“I guess I’d better start packing, then.”
Jared breathed an audible sigh of relief even as he said, “Don’t bring anything that doesn’t fit in one suitcase. The buses are cramped.”
Jamison closed her eyes, blew out a deep breath at the warning. And prayed she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life.
Ryder couldn’t describe the relief that swept through him when he glanced toward the curtain and saw Jamison standing there in a pair of jeans and a tight tank top, hips wiggling and shoulders swaying to the beat Wyatt was laying down with his drums.
He’d been afraid she wouldn’t show tonight, afraid he wasn’t going to get another chance to apologize for the shitty way things had ended up between them that morning. The tour was playing a show in Portland tomorrow night and Shaken Dirty planned to head out right after they finished their set.
As it was, he’d have to talk fast if he wanted Jamison to listen to him. And he did want that. He was surprised by just how much.
They’d been friends for too long for him to leave things a mess between them. Especially when God only knew how long it would be before the band got back around to San Diego. They had seven more weeks on this tour, a few weeks off, then they were starting an international tour—just them and a couple of opening bands—that would take a solid eight months.
He couldn’t stand for Jamison to be mad at him for that long. The rest of the world, sure. He didn’t give a fuck. Hell, he relished it. But not Jamison. And not when he knew her very real anger at him covered up an even more real hurt.
The thought had him missing a note, not the first screw-up he’d had tonight. Jared shot him a what-the-hell look and Micah mouthed at him to pull it together. Which he was really trying to do.
He finished the song to wild applause—thank God the audience didn’t seem to mind the fact that he was all over the place tonight—then glanced toward the left wing again. Jamison was still standing there, a look of concern on her face as she watched him. It was that look that calmed him down, that convinced him he hadn’t fucked up their friendship too badly with his careless words and even more careless actions.
Suddenly, Jared knocked into him from his right side—hard—and he realized they’d launched right into “Careless” and he’d been so locked in his head that he hadn’t even noticed. Worse, he’d missed his cue—the whole first verse had turned into an instrumental.
Because he needed another way to screw up, right? Shit.
Forcing his attention back to what he was supposed to be doing—which was singing for a capacity crowd that had dropped at least a hundred bucks a pop to see him do just that—Ryder refused to look over at Jamison one more time. Doing so just messed with his mind.
He finished the rest of the concert without any more screw-ups—or at least any glaring ones. Jared had kicked his ass when they’d dueled, something the crowd had been completely aware of. But Ryder couldn’t bring himself to care. He was just too damn glad the concert was finally over.
He ripped out his earplugs as they headed off stage and Quinn was right there, in his face. “What the hell was that?” the keyboardist demanded. He hadn’t yelled, but with the level of intensity in his voice he might as well have.
“Nothing.” Ryder pushed past him, determined to get to Jamison before Jared did. But when he got to where she’d been standing just a little while before, she was gone.
Goddammit. Surely she hadn’t left without saying good-bye to the band, had she? No, she wouldn’t do that. No matter how mad she was at him, she loved the rest of the guys. She wouldn’t walk out without at least talking to them.
Then where the hell was she? He stepped further into the backstage area, looked left and right. But there was no sign of her.
“Answer him, dude.” Micah bumped him with his shoulder, hard. “What the hell is wrong with you tonight?”
Ryder ignored him, too, as images of Max—who’d sounded a hell of a lot worse than Ryder had on stage tonight—twisted around in his head. Panic raked sharp claws down his spine and he started to walk faster.
Where the hell was she?
“Are you even going to answer us, man?” Quinn again, and this time he put a restraining hand on Ryder’s arm. “We looked like amateurs out there tonight. In front of a sold-out crowd.”
“Where’s Jamison?” he burst out.
“What do you mean?” Jared looked confused.
“She was here, listening to the concert for a while. But she disappeared.” He was frantic and trying not to show it, but from the look on his bandmates’ faces, he wasn’t doing a very good job. Damn it, if Max had gotten his hands on her…
He grabbed the roadie closest to him and yelled, “Have you seen Max?”
“Max?” The guy looked confused.
“Max Casey. From Oblivious.”
“No, dude, they’re gone. They pulled out forty-five minutes ago.”
Relief flooded him, so acute that he felt his legs go weak for just a second. He’d seen Jamison less than half an hour ago. Wherever she’d disappeared to, Max hadn’t gotten a hold of her again. Ryder hadn’t failed her a second time.
“Is that what you were so freaked out about?” Jared demanded. “I had a talk with Max a little while before we went on. I made sure he knows I’ll kill him if he touches Jamison again.”
The last of the tension left him as Jared’s words sank in. “Yeah, sorry. With that asshole on the loose …”
“No worries.” Wyatt’s words were a little slurred as he clapped Ryder on the back. “It’s all good. The crowd didn’t seem to mind.”
Ryder glanced around again. “So where’d she go, anyway?”
“Probably over to the bus,” Jared said. “Speaking of, I want to talk to you guys about something before we head back there.”
“What’s up?” Quinn asked.
Before Jared could answer, Wyatt stumbled while grabbing for a bottle of water, would have landed flat on his ass if Ryder hadn’t reached out and caught him.
The unmistakable scent of weed drew his attention. He replayed the last few minutes in his mind, realized Wyatt had been weaving a little. And now that he thought about it, he wasn’t the only one who’d had problems onstage tonight. Wyatt had screwed up a couple rhythms himself. Which wasn’t like him, except when—
“Dude, are you high?” he demanded.
“What? No! I just had a couple hits.”
