CHAPTER 19

Reid pulled his hat down low to shadow his face as he weaved his way through the mob of people. The venue was small, but everyone seemed too engrossed in the band on stage to pay him any notice. With Tom and Drew flanking his sides, they made their way to a table in the back of the room. Once they’d settled in their seats, Reid scanned the room. “Why are we here again?” “To hang out. Relax with the gang,” Tom answered. Reid’s mouth twisted into a frown. “It seems like we’re missing a few people.” Jealousy and guilt knotted his stomach. He hated how much it bothered him that Chloe and Greer were off somewhere together. Alone. He didn’t have a right to be jealous, but he was. “Aww, did you miss me?” Reid looked up in surprise, his eyes moving between Greer and Inky as they crowded around the table. “What are you doing here?” “Relaxing with the gang,” Greer drawled, his expression deadpan. Reid ignored his sarcasm and tilted his head to see behind Greer. “Where’s Chloe?” Greer shrugged and passed Reid a beer. “She’s around. Apparently a band she toured with a few years ago is in town. I left them when the conversation turned to girl shit.” “I didn’t know that,” Reid mumbled, taking a pull from his beer. He wouldn’t admit it, but it stung that Chloe didn’t mention having friends in town. “You’ll see why,” Tom said, leaning in close to Reid so that no one else heard. Reid’s brow furrowed, but before he could ask any questions, the lights dimmed and cheers erupted. A petite girl with short pink hair walked onto the stage, a guitar strapped over her shoulder. “How’s everybody doing tonight?” The crowd responded with cheers, whistles, and beer salutes as two more girls joined her on stage. Reid studied the faces of the bass guitarist and drummer as they took their places. “What’s the name of this band?” “The Pessimistics.” Reid’s heart beat a little faster as the pieces started to come together. “Is that the same band Chloe toured with a few years ago?” “That’s the one,” Inky said. “I love these girls. It’s a shame they haven’t made it big.” Reid turned his attention to the stage, his eyes focused on the side curtain as the lead singer addressed the crowd again. “We’re so happy to be back in Devon. It’s been too long.” She adjusted the mic and shifted her stance as the drummer started playing. When she began to sing, Reid’s anticipation turned to confusion. He scanned the room again, attempting to remain discreet as he searched for Chloe. A half hour into the show, Reid’s unease peaked. Chloe was still a no-show, and he couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong. He picked at the label on his beer bottle and cut his eyes to Tom. He’d assumed from Tom’s comment earlier that Chloe was going to play with the band, but now he wasn’t so sure. Just as he was about to ask, the music stopped midsong. “I’m sorry, guys.” The lead singer sighed and dropped her eyes to the floor. “This just doesn’t feel right. You see, the last time we played this song here, I didn’t sing it.” Murmurs started to rise. “Do any of you remember?” She lifted her chin and flashed a mischievous smile. “Y’all remember. I know you do. What would you think if I had her come sing it again?” The crowd’s murmurs transformed into a dull roar as the high-pitched sound of an electric violin flooded the room. When Chloe stepped out of the shadows, Reid stopped breathing. The only thing familiar about her appearance was her knee-high combat boots. Her short, pleated skirt, suspenders, and crop top, exposing ink Reid only saw in his dreams, were all new. Her normally wavy hair was completely straight, the ends almost reaching the top of her skirt. “Jesus,” he gasped, pulling in a lungful of air. “So fucked,” Inky mumbled just loud enough for Reid to hear. He didn’t bother looking at her. Nothing in the world could have forced his eyes away from Chloe. He was mesmerized. Chloe flashed a bright smile and moved next to the lead singer. The two grinned at one another before Chloe spoke. “Three years ago, my good friend, Lizzy, nearly passed out on this very stage. But unlike most people, she didn’t quit. She’s too stubborn for that. Instead, she told me to take over for a song and pushed me in front of the mic.” “Best idea I’ve ever had,” Lizzy added. “When I found out Chloe was in town for the Somersault Festival, playing alongside an artist named Reid Ryder . . .” Lizzy smirked as the screams turned manic. “I had to ask her to play with us again. So how about it? You guys ready?” Over the screams, Chloe began to sing. Reid sat stone-still as her voice filled the room. It was the first time he’d heard her sing, but he knew it would not be the last. Goose bumps crawled over his body. Her voice saturated his skin. It sank into his bones and wrapped him in warmth. He felt weightless, a drugless high. When their eyes locked, something inside Reid shifted. His vision blurred, but for the first time in years, everything was perfectly clear. She’d done it again. She’d taken a sledgehammer to his wall. Just like she promised. Only, this time, he wasn’t just adding layers to someone else’s music. A wave of emotions rolled over him as melodies and lyrics flooded his mind. He wanted to climb across the table and pull her from the stage. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and feel her breath across his skin. He wanted to breathe her in, inhale her exhales, pull her very essence inside his chest. The image caused his breaths to quicken and his heartbeat to pound in his ears. He grabbed his beer and drank until the bottle was empty. “Holy shit.” Inky looked around the table in awe. “I had no idea Chloe could sing. Why the hell isn’t she in a recording studio blowing up?” “Because she’s in Brooklyn and not LA,” Tom answered, his expression a little dazed. Reid knew the look on his face; he’d seen a similar look from a guy years ago in a bar in Memphis. “Not for long,” Reid whispered to himself. Tom and the others still didn’t know he’d convinced Chloe to move to LA. While most of the group would just be happy, he knew some would question his motives. For the remainder of the song, Reid focused only on Chloe. He was captivated by her stage presence. The experience of watching her from the crowd was completely different than playing next to her. It was a whole new perspective of her as an artist. The crowd didn’t love her just because she was attractive, and it wasn’t just about her killer talent—it was the whole package. She was a living, breathing addiction. When the song ended, the applause from their table could be heard over everything else. “Thank you,” Chloe gasped into the mic, her face split in a wide smile. “I have one more song before I turn things back over to Lizzy if that’s okay?” The crowd cheered her on, their approval clear. Reid’s breath stilled when Chloe looked in his direction and cleared her throat. “This song is by one of the greatest bands to ever play. I’m dedicating it to a very special friend of mine, who turned a year older today, as a reminder that sometimes you’ve just gotta let others help you carry the weight.” “Chloe,” Reid whispered, his voice constricted with emotion as she began to play the opening chord of “The Weight” by The Band. “Holy shit! She didn’t tell me she was going to do this,” Tom said, distracting Reid from his inner turmoil. “You knew about this?” “Of course I did. She came to me when her friend Lizzy called. She wanted to play with them, but she needed to make sure doing so wouldn’t violate her contract. I told her it was fine. She suggested we all come see the show but asked us not tell you until we got here. I see why now. Are you still going to pretend there’s nothing going on between you two?” “There’s not,” Reid hissed, his eyes darting around the table. “We’ve had this conversation.” Tom exhaled and passed Reid a fresh beer. “You can lie to me however long you choose, but eventually you’re going to have to be honest with yourself. If you don’t, this entire thing is going to blow up in your face.” Stubborn and petulant, Reid ignored Tom and turned his attention back to the stage. He smiled and sang along with the others. When the song ended, he shot to his feet and let out a piercing whistle. He didn’t care if people recognized him. He wanted Chloe to realize how much what she’d done meant to him.Chloe dashed off the stage, disappearing through the side curtain and into the shadows. “Holy shit,” she exhaled. Wiping sweat from her forehead, she pulled in a shaky breath. Her heart pounded like a hammer and her body vibrated with adrenaline as she dashed toward the dressing room to pack away her violin. She wanted to catch the rest of the show, and if she was being honest, she wanted to see Reid. Once her violin was put away, she wasted no time getting back out front. Pushing her way through the throng of people, she squeezed in at the bar to order a beer. “Guinness?” The bartender nodded and popped off the top before sliding it across to her. “It’s on the house. That was one hell of a performance.” Chloe smiled and raised her bottle. “Thanks.” “Can I get the next one?” Chloe jerked in surprise and shifted away from the unfamiliar voice that was far too close for comfort. When she turned, she was met with a not so unfamiliar sight. A guy stood in front of her, his eyes glazed and his smile relaxed. He was drunk. “I’m good. But thanks.” Chloe moved to step around him, but he shifted with her. “Come on. Just one drink.” Chloe gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, this is the only drink I’m having. Big day tomorrow,” she added, again shifting to move around him. “Well, if you don’t want a drink, how about we get out of here? We could grab a late dinner.” He held out his hand in offering. “I’m Derek.” Chloe looked