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July

“I’m going to string him up by his balls and then I’m going to leave his ass.” Denver Casey knew it was an empty threat, but it made her feel better to say it out loud. Freaking back alley waste dump of a street and she was searching out the bane of her existence.

Oh, and he was also her best friend.

Couldn’t forget that part. Stupid asshole had quickly become the best part of her job with Warning Sign. Being the babysitter-slash-driver of one of the fastest rising stars of the rock scene had its perks. She actually got paid to figure out every damn road in the country—her personal passion.

She was weird, and maybe a little obsessive about it, but it hadn’t steered her wrong yet. At least not in five years, twenty-four days.

Her nose wrinkled at the stench of stagnant dog piss and a dumpster that had been forgotten since before time began. Sweet fuck, it was foul. She panned her palm-sized flashlight over the muck. A shudder raced up her spine as things with far too many legs scattered and eyes glowed out of the dark.

She glanced over her shoulder at a sound at the opposite end of the alley. 

“Ryan Waters, where the fuck are you?” Denver glanced down at her phone to verify the GPS locater app she’d installed on Ryan’s phone. It said he was right here. 

Jerk actually thought he was being slick. She’d been tracking him for the last week. Not maliciously—no, she’d never go there on anyone. Ever.

But this was her job. Deposit all artists from point A to point B. Period, end of job description. At least on the official documentation. In reality, she was herding cats and dogs with a side of squirrel. Ryan definitely fell into the last category lately.

He’d always been her steady one, and now…well, not so much.

At first, she’d just monitored him on the app. No one else needed the same intense babysitting. In fact, she wished a certain caveman would get off her bus a little more. Malachi Shawcross, who’d seemed like the ultimate flight risk addition to the band, actually had to be ejected from the bus these days. He’d sort of taken over the whole thing. She’d secretly renamed it the Boink Bus thanks to his extracurriculars.

Not so much with her best friend. Lately he’d been gone more than he was around. 

Each day that passed, she had to worry about Ryan more and more. She’d only known him for a few months, but he’d always been the rock. The most professional one out of all the crazies. He held her loyalty more than any of them. And now he was officially the most scattered. He’d been cutting it closer with each departure time for the last ten days. And today, a complete no-show.

He would not mess with her schedule, or her job. She’d finally found something she loved, and that actually fell into the parameters of her skill set. Her skill set nowadays anyway. She’d tried the truck driver thing, but it hadn’t suited her at all. Too much time alone with her thoughts.

Not a good idea.

Driving for Warning Sign was the perfect blend of solitude and action. The band was never boring, and they always kept her on her toes. But Ryan’s behavior was getting ridiculous.

Didn’t he realize he was actually the dispensable one in this circus act? He played harmony and rhythm on all his instruments. He was amazing, but he didn’t have an actual slot in the roster of the band. Jack of all trades, master of none. 

Actually, that wasn’t quite right either. He mastered every instrument he ever picked up. Therein lay the problem. Once he knew how something worked, he got bored. He could play circles around Michael and Elle, their lead guitarists, when he actually gave a shit.

That hadn’t been true for a while. He was so scattered now that he never settled on one instrument in a song. It made for some amazing performances on stage. He had this steamer trunk full of toys that he opened as if he was Carrot Top in Vegas. She didn’t even know the name for half of them, but he could play every single one.

She’d watched their shows at nearly every stop on the tour. The band was tightening up more and more, but then there was this little pinball named Ryan.

He bounced in between each of his bandmates like a bee drunk on pollen. A fiddle, a flute, a ukulele, a slide guitar, a banjo, an accordion—no hand-held instrument was off limits to him.

It made him amazing, but it also left everyone scratching their heads as to what his place was in the band. Was this a stop-gap for him? Was it the perfect foil for his boredom? Was he simply going to disappear one day?

She blasted the flashlight beam onto a higher setting. No, she wouldn’t let that happen. He was the best thing to happen to her in too many years to count. The only guy she’d trusted in forever. She’d do everything and anything to make sure she kept his head screwed on straight.

“Ryan!”

Her phone beeped like a homing pigeon on meth and the little red dot that should be Ryan was right where she was standing. She panned her flashlight around the ground. Something oozed out of the corner that she didn’t want to think about. It was shiny and dark. She squinted. Liquid—no, that was a phone.

“Shit.”

Denver kicked at the pile of wet boxes next to a crooked dumpster. Third one in this freaking alley, and this one smelled like death.

“Please, oh please.” Her teeth chattered and her stomach roiled. Memories, swift and scorching, burned behind her eyeballs. Another dark alley. A body more blood than skin. Thick soled boots slamming—

No.

She shook her head. 

Not like that night.

