“Encore, encore,” the crowd chanted as I set down my guitar and pretended to get ready to leave the stage. I missed the thrill I used to get from hearing thousands of people screaming our name, from feeling the heat of the lights on my skin and tearing up stage after stage with my best friend.
Clark, our frontman, gave the audience his trademark smirk and stepped back up to the microphone. A hush fell over the eight thousand concertgoers in the venue.
“So you want more, huh?” He rocked his head from side to side as if thinking about it before turning around to wag his dark brows at the rest of us behind him. “What do you think, boys? Can we hang around for a few more minutes to give these people what they want?”
Brent shot him a thumbs-up from behind the drum set, twirling his sticks between his fingers with a flourish as he winked. The crowd roared.
Jason and I nodded too, lifting our guitars from their stands and slinging the straps back over our heads. The audience went wild as another light show started and I strummed the intro to one of our more popular songs.
I used to be addicted to this feeling, to the adrenaline of stepping up onstage and the thundering roar of the crowd. It was my greatest dream come true to be able to earn a living playing my guitar and touring with Clark, our frontman as well as my best friend.
We’d started our band, Kraken, together years ago. We’d played any bar or pavement that would have us and eventually recruited the other guys. I’d never really gotten to know Brent and Jason, though.
Despite the hours we spent together on the road, we didn’t have one of those big fancy tour buses yet, and most of the time, I was in my vehicle with Winter and Alice while the others followed us, riding together in a minivan.
Even so, I used to feel this sense of togetherness and achievement while we made music together. It was almost like as soon as we got onstage, our minds fused and became one for the ninety minutes we jammed together.
But I hadn’t felt that way for nearly eighteen months now.
I hadn’t felt much of anything for nearly eighteen months now.
Not since Alice’s life was snuffed out far too early and I’d had to learn how to face my new reality. I had to learn how to live for the rest of my life without my wife and how to raise our baby girl without her.
These days, I stood onstage and played like a robot, going through the motions without any emotion whatsoever. I did my job, and then I went back to whatever hotel we were staying in and crawled into bed with my toddler.
Winter was my life now, the only thing I kept living and breathing for. The only joy in a sea of pain.
Spending my nights and as much of my days as possible with a three-year-old wasn’t exactly the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll lifestyle I had thought I would have if the band ever made it, but it was my life. And except for wanting my wife back in it, I was happy with that.
Clark growled the last lyrics of the song into his microphone, his head cocked and his eyes closed. His hand gripped the mic like it was his cock and he was on the brink of an epic orgasm.
Without breaking the rhythm, I watched my best friend as he put on another stellar performance for the crowd. I might not have felt the same about performing as I used to, but he still lived for it. I couldn’t see him ever giving it up, even if the band didn’t end up making it all the way to the top of the charts.
When the song was done, he dipped into a low bow and smirked at the crowd. As they drowned us in their voices, he threw his hands up into the air and did a victory lap around the stage to wave at the fans one last time before running off it. The rest of us departed with less theatrics.
We just walked off. Perks of not being the frontman.
I handed my guitar off to a roadie waiting backstage and set my sights on my dressing room.
Ignoring the crowds of VIPs, competition winners, and the general humdrum backstage after a show, I kept my head down and weaved my way through the throng of waiting bodies.
I got stopped a few times, forced to take selfies or sign something, but I got away as fast as I could. Always.
I tried to be friendly with the fans when they stopped me, but I’d earned something of a reputation for being the stoic, quiet, intimidating one of the group, and honestly, it suited me just fine. It meant the majority of people backstage swarmed around Clark and the others while only a few diehard fans bothered to approach me.
After I got into my dressing room, I shed my sweaty clothes and grabbed a quick shower, then dressed in clean clothes and picked up my backpack to gather my stuff so I could leave. The muted noise of the music and crowd outside became sharp for a minute, cluing me in to someone entering my supposedly private dressing room.
With a scowl twisting my features, I popped my head out of the bathroom. Clark stood in the center of the room, his arms draped around two women. He smiled when he saw me, and my scowl softened. Just a little.
“Hey, man. You ready to go? The after-party tonight is going to be off the charts. This was our biggest show yet. Craig just told me the final ticket numbers confirmed it. Time to celebrate.”
I slipped my arms through the straps of my backpack and shook my head. “Nope, sorry. No can do.”
Clark’s face fell, but then he squared his shoulders to let me know he wasn’t giving up.
My best friend had often been rumored to be my secret brother, considering the similarities in our features. Both of us had pitch-black hair and green eyes with tall, swimmer’s physiques that were covered in tattoos.
But while we looked a lot alike, our personalities couldn’t have been more different.
Especially these days.
Clark was still the life of the party, the outgoing, outspoken one who was willing to hang onto his balls and jump into just about anything. Even if it meant he’d have to figure a way out of it later.
On the other hand, I was whatever the antithesis of the life of the party was. Loser? Loner? Anti-social? Whatever it was called, I was it.
I had been categorized by reporter after reporter as being the strong, silent type to counter Clark’s outbursts and antics. I loved the guy, and I’d always had his back and always would, but there was no way he was dragging me to this party.
“Come on, Callen. Live a little. We’re starting to catch fire with more and more fans, bro. The after-party is a good opportunity to get our faces out there a little more and have some fun while we’re at it.”
The blondes he had under his arms nodded, looking up at him like he was a messiah. Which to the die-hard Clarkians, as his cult-like fanbase had dubbed themselves, he probably was.
“If we’re going to talk about this, we’re doing it alone.” I gave a pointed stare at his groupies, then walked to the door and opened it, sweeping my hand toward the waiting area. “Well?”
