Prologue

 

MAX DIAZ’S legs were trembling so hard, he was amazed they were still holding him up. As he waited at the edge of the stage, hidden out of sight, his throat grew tight, and he dreaded the moment he’d be expected to perform. He didn’t think he could speak right now, let alone sing the complicated vocals.

After years of Max pleading with his brother to let him join the band, Tony had finally relented. He suspected Tony had done it to ease the blow of their dad leaving them. It was just the two of them against the rest of the world.

But that didn’t change the fact that Max was now the lead singer of an actual band. He still couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe they’d trusted him with the responsibility of fronting them when they were all so talented.

The venue was small, but right now, the stage looked huge. There had to be at least twenty people watching them. Twenty people who would witness his epic failure if he didn’t pull his shit together.

Tony, Lee, and Kyle—his bandmates—were preparing the equipment, like Max had seen them do countless times before when he’d been to their gigs. Next time he’d help out, but right now he wasn’t complaining that they were leaving him alone. Kyle was testing the microphones, Tony was moving one of the drums, and Lee was tuning his bass guitar. It wouldn’t be long now.

Max’s legs were numb as the trembling crept through his body all the way to his fingertips, and his head swam as queasiness threatened.

“Max, breathe,” Tony said.

Opening his eyes, Max gasped a breath and tried to focus on his brother.

“You’ve got this.”

“But what if I don’t—”

“You do. Just pretend we’re back home in the garage. You’re ready. Do you think I’d let you onstage with us if you weren’t?”

Max scrubbed his hands over his eyes. That was true. “But what if I let you down? What if I screw up?”

Pulling him into a hug, Tony said, “Focus on the music and you’ll be fine. If you’re thinking about screwing up, then you will. Don’t think about that.”

“Ready?” Lee asked.

Tony patted Max on the back and released him.

“Yeah. Let’s do this,” Max said, and prayed Tony was right.

While the others took their places onstage, Max turned his thoughts to their chaotic band practices. Was it helping? He wasn’t sure. If anything, he was more nervous.

Oh God. The queasiness worsened, and Max knew he couldn’t hold it in this time. He made a dash for the restrooms out back, barely making it in time. When he returned to the stage, Tony and Lee were playing the intro on loop, and all three of them were glaring at him.

Max grabbed the microphone and gripped it as hard as he could, terrified it would slip through his fingers as he stepped onto the stage. He closed his eyes and focused on Tony’s deafening drumbeat, and then on Lee’s bass guitar, the deep notes thundering through his body, dissipating the tingling in his limbs. By the time Kyle’s guitar joined the mix, Max’s nerves were giving way—transforming into the familiar charged excitement music always brought him.

Bringing the microphone to his lips and taking a deep breath, Max opened his eyes. Their audience looked interested, but they weren’t leaping about yet. As Max sang the first lines of “Scream My Name,” a couple of people whistled and nodded their approval.

He could do this. He totally could. And if he had the chance to perform like this for the rest of his life, he’d die happy.

Grinning, Max raised his arms in the air, and he swore that by the end of their set he’d have them all screaming for Purple Method.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Max

Four years later

 

“FUCKING CANCEL it, then, Lee,” Tony screamed. “We may as well not bother playing tonight if you’re gonna make us start with that piece-of-shit song.”

Max winced as his brother slammed Lee’s bedroom door and stood in front of it, his arms folded, glaring at the two of them as they sat on Lee’s bed. Great. If only he’d left to go unpack like he’d meant to five minutes ago rather than coming in here to talk to Lee about some new pictures on social media from their gig last night. Now he was trapped in the middle of their shouting match—again.

Lee stood, and Max turned to look at him. His eyes had narrowed and his jaw was clenched as he thundered across to Tony, his long black hair flowing in a wave behind him. It was a world away from only moments ago when Max had been relaxing with a beer and enjoying being back home after months of touring.

Lee stopped inches from Tony, squaring up to him. “Just ’cause you didn’t write it, doesn’t automatically make ‘Solitude’ no good.”

