“Your E’s out,” Zeke barks.
I take a deep breath, hold it, then exhale.
“Willow, did you hear me? I said it’s out of tune.”
“Yeah, I heard you.” I adjust the tuning pegs for the trillionth time.
“Where the fuck are Drake and Reid? Should’ve been here an hour ago,” he grumbles.
“On their way. They messaged me a few minutes ago.” They didn’t, and there’s every possibility lead singer Drake is still asleep. After all, nothing and no one separates that man from his mattress. I don’t even think a busty blonde in lingerie pouring him a craft beer would do it. But I’m not telling the country’s most prolific music producer that.
Zeke grunts, then goes back to running microphone leads from the PA to Reid’s drum kit. “We’ve only got two weeks to get this record done. They’re wasting my fucking time.”
I glance at Zeke Danton. It’s no hardship; he’s the hottest man I’ve ever seen. Since first meeting him an hour ago, concentrating has been almost impossible. Aren’t producers meant to be old? Aren’t they meant to be ugly? He’s barely thirty and could give magazine cover models a run for their money.
The man in question is crouched in front of Reid’s bass drum, his back to me. It’s a strong back, broad, muscular. The material of his plain black T-shirt is stretched so tight, his deltoids ripple beneath the fabric. I blink.
Forcing my mind back to the task at hand, I hum a quick melody and then play the accompanying tune.
“Thought I told you to get your Fender restrung before we started preproduction.”
My fingers pause on the instrument. I take another deep, steadying breath. “The tuner did restring it. He promised me my guitar was fine when I picked it up from the shop yesterday. It sounds good to me.”
“Play the chord progression again. I want to hear a complete song.”
Nodding, I turn the tuning pegs ever so slightly to the right. Again. Then, because I need a moment, my eyelids flutter shut as I imagine the ocean. It’s a technique Mom taught me as a child. An image of gentle cerulean waves rolling in to shore and then retreating again fills my mind. I imagine all the negative energy in the studio being dragged out with the tide.
A weight lifts.
With my eyes still closed, I grip the guitar pick between my thumb and forefinger, throw up a quick prayer to Tyche, goddess of luck, and play.
The clean tone bursts through the speakers. All at once succumbing to the pleasure that is my Fender Telecaster, I lose myself in the sound. My fingers slide up and down the fretboard while the pick coaxes a myriad of notes from the instrument. It is crisp, sharp, on point.
I stop. High-pitched feedback echoes through the studio. My voice is tight. “Is something wrong?”
“Your E’s still out.”
Glancing down at the digital tuner nestled between the pedals of my effects board, I scrunch my nose. “How can it be out if the light is green? Green means my guitar’s in tune.”
He snorts again. “Tuner’s a guide. Use your ears.”
Growling, I shake my head. Loose auburn curls fall about my face and bangs tumble into my eyes. I puff a quick exhalation, and hair flies into the air before settling on either side of my face. Once again, I twist the tuning pegs a quarter of an inch to the right. Then, closing my eyes, I murmur, “Please, please, please, please.”
My guitar pick teases the strings, softly, gently, a lover’s caress. The sound is different this time; it’s cleaner, more melodic and sweeter—a direct contrast to the man intent on riding my ass. Before long, intricate riffs form. They layer one on top of the other, creating a beautiful symphony amplified by the studio’s acoustics.
Zeke’s gravelly voice cuts through the music. My fingers pause, the final notes fading through the PA until there is nothing but static filling the silence.
“Wow.” My eyes flick from my instrument to where he is crouched by my feet unraveling yet another mic lead. He says nothing. His gaze is fixed on the equipment.
“You were right. The slightest change made all the difference.” I marvel at the back of his head. “Thank you. The tone never sounded so sweet.”
He freaking grunts.
“You’re not a people person, are you?”
Oh hell no.
Planting fists on my hips, I glare at his dark, close-cropped hair. If it wasn’t for my guitar swaying from the movement, I would look totally badass. “It’s rude to ignore people, you know. And it’s really rude not to look them in the eye when they’re speaking.”
Zeke turns. His movement is slow, deliberate. I swallow, resisting the urge to stumble back. His gaze purposely travels the length of my bare legs. They’re perfectly ordinary, with ankles and knees and everything in between. But under his scrutiny they become something more, something desirable. My calves never felt so smooth, my thighs never so lean. I shiver. His stare flits over my denim cutoffs, partially obscured by my Fender, and rests a moment too long on my exposed stomach. His eyes then take in the loose cropped T-shirt and caress the outline of my breasts. They’re made even more obvious by the guitar strap resting between them, and it takes everything I have not to arch my back.
Zeke’s jaw tightens.
My thighs clench.
Since my shirt hangs haphazardly off one shoulder, his stare zeros in on the dusting of freckles near my collarbone. Goose bumps break out on my skin. Taking his sweet-ass time, Zeke lets his gaze roam my neck, lips, cheeks, hair, and, finally, finally, his eyes meet mine.
Sun-kissed bronze. I’ve never seen anything like it. His eyes are golden caramel mixed with flecks of amber and tawny. Despite the color’s vibrancy, they’re flat, defensive, caged in so much suspicion that I’m desperate to know who or what put it there. Distrusting or not, they’re beautiful.
