Owen crossed his arms and tipped up his gaze at me.
“You know very well what.”
“Don’t get all snooty at me, Lucky Charms.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Such language out of the daddy of the day.”
Owen’s dancing blue eyes went wintery. His Irish temper and my Scottish heat slammed together like a sea wall and storm surge sometimes, but it had been a damn long time.
And it wasn’t fair to get him riled on a day all about him and Callie.
Ah, fuck. I opened my mouth to apologize. I didn’t like to fight with my friends. When I was in a mood, I just stayed away from them, plain and simple. Most of them were so involved with their significant others that it was easy enough to avoid them.
Obviously, I couldn’t skip out on this shindig. Not when it came to Callie anyway. She was the only one who could make me come into a room of felines.
I did a quick scan for the little whitish-gray cat that kept trying to climb up my leg. I wasn’t a damn scratching post.
“What the hell is your problem?” Owen nodded at me and my little table I’d commandeered. “You aren’t normally the antisocial one. But today you are?” His gaze tracked over to the barista-slash-proprietress. “Or is it the fair Piper who has snagged your attention?”
“What? No.” My eyebrows came down as I rescued my mug from the edge of the coffee station. The rude little minx hadn’t given it back to me.
“Then what’s your deal?”
I gulped down the quickly cooling coffee and refilled from the hickory dark blend that I was pretty sure I was going to marry. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“May as well be Bats, mate.”
“Now you can fuck off.” I speared my fingers through my hair. And he was right, I was being an antisocial shit. And it wasn’t because of the little pack of dynamite and all her pussies.
Okay, not all of it.
She was surprisingly distracting. She was the size of a pocket sprite and obviously uncomfortable when surrounded by so many people. Whether the people who bothered her were of the female variety—though she didn’t seem competitive there—or famous, I wasn’t quite sure.
Another conundrum since she owned a very hands-on, people-filled kind of establishment. Then again, cats. None of it made sense.
All right, maybe I’d noticed a little more than I’d thought.
“Just don’t have it in me to be all charming today, so I’m staying away from the chirpy women.”
The anger leeched out of his eyes. “Is there something going on?”
Another layer of guilt crashed onto my shoulders. “No, man. I’m just bored.” Before he could say a thousand words with a spiked eyebrow, I held up my mug in a salute. “Not because of the circumstances of the day. I’m just itchy. We haven’t been off the road this long since…well, ever.”
I liked the road.
It kept me busy. New faces, new towns, a schedule. Right now, I had no schedule beyond a few hours in the studio once or twice a week. That left me with way too much downtime.
“Ah, well the album isn’t moving along as quickly as it usually does.”
Because my bandmates were distracted with real life.
Oh, music was still our focus—mostly—but there were definitely other things pulling at them. The lust for the road had been tempered by warm beds full of warm, willing, and interesting women. Not the kind you roll off and forget.
Only Keys, our keyboardist, had a husband, Quinn, who came on the road with the band. Quinn worked in security, and our record company seemed to be raising the bar in that area. Too many overzealous types sneaking through, I supposed.
Kennedy and Callie had their own careers here in Los Angeles which allowed for some blissfully smug married people all around me. It sucked. The party scene was always there, but I was bored with that as well. And I fully realized I sounded like an asshole in my own head.
But hell, I stayed over in my corner and I wasn’t bothering anyone. The only thing the women wanted the men for at these things was to be a pack mule for all the loot they were getting. The number of bags and huge boxes I saw stacking up on the tables in the cat zone was hella huge. So here I sat so that I could help haul out the baby junk.
I knew my role. And it wasn’t cooing over baby booties.
“It’s cool,” I said to Owen, who I realized belatedly was still waiting for me to reply. “I’m fine. I’ve got incredible coffee, and my cashmere is safe from the felines.”
“My Ferragamo boots and Hugo Boss pants thank me.”
“You hear yourself, right?”
I shrugged. “I like nice things.” I nodded toward the cat pen. “That doesn’t look like fun to me.”