It was the same old argument every time. Max didn’t feel guilty for not taking his brother’s side. Not one bit. Tony was infuriating these days. It seemed like everything had to be done his way or it wasn’t good enough. Max wished Tony would open up to him, but it felt as though each day they drifted further apart.

Tony stepped closer to Lee so they were nose-to-nose. The fact that he looked as though he was enjoying the confrontation was making Lee even angrier—Max could tell by the flush to the side of Lee’s neck.

“We play ‘Bind Me’ first, or I don’t get onstage tonight.”

“What, and disappoint all your adoring fans?” Lee taunted as they began to circle each other. He snorted a laugh. “I could replace you like that.” Lee snapped his fingers in Tony’s face. “You think I don’t have ten drummers knocking on my door, wanting to take your place in Purple Method?”

Max shifted so he was leaning forward, ready to get the hell out of there the second he got the chance. He didn’t have to wait long. Lee and Tony stepped closer to the bed, leaving just enough space for Max to squeeze past. He took his chance and breathed a sigh of relief as he slammed the door on them.

“Try it. I dare you.” Not even the closed door was enough to shut them out. “You know as well as I do none of them can play like me. We start with ‘Bind—’”

He had to get out of there. Max opened the front door and walked out into the sweltering midafternoon heat.

 

 

AS HE sloped into the shade of the juniper tree that obscured the entrance to the townhouse he’d been to countless times before, Max wondered what Pete would say when he showed up unannounced like this—if he’d be surprised. He took a drag from his cigarette and then exhaled the tension that had been intensifying all afternoon.

Traffic crawled past along the dusty street as shoppers headed away from downtown Elfinbrook’s air-conditioned mall. It was almost tempting to seek sanctuary there from the blistering northwest Nevada sun… almost.

Max leaned back against the coiled bark of the tree and kicked at the dirt as he took another drag from his cigarette and half closed his eyes. A loose chunk of rubber from his New Rock boot caught on the metal gate to his left, and he jerked it free with a sharp tug, causing the gate to judder back against the crumbling wall with a clank.

“Kiai!”

His heart leaped and thundered in his chest. What the hell was that? Rescuing the squashed cigarette from between his lips, he molded it back into shape and searched for the source of the sound, squinting against the sharp rays of the sun.

“Kiai!”

There it was again. Max glanced around, half expecting a band of stampeding ninjas to be headed right for him, but the sidewalk was deserted. His gaze rested on the dance academy opposite, where a banner advertising Bernstein’s School of Martial Arts was plastered across the lower half of the building; that was new. When had that changed? Six months on the road felt more like years, so much had altered.

He took another look at the banner and shuddered as he relit his cigarette. Getting beaten around the ring at ninja school was not something he’d be trying anytime soon; getting knocked out by a softball when he was a kid had been enough to put him off sport forever.

As he rested his head back against the tree, a lime-green-and-black Kawasaki motorcycle, not dissimilar to his own Yamaha, pulled away from the traffic and rumbled to a halt in front of the school in a flurry of dust. The tall rider swung his muscular leg across the bike to dismount. Long board shorts clung to his ass and his thighs, and a black tank top emblazoned with a scarlet eagle rippled as a slight breeze caught the material.

Max’s mouth was suddenly dry. Fuck, that guy was hot. Maybe trying ninja school wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. As the guy turned to face away, he removed his helmet, revealing short blond hair, then shrugged a duffel bag from his shoulders, his tanned triceps flexing under the strain—

“Late, as usual.”

Fuck! Spinning around, Max crushed his glowing cigarette against the mailbox and clenched it into his fist, his chest hammering. His vocal coach’s lips contorted into a smile as Pete tamed his long dark dreadlocks into a thick rubber band while propping the front door open with his foot. “How was the tour?”

