“We’ll take three more.” Leaning forward slightly over the gleaming bar, I slapped some bills down on the glass counter and slid them over to the mildly starstruck-looking bartender on the other side.
The last traces of anonymity I’d been clinging to before our last album dropped had all but disappeared. The Imperial Inspection album—so named because my brother had been dubbed as the Emperor of Rock by the press because of our band’s vaguely Roman motif—was ripping up the charts, much to the joy of the other members of Destitute.
World-renowned rock band that we’ve become, I thought snidely. I would’ve played bars and clubs for the rest of eternity had it been up to me, keeping a more exclusive sound. But it wasn’t up to me, and the others were after the rock legend stratosphere. So that was where we were headed.
A much longer way down when we crash and burn. It wasn’t the greatest way of thinking of our newfound place among the music elite, but I was a realist at heart. Shit like this didn’t last forever.
The bartender still hadn’t made a move to get our shots, so I lifted my chin in the direction of the fully stocked shelves behind him, annoyed to have to prompt him into action.
“Tequila. Three. Please.”
Realizing that he’d been caught staring at us, he snapped his gaping jaw shut, nodded, and started lining up the shot glasses without another word. I ran a hand though my hair a few times, an irritated gesture not lost on my bandmate sitting on the stool next to me.
Matt, our bassist, wore an amused expression and shrugged. “Lighten up, man. Occupational hazard. You know that.”
Now that we were cruising right down the center of mainstream rock music, he was right. It was an occupational hazard, just not one that I was particularly fond of. I was fine being able to make enough money just to get by with our music. This whole “getting recognized and dealing with the press” thing was a fiasco I could’ve done without.
“He oughta know better, working in a place like this.” I grunted, gesturing around us at the VIP room of one of the hottest clubs in Los Angeles. The pumping music provided a thin veil of privacy for our conversation, but I honestly didn’t give a shit if the kid heard me.
A bunch of Hollywood starlets sat at the booth behind us, while an NFL player was practically devouring a popstar right there at the opposite side of the bar. The bartender wouldn’t last long if he kept gaping at the clientele.
I figured I’d done him a favor by jerking him out of his starstruck stupor. More than a few of my peers would’ve decked him for staring at them in here. Hell, if he didn’t get a fucking grip and get us our drinks, I was going to do the same thing.
“He’s probably new. Haven’t seen him around here before.” Nick glanced down at his watch. It was secured to his wrist with a thick, wide, black leather strap. I remembered getting a similar one as a promotional thing from some designer when the album dropped, but no way in fuck would I ever wear the thing.
Our rhythm guitarist didn’t look bothered by the size of his watch, or by the bartender’s lack of attention to our drinks. Nick was like that though. He was possibly the most laidback, easygoing guy in the industry. Almost too easygoing sometimes.
“That’s four shots now in less than an hour since we got here. You trying to get us drunk?” Nick winked and waggled his dark eyebrows at me.
I flipped him off just as the bartender slid our shots over. “Don’t need to get you drunk, Masters. Everyone knows that. Drunk or sober, you’re a man-whore.”
He slapped his hand over his heart in mock hurt, then reached for his glass and lifted it. “Maybe so, but I’m a lovable one. Even you have to admit it.”
Matt laughed and raised his glass to Nick’s, waiting for me to do the same. “You’re only lovable to us, Nick. Only to us.”
It was true. Nick loved women, and women loved Nick. Well, they loved him until he left in the morning—every time, without even one failure.
Then they called him a jerk, a bastard, a player, and those were the nice names they had for him after. But of course, he laughed it all off and went in pursuit of his next conquest like he didn’t have a care in the world.
We all knew better than to try to slow him down. He was enamored by the rock-star lifestyle and held the opinion that the women of the world deserved a piece of him. And that he deserved them, obviously.
With Jared, my brother and our lead singer, officially off the market, Nick was stepping up his game and leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake.
I lifted my glass to my bandmates. “I don’t have to admit a thing.”
Both of the other guys laughed, and then our tiny glasses crashed together, and we slammed down our shots. The alcohol didn’t burn as much on its way down as it did the first few shots, which was perfect. Exactly what I was after.
