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Sample includes adult content - 18+ recommended.

Chapter 1

Eden

 

Standing in the stale, generic space of the airport’s bathroom, I stared at my reflection and tried to breathe through the nausea. A slight sheen of sweat shimmered on the pale skin of my forehead, hinting at the possibility that I might actually faint if I didn’t pull my shit together real soon.

My heart thumped unevenly against my chest, the vein in my throat pulsing harshly in time with the beat. Blowing out a shaky breath, I ran my hands under the cold water and splashed a little on the back of my neck. “What the hell were you thinking, Eden?” I mumbled to my reflection. “On what planet did you think this was a good idea?”

The girl in the mirror merely blinked, innocence and vulnerability shining in her big doe eyes.

Of course, I knew exactly what brought her here, alone and twelve thousand kilometers away from home. Death had a way of doing that to a person. It made you reckless. It made you question your very existence. It cut you up into tiny pieces and forced you to put yourself back together again, despite the fact that it had stolen the most vital of pieces away from you.

It forced you to take chances, just to feel alive.

It. Changed. Everything.

My jaw clenched as a vision of Dad flashed through my mind. Fuck cancer. There weren’t many things I hated in life, but just thinking that word made me want to scream from the bitterness it cultivated. It was a cruel and twisted trick of fate.

The girl in the mirror gave me a pitiful look. She and I both knew I was running. I wasn’t stupid enough to think it was anything else. But after the hollow existence I’d been living since Dad had left me, I was desperate to find something that mattered. I was desperate to find me.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I raised my chin and took a deep breath. I had no idea if I’d made a mistake when I’d registered with the online job network that brought me here. It was the craziest and most reckless thing I’d ever done in my entire life. But it was the only thing that had given me any light these past few months. It was the only thing that had encouraged me to keep moving forward.

I sighed as I remembered my futile efforts to convince those who cared about me that I wasn’t being completely irrational and partially insane. It was a hard thing to do when you didn’t actually believe it yourself.

My stomach churned as a flood of doubts coursed through my body. Maybe they were right. Reality told me I was incredibly unprepared for this. I didn’t even have a backup plan. This was it. All I’d been told was that I needed to collect my bag and go through customs, and then someone from the agency was supposed to be waiting for me on the other side. It wasn’t until I discovered no one was actually there like they said they’d be that I started to question it all. I knew that probably bordered on insanity, but this was my life right now. I was absolutely winging every part of it.

With nausea still waging war inside my stomach, I gave up trying to calm myself down. Whether I liked it or not, I needed to formulate a plan B. I was well into a journey that was going to either make me or break me, and I was very much against becoming any more broken than I already was.

Grabbing the handle of my beast of a suitcase, I took a deep breath and made my way back out to the lobby area. It was time to find where I’d stowed my big girl panties and try like hell to pull them up. And fast.

Unlocking my phone, I tried to call the agency yet again. It was the tenth attempt I’d made in the last half hour, each call resulting in a busy signal that left me feeling a little more sick with worry.

Not knowing what else to do, I opened up my emails and began to type out a concerned message to the women I’d been speaking to this past month.

“Eden Roberts . . . ?”

My head jerked up at the faint sound of my name in the distance. Scouring the crowd, my gaze landed on a girl—not much younger than me, by the looks of her—pushing through the crowd, her gaze searching as she swung a small sign in front of her. As she spun to the left, I caught sight of my name scrawled across the face of it.

Relief lightened my chest for the first time since I’d boarded my flight over half a day ago. Raising my hand, I bolted toward her, dragging my beast of a case behind me as fast as I could.

As she spun away again, I reached out and grabbed her arm, desperate to not let her out of my sight.

The girl spun at the speed of light, her eyes narrowed and her mouth open like she was ready to bite my head off. The second I released her, her mouth snapped shut again. “Eden Roberts?”

I didn’t realize I was panting until I tried to take a breath to reply. I nodded. “Yes. I’m Eden.”

She looked me over and nodded. “You look different than your picture,” she said matter-of-factly.

I wasn’t going to argue with her. The picture I’d attached to my profile was from a much happier time in my life, so I didn’t doubt it for a second. Besides, she didn’t look like the kind of person you argued with.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, lowering the sign. “All our phone lines are down, and we only just realized the driver didn’t get the message. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

I shook my head. “That’s okay. No, not too long.”

Reaching out, she took the beast from me and started wheeling it away. When I finally fell into step beside her, she gave me a sideways glance. “My name is Claire, by the way. Obviously, I don’t usually do this. My gig is answering calls, but that’s hard to do when the phones aren’t working,” she said dryly.

Following her outside, I rushed to keep up with her fast pace. I wasn’t sure if this was her normal speed or if she was in a massive hurry to get back to work. Either way, I wasn’t going to question it. You didn’t argue with a woman on a mission. Ever.

As she weaved through the crowd, she gave me another sideways glance. “You’ve landed yourself a good gig, Eden. I hope for your sake you didn’t fudge your credentials.”

It took me a moment to process what she’d said before my pride latched onto it. I mean, I knew people lied about loads of crap on their résumés all the time, but I wasn’t stupid enough to try it overseas.

Indignation rose from the depths of my bones. I’d spent the past five years surrounded by both men and women who doubted my ability because of my age, but I’d worked hard to get the knowledge and experience I had now. I’d had no choice.

Laughing it off, I hitched my handbag higher on my shoulder. “Yes, that would be awkward,” I said, dodging a small child running backward. “But no, I haven’t fudged anything. I was born into a family who all worked in the music management business, so I’ve been studying and working in the industry since I was fourteen.” I quickly sidestepped an elderly woman who was text-walking, making sure Claire could still hear me before continuing. “I also have degrees in tour management, artist and repertoire management, stage and production management, as well as visual media and design skills.”

Claire paused her steps and blinked at me. “Oh. Okay.” Then she smiled her first genuine smile. “Then, welcome to the United States of America.”

 

 

Chapter 2

Dean

 

Wiggling my tie into place, I straightened my belt and gave myself a once-over in the mirror. It wasn’t the full formal dress that was stated on the invitation, but it was the most amount of effort I was willing to put in for Leighton Records these days. If the event was for anyone else, I would’ve happily unrolled my sleeves and put a jacket on, but Craig Leighton could kiss my fucking ass. Call me spiteful, but that kind of shit happened when people fucked around on you behind your back. I sure as hell wasn’t going to apologize for it.

Shoving my hands into my pants pockets, I gave myself a stern look and released a huff. It was the sound of complete annoyance. A statement of irritation, discontent, and bitterness. Because as much as I loathed Craig Leighton and the label the sleazy asshole owned, there was one other person I surprisingly loathed more. My ex-girlfriend, Lila—the greedy bitch the sleazy asshole now called his. Together, they could both go eat a big bag of dicks, for all I cared. I seriously couldn’t wait to see the back of them.

With barely contained irritation, I picked up my glass of scotch and tossed back the contents. The past year had tried my restraint in more ways than one. It was bad enough that Lila had fucked around on me with someone I was contracted to work for, but finding out the asshole had given her a job where she had the ability to boss me around had been more than I could deal with. If she had shown even a sliver of remorse it might have been an easier pill for me to swallow, but according to Lila, she had been entitled to more than I could give her, and her actions were justified. I didn’t think it was possible to go from wanting to spend the rest of my life with someone, to hating them with a burning passion, but Lila certainly made it a reality.

Pouring myself another scotch, I moved toward the kitchen, wondering if the guys would let me get away with missing the event completely. There were going to be so many fucking celebrities there, I was sure they wouldn’t even notice my absence anyway.

“Don’t even think about it,” Mia said as I rounded the corner.

My eyes narrowed with scrutiny. There was no way she should’ve been able to tell what I’d been thinking, but with Mia, I didn’t doubt it for a second. She seemed to have a kind of sixth sense about these things. Most times it was amusing, but today it only made me surly.

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I mumbled, bypassing Jace by moving around the kitchen counter.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t have even dreamed I’d be where I was today. Especially not with the three closest friends I’d had since my freshman year of high school. Starting a band had been a whim for us—something we fell into to keep us sane and out of trouble—and as much as we loved it, it hadn’t been something we thought we could make a living doing. Not in a million years. It wasn’t until things took a turn for crazy on YouTube that we thought we might have a chance at something incredible.

That was three years ago, and now here we were, playing to sold-out stadiums and making more money than I thought was actually possible. It was cake. Now I just had to find the icing. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but it certainly wasn’t the house we rented in East LA.

Moving to the sink, I silently exhaled. For the most part, living together was great, but during times like this, I craved a little more space. I didn’t cope well with being around people that much anymore. I kept thinking I’d snap out of it one day, but I was starting to doubt it. Maybe it was just who I really was now.

Aiden leaned against the counter and eyed me as he took a swig of his beer. “You’re not alone,” he said blandly. “I wish we didn’t have to go too.”

“We all do,” Jace said, rolling his eyes. “We’ve already established that we’d all rather subject ourselves to various forms of torture than go to anything Leighton-related.”

Matt tugged at the collar of his shirt. “But?”