“Aww, come on. The needle-sharp nails of the kittens are totally worth it when the little ball of fluff burrows into your shirt.”
“You, my friend, are already primed for fatherhood. The kittens are taking advantage of all the pheromones, hormones, and baby googly eyes going on in there.”
“Good thing I love you, man. Because you are an ass.”
Piper came back into the room with a mug overflowing with whipped cream and a cinnamon stick with a little witch on the end. “Here we go.”
“Perfect. She’s probably already forgotten she asked for it.” Owen pointed to me. “He’s going to take it in. Callie will be excited to see you, son.”
“Low blow.” I stood and cupped the bottom of the soup-bowl-sized mug. “Thanks.”
Piper held tight to the mug, her forefinger clutched around the improbably small handle at the edge of the rim. A tiny tattoo of a cat paw-print was half hidden by a filigreed rose gold ring.
“I got it, kitten.”
She instantly released it and her cute little nostrils flared. Everything about her was tiny. Well, except one thing—okay, two—and I was trying my damnedest to keep my eyes from trailing down to check them out.
Not like she was showing them off under her baggy, unisex T-shirt. I snorted when I finally read what it said.
My Pussy belongs in a Palace, how about yours?
She gave me a bland stare and I cleared my throat. “Lead on, kitten.”
Drawing in a deep breath, she twirled on the tips of her toes to lead us to the cat box.
I resisted the urge to watch her ass, and instead put on my best indulgent smile as the door opened. “Ladies, how are we doing in here?”
“Fuck off. Not just ladies.”
I simply raised an eyebrow at Hunter, flat on his back on a couch with three kittens crawling along his chest. His head was in Kennedy’s lap easy as you please.
“Please don’t feed the kittens that.”
Hunter gave a sheepish smile as he pulled the tiny rolled-up piece of ham away from the multi-colored kitten prancing up his stomach.
He actually let the little dirty feet near his face. Was he high?
I resisted the urge to shudder and marched right over to the woman on the throne. A literal throne. I shook my head. “Nice, Sunshine.”
Callie held out her hands, her fingers already making the universal grabby sign. “I need sustenance.” Owen opened his mouth and Callie pointed. “Don’t.”
“Whatever you want, bunny.”
She accepted the mug, then took a big slurp of the hot chocolate and hummed. “Oh, that’s good stuff. I miss coffee so bad, but this is almost as good.” She set the huge mug down and more than half of it was gone.
Damn asbestos mouth. She could drink down scalding-hot liquids without flinching.
“Make yourself useful, Wild Man.”
The quick zing that traveled up my shoulders at my old racing name was instinctual. When I was prepared for it, I could block it out and smile, chat, or sign an autograph. But when it came out of the blue, I didn’t have a defense for it. Even if it was Callie, one of the best people in my life, there was still that bit of anger simmering under the surface.
If I was still racing, I’d be training. There would be no downtime. No boredom. No time to be anything but busy.
But that was not to be. Not ever again.
I smiled warmly at the statuesque blond in the corner. Her long legs were crossed and she was giving some side-eye to a black and white cat trying to climb along her chair. When the cat walked across her lap, she put her arms up and froze.
“Get it off.” The woman had seemed refined and elegant until she opened her mouth and the shrill tone of her voice shrunk my damn balls.
“It’s all right.” Piper bustled forward. “I’ll just take care of that.” There was no censure in her voice, just matter of fact efficiency as she lifted the cat into her arms. “There’s a good boy.” She deposited the cat into a carpeted circular…thing in the wall.
I wasn’t quite sure what to call it. The wall was covered in a sage green carpet with a nubby texture. There were various ramps leading into more of the little cat houses. A half dozen cats were happily snoozing on the shelves in weird positions. Some half on, half off the ramps.
It was as if they were liquid bags of fur.
“Make it snappy, buddy.” Callie made a gimme gesture with her hands. “My bladder is going to make me sprint for the door soon. And this body doesn’t sprint any longer.”
