Authors: Christie Ridgway
Then Cami was ending the song and seguing into some upbeat, country girl kick-ass number that changed the mood in the club. Feet were stomping and hands were clapping, and the singer flashed them all a grin that showed she was digging the audience reaction. The rest of the set continued with a variety of numbers, each of them showcasing Cami’s talent and her joy in the making of music. Forty-five minutes passed and then she leaned into the mic and looked at the Rock Royalty table once again.
“Hope you’ll indulge me tonight, folks,” she said.
A couple of men called out ribald suggestions that had her big brother Ren bristling in his chair.
Cami only laughed. “This is actually a favor for one of my tribe. I heard a whisper that he’s here with a new lady I’m guessing he’ll jump at the chance to impress.”
Her gaze met Brody’s.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered.
“Come on up, Bro,” she said, reaching for the free guitar and holding it out. Then she glanced around the crowd. “Let’s hear it for Brody Maddox.”
“Fuck,” he said.
But Rachel was staring at him with wide eyes, and he decided he’d look more like an idiot if he refused the summons.
As he leaped onto the stage, he frowned at Cilla. “Don’t call me the next time you need a sticky drawer fixed.”
She blew him a kiss, then smiled as he settled onto the neighboring stool with the second guitar. Her hand covered the mic.
“Shit,” he said again, shaking his head.
“Channel your inner Eddie Vedder, and no woman will be able to resist you.” Then Cami scooted herself and the microphone stand closer.
This is what he got for fooling around with his guitar when Cami was in the vicinity. But he’d done more intimate things in front of an audience than this, so he took a breath and began strumming.
He sang the first verse alone but didn’t twitch when Cami joined in at the chorus, her voice harmonizing with his. His aspirations didn’t run toward regular stage appearances, but that didn’t mean he was without some of Mad Dog Maddox’s showmanship running through his veins. So Brody gave the performance his best, and when the last chord died out, he looked at Cami and shrugged as the crowd went crazy.
It helped to have family in the audience.
As the applause died out, she looked over at Brody. “It’s time for my last song before the break. You want to choose?”
He’d never know what prompted him to say, “How about some Willie?”
And Cami, who had at least a dozen Willie Nelson songs in her repertoire, began to pick out “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
Brody retreated from the spotlight and into the wings as Cami performed the heartbreaker about a man drawn to a wounded woman only to heal her with his love so that she could fly away from him. The crowd listened, engrossed and unmoving, which was probably why his eye was drawn to the knot of newcomers who entered at the back of the club during the song. The lights were low, but the red glow of the EXIT sign caught the drops of water dotting the rugged leather of the men’s beat-up jackets. The promised El Niño had been dumping rain on Southern California off and on for the last month.
Then the group shifted to reveal a slighter, feminine figure in their midst.
His throat closed. His chest seized. His ears went deaf to Cami’s music as he stared at his very own, very familiar fallen angel.
It had been weeks since their one night, but he’d not forgotten a single feature.
Her nearly platinum hair fell in waves to below her shoulders. Tonight, she wore no coat or jacket, only a red, low-cut and lacy top that displayed her delicate collarbones. The long sleeves were transparent and hinted at the pale golden skin of her arms.
Between the hem of a short suede skirt and her chunky-heeled, cowboy-styled boots her slender legs were bare.
He curled his hands into fists and closed his eyes, trying to forget the paradise he’d found between them.
An elbow jostled his ribs. “Bro?”
His eyes shot open to find the stage was dark. Cami’s set was over and she was gone. His brother was at his side wearing a quizzical expression.
Brody shoved his hands into his pockets. “Uh…yeah?”
“What the hell are you doing back here by yourself?” Bing frowned. “You’ve left your date alone at the table.”
“Oh, hell,” he muttered. “Just…lost in thought.”
“Lost in something,” Bing said, drawing him from his place behind the curtains. “Now pull your head out of your ass and charm that nice woman you brought into overlooking your degenerate past and rude manners.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Brody jumped from the stage, and only allowed himself one quick glance around the now brighter-lit club to discern the whereabouts of the blonde. When he didn’t see her, the tightness in his chest eased.
