It’s cover reveal day. Not only that, I’ve got the first chapter to share with you, if you are a sucker for instant gratification. It’s just a taste and I’m sure you’ll be wanting more afterwards, so you can preorder Skeletons of Us here. I’m so in love with both Killian and Lexie and I couldn’t be happier to give them the HEA they deserve. Though, there is some drama along the way. I’ll say no more.
“Hello, Los Angeles,” I murmured into the mic, my voice thankfully not shaking like the hand holding my guitar was.
The returning roar was deafening. The sound filled up my mind, making my teeth chatter. It wasn’t mere sound; it was physical. The crowd in front of me was a pulse. It was like the sun; I couldn’t look too closely at it or I might be blinded. Or faint. Either way, I couldn’t think too closely on the fact that there were thousands of people in this arena to see us. We weren’t opening for another band or playing for some small gig. This was real. People paid to see Unquiet Mind. Our dream was coming true.
I glanced to Wyatt who was at my side. He was grinning. Grinning at the crowd in an easy way like they were some cute girl he was trying to get to go home with him. I glanced to Sam, who wasn’t grinning. His usually cheerful face was stoic and he clutched his drumsticks so hard his knuckles were white under the fluorescent lights.
Noah was regarding me, his beanie pulled low on his head, his eyes lazy. He looked like he always did before a show. Serene. Like he’d just done an hour of yoga or smoked a huge joint. He winked at me.
I took a deep breath and turned to the screaming mass once more.
“We’re Unquiet Mind and we’re here to rock your world.” My voice echoed through the arena.
When my fingers ran along my guitar string and I sang the first word into the mic, the sound disappeared, like a black hole had opened up right there and swallowed it all up. All that was left was the music, flowing through me like a wonderful kind of energy. A temporary cure to an aching soul.
The entire set was a blur, like some kind of half-imagined dream, or what I thought a drug trip might be like.
Then it wasn’t. One pure, lucid moment hurtled into my mind’s eye. My gaze locked with ice blue eyes that assaulted me every time I thought I might be escaping the heartbreak from that dock a year ago. They were there. Right there. In the crowd.
He was there.
And then, in the snap of forever, he was gone.
The last word of the song left my lips and the roar entered my brain once more. I’d wonder for almost three years if that was a side effect of the nirvana of performing or if I’d began hallucinating.
I never thought he was actually there.
Though I wished it. Every show I looked for those ice blue eyes.
I never saw them again.
Not until later.
Three years later
“These echoes of silence are a part of me.”
You’re not meant to speak ill of the dead. I was pretty sure the same sentiment translated to thinking ill of the dead. But I couldn’t help it.
“Andrew was the best of us. Selfless as he was kind, the world is a little less bright now that he’s left it for the warm embrace of our Lord.”
Sam rolled his eyes and made a disbelieving sound from beside me, the very sound I was doing my best to suppress. Wyatt elbowed him subtly, glaring at him the way a parent might try to communicate a scolding in public when they couldn’t spank them. It was the way of those two, though Wyatt definitely shouldn’t be classed as the responsible one. Due to something I’d walked in on two months ago, I knew he was just the person to be spanking someone—just not a male someone.
But seriously, selfless? Kind? Sam’s gesture was well founded. Andrew Bruntley was a lot of things, a long list of things. No one could ever accuse him of being kind nor selfless, not while he was alive anyway. Now he was dead, everyone seemed to forget that he was, in truth, an asshole. As soon as someone stopped breathing, unless they committed some horrible crimes, they somehow transformed in people’s minds. Every bad thing about them was forgotten, memories of the goodness replacing it. Sometimes qualities, like selflessness and kindness, were plucked from thin air.
I guessed you couldn’t really say, “He was a narcissistic dick who didn’t care about anyone else but himself” in a eulogy, hence the imaginative euphemisms.
I only thanked the Lord, who was unlucky enough to have Andrew in His warm embrace, that I didn’t have to go up there and lie through my teeth about my dearly departed boyfriend. That’s what both my publicist and manager had wanted. That’s what everyone at the godforsaken funeral were expecting. Aching for. Half of Hollywood seemed to be here—supermodels in the latest in funeral chic and actresses, who had previously despised him, crying crocodile tears. I’d imagine that less than a quarter of people here were mourners; the rest were spectators. A death, the death of a prominent movie star, and the invitation to the funeral were the hottest ticket around. That was sick, but that was Hollywood. Paparazzi were crowded around the entrance to the cemetery. They had followed the crowds of town cars like vultures. At least I didn’t have to worry about them snapping some photo of me, when my grieving girlfriend mask slipped.
