It’s raining buckets and I don’t want to go out in that. I stared at it from under the awning of the club and felt Lindsay sway into me. For a second, we both wobbled and another one of the girls banged against my side and I shrieked, sure we were going down.
Lindsay rights me, pulls me close. I lean my head on her shoulder and puff out a petulant, “Bitch.”
Her grip tightens just a touch and she laughs.
I haven’t been this drunk since senior year of college, when we did Christmas at her parent’s beach house in Key West. I wouldn’t be this drunk now except she begged.
Hung over and washed out wouldn’t do for the wedding, and even after that insane night on the beach with jello shots and beer funnels and tequila body shots, I had woken up without a hang over.
And that’s what you do, when your best friend begs the night before her wedding–you do her shots while the rest of the bridal party screams at the strippers and you slip her watered down beer that smells like piss.
You take the holy fuck never again drunk, because tomorrow, no one will be looking at me while she prances down the aisle in white.
One person will. And he’d think this shit was hilarious. I giggle against Linds’ shoulder and she bumps me gently. “You good?” She murmurs as we wait for the cab.
I smirk up at her, the world spinning unsteadily. “I’m fucking wasted.”
She laughs softly and kisses my forehead.
“Lindsay, get in,” one of the other girls calls and she peers at the cab. It won’t hold all of us, and I can feel a new tension settle over my best friend.
Lindsay doesn’t have a lot of close friends. Partly because we came here, to this city neither of us knows, because of the boys. So we both started over.
And because when we have each other, and the boys, well. We don’t need much else. But she’s more social than I am. And she works at a small ad agency, where she’s gotten close to the other girls.
So when she needed bridesmaids, of course she asked them.
I smirk as Lindsay shakes her head. “Y’all go. Peyton and I will grab the next.”
There’s a moment of rain splattered quiet and then the girl–I forget but I think she’s one of the Jennifers–shrugs and slides into the little cab, slamming the door behind her.
“What a bitch,” I mutter.
She laughs, that real noise that I know like breathing. Not the fake shit she’s been shoveling at the other girls all night.
“Stop it,” she orders and I blink up at her. “You’re thinking too much. Your drunk, Pey. Let go and enjoy it.”
I lean into her, and murmur, “Wanna help?”
She laughs again, shoving my shoulder, and I giggle. “You are such a slut when you drink.” She mutters.
I nod agreeably, and a cab pulls up. It’s dingy and the driver is frowning at his phone even as it he pulls to a stop. He gives us a distracted look as we spill in and the world sways, dizzy for a long moment. Lindsay tugs me against her as I whimper and pushes my hair back, studying me. “The Embassy Suites,” she says and he nods, jerking into motion.
Linds mutters under her breath and reaches for her seatbelt. “Sit up, honey. Belt. The rain is awful.”
“Freaking mother hen,” I grumble and she shrugs, implacable. I huff and shift to sit up and my phone goes off, the ringtone that only Rike has. I squeal and Lindsay reaches for me as I scramble for my purse, abandoned on the dark, dirty floorboard. I close my hand over it and hear her scream, my name a twisted noise that is almost unrecognizable.
It’s the last thing I can’t remember.
Chapter 1: Before
The bar is riding the line of slow and dead, which is depressing as fuck, because playing to an empty room is always a little bit of a letdown. Scotty doesn’t bitch—he doesn’t give a fuck who listens, as long he has a mic and his guitar with me to back him up.
Scotty could play to an empty room, and still be a happy motherfucker. He’s done it often enough.
Lamar swings by the bar with a fresh round of long neck bottles, and I stand from where I’m adjusting the drums to take it from him.
He shrugs. “It’ll pick up. You play, and it always does.”
True. But it’s been months since we had this low a turnout to work with.
Barrie’s is a dive and that’s putting it nicely. It’s a fucking hole in the wall in a college town, and has delusions about which college town it landed in. It wants to be a bigger deal than it is. But it’s our hole in the wall, and Lamar keeps the free beer coming as long as we keep the music playing.
There’s even a sticky dance floor, coated with spilt beer and other things I don’t want to name, and some nights, we manage to draw enough of a crowd that they pack that little floor and scream along to our cover songs.
And there’s another reason we keep coming back. The real reason I keep coming back.
