The kid was cute. Really cute. Tousled hair, big beautiful eyes and a huge, blinding smile. Austin-type cute. I felt sick to my stomach. The world seemed to go in and out of focus, and for a minute I thought I might faint.
“Are you OK?” Molly took a step forward. “You look white as a sheet.”
“I just . . .” I tried to pull it together. A kid? He had a kid, and he never thought to mention him?
“Come, sit down.” Molly rushed to steer me to the front steps. “Do you want a glass of water?”
“No, I’m fine,” I lied, even though my head was spinning. “I just . . .” I paused. “He really looks like Austin,” I said, almost to myself, but Molly tensed.
“What do you . . . ? Oh.” She looked from me to the kid and back again. “You better come in.”
Even though I really didn’t want to spend more time with Austin’s baby-mama and his secret baby, I had come this far, hadn’t I? Even though the broken-hearted girl in me wanted to run away as far as possible from all this drama, the reporter in me wanted to get the story. The whole story.
So I followed Molly into her apartment.
The inside was just as cozy as the outside—potted plants everywhere, a play area set up in the center of the living room overflowing with toys, and a wall completely lined with books.
“Let me get you that water,” Molly said, and bustled to the kitchen. She reappeared and handed me the glass. I gulped it down.
Dammit. The kid was really cute. He looked at me with his big, round eyes and it was impossible not to melt a little bit. Glancing around, I found something that confirmed my exact fears. Across from us on a bookshelf was a framed photo of Molly, Austin and the kid, but in infant form. Everyone was smiling.
“His name is Shawn,” Molly said, following my gaze. “And he’s not Austin’s.”
“It’s OK,” I told her. “I don’t know if he’s making you keep it a secret, but, you don’t have to pretend anymore.”
But Molly just laughed. “Is that what you think? That Austin got me tied up in some non-disclosure agreement? We’re just friends. Austin is involved because Shawn’s real dad isn’t.”
She looked embarrassed. “His real dad is Danny.”
“Method of Madness’ bassist?” I asked.
Molly nodded, her face going red. “Danny and I were high school sweethearts,” she told me. “We knew each other before he met Austin, before they founded the band. I even played with them for a while, helped out with shows and stuff.”
I paused, trying to follow the story. “But why the money? Austin pays you every month.”
Molly ducked her head, her hair falling in front of her face. “That’s not for Shawn,” she said. She sighed, then looked up. “Those are my royalty payments. For my songs.”
I sat down with a thump. “Your songs?”
Molly gave me a rueful smile. “I wanted to be a poet, but Danny always said that there wasn’t any money in poetry. That my words were better as songs. At first I didn’t mind—I wanted to help him. I thought that his success would be my success, that we were in it together.”
I remembered Danny in his recording studio and the absolutely horrible lyrics he’d been singing.
“So, he started using my stuff with the band,” Molly continued. “I figured they knew I’d written everything, but when it came time to sign the record deal . . . He told me it would just complicate things if I got credit.”
“I bet he did,” I said grimly.
Molly gave me a wry look. “What can I say? I was young and stupid.” She let out a breath.
“What a dick,” I told her.
“I know,” she said with a bitter laugh. “When I found out he’d signed all the copyright paperwork saying he was the songwriter, I was furious, but Danny told me that if I told anyone they wouldn’t believe me. And who was I? Just some nobody. By then, they were the biggest thing around. So I didn’t say anything.”
“But Austin figured it out,” I realized.
“He did,” Molly said. “He asked me point-blank, and I told him the truth. Danny was furious, the others were split.”
“That’s why the band broke up,” I said.
Molly nodded. “Of course, that was also the time I realized I was pregnant. Perfect opportunity for Danny to blame the breakup on me and dump me as punishment for ruining his career.” She reached over and tousled her son’s hair, but there were tears in her eyes. “He’s never even met Shawn.”
“So Austin stepped in?” I asked, putting the pieces together.
“Yup. He’s a thousand times the guy Danny ever was,” Molly said, pulling Shawn onto her lap. “He’s been here for everything, and he always making sure we’re taken care of.”
“Why didn’t you tell people the truth?” I wanted to know.
“Come on, you know what their fans are like. They’d make out like I was this generation’s Yoko Ono, breaking up a beloved band,” Molly said. “I don’t want that kind of drama, not around Shawn. Austin is a better father figure than Danny ever could be,” she continued. “Probably because he knows what it’s like to grow up in a family that doesn’t care.”
That made sense. It seemed like Austin was all about making new families wherever he went, from Seamus and the patrons at the pub to his own band to his friendship with Luke.
“You know, he really likes you,” Molly interrupted my thoughts.
I looked up.
“I saw the way Austin looked at you at the concert. I hope you guys can work it out.”
I shook my head. “It’s over. I thought he had changed, but he hadn’t.”
