Lander! Lander! Lander!
The packed venue roared his name begging for an encore.
Standing in the wings, Lander Love, the lead singer of the famous rock band Rising Sun, wiped the sweat off his body and slipped on a glimmering white vest. With his torso naked, the open vest showed off his washboard abs and bulging biceps. Standing six foot, two inches with chiseled features, glossy dark hair, and deep brown eyes, he was the quintessential rock god.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please. Check beneath your seats.”
The chanting faded away as thousands of excited fans searched for the promised surprise. As they raised the purple glow sticks in the air, the lights dimmed, and the crowd fell silent.
Invisible as he made his way across the dark stage, Lander stood behind the microphone and savored the moment. Though the huge venue was packed, it remained completely quiet.
A pink spotlight brought him to life.
Launching into his latest hit—‘My Angel, My Love, My Ghost’—there was no guitar, no bass, no drums or keyboard, just his unique, clear, magnificent voice.
You were my angel, you were my love.
Scott, the bass player, moved on stage hitting a low, ominous chord. A white light washed over him, then swept across to Jake, the drummer, who joined in with a slow, rhythmic patter.
I would reach for you in the morning light.
Lander’s voice grew in pitch and volume.
As my eyes open I see only shadows,
And ache for the ghost who filled my night…
As he belted out the heartfelt lyric, behind him on a giant screen a huge pulsing sun began to descend, giving way to sensual floating female forms. But closing his eyes as he continued to sing, he wasn’t performing for the crowd, he was paying homage to her.
Aching for her.
With every lyric he imagined crushing her lips with his, tonguing his way to her chest to suck in her nipples and listen to her whimpers of pleasure. He was kneeling behind her, clasping her hips, pumping with vigorous thrusts, and as Jake’s symbols brought the song to a crescendo leading into the chorus, Lander saw her body writhing through her orgasm.
His mind suddenly switched gears.
He knew Mick Jackson, the band’s infamous guitarist, was waiting in the wings ready to burst onto the stage.
My angel, my love…
Hearing his cue, he sprinted toward Lander and leapt in the air, his fingers dancing across the strings, but as the crowd erupted in a raucous cheer, he suddenly tumbled to the floor. His guitar screeched as if in horrible pain, his body quivered, then fell motionless. Spinning around staring in horror, Lander knew immediately why the wild guitarist was lying unconscious on the stage.
One hour later
Outside Mick’s hospital room the mood was somber. Scott paced, Jake sat strumming his fingers against his knee, and Lander leaned against the wall, his head down as he tried to make sense of the chaos surrounding him. The doctors had told him Mick suffered a coronary event. He’d recover, but there would be no touring in the foreseeable future.
“Lander, there you are! We have things to talk about.”
Patrick Cohen, the band’s manager, marched toward them. While Lander wasn’t fazed by Patrick’s businesslike manner, Scott and Jake glared up at him.
“Lighten up,” Lander muttered. “You can indulge your emotions, but Patrick needs to get on top of this.”
“Sorry,” Jake grunted. “The whole thing sucks.”
“Totally sucks,” Scott groaned, echoing the sentiment. “I’m glad Mick will be okay, but I’m pissed. We just started this fucking tour, and now—”
“Stop!” Patrick said vehemently, holding up his hand. “I’ll move heaven and earth to get you back on the road. Lander, is there somewhere private we can talk?”
“There’s a small cafeteria down the hall,” Lander suggested. “That’s the only place I can think of.”
“I said private.”
“It’s late, and this is the VIP wing. I doubt there’ll be anyone there.”
Though his manager appeared skeptical, Lander began walking down the spotless corridor at a fast clip. He pushed open the double doors, and saw his prediction had proven correct. Except for a middle-aged woman sitting behind the cash register reading a book the room was empty. In addition to the regular tables and chairs, an area against the far wall offered sofas and coffee tables.
“That looks good,” Patrick remarked, pointing to the corner couch.
Marching across the room, Lander noticed the woman glance up, then return to her novel. She hadn’t recognized him. He wouldn’t have to worry about her trying to pick up tidbits of his conversation to sell to the tabloids.
“I’ve already made a few calls,” Patrick began.
Lander let out a breath. There was no one better in a crisis than Patrick.
