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Metal Heart by Meredith Shayne

Description:

Scott King swore off rock stardom after his band, King Phoenix, crashed and burned. Now in his forties, Scott lives a quiet life as a music producer and session guitarist. But in a box hidden in his wardrobe lie the relics of the past he left behind—a past filled with drugs, booze, and broken hearts. For sixteen years, Scott has had no contact with his former bandmates, so when he’s asked to play at a benefit gig for King Phoenix’s old sound man, his world turns upside down. A King Phoenix reunion means a run-in with Scott’s ex, Ash Walker—and sixteen years ago, believing Ash wanted to leave the band, Scott OD’d and almost died.

Since then, Scott has ruthlessly suppressed his feelings. As a result, he's completely unprepared for the impact of seeing Ash again, or for dealing with his emotions about the band’s demise. He definitely didn’t expect Ash to want to start up where they left off. Now Scott has to decide between his safe existence and the twenty-year-old love song that could cost him his sobriety—and his heart.

ISBN-13978-1-62380-322-3
Pages264
Cover ArtistAnne Cain
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Read an Excerpt:

Prologue: 2011


 


 


EVERY band had a different way of celebrating the end of recording an album. Some had a party and got trashed, some went out to dinner, some did both. Some did nothing, and others told each other to fuck off and die and went their separate ways. Scott King had more experience of that last one than he cared to remember. But now that he produced other people’s music more often than he played his own, he’d developed personal rituals for celebrating the completion of a successful recording, and they were always the same. Once he’d seen the band on their way for the three-hour trip back north to Sydney, he’d shut himself in the control room of the studio that he’d built in the backyard of the home he shared with his sister and niece in rural Berry, put his headphones on, his feet up on the desk, close his eyes and crank it up loud, playing it from beginning to end. He did that now, settling back as the first few bars of the opening track came through the headphones. This band was a good, solid, Aussie rock band, a bit more on the pub rock side than the metal side, but Scott wasn’t going to hold that against them. They had guitars and lots of them, and that spoke to Scott’s soul like not much else did, so it was all good.


Until something slapped down onto his shoulder and squeezed.


He jerked upright, almost strangling himself with the headphones’ wire as his head whipped around toward the source of the disturbance, his feet hitting the floor with a smack. Recognizing his sister, Melanie, standing next to him, now with her hands up in a gesture of surrender, Scott clutched at his heart and leaned over, breathing fast.


“Jesus, Mel, you scared the living shit out of me.”


“I know. I’m sorry. I knocked, but you didn’t hear me,” Mel said. She smiled apologetically. “Sorry.”


Scott took a deep breath, then gradually straightened as his heart resumed a normal rhythm. “It’s okay. What’s up?”


“Ah….” Mel stopped smiling. “It’s probably best you come and listen to it.”


That did not sound good. “What is it?”


“Just come into the kitchen and you’ll see.”


Mel’s expression gave nothing away. That more than anything made Scott nervous. They were twins. If they’d been the same sex they would have been identical, but as it was they were just male and female versions of the same person: the same dark brown hair, the same bright blue eyes, the same forehead, nose, cheekbones, and jaw. They knew each other’s expressions as they knew their own, and if she was making that much of an effort to hide her thoughts from him, then it could be nothing good. His stomach knotted painfully.


“Is this about you, or me?”


Mel’s eyes shuttered briefly before the mask was back on her face again. “You.”


That was something. At least the family of her arsehole abusive ex had finally learned to stay well away from her and her kid. But that didn’t solve his problems. “If it’s that fucking prick Jones trying to get me to have a drink with him again, I’m not interested.”


“It’s not Dean.” Mel turned toward the door. “But you need to hear it for yourself.”


“Christ on a bike, you know you’re making it worse by not telling me, right? I’m thinking worst-case scenario right now.”


Mel headed out of the room, not looking back to see if he was following. “You’ll see what it is in a minute.”


“Fuck.” Scott’s heart beat hard again as he followed her down the hallway and out of the studio, jogging to catch up with her as they walked across the grass of their five-acre backyard to the main house, following a path lit by solar lights placed at regular intervals between the buildings. Scott had never regretted letting their parents give them the house and land he and Mel were due to inherit before they died until right then; that walk was the longest of his life. By the time they crossed the threshold of the main house, his heart was hammering, and he felt like he couldn’t catch his breath. He pushed past her in the hallway and headed for the kitchen, saying the moment he stepped in there, “What is it?”


He heard her stop in the doorway. “Check the answering machine. A message came in a few minutes ago.”


