Take MeOlivia Cunning
Shade’s day had just gone from crap to shit. A hollow feeling of disbelief spread from his throat to his chest, and then rage crawled up the back of his neck. He stared at the empty parking spot between Kellen’s Firebird and Owen’s Jeep, trying to comprehend the absence of the ton of steel he’d left there. Shade glanced around the parking lot. Maybe his memory was fuzzy. Maybe he hadn’t parked in his usual space. Two semi-trucks containing Sole Regret’s equipment and stage setup had already been backed into the fenced lot so they’d be ready to head to San Antonio the next day. Their tour bus was on the opposite side of the lot. The band’s drummer, Gabe, was pulling his overnight bag from the luggage compartment beneath the bus. Everyone else—band and crew—was already heading for their vehicles. The only distinctly empty spot on the lot was the one where Shade had parked his favorite toy.
“Okay,” he yelled. “This isn’t funny. Who hid my car?”
“I’m not a rocket scientist or anything,” Kellen said, “but I’d say it’s been stolen.” He tossed his overnight bag into his Firebird’s trunk.
“That’s what you get for being a douche and buying a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar vehicle,” Owen said with a smirk.
“You should call the cops and report it,” Kellen said. He secured his long black hair at the nape of his neck with a leather strap he’d collected from his bag. Then he opened his car door and said, “I’d stay and wallow in your misery, but I’m late for an appointment.”
Shade knew the feeling. “I don’t have time for this right now,” he said. “I have places I need to be. I’ve already missed my chance to crash Julie’s party, but I don’t want her to think I forgot her birthday entirely.” He tossed his overnight bag on the ground where his car’s trunk should have been. “Fuck!”
“Where’s your car?” Adam paused between Owen and Shade.
Adam was the band’s lead guitarist and in second place on Shade’s shit list, right after whoever had stolen his ride. The three musicians stared at the empty parking spot as if expecting the car to suddenly uncloak itself and come out of hiding.
Shade was already pissed at Adam for making them hours late getting home. Adam had spent over half the day lounging around a hotel with his drug abuse counselor—who obviously wasn’t very good at what she did, because Shade had caught Adam using drugs backstage just two nights before. It would have served Adam right if the band and crew had left him to find his own way from Dallas to Austin. Maybe that would’ve taught the selfish prick a lesson. Everyone else had been looking forward to this day off in their home town, but the only person who mattered to Adam was Adam.
“I swear if I miss Julie’s birthday, you’re going to need a very good dentist,” Shade said to Adam.
“Why? I didn’t steal your car,” Adam said. “But I will give you a ride.”
Shade was surprised he’d offered, but Adam rode a motorcycle, and Shade didn’t think it was wise to be that close to him at freeway speeds. As pissed as Shade was, he’d probably strangle him to death from behind.
Owen slapped Adam in the center of the chest. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I already said I’d drive him. Julie’s house isn’t far from mine.”
And technically, Adam’s was even closer, but Owen knew how ticked off Shade was, and if the band lost both its vocalist and lead guitarist in a fiery motorcycle crash, they’d be shit out of luck.
Adam shrugged. “All right. But, Shade, once you cool down a bit, we need to have a man-to-man.”
Shade didn’t want to talk to him. His blood pressure was already high enough to cause a massive stroke. Nothing Adam could say would ever earn Shade’s forgiveness.
Adam turned and walked toward his bike, his head low, shoulders hunched. Kellen had already backed up his Firebird and was heading out of the lot with a rubber-burning squeal.
Owen retrieved Shade’s overnight bag from the asphalt and tossed it into the back seat of the Jeep. After throwing his own luggage inside, he climbed behind the wheel and waited. Shade took one last look at the empty parking space, thinking perhaps he’d somehow overlooked the ton of black shiny metal that should be sitting there, and slid into the passenger seat next to Owen.
“Is Tina going to be pissed that you missed Julie’s party?”
“Tina is pissed that I breathe,” Shade said. His ex-wife hadn’t actually invited him to the party. Not that her wishes were going to stop him from showing up.
Owen chuckled. “Ain’t that the truth?” He started the Jeep, put it in reverse and backed out of his spot. Owen waved at Gabe, who was climbing into his obscenely large pickup, ducking his head low to keep his foot-high red and black mohawk from scraping the roof of the cab. Gabe saluted Owen with two fingers before shutting his door.
Owen switched on the radio, and a hard and heavy song blared from the speakers. “So what did you get Julie for her birthday?” he yelled over the road noise and music.
Shade’s heart sank. “Fuck. I completely forgot to get her a present.” She’d be expecting a gift. Shade wasn’t even sure what she’d like. But every female on the planet liked sparkly things, didn’t they? “I can’t show up empty-handed. Find the nearest jewelry store.”
Owen sighed heavily. “Sure. Why not? I obviously don’t have anything better to do with my night off than taxi you around. No family to see. No trouble to get into.” Owen grinned.
