Twisted Broken Strings by Elizabeth Barone

The day had come. It was either kill himself, or quit his job. The thing was, he couldn't quit without committing career suicide. He was Koty Jackson, lead heart throb in ESX. Their debut album, Temperature Rising, was #1 on the charts, and their hit single "Heat You Up" played everywhere. They were due to start touring in two days, and Koty was pretty sure that if he did go on tour, he would eat a bullet, or something equally violent and life-threatening.
Twisted Broken Strings
Twisted Broken Strings by Elizabeth Barone
He leaned against the vanity in the dressing room. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror: blue eyes flecked with green, black spiked hair, and a five o'clock shadow. He wore a too-big white tank top over a purple one and a brown fedora—what his stylist claimed all the guys were wearing. He felt like something out of a Hollister commercial. Even worse, he felt like a poser. At home, only Levis and band tees filled his dresser drawers: Megadeth, Nico Vega, The Dillinger Escape Plan. An acoustic guitar leaned against the wall, and a Peavey amp sat in his living room. In his studio apartment, there was no trace of ESX—not even a single fedora. If he had it his way, he would have signed with a real band, one that was made up of instruments and actual talent. Instead, his agent had determined that his smoky voice and good looks were a one-way ticket to boy band hell. It wasn't like Koty hadn't tried to escape. His agent, Raymond Eble, had smoothed his Armani suit, sniffed at Koty's ripped jeans, and told him that no one would take him seriously if he tried to do any other kind of music. It would be, in Raymond's words, "akin to trying to get on Barney after being convicted for molesting children." Koty didn't think it was that serious, but Raymond had been in the business for well over ten years. He knew what he was talking about—probably. The man was somewhat competent, as he had gotten Koty a contract that was making him a lot of money. If Koty wanted to, he could move out of his studio and out to LA, where ESX’s label was. The last thing he wanted was to be closer to ESX, though. A knock rapped at the door, interrupting his thoughts. "On in five," called a male voice that Koty didn't recognize. Right—he was supposed to be appearing on Late Nite with Maz. He rolled his eyes. In just a few minutes, he needed to put on a panty-melting smile and talk about how much he was looking forward to being on tour with Dev, Johnny Z, and Benny—none of whom could even carry a tune, never mind play an instrument. They had no idea who Kurt Cobain or Brent Hinds were. Koty was pretty sure that Dev was secretly gay, despite his legions of female fans. Johnny Z probably had at least three STDs. And then there was Benny, whose red glassy eyes made Koty think he was doing more than smoking a little pot. ESX was a grenade waiting to hit a wall, and Koty was caught in the middle. He might as well swallow the explosive. He yawned and scrubbed at the stubble on his face with his hands. He still wasn't used to LA time, no matter how often he visited. Sometimes he wondered what life would be like if he had kept playing street corners and moonlighting as a bartender. Sometimes he wondered if he had made a huge mistake. Another knock at the door echoed through the dressing room. Koty crossed the room and opened the door. He wished he could wear sunglasses to the interview. On the bright side, none of the other members of ESX were appearing that night. For once, he could enjoy some peace and quiet—sort of. The audience screamed as he walked onto stage. Grip boys held boom mikes, and all of the cameras were pointed at him. He smiled and waved, and the women in the audience screamed louder. He glanced through the crowd. Some had smuggled in posters. "Marry me!" one read. "Meet me backstage for a good time!" another insisted. Koty turned his gaze to the host, eighty-year-old Timothy Masiewicz, better known as Maz. The old man's white hair shone in the stage lights. He extended a hand to Koty, pulled him close for a quick hug, and clapped him once on the back. The audience continued to cheer. Maz gestured for Koty to sit, and flapped his arms, urging the audience to quiet down. Koty continued to smile, even though it hurt his face. All he wanted to do was gulp down the huge mug of coffee that sat in front of him. The late-night show host continued waving his arms, an amused smile plastered on his face. As the crowd finally settled into silence, Maz said, "Well, Koty Jackson!" They erupted into screeching cheers again. Koty picked out a few young faces. If he had a daughter, he surmised, she would be in bed, not watching late-night television. Eyeing the coffee, Koty kept his smile on. Steam rose from the mug, and the light scent of chocolate and Arabica beans wafted to him. His hand twitched. He kept both palms planted firmly on his thighs, though. Finally, the audience fell into an awed hush. Maz sat behind his huge oak desk and took a sip of his own coffee. Koty swallowed hard. His agent had told him not to sip the coffee, no matter what. “You know most of these shows only serve water," Raymond had said. “Maz has his staff add laxatives to his guests’ cups, so you have to run to the bathroom or shit yourself.” Hollywood, Koty was learning, was more cutthroat than teenage girls in a high school bathroom. His eyelids threatened to droop, though. Maybe Raymond was playing his own joke, and wanted Koty to fall asleep on live television. He gripped the handle of the mug. Maz smiled at him. His eyes glinted. There was no turning back. If Koty ignored the coffee, Maz would think he was rude. If he took a sip, he would be embarrassed forever. "So," Maz said, shaking Koty from his reverie, "does anyone actually know who this guy is?" The audience cheered and clapped. Dull pain flared in Koty’s temples. Wincing, he wondered if Maz was riling them up on purpose. Maz turned to him. "ESX’s album is number one all over the charts, in several countries. How does it feel to be the next big thing?" Raymond had warned him that Maz would ask trick questions. Koty licked his lips. "About as good as it feels to earn a paycheck." He winked at the audience. Lights beat down on him. Sweat beaded at his hairline. He fought the urge to wipe his brow with the back of his hand. The dressing room had been air conditioned, but the stage felt like a sauna. "What about your daily routine has changed since you became famous?" Maz asked, stroking his mustache. His eyes flicked to the coffee mug that Koty still held, untouched. "I now buy the good stuff, instead of dollar store toilet paper." Koty held the mug up to the audience in a salute. "Climbing up in the world!" Laughter echoed through the room, but before the audience could get going again, Maz leaned forward. "Seriously, though, how has your fame affected you?" Koty thought he added you little shit to the end, but he couldn't be sure. He shrugged. "I'm still singing for my supper." Maz snorted. He gestured to the coffee. "You want to know the real deal?" Koty set the mug down on the table. "I'm just like everyone else." The audience swooned as one. Glancing at the crowd, Koty saw a woman grab her breasts and wink at him. He turned back to Maz. "The only difference is, I have to shake my ass on stage." Laughter roared through the studio. Maz did not scowl, but he did not look pleased. "Ladies and gentlemen, Koty Jackson!” Shouting over the audience, he added, “Next up, we have another special guest. Stay with us!” The camera man signaled a commercial break, and Maz leaned back in his chair. He did not even look at Koty. Hoping he hadn't completely ruined the interview, Koty stood and exited the stage on his own. The audience screamed as he left. He blew a few kisses and jogged off stage. Raymond waited. "That guy is a complete dick,” Koty said, joining him. His agent nodded. “Didn’t I tell you?” He clapped Koty on the back. "Listen—" Before Raymond could finish, a woman with long dark hair strode toward them. She wore bright red lipstick and heavy black eyeliner. The scent of leather and perfume enveloped Koty's nostrils as she drew closer. Her tight pants creaked, and the heels of her boots clicked on the floor. Koty stared. “Is that who I think it is?” he asked. Raymond shrugged. "No idea." Koty knew who she was, though. He had all five of her band's albums. Perpetual Smile was only just breaking into the charts, but they had a long following—ten years' worth. "Jett," he called, forcing his voice to stay even. She glanced at him, her brown eyes meeting his, and his heart stopped. "Jett Costa?” An attendant gestured her toward the stage. "On in thirty seconds." She turned away from Koty and approached the door that would bring her into Maz's clutches. "Wait," he said. Jett tossed him a dirty look over her shoulder, then continued. As her hand gripped the doorknob, silver bangles jingling, he blurted, "Don't drink the coffee." Then, she pulled open the door and slipped through. He let a slow breath escape. "Koty, you all right?" Raymond asked. His hand hovered near Koty's shoulder. Koty swallowed hard. "Fine." He cleared his throat and looked at the door where Jett had disappeared. "You didn't tell me she was going to be on tonight. Are they performing?" He looked around for the other members of Perpetual Smile, but he only saw Maz’s staff. "Don't know, but you've got an early flight to catch, stud." Raymond waved him toward the dressing rooms. Koty shook his head. "I'm gonna hang out for a minute. I want to hear her interview." He walked away from Raymond without a second glance. A teenage boy with pus oozing out of the pimples on his face stood next to the door Jett had entered. "Hey man," Koty said. The kid inclined his chin. "Yeah?" He folded skinny arms across his chest. "There a green room around here?" Koty kept his own arms at his side, trying to appear harmless. "Nah," the kid said. "Studio's under renovations. Green room's closed.” His voice was flat. Only members of the opposite sex were moved by Koty’s fame and looks, it seemed. "Damn," Koty said. "Any idea where I can catch this interview?" The kid smirked. "Only way is through this here door." Koty found himself wishing he had stayed in the stage area. He leaned closer to the kid. "Any way I can get back in there?" The teenager snorted. "Not unless you're going to pay me." Koty raised an eyebrow. It couldn't be that easy. He pulled his wallet out and held up a fifty-dollar bill. The teenager snatched it from his hand. “This the best you can do?” He shook his head. His pimples glistened in the light. “How about another fifty?” Koty asked, thumbing through his wallet. “Make it an even two,” the kid said. “Two hundred dollars?” Koty repeated. The kid crossed his arms. “Do you want to get in here or not?” For a moment, Koty wanted to smash his smug little face. He narrowed his eyes. The kid stared back. From behind the door, applause erupted. “Fine,” Koty said, counting out the money. He handed it to the teenager, who moved aside, an ear to ear grin splitting his face. Koty entered the stage. From where he stood, shadows bathed him. He could watch without Maz or anyone else seeing him. Jett sat in the same seat he had occupied. Her mug of coffee sat, untouched, on the desk. She sat with her legs crossed, her hands resting in her lap. Her shoulders were relaxed, and her back did not slouch into the cushions. Her eyes seemed to calculate Maz's every word. She handled his questions coolly, without so much as blinking an eye. "So Perpetual Smile's been around for a couple years now, eh?” Maz asked. “Ten," Jett corrected, her voice barely rising. She ignored the cameras and the crowd. Her eyes roamed over the furniture decorating the set. "Okay," Maz said. He sipped coffee. Even from where Koty stood, he could smell it. It was a rich and robust brew, and would keep him going all night. He did not need coffee, though. He needed sleep. "You're starting a major national tour,” Maz said. Jett nodded. "It'll be our first headlining show." "How did that come about?" Maz asked. He kept his eyes on Jett, but he sounded bored. Koty wondered why Jett was even on. He glanced at the crowd. Half the audience had apparently left shortly after Koty exited. It seemed unfair, and made no sense. Perpetual Smile was a cross between punk and arena rock. ESX was just a stupid boy band. He realized he had completely missed what Jett said. He forced his attention back to the interview. "Your band has another announcement, though," Maz said. "Yes," Jett said. She shifted in her seat. "We're looking for a guitarist who can also do background vocals." Koty’s heart flew into his throat. He leaned forward. His fingers splayed, as though he were getting ready to catch something. "What happened to your other guitarist?” Maz asked. The blood pumping through his ears drowned out her reply. Perpetual Smile needed a guitarist. The words repeated in his head over and over. Finally, he had a one-way ticket out of ESX. All he had to do was catch Jett after her interview, and the deal would be sealed. He brushed lint off his T-shirt and ran a hand through his hair. He regretted calling her name out like some fanboy, but she was probably as used to it as he was. Wiping sweaty palms on his jeans, he paced. Maz mumbled a thank you and the audience clapped politely. Koty glanced over at the stage. Jett stood and gave the audience a wave. Showtime, he told himself. She walked over to the exit door, barely even looking at him. He fell into step beside her. "My name is Koty Jackson," he said, letting her walk through the door first. The pimply faced teenager held the door for them, giving Koty a questioning look. “You gonna nail her?” the kid mouthed. Koty paused, jerking an eyebrow up. “What?” he said. “No, it’s not like that.” He turned to Jett, lips parting, ready to explain. Empty air greeted him. Her heels clicked away from him. Blinking, he shook his head at the kid and hurried after her. “Sorry,” he said as he caught up with her. “So, where were we?” He flashed her a smile. "I know who you are," she growled. So maybe it wouldn't be so easy. He rubbed the back of his head, feeling a little like a lost puppy chasing an ax murderer. "This whole ESX thing is just temporary,” he assured her. Raymond joined them, clearing his throat. "Was supposed to be temporary," Koty amended. He licked his lips. They had stopped. Jett stood with a hand on her hip. Raymond looked back and forth between them as though they were lovers arguing in the middle of an airport. Jett rose an eyebrow at Koty. "You need a guitarist," he surged forward. “I'm a guitarist." "Do you have any professional experience?" she asked, smirking. "I had a band in high school." Jett snorted. "Are you serious right now?" She looked at him, her eyes narrowed and her lips pinched, as though she were examining something dead with a magnifying glass. "Yeah," Koty said. "Just give me a chance. I promise I won't let you down." He showed her his hands, blistered from years of guitar. Thanks to mandatory manicures, they were softening, but they were still there. Jett glanced down at his hands. She leaned in toward him, her lips just inches from his. "Word of advice," she said, dropping her voice. He swallowed hard. Their foreheads nearly touched. "Yeah?" Ruby red lips formed a little O. Standing that close to her, he could smell her fragrance even more clearly. The faint scent of cigarette smoke hung about her, and something else, too, something more feminine and more her. She smelled sweet and rough, like ripped lace in the middle of a field of wildflowers. When she spoke, her breath tickled his jawline. "You're an idiot." She pulled away, grinning impishly. "Pop stars don't play in bands." Turning on her heel, she strutted away from him, boots clicking on the lacquered wood. "Wait," he called after her. She threw him a look that could kill a raptor. "Fuck off." She yanked open a door and was gone. Koty's body guard, a tall and beefy man named Buckley, fell into step beside him. "That could have been worse," Koty told the linebacker-sized man. Buckley merely stared straight ahead. They walked through the backstage area, Buckley leading the way. The crowd parted before them as though the body guard held an automatic weapon. "I see you're still playing it strong and silent," Koty remarked as they exited to the parking lot. A limousine waited just a few paces away. Koty looked around, but there was no sign of Jett. The limo must be for him. He wondered how Jett traveled. There wasn't even a tour bus. Before he could find out, Buckley closed a massive hand around Koty's upper arm and pulled him toward the limo. "Sure, we'll go this way," Koty said. The chauffeur opened a door for him and Koty slid inside. Cool air conditioning enveloped him. He leaned back against the leather seats and sighed, closing his eyes. From beside him, Raymond cleared this throat. Koty lifted his head and cracked an eye open. "Yeah?" "Well, it's official," his agent said, holding his phone up to display a long text message in all caps. "You've pissed off Maz." Koty sat up straight, both eyes open. “How the hell did I do that?" "You deflected all of his questions like a pro," Raymond said, "which is good, but you made him look bad. And neither you nor that headbanger went running to the bathroom, so Maz lost his own personal entertainment hour." Koty snorted. "So he's pissed off because he didn't embarrass me. So what?" Raymond shrugged. "I'm just letting you know. You probably won't be invited back." The agent's lips twitched. Either he was trying not to smile, or wanted to yell. Koty could never be sure. Buckley slid into the seat in front of them, and the chauffeur hurried to the driver's seat. As usual, the body guard stared straight ahead, his red Chicago Bulls cap twisted backward. "Is there any way I can get a more personable body guard?" Koty whispered to his agent. Raymond cleared his throat again. He sounded almost like he had a hairball stuck. "Do you want to tell me what that was all about backstage?" Yawning, Koty twisted in his seat to look his agent in the eye. "Perpetual Smile needs a guitarist and backup vocalist," he said. Raymond blinked at him. "All I heard was smile," he said. "You lost me at guitarist." Remembering Jett's words, Koty rubbed at the stubble growing on his face. If anyone could get him a spot in Perpetual Smile, it was Raymond. "Remember how we said ESX was only temporary until I could find what I really wanted?" he asked. Raymond looked at him sideways. "Yes," he said slowly. He smoothed the sleeves of his suit. Choosing his words carefully, Koty picked his way ahead slowly, as though he were hiking a treacherous, rocky trail. "And, even though Woodrow pays me a lot, I in turn pay you a lot, making me your boss, in a way.” The agent pursed his lips. He turned his head, staring at Koty as though he were an armed robber. "Yes," he said again. Koty smiled. "Don't worry, Ray." The agent winced at the nickname. "I want to join Perpetual Smile." Raymond snorted. His body shook, and his lips spread open in a grin. He slapped his thigh. "Oh boy," he said, laughing. "Mr. Jackson, you are a funny guy." He wrapped his arms around his stomach, guffaws emitting from his expensive-suited frame. Koty smiled back. "I wasn't kidding," he said. His agent raised an eyebrow at him. "Listen, kid. This business is tough. I've seen performers come and go. You're in a good place—" "I don't want to be a performer," Koty interrupted. "You knew that from the get-go. ESX was just a . . ." He searched for the words. His contract was almost up. "It was only supposed to be temporary," he finished. Raymond Eble sighed. "I get what you're saying, kid, but no one will take you seriously if you try to do a total 360. You're in the pop music business. How many pop stars do you know that made it in other genres?" Rubbing at his face again, Koty wished the limo had a mini bar. "How many, Buckley?" he asked the body guard. He did not expect an answer, and Buckley did not surprise him. He sighed. "Are you going to send my demo tape in or what?" he asked his agent. "People will laugh at you if you do this," Raymond said. "Even worse, you'll be broke." Koty laughed. He had been poor before. "Are you worried that I won't be able to pay you?" Thanks to his stubborn refusal to leave his New York loft, he had quite the savings built up. He wasn't a math wizard, but if he did get the spot in Perpetual Smile, he would be able to take care of his agent and himself for quite a while. Raymond laughed, the sound wavering. "Of course not, Mr. Jackson." He straightened his tie and sat up. "I'm just advising you." "And I'm ignoring your advice," Koty said. "You're going to send my demo tape to Jett Costa's people, and you're going to make me look like a born rock star." He sank back into the leather again, and closed his eyes. His agent made no additional remarks, but Koty knew he would do it. Raymond Eble might have been seriously concerned about Koty's career, but at the end of the day, Koty's money talked—for as long as it lasted, anyway. People probably would laugh at him. He wasn't so naive as to think that ESX's fans would willingly give him away and Perpetual Smile's fans would accept him with open arms. He would just have to win them over. 2 Jett Costa splashed cold water over her face. She stood in the airport bathroom, the only person in the room—for the moment. Swallowing hard, she stared at her puffy brown eyes and messy dark hair. There was no denying it. She looked like she had been crying. Gritting her teeth, she reached into her handbag for her makeup bag. She needed to hurry if she was going to catch her flight. Her hands shook at the thought of missing it. With trembling fingers, she touched up her eyeliner and mascara. Then, taking a deep breath, she burst out of the bathroom. Crowds of people moved through the airport. Her chest felt tight. She longed for open space. It had been ages since she had any real freedom, though. In the nearly ten years since she had started Perpetual Smile, the band had never stopped touring. She was tired, but not as tired as she imagined Phillip Hilton was. Her heart twisted at the thought of him. Tears burned her eyes again. She blinked them away. She didn’t have time for more crying. Hurrying through the airport, she headed toward her gate. She pulled her rolling carry-on suitcase behind her. Every so often, it skipped and snapped at her heels. She was glad that she had worn her thick leather boots. She had dressed carefully that morning, picking out one of Phillip’s favorite shirts to wear over her leggings. Screw him for not letting her come visit him. She was going to see him at the hospital, whether he liked it or not. Their video chats weren’t cutting it anymore, and she was terrified that she might never see him in person again. Cancer was a bitch like that. Buried deep in her thoughts, she almost didn’t hear someone calling out her name. Her head snapped up as someone jogged toward her. Recognition flooded her senses. Gritting her teeth, she lifted an eyebrow at him, but kept moving. She didn’t have time to stop. He jogged alongside her on the walkway. "Dakota Jackson," he said, using his full name. He held out his hand. "Are you in a rush? Can I buy you a drink? She wondered whether he was stupid. She was practically running through the airport. Of course she was in a rush. Everyone at the airport was. She leered at him. They neared the end of the walkway. She hopped off, her pace quickening from the momentum. He hurried to keep up with her. "I remember you," she said, moving over to the side to let other people pass. She didn’t want to stop, but he obviously wasn’t going to be shaken off so easily. They stood in front of a bar and grill. Koty gestured to the bar. "What would you like?" The look on his face was hopeful, like a puppy waiting for playtime. She snorted. Of all the things she had to deal with, she hadn’t expected him to keep coming on to her. In fact, she had hoped that she would never see him again after Late Night with Maz. Though she was grateful for his tip about the coffee, she found it laughable that he wanted to try out for Perpetual Smile. It must be some kind of ruse. "Are you trying to hit on me?" She put her free hand on her hip. He ran a hand through his hair. "I sent my demo to your people," he said. "Do you know if they’ve listened to it yet?" She tipped her head back and laughed. It came out harsher than she meant it to, but she couldn’t help it. Leveling her gaze at him again, she turned serious. "I know you Hollywood types. Maybe your A&R department head told you to shack up with another pop star, but let me tell you something, honey." Her lips curled into her most deadly sneer. "I am not a pop star, and I don’t sleep with boy band members." She flicked her fingers, dismissing him. Resisting the urge to look at the time, she took a step away from Koty. A small group had formed around them, though. She pressed her lips together. No one had recognized them—yet. For the moment, they simply appeared to be lovers in a quarrel. Koty cleared his throat. Heat flushed the back of his neck. "I’m not trying to sleep with you," he said in a low voice."I just want to grab a drink and talk shop with you." She clapped her hands in mock praise. "Well done, sir." She bowed, gesturing for him to bow as well. "You put on a great show, poser." He flinched at the word. Straightening, he tried again. "Look, if you’d just let me explain—" She rolled her shoulders. He was wasting her time. "I don’t have to let you do anything. You think that just because you’re pretty and get everything handed to you, you can just jump into my bed?" She poked him in the chest. "I am not a piece of meat, and I will not be part of your little publicity stunt. I work hard, okay?" She narrowed her eyes at him. Glancing into the crowd, Koty rubbed the back of his neck. He looked at his body guard. Hoping that she could be done with him, Jett twirled the ring on her index finger, the one Phillip Hilton had given her when they were dating. It was sterling silver, the metal twisted into a series of knots. "These are forever knots," he had said, sliding it onto her finger. It was the only ring she wore on that hand. She blinked false lashes at the man standing in front of her. Koty, she reminded herself. He said his name is Koty. She didn't really care what his name was. His face was plastered everywhere she went, and that was obnoxious enough. Throw in the fact that he wanted to play guitar and sing in her band, and the sight of his perfectly chiseled baby face made her want to hit him. "Wait," he said. "I'll sing for you." Her lips twitched, and she held up a hand. The airport lights glinted off the rings she wore. "Please don't. You want to be in my band, yet you work for a manufactured pop sensation. You didn't write any of the music you dance to, and everything is produced by machines." She made a flicking motion with her fingers. "You're nothing to me." She was probably coming on too strong, she realized, but his mere presence irritated her. All she wanted to do was get onto her plane so she could see Phillip. "What about Nine Inch Nails?" he asked. "And Florence and the Machine?" He quirked an eyebrow at her. "They both use drum machines, yet you probably wouldn't criticize Trent Reznor for it." He had her there. Before she could reply, he continued. "Look, I know ESX isn't your kind of music." He lowered his voice. "It isn't really mine, either." For the first time, Jett looked at Koty. His unwavering optimism grated on her nerves. It reminded her of the way Phillip insisted everything would work out. Phillip was dying, yet he never missed an opportunity to reassure her. She ran a hand through her hair, blinking hack tears. "You all right?" Koty asked her. She twisted her face into a sneer. "I will be, when you get out of my face." But she couldn't hold the sneer long. Her eyes softened and she looked down at her boots, shame washing over her. Not too long ago, she had been hungry for the opportunity to play on stage, drums at her back and smoky lights in her face. If Perpetual Smile's manager hadn't given her ten minutes and listened to their demo, she would still be begging dive bars to let them play. She bit her lip, her eyes meeting Koty's. "What?" he asked, perhaps anticipating more snark. She sighed. The crowd around them had grown. The second Jett noticed, someone called out, "Koty Jackson! Koty, is that you?" in a shrill voice. The voice did not belong to a female fan, though. She watched as three more irritatingly familiar faces pushed through the crowd, their body guards trailing after them. The thick man who she assumed was Koty’s body guard continued to lean against a column, his arms crossed. "Oh, Koty," one of the men crooned. He was tall and clean shaven, his hair spiked. "There you are." He slung an arm around Koty's shoulders. "I was so worried about you." "I can't believe it's Koty Jackson," a second shrieked. He held his hands up to his face in mock surprise. "Will you sign my panties for me?” He had a round face that could easily be mistaken for chubby. His eyes were red and glassy, and Jett wondered whether it was from fatigue or something else. The third member of ESX gave Koty a small, sympathetic smile. He was thin and short, almost elfish in appearance. "Hey, guys," Koty said, returning his gaze to Jett. "So good of you to show up right now." He swallowed hard. Jett merely smirked back at him. It served him right. She tightened her grip on her carry-on, preparing herself for an escape. She wondered if she should be thanking the other men. Koty gestured to his group mates. “Johnny Z,” he said, pointing to the man who draped an arm across his shoulders. “Benny,” he said, gesturing to the red-eyed member of ESX. “And Dev,” Koty finished, pointing to the smallest. "We've been looking all over for you," Johnny Z crooned. "We were worried that our little heart throb here wasn't going to show." "And now we know why," Benny added. He nodded in Jett's direction, giving her a smile. "How you doing, baby? You want an autograph?" She gritted her teeth."Thank you, gentlemen," Jett said, gesturing to all four men. “You’ve been a perfect Exhibit A.” She took a step away. "Wait, Jett," Koty said. She gave him her best glare, the one that Phillip said could kill a kitten. “Goodbye, Princess,” she said. She turned and strode away, her boots clicking on the linoleum. 3 Koty's hands tightened into fists. His muscles coiled, threatening to launch his knuckles into Johnny Z’s face. If he hit one of his group mates, he would probably be kicked out of ESX. As nice as that would be, he would probably also spend some time in jail. He shut his eyes, struggling to gain composure. His arms shook. He had no idea how things had gone so awry. Perhaps if he had caught up to Jett in a less busy area of the airport—away from his immature group mates—they could have snuck away for a quick drink. Instead, what he intended to be a friendly introduction turned into the embarrassment of a lifetime. All he wanted to do was board the plane, hide in his seat, and die. Maybe the plane would crash and grant his wish. His manager would probably not approve of his recent suicidal thoughts, he surmised, and would lock him in a room with a therapist. "Koty!" a fan screamed. He opened his eyes. The crowd around them pressed tighter. Groaning, he looked for an escape route. The body guards rushed in, effectively blocking the fans the way that football players sometimes blocked a field goal. They formed a tight ring around ESX, using hand gestures to disperse the crowd. Within moments, most of the people had backed off. "Aw," Johnny Z whined. "I wanted to sign some titties." Dev looked like he was going to vomit. "Seriously?" he hissed. "What is wrong with you?" Johnny Z grinned. "I can't help myself," he said, slinging an arm over Koty's shoulders again. "I just love the ladies.” Koty tensed, fighting the urge to shove Johnny Z. Not only had his group mates ruined everything, but they were completely oblivious. Before he could say anything, a flight attendant called their zone over the loudspeaker. Koty let the body guards lead him to the boarding area. He pulled his ticket out of his pocket. "So, who was that?" Johnny Z asked. "New squeeze, or did you just dump her?" "No," Koty said slowly. "I think she just dumped me." "I'm sorry. How long were you guys dating?" Dev asked quietly. "I didn't even know he was dating," Johnny Z said. The flight attendant scanned their tickets, and they filed through the tunnel leading to the plane. Koty's stomach twisted into knots. He hated flying. No matter how hard he tried to calm his nerves, he always felt nauseous the entire time. No amount of Dramamine helped, either. He had hoped most of ESX's tour would be by bus, but so far, all of their travel during tours required flying. "She's not my girlfriend," he said, gritting his teeth against the nausea. "I was just trying to buy her a drink." Johnny Z whistled. "Damn, man. You really do some damage." He clapped Koty on the back. The members of ESX took their seats, their body guards sitting around them. If a fan tried to get to them during the flight, a solid wall of muscle surrounded the guys. "Welcome aboard," a flight attendant told them. Her name tag read Cindy. "Can I get you gentlemen anything?" Koty raised a finger. "Whiskey on the rocks." Johnny Z whooped. "Finally, our boy joins me in drink! I'll have the same, and I'll buy the first round." "You can't," Dev reminded him. "It's all on the label." He ordered a Coke for himself. Benny ordered a Hurricane. "Might as well go out with a bang," he said. The group fell into silence as they nursed their drinks. Koty watched other passengers board and struggle with their luggage, grateful for the duffel bag that fit neatly under his seat. The label would supply almost everything while they were on tour: wardrobe, toiletries, and hair products. He had brought only his favorite pair of jeans, a couple books he hoped to snag some time to read, and his guitar, which he had checked in at security. It would arrive in its beat up case and someone would bring it to his room for him, hopefully without Scott Woodrow seeing. ESX's manager didn't approve of extracurricular activities that didn't directly benefit the group's performance. Sighing, he ordered another drink when the flight attendant came around again. Already, his head felt swimmy. He didn't drink very often. Briefly, he wondered why he had ordered something as strong as whiskey. For all he knew, they were serving him top shelf stuff. A simple beer would have sufficed. The flight attendant brought him his second round, and another for Johnny Z. "Keep 'em coming," Koty told Cindy. He took a large gulp and gazed out the window. "You want some advice from ol' Johnny?" his group mate asked. Before Koty could answer, he continued. "If you want to get with a girl, you've got to hook her quick. Regale her with tales of different places you've played, fights you’ve been into." Koty raised an eyebrow at his reflection in the window. "You've gotten into fights?" he asked without turning his head. "Nah," Johnny Z said. “I wouldn’t want to ruin this pretty face.” He stroked his chin with a hand that had never known work. "But they don't need to know that,” he continued. “You tell 'em about the things you've left behind that you're sad about, like your one true love, or maybe even your mother, if you're trying to go the extra sensitive route." He finished his drink and gestured for Koty to do the same. The flight attendant brought them each another. Koty tipped back his head and downed his whiskey, then gladly accepted the third. "Play your story just right, and they'll be all over you," Johnny Z finished. He clinked his glass against Koty's. Benny twisted around in his seat. "Don't listen to this player," he said, shaking his head. "You want to get a girl? You've got to speak to her soul. You can tell what kind of girl she is by the shoes she wears. Tell her you can tell her fortune by looking at the soles of her shoes, and you get to sneak a peek at her feet." He smiled, his eyes sparkling. Perhaps, Koty surmised, it was the alcohol making them glassy. "Offer to give her a foot massage. Tell her it's the best she'll ever have in her life. Tell her all women deserve a good foot rub." He closed his eyes and smiled. "Okay," Dev said from next to Benny. "That was weird." He smiled at Koty. "I know how much it sucks to love from afar. You've just got to keep going. If it's meant to be, it will be." His eyes turned down, and Koty thought he saw a tear slide down his cheek. "Fuck all that," Johnny Z said. "I love 'em and leave 'em. I don't bother with massages or romance. I just charm 'em into my bed." He set his glass down and leaned back in his seat. Koty finished his own drink. He handed his glass to the flight attendant as she walked by, and shook his head when she asked if he wanted another. Distantly, he heard Johnny Z say he would take two. Koty looked through the window and down at the runway. The pilot announced that they would be backing out momentarily. Two flight attendants began demonstrating safety procedures. He closed his eyes, letting the alcohol lull him into a state of calm. He just needed to relax. Pretty soon, he would be in Miami, getting ready for ESX's next tour. Whatever happened with Perpetual Smile and Jett would just happen, whether he hit it off with her or not. Besides, he told himself as he opened his eyes, there wasn't anything he could do about it up in the air. The plane began to back out. Koty swallowed hard. Luckily, their flight was short. He only needed to bear it for an hour or so. As the plane turned around and began moving toward the runway, he realized he hadn't brought any gum with him. It was bad enough the guys had heard Jett put him down like a legless dog. He didn't need them to also see him curled up in his seat, screaming because his ears hurt. He wondered what his sex-crazed fans would think if they knew their beloved Koty Jackson had sensitive ears. Maybe Jett was right. He was not rock star material. A flight attendant walked by, probably on her way to strap herself in. He raised a hand. "Excuse me," he whispered. "Do you have any gum?" She gave him a bright smile. "Of course!" She handed him a pack, and he took a piece. Thanking her, he popped it into his mouth. She hurried away, and he looked out the window again, chewing furiously. None of the guys made any comment, and he wondered if they hated flying just as much as he did. Then again, most of the other passengers were silent, too. Maybe it was just an unspoken rule of flying. The plane took another turn. From the back of the plane, Koty heard an engine fire up. "We'll be taxiing in just a moment here, folks," the pilot's voice said over the loudspeaker. Koty chewed his gum harder. The plane began down the runway, engines screaming. Koty's fingers clenched the armrests. He continued to look out the window, even though he didn't really want to see them leave the ground. He couldn't help himself, though. The runway sped by, the plane's speed increased, and suddenly they were lifting off. He felt gravity pull him, pressing his back into the seat. His ears popped a couple of times, but the gum helped. He alternated between chewing hard and swallowing his spit, helping the popping along. Next to him, Johnny Z let out a cheer as they began to level off. "We're in the air!" he whooped. As the aircraft leveled and flew through wisps of clouds, Koty turned his thoughts back to Jett. He wondered how she handled flying. She probably did it all the time, without even thinking about it. She wouldn't need gum, he imagined. She would wear her headphones, waiting for the staff to tell her it was okay to turn on her iPod, and rock it out the entire way. Or, he surmised, she might fly with a notebook in her lap and a pen in her hand, scribbling down lyrics or reworking the melody to a song. He smiled at that thought. Yes, Jett would never give up a chance to work. From what little he did know about her, she worked eighty-hour weeks. Perpetual Smile was currently on tour but would be heading back into the studio immediately after, finalizing their next album. They had recording equipment on the tour bus, and Jett was rumored to lay down lyrics while traveling. He could see her, composing herself before belting it out into the microphone. He had seen Perpetual Smile play, years ago. Even then, he would have given anything to be on stage with them. "You daydreaming over there, lover boy?" Johnny Z asked. Koty blinked. He turned his gaze from the window to his coworker. Johnny Z was watching him closely, studying his face. "What?" Koty said, waving him away. "You're in love," Johnny Z crooned. "I wouldn't call it that," Koty said. Sure, Jett Costa was gorgeous, and quite the firecracker, but his feelings for her didn't go beyond the business table. Johnny Z snorted. "I am the king of broken hearts," he said, "and I know love when I see it." It didn't feel like love, though. When he thought of Jett, chords and notes usually followed. He appreciated the way she smelled and the glint in her eyes when she teased him, but if anything, he loved her talent. He craved being on stage next to her the way a heroin addict craved the needle. His eyes fluttered closed, and he saw a dark stage. Smoky light filtered down on them from overhead. Cords crisscrossed the stage, taped down. He stood on the opposite side of Jett, but when their guitars began to harmonize, they grinned at each other. Leaning forward, he sang his part into the microphone, never taking his eyes off hers. They pulled him in, and his heart soared. Okay, so maybe he had a crush on her. It was probably just from listening to her albums for so long. He didn’t even know her. Even if, by some miracle, he was lucky enough to talk to her again, she would probably just insult him. He smiled to himself. Even her insults were awesome. Someone shook him. He opened his eyes and lifted an eyebrow at Johnny Z. "We're over water," the other pop star said. Koty groaned. “Uh-huh.” He started to close his eyes again. "Look at it," Johnny Z insisted. He reached across Koty and pointed. "I've seen it," Koty said. "It's amazing!" Johnny Z's face broke into a grin. He looked like a small boy on Christmas morning, about to dive into a pile of presents left by Santa. Koty smiled back. Maybe his coworkers weren't so bad after all. "I can't wait to use this bit on the ladies," Johnny Z said. Koty snorted. "Leave it to you," he said. Johnny Z wiggled his eyebrows. "I can't help it," he said, shrugging. "I'm hungry like a wolf." Koty stared at him, wondering if Johnny Z had actually just referenced a Duran Duran song. He had assumed, perhaps wrongly so, that none of the guys in ESX liked rock at all. Even offstage, they wore the same clothes their stylist prescribed to them. Maybe, he wondered, they were just trying to fit into the role the same way Koty was. "Watch out, Little Red Riding Hood!" Johnny Z whooped. Koty turned back to the window. He hoped the flight would go faster than expected. That happened sometimes. He couldn't remember exactly what it was called, but it had something to do with the currents of the air. He stared out into the field of puffy clouds laced over a bright bluish green ocean. It was the jet stream, he realized. He felt heat spread across the back of his neck. His heartbeat sped up. All roads, it seemed, led back to Jett. The wheels of the plane bounced off the runway. Koty's heart lurched into his throat. His fingers gripped the armrests. His head jerked backward. He stared straight ahead, struggling to stabilize his breathing. Next to him, Johnny Z laughed. "You should see your face," Johnny Z said. Koty let his shoulders drop. As the plane slowed, he began to relax a bit more, though his heart continued to hammer in his chest. The pilot had come in way too fast, he told himself. They were now safely on the ground, and nothing bad could happen to him. Well, not physically, anyway. The moment the members of ESX poured out of the boarding gate, Scott Woodrow would whisk them away via limousine, and their tour duties would begin. He didn't mind signing autographs or posing for photos. If he blocked out the fact that most of his fans were not even fifteen, never mind drinking age, he could pretend he was a real rock star. The problem was, at their age, none of them understood privacy or personal space. They all wanted to get as close to Koty and ESX as they could. Most of that was Woodrow's fault. Within a few weeks of signing Koty to the group, the man had transformed him into some kind of sex god for teenagers. He winced. It felt very, very wrong to think about the fact that teenage girls thought about having sex with him. "You thinking about that girl again?" Johnny Z asked, clapping him on the back. They stood in the aisle of the plane, waiting to disembark. Koty shouldered his duffel bag. Its weight was as reassuring as the ragged receiving blanket he used to drag around as a child. "Of course he is," Benny said from behind them. Dev nudged Koty. Their four bodyguards formed a human wall in front of and behind them, shielding them from the rest of the passengers. "You think Woodrow's limo will be on time?" After a show during their last tour, they had to take a taxi because their chauffeur had conveniently forgotten to show up. Koty was grateful for the distraction. He gave Dev a nod, acknowledging the favor. Dev only smiled. "That asshole better have two limos for us," Johnny Z said. "One for me and all the girls I'm going to pick up on the way out of here, and another for the rest of you." He and Benny laughed. Koty sighed. The other members of ESX reminded him of high school seniors. He would not be surprised if Johnny Z ended up being arrested on charges of statutory rape. He often felt like a babysitter. A few months ago, while doing a meet and greet, Johnny Z took one of their fans to the bathroom. The girl had barely started high school. When Koty followed them and asked his coworker what he was doing, Johnny Z insisted that he had no idea she was so young. Luckily, nothing beyond making out had happened, but Koty worried that someday Johnny Z would go too far. As far as Koty knew, Jett was a few years older than him. No one would ever accuse him of having an inappropriate relationship. He didn't know why that mattered. She was way out of his league, music genres aside. The line to the gate finally began to move. Koty and the other guys walked through the rest of the plane and into the tunnel. He tried not to think about the fact that they were technically in the air, supported only by gravity. Swallowing hard, he emerged into the airport, the cool air conditioning caressing him. "Oh no," Dev said from behind him. Koty stared through the entrance. The rest of the airport was completely blocked off. A torrent of screaming young girls encircled the gate. Some even had posters. "How did they find out?" he moaned. "Relax," Johnny Z said, adjusting his sunglasses. "This is a perfect PR moment." Koty's forehead wrinkled. He couldn't see any of Woodrow's people. "Koty Jackson!" a girl with acne screamed. "I love you!" He heard a few other fans screaming the other guys' names, but mostly, they screamed for him. It wasn't his talent they cared about, either. Woodrow had turned him into a sex symbol. A year before, he had played on New York sidewalks. He made good tips, but for the most part, people kept walking. The city was full of songbirds. He would be trampled if he tried to sing on a street corner since becoming the face of ESX. Besides that, Buckley would be there, and the NFL-sized body guard tended to kill romantic street-singing moods. "Move it, people," a voice boomed. Koty stared as the crowd parted. A man in a suit that cost as much as the limousine that transported them pushed through, his tall and muscled form surrounded by security. He wore a sneer and a Rolex watch. Koty could see it glinting in the light from where he stood. "Move, move," Scott Woodrow said, practically shoving people out of the way. His bald head gleamed in the florescent light. He was only a few years older than Koty, and had it shaved daily. Koty had heard that the man actually had a full head of tight curls. As Woodrow approached the members of ESX, Koty's phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out. His heart lurched. The caller ID displayed his agent's name. Raymond could only be calling about one thing. "Koty!" a woman screamed. She stumbled toward him, arms outstretched, face red as a strawberry. A member of security stepped into her path, barring her. Woodrow strode into the half circle that Koty, Dev, Johnny Z, and Benny formed. "Welcome to Miami, boys," he said, spreading his arms. He looked at Koty, feigning a pout. "Jackson, put the phone away." Koty's phone chimed, indicating a new voicemail. Raymond definitely had news. Koty stood frozen, his finger hovering on the button that would allow him to listen. Woodrow's frown deepened. "Problem, Jackson? We're on a schedule here." Sighing, Koty shook his head. "No, sir." He shoved the phone back into his pocket, his heart pounding. He needed to listen to that voicemail, but with Woodrow breathing down his neck, he had no idea when. 4 Jett sat cross-legged on the floor of her motel room, her laptop open in front of her. On the screen, her ex-rhythm guitarist gave her a half smile. She wanted to rage at him. Instead, she sat with her hands in her lap, her eyes locked on the screen in front of her. "It's okay, Jett," Phillip Hilton said quietly. She thought she saw tears pooling in his eyes. He reached up and ran a hand over his balding head. At only thirty-five, he had less hair than a newborn. "I think this look is working for me." He smiled, but his voice cracked. The screen behind him beeped steadily, displaying relatively good statistics—good for Phillip, anyway. She struggled to smile back. Her lips felt heavy, though. She could still remember the way his lips felt on hers, all those years ago, when they were still a new band and sleeping in roach-infested motels seemed romantic and dangerous and adventurous. The memory made her smile. "There ya go," Phillip said. His eyes crinkled. After a moment, though, his smile fell, and he gazed at her. "I'm sorry, kid." A sob escaped her lips. "What the hell, Phil?" She swallowed hard and brushed the tears aside. She wanted to ask him why he didn't fight harder, why he didn't demand more chemotherapy or radiation. One look at him told her why, though. Dark, baggy circles sagged under his eyes. The skin on his face and neck was grey. Only his eyes were the same, luminous things that made her wonder why she hadn't just married the guy. It was too late, though. She brushed a strand of hair out of her face and adjusted her position on the floor. "I'm coming to see you," she said. "No you're not," he countered. He pointed a shaking finger at her. "You're touring hard and you're going to keep recording this album. You're going to find someone who can play better than me, and you're going to keep kicking ass." Fresh tears fell down his cheeks. She watched as he leaned back against the cushions of his hospital bed. The iPad he had balanced on his lap shifted slightly, and for a moment her view went to the floor. A second later, it straightened out. Phillip smiled back at her. She could see his entire torso. His body looked even thinner in the baggy hospital gown, or perhaps the gown was the smallest size they had. She didn't want to think about that. Instead, she mulled over what he had said a moment before. Her eyebrows furrowed. She desperately wanted to tell Phillip about the guy who might be replacing him. The last thing he needed, though, was to worry about trivial things. Instead, she nodded at him. "Deal. If you get any worse, though—" He held up a hand to silence her. A moment later, his arm dropped feebly to his side. "Can't really hold the iPad much longer, babe," he said. Even after they split up, he had never stopped calling her that. "If you let me come see you, you won't have to," she said. They locked eyes, and her heartbeat sped up. After all those years, even on his deathbed, Phillip Hilton could still set her veins on fire. "I don't want you seeing me like this," he admitted. A single tear dripped down his cheek. The tears flowed freely from her own eyes. "Maybe it'll do you some good. Get the old blood pumping." She winked at him. He laughed, but the laugh turned into a cough, and he winced. The lung cancer had metastasized into his other organs and bones. Every breath, every movement, felt like a chainsaw grating on his body. At least, that was how he described it to her. "You'd have to be on top," he said between deep, rasping breaths. She smiled. "I think that can be arranged." "I've gotta go," he said, and she knew what he really meant was that he was too tired, or maybe too nauseous, or even in too much pain. She also knew that those three words were his way of saying "I might not see you again, but I'm not going to say goodbye." She blinked the tears away, and kept the smile on her face. "You rest up," she said. The hairs on her arms rose, and a chill zipped through her. Somehow, she knew this would be their last conversation. She tried to think of something funny to say, some parting words that wouldn't be too final, that might even make him smile. She only gazed at him, memorizing the shape of his face and the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes. "I love you," he said, surprising her. Never, in the ten years they had known each other, had they ever come close to uttering those words. She swallowed hard. "I know that, you doofus,” she stammered. "There's no need—" He held up a hand. "Not today, but it's almost time," he said. "I know it. I don't wanna scare you, but I can feel it." She bit down on her lower lip, gating the scream from escaping her throat. It wasn't fair. Phillip was a good man. He was a talented musician. He was a loving friend. Her hands clenched into fists. She was grateful that he could only see her from the waist up. She fumbled for the right words, but they wouldn't come. She could only nod at him. If only she had left sooner. If only she hadn’t missed her flight. If only that boy diva hadn’t kept her for so long. If she ever saw Koty Jackson’s face again, she was going to rip it to shreds. "I know you're beating the crap out of yourself right now," Phillip whispered. She had to turn up the volume on her laptop to hear him. "Knock it off." "Okay," was all she could manage. "Gotta go," he gasped. "I love you, too," she said quickly as he severed the connection. She wasn't sure if he heard her. She stared at the laptop for several long minutes, debating whether to call him back. No, she told herself. Let him rest. He doesn't need you to bother him with all of your last-minute crap. Then the tears began pouring down her cheeks, and she was screaming. She slammed the laptop closed and collapsed onto her side, thrashing and sobbing. A string of "if only" statements ran through her mind: if only she had loved him harder, if only she had let the band take more breaks, if only she could be by his side right that minute. The world kept spinning, though, and Perpetual Smile had to keep going. It was what he wanted, what he had told her and the guys countless times. She hated it, though, hated him for making her carry out his wishes. If he wasn't so stubborn and she wasn't so loyal, she could be lying next to him in that hospital bed, stroking what little hair he had left and singing to him. She would have stayed by his side, rather than tour and record another album. The sobs wracked her body, that last thought piercing her already bleeding heart. She curled into a fetal position and covered her eyes, as though the lack of sight would make the rest of her pain go away. Her phone vibrated in her pocket. Her first instinct was to grab it and hurl it across the room. No one should be calling her. She wanted to be safely locked in her hotel with her grief. It might be Phil, she thought, and she sucked in a slow and ragged breath. If it was him calling, she wanted to sound calm. She tugged the phone out and looked at the display. It was Perpetual Smile's manager. She knew, immediately, that it had nothing to do with Phillip and everything to do with that pop star asshole who had sent his demo in. She stared at the screen as the phone continued to ring, her finger hovering over the button that would accept the call. She didn't want to know, she realized. Then she realized something else: it didn't matter who replaced Phillip. He would never be good enough. Perpetual Smile was finished. 