know this stuff, Fiona.”

 

I took a deep breath. She’d only said that because I hung around baseball guys so much. “It depends, Mom.”

 

“On?”

 

“How bad it was,” I said. She waited with an expectant look. “How many people were involved in the fight. How bad it got. Zev pushed the camera away pretty quickly, so I didn’t get a good look.”

 

I pulled my phone out of my dress pocket. Damn. I shouldn’t keep the reporters waiting for too long, so I shot off a quick text to Dad, telling him I was going to handle the presser myself. I’d have canceled it altogether, but there were a couple of things that I wanted to let drop. The exposure would drum up support for a couple of projects we had started, including donating sports equipment to underfunded schools.

 

He just replied with a quick thumbs-up. I stood as I shoved the phone back in my pocket.

 

“I’m going to do the quick presser,” I told Mom. “Want to join me?”

 

She snorted again. “No, thank you. I’ll wait right here for you. John isn’t coming?”

 

I shook my head. “I don’t know when Dad will be done, so I’m going to do it myself. Can’t keep them here all night and especially once they hear about the fight. They’ll want to be outside when the players leave.”

 

“Right. Makes sense. Good luck, sweetie.”

 

I gave her a fake salute before heading out the door and down the hall to the conference room.

 

This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with the press myself and they wouldn’t even have known about the fight yet.

 

I assumed.

 

I was wrong.

Daisy Chapter One

Daisy

 

“Holy shit,” I muttered as our SUV from the airport pulled up outside the arena in Cincinnati.

 

“This is insane,” my brother Bonham, who also happened to be our drummer, added. His dark hair was a mess and if my parents hadn’t insisted we were related, I wouldn’t have believed we were. It was that way with all of my brothers.

 

“Right?” I smiled his way.

 

Logically we’d all known joining Courting Chaos on tour would mean playing arenas like this. Seeing it firsthand was something else altogether.

 

“Listen,” Mack, oldest brother to all of us and our manager, said before clearing his throat.

 

His movements were so similar to Bonham. As was his voice and coloring. Same dark hair. Same dark eyes. If I thought about it too long, it seemed even stranger that the four of them had come out looking like they were family yet there I was almost their opposite. They were tall while I wasn’t. They all had the dark hair and eyes while I had red hair and hazel eyes. It was weird.

 

“I know this is big,” Mack finally said. “Let’s not fuck it up.” Sage advice from a wise man. A thought that made me snicker. “We should get our things settled on the bus. I had the bags you packed before and our equipment brought here already, so we’re set there. Then we’ll have to meet the guys and do soundcheck.”

 

I let a small noise, something that sounded like and eep, escape from my mouth. I’d loved Courting Chaos’ music long before they’d hit it big and opened for Kissing Cinder. I’d gone to see them on that tour, too. More than that, they were who we wanted to be one day. Success wise.

 

My brothers had messed around with their instruments for years before I’d become part of Pushing Daisies. Actually, that wasn’t even their name back then. It had been something stupid like Dude Bros or another name that was equally ridiculous. It wasn’t until my brother Van Zant heard me singing one day that they’d lured me in. I never sang in front of anyone before that. Not even for fun. It wasn’t my thing. I would’ve been content to play my violin alone in a room forever, but once they’d made me part of their little group, I was all in.

 

“None of that, Daisy,” Mack cautioned. “Let’s at least try to pretend to be professional.”

 

“Yeah, Daisy,” Van Zant, twin to Bonham as well as being our bass player, said like we were in middle school. My brothers were ridiculous.

 

I grunted. “I’m nothing if not professional, but in private, I am absolutely allowed to vocalize my excitement. You should’ve gone to the concert with me. Courting Chaos fucking rocked plus I got to see Kissing Cinder.”

 

Daltrey, guitar player and second oldest brother and the only one my mom said held any resemblance to me, patted me on the shoulder. Apparently, we had the same smile otherwise, he was made from the same mold that produce the others. “She’ll be good.”

 

The scowl I gave him after that comment wasn’t going to do much to deter any further teasing from my brothers. I knew it. They knew it. It was how we worked.

 

“I’m just glad you know what you’re doing,” Daltrey continued but that was meant for our brother Mack, not for me.

 

“Was anyone else surprised as hell to find out that Mack does in fact know… well, anything?” Bonham continued.

Mack didn’t respond other than to raise his middle finger at our brothers. This was our normal. The guys gave each other shit and gave me shit. There was always shit going around.

 

“I just can’t believe our luck.” I shook my head. “Not that it’s a good kind of luck that the Hurricane’s drummer and lead singer were badly injured in a car accident, of course.”

