I wonder if they know I can hear them?
The man sitting on the floor with his back to the corner wondered it only idly, since it made no difference. They weren’t saying anything he didn’t already know. He didn’t look up, just continued to stare at the floor tiles, as if the swirled pattern of brown and tan and white held all the answers to the world, when in fact it looked like an amateurish effort from a barista trainee.
The words rained down on him like the stinging hail of a Texas storm.
Another one. Damned drugs.
Nobody forced him to take them.
But what a loss, so much talent. I love their music.
Waste is waste, and I have no patience for it.
He kept his head down. He didn’t want them to realize he was there, jammed into this corner, waiting for the official word of what he already knew in his gut. They’d probably feel bad if they knew. Or maybe not. Maybe they were so inured to it they didn’t feel anything anymore. He almost hoped that was the case, for their sakes. He couldn’t imagine dealing with tragedy day after day and feeling full bore about it all the time.
They walked away then, still talking, but about something else. It had been the man who had been saying he loved Scorpions On Top music, and the woman writing them off. He tried to seize on that, analyze it, wondering if there was some great significance there. He didn’t have the energy or the drive to even complete the thought.
He heard heavy footsteps approaching. Glanced only high enough to see feet that weren’t—thankfully—clad in hospital-type shoes or clogs. Boots. Battered, scuffed, with the buckle on the left one missing. From which came the nickname that was used by all.
The bass player dropped down beside him on the floor. “No word?”
He shook his head. Still without looking up.
“I don’t get it,” Boots said.
He had nothing to say, and didn’t. Followed a swirl of white on the floor that, apparently by chance, met with an adjacent tile to continue a stream.
“Wonder where he got it? I didn’t see any of the usuals around.”
The white spread into a blotch that looked vaguely like a dragonfly. Or maybe a skinny seagull, if its wings were shredded.
“And why tonight?” Boots asked, his voice thick with confusion. “It was a smoking show. Damn near perfect.”
At last he lifted his gaze. Boots looked a bit shell-shocked. He supposed he did, too. Slowly, he shook his head, went back to studying the floor.
After a while Boots shifted, crossed his legs, pulled a guitar pick out of his pocket and began his familiar routine of moving it over and under his fingers, from little finger to thumb and back again. He didn’t use it to play, kept it only for this purpose. There was something soothing about the movements, and Boots’ dexterity with the pick.
The motion stopped. Boots took the pick between his thumb and forefinger and held it up. Stared at it. They exchanged a look, as if they’d both suddenly remembered it belonged to the man behind those doors. Boots shoved it back in his pocket.
“He might need it.”
He didn’t say not to bother, that the owner wouldn’t be needing a pick or anything else again. Ever. If the guy needed to hope, let him.
“You know,” Boots said, his voice rough, “you’re the only one of us I never worried about pulling this kind of thing.”
He shrugged, his shoulders rubbing against the walls of his corner. He had sampled the excesses now and then—it was hard not to in this world, especially at the heady height the band had been at lately. But he’d never done much, and that not often.
“You’re always so centered,” Boots added.
Centered. Interesting word. Was he? Was he centered? Was that what kept him level, and away from most of the excesses? Or was it simpler than that? Was it something in his blood, his memory, his life that kept him on an even keel for the most part? The memories of how easy it was to lose everything? Or people who would never forgive him if he threw it all away? An image flashed through his mind, of a pair of vivid blue eyes looking at him warningly.
“You’re different,” Boots said. “Only drug you ever needed was the music.”
He met and held the bassist’s gaze at last. “That’s what I don’t get,” he said, hearing the pain echoing in his own voice as he glanced toward the double doors that led into the emergency room. “Why isn’t the music enough?”
If Boots had an answer, he didn’t have a chance to give it. The doors swung open, and this time it was the shoes and scrubs he’d dreaded. The ER doctor was young, but her eyes already looked old. And they spoke it all before she said the words.
“Zinnia Rose Mahan!”
Zee snapped out of the reverie she hadn’t realized she’d slipped into at the sound of her brother’s exasperated voice. She dropped her pen on the desk and looked up at him.
“Boy, I know you’re down deep when it takes that name to snap you out of it.”
He was grinning at her. All the insufferable idiot did these days was grin. But why shouldn’t he? He’d found Hope, hadn’t he? Literally and figuratively? And she didn’t begrudge him, not one tiny bit. Of all people, True deserved to be happy. He was the most honorable, stand-up guy she’d ever known, and she’d been afraid when Amanda had died he’d never try again. But Hope Larson had changed all that, and her brother was nearly delirious with newfound happiness. And Hope herself had blossomed, shedding the fear she’d carried for so long the moment she’d finally taken a stand to face what she’d run from.
“Just thinking,” Zee said, making an effort not to sound defensive. She’d apparently been lost since her phone had signaled her when she’d gotten back into the office, after returning to the kitchen because she’d forgotten her coffee.
