Five Days Earlier
I’M NOT WEARING a fucking tie, Tuck,” I growled as I tried to knot the silky fabric around my neck. I yanked it off and tossed it to the ground in frustration.
“You just need to learn how to tie it, Eric.” Cass smiled as she patted me on the shoulder. “You would look good all dressed up.”
I rolled my eyes and picked up the light blue scrap of fabric from the ground, determined to figure out how to wear it. Tucker laughed and shook his head. I owed it to Cass to try to be on my best behavior. She went through hell to plan this wedding around our schedule, and I wouldn’t screw that up for her. We stayed in Southern California after our last gig, and she went to work ironing out the details with only two weeks until we go back to work. Each of us had his own job to do. I chose the church. It was small but sort of quaint, and the pastor talked my ear off for an hour about young love. I knew he wouldn’t judge their decision to marry young.
“How come you listen to her and not me?”
“Because Cass is prettier than you,” I joked, and Tucker rolled his eyes. “Seriously, why can’t we just dress the way we always do? You want to start off your marriage with a lie?”
Cass’s hand connected with the back of my head.
“Oww!” I yelled, then rubbed the tender spot. I knew she was stressed out about the ceremony, and it was too hard to resist messing with her. She had been trying her hardest to get Dorris to attend, but her health was failing and Cass finally gave up two days ago. I held out hope some of our friends would show, but it had been months since I’d talked to Sarah and I assumed Filth was touring and didn’t have the time.
“You’re not going to dress as a homeless rock star at my wedding,” Cass called over her shoulder as she made her way to the hotel bathroom.
“I am a homeless rock star.”
“Semantics,” she called out with a laugh.
I was happy to be a rolling stone. Cass and Tuck had been talking about getting a home of their own, and the idea made me cringe. I didn’t want things to change. I ran my hand through my hair and pushed out a sigh. Maybe the shots of Jack before lunch were a mistake. Drinking never took away my problems, but ever since our tour ended and Sarah—the girl who had gradually become my rock—was long gone, I didn’t want to cope with reality.
It was easier to find peace at the bottom of a bottle.
“You all right?” Tucker asked, leaning in toward me and lowering his voice. His hand clamped on my shoulder. I knocked it away and took a step back from him.
The truth was, I was far from okay. I just didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to play another gig and get lost in the music.
I glanced up at Donna, our manager. Her dark, wavy hair was pinned back, but loose curls spilled down the back of her neck. I wanted to wrap my fingers in it. I shook the thought from my head and made my way to the kitchen area of our hotel suite. Donna had been loosening up around all of us a lot more lately—it was a refreshing change from the all-business bitch who first showed up to whip our band into shape during our tour. Sometimes we’d even flirt a little. And in the months since Sarah left, Donna and I had actually grown closer as friends. Plus, she was hot when she let herself kick back and have fun.
But I couldn’t let my mind go there, especially not today . . .
Maybe the problem wasn’t that I had drank; maybe I just didn’t drink enough. I poured two fingers of whiskey into a glass and quickly drank it down, letting it burn my throat.
I sat the plastic cup on the counter and wiped a drop of liquor from my chin as Cass came to my side.
“I could use a few of those myself,” she said quietly as she leaned her back against the faux-granite countertop.
I stared at the cabinets in front of me as I clenched my jaw. I knew Cass could tell I was upset. She had become like a little sister to me, and as much as I loved her, at times I wished we could escape each other. I hated how transparent I was to her, and she never let shit go.
“Have you talked to her?” I asked after a pregnant pause. Even thinking about her made my head start to ache, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I had one of my headaches.
Cass nodded, swallowing audibly.
“She doin’ okay?”
“She . . . she said she is happy.”
I could hear the pain in her voice and I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the look of pity on her face. It wasn’t long ago I had judged Cass and Tucker, afraid of their ripping apart our band with their relationship. But now here I was, sad and sulking over someone I had no right to miss, not even wanting to think about how lost I’d be without Cass’s and Tuck’s support.
