Running with Scissors

Running with Scissors by L.A. Witt
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-331-5
eBook release: 
Aug 31, 2015
eBook Formats: 
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Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-332-2
Print release: 
Aug 31, 2015
Word count: 
82,300
Page count: 
313
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Eighteen months ago, drummer Jude Colburn made the biggest mistake of his life when he walked away from his band just as they were on the brink of success. Now, he’s got a second chance. The band’s bassist just quit, and Jude plays bass almost as well as he plays drums. The other band members aren’t thrilled, but they are desperate.

Running with Scissors needs him, but there’s one condition: no hooking up with bandmates. That’s what ruined things eighteen months ago, after all. Jude’s on board, but no one warned him about the drummer who replaced him. A.J. Palmer is shy and unassuming . . . until he hits the stage. He gets Jude’s attention from the first beat, and suddenly that “no hookups” rule isn’t so easy to follow.

Keeping secrets on a tour bus isn’t easy either, and it’s only a matter of time before the band catches on. When everything hits the fan, Jude has to choose: a second chance at the career he’s always regretted leaving, or a shot at the man of his dreams?

2015 Rainbow Award Finalist  2015 IndieFab Award Finalist

Finalist: Best Gay Contemporary Romance in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!

Finalist: 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards Finalist!

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Chapter One

“Hey, Jude?”

Jude looked up from a stack of invoices and turned to Steve, his cubicle mate. “Hmm?”

“You’re doing it again.”

Jude’s foot stopped moving, and he realized he’d been tapping it against the leg of his desk. Again. Tucking his feet beneath his chair, he muttered, “Sorry.”

No reply. At least Steve was more or less polite about it. Their other cubicle mate, Grant, was constantly on Jude’s case, and never even tried to hide his irritation.

Jude knew it annoyed them, and he tried his best not to do it, but telling a drummer not to tap his foot was like telling an eye not to see.

You’re not a drummer anymore.

He gritted his teeth. He’d always be a drummer. Always. Just because he wasn’t in a band at the moment didn’t mean—

Whatever helps you sleep at night, dude.

Cursing under his breath, he scrubbed a hand over his face. His leg itched with the need to mark time to the rhythm he had stuck in his head.

He couldn’t listen to the radio.

Couldn’t wear headphones.

Couldn’t tap his foot.

Couldn’t fucking concentrate.

“Jude?” Steve sounded concerned this time. “You okay?”

Grant muttered something. Jude didn’t catch it, but he recognized the tone and glanced at his own fingers.

Which were tapping beside his keyboard.

Fuck.

“I’ll be right back.” He snatched his phone off the desk and left. Head down, heart thumping, he hurried through the maze of cubicles. His cigarettes and lighter were already in his hand. He didn’t even remember pulling them out of his pocket, but whatever.

As the door to the communal patio came into view, he put a cigarette between his lips. He sensed one of the receptionists glaring at him—it’s not even lit, for God’s sake—but kept his gaze fixed on the door in front of him.

And finally, he was there.

He pushed it open with his hip, and before he’d even stepped all the way out into the SoCal heat, he’d cupped a hand around the end of his cigarette and flicked the lighter.

One drag brought his pulse back down. The second stilled his hands. Sort of. His fingers might as well have had a mind of their own, and were tapping out the bass line of a song he’d heard this morning on the radio. That tapping, much like the nicotine easing its way into his system, settled him. Centered him.

And naturally, drove his coworkers insane.

Holding his cigarette between two fingers, he rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He’d long ago given up telling himself he was just having a bad day. If that were the case, he wouldn’t be out here every fucking afternoon, smoking two or three cigarettes in a row just to keep himself sane until five o’clock. And there wouldn’t be two more in the car. Three if traffic was exceptionally bad, even by Los Angeles standards.

At least in the car, he’d have music. The radio worked, and he had his iPod as backup. He’d be able to get the beat out of his system on the steering wheel because there’d be no one around to get on his case about it.

He lowered his hand and glared at the cigarette. His mom kept telling him these things would kill him sooner or later. After a year and a half behind a desk in a cramped cubicle, he was pretty sure the job would do him in well before the smokes did.

