SOMEONE was trying to kill him.
If the fire at Skywood wasn’t evidence enough, the bullets flying past his head were a pretty good clue.
When the fire alarms went off, he’d finally seen his chance to get loose of the honey-brick prison he’d been trapped in. The place was like tar. If he struggled too hard or fast, it closed in, sucking him down into its oily depths. When he moved slowly and carefully—pretending to be some guy named Stephen Thompson—Skywood relaxed its hold on him. He’d been in the main entertainment room when black smoke billowed out of the air vents.
When the first fire alarm went off, he and his current bald Sasquatch attendant, Jerome, ignored it. The staff was forever losing control over one guest or another, and oftentimes, the sight of a red lever set behind glass was too much temptation for many of Skywood’s clients. Hardly a fortnight went by without at least one false alarm going off in its halls.
The smoke was only the beginning. The panic really began when the facility-wide intercom system kicked in with a call to evacuate the clients to the outermost grounds.
Damien choked on the ash swirling around the corridors, stumbling when he hit furniture obscured by the smoke. The rising black clouds made it hard to see, and running through the greasy ash made his lungs ache. The zipper scar down his chest ached and pulled, hooking its claws into his muscles with a sadistic twist, forcing him to hunch over to ease its ache.
Stopping wasn’t an option. Jerome kept shoving at his back, hurrying him forward to safety, but they soon got turned around in the cavernous building’s labyrinth of halls. The fire moved quickly, seemingly eating through the plaster walls with an almost demonic appetite, and Damien finally lost his patience, grabbed one of the heavy chairs next to a nurses’ alcove, and flung it at a nearby window.
The thick wooden chair bounced off the reinforced glass and hit him in the leg, and all Damien had to show for his efforts was a tearing streak of pain along his shoulders and a thick lump on his thigh.
“Get a fucking move on, Thompson,” Jerome muttered into his ear, reinforcing his order with a hard shove between Damien’s shoulder blades.
“Quit shoving me, fucking asshole.” There were times when the fake Stephen couldn’t hold back the Damien inside. Choking to death from smoke filling his strained lungs seemed to be one of those times. Damien pushed back, shoving Jerome back a step. Not bad, he thought as another wave of spasms wiped him out, especially since Jerome was built like a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot.
His satisfaction seemed as fleeting as his breath when Jerome’s meaty fingers wrapped around the loose material of Damien’s cotton shirt and yanked him back with a flex of his arm.
Somehow, through the smoke and Damien’s coughing, Jerome located one of the outer doors. Keeping a tight hold on Damien with one hand, he fumbled with the key card he had hanging from a Skywood lanyard around his neck. After three tries, the display went green, and the door unlocked with a loud click. “When we get outside, you stick right next to me. Got it, you fucking nutjob?”
Jerome let go, and Damien stumbled forward, shoved off with a push from the attendant’s hand. Damien hit the door hard, and it swung open slowly, its pneumatic regulator refusing to go any faster. Cutting the man a look over his shoulder, Damien shook off the wrinkles in the back of his shirt, pretending Jerome’s words didn’t hit home. Truth was, he had no fucking idea if he was crazy or if everything they’d told him since he’d woken up was a lie. Somewhere in the back of Damie’s brain, a lingering doubt whispered hot maybes into his thoughts.
Suppose I am really fucking crazy? the mocking voice hissed. That I’m really Stephen Thompson and I just don’t want to be?
The cold air cut through the thin cotton shirt and elastic-band scrub pants he’d been given to wear. It chewed up the length of the thick purple-pink scar running from his chest to his belly button, a souvenir of a brutal heart surgery he wasn’t conscious for. The zippered mass of slick skin wasn’t the only sign he’d been battered about. His hair had been taken down to the skin and was just beginning to grow out to a length where the staple keloids were hidden under a dull black brush. It was still a surprise to see his short hair in the mirror, and his hands always seem to jerk out when he ran them over his skull, missing the foot-long shocking-pink-streaked mane he remembered sporting to an awards show.
If the awards show wasn’t just another lie his fucked-up brain told him.
There was too much evidence of an accident of some kind. His ribs ached, especially now that he was standing in the almost frigid outside air, and his left hand had a starburst of scars along the back that pulled when he made a fist. The headaches were a constant reminder of his brain’s misfiring, but it was the fleeting glimpses of a past he couldn’t quite grab at that were driving him nuts.