The conversation came to an abrupt halt when a hand slid over my spine. Even though I’d been doing my best to avoid Donna’s most deliberate advances knowing it would only end badly for all of us, suddenly the idea of having someone touch me, distract me from my pain, even for a few hours, was all I wanted. And I wanted it more than anything else. I watched Tucker and the twins from the small kitchen area, trying not to meet her gaze. I didn’t mind sometimes blurring the lines a little, but today was different. Today I was forced to watch others move on in their lives, build a future, and I was still lost and alone.
“You mind sharing?” Donna cocked an eyebrow at Cass, and I knew she wasn’t talking about the alcohol. I rolled my eyes and Cass gave me a sympathetic smile.
“I need to go fix my hair. I’ll talk to you later.” Cass tucked a dirty-blond curl behind her ear and headed off to the bathroom of the hotel room. It was cramped with all of us in one room getting ready, but it was downtown and had a great view of the city. Donna insisted on letting us live a few days in luxury, even if she couldn’t land us all rooms with personal hot tubs. We each had our own room, but after the wedding Cass and Tuck would be across town to get some privacy.
I slowly turned to look at Donna, who was wearing a low-cut, navy-blue dress that stopped midthigh and left little to the imagination. She smirked knowingly as my eyes finally landed on hers.
I poured her a shot into my glass and slid it across the dark faux-granite counter to her. She picked it up and raised it over her head to me before throwing it back. She scrunched her nose at the harshness of the liquor as she slammed the cup on the counter.
“Good shit, huh?” I laughed as she nodded, unable to speak. “Not much of a drinker?”
“Not yet. Pour me another.”
“What’s up with you today? Not a fan of weddings either?”
She shook her head, and her gaze dropped to the bottle. I nodded and poured her another shot, giving her a little extra this time. I slid the glass over to her again and she took it, her fingers sliding over mine. The electricity between us was undeniable today and I tensed, hating my attraction to her. She wasn’t my type. She wasn’t anyone’s type. She was closed off and angry at the world. She used her work as an escape from living her life and enjoying herself. I also knew that any attraction she felt toward me was purely physical. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that she was our manager. I had to keep reminding myself of that.
“Wanna talk about it?”
She drank the shot, a trail of whiskey running over her chin and down her throat. I grabbed a paper towel and wiped it off for her, careful not to mess up her makeup.
“Just brings back bad memories.”
I nodded, completely understanding. Even as Donna and I had grown closer over the past few weeks, I knew there were things she wouldn’t tell even me. But I guess that was only fair, given how much I kept to myself, too.
“That’s life,” I said as I poured myself another drink. “A series of struggles strung together with the occasional moment of joy that makes it worth going another day.” I turned around. Drink in hand as I looked over at Tucker. He was nervous but smiling in his charcoal-gray suit. Chris and Terry laughing and helping him shake his nerves.
“You think he is happy?” she asked as she leaned back against the counter, her body brushing against mine.
I cleared my throat and moved over a fraction of an inch. “Of course he is. Look at him. He’s in love.” I smiled, genuinely happy for my best friend.
“The deeper your love, the harder you fall when it goes bad.”
I grinned, glancing over at Donna’s profile; for twenty-seven she could really be intense. “Careful . . . you’re dangerously close to opening up to someone.”
She laughed sardonically and shook her head as she looked down at her shoes. “I won’t make that mistake twice.” She gave me a sideways glance, and the corner of her lips curled up in a small smile.
I didn’t want to push her to say anything more, so I just offered a halfhearted smile in return. “I’ll drink to that.” I poured the amber liquid down my throat and tossed my glass in the sink behind us.
Donna grabbed the light blue tie from the counter and wrapped it around my neck. She was standing so close I could feel the heat radiating from her and the faint smell of her minty, alcohol-laced breath.
“You’ll drink to anything.” Her eyes narrowed as she worked quickly to secure the tie and fold my shirt collar down over it, her fingers lingering on my shoulders. My body moved on its own as I leaned forward a fraction of an inch, as if a magnet were pulling me toward her, or maybe I had drunk a few too many shots. I was thankful when Cass returned, her hair swept back at her nape. She was still wearing an old T-shirt and shorts.