at his hand and pulled in a deep breath before meeting his gaze. Before she could tell Derek to take a hike, the bartender announced last call. As soon as he did, people started pushing their way to the bar. The tiny gap of space between Chloe and Derek disappeared when someone knocked him off-balance, causing him to fall against her. His still outstretched hand grazed along her exposed stomach and around the side of her waist. Chloe brought her arms up to put a wedge between their bodies and pushed. The tips of Derek’s fingers pressed into her skin, and the strong smell of alcohol invaded her senses as his breath fanned over her face. When she met his gaze, it was clear he knew exactly what he was doing. “Back off,” she said through clenched teeth. She pushed harder, causing him to stumble back. He smirked and let the people flocking to the bar push him back into her space. “You have the softest skin. I’d—” His words ended abruptly when someone jerked his shoulder back. Chloe looked over Derek’s shoulder, her eyes widening when she met Reid’s angry gaze. “Are you okay?” he asked, his voice low and controlled. Chloe nodded, her expression frozen in shock. “What the hell, man? Get off me,” Derek spat, angling his body between Chloe and Reid. Reid sighed. “Look, you’re drunk. She’s hot. I get it. But she’s not interested, so it’s time for you to move along.” “Fuck off.” Chloe’s stomach dropped when Derek stumble-staggered in her direction. In the span of only a few minutes, Derek’s drinking had caught up with him.He grabbed Chloe’s arm and tugged her closer. “We’re leaving, aren’t we, beautiful?” Chloe flinched and tried to rip her arm away, but she didn’t need to. Before she could blink, Reid’s fist connected with Derek’s face and sent him falling into the crowd. “Reid!” Chloe stood wide-eyed as Derek regained his footing and charged Reid. Chloe stepped forward to pull Reid out of the way, but she ended up with an elbow in her face as Derek lunged in their direction. It only lasted a split second. Reid sidestepped Derek’s drunken attack and landed one last hard blow, sending Derek to the floor. Chloe cupped her hands over her face in pain. Her eyes watered and her vision blurred as blood poured from her nose. Several pairs of hands pulled her away from the fight, their familiar voices doing nothing to soothe the throbbing pain in her face. “Jesus, Chloe. Are you okay?” Inky grabbed a towel from the bartender and pressed it into Chloe’s hand. “Yeah,” she croaked, trying to blink back tears. She pressed the towel to her nose and pulled in a shaky breath. “Damn, that hurt.” “Chloe.” Reid stepped in front of her, his expression twisted with horror as he looked at her blood-covered hands. “Oh my God. What happened?” “Elbow,” Chloe whispered.“Chloe, I’m so sorry,” Greer said, stepping beside Reid. “Where the fuck were you?” Reid spat, his eyes blazing as he turned his anger on Greer. “You were supposed to meet her at the side door. None of this would have happened if you’d done what you said you were going to do.” “I went to the side door,” Greer shot back, his voice rising. “She wasn’t there. I realized there were two, but by the time I got over there, she was already at the bar.” “It’s not Greer’s fault,” Chloe mumbled. “The fuck it isn’t.” Reid shook his head in disgust and gently wrapped his arm around Chloe’s waist. “Come on,” he whispered, all traces of anger gone as he pulled her against his side. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.” Chloe looked at Greer as Reid guided her out of the bar. She wanted to let him know she wasn’t angry. This wasn’t his fault. However, Greer wasn’t looking at her; his angry gaze was fixed on Reid. In the cab, Reid kept his arm around Chloe, her body pressed against his side. He moved his hand over her arm in a soothing manner, occasionally leaning forward to look at her and ask if she was okay. Chloe hated the way her heart raced when their eyes met. How her skin tingled and heated from his touch. When the cab came to a stop in front of the hotel, Reid paid the driver and stepped out of the car. Chloe slid across the seat, her eyes widening when Reid took her hand and helped her out. As soon as she stepped onto the sidewalk, Reid wrapped his arm around her once more and led her into the hotel. Through the lobby, in the elevator, and down the hall to her room, he never let go. Once inside, he grabbed the empty ice bucket. “I’m going to grab some ice. I’ll be right back.” “Okay.” Chloe moved into the bathroom and dropped the towel from her face. The sight of dried blood covering the lower half of her face made her wince. The pain had lessened, but her nose was still a little swollen and red. It wasn’t broken, but she expected to use a lot more concealer than usual over the next several days. She looked down at her body and grimaced. She was a complete mess. Unlacing her boots, she