Jude looked up from a stack of invoices and turned to Steve, his cubicle mate. “Hmm?”
“You’re doing it again.”
Jude’s foot stopped moving, and he realized he’d been tapping it against the leg of his desk. Again. Tucking his feet beneath his chair, he muttered, “Sorry.”
No reply. At least Steve was more or less polite about it. Their other cubicle mate, Grant, was constantly on Jude’s case, and never even tried to hide his irritation.
Jude knew it annoyed them, and he tried his best not to do it, but telling a drummer not to tap his foot was like telling an eye not to see.
You’re not a drummer anymore.
He gritted his teeth. He’d always be a drummer. Always. Just because he wasn’t in a band at the moment didn’t mean—
Whatever helps you sleep at night, dude.
Cursing under his breath, he scrubbed a hand over his face. His leg itched with the need to mark time to the rhythm he had stuck in his head.
He couldn’t listen to the radio.
Couldn’t wear headphones.
Couldn’t tap his foot.
Couldn’t fucking concentrate.
“Jude?” Steve sounded concerned this time. “You okay?”
Grant muttered something. Jude didn’t catch it, but he recognized the tone and glanced at his own fingers.
Which were tapping beside his keyboard.
“I’ll be right back.” He snatched his phone off the desk and left. Head down, heart thumping, he hurried through the maze of cubicles. His cigarettes and lighter were already in his hand. He didn’t even remember pulling them out of his pocket, but whatever.
As the door to the communal patio came into view, he put a cigarette between his lips. He sensed one of the receptionists glaring at him—it’s not even lit, for God’s sake—but kept his gaze fixed on the door in front of him.
And finally, he was there.
He pushed it open with his hip, and before he’d even stepped all the way out into the SoCal heat, he’d cupped a hand around the end of his cigarette and flicked the lighter.
One drag brought his pulse back down. The second stilled his hands. Sort of. His fingers might as well have had a mind of their own, and were tapping out the bass line of a song he’d heard this morning on the radio. That tapping, much like the nicotine easing its way into his system, settled him. Centered him.
And naturally, drove his coworkers insane.
Holding his cigarette between two fingers, he rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He’d long ago given up telling himself he was just having a bad day. If that were the case, he wouldn’t be out here every fucking afternoon, smoking two or three cigarettes in a row just to keep himself sane until five o’clock. And there wouldn’t be two more in the car. Three if traffic was exceptionally bad, even by Los Angeles standards.
At least in the car, he’d have music. The radio worked, and he had his iPod as backup. He’d be able to get the beat out of his system on the steering wheel because there’d be no one around to get on his case about it.
He lowered his hand and glared at the cigarette. His mom kept telling him these things would kill him sooner or later. After a year and a half behind a desk in a cramped cubicle, he was pretty sure the job would do him in well before the smokes did.
It’s your own fault you’re here.
Jude swore under his breath. Then he took another long drag and held it for a moment as he gazed out at the hazy LA skyline.
Every day, it was the same shit. He worked until he couldn’t anymore. Then he made his escape to this patio. And smoked. And kicked himself for being here in the first place.
This job was hell. The monotony and the buzz of fluorescent lights seemed to numb everyone else into some weird state where casual Friday and birthday potlucks were things to legitimately look forward to, but he had never adjusted. Day by day, he grew surer that he never would.
I could be on the road with them right now.
The thought didn’t even make him flinch anymore. Well, not much. Okay, not as bad as it had when he’d first found out the band was going on tour.
Six months. If he could’ve just hung on for six more goddamned months, he’d have been there when the record company offered them a deal. He’d have signed. He’d have been on tour right now. He’d have been onstage under the hot lights instead of dying inside under fluorescents while he crunched numbers he didn’t care about to make people he didn’t know rich. If he were onstage, he’d be whoring out albums to make record company execs rich, but at least he’d enjoy the work.
Well, he couldn’t go back and change the past, but he definitely needed to change his future. Maybe he’d give the job websites another look tonight. And of course, five minutes into that, he’d be all over Craigslist and any other place where someone might post that they were in search of a drummer. Even if it was just a part-time gig where they played twice a month in shithole bars for less than gas money, and he had to come into the office every morning with his ears ringing and his shoulders aching, that would be better than what he was doing now.
