Silent Song is a standalone contemporary romance about a second chance for a filmmaker and a rock star who were both too broken to make it last the first time and what happens when they come together again, a little older, a little less damaged, and every bit as much in love.
© 2018 Ren Benton
131,000 words, 395 pages in paperback
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Potential Catnip: Second chance, rock star, film producer, workplace romance, public life vs. private life, forced proximity, women not competing with each other, friendly ex, mutual professional admiration, kidless by choice
Trigger Warnings: Non-protagonist suicide attempt, protagonist in recovery, protagonist survivor of past violence, narcissistic parent, toxic ex, stalking
Lex Perry had it all. Fame. Fortune. A once-in-ten-lifetimes love with a brilliant, beautiful, battle-scarred goddess. And an addiction that was done sharing his attention. He survived. His fall from grace never stopped fans from throwing money and panties at him. All he lost for his weakness was the heart Gin—the woman, not the booze—took with her when she left.
Gin Greene pushed the man she loved to the brink of death and abandoned him there. Now, she wants to exploit his extraordinary talent to boost her career. In his shoes, she’d tell herself to go to hell, but Lex charges to her rescue as if he’s been waiting for her to need him. As if there are no hard feelings. As if what she did to him can ever be forgiven.
The old walls between them crumble as their relentless attraction pulls them back together. But Lex isn’t the only man from Gin’s past who wants a second shot at her, and that unfinished business could destroy them both…
“Is Lex there yet?”
Gin should have heeded her instinct to let the call go to voicemail. Your Business Affairs Executive surely has important news about your business affairs, her treacherous reason argued.
Instead of news, Maisie jabbed a stick through the phone’s speaker to stir up the butterfly infestation nesting in Gin’s stomach.
She raised a mug to her lips and flattened their wings with a gulp of Earl Grey. “I sent Ethan to the dungeon for leaving nose prints on the window like a puppy waiting for its boy to come home from school. You can join him.”
“I’m a thousand miles out of your reach, tyrant.”
“I can reach my phone. It would be a shame if your mother somehow got the notion her precious bijou sounds like she’s coming down with a cold. Unsweetened cerasee tea and enough VapoRub to cryogenically freeze you are one quick text away.”
“Wow. That Rocky Mountain air has made you a monster.”
On the other side of floor-to-ceiling glass, towering spruces sheltered a few pockets of dingy snow that clung to life in defiance of the calendar. The shin-high sliding window closest to Ethan’s desk was open a crack to admit gusts of the aforementioned mountain air to swirl with the heat generated by the computer setup temporarily running the creative and promotional arms of their film production company. In the opposite corner, where the warmth made its last stand, Gin huddled in her chair, flannel sleeves pulled down to her knuckles and feet tucked beneath her thighs for more protection from the encroaching cold than her thick woolen socks provided.
Maisie continued. “Moving on before you do something really vicious, like email my ex to say I miss him. What’s the status on the new screenplay?”
Gin lowered her laptop’s screen as if the empty document displayed there would spontaneously choose to tell tales now that it had Maisie for an audience. She put her elbows on it to ensure continued silence. “It’s not ready to share.”
“I’m not asking for the shooting script in my inbox by five, but it’s never too early to start thinking about locations and labor.”
GemGam Ltd. had produced sixteen movies, counting the one Gin had retreated to this borrowed lodge in Colorado to edit. By the premiere of the first film, the script for the second had been written and the myriad creaky wheels of production set in motion. After fourteen repeat performances on the same timeline, Maisie had every right to expect a fifteenth.
Too bad that damn blank document had no respect for tradition. “I don’t have a good sense of the setting yet.”
What a relief. She hadn’t completely forgotten how to make up a story.
“That’s a first. You always tell film students action and setting are inseparable.”
Just tell her there’s no script, no story, no idea and get it over with.
The words jammed in her throat. The movie opened in July. That gave her two months to write something. It didn’t have to be finished — she could revise at any point, including on set if necessary. Her team could perform miracles with nothing more than an idea.
She could come up with an idea in two months. Prematurely threatening everyone’s job security in an attempt to unburden her conscience would be… monstrous.
“It will all come together in the end.” She plucked a postcard advertising home security systems from the mail pile and fanned herself to cool her flush of shame. “Have I ever let you down?”
Maisie’s laugh cracked like a whip. “Of course not. I wish you would once in a while so the bar isn’t set so high.”
Gin leaned back in her chair, half expecting the frustration vibrating through the line to manifest in physical form and hand her a resignation letter. “If we need another assistant, I can find money in the budget.”
“I write the budget. You couldn’t find money for a staple in it.”
Gin could always take a pay cut, but she’d have to tiptoe behind the bookkeeping dragon’s back to put money in the account. In the meantime, she could shift more of the load to herself. “What do you hate doing most? I’ll take over.”
“Way to miss the point. Let me do my job. You make sure the music man signs all the necessary boilerplate and get it back to me ASAP.”
The butterflies took flight again, thousands of wings scattering Gin’s worries about the health of her partnership with Maisie to clear the way for a bigger threat to her peace of mind. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had someone score a movie, you know.”
“It’s the first time you’ve had Lex Perry score a movie. I don’t want you getting too distracted by six feet four inches of sex appeal to lock down chain of title.”
Gin had been too busy worrying about bad blood and professional clash of wills to give any thought to the physical side effects of proximity to Lex. Just what she needed — one more way to screw the deal. “He hasn’t agreed to take the job yet. Ethan and I will probably end up doing the music ourselves.”
“That wouldn’t be a first, either.”
There were benefits to keeping as much work as possible in house. Foremost, always, the budget adored cheap labor. Nearly as important, the almighty chain of title never became kinked at the hands of a nonbeliever who didn’t depend on it for distribution and therefore survival.
But River Bound was special. Every movie they had produced previously required a downward adjustment of Gin’s vision to accommodate the limitations of money and time, but for once, the stars aligned to bring together a combination of talents, trades, and locations beyond an independent filmmaker’s wildest dreams.
The only flaw she could pinpoint was the absence of music. The wrong music would be worse than none, tarnishing every other gleaming performance. The movie needed a composer as good as the sum of all its other parts, capable of understanding its heart and pouring all his passion and genius into the music.