“But,” Jace said, raising an eyebrow, “it’s all a part of getting to the fucking finish line. Our contract ends as soon as we finish up this next tour. We just need to get this album finished before it drives us insane, enjoy the fact that we’re going on a world fucking tour, and then we can finally be free.”

I unlocked my jaw and shook my head. “That’s all providing the asshole approves some fucking songs, Jace. You know he’s going to draw this shit out as long as he fucking can. We’ve been giving him songs for the album for the last nine months. Good fucking songs. Songs he should’ve approved—did approve—but now won’t. The album should’ve been finalized by now.”

Matt crossed his arms over his chest. “Dean’s right. This shit has gone on too fucking long. The fact that we’ve got no control over what goes on our own fucking album is crap, man.”

“This isn’t new, guys,” Aiden said, running a hand over his hair. “This is the same shit that’s been going on for the last three years. Like Jace said, we just need to suck it the fuck up and get through it. Leighton has to approve the album before the tour can kick off, and I don’t think he’ll drag it out too much longer because that’s where he makes all his money off us. All we need to do is make sure the music we keep giving him is true to who we are as a band. For us, and for our fans.”

Scrubbing a hand over my face, I sighed. “I think you’re underestimating whatever it is that’s making the asshole flex his muscles with us. At the moment he has no inclination to approve the kind of music I’m making, but I can’t give him anything else. Because of him and Lila, this is where I’m at. This is all I’ve got.”

Emmy stepped forward, her head cocked to the side a little as she gazed at me. She and Aiden had only been dating seriously for six months, but she fit into our group as though she’d always been here. “Just because Leighton is being an ass and rejecting the songs you’ve written, doesn’t mean they’re shit, Dean. I’m a country girl, and even I can tell they’re amazing. Don’t let him get to you.”

“I just need to be away from him and Lila,” I said, withdrawing a little more.

“We know,” Mia said softly. “Just hold on a little longer, honey. We’ll all be free of him soon, okay?”

Taking a sip of scotch, I slowly inhaled. “All right, but if Lila starts any shit tonight, I’m out. I won’t hang around while they deliberately torment me.”

Jace straightened his shoulders, his gaze burning into mine. “If Lila starts any shit, Dean, we’re all out. That’s a promise.”

I held his gaze for a while longer before giving him one slow nod. I knew I hadn’t been the greatest of company for the guys the past year, so the fact that they were still prepared to stand by me was a true testament to our friendship. But then again, each of us had been difficult in one way or another since we’d been signed as a band. I guessed this was just my turn. Lucky me.

Mia wrapped her arms around Jace’s waist and gazed up at me. “We’re a family, Dean. We’ll all keep our mouths shut while we have to because that’s what’s best for our family right now, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stand by and let someone tear one of us apart.”

Matt thrust his beer in the air. “Hells yeah to that,” he said, hatred glowing in his eyes.

Out of all of my family, he was the one who had disliked Lila the most over the years, although dislike was probably a very watered-down way to describe what he’d felt for her. I still didn’t know why I never listened to him back then. It was fucking stupid of me now that I thought about it. But I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. If any of my family didn’t like the next girl I decided to date, she was gone.

“All I can say,” Matt continued as he stared at me, “is that Lila better fucking run if I see her after the contract ends, because she’s going to cop everything I’ve held back for the last four years, and it’s not going to be pretty.”

Holding my glass up in a toast, I arched an eyebrow. “Hells yeah to that,” I said darkly. As much as I wasn’t an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy, I certainly wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if Matt decided to tell Lila what he really thought of her.

“All right,” Mia said, placing her hands on her hips. “Love fest is over. Time to get your asses in the limo. Lash and Jax made me promise them I’d get you there by nine.”

I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t help the smile that pulled on the corner of my lips. The boys from The Dark Hybrid were more or less a part of our family now. They were like our big brothers. They’d been with us, and there for us, since the very beginning. If it hadn’t been for them, we’d have made a hell of a lot more mistakes these past few years. We owed them a lot.

Tipping my scotch back, I clunked the empty glass on the counter and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Let’s get this shit done, then.”

I didn’t know what was going to happen tonight, but I prayed for something good.

 

 

Chapter 3

Eden

 

Posing in front of the full-length mirror in my new apartment, I took in the beauty of my blood-red cocktail dress and smiled. It was the most treasured piece of clothing I owned—not because it was the most amazing hand-crafted dress I’d ever seen, but because it had been made by my sister.

My heart warmed as I thought of Sam. We hadn’t had the easiest of relationships growing up. She was six years older than I was, and by the time I’d turned fourteen, she’d already moved out of our home with the love of her life and started a family. Living apart, we didn’t really get the opportunity to be close at all. It wasn’t until Dad’s illness became increasingly worse that we started to bond like real sisters. Now, we were as close as sisters could be.

Smoothing the dress over my hips, I was filled with a sense of pride. Sam was an incredibly talented designer. She mostly designed swimwear and underwear, but she’d designed the dress as a one-time surprise gift for my high school graduation dinner. The only things better than the dress were the diamond stud earrings Dad had given me. Those were treasured in a completely different way.

Reaching up, I gently touched one of the studs and smiled. I used to only wear them on special occasions, but now I wore them almost every day. I knew it was silly, but wearing them made me feel as though he was close by, and right now, I needed him with me.

I glanced over at the employment papers the agency had given me. It wasn’t the full employment contract I was supposed to collect. Apparently, my employer wanted to give it to me personally once I started. But the papers I had were at least enough to let me know that the job was legit, and I wasn’t being completely scammed.

Looking around the apartment, I felt the doubts start creeping in yet again. It was a nice apartment. Like, seriously nice. The kind of nice that rich people had. It made me nervous. I knew I hadn’t fudged my credentials when I’d applied, but looking at the place I was being put up in and the formal gala event I was supposed to be attending tonight, I was suddenly feeling like a fraud.

Picking up my mobile phone—or cell phone if I wanted to get with the American program—I pressed on the top contact and held it to my ear. After a few rings, I heard the click of connection. “Hey, bitch.”

The corner of my mouth tugged upward at my best friend’s greeting. “Tell me why I’m doing this again?”

Alicia scoffed. “Because you’re a rude bitch who likes to sneak off and do fun shit without your best friend.”

I chuckled softly. Alicia had been my number one supporter when I’d mentioned my intention to work overseas, but she hadn’t been happy that she wasn’t going to be able to come with me. As an airline attendant, she’d been trying to get on the international circuit for the last year, but it just hadn’t happened yet.

I sighed. “I really don’t know if I’m qualified enough for this, Leash. What if I just bit off way more than I can chew?”

She made a mumbling sound I was sure was probably accompanied by a shoulder shrug. “Then you just chew faster, Edes. But I seriously doubt you’re going to have any trouble. As much as I hate that I can’t be doing this with you, you’re insanely good at what you do.”

The churning in my stomach simmered down with her words, but the sick feeling remained. I sighed. “I’m just feeling so overwhelmed. I mean, you should see the place I’m living in, Leash. It’s massive. And so . . . expensive-looking.”

She mumbled again. “And I thought I couldn’t hate you any more.”

“Shut up,” I said, but my lips twitched with amusement just the same. “Is it too late to pull out?”

“Yes, it is. Suck it up and just do it. Show those bastards you’ve got what it takes.”

Huffing, I snarled through the mouthpiece, “I hate you.”

“You love me. Now, go. Have fun. Wow people.”

Even though I knew she couldn’t see me, I still rolled my eyes. “Yeah, okay. I’ll get right on that.”

The soft vibration of her laugh came through the phone despite her attempt at hiding it. “Call me tomorrow, and let me know how it went.”

I sighed. “Sure, sure. I’ll talk to you then.”

“Bye, Edes.”

Pressing the button to end the call, I tossed the phone on the bed and strode to the large mirror mounted on the wall beside it. Smoothing the dress for the twenty millionth time, I exhaled, long and slow. “I can do this,” I said to my reflection. “I’m not going to let them intimidate me.”

My reflection gazed back at me with a confidence I wasn’t aware she even had. I nodded my head in full support, just as a loud knock came at the door.

With one last reassuring glance in the mirror, I scooped up my phone and the little silver clutch I’d stashed the necessities in and went to see who it was.

A man in a plain black suit smiled at me, all business-like. “Miss Roberts? Your ride is here.”

“Of course,” I said, trying to feign the poise I was very much lacking in that moment. “I’m ready.”

Closing the door, I followed him to the elevator and stepped past the guy who was charged with our safe descent. I glanced at him as I waited for the doors to close. I didn’t quite understand his position. Had we seriously gone that far as a society that we really needed someone to push buttons for us in an elevator?

Before I could consider the answer any further, the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open. The guy in the suit gestured with his arm. “If you’ll come this way, Miss Roberts. Your driver is waiting under the awning for you.”

“Right,” I said, lifting my chin.

I tried to remember the deportment classes I’d been forced to take back in high school. One foot in front of the other, slightly off center, hips gently swaying side to side.

God help me.

I could just imagine what an idiot I looked like right now.

But no one seemed to be looking at me with an expression that definitely confirmed this. You know the one. Eyes slightly wide, crease between the eyebrows, mouth parted with a breath that appeared to mutter, What the hell?

