Before Demigoddess Revival, there was Panic Station…
Sam Stokes, the drummer for the ultra-popular rock band, Panic Station, and Holly McGregor, their vocalist, appear to have the perfect relationship, much to their fans’ delight.
But guess what? It’s all a lie, perpetuated by social media, created to help catapult the band to fame.
And Sam is sick of it. He’s tired of pretending. He wants out.
But Holly doesn’t want him to quit. What will their fans think? How will the band carry on?
More importantly, what will Holly do without him?
Here we go again.
Another press conference, another parody of what I expected this life to be.
Damn, I sounded like I hated being a rock star.
Shaking off those drab—and stupid, because seriously, we were fucking rock stars—thoughts, I strutted into the room where the press were waiting to eat us alive.
Okay, that wasn’t entirely true. Generally, these days, they were pretty good to us. Panic Station was the flavor of the moment—the most prominent, most popular rock band, quite possibly in the world. We were topping charts that normally were reserved for pop-sounding groups—boy bands and K-pop and moody young girls who sang about the devastation of high school breakups.
So naturally, everybody wanted a piece of us. Especially the press.
I headed straight for the middle seat at the long table set up on a dais with four other identical plastic chairs. Pitchers of ice water were parked every few feet, and a full, sweating glass rested in front of each seat.
I moved like this process was choreographed, which, let’s be honest, it was. I sat in the middle because I was the lead singer. My throaty vocals were a large part of how we managed to get here in the first place.
Next came Benny Montlake, our guitarist, who sat to my left. The rest of the band fanned out and sat in the remaining seats: Tyler Monk, our keyboardist, on my other side, and Eddie Hatch, the bassist, next to him, leaving Sam Stokes to grab the final seat by Benny. He twisted the plastic chair around and straddled it, draping his arms across the back, totally in character.
Broody, slightly grumpy, effortlessly gorgeous drummer with an edge of danger, at your service.
Lately, I’ve wondered if he’d forgotten that this persona was just that, and not the person he really was. This’ll be our third tour, so it was entirely possible. When we were on the road, we had to be in character pretty much 24/7. A single slipup caught on a fan’s camera phone and the entire charade would be exposed. Our careers, our status as number one rock band in the world, destroyed.
So our publicist, Dahlia, insisted. And since I had less than zero desire to return to the life I had before becoming a rock star, I tended to go along with whatever Dahlia recommended in order to maintain this fantasy-turned-reality.
As soon as Sam took his seat, the media circus began. Everybody shouting and waving, hoping their question was important enough. Henry “Chaz” Randolf, our manager, stepped up behind Tyler and pointed at a chunky guy who had wavy black hair and a thick, silver nose ring. He resembled a bull.
“Oliver Croll from Rock Me magazine,” he announced, holding his phone like it was a microphone. “Rumor has it that there’s trouble in paradise. Can you confirm?”
Benny snorted and spread his arms wide. “We have three songs in the top ten right now, and we’ve sold out arenas all over the continent and half of Europe. Does that sound like trouble in paradise?”
“Not the band,” Oliver clarified. “Sam and Holly’s relationship.”
Oh shit. That topic was not supposed to come up today. Chaz promised—
“Dude, what are you talking about?” Benny asked, his gaze darting from Oliver to me and then bouncing to Sam.
“We aren’t discussing this,” Sam snapped, holding his pose, like he didn’t give a crap what this guy was asking.
“Why not?” Oliver asked. “Is it because it’s true?”
“What it is, is none of your fucking business,” Sam snapped, dragging a hand through his shoulder-length blond locks.
“It’s totally our business,” Oliver persisted. “If you two break up, it could destroy the band.”
Benny snorted, and Sam practically snarled, “That won’t happen,” even curling his lip when he said it.
“Which part? You two breaking up or the band falling apart as a result?”
Benny looked like he was about to speak up again, but Sam beat him to the punch.
“The band won’t be destroyed,” Sam said, his grip tightening on the back of the chair.
“So you’re saying you are breaking up?”
Jesus, this guy needed to stop. “How about we talk about the upcoming tour,” I suggested, leaning into the mic set up on the table in front of me and deliberately keeping my gaze away from Sam.
“Yeah,” Sam chimed in, “nobody cares about whatever relationship Holly and I may or may not have.”
“I beg to differ,” one of the other reporters called out in a vaguely British accent. “Your fans care. A great deal, I’d wager.”