I was sorry he was dead. I wasn’t emotionless; I may have a huge hole in the place where my heart was meant to be, but I wasn’t cruel. Andrew was a bastard, an arrogant movie star, a chauvinistic prick, and so not my boyfriend, but he didn’t deserve to die. Very few people actually deserved to die. Only truly evil people who tainted the earth with their presence didn’t deserve to take breath in it.
My heart stuttered.
Like my father.
My mind left the crowded cemetery, and the lies of the minister left my ears for a split second.
“It was his rotten and twisted soul that took Ava and Steve from you.”
Steg’s words came back to haunt me at times I least expected it. When I was distracted, when my soul was at its most vulnerable. The memories of those words worked like a pinprick on that shattered soul, tearing it just a little bit more, reminding me that I had poison running through my veins. That my father was so truly evil, he took two people away from me. That I was happy he was dead. I questioned if that happiness meant that I possessed some of that. If that twisted, rotten soul somehow passed on to me and it hid in the darkest depths of me, waiting, lurking.
Someone squeezed my hand and I looked up to Noah’s attractive face, pinched with worry as he gazed down at me.
“It’s over, Lex,” he murmured.
I looked around and people were whispering, their masks of grief still firmly in place. My eyes touched an actress who’d worked with Andrew on his latest movie. She gave me a sad look and wiped a tear from her perfectly made-up face with a silk kerchief.
One of her best performances to date, I thought idly.
People approached the coffin, throwing roses on it. I had to restrain a snort at this. Andrew hated roses; he actually threw a bunch of them back at a fan who had run up to give them to him. Luckily, he had a good publicist who kept that little incident out of the media.
I felt eyes on me. There had been sideways glances during the service, people snatching glances covertly as they played their parts. Now, it was acceptable to look at me, to dissect me with their stares.
It wasn’t a secret that I had been dating Andrew. Our tumultuous relationship had been splashed through the media, much to his delight. “Relationship” was a stretch to describe it. I didn’t do relationships. I would never put any inch of myself in a man’s hands again. That’s why Andrew had been perfect. He could never possibly hurt me because I hadn’t cared about him one bit. I didn’t even like him.
That was the beauty of it.
Then he died. Drug overdose, they said. Certainly not a suicide. Andrew loved himself too much to end his life. I hadn’t even known he’d done any drugs apart from coke at parties. Then again, I didn’t try to know much about him.
Which was one of the many, many reasons I didn’t speak at the funeral. I wouldn’t go up there and lie about what we had, about what he was. No crocodile tears for me. I may live in a city where you had to play a part to survive, but my band and I never pretended to be anything we weren’t.
“Try and make her go and talk at that dick’s funeral one more time, you’ll be looking for new employment,” Sam had snarled at Jenna, my publicist, when she’d been trying to convince me how “vital” my words would be. Vital for our career, for her paycheck, not for Andrew’s memory.
It was the care for her paycheck that made her immediately back down at Sam’s words. That and surprise. Sam was the most easygoing out of us all. He was almost always smiling or joking. He almost always had a girl on his arm too, but that was a story for another day. He might treat life with a humor that I was envious of, but one thing he took seriously, that all the boys took seriously, was protecting me.
Which was why I was flanked by Noah and Wyatt, each holding my hand, their faces covered with dark glasses.
Sam stepped forward when a couple of supermodels tried to approach, no doubt to use condolences as an excuse to get the scoop on how Lexie Williams was coping with the tragic death of her famous boyfriend.
“Yeah, not gonna happen, sweethearts,” he said, his face underneath his own dark aviators expressionless. “How about you go and pretend to eat at some restaurant? You still hungry, you give me a call.”
I imagined he would have winked underneath those sunglasses. Only Sam would try to pick up women at a fricking funeral. Except try wasn’t the right word; the supermodels looked offended for a split second, then the constructed, mournful look on their faces was replaced by catlike smiles.