“See?” Breathless. Crap. “Knew you could do it.”
Then, with more grace than a six-foot-two mountain of a man has a right to, Zeke stands. My head tips back to take him all in. The man is close, so close I inhale his scent—pine needles after heavy rain. I take in a lungful, wanting to secrete away this part of him before he shatters the illusion of perfection by speaking.
Zeke’s eyes drop to my lips.
His head whips to the right. Standing in the doorway is a tall, curvaceous bombshell. From the glistening cobalt hair cascading over tan shoulders to her hourglass figure enhanced by a white wrap dress, she is everything I am not. Her flawless makeup is artfully applied, and, at a guess, she’s either in her late twenties or early thirties, older than me by at least five years. She wears it well. So well, it takes everything I have not to groan out loud. Is she lost? But then I remember the intimate way she greeted Zeke.
My insides constrict.
“Oh.” Red manicured nails clutch a voluptuous chest. “Am I interrupting?” With a smile that is two parts conniving and one part candid, the woman saunters toward me, her bejeweled hand outstretched. “I’m Selena. And you are…?”
Zeke’s voice is hard. “She’s no one.”
I glare at Zeke. Did he eye-fuck me despite having a girlfriend, or even worse, a wife? Asshole.
Selena’s teeth are a blinding white. “Zeke, honey, that’s unkind. Look at the poor girl, you’ve made her angry.”
He doesn’t look at me, thankfully. There’s every chance I’d stab him in the pupil with my guitar pick if he did, sexy eyes be damned.
“You’re not my wife anymore. And anything you have to say to me can be done through my lawyer. Now get out.”
I take a step back.
Long fingers wrap around Zeke’s bicep. It’s strange, they look so tiny against the broad muscle bulging from beneath his T-shirt. “That not what you told me when—”
“Leave,” he growls, shaking her off. “Take your shit and go.”
It’s beyond awkward standing in the middle of a conversation clearly not meant for me. “I’m just gonna….” Placing my guitar on its stand, I point in the direction of the door.
“No, stay. Please.”
I glance at Selena. There is every chance my eyebrows are lost in the chaos of my bangs.
She gestures to my instrument. “You’re recording with Zeke, right?”
Reluctantly, I nod. “My band is, yeah.”
She turns to her ex-husband, batting her thick eyelashes. “Isn’t he a talented music producer? One of the best, don’t you think?”
“Um.” I take another step back. This is beyond weird.
Zeke’s jaw tightens.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful for the opportunity, I nod. “He’s got a real ear for music.”
“That he does.” Selena smiles. However, when she faces me, her gaze narrows. “But a word of advice, don’t get close to him.”
“Selena,” Zeke warns.
“He’ll only drag you down too.”
I have no idea what to say. Luckily, Selena doesn’t appear to expect a response. Instead, she tips her head to one side, inspecting me. “And you’re cute. Young, but cute. I’d hate for you to be disappointed too.”
“Get the fuck out before I throw you out.”
Selena’s smirk is devilish when she turns to Zeke. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, sugar?” She steps between Zeke and me, her floral perfume disorientating. “I remember how you used to love throwing me around.” She rubs her large breasts against his chest. The pulse at the base of his neck jumps, and even though the sight of Selena throwing herself at him is sickening, for the life of me I can’t look away. “Gets me hot just thinking about it.”
Selena leans forward, whispering loudly in Zeke’s ear, “I’ve left a memento on your mixing console.” With a nip to his earlobe, she steps back, winks, and struts from the studio.
“That was….” I blink, shaking my head. “Zeke, I—”
He rounds on me. “Why aren’t you playing guitar? I told you I wanted to hear a complete song. Don’t fucking waste my time.”
I reel back as though struck.
Enough. How many times has he treated me like shit in the last hour? Three? Four? Four times too many.
Just as I am about to tell Zeke Danton where he can shove his crazy-ass wife and hurtful reactionary comments, I remember everything I have to lose if I do.
A million-dollar contract.
A debut album.
A national tour.
My hands clench and unclench at my sides. Turning my back on him, I once again close my eyes, needing a moment to collect myself. This time, I imagine being enveloped in positive energy. Gradually, a bright white light full of teeming sparks cocoons me in an aura of optimism. My body grows warm, heated from the crackling charge. Then, when I am overflowing with pulsing vitality, I stop.
“I don’t have all fucking day.”
“Quit standing there and move.”
Opening my eyes, I turn to my instrument, disregarding the man-mountain glowering nearby. After placing the guitar strap over one shoulder, I take the pick from where I slipped it beneath the strings for safekeeping.
Zeke watches me, his beautiful face twisted in irritation.
Staring at him, I lift my right hand in the air and pause. Raising a pointed eyebrow, I swoop my arm down.
A barrage of sound erupts from the speakers. My fingers fly over the frets while the pick in my right hand becomes a blur. Faster and faster I play, the clean chords growing sharper, clearer with each stroke.
Zeke blinks. Once, twice, three times. It is enough for a small smile to tug the corners of my mouth as I switch my focus to the instrument coming alive in my hands.
This. This is why I play. For the freedom, the joy, the sheer pleasure of blowing people’s minds.
So, I shred.
Like a goddamn rock star.