Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Romance  ➡  Clean & wholesome

The Last Rock King (An Interracial Rock Star Romance)

The Last Rock King

By Seven Steps

This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

THE LAST ROCK KING

First edition. November 20, 2016.

Copyright © 2016 Seven Steps.

Written by Seven Steps.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter 1 | Los Angeles, California

Chapter 2 | Noah | One Year Later | New York City

Cassie

Chapter 3 | Noah

Chapter 4

Chapter 5 | Cassie | New Jersey

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Noah

Chapter 8

Cassie

Chapter 9

Chapter 10 | London

Chapter 11 | Noah

Chapter 12

Chapter 13 | Cassie

Chapter 14

Cassie

Chapter 15 | Germany

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Cassie

Chapter 18 | France

Chapter 19 | Noah

Chapter 20

Chapter 21 | Cassie

Noah

Chapter 22 | Cassie

Chapter 23 | Los Angeles, California

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26 | Noah

Chapter 27 | Cassie

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30 | Noah

Cassie

Chapter 31

Chapter 32 | France

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35 | Noah

Chapter 36 | Cassie

Chapter 37 | Walter

Chapter 38 | Cassie

Noah

Chapter 39 | Cassie

Chapter 40 | Noah

Chapter 41 | Cassie

Chapter 42 | Noah

Chapter 43 | Cassie

Chapter 44

Chapter 45 | Noah

Chapter 46 | Cassie

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Sign up for Seven Steps’s Mailing List

Further Reading: Peace in the Storm : An Interracial BWWM Second Chance Billionaire Romance

About the Author

Chapter 1

Los Angeles, California

Stars clouded Sarah Banner’s eyes as his fingers tightened around her throat.

She tried to scream, but his thumbs pressed against her windpipe, squeezing with a strength that belied his age.

Pain pumped through her head. Her heart banged against her ribs. The stars burst into stunning colors: magenta, indigo, emerald, and gold.

Time slowed.

In her final moments, Sarah’s mind sharpened, recalling with breathtaking clarity the seemingly small decisions that drove her to the final seconds of her life.

I should have stayed in the car.

The Evergreen Motel was built in the middle of a pine forest, the sharp scent heavy in the air. Giant trees stretched leafy fingers toward the sky, blocking the moonlight and sinking the place into deeper shadow.

When they’d first pulled into the deserted, barely-lit parking lot, she refused to get out the expensive rental, demanding instead that he take her to his office like he’d promised.

“Just a few minutes,” he’d said. “And after that,” his hand touched her cheek, “we’re gonna make you a star, baby girl.”

Excitement took hold, and she allowed him to lead her to a side door. The glass had been cracked in the top left corner, the break slowly spider webbing. He slid the key into the card reader to the outside door. The door clicked.

They walked into the air conditioned hallway, and found room number 6—the first one on the right.

He slid the keycard into the card reader to their hotel room and held the door for her.

She stepped over the threshold.

He was such a gentleman.

The door closed. He whispered her name, “Sarah.”

She turned.

His fist connected with her jaw, shattering it.

She cried out in surprise as she fell to the ground.

That was when he’d climbed on top of her. That was when he’d wrapped his hands around her throat.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a small, dying voice brought her back to the present.

[Move, _]it screamed[. Fight. Survive._]

She swung her bare knees and small hands in desperate, wild arches, frantically attempting to find flesh.

Struggle. Live. Escape.

He pressed harder, her throat crunching as it splintered and broke beneath his herculean grip.

The stars in Sarah’s eyes faded.

Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t…

Chapter 2

Noah

One Year Later

New York City

“Great show tonight, Noah!” Walter Washington’s dark hand slapped the rock star’s bare back, splashing tiny droplets of sweat in all directions. “You killed it! You blew the roof off! I ain’t never seen nobody rock Madison Square Garden like that!”

Noah used a large grey towel to wipe down his tanned, glistening body. The crowd’s screams echoed down the tight, humid hallway. They couldn’t get enough of Noah LaRock.

After sixteen years of being together as rock star and manager, the two men’s steps were perfectly synced as they moved swiftly down the black tiled corridor. This despite Noah being six inches taller, and Walter thirty years older. The two were knit together in spirit, with one goal, one purpose: to keep the bright star that was Noah LaRock shining.

The green room laid just ahead.

“You just let old Papa Bear take care of everything.” He jabbed one finger into Noah’s shoulder. “This tour was big, but the next one will be even bigger.”

“I don’t know, Walter,” Noah said. “Did you think it was a little empty?”

“Nonsense, my boy. That crowd loved you!”

Noah frowned, and threw the towel over one wide shoulder, covering the flame tattoo there. The same orange flames licked at the toe of Noah’s black cowboy boots.

An explosion of cheers rung through the corridor when he filled the green room doorway.

“Whoooooo!” Throwing his arms up, he hooted in his trademark fashion. The crowd returned the call. Noah waded through the swirling mass of groupies, entourage, staff, and backstage guests, accepting his accolades with a mega-watt smile.

Walter stayed close behind.

At the age of eight, Noah LaRock released his first album of classic rock song covers. Over the past sixteen years, he went on to sell nearly a billion albums worldwide. His face graced the cover of magazines in first, second, and third world countries. Noah LaRock was legend, a true king adorned in leather pants and flame covered black boots.

And then, as it did every few years, pop music rose from the ashes. An army of boy bands and auto-tuned pretty blondes had begun waging an all-out war against the King. His sales slacked. He sang to stadiums and concert halls barely three quarters filled. The pre-pubescent troops reinforced themselves with bloggers, gossip mongers, statuses, and tweets all screaming for a music revolution. Their arrows were aimed at the gates. The media, once so firmly in Noah’s pocket, now laced stories about him with the terms like [has been, washed up, _]and _retirement.

The King was being overthrown.

Walter wore his impending defeat for the world to see, draping himself with slouched shoulders, watery eyes, and pinched expressions. If Noah returned to the peasantry, Walter would follow.

***

Cassie

Standing in the threshold was Walters’s daughter, and on-staff nurse, Cassie Washington. She didn’t move into the domain of the man the media had dubbed The Last Rock King. She was there for one reason and one reason only. From June twenty-second until September first, between the hours of seven p.m. and twelve a.m., she was tasked with keeping a vigilant watch for any injury that might come upon Noah or his crew. Although Noah had been perfectly healthy the entire summer, his groupies always seemed to acquire mysterious bruises, scrapes, and scars.

Her honey brown eyes glided down to her cell phone.

Eleven fifty, she thought. Ten more minutes.

She looked back into the room, praying for an accident-free night.

Yawning, she kept her eyes on Noah. The Rock King was currently standing on the couch, throwing stacks of hundred dollar bills in the air. They floated down onto the crowd like rain.

Cassie rolled her eyes. Ten days to go.

Barely clad bodies packed tight between bare white walls.

Vultures, Cassie thought.

They each craved the same thing. Recognition. A look. A nod. A word perhaps. A single moment in time, a definitive action that would catapult them into the stratosphere of fame and fortune. They always tried Noah first. The women would push their lush bodies against him. The men would try to dazzle him with their whit. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes. When it didn’t, the men would shake the disappointment from their faces and move on to Walter, hoping for a smile, an iota of praise. The women would smile their goodbyes at Noah, hide in the bathroom for a few minutes, then make a beeline to Dondo Rodriguez, Noah’s best friend and backstage staple.

A chuckle escaped Cassie’s lips as she watched them.

The most they’ll get from Dondo is a broken dream and an STD, she thought.

The room smelled of whisky and hot cheese dip, both readily available from the long white folding table that had been pushed against the far wall. A few women in barely there skirts and mid-drift bearing tops buzzed near the table, nibbling on chips and waiting to be acknowledged by someone, anyone. Two worn, black leather couches were positioned at a ninety-degree angle, separated only by a dingy, bulb-less, shaded lamp atop a scratched wooden table.

Walter walked around the green room for a few minutes, throwing friendly hellos here and there, and speaking briefly to Dondo, before joining Cassie by the door.

“I think I’m getting too old for this crowd.” He smiled.

“Walter,” Cassie said, “you’re only sixty.”

“I’d prefer that you call me dad.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes, I’m working on that. I just need more time.”

Turning her attention back to the room, she spied Noah now spraying champagne at the screaming crowd. She shook her head.

Rock stars.

“Well, don’t be too long,” Walter said. “We have an early day tomorrow.”

His eyes perused the left wall, then the right. He took an unsure step toward her, his arms raising slightly.

Cassie didn’t move toward him. She wasn’t interested in one of her father’s awkward hugs tonight. He’d missed too many hugs already.

He dropped his arms, took a step back, and sighed.

“Good night, Cassie.”

“Night, Walter.”

As she watched him amble toward the private parking garage, Cassie couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man whom she at one time in her life had called Dad.

Suddenly, a commotion erupted on the right side of the room. Hurt howls echoed through the hallway.

She ran inside, hoping it wasn’t serious enough to keep her on shift past twelve.

“Move aside, please. I’m the nurse!”

Another howl pierced her ears as she pushed her way through the partiers, who, for the most part, were only slightly concerned with the screaming taking place deeper in the room.

Finally, she reached the center of the commotion. There, cradling one of his wrists, was Dondo, crowned prince of the green room.

And world class, grade A womanizer, she thought.

Crouching down, she reached a hand to his swelling wrist.

“Don’t touch it!” he screamed, swinging his body away from her. “I think I broke it.”

She sat on her haunches and placed a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him on his back.

“What happened?”

“He fell over a table,” someone said.

Cassie looked behind her and into the frightened eyes of a girl who couldn’t have been more then eighteen. “Call 9-1-1.”

The girl nodded fiercely, causing the top of her large breasts to shimmy in her too small dress. The girl pulled a small cell phone from her red clutch purse, dialed, pressed one finger to her ear, and disappeared into the crowd.

“No.” Dondo’s face twisted into a grimace, his thin mustache glistening with sweat. “Don’t call 9-1-1.”

“Don’t you worry about that. Now, let me have a look at that wrist.”

Dondo sheepishly extended his injured right wrist to her.

She examined it. “You’re fine. It’s only a sprain.”

“It doesn’t feel like a sprain.”

“Once the paramedics come, they’ll wrap it up and give you some aspirin. You’ll be fine.”

Someone spoke from behind Cassie, “Dondo.”

She craned her neck to find a clean cut man in dark shades shaking his head at Dondo, avoiding Cassie’s eye.

Dondo’s eyes opened wide, and he looked back at Cassie. “Please don’t call 9-1-1.”

Cassie shook her head. “Too late. They’re already on their way.”

“Tell them not to come.”

“I can’t.”

His voice was on the verge of panic. “My pockets. You have to empty my pockets!”

“Your pockets?” Frowning, Cassie reached her hand into the right pocket of his grey dress pants. She pulled out his wallet and presented it to him. “This?”

“No. The other one.”

Rolling her eyes, she reached into his left pants pocket. She immediately felt the smooth plastic bag and pulled it out. The white, powered substance shifted as she held it up to the light.

She gasped. “Is this what I think it is?”

“If they catch me with it, I’ll go to jail!”

“Why do you have coke in your pocket?”

The shaded man gripped her shoulder. She winced as his fingers pressed into the bone, threatening her without words. “They’re here,” he said. “Be cool.”

The hand left her shoulder, and Cassie turned in time to see the navy blue hats of two female EMTs pushing through the crowd.

She whipped back to Dondo. “Did you use it?”

“What?”

“Did you use this yet?”

He shook his head.

Just as the EMT’s stepped forward, she dropped the bag into her white medical jacket and rose to greet them.

“He fell over the table and landed on his right wrist. It looks like a sprain.”

She stepped out of the way as they moved in.

He howled again. The sound followed Cassie as she pushed through the crowd, burst into the cooler hallway, and retreated to the first aid station down the hall.

Great, she thought. Now I’ll have to file an incident report. That’s just how I wanted to spend my night.

She rotated her sore shoulder as she walked down the corridor.

There’s probably a bruise thanks to Dondo and his druggy friend. Jerks!

Chips and cracks marred the white painted bricks on the walls. Strips of red commercial carpet were strewn over the floor here and there. The color reminded Cassie of her mother’s rose garden. The thought congealed into a lump in her throat. She swallowed it down.

Cassie hadn’t seen her mother, Janice, in two months. It was the longest that they’d ever been away from each other, and although they tried to text and call each other every day, it was not the same. After a rough night like this, Cassie wanted nothing more than to smell her mother’s perfume, fell her warm hugs, and hear her say that everything would be okay in her almost musical Irish accent. Janice had been in the country for nearly thirty years, yet she still spoke like she was fresh from Dublin.

Ten more days, Mom, Cassie thought. Ten more days and then we’ll be together again.

Pulling a napkin from her pocket, she dabbed her forehead with it. Her tawny colored foundation came off on the napkin. She closed her eyes and shook her head.

[Why do I even bother with makeup? _]she thought. _It always melts down here anyway.

The first aid station was a little more than an emptied out supply closet. The words First Aid Station were printed in black ink atop a white background. Using the key that hung around her neck, she opened the door and stepped inside. The smell of iodine hit her as the overhead lights automatically clicked on.

A short, clear, locked cabinet was shoved against the back wall, stocked with a small stash of pain relievers, bandages, alcohol wipes, and other medically related supplies. A tiny desk, barely tall enough for the arms of her rolling chair to fit under, was against the left wall. Atop the desk was a computer and a landline phone with multiple, red-lit buttons. On the right wall was a high shelf with papers on it. She pulled a blank incident report from the shelf and sat in the rolling chair.

It crossed her mind to include the cocaine in the incident report just to teach Dondo a lesson. As quickly as the thought arrived, she pushed it away. Noah or Walter would have Dondo out of jail in no time. The whole incident would be swept under the rug, and he’d be back up to his old tricks within a day. It seemed, though, that the tricks were getting worse.

[_Usually Dondo only smokes pot with the groupies. What made him turn to cocaine? _]

She frowned and bit her lip.

Maybe something deeper is going on?

Sighing, she shook the thought from her head and scribbled her name onto the top of the form.

Not my problem, she thought. In ten more days, I’ll be out of here and back in Greenwich. Let Noah LaRock worry about Dondo’s drug habits.

Suddenly, a shadow fell over her. A stack of bills wrapped in a red rubber band thumped down onto the table, covering her incident report.

“Hey.”

Cassie looked up into the bluest pair of eyes she’d ever seen. Those eyes captured her, drowning her in the sweetest of blue seas. Seas flecked with amber and jade. Seas that hid a black whirlpool in its core, that sucked her under until her she could see, hear, and touch nothing else but their agitated depths.

The Rock King was beautiful indeed. With short, spiky brown hair that hinted red under the light, a perfectly manicured five o’clock shadow, and a physique that could rival Olympic athletes, he took her breath away.

Yes, she’d watched him every night, but only from a distance in the crowded green room. To see him up close was something else entirely.

“Are you the nurse?”

She stuttered for the first time in years. “Uh, yes.”

“Hi, I’m Noah.” He extended a large, calloused hand to her.

The meaning of what he’d said slowly sank into her brain.

[_He doesn’t know who I am. _]The overwhelming urge to slap him rose sharp. [_How could my father work for him for sixteen years, and he doesn’t know who I am? _]She controlled the urge and shook his hand instead.

“I just wanted to thank you for helping Dondo,” he said. “You didn’t have to do that, and I’m sorry if it put you in a compromising position.”

“Don’t you mean an illegal position?” she asked.

“Yes, that too.”

Their hands hadn’t separated. He pulled his away first and stuffed it into his jean pockets, though his eyes stayed on hers. He’d changed out of his leather pants and jacket and into jeans and a black t-shirt.

“Look,” he said, “if there’s anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable, I’ll be more than happy to accommodate you.” His eyes dropped to the wad of cash that covered her paper.

She followed his line of sight, cold fury rising within her chest. “Are you trying to bribe me, Mr. LaRock?”

His lips went up in a lazy smile that made her heart pound, melting her fury a bit. Irritated at her body’s reaction to him, she crossed her arms across her chest and allowed an incriminating glare to settle on her face.

He seemed unaffected by the daggers that shot from her eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I guess I am.”

“I don’t take bribes.”

“All right, then, what do you want? A picture? A song? A secret serenade?”

He put his finger to one ear. He gazed deep into her eyes as he rung out the notes to one of his most famous ballads, Breathe Again.

“And when everything else is stripped away, love remains the same. When poor men look into heaven, they pray for love to take the pain away. When I’m without you, my world just melts away and I die another day. Come back to my arms, oh, baby, oh, baby, and let me breath again tonight.”

Cassie held up a hand, though her heart beat wildly. “I think that I’m all set, thank you.”

Confusion and ire lit Noah’s face. “You don’t like the song?”

“What I don’t like is being accosted in my office with money and power ballads. And I especially don’t like your drug addict friends.” She swept a hand across the table, pushing the green stack onto the floor. She wished that the bills weren’t bundled together. It would have been more dramatic to see them fly.

He took a step back, didn’t move to pick up the cash. “You didn’t like my song?”

“Keep your song and your drug money. I don’t need them.”

“Don’t be stupid. Everyone needs my money.”

“Not me. Now take your lyrics and your bribes and go.”

She saw the white of his teeth flash.

“And here.” She snatched the baggie of cocaine out of her pocket and threw it at him. The small bag struck him in the chest, landing next to the money on the floor. “Take your filthy crack too!”

Body shaking, mouth tight, he picked up both the cash and the baggie, and glared at her.

His voice dropped to a growl. “You’re fired. And don’t even think about going to the press. You signed a non-disclosure agreement. If I hear one thing about Dondo, I’ll sue you back to wherever you came from.” With a final smirk of victory, he turned and sauntered back toward the green room. He’d only made it a few steps before she rushed from her doorway.

“You really don’t know who I am, do you?” she cried. “I should have known, you selfish, spoiled peacock!”

The floor squeaked as his boots slid to a stop. He turned back to her, his eyes narrow, his cheeks puffing with harsh breath.

“That’s it! When I get back to the room, I’m calling security to haul you out of here!”

“My father has worked for you for the last sixteen years. But I wouldn’t expect you to know who I am. Why would you? I’m not one of your groupies.”

His brows knit together in confusion. “What?”

“Walter Washington. My father. Your manager.”

Recognition lit his eyes. “Cassie?”

She pointed to the name tag on her jacket. “Yes! I’ve been working here, on your tour, for two months.” She threw her hands in the air. “Hello!”

He took her in then, his eyes scrutinizing her thick, kinky hair, freckle covered, tawny skin, her slim waist, shapely hips. “Cassie Washington?”

She smirked, grabbed her medical record book, her coat, and her purse from the office and locked it tight. “You know what? I wouldn’t expect you to know who I am. You just stole my father from me for half my life. Why would you know who I am? Why would you care?”

The anger drained from his face. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “He only has pictures of when you were a little girl. I didn’t know what you looked like.”

“Well, isn’t that unfortunate?” She deliberately pushed past him and half-walked, half-jogged toward the private parking garage.

Her blood was boiling when she whipped around to face him again. “You know, you have some nerve. My father chose you over us and you don’t even know who his family is. I’ve been your on-staff nurse for two months. I have treated your friends for every cut, bruise, and bang up they have.” She shook her head, hoping that her disappointment and anger shone as brightly on her face as it did in her heart. “But I guess all that doesn’t matter, huh?”

She pivoted and marched down the hallway and into the parking garage.

He didn’t follow.

Overhead lights cast an orange glow on the handful of vehicles that sat in the small lot. Parking garages always smelled like piss to her, and this one smelled no different. The smell and the punishing August heat only worsened her already foul mood. Finally finding her rental—a white Honda Civic—she jumped in. The car’s wheels squealed against the concrete floor as she sped off. Though transportation between states was taken care of, road crew and staff found their own way to the actual venues. Even Walter drove himself around most of the time.

[_How could he not know who I was? _]Cassie thought bitterly.

She remembered the day of her thirteenth birthday. Her father has been gone for five years by then. After her party, she wrote a letter to Noah, begging him to release her father from his contract and send him home. She never got a response.

Pulling into the VIP parking lot of the Marriott Hotel, she climbed out and handed the keys to the valet. She covered the floor of the lobby in several long strides before stepping into the elevator. Noah had rented out the entire top floor. She wondered if he knew that they were just two doors down from each other.

Obviously not, she thought. He didn’t even know I worked for him. _]Her irritation flared, then faltered. [_I wonder if I’m really fired.

What she’d said to him earlier replayed in her mind. She thought she called him a selfish, spoiled peacock, but couldn’t be sure.

It doesn’t matter now, she reasoned. He knows who I am. He’ll probably send me on the first bus home. No one wants some bitter woman wreaking havoc on their tour.

She unlocked her room door with her key card, cursing her temper.

The room had two queen-size beds, each covered in white sheets and a red accent blanket. She slid her bare feet over the beige, soft carpet, and threw herself down onto the bed closest to the door. Her body sunk into the soft mattress. It nearly swallowed her before settling.

_I wish I never came on this stupid tour. _

She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and texted her mom.

Sorry I didn’t call today. Super busy. I’ll call tomorrow first thing. Love you. See you in ten days!

Janice, her mother, normally fell into a coma-like sleep around eleven o’clock. Cassie generally called her around six, right before her shift started, but today one of the backup dancers fell and broke her arm. They’d been in the hospital for hours.

She blew out a breath and thought of all of the things that had gone wrong today.

I didn’t talk to my mom. Noah doesn’t even know I exist, and then—

A knock on the door drew her from her thoughts.

“What now?” She groaned.

Standing, she took a look in the mirror next to the door. Her kinky locks had frizzed into an afro. Her pale brown skin shined with sweat from the August heat.

The knock sounded again.

She jogged to the bureau next to the bed, sprayed a little water into her hands and quickly smoothed her hair into a bun, adding a headband for extra control. She then wiped the shine from her face with a clean napkin, smoothed her jeans and t-shirt, and pulled the door open.

His eyes dragged her under immediately.

She shook her head to keep from falling into the blue orbs.

Focus. He’s the man who stole your father from you.

She pushed her face into a frown, trying to hide the shiver that ran through her at the sight of his large body in her doorway.

“Can I help you?”

“Look, I’m sorry that I didn’t know who you were,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in years, and your father didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“Yes, well, he’s not the most talkative person.”

“But I wanted to thank you again for Dondo. And I wanted to give you this.”

He extended his hand, a white envelope hanging from his fingers.

She plucked it from him.

“What’s this?”

He didn’t reply, simply gave her another once over, then left.

Narrowing her eyes, she closed the door behind him, and sat on the bed.

I’ll bet it’s money. Men like that think that women only want one thing, a check. Well, if he thinks I need his money, he is mistaken. He can give this right to…

Her thoughts trailed off as she opened the letter. It was the same one she had mailed to him when she was thirteen. All around the white loose leaf paper, in faded blue ink, he had scribbled the same two words over and over again: I’m sorry.

Chapter 3

Noah

Late morning sunshine bathed the room in light. The rays breathed life into the textured, sea foam colored wallpaper, giving the room a sense of being surrounded by calm seas.

Noah sat on the king-size bed, his body hugging his apple red electric guitar. From time to time he jotted down a few notes on a sheet of paper as he strummed a tune. Dondo reclined at the foot of the bed, cell phone in hand, red pillow under his head.

A seventy-two-inch television screen silently flickered in the background. A blonde newswoman stood in what looked like a run-down neighborhood. Yellow police tape ran behind her. Beyond the tape, a long, square object was covered in a sheet on the ground.

“Where are we going tomorrow?” Dondo asked.

“Jersey.”

“Oh, that’s right, the stadium.” He used his thumb to scroll as, with the other hand, he took a long drink from a beer can. A bit of the beer foamed on his mustache, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.

“Yo, man, I need a loan.”

“For what?” Noah’s hand plucked at the guitar strings as he tinkered with a melody. It had been teasing him since yesterday. The tune was slow, sensuous. Something about brown eyes.

“A car,” Dondo said.

“I thought you just bought a car.”

“I did. But it’s a month old.”

“Yeah, whatever.” The phone in Noah’s jeans pocket buzzed. He lifted slightly off the bed to pull it out. The screen flashed the name Aaron Greenberg.

“Who’s that?” Dondo asked.

Noah tossed the phone onto the bed and readjusted his guitar in front of him. “Accountant. Call him later. Tell him I said the loan’s okay.”

Dondo waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, I hate talking to him. He’s always yelling.”

“Yeah, well, you’re always begging.” Noah strung a few more chords on the guitar. “I talked to Walter this morning,” he said.

Dondo looked down at his phone. “Oh yeah. What’d he say?”

“That Cassie was his daughter. He said she’s been away at medical school all these years.”

“But you knew that.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Dondo glanced up from his phone, a disbelieving smile playing on his lips. “You didn’t know Walter had a daughter? I barely talk to Walter and I knew he had a daughter in med school. He doesn’t shut up about it.”

“No, I knew he had a daughter in med school, but I didn’t know she was here.”

“Yo, you really need to get your mind out of the groupie black hole. She’s a banger! Thick thighs, flat stomach, honey eyes, those freckles. I mean, I’d go for her if she wasn’t Walt’s daughter.”

Noah played a bit more of the melody, wrote down a lyric. “Why didn’t he tell me she was working here?”

“Maybe he thought you would figure it out on your own. Guess he didn’t know you were a moron.”

A thick brown eyebrow rose. “Ha-ha-ha. Anyway, I guess she’s only here until the end of the summer, then she’s going back to school.”

Dondo grunted, and looked back down at his phone.

Why do I feel so guilty? _]Noah wondered. [_I mean, I felt guilty about her father leaving them before, but now that she’s here, I feel ten times worse. Almost like I was the one who convinced Walter to leave his family behind. But I didn’t convince him of anything. I was just a kid. Then why do I feel like such a jerk? If only there was a way to make it up to her.

Placing his guitar on the bed next to him, Noah stood and paced along the white carpet. “I should do something. Something that says I’m sorry for the way things turned out.” He snapped his fingers. “I know. I’ll give Walter some time off. He can take Cassie out, they can spend the day together, reconnect.”

Dondo shrugged. “I guess.”

He looked out the window and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m the reason her father left. I should be the reason he’s back in her life.”

“Whatever, dude. You’re taking this too far, as usual.”

“What? I’m being a human being. I’m doing what normal human beings do. I’m trying to make things right.”

“Whatever you have to do to sleep at night, dude.”

“You know what, Dondo? One day, you are going to care about someone other than yourself, and on that day, I want to be there. I want to see it when you look into the eyes of another person and say, I want to help them.”

“Hey, I help people. Hot girls are people too, aren’t they?”

Noah jogged to Dondo, snatched the phone from his hand, and threw it across the room.

“Hey!”

Noah opened his arms wide, threw his body forward, and pinned Dondo to the bed.

Dondo threw Noah off of him, jumped up.

Noah tripped on the carpet, fell to the floor.

Dondo dropped his elbow, pretending to hit Noah in the sternum.

Noah grabbed his belly, acting hurt.

Dondo righted himself and went to drop another elbow.

Noah pressed himself off the floor, and dropped a shoulder into Dondo’s chest. Both men tumbled to the floor in a fit of laughter.

“All right, I’m done.” Dondo sucked in harsh gasp. “I’m too old for this crap.”

“Yeah, you’re too old. You’re six months younger than me.”

“Then you’re too old for this crap.” Dondo pushed himself off the ground and headed to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.” Dondo said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“All right, man. Be careful with the ladies.”

“Can’t help it. I’m killing these chicks out here!”

Chapter 4

Screams followed Noah backstage, down the stairs, and into the green room. This was his last night at Madison Square Garden before heading to his home state of New Jersey. The day after that, the European leg of the tour would start in the United Kingdom.

Walter slapped his back in their customary fashion and handed him a towel. “Great show tonight, Noah.”

Noah wiped the sweat from his body and hung the towel around his neck.

“Thanks.”

He tried not to look behind him. He knew that Cassie was there. She’d been following him ever since he’d come off stage. Her presence was like the stirring of wind. Like some breeze that tickled his conscious. He’d noticed it ever since yesterday, when he’d looked into her eyes. Eyes that looked back at him without greed or motive. Eyes that looked directly into his soul. But why? How could he be so aware of someone he’d only known for a day? Someone who most likely hated him for taking away her father?

He forcibly pushed her out of his mind, turning his thoughts to more familiar ground: his fans.

He allowed the wave of cheers to crash over him as he walked into the green room. The sweet sound wrapped around him, re-energizing him.

Backstage passes hung from the necks of several girls and an older woman. They’d hunkered down near the food table, stuffing their faces with cheesy chips while eyeing him nervously. He saw the awe in their eyes as he walked over. Reveling in their excited expressions and little squeals of glee, he gave them hugs and kisses and posed for pictures. Normally, this would be his favorite part of the evening. These fans would support him until the end of his career if he treated them right.

His father always said that a successful musician needed two things, talent and loyal fans. Talent would only get you so far, he’d said, but dedicated, loyal fans would pay your bills forever.

He didn’t know how right he’d been.

Even through ups and down, good albums and bad ones, the Rocktards had always been there for him. In times of darkness, their letters, cards, and support kept him going. In times of light, he shined for them, trying his best to use his fame to give them a bit of joy in their otherwise mediocre lives. With special appearances, meet and greets, and video chats he did his best to make himself available to them. And if he couldn’t be there, he always sent a special gift in his stead. Some artists just said they loved their fans. Noah LaRock lived it. And God knew he loved the attention.

Tonight, however, he found himself distracted from his faithful followers. He scanned the room, searching for honey colored eyes in the crowd.

“Noah?”

The middle-aged woman, chaperone to the three girls, snapped her fingers to gain his attention. He posed, throwing up his arms in the classic LaRock stance.

After the camera flashed, one of the girls showed him a Rocktard tattoo she had on her arm. The letters were written in cursive, the word surrounded by orange and blue flames. The same flames that branded most things Noah LaRock. The tattoo was fresh. She had to peel the bandage off to show him.

“Aren’t you a little young for that tattoo?” he asked her.

The girl’s eyes went to the overly excited chaperone. “My mom did it for me,” she said. “Besides, I’m older than I look.” The girl licked her lips and threw her head to the side. Her strawberry blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders.

“How old are you?” Noah asked, his gaze roving over the girl’s full figure.

“Fourteen.”

Noah cleared his throat, took a step back. He felt shame sweep over him. “Well, you stay in school, little ’tard. You can’t rock without an education.”

He gave her a side hug, felt her disappointment in it, then dismissed his followers in a hail of hugs and kisses.

They screamed, “Rocktards for life,” as they waved goodbye and made their way out of the green room. His eyes followed them as they walked under the arch of the door. There he found the one person he’d been searching for all night.

Cassie leaned against the door frame, her eyes skimming over the crowd in search of an emergency.

[_Does she always stand there? _]he wondered.

Beneath her white lab coat, she wore fitted jeans and a blue t-shirt. Her hair wasn’t as big as it was yesterday. It seemed more curly than kinky.

Too bad, he thought. I liked it kinky.

Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself walking toward her.

She saw him approach. Her eyes widened and she turned her head, pretending to look around the room.

The act startled him. No one had intentionally ignored him in years.

Who did this girl think she was?

His pride was wounded. Women didn’t ignore Noah LaRock. His walking turned to stalking. He wouldn’t be overlooked, especially not by this woman who’d taken it upon herself to distract him in the first place.

How’d she do that exactly? he wondered.

He arrived next to her, placing one arm on the door above her head, intentionally trapping her.

She acknowledged him with a nod and continued to study the room. To the untrained eye, she seemed completely unaffected. But Noah was far from untrained. He saw the quickening of her breath, felt the heat coming off her body in waves. She tilted her neck ever so slightly, exposing her tender throat to him. He didn’t think she realized it, but it was a definite sign of interest, something women had been doing for as long as time was time.

It crossed his mind to devour her neck, to give her what her body craved, though her mind didn’t admit it.

He pushed the thought away and instead cleared his throat, put on his best smile, and said, “Do you always stand at the door?”

She didn’t look at him when she replied, “Yes.”

“Why don’t you come inside? There’s food.”

“No, thanks. I’m going to go back to the hotel in,” she pulled out her phone, then slid it back into her white coat, “two minutes.”