Molly didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I know Austin has a past,” she said slowly. “All those guys do. But he’s different from the others. Trust me, I’ve been around enough of them to know who the real deal is. And Austin is definitely the real deal.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to believe Molly, but Austin had left me high and dry, and actions spoke way louder than words. Still, I left Molly’s apartment knowing one thing at least: that it was time to turn in my article and put Austin behind me for good. I settled in at a coffee shop nearby, and didn’t get up again for hours. I wasn’t about to go spilling his secrets, but I was pretty pleased with the result: a look behind the scenes at the rise, and fall, and rise again, from his early days in college right through to this latest release. What it meant to him to put his music out there—and how the media machine demanded a high price for the headlines. Ten years ago, artists could keep a relatively low profile, but now, with websites and social media, it was like they had to make a deal with the devil: their life, splashed across every screen in the country in exchange for putting their art out there. I had all the quotes from Austin, about wishing he could stay low key and balancing his art with fame. It wasn’t the profile I’d expected to write, but I was damn proud by the time I hit “send” to Richard.
Within fifteen minutes I had a call from him. He was furious.
“What the fuck is this?” he demanded. “I didn’t want some fucking media studies dissertation, I wanted some grade A gossip that would bring traffic to our site.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him, not at all sorry. “But that’s the only story I have to give you.”
“You didn’t get anything else?” he wanted to know. “No juicy details about why the band broke up? No skeletons in anyone’s closet?”
There were plenty of those, but I wasn’t about to share them with my skeezy boss.
“Nothing like that,” I told him, my conscience clear.
He swore. “Well, you better find something to spice this up, or you’re going to be looking for a new job on Monday.”
Then he hung up on me.
I stared at my phone for a good ten minutes, not able to process what had just happened. Had Richard just threatened to fire me if I didn’t write something dramatic and gossip-filled about Austin?
The thought of doing that made me sick. I knew immediately it was never going to happen. But that meant I would be out of a job.
I came out of my room and was immediately handed a glass of wine by Grace and a bowl of cookies by Cassie, both of whom had thoughtfully waited for me to return from my visit with Molly.
“The good news is that there’s a perfectly innocent reason Austin is sending a random woman money every month,” I told them. “The bad news is that when I don’t write about it, my boss is going to fire me.”
I was enveloped in hugs. I had been holding back tears for days and now they started pouring out of me.
“I’m going to end up alone and unemployed,” I wailed as my friends gave me a tight squeeze.
There was a knock at the door. For a moment, I grew hopeful. Maybe it was Austin.
But it wasn’t. It was Luke.
Cassie blocked his entrance into our apartment, her arms crossed.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“I just want to talk to Mia,” he argued, trying to peer around her and having no luck because Cassie kept getting in his way. “Please?”
“I don’t think she wants to talk to you,” Cassie told him.
“It’s OK,” I told her, resigned. I was still furious at my brother, but I didn’t want to do what Austin was doing to me and ignore him. I was going to be a goddamn adult and talk this out.
“We’re going to go get some more wine.” Grace grabbed Cassie arm and began pulling her out of the apartment. “But we won’t be gone long.” She gave my brother a withering look. “If you make her cry, you’ll have us to answer to.”
My brother looked concerned. I didn’t blame him—it was one thing for Cassie to get protective, but when Grace did it, she meant business. They left, and Luke turned to me.
“I’m sorry, Mia,” he said, actually looking apologetic.
“What exactly are you sorry about?” I demanded. “Was it treating me like a child who can’t make decisions for herself, or acting like an idiot, brawling in the street?”
“Both,” Luke said, running his hand through his hair. “I was a jerk. I know that. I just—” He sat down on the couch. “I just reacted poorly to something I wasn’t expecting. At all.”
“It wasn’t really any of your business,” I reminded him. “I’m a grown woman. I can sleep with whoever I want. Even if you don’t agree with my choices.”
He winced, but nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “I shouldn’t have hit him. I just think you deserve better,” he told me.
“Better than your best friend?” I wanted to know. “So you’re fine with Austin, love him like family, until he dares to date your sister?”
Luke looked frustrated. “I know, but . . .” He sighed. “Do you really like him? Because if you guys are happy together, I can learn to live with it. For you.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Did he not know?
“Austin broke up with me,” I told him.
Luke shot to his feet. “He did what?”
“You should be happy.” I frowned.
“That he dumped you? I’m going to kill that guy!”
I let out a sigh of frustration. “I really don’t understand you guys,” I despaired. “First you’re mad he was dating me, now you’re mad that he’s not!”
“Are you OK?” Luke demanded, and I couldn’t lie.
I shook my head. “I really liked him,” I said, as tears began flowing again. “I think I was falling in love.”
My voice cracked. Immediately my brother enveloped me in a hug.
“I’m so sorry,” he told me, his voice muffled in my hair. “Do you want me to beat him up again?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “No thanks,” I said. “I think we’ve all been battered enough for now.”
Luke nodded, and we sat down together on the couch. “I love you, sis,” he said, draping his arm over my shoulders. “I just want you to be happy.”
I hugged him. “I love you too. Now, just stay the hell out my love life, OK?”