Sam shoved away from his chair, pushing himself into a standing position, and then flung his arms into the air. “I’m out. If all you want to talk about is what she and I do when you aren’t there to watch, I’m not sticking around for that shit.” He started to walk away and then paused and glanced over his shoulder at the crowd of reporters, every single one of whom had a camera held up in front of their faces, recording this moment for prosperity.
“I’m going to practice,” he said, “for our tour.”
And then he was gone, and the reporters all started barking questions again. Chaz shook his head and rushed through the door after Sam. I glanced at Benny. He lifted his chin, which I took to mean I should take off too, so I did, grateful I was getting out of having to figure out how to fix this mess before those media goons pressed upload on their phones and this little episode was splashed all over the internet.
The media nightmare was being held in one of the conference rooms at our record producer’s headquarters, a high-rise building right smack dab in the middle of downtown LA. The door behind the dais led to a narrow hall with offices on either side, most of them closed, thus blocking out any glimpse of the sunshine pouring through their wall-of-glass windows. There was another conference room at the other end of the hall, which, for today’s purposes, had been converted into a sort of waiting area for the band. There were couches and comfortable chairs and a nice charcuterie platter, along with a wet bar set up with everyone’s favorite drinks. Chaz and our label knew how to take care of us.
I assumed that’s where Sam and Chaz ran off to, so I headed that way. The door was ajar, and I heard them talking before I actually reached the room.
“I’m tired of it, Chaz. I want out.” That was Sam’s voice.
“Out, like out?” Chaz sounded slightly panicked. With good reason. Sam was arguably one of the best drummers to have been born since Neil Peart. If he left…
“Of this fake relationship,” Sam said, clearly exasperated.
I winced. I hated when he referred to our relationship as fake.
Even though it was.
That was another one of Dahlia’s brilliant creations: Sam’s and my love affair.
Benny and his college sweetheart, Kerry, had gotten married shortly after we’d recorded our first EP—a fact he had tried to keep under wraps, because, hello, single, hot lead guitarist was definitely a selling point. Eventually, his wife got sick of hiding in the shadows, so they announced their relationship via an Instagram post that unsurprisingly went viral.
In the midst of all that, some fan posted a picture of Sam and me on social media. We’d looked chummy, flirty even. We were probably both drunk or, more likely, still riding on the high from another successful concert, because at the time, there had been nothing between us but friendship. It was a great friendship, but it was totally platonic.
That post also went viral, hundreds of thousands of comments making it clear our fans loved the idea that we might be a thing.
Dahlia saw it as the perfect opportunity to give the band more publicity.
Four years later, there were entire chatrooms dedicated to our love affair. And only four people on this planet knew it wasn’t real: me, Sam, Chaz, and Dahlia.
Any time the band recorded a ballad, Dahlia led our fans to believe it was about Sam and me. Benny and I wrote most of the songs, and I rarely wrote about love. That was all him, and by the way, any love song he wrote was definitely about his wife.
But Kerry wasn’t famous and Sam and I both were, which meant our fans weren’t nearly as rabid over their relationship as they were over Sam and me.
And Sam hated it.
Chaz made shushing noises, and I imagined him waving both hands up and down, like he was trying to soothe a cornered animal. “Calm down, Sam, and stop throwing that word around so freely.”
“Why? I’m serious, Chaz. Make it happen. I can’t do this anymore.”
“What can’t you do? Make googly eyes at Holly? Kiss her once in a while? Live the perfect rock ’n roll life?”
There was a slight pause, and then Chaz said, “Is this about getting laid? I’ve told you I can make that happen. I am the king of discretion. Just say the word and—”
“What about the rest of it?”
“I’m not following you,” Chaz said.
I wasn’t either. Of course, to be honest, I assumed he was getting laid. Despite the world believing we were the perfect couple, groupies threw themselves at him constantly when we were on tour. Trust me, I’d noticed.
“What if I want more? A family? Marriage? Kids? Love?” That was a lot of emphasis on the last word. And holy shit, I’d never heard Sam talk like this before. Sure, he hated our ruse, but he’d never said this was why.
“Well, first of all, that isn’t part of your character. A moody, brooding drummer for a rock band does not pine after a wife and kids,” Chaz, the voice of reason, said.
“Yeah, I get that, but everybody has to grow up sometime. I’m not saying I want to quit the band. I’m sick of this stupid persona Dahlia created. I want to be…whoever the hell I am.”
This was not a new argument, although there was a whole lot more passion—and maybe desperation—in Sam’s words than there ever had been before. How come?
Oh shit, was he secretly dating someone?
The band hadn’t been on tour in eight months. For the first six months of our break, we’d been in the studio, laying down the tracks for our next album. For the last two, we’d basically chilled at our respective homes, doing appearances here and there but actually taking a breather from all the chaos surrounding being the biggest rock band in the world.