Yeah, that one.

Thankfully, the only people who seemed to be looking my way, were a couple of middle-aged businessmen in fancy suits, and their gazes appeared no different from the guys I was used to seeing at the local bar every Friday night. I didn’t need to be an expert in body language to know what they were thinking—or what head they were thinking it with.

I glanced out the door ahead, catching sight of the car I assumed was waiting for me, the driver standing tall and proud beside it.

“Excuse me.”

Shortening my steps, I paused as a woman stepped in front of me, making me almost trip. I blinked at her stupidly. Was this the moment someone told me there had been a huge mistake and I wasn’t really supposed to be here?

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, smiling. It even looked genuine. “I just have to say, you look absolutely gorgeous. Can I ask who you’re wearing?”

I blinked again. What freaking universe did I just walk into? I glanced to the man in the suit, hoping he could tell me what the hell was going on.

He cleared his throat softly before leaning forward a fraction. “I believe Mrs. Herrington is asking who the designer of your dress is, ma’am.”

And just like that, the stupidity slapped me. Of course that was what she meant. I’d heard people ask that question a gazillion times. Just never to me.

“Oh . . . uh . . . ” Sam had mentioned the importance of this a few times. If she was here with me right now, I was sure she’d have her jaw dropped open in horror at how badly I was dealing with it. “It’s an amazing Australian designer by the name of Samantha Adams. She mostly does swimwear and underwear, but she was nice enough to make this for me.”

The woman’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I love finding new designers. Would you mind if I took your picture?”

And insert stupid blink yet again . . .

The woman already had her phone out, ready to shoot. Shit. Was this okay? Was this what people around here did? I found myself smiling, despite my uncertainty. “Of course.”

Wait. What? Oh my God. Leash was so going to laugh when I told her about this.

The woman stepped back a little, getting ready to aim. Oh my God. Should I just stand there, or should I pose? The expectant look on her face instantly told me I should be posing. Twisting my body a little to the left, I bent my knee and raised my shoulder a fraction. I even put my hand on my hip for the complete posey look.

The woman beamed, so I assumed that was what she wanted. “Thank you so much. I’m sorry to have held you up.”

To be honest, the whole encounter was kind of freaking me out. “That’s fine,” I said, edging toward the door. “I hope you find something you like.”

Either the suit guy was very intuitive and helpful, or he just wanted me to get the hell out of his hair. “Miss Roberts,” he said, gesturing to the car again.

I gave the woman an apologetic smile as I allowed him to usher me away.

The urge to call Leash and ask her if that was normal was strong. I kept getting these weird little nerves in my stomach that made me feel like I’d just been pranked. Were there cameras around me right now? Was someone going to jump out of the car and laugh at me until they fell over?

The suit stopped beside the car and smiled. “Miss Roberts, this is Michael. He will be your driver while you’re here in Los Angeles.”

Was he serious? I had a driver? I glanced at the man who had been charged with driving me around. He looked about the same age my dad had been. Salt-and-pepper hair, tanned skin, and smile lines at the corner of his eyes.

Sticking out my hand, I smiled. “Hi, Michael. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

For the span of one heartbeat, Michael looked surprised. But then he clasped my hand and smiled at me so brightly I almost required sunglasses. “Thank you, Miss Roberts.”

“Please, call me Eden.”

Again, the guy looked surprised. “Eden,” he said, as though he was just trying it out to see if he could actually say it. “Here’s your security kit.”

I looked down at the little box he was holding out to me.

“It contains an event pass—which you’ll need tonight—a studio pass that will get you through security at Leighton Records, and a cell phone with a detailed list of names and numbers for your reference. You’ll need that to call me when you’re ready to come home tonight.”

I took the box, slightly scared of the power I felt like I was being given. Michael nodded as though he was happy to be rid of it, then opened the back door with a flourish. “If you’re ready?”

I lowered my guard a little to show him I wasn’t so self-assured. “I don’t know. Am I?”

His eyes were kind. “I believe you are.”

Holding the box to my stomach, I ducked my head and slipped into the lush leather seating. In that moment, I thought Michael might just somehow end up being my saving grace.

 

 

Chapter 4

Dean

 

As the limo pulled up to the curb, I drew in a long, deep breath. I’d done well to avoid Lila these past few months. It had taken a bit of planning and a fucking lot of effort, but I’d done it, so knowing I was most likely going to see her tonight churned up something foul in my gut, and I wasn’t sure I could stomach it.

“Ready?” Matt asked from his seat across from me.

Searching his eyes, I tried to find the calm he carried inside himself. He was the only one of us who seemed to be able to do it, despite the bad guy persona he liked to project to the world.

Nodding, I stretched my neck until it cracked, loosening some of the tension that permanently resided there these days. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

The door swung open, and Jace stepped out, carefully towing an elegant Mia behind him. Matt quickly followed, ready to charm the waiting paparazzi with his shit-eating grin. Thinking of the fans, I straightened my shoulders and took another reassuring breath.

“You’ve got this,” Emmy said, placing her warm hand over my tightened knuckles. “Good things are coming your way, Dean. Trust it.”

Her hand slipped away from me as Aiden helped her through the door, her words lingering in the air. I’d grown used to the little pep talks everyone liked to give me wherever I went. Most days I just took them with a grain of salt. They were just words, after all. But tonight they were hitting a raw nerve. What if, as I sat wallowing in my own self-pity, I really was missing the good things that were supposed to be coming my way?

Glancing out through the gap in the door, I sighed. Who was I kidding? I was walking into the lion’s den. This was Leighton’s domain, and with it came the one person who’d taken my love and used it for her own selfish gain. Good things would never happen when those two were around. I was sure of it.

Stepping from the limo, I turned on my smile and beamed for the cameras.

Shouts intensified, my name the most discernible sound amongst the ruckus. Spying a pretty blonde, I took a few steps closer, locking my gaze with hers. She smiled before thrusting her microphone closer. “Dean, any news of a release date for the upcoming album?”

Holding the scowl at bay, I smirked. “Are you trying to charm all my secrets from me?”

Her eyes sparkled. “Maybe.”

“Ah,” I said, tilting my head to the side. “But if I spill all my secrets, you might get me into trouble.”

She inhaled as she looked up at me through her lashes. “I like trouble. Come on, give me something,” she said, her mouth softening before she gently ran her teeth over her bottom lip.

Sensing the usher’s need to get me moving, I softened my gaze and gave her a sorrowful shrug. “If I knew, I would definitely tell you.”

Lightly touching her elbow as I started moving again, I turned and made my way along the very ostentatious red carpet, waving to the crowd as I went. As soon as we were inside and security had all but given us an anal probe, I tried to shake off the dread that was starting to creep in. I seriously needed a drink if I was going to get through this without ending up with some sort of permanent eye twitch.

“Fighting Fate—”

Pausing my steps behind Jace, I eyed the suit before us. He was all business, but he couldn’t fool me. I knew who he was. He was one of Leighton’s right-hand men. He had his head so far up Craig Leighton’s ass, I didn’t know how the guy could talk without spitting shit everywhere.

“You’re on table 58,” he said, amusement shining in his eyes. “Right at the back.”

“Awesome,” I said, striding forward. “Hopefully that means we won’t be able to hear the crap that spouts from Leighton’s asshole while he’s tugging himself off and spraying his poon all over your face. Just because you like sucking his dick, doesn’t mean we do.”

The guy smirked as I walked past. “Sadly, Lila’s got the dick sucking covered. He says she’s pretty good at it too.”

Bitterness rose like a rapid tide. “Green makes you look a little sad, man. Don’t worry, I’m sure Leighton will fuck you real good soon.”

Not waiting to see if the dick had anything else to say, I made my way straight to the bar to grab myself another scotch, and this time, it was going to be a double. I’d say I didn’t know why Leighton liked to hold these stupid gala events, but his need to be the center of attention and have everyone look up to him gave it away.

“Hey, brother. It’s about time you showed your pretty boy face. I was going to send Lash to come drag your ass here soon.”

Grinning, I turned to face a very cheery Jax, the Hybrid’s keyboard player. Clasping his hand, I drew him closer to me before thumping him on the back. “Jax, man, even the thought of you singing here tonight couldn’t keep me away.”

Jax laughed freely. “Fuck, Lay-a-ton hasn’t had us play at one of these fucking things in six years.”

Lay-a-ton was Jax’s pet name for Craig Leighton. It kind of suited. “It must be a first-year initiation thing,” I said, considering the fact that both our bands had only been invited to play the gala the first year we were signed.

Jax deadpanned me with a look of pure disdain. “Or maybe it’s just a manipulation thing so he can then blindside you with blackmail.”

My jaw ticked. When I first heard the guys had signed on for another three years with Leighton Records, I thought they were fucking insane. Then I discovered things went much deeper and darker than met the eye. With our contract set to expire within the year, we were fully prepared for war—dirty tactics and all—but as far as I was concerned, there was nothing he could hit us with that would make me sign on with him for another day, let alone another three fucking years. I would rather kill my career.

