Inside the music club on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, Brody Maddox stretched his legs beneath the table he’d scored close to the stage. The waitress slid drinks onto the table—his microbrew and the glass of merlot his date had ordered. As she lifted the rosy red liquid, his gaze shifted from her left hand to her face and back again.
His focus settled on her bare fourth finger.
I could put a ring on that.
It wasn’t a random thought. His circle of family and friends had been pairing off in the last several months. Though through his twenties he’d have sworn not a one of them was decent relationship material, now he’d begun to reconsider—as long as it was with the right type of woman.
“Tell me again who’ll be here tonight,” his date said, half-turning to face him. “I’m a little nervous.”
He smiled at her and tucked a strand of her dark brown hair behind her ear. “Don’t be, Rachel. They’ll think you’re perfect.”
They’d been dating less than a month, but Brody was nearly convinced she was perfect for him.
A kindergarten teacher, Rachel’s wholesomeness could be the antidote to the bleak moods that had been driving him to dark places with a regularity that alarmed his nearest and dearest.
“Bing will be here,” Brody said, referring to his twin. “Along with his fiancée, Alexa.”
Besides being his prospective sister-in-law, Brody considered Alexa Alessio a close friend. While he might have been able to dismiss his brother’s words of caution, when Alexa had teamed up with Bing and Brody’s little sister Cilla to tearfully confront him one morning over his erratic behavior—which included a hair-trigger temper, unexplained disappearances, and brutal hangovers—he’d promised them he’d clean up his act.
They’d caught him at the right moment to make such a vow. He’d blinked up at them from the place where he’d passed out on his entryway floor. With his belly queasy, his head pounding, and his hands shaking, he’d been forced to acknowledge that stewing in booze in unhealthy dives elbow-to-elbow with unsavory companions couldn’t erase from his mind any of his past regrets. Including the most recent—concerning a particular delicate blonde. A beautiful woman with ice eyes and a tragic air who over the course of a single night had taken him to a brilliant heaven as well as a fiery hell.
Her name whispered in his head, and her image blossomed in his imagination. He could swear he breathed in her scent of jasmine and starlight.
“Bro.” A hard hand clapped on Brody’s shoulder. He shook the dangerous thoughts from his head and shoved to his feet to face his brother.
“Bing,” Brody said in greeting, then pushed his twin aside so he could draw Alexa nearer. “Hey, girl.” His lips brushed her cheek.
“Hey, boy,” she said, smiling even as her gaze moved from him to his date who’d also risen from her chair. “I’m Alexa,” she said, holding out her hand toward Rachel.
Next, Brody introduced his brother.
Rachel exclaimed over their similar likenesses, both of them dark-haired and blue-eyed. “Identical!” she declared.
“Nonsense,” Bing said with a gleam in his eye. “Everyone knows I’m much handsomer. Not to mention sexier.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rachel returned, her cheeks turning pink as she darted Brody a glance.
He found her fluster charming. Brushing a hand over her hair, he lifted a brow in his brother’s direction. Admit I’ve done good.
“She’s a teacher,” he said to seal the deal as they all sat down. “Kindergarten.”
Alexa beamed. Bing appeared as if he was holding back a laugh.
When you turn over a new leaf, Bro, his amused look said, you don’t go for half-measures.
“Who else is expected tonight?” Brody asked the new arrivals.
“Honey and Walsh should be here any minute,” his twin replied.
“Walsh Hopkins?” Rachel leaned close to whisper in his ear. “The son of Hop Hopkins?”
“Yeah.” Brody said. “More Rock Royalty.” The name Rolling Stone magazine had bestowed upon the nine collective children of the most famous band in the world.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” Rachel murmured.
Alexa, on her other side, caught the quiet words. “I know, huh? The progeny of the Velvet Lemons. The stuff of legends.”
“Unfortunately,” Bing said, “you can pretty much believe every sleazy one of them you’ve ever heard.”
His fiancée found his hand with hers and brought it to her cheek to rub his knuckles against her skin. “That life made you who you are. I wouldn’t change that.”
Brody saw his brother suck in a sharp breath. He experienced the ache of tenderness that swamped his twin as if it filled his own chest. Yeah, he could see wanting that partnership, that steadying regard of another person.
A shared affection would be a stabilizing, strengthening force that any of the kids of the Velvet Lemons could benefit from after growing up around the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that filled their childhood days and nights.