5 Koty let himself be shepherded with the rest of ESX. His phone felt twice as heavy in his pocket, and he itched to listen to the voicemail. If anything, he promised himself, he could at least listen during the ride to the concert venue. He only had to wait a few more minutes. Scott Woodrow and his people led them to two limousines parked outside, blocking a good chunk of the pick-up area. Shaking his head, Koty slid into the back seat with Johnny Z, Benny, and Dev. Their body guards got in next. Woodrow's entourage boarded the second limo, but ESX's manager remained on the sidewalk. He leaned into the window and said something to the driver of the second limo, then strode away. To Koty's shock, Woodrow climbed into their limo. The manager smoothed his suit and grinned at the members of ESX. His smile reminded Koty of a weasel who caught a helpless baby animal of some sort. "Welcome to the first leg of your tour, gentlemen," Woodrow said. The guys whooped. Koty merely nodded, wondering what was so special about this tour and why Woodrow was suddenly taking an interest in socializing with them. "Do you know how close we are to breaking the record for the most number-one songs on the Billboard charts?" Woodrow asked. "How close?" Johnny Z asked. His eyes lit up, and Koty swore he could see dollar signs in them. "We need to work harder." Their manager lit a cigar. He blew smoke into Koty's face. "We need to ramp up your images. We need to sell more records on this tour. While you're out on stage, you need to be promoting, promoting, promoting." "Isn't that what our marketing department is for?" Koty asked. He folded his arms across his chest. Woodrow blew another stream of smoke at him. "You are our best marketing weapons," he said. He tapped ash onto the floor. Koty frowned, glancing at the built-in ash tray at Woodrow's elbow. "We're on our way to a meet and greet right now," Woodrow continued. "I need you boys to really nail this. Your biggest fans are going to be there, and those are our word-of-mouth ads. Whatever they want, give it to them." Johnny Z snorted. "Oh yeah?" He and Benny elbowed each other. "Within reason," Woodrow corrected. "We don't need any more incidents. Though, if you want to take it a little too far, the publicity might do us good. Let me think about it for a minute." The group lapsed into silence. Koty leaned his head back against the seat. He closed his eyes, thinking of Jett and wondering if she would know whether he was in or not. He supposed she would. Unlike the members of ESX, Perpetual Smile had full creative control. They would probably vote on his entry or something. Jett, he knew, would vote no. He wished he could have done a better job at introducing himself. He ran himself through the scenario, trying to figure out where he went wrong. It had been all her, he decided. A smile escaped his lips at the memory of her telling him off at Maz's show. Maybe he was a masochist, he surmised. There was something about her, though. Underneath all of that fire and smoke was a musician. He felt a magnetic pull toward her. "I must be crazy," he murmured. Jett Costa had been nothing but rude to him. He wondered, suddenly, if that was exactly why he was attracted to her. Besides the fact that she was living his dream, she was also the first person to not kiss his ass just because he was the face of ESX. He turned toward the window and watched as they passed through the streets of Miami, wishing he could explore a bit. He loved the ocean, yet rarely took the time to actually see it. The sun would be setting in a few short hours, and he would be inside an air conditioned building, dancing and sweating on stage. He felt like a performance monkey. The limo pulled up in front of the convention center. Someone had rolled out a red carpet for them. Koty yawned at it. Woodrow had probably told them to, or maybe the employees were ESX fans. Either way, it didn't matter. It was alway the same. The members of L.A.B. Records were lab rats. Even though the meet and greet didn't start for another hour, a line of fans ran down the front of the building and twisted around the corner. At the sight of the limo, they rushed the security guards. Their hands reached out toward the limousine and their mouths writhed. In the soundproofed vehicle, Koty couldn't hear anything they said. He slid out of the limo and followed Woodrow's people into the building. He gave the girls a quick wave, slipping into his character as effortlessly as putting on a pair of boots. Behind him, he knew, Johnny Z blew kisses, Benny flashed one-hundred dollar bills, and Dev waved. The second he passed through the doors, his shoulders relaxed and he stopped smiling. Already, the evening stretched before him. He patted his phone in his pocket, making sure it was still there. The second he got a chance, he was going to listen to that voicemail. Security cameras tracked their movements through the lobby, and police officers in plain clothes milled the open space. Koty could still hear their fans screaming outside. Some even chanted his name. He rolled his eyes. Letting Raymond talk him into the whole boy band thing had been a huge mistake. He felt as out of place as a baby bird in a room full of feral cats. Woodrow led them through a side door and into a network of hallways. They shuffled after him, their footsteps echoing off the concrete. "Where're we going, boss?" Johnny Z asked. Koty glanced at him. His coworker still wore his sunglasses. He wondered if Johnny Z ever stepped out of character. "To the dressing rooms, so you boys can freshen up and get into costume." He tossed a sharp glance back at Koty, who wore old Levis and a Dio T-shirt. "I am the bad boy," Koty said, keeping his tone as light as possible. Woodrow did not crack a smile, though. He quickened his pace, his dress shoes clicking against the concrete. The guys had to nearly run to keep up. Koty imagined a wicked smile on Woodrow’s face. Finally, they emerged into a carpeted hallway. Doors lined the walls, their names written on metallic gold stars to indicate their dressing rooms. Koty recognized Carlee, his stylist, and gave her a nod. She raised an eyebrow at him, as if to say, You came like that? He shrugged and followed her into his room. "Woodrow say anything to you?" she asked as she began rifling through a closet on wheels. A collared shirt and pair of jeans had been laid over a chair. "Am I wearing this?" he asked, picking up the shirt. "Hell no. We need to make up for that ratty old T-shirt you just rocked." She flung a white cashmere sweater at him. He caught it. "Uh, Carlee," he said, holding up the sweater. "I'm going to be on stage.” He thought of the bright lights beating down on the stage, beach weather temperatures suffocating him. "You're not wearing that to perform," she said, laughing. "It's just for the signing." He sighed. Several heartbeats passed. He glanced at the door, silently asking her to leave. "Gotta see how everything looks on you," she said. She bit down on her lower lip and gazed at him, her eyes practically smoldering. Carlee had been his stylist for a few weeks, but she never failed to make passes at him. Apparently the label had not forced her to watch the same sexual harassment in the workplace video that everyone else had to sit through. He waited a moment longer, hoping she might just get tired of waiting, but she remained as still as he did. Rolling his eyes, he jerked off his Dio tee, exposing a hard muscled chest. He swallowed hard. He could practically feel her eyes roaming his body. Heat crept up the back of his neck, and he felt lower parts of his body responding, even though he didn't want to. It wasn't that Carlee was hideous or unlikable. For the most part, he found her funny and pretty, in a girl next door kind of way. He couldn't stand the way she treated him like a cheap piece of meat, though. She made him feel like his fans made him feel: a puppet, the strings hers to pull. Avoiding her gaze, he yanked the sweater on over his head. Looking down at the floor, he asked, "What do you think?”, his voice stiff. The sweater was two sizes too small. The soft fabric hugged his chiseled abs and biceps. He felt like a Ken doll wearing Barbie's clothes. "Sexy," she said. He glanced up. She stood directly in front of him. His eyes widened. She put her hands on his shoulders. "Now," she whispered, "the jeans." He stared at her, dazed. "Jeans?" he repeated. His heart raced. He felt rooted to the floor. Her touch sent electric shocks through his body, despite his mind's protests. She nodded, inclining her head toward the pair of Diesel jeans slung over the chair. "Jeans," she said again, her lips curving into a smile. She kept her hands on his shoulders. He sucked in a ragged breath. His own jeans felt tight. There was no way he could take them off without her seeing, and then it would be all over. While he couldn't stand the way she treated him, he hadn't had sex in longer than he wanted to think about. He hated to admit it, but he knew he wouldn't hesitate. He knew he couldn't. He tightened his hands into fists at his side, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he found her still gazing at him expectantly, practically drooling. He cleared his throat. "I think this is enough," he said, his voice hoarse. Carlee pouted. "Maybe you think so, but Woodrow would definitely not approve of those department store threads you've got on." He wanted to tell her how ridiculous the sweater was, and how desperate she was coming off, but she stepped in closer. When she spoke, her lips brushed his ear. "Jackson," she breathed. "I want you so bad." He almost choked. Stumbling backward, he crashed into the dressing table. "Thanks for everything tonight, Carlee," he stammered, "but I think I've got it from here." He gestured toward the door. "Please." She took a step toward him. "No," he said slowly. "The door is that way." She stepped closer. "I've wanted you for a long time," she purred. "Oh, God," he said. "You need to leave. Now." He hardened his voice, nearly growling. Carlee continued toward him until her leg brushed against his thigh. She leaned into him, his back pressing against the dressing table. Her hands brushed his chest, the pads of her fingers working his nipples. He tried to speak, but his voice stuck in his throat. Without his permission, his hips thrust against her. She smiled. "See? I knew you wanted me." She pressed a kiss to his lips, and her hands went to the button of his jeans. Knuckles rapped at his door. "Jackson! I hope you're decent," Johnny Z sang. "Get off," Koty told Carlee. She twirled away from him and busied herself with his wardrobe, throwing a torrid glance at him over her shoulder. He extricated himself from the dressing table and picked up the expensive jeans just as Johnny Z strode in. "Looking good, baby," Johnny Z said, jerking his chin toward Koty. "That sweater's awfully snug, though.” He smirked. Koty shook his head and turned his back to Johnny Z. Heat gnawed at his ears as he looked down at the crotch of his jeans. He needed to dress quickly, before his group mate noticed. No one could know about what happened. If Woodrow thought he was getting personal with his stylist, he would be punished. He needed to get out of the dressing room, period, but so far, nothing was going his way. He quickly kicked off his sneakers and stepped out of the Levis, then jerked the expensive ones on. They fit well, and he decided he might try to keep them. Then again, Carlee might give him a higher price than he wanted to pay. Sweat dampened his armpits. Swallowing hard, he turned back to Johnny Z. "We on yet?" The other member of ESX shook his head. "Nah." He lifted his sunglasses, leveling his gaze at Koty. What the hell is going on in here? his eyes asked. Koty shook his head once, in what he hoped was code for I'll tell you later. He hoped Johnny Z kept his mouth shut until they were alone. Tact was not exactly the other man’s strong suit. "So, where's Woodrow?" Koty asked. "On the phone," Johnny Z said. He glanced at Carlee, who slipped out of the room, a pile of clothing laid across her arms. As soon as she closed the door behind her, he narrowed his eyes at Koty. "You going to nail that slam piece or am I going to have to?" Koty gaped at him. “Slam piece?” he repeated. “Jeez, Patrick.” Johnny Z waggled a finger at him. “Uh-uh, Jackson. You know the rules. Never use that name on me again!” Koty rolled his eyes. Johnny Z could be such a diva. Still, Koty could probably trust him to keep his mouth shut. Maybe the other man would even have some advice for him. He ran a hand through his hair. "Dude, she won't leave me alone." Johnny Z snorted. "What are you, a twelve-year-old boy? Give it to her. She's hot for you. She stared at your ass the entire time I was in here." Koty nodded to himself. He should have known better. ”She also tried to . . ." He fumbled for the words. He didn't think what happened qualified as attempted rape, but it was definitely sexual harassment. Plus, complaining to Johnny Z about a woman proved to be as affective as complaining to a teacher about homework. Koty waved a hand. "You can have her. Please." "No man has ever asked me to sleep with his girl," Johnny Z said, walking toward the door, "but I am happy to oblige." Koty followed him. They joined the other members of ESX in the hall. The other three guys were in character but tastefully so, Koty noted. None of them wore sweaters, and all of their button down shirts fit properly. He decided he would have to talk to Woodrow about replacing his stylist. He was supposed to be the bad boy, not a sex kitten. ESX's manager strode into the hall, a phone pressed to his ear. He jerked his chin toward the guys, and gestured for them to follow him. "We're starting now?" Koty asked Johnny Z. The other member of ESX shrugged. “I’m just here for the ride,” Johnny Z said. They followed Woodrow through another network of hallways, then emerged into another lobby. Photographers and their equipment were scattered throughout the room. A long table set with posters and four bottles of water stood at the head of the lobby. Woodrow gestured for the guys to take their places. Meet and greets were always the same. As ESX made their entrance into the space, fans began to cheer and scream. Koty glanced at the controlled line. "I'm surprised they let them in already," Johnny Z said. Koty pulled out his phone, glancing at the time. The meet and greet wasn't supposed to start for another twenty minutes. A hand swooped in and snatched the phone. Woodrow pocketed it. "I told you to put the phone away," he said, his thin lips even thinner. “What are you, my father?” Koty held his hand out for the phone. Blood boiled through his veins. He fought the urge to cock his arm back and clock Woodrow. "Well," his manager said, "you are the bad boy of the group." Smiling smugly, Woodrow turned and exited the lobby. "So, that just happened," Dev said. He stood beside Koty, shaking his head. Fists clenched, Koty drew in a deep breath. A security guard removed the rope separating the line of fans from ESX, and the first group practically ran to the table. Putting on his Koty Jackson face, he reached for the CD the first girl handed him. It was ESX's first album, This is . . . He opened the booklet and signed his name next to his photo. He had long ago stopped attempting to make conversation with his fans. Most of them couldn't speak, and a few girls had even passed out on him. He smiled and handed the CD back to her. Then, he reached for a poster to sign for the next girl. As soon as the meet and greet ended, Koty strode up to Woodrow, who stood in a corner of the lobby, talking to another man in a Hugo Boss suit. He hung back and watched them for a moment. He couldn't hear what they were talking about over the din of the room. Someone had brought platters of food. The members of ESX, Woodrow's people, and the staff milled around with plates in their hands, eating and chatting as though they were at a charity luncheon. A small group of fans with special passes had been allowed to stay, but they mostly kept to themselves, throwing furtive glances at Koty and the others now and then. He strode up to Woodrow, holding his hand out. "Meet and greet's over," he said. He avoided the other suit's eyes, focusing only on Woodrow. The manager laughed. "You're still at work, kid. Go chat with those fans." He made a flicking motion toward Koty. "That's my property," Koty said, lowering his voice. He leaned toward Woodrow. "Give it back." "I think you're a little confused as to who's in charge here," Woodrow said. He straightened, squaring his shoulders. For a moment, Koty wondered whether he was going to hit him. "Get back out on that floor, now." The man in the Hugo Boss suit laughed. Koty clenched his teeth. "Look," he told Woodrow, still keeping his voice low. "I need to call my mother, okay? She's got cancer." The lie flowed easily off his tongue, and his heart flooded with shame. Woodrow narrowed his eyes, evaluating Koty. The seconds dripped by. "You have ten minutes," he said, removing Koty's phone from his pocket. For a moment, Koty just stood there. His heartbeat drowned out all other sound. Slowly, his fingers reached for the phone. He half expected Woodrow to snatch it away and laugh. But the manager only dropped it into his hand and turned away, diving back into his conversation with the man in the Hugo Boss suit. He wondered, briefly, what was so important. "Nine minutes," Woodrow called over his shoulder. Koty turned and strode away, holding the phone in his hand as though it were going to disappear if he loosened his grip. Woodrow was such a dick, he mused as he hurried through the lobby. A girl with pink hair practically dove in front of him. "Koty!" she said in a singsong voice. "Can we take a picture with you?" Behind her, the group of fans with the special pass nodded mutely, their faces flushed. Koty licked his lips, preparing himself to tell her no, but his eyes fell on the smallest girl in the group. Dark circles accented her eyes, and her hoodie was too big for her. As soon as he noticed her, he realized all of the other girls wore clothing in various states of disrepair. The girl with the pink hair touched the blonde roots growing in, and toed the ground. "Sure," he said, motioning for them to gather around. The small girl squealed. He pocketed his phone and posed, getting down on one knee and mocking opening a ring box for the small girl. Her eyes were so wide, he thought she might faint, but she held her composure for the photo. As soon as the flash went off, he hurried away. "Thank you!" they called after him. He left the lobby, eyes scanning the hall for a bathroom. He needed somewhere private to listen, somewhere Woodrow couldn't follow him. His dressing room was out of the question. The last thing he needed was another private moment with Carlee. He ducked into the men's room, spun into a stall, and slid the lock into place. The bathroom was empty for the moment. He sighed, his heart hammering in his chest. For all he knew, the voicemail had nothing to do with Perpetual Smile. Raymond could be calling about anything. He slid his phone out of his pocket, his fingers poised. His hands were slick with sweat. The phone slipped from his fingers and fell. It happened almost in slow motion. He watched, helpless, as the phone plunged straight into the toilet. 6 Staring into the toilet bowl, Koty decided that he really might actually kill himself. A single bubble floated to the surface, then nothing. He had dropped phones into liquid before. His first phone had fallen right into a cup of beer at a party. Luckily, his mother was too coked out to care, though it took him months to save up for a new one. He took a deep breath, clearing the cobwebs of the past. His phone remained at the bottom of the toilet bowl. If he were one of those pop star divas that Jett kept insinuating he was, he would be tearing up the place looking for a maintenance worker. He had done dirtier things, though, he reminded himself. He rolled up his sleeve, and plunged his arm into the toilet bowl water. It was a lot colder than he thought it would be. Goosebumps broke out along his bare skin. His fingers brushed the smooth metal of the phone, then closed around it. He pulled it from the water and held it away from him as though it were a dead animal. Cashmere was washable—at least, he thought so—but he feared Carlee might still somehow know. He brought the phone to the counter, and tried pressing the home button. Nothing happened, and he hadn't expected otherwise. He slammed a fist down on the counter. "Fuck," he said through his teeth. He looked around the bathroom. There wasn't even an automatic hand dryer—something that plagued restrooms almost everywhere. It was ironic that, when he finally needed one, all he could find were paper towels. He slammed the phone into the garbage. Still seething, he turned on the faucet and pumped too much soap into his hands. Hot water sluiced over his skin, calming him slightly. It took several seconds longer than usual to rinse his hands. The soap smelled like cherries, but there was nothing he could do about that. Yanking paper towels from the dispenser, he tried to think of a Plan B. Without looking at the time, he knew his ten minutes from Woodrow was almost up. If he wanted to avoid getting chewed out, he needed to head back. His skin crackled with anticipation, though. He didn't just need to know what Raymond's voicemail said. His very sanity depended on it. He wasn't sure he could get through another ESX performance knowing he might be stuck with them forever. Exiting the bathroom, he glanced around for a pay phone. He hadn't seen one in years, but they had paper towels in their restrooms. They had to have a pay phone somewhere. He looked down the hall leading to the men's room. Only a ladies' restroom and double exit door greeted him. He didn't even see a drinking fountain. His spine tingled. His skin felt like it was on fire. He couldn't face Woodrow's smug face. Koty needed his own secret to get him through. For all he knew, Raymond could be calling to discuss a contract renewal with ESX. Even worse, his agent could be calling to tell him that the manager of Perpetual Smile had laughed at his demo. A guy never knew. Rounding the corner, he considered his options. He could run down to the front desk and ask to use their phone. All he had to do was dial his cell phone number and enter his code. Woodrow didn't like to wait, though, and as much as Koty couldn't stand waiting, he didn't want to piss off his manager more than necessary. Unless he found a pay phone on his way back, he was going to have to wait. A security guard stomped toward him. The man's eyes were flat and narrow, his mouth twisted. "Can I help you?" he called in a gruff voice. Koty shook his head. "Just looking for a pay phone." The security guard snorted. "You expect me to believe that?" Koty scowled. "Listen, I'm with the band. I just need to make a phone call—" "You got any identification on you?" the security guard asked. He took another step closer. Koty noticed the gun at his belt and the set of handcuffs. "Jeez, dude," he said. He held one hand up and reached into his back pocket with the other. He retrieved his badge, a laminated name tag attached to a lanyard. Holding it upright, he flashed it in front of the security guard's eyes. "See? I'm really just looking for a pay phone." Peering at the badge, the security guard waved for Koty to pass. As he walked by, he caught the scent of marijuana. He rolled his eyes. "So, no pay phone?" he asked, not expecting an answer. The man merely glared at him. He hurried back the way he came, eyes darting, searching for the familiar shape of a pay phone box. He did not find one. Sighing, he returned to the lobby where the other members of ESX and Woodrow waited. "You're late," Woodrow grumbled the second he saw Koty. The other members of ESX were gathered around him in a sort of pre-show huddle. "How's your mother?" "She's okay," Koty replied. "Is there any way someone can run out and get me a new phone?" He hoped Woodrow wouldn't ask why. He didn't want to admit that he had dropped it. The manager stroked his beardless chin. "It must be nice," he said, "to have people, right?" He nudged Johnny Z. "You boys get everything handed to you. Do you want me to cut your meat, too?" He laughed, but his eyes remained locked on Koty, cold and flat. "If it's a problem," Koty said, "don't worry about it." The two men stared at each other. The seconds slid by. No one in the room said a word. Koty realized that the fans and other people who had been around during the meet and greet were gone. Only ESX and their manager remained. "Of course we can get you a new phone," Woodrow said finally. The way he said it, though, reminded Koty of the way a bookie offered to front money. He suddenly felt like a child again, standing beside his mother in the swirling Chicago snow, watching the way his mother shook hands with the man she promised to pay back. Koty tugged at his sweater. The tight fabric was starting to feel like a vice clamped around his body. Woodrow smirked. "Why don't you go see my daughter," he said, "and get dressed for stage? I'll have a new phone for you by the end of the night." "Daughter?" Koty asked. His ears felt as though water rushed through them. He stumbled back a step. The other man laughed. "My Carlee," he said. "You didn't know she was my daughter?" Gaping at him, Koty felt the blood rush out of his face. "Carlee is your daughter," he repeated. He thought of the way she eyed him, and shivered. Woodrow's smile widened. "I love my little girl," he said. "What Carlee wants, Carlee gets." He clapped Koty on the shoulder and strolled out of the lobby, whistling. Nausea crept into Koty's stomach, twisting his nerves into knots. He didn't have time to think about it more, though. Johnny Z slung an arm over his shoulder. "Let's get you to that dressing room," he said, a sly smile spreading across his lips. The sick feeling spread through Koty, wrapping tentacles around his insides. 7 Jett stepped off the bus, leather cowboy boots landing on the concrete sidewalk with a loud click. She stared at the hospital entrance. Her stomach clenched at the sight. Sweat coated the palms of her hands. The last time she had been in a hospital, she had watched as a team of doctors swarmed her mother, defibrillator paddles in hand. Clinging to her father, she buried her face in his chest as the doctors struggled to bring her mother back to life. "It won't be like that today," she whispered to herself as she strode through the automatic doors. It couldn't be like that. She wore her lucky boots, the ones that Phillip had bought her when they were dating. He would get a kick out of that, she knew. She walked past the information desk and toward a lobby of elevators. She pressed the call button with a fingernail painted black. She stared at her nails, wondering if she had chosen the wrong color. Normally, she was not a superstitious person, but suddenly, everything mattered. The elevator doors opened in front of her, and she stepped in. She was the only passenger. She wondered if that, too, was a sign. Perhaps she should wait. Her finger hovered above the open button, but before she could push it, the doors closed. The elevator began its climb. She stepped back and gripped the metal bar that ran along all four walls. Closing her eyes, she hummed the melody of the latest song she and Phillip were writing together. "So let this burnt skin fade," she sang. "It grows uglier but stronger, smoothed by yesterday." With a grinding slide, the doors opened, revealing a floor that looked like every other. There was no special sign that said "Cancer Patients." She wondered what it would be like to spend her days in the same room, being wheeled to and from treatments. Shaking her head, she left the elevator and began looking for Phillip's room. "Five-one-one-nine," she repeated to herself, circling the nurse's station for the second time. She began humming again, picking up the fast guitar rhythm. It calmed her nerves and dried her hands. On her third circuit of the unit, she turned left down a short hall she hadn't noticed before. A sign next to the first door read Room 5119. Smiling to herself, she moved toward it. She wished she had thought to bring him flowers, or even her guitar. She didn't really need it to sing to him, but it would give him something to do. Poking her head through the open door, she widened her smile. "Phil," she crooned, "I'm here!" A television buzzed in the corner. Propped up on three pillows, a man with no nose stared right through it. One of his eyes were closed. Jett cleared her throat. Her eyes darted to the second bed, the one closest to the windows. It was the same view she was used to seeing in their video chats, but the mattress was stripped and there was no sign of Phillip or his iPad. She clutched the door frame. "Can I help you?" a soft voice asked from behind her. She turned slowly, still gripping the door frame. A small woman wearing nurse's scrubs printed with Mickey Mouse smiled at her. "Yes," Jett choked out. "I'm here to see Phillip Hilton. Where is he?" The nurse's smile went out like a candle in a storm. She licked her lips. "I'm so sorry," she said. "Phillip Hilton passed away this morning." Jett slid to the floor, her mouth gaping. Tears burned her eyes and blurred her vision. A cold hand of grief clamped its fingers around her heart. She stared at the stitching on her boots, distorted by the tears that fell from her eyes. Kneeling down next to her, the nurse put a hand on her shoulder. "Is there anyone I can call for you?" Ordinarily, that person would be Phillip. The realization that he wouldn't be coming sent her doubling over. Her forehead touched the floor and she screamed against the cool, probably dirty, tile. Tears and snot flung against the floor, smacking her back in the face, but she barely noticed. The nurse rubbed circles into her back, and the world continued around them, but Phillip was still dead. It was several hours before Griff Whalen, Perpetual Smile's drummer, could make it to the hospital. The rest of the band would arrive as soon as they could. Jett refused to leave Phillip's old room. She lay in the bed he had occupied, listening to the nurses whisper the word "catatonic" around her as they checked her blood pressure and heart rate. When they tried to move her, she erupted into a shriek, arms and legs lashing out. After three attempts, they gave up. When Griff walked through the door of the room, Jett's eyes met his, and fresh tears pattered her cheeks. "Aw, babe," he said. He crossed the room and pulled her into a hug. She let him stroke her hair, burying her head into his muscular chest. When he wasn't kicking ass on the drums, he played hockey for a minor league team. He smelled like sweat and cologne, a light scent that highlighted his natural scent. "Don't you have a game tonight?" she sobbed. He hugged her harder. "This is a family emergency." His voice sounded strangled, but she refused to look at him. If he was crying, too, she would never recover. The minutes dripped by. Finally, he released her. She sniffled, wiping at her eyes. She tried to force a smile, but her face felt like melted clay. "Thank you for coming," she whispered. Griff shook his head at her. "Jett, we're family. I love Phil just as much as you do. I just never slept with him." He laughed, nudging her. She smiled, but more tears dribbled down her cheeks. "I wanted to tell him," she sobbed. Hushing her, Griff pulled her into another hug. "He knew, babe. He knew." A nurse shuffled into the room. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said, not sounding sorry at all. "You can't stay here. This is a hospital, not a funeral home." Jett shoved Griff away, jumping to her feet. She jabbed a finger in the woman's direction, punching through the air with a black lacquered nail. "This is where he died," she hissed. She felt Griff gently pull her back. "Sorry," he apologized. "We'll be on our way shortly." The nurse turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. Jett whirled on Griff. "What the hell was that?" she demanded. "We can't stay here," he said. He looked regretful, though. "The hell we can't." She glanced at the other patient who occupied the room. He was fast asleep, and had slept through most of the evening. "The guys aren't here yet." "Matt and Todd will get here as fast as they can," Griff said, "but we can't camp out in the hospital. They have to treat other patients. Someone else needs this bed, Jett." He patted the pillow. Her face crumpled, and she slid to the floor again. He sat next to her, and she cried into his thigh like a child, soaking the denim he wore. His hands patted her head and smoothed her hair, but she felt his teardrops splatter onto her arms. Sobbing, she straightened up and pulled him into a hug. They wrapped their arms around each other, sharing tears. She let Griff take her to a nearby Sheraton, where they checked into a room with two full-size beds. Jett sat on the floor, strumming her guitar without creating notes. Her fingers felt stiff, more like claws than the composers they normally were. Griff left and returned a long fifteen minutes later with her favorite junk foods, a bottle of whiskey, and some ice. She looked at him through teary eyes. When Perpetual Smile had been booed off the stage of their first show, Jett had barricaded herself in their hotel room bathroom. The guys tried everything to get her out. She hadn't been planning suicide or anything like that. She just didn't want them to see her with mascara running down her cheeks. Phillip had left, and the other men paced the small room, worrying. A little later, he came back with a black plastic grocery bag filled with potato chips and chocolate for her and some whiskey for the guys. The promise of salty, crunchy food had lured her out of the bathroom all those years ago. Griff was only trying to cheer her up, but Phillip's death wasn't anything that stress eating could fix. She reached for the bottle. Griff set the snacks down and retrieved the two complementary glasses next to the flat screen television set. He poured them each a few fingers. "To Phil," he said, holding up his glass. Her lips remained still, but she clinked glasses with him. Downing the shot, she held her glass out for more. A quarter of the way into the bottle, Matt and Todd arrived with another bottle and Phillip's guitar. "He would have wanted you to have this," Matt said, cradling the case. Jett shook her head. "Not now," Griff said, pouring four shots. She let them think what they wanted. Truthfully, she thought Phillip's mother should have his guitar. She had only been a bandmate, a good friend, an on again, off again girlfriend. She had not birthed him or raised him to be the caring man he became. Even though they had mostly confessed their true feelings to each other at the end, she was not his next of kin. A fresh well of tears cascaded down her cheeks, and she took the shot that Griff offered. The whiskey tasted salty, and she put the glass down on the floor. Shaking her head, she tried to stand, but she stumbled back and fell hard on her ass. "What can we get you, Jett?" Todd asked. They gathered around her, each set of eyes reflecting unease back at her. They didn't know what to do with her, she realized. They might even think she was having a breakdown. She waved them off. Clawing at the bedspread, she pulled herself to her feet. "Do you want more whiskey?" Matt asked. She turned to look at him. Warmth rushed through her body, and the room tilted. Perhaps she had enough, she decided. Her eyelids felt like heavy sandpaper, and she crawled onto the bed. Her limbs felt like rubber, though, and she merely slid back to the floor. She stared at the blue, standard hotel carpet. She and Phillip once had sex on top of a similar carpet. Too drunk to make it to the bed, she had pulled him down to the floor. Her chin drooped and bounced off her breastbone. She felt her fingers twitch. Fatigue washed over her like a flooding mine, and she wished she could drink more. A blackout without thought or feeling would be a relief. "Help her," she heard Griff say. Strong arms lifted her from the hard floor. She landed on her back on a cushion of blankets, her head touching down on a feather pillow. The ceiling tilted down at her, spinning slowly. She closed her eyes. Someone pulled her boots off. Wiggling her toes, she let the warmth of the alcohol wash over her. She wanted to ask someone to bring her another shot, or maybe even the whole bottle, but her mouth felt as heavy as her eyes. Her body sunk into the comfortable bed, and she felt her limbs relax. Even as the drunken depths of sleep claimed her, though, she saw Phillip's face, and the sad smile he had given her right before their last video chat disconnected. Hands shook her awake. She cracked an eye open. The hotel room lay bathed in darkness. “Jett,” Griff whispered. “You’ve got to get up.” She glanced at the time on the alarm clock. The numbers were blurred. She squinted, and they slowly came into view: 8:45—prime performance time. She had only been out for an hour. Her eyes drooped closed. The blackness rolled over her. Griff shook her again. “Jett,” he said, his voice rising. “The suits are here.” Both of her eyes flew open. “Here?” A rush of memories slammed into her. The hospital. The hotel. Whiskey. Phillip. “Yes, Jett,” Griff said. He put his hands under her arms and lifted her into a sitting position. “Do you think you can handle them?” Her head lolled back against the headboard. She felt Griff stuff a pillow between the hard wood and her neck. “Suits?” “Dammit, Jett, we need you,” he said. “They wanna talk about the band. They wanna talk about Phil.” His voice broke, and he said no more. “Where?” she asked. With the toes of one foot, she prowled the floor for her boots. “Conference room,” Griff said. “Can you walk?” She burped. “Boots,” she said. “Can you hold yourself up?” Griff asked. She grunted. His hand slid from the small of her back and she felt the mattress lighten as he stood. Her head swam, static buzzing. She needed another shot. She reached for the nightstand, fingers splayed. Her hand connected with cool glass, and the bottle tumbled to the floor. The sound of liquid gushing out floated to her ears. “Oops,” she said. The light went on, flashing bright. She squeezed her eyes shut and moaned. “Dammit, Jett,” Griff said. “It’s all over your boots.” She opened her eyes and looked down. Sure enough, they were soaked. The sharp scent of whiskey wafted up to her. Stomach turning, she flopped backward on the bed. The ceiling spun. “New plan,” she heard Griff say. “We don’t have time to find you shoes. You’ve got to keep your shit together, at least for the next half hour. Can you do that?” His arms wrapped around her waist and he hauled her to her feet. Opening her eyes, she let another burp loose, right in his face. “Why now?” he asked. “Why couldn’t they at least wait ’til the morning?” He put one of her arms over his shoulders. Supporting her weight, he began to walk. Her feet followed, though her legs felt like rubber. He brought her to the room entrance, then pulled the door open. “Ready?” he asked her. She let her head slide to his shoulder in answer. "A boy band singer?" Jett slammed her fist down on the lacquered table. "You want me to replace Phil with a pop star?” she slurred. Her nostrils flared. The blood in her veins felt like it was boiling. The ride downstairs in the elevator had done nothing to sober her. She looked from the manager of her band to the members of the label board, and the room tilted slightly. She could not, however, manage to look at her band mates. There was no telling what she might see on their faces. If they looked disappointed, she would be proud, but if they looked ambivalent or bored, she would lose her mind. "Koty Jackson—" her manager began. "Koty Jackson is a pretty face with no musical talent," Jett interrupted. "His demo was very good," one of the suits said. "Time is running out, Ms. Costa," another said. "Your tour begins in three weeks." Jett snorted. "You don't think I'm aware of that?" She shook her head. "I will not have some snot nosed, spoiled-ass kid who just wants to be famous ruining everything we have worked for." She looked at her band members for support. None of them looked happy. Relief washed through her. She raised an eyebrow, encouraging them to back her up. None of them said a word. "Enough," one of the suits said. "It's settled. Koty Jackson is going to play with you on this tour, whether you like it or not. We’ve already spoken with his agent and extended an offer.” Jett clenched her teeth. It wasn't fair. The label shouldn't get the final say. Perpetual Smile was her band, Phillip's baby. She searched the faces of her bandmates again. Each man looked sullen, the light sucked out of his eyes. None of them argued, though. It was as though they had already accepted this outcome. She stood, throwing her chair back. It slammed against the wall behind her. Without a word, she stumbled from the meeting room. She didn't have to accept anything. She would play with Koty, but she would not play nice. 8 Itching to get out of the sweater, Koty slipped into his dressing room. Carlee sat on the dressing table, wearing nothing but the Dio T-shirt he had arrived in. Her legs were propped up on the table, exposing her bare bottom. He looked away, scowling. "Cut the shit, Carlee," he said. "I'm not interested." Something must be wrong with him. Johnny Z and his other group mates hooked up with girls all the time. Perhaps knowing that the stylist was also Woodrow's daughter made it even harder for him to be attracted to her. He thought it had more to do with her approach than anything else. Johnny Z would laugh at him. She spread her legs further apart, an impish grin oozing across her face. He concentrated on her eyes, trying to connect with her. "Carlee," he said. "You don't want to do this. We need to keep things professional. If the press—" She hushed him. "Daddy said you need to loosen up." Koty's jaw dropped. Uncertain whether he had heard her right, he leaned forward. "What did you just say?" "Daddy said . . .” She paused, scooting down from the table. She pulled the T-shirt off in one swift motion. The air conditioning in the room raised goosebumps on her body. He looked away. "You need to loosen up,” she said. Giggling, she pressed her hands to his chest. Her palms were cold and clammy. He jerked backward. "Get out," he said. She frowned. "Why?" She reached out toward him again, but he swatted her hand away. His palm connected with her flesh, the sound of contact echoing off the walls. Her eyes widened. Shoulders tensing, he stepped toward her. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to hurt you." Tears pooled in her eyes and she turned away from him, hugging herself. Her shoulders shuddered. "Aw, Carlee." He touched her shoulder gently. "Listen, I just want to be friends." "You slapped me," she hissed, yanking away. Koty's arm dropped to his side. The back of his neck began to ache. Soon, the tension would wind its way into his head. "I didn't mean to," he said. "You know me, Carlee. You know I wouldn't do that." Panic fluttered in his heart. If she told Woodrow, he was finished. He wouldn't even have a chance to audition for Perpetual Smile. The paparazzi would mark him as a woman hitter, and the public would scorn him. "No?" She spat, the liquid making a thick sound as it hit the floor. Whirling on him, she poked a finger into his chest. "What did you mean to do, then? Because you obviously hate me." Angry tears burned down her cheeks, splattering his shirt. For a moment, he worried that she might actually combust. "I don't hate you," he said, keeping his tone gentle. "I like you quite a bit, when you're not sexually harassing me." He smiled to show her everything was okay between them. When he had first joined ESX, the four men had been put through a rigorous publicity training course. They had been taught how to field questions and how to handle overexcited fans. None of the publicists had covered horny personal stylists, but the principles had to be the same. "You don't hate me," she repeated, a tinge of doubt coloring her voice. "Then why don’t you want me?” Her lower lip trembled. He hesitated, groping for an answer that wouldn't upset her but also wouldn't make her think she still had a chance. "There's someone else," he blurted. She put a hand on her hip. "Oh, really?" One of her eyebrows arched up. She didn't believe him at all. Koty nodded. "She would kill me if she found out about this," he said. "She doesn't have to know," Carlee said, taking a step toward him. The tears on her face had dried, and a devilish twinkle was back in her eyes. He held his hands up. "Uh, that's not quite what I meant." His mind raced. It seemed that there was nothing he could say to get rid of her, at least not nicely. Shame wrapped its tendrils around his heart. He shouldn't have swatted at her. He shouldn't have even gone into his dressing room. He could have placed a quick call to his agent and requested a new stylist. In the meantime, he could have dressed himself. He wasn't a helpless five-year-old. Running a hand through his hair, he tried to think of a suitable lie. Carlee tilted her head at him, her chin angled doubtfully toward the ceiling. "What did you mean, then?" "It's just . . ." He remembered the lie he had told her father. "My mother has cancer," he said. "She really wants me to get married. I can't screw this up." Carlee twisted her lips. "A pop star? Get married? You're going to ruin your career." "It'll be in secret, of course," he said. He winked at her. She crossed her arms. She still didn't believe him, he realized. Knuckles rapped at the door. "On in five!" Jumping into action, Carlee picked up his T-shirt from the floor. Turning her naked body from him, she dressed quickly, pulling on a silk shirt and a pair of black leggings. Then she tossed several articles of clothing at him. "Hurry up. Get dressed," she instructed. He undressed and yanked on the pieces she had given him. The buttonless denim jacket she chose fit perfectly, despite the fact that his chest was bare. The jeans, though not his favorites, were decent, too. She handed him a pair of sunglasses. They were the kind that looked more like window blinds and offered very little actual UV protection. He held them as though they were a live grenade. "No time to argue," Carlee said, pushing him toward the door. "Wait," he called over his shoulder as he stumbled into the hall. "Are we okay?" She winked at him. Before he could find out what that meant, she took the sunglasses from his hands and put them on his face. Staring out between the plastic slats, he could barely see anything. He probably looked ridiculous. At least they weren't neon colored, he surmised. The thought was barely comforting. "On now," someone shouted. "Let's go." Koty hurried in the direction they led him, toward what he assumed was the stage. He realized that they could be shepherding him to a cliff overlooking a river of lava, and he would have no idea until the end. He was exactly what Jett had called him: a sheep. He was led through a door, burst through heavy curtains, and stumbled onto a stage so thick with smoke, he could not see the audience. Their screams assured him he was in the right place, though. He took his place in the center the way ESX had practiced, crossing his arms. When the smoke cleared, their audience would be able to see them, and they had to be in formation. His shoulder bumped empty air, though, and his head jerked around in surprise. Johnny Z was supposed to be right next to him. Koty looked around. In the fog, he could just make out Benny and Dev. He did not see Johnny, though. Poking his head from behind the curtain, Woodrow made jerking hand signals. "What?" Koty mouthed. Woodrow scowled. A vein bulged in the center of his forehead. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder repeatedly. "Get off stage?" Koty said. That didn't seem right. There was no reason for Woodrow to call off the show, unless Johnny Z had gotten hurt. Woodrow shook his head. His face slowly turned red, and the vein in his forehead pulsed. "Go get him," he mouthed through his teeth. He reminded Koty of a snapping dog. Koty backed away from his spot, closer to Woodrow. "You want me to go find Johnny Z?" "Yes, you idiot," Woodrow spat. "Go, now!" He shoved Koty back through the curtains. "Keep the smoke going," Woodrow growled at a technician as Koty jogged away. "When I get my hands on that drunken idiot . . ." Koty did not hear the rest. He hurried toward Johnny Z's dressing room. For a moment, he wondered whether this was his chance to find a phone and call his voicemail. Woodrow would probably not know the difference. The man was, however, already enraged that Johnny Z was missing. If Koty showed up any later, there was no telling what Woodrow might do. He realized, with a wry smile, that even though Carlee lacked his name on her birth certificate, she had inherited her father's temper. Rapping his knuckles on the dressing room door, Koty pushed through. The room was empty, except for Johnny Z's wardrobe and a few empty bottles of beer. Koty hoped that his group mate had the good sense to use mouthwash. If Woodrow thought he was drunk, he might find himself replaced. The tabloids would be eager to out Johnny Z as an alcoholic. It had happened before, to other boy band singers. Koty lurched back into the hall and broke into a run. He searched the entire backstage area, but Johnny Z was nowhere to be found. Only security guards loitered. He found Johnny Z's body guard reading a newspaper. Apparently the man was completely unaware of his charge's disappearance. Woodrow would probably tear him into pieces. There was no time for Koty to warn him, though. He tore through the halls and emerged into the main lobby. Postcards and wads of gum littered the floor, but no fans were in the area. They were all anxiously awaiting their beloved boys. Glancing around the area, Koty spotted Johnny Z leaning against a wall and chatting with a female ticket scanner. Johnny Z wore his sunglasses on his forehead and brushed a stray strand of hair out of the girl's face. Koty stalked toward them. He grabbed a fistful of Johnny Z's denim jacket and dragged him away from the girl. "I'll call you!" Johnny Z called out to her. He made no apologies, but followed Koty obediently backstage. As they entered the final hall, Koty released his grip. His body trembled, and he realized he was angry. ESX just couldn't seem to get their shit together. "You okay, bud?" Johnny Z asked, clapping him on the shoulder. Koty said nothing, curling his hands into fists. He had worked so hard to get to where he was, and he had nothing to show for it. Sure, his bank account was well padded, but he commanded no respect. People either pushed him around or threw their panties at him. He couldn't build a reputable music career on that. Maybe he should fake his own death, he mused with a sick twisting in his gut. He pushed through the door to the stage, not bothering to hold it for Johnny Z. "About time," Woodrow growled. "Where was he?" the manager demanded, focusing his eyes on Koty. Koty brushed past the man, pushing the curtains aside and stepping onto the stage. The technical team had pumped even more smoke out, blanketing the stage in a thick layer of white. Coughing, he groped through the fog, his arms outstretched. He touched a thin shoulder. Dev gripped his hand. "Did you find him?" he called over the screams of the audience. "ESX! ESX! ESX!" their fans chanted. Their cries were becoming restless, though, and if the performance didn't start soon, who knew what would happen. Koty squeezed Dev's hand and made his way to his spot. