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“Let me know if you want me to call a doctor,” she said.

“Thanks.”

Neil had lain Lori down on a couch and was holding a glass of juice to her lips. A bird would have drunk more than she seemed to. Her skin was pale and paper thin, her eyes dazed.

“There’s no need to fuss,” she said chidingly to Neil. When she saw me, her mouth fell open in obvious dismay. “Oh, Anne, you didn’t need to come. You were enjoying the show.”

“They must be nearly finished. And Mal would want me to come and check on you, I’m sure.”

“Well, you’ve checked. I’m fine. Go on back now.”

Fuck. I knew all about fine. Care of my mom’s early example, I was the Queen of f**king fine. I perched on the edge of the couch while Neil squatted near the end. Up this close, her face was tinged gray.

“I know you’re sick, Lori. Mal told me.”

The air hissed out of her. “I told him I didn’t want everyone knowing and carrying on. Its life, sweetie, we all have to go sometime.”

“He said you had a month or two,” I said. Lori and Neil shared a look I did not like one tiny bit. “Is there something you need to tell your son?”

“It might be less than that now. We saw the doctor before in Spokane before we left to come here.” Her chin hiked high. “But it makes no difference. I’m not spending my final days in a hospital.”

Something stuck in my throat. “Your final days?”

“Weeks,” she amended. “They think another week or two at best. We’ll head home tomorrow afternoon. I’d like to be there …”

Neil inhaled hard and turned away. His hand slid over his wife’s, fingers intermeshing.

“You have to tell him,” I said. There were razor blades in my throat, barbed wire, nails, assorted hardware, and sharp implements. It was wildly uncomfortable.

“I suppose you’re right.”

With a grunt, Neil gave her fingers a final squeeze and rose to his feet. “I’ll let him know when he comes offstage. Can’t ask Anne to keep it from him.”

“No,” agreed Lori. “Just, help me sit up. Everyone will come in and I’ll be lying here like a fool.”

This wasn’t happening. Shit.

Carefully, Neil and I helped Lori to sit upright. Then he went off to wait for his son. I took over juice duties. At least holding the glass gave me something to do.

“I’m glad he has you,” said Lori, straightening the skirt of her pale green dress. “I know I’ve said it before. But my going will hit him hard. He acts all loud and tough, but he’s got a soft underbelly, my son has. He’s going to need you, Anne.”

She took my spare hand in hers. Mine was sweaty, hers was not.

“I really like your son,” I said. Because I had to say something. So, of course it was woefully inadequate as per the ordinary when it came to feelings.

“I know you do, sweetie. I’ve seen the way you look at him.”

“Crazy eyes?”

“Yes.” She laughed softly. “Crazy eyes.”

Out front, the crowd roared and the stamping of feet almost shook the building. Funny, back here, the music was a mild thrumming sort of noise at most. Negligible. Or maybe it was care of the pounding in my skull. I could feel a headache coming on. This whole situation was beyond heavy, the weight of it crippling. There was no making this right or fixing it.

People started flowing into the room. A long table full of drinks and food had been set up. Apparently an after party was planned for right here. Adrian stood by the door, shaking hands and laughing loudly at the shit people said. It was all so surreal. Somewhere out there, Neil was probably telling Mal, right now.

“Everything will be fine.” Lori patted my hand. Funny, the way she clung to my favorite word. Perhaps there was something to the belief of finding a partner who reflected your parent. Which was fantastically creepy and wrong. I really didn’t want to think about it after all. Mal was nothing like my father.

Then he stormed in. Mal, not my dad. A T-shirt was wrapped around his right hand, blood dripped from his fingers.

“What the hell happened?” I jumped out of my seat, running toward him.

Neil returned to Lori’s side. Jimmy headed straight for the table laden with booze and gourmet goodies. He dug into the big bucket filled with foreign beers with a single-minded dedication.

“Jimmy. What are you doing?” Lena grabbed at his arm.

With a look of pure annoyance, Jimmy leaned down, whispered in her ear. Lena’s gaze darted to Mal and then dropped to his hand. She looked up and down the table, searching for something.

“Mal?” The scent of him was a kick to my gut, same as always. But what the hell was going on?

“Hey, pumpkin. No big deal.” He didn’t meet my eyes. He also studiously avoided his mom’s concerned gaze.

Jimmy returned with his hands full. He and Lena had turned a linen table cloth into an ice pack. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Slowly, Mal unwound the bloody T-shirt. Beneath it, his knuckles were raw, open wounds. His jaw clenched as he held the ice to his hand.

The managerial jerk, Adrian, elbowed his way into our circle. “Mal, buddy. I hear there was an incident upstairs?”

“Ah, yeah, Adrian, you mind getting that straightened out? Mal accidentally put a hole in the wall. Just one of those things, yeah?” David put a hand to the man’s shoulder, leading him away.

I highly f**king doubted it was an accident, given the timing.

“We need to get someone in to look at his hand,” said Adrian.

They kept talking but I tuned them out. I put my hand to Mal’s face, willing him to look at me. “Hey.”

