LIVING AND working with the same two guys was a challenge. We were crammed into a tiny two-bedroom, one bath apartment in the lower East Village. It was a fourth-floor walk-up with low ceilings and paper-thin walls, and in January, it was a fucking icebox. I slipped on my thick leather gloves, zipped my coat up over my chin, and picked up my guitar case before pushing open the lobby door. I braced myself against the elements, keeping my head down to ward off the chilly wind as I decided whether I should splurge on a taxi versus riding the subway to New York University. At this hour, it was time versus money.
I hailed a cab. I was already running late, and my balls were shrinking at an alarming rate after I’d only walked half a block. It was a no-brainer. Usually I was all about saving a buck and soaking up the ambience. The people-watching in New York City was second to none, and the best way to experience it was on foot. Street by street, every neighborhood was eclectic and brimming with life. Sometimes they were tragically hip, other times they were just tragic. But they were never boring. The city’s energy was invigorating and hypnotic. It made you think you might actually have a shot at being something special. Someone extraordinary.
Maybe it was all in my head, but I swear I could feel it. A pulse, a beat, an upswing in tempo. Something was driving me to keep moving, keep trying. I had a dream, and instinctively I knew this was where it would begin.
“You gettin’ out?”
Oh. Right. I handed over the cab fare to the disgruntled-looking driver without making eye contact. It struck me as a funny thing how faceless people could be in big cities. Cabbies, waiters… hell, the guy working behind the counter at the corner bagel store. Manhattan was a “point A to point B” kind of town unless you were a tourist or an artist who hoped to get paid to catalog details of this diverse city. For those who lived here full-time, details were distractions. True, I’d only been here for two months, but I hoped I never became too jaded to notice how freaking amazing this place was.
I glanced over at the arch monument across the street in Washington Square Park. Snow dusted the ground and benches lining the pathways around the circular fountain. A couple of tourists took selfies under the arch, but otherwise the park was empty—and strangely inviting. A sudden gust of wind quickly changed my mind. I crossed the street and heaved a huge sigh of relief the moment I stepped into the university’s blessedly warm Performing Arts Center lobby.
The center was a stunning contemporary masterpiece of undulating lines in glass and travertine. I set my guitar case at my feet and checked out my surroundings while I waited for my guitar hero, William. There were a few students milling around, but they didn’t fit his description. Tall, skinny, brown hair, with glasses, wearing a plaid shirt. Hmph. I peeled off my gloves and stuffed them in my pockets, then pulled out my cell to make sure I hadn’t missed any messages.
“Um, hi. Are you Rand?”
I eyed the shy-looking guy standing a couple feet away. His rigid posture made him seem taller, but when I stepped forward to shake his hand, I could tell he was closer to my own six foot two. He was perfectly pressed and put together in a designer-label plaid shirt and khakis. The glasses were a sexy addition. He had a nice face. Not super-hot by any means but… attractive. Sort of. I caught him giving me a thorough once-over and wondered if he regretted agreeing to help me fine-tune my guitar playing. The thought made me smile. On the surface, our height and the fact we were both on the lean side were all we had in common. We couldn’t look any different if we tried. I had longish, dark brown hair that skimmed the collar of my sweater, brown eyes, and more tatts on my arms, chest, and back than he’d probably be comfortable knowing about. I was pretty sure the only name brand I was wearing were my Levi’s. Oh and maybe my underwear too, if they counted.
“I—I’m William. I just finished a class and well… I asked permission for us to use one of the smaller rooms to play. I—it’s this way.” He shook my hand quickly, then turned toward the bank of elevators before I could reply.
The guy was nervous as hell. His palms were sweaty, and his voice quivered anxiously. I stared after him for a heartbeat, then wiped my palm on my jeans, sighing as I picked up my guitar and followed him. Whatever. If this was a bust, at least I’d be warm for an hour.
Three students carrying jackets and backpacks jumped in the elevator with us. They were engaged in a lighthearted conversation about a professor. When we stepped inside, one of the girls fluttered her eyelashes at me, then turned a pretty shade of pink when I smiled back. She was cute, I thought, adjusting my guitar case. She was too young for me, but there was no harm in flirting.
“We’re here.” William tapped my arm when the elevator doors opened, then stood aside so I could exit first. The gesture was extraordinarily courteous. Or uptight. I waved at the blushing girl while I waited for him to lead the way. A flash of disapproval flitted across his face. I wondered what bugged him. Me flirting or me in general. Either way, I was instantly intrigued. I couldn’t help it. I was one of those guys who got a weird thrill from pushing people’s buttons. I didn’t know William at all, but suddenly, I was interested. If only to know what it would take to make him come a little unglued.