“Come on, I insist.”

He grabbed her hand, and her body immediately stiffened. At first he thought it was in anger, but as he led her across the room to the couches, her grip softened. Her fingers laid lightly on the back of his hand. Her walk eased. She was allowing him to lead her. He tried to ignore the tingles that raced through him at the thought.

Finally arriving at the couches, he let out a breath and let go of her hand. He missed her warmth as their fingers separated.

[But why? _]he thought. _I barely know this girl.

She smoothed down her coat, slowly leaning back to sit on the couch next to his recliner, the same recliner that he’d been sitting in since he started in this business.

“Hey, doc!” Dondo said.

Cassie smiled tightly. “Hey, Dondo.”

She looked around for her father, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Cassie?”

She looked up at the girl who called her name, a tall, dark skinned girl with blue eyes and bone straight black hair down to her waist.

“Cassie Washington?”

The two girls locked eyes, then broke out into smiles.

“Kelly Manning!”

They hugged each other, their hands interlocking.

“You know each other?” Noah asked.

“We went to high school together in LA,” Kelly said. “We were best friends.” Kelly looked back at Cassie, her eyes frowning. “What happened to you? You graduated and fell off the map.”

“My mom moved us to Connecticut and I guess I was just trying to find my feet. I lost touch with everyone back home.”

“I called you. I called you a lot.”

“I know. I’m sorry about losing touch.” Cassie gripped Kelly’s hand, turning the conversation back to safer waters. “I’m in medical school now,” she said. “I got my nursing license, and now I’m going back to be a doctor.”

Kelly’s eyes lit up. “That’s wonderful. My parents and I left L.A too. My dad got a job offer to run a hedge fund in Manhattan and here we are. Oh, Cassie, I missed you so much!”

The two women embraced again as the crowd around them discussed dinner, drinks, and nighttime excursions.

Noah’s attention didn’t waiver. Cassie was smiling for the first time since he met her. He leaned back in his recliner and enjoyed the sight.

“How did you get back here?” Cassie asked.

“Dondo spotted me in the crowd and asked me to come back.” She turned proud eyes to Dondo, who glanced her way. “He’s taking me out after. We’re going to talk about a recording contract.”

“Recording contract?” Noah asked. “Dondo?”

Kelly shook her head vigorously, her eyes sparkling as she took in her king.

He wondered if the girl knew that she was in for a grave disappointment. Except for being Noah’s best friend, Dondo had zero connections in the music industry.

“That’s amazing,” Cassie said. “He’s a really great guy.”

“Is he? I hope so.”

Dondo tapped Kelly on the shoulder. “Ready to go, babe?”

She nodded, reached in her pocket, and pulled out a pen and paper. She scribbled something down and handed it to Cassie.

“Here’s my number. Call me anytime. I’d love to get together.”

“Definitely.”

They exchanged hugs and said their goodbyes. Then Dondo grabbed Kelly’s hand, quickly pulling her out of the room.

Noah grinned, watched with pleasure as Cassie leaned back in her seat. “Look at you. Five minutes in the green room and you’re reconnecting with old friends.”

“Yeah, I guess. Kelly and I were so close. I’m sorry we lost touch.”

“It happens to the best of us.”

Cassie’s eyes wondered around the room, then settled back on Noah.

“I’d better go.”

“Why? It’s early.”

“My shift’s over. And this isn’t really my scene. The drinking and,” she gestured around the room, “women and such.”

He shrugged. “What did you expect on a Noah LaRock world tour?”

“I expected to stay on the other side of the door.”

He chuckled, a deep rumbling sound. “Fair enough. I’ll walk you to your car.”

She waved him away. “No, that’s all right.”

“Nonsense.” He stood and led the way to the door. “The streets are covered with tourists and I do not want you molested.”

She stopped short, surprise stretching her face. “Guys and Dolls?”

His smile widened. “Guys and Dolls.”

She let out a small, approving huff and caught up with him in the corridor.

He kept his pace steady as he walked next to her.

“Cassie, I just want to say that I’m sorry again for what happened with your dad.”

“It’s okay. Really. I’ve been thinking about it and it’s not your fault. It’s his. He’s the one who left. You were just a kid with a dream. I shouldn’t have blamed you. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.” He nodded. Though he heard her words, guilt still sat in his belly like a stone. “But I wanted to do something to show you how sorry I am for how things turned out. So, I’m sending you and Walter to have breakfast at LaRocks’s tomorrow morning. I figured that you two could spend some time together, catch up.”

She gasped. “You mean your restaurant in Morris Township?”

“That’s why it was so easy to get reservations.”

“I heard that place is amazing!”

“I only hire the best.”

She shook her head, a small smile sliding across her lips. “You know, you didn’t have to do that.”

They arrived next to her car. He leaned against the door. “All I’m asking is that you give Walter a chance. Hear him out. He’s a really good guy.”

“I wish I knew him like you do.”

“Here’s your chance. Don’t lose out on an awesome future just to dwell on an awful past. You deserve better than that, Cas.”

She gave him a long, appraising stare.

He stood still, allowing her time to find what she had been searching for.

When she found it, she nodded. “Fair enough.”

She gestured to her car, and he moved out the way, allowing her inside. She strapped on her seatbelt and rolled down the window.

Noah sighed. [_I wish she was going in my limo tonight. _]The confusing thought disturbed him, and just as quickly as it floated through his brain, he pushed it back out.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Noah said. “You can tell me how it went.”

He gave her a genuine smile and watched her melt a little. His pride given its proper due, he stepped back as she sped away, and hoped that he’d done enough to start to mend her heart.

Chapter 5

Cassie

New Jersey

John, Noah’s father, opened Bronners ten years earlier in his hometown of Morris Township, New Jersey. A ruined pastor, out of work musician, and failed businessman, John began the restaurant as a storefront take-out burger joint. It was on the verge of shutting down when Noah stepped in, turning the place into a world famous five-star restaurant and changing the name to LaRock’s. Unfortunately, John never got to see his only successful venture. A week before opening, he died from aggressive pancreatic cancer.

Cassie had never been to such a fancy restaurant, especially not for breakfast.

“It looks like a concert hall,” she said.

White silk curtains dressed the windows. The soft material gently waved in the air conditioned room. The walls were painted a soft green, the same color that accented the carpet and the chairs. High ceilings were decorated with gold fleur de lis. Large clear hanging tubes encased golden chandeliers, as if they’d been beamed down from some sort of luxury spaceship.

Walter sipped champagne out of a glass embossed with the letters LR. The entire restaurant had been reserved for the morning. Only the wait staff remained. “Noah spares no expense.”

Her eyes slid around the room, clearly impressed with what she saw. “I can see that.”

She looked for the waitress, wondering when her steak and eggs would arrive.

Sixteen years ago, Walter walked out on Cassie and her mother, choosing instead to dedicate his life to managing the great Noah LaRock. This year, he had come from hiding behind his bottomless checkbook and decided that he wanted a bigger role in her life.

She didn’t know what pushed him to want to reconnect now. Maybe he was getting old and sentimental? Maybe he was thinking about his future? Maybe he was just lonely? At any rate, when he offered Cassie the opportunity to be an on-staff nurse for Noah’s world tour, she’d accepted the position in hopes that it would draw them closer together. After earning her nursing licenses several years earlier, she was more the qualified. But for the last two months, they’d exchanged no more than awkward greetings and silences filled with things unsaid.

[Maybe this was a bad idea, _]Cassie thought. _Maybe he should just have stayed a checkbook.

Walter took another sip of champagne then cleared his throat.

“Look, Cassie, I know why Noah did this. And I know that I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry.” Walters face squeezed tight, his eyes bloodshot and drooping.

Cassie was unmoved.

Walter pressed on. “There are so many things I wish I would have done differently.”

“Why didn’t you visit?” she demanded. “You left and never came home. Not for birthdays, Christmases, graduations, nothing.”

“I always sent something.”

“I wanted you, not a check!” Cassie’s voice went up an octave.

Walter sat back in his chair. “I know that now, and I’m sorry for it. You may not believe me, but it was painful for me too.”

“I doubt it.”

“It’s true. It was painful for me to see my family broken, upheaved. I loved you, and your mother, and I would have given anything for it to be different.”

“Why did you leave?” she asked, her voice beginning to crack with emotion. “Was it something I did, something that Mom did? What?”

Walter leaned back and placed his hands in his lap. “When your mother and I first got married, I didn’t have a pot to piss in. She was fresh from Ireland, working as a seamstress, and I took a job in a factory, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the music business. So, I started spending nights at the studio, working with artists, learning all I could. That brought in a little more money. I wasn’t home much, but I was living my dream. Then this opportunity came to me. This kid, this scrawny kid with an angel’s voice, needed to get his career off the ground. So, I dropped everything and worked with him, turned him into what he is today. I’d hoped that I could finally give you and your mother what you deserved. A nice house, a good, running car, plenty of food, new clothes. And I did. Noah got big, and the money started to flow.”

“And then you left.”

Walter nodded. “I did. I didn’t know that giving you and your mother the things you deserved would cost me so much. I’m sorry for that.”

“It hurt us when you weren’t around. Mama cried, I cried. Then, one day, we stopped crying and started to move on.”

His eyes grew intense. “Please know that I never stopped loving you, or your mother. I just wanted to give you the best.”

“We didn’t need those things. We needed you.”

“I know that now.”

She nodded, wiped her eyes as their food was set before them.

“Do you think that we could start over?” he asked

Cassie shook her head and focused on her plate. She cut a small piece of steak and popped it into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully.

“Time is a funny thing,” she said. “I don’t know about Mama, but as for me, I’m here.” She stabbed at her eggs with a fork. “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t want to give this a chance.” She met his eyes. “To give you a chance. But you have to be willing to put in the work.”

“I am. More than you know.”

The tension eased a bit, and she took a breath.

The boy who had torn her family apart was now the man who had given her the first step to putting it back together.

She made a mental note to thank him.

Walter raised his glass. “To new beginnings,” he said.

She raised her orange juice. “To new beginnings.”

***

Cassie and her father parted ways at the hotel, sharing their first hug in a long time. It was award, but sweet none the less.

[_It’s a start, _]she thought with a smile.

Stepping into the elevator, she dialed her mother’s number.

“Hello,” Janice’s voice was soft, almost lyrical..

“Hi, Mama.”

“Oh, my Cassie girl. I was just praying for you.”

“Thank you, Mama.” She took a deep breath. “I had breakfast with Walter this morning.”

“Really?” Janice scoffed. “Did he stay for the whole thing or did he leave midway through the meal?”

Cassie chuckled and opened the door to her hotel room. Her mother always knew how to make her laugh. “No, Mama. We had a really nice talk. I think he’s ready to change.”

“Always on his terms. That’s Walter Washington for you. Just be careful, lass. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I will, Mama.”

“And you’re keeping away from the boys, I hope. I am too young to be a grandmother.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Just remember that the Lord is watching.”

Cassie shook her head and lay down on the bed closest to the window. “I’m not doing anything until I get married, Mama. You know that.”

“I do, lass. I just want to make sure that you remember that. I know how glamorous these rock and roll stars can appear to be.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“All right, then. Well, I’m off to church. I have the flowers to do, you know. And I just got a new order in for a wedding in Florida. Thanks to the Lord for his boundless mercy.”

Cassie smiled, wishing that she could hug her mother through the phone. She missed her, and her rose scented perfume.

“I’ll call you tomorrow, Mama.”

“A few more days, dear.”

Cassie smiled. “Goodbye, Mama.”

She hung up the phone and let out a long sigh. Janice McGuire loved her, there was no doubt about that. She always said that the three most important people in her life were the Lord, Cassie, and her dog, Max. She missed her mother’s prayers, her hugs, and her words of wisdom.

After years of wondering what she would do with a college aged daughter, and no husband, Janice began spending all of her free time at Saint Paul Catholic Church in Greenwich. Despite her inexperience, Pastor Ben Madison put her in charge of the church’s flower arrangements. Six months later, she turned it into a full blown floral business, garnering clients from all over the country.

Just a few more days until I can see her again, she thought.

She picked her phone back up and checked it. She’d texted Kelly earlier, with no answer.

[_Maybe she’s tired from being out with Dondo all night, _]she thought.

Her stomach twisted. Something wasn’t right. It was already early afternoon, and Dondo never stayed with the girls through the night.

She opened up Facebook and typed in Kelly’s name.

Her picture popped up. She was dressed in the same black mini dress she’d worn to the concert the night before. She scrolled down the page.

Something was wrong.

She scrolled back to the top, checked the picture again.

Yes, it was Kelly, but this couldn’t be her page.

It couldn’t be.

Next to her profile picture, in black letters, were the words In Loving Memory of Kelly Manning.

Chapter 6

Cassie watched in horror as the red-faced reporter spoke Kelly’s name.

Kelly Manning’s broken body was found stuffed in a suitcase in Newark, New Jersey. Her killer had deposited the suitcase on the front lawn of a known crack house. One of the home’s “residents” called in the tip sometime around three that morning.

Guilt laid heavy in Cassie’s gut.

If only I didn’t let her go with Dondo, she thought. _If only I had stayed with her all night. _

She remembered the excitement in Kelly’s face when she talked about her date the night before. Maybe Dondo saw something, heard something. So far, the police didn’t have any leads. Did they know Kelly had been at the concert? Did they know that she’d been out with Dondo before she died?

She walked out of the hotel room, in time to find Dondo swiping his key card in the hotel door.

“Dondo,” she called.

He looked back at her, his eyes red rimmed, tired, guarded.

“Hey, doc.”

“Did you hear about Kelly?”

His body stiffened for a moment before relaxing again. A small gesture.

“Kelly? Kelly who?”

Cassie frowned. “The girl you took out last night.”

“Oh, Kelly. Yeah, we had dinner and then she went home.”

“And you didn’t see her after that?”

“No. Why?”

“She’s dead. They found her strangled and dumped in front of a crack house this morning.”

Dondo paled, his face turning away.

“You didn’t talk to her again after you dropped her off?” Cassie asked.

“No,” he choked out. “No, I dropped her off and that was the end of it.”

They stood awkwardly, neither meeting the other’s eye.

He pushed his door open. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tonight.”

Cassie’s frown deepened. “Yeah, toni—”

Dondo slammed the door behind him before she finished speaking.

She let out a breath.

Jumpy, isn’t he? Was he acting…no, he wasn’t. He was just shocked. As shocked as I was. Poor Kelly. Who would do something like that to her?

She took one last look at Dondo’s door before heading back into her room. She’d have to call her mother. Janice knew Kelly when they lived in LA together. She’d want to know that she died.

She walked back into her room and flopped on the bed, dialing her mother again.

The phone went to voice mail.

.

She flipped on her stomach, put her hands under her head, and closed her eyes.

As she slept, she dreamed of Kelly. 

Chapter 7

Cassie found Noah standing on the open air stage after sound check.

This summer had been a hot one. August was especially humid. Instead of her normal jeans and t-shirt, Cassie wore a spaghetti strapped blue sundress and tennis shoes.

Around her were over eighty-two thousand empty seats.

“Cassie.” Noah’s blue eyes spotted her on the side of the stage, and he waved before coming over. “Hey.”

He wore a white t-shirt, plaid blue shorts, and flip-flops. The muscles in his arms were pronounced and glistened in the heat.

For a moment, she forgot what she wanted to say. She cleared her throat and recovered.

“Hi.” Her voice was a bit too loud, a little too enthusiastic. She put on her sunglasses as he got closer.

“Breakfast with Walter this morning must’ve gone well. He’s in a great mood. He hasn’t yelled at anyone since he came back.”

“Yes, it did. Thank you, Noah. We needed that.”

“You’re welcome. Anything you need, just ask. I’m at your pleasure.” He smiled when he said the last part, a grin that weakened her knees a little.

She grinned wider then she wanted to. “Thank you.”

“How about we grab a bite to eat later. I mean, you work for me and I don’t really know who you are, except that your super smart and my manager’s daughter.”

“Do you take all of your employees out to dinner?”

“Only the pretty ones.”

His eyes closed, as if he was sorry he’d said it.

She laughed, tried to clear away the awkward comment.

“Sure.”

He opened his eyes again. “Yeah?”

“I mean, it’s the least I could do.”

“Okay. After the concert, we can go back to LaRock’s, if that’s okay.”

“Fine with me.”

“Great.”

“Great.”

“Awesome.”

“Fantastic.”

Their eyes met, their gazes sinking into each other’s in the heat of the day.

She licked her lips, the movement making him tilt his head, his focus zeroing in on her mouth.

Her heart hammered against her chest. “Okay, then.”

Before he could say anything more, she abruptly turned and left.

***

Noah

“Dinner, huh?”

Noah turned to find Walter walking toward him. He immediately stood up taller, trying to shake the image of his manger’s daughter from his mind.

“Yes, well, uh, it’s just a friendly thing that we’re doing.”

“Good. Keep it friendly. My daughter isn’t a groupie. She has big dreams, and a bright future. I don’t want to see her hurt. Not after I just got her back into my life. Don’t ruin it for her.”

“It’s just dinner.”

Walter nodded, pulled his dark sunglasses out of his picket, and put them on his face. “Great. Just dinner it is, then. I’ll check on you after the show.”

“Yup.”

Walter pointed a finger at Noah. “Just dinner?”

“Just dinner.”

He grunted and left.

Noah let out a breath as the old man walked away. Cassie’s beautiful figure popped into his mind.

Just dinner, he thought. It’s just dinner.

Even so, he crossed two fingers behind his back, hoping that the small superstition would cover his promise.

Chapter 8

“Who wants a farm nowadays?” Noah asked.

Their date was quickly drawing to a close as they walked down the hotel’s hallway toward her room. Blue pastel wallpaper, white crown molding, and navy blue carpet with tiny gold anchors made Noah feel as if he was in a navel office. The hallway smelled slightly moldy, the overhead lights bright enough to be uncomfortable.

“I love the simple life,” Cassie said. “Raising your own food, living off the land, fresh sunflowers on the table every morning.”

“Sticking your hand in warm, fresh dung, making pig slop, dying with your eyes open while you’re on a cattle drive.”

She chuckled. “What? Do you even know how farms work?”

He shrugged. “I’ve seen some shows, played some games, you know.”

She laughed then. Her eyes lit, her cheeks reddened, making her brown freckles stand out. The sound echoed through the hallway.

I’ll have to make her laugh more often, he thought.

“A farm, huh?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Well, to each his own I guess. Me, I can’t imagine not being within shouting distance of a Starbucks.”

“City boy, huh?”

“From horn to hoof.”

“City boy with a penchant for quoting old musicals?”

“What can I say? My tutor introduced me to Oklahoma! when I was ten and I never looked back.”

“Well, you definitely get points for that one.”

“Oh yeah? How many?”

They stopped in front of her room door.

“I don’t know. Some.”

“I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

Her hair was down around her face again, styled in large, dark, spiraling curls. Curls that he itched to touch, to feel their softness on his fingertips. She wore a yellow, strapless mini dress and white sandals with little heels. Her makeup was done in gold to match.

[_My very own golden goddess, _]he thought.

She blushed, her eyes moving the floor.

“What?” he asked.

A nervous hand went to her stomach, the thumb touching right above her belly button.

“You’re staring,” she said softly.

He didn’t look away, allowing a wolfish smile to creep across his face.

“I always stare when there’s something good to look at, and you, Ms. Washington, are good to look at.”

The color rose higher in her cheeks. A flattered smile caused her to throw her head to the side, exposing her neck to him again.

His mind caught the gesture, his eyes moving down the lines of her throat.

He felt his hand raise to run a finger down its columns.

Suddenly, her phone rang.

A glimmer of recognition lit his eyes.

She reached into her pocket. Checked it. Pressed ignore.

“It’s my dad,” she said. “Probably calling to see if I made it back to the hotel.”

“And if you’re still with me,” he said.

She nodded.

He grunted.

“That ringtone,” he said. “It’s Queen, right?”

“Yeah. Somebody To Love is my favorite.”

“Mine too. I covered it on my first album.”

“I remember,” she said softly.

The need to wrap her in his arms rose sharply.

“Why choose that song for your dad?”

“It’s my ringtone for everyone.” She looked up, their gazing caressing. “I just like the song. It speaks to me.”

“Me too.”

He took a step back and cleared his throat.

“Well, I guess this is good night,” he said.

Her smile disappeared. He wished it would come back.

“Oh,” she stammered, her eyes leaving him, darting around the hallway. “Okay.”

“I had a really great time.”

“Me too.”

There was disappointment in her eyes, but from what he couldn’t be sure. Was she just sad the night was ending? Did she want him to kiss her good night? Either way, he had a promise to keep to her father.

He remembered his crossed fingers.

At least I’ll try to keep it, he thought.

She looked so sad all of a sudden, her once light eyes turned down, her full, glossy mouth bowed into a frown.

If only she knew how much I want to make her smile again.

Before her frown shredded his control, he retreated down the hall.

He backed toward the door as he said, “Good night, Cassie.”

She didn’t look at him again, instead she let herself into her room and shut the door behind her.

What would she do if I knocked on that door? _]he wondered. [_Would she let me in?

Thoughts raging, he slid his key card through the reader. By the time the light turned green, he’d made up his mind about Cassie.

He hoped Walter would forgive him for breaking a promise.

***

Cassie

Confused, Cassie let herself into her room and threw herself onto the bed.

What was I thinking? _]she wondered. [_Maybe he did just want to have a friendly dinner. What is it about him that makes me get my hopes up? He’s a rock star for goodness sake. He wouldn’t want someone like me anyway.

Frustrated, she snatched off her little yellow dress and sandals and pulled on her new flannel pajama set.

The room was freezing, and she crawled under the sheets to try to retain some warmth. Since they’d checked in this morning, the air conditioner had cooled the room to arctic temperatures. Her calls to the front desk had resulted in exactly zero service visits.

Last time I stay in this hotel, she thought.

And then it hit her. This would be the last time she stayed in a place like this. Her father probably wouldn’t allow her on the road again after this summer. Now that they’d begun repairing their relationship he’d want to protect her, keep her home and focused on her schooling instead of traveling the world with some rock star.

The thought of going back to her old life both saddened and comforted her. On the one hand, nothing could compare to the excitement of a world tour. She’d seen places she’d only dreamed of, meet celebrities she’d only read about in magazines. On the other hand, she loved school, and looked forward to returning.

The medical field was as deep in her blood as music was in Noah’s. Cassie’s grandmother, on her mother’s side, was a nurse. Her father’s mother was a veterinarian. Cassie tried to think back to a time when she didn’t want to become a doctor, but nothing came to mind. She got a medical set for her first birthday and never looked back. She graduated nursing school, but it wasn’t enough. She had bigger aspirations. So, she worked as an RN for a few months, then applied and was accepted into Yale Medical School.

She saw her life laid out before her.

[_One more year of med school, then I’ll do my residency, and after that, I’ll open my own pediatric practice. _]

It was set. It had been for years. But now, with new feelings for Noah bubbling up, she wasn’t so sure.

Could he be a part of her life? Would he ruin her plans?

Stop overthinking it, Cassie, her mind cried. You only had one date, and he didn’t even kiss you.

She threw the blankets off of her, gave a murderous look to the thermostat, searched through her purse for a five dollar bill, and headed out to the vending machine in search of something sweet.

Chocolate. Yes, chocolate always sets things right.

She had no sooner opened her door then she saw the object of her musings feeding a dollar bill into the vending machine. He was shirtless, in a pair of pajama pants that hung from his hips.

Her mouth went dry as she drank in the sight.

He looked toward her, his eyes roaming over her from head to foot. Heat seemed to spread wherever his gaze touched, leaving her body close to trembling.

He grinned.

“Should we call you Doctor Cassie, or Saint Cassie?” he teased.

She scoffed, regained her confidence, and went to stand behind him at the vending machine.

“There is nothing wrong with covering up,” she said.

“But there is a limit, sweetheart.”

He grabbed the bag of trail mix and the soda that fell into the bin at the bottom of the vending machine, then stepped aside.

“So, what’s with the getup? It’s summer. I’m surprised you haven’t passed out from heat stroke.”

She snatched her chocolate bar and soda out of the machine, and turned to him, avoiding his eyes.

No drowning tonight, she thought.

“If you must know, the air conditioner in my room is broken. It’s freezing in there.”

“I’ll take a look at it.”

Before she could protest, he had already covered the space to the door. “I’ve been in enough hotel rooms to know about thermostats.”

He pushed open the door that she’d propped open with a shoe, and disappeared inside.

Bad idea, she thought, following him into her room. Very bad idea.

She found him fiddling with the dials on a white box on the wall. A few seconds later, heat poured through the vents.

“There, it’s fixed.”

She shut the door behind her.

“What did you do?”

“It was on fifty. You have to turn the temperature up.”

He crossed his arms over his sculpted chest, grinning victoriously.

“Well, now I know.”

He sat on the bed and opened his trail mix, throwing a handful into his mouth.

“Wow, your room isn’t nearly as nice as mine. They really give you guys the short end of the stick.”

“Well, I am not the talent, I’m just the lowly nurse.”

Feeling slightly eased, she sat on the second bed.

“Still, though. It must suck not having a patio. Well, I guess for a farm girl like yourself, you wouldn’t mind.”

She shook her head at him and took a bite of her chocolate bar.

“We should order chocolate shakes. They’re great for late nights. There’s a cool shop in London that makes these amazing shakes. We should go after my show.”

“That would be nice. I’ve never been to London before. Just Los Angeles and Connecticut, and the cities that I’ve visited with you.”

“A girl with big dreams like yours should see the world before she conquers it,” he said, his blue eyes resting comfortably on hers.

“My dreams aren’t all that big.”

“Sure they are. There aren’t many girls in my circle with dreams like yours. The fact is, they seem to have more, shall we say, domestic aspirations, like child support payments.”

She laughed. “Maybe you should surround yourself with different women.”

“I’m working on it.”

He looked pointedly at her. She blushed, took another bite of her chocolate bar.

“You got some big doctor at home, waiting for you, Cas?” His voice was soft, coaxing, hopeful.

She bit her lip, hoping he couldn’t see how on edge he made her.

“No. I’m too focused on school for boys.”

“You’re right. You shouldn’t be focusing on boys at all.”

His eyes went dark, as if he just thought of something that disturbed him.

“How much longer?” he asked.

“For what?”

“Until you finish school.”

“A year.”

“A year? As in next June, a year?”

She nodded.

“And then you’ll officially be Dr. Cas?”

“Well, I’ll have to do a year of residency, but, yeah.”

“And you’ll own a farm?”

She grinned. “Probably not. It would be nice though.”

“Well, when you graduate, I’d love to be there. It’s not often that people achieve their dreams. I would love to see you achieve yours.”

The sad look settled deeper into his face.

She wondered what she’d said wrong.

He stood, walked to the door. The disappointment that she’d felt earlier returned. “I guess I’ll get to bed. Long flight tomorrow.”

She followed him to the door.

“Good night, Noah.”

He placed his hand on the knob, paused.

“Good night, Cas.”

Their eyes met, and she drowned again in the blue depths. Her name on his lips, was like a song.

“Cas.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” his whispered.

Her breath caught, her eyes went wide.

His lips fell onto hers. Her mind turned to jelly, her knees turned to rubber.

And then, he was gone, and she was left wondering if it had ever happened at all.

Chapter 9

The New Jersey car garage baked in the August sun. It smelled of hot asphalt and sweat as Cassie watched her luggage being loaded into the back of a black limo.

She found herself standing next to Dondo, wondering what had changed. Noah hadn’t even looked at her this morning.

[Maybe it was something I said? _]she thought. [ Maybe he didn’t like the kiss? Maybe there was no kiss and I’m just going crazy?_]

Noah had climbed into the first limo long ago, leaving her to take the rear with her father and Dondo.

Disappointment had begun to morph into something else. Anger. She tried to tap it down, but it wouldn’t budge. It sat like a weight in her belly.

“Everything okay, doc?” Dondo asked.

She restrained herself from screaming  [_no _]at him. Dondo was not the problem here, it was Noah. Noah who was downstairs before everyone else. Noah who had climbed in the limo first before she could see him. Noah who didn’t even bother to text her good morning.

She bit back a growl.

“I’m fine.” She eyed the five black suitcases that stood next to him. “Enough luggage?” she asked.

Dondo’s smile turned tight. “Yeah. My mom always says that I pack like a girl. I don’t know, I have to have everything in a certain order, you know.”

“I understand that. The medical field is all about order. How’s the wrist?”

Dondo raised his wrist to her, showing off a thin black brace.

They stood in awkward silence.

“So, are you going to Kelly’s funeral?”

He stiffened. “Whose?”

“Kelly, the girl you met the other night. The one who was murdered.”

The fact that he could sleep with a woman and not even remember her name, or the fact that she had been strangled to death, infuriated her.

“Oh, Kelly. Well, no, I don’t think so. We’ll be overseas so…”

Walter’s dark face peeked out the limo door. “You guys coming?”

Dondo let out a grateful breath. “Sure thing, Walt.”

He quickly climbed into the limo, abruptly ending the conversation.

She climbed in behind him, keeping her eyes glued to the window. She didn’t understand what his deal was. He seemed so jittery when Kelly’s name was mentioned. Did he know something about her death? He said he didn’t, but, for some reason, Cassie didn’t believe him.

“I hate flying,” Walter remarked.

“You’ve flown all around the world, Walter. You’ll be fine.”

“I know, I know. Just the taking off and the landing. It gets me all worked up.”

“You’ll be fine.” She placed a gentle hand on his knee. “Besides, you’ll be on a private jet in clear weather. You can have a drink and go to sleep.”

“I’ll have more than a drink.” He pulled an orange bottle out of his front shirt pocket and shook it. “One pill will knock me out for four hours. I take two. By the time we get to the UK, I’ll be very well rested.”

She smiled at him and wondered what she would do for nine hours on a plane, practically alone. With a final pat on her father’s knee, she wrapped her arms around herself. The limo was chilly. She wished she’d listened to her mother and brought a jacket.

“Driver, do you have the local news radio by any chance?” Walter asked.

“Yes, sir,” the driver replied, his Spanish accent heavy.

The radio clicked on. A man reported on Kelly’s murder the night before.

Walter’s foot bounced, shaking the seat. She placed a hand on her father’s leg again and gave him a gentle smile. Her eyes then shifted to Dondo. She searched for a response, anything that might say he was guilty. He put his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.

The news shifted to weather and traffic and Cassie’s thoughts again turned to Noah.

What was going through his mind? Why did he kiss her like that and then ignore her? She thought to text him, then thought better of it.

No, texting would seem desperate, she thought. I’ll do what any sane person would do. I’ll ignore him right back.

She had built an elaborate plan in her mind of all of the ways she would not speak to him by the time they arrived at the airport and boarded their private plane.

The mid-sized aircraft was separated into three compartments. In the first was a beige couch, decorated with black pillows, that stretched along one wall. On the opposite wall, two beige recliners were separated by a walnut colored table. Someone had set the table with two coffee cups, saucers, and burgundy napkins. Two black rimmed televisions were built into the wall above the table. On either side of the televisions were speakers. The floor was covered in brown carpet accented with black dots.

The next compartment was separated by an egg shell colored curtain, currently pulled open. Beyond the curtain, Cassie could see two recliners facing her, with two more facing the front of the plan. Above the two recliners that faced her were televisions.

The final compartment was the cockpit.

A stewardess in a blue knee length skirt, white button up shirt, and matching blue vest greeted them. Her name tag said Shondra.

“This is amazing,” Cassie gasped. The plane smelled like new carpet and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

Another stewardess, wearing the same outfit, stood between the cockpit and the second compartment, a silver tray of steaming cookies in her hand.

“Noah really knows how to travel,” Walter said.

They climbed in and took their seats. Noah and Dondo disappeared into the second compartment, each taking a recliner. Walter and Cassie sat around the table in the first compartment.

Noah’s two bodyguards, choreographer, makeup artist, and stylist settled into the couches. They would meet up with the road crew, backup dancers, and band in London.

“This is really cool,” Cassie said, running her fingers along the walnut brown molding. “I’ve never been in a private plane before.”

Everyone associated with Noah’s world tour had spent the last two months crisscrossing the country on three tour busses. The plane seemed infinitely more comfortable.