Shade knew exactly what kind of trouble Owen wanted to get into. He was the biggest skirt chaser Shade had ever met. Even more so than the man Shade faced in the mirror.
Shade took several deep breaths to calm his frayed nerves. “Sorry,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t mean to order you around.” He attributed his shitty attitude to Adam, who was one hundred percent at fault, as usual. Shade’s car could be replaced, but his limited time with Julie could not be. “I’m a little keyed up at the moment.”
Owen chuckled. “Just a little.”
“Would you mind stopping at the mall on the way to the house?” He took another deep breath. “Please?”
“Not for you,” Owen said, checking over his shoulder as he merged onto the freeway.
“Seriously? Son of a … I should have called a fucking cab.” Let’s make this day suck a little more, shall we?
“I will, however, stop at the mall for Julie.” Owen smiled, the deviousness behind it frankly disturbing. “What a little heartbreaker. I’m going to marry her someday.”
Shade shoved him into the door. “Don’t you even think about touching her.”
Owen elbowed him in the ribs. “Really, dude? What the fuck is wrong with you tonight? You better calm down before you see her. You’ve completely lost your cool.”
Owen was right. And he knew that Owen wouldn’t ever become romantically involved with his Julie. But Shade had lost the rest of his depleted sense of humor when he’d been forced to have a maid let him into Adam’s hotel room so Shade could get his sorry ass out of bed at one o’clock in the afternoon. God, why did the guy always have to fuck up his plans? And get him so riled up that he took out his frustration on people who didn’t deserve it? “Shit.”
Owen took the next exit off the interstate. They drove around the mall area until they spotted a jewelry store. Once inside, it didn’t take Shade long to find something he thought Julie would love. He left the store with both his wallet and his mood lighter than when he’d arrived. He couldn’t wait to hold his angel in his arms and see her face when she opened his gift. He smiled at his thoughts.
“Feeling better?” Owen asked.
“Yeah. It’s been much too long since I’ve seen her. I miss her so much.”
They returned to the Jeep, and Owen drove him to see the only girl who would ever own his heart.
Several cars we
re parked in the long driveway of the house that had once been Shade’s residence. His ex-wife had received most of their joint material possessions in the divorce settlement. He hadn't fought her on that; he knew he'd done her wrong. It was easy for a rock star to stray on the road. Way too easy. He’d tried not to cheat and had been successful for over a year, but she’d become bitter about his career and he’d lost interest in his own wife. Instead of trying to prove that he wasn’t a cheater—which she’d falsely accused him of every time he’d gone on tour—he’d lived up to her expectations and become an unfaithful jerk. He knew it. He owned that. He wouldn’t make the mistake of getting married again. He wasn’t the type of man who could make a woman happy outside the bedroom and he knew that too.
"Do you want me to wait for you?" Owen asked as Shade opened the door.
Shade hesitated. He wasn't sure what he'd do if Tina refused to let him in the house. She didn't want him there. She would have invited him to the party if she'd wanted him there. He was sure she’d thought he'd be out of town and unable to attend. If her sister, Amanda, hadn’t texted Shade about the party, he never would have known about it.
"No. I'll find my way home. You don't have to taxi me around all night. Go have some fun."
"I don't mind. I know this shit weighs you down."
Shade smiled at Owen. "I appreciate you having my back, but you deserve a night off. Go on home."
"If you're sure."
"Yep." Shade didn’t care if Tina refused. He would see Julie on her birthday and give her the present he'd just bought. He wasn't going to take no for an answer. “Thanks for the ride. Do you mind swinging by my place to pick me up tomorrow?” He was sort of without a car.
“No problem. I’ll be there around noon.”
“Thanks.” He had no desire to deal with the police and the insurance company tonight. Maybe he could convince one of the band’s assistants to report the car theft for him. Didn’t they pay them to deal with this sort of bullshit?
Shade swung his overnight bag over one shoulder and shut the Jeep door behind him. He headed up the wide walk to the front door with the most ridiculous pink bag in existence dangling from one hand. He fleetingly wondered if Julie would like what he chose. All girls liked diamonds, right?
Standing on the front step trying to find his courage, Shade heard laughter from inside the house. There hadn't been much of that when he'd lived here. Arguing had been the norm. Accusations. Name calling. And a whole lot of angry sex. Shade pressed the doorbell and waited.
After a moment the door opened, and Tina's cold blue eyes narrowed the instant she recognized him. A blond-haired, blue-eyed bombshell, the woman was centerfold gorgeous. At least until she opened her mouth. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
"I came to wish Julie a happy birthday." He lifted the shiny pink bag. "I brought her a present."
"From a jewelry store?" Tina rolled her eyes at him. "Just as stupid as always. She's four, Shade. She's too young for jewelry."