His stomach twisted again, and he stared at the answering machine and the flashing “1” that told him he had a message. The machine was the one attached to his business phone line, the one people who wanted his guitar playing or production services used. The one anyone could access if they went to his website, the website that he very carefully kept free of photos of himself. The one he never, ever answered when it rang. He didn’t bother to ask Mel again who it was; she wasn’t going to tell him. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the play button and pressed it. After a moment the machine clicked into action, and a voice that he’d not thought to hear again filled his kitchen.


“Ah… hi,” it said, and then there was a pause while the person cleared his throat. When he spoke again, the tone was more confident. “Hi, Scott. It’s Ash. I suppose you… you might not recognize my voice after so long, hey?”


He was wrong. He was dead wrong about that. Scott still heard that voice in his dreams, years and years since he’d heard it in real life. Scott stood frozen, staring at the machine as the ghost of his past continued.


“Anyway, I… Jonesy told me that he’d been trying to contact you and you’d been brushing him off, so we thought… he thought maybe you’d talk to me. It’s been sixteen years; you can’t hate me that much anymore, right?” Ash laughed, but it was weak and strained. There was a pause, and he cleared his throat again, saying quietly, “Anyway. This isn’t about me. It’s about Slapper. He’s sick, man. Really sick. It’s cancer, a really bad type of cancer. He’s not going to live that much longer.” Ash paused once more, to sigh this time. “So Jonesy came up with the idea of a benefit gig, you know? To raise some money for his wife and kids for when he’s gone. A show with all the bands that he’s worked with over the years. You know he’ll love that. He always did love to be the center of attention, the stupid prick. So we asked him about it, and he totally went for it. Fucking loved the idea, like we all knew he would.” Ash laughed, this time a little more sincerely, but then he was quiet again, for so long that Scott started to wonder if he was just going to hang up. But then he said, “Slapper said he’d love to see you, mate. We’d… we’d all love to see you. Forget about your guitar playing. You’ve got a fucking talent for hiding yourself away. No one’s seen you for years.” More silence, and then the tone grew brighter. “So, anyway. Ring Jonesy, you wanker. He knows you’ve got his number. Let’s get this gig organized, for Slapper and his family.”


Then Ash hung up abruptly, without even saying good-bye. The answering machine clicked off, but Scott stood staring at it until a noise made him look up. Mel had stopped slouching in the doorway, but she didn’t approach him. He looked at her and saw that now she wasn’t hiding anything from him, just as he wasn’t hiding anything from her. She looked into his eyes, and whatever she saw there made pity shine from her own. She smiled weakly.


“I know you, so I know you want to be alone now,” she said. She stayed still a moment longer, then walked toward him to kiss his cheek. “I’m going to bed, but you know where I am if you need me.” She slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him gently.


She hugged him for only a moment, but when she went to step away, he pulled her back, hugging her tightly. She didn’t seem surprised, her arms tightening around him again within seconds, just as tightly as he was holding her. He pressed his face into her shoulder and closed his eyes. They stood like that in the middle of the kitchen for what seemed like an eternity, but Scott eventually pulled himself together enough to talk. He moved his head back and rested his chin on her shoulder.


“I should be over this now, right?” he said hoarsely. “I mean, it was sixteen years ago, and it’s not like I’ve been a monk since then.”


For a long moment Mel didn’t say anything, but then she sighed. “Yeah, but Ash was different. He was a love-of-your-life-type deal. I don’t think you ever get over those.” She hugged him again, then pulled back, tugging his head down and kissing his forehead before stepping away. “Think about this gig,” she said softly as she turned and headed for the doorway leading to a staircase and the bedrooms on the second floor. “It might do you good to see him again. Put some of these old ghosts to rest.” With that, she left him alone.


Scott stood in the middle of the kitchen, staring at nothing, until the quietness of the house started leeching into his consciousness. He looked at the clock on the microwave; the LED numbers read midnight. It was later than he’d thought. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face before looking at the answering machine again. The display telling him he had one old message blinked at him. He reached a hand out, hovering over the erase button, but after a moment he pulled his hand back. Clenching his fingers into a fist, he held it to his chest for a long moment before turning on his heel and heading for the stairs and his bedroom—but not to his bed. He headed straight for his wardrobe, to a box that was shoved into the corner, a box that was hidden by shoes, an old skateboard, and piles of Rolling Stone and gay porn magazines. A box he’d never actually opened in all the years he’d had it.


He pulled it out from under the junk covering it and took it over to the bed. Sitting with his back against the headboard, he pulled the box up beside him. It was a plain, nondescript box, with no indication on the outside of what was in it. Even he didn’t know exactly what it contained, since he’d never opened it, but he had a fair idea. He briefly closed his eyes, took a deep breath to calm his fluttering heart, and then opened the lid.


