At the last second, Jesse changed his mind and sat next to the hot guy instead of the middle-aged businesswoman.
It was a breach of the rules. Jesse had been taking the Sunday afternoon Montreal-to-Toronto train once a month for the past four years, and he had a system, a well-honed methodology developed from painful trial and error.
And by painful, he meant, for example, five hours trapped next to a young mother holding a teething baby.
Most people liked to rush onto the train as soon as possible, and they aggressively went after empty rows, seating themselves alone. But this route always sold out. Since the train was going to fill, it was smarter to hang back a bit, to bide his time and get onto a car that looked like it was about half-full. That way, he could choose his seatmate, whereas all those hasty people alone in two-seater rows had to resign themselves to a journey with whoever happened to plop down next to them.
No, it was infinitely preferable to be in control of one’s own destiny.
And Jesse was nothing if not in control of his destiny.
So whenever Jesse got on a train, the first thing he always did was start profiling the hell out of potential seatmates.
Middle-aged women were the best. Even better if they looked like they were traveling on business. If they also wore wedding rings? Jackpot. Women in general tended not to initiate conversation and left him to pass the time in peace, the aforementioned mother-of-teether being emblematic of an exceptional subcategory: mothers desperately in need of adult conversation.
Another subcategory to avoid regardless of gender? The elderly, God bless them, were not ideal seatmates.
Neither were teenagers, the ultimate undesirable seatmates. They were starting to recognize him. Some people in their twenties and thirties did too, but they usually couldn’t remember from where—or if they did, it sparked a brief conversation and then they picked up on his not-so-subtle cues and left him alone. But if a teenaged girl recognized him, he was doomed. He generally didn’t like to think of teenagers as the band’s target demographic, but you never had any idea what the record label was going to do with your stuff. Before you knew it, you’d be appearing on Spotify playlists called “teen heartbreak” or some shit.
He was beginning to think it was time to arrange alternate transportation for his monthly trips back from Montreal. Things were happening faster on the career front than he’d anticipated. By the time he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, he wasn’t going to be taking the train anymore anyway. And what do they say? “Start as you mean to go on”?
Today, he ambled down the aisle, scanning the rows until he spied the perfect target: midforties, hair blown out into a perfect dark-brown helmet, business suit, laptop already fired up.
As he approached, he surveyed the rest of the car. The row across from the businesswoman was occupied by a man reading a book. He was dressed in an aqua button-down shirt and dark jeans. Salt-and-pepper hair, which was clearly premature—the guy couldn’t have been more than thirty-five—swooshed back into a messy pompadour that was shorter on the sides. His most prominent facial feature was a chiseled jaw dusted with a few days’ worth of beard growth that was more salt than pepper.
Well, shit. A baby silver fox.
The poor bastard would probably end up with some clingy woman sitting next to him, projecting all her hopes onto him for the duration of the trip.
Jesse should do a good deed and sit next to him.
He usually tried to ignore men who weren’t obviously working on something. You never knew with men. It was harder to make snap judgments about them. Sometimes they kept to themselves, but sometimes the newspaper they’d seemed so engrossed in would turn out to be a prop and they’d want to buddy up with you.
Someone was coming up the aisle behind him. Jesse was holding everyone up.
The woman was safer. Infinitely safer.
He set his bag down on the seat next to the man.
Jesse rummaged through it to pull out the items he’d need during the trip—phone, bottle of water, the latest issues of Billboard and Rolling Stone. It was hard not to sigh over the talentless, manufactured boy band on the cover of the latter. But he would have his turn someday.
As he reached up to stash his bag on the overhead shelf, the man looked up and caught his eye.
Jesse nodded as he sat. The man’s eyes were striking—a kind of light brown flecked with gold, bright enough to be visible behind his black horn-rimmed glasses. The silver hair and the almost-gold eyes were a weird but compelling combination, like clashing jewelry.
The man gave a slight smile and said, “Hey,” before returning his attention to his book. A second later, though, his phone dinged. He picked it up and eyed the screen. Jesse watched him key in his passcode and read a long text. His eyes seemed to darken in real time, becoming a little less gold, like the sun dimming. He dropped the phone carelessly into the seat pocket in front of him, closed his eyes, and mouthed, Fuck.
Some part of Jesse’s brain could sense some other part of his brain gearing up to speak.
Don’t do it.
They had a five-hour journey ahead of them.
Don’t do it.
The man’s eyes flew open as the rational part Jesse’s brain railed at the mouth-controlling part, which had apparently gone rogue.
“Sorry,” Jesse said, and what was he doing? This way lay ruin. Or at least the possibility of an excruciatingly tedious five hours, because who knew if he’d been brainwashed by this guy’s good looks? “You just seemed . . . upset all of a sudden.”