Sam didn’t give them time to say anything, just turned to me while I shook my head with the smallest twitch at the side of my mouth. It wouldn’t be good to actually smile right now, not with the eager eyes of everyone who was anyone in Hollywood looking for something to gossip about over their martinis later. Not that I cared about what they said, I just didn’t have the energy to battle the flame that would ignite. I was already battling with an army of paparazzi following me everywhere.
“Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” Sam said, pushing his glasses onto his head and looking from side to side. “Cemeteries give me the fuckin’ creeps.” He leaned forward, whispering on the end. “Think about it, this ground”—he stamped his foot—“full of dead people.” He shivered and his attractive face screwed up.
Wyatt scowled at him. “Dude.”
Sam raised his brows, daring him to say more.
Wyatt obviously didn’t think educating Sam on funeral etiquette was the most pressing thing at this juncture because he shook his head much like I did, just without the good humor, and started walking toward our blacked-out SUV. The boys surrounded me like human shields, their large bodies stopping anyone from approaching and also causing a barrier between me and any sneaky paps who might catch a shot from the walls.
We approached the car and Clyde opened the door for us, his eyes crinkling a little at the corners as they touched on me.
“Everything okay, Miss Williams?” he asked, his voice professional, yet his weathered face was tinged with concern.
I smiled at him weakly. “It will be once you get us out of here, Clyde.”
He nodded curtly. “I can do that, Miss Williams.”
He closed the door after us and circled to get in the driver’s seat.
Clyde was our driver and had been since it became apparent we’d actually need a driver two years ago, when we realized our popularity, our fame, wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t fifteen minutes for us. Nope. It had been almost four years since we’d moved to our loft in West Hollywood. Our advance from the record company meant we could have gotten a pretty decent apartment in any of the swanky suburbs filled with starlets and heiresses, as did the money from Ava and Steve that Mom had already offered me. But I didn’t want that. No. I didn’t want to be living in some pretentious apartment with the money I got as a result of my father murdering two of the most precious people in my life.
When I received the rest of that money when I turned twenty-one last year, I’d donated all of it to charity. Every single dollar, to various causes Steve and Ava supported in life. By then I had more than enough money and I didn’t need the considerable amount they left me. More importantly, I didn’t want it.
But almost four years ago, we weren’t earning millions or playing sold-out stadiums. We were a bunch of teenagers who had a lot of views on YouTube and a handful of fans back home in Amber. Hollywood was a different beast all together. Yeah, we had a record contract and a lot of zeros on our advance check, but that didn’t mean much. We were naïve then, but we knew fame could be fickle. We weren’t going to blow every cent of our earnings on some flashy place in order to construct some kind of image conclusive with rock stars. Flashy wasn’t us anyway. Well, flashy was Sam. Even now at a funeral, he was wearing platinum and diamond rings on every single one of his hands, and his fingernails were painted black. He had an armful of leather and silver bracelets on. His sunglasses, now back on his attractive face, were designer, as was his black shirt and buttery black leather jacket. He had on black leather pants too, which were tucked into biker boots with all sorts of hardware. The quintessential rock star. Or maybe just typical Sam. It was him. In high school, he wore a version of this, or what his budget allowed. Now he had more money, so he put more into his look. Outwardly he may have changed, but fame and fortune had failed to taint his soul. Any of my boys in fact.
Though I knew that at the start.
Four years earlier
Standing outside our new apartment building, I knew no matter what, whether we had success in the future or failure, these boys would always be who I fell in love with in high school.
Zane and Mom had come to help us move. Well, Mom wasn’t helping us move on account of the fact she was sporting a tiny baby bump and Zane barely let her lift a coffee cup let alone a moving box. Not that she would have helped if she wasn’t carrying my little brother or sister. She “didn’t do” heavy lifting.
“I’m coming for decorative purposes only,” she had declared. “And for fare welling my baby girl into the world that lies outside of the comfortable reaches of her childhood home. Murderers, thieves, people who drink green juice. A terrible world, but who am I to stop you from leaving the only mother you’ll ever have?” She’d been trying to disguise the emotion in her voice with sarcasm, but I heard it, maybe because I’d been feeling a version of it myself. I was feeling a lot more than that. I’d been dying inside as we put Amber in our rearview mirror and every person inside the town. One in particular.