The movie needed Lex.
“He told some magazine or other he was doing it.”
That was news to Gin. “When was this?”
“Must have been right before he hit the road because they mentioned something about having his bags packed early for a tour that’s not announced yet. Let me find it in my alerts.” Maisie’s keyboard pattered. “Got it. Apparently, spending the past year in the studio wasn’t creative enough for Gone & Forgotten’s frontman. When asked what’s next, instead of plugging the anticipated tour for the band’s ninth album, Lex surprised us with the news he’ll be scoring a movie for ‘an old friend.’ While Lex has been ‘friends’ with his share of Hollywood’s beauties, we know of only one ‘friend’ with the authority to throw work his way. Asked directly if Perry-Greene will soar again, his only response was an enigmatic smile.“
Gin’s desire to believe played tug-of-war with common sense, using her guts for a rope. Hope put up a good fight before being dragged through the mud. “I can give you half a dozen reasons in that paragraph alone not to take whatever gossip rag that came from as a credible news source.”
“The enigmatic smile is a big red flag. I knew Lex for a year before I saw him do anything but brood, and I wasn’t irritating him with obnoxious personal questions at the time.”
That one was obvious. Referring to Gin as a friend was another giveaway. If she held that rank, she wouldn’t have put off contacting him for a month after admitting to herself only he could do the job right. Her throat wouldn’t have constricted while she tapped out the email: Do you want to score a movie? Clicking send wouldn’t have been a race against the cowardice urging her to hold down the backspace key and purge her drafts folder to make sure the past stayed safely where it belonged.
Before she could slam her laptop closed and stuff it under the bed for a day or three to avoid the No, and never contact my client again response from his manager or publicist or whatever third party was tasked with telling people to fuck off on his behalf these days, his reply popped into her inbox.
A command from Lex had a way of overcoming even paralyzing reluctance. One hand hovered over her phone, but a voice test produced only a rough wisp of sound.
She’d undergone extensive occupational therapy. She knew all the exercises to relax and mobilize her scarred laryngeal fold. In fifteen minutes, she could have carried out a telephone conversation like a big, brave girl.
Instead, she’d typed, Croaky.
Since that night eight weeks ago, they’d gone back and forth about what she needed, when, and where, always via email.
Lex preferred the speed and spontaneity of verbal communication over all that tedious typing, but he never again pressed for phone contact. Unless one of them overcame the mutual aversion to speaking, they’d be emailing each other from opposite sides of the same house.
If Lex took the job.
Three decades of friendship enabled Maisie to read her mind. “Veracity of the article notwithstanding, he’ll make music for you.”
Gin didn’t share her optimism. In eight weeks, he hadn’t committed to anything more than taking a look at the movie. “You don’t think there’s the slightest chance he gave me two months to get my hopes up and drove all the way here so he can see the look on my face when he tells me to go to hell?”
“You’re kidding, right? Lex doesn’t have a long enough fuse for a plot like that. If he’s mad, he explodes, vaporizes the enemy, and writes a song about it.”
Lex and anger had a long, comfortable relationship. They even collaborated creatively, no critic missing the opportunity to declare each of his albums a masterpiece of melodic rage or some unimaginative, one-dimensional variation thereof that entirely missed the point of his music.
Other emotions served him less well. Betrayal, for instance, took advantage of his hospitality by setting up permanent residence and roosting on a grudge until the traitor was punished satisfactorily. As far as Gin had been able to tell from a spectator’s seat, nothing short of a coliseum full of ravenous lions could appease him once a friend became a foe.
Now that it was her turn in the arena, she feared even gladiatorial mauling would be insufficient penance to earn his forgiveness.
Feet pounded down the hallway. Ethan burst into the office, breath short from his sprint. “He’s coming up the driveway. How do I look?”
Since she last saw him, he’d donned a tailored vest over his white T-shirt. The crispness of his jeans suggested the recent touch of an iron. The remainder of his absence had been dedicated to schooling his hair to red carpet-worthy volume and shine. “You look like you’re ready to get your class picture taken.”
He mimed combing his hair a safe distance from disturbing his pompadour. “It’s against my code of conduct to be less well groomed than the nearest straight man. When Lex is involved, the struggle is real.”
Maisie’s sneer traveled through the line. “The man has been trapped in a car for four days. How pristine do you imagine he’s going to be?”
Gin compensated for the visual limitations of the communication medium by providing a voice-over. “Ethan stares in your general direction, perfectly manscaped brows at comically disparate elevations to convey the extent of his disbelief.”
He stroked the aforementioned brows to acknowledge the compliment. “Has she forgotten the man’s hair is supernatural?”
Gin had to take Ethan’s side in this particular dispute. Lex would be cranky after prolonged confinement of his long limbs and impatient energy, but an ominous glare only enhanced his state of being perpetually, effortlessly camera ready.
Even near death, he’d looked like a fallen angel, dark and wounded within the cage of a hospital bed, otherworldly splendor untouchable by mere mortals.
In contrast, every sleepless night for the past two months showed in the hollows under Gin’s eyes. If the movie failed to hook his creative interest, seducing him into taking the job obviously wasn’t an option, so Plan B was pity. Do it for the people who are going to lose money and jobs if this movie bombs because there might not be a next time for me to make it up to them.
Maisie heaved the sigh of the left out. “Tell the handsome man I said hi and sit on his face for me.”
Their friendship definitely ended short of that stage. “He said he wasn’t coming alone, and I have way too much on my plate to take a beating from his girlfriend to give you a vicarious thrill.”
“But think of the publicity.” Ethan splayed his fingers and swept them through the air as if materializing the headline. “Gin Greene and Lex Perry had a secret rendezvous in the mountains, and Gin emerged covered in bruises. Everyone would want an interview. We set up a live presser, and when you’re plastered on every network from CNN to E!, you shout, ‘River Bound is coming to a theater near you,’ drop the mic, and run away.”
“Or — hear me out — we could not descend into the bowels of self-promotion.”
Maisie blew a raspberry. “You know where dignity gets you in this business.”
Nowhere near as much publicity as a juicy scandal, but Gin had enough trouble sleeping without getting into a catfight in the name of a promo op. “Any time you want to get further in this business than my dignity allows, I’ll write you a glowing reference stained by my tears.”