It had gotten so he really wasn’t sure if what he was remembering was real. Not the purring, husky laugh of a best friend as they shared a large coffee on a San Francisco pier or the screams of thousands of voices under a wall of lights he couldn’t see past. Amid all the confusion, fractured bits of music wove in and out of his shaky memories, pieces of a life he might not have ever lived.
Of everything Damien almost didn’t remember, it was the thought that the music wasn’t real that scared him the most.
After stumbling outside, he and Jerome fumbled through the bushes, trying to fight their way to clear air, when a man dressed all in black stepped out of the tree line. For a moment, Damien thought the shadowy form was a dark cast of one of the nearby firs. The moon was dripping full, and its light turned Skywood’s gardens and surrounding forest into a silvery-tinted landscape.
That was when Damien learned bright red blood looked like spilled ink under a full moon’s light.
Damien never heard the shot that killed Jerome. He only saw the aftermath of the man’s head suddenly cracking open and his face crumbling inward under the force of the bullet’s strike. He only knew he smelled blood in the air, and in a heartbeat, his mind flashed back to the feel of his body hitting cold steel and the stink of his bandmates’ deaths in his nose.
The sound of a bullet hitting a short stone wall by his knee got Damien moving. Another shot rang out, burrowing through a hedgerow he’d ducked behind. From his scant cover, Damien spotted the man moving out of the trees, only stopping long enough to check Jerome’s body spread-eagled over the grass.
Not looking back, Damien began to run.
THE sirens were loud, echoing through the valley. Damien could follow the whoop-whoop of sound if he tried hard enough, but he was too busy running for his life.
Evergreen boughs snapped at his face and bare arms, stinging welts into his pale skin. Pounding through the underbrush around the compound, Damien ducked and wove as best he could, but the nearly freezing night air pulled at his lungs and tightened the muscles around the scar zippering up his chest. The thin cotton T-shirt and elastic-waistband pants Skywood had issued him were little protection against the elements, and he’d torn out the sole of his left loafer trying to leapfrog through a bank of craggy boulders set into a grassy hill.
Still, it was a damned sight better than having his brains sucked out from all the syringes they’d shoved into his head.
Panting, he forced himself to stop moving when a thick beam of light swept over the forest, the chop of a helicopter’s blades cutting through the air above him. His heavy breaths created ghostly blossoms of mist in the air, their spectral shapes glistening in the full moonlight before whispering off into the darkness. The sky turned a molten red above a sea of rising flames, and voluminous black clouds rose up from the spreading fire, the wind carrying their heavy, ash-laden forms over the nearby countryside.
“Better get your ass moving there, Damie.” He blew on his fingers, trying to get his hands warm. The helicopter whirred past, circling around to point its beam down on another part of the valley floor, and Damien took off, slogging through the damp tall grasses in the hopes of finding a way out of the hell he’d been trapped in.
Ever since he’d woken up and found himself the proud owner of a torso-long scar down the front of his body and his shorn hair growing up around staple holes along his skull, Damien had wondered where the fucking hole was that he’d fallen through and how the hell he could find his way back without his own personal White Rabbit. The doctors kept insisting he’d gotten injured while stoned out of his mind and snowboarding in Aspen, but people who said he was their son once told him he was in a car accident. Their conflicting stories were shaky at best and became transparently false when they’d begun to elaborate on the missing chunks of his memory.
Especially since Damien hated being cold, and the chance of him being caught on a piece of steel-edged polyethylene and hurling himself down a frozen mountain was about as good as a Norwegian Blue waking up from its nap.
Despite the intense physical therapy he’d been given after he woke up from his Sleeping Beauty phase, he was winded. All the muscle mass in the world meant nothing if his lungs weren’t cooperating. Worse still, his chest was beginning to hurt, his repaired heart pounding hard to keep up with the demands he was putting on it. His stamina was shit, and his body was in pain because of it.
The alternative was to turn around and give himself back over to his wardens, kissing off any chance of having a normal life ever again.
“Fuck that,” Damien huffed, then yelped, sliding across a patch of damp grasses. “I’m going to fucking break my neck out here. Then that fucker won’t need to shoot me.”