The man opened his mouth, then closed it, like maybe he was at war with himself too.
“Sorry,” said Jesse again, which was weird because Spin’s review of the band’s last record had called it “unapologetic,” and never had Jesse been more satisfied with an adjective. “I’ll leave you alone.”
You know the best way to leave someone alone? Leave them the fuck alone.
“I’m a doctor,” the man said, kind of woodenly, like he was trying out this talking thing for the first time. His voice was all gravel and velvet, which should have been a contradiction, but apparently a guy with silver hair and gold eyes didn’t have to hew to the rules that governed the rest of the slobs in the world. “A pediatrician. I have a patient who got some bad news.”
“Yeah?” Jesse prompted, because suddenly, he could no longer imagine anything he’d like to do more for the next five hours than listen to Baby Silver Fox talk about his job. Also: what the hell?
“He needs a new liver. We were testing his brother as a possible donor.” He looked out the window at the passing scenery as he spoke. “It was this kid’s best hope. That was one of the nurses texting with the news that the brother is not a match. Now he’s got to sit around on the waiting list biding time—and time isn’t something this kid has a ton of.” He ran his hands through his hair, scraping his fingers against his scalp in frustration as he turned his attention back to Jesse. “Sorry. That was probably a longer answer than you wanted.”
Christ. That put things into perspective, didn’t it? Here Jesse was, his biggest problem that he wasn’t making enough money to fly back from Montreal after his visits with his sister but he was starting to be recognized on the train. “You know what? I’ll be right back.” He popped up and hunted down the porter, who hadn’t begun food and beverage service yet and, by dangling an enormous tip, managed to procure two tiny bottles of whiskey.
When he plunked them down on Baby Silver Fox’s tray, it occurred to him that maybe whiskey wasn’t the best answer to liver problems, but the man grinned and said, “It’s noon somewhere?”
“Exactly,” said Jesse, a fierce sort of satisfaction lodging in his chest at the idea that he’d made this man smile. “Nothing like a little midmorning whiskey to take your mind off your problems.” He twisted open one of the bottles and handed it over, belatedly wishing he’d gotten something classier than whiskey. This guy probably drank martinis.
“Thanks.” Baby Silver Fox clinked his bottle against Jesse’s and then took a sip.
He wasn’t sure what to say. “So you’re a pediatrician? That must be rewarding.” As soon as it was out, though, he regretted it. The guy tells you a kid is on the verge of death, and you say, “How rewarding”? “On the whole, I mean. Making kids well,” he added, because why stop while he was behind?
“I wish. Most of the kids I see are really sick. I work at Toronto Children’s Hospital. I’m a hospitalist. You know what that is? Most people don’t.”
“I would be one of those people.”
“It’s sort of like a general practitioner, but for patients in the hospital. I oversee their care—many of them are being seen by lots of different kinds of specialists and technicians. I make sure everything is integrated optimally and . . .” He trailed off and sighed.
“And that kids who need new livers get them?” Jesse finished softly.
Baby Silver Fox—make that Dr. Baby Silver Fox—rolled his eyes like he was disgusted with himself. “In theory.”
“Hey, now. It’s not your fault this kid’s brother wasn’t a match.”
“I know. I’m just . . . I don’t know. I moved to Toronto from Montreal three months ago. I thought about changing things up when I decided I was going to move—joining a regular pediatric practice. Giving out vaccines and fixing tummy trouble and referring on the hard cases. You’d think stuff like this would get easier, but it doesn’t.”
“I don’t imagine dying kids ever gets easy.”
The doctor made a vague noise of agreement. “Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking. The point of moving was to make a fresh start. And here I am doing the exact same thing I was doing in Montreal . . . and, Jesus, listen to me. I don’t even know you, and it’s like I think you’re my therapist or something.” He held up his now-empty bottle. “I’m a bit of a lightweight, I’m afraid. And also a chatty drunk, so . . .”
“Hey, it’s okay.” And, amazingly, it was. This was exactly the kind of conversation he normally bent over backward to avoid, but somehow, this time, with this guy, he wanted to know more.
“Let’s change the subject,” said the man. “What about you? What brought you to Montreal? Or is Montreal home?”
“Nope, headed home to Toronto. I’m in a band. We have a monthly gig in Montreal.”
“A band that travels by VIA Rail?” He smiled. “You guys should make a commercial.”
“No, the gig’s on Friday, and the rest of the band heads back afterward in a couple of vans. My sister and her son live in Montreal, though, so I usually spend the weekend with them and make my own way home on Sunday.”
“Would I know your work?”
“I doubt it.”
“The band’s called Jesse and the Joyride.”
“Alas, I don’t think I know it. Are you Jesse?”
“Yep. Jesse Jamison.” He stuck out his hand.