I pulled the biggest box wrapped in green polka dots off the table and brought it over to her. “There, start there, mama.”
She sat forward and rubbed her hands. “Now we’re talking.” She ripped a huge strip off and squealed.
That was the beginning of the end. There was much sighing and awws.
I was afraid my man parts were being replaced with baby rattles and bottles. Sweet fuck. But I took turns with the guys stacking all her goodies in a weird game of Jenga.
Years of packing vans with gear made us masters at making stuff fit. By the time the last gift was cooed over, Hunter, Zach, and me had a good assembly line going.
I tugged my sweater off and left it at my little table. No way was I sweating through cashmere. I took some bassinette thing out the front door with me. The underside of our tour bus looked like we’d smuggled out half of Toys ‘R’ Us.
I climbed up inside and argued with Hunter about the best way to stack the clothes and the three car seats Callie had received.
Three? I couldn’t even comprehend that.
“They are only having one kid, right?” I swiped my forearm across my sweaty brow.
Hunter hauled another box off the sidewalk. “I’m beginning to wonder.”
Lanky Zach wound his way through the toys and up to the other side of the bus’s storage. “Just the one kiddo. But you know how it goes. You go in with the list that Cal made on the registry thing and then, well, you had to get that other thing that was super cute.”
I stopped and put my hands on my hips. “Is that so?”
Zach’s cheeks went bright pink. “What? I had to go shop for the kid.”
“Or you could get a gift card for the leftovers that she didn’t get.”
“Boring.” Zach twisted his Yankees cap around backwards and tucked another box in. “And lame, ya ginger bastard.”
“Smart and efficient, my boy. You don’t know what either of those words mean.”
Zach tossed a bag of wrapping paper at me. “You’re just a stuffed shirt with a Maserati and a black Amex these days, man. Where’s your soul?”
My shoulders stiffened. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said. You’re more worried about messing up your fancy duds than having fun anymore.” Zach jumped onto the curb, then scrubbed his palms on his jeans. “Pathetic.”
I hopped off the bus. “Uncalled for.”
And untrue. I was plenty fun. Fun enough for Zach to club with last week. Then again, he’d ditched me to go wandering down some trail behind the house where the after-party had been held.
At the time, I might have been sipping champagne off a model’s stomach. I didn’t quite remember. In the end, I’d left alone. Even a bottle of pink champagne and a stunning redhead hadn’t been able to get me out of my end-of-night funk. Add in Zach’s MIA status and I’d left pissed.
Stupid. I was used to Zach’s wandering ways. Whenever we toured, he disappeared into dive bars and clubs to get his music fix.
Hammered may have a heavy rock feel, but Zach had always been the eclectic music lover among us. He was just as likely to go into a country bar as he was into a blues club, or a punk den. It didn’t much matter so long as he got his creative fix.
Keys was constantly looking for the new, and Zach was looking for the different.
As for me? Lately, I felt tapped out creatively. Drums made sense and I loved them. The math of it, the power, and the physical exertion emptied my brain.
But when the show was over, I was done. I didn’t carry it around with me like they did, especially these days. I wasn’t sure what that said.
Nothing was holding my interest anymore. But knowing Zach was right about my lack of good humor these days didn’t mean I’d pass up a fight to burn off some energy. If Zach wanted to get into it, I was more than happy to oblige.
I moved in on Zach and he grinned up at me. “You coming at me?”
“Maybe.” I tucked in my ribbed tank. “You have more to say about my clothes?”
He glanced down at the simple cotton. “I like you better like that. Like you used to be.”
“Yeah, well I’m not that guy anymore.” I took a step back, suddenly uninterested in bruises and blood.
“Doesn’t have to be like that.”
Hunter stepped between us. “All right, guys. Let’s not. This is Callie’s day. Not for you to get all pissy about whatever is going on between you.”
The Callie reminder dusted the rest of my anger. I didn’t have any true beef with Zach or anyone else in the band. The one I was most annoyed with was myself.
