BLAKE MANNING loved playing with his band, and Outbreak Monkey was on a roll tonight. Blake played second lead guitar, which meant that in some ways, he was superfluous—but not when he was onstage, soaked in sweat, singing backup harmonies he’d helped write, making music with the men he considered his brothers.
Mackey Sanders, the lead singer, was on fire. His bleached-blond hair teased big around his gamine face, his eyeliner extending to a mask around his eyes, Mackey looked naughty and sexy and wicked.
And it didn’t hurt that he sang like a whiskey-soaked angel.
“So everybody out there feeling good?” Mackey whooped. The crowd roared, and Mackey turned to his band. “How about you, Kell—you feelin’ good?”
Kell Sanders, Mackey’s older brother and first lead guitar, played a rocking riff, preplanned, as his answer.
Blake played up his guitar riff and winked at Kell, knowing the big screen would take the bro-flirt for what it was when Kell winked back. Once upon a time, Blake might have interpreted that look as hopeful, but Kell had been married for eight years now and had two kids. Blake’s long-buried crush on his bandmate had since morphed into what it always should have been—brotherhood.
The venue wasn’t too big—about ten thousand seats, when they often played twenty-five—but the stadium was packed.
Behind Blake and Kell, Jefferson Sanders played bass guitar and Stevie Harris played the drums. And while the only serious talent in the whole ensemble was Mackey, the rest of them loved playing so much, worked so hard at it—at new songs, at being better every time out of the gate—that they’d managed to be on Billboard’s Top Ten more weeks than not in the last nine years.
It hadn’t come easy, still didn’t, Blake thought, attuning his body to take the cues from Jefferson and Stevie as they finished their introductions.
But as Mackey took the crowd from the introduction into the bridge of “The I’m Sorry Song”—one of their oldest, most loved hits—Blake felt the adrenaline surge of making music, and making it well. So much work, so much pain under the bridge, but here, now, Blake Manning and his brothers-in-band were flying so high, nothing could bring them down.
It’s all he’d ever wanted to do with his life. He’d tried it on his own, his solo album, and it had all but disappeared. But here, with his brothers, being a smaller part of a bigger whole? He was a rock star in the best kind of way, the kind that took people on a trip and helped them fly. Not bad for a kid from a trailer park in Lancaster, right?
He and Kell moved toward each other on the stage, doing that thing where Kell moved forward while Blake rocked back, and together they watched as Mackey clambered on top of the giant speakers on either side of the stage. Mackey was little and spry and hella fit—they all were, especially since Mackey and Blake had gotten out of rehab nine years before. The little monster seemed able to do everything. He’d been making this running-along-the-speakers thing part of the gig this tour, and the first time he’d done it, he’d scared the shit out of their manager.
Of course, Trav Ford was Mackey’s husband, married in a quiet ceremony in upstate New York five years ago, so Trav got to freak out about Mackey as much as he wanted.
Still, they were tight. All of them. They lived together in a big-ass house with too many rooms. They ran together, they practiced together, they split off into groups and went on vacations together. Kell’s wife, Briony, was working their soundboard, and Stevie and Jefferson’s, uh, wife, Shelia, was back at the hotel room, watching Kell and Briony’s children as well as hers and the boys’.
In a way, it was claustrophobic—Blake could see that.
But for the first few years, it had kept Blake and Mackey clean, because nothing made you as accountable as family up in your face 24-7. In the last few years, though, it had been more than that. It had been comfort and protection from a world Blake had seen the worst of.
For Blake Manning’s first twenty years, he hadn’t had a soul he could trust, and for the last twelve, he’d had a family.
He wasn’t going to shit on that. In fact, he’d die to take care of it.
And like everybody else in the world, his heart lodged in his throat and tried to choke him when he saw Mackey Sanders scampering along the top of the giant amplifier.
But when he saw Mackey fall off, it threatened to stop.
BECAUSE MACKEY was a rock star and his family had money now, he got a hospital suite bigger than the trailer Blake had grown up in. And since it was bigger than the two-bedroom apartment most of the band had grown up in, he figured everybody got to enjoy the fruit platter and give Mackey shit for being laid up.
“Yeah, Kell,” Kell Sanders mocked. “Not a problem. It’s real smooth up there. Any idiot could run on top of it. Even you.”
Mackey guffawed and then fell back against the pillows, grimacing in pain. He’d broken his leg, his wrist, and sprained his back. The doctors had offered to give him a continuous IV of good drugs, but Mackey was going over-the-counter only. He’d made eye contact with Blake when he said this, and Blake had nodded.
