The engine slowed and pulled me from a light dose. It was a struggle to open my eyes after the last two months of back-to-back venues and sleeping on the tour bus. The public believed rock stars lived the high life. And the mansion we were pulling up to said we did. Only, to get that, we had to work our asses off and share a tour bus for months on end. We got no privacy, and it was never quiet when one member of the band snored like he had a chainsaw attached to the back of his throat. The expensive ear plugs I’d invested in were no defense against Finlee. We all suspected it was why he couldn’t keep a partner for more than a few weeks.
I was grumpy, and I’d not been in the best of moods for the last few weeks, desperate to come home. The longer I was on the road of late, the worse it got. Touring was all part of being in a rock band as big as Grambo. The name came from an Irish DJ that Finlee loved. Initially, he’d said it as a joke when we’d decided to go after our dreams of going into the music business.
The dream had been hard fought, but we were right at the top of the food chain and that meant to maintain it, we had gigs all over the States after the launch of the latest album. My ball ache manager’s favorite words were ‘keep visible’, and they constantly rang through my head because he never let me forget them.
When the gate opened and the car drove up the long drive to my home, I let out a sigh of pleasure. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I did my best to ward off the ache that was becoming more of a dull throbbing headache.
When I opened my eyes, a spark of excitement ignited in them at the light in the downstairs window, welcoming me home. The weariness fled at thoughts of what was waiting for me inside.
Amy, my daughter, was the light of my life. A treasure I’d not expected. I ruthlessly shoved the text message I’d received from her mom, Dana, to the back of my thoughts to deal with later. It had come as I’d boarded the plane for the last leg home. Dana came with an entire boatload of drama, and none of it was good.
Fuck knows what I’d seen in her!
“Do you need me for anything else tonight, Sir?” Seth asked as he pulled to a stop outside the main entrance.
I glanced at the polite man, who’d been my driver for six years and who still refused to call me Lor. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Lor?”
I caught the glimmer of amusement in Seth’s gaze in the rearview mirror as I opened the car door, activating the interior light.
“No, I won’t be needing you. And I shouldn’t think we’ll need you for the next few days, either. The only plan I have is to chill with Amy and Ro.” My excitement increased at what that meant.
Seth nodded, a solemn expression appearing, and his next words killed my buzz. “She’s missed you.”
That he broke his own protocol showed just how serious he was. Everyone loved Amy. She was as bright as any star, making it impossible not to love her.
Why couldn’t her mom see that?
I sighed heavily as I tried not to get caught up in the sticky feelings of guilt at having to be away from her for long periods of time and the failings of her other parent. Amy never complained, and that said so much more than words could. How did a six-year-old get to be so accepting of the cards she’d been dealt?
She had all the smarts and, thanks to Rogan, she had stability. The man was a godsend and clearly dedicated to her in ways I’d never expected when I’d hired him to be her teacher. He was so much more than that to her. They’d developed an instant bond that proved what a good heart Rogan had. She climbed all over him like he was a family member and after those first few attempts at setting boundaries, he’d given in to her charms. Willful. It described my daughter perfectly.
“I’m home for a month now, so hopefully she won’t get fed up with me,” I half joked as I got out of the car and dragged my carry-on with me. I’d left the rest of my things on the tour bus. It was easier than carting stuff back and forth. The team we hired to take care of the bus would deal with laundering clothes and restocking everything, ready for Rocktoberfest the following month.
Another nod came before I shut the door and he drove off around the back of the mansion, where he had an apartment above the large garage that housed my collection of cars.
The sound of a door opening brought my attention to the light pouring through the doorway, silhouetting the man who made a massive difference to Amy’s world.
My foot tripped over itself at the voice whispering inside my head.
A shy-looking Rogan came forward. “You okay?” His soft, lilting voice never failed to surprise me and my heart did a little fluttery dance, keeping me rooted to the spot.
Shit, I must be even more tired than normal. There was no way I was feeling… pleasure at seeing him waiting for me. No, it was just the thoughts of the hot chocolate my starving stomach was looking forward to. That’s all it was. I’d not stopped with the others to grab food as all I wanted was to get home.