Max huffed out a breath. “Usual chaos.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Discreetly flicking the stub into Pete’s garbage can, Max shoved his hands into the pockets of the black cargo pants he always wore and wandered up the path, pretending to ignore the hovering yellow jackets and hoping they’d extend him the same courtesy. After jogging up the last steps to the townhouse, Max pulled his friend into a hug, avoiding the long silver spikes protruding from Pete’s face, and resisted the urge to point out that it was impossible to be late if Pete hadn’t been expecting him. He hadn’t even known he was coming here himself until an hour ago.

Pete patted him on the back and took a step away to hold Max at arm’s length and look him up and down. His scrutiny was unnerving. “You’ve lost weight. You been eating properly?”

Max shrugged. “Kinda.” If you counted beer as food.

“Struggled without a kitchen, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Max shoved past him, paused, and then looked back at Pete. “You got time for a quick singing lesson?”

“I thought you had a gig tonight?”

“I don’t have to be there until six thirty, so I’ve got a while.” Until the biggest gig of his life, here in his hometown, with practically everyone he knew going. He took a shaky breath and hoped Pete didn’t notice.

“In that case, step into my office.”

Freshly sprayed wood polish almost masked the lingering scents of engine oil and cat litter as Max headed along the hall toward Pete’s studio. The studio was Max’s dream room, crammed full of musical instruments, but in a professional way—not like his makeshift garage-cum-studio back home. Quality guitars lined the walls, amplifiers were piled high, and a ton of recording equipment was stowed in a booth in one corner. It was also properly soundproofed so neighbors didn’t come knocking on Pete’s door, complaining about the noise and ruining a perfectly good recording session at three in the morning. Not that he was jealous of that… much.

After scooping up two disgruntled cats that were feigning sleep on the Steinway piano, Pete tucked one under each arm and deposited them outside the room. One of the cats fluffed up its fur and gave them a bitter look that vowed revenge.

“Have you kept up with the singing exercises I gave you?” Pete asked as he closed the door.

“As often as I could.” Sitting at the eight-piece Pearl drum kit, Max tapped out a gentle rhythm.

“That’s a no, then, I take it?”

“I had to share a room with my brother while we were away. I couldn’t do them in front of him. Apparently music lessons are a waste of time. He reckons my voice is good enough as it is.”

“Noticed any improvement?” Pete asked and sat at the piano, playing a melody in perfect time to Max’s beats.

“With Tony?”

“With your voice, not your brother.” Pete chuckled. “And I don’t see the big deal in telling him. He won’t care. He supports you more than you know.”

“Are you kidding? I’d never hear the end of it. He’s never had to take a music lesson in his life.”

“Perhaps it’s time he did, get rid of some of those bad habits. Have you warmed up your voice?”

“Didn’t get a chance. Why do you think I’m here, boss?” Max gave him a cheeky, hopeful grin. Pete would bail him out; he always had.

As Purple Method’s lead singer, Max would be first in the firing line if anything went wrong, and he wasn’t about to be the one who messed up because he hadn’t prepared.

“And yet you’ve been smoking,” Pete said. “Don’t try to deny it, you stink of it.” Max rolled his eyes dramatically, and Pete pointed at him, never losing his melody. “The second it affects your voice, you’re quitting.” It was an argument they’d had more times than Max cared to remember, and it always ended in a deadlock. It was tough being blond, tanned, and in a heavy metal band. To be taken seriously Max had to compensate for it somehow, and he drew the line at dyeing his hair black. He was sure Pete knew he would never jeopardize his voice… not really. “We’ll start with a triad.” Pete played a short sequence of notes, singing, “Ma.”

Max’s drumsticks clattered to the ground, and he sat up straighter on his stool. After taking a low breath, he copied Pete’s vocals and then continued up the scale as Pete replayed the sequence a little higher each time.

As Max reached the top notes of the mezzo-soprano range, his vocal cords tightened, and it was a real effort to project the full sound. Fuck. Had Pete noticed? He did his best to conceal his struggle, but Pete stopped playing and rested his hands on his thighs.