His heart faltered. He hated when Tina called him stupid, and she knew it. Even if it was true, he didn't like to hear it. And now he was even more worried that Julie wouldn't like her present. When he’d seen it, he’d thought it perfect for her. Now he wasn’t so sure. "Can I see her?"
"It's not your weekend." Tina tried to shut the door in his face, but he lifted an arm to block it.
"I haven't seen her in weeks."
"Whose fault is that? You're never home. You’re always off touring with your band, shoving your dick into anything with holes."
"Mommy." Julie's sweet voice drifted from the foyer behind Tina. "I want more ice cream, pwease. Just the stwawberry kind."
Shade smiled at her slightly fuddled words. His little girl was talking so much better than the last time Shade had seen her. He wondered how much she'd grown in five weeks.
"In a minute, baby," Tina called.
"Just let me talk to her," Shade said. "I won't take long. I want to wish her a happy birthday."
"Seeing you confuses her, Shade. She hardly knows you. Everyone would be better off if you just sent money and got lost permanently."
Probably, but he was a self-centered bastard, and he wanted to see his daughter on her birthday. He wasn't leaving until he did.
"Mommy? Who is it?" Julie appeared at her mother's side. She paused when she saw her father standing halfway in the door. Her ice-blue eyes grew wide, and she slid her hand into her mother's. She had pink icing all over her face and was wearing fairy wings with her pink princess dress. Shade melted. Every time he looked at her, he turned to mush. His daughter looked like him. She had her mother's blond hair, but the bright blue eyes, the straight nose, the stubborn chin were all him.
"Happy birthday, baby," he said.
"Hi, Daddy. Are you singing songs at the loud place today?"
He smiled. She hadn’t enjoyed the Sole Regret concert she’d attended because the volume of the music bothered her. But she did like his music when it wasn’t too loud. His baby rocked. He assumed it was genetic.
"Not tonight, princess. But I brought you a birthday present." He lifted the pink bag in her direction.
Sucking an excited breath into her narrow chest, Julie beamed and released Tina’s hand to reach for the bag.
Tina grabbed her wrist. "No. Go find your grandma, and she'll get you more ice cream."
"I want my pwesent," she said.
"Julie, I said no. Go find your grandma."
"You can't tell her she can't have her birthday present," Shade said. That old anger he felt toward his ex-wife rushed to the surface. Like Adam, Tina knew exactly how to push his buttons.
"You can't barge in here whenever you feel like it, Shade. The custody order—"
"I just came to give her a present,” he interrupted. “Why do you always have to be such a b—?" He caught himself just in time.
Julie burst into tears. He knew better than to yell in front of her. Damn it. He had such a difficult time controlling his temper where Tina was concerned.
"If you don't leave, I'm calling the cops," Tina said and lifted Julie into her arms, cradling the back of her head to hold her face against her shoulder.
"I'll think of something."
"I just want to see my little girl on her birthday—"
Tina covered Julie's ears with her hands. "What about the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year when you're too busy fucking whores to even call her?"
"I try to call her, but you won't let me talk to her."
"She's in bed. Three-year-olds don't party until two a.m."
"One time I called that late. I didn't realize how late it was because we were in California."
"She doesn’t party until midnight either."
"Don't yell," Julie cried, pushing her mother’s hands away from her ears. “Don’t yell. Don’t yell!”
“I’m sorry, baby,” Shade said.
"Do you see how upset you make her?" Tina wiped at Julie's runny nose with a pink napkin she pulled from her pocket, and then scrubbed the frosting off Julie’s cheek with an unused corner.
"Me? I just came to see her for a few minutes, and you act like I'm some sort of criminal."
"Not a criminal," Tina said coldly, "just an idiot. Leave. Now! I mean it, Shade."
"I want my daddy," Julie wailed. Sobbing uncontrollably, she stretched her arms in his direction.
Tina released a heavy sigh of exasperation. "Are you happy, Shade? You've ruined her birthday. She was having so much fun until you arrived."
Shade was too flustered to defend himself. He hadn't done anything wrong. He knew Tina liked to make his life miserable, and sometimes he felt he deserved it, but she was a good mother to Julie. Tina was the one who'd gotten Julie so upset this time. She was the one who refused to let her have her present. She was the one who hadn’t even invited Shade to his own daughter’s party. He was not at fault here. Or was he missing something?
"Can I sit o
ut on the step with her for a minute?” Shade asked. “I won't even come inside."
"Daddy!" Julie screamed.
He wasn't sure if he was capable of calming Julie at this point, but he couldn't stand to see her so distraught. Maybe it would be better if he stayed away. Maybe they were all better off without him. But just the thought of missing these few stolen moments with his princess made his eyes sting and his chest ache.
"Fine. Ten minutes, Shade. And then you're leaving."
He nodded, willing to agree to any concession.
A sobbing little girl was thrust in his direction.
Shade held Julie perched in the crook of one arm. Her arms tightened around his neck and she buried her wet, little face against his shoulder.