Marriage was sounding better and better, though he’d stay far from the string of women he’d hooked up with during his disreputable binges the last couple of years. He wouldn’t make any one of them a good partner, and vice versa—they’d been as desperate and adrift as he.
“Has Brody taken you by the compound?” Alexa asked Rachel now.
“Not yet,” he answered for her. “Maybe the next Sunday brunch.”
The Laurel Canyon compound wasn’t far, as the crow flew, from where they sat, but the bucolic atmosphere of the eucalyptus-filled canyon was nothing like the city streets. There, Mad Dog Maddox, Hop Hopkins, and String Bean Colson had each built houses on acreage that included luxury amenities—perfect for their hedonistic, party-all-the-time lifestyle. Each of their children had left the place at eighteen, having had their fill of benign neglect and secondhand—and not so secondhand—debauchery. But when Ren Colson came back to Southern California months before and found his heart hijacked by Brody’s , the two of them had made it their mission to bring the Velvet Lemons kids back together.
To create a tribe. A real family.
With their fathers on a years-long global tour, Ren and Cilla had also insisted on reclaiming the compound and making it a place of happier memories. While they often gathered in one another’s homes and often came to clubs like this one to hear Cami Colson sing and play, they tried to get to the compound every couple of weeks.
Brody had been surprised by how much he enjoyed bolstering his bonds with his siblings as well as forging ties with the other Rock Royalty and the significant others they were bringing into the circle. Guilt had festered inside him since he turned eighteen, but he now had some hope that his friends and family could help him heal. With their help he’d overcome it.
The name whispered in his head once again.
Damn it, he’d overcome the memory of her, too.
Walsh and Honey arrived, and Brody welcomed the distraction of a second flurry of introductions, drink orders, and small talk. Once strictly a platonic boss and secretary, a recent business trip to a resort in Mexico had transformed the pair’s relationship.
Honey proved it by showing off the elegant engagement ring Walsh had custom-made to replace the gaudy, discount store version he’d wooed her with. With a sheepish smile, the honey-haired admin pulled on a chain around her neck to show she still wore the original rhinestone ring close to her heart.
Brody might have teased her about such sappy behavior, but Walsh—a proprietary arm around Honey’s shoulders—wore such a smug expression that Brody decided against poking at the new couple. Then Ren and Cilla slipped into the remaining seats at the table, and there was only time to sketch waves as the house lights dimmed and a spotlight trained on the stage, illuminating a pair of wooden stools.
The crowd applauded as Cami Colson strolled out, an acoustic guitar in each hand. She wore broken-in jeans and a gauzy tunic along with battered boots. Taking a seat, she propped one instrument against the free stool. The other she cradled in her lap as she looked into the audience.
“Hey,” she said in her throaty voice. “Glad to see you.”
Her gaze flicked to their table. “Family’s in the house,” she added, lifting her chin in their direction. “Thanks, guys.”
Then she directed her attention to her guitar and began singing one of her signature songs, a standard that had been covered by dozens of country and blues artists.
Motherless children have a hard time
When the mother is gone
Motherless children have a hard time
When the mother is gone
Motherless children have a hard time
There’s all that weeping and all that crying
Motherless children have a hard time
When the mother is gone
As usual, Cami sang it with a voice drenched in melancholy. Brody exchanged a glance with his twin, and then they both looked at their little sister Cilla. She had her cheek against Ren’s shoulder and as they watched the man pressed a kiss to her hair. Their own mother was long absent, killed in a tour bus accident after she left her children and the compound to follow another band, and the loss had left its mark. Brody’s own final memory of the woman who’d borne him was etched deep into his bones. While the fathers of the Rock Royalty had given little thought to the fostering of their sons and daughters, their mothers—all either dead or mostly disinterested—had never nurtured them either.
No wonder they were all fucked up in one way or another.
As if he’d read Brody’s mind—and he likely had—his twin leaned close.
“Avoid going down that dark road tonight,” he advised in a low voice. “You’ve got a nice woman with you. Don’t blow it.”
Because the gesture was expected, Brody shot Bing the finger, but he glanced at pretty Rachel in her dark jeans and soft blue sweater and thought, yeah, the kindergarten teacher could turn out to be his salvation by pulling him off the self-destructive road he’d been traveling.