But nobody was looking for a drummer these days. Not many were looking for twitchy idiots to work in accounts receivable, either, but that was worth a look too unless he wanted to spend a decade or two trying not to disturb Steve and Grant.
All because he’d quit the band like a fucking idiot. Not that he’d had much choice by that point, especially since the circumstances that had driven him out of Running with Scissors were, at least in part, his own fucking fault.
Well, you made your bed. Now go back in there and lie in it.
He crushed his cigarette beneath his heel, tossed the butt into the ash can, and went back inside.
Two hours and too many cigarettes after five, Jude keyed himself into his second floor apartment. The place was quiet, thank God. None of his roommates were due home anytime soon.
He tossed his keys on the counter and shot the sink a glare—it was Tim’s turn to wash dishes, and there were still plates and cups in there from Gordy’s turn two nights ago. Jude rolled his eyes. Something told him if it didn’t get done tonight, he’d be washing it all tomorrow when it was his turn. Tim would be too tired or too stoned later, and he’d forget like he always did.
Jude looked under the sink for detergent and a serviceable sponge. He’d need to make a run to the grocery store before too long, but he could get the job done for now.
He went to work on the dishes and promised himself an evening of binge-watching Game of Thrones on his laptop. He needed the relaxation and the distraction. From his job. From the band out there on tour without him. From the roommates who couldn’t seem to remember when it was their turn to do chores. At least they managed to pay their portions of the rent on time. Usually.
Mostly he needed a distraction from the miserable, stagnant state he’d been in since he’d left the band. After he relaxed a bit, then he’d start looking at new jobs. And then, of course, he’d depress himself with how few options he had, and he’d be back in the tire-spinning cycle of needing to change something and having no idea where to start.
He’d figure it out. Eventually. All he knew right now was there were only so many times a man could pretend his roommates hadn’t once again dumped a sink full of moldy dishes in his lap after he’d spent a day walking on eggshells for some jackass in a cubicle before something had to give.
Sighing, he put a plate into the drying rack. There were also only so many times he could tell himself he needed to change things before he had to actually, like, change something.
Once he’d finished with the dishes, he smoked another cigarette on the balcony and then went into his bedroom. With his laptop on his knee, he lounged on the bed and pulled up Game of Thrones. He’d fallen almost a season behind, so he clicked on the first unwatched episode and—
His cell phone startled the shit out of him. Especially since it was his generic ringtone, the one that only went off when it was someone who wasn’t in his contact list.
He picked it up and eyed the screen. Though there was no name, something about the sequence of numbers seemed familiar. If memory served, that was—
No, it couldn’t be. Could it?
He accepted the call. “Hello?”
“Jude, thank God. It’s Kristy.”
“Hey. Uh.” He hadn’t heard the band manager’s voice since the day she’d tried to stop him from quitting, and the last thing she’d said to him had involved the words “fucking” and “idiot.” He cleared his throat. “Long time no talk.”
“Too long, honey.” She paused. “Listen, I’m gonna keep this short. The band needs you.”
A cough of laughter burst out of him. “What?”
“We’re . . .” She sighed. “Wyatt quit tonight. Just walked out.”
Jude’s lips parted. “What? What happened?”
“Let’s just say you and he apparently have the same taste in men,” she growled.
“Jesus.” He rubbed his eyes. Hadn’t Wyatt learned anything from him and Connor? They’d fought more often than not, and spent most of their stupidly volatile relationship on the brink of a catastrophic breakup. As friends, they’d been fine. As boyfriends? An utter disaster. And Wyatt had watched the whole thing.
Jude exhaled and shrugged for no one’s benefit but his own. “Okay, so? Why are you calling me? I don’t know any bass players anymore.”
“You are a bass player.”
“I . . .” He blinked. “I’m a drummer, remember?”
“But you play bass. I’ve heard you, sweetheart.”
He glanced skyward and bit back a groan. “Okay, fine, but I haven’t picked up a bass in forever.”
“You haven’t played the drums in forever either, but I’m pretty sure you could fill in there if we needed you to.”
He swallowed. “Do you need me to fill in on the drums?”