She’d heard it the moment she picked up the steaming mug for a sip. It had been a while since that particular notification had sounded. The tone was a guitar riff from one of Scorpions On Top’s first hits, the combination of Texas roots, blues, and an inventive dash of rock having caught the ears of millions. She’d assigned the riff to the search she had set up to run regularly, looking for news about them. This morning it had been a review of last night’s benefit concert in L.A., a glowing appraisal of what had apparently been a stellar three-hour show that left even their most strident fans sated and happy.
She told herself tracking them had nothing to do with the fact that she had once had a fierce crush on—okay, more than that, she’d been in love with—the man who had started and led the band, Jamie Templeton. It was simply to keep up with the hometown boy made good. As she was sure many in Whiskey River did, out of sheer pride in one of their own, riding high under the bright lights.
But deep down she knew she’d done it out of fear. Fear of what she might read some day.
“You’re thinking even when you’re not,” True teased, once more dragging her back to the moment.
She gave him a wry, one-cornered smile. “You wanted something?”
“A big favor,” he warned.
Uh-oh. “Ask,” she said cautiously.
“I’ve got that meeting with the county guy for the sign-off on the pavilion this morning.”
Her brows lowered. She knew that, and she knew he knew that she—She broke off the string. “Hello? I made the appointment?”
“I know. But I also have a delivery coming.”
“Is that all?” She often did that, was present for a delivery when True couldn’t be. It was no big deal, so she didn’t get why—
“Millie’s place,” she said flatly. And with certainty; it was the only thing that would make him classify such a routine thing as a “big” favor.
“It has to be the same time?”
“It’s this morning or a week from now.” Which would, Zee knew, throw their whole schedule into a scramble. “Sorry, Zee, but it was the only time they had clear.”
Her brother looked at her warily, knowing perfectly well that had been one of those—a “fine” that meant anything but. “Hope offered, but they have a new group of kids coming in for the outreach today.”
For a moment her mood lightened. It was like her soon to be sister-in-law to do that. Zee was coming to like Hope more and more for herself, as well as for her obvious love for her brother. “She’s a treasure, bro.”
“Yes. She is.”
She would have done much more than go wait for a delivery, even there, for that smile and the look in his eyes. Ironic that she was dreading going to the very place True had found the woman who had so changed his life.
Millie Templeton’s place. She refused to call it Jamie’s, although he owned it now, after the death of his livewire aunt. She had left him everything, but what she’d given him in life mattered much more. For it was Millie who had gotten him through the horrible years after the accident, and who had noticed and fostered his talent. She’d been a sort of stand-in mother for Zee herself, when she needed female advice, and for True when he needed advice about females. For a woman who’d had no children of her own, she’d acquired three that awful night.
She gave herself an inward shake; there was nothing to be gained by dwelling on that old pain. When her brother had gone, she leaned back in her chair and shoved her tousled dark bangs off her forehead. Then she set about gathering a couple of things she could do while waiting for the delivery. Knowing Charlie, he’d probably be at the end of the two-hour window he’d given, so she didn’t rush. Still, she got there barely two minutes past the start time. She stayed in her car, having no desire to get out and look at the sad house she’d spent time in as a kid. And especially avoiding looking toward the big post oak on the river side, even though she couldn’t see the tree house from here.
She realized she’d been twisting her ring, the topaz birthstone ring her mother had given her, and stopped. She picked up the file folder she’d grabbed, to go through the last batch of receipts True had tossed in the box. A box that was now empty and could be replaced with a much smaller in-tray, thanks to Hope clearing out years’ worth of paperwork. She found herself smiling as she set aside the now organized file she would scan when she got back to the office. Hope had straightened out more than one mess since the day True had found her hiding in this abandoned place.
She liked the feel of smiling, so she avoided looking at the run-down house that had once been the prettiest on this stretch of road. Millie had been an avid gardener, and it had shown when her roses had been blooming and the morning glories growing about a foot a day. She hated that Jamie had let it go. She really thought he had cared more than that, but obviously she’d been wrong. Wouldn’t be the first—
A notification from her phone interrupted the train of thought that had already headed downhill. It always did when it came to Jamie Templeton.
For a moment she just stared at her purse, at the pocket that held the phone. This was twice today she’d heard that riff, and that seemed…something that she should get again it now, sitting here of all places.
She fished it out, unlocked the screen and tapped the notification icon. Reception wasn’t the best out here, so it spun for a moment before starting to load. Then it did it in pieces, the headline and then the subhead. And then it died completely, the connection dropped. But there was enough. Too much.
She stared. She felt surprisingly numb, but then she’d expected this from the day Jamie had left Whiskey River for good, chasing the big success he and his band had managed in amazingly short order.
Scorpions On Top Loses Front Man
Jamie Templeton: The 27 Curse Strikes Again?
It had finally happened.
She dropped the phone in her lap as the pain burst through.
End of Excerpt