“How you feeling?” she asked as her eyes danced between Donna and me.
Donna took a step back, looking embarrassed. “I’m going to freshen up.” She left us and Cass smiled widely. We watched Donna walk away.
“She really has a thing for you.”
“Nah. She just wants a distraction.”
“You could both use one.”
“Cass, you know I can’t do that. There isn’t anything there. The last thing I want to do is mess things up for the band over some chick.”
Cass raised an eyebrow and I realized that probably sounded like an insult to her.
“You know I didn’t mean you. You’re like family to all of us.”
“I wasn’t always. I remember what it felt like to be an outsider in this group. Maybe Donna just needs to find her place.”
“Donna is one of us, she just doesn’t realize it.”
Cass sighed loudly as she looked around the room. Her face looked sullen as her eyes glassed over.
“What is it?” I reached out and took her hand. She glanced down at the ring on her finger and shook her head, fighting back the tears.
“Hey . . .” I pulled her against me and wrapped my arms around her neck, giving her a nice firm hug. “We talked about this. You don’t need him. I’m going to walk you down the aisle with the twins. You have all the family you need.”
I pulled back from her and ran my thumbs carefully under her eyes to catch the tears that began to spill over. She jerked back and made a gagging sound.
“Jesus, E! You smell like a bum! How much have you had?”
“Not nearly enough.”
She smiled. “I could use a little relaxing myself. I can’t stop shaking.”
“No, I’m not scared. I’m happy. I can’t believe it is finally happening. It’s overwhelming.”
“What are you women talking ’bout?” Terry asked as he made his way into the cramped kitchen space and threw his arm over my shoulder. I pushed it off and took a step away from him.
“Just because I am sensitive to the ladies doesn’t make me a chick.”
“Doesn’t make you much of a man either.” Terry laughed.
“How much have you drunk, Terry?” Cass asked. He just laughed, his eyes glazed over and bloodshot.
“What does make you a man, O wise one?” I asked as Chris made his way to us.
“This,” Terry shot back as he grabbed his crotch.
“A small package?” I joked, and glanced over at Chris.
“Let it be known we are fraternal, not identical,” Chris replied as he winked at Cass, who let out a giggle.
“Thanks for the backup, Brother.” Terry ran his hand through his hair and cracked his neck. Chris just shrugged and took a swig of his bottle of beer.
“Beatfest is in a few days,” Chris said to no one in particular.
“Great. I wonder which one of you will get in a fight first at the festival.” Cass rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“They all promised to behave,” Tucker spoke up in our defense. “They know how hard it was to convince you to stay here longer just for a concert.”
“You still owe me one,” she replied with an eyebrow raised.
“Oh, I will give you one tonight.” He winked at her.
Chris made a heaving sound. “Seriously. That is gross. Cass is like a little sister to the rest of us.”
“This is fun, guys, but you all need to get out so I can put on my dress. It’s bad luck for Tucker to see me in it before the wedding.”
“Fine, but I’m taking my whiskey with me,” I smirked as I grabbed the bottle and headed for the hotel door.
The rest of the band followed, but Donna stayed behind to help Cass get ready. They didn’t always see eye to eye, but Cass was lucky to have another female around for times like this.
The band all filed into the elevator and waited for it to make it to the expansive lobby. The doors popped open and a blinding flash caught us all off guard.
“Don’t you have a fucking life?” I put my hand out to block the photographer’s lens as Tucker and the guys hustled by to get to the waiting car outside.
Ever since we had performed at the MTV Music Video Awards about four months ago, we’d begun attracting more attention, especially from the paps. Most days we could go about our daily business freely and without interruption, but ever since word got out that Tucker had proposed, paparazzi had been counting down the days until he tied the knot, stalking us with obnoxious persistence.
Tucker has been pretty laid-back about it, but I couldn’t keep my cool as easily.
“Don’t touch my camera, man. I’ll call the cops!”
“You’re stalking us and you’re gonna call the cops on me? Bitch move, man.” I hurried after the guys and slid into the back of the murdered-out Escalade. The windows were tinted so black that even with the camera flash they couldn’t get a decent shot of us. I flipped off the photog from behind my window as we pulled out into the street and headed toward the chapel.