“You get used to it,” Walter said. “At least that’s what I’ve been told.”

He pulled out two of his pills, placed them on his tongue, and swallowed. By the time the plane took off, he was fast asleep.

***

Cassie had been staring out of the rounded window next to the television when she felt a tap on her elbow. She turned around to see Noah, smiling as she crouched next to her.

Her heart flipped first in excitement then in anger. She huffed and looked back out of the window.

“What?” he asked.

“What nothing.”

She heard him let out a breath.

“Can we talk?”

“Why start now? You haven’t talked to me all day.”

“I know, but can you let me explain myself? I have a really good reason, I promise.”

“So talk.”

“Can we talk in private?”

The words in private caught her attention. Some piece of her was immediately set on edge. She bit the inside of her cheek and looked at him. He was gone, already lost in the back of the plane.

So he thinks that I’m just going to follow him? Why, because he’s Noah LaRock? I don’t follow men, and I’m going to tell him so.

Her anger growing, she unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed aside the curtain that separated the two compartments. Another curtain was drawn where the two recliners were. She pushed that aside too, yanked it closed, and sat across from Noah. She was vaguely aware that they were cut off from the rest of the passengers.

She didn’t care.

“So, talk.” She crossed her arms across her chest and glared at him.

“I’m sorry about today.”

He wore a black t-shirt and jeans. His hair looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. She forced herself to focus on her anger, not on his looks.

“Why didn’t you talk to me?”

“Your father wants us to keep it professional, and I didn’t want to upset him.”

“Is that what we’re doing? Being professional?”

Her mind chided her.

It was one kiss. Just one, brief, toe curling kiss.

She frowned, but wasn’t sure if it was at him or herself.

He cocked his head to the side. “Do you want it to be professional?”

The question put her on guard. If she said yes, then the time for kisses was over. If she said no, then she was making herself vulnerable.

Cassie Washington didn’t do vulnerable.

She looked out of the window. “Whatever you want to do,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant.

He mimicked her motions, sitting back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “Whatever you want to do.”

She bit her lip to keep from smiling.

“I guess we can start with some food though,” he said. “Maybe some drinks. Maybe,” he reached into the space between his seat and the one next to him, and pulled out Monopoly, “some friendly competition.”

She didn’t move.

“Or you can sit up front, with your snoring father, for the next eight hours. Your choice.”

She rolled her eyes.

This choice sucks.

She sat up in her seat. “I guess that I can amuse you for a little while. But I’m still mad at you.”

He grinned. “Check your phone.”

“I turned it off when I got on the plane. Not that anyone texted me.”

“Well, turn it back on and check it.”

“I can’t. The plane will crash.”

“Come on, just for a second.”

Shaking her head, she removed her phone from her shorts and turned it on. He moved to the recliner next to her. She felt his heavy presence over her shoulder. It felt as if someone had put a metal band around her lungs.

Why was it so hard to breathe around him?

“If this plane crashes, I’m blaming you,” she said shortly.

“If this plane crashes, no one will be doing anything.”

The phone booted up, and in a moment, there was a notification of a missed message.

She clicked on it.

It was from an unknown number.

“I don’t answer unknown numbers,” she said.

“Oh stop, just open it.”

She felt him inch closer, just over her shoulder now. She clicked on the text message.

Unknown: Good morning, beautiful.

A gentle kiss touched her shoulder, his lips setting fire to her cool skin.

If she wasn’t sitting, she was sure that she would’ve collapsed.

“I thought about you all night, and all morning. I wasn’t ignoring you. I couldn’t ignore you if I wanted to.”

His lips were at her ear now. Her world shrunk, reduced to his breath at her side. An arm came around her, gently turning her to him.

“Cas,” he whispered. His breath was on her lips now. “You’re so beautiful.”

Suddenly, a knock.

They jumped back, Cassie hiding her face behind her hands. She swore that her heart just stopped.

“Mr. LaRock, I have your refreshments.”

Noah cleared his throat, ran a hand down his face. “Come in.”

The stewardess appeared at the curtain. She kept her eyes on the platter of food in front of her as she set out sandwiches, chips, fruit, and bottles of wine. She left as silently as she entered.

The scent of food teased her nostrils, but Cassie could smell none of it. The air around her was too heavy with Noah’s scent. Spicy vanilla.

He wants me, Cassie thought. She felt her heart race at the thought. He wants me.

Noah moved back to his seat, his eyes on the food. The dark cloud had settled onto his face again.

No, Mr. LaRock, she thought. No dark clouds today.

Picking up a sandwich, she placed it on the tray at her side and pulled out the board game that was sitting under the table.

“Don’t go getting all sour on me, Noah,” she said, opening the top of the box. “You promised me a board game.”

He squeezed his lips together in a small smile. “Yeah. A game.”

“I must warn you, I’m very competitive.”

The dark cloud moved a bit further away.

“Really? Well, Ms. Washington, you have never played a board game with me.”

The cloud was gone completely by the time he took a bite of his sandwich, and rubbed his hands together. “Let’s play.”

“All right.” She ran her hands down her arms, willing away the goose bumps.

He reached next to his chair, handed her a thick, pilled, grey sweater.

“Here,” he said.

She reached for it, their fingertips touching. Heat flared between them.

Deliberately averting his eyes, she pulled the garment on and rolled up the sleeves. Noah’s scent surrounded her. She pulled the sweater tight around her, imagining that it was his arms.

“All better?” he asked.

She nodded, her eyes finding their way back to his. “All better.”

The hours flew by. They talked, they ate, they drank, and they played Monopoly. Cassie didn’t know when she’d had so much fun.

“So, Farmer Cassie, how long are you planning on staying with our merry little band?” he asked.

She shook the two dice in her hand, and rolled them onto the board. “Eight more days.”

“Not a long time.”

“Long enough.”

He looked up. “Is it?”

She shrugged. “Summer vacation’s almost over.” She moved the silver boot six spaces. “Then it’s back to school, building dreams.”

“You’re really excited about being a doctor, aren’t you?”

“More than anything.”

“And how much longer are you in school for?”

“A year, remember?”

He grimaced. “A year is a long time.”

He picked up the dice, rolled a seven, and moved the little silver boat.

“It’ll be over before I know it. Or so I’m told.”

He picked up the dice, placed them in her open palm. He kept his hand there, not releasing the dice to her.

Her brain shut down at his touch.

His gaze held hers. He looked down at her lips, then back up into her eyes. She mimicked the action. She hadn’t realized that she could want something so badly until that very moment.

She wanted him to kiss her again. Plain and simple.

He placed her hand inside both of his, and brought her cupped palms to his lips. He gently blew on them, squeezed her hands shut, and released her.

“Your turn.”

She couldn’t breathe.

She envisioned herself climbing over the table, putting her lips on his, and never letting go. The thought made her heat pound. She shook her head, trying to regain some ground.

“Cas?”

“Huh? Yes, my turn.”

Her hand trembled as she rolled the dice. She hoped he didn’t see.

“Twelve,” he smiled. “Great roll.”

Their small corner of the plane seemed smaller now. Like it was only them. Like no one else existed.

She moved her piece, looked back up at him. He didn’t move.

“Your turn,” she said, her voice choked.

He shook his head. “No, it’s your turn.”

His hot gaze told her what he meant. He had given her a token of his affection. Something to hold on to. He wanted one back.

She didn’t know what to do.

She’d been around men before, men who had admired her. But none of them looked at her like that. None of them made her heart pound and her hands tremble. None of them were Noah LaRock.

When she didn’t move, he beckoned her over. “Come here,” he said. She was slightly eased when his voice came out just as choked as hers.

She slid into the chair next him.

He placed one hand on her knee, making small circles with his thumb. She seemed to feel it everywhere.

They locked gazes, their hungry eyes devouring one another.

His voice was a warm breeze over her lips. “God, you’re beautiful.”

He focused on her lips again, moved closer, then, a knock.

She jumped back, crossed her legs.

“Mr. LaRock,” the stewardess said. “We’ll be landing shortly.”

He huffed.

“Thank you.”

He turned back to Cassie, now hugging the arm of the seat as if her life depended on it.

“Well, it looks like we’ll be in London soon.” He sat back in his chair, appeared to catch his breath.

“Yeah, I guess. I’d better get back to my father.”

He nodded. “Yeah. But before you go…”

He grabbed her face and gave her the kiss that she’d been craving all day. His tongue danced along her top lip. She opened her mouth slightly. Encouraged, he rolled his tongue against the it, coaxing a moan from her. He supped at her bottom lip, then pulled away, adjusted himself in his seat, and turned away from her.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll see you in London.”

Her heart fell. Her cheeks coloring, she yanked off the sweater, hurled it at him, and dashed from the curtained room.

She felt humiliated, used. She wiped the tears away as her father yawned, and fluttered his eyes.

“Are we there yet?” he asked.

“No, Dad. Soon.”

He frowned at her. “Are you okay?”

No.

“Yeah, I just got a little sick, that’s all.”

“It must run in the family. Next time you can have one of my pills.”

She didn’t smile. She turned her head and watched the ground grow into view.

I don’t need pills. I need to get a grip. I need to stay away from Noah LaRock.

Chapter 10

London

The screaming crowds drowned out the plane’s engine as they taxied away from the runway.

The chants were fervent, on the verge of lunacy.

“Noah! Noah! Noah! Noah!”

Nearly a hundred men and women pushed and shoved each other to get a closer look at their king. Colorful signs lined the corridors of Heathrow airport.

“The Rocktards are out in full force today!” Dondo said, his face pressed to the window.

Noah passed Cassie’s seat as he walked to the door of the plane. He dropped his sweater in her lap, not looking behind him to see her reaction.

The plane door opened.

Noah threw up his hands with a hoot, and, stepping out into the heat and humidity, stopped to sign autographs and take pictures with his adoring legions.

Cassie walked as quickly as possible to the limo, hoping to find some peace there before Walter and Dondo arrived.

I need to be by myself, at least long enough for me to get my thoughts in order, she thought. What was I thinking spending all day with Noah? In the end, he pulled the same crap today that he pulled yesterday. Kissing me, then sending me on my way. What game is he playing it? She pouted. It doesn’t matter. From now on, I will no longer be a part of it.

The familiar feeling of disappointment rose in her heart. She had to admit the truth to herself. She was starting to develop feelings for Noah. Sure, he was handsome, but there was so much more to him. He was sweet, kind, attentive. He made her laugh. He challenged her.

She bit the inside of her cheek and stared out the window, hugging his sweater close.

It’s good that this happened now, she thought. A few more days and who knows where my heart would have ended up.

Her father and Dondo joined her nearly a half an hour into her pitiful wallowing.

“Why did you run to the car, Cassie?” Walter asked, a grin on his face, his breath coming in hard. “You missed the fun.”

“The fans broke through the barrier!” Dondo cried. “By the time Noah made it to the limo, the girls were on top of the car. It took security fifteen minutes just to clear a path.”

“That happened just now?” Cassie asked.

“Yeah. They must’ve ran right past here. You didn’t see them?”

“No,” Cassie shook her head. “I guess I was thinking.”

The engine purred to life and they drove in the direction of the hotel. They passed another pack of screaming fans on the right.

“How does he do this all the time?” Cassie asked. “This is insane.”

“He handles it surprising well,” Walter said.

“And I handle it even better.” Dondo smiled. “I got twenty numbers stuffed in my pocket just walking from the plane to the limo.”

Cassie’s mind raced back to Kelly.

[Would the girl Dondo chose end up like Kelly? _]She pushed the thought from her mind. _No, Dondo would never do anything like that. Kelly was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had nothing to do with Dondo.

Still…

Chapter 11

Noah

Noah began his day with a radio interview on The Beat, a station based out of London.

Two jockeys, Morris and The Chest, discussed the upcoming concert behind two hanging microphones. Noah sat across from them, his microphone tied with a tie-dye strip of cloth.

“So, Noah, there has been a lot of talk about you retiring.” Morris pushed his shades up his pudgy nose, though the room was dim. “What do you want to say to the critics who are calling this a farewell tour?”

“Not true,” Noah replied shortly. “Not true at all.” He sipped his coffee. The intern had put too much sugar in it. His teeth began to itch.

“Where do you think those rumors come from?” The Chest asked. His stringy hair was pulled into a ponytail, his flabby bare chest devoid of color.

“I don’t know. I’ve been in this business for sixteen years now, and some people may think that’s too long. Maybe some people are tired of me. I mean, I hope they aren’t, but, you know.” He paused. “I just want all of my fans out there to know that I have no plans of retiring. I’m still writing music, I’m still touring. I’m going to be around for a long, long time. For as long as the Rocktards will have me.”

“Speaking of writing music, what artist are you listening to these days?” Morris asked, his eyes hooded as they looked at the cards in front of him.

“Who am I listening to?”

“Yes, and, bear with me, because I am trying to make a point.”

“Uh, okay. I like older stuff: The Who, The Cure, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith. I’m a huge Queen fan, obviously—”

“Okay, okay,” Morris interrupted. “Here is the point that I am making. Those bands that you listed, they all wrote their own songs, yes?”

“Right.”

“They were bands, they played their own music, yes?”

“Right.”

“And you yourself write your own songs, and play your own music, yes?”

“Right.”

“So what is your opinion of upcoming artist now who don’t do those things?”

Noah narrowed his gaze at Morris. He knew this question would come up eventually.

“These new pop stars,” Morris continued, “they are performers. They dance, they work a crowd, they perform. But what they don’t do is they don’t write their own music, they don’t play their own instruments, and some of them don’t even sing well. As a musician yourself, what is your opinion of these up and comers? Do you consider them artists?”

Noah paused, cleared his throat.

“By definition, a musician is a person who plays a musical instrument and/or is musically talented. I consider myself a musician. I play seven instruments, bass, piano, drums, guitar, saxophone, harmonica, and violin, and on top of that I sing.”

“And no one is debating that,” Chest said.

“By definition an artist is someone who creates, practices, and/or demonstrates art. I consider myself an artist, with music being my art. I don’t consider this new emergence of pop stars, although they are very talented, I don’t consider them as being musicians because they don’t play an instrument and many of them are not musically talented. They are, as you said, performers. They’re packaged, they’re dressed, they are sold. They’re like candy, like bubble gum. Do I consider them artists?” He sucked his teeth. “Well, I’ll put it to you this way. They are to art, what a fast food cheeseburger is to a filet minion.”

“So you are calling them a cheap imitation?” Morris asked.

“I am. They are a cheap imitation of quality music. They are music that is stripped, sanitized, chewed down, and shoved down our throats.”

“So, I take it you are not a fan.”

“No, I’m not a fan.” Noah drank the too sugary coffee, his mood considerably darkening.

“So, if one of them asked to do a song with you, would you do it?”

Another pause. “I would take them under my wing, to teach them musicality and the business. But would I collaborate with them? No. My music won’t allow it. My fans won’t allow it. I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

“What do you think about the future of music?” Chest asked. “Do you think that it’s moving in the right direction?”

Noah shook his head. “Honestly, there are some great bands out there, but geez, I don’t know. I hope so.”

“Last question, Noah,” Morris said. “It’s no secret that the face of music is changing. You of all people should know that. I mean, your last album went platinum in a week, this album is struggling to get there. If you had to elect the next rock king, who would it be?”

Noah’s coffee turned sour in his mouth. Struggling to get there? What did that mean? Had the sales been slacking?

“Noah?” Chest asked.

Noah cleared his throat. “Uh, well, I don’t know. I guess only time will tell.”

“Thank you, Noah. Noah LaRock, everyone!”

The studio clapped for him before the show went to commercial.

“Great interview, Noah,” Chest said, his middle bouncing as he walked over. “I’m sure the kids will love it.”

Noah nodded his thanks to the jockeys, his mind racing as he left the building and slid into the limo next to Walter.

He would next be appearing on London Style to discuss the tour, do a song, and a short interview.

“Don’t worry about that,” Walter said.

“About what?”

“About that whole album, uh, next king stuff. Those guys were just goading you.”

“I wasn’t worried.”

“I can see it all over your face.”

Noah looked out the window as the limo pulled away from the curb.

“Walter, be straight with me. How are we doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like with me. How am I doing?”

“Leave that stuff to old Papa Bear. You just worry about—”

“Walter, I want to know. How am I doing?”

Walter shook his head, his expression pained. “Well, Noah, we’re not as good as the last tour. Ticket sales aren’t what they used to be. Album sales aren’t what they used to be.”

“What do you mean not what they used to be?”

“They are down by twenty-five percent.”

“All of them?”

“All of them. Album sales a little more.”

Hurt speared through him. Had his fans abandoned him? No, it couldn’t be. The concerts were packed, weren’t they? The green room was always filled with people, wasn’t it? How could his sales be down by twenty-five percent?

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to be distracted. You know how this industry is. They want a pretty pony, then they pony gets old and they shoot it. That’s life.”

“Old? I’m only twenty-four.”

“Yes, well, you’ve been doing this since you were eight. That’s a long time in industry years.”

Noah frowned, watched Walter’s hands began to shake.

“What do we do?” he asked.

“We keep doing what we’ve been doing. Touring, writing music, and moving ahead.”

“Move ahead?” Noah asked. It felt as if his world was crumbling beneath him.

Where were his fans, his Rocktards? Where were all of the girls who stood outside of the airport waiting for him? Had they all abandoned him, sacrificed themselves to the pop music machine? How could this happen?

“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Walter said. “You’re worried about it.”

“Shouldn’t I be? Is that why Aaron keeps calling?”

“Aaron calls you, huh?”

“Yes. Aaron. The accountant. He calls me fifty times a day.”

“And you don’t answer?”

“You know I don’t deal with that stuff. I figured if he couldn’t get me, then he’d call you and you would handle it.”

He fished his phone from his pocket. Another missed call from Aaron. He hit the call back button and raised the phone to his ear.

“Noah, look at me.”

Noah looked up at his manager.

“Put the phone down. Leave Aaron to me. It will all be fine. You believe in me, right? Right?”

John, Noah’s father, died when Noah was fourteen. Sarah, his mother, died two years later. Walter was the only father Noah had left, the only one besides Dondo who’d been there through thick and thin. If he couldn’t trust Walter, he could trust no one.

Noah nodded, hit the end call button. “Yes, I believe in you.”

“Good, because I believe in you. I believe in us, our partnership. I believe that we can make this work. Have I ever let you down?”

Noah shook his head.

“No, I haven’t, and I won’t start today. You just let old Papa Bear work this out. You’ll be back on top again. You’ll see.”

Walter’s attention turned to the driver, as he called for him to turn on the local news radio.

The trouble didn’t stop.

Upon arrival at the London Style studio, he was informed that his interview would be cut short, and his song would play the host out to commercial. A new artist had come into town and agreed to appear at the last minute.

Lesliee Day.

The pink-lipped pop star blew into London Style studio like a hurricane. Around her, a flock of homely women and men squawked and crowed. Her hot pink tank top and matching skirt shined brilliantly, each gemstone catching the studio lights just right. Stacked heels added an extra five inches to her short stature. She was pop’s newest queen. The way her eyes swept over the room dared anyone to forget it. When she saw him, she twirled one of her blonde pigtails around a dainty finger and sashayed over, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Noah LaRock?” She gasped. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s you. My father loves you. You know, I was born the year your first album came out.”

Her smile, like her breasts, was drenched in falsity. She smacked on her gum and looked him over as if he were an old relic.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Me?” She placed a hand on her ample bosom, her powder blue eyes wide in shock. “Who am I?”

“Who. Are. You?” He smirked. He knew exactly who she was, but giving her that acknowledgement was not in him today. She was a sixteen-year-old girl. He had guitars older then her, with infinitely more talent. What did this generation see in her anyway? She was an oversexed, auto-tuned, choreographed princess. Just the sight of her made his blood boil. Is this what his fans left him for?

“I’m Lesliee Day. You must’ve heard my songs on the radio.”

“I don’t listen to the radio much.”

“What about on the Pepsi commercial?”

He squinted as the light from her gemstones hit him in the eye. “Sorry, don’t watch television,” he lied.

She nodded, her bottom lip poked out as she frowned.

“Well, I know who you are, Mr. LaRock, and I wanted to say that I heard the news and I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“For your record label dropping you. That must be tough.”

What?

“If you ever want to guest on any of my tracks, let me know. I’ll talk to my manager and we’ll see what we can do.”

An intern with horn-rimmed glasses hanging off his nose appeared. “Ms. Day, you’re needed in makeup.”

She thanked the intern, and turned back to Noah.

“Nice meeting you, Mr. LaRock.”

With pity in her eyes, she, and her crew, left.

He felt Walter’s hand touch his shoulder. “Noah?”

“They dropped me?”

“Noah, just calm down.”

“You knew about this?”

Walter froze, his mouth squeezed into a flat line. “Noah—”

“You knew about this.”

Noah marched toward the door.

“Noah, wait! You can’t just walk out, you’re on next.”

“Tell them I’m sick.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Then tell them whatever you have to!” he roared. “I’m not staying here.”

Walter grabbed Noah’s shirt and yanked him into the corner of the room, away from the prying eyes of the studio staff. His voice turned to a harsh whisper. “Noah, grow up! You have commitments. You will not just walk out.”

“Don’t talk to me like that. You are not my father!”

“No, but I am your manager, and as your manager you will listen to what I have to say. You will go on stage, and you will do your song, and your interview, and then, and only then, will you leave this studio.”

“For what, Walter? For what? I’m over, I’m done. My album tanked, my label dropped me, my concerts aren’t selling. What am I going to go on that stage for, huh? For what?”

“For your fans.”

“What fans?”

“The fans who stayed. You stay and you perform for your fans, because the ones who are loyal, they will be loyal forever. If you leave this studio, you are turning your back on them, and if they feel like you’ve turned your back on them, they will walk out of your life and never return. And then it will really be over.”

Noah huffed, his hands on his hips.

“Don’t do it for the label, or for anyone else. Do it for your fans.”

Noah shook his head. He remembered all of the letters and cards that he’d gotten over the years, that he still got to this day. Yes, he had fans, and he wouldn’t turn his back on them. He’d go out there and smile and perform. After all, he was a musician, an artist. He had one job. To make people happy. Though his heart was heavy in his chest, he took a deep breath and walked back onto the set.

He’d have to suck it up. What else could he do?

Chapter 12

Noah sat on the bed of his hotel room, staring out over the London skyline.

They called him The Rock King. He used to rule the world. And now, the walls were closing in on him. The castle that he’d built was falling apart. The foundation that held his career, the one thing that he thought was sturdy as iron, was only salt and sand, and it was collapsing.

How could this happen?

He thought that if he just held on, stuck to the things he knew, that it would last forever. He’d learned music, perfected the craft of plucking strings, banging drums, hitting the high notes. He’d studied at the feet of great musicians, learned from them, grew from the seeds that they planted.

I did everything right, he thought angrily. I studied, I learned. I was original. I was creative. Why is that not good enough anymore?

Hot rage flowed through him at the unfairness of it all.

How could they take sixteen years of my life and throw me away? How?

He picked up a chair, flinging it across the room. It hit the wall with a thud before falling back to the floor. The act drained a bit of his anger. He threw a second chair, watched it knock over a fake flower pot on a table, shattering it onto the carpet.

Suddenly understanding why musicians trashed hotel rooms, he let his anger have full reign, destroying, pulling down, crushing, and trampling everything not bolted down, hoping that something would quiet the sharp betrayal that ran through his soul.

They’d failed him. All of them. His fans, the label, they’d all turned their backs on him. Lesliee Day, and everyone like her, had come for him. They’d screamed for his head on a silver platter.

They’d gotten their wish.

His kingdom was falling apart in front of his eyes. He dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands.

Tears pooled in his palm.

The Rock King, he thought derisively. Who would ever want to be king?

Chapter 13

Cassie

After the concert, Cassie marched into the green room, her eyes glued to the girl who Dondo doted on for the evening. She was a thin redhead named Brenda. She wore a smug smile the whole night, as if she’d been chosen by Noah himself.

“So what do you do for a living, Brenda?” Cassie asked.

“I am a veterinary assistant.” Brenda’s accent was heavy, as if she’d just walked off the set of My Fair Lady.

“Have you been doing that long?”

“This is my first year.” She smiled. “But I love animals. Not the putting them to sleep part though. I’m against euthanizing. I’m very pro-animal rights.”

Cassie nodded, searching for a way to keep the girl talking, to keep her here. “My mom has a dog.”

“Really, what kind?”

“It’s a cocker spaniel mix.”

“Do you have a picture?”

Cassie pulled out her phone and showed Brenda a picture of Max, the sixteen-year-old love of her mother’s life. They’d gotten him after her father left.

“My mom will be heartbroken when he dies,” Cassie said.

Dondo placed a hand on Brenda’s shoulder. His eyes moved to Cassie, narrow with suspicion.

“Ready to go, babe?”

Brenda stood. “Sure.”

“Brenda, we should exchange numbers. I’d love to keep in touch.”

Dondo moved his hand to Brenda’s.

“Babe, we really need to go.”

“Okay.” She turned to Cassie and rattled off a series of numbers before Dondo pulled her through the crowd and out of the green room.

Cassie hurried to put them in her phone, praying that she got them right.

[No big deal, _]she reasoned.[ I’ll just call and check on her tomorrow. When she’s fine, then I won’t have to be suspicious of Dondo anymore. It’s fine. This is normal. _]

She hit [_save _]on her phone, then plopped down in her seat.

“Enjoy the show, Farmer Cassie?”

Noah appeared at her side. He’d been across the room, taking pictures with the backstage pass holders since she walked in. She hoped that she would’ve been gone before he was through.

“Yeah, it was great.”

“How about we go grab a bite to eat. It’s still early.”

“You know, I think that I’m just going to go back to the hotel and get some sleep.”

His eyes widened a bit, allowing her to see his disappointment. “Okay. I’ll walk you to your car.”

He stood, walked to the door, turned, and waited for her to follow him.

The crowd looked up, wondering where the star was going, and who was the girl with the thick curls who followed him out the door.

He moved slowly down the hallway, making sure that they kept in step.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

“You seem like you’re a little pissed with me.”

“Pissed? With you? No. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” He snapped his fingers twice and clapped his hands. “What do you say we order some room service when we get back. Jumping around on stage for two hours makes me hungry.”

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

They passed through the doorway that led to the parking garage.

“Thank you for walking with me,” she said. “I’m sure that I can take it from here.”

“It’s no problem,” he said, half in the orange light from the parking garage, half in the white light from the hallway. “You know, you can come in the limo with me, Walter, and Dondo if you want. There’s plenty of room.”

“No, thank you.”

She turned on her heels and marched away, hoping that he could read the full range of her anger at him.

I don’t need you, Mister LaRock. After next week, I’ll never see you again.

The thought didn’t bring her the peace that she’d hoped. Instead, it darkened her mood, bitterness rising in her throat.

I’ll never see you again.

She had just clicked her rental car alarm when she felt something sharp stick in her back.

The voice was deep, like the growl of an animal. “Give me your purse. Do not turn around.”

Cassie’s heart froze in her chest. She snatched her black purse off her shoulder and handed it to him, keeping her eyes glued to the top of the car.

“Don’t turn around,” he repeated.

“Hey!”

The heat from the robber was suddenly gone.

Cassie whipped around in time to see Noah with his arms on the guy’s collar, throwing him to the ground.

Something fell from the robber’s hand and clattered to the ground.

She gasped.

A razor.

Cassie ran for the purse that the robber had dropped.

The robber stumbled to his feet, grabbing the razor from the warm pavement.

“Back off, man!” he cried.

Noah put his hands in front of him.

Cassie quickly dialed concert security, yelling into the phone.

The robber lunged at Noah.

Noah jumped left, the blade barely missing his abdomen.

Cassie screamed.

The robber lunged again.

Noah grabbed the robbers outstretched arm, pulling him in for a hard knee to the gut.

The robber grunted as he doubled over.

Noah pulled the man back up and sent a hard fist to his jaw.

The robber spun to the ground.

The door to the parking garage flew open, and officers in dark uniforms raced in, standing between the man on the floor and Noah.

Cassie, phone frozen at her ear, could only see Noah. He had almost been skewered rescuing her. The thought sent her running into his arms.

He placed a hand on her head, pulled her close.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She laughed into his shoulder. “Me? You almost got shish kebabbed!”

He shook his head. “Let’s get back to the hotel before this place becomes a circus.”

She nodded, allowing him to lead her as her mind went wild.

What if I lost him?

***

The food grew cold in front of Cassie. She was in no mood to eat. She’s called her father’s room to tell him what’d happened, but he wasn’t there.

She called her mother, but she didn’t answer her phone.

This must be what shock feels like. I’m going into shock.

“Cas,” Noah said, the rumble in his voice grabbing her attention. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”

“I know. I was…I was just so scared.”

He came over to her bed and wrapped her in his arms.

“I know. I was scared too.”

“When I saw the razor, I just froze.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay!” She stood, walked out of his reach. “Gosh, I feel so stupid. What if he had stabbed you? What if you had bled out?”

“He didn’t stab me, I’m fine.”

“But what if you weren’t? Do you know what I was thinking when we were walking to the car? I was thinking how mad I was at you for those kisses. If you had died…now, it all seems so stupid.”

Her emotions got the best of her and she wiped away a tear that had fallen.

He paused. His voice was soft when he spoke again. “Why were you mad about the kisses?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. You just end them so quickly, I guess I thought you didn’t really like them, or me.”

“Is that why you were pissed at me? Baby, you got me all wrong.”

“I do?”

He opened his arms, allowed her to fall into them. “I love kissing you. Maybe too much.”

“Then why do you pull away? Is it me?”

He shook his head. “No. It’s me.”

Her heart sank. She’d heard that line before. It always ended with, I don’t want to see you anymore.

She suddenly felt foolish, stood, and walked to the opposite bed.

“No, wait, that came out wrong. Let me explain. You are not a groupie. You’re not one of those empty-headed girls who come through the green room looking for a good time and an update to their Facebook status. You’re different. You have dreams, things going on, and I respect that.”

“So that’s why you don’t want to kiss me?”

“No, that’s why I do want to kiss you. But I know that it can’t go any further than that. You’re going away soon, back to school. I don’t want to come between you and your dream. If we get too deep into this…I don’t want to ruin your life.”

She heard the truth in his words. Understood his valor. But the thought still hurt. She was leaving soon. Maybe it was best that they ended it now.

“So, that’s it, then?” she asked. “We’re done?”

He rose, came to her side of the bed, sat next to her. “No.” He placed a large, calloused hand on her cheek. “I don’t think I could ever be done with you.”

Her eyes rose to his then, watched him watching her.

“So what’s next?”

“We’ll ride out these next few days and see how it goes.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know.”

She sighed.

She didn’t know either. All she knew was that he was close, and she wanted his lips on hers more then she wanted breath.

She thought of tonight. Thought of losing him. Thought of their future.

Screw it.

She threw caution into the wind and kissed him fiercely. He froze, caught by surprise at her boldness. Then, a deep sound of pleasure rumbled into his chest as he took control of the kiss. She opened her mouth to him. Their tongues had barely touched before he pulled away.

“Stop doing that!” she cried.

“I’m sorry.” He stood. “Five seconds. That’s all the control I got.”

He made his way to the door, put his hand on the handle, ran back to her. “Just five more.”

He kisses her again, hard, deep, robbing her of the ability to think before the door slammed behind him, and she was alone again.

Chapter 14

His hands were large, his fingers interlacing as they wrapped around her throat.

The room began to spin. She tried to take a gasp but no air would come. His fingers were too tight.

Her vision blurred, then blackened.

The man let out a breath, the sound something akin to relief.

His fingers loosened slightly, but it was too late then. She’d been without air for too long.

[_Who will take care of the puppies? _]she wondered.

A flash of light.

A burst of pain.

And then, nothing at all.

***

Cassie

Janice texted Cassie around eleven thirty that night.

Hi, dear! Sorry for not answering earlier. I was out. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love ya!

Out with who? Cassie wondered.

Sighing, she flipped on the television, but nothing interesting was on.

She searched for a Facebook page for Brenda but came up short. There was no account associated with the number she had, and she didn’t know her last name.