Nick grinned after double tapping his empty glass on the counter. “If it’s not to get me drunk, why are we trying to consume all the tequila in the state in record time?”
“You complaining?” I raised an eyebrow.
He smirked and shook his head. “Never. Just a question, bro. Just seems to me you’re hitting it harder than you did on your birthday the other day, and that was a fucking rager of a party.”
“Maybe that’s the point,” I told him, raising my tumbler of scotch to my lips. “Maybe I want to get even more wasted than I did on my birthday.”
“Should’ve brought the more fun Larson along for the ride then.” Matt grinned, the light catching on the green flecks in his eyes as he rolled them. “Speaking of which, where is the Emperor tonight?”
I groaned. “Shut the fuck up with that Emperor shit. And where do you think he is?”
In a move that had caught us all more by surprise than if we’d been told that Santa Claus was real after all, Jared had fallen in love and then gotten engaged a little while ago.
En-fucking-gaged. To be married. The thought itself sounded insane, even in my head. And yet somehow, it was also reality. My brother, self-proclaimed playboy and bachelor for life, is getting married. By choice.
I nearly laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation, but Matt beat me to it. He laughed good naturedly, giving his suggestion about where my dear brother might be. “Planting flowers around his white picket fence?”
“Choosing a puppy?” Nick added, not bothering to hide the amusement in his voice.
“Conceiving one of his two and a half children?” Matt asked.
Chugging the rest of my scotch in one gulp, I nodded. “Ding. Ding. To all of the above. No doubt he’s engaging in some terrible act of domestic bliss.”
“We lost a good one in him,” Nick lamented, ordering another round. “A toast to our fallen comrade, and all the other pussy-whipped fuckers in the world.”
We raised the shots and slammed them. “Never thought Jared would be one of those,” I said.
“That makes two of us,” Matt agreed thoughtfully. “Dude’s a goner, though. But let’s face it, the man looks fucking ecstatic to be leaving bachelorhood behind.”
“Crazy motherfucker,” Nick mumbled, shaking his head. “Can’t believe he’s hanging up his boots so early in the game.”
I snorted. “Early in the game? Don’t get me wrong. I’m as surprised as anyone, but it’s hardly early in the game for him. The guy’s been playing for a long fucking time.”
“True that,” he conceded with a dip of his chin and a wry smile. “Never thought I’d see the day though.”
“Engaged and with a summer wedding planned,” I replied dryly. “How very suburban of him. Next thing we know, he’ll have that white picket fence, complete with a Labradoodle and Alicia pregnant.”
Matt threw his hands out and narrowed his eyes slightly. “Hey now, Labradoodles are cute. And Alicia will bust your balls, pregnant or not.”
“True that,” Nick repeated. “Besides, so long as Jared doesn’t leave us high and dry without a lead singer, he can stay home and change diapers all he wants. All it means is more pussy for me.”
Matt reached around me to shove Nick’s shoulder. “He’d never do that. The man lives for the music. Falling in love hasn’t made him lose his edge. If anything, he’s better than he’s ever been. Have you seen the numbers for Imperial Inspection? That shit he wrote after he met Alicia was fucking legit.”
“Can’t argue with that,” I grudgingly agreed, holding up my empty glass to the barman to signal for a refill. Beside me, Nick was nodding, his leg starting to bounce to let off some of the electric energy he was radiating suddenly.
“The tour’s going to be sick,” he mused, accepting a quick high five from Matt. “Worldwide baby. It’s finally happening.”
Another round of shots was ordered and downed as each of us briefly thought about the months ahead of us. In only a few weeks, we were kicking off the Imperial Inspection Tour. It was set to be our first true world tour and would take us places that five guys like us never would have dreamed of being able to see before the band took off.
The way Nick and Matt were talking about it, I would’ve sworn that they’d been part of the team that won the World Series or something. I was excited about the tour, about bringing our music to different people, different countries. I simply would’ve preferred if it was slated to be just a little bit smaller.
“From L.A. to the world, we made it happen,” Matt said, once again lifting his glass to ours. “Dom and Jared should’ve been here to celebrate with us.”
Nick clinked with him, sipped at his drink, and smiled wickedly. “This night is going to get out of hand. I can tell. I fucking love it. And yes, they should’ve been.”