“All the more reason for us to stick together,” I said, trying to catch the bartender’s eye.

“And for this lawyer of yours to get us the fuck out.”

Placing my order, I turned to Jax and lowered my head. “If the firm wants our business, they’ll find a way. Leighton’s smart, but he’s too full of ego. There’ll be a loophole.”

As my glass of scotch was placed on the bar in front of me, Jax pressed his lips together and nodded. “There better fucking be, or you could be looking at the end of us, man.”

All I could do was nod in return. He didn’t need to elaborate. I knew exactly what he was saying. And if it came to that, I would make it my own personal business to bring Craig Leighton down. And Lila along with him.

Chapter 5

Eden

 

I thought I was prepared.

I thought I knew exactly what I was in for.

I wasn’t, and I didn’t.

The car pulled up to a mass of people, lights, and cameras. No exaggeration. There was even red carpet and freaking velvet ropes, for crying out loud.

I didn’t bother hiding the fear at all when I looked at Michael through the rearview mirror. “I don’t have to get out here, do I? I mean, there’s a back entrance for people like me, isn’t there?”

“All Leighton employees go through the same doors, Miss Roberts. It’s something Mr. Leighton’s always insisted on.”

I was too panicked to correct him about my name. My face fell like a sulking teenager. “But why? No one wants to see me. They want the musicians. The rock stars and the pop stars. I’m a nobody.”

He gave me an intense stare as he pulled the car to a stop. “You might be new, Miss Roberts, but you’re just as entitled to be here as every other person with a pass.”

I glanced out the window at the crowd gathering, cameras pointing, ready to pounce. “Shit.”

“Eden?” Michael said. “It’s not my place to say, but if you don’t own it, you’ll get eaten alive. Act like you belong here, and they won’t question it. Okay?”

I let his words soak into me as I watched the seriousness of them through his eyes. I still wasn’t sure if I could do what he was telling me I needed to do, but I understood what he was saying.

Drawing in a deep breath, I nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

I saw his mouth move as he turned to open his own door. I didn’t quite hear what he said, but it sounded a bit like, “good girl.”

As I waited for him to open my door, I grabbed my new security pass and took a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Inside my head, I tried to convince myself of the things that would get me through this. I am strong. I am confident. I am worthy of being here. I am rocking this freaking amazing dress.

The flashes started the instant Michael opened the door. “Try not to look at the cameras,” he murmured as I slid my feet out. “But try to keep your head up.”

Goddamn it. Who would’ve thought there’d be so many rules to getting out of a car and walking into a building?

The full understanding of his advice to not look at the cameras came as soon as I accidentally did. The flash went off and I was suddenly blinded. Like, seriously. I couldn’t freaking see.

“Smile,” he muttered as he helped me to my feet.

My heart raced. I was more or less blind, surrounded by a crowd of people who oozed desperation and intimidation, needing to walk with poise and confidence—in four-inch heels, mind you—when I had no idea where I was going, and he tells me to smile. I felt like I should be sticking my middle finger up at him, but I knew he was only trying to help me.

Turning on my best smile, I smoothed down my dress and discreetly made sure my hair was where it should be.

That was when they started yelling at me.

Who was I? What was my name? Was I Leighton’s new talent? Who was I wearing? Was I a model? What agency did I work for?

I stood still for a moment, my pose casual and hopefully not awkward, hoping they’d get what pictures they wanted and leave me alone.

But they didn’t. I couldn’t understand it. No one knew who the hell I was. Why would they want to even take my picture in the first place? It just didn’t make any sense to me. But it seemed it did to them, so, again, I tried to keep my walk elegant and my gait smooth.

A new suit rushed his way down the red carpet to my side, his gaze scanning the pass I was clutching before leading me past the frenzied paparazzi and through a set of massive glass doors. Once inside, I was met by two extra-large security guys, who set right into checking my pass and cross-checking my name on a list.

The one who scanned my pass, handed it back to me and nodded. “Thank you, Miss Roberts. Mr. Schultz here will escort you in. Miss Somerville is waiting for you.”

Instead of asking who this Miss Somerville was like I wanted to, I politely smiled and turned to find Mr. Schultz waiting for me.

“This way, Miss Roberts,” he said.

I felt the eyes on me as soon as I walked in the room. If I was being honest with myself, I would’ve said it was scary as all shit and it freaked me the hell out, but honesty definitely wasn’t going to cut it in this situation. If I was going to survive this night, I needed to bullshit myself like the best of them.

Hitting play on the little confidence-boosting mantra I’d spouted back in the car, I made damn sure I set it on replay, and then concentrated on not tripping.

Miss Somerville turned out to be a very slight brunette with amazing wide eyes and even more amazing tanned skin. If I had to guess, I would’ve put her somewhere around the same age as me.

Unfortunately for me, her gaze barely concealed her distaste and scrutiny as it ran the length of my dress. “Miss Roberts,” she said, holding her hand out formally. “My name is Lila. I’ll be your reporting superior. If you have any questions, problems, or complaints, you will need to direct them to me.”

I struggled to process the harshness of her tone. I understood the need for formalities, and I understood the need for directness, but I couldn’t understand why she seemed to instantly dislike me.

Taking a calming breath, I kept my mantras playing and tried not to jump to any conclusions. She could be a very nice person. Maybe she just had something like resting bitch face—the kind that extended to your tone of voice.

Giving her hand a polite pump, I smiled to let her know I was completely okay with her being my superior. I wasn’t here to steal anyone’s job. I was just here to do the one I’d been offered.

“It’s lovely to meet you, Lila. Please, call me Eden.”

Her chin lifted a little and her eyes flashed with what looked like irritation. Geez, what the hell was her problem?

“Eden,” she said. “you’re late. Mr. Leighton has been waiting for you to arrive.”

I had to bite my tongue to let her know that if I was in fact late, it certainly wasn’t my fault. I’d been dressed and ready for a good half an hour before the suit had come to collect me.

“I’ll take you to him now, but be aware that he may not be able to see you,” she said, turning on her heel and sauntering away.

Hurrying to follow her, I tried to put aside the fact that she obviously had a massive bee in her bonnet about something, and remind myself that it was impossible for me to have personally done anything to upset this woman.

Lila approached a table with about a dozen people seated around it. Mostly men. I watched her stop behind a dark-haired man with a thick neck and broad shoulders, and speak quietly in his ear. He turned in his seat and pinned me with his gaze. Shivers ran down my spine as his gaze moved slowly over my body, and it wasn’t the nice kind.

Slowly, he spun in his chair until his body was directly facing me, but he didn’t rise. “Eden Roberts,” he said, a pleased smile spreading to his lips. “So, I finally get to put a face”—his gaze moved to my cleavage—“and a body to the name.”

I froze. I hadn’t really expected this from the head of the company. I mean, I knew there was generally some flirting and sexual interest in every workplace. God knew I’d been hit on by more than a few guys back home. But it just wasn’t how I thought it would go here. I pictured business here to be a little more formal and professional.

Pushing the surprise aside, I treated him the same as I’ve treated every other male I’d worked with, and shook his extended hand, while pretending he wasn’t being a ginormous overinflated penis. I also made sure there was no misinterpretation of my intentions. I was here to do a job—off my own merits—and not off sucking dick to score brownie points.

“Mr. Leighton,” I said, keeping the tone of my voice and the meaning behind my eyes as professional as I could without seeming rude. “It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me. I’ll do my best to not disappoint you.”

He studied me for a moment, his gaze assessing and calculating. “I hope so.”

I tried to ignore the double meaning in his words. He needed to know from the start that I wasn’t into playing games.

Lila stepped closer to him then, placing her hand on his shoulder in a move that spoke of nothing but possession. Her catty exterior suddenly made sense to me. She was staking her claim. I wanted to tell her she had nothing to worry about, but besides the fact that it would be completely inappropriate, I really just couldn’t be bothered.

Mr. Leighton grinned. “I’ll have Lila set up an appointment for us to meet in my office this week so we can discuss your contract. Tonight, enjoy yourself. Mingle, and meet some people.” He tilted his head toward Lila, but his eyes never left me. “Lila, take Eden and introduce her around.”

Lila gave him a hard stare, but he wasn’t looking. He didn’t even look like he cared. Removing her hand off his shoulder, she straightened and pinned me with a death stare. “Of course.”

She didn’t wait before leading me around the edge of the room. I wanted to ask her what artist I’d been assigned to, but I forced myself to be patient. When it came down to it, it didn’t really matter. My job was to help get them promoted as much as I could, and that was what I was going to do. I just hoped they didn’t hate me as much as Lila seemed to.

 

 

Chapter 6

Dean

 

Sitting back in my chair, legs out straight with my feet crossed at the ankles, I sipped on my scotch and glanced across the room. Leighton’s ass kisser hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said our table was at the back of the room. If it was any farther back, we’d be sitting outside. But what he failed to see was that it was exactly where we would’ve chosen to be, if we’d had a choice. We were far enough away from anyone who might want to schmooze us with their bullshit, close to the smaller bar that was shoved in the far corner of the room, and stumbling distance to the bathrooms. What more could we have asked for, really?