“Thanks, man.” Tucker nodded in my direction.
I smiled as I relaxed against the seat and stretched out my legs. “Not a problem.”
“You should have let us throw you a bachelor party. It’s bad luck not to see some tatas before your big day,” Chris called out, causing the driver to glance in his rearview mirror at us.
“I don’t want to go see some washed-up old lady swing around on a pole. I have the chick I want.”
“Very noble of you, man, but I’d like to see some old naked chicks swing on a pole. Think of your friends, dude,” Terry joked, and we all laughed.
“I told you we can do it in a few days . . . as long as Cass can come along.”
“Why would you want to subject yourself to that?” Terry asked.
“She’s going to be my wife.”
“Could you imagine Donna in a strip club?” I laughed and shook my head as I tried to picture her uptight ass sitting in front of the stage. Even the more loosened-up version of Donna that seemed to be sticking around these days didn’t fit in with that scene.
“It looks like you are imagining it, pervert.” Chris laughed and hit me on the arm.
“Fuck off, man. It’s not like that.”
The car slowed to a stop when we reached the church, and Tucker took a deep breath as we all stared at him.
A large smile spread across his face. “I’m not gonna change my mind, guys. Let’s do this.”
The driver pulled open the door and we all exited. He had parked out back, and thankfully no assholes with cameras were there to greet us. Given how stressed out I was this morning, this was a good thing. I didn’t need to be arrested for assault and miss the wedding of my best friend.
We filed inside the small, dimly lit building. It looked more like a post office than a church. I was shocked it didn’t burst into flames as I entered. The priest greeted us as we walked in. He pulled Tucker to the side so they could speak privately and pointed to a room off to the left that we could wait in. We had ordered snacks and beverages to be ready for us while we waited, and they were lined up on a small card table against the wall. I still had my bottle of Jack, which I held down at my side so the preacher couldn’t see it. I knew it was sometimes part of religious ritual to drink wine in church, but I wasn’t sure how they felt about something a little harder.
The holding room had a few foldout chairs and old paintings of Jesus on the cross. I wasn’t a religious person, but I could certainly understand why so many people are. Knowing someone else was looking out for you and would have your back was comforting. But that didn’t work for me. My thoughts always drifted to my little brother, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t understand where God was on the day he had died.
I unscrewed the lid to my bottle and took a healthy sip. The liquid no longer burned. My body was growing numb to its effects.
Terry walked up beside me, his hands folded over his chest as he nodded his chin toward the old oil painting. “Whatchya thinking about?” he asked, his eyes dipping down to the bottle in my hand before he looked back to the picture.
“Life . . . death . . . shit.” My words were beginning to slur and I knew it was time to cut myself off. I didn’t want to forget this day with Cass and Tucker.
“That’s deep, man.” Terry reached down and took the bottle from me with a grin on his face. “I think we should slow down a bit.”
After a long pause he rubbed his hand hard over his freshly shaved chin as if deep in thought. “You ever wonder what Donna looks like naked?”
I shook my head and walked away, mumbling expletives under my breath. The guys were constantly ragging on me about Donna ever since they’d plotted to set us up a few months ago. They thought a game of pool and a few drinks would make me forget that Sarah was right next to me, and that she was back with that scumbag Derek, a jerk that didn’t even come close to deserving a woman like her. I was thankful they did though, because that had been the turning point for me and Donna—when she’d started loosening up and opening up with me a little. I grabbed a bag of pretzels from Chris and shoved my hand in to grab a few. He yanked the bag back out of my hand with a laugh.
The door swung open and Tucker stepped inside, glancing behind him before letting the door close.
“You look like you saw a ghost,” I joked as I shoved a pretzel in my mouth.
“I sort of did.” He ran his hand over his hair, causing it to stick up haphazardly.
“You didn’t see Cass in her dress, did you? That chick will flip the fuck out if you pull some bad-luck shit like that.”
“No, not Cass. You know she invited some old friends to come. She didn’t mention it because she didn’t think they would be able to make it with their crazy schedule.”