After zoning out watching YouTube videos for what seemed like an eternity, she flipped over on her back and looked at the clock. It was nearly three and she hadn’t slept a wink.

She blew out a frustrated breath and closed her eyes. Her mind turned to thoughts of Noah.

What would happen when she went back to Connecticut? Would Noah and she remain friends, or would he be out of her life forever?

I’ve only known him for a few days, she reasoned. It shouldn’t matter, should it? So, then why does it matter?

Finally, she stood and walked to the window, staring out at the moon.

When did it all become so complicated?

Her phone buzzed twice.

She looked at the clock again.

Who could be texting me now?

She reached over and looked at the screen.

Noah: Are you awake?

She smiled, texted back.

Can’t sleep.

A few seconds passed but the phone didn’t buzz again.

She sighed, dropped it on the bed. Why did he have to play so many games?

A knock on the door had her turning her head. She knew who it was immediately. Checking herself in the mirror, she smoothed her hair, jogged to the door, and pulled it open.

Noah grinned back at her. He looked absolutely gorgeous in a black t-shirt and pajama pants.

“You are very distracting,” he said.

“Me?”

“Yes, you.” He touched her nose, making her giggle. “So I figured since you were on my mind anyway, we should hang out.”

“Like now?”

“Yes, now.”

“It’s three in the morning. What will we do?”

“Oh, I can think of a few things. Put on some slippers.”

She smiled and slid her feet into a pair of pink plaid house slippers. He held out his hand and she slid her fingers into his. His touch warmed her right down to her heart.

They took the stairs to the roof, the metal door creaking loudly when they pushed on it.

“Where are we going?”

“Uh, to the roof,” Noah said.

“I know that, but what are we doing on the roof?”

“Just come on.”

He led her to a small blanket laid near the roof’s edge and they lay down on it.

Above her the stars sparkled, a million shimmering dancers around an orange moon.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“When’s the last time you looked up at the moon? Like, just laid down and stared at it?”

“I don’t know. When I was a kid maybe?”

He pulled her down next to him onto the soft, blue blanket. They lay there in silence, staring up at the beautiful London sky.

“When I was eight,” he said, “my dad would take me up to the roof of our apartment building in the Bronx. We’d lay on a blanket, look up at the moon, and he’d tell me about life. He had so much advice, and, granted, most of it was useless, but I listened anyway. I liked hearing him talk. I miss that.” He paused. “When he died, my mom would take me camping, and we would look up at the moon too. She didn’t say much though. I think it helped her feel close to Dad. I know it helped me to.”

“You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yeah. We were close. I mean, they weren’t directly involved in my career, that was all Walter, but they gave me good advice, and always let me know that they loved me.” He shook his head. “All the money that I made, I couldn’t save them. There’s no cure for cancer, or car wrecks. It kind of made me question things, you know.”

“Things like what?”

“Like, what does all of this money mean if the people you care about are gone. I guess I spent so much of it because I didn’t have anyone I wanted to share it with.”

His hand searched for hers in the darkness. “And now that it’s drying up, I don’t know what to do. I feel like I failed. I mean, what is a washed up rock star in debt up to his eyeballs going to do with the rest of his life?”

“Be smart,” Cassie said.

“What?”

“You’re going to be smart. Invest, downsize, have a plan B. And for god’s sakes don’t marry some gold digger with a pretty face who’s going to rob you blind in a year.” She turned her head to him. “Maybe it’s time to stop being just a musician, and start being a businessman.”

He was quiet for a while, and they sat in companionable silence. Their hands were still clasped when the sun rose.

***

The call went straight to voice mail.

Cassie had been trying to get a hold of Brenda for hours, with no response. And now, the calls were going straight to voicemail.

“Where are you, Brenda?”

A knock had her raising her head to the door. She went to open it, and found her father on the other side.

“You ready, dear?”

“Yes.” She looked back down at her phone, worry on her face. “I was just trying to reach someone.”

“You can try again in the limo.”

She tucked her phone into the pocket of her tennis dress and went to pick up her suitcase.

She felt her father walk past her. He clicked on the television, watching it with interest.

A short-haired, caramel skinned news reporter was talking. The television was on silent, but Cassie didn’t need volume to know the truth.

Floating next to the news reporter was a picture of Brenda.

“Oh no!” Her hands covered her mouth.

Her father turned around. “What’s wrong? Did you know the girl?”

Cassie shook her head. “No. I mean, I’ve seen her, but I didn’t know her well.”

Was this Dondo? Cassie wondered.[_ Could he do something like this? _]

Walter grunted, turned back to the television.

“Let’s get you a cup of coffee before we head out. It’ll calm your nerves.”

He clicked off the television, picked up her suitcase, and, with one gentle hand on her back, led her from the hotel room. They grabbed a coffee along the way, before the two of them handed their suitcase to the driver, and climbed inside.

Dondo was already waiting for them, his head rolled to the side, his eyes closed.

Cassie studied him in his sleep. His olive skin, his dark hair, full lips, t-shirt, shorts, and expensive sneakers.

Was this man a killer?

The thought followed her through the airport, and into the private plane that would take them to Germany.

Noah was followed by the usual group of professionals that surrounded him at any given second. They had picked up a new crew of eight background dancers, six women and two men. They would stay with Noah for the European leg of the tour, and be deposited back in the UK after Noah did his final show there.

Cassie stayed close to her father as the plane took off. Stayed close to him as he fell asleep for the hour and a half trip. Only turned her head when Noah touched her elbow.

“Hey, the old man’s asleep, let’s go.”

She looked behind him, saw Dondo flirting with one of the dancers.

“I think I’ll just stay put.”

He frowned deeply at her. “Why?”

She sighed, tried to pick her words carefully. “What do you know about Dondo?” she asked.

He smirked. “Dondo? He’s my best friend. Why do you ask?”

Cassie began to speak, and shut her mouth with an audible click.

If I say anything against Dondo, Noah will never believe me. But, maybe there’s nothing to say. Maybe it’s all a coincidence.

“What’s wrong? You look like you’re thinking about something.”

Cassie shook her head. “No. I’m fine.”

Noah smiled at her, ran a finger down one cheek. “Well, why don’t you come to the back of the plane, and I’ll turn that frown upside down.”

“In only five seconds?”

“If you’re extra good, I think I can make it to ten.”

“What about your lack of control?”

“It’s a short flight.”

His gaze held her, bending her to his will. By the time she stood to follow him, her lips were abuzz in anticipation of Noah, and his now infamous five-second kisses.

Chapter 15

Germany

It was early afternoon when Cassie knocked on Noah’s door. She had just gotten back from talking to the head of security at the concert venue about the murders. She’d chosen her words carefully, not mentioning Dondo or Noah.

“I’m afraid that someone is targeting the girls at the concert,” she’d said. She recounted what happened to Kelly and Brenda. “Can you keep an eye out for anything suspicious?”

The head of security assured her that his team would, then waved her to the door.

[_Dismissed, _]she thought. [_Like a common lunatic. What kind of security runs these places anyway? _]

Her darkened mood lifted a bit when her phone vibrated in her pocket and she saw Noah’s name in bold black letters above his cryptic text message.

Lesson in five minutes. Food will be provided.

Their gazes met when he opened this door, his well-muscled body leaned against the wooden frame.

“Room service?” he teased.

She rolled her eyes, pushed past him. “Well, Mr. LaRock. What is this lesson that I’m supposed to learn?”

Two guitars laid across the bed, one apple red and one a deep blue with a white curve along the body.

“Forget something?” he asked, a grin on his face, his back pressed to the door.

She raised an eyebrow. “Did I?”

“I believe that the customary greeting is a kiss.”

“I like to think of myself as unconventional.” She smiled.

“Too bad. I’m very conventional.”

She suddenly found herself wound in his arms.

“Hello,” he whispered. He ducked his head, kissing her slowly, leisurely, as if they had all of the time in the world. When he pulled away all thoughts of murder flew from her mind.

“I have a surprise for you.” He was gone, walking across the room and to the bed.

She huffed, suddenly very uninterested in any surprise that was longer than five seconds.

He picked up the red guitar and held it out to her.

“We are going to learn to play guitar today,” he said.

“We?”

“Yes, we. I’m teaching you.”

She shook her head. “You should know that I am not musically inclined.”

“And you should know that I’m an excellent teacher.

She took the guitar from him, holding it with reverence.

“Be careful with that,” he said. “It’s my favorite. I wrote four albums on that guitar.”

He picked up the blue guitar and sat cross-legged on the floor. She joined him, holding the guitar tight to her chest, squeezing her fingers against the strings.

He winced.

“Okay,” he said. “Lesson number one. How to hold the guitar.”

He placed his on the floor next to him, and went to sit behind her. He pressed her shoulders down and wrapped his arms around her, showing her the correct hold.

“Now the body of the guitar needs to be straight, so loosen up a bit, sit up straight, get comfortable.”

“Couldn’t we do this on a chair?”

“Can’t correct you in a chair,” he said. “Besides, I like this better.” He kissed her shoulder, silencing all further arguments.

“Okay, so the names of the strings. The top one is an E.” He strummed it. “A, D, G, B, and E.”

“There are two Es?”

“Yes.”

“Why are there two Es?”

“Because they’re two different octaves.”

“Why aren’t the letters in order?”

“We will learn that in lesson two.”

She laughed. “There are two lessons?”

“No questions. Now,” he pointed to the first, thickest line at the end of the guitar, “this is the nut, that’s like the…”

Her laughter echoed through the room.

He restrained his own chuckles. “You’re impossible,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Go on. Yes, the nuts.”

She blurted out a laugh, felt his chest shake behind her.

“I have been playing guitar for sixteen years and now, I can’t even. I’m done.”

“No, no, wait. Okay. I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll be serious. Yes. Go on.”

He sighed, quickly going through frets and how to place her fingers.

“Okay, so, you got all that?”

“Yes. Got it.”

“So, we’re going to play a D chord.”

He put his fingers on top of hers, gently pressing the tip of her pointer finger down on the G string. Her third finger went to the B, her middle finger on the bottom string. He picked up a pick, pressed it into her hand.

“Okay,” he said. “Now strum.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You’re fine. Strum.”

She took a deep breath, ran the pick down the strings.

It let out a pleasant sound.

“Good. You’re a natural.”

“It was just one strum.”

“I can tell. Now, let’s do one string at a time. Remember, wrist, not elbow, loosen up, you’re doing great.”

She strummed again, smiled when it came out just as pleasant.

Noah taught her with patience. He praised her when she played the right note, and adjusted her fingers when she played the wrong one. Within an hour, she had picked up three chords, and played them with some fluency.

“This was fun,” she said, pride coloring her voice. “I never thought that I’d play a guitar.”

“This is just the beginning. If we practice every day, you’ll get better and better. Eventually, who knows, you may want to start a band, or join a band, or play back up on my album, or, you know, whatever.”

She shook her head. “Maybe.”

He gave her a final kiss on the indent of her neck before standing, stretching, and picking the guitar up from her. He played a few chords, and laid it back down on the bed. When she stood, he handed her the blue guitar.

“For you,” he said. “So you can practice.”

She took the guitar from him, tried to strum, failed.

“Apparently I’ll need a lot of practice.”

“We’ll get there,” he said. “Don’t worry. Three lessons a day, two hours a lesson. In a year, you’ll be amazing.”

“I don’t know. I’m leaving soon.”

She wanted to take the words back as soon as she said them. His smile fell, his mood changing.

“Yeah,” he said. “I forgot about that.”

He turned, laying his guitar in a case, and smoothing down the blanket. “I guess I’ll order lunch. I gotta go do sound check in a little while.”

“Okay.”

She sat on the bed as the silence laid heavy upon them.

She was leaving. She’d known it the entire summer, looked forward to it.

Now, the thought turned her world a little grayer.

I have to leave, she thought. I’m going to be a doctor. I have to leave.

***

After a short nap, Cassie exited her room, on her way to the concert. Upon opening the door, she found a blonde, wide-eyed teen clutching a black suitcase to his chest.

“Hello,” he said, his English broken. “My name is Hans. I have a delivery for Walter Washington.”

“I’m sorry,” Cassie said, eyeing the suitcase. “He’s down at the other end of the hall, in room 214.”

The teen’s cheeks reddened, his eyes flicking to the end of the hall.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. He bowed slightly before quickly jogging away.

Cassie shook her head. She took out her phone, texted her father that his delivery was here, and walked to the elevators. The show would start in a little while and she didn’t want to be late.

She rushed down to the garage, then drove herself to the venue.

Just the thought of seeing Noah again brought butterflies to her stomach.

Why should it? she wondered. [_Maybe we’re moving too fast? After all, I’m leaving in a few days. _]

The sad thought followed her as she arrived at her first aid station.

Another woman was sitting in her office, thumbing through a magazine.

“Hi,” Cassie said, eying the women sitting in her seat. “I think that this is my station.”

The woman’s English was heavily accented. “Not anymore.”

Cassie turned to find her father approaching, a weary look in his eye.

“What’s going on?”

“It means that your salary has been paid through the end of the summer, and you have been released from your nursing duties.”

“What? Who ordered that?”

“Noah. He seems to think that you would be better utilized sitting in the audience rather than working as we’d previously agreed on.”

Cassie’s anger went into orbit.

“What? I know that I didn’t do a whole lot, but I did my job when it called for it.”

“That you did.”

“And he has no right to fire me.”

“There is where you’re wrong. He had every right.”

She ground her teeth, turning around in circles as she tried to wrap her head around the injustice.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?”

“There’s nothing that I can do but tell you that I warned you. I told you to stay away from Noah, but apparently, you two have been sneaking around behind my back, haven’t you?”

Cassie stayed silent, her eyes on the floor.

“I thought as much. You know, I tried, I really did. I tried to protect you from him, to keep you on the right path. But, once again, I’ve lost control of the situation. First the sales, then the label, now you.”

He began to mutter wildly, squeezing his hands together around an invisible neck.

Cassie placed a nervous hand on his shoulder,

“Walter. Walter, look at me.”

He snapped out of his rant, looked her in the eye. Embarrassed, his straightened his back, cleared his throat.

“Sorry. I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately.”

“I know it.”

“And I just want you to be happy.”

“I know it.”

He shook his head. Pressing the tickets into her palm with a force that made Cassie yelp, he said, “Stay away from Noah. It’s for your own good. He’ll use you and throw you away. You don’t need that in your life. You are going to turn out right, do you hear me?”

Her brows furrowed, her mouth turned down in a frown. “We’re just friends. But, even if we weren’t, Noah and I are both adults. We can make our own choices.”

“Not here. This,” he gestured around him, “is not some Yale campus full of inexperienced trust fund babies. This is my world. I say what’s right and wrong. I decide what goes. And I have decided that you and Noah are not to spend any more time together, got it?”

“Whoa, Walter.” She spat his name at him. “You don’t get to parent me now. Where were you for the last sixteen years?”

“Are you going to throw that in my face every time I say something you don’t like?”

“Only when it’s relevant.”

He itched the back of his neck, his eyes slits on his face. He shook his head at her. “Cassie Washington, you will heed me. Noah LaRock is not for you. Stay away from him.”

“Isn’t he supposed to be your protégé.”

“That’s why I’m telling you to stay away. I know him. You don’t.”

“I know enough. What? Do you think he’ll leave me like you did?”

Walter threw up his hands. “I can’t win with you. I can’t win with any of it. If you won’t listen to me, then I’ll send you on the first plane back to New Haven. You can bet on that.”

“We’ll see if Noah allows you to send me away or not. Go ahead. Ask him.”

They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity until finally, Walter turned away, his feet moving swiftly toward the stage, leaving Cassie with the oddest feeling in her gut.

What’s his problem?

Her eyes dropped down to the tickets in her hand. She felt bad for the things that she’d said, but that didn’t mean they weren’t true. Walter couldn’t hope to parent her now. The only thing he could do was try to be her friend. They were way past anything else.

With her tickets in hand, Cassie waited until her father was out of sight before she followed his path. She’d see Noah’s show, and then she’d give Noah an earful. After that, she would try to save a life.

***

The concert was amazing. There was no doubt about that.

With each new song, the stage exploded in color. It settled in a soft, foggy blue for the ballads, and pulsed angry red for the up-tempos. Sometimes the stage would turn into a turquoise sun, sometimes it would burst with fireworks that seemed to go on forever. For one song, it turned completely white. For the encore set, the stage erupted with fire, while lights searched the crowd.

The crowd was a living, breathing organism, controlled with an iron fist by the sounds that came from Noah’s lips. They jumped when he commanded, screamed when he ordered, flung their hands in the air, and danced when he pleasured.

By the end of the set, Cassie’s heart pounded, her soul felt alive, and she had formed quick friendships with the girls around her. They were here for a common purpose. To worship at the feet of Noah LaRock. She fell in line, joining them as they did their obecience.

She’d almost forgotten that he’d taken it upon himself to fire her.

Almost.

After the concert, she ran into Dondo leaving the green room, a beautiful blonde on his arm.

“Doc,” he said, his voice raising an octave. “You got back here fast.”

“You too,” she replied. “Leaving early?”

“Yeah, this is Stacey. Me and her are gonna hang out tonight.”

Cassie turned to the blonde, held her hand out to her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Stacey.”

Stacey frowned, looked at Dondo.

“She doesn’t speak English.” He smiled.

Cassie nodded.

“Well, we’d better get going.”

Dondo jerked his chin to the door and, his arm around Stacey’s shoulders, walked off.

“Dondo?” Cassie said.

He turned.

“Be careful with her.”

His eyebrows knitted together, in something akin to confusion, before he silently turned around and continued walking toward the parking garage.

Cassie waited until they were outside before taking a deep breath and plunging into action.

She burst through the doors just in time to see a black limo pull up to them. A thin man jumped out and held the door open as they climbed inside.

She waited until the doors closed again before jogging out to her car.

“Going somewhere?”

Noah’s voice sent chills down her spine.

“Does it matter?” she asked threw over her shoulder. “I don’t work for you anymore, remember?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She arrived at her car, a yellow two-door sedan.

“You had me fired.”

“I paid you up until the end of the summer, gave you a bonus, and free concert tickets. I wouldn’t exactly call that a raw deal.”

She whipped around to face him. “Did it ever occur to you that I liked my job?”

“You liked sitting in a dirty nurses’ office and putting ice on bruises?”

“First of all, I graduated from nursing school. I’m qualified to do this. This is what I was doing before I came here. I like what I do. I like it so much that I want to take it to the next level and be a doctor. So, before you belittle what I do, know that my goal in life is to save lives and yours is to sing songs. Who can make fun of who’s job? Second of all, you didn’t even ask me if I wanted to quit. You just made the decision without consulting me. I am furious with you, Noah!”

A few girls spotted him. With wide grins, they crept over.

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you liked it so much. I’ll give you back your job if that’s what you want.”

“What I want is respect for what I do. I deserve that much!”

“Of course I respect it. I was just trying to give you a break.”

The girls pulled out a phone and took a picture. Noah held his hand up to block the flash.

“Take care of your fans, Noah.”

Cassie yanked open the car door and climbed inside.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“You know, Cas, it would really make me feel better if you went in the limo—”

The car sped off, leaving Noah in the center of a growing crowd of fans, as cameras flickered and flashed.

Chapter 16

She lost the limo.

After an hour of navigating in the winding streets of Germany, Cassie drove back to the hotel. She hoped the girl would be okay, but something told her that she wouldn’t be.

In a moment of desperation, she texted Dondo, asked him if he’d seen Noah.

He texted back a few minutes later. No.

She then texted Noah, asked if he’d seen Dondo.

He texted back, Said he was going to a meeting with your father. I’ll check.

Then, a few minutes later, He’s with your dad.

With my dad? _]she thought. [_With the girl? Why?

Another text from Noah.

Are you coming back to the hotel? I’m waiting at your door. Food’s cold.

She squeezed her lips together, guilt creeping into her belly. As she pulled back in front of the hotel, she tried to make sense of it all.

[_Dondo is with my dad, and, probably, Stacey. How can he kill her with my dad there? Unless he’s not the killer at all. _]

More confused than ever, she climbed out of the car and took the elevator up. She found Noah sitting in front of her door, bag of food in hand, staring at his phone. He stood when he saw her.

“Hey,” he said, running his hand through his hair. The brown locks ruffled, then feel back into place.

“Hey.”

“So, where’d you go?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Why? Were you out with another guy or something?”

Her keycard froze midway down the card reader. “What?”

“Just wondering.”

“No, I was not going to see another guy. Why would you even say that?”

“You sped off in the middle of the night,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to think.”

“Middle of the night? It was eleven thirty.”

“Okay, but that’s not the point.”

She let out a huff, opened the door for him to come in, and threw herself on the bed. She wondered if Stacey was okay. She wondered if she would see her pretty blonde face on the news the next morning.

She felt Noah’s weight climb onto the bed. He lay next to her, balancing his head on his palm.

“Are you going to talk to me about it?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You’d never believe me.”

“Try me.”

“It’s about Dondo.”

“What about Dondo?”

She paused, decided to give it a shot. “You know how he always leaves with girls at the end of the night?”

“Yeah.”

“The girls he’s been leaving with…” She paused. How could she tell him that she thought his best friend was a killer. It didn’t matter now. She had to try. “The girls he’s been leaving with are all dead.”

“What?”

“Every morning I turn on the news, and the girls are all dead. Killed the same way, choked, their bodies crushed, dropped off in a bad neighborhood in a suitcase.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”

“And what makes you think Dondo’s the one doing it?”

“He’s the one who leaves with the girls. And the killings are all so similar.”

“So you’re assuming?”

She sighed. “Yes, I guess. But I don’t see any other explanation.”

He turned onto his back, looked up at the ceiling.

“You’re wrong. Dondo would never do something like that.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I know Dondo. I’ve known him since I was a kid. Sure, he can be a jerk sometimes, but he’s no killer.”

“But how can you be sure?”

“He’s my best friend. He’s not a killer.”

“Noah, I know that this is surprising, but—”

He sat up in the bed, turned away from her.

She sat up on her haunches, put her arms around his shoulders. She had to make him understand.

For Stacey’s sake. For Brenda. For Kelly.

“At least hear me out.”

“What proof do you have?” he asked.

“Just what I said. He leaves with the girls and then they’re dead.”

“That’s not proof. That’s nothing concrete.”

“It’s all I have.”

“So you left here by yourself to follow him?”

“Yes.”

“And what were you planning on doing if he was the killer, huh? Dondo is nearly as big as I am. What would you have done if you caught him in the act?”

“I would have called the police.”

“And said what? You speak English. This is Germany. By the time you did all that, Dondo would have spotted you and killed you too. Did you even think of that?”

She sat back on the bed. No, she hadn’t thought of that.

“Look, even though I know that Dondo isn’t a killer, promise me that you won’t go on any more wild goose chases by yourself.”

She nodded. “I promise.”

“Good.”

He stood.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m tired.”

Panic rose in her chest.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” she asked, hoping her desperation didn’t show in her voice.

He placed a hand on the knob. “Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He closed the door behind him, and Cassie let out a string of colorful swears.

She wished she hadn’t said anything at all.

Chapter 17

A knock on the door released the killer’s fingers from Stacey’s throat.

She breathed in deeply, her head abuzz with the sudden intake of oxygen.

Just as quickly, he covered her mouth with one hand.

“Don’t make a sound,” he growled. Slipping off his t-shirt, he ripped a strip from the bottom of it and stuffed it into her mouth.

She gagged, almost vomiting as sweat stained cloth went nearly down her throat.

He ripped off a second strip and hastily wrapped it around her wrist.

The knocking continued.

His rough hands yanked her off the floor. He dragged her to the bathroom and pitched her inside before slamming the door behind her.

Her mind beginning to clear. She searched the bathroom, but there were no windows.

Swearing, she pushed the gag from her mouth with her tongue, and used her teeth to undo the knot from around her wrist. Now freed, she tried to pull the toilet seat cover off, but it wouldn’t budge. She turned, wrapped her hands around the shower curtain rod, and leaned back with all of her strength.

It popped off, the curtain shushing as it fell into the tub.

She pushed the dirty white curtain off the rod and maneuvered the rod in front of her. Back hunched, legs bent, teeth set.

When he came again, she’s be ready.

The front door slammed shut.

His footsteps grew closer.

The door opened.

He appeared.

Using the rod as a lance, she rushed forward, slamming it into his chest and pinning him to the bathroom wall.

He screamed in rage before grabbing the end of the rod and pushing.

She fell off balance. The rod clanged to the floor.

He flew across the room, landing on top of her, sending several hard slaps to her face.

She cried out, clawing at his skin, kicking and spitting, swearing in harsh German as she fought for her life.

His fist reared back and rammed into her face.

She was stunned.

He wrapped his hand around her throat, the blood from his wounds dripping onto her pale skin, and he choked the life from her eyes.

***

Cassie

A mix-up with the flights had Noah leaving early the next day.

Cassie’s flight wasn’t until early afternoon. She found herself sitting at the airport with Noah’s choreographer. She wondered if Noah hated her or not. After checking her phone a hundred times she finally came to the conclusion that there was no good morning text. She’d accused his friend of being a murderer, and now he wanted nothing to do with her.

And what was worse, there had been another murder last night.

Stacey was gone.

There was no denying it now. Whomever was killing these girls was on this tour.

She boarded the flight around noon, and arrived in Paris an hour later.

A limo drove them to the hotel, where they signed for their rental cars.

She found her father in the lobby, a cell phone pinned to his ear.

“He is a millionaire. Who cares if I burn through the gas. Just pay it!”

He jammed his finger onto the off button, and glared at the phone.

Cassie jogged to the elevator and joined him inside.

“Hey, Walter.” She threw her arms around him. He hugged her back. It was still awkward, but it was getting better.

“Hey.”

She sighed. “Look, I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t mean to say those things to you.”

His eyes turned soft. “I guess things got out of hand,” he said. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt, or pregnant, or—”

“I won’t. I’m leaving here in five days and I’m going back to school. And Noah and I are not sleeping together. Mom taught me better than that. I’ll be fine, and I appreciate your concern.”

She gave him a side hug, looked into his shaking hand.

“Who was that on the phone?”

“Ah, just Aaron, the accountant. Always complaining.”

He stuffed his cell phone into his pants pocket.

“How was your flight?” he asked.

“Great. Short. Yours?”

“Good. I slept through it.”

The elevator doors slid open, revealing the private wing reserved for the rich and famous. Gold outlined every door and window. The egg shell colored walls gave way to intricately designed blue, white, and gold carpeting. Above them, a golden chandelier sparkled, the sunlight throwing rainbows along the walls. The hallway smelled of potpourri. Cassie ran her finger along the gold flower embossments that appeared every ten feet or so.

“Fancy,” she whispered.

“You know Noah. He spares no expense.”

She turned to her father, noticed the fresh scratches that ran along his neck. She touched them gently.

“What happened?” she asked.

He flinched, covering the scratches with one hand. “My eczema is acting up.”

“From the stress?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, don’t worry. Noah LaRock isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And even if he does, you will always have a place to come home to.”

She watched a tight smile play on his lips. “You mean that?” he asked.

“Absolutely.”

They stopped in front of her door. “I’ll see you at the concert.”

“See you then.”

He left her to open the door to her room.

She gasped.

Rose petals were sprinkled on the bed, along the top of the dresser. They covered the carpet, made a pathway to the bathroom. A hot tub bubbled, the rose petals dancing over the water.

“Oh my!”

On the bathroom counter top was a letter, addressed to her.

She opened it, read it aloud.

“I’m sorry that we missed our five seconds today. I promise to make it up to you. Noah.”

Joy flooded her heart. She swung herself around and ran for the bags that had been deposited in her room before she arrived.

The gurgling hot tub was calling to her and she wouldn’t let the rose scented luxury go to waste.

***

After wrapping herself in the softest towel she’d ever held in her hands, Cassie finally got her mother on the phone.

“Oh, Cassie dear, I’m so sorry I’ve been missing your calls.”

“Where were you, Mother? I was starting to worry.”

“I’ve been out. Pastor Ben took me to dinner last night.”

“And the night before that?”

“The movies.”

“And the night before that?

“The beach.”

“Mother!” Cassie cried.

“I know, I know, don’t lecture me. He’s a nice man, and I’m a lonely old woman.”

“I leave for two months and you find yourself a man.” She smiled.

“A very nice man,” Janice said softly.

“Well, I guess I’d better get to know this nice man, then,” Cassie said. “Are you all set to pick me up from the airport?”

“Yes, I will be ready and waiting. I may even bring along a friend.”

“I see. So, tell me about this friend.”

“You already know about Ben.”

“I know he’s widowed and the pastor of the church. Besides that, I don’t know anything about him.”

“Well, he likes jazz music, and he’s a good cook.” Her mother’s voice rose an octave. She could hear the excitement in it. “He has a very nice garden in the back of his house. We worked in it a little last week.”

“Last week?” Cassie asked. “How long has this been going on?”

“Oh, not long. Two months or so.”

“Two months? Were you waiting for me to leave?”

“Now don’t sass your mother. Tell me, how have you been.”

“All right, I guess. We’re in Paris, in a beautiful hotel. Noah filled my room with roses.”

“Noah?” Her mother gasped. “Noah LaRock?”

“Yes.”

“Are you two seeing each other?”

“We’ve been hanging out as friends.”

“Friends don’t buy friends roses.”

“Well, we’re good friends.”

“Now, Cassie, don’t get tied down by this man. You have goals, dreams. You have to finish school. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And there will be plenty of time for boys after you have an MD behind your name.”

“I know. I keep telling myself that but…”

“But?”

Cassie sighed. “No buts.”

“If I don’t see you at that airport, I’m coming to get you, and dragging you back.”

“No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll be there.”

“Good. Now, tell me about these roses.”

Chapter 18

France

Noah and Cassie finally found each other in the green room after the show. She’d deliberately waited until he finished with the back stage pass holders before presenting herself to him.

His eyes devoured hers hungrily, raking over her high-waisted shorts and flowered crop top.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi.”

They stood there, their eyes communing, their hearts beating in time.

“I got you something,” he said.

“Yes, I saw the room.” She grinned. “Thank you.”

“No, something else.”

He took her hand and walked her over to a brand new recliner, placed right next to his old one.

She gasped, ran her hand over the brown leather.

“Is this mine?”

“A queen’s throne is next to the kings’, right?”

He sat, threw his feet up, and waved her to do the same.

The leather was soft, hugging every curve as she sank into it.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I love it.”

“Great!”

“But I can’t keep it,” she said, her eyes turning sad.

“Why?”

“Noah, I’m only on this tour for five more days. Then I’m going home.”

“Let’s not think about that now.” His words were short, clipped.

She sat back in the recliner, halfheartedly making conversation with the crowd that pressed in on them, asking questions in broken English, posing for pictures with their king. She had to go back to school soon, no matter how much he wanted her to stay. She hoped that he knew, that he understood. She’d tell him again tonight.

She watched Dondo come and go with a new girl, and sank deeper in her chair. She felt helpless. She couldn’t save her. If she went to the police, they wouldn’t believe her without evidence. If she went to Noah, he wouldn’t believe her. She couldn’t fight off Dondo, and the girl wouldn’t understand her anyway.

I can’t do anything to save her, she thought. I know she’s going to die tonight, but I can’t stop it.

The thought haunted her as Noah escorted her to his limo and drove her back to the hotel.

“I finally got you to ride in the limo,” he said, his grin wide.

She halfheartedly smiled back, her mind trapped in worry over the new girl on Dondo’s arm. The worry stayed with her as he led her upstairs and to her room. It drifted through her psyche as they reclined on the bed. It tore through her gut as they lay in each other’s arms and watched Oklahoma! on the flat screen television.

After his jokes about Ado Annie’s whorish tendencies and Judd Frye’s bullish stupidity were met with silence, he leaned his head down, kissing her earlobe until she shivered to attention.

“You are one distracted girl,” he whispered.

How can I make him believe me? _]she wondered. [_How can I convince him that his best friend is a killer when I don’t have any proof?

“I’m just thinking,” she replied.

“About what?”

“About those girls,” she said.

“Me too.”

Cassie’s eyes opened wide in shock as she turned around.

“I can’t afford to lose any more Rocktards. So, I thought about what you said, and I did some research. And you were right. The murders have been happening along my tour route.”

