Yeah, Beck Hopkins thought, you could go home again, but that didn’t mean you should.
Being back at the compound in LA’s Laurel Canyon where he’d grown up as one of the “Rock Royalty”—the name Rolling Stone magazine gave to the nine collective children of the most famous rock band in the world—was doing shit for him.
Except dredge up bad feelings and crappy memories.
And not one of those from the black hole he’d been left with since the accident on the Nile River. Their kayak had busted up on the same rocks that did a number on him—sprained shoulder, broken ankle, near-fatal concussion. When some villagers hauled his carcass off the muddy shoreline, they’d presumed he was dead.
Though he’d actually still been breathing, recovering in those most primitive of conditions might have killed him.
That didn’t happen either, however. Now all his parts moved freely again and the piercing headaches had diminished with time.
Eventually, he’d remembered his name and even the days of the river journey before his hard head met the immoveable object.
But about the months before the journey, when he was told he’d been living in LA, doing research for the article he was to write and preparing for the expedition…he had nothin’.
Letting himself out of the cottage on the compound property—Gwen’s cottage, the groupie who had been as much a mother to the Rock Royalty as any of them could claim—Beck breathed in air laden with the scent of orange blossoms and felt the sun’s heat already penetrating the cotton of his T-shirt. Today, spring might as well be summer.
Would he have retrieved those lost memories by then?
By the start of that season he’d be long gone, on his next assignment to the wilds of Alaska with no SoCal return date even penciled in.
He took the path past the monstrous modern manse he’d grown up in as Hop Hopkins’s son, along with his younger brothers Walsh and Reed. Mad Dog Maddox’s castle came next, where the youngest of the nine, Cilla, had once lived along with twins Brody and Bing. Then he came to the tennis court, pool, and poolhouse. A turn at the massive lodge belonging to String Bean Colson where his progeny, Ren, Payne, and Cami had come of age, led Beck into the orchard of fruit trees that climbed up a steep slope.
Ignoring the curious bees, he made for the rear gate that once unlocked, opened into an undeveloped section of the canyon. Rural as the place might seem, it was only a short drive down Laurel Canyon Boulevard to the citiest of city streets—Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. LA had always held its lies and surprises.
Long grasses swished along the legs of his jeans until he came to a narrow path of reddish dirt that meandered across ridges, up slopes, and through ravines, skirting intertwined, long-needled cacti and the occasional scrub oak. It was a familiar childhood trek, taken when he was trying to escape the ghosts and demons lurking in the Velvet Lemons’s compound. Doubtlessly he’d gone on this same hike when he’d been here before heading to Africa. He took a deliberate inhale of the air, which smelled of warm greenery and clean earth. Then he closed his eyes and willed his mind to fill with the recollections that had so long eluded him.
Once again, he got nothin’.
On a frustrated sigh, Beck opened his eyes and his attention caught on a rooftop just peeking through a stand of eucalyptus across another chasm.
Slipping his new phone from his pocket, he scrolled down the contacts list. Then made a call.
The instant greeting from the other end almost made him smile. “Has hell frozen over?” Ryan Hamilton, once a famous actor and now a successful producer, demanded.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“The last holdout in Southern California finally has a cell phone?”
He would have seen Beck’s name on the screen of his own device. “Yeah. And it’s even the smart kind.”
“What gives?” Ryan asked.
Beck looked toward the roof peeking through the trees. “Can I come over?”
There was a long pause. “You’re in LA?”
“Rattling around the empty compound,” Beck answered. “The band is on yet another ‘final’ farewell tour.”
“It’s good to hear your voice. Last I knew, you were supposed to be on the Nile River but you’d gone incommunicado—”
“I’ll tell you about that.”
Another beat of silence. “I’m not at my house in the Canyon. I’m in the mountains at Blue Arrow Lake. I…thought it best to get away for a while.”
Oh, shit. It suddenly struck Beck that it was March, and for Ryan Hamilton, March meant trouble. Big, big trouble. He sank to his haunches and shoved his hand through his hair. “Are you all right?”
“Hard to say.” The other man sounded weary. “It’s complicated.”
“I shouldn’t bother you then.”
“You could come up here.” Ryan cleared his throat. “My brother Linus is with me, but I could use another…buffer.”