His eyes were going to give me nightmares, the misery in them. He leaned forward, caught my mouth with his, kissing me fully, frantically. His tongue invaded my mouth, demanding everything. And I gave it to him. Of course I did.

At last he calmed, resting his forehead against mine. “’S’all f**ked.”

“I know.”

“She’s only got a week or two at most.”

There was nothing I could say.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Sweat from his face dampened my skin. He was bare from the waist up and the room was cold, the air-conditioning working overtime for some reason. Not so necessary this time of year.

“Let’s get you hydrated,” I said, grateful for anything I could do for him. “Find another T-shirt for you to put on. Okay? You’re going to cool off fast in here.”

“’Kay.”

“Stay with him,” said Ev, her hand on my shoulder. “I’ll go.”

“Evvie.” Mal looped his arms over my head in an awkward hug, still holding the ice to his hand. “Hard stuff.”

Her forehead creased.

“Scotch or something,” said Mal. “Please.”

With a sigh, she turned away, headed off into the growing crowd. Worst damn timing for a party ever.

“We better go over,” said Mal, turning to face his parents.

Neil perched on the arm of the couch, an arm around his wife. Lori’s lips were pinched with worry.

“Hey, Mom,” said Mal, keeping me tight against him. “Glad you guys could make it. Had a little accident with my hand.”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh, yeah. No worries. ”

The guys stood nearby, holding back spectators, keeping industry and other types at bay from our corner of the room. Soon, Sam arrived with another black-suited guy and took over this duty. Ben and Jimmy kept close, talking to people, doing their job, and socializing. But their gazes kept returning to Mal.

Ev must have run, because she returned with a Stage Dive Tour shirt for him to wear, a bottle of Smirnoff vodka and another of Gatorade. “They didn’t have scotch.”

“It’ll do.” He handed me the sopping wet ice pack while he pulled on the shirt. It had a big candy skull on the front. “Thanks, Evvie.”

“Son,” said Neil. There was a lot communicated through just the one word.

“Dad, all good,” crowed Mal, suddenly switching mood to exuberant. It didn’t give me a good feeling. “This is how we roll after the show. You know that!”

Neil said nothing. The latest Stage Dive record and the chatter of a hundred or so party people filled the air instead. Mal downed half of the bottle of green Gatorade. Then he passed it to me to hold and downed big mouthfuls of vodka.

Ah, shit. This was going to be like watching a car wreck.

“Baby,” I said, slipping my arms around his waist, drawing him closer. “Just stop and breathe for a minute.”

“You called me baby.” He smiled.

“Yes.”

“You called me sweetheart the other day.”

“You’re the one that wanted a stupid romantic nickname.”

“Yeah. My Anne.” He rubbed his cheek against mine like he was marking me. Stubble scratched my skin and my whole body glowed like embers. The emotion was too much, completely overwhelming.

“Mal.”

“Don’t frown, there’s no need to worry. Do me a favor and go talk to Mom okay?” he asked. “Keep her happy. I can’t, ah … I can’t talk to her right now. Not yet.”

He put the bottle to his lips again, tipped his head back and drank, while I swallowed hard. The booze was him self-medicating regarding this situation. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me just the same. His eyes popped wide open and he exhaled. “That’s better. That’s f**king better.”

“I think Adrian’s going to get someone to come check your hand,” said David, sidling up next to us.

“No need.”

I tried to clear my sore throat. “Let him look at your hand, Mal.”

“Pumpkin–”

Enough of this shit. “You want me not to worry? You get your hand looked at. That’s the deal.”

His gaze ever so slowly sized me up. “I love it when you get all hard assed on me. Okay. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll let them look at it.”

“Thank you.”

Another big swig from the bottle.

Ev situated herself beneath David’s arm, both of them watching him with anxious eyes. There was strain and stress on everyone’s faces and Mal just kept right on drinking. Bottom of the bottle, here he came. For some reason, it just made me mad.

“That’s enough.” I tugged the bottle out of his hand. He obviously hadn’t been expecting it because he didn’t put up a fight. Big green eyes blinked at me, then narrowed into anger.

“What the f**k?” he said in a low voice.

“Find another way to deal with this.”

“That’s not your call.”

“You really want one of her last memories of you to be watching you get drunk?”

“Oh, please. Mom’s been around since the beginning. She knows what parties are like backstage, Anne. She wants normal? I’m giving her normal.”

“I’m serious, stop this.”

He gave me more of the angry stare. No problem. If he wanted to do glaring competitions all night, fine by me. I’d said I had his back. It meant protecting him even from himself if need be.

“Look around you,” I said. “They all just watched Jimmy go through this. They’re scared shitless for you, Mal.”

“It’s not like that,” he growled.

“Not yet.”

“Not your job to tell me what to do, pumpkin. Not even remotely.”

“Mal–”

“We’ve been together what, a week? And you know best now, huh?” He looked down at me, his jaw shifting from side to side. “Yeah, Anne’s in charge.”

“Ah, for f**k’s sake,” said David, stepping forward. “Shut up, you dickhead, before you say something you really regret. She’s right. I got no interest in watching you go through rehab too.”


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