They’d both worked damned hard to kick coke, booze, and pills early on in their careers. They’d been such screwed-up kids when they’d started touring, and their first manager, before Trav, had been a junkie on his way down.
Finding his body hadn’t made either one of them want to slow up none.
Mackey’d had demons too, big, scary ones that nobody his age should have carried. So he’d shared his demons by flogging Blake with them, and Blake had spent more than a year hoping Mackey Sanders died of crotch rot, slow and painful like—and being as bitchy as possible to Mackey Sanders at every waking moment.
They’d spent the last eight years trying to make up for that animosity, and Blake figured he loved Mackey like a brother now—except more, because he was their leader, and everything he did was for the good of the band, the brotherhood, and the motherfucking music.
Blake thought those priorities were about the closest thing to religion he ever wanted to find. He worshipped at the altar of Mackey James Sanders, like the rest of the world, and made no apologies for it.
That wasn’t going to stop just because Mackey was laid up now.
“Wasn’t my fuckin’ fault,” Mackey growled through gritted teeth.
God, maybe he should have just a little bit of Demerol to take the edge off of whatever his body was going through.
“Road crew was supposed to put a piece of plywood up there so I could walk between those two big ones. It wasn’t there—I tried to jump.”
“Woulda made it too,” Kell agreed, holding his brother’s hand as the pain wracked him again. “If the mic cord hadn’t wrapped around your foot.”
“Goddammit.” Mackey breathed in hard through his nose. “God fucking dammit—Trav, no!”
Trav was ushering in a nurse with a syringe in her hand.
“I understand you’re a former addict—”
“Always an addict,” Mackey growled. “Don’t make that mistake—”
“I understand,” she soothed. “But there’s so much swelling now, and you’re in so much pain, you can’t heal. This is a nonaddictive drug. I get that you’re afraid of it being a crutch, so we’re going to give you some until tomorrow and reassess. But right now, you can’t get better, you understand?”
“Fuck….” Mackey scowled at the defeat, and Trav—six-foot plus of him, with auburn hair, angry brown eyes, and a body like a Sherman tank but not as soft—looked over his shoulder and gestured everybody to the family room of the suite.
Briony and Shelia were there with the kids, including Mackey’s namesake, his first boyfriend’s daughter, Katy. At first, Blake imagined Grant’s idea to name the girl Katy—after Mackey’s given name, McKay—would have been like a blow to the nads for Mackey. Grant had broken up with Mackey and sent him on tour because his girlfriend had told him she was pregnant. When she gave birth to Katy, ten months after the breakup, that had probably sent Mackey screaming for the pills and booze even harder. But now, leading the pack of family on the road, Katy was everybody’s comfort, and as worried about Mackey as only a daughter could be.
For a moment, the boys were surrounded in a babble of confusion, until Kell took over and told everybody that Uncle Mackey was going to be just fine.
Briony Sanders was a pretty woman, with a waist-length braid of strawberry blond hair and a round, freckled face. She smiled weakly at Kell as he was talking.
Blake caught her eye, though. Something was wrong beyond Mackey, and she was trying not to bring it up now.
She nodded at Blake and moved through the knot of kids, past all the brothers and Shelia, and jerked her chin to the exit.
Oh, not even in the suite, then.
Blake followed her out of the room and into the subdued colors of the VIP hallway of Seattle’s best hospital. God, they weren’t even home. Why did all the bad shit on the tour seem to happen right when they hit the West Coast?
“’Sup?” he asked, keeping his voice down.
“Shelia told me that right before Mackey fell off the fuckin’ stage, Heather called.”
Blake’s eyebrows went up. Heather Sanders was a lovely woman. Tiny and tough, she’d raised Mackey, Kell, Jefferson, and her youngest, Cheever, on a pittance. They hadn’t had much, but they’d had food, clothing, and one another, even if it had all been in a two-room apartment that had been razed in the eight years since they’d last visited their hometown. Even more, she’d taken in Stevie, Jefferson’s, uh, boyfriend? She’d treated him as a son, and Grant as well, back when he was Kell’s best friend. And ever since rehab, she’d shown Blake that not all mothers were shitty, and that sometimes, someone could love you just for being you.
“How’s she doing?” Heather and Cheever had moved to LA eight years ago, but they’d opted not to stay in the big family house. Cheever had been going to art schools since the boys started making money, and Heather had moved to be near him. Since Cheever had graduated from high school and gone off to college, she’d come to LA to live in an apartment near the beach. Close enough to live near her boys, she said, but far enough away to let them be men.