Clark smacked a kiss to each girl’s forehead, then slapped their asses playfully. “Go on ahead, my dears. I’ll be right there.”
They looked crestfallen but did as their hero asked after whispering what I assumed were promises about later in his ears. When I shut the door behind them, he flung himself onto the couch and propped his hands behind his head, spreading his long legs out in front of him.
“Well, at least you didn’t physically escort them out this time.” He grinned, obviously taking this fact as a win. “The one on the left was for you, by the way. Apparently closed-off douchebag is her type. Name’s something with a B.”
I sighed and sat down across from him, dragging both of my hands through my wet hair before they settled at the nape of my neck, squeezing as I willed my frustration with him to ease. “You know I can’t go to the party, bro. I have to get back to the hotel to Winter. You also know that groupies aren’t my thing.”
The almost constant good-natured humor that shone from his eyes dimmed. “It’s been almost a year and a half that no woman has been your thing.”
“I know, but I just… I can’t.”
His gaze met mine, concern etched into his sharp features. “Maybe it’s time to get back in the game, Cal. Alice is gone, and I know you’re still hurting, but you can’t be celibate forever. Getting with a busty blonde tonight might be just what the doctor ordered.”
I rolled my eyes at him. “Getting off with a groupie isn’t going to make me feel any better about my wife dying and it sure as hell isn’t going to help me with Winter. I’m just not ready for a new relationship.”
“You don’t need to get into a relationship to have your dick sucked.” He sighed, sitting up and dropping his hands to his knees. A mixture of understanding, worry, and determination glinted from his eyes under the bright fluorescent lights. “Just come to this one party with us, man. I meant what I said about it being a good opportunity and I’m worried about you. You can’t hole up in your hotel room for the rest of your life. The babysitter’s been paid for the whole night, so don’t give me that shit about having to get back to Winter. She’s fine.”
Before I could answer him, the door opened again and Craig came strolling in. His light brown hair was smoothed down and he was probably the only guy in a suit in a three-block radius.
I mean, who the fuck wears a suit to a rock concert?
Our manager did. That was who. While he was our manager and therefore present in an official capacity, the suit still made him look like a total dick. On the other hand, he was a total dick, so the look suited him.
“What do you want?” Clark snapped, his carefree demeanor vanishing as his spine straightened. The feeling that Craig was a total dick was mutual. “We’re having a private conversation here.”
He gave us a narrow-eyed glare and shut the door behind him, with him still on this side of it. He flat out ignored Clark’s unspoken request for him to leave. “Yes, well I’m here to have a private conversation with the both of you. It’s important.”
Clark stood up to his full height, unwilling to be looked down on if Craig insisted on talking business right now. He also moved to my side so we stood shoulder to shoulder, a united front, the same way we’d always faced the world, despite whatever differences we had privately.
“Fine. Talk. You’ve got two minutes.” He thrust his chin into the air and crossed his arms over his chest. I mirrored him, knowing we cut a pretty damn intimidating figure in that moment.
Craig swallowed but didn’t back down. “I need you to sign a contract for touring as the opening act for Axe. They’re kicking off in Chicago next week, so I’ll need you there by then.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Clark asked, and I practically felt the tension radiating from Clark’s body. “The answer’s no. We’re not doing it. Axe is spiraling, man. We’re bigger than them right now. I’m not touring with them for the next few months to help save them. They’re dicks. I fucking hate them.”
I cut Craig off by lifting my hand and jabbing a finger at the door. “Leave. Now. I’ll talk to Clark about this and you’ll have our final answer in a couple of days. This was the last stop on our tour and we weren’t supposed to take off again for at least a year. We’ll need to speak to the others, too.”
“Everyone knows you two call the shots. It’s your damn band. The others are nothing but props, backup.” He tried to argue, but he was already walking backward.
I arched an eyebrow and tamped down on the frustration simmering inside me. I hated it when he said shit like that, but he did it all the time. Hence: dick.
With another jab of my finger at the door, I turned my back on Craig and dismissed him. He huffed out a breath, but then the door opened and closed, leaving me alone with Clark once more.
“He’s such a fucking asshole” he hissed. “I’m not touring with Axe, bro. I don’t care what he says or what anyone else says. Just not doing it.”
“I’m not saying you have to,” I said evenly. “I know you’ve got big problems with them and I know why. All I’m saying is take some time to cool off. Then we talk to him about it. We’ve done everything we were contractually required to do. They can’t force us to sign this new one, but we also need to be smart about this. Think about the consequences of saying no and figuring out the best possible way to do it.”
His cheeks puffed up as he drew in a deep breath and released it as a heavy sigh. “Yeah, you’re right. I need to talk to the lawyers about it as well. I know you’re smart as fuck, but I need to make sure our asses are covered. If we’re going to go head to head with Craig on this, I need to know there isn’t some detail buried in the fine print giving them the right to sue if we refuse this kind of request.”
We slapped our palms together in agreement, exchanged a quick back-thumping hug, and moved to the door together. “You sure I can’t convince you to come to the party? There might be a girl that ends up being your new type you can crawl into bed with tonight.”
“I’m not going, but thanks for trying.” I meant it, too. I knew I’d been a miserable son of a bitch to put up with the last few years, ever since Alice’s diagnosis.
Clark had never given up on me, though.
I appreciated that, but as I climbed into bed with Winter after getting back to the hotel and thanking the babysitter, I also knew there was only one girl I wanted to crawl into bed with.
It was the small little body pressed into mine now. The only one whose dark hair matched mine and had eyes the color of the Mediterranean on a spring day, just like her mama used to have.
Maybe one day I’d be ready to enter into some kind of romantic or sexual relationship with a woman again, but that day wasn’t today. And I was okay with it.