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his anger from his mind. Whether he was respected or not, he still had a job to do. Perpetual Smile would not want him if he started shucking shows. He folded his arms across his chest, plastered a bad-ass smile on his face, and pulled one shoulder back. He bumped shoulders with Johnny Z, who had assumed his own stance. "I'm sorry, man," Johnny Z said. "Did you hook up with that stylist?" Koty groaned inwardly. Before he could respond, though, the music started, a piano backed by a bass line that rattled his teeth. Someone slipped a microphone headset over his ear. The smoke cleared, lights poured down on the stage, and the audience gasped. Koty looked at all of their faces. They stared back at him, eyes wide and full of light, as though he were Jesus. He winked, and they screamed. At least on stage he was somewhat in control, he told himself. The thought barely comforted him, though. "I think that was our best show yet," Johnny Z said. He sat stretched out in the limo, a beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other. The other men had to squeeze together to give him room, but none of them complained. "I agree," Benny said through a mouthful of ham and cheese. Mayonnaise dripped from his lips, splattering his costume. He was on his second beer. Dev nodded, smiling through his chewing. Aside from Koty, he was the only one who wasn't drinking. Koty picked at his sandwich. It was hardly enough to satisfy his appetite. From the way that Woodrow had the platters passed around after the show, it was as if he were giving them a feast. Despite the man's earlier anger at Johnny Z's disappearance, his spirits had been high following the show. The crowd had given them not one but two standing ovations, and ESX had come out for a planned encore song. Their fans were so easy to gauge, Koty surmised. Woodrow plotted everything from the beginning, but he hadn't anticipated Johnny Z running off or the audience giving them a second standing ovation. ESX hadn't been able to perform a second encore song because Woodrow hadn't had another back track created. Seething at his sandwich, Koty leaned back into the leather seats. If Woodrow would just let them sing, they could have done the second encore. The fact of the matter was that, out of all four men, Koty was the only one who could sing without the aid of autotune. As much as he liked his agent, maybe he ought to fire Raymond Eble. He wondered what the man had been thinking. The thought of his agent reminded him that he had business to take care of, potentially life-changing business. Johnny Z nudged him. "We should go out and celebrate!" He stuffed the rest of his sandwich in his mouth. "I'm still hungry, and this beer isn't enough. Let's go get some ladies!" Benny whooped. Even Dev nodded eagerly, and he usually wasn't too keen on partying. They all looked expectantly at Koty. The last thing he wanted to do was spend any more time with them. It wasn't that he hated them. At least, he didn't hate them too much. It wasn't their fault that the pop music industry allowed them to get away with doing nothing. At the core, the guys were all good people. He needed some space, though, and he also needed to retrieve that voicemail. It would be too late to call Raymond back, but Koty could call him first thing in the morning. He feigned a yawn. "I'm beat. You guys go ahead." The limousine pulled up in front of the hotel. Koty climbed over the guys before any of them could protest. He stepped onto the concrete sidewalk, inhaling the fresh air. The limo had smelled strongly of beer and sweat, and he hadn't even realized it. "You've got to stop acting like an old man," Johnny Z yelled out the window, "or you'll never get laid." The limo pulled away, leaving Koty in the wake of Johnny Z's laughter. It didn't matter. He slipped his card key from his back pocket, glad that Woodrow had passed them out before dismissing the group. He gave the bell boy a nod and jogged to the elevators. To his delight, they all stood open. The lobby sat in hushed silence. He boarded the closest elevator and rode up to his floor. He found his room easily. It was far enough from the elevators that he wouldn't hear other guests coming and going as the night progressed, but close enough that he couldn't get lost. Not that it mattered, though. ESX would be moving on to the next city in the morning. Koty gave his body guard a nod. Buckley, of course, merely stared straight ahead. Sighing, Koty swiped his room card. Pushing open the door, he was greeted by the whisper of cool air and the cool, crisp scent of an air freshener. A single lamp illuminated the room, but it was enough to show the iPhone box on the king-sized bed. Stifling a whoop, he hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the door handle and locked the door behind him. His suitcase and guitar case sat in a corner. He ignored them and went straight for the phone. With shaking hands, he slid open the box and pulled the phone out. It was on, and when he pressed the button to unlock it, the screen alerted him that he had a new voicemail. He tapped in his passcode and went to the phone application. There was the voicemail from Raymond, but there was a second voicemail, from a phone number he did not recognize. His heart pounded. He stared at his options, unsure which he should listen to first. He tapped the voicemail from the unknown number, and lifted the phone to his ear. "Koty. This is Jett Costa," a smoky voice said in his ear. She did not sound pleased to be speaking to his voicemail box. 9 Pulling the phone from his ear, Koty paused the voicemail. Just from Jett’s tone, it sounded like she had called him to rub his failure in his face. He sat down on the mattress, sinking into the cushioned top. There had been no reason for him to think he would get the part. He was only a pop star, manufactured out of Hollywood. He would never be anything more. He scrubbed at the stubble on his face. He couldn't believe he had been so stupid. Of course Perpetual Smile had rejected him. They wouldn’t want a pop star to sing for them. Even if they liked his demo, he carried a stigma behind him like a ball and chain. He would never, ever escape the pop music industry. Unless he faked his own death and adopted a new identity, he was doomed to forever be Koty Jackson, the face of the world's all-time most popular boy band. The thought made him want to vomit. Actually, he surmised, his eyes flicking to the fully stocked mini bar, it made him want to drink. He could, too, if he wanted. His room was on L.A.B. Records's tab. Technically, Woodrow would be paying for his drinks. He scowled at the thought of the man. Scott Woodrow would be thrilled to know that Koty was forever in his grasp. He pictured himself an old man, leaning on a cane and limping into a studio to record, even as he gasped his last breath. He was probably being over dramatic. He needed to stop internalizing, and figure out something else. There had to be another way out of ESX that didn't involve him dying. He racked his brain. Maybe, when his contract came up for renewal, he could simply tell Woodrow that he wasn't interested. He could return to playing street corners and dive bars. He had been broke in those days, but happy. If he went back to that lifestyle, though, he would have a nicely padded savings account acting as a safety net. He wondered if Raymond would be able to get him any gigs, or if he would be strictly on his own. For all he knew, his agent might automatically self-destruct if he left ESX. The boy band was just as much Raymond's livelihood as it was Koty's—if not more. The phone chirped, reminding him that he still had another voicemail to listen to. Deciding that he would rather hear the bad news from Raymond, he pressed the message from his agent. "Koty, I know you're busy, but I figured you would want to know right away. Jett Costa's agent really liked your demo, and forwarded it to Perpetual Smile's manager." Raymond paused, breathing heavily. "They want to know if you can meet with them in New York tomorrow. I have no idea how you pulled it off, but good job, kid. Just remember what I told you. You might want to consider an image change or a new stage name. I'm just saying." With that, Raymond hung up, and the voicemail ended. Koty realized he had been holding his breath. Exhaling, he played the voicemail again. After it finished, he released a peal of laughter. All of his worries and brooding proved to be completely irrational. He needed to remember not to jump the gun in the future. Luckily, he mused as he rose to make a celebratory drink, he hadn't actually been entertaining the idea of suicide. The mini bar even had fresh slices of lime, vacuum sealed. He poured a couple fingers of vodka into a glass, squeezed in a lime, and added some club soda. Johnny Z might taunt him for drinking something so girly, but he had a flight to catch. The shot of vodka mixed with seltzer wouldn't even get him buzzed. He had to celebrate somehow. Tipping his head back, he took the shot, relishing the bite of the lime. He returned to the bed, where he had left his phone. He tapped the Delta application, hoping that he could book a flight so last-minute. As it loaded, he remembered that he hadn't finished listening to Jett's voicemail yet. His eyebrows crinkled. There was no reason for Jett to call him. It wasn't as if she was going to congratulate him. The tone of her voice in her first few words had more than made it clear that she wasn't happy. Wondering what she had wanted, he opened his voicemails again. His finger hovered over the play button. Maybe he didn't need to hear what she had to say. It couldn't possibly be nice. Still, the thought of her calling him from her personal phone made his heart race. Heat flushed the back of his neck. He needed to keep things professional between them. Being lonely was no excuse for thinking about her like that. Johnny Z teased him about needing to “get some” all of the time. Maybe the other member of ESX was right, but it wouldn’t be with Jett. Koty snorted. As if that will be a problem, he thought wryly. Still, he wondered what she wanted. Maybe she had come around. Perhaps, after hearing her agent's and manager's decision, she had realized she had been too rash. She may have even listened to his demo herself. Maybe she liked it so much that she had completely changed her opinion of him, and looked forward to seeing him the next day. After the meeting, she would throw herself at him, beg his forgiveness, and invite him to her hotel room. Maybe he needed another drink. He shook his head at himself. He was being such a pig. His years of being a pop star heart throb were actually getting to him. Being in the entertainment industry had ruined him, he surmised. Nothing in her tone had even remotely indicated friendship, much less sexual desire. He didn't want to sleep with her, anyway. Sure, she was beautiful, and when he heard her sing, her voice threw shivers down his spine. She was also feisty, which he liked, but she had been completely rude to him in person. He doubted her voicemail would be any different. Still, he had to know. He pressed play, sighing. Nothing good could come from listening. "I heard your demo," her voicemail continued. "It's decent, I'll give you that.” She paused, and for a moment, Koty thought she was done. "My suits," she spat, "have decided that they want to give you a chance. Who knows why? You're in way over your head. I'm asking you to just let it go. What are you trying to prove?" She hung up. If she had been using an old school corded phone, he imagined she would have slammed it down. He replayed the message. She slurred her way through the entire voicemail, he realized. Smirking, he ran a hand through his hair. Jett Costa had drunk dialed him. The thought was hysterical. Cool, calm, and collected Jett had made a mistake. Amusement turned to a small trickle of anger. Drunk or not, she had no right to harass him. Swallowing hard, he pressed the call back button before he could really think about what he was doing. 10 Jett's phone trilled, jerking her out of a deep, whiskey-induced slumber. She sat up in her own bed, her eyes puffy and her hair frizzy. Next to her, on the nightstand, was the bottle. She reached for another sip when her phone went off again. Someone was calling her, she realized. With bleary eyes, she squinted at the time on the alarm clock. It was one in the morning. Habit insisted that it was Phillip calling. He was the only one who got away with, well, pretty much everything. Then she remembered that Phillip was dead, and anyone calling her after midnight probably had more bad news. She thrashed the sheets around, looking for her beat up phone. She had thrown it at a wall at some point during the last few days, and it had, for the most part, survived. It glowed from underneath a white sheet, and she scooped it up. She did not recognize the number. "Yes?" she answered, hesitation and fatigue lacing her voice. She could not take any more heart ache. She grimaced, thinking of her behavior throughout the last few days. There was no going back, though. She realized she was still on the phone. "Hello?" she asked. An edge of nerves crept into her system, sending her into full alert. "Who is this?” She had never had a stalker before, but there was a first time for everything. She wished she had taken Phillip’s advice from years before and hired a personal bodyguard. Her pride had gotten in the way, though. She was no pop star, she had insisted. She could take care of herself with a bottle of mace and a switchblade. The caller burst out laughing. "You called me, and you don't even know who I am?" For a moment, she thought she was talking to Phillip. She almost said his name, then stopped herself. It felt like it would take forever to break her little habits. "Who is this?" she growled. "It's one o'clock in the morning." Someone was messing with her. More than likely, one of the guys had set the whole thing up. It probably hadn't been Griff. At least, she hoped not. They had become closer in the last few days. He was more like a brother than ever before. "I'll give you a hint," the caller said. He cleared his throat. "You don't like me." She gritted her teeth. The alcohol continued to work its way through her system, wrapping her in warm fuzziness, making it hard to think. She loved everyone—except for Matt and Todd, if they were pulling her leg. She reached for the bottle and took another sip. It tasted awful, warm, but she swallowed it anyway. "Well?" he asked. "Do you need another hint?" "Cut the shit," she said. She swayed. Pressing her free hand to her head, she squeezed her eyes shut to still herself. "I don't know who this is," she admitted. "I'll give you another clue. You called me earlier to congratulate me. Thank you, by the way, for your critique. It was most helpful." He sounded amused. Jett flopped backward onto the bed. Cracking an eyelid open, she saw that the room was spinning. She closed her eyes again. "Jackson," she groaned. "Not you." As it fully sunk in, her nerves tightened. She clenched her free hand into a fist. "You," she accused. A moan threatened to escape her lips, but she threatened it. As soon as she was done telling him off, she would allow herself to be sick. First, she had business to take care of. "Me," he said. She could practically hear the smile in his voice. That same voice had sounded halfway decent on his demo. With a little work, he might even be good. She refused to admit that to him, though. Koty Jackson was not Phillip Hilton, and she would never allow him into her band. She remembered why she had started drinking that evening. While the guys of Perpetual Smile had grimly accepted their fate, she was entertaining the idea of quitting. They might be able to start a whole new band. With their reputation, it wouldn't be too hard to find a new label. Their fans might be a little upset, at first, but they would get over it. Fans always did. "You there?" Koty asked her. He sounded concerned. "I'm fine," she spat. "You had no right to audition." "You keep saying that," he said, "but you have yet to give me a good reason." Deep down, she knew she was being unfair, cruel even. She couldn't stop herself, though. Hormones and grief raged through her system. She wished she had something salty, like a bag of potato chips. Griff had bought her snacks, but she had no idea where they had ended up. "You're an AJ McClean wannabe," she said. “Hey, I’m much better looking than that guy." He sounded like he was only feigning offense. "I landed this meeting fair and square, Jett,” he continued. Normally, she might laugh at his joke, but Perpetual Smile was no game. It was her life. "I hate to break this to you, but the label is desperate. They're only considering you because we start touring soon. When this tour is over, they'll probably dump you." She hoped that was true. Maybe, with the pressure off, she could talk them into letting her scout for talent. Koty said nothing. She bit her lip. Perhaps she had gone too far. "Listen," she started, wishing she could take it back. Sometimes, she surmised, she went in with guns blazing, doing more harm than good. She needed to cool her proverbial jets—something Phillip used to say to her all the time. Her heart twisted, the familiar pain driving in deep. She wondered if his name would ever stop hurting, if the good memories would ever stop feeling like little beads of salt being rubbed into the gaping wound in her chest. She wished she could turn back time. There was no way to cure his cancer, but she could at least tell him how she felt, maybe even salvage the relationship they could have had. "I'll see you in the morning, Jett," Koty interrupted. Then, he hung up. She stared into the darkness of her room, feeling even more alone than before. Nothing was going right. She lay awake the rest of the night, replaying her conversation with Koty over and over. Tears ran down her cheeks. He was annoying, and a spoiled brat pop star, but he didn't deserve the brunt of her grief. She was angry with Phillip, she realized. Phillip had left her all alone to deal with everything after his death. Not even her band mates were helping much. She suspected they were busy dealing with their own grief, in their own way. For the first time ever, she wished she had never entered the music business. Perhaps, if she hadn't gotten started, she would have gone to college, married someone, and lived happily ever after. Snorting, she turned onto her side. Jett Costa was not white picket fence material. She needed to make music, just as much as she needed to breathe. Things would be okay, she assured herself. They had to be. 11 Before Koty could even leave the hotel room, his phone started ringing. Koty fished it out of his pocket, then groaned when he saw the caller ID. "Woodrow," he said, not even bothering to feign surprise. "What can I do for you?" ESX had one day of down time before they had to fly to the next city on their tour. Whoever had done the scheduling hadn't given air fare any consideration. There was no logic to the stops. It almost seemed like L.A.B. Records wanted to make a statement by throwing their money around. "I noticed there is a cab outside waiting for you," Woodrow said. Koty could hear the disapproval and curiosity in the man's voice. He scowled, wishing he had just flagged a taxi down like a normal person. He didn't bother to ask how Woodrow knew, though. Instead, he acted as though he did not care. If Woodrow thought Koty was worried, the man might think his behavior even more suspicious. "Yes," Koty said, as if they were discussing the weather. "Where are you going?" his manager asked. A thousand snarky responses ran through Koty's mind. Woodrow had no right to ask. He and the rest of ESX were off duty. If the guys wanted to sit in their hotel rooms like kenneled up dogs all day, that was fine with Koty. He refused to give Woodrow any more power. Before he could answer, Woodrow asked, "When will you be back?" His tone had gone down a few notes, a dangerous bass level that Koty had seen him use on people he wanted to get rid of. He didn't think that Woodrow would do anything as extreme as hire a hit man on him, but with just a few phone calls, the manager could ruin him. "I'm going to see my mother," Koty said, reverting to his excuse from the day before. "What? Oh," Woodrow said. His voice leveled out at its normal pitch. "That's, erm, nice." "Yeah," Koty said. He swallowed back further sarcasm. "Is there anything else you need from me? I have a flight to catch." "When will you be back?" Woodrow repeated. "Tonight," Koty said, letting a fraction of his aggravation seep into his voice. The word came out in a low growl. "Any more questions?" "No," Woodrow said, "but you should know that you are missing an important dinner guest tonight." "Really?" Koty asked. Woodrow had not said anything before. He wondered if the man was making it up. Narrowing his eyes, he hefted his guitar case and shouldered his overnight bag. "That's too bad. I have to go, though, Scott. Have a nice day." He hung up, then switched the ringer off. Immediately, he began to worry that somehow Woodrow would look up his flight information and find out where he was really going. He shook his head at himself. Woodrow was a spoiled, rich music manager, not a hacker or private detective. He left the hotel room, turning his thoughts to the meeting he was attending. Anticipation zipped through him, and every step he took became more and more buoyant. Perpetual Smile wanted him. As he stepped into the elevator, a smile broke out across his face. It didn't matter what Woodrow thought or wanted. Koty had an exit plan. The elevator doors opened, and Koty stepped into the empty hotel lobby. Only a single staff member operated the desk, a cup of coffee practically glued to her hand. Koty gave her a wave. "Have a nice day," she mumbled, throwing on a quick smile. Dark circles underlined her eyes, though, and the smile didn't last. "You too," he said, giving her a wink. Long before he even met his agent, he had worked two jobs in order to keep his apartment. One was the early morning shift at a hotel. He had rolled out of bed and into his rumpled uniform every morning, taken the subway, and stumbled into the hotel lobby. He had never been a morning person. A breeze ruffled his hair as he exited the hotel. A taxi idled out front, just as Woodrow had said. When the driver saw Koty, he got out, hurried around, and opened the door for him. Koty frowned. He had not given the taxi company his name. He looked up. Several stories above him, a curtain moved at a window, blocking his view of the person watching him. He bet it was Woodrow. The driver gestured for him to get in. Koty shrugged and slid across the leather seats. The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke lingered, masked only slightly by copious air fresheners. He ran his fingers over the leather. In New York, there was no need for a car. The taxi driver ran around, got in, and began driving toward the airport. As they pulled into the street, a black car moved out behind them. Koty caught its reflection in the side view mirror. When the taxi took a right, the black car did, too. It remained behind them throughout the entire trip to the airport. The taxi pulled in to the departures drop-off lane, and the black car slid in right behind them. Koty's heart hammered in his chest. Maybe he should have had his body guard come with him. Buckley was on the label’s payroll, though, and he didn’t want to risk getting ratted out. The man rarely spoke a word, but Koty still didn’t entirely trust him. He sighed. That alone said a lot about his relationship with his employer. The taxi idled, and Koty waited, hoping the black car was just dropping someone off. Through the side view mirror, it was hard to tell whether a passenger sat in the car, and he didn't want to turn around and look. If someone was following him, they would know that he knew. He snorted. That kind of logic was childish. He was Koty Jackson. Woodrow wasn't going to have him killed. The sneaky son of a bitch probably wanted to make sure Koty was actually going to the airport and not just slacking off. Then again, disappearing was more Johnny Z's style. Koty hoped he wouldn't have to chase his group mate ever again. He paid the driver in cash, gave him the requisite tip, and scooted out of the taxi. Telling himself to be calm, he slid on his sunglasses, pretending to be completely oblivious to the black car. He strolled through the automatic doors and headed toward the ticket kiosk. Without stopping, he pretended to adjust his sunglasses, using the lenses as a mirror. No one followed him. Koty turned around and looked through the doors. The taxi and the black car were both gone. "Here's how this is going to go down," Raymond Eble said. He wore a button down chambray shirt and khaki slacks. Koty couldn't decide whether his agent was trying to be casual, or just didn't care about the meeting. He hoped, for his sake, that Raymond did care. "Don't expect a contract," his agent told him. Koty cupped his ear. "I'm sorry, what?" He stared at Raymond, trying to determine whether he was joking. The other man met his gaze, but did not blink. "This is simply to negotiate so that they can make you an offer. Don't go in there all cocky, expecting to close the deal. You'll look like a jerk." "You mean asshole," Koty said. He fought to keep a smile off his face. "Jerk," Raymond said. "I would also recommend you refrain from vulgar language." He leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his coffee. They sat in a Starbucks a few blocks down from the building that held Simon 1056 Records's office. Koty had also taken a casual approach. He wore a blazer over a Pink Floyd T-shirt and jeans. He had also brought his guitar with him. A suit may have been the more professional choice, but while he lay awake the night before, he had decided his approach needed to be bold. He needed to prove to Perpetual Smile that he wasn't just a pretty face and little rich boy. Even then, it would not be easy. Raymond's warning dimmed his hopes of walking out with a new job. Despite his success with ESX, Koty realize he was still a baby when it came to playing the game. "From what I could glean, this meeting is going to be small," Raymond continued. He slid two business cards toward Koty. One read David Cervantes, and the other was Brad LaMadeleine's. "Perpetual Smile's manager, also the CEO of Simon 1056, and Jett Costa's agent. Ms. Costa will also be there." Raymond took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. "This is burnt." Koty groaned. "She's definitely going to be there? I was hoping after last night she would be too hungover." Raymond lifted an eyebrow at him. Koty told him about his and Jett's phone conversation. "Do you think she'll be sober?" he joked. "What were you thinking?" his agent said, smacking his own forehead with the heel of his hand. "You've been hanging out with that Johnny Z guy for too long." Koty couldn't argue. The other pop star was definitely a bad influence. Standing, Raymond looked at his watch. "Come on," he said. "We'll just walk over. It's too much of a pain in the ass to get a cab in this city." "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Koty asked. Up until then, he had been delivered straight to the door of everywhere he had to be. The Starbucks was relatively empty. Out on the streets, he would more than likely be recognized. "At some point," Raymond said, leading the way out of the coffee shop, "you're going to have to get used to being famous." Resisting the urge to grumble, Koty followed him. They hurried through the throng of people coming and going. At almost eleven in the morning, the sidewalks were thick with workers on their lunch breaks. As usual, everyone was in a hurry. Koty smiled. Despite his fear of being rushed by fans, he felt more comfortable deep in the energy of the city than he did anywhere else. They reached the record label's building without any issues. "See?" Raymond said as they entered the lobby. "Relax a little." Koty snorted. "You're telling me to relax? Didn't you just chew me out for speaking to Jett?" He lowered his voice as they stepped into the elevator. "Do you know where we're going?" "Yes, Mr. Jackson. I have other clients with this label." Koty gaped at him. "I thought you had no experience with rock music!" Raymond shrugged. "I never said that." "You said that you would be more comfortable selling me to a label that had pop music roots." Koty crossed his arms. "No," Raymond said as the elevator ascended. "I said you would fit better into the pop music scene. You've got great cheekbones." He reached out to pinch Koty's cheeks. Koty yanked his body away. "You're an asshole." "A jerk," Raymond corrected. The elevator doors opened. Raymond led them to a room at the end of a hall. A sign labeled it as a conference room. From through the hallway windows, Koty could see the city spread out all around them. Cars and taxis crawled through traffic, and students and workers crossed the streets in large crowds. In New York, there was always safety in numbers. Raymond knocked on the door, then entered. Koty's heart lurched into his throat. Sitting around a table were David, Brad, and Jett. She sat with her chair tipped back, her long legs propped up on the table. She wore skinny jeans and leather knee-high riding boots. No sunglasses hid her eyes, and her face looked fresh. If he hadn't spoken to her the night before, he would never have known she had gotten so drunk. Jett caught him looking at her and scowled. Raymond tapped Koty's arm, jerking his attention away from her. His agent made the necessary introductions, and the meeting began. 12 Jett’s head thudded. Tears threatened her eyes. It was really happening, she realized with a twinge. She blinked and solidified the mask she wore. She couldn't afford to show any sign of weakness. "Good morning," David Cervantes said. Jett couldn't help but notice the sharp contrast between the CEO of Simon 1056 and their visitors. Cervantes wore a grey suit. Underneath his suit, he wore a band tee. She only knew that because one year, at a Christmas party, he had a little too much to drink and insisted on undressing himself until the shirt was exposed. For the reserved CEO, it was the equivalent of running around naked. Brad LaMadeleine, her agent, gave their visitors a nod but said nothing. The man hated mornings. At least he had put forth his best effort, Jett noticed. He wore a grey suit as well, the fabric one shade lighter than Cervantes's suit. Like their visitors, Jett was underdressed, but as far as she was concerned, she was attending her own funeral. She had chosen a black button down shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The jeans she wore were ripped and long ago broken in, and her leather boots were prominently propped up on the table. Neither her boss nor her agent had said a word to her. They knew she hated them, she realized, and they didn't care. Koty and his agent took seats opposite Jett. She watched as he slid his guitar case under the table, wondering why he brought it. The young man tried to smile at Jett again, but she gave him her best scowl, feeling a bit like a four-year-old. "Let's make this quick," Cervantes said. "It's almost lunch time." The men laughed. Jett kept her face blank. She felt like a security camera. There was nothing she could do to stop what was happening, but she had to be there. "We liked your demo a lot, Mr. Jackson," the CEO said. "With some fine tuning, your style could easily be blended into the band." Jett gaped at him. In that moment, her resolve to remain silent shattered like cheap glass. "You want to change our sound?" She fixed her eyes on Cervantes. The CEO sighed. "Can we continue, Ms. Costa?" he asked. His voice remained cool and calm, but his eyes threatened consequences. She watched as Koty and his agent exchanged glances. Score, she thought. Maybe they would be intimidated by the obvious tension in Simon 1056 and pull out of the deal. It was time for Phase Two of her plan, she decided. "You want to bring a poser into my band and change everything we've worked for?" she accused Cervantes, looking him dead in the eyes. In one fluid motion, she moved her legs from the table, stomping her boots on the floor. She kept her eyes on Cervantes. Reaching under the table, she grabbed the handle of her secret weapon. She set the guitar case on the table. "What are you doing, Jett?" Cervantes sounded bored, but she had known him long enough to recognize the hint of aggravation in his voice. "I'm proving to you that Koty Jackson is no match for us." She stood and flicked the latches of the case open. Inside rested her maple Stratocaster. She ran fingers over its body, then lifted it from its bed. Locking eyes with Koty, she held it out toward him. "Play." He held her gaze. "You don't have to do this," his agent said to him. She couldn’t remember the man’s name. Jett snorted. "No, he doesn't—unless he wants to prove right here and right now that he's not a poser." She thrust the guitar toward Koty. Nodding, he stood and reached for it. As she passed her baby to him, their hands touched briefly. A shock of warmth spread through her. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then her mask slipped back into place. She glanced at Koty to see if he felt it too, but he was already checking the Stratocaster, making sure it was in tune. "But wait, there's more," she said. From under the table, she pulled out her small amplifier. All three of the suits—Cervantes, LaMadeleine, and Raymond Eble—stared at her. She tossed the cord to Koty. "See if you can figure out where to put that." Plugging in her end of the cord, she flicked the amp on. A loud humming filled the room—one of her favorite sounds in the world. Resisting the urge to bounce on her heels, she turned up the volume. "Jesus Christ, Jett," Cervantes said. His hands gripped the edge of the table. "What are you trying to prove?" "You can't go by a demo," she said. "Perpetual Smile did live auditions when Phillip and I first started. We went through hundreds of New Yorkers before we found Griff, Matt, and Todd. Do you think it was fun sitting through all of those auditions? You wouldn't know, because you make your choices after thirty seconds of a demo tape." She nodded to Koty. "Go on. Play." She took a few steps back and leaned against the wall. He struck a chord, and his eyes locked with hers. The sound spilled from the amplifier and reverberated through the room. She could practically see the suits' teeth rattling. Koty strummed another chord, two notes, then launched into a piece he must have, she guessed, written himself. The notes ground and crashed, then suddenly halted and spun into a melodic, almost lullaby sound. At its core, though, it retained that grit he had started with. The notes softened even further. As he strummed the last, the sound wound through the small room. It was good. She had to admit it—to herself. She kept her arms crossed. The suits clapped like monkeys. "That was amazing," Cervantes said. She hmphed. Koty went to unplug the guitar, but she held up a hand. "What now?" he asked, one eyebrow lifted. He almost looked amused. For a moment, she kind of liked him. Instead of copping an attitude, he had done exactly what she said. There might be potential there, she surmised, but the truth remained. Koty had been baptized a pop star, and there was no converting in the music industry. She cocked her head at him. "Now, sing." "I object," his agent said, rising to his feet. She laughed. “What is this, a court room? Last I checked, this was a meeting to see if negotiations could be made. Well, negotiate with me, Mr. Fancy Pants. Let your pretty boy sing.” On the outside, she felt like a statue. Her nerves rattled, though, and she worried that she might have crossed the line once again. Cervantes rubbed his forehead, but none of the men made any further move to stop her. Jett was right, and as much as they hated it, they knew it. Satisfaction coursed through her. She lifted an eyebrow at Koty. "Why don't we sing a Perpetual Smile song together?" he suggested. "See how we harmonize." For a second, she felt off balance. The thought of singing with someone other than Phillip made her feel like someone had turned her upside down. Ultimately, she knew she would have to. Whoever replaced Phillip—whether Koty or someone else—would sing with her on stage during their tour. Tears pricked at her eyes. Then she recovered. "Why, so you can lip sync on me?" She laughed, dissolving the tears. His eyes narrowed. "I have never lip synced," he said, his nostrils flaring. "Please," she said. "Never," he repeated. "The rest of ESX does, but I don't. I refuse to—" Raymond cleared his throat. "Koty, let's not give away label secrets . . ." Jett snorted. "It's common knowledge that pop stars lip sync or sing over pre-recorded tracks." "Enough of these games," Cervantes said, slamming a fist down on the table. Everyone except Jett jumped. She merely smiled, still leaning against the wall. Before Cervantes or anyone else could say anything, Koty burst into song: "Can we go back to when the rose bush was a seed? There was nothing to hide, nowhere to hide." He motioned for her to join him. She took over her part, and he began strumming the melody, his voice dipping in with hers in all of the right places. He sounded smooth and smoky and, as they reached the chorus, their eyes locked. She felt that fire rushing through her again. Something flickered in his eyes, and she wondered if he felt it, too. Their voices intertwined and rose, winding through the room until it was only the two of them. It wasn't until they finished the song and the suits broke into applause that she realized they had sang the entire song. Koty tore his eyes from hers and gave the suits a smile. "I'm impressed," Cervantes said. Jett bit down on her tongue. Although he wasn't Phillip, Koty had potential to bring his own flair to the band. There was something else, too. She didn't want to admit it, but she felt attracted to him. The way he harmonized with her definitely outdid the way Phillip sang with her. It wasn't just that, though. There was something between them that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Regret instantly flooded her. Gritting her teeth, she returned her thoughts to the real matter at hand. The men were clapping Koty on the back. She heard the word "contract" mentioned. She cleared her throat. All of the men turned to look at her. "There's just one problem," she said. The CEO of Simon 1056 shot her a warning glare. "Jackson is still known as the face of ESX," she explained. "What are we going to do about his image?" There. She felt smug vindication wrap itself around her. Even if he could sing better than Jim Morrison, Koty Jackson was still a pop star. The men all turned to face her at the same time. Under other circumstances, it might have been comical. Their foreheads wrinkled and their mouths sagged. Even Koty looked worried. Then Cervantes cleared his throat. "That," he said, "is what I pay our A&R department for." He smiled and they all returned to shaking hands and discussing contracts. She watched as Koty shoved his hands in his pockets and ducked his head. Cervantes clapped him on the back. "Welcome to the family," the CEO said. Koty smiled. "Thanks." His gaze flicked to Jett, and he gave her a nod. He isn't rubbing it in my face, she realized. Heat spread across her cheeks. She probably looked like the world's biggest asshole. She gave him a nod back. Her neck felt wooden, but her eyes burned. She couldn't hold back the tears any longer. Without a word, she left the conference room. 13 "Thanks again," Koty said, shaking David Cervantes's hand a final time. He let Raymond shepherd him through the door of the conference room. As they stepped into the hall, Koty glanced back into the room. Jett had still not returned to collect her guitar. He started to call out to the CEO, but Raymond interrupted him. "You did good, kid," his agent said, leading him toward the elevator. "Thanks," Koty replied automatically. They stepped into the car and Raymond pressed the button to the ground floor. "This might actually work," Raymond said. He smiled, resembling a giddy child in a toy store. "Depending on the dates of Perpetual Smile's tour, you could fly back and forth. You could stay in ESX." Koty gave him a flat stare. "Or not," his agent said cheerily. He clapped Koty on the shoulder, the same spot that David Cervantes kept patting during the meeting. The CEO had the heavy handedness of a wrestler or football player. Koty resisted the urge to rub it. At the rate he was going, he would end up with a bruise. He wondered where Jett had gone, and whether she had returned for her guitar. He rarely let his own out of his sight. He gripped the handle of his guitar case tighter. As she hurried out of the room, something like pain had flickered across her eyes. He frowned. With all of her anger and attitude toward him, the last thing he had expected was to hurt her feelings. Women were so weird, he surmised. Still, he couldn't get her torn expression out of his head. The elevator reached the main level, and the doors opened, exposing the front lobby. Koty followed Raymond outside, where a limousine courtesy of Simon 1056 waited to take them to their hotel rooms. Later, another limo would take him to the airport after he collected his things and checked out. He wasn't sure whether he liked Cervantes, but he definitely preferred him to Scott Woodrow. When he was surrounded by the leather interior of the limo, his guitar safely tucked between his knees, he retrieved his phone. He still had Jett Costa's personal phone number. She probably wouldn't appreciate him prying at her personal life, but if they were going to work together, they needed to get along. Even more, he wanted more of whatever had passed between them when their fingers touched and their voices intertwined in the conference room. There was chemistry there, all right, he surmised. Perhaps there was even more. He longed for a friend—a true friend, not idiots like Johnny Z and Benny, who could hardly take their careers seriously. As long as money kept appearing in their bank accounts, they didn't care about anything else. Jett was a true artist, through and through. She cared about her band and its sound and image, or she wouldn't have forced Koty to audition. He smiled. She was feisty, but she was smart. He probably would have done the same, if he were in her position. He typed out a text message to her, inviting her to dinner: "Get to know me. I promise I'm not who you think I am." He nodded to himself. It didn't sound desperate or pleading. He didn't even sound like he was hitting on her or prying into her problems. From her point of view, it would seem like he was just trying to get along for the sake of the band and both of their careers. He reread it, then pressed send. "What are you doing?" Raymond asked. Koty jumped. He had almost forgotten his agent was in the limousine with him. "Texting Jett Costa," he replied. He swallowed, forcing his heart back where it belonged. Raymond snorted. "Are you insane? The woman was practically breathing fire at you." Koty shook his head. She hadn't been angry in the conference room. She had been cool—collected and calculating. The only emotion under that exterior was pain. Something was eating at her, and he would bet his entire ESX income that it had little to do with him. Still, they had to get along. She had been hostile to him before. He needed to smooth things over and ensure that they could have a decent working relationship. At best, they could be friends. He smiled at the thought. It would be nice to have an artistic friend again. All of his old friends in New York ditched him the second he signed his contract with L.A.B., declaring him a sellout. He sighed and glanced down at his phone, willing it to go off. The screen lit up. A reply from Jett sprang into view. Koty stared at his phone, then opened her text message, his heart pounding. 14 Sucking in a deep breath, Jett stepped off the elevator and onto Koty’s floor. Her nerves trembled, and she gripped the wall for support. If she didn’t owe him an apology, she would not have agreed to come, she assured herself. The suits might not understand how much Phillip meant to her, but she wouldn’t forget. Keeping his memory alive was her first priority. Straightening her shoulders, she left the elevators and turned down the hall. Koty’s room was at the end. She hoped his nosy agent wouldn’t be there. If he was, she surmised as she neared the last room, she would just walk out. With one more deep breath, she raised her fist to knock. Her knuckles rapped against the lacquered wood. The sound reverberated down the quiet hall. She winced. The last thing she needed was for someone to see her visiting him. They might get the wrong idea. Even worse, they might think that she was into the pop star, maybe even dating him. Grimacing, she knocked again, faster. If he didn’t come to the door in two seconds, she decided, she was out. Then the door opened. Grinning at her, Koty beckoned for her to come in. He smelled like soap and a light cologne. He hadn’t shaved, though, she noticed. The stubble lining his face and upper lip made him look like a completely different man. He looked more rugged, less pretty. Warmth spread through her, rocketing to her lower abdomen. Her heart pounded in her chest. For a moment, she thought of leaning forward and kissing him, if only to feel that stubble against her cheek. “Hey,” he said, and her heart slammed even harder against her chest. “Hi,” she stammered, clearing her throat. Swallowing hard, she moved into the room. It was better to get her apology over with, she decided. Then she could be on her way. “The room service menu doesn’t look too bad,” Koty said, moving closer to her. He held out a laminated menu. Hands up, palms out toward him, she shook her head. “I’m not hungry,” she said, skirting the love seat. She stopped next to the window, the couch blocking him from her. Looking confused, he dropped his arms to his side. He leaned against the desk. “I thought you wanted to have dinner.” He spread his hands, indicating the room. “Plus, it’s on the label’s tab.” He winked. “I know you’re pretty pissed at them.” Hormones rushed through her. She gripped the window ledge, swallowing hard. “Awesome,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Are you okay?” he asked, taking a step toward her. She held up her hands again. He stopped, looking almost like a kid playing Red Light, Green Light. “Totally,” she said. “Okay,” he said slowly. He sat in the desk chair, turning until he faced her. “Do you mind if I order? I’m starving.” The T-shirt he wore under his blazer clung to his body. The fabric revealed tight abs. She saw herself lifting his shirt and running her hands over his stomach. The image played in her mind like a buffering video, jarring at the moment when she pressed her skin to his. She looked away from him and out the window. So far, she had only accomplished being completely awkward. She realized that she hadn’t answered him. Her own stomach growled. Closing her eyes, she wished she had stayed away. She had a flight to catch in the morning, for Phillip’s funeral. The last thing she should have been doing was standing in Koty Jackson’s hotel room. He cleared his throat. “This is going really well,” he said. She turned her head in his direction. Avoiding his eyes, she gave him an apologetic smile. Things were awkward because of her. He hadn’t done a single thing wrong, she reminded herself. She needed to act like the adult she was. “Sorry,” she said. Slowly, she moved away from the window. “You invited me to dinner.” She sat on the arm of the couch. He smiled. “Wanna see the menu?” He held it out to her. Nodding, she took it from him, careful not to touch his hand. Phillip was her priority, she reminded herself. Her stomach did a somersault, though. Just being alone with Koty could be dangerous. She was such an idiot. Scanning the menu, she looked at the appetizers. “I’ll get the chicken fingers,” she said. “That’s it? Come on, you’re not seriously one of those girls,” Koty said, his voice light and teasing. His eyes danced. They were blue, like the ocean at night, she realized. Her heartbeat picked up. For a moment, their eyes met. Underneath his amusement, loneliness lurked—and something else. He looked at her like he liked her—like he wanted her. She swallowed hard. “No, I’m not,” she said, tearing away her gaze. She looked at the menu again. A bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and sautéed onions jumped out at her. Her mouth watered. “I’ll get this,” she said, holding the menu up and tapping it. “Yeah?” He grinned. “I was gonna get that, too.” He picked up the room’s phone and pressed the speed dial button. While it connected with room service, he said, “Wanna get some beers, too? I haven’t had one in forever.” He nodded toward the menu. “I’ll have whatever you’re having.” She shook her head. She absolutely could not drink anymore, even if she wasn’t alone with him. “I’ll just have a water.” “That’s anticlimactic,” he said. “Any suggestions, then?” She wondered, suddenly, how old he was. “Have you never had a drink before?” she teased, laughing. “I had a vodka and club soda last night, in my room in Miami,” he said, shrugging. “With lime.” Snorting, she stood and took the receiver from him. “Let me handle this.” She pressed the phone to her ear, shaking her head. It didn’t seem possible, that he could be so rich yet so clueless. “This is all on my label’s tab, right?” Koty nodded. “Room service,” a cheery female voice said on the end of the phone. “How can I help you?” Winking at Koty, Jett ordered their burgers. “I also need a bottle of Maker’s Mark, whatever cola you’ve got, and a couple of Samuel Adams Cream Stouts.” Considering her order for a moment, she added, “A tub of ice, too, please.” With their order in, she hung up. “What kind of beer did you get?” Koty asked. “The best lager you’ll ever have,” she said. “It tastes like coffee.” Grinning, she leaned against the desk. “And Maker’s Mark? What’s that?” He leaned back in the desk chair, stretching. Her grin widened, until she felt like the Cheshire cat. “Whiskey,” she said. “Very expensive whiskey.” Koty blushed, making him look five years younger, despite his facial hair. “Can you tell I don’t get out much?” Scooting back further on the desk, she rested her head against the wall. “If you’re going to be in Perpetual Smile, you’ve got to learn the ropes.” “So that stereotype is true, then?” He smiled, his eyes full of heat. Yawning, she stretched toward the ceiling. “Recently, yeah.” When she thought about it, though, she realized she was the only member of the band who spent most of their time drinking since Phillip died. The guys mostly slept and wrote songs. They had figured out how to channel their grief. Until the meeting that morning, Jett had sort of wondered if she would ever be able to sing again. She sighed. Koty straightened in his seat. “What’s going on, Jett?” he asked, his voice low. His eyes met hers, the heat in them evaporating. Only concern remained. She wondered how the conversation had turned so serious. “Listen,” she said, jumping down from the desk. “I’m sorry for how I’ve treated you.” He shrugged. “Can’t blame you for wanting to protect the band’s reputation,” he said. “Trust me, the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in ESX.” He told her about how he used to play bars packed tight with drunk people who threw things at him. “Sounds about right,” she laughed. “New York is tough like that. If you get into the right places, though, you can make pretty good money.” She smiled, thinking of the early shows that she and Phillip played. “If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have signed.” He stood, stretching. His arm bumped into hers. The familiar flare went off again, setting her nerves on fire. She felt as if she had jumped into a volcano. “Sorry,” he said, pulling away. He turned away, clearing his throat. So he had noticed it, too, she mused, watching him. Someone knocked at the door. “Room service,” came the bass male