Hunter Wyatt’s hand was soft. Or maybe it was only Jesse’s guitar-induced calluses that made it seem so.
Jesse held on a heartbeat too long, lulled for a moment by the rocking of the train and the warm flesh against his own.
Hunter quirked a smile as he pulled away. “It’s not every day you meet a rock star on the train. Especially a rock star taking the train because he’s so dedicated to his sister. You’re a regular saint.”
“I’m not a saint. Or a rock star, for that matter.” Yet. “But, yeah, it’s just me and my sister and my nephew—he’s three. Our parents are gone. My sister’s had a rough couple of years. She’s mostly on her own with my nephew.”
If only he would leave, once and for all. “Something like that.”
“That’s tough. We’ve all been there.” He huffed a bitter laugh. “Some of us more recently than others.”
“Ah,” Jesse said. “The fresh start. The move to Toronto.”
“Officially I came for the job, but . . . yeah.”
“How long had you been together?”
Jesse whistled. “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever even made it eight months in a relationship.” Not even close to eight months, truth be told, but he didn’t want to admit that in front of this guy who so clearly had his shit together.
“Not so impressive, really,” Hunter said, “given that I have literally nothing to show for it.”
“So you were back for a visit this weekend?”
“Yeah, the dog died. My ex called and said this was it, so I came up to . . . say goodbye, I guess.”
“Yeah, the worst part is that the dog died before I got there.”
“Your girlfriend leaves you and your dog dies? It’s like a country song—a bad country song.”
The doctor didn’t laugh, just screwed up his face like he was trying to decide something. Then he said, “It’s, uh, not a girl.”
“The dog is not a girl?”
“The girlfriend is not a girlfriend. He’s a boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend.”
Jesse had been afraid of that.
* * * * * * *
This was the part where the rock star would freak out.
Which was fine, because Hunter’s dog was dead, his sickest patient was going to keep getting sicker, and his ex, Julian, was still a closet-case bent on sucking all the life out of Hunter.
So a little straight-boy panic induced by accidental proximity to a homo was nothing.
He wasn’t into pretending to be anything he wasn’t—not anymore, anyway—so the testosterone-oozing musician in the next seat could just feel free to panic.
And he was panicking.
But apparently not over the fact that Hunter liked dick.
His phone had chimed, and he’d picked it up and was scrolling through what looked like an article illustrated with pictures. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good news.
’Twas the season, apparently.
“Holy shit,” Jesse said again, closing his eyes and letting his chin fall to his chest.
“What’s the matter?” Hunter asked, because it seemed rude to check out now.
Jesse opened his eyes and blew out a long, slow breath. “Well, it’s nowhere near as bad as your news. That’s a good perspective to remember.”
“Less-bad bad news. That sounds delightful right about now. Hit me.”
He didn’t answer, but he handed over his phone.
It was an article on a website called GossipTO, headlined Jesse Jamison making out with mysterious blond—and she isn’t Kylie Cameron.
He read on. Apparently his seatmate was notorious for his stereotypical rock star ways. Before his current girlfriend—this Kylie person—Jesse had enjoyed the groupie lifestyle, if this site was to be believed. Everyone had been shocked when he’d gotten together with Kylie, the story reported. There was also something in there about a trashed hotel room incident.
“I thought you said you weren’t a rock star,” Hunter said.
“I’m not. Not really.”
Hunter chuckled and read part of the article out loud. “‘We all know Jesse likes his sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but’—”
Jesse cut him off. “I mean, I have a band. We’re doing pretty well in Canada. No one knows our name in the States. Yet. This”—he gestured toward the phone—“is a sensationalistic, B-list Canadian gossip website. But damn, they’re out to get me. I can’t do anything without them all over my ass. So I enjoy having a little fun from time to time. It’s not like I’m breaking any laws.” He quirked a grin. “Mostly.”
“So they got you making out with this woman who isn’t your girlfriend?”
“And your girlfriend is also some kind of celebrity?”
“She’s a model.”
Hunter couldn’t really see anything about the person Jesse was kissing in the blurry shot. Jesse had his back to the camera, and his companion was leaning against a brick wall. She was as tall as Jesse, and models were tall, right? All that was visible of the kiss-ee was shoulder-length, dirty-blond, almost-messy hair—which also seemed kind of model-esque, in that way that models sometimes seemed to strive to look bad in the name of fashion. “So there’s no way this could be her?”
“You don’t know Kylie Cameron?” Jesse asked.
Hunter searched his mind. “I don’t think so?”
“She’s Asian. She has long black hair.”
“Ah,” Hunter said. “I guess you’re busted.”
“Yeah, and in addition to that not being her, Kylie is like, Canada’s sweetheart. She was on Degrassi as a kid—before she moved into modeling.”