The thought of dying out in the middle of the snow-dusted boonies forced Damien to his feet. He couldn’t do that. Not when he had too many damned questions needing answers.
“Sinjun. Go find Sinjun, you stupid fuck. Everything will be okay once you find him.” He remembered his best friend. He knew they’d lost the other two members of their band in the accident. There’d been a hazy moment when he’d surfaced out of the darkness he’d been plunged into and heard someone say Dave and Johnny died.
He ran until he couldn’t breathe anymore, and finally, Damien had to stop. Finding a thick pine tree to lean against, he let himself breathe.
Damien could only remember their existence and some fragments of things they’d done together. Everything else had been wiped out under the steel frame of the limo popping his skull open. There were gaps in his mind, long expanses of nothingness Damien couldn’t fill with any whisper of a memory. He knew Miki St. John liked to eat the insides out of a char siu bao before nibbling on the white bread exterior and what a twelve-bar blues progression was—he could even finger one out on a broom handle, since they’d not allowed him access to a guitar—but couldn’t tell anyone what he’d been for any Halloween. Damien didn’t know when his birthday was, but he’d been able to instantly recognize the opening bars of “Rude Mood” playing on a radio at the nurses’ station.
Everything made him cry. The loss of who he’d been was nothing compared to the sudden disappearance of the friends he’d come to call his brothers. At least Miki was still alive. He knew in his gut Miki was still alive. The oh-so-brief glance at an unattended computer console proved it. He’d paid for it with a two-week stint in solitary, but it gave Damien enough to focus on. Even if the article didn’t have any pictures and he couldn’t fully remember what Miki looked like.
Stamping some feeling back into his legs, he began heading down a long hill, half sliding along on the slick meadowland. His knees were beginning to hurt from slamming into large rocks when he’d fall, and his palms throbbed, making him suspect he’d scraped them raw in places.
“Sure, don’t take care of your hands,” he snorted. “You’re only a guitarist.”
Hands could heal, Damien consoled himself. Running harder was more important. Especially since it sounded like a pack of howling dogs were now competing with the fire engines and ambulances. He tried not to think of anything else—Miki, Jerome’s shot-split skull—nothing but putting one foot in front of the other was more important. Getting warm again definitely was on the agenda as well.
The road was a surprise, and Damien blinked when he hit the stretch of black ribbon curving through the hills. He’d been concentrating on climbing a deep ditch when his fingers touched the rough asphalt. Nearly crying in relief, Damien almost kissed the oily tarred surface in glee, but a flash of red lights coming up over the hill made him duck back down again.
A fire truck screamed past him, a whir of lights, noise, and exhaust stink flying by fast enough to ruffle the hair lying across his forehead. He waited until the dust settled back onto the road before standing up, and if his breath wasn’t already suffering, it would have been taken away by the sight of Skywood’s long halls buried under a wall of flames.
From what Damien could see, the retreat was engulfed, its brick walls crumbling down from its perch on the high hills. The towering evergreens surrounding the grounds were crackling and popping from the heat, spirals of sparks rising up from their burning branches.
He debated keeping to the ditch, but the going was too hard, especially when he’d put his foot down and the flapping sole on his loafer let stagnant puddle water seep in. Damien clambered up onto the road and broke into a trot, keeping an ear out for any vehicles coming up the road. The bright white cotton T-shirt and scrubs were now muddied and dark with pine tar and leaf stains, and his teeth were beginning to chatter from the cold.
If anything, Damien was glad for the filth, hoping it would make him blend into the road more. The slap of his feet on the asphalt kept an odd time with the pound-pound of his overworked heart, and Damien smiled, finding a tune in the offbeat rhythm.
“Sinjun, if I ever make it out of here, I’m going to have you write a song about this.” Damien forced himself to laugh at the absurdity of running away from an asylum. “I just need to fucking find you first.”
He had no clue what state Skywood was in or even what direction he had to go. San Francisco was his best bet. It was where he and Miki were from, and he could remember his best friend buying a warehouse to live in before they’d gone on tour.
“Shit.” The memory of warm brick walls and high ceilings came back to him. They’d bought two warehouses, side-by-side buildings so they could live next to one another. Damien’s head throbbed at the images surfacing out of his shadowed brain, but they were clear. He’d laid out enough money to have someplace to live next to his best friend after they were done doing a world circuit.