I take a beer and glance at the little booth that sits empty and almost forlorn in the corner. It isn’t usually empty this late on a Thursday night. She’s usually here by now, and the absence strings nerves along my skin, making my foot tap anxiously.
Scotty is watching me, and I shove down the unease as I swallow more of the beer and tap my drums, a quick beat that pulls a low response from the small audience.
He gives them a sexy half smirk and I see a girl at the bar texting. I hit the drums again and he glances back at me. I cock an eyebrow at the girl and he grins, not the smirk he reserves for the audiences, but the shit eating grin I’ve seen on my best friend’s face so many times. The one that promises trouble and good times, and the distinct likelihood of getting laid.
A grin crooks one side of my lips, and I nod at him. Slam my sticks together twice before throwing myself into the beat of a popular summertime anthem.
Scotty follows my lead, crooning about summer and trucks, beer and good times and the girls who are pouring in off the street scream our names.
Scotty lives for this shit. He always has. For the high of the girls and the crowd, the ones who for a few hours make him forget that we’re two months behind on rent. That everything outside the circle of bright lights is a world of shit and heartache.
Because here, it’s not. Here we’re fucking untouchable, and as they sway to our music and the beat I’m keeping with my drum sticks.
He loves this. And I get it. Not because I care about the girls—I do, in a abstract sort of way. I love it because for a few minutes every night, between covering the bullshit on the radio, we roll out a song that no one has heard before. Sometimes, they love it. Sometimes, I come out from behind the drums, and croon to the room, a song that bares my fucking soul, and even with the lights so bright they’re blinding, I can see her in her little booth, hair pulled up and messy, eyes half lidded as she listens.
It’s the closest I’ve come to talking to her. Because I know better.
A girl like her isn’t meant for me. She’s poise and pearls, peaches and cream skin and private smiles.
I’m covered in ink and scars and hiding from my own fucked up past, and so far below a girl like her that it’s stupid to even consider it.
I do though. Every fucking time I see that tiny smile when I sing.
She doesn’t know I write for her. But I do. It’s the only way I’ve allowed myself to talk to her. At night, when Scotty and I stumble home drunk and high off the performance, when one of the barflies don’t end up in bed between us and—sometimes—on the nights when one does.
Scotty changes the rhythm and I shift, matching him as he slides into a ballad, crooning to the crowd. A group of sorority girls in a uniform outfit of tiny shorts, hooker heels, and tops that flash smooth curves are on the dance floor, writhing and singing along, and I wonder which Scotty will tap to come home with us.
She isn’t coming in. It’ll be the first Thursday night in almost three months that she hasn’t been here and it bugs me. I want her here.
Even knowing how bad an idea it is, how different we are—I want her here.
I miss a beat, stumbling on the rift and Scotty sends me a sharp glance, kicking in with a solo to cover me. I shake my head once, and he shifts his attention back to the crowd as we give in to the music.
It’s the third song of the second set, when I’ve shoved her out of my mind almost completely, that the door swings open, and she stalks in.
She’s out of place in a blue sundress and white sweater, an oversized bag at her side, her long red hair swirling around her face in a halo of angry curls.
She’s fucking gorgeous and the sudden release of tension is almost dizzying.
And right then, I decide. Fuck all the reasons it’s a bad idea. I’m tired of giving a shit about that. She can shoot me down if she wants—but first I’m going to give myself a shot.
“You’re girl was late,” Scotty rasps as we land on two stools at the bar. It’s late and the crowd of sorority girls has thinned to almost nothing, although a pair are nursing Cosmos and watching us speculatively.
Surprisingly, Scott’s ignored them completely.
“Need anything, boys?” Manda asks as she sways past, giving Scotty a flirty smile. He grins at her, letting his gaze sweep over her.
My best friend is a fucking slut. But with Manda, it’s all flirting and no action. She’d take him up on it—she’s made that very clear. But Scot doesn’t fuck where he works, and Barrie’s has been too good for us to risk screwing it up for a quick fuck.
Which is good, because I’d have to kick his ass if he touched her. She might be a little too friendly and a little desperate, but she’s a cute kid and I like her.
“Bourbon, Manda,” he says and she glances at me questioningly. I nod and she pours the drinks. Scotty glances at me. “What are you waiting on?”
I shrug and grit my teeth. Scotty twists and gives her a look over his shoulder. “Fine. Stay here and keep Manda company. I’m going to introduce myself to your siren.”