Huh? Shit. “What’s going on?”
“There’s a woman. She has a kid.”
“What?” Everything Ryan didn’t need to deal with in March. There’s a woman. She has a kid.
“So will you come?”
“I would, man, I really would.” Beck swiped his hand through his hair again. “But I made a promise to Cilla to stick around for her wedding—”
“I heard about that too. She’s marrying Ren Colson?”
Turned out LA was as much a small town as a city. Thanks to the gossip rags, celebrity blogs, syndicated Hollywood-centric TV shows, the Rock Royalty continued to “enjoy” the spotlight.
“All of them who grew up at the compound, they’re all engaged or the next best thing,” Beck said, still stunned by it. His connection with the rest of the nine had always been loose, but one thing he’d known about them—or thought he’d known about them—is that they wouldn’t see themselves as being monogamous, long-term romance material any more than he was. The wild, debauched atmosphere of the compound had given them no idea of what that might look like. But the others had defied his expectations.
“And Cilla…” She was the youngest of them, a sunny optimist, and it turned out she was damn hard to disappoint. “Well, I said I’d be here until her vows with Ren are exchanged.”
Ryan sounded somewhere between surprised and disbelieving, which about summed up how Beck felt regarding the pledge he’d made to the younger woman. “I might have gone a little soft in the head. I…bumped it when I was on the Nile.”
“Never mind,” Beck said. “It’s a long story.”
“Please. I could use the distraction.”
The woman and the kid, Beck remembered. Rising back to his full height, he turned and ambled along the track the way he’d come. “A few weeks in, we hit some rapids. My photographer was a half day ahead and he made it through safely, but my guide and I ran into trouble. One minute my adrenaline was pumping as I saw the whitewater in front of us. The next thing I knew I woke up on dirt floor in a mud hut with a mother of headache.”
“And that might have been my name for all I knew. Turns out my guide ran off with all our supplies and my gear, including my identification. It took me a while to recall who the hell I was and why the hell I was there.”
“You mean, like amnesia?”
Exactly like amnesia. “Yeah. It took my photographer finally tracking me down for me to get proper medical attention. After that, it was rest and a study of the photographs he’d taken of our travels that finally brought back recollections of the recent past.”
“Okay. What aren’t you telling me?”
Being a loner by nature, Beck didn’t have a lot of friends, but he appreciated this one who could so easily detect the unspoken. “I…” Why was this so hard? He’d managed to admit the ongoing problem to the gathered Rock Royalty on the day he’d surprised them with his presence at the compound—and got a shiner for his trouble when Cami Colson’s man thought he was some Velvet Lemons fan-slash-stalker.
“Beck?” Ryan prompted.
“I don’t remember the months before I left on the expedition.” Saying it aloud again made unease churn in his belly.
A moment of silence passed. “Is that such a problem?” Ryan finally said. “I mean, you’ve remembered who you are. Isn’t that good enough?”
How to explain it? It was as if he carried that dark hole of time behind him, a weight heavy and unbalanced, and Beck couldn’t help wondering what kind of destruction it might be wreaking.
“And I sure as hell wish I had a way of forgetting some of my memories,” Ryan continued, his voice low.
Beck winced, the other man’s pain was so evident. So raw. “Ryan…”
“No, no, I get it. I can imagine it’s weirding you out.”
“Yeah. It is weirding me out.” He’d made his way back to the compound but instead of letting himself through the gate, he continued along the fence line. The street on which the compound was located dead-ended, but another, smaller property was tucked into the hillside at the termination of the blacktop. He could see the front of the dwelling situated on it from his vantage point, a funky rambler surrounded by shrubs, mountain laurels, and oaks. Through the branches of one he could just glimpse the brick driveway and the side of a worn-looking panel van, its rear doors open.
The queasy feeling roiled in his gut again and a twinge of the old headaches poked at his brain. “It just seems like there’s something important to know,” he murmured, rubbing at his temple.
“What do the doctors say?”
Beck continued rubbing. “That the memories are there. And that the brain—maybe—can forge a new retrieval path to them.”
“So…what? You just wait for them to be…accessible?”
“Looking at the photos of the Nile expedition helped me recall those. So I’m staying at the compound hoping that will trigger my recollection.”