Maybe it was the song, he thought. Perhaps it had goosed his imagination into conjuring up a woman who wasn’t really there. The night they’d been together, despite the bravado she’d exhibited in public, he’d sensed the brokenness inside her. Had it confirmed by dawn.
As he settled into his seat, he smiled at Rachel. “Sorry for disappearing like that. Do you need a fresh drink?”
She indicated her full glass. “Ren ordered me another.”
“You met him then?” Brody asked, looking at the dark-haired man across the table.
“And me,” his sister Cilla said. “We introduced ourselves during your absence. We’re just starting to get acquainted.”
Brody pretended to wince. “Don’t believe everything she says,” he told Rachel. “Anything bad that was done to her was all Bing, I promise you. She never could tell us apart.”
Cilla rolled her big blue eyes. “And here I was relating all your good points. He truly is the white knight of the family.”
He remembered the train wreck that was his eighteenth birthday. Then another memory overlaid that ugly one, and he saw himself ripping off the clothes of a certain blonde, desperate to get to her skin as she writhed against him, hot and eager.
Pushing the recollection away, Brody sent his little sister a speaking glance which she ignored.
“How did you two meet?” she asked Rachel.
“I haven’t heard that either,” Alexa said, leaning in.
Rachel flashed Brody a quick smile. “My parents recently bought a fixer-upper on The Strand in Hermosa. They called in Brody and Bing’s construction company for an extensive remodel.”
“To create a tasteful beach cottage,” Brody added for Lex, who had been known to complain how filthy-rich owners of surfside Southern California homes took former bungalows and turned them into modern monstrosities. “We’re looking forward to working on it.”
“My brothers started their career early,” Cilla said. “As kids, they built elaborate forts and treehouses deep in the canyon behind the compound. I swear we wouldn’t see them for days on end.”
Rachel’s eyebrows rose. “Really? What did you do for food?”
“Oh, we had stashes of the essentials at our various lairs,” Bing put in. “No boy needs much more than peanut butter, crackers, and Pop-Tarts, after all.”
“Didn’t you have to go to school?”
Brody and Bing looked at each other, smiling wryly at the teacher’s question. Nobody had been any more concerned with their attendance record than where they spent their sleeping hours. So they’d routinely escaped the chaos of the compound…until adolescence arrived and they’d become willing participants in its pandemonium.
Cilla released an exaggerated sigh. “I begged them to take me along on their canyon adventures, but they were selfish and unfeeling big brothers.”
Guilt scraped over him like sandpaper.
Selfish and unfeeling.
God, how fucking true. As he’d edged into his teens he’d become more and more like his egotistical father, Mad Dog Maddox. The idea turned his stomach now, and his disgust must have shown on his face because Cilla’s expression turned contrite.
“Bro,” she said, stretching her arm across the table toward him. “I’m teasing.”
He shoved back his chair, needing a moment away. “Let me get you a fresh drink, Cill.”
As he left the table he heard Ren raise his voice in protest, but he kept moving toward the bar.
It didn’t surprise him when a small hand snagged his elbow. “Brody.”
Looking down at his little sister, he checked his stride and sighed. Though she was the youngest of the Rock Royalty, she’d taken on the role of mother hen. He tugged on the ends of her hair.
“Yeah?” Smiling, she squeezed his arm. “You sing a mean Eddie Vedder, you know. Your date was enthralled.”
“Good,” he said. “Now do me a favor and keep her entertained for a few minutes, okay?”
“I don’t need a drink.”
“But I need some fresh air.”
Cilla studied his face, then went on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I wish your conscience didn’t weigh on you so heavily.”
“Believe me.” His grin felt crooked. “I’m no saint.”
“Forgive yourself for that,” she ordered, then released him to head back to their table.
Brody continued toward the exit, threading through the crowd stocking up on beverages and conversation before Cami’s next set. The minute he pulled open the door, cool, moisture-laden air slapped him across the face. He sucked it in, moving along the building to stop in the deep shadows beneath the roof’s overhang. There he propped his shoulders against the club’s exterior wall.