This alley was miles and years away from that day.

“Ryan is fine,” she said aloud to remind herself. She blinked away the fear and then swiped at the slick sweat on her brow.

She tossed away boxes and tried to ignore the skittering of roaches and the thud of another animal—cat, maybe? She hoped it was a cat.

A booted foot came into view, aimed at the sky. A very long leg was turned at a scary angle.

“Don’t be dead, don’t be dead.” She heaved a vegetable box full of rotting lettuce to the side and tried not to gag. Two more black trash bags were on top of the body—no, not body, Denver. The person. The very much alive person. 

The alive Ryan.

She scooped up the familiar phone with the sugar skull phone case she’d given him. All the guys had the same phone and kept taking the wrong one when they weren’t paying attention. So she’d bought them cases. Obnoxious ones. She’d picked dancing sugar skulls for Ryan. He had loved them because he was her best friend and had the same sense of humor.

The only other person who’d kept his cover had been Mal. She’d found a skeleton playing drums. He’d deemed it cool enough to keep.

And now she was babbling even more in her own mind. 

Fuck

“Don’t be dead.” She hurled three more bags away and found him slumped against the brick wall. She swallowed a sob and crouched down. His huge hand was draped over his long torso. His shirt was stained and ripped at the shoulder, his knuckles were bloody and dirty.

Then a snore ripped out of him and she blew out a hysterical laugh before she stood up and kicked his boot. “You fuck.” She shined her flashlight over his face and he winced and held up his hand.

“Ma?”

Relief left her lightheaded. “You’re going to wish I was your damn mother. Because she’s probably the only person on this earth who isn’t ready to kill you.”

“Den?”

She kicked him harder. “Who else would be looking for your stupid ass?”

He groaned. “Did you get the license plate of the truck that hit me?”

“No, because there was no truck. Just hands if I had to make a guess.” She panned her light over his bruised hands and face. She had to stop herself from crouching over him and touching his face. It helped that he smelled like a cat had used him for a litter box. “Who beat the hell out of you?”

He struggled to get up and fell onto his ass. “A little help here?”

“Not until you tell me what the hell happened.”

“I got mugged?”

For a moment her heart blipped and her knee-jerk reaction to help him kicked in, but then she heard the question at the end of his statement. Was he actually guessing?

His lip curled up at the corner. “I think there were two of them.”

She put her hands on her hips, leaving the light on his face. “Oh yeah, why is your phone still here?”

“Because iPhones are a dime a dozen?”

“Still worth money, jackass. Try again.”

He rolled onto his side and groaned as he got to his knees. “Still no help.”

She sighed and hooked her arm through his and hauled him up. He stumbled against her and she groaned. “You smell like death and trash had a kegger.”

He hooked his arm around her neck. “Close.” That damn smoky voice had started infiltrating her dreams lately. She so didn’t have time for that crap, man.

She shoved him upright, but when he listed to the left and started to crumple, she shoved her shoulder back under his armpit. So gross. “You stink. Literally.”

“My nose is too swollen for me to tell.”

“Idiot.”

“Aww, c’mon, Den. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

She slipped his phone into his jeans pocket.

“Hey there.” He jerked his hips and turned toward her. “All you had to do was ask.”

“You wish.” Her belly filled with a flight of hornets. Not butterflies, nope, that was too pretty and sweet for how she was feeling. She was angry and buzzy in the worst way. Fear had been ramping up for the last hour, and now with no place left to go, her body was looking for something else. Something she’d been trying to ignore for weeks now, but the hornets were getting louder and angrier.

She jammed her flashlight into her jacket pocket, then hooked her fingers into his belt loops to hold him against her before she hauled him away from the wall. He was about as graceful as a marionette with his strings cut. She dragged him down the alley to the brightly lit street and shoved him against a graffiti-clad brick wall under a streetlight.

She finally got a good look at him and wondered if he really had gotten mugged. “What the hell did you do to yourself?”

“It’s not a big deal.” He stepped away from the wall and instantly his knees buckled. She lurched forward to catch him. “Let’s just get back to the bus.”

“Like this?” She peered up at him. “Do you know how far away from the bus we are?”

He shrugged. “A few blocks.”

“Idiot. More like miles. I’ve been chasing you around the city for an hour.”

“On foot?” He frowned down at her. “Are you nuts?  You could have gotten hurt. Where the hell are we, anyway?”

“You’re such an asshole.”

“Stop swearing at me. I know you love me.”

She snarled. “You’re usually my best friend, but lately you’ve been a freaking pain in my ass. Who knows what could have happened to you if I didn’t tag your phone.”

“Tagged my what? You bugged me?” His voice spiked up in outrage.