I pushed him aside as I pulled open the door and glanced out of the crack to the pews. My heart stopped as my eyes landed on Sarah. She was wearing a baby-blue dress to match the color scheme of the wedding. I rarely ever saw her in anything besides black, and it took my breath away. She looked beautiful, a softer side of her—one that people rarely got to see—shining through. I almost didn’t see Derek at her side, his hand on her lower back, dangerously close to grabbing her ass. Dick.
Tucker pulled me back and the door shut again in front of my eyes. I squeezed them closed, wishing I hadn’t drunk so many shots.
“It’s fine,” I lied with a smile as I threw my hands in the air. “So I thought she was cute. No big deal. You could have told me she was coming.”
Chris shook his head and glanced over at Terry.
“For fuck’s sake, guys. I’m not a lovesick puppy. I could give a fuck about Sarah and her shitty boyfriend. We’re just friends. Were friends. Whatever, it was never anything more than that.”
“All right, man.” Tucker shrugged and forced a smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”
I clenched my jaw and closed my eyes, taking in a deep, calming breath. I wasn’t going to let some chick fuck with my head. Not today. Cass and Tucker didn’t need my pointless drama. Sarah was smiling and didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the contact between her and Derek. She was . . . happy. I was going to do my best to pretend I was happy, too.
“I need some air.” I pushed out of the door before anyone could stop me. I knew they thought I was going to make a scene, but I didn’t care. I felt as if the walls were closing in on me, and that picture of Jesus staring at me was beginning to creep me out. It felt as if he were silently judging me as he hung on that wall . . . on that cross.
I didn’t glance Sarah and Derek’s way as I stepped out of the front doors of the church and pulled my cigarettes and lighter from my pocket. I didn’t realize my mistake before it was too late. I should have gone out the back. Instead, I was face-to-face with the same asshole photographer from the hotel lobby. He grinned as he raised his camera to his face and snapped a pic.
I lit my cigarette, desperately trying to bite my tongue. The door opened behind me and Sarah stepped out next to me. The tightening in my chest was painful, and trying to convince myself, once again, that she was just a friend—if that anymore—was nearly impossible. I wanted to reach out and touch her smooth skin, wrap my arms around her, and bury my face in her hair, but she had stopped returning my texts or calls months ago without ever explaining why—though I could venture that it had something to do with Derek.
But I had no idea where our relationship stood anymore. The thought of her being able to dismiss me so easily was too much, and I pushed the idea away and focused on the cigarette that glowed hot in my hand. The photographer began to yell questions at us, asking if we were together.
“Long time no see.” She sighed loudly as she stared off at the street.
I nodded, squinting in the bright sunlight. It was overbearingly warm out and my stomach began to turn from the alcohol. “How’ve you been?” I asked, still unable to look at her. It was no secret I had a thing for her, and if everyone else could see it, I knew she could, too.
“Can’t or won’t?” I finally chanced a glance at her and smiled when her eyes met mine. Sarah was forced to grow up fast the way I had, and it was one of the reasons we had become so close while on the road together. We were exposed to the ugly side of life when we should have been hanging out with friends and playing games.
Witnessing my brother’s death when he was hit by a car had destroyed me. We stood in the front yard of our home as on any other day. I threw around a football with Robert, who was only nine at the time, but he wanted to be just like me when he got older. As I threw the ball, there was a screeching of tires and the entire world slowed to a stop as I spun around to see a light blue Buick careening toward us. I panicked, unable to inhale as my eyes darted back to my brother, who was still smiling, oblivious to what was about to happen. It was the most horrific day of my life. Everyone knew, but no one ever brought it up. Sarah did the complete opposite. She forced me to face it so I could start to move past it.
“Both I suppose.”
“Get closer together!” the photog yelled at us.
“Get a real fucking job,” I snapped back. His camera began to click faster as he continued to try to get a rise out of me.
“Don’t let him get to you,” Sarah said under her breath.
The door opened behind us and we both turned around to see Derek, his eyes darting back and forth between us before landing on Sarah. He ran his hand roughly through his dark, shoulder-length hair.
