He wasn’t so easily distracted. “Don’t have sad eyes, Anne. I can’t f**king stand it when you’re sad.”
“You make it better.”
“Dude, of course I do. Have you seen me lately?” He grinned and I laughed. “That’s better. C’mon, let’s go. Otherwise, we keep kissing, we ain’t going anywhere but to bed.”
We were ten minutes late to band practice and eggs Benedict could take the blame. Mal had sat at the table with his back to the room, a baseball cap on his head. Only the waitress recognized him and quietly asked for his autograph. He’d tipped her big-time. I’m pretty sure I saw love shining in her eyes when we left. Lizzy couldn’t be far behind with the sentiment. Sure as hell, he’d gone out of his way to win her over, asking questions about her degree and her life in general. He’d been sincere in his interest, sitting forward, listening carefully to her answers. She’d also been highly impressed with his big black Jeep featuring every accessory known to mankind.
But fancy SUVs aside, Mal Ericson was a man to be proud of. My heart and my hormones both took him very seriously. Beneath the surface, all caution had fled. He had me and if the hand fixed to my knee during breakfast was any indication, he knew it. Strangely enough, I didn’t have it in me to worry.
Screw being stressed about Mom. With Mal smiling at me, none of it mattered.
Stage Dive practiced in an old building by the river. Mal switched into business mode the minute we walked into the massive space. The difference was fascinating. He gave the side of my face a quick kiss and then continued on to where the guys waited. A stage had been erected at one end of the place. Amps and equipment sat thick on the ground. Cables snaked out in every direction. A couple of roadies, or sound technicians, or whatever they were, rushed about.
Mal stretched his fingers and rolled his wrists, warming up his muscles. Then he stripped off his hoodie and sat behind a shining drum kit, twirling a stick in his hand. The man was clearly in his element, his focus complete. David and Ben were messing around with their instruments, plucking and strumming strings. Interestingly enough, Jimmy was doing push-ups. Lots of them. Then he climbed to his feet and motioned the guys to gather around Mal’s kit.
Lizzy and I joined Ev and Lena sitting over on some storage boxes near the back of the hall.
“Hello, fellow Stage Dive groupies and hanger-oners. How is your Sunday morning?” Ev said, sitting on her hands, kicking her feet.
“Good.” I smiled back at her and Lena in greeting. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Ferris?”
“I am feeling very very married, thank you for asking. How are you and Mal doing?”
“Ah, good. All good.” Everything was good. I parked my butt on the edge of a box. “This is my sister, Lizzy. She goes to school at PSU. Lizzy this is Ev, David’s wife, and Lena, Jimmy’s …” I faltered.
“Assistant. Hi.” Lena did the chin tip.
“Hi.” Lizzy waved.
“Nice to meet you,” said Ev. “Anne, quickly before they start playing. Tell me the story of you and Malcolm. I still haven’t heard how you got together, exactly. But Lauren mentioned he basically invaded your apartment.”
My mind scrambled. In the next life I was definitely going to stress less and prepare more. “Ah, well, we met at your place the other night and hit it off.”
Lizzy gave me a long look that I ignored.
“That’s it?” Ev asked, eyes incredulous.
“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” I said.
She did not appear pleased.
“What is this, Ev, a grilling?” I laughed.
“Yes, this is a grilling,” said Ev with a hopeful smile. “Give me information, please?”
“He’s really great and yes, he kind of moved himself in with me. But I love having him there. He’s wonderful, you know?” God, I hoped that would do. Definitely time for a subject change. “So, why are you still working in a café?”
“Touché,” she said. “It’s complicated. I owed my parents money, it was important that they saw me earning it as opposed to my hot, rich husband just handing it over. Things have calmed on the family front now and I’m moving on to other things. Always find it funny the way people react to me working. Like I should sit at home and spend David’s money, be the trophy wife. Screw that. I’d be bored as hell inside of two minutes.”
Ev shook her head. “Not saying it’s been all smooth sailing. We’ve had to get restraining orders against one nut of a fan and one ass of a photographer. For a while, Sam the security man had to come hang out with me at work. I did not like that, but them’s the breaks. After I failed to do anything interesting the paparazzi moved on. Anybody that bothered me got banned from the shop. Not saying it was easy, but I’m entitled to my own life.”
“Yes,” I said. “You are.”
“You’ll probably find out for yourself someday soon. Dating one of these guys can be a headache, but they’re worth it. Now back to you. Mal is suddenly living with you. I’ve never even seen him with the same girl twice. Didn’t think it was possible.” She paused, eyeballing me to add emphasis to this information. Inside my chest, my heart just sort of shriveled. What would happen when the novelty wore off and Mal got tired of playing house with me?
“Anne? Hello? Please give me more.”
“Um.” I was tempted to flail, but that would give away too much. “He’s very persuasive. And … he’s Mal Ericson. So, yeah. How could I say no?”
She paused. “This is your tale of true love? That’s the worst story ever. To think I spilled my guts to you.”
“Their eyes met across a crowded room.” Lena supplied, busy playing with her cell.
“Was it love at first sight?” asked Ev.