 

“Of course,” Mack said, but the slight tilt of his lips meant that he really wanted to fuck with me. He wouldn’t because we’d arrived. But he wanted to.

 

The cheers from the crowd filled my ears as we got out of the SUV that had been sent for us. Each of us carried a single bag of personal items since Mack had shipped the majority of our things. There was no way to tell if those cheers were for us or because these Courting Chaos fans thought one of the guys from that band was inside the car. Probably more the latter than the former, but when we’d joined the tour last week, we did bring a small but energetic fanbase with us.

 

This tour would likely change all that. The crowd remained chattery as we passed by but the big excitement died down.

We walked toward a woman who didn’t look much older than me with dark hair pulled up into a very neat bun. But she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It was clear to me that she was headed straight for us.

 

“Hi, everybody. I’m Barrett Powell. Lawson’s personal assistant and all-around media wrangler. He’s in with the guys and wants me to get you all settled in.”

 

“We appreciate it,” Mack told her before introducing each of us.

 

I couldn’t stop grinning over the fact that there was another woman on the tour. That was never a given and mostly rare if you didn’t count the randoms that hung around or the occasional wife or girlfriend. At least in my experience. I desperately wanted us to get along because she could be my safe haven in the middle of the testosterone storm that came with living on a bus with four guys.

Barrett waved us to follow as she began to walk away. The sound of the crowd had started to interfere with us talking.

 

“Hey, guys,” I said to my brothers as we headed for the door. “Did you notice the dude in front? With the super blond hair? I swear I saw him in Chicago last weekend at our show.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Daltrey agreed. “I thought he looked familiar.”

 

“If he came all this way, maybe we should meet him. Like, can we do that?”

 

Barrett snorted. “Listen, you can pretty much do what you want. If you want that guy backstage, I’ll make it happen.”

 

“You’re like the all-powerful Oz,” I told her, keeping my eyes wide as if amazed. That got a loud laugh out of her. “I think we should,” I added.

 

“Oh. I’m going to like you,” she said, falling in step closer to me. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

Again, we didn’t have a fanbase the size of Courting Chaos’, given how big they’d become since touring with Kissing Cinder last year, but we’d had songs that were considered hits. We had albums out and had amassed a loyal fanbase. But if that guy had come to Cincinnati from Chicago, or wherever he was from, the least we could do was give him a good experience.

 

“So your instruments joined us yesterday,” Barrett told the five of us as we walked between buses. “They’re inside ready to set up for soundcheck. The guys are doing theirs now.” Then she stopped next to one of the buses. They all looked the same to me, but we’d soon be able to tell them apart. Or I hoped we would. “This is yours.” She pulled the door open then climbed the stairs. I followed closely behind.

 

“Honey, I’m home,” I called out only as loud as appropriate. But Barrett giggled.

 

“I like that,” she told me.

 

“We’re not even inside yet, Daisy,” Van told me.

 

“It’s a habit that I don’t intend to lose,” I said back. Then to Barrett, I explained, “I call that out every time I get on the bus because I want my brothers to know I’m here. So I don’t get scarred for life from seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing.”

 

Barrett laughed loudly, the sound bouncing around the bus. “That’s a great idea. I’m going to have to steal it.” When I glanced over at her, she added, “I also bus with a few guys.”

 

“Oh sure. Feel free.”

 

“OK.” She clapped her hands together, as if she wanted to make sure we were all paying attention. “How about we go meet the guys? You can leave your bags here if you want to.”

 

My heart galloped like a racehorse. We’d met other bands over the last three years, but I’d also loved Courting Chaos basically since they’d hit the airwaves.

 

As we passed the crowd again on the way toward the venue, Barrett fell in step beside me.

 

“No argument over who gets the big bed in the back of the bus?” she asked me. My brothers weren’t paying us any attention.

 

“No,” I told her. “I’m the youngest, the baby, and the only girl. They always give it to me.”

 

Her eyebrows rose in surprise. “That’s about the opposite of how I was thinking it’d go.” She stopped to pull open the venue door for me to step through then slid in behind me. The sound of drums took my excitement to the next level.

 

I snorted. “Yeah, me too. But I really think they don’t want me to know what they’re doing when I’m in bed. Best way to do that is to keep me separate. So they give me an actual room I’ll want to stay in.” I glanced over at her and lowered my voice. “I still always know.”

 

Barrett giggled as she entered the dark area that I knew led to the stage, the floor marked with glow tape so no one would miss a step and fall. The music grew louder and now added to it were voices bickering back and forth. I knew that sound well, too.

