The next three days were surreal. Kit had had no idea just how many people had secretly been hoping for a hookup between her and Noah. “It’s like this giant underground network of Noah and Kathleen shippers,” she said to Thea and Molly when she met the two women for coffee later that week. Becca hadn’t been able to make it, so Kit planned to catch up with her the following morning.
Today, she, Thea, and Molly were at a cafe down the road from Thea’s office, seated around a sunny outdoor table. The odd photographer had snapped a shot, but for the most part, they were left alone. Kathleen Devigny with girlfriends wasn’t as good a score, financially speaking, as Kathleen Devigny with Noah St. John.
“They call themselves the NoKats.”
Mouth falling open at Thea’s response, Kit shoved her sunglasses to the top of her head. “NoKats? Are you kidding me? We already have a nickname?”
“You always did,” Thea said, sanguine and in control as always, her sleek black hair in an elegant twist at the back of her head and her golden-skinned face expertly made up. “It was low level, nothing worth bothering about. People love shipping fantasy couples, and most of the time it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“All these years while you hung out with Schoolboy Choir,” Thea said, slicing into her blueberry muffin, “you had to know fans were starting to imagine things.”
“Why with Noah?”
“The chemistry, babe,” Thea said after chewing and swallowing a bite of her muffin. “But it wasn’t just Noah. The AbKats are bummed. The KatiDid and DeFox groups already threw in the towel since Molly and I had the bad form to come between you and David and you and Fox.”
Eyes narrowed, Kit glared at a laughing Molly. “Your sister is making this up to screw with me, right?”
But Molly shook her head, her brown eyes teary with laughter and her creamy skin flushed. Pushing her beautiful tumble of black hair behind her ears, she spoke through her amusement. “Thea showed me one of the forums on the way here.” A hiccup as she tried to catch her breath. “I reckon the AbKats are still holding out hope you’ll dump Noah for Abe.”
“Oh for God’s sake.” Kit wished she’d ordered wine rather than iced green tea. “And who the hell came up with NoKats? At least you and Fox got Foxy.”
“Fox hates it, but I tell him at least it’s better than Folly.” Molly’s eyes danced as she reminded Kit of her suggestion. “David and Thea don’t have one though. How come?”
“Because I’m a PR specialist who doesn’t like to be in the media myself,” Thea said. “I quashed that little bug before it sprouted.”
“You couldn’t do the same for the NoKats?”
“Sorry, Kit, but the NoKats and co were good for your brand.” Thea checked an incoming e-mail. “They were just waiting to believe. Now they’re lighting up the Internet.”
Eating a bite of the carrot cake she’d split with Molly, Kit put down her fork. “This is getting out of control.” Panic beat at her—because instead of dying down, the attention only seemed to be gathering steam. “We’re never going to be able to walk away without damage.”
“It’s early days,” Thea said without the least tension in her voice. “You’re new and shiny. My spies tell me another new and shiny couple is forming in the wings as we speak—in a blatant attempt to steal some of your limelight—so you’ll get a breather soon.”
“Who?” Molly leaned forward, then winced. “Damn it, I’m supposed to stop with my celebrity-gossip addiction.”
“It’s not gossip.” Thea patted her sister’s hand. “It’s intel. And this manufactured hookup is going to be between Abigail Rutledge and Garrison Stone.”
Kit sucked in a breath. Abigail was the rumored frontrunner for the lead role in Redemption, and Garrison was said to be a shoo-in for lead male. Lowering her voice, she leaned toward the other women. They instinctively dipped their heads toward her.
“I didn’t want to jinx it by saying anything,” she whispered. “But Harper told me this morning that Esra might be considering me for the female lead rather than the secondary role.” Her heart thumped at even the idea of it.
“Oh my God.” Voice low but excited, Molly squeezed Kit’s hand.
Thea smiled, no hint of startled excitement on her face.
Spies, Kit reminded herself. Thea had spies everywhere. “But if Abigail’s got Garrison on her arm…”
“Pfft,” the publicist said after eating another bite of her muffin. “Garrison’s doing Abigail a favor because she once did him one, but they have no chemistry. Zero. Zilch. If I was their PR manager, I’d have nixed the idea. They’re only going to show the world—and Esra—exactly how bad they’d be as an on-screen couple.”