Then Cami was ending the song and seguing into some upbeat, country girl kick-ass number that changed the mood in the club. Feet were stomping and hands were clapping, and the singer flashed them all a grin that showed she was digging the audience reaction. The rest of the set continued with a variety of numbers, each of them showcasing Cami’s talent and her joy in the making of music. Forty-five minutes passed and then she leaned into the mic and looked at the Rock Royalty table once again.
“Hope you’ll indulge me tonight, folks,” she said.
A couple of men called out ribald suggestions that had her big brother Ren bristling in his chair.
Cami only laughed. “This is actually a favor for one of my tribe. I heard a whisper that he’s here with a new lady I’m guessing he’ll jump at the chance to impress.”
Her gaze met Brody’s.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered.
“Come on up, Bro,” she said, reaching for the free guitar and holding it out. Then she glanced around the crowd. “Let’s hear it for Brody Maddox.”
“Fuck,” he said.
But Rachel was staring at him with wide eyes, and he decided he’d look more like an idiot if he refused the summons.
As he leaped onto the stage, he frowned at Cilla. “Don’t call me the next time you need a sticky drawer fixed.”
She blew him a kiss, then smiled as he settled onto the neighboring stool with the second guitar. Her hand covered the mic.
“Shit,” he said again, shaking his head.
“Channel your inner Eddie Vedder, and no woman will be able to resist you.” Then Cami scooted herself and the microphone stand closer.
This is what he got for fooling around with his guitar when Cami was in the vicinity. But he’d done more intimate things in front of an audience than this, so he took a breath and began strumming.
He sang the first verse alone but didn’t twitch when Cami joined in at the chorus, her voice harmonizing with his. His aspirations didn’t run toward regular stage appearances, but that didn’t mean he was without some of Mad Dog Maddox’s showmanship running through his veins. So Brody gave the performance his best, and when the last chord died out, he looked at Cami and shrugged as the crowd went crazy.
It helped to have family in the audience.
As the applause died out, she looked over at Brody. “It’s time for my last song before the break. You want to choose?”
He’d never know what prompted him to say, “How about some Willie?”
And Cami, who had at least a dozen Willie Nelson songs in her repertoire, began to pick out “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
Brody retreated from the spotlight and into the wings as Cami performed the heartbreaker about a man drawn to a wounded woman only to heal her with his love so that she could fly away from him. The crowd listened, engrossed and unmoving, which was probably why his eye was drawn to the knot of newcomers who entered at the back of the club during the song. The lights were low, but the red glow of the EXIT sign caught the drops of water dotting the rugged leather of the men’s beat-up jackets. The promised El Niño had been dumping rain on Southern California off and on for the last month.
Then the group shifted to reveal a slighter, feminine figure in their midst.
His throat closed. His chest seized. His ears went deaf to Cami’s music as he stared at his very own, very familiar fallen angel.
It had been weeks since their one night, but he’d not forgotten a single feature.
Her nearly platinum hair fell in waves to below her shoulders. Tonight, she wore no coat or jacket, only a red, low-cut and lacy top that displayed her delicate collarbones. The long sleeves were transparent and hinted at the pale golden skin of her arms.
Between the hem of a short suede skirt and her chunky-heeled, cowboy-styled boots her slender legs were bare.
He curled his hands into fists and closed his eyes, trying to forget the paradise he’d found between them.
An elbow jostled his ribs. “Bro?”
His eyes shot open to find the stage was dark. Cami’s set was over and she was gone. His brother was at his side wearing a quizzical expression.
Brody shoved his hands into his pockets. “Uh…yeah?”
“What the hell are you doing back here by yourself?” Bing frowned. “You’ve left your date alone at the table.”
“Oh, hell,” he muttered. “Just…lost in thought.”
“Lost in something,” Bing said, drawing him from his place behind the curtains. “Now pull your head out of your ass and charm that nice woman you brought into overlooking your degenerate past and rude manners.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Brody jumped from the stage, and only allowed himself one quick glance around the now brighter-lit club to discern the whereabouts of the blonde. When he didn’t see her, the tightness in his chest eased.
Maybe it was the song, he thought. Perhaps it had goosed his imagination into conjuring up a woman who wasn’t really there. The night they’d been together, despite the bravado she’d exhibited in public, he’d sensed the brokenness inside her. Had it confirmed by dawn.