They all had dinner once a week—unless the band was on tour.
“She’s fine,” Briony murmured. “It’s Cheever she’s worried about.”
Blake grimaced. The youngest Sanders was about eight years younger than Mackey—and he’d had a chip on his shoulder the size of the world ever since Blake had known him.
“What’s the little shit done now?” Blake growled. God, he got it. The older boys had raised that kid, babysat for him, sacrificed for him. He got that they wouldn’t see what a using piece of shit he was. When Blake had met the kid, he’d seemed like a decent human being. He’d even been kind of sweet, once he let go of some of his defensiveness and talked like a person.
Once he’d been a laughing boy who would ride a roller coaster until he puked and who had looked at Mackey and his brothers like the good men they were. Once he’d shown Blake a vulnerable face, and Blake had tried to be kind.
He remembered the first Christmas he’d spent with the band, the one right after Mackey and Blake had gotten out of rehab, when Mackey hadn’t felt up to going home, but hadn’t told anybody until they were all on the plane and he was in a cab heading back to the house. The band had gotten to Sacramento, told Heather Sanders what happened, and she had loaded them all in the SUV and driven them back to LA. Blake and Cheever had sat in the back of the car, and at first, Cheever had been sullen, angry, pissed-off because his brother had disrupted all his Christmas plans. To him, it looked as if once again, the entire world was changing on its axis for Mackey.
But by the end of the car ride, Cheever had opened up to Blake and Kell, talking about his art, talking about school. Blake’d had the feeling it was hard for Cheever to fit in, and Mackey coming out to the press hadn’t made things any easier. Of course, Blake and Kell had started off pissed too. Cheever had talked to the press on his own, and he’d been a right shitty little prick about it. But during that six-hour ride to LA in the middle of the night, Blake and Kell had forgotten their resentment, and Blake remembered thinking wistfully that he might just be able to add one more brother to his growing made-family.
But that was once upon a time. Ever since Cheever and Heather had come to LA, that sweet kid disappeared. Nowadays Cheever ran around in the best cars, in the best clothes, doing the best girls and the best blow. He attended family affairs for the minimal possible time, barely spoke to any of them, smiled briefly at the kids, then bailed.
At least once a month, someone—Kell, Mackey, Jefferson, even Stevie and the girls—would make an overture, invite him somewhere, ask him out to lunch—and at least once a month the family waited breathlessly to see if Cheever would show up and try to be part of the tight group of those who lived in the big house.
Blake’s stomach was knotted and sick with the naked hurt Cheever’s brothers suffered, every fucking time. He’d learned, in his ten years with the brothers. Learned to not get angry, learned patience, how to be that guy who was there for the family. Not being a bitchy pain in the ass in order to take care of the people he loved had become Blake’s driving goal. But Cheever—Cheever was pissing him off.
Blake loved Heather, and he loved the Sanders family. But once upon a time, he’d had hope for that kid.
For the last eight years, he’d been waiting for Cheever Sanders to take a fall, if for no other reason than so his brothers could pick up the pieces and show him what he’d been missing. So he could see that sweet, funny, amazing kid who’d drawn doodles and made Blake and Kell laugh all the way from Sacramento to LA.
“He ran through all his college money in a week,” Briony muttered, pulling his attention back to the unhappy present. “She can’t get hold of him on the phone. She thinks he’s having one hell of a party, and she’s worried about him.”
Blake tilted his head back. “Fuuuuuuuckkkk….”
It would be so easy to hate this kid.
So easy to just blow him off as an overdose waiting to happen.
But once upon a time, Blake had seen something in that kid, something hurt and needy. Something that nobody seemed to be addressing. Something that nobody else seemed to see.
Blake and Mackey had been just like him once, and Trav had given enough of a shit to save their sorry asses.
Of course, Trav and Mackey had been falling in love, but there hadn’t been a rule that said Trav needed to make sure Blake cleaned up his act too. There were plenty of mediocre guitarists a shit-ton better than Blake Manning, and he knew it.
But Trav had cared for the Sanders family, and Blake had been included then, just like he was included now.
“Tell her to text me the address and shit,” he said, looking at the knot of family in the center of the suite. His brothers had children, spouses, people who needed them. Mackey’s red-haired, green-eyed brother was not going to fuck that up for them.
Blake just had this family. And Cheever fucking Sanders was going to clean up his act if Blake had to drag him through bleach.