I looked away, feeling like I had stumbled upon some weirdly intimate moment.

“You up for going out, Dawn?” he asked after a few beats.

I turned my head and shot him a quick smile. Noelle was wiping underneath her eyes and trying to suck things up, and his expression toward me was expectant. Almost pleading.

If Sage wanted me to go out on the town with him and Noelle, I wasn’t going to say no.

“Of course,” I told him. “Where are we going?”

He clutched the vodka bottle tightly to his chest and surprised me.

“The Motor City,” he sang in a voice that sounded like he ate a pack of cigarettes and washed it down with gasoline, his best John Lee Hooker impression. “The Motor City is burning.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

It was all sorts of interesting being squished in the back of a cab with Sage and Noelle. None of us had opted for the front seat, and he wanted to give Noelle the window in case she felt like vomiting, so I was in the middle and leaning up against him.

To be honest, I never wanted that cab ride to end. There was something deliciously romantic about being in the dark of a moving vehicle, feeling a virile man’s arm brush against yours, his hip flush to your side, as you watch the city lights move past. Detroit wasn’t burning but my heart was starting to, licks of flames that threatened to one day consume me.

We were silent in the back and we all passed around the bottle of Smirnoff like little teenagers. Our cab driver either didn’t notice or didn’t care. It was probably the latter. Only near the end of the ride did he start chatting up Sage about the best Detroit bands like MC5 and Alice Cooper. I listened with interest, never getting to hear Sage talk about the music he liked. He had as much passion for Iggy and the Stooges as I did for Hybrid.

Sage had asked the driver to drop us off at a little dive bar on the western outskirts of town. It was a strange neighborhood, the city meeting the suburbs, but Sage said he’d been there once before and that the owner gave musicians free drinks.

We settled into the bar. It was surprisingly crowded given its location, a mixture of blacks and whites, middle class and lower class. The jukebox was playing jazz music, there were bowls of nuts on all the tables, and tacky Christmas lights lit up the ceiling. The air was perfumed with the smell of rum, smoke, and cheap cologne. It was kind of perfect, just the type of place you’d end up with a rock star.

We took our seats at the bar, a cold piece of carved copper, and Sage ordered us all a round. We had left the vodka behind in the car, and we were all sufficiently buzzed. Well, I was buzzed. Sage seemed large and in charge and Noelle was steadily getting wasted. Several times I had to keep my hand at her back so she wouldn’t fall off the stool. Soon, we had the bartender serving her virgin drinks.

“I can’t believe I screwed up,” she mumbled into her hands, making it almost impossible to understand her.

“Honey,” I said, even though I’d never called anyone honey before. It felt right and I rubbed her back gently. “Who cares? That’s what makes live music so great. You recovered. No one noticed.”

I turned to Sage for support. He only gave me a little nod, a motion for me to continue. I wondered how often he had to play the consoling role here.

“Everyone noticed,” she wailed. “It’s the most important part of the song!”

That wasn’t really true, but I could tell Noelle didn’t want to hear any sort of reason. So I just said, “Yeah it sucks, I’m sorry,” and she continued to whimper into her drink that was only lime and water.

I sighed and brought out my small notebook from my purse. I thought about asking Noelle if she saw her but I thought it might bring on another whine, so I kept my mouth shut and started flipping through the pages.

“Too dark to see, isn’t it?” Sage asked, delicately popping some cashews in his mouth. I tried not to stare at him chewing, at his strong jaw as it went to work. It was ridiculous how he made me feel when he was so close and I had a few drinks in me. He was only eating for crying out loud.

I quickly averted my eyes to the stack of bottles on display behind the bar.

“I can see in the dark,” I told him.

“Really?” he asked, munching away. He paused. “What else can you do in the dark?”

Okay. What?

I looked at him with wide eyes. “Sorry?”

He laughed, and once again his dimples transformed his rugged, strong face into something almost beautiful. I watched him, mesmerized, before he said, “I’m just joking, Dawn.”

Damn.

“I didn’t know you could joke,” I said, pointing at him with the straw of my drink.

“I try and mix it up. It never lasts very long.”

“The tall, dark…” I almost said handsome, “silent type gets boring does it?”

A wash of sadness came over his eyes, turning them dark in the low light.

“A little laughter every now and then makes you feel alive.”

Boy, was he ever Broody McGee.

“Has anyone ever compared you to Mr. Rochester?” I asked innocently.

“Will you guys shut up and stop flirting?” Noelle slurred from my left.

I didn’t dare look at Sage, though I knew his face was still downturned and contemplating the Mr. Rochester comment. Thanks for the awkward moment, I thought to myself, silently cursing Noelle.