The first things he saw were a couple of guitar straps, embroidered with his—no, the band’s—logo. Underneath those were some T-shirts, on which were various iterations of the band’s logo and album cover, all designed and screen printed by Mel. All black, of course. He lifted them out and laid them on the bed. Underneath that was a scrapbook, again with the band’s logo on the front, hand drawn, it looked like, obviously by Mel. It was covered in plastic, the sticky plastic sheeting that they all used to cover their school books in to protect them. That Mel had thought there were things in there deserving of protection was clear, but Scott wasn’t so sure. He took the scrapbook out of the box and rested it on his lap, smoothing his hand over the cover. The logo had been beautiful, as all the art for the band had been, because it was all done by Mel, and Mel was an amazing artist. But the logo had been Scott’s favorite, and as he rested his hand on the cover of the scrapbook, his eyes strayed to the replica of the logo on his own body, the ink he’d had done on his forearm on a night when it had seemed like the world was their oyster, and nothing could possibly go wrong. He had one other tattoo on his shoulder that he preferred to forget now, because of what it was, the reasons he’d done it, and the person he’d done it with. He was pretty sure he’d prefer to forget everything in this scrapbook too, but some masochistic streak in him had his hand moving to open the cover, his heart threatening to beat out of his chest.


The first few pages were pretty innocuous, just copies of old flyers for their gigs, supporting various bands around Sydney when they first started out. To his surprise, he actually found himself smiling as he came across ads for gigs at the Annandale, the Lansdowne, the Petersham Hotel. The Strawberry Hills Hotel. Although he hadn’t kept up with which pubs hosted bands anymore, he was pretty sure a lot of those on the fliers were dead now, or at least only hosting nostalgia get-togethers and cover bands, squeezed in amongst the poker machines.


Turning from an ad for a gig where they’d supported the Psychotic Turnbuckles at some place in Dee Why one Christmas Eve, the smile abruptly left Scott’s face. The double page before him didn’t contain ads or Mel’s band-associated art. It was full of photos, some professional, some of their live gigs, some candid shots. One of the first shots was of the four of them, all dressed in black with their long hair and their tattoos and their leather and silver jewelry, posing with their arms crossed, expressions fierce and forbidding. Underneath that were a few live shots: him with his guitar, T-shirt drenched with sweat, his hair hanging over his face, tinged red from the lights behind him. Ash standing at the mic, his arms out like he was hanging on the cross, his eyes closed as he sang his heart out. Scott’s heart ached at the photo of him and Ash on stage, him with his back pressed to Ash’s side, Ash’s arm hooked around his throat, holding him close. He was grinning, maybe even laughing, and Ash was smiling too, even as he sang into the microphone held in his free hand.


Fuck.


Scott closed his eyes to shut out the reminders of his past, but he couldn’t stop the memories now, playing across his closed eyelids like a movie he couldn’t tear his attention away from.


 


 


The 1990s


 


 


Chapter 1


 


IN 1990, Scott turned twenty years old. He’d thought he knew everything there was to know back then, but as he sat in a tiny pub in Surry Hills on a muggy, overcast day, nursing a beer and a smoke while the latest league game played on a TV above the bar, he’d had no fucking idea that his life was about to change forever.


Dean Jones was a friend of a friend who’d gone to the high school down the road from Scott’s, a couple of years ahead of him. Dean had dirty-blond shoulder-length hair that was half Farrah Fawcett and half glam metal, and a knack for persuasion the like of which Scott had never known.


“Their name is King Phoenix. They’re a four-piece—well, three-piece right now, but you know what I mean—who have had a little trouble with guitarists,” Dean said, laughing. “Can’t imagine why.”


Scott raised an eyebrow, took a drag of his smoke, and didn’t rise to the bait. “King Phoenix, huh. Influences?”


Dean waved a hand. “Oh, you know. AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, Zeppelin, Metallica. Hendrix. KISS. Rocky, but melodic.”


“Melodic,” Scott repeated, taking another drag of his cigarette. He wasn’t really the type who believed in signs, but the fact that the band’s name contained his own surname had to come close to one. Plus the Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. He really loved Zeppelin and Hendrix. If Dean had said Cream too, Scott probably would have said yes without even seeing the band first. “Have they got any gigs coming up?” He was done playing at school halls and in friends’ backyards. He wanted proper gigs, in proper venues.


“They’ve got things lined up, sure,” Dean said, which Scott knew meant no. “But they really do need a guitarist. Their singer, Ash, has been filling in on guitar while they look for one, but it’s not a long-term solution. He’s a front man. He really needs to be free to move around.”


Inwardly, Scott rolled his eyes. Bloody lead singers and their posturing. Scott sucked the last bit of nicotine out of his smoke and stubbed it out. “So when do you want me to meet them, then? If there’s no gig I can go to.”


“There’ll be gigs,” Dean insisted, but when Scott stayed silent he just sighed and moved on. “Their drummer, Tommy, has an uncle with some warehouse space near Pier One at the Rocks. They rehearse there on the weekends.”