“Where am I going to find another producer who does half my job for me? You’ve been gone a week, and it’s almost starting to feel like work around here.”
Maisie might be right to worry about Gin being too distracted to ensure chain of title, given how easily she could be distracted from warning signs in a friendship that began on set when they were five.
Ethan smoothed a hand over the buttons of his vest, oblivious to Gin’s silent plea for intervention. “I’m heading out. Are you joining the welcoming committee?”
The butterflies zoomed up to clog her throat. “Give me two minutes to finish up with Mais.”
He dashed to greet his long-lost boy without commenting on the croak her voice had become. The front door banged to signal his exit.
Maisie’s code of conduct prohibited letting a friend’s bullshit go unmentioned. “On a scale of one to ten, how stressed are you?”
Gin’s postproduction stress level hovered around 9.7 at the best of times, so hitting the top of the scale on special occasions made no discernible difference. She addressed the movie-related portion of the surplus. “I hate the alternatives if he says no.”
“There was a time that man would do anything for you. Remind him.”
There was a time Lex nearly killed himself attempting to escape the demands she heaped on him. She would never do that to him again. “My two minutes are up.”
Maisie interpreted her strangled whisper well enough. “Take a deep breath and blow out the worry candles.”
Gin pursed her lips and blew into the speaker. The childhood ritual eased Maisie’s mind, if not hers.
“Remember, every movie you’ve ever made has been done without the musical stylings of Lex Perry. With or without him, this one will be great, too.”
No other movie had begged for attention only he could give.
Gin issued a sound vague enough to pass for agreement and pressed the button to end the call.
She didn’t have fifteen minutes to perform a full throat workout. She stretched her mouth wide and inhaled, feigning a yawn. Scarred structures tugged in a tight line from the hollow of her throat up to her ear. She exhaled with a soft, extended ah. Five reps didn’t return her voice to normal, but the sound that emerged less resembled air leaking through a pinhole in a balloon.
The front door banged again to announce an entry.
She unpretzeled her legs and stood. The urge to ease the door closed and lock it was strong, but hiding in the office wouldn’t persuade Lex working on her movie was a worthwhile use of his talent. The movie itself would convince him or not, but she’d have to perform the introductions first.
She stepped from the office into a cavernous living room. The shared wall between the rooms housed a fireplace, TV, and wet bar, none currently in use. The far end of the room opened into the dining room, beyond which a kitchen pumped the rich aroma of long-simmered stew through the open space. Along the northern and southern walls of the house, windows stretched from the plank floor to the beamed ceiling, maximizing panoramic views of woodlands and lake that Ethan declared spectacular.
To Gin, the glass box formed a terrarium with too few places to hide from unseen eyes peering in. Even miles from the nearest neighbor with acres of dense forest shielding the house from the road, the exposure made her skin creep.
No eyes other than hers scanned the living room from within, and no voices drifted from the kitchen ahead or bedrooms behind to indicate the men had made it inside.
Ethan must have exerted just a little too much force trying to get Lex through the door. Overcome by the premonition he was about to be shackled in the dungeon and forced to make music against his will, Lex wrenched from his captor’s grasp and bolted for the trees. Now, Ethan was chasing their runaway composer through the woods because he didn’t want to be responsible for ruining the movie with inferior music any more than Gin did.
She should probably help drag the music man back to ensure he didn’t escape again.
She equipped herself for a footrace by slipping her feet into canvas sneakers cast off at the security panel the last time she came into the house. As she bent to adjust the back of one shoe over her heel, a flash of movement in the dining room set off the alarm in her brain.
“Omigosh, it’s really you!”
Gin hopped back a step as the intruder rushed her. The door blocked further retreat.
The assailant’s embrace crushed Gin’s arms against her chest. The woman was a couple of inches shorter and of average build, but her grip couldn’t be broken from that position. With hands bound, the panic button on the house alarm might as well have been miles away.
She skipped away just as Gin decided to risk her forehead on a head-butt. Hands fluttered in the air like pink, nervous birds. “Please don’t tell Lex I grabbed you. He warned me not to, but I was so excited, I forgot I promised not to do the fangirl thing.”
Gin’s heart continued to gallop while her mind sluggishly processed the news the intruder was a fan, not an assassin — not that the two were mutually exclusive.
She was on the young side of adulthood, petite, hourglass shaped, and hadn’t stopped talking the whole time. “I grew up watching you on Trouble & Toil. I begged my parents every day to let me dye my hair purple like yours, but the most they’d let me do was wear a wig for Halloween.”
Gin’s purple hair had been as fake as the spells her character cast throughout the ten-year run of the series. In rare solidarity with other parents, Simone Greene never would have allowed her daughter’s hair to be dyed purple, thereby diminishing her marketability as an above-average white American girl. Gin could hardly appear on the cover of Seventeen without long, flowing, natural-colored hair, even if it took a stylist four hours a month to apply those “natural” highlights and lowlights to the drab blonde genetics provided.
The other woman’s wide-eyed stare fell to the mark slashing across the right side of Gin’s throat. “The scar isn’t anywhere near as bad in real life as it looks in pictures.”
The defect bothered Gin only when the tissue damage interfered with her voice. The best plastic surgeon in Hollywood, consulted at Simone’s insistence, said she had a greater chance of dying under anesthesia than achieving a noticeable cosmetic improvement with surgery. She never covered the scar with makeup or pretended a fondness for turtlenecks. Fashion magazines digitally erased the disfigurement. Tabloids enhanced it. What they really hid or reveled in was their own discomfort with unapologetic ugliness in a world obsessed with beauty and the “perks” of celebrity.
With any luck, the ball of excitement bouncing before her would never have to understand how ugly the world could be. Gin could easily picture a miniature version dressed up for Halloween like a character idolized by little girls around the world, even if she looked like she hadn’t been born when the final season aired nineteen years ago.
The girl-woman slapped her left hand over her mouth to cut off the flow of words. A set of bands on her ring finger sparkled in the sunlight pouring through the windows. A fresh torrent of words pushed the hand away. “I am so sorry. I just feel like I know you after doing nothing the whole trip except interrogate Lex about you, and I forgot you have no idea who I am. I’m Piper, by the way, and I swear I’m not a nut. I will totally understand if you throw me out, but please please please point me to a bathroom first.”