“No. The guy who took your place is—” She hesitated. “What we need is a bass player.”
“Because the band’s got a lot of back-to-back shows coming up.” The desperation in her voice was suddenly palpable, thrumming down the line and into his ear like an off-key chord. “We don’t have time to audition anyone, and even if we did, there’s no way they could learn the music that fast. You know it. You might be rusty, but you know the music.”
“I don’t know any of the new stuff.”
“The band can play all old school for a few sets if they have to. But we need a bassist, or the band is fucked.”
Jude gnawed his lip. The band’s music leaned hard on the rhythm section. The bass line wasn’t as in-your-face as the guitar or the vocalists, but if it was absent? The whole thing fell apart just as it would without the drums.
He swallowed. “I have a job now, Kris. It’s not like I can just drop everything and go on tour.”
“Yeah? How’s that job working out for you?”
He flinched, and before he even realized it, he’d picked up his cigarettes off the nightstand. “It’s—”
“That’s what I thought. Honey, I know you. And I never believed for a second you’d be happy doing the nine-to-five thing.”
Jude gnawed his lip. She was right, wasn’t she? And how many months had he spent agonizing over how to un-fuck his life?
He was out of vacation days, but he could always take a leave of absence. Or, hell, quit. His job was miserable anyway, and it didn’t pay enough to keep him afloat for much longer. It’d be just his luck that his landlord would raise his rent again and he’d have to move back in with his folks or something. Awesome.
He looked around his shithole bedroom. A mattress on the floor. Secondhand IKEA furniture on its last legs. Bare walls with water stains to match the ones on the ceiling.
“So,” she prodded. “Are you in?”
Well. Are you?
What did he have to lose?
Well, for starters . . .
Jude swept his tongue across his dry lips. “What about Connor?” Just saying his ex’s name filled his mouth with a bitter taste and his stomach with guilt.
“He knows how desperate we are. If you can be civil, so can he.”
I’ll believe that when I see it.
“Look.” Kristy’s voice sharpened. “I’m gonna tell you the same thing I’ve been telling him: get along with each other, keep your dicks out of the other band members, and we won’t have drama. It’s that simple.”
The second part of that was simple. The first part? Not so much.
But would restraining himself from choking his ex be worse than dealing with the shithole apartment and miserable job? Hadn’t he been telling himself for months he’d rather put up with Connor’s crap and his own conscience than work another day at that desk-in-a-box?
This was the opportunity he needed. He’d been an idiot to walk away from the band. How big an idiot would he have to be to pass up this chance?
“There’s one problem, though. I can’t just take that much time off from work.” He swallowed. “If I’m going to do this, it can’t be halfway. Either I’m in or I’m not.”
“So, what? You want to rejoin the band permanently?”
“Or at least longer term than a few shows. I can’t afford to lose my job for that.”
Kristy didn’t speak for a moment. “And if I can bring you on board for, say, the rest of this tour, the next album, and the headlining tour?”
Well, that would give him a good year, year and a half before he’d have to start polishing up his résumé again. “Do you think the band would go for that?”
“They’re in a panic like you wouldn’t believe over losing Wyatt. I’m pretty sure they’ll go for having a semipermanent bassist.”
“In theory. But after the way things ended with—”
“Nobody has the luxury of being picky right now. They’ve got a lot riding on this, so if there’s a solution—especially one that could be more than a Band-Aid solution—they’ll roll with it if they know what’s good for them.”
“True.” He knew damn well he should sleep on it, think about it, really grill himself over it, but what was the point? He’d been hoping for something like this for too long to think twice. He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Okay. If they’ll agree to keep me on through the next tour, I’m in.”
“Oh my God.” Kristy released a long breath. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much you’re saving our asses.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“There is one other thing, though.”
Of course there was. “Yeah?”
“We need you back, but . . .” She fell silent for several seconds. “Keeping you on for the next tour and everything? I’m sure I don’t have to spell out for you that part of the arrangement is contingent on everyone behaving.”
He glared up at the ceiling. “I assume ‘everyone’ means me in this context?”
“Yes. Don’t get me wrong, sweetheart. I’m grateful and the band will be too. But after last time . . .”