 

“Or you could sing the fucking lines,” one of the distinctly male voices said.

 

Someone chuckled into the microphone and replied, “I like mine better.”

 

Finally, we stepped on stage, which meant I’d know who was saying what. But this was the huge stage we’d be performing on that very night. My heart rate ticked up and my chest swelled. This was our break.

 

“Why do we have to do this so often?” Cross asked as he sat behind his drum kit.

 

He looked the same as when I’d seen them last year. Muscular, tall but we couldn’t see it because he was sitting. His hair was kept short and neat and his tattoos roped down one arm. The way he held his drumsticks, I knew they were an extension of his hands. It was like that with my violin.

 

Hot. Of course. They were all hot.

 

Ransom laughed. “Because you guys like to give me shit. If one of you would rather sing, have at it.”

 

Ransom had dark hair but it was a little floppy now compared to when I saw them in concert. And he was taller than he’d looked on stage. Of course, I didn’t have very good seats for that show.

 

The other three guys groaned, but I couldn’t help my smile. They sounded exactly like my brothers and me, though none of them gave me shit about singing. It was the bickering back and forth that felt familiar.

 

Booker, their bass player was maybe the tallest of them all. With long, lean muscles, dark brown hair and an armful of tattoos, I’d read he was also the quietest of the group. Suppose I’d find out on the tour.

 

Then there was Dixon. Looking at him caused this nervous tickle low in my belly. Not because I wanted him. No. He had a girlfriend anyway but he was the hottest of them all as far as I was concerned and I may have had a crush on him at one point. He had the darkest hair of the four guys and the kindest brown eyes. Again, all of this was opinion.

 

“Do any of you realize you have an audience?” a fifth man, not part of the band, asked as he strode out of the darkness in a white dress shirt and dress pants, sleeves rolled up like he was really getting to work at something.

 

My dad did that sometimes when he’d been at his practice too long or had a lot of patients left to see. Dad was an internist and he never left the office until the job was done. This man’s dark hair was short on the sides and the back but longer and wispy on top. The beard brushing his jaw looked more like he just hadn’t shaved in a couple of days than that of a person seriously growing a beard.

 

I didn’t know who this guy was, but stupid hot came to mind.

 

The four members of Courting Chaos all turned to us at the same time.

 

“Come on,” Barrett said quietly as she strode out onto the stage.

 

We did as she’d instructed, but after the third step, the bottom of my shoe caught and I stumbled and like the complete dork that I am, I tripped over my own feet. The only positive to this was that I didn’t fall flat on my face.

 

That was when I got my first proper glimpse at the size of the arena, it wasn’t only my stride that faltered. My breath caught in my throat and as much as I may have tried to hide it, this… this was a like a dream come true and the excitement of it all gave me an extra energy that I had nothing to do with.

 

“Hey, guys,” Barrett called all of their attention to her. “If you can refrain from bickering like a bunch of little girls for five seconds, you could meet your new opening act. Pushing Daisies.”

 

Cross came out from behind his kit while the other guys made their way toward us. At the same time, we moved farther out onto the stage that was about to become like a second home to us.

 

Barrett quickly went through Courting Chaos’ roster, as if we didn’t already know.

 

Mack took over for us. “I’m Mack, their manager. These are my brothers, Daltrey, guitar; Van Zant, bass; Bonham, drums; and our little sister Daisy, lead singer.”

 

I rolled my eyes so hard, it almost hurt. “You know,” I began, “‘sister’ works fine all on its own.”

 

Mack scrunched his eyebrows down like we hadn’t had this conversation a million times in my lifetime. “But you’re our little sister.”

 

“And you are pretty little,” Dixon agreed.

 

I just shook my head at the lot of them. I was twenty-one. Of age, as they say. Would I ever not be their little sister? My brothers chuckled around me which probably meant I never would be. I went through high school as Bonham and Van Thompson’s little sister. As if I didn’t have my own name.

 

“You know,” Van said, cutting in, “she still has a poster of Dixon on her bedroom wall at home.” The guys of Courting Chaos snickered, but the sound made it clear that they were trying not to.

 

My eyes widened as I turned to him. “What. In. The. Hell?” My teeth clenched so hard, my jaw ached. “Why would you tell him that?”

 

Van shrugged with a shit-eating grin on his stupid face. “Because you do.”

 

“It’s still on the wall because I moved out. Mom didn’t take it down.”

 

“You moved rooms,” he countered. “You didn’t leave the house.”

