Noah fell asleep at three that morning, was awake by six. As far as nights went, it hadn’t been a bad one. He’d slept deeply from start to finish. After showering and shaving, he pulled on a pair of jeans so ragged he found new tears in them daily, grabbed a mug of coffee and his guitar, and went to sit by the pool.
Though he’d meant to work on new material, he started to play the song about a sparrow caught in a net, its wings broken, who somehow found the strength to fly free. Kit saw hope in that song, saw courage. Noah didn’t have the heart to tell her it was about death. Because that sparrow with his broken wings would never be able to fly. He’d fall to the earth, lie bleeding until he breathed his last breath.
The only possible freedom was the final one.
Noah sang softly as he strummed the guitar, fully conscious that this song could be seen as a suicide note. It wasn’t and never would be. He might’ve fucked up when drunk out of his skull, but he’d never consciously chosen death. That meant little though, not if he was holing up in motel rooms and shoving poison into his veins. The choice might not be a conscious one, but it was still a choice.
Like the choice he made at eleven that night when the nightmares became too loud, the demons too vicious. It was painfully easy to find women who wanted to screw him. At least the pitiless god who’d given him this life had also given him looks that made women gravitate toward him. He picked up a starlet who had lips plumped up with filler and breasts taut with silicone, and he fucked her against the brick wall behind a club after she gave him head.
When they were done, she called him “baby” and slipped him her number. He didn’t even know her name until he glanced at the little piece of paper. Waiting until she was back in the club, he scrunched up the note paper and threw it in the dumpster not far down the alley. Then he walked down the street and toward another bar bursting at the seams.
There was a line, one he could’ve easily circumvented, his face so well known that he didn’t have to introduce himself to the bouncers. But he didn’t even have to go that far. Two giggling brunettes in skintight minidresses waved at him, and when he smiled and crooked a finger, they squealed and ran over. He walked them back to his car, drove them to his place—the place to which he’d never once invited Kit.
He didn’t take them into the house, however, but into the little guesthouse his architect had talked him into. There was nothing of him in the guesthouse. It might as well have been a hotel room. But it had beds. He picked one—and then he spent the next three hours fucking both brunettes.
It didn’t silence the screams in his head, but for the moments that he was this base, rutting creature, he wasn’t Noah any longer, and if he wasn’t Noah any longer, then he didn’t have to be that scared little boy either. He just became nothing. Empty.
Afterward, he slapped one of the brunettes on the butt and said, “I’ve called you a car.”
She gave him big, hurt eyes. “You’re kicking us out?”
“You knew the deal.” The hurt was well-practiced. “If you wanted the white picket fence, you wouldn’t have come home with me.” Noah’s reputation left no room for misconceptions or false hopes; he’d never made any effort to hide his activities and proclivities.
The brunette got up with a sniff while her companion leaned over and tried to kiss Noah. “No kissing,” he snapped, hauling her back with a hand fisted in her hair. He didn’t know why he’d made that stupid rule—it wasn’t as if it changed anything, but his heart insisted on thinking that it did, that he could keep part of himself pristine.
What a load of bullshit. And yet he still couldn’t make himself kiss any woman on the mouth. He sometimes wondered what people would say if they knew Noah St. John, Bad Boy of Rock and King of the One-Night Stand, had never been kissed. “That’s the car,” he said to the women when there was a buzz on his phone.
Getting out of bed, he pulled on his jeans and then walked them to the door, because now that he’d managed to drain himself to numb emptiness, he wanted to sleep. He had to sleep. If he missed this window, he might not sleep again for days.
He hauled open the door. “Thanks for a nice time, ladies,” he said, because he wasn’t a total bastard. Not all the time anyway.
Pouts disappeared, replaced by sultry smiles. Placing one hand each on his chest, they leaned in as a unit. “Thanks, Noah. Anytime you want a good time, call us.”
Her friend took out a phone. “Mind if I take a photo of us together?”
Noah knew that photo would end up online or in the papers. Where before he wouldn’t have given a shit, now that Kit was back in his life, even if only as a friend, he found himself shaking his head. “No souvenirs.” He smiled, using it like the tool it was. “Be good and I might use those numbers you left by the bed.”
They giggled and waved before getting into the damn car at last.
Eyes so heavy he could barely keep them open, he nonetheless managed to get himself to the house, collapsing into bed thirty seconds after he entered the front door, his mind blanking out.
When he woke, dawn was pink on the horizon. A glance at the clock on the bedside table told him two and a half hours had passed.
A good night’s sleep.