He walked ahead of me, stopping halfway down the wide corridor to open the door to a small classroom. I shrugged off my coat and set my guitar on a long, rectangular table against the back wall. There were maybe ten chairs placed in a semicircle facing a podium at the front of the room and a piano off to the side near a smallish window. A couple posters featuring upcoming musical events at the university were the only décor in the space. I noticed two guitars on stands near the podium. One electric, one acoustic. Both were gorgeous. And expensive. Not the kind of instruments I would have expected a college kid to own. Unless his mommy and daddy bought them, I thought uncharitably. I forgot NYU was no ordinary college. It cost big bucks to come here.
Yeah, Daddy definitely bought that baby. Fuck. I was practically salivating when he picked up the glossy black Fender Stratocaster. Seth had a gorgeous candy-apple-red one like it. This one was equally spectacular. Sleek, shiny, and very fucking pretty.
“So… um. I’m not sure what you had in mind. I mean, I’m assuming you play a little.”
I removed my less impressive electric guitar from its case and slung the strap over my shoulder. “Yeah. I’ve been playing since I was fourteen. My problem is I can’t change chords fast enough. I can fake it if I’m playing rhythm behind someone else, but I want to do it myself. I want to lead.”
“You’re in a band, right? Didn’t you guys hire Terry?” he asked, setting the Fender aside to reach for his acoustic guitar at the last second.
“Yeah.” I tried for neutral, but he must have heard the indifference in my tone.
“He’s not working out?”
“He’s fine. Is he a good friend of yours?”
“No. I… I mean, I know him. We were in a class together last year. He’s into rock, and when I saw him at the coffee shop recently, he mentioned wanting to play more often. I’m definitely not interested in being in a band.”
“Hmm. What are you interested in?”
He smiled wanly. “Writing music. Playing.”
“Hey, before we get started… I have a couple questions.”
William sat on the plastic chair at the end of the semicircle and cocked his head expectantly. I joined him, keeping one seat in between us. It felt awkward to have to turn to face him, so I picked up the chair and moved it in front of him. When I sat back down I realized I’d misjudged the distance. We were so close our knees touched. I pushed back slightly but noticed a faint blush color his cheeks. I wished I knew him better so I could tease him. He looked so prim and proper, I wanted to shake him up. But he also struck me as shy and a little fragile. I had to curb my compulsion to forcefully assert myself. It worked wonders when I was onstage working a crowd or hell, even maneuvering around the city. People would mow you over in this town if you let them. I never would, but I wasn’t so sure about William.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and bit his bottom lip as he strummed his fingers lightly over his guitar. I could tell he was nervous. My earlier thought of wanting to push his buttons and watch him come unglued flew out the proverbial window. It would be too easy. And possibly destructive.
He kept his head down when he spoke. “Sure. Ask anything.”
“How old are you? You seem way younger than me. No offense, but how much experience do you have?”
His brown eyes twinkled with amusement when he glanced up at me. The look was boyishly sweet and innocent. He was kinda cute. Nerdy, but cute.
“I’m twenty-two. I’ve been playing since I was six. I’ve been told I’m pretty good.” He grinned widely before giving his attention back to his instrument. I’d bet it was already perfectly in tune but he wanted something to do with his hands. “But I won’t be offended if you decide I’m not what you’re looking for. I’m a music major here. I graduate in May, but I’m hoping I get accepted to the MFA program in the fall for musical theater writing.”
“Cool. Do you do much tutoring?”
“Only occasionally. I’m kind of busy, but this time works out okay for me and”—he shrugged self-consciously—“I could use the extra money. I’m a perpetual college student.”
“And I’m perpetually broke. If this works for both of us, I can probably only do it once a week.”
“Do you play other instruments too?”
“Yes, a few. I actually spend more time sitting at that piano bench,” William said, angling his head toward the piano in the corner, “than I do with a guitar nowadays. But this is my first love.”
He strummed his fingers lightly over the strings, coaxing a gorgeous melody that resonated throughout the small room. He smiled shyly, but this time I sensed a growing confidence in the gesture, as though holding the guitar worked as a physical shield with a secret magical component the moment it was played. Interesting.
I wanted to join in and maybe show him I wasn’t a complete moron, but I didn’t recognize the music.
“What are you playing?”
“Something I made up. So… um. Go ahead and plug in to the amp. Maybe we should start with a song we both know. I’ll watch your finger movement and see if there are any quick tricks I can help you with, but to be honest, if you’ve been playing for a while, you probably already know the only thing that really will make a difference is practice. Lots of practice. Have you taken lessons before?”
“Some, but I’m mostly self-taught. I have a good ear and I picked it up easily, but lead guitar wasn’t my focus. There was always someone else who did it better than me, so I didn’t worry about it. Now I want to make a real go of this. I don’t want to play in crappy dive bars for the next ten years, then wake up one day and wonder why I’m still struggling to pay rent. I want this to happen. Terry may end up being awesome, but the one thing I do know is you can’t rely on anyone else to make things happen for you.”
“True. What’s your band’s sound?”