 

“I moved to the side house. It’s a completely different space.” I sighed. This wasn’t going to work. “You’re all dead to me.”

 

“See, Barrett?” Dixon said as he pulled her over to him and my heart dropped. I’d read Dixon had a girlfriend, they all did, but didn’t pay much attention to the name. It was a little crush. Totally normal. Now depending on how Barrett reacted, I might’ve lost my opportunity for female companionship on this tour. “Maybe you should put a poster of me on your wall.”

 

“Never,” she said immediately. “Your ego is big enough as it is.”

 

He kissed the tip of her nose in such a sweet move that I knew immediately that I wanted what they had some day. Relief also washed over me. It sure didn’t seem like Barrett cared even a little about this new information.

 

“So, fangirl,” Dixon said, but it took me a full ten seconds to realize he was talking to me. “You have excellent taste. You have a fantastic voice but do you also play any instruments?” Surprise ran through my body that he’d heard my voice. I’d assumed someone further up the chain made the decision to book us. To which he gave me a panty-dropping smile. “We listened to everything you have out when Lawson got you to replace Hurricane.”

 

“Thank you,” I told him.

 

“Which is awesome, by the way,” Booker told us. “That you were able to step in on short notice.”

 

“Yeah,” Ransom agreed. “We know you had to cancel some of your own shows.”

 

“Not a problem at all,” Mack replied.

 

Really, they were doing us a favor by bringing us on this tour. Canceling a few of our shows was an easy price to pay. We played regularly but this was the next level.

 

“Daisy plays everything,” Bonham told them, back to the original question.

 

Ransom cocked his head to the side. “Everything?”

 

I shook my head. It was as if suddenly my brothers’ only goal was to embarrass me. “I don’t play everything well. I dabble. I can play a little something on most instruments, but I only excel with my violin.”

 

“I can’t fucking wait to see that,” Cross told me. And just like that, we were all comfortable. As if we’d already known each other before stepping out onto this stage. “We all heard a violin on some of your tracks and were trying to figure it out until Barrett looked into it and said it was you.”

 

“It is. My violin teacher was pissed as hell that I joined these guys instead of applying to Julliard or any of the rest of the list of schools he saw in my future.”

 

Dixon took a step forward. “Let’s get back to this dabble in everything, fangirl.” He cocked his head to the side and looked me over as if I were an exhibit in a museum. I really didn’t like this nickname I’d gotten already. Sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me. “What does that mean exactly?”

 

I opened my mouth to answer, but Bonham spoke before I had the chance. “Literally. The girl can sit down to almost any instrument and play something by ear.” Then he shrugged. “Any standard instrument anyway. I don’t think we’ve tested with rare instrument.”

 

I groaned. “You make me sound like a side show freak,” I told him.

 

“I mean… ” Bonham let his voice trail off which earned him a light punch to his arm.

 

“Before this gets out of hand…” The stupid hot guy who had been on the other side of the stage but was now suddenly very close to us spoke up. “I’m Lawson. I attempt to wrangle these guys.” Barrett cleared her throat. “With Barrett’s help.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” Mack told him as they shook hands.

 

“OK, fangirl,” Dixon called out, but I held up a hand before he could go any further.

 

“Every time you call me ‘fangirl,’ I’m going to kick Van in the balls,” I told him. “We’re up to three right now.”

 

Dixon’s face blanched for the quickest second, then he shrugged. “They’re not my balls.”

 

Barrett smacked the back of his head. Dixon hadn’t even seen it coming but it made a nice whack sound that traveled through the empty arena. The place had great acoustics.

 

Van groaned. “That’s cold.” The rest of the guys laughed, though, so there was that at least.

 

“OK, Daisy,” Dixon said, though I had no illusion that this was the last I’d hear my new nickname. “Show us.”

 

“Show you what?” I asked.

 

“Hop on the drums. What can you play?”

 

Surprisingly, even as the lead singer of Pushing Daisies, I didn’t necessarily love the spotlight off stage. Though we were technically on stage. Still, I’d do this just to prove that I belonged.

 

“What do you want me to play?” I asked. “Something of yours?”

 

“You know our stuff?” Ransom asked.

 

I nodded. They didn’t get how this worked. Hell, I didn’t get how this worked and I lived it. “I’ve listened to it, so I can play it.”

 

“‘Ever After,’” Cross said before anyone else could make a suggestion. Of course he’d pick something off the newest album. That way I couldn’t have practiced for years.

 

“Am I playing alone?” I asked because that would’ve been weird.