It’s your own fault you’re here.

Jude swore under his breath. Then he took another long drag and held it for a moment as he gazed out at the hazy LA skyline.

Every day, it was the same shit. He worked until he couldn’t anymore. Then he made his escape to this patio. And smoked. And kicked himself for being here in the first place.

This job was hell. The monotony and the buzz of fluorescent lights seemed to numb everyone else into some weird state where casual Friday and birthday potlucks were things to legitimately look forward to, but he had never adjusted. Day by day, he grew surer that he never would.

I could be on the road with them right now.

The thought didn’t even make him flinch anymore. Well, not much. Okay, not as bad as it had when he’d first found out the band was going on tour.

Six months. If he could’ve just hung on for six more goddamned months, he’d have been there when the record company offered them a deal. He’d have signed. He’d have been on tour right now. He’d have been onstage under the hot lights instead of dying inside under fluorescents while he crunched numbers he didn’t care about to make people he didn’t know rich. If he were onstage, he’d be whoring out albums to make record company execs rich, but at least he’d enjoy the work.

Well, he couldn’t go back and change the past, but he definitely needed to change his future. Maybe he’d give the job websites another look tonight. And of course, five minutes into that, he’d be all over Craigslist and any other place where someone might post that they were in search of a drummer. Even if it was just a part-time gig where they played twice a month in shithole bars for less than gas money, and he had to come into the office every morning with his ears ringing and his shoulders aching, that would be better than what he was doing now.

But nobody was looking for a drummer these days. Not many were looking for twitchy idiots to work in accounts receivable, either, but that was worth a look too unless he wanted to spend a decade or two trying not to disturb Steve and Grant.

All because he’d quit the band like a fucking idiot. Not that he’d had much choice by that point, especially since the circumstances that had driven him out of Running with Scissors were, at least in part, his own fucking fault.

Well, you made your bed. Now go back in there and lie in it.

He crushed his cigarette beneath his heel, tossed the butt into the ash can, and went back inside.

***

Two hours and too many cigarettes after five, Jude keyed himself into his second floor apartment. The place was quiet, thank God. None of his roommates were due home anytime soon.

He tossed his keys on the counter and shot the sink a glare—it was Tim’s turn to wash dishes, and there were still plates and cups in there from Gordy’s turn two nights ago. Jude rolled his eyes. Something told him if it didn’t get done tonight, he’d be washing it all tomorrow when it was his turn. Tim would be too tired or too stoned later, and he’d forget like he always did.

Jude looked under the sink for detergent and a serviceable sponge. He’d need to make a run to the grocery store before too long, but he could get the job done for now.

He went to work on the dishes and promised himself an evening of binge-watching Game of Thrones on his laptop. He needed the relaxation and the distraction. From his job. From the band out there on tour without him. From the roommates who couldn’t seem to remember when it was their turn to do chores. At least they managed to pay their portions of the rent on time. Usually.

Mostly he needed a distraction from the miserable, stagnant state he’d been in since he’d left the band. After he relaxed a bit, then he’d start looking at new jobs. And then, of course, he’d depress himself with how few options he had, and he’d be back in the tire-spinning cycle of needing to change something and having no idea where to start.

He’d figure it out. Eventually. All he knew right now was there were only so many times a man could pretend his roommates hadn’t once again dumped a sink full of moldy dishes in his lap after he’d spent a day walking on eggshells for some jackass in a cubicle before something had to give.

Sighing, he put a plate into the drying rack. There were also only so many times he could tell himself he needed to change things before he had to actually, like, change something.

Once he’d finished with the dishes, he smoked another cigarette on the balcony and then went into his bedroom. With his laptop on his knee, he lounged on the bed and pulled up Game of Thrones. He’d fallen almost a season behind, so he clicked on the first unwatched episode and—

His cell phone startled the shit out of him. Especially since it was his generic ringtone, the one that only went off when it was someone who wasn’t in his contact list.

He picked it up and eyed the screen. Though there was no name, something about the sequence of numbers seemed familiar. If memory served, that was—

No, it couldn’t be. Could it?