Yep, hot chocolate is the only thing I’m interested in!
“Erm, is everything alright?” Rogan hopped from one foot to another, drawing my attention to his bare feet. He had a thing about being barefoot. His feet weren’t as pale as the rest of him, which I found fascinating for some reason I couldn’t quite fathom. It was such an odd contradiction, one of many I’d noted.
“Are you coming in?”
It was the strain in his voice that finally brought me from the weirdness of my thoughts and to the reality that I’d not answered him. His bashfulness was endearing, as was the way he let his bangs grow to flop over his eyes. He reminded me of a puppy I’d had as a child who would look up at me through the hair that grew wild and tried to cover his blue eyes. “I’m knackered and ready to crawl into my bed and sleep for a week.”
It was the truth and thankfully, it seemed to stop him coming out any further with no sneakers on.
“Oh… I’ve got the ingredients for the hot chocolate ready. I can bring it up to you if you’re too tired to come to the kitchen?”
“Nah, I’ll come to the kitchen.” Him in my bedroom… that felt dangerous right now. “You know if Amy wakes up and sees I’ve got hot chocolate, she’ll want some and then she’ll be up the rest of the night peppering me with questions.”
Stepping towards him, a wide grin changed the average-looking face into something that made me want to stare. Christ, I really was tired.
I made sure not to stare at him, well aware of how self-conscious Rogan was about his harelip. He’d been born with a cleft palate and harelip. Surgery had corrected both, leaving him with a scar that wasn’t as obvious as I suspected he thought it was. He often used a hand to cover his mouth when he met new folks. At times he would lisp over certain words and there came a slight whistling sound, both of which I’d observed caused him to blush and go quiet.
Inside, Rogan spun and hot-footed down the hallway toward the kitchen. I took my time to reset the security system and dump my carry-on at the bottom of the large staircase, giving myself time to regroup.
When I entered the kitchen a couple of minutes later, Rogan was already standing at the stove, spoon in hand, stirring the contents of a pot. The scent of milky chocolate filled the kitchen and my stomach snarled for a taste.
Seeing he didn’t look in my direction, I went to the center island, which housed the glass mugs and the remaining ingredients for the treat. I whipped up a marshmallow and slipped it into my mouth. The sweetness, which I’d not tasted in so long, made me groan.
Rogan flicked a glance over his shoulder, a smile in place as he eyed me. “You swiped a marshmallow, didn’t you?”
My returning grin was unrepentant. “Yep.” I pulled out a stool and sat facing him. “How’s Amy been?”
I’d made a point of calling her via FaceTime every day, to catch up with what she’d been doing.
“This one felt like a long one,” said Rogan quietly.
Guilt swarmed like a hive of bees. Rogan wasn’t being mean, just honest. Hearing that so quickly after Seth’s observation hacked away at my heart, adding to how shitty I was already feeling knowing I had to tell Amy her mom wouldn’t be coming for her birthday, yet again.
“I’m home for the next month… and I was considering taking her to Rocktoberfest on the tour bus.” I hadn’t been but as the idea popped into my head, it came out of my mouth.
He glanced over his shoulder and I noticed he had on one of my band T-shirts, one I’d given to him when I’d seen him eye it several times with interest. “She’ll love that.”
“What about you? Would you like to come?”
What the fuck am I doing?
He turned bright, rosy cheeks back to the pan and his slim shoulders rose and fell. “Surely you wouldn’t have room for me, too?”
The quietness of his voice made it hard to catch what he’d said. “Do you want to come?” I asked again.
The spoon hit off the side of the pan as the scent of warmed chocolate milk increased. “I could keep Amy company when you’re busy, if that’s what you want?”
About to contradict him, that I wasn’t offering as a work thing, I bit my lip when he turned, pan in hand and came to the counter that held the glass cup I’d had the housekeeper, Sara, buy specially for Rogan’s late night drink of choice.