I jerks him back by the collar of his shirt before he can take more than two steps and throw him back against the bar. “Back the fuck off, Scott.” I growl.
He grins, a challenge and a taunt in that expression. “Then make your move, Rike.”
I snatch the bourbon from Manda and take a deep breath before walking to her table.
For a long. Fucking. Time.
It takes almost a full minute for her to look up, almost long enough for my courage to fail. I’m ready to retreat when she blinks and looks up at me, her blue eyes widening a little as they find mine. She looks startled, and sleepy, and as gorgeous as she looked at a distance, is nothing compared to how fucking flawless she is this close.
There are freckles sprinkled across her cheeks and dusted over her nose.
I swallow a groan as she licks her lips and gives me a tentative smile. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I say, and then go blank.
Because in none of my fantasies did I ever consider we’d actually ever get to this point. And the smirks and smooth lines won’t work—not on her.
“What do you call a group of unorganized cats?” I ask and her eyes cloud, confused.
She gives me a pretty frown and I grin, “A cat-astrophe.”
For a second, all either of us do is stare, and then she giggles. “That is literally the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard.”
I grin, “So you want me to leave?”
Laughter dances in her eyes. “Have a seat, jokes.”
My heart shoves up into my throat at the casual nickname and invitation but I keep my cool smile in place as I slide into the booth across from her. She pecks at the computer a few more times, and then twists it aside and reaches for her drink—a whiskey neat.
She normally drinks for vodka cranberry, and I’ve fantasized about kissing that taste from her lips. My dick twitches and she watches me over the rim of her glass, lazy interest in her dark eyes.
“Y’all sounded good tonight,” she offers.
My lips tick up into a grin, “As opposed to most nights?”
A flush crawls up her cheeks. “No! You always sound good. I’m just—“
I laugh, and lean back in the booth. Her adorable embarrassment is too easy to provoke. “I’m kidding, Red. Relax.”
“So how did you get involved in this? The band?”
“Scotty needed backup and it was fun. Something to keep me out of trouble. Neither of us are very good at doing shit without the other.” I say, skirting away from just how true that is and how fucking co-dependent we can be.
“That’s cute,” she says, grinning.
“Guys don’t usually do the whole BFF bullshit—not like girls. It’s kinda cute to see a couple of dudes who are good friends.”
There’s a little part of me that wants to point out that we aren’t BFFs. That we were forced together out of necessity and kept together to survive. But I don’t. That’s a little heavy for now, and I don’t particularly want her thinking about my best friend at the moment anyway.
“So what are you doing here?” I ask, leaning forward and tapping the open laptop. “Most girls like you find a library to study in.”
Her eyes narrow a little, and I get the feeling I’m wandering into dangerous territory. “Girls like me?”
Her tone is tight and full of warning, but I ignore it, offering her a lazy grin. “Pretty. Smart. Too damn good to be in this shithole.”
Her lips twitch and I lean forward, into her space a little and whisper. “You’ve been here for months, Red. Distracting and out of place. So tell me. Why the hell do you keep coming back?”
Her eyes are wide and her breath is coming in short sharp bursts and if I lean forward another few inches, I could taste the lips I’ve spent months fixating on.
“I like the music,” she murmurs and I swallow my groan, because fuck if that isn’t the most perfect answer in the world.
“And the computer?”
A flush flares up her cheeks again and she ducks away. I lean back, giving her room as I take a pull on my beer. She’s fiddling with the swizzle stick that came in her drink.
“I write sometimes. And the music is the perfect inspiration.”
I was wrong. She could say something more perfect. I grin at her and say, “You might just be perfect.”
I hesitate and then shrug. “Need a little longer to figure that out, Red.”
Her eyes are still amused but a little wary as she watches me, a finger circling the rim of her glass, catching the drop of whiskey from her last sip. She lifts it and licks the Jack away, and I swallow hard, chasing my groan away with a cough. “Go out with me,” I say, suddenly.
“I don’t date,” she says immediately. She leans back and I want to drag her back to the edge of her seat, force her back into the easy warmth we were sharing even as she slams walls up between us.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because I’m busy and because boys are idiots and because school—I don’t need to be distracted.”
“You aren’t too busy to drop by and listen to me play every week for three months. And I’m not a fucking boy,” I says the last bit tighter and fiercer.