For the first time since the deluge began, Gin knew how to respond. “I won’t throw you out.” Her voice emerged low but clear, intelligible despite the increasing perception of constriction.
Lex mentioned he was bringing company, so she’d been prepared for another woman. Just not… this one.
She pointed to the hallway beyond the office. “First door on your left, or you can claim any room other than Ethan’s and use the en suite. Make yourself at home.”
The agitated birds took flight again. “I can’t believe how nice you are.”
Lex must have painted an unflattering picture if not wanting someone’s kidneys to explode was unexpectedly nice of her, but why would he be kind? She was the evil ex, after all.
Piper dipped her knees in the universal dance of urinary distress. “My pregnancy app says this baby’s only the size of a kidney bean, and he’s already squishing my bladder capacity to nothing.”
She sprinted toward relief.
Baby echoed in Gin’s ears, reverberated in her skull, and threatened to explode from her mouth, amplified a thousandfold.
She kept her lips sealed and pressed a hand to her hollow abdomen. Lex was full of surprises. Babies, rings, and bubbles full of sunshine. Either a lot had changed in five years, or she’d known him even less well than she thought.
Well. If she’d had any idea what he needed, their relationship wouldn’t have been such a cataclysmic failure. If his new album was any indication, he was thriving now. Obviously, the best thing for him was everything she wasn’t.
Good for him. Good for them.
And if his good cheer made him amenable to working on the movie, good for her, too.
She stepped out of the arc of the door when it swung open to admit Ethan and an enormous suitcase covered in flowers of glaring hues.
He laughed at the sight of her. “You look dazed. Isn’t Piper great? Did she make it to the bathroom, or do I need to find a mop?”
She ignored his first question and the peevish impulse to call him a traitor. “I think she avoided leaving a puddle on the floor. Are there more bags?”
He lugged his load toward the bedroom wing. “Lex brought a dozen guitars. Maybe he’ll trust you to carry one.”
Her lips trembled with the effort of forming a smile. He wouldn’t subject his retinue of wooden ladies to such a long journey unless he meant to seriously consider taking the job.
Happy Lex was good for the movie, but as his old friend, she should be glad for him even if he gave her nothing. He was long overdue for some peace.
Her churning feelings receded to the well from whence they’d crawled. They were irrelevant, like ghosts whispering to the living. She would be professional. Lex would put the final perfect touch of sound on her movie and then ride off into the sunset with his wife and child. Gin would return to her blank page.
And they all lived happily ever after. Roll credits.
She stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind her. Stone slabs formed stairs that curved around the front of the house, descending to the driveway that bowed toward a detached garage. The steps grabbed at the soles of her shoes, slowing her feet as she rounded the corner.
A Suburban loomed in the drive, rear hatch open to expose the precious cargo within. The guest of honor stood with his back to her, inspecting the integrity of his baggage.
Alexander Fitzgerald Perry. The blues rendition of his life story would begin His mama couldn’t give him a silver spoon, so she gave him a name fit for a railroad tycoon. He had the regal bearing to match, though Gin never could pinpoint the origin, other than from his height, he had no choice but to look down his nose at just about everyone.
His long body looked even leaner than she remembered it. Broad shoulders strained at the seams of a soft knit shirt. His torso tapered to a narrow ass encased in aged denim.
Following introduction to the mother of his child, she should confine her admiration to the artistic realm and stop wondering if his back still made a good life raft when the floor was lava, if he still got a pinch under his shoulder blade during long guitar sessions and groaned long and low while probing fingers smoothed it out, if the canvas of his skin bore any new ink.
If he tasted the same when another woman took him in her arms and put her mouth on him.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the rear view of Lex Perry was a thing of geometric beauty, his back an inverted sublime triangle. If the half dozen drummers who’d had the privilege of staring at it in the line of duty shared her appreciation of the view, they’d have tried harder to hang onto the job.
A slammed door rocked the Suburban, and the current holder of that enviable position came around the back of the vehicle and called her name in greeting.
Lex turned, revealing a sharper jaw, more chiseled cheekbones, every goddamn hair predictably in place. He pinned her where she stood with eyes that were deceptively dark at a distance. Those, too, were more intense than memory served.
She crossed her arms across her middle and hugged herself as if that would hold her in place. Eight weeks of scripting every word and gesture she would perform at this moment hadn’t accounted for the tidal wave of helpless yearning that threatened to push her toward him. Her lines vanished from memory as if they’d been written in sand.
This movie had tormented her with equal parts promise and agony from the start. Now there could be no doubt it meant to break her heart before it finished with her.
Lex had passed through Colorado at least a dozen times. The hotel room, dressing room, and parlor where he hosted get-togethers for up to twenty thousand rowdy guests at a time were indistinguishable from any other stop on a tour.
Here, miles from Denver, miles even from the nearest blink-and-miss-it town of Grayson, hid a secret world. From the city, this place existed only as a watercolor mural on a distant wall, vanishing when the spotlight of the sun dropped behind it and civilization aimed light at itself in defiance of the darkness.
Here, those pretty pastel mountains loomed, cloaked in their own shadows. Dense forests of fairy tale proportions pinched the road as if trying to stop a gash from bleeding. Trees shifted and sighed in reproach at the passage of toy cars that added insult to nature’s injury.
Here, when darkness fell, a man would feel its weight and run for cover.
The images scattered, embarrassed to be caught fraternizing with each other. Less than pleased with his role in bringing them together, Lex lowered the notebook to his thigh and covered his scribbles with one hand. “What do you see?”
Matt took a cursory look at their surroundings and seized upon the most bountiful resource. “Trees?”
“What do the trees mean to you?”
And that was why Lex wrote solo and called the band together only when the music was ready to record. “There you go. I’m writing a Christmas song.”
Then again, the idea was just absurd enough to appeal. He turned to a clean page. Instead of jingle bells and candy canes, this tune called for broken toys — no, dolls — and bearded housebreakers. The challenge would be burying the holiday cues to avoid obvious parody.
He had a humorless image to maintain, after all.