I stretched my arms and went back to packing. Frankly, I didn’t want to examine anything else today.
A stream of women came out. Laughter and dewy eyes accompanied many of them. As well as phones. So many pictures.
Keys bounded over to us with more bags full of baby clothes. “Wow, you guys have been busy. I knew she had a lot, but wow.”
“How did Quinn get out of this shindig?” I asked.
“He got a SOS from his old boss to do a weekend thing.”
“And he let you out of his sight? Was he drugged?”
“Har-har.” She sneered at me. “I’m staying with Callie and Owen tonight to help build some baby stuff.”
“Does she need help?” I felt compelled to ask even as my balls started shrinking again.
“It’s all right. We got it. You might be able to tear the guts out of a car, but you suck with instructions.”
I shoved my sunglasses up into my hair. “I can read instructions.”
“No, you try to do it without them.”
“If I can build an engine, I should be able to build a crib.”
Should be being the operative words. Fine, maybe last week I’d put it together backwards and Owen had been forced to start over when he found the instructions. But that was all in the past.
“So you’re off the hook. Especially after this masterpiece of bus packing. I’m just going to toss all my clothes at you and you can put me together for the next tour.”
“When do we leave?”
She laughed. “Don’t rush us out the door. I’m enjoying the home time.”
“Yeah, so I keep hearing.”
She patted my arm. “It’s all right, Wyatt. If you gave one of your models a chance to talk to you for more than an hour, you might find yourself amused.”
The problem was, most of them were less than interesting to spend time with. They worried about fashion and out-booking their contemporaries. There was no working together, no matter what the photoshoots tried to make people believe. The models in this town were cutthroat.
And while most liked the cardio properties of sex, they were more worried about looking good than letting themselves go enough to actually enjoy the act. It was all about the look and what party they were seen at. I was so tired of the circle I’d backed myself into during the last few years.
Right. No more self-analyzing today. Though, seriously, when had I started doing that anyway?
When you started playing with cribs and baby booties and hanging out in pussy palaces that didn’t include women in G-strings, pal.
Some of my inner monologue must’ve shown on my face because Keys frowned. “I’m only kidding. You know that, right?”
I nodded and pulled my sunglasses back down. “Of course.”
Before she could ask any more questions, a trio of people finally stopped on the street near where we were parked. Recognition sparked and we all scattered, but not before Hunter and Keys were cornered by fans.
Doing our duty with them always came first, even if we weren’t in the mood for it. The hassle of the internet and a shitty tweet could blow up our lives for weeks. It was better to take the picture, sign the thing—or the boob—and move on with our day.
The problem was, one signature usually brought more attention.
By the time we were free of the quickly growing crowd, the last of the guests had driven off. Owen had bundled Callie into his air conditioned car so fast that I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Pissy, hot, and dusty was a threesome I didn’t want to be part of. I also didn’t have it in me to get on the party bus. Since they didn’t need my help with dropping off the stuff, I declined a ride.
Hunter frowned. “You don’t have a way back, man.”
I shrugged. “I’ll use my app and get a car.”
“You sure?” Hunter rubbed the back of his neck. “Everything all right, Hudson?”
My eyebrows went up. “First name. Wow, you really must be worried, Dad.”
I slapped his arm. “I’m fine, just itchy to get back on the road.” There, that was the truth. Mostly.
“Album’s coming along. We have that charity thing next month too.”
“Right. Wildfire Relief. I’m looking forward to it.”
“You sure? You’ve been pretty happy being a homebody.”
Hunter shrugged. “Kenny makes it difficult to want to go on tour, but I do miss it. I want to share all the shit we’re writing.”
It was good stuff, and I was relieved to hear he was as anxious as I was to get back on the road, even if there was a caveat.
“You sure you don’t want to get on the bus?” he asked.
I glanced down at my watch. Not like I had anywhere to be, but traffic was in the back of my mind. Enduring the gridlock afternoon commute with a strange driver wasn’t ideal either, but I still wasn’t in any hurry to say yes. “Nah. I’m good.”