Quinn and Jared both froze. Micah didn’t seem to notice, but then when did that guy ever think about anyone but himself? He was a damn good bass player, but that was about all he had going for him these days. That and the fact that he’d known Jared, Ryder, and Wyatt forever.
Pissed off and concerned all over again—this time for a very different reason—Ryder dragged Wyatt under one of the backstage lights. And felt his heart, and his hopes, plummet at what he saw. The drummer’s eyes were glassy and bloodshot, his pupils tiny little pinpoints. “Shit. You’re using again.”
“Nah, man. No way.” But after that first second, Wyatt wouldn’t look him in the eye. “It was just a little bit, to take the edge off.”
“A minute ago it was a couple hits of weed. Now it’s something to take the edge off. Which is it?”
“What are you, my mother?” Wyatt tried to duck around him, but Ryder wasn’t backing off. Not this time.
“No, I’m the dick who believed you when you got out of rehab this time and swore you were done with all this shit.” He shoved Wyatt up against the wall.
“Don’t fucking touch me.” Wyatt shoved back.
“Hey, everybody calm down.” Jared, ever the peacemaker, got between them. Usually Ryder was willing to listen to him, but not this time. Jared wasn’t the one who’d walked into that fucking hotel room and found Wyatt passed out, totally OD’d on smack. He wasn’t the one who’d dragged him to the shower, wasn’t the one who’d called 911 and prayed while he waited for the ambulance to show up. And he wasn’t the one who’d sat in that damn hospital room and listened to the catalog of damage the asshole had done to himself.
There was no way Ryder was going to calm down—not when they’d gone over this ground too many fucking times already.
“Okay, all right. That’s enough.” Quinn wrestled him off of Wyatt. “Let’s take this back to the bus, okay? We don’t need an audience.”
He said the last with a meaningful glance around them and Ryder realized he was right. The roadies, and more than a few groupies, were watching the free show he was putting on. Rumors of drug addiction were the last thing Shaken Dirty wanted right now. Their songs were kicking ass, their latest album had just gone double platinum and they were gearing up to headline the biggest tour of their careers. The last thing they needed was for their label, and tour backers, to get wind of Wyatt’s fall off the wagon. He’d already been in rehab three times in the last five years. And the last time, when things had gone bad, they’d gone really bad.
Ryder loosened his grip on Wyatt’s collar, stepped back. He was still beyond pissed, but at least he’d calmed down enough to think rationally.
“Let’s get on the bus,” he said, making sure his voice carried the ring of authority. Each of the guys in Shaken Dirty did their own thing, but he also knew they listened to him. It was all part and parcel of being lead singer—and the guy who, with Jared, had first put the band together. “We’ve got to get going anyway.”
He started toward the side door, his mind whirling as he tried to figure out how he wanted to play this thing. Wyatt was going to deny, deny, deny, but he couldn’t let him. He’d tried going that route more than once—hell, Wyatt had some fucking monstrous demons and no one blamed him for needing a crutch to deal with them. But he wasn’t just drinking, wasn’t just smoking weed anymore. Heroin was heavy shit, and if they didn’t do something—and quickly—he’d finish the job he’d started eleven months before.
Quinn got to the door first, and he glanced back at them, a crazy ass grin on his face. “You guys ready for the gauntlet?”
“Damn straight,” Wyatt called while Micah just whooped a couple of times.
“Let’s go,” Jared said, sounding as tired and impatient as Ryder felt. Then again, he was the only member of the band with a fiancée—one he was determined to be faithful to.
Quinn pushed the door open and they piled outside. Despite the rope barriers and the presence of five of the biggest security guards Ryder had ever seen, it only took them about thirty seconds to be swamped. Teenage girls, grown women—even some guys—were screaming at the top of their lungs. Flashing them, pulling at them, grabbing on to whatever piece of clothing they could reach. It was crazy, but it was a small price to pay for getting to make the music he loved.
Besides, normally it was hard to mind being mauled by women who wanted nothing more than to go down on him. Hell, in the past he’d let one or two do just that. But tonight he wasn’t interested in the slightest—and he wouldn’t be even if they weren’t planning on heading out in the next few minutes. His thoughts were too full of Jamison and Wyatt for him to notice the women all but throwing themselves in his path as anything more than obstacles.
Micah, Wyatt, and Quinn weren’t having that problem. Micah had grabbed onto two blond girls, was kissing one while he caressed the other’s breasts. Wyatt was making out with a cute redhead and Quinn was signing a T-shirt while it was still being worn by a brunette with sultry eyes and an even sultrier pout.
Jared pushed past them, deflecting numerous hands and other things as he gained ground. In the last few months, he’d become an expert at working his way through a frenzied crowd without getting caught, so tonight, Ryder followed in his footsteps. He moved swiftly, twisting and turning, signing as many autograph books and body parts as he could while still keeping his forward momentum.
He’d almost made it to the first tour bus, was in fact congratulating himself for successfully running the gauntlet, when a couple of girls got their hands on him. They were small and sweet looking—and couldn’t have been more than eighteen—but they hung on like limpets, pulling at his clothes for all they were worth.
Behind him, he could hear Quinn laughing at his predicament, but the keyboardist did nothing to help him out. A few feet ahead, Jared had made it to the tour bus and thrown the door open. Though it was dark, he could see Jamison’s silhouette in the doorway.
He could tell she was watching the debacle, though her face was in shadows and he couldn’t tell if it upset or amused her. Either way, it gave him the extra impetus to get away from the clutching, groping hands. With a twist, a duck and a shimmy that would have done Mick Jagger proud, he slid out of his T-shirt, leaving it in his fans’ excited hands. The ensuing fight over the prize distracted them long enough for him to make a try for the bus.