“Thanks, Patrick. I know you can work miracles, but this—this is impossible. We need more than just a hot player, he has to have pizazz!”
“I have a suggestion, but before I tell you, promise me you’ll at least think about it before you refuse. We’re beggars right now, not choosers.”
Lander paused, staring at Patrick, his eyes narrowing.
“Patrick, please tell me you’re not about to suggest Skye!”
“It’s a no-brainer,” Patrick said fervently. “She already knows half your songs. She wrote the damn things, and no one puts on a better show than Skye. We could turn this into a reunion tour.”
Leaning back, Lander’s heart thumped at the thought, but he doubted she’d return.
“So, uh, have you actually asked her? Is she available? Even if she is, it doesn’t mean she’ll say yes.”
“Yeah, she’s available. She hasn’t said yes definitively, but she’s agreed to a meeting.”
“Any other candidates?”
“Ed Johnson, but—”
“No. He’s in and out of rehab every other week. We’ll be right back where we are now. Speaking of which, Mick’s been clean, and he was fine when we left the hotel. He hasn’t even had a drink since he joined us.”
“He wasn’t high when you started the set? Are you sure?”
“Positive, and if I ever find the scumbag who gave him that stuff I’ll rip him apart. Please tell me you’ve got people looking into this.”
“Of course, and I’ve called in the authorities, but you know how crazy it is backstage. There are people everywhere, but right now we need to talk about Skye.”
“Yeah,” Lander mumbled, her image floating through his head.
Auburn hair in winter, strawberry red in summer, flashing green eyes, sudden fits of laughter, short-tempered, but just as quick to forgive…
“Sorry, Patrick. My mind wandered there for a minute. The truth is, she probably still thinks I’m a total dirtbag who can’t be trusted.”
“You were the one who rejected her, not the other way around. She’s the one who has to do the—”
“Do you want to tell me what you’re worried about?”
“You already know,” Lander said impatiently.
“If you think you can spin that lie about feeling suffocated, I didn’t believe you back then, and I don’t believe you now. Why won’t you tell me what made you so crazy?”
Lander dropped his eyes and ran his fingers through his astonishing mane of glossy hair. Patrick had been his manager since day one and knew all his secrets… except one.
“Okay,” Patrick said with a resigned sigh. “You know if you ever need my help with whatever the hell happened, I’m here.”
“Yeah, thanks, I do, but regardless, having Skye as part of the band again—that would be weird,” he muttered, though there was nothing he wanted more than to have her back in his life.
In his arms.
In his bed.
“Please, Lander, take the meeting. We need to get Mick replaced, and we need to find someone now.”
“Is she still with that millionaire?”
“Billionaire, and yes. He even built her a studio. Mind you, the house is twelve thousand square feet.”
“What’s his name again?”
“That’s right. Fuck, what kind of name is Stanley Porter? Sounds like he should be in a navy blue jacket opening hotel doors.”
“Thanks, Lander,” Patrick said with a grin. “Now I’ll be thinking about that every time someone mentions his name.”
“I can’t imagine he’d want his trophy girlfriend taking off on tour with her ex.”
“That’s something you’d have to ask him,” Patrick replied briskly. “Lander, yes or no? Meeting or no meeting?”
“Fine, I’ll take the meeting, but keep looking.”
“I have calls out all over the place, but—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Lander cut in. “There’s no one better, it’s just…”
“We’re not talking about the rest of your life, just a few months.”
“I guess she’ll have to come in from L.A.”
“Or you could go there,” Patrick suggested.
“No. If Skye and I did work things out—good grief—just the thought of it!”
“What do you mean, good grief?”
“I just can’t imagine she’d even give me the time of day, let alone come to my rescue,” Lander muttered grimly, “and I can’t blame her.”
“Miracles do happen!” Patrick declared. “Why do you want her to come here?”
“Scott and Jake will want to talk to her too.”
“You’re right. I should have considered that. I’ll have your jet—”
“Patrick, she’s living with a fucking billionaire,” Lander said briskly, interrupting him. “Can’t she fly out in his jet?”
“Lander… we’re beggars, remember?”
“Sorry. I’m tired and angry,” Lander muttered. “Just let me know when she’s here. I’ll tell the guys.”