Glancing to my right, I smirked at Jax. They’d been placed at a back table on the other side of the room, but that hadn’t stopped any of them from pulling a chair over to our table to join us. Realistically, we were in the dark recesses of the room. No one cared what we did, as long as we didn’t cause a scene.

Jax nodded at the young dude who was currently on stage, singing. “How long do you think it’ll take him to realize he’s being fucked in the ass?”

I studied the guy with my head cocked to the side. I didn’t mean any offense to the guy, but he didn’t appear to have much creativity. “What’s his name?”

“Lyle Peters or something like that.”

“Well,” I said, scratching my chin, “I don’t think Lyle will ever figure it out, man. I think he’s just happy to be singing whatever songs they give him.”

He pursed his lips with contemplation before nodding. “I think you’re right.”

Tossing back the last of my drink, I sat forward. “Good luck to him. You know what they say. Ignorance is bliss.”

Jax took a sip of his drink before sitting forward and leaning his forearms on his knees. “Have you guys thought about what you’re going to do once you’re free?”

I scoffed. “Not sign any more contracts?”

He chuckled, but his expression was thoughtful. “I’m serious, man. That’s all I’ve been thinking about now we have some light at the end of the fucking tunnel.” He paused, his gaze burning into mine. “I want to open a recording studio.”

My attention immediately sharpened. As much as I’d joked about not signing any more contracts, I was dead serious. This shit with Leighton had seriously scarred me. I honestly didn’t think I could sign with anyone else.

But recording under Jax . . . ?

“That’s a fucking awesome idea, man. You guys would fucking kill it.”

Jax shook his head. “I’m not talking about the guys. This is my venture,” he said, his gaze narrowing as he studied me. “And I want you on board with it.”

I felt my brow crease as I watched him back. “You want me on board with it? In what way?”

“Co-owners, man. Fifty-fifty all the way.”

My mind was instantly in sprint mode. I had so many questions, but at the core of it all was a concern that couldn’t be ignored. “Why not with the guys?”

He shook his head. “We’ve talked about releasing under our own name more times than I can count, but the guys aren’t interested in it any further than our own music. I want to find bands, man. People who actually play instruments together and create sounds from the soul. You know how the industry’s going. It’s all about DJs and sound made from computers and autotune. I don’t want to see any more bands like you guys having their artistry restricted because you don’t fit in a box some corporate asshole wants you to fit in. I want to keep the garage band alive.”

I started tapping my finger on my empty glass. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this kind of excitement humming through my veins. This was something I could totally get on board with.

My head was already scanning for obstacles and ways around them. The first thing I was concerned about was my own brothers. As much as Jax had said his brothers weren’t interested, I needed to talk to mine to see how they felt about me doing this without them.

“I’m definitely interested, man,” I said, my gaze intent. “There are obviously a lot of things I need to think about, but it sounds fucking amazing.”

He leaned forward a little more, lowering his voice. “We just need to get this shit sorted with Leighton.” His head shook a little with despair. “We’re dying, man. Especially Dylan. He can’t take much more.”

I felt myself nodding with understanding. He didn’t need to clarify for me to get it. Leighton was a hard-core narcissist. He played mind games like I’d never seen before. And the bad part about that was the fact that a lot of musicians didn’t think like that—couldn’t think like that. It fucked with their head in a major way. It had the potential to have very bad repercussions.

As more people moved around our table on their way to the bathrooms, I sat back and gave Jax a pointed look. “Why don’t you come by the house next week, and we’ll talk more?”

Jax grinned and started nodding his head. “Right on.”

Returning his grin, I clasped his outstretched hand and gave it a squeeze. “And I thought tonight was going to be completely shit.” Pushing to my feet, I held out my empty glass. “I think it’s time for a refill.”

Leaving the sound of his laughter behind me, I wandered over to the bar and ordered another scotch. Eyeing the food table, I decided it was time to indulge. I hadn’t been hungry before, but Jax’s proposal had put me in a good mood. I silently scoffed with amusement. I never thought I’d see the day where I’d be feeling happy at one of Leighton’s egofests. The only thing that could top it right now would be if I saw Lila fall flat on her face in front of the entire room. If that happened, I’d buy everyone a round of drinks just to celebrate.

As I scanned the copious amounts of food on offer, I rolled my eyes. Of course, Leighton would make sure there was enough food to feed a small Third World country. I hated to think just how much of it would go to waste.

“Well, well, well,” said a voice beside me. “If it isn’t the sexiest man in rock.”

I was smiling before I even turned around. “Charli Donovan,” I mocked. “Break any more hearts lately?”

Charli was an actress, not a musician, so if I didn’t know about her on-again, off-again relationship with solo musician Archie Stone, I would’ve been confused as to why she was actually here.

She smiled as I leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Each time I saw her I was genuinely taken aback by her beauty. She was a true Hollywood starlet. I watched her smirk as she glanced around the room. “Nowhere near as many as you, I don’t think,” she said cheekily.

It was total bullshit, of course, but I laughed anyway. Charli and I had met almost a year ago through my good friend from school, Joshua Emerson. Josh was also in the acting business and met Charli when they were both teenagers starting out. Charli was twenty-five now, but she was already an A-list actress with an Oscar nomination under her belt. She was as glamorous as they came, but she was fierce.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this meeting?” I asked, genuine curiosity sparking inside me. The last time I’d seen her, she was having a world of problems with Archie.

She gave me a half-cocked grin, before leaning forward and touching a light hand to my forearm. “To be honest, I just had to get away from the crap. Things with Archie have been hard. We’ve been trying to see if we can make it work, but he’s been going back and forth from New York, so he’s rarely here. And I’m trying to get Date Night off the ground, so when he is here, I’m usually busy, so it’s not going very well.”

Picking up a spoon off the table, I turned it over in my hand. “I told you, you just need to dump him and date me instead.”

Charli tilted her head back and laughed before her top lip curled up with pretend distaste. “Can you imagine it?”

I laughed too. Our feelings for each other had been something we’d agreed on the first time we’d met. Even though we got along really well, there was zero attraction between us. There was no way we could ever work as a couple. She felt like a sister to me.

As I watched her, I stood back and smirked. “You’re trying to stir him, aren’t you?” I surmised.

The corner of her mouth curled upward. One shoulder slowly shrugged. “Maybe.”

Plucking a champagne off the tray of a passing server, I handed it to her and smirked. Oh, this was going to be fun.

Chapter 7

Eden

 

I wasn’t sure exactly what Mr. Leighton wanted Lila to do with me, but I spent the next half an hour being introduced to a number of people in the industry, some of them artists, some of them behind-the-scenes personnel. Some I knew, some I didn’t.

After a while I began to see a frustration on her face as she continued through the room. “Excuse me,” she said, pulling out her cell. I watched her tap on the screen with frenzied fingers, but a second later she was throwing it back in her bag.

Scowling, she gave me a hard look. “Would you mind waiting here while I go speak with Mr. Leighton?”

I was a little ashamed to admit that her frustration was pretty damned amusing. “Sure thing,” I said. “I’ll just grab something to eat.”

She didn’t wait for me to finish before she was walking away. I felt like calling Leash again. This time I was fully prepared to abuse her for agreeing with me about coming. As much as I was prepared for the whole dog-eat-dog world, I wasn’t actually sure if I could survive in it.

Scanning the tables of food, I picked up a little toothpick and walked the length of them, trying to choose something that wasn’t likely to either damage my dress, or get stuck in my teeth. Settling on some little balls that seemed to be made from cheese and fruit, I poked my toothpick into one and popped it in my mouth. It wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined it would taste like, but it wasn’t horrible either.

As I puzzled at the sweetness that was spreading across my tongue, I took the opportunity to watch the guy who was currently singing on stage. He wasn’t someone I knew as a musician, but he was good. Obviously, he was one of Leighton Records’s newest artists. He looked very young, though. Barely eighteen if I had to guess. He oozed a confidence you rarely saw in someone that young. Maybe he was faking it a little, like I was.

Searching the table for something else to eat, I wondered if I should just take the safe road and go with a bite-sized piece of watermelon. As I pondered this rather difficult question, I glanced across to the other side of the tables, toothpick poised and ready for stabbing, and locked gazes with the most amazing pair of brown eyes I’d ever seen. And by locked, I meant key turned, removed, and thrown away.

A flutter of panic shot through my core. This was not the kind of person I was. I was the kind that if accidentally caught looking at someone, I would look away so fast the person was left wondering if I’d been looking at all. But obviously not this time, because here I was, staring deep into some random dude’s eyes, my breath catching like those weird girls in every romance book and movie ever made. His eyes narrowed and expanded, and then narrowed again, confusion flickering in their depths as he watched me.

Holy moly but he was gorgeous. The sex appeal was definitely strong with this one. But I puzzled at why I was so caught in it. Usually, I was resistant to such things. It was the one thing about myself I was super proud of.

My breath started coming a little shallower, a little faster. Something that felt warm and slightly electric spread through the center of my body. It wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. It made me feel hungry—in a very non-food kind of way.

“Okay, Eden—”

I almost jumped at the sound of Lila’s voice beside me. I wanted to equally thank her and yell at her for dragging my gaze away from the sex god on the other side of the tables.