During that time, Sam had disappeared off the radar for about six weeks, reappearing only a few days ago so we could prepare for all these press conferences and then get ready to go on tour.
His absence, and his completely dark social media, were no doubt the catalyst for Oliver’s questions. I should have checked to see what we were up against before this appointment. But like Sam, I got tired of this charade sometimes too; I just wasn’t as vocal about it.
I’d assumed he simply wanted a break and had gone off to live in a cabin in the woods or some shit, but had he met someone and had been secretly dating her all this time? Now he wanted out of our fake relationship so he could have a real one with her? It made sense.
And it sucked, but I got it. We were never meant to be. I’d been burned enough for ten lifetimes, and I was not willing to take that chance with anyone, but especially not someone I was as close to as I was to Sam.
“We can stage a breakup,” Sam said so abruptly I actually jumped a little. “Make it a big, dramatic thing.”
I assumed Chaz was shaking his head, because he said, “Are you out of your mind? Your fans will freak. They’ll take sides. It’ll be you against Holly, and you know how people are; she’ll be the bad guy, no matter what you do. It’ll be a media nightmare. The poor woman will start receiving death threats, mark my words.”
Holy shit, no thank you. Sometimes I got emails from holier-than-thou types who didn’t understand why I showed so much skin or had so many piercings and tattoos and sang about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, but that was easy to blow off. Death threats were a whole different ball game.
“Come on, Chaz, we need to do something. I’m at my breaking point here. If we don’t figure out a way to get us out of this fake relationship, I’m going to consider quitting the band.”
Damn, he was serious. He’d never made this thread before. He loved this band as much as the rest of us. Quitting would devastate him.
There really was another woman. A real relationship. And as much as I hated the idea, I needed to help him be with her.
For the record, I really hated the idea.
But Sam was my friend—or at least, he had been, before we started this charade.
Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe we could work together on this whole fake breakup bit, and then we could go back to really, truly being friends.
I pushed the door open wide enough to slip inside and said:
“What if we make it an amicable breakup?”
My body, without requiring any direction from my brain, twisted around to face Holly.
She stood just inside the conference room, her hands hidden behind her back. She’d changed her hair while I was away. There were streaks of color tucked under the midnight blue; every time she tilted her head, another bright tress popped into view. Purple, magenta, red, orange, yellow, blue, green, an entire rainbow. Wonder how long she’d had to sit in the stylist’s chair for that one.
Wait, no, I didn’t wonder. I didn’t give a shit.
She wore all black, too, which was probably a calculated move to show off the new hair. Tight midriff-baring shirt, body-hugging leggings, and ankle boots with spiky heels. Heavy eye makeup, dark red lipstick, and clunky silver jewelry completed the ensemble.
Total rocker girl.
Holly was one who had no issues letting Dahlia dress her, make her over, tell her how to act and what to do and say. She told me once, early on, when we were still playing our friends’ parties and the smallest dive bars ever, that she was afraid she wouldn’t make it in this industry because she didn’t look the part. That even though her vocals were what made our shows so freaking on point and the songs she wrote were usually fan favorites, she’d probably get kicked out of the band eventually because her look was holding us back.
She’d had some pretty low self-esteem back then.
And I’d been insanely, obsessively crushing on her.
Maybe I had self-esteem issues too, because I never told her, at least, not until we were knee-deep in this stupid charade and I was having a hard time separating reality from playacting.
But she’d shut me down, because by that point, Holly had confidence for days and she didn’t need my constant encouragement anymore. She didn’t need me.
I liked feeling needed. Or at least wanted. And I didn’t get any of that from this bullshit fake relationship. Not to mention, I was really sick of living with the woman and not being able to touch her.
Chaz hurried over to attend to her; Holly commanded a room like that. Everybody wanted to be close to her, like she was a pied piper or some crap. If he were any other guy, I’d have felt a surge of jealousy over the way he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and led her deeper into the room, cooing and fawning over her, but this was Chaz. Besides being our faithful manager through all the climbing toward success, he’d always treated us like we were his kids. He didn’t have an unrequited crush on Holly McGregor. Never had, never would.
Unlike the other dumbass in the immediate vicinity.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that, Holly,” Chaz said.
Cold sweat beaded on the back of my neck. Fuck. What had she heard?