“Okay,” Scott said, draining his beer and standing up. “Next Saturday, then? What’s the address?”


Dean signaled a waitress and got a pen from her, scrawling an address in the Rocks on the back of a coaster and handing it to Scott. “I’ll let them know you’re coming.” He held out his hand.


Scott grinned and pocketed the coaster, then gripped Dean’s hand. “I’ll look forward to it,” he said, then turned and headed out the door.


He did look forward to it too, but there was an edge of nervousness as well. He needed something to work out for him music-wise. He really, really wanted to give up his carpentry apprenticeship and play music full time, but he’d yet to find a band that had the potential to make that happen for him. It wasn’t for lack of trying, and sometimes he’d thought he’d come close, but it never worked out. Something always happened, something dramatic and stupid which made Scott want to throw his hands up in frustration. Musicians were a bunch of fucking idiots, really. He wasn’t sure how any band managed to hold it together long enough to make a record, let alone stay together for years. He hoped that he’d soon find out.


During the week, Dean dropped off a tape to Scott’s work, which turned out to be a demo tape of King Phoenix’s music. He’d put it into his car stereo to listen to it on the drive home, and then found himself sitting in the car park outside his work, wasting his petrol by letting the car idle while he stared at the stereo, listening with every fiber of his being. It was exactly as Dean had said: rocky, but melodic, and some of the hooks were catchy as hell, in a metal kind of way. But the hooks weren’t what had Scott transfixed. That was the fault of the singer, who possessed a deep, gravelly but surprisingly melodious voice that had just enough growl to it in the lower registers that shivers ran up and down Scott’s spine at the sound of it. It was a dirty voice, a smoky, sexy voice that promised all sorts of filthy things. It made heat curl low in Scott’s belly, but he welcomed that feeling and didn’t try to fight it. Lust was good for music. Lust and music went hand in hand, because lust was about feeling heat deep in your bones, and so was music. Scott had lusted after bandmates before, straight bandmates, and he’d always channeled it into his music, used it to make himself better, and then got his kicks outside the band. There was no reason why this would be any different.


When the tape had run through both sides, Scott switched sides again and pushed it back into the player, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the songs. By the end of the week he was singing along with that sexy, sinful voice, the anticipation of meeting its owner thrilling through his body.


By Saturday, the low level of simmering lust had mostly been replaced by nervousness again. His stomach churned as he pulled up outside the warehouse at the address Dean had given him. Pulling his guitar and a bag full of gear from his car, he turned for the small door next to a large roller door, took a deep breath, and headed for it. The door was ajar, and through it he could hear no music, just the murmur of voices. The realization that they were waiting for him made his stomach flip again. He took a moment to pull himself together and then walked through the door, guitar in one hand and kit bag in the other, like he didn’t have a care in the world.


There were four people lounging around a bunch of amps, microphones, guitars, and a drum kit, seated either on the floor, on top of an amp, or on a milk crate. All four heads turned toward him as he walked in, and he zeroed in on the one he knew. Dean was grinning as he got up and came toward him. Behind him, Scott saw the others slowly get to their feet.


“Scotty,” Dean said, holding out his hand. “Glad you could make it.”


Scott put down the bag of gear and shook Dean’s hand. “No problem, mate. Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”


“Nah, not at all. We were just shooting the shit, you know?” Dean clapped him on the shoulder, then turned, gesturing toward the others. “Let me introduce you to the guys. This man’s Tommy Nguyen. He’s our drummer.” A compact, wiry Vietnamese man, a couple of inches shorter than Scott’s own five feet ten nodded at him, smiling. Scott nodded back.


Dean continued. “This ginger bastard here is our bass player, Rory Buchanan.”


A slim man of about Scott’s height, with fire-engine red hair and arms covered in tattoos, grinned, then stepped forward and held out his hand, saying in a distinctly Scottish accent, “Welcome, brother.”


“Hey,” Scott said, taking Rory’s hand and shaking it firmly.


“And this man here is our singer, Ash Walker.”


Scott’s stomach twisted for an entirely different reason as he looked up—and up—into the singer’s eyes. Six foot two if he was an inch, he was willowy along with it, all long limbs and sharp angles. His eyes were so dark as to be almost black, which went along with his hair, dead straight and hanging down past his elbows, and contrasted with his skin, which was vampire pale. He kept Scott’s gaze as he held out his hand, his lips—nice, full lips, Scott couldn’t help but notice, the lower one made for Scott to bite it—quirking into a smile.


“Scott, isn’t it?”


Scott shook Ash’s hand, acutely aware of the strength in it, despite it being as willowy as the rest of him. “Yeah. Scott King.”