He cringed, guilt pressing down on his shoulders. “Yeah, I follow. I’ll stay out of Connor’s way if he’ll—”
“Perfect. I’ll make sure he toes the line too.”
Good luck with that.
“Where are you guys now?”
“Some godforsaken town in the Bumfuck Egypt Midwest.” She paused. “I’ll text you with our stops. They’re not performing again until we get to Des Moines, and that’s on Wednesday.”
Jude coughed. “You’re aware that today is Monday, right?”
“And . . . are you expecting me to be onstage in Des Moines on Wednesday?”
“Um . . .”
“They’re the opening act, so they can afford to bail on one show. Maybe the one in Omaha the next night. But more than two in a row, and we’re fucked. The headliner’s manager doesn’t have a lot of patience, so I guarantee he’ll be bringing in another opener if we bail more than twice.”
He swallowed. “Where are you after Omaha?”
“Denver. On Saturday.”
“Okay.” His heart sped up, and the cigarette pack crinkled between his twitchy fingers. “I’ll meet you guys in Omaha. That should give us some time to rehearse a bit.” A tiny bit. Not nearly enough. Jesus, what was he doing?
“You’re a lifesaver, sweetie. I’ll see what the band says, and assuming everything’s a go, I’ll book you a ticket and we’ll see you in Nebraska.”
“Yeah. See you in Nebraska.”
After they hung up, Jude collapsed back on his mattress.
Panic and excitement mingled behind his ribs. Everything about this seemed reckless and stupid and . . . right.
Like it was the first time he’d made the right decision since before he’d quit. After that, he’d had about a week of feeling like he’d done the right thing, before spending the next eighteen months wallowing in regret.
Maybe this would blow up in his face. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it was a change. At this point, he’d take any opportunity to get out of this bullshit rut he’d gotten himself into.
Even if it meant being in close confines with the ex-boyfriend and band he’d screwed over.
A.J. fidgeted in a chair beside the rickety table in the band’s motel room, tapping out a nervous rhythm on the armrest. Everyone was wound up, waiting for Kristy to come back in. Nobody in the group was thrilled about their manager’s long shot of an idea, but without any better ideas, they all waited impatiently for the verdict.
When the door opened, every member of Running with Scissors sat bolt upright.
Kristy stepped in from the motel’s breezeway, cell phone in hand, and shut the door behind her. The band members exchanged glances. A.J.’s heart pounded—he was pretty sure he didn’t hear anyone breathing, and he was holding his breath too.
“Well?” Richie fidgeted against the headboard of one of the beds. “What’d he say?”
She exhaled hard. “He’s not in a good spot to drop everything and leave for a handful of shows.”
That prompted a few frustrated sighs and some whispered swearing. Someone thumped a fist on something.
“But.” Kristy held up a hand. “And you all need to hear me out on this one. He is willing to come back for a semipermanent position.”
“Semipermanent?” Shiloh cocked her head. “Meaning?”
Kristy ticked the points off on her fingers. “The duration of this tour. The upcoming album. And the headlining tour. After that, we’ll have to play it by ear.”
Beside Richie, Connor muttered a few curses.
Shiloh shot him a glare and then turned to Kristy. “He’d really come back for that long?”
Kristy nodded. “It’s the only way he can justify leaving his job on short notice. And quite frankly, I can’t blame him.”
“Then maybe he doesn’t want the opportunity after all,” Connor said through his teeth. “He did quit, remember?”
Kristy narrowed her eyes. “He did, and he also knows the music as well or better than anyone in this room.”
A.J.’s chest tightened. Jude’s command of music was legendary, but A.J. wasn’t too sure he liked the idea of having him around, especially in the long term. It would be great for the band as a whole, of course. But not necessarily for him.
Not that he—or the band—had any choice.
“So.” Kristy folded her arms loosely. “What’ll it be? Do I book him a ticket? Or do we keep looking?”
“I say bring him back,” Shiloh said. “I know things are tough between Jude and Connor, and yeah, it was a dick move on Jude’s part to leave like that, but let’s face it—we’d be stupid to let him go again.”
“What she said,” Vanessa chimed in. “Jude can eat shit and die for all I care, but we don’t have a choice. We don’t have to like it, and we don’t have to like him, but we need the jerk.”