“You should all go back to the hotel and get some rest. You can’t do anything more for Mick. L.A.’s only a couple of hours away. With any luck she’ll be here late morning.”
A short time later, as the stretch limousine rolled out of the hospital parking lot, Lander shared the startling news. Skye had agreed to a meeting.
“Oh, man, I hope she says yes!” Jake exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement. “We’d find our vibe again. I know we would. Shit, I never understood why you two split up in the first place.”
“We had our reasons,” Lander said quietly, staring out the window at the dark, empty city streets.
“Well, duh! Of course, but she has my vote,” Jake continued earnestly. “One thousand percent.”
“Scott, what about you?” Lander asked, studying his bassist.
As usual Scott wore a poker face.
Unlike Jake Piper, who was tall and lanky with a less than attractive goatee, Scott Dempster was a heartthrob. An avid surfer, he was muscled and tanned, with sun-kissed, dirty blond hair.
“You know me, I’ll go along with whatever.”
“That’s not an opinion, and I know you have one,” Lander insisted. “You like to hold things close to your chest, but this isn’t the time.”
Scott threw up his hands.
“Fuck, Lander, what do you want me to say?” he blurted out. “A year ago you waltzed into the studio and announced Skye, our amazing guitarist who looks like fucking Catwoman on stage, had left. Yeah, you found Mick, but let’s get real. He wasn’t—he isn’t—Skye. Of course I want her back, but this is bullshit. What will you do when Mick gets better, and what about our fans? What will they think? How will this work?”
Scott rarely raised his voice, and when he did it always took Lander by surprise.
“Those are all fair questions, and honestly, I don’t have the answers, but right now we’re facing this tour,” Lander replied, his heart suddenly racing again at the thought of Skye joining them. “We’ll deal with the shit—if there is any—one step at a time, just like we always have.”
Scott shook his head, rubbed his eyes, then stared out the window.
“Hey, Scott, do you think we’d be better off with someone else?” Jake asked, leaning forward in his seat. “Are you saying it would be weird for her to come back?”
“Would it be weird?” Scott muttered. “Probably, but this is a weird situation.”
As an awkward silence fell between them, Lander opened the bar, grabbed the bottle of vodka, and took a swig.
“My turn,” Scott declared, reaching for it.
Lander handed the liquor across to him, and taking a long drink, Scott shook his head and let out a deep breath.
“Okay!” he abruptly declared. “Do you want to know what worries me about this?”
“Yeah, of course,” Lander replied earnestly. “I swear, getting you to open up is like—”
“All the bullshit aside,” Scott began, cutting him off, “it would be phenomenal to have her on stage with us again. We need her. There is absolutely no one who would be better.”
“But…?” Jake asked, leaning forward with rapt attention.
“Think about it. She’s living a cushy life in a mansion in the hills above Sunset Blvd. with her filthy rich boyfriend. I understand why we need her, but why does she need us?”
“Oh, shit,” Jake grunted. “You mean, that thing they say about a woman scorned?”
“You got it, Jake! Lander, if I were her, I’d be telling you to take a fucking hike. I don’t know what happened between you two, but she was crazy about you, and she wouldn’t have left unless you kicked her ass to the curb. Skye’s a sweetheart, but no woman is that forgiving.”
“What exactly are you suggesting?”
“We need her, but she sure as shit doesn’t need us, so what’s her agenda?”
“But Skye… she’s cool,” Jake said with a frown. “She wouldn’t screw us. She just wouldn’t.”
Lander didn’t comment.
Scott was right.
No one knew why he’d sent her away.
Not even Skye herself.
She also didn’t know about his true nature.
His desire to dominate her had run deep.
When he’d pinned her down and thrust his rampant member inside her, he’d imagined her tied to the bed and at his mercy. Taking her from behind he’d longed to spank her full round cheeks, but had settled for a few half-hearted slaps. When they’d argued and she’d refused to listen to reason, it had taken all his self-control not to throw her over his lap and scold her as he reddened her behind.
But his secret… the reason he’d pushed her out of his life… no one knew it.
It suddenly hit him.
That was why she’d agreed to a meeting.
She needed answers.
Would the truth make things right?