He accepted the call. “Hello?”

“Jude, thank God. It’s Kristy.”

“Hey. Uh.” He hadn’t heard the band manager’s voice since the day she’d tried to stop him from quitting, and the last thing she’d said to him had involved the words “fucking” and “idiot.” He cleared his throat. “Long time no talk.”

“Too long, honey.” She paused. “Listen, I’m gonna keep this short. The band needs you.”

A cough of laughter burst out of him. “What?”

“We’re . . .” She sighed. “Wyatt quit tonight. Just walked out.”

Jude’s lips parted. “What? What happened?”

“Let’s just say you and he apparently have the same taste in men,” she growled.

“Jesus.” He rubbed his eyes. Hadn’t Wyatt learned anything from him and Connor? They’d fought more often than not, and spent most of their stupidly volatile relationship on the brink of a catastrophic breakup. As friends, they’d been fine. As boyfriends? An utter disaster. And Wyatt had watched the whole thing.

Jude exhaled and shrugged for no one’s benefit but his own. “Okay, so? Why are you calling me? I don’t know any bass players anymore.”

“You are a bass player.”

“I . . .” He blinked. “I’m a drummer, remember?”

“But you play bass. I’ve heard you, sweetheart.”

He glanced skyward and bit back a groan. “Okay, fine, but I haven’t picked up a bass in forever.”

“You haven’t played the drums in forever either, but I’m pretty sure you could fill in there if we needed you to.”

Touché.

He swallowed. “Do you need me to fill in on the drums?”

“No. The guy who took your place is—” She hesitated. “What we need is a bass player.”

“Why me?”

“Because the band’s got a lot of back-to-back shows coming up.” The desperation in her voice was suddenly palpable, thrumming down the line and into his ear like an off-key chord. “We don’t have time to audition anyone, and even if we did, there’s no way they could learn the music that fast. You know it. You might be rusty, but you know the music.”

“I don’t know any of the new stuff.”

“The band can play all old school for a few sets if they have to. But we need a bassist, or the band is fucked.”

Jude gnawed his lip. The band’s music leaned hard on the rhythm section. The bass line wasn’t as in-your-face as the guitar or the vocalists, but if it was absent? The whole thing fell apart just as it would without the drums.

He swallowed. “I have a job now, Kris. It’s not like I can just drop everything and go on tour.”

“Yeah? How’s that job working out for you?”

He flinched, and before he even realized it, he’d picked up his cigarettes off the nightstand. “It’s—”

“That’s what I thought. Honey, I know you. And I never believed for a second you’d be happy doing the nine-to-five thing.”

Jude gnawed his lip. She was right, wasn’t she? And how many months had he spent agonizing over how to un-fuck his life?

He was out of vacation days, but he could always take a leave of absence. Or, hell, quit. His job was miserable anyway, and it didn’t pay enough to keep him afloat for much longer. It’d be just his luck that his landlord would raise his rent again and he’d have to move back in with his folks or something. Awesome.

He looked around his shithole bedroom. A mattress on the floor. Secondhand IKEA furniture on its last legs. Bare walls with water stains to match the ones on the ceiling.

“So,” she prodded. “Are you in?”

Well. Are you?

What did he have to lose?

Well, for starters . . .

Jude swept his tongue across his dry lips. “What about Connor?” Just saying his ex’s name filled his mouth with a bitter taste and his stomach with guilt.

“He knows how desperate we are. If you can be civil, so can he.”

I’ll believe that when I see it.

“Look.” Kristy’s voice sharpened. “I’m gonna tell you the same thing I’ve been telling him: get along with each other, keep your dicks out of the other band members, and we won’t have drama. It’s that simple.”

The second part of that was simple. The first part? Not so much.

But would restraining himself from choking his ex be worse than dealing with the shithole apartment and miserable job? Hadn’t he been telling himself for months he’d rather put up with Connor’s crap and his own conscience than work another day at that desk-in-a-box?

This was the opportunity he needed. He’d been an idiot to walk away from the band. How big an idiot would he have to be to pass up this chance?