“You believe me?”

“At first, no. But now, I think that you may have some valid points.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Well, I spoke to the local police and they have agreed to place extra details around the concert. The last girl, Stacy, found a way to fight back. She had some skin under her fingernails. The police are testing a sample here, and sending another sample back to America to see if there are any matches. In the meantime, I made it very clear to Dondo that he is not to take home any more girls until we got this worked out.”

Her eyes went wide. “You told him?”

“I didn’t tell him that you were suspicious. I said that the cops were tracking a killer that has been following my tour route. I told him that, for the good of us all, he was not to bring any more girls back to the hotel.”

She threw her arms around him, holding him tight.

“Thank you for listening to me,” she said.

He held her to him.

“I don’t think that Dondo is a killer,” he replied. “But, I trust your gut. And it can’t hurt to take a few precautions.”

She pressed her lips to his, her body snaking around his. His body tightened, and he pulled away.

“Well, I could take more precautions if you want.”

She kissed his grin away, kept kissing him until he put his forehead to her shoulders and wrapped himself around her. She buried her head in his chest, before turning away. His trust touched her. She wiped away a tear.

“You believed in me,” she replied. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

“I will always believe in you, Cas,” he said against her ear. “I will spend the rest of my life believing in you. You are the only person I’ve ever met who didn’t want me for my fame or my money or my music. You just want me for me, and for that I will always trust you.”

She smiled, feeling his words deep in her soul. “Who said I wanted you?” he teased.

His lips brushed over her shoulders, his fingers splayed over her belly. “Let’s just call it a gut feeling.”

She hoped that he couldn’t feel her tremble.

“Come to the Grammy’s with me.”

She flipped around to him.

“When?”

An image of her in a long black dress popped into her mind. Excitement ran through her.

“Tomorrow.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

He grinned against her mouth before kissing her, and laying his head back down on the pillow.

“What will we tell them?” she asked.

“Tell who?”

“Them. The media, the press. When they see us together, what will we tell them?”

“If anyone ask, we’ll tell them that you’re my manager’s daughter.”

Her heart sank in her chest.

She hoped her voice didn’t come out as choked as it felt. “Okay.”

There was a brief pause, a stilling of his breath.

“What would you want me to tell them?” he asked.

She closed her eyes, tried to close her heart. She didn’t want him to know the word that ran across her mind. Girlfriend. It was too soon, and besides, she was leaving in a few days.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess manager’s daughter is fine.”

He didn’t reply.

She wondered if he would ever think of her as a girlfriend. A small part of her hoped that he would. A larger part of her knew that it couldn’t be. After all, her mother had raised her to be a good, Christian girl. She couldn’t give him what he wanted, at least not now. Not unless they were married.

“You think loudly,” he said.

“What?”

“You think out loud.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“No, but you tense up, stop breathing, tap your foot, bite your nails. It’s like a little factory in there.”

She squeezed her lips together, quickly removed her thumbnail from her mouth.

“What are you thinking about, sweets?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing always means something.”

“I’m just thinking, that’s all.”

“It was too soon to ask you to the awards, wasn’t it?” he asked. “You’re freaking out about it?”

“No, that’s not it at all.”

“Then what is it?”

“I just, well, what are we doing?”

“Like, laying here?”

“Yes, no. That’s not what I meant. I mean…Noah, I’m not going to sleep with you.”

“I didn’t expect you to.”

She bolted up, stared at him.

“What?”

“Is that why you think I’m here?” One of his eyebrows rose. “Because I’m trying to get laid?”

She looked away.

His eyes turned sharp. “Not that I don’t want to, and not that I haven’t been thinking about it, but, well, it that what you thought?”

Squeezing her lips together, she shifted in the bed, twiddled her fingers. “Kinda.”

He let out an irritated huff.

Her voice turned soft. “If you want to go, then I understand.”

“What is your name?”

Her eyes floated up to him.

“Cassie.”

His face set hard, demanding. “Your full name.”

“Cassandra Cortana Washington.”

“Say it again.”

“Cassandra Cortana Washington.”

“Say it again.”

“Cassandra Cortana Washington.”

“You have a name, Cas. Remember it. Remember who you are and where you’re going. You have dreams. You’ve already finished nursing school. You’re going to start your residency soon, then you’ll be a full-fledged doctor. And if you’re saving it for marriage, great. Wonderful. Perfect. I respect that and I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.” He lay back down, put his hands behind his head, and looked up at the ceiling. “I’m happy just laying here, watching old movies, and eating popcorn as long as it’s with you.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

He looked at her, his eyes turning soft. “I’m sure.”

She lay back down, snuggled next to him, feeling like a great weight had been lifted off of her shoulders.

“You know, most guys wouldn’t, you know, be sure.”

“I’m not most guys, Cas.”

“Most rock stars wouldn’t be sure.”

He paused. “I get the whole religion thing. My dad was religious for a little while. I liked it. It’s not for me right now, but, if you’re into it, then I respect it.” He kissed the top of her head. “I respect you, Cassandra Cortana Washington.”

Peace fell over her. She felt safe in his arms, with full knowledge that he would never do anything to hurt her. He respected her. The thought sent golden rays of light through her heart.

“Could you sing to me?” she asked.

“Ah, the inevitable question. Everybody wants a song.” He chuckled. “What do you want to hear?”

“I don’t know. Surprise me.”

He thought a minute, then nestled close, his mouth only a hair away from her ear.

He sang to her, using her belly as a piano as he played the imaginary chords.

A tear dripped down her cheek.

She wondered if he knew that the lyrics were going straight to her heart.

***

When she awoke, he was still there, his arms snaked around her. He was still wearing his clothes from the night before.

She shifted, turning her entire body toward him as he snored softly.

Her eyes went wide.

Three scratches reddened each side of his neck. Scratches that looked like they came from fingernails.

Her breath caught, she closed her eyes against it. Didn’t Stacey scratch her killer? Was it Noah’s DNA under her lifeless nails?

No. There had to be another explanation.

Her musing was cut short by the sounds of voices outside her door. Multiple voices. Urgent voices. One rose above them all.

“Noah!” it cried.

She sat up in the bed, pushing back the hair that had fallen into her eyes.

“Noah!”

Noah didn’t stir.

She shook him awake. “Noah, someone’s calling you.”

He tightened his grip around her waist, pulling her back down to him.

“Noah!” it called again.

She tried to wriggle out of his vice like grip. He responded by pulling her closer.

“Baby, you have to get up.”

He grunted something and smiled in his sleep.

“No, really.” She pushed him away, hard. “Get up.”

“What?” he growled, opening one eye.

“Someone is calling your name.”

“What? Who?”

“I don’t know.”

The voice screamed again. “Noah!”

Noah’s body shot up. He threw the covers off of him, jogged to the door.

He snatched the door open, Cassie hot on his heels.

Dozens of police officers paced the hallway. Dondo was in the middle of them, his hands cuffed behind his back as he lay face down on the floor.

“Dondo!” Noah cried, running to his oldest friend.

“I didn’t do it, Noah,” Dondo said. “Whatever they tell you, I didn’t do it. I barely knew the girl.”

“The girl?”

“Mr. LaRock.” An officer tapped him on the shoulder. His black hair curled around his neck, his pink lips full and pursed.

“Who are you?” Noah asked.

“I am Officer Pierre LaButte.” His English was broken every so often when he muttered in French.

“Let him go,” Noah said. “He’s innocent.”

“We cannot. Mr. Rodriguez has been charged with murder.”

“Murder?”

“Yes. Please follow me.” The officer’s eyes were solemn as Noah followed him back to Dondo’s room.

Cassie kept close by.

There, in the middle of the floor, was a suitcase. A leg and arm protruded from the sides.

Noah turned away, put his hand over his mouth.

“Who was that?” he muttered, his voice choked.

“Her name was Maris Beau,” Officer LaButte said. “She was murdered sometime last night. It seems that Mr. Rodriguez has been on, how do you say, a streak.”

“No,” Noah said. “Dondo couldn’t have done this.”

“We will see. We will send away for a DNA test. If Mr. Rodriguez’s DNA matches with the DNA from the German girl, he will be tried for murder.”

“How long will the test take?”

Pierre muttered in French, “A few days.”

“Until then?”

“Until then, Mr. Rodriguez will be put into La Santé Prison. Because of his connections with you, he will be put into the VIP wing.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that he will be well taken care of.”

Officer LaButte gestured to a fellow officer, who picked Dondo off the floor.

Dondo’s eyes went wide, his mouth pulled into a frown.

“Noah, you have to listen to me. I didn’t kill that girl.”

“I’ll get you out of this, Dondo.”

The officer pulled Dondo into the elevator, as Noah stayed close behind.

“Don’t worry, Dondo,” he said. “I’ll get you out of this.”

“Noah, don’t let them keep me,” Dondo said, fear heavy on his face.

“I won’t. I’ll get you out.” The elevator door closed.

Dondo was gone.

Chapter 19

Noah

“I’m sorry, Noah.” Aaron Greenberg’s round face looked back at Noah and Walter from the computer screen. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for weeks.”

Noah sat back in the hotel chair, flabbergasted.

“It can’t all be gone,” Noah said.

“No, not all of it. But, if we keep going in the direction we’re going, it will be. We have to liquidate some assets, downsize. Now, if we sell the houses in Costa Rica, get rid of a few cars maybe…” He continued yammering as he shuffled paper around on his desk.

Noah couldn’t believe it. In the last year, his income had been cut in half. His hands rubbed across his face as he tried to wrap his mind around it all.

“Noah, are you listening to me?” Aaron asked, using his pointer finger to push his glasses up his nose. “We have some real decisions to make here.”

“Just take care of it.”

He huffed. “I can’t just take care of it. I don’t know what you want me to get rid of.”

“All of it. Sell all of it.”

Walter gasped next to him. “All of it?”

“Yeah, everything. Just get rid of everything.”

Noah slammed down the laptop screen, yanked the computer free from its cord in the wall, and hurled it across the room with a yell. It slammed into the door of the bathroom, its plastic case cracking.

“Noah, calm down.”

“It’s gone, Walter. There’s nothing to be calm about. I’m broke, Dondo is in jail, I can’t, I just can’t.” He went down to his knees, spearing his hands through his hair.

“You just have to cut back, that’s all. You were living a lavish lifestyle.”

“That’s because I had money. Now what am I going to do?”

“You still have money, Noah. And once we’re done with this tour, you’ll have more. And after the next album and the next tour, you’ll have more than that.”

Noah chuckled miserably. “Next album. I don’t even have a label.”

“Now you let old Papa Bear worry about that.”

“Papa Bear. What’s Papa Bear been doing?” His voice turned demanding, and he stood up to his full height, walking toward Walter. “My label dropped me, I’m practically broke, my best friend is in jail, my albums aren’t selling, my concerts are practically empty. What have you been doing, Papa Bear?”

Walter stood tall. “I’ve been working! I’ve been holding on for you as best as I can.”

“Well, maybe you’re not working hard enough.”

“Don’t you say that to me. I gave up my life for you! I gave up my family for you!”

“Don’t give me that. You wanted this, the fame, the fortune.”

“I wanted you to be a success.”

“You wanted yourself to be a success!” Noah roared. “And because you couldn’t do it, you got that high through me. And now you’re pushing your daughter through med school so you can get that high through her too.”

“You know nothing about me and my daughter,” Walter growled. “You bite your tongue, boy!”

“I’m not a boy anymore.”

“Then act like it. Be a man, step up and do what you have to do. Take care of your business and be a man.”

“What, like you? Great man you turned out to be. You abandoned your family, and now you’ve crapped all over my career. Way to go, Papa Bear.”

Walter took a wild swing.

Noah sidestepped it.

Another swing.

Noah stepped to the side again, and pushed Walter to the ground.

The men froze, stared at each other silently.

Noah’s mouth worked, trying to find something to say, some words to fix this. “Walter, I’m sorry.”

Walter’s eyes turned dark. He put one hand on his knee and slowly stood up from the ground.

“Don’t blame me for your failure, Noah,” he said. “You have no one else to blame but yourself.”

Suddenly, the old man’s body turned into a bullet, his shoulder knocking the wind from Noah. They went tumbling to the carpet.

Walter wrapped his arms around Noah’s throat, squeezed tightly.

Noah grabbed at the man’s wrist, pushed him back.

“Walter, stop!”

Seeming to grow stronger by the minute, Walter clasped his hands in vice-like grip around Noah’s throat. His eyes turned hooded. He growled, his expression turning wild.

“Walter,” Noah choked out. “Walter, it’s me, Noah. Walter, stop, its me.”

Suddenly, Walter’s expressions changed, his mouth agape.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, scurrying off of Noah, using the bed to pull himself up. “I’m sorry. I…I don’t know what’s come over me.”

Noah watched wide-eyed as his manager and mentor made his way to the door. He held onto the wall for support as if he hadn’t just pinned down a man more than half his age and twice as strong.

“I’m sorry, Noah. I’m so sorry.”

He didn’t turn around, slamming the door shut behind him, and Noah let out another scream.

What was going on? Why was this happening to him? Why had the universe suddenly decided to screw him over? Walter attacked him. Dondo was in jail. Cassie was going away. His fame was fading into classic rock territory. His fans were abandoning him. He was going broke.

His anger took over.

He picked up a chair and flung it into a nearby mirror, shattering it.

Flower vases flew, the sheets were pulled off the bed, hangers ripped from the wardrobe. By the time he heard the first knock on the door, the room was a whirlpool of debris.

He stomped to the door, snatched it open.

“What?” he demanded.

Cassie stood there, her honey brown eyes wide.

His anger melted away, leaving a trail of sadness on his heart.

“Are you okay?” she asked. Her eyes moved past him to the wreck that had become his room. “I heard a commotion.”

He moved out of the way, allowed her in.

She gasped. “Did you do all this?”

He shut the door and pressed his back to it, not moving.

She picked up the remains of a computer near the wall and stacked all of the broken pieces of plastic on top of it. Silently, she moved through the room, righting chairs, remaking the bed, picking up broken pieces of glass. When the room was fairly clean, she turned back to him.

His eyes were hooded, his arms crossed over his chest. He refused to look at her.

“Is it Dondo?” she asked.

He nodded once.

“And other stuff?”

Another nod.

She crossed the room, wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close.

He uncrossed his arms from his chest and hugged her back, fighting to hold back the tears that threatened to drain him.

She rocked him gently as his head laid heavily on her shoulders.

Though his mind was an endless train of dark thoughts, in the circle of her arms he found that he could breathe again. There was comfort there, security. He felt her underneath his skin, touching his heart, his soul.

She hummed softly, the sound like wind chimes.

He felt so broken, his mind cloudy, unfocused. He hated that she saw his shattered pieces, and yet, loved her for trying to glue them back together.

The thought startled him.

As she rocked him, imbuing him with her peace, in that moment, he loved her.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“Dondo’s in jail,” he whispered. “My money’s almost gone, I got into a fight with Walter, you’re going away…everything is just falling apart.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll be okay. We’ll piece it back together.” She looked up at him. “I’ll stand beside you, Noah. Always.”

He wanted to believe her. As he stood there, absorbing the strength in her touch, he wanted to know in his heart that what she said was true. But it was impossible. She was going back to school in a few days, and then he’d be alone again. The thought was unbearable.

“Tell me how I can help,” she said.

One words tumbled from his lips. “Stay,” he said.

“I’m here.”

“Until the end of the tour.”

She gasped, and shook her head.

“I can’t. I have to go back to school.”

“I can call the university. It’ll only be until December.”

She smiled up at him, moved the hair from his eye. “Noah LaRock, you know that Yale won’t make any exceptions for anyone, not even you.”

“I don’t want to stay out here without you.”

“Don’t worry. After the tour, we’ll see what happens.”

He frowned. “What does that mean?”

She laid her head against his chest. “Let’s not talk about that now. You have a show tonight and I don’t want to upset you.”

“I can’t do the show. With so much going on—”

“You can and you will. Those people are counting on you to show up and do your best. They want to see that smile that lights up a room. They want to see you and forget their problems for a few hours. And you may find that, just for a few hours, you’ll forget yours too. You’ve got to let the storm roll in without drowning in the waves, honey.”

“Will you be there?” he asked. “When the storm’s over?”

“I’ll always be there for your Noah. I promise.”

She raised her lips to him, offering him a kiss to seal her promise. Five seconds to lose himself within her. He took her gift, dragging from her every ounce of strength that he could before pulling away.

“What will I do without you?” he asked.

“You’ll get through it. You know why? Because your Noah LaRock. You’ll fight and you’ll win.”

“Bronner,” he said. “My real name is Noah Bronner. LaRock is my stage name.”

She looked taken aback for a minute. “Noah Bronner.”

“I want you to know all of me.”

“Mr. Bronner.” She smiled at him, centering his world, calming his soul. “Always so full of surprises.”

Chapter 20

After Cassie left him, Noah spent the rest of the morning and afternoon on phone calls. First, it was back to Aaron to apologize for his earlier outburst before giving him a very specific set of instructions. Next, it was to his attorney. They were to contact the French police as soon as possible to began working on Dondo’s case. Then, it was to Walter to apologize for their earlier fight, followed by, finally, his publicist. By the time the concert rolled around, he wasn’t sure that he had it in him. But with Cassie’s strength radiating at him from the audience, he went on.

He performed to the half-empty house as if it were filled to the rafters, giving them a show he was sure they would never forget.

The crowed loved him for it.

These people would be his chosen ones. His apostles. They would stay with him throughout all of his trials. They would define the next chapter of his career. Would he be reduced to reality television and cheesy commercials to make a living? Would he still tour, make music, and live his dream? His fans would make that decision. The very ones who supported him in the past would be the ones who would guide him into the future.

He hoped he did enough to impress them.

In his heart, he was starting to accept that his life was about to change. It was time to grow up, to figure out what was important, and hold on to it.

When the concert ended, and Walter did his congratulatory pat on the back, he mingled with the backstage pass holders before watching them leave. Without Dondo to bring back the party, the green room was strangely empty.

Dondo. He wondered what his friend was doing right now. Was he being treated well? Sure, the jail put him in a VIP wing, but what did that really mean? Was he eating? Was he being bullied?

Noah’s gut ripped apart wondering what had happened to his friend, his brother.

He sat on the couch of the empty green room, listening to his lawyer’s messages. Dondo was denied bail. A DNA test had been ordered to determine if his was a match for the murdered girl from the night before. The girl from the hotel room had his prints all over her. Although he admitted to picking the girl up from the flock of fans that stood outside the hotel, he denied killing her.

The voice mail ended, leaving Noah aching with worry. He believed Dondo. He’d known the man for years. He couldn’t have done the things he was accused of, he just couldn’t have. But how could he explain the deaths of all of the girls he’d been with? There seemed to be no other answer.

Walter’s hand laid heavy on Noah’s shoulder.

“You going back to the hotel?” he asked.

“Yeah, me and Cas are going to grab a bite.”

“You and Cas, huh?”

Noah stood, turned to the man who’d mentored him for most of his life.

“I’m not going to hurt her,” he said. “I think I’m falling in love with her.”

Walter’s grey brows shot up.

“Love? You barely know her.”

“I know it’s new. But we have a connection. I can’t explain it, but I can’t let her just walk out of my life.”

“Well, Noah, you’ll have to. She only has a few days left before school starts.”

“I know.”

“You weren’t planning on asking her to stick around here, were you?”

Noah shook his head, dropped his eyes. He didn’t want to tell Walter that he’d already asked her, and she’d refused.

“Remember what she has to achieve,” Walter said. “Don’t take that from her. Let her see her dreams come true, the way you did.”

Noah nodded, missing her already. “Don’t worry. She’s going back to school.”

“Good. She deserves it.”

Walter left Noah in the empty green room, not bothering with a goodbye.

Chapter 21

Cassie

The tour broke for three days to attend the Grammy’s.

They would take an eleven-hour flight to LA, attended the awards the following day, then take an eleven-hour flight back to Paris. From there they would pick up Walter before heading to Berlin to resume the tour.

Cassie wondered if the plane had good coffee as she boarded it at one in the morning. They would be going back in time, arriving at twelve noon Paris time, three a.m. Los Angeles time on the same day.

Jet lag was going to suck.

The interior of the private jet was lit by overhead lights. The grey leather benches were accented with red pillows and black, red, and grey throw blankets. The floor was laid with dark grey carpets. The smell of hot chocolate filled the air.

Cassie smiled.

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad flight after all.

She passed two shining black tables and two dark grey leather captain’s seats. The tables were set, complete with red napkins and place settings.

Beyond the dining area, four rows of reclining seats sat empty next to white walls, chestnut colored molding, and dark windows. A television hung from the ceiling in front of each seat.

The last section laid behind a closed door.

She walked to one of the reclining seats and plopped down. There would be no need for a privacy curtain on this flight. There were only the three pilots and two stewardesses. Two bodyguards awaited them at the Los Angeles International Airport.

“No, no, sweets,” Noah said, stopping behind her. “Keep moving back.”

“Back where?”

“You’ll see.”

She gathered her purse and stood, walking back toward the door.

“Go ahead, open it.”

She eyed him before turning the door handle and pushing it in.

Beyond the door was a full sized bedroom, complete with a large television embedded in the wall, a king-size bed covered in a white and grey blanket, a small chair, table and mirror, and hardwood floors.

Cassie’s mouth gaped open as she ran her fingertips along the rough, tanned wallpaper.

“This is incredible. Bedrooms on a plane?”

Noah jumped on the bed, lay on his side, smiling at her.

“Spared no expense.”

“You’d better start sparing expenses,” she chided.

His smile waned.

She was sorry she’d mentioned it.

“Well, what’s one last hurrah before I go broke, huh?”

“You’re not going broke,” she said, tracing the outline of the country painting the hung next to the table. “Just scaling back a bit.”

“I guess. Look.”

He reached next to the bed, pulled out a wicker basket full of discs.

“I got all the old musicals, some comedies, action movies, all kinds of good stuff. And the plane’s kitchen is fully stocked.”

“You thought of everything.”

“Well, I like to make a good impression.”

She smiled at him and went to join him on the bed. “You make a very good impression, Mr. Bronner.”

They shared a brief kiss.

A knock on the door announced the popcorn and hot chocolate.

“We have to get a do not disturb sign on the door.” He smirked.

Cassie jogged to open it. “Maybe we should keep the door open,” she threw over her shoulder. “It will help keep you in line.”

“I know the rules,” he said. “Although, I may bend them a little…”

He scratched his neck, drawing attention to the fading red marks.

She cleared her throat, her stomach sinking a bit.

Where exactly had those marks come from?

“Noah,” Cassie asked, “Where did you get those scratches?”

“Ah,” he said, throwing a smile her way. “Remember those roses in France? Well they were hand delivered by your’s truly. I even got some thorns stuck in my neck to prove it.”

[Flowers? _]A chuckle rose in her throat, her nervousness vanishing. _Only Noah could manage to get attacked by roses.

He did he best impression of a scowl, “What’s so funny?”

She waved her chuckles, and the discussion away.

“Nothing.”

“I bled for you!” He cried, bringing back Cassie’s chuckles.

A dark-haired stewardess in a green vest and matching pencil skirt walked in, wheeling a cart of snacks on front of her. She parked the cart next to the bed, smiled at them both, and left.

Noah rolled over, plucked a handful of popcorn from the dish, and shoved it into his mouth.

“Now, what shall we start with?”

***

Noah

Silver lined clouds zipped by the plane as stars shinned overhead. Below, square multicolored dots gave way to miles of green countryside. Ribbons of blue dipped and zagged through the hills and mountains. Then, it all fell away, leaving only dark water churning beneath them.

Noah woke from a light sleep, his eyes dancing around the room. The windows were dark, though the room was brightly lit. Slipping his arm from around Cassie, he moved to turn off the lights and the television, dipping the room into darkness. He then climbed back into bed, covering both of them with a thick blanket.

Cassie. She had been the one light in all of this darkness. With Dondo in jail, and his career slipping, she was the only thing that comforted him. Her constant vigil at his side gave him joy that he hadn’t known in a long time. Their easy evenings filled his soul with a warmth that he hadn’t felt since his mother died. He considered her family now. The one thing that would always be there.

But wait, she wouldn’t always be there. She was leaving for college in a few days. What would he do without her?

She shifted in her sleep, turning on her side. He cuddled her from behind, their bodies forming a perfect spoon shape.

I want this, he thought. I want her.

He hugged her tighter, fusing them together.

I want her.

Only her.

Chapter 22

Cassie

She awoke in darkness, Noah’s bulk pressing them together as if he meant to fuse their very souls into one.

The thought sent shivers through her body. She searched the room for a clock, and found none. It was still dark beyond the windows. She wondered where they were, what time it was.

Laying her head back down, she tried to order her thoughts.

The thought of being surrounded by music and movie stars made Cassie’s heart pound. What would they think of her? After all, she was just a nobody from Connecticut. Would they mock her kinky hair, her freckles? Would they ignore her?

If they did, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d dealt with bullies. They’d followed her from elementary school all the way through high school, calling her everything from half breed to brillo head. But she was strong then, never letting them see her cry.

I’ll be strong now too, she thought. No matter what they say, they won’t see me cry.

A soft snore came from Noah’s mouth a he drifted into deeper sleep. She flipped over to her other side, taking him in. His five o’clock shadow was thicker now. He hadn’t shaved in two days. His tan skin glowed with health, even in the darkness. She moved her hand up to run her fingers through his hair. The gel from yesterday had worn off. It was soft now, silk beneath her fingertips.

I could run my hands through his hair all day, she thought with a sigh.

She bit her inner cheek, the knowledge that school was starting in a few days bringing tears to her eyes. She thought about not going back, about finishing the tour with Noah and switching schools to be closer to him. But that could never be. Being a doctor was her dream. She couldn’t jeopardize it now. Not when she was so close.

“I’ll miss you,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck.

He squeezed her closer, his forehead dropping to her shoulder. One large leg wrapped around hers, and his hand clasped around her back.

He seemed to be saying, I’ll miss you too.

Chapter 23

Los Angeles, California

It was three a.m. when they arrived at LAX, both badly jetlagged and wide awake.

They’d spent the last five hours watching movies, eating themselves sick, and drinking wine and hot chocolate. He’d given her another guitar lesson and, between the silences, they shared five seconds, each kiss a lifetime of promises wrapped in a single moment.

Cassie tried not to run at full speed off the plane. Her entire body felt like a coil, ready to spring out at any second. She was down the steps and on the tarmac in an instant. It had begun to drizzle when they landed. Now it was a full blown downpour.

Instead of waiting for the stocky man with the umbrella, a body guard no doubt, she opened her arms to the warm rain, grateful to feel it drip down her face, over her tense body. A cool breeze blew the rain sideways, and she took in a deep breath. He was on her, over her, all around her. His scent. The feel of his touch. His devilish lips. His five seconds. If she could just stay out in the rain a bit longer, maybe she could get her head on straight, maybe she could steel herself against the feeling that had been growing within her since she met him.

She couldn’t stay.

“I didn’t know you liked the rain so much.” His voice was velvet, squeezing her heart, making her stomach flutter.

“It’s soothing,” she said.

He didn’t reply. A moment later, she felt him to take her hand. Together they turned their faces up to the pouring sky. She hoped that it hid the tears that poured down her face.

She couldn’t stay.

Chapter 24

Noah, Cassie, and their two bodyguards climbed into the limo, their bodies soaked. Rain sloshed in their shoes. Water ran off of their bodies and pooled onto the leather seats.

“Maybe that wasn’t the best idea,” Cassie whispered, suddenly very tired.

“It was a great idea, Farmer Cassie.”

The limo pulled away and they drove to Sepulveda Pass in Studio City, the rain pouring down the windows, the darkness like a cloud around them.

“How far is it to your house?” she asked, water dripping off her curls.

“Half an hour.”

She felt his eyes dance over her, and she blushed.

“I like your hair like that,” he said. He reached a hand to touch the wet kinks.

“Like what?”

“Big. Kinky.”

She shook her head, smiling up at him.

“You should wear it like this all the time.”

She smirked. “Okay. If you agree not to gel your hair anymore.” She reached up, touched his soft, wet hair.

“I don’t know. It gets pretty crazy.”

“I like it this way.”

“I like you this way.”

Their eyes met, their gazes heated.

He bent a little, crouching to come in low for another kiss.

A bodyguard cleared his throat.

Cassie felt her cheek redden, and she moved closer to the window, further away from a frowning Noah.

She felt his hand move over the seat. She reached a hand back, their fingers interlocking over the hot leather.

She didn’t have to turn around to know that he was smiling.

***

Half an hour later, the car halted at a tall black fence.

Noah’s voice was light, filled with excitement. “We’re here.”

The driver leaned out and punched a code into a steel keypad. He then pulled his wet head back into the car, shaking his black flat topped cap as he pulled into the property.

Through driving rain, Cassie couldn’t see much more than the house’s stately outline. It looked to be two floors high, with a roof that came up to a point. Several lights on the ground floor were on, beacons calling him home.

The driver pulled them into a covered carport.

Noah jumped out, ran around the car, and opened Cassie’s door for her. The bodyguards followed him out, going to grab the bags as the driver cut the engine.

He led her to a side door, where he punched a key code into a pad, and turned the knob.

“Finally, I’m home. Lights on.”

The house lit up.

Noah pulled off his wet shirt and threw it onto the floor as Cassie stood, stunned to silence at the enormity of the house.

They passed through the kitchen, all white marble countertops and steel appliances. Above a large island in the center, an array of gleaming pots and pans hung from metal hooks.

The smell of new carpet and lemon cleaner floated through the air.

“Noah, this is amazing.”

Noah threw a smile over his shoulder. “I know, right.”

He led her past a bar made of the same white marble. Four red leather barstools stood in front of it. She ran her fingertips over the smooth material.

“The bedrooms are upstairs. We can get changed.”

They cut through the living room. A fireplace outlined in multicolored brown stone stood coldly at the far end, ruling over its domain of button backed couches and settees, leopard skinned carpet, and hardwood floors. A grand piano sat in the corner.

They jogged up the spiral staircase to the second floor.

Noah waited for her at the top. “My room’s this way.”

“And where’s my room?”

“Well, for the past few days, my room as been your room.” He quirked his head to the side. “Has that changed?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, a small smile dancing on her face. “Just show me the room, Bronner.”

With a victorious grin, he led her to the end of the hall to an opened door.

He handed her over the threshold.

An elaborate chandelier threw rainbows and sparkles around the room. Raw wood beams crisscrossed high cathedral ceilings. Atop a white, shaggy rug were four white leather chairs, all stationed around a glass table. Behind the small sitting area, a king-size bed laid unmade. Fire red pillows perfectly lined up against the headboard. The blanket was decorated in Noah’s trademark flames, the same flames that decorated his boots and shoulders.

To her right, a claw footed tub stood proudly in the center of the bathroom. Off to the side was an enclosed shower, and on the opposite side of the room were twin sinks. A clear sliding door separated the bathroom from the bedroom.

“This is incredible,” she said with a sigh.

Noah walked deeper in the room, leaned against the bed, and began to pull off his boots.

“Yeah, it’s awesome, isn’t it? It’ll be a shame when it’s gone.”

“Gone?”

His voice was distant, cold. “I can’t afford this stuff anymore.” He pulled off his socks, threw them next to his boots. “The days of The Rock King are winding down.”

He ran his hands briskly over his face.

She walked to him. “Noah, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

She sat next to him on the bed, leaned her head on his shoulder.

“It’s like you work your whole life for something,” he said. “And you get to this place, and you think to yourself, I’ve made it. And then it’s gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that. Makes you wonder about a lot of stuff.”

“But it’s not all gone,” she said, placing a hand on his back. “Sure, maybe you don’t sell as many albums or concert tickets, but that doesn’t mean that you still aren’t an amazing musician. They can’t put a price on that.”

He scoffed.

“And that doesn’t negate all of the great things you did. You are Noah LaRock, the biggest artist of all time. Nothing can change that.”

“But nobody cares about that anymore. Now they want pop, they want fluff, they want Lesliee Day, a girl who’s never picked up an instrument in her life.”