Hopefully, not all that lame crap about wanting to start a family. Not that I maybe didn’t feel that way sometimes, but Chaz was right, that was so not the way badass drummer Sam Stokes was supposed to feel. My fake relationship with Holly was all about two diehard rockers having a torrid affair that was mostly convenient and supposedly great fodder for song lyrics. We never talked about love, other than in the songs. We pretended we didn’t give a shit what anyone said. We staged moments where I acted jealous over an obsessed fan, and she ultimately threw herself into my arms and kissed me—make-believe kissing, of course.
I mean, it’s hard to fake a kiss, but that’s what we did.
And our fans, our bandmates lapped it up like kittens around a bowl of cream. Back in the beginning, we used to laugh about how ridiculous it was, how we couldn’t believe no one saw through us.
They didn’t see through us because I wasn’t acting. It wasn’t fake to me.
Well, it was, but it wasn’t, if that made sense. Which it didn’t. Which was why I wanted out.
The band—that’s real. The music, the chart-topping albums—all that’s as real as the sun rising and setting every day. So why the hell did we need to carry on some stupid charade that got no one anywhere?
I opened my mouth, prepared to point out that the fans will still be there after our breakup, that our bandmates may be pissed initially when they find out we’ve been living a lie all this time, but they’ll get over it.
Holly said, “I don’t want to lose Sam.”
My entire world shrank to focus on that single statement. I held my breath, willed her to say more. Or just walk over to me and throw her arms around my neck and declare her undying love.
“The band wouldn’t be the same,” she continued.
The band. Of course. It was always, ever about the band.
“Besides, he’s a founding member. All of this is as much his as it is anyone’s.” She waved as if to encompass the room, but really, she meant our fame.
My shoulders drooped. I strode over to the wet bar and snagged one of those three-ounce liquor bottles. Whiskey. Good. I needed something strong. Didn’t matter that it was nine in the morning.
“Breakups are never amicable, babe,” Chaz said in a soothing voice, as if this was all her idea. “This’ll ruin the band’s image.”
Fuck Sam. Just focus on the good of the band. Story of my goddamn life.
“We can make this happen,” Holly insisted. “Let’s pull in Dahlia. She’s good at performing miracles. Look what she did for me.”
There was a little part of me that had hoped that when Holly found out I wanted a fake breakup, she’d insist we not do it. That we should stay together. That she wanted it to become real.
Apparently, I was the only romantic in this charade of a relationship.
My dad’s words from a conversation we’d had less than a week ago echoed in my head. What Holly didn’t know— what no one save my family and my best friend knew—was that when I disappeared off the radar six weeks ago, I’d gone home to southern Missouri. Spent time with my parents, my sister, my best friend. Chilled. Relaxed.
Tried to forget about Holly, even for a few moments at a time.
During this particular conversation with my dad, it had been late, really late, and the lake my parents lived on had been quiet and dark, the calm surface reflecting the stars that had been out in full force on a backdrop of a cloudless sky.
My dad and I sat side by side, each drinking a beer, and he told me about the first woman he’d ever loved, which, by the way, wasn’t my mom.
I hadn’t ever heard this story before.
“I was so crazy about her,” he said, “I followed her around like a goddamn puppy. Borderline stalked her.” He’d chuckled and added, “To be honest, by today’s standards, I was stalking her.”
And then he shook his head. “She didn’t even acknowledge my existence. Didn’t know I was alive, let alone willing to walk to the ends of the earth for her. Absolutely shattered me when I figured it out.”
Still staring out over the glassy surface of the lake, clearly lost in a bygone moment in time, he murmured:
“If there’s one piece of advice I can give you, son, it’s not to let a woman destroy you like that. I almost lost myself, lost sight of who I really was, because I was trying so hard to be what I thought she wanted. Hell, if I hadn’t met your mom when I did, I don’t know what I would have done. I do know that I sure as hell wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t have you and your sister. Wouldn’t get to sleep with the love of my life every night. I wouldn’t be happy.”
The memory faded, just like that gorgeous night had, and I watched while Chaz continued to try to coax Holly, and she continued to hold her ground, and I swear I could practically see my dad nodding knowingly. “It’s exactly the same,” his voice whispered in my head. “This thing you have for Holly.”
Shit. I didn’t want to lose myself, although, honestly, sometimes I felt like I already had. Rocking out on stage was supposed to be my greatest dream, yet this playacting bullshit going on with Holly was a thick smog smothering my dream, ruining it for me.
I needed to get out.
“Set it up,” I said, interrupting another of Chaz’s attempts to keep us together. I pointed at him, the now-empty airplane bottle of whiskey dangling from my fingers. “Find Dahlia. Tell her to meet us at the house. We’ll take it from here.”