“There’s one problem, though. I can’t just take that much time off from work.” He swallowed. “If I’m going to do this, it can’t be halfway. Either I’m in or I’m not.”

“So, what? You want to rejoin the band permanently?”

“Or at least longer term than a few shows. I can’t afford to lose my job for that.”

Kristy didn’t speak for a moment. “And if I can bring you on board for, say, the rest of this tour, the next album, and the headlining tour?”

Well, that would give him a good year, year and a half before he’d have to start polishing up his résumé again. “Do you think the band would go for that?”

“They’re in a panic like you wouldn’t believe over losing Wyatt. I’m pretty sure they’ll go for having a semipermanent bassist.”

“In theory. But after the way things ended with—”

“Nobody has the luxury of being picky right now. They’ve got a lot riding on this, so if there’s a solution—especially one that could be more than a Band-Aid solution—they’ll roll with it if they know what’s good for them.”

“True.” He knew damn well he should sleep on it, think about it, really grill himself over it, but what was the point? He’d been hoping for something like this for too long to think twice. He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Okay. If they’ll agree to keep me on through the next tour, I’m in.”

“Oh my God.” Kristy released a long breath. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much you’re saving our asses.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“There is one other thing, though.”

Of course there was. “Yeah?”

“We need you back, but . . .” She fell silent for several seconds. “Keeping you on for the next tour and everything? I’m sure I don’t have to spell out for you that part of the arrangement is contingent on everyone behaving.”

He glared up at the ceiling. “I assume ‘everyone’ means me in this context?”

“Yes. Don’t get me wrong, sweetheart. I’m grateful and the band will be too. But after last time . . .”

He cringed, guilt pressing down on his shoulders. “Yeah, I follow. I’ll stay out of Connor’s way if he’ll—”

“Perfect. I’ll make sure he toes the line too.”

Good luck with that.

“Where are you guys now?”

“Some godforsaken town in the Bumfuck Egypt Midwest.” She paused. “I’ll text you with our stops. They’re not performing again until we get to Des Moines, and that’s on Wednesday.”

Jude coughed. “You’re aware that today is Monday, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And . . . are you expecting me to be onstage in Des Moines on Wednesday?”

“Um . . .”

“Kristy, I—”

“They’re the opening act, so they can afford to bail on one show. Maybe the one in Omaha the next night. But more than two in a row, and we’re fucked. The headliner’s manager doesn’t have a lot of patience, so I guarantee he’ll be bringing in another opener if we bail more than twice.”

He swallowed. “Where are you after Omaha?”

“Denver. On Saturday.”

“Okay.” His heart sped up, and the cigarette pack crinkled between his twitchy fingers. “I’ll meet you guys in Omaha. That should give us some time to rehearse a bit.” A tiny bit. Not nearly enough. Jesus, what was he doing?

“You’re a lifesaver, sweetie. I’ll see what the band says, and assuming everything’s a go, I’ll book you a ticket and we’ll see you in Nebraska.”

“Yeah. See you in Nebraska.”

After they hung up, Jude collapsed back on his mattress.

Panic and excitement mingled behind his ribs. Everything about this seemed reckless and stupid and . . . right.

Like it was the first time he’d made the right decision since before he’d quit. After that, he’d had about a week of feeling like he’d done the right thing, before spending the next eighteen months wallowing in regret.

Maybe this would blow up in his face. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it was a change. At this point, he’d take any opportunity to get out of this bullshit rut he’d gotten himself into.

Even if it meant being in close confines with the ex-boyfriend and band he’d screwed over.

 

Chapter Two

A.J. fidgeted in a chair beside the rickety table in the band’s motel room, tapping out a nervous rhythm on the armrest. Everyone was wound up, waiting for Kristy to come back in. Nobody in the group was thrilled about their manager’s long shot of an idea, but without any better ideas, they all waited impatiently for the verdict.

When the door opened, every member of Running with Scissors sat bolt upright.

Kristy stepped in from the motel’s breezeway, cell phone in hand, and shut the door behind her. The band members exchanged glances. A.J.’s heart pounded—he was pretty sure he didn’t hear anyone breathing, and he was holding his breath too.