It didn’t matter.
He couldn’t tell her.
If his terrible secret got out, it would ruin him.
Stepping from the shower, Lander wrapped a towel around his waist and ran his fingers through his thick wet hair. It was easier than using a comb, and as if by magic, it would dry looking just the way he wanted. He also had a habit of wandering around still dripping from the shower.
Skye used to tease him about being too lazy to dry off.
He’d chase her around the bedroom, ultimately catching her and smothering her with his wet body. As she’d fall on the bed in hysterics, he’d pin her down and bite her neck. But unable to summon the courage and expose his dominant side, he’d rein himself in.
Then fate had been cruel.
Just as he had decided to take the plunge, a vicious brute named Popcorn had ripped his life to shreds. Now, as much as Lander longed to see her, he was filled with dread.
“I need a fucking drink,” he grunted, marching into the lounge of the luxurious hotel suite.
Pouring cognac into a crystal tumbler, he moved across to the large window and stared out at the bay. Clouds hummed across the moon. It would be raining soon. He loved the rain. Skye did too. That’s why he’d opted to buy a home in Forks. The small city made famous by the Twilight vampire series wasn’t just beautiful, it was also one of the rainiest spots in the Pacific Northwest.
“How the hell do you manage to live in L.A.?” he muttered under his breath. “It’s so damn dry there, and those Santa Ana winds…”
His phone rang.
It was late.
Striding across to the coffee table, he picked it up and glanced at the screen.
“Hey, is everything okay?” he asked urgently.
“I just got off the phone with Skye. She wanted to leave tonight so I made the arrangements.”
“Tonight?” Lander muttered, dropping on the couch. “Why didn’t she just fly out in the morning?”
“I didn’t ask and she didn’t tell me. I found a private jet out of Santa Monica. Lacy Carson’s plane.”
“I won’t even ask how much this is costing me.”
“Us, Lander, costing us. Speaking of which… when you meet up with her, bear in mind the ticket sales for the last few shows are slow, but Skye’s career is on fire. She may not have struck out as a solo performer or joined another band, but that girl’s a songwriting machine. Do you know how many hits she’s written in the last eight months? Let’s face it, the songs you two collaborated on were far—”
“Okay, Patrick, you can stop now.”
Lander knew he could still churn out the hits, and they were good, but they weren’t great. When he and Skye wrote together, magic happened.
“You need to face this,” Patrick continued, unfazed by Lander’s retort. “If Skye returns to the band she could catapult you back to the top. Do you have any idea the kind of promotion I could do? I feel bad about Mick, but Lander—his screw-up is opportunity knocking. I strongly recommend you open the door and let it in.”
“I’m not an idiot, Patrick.”
“Sorry, I know you’re not,” Patrick murmured apologetically. “I’m just anxious.”
“It’s okay,” Lander said with a sigh. “We all are, and everything you just said is absolutely right. It would be amazing to have her back, and the fans would go crazy.”
“She’ll be at the hotel in probably three hours. Maybe four. I know I don’t have to say this, but do your best to work things out.”
“I don’t know if I can. She must hate me.”
“I have a suggestion. Why don’t I book her a suite at your old stomping grounds?”
“Yep. In fact, I’ll book you both a suite. Go over there first thing in the morning. It’s so much quieter than downtown, and you two spent a lot of happy hours there.”
“This is your shot to bring her back, and it might be the only one you’ll get.”
“Uh, Patrick,” Lander said, lowering his voice, “that’s a great suggestion, but once she’s here, where do I start?”
“Since I don’t know what the problem is, it’s hard for me to advise you,” Patrick said thoughtfully, “but when I’m facing a difficult meeting I write everything down. It helps to make it clear in my head.”
“Write everything down,” Lander mumbled. “Patrick, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a genius. Screw the morning. Make the arrangements and I’ll go there tonight. I’ll let Scott and Jake know and check out now.”
It was almost midnight, but Skye Lockhart had no intention of staying in Los Angeles one minute longer than she had to. She’d made that clear to Patrick Cohen, and he had been extremely accommodating, immediately arranging a jet out of the private airfield in Santa Monica.