Two days after the picnic with Noah, Kit walked out of a meeting with the director and the writer of Last Flight with a spring in her step. Their new project—still in the planning stages—sounded remarkable, and she was more than ready to be attached on the understanding that they’d negotiate a contract once Terrence and Jade got the financing sorted.
Kit knew her agreement would assist the duo to get the funding they needed, and she was fine with that. Without the risk the two had taken by casting her in Last Flight, she’d still be knocking on doors and attending open casting calls with a hundred other hopefuls. Kit wasn’t about to turn her back on them, especially with a script this poignant and complex.
“Kit, hold up.”
Turning, she smiled at Terrence. Tall, with shaggy black hair against olive skin and bright hazel eyes behind silver-rimmed frames, the writer was one of her favorite people in the industry. “You don’t have to give me the hard sell, Terrence. I’m convinced.”
“Excellent.” Putting his hand on her back, he smiled down at her, his features fine-boned and his camouflage green T-shirt sitting easily on a body lean with muscle. “In which case I can put my efforts into convincing you to have dinner with me tonight.”
Terrence shook his head. “Just you and me.” His expression softened. “What do you think?”
“Oh.” She fiddled with the bound copy of the script she held in order to give herself time to think. She’d always liked Terrence, but she’d never thought of him in a romantic way, mostly because she’d been hung up on Noah. She had to get over that. Why not with a man she respected and admired?
“Okay,” she said. “But not anyplace celebrity—I’d rather we go somewhere we can actually eat and talk.” As opposed to see and be seen.
“Us poor writers can’t even get into those celebrity places.” Terrence’s smile was wry as he thrust his hands into the pockets of his buff-colored cargo pants. “The maître d’s look at me like I’m some hobo who crawled in off the street.” A grin that reached his eyes. “I know a nice neighborhood Italian place.”
“Sounds good. Shall I meet you there?”
“I can pick you up if you don’t mind.”
She knew what he was asking. If he came through her gates, the paparazzi would start salivating and snapping; if not immediately, then soon enough. “That’d be lovely,” she said, her breath tight in her chest. “Six thirty?”
“Yeah.” Smile deep, he offered her his arm. “I’ll walk you out.”
“No, go back to Jade—I’m sure you two have tons to discuss. I’m heading next door to pick up Becca so we can grab a coffee together.” Her friend was working on makeup designs for her next gig. “I’ll see you tonight.”
As she left, she was aware of her heart thundering, her blood a roar in her ears. Terrence was a nice guy—a good-looking, smart, funny guy—but he wasn’t the one who’d provoked the raw emotional response. It was only Noah who got to her that deep. But Noah wasn’t for her.
Moving on from him, really moving on, was terrifying and freeing… and heartbreaking. She’d dated since that ugly night, but part of her had held back, secretly hopeful. No more. It was time to erase that hope, walk away from it forever.
Ducking into a restroom on the way to the makeup trailer where Becca was working, Kit locked the door and tried to stifle the sobs that threatened to break out of her. Her chest hurt, her body ached, her eyes burned, and her breath had turned choppy. Two tears rolled down her face, but she managed to swallow the rest, managed to learn to breathe again after five minutes of trying.
After washing her face at the sink and patting it dry with tissues from the dispenser, she dug around in her purse for her compact and lipstick and repaired the damage. She was good at hiding it, had learned all about makeup from her mother. Adreina had taken her in hand for two weeks after she turned fifteen, given her lessons.
Kit planned to teach her own daughter too—if that daughter wanted it. At fifteen, Kit had still been in the fugly stage and sitting in front of a mirror with a supermodel by her side had only highlighted her flaws. Despite that, she’d loved those hours with her mom, just the two of them for once—and Adreina had never once put her down. Rather, her gorgeous, confident mother had told her to look bullies in the eye and say fuck you.
Those memories were some of the most cherished of Kit’s childhood.
Checking her face afterward, she caught her own eyes in the mirror. The camera apparently loved her eyes—the critics raved about how expressive they were, how much she could communicate with just those two amber orbs.
Today her eyes revealed bruised pain and a searing sense of loss.
Becca would take one look at her and know something was wrong, regardless of the stellar job Kit had done on her face. Kit couldn’t handle her friend’s perceptive mind right now, so she did what she tried very hard never to do with her closest friends: she put on a mask.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and thought of a bit part she’d played right when she’d started out in the industry. It had been of a “girl next door” whose only job had been to smile and flirt with the coffee guy who was the heartthrob, thus giving the heroine a reason to act jealous. It hadn’t been the greatest script, but it had paid her rent that month.