But I did neither.

Smoothly, and calmly, I smiled at her and gave her my undivided attention. Well, except for the tiny little sliver of my thoughts that were still lost in some modern-day version of Fabio.

“Apparently, Mr. Leighton would like you to meet some of his older clients,” she declared sourly.

I had no idea why that was such a bad thing for her, but I acted like I was intrigued and privileged regardless. It seemed to placate her. Abruptly, she turned and started toward the back of the room. A split second later, my mind caught up, and I realized I was supposed to be following her.

Tossing my toothpick in the trash, I set my feet in motion, trying my hardest not to look back. But obviously my hardest was pathetic because, you guessed it, I looked back.

Hot guy was still watching me, which made my pulse jump, but this time his eyes were narrowed with suspicion.

“Craig still hasn’t decided who you’ll be working with yet. You’ll have to wait until your meeting tomorrow to find out,” she said, looking down her nose at me as we weaved through the crowd. “Unfortunately, I only have a few more minutes to introduce you around before we start the announcements. You’ll be sitting at table forty-nine, so you can make your own way there when you’re ready.”

I almost scoffed out loud. Unfortunately? She seemed far from sad about it.

As we approached a mostly empty table at the back of the room, Lila huffed. “I’m sure you’ve heard of The Dark Hybrid,” she said blandly. Of course I’d heard of The Dark Hybrid. I’d even seen them play live when they were in Australia last. But Lila didn’t really care if I had or not. She just continued talking around me. “They shot to fame here in the US almost two decades ago. Their music has been on a downward slide for the last few years. It shouldn’t have been, but their management hasn’t been handled very well. And by management, I mean themselves.”

Okay, wow. I knew the industry was pretty cutthroat, but she sounded harsh.

“Craig is getting pretty sick of their antics. He’s been nice enough to offer them a chance to release a live extended album, but they’re walking a very thin line. If they don’t shape up, they’ll be in breach of their contract.”

“Right,” I said, unsure how else to respond. I wondered if they knew how close they were to trouble.

Lila stopped before a very bored-looking guy with straggly dark hair and what looked like a five-day growth. I immediately recognized him as the Hybrid’s bass player, Dylan White. He glanced up at us from his slouched position and narrowed his eyes. I shrank back a little from the hatred oozing from his every pore.

“What the fuck do you want?” he snarled.

Lila didn’t even flinch. She simply rolled her eyes and took a step away from him like he hadn’t even spoken. “And my job is done.” She hit me with a sarcastic smirk as she turned to walk away. “Meet Dylan White. Have fun with that.”

My mouth popped open as I watched her strut away. What the hell did she expect me to do? Turning back to Dylan, I gave him my best apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Is she always like that?”

Dylan watched me for a little while, obviously assessing me, but for what, I didn’t know. “Yes,” was the only answer he gave me before he pushed to his feet and walked away.

As I stood staring after him, my eyes slightly wide, it became increasingly apparent that the room was somehow murkily divided into two sides, and this side obviously didn’t trust me in the slightest.

Chapter 8

Dean

 

Charli may have been a genuine Hollywood starlet, but the woman in red was the absolute epitome of the ultimate muse. Everything about her was mesmerizing. The way she walked, the way she tilted her head, the way she exuded so much mystery. Add in some serious eye contact, and it was a recipe for desire. Or disaster. It was one or the other.

I watched her as she stood staring after Dylan, her expression a mixture of shock and confusion. I needed to know who she was and why she was here, but more importantly, I needed to know why she’d been talking to Lila.

Slipping my hands into my pants pockets, I cleared my throat softly. “Don’t be too offended,” I said, making sure I left a generous-sized space between us. “Dylan doesn’t have much tolerance for many people these days.”

The girl’s head turned as I spoke, then she blinked at me as though she was trying to clear her head, her chest rising deeply as she drew in a long, slow breath. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said, her gaze shifting in the direction Lila had disappeared to. “I do feel as though I was just thrown in the lion’s den, though.”

The first thing I noted was her accent. If I had to guess, I would say English. But finding out who she was to Lila was more important just then. “I take it you don’t know Lila well, then,” I said, unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

The girl’s head tilted to the side a little as she gazed back at me. The vibrancy in her eyes was starting to churn up an intense intrigue I didn’t think I’d ever felt before. She scanned my face, her lips parting with a breath. “Unfortunately, I only had the pleasure of meeting her this evening,” she said, a slight twitch touching the corner of her mouth. “She seems very . . . authoritative.”

I chuckled. I couldn’t help it. There were many words I could’ve used to describe Lila—none of them very nice—but authoritative had to have been the nicest way to say ‘bossy-assed bitch’ I’d ever heard. “Australian?” I asked, finally deciding on her accent.

Her face instantly softened into a pleased smile. “I am.”

My pulse jumped erratically. Fucking hell. I had no idea how a smile could exude so much sexuality, yet still whisper subtle promises of innocence and gentleness. Damn.

Drawing in a slow breath, I tried to pull my shit together, reminding myself I wasn’t fucking twelve years old anymore. I’d been around hundreds of beautiful women these past few years. I shouldn’t be this goddamn affected.

I cleared my throat again, just in case my voice thought it was pre-pubescent as well. “I’m Dean.”

Her brow creased like she was trying to remember something before her eyes widened with recognition. “Sorry, I should’ve known. Fighting Fate is on every radio station Down Under at the moment. I’m Eden.”

Eden. I’d never heard a name more perfect for a person. “So, what brings you here to Leighton’s egomania?”

Her face flickered with questions as I spoke, the corner of her mouth twitching like it did before. I fucking loved it. It was sexy as fuck. “I felt like it was time for a sea change,” she said, her shoulder lifting into a slight shrug. “I applied for work through an online job agency, and voila. Here I am.”

Forcing myself to focus on her words, I felt my brow crease. “Can I ask what your job description is?” I hoped it wasn’t working alongside Leighton. I didn’t want to see her within his reach every day. I wasn’t sure why I should care, but she looked too nice to be marred by his narcissism.

I watched her draw in a slow breath. “I haven’t been given my employment contract yet. Apparently, Mr. Leighton will give it to me tomorrow. But the agency said I will be doing promotion management work.”

Intrigue sparked within me. Mia had been talking about the studio’s demands to place a new PA with us. Could this be what they were talking about? As I searched Eden’s face, my mind and body warred with possibilities. Up until this point, I’d been very much against Leighton shoving someone into our daily peripheral, but there was definitely something inside me now that didn’t give a damn, if it was Eden.

Letting out a heavy breath, I gave myself a mental slap across the back of the head. For a second there I forgot how much Leighton and I hated each other. There was no way he’d put someone like Eden with us.

Eden briefly turned her attention toward the stage, drawing my awareness to Leighton as he stood, repositioning the microphone. Taking a hand out of my pocket, I rubbed the back of my neck. I should be getting back to the table and sitting my ass down. I should be letting Eden get to wherever it was she was supposed to be sitting. But I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to walk away just yet.

It was Eden’s gaze that made my decision for me. To me, it said exactly what I was thinking. Taking a breath, I threw caution to the wind. “Let me get you a drink.”

She watched me for a moment, her gaze flickering between both of my eyes. The usual playful delight I was used to seeing in a woman’s eyes was nowhere to be seen. Eden’s gaze was all fire and intensity. It filled me with a need that too easily blurred the lines between sensibility and recklessness.

I watched her absentmindedly reach up and touch one of her earrings, twisting the diamond stud between her fingers. “Okay.”

As her teeth grazed over her lower lip, I felt my stomach tighten. I thought I might’ve been slightly obsessed with just how soft and full those lips looked. I needed to taste them. Even if it was only once.

Gesturing with my hand, I started escorting her toward the back bar. The room was darker there. Better for keeping my interaction with her out of Lila’s and Leighton’s sights. For a second, I questioned why I’d want to do that, but the last thing I needed was to cause any trouble. For her, or for me, really.

It was only when Eden slid onto a bar stool that I started to question what might’ve been happening to me. Leighton’s voice was echoing obnoxiously through the speakers all around the room, but it had zero effect on me. I seriously didn’t give a damn. All I could see was Eden. Her long, ash-brown hair, those red painted lips, and the stunning red dress that elegantly accentuated her every curve.

Somewhere in the depths of my conscious mind, I contemplated the pull she seemed to have on me. There was a part that likened it to how I used to feel with Lila, but I instantly rejected it, because when I was with Lila, I’d been blind. I’d settled into a sort of comfort zone with naivety as my only friend. This, right here? This was different. I just didn’t know if it was for the better, or for the worse.

 

 

Chapter 9

Eden

 

I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I mean, Dean freaking Thomas was literally buying me a drink as I sat on a goddamn bar stool in my sexed-up cocktail dress, trying like mad not to flash my vag at the celebrity world. I was having some serious issues trying to keep my shit together. My body was going absolutely crazy. I couldn’t actually remember a time I was more physically attracted to anyone. Ever.