“Are you sure?” Kit frowned. “Abigail is an excellent actress and Garrison is brilliant.”
“I could be wrong,” Thea allowed. “It has happened once or twice in known history.” A wry smile. “Which is why it’s good you’ll be at Zenith with Noah this weekend.”
Kit’s stomach flipped. The outdoor festival was out of town, which meant everyone would expect her to share Noah’s bus. Zenith’s location made any other option impossible.
So far, she and Noah had gotten away with public “dates” and one night where he’d stayed in her guest bedroom, but there’d be no way to avoid the intimacy forced by the festival.
“Is it really worth it?” she said to both women.
Molly, who knew all about her history with Noah, touched her hand again, this time with the gentleness of a friend attempting to offer comfort. “Noah’s really happy to be able to help you. I think he’s…”
Thea sighed when Molly faded off. “Seriously you two, give it up. Information is my job. I know you”—a glance at Kit—“and Noah actually had a thing a while back, but since you kept it private, I didn’t interfere. Clearly it didn’t end well?”
Kit nodded, unable to say anything further.
But Thea was smart and she’d had her own bad breakup. “If it was caused by what I think caused it, then I give you major props for not cutting off his balls and throwing them in his face.”
“He didn’t cheat,” Kit said, because to cheat, you first had to make a commitment. Noah had never given her that.
Theirs had always been a mirage of a relationship.
Standing on the main stage at Zenith on Friday morning, Noah plugged his guitar into the amplifier, checked the settings, and played a short solo—or tried to—to test the sound. A screech of feedback had him stopping with a wince. “Maxwell!” he yelled to the crew chief, who was working out in front of the stage. “You trying to blow out my eardrums?”
“If I was,” the bearded man yelled back, “they’d have gone boom!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Noah hunkered down to look at the various cables and connections, saw the problem just as one of Maxwell’s people came up and fixed it.
“Sorry, man,” he said to Noah. “Totally my screwup.”
“Forget it.” Shit happened. That was why Schoolboy Choir was out here this morning checking everything. They’d kick off the festival tonight with a big show, then do another set Saturday afternoon. The festival officially ended Sunday at midday, but Friday night and Saturday were the big events.
Zenith was one of Noah’s favorite festivals. This stage and the two smaller stages to the left and the right, open fields between them, were the only “buildings” around for what appeared to be miles. People brought their own tents to camp in, and the city supplied sanitation and medical facilities, while food trucks were plentiful.
Unlike other festivals that often descended into mud and alcohol-fueled fights that messed with the music, the organizers had done a great job of keeping Zenith wild—sometimes crazy wild—but trouble-free year after year.
Part of it had to do with the fact the festival was out in the middle of nowhere, which tended to create more of a tight atmosphere. The other factor was that it was a long haul to get here—the only people who made it this far were the true music fans. And they came in their thousands.
The grounds wouldn’t open for another four hours, but long lines had already formed at the gates as people waited to grab the perfect spot for their tents and catch some of the warm-ups.
“Yo, Noah,” Abe called out from where he stood by the keyboard. “You ready to try a run-through?”
“Yeah, let me just check this is good first.” This time it was pure, raw music that poured out of the speakers.
A cheer came from the direction of the far-off gates.
He smiled. “We got an audience boys, so let’s make it good.”
“I always make it good,” Fox said with a slow grin, cupping his hands around the microphone but keeping his head turned so his distinctively gritty voice wouldn’t carry. “Always.”
“All talk,” David said from the back, playing a quick beat that ended with a clash of the cymbals. “You know the quiet ones are the doers.”
“You white boys keep on talking.” Abe ran his fingers over the keys of his keyboard. “Meanwhile, the brother over here will smoke your asses.”
“Who you calling a white boy?” David said before bringing down the sticks in a fury of sound that cut off abruptly as he did that thing where he could simply shut down the drums.
Noah came in with his guitar right on cue, Abe flowed in, and then they all stopped and Fox’s voice roared out over the microphone.