As he settled into his seat, he smiled at Rachel. “Sorry for disappearing like that. Do you need a fresh drink?”
She indicated her full glass. “Ren ordered me another.”
“You met him then?” Brody asked, looking at the dark-haired man across the table.
“And me,” his sister Cilla said. “We introduced ourselves during your absence. We’re just starting to get acquainted.”
Brody pretended to wince. “Don’t believe everything she says,” he told Rachel. “Anything bad that was done to her was all Bing, I promise you. She never could tell us apart.”
Cilla rolled her big blue eyes. “And here I was relating all your good points. He truly is the white knight of the family.”
White knight? He remembered the train wreck that was his eighteenth birthday. Then another memory overlaid that ugly one, and he saw himself ripping off the clothes of a certain blonde, desperate to get to her skin as she writhed against him, hot and eager. Hardly.
Pushing the recollection away, Brody sent his little sister a speaking glance which she ignored.
“How did you two meet?” she asked Rachel.
“I haven’t heard that either,” Alexa said, leaning in.
Rachel flashed Brody a quick smile. “My parents recently bought a fixer-upper on The Strand in Hermosa. They called in Brody and Bing’s construction company for an extensive remodel.”
“To create a tasteful beach cottage,” Brody added for Lex, who had been known to complain how filthy-rich owners of surfside Southern California homes took former bungalows and turned them into modern monstrosities. “We’re looking forward to working on it.”
“My brothers started their career early,” Cilla said. “As kids, they built elaborate forts and treehouses deep in the canyon behind the compound. I swear we wouldn’t see them for days on end.”
Rachel’s eyebrows rose. “Really? What did you do for food?”
“Oh, we had stashes of the essentials at our various lairs,” Bing put in. “No boy needs much more than peanut butter, crackers, and Pop-Tarts, after all.”
“Didn’t you have to go to school?”
Brody and Bing looked at each other, smiling wryly at the teacher’s question. Nobody had been any more concerned with their attendance record than where they spent their sleeping hours. So they’d routinely escaped the chaos of the compound…until adolescence arrived and they’d become willing participants in its pandemonium.
Cilla released an exaggerated sigh. “I begged them to take me along on their canyon adventures, but they were selfish and unfeeling big brothers.”
Guilt scraped over him like sandpaper. Selfish and unfeeling. God, how fucking true. As he’d edged into his teens he’d become more and more like his egotistical father, Mad Dog Maddox. The idea turned his stomach now, and his disgust must have shown on his face because Cilla’s expression turned contrite.
“Bro,” she said, stretching her arm across the table toward him. “I’m teasing.”
He shoved back his chair, needing a moment away. “Let me get you a fresh drink, Cill.”
As he left the table he heard Ren raise his voice in protest, but he kept moving toward the bar.
It didn’t surprise him when a small hand snagged his elbow. “Brody.”
Looking down at his little sister, he checked his stride and sighed. Though she was the youngest of the Rock Royalty, she’d taken on the role of mother hen. He tugged on the ends of her hair.
“I’m okay. We’re okay.”
“Yeah?” Smiling, she squeezed his arm. “You sing a mean Eddie Vedder, you know. Your date was enthralled.”
“Good,” he said. “Now do me a favor and keep her entertained for a few minutes, okay?”
“I don’t need a drink.”
“But I need some fresh air.”
Cilla studied his face, then went on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I wish your conscience didn’t weigh on you so heavily.”
“Believe me.” His grin felt crooked. “I’m no saint.”
“Forgive yourself for that,” she ordered, then released him to head back to their table.
Brody continued toward the exit, threading through the crowd stocking up on beverages and conversation before Cami’s next set. The minute he pulled open the door, cool, moisture-laden air slapped him across the face. He sucked it in, moving along the building to stop in the deep shadows beneath the roof’s overhang. There he propped his shoulders against the club’s exterior wall.
The parking lot was packed, and as he stared into the night, his mind wandered to a different stretch of asphalt on a different night. It had been rain-slick, too, and water had spotted the vehicles there—stripped-down choppers as well as bulkier motorcycles; heavy duty trucks with bed-mounted rusty toolboxes; low-slung luxury sedans, sleek and spoiled.
A honky-tonk sound had filtered through walls that seemed to pulse with music and life.