 

“Nope,” Booker assured me. He stepped closer and swung his bass back around the front of him. Dixon did the same and Ransom grabbed a mic off one of the stands and turned. Cross just stood there with his arms over his chest.

 

But they were all looking at me.

 

I took a deep breath, letting my muscle memory or whatever the hell it was that allowed me to do this to kick in. Then I slid behind the drums and giggled. “Hang on,” I told them. “My feet don’t touch the floor. I can’t reach the foot pedal.”

 

The sound of male laugher surrounded me. Cross was over six feet tall and I was about five-foot-four. Big difference in stool height needed.

 

“Want some help?” Cross asked.

 

“I got it but you’ll have to fix it after.”

 

Once adjusted, I gave the guys a nod.

 

This particular song started abruptly. Everyone was playing all at the same time, so I counted it off and let the memory of the song control my hands. Ransom came in on the right beat and even to my own ear, it sounded almost the exact same as it had on the radio. As if Cross were behind the drums the entire time not me.

 

I could admit that once in a while it felt good to be out of my comfort zone. To play an instrument I didn’t know the way I did my violin. To walk in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

 

As the song came to an end, all four members of Courting Chaos were standing before me with their eyebrows raised and eyes wide, as if they couldn’t believe what they’d just witnessed. Yeah, yeah. I was impressive and all that. To me, it wasn’t that cool. It was just something I could always do.

 

“Holy shit,” Booker muttered.

 

“No kidding,” Dixon agreed. “If anything happens to Cross, we know who to go to.”

 

“Fuck off.” Cross gave him a shove.

 

“That was pretty badass,” Barrett told me. “I’d like to see you put these guys to shame on the other instruments, but they have some media to do.”

 

Thank you, I mouthed. She gave me a smile that said she understood. Out loud I said, “That’s totally cool. I mostly don’t like to play the bass anyway.”

 

“Oh, come on.” Booker threw his arms out in frustration.

 

“No, no, no,” I said quickly as I scooted out from behind the drums. “It’s not that I don’t like bass but look at it. It’s over half the size of me and it’s awkward as hell to hold.”

 

He looked from me to his bass then back. “You may have a point.”

 

“All right, guys,” Barrett called out like the gym teacher I’d had in middle school. “Let’s move. We have to get this done, let them do their soundcheck, then everybody needs to get ready for the show. We sold this show out the day after announcing that Pushing Daisies was taking Hurricane’s place.”

 

My heart did a cartwheel. Small but loyal fanbase for the win.

 

Soundcheck didn’t consist of much for us. The guys got everything adjusted the way they wanted. I tested the sound of my violin, though sadly, I was only using it for two of our songs this set. For our normal shows, we played much longer, but right now we were opening. Our setlist had been decided almost as soon as Mack told us about the offer.

 

Once we were done with that, the four of us, because who knew what Mack did while we played, quickly jogged out to the bus then came back to our dressing room. We should’ve remembered to bring our show bags in with us, but whatever.

 

The guys changed right there in the main room, much to my disgust. Though they were all careful not to bare anything I wouldn’t see in a bathing suit. That would’ve been one of the things to scar me for life. I changed in the shower area then did my makeup and hair.

 

I left my copper red hair down with loose curls that I shook out to look more wavy than anything else. Jeans, a black tank top with sequins for the lights to reflect off of, makeup done more heavily that I would’ve on any given normal day so that I didn’t wash out under the lights, and I was good to go.

 

Someone knocked on the door. “It’s go time.”

 

That was when a pack of wild antelope stampeded through my stomach. Usually, my nerves weren’t in full force before a show. But this was our first show with Courting Chaos. This was going to be a night to remember.

 

My brothers bounced on the balls of their feet. They did this every show. It was their way of amping up.

 

When the voice announced us, booming through the bass speakers like the voice of God, we all took a unified deep breath and jogged up the steps to the stage.

 

The roar of the crowd was deafening as I put my earpieces in.

 

Loved those things. They helped dampen the sound of the crowd while letting me hear myself, as well as the guys, so I knew when I needed to adjust.

 

This was the best thing about concerts. A percentage of the people in the audience had probably never heard of us before. If they had heard one of our songs, they likely didn’t know it was by us. By the end of the night, I’d have them eating out of our hands. Or that was the plan anyway.

 

Then we exploded.

 

Our first and last songs on the setlist were the ones with the most energy and were the biggest hits. With the exception of “Losing Myself in You,” which got a lot of radio play, but it was a ballad. We’d play that somewhere in the middle.