As the waiter placed my vodka in front of me, I watched Dean sink down on the next bar stool and turn his body toward mine. His gaze was a puzzle made up of a dozen different emotions. It was something I’d seen in a lot of musicians. They all had weaknesses, and if you looked close enough, you almost always found their eyes to be open windows into their souls. Usually, I was intrigued, but I was never tempted.

That obviously wasn’t the case with Dean, though. There was just something different about the sea of swirling emotions that raged in the shallows. Something vulnerable that shimmered within it. Something that reached out to my own vulnerabilities and gently wrapped itself around them, beckoning me closer.

Dean tilted his head to the side a little, cradling his drink in his hands. “There’s so much more to you than what you see, isn’t there?” he said, his gaze burning into mine, searching, reading.

I didn’t know what it was that he saw, but it was apparent he could see more than most people did. It was there in his eyes. It wasn’t pity, and it wasn’t sympathy. It was a sadness. An understanding. A familiarity. And what drew me closer to him was the fact that he didn’t pry. He didn’t try to guess what made me the way I was. He just accepted it as a part of me. For now, anyway.

“Tell me about the band,” I said, subtly letting him know I had no intention of asking personal questions either. “What are your goals for the next year?”

The darkness in the depths of his eyes sharpened like a challenge. “To get away from here.”

It was a vague answer. It could’ve meant any one of a dozen things. But the bitterness that hardened his features told me it was a very personal thing. He wasn’t just talking about the city or the country. He was talking about the very place we were right now. “And then what?”

“And then I get to breathe,” he said softly. “Then I get to be happy.”

I searched his soul for meaning. “You’re not happy now?” It was a question, but I think we both already knew the answer.

 Dean leaned his elbow on the bar and tapped a finger on his bottom lip. “Are you?”

Like him, I chose not to answer.

Taking a sip of my drink, I watched him carefully. I’d dealt with a fair share of brooding musicians over the last five years. Most of the time I saw the same pattern within them. A creativity that sucked all the energy that was around them inward. But Dean wasn’t like that. Energy still gravitated toward him, but he didn’t absorb it the same. He took it and tasted it. He felt it and breathed it. Then he gave it back.

“How old are you?” he asked.

The question floated between us, the embers that burned in his eyes molding its meaning into something deeper. The answer tugged on my heartstrings a little, but I didn’t flinch. “Twenty-three.”

I watched a flicker of pain dance in his eyes for a heartbeat before it settled into a dark tenderness that spoke of understanding and empathy. “What’s the best bit of advice anyone has ever given you?”

It was the strangest question I’d ever been asked by someone I’d just met, but at the same time, it was perfect. My chest tightened as my father’s memory rose inside me. “Live each day as though it’s your last.”

Dean’s gaze roamed my face. “Do you?”

“I try.”

Genuine interest burned in his gaze. He wasn’t flirting. He wasn’t teasing. He was simply curious. “What would you do if you were given a moment of fearlessness?”

I didn’t think it was his intention, but for me, it was a heavily loaded question. Because of all the things I wished I could do if I was brave enough, right now, all I could think about was him.

But, of course, I wasn’t fearless enough to say that to him. Instead, I just allowed the thoughts to speak through my body, my gaze seeking, trying to find something that told me I wasn’t crazy to feel this way, then I whispered, “Let go.” Because it was the one thing I’d struggled to do since Dad had left me.

Dean flinched as a hand clamped down on his shoulder, a tall, dark figure moving behind him on the way to the bar. A part of my brain recognized the figure as Rhett McClellan, the lead singer from The Dark Hybrid, but the rest of me didn’t care.

Clarity and sensibility started seeping in as I watched Dean turn to speak to him, his expression softening as he laughed at something Rhett said. Taking the opportunity to down the rest of my drink, I slipped off the bar stool and straightened my dress. It was time to clear my head a little before I did something I’d later regret.

Dean’s gaze immediately pinned me where I stood, concern and questions streaming from his eyes. He really did seem like a nice guy, and that kind of nice was hard to walk away from.

Twisting my diamond stud between my fingers, I gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m just going to use the bathroom.”

He searched my eyes for a heartbeat, looking for something I wasn’t sure I could give him the answer to. But a moment later, a kindness simmered in his gaze. “All right.”

Ignoring Rhett’s watchful figure, I quickly slipped away, making a beeline for the nearest toilets. Locking myself in a cubical, I whipped my phone out of my purse and frantically tapped out a message to Leash.

Help! Dean Thomas is seriously flirting with me!

I hadn’t even finished doing my business before my phone started vibrating with an incoming call. I scowled at Alicia’s lack of patience with texting, declining the call so I could finish what I was doing.

A second later, a text came through.

I swear to God, Eden. If you don’t sleep with that man, I’m disowning you!

I rolled my eyes at her dramatics before rushing to wash my hands. It didn’t surprise me that she knew who Dean was.

I needed to find somewhere to hide, while I figured out what I was going to do. As my phone started vibrating yet again, I caught sight of a door that looked to lead out to a gardened area. Sliding my finger across the screen, I pressed it to my ear. “Don’t yell at me,” I said as a way of answering.

“Then don’t do shit that makes me want to,” she said back.

Sinking into the shadows of the trees, I sighed. “I’m serious, Leash. This guy is insanely hot up close.”

“And I’m serious too, Eden,” she snapped. “You have a freaking rock god flirting with you. Most girls would kill to be in your shoes right now.”

I knew she didn’t mean any offense, but I couldn’t help the little stab of hurt that pierced my chest with her words. “That’s not fair. You know why I can’t.”

She sighed, her voice softening a little when she spoke again. “You’re right. I do know why,” she said. “But I also know that you don’t fangirl. If you’re attracted to this guy, then it’s because of chemistry and insanely good genetics. At the end of the day, isn’t that all any of us have? Or is it because he’s famous?”

“Of course it’s not because he’s famous. You know I don’t care about that at all,” I said, frustrations creeping in.

“It’s time to let go, Eeds. I know you think you have to wait for something meaningful, but seriously, you spent the first five years of your adult life having to step up and be a responsible adult, making decisions most grown-assed adults never have to make. There were always going to be times when you lost your head for a while. It’s not a bad thing.”

“I can’t do casual again, Leash.”

Leash softly exhaled. “Babe, you’re thinking about it all wrong. Before, you were looking for something to make you forget. To take you to a different place for a little while. This is different. This is attraction. Attraction is perfectly okay. So is allowing yourself to let go and feel alive for just a moment. You know I would never push you into doing something you really don’t want to do, but I will tell you if I think you’re only saying no because you’re scared. It’s time to let go, Eeds. What’s the saying? Feel the fear, then do it anyway.”

Drawing in a deep breath, I closed my eyes and released it. “Okay. I get it. I’ll see where it goes, but I won’t make any promises.”

“Deal. But if you get a piece of that rock dream, I’m seriously going to need descriptive details. That’s not negotiable.”

One corner of my mouth curled upward, but my head was already back with Dean. I may be open to seeing what happened, but the idea still made me nervous as hell. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I didn’t wait to hear what else she might have to say. I was already three steps past the conversation. Ending the call, I took a moment to collect myself before heading back inside. She was right. If anyone was going to be worth letting go for, it was Dean Thomas.

Well, that was what I thought, anyway, until I looked up and saw Charli Donovan sitting in my seat.

 

 

Chapter 10

Dean

 

As much as I liked Charli, I was no longer in the mood to play mind games with her and Archie. Eden had stirred an intrigue in me I hadn’t felt since the day I started my love affair with music. There was just something about her that made me feel as though I could finally breathe again. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was an undeniable connection between us. A recognition of a pain that no one else seemed to understand.

While Charli laughed and wrapped her fingers around my forearm, I discreetly watched for Eden to emerge out of the shadows. If I was honest with myself, I was a little fascinated by how unassuming and guarded Eden had been with me. Heat had burned in the depths of her eyes, but not once did she suggestively hint that she’d like to take our conversation somewhere a little more private. She didn’t giggle or bat her eyelashes, and she didn’t wield her body language in an attempt to get something out of me.

Charli laughed, lifting her eyebrow at me as though waiting for me to respond to something she’d just said. Smothering a sigh, I crooked my mouth into a smirk and forced out a half-hearted chuckle. I was just about to hint at her that she should probably just go back and talk to Archie, when a flash of red in the shadows caught my attention.

My eyes narrowed as I watched Eden disappear toward the front of the room, my ego taking the hit like a punch to the gut. This was a move I hadn’t anticipated.

I scrambled to decide what my next move should be. Was she running because she wasn’t interested, or was it because of Charli? Usually, I wouldn’t care. I’d simply put it down to being their loss. But a part of me knew that wasn’t the case with Eden. If I didn’t get to speak to her again, it would definitely be my loss, not hers.

Catching a blur of red slipping out the main door, I decided to stop thinking and just act. Squeezing Charli’s hand and gently removing it from my arm, I gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, gorgeous. I need to go.” As she blinked at me, I leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Go back to Archie. He’s a good guy. Give him some time and he’ll figure it out.” I didn’t wait to see what she’d say. All I knew was that I needed to catch Eden before she left.