“I’m kind of out of the pop culture loop,” said Hunter, though of course he did know the iconic TV show. Everyone who grew up in Canada knew Degrassi. Hell, Drake had been on Degrassi.
“Yeah, well, everyone loves her. Now I’m the asshole who publicly broke Kylie Cameron’s heart.”
Hunter squinted at the phone again. If the Kinsey scale was a reliable measure—as a medical doctor, he had his doubts—Hunter was a solid six. Unambiguously gay. And usually he was ruthlessly adept at not developing crushes on straight guys. (Gay guys who pretended to be straight in certain circumstances were another question. Unfortunately.) So the image of Jesse Jamison kissing Ms. Anonymous should have had no effect on him. He should have been immune.
But damn, there was something about that picture. The way Jesse was crowding his not-girlfriend up against the wall. The way he was framing her face with his hands. That was why only her hair was visible—Jesse’s hands were clamped possessively on her face.
And if Jesse had this much to lose by being spotted, the fact that this kiss had gone down in public must have meant they’d both been pretty carried away. Hunter shifted in his seat.
“What’s her name?” He handed the phone back with an odd reluctance.
“My girlfriend? You mean her real name? It’s Kylie—she never used a stage name. And I should probably start calling her my ex-girlfriend. ’Cause she is not going to stand for this shit.”
“No.” Hunter gestured to the phone. “What’s the other woman’s name?”
Jesse paused before answering. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“You don’t know it!” Damn, this guy was a rock star, or at least well on his way to becoming one. Hunter cracked up; he couldn’t help it. Jesse certainly looked the part. Choppy dark, messy hair hung around his face. His forearms—he wore a ratty flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up—were covered with tattoos. He had that kind of sexy-sleazy look.
That was not a look Hunter went for.
He liked a more polished look.
“Haven’t you ever made out with someone whose name you didn’t catch?” Jesse asked.
“Not for a really long time.” Not since before he’d met Julian. And even before Julian, Hunter had been a serial monogamist. He could count on one hand the number of casual hookups in his past.
Maybe that was what the move to Toronto had been missing so far—some casual sex to break him out of his slump. The prospect was kind of terrifying.
“Well, you should try it,” Jesse declared. “Quickest way to get over your loser ex.”
“Why do you assume my ex was the loser? Maybe I was the loser.”
Hunter wanted to ask how Jesse could possibly know this, but he didn’t want to make it seem like he was fishing for compliments.
Jesse’s phone buzzed. He picked it up again. “And there it is.”
Jessie scrolled for a moment, then said, “The breakup text.” He sighed resignedly.
“Really?” Hunter was taken aback by the idea of breaking up with someone via text, but he supposed that was part of the jet-set, rock star life his seatmate lived. “Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Jesse shrugged. “It’s okay. Saves me having to do it. The writing was already on the wall.”
“The writing on the wall being something other than you making out with someone else against the wall? It seems like your whole problem here is the wall.”
All he got in response was a chuckle.
Clearly, Jesse was not the type to invest his heart and soul and the better part of a decade into a relationship.
Hunter should learn from Jesse.
He was downloading Grindr as soon as he got home.
“The more important question is whether my manager is going to dump me over this.”
“You’re more concerned about getting dumped by your manager than your girlfriend?” Hunter asked, though he wasn’t sure why—the answer was clear.
“I have a bit of a work-life balance problem?” Jesse shrugged. “And also a manager who basically has me on probation.”
“Wow.” Who was this guy? Hunter had never seen anyone so . . . unapologetic.
“What are you drinking?” Jesse asked.
“What?” Oh, the service cart was making its way down the aisle.
“I’m guessing whiskey isn’t your preferred poison.”
When Hunter didn’t answer right away, Jesse dropped his magazines into the seat pocket in front of him and said, “Fuck career-ruining photographs.” Then he did the same with his phone, holding it between one finger and a thumb like it was contaminated. “Fuck dying kids. Fuck everyone. We’re single and free. We should toast that shit.”
* * * * * * *
Four hours later, as the conductor announced they were ten minutes from Union Station, Jesse was feeling good.
Eight mini-bottles of red wine could have that effect on a guy.
“We should hide the evidence,” Hunter said, slurring a bit and then laughing. He’d only had four mini-bottles. The handsome doctor was a bit of a lightweight.
It was adorable.
Jesse had procured most of the aforementioned mini-bottles by sweet-talking a young woman porter after the older man assigned to their car responded to Jesse’s request for bottle number four by looking down his nose and saying, “There’s only an hour left on your journey, sir.”
Hunter reached toward the small garbage bag the train provided, his bottles in hand.
“Hey, no need to ‘hide the evidence.’” Jesse grabbed Hunter’s arm near the elbow to halt his tidying instinct. Maybe Jesse was an entitled rock star asshole, but he planned to leave a pile of tiny bottles on the seat for the snotty porter to deal with.