Stockings tinsel fire joined the growing collection of words. Someone who didn’t know him well might think the lyrics taking shape represented a condemnation of sex trafficking juxtaposed with cheery seasonal imagery to batter the listener’s conscience rather than a slightly warped retelling of familiar traditions.
His reward for musical jokes that sailed over the listener’s head was a stockpile of smug superiority. His greatest achievement in that regard remained “Factor E” — fourteen years after release, only one person had ever caught on that the song was about Willy Wonka’s candy empire being powered by slave labor and ritual sacrifice of children.
That movie was a favorite of Gin’s. He’d written the song with the hope she would hear it, recognize him as a kindred spirit, and fall madly in love with him.
It took a few years, but he eventually got everything he’d ever wanted. Then, as in every cautionary tale ever told about thoughtlessly made wishes, the dark side of his dream-come-true began seeping through the cracks.
A puddle of ink spread under his stalled pen, drowning the last word scrawled.
Being recognized initially brought a surge of mind-altering bliss. Sustained recognition, on the other hand, was a steady stream of panic for a man with secrets, and no one had more secrets than an addict. The truth could never sink deep enough into the murk to hide from Gin. She didn’t have to dive. She simply saw. Every fear. Every weakness. Every sin.
Her insight was the stuff of nightmares, but he’d come running to her to have the darkest parts of his soul exposed again. Only Gin could be trusted to tell him whether the monster in the shadows had moved on or merely gotten better at hiding.
Yet here he sat on the tailgate like a teenager too chickenshit to face the consequences of a fender bender.
At least his juvenile behavior entertained Matt, who was little more than a child himself. “I never knew you were such a coward.”
“My spinelessness is a matter of public record.” Lex snapped the notebook shut and tossed it over his shoulder to get lost among the rest of his baggage. He’d have been here four days sooner if not for his certainty airplanes were coffins suspended by nothing but the unanimous mercy of thousands of potentially disgruntled engineers, welders, fuelers, pilots, and air traffic controllers. He hadn’t set foot on one in the five years since getting blackout drunk was stricken from his limited repertoire of coping skills.
Matt was stoked to be in a band that played anywhere other than his parents’ garage. He looked at Canada as if he’d been transported to an enchanted dimension, so being confined to North America wasn’t a source of strife with him — yet. He deserved a fearless leader who could give him the world.
Even if he was being an obnoxious shit at the moment. “You wish I meant flying. What’s the worst that can happen when you see your ex?”
Bursting into flames, loss of oxygen, plummeting, shattering impact, followed by a race between water and sharks to determine which won bragging rights on his autopsy as the official cause of death. Statistically, those outcomes might be slightly more farfetched in regard to a woman than an airplane, but he hadn’t faced Gin since rehab, either — and he’d never had any skill when it came to coping with her. Deep breathing sure as hell didn’t settle nerves jangling with the awareness she held his future in her small, steady hands.
“It’s just a job.” One he needed to execute flawlessly so he’d have a backup plan when the rest of the band, management, the label, and the fans finally got sick of his shit.
No big deal.
“Right. It has nothing to do with the woman who offered you the job being the same woman who stole the heart from your chest, hooked it to a pump to keep it beating, and kept it by her bed to lull her to sleep at night.”
The kid was pushing his luck paraphrasing the most whiny, self-indulgent song on a whiny, self-indulgent album written in the midst of rehab. Lex never should have been allowed in the studio with that bucket of shit, but everyone had been tired of waiting. Bad product was better for the bottom line than no product. His eternal mortification was a small price to pay for getting Gone & Forgotten back on the charts, back on the road, and back generating revenue.
He’d redeemed himself as a songwriter on two subsequent albums. The most recent, Amnesia, crouched in the third slot on Billboard and was expected to claw higher, a promising omen for the forthcoming tour. As long as the venues sold out, Big Jim would keep adding more dates. Months away from home stretched ahead of Lex.
But instead of cramming as many private days and nights in his own bed as possible into his last few weeks of freedom, he threw some clothes in a bag, drove most of the way across the country, and told everyone to start preparing without him because the founder and frontman of Gone & Forgotten would rather make music for someone else than do his damn job.
The day was fast approaching when he would have to choose how much dignity he’d like to take with him into the sunset of his career. Writing music for someone else had to be better than hosting a reality show on some dick-centric cable network where has-been celebrities went to die. He just had to acclimate himself to surrendering creative control by degrees, starting with the person for whom he had the most creative respect. If he couldn’t do it for Gin…
There was no if. He barely had the emotional resources to get to this stage of Plan A. There was nothing in the reserve tank for a Plan B. He would give her the best music he could write, critics and audiences would hail him as a genius, and when it came time for a career change, he’d have something other than “rock star” to put on his résumé. End of story.
Matt bounced on the seat like a kid half his age who’d been cooped up in the car too long. “If it’s just a job, let’s head to the office and get to work.”
Lex pretended not to hear the latest attempt to turn this into a team project. “Why aren’t you hauling bags into the house? I brought you to be a pack mule.”
“You mean there’s a task you’d actually trust me to perform? My heart!” Matt clasped his hands over the overwhelmed organ but made a speedy recovery when threatened with the scalpel of Lex’s glare. “Ethan told me to stay put and sound the alarm if you rabbit.”
Was his twitchiness that obvious? Doubt had been stalking him for weeks, whispering prophecies of doom from the deepest shadows of his mind. He hadn’t heard Gin’s distinctive voice issue the invitation. Email was easy to spoof. She had no idea he was going to show up at her door, and he hadn’t picked up the phone for two months because he didn’t want to hear the truth from her lips.
The voice of reason sounded suspiciously like his shrink and whispered in counterpoint to the doubt: Ethan had been unsurprised to see him — one might even say pleased, if multiple spine-cracking hugs and dewy eyes were any indication — and Ethan’s lips were attached to Gin’s ear. She had to know he was coming.
Lex didn’t expect hugs or dewy eyes from her. A hi would be nice, but lack of even a tepid greeting at the instant of his arrival didn’t necessarily signify ill will. The woman ruled an empire, and at this stage of production, the demands of the treasury, diplomacy, and propaganda consumed her time. A lowly bard rolling into town didn’t warrant personal attention from the queen, even if she had summoned him.