I watched him fill the glass, adding first marshmallows to float in the chocolate milk, then whipped cream, before scattering more marshmallows over the swirled cream. To finish, he grated dark chocolate over the top of all the deliciousness. It was a damn work of art and my stomach grumbled loudly as he pushed the full glass towards me. “Enjoy.”
His smile was back, and I grinned back at him, already lifting the glass to take a healthy drink. My taste buds got a full hit of sweetness. The mix was perfect, and I groaned in delight.
He chuckled as he picked the pan back up and then built his own. “You’ve got cream on your top lip,” he pointed out shyly, not looking at me as he wriggled on to a seat opposite me.
I ran my tongue over my upper lip. “Did I get it all?”
He looked up, then back to his drink, nodding, his cheeks darker than before.
Had I embarrassed him?
It was hard to tell with how shy he was acting. He carefully sipped the hot drink, licking at his top lip before he glanced at me over the rim of the glass, which he held like a barrier between me and his lower face. It annoyed me for reasons I was too tired to focus on.
“When do you go home to visit your folks?” I asked, when the silence suddenly felt uncomfortable. Usually I would chat about what happened on the tour, only tonight it felt different. Tense between us.
“I’m not. We’re going to New York to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Mom has always wanted to do that, so as it’s their thirtieth wedding anniversary, Pop’s has organized the trip and invited me to, getting major brownie points.”
I nodded, getting a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. “So you won’t be here for Thanksgiving this year.”
“Is that going to be a problem? I could always tell my folks I can’t—”
I held up my hand to stop him. “No, it’s fine. It will disappoint Amy for sure, but you need to spend time with your folks on their special occasion.” Regardless of how that left a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach at him not sharing the day with me and Amy as he had done the past couple of years. Amy would miss him for sure.
His expression fell and instead of looking at me he brought the glass to his lips, looking down at the counter.
What had I said?
“It will be fun. You’ll have a blast,” I enthused, trying to bring back his smile. “It’s been a few years since I was in New York for something fun like that.”
I took another sip of my drink, letting the melting marshmallow linger on my tongue, along with the cream. “This is so good. I’ll need to use the gym tomorrow to burn off all the extra calories to prevent my potbelly from getting any bigger with you spoiling me.” I went with a light, joking tone only to get a frown.
“You don’t have a potbelly at all.”
He sounded indignant on my behalf, and my grin broadened. “I’m heading towards forty and I can no longer get away with eating whatever I like.” I patted my stomach for emphasis, and his gaze followed the move.
There was a flash of something in the depths of the dark blue eyes, but it was gone before I could figure out what it meant. “You’re fitter than most men I know.” The stool he was on rocked as the glass hit the counter with force, sloshing the contents over his hand, distracting me from what he’d said. A look of alarm came with a flush so deep his usually pale skin looked like he’d got a sunburn.
“Crap, we need to put that under the cold tap.” I got up, only he was faster.
At the sink, his back to me, the cold faucet sprayed his hand.
When I came to the side of him to assess his hand, I noticed it was shaking. “Let me see. Is it a nasty burn?”
I nudged in next to him and reached out to hold his wrist, pulling his hand closer to me when he didn’t seem inclined to answer me. The second I touched the wet skin, he flinched away.
“Fuck, did I hurt you?” The red area I could see on the back of his hand looked angry and looked to be developing a blister. “Keep it under the tap. There’s a first aid box in a cupboard somewhere here. Let me go find it.”
He nodded, albeit reluctantly.
For reasons I couldn’t fathom, I took a moment to take a breath and get my bearings when I stepped away, my pulse hammering loud enough it made my ears ring.
A few minutes later, when I’d found the plastic box under the counter next to the stove, Rogan hadn’t moved from where I’d left him. “Come here. Let me have a proper look. There’s some burn salve in here,” I muttered, rooting through the contents of the box.
The sound of bare feet slapping on tile indicated Rogan had done as asked. When I glanced up, holding the tube, he didn’t look at me.
His cheeks were ghostly pale. “Sit. You look ready to pass out.”
How bad was the burn?
Was I going to need to call my doctor? Take him to the emergency department?