The rest of the band gave nods and murmured affirmatives, aside from Connor. He definitely wasn’t thrilled.
“I don’t believe this,” he grumbled. “He’s the reason we almost didn’t get signed!”
“But you did get signed,” Kristy said in that tone that meant her patience was wearing thin. “And I assume you want to stay that way, so it’s either bring in Jude, or pack your shit and go home while another opening act takes over, and kiss your headlining tour good-bye.”
Every head turned toward Connor, the unspoken question thrumming in the air: Is that what you want?
His lips pulled tight as he glared up at Kristy. “There’s no way Jude’s going to be ready to go onstage in Denver. No fucking way.”
“Well, maybe you should’ve thought of that before you and Wyatt—”
“I get it,” Connor snapped.
“Somehow I don’t think you do. Look, nothing can be done about Wyatt, and Jude is the only one who can get in here and save your collective asses. Connor, look at me.” When he met her gaze, Kristy said, “Unless you want to go back to playing for double-digit crowds who just want to drink with a little background music, I would suggest you and Jude leave your bullshit in the past.”
Connor scowled. “It is in the past. I’m over it.”
A.J. and Richie exchanged incredulous looks. If Connor was over Jude, then that had happened in the past fifteen seconds or so. Hell, one of the first things A.J. had learned upon joining Running with Scissors was that if you wanted to fuck with Connor, all you had to do was mention Jude. And if you fucked with Connor, you’d be on your way out of Running with Scissors on a moment’s notice. That had been a bone of contention that helped drive Wyatt away.
Over Jude? My ass.
Kristy didn’t look convinced either. She folded her arms and arched a thin eyebrow.
Connor sighed, deflating a little. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. Jude is bailing us out big time. We just need the two of you to get along, and everyone—everyone—to let the past go and be adults about this. All right?”
More nods. More murmurs.
Kristy lowered her arms and rolled the visible tension out of her shoulders. “Bottom line is our problem is solved, at least for the foreseeable future. I’ll have Jude meet us in Omaha, and from there you guys are going to need to find any time and space you can, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. He knows the music, but he’s going to be rusty, and none of you have played with him since he left. If anyone wants to hash out any bullshit, suck it up and wait until we aren’t in hot water if someone walks out. Got it?”
Connor muttered something A.J. didn’t understand, and no one asked him to repeat it.
“Everyone get some sleep.” Kristy started for the door. “We’re on the road bright and early tomorrow.”
She left, and after the door had closed, Connor sagged back against the chair opposite A.J.’s. “This is bullshit.”
“It’s the only option we have,” Richie said.
Connor rolled his eyes. “You don’t think I could go on Craigslist right now and find a desperate bassist who—”
“Oh, save it.” Vanessa shook her head. “Running with Scissors doesn’t need a random desperate bassist. We need someone who knows our music and won’t make us all sound bad. Like it or not, that’s Jude.”
“Connor, please.” Shiloh touched his shoulder. “We all know this is going to be hard on you. None of us are thrilled about the idea either, but we don’t have any other options. Can you guys just, you know, get along until—?”
“We’ll be fine.” Connor shrugged away from her and pushed himself to his feet. “I need some air.” He stormed out of the room and slammed the door so hard it rattled the whole building.
In silence, everyone stared at the door as if Connor might suddenly come back in. Yeah, right. One of the other first things they’d all told A.J. was that when Connor said he needed some air, let him go. He’d be back—eventually—but for the love of God, do not go after him.
Shiloh turned away. Folding her arms, she leaned against the wall beside the brown burlap drapes. “Why am I suddenly hoping they’ll get back together?”
Every head snapped toward her.
Richie’s eyes got huge. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
Shiloh scowled. “Well, if they were fucking again, then they wouldn’t be trying to kill each other.”
A.J. sat up a little. “That might—”
“You’re probably right.” Vanessa pursed her lips. Then she sighed and shrugged. “Part of me wants to choke them if they even look at each other, but I can’t really argue with you, to tell you the truth.”
Richie grunted in agreement. A.J. couldn’t argue either. Connor was easiest to deal with when he and his guy du jour were on speaking terms and sleeping together. But God help them all if there was even the slightest lover’s quarrel. Bringing an ex—especially that ex—into the picture was going to make things interesting.