He chased the memory before it slipped away, turning nebulous when he concentrated harder. They’d teased one another, each claiming the other would move into their space instead of living in the place they’d bought. Miki longed for a studio, someplace he could wander into and throw out small pieces of brilliance while Damien fought to find the chords to match his best friend’s words.
“We were going to build a walkway between the two roofs. I was going to turn most of the bottom floor of mine into a garage for the cars I was going to buy—” Damien trawled through his memories as he slogged over the rough ground. Too caught up in his thoughts, he didn’t see the headlights coming over the rise.
Or the old Chevy truck that appeared around the bend and slammed into him.
Standing in a river of stones
Drowning in sorrow
Water knee deep but cold
Even though my mouth is clear
I just can’t breathe anymore
—River of Stones
“HEY, boss, your cowboy’s back.”
Sionn refused to poke his head up from under the bar to look, but he didn’t need to. He knew who his manager, Leigh, was talking about. The rest of the staff at Finnegan’s Pub were too scared of him to tease, but the pub’s blue-haired, nose-ringed cliché of a bartender had no such qualms. Having worked for his gran first, then stayed on when he’d taken over, Leigh was as much of a legacy at Finnegan’s as the four-foot wooden leprechaun someone gave his gran at the pub’s grand opening. Both were impossible to ignore, mostly annoying and in the way, but without them, Finnegan’s would be missing some of its color.
Of course, Sionn thought when Leigh pinched his ass as he changed the keg out from behind the bar, the pub could sometimes do with a lot less color.
When his gran had been alive, she had a special hatred for street entertainers, tourists, and the English. She loathed them all with equal fervor, although if Sionn had to lay money down, he’d have said her dislike for Londoners outweighed them all. Tourists she had to tolerate. They paid the bills at Finnegan’s, coming in to spend their money to eat pub food right on the pier and watching the bay traffic float by the wide picture windows she’d reluctantly agreed to. San Francisco’s street entertainers were vermin too big for her to sic a ferret on, and if Sionn stood up, he knew he’d have a clear view of the very pretty guitarist Leigh liked to call his cowboy. She hated the windows most of all.
“No proper pub has windows, ye fecking git,” she’d muttered at his back, loud enough for him—and everyone else in the place—to hear. Maggie Finnegan was never one to let her opinion get in the way of good business, but she was going to make damned certain her grandson heard about it for as long as she had breath in her tiny Irish body.
The place lost most of its color when Gran passed, but Sionn could still hear her complaining about the light coming in off the bay and how it diluted the proper dark atmosphere a serious drinking man needed in his pub. Whitewashed walls and diffused sconces brightened the place up too much for her liking, but she soldiered on, willing to bow to change if it meant an extra dollar in the till.
She definitely had no complaints about the money that came in once tourists discovered Finnegan’s, and they’d certainly come. Jugglers had their place, as did the man who scared the crap out of people by hiding behind a bush, then screaming at them when they passed him.
Musicians, however, were a different story. Unlike the tourists and a brighter pub, she’d take great delight in running them off from in front of the pub, sometimes a bit too enthusiastically, hurrying them along with a swat of a broom or a bucket of ice water. Musicians, in her mind, were as much of a nuisance as pigeons. Except you can’t put them into a pie, the damned bastards, she’d grumble to Sionn during one of his after-school shifts.
Damned if he didn’t miss her.
He’d slunk home after the shooting, limping only slightly from the scarring in his thigh. Odd that he’d come to Finnegan’s for solace, something he’d not done even after Gran’s passing. But now, there he was, changing out kegs, slinging drinks, and calling out orders to the waitstaff like he’d never gone off into the world to protect the innocent.
Except he’d lost an innocent, and now the busker outside was his problem and his alone.
Many of the street musicians were familiar to him, but the guitarist they’d taken to calling the Cowboy was a new addition to the pier crowd. No one at Finnegan’s remembered seeing him before he showed up three weeks ago, but even Sionn had to admit the man was pretty to look at. At least as much as they could see past the rolled-brim cowboy hat he wore canted forward on his forehead.
“You going to run him off?” Leigh’s bony elbow dug a divot into his shoulder, and she leaned her weight into him, watching as he clicked the last connection together. “It’s kind of nice, you know. The stuff he plays. Classic.”