I strode out, unconcerned that I was leaving Holly behind. We’d driven over separately anyway.
Six weeks ago, I’d been sitting at the island in the kitchen of the house Holly and I shared, nursing a cup of coffee and scrolling through my socials, when Holly walked into the room, all dewy eyed, her hair tussled, wearing a pale pink camisole and booty shorts with dark pink hearts on them. I’d had this vision of her striding over and climbing into my lap, and we made love right there, her splayed out on her back on the island while I grasped her hips and pumped into her, maintaining eye contact the entire time.
Yeah, I was a fucking romantic, so what of it?
Except I wasn’t allowed to be romantic because it didn’t fit my image. And Holly, as far as I’d ever been able to tell, didn’t have a romantic bone in her body.
She’d smiled and yawned and waved from across the room, then strode straight to the coffeepot—I was always up first, which meant she hadn’t made her own morning coffee in years.
Not since we each received that first six-figure royalty check, and Dahlia had shown us this house, which had been a short sale due to whatever financial crisis the previous owner had been in. And Holly had believed rock ‘n roll stars should live in a crazy ass big house built on a cliff overlooking the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Dahlia had suggested we buy it together. “It’s plenty big enough that you can live like roommates if that’s what you really want,” she said, and naturally, Holly agreed.
And so did I, because back then I was still wishing for something that I now realized would never be.
Six weeks ago, on that fateful morning, Holly had added creamer to her cup, lifted it in salute, and then she’d walked out of the room, not even speaking let alone touching me. Not that any of that was unexpected, but every single morning I hoped…
And that particular morning, something inside me had broken. Suddenly, I couldn’t stand the idea of waking up the next day, waiting for Holly to become someone she wasn’t.
I strode straight upstairs to my bedroom, packed my shit, and climbed into my Lexus LC convertible. I’d texted Chaz that I was going off-grid for a while but would be back before the kickoff of the tour. He’d texted back that I’d better have told Holly where I was going so she wouldn’t worry.
I took off.
I grew up on the shores of Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri—yes, the one featured in that series called Ozark. Living on the water was cathartic, comforting. Relaxing.
Exactly what I needed.
I spent my days fishing and boating, my evenings drumming in this local band that probably could break out of playing small, backwoods bars and the local fair if they’d only get rid of their lead singer. But he was the brother of the guitarist, who started the band, so that wasn’t happening. Sucked for my best friend Parker, who was their bassist, because he was really freaking good, and he deserved so much more.
On the rare occasion I went out in public, I wore my hair in a man bun and kept a baseball cap on my head and sunglasses on my face, and no one other than Parker, my parents, and my sister even knew who I was.
It was exactly what I needed.
Except six weeks apparently wasn’t long enough for me to have gotten over whatever the hell I felt for Holly. And while that break had been great, I was right back to where I started: dreading every single morning when she’d get up and walk into that kitchen and not tell me she felt for me what I felt for her.
“How did you survive?” I asked abruptly into the silence that hung over the living room like a freaking boulder, ready to crush us at any moment.
We were back at the house, waiting on Dahlia. Holly had changed into a ribbed tank and those booty shorts she favored. It was more of her style from back in our college days, when the rocker girl had been all on the inside. Back then, she’d looked more like a cheerleader than a singer in a rock band.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” she said from the other end of the couch, where she sat with her nose buried in her phone, using one thumb to scroll through whatever was on the screen. Her Insta feed, if I had to guess.
“Your morning coffee.”
She glanced up at me and then dropped the phone onto the cushion. “I’m still pissed at you for leaving without telling me. Regardless of your reasoning.”
What had Chaz told her? I’d never asked, and I hadn’t alerted Holly, either. I hadn’t been in a good place then, just like now.
“Because you didn’t have anyone to make your coffee?” I asked, covering my own unease with a playful tone.
She rolled her eyes, and I watched a smile tease at her lips. I fought the urge to melt a little. From a fucking half smile. God, I was pathetic.
“It was so embarrassing,” she admitted. “I spent an hour that first morning, trying to figure it out. And then I got so frustrated, I threw on a baseball cap and drove to the nearest Starbucks. The chick in the drive-through line recognized me, and I sort of freaked because I didn’t have on any makeup or even a bra. I was literally in my pajamas, driving through Starbucks at ten in the morning.”
“I don’t think that’s all that unusual.”
“Yeah, but it’s me. Could you imagine if photos had shown up online?” She scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue.
I shrugged. “Dahlia would have figured out a way to turn it into good publicity.” She always did. Hopefully, she’d maintain that trend while getting Holly and me out of this fake relationship.