“Rock and roll with a heavy blues vibe.” I grinned wickedly as I launched into “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.
My voice had a raspier quality than Jagger’s, but that was fine by me. I admired Mick’s soulful vocals, but I didn’t aspire to mimic anyone. An original sound was vital to making a name people would remember. When I got to the electric guitar lick, I knew William or anyone with a decent ear would flinch. I faked it as best I could, then stopped and held out my hand to my new teacher.
“Pleased to meet you, Will. Have you guessed my name?”
He stared at my hand, then at me with his mouth wide open before stuttering and fidgeting in his seat like a kid, looking anywhere but at me.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you wanna shake my hand?”
He gulped audibly and bit at his lip again. “I—um… my name is William.”
I chuckled and brought my hand back to the strings when I caught on he wasn’t going to shake it.
“Well? Can you hear the problem?”
He nodded. “Yes. You’re impatient.”
I threw back my head and laughed. “Now that, my friend, is the understatement of a lifetime.”
With a tepid smile in place, William held out his acoustic guitar. “Let’s trade and take it from the top.”
“Do you know that song or do you want to try another?”
“I know it well.”
Maybe it was the confident timbre in his tone or the way he commandeered my electric guitar like a nurse who was going to show a brand-new momma how to take care of her baby, but the geeky dude with the glasses suddenly sounded like a kickass, no-bullshit maestro. I traded guitars with my brow raised.
“Show me your stuff, Will,” I challenged.
I started midsong and did my best acoustic guitar rendition of the Rolling Stones classic, complete with vocals. This particular song was one of my favorites. I found myself in a zone, leaning into the instrument as I sang about wealth and taste only to be ripped back into the moment by his astonishing guitar solo. I stalled for half a beat, overcome with what I could only describe as awe, before I picked up his cue and continued.
I was so pumped I couldn’t sit still. I jumped up and gave the song my all, lifting the acoustic guitar like it had some kind of power when in fact the magic was coming from the skinny guy in a plaid shirt and glasses calmly swaying into the complicated notes. When the song ended, I whooped and held out my hand for a high five.
“Will, don’t leave me hangin’ again. That was fucking unreal! You’re amazing!”
Will straightened in his chair. I could almost see a haze clear from his vision, as though he’d been so immersed in his music he needed a second to adjust to speaking in words. When the moment passed, he smiled. A glorious, radiant-sunshine kind of grin that made me blink. Yeah… nerdy but definitely cute. Maybe even hot. And when he raised his hand tentatively to mine, I swear my jeans got a little tighter. Not good.
“Thanks. I’m a big Stones fan.”
“I can tell. You really… emote. Do you do that onstage?”
“Yeah, I get into a zone. Kinda like you just did. That was cool.” When he blushed furiously and started to sputter, I held up my hand, then pointed to the guitar. “So… what am I doing wrong?”
“You aren’t doing anything wrong. Like I said, you’re impatient. I can give you a couple tips, but your mechanics are decent. The only thing that will really make a difference is—”
“Practice. I know.” I sighed dramatically, then grinned. “You gonna take me on? Or am I more than you bargained for?”
I cocked my head and waited for him to respond as the quiet took on a charged quality, an energy I recognized but was frankly confused by. This guy wasn’t my type. At all. How was I getting hard now? Must be the music.
“Sure. I’ll take you on.” Will’s voice was soft and low. He sounded like sex. No doubt it was unintentional, but there was something about his shy, sideways delivery that made me do a double take.
“Um… great. Thanks.” I winced when my voice cracked. I twisted my wrist to check my watch and hopefully pull myself together.
“I’m open Tuesdays or Thursdays after class. I should be able to wrangle this room or another one like it from my professor. He’s pretty cool about—wow.”
“Oh. Uh… nothing.” He swiped a hand through his hair and adjusted his glasses again nervously. “I—you have a lot of tattoos. I… anyway, one thing you need to do is keep your fingers closer to the—what are you doing?”
“Nothing.” I pushed both my sleeves back, revealing my somewhat colorful forearms, and kept my gaze locked on his. “Sorry, where do you want my fingers, Will?”
The rush of blood to his face was instantaneous. I smiled, unable to control my wicked sense of satisfaction. He liked me. Scratch that. He was attracted to me. Maybe he’d come to like me too. As a friend, I amended in my head.
“My name is William,” he corrected.
I laughed heartily, then steadied the guitar on my knee before beginning another song. He joined in a beat later like the pro he seemed to be. This time when he caught my grin, he returned it with a megawatt smile of his own.
As the music swelled around us, my shoulders relaxed for the first time since I’d arrived in New York City with a guitar, a couple buddies, and a long-shot dream. Maybe it was the quiet confidence of the well-dressed, perfectly coiffed kid with a killer smile and insane skill on a six string. Or maybe it was simply being in a room with someone who didn’t expect me to have all the answers. Either way, I had a good feeling about Will.