Wicked Torture, Page 2J. Kenner
Goddamn his stupid, unrealistic fantasies.
And while he was at it, goddamn Kiki, too.
He was being an idiot and unfair, and he knew it. An idiot, because he'd made his choice to walk away from Kiki long ago, and he knew damn well that he'd shattered her in the process. Even if he could have seen his way clear to look her up after all these years, he'd forfeited his right to come crawling back.
Unfair, because not ten minutes ago he'd been ready to take the plunge with Evie, and yet here he was, dodging and shifting like a damn coward, trying to swim up out of the deep black ocean of loss and pain. A familiar pain that wrapped him like a blanket, so cloying it was almost comfortable. And he knew damn well that there was only one way to fight it--he needed to take the girl to her room and try to fuck the darkness out of him.
The way he'd done with countless other women.
The way that never worked like it should. That only dulled the sharp edges of his pain, but added no light to the darkness.
That wasn't what he wanted. Not anymore. One of the reasons he'd moved to Austin was to heal, after all. To heal, and to break bad habits.
Still, it was tempting, and it took more strength than he expected to shake his head again and say very gently, "I really am sorry. I'm not . . . ready." She'd been polite enough not to mention the tragedy in his past, but he was certain that Lyle must have at least told her that he'd lost his wife and daughter. Hopefully, that softened the blow of rejection.
She'd regained her footing, and now she stepped back, her forehead creased as her eyes flicked over him, expertly assessing him as she would a witness. "It's been almost nine years, I'm told." The sharp edge of her voice sliced his heart. So much for softening the blow. "If you don't get ready soon, I can't help but think you're going to end up sad and alone."
With a thin, sympathetic smile, she turned and walked away, leaving him to watch her go and wonder at her perceptiveness. Because she was right.
He was going to end up sad and alone.
Hell, he already was.
Built more or less in the shape of a rectangle, the hotel spanned most of a city block, with entrances on each of the three sides that abutted a street.
Usually when Noah grabbed a drink at The Driskill, he left through the bar entrance and emerged onto Seventh Street. From there, he could walk the partial block to Congress Avenue, the main downtown artery. He'd head south, checking his phone for messages and putting out fires as he maneuvered the short distance home. A few blocks before the river, he'd hook a right, enter his building through the Third Street entrance, and take the elevator up to the fifteenth floor and the studio he'd bought when he'd moved to Austin earlier in the year.
At the time, he'd considered getting a bigger place--God knew he could afford it--but what would be the point? He was rarely at home. His work was his life, just as it had been for years. And frankly, the only reason he ever bothered to come to the condo at all was because it disconcerted the janitorial staff when he slept on the couch in his office.
Besides, when he'd looked at the building, all the available larger condos had views of the Capital building. He preferred the smaller space and its stunning view of the river. Every morning he watched the walkers and joggers. The kayaks and paddleboats. The infinite shades of green that lined the river's wide banks, then burst into color when the peach blossoms bloomed, shifting the usually green-tinted vista to a vivid pink.
It was vibrant. Alive.
He'd set up his desk in front of the window, and on weekends, he was training himself to work from home. He'd sit at the desk and draw schematics or scribble notes while he watched the activity below. Parents pushing strollers as they walked lazily down the paths. Children tottering on bicycles, obviously fresh out of training wheels. Joggers, determined to lose those extra five pounds. Lovers walking arm in arm, deep in conversation.
There was a never-ending stream of life fifteen stories below him. And the more Noah looked at it, the more he was starting to believe that maybe one day he could rejoin that current.
But not now. Not tonight.
Besides, it was dark. If he went home now, he'd only see the reflection of the moon on the still water. Beautiful, yes. But also surreal and far too lonely.
All of which was why he didn't leave the hotel through the bar, as usual. Instead, he took the stairs down to The Driskill's ornate lobby, then crossed over the marble floor to the main entrance. A doorman hurried to pull the heavy wood and glass door open for him, and a valet nodded speculatively, expecting a ticket. Noah shook his head to indicate that he had no car, then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets as he turned right and walked the short distance to the corner.