Holly shook her head. “I panicked and took off without my order and called Chaz and begged him to bring me a coffee. He did, and of course teased me mercilessly. Now, I have a standing Grubhub order, every morning. You didn’t notice that they showed up the first day you were back home?”
Back home? Yeah, right. This was no home. Sometimes I thought of it as a prison. A place where I was tortured by her presence, day in and day out.
“Must have been while I was out jogging.” I usually went jogging much earlier in the morning, before it got crazy hot, but since returning from Missouri, I planned my exercise routine deliberately so that I left the house right before she came downstairs.
“That makes sense,” she said, nodding. “So anyway, I’ve now canceled the order. Welcome back.” She grinned like…like we were buddies or something. Except we weren’t. We weren’t anything.
And Dahlia was going to help ensure the rest of the world knew it, too.
And I could finally be free.
Dahlia breezed into the house without knocking, like she usually did. She was all too aware that the likelihood of her walking in on something she didn’t want to see was next to nil.
She was Filipino, with striking features and thick, dark hair with two bold red streaks framing her face. She favored tight suits with micro-mini skirts and stiletto heels that added inches to her height.
She was a highly sought after publicist on the LA scene because she was a wizard when it came to making people look good—or bad, as the preference sometimes was. Like mine had been when we’d first formed the band. My tight-ass, high society image was so not appropriate for this lifestyle, yet I’d had no clue how to change it. But Dahlia had, and, per her usual, my new look had been a hit with our fans.
I wondered how she’d feel when we announced our desire—well, Sam’s desire—to break up. We couldn’t deny that her idea had helped grow our fanbase. My bank balance didn’t lie.
But if Sam had fallen in love, I had no right to insist he keep up the pretense with me. He deserved to live his best life.
Dahlia waved her phone as she strode into the room. “I barely have to do damage control on this morning’s botched press conference,” she said, and then pointed the device at Sam. “Nice job with that look over your shoulder, that pissed off expression on your face, telling everyone you were going to practice for the upcoming tour. Got an alert that another arena sold out shortly after the first video was posted online. Not a coincidence, I assure you.”
Sam scowled, and Dahlia kept walking, blowing right past us and striding into the dining room. She was at the wet bar, based on the clinking of glasses and what sounded like ice being dumped. A few moments later, she returned to the living room carrying a tray laden with champagne flutes, a jug of orange juice, and a bottle of sparkling wine stuffed into a bucket of ice.
While she expertly popped the cork, Sam said, “That little show was worthy of celebrating?”
“Nope,” Dahlia said, popping the P and pouring bubbling liquid into three tall flutes. “But it’s before noon, and the only things I drink before noon are mimosas and bloodies.” She handed us each a glass and then tipped up her own, draining half of it in one swallow. I wasn’t worried that she was about to get hammered and possibly give us bad advice; Dahlia had an alcohol tolerance higher than pretty much anyone I knew.
After refilling her glass, she plopped onto the overstuffed chair perpendicular to the couch Sam and I shared and pulled her iPad out of her purse.
“So, four years of some of my most brilliant work and you want to flush it all down the drain. Is that my understanding?” she asked, her eyes on her iPad screen.
I winced and glanced at Sam. He sat there, stony faced, but I could tell by the way he gripped his glass that he was angry. He’d perfected the unaffected rocker persona, but I lived with the man. Before this whole charade, we’d been practically best friends. I knew his moods, even if he did a damn good job of trying to hide them.
“Not flush it down the drain,” I said, clearing my throat and taking a swig of champagne mixed with OJ. Dahlia could be a hard-ass when it came to messing with her creations, and Sam didn’t deserve to be attacked for wanting to live a real life.
“Just make adjustments,” I added. “We’re ready to move on to the next phase of our lives.”
She lifted her gaze to stare at me over the top of her iPad. “And what is that phase? The one where you finally admit this relationship is actually real?”
I forced out a laugh while fighting the blush I could feel creeping up my neck. A few months after we started this whole fake dating business, I’d gotten drunk and confided to Dahlia that the idea of actually dating Sam wasn’t unappealing, if I weren’t so damn afraid of relationships, courtesy of the last one I’d been in.
The craziest part was, two days later, Sam had asked if I wanted to go on a real date, and I’d balked from the memories of my last “real date.”
That moment had marked the demise of Sam’s and my friendship, which sucked royally. Especially considering we were still carrying on with this pretend romantic relationship.
“We want out, Dahlia,” Sam said. “We want to break up. You can make that happen the way you want it to, or you can leave it to us. Your choice.”