The parking lot was packed, and as he stared into the night, his mind wandered to a different stretch of asphalt on a different night. It had been rain-slick, too, and water had spotted the vehicles there—stripped-down choppers as well as bulkier motorcycles; heavy duty trucks with bed-mounted rusty toolboxes; low-slung luxury sedans, sleek and spoiled.
A honky-tonk sound had filtered through walls that seemed to pulse with music and life.
Brody, following his buddy toward the front door, had barely registered the other man’s claim that Satan’s Roadhouse was the hottest bar between Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. He hadn’t given one shit about its rep. He’d been in a low mood that day and had only wanted to numb himself with another night of booze.
As they’d pushed inside, heat from the jam-packed bodies and the roaring fireplace in one corner had swamped them.
And then Brody’s blood had been set on fire at his first glimpse of the sweet and dirty blonde boot scootin’ atop the battered wooden bar.
All of a sudden his attention snapped back to the present. A woman was circling the far side of a dented SUV, a thin sweater now covering her lace blouse. Her blonde head was bent over her phone.
Brody stilled. Blinked. Shook his head.
This was no figment of his imagination stepping around puddles, her shoulders hunched against the cold as she made her way to the club’s door.
Without thinking, he strode for the heavy metal contraption and yanked it open just as she stepped beneath the overhang. For a brief second she hesitated, her gaze still focused on the screen of her cell. Then she murmured something—Thank you? Fuck you?—and without further acknowledgment of his presence or his politeness, she and her boots crossed the threshold. In the beat of a heart the woman was lost in the throng.
After a moment Brody forced himself inside and his attention away from the direction she’d disappeared. Family and friends were waiting. His date, the kindergarten teacher. The woman who might be his salvation.
Following the other female could only lead him back down the path he’d promised to step off weeks before.
Christ, it wasn’t as if he thought he’d been any good for Ashlynn, either.
But she was there in his head as he returned to his table near the stage. Bing sent him a piercing look he pretended not to notice. Instead, he made an effort with Rachel, drawing her out and then into conversations with the others of their party. They talked about Cami, about what they hoped she’d play later that night. Someone brought up the weather, which wasn’t as boring a topic as it seemed since Southern California was actually having some after years of drought. Cilla asked Rachel about her kindergarten class, and he pretended to listen.
But in reality he was back at Satan’s Roadhouse. That night, he’d found a place at the bar, at the opposite end from where the blonde was captivating the audience with her twitching, denim-covered ass and barely concealed cleavage. He’d ordered a beer and two shots of tequila, and after throwing one back he’d given his attention to the show.
Hell, why couldn’t he banish her from his head? She’d been there for weeks and weeks. Her looks, her scent, her taste. Not that he was proud of it, but he’d had dozens of one-night stands over the years. Yet everything about that time with her was unforgettable.
Something prickled at the back of his neck, and he rubbed there, then glanced over his shoulder. Ashlynn stood near the bar, talking with a couple of the tough-looking men who’d accompanied her into the club. Her back was to him, and he focused on those waves of pale blonde hair, recalling the silk of them sliding between his fingers. Against his face.
Over his cock.
He couldn’t help wondering how she was. She’d been sleeping when he’d left her in that single-wide trailer, with the silvery tracks of her sadness drying on her cheeks. His sister Cilla said he was a white knight, but he was sure he’d been no such thing in Ashlynn’s eyes. He’d known he couldn’t save her.
And to try and fail would only serve to hack more slices off his soul.
Yet now he couldn’t look away from her. Stupid, he berated himself, to be mired in a memory that didn’t deserve all this attention.
, a sensible voice said, trying to convince him he could be a normal person.
Say a simple “Hello
Perhaps it will dispel all the residual drunken drama
And then he could really move on.
Without allowing himself a second thought, he stood and moved away from the table. He didn’t bother with an excuse for those he left behind. This wouldn’t take long.