Even if the lowly bard used to carry the queen to bed when she fell asleep on the job.
“I thought he was joking at first, but now I see he knows you better than I do, and I’m jealous.” Matt’s lower lip rolled out. “I thought we had something special, man.”
“You can be replaced, you know.”
Four years was unprecedented longevity for a G&F drummer. All the betting pools predicting the kid’s expiration date had dried up by now, and towers of speculation about what kind of incriminating dirt he was holding over Lex had sprung up in their place. The mystery kept people talking, but a lineup change a few weeks before a tour would inspire even more chatter.
A cheeky grin reflected Matt’s unwarranted complacency about his job security. “I’ll tell Gin you’re being mean to me.”
Gin knew all about purging those who outlasted their utility. The example she set had made Lex bloodless in his tie-severing. His previous method of starting with maybe it’s best if you leave only wasted everyone’s time when staying wasn’t really an option. “Why do you imagine she’d care?”
“She doesn’t have to care, as long as you care about looking like an asshole to her.”
Lex would never win in the court of public opinion if he tried to defend himself against that baby-faced hellspawn’s whimpering. “Well played. When did you become so manipulative?”
“I learned it by watching you!”
“Are you even old enough to get that reference?”
“It’s a meme. Are you too old to know what a meme is?”
Auditions could start tonight. Somebody within driving distance was dying to leave his garage band and become a rock star. Sure, that was how Lex found himself stuck with the current smirking brat, but the arrangement worked just fine when Matt was eighteen and malleable. The mistake had been keeping him past twenty, when he suddenly thought he was a grownup and knew every damn thing. Now twenty-two, he was an insufferable smartass.
The only traveling companion who hadn’t exhausted his tolerance days ago was Piper’s fetus. By Ohio, he’d have traded either of his hands for a mute button for Piper. The first time she passed out in the passenger seat, he melted with relief — until she started chattering in her sleep about turkey sandwiches and roller coasters. Matt carried on as if completely unbothered by the relentless noise, presumably because years of beating things with sticks had destroyed his hearing.
Piper’s sleeptalking almost made Lex miss her endless questions about Gin. The only ones he hadn’t answered were the ones about Perry-Greene as a couple. While they were together, he’d been fiercely protective of Gin’s privacy, which had been under attack since her television debut at age five. Now, he protected his memories, which dissolved like burning celluloid when examined under the unforgiving light of sobriety.
Matt was right to call him a coward. He’d rather run into the woods than see confirmation in Gin’s eyes that the happiest time of his life had been nothing but torment for her because of him.
But why extend the offer if he’d been as much of a nightmare to live with as he suspected? She could have offered this job to a thousand other songwriters and let them fight for the privilege. Hell, she could have written the music herself. The movies layered with her own music had, by far, the greatest resonance as a result of the creator’s hand shaping every sight and sound. A madman may have cut her singing voice from her throat ten years ago, but she could still write a song as well as Lex could.
Possibly better since fear, historically, had not enhanced his creativity. Heartache? Sure. Anger? Even better. Fear? His policy was to avoid it as long as possible, race through the ordeal to get it over with, and then marvel at the gullibility of critics whose harshest criticism for cowardly work was a lateral move rather than the creative leap we’ve come to expect from Lex Perry.
Lateral movement was better than sitting on his ass. Time to face the boogeyman — not Gin, but the image of himself she would reflect back to him.
He stood, stretched his cramped muscles, and turned a weary eye toward the cargo. “To the office, then.”
“Yes!” Matt hopped out of the back seat. The slamming door rocked the Suburban. Mischief glowed on his face as he walked toward the back of the vehicle. “Hey, Gin!”
Every muscle in Lex’s body, from his toes to his scalp, pulled taut. Stiff as a rusty gate, he pivoted toward the toughest audience he had ever faced.
So little had changed, he could easily pretend he’d come home to her after a five-week road trip rather than a five-year split. The same fame-be-damned uniform of leggings and body-swallowing shirt. The same looping, whimsical curls sneaking one by one from the strict confinement of a ponytail to play around her face. The same serious green eyes staring through his skin to assess the state of his soul.
The same towering talent, mind, and heart compressed in a lossless format that required a mere five and half feet of slender vertical storage.
For a moment, he pretended she looked as unmoored and desperate as he felt.
Then Matt stepped between them, slung his arms around her, and swept her feet off the ground.
Whatever her expression had been shifted to thinly veiled horror. “You brought two huggers.”
Dammit, both of them? Before he even had a chance to open his mouth and say the wrong thing, he’d visited a plague of handsy strangers upon her. “They’re not with me.”
Matt returned Gin to her feet and stepped back, hands raised in peace. “Sorry. I know better. I’m just so pleased to finally meet you in person.”
The internet had convinced everybody they were buddies with the famous. “You haven’t met her otherwise.”
“She tweeted at me after my first big-boy concert to tell me I did a good job. She seemed to think you wouldn’t pat me on the head.”
Lex hadn’t always expressed his appreciation for others, believing they should know their continued presence in his sphere signified approval, but since rehab, he’d been working on using his words. He could have been more supportive when Matt was puking his guts out before that show, but it was also his first big-boy concert in a couple of years and his first ever sober, and stopping himself from washing away his anxiety with the plentiful booze backstage had demanded every bit of his attention.
That part of the night was beside the point. His gaze locked with Gin’s. “You were there?”
Her chin ticked up a fraction of an inch. “Big fan.”
If he’d known she was in the house, would the show have been worse because of his fear of fucking up in front of her or better because his music, at least, always gave its best to her?
Either way, he’d have sold his soul to get that message instead of Matt. “I know a guy in the band. I could have gotten you backstage.”
The sly curve of her lips acknowledged the private joke. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that ‘I’m with the band’ line.”
She could have a nice shopping spree funded by the variations thereof she’d gotten from him, starting with the night they met. She remained stubbornly, ego-crushingly unimpressed by his superstar status throughout their relationship. To woo her, he had to resort to the most desperate measure of all — acting like a fully functional adult.
The performance eventually took its toll.
Matt rocked back on his heels. “And then there was the time she talked me out of smothering you with a pillow.”
