Kit rubbed a hand over her face. “Terrence and I aren’t an item anymore. I wanted to tell him the truth about everything, but… I didn’t.”
She’d still been on the sofa the morning after the gala, staring at the muted TV, when Terrence had called her. He’d said he was watching the same report, asked her if the rumors were true, if she’d ended up in Noah’s bed the previous night.
Kit had gone to deny it, to reassure Terrence that it was all media hoopla, when he’d continued on to ask if she’d “dumped” him for “that manwhore,” if she’d “lowered herself to the gutter.” He’d added that he hadn’t thought her so “cheap.”
His voice had been colder than she’d ever heard it, so much anger in it that she’d felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. Maybe it was just a flash of temper, but maybe it was a side of Terrence she didn’t know—and his extreme possessiveness was especially troubling when they’d only gone on three tentative dates.
Kit’s mind had suddenly filled with the stalker’s letters. He’d used the word “whore” liberally too, though always in relation to Kit. Chilled, she’d snapped at Terrence that he had no right to speak to her that way, and that if they hadn’t been over before, they were now.
Afterward, she’d felt guilty at suspecting Terrence of being her stalker, but she couldn’t shake off the chill, not even after he apologized via text message since she refused to answer his calls.
“Hey,” Noah said, voice quiet. “I’m sorry. I know you liked him.”
“I did,” she admitted, dropping her head back against the wall. “But don’t feel bad. The way Terrence reacted to the news about us, it made me realize that maybe the man I know from work wouldn’t be the same man in private.”
Noah rose into a seated position, one knee raised, his arm braced on it. Gently gripping her chin in his fingers, he said, “Gates touch you?” Danger glinted in his eyes, deadly intent in his voice.
“No. We spoke on the phone.” The shields around her heart pounded to nothing by his proximity, his protectiveness, and driven by a wave of love that simply would not die, she closed her hand over his wrist. “Fox told me you haven’t been sleeping.”
He dropped his hand from her face, broke her hold.
No major change in his expression, but she knew him, had spent hours studying his face over the years when they’d circled around each other… and in the months when they’d been more than friends. She knew before he spoke that the shutters had come down, that he was about to give her an answer that told her nothing.
“I’ve always had trouble sleeping.” A shrug. “I don’t want to take sleeping pills, so I catch naps when I can—like today. I make up the sleep.”
No, she thought, he didn’t. He was always wired. For a while, way back at the start, she’d thought he might be using, but she’d come to know that Noah didn’t do drugs. He just didn’t get enough sleep, turning jittery and almost too “bright” when the lack came to a head.
He appeared okay right now, but she knew Noah was adept at putting on a persona. “Noah,” she said. “Are—”
“I’m fine,” he bit out, then seemed to consciously force himself to relax. “I’m fine,” he said in a less sharp tone. “Just a few nights of insomnia. I’ll probably crash tonight.”
The emotional shutters had turned into a wall in front of her eyes. She wanted to shove at that wall, to batter it down, but battering against it when Noah didn’t want her inside would gain her nothing but broken bones. “I’ll have to spend the weekend in this bus,” she said as the butterflies finally went still, curling inward in an effort to protect their fragile bodies.
“That’s sorted.” Noah grinned, no tension now that she’d backed off. “I have a sleeping bag over there and I snuck in a single airbed I can pump up.” He pointed to the right, and she saw the neat package of the airbed—so compact he could’ve easily brought it and the small air pump next to it into the bus without anyone being the wiser.
“I’ll even pump it up for you,” he said with a straight face.
She should’ve said they were friends, could share the bed, but she couldn’t. She wasn’t that strong. If Noah was in a bed with her, she’d either curl into him or scream at him while pounding her fists on his chest.
Why don’t you want me?
Why all those other women but not me?
What do I lack?
Her anger was as powerful as the other emotion inside her heart, the one that whispered he was hers. Despite everything, it kept saying he was hers. Delusional heart.
Falling back on a mask that wouldn’t appear a mask, she arched a single eyebrow. “Haven’t you heard? Kathleen Devigny does not do airbeds, darling.”
“Well, I’m not too important for it.” A grin as he shoved a hand through his hair. “It’ll fit in the living area with a little maneuvering so you can have the bedroom. Just chuck out some clothes for me to change into after my shower.”
Kit rolled her eyes and kept her mind resolutely off the fact Noah would be wet and stripped to the skin bare yards from her. “It’s not like I’m going to lock the door and dance naked in here. You can come in.”