It was also perfect for today. Her eyes filled with cheerful joy, her lips curved, and suddenly she wasn’t Kit anymore but that happy, uncomplicated girl next door. If only the transformation wasn’t simply skin deep.
Noah picked Abe up around seven, the two of them having decided to grab a bite together after the keyboard player got into the city. “Any preferences?”
His mahogany skin gleaming with health after his camping and hiking vacation, Abe rubbed his hand over his clean-shaven skull. It was a very conservative look for the other man; he usually rocked color, with patterns razored into his close-cut and tightly curled hair. Noah hadn’t seen this look since soon after they first arrived in Los Angeles as eighteen-year-olds full of dreams.
“Remember that Italian place your bud Esteban showed us last time he was in the city?” Abe said after a second’s thought.
“Yeah.” Noah had enjoyed that restaurant too. It was run by a family of six who all seemed genuinely happy to be part of a family business. No hidden surliness or frustrated ambitions.
The eldest son, Luca, worked the door and took care of the guests. The father was the head chef, with the only daughter in the family his apprentice. The mother was a pastry chef in charge of desserts, and the two younger sons waited tables. One was studying management, the other human relations, both in preparation for opening a second family-run place.
Noah knew all that because Luca had sat down with him, Esteban, and the guys during their first visit. They’d ended up being the last people in the place that night, but rather than hurrying them out, the kitchen had sent out extra platters full of delicious bites, and the younger sons had kept topping up their drinks.
Needless to say, the five of them had left a gigantic tip.
“Here.” He passed Abe his phone. “Give them a call while I drive. They might be full up—it was a popular place the last time we were there. Number’s under Meluchi.”
Abe made the call, and from what Noah heard, it appeared the person on the other end well remembered their table. “We in?” he asked Abe after the other man hung up with a laugh.
“Yeah.” Abe put the phone in the cup holder. “They’re setting up an extra table for us on the patio. Apparently it won’t have a view, but fuck the view, I want the food.”
Noah grinned. “Yeah.” He glanced reflexively at his phone when it vibrated, but it wasn’t Kit’s face that filled the screen, the shot one he’d taken back before he’d destroyed them. She was laughing in that photo, her eyes crinkled at the corners and her hair coming loose from the careless bun in which she’d knotted it.
“I’ll grab it.” Abe picked up the phone. “David, what do you want?” he asked with the casual rudeness that was only acceptable among men who’d been friends for so long that politeness would be considered a sign of trouble. “When? Yeah, I’ll tell Noah. We’re going to that Italian place.”
“Fuck you, man.” Abe laughed and hung up. “He’s bragging about not needing to date us now he has Thea.”
“If ever a man deserved to win his woman,” Noah said, “it’s David.” The drummer had been crazy in love with the band’s tough-as-nails publicist since forever. One look and boom, he’d been a goner. Noah, Abe, and Fox had all watched that love grow deeper and more indelible day by day and had winced silently when Thea appeared oblivious.
Turned out she wasn’t. The way she looked at David… Noah would’ve never believed Molly’s sister had such tenderness in her. It was obvious she thought David hung the moon. “What did he want?”
“To invite us over on Sunday afternoon for a barbeque. He and Thea are talking wedding stuff and they want to torture us.” Abe folded his arms across his chest, his muscles bulging. “Me, I’m running off to Vegas if I’m ever stupid enough to walk down the aisle again.”
Noah snorted. “Your mom would scalp you, and you’d whimper like a baby.”
Abe was silent for a while. “Actually, I think she’d be fine with it. Sarah and I had the big wedding, and you know what my mom asked me the day of my wedding?” The keyboard player stared through the windshield. “If Sarah was a woman I’d run off with if given the chance.” He shook his head. “I laughed back then, but she was serious. She wanted to know if I loved Sarah enough that I’d do that, just take off with her.”
Noah didn’t know how to react. Abe’s marriage and divorce were treacherous waters. The divorce had led him back into the cocaine habit he’d managed to quit six months earlier, then later into alcohol. The marriage, on the other hand, had seemed happy enough. Sarah had never quite meshed with the band, but they’d all accepted her because she was Abe’s.
“Would you? Have run off with her?” he finally asked, knowing he’d be no kind of friend if he didn’t step through this unexpectedly open door.
Even as he asked the question, Noah knew his own answer when it came to Kit. If he’d been normal, if he hadn’t been so ugly inside, he’d have sweet-talked her to Vegas in a heartbeat. He’d have lied and cheated and charmed just so she’d be his. And he’d have woken every morning feeling like the king of the fucking world.