“You’ve been straining your voice to be heard above everyone else, your cords are tight and dehydrated, and now you can’t sing at the very top of your range. It’s getting worse each time you sing, isn’t it?”

Max shrugged. There was no point in denying anything. “We had gigs almost every day for six months. It’s fine if I don’t sing for a couple of days.”

“Max, we’ve been through this.” Pete sighed. “You need to do a sound check before each gig to make sure you don’t get drowned out by the others, and you need to do the exercises I gave you, they’ll help protect your voice, and start using your steam inhaler every day. If you don’t look after your voice, the problems are only going to get worse. Then you really will have to give up smoking if you want to continue singing.”

“I know. It’ll be easier now we’re home, anyway.”

“You’ve been getting a sore throat as well, haven’t you?”

Max scowled. All he’d done was sing a few notes; how the hell could Pete tell all that?

Pete lifted his fingers back to the piano keys. “You’re a bit breathy. Bring the sound forward and tilt your larynx to give more protection.”

“Breathiness sounds sexy.”

“Breathiness makes you sound like an amateur, and you won’t sound sexy if you lose your voice. I’ve taught you better than this. Come on, Max, remind me how good you are.”

Playing a low note on the piano, Pete began another scale, and Max tried his hardest to sing to the standards Pete expected. It was tough after such a long break from his lessons, but with Pete shouting reminders every so often, by the time they’d finished the warmup, Max knew he was going to be okay for the gig that evening.

From the final scale, Pete drifted into a tune Max recognized intimately: “Someplace to Hide,” a song Max had written for Purple Method. In fact, he’d composed it in this very room before their tour.

Picking up the drumsticks, Max tapped out the slow-yet-complex rhythm, adding stronger beats leading into the vocals. Putting every effort he could muster into his voice as he sang, he tried to show his mentor he could sing as well as Pete expected after all the free training he’d given him. Pete finally nodded his approval, and Max relaxed with each subsequent breath he took.

With his brother’s effortless talent on drums and the other guys in the band never seeming to work at their craft either, he felt like the dunce of the group—like he had to prove himself and play catch-up. It didn’t help that at twenty he was also the youngest by a couple of years. Tony had even had to get him a fake ID so they could play in bars and clubs. It was mortifying.

“How about some of your pancakes as payment?” Pete asked later as they finished up their session and emerged to grab a well-earned beer.

“Sure, why not.” Max was starving, and performing on an empty stomach was no fun. He gathered the ingredients from Pete’s kitchen cupboards and started on the mixture.

Pete sat at the oak dining table, clearing some of the motorcycle parts to the floor. “I’m impressed. Despite picking up a few bad habits, your voice is getting stronger in the midrange. Have the others noticed?”

“Na, they don’t care so long as I don’t mess up.”

“I’m surprised they haven’t. The change is pretty obvious.” Pete stroked one of his cats as it picked its way through the hunks of metal and sidled along the table toward him.

Max poured the thick batter into the sizzling pan, tilting it to spread the mixture. “Tony was the one who messed up most. He got slaughtered before the Seattle gig and fell off his stool during one of his solos.”

Pete snorted with laughter. “Yeah, I saw the pictures on the internet.”

Max checked the pancake and flipped it in the air, then caught it with expert precision back in the pan.

“He only has a couple of beers before each gig now. Makes up for it afterward, though.” Max waited a minute and then tipped the pancake onto a plate, sliding it in front of Pete, who pulled it from the cat’s reach as it hooked its claw and tried to swipe it from the plate.

“I don’t doubt it,” Pete said. “How’re things going with Zoe and Lisa? I bet they’re glad you’re home.”

The habitual weight in Max’s stomach grew heavier at the reminder. “Same, I guess. It’s a casual thing.” He turned his back to Pete and poured more batter into the pan. Now that he’d returned to Elfinbrook, there was no way he could avoid seeing his girlfriends. He hated having to pretend, but with three of them in the relationship, it was easier than when he’d tried having one girlfriend. The girls weren’t so demanding of him because they also had each other. It meant if he didn’t see them for a while, they didn’t seem to notice as much. It went against everything he believed a relationship should be, but he couldn’t see any other way to hide his sexuality. What had seemed like the perfect facade had become something he dreaded, but he had to continue—everything depended on it.