“I don’t feel well,” she said and started to lean too far off the stool.

“Noelle,” I said in alarm, reaching for her.

Sage was quicker, and he was out of his seat and holding her up before I even got off my stool.

“She going to be okay?” asked the bartender.

Sage nodded, putting one of her skinny arms around his wide shoulders.

“She’s just had a rough night. Ring us a cab, will you?”

The bartender nodded and we found ourselves outside the bar in the quiet and balmy Michigan night. Normally the idea of being somewhere different again would have given me a special, satisfied feeling but I had to admit I was a bit worried about Noelle.

Seeing as walking was a chore for her, I helped Sage bring her to the curb and we sat her down together.

“Not exactly how you thought you’d spend tonight,” I said to him over her head.

“No, I pretty much knew this was coming,” he said with a hint of a smile. His eyes glowed in the wash of a streetlamp. “Noe doesn’t take hardcomings easily.”

“She just screwed up,” I said, aware that we were talking about her as if she wasn’t slumped over between us. “No big deal.”

“Everything’s a big deal to Noelle,” he admitted. “I’m sure she gave you a different side of her during the interview, but this is the real her. Drunk and ashamed.”

I was quiet for a few moments before I spoke up. “That’s kind of sad.”

“She’s just people. We all are. Just because you’re in a band doesn’t mean you stop having human problems. Fame, money…that doesn’t fix those things. Those things will always find you.”

“And who are you?” I asked softly, knowing I’d seen the drunk side of him.

He slowly brought his eyes around to look at me. They narrowed in thought. “I guess you’ll find out when we talk.”

“We’re talking now,” I said.

“This isn’t the interview.”

“Why not? Are you so different when you’re being held accountable?”

“Accountable,” he said with a short laugh. “That’s quite the big word for Creem Magazine. You sure they know what it means?”

Now it was my time to get prickly. “I don’t get you.”

“No one said you had to,” he said casually. “I’m not some puzzle to be solved.”

But you are, I thought. I didn’t have any good rebuttal to that, so I just looked away and hoped the cab would come down the street.

“Besides,” Sage continued in a lighter voice, “you don’t interview the guitarist of a heavy metal band when the bassist is passed out on him. That’s so cliché.”

I rolled my eyes.

“So let’s talk about you instead,” he said.

“Me?”

“Yes. You. The redhead with the beautiful brown eyes.”

Butterflies swirled in my stomach at that.

“Come on, tell me about Dawn Emerson. Where were you born?”

“Ellensburg, Washington. Home of the rodeo.”

He smirked. “And were you ever part of the rodeo?”

I cleared my throat and said defiantly, “Yes, actually. Every year. And I win every year.”

I shot him a sideways glance and saw he was staring at me, mouth agape.

“Well, go on,” he said, wide-eyed.

“I do barrel racing with my horse. Moonglow. This was supposed to be our last year. We’ve came first or in the top three in the last seven years I’ve been doing this.”

I was totally prepared for him to laugh. He looked stunned. Then impressed. “Why is this supposed to be your last year?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m getting old or something.”

“You’re, what, twenty-one?”

“Yeah, so?”

“That’s not old.”

“Then I’m over it. People grow out of things.”

I knew I was sounding defensive. The truth was, the fact that I was getting over the whole rodeo and racing circuit scared me. I liked to hold onto the way things were, even the shitty things. And I knew it made my dad proud. It always had, even in the toughest times.

“That’s true. People do. They change. So what will fill the void?”

I laughed quietly. “You know what? I have no freaking idea, man.”

“Not music journalism?”

The funny thing was I always thought it would. But now that I was on the road and living it, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I was feeling confused.

“I don’t know…maybe. I hope so.”

“Do you love music?”

I looked at him askance. “Of course I love music.”

“Maybe that’s enough then,” he said. “Just to love it.”

I chewed on my lip and thought about that, my eyes drifting over to Noelle’s hunched over back and the black lace of her scratchy shirt.

“Can you play music?” he asked, his voice getting lower, like he was afraid of disturbing me. “Like an instrument? Can you sing?”

“I can play guitar,” I admitted. “I can sing a little too, but I’m not very good.”

“Will you play for me one day?” he asked huskily. He leaned more toward me. “Will you sing for me?”

My cheeks heated up at the prospect.

“I don’t know…”

“And something original. I’d like to hear something from your heart.”

I smiled in amusement. “That’s borderline corny, Sage Knightly.”

“Perhaps I’m secretly borderline corny then. This is off the record, of course.”

“Oh, of course.”

“You do that for me, and we’ll be even.”

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