Mustn’t think of that, I chided myself. I couldn’t. Even in memories the hurt was so tangible I rubbed my chest absently, feeling the burn, the agony from that one little thought.
Zane’s reaction the crumbling building in front of us after we’d pulled into the parking lot was not of excitement like Sam and the boys. It wasn’t the most attractive building, and the street it sat on wasn’t going to be winning any awards either. It wasn’t exactly the worst neighborhood, but it wasn’t Bel Air.
“You’re not living here,” he declared after his eyes had scanned the building for approximately five seconds.
I grinned at him. It wasn’t a grin, not really. It was stretching my facial muscles to trick the outside world into thinking I was happy or amused and not bleeding from the inside out.
“Of course we are, Zane. The lease is already signed.”
His face hardened. “Don’t care,” he clipped. “No way in hell my girl is living in that”—he nodded to the building—“in this neighborhood. We’ll find something else. Something safer.”
Before I could say anything, Mom stepped forward, putting her hand in Zane’s.
“And yes, your version of something safer is most likely something like the White House in Washington, D.C.? Or perhaps some kind of fortress with a moat and armed sentries? This is where the kid’s living and I’m sure the boys will make sure she’s safe,” she said, her eyes on Sam, Wyatt, and Noah who had bags on their shoulders and were watching the exchange uneasily.
We’d all fallen in love with the loft the moment the realtor had showed it to us. Sam had insisted on the neighborhood because “that’s where Nine Inch Nails had lived” and we needed to “suck up some of the leftover creativity.” It was also the only place we could get this much space for so cheap. We had the entire top floor. The boys had known Zane for years, knew how protective he was over my mom and me and they knew what a badass he was. It wasn’t just the fact he was in a motorcycle club, or the fact he was six foot of pure muscle and covered in tattoos. It was just him. You didn’t mess with him. So if he decided I wasn’t going to live here, I knew the boys weren’t likely to win the argument that would ensue.
Luckily, my mom and I would. Zane may have been a big hardass to the outside world, one who barely spoke or smiled, but with me and Mom, he was a big softie. He smiled, even laughed on rare occasion.
Hence Mom being able to convince him by reaching up to whisper something in his ear.
His jaw went hard, then his eyes softened and lit up as he stared at Mom. He bent down to place a light kiss on her mouth, a large hand going to caress her small baby bump. It stayed there when he turned to the boys.
“Anything happens to her, I hold the three of you responsible,” he barked.
The boys nodded rapidly.
“Already signed myself up to get a shotgun. Got nothin’ to worry about,” Sam told him confidently.
I restrained a snort at this.
Zane’s face was blank then he looked to Noah. “Part of protectin’ her means that clown does not go anywhere near a firearm.”
I couldn’t contain my laughter at Sam’s crestfallen face and Wyatt’s grin.
Noah nodded. “You got my word,” he promised.
But Zane was no longer looking at Noah. His gaze had moved to me the moment I let out the small, genuine giggle. I wasn’t sure, but it might have been the first one since—no, I wasn’t allowed to think of that. Not now. Not in the light, not when I was standing and the memory could bring me to my knees. Not when there were people, my people near, not when my world surrounded me and I couldn’t disguise my agony that came with those memories.
Zane stepped forward. “Go and check out the space, will you, baby?” he asked Mom.
She gave him a long look; then her eyes, dulling with sadness touched on me. “Sure, big man.”
“You don’t lift a fuckin’ thing,” he added.
Mom snorted. “As if that would happen, with or without bun.” She rubbed her belly. “Come on, boys, let’s go and see where the pink sofa will go.”
Sam’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. “Pink?” he repeated in horror, Mom’s teasing having its intended effect.
Zane and I watched them walk across the parking lot, Mom throwing back her head in laughter and the boys smiling with her. We watched them until they disappeared into the building.
“Been waitin’ for that,” Zane said roughly.
I moved my gaze from the empty spot to Zane’s eyes. They were soft at the corner in that half smile that was reserved for Mom and me.
“For Mom to make Sam’s head explode with the notion of anything pink entering his sacred space?” I teased.
Zane stepped forward, his face hard. He squeezed my hand while his other hand went up to brush my cheek lightly. “For my girl to smile, to laugh again and actually mean it. Actually feel it.”
A blade went through my soul at his words, at the meaning behind them.