Ash snorted and let go of his hand. Scott curled his fingers and held his hand at his side, his palm tingling as Ash said, “Scott King, huh? It’s like you’re made for us.”


Dean laughed before Scott could reply to that. “You wait until you see him play. Scotty, want to show him what you’ve got?”


He did. In more ways than one. He looked away from Ash, finally, and nodded at Dean. “Sure. Someone want to help me get my amp out of the car?”


Rory volunteered to help him, and once his amp was in place, he unpacked the rest of his stuff as quickly as he could, settling the strap of his battered old Strat over his shoulder as the others sat down on a stack of milk crates in front of him and prepared to watch. This part was the easy part, because this was music, and he lived for it. He’d play his best, and whether they wanted him or not at the end of it, he could still play another day. Taking a quick moment to tune up, he grinned at them and launched into Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” without a preamble. He didn’t sing; he simply let his guitar do all the work for him, rhythm, melody, the works. After a few bars, he was lost in it, the only person in the room as his fingers slid over the frets and strings, his body moving to the music so subconsciously he was barely aware of it. He forced himself back to awareness in the last few bars, finishing with a showy little flourish just for the sake of it. He straightened and flicked his hair back from his face to find everyone staring at him. Tommy and Rory looked surprised. Ash looked flushed. Dean looked delighted.


Scott stood there, resting a hand on the neck of his guitar. “Want more?”


For a moment, there was silence. Then Ash cleared his throat. “Do you sing?”


Scott nodded. “A little. Only backup so far.”


They all looked at each other. “Write your own songs?” Ash asked.


“Yep.”


They all looked at each other again, for longer this time. When Ash turned back to him, he smiled. “Want to jam?”


Scott laughed. “Yep.”


The band leapt to their feet, bustling around to get themselves properly set up. After half an hour haggling over the songs they were going to play, they settled on a mix of AC/DC, Hendrix, and Zeppelin, classic songs that they all knew. After a few minutes of fumbling around with opening bars and riffs, finding their groove with each other, all of a sudden they clicked. Then Ash picked up a mic, and Scott knew then that what he’d heard on the demo was a pale imitation of the real thing. Dean had been right. Ash really was a front man, stalking around them as he sang, his voice soaring to high, clear heights and dropping to deep, growling lows that had lust curling in Scott’s belly again, more intense now because he could see the missing piece of the puzzle. He wanted to growl himself when Ash stalked toward him and bent his head down so they were forehead to forehead, sharing the microphone during AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” Ash’s hand slid over his shoulder and round to the back of his neck to hold him close, and it was all Scott could do not to totally fuck up his part. By the time the song finished, he was sweaty, breathing fast, his cock half-hard. He’d never been more glad that his guitar covered the front of his jeans. For a moment there was silence, and Scott was concentrating so hard on pulling himself together that he barely noticed the hushed murmuring of the others, or Dean talking excitedly on the phone in the warehouse’s office off to the right of them. What he did notice was Ash turning toward him again, grinning, his face flushed and his eyes shining.


“Jesus fucking Christ, that was fucking amazing,” Ash said, laughing and clapping him on the shoulder, fingers snaking around the back of his neck again, making Scott have to suppress a shudder. “If you want this gig, mate, you’ve got it. Fucking hell, have you got it. What do you say? Yes? For fuck’s sake, say yes.”


Scott looked up at Ash, then around Ash at Rory and Tommy, who were grinning at him. When he looked back at Ash, Ash’s fingers briefly tightened on his neck. Scott smiled. “Yes.”


A whoop went up around him, and he found himself pulled into Ash’s side, his face pressed into Ash’s shoulder long enough to overwhelm his senses with a mix of Ash’s sweat and a spicy aftershave that sent his hormones into overdrive again. Gripping the neck of his guitar to keep it between them, he breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the others clapping him on the back and Ash loosened his hold, giving him enough room to step back. He did it, but still managed to mourn the loss when Ash’s hand squeezed the nape of his neck again and let go, fingers dragging across his shoulder before they were gone.


He went home that night with a bag full of demo tapes that he’d promised to learn by rehearsal the next week, and enough Ash-related wanking material to last him until the end of the year. He showed up to the next rehearsal with a head full of the band’s songs plus a fair few of his own, inspired by what he’d been learning. His head was so full of music that there was no room left for inappropriate thoughts about his new lead singer. This was a good thing, given that, once again, Ash was all over him, coaxing Scott away from his own mic to sing into Ash’s whenever he could. He was touchy-feely with all the band, Scott noticed, but he didn’t think it was his imagination that Ash touched him more, although maybe he was making too much of it, since the others weren’t acting like anything weird was going on. He probably did it to all their guitarists. Maybe that was why none of them had worked out; they couldn’t deal with a grabby singer. But Scott could deal just fine, especially when he was being groped by someone as hot as Ash.