It was like they’d never had the post-tour time off, the meld was so flawless. Over a month they’d gone without playing a proper set, and now it felt like coming home. He caught Abe’s grin, heard the sheer joy in Fox’s voice, sensed it in the flourishes David threw into the beat, felt it in the way his own fingers caressed the strings.
It was blood in his veins, the music, the energy that made his heart beat. Up here, with the music burning up the air and his closest friends in total synergy with him, there was no pain, no anger, no hopeless rage. There was just the sweet, pure beauty of music in every cell of his body, making him pure too.
Fingers moving over the strings, he let the music fill him. He used a pick occasionally when he was going to town on a seriously hard rock number, but even then, he’d been known to use his fingers. He liked the direct connection to the strings, and his fingertips had long ago become callused enough to take it.
Today he brought the song to an end with a guitar solo that had Fox grinning and calling out, “Hell yeah! Noah is in the house!”
Noah only became aware of the riotous cheers from the early birds when the last note faded from the air. Shoving his hand through his sweat-damp hair, he grinned a hello at Genevieve. The bass player was joining them for this concert and, having worked with Schoolboy Choir previously, had come smoothly into the mix when she arrived halfway through the song.
Happily married with three kids, Genevieve liked performing but didn’t want the pressure that came with being part of a band. Being a session musician suited her, and having her here freed Abe up from having to do double duty and lay down the bass line since Noah couldn’t play lead guitar and bass at the same time. The band had a few bass players they worked with for live performances, but Genevieve was their favorite.
“Sounds like we’re good to go,” Noah said to everyone. “We could leave now, go relax.”
Fox raised an eyebrow, David grinned, and Abe began the intro into another song while Genevieve had a rock-and-roll smile on lips she’d painted electric blue.
Laughing, Noah fell into it, and they played just for the fun of it, Genevieve working with them. Fox slung on his own guitar partway through, and the two of them dueled it out while Abe carried the song with his voice, then David challenged Noah and they had one hell of a jam session.
“Fuck, man,” Noah said afterward, his T-shirt sticking to his back. “How the hell do you keep that going?” Drumming was one of the most physically draining positions in a band.
David gave him a shit-eating grin, his teeth flashing white against the warm golden-brown tone of his skin. “I’m just in a good mood.”
“Oh, shut the hell up,” Abe growled. “Just because you’re getting laid on a regular basis doesn’t mean you have to rub our faces in it.”
David grinned harder. “Dry spell, huh? Sucks to be you.”
As the two exchanged more insults and comments while Genevieve looked on, Fox crouching down to talk to Maxwell about something to do with the mike, Noah guzzled a bottle of water and felt warmth spreading in his veins. Tonight he wouldn’t go home with some random groupie. Tonight he’d go home with his girl.
Yeah, it was pretend, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the beauty of it. Imagining Kit waiting backstage for him like Molly waited for Fox and Thea did for David on the days she could fly in to meet him, it made Noah’s insides twist into knots that didn’t hurt. They ached instead, and the ache was a good one.
Rubbing at his eyes, eyes grainy from lack of sleep, he pulled off the guitar. “I’m going to crash for a couple of hours.” At this point he was tired enough that he might actually get some sleep. “We hooking up for dinner?”
Fox nodded from where he was still crouched on the edge of the stage. “Catering truck’s coming in around four.”
They’d go onstage at six, so it was better they eat earlier. “I’ll see you then.” Taking his guitar with him because he’d fucking kill anyone who damaged the stunning instrument, he headed to the back of the stage and down. This entire area was blocked off from the public and lined neatly with equipment trucks and other behind-the-scenes stuff.
Schoolboy Choir’s tour buses were parked side by side behind all that, a buffer zone between them so the noise wouldn’t be too bad. Kind of a moot point for an outdoor concert, but the buses were insulated against noise, so it worked. He got into his bus using a thumbprint scan, and putting down his guitar soon as he was inside, kicked off his boots and socks before tugging off his sweaty T-shirt, leaving it all in a pile by the door.
His belt and jeans he tore off on his way to the back of the bus, and then he was falling flat on his face in bed, so exhausted after not sleeping in much more than short fits and starts over the past week that his mind just shut down.