He'd learned that Austin rarely got too cold, but right now there was a definite chill in the air, which he relished. Although he'd lived most of his life in Southern California, he'd enjoyed his time in New York, especially the changing seasons, and it was nice to be able to pretend that Thanksgiving and Christmas might come with at least a drop in temperature, if not Autumn colors and snow.
He crossed the street at the corner, and then hesitated. Turn right, and he could be home in less than ten minutes. Turn left, and he'd invariably find himself in a bar, and the evening would end with him either alone and feeling sorry for himself, or with him in a hotel room, creeping out before dawn while a woman whose name he couldn't remember slept soundly in a rented bed.
He turned left.
He had no specific intent, but he couldn't bear the loneliness of his own studio. For a moment, he considered texting Evie. Apologizing. Asking if she wanted to meet at one of the nearby bars. He dismissed the idea, afraid that she'd say no. Or, worse, that she'd say yes.
Instead he just walked, pausing briefly in front of Maggie Mae's, a local establishment that long-time Austinites told him had been a Sixth Street fixture for decades.
He considered going in, but he could hear the intense beat of the live music even from where he stood on the sidewalk. And when he peered through the windows, it was obvious that finding a seat would be damn near impossible, much less squeezing in to sidle up to the bar.
Some nights, it would be worth it, just to get lost in the rhythm of the music and drown out the noise in his head.
Tonight, he wanted to be able to hear his own thoughts, though he wasn't sure why. He might have the skill and intellect to have turned the balance sheet of the new Austin division of Stark Applied Technology around in under a year, but outside the realm of business and tech, the inside of his head remained a morass of regret and longing and confusion.
Frankly, he was getting damn tired of it.
He continued until he reached The Fix on Sixth, another local staple. The drinks were excellent and the bar food put every other joint on the street to shame. He'd heard a few rumors that the place might close, though he had no idea why, and he hoped it wasn't true. He liked the place, and the owner, Tyree, always remembered his name.
Tonight, The Fix looked to be in no danger of going out of business. Even on a Wednesday, he had to push his way through the crowd that clustered near a wooden stage bordered by two walls of windows that gave a view of the corner intersection and the pedestrians and cars humming about outside. There was no performer, not yet, but a man Noah recognized as one of the bartenders was adjusting the height of a microphone in front of a single metal stool.
On any other night, Noah might have stayed to listen. Right now, he wanted to escape the crowd.
He wound his way through the throng, passing the long bar that extended deep into the room as he made his way to the smaller--and blissfully quieter--bar area in the back.
From behind this secluded bar, Tyree waved a greeting. A large black man with broad shoulders and arms as thick as a woman's thigh, he was often mistaken for the bouncer rather than the owner of The Fix. He was, however, more suited for the latter. Tyree had some of the kindest
eyes that Noah had ever seen, and an easygoing manner that wasn't suited for tossing rowdy patrons out on their asses.
"What's your poison, Noah?" he asked after passing something fruity to one of two college girls sitting at the bar. Their blonde heads were bent close together, and Noah could almost make out words as they alternated whispers with stolen glances at the second bartender behind the rail, who seemed unaware of them as he expertly mixed the Manhattan that Noah had requested.
"Are you new?" Noah asked. "You look familiar, but I'm not sure why."
"I've been here a few months," he said, wiping his hands on a bar rag. "But I just started working a regular night shift yesterday. Before, I filled in at night or covered lunch. I'm Cam, by the way."
"Cam's a grad student at UT," Tyree explained as Noah frowned, still trying to place him. He studied the guy's face--young, but not naive, with intelligent blue-gray eyes, dark brown hair, and a single earring--and tried to remember where he'd seen it before.
He shook his head, still pulling a blank. "What are you studying?" Maybe that would jar his memory. Noah was certain he'd met the guy before, and his inability to place the kid was bothering him more than it should.