“Why the compound?”
“I was living there. Before I left the country.”
A moment of silence passed. “Uh…no, you weren’t.”
Beck froze. “What do you mean?”
“You were staying with me. At my Laurel Canyon house.”
Excitement began to fizz in Beck’s blood. “I didn’t know.” He tried thinking of why he’d assumed he’d been at the compound. Something Cilla had said?
“Do you want to move in there? I can get a set of keys to you.”
“I don’t know.” Was that necessary? Or could he just talk to his old friend and get a sense of what he’d been doing those last few weeks? Thinking it over, he stared at the small house below. “What was I up to while I was with you? Anything I should know?”
“It was you, Beck. We didn’t sit around doing our nails and sharing our shit.”
He grimaced, knowing he’d probably made a lousy house guest. His loner streak was wider than a skunk’s stripe. “No slumber parties, huh?”
“As a matter of fact, at night you were mostly…absent.”
“Absent? What’s that mean?”
“Sorry, pal. I didn’t comb through the pages of your diary to find out exactly where you went. I just know you were busy. You didn’t say where. Or with whom.”
Huh. Beck pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do you think…” The question drifted away as he glimpsed a figure moving outside the house below.
A woman. Young, by the lithe lines of her figure and the graceful way she moved. Her dark hair swung just to her shoulders as she walked toward the van. Beck’s temples pounded and his eyesight blurred. Out of the haze, a vision began to form. Another woman, slender too, but with hair burnished red.
His breath caught and his heart pounded hard against his ribs. He could taste the memory on his tongue—or it was her taste…a distinct, sweet cherry. Ryan’s voice buzzed in his ear but Beck ignored it, reaching for that recollection just hovering fingertips away.
He blinked, silently cursing as the real woman came into focus again—the dark hair and the willowy build. Then he saw her arms windmill and she began to fall.
Beck’s heart seized as time slowed.
Time spooled backward.
Another memory—one he’d never managed to forget—erupted from the pit it had dug for itself more than two decades before. Night, lit only by the fairy lights in the trees of the compound. The tiny figure running in stumble steps away from him, shrieking with toddler glee. The low-slung car, its headlights washing over the child as she ran onto the drive. Next she was falling, tumbling, and he was screaming in his head, louder than the squeal of the brakes, louder than the shouts of people rushing toward them from a distance.
Louder than the terrifying silence from the fallen child.
“I’ve got to go,” Beck said into the phone now, thoughts of unremembered yesterdays and unforgettable tragedies evaporating as some primal instinct drove him down the hill. Get to that woman.
Jewel Malone landed hard on her butt. She gasped as the jolt traveled from her tailbone up her spine to the base of her skull. The sudden pain was in no way pleasant, but more of a shock was the sight of beads, rhinestones, earring backs, pin parts and various other source materials of her jewelry business littering the driveway. The slick sole of one of her sneakers had met a scattering of faux pearls which had sent her to the ground.
Someone had wrenched open the back doors of her van and tossed out the contents of the bins she’d stacked inside. And perhaps stolen some of her supplies or tools too?
Between that idea and the echoing ache in her body, Jewel had a sudden urge to cry.
No, not gonna happen, she told herself, shutting down the compulsion. Shed no tears.
They’d been banished from her life eleven months ago and she wasn’t about to let them fall free again.
Reaching out, she scooped up the closest pieces then gingerly got to her feet to limp over to the van while favoring her weaker leg. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she let the contents of her palms dribble into one of the now-empty containers in back. Then, on a steadying breath, she took stock of the disarray.
At first glance, nothing seemed to be gone. Her tools remained affixed to the pegboard—though askew—on the right side of the van. It was the items in the bins that appeared to have been rifled through or dumped out.
She couldn’t let the mess overwhelm her. Hadn’t she survived four years of art school, financing it through scholarships and two part-time jobs? Then there was the business itself, one she’d built up without anything more than determination and love for her work.
Ignoring the pull in her bad leg, she bent to reach for a 1950s-era gaudy brooch by her foot, half of its sparkling rhinestones missing.