“And they’ll get her, but will they study her in music class a generation from now? Will she be an icon, a legend? Will people think back and awe at the greatness of her career? No.” She put her fingertips on his chin, turned his face to her. “She will never be Noah LaRock. Only one man can do that. You’re the king, remember? No matter if you live in this crazy, massive house or a shoe box. You will always be the king.”

She kissed him gently.

“Thank you, Cas.”

“For what?”

“For just being you.”

Their lips touched. His mouth was fire. The flames that he surrounded himself with seemed to engulf her. The kiss incinerated her brain, turning it into smoke and ash.

She felt it in her heart.

There was only this.

She felt it in her soul.

There was only now.

He was breaking down every wall she’d ever erected.

There was only him.

I want him.

The thought jolted her, and she pulled away quickly, eliciting a frustrated gasp from him.

She put her hands to her hot lips, turned away.

“This is hard,” he whispered.

Her heart was beating fast. Her breath tight.

“I know.”

“It’s not a good idea for you to—”

“I know.”

His eyes didn’t meet hers again.

She stood, picked up her bags, and rolled them out the door. She’d have to find another room.

Chapter 25

She stared at the ceiling until the sun peeked through her curtains. Her body was alive, electric. Her mind obsessed with Noah. He was the first man to make her doubt her vow to save herself for marriage. The first man to make her want, to need.

She wondered if any man would make her feel this way again.

Her belly seized when he peeked his head in the door.

“Hey.” He grinned.

She sat up in the bed, running her hands through her hair to control the tangled mess.

“Hi.”

“I have to leave early. I have some interviews and pre-press to do before the Grammy’s.”

She threw the covers off of her. “Okay, just give me a few minutes to—”

“No, sweets. Sorry, but I didn’t mean that you, uh…”

Her heart fell a little. She pulled the blanket back onto her.

“No, I didn’t mean that I was mad or anything about, uh, okay this is going terribly. Let me start over.”

His head disappeared from the doorway, then reappeared.

“Good morning, baby.”

She laughed at his comical grin, and gave him a little wave. “Hi.”

“Last night got a little, intense, so I have some people coming by to give you a spa day while I go do press and stuff.”

Her heart lifted again.

“Spa day? For me?”

“Yeah. Massages, facials, mani-pedi, the works. It’s going to be awesome. They should be here by around ten. And the chef’s downstairs, so whenever you’re ready for breakfast just give him a head’s up.”

“Wow, Noah, thank you.”

“Oh, and around three, hair, makeup, and wardrobe will be here to get you ready for the awards.”

“Noah, this is really too much.”

“It’s never enough for you, Cas.”

Their eyes met, the fire leaping between them. He cleared his throat, looked away.

“I have to get going but, uh…”

She nodded, amused at his awkwardness.

“Okay.”

He let himself fully into the room then, jogged over to kiss her on the forehead. He leaned his head down on top of hers.

“This is really hard, Cas,” he whispered into her hair. “I thought it would be easy to keep myself away from you, but it has become…difficult.”

“I’m not trying to be, uh, difficult.”

“That’s the problem.”

They stayed there for a second more before he gave her another kiss on the forehead.

“I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay.”

She watched him take a piece of her heart with him as he walked out the door.

I can’t stay, she reminded herself. [_I can’t stay. _]

***

Chef John Sherridan’s boyish face smiled sweetly at her as he flipped her eggs.

“How long have you been working for Noah?” Cassie asked, running her bare toes over the cold metal of the barstool.

“Ten years.”

“Ten years? And this is your only job? What about when he’s touring? Do you just sit around?”

John shook his head, laughing as he plated the scrambled eggs. “I’d be a terrible chef if I only cooked when he was in town,” he said. “I actually own my own restaurant in downtown LA. When Noah’s in residence, I’m here. When he’s not, I’m there.”

“Is he in residence a lot?”

He placed the eggs in front of her, adding to her plates of pancakes and bacon.

“Sometimes.”

She took a bite, moaned in pleasure.

“This is so good.” She put another mouthful in her mouth and picked up a piece of bacon.

“You two eat the same, you know,” John said. “All of this down home food. He doesn’t give me any room to practice my craft, to give him art. It’s all pancakes, bacon, and eggs.” He turned hopeful eyes to her. “Perhaps you might consider something a little more exotic for lunch?”

“I would love that.”

John’s smile widened. “Then it’s settled. Something that is paired with a light wine, I think.”

“Anything paired with wine is perfect.”

He leaned back against the island, crossed his arms over his chest.

“So, you’re to be Mrs. LaRock, hmm?”

She choked on her bacon. “What?”

“Oh.” John frowned. “You’re not?”

“No, why would you say that?”

He shrugged. “You’re just the only girl I’ve seen around here in, well, ever.”

“Well, this is only temporary. I’m going back to college.”

“College, huh? Leaving the glitz and glamour behind to be a…”

“Doctor. I start my residency next year.”

John looked impressed. “A doctor. Wow, that’s amazing.”

She carefully cut into her pancakes.

“It’s complicated,” she said. “Being here, being around Noah. He’s such a great guy. It kind of makes me want to stay. It’s just…it’s hard, you know?”

“Do you mind if I give you a piece of advice?”

“Sure.”

“There is an old saying that my father taught me. Follow your heart, but take your brain with you. Where is your heart? Is it at school or here?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. When I first got here, it was at school, but now, with Noah, I don’t know.”

He bit his lip. “You look like a girl who could use an Irish coffee.”

He turned and began rooting around below the countertop, leaving Cassie more confused than ever.

How could she follow her heart when it led to Noah?

The bell rang, a small symphony that made her smile. It was the opening chords to Somebody to Love by the band Queen.

I guess he really does like this song.

She shoved down the rest of the food in several large, rather unladylike bites, put down her fork and jogged to the door, opening it slowly.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

A plump, middle-aged woman with her hair in a messy bun looked back at her. “Hi, I’m looking for,” she fished her phone from her pocket and scrolled, “Cassie.”

“I’m her.”

The woman looked at her phone again, then back up, her eyes roving over Cassie suspiciously.

“Cassie Washington?”

“Yes.”

Another scan of her eyes.

“For the mani-pedi?” She looked at her phone again.

Cassie smiled tightly, swung the door wide for the woman to enter.

“I can’t wait to see what you have in blue.” Cassie smiled.

The woman’s eyes turned cold. She pushed the strap of her bag onto her shoulder and entered the house, her sneakers squeaking against the floor.

“I’m Sarah Meyers from Luxe Spa.” Her focus turned to the lobby. She took in the white tile floors, the chandelier, the colorful fresh flowers that sat atop glass tables. She then looked back at Cassie, suspicion clouding her eyes. “I guess I will be servicing you today.”

“Great.” Cassie clasped her hands in front of her. She knew what this woman was thinking. It was written all over her face.

She thinks I’m too dark to belong here, Cassie thought. She shook her head. Racism is everywhere.

“I usually set up in a living room or the, uh, sitting room.”

Cassie turned from the woman’s cold gaze, tried to keep her gait even, and her shoulders straight.

“Right this way.”

She felt eyes on her back as they entered the living room. The woman made several trips back to her car as she setup between the chestnut brown grand piano and the grey and white couches. She was careful to stay on the hardwood floor, avoiding the grey and black striped rug that sat in the middle of the room. Behind them, natural light poured in through two arched windows that stretched from floor to almost the ceiling. Between the windows, an arched door stood open, leading out to a stone covered patio and the Olympic-size pool in the shape of a guitar. Cassie stood near the door and watched several pool beds in the shape of yellow ducks bob on the water.

“Okay, Ms. Washington,” Sarah huffed.

Cassie turned and sat in a black folding chair the woman had brought with her. She placed her hands atop a black card table, also the woman’s.

“So.” Sarah rooted through her big bag next to her feet and began to line up her nail tools in front of her. “How are you today?”

“I’m great. A little jet lagged, but okay.”

“Jet lagged?” The woman tapped the nail file on the table, picked up Cassie’s right hand, and began to file. “Where’d you fly in from? Detroit?”

Cassie frowned. Translation: the ghetto.

“Paris.”

“Really? What were you doing in Paris, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m an on-staff nurse for Noah LaRock’s world tour.”

“That must’ve been fun.” The woman picked up the other hand, began her furious filing again. “So you’re the nurse here. Okay, now it all makes sense. You know, I was a little confused for a minute, but now I see.”

The woman smiled up at Cassie, relief swimming in her eyes. “You know, you have an excellent boss, let me tell you.” She looked down again, placing one of Cassie’s hand in a bowl of warm water while she began to clip her cuticles. “Most men give their staff a bottle of wine, or a card for appreciation days, but you, you got a very expensive mani-pedi.” She shook her head. “I wish my boss treated me that way. The last thing that he gave me was an earful because I was late to a client appointment.” She chuckled shortly.

Cassie swallowed, glued her eyes to the pool. She knew that if she looked at Sarah again, she would say something very unkind, and Cassie always strove to be kind.

Sarah continued to yammer and chatter about bosses and customers as Cassie kept silent. Was it so hard for this woman to imagine that Noah and she were, well, she wasn’t sure, but he had kissed her, many times. He had held her hand, hugged her, lay in bed with her at night. That had to mean something, didn’t it? He wouldn’t look at her like she was his world if he didn’t want more from her, would he?

What did Noah think they were?

What did Cassie want them to be?

The thought troubled her. She felt the woman pulling her flip-flops off her feet. Felt her drag over a small foot bath.

“So, how long have you worked for Mr. LaRock?” Sarah asked, interrupting Cassie’s thoughts.

“Just this summer.”

“Really? And he treats you like this? You must be one great nurse.”

I don’t want to be his nurse, Cassie thought. I want to be his.

Her heart pounded at the thought, and she placed her hand over her chest to calm it.

Although her mind struggled to understand, her heart knew what she was saying was true. She wanted Noah to be hers, and hers alone. She wanted to watch sunrises and sunsets with him, to swim in lakes, and sit before campfires, and to fall asleep wrapped up in his arms until the end of time.

I want to be his.

She felt like she’d been struck by lightning. Her eyes moved around the room, anxious to find her phone.

I should text him, or call him. I need to tell him. No, I’ll wait until tonight.

Sarah scrubbed Cassie’s feet, then set them out on a towel. After drying them, she began the filing and cutting again.

“So how long are you staying?” Sarah’s voice was breathy with exertion.

“I’m not sure. A long time.”

Hopefully.

The woman nodded. “Well, good luck to you. I’m sure you appreciate the opportunity. It must’ve been so hard for you growing up and now look at you, in this big house with a great job. You and your family should be so proud.”

Opportunity? Hard growing up? Now this woman had gone too far.

“I’m not just his nurse.”

The woman’s hand froze mid click of the nail clipper.

“I’m his girlfriend.”

She felt Sarah’s hand shake, her eyes staying down.

“Girlfriend. Really?”

“Yes. This isn’t some staff appreciation gift. I’m going to the Grammy’s with him tonight, and he wants me to look my very best.”

The woman quickly finished clipping, and painted on some clear nail polish.

Her voice was tight when she spoke up again. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just assumed—”

“You just assumed that because of my skin, I must be part of the staff, right?”

The woman’s eyes shot up. “That’s not what I said.”

“But that’s what you meant.” She stood, purposefully sloshing the water in the foot bath so it spilled on the floor.

“I think that I’m all done here. Thank you. I’m sure that Noah LaRock will pay you at his leisure. Now get out. I’m sure that we won’t be doing business with you again.”

She whipped around and marched up the stairs as if she’d done it a thousand times before.

Sarah Meyers would not be getting a tip from her today.

Chapter 26

Noah

Noah knocked on the sun faded wooden door. The August heat was punishing, and he flapped his shirt to keep it from sticking to him.

The door opened, and a short, blonde-haired women opened it.

The wrinkles around her eyes deepened as she frowned at him.

Her Spanish accent was thick. “Noah.”

She stood like a wall in the doorway.

Madrina.”

“Don’t madrina me. Why are you here while my son rots in a French jail?”

“You heard about that, huh?”

“You think Dondo doesn’t call me?”

“I know he does. I came here to explain. Can I come in?”

“You don’t need to explain. When is my son getting out of prison?” she demanded.

“In a few days. As soon as the DNA test comes back.”

“A few days.” She muttered something in Spanish. “I knew it. I knew that hanging around with you would get him into trouble. You with all of those loose girls, the money, the cars…” Her eyes watered. “I knew it wasn’t the life for him. He should have gone to school. He should have made something of himself.”

Madrina—”

“My son is not a murderer!”

“I know. Look, can I come in? We can talk.”

“No, I don’t want you in my house. You are not welcome in here until Dondo is released.”

“I give you my word, I will get him out.”

Her lips squeezed into a line. Her water logged eyes softened, and she stood back to allow him into the small home.

As soon as Noah could afford it, he’d moved Dondo and his mother to this quiet LA neighborhood. After all, it was Dondo and his madrina—godmother—who had been there for him when his parents died. The least he could do was see that they lived in comfort.

The inside of Maria Rodriguez’s house was dark, all of the curtains pulled shut. The air conditioner was on full blast, cooling him. It smelled of spices and cooking chicken.

Small glass figures of various saints sat on shelves along the walls, amidst paintings of dogs playing poker. The couches were covered in plastic. In the corner, an old record player collected dust, a stack of vinyl albums next to it.

It looks just like her old apartment, Noah thought. He found some comfort in the familiar surroundings. Visions of him and Dondo running through the house, jumping on the sofas while his madrina shooed them back outside with a broom. He remembered flavorful dinners and warm hugs.

“It looks just like your old house,” Noah said.

“I want my son back.”

“I will get your son back.”

She watched him as he sat on one of the couches, the plastic squeaking as he sunk into it.

“I’m mad with you, Noah.”

“I know, madrina, but I’m trying to help him.”

She paused, her mouth turned down into a disapproving frown. After a few moments, she sighed.

“Did you eat?”

“I was hoping for one of your special dinners.”

She scoffed, muttered again in Spanish as she shuffled into the kitchen.

He sat in silence, breathing in all of the memories that Dondo and he shared together. Though [_madrina _]didn’t believe him, he wanted Dondo back just as much as she did. He missed their banter, their friendship. Without Dondo, things seemed a little dimmer.

She placed a plate on his lap, and he ate the chicken, rice, and bean dish hungrily.

“What have you been up to, Noah. Still singing?”

“Still singing,” he said between mouthfuls.

“Good. Keep singing. No one has a voice like you. God put the music in your heart. It’s a gift.”

She said something in Spanish and smiled at him.

“When will you give me god babies?” she asked.

A picture of Cassie flashed through his mind, and he buried his face in his plate.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still so young.”

“Who is the girl who is making you blush, eh?”

[_I can’t hide anything from her. _]

“Her name is Cas, uh, Cassie.”

“Have I met this girl?”

“No. It’s no one from the old neighborhood.”

“Oh, too bad. Is it a pretty girl?”

“Beautiful.”

“And smart, funny?”

He nodded.

“All of the things that I want for my little gauchito.” She reached over and pinched his cheek.

He grinned, handed her the plate.

“And you still have your appetite, I see. I hope this girl can cook.”

He shook his head. He would have to remember to ask her.

He stood. “Well, I have to go, madrina.”

“Are you going to be on the music show tonight?”

He nodded. “Yes. Will you root for me?”

“I will be the proudest [_madrina _]there ever was.”

She reached up, hugged him, and kissed his forehead.

“You take care of my Dondo,” she said.

“I will. I promise.”

“And bring your girlfriend over sometime, eh. I want to meet the girl who has stolen your heart.”

Noah paused, plastering a smile on his face.

Cassie would be going back at the end of the week. She wouldn’t get to meet Maria, or anyone else. He turned toward the door so his [_madrina _]wouldn’t see the sadness clouding his eyes.

With one last goodbye, he left his godmother and walked back to the car.

Chapter 27

Cassie

“I’m sorry, but I was given specific instructions by Mr. LaRock.” The makeup artist was the third person to tell Cassie this.

First, it was the wardrobe girl insisting that she wear a green silk dress with gold piping instead of the black dress that had caught her eye.

Then it was the hair stylist, insisting that Mr. LaRock would prefer that she wore her hair in its natural, curly state instead of straightening it.

Now it was the makeup artist, who informed her that no lipstick would be applied to her lips before he arrived. After Cassie told the man that Noah had came back an hour ago, he clarified that Mr. LaRock wanted to see her before her makeup was finished.

She rolled her eyes, her temper rising fast.

Who did Noah think he was? Why couldn’t she wear what she wanted? After all, no one was going to see her. She was sure that Noah would sneak her through the back and she’d watch the proceedings from the general audience. What did he care what she looked like?

When he came downstairs, pulling on his cuffs, she was momentarily struck by his handsomeness. His brown hair was slicked back, and his stubble was nicely shaped. His dark blue suit and white shirt were tailor made for him, highlighting his thickly muscled arms and legs.

He spied her as he approached the bottom of the stairs. Their gazes met, devoured. He seemed to be in slow motion as he walked toward her.

“You look perfect,” he said. “Like a goddess.”

She blushed.

“You look quite handsome yourself.”

He came closer, wrapped his arms around her.

“No lipstick?” he asked.

She shook her head, reminded herself how angry she’d been with him before. “No lipstick.”

She was just about to give him a piece of her mind when he covered her lips with his. He kissed her slowly, allowing the time to stretch as he leisurely explored her mouth.

Her brain counted to five, cursing every second that brought them closer to the kiss’s end.

He pulled away and turned to the makeup artist, his voice tight, his eyes heavy, while she panted in his arms.

“Now, you can put on her lipstick.”

She closed her mouth with an audible click, and watched him turn away and walk toward the limos.

“Giiirrrlll,” the man said, flipping his long black hair behind his head. “Noah LaRock has a thing for you.”

Her cheeks turned to flame. Suddenly the room felt very warm. She put her fingertips to her lips, still feeling him there.

“You better bag him up and quick.”

She felt like she was on a delay. She shook the fog from her head, turned back to the makeup artist.

“I, uh, I can’t,” she said, sitting slowing in the chair. “I’m going back to school.”

“School my foot. You have Noah LaRock. That is all the schooling you need.”

Noah jogged back into the house, his black shoes, clicking against the kitchen tile. He had had flames painted onto the toes.

“You ready, sweets? I don’t want to be late.”

“One more second, Mr. LaRock,” the makeup artist said, dabbing a bit more color on Cassie’s still buzzing lips.

“Okay, she’s all done.” He stood back to admire his work.

Noah stood next to him.

“Mr. LaRock, she is gorgeous.”

“I know.” He grinned. “And she’s all mine.”

Cassie’s breath caught in her throat.

He held out an arm to her, keeping his gaze trained on her eyes.

She was sure she would faint.

Somehow, she made it to his arm, leaned on it for strength.

“You look smitten.” He grinned.

Her mind screamed at her to tease him back, but he was so close. Her heart pounded in her chest as she struggled to breathe.

“Whomever made you look like that is one lucky guy. One lucky guy indeed.”

He handed her over the kitchen threshold and into the carport, where the limo awaited them. The same driver as before was in the front seat.

He jumped out when he saw them, held the door opened.

Cassie turned to the man who stood behind her. The man who had stolen her heart without her even realizing it. The man who made her soul sing. They only had a few days left. The thought made her body ache. Only a few days left.

“Noah, there is something that I want to say, but, I don’t know if it’s the right time.”

“Okay.”

His blue gaze was intense, zeroing in on her.

Just say it, she thought. You only have a few days left. Just say it. Speak your truth.

“Noah, I love you.”

He froze.

The world stopped.

There was only him.

There was only her.

The moment stretched as she waited for his answer.

He pulled her close, kissing her hard, ruining her lipstick.

He pulled away, their panting like a percussion in the night. “I love you too,” he said. “I don’t know when it happened or where. But I love you too.”

She shook her head, leaning on the limo for support.

She loved him.

He loved her.

She was leaving.

She wanted to sink into the floor in sorrow and rise to the clouds in joy.

“What are we going to do?” she asked. “I’m leaving.”

Her eyes watered, her breath came in short gasps. There was only one thought on her mind.

I can’t leave him. But I’m leaving. But I can’t leave him.

“I don’t know, sweets,” Noah’s voice was soft.

The limo driver cleared his throat, his eyes darting to his watch.

Cassie frowned at him and turned her attention back to Noah. He nodded, waved her into the limo.

They had a ceremony to attend.

Chapter 28

They rode in heavy silence. Though they didn’t speak, their fingers never unclasped.

Finally, they joined the long line of limos, each carrying the greatest artist of their time to the red carpet.

Cassie felt like she was going to vomit.

“Are you nervous?” Noah asked, gripping her hand tightly.

Her eyes were glued to the flashing lights outside of the window as the limo crept closer.

“A little.”

“Don’t worry.” She felt him slide over and place a tender kiss on her shoulder. “Cas, look at me.”

She swung her gaze to him, his cool blue eyes comforting her.

“Don’t worry. It’s ten, fifteen minutes at the most. Just follow my lead, okay.”

“What if somebody asks me something?”

He shrugged. “Then answer.”

“What if they ask me who am I? What I’m doing there? What do I say?”

“Tell them the truth.”

“The truth?” Her voice rose to a squeak.

He put his forehead to hers, place a hand on her hip. “Just breathe,” he said. “It will be fine. You will be fine. Just do what you think is right.”

“Mr. LaRock,” the driver called. “Are you ready?”

Noah raised her chin, smiled at her.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

She felt her stomach flip. “I don’t know.”

“It’s okay. You’ll be okay.”

He turned back to the driver. “We’re ready.”

The driver disappeared from the front of the limo, and reappeared on Cassie’s side of the car. The door clicked. It opened. Lights flashed. Fans screamed. Reporters stood in a long line, waiting for their chance to talk to The Rock King.

“Just breathe,” Noah whispered, handing her out of the car. “Just breathe.”

He held onto her hand tightly as they walked over the red carpet and through the cheers and cries of the Rocktards in the crowd.

The first reporter in the line, an older blonde woman in a tight red dress and sparkling jewels, approached them.

“Noah LaRock!” she exclaimed, handing him her hand to squeeze.

He turned toward the camera. Cassie followed his lead. She tried to step away but Noah pulled her closer to him, placing an arm around her slim waist.

“Ladies and gentlemen, The Rock King,” she said. The crowd behind them cheered. “And who is this precious woman on your arm?”

Pride lit Noah’s eyes as he turned to her. He nodded her to the microphone.

“What is your name, dear?” the woman asked.

Cassie tried not to let her voice shake. “Cassie Washington.”

“Cassie, you are beautiful, absolutely stunning!” the woman cried. “And what is your relationship to Mr. LaRock?”

Cassie looked at Noah, her eyes growing wide. His grin never wavered, though his eyes widened a bit, waiting for the answer with great interest.

“I’m, uh, his manager’s daughter.”

His grin dropped a bit. His eyes met hers, questioning.

She took a deep breath.

“And his girlfriend.”

She tried to hide the relief that breezed through her as his chest swelled. He pulled her back to him, his hand heavy on her hip.

Cassie let out a deep breath, her soul soaring under Noah’s approving glances.

“Girlfriend? Ladies and gentlemen, Noah LaRock is officially off the market.”

Cheers and boos mixed together behind them.

Cassie barely heard it above the pounding of her heart.

I am Noah Bronner’s girlfriend.

Up and down the red carpet, they nearly jumped with joy as they told each and every reporter what they were to each other. They met the shocked expressions and approving smiles with grace, excitement pumping through them with each step.

They had officially come out to the world.

Chapter 29

They stayed arm in arm as they walked over the red carpet and through the front door of the LA Civic Center.

Inside, the place was small, but beautiful. The ceilings reminded Cassie of golden waves of the sea, dipping and rippling above her head. Though the lights were on, they were soft, making Cassie’s skin glow. They were escorted toward the front of the venue.

An older gentleman, an attendant judging by his red vest, pulled Noah’s name off of the seat and waved him forward. He did the same for the sign that read And Guest that was stapled to Cassie’s seat.

She craned her neck to see behind her. “This place is awesome.”

A thousand seats stretched to the back wall, inclining slightly as they went. Spiraling stairs lead to balcony seating that hovered just behind her. To the left and right of the stage were more balconies. The seats there had been removed, replaced with additional lighting.

She brushed her fingers over arms of the soft cushioned seats. A wave pattern was embossed in the seats, the same wave pattern as the ceiling. It smelled as if they had just laid fresh carpet, and she looked down to check. Though the gold and dark blue carpet was smooth, she couldn’t be sure if it was new or not.

Music, television, and movie stars filed in, filling the seats around them. The air turned expensive, heavy with the scents of the finest roses, daisies, and sunflowers.

A few musicians came to shake Noah’s hand and wish him well. Cassie recognized them, tried to hide her blush as Noah introduced them.

Steve Samson, Betty King, Jammy Jay. Gods of the recording industry. They flooded down the aisle, their very own Mount Olympus in the middle of LA.

Country music legend Cindy Spencer bounded to them, throwing herself into Noah’s arm for a tight hug.

“Noah!” she screamed.

“Cindy. I thought you were on tour,” he said, his voice an octave higher than usual.

“I thought the same thing about you,” she remarked. “Oh, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long!”

Her eyes floated to Cassie. Something turned in them. Some spark of recognition.

“And this is your now famous girlfriend?” she asked, pulling away from Noah, her eyes searching his for the truth.

Noah nodded, handed Cassie forward. “This is Cassie Washington.”

He stepped back and allowed Cassie to stand in front of him.

Cindy Spencer was as gorgeous in person as she was on television. Long midnight hair that cascaded and rippled around her thin shoulders. Piercing green eyes, a small bow-shaped mouth. Her dress was gold, covered in little beads that absorbed the low light and converted it into shimmering stars.

She extended a hand to Cassie, her white teeth perfect squares.

Inadequacy crept into Cassie’s shoulders, making them slump a bit.

“I’m Cindy,” she said.

“Cassie.”

“It’s a pleasure.” Her eyes slid to Noah on that last word.

He tightened his tie.

“And how did you manage to get your hooks into the great Rock King?” she asked.

Cassie shook the cobwebs from her head and tried to keep a smile on her face. She felt like running. This woman’s confidence and beauty was staggering, but there was something else behind her eyes. Something threatening and angry buried in her wide smile.

“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “It just happened, I guess.” She took a small step toward Noah.

He put his hand on the small of her back, silently vowing his protection.

“Watch your back, darling.” Cindy’s green eyes turned dark, and her smile dropped. Her country accent thickened. “A little innocent girl like you? Noah will eat you up and spit you out before you know it.”

Noah’s voice turned lethal. “Cindy, that’s enough.”

Her eyes blazed into Noah’s for a moment longer before she turned and walked to the opposite side of the hall.

Noah turned back to Cassie, letting out a deep breath. “I’m sorry about that. Cindy and I had a thing a while ago and it didn’t end well.”

Noah was involved with that woman? Cassie thought. She’s everything. Why would he want me when he’s been with Cindy Spencer? She’s beautiful and talented and, well, so different from me.

An older man in sunglasses walked forward, stealing Noah’s attention again.

The parade of people coming to see the Rock King didn’t stop until the lights dimmed and the host for the night came on stage.

Cassie was glad for the break. She needed time to catch her breath, to stop the panic that raced through her chest.

I’m surrounded by the most beautiful people in the world. What am I doing here? _]she wondered. [_I don’t belong here.

Noah seemed to pick up on her tension. He squeezed her hand, leaned in close.

“Stop thinking so much,” he whispered. “You’ll get wrinkles on that beautiful face.”

He kissed her bare shoulder and smiled at her.

She couldn’t help but smile back.

The show rolled on for nearly three hours. Half way through, Noah kissed her hand and left, going on stage to do an ensemble performance with three other musicians in honor of the great Lester Reilly, a giant in the rock world, and one of Noah’s idols. Cassie had seen his picture in the foyer of Noah’s house.

She sat back and enjoyed Noah’s performance. He stood close to the silver microphone stand, his lips making love to the silver bulb. She remembered the feel of his lips and brushed her arms against the goose bumps that had taken residence there. His high notes rose to the heavens, bringing a tear to her eye. His low notes resonated in her belly, giving her shivers. Midway through, he picked up a guitar and played while the other rock stars accompanied him. It was meant to be an ensemble performance, but no one could touch Noah’s voice, or his guitar play. The Rock King shined like a star on stage, bringing light to the darkest corners of the room with his voice, and whatever instrument his fingers happened to find their pleasure on.

She envied his guitar.

Finally, with the set done, Noah announced Lester Riley, and called the man to the stage to get his award.

Lester marched out of the right wing of the stage, a pretty girl on his arm. His trademark curly hair touched his shoulders. A black top hat sat impossibly on top of his head, the hat blending in with the rest of his black leather outfit. Noah bowed to the man before handing him the award, his face star struck, his demeanor humbled. Lester took the award from him, patted him on the back, whispered something in his ear. Noah nodded his thanks and left the stage as Lester gave his long winded awards speech.

Cassie’s eyes roamed the room, wondering when Noah would return. The show went to commercial break, the lights brightening.

“Hi.”

The woman next to Cassie smiled at her, the grin reaching all the way to her ears.

“I’m Nicole.”

“Cassie.”

“Where you from, Cassie?” Nicole’s voice was warm, inviting. Cassie admired her dark pixie cut hair, the way her grey eyes sparkled. She quickly felt at ease with this woman, and was grateful for the company.

“Greenwich, Connecticut.”

“I grew up there too!” Nicole’s eyes went wide with happiness.

They spoke about home, bygone friends, their experiences in LA. The conversation briefly tipped to Noah before tipping away again. By the time Noah returned to his seat, Cassie and Nicole had become fast friends, even taking a picture together.

“Hey, you’re back,” Cassie said.

Noah kissed her briefly. She was disappointed. It wasn’t at all like how he’d kissed the microphone.

“You’re all right?” he asked, scanning her from head to foot.

“I’m fine. I was talking with Nicole.”

Cassie gestured to the woman next to her.

Noah held his hand out to her. “Noah.”

Nicole was momentarily stunned, color rising in her cheeks. It took a moment before she reached her hand back to him. “Nicole.”

They shook, Nicole’s eyes gliding to Cassie before gluing themselves to the stage.

“That must’ve been cool, meeting Lester Riley?” Cassie said.

“It was amazing. He wanted me to contact him after the show and get coffee or something.”

“Coffee with Lester Riley? Noah, you really are The Rock King?”

“Me? No, Lester is the king. I’m just a guy with a guitar next to him.”

“Well, you’re a little more than that.” She grinned.

“Who knows what will come of it. Maybe with the label dropping me, Lester could give me a hand, you know?”

“You’ll find another label, Noah.”

“Yeah, but will they promote me and pay me like this one does?” He shook his head. “It’s so uncertain, you know. I’d better call your dad later, see how it’s been going with shopping me around.”

“Now you’re the one who’s worrying,” she said. “Any label will be more than happy to pick you up.”

“The messed up part is they haven’t even met with me to tell me, you know. I’ve been with them for sixteen years and they haven’t even met with me to tell me that they’re dropping me.”

She placed a hand on his back, watched his mood turn worse as he lost album of the year to Lesliee Day.

Lesliee bounded on stage. Her dress was sheer from the waist up, her breasts covered by two black crosses.

Cassie wondered how much would get blurred out on television.

Leslie slurred through her speech, flashed her breast to the camera, then skipped off.

And with that, The Grammy’s have become the Lesliee Day Show, Cassie thought. What a mess. The label can’t be giving Noah up for that train wreck. They just can’t.

The show ended and the lights came up.

Nicole and Cassie promised to keep in touch, then parted. Nicole made her way to the exit while Noah lead Cassie backstage for the press junket.

Noah stopped in front of the green room door, pulling Cassie closer so that she could hear him amidst the crowded hallway.

“I’ll meet you inside after I do press,” he said.

“Okay.”

“I’ll be back in thirty minutes or so. Pick out whatever you want from the swag table.”

“Okay.”

He took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and kissed her gently. “Don’t worry. You look fantastic.”

With one last smile tossed her way, he lost himself in the crowd.

Cassie wished she could get lost.

She peeked into the green room. It was packed with celebrities she’d only seen via a magazine or television screen. They passed through each other, mingling but never truly connecting.