Her breath catches a little in her throat as she licks her lips. “Maybe I’m here for Scotty.”
For the first time in almost two decades, I want to punch my best friend. Because fuck if he’s going to get this girl too, after all the time I’ve spent watching her. I’ve never cared who Scot takes to bed. Usually we take them together—women are no different than any other thing in our world. But the thought of him touching her, or her on her knees in front of him. It makes me irrationally angry.
“Rike,” a sweet low voice purrs behind me and I blink free of my thoughts to twist and meet the gaze of the girl behind me. She’s all smooth curves and long blonde hair and legs for fucking days.
She went home with us a few week ago, and I knew even as she was in bed with us that it was going to be a problem.
“Scotty is flying solo,” I say, turning back to Red. I can feel the sorority girl at my back, the indignant fury from her. Red is watching her with curious eyes, gaze skirting between the two of us. I ignore the huffy girl behind me and say, “You aren’t. If you were, you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
Her eyes flicker with reserved amusement, and I lean forward, and whisper, “Please. Save me from the sorority.”
Her lips curve into a slow smile, something mischievous and mysterious in the twist of her lips, and I want to see that smile every day. I want to know why it’s different, and what makes it different from the smile she would give me half asleep and naked in my bed.
I blink, shake the thought. Focus on now.
God, she’s fucking with my head, hard.
“Go find a new toy, Lindsay. This one is mine tonight.”
That’s what her name was. Lindsay.
“You’ll like them,” Lindsay says, a smirk in her voice, and Red’s eyes slip past me, settling on the girl and hardening.
Fuck. That’s jealousy, and a part of me wants to fucking crow with victory.
Instead, I reach out and claim her hand, letting my fingers trace over the curl of her palm, bringing her attention back to me as I absently caress her hand. She watches me curiously for a moment.
“Friday. Pick me up.” She reclaims her hand and scribbles on a note card, sliding it across to me. Then she grabs her bag, shoving her laptop inside as she slides out of the booth and across the bar. She stops Lindsay, and murmurs something to the blonde girl.
Curious, assessing eyes flick to me, but Lindsay only nods and turns away from me. Red smiles, and ducks out of the bar.
I glance down at the note card. Her handwriting is messy and strong.
And her name is Peyton.
Chapter 2: After
Sometimes, the loneliness
Is a physical blanket,
A tangible thing that wraps around me,
Like a suffocating wave that won’t recede.
And then your hand,
(Rike’s poems to Peyton)
Noise. Quiet, steady, noise. It breaks the silence, shrill and sharp, then gone and it’s just a waiting silence. My eyes open, slow and painful, and I look at a fuzzing white ceiling, and the bright silver of a pole near my head.
Why the hell is there a pole near my head?
I open my lips to talk, to ask and a body, one I hadn’t noticed before, shifts in the corner.
The nurse looks at me brilliant blue eyes, and for a moment, I can’t remember what I was going to ask, because there is only his eyes and the questions there, and a scruffy beard, sharp angled face, and long hair that hangs in disarray like he’s been pushing his fingers through it.
“You’re awake,” he says, and I remember that I was asking a question.
But I can’t remember what it was. I think, struggling to hold on to the elusive question and my eyes widen, panic slamming into me. Beside me, the shrill and sharp noise of the monitor that woke me screams to life as my heartbeat slams in my chest.
I can’t remember anything.
It takes a sedative to calm me down, and when I wake, it’s slowly, with no idea of where I am. It’s dark—and I remember the light streaming into the room earlier, lighting his ice blue eyes, and the wild panic when I realized everything was a blank slate.
I feel it again, now, but the panic tamer, not as sharp and choking. I shift to sit up in the hospital bed, and glance around.
My gaze lands on the nurse, sleeping in a chair in the corner. His hand is wrapped around a phone, and I wonder, inanely, if he sleeps in all of his patient’s rooms, or if I’m special.
Tattoos snake under the pushed up cuffs of a long, silver blue thermal, and I have the absurd desire to push them up and see what designs will be revealed.
I don’t even like guys with tattoos.
Why is he here? I clear my throat, and his eyes fly open. For a moment, his eyes are sleepy, soft, so intimate it makes the breath catch in my throat, and I swallow hard. Then he blinks, and the hungry emotions are tucked away, and there is only concern there, calm and professional as he pushes out of the chair and comes to the bed.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, glancing at the machine briefly. His eyes flick over it, and his lips tighten before he reaches for a button.