She must’ve been a really good actress because he laughed at her quip, and for one instant, they were simply two friends who happened to be sharing a joke.
It was still light when Schoolboy Choir got ready to take the stage, the sky streaked red and orange and indigo with sunset. Noah found himself in the unfamiliar position of preparing to head out to the stage with a woman by his side. He was used to picking up women after shows, but he never had anyone with him before a concert.
It had always seemed as if that would be an intrusion. He liked to get his head in the game, fully into the music preshow. He didn’t want to talk to anyone except the guys sometimes. He certainly didn’t need a groupie coming on to him, expecting him to be happy about it.
So after grabbing a bite once he got up properly and showered to wash off the sleep, he’d been itchy for alone time. Except the media jackals were out, their cameras trained on the bus. Kit couldn’t leave so soon after their “romantic reunion,” as described online, so they’d been stuck together.
“Noah,” Kit had said ten minutes into it, “I’m going into the bedroom to read. Do what you need to do.”
Then she’d disappeared.
He hadn’t believed it for at least five minutes, but she hadn’t come back out, and when he’d peeked in at her, he’d found her sitting cross-legged on the bed, reading a script and marking it up as she went. Returning to the front room, he’d grabbed his iPod, his headphones, and settled in.
Often he played the guitar preshow, but today he’d just listened to stuff. Some of it was their own, some of it sung by his favorite bands, a scattering of it classical. No one expected him to listen to that last, but he liked the purity of it at times, liked figuring out the meaning behind the music. When the music beat in his blood, it cleared out everything else.
Too bad that didn’t work while he was asleep. He’d tried it more than once.
Now, bare minutes before showtime, he was getting ready to walk out the door with a woman. It was strange… but good strange. He’d been complaining to Fox about not having a girl of his own, and here she was. Just for a weekend, but she was his, and she got him; she understood that he needed the music and she wasn’t threatened by it.
When he’d finally come out of the music and gone looking for her, she’d been frowning at her script. Glancing up with an absent look in her eyes, she’d said, “Is it time?”
She’d taken those ten minutes to change into skinny black jeans that hugged her ass in ways Noah really shouldn’t be noticing, paired with black ankle boots and a silky red T-shirt that faithfully caressed her form. The vee in front barely exposed any cleavage, and the design was simple, but the way the fine material hinted at the possibility of a lacy black bra beneath…
Blow-off-the-roof sexy wasn’t an adequate description.
She’d also done something to her hair so that it was all tousled and rolled-out-of-bed hot, her lips plump and red, her eyes smoky.
“Holy hell,” he’d said, enjoying the look but missing his Kit. The woman who stood in front of him was Kathleen Devigny.
Then she’d winked at him and there she was, his Kit. “What do you think we’ve been doing in the bus all this time, Casanova? Gotta give the right impression.”
Allowing the memory of that moment to fall away because the reality of Kit with him was so much better, he glanced back to where she stood on the living area level while he’d stepped down to open the door. “Ready?”
“Rock on.” She handed over his guitar. “I’ll be your adoring girlfriend slash mega groupie.”
Guitar in one hand, he stepped out with a grin on his face that was real, twisting sideways once he was down so he could grab her hand as she came out. He didn’t care about the cameras, just wanted to touch her. He could do that now without crossing dangerous lines because Kit thought it was all make-believe.
But when he wrapped her hand firmly in his and held it against his thigh, he meant it. And when he tugged her close to his side and leaned down to nuzzle at her hair, he meant that too. As he did his words when he released her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulders. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Eyes suddenly dark, Kit looked away as she slid her own arm around his waist. Her silence was a kick to his fucking heart. But the pain was nothing compared to having her tucked up against him. He didn’t deserve her, would never deserve her, but for this short window of time, he could pretend and live an impossible dream.
“It’s interesting being on the back end from the start,” she said at last. “The energy is intense.” A squeeze of his waist that he wasn’t expecting and that made his heart do weird things inside his chest. “You’re intense.”
“You didn’t even come near me. How do you know I was intense?”
“That bus is luxurious but small. I could feel you being all intense and rock-god-like.”
Heart continuing to do weird things, he nuzzled his chin into her hair again. “Yeah well, thanks for the patience.”
“No, I get it. I hole up like that when I’m readying myself for a big scene.” Another squeeze of his waist that made him feel all odd deep within. “I don’t want people talking at me, expecting to get a response. All I want is silence in my head so my skin can settle.”
Noah just wanted to kiss her. She got it, got everything.