Quickly packing a small suitcase and grabbing her large white Prada bag, she strode from the opulent bedroom and headed down the stairs. The live-in housekeeper, Ginny, was walking briskly across the wide marble foyer.
“I was just about to come up, Miss Lockhart. Your car is here.”
“I’ll need the white raincoat.”
“I’ll fetch it right away.”
Rain! Skye couldn’t wait.
Though it was February, the temperature had been in the seventies beneath a cloudless blue sky, but that was normal for Los Angeles. On the few days of the year when it rained, the entire city would come to a halt. Mudslides would ensue, and it would be impossible to drive anywhere. She was sick of it. She and Lander hailed from Washington where the seasons came and went with reassuring regularity.
“Here you are,” Ginny declared, returning with the glossy white coat. “When will you be back?”
“I’m not sure.”
As Skye draped it over her arm, Ginny picked up the suitcase and followed her outside. The chauffeur, waiting beside the long, sleek limousine, quickly opened the car door. Slipping into the back seat, Skye closed her eyes and let out a breath.
She needed to tell Stan.
He wouldn’t be happy.
She didn’t care.
She was escaping.
The car began to move, jolting her from her momentary lapse.
As it rolled down the sweeping driveway, she opened her bag, found her phone, and placed the call.
“Skye?” Stan muttered sleepily. “Damn, woman! Don’t you know what time it is?”
“Oh, sorry, I’ve been rushed off my feet and forgot New York is three hours ahead,” she lied. “I’ll call you back in the morning.”
“I’m awake now. What’s going on?”
She heard the aggravation in his voice.
“I’m heading to Seattle.”
“Why? And why so late!”
“I know, but I’ve just been offered a tour. I’m flying in to meet with everyone.”
“That’s not the answer to my question. I’ll ask again. Why are you leaving at this hour?”
“It’s an emergency. The band’s guitarist has been injured and they need someone right away.”
“I thought you said you didn’t miss touring.”
“I spoke too soon. I’m bored out of my mind, Stan. I need to get away,” she said with a dramatic sigh, silently adding, from you.
“Let’s go to Paris for a few days, or Tokyo, wherever you like. I’ll be back in a week.”
“Nice idea, but if things work out I’ll be busy rehearsing by then. Sorry to spring this on you, but I literally just got the call.”
“Skye, we should talk about this.”
“Honestly, I don’t see the point. Let’s get real. You travel so much you’ll barely know I’m gone.”
“Not true,” he retorted, “and you haven’t been on the road for ages. You’ve forgotten how grueling it can be.”
“You’re always gone, and maybe I will find the tour tough, but the idea of being on stage again—it excites me. Really excites me. I can’t wait!”
“You’ve obviously made up your mind,” he said gruffly, “and without discussing it with me first. I’m very disappointed in you, Skye.”
“Like I said, I just got the call, and nothing’s set in stone. I have to see how the meeting goes, but yeah, I want to go, and—” she continued haltingly, “I—uh—I miss the Pacific Northwest too. Stan—I probably won’t be back.”
The line disconnected.
She wasn’t surprised.
The Disneyland ride with the billionaire bachelor had come to an end, but she still couldn’t understand why he’d pursued her with such a vengeance.
She’d barely moved into his mansion when he’d surprised her with plans to build a recording studio in the guest house. Though she wasn’t short of money, he’d insisted on paying for the musicians when she recorded her demos. He traveled on business extensively, but he constantly talked about her music and insisted on hearing her latest songs when he returned. Though she appreciated his enthusiastic support, it had become almost claustrophobic. She’d already been thinking about leaving, and Patrick’s call had given her the final push.
But gazing out the window, a shiver moved through her body.
The man she loved more than life itself had shattered her heart with no explanation.
Space, he’d exclaimed. I need space and I need it now.
That had been his pretext, but it didn’t hold water.
He’d wanted her gone.
She just didn’t know why.
Through those first painful weeks, missing his arms and longing for his kiss, she’d told herself the day would come when she’d no longer ache for his tantalizing touch, his lips lingering over her skin, and being cocooned against his hard, muscled body. But even as she’d given herself to another man, like an incurable addiction, her craving for Lander refused to die.
Her phone rang.
She hadn’t realized it was still in her hand.