“But not Irish,” Sionn grunted, shoving the heavy tank into place. “We’re an Irish pub. He’s out there playing whatever the fuck he’s playing. He can go do that in front of Sciloni’s or something.”
“People like it, and just because you’re Irish, doesn’t mean it’s not music.” She straightened up, shaking out the ribbons she’d used to tie her Smurf-hued hair into ponytails. “I like it, and technically, I’m the manager. You’re just pitching in, remember?”
Sionn didn’t need that reminder that he was drifting along. He wasn’t needed at the pub. It ran fine without him. Probably better even, but he had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Damn, he needed to get his shit together and figure out what he was going to do now that he’d walked away from being a body shield for rich people.
“Finnegan’s doesn’t do music, remember? No buskers, no darts, and no telly, other than during the futbol finals. That’s the rules, Leigh girl.” He wiped his hands on one of the bar towels, then tossed it into the laundry bin to be washed. “I’ll go roust him. Don’t fuss at it. I’ll take care of it.”
“I’m not fussing at it, Sionn,” she sniped at his back as he went around the bar to the front of the pub. “I’m just wondering when the hell you got so old.”
The afternoon had started off clear, but the mists were rolling in, bringing the promise of rain with them. A light drizzle dusted over the crowd, driving the less dedicated inside. The busker was wedged sideways under Finnegan’s awning, his ass resting on the top railing of the wrought iron fencing surrounding the pub’s slender outside patio.
With his back to the pub, all Sionn could see of the man was his long black hair and the rolled-brim leather cowboy hat he wore low over his face. The past few times the busker had set up in front of Finnegan’s, he’d moved on before Sionn could send someone out to dislodge him. Sionn stopped at the entrance and stood under the awning, moving to the side to let an older couple in matching neon shirts and cargo pants amble their way into the pub.
In that moment, the musician looked up from his playing, stilling the strings on his acoustic guitar with the flat of his hand. The soft sunlight touched his face and brought the man’s sensitive mouth sharply into Sionn’s focus. His long fingers played at the frets on the guitar’s neck, and Sionn stole a glance at the man’s partially hidden face.
A faint scruff darkened his angular jaw, shadowing a cleft in his squared off chin. The man’s eyes were hooded, a clear Mediterranean blue shining out from behind his long black lashes. Leaning forward, he reached for the cash lining his case’s belly and plucked the bills out. Despite the chill, his slender arms were bare, and his graceful, slim fingers shoved the paper wad into the pocket of his worn-out jeans. Specks of white powder dappled the side of his Becky Bones T-shirt, the victim of an overfilled machine at a crappy Laundromat.
Torn Levi’s and a cheap cotton T-shirt had never looked so damned good as they did on the man’s lean body.
His eyes met Sionn’s gaze as he came around the railing. A flicker of something burned in their depths, an interest hot enough to stoke the long-dormant fires of arousal in Sionn’s belly. The guitarist shrugged and bent over again, scooping the coins he’d earned into a faded Crown Royal bag.
The man’s ass was as incredible up close as it was when Sionn had seen it through the pub’s front windows.
“Let me guess. The old lady wants me gone.” The man’s voice was a shock, a taint of Britain roughing up his California drawl.
“So you knew my gran, then?” There was a surprise. The woman had left San Francisco to its peace more than a year ago, and before then, Leigh’d managed Finnegan’s, freeing his grandmother up from the day-to-day business. For the guitarist to actually have known Maggie Finnegan, he’d have needed to be around before she’d handed the keys over to Leigh. “Sorry to tell you this, but she passed a bit ago. I own the place now.”
The cowboy hat cocked slightly, and the man stared off into the distance before replying curiously, “That’s too bad. I think I liked her.”
It was an odd way to put it… thinking he liked her. People were never on the fence with Gran. A person either was engulfed by her gruff nonaffection or feared her wrath, but hardly anyone straight out thought about liking her.
A rolling grumble of thunder was the only warning they had before the granite-dark cloud bank turned black and let loose its rain with a pounding fury. Panicked for his instrument, the musician hopped over the railing and put the acoustic down on one of Finnegan’s café tables. Sionn grabbed the hard-shell case and handed it over, a few remaining quarters rattling back and forth on its red velvet lining.