She made a production of scratching her chin with three fingers, provoking a twitch of Lex’s lips. Fair enough. No one had ever accused him of being easy to live with.
“And the time she told me it wouldn’t work unless the pillow was wet.”
In response to his raised brow, she took a sudden interest in the atmospheric conditions overhead.
“Lucky for you, having the urge to murder you validated by the person usually responsible for saving your life calmed me right down.” Matt extended his arms. “Since you no longer appear to be in danger of bolting, load the mule.”
Lex slammed a suitcase into the bigmouth’s chest. “It will be good training for your next job.”
“Is this uncharacteristic display of trust my only reward, or can I expect a tip?”
“Here’s one: I suggest not telling your next boss about your murder plans.”
“If I’m lucky, my next boss will inspire kinder sentiments.” Matt winked at Gin and headed for the house.
She watched him go, then turned wide eyes back toward Lex. “I can’t believe he’s that lippy to your face. How did he make it through his audition alive?”
“He kept his mouth shut until he had the job.”
“And he’s so good you didn’t dump him by the side of the road when he finally opened it?”
Matt did his job, but so had every G&F drummer who had come before him. Skill was never the problem, and it wasn’t the reason Matt had lasted four years. “He’s all right.”
Her gaze snared and held his when he tried to pull away. She knew him. She knew there was a vein to mine. There was a time she would have whipped out her pickaxe and gently chipped down to the truth.
But the distance between them now was greater than the two yards of driveway separating their feet. She let his reasons remain encased in stone. “Piper seems great.”
The mere mention of her name set off an echo of her voice inside his skull and a corresponding eye twitch. “She’s a good kid.”
“She mentioned the baby. Congratulations.”
He rubbed his forehead. He’d made all the socially acceptable noises in response to the announcement while mentally tallying all the ways it was going to fuck up his life, starting with scheduling a tour around her due date.
He also didn’t welcome a fresh source of anxiety about mother-baby health. “Her diet is shit. Can you talk her into eating something that doesn’t come out of a greasy paper bag while she’s here?”
Gin’s brows canted. “I can try, but after my last conversion attempt, I’m not optimistic.”
After he quit drinking, when his body began reacting violently to everything he put in his mouth, he wished he’d paid more attention to the food restrictions he’d harassed Gin about. Piecing together a semblance of her clean diet from fragments of his shoddy memory while every quack he saw pitched the fad du jour had been a pain in the ass he could have spared himself if he’d simply listened while he had her. “Even I learned my lesson eventually.”
“Good. It will be easier for her to eat well if you’re not tempting her with nachos.”
That’s not the kind of temptation you succumbed to when I used your body like a platter.
As if she shared his thought, her cheeks flooded with pink, mirroring the fever rushing under his skin. Dammit, if every innocuous reference summoned a spirit from their past, he could kiss any hope of a professional association goodbye. She’d know he was mentally ranking methods of making her moan rather than doing his job.
She looked away. The tension snapped. The recoil slammed into his chest hard enough to make him flinch and slapped the image of her writhing under his mouth from the front of his mind.
It settled off to the side to await a better time.
The Suburban held the new recipient of Gin’s attention. “Did you bring Juliet?”
The serrated edge to her voice betrayed that she felt the strain, too — and didn’t want to talk about it. Her discomfort satisfied a twisted need in him. Just the possibility that all those polite emails they’d exchanged had been fraught with things carefully left unsaid in both directions calmed the worst of his jitters.
Being on edge seemed less bad when the company was equally unbalanced.
He slid the most precious cargo out of the lineup and handed over the battered guitar case. “You two have a lot of catching up to do.”
Gin held the case to her chest as if embracing an old friend. “Girl, I have so much to tell you.”
She hadn’t been that happy to see him. That was all it took to make him want to set his favorite guitar on fire.
If nothing else, his shrink would have plenty to work with at their next session.
The stiff set of Gin’s shoulders eased now that she held a barrier between them. “If you need to stretch your legs, you can walk a fair way around the lake, or there’s a boathouse with a pretty view and a lot of quiet. Dinner will be ready in an hour, but it won’t go anywhere if you need longer.”
His mission to convince her he’d changed for the better was off to a poor start if she could still tell by looking at him he needed space. If he was honest, though, one more hyper word piercing his eardrums right now would make his temper snap.
Gin’s voice didn’t have a hyper setting. The scar on her throat made her voice fog, giving her words soft, misty edges that soothed even the most ragged nerves.
An invitation to join him perched on the tip of his tongue, but he was too raw, too close to blurting something rash. This situation called for a performance he was unprepared to give without one more last-minute rehearsal. He needed to be cautious for once in his life, proceed delicately, get his footing right.
His future depended on it. “I should look at the movie first.”
“I won’t throw you out into the cold tonight if you say no. I’d rather feed you and have you in a better mood before you pass judgment.”
“I already know it’s brilliant.”
Her lips slanted. “That would be a lot of pressure if it wasn’t too late to make any drastic changes.”
“Hooray for the point of no return.” He knew the relief that came with handing over every imperfect project. Once an album left his hands, his work was done, for better or worse. All agonizing after that point was purely recreational.
But his work here hadn’t yet begun. Anticipatory agonizing was best done in solitude so his fear of being unable to deliver didn’t infect others, starting with the woman who’d decide if he stayed or went. “I think I will take that walk.”
She half turned to head back to the house but hesitated before taking a step. “I’m glad you came, Lex.”
Steel strings wrapped around his throat, lungs, and heart, tightening out of tune. “I can’t promise anything until I see the movie.”
Don’t expect too much from me. We both know my history of letting you down.
She acknowledged the warning with a slight tip of her head. “Promises turn honest mistakes into lies.”
He took another punch to the chest when she quoted his lyrics back to him. She listened to his music. She went to his shows. Always listening. Always there.
Even if she wasn’t his anymore.
She lifted one plaid-covered shoulder. “Do it or don’t. I’m glad just the same.”
She walked away from him, again. She looked slender enough to blow away if a breeze caught the excess fabric of her shirt, but eyes didn’t see the strength that kept her grounded. Gin made her own gravity. She was the axis around which worlds of her creation, both real and imagined, whirled.