Halfway through a blistering cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation,” the skin of Tommy’s snare drum broke. While he ferreted around in his gear to find the parts to fix it, Ash and Rory voted for a smoke break.


Rory shrugged off his bass and lit a cigarette. “Time to get more beer, fellas,” he said through a cloud of smoke, picking up his car keys and walking out without a backward glance.


Ash put his mic back into its stand. “I’m going for a piss,” he announced to no one in particular and headed to the back of the warehouse where the amenities were located.


Scott lit a smoke himself, taking a deep drag as he watched Ash’s retreating back. “Guess it’s just you and me, then,” he said softly to his guitar, caressing its neck slowly.


“What’d you say, King?” Tommy said from behind his kit as he bent over his upturned snare.


“Nothing. Talking to myself,” Scott said, putting his smoke back into his mouth and turning his back to Tommy. Closing his eyes against the smoke drifting up into them, he sucked in another lungful of tar and started to absently mess around with some scales, which turned into some mucking around with a melody and a riff he’d had in his head since the week before, when he’d first lain on his bed listening to the tapes of the band Dean had given him.


“What the fuck is that?”


Lost in the music, he almost jumped six feet in the air when the voice spoke so close to his shoulder, his fingers slipping on the strings and his cigarette dropping from his mouth. “Fuck,” he said softly, bending to pick up the still-burning butt, stubbing it out on the concrete floor before straightening up and turning to look at Ash. “Dude, you scared the fuck out of me.”


“Sorry, man, I just—” Ash said, looking intently at Scott. He gestured at Scott’s guitar. “What was that you were playing?”


Scott smiled crookedly at Ash, his stomach suddenly full of butterflies. “Why? Did you hate it?”


Ash shoved at his shoulder. “I loved it, you idiot. Play it again.”


“Oh. Okay.” Scott dropped his old cigarette onto the ground and played the riff through again twice, the second time extending it into a bridge and chorus, mainly so he wouldn’t have the brain space to concentrate on how Ash was looking at him. Eventually, though, he had to stop, and the warehouse descended into pin-drop silence. Feeling his face heating, Scott looked away from Ash to Tommy, who was standing with his snare drum in his hands and staring at Scott with his mouth open.


Scott cleared his throat. “I told you that I wrote songs….”


“Yeah, but, dude….” Tommy trailed off.


“Not songs that good!” Ash said briskly, suddenly whirling around and heading for his gear, rummaging around in his bag and coming out with a hand-held tape recorder. “Play it again,” he demanded when he came back over to Scott. “And add in the melody this time too. Tack it on the end, whatever you’ve got.”


Ash clicked on the recorder with his thumb and gestured with his hand for Scott to start. “Come on, come on. Do it!”


“Okay, okay, fuck….” Scott bent his head and started playing. Fumbling it a couple of times, he swore under his breath as Ash frowned. He stopped, took a deep breath, and started again, his nervous fingers finally hitting the right strings as he launched into the riff. Ash grinned and started tapping his foot as Scott got into it, nodding as he ran through the riff, bridge, and chorus twice before starting on the melody. At that, Ash’s eyes narrowed, and he suddenly knelt down in front of Scott, as if being closer to the pickups would somehow make his hearing better, despite the fact that Scott’s amp was loud enough for the guitar to be heard outside the building. Having Ash kneeling before him made him fumble again, but this time he recovered quickly, and Ash didn’t frown until Scott had run through all he had.


Ash gestured again with the hurry-up motion. “Again! With the melody. Repeat it a few times.”


Scott did as he was told, and Ash stayed kneeling before him, nodding and moving to the music, until eventually he started to sing over the top of the guitar, wordlessly copying the melody. Springing to his feet, he kept singing, louder now, as he walked toward his mic. Scott kept up with the melody until they’d done a few rounds with Ash singing into the microphone, and then he switched to the riff, surprised to hear Tommy’s drums pick up a beat behind him. He’d forgotten that Tommy was even still in the room. They played together like that, over and over, until the door of the warehouse suddenly opened and Rory and Dean came walking in. They stopped, and Scott looked first at Ash, then Tommy, grinning at them. He could see the elation he felt mirrored on the faces of the other two and could hear how good it had been in the whining note in Rory’s voice when he spoke.


“Jamming without me, hey? You dirty bastards,” he said, dumping the case of beer that he carried onto his amp. “That’ll be the last time I get you tossers any beer.”


“Soon you’re not going to give a flying fuck about that,” Dean said, “Because I’ve got news for you whining motherfuckers. I’ve got you a gig supporting The Flying Vs at Springfields, in Kings Cross.” He raised the pizzas he held in one hand and a ziplock bag filled with grass in the other. “Beer and pot for everyone!”