“Lucky thing. They’re both gorgeous. I’d want to make it a bit less casual if I were you.”

Max winked at Pete. “Maybe I’ll change my mind once I’m old like you. For now an open relationship suits me just fine.”

Out of everyone, Pete had come closest to guessing he was gay, and yet still didn’t seem to have a clue. Pete was like a surrogate dad to them. It was better to live a lie than to risk being disowned by him and Tony—better than facing a future alone.

“Yeah, funny. Forty’s not old.”

“If you say so, old man.” Max grinned at him. “By the way, we’re opening for Vanquished Villains in a couple of weeks. I’ve asked Angelo to put you on the guest list again.”

“Thanks, bud.” Pete shoveled a forkful of pancake into his mouth. “Wouldn’t miss it. I’m surprised Villains are still playing. Didn’t their bassist overdose last month?”

“Yeah, he did. As far as I know, they managed to get someone to cover.”

“Sad, isn’t it.” Pete shook his head. “He was only twenty-seven. Have you decided what you’re opening with yet?”

“Don’t you start,” Max groaned. “When I left the house earlier, Tony and Lee were arguing about what we’re opening with tonight, let alone in two weeks. Tony’s trying to coerce him into using one of his songs, but Lee’s not having it, as usual. Me and Kyle still never get a say.”

Max left a pancake cooking in the pan and joined Pete at the table, inhaling the citrus aroma of a fresh lime before squeezing its juice over his pancake and savoring the sweet, sour mouthful. He knew he shouldn’t be eating citrus and batter before a gig, but after his session with Pete, he knew his voice would be fine.

“It doesn’t matter if they never use any of your songs to open,” Pete said. “You can outdo Tony’s drums with your vocals on any of the songs… if you want to, that is?”

Max laughed. Sometimes Pete laid it on thick. Who was he kidding? He’d never be in Tony’s league, not in ten lifetimes.

“I’m serious, you need to quit putting yourself down. You’re as good a musician, if not better, than any of the others; you need a bit more confidence in yourself, that’s all.”

Max finished his pancake and got up to check the one in the pan. “You’re biased, boss.”

“Okay, maybe a little.” He lifted his fork and waved it at him. “But that doesn’t change anything. You’re my star student.”

“Your other students are still in high school. I’d be offended if I wasn’t.”

“Shut up.” Pete smiled and rubbed the cat’s belly. “Hadn’t you better get going? It’s nearly six thirty.”

“Fuck.” How had it gotten so late so fast? Max tried to grab the pancake out of the pan and cursed again when it burned his fingers. “You’re coming along tonight, right?”

“Yeah, in a bit. I’m meeting a friend there at seven thirty. Rick’s new in town, so I thought I’d bring him along and introduce him to everyone. Is it okay if he comes to your party afterward?”

“Yeah, ’course.” Max half saluted as he rushed past, swerving to avoid the corner of the table.

“Max….”

“What?” He paused, wobbling on one foot, and stared at Pete.

“Knock ’em dead like I know you can.”

 

 

AS MAX approached the Torrens Club, he noticed that a long line of noisy Purple Method fans waited outside the huge black building on the other side of the road. It still had the painted neon images of dancers with wild tattoos, crazy hair, and outrageous piercings that had been there when Max was a kid.

Panting from his mad dash downtown, Max ducked behind an industrial trash can and crouched out of sight while he caught his breath, wafting the bottom of his T-shirt to cool down and wishing he’d ridden his motorcycle to Pete’s instead of walking.

What was Angelo playing at? Everyone should’ve been inside by now. How was he going to sneak past to the back entrance? He couldn’t be late for this gig; he just couldn’t. Lee really was going to kill him this time.