 

I moved across the stage like I owned it, singing the songs like they’d been written just for me, which they had been. My brothers were so focused on stage. Most of the time they didn’t notice the women upfront whisper-yelling into each other’s ears and giggling. At least not during the songs.

 

In between songs, I peppered in things about us, about joining the tour, about the next song coming up. Once in a while, one of my brothers would interject. Mostly Van. Then we slowed it down for a ballad.

 

When we played “Losing Myself in You,”the phone lights came out and so many people were singing along. The song was relatable about a woman (me) falling hard and fast and losing themselves in the guy. It could’ve applied in the reverse too. Everyone could sing this song.

 

Then it was back to high energy. Sweat trailed down my back and this workout was the reason I could eat almost whatever I wanted and hadn’t gained any weight in years. Being on stage burned about a billion calories every night.

 

Sadly, it came to an end with “Battleground” and our part of the night was over.

 

“Thank you all for making us feel so welcome,” I called out into the microphone in my hand. “We are Van, Bonham, Daltrey, and Daisy and we’re Pushing Daisies. You all are primed and ready. Courting Chaos is on their way to you. Have a great night!”

 

All four of my brothers surrounded me. We took a quick bow. Waved. Then scurried off stage.

 

“Jesus Christ, Daisy,” Van said as we moved quickly to the dressing room where I assumed Mack would either be or find us there. I’d encouraged a meet and greet tonight which meant we had to hurry. Mack had told me that we were fitting it in between our set and Courting Chaos’ because we had to get on the road as quickly as possible once the show was done. “You didn’t hold back tonight.”

 

“I never hold back,” I countered, almost offended at the idea that I would. Stage always got one hundred percent from me.

 

“True.” Daltrey flung his arm over my shoulder. The smell of sweat surrounded me and I had to shrug him off. It was just too hot for that. “But tonight felt like more.”

 

I didn’t have a reply, so off to the dressing room we went.

 

I downed an entire bottle of water as I toweled all the sweat off as Mack waited for us. He had been in the dressing room while we were on stage though I suspected he watched most of the show from the side. This was a big night for him, too.

 

There’d be no time for a shower before the meet and greet. It’d have to wait until after. Still, I did a quick swipe of deodorant under my arms while the guys changed shirts. Then we were following Mack out. He seemed to know where we were going.

 

“Oh thank god,” I muttered when we came through the door.

 

There were only maybe eight people in the room waiting to meet us and the air conditioner was sure working here. Though there were several extras including the stupid hot manager, Lawson. I had no idea why he was in there watching us, but I sure as hell didn’t mind looking at him. His gaze was like a warm hand skittering over my skin. There was comfort in knowing he was there.

 

First we met and took a picture with a couple of teenagers who gushed about how much they loved our music and how happy they were that we’d stepped in for Hurricane. It went like that through the people, who were then quickly ushered out the other side of the room, until we got to our superfan.

 

“I couldn’t believe it when that woman came out and said you’d requested to see me,” the guy told me. His blond hair was slightly matted from sweat. Though it was more how he said it that had me raising my eyebrow. Technically, he was correct. I had requested to meet him and he seemed all too excited about that fact.

 

“Well, I thought it only appropriate,” I explained. “Didn’t I see you at the Chicago show?”

 

“Yeah, absolutely.” His eyes never left me. “I’ve been to a ton of shows.”

 

“That’s awesome.” My gaze found Lawson across the room as he watched us with eyes narrowed and an intensity that I didn’t understand. “Uh, did you want to get a pic?”

 

“Of course.”

 

My brothers had been listening the entire time and brought it in for the picture with Superfan on the end. Superfan took a big step down and pushed his way between Van and me. Van opened his mouth to object, but I pinched the side of his abs. No sense making a big deal right off the bat. Just take the picture and be done.

 

Superfan, whose name was lost to me, though I knew he’d said it, put his arm around me. Now, most fans slid their arm around my shoulder, which was convenient since I was usually a lot shorter than they were. Not Superfan. His hand first rested on my shoulder until he trailed it down my side to rest on my hip. Not technically my ass, but close enough on the side where he gripped me tightly.

 

Fucking hell.

 

The picture was taken. We were done. Until he asked, “Can I get one with just you, Daisy?”

 

Aw, shit. The no was on the tip of my tongue, but “Sure” came out instead.

 

Same process. The pic was taken and he was being ushered out. What bothered me the most was how familiar he acted with me. As if we’d known each other or known each other. But I wasn’t my brothers who, at various times, had fucked anything that moved. I hadn’t had so many partners that I wouldn’t remember this guy when face to face with him.