Weaving through the crowd, I subconsciously noted all the announcements were apparently over, and another newbie was now on stage, showing off their vocal ability. People were laughing, some dancing with reckless abandon, some simply swaying as they sat at their table, sipping on their cocktails. But there was also a number of people slowly filing out the door, already over the bullshit—even if they didn’t know it yet.

Moving in the shadows, I scanned the foyer, spotting Eden in the far corner, her cell phone pressed to her ear. Throwing caution to the wind, I made my way closer, stopping a little distance away as she finished her call.

She sighed as she lowered the phone and pushed it into her purse. I couldn’t help but notice the slight crease between her brows as she glanced outside.

“You know, you could’ve just told me I was incredibly boring. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been that offended,” I said, smirking at her wide eyes as she tried to figure me out. “Actually, scrap that. I totally would’ve been offended. Crushed, really. I think a great deal of my personability. You probably would’ve scarred me for life.”

Her face softened a little as she took in my jabbering, one corner of her mouth curling upward with amusement. “Why do I find that hard to believe?”

I pressed a hand to my chest. “Do I look like the kind of person who would lie to you?”

Her expression remained soft, but a seriousness crept into her eyes as she studied me. “Not lie,” she said quietly. “You have honest eyes. But teasing? That’s a different ball game, I think.”

Again, I was intrigued by the calm intensity that etched her features, the basic attraction and curiosity reminding me of a time long ago, when boys were boys and girls were girls, and fame and fangirls were just a pipe dream in the distance.

I watched her glance outside as another car rolled up to the pickup point, my heart skipping a beat at the thought of saying goodbye. “You’re leaving,” I said, knowing there wasn’t any point pretending otherwise.

As she reached up and touched the little diamond stud in her ear, I felt the corner of my mouth tug into a tiny grin. This was the third time I’d seen her do it since I first set eyes on her, and for some weird reason, it made me happy to realize this was something she obviously did when she was thinking.

The corners of her eyes crinkled a little. “I thought it was best.”

I didn’t know what that meant, other than the fact that it was bad for me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. It felt like it was the first time I’d had a real conversation with someone in as long as I could remember, and I didn’t want to let that go.

Her head cocked to the side a little as she watched me, her teeth lightly grazing over her lower lip. It wasn’t making it any easier for me. “I think my ride is here,” she said softly.

I glanced out to where her gaze drifted, seeing Michael standing by his car, waiting. “Michael’s your driver?”

Her eyes instantly brightened. “You know him?”

I wanted to groan. The fact that she seemed so happy with Michael was just another reason for me to like her even more. Reaching out, I gently touched my fingers to the inside of her forearm, nodding Michael’s way. “Come on. I’ll walk you out. Michael used to drive for us a long time ago. He’s a cool dude.”

By the time I’d taken three steps, I knew I wasn’t letting her get in that car alone. There wasn’t a damn thing that interested me back inside Leighton’s little egofest. I’d happily take ten more minutes in the back seat of a car with Eden than anything else right now.

Michael smirked when he saw me coming, stepping forward and holding his hand out for me to take. “Dean. Long time, no see. How have you been?”

Giving his hand a good shake, I chuckled. “Good, man. You?”

“Oh, I can’t complain too much now, can I?” he said, stepping back again. “I see you’ve met the lovely Miss Roberts?” As his gaze swept to Eden, his expression turned sheepish. “Sorry. Eden.”

Deciding to jump right in, I leveled him with a cheeky smirk. “You up for giving me a ride home after you get Eden home safe?”

We both looked to Eden to see if she was okay with my ingenious idea. By the crook of her mouth, it was obvious she was amused, but she shrugged anyway. “I don’t mind at all. Having a driver was the last thing I expected when I came here. I’m just happy I don’t have to hail a taxi.”

Michael grabbed the door handle and opened it with a flourish. “Well then, beautiful people. Climb aboard.”

 

 

 

Chapter 11

Eden

 

After seeing Dean so cozy with Charli back at the gala, I’d started to have some serious doubts about my ability to read a guy. I mean, I knew Dean was a rock god and could obviously have any woman he wanted, but that took the phrase ‘you snooze, you lose’ to a whole new level. Of course, Charli Donovan was a freaking goddess, so I couldn’t blame him, really, but it certainly deflated my poor little ego. It also gave me an excuse to run.

But the second Dean had reappeared and invited himself into my car, I decided I was done running. Leash was right. It was time to let go. That was what this experience was supposed to be about. To get away from everything that had tied me down. To let loose. To be free. To live. Laugh. Let go. I knew that wasn’t necessarily what Dad had meant when he’d given me the advice to live life, but I thought it was relevant just the same. And as we sat in the confined space of the car, Dean continuing his unusual chatter as it weaved its way toward my apartment building, there was definitely no mistaking it this time. The attraction was very real, and it was very intoxicating.

Dean’s voice trailed off as the car pulled under the awning at the entrance, his gaze deep and searching. I wanted to tell him to keep talking because I seriously could’ve listened to him talk all day. He had a voice that was just like warm honey, all smooth and rich and simply delicious.

Neither of us said a word as Michael climbed from his driver’s seat and walked around to the other side. I wasn’t sure what the normal protocol was for drivers, but he didn’t open the door like I expected him to. He just stood there, like he was waiting for some kind of signal. Words flowed through my head as I watched Dean draw in a deep breath. We’d reached the line. Was I really going to cross it?

Softly biting on my bottom lip, I took the leap. “This is going to sound totally cliché, but right now, I don’t really care,” I said, my voice coming out a little breathy. “Would you like to come up for a drink?”

Dean’s gaze flickered over my face as I held my breath, waiting. I couldn’t help but think he was considering my question a little too hard, and I had no idea what that meant. I mean, was he trying to think of a nice way to say, ‘not if my life depended on it’? But then his gaze darkened, and I knew his answer. “I’d love to.”

My heart stumbled. Holy shit. There was something about that darkened heat in the depths of his eyes that did naughty things to my body. It was seriously starting to heat in places that hadn’t stirred for way too long.

Dean gave one sharp tap on the window, and a second later, Michael had the door open with a flourish. A tiny part of my brain locked that little piece of information away for next time, but for the most part, I was already fantasizing about what his hands would feel like on my bare skin. I probably should’ve felt some kind of shame about that, but I didn’t.

As Dean stepped out to the curb, I recognized a slight stirring of nerves deep inside my stomach. It was hard not to feel inadequate when you were about to be completely alone with a guy who’d obviously been around a lot of women, but I wasn’t going to be that girl. Not now. Not tonight. Tonight, I was free.

Sliding my lower half out the door, I took Dean’s outstretched hand and allowed him to guide me to my feet. I didn’t consider the fact that this might’ve been a mistake until I was standing chest to chest with him and looking mutely into his eyes.

Shivers trickled down my spine as he brushed a thumb over my knuckles, dulling everything around me, but then his jaw clenched and he was looking over my shoulder. “Thanks, Michael.”

I blinked. Holy crap. How had I already forgotten Michael was standing there?

Dean lowered my hand and stepped beside me, placing a hand against my lower back. Stepping on slightly quivering legs, I offered Michael a sheepish smile before letting Dean escort me inside.

I would’ve liked to have said that I wasn’t entirely sure when Dean’s hand disappeared from my body, but I was absolutely hypersensitive to the exact moment it left me, because I instantly craved its return.

The elevator dude smiled as we approached, his gaze only flashing to Dean a moment before he concentrated on me. “Miss Roberts,” he said politely.

For the span of two seconds, I mused at the fact that the guy already knew my name, but then Dean’s hand slid across my back again, and my insides turned to jell-o.

I didn’t know what it was about confined spaces, but the moment the doors slid closed, I felt the heat inside me rise again. My lips parted, my breath catching as his thumb started to draw soft, slow circles over my spine. Like a magnet, my body moved closer and closer to his, my hand automatically drawn to touch him, to feel him. I didn’t dare look at him. I couldn’t. I knew that if I made eye contact with him right now, there was a very real chance I would abandon all sense of reality, and the elevator dude would get way more than he bargained for when he started work today.

Dean’s fingers tensed against my back, his body leaning into me, the rise and fall of his chest more than noticeable. As the elevator started coming to a slow stop, I let out a slow, even breath, forcing my legs to make the necessary steps into the hall when the doors finally reopened.

I met Dean’s gaze the instant we were alone, the air between us practically crackling there was so much tension. Holy freaking hell, this man was minutes away from making me forget my own name and he hadn’t even kissed me yet. How was that even possible?

I blinked away the cobwebs and took an unsteady step to the right. “My apartment’s this way,” I said.

Lucky for me, my door was the second one. I was skeptical I could’ve actually made it any farther than that. My sister used to talk about ‘baby brain’ all the time, but I thought I could seriously challenge her for stupid rights with ‘rock god brain.’ If that wasn’t a thing, it really should be.

I thought I should probably try to compose myself as I unlocked the door, but really, what was the point in doing that when all I wanted to do was let go?

Stepping inside, I placed my clutch on the little table by the door and turned, just in time to see Dean close the door behind him. His gaze found mine, the darkness in his eyes hungry and intense. “Eden—” was all he said, and I was his.

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