“You do realize we’ve been celebrating for weeks, right?” I asked them, wondering if it was possible that they’d had so much to drink since the album dropped that they’d forgotten all the parties we’d been to. And thrown.
“Yeah, but we should celebrate every night until it kicks off,” Nick insisted, flashing a lopsided grin. “And then for each stop we make.”
“Alicia will kick your ass if you try that,” Matt warned laughingly, his eyes starting to roam around the room. Then they snapped back to mine. “Your future sister-in-law is going to bust our balls on this tour. No doubt, she’s not going to have us doing whatever the fuck we wanted like Brad used to.”
“Sister-in-law,” I muttered. “I hope Jared knows what he’s doing.”
“What?” Nick asked, distracted by a redheaded woman wearing practically nothing who was grinding the air on the dance floor like it was the best lover she’d ever had. Poor girl.
I signaled for another drink and waited for it before I carried on. “Fool think he’s in love. That’s what.”
Matt’s eyes slid from the drink he was nursing to mine. “You don’t think he’s in love? Please. Have you seen those two together?”
“Unfortunately,” I mumbled. My brother and his fiancée couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and the way they doted on each other was slightly sickening. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to last.”
“What are you going on about?” Nick asked, attention back to the conversation now that a guy had stepped up to dance with the redheaded girl.
“I’m not ‘going on’ about anything. I’m only stating the facts. They may be oh so in love right now, but love is for suckers and fools. It doesn’t last. They won’t last.”
“They won’t?” Matt cocked an eyebrow. “Because it seems to me that they’re both in this for the long run. They’re getting married in a couple of months’ time, for Chrissake.”
“And have you seen the divorce rate in this country?” I countered. “That piece of paper the state issues to you after you put the shiny diamond ring on is torn up more often than not.”
“You honestly think Jared will ever let her go? Cause if you do, you need to get your head checked.” Nick glanced down at my tumbler. “Or stop drinking so much because the alcohol is starting to fuck with your perception of reality.”
I shot him a look and downed my drink for good measure, savoring the warmth of the scotch as it traveled down my throat. “He may not let her go, but it’s not only up to him, is it?”
Matt and Nick both shifted their angles just enough that they were literally cornering me. “You think she’s going to leave him?”
Eventually? Yes. “Maybe. I’m just saying that Jared’s not the only one who can wake up one morning bored to death of monogamy and romantic walks on the beach.”
“Fair enough,” Matt said, tilting his head slightly. “Of course she could leave. But Alicia’s a one-in-a-million kind of girl, and she loves that man more than life itself.”
“For some fucking reason none of us will ever understand.” Nick smirked, relieving the tension in the air some. “Although I don’t get why he would trade the lifestyle for just one woman either.”
“If it’s the right woman,” Matt started, but I held out a hand to stop him.
“No such thing as the right woman, not for that. Alicia may be a one-in-a-million kind of girl, but that doesn’t make her a saint.”
“You have some kind of problem with Alicia?” Matt asked, curiosity lining his features.
“No,” I replied immediately, but it didn’t look like they believed me. Whatever. That was their problem. Mine wasn’t with Alicia, per se. It was with the concept of two people tricking themselves into believing that they really could be together forever.
Frustration rumbled through my veins: at my brother, at his falling in love, at the eventual fallout I knew I was going to have to clean up when the ticking timebomb that was their relationship finally exploded.
It was time for another shot. Or two. Maybe three.
I was leaning over the bar to grab the bartender’s attention again when three women approached us. They were the kind of girls who constantly sought us out. Clad in revealing dresses, heels that could take your eye out, and so much makeup that it was impossible to tell what they really looked like.
Getting laid suddenly seemed like a great idea, the perfect way to get out of my head for the rest of the night.
I zeroed in on the leader of the pack, a blonde with a nice rack and a red dress that showed off smooth, toned thighs and legs from here to the ocean. She opened her mouth to speak when they neared us, and I caught a glimpse of metal in her mouth.
A tongue ring.
Awesome. That would do nicely. I beat her to the punch and flashed her the grin that usually got me what I wanted. “Hey there, sweetheart. How about I buy you a drink?”