 

But it was done. Over. Time to move on.

 

“I need a shower,” I muttered as I too left the room.

Cross Chapter One

Indie

 

The fans showed up early every damn day.

I couldn’t blame them, given how amazing Kissing Cinder really was, but I never understood having nothing better to do with your entire day than stand outside a venue hoping to catch a glimpse of your favorite rock star.

Maybe because I’d grown up catching glimpses of my favorite rock star, which meant I couldn’t relate.

I also got to call him “Dad.”

My plane landed early and Dad had offered to pick me up at the airport, but I declined. The last thing the world needed was for the Vince Cinderstone to take over O’Hare International Airport just to pick up his daughter. Plus, I didn’t love being splashed all over the gossip sites and where Vince Cinderstone went, cameras usually followed.


“How was your flight?” Dean asked as soon as I got out of the restricted area. He smiled but his body was all business and on alert as always. His head was still shaved which made his muscles seem even bigger than they were. Though he was strong as hell. I’d seen him pick up decent-sized people and move them.


As my dad’s favorite security guy, Dean was the compromise I’d made to ensure Dad wouldn’t come get me himself. Nobody would snap random pictures of Dean and me.

 

“Quick. I just should’ve driven myself,” I said.

 

We walked toward baggage claim to get my suitcase. I had my purse and carry on with me, but no way could I fit my entire summer in such a small bag.

 

“Then you’d have to store your car somewhere.”

 

“I could’ve waited until the tour comes to Michigan,” I countered. Dean and I did this back and forth every tour. It was our thing. I pretended to complain and he told me why I was wrong.

 

“That’s not for another month,” he reminded me.

 

He’d gotten me on the timeline. Waiting a month wasn’t part of the deal and I didn’t want it to be. I never got to see Dad enough as it was.

 

Dean had a car waiting out front to take us to the venue and when he’d opened the back door for me, I passed by to climb into the front. He chuckled as I pulled the door shut. I didn’t love the rock star treatment and since I wasn’t one, I didn’t need it.

 

The whole situation worked for me, though. Going on tour with my dad Vince Cinderstone, lead guitarist for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, had some perks—a summer of crisscrossing the United States, time with my dad, my camera around my neck, and a lot of people to watch, an arena to explore—maybe even a city to capture.

 

If I could get my dad to remember that I was an actual fully grown twenty-one-year-old. He could be a little protective. A byproduct of his guilt over not being with me full-time while I’d been growing up. Or at least that was what my two college psych classes told me.

 

On the drive, Dean asked about school and I asked about his wife. Like he was an uncle I only saw once a year which was kind of true. He had to slow way down to maneuver near the crowd that had already formed outside the arena.

 

“You need anything before I start checking on things?” Dean asked as we walked across the parking lot of the venue not far from where the fans gathered near the buses.

 

Snap, snap, snap.

 

“Indie,” he said as he put a hand in front of his face.

Too bad for him I got several shots before he had time to react. Have to love the quickness of digital photography.

 

“Sorry, Dean,” I said with a giggle as I flipped the switch to display the photos I’d just taken on the screen. “Hey, this one’s good. Your wife will love it.”

 

I tilted the display toward him so he could see.

 

He smiled and shook his head, almost blushing I’d say. There was no denying that Dean was a good-looking man, but the most attractive quality about him was how much he loved his wife.

 

“You can’t guerrilla attack people with your camera,” he finally said.

 

“I can and I will. But tell me she doesn’t find big, scary bodyguard Dean incredibly sexy.”

 

He tried to hide another smile and shook his head again. I was right. Of course, she did. Who wouldn’t? I knew he got many, many offers while he was on tour with Kissing Cinder and he always acted like he didn’t even hear them. I’d be crushed to find out different about him.

 

“I’ve got to go,” he said instead.

 

Dean walked away, leaving me to roam with my camera.

 

Since he’d given me the permanent pass hanging around my neck with my camera, I slipped through the side door without anyone giving me a second glance. I just wanted to wander around backstage and snap some pictures.

 

Venue people could be jerks about me being in their space. But I learned long ago that they were just people who had a job to do, so I tried to stay out of their way as much as possible. These huge buildings had great nooks and crannies where shadow and light crossing was too amazing to pass up.

 

As I moved around, the crowd outside became louder which meant it’d gotten bigger. No idea how the guys in the band got used to sleeping through the noise since the crowd usually gathered near the buses. Years of experience, I guessed. For me, the fans often woke me up before I knew what city we were in. Spending the summer with my dad meant less sleep and I could handle that.