He knew exactly what to say to ensure Dahlia quit fighting us and decided to help. No way would she allow us to manage this on our own. She was fond of saying, “This band is fantastic at making hits. Not so much anything else. You stick to the music, and I’ll handle the rest.”
She pursed her lips, her gaze darting between Sam and me, and then it dropped to her screen, where she began furiously tapping. “Fine. I will create a plan, and you will stick to it like actors on stage on Broadway. Do you understand me? No deviating.”
It sounded like she was a mother scolding her children. I chuckled uneasily, but Sam nodded and said, “Fine. So long as the end result is the public is aware that we’re no longer together.”
Damn. He wasn’t messing around. Sam was more than ready to not be a part of my life anymore.
“And the rest of the band doesn’t hate us,” I added, rubbing a hand over my chest, where my heart was beating a steady albeit slightly too-fast rhythm. I wasn’t at all crazy about the uncomfortable sensation there.
Dahlia left shortly after that, promising to come up with a foolproof plan before we kicked off our tour next weekend, here in LA. Not a lot of time, but I had faith she’d figure it out.
Sam topped off each of our drinks and then wandered over to the French doors leading out to the patio and slipped outside. I followed. We’d hardly spoken at all since he returned from his mystery trip. I had no idea where he’d gone, what he’d done, who he’d been with.
What kind of woman would cause Sam to fall so thoroughly and deeply that he’d actually uttered the words, “I’m going to consider quitting the band”?
If you’d asked me ten minutes prior to that, I would have insisted Sam would never, ever, not in a million years consider leaving the band.
To be honest, I was glad I felt so strongly about avoiding that kind of love at all costs. I loved this life; I loved the person Dahlia had turned me into. I had no desire to feel so passionately for another person that I’d be willing to walk away from all this.
Because that would be giving the other person the control and ability to hurt me.
Our house, like so many in this area, was built into the side of a mountain, providing a natural barrier between the occupants and those who would intrude upon our lives. From the street, all you could see was a solid, dark green gate, a privacy fence, and lots and lots of trees and bushes. From the back, well, without a drone or a helicopter, no one would be able to tell whether Sam and I hung out by the pool naked or dressed in snowsuits.
When I walked out onto the patio, the aqua-colored, crystal clear basin of water was only ten steps away, and beyond it was a breathtaking view of the mountains and LA. It was, admittedly, a nice oasis, a place to hide away when the pressures of constantly being “on” became too much.
Sam had been edgier than usual after we finished recording this latest album, but I couldn’t recall any specific interactions that might have been frustrating enough to send him away without so much as a note.
He sat on the edge of the pool, his legs dangling in the water. He wore a pair of shorts that hung low on his hips and a T-shirt that wasn’t quite long enough, so every time he lifted his arm, he exposed a swath of skin and those sexy as hell V-shaped muscles over his hips.
Those muscles, his six-pack, and his spectacular pecs were always a highlight of our concerts when he stopped drumming mid-set, stood, and tore off his shirt and then played the rest of the show naked from the waist up. Even though I got to see that Adonis belt more frequently than most—it was inevitable when you lived with the guy—I’d still been caught staring like a lovesick fan enough times that Dahlia was fond of teasing me about it.
I walked over and dropped down next to him, not too close, since he seemed to shy away anytime I was near. “You cut your hair.”
He raked a hand through his shoulder-skimming locks. They’d draped to the middle of his back before he disappeared six weeks ago.
“Yeah, I chopped off about six inches right before I came back.”
“I like it.” I did. He rocked the hell out of the really long hair, but this shorter, more stylized look felt more like…him.
He grunted and stared off into the distance for long moments, before saying, “Even though they both have mountains, southern Missouri is so different from here.”
That was where he was from. A small town south of Branson. Whenever he talked about home, there was a trace of longing in his voice, like maybe he regretted leaving. But if he hadn’t, he never would have realized his dream of becoming a rock star.
“Do you miss it?”
“That’s where I was, these past six weeks.”
“Oh.” Had he met a girl while he was home? Or was it an old flame and they’d rekindled their love? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t really want to know.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” I finally managed to squeak out, curious and yet hoping he wasn’t about to go on and on about some mysterious lady love.
“Yeah. It was nice to hang with my parents. My best friend. And my sister, although she was so crazy busy with work that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with her.”
I envied his relationship with his family. In truth, it was something I couldn’t comprehend. I hadn’t gotten along with my own parents—or my sisters, for that matter—even before I came to LA. Dropping everything and visiting with them for five minutes let alone six weeks was pretty much nonexistent on my to-do list.