Noah was so warm and strong against her, his scent making her want to bury her face against his neck, draw it in. And he was being so physically affectionate, nothing anyone would expect from him… so maybe, a stubborn kernel of hope whispered, maybe it was real?
Don’t fall back down that cliff, Kit. He’ll destroy you.
Even as that reminder sliced pitilessly through the hope, Kit accepted the bleak truth that Noah would always be the one. She might one day love another man, but it would never be like what she and Noah could’ve had together. The promise between them, it had been something most people never experienced. It was broken now, shattered so badly nothing could put it back together, but when it had been whole, it had been beyond beautiful, a priceless gift.
Noah could’ve been her heart.
Instead, he’d be her friend with whom she could never quite have a real friendship. And he’d be the man she’d have to kiss before he went onstage in a couple of minutes. She’d have to act the doting girlfriend she’d teased him about being, the two of them kissing and snuggling like a couple in the first flush of love.
She’d thought she was ready, had convinced herself it would be just another scene from this movie they were playing out for the cameras.
Only it hurt so much that her first kiss with Noah would be fake.
Walking up onto the back of the stage with him, she smiled at Molly as the other woman appeared with Fox. She hadn’t seen Abe, or David and Thea yet, but they had to be nearby. Turning into Noah, she took a deep breath. “You know what we have to do, right?”
He raised a hand and cupped her cheek, his fingers in her hair as he leaned in to press his forehead against hers. Holding her just that way, as if she was precious, he said, “You know something?”
“What?” she whispered inside the cocoon he’d created.
“We just gave them the money shot.”
She blinked, startled out of her upsetting thoughts.
Noah had been photographed with women, but he’d never been photographed being tender with any of them. Kit knew, because despite her best intentions, she couldn’t ignore reports about him. Noah never cupped a woman’s face so sweetly, never smiled at her while stroking his thumb over her cheekbone, never tugged her close against him as he whispered in her ear.
“I’ll take care of you, Kit,” he said, his lips brushing her ear while his fingers wove deeper into her hair. “I won’t let the vultures steal pieces of you.”
Kit swayed into him, told herself it was all part of the show. “Thanks.”
“Make sure to cheer for me,” he ordered as he drew back, “maybe throw your panties onstage too—aimed directly and only at me.”
She shoved at his chest, though she was feeling all warm and hopeless inside. Warm because he was being the Noah she loved, the Noah who did look out for her, the one who’d never hurt her. Hopeless because this Noah was just as real as the Noah who’d so cruelly crushed her heart.
“You wish,” she said, digging up a smile. “If I ever throw my panties onstage, it won’t be for some pretty guitar player.”
“Oh, ouch.” Laughing as the crowd started to chant for Schoolboy Choir, he blew her a kiss and, slipping his guitar over his head and across his body, ran on with Fox. David and Abe ran up from the other side at the same time, and the crowd went crazy.
Genevieve slipped on more quietly after saying a quick hello to Kit and Molly.
Cupping the mike with both hands in that way he had of doing, Fox said, “You guys ready to party!” while Noah plugged in his own guitar, as was his habit.
A thunderous roar of sound was the crowd’s reply.
The band responded by launching into a hard rock anthem that had the attendees throwing up their hands and jumping up and down. Heading down the steps and around to the special section in front of the stage to join Molly and Thea, Butch, Casey, and the other security personnel making sure they were safe, Kit allowed herself to get caught up in the music, allowed herself to watch Noah.
For the first time since they’d met, she didn’t have to hide anything.
So she watched him move, listened to him play, and felt her heart thunder as loud as the crowd. “This is amazing!” she said to Molly and Thea.
“I’ve done the festival before, but never like this!” Thea took a few photos with her phone as she spoke, tweeted them. “I’m tagging you,” she said to Kit. “Retweet.”
“Always working.” Laughing, Molly pretended to confiscate Thea’s phone while Kit obeyed the retweet order, then took photos of her own to share.
Thea bared her teeth at Molly’s efforts. “I want everyone to know how my gorgeous man is rocking the festival already.”
“Hey.” Molly elbowed her sister. “That’s our men.”
When the other woman took out her own phone, Kit laughed. Molly had a single social media account that she rarely used, but today she sent out a photo of Fox making love to the mike, captioning it: My guy owning the stage at Zenith. #love
Simple. Perfect. So much what Kit wanted to write, but those words would haunt her when this illusion ended; she couldn’t put her heart out there for the universe to mock. So on the photograph she sent out into the world of a wildly talented man with storm-gray eyes, she just wrote: Noah rocking #Zenith!!!!!!