Brody, following his buddy toward the front door, had barely registered the other man’s claim that Satan’s Roadhouse was the hottest bar between Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. He hadn’t given one shit about its rep. He’d been in a low mood that day and had only wanted to numb himself with another night of booze.
As they’d pushed inside, heat from the jam-packed bodies and the roaring fireplace in one corner had swamped them.
And then Brody’s blood had been set on fire at his first glimpse of the sweet and dirty blonde boot scootin’ atop the battered wooden bar.
All of a sudden his attention snapped back to the present. A woman was circling the far side of a dented SUV, a thin sweater now covering her lace blouse. Her blonde head was bent over her phone.
Brody stilled. Blinked. Shook his head.
This was no figment of his imagination stepping around puddles, her shoulders hunched against the cold as she made her way to the club’s door.
Without thinking, he strode for the heavy metal contraption and yanked it open just as she stepped beneath the overhang. For a brief second she hesitated, her gaze still focused on the screen of her cell. Then she murmured something—Thank you? Fuck you?—and without further acknowledgment of his presence or his politeness, she and her boots crossed the threshold . In the beat of a heart the woman was lost in the throng.
After a moment Brody forced himself inside and his attention away from the direction she’d disappeared. Family and friends were waiting. His date, the kindergarten teacher. The woman who might be his salvation.
Following the other female could only lead him back down the path he’d promised to step off weeks before.
Christ, it wasn’t as if he thought he’d been any good for Ashlynn, either.
But she was there in his head as he returned to his table near the stage. Bing sent him a piercing look he pretended not to notice. Instead, he made an effort with Rachel, drawing her out and then into conversations with the others of their party. They talked about Cami, about what they hoped she’d play later that night. Someone brought up the weather, which wasn’t as boring a topic as it seemed since Southern California was actually having some after years of drought. Cilla asked Rachel about her kindergarten class, and he pretended to listen.
But in reality he was back at Satan’s Roadhouse. That night, he’d found a place at the bar, at the opposite end from where the blonde was captivating the audience with her twitching, denim-covered ass and barely concealed cleavage. He’d ordered a beer and two shots of tequila, and after throwing one back he’d given his attention to the show.
Hell, why couldn’t he banish her from his head? She’d been there for weeks and weeks. Her looks, her scent, her taste. Not that he was proud of it, but he’d had dozens of one-night stands over the years. Yet everything about that time with her was unforgettable.
Something prickled at the back of his neck, and he rubbed there, then glanced over his shoulder. Ashlynn stood near the bar, talking with a couple of the tough-looking men who’d accompanied her into the club. Her back was to him, and he focused on those waves of pale blonde hair, recalling the silk of them sliding between his fingers. Against his face.
Over his cock.
He couldn’t help wondering how she was. She’d been sleeping when he’d left her in that single-wide trailer, with the silvery tracks of her sadness drying on her cheeks. His sister Cilla said he was a white knight, but he was sure he’d been no such thing in Ashlynn’s eyes. He’d known he couldn’t save her.
And to try and fail would only serve to hack more slices off his soul.
Yet now he couldn’t look away from her. Stupid, he berated himself, to be mired in a memory that didn’t deserve all this attention.
Approach her, a sensible voice said, trying to convince him he could be a normal person. Say a simple “Hello.” Perhaps it will dispel all the residual drunken drama.
And then he could really move on.
Without allowing himself a second thought, he stood and moved away from the table. He didn’t bother with an excuse for those he left behind. This wouldn’t take long.
Face to face with Ashlynn again, he’d be able to convince himself that what had happened between them was nothing more than a casual hook-up between strangers. Nothing more. Nothing serious or important.
As he approached her from behind, her two companions shifted their attention to him, their heads lifting to check him out. He ignored their suspicious glances, but wasn’t surprised when Ashlynn slowly turned to look at him.
His belly clenched. Her face was flushed, her mouth pink, her eyes, surrounded by spiky black lashes and thick liner, only made her irises appear more like clear water.
It hit him again, hard, that she wasn’t of this world.
In his brain, images of that night played like cards slapped against a table. His mouth at her ear. Her lips on his throat. His palm skating down her naked belly.
He clenched his hand instead of reaching for her.
“Ashlynn,” he said. The toes of their shoes were nearly touching.
Her brows rose over her mirror-like eyes. “Do I know you?” she asked.