If Cam answered, though, Noah didn't hear it, because at that moment, there was a lull in the din filtering in from the front room, then a smattering of applause before a male voice announced that there was a pre-show surprise. A local performer he hoped they enjoyed.
Noah tuned it out. When he was younger, he'd loved live music. Now, it just brought back unwelcome memories.
He glanced at Tyree. "I didn't think you brought bands in on Wednesdays."
"Usually don't. This one's getting quite a local following, though, and they leave soon on a three-state tour. The lead singer asked if they could do a farewell performance." A wide grin lit his face. "Honestly, I think he mostly wanted his girlfriend to have the chance to try out her new song on a live audience. She's not part of the band, but she's got chops."
"She's not his--" Cam began, but Noah wasn't listening anymore. Because the voice from the front room had reached him, low and clear and hauntingly familiar.
It couldn't be. Could it?
He stood, then moved to the doorway that separated the two areas. He squeezed in between patrons knotted in tight groups, the words seeming to pull him closer even as the voice made him want to draw away.
". . . and when I'm feeling blue, I always circle back to you . . ."
He didn't hear anymore. How could he now that he was looking at her? Now that the wild roar of emotion and memory was filling his head?
Now that he was staring at the woman he'd loved.
The woman he'd destroyed.
And the woman whose voice was even now tearing his heart into pieces.
". . . I lose myself in sorrow, clinging to tomorrow.
I don't know how I will get through . . ."
The words soar out of me, my chest swelling as emotion fills my heart. And not just the emotion of the song, but the knowledge that I'm back.
This song--the first one I've performed in almost ten years--isn't just good, it works.
I can see it on the ardent faces in the audience. The bodies held tight with anticipation, as if the music is a tangible thing that they can cling to, letting it carry them away to another world.
I've nailed it. And the pride inside me is laced with relief as sweet and warm as fudge sauce on vanilla ice cream.
I'm back. I'm finally back.
My voice rises as the music and lyrics tell the story. Her triumph over the memory of him. The way she claims her victory by reclaiming her life.
She survived, tall and proud and ready to shut the door on the past and finally move on.
That's the song, anyway.
The reality goes deeper. The reality is that I survived.
And I lived to sing about it.
I'm performing only this one song tonight, but when it ends, I'm utterly drained. I've thrown everything I have into it--emotion, memory, regrets, ambitions--and as the audience clusters around me, I'm almost afraid I won't be able to stand when I slide off this stool.
But their applause restores me, just the way it used to. I feel my strength returning, and I plant my feet on the stage, then casually hand my guitar to Ares when he strides over, his hand extended, so that I can take a bow. Which I do, relishing the moment.
"What do you say, folks?" Ares asks. "Is this girl back or is she back?"
A general cheer rises from the crowd, and I laugh, delighted. I've never shied from an audience, and now I smile at the faces near me, silently thanking them all for giving me a chance. After all, they'd come tonight to hear Ares and his band, Seven Percent, before they leave Austin to head out on tour. My performance could have been an annoyance.
"Kiki King, ladies and gentlemen," Ares goes on, as I continue to scope out the crowd. "In case you didn't know it, she was one of the founding members of Pink Chameleon, and wrote their biggest hit, Turnstile."
He doesn't mention that Turnstile was the last song I both wrote and recorded, and I'm grateful for his oversight. Anyone in the audience who's familiar with Pink Chameleon probably knows that I left the band and dropped out of the music scene while Turnstile was still climbing the charts, even if they don't know why.
The rest of them only know what they just heard. And since I'm starting over, that's more than enough.
I take another bow at Ares' urging and then look out at the crowd again. They're still clapping, and I'm still basking. And as I look past the nearby faces, I see my little brother Cameron standing in the doorway that leads to the smaller bar in the back.