Hunter was wearing one of those shirts that looked like flannel, but were actually made of some kind of unbelievably soft mystery material. It was hard to take his hand away. It was hard to do anything but let his hand slide down a forearm that was softer than . . . all the soft things. A cat? A cloud? A—
He’d reached the bare skin of the back of Hunter’s hand, and the change in texture was so jarring, he snatched his own hand away as if he’d touched a hot stove.
“No need to hide the evidence, because there was no crime,” he said firmly. “These baby boozes were procured with cold, hard cash.”
“Cold hard cash and a boatload of charm,” Hunter said, and Jesse didn’t have an argument for that one. “What about public drunkenness?” Hunter went on. “Isn’t that a crime?”
“You might have me there.”
Except not. He wasn’t nearly drunk enough to plug back into reality. He fished for his phone, dread in his gut. He knew what he would find. Outraged tweets from the public that he had dared to cheat on their beloved Kylie. Incredulous texts from the guys. Anger from his manager, who had read him the riot act about his out-of-control behavior only a month ago.
And there it was.
His second breakup text of the day.
He’d been fired by his manager. Cut loose by the woman who had plucked the band out of the club scene and deftly shepherded them to the next level—they were now routinely selling out midsize venues, and she’d been talking about a major-label deal when they were done with their current indie contract.
It stung like hell. Way more than Kylie.
He glanced at Dr. Wyatt the Baby Silver Fox, who was shrugging into his coat.
Since they were approaching the station, Jesse stood and moved into the aisle.
“Well, thanks for the . . . boozy chat.” Hunter stood too, but he lost his footing, and Jesse had to grab him to steady him.
“Whoa,” Jesse said, liking the feel of the scratchy wool of Hunter’s coat under his fingers. Hunter, with his fuzzy coat and his cottony soft shirt, had Jesse on tactile overload. “Maybe there was too much booze in that chat.”
“No.” Hunter flashed an impish, satisfied smile. The kind of smile Jesse could imagine coming up in . . . other contexts. “That was the perfect balance of booze and conversation. You made me forget all about my dead dog and my broken heart.”
Broken heart. Hunter had been vague about his breakup earlier. It was hard to imagine someone as confident, as obviously accomplished, as solid as Hunter getting his heart broken.
It was hard to imagine any man giving him up.
Any man who was in the stage of life and career that promoted being settled and monogamous, that was.
Which was not Jesse. Not even close.
Which was why he couldn’t explain why the next thing he did was dig around in his bag until he found a receipt and a pen, scrawled his email and phone number on it, and said, “Keep in touch.”
* * * * * * *
“Give me one reason I should sign a punk like you?”
Jesse blinked. He was hungover, and his mind was slow. He had gone home last night after that surreal train ride and graduated from mini-bottles of booze to a full-size one. And, in a state of drunken overconfidence-mixed-with-defiance, he’d emailed Matty Alvarado, Canada’s most famous artist manager. The guy oversaw a handful of successful musical exports, youngish pop stars mostly, who’d made it big south of the border and beyond. He was known as a rainmaker.
There was no way he’d take on a medium-time rock-and-roll band like Jesse and the Joyride.
Or so Jesse had thought.
But here he was twenty-four hours later, having been summoned to the dude’s palatial office, which was decorated with a weird mixture of Catholic paraphernalia and photos of Matty with some of the world’s most popular acts.
“You have quite the reputation, you know,” Matty went on when Jesse didn’t answer fast enough. “The Canadian music scene is small. People talk.”
“We’ve been steadily building momentum for the last couple years.” Jesse started in on the speech he’d been rehearsing in his head on the way over. “We’ve been playing midsize venues. I’m getting better and better as a songwriter. We have one more record left on our contract. After that, a major-label deal is within reach—I know it.”
Matty waved a hand dismissively, like all of Jesse’s painstaking, incremental work was nothing more than a bit of lint to be brushed off. “There’s no shortage of acts in your position. Wannabe rock stars with big dreams are a dime a dozen, so you—”
“We’re good,” Jesse said, daring to interrupt the famed tastemaker, because why not? This wasn’t going well, and he had nothing to lose. “No, we’re fucking great.”
Matty sighed. Drummed his fingers on his huge lacquered desk. “You are,” he finally said, as if it pained him to admit it. “But you’re also a fucking mess. Look at you—hungover, splashed all over the tabloids every couple of months with some drama or other. That’s what I expect from the teenagers I sign, Jesse, not from grown men. What I do is brand people. I make them. I can make something from nothing, no problem. But I don’t know that I can make something from . . . a big pile of shit.”
“Coming back from cheating on Kylie Cameron might be impossible,” Matty said.