 

I slipped back outside to get some shots of the crowd already forming out there. Some of the best shots came when people didn’t know you were out there taking them.

 

Dad loved what he did. That made me happy for him, but I could never be a rock star. Every single time someone opened one of the venue doors, the crowd began screaming. Especially the women. Fans followed him everywhere. Asked for pictures and autographs. He took it all in stride because he’d had decades of handling it. But me… I’d hate the hell out of it.

 

The morning sun did beautiful things with the colors outside. It was going to be an amazing summer day. With digital instead of film, I could snap everything and decide later what to keep and what to delete. I tried to avoid any close-ups on a particular person. For the fans, I stuck to group shots or shifted the focus to blur them out.

 

Then I headed back inside to the empty arena, where the roadies were setting up the stage. Whenever I was on tour with Dad, I documented everything. Now that I’d learned how, I liked to make awesome digital videos for the guys as a way to remember the tour. Videos were easier to store and easier to turn on in the background instead of physically flipping through an album. I liked to include a little something from each city but mostly memories from backstage.

 

I lifted my camera to capture a funny moment between a couple of the stagehands and something hard hit me from the left, knocking me sideways but not to the ground. Took me three steps to balance myself.

 

“Damn,” I muttered under my breath. The contact hurt but that also would’ve been a great shot.

 

“What’re you doing in here?” The man who’d just slammed into me said with a sharp tone. “No one’s supposed to be inside yet. You need to get back outside.”

 

No apology for running into me and almost sending me to the ground. How rude. He didn’t come off as intimidating, right around my age actually, but clearly not that nice.

 

“Outside?” I furrowed my brows and stared. Oh. He thought I was a fan who’d snuck inside. “Yeah, I can be here.”

 

“Heard that before. Come on.” He pointed toward the closest exit.

 

I swallowed and forced myself to ignore how hot this guy was. Hotter than the usual roadie or venue worker, that was for sure. He was quite the pairing of clean-cut and bad boy with neat, light brown hair, shaved on the sides and back but longer on top—and also the sleeve of tattoos on his right arm. His very muscular right arm.

 

“Listen,” I said, pushing all thoughts of his hotness aside, then sighed. “There’s obviously a misunderstanding. Take two seconds to listen to me.”

 

“I don’t have two seconds for you.”

 

“Damn, you’re a dick, aren’t you?”

 

“Woah, the guys get older, but the groupies get younger,” a different deep voice said from beside me.

 

Something about this new guy creeped me out. He was a bit bigger than the first, darker, too. Darker hair, darker eyes, and from what my sixth sense told me, darker personality. He was much closer than I would’ve liked, too. The way he leered at me, made the hair on my arms stand straight up and my stranger danger instinct kicked in full force.

 

When I took a look at my surroundings, I found that there were actually four men surrounding me. They all looked to be just a few years older than me, in their mid-twenties, but I liked being outnumbered even less than I liked some random dude being in my space. Though we weren’t exactly alone and I could call for help if I needed to. Still, I wanted away from them.

 

“Excuse me?” I asked, turning to face Dark Guy.

 

I crossed my arms under my breasts and gave him my best death glare. The one I’d perfected going through high school when people said I was spoiled and that I thought I was better than everyone else because of who my dad was.

 

If they knew I was Vince Cinderstone’s daughter, they’d likely be fake with me. I hated that more than all the other stuff combined.

 

“Not judging,” the dark one said. “We love the medics.”

 

I raised an eyebrow because I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about but his stupid grin begged to be forcibly removed from his face.

 

“Medics,” he said again as if it’d mean something to me. Like I hadn’t heard him before. “Women who bring sexual healing. I think you’d be perfect for the job.”

 

“You know,” I said, cocking my head to the side while narrowing my eyes on him. “You’re probably going to want to shut up now before you dig a hole too deep to get out of.”

 

“I wouldn’t mind digging in your hole.”

 

Hot Guy dropped his head to look at the ceiling, then muttered, “Jesus Christ.”

 

The big one took a step toward me. I raised an eyebrow and steeled my jaw but didn’t step back because once I did that with an asshole like this, it never ended. He’d know he could get to me and however short our current interactions would be, he’d use it to his advantage. I knew the type. Had dealt with them many times over the years.

 

“Let’s just go do this,” one of the others said with authority.

 

They finally walked away but I still had no idea who those men were. The fact that they were leaving me alone was going to have to be good enough.

 

But the moment I’d been trying to capture had passed.

 

Jerks.