I opened my mouth but then snapped it shut. He hadn’t mentioned his new girlfriend, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up.
Instead, I said, “Disappearing like that might play in our favor.”
Even though I’d spent the entire six weeks reassuring everyone—including our bandmates—that we were fine, once we officially broke up, I imagine fans would say, “Remember when he went off the radar for six weeks last spring? I bet that was the beginning of the end.”
He glanced at me, his eyes hidden behind mirrored glasses, reflecting my own pensive expression back at me.
I waved my champagne flute. “The rest of the band kind of freaked initially when they realized you were gone. Already thought we’d broken up.”
I hated lying to the people who were my closest friends. Hell, if I were being honest, they were my only friends. My only true friends, at any rate.
But Dahlia had insisted it was too dangerous to let other people in on our little ploy, even those closest to us. She said their reactions upon discovering we were dating would only increase fan support.
She’d been right, of course. Then one day, we’d been carrying on the charade for so long, it was suddenly way too awkward to loop in the band.
So we’d continued to hoodwink our best friends for four, long years.
Sam turned back to face the water, the mountain range beyond. “Yeah, my phone blew up there for a few days.”
And he’d not replied to a single text or call. I’d had to field the questions, the concern, when they all showed up one morning, like a rock ‘n roll support group, with coffee and a bottle of Bailey’s and the intention of helping me through my supposed grief.
I should have let them believe, then this would be easy. Except I hadn’t known this was what Sam wanted. If he’d actually talked to me before he took off, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
“You obviously placated them,” he murmured without looking at me.
I nodded and sipped at my drink. “I totally lied and said one of your parents was sick so you went home to take care of them.”
He snorted. “That explains why Benny kept asking how my dad was doing.”
“Kind of ironic that’s where you actually went.”
He shrugged, and we fell into a few moments of silence, until he blurted, “I’d still take a lake or the ocean over a pool in the middle of the city any day.”
I glanced up at the mountain peaks in the distance. It didn’t feel like the middle of the city when we were back here, but I understood what he meant. The minute we stepped through the front gate, it was like this oasis didn’t exist.
“I suppose we need to talk about that at some point,” I said, grateful for the change of subject, even though honestly, this one wasn’t any easier to deal with.
“Moving. When this breakup happens. It won’t make sense for us to continue living together.” Especially if he planned to move his hometown sweetheart out here, and, more than likely, in with him.
He nodded and drained his glass. “Do you want the house?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
He shook his head. “This was never me.”
It wasn’t me either, but I’d wanted it to be. So badly that I’d convinced myself I was happy. But this impending breakup, fake as it may be, was making me unaccountably sad. What the hell was I going to do without Sam?
Yeah, I’d managed for six weeks while he was back home, but I’d known he was returning. This…this felt permanent. And far more real than a fake breakup should.
“If you had your choice, where would you live?” I asked.
Instead of answering me, he glanced at his empty glass, then at mine. “You want a refill?”
He hopped to his feet, all controlled grace and sleek muscles, and disappeared inside. When he returned, he carried the entire tray Dahlia had taken into the living room. After filling both flutes, he sat back down on the pool’s edge.
“I love the area where I grew up. And my family is there. My sister moved to New York for a few years, but it didn’t work out, so it looks like she’s planning to settle there too. I guess, if I had the choice, I’d probably move back home. Buy my own house on the lake.”
I sipped my mimosa. Our lives had been so different before we started the band. Whereas I’d hated my home life, couldn’t wait to get the hell away from my family, and had fewer than zero plans of ever returning, he was one of those lucky souls who craved his roots.
The other aspect of that information he’d just shared was the distinct lack of any tidbits regarding his girlfriend. Maybe it was on purpose; maybe he wasn’t ready to tell anyone about her. He and I had lost that tight friendship we’d had in the early years, so I could see where he might not consider me a close enough friend to talk about her.
That didn’t make it any easier to accept, for the record.
Still, if I read between the lines, what I heard him say was he wasn’t planning to bring his girlfriend out here; he wanted to go be with her.
I swallowed my pride and said, “It’s possible, you know. We don’t actually have to live in the LA area. We just do because it’s convenient. But you could always have your primary residence in Missouri and have an apartment or condo out here, for when we’re in the studio.”
He nodded, staring, I suspected, at something in his head. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. What about you? What are you gonna do?”
I wish I knew. “I think the first thing I should do is take lessons on how to work a coffeemaker.”
He laughed. It was the first time I’d heard him laugh in… hell, I couldn’t remember the last time.