I stop his hand with my own, and see his eyes flare wide, before he closes them, and with a deep breath pulls away from me.
Stung, and strangely embarrassed, I tuck my hand back under my blanket. “Where am I?” I ask my voice shaky with disuse.
How long have I been here, how long have I been unconscious?
“St. David’s Medical Center.” He waits, watching for some sign of recognition, and then adds, “Austin, sweetheart.”
Austin. Why the hell am I in Austin?
“Where would you rather be?” he asks, his voice carefully neutral.
I blink. I hadn’t realized I’d spoken aloud until he responded, and I feel heat crawling up my neck. His eyes drop to it, and heat, and I clear my throat, looking away. Searching for an answer to his question.
Where would I rather be?
It’s a blank page, my past empty, stretching behind me. For how long? I bite hard on my lip. “How long have I been here?”
“I think you should let me call the doctor.”
“Why can’t I remember anything?” I whisper, and tears sting my eyes. I blink hard, and sniffle. He’s staring at me, his face tight and remote, and I want him gone, suddenly. I want just a minute, to break down in private. Away from this stranger with his tattoos and eyes that see too much.
“Can you call the doctor? And maybe give me a minute?”
He inhales sharply, and I feel a flare of guilt, inexplicably. Then he nods, and steps away from my bed. “Of course. Give me a few minutes to find him. If you need anything—“
“I’ll call the nurse,” I say and he nods.
I don’t know who he is. Why he’s here. Why he looks so strangely hurt by my behavior.
“Do I know you?” I ask, hesitantly.
His whole body seems to tense, and I want to reach out and touch him, to soothe the tight line of his shoulders.
A tattoo is licking up his neck, a bird in flames, just visible over the collar of his scrubs.
“I’ll be back with the doctor,” he says hoarsely.
And then he’s gone, and any answers he might have are gone with him.
It stings a little. Like I should know him, or why he was here—and I don’t.
Why the hell am I a hospital in Austin? Why aren’t my parents here?
Every memory I reach for is blank. A space where something should be but nothing is. It’s like who I am has vanished. The doctor is a Haitian man with skin the color of midnight and a wide smile. And an accent so thick I almost can’t understand him as he explains.
The nurse—not tattooed blue eyes—gives me a notebook, and when the doctor leaves again to find my MRI scans, I write what I know.
I was brought in from a car crash two weeks ago.
I had traumatic brain injury, causing memory loss.
Apparently, I was drunk before the accident and that didn’t help my mental functions at all.
The girl with me is still in critical condition.
Her license says she is Lindsay Murphy and I am Peyton Collins.
I live in Austin.
It’s not nearly enough for me to work with—to build a life on. But it’s all I’ve got, so it’s going to have to do. What bothers me isn’t that I can’t remember. It’s that I’m alone here.
What the hell kind of life was I living, that I am so fucking alone?
The door opens, and Tattooed Blue Eyes enters with a paper bag. He eyes me for a minute, and I stare back silently.
A tiny grin turns his lips, and he comes deeper into the room sitting down in a chair near my bed.
“Knock knock,” he says, and waits, staring at me.
I frown, “Who’s there?”
“Hatch who?” I ask, exasperated.
The grin blossoms into a full smile, “Cover your mouth when you sneeze!”
I giggle and shake my head. “That’s really bad, Blue eyes.”
His grin falters, for just a second and then he shrugs. “But you laughed. Now. Are you hungry?”
I don’t respond, and he doesn’t seem to care, going to work pulling out a plate of fried rice and chicken with vegetables and spreading it all out on the table. He moves easily, almost ignoring me, but I can feel the tiny glances he darts at me.
“What are you doing?” I ask, when the plate is in my hands and he’s back in his chair. The sleeves of his thermal have been shoved up, and I see stairs crisscrossing up his arm, and a brightly colored fish on his other, twisting through weeds and flowers.
“I’m eating dinner with you.” He says. Pauses, “Do you want me to go?”
That possibility looms in front of me. All night, alone in this room, and nothing. No memories or knowledge to keep me company.
The thought is terrifying and I shake my head. Because whoever he is, he’s a distraction. Someone to keep my mind off the emptiness.
“No,” I whisper. “Please stay.”