He's clapping wildly, and I roll my eyes when he thrusts two fingers into his mouth and releases a wolf whistle that carries over the din all the way to where I'm standing on the stage. My smile spreads wide, then I laugh out loud when his boss, Tyree, steps up behind him and glares down until Cam notices, shoots me an apologetic glance, then hurries back to serve drinks or chat up patrons or whatever other bar-related duty he's been shirking.
Tyree lingers, and though he tries hard to look fierce, I see the pride in his eyes as he nods at me, and my overfull heart swells a little bit more.
I'd found Cam so easily in the back of the room that I hadn't noticed any of the other patrons standing near him. But now, as I'm about to take a sideways step toward Ares, I catch a glimpse of red hair in a shade so familiar it makes my heart ache.
It can't be him. He's just on my mind, that's all. The man I once loved. The son-of-a-bitch who'd inspired tonight's song.
But no way is he really here, and I'm still repeating that mantra when he lifts his chin, I see his eyes, and the world starts to fall out from under me.
No, it's my imagination. The song. The music. My mind playing tricks on me.
It's not him. It can't be. Why would he be here? In Austin? In this bar? On this night?
Panic flutters inside me, hot and wild. I've just gotten my shit together. Just started writing again, singing again. I have a plan, a whole map for the rest of my life, and I don't want to see Noah Carter at all.
And the sky is pink, rainclouds are full of wine, and ice cream has negative calories.
I start to search the crowd, looking for another glimpse of that familiar burnished copper. But then Ares calls to me, and I realize that Seven Percent is ready to start their set. Reluctantly, I wave a final goodbye to the crowd, then hug Ares before hurrying off the stage. I know I should linger and listen to them--either that or just get the hell out of The Fix--but like a good little masochist, I push away from the stage and deeper into the bar, straight toward where I saw Noah. Or, I'm hoping, the Noah-like apparition.
I'm ground level now, and I can't see much of anything. I'm five-seven only when I'm in heels, and today I'm wearing canvas flats, which means my view consists primarily of a sea of male chests.
I nip through the crowd, shifting and turning as I work
my way backward. It's slow going. Not only do more than a few people pause to tell me they enjoyed my performance, but I'm also stymied by the fact that most folks are moving toward the stage at the front of the bar, which means that I'm fighting against the current.
I tell myself I should go home. My mind is playing tricks, and I need to get out of here. Except I can't seem to make my feet cooperate, and they lead me inexorably forward. I'm not sure what I expect to find when I finally push through the crowd--a tall man with red hair and nothing else familiar about him? Or the man I'd once loved with all my heart and soul?
More important, I'm not sure what I want to find.
The question, however, is moot. By the time I get to the doorframe that marks the entrance to the quieter back bar, Noah's nowhere to be seen.
If it even was Noah. Which, of course, it wasn't.
I squeeze past two frat boys whose broad shoulders seem to fill the doorway, then peer around the room, my pulse pounding so noisily I can barely hear the strains of Seven Percent's first song behind me.
He isn't here.
Neither Noah, nor anyone who looks like him.
Had my imagination been playing tricks? Or had we passed in the crowd, him going one way and me the other?
I shift my attention to the area behind the bar, searching for Cam. But he's not there either. Not that he could have confirmed that the man with red hair was Noah. Cam's ten years younger than me, and even though I showed Noah pictures of my brother and bragged repeatedly, the two never actually met.
Which leaves me standing like an idiot in the doorway, my forehead creased into a scowl.
"Considering you blew them away in there, you don't look very happy."
I glance to my left, where Tyree is standing at a table chatting up two guys in business suits who I assume are regulars. Immediately, my mood shifts, and I smile.
"Thank you so much for letting me go on before Seven Percent," I say, genuinely grateful. "I know Ares tossed the idea at you out of left field yesterday, and even though it was only me with a microphone and my guitar, I understand what a hassle last minute changes can be, so I--"
He holds up a hand to cut off my flow of words. "I was happy to do it. Hell, I'm glad you took us up on the opportunity."