His voice roared over her. Loud, sexy, and so richly decadent that she felt her limbs going loose with excitement. With arousal. With need. Jamison Matthews knew she wasn’t the only woman in the audience to feel that way while listening to Ryder Montgomery sing—his deep, raspy baritone was one long mind-and-body-fuck—but that didn’t make it any less powerful. Neither did the fact that she’d been listening to it for ten long years—ever since she was a thirteen-year-old kid with a crush on the lead singer of her brother’s band.
Some things didn’t change.
And some things did. Shaken Dirty had come a long way from the teenage garage band they’d once been. The tens of thousands of screaming fans currently filling this very amphitheater attested to that. As did the bras and panties that haphazardly littered the stage. Her brother, Jared, had picked up a sheer red thong and draped it over the neck of his guitar, while Micah’s base was decorated with lacy purple boy shorts. Totally disgusting if she let herself dwell on where those panties had been just a short time before.
But she wasn’t going to do that, wasn’t going to let anything mar her enjoyment of the show. Being here, watching her brother play with the others in the middle of this gigantic venue, co-headlining the Rock On tour with some of the hottest bands around, was a dream come true. She wouldn’t waste a second of it.
The song ended and the crowd went nuts, screaming and whistling, chanting and shouting. Begging for more. Jamison went nuts right along with them, didn’t even mind when the surging fans pressed her closer and closer to the barricade that kept eager devotees off the stage. That was her big brother up on that stage. Her big brother and Ryder and Wyatt and Quinn and Micah. They’d come a long way since Jared had let her listen in while they’d practiced in the garage, and she couldn’t be more proud. After all they’d been through, they’d finally made it.
For a second, panic threatened at the disaster her life had become practically overnight. It wasn’t the accident that hadn’t been her fault but had left her with a totaled car anyway. A car that had been worth only three thousand dollars, which gave her pretty much no chance of buying a reliable replacement for the amount the insurance would pony up.
Nor was it that her douchebag boyfriend had dumped her while she was down. Sure, she’d thought she was in love with Charles, but in retrospect she was willing to admit that there had been some major red flags in their relationship. Chief among them was his inability to keep his zipper up around other women.
Not even the fact that the closest friend she’d made since moving to San Diego had been sleeping with her douchebag of a boyfriend had made her feel this tied up in knots. She’d thought Lisa was pretty cool, but her friend—make that her ex-friend—had never made a secret of her freewheeling morals.
But losing her job this morning—a job she’d loved and had invested so much of her time in—had been the piece de resistance on top of the shit-pile her life had recently become. Especially considering she’d uprooted her whole life to move to San Diego less than six months before just so she could take the stupid job. It was the first step on the ten-year plan she’d had for her life, a plan that now lay in utter ruins around her.
She wanted to crawl back into bed and forget the last forty-eight hours had ever happened. Or, barring that, rewind the clock so that she could have seen coming some of the crap that had been heaped on her. Not all of it, obviously, but it might have been nice to know the restaurant where she’d landed her first big job out of cooking school was having to close before she’d bought, and worn, the most gorgeous pair of Louboutins she’d ever seen. Or before Charles had forced her to listen to his diatribe of all the reasons he’d cheated on her, reasons that were, of course, completely her fault.
She’d called bullshit on him, but still. Standing here with all these women, so many of whom were skinnier and prettier than her, only gave his words credence in her head. Not to mention the last thing she should be doing right now was screaming along with a bunch of Shaken Dirty fans while fantasizing about the lead singer of her brother’s band.
Onstage, the band launched into “Awake,” one of the power ballads that had made them famous. The crowd screamed their approval and so did she. Totally not her typical modus operandi, but she couldn’t help it. Something about listening to Ryder croonthe darkly haunting lyrics had her knees trembling and her heart beating much too quickly. If she closed her eyes, she could do what all the other women in the audience were doing and pretend that he was singing straight to her.
So much better than remembering he’d written these heartfelt words for another woman. For Carrie, who had killed herself and broken his heart so many years before. Her own heart ached at the thought. For him. Always for him. At twenty-nine, Ryder had already been through more darkness and despair than any one person should have to handle.
“Awake” finally came to a close, the last note hanging in the air for long, tension-fueled seconds. Then the band fell silent and the audience did the same, as if they were all holding their breaths. Ryder lowered his guitar, shuffled and stamped his feet once, twice. It was a familiar gesture, one years of experience had taught her was his way of shaking off excess emotion. Again her heart twisted. It devastated her that more than ten years after the fact he was still eaten up by what had happened. Still determined to bury it under a bunch of layers that not only insulated him from his pain but also hid the real Ryder so deep inside the public Ryder that she wondered sometimes if he even existed anymore. Or if the boy who had held her while she cried, who had let her whisper her pre-adolescent fears without ever making fun of her, had disappeared forever.
She searched for him, in that one endless moment.
Looked for him in the obsidian eyes that arrowed to the heart of the crowd even as they barricaded his own emotions.
Combed through her own memories and expectations in an effort to see Ryder as he really was instead of how he portrayed himself.
And when his eyes—his crazy, beautiful eyes—met hers, she found him. Seconds passed, long, intense seconds where she lost the ability to hear or breathe or even think. All she could do was look into Ryder’s eyes, at the feral heat boiling up and out of them, and want.
She smiled at him, waved. He snarled back. But it wasn’t a leave-me-alone snarl. No, definitely not. It was his I-want-to-fuck-you-up-against-a-wall snarl—she knew it well, had seen it directed at a lot of women through the years—and her knees gave way when she realized that this time, finally, it was directed at her. It didn’t matter that there was no sign of recognition in his eyes, no knowledge that the woman he was looking at like that was actually her. Jamison. For one moment he wanted her the way she’d always wanted him.