What would they say if they saw me in there? she thought. [_Will they accept me? Will they even speak to me? _]

Her eyes darted around the room, hoping to land on a friendly face. The only faces she saw were heavily painted and stretched with fake smiles.

No, I’m definitely not going in there without Noah.

She turned, looking for a refuge, some place where she could disappear for a half an hour until Noah got back.

She spied a bathroom across the hall, and made a beeline for it.

Chapter 30

Noah

Noah looked around the room, hoping to find his goddess in an emerald dress. The press had been lenient on him tonight, limiting their comments to his performance with Lester Riley. They weren’t interested in a fading rock star. Lesliee Day was the talk of the night. He silently thanked God for it.

He took a glass of champagne from the refreshment table and scanned the room again.

Where’s Cas?

He drained the glass in one gulp, put it back on the table, and grabbed another one.

Troy Barbarack’s chubby profile came into view.

Noah’s blood ran cold.

The head of his record label locked eyes on him, flushed. His eyes darted to the exit.

“Hey!” Noah shouted. “Troy.”

Troy’s beady eyes turned back to Noah. He fixed his blue tie, ran a hand through his dark blond hair. With his designer suit, rings, and slicked back hair, he looked more like a bleached mobster then the president of a record label.

“Noah LaRock,” Troy said, his voice steady though his face looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“So you’re dropping me, huh?” Noah demanded.

“Noah, we didn’t mean for you to find out this way.”

“What way? You mean by way of a drunk blonde back stage at a talk show? That’s right. Lesliee freaking Day broke the news to be. Sixteen years I gave to you, and what do you do? You didn’t even have the balls to say that you’re releasing me to my face?”

“Noah, calm down. Look, it’s just business, okay?”

“Why are you dropping me?”

Troy cleared his throat.

“How about you call my office on Monday and we’ll talk, huh?”

“Why?” Noah demanded.

“Well, truth be told…” Troy jammed his hands into his suit pants, looked away. “People don’t want rock anymore. Pop’s the new thing.”

“Pop. A bunch of kids who don’t know anything about music. I made you millions, Troy. Millions. And you’re just going to drop me because the market’s changed? What kind of crap is that?”

“Noah, look. It’s just not working out. Now, I know the president of Rock Lab Records. They are respectable, they are hard working. Maybe you can sign with them.”

Noah’s blood boiled.

“Rock Lab Records? You’re sending me to Rock Lab Records?”

His hands turned into fist. His voice rose above the crowd. “Rock Lab is a start up. I’ve been doing this for sixteen years, Troy! Sixteen years and you want to send me to a start up?”

Troy’s voice remained steady and emotionless, as if he was simply asking a man for directions instead of arguing with one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. “I’m sorry, Noah. It’s just business.”

Noah ran a hand through his hair to keep from punching Troy in his chubby jaw.

“Look, Noah, I’m sorry. I know it’s hard.” Troy put his hand on Noah’s shoulder. “But we had a great run together, didn’t we? We did great things in the time we had. Remember that.”

Noah shook Troy’s hand off, glaring at the portly man. “Yeah, I’ll remember all right.”

Troy nodded, his face heavy with pity, before he turned and squeezed his round body through the crowd and out of sight.

Noah felt his hands began to shake, and he picked up another glass of champagne.

This night was quickly turning into a disaster.

Where was Cassie?

***

Cassie

“Oh my god, did you see Noah LaRock’s new girlfriend?”

The three pitchy voices echoed in the small bathroom.

Cassie picked her feet up, didn’t breathe.

“She’s a train wreck,” came voice number two. “I have no idea what he sees in her.”

“Maybe it’s affirmative action,” came voice number three.

Voice number one, “And did you see that hair? She looks like she has a sheep on her head.”

The three girls giggled.

Cassie saw red.

She snatched the door open, and marched out, looking at each of the women one by one. She recognized them from a reality television show that had recently come on the air. She watched their faces drain of color as they stared back at her.

Smoothing her dress, she walked passed them and washed her hand.

They ran from the bathroom, the door swinging behind them as they made their hasty exit.

Stupid girls with their stupid comments.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Her eyes moved to the mirror, and she stared at her reflection.

I can do this, she chanted silently. I’m beautiful, I’m intelligent, and I have a great guy on my arm. I can do this.

She ran her hands under the warm water.

I can do this, she chanted.

“Excuse me,” a voice behind her said.

She pumped the soap dispenser, and rinsed her hands.

I can do this. I belong here.

“Excuse me,” the voice repeated.

She shook them dry, and looked up into a pair of black eyes looking back at her.

“That bathroom needs to be cleaned,” the older woman said, running a hand through the hair at the base of her neck. “And there is no more toilet paper.”

It took Cassie a moment to register what was going on.

Was the woman talking to her?

She shook her head.

[_She can’t be talking to me. _]

Cassie looked in the mirror, searching for someone else who the woman could be talking to. No one else appeared. There was just her, and this woman sticking halfway out of the stall, staring at her.

“Miss, are you listening? There’s no more toilet paper.”

Cassie stared daggers at the woman.

“I don’t work here.”

The woman looked confused.

“What?”

“I. Don’t. Work. Here,” Cassie enunciated.

Fury rose in her chest. I’m wearing a ball gown and this old bat thinks I work here because I’m a few shades darker then her? Is she serious!

Tapping down the urge to smack some sense into the woman, she blinked back her anger, yanked a paper towel out of the holder, dried her hands, and walked out of the bathroom.

Her chest grew tight with the tension, and she blew out a breath to ease it.

No, I definitely do not belong here.

She marched to the green room, determined to find Noah and leave as soon as possible.

A large, grey-haired man blocked her way.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t go in there.”

“But I’m with Noah LaRock.”

The man smirked, his green eyes shining.

“You can’t go in there.”

She leaned to her left her eyes searching the room for Noah.

“Ma’am, I’m going to ask you to leave.”

“No, I can’t leave. I’m with Noah LaRock.”

“Sure you are. Ma’am, this is your last warning.”

Her mind went numb. First the women in the bathroom, then this big goon in front of her. She’d had enough.

She dove to the side, screaming into the green room.

“Noah!”

The bodyguard grabbed her, just as she spotted Noah, angry and red-faced with a glass in his hand in the other room. She was slammed against the wall, pinned there with one meaty hand.

The guard’s wrist went to his chapped lips.

“We have a security breech at the green room,” he said.

The rough wallpaper scratched her back as Cassie struggled against the security guards grip.

She heard Noah roar, “Get off of her!”

The security guard’s face collapsed in on one side as Noah’s fist flew into it.

Cassie was released. She shuffled left.

Noah and the guard scuffled on the floor.

Another man appeared. He pulled Noah’s arms behind his back, and pulled him onto his feet.

The first security guard lunged at Noah, knocking both The Rock King and the second security guard backwards.

A third guard arrived, screamed for them to break it up.

“Get off of me!” Noah bellowed.

Blood dripped down his chin and he wiped it away with his thumb. The crowd parted for him, and he grabbed her hand, stomping toward the exit.

He didn’t stop walking until they reached the limo.

Chapter 31

Silent.

The ride from the Civic Center back to Noah’s house was silent. He was distracted and angry as he marched inside the house, disappeared up the stairs.

She wanted to go to him, to comfort him, but she was fighting her own battles.

The woman in the bathroom, the reality TV girls, the woman who did her nails. Prejudice was everywhere. Being on tour with Noah, she was somewhat protected. The backstage crew was a diverse group of people. But out in the real world things were different. People saw her as one thing, a black woman. Although she inherited her Irish mother’s quick temper, she possessed some of her father’s coloring. Although she wasn’t as dark as he was, a little melanin seemed to be enough for people to immediately judge her.

I thought I left that all behind in Greenwich, she thought. Turns out, prejudice isn’t relegated to a zip code.

She wondered if perhaps Noah and she had gotten too serious too fast. Now, the world knew what they were. Would his music suffer for it? Would his fans abandon him because he was dating someone like her? When she was suddenly off the scene, what would they think? Would they think she was just some fly by night girl he’d taken a fancy to and then dropped? Would they think that she was just some fetish, some experiment that he had to try, just once, before running back to girls whose skin matched his own?

Her thoughts overwhelmed her through the night, only pausing when they climbed into the limo that would take them to the airport.

Although Noah climbed in and sat beside her, he didn’t look at her. His brown eyes stared out of the window, angry heat pouring off him in waves.

She wondered if he might explode.

They arrived at the airport and boarded the private plane that would take them back to Paris.

They sat next to each other around the table, though he still didn’t speak. His eyes were far away.

She cleared her throat.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He didn’t reply.

“Was it the fight?”

Still nothing.

“I’m sorry that you had to do that. I was trying to meet you in the green room and they wouldn’t let me in. They thought I was trespassing. And the woman in the bathroom thought I worked there. Imagine. I was in a dress, heels, with my hair done and makeup on, she thought that I was a bathroom attendant. And the lady who did my nails, and those stupid, stupid girls…” She smiled sadly, shook her head. “I guess I can’t get away from it, no matter where I go or how I’m dressed. I’ll always be the help or the whore or the gold digger when I’m with you, huh?”

His eyes turned to her then.

“That’s not true,” he whispered.

“Yes, it is. I’ve been here one day and it seems like everywhere I go, I’m not welcome in the club. That’s the way out here, I guess.” She sighed. “I don’t look like any of your other girlfriends, do I?”

“What does it matter?”

“You know what I’m asking you.”

He frowned. “If you’re asking if I ever dated a half black girl, then the answer is no. Is that a problem?”

She shook her head. “No. Just wondering.”

“Why are you bringing this up now?” he demanded.

“Just talking out loud, I guess.” She bit her nail.

“What’s going on in that twisted mind of yours?” he asked. “What are you thinking?”

“Noah, I’m leaving on Sunday.”

He speared his hand through his hair and growled.

“You think I don’t’ know that?” he asked, his eyes turning dark. “You think that I don’t know that you are leaving me on Sunday?”

“I’m just reminding you.”

“Well, thank you for the reminder. I appreciate it. It hadn’t occurred to me that you were leaving me.”

Her voice was soft. “Noah, I’m not leaving you. I’m going back to school. I’m following my dream.”

“And what about me, huh? What about my dreams?”

“You’re already living your dream.”

He growled again, his eyes turned pleadingly to the sky. “You, you, you, you, you, you, you. You are my dream. You. And you’re going away. What am I supposed to do, huh? What am I supposed to do when you leave?”

She took in a tight breath.

“I don’t know.”

He laughed shortly. “I did everything I could, hoping that you would want to stay. I gave you every piece of me, hoping that you would want to stay when this was all over. When I was broke, playing my guitar outside of a box, I wanted you there.” He threw up his hands. “Whatever, Cassie. Go, leave. Everyone else has.”

She didn’t reply, and he didn’t offer her anything else.

They sat in silence the rest of the flight.

Halfway through, she retreated to the bedroom, crying softly into her pillow.

***

Noah didn’t look at her as they exited the plane. The ride back to the hotel was silent.

All silence.

The only sound was the slamming of his hotel door behind him as he marched away from her.

She wondered if he was trashing his room again.

She looked at her phone, hoping that her mother would call. She needed someone, someone to tell her that she was making the right decision. Someone to say that she should follow her dreams and finish school, make something of herself. Someone to say that Noah LaRock should be left firmly in the past. She had to move on, and now was a good a time as any.

Her heart squeezed in her chest as she unlocked the hotel door and threw herself onto the bed. The tears came without ceasing.

Chapter 32

France

Lunch arrived without her ordering it. The slim man pushed a cart of soup, sandwiches, and potato chips into her room. She wondered if this was Noah’s doing. The thought of him made the tears threaten again.

Pull yourself together, she thought, taking a determined bite of her sandwich. You are doing the right thing. You are following your dream. Be happy.

But there was no happiness for her today. A grim cloud floated above her, staying there through her lunch, and as she got ready for the concert tonight.

My last Noah LaRock concert.

Although she’d seen the show dozens of times before, this time felt different. She would always remember this night. Noah LaRock would go down in history books as the greatest rock star of their generation, she was sure of that. When she got old, she could say that she’d seen him in Paris over a too hot summer. She could say that she knew how he kissed, what his fingertips felt like on her belly. She bit the inside of her cheek. She’d miss that touch.

She quickly finished her makeup, smoothed down her green, lacey, strapless dress, and slipped into her green sandals.

It was their last night together.

They’d be spending it with thirty thousand people.

***

He was as amazing this time as he was at every concert.

With sky high vocals that swung to the heavens, he played the crowd to their feet, bringing their screams to the brink of desperation. Though many of the fans didn’t speak English, they sang every word to every song that sprung from the stage, rising and falling like a sea with his word.

She couldn’t help thinking that he looked totally unaffected by their parting. He shredded the stage, running, jumping, and rocking out like only he could do. Finally, after two hours, the concert came to the final song, War.

“I know you guys want me to do War.”

War!” The crowd screamed. “War! War! War!”

“But I have something special for you tonight. You see, someone I love is going away.”

Cassie froze.

“And I want to sing what I’ve come to think of as our song to her. I want you guys to help me wish her well on her journey. Are you with me, Paris?”

They screamed, continued screaming as a grand piano was brought out, and the French Gospel Choir dressed in white flooded the stage.

Noah pushed his hair out of his eyes, sat down at the grand piano, and cracked his knuckles.

The stage lights turned soft white, bathing the stage in holy light.

A second of silence passed.

His voice was smooth as he sang out the lyrics and the choir answered.

And then, he started to play.

From the black and white keys came their song.

She felt each word on her heart. Sang to him as he sung to her, didn’t bother to wipe the tears from her eyes.

The Lord had sent her somebody to love, but she couldn’t stay. She was leaving in the morning.

Midway through the song he rose from the piano, moved to a cherry red guitar, the same one he’d taught her to play her first chords on. His fingers danced over the strings, whining a guitar solo that lifted her soul, before he finished out the last verse on the microphone. He looked right at her, their eyes meeting, his gaze loving. It was their own private prayer to the Lord. Their private plea to each other’s hearts.

She wanted to run on stage, to throw her arms around him, to tell him she’d never leave his side.

But the song ended. The prayer was done.

He thanked the crowd, jogged off stage.

She joined the flow to the parking lot.

In the morning she would be on a plane back to Connecticut.

She hoped she was making the right choice.

Chapter 33

She threw the last of her clothes in her suitcase, not bothering to send anything to the laundry. The zipper was cool on her fingers as she zipped it tight, and placed it by the door.

This was it. Tonight would be the last time she would be in a fancy hotel like this.

She wished that Noah was here, at least to say goodbye. They’d spent too much time burrowing into each other’s hearts over the last few days. It was hard to imagine that she would never wake up to him again.

I can’t stay, she thought. It had become her mantra. I can’t stay.

A knock.

She closed her eyes, let out a breath.

Another knock.

“Cas? I can hear you thinking in there,” he said.

Noah.

Not bothering to smooth her hair, she raced to the door, snatched it open, and threw herself into his arms.

“You came!”

She felt him exhale a breath as he wrapped his arms around her.

“I wouldn’t miss our last night together,” he whispered. “Not for the world.”

He kissed her ear when she let him go. In one hand he held a bottle of wine, in the other a white canvas bag.

“And I brought gifts.”

He kicked the door shut, followed her to the bed.

“Oh, I hope they’re expensive,” she teased.

The bed sagged under his weight. He reached into the canvas bag and pulled out a bag of green grapes, dripping with water.

“The very best grapes, wine, cheese, and croissants.” He smiled. He reached into the bag again, pulled out a disc. “Something special.”

She plucked the disc from his hand, one eyebrow raised quizzically. “Aida?”

“Straight from Broadway.”

“You got a bootleg?”

“A sanctioned copy.”

She grinned.

He reached into the bag again and pulled out a notebook and pen, handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Paper.”

“For what?”

“Write to me.”

“You want me to write you letters?”

“Yes.”

“Let me guess. One for every day that we’re apart.”

Cheesy, she thought. Cheesy and perfect.

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “I’ll even read them, on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“That you promise to read mine.”

She pulled the notebook to her chest. “You’ll write me letters?”

“Only when I miss you,” he said, picking up the bag and putting it next to the bed.

“Noah.”

“Don’t Noah me. We’re going to spend tonight watching movies and eating ourselves sick and making out. No arguments.”

She smiled, nodded. “Okay. No arguments from me.”

He picked one grape from the bag, held it out to her.

She put out her hand.

He shook his head no.

She rolled her eyes and opened her mouth, allowing him to place the grape gently on her tongue. His eyes obsessed themselves with her lips, the way her mouth moved as it chewed.

She swallowed the last of the grape, her heart fluttering when he moved in to kiss her.

“I’ll miss your lips,” he whispered before capturing them with his own. The kiss, though brief, clung to her soul.

He pulled out another grape, and she opened her mouth without asking. She chewed it thoughtfully, swallowed.

“I’ll miss your laugh.” He kissed her again, lingering this time. He pulled away, plucking another grape from the stem, feeding it to her. She chewed quickly, anxious for his words, his kiss.

“I’ll miss the face you make when you think too hard.”

He kissed her again, his lips drawing all of her strength from her.

“I’ll miss catching my fingers in your hair.”

His kiss devoured the smile that formed on her lips.

“I’ll miss how you rub your stomach when you’re nervous.”

He kissed along her jaw, clung to her lips again.

“I’ll miss everything about you, Cas. And I know you’re going to follow your dreams, but I want you to know how much I’ll miss you when you’re not here. There’s no other woman for me. I love only you.” He kissed her again. “Only you.”

She kissed him back with all of the love that she had in her heart as the tears dripped down her face, wetting his cheeks.

“I love you too, Noah. With everything I am, I love you.”

That was when she knew. She couldn’t leave. Her heart wouldn’t allow it.

“Noah, I want to stay with you.”

He shook his head, put his forehead to hers.

“You can’t. You have a dream, and I’d never forgive myself if I ruined it for you. We have tonight.” He smiled, his eyes watering.

“Then I want to…” She paused. “I want to—”

“Don’t say it,” he whispered. “If you say it, I won’t have the strength to say no.”

“Then don’t say no.”

His brows knit together, his mouth tight.

“Cas…” He shook his head. “You deserve more than one night. You deserve forever. Promise me that you’ll wait for that. Promise me that you’ll wait for your forever.”

Disappointment etched in her face, her eyes dropping. She knew he was right.

[_Why did he always have to be so right? _]she thought.

They lay down then, ignoring the movie that played in the background.

There was no time to focus on anything else but each other.

He memorized her touch.

She memorized his smell.

They carved into their brains the feel of each other’s kiss.

They only had tonight.

Chapter 34

When she awoke the next morning, he was gone, leaving behind his scent and his warmth on the bed. Her heart seemed to slow, her mind drained as she got dressed.

Their time was up.

She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled out her phone. Her mother had called sometime last night, then texted her to ask what time her plane would land.

She texted back, then went to her translated news feed.

4.0 Earthquake rips through Japan

Scroll.

President Obama enjoys a breezy day with British Prime Minister

Scroll.

Serial Killer strikes again in Paris

Cassie stared at her phone.

Strikes again? But how? Dondo was in jail. How was this possible?

She hungrily read the article, translated from French. Three women had been strangled, their bodies forced into a suitcase, and dropped off in an immigrant neighborhood right outside of Paris.

The thought came to her like lightning. She’d been wrong about Dondo. She’d been wrong about him all along.

But if Dondo wasn’t the killer, then who was?

Chapter 35

Noah

Noah froze for a minutes in the doorway of the prison, stunned to see his immaculate friend laid so low.

Dondo appeared behind the thick glass wearing an orange jumpsuit and a white t-shirt. He looked at Noah with red rimmed eyes, his mouth turned into a heavy frown.

The visitation room smelled like cheap perfume and stale cigarette smoke. He sat down in a hard, blue chair, separated from his childhood friend by thick glass. The overhead lights were fading, dying bulbs that reflected the dying sprits of the men inside the prison.

Next to the glass wall was a phone. Its black, plastic casing stood in stark contrast to the beige painted chipped bricks that lined the walls of the prison. Noah picked up the warm phone from the cradle, and placed it to his ear.

Dondo did the same.

“Hey,” Noah said, his voice low.

“Hey.”

“How are they treating you in here?”

Dondo shook his head. “I didn’t kill those girls,” he said.

“I know you didn’t.”

“I took them back to the hotel, and we messed around, but I didn’t kill them.”

“I believe you.”

Dondo slammed his hand on the glass, his face twisted in anger.

“Then why am I still in here?”

Noah took a deep breath, struggling to find the words that would give his best friend comfort and patience. “They’re waiting for the DNA test to come back.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

Noah paused. “Tomorrow at the earliest.”

Dondo shook his head, “Tomorrow,” he muttered. “Another night of being locked up alone in this place, in this country. I’m an American! Where’s the embassy?”

“We’re working on getting you out. I have my lawyers working nonstop right now.”

“I can’t stay in here for another minute. I can’t. I’m not supposed to be here. I didn’t kill those girls. He set me up!”

Noah froze, his eyes moving to the guard by the door before turning back to Dondo. “Who set you up?”

“Walter.”

Noah’s felt his heart stop. “What?”

“I was going to tell you but I didn’t want to hurt you, or him. I’ve known you two my whole life.”

“Dondo, if he is a murder—”

“Not if. He is. I saw him with Kelly.”

“Kelly?”

“Cassie’s friend. She was a nice girl, sweet, you know. She kept going on and on about how close she and Cassie were…” His voice trailed off. “We messed around for a while, then I took her back to the concert so she could get her car. That’s when we saw Walter. I was going to leave her, but they started talking and they left together but something didn’t seem right so I followed them. He took her to another motel in a bad part of town. I wanted to leave but something in my gut told me not to and I went back, and when I looked through the window, he was already choking her. I didn’t know what to do.” A tear dripped down his face. “It was Walter, you know. It was Papa Bear. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to talk to him about it later, but he didn’t want to listen. I just…I didn’t know what to do. I wish I had said something, but he was like a father to us. I didn’t know what to do.”

“What about the other girls?”

“I didn’t know about them until I got arrested. I would drop them back at the venues after I’d finished with them. I never saw them again after that. He must’ve been waiting back there. I can’t believe he would do this to me!”

“Dondo, you have to tell the cops what you know.”

“I wanted to tell you first. He was closest to you. I wanted to tell you first.”

“Cas,” Noah whispered. “What if he hurts her?” He rose from the chair, his eyes darting between the door and his friend. “Tell the police what you know. I have to find Cas. I have to make sure she’s okay.”

“What about me?”

“I’ll call the lawyers and the embassy. Just make sure you tell them everything.”

Noah rushed from the prison, demanding his limo driver take him back to the hotel at top speed. If what Dondo said was true, Cassie was in great danger.

Chapter 36

Cassie

A knock on the door pulled Cassie from her panicked pacing.

Who could have killed those girls? Who?

When she opened the door, her father was on the other side, his body radiating exhaustion, his eyes twitching.

“I came to walk you down to the cars. We’ve got a plane to catch.” His hand patted his thigh nervously. He walked past her and into the room.

“Dad, something isn’t right,” she said.

“What’s that, dear?”

She sat down on the bed, patted the spot next to her. When he joined her, she said, “Dondo getting arrested.”

He huffed, looked at the dark screen of the television. “He got what he deserved.”

“But what if he’s innocent? I mean, think about it. All this time, the killer has been taking those girls bodies to bad parts of town to dump them. Why would he change now? Why would he bring them back to the hotel and kill them here? What would have to gain? Why the change?”

“Who knows, dear?”

“What if Dondo’s being setup?” Cassie whispered. “What if the real killer wants us to think it’s Dondo. Maybe we were getting close to something and he had to throw us off his scent before we found out who he really was?”

“Cassie, you’re being ridiculous. Dondo Rodriguez killed those girls. He’s the murder. Sad but true. Now, let’s get out of this country before anything else bad happens.”

Walter stood, grabbed Cassie’s bag, and pulled it behind her.

She followed silently, trying to staunch the feeling that she was missing something important.

Her eyes wondered down to the white tag that hung off of her father’s suitcase.

Another new suitcase? Her mind jumped back to Germany, where the red faced worker had delivered another identical black suitcase to her room instead of her fathers.

Why would he need so many new suitcases?

They rode the elevator down to the lobby in silence, passing the front desk.

“Wait,” she said. “There is something I have to do.”

“What is it, dear?” Walter asked, irritation coloring his voice. “We’re already running behind.”

“I just have to see one thing.”

She went to the front desk.

“Excuse me,” she said.

The dark-haired woman behind the desk smiled up at her.

“Can I please speak to the head of security?”

***

Ten minutes later, Cassie, Walter, the head of security, and another security guard stared at ten screens stacked together in a small, dark room.

“Cassie, this is crazy!” Walter hissed. “We have already established it was Dondo. Leave things be.”

The security guard sat in a chair in front of the head of security. He played back the video from the night of the murder. They watched Dondo exit the elevator with a blonde on his arm. They strolled down the hallway and entered his hotel room. Neither he or the girl ever came back out, and no one else went in. The picture lightened as the sun rose. A few minutes later, the police arrived.

“There, you see,” Walter said. “It’s just like the police said. Dondo is the killer. Now, can we please just go?”

The head of security, a beefy man with greasy hair and a small mustache, eyed Cassie and her father before crossing his arms across his chest. He spoke no English. The security guard translated for him, and the head of security nodded.

Cassie sighed. “You’re right. I guess I’m just surprised. I’ll thank them and then we can go to the car.”

Walter nodded, grabbed both suitcases, and began to the lobby. “I’ll order us some coffees.”

Cassie waited until he was out of earshot before turning back to the two men.

“Thank you,” she said, primarily to the English speaking guard. “I appreciate you taking the time to look into this for me.”

“That man,” the guard whispered. “He is a very bad man.”

Cassie’s eyebrows shot up.

The guard said something in French to the security head, who nodded, shook her hand, and walked out.

Cassie kneeled next to the guard. His black eyes were red, his almond colored skin flushed. His gaze kept gliding to the door.

“What do you mean?”

“He is a very bad man, who does very bad things. You must stay away from him.”

“I can’t. He’s my father.”

“Cassie, are you coming?” She heard his voice echo up the hallway.

“I’ll be right there!” she called. She turned back to the security guard. “What are you talking about.”

“Cassie, we’re running late!”

“One second, Dad.”

She turned back to the security guard, watched the sweat form on his forehead. “Please, tell me what you know.”

“He paid me to change the feed. Another man walked into the room and killed that woman.”

She jumped, hearing her father’s voice right behind her.

“What could you possibly be talking about now?” Walter demanded.

She plastered a smile on her face. “He was just telling me about some restaurants in Paris that we should try the next time we’re in town.” She reached down and hugged the man.

The man’s voice trembled, the sound low enough for only her to hear. “He is a very bad man.”

“Cassie, we’re going to miss the plane.”

She took one last look at the guard before jogging out of the small, cool room.

She had a horrible feeling in her gut.

“Um, I have to use the bathroom before we go.”

She turned and ran to the women’s rest room before he could further protest.

Chapter 37

Walter

The look in Cassie’s eyes was all that Walter Washington needed. He saw it. The fear, the panic.

The phone to the front desk rang, the woman’s eyes floating to him.

The thought hit him like a brick.

_She knows. _

There was only one thing left to do.

He left the bags in the middle of the lobby and slipped past the front desk, making his way back to the security room. No one followed. He jogged up the short ramp. The security guard was still sitting at his desk. In one hand he held a black phone, his eyes glued to the screen.

“He killed her, and made me erase the footage. He’s a very bad man. He—”

“Bolivar,” he said.

The guard turned around, fear rising in his cheeks as he dropped the phone.

Walter kicked the door shut, pulled a spare chair over and shoved it under the handle.

Bolivar shot up, backing up against the table.

“Monsieur,” he whispered.

“I told you to keep your mouth shut. You were supposed to take the money and walk away. You shouldn’t even be here right now.”

“Monsieur, please.”

Walter’s mind went blank. He rushed at him, ramming his shoulder into his chest.

Bolivar’s back slammed against the lip of the table. He screamed, crumpled to the floor.

Walter jumped on top of him, wrapping his arms around Bolivar’s thin neck, his lips forming babbles and mummers.

“I’m in control,” he muttered. “I’m in control.”

Walter leaned away from the weak punches that Bolivar threw at his cheek. With one, final squeeze, he heard a satisfying crack.

Bolivar lay still.

Walter stood, and stuffed the guard’s limp body into the cramped space beneath the desk.

He heard Cassie whisper Bolivar’s name on the other end of the phone. The secret was out. There was no doubt about what he had to do now. He placed the phone back in the cradle.

He had to get out and fast, but he wasn’t leaving without his daughter.

Chapter 38

Cassie

“Bolivar. Bolivar, are you there?”

Cassie sat on the closed toilet seat, her legs balancing on the door in case anyone walked in. “Bolivar!”

She’d heard the sound of a scuffle, something cracked.

Something happened to Bolivar. Something terrible.

“Cassie!”

Her father’s voice echoed into the bathroom. She held her breath, put her hand over the phone.

“Cassie, I know you’re in here!”

Ending the call, she sent a quick text to Noah.

Walter’s the killer.

Metal hit metal as her father kicked in the first bathroom stall.

“Cassie!”

Bang.

Two stalls left.

Gathering her courage, she jumped from the seat, opened the door.

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“It’s time for us to go, dear.”

“You killed them, Walter, didn’t you? You killed those girls!” she screamed.

“It was the only way for me to get back in control.”

“Control? Control of what?”

“Control of my life. Control of theirs.” His eyes turned far away, as if he was remembering a very pleasant dream. “Everything was slipping through my hands so fast, I had to find a way to get back in control. Those girls, their lives, I controlled that. Their life and their death was in my hands. I was in control. It was beautiful.”

“You’re sick. You need help.”

He sneered at her. “You know nothing.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

She ran forward, dodged her father’s grab, and ran through the lobby and out of the hotel. The crowded sidewalk engulfed her, and for a moment she felt safe. She pushed through the crowds, rushing anywhere but near Walter Washington.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket.

Noah: I’m on my way. Where are you?

She rushed past several shops before stopping in a café, La Bouchon. Squeezing past the patrons waiting in line for the small cups of coffee, she hid herself in a dark booth in the back. It was blocked from street view by a supporting beam.

She texted Noah where she was, and put her head down.

My father is a murderer, she thought, her mind going wild. My father is a murderer.

“Hello, Cassie.” This voice was dull, robotic.

“How did you find me?”

“Your phone, of course. Rule number one when someone is trying to find you is to turn off your phone. Now get up.”

She felt the jab of something round in her side.

“Noah will find me,” she whispered.

“I’m counting on it.”

The gun moved deeper into her ribs, and she stood, walking in front of her father as he guided her from the café.

***

Noah

Please let her be okay, Noah prayed. Please, God, I’ll do anything. Just let her be okay.

Noah’s cab pulled in front of La Bouchon. He jumped out before the car stopped, raced into the café.

There were no signs of Cassie, or Walter.

He rushed out again, his eyes scanning the streets for the woman who had become the single most important thing in his life.

He caught a glimpse of Walter’s grey hair ducking into a cab.

He raced back to the limo.

“Follow the cab!” he cried.

The driver peeled out of the parking spot, racing down the street.

The traffic turned heavy. The yellow cab weaved in and out between the cars, before finally losing itself in a row of identical vehicles.

Noah screamed in frustration. “No!”

“The cab is gone, monsieur. What do you want to do now?”

Noah’s hands went to his head. He had to think.

What would Walter do? Where would he go?

There was only one answer that made sense. The word was out. Walter was a wanted criminal now. There was only one play left.

“Take me to the airport!”

Chapter 39

Cassie

“Why are you doing this?” Cassie asked.

Her father didn’t reply. He tapped his hands on his thigh, his eyes blinking.

“Dad. Dad, look at me.”

Walter’s eyes lazily wondered to hers.

“Why are you doing this?”

“I can’t,” he said. His voice turned less robotic. It began to sound more like the father she had grown to cherish over these last few months instead of a cold, heartless killer. “I was supposed to have it all under control. Old Papa Bear was supposed to have it all figured out. But now it’s all spinning out of control. I can’t hold my arms around it anymore.”

“Around what? What are you talking about?”