“Cass is here. She’s asking for you.”
“It was good talking to you, E.” Her lips tugged up into a small grin as she stepped inside. I let the door close completely before I took another long drag from my cigarette and flicked it toward the photographer. He swore loudly as I opened the door to the church and slid inside, smiling from ear to ear.
My eyes flicked to the other door at the far end of the chapel that concealed the girls before I headed into the private room that held the band. I stopped as I stepped inside and Derek stood before me.
“What’s up, man?” I asked casually as I made my way to the snack table and nonchalantly poured myself a Jack and Coke.
“Nothing really. Was just telling the guys about a concert we had a few weeks back outside of Vegas. It was wild, man. The chicks were insane.” He was no longer talking to just me, and I gulped down my beverage, crumpling the plastic cup in my hand as he rambled on about some groupie who was willing to do anything to sneak off with him. Tucker placed his hand on my shoulder and I nodded at him, letting him know I was not going to fuck up this day for him. He patted my back before taking the bottle and pouring himself a drink.
“She made her choice. You can’t do anything to help her if she doesn’t want to be helped,” he said quietly as the twins laughed loudly at something Derek had said. She made her choice. Those words stung like a motherfucker. I ran the back of my hand over my lips as I let that reality sink in.
It was time for me to make a choice and stop sitting around waiting for someone who didn’t want me. It was just a fucking crush. I wasn’t even sure if Sarah had ever felt the same way about me. We would flirt, sure, but it never went any further than that.
As if she were listening into my thoughts, the door popped open and Sarah stuck her head inside. “It’s time.” She grinned, her eyes meeting mine briefly before she looked down to the floor.
Tucker followed her out of the door, and after a few more words, so did Derek. I glanced at Terry, unable to hide the anger in my eyes, before stepping out of the room and following the others to Cass’s room. All three of us would be walking her down the aisle in the absence of her father.
Cass looked incredible in a simple white gown that went all the way to the floor. She had insisted on this weird strappy shit that went across her back. I teased her for days about getting tangled in it, but she’d made the right choice. Her hair was pulled up in lose curls, and the only jewelry she wore was her engagement ring and that damn heart locket from Tuck that she never removed. I couldn’t help but smile with pride as she beamed back at me, her makeup making her look as if she’d stepped off a runway. I knew she had learned to wear it that way from Sarah. We had butted heads when Cass first came to be a part of our dysfunctional little family, but I had grown to love her.
“She cleans up nice, doesn’t she?” A voice broke through the silence and my eyes fell on Dorris. She was much thinner since the last time I had seen her, and she had aged at least ten years. Her lips curled up in a smile and I crossed the room in two large strides to hug her.
“It’s been too long.” I gave her an extra squeeze before she pulled back to look me over. “Does Tuck know you’re here?”
“Not yet.” Her smile grew. “I told him I wasn’t able to fly.”
“He’s going to be excited. You were the one thing he said would be missing.”
“That and a good meal. You boys are so thin.” Her eyes danced over the twins, who came over to give her a hug. Terry lifted her from the ground and she squealed, smacking him on the shoulder so he would put her down. “Hasn’t Cass been feeding you?”
“They eat like horses. I can hardly keep up,” Cass joked, running her hand down the front of her silky dress.
“I’ll have to send you some of my recipes. Tucker always loved my lasagna.”
“I’d appreciate that. Thank you,” Cass said.
A Song for Us
Thanks to the MTV Video Music Awards, Damaged is suddenly famous. But as their star rises, drummer Eric begins to spiral out of control. Haunted by the tragic events of his childhood, he gets into fights after gigs and flies off the handle when the paparazzi approach. Drinking numbs the pain—but his behavior could cost him his rock star dreams.
Only one person has ever gotten Eric to open up about his life. Sarah, the lead singer of Filth, has a confident façade that masks her own painful secrets. But Sarah’s tumultuous relationship with her bandmate and boyfriend Derek forces her to keep Eric at a distance. As their friendship grows into something more, Eric has to find a way to forget his tortured past before it jeopardizes his only chance for a happy future.