Exactly how it had appeared when she found the piece at a local estate sale. But when she was done working her creative magic, she would have turned it into a one-of-a-kind piece that she’d sell to a local boutique or retail herself at a regional craft fair.
Straightening again, she tossed it into another bin then moved to adjust the jeweler’s instruments on the pegboard. She didn’t do as much jewelry repair as before, but in the beginning her mobile mending, cleaning, and restoration business had taken her to the wealthiest homes in LA and introduced her to clients who appreciated her original works as well.
It might have been an almost-accidental business model, but it kept her and…
The hairs on the back of her neck sprang up.
Jewel felt a wave of prickles rush over her skin and she froze.
When she’d walked out of her grandmother’s house a few minutes before she’d felt herself alone on the dead-end street. The huge, fenced compound belonging to the Velvet Lemons was their only neighbor, and it had been mostly quiet there since the band embarked on a global tour over a year ago. But now…
Another shiver and her thoughts flew to all that was precious inside her grandmother’s. Jewel started for the front door, allowing herself a quick glance over her shoulder.
All on their own, her feet stuttered to a stop, while her heart began to race. Hot tears of relief sprang to her eyes.
Beck had made it back safely, at last.
At the curb he stood, eyes covered by sunglasses, his head at a quizzical angle, his lean body still.
Her gaze ran over him, from his tumbled brown hair to the scruff of golden beard on his jaw. Then it traveled to his wide shoulders and lean hips before returning to his face.
He looked whole. Fit. Like twenty months hadn’t passed since she’d last set eyes upon him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
His voice sounded the same too, low and husky. Male. It struck her to the marrow of her bones. She attempted to lubricate her dry mouth and lips. “Um…”
“I was out walking,” he said, with a vague gesture over his shoulder at the grass-covered slope behind him.
There was a path she knew well that bordered the compound fence and she nodded to indicate she understood.
“I saw you fall,” he continued. His fingertips pressed against his temple as if it pained him. “I thought…”
“I’m okay,” she said.
“You were limping a minute ago. Is your leg all right?”
“An old football injury,” she replied, her usual little joke to deflect attention from it.
Raising a brow, he came closer.
Jewel breathed in sharply, wondering if he would smell the same. His scent had been something delicious but elusive and she’d made herself mad trying to find the product over the last long months.
Finally, she’d figured out it was just Essence de Beck, a combination of his pheromones and wandering spirit.
He halted with several feet still between them. No welcome hug? No kiss to the cheek? She didn’t even rate a modicum of affection? Disappointment sluiced through her.
His hand went to his chest. “Beck Hopkins,” he said, as if she didn’t know full well he’d been named by his father after the famed British guitarist Jeff Beck. “I’m from the compound,” he said, with another vague gesture over his shoulder.
Jewel stared. This was his play? Of course he didn’t know what had happened once he’d left for the Nile, but surely he wasn’t going to pretend they were strangers. It stung like a slap in the face and she felt the color rise up her neck.
“What happened here?” he asked, turning his attention from her to the van and the mess surrounding it.
She wiped her damp palms on her jeans and suddenly wished she’d been in something chic instead of ancient denim and a stretched-out T-shirt that kept sliding off one shoulder. “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I think it might just be vandalism—kids or something. I can’t see that anything is missing.”
“You didn’t hear anything?”
“I was at the back of the house. I only came out front because it’s about this time every day the parcel service delivers.” Pursing her lips, she considered. “Maybe that’s what spooked the vandals.”
“Maybe.” He glanced around. “Are you alone? Or do you live out here with a man?”
Again, Jewel stared. It was as if he’d forgotten everything. Though maybe she should have found herself a man, she thought, anger kindling. It wasn’t as if he’d left her with any promises.
Or even a way to reach him.
As a newish friend to a few of the other Rock Royalty, she was aware he’d been out of touch for some months, and they’d worried. But then, to their relief, he’d popped up.
Phone calls to his brothers. Emails for Cilla Maddox.
No word for Jewel Malone, though. Not one.
And she was not going to cry about that.
“Did that come out wrong?” he asked now, grimacing. “If it sounded like a come-on, let me put you at ease. I only meant to find out if you have somebody looking out for you. If the vandals return…”
She didn’t hear the rest of his explanation. If it sounded like a come-on, let me put you at ease.