Vanessa cursed. “Well, Connor’s going to be easy to live with for a while.”
A.J. sat up a little. “Maybe we’d—”
“Can you blame him?” Shiloh asked. A.J. gritted his teeth. Why he tried to interject in these conversations, he didn’t even know.
“Uh, yeah,” Richie said. “Actually, I can blame him.” He sat back against the headboard, lacing his hands behind his head. “He has nobody to blame but himself for this shit with Jude, and he fucking knows it.”
“That wasn’t entirely Connor’s fault,” Vanessa said. “Remember? Wyatt quit, and so did Jude.”
Richie huffed. “Connor brought that on himself—and us—both times. If someone treated me the way he treated Jude, I’d cheat too.”
“Wouldn’t you just have broken up with Connor before things got so ugly?” Vanessa said. “I mean, why bother sticking around until it’s that bad? They were both idiots for dragging it out, just like Wyatt was an idiot for thinking Connor was over Jude.” Rolling her eyes, she added, “And Connor is an idiot for being hung up on that jackass.”
Shiloh scowled. “Enough. Come on. Jude’s not a bad guy, and neither is Connor. They just suck at relationships, and Connor’s super protective of the band. Fact is, we wouldn’t have gotten this far without either of them.”
“Yeah, they got us really far,” Vanessa said. “And that almost didn’t matter since Jude decided to fuck us after he was done fucking Connor.”
“Okay, yes.” Shiloh shrugged. “And Wyatt quit, so—”
“So I’ll smack him if I ever see him again,” Vanessa said, “but I have to work with Connor, and now Jude too. I’m pissed at all of them, but those two are going to be here.”
“True,” Shiloh said. “But the fact is, Jude’s just here temporarily. It was his choice to do what he did, and he knew what was at stake. If he and Connor don’t get along this time, we all know who’s getting the boot.”
A murmur of reluctant agreement rippled through the group.
“Well.” Vanessa stretched her arms as she stood. “Kristy’s right. We’re on the road early tomorrow. I’m going to call it a night.”
Shiloh nodded. “Same here. Let’s go.”
The girls left. Connor hadn’t returned yet, so the tension in the room had eased, at least for the moment. Richie went out for a smoke, leaving A.J. alone with his thoughts.
A.J. sat back and stared up at the ceiling. His fingers kept time with his heartbeat, tapping softly on his leg, and his other knee bounced as his heel tapped out the piece he’d been practicing earlier. Try as he might, he could not get comfortable. Even though the bassist crisis was averted, and things weren’t as up in the air as they’d been since Wyatt’s departure, A.J. didn’t like this. He didn’t like it at all.
He’d been at the recent meetings where they’d all panicked over what to do now that Wyatt was gone, but he was fairly sure there’d been conversations behind closed doors too. This group had been friends since they were kids, and Kristy had been their manager since the band’s early days. A.J. had been part of the group for a year and a half, coming in on the heels of Jude’s departure, but he still felt like an outsider.
What if the band settled their drama and decided to keep Jude after all? And what if they decided he was better behind the drums than he was on the bass, and decided to—
He slowly released a breath. Jude was coming back temporarily. He wasn’t going to replace A.J.
He screwed them over. They’re not going to boot me out and keep him.
Eighteen months ago, drummer Jude Colburn made the biggest mistake of his life when he walked away from his band just as they were on the brink of success. Now, he’s got a second chance. The band’s bassist just quit, and Jude plays bass almost as well as he plays drums. The other band members aren’t thrilled, but they are desperate.
Running with Scissors needs him, but there’s one condition: no hooking up with bandmates. That’s what ruined things eighteen months ago, after all. Jude’s on board, but no one warned him about the drummer who replaced him. A.J. Palmer is shy and unassuming . . . until he hits the stage. He gets Jude’s attention from the first beat, and suddenly that “no hookups” rule isn’t so easy to follow.
Keeping secrets on a tour bus isn’t easy either, and it’s only a matter of time before the band catches on. When everything hits the fan, Jude has to choose: a second chance at the career he’s always regretted leaving, or a shot at the man of his dreams?