“Don’t be so dramatic.” She peered up at the street sign and then down the block. “I just used a parental app on your phone.” She calculated the streets and figured they were in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. Awesome. Welcome to New York City. She blew out a breath and stared at him. “You know, GPS.”

He frowned and pushed his curls out of his face. “How’d you do that?”

She shrugged. “While I was playing Angry Birds on your phone.”

“Huh.” He pulled his phone out and tried to turn it on, but gave up when his fingers fumbled over the thumbprint scanner. He shoved it back into his pocket. “Sneaky. I’d be mad, except I’m kind of impressed.” 

“Only because you don’t pay attention to what’s on your phone. Dangerous, by the way. I deleted three different apps that could have wiped out your accounts. One of the reasons why I use banks as little as possible.”

He ran an unsteady hand through his hair. “Wait, what? Did I know this?” He shook his head. “I’m a little fuzzy.”

“You smell like bourbon and bad decisions. And someone used you as a speed bag. Were you drinking?” He didn’t drink.

“Just enough to blend in.”

“Blend in where?”

“Never you mind.” He curled his fingers around his ribs. “Where’d you leave the bus?”

“In front of MOMA, where you’re supposed to be.” And he’d ruined her plans to walk around Rockefeller Center that night. The area was a lot better than it had been in the past, but there were seedy pockets in any city. And this street definitely was not one she’d like to visit at night. Daytime, maybe.

Nah, not then either.

She looked around. Not even a cab in sight. She shored up her grip on him just in case and flicked through her car apps.

“Can we not?” he rasped.

She glanced at him. “Not what?”

“Go back.”

She frowned. “Of course we’re going back. You have a radio show at eight in the morning.”

“We’ll go back early, but can we just crash somewhere tonight?” He glanced away. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this. A shower and some sleep and I’ll mostly be back to rights”

Her chest tightened. “Yeah. You’re not really in any shape to spend it on the bus. We can grab a car and get a hotel.”

“With what money?”

“You really were mugged?” Now she felt like an asshole. Here she was coming down on him, and he was actually hurt.

He stared at his feet. “Something like that.”

She curled her fingers into his crooked button-down shirt. Anger and worry made her want to club him over the head. Dammit, it could have been so much worse.

Two of the buttons were missing and for once he wasn’t wearing one of his concert T-shirts under it. Her pinkie slipped across his skin and a smattering of freckles seemed to dance in the shadows of the overhead streetlight.

He covered her hand. “Look, tonight sucked. I just need a break. Just you and me tonight? I don’t have to think when I’m with you. I can just be.”

Her cold black heart couldn’t hold up to that. “Not fair, Ry.”

“I’m not really feeling fair tonight, Den.”

“I don’t have much cash on me.”

He was quiet for a moment before swiping his forearm over his sweaty brow. “I can slum it if you can.”

She looked around. A buzzing neon light had a missing L in motel. “Hummingbird Motel for your evening’s pleasure?”

He followed the track of her gaze. “Normally such a classy bird.”

“Pretty on target for a no-tell motel. Quick as a lick.”

Ryan snorted. “That’s true.” His lids went heavy. “You like it quick, Denver?”

She dragged him off the wall. “Nothing wrong with quick and dirty, pal.”

He hooked his arm around her neck. “That’s very true. However, dirty and long is even better.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” She grunted as she took on more of his weight. He looked like one big skinny dude, when in fact he was full of muscle. He was definitely more lethal than he looked, even if tonight he hadn’t come out victorious.

But he was still alive. That was a victory all its own.

She slung her arm around his back and his untucked shirt rode up. More skin, hot and smooth. So different from the Italian men that—

She shook that thought off. No need to think about that right now. The past could stay there where it belonged.

At a break in traffic, they staggered forward. Heat came off him in waves. Add in the dense air of the July evening and the baked-in heat in the pavement and the whole world was getting a bit too shimmery for her taste.

They weaved to the left and she steered him back to the center of the sidewalk. A crush of teens came barreling down the street. New York City never did sleep. By some miracle, no one recognized Ryan. It helped that he was even more rumpled than usual.

His scruffy face was heading toward beard. His peach fuzz curls were normally closely cropped, but they’d grown out until he looked more like a disheveled troll doll minus the pink hair.

Yet he was still super hot, and somehow even more so now that he was all roughed up and dangerous looking. Not that she wanted to view him that way, but some truths were impossible to deny.

“You owe me,” she muttered, groaning under his weight. It almost seemed like the jerk was leaning more on her than necessary on purpose. “Like the never going to let it go kind of owe me, buddy.”

“Since when did we keep score?”

“Since you started disappearing like a petulant teen.”

He merely grunted in answer.

And he’d scared the holy shit out of her.