“Absolutely. Didn’t you feel the ground move?”
“So that’s what that was. Got it.” Ev huddled down into her gray jacket. “Alright, I’ll mind my own business. I’m just happy you two are happy.”
“Thank you,” I said, ignoring the continuing sad state of my heart. I just had to live for the moment. Enjoy being with him while I could. Sure. Not a problem.
Meanwhile, Lizzy hadn’t sat like me. Instead, she stood staring at the stage, transfixed by something. Or someone. To be fair, it was an awesome sight. The band finished their talk and separated, moving to their own areas. Then Mal counted them in and bang! Music poured out, filling the hall. No wonder Ev had wanted to talk before the boys started playing. The guitar screamed and the bass thumped, rattling my rib cage. Drums pounded and I felt the rhythm of the music beating in time with my heart. Then Jimmy sang. “I’ve got this feeling that comes and goes, ten broken fingers and one broken nose …”
It was an old song off the San Pedro album, one of my favorites. All thought of what the future may or may not hold for me and Mal slipped from my mind. Mal’s playing and the music owned me, the smoothness of his movements and his absolute focus. His energy. My face hurt from smiling by the time they reached the chorus. All four of us jumped to our feet and broke out into applause at the end. Jimmy laughed softly and bowed. A group of people huddled by the side of the stage took turns giving us bad looks. No idea what their problem was.
“That’s their manager, Adrian, and some of the record company people,” said Ev, her voice far from warm. “Piece of advice, steer clear of them.”
“Adrian’s an ass**le.” Lena settled back onto one of the wooden boxes. “But he’s a hell of a manager.”
The man in question was middle-aged, wearing a business shirt with a thick gold chain around his neck.
“Was he there last night?”
“Nope.” Ev flicked her hair over her shoulder angrily. “Adrian and I don’t get along. He prefers the band to be focused on their music rather than wasting time on relationships.”
“Like your sexing up David didn’t inspire the last album,” said Lena.
“Exactly. He should be thanking me.” Ev huffed out a laugh. “If he gives you any crap, Anne, let Mal know. He’ll deal with him.”
Four hours later the band finally stopped playing and handed their instruments over to roadies. My throat was raw from yelling, my hands red from clapping. God help me if I ever made it to an actual concert. There had been some stopping and starting as they worked on perfecting various parts of songs. Then they’d held meetings, just the four of them and also with some of the record company people. They also toyed with effects via the sound guys with their panel of buttons and dials. Us ladies had danced and hollered and had a great time all around. Each and every member of the band was so talented.
But Mal … we needed to get back to my apartment and ruin the remains of my bed.
His hair was dark with sweat and he’d long since lost his T-shirt by the time he approached. “Have fun?”
“Yes, I did,” I croaked.
“You losing your voice? I thought that was you screaming.” He pulled on his hoodie.
“Oh my god, is that the David Ferris?” Ev stood atop one of the boxes we’d been sitting on. Her husband just shook his head and held out his arms, eyes amused. She launched herself at him and with no difficulty at all, David caught her. Her legs went around him and their mouths fused.
“Get a room,” groaned Ben.
Mal handed me his drumsticks. “A memento of your first Stage Dive concert.”
Someone laughed, but I didn’t care. I held the sticks tight to my chest. “I’ll treasure them always.”
“She heard us play last night.” Jimmy hung back from the group, arms crossed. His good mood was apparently gone.
“That was acoustic,” said Mal. “And I’m not going to give my love a set of flimsy f**king brushes, am I? Only long, hard, phallic shaped things will do for a girl of her appetites.”
“I heard about you two.” Carefully, David set his wife back down, keeping an arm around her.
My head snapped up. “What?”
“Ooh, what happened?” asked Lena, ears practically perking up, puppy style.
“They broke the bed.” The look on Ev’s face—-hell, we were never going to live this down. “Can you believe that?”
“Of course we broke the bed. They’re just lucky we didn’t break the building,” announced Mal proudly, taking a bow.
David shook his head. “You two do anything interesting and I get Lauren calling at the crack of f**king dawn to tell my wife. Move already.”
“Anne likes it there,” said Mal. “No rush.”
“You got shit security. People get to know you’re in the area, you’ll have no privacy. And how f**king small are those apartments?”
“Relax, Davie. We’ll think about it. You guys, all so addicted to your mansions and fancy livin’. Why, Anne and I could live in a cardboard box and we wouldn’t even notice, our love is so epic. Isn’t that right, pumpkin?”
“See?” Mal crowed. “She’s insanely psycho crazy about me. Material things mean nothing in the face of such worshipful adoration.”
David just shook his head.
“Whatever.” Ben ran a hand over his short hair. “I’m starving. We finding somewhere to eat and drink?”
“YES.” That was Lizzy. A very loud and determined-sounding Lizzy.
The bass player’s eyes moved over her with sudden interest. A slow, salacious smile curled his lips. “Well, okay then.”
Red alert. So not okay. My baby sister was not hooking up with a player who had to have eight or more years on her. If I wanted to be stupid with my heart, that was on me. I’d let Lizzy get hurt over my dead body.