tossed them out into the bedroom and grabbed a washcloth. Steam rose from the sink as she held the cloth under the warm water. When she looked into the mirror, she froze. Reid stood in the doorway, a bucket of ice in his hand. Their eyes locked in the reflection as he walked to her side and set the bucket on the counter. The intensity of his gaze caused a shiver to run up her back and her breath to still. He’d never looked at her like that before, but she wanted him to do it again and again. Without a word, he pulled the washcloth from her grasp and lifted it to her face. With gentle motions, he wiped away the blood. Chloe’s chest ached, her lungs burning from the breath she refused to take. She was afraid to move, afraid of breaking the spell they’d fallen under. Reid dropped the cloth on the counter and cradled her jaw with both hands. He turned her head ever so slightly from side to side, inspecting every inch of her face. She felt exposed, vulnerable. “I’m so sorry about what happened,” he whispered. Chloe wrapped her fingers around Reid’s wrists and smiled. “It wasn’t your fault. That guy was completely wasted.” “Doesn’t make me any less sorry.” He stared at her in silence. A sense of loss swelled inside Chloe as she waited for their connection to break, for the moment he would drop his hands and step away. Chloe shuddered when, instead of letting go, he swept his thumb across her cheek. “Thank you for the song tonight. No one’s ever done anything like that for me.” Chloe smiled and her shoulders relaxed. “Well, I knew buying a gift was pointless. You already have everything you want, and if you don’t, I’m sure you’d have no problem getting it.” An emotion Chloe couldn’t decipher, yet caused butterflies to erupt in her stomach, flickered across Reid’s face before vanishing as quickly as it appeared. “You know the saying—you can’t always get what you want.” Chloe hummed and swayed slightly. “But if you try—” “I might get what I need,” Reid murmured, his voice low, his eyes filled with conflicts Chloe didn’t dare to try to decipher. “I want that for you more than anything. I hope you know that. It’s why I did what I did for you tonight.” Reid blinked, his confusion clear. “What?” Chloe mimicked his expression. “Inspiration,” she said, the word sounding like a question. “I want you to get your words back.” Chloe’s eyes widened before she diverted her gaze to the floor. Embarrassment heated her skin and she shifted her body away from Reid. “God, I feel really stupid right now. I had them bring you to the club because I’d hoped playing ‘The Weight’ would work like playing Creedence did. But saying it out loud made me realize how completely absurd it sounds.” Reid halted her retreat and shook his head in mock disapproval. “What kind of Jedi trainer are you? Second-guessing yourself is a rookie mistake. Always go with your gut.” Chloe laughed softly, her eyes reflecting the relief coursing through her body. “I never thought I’d see the day when you used my obsession with all things Star Wars against me. Maybe your training is complete.”Reid smiled and slid his hands from her face to her shoulders and down her arms. “I have much to learn, Master.” Before Chloe could reply, there was a knock at the door. The bubble Reid and Chloe had formed around themselves burst as Reid dropped his hands and stepped back. Chloe shifted her weight and looked over Reid’s shoulder toward the door. “I better get that.” Reid nodded and moved to the side. Chloe walked past him, the backs of their hands brushing against each other. His footsteps echoed behind her as she made her way to the door and opened it. Greer, Inky, and Drew stood in the hallway, their faces pinched with concern. “Chloe, are you okay?” Inky asked, stepping into the room and wrapping Chloe in a hug. Chloe nodded and waved for the others to come in. She cut her eyes to Reid, whose gaze darted from Chloe to Greer. “Reid?” When he looked at her, his expression was devoid of emotion. “I’m going to head to my room if you’re okay. I need to call Jess before it gets too late.” Dejected, Chloe dropped her eyes. “Okay. Thanks for everything you did tonight. I’m sorry I ruined your birthday.” A look of sadness crossed Reid’s face as he grabbed Chloe’s arm and gently pulled her into the hall. He looked back into the room, then turned his full attention to her. “You didn’t ruin my birthday. What you did was actually the best present I’ve ever gotten.” He pulled her against his chest and dropped a kiss to the crown of her head. “You inspire me,” he whispered before taking several steps back. “Good night, Chloe.” Her eyes were dazed and her mouth hung slightly ajar as she lifted her hand and waved. “Good night, Reid,” she whispered before turning and heading back inside her hotel room where she would have to pretend that everything in her life hadn’t been turned on its axis in a matter of hours.