After a moment of silence, they all erupted into whoops and cheers, coming together in a huddle to slap each other on the back in congratulations. Scott felt Ash’s hand around the back of his neck again, but he couldn’t do anything other than grin as Ash pulled him closer to whisper in his ear as Tommy relieved Dean of the pot and Rory took the pizzas.


“This is meant to be, Scott. Can you feel it? I can feel it in my fucking bones.”


 


 


SCOTT arranged with his boss to work a few extra hours during the week of the gig so he could take the Friday afternoon off. Tommy’s dad lent them the money to hire a van, and they all met at the warehouse to pile their stuff into it. Ash’s friend Slapper (“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” Ash said, when Scott turned a questioning look on him about the nickname), who was a few years older than them, drove the van with Dean riding shotgun, and the band all piled into Tommy’s station wagon, Tommy and Rory up front and Scott and Ash in the back. The Friday afternoon traffic meant that it took a good forty minutes to get from the Rocks up to the Cross, which was long enough for Scott’s body to start torturing him with the weird mix of excitement and nerves that he always got when he played in front of an audience.


The Coke sign that identified the beginning of Kings Cross came into sight eventually, and Scott turned his head away from it, staring out of the window instead. After a minute of concentrating hard on the prostitutes getting an early start on the side of the road, he was rudely brought back to reality by a heavy hand coming down on his leg. He jumped, jerking his head around, his heart skipping several beats when his sluggish brain processed that it was Ash’s hand on his thigh. That plus his nerves made him scowl and snap.


“What the fuck are you doing?”


Ash glared right back, and his voice was a low growl when he spoke. “If you don’t stop moving your fucking leg, I am going to punch you in the fucking face. I swear to God.”


That made Scott want to punch Ash right back. He grabbed Ash’s hand and threw it off his leg. “Fuck you! And don’t you fucking touch me again, or else.”


“Or else what?”


“Come on now. Don’t get your knickers in a fucking knot, you two big Jessies,” Rory purred from the passenger seat.


Ash turned his attention to Rory. “Fuck you!”


Rory extended his arm into the backseat, sticking his middle finger up right in Ash’s face. “Only after I’m finished with your mam.”


Ash started to bluster right back, but was cut off by Tommy starting to shout. “If you fucking cunts don’t shut the fuck up, I’m going to ram this fucking car straight into the next fucking power pole and put us all out of our fucking misery, all right?”


Okay, so Scott wasn’t the only one who was nervous, then.


They completed the rest of the trip in total silence, and once they’d pulled up in the lane in front of Springfields, they all just got down to work. The club, from the outside, was just a black door set into a wall, and the inside wasn’t much bigger. Scott’s guitar cases hit against the edges of the booths that lined either side of the walkway down to the stage, and the dance floor was about the size of his parents’ living room.


The Flying Vs were the Next Big Thing from Melbourne, and this was their first time up in Sydney. Scott’s mouth went dry with longing when he thought about playing interstate gigs. They were already setting up for their sound check when King Phoenix arrived, and their roadie directed them to stack their gear at the side of the stage. They shook hands with various members of The Flying Vs when they came down from the stage during setup, and settled down to watch them play. Scott had never heard the band before, but Dean had said they were of a similar sound to King Phoenix. He wasn’t wrong, but Scott still thought that King Phoenix were better. That might have been biased, but he didn’t care. The Flying Vs had a good little guitarist, but their singer wasn’t a patch on Ash. That was definitely biased, but again, Scott’s care factor was zero.


Absorbed with watching The Flying Vs guitarist rip through some riffs while leaning against their lead singer—and not knowing whether to be relieved or disappointed by seeing someone else doing that—he didn’t notice Ash sneaking up on him until he felt the touch of Ash’s hand on his elbow. He jumped, turning suddenly and putting a hand over his heart. “Mate, seriously. Stop sneaking up on me like that.”


Ash held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, but, mate, you really need to relax a bit. Get laid or something.”


Scott sucked in a breath, and suddenly the air between them felt electric. He stared at Ash, watching as Ash blushed and dropped his gaze for a minute, before visibly gathering himself and looking up again. “Anyway. I just came over to say that I’m sorry for what I said before. In the car.”


“Oh. Right.” Scott nodded and smiled weakly. “It’s okay, man. I know you didn’t mean it. Just like—just like I didn’t mean what I said.”


Ash smiled and laughed a little. “Right, of course you didn’t. As if you’d want me to never touch you again, right?”


Scot laughed awkwardly and felt his own face heating. “Yeah, right. As if I’d want that.”


“As if,” Ash repeated and slapped Scott on the shoulder. “Hey, listen, one of the roadies for the Flying Vs says since the gig isn’t for a few hours, they’ll be going to the pub and coming back here later. We might as well go with them, huh? If we go home, we’ll just have to fight the traffic on the way back, and it’s going to be worse tonight.”