Those two words surged through Jesse. They were a thin edge of crowbar he could use to pry open this door.
Jesse had spent his entire life striving to get where he was. He’d had to beg his parents for piano lessons, for second-hand guitars. Later, when he’d been a bit older, he would have moved into the band room in his high school if his teacher had let him. It had literally been his happy place. Some days, it had felt like his only place.
Music was his life. It had been from the start.
And, just as importantly, it was his living. He was making a living as a musician. Or he had been, anyway.
All he wanted—the dream he’d had since he’d been old enough to dream—was to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.
And he could get there. All the ingredients were in place.
The only thing standing in his way was him.
That’s what Matty was saying, and suddenly, Jesse got it.
“The way I see it,” he started slowly, thinking through his argument with a mind suddenly cleared of cobwebs, “is that the GossipTO article was a blessing in disguise.”
Matty raised an eyebrow. “That’s the first interesting thing you’ve said since you got here.”
“Kylie told me something once. She said that everyone performs who they are to some degree. Despite having gotten her start on a TV show, she had no aspirations to cross back over into acting, but she said she was an actor all the same. ‘We all are,’ she said. ‘All of us whose livelihoods depend on being in the public eye. We perform who we are, consciously or no. The trick to success is to understand this and to learn to exploit it. Learn how to control the performance. Be in control of your own narrative.’”
He had dismissed her approach as too Machiavellian, but he saw now that she’d been right.
“Smart woman.” Matty made a “go on” gesture.
“The way I see it, I have two choices. I can live like a rock star—partying, coming in late to recording sessions because I’m hungover, slutting around with anything that moves.”
Which was exactly what he’d been doing. He’d been too busy with his degenerate life lately to prioritize what mattered: the music.
“Or . . .” he continued, trying to formulate his thoughts into a coherent argument. “I can act like a rock star.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. You sign me, and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. But only on the surface. Underneath that, I’m keeping my head down. Cutting way, way back on the booze so I’m clearheaded enough to make kick-ass music and smart business decisions. Keeping my dick in my pants.”
Matty was silent a long time, then he said, “Do we need to send you to rehab?”
We. He’d said, We. Adrenaline started frothing in Jesse’s veins.
“No. Let me give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll go without argument.” He was pretty sure now that he’d had his come-to-Jesus moment—maybe all that Catholic stuff on Matty’s walls had put the whammy on him—making the necessary lifestyle changes was going to be easy.
“Not really. The odd joint to relax after the show if someone offers, but I’m not buying the stuff. And I’ll drop that too, if you want.”
“No one wants their rock stars to be saints,” said Matty. “It’s a fine line.”
“I get that,” said Jesse. That was kind of what he’d been trying to articulate with the whole live like a rock star versus act like a rock star thing.
“Fuck me, but I think you do,” said Matty. “The question is, are you all talk?”
Jesse smiled, feeling some of his old swagger returning. “There’s only one way to find out.”
“This is how it’s going to work,” Matty said. “You and I sign a contract for six months. Consider it a probationary period. A tryout. You know that whole three strikes, you’re out thing?”
Jesse nodded and tried not to grin too overtly.
“With you and me, it’s one strike. You do the music. I do everything else. You do exactly what I say. I tell you you’re going on Howard Stern, you’re going on Howard Stern. I say you’re going on the Mickey Mouse Club, you’re going on the Mickey Mouse Club. I get you a girlfriend, you’ve got a girlfriend. I tell you to break up with her, you break up with her. I say you’re playing a show at the North fucking Pole, you’re out shopping for snowsuits. After six months, we regroup. If we both want to continue—and if you’ve behaved yourself—we sign for real. Got it?”
“Yes.” Jesse refrained from babbling about how grateful he was. Matty didn’t seem like the kind of guy who appreciated empty words, and Jesse respected that.
“Is there anything else I need to know about? Any other scandals brewing? If I don’t know about it, I can’t fix it.”
Jesse hesitated. As much as he hated to do it, it was probably wise to lay all his cards on the table.
“That . . . person in the photo from GossipTO . . .”
“She going to talk to the press?” Matty did the dismissive waving thing again. “That’s no problem. We can spin that to our advantage.”
“I don’t think so. It’s more that she . . . wasn’t a she.”
Matty blinked rapidly.
“But I don’t think he actually knew who I was,” Jesse continued quickly. “We didn’t really talk, and he didn’t say anything about recognizing me. I met him at—”
“What are you saying, Jesse? You’re gay? Because that is not going to work with the brand I’m envisioning for you.”
“Not gay. Bisexual. And not even that much.” It was true. Jesse thought of himself as mostly straight but . . . open to other possibilities. But he figured Matty probably didn’t care about shades of gray here.