She knew something was up with him, but she couldn’t begin to figure it out. He was getting crazier on stage. Almost as crazy as West. To the point that the guys were starting to talk about him in whispers.

Well, in between their own issues. Between the heart eyes coming off Lauren and West, the eternal night Skype sessions with Michael and Chloe, and the dirty talk with Juliet and her duo of delicious boys, there wasn’t a lot of room to worry about Ryan.

So she did the worrying. She couldn’t help herself.

And while everything inside of her told her to bring him back to the bus, there was a part of her that knew he was right. If the band saw him like this, there’d be more questions than answers.

More arguments especially.

Because Ryan wasn’t ready to talk. While he was usually the most easygoing of the group, when he dug his heels in, it was pretty much impossible to move him.

And only part of it was because he was well over six feet tall and surprisingly sturdy.

“All right, you need to pull yourself together. It might be a hotel that porn is probably filmed in, but they can turn us away for public intoxication.”

“I’m not drunk.”

“No, you’re beat to hell and walking like you have a concussion.”

“I do not.”

“I said walking.” Though she had her doubts there. He was way too unsteady on his pins in her opinion.

He straightened up and held onto his ribs again with a slow breath out. She wrinkled her nose at the alcohol still on his breath and the less than stellar status of his shirt.

July had been a brutal bitch since they’d pulled in yesterday. The air conditioning unit was working overtime on the bus and there were a touch too many bodies crammed into the space.

Not one, but two stowaways were on board right now. Okay, Lauren Bryant, West’s significant other, wasn’t exactly a hanger-on, but she was one more body. And there was a lot of action going on in that bunk.

Lauren’s sexual revolution was a work-in-progress.

Denver wasn’t jealous—much.

She and Ryan sailed through the front door and managed to look more like a love-starved couple than a guy who’d been on the wrong end of a pair of fists and the girl holding him up. She hoped.

Deciding it was a better fit for this particular situation, she played up her hold onto him. She slid her hand into his open shirt and tried not to focus on his smooth, warm skin.

Two women slinked out of the darkness along the sides of the lobby. Harsh faces with eyes void of life made her skin prick behind her neck. 

She aimed Ryan at the check-in desk decked out in way more Plexiglas than should be warranted for a motel.

“We need a room.”

The disinterested guy gave her a bored stare. He rattled off the prices for an hourly stay, and one for the night.

She shifted Ryan against the counter and dug into her pocket. “The night, please.”

The guy gave a snort when she pulled out her Wonder Woman wallet.

“What?” She asked as she shuffled out the number of bills she needed. She didn’t carry much cash normally, but she was even tighter tonight. She’d already been sightseeing before Ryan had gone missing.

“Wish I had a Wonder Woman taking care of me.” He grinned at Ryan. “Did she bring the lasso with her?”

Ryan’s jaw flexed, but he said nothing.

The dude shrugged and pushed scraggly blue-tinged hair over his shoulder. He tossed a key through the little half-circle cut out in the makeshift booth. “Checkout at ten.”

She took the key. “Thanks.”

“Enjoy.” The guy folded a piece of gum into his mouth before picking up his phone and sprawling in his folding chair.

She flipped over the key. “806.” Denver looked around. A battered orange cone stood in front of the elevator. “No second elevator?”

The guy snapped his gum. The familiar maniacal giggle of Angry Birds came from his phone. “Nope.”

“No rooms on a lower floor?”

“Nope.”

She sighed. Ryan really wasn’t in any shape to do that many stairs. “We can just go somewhere else.”

The guy peered up from his game “No refunds.”

She growled. “You’re an asshole.”

The guy shrugged. “Guess he’ll have to earn his fuck tonight, hey? More than the cost of the room that is.”

Ryan growled. “Don’t fucking talk to her like that.”

The guy smirked. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Feel pretty safe behind that plastic box, huh?”

The guy shrugged. “Pretty sure I could take you, but I wouldn’t want Wonder Woman to have to defend your honor.”

Ryan lunged forward and she looped her arm around his waist. “C’mon, baby, we don’t want to waste a minute of tonight, do we?”

Ryan glanced down at her, his eyes narrowing. “No, I guess not.”

She tipped her head up and slapped a big smile on her face. “No, we don’t. Let’s just get upstairs.”

He nodded.

They shuffled off and she breathed in a sigh of relief. Ryan didn’t exactly have the asshole gene that the check-in dude did, but she had to push down the jittery reaction of the flash of anger in his spring green eyes.

The mixture of fear and thrill was definitely not a good thing.

At least not when it came to Ryan. He was her safety blanket, her warm sweatshirt on a cold night. He wasn’t the guy who was supposed to get her revved.

Ever.

 
 

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