He peered around the edge of the can. Tonight’s crowd would be the biggest Max had ever played for, even with only half the tickets sold. It was terrifying, and there was no way he could get past without risking being seen. His other option was to go around the block and approach from the opposite direction, but that would take ages. He took out his cell from his pants pocket—6:45. Fuck.

Staring back at the Torrens Club, Max bounced on his toes until Angelo opened the doors and people began to disappear into the venue. If he waited a few minutes, they’d all be inside and he’d have more of a chance of sneaking past unnoticed. It’d be quicker than going all the way around the block. He gazed at the dusty sidewalk and scratched a picture of a treble clef in the dirt with his finger while he waited for the fans’ excited chatter to fade.

Max’s cell vibrated, and he glanced at the screen. It was Kyle, Purple Method’s lead guitarist. Thank God it wasn’t Lee or Tony. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Where the fuck are you?” Kyle hissed.

“I can’t get near the building. There’re too many people outside.”

“Max, seriously, do yourself a favor and get your ass here now.” The faint drone of Lee’s voice in the background grew louder. “I gotta go,” Kyle whispered and hung up.

It became a no-brainer: face the wrath of Tony and Lee or risk getting mobbed by a dwindling number of fans who may or may not recognize him. Taking a deep breath, Max squeezed his eyes shut for a second and then sprinted across the street toward the back of the club. Nobody had been looking his way until he whizzed past, trying to look inconspicuous, but suddenly it felt like all eyes were on him. A few people pointed, and Max swore he heard someone shriek his name, but luckily none of them thought to pursue him.

Rounding the corner of the building, he spied their tour bus, which was a converted ambulance that he’d painted black with Purple Method in huge lilac letters along the sides. The ambulance doors were still open. That was a good sign; it meant his friends hadn’t finished setting up yet. If he grabbed some equipment, perhaps he could convince them he’d been there all along.

“Max!” Kyle came out of the club and rummaged in the back of the ambulance. “Thank fuck for that. Here, grab these, will you?” He threw a coil of leads at Max, who scrabbled to catch them and failed. He managed to retrieve them from the ground before Kyle noticed. “Where have you been? Tony and Lee have been going crazy.”

“They were doing that way before I left, and that had nothing to do with me.”

“I can’t believe how many people are here tonight.”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great.” Max grinned. A fan shrieking at him had been an instant ego boost. If he’d thought to record it, he could’ve put it on instant playback the next time nerves got the better of him. He felt like he could take on the world right now and kick its ass. “What’re we opening with?”

Kyle grimaced. “‘Bind Me.’”

Surprise, surprise. “Tony won, then. Figures.”

“Yeah, those two need to sort it out. Seriously, they squabble like a couple of kids lately.”

“Why do you think I left them to it,” Max said as they made their way into the stuffy building, along the bright corridor, past an office and their dressing room. The door was wide-open, and the room was already full of Purple Method’s usual chaotic mess.

They turned a corner, and the massive stage was right in front of them. Max gulped. They were really doing this. All his newfound confidence evaporated in an instant.

From the wings, the excited chatter of their most eager fans convening in front of the stage was terrifying, mostly because of the level of noise and therefore the sheer number of people who had to be out there. He pictured them clinging to the steel barriers and glaring at anyone who dared challenge for their spot. He knew the deal, and he always got the best spot, right in the middle—the best place from which to admire and study his favorite singers. It also meant that as soon as the mosh pit fired up, he was there at its core.

There was nothing Max loved more than live music. Thunderous beats reverberating through his body, exhilarating to the extreme, and only released by either throwing himself around in an aggressive mosh pit or by the most mind-blowing sex he could imagine. Max tried not to imagine it as his thoughts teetered on betrayal. His cheeks burned as he dropped the leads in a heap next to a stack of amplifiers.

“What the hell, Max?” his brother’s voice boomed nearby, and Max leaped in the air, cringing, and turned to face him. Tony marched up to him. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?”