voice. Koty crossed the room, careful not to touch her again. He pulled the door open and accepted the food. Thanking the room service attendant, he closed the door. Jett joined him, taking the alcohol and ice and setting it on the desk. He put the hot bag of food down on the desk. “Hungry?” he asked, unpacking the food. He held out a styrofoam container. She hung back next to the booze, hesitating. She realized, suddenly, that they would have to share the love seat. It was either that, or set up a picnic on the bed. Maybe she should make herself a drink first. The scent of onions, barbecue sauce, and meat drifted to her, though, and her stomach growled loudly. “Thanks,” she said, taking the container from him. Grabbing a beer, she went to the couch. She sat cross-legged, put her beer on the nightstand, and opened her container. The burger lay on a bed of seasoned fries. “Oh, this is just too perfect,” she said, sighing. “Seriously,” Koty said, pulling the desk chair until he sat across from her. He put his beer on the floor. Opening up his container, he picked up his cheeseburger. “Ladies first.” “Not gonna argue with you,” she said, lifting her burger. Sinking her teeth into it, she took a huge bite. She chewed, letting the flavors mix in her mouth. A sigh purred between her lips as she chewed, sooty lashes half closed. “That good, huh?” Koty took a bite of his own burger and chewed. “Very good,” he said with approval, his mouth full. She nodded, taking another bite. Nothing in the world could be wrong when she had a good burger. Sometimes, she wondered how she didn’t weigh a ton. Especially when Perpetual Smile was on tour, all she ate was junk food. Barbecue sauce dribbled down her chin. “Dammit,” she murmured, glancing around for a napkin. Koty reached across the space between them, dabbing at her face. She reached up to take the napkin from him, but his hand lingered. Their eyes met. He moved the napkin to her cheek, even though she was pretty sure she hadn’t gotten any sauce on the rest of her face. Dropping the napkin to the floor, he ran his fingers along her skin. Her mouth dropped open. She dropped her burger into its container, meaning to collect her things and leave. Her body remained rooted to the couch, though, and her face arched into his touch. Then he moved away, pulling his arm back to his side. They stared at each other, time in the room as placid and deep as a lake. From somewhere down the hall, a woman laughed. A man’s voice purred, echoing off the walls, threatening to tickle her. A door squeaked open and their voices faded. Jett’s fingers twitched toward her burger. Her hands sat limp at her sides, her rings resting against her thighs. Koty, she noticed, sat in a similar position. Neither of them spoke or moved, as if doing so would break the spell. She wondered, though, what spell they were under. She shouldn’t have come, she realized, but she didn’t want to leave. I’m in trouble, came the thought. Then: I’m totally going to have sex with him tonight. It was out of nowhere. Everything about her was impulsive, especially when she felt down. The more she drank, the more brash she became. The thing was, she surmised as she gazed back at Koty, she hadn’t even had a drink yet. “I’m sorry,” he said, breaking the silence. Time picked up again, ticking along as it normally should. “No need,” she said, shifting on the couch. She cupped the styrofoam container in her hands, keeping it from dumping her dinner on the floor. With her intentions clearly in mind, she felt lighter, as if a weight had lifted. “It felt kind of nice.” She gauged his reaction: a slow blink, then a tiny smile, as if he wasn’t sure whether she was kidding or not. Heat spread across his cheeks. “It was totally unprofessional,” he stammered. “It won’t happen again.” “It won’t?” She feigned a pout. His mouth dropped open a little. “Come sit with me.” She patted the spot next to her. Then, she moved her takeout to the nightstand. Koty stared at her, frozen. Maybe, she wondered, she should just stop. Either she was going to make an even bigger ass out of herself by walking out, or she was going to have sex with someone who was essentially her coworker—and a stranger. The choice was clear, Jett decided. She gave him a shy smile. “Come on,” she said, dropping her voice. He sat up straight. Getting up, he left his container on his chair, nearly knocking over his unopened beer. Righting the bottle, he turned back to her, as if checking to make sure she was serious. She wiggled her fingers, waving him over. He crossed the space between them in one stride, sitting next to her. The second his body touched the couch, she pounced. Pulling him close, she wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her lips to his. She gasped, amazed at how soft they were. He returned the kiss, his hands lightly caressing the small of her back. She ran her hands over his cheeks, the stubble grazing her palms. It felt wonderful. Scooting into his lap, she deepened the kiss, stroking his tongue with hers. Even though they had just eaten, he tasted sweet and clean and crisp. His fingers skimmed the skin just above her jeans. Goosebumps broke out along her skin, and she shivered, grinding her body into his. She broke the kiss long enough to pull off her shirt, revealing her bra. His hands automatically went to her breasts. She settled into the haze, letting her body go into autopilot. It had been too long, she mused as she stood from his lap. Pushing him back into the couch, she tugged her jeans off. As if waking up, Koty began undressing as well, their clothes puddling on the floor. His wallet fell out of his back pocket, tumbling open. She joined him on the couch again, taking the wheel. Reaching behind her, she groped for the wallet. Her fingers plucked it from the floor, and she flipped through it. Most men kept condoms on them. Like hopeful teenagers, they always wanted to be prepared. At least, that had been her experience. She found one behind a wad of cash. Part of her wanted to make a joke about how loaded he was, but she kept it to herself. Bringing her lips back to his, she got to work. At first, it was sweet, like something she hadn’t known she had needed until she found it. He was a gentle lover, going with her flow. It almost felt like he didn’t want to scare her off. As she got closer to orgasm, though, she found herself thinking of Phillip, and all of the hotel room adventures they’d had. She thought of the last time, months and months before. A searing pain ripped through her heart. There would never be another time. Blinking away the tears, her kisses became more aggressive. Her pleasure was lost, but she refused to just run away. Running away was for little girls. She put her hands on Koty’s shoulders. When he let a moan escape, she knew they were finished. She slumped against him, her skin clammy with sweat. He touched her back, half patting, as if he was afraid to touch her. She couldn’t blame him. He shifted beneath her. She leaned away from him. Neck craned, he squinted at the alarm clock on the nightstand. His eyes widened. “Shit!” He wriggled out from underneath her. “What’s wrong?” she asked, already grabbing her clothing. “My flight,” he gasped, tugging on his jeans. He whirled through the room, grabbing his things. On the desk, his phone trilled and vibrated. He snatched it up and pressed it to his ear. “Yep, on my way down,” he jabbered into it. Ending the call, he tucked it into his back pocket. He grabbed his guitar case and duffel bag, then returned to where she stood. She yanked her shirt on, breathing heavily. “You’re leaving,” she said, struggling to keep her voice calm. “I totally forgot that I had to fly back tonight,” he said, leaning toward her. She spun away, collecting her own things. “It’s not how it looks,” he insisted. “I really have to go back. ESX is on tour, and we’re flying out first thing in the morning.” “So you’re still going to let them push you around?” She scowled. “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even as the words escaped her lips, she wished she could take them back. Tears pricked at her eyes. “I’ve got to go,” he said again. He started toward her, as if he wanted to kiss her, but froze halfway there, his body jarring slightly as he stopped. “I’ll call you,” he said. With that, he turned and ran from the room. Sinking to the floor, she watched him go. Staring down at her hands, she let the tears flow. They dribbled down onto her cheeks, splatting onto her jeans. She could still smell his skin on hers, taste his kiss on her lips. Next to her hand lay his blazer, forgotten on the floor. Her fingers clutched at the fabric. Then, tears streaming down her cheeks, she lay on her side and buried her face in it, inhaling his scent. 15 A wide grin spread across Koty’s face as he ran toward the elevators. Every time his feet touched the ground, he felt as if he were being buoyed up into the air. He sprang into the enclave, raced toward the call box, and punched the button in. Johnny Z and the guys couldn’t make fun of him anymore. Koty had officially ended his self-imposed dry spell. He tried to think of the last time he had been on a date, never mind the last time he had sex. Ever since signing his name on the L.A.B. Records contract, his free time had evaporated. Looking back, he surmised, he probably did look pretty lame. The rest of them were used to the routine, though. In their previous lives, they modeled in commercials and magazines, performed as background dancers, and walked down runways. Out of the four of them, Koty was the only one new to the game. A ding sounded. He glanced up. The elevator doors rolled open. Draping his duffel bag over one shoulder and carrying his guitar case in his other hand, he stepped inside. The elevator doors closed, the car hummed, and he felt it start to move down. A momentary sense of vertigo washed over him, as if he were still on the floor he had left. Then his inner ear caught up with the rest of his body, and his brain settled. Several seconds passed. The elevator stopped, bounced up a little, then settled. With another ding, the doors glided open. Koty stepped out into the lobby. His agent, Raymond Eble, paced the shiny, tiled floor, muttering to himself. “You’re even crazier than I thought you were,” Koty said, still wearing his smile. He joined Raymond and set down his guitar case. Shaking his head, Raymond started walking toward the hotel exit. “No time to waste,” he said, his pace quickening. “Sorry I’m late,” Koty offered, hurrying to catch up with the other man. He wanted Eble to ask him why. He wouldn’t tell his agent who he had hooked up with, but he wanted to see the look on Eble’s face when he told him he had been busy with a girl. His agent didn’t ask, though. The man hurried out to a waiting taxi. “Come on,” he said, waving Koty through the doors. Eble slid into the back seat. Raising an eyebrow, Koty followed him. He tossed his luggage into the trunk. Then he slid in after Eble, pulling the door closed behind him. The taxi driver closed the trunk door. “Hurry,” Eble muttered under his breath, his leg jiggling up and down. The driver opened his own door. Koty watched as his agent drummed his fingers against his thighs. He no longer wore khakis, Koty noticed. He was back to Armani. “You all right there?” Koty asked. The other man looked at him, his face pale. The taxi pulled away from the curb. Eble pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes, and tipped his head back against the seat. “We have a bit of a problem,” he said, his voice slightly nasal. “What do you mean?” Koty asked, watching the lights in the city as they zipped through the streets. He thought of the way Jett had put her hands on his shoulders, the clean, strawberry scent of her hair, how she had tipped her head back, exposing a single freckle on her chin. “Scott Woodrow called an emergency meeting,” Eble said, yanking Koty out of the memory. “So?” Koty settled deeper into the leather seat. It creaked underneath him, reminding him of the sound Jett’s boots made when he first met her. It felt like ages had passed, yet hardly any time had passed at all. He still couldn’t believe he had been signed into the band he had been listening to for the past ten years. He imagined that was how Timothy B. Schmit felt when the Eagles recruited him. “So,” Eble said, “he wants to renew all of your contracts early.” Koty turned his head, staring at his agent. “What?” His heart knocked against his chest. He tried to swallow, but his mouth felt as dry as rubbing alcohol. “He didn’t say why,” Eble continued. Koty leaned forward, feeling as if he might throw up. “He called you personally?” He buried his face in his hands. “I agree that it’s weird,” his agent said. “We’re meeting in one of the conference rooms in the hotel at five tomorrow morning. I can’t remember which one.” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I can’t go to that meeting,” Koty said. “I can’t renew.” He sat up, looking at Eble. His agent lifted his shoulders, palms up. “Sorry, kid.” He didn’t look sorry, though. Koty could practically see the dollar signs in his eyes. “If I refuse to renew, Woodrow will want to know why.” Koty swore, slamming his fist down on the seat next to him. “Then I’ll be breaching my current contract.” He clenched his hands into fists, opening and closing his fingers. He needed to figure out how he could avoid the meeting. Maybe he could pretend to oversleep his alarm. Maybe he could go to the airport early, on his own, in a taxi. Woodrow would hate that. Eble said nothing. As the silence between them deepened, Koty started to wonder. Maybe his agent had ratted him out. Clearing his throat, Koty made himself look at Eble. “Anything you wanna tell me, man?” His agent frowned. “I know how this looks.” He sighed. “As much as I want you to stay with ESX, though, the contract that Simon 1056 sent over is pretty decent. You’re not going to be making nearly as much money, but—” “They sent you a contract already?” Koty’s eyes flicked to the briefcase at his agent’s feet. Nodding, Eble unzipped a document compartment and pulled out a plain folder. “I’ve already looked over it.” “Give it to me,” Koty said, reaching for it. “Don’t you want me to explain it to you?” Eble asked, lifting an eyebrow at him. “I don’t care what the terms are. I want to sign it.” Shrugging, Eble removed a pen from his briefcase. He handed the folder and pen to Koty. Clicking the pen on, Koty scrawled his name—his full, legal name. He stared at the letters. It had been a long time since he could be proud of something he put his name on. “I swear to you, I have no idea why Mr. Woodrow wants to renew you all so soon,” Eble said, putting everything away. “Maybe it’s because of ESX’s success these past few months. You can’t blame them for shaking that money maker.” Koty stared at him. Eble smiled. “Listen, Mr. Jackson, we don’t have to sign anything in the morning. If all else fails, we can pretend like we want to go over the terms, so that we can negotiate the details. Mr. Woodrow won’t be thrilled, but he won’t argue, either. I’ll take the blame for it.” Nodding, Koty returned to staring out the window. The taxi turned into the airport. Even with Eble on his side, he still wished he had an escape route. He hated the thought of sitting in a conference room with Woodrow and the other members of ESX. Getting out of re-signing would take a miracle. He wondered how Woodrow had found out about Perpetual Smile. There was no other explanation. Somehow, the man knew. The taxi rolled to a stop. Throwing his door open, Koty jumped out. He and Eble grabbed their things and hurried inside toward the check-in kiosks. If they missed their flight, Koty surmised as Eble printed out their tickets, they might miss the meeting. It almost sounded like a good idea. He followed Eble through the security area, though, yawning as he stepped through the metal detector. He was definitely looking forward to some quality time with his hotel room. At their gate, the flight attendants were boarding the very last zone. Koty and his agent were the last two passengers to board. As they lifted off into the air, city lights twinkling below them, Koty realized he had forgotten to call Jett. The bottle of Maker’s Mark no longer sat on the desk. Lying supine on the hotel bed, her boots on the sheets, Jett stared at the ceiling. The half-empty bottle of whiskey was somewhere on the floor. She hoped she had set it down properly. Even if she hadn’t, she mused as she kicked one heel at the ceiling, the room was on Simon 1056’s tab. Any damages would be blamed on them—or Koty. She scowled at his name. She couldn’t believe she had been so stupid. She had let her libido and loneliness overrule her brain. Koty had gotten exactly what he wanted. Growling, she clenched her hands into fists. When she first met him, in the airport, she had accused him of just wanting to sleep with her, for a celebrity publicity stunt. By giving him a chance and opening herself up, she had just helped him along. Rolling onto her stomach, she reached toward the floor. Fingers patted the rough carpet, then touched cool glass. She closed her hand around the neck of the bottle and brought it up to her lips. Drops of whiskey pattered onto the floor as she took a double shot. Pulling the bottle away, she smiled. Everything would be okay. She just needed to get herself together. In the morning, when she got home, she would shower and dress, then figure out a way to get rid of Koty for good. Squinting, she paused. Something was off. She was forgetting something important. There was something she was supposed to be doing. Biting down on her lip, she set the bottle on the nightstand. Slowly, she sat up, the room swaying. A giggle escaped her lips. Warmth spread through her body. Everything felt perfect. A draft tickled the drying tears on her cheeks. Whatever she had been so upset about felt distant, unimportant. She settled back into the pillows, inhaling the clean scent of bleach and detergent. Her eyes closed, thick lashes settling on skin marred by dark circles. Then, her phone rang, cutting into the deep silence. She opened her eyes, taking in the still lit room. The phone continued ringing. Propping herself up on her elbows, she glanced around for it. Usually, she left it on the nightstand. Since she wasn’t in her own bedroom, never mind her own hotel room, she hadn’t taken it to bed with her. Maybe, she surmised with a giggle, she could blame it on the whiskey. The ringing was muffled, as if her phone was inside or underneath something. She swung her legs over the side of the bed. As her boots touched the floor, she stumbled. Catching herself with the nightstand, she wobbled in the direction of the sound. Stopping at the couch she and Koty had sex on, she twisted her upper lip. Why she thought that staying in his hotel room was a good idea was beyond her. Their time together had barely hit two hours, yet everything he had touched reminded her of him. Shaking her head, she returned to the task at hand. Her phone rang more insistently. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the call sounded important. Either that, or the person calling had hung up and re-dialed. She didn’t think she had set it up to ring for so long. She stared at the couch, wondering why it sounded like her phone was on it but she couldn’t see it. Laughing, she reached into the crevice between the cushions. Her fingers touched cool metal. She perked up, then her shoulders slumped as she realized it as only the underbelly of the love seat. Getting down on her hands and knees, she peered underneath the couch. From inside the small space, she could see the glow of her phone as it started ringing all over again. Whoever was calling her was desperate to get in touch with her. A thought occurred to her. Maybe it was Koty calling. Maybe he hadn’t meant to just leave her. Maybe he had actually been telling the truth. Perking up again, she reached under the couch. Her fingers caught on the metal underneath, but she stretched further. Clamping her hand around the phone, she dragged it out into the light. She let out a victorious whoop, a smile spreading across her lips. Swaying a little, she closed her eyes. The phone rang again, cutting into her celebration. Her eyes sprang open and she remembered why she had gone to so much trouble to find it. Looking at the display, heart galloping in her chest with anticipation for Koty’s apology, she felt herself deflate. It was only Griff, according to the caller ID. Her shoulders slumped. Now Koty had duped her twice. The phone slid out of her hand and onto the floor. Her fingers clenched into fists. Her eyes shot to the bottle of whiskey. As she started to get up and go for it, her phone started ringing again. Snorting, she scooped it up. “Hey,” she said, dragging out the word. “Hey, yourself,” Griff said. “Where are you?” Jett blinked. Cocking her head, she took in her surroundings. For a moment, she couldn’t remember. Her eyes took in each detail like a macro lens, reacquainting herself with the hotel room. “How did the meeting go?” Griff asked before she could answer his first questions. “Are you finished?” Her thoughts collided into each other as she struggled to remember what he was talking about. It felt like a 5,000-piece puzzle that she had to put together. She had never been particularly good at puzzles. Sucking in her cheeks, she again looked at the bottle of whiskey. A little shot might help clear her head. “Jett,” Griff barked. “Are you there?” She giggled. “Mostly,” she said. Tucking her legs underneath her, she leaned back against the couch. “Are you drunk?” he asked. She laughed again. “Mostly.” Her laughter deepened. She dipped her chin down. Shoulders shaking, she let the laughter take over her body. Griff swore. “You do know you’re an hour late for rehearsal, right?” In the background, she heard a drum solo start, several notes knocking against each other as Griff waited for her to answer. Straightening, she glanced at the time on the alarm clock. Eyes widening, she scrambled to her feet. “On my way,” she mumbled into the phone. “Jett, if you’re drunk, maybe you should stay put,” Griff suggested. “I’m fine,” she said, standing as still as a statue. If she could stand without swaying, she surmised, she could handle rehearsal. Her fingers twitched, but she otherwise didn’t move. “I’m on my way,” she repeated. Ending the call, she dropped the phone onto the couch. Swirling around the room, she collected her things. Then, returning to the couch for her phone, she stared down at the blazer that Koty left behind. Aside from her dried tears, it smelled clean. Over her white tee and leggings, it would look pretty cool. Plus, she had to admit to herself that she couldn’t stand just leaving it there. Picking it up from the floor, she pulled it on. Then, tucking her phone into her back pocket, she left the room. She hailed a cab outside, practically pushing a young couple out of the way. Living in New York had taught her two things: she never had to worry about finding a coffee shop, and only pure aggression would get her a cab. She gave the driver the address for Perpetual Smile’s rehearsal space, an old house on 7th Avenue that had been converted into studios. Inside, it reminded her of something out of the Victorian era. The atmosphere was perfect for practice. The band paid a fraction of other studios’ prices. A twinge of guilt twisted through her, though. She had already wasted an hour of their time. In a couple of days, they would officially be on tour, and every dollar counted. The second the cab pulled up in front of the building, Jett jumped out, tossing cash at him. The scent of whiskey followed her like a cloud. If she could smell it, she surmised, it was pretty bad. She wondered if she had spilled some on herself. She couldn’t be that drunk. She hurried in through the lobby, took the elevators, and ran toward the room they had rented. She burst inside, the door bouncing off the wall. All three of Perpetual Smile’s other band members turned to look at her. “About time,” Todd said, plucking notes on his bass. In the overhead light, she picked out greys streaking his hair and the stubble on his face. Perpetual Smile, she realized, was getting older. “Are you ready?” Griff asked. He tossed her a microphone. She caught it with both hands, and nodded. “On my count, then.” He nodded at the other guys. Twirling his drum sticks in the air, he counted out loud. They never counted on stage, but during rehearsal, they practiced syncing up. Counting off, Phillip had always said, was for amateurs. The drum beat kicked, her heartbeat immediately matching it. After ten years, it didn’t take long at all for her to get into the zone. Without Phillip or Koty, Matt had taken over guitar for rehearsal. Guitar and bass wound together, setting the pace for one of their blues-influenced songs. Underneath the alcoholic haze, Jett wondered how they were going to do since Koty couldn’t make any of their pre-show rehearsals. She wondered if he would even be at sound check. The whole thing was just absurd. Sure, the kid could play, but the suits at Simon 1056 hadn’t even thought about the hours of practice it would take for Koty to learn the songs they were going to perform. She frowned. She needed to get rid of him. By all rights, Perpetual Smile should have cancelled or postponed its tour. She wished the label had replaced Phillip faster—or not at all. She sighed. She wished a lot of things lately. She realized that the intro to the song had faded, and she was supposed to be singing. All three of her band members stared at her as they continued playing. Griff looked like he might throw one of his drum sticks at her. Jerking her eyes away from them, she launched into the song. Closing her eyes, she soaked in the words. “Can you, can you, can you hear my heart beating? Somebody took a shot, made me Cupid’s scapegoat. Can you, can you, can you hear my thoughts racing? Somebody injected me with ambulance adrenaline, yeah.” A smile spread across her lips. Her voice had never sounded so strong. Maybe all of the heartache was doing her good. Inhaling through her nose, she got ready for the next part. She brought the microphone to her lips, opened her mouth, and let it out—but all she heard was a buzzing as someone switched off the connection to her microphone. Her voice caught in her throat and she frowned. “What the hell?” She put a hand on her hip, glaring at the culprit. Matt stood nearest to the speakers, his keyboard set up closest to it. He stared back. “Jett, you’re tanked,” Griff said, tucking his drum sticks into his back pocket. He reached out for her. She spun away. “So what? Didn’t you hear that?” She waved the microphone at him. Griff’s arms fell to his sides. His eyebrows rose toward the ceiling. “Yeah, we all heard it.” He cracked his neck. The sound echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls. “You were off time, off key, off, well, everything.” He grimaced. “I was not,” she insisted. “I started a second late, but I heard it! We sounded amazing.” She tried to grin at them, but they all stared back at her with stony faces. “You’re wasting our time,” Todd said. Griff shook his head at him. “That’s not how I want to handle this,” he said. “So what, you’re the new leader now?” Jett asked, dropping the microphone to the floor. She crossed her arms. “You’re going to boss us all around?” She nodded at Todd in an attempt to recruit him. “It’s not like that, Jett,” Griff said. “We’re worried about you. What’s going on?” “What’s going on is that I’m trying to practice. We’re about to go on tour.” She ran a hand through her hair. Tension seeped through her, stiffening her shoulders and sending her heart racing. “You’re piss drunk,” Matt said. “We can’t play like this.” “You’re drinking a lot, lately,” Griff said, leaning against the wall. “The fuck I am,” she said, pointing a finger at him. Her hand shook. “Phillip just died, and you’re going to shove yourself down my throat for having a drink?” Griff sighed. “I get that, Jett.” He picked up the microphone from the floor. “Talk to me. Talk to us, your band. What’s going on?” Baring her teeth at him, she slashed the air in front of her with an open hand. “This is your fault,” she said, looking at them all. “You didn’t even try to help me when Cervantes let that kid in our band. Now we have to play with him, and he doesn’t know any of the material on our new album. This is a joke!” She threw her hands up into the air. “You should have stood with me. Instead, you just let it happen,” she screamed. They stared at her, collectively open-mouthed, their heads all slightly tilted. “All right, then,” Griff said. “We’re going home.” “You’re what?” she huffed. Matt turned off his keyboard. Todd placed his bass in its case. They joined Griff next to the door. “You’re too drunk to play,” Griff said, “and we’re not dealing with your tantrums.” They stared at her, each with their arms crossed. With identical frowns plastered on their faces, they looked like disapproving parents. “See you at the funeral.” She flinched, as if the words had physically connected with her body. All three of them turned at the same time, filing through the door. She stared after them, her own mouth open. After several heartbeats, the motion-sensor lights switched off. In the dim light from the street outside, she slid to her knees. A tear trickled down her cheek, followed by another. Wrapping Koty’s blazer around her body, shaking, she bowed her head, the tears dripping onto the studio floor. 16 The sky began to lighten, dark blue streaked through with lighter shades of blue. Holding a coffee in one hand, Koty shambled into the conference room, a full ten minutes late. Stubble lined his cheeks and jawline. As he passed Woodrow, he gave the other man a smirk. Woodrow rose an eyebrow, but said nothing about his forgetting to shave or late arrival. The other members of ESX, their agents, and Raymond Eble occupied the long rectangular table that took up most of the room. Someone had laid out bagels and orange juice in the center, but not a single one of them touched the food. They watched as Koty took a seat next to his agent. Woodrow cleared his throat. “Good morning, gentlemen. And lady,” he added, tossing a glance at Dev’s agent, Kathryn Cox. She glared at him. Woodrow continued as if he didn’t see. “As you are already aware, L.A.B. Records has decided to extend your contracts early.” Koty glanced at the other members of ESX. Everyone in the room stared back at Woodrow. Koty smirked. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to renew. “The label is rushing because a new boy band, J25, has hit the scene, and is your new competition,” Woodrow continued. “They—” Johnny Z and Benny erupted into hoots, their fists pumping the air. Johnny Z jumped up from his seat and ran several laps around the table, whooping. Koty sucked in a deep breath. It seemed like he would not be creating any allies. As Benny stood to join Johnny Z, Woodrow snapped his fingers. Johnny Z slowed to a jog, then returned to his seat. Both of them settled down like obedient school children. Koty shook his head. “Competition is always a good thing, gentlemen,” Woodrow said, glancing at Kathryn Cox for a moment before returning his gaze to a spot in the air above Johnny Z’s head. “However, the label wants to take no chances. ESX—this group of you gentlemen—has been very successful.” “All right, then!” Benny yelled, pumping his fist into the air. “Let’s renew and kick ass!” Johnny Z whooped in agreement. Dev, Koty noticed, said nothing. He watched the other man’s face, wondering what Dev thought of the whole thing. Woodrow opened a briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. Licking a finger, he opened the folder, then slid contracts in front of each member of ESX. Then, he placed pens next to the contracts. The spread reminded Koty of a fancy breakfast party. He hadn’t signed with the other men when he first joined ESX. Woodrow had recruited each of them separately, building the group over time. The second their pens hit the table, Johnny Z and Benny scrawled their signatures on the appropriate lines. They both sat back in tandem, as if they had choreographed the whole thing. Leaning forward, Koty reviewed the contract. He assumed that his agent had already seen it. Raymond Eble and the other agents remained still, mere accessories to the formality. He stopped skimming, his eyes flicking up to Woodrow’s face. “This is for five years,” he said, his heart hammering in his chest. “Yes,” ESX’s manager said. At the end of the table, Dev tapped his pen against his contract, his own dotted line unsigned. He exchanged glances with Koty. “Why is it for five years?” Koty asked. “I’m still new to this whole pop star thing, but aren’t contracts usually renewed on a year to year basis?” “The label,” Woodrow began, pouring himself a cup of orange juice, “is very pleased by your success. They believe that they can duplicate it with every album.” He took a sip, slurping as if he were drinking hot coffee. Koty cringed. Setting the small cup down, Woodrow addressed all of them. “You’ve done very well, gentlemen. The label believes in you. I believe in you.” Koty snorted. Woodrow shot him a dirty look. Before his manager could say anything, Koty pushed the contract away. “We need some time to discuss this,” he said, wondering if he could convince all of the guys to rip up their contracts and walk away. Woodrow laughed. “What’s there to discuss?” Each of the agents shifted uncomfortably. Koty stood, raising his voice. He spread his shoulders and placed his hands on the table, leaning slightly toward Woodrow. “We just need a few minutes.” Their manager’s eyebrows began to furrow. Then, his face smoothed over into an unreadable mask. “I’ll remind you that your flight takes off in an hour,” he said, glancing at his expensive watch. “You have five minutes.” He left the conference room, closing the door behind him. Silence fell over the room. Koty wondered if he should kick their agents out, too. No one could be trusted anymore. He had realized that while talking to Eble the night before. Even if their agents weren’t technically L.A.B.’s people, they still made a lot of money off of ESX. None of them were unbiased. Still, it might look strange if Woodrow saw all of their agents walk out, too. Ignoring the agents, Koty looked at his group mates. “What do you guys think of this?” “Are you crazy?” Johnny Z erupted. “These contracts are for nine million dollars—each! That’s not counting the royalties we’ll earn from record sales and revenue from our concerts. If you thought we were rolling in it before, we’re going to be filthy rich now!” He ran a hand through his hair, which looked as if it had seen a stylist that morning. Koty looked at the other guys. Each of them looked as if they had seen their stylists. He was the only one who had dressed himself. Convincing them was not going to be easy, he realized. “I get what you’re saying,” he told Johnny Z, “but let’s break it down. The nine million will go against future earnings. We won’t earn anything until the sales pay that back.” Johnny Z and Benny stared back at him, their eyes slowly glazing over. Only Dev seemed to understand. “The label will work us around the clock. When all’s said and done, we’ll hardly make more than we did in this past year. We won’t be rich, guys,” he said. “We’ll just have to smile for the tabloids and pretend we are.” “Nine million,” Benny said. “I could buy a house. I could buy three houses!” “And cars,” Johnny Z added. Exasperated, Koty searched for another way to convince them. “How will you enjoy those houses and cars?” he asked. “We won’t have time for anything other than what the label wants.” Benny shrugged. “I’m okay with that.” Johnny Z nodded. “Me, too.” “Dude,” Koty said, his voice raising as he grew more desperate. “You won’t even be able to go on dates.” Johnny Z snorted. “When do I ever go on dates? The most I need is an hour or two.” Benny laughed. Grinding his teeth, Koty turned to Dev. “What do you think? Are you going to sign?” Looking down at the table, Dev took a deep breath. For a moment, Koty worried he might not say anything. Then, he said, voice shaking, “I don’t want to renew.” The group fell into silence. Johnny Z and Benny stared at Dev. “What the hell is wrong with you people?” Johnny Z asked. Their agents, Koty noticed, remained silent. Each of them was too biased to add their own input. Because of ESX, their entire lives had changed. Koty took a sip of coffee. “I just want to finish my current contract,” he said, setting the paper cup down. “So you’re just going to break up the band,” Johnny Z said, standing up from his seat. Koty felt blood pounding through his veins as adrenaline coursed through him. He looked Johnny Z square in the eye. “Nothing’s going to happen to you if I leave,” he said, each word slow and measured. “Bullshit,” Johnny Z shouted. “You’re the face of this thing. If you leave, we won’t sell a single copy.” They eyed each other across the table. Seconds beat past. Koty clenched the edge of the table, his knuckles turning white. “I’m only what they’ve made me,” he said carefully. “If I leave, they’ll just pick someone else.” Johnny Z stood up, crossed the short space between them, and leered in his face. He jabbed a finger into Koty’s chest. “You are the entire band,” he said, his breath hot. Underneath the scent of coffee lingered the previous night’s beer. “Guys,” Dev stammered. The door burst open. Woodrow entered, frowning as he took in the scene. “What’s going on in here?” Johnny Z backed away from Koty, glaring at him. “Have you come to an agreement?” Their manager looked at Koty. Maybe, Koty surmised, he was the leader of the group. He rolled his neck, stretching the taut muscles. He let his hands relax. “The label would like me to let you know that, if you don’t all sign, the offer is off the table,” Woodrow said, smirking. Johnny Z swore under his breath. He shot Koty another dirty look. Koty’s head began to throb. He glanced up at the clock on the wall. “I’d like to remind you all that we have a plane to catch,” he said. Then, without another word, he strode out of the room, leaving his contract on the table. In the lobby, Buckley fell into step behind him. Koty imagined that his body guard was aware of the situation and had even heard every word. Still, the other man said nothing. Koty wished he could confide in his body guard like he used to. Buckley was on L.A.B.’s payroll, though, and therefore couldn’t be trusted. Koty headed for the exit. A little fresh air would do him good, plus he could probably slip into their limousine before the others. If he was alone with Johnny Z, he mused as he walked through the automatic doors, Koty would not be able to control his actions. “Wait,” Dev called from behind him. Koty turned and watched as Dev jogged toward him, his own body guard tailing him. A light breeze ruffled his hair. If he breathed in deeply, he could smell the ocean—or maybe he was imagining things. He wished he had taken the time to see some of Miami. He was glad he had gone to New York, though. His signed contract was on its way to Simon 1056 even as he stood outside of his L.A.B.-paid hotel. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to just walk away. He could pay the stupid fine for breaching his contract. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money. Still, he had a tour to complete. Even if he was kind of intimidated and freaked out by his fans, he didn’t want to let them down. “I didn’t sign it,” Dev said, catching up to him. “No?” A grin tugged at the corners of Koty’s mouth. Dev shook his head. “I can’t stand the thought of lying to myself and everyone else for another five years.” When Koty cocked his head at him, Dev plunged forward through the path. He motioned for Koty to follow him. They walked down toward the hotel pool. Palm trees barely shaded their path, and tiger lilies popped out of green, leafy plants. Their body guards followed them, but stayed out of ear shot. Letting out a deep breath, Dev gave Koty a smile. “I’m sure you’ve already guessed,” he said, “but I’m gay.” Color flushed his cheeks, but he maintained eye contact. Koty’s chest swelled. It must have taken a lot for the other man to tell him that. It was an unspoken rule that, in ESX, they had to attract the opposite sex. Women wouldn’t be sexually interested in any of them if they were openly gay. L.A.B. wanted to develop sex symbols, not wingmen. “Thanks for telling me that,” Koty said. He gripped Dev’s shoulder and gave the other man a smile. Dev nodded. “My boyfriend, Paulie, teaches Zumba. We want to open our own dance studio.” Koty’s grin widened. “You would make a great dance instructor,” he said. “Thanks,” Dev said, grinning. “I have enough money to get an education now. I’ll be licensed or whatever. People will respect me as a choreographer—gay or not. In time, they won’t even remember that I was little Dev, the guy in that boy band.” He laughed. For a moment, Koty considered telling Dev his own secret. If Dev could trust him with something so important, surely he could trust Dev. “There you are,” Raymond Eble called, bursting through the path. Sweat lined his beet red forehead. Groaning, Koty nodded at his agent. “Here I am.” He didn’t want to talk about his contract renewal anymore. If Eble tried to talk him into signing it and ditching his plans with Perpetual Smile, Koty might have to choke him. He smirked. He saw himself bailing himself out of jail and standing on trial for assault. At the very least, it might make Perpetual Smile fans take him a little more seriously. Then again, the band was far from death metal. He sighed. “We’ve got to talk about your, um, schedule,” Raymond said, glancing at Dev. “Right now?” Koty asked, glancing at Dev as well. He might be able to tell Dev about Perpetual Smile eventually, but he didn’t want to make any snap decisions. Dev squeezed Koty’s shoulder, though, and stepped away from them. “I’ll see you in the limo,” he said. Turning, he followed the path back to the hotel entrance, giving them privacy. Koty let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. The sun had barely been up twenty minutes, yet his day was already complicated. “I need a vacation,” he said to himself. His agent snorted. “You think it’s bad now?” He shook his head. “I’ve got bad news for you, kid.” Koty’s shoulders dropped. “Not now, man. Seriously.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and started to walk away. He would rather be forced to punch Johnny Z in the face, he decided, than receive more bad news. “Wait,” Eble said. “You need to hear this.” He followed Koty and blocked his path. “I’m not in the mood,” Koty said, trying to go around him. His agent held up his hands. “Listen to me,” he said. “ESX is playing Atlanta tonight.” Rolling his eyes, Koty tilted his head back. “I’m not an idiot, Ray.” “Then you’re playing Indianapolis,” Eble continued. “Again, I’m well aware of our tour dates,” Koty said. He leaned against a planter. “What are you getting at?” His agent sighed. “Perpetual Smile’s tour starts in two nights.” Koty’s mouth dropped open. The sound of seagulls and traffic shrank away, as if he were in a horror movie. He stared at Eble. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Are we playing two different cities on the same night?” Raymond Eble shook his head. “No, kid. It’s worse than that. Perpetual Smile is kicking off in Indy.” When Koty said nothing, his agent gripped his shoulders, leaning in close. “You’re playing the same city on the same night.” Koty felt his body go limp. A daze swept over him. He stumbled back a few steps. Eble’s grip tightened, jerking him forward, but Koty hardly noticed. There was no way he could avoid discovery. 17 Rain pattered the roof of the taxi, drumming out a never-ending beat. Jett stared out her window, purposely looking past the temple. The land stretched out flat around her, wide and open—completely unlike New York. She felt vulnerable, exposed. It probably said a lot about her that she was uncomfortable in small towns. She wrapped her arms around herself. Heat from the vents blasted her, but she still shivered. In a minute, or two, or three, or even ten, if she had it her way, she had to get out of the car and walk inside. The other members of Perpetual Smile were already in there—or at least, she thought so. None of them had even attempted to talk to her since the disaster in their rehearsal studio two nights before. She thought at least Griff would call her and see if she wanted to meet up before the funeral, but he hadn’t even returned any of her texts. Part of her wondered if the guys were on the verge of quitting. Without Phillip and with her bad attitude, they might move on. Todd had small children, and Matt often talked about asking his girlfriend to marry him. Even Griff had his hockey career, if things didn’t work out. She shook her head at herself. She couldn’t think that way. Whatever was going on between them would work itself out. It had to. Eventually they would understand, especially when she told them who Koty really was. Or they’ll think I’m a slut, she thought, closing her eyes as fresh shame washed over her. She was minutes away from walking into a church that strongly discouraged pre-marital sex, yet she had been with Phillip, Koty, and others, and had yet to have a ring slid onto her finger. She dug in her purse for the pack of cigarettes she had bought as soon as she stepped off the plane in Indianapolis. She had promised Phillip that she would quit, but it was a bad day for keeping promises. Cracking her window open, she lit up, inhaling the toxins, wondering if cigarettes had killed Phillip or if his cancer had been a freak accident. The taxi driver cleared his throat. His windbreaker rustled as he turned in his seat. “No smoking in here, ma’am,” he said apologetically. Unlike New Yorkers, the people in Indiana were nice even when someone else was being rude. Jett exhaled and flicked the cigarette out the window. She was probably better off, anyway. Fishing out her wallet, she paid the driver. Then, taking another deep breath, she opened the door. She hadn’t brought an umbrella. Luckily, the awning was only a few feet from the taxi. Sliding out, she put her boots to the ground and got moving. Once under cover from the rain, she hesitated. Two ushers held the doors open for her, but her feet refused to move further. She wondered whether Phillip’s casket would be open for the funeral, or if it would be closed. The thought of seeing him again made her want to fall to her knees like she had in the hospital. A couple drew up next to her, pausing. “Are you going in, sweetheart?” the woman asked. She wore a floral print dress and floppy sun hat, despite the rain. The man, who Jett assumed was the woman’s husband, wore a pair of khakis and a blue shirt. Others queued up next to them, all missing the standard funeral black. Two women wore maxi skirts and cardigan sweaters over pastel T-shirts. Jett frowned and glanced down at her own outfit: black leggings and a black button-down blouse with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, exposing her tattoos. Bangles jingled on her wrist and she wore a necklace Phillip once gave to her. The silver chain was about thirty inches long and the triangular pendant was etched with lyrics from one of the first songs they wrote together. People filed in, moving around her as she stood staring down at her feet. Either they thought she was grieving or crazy, but none of them said a word. The woman who had asked her if she was going in touched her arm gently, then moved past her and inside. The ushers continued to hold the doors open, watching Jett. Her shoulders moved up and down as she sucked in another deep breath. Then, as if a ghost in someone’s dream, she drifted through the doors. She followed the stream of people, ignoring the white walls and oak accents. Nothing about the church comforted her. If anything, she felt annoyed for Phillip. His family hadn’t even tried to respect his wishes. Following the crowd, she entered the cathedral. Stained glass murals depicting heaven decorated the windows. Jett wasn’t sure if there was an afterlife, and the scenes reminded her of her lack of faith. She wondered how Phillip felt about that. She didn’t know anything about religion or spirituality. Phillip hadn’t really talked about his family, other than to tell her why he didn’t talk to them. Her eyes fell on the casket. It sat closed, surrounded by people she assumed were Phillip’s relatives. Someone had draped an embroidered cloth over the wood. She snorted. He hadn’t earned the tapestry. Even after his death, his family still couldn’t accept the truth. The rest of the congregation seemed to have no idea of the lie the Hiltons had orchestrated. A graying man and woman shot her dirty looks as she neared them. “Sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs. Hilton,” she said. They shook their heads at her in twin disapproval. “Ms. Costa,” Phillip’s mother said. “So good of you to come.” The words were stiff and sarcastic. Mrs. Hilton sniffed, but it wasn’t out of grief. Mr. Hilton merely watched her move by. Keeping her eyes on the floor, she headed to the rows of elegant, mahogany pews. The other members of Perpetual Smile sat in the back, wearing clothing she had never thought they even owned. Long sleeved button down shirts covered their tattoos. Matt had even removed his piercings. Griff had shaved his beard. They had not saved her a seat, she realized. Avoiding them altogether, she took a seat in the middle, right at the aisle, in case she needed to escape quickly. Within a few minutes, the priest began the services. Jett tried to follow along, if only just out of respect for the Hiltons and other members of the church, but all of the cheerful singing ground away at her. She didn’t know where Phillip went when he died, or where she would go. They would never be together again, that was for sure. She had ruined everything by sleeping with Koty. No tears left her eyes, though. She was done crying. Jett Costa was not a little girl. She needed to take responsibility for her actions—starting with getting rid of Koty Jackson and finding a real musician to take Phillip’s place. She at least owed him that. Her ringtone went off, cutting into the priest’s words. She froze as the entire congregation stared at her. Cheeks flushing and heat crashing over her skin, Jett wished she could just disappear. She dug into her bag for her phone. She swore she had turned it off before leaving the taxi. Her bag suddenly seemed as deep as the ocean, though, and she couldn’t find the phone. Leaping into the aisle, she hurried out of the ordinance room, chin tucked into her chest to avoid the eyes of the people who came to Phillip’s funeral. Ruining things was becoming her trademark. Outside and under the shelter of the awning, Jett dipped her hand into her bag again. She pulled her phone from its insides on the first try. Scowling, she looked at the caller ID. Koty Jackson’s name flashed on her screen. Her heart rammed into her chest, pounding so hard, she could hear her blood in her ears. She stared at the screen, wondering whether she should answer it and see what he wanted. Eyes closing, she wished she had turned it off. She could still be in the church, paying her last respects like the decent human being she was supposed to be. The phone continued to ring, though, with Koty on the other end of the line. He had hurt her, though. By taking off with hardly a goodbye, he had proved her right. Even worse, she had to admit that she had started to fall for him. The second he walked through the hotel door, he yanked her heart out, trailing it behind him. “Fuck that,” she said, pressing the ignore button. Flipping the ringer switch off, she dropped the phone back into her bag. Then she re-entered the temple. After the funeral, Jett skipped the handshaking and slipped outside, lighting a cigarette the second her boots touched concrete. In the parking lot, the tour bus idled. Her heart swelled at the sight of it—the bunk beds inside were the only home she had ever truly known. Even her apartment back in the city didn’t compare to the thrill of being on the road. She half expected to see Phillip on the bus. Those little habits were the hardest to lose. Swallowing hard, she opened her eyes and sucked a long drag off the cigarette. She stood far enough from the exit that her smoke wouldn’t bother anyone, but close enough that when the guys came out, they would see her right away. Still, as they filed through the doors, none of them so much as glanced at her. They went straight to the tour bus. She followed them, smoke billowing after her. Just before boarding, she flicked the cigarette away. It bounced off the asphalt, embers spraying in all directions. The rain died it out, and the rest of the cigarette sat, soggy and unmoving. She watched it for a moment, then took the last step and entered the bus. The guys had already claimed bunks. They sat on the couch and bolted-in chairs, watching as she walked in. She glanced at the only bunk unclaimed, the top left. Shrugging, she tossed her bag up. Perching on the arm of the couch, she gently nudged Griff with her elbow. “So that was fun, huh?” He said nothing. Pulling her lips to the side in a little O, Jett turned her attention to Todd. “Ready to christen this thing?” she asked. She jumped up and went to the mini fridge. Tugging it open, she peered inside. Only bottled water greeted her. Raising an eyebrow, she turned to Matt. “Did you forget the beer?” Sharing a drink right before their first show was Perpetual Smile tradition. She had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that they would still do it, even though it was still daytime and they had just said goodbye to Phillip. Their first show was in Indianapolis, at the Old National Centre, less than an hour away. She wondered whether Koty would be joining them on the bus, or if he would show up at all. Maybe, she mused, standing from the mini fridge, the offer was off the table now that she had slept with him. She leaned against the wall, watching the other members of Perpetual Smile. They each stared back at her. “What’s going on?” she asked, shifting uncomfortably. “Are we going to have a drink or what?” Griff shook his head in one slow motion. “No, Jett,” he said. “We’re not.” Jett raised an eyebrow at him. “Because why?” She jerked a thumb in the direction of the temple. “Phillip would want us to—” “Phillip would want me to look out for you,” Griff said, crossing his arms. “And you’ve been drinking way too much lately. So, we’ve decided we’re going to cool it, together. We’re gonna help you through.” The tour bus pulled out of its parking spot, moving toward the street. “We?” she repeated. “You’ve been talking behind my back?” “You showed up to practice cocked out of your mind,” Todd said. She scowled. “I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want to hear? It’s not a big deal. I forgot. You caught me at a bad time.” She straightened her shoulders. It was time to tell them. Koty Jackson was about to have three angry men after him. Her lips curled up in a slight smile. “It’s not funny, kiddo,” Todd said. “We’re worried about ya.” “You’ve been drinking way too much lately,” Griff said. He ran a hand through his hair. “If it continues, we’re going to have to kick you out of the band. This is your last chance.” Snorting, Jett moved toward him. “You can’t be serious,” she said. “You’re not even giving me a chance to explain!” “What is there to explain, Jett? You smelled like a whiskey distillery the other night,” Matt said. The three of them fixed their gazes on her, their jaws set. She resisted the urge to squirm. Shaking her head at them, she left the living area. As the tour bus pulled onto the highway, she climbed up into her bunk without another word. 18 “Are you ready to shave?” Carlee asked Koty. With the way she kept hounding him about his five o’clock shadow, he felt like an inmate. Ignoring her, he checked the time on his phone. According to the digital display, only thirty seconds had passed since he last checked, and it was still quarter after six. Closing his eyes, he willed his nerves to loosen. If it had been any other night, he would probably be fine. It was the night, though—his first show with Perpetual Smile. Part of him wondered if Woodrow knew, but that was crazy. ESX’s show dates had been scheduled months and months earlier. He sat up straight in the director’s chair embroidered with his name. That wasn’t entirely true, he realized. During past tours, Woodrow had added dates just weeks before. Still, it was a stretch. Only a few days had passed since he signed his contract with Simon 1056. If Woodrow was that powerful, Koty surmised, worrying about him would do nothing. Besides, Koty had enough on his plate at the moment. “Are you going to shave at all?” Carlee asked, putting a hand on one hip. In the fluorescent lighting, her blonde hair looked slightly green. Koty wondered whether his stylist needed her own stylist. “Are you listening to me?” Ever since finding out that she was Woodrow’s daughter, Koty trusted his stylist less and less. She was always on his case, but Koty wondered whether her father had asked her to keep an especially close eye on him. If that was the case, he would never be able to sneak out. His heart sank at the thought of Carlee keeping him from Perpetual Smile’s show. Pure spite fueled her motives, plus he knew she wanted to please her father. What he thought had been silly fangirl feelings turned out to be the dangerous kind of crush that could get him into trouble. If Woodrow or Carlee wanted to, they could make up a nasty lie. Koty had seen it happen before, and it would be their word against his. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror. Dark half circles rested like tattoos underneath his eyes. The skin on his face looked pale and almost yellow in the lighting. Mostly, though, he looked tired—and scared. If the plan that Eble and Cervantes came up with didn’t work, Woodrow was going to find out about Perpetual Smile. It would all be over. Part of him wanted it to be done with. Even if Woodrow did the absolute worst thing imaginable, somehow, Koty would survive. He had landed ESX in New York, a city overflowing with wannabe musicians. Someone had noticed him in that sea of people, playing street corners and living off ramen and the dollar menu. He would survive again. In time, no one would remember him, and he would just be the guitarist in Perpetual Smile. At least, he hoped so. Still, after how far he had come, he needed to prove to himself that he could make the transition without the world ending. If Woodrow hadn’t dropped L.A.B.’s proposal bomb, Koty knew he would have escaped without a scratch. Things were going to be crazy for a while. He just needed to play the game a little longer. First, though, he had two shows to play—at the same time. The plan had to work. All he had to do was sneak out, get into the car that Cervantes sent for him, play with Perpetual Smile, then sneak back in before the opening act for ESX finished. The pop star performing was some scrawny thing who had once been a star on one of the children’s television channels. Rumors kept flying about her, and Koty wasn’t so sure that ESX should be mixed up with her. Woodrow thought it would be great for their publicity, though, and there was nothing Koty or any of the other guys could do about it, anyway. He was sick to death of having all of his decisions made by other people. Even on the eve of his escape, Simon 1056 was calling the shots. Still, he had no choice. It was sink or swim. Most of the time, Koty felt as if he were dog-paddling. “You seem extra tense tonight, sweetie,” Carlee said, leaning over from behind him. Her fingers brushed his shoulders and her hair grazed his cheek. “Nervous?” Koty Jackson was never nervous, he reminded himself. He jerked away from her, jumping out of the chair. He paced the small dressing room, moving back and forth past his closet on wheels. Even if he could pull off sneaking out, he still had to deal with Jett. She hadn’t returned his phone call, and he had learned long ago that, in girl code, that meant bad news. “Koty,” Carlee purred, following him. He spun past her, the scent of her perfume burning his nostrils. “That beard’s got to go,” she said from behind him. He ran his fingertips over the stubble on his face. It hardly qualified as a beard. As a rule, though, all members of ESX were supposed to be clean-shaven when appearing in public. The second his contract ended, he was going to throw away his razors. For the night, though, he needed something to make him look like he fit in with Perpetual Smile. A little scruff could go a long way. No matter how much he had practiced their songs, he still had to look the part. Carlee stamped a foot on the floor, her stiletto clicking. “Hello,” she whined. “As your stylist, I’m advising you to turn around and look at me.” He fought the urge to whip around and backhand her. He would never hit a woman, but his stylist was starting to seem like another creature entirely. Pulling his phone out of his back pocket, he checked the time again. Fifteen minutes had passed. He exhaled, relief flooding him. It was almost time. Then, as that realization sank in, he felt sweat dot his face. “Almost time for makeup,” Carlee crooned, trying another tactic. “Want to see what you’re wearing tonight?” A giggle burst from her lips. “Want to see it on me?” He tucked his phone back into his pocket and moved toward the door. “Where are you going?” she asked. He could hear the pout in her voice. “Gotta piss,” he said, imagining the shocked expression on her face, glossy lips dropping open. Without waiting for her to respond, he turned the knob, glanced up and down the hall, then stepped out, closing the door behind him. He didn’t hear it open. Holding his breath, he moved down the hall, ears perked for any sign of someone following him. Not even Buckley fell into step behind him, which was odd, but maybe his body guard actually needed to use the bathroom. Glee surging through him, he picked up his pace, practically jogging down the hall. As he rounded the corner to the elevators, he nearly collided head on into Johnny Z. The other member of ESX leaned against the wall, his sunglasses hiding his eyes. He clutched a beer, though, and from the way he swayed, Koty guessed Johnny Z had been drinking for a while. Slowing down and walking as nonchalantly as possible, Koty reached for the elevator button. He watched Johnny Z out of the corner of his eye. When his group mate made no comment, Koty let his shoulders relax. Johnny Z was too drunk. Briefly, he wondered why Johnny Z wasn’t in his own dressing room, getting ready, but then again, the other member of ESX was rarely on time. Koty refused to get dragged into it again. The elevator doors rolled open with a ding. As Koty stepped inside, Johnny Z slammed his body into the entrance, blocking the doors from closing. “What’re you doing?” Koty asked. Johnny Z lifted his sunglasses. “I just wanna say,” he slurred, “that I wanna say that I wanna make sure you know how sorry I am.” He jabbed a finger into Koty’s chest. Glancing down at Johnny Z’s hand, Koty cleared his throat. “It’s cool, dude.” He sidestepped and studied the panel, hoping his group mate would get the hint. “It’s not,” Johnny Z said, stepping further into the elevator. “I didn’t mean it.” “Okay,” Koty said, looking from the open doors to the buttons. “No problem.” A grin broke out across Johnny Z’s face. “Cool,” he said, backing out of the elevator. “See you on stage.” As the doors rolled closed, Johnny Z gave Koty a salute. Breathing a sigh of relief, Koty punched the button for the ground floor. The second the doors opened, he lurched out into the lobby. From through the tinted windows and door, he could see the car waiting outside. He headed toward the exit, heart hammering in his chest. If Johnny Z had asked where he was going, he didn’t even have a lame excuse prepared. Only a few feet stood between him and the street. Arms outstretched, hand reaching for the door, Koty surged forward. As his fingers touched cool glass, someone called out his name. He froze, then turned around slowly. Dev waved from the other side of the lobby. “Are you running away?” he teased. “At least take me with you.” A small smile played on Koty’s lips. “I’m just stepping out,” he blurted, the smile disappearing. Dev smiled back, his own grin sly. His eyes danced. “Stepping out?” he repeated, color seeping into his cheeks. “Really?” Koty hesitated. His eyes flicked to the car outside, its engine idling. He wondered how long the driver would wait before assuming that he had blown off his first performance. “Listen, Dev,” he said, struggling to keep his voice smooth. “It’s okay,” Dev said, flashing him a thumbs up. “I knew you’ve been acting weird lately.” Koty’s heart lurched into his throat. “Weird?” Dev nodded, his cheeks still pink. “You don’t have to tell me anything. I’m just saying, it makes perfect sense. You finally got yourself a girlfriend.” His smile widened. “I’ll cover for you.” Koty resisted the urge to laugh. Jett was anything but his girlfriend. He had no idea where they stood. His fingers twitched at his sides. He wanted to pull his hair out. Even his group mates thought he was just a slutty pop star. He could only imagine what Jett thought. “You don’t mind?” he asked, giving Dev a sly smile. If he had to play the part, he was going to nail it. “Please,” Dev said, waving him away. “You know my secret. The least I can do is help you with yours.” For a moment, Koty wished he had taken the time to get to know Dev. He only gave the other man a nod, though, then slipped through the door and into the night. As he slid into the car, he let himself feel only a little relief. Getting out without Woodrow catching him had been easy, compared to what he had to do next. Assuming he played the show without messing up, he still had to deal with Jett. 19 Backstage, Jett rubbed her hands together. Goosebumps sprouted along her arms. The air conditioning blasted into the backstage area. She knew, in a few minutes, she would be grateful. The stage lights were warm. Combine that with jumping around onstage and pouring her soul onto the audience, and she would be sweating buckets by the time they finished. If they finished, she surmised, glancing at the three other guys. So far, they had heard nothing from Koty. All their manager, David Cervantes, said, in a quick text, was to be ready to jump on stage at the last minute. She had no idea what that meant. The audience alternated between chanting for Perpetual Smile and chatting, their voices a flood. Even if she wanted to, she would never be able to pick out any one conversation. Sadness swept through her. With hundreds of people in the other room and three right next to her, she shouldn’t feel so lonely. Yet none of the guys had tried talking to her since they first got onto the tour bus. She wondered if Perpetual Smile would survive the night, never mind the tour. If Koty didn’t show, they were finished, and it was all thanks to Cervantes—and her. Raking her fingers through her hair, she tried to come up with a backup plan. Since climbing into her bunk earlier that morning, not a single idea came to her. Resentment bit at her. She should have tried harder to keep Koty out. Plus, with the guys so mad at her, things were destined to crumble. She wished Phillip were with her. Angry tears burned at her eyes. If he hadn’t left her, they wouldn’t be in the situation they were in. Phillip would play guitar and sing with her, Koty would never have invited her to his hotel room, and she wouldn’t have to wonder whether the only thing she had ever truly cared about was about to die. “On in three,” someone shouted to them. Jett stood, bracelets jingling. She moved her neck from side to side in an attempt to loosen the stiff muscles. Already, her neck and shoulders ached. At the rate she was going, she would need a chiropractor again soon. “Okay, guys,” she called softly to her band mates. Before every show, they had a huddle. She swallowed hard. If they refused her even that, she was going to break. They joined her, though, forming a tight circle. She let out a relieved breath. “This is it,” she said, her voice shaking. Griff shifted, the floorboards creaking underneath him. “We’ll be okay, Jett.” She smiled in the dim light. “Thanks,” she said, “but that kid hasn’t shown.” She swallowed hard. If she had just kept her pants on, he would probably already be with them. “David said he would,” Todd said, exasperation lacing his voice. “Did he?” Jett snapped. She wondered since when Todd had gotten so close with their manager. None of them liked having to replace Phillip, but it seemed as if the others were suddenly complacent with everything their manager and CEO said. Sighing, Matt squeezed her shoulder. “Either way, we’re on,” he said. Griff put his arm around her. “And we’re going to be fine.” She wanted to let his embrace comfort her, but she hardly recognized him. She stood motionless, fighting tears. The band was going to break up for sure. The realization only made her feel worse. There was nothing she could do. “On in sixty seconds,” someone called to Perpetual Smile. Jett swore. Blinking away the tears, she looked at her band members, the people she and Phillip had recruited. It felt like ages ago. “Play like this is our last night,” she said, repeating what Phillip always said. She gave them a halfhearted smile. They gave her grim smiles in return. She wondered what it meant. Usually, they started bouncing around, whooping and hollering. They used to run onto the stage with high energy, their hands in the air, the audience screaming for them before a single note was played. Jett swallowed the lump in her throat. Maybe it was their last night. Someone cleared his throat. She turned toward the sound. Koty leaned against the wall, his guitar case clutched in his hand. “Sorry I’m late,” he breathed. Sweat plastered some of his hair onto his forehead. Stubble lined his jaw. Jett’s breath caught in her throat. She took a step toward him, then stopped herself. “On now,” the stage manager called. “Let’s go,” Jett said, tearing her eyes away from Koty. The band filed through the stage door. Jett followed them, taking deep breaths as she moved. She hadn’t expected him to show. Her heart soared as she realized that he came anyway, despite everything that transpired between them. Maybe he was band material. Maybe he was more. Shaking the thought from her head, she rapped her knuckles on the wood of the door frame as she walked through, her ritual for luck. From behind her, Koty tapped her shoulder. “What was that for?” he asked. She ignored him. The cheers of the audience grew louder as they saw Todd, Matt, and Griff appear on stage. In a moment, when she walked through, they would scream, and she wouldn’t be able to hear a thing. A smile played on her lips. Perpetual Smile was really going to play, as a complete band. “Listen,” Koty said, “I’m sorry I didn’t call you sooner.” Shaking him off, she rushed onto stage, her hands stretched toward the ceiling. The cheers washed over her, so loud they almost blew her away. She ran up to where her microphone and guitar stood, and pulled her instrument on. From out of the corner of her eye, she saw Koty move into place beside her, his eyes wide and his lips slightly parted. As she struck the first chord, she wondered if her new band mate would completely freak out. She had seen it happen. Being that he was used to pre-teen girls screaming at him, he shouldn’t have any problem approaching their audience. Koty wasn’t used to playing or singing live, though, and might freeze. She swore under her breath. As their leader, she should have shoved her feelings aside and given him a pep talk. Despite everything else, he was still young, and she was supposed to mentor him the way Phillip had mentored her. It was too late, though. The first song started, her fingers joining in the play almost automatically. Her mind snapped to the task at hand, while leaving Koty’s potential stage fright to fate. Leaning forward, she launched into the first song, glancing at Koty after a few seconds. His fingers strummed, and he made eye contact with the audience. He didn’t seem nervous at all. Still, she worried, the thoughts churning through her head. Tearing her thoughts away from Koty, she addressed her audience, pulling them in deeper. The key to a good show was connecting with the audience, making them feel as if they had entered another world. Phillip taught her that the band’s energy on stage made all the difference. She forced her voice to go further, drawing oxygen into her lungs, pulling her diaphragm up. Red lights slashed the audience, swaying in the darkness. The soles of her feet pressed firmly against the stage. Her fingers grazed over guitar strings. For the first time in days, she felt alive. Koty joined her on the chorus, his smoky voice intertwining with hers. For a moment, she almost forgot to sing, caught up completely in the way he sounded. She glanced at him. He gazed back at her. Her heart leaped into her chest. She couldn’t believe they stood on stage together. His origins aside, her label had been extremely ballsy. If Koty was caught, he would be heavily fined and publicly disgraced. She was mad at him, but not that mad. The consequences could affect Perpetual Smile, too, she realized as the chorus ended. A brief musical interlude picked up, led mostly by Matt’s keyboard work. She grinned at Koty. Out of the corner of her eye, a flash caught her attention. Her eyes flicked to the audience, her eyebrows furrowing. Shifting her stage mask back into place, she stared as another flash went off. Her heart stopped in her chest. The label had insisted that no cameras be allowed into the venue. Protecting Koty’s identity was crucial for the time being. Cervantes didn’t think that anyone would recognize him on stage, but photographic evidence could be studied later on, and fans of ESX might pick up on his presence. Another flash went off. Jett leaned forward, adjusting her microphone slightly, and started the second verse. Part of her wanted to stop the show, but she would have to trust that security would prevent any more photos from being taken. Her fingers felt numb as they strummed the guitar, and her knees felt weak. Anxiety coursed through her. The seconds ground by, and it didn’t fade. She glanced at Koty, who still watched her, his eyes full of lust, admiration, and something else. Yanking her gaze away, she looked back at her audience. She needed to focus. She couldn’t worry about Koty’s reputation or even where they stood after their one night stand. She had a show to play. “I’m a professional,” she sang, wanting to laugh at the irony. Her fingers slipped and she dropped a chord. Fear flowed through her. Her voice cracked on the next note, and she sucked in a deep breath in the millisecond that followed, composing herself. Her heart thudded in her chest. Koty jumped in, harmonizing with her as if the song had been written that way. She glanced at him, an eyebrow raised. He winked back. He’s covering me, she realized, and the fire in her nerves cooled. For the rest of the show, she kept her eyes on Koty, only glancing at the audience occasionally. After Perpetual Smile finished their encore and filed off stage, she stepped toward him, her lips curling into a smile. Griff intercepted her, clapping Koty on the shoulder. “You did good, kid.” Todd and Matt joined him. “Nice playing,” Todd said. Jett hung back, her arms wrapped around herself, watching as the guys talked. Todd asked Koty about some of the notes he used, typing notes into his iPad for future songs. Matt, who used to teach vocals to high school students, commented on the liberties Koty had taken with their opening song. Their conversations flowed easily, Jett noticed, and the guys accepted Koty as if they had known him for years. Even better, Koty knew things about music. Pride washed through her. Despite her misgivings, the band had great chemistry with Koty in it. If she and Koty could work through their personal issues, maybe everything would be okay. “Hey,” she said to Koty as the guys backed away, directing the roadies and their equipment. He gave her a smile, then glanced at the time on his phone. “Shit,” he swore. “I’m sorry, Jett. I’ve got to go.” His eyebrows furrowed, and the corners of his mouth turned down. She sighed. “I know.” Pressing her lips together, she regarded him, her eyes soft. With so little time, she struggled for words. She needed to tell him that he had impressed her, that she owed him for saving her during that first song. She needed to talk to him about the night in the hotel. She needed more time. Koty gave her a nod and turned to go, taking his guitar from a roadie. “Wait,” she called, but he walked out, his footsteps quickening. Her shoulders slumped. If she could just be alone with him, if she could just get her mouth to say what was in her heart, maybe everything would be okay between them. 20 Running, his guitar case bumping into his leg, Koty burst through the doors into the fresh night air. Stars twinkled overhead, and the city bustled around him. Indianapolis had an alive feeling to it that he hadn’t noticed in Miami, New York, or anywhere else he had ever been. Maybe it was because of the adrenaline coursing through him from the show, or the fact that Jett had spoken to him. He jumped into the car waiting for him and patted the driver’s seat. He had no way of knowing whether ESX’s opening act was done, but something told him that he had pushed it by spending so much time talking to the guys. The car moved into traffic. Heart thudding in his chest, Koty watched as they passed buildings and people. Couples waltzed over the sidewalks, their arms linked. Horse-drawn carriages, draped with fairy lights, pranced through the streets. Energy coursed through the city, and Koty felt it right in the center of his heart, thrumming through his veins. The streets were flat and open. Koty could see for at least a mile. As they turned away from the Old National Centre, his heart sank. Traffic lined the streets, none of the automobiles moving forward. “Football night,” the driver explained, almost apologetically. “Can we go around?” Koty leaned forward, reaching out as if he might take the wheel himself. The driver shook his head. “No room to turn around.” Koty’s shoulders drooped. He had come so far, only to be foiled by traffic. It didn’t seem fair. His phone vibrated in his back pocket. He pulled it out, and his heart dropped as he read the name on the caller ID. “Yeah,” he answered, already prepared for the bad news. “We’re about to go on,” Dev whispered into the phone. “I can’t cover for you any longer.” He sounded genuinely desperate. If he made it in time, Koty decided, he would trust Dev with his secret. “I’m on my way,” he said. “Are you at least dressed?” Dev asked. Water ran in the background, as if Dev were camped out in a bathroom, keeping the faucets on to drown out his voice. Koty swore under his breath. He hadn’t thought to bring his costume with him. He ran a hand over his face. He hadn’t shaved yet, either. Even if he did make it back in the next few minutes, he still had to get ready. “I’m good, Dev,” he lied. “Thanks for everything.” At least, when he went down, he wouldn’t bring Dev with him. “No problem.” Koty could hear the smile in Dev’s voice. “See you soon,” he told his group mate, and hung up. He imagined that this was how the captain of the Titanic had felt when he realized water was rushing into his ship. The car inched forward. Koty noticed a side street. He tapped the driver’s shoulder. “Yeah?” The driver sounded bored. Koty watched as he fiddled with the satellite radio built into the dashboard, flipping through the stations. “Turn right,” Koty directed. The driver snorted. “Are you serious, right now?” He settled on a rap station. Koty cringed. “You’re driving for David Cervantes, right?” he asked, gathering his courage. “He’ll be pissed if I don’t get where I need to be on time. So, right now, you’re also driving for me. Turn right.” The assertiveness in his voice surprised him. He had never spoken to anyone that way. Even when arguing with Johnny Z, he had stayed calm. He squared his shoulders. He could worry about his conscience later. With some grumbling, the driver took the turn. Aside from a couple cars and a few pedestrians, the street was clear. He increased the volume of the rap song, though. Koty saw him smile in the rearview mirror. Shaking his head, he looked out of his window. Every turn of the wheels brought him closer to his second performance of the night—and farther from Jett. Instead of singing into a microphone, he would be wearing one that was turned off. There would be no room for derivation if one of them messed up. He had to remember how to move his mouth and how to move his body. The last thing he wanted to do was perform with ESX when he could have spent more time with Jett. He thought of the way he had harmonized with her, lacing his voice with her smoky contralto. Every note she hit complemented his perfectly, her pitch vocal cocaine. Her voice was arena material, husky and gritty, but with wide range. After a few practice sessions, he bet they would sound even better together. He could learn a lot from her. The car pulled up in front of the venue. Thanking the driver, Koty slid out. He ran inside and up to the dressing rooms, his heart hammering in his chest. In his back pocket, his phone vibrated against his body, but he ignored it, pushing himself to go faster. Careening into the hall with his dressing room, he came face to face with Woodrow. Stomach twisting, he made himself look at his manager. There was nowhere to run. “Where,” Woodrow asked, his face turning purple, “have you been?” Koty’s thoughts ground to a halt. He had no explanation, especially not when he so obviously looked like he had come from playing a show. Sweat dripped from his forehead, and his guitar case implicated him further. He squeezed his hands into fists, his mouth dropping open as he realized his hands were empty. Reeling back, he glanced around the hall. He couldn’t remember putting the guitar down. “Are you going to answer me?” Woodrow asked, taking a step toward him. Koty’s attention snapped back to his manager. “Are we on?” he stammered, trying to buy time. His mind raced as he tried to remember where he had left the guitar. He had taken it out of the Old National Centre with him. A roadie had handed it to him. After that, he got into the car, shoving it into the back seat with him. He gasped. He must have left it in the car. There was no alternative, unless he left it in the elevator. “You should have been on five minutes ago,” Woodrow hissed, taking another step toward him. He clutched his hands into fists. A vein in his temple throbbed. “So help me, if you don’t answer me. Where have you been?” Feeling as if he had been punched in the stomach, Koty glanced around for a bathroom, bile rising in his throat. Inspiration struck. “Sick,” he gasped. nodding toward the men’s room at the end of the hall. “Food poisoning, I think.” Losing his guitar felt worse, like being punched in the gut and kicked in the testicles at the same time. He didn’t have to fake the nausea that ripped through him. Immediately, Woodrow’s hands relaxed. Concern slipped over his scowl. His eyes roved over Koty, evaluating him. “Can you play?” he asked. Koty swallowed a laugh. He had played. What ESX did on stage wasn’t even close. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Then, he gave Woodrow one curt nod. “Go get dressed,” Woodrow said, suspicion clouding his eyes. Koty slunk to his dressing room. As he wrapped his fingers around the door knob, he heard Woodrow say, “And make sure you shave.” Ducking inside and closing the door behind him, Koty let out a long breath. His heart continued to pound against his chest, though, and his head began to thud. He couldn’t believe he had almost gotten caught, or that he had lost his guitar. He could easily buy a new one, but it had seen him through countless street corners, late night subway rides, and years of ups and downs. Even when things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse, he could always count on his guitar. “Welcome back, cowboy,” Carlee purred. She stood in front of him, holding out his costume for the night. Blinking, Koty grabbed the clothing from her and sidestepped her. “On in two,” someone called from the other side of the door. For a moment, Koty wondered how they were keeping the crowd calm. He could remember being at concerts, waiting for the headliner to come out. ESX’s opening act had probably come out for an encore the crowd hadn’t asked for. He could hear the crowd, restless and chanting, their voices only slightly muffled by the walls. Tugging on his clothing, he turned toward the door. “Not yet,” Carlee said. A duo of makeup artists crowded him, powdering his face, applying concealer over the dark circles under his eyes. A third technician ran a comb through his hair and applied hair product. Yet another came at him with a razor, a cup of hot water in her other hand. He stood perfectly still, closing his eyes as they transformed him into Koty Jackson, heart throb. From behind his closed lids, he ran through his performance with Perpetual Smile. A smile crossed his lips. The makeup artist told him to relax his face. Underneath his lids, he watched as Jett smiled back at him. His face stinging with nicks from the razor, Koty stumbled onto stage, taking his place at the front. As the smoke from the fog machine cleared, he began his dance, executing the steps and moving his mouth to the words automatically, his heart throb smile plastered on his face. He thought of Jett again. He had no idea where they stood, or even if he would last in Perpetual Smile. One thing was certain, though: if he had to run back and forth for the next six months, never mind five more years, he was going to lose his mind. Koty leaned against the dressing room wall for support and peeled off his costume pants. He cringed as he thought of the way they clung to his calves but hung loose around his crotch, as if someone had sewn together leggings and parachute pants. He flung them across the room, hoping Carlee freaked out when she couldn’t find them right away. For once, his stylist was nowhere to be seen. As far as he knew, he had no plans for the rest of the night. After the show, Woodrow told them to enjoy themselves, and told Koty to get some rest. Johnny Z and Benny got into a limousine, more than likely on their way to a bar. Dev, as far as Koty knew, went to his hotel room. Pulling on some jeans and a cotton T-shirt, Koty considered his options. He could go to his own room, or maybe try to track Dev down and actually hang out with him. He knew what he needed to do, though. Dev would have to wait. Retrieving his phone from the dressing table, Koty dialed Jett’s number. It rang, one long trill. Then, she picked up. “Hello?” she asked in her husky voice. For a moment, no words came to his mind. He stood frozen, the phone pressed to his ear, his breath rushing out of his lungs. “Koty, are you there?” she asked, something like concern lacing her voice. At the sound of his name, he snapped out of his paralysis. “Jett,” he breathed. “I was wondering if you wanted to do something.” The words came out in a rush. Heat crept along the back of his neck. He probably sounded like an idiot. He couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in his hotel room, though, and he needed to apologize to her. For a moment, Jett said nothing. Silence filled his ears until all he could hear was the blood pounding through his veins. He swallowed hard, willing her to say something—anything. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said finally. He paced the dressing room. “Why not?” he asked, hating the almost whine in his voice. She took a deep breath. He imagined her standing outside of her tour bus, smoking a cigarette. “Because there’s no reason for us to,” she said. The words were cold, but he heard the lie in her voice. “Are you just saying that,” he asked, lowering his voice, “or do you actually mean it?” Jett sighed. “Koty, we really shouldn’t—” “Why?” he demanded, pacing faster. “Did Cervantes say something to you?” “No,” she said slowly. “No one knows about that night.” The words sounded careful, as if she feared saying what happened out loud. “Then what’s the problem?” He fought to keep the desperation out of his voice. “Don’t lie to me. There’s something here, and you feel it, too.” After a long pause, she sighed again. “Meet me at the fountain in Monument Circle,” she said. Then, before he could ask where that was, she hung up. Staring at his phone, he felt a smile break out across his face. Whatever else happened, she had agreed to see him. He opened the maps application and searched for the fountain. According to the app, it was only seven minutes away. He left the dressing room, hurrying through the hall. Buckley fell into step behind him. Stopping, Koty glanced at his body guard. “Sorry, dude, but you’re off duty tonight.” Buckley only blinked, straightening his Chicago Bulls snapback. Koty moved past him. He sensed Buckley following him. Shaking his head, he hurried outside. Buckley kept pace with him the entire time. A taxi idled at the curb, the driver yawning. The sign read off duty, but when Koty flashed a fifty dollar bill, the driver straightened. As Koty slid in, he glanced at Buckley, who stood in the entrance to the venue. His body guard almost looked sad. Koty gave the driver the address of the fountain, and watched as Buckley shrank behind him. When the taxi pulled up to the fountain a few minutes later, Koty’s eyes widened. The street curled in a circle around it, and the monument itself thrust up into the starry night. Blue lights lit the water. People milled around, or sat on the steps talking. The same sense of magic he felt when he first set foot in downtown Indianapolis buzzed through his veins again. He paid the driver and stepped out of the cab. A cool, sweet breeze ruffled his hair. Glancing around for Jett, he put his hands in his pockets. If she didn’t show up, he was going to feel stupid. A horse-drawn carriage rumbled by, its wheels rolling over the brick street. Another rolled to a stop in front of him. The driver wore a black top hat. “Excuse me,” Koty said, glancing around. “Can you tell me how much rides are?” “Fifty,” the driver replied with a smile. “Let me know when you’re ready, boss.” Giving him a nod, Koty began walking around the fountain. It was nearly as large as some of the buildings downtown, and blocked the sight of the shops on the other side of the circle. Across the way, sprawling along the flat streets, he could see hotels and restaurants lit up in neon signs. His stomach growled. If Jett didn’t show, he could at least get something to eat. His nerves twisted. He wondered if he had made a mistake. Maybe Jett hated him, and was purposely standing him up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone wave from the top. Looking up, he saw Jett sitting on the steps near the top of the memorial. His heart skipped a beat. 21 Jett stood from her perch on the stairs, head rushing at the sight of Koty. She wobbled on the steps as she descended. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself. She needed to stop acting like such a ditzy high school girl. Calmly, she walked down the steps, keeping her face neutral. She needed to act like the professional she was, and put an end to the whole affair. Cheeks burning, she paused, turning the word affair over in her head. She had so far managed to sleep with two different members of her band. At the rate she was going, it was no wonder the guys weren’t speaking to her. “Hey,” Koty said as she neared him. “Hey, yourself,” she replied. Crossing her arms, she gave him a nod. “You were great on stage.” The smile that broke out lit up his whole face. He reminded her of a puppy. “Thanks,” he said. “Yeah.” She turned her head, staring at the city for a moment. The streets stretched away from the fountain, flat and long, lights twinkling. From where she stood, everything seemed possible. The world was wide and open, hers for the taking. One wrong move, though, and everything could end. Turning back to Koty, she steeled her resolve. “Listen,” she said, looking at his face but avoiding his eyes. “We can’t be together.” The words came out blunt, but hollow. He opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “I messed up,” she said. “I shouldn’t have behaved the way I did.” Heat flushed her face, and she looked away from him. Clearing her throat, she continued. “I made a huge mistake. I’m supposed to be the leader here.” A few heartbeats passed. Slowly, she raised her eyes. The second their eyes met, he leaned forward. Her mind froze, the words she wanted to say crashing to the floor. “There’s too much at stake,” she finished lamely. “That’s exactly why we should be together,” he insisted, his voice low, caressing her. “There’s something between us, Jett.” Lifting an eyebrow, his eyes bore into her, heat pouring out of them. She swallowed hard. Her lips parted to rebuke him, but he grabbed her face. Crushing her body to his, he pressed his lips to hers. Her body melted, and she relaxed in his grip, letting his tongue caress hers. His lips were warm and his arms were strong. She thought, again, of the way they sang together, the electricity that flowed between them on and off stage. The sound of water from the fountain enveloped her, washing out everything else. She wanted him. She could at least admit that to herself. Maybe things could be simple. She could just let go and be with him. Doing so, though, could undo everything she had built—and destroy the last shred of loyalty she held for Phillip. 22 Sunlight slanted in through the large window. Squeezing her eyes tighter against the light seeping in through her lids, Jett felt a headache coming on. She hadn’t meant to drink so much the night before, but Koty had ordered them a bottle of wine and it had actually been good. She wasn’t much of a wine fan. It usually made her head hurt in the morning, and tasted like rancid grape juice. But Koty apparently had a knack for picking wine, because the bottle from the night before hadn’t lasted two hours. Blinking, she shaded her eyes as they adjusted. Turning onto her side, she watched as Koty slept. He lay on his back, chest rising and falling in slow rhythm. With his eyes closed, he looked younger. If it weren’t for the stubble lining his cheeks and the dark circles under his eyes from sneaking around the last few days, she would have pegged him at eighteen, not twenty-three. Panic tugged at her, not for the first time in the last three days. Perpetual Smile had a couple of days before they had to be at the next city on their itinerary. The guys had decided that they wanted to stay in Indianapolis. They hadn’t given her much of a say. It didn’t really matter, though. Even though ESX was performing every night, Koty flew back and forth just to see her. In the past three days, he had been on just as many flights—more, if Jett counted the connecting flight from the Detroit airport. They had yet to even define their relationship, yet he was already going above and beyond for her. She sighed, wondering what she was doing with him. Sleeping with Perpetual Smile’s newest member couldn’t end well for her—especially with the band watching her the way a new mother watches her infant sleep. Their feelings were less than tender toward her, though. If she made one wrong move, they could—and would—kick her out. She wouldn’t even get a chance to defend herself. In fact, despite their alleged concerns about her, they hadn’t given her much of a chance to explain herself at all. Stretching, still laying on her side, she watched as Koty’s eyes moved under his lids. She should probably just break things off with him—whatever their status was. She hated to feel like a needy teenager, but it made her crazy that they had slept together half a dozen times and she still had yet to know what, exactly, they were. She refused to be the one to bring it up. So far, she had Koty believing that she was unfazed by anything. By begging him to call her his girlfriend, she would shatter that image. The whole thing was ridiculous, she surmised as he rolled onto his side. His eyes were still closed, but she had a feeling he would be waking up soon. She hated that she felt like such a woman. Weak, little girls did things like worry about guys. She had never worried about her status with Phillip. From the very beginning, they hadn’t needed to hide anything. Sure, their relationship put pressure on the band. Sometimes, it even caused issues in the studio and on stage. The whole reason they had broken up was because they had determined that dating each other while they were both still in Perpetual Smile was a bad idea. Even when they became friends with benefits, she hadn’t wondered. Their relationship had been easy, in so many ways. She rolled her eyes at herself. Even her thoughts sounded female and crazy. If she told Koty what she was thinking, she mused, he would probably run in the other direction. So far, though, a small voice reminded her, he had stuck around—even when she had been unnecessarily horrible to him. Men put up with a lot from the opposite sex. Still, she wished she knew what they were. Everything could crumble underneath her at any second. She wasn’t used to walking on tightropes and feeling so vulnerable. Jett Costa wasn’t the type to let romance get in the way of her life. Making a face at the thought of the R word, she resisted the urge to gag. Having sex with a soon-to-be ex-boy band singer was hardly romantic. She was as pathetic as the forty-something-year-old women who chased after Justin Bieber when he first came into the pop scene. Jett shook her head at herself. Her thoughts were getting crazier and crazier as the morning went on. Next to her, Koty stirred. She glanced at his face. His eyes fluttered open. He blinked the sleep away and focused on her. A smile spread across his face. She couldn’t help but smile back. For a lame boy band singer, he was pretty cool. She had to admit it. At the very least, he put up with her crap, and didn’t seem to care what happened to his career. As far as she was concerned, he was very punk rock. She resisted rolling her eyes at herself again. She wondered what in the world had happened to her. If Phillip were still alive, he would laugh at her. The smile on Koty’s face widened. Then, he grew serious. He leaned in close to her, his eyes fluttering closed again. She met his lips with hers, enjoying how warm his felt. Her mouth moved against his, and she felt her heart pound against her chest. Scooting closer, she draped an arm over his shoulder. His skin was soft and warm, despite the hard the muscles underneath. He crushed her body to his, and she grinned against the kiss as she realized that all of him was awake. Just as he began to trail his fingers down her arm, the alarm clock on his phone blared. The sound cut through the room, slicing into the moment and separating them. Koty jumped up from the bed, crossing the room in just a couple of strides. He grabbed his phone from the desk and silenced the alarm. Jett glanced at the time on the alarm clock next to the bed. Gritting her teeth, she sank into the pillow under her head. If Koty didn’t leave in the next few minutes, he would miss his flight to the next ESX stop. They were less than a week into whatever they were, and she was already annoyed with all of the sneaking and rushing around. She took a deep breath, inhaling through her nose in an attempt to keep it quiet. Koty watched her, though, and she gave him a halfhearted smile. He lifted an eyebrow at her, as if to say, You expect me to believe that you’re okay with this? He returned to the bed, leaned down, and kissed her forehead. In the same movement, he danced away, whirling through the room, re-dressing himself and gathering his things. “I’ll call you as soon as I can,” he said. Then, he disappeared through the door. She stared at the spot he had just occupied. The room seemed larger without him. It threatened to swallow her whole, white walls looming above her, reprinted acrylic bowls of fruit three times their original size. Jett swallowed hard. She refused to let his absence get to her. She was tough, a Costa through and through. Thinking about her lineage reminded her that she hadn’t bothered to send her father money lately, never mind visit him at the bakery he worked at from sunrise to sunset. Tears stung her eyes. She was failing on every level. Burying her face in the pillows, she inhaled Koty’s scent. The aroma did nothing to quell her feelings, though. She gripped the edges of the pillow and unleashed a growl of frustration. Maybe, she surmised, it was all punishment for failing to make things work with Phillip. Karma, apparently, was a real thing. She rolled back onto her side, then sat up. Feeling sorry for herself in bed all day wasn’t going to help. She had to keep pushing through. Her father had not raised her to give up when things got hard. Things were hard, though, she mused, gazing around at her own things strewn around the room. There had to be another way out. Her gaze settled on the room’s mini bar. “Not that way, though,” she said. Reddening at the weak sound of her voice, she tore her eyes from the bar. Her head still pounded from the wine the night before. Having another drink wouldn’t fix anything. Besides, there was probably some merit to what Griff had said at the beginning of Perpetual Smile’s tour. Jett looked down at her hands, shame washing over her. Drinking would only make him right. Still, a shot or two would calm her nerves. The walk of shame she was about to perform would be a lot easier if her mind was relaxed, free from the tornado of thoughts and feelings. Jett looked back at the mini bar. Heaving a sigh, she eased down from the bed. Padding toward the bar, she blocked any further arguments against having a drink. She pulled the door of the little refrigerator open and peered inside. Nippers lined the shelves of the door. Cans of soda occupied the top shelf, with large bottles of liquor on the bottom. She ignored the interior of the refrigerator and plucked a 100-proof Captain Morgan nipper from the door. Twisting the cap off, she polished it off in one swallow—something she once had to do in two or more shots. Setting the empty bottle down, she lifted her chin. Maybe there was nothing to worry about. She had proved that she could have one shot without going overboard. Still, when she quieted her mind, she only felt tired, the headache still pressing down on her. She reached for another nipper. When she stood up, four nippers later, she stumbled. Warmth washed over her, and she smiled. She had just needed a little boost, she mused. She swayed around the room, plucking clothing from the floor. Tossing it onto the bed, she collected her guitar from the wall it leaned against. As she secured it in its case, she remembered Koty’s missing guitar. She retrieved her phone from the nightstand and redialed the number of the venue that Perpetual Smile had performed at. A cheery young man answered. “How can I help you?” he chirped. “Yeah, I’m calling again about a guitar left backstage,” she drawled. In the same breath, she described it. She had only seen it once or twice, but she had relayed it so many times in the past few days that it was permanently burned into her memory. After a pause, the young man told her that no one had seen it. “See, that’s what you people keep telling me, but I’m telling you that it was left behind, and someone must have turned it in.” She tightened her grip on her phone, lip twisting. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “It’s possible that, because of its value, someone may have taken it.” “Which means that you people are responsible,” she slurred. Her head began to pound again. No one could possibly be so incompetent. There was no way that a guitar could just disappear. The young man sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said again, “but it’s specifically in all of our contracts that the venue cannot be held responsible for lost or stolen equipment. The best I can do is continue to monitor our lost and found, and contact you if it turns up.” Jett scowled. “It has to be there. My guitarist is positive that he left it behind. Check again!” “I’m sorry,” he said once more. Frustrated, Jett hung up. She flung her phone onto the bed. Mind whirling, she stomped back to the mini bar. She yanked the refrigerator open and plucked out another Captain Morgan nipper. Moments after she finished it, she knew immediately that it had sent her over the edge. Swaying, she got to her feet. She stumbled back into bed. The second her head hit the pillow, her eyes drifted closed. She fell asleep with her fingers curled around the nipper. The alarm clock on the nightstand declared the time just past eleven in the morning. 