Expecting it to be Stan with an apology for hanging up, and half-a-dozen reasons why she should return to the mansion, she glanced down at the screen.
The caller was unidentified.
She paused, then answered.
Her heart skipped, then a bolt of energy hurtled through her body. “Lander.”
“I’m glad you answered.”
Goosebumps pricked her skin.
His voice… deep… husky…
“I, uh… sorry, you caught me off guard.”
“I thought we should talk before meeting up. It’s been so long, I don’t want things to be weird.”
She wanted to pounce, to accuse him of being cruel and crazy, but forced herself to count to three before speaking.
“It’s bound to be weird,” she replied, managing to keep her voice calm. “Just hearing you on the end of this phone is weird. Not bad weird, but still weird.”
“How can we fix that?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Maybe if we chat for a minute, like—I don’t know—old friends?”
“That’s not what we are,” she said solemnly.
It hurt to say it.
He didn’t respond.
Her stomach churned.
“Skye, thanks for coming in,” he finally murmured, “and I mean that.”
“Thanks for asking me, but Lander, it’s the truth. We didn’t part as friends. I’m not sure what we parted as, but not friends.”
“Yeah. I know. The thing is, it’s been an exhausting night, but—”
“I bet it has,” she said, cutting him off. “I saw Mick’s collapse on the news. I can’t even imagine how you must have felt… standing on stage and that happening right in front of you. Patrick didn’t give me any details, but I assume it was drugs.”
“Yeah. Apparently some messed-up coke. Anyway, things have been really intense and I’m wiped out, but I couldn’t sleep. Skye, I have to ask… why have you agreed to this meeting after—uh—what I did?”
She couldn’t tell him she missed him every hour of every day.
She couldn’t tell him how desperately she needed to feel his arms around her.
She couldn’t tell him she wanted to curse him to hell for crushing her heart.
“Skye? Are you there?”
“Do you remember the last thing you said to me as I walked out the door?” she demanded, the hurt and anger bubbling to the surface. “I’ll quote you, shall I? Skye, we need to go down separate paths and keep it that way.”
“Of course I remember,” he replied, his voice breathless. “Sometimes situations cause us to do things we think are right, and they’re not. The curve ball comes toward us, and we try to hit the best we can, but that doesn’t mean we’ll land a home run. Sometimes we swing and strike out. Sorry sounds so inadequate, but, uh, I am, though given the circumstances… fuck! I don’t know! I’m sorry, Skye—about so many things.”
She couldn’t speak.
The excruciating memory cloaked her.
Standing in the living room staring at him in shock.
Heat burned the back of her throat.
Tears flowed down her cheeks.
“You have to go.”
“Skye, I handled it badly, and I’m truly sorry for that. Especially for that.”
“You should be,” she managed, hoping he couldn’t hear the heartbreak in her voice.
“Patrick is booking us into the Willows. Your own suite of course,” he added hastily.
“He thought it would be more comfortable.”
“I love that man,” she said softly.
“Are you okay?”
“Sure, I’m fine,” she lied. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I’ll have breakfast ready in my room. We’ll have privacy. We can talk.”
She’d held it together.
But her hand shook.
Throwing the phone on the floor, she clenched her teeth trying to force back the crushing wave of emotion.
“Am I making a huge mistake?” she sniffled, wiping the hot, wet tears rolling down her cheeks. “Shit! Why am I doing this?”
But she knew why, and it wasn’t just because she needed answers.
She needed to breathe his air.
See his face.
And, God willing, melt into his arms…
Stanley Porter stared at the ceiling. Skye had purposely woken him up. That’s how she was. Naughty little games were her style. She liked to provoke people and goad them into reacting. He took great joy not giving her what she wanted, but this one time she’d succeeded.
Sliding from the bed, he padded across the room to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a generous splash of whiskey. Downing it in one gulp, he let out a grunt, then wandered across to the large picture window.
The Big Apple never slept.
That’s why he loved it.
The pace, the energy, the overpriced restaurants and busy streets.
Smart people in a never-ending battle trying to outsmart each other.
But no one could outsmart him.
He was the smartest of them all.
She’d left him.
No one left him, and he’d get her back.
He had to.
His ego wouldn’t allow him to lose, and he had invested too much…