Hunter grinned. “You wouldn’t be looking at Piper, would you?”
He shrugged. “Hot, a little crazy, sweet. Seems like a nice lady to spend time with.”
“Does she seem my type?”
“No. Maybe that’s the point.” He climbed up on the back steps of the bus we used for local gigs. The yip of dogs and laughter on the bus killed any last thoughts of going with them. Definitely didn’t have it in me for all that.
I patted my pants pocket for my phone, took it out, and opened the app. I got a brilliant smile from a woman on the street. I braced for recognition, but she didn’t know who the hell I was.
It was refreshing. Until I noticed she didn’t look at my face.
When another woman spun on the street to look back at me, I realized my sweater was still in the cafe. The sun was beating down on the sidewalk, which in turn made the damn concrete a super-sized pizza oven. And I was getting objectified. And pink.
Lucky me, the Scottish and British blood running through my veins made me freckle and burn with a side of lightly toasted white bread.
I sighed and turned back to the Pussy Palace. Helluva thing. The front lights were off. Evidently, Mz. Kitten wasn’t opening up for the rest of the day. On a Monday, no less.
I sneaked around the side of the building so I wasn’t right on the strip. Objectification was one thing, but I could still get recognized. These days, I might get noticed more for my Hugo Boss suits than for my former racing uniform, but I was a six-foot-four ginger on top of it all. Not exactly easy to blend in with the crowd.
The closer I got to Piper’s side door, the louder the music became. The catchy pop sound of a female singer pulsed from the windows. She must’ve had it at top volume.
At first, I didn’t see her. The chairs were upside down on tables in the cafe part and the comfy couches were shoved against one wall. Just as Kelly Clarkson belted out the chorus to her newest song, Piper Lockwood slid across the floor in a weird pair of shoes that looked like dust mops attached to her feet.
She was holding a huge mop in the same material and singing along as she undulated her hips in a natural rhythm that made my damn dick want to dance along.
Holy shit. Where did that come from?
I wouldn’t have called her awkward, but she wasn’t exactly the most overtly feminine woman I’d come across. Drugstore makeup and low-end jewelry that had probably been bought from a street fair adorned her neck and fingers. But hell, she had flowing hips that would do Shakira proud.
She was tiny, but under her frumpy clothes she had an ass that made my mouth water.
Nope. I so shouldn’t be looking at that ass.
She swung around as the song ended and another song came on that I didn’t know. It had a distinct Beatles flavor that had her moving her shoulders in a way that rivaled professional dancers on stage.
Not the kind of dancers that ran a cat cafe. In fact, more like a real Pussy Palace.
Don’t start thinking about G-strings again.
Fact was, I couldn’t have been more intrigued by Piper if she’d been practically naked. Okay, well, maybe not practically naked. That had to be something. But watching her lose herself in the music was erotic in unexpected ways.
She rested the handle of the mop against her shoulder as she lifted her hands over her head and pulled her hair out of its messy bun. Rich, chocolate waves tumbled down her back nearly to her waist.
Thick, and heavy with volume that most women would show off and pay thousands for, and she’d been hiding it with a ragged rubber band she snapped onto her wrist.
The lyrics screamed out that she was a good girl. Then they shifted into a simple refrain about her feeling so good.
Damn if I didn’t agree. Just watching her was making me feel better than I’d felt in weeks.
The song slowed down again and she went back to dancing with the handle and pushing dust and debris into piles at the edge of the cafe. She swung around and spotted me in the window. She stopped instantly and her huge brown eyes widened.
In a nanosecond, she went from sexy and carefree to reserved and buttoned-down. She scraped her hair back into a tail and crossed to the side door where I was totally being a creeper.
And I didn’t even have a sweater to hide my reaction to her. Perfect.
Guess I would have to go with straight up ignorance about the hard-on knocking against my zipper and hope she didn’t notice.
Or maybe I should hope that she did.