He didn’t wait for me to say anything, which was good because I couldn’t. “Ever since I claimed your mom, shit, before then, since I laid my eyes on both of you, I’ve worried about you. Your safety, your happiness. You and your mom, you’re always on my mind. Don’t expect that worry will ever go away, even when you smile and laugh like you used to. When you’re happy.” He paused. “But that worry’s been eating me up inside knowing my girl’s hurting, that she’s bleeding and there’s not a thing I can do but watch and wait for her to heal herself. For her beautiful soul to chase out the dark,” he murmured. “That smile. That laugh, the real one, not the ones you’ve been painting on your face for your mother’s sake, that’s what I’ve been waiting for, Lex. Doesn’t take the worry away, but makes me feel a fuck of a lot better leavin’ you here. Lettin’ you paint the universe with your beauty. A father will always worry about his girl. I know that. That weight on my chest is gonna be a bit lighter knowin’ that you’re laughin’ again.” His eyes never left mine.
I blinked rapidly, tears forming in my eyes. They could not fall. They would not fall. I hadn’t cried. Not since that terrible night when I’d sobbed into my mom’s arms, exhausting myself with tears. I never would again. I couldn’t. Because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I’d drown in the depth of my sorrow. So it was through sheer force of will and self-preservation that I blinked away an ocean of tears.
Zane was content in the silence to let me gather myself. He’d lived most of his life in that silence. Well, the four years of his life that he’d trudged through the barren wasteland of his own grief. Now silence was the furthest thing away from what he lived in. Mom and I didn’t do silence. Our life was loud. You’d think someone who seemed to feel most comfortable in quiet wouldn’t fit in our unquiet life. You’d be wrong. Zane fit in like that’s where he’d always belonged.
Even though he didn’t live in silence anymore, he knew when I needed it. Sensed that my unquiet mind craved those moments of stillness that it had been deprived of ever since… then. Since my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. I hadn’t had a snippet of quiet since then. How could I when my soul screamed with the agony of it all? How could I when the only person who gave me that quiet strode out of my life, trampling me with his motorcycle boots as he left? Right here outside my new apartment, outside my new life, I got a snatch of what I’d taken for granted with him. The quiet. I was at the precipice of two different worlds, two different lives. I was really leaving it all behind. Literally. There was one person I could never leave behind, regardless of the fact that’s exactly what he did to me. He’d always lurk at the back of my mind as he had since the moment I’d laid eyes on him. But now his presence was pain, constant and unyielding. A pain I was learning to live with, but a pain that was changing me.
I looked up at Zane, finding my smile amidst the pain. “I’m happy,” I lied. “I’m happy that my mom’s got you. That you’ve got her. That I’m going to have a little brother or sister to spoil rotten. That I’ve got you. A father. A real one,” I whispered. “Love you, Zane, to the moon.”
Zane’s eyes glistened, like there were unshed tears lingering behind that strong façade. Then it was gone, making me think it might have been a trick of the light. I didn’t get time to inspect his face for more signs of emotion and vulnerability on the strong man I considered not my adopted father but my only father, for his huge arms circled me and I was pulled into his chest. I inhaled the scent of leather and smoke, the familiarity giving my soul a fresh lance of pain before I relaxed into it. Zane kissed my head.
“Love you, girl, to the moon,” his said against my hair.
Before the moment could become any more heartbreaking, before I had to address the most words Zane had said in a cohesive sentence for a long while, I was saved by the bell. Or saved by the Sam.
“Lexie!” His voice carried over the parking lot. “You have to come in here right now. We’re having room drama. Wyatt’s claimed the room that I specifically said was mine from the start. You have to fix it. Otherwise, we’re looking for a new bassist because I’ll bludgeon our current one with my drumsticks.”
I pulled out of Zane’s embrace and shook my head at him the way an exasperated parent might at her squabbling children.
Zane didn’t return the look with any humor, not even with his version of a grin, the crinkling at the corners of his eyes. He eyed me for a long moment, concern tangible in his gaze before he let me go.
I turned my back on him to help stop one of my best friends from murdering the other over a bedroom. I turned my back on the life I had before, on the past that held my heart. I turned my back on it all with a promise to myself I’d never open myself up to someone, to something that could come so close to destroying me.
It was my family, my boys, and my music that would become my soul now.