Scott nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”


Ash grinned. “Sure does.” He slapped Scott on the shoulder again. “This is going to be a great night. I can feel it.”


Ash seemed to be getting a lot of feelings lately. None of the ones that Scott might have wanted him to get, though, it seemed. But he nodded and smiled. “Course it is. First gig as a band, that’s got to make it monumental.”


 


 


THE pub they went to once they’d finished their sound check wasn’t monumental. It was a crappy place up on the main strip with steel tables and chairs, the trots from Harold Park race track on the TV, and an average patron age of eighty years old. Scott got a few beers into him to calm his nerves, and they played a few rounds of pool with the guys from the Flying Vs, Rory and Tommy thrashing their rhythm section soundly and efficiently. After that, they moved on to find food to soak up the alcohol. It had turned to night while they’d been in the pub, and William Street was starting to rev up, the cars moving along the street slowing to a crawl, the first lot of party buses starting to trawl the strip. The neon lights of the sex shops and strip clubs made Scott squint, and in the space of only minutes he had to step aside to avoid being solicited by a prostitute who looked like she was as high as a kite, a barefoot man offering him weed and pills, whatever pills he wanted, and a huge bouncer outside a strip club, who grabbed his arm and tried to tug him toward a doorway, the signs beside the door promising him as much naked tit and arse as he wanted. Luckily, being a man who didn’t want any tit, or that kind of arse, he was saved from that one by Ash and Slapper, Ash taking his free arm and Slapper taking his other arm, inserting his heftier-than-Scott’s bulk in between him and the bouncer trying to lure him away. The whole thing was making his head spin, and he started to regret his fifth beer. Ash and Slapper kept hold of his arms and weaved him through the crowd blocking the footpath.


“You don’t want to see any tits right now,” Ash said, looking sideways down at him with a small smirk on his face.


Scott almost said “or ever,” but stopped himself at the last minute. He’d regret that for sure. “I need food before I hurl.”


“Tits make you want to hurl, huh?” Ash’s smirk was still in evidence, but before Scott could think of any comeback to that, he went on. “You’re not going to puke. Not until after the gig, anyway.”


Scott wasn’t so sure. But Slapper walking beside him reminded him of something. “So why do they call you Slapper?”


On his other side, Ash laughed, and Slapper grinned at him before saying, “I like to slap my cock against a woman’s face before I fuck her.”


Scott turned his eyes back to the footpath in front of him. “Okay, gross. Sorry I asked.”


Ash squeezed his elbow. “Told you you wouldn’t want to know.”


Scott ignored him, turning back to Slapper. “You are not getting anywhere near my sister, just so you know.”


Ash and Slapper cackled with laughter at that, and Scott was in the middle of opening his mouth to stress how deadly serious he was about not letting Slapper near Mel, when Ash squeezed his elbow again, then slid his hand down Scott’s forearm and took his hand, squeezing it for a split second before letting it drop. Scott turned his head to stare wide-eyed at Ash, but Ash just smiled and said, “Watch out,” taking his elbow again to steer him around another prostitute.


They got pizza from a tiny hole-in-the-wall place tucked away from the main drag, which had about four seats and wasn’t even big enough for them all to stand in at once, let alone eat. Scott ate his food sitting on a grimy brick wall outside the Hotel New Hampshire, which was just up the road from Springfields and was where the boys from the Flying Vs were staying. A homeless man slept in the landscaped part of the paved courtyard, clutching a bottle in a brown paper bag to his chest. Every so often, the wind changed and Scott could smell him, which was not helping his nervous stomach. He was distracted from the rancid scent of stale sweat and old, cheap wine by Ash coming to sit down next to him, wrinkling his nose as he settled in.


“Glamorous, isn’t it? We’re lucky that the rock and roll uniform is all black.”


Scott looked down at himself and his black jeans and T-shirt, then looked at the others, who were all dressed in some variation of the same thing. He laughed. “Obviously we all knew we’d be sitting eating dinner on a grimy brick wall with the smell of homeless drunk to go along with it.”


“It’s totally rock,” Ash said with a laugh. “It was good pizza, though. Stuff from those pokey little food places always is. Feel better now?”


Scott nodded. “Yeah.” He dropped his voice so that the guys from the other band couldn’t hear him. “I’m just a bit nervous. I don’t want to fuck this up.”


“None of us do.” Ash put a hand up to squeeze Scott’s shoulder. “I’m nervous too. We all are. What do you think that carry on in the car was all about?”


Scott nodded. “I know, I know. It’s just… I don’t want to be the one who fucks it up. Not something this important.”


Ash’s hand tightened on his shoulder again. “You won’t be, Scotty. You won’t be.”

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