“Noah. His career. The label. They are all going down the tubes, and what can I do? Nothing! After twenty years of bleeding my life into this business, there is nothing I can do. What clout do I have? I manage a washed up artist who can’t even put out a gold record anymore. My contacts don’t answer my calls. We’re poison now, classic relics.”

“Dad, it will be okay. Noah will be on top again.”

Walter shook his head. “No. No, he won’t.”

“He will. He’ll put out another album. He’ll make it work.”

“There will be no other albums. There is nothing. We have nothing. All those years of spending and sucking and taking and for what? He’s practically broke, and so am I. We’re done. I’ve lost. Game over. But they won’t get me. No, no, Papa Bear still has one last play.” His grin turned menacing. “Do you know what happened to the Beatles when John Lennon died?”

Cassie shook her head.

“Their sales went through the roof. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse. Death equals money, book deals, fame, fortune, one last hurrah.”

“Daddy, you wouldn’t.”

“Papa Bear is going to be back on top, baby. And you’re going to be the girl to get me there.”

***

The cab pulled up to the airport.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” Walter growled. “Just follow my lead.”

Cassie climbed out of the car first, her father followed, his gun hidden in his coat pocket.

Not, not my father, she thought. This man is not my father. He’s a murderer.

Walter didn’t bother to tip the cabbie. He grabbed Cassie’s elbow as they made their way through security.

“Where are you taking me?”

“You? You’re going home. It’s all worked out. Rock legend falls in love with manager’s daughter. Then you break his heart, and he kills himself. It’s so simple.”

She gasped. “Noah would never do that.”

“I know. Looks like old Papa Bear is going to have to help him to it.”

Chapter 40

Noah

Noah jumped from the cab and sprinted into the airport. His eyes searched the building crowds, looking for any signs of Walter or Cassie.

Neither his manager nor his goddess were anywhere around.

Where could they be? he thought frantically. Traffic was heavy. They couldn’t have gotten far.

Worry and anger mixed in his gut, churning panic through him.

What if they didn’t come to the airport after all? What if they turned down a side street somewhere and are on their way to the country? What if he’s already killed her and is stuffing her into a bag right now?

He ground his teeth, took a breath.

One thing at a time, Noah. Check one thing at a time. The cops are looking for her, the embassy is involved. One thing at a time.

His phone beeped in his pocket. He snatched it out, hoping against hope that maybe it was Cassie trying to contact him. He was slightly disappointed that it was Dondo, telling him that he’d been released from prison and was on his way back to the hotel.

At least one thing is going right today, he thought.

He shoved his phone back into his pocket and ran to the check-in desk.

A dark-haired woman smiled up at him.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I need to speak to airport security right now.”

“What seems to be the problem, sir?”

“My manager, Walter Washington, kidnapped my girlfriend. I think they came through here, but I can’t be sure. Have you seen an older man, black, grey hair, with a younger woman, fair skinned, freckles, brownish, reddish curly hair? They must’ve passed through here a few minutes ago.”

The woman frowned, looked around before looking at Noah again.

“I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to release that information.”

“They would have used his name to board a private flight to, well, I don’t know where. But his name is Walter Washington. Can you at least tell me if there is a private plane with a passenger on board named Walter Washington?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I cannot release passenger information.”

“Then get me someone who can!” he roared.

The woman jumped, her eyes darting around.

“I’m sorry.” Noah ran his hands over his face. “I’m sorry, it’s just that he is a murderer and I’m afraid that she’s…”

He didn’t want to say it out loud, to think the words into existence.

“Look, please, I need to speak with airport security. Please.”

The woman nodded, picked up a white phone, and began to speak French into it.

I’m coming, Cassie. He sent the thought to her, hoping that she would get it, hold on to it.

I’m coming.

Chapter 41

Cassie

Cassie stumbled over the tarmac as Walter half drug her in the direction of the small plane. The pilots and stewardess stood outside of the white aircraft, waiting.

“Stop stumbling. Act natural,” Walter growled.

Before her eyes, Walter morphed back into the man she’d known before, the no nonsense, smart, loveable business man that Noah had affectionately called Papa Bear. How could these two people exist inside of one man? How could she be fond of one and despise the other? Who was real and who wore the mask?

“Hello, I’m Walter Washington,” he said.

He exchanged pleasantries with the pilots and stewardess.

“Sir,” the stewardess said, “Mr. LaRock has not yet arrived.”

“He’ll be along shortly.”

“Very well. And did you want us to setup for a third passenger?” Her eyes slid to Cassie, then back to Walter. The stewardess’ smile was like a picture, painted and perfectly placed on her face. It was warm without being inviting.

“Oh, my daughter’s not staying,” Walter said. “She’s just coming to say goodbye to Mr. LaRock.”

“Very well, sir.”

“And please, don’t disturb Mr. LaRock when he arrives. He’s very upset that she’s leaving to go back to school. If you could just wait in the cockpit until I tell you we’re ready to go, that would be great.”

They nodded. Apparently no one thought it an odd request. After all, he was a rock star, wasn’t he? Weren’t they all prone to eccentricities?

With no further comments, Cassie, Walter, and the flight crew climbed up the stairs to the plane. The pilots and stewardess settled into the cockpit, waiting for their queue to take off, while Walter and Cassie walked down the aisle.

“It’s done,” Walter said, prodding Cassie into the back bedroom. “Now, we wait.”

“How could you do this to Noah? He loves you like you were his own father. Don’t you have any feelings for him?”

“I do. Don’t you see? I don’t want him to fade away. The best rock stars go out in a blaze of glory, and now, it’s Noah’s turn. Today, he will become immortal.”

Chapter 42

Noah

Noah, flanked by two security guards, saw his private plane sitting on the tarmac. The engine wasn’t on, and no one appeared outside. It was as if they were waiting for him.

Hold on, Cassie, he thought. I’m coming. Just hold on.

He jogged to the plane and ran up the stairs.

“Cassie?” he called.

“She’s back here, Noah.”

Walter’s voice sliced through him.

“Is Cassie okay?” Noah asked.

“She’s fine. She just wants to talk to you privately. Come to the bedroom. She’s waiting for you.”

Noah gestured for the security officers to stay back. He advanced toward the bedroom door, slowly pushing it open.

He stepped inside.

Cassie sat on the edge of the bed, Walter behind her, gun pointed at her head.

“Close the door, Noah,” he said.

Noah complied, closing the door with an audible click.

“What are you doing, Walter?”

“I’m fixing it, son. I’m fixing everything.”

“This doesn’t fix anything. It just makes it worse.”

“It can’t get worse,” Walter mumbled.

“Did you kill those girls?”

Walter shook his head. “I had to. You don’t know the stress I’ve been under, trying to protect you, to save your career. Those girls were the only way I could control it, that I could control me.”

“This has gone far enough. Let Cassie go, and we’ll walk out of here. We’ll get you the help that you need.”

“I don’t need any help.”

“Where will you go, huh?”

“That doesn’t matter now. I have a plan, and you’re going to help me.”

“What plan?”

“I’m going to fix all of this. Your career, those girls, everything. And I only need you to do one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Pick up that gun.”

He gestured to a shiny black gun that sat on the table next to the television.

“And do what with it?”

“Point it at your head and pull the trigger.”

“Noah, don’t!” Cassie cried.

Walter swung the gun at the back of her head. “Quiet.”

Cassie slumped onto her side, out cold.

Walter’s eyes went wide for a moment before aiming the gun at his daughter and turning his eyes back to Noah.

“Do it.”

Noah froze.

“Do it or I’ll blow her head off!”

“You wouldn’t hurt her,” Noah said. “She’s your daughter. She had nothing to do with this.” Noah shifted. “If you want me dead, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

Walter eyed the gun on the table, his eyes sliding back to Noah.

“No. No, it has to be a suicide. That’s the way it goes. That’s the only way. Poor sad rock star shoots himself over his lover. They’ll be studying your music for years, trying to find hidden clues, messages. It has to be suicide. It has to be.”

“I’m not going to pick up that gun, and I’m not going to pull the trigger. You’ll have to shoot me.”

“No.”

“Do it.”

Walter clicked off the safety to his gun, grabbed a hand full of Cassie’s hair, and dug the barrel into her scalp.

“Do it or I’ll kill her!” he cried.

The door clicked.

The handle turned.

“Now, Noah,” Walter hissed. “Now.”

Noah didn’t move.

“Very well.”

Walter’s eyes dropped to Cassie. He cried out, teeth gleaming white.

Security burst in.

A shot.

Blood splashed onto the white carpet.

Walter fell.

Cassie slouched back onto the bed.

Noah felt himself scream.

Walter’s lifeless body slid down the wall, a hole in his forehead.

Noah held the gun.

Chapter 43

Cassie

A soaked bandage dripped blood down Cassie’s neck as she was loaded into an ambulance.

How did I get here?

The last thing she remembered was being on a plane. Walter had a gun to her head, and Noah was there.

But where were they now? Where was Noah? Where was her father?

She looked to her left. Her father’s face peeked out from beneath a white blood soaked sheet. An EMT dressed in a blue jacket and hat pulled the sheet higher, covering her father’s remains.

It struck her.

He’s dead.

Her eyes went to her right.

Noah was staring at her. His body was tight, his mouth in a firm line as he was handcuffed and led back to a police vehicle.

“What happened here?” she asked.

No one answered.

She screamed the question as she was loaded into the ambulance.

It couldn’t be. Her father was dead. Noah was in handcuffs.

It couldn’t be.

***

Her answer arrived hours later in the form of Dondo, hat low over his eyes.

He stepped into her hospital room looking considerably thinner. His face was ashen, his eyes downcast. This was not the party animal that lit up the green room after one of Noah’s concerts. This man was changed.

Dondo’s face was heavy with a frown.

“Who killed my father?” she asked. “Was it Noah?”

Dondo stood at her bedside, took her hand.

“He was going to kill you,” Dondo said, a single tear slid down his cheek. “He was going to kill you.”

Cassie’s world fell apart.

The love of her life had murdered her father. The same father who kidnapped her and used her as bait in an elaborate plan to murder the love of her life.

She felt her breath leave her lungs. She buried her face in her hands, gasping for air.

Dondo’s hand covered her back, whispering something in Spanish she didn’t understand.

She wept for her father, whose mind had failed him.

She wept for her love, who had paid the ultimate price.

Chapter 44

Her father’s funeral was held in LA, his last place of residence. One of Walter’s close friends, a high profile preacher, offered to say the eulogy.

He mentioned nothing about the murders.

Cassie sat in the pews of the large church, her breath echoing amidst the stones. Only her mother, her soon to be step father, Ben, and Cassie had come.

It’s better this way, Cassie thought. _He would have wanted his family around him. _

The preacher gave a long winded prayer, ending it with a high pitched amen.

“Amen,” Cassie repeated.

She turned to the door, ready to leave this church, and her father, behind.

In the doorway, below the arch, she spotted Noah.

They locked eyes, familiar heat burning in her.

And then, he was gone, leaving behind the memory of his cologne, and her broken heart.

***

The school year arrived, but Cassie felt none of the excitement that she’d expected. She was numb. Everything was numb.

With no emotions to hold her back, she threw herself into her studies, not allowing her mind to dwell on what she’d lost this summer. Her father was gone, and so was Noah.

She walked down the hallways of Yale amidst whispers, stares. She was the girlfriend of Noah LaRock. She’d walked amongst gods. People wanted to see her, touch her. Paparazzi waited for her after school, between classes.

Cassie wanted to tell them that it was over, that Noah and she were no longer together, but something told her that they wouldn’t believe her anyway. So, she wore a hat and sun glasses and waited for the buzz about her to calm down. When Noah never showed up, the paparazzi went away, the students lost interest, and life went on.

Her mother had showed her an article that was written about her in one of the tabloids. It contained all of the details about her life that she’d shared with Nicole, the girl from the Grammy’s. Their picture together appeared in the middle of the page. Cassie shook her head, remembering how quickly she’d opened up to the girl.

Stupid, she thought. I was such a fool.

She wondered if this was what happened to celebrities on a daily basis. Were they constantly surrounded by false friends who only wanted a cover story? If so, it was a very sad life indeed.

The police had released Noah from prison, the security guards testifying that the murder was self-defense.

She watched it from her college dorm. She didn’t see his face, but she knew that he was miserable. She saw the slouch of his shoulders, his stiff walk. She wanted to reach through the screen and hold him, but the time for that was passed.

Where he was now, she didn’t know.

Her mother was married a week after school started. The flower filled wedding was beautiful, but, although she said congratulations and gave them her best smiles, to Cassie the day was grey and joyless.

She’d lost so much.

Sometimes, deep in the night, her mind and heart battled. Her heart telling her to call Noah, to let him know that she didn’t hold him responsible for any of this. Her father was a murderer. He pistol whipped her, he tried to kill the both of them. She should be grateful to Noah. Her mind prevented her from picking up the phone. He needs time, it said. _So do you. _

In her darkest, loneliest moments, when her head was so full of thoughts and her heart was so full of pain that she thought she’d go mad, she picked up her notebook and pen and wrote him letters, draining herself into the pages until there was nothing left but her hollow soul and airless lungs. She’d stuff each letter into an envelope, address it, and leave it in her night stand.

It was a Thursday during her college’s winter break when her mother sat at the foot of her bed, wrapping small white flowers in white lace for an upcoming wedding. Ben had setup the spare bedroom in his house for Cassie. Janice and Cassie’s old house had been put on the market the day after Ben proposed.

“So, when’s the book coming out?” Janice asked.

“What book?” Cassie’s pen flew across the pages of her notebook. She’d met a girl in school who was Noah’s biggest fan. She even tattooed his flames across her lower back. She wanted to let him know.

“The book you’re always writing,” Janice said.

“It’s not a book.”

“No? So what is it?”

“Letters.”

“Ah, letters.” She wrapped the white lace around the flower, and used her silver glue gun to close the seam. “Letters to who?”

“Noah.”

“Ah, Mr. LaRock. You two still keep in touch?”

“No.”

“But you write him letters?”

“I don’t mail them.”

“Ah.”

Janice put down her flower project and stretched her back. She pulled her long, red, heavy hair up into a bun on top of her head, securing it with the hair tie she always wore around her wrist. She took off her glasses and shimmied up the bed, lying down besides her daughter.

“Come to me now, lass,” she said, her Irish coming in a bit stronger now.

Cassie sighed, put down her notebook, and cuddled into her mother’s arms.

“How long are you going to nurse your broken heart?” Janice whispered.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over Noah.”

“You won’t if you keep yourself up here shut up with your notebooks.”

“It’s the only way that I feel closer to him.”

“And has he written to you?”

She shook her head.

“Aw, cheer up, dear. There are only two ways to end this pain. Either write your letters, mail them, and be done with it, or don’t write them at all.”

Cassie snuggled closer to her mother, hearing her words, and dismissing them.

She had no intention of mailing her letters. It was over, in the worst possible way.

She buried her face in her mother’s rose scented night gown and cried.

Chapter 45

Noah

The stack of letters at Noah’s side had grown over the last few weeks.

Piles and piles of papers, all filled with the yearnings of his heart. A box of fresh notebooks sat in one corner of his room. He’d been filling them up daily. With each letter, he felt a little more at peace, a little calmer.

Most of the letters were to Cassie. He thought that a few days apart might lessen the ache in his chest that came when he thought of her. As the weeks went by, the ache just grew, forming a callus over his heart until he could feel nothing but the loss of her. The days rose, the nights fell. Her face taunted him, called to him, cried to him. He dreamed of her at night, and fantasized about her during the day.

He was sure that he was slowly losing his mind.

Two papers on his left were to Walter. Although his life ended with such violence, he lived his life with gusto and determination. Noah couldn’t deny that he loved the old man, even in death. Though, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t conjure the one emotion that he thought he should be feeling, guilt. He’d killed Walter. He’d killed him because he was going to kill Cassie.

He often asked himself if he would do it again if he could. The answer always came without hesitation, without thought. Yes. When it came to Cassie, the answer was yes. _I would save her every day if I had to. _

And for that, he stayed away, writing her letters every day, hoping, one day, to actually deliver them. He didn’t know when that day would be.

She needs time, he thought. She needs time to heal.

And so he wrote, and counted down the days. Her graduation was only a few months away. He’d promised her that he’d be her first patient when she became a doctor. He hoped that he would be able to fulfill his promise.

Chapter 46

Cassie

Time passed.

Heavy snow gave way to spring rains.

Cassie’s heart began to heal. Although Noah was never far from her mind, his memories gave her time to breathe now and then. She still wrote to him every day. It made missing him easier. She smiled more, and began building a relationship with her new step-father. Ben was a sweet man, constantly fussing over her mother as if she could do nothing for herself. Cassie saw that her mother adored the attention. They gazed at each other like they’d been best friends their entire life.

She remembered that look. Noah and she had shared it in another life, a long, long time ago.

At summer’s end, Cassie walked up the stairs at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut. She accepted the small piece of paper from her favorite professor.

She had graduated from Yale Medical School, and after a few years of residency, she would be eligible to take the exam to be a fully fledged doctor.

Ben and her mother waved from the audience, their smiles wide, their hearts full of pride.

Pride welled in her heart. She had done it. She’d taken one more step toward accomplishing her dream. She’d graduated medical school. After all she’d sacrificed to be here, this moment had come. She stood frozen on the stage, committing the moment to memory. The smell of the summer heat on stone benches, the smiles in the audience, the feel of the smooth diploma in her hand. She didn’t want to forget a thing.

A pair of sea blue eyes gazed at her from the crowd.

She knew it was him, could feel it. They shared a smile, and a nod before he disappeared. Her heart broke a little, but didn’t shatter. For that she was thankful.

She stepped down from the stage to join her classmates in their seats. At the end of the ceremony, they threw their hats into the air, blue rain that fell back to earth and slammed into the tops of their heads.

Joy filled her heart, pride filled her thoughts.

_Just call me Doctor Washington. _

Chapter 47

After weeks of searching, Cassie was accepted as the new resident with the Fallon Group, joining the team of four pediatricians there. The practice was in the inner city of New Haven.

When she walked in on her first day, the receptionist greeted her warmly.

“Good morning, Cassie,” the older black woman said. “I have your charts for the day whenever you’re ready.”

Cassie grinned. “Thank you, Jeannette.”

She walked to her office. The gold plate on the door read Cassie Washington, MD. She ran her fingers over it, the lettering rough beneath her fingertips.

She wanted to scream with joy.

That’s me.

She sat down at her desk, feeling the cool, smooth oak. The office only had a small window, but it would do. What mattered was that it was her office. She was here. Two more years and she could take her state board exams, get licensed, and finally, officially become Doctor Cassie Washington. She was so close she could taste it.

She looked at the clock and remembered her nine o’clock appointment.

Dropping her purse, she adjusted her white medical jacket and walked out of the office toward exam room number one. She picked up the chart that sat in a basket bolted to the door.

It was empty.

She quickly made her way back to the receptionist area.

“Jeanette,” she said. “The chart’s empty.”

Jeanette shrugged, her expression oddly amused. “I think I left the full chart in the exam room,” she said. “Do you want me to get it?”

“No, I can manage. Just, be careful. We don’t want any HIPPA violations.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sighing, Cassie walked back to the exam room, knocked twice, waited, and opened the door.

Inside, Noah sat on an old wooden chair, a nervous grin on his face.

“Doctor Washington, I presume.”

She ran to him, holding on for dear life. He felt like home.

His pressed his face into her neck, taking in the smell of her.

“Noah, what are you doing here?” she asked, her voice only a whisper.

“I told you that when you became a doctor, I would be your first patient.”

“But I’m not a doctor yet.”

“Close enough.”

She took a step back, her voice choked. She had dreamed of this moment for a year, and now that it was here, her mind raced.

Why didn’t you write? Why didn’t you call? Where have you been?

“Have you been okay?” she asked instead.

He nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been good. Another label picked me up, and I’m working on an album with Lester Riley. We’re having a good time. Money’s not what it used to be, but I’m making it work.” He paused. “I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

“I got your letters.”

“Letters?”

“In the mail. I read every one of them.”

“You got my letters?” She gasped. “But how?”

She knew the answer before she finished the question.

Mother.

She vowed tell Janice exactly what she thought of her meddling.

“You didn’t mean to send the letters?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He seemed disappointed. “Oh.”

They stood in awkward silence.

“Well, I, uh, wanted to tell you how proud I am. You’re living your dream. I always knew that you would.”

His eyes bored into hers. Those eyes. She could stare into them for a lifetime and never tire of them.

“You look great, Cas.”

“You too.”

Her heart grew heavy. Was this the same man who she’d fallen in love with? Had a year apart robbed them of words to say to each other?

“Bye, Cas.”

She didn’t know when they had clasped onto each other’s hand, but she felt him let go.

Felt him leave. Felt the tears fall down her face.

What happened? I thought I was stronger than this.

Cassie’s lips pressed together. She didn’t know why she suddenly felt very sick, why her heart beat so fast in her chest.

He was here. Noah was here.

She couldn’t help feeling like, somehow, she had just gotten a second chance, and irrevocably blew it.

Chapter 48

She hadn’t been able to get Noah out of her mind since his visit the day before. It didn’t help that he’d left his scent on her medical jacket.

Why didn’t he write me? _]she wondered. [_He said that he would. Maybe he didn’t miss me.

The thought pained her, haunting her the entire forty-five minutes it took to pull into her mother and Ben’s new house. She would be moving into her own small studio in a week. It was a tiny space close to her job, but it would be hers.

“Don’t get out of the car,” her mother said, running from the house. She was wearing heels, her steps small in the morning sunshine.

Cassie kept the engine running and waited for her mother to climb in.

“Drive,” Janice said.

“I thought we were going to breakfast?”

“Not today. We’re going to the old house. There’s something you need to see.”

“Where’s Ben?”

“Golfing. Let’s go.”

Her mother clapped her hands, jovial in her powder pink dress and white heels.

“Why are you so excited?” Cassie asked.

“Just drive, lass. You’ll see when we get there.”

Cassie sighed and backed the car out of the driveway. The drive to the old house was only two minutes.

“What’s going on, Mom?” Cassie asked. She pulled the car into their old driveway and turned off the engine.

Her question was lost as her mother jumped out the car and ran up the front stairs, dangling the keys above the lock.

“He did it all himself,” Janice said.

Cassie climbed out of the car, irritation beginning to build. “Who came?” she demanded. “What’s going on?”

“Hurry up, baby!” Janice cried.

Cassie took the keys from her mother and opened the door.

Though the house was devoid of furniture, rose petals covered the foyer.

Cassie’s heart skipped a beat. “Who did this? Ben?”

“Don’t be daft, lass. Follow them.”

Cassie followed the rose petal path. It led up to her old room. The door was closed.

She put her hand on the cool brass knob and pushed the door open.

The walls, previously powder blue, were covered in letters. Hundreds upon hundreds of hand written letters, all tacked to the wall with pushpins. They extended from the ceiling to the floor. Pictures of Noah and her were taped to the ceiling. Screenshots of text messages, still in draft, covered the floor. A bouquet of roses sat in the center of it all.

Surprise gave way to wonder.

She walked to the far wall and pulled out a red pushpin that held several pieces of paper.

Dear Cassie,

I miss you so much that I can barely breathe. I often wonder if you are tormented the way I am. I smell your sunflower perfume sometimes when I’m out. It always makes me happy. I pray every day that things can go back to the way they were before it all went wrong. But it never will. You’re not here, and I’m not there. It makes me wonder if I’m anywhere at all.

Dear Cassie,

Please come back.

Dear Cassie,

I was going to write to say how sorry I was about your father, but I’m not sorry. I loved Walter. He was my mentor, my friend. But I would do the same thing a thousand times over if it would keep you safe. Please believe that I only wanted to keep you safe.

There were hundreds of letters. She pulled each letter down, read it, wept, then read it again.

She felt her mother kneel next to her, put her arms around her.

“Oh, sugar,” she said.

“I’ve lost him,” Cassie cried. “I’ve lost this.”

“No, darling. Love like this doesn’t get lost, just misplaced for a while.”

“I miss him so much, Mama.”

“I know, dear. But life is about doing, not missing.”

“I saw him yesterday at the office.”

“You did?”

“It wasn’t the same. What if it will never be the same again?”

“Oh, baby, if it’s not what it was before, then make it better.”

Cassie shook her head. It was perfect before. How could it be better?

“I’m going to go get us some coffee. I’ll be right back.”

Her mother rose and left her alone in a room surrounded by Noah’s declarations of love for her.

He loved her. This room proved it. What was holding her back? Before, it had been her becoming a doctor. What was holding her back now?

She pulled out her phone, intending to call him, when she heard a knock downstairs.

Blowing out a breath, she pushed herself up.

Had her mother locked herself out?

She jogged down the stairs and pulled the door opened.

An older, grey-haired women smiled back at her.

“Hello. Are you Cassie Washington?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, thank goodness. You’re here.”

“Can I help you?”

“Pat Fauna. I’m a lawyer representing Mr. Noah Bronner. I’m here to help you complete the paperwork on your new property.”

“Property?” she stuttered.

“Yes, a,” she flipped open a leather bound folder, “a hundred-acre farm in Fairfield.”

“A farm?”

“I love the way you repeat things. It’s quaint.” Pat stepped past Cassie, made her way to the bar in the kitchen. “If you can just come with me and sign these papers, we can head up there.”

“Head—”

“Don’t you say it.” Pat smiled. “Now, here’s a pen. We have a lot to talk about.”

***

Cassie spent the rest of the afternoon signing paper work, clearing all of the letters and pictures from her old room, and crying in her mother’s arms.

By the end of the afternoon, only one thought lodged in her brain.

I have to see him.

They loaded into Pat’s SUV and settled in for the drive to Fairfield. Pat made small talk with Janice, both women deciding to leave Cassie to her thoughts.

Cassie didn’t know how much time had passed when they finally drove under a sign that read Cassie’s Farm in painted on gold letters.

“Cassie’s Farm.” Her mother smiled. “Cassie, he did all of this for you.”

A dirt road lead past fields of tall wheat and corn.

Further ahead, a two-story farmhouse was painted deep blue with white shutters. Further afield, a red barn sat on the left, and a carpet of sunflowers on the right.

He did it, she thought. I can’t believe he did this for me.

They pulled in front of the farmhouse.

Noah sat on the porch in a rocking chair, his feet gently pushing the chair back and forth.

“Maybe we should give you two a minute,” Pat said.

Her mother nodded encouragingly. “Go on, dear.”

She climbed from the car, approached the stairs.

Time slowed. She hoped it would stay that way.

“You came.” Noah’s face stretched into a wide smile.

“Pat came and got me,” Cassie replied.

“I figured she did.” He stood, descended the stairs, stood in front of her. “Walk with me?” he asked.

She nodded, and side by side, they covered the distance between the house and the yellow flowers.

“How do you like it?” he asked.

“It’s amazing. It’s everything I ever dreamed.”

“And it’s all yours, Cas. Every acre, every seed, every tree, every blade of grass. It’s all yours. My last big purchase. All for you.”

“Why did you do this?”

“Because I love you. I wanted to make you happy.”

“And the letters?”

“You saw that, huh?”

“Kind of hard to miss.”

“Well, those I wrote because I missed you. Through that entire year, you were never far from my mind.” He shrugged. “Somethings never change, I guess.”

They stopped at the first row of sunflowers.

“So what now?” she asked.

“That’s up to you. The house is yours, no strings attached. It’s fully staffed and running well. Who knows, you may even turn a profit.”

“And you?”

“I’m heading back to LA the day after tomorrow.” His eyes rose to her, blending in with the summer sky. “But, if you want me to stay, I will,” he said. “If you want me to go, well, then, I’ll do that too.”

She felt a tear drop down her cheek.

“Cas, I know that this last year has been hard for both of us, but for me, I’m thankful for the time we had apart. It let me know that this, what we had, was real. We were real. It made me realize how much I love you. I know now that I don’t want any more five seconds. I want forevers. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I love you so much that it hurts, like my heart is choking all the breath from my lungs and I can’t breathe and I feel like I’m going crazy and I just…” He took a deep breath, gave her a sad smile. “Please, just tell me what you want, Cas. Please just tell me what you want.”

The words were out before he finished speaking. “You. Noah, I never stopped loving you. This whole year, I have loved only you. I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay, here, with me.” She smiled. “We can build a Starbucks.”

He pulled her into his arms, breathing her in.

“You don’t know how happy that makes me.”

She knew that this was where they were always meant to be. Cassie and Noah, in each other’s arms. It felt so right. So very right.

He pulled away, leaned down, brushing his hand across the dirt.

Next to a tall sunflower was a ring, with a large rainbow colored diamond. It caught the sparkle from the sun.

“Doctor Cassie Washington. Will you marry me?”

She felt all of the breath go out of her.

When she found it again, she screamed her answer. “Yes!”

Like lightning, he slipped the ring on her finger and pressed his lips to hers. Their lips clung, devoured. She felt very much like one of his microphones.

Joy and peace glowed within her.

They were finally together, and nothing would break them apart ever again.

They would become legend.

Cassie Washington and The Rock King.

Don’t miss out!

Click the button below and you can sign up to receive emails whenever Seven Steps publishes a new book. There’s no charge and no obligation.

https://books2read.com/r/B-A-UQYC-GXRL

Connecting independent readers to independent writers.

Did you love The Last Rock King? Then you should read Peace in the Storm : An Interracial BWWM Second Chance Billionaire Romance by Seven Steps!

A vacation was just what Lisa Matthews needed.

After spending the past five years picking up the broken pieces of her life, Lisa is finally ready to move one. Flanked by her best friend Trish, Lisa arrives in Jamaica ready to meet new people, swim in the ocean, and finally forget about the brown eyes that have haunted her for the last five years. But the past has a strange way of showing up when you least expect it.

Chance is working on the deal of a lifetime.

After spending the last ten years growing his fortune into the billions, workaholic Chance Gionatti is forced to take an unwanted, week long vacation. No work phone, no email, nothing. On the first day of the worst vacation of his life, the one woman he’s been trying to forget for the last five years literally falls into his arms, and just like that, his world changes.

A doomed boat tour.

When a devious tour guide drops them on a strange island, Chance and Lisa must find a way to work together despite their past. Can they survive the monstrosities that have taken up residence on the mysterious island? Will they allow their past to consume them, or will they finally find a way to be each other’s Peace In The Storm?

deserted island, marriage, divorce, vacation, beach, bwwm romance, bwwm, swirl, stranded with a billionaire, Billionaire romance, clean romance, sweet romance, interracial billionaire romance, interracial romance 

Read more at Seven Steps’s site.

About the Author

“Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.” William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing.

Seven Steps is a working wife and mother who has been imagining and writing stories since the first grade. She enjoys reading, writing, and travel.

Read more at Seven Steps’s site.


The Last Rock King (An Interracial Rock Star Romance)

Cassie Washington thought spending her summer touring with a rock band would be an adventure… When Cassie’s father invites her to take time off from medical school and go on tour with the rock band he manages, she envisions traveling the world, meeting celebrities, and finally making peace with her estranged father. But when the rock star sets his sights on Cassie, she's forced to make a life-changing decision. Fulfill her lifelong dream of being a doctor, or become the Rock King's new queen? Noah LaRock was once dubbed The Last Rock King, but that feels like a long time ago… Noah’s popularity has waned, but he hopes this world tour will change all of that. After getting off on the wrong foot with the new on-staff nurse—Cassie, who just happens to be his manager’s daughter—his best friend Dondo is introduced to Cassie’s friend Kelly. The next morning, Kelly is found murdered. As the tour goes on, more girls wind up dead… Cassie pleads with Noah and the authorities, convinced that someone with ties to the band is behind the murders—but even after an arrest, the bodies keep piling up. And that’s not all for Noah—he learns that his record label’s dropping him, his money has run low, there's a killer targeting his fans, and his on-staff nurse has taken up permanent residence in his thoughts. Can Noah revive his career, catch a killer, and win Cassie's heart—or is it already too late for the… Last Rock King?

  • Author: Seven Steps
  • Published: 2016-11-21 00:50:23
  • Words: 54117
The Last Rock King (An Interracial Rock Star Romance) The Last Rock King (An Interracial Rock Star Romance)