It was more than enough.
And then Jared thrust a hand in the air and the moment was gone. The silence shattered, the crowd exploding in catcalls and screams and whistles, pleas for more mingling with pledges of undying love. It was awe-inspiring, yet humbling, to witness. She still remembered the guys as lanky teenagers beating out a rhythm in her garage. As struggling musicians driving up and down the coast to play at dives that barely paid. As an opening act to bands much bigger and better than they were.
She watched as Ryder flirted with the crowd a little in true lead singer fashion. Women screamed in response, while men shouted and cheered. And when Ryder walked to the edge of the stage and switched out the acoustic guitar for his electric one, Jamison felt herself swoon right along with the others. She couldn’t help it. This had always been her favorite part of the show and when they’d gotten so close to the end of their set without it making an appearance, she’d worried they’d cut it.
Jared stepped forward as well, told the crowd to “Make some fucking noise!”
Much feet-stomping and clapping ensued, and Jamison was right there with the rest of the audience, screaming herself hoarse as Ryder and her brother teased them into a frenzy. And then, just when it felt like the amphitheater was going to explode from excitement, they dueled.
It was the most beautiful, the most perfect, thing she had ever seen. Her brother was in his element, huge smile on his face, fingers flying over the guitar strings so fast at times that they seemed to blur. On and on he played, his talent as mind-blowing as his grin was infectious, until finally he reached a shattering crescendo.
The last notes of his solo were still ringing through the amphitheater when he stepped back and Ryder took over.
Though he was the band’s front man, Ryder was almost as good a guitarist as her brother. But where Jared was totally engaging and fun to watch, listening to Ryder play was like opening a conduit straight to the rawest part of the human soul. It was amazing and terrifying in equal measures, and so spellbinding that he caught an audience of thirty thousand in his web and held them there, suspended, as his guitar wailed in agonized ecstasy.
Suddenly Ryder hit a particularly complicated series of chords and the fans behind her shouted their approval. He grinned—a dark, haunting twist of his lips that came and went so quickly that she almost thought she’d imagined it. Except she was pressed up against the stage now, so close that she could see his eyes. Deep and dark though they were, for a minute, just a minute she’d glimpsed a flash of pure enjoyment. And then she lost it as he tilted his head forward so that his chin-length black hair fell over his face, obscuring him for long seconds from the prying eyes of the crowd.
She took advantage of the moment, studied him the way she’d always wanted. Normally, when he was around, she was too afraid of being caught watching him to look her fill. But tonight she didn’t need to worry about that. He’d already proved he couldn’t see her clearly when he failed to recognize her earlier. That was all the encouragement she needed to gawk at him.
At his long, lean body that towered seven inches above her own five-eight.
At his tanned, muscular arms with their gorgeous sleeves of tattoos—black tribal bands on one and a phoenix on the other.
At the nipple piercing outlined by the tight fit of his black V-neck T-shirt.
He was gorgeous—wicked, dark, and so, so lovely with his too-pretty face—and she knew when she crawled into her lonely bed tonight, this image of him would be burned into her brain.
Head bowed, lost in his own little world, Ryder played another complicated set of notes that ended so abruptly the audience flinched a little, she along with them. Then he stepped back so that Jared could once again take the spotlight.
On and on it went, the two of them dueling until their fingers had to be burning. The audience was beside itself, women—and men—screaming themselves hoarse, the crowd literally seething with delight.
And then Jared and Ryder backed up to each other and played the last section together, their fingers flying faster and faster over the guitar strings until their separate notes blurred into the most amazing sound she had ever heard.
Their shirts grew drenched, their faces grew taut, and still they played.
Their arms trembled visibly at the strain, their shoulders bowed in protest, and still they played.
Finally, finally the last notes rang through the amphitheater—loud, gorgeous, flawless-- along with a kickass pyrotechnic display that took her breath away, and she didn’t know whether to weep or to cheer. They’d always wanted to include special effects like those, but had never been able to afford it before this tour.
Shaken Dirty really had hit the big time.
The crowd behind her didn’t have any of her confused reticence. They went crazy as fire exploded across the stage.
Jared—ham that he was—stepped up to the microphone and thrust both fists in the air as he claimed victory.
Ryder only laughed, his low, husky voice carrying through the amphitheater as he told the crowd, “Just go along with Jared. We like to let him think he wins, or he’ll spend the rest of the night pouting.”
“Fuck you, Ryder! I did win! Right, guys?” Jared held his arms out to the crowd and gestured for their support. Soon half the place was chanting his name.
“Good job!” Ryder said with a sexy wink. “He’ll never suspect a thing. But just to be clear. We all know who really won, right?”
The other half of the audience began screaming for Ryder, and once again Jamison found herself right there with them. Oh, she knew Jared was technically the better guitarist, but Ryder’s sound was amazing. He was dark to Jared’s light, brooding and dangerous to Jared’s good time. He attacked his guitar, made violent love to the instrument while Jared cradled his like a baby.
Both sounds worked, and worked well, but watching Ryder was like watching sex in motion. It totally revved her engine, even as she knew nothing would come of it. She’d thrown herself at him once when she was seventeen and been rejected—albeit as nicely as Ryder was capable of rejecting someone—but it had still stung. She wouldn’t make that mistake again, would have to be content to worship him from afar instead. Just like every other woman in the place.