23 Detroit existed in two scenes for Koty: the giant airport that his plane landed in, and the hotel that he arrived at. Before his taxi even pulled up to the curb, Koty decided that he liked the busy airport better. Buckley, his body guard, paced the sidewalk, glancing at the street every so often. Koty frowned. He hadn’t given Woodrow, ESX’s manager, an estimated time of arrival. All Koty had told him was that he would be taking a separate flight. Woodrow hadn’t liked it, but there was nothing he could do, as long as Koty showed up. The taxi braked to a stop and Buckley’s eyes met Koty’s through the window. Putting on his best smile, Koty gave his body guard a wave. Buckley remained stone faced. Koty slid out, his duffel bag in tow. “How’s it going, Bucks?” He didn’t expect an answer, and Buckley didn’t give it to him. The body guard fell into step behind him as he entered the hotel. A chill ran down his spine. Buckley had spied on him in the past. It was possible that his body guard had tailed him from Indiana. “What have you been up to?” he asked, nodding at the hotel door man. He walked inside, air conditioning brushing his exposed face. Buckley remained silent. Koty sighed. There had to be some way to turn his body guard into a double agent. He spotted Dev on the other side of the lobby, his group mate’s arm waving back and forth. Nodding to Dev, Koty changed direction and headed toward him. “How was your flight?” Dev asked, winking so hard that at first Koty thought the other man had something in his eye. Throwing a glance over his shoulder at Buckley, Koty said, “Fine.” He still hadn’t told Dev the truth, but his group mate did know that he was seeing someone. Perhaps, he surmised, it was best that everyone assumed he had a girlfriend. He would have less questions to answer. Glancing around the lobby, Koty frowned. Dev’s body guard was nowhere in sight. Buckley was definitely spying on him. “I bet it was,” Dev said, his grin spreading. Koty cleared his throat. He wished he could tell Dev the truth. If only he could get rid of Buckley. He rubbed at the stubble on his face. He could probably check into his room and have Dev meet him there. Buckley wouldn’t breach his privacy. “Listen, Dev—“ Dev frowned. His eyes veered to something behind Koty and widened. Forcing his mask into place, Koty slung his duffel bag over his shoulder. “Jackson,” Woodrow said in a fake friendly voice. He clapped a hand on Koty’s shoulder, joining him and Dev. “So nice of you to join us.” Resisting the urge to shake Woodrow’s hand away, Koty gave him a nod. “I even got a receiving party,” he said, inclining his head toward Buckley. Woodrow ignored him. “I need to speak with you immediately.” He put his other hand on Koty’s other shoulder and steered him away from Dev. Koty grit his teeth. He wouldn’t have to deal with Woodrow much longer, he reminded himself. He just needed to keep things civil between them. As much as his career with ESX was a joke, he might need L.A.B. to give him a reference someday. At the very least, he didn’t want to make himself look like a flake. He had worked too hard for too long. They neared a conference room. Koty nodded to himself. Woodrow probably wanted to talk about his contract. So far, neither he or Dev had re-signed. He desperately wanted to talk to Dev and solidify their alliance, but between work and Jett, he hadn’t had the chance. At the thought of Jett, his heart did a little flip. He still couldn’t believe that she was his. Even though they hadn’t exactly defined what their relationship was, it was something, and that was enough for him. He refused to rush her. He had the feeling that she was going through a lot more than she was letting on. In her own time, she would talk to him. Even if she never opened up, he wasn’t going to force her. Whatever they had was too good to ruin. He let Woodrow lead him into the conference room. The other man released his shoulders once they were inside, and closed the door behind them. “So,” Koty said. He turned, intending to go around the table and sit on the opposite side, but he froze in his tracks. On the table sat his guitar—the one he thought he had lost at his first Perpetual Smile performance. The rest of his words tangled in his mouth. His stomach clenched, a cold ball of nausea forming in his belly. Red faced, Woodrow leaned on the table. He leered at Koty. “Explain this to me,” he said, a vein in his forehead throbbing. Koty’s jaw sagged. He glanced from the guitar to Woodrow. He wondered how much Woodrow knew. He wondered who had stolen his guitar. Swallowing hard, he looked at the guitar again. From where he stood, it appeared unharmed. He let out a shaky breath. At least Woodrow wasn’t the violent revenge type. “Well?” Woodrow demanded, slamming his fists on the table. The guitar jumped a half inch into the air. Koty’s eyebrows rose. He glanced at the door, wondering if it would be cowardly of him to literally run out. He couldn’t run anymore, though. If Woodrow had his guitar, it only meant one thing. 24 The rapid drumming of knuckles on wood yanked Jett out of a grey, dreamless sleep. Cracking one eye open, she peered at her hotel room. Silence fell over her. She blinked. She must have dreamed it, she decided. As she closed her eyes again, the knocking resumed. Groaning, Jett opened both eyes. “Please,” came a muffled female voice. She had a heavy Jamaican accent. “Open the door.” Jett frowned. “Who is it?” she called, sitting up slowly. She glanced around for her phone, but didn’t see it. If someone was trying to rob her, she would never be able to call the police in time. Her lips twisted in a smirk. If someone was trying to rob her, they better hope they could call the cops in time. “This is Mr. Cox, hotel manager,” a male voice called through the door. “If you could just unlock the door, we need to reconcile your account.” Still frowning, Jett glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand. Her eyebrows lifted. It was almost one in the afternoon. “One moment,” she called. She swallowed hard. Sliding out of bed, she stepped on something cool and metallic—her phone. She bent over and retrieved it, along with her clothing. She hopped on one foot and then another, dressing as she walked toward the door. The room tilted slightly, but she felt more sober than she had before she fell asleep. Stopping in front of the door, she peered through the peep hole. A mustached man in standard hotel uniform stared back at her, his expression blank. The housekeeper, however, glared at her. Jett unlocked the door and eased it open. “Hello,” she grunted. “Yes, ma’am, good afternoon,” the hotel manager said. He glanced at his watch. “It is two hours past your checkout time. Would you like to stay an extra night?” Jett blinked at him, clearing the fog from her brain. As his words sunk in, she shook her head. “Erm, no,” she said. The hotel manager took a deep breath. “Very well,” he said. “It’s extra per hour,” the housekeeper said, cutting him off. Guilt clenched Jett’s stomach. Despite the air conditioning, the hotel suddenly felt warmer. “Extra?” she repeated. “Yes, ma’am,” the hotel manager said, shooting a glare at the housekeeper. “We will bill it to your account, along with your, erm, refreshments.” Wrinkles formed at his mouth for a fraction of a second, then his pleasantly blank mask slipped back into place. Jett glanced behind her at the mini bar. She hadn’t thought about the extra charges. Heat flushed the back of her neck, and sweat beaded along her hairline. She wiped damp palms on her leggings. “I’ll be out as soon as I can,” she said. “Wonderful,” the housekeeper said, without bothering to hold back her sarcasm. The hotel manager cleared his throat. “Please let us know if you need anything else.” Jett eased back into her room, closing the door and locking it again. Her heart thudded in her chest. Koty would undoubtedly see the extra charges, and would wonder why she had stayed so long. He would also see how much she drank on her own. She twisted the ring on her finger. Explaining herself would not be easy. Exhaling a sigh, she began gathering her things. She wished Koty had just let her pay for the hotel room. Then she could hide her credit card statement. She knew that he had plenty of money to cover the extra costs, but she didn’t want to be that girl. He might think that she was sleeping with him just because of his status. She snorted. Weeks before, she had accused him of the same thing. She paused at the foot of the bed and rubbed her temples. Every move she made brought her closer to being a hypocrite. When she finished collecting her few belongings, she unlocked the hotel room door and looked through the peep hole. No one occupied the hall. Taking a deep breath, she eased outside. Walking as quickly as she could, she headed toward the elevators. As she pressed the button, she heard a loud hmph from behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. The housekeeper stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at Jett in full force. That woman is pure metal, she thought. Phillip, she knew, would appreciate the woman’s aggression. Jett faced the elevator again, squaring her shoulders. “Smells like a bar floor,” the housekeeper said loudly. Jett’s fists clenched. A moment later, shame washed over her. She could have at least taken a shower before leaving. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Without looking at the housekeeper, Jett stepped into the car. After a short ride on the city bus, Jett arrived at Perpetual Smile’s tour bus. To save money, the band spent most nights in their bunks. She stood outside of the door and sighed, already missing the soft hotel bed. The bunks weren’t uncomfortable, but they weren’t pillow top mattresses, either. The only thing incommodious about the tour bus, she realized with dismay, was her. With a quick knock, she pried the door open. The men sat around a card game. When she entered, they each looked up at her, almost in unison. Sliding a smile onto her face, she wiggled her fingers in greeting. “Afternoon,” she said. They stared at her. “Can I join?” she asked, nodding at the game. Griff ran a hand through his hair, his eyes taking in her appearance. She hadn’t had time to look in the mirror. She could only imagine what she looked like: the last night’s makeup smeared around her eyes, raven hair disheveled around her face. She probably looked like a hungover hooker. Griff’s eyebrows rose, confirming her guess. “You’re late,” he said. “Again,” Todd added. Jett nodded, letting her bag slip to the floor. “Sorry,” she said. “Sorry?” Matt echoed. Griff crossed his arms. “Where have you been, Jett? Have you been drinking?” Todd snorted. “Do you even have to ask? You can smell it.” Swallowing hard, Jett lifted a hand to placate them. Her mind raced. She tried to think of a good excuse. She couldn’t tell them about Koty, not yet. They hadn’t even defined their relationship. If it was just a fling, just a “band mates with benefits” kind of thing, she didn’t want the other men to think less of her. They glared back at her, though, their exhausted faces demanding an answer. She bit her lip. She couldn’t afford for them to think that she had been out all night, partying. No matter what she said, she was screwed. “I was with my boyfriend,” she blurted. The words felt strange, and she stumbled over them. The men stared back at her with their eyebrows furrowed. Todd wore a full scowl. Jett scowled back at him. “Off my back, okay?” She shuffled farther into the bus, moving past the group of men without looking at any of them. She was tired of always having to explain herself. If they really cared about her, she surmised, they would act like her friends. Instead, the men seemed to care more about the band. She tossed her bag onto her bunk, then took an empty seat. Holding her phone in her hands, she stared out of one of the windows. The bus began to move, taking them away from Indianapolis—and taking her away from the last seventy-two hours. Breathing a sigh of relief, she leaned back into the seat. Maybe things could get back to normal. She had to stop obsessing over Koty, and she had to stop feeling sorry for herself. She also needed a shower. Flicking a glance toward the small bathroom, she groaned inwardly. She wished she had taken one before leaving the hotel. “Jett,” Griff said in a low voice, sitting next to her. She groaned out loud. “What now?” “I’m trying to help you out,” he said, still keeping his voice down. “You’re not exactly making it easy for me.” She snorted. “Help me? If you wanna help me, Griff, you can leave me alone. This is getting ridiculous.” Griff shook his head. “Are you telling me that this is all a big misunderstanding? You were really with someone last night?” He leaned away from her, wrinkling his nose. Shame washed over Jett again. She wondered just how bad she smelled. “Yes,” she said, answering both of his questions. “Satisfied?” He rubbed his temples. “Jett, I want to believe you. I really do. But you’re telling me that, less than a month after Phillip dies, you’re seeing someone else? I don’t buy it.” She flinched, guilt punching her in the gut. Her stomach clenched. She closed her hands into fists. “What I do,” she told him, “is none of your business.” Tears pricked at her eyes, but she blinked them away. She and Phillip couldn’t have been together, even if he hadn’t died. Her relationship with Koty—whatever that relationship was—had nothing to do with Phillip. “Who is he? Does he live in Indy?” Griff crossed his arms. “Are you going to be taking off to see him all the time?” “Who are you, my father?” Her eyes flashed. “It’s none of your business.” He sighed. Jerking a thumb toward Matt and Todd, he lowered his voice again. “You’re on thin ice, Jett. They really want to replace you. Your priority right now should be the band, not getting laid or wasted.” Her jaw dropped open. “How dare you?” She kept her body stone still, refusing to flinch or run away. She couldn’t let him see how his words affected her. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself back to center. All she wanted was a drink. It was bad enough that she felt guilty about being with Koty so soon after losing Phillip. She didn’t need a reminder. Even worse, Griff thought that her new relationship was just about the sex. She bit down on her lip. Maybe it was. Maybe she was being dishonest with herself, as well. “Jett,” Griff said, interrupting her thoughts. He took her hands in his. “I’m on your side. I really am. Tell me how I can help you.” Yanking her hands away, she snapped, “I don’t need your help!” Griff’s shoulders slumped. “I’m going to tell you a secret,” he said, looking down at the floor. He rubbed at the stubble on his face. She realized that he looked exhausted—even worse than she did. “Cervantes and the guys wanted to replace you as well as Phillip, because of the way you reacted to Koty Jackon’s demo.” His words were a knife thrust into her heart. Hearing both men’s names in the same sentence was bad enough. Knowing that her label wanted to get rid of her was almost worse. “No one’s happy with your behavior,” Griff continued. “You need to get your shit together, Jett.” He balled his hands into fists, emphasizing his frustration. “I can’t do anything else to convince them to let you stay. It’s all up to you now.” Her eyebrows knit together as she absorbed his words. It sounded like the men had been working behind her back for weeks. Her mind ran through their interactions since Phillip announced that he was too sick to stay in the band. Pressing her lips together, she thought of all the sideways looks they had given her. She had thought that they were just wary because they knew she was worried about Phillip, but maybe it had been more than that. She wondered how long they had been plotting to get rid of her. “I built this band,” she whispered. “You and Phillip, yes,” Griff agreed. “That’s why you need to let me help you.” She shook her head. He couldn’t help her, she decided. He had betrayed her. Standing up from her seat, she took a few steps away. “Jett, tell me how I can help you,” Griff repeated from behind her. Tears burned at her eyes. None of them were on her side, she realized. They hadn’t been for a long time, apparently. She grit her teeth together. Curling her hands into fists, she took a deep breath. She couldn’t let them see her cry. “Jett,” Griff called. His hand touched her shoulder, his fingers feather light. “Stopping for lunch,” Todd called. “You know, since we missed breakfast.” He didn’t even try to hide his disdain. “Good,” Jett said, yanking away from Griff. She stomped to her bunk. The bus slowed and pulled in front of a sandwich shop, parallel parking between an SUV and a horse-drawn carriage. She recognized the area. They were in downtown Indianapolis. She snatched her bag from her bunk and stormed toward the front of the bus. “Where are you going?” Griff called. Their driver opened the doors for her, his lips flat. She stepped down onto the pavement, and landed hard on her ankle. Twisting her lips in a scowl, she kept moving. She needed to get away. She couldn’t let them see her lose it. Her eyes burned, but she held them wide open as she moved through the midday crowd. She passed the sandwich shop and continued down the block. With no specific place in mind, she kept walking. Every step took her away from the bus and her band mates. She almost wished they just left without her. If they didn’t want her in the band, there was no use carrying on the pretense. She stopped and leaned on her knees, leg muscles and eyes burning. Gasping as if someone had driven a knife through her chest, she looked down at the sidewalk. Someone had carved J + P Forever into the concrete, probably when it had first been poured. Squeezing her eyes shut, she saw every moment of her time together with Phillip at once: heads bowed before performances, limbs tangled in sheets, high fives after shows. Images of her and Koty moved into place, as if on cue. She didn’t have many memories of him yet, but her favorite so far was the first show they played. Standing on stage with him, guitars in hand, both of their bodies leaning into microphones, electricity had flowed between them. It washed out her memories of Phillip, tangling her thoughts. A small moan escaped her lips. She opened her eyes and realized she was bent over in the middle of the sidewalk. Pushing herself back to an erect position, she avoided the curious gazes of the people passing. Jett took a deep, shaky breath. She raked fingers through knotted hair and glanced around. She needed a place to collect herself. A little bit of food and maybe some coffee would help her get back to center. She needed to gather her thoughts. She wouldn’t let them force her out. Perpetual Smile was hers, now that Phillip was gone. If it came down to it, she would get rid of them. Shame washed through her. She wasn’t a diva. She needed to stop acting like one. Whatever had happened to create a schism between her and the men, she needed to fix it. Hard work was the Costa way—not tearing things down and attempting to rebuild them. Besides, if she kicked the men out, the label might not want Perpetual Smile anymore. Whether she liked it or not, the band wouldn’t be the same without them. Griff composed most of the music, and Todd and Matt added their own flavor to it. Biting back a scream of frustration, Jett returned her attention to the shops around her. Secondhand clothing stores and pawn shops lined the block she stood on. To her immediate left, the door to a bar stood open. There were no restaurants. She bit her lip. Going into a bar would not be the best choice at the moment. Still, they probably served food, and they definitely served non-alcoholic beverages. Even if they didn’t have coffee, she could still buy a soda. A cold soda, with no ice, would feel good on her sore throat. She moved into the bar before she could give it any more thought. Three long strides took her inside, and three more took her to a stool. She hopped up onto it, legs dangling above the floor. She drummed her fingers on the bar counter. An old man with a dish towel slung over his shoulder ambled toward her from the other end. Ceiling fans swirled the air around. Smoke clung to the top of the room, even though there were no other customers. She glanced behind the bartender, into the employees-only area. It didn’t look like they had a kitchen back there. “What can I get you?” the old man asked her. She started to ask for a Pepsi, but the words that left her lips sounded nothing like it. “Captain and birch beer,” she said. “No ice.” “You got it.” The bartender grabbed a glass and began making her drink. Jett watched the second hand on the clock on the wall behind the bar. It made a full circuit, and the hour hand moved to two o’clock. The bartender set her drink in front of her. She wrapped her fingers around the glass, already cold. Beads of water dribbled from the glass, running over her fingers. Her heart pounded in her chest. Having a drink so early, and right after her fight with Griff, was probably a bad idea. She nibbled at her lower lip. She would just have one, she told herself. One little drink wouldn’t hurt her. Besides, the bartender had probably watered it down, or only given her a half a shot. It was hard to find bars that made strong drinks. She tightened her grip on the glass, and raised it to her lips. The taste of rum and cola filled her mouth, the liquid cool and smoky, sweetened by the Pepsi. The rum was strong, though, and her eyes watered as she swallowed. A smile curled her lips upward. 25 Koty leaned his head against the cool metal of the faucet. He could only guess how clean the venue’s bathrooms were, but the tap water was warm and he needed something cold on his face. He had slipped into the bathroom after talking to Woodrow, using his need to shave as an excuse. He felt like he was going to throw up. He had dodged Woodrow and L.A.B.—for the time being. He had told ESX’s manager that he wouldn’t speak to him or anyone else from the label until his agent was present. Since Raymond Eble was in Los Angeles, taking care of another client, Woodrow hadn’t been able to press Koty further. Still, he had no idea what excuse he and Eble could possibly come up with. Someone had found his guitar at the venue he had played at with Perpetual Smile. The bathroom felt small, its walls pressing against him. He turned the water on again, hoping that it would be at least cool, but it still ran warm against his skin. Sighing, he stood from his stooped position. At least it would be good for shaving. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. Dark circles ran underneath his eyes. He looked haggard, his light beard only making him look worse. He sensed that his time as a double agent was coming to an end. Squaring his shoulders, he reached for the razor on the counter. No matter what happened, he still had a job to do. He rolled his eyes. Koty shaved quickly but carefully. He patted his face dry with a T-shirt and left the bathroom. In his dressing room, he changed into the costume that Carlee had laid out for him. His stylist was nowhere in sight, and he sent a silent thank you to whatever deity might exist. His team came in, primped and prettied him for the stage, and then it was time for ESX to go on. He joined the other men backstage. They stood in a half circle, Woodrow in the middle. He waved Koty over. “This is a sold out show,” Woodrow said, “but that doesn’t mean you still don’t have to work. You’re going to dance, and then after the show, you’re going to get off stage immediately. We don’t have an encore planned, but we’re going to leave the lights off for a while. It’ll rile them up, get their hopes up.” He grinned. “We’ll start a rumor in the crowd that you’re going to be signing at the merchandise booth, and once it’s spread sufficiently, we’re going to turn the lights on. They’ll come in droves, buy T-shirts and posters, and you’ll already be on the tour bus.” He eyed them all, but stared at Koty the longest. “Got it?” Koty’s phone vibrated in his pocket. Despite its silenced ringer, Woodrow still heard it. Koty fumbled for it. He usually left it in his dressing room, but the last thing he needed was for Woodrow or someone else to go through his messages and see the texts from Jett. Shrugging apologetically, he stepped away, fishing his phone out of his pocket. He meant to turn it off, but froze when he saw Jett’s name on the screen. “Hey,” he answered. He flicked a glance toward Woodrow, who scowled at him. “What’s up?” Static and music drowned out her response. “Is everything okay?” he asked. Sweat dampened the palms of his hands. “Jackson,” Woodrow warned. “Want me out,” she said, the rest of her words lost in the background noise. “What?” He moved away from Woodrow and the other men. “Say that again.” “Cervantes and the guys,” she slurred. She spoke rapidly. He couldn’t make out most of it, but he understood the gist. She sounded drunk, but that was crazy. It was only two-thirty in the afternoon. She should be on her tour bus with Perpetual Smile. He rubbed his temples. “And,” she continued, raising her voice, “I can’t find your guitar. They said they don’t have it.” The last few words came out as one word. She definitely sounded drunk, he decided. He moved farther from the other men, avoiding looking at Woodrow. “I found it,” he said as quietly as he could. “Well, someone found it for me.” He put hoped that she could decipher his emphasis. She gasped. “What are we going to do?” she practically yelled. Her voice came out panicky. He held the phone away from his ear, wincing. “Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “I’ll handle it.” He wasn’t sure how, but he refused to get her involved. Woodrow was his problem. “Thank you,” she said. He assumed that she wasn’t speaking to him. “You make ‘em just like I like ‘em.” Koty grimaced. “Jett,” he asked, hoping that his question wouldn’t offend her, “are you drunk?” She laughed, a bitter sound. “Yeah,” she admitted. Breathing a sigh into the phone, she continued, her words a smear. “I don’t want to go back to the bus.” At first, he didn’t understand what she had said. Then, as her words sank in, she heaved another sigh into his ear. “Please come back to Indy,” she begged. “I need you.” His heart beat faster. Together, they could figure out both of their messes. He had been alone for so long, it would feel good to have an ally. Even if they couldn’t fix things, at least they would be together. When he was with her, nothing else mattered. It was a dangerous way to feel, so soon, but there it was. “On in sixty,” someone called. Koty glanced at Woodrow, who shot him a dirty look in return. The other members of ESX watched him closely, curious expressions on their faces. Dev mouthed something to him, but Koty couldn’t read his lips. He turned away, returning his focus to his conversation with Jett. Even if he wasn’t a forty-five minute flight away, he couldn’t exactly drop everything. He didn’t have time to explain to her or make other plans. “On in thirty,” Woodrow said, taking a step toward Koty. The manager’s eyes flashed, and Koty watched as his fists curled. His heart pounded in his chest. He had never seen Woodrow as someone who would get physically aggressive, but he was no longer sure. “I have to go,” he told Jett. Before she could respond, he ended the call. He tucked the phone back into his pocket. Lifting his hands in what he hoped was a compliant gesture, he gave Woodrow an apologetic smile. “Let’s break a leg,” he said. 26 Jett lowered her phone from her face and stared at it. The screen winked out, the call over. She pressed the home button, hoping that it was just a mistake. The time and date greeted her. Once again, Koty had run out on her. She tossed her phone onto the bar counter, her face crumpling. She should have known better. From the very beginning, she had suspected him of trying to hook up with her. Finally she had her proof. If she couldn’t accept things as they really were, she was going to be in bigger trouble. Waving the bartender back over, she ordered another drink. She slouched on the bar stool, stretched her arm out across the counter, and rested her head on her bicep. She wondered where she had gone wrong, why she had decided to trust him and let him in. She was throwing everything away for him, after working hard to keep him out. Closing her eyes, she sent a silent prayer to Phillip, asking him for help. She didn’t know if she believed in a god, but she had known Phillip. He had been as real as the drink in front of her. Sighing, she took a swallow of the drink, using a straw. The bartender raised an eyebrow at her, but made no move to kick her out or cut her off. She was his only customer. It was pathetic, she surmised. Dinner was hours away, and she had her head down on a bar counter that probably hadn’t been wiped down in ages. The warmth that flooded over her as she sipped washed away the negative thoughts, though, and she let it. She rode it like a raft in a gentle lake of water, drifting around, tethered to nothing. She wondered what it would be like to float away into nothing forever. The bartender slapped the counter in front of her with his bare palm, sending her jerking upright. She nearly fell off her stool. Glowering at him, she gripped the edges of the counter. “What the hell was that for?” He quirked an eyebrow at her, cocking his head. “What’s that? I don’t understand drunk.” He sneered at her. “Time to get going.” He slapped the counter again. Twisting her lips, she reached for her glass. He snatched it away. “No way, Jose. Outta here.” He jerked a thumb toward the door. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, jutting her chin. The bartender snorted. “If I understood that right,” he said, “that may be so, but I don’t see a Free Naps sign around here. Scram.” Grabbing her bag, she slid slowly from the stool. The floor swam underneath her. Through her haze, she heard an Eagles song. She swayed her hips as she moved. Her legs felt like Jell-O. As she took another step, they gave out, and she tumbled to the floor. The bartender stared down at her from behind the counter, his expression far from sympathetic. He watched her as if she were a particularly boring game of golf on TV. Reaching for the nearest object, she tightened her muscles, ready to haul herself to her feet. Her fingers grasped stiff denim, though, and she frowned. She blinked up at a towering figure. He wore a Cowboys jersey. A scar ran from one nostril all the way down his chin, disappearing into a dark beard. He yanked his foot away and she drew her hand back. His boot cracked into her side, and she rolled over, eyes wide in surprise. “Teach you to fall asleep in a bar, all by yourself,” he said, laughing. She stared up at him, the ceiling above his head spinning. “Now, now,” the bartender said. “That’s uncalled for. She’s still a lady.” His expression had changed from disinterest to slight alarm, but he looked more worried for himself than for her. Groaning, she crawled away, moving at the pace of a stoned snail. The man in the Cowboys jersey grabbed her legs and pulled her back toward him. “Thought I’d be alone tonight,” he said. “Looks like I got me a date.” Jett glanced at the bartender. The old man stood frozen behind the counter, his eyes bugging out of his head. She tried to tell him not to stand there and watch, to call the police, but the words that came out of her mouth were more like mush. She raised her leg to kick out at her attacker. Her limbs weighed five times their usual weight, though, and she could barely lift her leg. Her attacker hauled her to her feet. The room whipped around her, and she closed her eyes, clenching her stomach. If she vomited, it was all over. She would have no control over the rest of her body. Swallowing hard, she let him lift her onto a table. Relaxing her muscles, her head lolled back. The man in the Cowboys jersey snorted again. She felt his fingers tug at her clothing. Snapping her eyes open, she drove her knee into his crotch. He stumbled backward into the bar counter, hands clasping his injury, eyes wide and red. His head cracked into the wood, and he unleashed a string of swears. The bartender woke from his trance and turned toward the phone next to the cash register. Jett didn’t wait to see whether he dialed 911 or called her a taxi. She retrieved her bag from the floor and ran out of the bar. Bright sunlight blinded her. She forced her eyes to stay open and ran in the direction she thought she had come from. Pushing past people, she kept moving, terror wrapping icy fingers around her spine. She ran until her legs burned and her eyes watered. Ducking around the corner of a bank, she paused, chest heaving. Nothing like that had ever happened to her. Bile crept up the back of her throat, and she swallowed hard. She leaned against the building, sucking in shallow breaths. She made a mental note to never drink at a bar alone again. Her phone vibrated in her bag. She dug it out of her bag, taking a deep breath. She expected to see Griff’s name on her caller ID, but she froze when she saw that it was a text from Koty. “Go back to the hotel,” it said. Jett frowned. She had no idea where she was or how to get to the hotel they had spent the night at. Licking her lips, she peered around the corner of the bank. No one occupied the sidewalk for as far as she could see. Her attacker had not followed her. Perhaps the bartender had called the police. Maybe, she mused, the man had beat him up. It would probably serve him right. She opened a directions app on her phone and searched for the hotel’s address. The GPS found her location immediately and, a few seconds later, pulled up walking directions. She groaned. Walking would take all day. In her condition, the last thing she needed to do was walk. Her ribs already felt sore, and she felt far from sober. She dipped her hand into her bag for her wallet. She could just call a cab or take the bus. Her fingers brushed gum wrappers, old receipts, and tubes of lipstick, but her wallet was missing. She opened the mouth of her purse wide, staring into it. No wallet. She tried to remember if she had taken it out and left it on the bar counter, but her memory was hazy at best. Heart pounding in her chest, she glanced around, thinking she may have just dropped it. Not a single scrap of litter decorated the sidewalk. She pawed through her purse again, desperate. Sometimes she misplaced things in plain sight. Her bag was notorious for swallowing objects. The search proved fruitless, though, and she slumped against the exterior of the bank. Without money or even her driver’s license, she couldn’t even file a police report against the man who had attacked—and apparently robbed—her. At least she had her phone. She considered her options. She could call one of the guys. Surely they would escort her to the hotel, even if they decided to finally kick her out for good. She groaned. Remembering Griff’s last words to her, she shook her head. She couldn’t call them. Koty was busy, probably posing for photos with gorgeous teenage girls and getting ready to shake his body on stage. Her lip curled. She wondered when she had developed an overly jealous disposition. Maybe, she decided, it was the rum. There was no one else to call. She looked down at her feet. Her boots had not been made for walking, not with their heels. Still, she had no choice. Reopening the app, she turned in the direction of the hotel. The walk took her what felt like hours. By the time she reached the hotel, sweat dripped down her back and her old mascara ran down her cheeks. Peering through bleary eyes, limping on blistered feet, she walked through the doors. She wrapped one arm around her ribs, her free hand clutching her phone. She hoped they wouldn’t require photo ID in exchange for her room key. No one had stopped her for autographs on her way to the hotel. The hotel staff probably wouldn’t recognize her, either. The man holding the door raised an eyebrow at her, but muttered a greeting as she moved past him. A woman at the desk stared at her with alarmed, wide eyes. “Do you need help?” she stammered, looking from Jett to the man at the door. Jett was glad that she didn’t have a mirror. She probably looked like a drug addict or prostitute—or both. She gave the woman her best smile. Her lips felt cracked and dried. She swore she felt the skin break. “I’m joining an MMA league,” she said. The woman rose an eyebrow. “Are they holding practices in the streets?” “Something like that,” Jett said. She stepped up to the desk and gave the woman her name. “Two Ts. Costa with a C.” Tapping a few computer keys, the woman looked up the room number. “Here’s your key,” she said, sliding it across the desk. “Front desk number is on the sleeve. Please do call if you need anything.” “We have laundry service, as well,” the door man added. “I’ll keep it in mind,” Jett said, pocketing the key. She limped to the elevators, weaving past a large container of lemon and lime infused water. Her tongue scraped against her mouth. Ignoring the water, she pressed the call button. An elevator came immediately. She staggered inside and let the car carry her up. When she got into her room, she kicked off her boots. Tossing her bag onto the floor, she pulled off her sweat-soaked clothing. Standing naked in the air conditioning, she glanced from the bathroom to the mini bar. A cool bath would soothe her aching muscles, blistered feet, and sore ribs. She didn’t want to know what she looked like, though. She plodded toward the mini bar. Pulling the door open, she selected a nipper. The alcohol burned her chapped lips, but she swallowed greedily. Desperate to bury the memory of that afternoon, she reached for a second. It wasn’t long before she slipped into a black oblivion. 27 Koty sprinted toward his dressing room, pulling off pieces of his costume as he moved. His phone hadn’t vibrated in his pocket. He had no idea whether Jett had gotten his text or if she had arrived at the hotel safely. It was probably stupid to worry, but every time he thought about her, a pit of quicksand formed in his gut. Something was wrong. “What’s the hurry, Jackson?” Woodrow called after him. Glancing behind his shoulder, Koty pushed inside of his dressing room. He slammed the door shut and locked it behind him. Articles of clothing flew as he undressed, not caring whether Carlee or anyone else occupied the room. He pulled on street clothes, grabbed a pair of sunglasses, and stuffed his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. He crossed the dressing room in a couple of quick strides, unlocked the door, and threw it open. Barreling past Woodrow, he headed toward the elevators—and the venue exit. “Stop right there,” Woodrow shouted after him. Koty kept moving. He skipped the elevator and headed for the door marking stairs. He flew down each flight, his feet barely touching each step. He heard someone running behind him, but didn’t stop to find out who. He burst through the door, into the lobby. Picking up his pace, he crossed the lobby and pushed open the doors. Waning sunlight greeted him. Streaks of pink painted the street, the sun setting in the horizon. A bus pulled up to the curb. He read the route and, breathing a sigh of relief, stepped toward the bus. A hand grabbed his shoulder. Koty whirled around, a fist cocked back, but it was only Dev. “You almost got clobbered,” he told his group mate, lowering his arm. “Woodrow’s pissed,” Dev said, chest heaving. “I know.” Koty glanced at the bus. “I’ve got to go, though.” “Listen, this might be the last time I see you,” Dev said. He clasped Koty’s hand. “I’m not signing that contract. You shouldn’t, either.” He pushed Koty toward the bus. “Go, and don’t come back.” Koty nodded. He stepped onto the bus, paid the fare, and watched as the doors closed behind him. As the bus pulled away, he lifted a hand in goodbye. Dev waved back. The hotel receded from view, and Koty slipped into a seat. Exhaling, he leaned his head back. He wondered what it would be like to have a normal life—to have a normal girlfriend. He wondered if he could consider Jett his girlfriend. Trouble seemed to follow him everywhere he went, and he doubted that she wanted to get mixed up in his drama. Then, there were her problems. Whatever was going on with her, she was getting worse. He rubbed his temples, unsure of how he could convince her to open up to him. The past few days had given them little time to really get to know each other. Heat flushed his face as he thought of the little that he did know about her. She slept naked, liked to kiss a lot, and she only had one tattoo: a music note behind her ear, only visible when she lifted her hair. He shook his head at himself. He had no idea what he had gotten himself into. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned his attention to purchasing a plane ticket. As soon as the bus arrived at the airport, Koty jumped off and ran inside. He went straight to the kiosk. As he printed out his ticket, he felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Glancing over his shoulder, he recognized a familiar red Chicago Bulls cap tilted on top of a familiar head. His muscles tensed. Buckley moved toward him through the throng of people, the body guard’s face void of emotion but his eyes were fixed right on Koty. “Get lost, Buckley,” Koty called to him, moving toward the security line. His body guard continued to follow him, though, stepping into line behind him. Koty frowned. “You can’t come through security without a ticket, Buckley.” He crossed his arms. His body guard merely stared back at him and held up his own ticket. “This is ridiculous.” He fished his phone out of his pocket again and dialed Woodrow’s number. “Jackson,” the manager said. “How nice of you to call.” “Call off your dog,” Koty said. The line moved forward. Only three people separated him and the walkthrough metal detector. He would need to surrender his phone, wallet, and belt in just a few minutes. Sweat dotted his forehead and the palms of his hands. Woodrow tsked. “What dog?” “I’m just visiting my girlfriend,” Koty said. “You’re in an awful rush for just visiting your girlfriend.” The smirk practically oozed through the phone. “We’re in that sloppy honeymoon phase,” Koty said. “Must be getting expensive, to be flying back and forth so much,” Woodrow said. Koty froze. For a moment, he wondered how Woodrow knew exactly how many times he had flown in the past few weeks. Then, cold defeat sank into his gut as he remembered that his credit card was technically an L.A.B. perk. Woodrow and the label had access to all of his purchases. He cleared his throat. The line moved forward again. “Listen,” he said to Woodrow. “Enough of the games. Call off Buckley.” Woodrow laughed. “Okay,” he said, “but you should know that I didn’t just find your guitar.” Koty frowned. “Certain photos have been brought to my attention,” Woodrow continued. Koty’s heart slammed in his chest as he remembered the camera flashes during his first show with Perpetual Smile. His jaw sagged. “If you want to save face and avoid being sued and publicly humiliated, you’ll arrange to meet with L.A.B. and me first thing in the morning. It’s time for the games to end,” Woodrow finished. The last person in front of Koty stepped into the metal detector. “Fine,” Koty said. “Now call off the spy.” He ended the call just as a TSA worker motioned for him to empty his pockets into one of the bins. Koty complied. Behind him, he heard Buckley’s phone ring. Glancing over his shoulder as he stepped into the metal detector, he watched as Buckley turned and left the line. As soon as he was through security, Koty hurried toward his gate. If he missed the flight, he could always book another, but he wanted to get to Jett as soon as possible. He needed to warn her about L.A.B. and the photos, but he also needed to make sure she was okay. He boarded and took his seat. Just as the plane took off and finally leveled out, they began to descend. The flight from Detroit to Indianapolis never took long. It felt like only seconds passed before they touched down. The plane landed smoothly, and Koty unbuckled his seat belt before the light above him went off. Planting his hands on the armrests, he prepared to push himself up. At Indianapolis International, he raced to the shuttle pickup area. Luck was on his side, because a shuttle going straight to the hotel pulled up to the curb just as he burst outside. He didn’t even bother sitting down. Nerves coiled, he held onto the bar, bracing himself against the bumps in the road and preparing to exit the second the shuttle arrived at the hotel. Collecting his card key at the front desk, he raced up to his assigned room. He pushed the door open. Darkness greeted him. Easing the door shut behind him, he let his eyes adjust. As he moved into the room, his foot touched something soft. He bent, fingers splayed, exploring the object. Smooth, cool leather greeted his fingertips—Jett’s bag. Sighing in relief, he stood, scanning the rest of the room. Dark puddles resembling clothing littered the floor. Empty bottles of alcohol samples formed a path to the bed. On the bed, Jett sprawled naked and unconscious. Koty’s eyebrows lifted. He crossed the room and turned on the lamp at the desk. Jett remained asleep. Perhaps “passed out” was a better description, he surmised. Rubbing the new stubble on his face, he paced the room. He needed to call his agent and tell him about the meeting with Woodrow, but he needed to tell Jett everything that happened before he did anything else. He didn’t want her to be blindsided—even if she had completely sideswiped him with her problems. He sighed, reached the door, and turned, repeating his path back toward the desk. Jett would be useless to him in her current state, even if he did wake her up. Only time would bring her back to sobriety. If it was true that Simon 1056 wanted an excuse to replace her, she might not be able to help him, anyway. She needed more help than he did. Koty rubbed his temples in frustration. He had no idea what to do about anything. Once again, he was on his own. 28 The only light filtering into the room was from the stars and street lights. Jett blinked at the alarm clock next to the bed, vision blurred and her head pounding. When the numbers came into focus, she groaned. It was three in the morning. She waited a few seconds, judging her ability to fall back asleep. Fatigue tugged at her, and the headache didn’t help. Relieved, she let her eyes closed. A second later, though, she felt pressure on her bladder. It figured. She sat up, sheets sliding down her body and pooling at her waist. Lifting an eyebrow, she glanced over her shoulder. Koty lay next to her, fully dressed but asleep. She smiled. He did care about her. She had been ridiculous, too drunk to see the truth. No man would pay for a hotel room at the last minute if he didn’t care. Easing her legs over the side of the bed, Jett began to get out of bed. The sound of a throat clearing froze her in her tracks. She turned to see Koty sitting up beside her. She smiled at him, but he only watched her. Glancing down, she remembered her bare body. Forgetting her headache and the urge to pee for the moment, she twisted to the side, straddling him in one fluid movement. “Welcome back to Indy,” she whispered to him, leaning down to kiss his lips. He turned his head away. “Do you have a drinking problem?” He gazed up at her, blue eyes bright even in the dark. She blinked at him, her lips forming a little O. Swallowing hard, she shook it off. She ground her pelvis against his, and she felt his body respond immediately. Grinning, she leaned toward him again, her hair brushing his cheek. “Did you miss me?” He caught her wrists and pushed her back, gently, but his eyes were stern. “Don’t change the subject.” “You keep ditching me,” she said. “I’ve been lonely.” She tried to kiss him again, but he held her back. For a boy band singer, he was strong. She had to give him that. “Were you drunk when you called me?” Before she could answer, he asked, “Did you drink more when you got here?” She grit her teeth. “It’s none of your business. Let go of me!” “Fine.” He released her wrists, thrusting her away. She remained planted on top of him, but he kept his eyes on hers. “Be straight with me, for once. Do you have a drinking problem?” Jett rolled off of him, yanking the sheets up around her body. Heat flushed her face, and her eyebrows furrowed. It always came back to her drinking. No matter what she did. Maybe she did drink too much that night, but she couldn’t be an alcoholic. She was a musician. Drinking was a part of the package. She opened her mouth to tell him so, but what came out was totally different. “You keep running out on me,” she said, chest heaving. “What am I to you? What are we? What are we doing?” Tears pricked at her eyes and tumbled down her cheeks. She wiped them away, nostrils flaring. Bright light from the lamp on his side of the bed illuminated the room. He pulled his hand away from the switch, his eyes searching hers. Tilting his head back, he looked at the ceiling. “We’re going to do this now?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but she detected irritation in his tone. “Why not?” she asked. He heaved a sigh. “We have bigger problems,” he said. She scowled. “Oh, so just change the subject!” Sliding out of bed, she dragged the sheet with her. Koty eyed her, his arms crossed. “Like you did just a few minutes ago?” He shook his head. “If we can’t be honest with each other, there isn’t much of an us, now is there?” Pointing a finger at him, she leaned toward him. “I was right about you,” she said, blinking away tears. He sighed again. “Think what you want, but I’m not the problem here.” He spread his hands. “What do you want me to do? I’ve got L.A.B. breathing down my neck with photos of us playing that show. Woodrow threatened to sue me. You’re chugging back 100-proof rum. You won’t be honest with me. What am I supposed to do, Jett?” He leapt from the bed, jumping right in front of her. He took her by the shoulders, his grip gentle but strong. “What do you want me to do?” She blinked at him. Her body went limp in his grasp. Nausea swept through her, and her head pounded. “What are you going to do about L.A.B.?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “So you’re still avoiding the real problem,” he said, and released her. She fell to the floor. Several heartbeats passed. Koty looked down at her, his eyes melting ice. “I just want to come out and be done with it.” She gasped. “I just want some honesty in my life,” he continued. His shoulders slumped. “Wherever I can get it.” “Don’t do it,” she begged, gazing up at him with slanted eyebrows. “They’ll take everything you’ve got. We can find a way to explain everything.” Her mind whirled. She had no idea how they could possibly explain his appearance with Perpetual Smile. It was exactly what it looked like. Pressing her lips together, she wiped sweat from her forehead. “It’s only money,” Koty said. “It’s not just money,” she said. Struggling to her feet, she wrapped the sheet tighter around her. “You’re going to need all you can get. This gig, Perpetual Smile, isn’t as glamorous as it seems. Radios aren’t tripping over themselves to play our songs. We make a living, but it’s not like ESX. We’re not millionaires. It dries up quickly. It’s a rat race.” She cleared her throat. More tears dribbled down her cheeks. “I built this band from the ground up, and now it’s crumbling around me.” She sighed. “Simon 1056 wants to kick me out. One wrong move, and I’m finished.” “You already told me that,” he said. He wiped her tears away. Cupping her chin, he lifted her face until their eyes were even. “Can you blame them?” He sighed. “Only you can change your situation, Jett. I already know what I’m going to do about mine.” She peered into his eyes through lashes crusted with old mascara, glittering with tears. Bowing her head, she gave him no response. She had none. 29 Cold air conditioning swirled around the room, stirring the hairs on Koty’s arms. Goosebumps dotted his flesh, but the cool air did nothing to wake up his mind. After his argument with Jett, he had laid awake all night. He caught a flight before the sun rose, and left her sleeping in the hotel bed, alone. Guilt tugged at him. He shouldn’t have left things so unfinished between them, but he had no choice. He needed to take care of business. In time, he hoped, she would let him help her, too. Raymond Eble sat next to him, nervously drumming his fingers on a folder containing Koty’s formal announcement. His agent hadn’t exactly been angry with Koty for calling him in the middle of the night to discuss business, but Eble refused to make eye contact. Koty suspected that his decision would hurt his agent the most in the long run. There was nothing he could do, though. L.A.B. and their spies had forced him to come out fighting. He refused to run away like a scared diva. Life wasn’t short because people were made to follow the whims of others. He believed that with his whole heart. Leaving ESX was the smartest move he had made in years. Woodrow sat across from him, accompanied by other members of L.A.B. He glared at Koty, making no effort at hiding his disdain. Every few seconds, his eyes flicked to the folder that Eble possessed. Koty bet that Woodrow would like nothing more than to throw it into a shredder. Clearing his throat, he addressed the gentlemen sitting across from him. He made direct eye contact with Woodrow, though. “Due to recent circumstances, I am dissolving my relationship with L.A.B. and ESX. Although I appreciate the opportunity,” he said, trying not to choke on the words, “it’s time for me to move on to other endeavors.” Face turning purple, Woodrow erupted. He leapt from his seat, sending his chair crashing back into the wall. “You’ve breached your contract. Admit it!” One of the CEOs cleared his throat. “Mr. Woodrow, thank you. Mr. Jackson, as your manager has stated, your involvement with another entity outside of the label is indeed a breach of our agreement. Were you aware of this?” Glancing at Eble out of the corner of his eyes, Koty said, “Yes.” He squared his shoulders. Eble, on the other hand, slouched deeper into his seat. The CEO continued, throwing a silencing glare at Woodrow. “Mr. Jackson, L.A.B. will be forced to resolve the matter in court.” The shade of purple that painted Woodrow’s face deepened. He balled his hands into fists. Koty could practically see steam blowing out of his ears. “So you’re just going to let him go?” he screamed. Koty rolled his eyes. Ignoring Woodrow, he said, “I understand.” He pulled the folder out from under Eble’s shaking fingers and slid it across the table to the CEOs. “This is a copy of the press release I will be issuing, announcing my separation from ESX. If the circumstances are agreeable to both parties, I’ll be severing my ties immediately—aside from whatever court dates.” He licked his lips. He hoped he sounded confident. His agent had given him some coaching, but without enough time to consult with a lawyer, he was on his own for the time being. The CEOs flipped open the folder and read the press release, lips moving in unison. Koty stood. “You can contact my agent, Raymond Eble, with any grievances or questions.” He motioned for Eble to stand as well. Without another word, they strode out of the conference room. He didn’t dare breathe or speak until they reached the hotel lobby. “You’re ballsy, kid,” Eble said. “I’ll give you that.” Koty’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “Are you going to take up chain smoking now?” “Likely,” Eble replied. “Possibly drinking, as well.” His agent ducked into a waiting car. “I’ll be in touch,” he said. Before Koty could respond, the car pulled away from the curb. Watching as it disappeared from view, Koty felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. He turned and walked away from the hotel. He wanted to call Jett, but he also wanted to get as far away from L.A.B. as he could. After he walked for several blocks, he ducked into a coffee shop. With his sunglasses, baseball hat, and lack of a body guard, he doubted anyone would recognize him, but as an ex-member of ESX, he no longer had L.A.B.’s crowd control protection. He ordered the first beverage he read on the menu and carried it to a table all the way in the back. Lifting the lid to let the coffee cool, he watched as steam rose into the air. One problem solved, he still had Jett to worry about. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her number. The phone rang once, and then she answered. “Yeah?” She sounded exhausted. He wondered where she was. “I’ve got good news.” He filled her in on the meeting, a smile breaking across his face. “We could come out now,” he finished. “There’s no reason for us to stay a secret.” Maybe, he mused, she would let him in if he gave her some kind of commitment. He didn’t have much experience with women, but the little that he did have had taught him that most women just wanted to know that they could trust their men. “No,” she said, her voice harsh. “Wait,” he said. “Why not?” His eyebrows lifted in perplex. Just the night before, she had demanded to know what she meant to him. A headache began to throb between his eyes. “We can’t see each other anymore,” she said. He rubbed his temples. “Why not, Jett? Everything is finally falling into place.” He was free of ESX. He played guitar with a band with clout. Dating Jett—officially, really being her boyfriend—would be the finishing touch. She sighed. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “and it’ll be better for us both in the long run. Our careers are going to be messy enough when your news gets out, and I’m already risking mine by drinking.” Koty’s eyebrows shot up. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why not just quit drinking, Jett? You’re being ridiculous. You wouldn’t have to worry about being kicked out if you didn’t drink so much.” His mind whirled. Women were so complicated. She had to know how absurd she was being. “It’s over, Koty, okay?” Without letting him respond, she hung up on him. He stared at the cooling coffee in front of him. A buzzing sound rang in his ears. As he replayed their conversation in his head, he wondered if anything he had done in the past few months had been worth it, after all. 30 Four weeks. Four miserable weeks of jumping for her phone every time it went off. Four weeks of broken promises—to both herself and Koty. Four weeks of drinking in the cramped tour bus bathroom so that no one caught her. Every time she parted with Koty, every night she spent sleeping alone after sneaking off into his arms, every sip from the whiskey bottle she kept stashed under the sink, dug into her, claws ripping through the skin of her being. Four weeks had passed since Koty Jackson came out as Perpetual Smile’s rhythm guitarist and officially parted ways with ESX, and only some things had gotten easier. She stifled a moan as Koty trailed fingers over her shoulder. Her skin felt like electricity, her body melting away from her. The thoughts that spun through her mind were sharp, though—guilt stabbing into her. Four weeks had passed since she broke up with him, and she still couldn’t make herself completely walk away. Disgust began to sink into her when he pressed his lips to her neck. Her feelings of disappointment immediately were overrode by lust. She let herself fall into him, her lips meeting his. Fingers decorated with silver rings struggled with his belt, her red nail polish flashing in the dim light. For a moment, she paused. They were too close to the other men. Someone would catch them, for sure. So far, she and Koty had been lucky. The other members of Perpetual Smile were too distracted by the L.A.B. drama unfolding to pay her any attention. Koty pressed her against the wood of the bunk bed, the hard surface digging into her back. Through the window, she could see the light from the portable fire pit flickering in the darkness. Dark figures huddled over it, bottles of beer clutched in their hands. One of them leaned over the fire, holding out a roasting stick strung with hot dogs. Every so often, raucous laughter rose up from the circle. They were distracted, but only for the time being. They had been drinking for an hour. One of them would have to relieve himself soon. She lifted a hand, turning her face away from Koty’s. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. His lips grazed her jawline. His fingers wound into her hair. Sucking air through her teeth, she wriggled away from him. “I can’t do this,” she whispered back. Twisting away, she faced him in the dark. “This is crazy.” His shoulders slumped. Running a hand through his hair, he looked down at the floor. “We’re going to get caught,” she amended. He perked up instantly. Crossing the small space between them, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his lips to hers. The kiss pulled her into a warm cocoon, where she didn’t need to drink to feel better and she didn’t have to worry about her band. L.A.B. had decided to sue Koty Jackson and Simon 1056 as separate entities, leaving Perpetual Smile out of the whole mess. If the other men caught on to her relationship with Koty, though, they might be a little more than annoyed at the drama of band members dating. She pulled away again, sweat dampening the palms of her hands. “This is stupid,” she muttered. “What’s stupid,” Koty whispered, “is that we keep sneaking around like teenagers. Do you really think they’re going to hate you for being happy?” Jett gritted her teeth. “You don’t get it,” she growled. “You’re living in a damn bubble.” “Are you even happy?” The words hung in the air, his frustration so heavy that it pressed on her chest. She said nothing, though. If he couldn’t understand that Perpetual Smile was her whole world, there was nothing else she could say. After a moment, Koty sighed and yanked up his pants, the buckle of his belt jingling as he re-dressed himself. The door to the bus slid open. Griff ambled inside, his Boston Red Sox cap slightly askew. “Interrupting?” he asked. He held a beer in one hand. Jett snorted. Griff was constantly up her ass about her drinking, yet didn’t see anything wrong with drinking in front of her. If he cared so much about her, she surmised, he would be a lot more supportive. “No,” Koty said, grabbing his jacket from the couch. He moved past Griff and stepped outside. Keeping her face blank, Jett moved into the bathroom before Griff could ask any more questions. Locking the door behind her, she sank onto the toilet. Her feet were practically in the shower. Peering at the toes of her boots from between her fingers, she blinked back tears. Touring was easier without having to sneak Koty around back and forth from ESX shows, but with him nearby so often, she was having a harder and harder time staying away from him. He slept on the bus with them and showered in the same questionable truck stops and motels. It didn’t seem to faze him at all that limousines and first-class flights were a thing of the past. He tuned his guitar alongside her bassist and even tried making dinner one night. Matt had asked him to never help out with meals ever again after he burned a pot of pasta. Sighing, Jett swiveled her legs to the side and opened the small cabinet under the sink. Nestled underneath an old towel, the bottle of whiskey waited for her. She wrapped her fingers around its neck and pulled it out. The buzzing overhead light flashed off her polished nails as she unscrewed the cap. Bringing the bottle to her lips, she took a long shot. Smoky liquid burned down the back of her throat. She took another sip, and another. So far, there was no type of booze that she liked best. The stronger, the better, but that was really all that mattered to her. After a few more shots, she tucked the bottle back underneath. Standing up, she flushed the toilet with one hand while turning on the sink with the other. As she stooped over the tiny counter, she caught her reflection in the dirty mirror. Black eyeliner had smudged underneath her eyes, making her look as if she hadn’t slept in days. Tear tracks of black mascara led down her cheeks, joining at her chin. Alarmed, she widened her eyes. She couldn’t remember crying. She splashed water on her face, cleaning up as quickly as possible. Even though it was dark outside, even if the other men didn’t notice, Koty would be able to tell. She refused to let him know that she felt anything. Detachment was her game. She was a Costa, and Costa girls didn’t cry over boys—or anything, really. Easing out of the bathroom, Jett flashed Griff a smile. He stood leaning against one the bunks, his arms folded across his chest. “All yours,” she told him. His eyebrows furrowed and his lips parted as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he let his arms fall to his sides and ambled past her. As he moved by, she could smell the beer on him. She pressed her lips together to keep a sarcastic jab from escaping. Turning her back on him, she left him to his business. Outside, firelight danced off the reflective metal of the tour bus. The men sat around the pit, leaning in close to the flames. Only one chair was unoccupied, and she assumed it had to be Griff’s. None of the men invited her to join them, though Koty wiggled his fingers at her in a wave, his hand hidden from the others. Shoulders slumping, she tried not to let the obvious dis cut into her. She knew the other men weren’t her biggest fans, but she hadn’t thought they hated her. She felt like a high school student all over again. Swallowing hard, she shoved the hurt down. She put on a smile. Keeping her eyes from making contact with any of them, she said, “I’m going to get cigarettes. Anyone need anything?” She kept her voice bright, as if she were completely oblivious to their indifference toward her. Matt and Todd grunted, but Koty jumped up out of his seat. “You’re not walking by yourself at this time of night,” he said, taking a step toward her. She opened her mouth to tell him that he was being ridiculous, that she had made hundreds of cigarette runs at all hours of the night before meeting him, but he winked at her. Her stomach tightened and warmth tingled down her spine. He was flirting with her, right in front of everyone. Lips parting, she stared at him, wondering if he was crazy. At the same time, though, she couldn’t help but feel turned on. He wanted to go with her so they could be alone, she realized. Resisting the urge to slap herself in the forehead, she squared her shoulders. The guys might catch on if they kept disappearing together. She needed to stop being so reckless. She needed to focus on the band. She needed to turn around and go without him. “Whatever makes you happy,” she said to him, though. She turned on her heels and headed in the direction of the gas station. “She is such a bitch,” she heard Todd say under his breath. Ice gripped her stomach, and she froze. Her heart pounded in her chest and her body began to shake. Immediately, she wanted another drink. “Come on,” Koty said quietly from beside her. Jett hunched her shoulders up to her earlobes and made herself walk away. Each step felt as if she were moving through freshly poured concrete. Tears stung at her eyes but she blinked them away. She couldn’t cry twice in one night. Swallowing hard, she pressed forward, her boots falling heavily on the sidewalk. Dirt and pebbles ground underneath her feet. Chest tight, she rounded a corner and stopped, leaning against the cool side of a building. Closing her eyes, she sucked in a deep, slow breath. No matter what she did, she couldn’t convince the other members of Perpetual Smile to let her stay. They hated her. It was only a matter of time before they kicked her out or convinced the label to do it for them. Someone wrapped his arms around her waist and spun her away from the building. Her heart lurched into her throat, pounding in her chest. Maybe she needed supervision, after all. Despite how tough she wanted to be, she was still a petite female, walking down a dark street in the middle of the night. Opening her eyes, she came face to face with Koty. Heat flooded his eyes, and he grazed his lips against hers. She didn’t get a chance to berate him for scaring her. Pressing her against the building, he gently forced her mouth open, his lips brushing against hers. He tasted like the iced tea he had been drinking, sweet and warm. His hands lifted her, cupping her ass. His tongue twined with hers, sugary fire pouring into her mouth. The whiskey pumping through her veins flared and she melted away. His body pressed against hers and she felt herself dissolving into the building. Fingers twining into his hair, her other arm wrapping around his waist, she pulled him closer. He was hard and ready. A smile broke out across her lips, and she forgot her sorrow. Releasing his black strands, she moved to his pants, fingers scrabbling at the button of his jeans. He broke the kiss. “Hold on,” he said, laughing. His forehead touched hers, and mischief danced in his eyes. “‘Hold on,’ what?” she asked, thrusting her hips. He moaned and she grinned in satisfaction. “Do you want to do it right here?” he whispered in her ear. Nibbling on her lower lip, she considered it, but only for a moment. “Guess not,” she said. She kept her legs wrapped around his waist, though. From somewhere behind them, she heard a click and whine. Glancing around, heart spazzing in her chest, she swore she saw the bush across the street shudder. Blinking, she watched it for a moment. The sidewalk tilted up at her, and the bush remained still. The only sound she heard was Koty’s soft, slow breathing next to her. She turned back to him. “I saw a motel,” Koty said. “We could get a room.” She cocked her head at Koty. “Don’t you think they’ll miss us?” “I just need an hour or two,” he said, the same rogue glint in his eyes returning. She opened her mouth to argue that an hour was too long. He nibbled at her jawline, though, and she relaxed into his arms again. Relenting, she moaned an “okay.” In an instant, her feet were back on the ground. Koty’s warm hand gripped hers and he led her in the direction of the hotel. She let him pull her along, the alcohol flushing through her. Her skin tingled and, even though the sidewalk occasionally tilted up at her, she felt as if she were floating. She could hear her boots click on the ground, but couldn’t feel much of her legs. A smile washed over her lips, curving through her head and stretching through her body. She glided along, a girl floating on a cloud through the dark street. The skin that touched Koty’s crackled and sizzled. Distantly, she felt heavy blackness creeping over her, threatening to numb her. She bit down on her tongue to stay alert, but she felt her body giving out. It wouldn’t be long before she sank into dreamless sleep. Perhaps it was for the best that Koty was getting them a room, she surmised. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just disappear for a while. The motel appeared as they rounded another corner. She had never heard of Jerry’s Lodge. The sign that rose above the lot buzzed with electricity. Half of it was unlit. Few cars occupied the parking lot. Shadows shrouded the doors that lined the balcony. She eyed the building dubiously before Koty pulled her into the lobby. She sank into a plastic chair as he stepped up to the counter. Resting her elbow on its arm, she tucked her chin into her hand and tried to look alert. Koty had to know she had a drink. He would have tasted it when he kissed her. She didn’t want him to know just how annihilated she was, though. She hadn’t meant to get so drunk. She frowned, trying to remember how many shots she had taken. Perhaps, she mused, she had accumulated enough throughout the evening, and her bathroom session had only tipped her over the edge. Giggling, she pressed her hand to her lips. Koty glanced over his shoulder at her. “What’s so funny?” he asked, his eyes dancing. “Nothing,” she said, forcing composure through her body. “Just looking at your ass.” She blinked, wondering if that was even true. She couldn’t remember any of her tangled thoughts from a moment before. The familiar devilish heat flowed into his eyes. He grinned back at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll have you upstairs real soon.” The man behind the counter cleared his throat. “A king bed, then?” he said, his glance flicking from Jett to Koty. For a moment, recognition flashed through his eyes, but then he slipped his face back into his former bored, slightly embarrassed expression. “Yeah,” Koty said. He fished his wallet out of his back pocket and counted out several twenty-dollar bills. Jett licked her lips, her eyes widening. She rarely had that much cash on her. For a moment, drunken paranoia insisted that someone would mug them on their way back to the tour bus. No one else occupied the lobby, though, and she forced herself to relax, wondering when she had developed so much anxiety. “Come on,” Koty said, holding out a hand to her. She tore her eyes away from the entrance and took his hand. He pulled her to her feet and led her back outside. “Seedy,” she muttered. “We won’t be here long enough for it to matter,” he said, heading toward the opposite end of the building. “All the way down here?” she asked, eyebrows furrowing. If someone mugged them, no one would be around to help. Koty snorted. “Yeah, I guess that guy figured it would be less noise for him to have to hear.” She stopped in her tracks, tilting her head. Then, as his words sank in, she yanked her hand from his and swatted at him. “I do not make that much noise.” He laughed. “No? Then I guess I can sneak into your bunk tonight.” Heat flushed her cheeks. “I’m not that loud.” “The last time I checked out of a room before you, the manager commented on all of the noise. He asked me if my girlfriend was okay.” A smile played on his lips. He pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers. Lifting her, he broke the kiss and carried her the rest of the way. She laughed, wrapping her legs around his waist. He brought her up a short flight of stairs, barely breaking a sweat. She ran her fingers over the chiseled muscles of his arms and shivered. “Hurry,” she purred into his ear. Maybe he wasn’t her boyfriend, but for the time being—at least for the night—he was still hers. She nibbled at his jawline, his stubble grazing her lips. Koty moaned but never dropped her. At the door to their room, he used the card key and pushed the door open. They laughed as they burst into the room. He didn’t bother turning on the lamps. Using the moonlight and the street lights outside, he carried her to the bed. She landed on a surprisingly soft mattress and pulled him down with her. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she locked her lips with his. She kicked off her boots and, letting the warmth coursing through her body carry her away, whispered into his ear what she wanted him to do to her. After, as Koty pressed a kiss to her shoulder, Jett wondered if it were possible to have more than one soul mate. Frowning, she chased the bizarre thought away. Koty pulled her into his arms, planting another kiss on her neck, just below her earlobe. She was glad that he couldn’t see her face. Tears sprang to her eyes. Squirming away, she scooted to the edge of the bed. “Where are you going?” he asked playfully. His fingertips brushed against her skin as she moved even farther out of his reach. “I don’t want the boys getting suspicious,” she said, keeping her tone as neutral as possible. “Suspicious,” Koty repeated, his voice flattening. “Yes,” she said, wincing. She laced her next words with levity. “If they thought I was playing favorites, they might hate me even more.” “Favorites,” he said, his voice low. She sighed. “It’s not like we’re a we.” “Right, we’re not,” he said. His emotionless words chilled her heart. Rubbing her temples, she reminded herself that she had been the one to break things off with him, not the other way around. He probably felt like she was using him. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. “You know that things are complicated for me right now.” “Right,” he said again. Bright light burned through the room. She snapped her eyes shut, yelping. “Watch your eyes,” he said, sarcasm tinging his voice. She opened her eyes and threw him her best glare. “When, exactly, are you going to stop running away from me?” Koty yanked on his jeans, but his eyes never left hers. “I’ve been patient, Jett. I’ve given you space. I’ve played your game. I can only go for so long, here.” He straightened and crossed his arms. Her shoulders slumped. A spontaneous romp had quickly turned into an argument. She didn’t want to argue. Reaching for her own discarded clothing, she avoided his gaze. “Do we really have to do this right now?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light. “Why not?” he asked. He skirted the bed and joined her on her side. Catching her hands in his, he heaved a sigh. “I know things are complicated for you, Jett, but they’re complicated for me, too. I have just as much shit to deal with, but I feel happy when I’m with you. Sort of.” He dropped her hands and ran a hand through his hair. “I feel happy when I’m not chasing after you, when we’re just together—you and me. We.” Resisting the urge to curl her lip at the word, she turned away. She retrieved her shirt from the floor, using getting dressed as an excuse to avoid his question. Chewing on her lip, she tried to come up with a response that didn’t make her the cold bitch that the other men thought she was. “Koty,” she began. He threw his hands up in frustration. “Here it comes. You’re going to smack me down again.” A rueful laugh tumbled from his lips. “Let me save you the effort. We’re done.” He grabbed his wallet from the nightstand, tucked it into his jeans, and left the room. “Dammit,” she said to the empty room. Tugging on her boots, she went after him. “Koty,” she called as he jogged down the stairs. At the bottom, he turned around. The blue eyes that looked up at her were sad. “What?” he asked. Her lips trembled. “I don’t want it to be like this,” she said. He snorted. “That’s it? That’s your idea of an apology?” He sighed. He said nothing else, but he waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. She descended them quickly and joined him. Shivering against the cool night air, she wrapped her arms around himself. There was nothing she could say, she realized. She couldn’t give him what he wanted. Sighing, she watched as her breath turned into a frosty puff. As they rounded a corner, she heard the unmistakable click of a camera. Skidding on her heels, she nearly collided with a young man with a shaggy mop of brown hair. He lowered the camera he held, exposing a face riddled with acne. A guilty expression slid across his face. As she opened her mouth to ask him what he was doing, he turned and broke into a run. Swearing, she ran after him. Feet pounded behind her, and she realized Koty was chasing him, too. She pushed herself harder, determined to tackle the would-be photographer before Koty could reach him. She needed to prove that she could take care of herself. Stretching out her arm, her fingers grazed the youth’s jacket but closed on empty air. He didn’t even glance back at her. He moved farther out of reach, darted across the street, and hopped over a fence. As she neared the curb, a truck barreled down the road. She stopped fast, teetering on the edge of the sidewalk. Koty froze next to her, breathing heavily. They watched as the youth disappeared from view. “Not good,” she huffed, planting her hands on her knees. “Was he what I think he was?” Koty asked. Jett nodded. “Probably followed us to the motel.” Swallowing hard, she avoided Koty’s gaze. “I bet that fucking guy at the desk tipped him off, too.” She pressed her teeth together until they hurt. “What do we do?” he asked. “We hope that he doesn’t have enough credentials for anyone to publish his stupid photos,” she said, straightening. Sometimes, it was irritating having to answer his novice questions. Gritting her teeth, she stared in the direction that the photographer ran in. “I almost had him,” she said, swearing again. Balling her hands into fists, she sucked in a deep breath. Her carelessness had finally caught up with her, she surmised, shaking her head. Koty put a hand on her shoulder. “What will happen if his photos do get out?” Scowling, she counted to three in her head before answering him. It wasn’t his fault that he was still so new, but she had assumed that L.A.B. had conditioned and groomed him for the press. At the very least, they should have taught him how to field questions. Remembering the night she had appeared on Late Nite with Maz and Koty had warned her not to drink the coffee, she felt butterflies bloom in her belly. In some ways, he had more grooming than she did—at least, romantically. She took another deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I don’t know,” she said, and took his hand. “Let’s just get back to camp.” Her fingers remained twined with his until they rounded the final corner. She dropped his hand and hooked her thumbs back into the loops of her jeans. Too late, she realized she had forgotten to pick up cigarettes. “Stupid,” she muttered under her breath. Whatever she felt for Koty was making her more than careless. “About time,” Griff remarked as she and Koty joined the other members of Perpetual Smile. “Where did you go, across town?” Todd said. Ignoring them both, Jett went straight to the tour bus. She climbed the stairs and pushed her way inside. All she wanted was a hot shower—and a drink. The bus’s water heater barely produced a cold shower, though, so she would have to settle for a drink. Ducking into the bathroom, she retrieved the bottle of whiskey from under the sink. Then, she climbed into her bunk. She fell asleep with the empty bottle hugged to her chest. She woke to her head pounding. As she rolled over, she spotted the men huddled on the couch, staring down at Griff’s iPad. Eyes widening, she climbed out of her bunk. Sweat dampened her palms as she gripped the rungs. They all looked up at her. Koty, she realized, sat alone, at the other end of the tour bus. He strummed his guitar, but various shades of red colored his face. She froze, clinging to the ladder. “Problem?” she asked. She tried to keep the word light, but her voice cracked. Todd glared at her. Griff held up the iPad. “This explains almost everything,” Matt said. 31 Four weeks. Four miserable weeks of jumping for her phone every time it went off. Four weeks of broken promises—to both herself and Koty. Four weeks of drinking in the cramped tour bus bathroom so that no one caught her. Every time she parted with Koty, every night she spent sleeping alone after sneaking off into his arms, every sip from the whiskey bottle she kept stashed under the sink, dug into her, claws ripping through the skin of her being. Four weeks had passed since Koty Jackson came out as Perpetual Smile’s rhythm guitarist and officially parted ways with ESX, and only some things had gotten easier. She stifled a moan as Koty trailed fingers over her shoulder. Her skin felt like electricity, her body melting away from her. The thoughts that spun through her mind were sharp, though—guilt stabbing into her. Four weeks had passed since she broke up with him, and she still couldn’t make herself completely walk away. Disgust began to sink into her when he pressed his lips to her neck. Her feelings of disappointment immediately were overrode by lust. She let herself fall into him, her lips meeting his. Fingers decorated with silver rings struggled with his belt, her red nail polish flashing in the dim light. For a moment, she paused. They were too close to the other men. Someone would catch them, for sure. So far, she and Koty had been lucky. The other members of Perpetual Smile were too distracted by the L.A.B. drama unfolding to pay her any attention. Koty pressed her against the wood of the bunk bed, the hard surface digging into her back. Through the window, she could see the light from the portable fire pit flickering in the darkness. Dark figures huddled over it, bottles of beer clutched in their hands. One of them leaned over the fire, holding out a roasting stick strung with hot dogs. Every so often, raucous laughter rose up from the circle. They were distracted, but only for the time being. They had been drinking for an hour. One of them would have to relieve himself soon. She lifted a hand, turning her face away from Koty’s. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. His lips grazed her jawline. His fingers wound into her hair. Sucking air through her teeth, she wriggled away from him. “I can’t do this,” she whispered back. Twisting away, she faced him in the dark. “This is crazy.” His shoulders slumped. Running a hand through his hair, he looked down at the floor. “We’re going to get caught,” she amended. He perked up instantly. Crossing the small space between them, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his lips to hers. The kiss pulled her into a warm cocoon, where she didn’t need to drink to feel better and she didn’t have to worry about her band. L.A.B. had decided to sue Koty Jackson and Simon 1056 as separate entities, leaving Perpetual Smile out of the whole mess. If the other men caught on to her relationship with Koty, though, they might be a little more than annoyed at the drama of band members dating. She pulled away again, sweat dampening the palms of her hands. “This is stupid,” she muttered. “What’s stupid,” Koty whispered, “is that we keep sneaking around like teenagers. Do you really think they’re going to hate you for being happy?” Jett gritted her teeth. “You don’t get it,” she growled. “You’re living in a damn bubble.” “Are you even happy?” The words hung in the air, his frustration so heavy that it pressed on her chest. She said nothing, though. If he couldn’t understand that Perpetual Smile was her whole world, there was nothing else she could say. After a moment, Koty sighed and yanked up his pants, the buckle of his belt jingling as he re-dressed himself. The door to the bus slid open. Griff ambled inside, his Boston Red Sox cap slightly askew. “Interrupting?” he asked. He held a beer in one hand. Jett snorted. Griff was constantly up her ass about her drinking, yet didn’t see anything wrong with drinking in front of her. If he cared so much about her, she surmised, he would be a lot more supportive. “No,” Koty said, grabbing his jacket from the couch. He moved past Griff and stepped outside. Keeping her face blank, Jett moved into the bathroom before Griff could ask any more questions. Locking the door behind her, she sank onto the toilet. Her feet were practically in the shower. Peering at the toes of her boots from between her fingers, she blinked back tears. Touring was easier without having to sneak Koty around back and forth from ESX shows, but with him nearby so often, she was having a harder and harder time staying away from him. He slept on the bus with them and showered in the same questionable truck stops and motels. It didn’t seem to faze him at all that limousines and first-class flights were a thing of the past. He tuned his guitar alongside her bassist and even tried making dinner one night. Matt had asked him to never help out with meals ever again after he burned a pot of pasta. Sighing, Jett swiveled her legs to the side and opened the small cabinet under the sink. Nestled underneath an old towel, the bottle of whiskey waited for her. She wrapped her fingers around its neck and pulled it out. The buzzing overhead light flashed off her polished nails as she unscrewed the cap. Bringing the bottle to her lips, she took a long shot. Smoky liquid burned down the back of her throat. She took another sip, and another. So far, there was no type of booze that she liked best. The stronger, the better, but that was really all that mattered to her. After a few more shots, she tucked the bottle back underneath. Standing up, she flushed the toilet with one hand while turning on the sink with the other. As she stooped over the tiny counter, she caught her reflection in the dirty mirror. Black eyeliner had smudged underneath her eyes, making her look as if she hadn’t slept in days. Tear tracks of black mascara led down her cheeks, joining at her chin. Alarmed, she widened her eyes. She couldn’t remember crying. She splashed water on her face, cleaning up as quickly as possible. Even though it was dark outside, even if the other men didn’t notice, Koty would be able to tell. She refused to let him know that she felt anything. Detachment was her game. She was a Costa, and Costa girls didn’t cry over boys—or anything, really. Easing out of the bathroom, Jett flashed Griff a smile. He stood leaning against one the bunks, his arms folded across his chest. “All yours,” she told him. His eyebrows furrowed and his lips parted as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he let his arms fall to his sides and ambled past her. As he moved by, she could smell the beer on him. She pressed her lips together to keep a sarcastic jab from escaping. Turning her back on him, she left him to his business. Outside, firelight danced off the reflective metal of the tour bus. The men sat around the pit, leaning in close to the flames. Only one chair was unoccupied, and she assumed it had to be Griff’s. None of the men invited her to join them, though Koty wiggled his fingers at her in a wave, his hand hidden from the others. Shoulders slumping, she tried not to let the obvious dis cut into her. She knew the other men weren’t her biggest fans, but she hadn’t thought they hated her. She felt like a high school student all over again. Swallowing hard, she shoved the hurt down. She put on a smile. Keeping her eyes from making contact with any of them, she said, “I’m going to get cigarettes. Anyone need anything?” She kept her voice bright, as if she were completely oblivious to their indifference toward her. Matt and Todd grunted, but Koty jumped up out of his seat. “You’re not walking by yourself at this time of night,” he said, taking a step toward her. She opened her mouth to tell him that he was being ridiculous, that she had made hundreds of cigarette runs at all hours of the night before meeting him, but he winked at her. Her stomach tightened and warmth tingled down her spine. He was flirting with her, right in front of everyone. Lips parting, she stared at him, wondering if he was crazy. At the same time, though, she couldn’t help but feel turned on. He wanted to go with her so they could be alone, she realized. Resisting the urge to slap herself in the forehead, she squared her shoulders. The guys might catch on if they kept disappearing together. She needed to stop being so reckless. She needed to focus on the band. She needed to turn around and go without him. “Whatever makes you happy,” she said to him, though. She turned on her heels and headed in the direction of the gas station. “She is such a bitch,” she heard Todd say under his breath. Ice gripped her stomach, and she froze. Her heart pounded in her chest and her body began to shake. Immediately, she wanted another drink. “Come on,” Koty said quietly from beside her. Jett hunched her shoulders up to her earlobes and made herself walk away. Each step felt as if she were moving through freshly poured concrete. Tears stung at her eyes but she blinked them away. She couldn’t cry twice in one night. Swallowing hard, she pressed forward, her boots falling heavily on the sidewalk. Dirt and pebbles ground underneath her feet. Chest tight, she rounded a corner and stopped, leaning against the cool side of a building. Closing her eyes, she sucked in a deep, slow breath. No matter what she did, she couldn’t convince the other members of Perpetual Smile to let her stay. They hated her. It was only a matter of time before they kicked her out or convinced the label to do it for them. Someone wrapped his arms around her waist and spun her away from the building. Her heart lurched into her throat, pounding in her chest. Maybe she needed supervision, after all. Despite how tough she wanted to be, she was still a petite female, walking down a dark street in the middle of the night. Opening her eyes, she came face to face with Koty. Heat flooded his eyes, and he grazed his lips against hers. She didn’t get a chance to berate him for scaring her. Pressing her against the building, he gently forced her mouth open, his lips brushing against hers. He tasted like the iced tea he had been drinking, sweet and warm. His hands lifted her, cupping her ass. His tongue twined with hers, sugary fire pouring into her mouth. The whiskey pumping through her veins flared and she melted away. His body pressed against hers and she felt herself dissolving into the building. Fingers twining into his hair, her other arm wrapping around his waist, she pulled him closer. He was hard and ready. A smile broke out across her lips, and she forgot her sorrow. Releasing his black strands, she moved to his pants, fingers scrabbling at the button of his jeans. He broke the kiss. “Hold on,” he said, laughing. His forehead touched hers, and mischief danced in his eyes. “‘Hold on,’ what?” she asked, thrusting her hips. He moaned and she grinned in satisfaction. “Do you want to do it right here?” he whispered in her ear. Nibbling on her lower lip, she considered it, but only for a moment. “Guess not,” she said. She kept her legs wrapped around his waist, though. From somewhere behind them, she heard a click and whine. Glancing around, heart spazzing in her chest, she swore she saw the bush across the street shudder. Blinking, she watched it for a moment. The sidewalk tilted up at her, and the bush remained still. The only sound she heard was Koty’s soft, slow breathing next to her. She turned back to him. “I saw a motel,” Koty said. “We could get a room.” She cocked her head at Koty. “Don’t you think they’ll miss us?” “I just need an hour or two,” he said, the same rogue glint in his eyes returning. She opened her mouth to argue that an hour was too long. He nibbled at her jawline, though, and she relaxed into his arms again. Relenting, she moaned an “okay.” In an instant, her feet were back on the ground. Koty’s warm hand gripped hers and he led her in the direction of the hotel. She let him pull her along, the alcohol flushing through her. Her skin tingled and, even though the sidewalk occasionally tilted up at her, she felt as if she were floating. She could hear her boots click on the ground, but couldn’t feel much of her legs. A smile washed over her lips, curving through her head and stretching through her body. She glided along, a girl floating on a cloud through the dark street. The skin that touched Koty’s crackled and sizzled. Distantly, she felt heavy blackness creeping over her, threatening to numb her. She bit down on her tongue to stay alert, but she felt her body giving out. It wouldn’t be long before she sank into dreamless sleep. Perhaps it was for the best that Koty was getting them a room, she surmised. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just disappear for a while. The motel appeared as they rounded another corner. She had never heard of Jerry’s Lodge. The sign that rose above the lot buzzed with electricity. Half of it was unlit. Few cars occupied the parking lot. Shadows shrouded the doors that lined the balcony. She eyed the building dubiously before Koty pulled her into the lobby. She sank into a plastic chair as he stepped up to the counter. Resting her elbow on its arm, she tucked her chin into her hand and tried to look alert. Koty had to know she had a drink. He would have tasted it when he kissed her. She didn’t want him to know just how annihilated she was, though. She hadn’t meant to get so drunk. She frowned, trying to remember how many shots she had taken. Perhaps, she mused, she had accumulated enough throughout the evening, and her bathroom session had only tipped her over the edge. Giggling, she pressed her hand to her lips. Koty glanced over his shoulder at her. “What’s so funny?” he asked, his eyes dancing. “Nothing,” she said, forcing composure through her body. “Just looking at your ass.” She blinked, wondering if that was even true. She couldn’t remember any of her tangled thoughts from a moment before. The familiar devilish heat flowed into his eyes. He grinned back at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll have you upstairs real soon.” The man behind the counter cleared his throat. “A king bed, then?” he said, his glance flicking from Jett to Koty. For a moment, recognition flashed through his eyes, but then he slipped his face back into his former bored, slightly embarrassed expression. “Yeah,” Koty said. He fished his wallet out of his back pocket and counted out several twenty-dollar bills. Jett licked her lips, her eyes widening. She rarely had that much cash on her. For a moment, drunken paranoia insisted that someone would mug them on their way back to the tour bus. No one else occupied the lobby, though, and she forced herself to relax, wondering when she had developed so much anxiety. “Come on,” Koty said, holding out a hand to her. She tore her eyes away from the entrance and took his hand. He pulled her to her feet and led her back outside. “Seedy,” she muttered. “We won’t be here long enough for it to matter,” he said, heading toward the opposite end of the building. “All the way down here?” she asked, eyebrows furrowing. If someone mugged them, no one would be around to help. Koty snorted. “Yeah, I guess that guy figured it would be less noise for him to have to hear.” She stopped in her tracks, tilting her head. Then, as his words sank in, she yanked her hand from his and swatted at him. “I do not make that much noise.” He laughed. “No? Then I guess I can sneak into your bunk tonight.” Heat flushed her cheeks. “I’m not that loud.” “The last time I checked out of a room before you, the manager commented on all of the noise. He asked me if my girlfriend was okay.” A smile played on his lips. He pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers. Lifting her, he broke the kiss and carried her the rest of the way. She laughed, wrapping her legs around his waist. He brought her up a short flight of stairs, barely breaking a sweat. She ran her fingers over the chiseled muscles of his arms and shivered. “Hurry,” she purred into his ear. Maybe he wasn’t her boyfriend, but for the time being—at least for the night—he was still hers. She nibbled at his jawline, his stubble grazing her lips. Koty moaned but never dropped her. At the door to their room, he used the card key and pushed the door open. They laughed as they burst into the room. He didn’t bother turning on the lamps. Using the moonlight and the street lights outside, he carried her to the bed. She landed on a surprisingly soft mattress and pulled him down with her. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she locked her lips with his. She kicked off her boots and, letting the warmth coursing through her body carry her away, whispered into his ear what she wanted him to do to her. After, as Koty pressed a kiss to her shoulder, Jett wondered if it were possible to have more than one soul mate. Frowning, she chased the bizarre thought away. Koty pulled her into his arms, planting another kiss on her neck, just below her earlobe. She was glad that he couldn’t see her face. Tears sprang to her eyes. Squirming away, she scooted to the edge of the bed. “Where are you going?” he asked playfully. His fingertips brushed against her skin as she moved even farther out of his reach. “I don’t want the boys getting suspicious,” she said, keeping her tone as neutral as possible. “Suspicious,” Koty repeated, his voice flattening. “Yes,” she said, wincing. She laced her next words with levity. “If they thought I was playing favorites, they might hate me even more.” “Favorites,” he said, his voice low. She sighed. “It’s not like we’re a we.” “Right, we’re not,” he said. His emotionless words chilled her heart. Rubbing her temples, she reminded herself that she had been the one to break things off with him, not the other way around. He probably felt like she was using him. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. “You know that things are complicated for me right now.” “Right,” he said again. Bright light burned through the room. She snapped her eyes shut, yelping. “Watch your eyes,” he said, sarcasm tinging his voice. She opened her eyes and threw him her best glare. “When, exactly, are you going to stop running away from me?” Koty yanked on his jeans, but his eyes never left hers. “I’ve been patient, Jett. I’ve given you space. I’ve played your game. I can only go for so long, here.” He straightened and crossed his arms. Her shoulders slumped. A spontaneous romp had quickly turned into an argument. She didn’t want to argue. Reaching for her own discarded clothing, she avoided his gaze. “Do we really have to do this right now?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light. “Why not?” he asked. He skirted the bed and joined her on her side. Catching her hands in his, he heaved a sigh. “I know things are complicated for you, Jett, but they’re complicated for me, too. I have just as much shit to deal with, but I feel happy when I’m with you. Sort of.” He dropped her hands and ran a hand through his hair. “I feel happy when I’m not chasing after you, when we’re just together—you and me. We.” Resisting the urge to curl her lip at the word, she turned away. She retrieved her shirt from the floor, using getting dressed as an excuse to avoid his question. Chewing on her lip, she tried to come up with a response that didn’t make her the cold bitch that the other men thought she was. “Koty,” she began. He threw his hands up in frustration. “Here it comes. You’re going to smack me down again.” A rueful laugh tumbled from his lips. “Let me save you the effort. We’re done.” He grabbed his wallet from the nightstand, tucked it into his jeans, and left the room. “Dammit,” she said to the empty room. Tugging on her boots, she went after him. “Koty,” she called as he jogged down the stairs. At the bottom, he turned around. The blue eyes that looked up at her were sad. “What?” he asked. Her lips trembled. “I don’t want it to be like this,” she said. He snorted. “That’s it? That’s your idea of an apology?” He sighed. He said nothing else, but he waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. She descended them quickly and joined him. Shivering against the cool night air, she wrapped her arms around himself. There was nothing she could say, she realized. She couldn’t give him what he wanted. Sighing, she watched as her breath turned into a frosty puff. As they rounded a corner, she heard the unmistakable click of a camera. Skidding on her heels, she nearly collided with a young man with a shaggy mop of brown hair. He lowered the camera he held, exposing a face riddled with acne. A guilty expression slid across his face. As she opened her mouth to ask him what he was doing, he turned and broke into a run. Swearing, she ran after him. Feet pounded behind her, and she realized Koty was chasing him, too. She pushed herself harder, determined to tackle the would-be photographer before Koty could reach him. She needed to prove that she could take care of herself. Stretching out her arm, her fingers grazed the youth’s jacket but closed on empty air. He didn’t even glance back at her. He moved farther out of reach, darted across the street, and hopped over a fence. As she neared the curb, a truck barreled down the road. She stopped fast, teetering on the edge of the sidewalk. Koty froze next to her, breathing heavily. They watched as the youth disappeared from view. “Not good,” she huffed, planting her hands on her knees. “Was he what I think he was?” Koty asked. Jett nodded. “Probably followed us to the motel.” Swallowing hard, she avoided Koty’s gaze. “I bet that fucking guy at the desk tipped him off, too.” She pressed her teeth together until they hurt. “What do we do?” he asked. “We hope that he doesn’t have enough credentials for anyone to publish his stupid photos,” she said, straightening. Sometimes, it was irritating having to answer his novice questions. Gritting her teeth, she stared in the direction that the photographer ran in. “I almost had him,” she said, swearing again. Balling her hands into fists, she sucked in a deep breath. Her carelessness had finally caught up with her, she surmised, shaking her head. Koty put a hand on her shoulder. “What will happen if his photos do get out?” Scowling, she counted to three in her head before answering him. It wasn’t his fault that he was still so new, but she had assumed that L.A.B. had conditioned and groomed him for the press. At the very least, they should have taught him how to field questions. Remembering the night she had appeared on Late Nite with Maz and Koty had warned her not to drink the coffee, she felt butterflies bloom in her belly. In some ways, he had more grooming than she did—at least, romantically. She took another deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I don’t know,” she said, and took his hand. “Let’s just get back to camp.” Her fingers remained twined with his until they rounded the final corner. She dropped his hand and hooked her thumbs back into the loops of her jeans. Too late, she realized she had forgotten to pick up cigarettes. “Stupid,” she muttered under her breath. Whatever she felt for Koty was making her more than careless. “About time,” Griff remarked as she and Koty joined the other members of Perpetual Smile. “Where did you go, across town?” Todd said. Ignoring them both, Jett went straight to the tour bus. She climbed the stairs and pushed her way inside. All she wanted was a hot shower—and a drink. The bus’s water heater barely produced a cold shower, though, so she would have to settle for a drink. Ducking into the bathroom, she retrieved the bottle of whiskey from under the sink. Then, she climbed into her bunk. She fell asleep with the empty bottle hugged to her chest. She woke to her head pounding. As she rolled over, she spotted the men huddled on the couch, staring down at Griff’s iPad. Eyes widening, she climbed out of her bunk. Sweat dampened her palms as she gripped the rungs. They all looked up at her. Koty, she realized, sat alone, at the other end of the tour bus. He strummed his guitar, but various shades of red colored his face. She froze, clinging to the ladder. “Problem?” she asked. She tried to keep the word light, but her voice cracked. Todd glared at her. Griff held up the iPad. “This explains almost everything,” Matt said. 32 Ash floated down to the toes of her boot, dusting the leather. Jett tapped her cigarette again, watching as ash drifted from the head. She hadn’t taken a drag since first lighting it. She could still taste the menthol. Grimacing, she lifted it to her lips, then lowered her hand. Nothing killed the joy of smoking a cigarette for her faster. Since she still hadn’t bought her own pack, she had to bum one off a teenager passing by their camp. The girl hadn’t even asked for her autograph. She’d just given Jett a pierced-lip sneer, tossed her the cigarette, and walked away. The sixteen-year-old kid was more hardcore than Jett would ever be, she surmised, giving in and taking a drag. Making a face, she blew out the smoke right away. Fighting back the urge to gag, she flicked the cigarette into the street. She sat on a foldable canvas camping chair, a bottle of water tucked into its cup holder. Behind her, little remained of the camp that Perpetual Smile had set up. Within moments of her agreeing to go to rehab the day before, Griff had gotten on the phone with their manager. Perpetual Smile’s tour was put on hold, Matt and Todd rode the bus back to Los Angeles, and Koty took a plane back to New York, she assumed. She swallowed hard, her heart aching at the thought of him. Dark circles shifted beneath her eyes as she blinked tears away. He had left the night before, mumbling quick goodbyes to the other men. He hadn’t said a word to her. She supposed that she deserved it. She spent the night tossing and turning, replaying the day in her mind over and over. The way he had backed up Griff and the others haunted her. He had barely even looked at her. Breaking up with him had been a no-brainer. Twisting the ring that Phillip gave to her, she sighed. Even as she tried to justify her actions, she wished Koty were with her so she could ask him for his advice. She snorted, wondering when she had become so attached. Being with him had made her vulnerable. His betrayal was even worse because she had feelings for him. She refused to explore exactly what those feelings were, but they were there. Even worse than that, she knew he had done the right thing. She twisted the ring again, staring at the way her fingers shook. She felt okay so far, other than the shaking and nausea. She wondered if she would feel worse by the time she got to the treatment center. The woman she had spoken to on the phone the night before advised that she shouldn’t try to stop drinking on her own, but she had no cash left and doubted that Griff would take her to a package store. He sat beside her, in his own camping chair, watching her every move. “I’m not running away,” she said. “You can stop staring at me.” Griff gave her a sheepish grin. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.” Rolling her eyes, she turned her gaze to the cigarette she had tossed. Smoke drifted from it as it burned down. She wished she had kept it. At least then she would have something to do. Her mind kept straying to her problems, her thoughts a song on repeat. Breaking up with Koty had to be the right choice. She leaned back into her chair. The canvas creaked underneath her weight. They came from different worlds, and sooner or later, if she kept seeing him, their relationship would interfere with the band in some way. It hadn’t worked for her and Phillip. It wouldn’t work with Koty, either. Exasperated, she blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. She wished she could stop thinking about Koty. She had bigger problems. The woman in the administrative office at Outlook Shores had assured her that they could set up a payment plan, but she had no idea how she was going to pay for it. They were the only facility for musicians that had a bed open. If she went anywhere else, she would be harassed. Outlook Shores boasted high security and a spa-like, healing environment for what the receptionist referred to as “performing artists.” Jett cringed at the phrase. Performers were not the same thing as musicians. She was sure that Koty had worked hard to learn his dance moves and lip sync in front of a live audience, but pop stars rarely wrote their own songs or did anything else that was remotely artistic. “Nauseous?” Griff asked. She started to nod, then sighed. “Yeah, but it’s not that,” she said. “I mean, it is the alcohol withdrawal, but I have no idea how I’m going to pay for this place.” She let the last string of words come out quickly. She couldn’t believe how broke she was. While laying in her bunk the night before, she had gone through her finances on her phone, scrolling through the banking application she used. Her money was dwindling, and she had no idea when she would next get paid or how much. She couldn’t believe she had gone through her last royalty check so quickly. Griff reached over and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Of course I’m going to worry about it,” she snapped. “I have no money. The label isn’t going to pay for this. Even with a payment plan—” “Chill,” he said. “It’s taken care of.” He squeezed her hand again. She stared at him, her mouth hanging open. “What do you mean?” “Todd and Matt and I chipped in, and pre-paid. You’re all set.” He gave her a grin. “Why?” she asked, her eyebrows furrowed. “I told you yesterday,” Griff said, “that we’re a family. We take care of each other. The guys and I just want you to get better.” Shaking her head in disbelief, she leaned over and gave him a one-armed hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, disentangling himself. He stood and held a hand out to her. “They’re not going to hold that bed forever, though. You need to catch your flight if you want to keep it.” She took his hand and let him lead her to the car he had rented to take her to the airport and then drive himself home. Once buckled in, she rested her head against the cushioned fabric of the seat and watched through the window as their campsite disappeared from view. Closing her eyes, she sighed in content. The treatment facility offered her more than recovery. It would be like starting over. Whatever came next, she would be ready—as ready as she could possibly be, anyway. 33 The subway car blazed past Koty, the whoosh and the rattle of the tracks jarring him out of his thoughts. The tunnel smelled like hot garbage. Wrinkling his nose, he hurried out and up, into the slightly fresher air of the city above ground. At the top of the steps, he paused. No body guard trailed him. No fans swarmed him. People rushed by him, barely noticing his presence. Without the fanfare of his usual entourage, he had stopped being Koty Jackson, the face of ESX. Wearing a Killer Be Killed T-shirt and worn jeans, he was just Koty, blending in easily with the rest of the city. He wasn’t even sure who he was anymore. The Perpetual Smile tour was canceled, at least temporarily. Without a tour, they weren’t much of a band. Without a band, he wasn’t much of a musician. He spent the first day after leaving Jett and the others wandering his SoHo apartment. Video games he had yet to open remained untouched. The closest he came was holding his console controller in his hand. He tried recording a song he wrote during the flight home, but it felt forced. Part of him worried that, if Perpetual Smile did disband, he wouldn’t have any kind of career left. Most of him thought about Jett. Bored and tired of pacing the loft, he used the morning to burn off his nervous energy. The shops and galleries did little to ease his anxiety, though. His thoughts swirled around and around his head. Even when his lawyer called to confirm his decision to settle with L.A.B., his mind strayed from the conversation when a woman slightly resembling Jett walked by. Still standing at the top of the subway entrance, he moved to the side as a family of seven exited. Five children trailed a man and woman holding hands. Koty watched them as they trotted down the sidewalk, wrapped in a bubble of happiness. Thinking of Jett the last time he saw her, he hoped she had begun to find her own peace at Outlook Shores. Sighing, he moved away from the subway station, heading back toward his loft. Weaving along sidewalks painted with sun-baked gum and three-dimensional chalk art, he shoved his hands into his pockets and tried to be swept away by the energy of the city. He needed to let go. Jett made it clear that she didn’t want him in her life. His apartment building rose into view, a concrete and brick ode to ‘80s design. As he strolled around the corner, his phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it free, his eyebrows rising as he read the name on the caller ID. “Yeah,” he said, pressing his phone to his ear. His heart pounded in his chest. “L.A.B. has agreed to settle,” his lawyer said. They were five simple words, but Koty’s heart lurched. He said “Okay,” they discussed a few more formalities, and he practically floated into his building. Relief flooded through him. His separation from ESX wouldn’t be the drawn-out process he had feared. An ear to ear grin stretched across his face. Opening his mailbox, he peered inside. A single flyer inviting him to a gallery occupied the small metal box. He tucked it into his back pocket and boarded the elevator. He rode alone. When it opened onto his floor, he loped toward his loft, whistling as he unlocked his door. Only the soft hiss of the vents greeted him. If Perpetual Smile never got back together, he decided, he would get a cat or maybe even a dog to keep him company. Coming home to an empty place was depressing. He wondered if things were different, if Jett would be waiting for him. Koty snorted. Jett would have taken a walk with him. If she were to move in with him, it would take her less than a week to find all of the good galleries and music spots. He had no idea whether she was neat or messy, or if she had an eye for home decor, though. Glancing through his apartment, he eyed his sparse, bachelor-style furniture. The loft could definitely use a woman’s touch. Sinking into his couch, he gazed up at the ceiling. For New York, his building was way too quiet. He missed the fast pace of life on tour. He missed waking up and running out for coffee, stealing kisses halfway between the bus and Starbucks. Sighing, he curled his hand into a fist. If he hadn’t ganged up on her, things would probably be okay between them. He wished he could call her and see how her detox program was going. Even if she could accept calls, though, she probably wouldn’t take his. His phone still in his hand, he scrolled through his contacts. Swallowing his pride, he stopped at Dev’s number and pressed the screen. He needed someone to talk to, even if he was no longer part of ESX. The ringing echoed in his ears, and then finally Dev picked up. “Koty,” he said, surprised. “I’m the ghost of pop stars past,” Koty said, laughing. Dev laughed, too. “What’s up?” Without hesitating, Koty told Dev everything. “So now she hates me,” he finished. “Wow,” Dev said. “You just swan dove right into the rock star life, huh?” Koty nodded to himself. The last few weeks felt like they were straight out of a VH1 documentary. If Perpetual Smile broke up, it would just be the icing on the TV ratings cake. “I need advice from someone who knows what it’s like to have a functional relationship,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t call what I have with Paulie functional,” Dev quipped. “It’s only cool to be gay in select places.” Koty wondered if Dev had re-signed or resigned. “You’re still miles ahead of me,” he said. “At least Paulie still wants to be seen in public with you.” “I didn’t want to mention those pictures,” Dev said, “but now that you brought them up, let me just say damn. I’ve always wanted to be chased by paparazzi.” Snorting, Koty got up from the couch. He paced the room, preparing himself for what he wanted to ask. “I’ve had lots of girlfriends,” he said. “None recently, but I’m not new. How do you know if you’re in love, though?” “I knew I loved Paulie,” Dev said, “when I had to fly to Los Angeles and he stayed in Boston.” “You’re from Boston?” Koty asked. He tried to remember if he had ever noticed that Dev had a Boston accent. “Born and raised. I hired a speech therapist to help me sound neutral. It still pops out now and then, like when I say car.” He giggled. “I felt as if I had been magnetically separated from the rest of myself. If I just let myself, I would get pulled right back to him.” “Huh.” Koty stopped at his breakfast bar. He tried to decide whether he felt like he gravitated toward Jett. Furrowing his brow, he twisted his lips to the side. He felt pretty stupid. “I think I love her. I just don’t know. Maybe it’s puppy love or whatever.” “Probably not,” Dev said. “In my experience, people who confuse love with infatuation aren’t even aware of it. They just think they’re in love.” “Huh,” Koty said again. He leaned on the granite counter and stared across the room. The refrigerator, void of photos, stared back at him. “It’s funny,” he said to himself more than to Dev. “I have a refrigerator that can make ice and stores your grocery list in a little computer. I can fly out to Florida for the day in the middle of winter if I’m sick of the snow. Even if Perpetual Smile breaks up, I’ll still make royalties from ESX for the rest of my life—I think.” He would have to ask his lawyer about that, he noted. “But you feel empty,” Dev said. “I guess this is what empty feels like.” Koty drummed his fingers on the counter. “I’ve never felt that before, either.” Dev giggled. “Yeah, you’ve got it bad.” Wincing, Koty straightened from the island. “What do I do?” Jett was across the country. The only chance he had was if Perpetual Smile picked up the rest of their tour. Even if she did the full five days of detox, she would still need to do some outpatient, from what he could glean from Outlook. He had no idea when the tour would resume. Simon 1056’s people had simply told him that they would be in touch. “It’s tricky,” Dev said, “but I would try calling her. The worst that could happen is she presses the ‘fuck you’ button.” “True,” Koty said. Launching back into his route back and forth from the couch to the bed in the corner of the loft, he changed the subject. “So how are things with ESX? Did you re-sign yet?” Dev hesitated, and Koty stopped pacing. “About that,” Dev said. “So I’m not really good at this legal stuff.” “Neither am I,” Koty prodded. “But from what I hear, L.A.B. was hoping that Simon 1056 would settle, too. Since, you know, you did.” He cleared his throat. “But your label flat out told L.A.B. that they would rather go under than settle. Simon 1056 is going head on with us. Well, L.A.B., anyway. I just hired my own lawyer. I want to separate but also want to continue earning royalties. You might want to check on your agreement, by the way. You might not be entitled.” Koty sat on the coffee table. His mind reeled. The last thing he cared about was earning royalties from ESX. He didn’t know much about the music business, but things couldn’t end well if Simon 1056 planned on going up against L.A.B. The two labels were from two very different worlds. L.A.B. had lawyers for their lawyers’ lawyers. “This can’t be good,” he said. “Not for Perpetual Smile,” Dev agreed. 34 Jett sat on her bed, kicking her bare feet against the empty air beneath the mattress. She was pretty sure that Outlook Shores had inherited the beds from a prison. The mattress sagged and springs poked at her ribs—when she did sleep. She was two days in and hadn’t slept more than an hour. Between her roommate and the anxious waking dreams that nibbled at her throughout the day, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be sleeping for the remainder of her stay. The rehabilitation facility was a complete lie. Its brochures bragged a lake that was actually a scummy pond. As soon as she arrived, she had been told to not even dip a toe in the water, never mind swim. Her visions of water therapy evaporated immediately. There wasn’t even a pool. Her cabin was just a room that branched off a long hall. It fit her bed, her roommate’s, and not much else. The floor was concrete, thinly veiled by a threadbare carpet. It had one window, a small square divided by thick metal bars. The wolf therapy, which she had most looked forward to, was just an old, blind dog that visited the facility once a week. It may have been part Husky, but it looked like it was mostly blind. When she tried to call it over to her, it walked into a wall, whimpered, and curled up on the floor in defeat. Most depressing of all, though, were the delirium tremens. She had always thought they were exaggerated pieces of TV drama, until she had her first hallucination. They gave her Ativan for her anxiety and to prevent seizures, the idea of which only made her freak out more. The only part of the brochures that wasn’t a lie was the yoga sessions, but she was too afraid to leave her bed. Tightening her grip on the sheets, she stared at a spot on the wall across from her. Zia, her roommate, was at yoga for the moment. Jett almost wished she wasn’t alone. Black worms oozed up the wall, writhing and squirming. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Cold sweat dripped down her spine. Her eyes snapped shut and she tried to calm her breathing, but her chest fluttered. Her lips parted and she tried to call out for a nurse, but an iron fist gripped her vocal cords. Her lungs struggled for air and she rolled onto her side, curled up on the bed, panting. Then a needle slid into her arm. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. “Try to calm down,” a male voice whispered. The human voice soothed her only a little. She waited for the warmth of fingers through her hair. Nothing happened. Blood pounded in her ears and panic pricked at her. “Phillip?” Jett let her eyes open only enough to see who else occupied the room. One of the male nurses stood next to her bed, an empty syringe in his hand. He looked down at her. “Just breathe,” he told her. Sucking air through her mouth, she inhaled slowly. Her mind fluttered, slamming itself against imaginary walls. She took another breath. Slowly, the Ativan worked its way through her system. Her heartbeat slowed. She opened her eyes all the way and exhaled a sigh. The thoughts swirling in her head stopped completely, turning her mind into a calm, motionless puddle. She blinked at the nurse. He looked nothing like Phillip. He didn’t even sound like him. Glancing at the wall, she tried to remember what she had been so afraid of. “Just rest,” the nurse said, walking out of the room. She couldn’t. Time dripped by. She watched the sunlight move across the room. She floated, fatigue tugging at her but the waking dreams kept her too alert to sleep. When her eyelids drifted shut, she found herself curled up in a shower, swirling black shapes reaching out for her, dying fetuses stretched across the tile. Her eyes opened and she moaned. Holding her eyes wide, she forced her gaze to a spot on the carpet. “You look fucked up,” her roommate, Zia, said. Jett’s gaze snapped to the girl standing in the doorway. Tattoos covered her arms and neck. Quotes across her skin jumped out at Jett, but she couldn’t make sense of them. They were written in English, but they said things like backwards into the sky and dribble pocked juice. She frowned. Trying to read Zia’s tattoos always gave her a headache. She focused her gaze on Zia’s face instead. Tiny silver hoops pierced the skin of her nostrils, eyebrows, and lips. Zia’s lips looked as if they had been stitched shut with metal thread. The skin beneath the piercings was cracked and blistered. Jett struggled not to grimace. She had no right to judge the girl. Most of the musicians in her profession had just as many piercings, and they were good people. “You should’ve come to yoga,” Zia continued. “It’d probably do you some good.” She crossed the room and sat on her own bunk. Without blinking, she pulled off her sweat-soaked yoga clothing. She sat naked on her bed, exposing even more tattoos and a scarred nipple. Jett stared. Zia laughed. Dragging her eyes away from the girl, Jett changed the subject. “This isn’t your first time here, huh?” “Nope,” Zia said, as proud as someone receiving her fourth or fifth Master’s degree. “How long have you been drinking?” Jett winced at how weak her voice sounded. Clearing her throat, she struggled into a sitting position. Zia laughed. “Oh, I don’t have a drinking problem,” she said, pulling on a tank top so thin, Jett could still see her areolas. She sat cross-legged. Jett tried not to vomit. “You don’t?” she asked, an eyebrow arching. “Nah,” Zia said. “I just let my parents think I do so I can get the fuck out of that house once in a while.” She lifted her arm, exposing four thick scars with a fifth slashed across them—a tally. “This’s my sixth time. You get used to its quirks after a while. It’s sure as fuck better than letting my stepfather feel me up.” Jett blinked. “Seriously?” she blurted. “Call the cops. Put that scumbag in jail!” Zia shrugged. “I kinda like it. I’m sick of getting abortions, though.” Jett’s mouth dropped open. “How old are you?” “Eighteen.” Zia stood and tugged on a pair of leggings. Groaning, Jett looked up at the ceiling. She had known Outlook Shores was for adults up to thirty years old, but she hadn’t expected them to bunk her with someone so much younger than her. “I probably have a sex addiction,” Zia continued, “and I like to do coke every so often, so it’s not a complete waste.” She trotted toward the door. “Therapy time. See you later.” Watching her leave, Jett felt her stomach churn. She hadn’t exactly been open to recovery in the past, but the last thing she needed was someone who not only didn’t need help, but was a walking parody of those who did. Her lip curled. As soon as she got out of Outlook, she decided, she was never going back. On the fourth day, the hallucinations stopped. She even took a nap. She woke up feeling refreshed and able to go to therapy without vomiting on herself or having a panic attack. The room that Outlook held therapy sessions in was on the opposite end of the property. Jett padded down to the room, escorted by the same male nurse who kept giving her Ativan. The syringes had been replaced by little paper cups. She swallowed the tiny pills with large gulps of mineral water that was probably just well water. Since she couldn’t remember much about the last few days, she had no idea what to expect. She knew the therapy sessions were groups, not solo. She also vaguely remembered that they were run by a Brad Pitt lookalike. “Unless I hallucinated that, too,” she said aloud. The nurse raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing. Canvases painted blue and striped with quotes in loopy handwriting lined the walls. Wicker chairs occupied the center of the room in a circle. Most of the chairs were taken. Jett took the one closest to the door, in case she had to get out quickly. She snorted, hoping the rest of her life wouldn’t revolve around panic attacks. She had overheard some of the regulars say that they started drinking again just to stop feeling so crappy. “Hello everyone,” a man who did not even remotely look like Brad Pitt said. He stood at the head of the circle. Long silky blue robes hung from his athletic frame, embroidered with tiny leaves. The entire room, it seemed, had been balanced carefully with greens and blues. “So. In a couple days, you’ll be back out in the world.” Jett groaned. If therapy meant an hour of stating the obvious, she could think of better things to do. Even yoga by the dirty little pond didn’t sound so bad, compared to sharing her feelings with strangers. “Some of you might go to AA, some of you might even start drinking again,” the man said. She assumed he was their therapist. A few people chuckled nervously. “I want to give you some real skills that you can use every day that will hopefully keep you on the path to recovery.” If the not Brad Pitt started talking about God, Jett surmised, she was done. “Close your eyes,” he said. Jett eyed him. A golden brown California tan tinged his exposed skin. He watched the room with calm blue eyes, eyes that reminded her, with a twinge, of Koty. He closed his eyes. She kept watching him, her own eyes narrowed. “Take a long, slow, deep breath,” he instructed, dropping his voice. It rumbled, silky and smooth in his throat. He inhaled through his nose. “Exhale slowly, so slowly you can feel the air moving through you,” he said, letting his breath out. She snorted softly, and the woman sitting on her right stirred. The woman cracked an eye open and gave Jett a one-lensed glare. Ignoring the urge to stick out her tongue or get up and walk out, Jett turned away from the woman. “Take another relaxing breath,” the therapist said, “and let it out slowly.” He demonstrated, exaggerating the sound of the air whooshing through his body. “Now, take one more long, slow, comfortable breath—and let it out.” The sound of a dozen people breathing in unison slowly relaxed Jett. It reminded her of the sound of waves lapping at the ocean shore. Her shoulders dropped and the fight drained out of her. “Bring your attention,” the instructor said, his eyes still closed, “to your body. How does it feel? Move your attention to the top of your head, down to your jaw, into your neck and shoulders.” His voice dropped lower still, soothing, stroking the part of her brain that controlled how relaxed she felt. Though her shoulders still felt tense, focusing on the muscles dropped the constriction an iota. Surprised, she blinked. Her eyebrows twitched. Maybe the exercise wasn’t complete bullshit, she mused. She let the lids of her eyes flutter closed. Tuning all of her energy into his voice, she let his words carry her away. Slowly, the rest of her body relaxed. A warm tingling trickled through her, and she sighed in content, her worries dissipating. The second he stopped speaking, though, her heart rate picked up again and her anxieties swirled through her. Her concentration plummeted like a dropped brick of clay, crashing into concrete and shattering. “You can open your eyes now, if you like,” he told the group. Eyelids fluttering open, she missed the feeling already. It was unlike any high she had ever experienced. She could spend the rest of her life chasing it, she mused as the group sharing part of the session began. Her thoughts drifted and she barely heard a word that anyone spoke. Every time the counselor spoke, her eyes snapped to his face, ears perked for any insight he might give them into the relaxing experience. He only asked questions about each person’s problems, though, and Jett finally stopped listening completely. When the session was over, she fiddled with the laces of her sneakers until everyone else filed out. Hopping up, she approached the therapist, her stomach twisting into knots. Clearing her throat, she gave him a hesitant smile. His eyebrows lifted, and he smiled in return. “I think this is the first time we’ve met,” he said, holding out a hand. “I’m Dom.” She shook his hand. “Jett.” “You didn’t share anything today,” Dom said, his smile still bright. Lifting her shoulders, she said, “There isn’t much to share.” “No?” He quirked an eyebrow at her. Taking a deep breath, she changed the subject. “What was that, at the beginning?” His smile brightened, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “That was nice, huh?” Jett nodded. “It was pretty relaxing.” “How often do you get to relax?” Dom asked, studying her face. She gritted her teeth. She should have just retreated to her room. Now he was going to psycho-analyze her. “I’m a musician,” she said, lifting a hand. “Do you tour a lot?” He sat down on a cushion. He motioned for her to sit next to him. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she crossed her arms and remained standing. “I just want to know what that was. How do I do it?” Lips twisting, heat flushing her face, she tried not to squirm. Whatever it had been, it was probably some weird New Age thing that she wouldn’t want anyone catching her doing, anyway. “We call it Meditation-Based Stress Therapy,” Dom said, “but it comes from the Buddhist practice of insight meditation.” Her nose crinkled involuntarily. “Religious stuff,” she said, nodding. That was worse than New Age. Taking a step back, she lifted a hand in a wave. “Wait,” Dom said. “It’s not really religious. Buddhism isn’t based on deity worship, though many Buddhists also believe in some kind of higher power.” Tucking his knees into his chest, he stood up. Eyebrows knitting dubiously, she eyed him. “So what is it, then?” “It’s more of a practice, a lifestyle. It’s more about becoming a better person and being good to other people so that you can live a happy life.” Dom jerked a thumb toward a statue of a man sitting in quiet, peaceful thought. “The Buddha was deeply troubled by the suffering that humans endure. He wanted to find a way to deal with that.” Jett glanced at the statue. It looked more feminine than masculine. “Suffering,” she repeated. “In Buddhism, the whole point of practice is to alleviate suffering,” the counselor said. He held out a hand to her. “What are you suffering from?” Her thoughts instantly flashed to Phillip, to the band, and then to Koty. “Life is killing me,” she joked, referring to an old Type O Negative song. “It’s killing all of us,” he quipped back, flashing her a grin. She smiled. “So how do I do it?” She returned to the cushions and sat down, folding her legs. Dom sat across from her. “There are several schools of Buddhism,” he said. “Meditation-Based Stress Therapy borrows a lot from the Vipassana school. In its simplest form, it’s just focusing on what is happening right here and now. Your breath, for example.” He touched her hand. “I’ll show you. Close your eyes.” She closed them. The last days of her detoxification passed quickly. She almost wished she could stay longer. One look at her roommate reminded her that she never wanted to return. On her last day, while she waited for Griff to pick her up, she sat outside by the pond. Sunlight warmed her face, and the calls of ducks lulled her into a deeper state of relaxation. She still couldn’t maintain her focus for more than a few minutes. Her mind quickly grew bored of measuring her breaths and easily strayed. She felt less wound up, though, and hoped that she at least had a start. According to Dom, she was doing very well for a new student. “Even if you don’t want to find an Meditation-Based Stress Therapy program or study Buddhism,” he told her during their last session, “you can search for insight meditation groups in your area, or continue on your own.” Opening her eyes, she decided that she would. Humming, she slowly pieced together a new rhythm. A smile danced on her lips. Maybe Perpetual Smile could get back into the studio. She definitely had a lot of material for new songs. The door leading out to the yard opened. She ignored it. Most of the other residents usually passed through that door dozens of times while she sat outside. She had quickly learned to stop glancing at the door every time it opened. It only broke her concentration. She kept humming, adding nonsense words to the mix. A song was definitely taking form. Her grin widened. Repeating it, she worked on committing it to memory. Footsteps tapped along the path leading to the pond. Jett still didn’t look up. She hummed the melody again. With nothing to write it down or record with, she needed to keep singing it until Griff arrived with her phone. Its recording app was decent. “Hey,” came a familiar voice from beside her. Dropping the melody, her lips parted, her eyes widening in surprise. Slowly, she turned toward the sound of the voice. Her own voice caught in her throat. “You,” she managed, tears pooling in her eyes. “Me.” Koty stood with his hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie. His lips flattened into a hesitant smile, curled only at the edges of his mouth. He probably expected her to yell at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked, clambering to her feet. She took a step toward him, then stopped, her arms falling limply at her sides. If she ran into his arms, she would only look desperate, or confuse him further. She had broken up with him. She needed to stop emotionally destroying the people around her. His smile disappeared. “I have some news,” he said. “Okay.” Her heart pounded in her chest as she thought of the possibilities. Perhaps he had come to tell her that something had happened to Griff. Biting her lip, she chastised herself. She needed to think more positively. Maybe he came to tell her that he wasn’t going to disappear out of her life that easily. Fat chance, she mused. Desperate, last-ditch romantic efforts only happened in the movies. Something big had happened. Her eyes searched his face for a hint, anything to cushion the blow that she knew was coming. “Simon 1056 lost,” he said. Her eyebrows shot up. “They’re going under.” He lifted a hand. “L.A.B. took everything they had.” “Damn,” she breathed. Relief swept through her. No one had died. She wrapped her arms around herself. She needed to stop jumping to the worst possible outcome. “There’s more,” Koty said. “Dammit,” she said, lips twisting to the side. He took a deep breath. “Simon 1056 has, um, dropped us.” Her eyes widened. Blood rushed through her ears. “What?” Koty ran a hand through his hair. “The label dropped Perpetual Smile,” he said. Her knees buckled. She stared at him. It couldn’t be true. She searched his face for any hint of a joke, but no smile lit his features. “What?” she asked again. He grimaced. “They dropped us,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Jett stared at him, the words circling around her head, slamming into each other. It had to be a joke. Her mouth hung open in a small O. Lips twitching, she tried to find words. It couldn’t be true. Perpetual Smile was Simon 1056’s proverbial goose. Every one of their albums sold well. It didn’t make any sense for them to drop the band that made them the most money. “Why?” she finally choked out. “They’re folding,” Koty said. He reached out to her, then jerked his hand back awkwardly. “They just released a press release saying they’re going out of business.” She could only blink at him. With their record label gone, all of their albums would go out of print. There would be no more royalty checks. Nibbling on her lower lip, her mind raced. Perpetual Smile would regain all of the rights to their music, though. She nodded. It would be okay. Lifting a finger, she said, “We can just re-release everything, do it indie or whatever. Put stuff on iTunes or something. It’ll be okay. I just started writing a new song. We can just start recording right away.” She smiled, her shoulders relaxing. Meditation was helping her, she realized. Koty cleared his throat. He shifted uncomfortably. “What?” she asked, dread rolling over her again. “There’s something else,” he said, tensing. “The guys decided—well, they all quit.” The words tumbled out of him, a Band Aid ripping off. She flinched. Her knees buckled. “What?” She blinked at him. Koty nodded. “They kind of said it was for the best.” “Even Griff?” she nearly screamed at him. Griff had been there for her through everything. Koty only nodded. Clutching her head, she stared down at her feet. The ground tilted up at her. She couldn’t believe it. Griff had been the one to convince her to go to rehab. Griff had been right by her side when she lost Phillip. It didn’t make sense for him to suddenly walk away from her and the band. A small pile of goose shit rested near one of her feet. Her lips trembled. The urge for a drink slammed into her. She didn’t even have any cigarettes. She sucked in a long, slow breath. Still staring at the pile of feces, she shook her head. Perpetual Smile had been all she had left. 35 Koty’s shoulders dropped. His fingers twitched at his sides. He had no idea how to comfort her. Since she had broken up with him, he couldn’t just sweep her into a hug. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I figured you should hear it right away, though.” Slowly, she raised her head. “Thank you,” she whispered. He shrugged. “Nothing to thank me for.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I just didn’t want you to find out from someone else.” “You came all this way,” she said, interrupting him. He bent down and plucked her bag from the grass. Gesturing to the exit, he said nothing. He wanted to tell her that he would do anything for her, but that would only scare her away. Shoulders sagging even lower as they left the treatment center, he realized that they were both alone in the world. Anger flared in his chest. The other men should have told her themselves. He had heard the news from his agent. Griff and the others would probably never bother contacting Jett, despite how much they claimed to care about her. He shook his head. They walked to his rental car in silence. He searched for the words to keep her around. While he planned on keeping in touch with Dev, it wouldn’t be the same. Koty would probably never see him again, and he couldn’t blame Dev for moving on with his life. He couldn’t really blame Jett for moving on with hers, either. Sighing, he pressed the unlock button. He opened her door for her and she slid in. After handing her bag to her, he walked around to the driver’s side. Clutching the keys in his hand, he considered his options. Without Perpetual Smile, there was nothing left to hold them together. He sighed. The best thing was to just let her go. A soft click brought him back to the present. Jett snapped her seatbelt into place. He inserted the key and turned the engine over. Steeling himself, he pulled away from the curb. “Where do you want me to bring you?” he asked. Once he dropped her off at her destination, he resolved, he would just walk away. His heart twisted at the thought of never seeing her again. “Why did you come here?” she asked, surprising him. Still in the parking lot, he slowed. Pressing the brake down all the way, he turned to look at her. His heart pounded in his chest. “You could have just walked away, too,” she continued. “I mean, especially after the way I treated you.” Her eyes searched his. No hate flamed in them. He decided to take a gamble. “I could never walk away from you, Jett. Not unless you want me to.” She gazed at him, as if waiting. He took that as a sign to continue. Taking a deep breath, he let it out. “You don’t have to say anything,” he said, “and you don’t ever have to see me again, if you don’t want to.” Looking her straight in the eye, he finished, taking the plunge. “But I love you, Jett Costa.” Palms damp, he waited for her response. Even if she rejected him, it was better than spending the rest of his life wondering what if. Her eyes were soft, though, and she reached out to squeeze his hand. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” she said, “if you’re not with me.” Koty laced his fingers with hers. “I’m right here,” he said. “I always have been.” She nodded. “Call me crazy,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze, “but I have an idea.” Lifting an eyebrow at her, he eased his foot off of the brake. He wanted to get them both away from the facility as soon as possible. Not only was it full of bittersweet memories, but he had developed a new wariness of hanging out anywhere in public for too long. His eyes scanned the parking lot for any would-be photographers. “I think we should start over,” Jett said, yanking him out of his reverie. His heart raced in his chest. Maybe he hadn’t been stupid to tell her how he felt. Maybe those words were exactly what she needed to hear, and they could finally move on. “You do?” he asked as he pulled out of the rehabilitation facility’s parking lot. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her cheeks flush. A smile spread across her lips. Her eyes sparkled. “Let’s go back to square one. Let’s start a new band.” His heart sank as he headed toward the highway. “I don’t know,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment. “Hear me out,” she said, pulling her hand from his. “We’ve got something, you and I. When we’re on stage, I can feel it. The guys were starting to settle down, anyway. Perpetual Smile probably wouldn’t have lasted another five years.” She spoke quickly, her hands moving as she talked. “You and I can start all over, build a new band from the ground up.” Her smile grew until the corners of her eyes crinkled. Warmth buzzed through Koty as her excitement thrummed through him. “Okay,” he said. “It does sound fun.” Given time, they might even be able to build a relationship, he mused. “I even already have a name for it,” she said, twisting in her seat. She practically bounced with giddiness. “Oh yeah?” he asked, smiling. “What is it?” Lifting her chin, her smile brighter than ever, Jett said, “South of Forever.” Epilogue Setting the last box down, Jett brushed her hair back from her face. She glanced around what would be Koty’s and her living room. Even though the condo had two very separate bedrooms, she still blushed at the thought of sharing space with him. Despite Koty’s confession six months earlier, they were in no rush. She wished things had gone differently between them. Aside from a few stolen kisses now and then, things were mostly platonic between them. It was probably for the best, but she wondered. Perhaps, given more time, their new friendship could very well develop into more. They had other things to worry about, though. Koty ambled out of their downstairs bathroom. “Is that the last one?” he asked, pointing to the box. She nodded. “Do you know what today is?” He cocked his head to the side, pretending to think. Snapping his fingers, he said, “Our first day in Boston?” She rolled her eyes. “That too, but what else?” “The first day of the rest of our lives?” He crossed the room until he stood just in front of her, a goofy grin wiggling on his lips. “You’re killing me,” she said. He wrapped his arms around her, gathering her into a loose hug. “Congratulations,” he whispered against her hair. A thrill rushed through her. Her heart slammed in her chest. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Should we get going now?” she asked. Heat flushed his cheeks. “Probably,” he said, releasing her. He clasped her hand, though, and they walked out of the condo together. He locked the door behind them, motioned for her to go ahead, and twirled her as they both moved toward the car parked out front. Laughing, she let go of his hand and got into the car. “We don’t want to be late.” He slid into the driver’s side. “They can hang out a little,” he said, but turned the car on. She watched through her window as they drove through SoWa, Boston’s art district, named for its position near Washington Street. People strolled through the cobblestone streets, ambling in and out of galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. An early spring chill hung in the air, the leaves on the trees already beginning to bud. Nodding to herself, she smiled. They couldn’t have picked a better place than Boston. Koty drove in silence, but there was no need for words. The excitement thrumming through the small vehicle spoke volumes. He parallel parked in front of a brick building with a bright coral awning and they jumped out almost at the same time. Taking the steps two at a time, they ran up the stairs. Musicians crowded the small studio. Jett and Koty weaved through the hopeful group and took their seats at a long folding table. She felt like a panel member on a live talent contest. Winking at him, Jett addressed the waiting crowd. “We’ll go in order of signup,” she said. “First one, bassist. Laine Kingston.” Grinning, she nodded at the young woman who trotted up to the stage. “Show me what you’ve got.” She leaned back in her seat, crossed her legs, and watched as the next chapter of their lives began. Special Offer: Diving Into Him The South of Forever series continues with Diving Into Him, now available. Keep reading for a sneak peek! You can grab a FREE ebook copy, too. Click here! Diving Into Him: Chapter 1 Jett Costa let her eyes open slowly. Gray light stung her retinas. Squinting against the haze, she glanced at the alarm clock on her nightstand and yawned as she read the time. It was only seven in the morning. She should still be sleeping. Groaning, she turned onto her stomach and let herself sink back into the velvety darkness behind her eyes as she tried to remember what she had been dreaming before she woke up. Maybe she’d been having a sexy dream. She snorted. Dreams were the closest she had come to having sex in the last three months. Part of her had hoped that, even though she and Koty had separate bedrooms, the condo they shared would become some kind of sex haven when they moved in together. Gripping her pillow, she sighed. She was pathetic. She needed to remember that they were better off keeping things platonic. They had way too much work to do to waste time on each other. The band would never take off if they continued going back and forth. Still, sometimes she wished that he would come into her bedroom and crawl into bed with her. Not so long ago, he had pressed his lips to hers in a dark tour bus, back when things were less complicated—before she ruined her entire life. She had no job. If listening to wannabe musicians carve out her eardrums all day counted as a job, she was in big trouble. She was probably wasting her time—and Koty’s, not to mention his money. They'd been holding auditions for their new band for weeks. Maybe it was time to call it off. She could probably find a job as a music teacher somewhere or, at the very least, a cashier at a record store. Separating for good would probably be the best thing for both her and Koty, she surmised. She rolled onto her side and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. There was one missed call. Her eyes widened as she read the name on the display. Her heart beat frantically in her chest. She wanted to shut the ringer off and go back to sleep. Knocking herself out would require more Benadryl, though, and it was already 7:10. She wondered where the time was going. Nibbling on her lower lip, she stared at the phone, unable to believe what she was seeing. It seemed impossible. She hadn’t spoken to Griff in almost five months. He was a part of her old life, and she preferred that it stayed that way. Besides, there was no reason for him to call her—unless he was apologizing for what had happened all those months ago when Perpetual Smile broke up. She sat up at the thought. Griff had never been slow to admit when he was wrong. It didn’t make sense for him to wait so long to say that he was sorry for what he did. There had to be another reason for him to call. As she toyed with the idea of calling him back, her phone went off in her hands. Jumping, she nearly dropped it. Griff’s name appeared on the screen. Hands shaking, she accepted the call and pressed the phone to her ear. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. She had no idea how to answer. Neither a casual “Hey” nor a professional “Jett Costa” seemed right. She sat cross-legged on her bed, mouth hanging open. “Hello?” Griff said into her ear. He sounded confused. “Anyone there?” Sirens blared in the background, nearly drowning him out. Jett frowned, wondering where he was. “Yeah,” she said, voice thick with emotion and sleep. “Jett.” He paused as the sirens flared again. When they died down, he wasted no time on pleasantries. “You’ve really fucked up this time.” Her eyebrows shot up. Even five months earlier, when she’d deserved it, he had never spoken to her like that. “Excuse me?” She lifted the phone from her ear, double checking the name on the caller ID. “You heard me.” More sirens whizzed by wherever he was. He raised his voice over the noise. “Either you’re crazy, or there’s something you haven’t told me.” Jett blinked. “What are you talking about, Griff?” She glanced at the time again. It was too early for him to be drunk or stoned. Besides, it wasn’t like him to pick a fight. “Don’t play stupid,” he said. She scowled. “Griff, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. Why don’t you just tell me?” “I got an interesting phone call from a guy named Owen around three this morning,” Griff began, sirens drowning out the rest of what he said. Jett wrinkled her nose. “Where the hell are you?” “Don’t change the subject.” She heard the flick of a lighter and the sharp inhale as Griff lit a cigarette. She reached for her own cigarettes. According to the homeowners’ association, she wasn’t supposed to smoke in the condo. She would just have to buy some of those fancy plug-in air fresheners. “Seriously,” she said as she lit her own cigarette, “where are you?” “Los Angeles,” Griff said. “Are you going to let me finish, or can you fill in the blanks yourself?” Jett sighed. “I don’t know what your deal is, dude. You’re going to have to spell it out for me.” She tapped ash into a half-empty glass of water. “Owen says he’s the owner of a bar called the Groggy Frogg. Does that ring a bell?” Shrugging, Jett took another drag. “Nope.” “Jesus, Jett,” Griff swore. “Do you owe them a huge tab or something?” Her mouth dropped open. “Low blow, bro.” Her grip on her phone tightened. “Well, according to this Owen guy, you scheduled Perpetual Smile last year to play a show there, in three weeks.” Griff sounded smug. It made her want to punch him. She snorted. “Sounds like a scam. Did you tell him that the band isn’t even together anymore?” She finished her cigarette and dropped it into the water. It sizzled as it went out. “He said that he paid the band up-front, in cash, for ticket sales. Well, actually, he said he paid you.” Griff’s voice rose as he spoke. Jett started to tell him that she was done talking to him. Then she froze. “Did he say where this bar supposedly is?” “Boston,” Griff said. “One of the stops on the tour you got canceled.” Gritting her teeth, Jett narrowed her eyes. “That’s not fair.” Griff snorted. “What isn’t fair,” he said, “is that I haven’t seen you in almost six months, and I still keep having to clean up your messes.” “You don’t get to talk to me like that,” she said. She lit another cigarette. Sliding out of bed, she paced the room. Her mind raced. “What else did this guy say?” “When I told him that Perpetual Smile broke up, he said he didn’t care. He said that he paid for a show, so he expects a show. Jett, what the hell were you thinking?” She sighed. “I was thinking that I was almost out of money. I told him that we could sell out the place, and he agreed to send me the money as soon as it did.” She turned and began another circuit around her bedroom. “It was supposed to be a special show. I told him we would play our new album straight through.” She chewed on the inside of her cheek. At first, Griff said nothing. Several heartbeats passed. Jett paced faster. She cringed, waiting for him to start yelling at her. Finally, he sighed. “The show is supposed to be in three weeks. I tried telling him it’s not going to happen, but he was pretty insistent. You might want to call him.” Without another word, he hung up. Jett stopped pacing and stared at her phone. The time read 8:15. Sucking in a deep breath, she tossed it onto her bed. Then she burst out of her bedroom and into the hall. Bare feet pounding on the carpeted floor, she crossed the small landing to Koty’s bedroom. “Koty,” she called as she marched into the room. She passed a row of guitars and an unmade bed. The door to his bathroom was closed; she could hear the shower running. She called his name again. Without waiting for an answer, she yanked open the bathroom door and stepped inside. She flung the shower curtain open. “We have a problem.” Koty turned, fingers massaging shampoo into his hair. Frozen in place, he gaped at her. Soap ran down his chiseled torso and thighs in rivulets. For a moment, he just stared at her. “Don’t you knock?” “I did,” she said. Her eyes followed the soap streaming down his body. It’d been months since she'd even seen him naked. She gazed at his anatomy. Her eyes remained riveted to the hardening ridge between his legs. Warmth pooled in her belly. Her fingers twitched. Swallowing hard, she resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. “I’m naked,” he said. She jerked her gaze back to his face. Forcing herself to focus, she waved a hand. “So what? Listen, we need to get a band together, pronto.” “Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” He dipped his head under the stream of water, rinsing his black hair. Her breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she wondered what would happen if she shed the T-shirt she had worn to bed and climbed into the shower with him. Her feet remained rooted to the floor, though. She needed to stay professional. Let him make the first move, if the time came. “Sort of,” she said, thinking of the last few open auditions they’d sat through. “We need to do it faster, though.” Taking a deep breath, she plunged forward. "I sort of scheduled a show that I forgot about. We need a band ASAP. I can’t get out of it. I already spent all of the money they paid me." She swallowed hard. He lifted an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. Lathering up a bar of soap, Koty began washing his body. Hot water and soap sluiced down his arms, legs, and back. “We could have a band by now,” he said, “if you weren’t so picky.” She narrowed her eyes. “You were at the sessions. You heard how bad they all were.” She put her hands on her hips. “You’re too critical.” He put the bar of soap on the ledge of the tub and rinsed off. Water sprayed Jett, wetting her T-shirt. She remained frozen in her spot, the shower curtain clutched in one hand. “Can I finish my shower in peace?” Jett tightened her grip on the shower curtain. “No,” she said. “We need to figure out what we’re doing.” Koty took a deep breath. He locked his blue eyes on her brown ones. Jett’s thighs clenched. She swallowed hard and forced herself to meet his gaze. “Do you know what you should be doing right now?” he asked. She shrugged. “Buying myself a vibrator?” she mumbled. “You should be getting ready for practice tonight.” He squirted face wash into the palm of his hand and massaged it into his face. His fingers grazed the light beard he had grown. Electricity rocketed through Jett. Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. “What’s the point of practicing?” She threw up her hands. “We need a band, Koty.” “We won’t be able to play any shows if we lose our edge,” he said. He stepped under the stream of water once more. Turning in a slow circle, he rinsed off completely, giving her a 360-degree view of his body. “I hate you right now,” she said between gritted teeth. “Why?” He shut off the water. “You always tell me to practice every day. In fact, you never stop telling me to practice. Just because I started off in a boy band doesn’t mean I can’t play guitar. You know how I play—” She held up her hands, releasing the shower curtain. “Okay, I get it.” He stepped out of the tub and onto a bath mat. She took a step back. Beads of water ran down his skin and dripped onto the floor. “If you’re going to stay in here, hand me that towel.” Rolling her eyes, she grabbed the towel on the counter. Avoiding looking at him, she passed it over. She wished that she could go back in time, to before she answered Griff’s phone call. Then again, she had wanted to quit before she even got out of bed. She needed to remember that starting a band wasn’t easy. When she and Phillip Hilton started Perpetual Smile ten years ago, she mused, it had taken a full year to find the right musicians. The thought of his name sent a searing pain through her. She bit down on her lip to hold back the tears. Even a year after losing him, it still hurt to know that he was gone forever. “Are you all right?” Koty asked. He stood with a towel wrapped around his waist. His eyes searched hers. Jett nodded. “I’m fine.” She crossed her arms. “I’m just thinking.” She turned from the small bathroom. She should probably let him have some privacy while he got dressed. “Do you know what you’re going to do?” he asked. She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Of course,” she said. Panic ate at her insides. Stepping out of the bathroom, she padded into his bedroom. Her stomach clenched. Wrapping her arms around herself, she headed toward the hall. She had no idea what she was going to do.

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