Matty got up and walked around to the front of his desk. Jesse stood, thinking he was being dismissed. Fuck. That picture really had ruined his life. He’d had the biggest agent in all of Canada almost locked down.
“Sit.” Matty leaned back against the front of his desk, like he was a school principal.
“I don’t want to hear another word about this. From this point onward, you are not . . . bisexual.” Matty spat the word like it was a curse. “You are Jesse Jamison, the bad-boy rock star next door. What does that mean? You’re a fucking rock star. As I said, no one wants you to be a saint. You’re brilliant and prickly and you live large. Or rather, you give the appearance of living large. You do what you need to do to keep yourself clean enough that your head is in the game, but you are not to speak publicly about having a problem with booze or any of that. Jesse Jamison the recovering alcoholic is not what we’re going for here. When you appear at high-profile events, you have a fucking craft beer in your hand. You’re single now, and we’re going to use that. You are going to date casually. You are going to break a heart or two. All that’s the rock star part. But you have a soft side. You’re a little vulnerable. A sixteen-year-old girl can imagine reforming you. She can imagine you taking her to the fucking prom. Hell, I might make you actually do that. That’s the boy-next-door side.”
Jesse could see where Matty was going with this. It made sense. Matty’s “brand,” as much as Jesse hated that word, picked up on Jesse’s natural tendencies and . . . magnified them.
Well, some of his natural tendencies.
“But one thing I need to be absolutely clear about is that both the rock star and the boy next door are straight. Those hearts you’re breaking are female hearts. Those teenagers fantasizing about you are female teenagers. If you don’t agree one hundred percent with this right now, we’re done.”
Something pinged inside Jesse’s chest, like a pebble being dropped into an empty box. And for some stupid reason, he thought of Dr. Hunter Wyatt, the heartbroken pediatrician.
Then he thought of the cover of Rolling Stone. He thought of what he’d been striving for his whole goddamn life.
He stuck his hand out. “It’s a deal.”
Two Years Later
Move-ins were the worst.
Hunter loved his kids, but what he loved even more was watching them leave. Saying goodbye meant they were well enough to go home. He took a deep breath outside the door of room 7-102, which would be the home for one Avery Flannigan, age eleven, for the next few months. Avery was a math whiz and an aspiring architect. She could play a pretty mean ukulele cover of any Taylor Swift song.
She also had congenital heart failure.
Hunter had gotten to know Avery when he’d started at the hospital a little over two years ago. She’d been in then to get a new drug regime going. Avery had an indomitable spirit that attracted everyone to her—staff and patients alike. When she’d been well enough, she’d been the one organizing floor talent shows and practical jokes. When she hadn’t been, she would still be cracking jokes when he came around, plying him for hospital gossip, even through her exhaustion.
They’d thrown her a party the day she’d left.
But now she was back. He’d always known she would be—more hospitalization had always been inevitable for Avery, as was an eventual transplant—but that didn’t make it any easier.
He pushed open the door.
“Hey, Avery, I told you not to show your face here again so soon!” he joked, wagging his finger.
She turned from where she was hanging a poster on the wall of the small room.
“Hi, Dr. W.!” She thought it was hilarious to call him “Dr. W.” because, as she’d pointed out, “Dr. W. contains more syllables than Dr. Wyatt, so it’s like the opposite of a nickname.” She taped the final corner of the poster, climbed down from the stool she’d been standing on, and high-fived him. “I couldn’t stay away from my favorite doc.”
He shared a look with Avery’s mom. Her face reflected what was in his heart: fondness for Avery mixed with pain that she was back here so soon.
Avery unfurled another poster. “I’m making the place more homey. Don’t tell Marilyn.” Marilyn was one of the nurses in the cardiac unit. She ran a tight ship, but she loved the kids as much as anyone, and Avery knew it. Avery enjoyed baiting her, in fact.
“My lips are sealed,” he said, walking over to examine her décor. The one she was affixing to the wall was a reproduction of the architectural plans for the Eiffel Tower.
“This is cool.” He moved on to examine the next one, which was . . .
Jesse and the Joyride.
He tapped the poster and said, “So what’s this?”
“Only the best rock band of a generation.”
“Wow,” he teased. “Pretty high praise. What about One Direction?” One Direction had been her favorite band last time around.
She made a theatrical gagging noise, and said, “No way. One Direction was a phase. These guys are the best. Old-school rock and roll.”
Hunter had to tamp down a grin at the notion of an eleven-year-old holding forth about “old-school” rock and roll. Avery sat on the edge of her bed and tilted her head as she examined the poster. He couldn’t help but notice how small her frame was—too small for her age, which was a side effect of her condition.
“Also?” She sighed as she gazed at the poster. “Jesse Jamison is sooo hot.”