My hand trembled at the idea he’d really hurt himself, much the way it would if it was Amy sat in the chair looking a little lost. Given how often we were on the road and ,at times, far from a doctor, I’d had to learn some basic first aid. I felt a sudden wave of relief that I had the skills available to help him as I nudged him to once more take a seat. Reaching for his hand, it dripped onto me and the counter. I brought his palm to my chest and, with no thought, wiped the excess wet on his palm against the jacket I’d not taken off.
He exhaled heavily, making his breath whistle through his teeth. His gaze flew to mine before going to where his hand now sat on my chest, near my thudding heart, which jumped hard enough that I felt it in the back of my throat.
“Just drying in,” I muttered, before moving it and laying it on the counter, checking the skin.
“What?” I glanced up at the feel of his gaze on me. I could feel heat warming my cheeks as I returned my attention to the developing blisters.
To open the tube of salve, I placed his hand on the counter. “This will take the heat out of the burn.” I eyed the area, seeing two large blisters. I squeezed the tube and was careful not to touch the skin with the tip. Lip between my teeth, I gently rubbed the cream into the fiery hot skin. I pulled out a piece of wadding to dry the surrounding area before getting a burn dressing to cover it up.
Once I was finished, and though it didn’t look neat, I let out a relieved breath that it wasn’t a complete dogs’ dinner. “There, that should keep it dry and give the cream time to work until I can get my doc to come and check it tomorrow.”
The color was back in Rogan’s face but he continued to keep his gaze somewhere between me and his hand. “Er… thanks… I’m such a klutz,” he stuttered.
I wasn’t sure I’d classify him that way, but I let him be and tidied up the counter. By the time I’d finished, he had picked his glass back up and drained it.
“Did you drink it so fast as not to endure any more of my shitty nursing skills?” I joked. Feeling awkward suddenly, I picked up my now cooling drink.
“I… you… thank you. Listen, I’ll leave you to it.”
Before I could say he didn’t need to go, he fled and I could hear his feet slapping before silence fell.
“What is wrong with me?” I had no answer as I drained my drink, the enjoyment gone now I was alone.
My gaze landed on the glass on the counter as if seeing it for the first time. Rogan always cleaned up after himself. Never once had he gone and left a mess behind him. The pot still sat on the stove, too. For someone who never expected another to pick up after him, Rogan had done just that by leaving everything. I stared, perplexed, at the stuff he’d left behind. Had burning himself knocked him out of whack? Or was I missing something?
I shook off the odd feeling there was more to it than simple embarrassment as I tidied the kitchen then went and turned off the lights. In the hallway, I picked up my bag, the comfortable quiet of my home feeling like a welcoming blanket as I went upstairs.
At the top, my tiredness came back with a vengeance. Despite it, I went through to my bedroom and dropped my bag on my bed. Unzipping it, I pulled out the squishmallow I had found at a truck stop and went through the connecting door that led into Amy’s room. A bedside lamp glowed in the room’s corner.
Her cherub face was relaxed in sleep and a small hand was curled under her chin in the princess canopy bed she’d picked herself last year. Thick, inky black eyelashes, the same as mine, fanned her cheekbones. Dark hair surrounded her head in a tangled mess. I sighed quietly at how she refused to let anyone cut it over the last couple of years, insisting that girls needed long hair. I had no idea why, but then who knew the workings of a six-year-old brain?
I walked to the bed and crouched down next to her. I placed a light kiss on her brow. It wrinkled, then smoothed out as her lips tugged into a small smile. I placed the small squishmallow I had found, one that she didn’t already have, next to her head, then kissed her brow once more.
A movement out of the corner of my eye got me standing to see Rogan disappear from the doorway that led into the hallway. Amy didn’t like to have her doors shut and I knew Rogan kept his open for her.
I tiptoed out into the hallway. One glance showed there was no sign of Rogan and his bedroom door was closed.
Pinching my brow at the dull ache from earlier returning, I walked back to my room. Inside, I shut the door and plonked myself down on the bed to stare at the door, frowning.
What was this new weirdness between me and Rogan? And was it going to affect Amy?