“Worried? Are you kidding? You really think I’m gonna hang around and listen to you and Lee screaming at each other again?”

Tony was about to argue back but seemed to think better of it. He lifted a bottle of beer to his lips and took a long drink. “Just let me know when you go out, yeah?”

“I’m twenty, not ten. I’m not gonna tell you every time I leave the house. You’re being ridiculous.”

Lee rounded the corner and stormed up to them.

Tony winked at Max. “Uh-oh.” He took another sip of beer.

“How many times, Tony?” Lee threw his hands up in the air. “No drinking before gigs, okay? I swear I waste my breath. I thought we agreed after last time—”

“It’s one, Lee. Lighten up.”

“I’ll lighten up the day I can guarantee you’re not going to ruin a gig by falling off your damn stool.”

“Ouch.” Tony gave Max a sidelong grin. “That was below the belt, even for you.”

Lee shook his head and glared at Max. Oh man, so much for Tony distracting Lee from the inevitable lecture he deserved. Max braced himself. “And you. Don’t even get me started. You may be our singer, but that doesn’t mean your lazy ass can’t give the rest of us a hand setting up the equipment. You wander in here, late, expecting the rest of us to take up your slack, again. Despite your delusions, we’re not your servants. Don’t think I won’t replace you if you don’t pull your weight.”

“Whoa, don’t you dare joke about that,” Tony warned, taking a step closer. “My little brother leaves the band, I go too; you got that?”

“You think that’s a deterrent?”

“That’s enough!” Max shouted. If they didn’t pull together, there was no way they’d be able to get up on that stage and nail it the way he knew they could. “Tonight is our chance to show how awesome we’ve become. Don’t risk blowing it for all of us because of some stupid argument. I’m sorry I was late, okay, Lee?”

Tony bear-hugged Max and squeezed the breath from him. “Aw, check out my little brother, all grown-up and wise and stuff. I raised you well, little bro.”

“Jesus.” Lee shook his head. “That’s one dysfunctional family right there.”

“Come on.” Tony waved Lee over and dragged him into a group hug. “Show us the love.”

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

Tony noisily kissed the top of Lee’s head, and Max snickered at the look of disgust on Lee’s face.

“That’s sweet, guys, but we’ve got a gig to do,” Kyle called out.

Max pushed away from them, grabbed Kyle’s guitar from the stand, and tuned it for him while the others finished up sorting out the leads and testing microphones. It was something they should’ve done before their audience arrived, and maybe even left time for a sound check, but judging by the heckling that was going on, it was no bad thing to build up anticipation further by giving fans a glimpse pre-set.

With all the guitars tuned, Max dusted off an old amp and hauled himself onto it, enjoying the bustle of last-minute preparations. The anticipation had been part of the thrill for him since he was a kid, watching his dad onstage. If he’d told their dad about tonight, Max was sure he’d have been excited for them—or at least that’s what he said to himself.

Max shrugged out of his leather jacket and lifted the bottom of his T-shirt to wipe beads of sweat from his brow, grateful that he could blame his current state on the failed air-conditioning and pretend it wasn’t the profuse panic taking over his body. Tonight couldn’t be the night he screwed up—not here. Max gulped as the queasiness worsened, and he tried to concentrate on the soothing rumble of Lee’s bass guitar as he warmed up. How had performing for hundreds of people ever felt like a good idea?

“You okay?” Tony crouched in front of Max, placing a bucket on the ground and flicking his long blond hair over his shoulder as he peered up at him.

Max scowled, and the bucket rattled as he kicked it.

“Just as I thought.” Tony smirked, stood, and called out, “We’re ready to go, guys.”

The words Max despised. Nausea overwhelmed him, and he reached for the bucket, taking an expert aim to a chorus of jeering. He snatched the tissues and breath mint Tony handed him and scrubbed his mouth.

Lee patted Max on the back. “Let’s make this the best one yet.”

“I hate you all.”

How the hell had his unfortunate habit become their good omen?