She didn’t have to tell him that. He coughed. “Okay, kiddo. I’m not here officially yet. I just dropped in to see how you’re getting settled. I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Avery sighed again, but it was a completely different sigh than the dreamy one of a moment ago. It was resigned. It contained intelligence that no eleven-year-old should have.
* * * * * * *
You probably won’t remember me, and I’ll be surprised if this email address still works, but here I go anyway.
We met on a train from Montreal to Toronto two years ago. I’d recently been dumped, and you got dumped en route. (So maybe you will remember me. That doesn’t happen every day—to me, anyway.) Then we got drunk off tiny bottles of wine.
I’m a doctor at Children’s Hospital in Toronto. I have an eleven-year-old patient named Avery who has a congenital heart defect. She’s in for a surgery that will basically patch things over as best as possible, but she’ll eventually need a transplant. Turns out she’s a huge fan of you and your band.
Any chance I could convince you to pay a visit? Wouldn’t have to be a big deal—I could make sure it was on the down-low and there would be no further obligations. Avery fronts like she’s tough—and she is—but meeting you would mean the world to her.
Thanks for considering.
* * * * * * *
Jesse looked up from his phone. “What am I doing tomorrow, Amber? We don’t have studio time booked until next week, do we?”
The band’s assistant looked up from where she was tapping away on an iPad. The band had just come off a session of signing photos for the fan club in a conference room in Matty’s offices, and neither Jesse nor Amber had left yet. “Nope, not until next week. Tomorrow you’re calling in to Classic Rewind on Sirius at ten in the morning. Then you have a late lunch with Peter.”
“Cancel the lunch, will you?”
Amber ceased the tapping—the tapping that made the band’s world operate smoothly—and raised her eyebrows. Amber didn’t do raised eyebrows normally. Amber was basically unflappable—she was a big part of why the band had been so successful in the past couple of years.
Well, she was a medium-size part of why the band had been so successful. The real reason, the big-kahuna reason, was of course Matty.
After Jesse had sold his soul—willingly—to Matty, eff him if the magical manager hadn’t proceeded to get them the major-label deal, line up sponsorship for their next tour, and conduct a slow-burn PR campaign that seemed to have repositioned Jesse as the sexy bad-boy—but not too bad—rock star. “The boy next door with a serious edge,” Matty called it.
And, hell, even Amber had been Matty’s doing. Jesse had wondered, when Matty’d hired her, what the hell they needed a full-time assistant for. Turned out they hadn’t known what they’d been missing. Amber just made everything happen.
And now she was, in her quiet Amber way, shocked that Jesse was bailing on a lunch with Peter Severson, the band’s A&R rep. They were about to start recording their second album on AMI. Their first with the label had done really solidly. They’d toured the US, opening for Green Day, and had even earned a Grammy nomination for best new artist last year. A lot was riding on their second major-label release.
Jesse had spent two years doing whatever Matty told him to, to the letter. He made nice with prospective producers. He was charming-with-just-the-right-amount-of-attitude during interviews. He went to awards shows with ridiculously beautiful starlets, as assigned.
When Peter said, Lunch, Jesse said, When?
Which was why Amber looked surprised he was canceling. Keeping the label happy was high on Matty’s list of priorities, and hence, on Jesse’s.
But, damn. Could he have one afternoon to do something off script? Yes, yes, he could.
“Tell Peter I’m sorry, but something came up.”
“Okaaay.” When he didn’t elaborate, Amber regarded him silently, like she was trying to read his mind.
He should tell her what he was doing tomorrow afternoon. She’d tell Matty. Matty would be thrilled. Peter would be thrilled. Bad-boy rocker visits sick kids. It fit right in with the brand. All they would have to do was post one subtle shot to Instagram, and it would be all over the place. Viral with a capital V.
He stared back at Amber and said nothing, until she returned to her typing.
* * * * * * *
Eff him if he wasn’t nervous. As Jesse stood in the lobby the next day and texted Hunter as they’d arranged, his hands shook.
Jesse had played arenas. Smiled at the Grammys as the camera hovered to catch his expression when the band didn’t win Best New Artist. Held his own on the Howard Stern Show.
There was no reason for him to be nervous about meeting an eleven-year-old girl named Avery.
He turned toward the voice.
It was possible his nerves were not related to Avery.
Dr. Baby Silver Fox was just as silver and just as foxy as he had been two years ago. And he wore a white coat that made him look much more doctor-y.
Hunter stuck his hand out. “Thank you so much for coming. I never imagined you’d be able to come the very next day.”
Jesse let his hand be engulfed by Hunter’s—it was as soft as he remembered—and cleared his throat. “No problem. I was happy to be asked. I only hope the real me doesn’t let this kid down.”
Hunter smiled and squeezed his hand a little tighter before letting it go. “I assure you, that’s not possible.”