They stood under the awning, both drenched to the bone, and watched the storm whip through the pier, driving away the late afternoon crowd. Slender waterfalls formed along the overhang, curling through the dips in its scalloped edge. The cold settled in behind the rain, and the man beside him shivered in the icy breeze, an avalanche of goose bumps covering his pale skin.
“Hang on. I’ll get you a towel,” Sionn murmured.
“Nah, I’m good.” The man removed his hat and shook off as much of the water from the brim as he could. His thick black hair was damp at the ends, curving down the length of his neck. “Just going to get wet again trying to get home.”
Empty piercings lined his left ear, and Sionn counted at least five before the hat was back on his head, the brim pulled down low again. Emptying the remaining coins from the case, he checked the velvet and obviously found it dry enough to put the guitar into the shell and latch it closed.
He didn’t know what came over him, but Sionn couldn’t have been more surprised when he said, “You can stay until it stops, boyo. Maybe get a cup of coffee inside.”
It sounded like an invitation to sit and talk, and Sionn wondered what alien bug had crawled into his brain and taken control. Other men were for sex and company while watching a game. If he wanted more, he had a pack of male cousins nearby he could do things with… if he actually wanted to do something other than work and be a hermit at home. Offering the musician a cup of Finnegan’s dark-roasted brew was as foreign a thought to him as wearing a pair of pink frilly panties.
Yet here he was, eyeing up a long drink of a musician and thinking about adding a dose of cream to his darkness.
“That shit is not going to be stopping anytime soon.” The smile Sionn was given nearly blinded him, and a hint of a dimple peeked out from under the man’s unshaven face. “No worries. I’ll head out.”
He edged past Sionn, their damp shoulders brushing as he went by. The touch was enough to send Sionn’s cock into a simmering thrum, and he gritted his teeth, sucking in a mouthful of cold air to quench the unexpected want of the man walking by him.
“You can play here. Set up on the far table if you want. We’re never so busy we need all the tables out here, and it’s going to be raining on and off for the next couple of months. It’s a good place to get tips.” After the coffee offer, Sionn was beginning to wonder if he was somehow stroking out and his mind was dancing off down a yellow brick road of its own making. He fumbled, trying to get some control of the situation, but all his tongue seemed able to offer was weak at best. “Just… try to play something other than classical. That shit puts me to sleep.”
“Duly noted. Thanks.” He tipped his fingers to the hat’s brim. “I’ll bring something else to the table tomorrow if I come by.”
“You got a name?” Sionn called out to the musician before he dashed off into the downpour. “The girls inside will want to know or they’ll just keep calling you Cowboy.”
“Shit no, blues and Southern rock yeah, but not country. Okay, maybe a few of Cash’s and Parton’s, but that’s about it.” Once again, the man’s blue eyes raked over Sionn’s face, searching for something he obviously didn’t find when he shrugged helplessly. “Dee. You can call me Dee.”
“Good to meet you, Dee.” Crossing his arms, Sionn watched the musician duck under the awning and sprint across the wide walkway toward the city streets beyond the pier. Glancing up at the furious heavens, Sionn sighed heavily and crossed himself, slipping into the thick Gaelic he’d spoken with his grandmother. “Forgive me, Gran, but I promise, he can play here only as long as it rains. Then he’s out on his own again. I’ll give you that, Gran, if you just let me stare at that ass for a few hours a week. That’s all I’m asking.”
THERE was enough in the guitar case’s belly to carry him over for another week, something Damien was fucking happy about since his fingers were practically bleeding from the acoustic’s thick strings. He’d expected something to happen when he’d played outside the pub. Every time he set up, his shoulders tightened and a flicker of a memory washed through him.
When the broad-shouldered, gray-eyed man strolled out, he’d gotten a clear flash of a small crook-nosed woman with wild silver hair and her thick Irish-scented shouts for him and Miki to find someplace else to beg for money. Something clicked in his head, bringing with it a throbbing ache, but he was grateful for the pain, welcoming it alongside the idea of a cat-and-mouse game they’d once played with the curmudgeonly pub owner.
It all came back to him… too easily, he thought. The days spent shuffling through the touristy parts of San Francisco, setting up his case and playing whatever the crowd seemed to fancy. He ran the gamut fr