Meaning he wasn’t interested in her, and by extension that meant he wouldn’t be interested in a repeat—
“Hey.” Beck put his hand on her shoulder.
Fire shot through her at the touch. She leaped back, her face flaming as hot, and her own hand went to the point of contact to try rubbing away the searing sensation.
Damn. Was it too much to ask that her reaction to him would have changed after all this time? But she was still as susceptible to his physical touch. Aware his eyes were on her, she turned away and made a show of gathering up some of the beads and etcetera on the ground. But then she could swear she felt his gaze on her ass and she straightened, turning to face him again.
His expression appeared remote, which had been part of the appeal when they were together. On the outside he’d been Mr. Cool Control, but then he’d get her behind a closed door and he’d explode with passion—leashed passion, but it had set her on fire all the same. The memory of that poured heat into her bloodstream. She felt the tips of her breasts tighten and she crossed her arms over her chest to hide the sign of his affect on her.
His expression didn’t change, but she could hear the echo of his voice in her head, the way he’d spoken to her when they’d been together.
At a restaurant one night, he’d reached across the table to take her hand. Then he squeezed his fingers and a smirk had caused that fine mouth of his to quirk. “Sugar,” he’d said, his voice low. “Your hard nipples are telling me your panties just went wet. Am I right?”
She’d been flustered and spluttery and he’d just leaned back in his chair, kicked out his long legs, and while continuing to hold her hand, watched her trying to re-gather her dignity with that faint smile on his otherwise-expressionless face.
Then, she’d pretty much loved all that alpha, brash confidence.
At the moment, she hated him for the very same thing.
Now he spoke up again. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
What? She’d been more intimate with him than any man in her entire life. He’d touched her everywhere, tasted every inch of her skin. In return, she’d dropped her inhibitions and agreed to his every sexual suggestion. Passionate putty in his hands.
And he had the gall to ask her name?
But then the answer hit her on the head with all the pain of an anvil. It was a signal to her that he didn’t want to pick up where they’d left off. The man likely thought he’d save his ex-lover embarrassment by sending the message in this understated way.
They could pretend to be strangers and thus avoid the awkwardness of an affair that had ended.
She swallowed, determined then, to follow his lead. “Jewel,” she murmured, her throat too tight to push out the syllables with any strength.
Beck frowned. “What’s that?”
But before she could answer, an old Cadillac came charging down the street, the one that belonged to her grandmother’s friend Doris. Doris’s grandson, Gavin, was behind the wheel and he guided it to a stop in front of the house.
Jewel painted on a smile as her grandmother climbed out of the backseat, two full shopping bags in hand. Taking them from the woman, Jewel whistled. “Wow, quite a haul.”
“You’d better believe it.” The gray-haired lady hurried toward the front door. “I must be getting old. Time for another bathroom break.”
Jewel set the bags on the ground as Gavin climbed from the driver’s seat. Blond and handsome, he looked successful and fit in business casual of khakis and a polo shirt. “What happened here?” he asked, nodding toward the van.
Instead of answering, she moved to him and kissed him on the cheek. They’d been friends forever and his flexible hours as a real estate agent allowed him to often help out his elderly relative—and hers too, at times. “Thanks for picking the grandmas up. The train was on time?”
“No problem. They seemed to have fun.”
The pair were confirmed junkaholics, and they’d spent the day at a huge junktique-antique collective up the coast. “We found several things for you!” Doris called from the open passenger window.
“Oh, great.” Jewel never let on, but they rarely found something worth using for her jewelry business. But she adored them for their interest and efforts. “I can’t wait to see what you brought back.”
Then she looked around, having lost track of Beck. Despite the unsettling stranger treatment, there was something vital she needed to share with him. Her gaze caught on his tall figure moving up the street, away from their little group. Away from her.
She called his name.
He turned, brows raised.
But she couldn’t just blurt it out like this. Not with an audience, not with him looking so…remote. “Um, well, thank you,” she said, feeling foolish and embarrassed all over again. Missing him all over again, if she would confess the truth. “Bye.”
His hand lifted as he turned back around. “Bye, Julie.”
That made her so damn angry that when hot tears brimmed over she told herself she welcomed them as a much-needed emotional release.