Lex knew her pull better than anyone. The closer he got to her, the less he wavered.
As soon as the house hid her from view, his hands began to shake.
He stuffed his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans to confine the tremors. He strode in the opposite direction, toward the glint of water beckoning through the trees.
Old snow decorated the edge of the woods like brittle lace. He stepped under the evergreen canopy, and the temperature dropped enough to make him miss the sun. The song he’d been flirting with earlier cozied up to him for warmth.
The story needed a hero. Or a villain. A man enchanted from afar who came to claim the beauty that already belonged to him in his mind, only to find he was unwelcome, unwanted, unworthy and would never make it out alive.
If it were a true story, the man would set what he loved on fire rather than admit his shortcomings. A match here, a match there, just around the perimeter to erase the evidence of the damage his presence caused. Blind to the blaze encircling him until it crawled into his eyes.
If it were a true story, the man would remain mute as the flames he struck destroyed his whole world, knowing he had no defense to utter. The world had suffered him in silence; he could only strive to display as much dignity in the end.
No, not the end yet. This song seemed to want a third verse. Not a happy ending — he’d never be able to sing that with a straight face — but at least a clearing of the poisoned air, a resolution that made sense only if it followed a bridge screaming confessions and regret.
If it were a true story, it would take the longest fucking bridge in the history of music to catalog his wrongdoing.
The trees spat him onto a gravel beach. The water rested against the shore, unsympathetic and too lethargic with deep-set cold to rise and extinguish his tortured metaphor.
If Gin’s movie called for a song about an anthropomorphized wilderness bent on vengeance against man, he had a decent start. If she’d stuck with the human tragedy she portrayed so masterfully rather than making a killer-tree movie, there was always the next Gone & Forgotten album.
Well, not always, but he wasn’t washed up yet.
To his left, the boathouse hung over the water. Given the grandness of the main house — a millionaire’s idea of a cabin loaned by Bob Sylvanian, legendary TV producer and Gin’s lifelong mentor — he’d expected something big enough to park a yacht in, but the scale better suited a couple of kayaks. Set away from the main house to avoid obstructing the lake view, it would be a good place for a lover’s rendezvous or a handy exile for kids when adults needed peace and quiet.
Since there was no lover at his side, that made him an overgrown child taking a time out while others carried his bags and prepared his food.
Thirty-six wasn’t ancient by most standards, but when the girls in the crowd flashing their tits at him got young enough to be his daughters, it was a sign of the end times. He had a few more years in him because he could write a song people remembered for more than three weeks, but no way was he going to drag out his demise until the only gigs he could book were dive bars and the occasional stage ten of a nostalgia festival.
He’d never wanted to be anything other than a musician. He declared his intent at six, played his first paid performance at twelve. He had a deal, a platinum record, and a Grammy before he could drink legally — not that the law stopped him before then.
He started at the top and held that position longer than anyone expected, but he’d known almost from the beginning there was nowhere to go but down. He’d done his best to anesthetize himself for the inevitable crash. Without alcohol to soften the impact, he wanted to choose how, when, and where he landed. Adding “scored River Bound” to his otherwise monotonous list of accomplishments would give him more options to choose from.
If he had the ability to do the job. If he didn’t say or do anything that made Gin tell him to pack his shit and leave before he finished.
He hated if and all its fucking uncertainty. If never bothered him when he was drunk. He had daredevil confidence when loaded, and his life had been a fairy tale — the pauper who charmed the masses with the one thing he did well and was rewarded with cheers everywhere he went, mountains of gold, and the heart of a beautiful princess.
As long as he kept swallowing the poison that ate him from the inside out.
The picturesque lake demanded admiration, but his defiant eyes strayed toward the house. The windows reflected the scenery, obscuring his view of anyone who might be looking back, but unlike that comeback concert, he knew Gin was there, almost close enough to touch.
He kicked a rock and watched it lurch over the uneven ground toward the water’s edge. No matter how badly he wanted the job for his career, his future, and his almighty pride, he wasn’t a good enough actor to pretend — even to himself, the most permissive audience — that his motives were entirely professional.
Five years ago, his love for Gin was an obsession. She freed herself by walking out of his life. He tried to fill the void with getting clean, getting healthier, getting back into the good graces of his music, and practicing how to live without booze. People who thought they knew him well believed he’d moved on.
But Lex had always known the feelings cut off when she left had only been paused midnote. He intended to leave them that way, eternally suspended without an ending.
Then she sent the email that pressed a button and turned the noise back on at full blast after five years of numb silence.
Alcohol muffled his emotional howling while they were together. Then distance took over.
Sober and living under the same roof, keeping his heart quiet might prove impossible.
Gin clutched Juliet’s case against her aching chest like a shield raised after the blow had landed. There would be no yearning for a man with a pregnant wife. Not even quietly to herself. Unrequited feelings weakened their victims until they made fools of themselves.
She didn’t need Lex. The movie did. Her feelings had no place in a business transaction.
Nor did her acute sense of unfairness that her dietary limitations had been a constant source of conflict with Lex while they were together and now he wanted her to teach them to Piper because he gave a damn about her health and was capable of unlimited patience while the mother of his child perused a menu in search of one item free of gluten, sugar, soy, and mystery chemicals.
Maisie ate crap throughout her pregnancy. Despite a diet rich in Cheetos and Pop-Tarts, she glowed as if dusted with crushed pearls and produced a perfect baby. Getting knocked up didn’t automatically make Piper fragile and in need of special treatment.
Seething resentment toward a pregnant girl was a prime example of the type of stupidity unrequited feelings inspired — all the more reason to banish them.
Asking Lex to invest his time and talent in her movie was no different from begging other investors for money. Her job as a producer was to do what was best for the movie with a smile on her face, even when her insides felt like a postapocalyptic hellscape. If his terms included role-playing as a dietician for his pregnant wife, she’d damn well do it.
She took a deep breath to fortify herself for another encounter with effervescent sunshine in human form and shouldered open the front door.
For once, the wall-sized window framing the lake didn’t make her feel exposed.
Instead, it exposed Matt sliding his arm around Piper’s waist and sticking his tongue down her throat.
So much for Gin’s ironclad excuse to keep her hands to herself. Read on to find out what she comes up with next!