“Well?” Richie fidgeted against the headboard of one of the beds. “What’d he say?”

She exhaled hard. “He’s not in a good spot to drop everything and leave for a handful of shows.”

That prompted a few frustrated sighs and some whispered swearing. Someone thumped a fist on something.

But.” Kristy held up a hand. “And you all need to hear me out on this one. He is willing to come back for a semipermanent position.”

“Semipermanent?” Shiloh cocked her head. “Meaning?”

Kristy ticked the points off on her fingers. “The duration of this tour. The upcoming album. And the headlining tour. After that, we’ll have to play it by ear.”

Beside Richie, Connor muttered a few curses.

Shiloh shot him a glare and then turned to Kristy. “He’d really come back for that long?”

Kristy nodded. “It’s the only way he can justify leaving his job on short notice. And quite frankly, I can’t blame him.”

“Then maybe he doesn’t want the opportunity after all,” Connor said through his teeth. “He did quit, remember?”

Kristy narrowed her eyes. “He did, and he also knows the music as well or better than anyone in this room.”

A.J.’s chest tightened. Jude’s command of music was legendary, but A.J. wasn’t too sure he liked the idea of having him around, especially in the long term. It would be great for the band as a whole, of course. But not necessarily for him.

Not that he—or the band—had any choice.

“So.” Kristy folded her arms loosely. “What’ll it be? Do I book him a ticket? Or do we keep looking?”

“I say bring him back,” Shiloh said. “I know things are tough between Jude and Connor, and yeah, it was a dick move on Jude’s part to leave like that, but let’s face it—we’d be stupid to let him go again.”

“What she said,” Vanessa chimed in. “Jude can eat shit and die for all I care, but we don’t have a choice. We don’t have to like it, and we don’t have to like him, but we need the jerk.”

The rest of the band gave nods and murmured affirmatives, aside from Connor. He definitely wasn’t thrilled.

“I don’t believe this,” he grumbled. “He’s the reason we almost didn’t get signed!”

“But you did get signed,” Kristy said in that tone that meant her patience was wearing thin. “And I assume you want to stay that way, so it’s either bring in Jude, or pack your shit and go home while another opening act takes over, and kiss your headlining tour good-bye.”

Every head turned toward Connor, the unspoken question thrumming in the air: Is that what you want?

His lips pulled tight as he glared up at Kristy. “There’s no way Jude’s going to be ready to go onstage in Denver. No fucking way.”

“Well, maybe you should’ve thought of that before you and Wyatt—”

“I get it,” Connor snapped.

“Somehow I don’t think you do. Look, nothing can be done about Wyatt, and Jude is the only one who can get in here and save your collective asses. Connor, look at me.” When he met her gaze, Kristy said, “Unless you want to go back to playing for double-digit crowds who just want to drink with a little background music, I would suggest you and Jude leave your bullshit in the past.”

Connor scowled. “It is in the past. I’m over it.”

A.J. and Richie exchanged incredulous looks. If Connor was over Jude, then that had happened in the past fifteen seconds or so. Hell, one of the first things A.J. had learned upon joining Running with Scissors was that if you wanted to fuck with Connor, all you had to do was mention Jude. And if you fucked with Connor, you’d be on your way out of Running with Scissors on a moment’s notice. That had been a bone of contention that helped drive Wyatt away.

Over Jude? My ass.

Kristy didn’t look convinced either. She folded her arms and arched a thin eyebrow.

Connor sighed, deflating a little. “I’m serious.”

“So am I. Jude is bailing us out big time. We just need the two of you to get along, and everyone—everyone—to let the past go and be adults about this. All right?”

More nods. More murmurs.

Kristy lowered her arms and rolled the visible tension out of her shoulders. “Bottom line is our problem is solved, at least for the foreseeable future. I’ll have Jude meet us in Omaha, and from there you guys are going to need to find any time and space you can, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. He knows the music, but he’s going to be rusty, and none of you have played with him since he left. If anyone wants to hash out any bullshit, suck it up and wait until we aren’t in hot water if someone walks out. Got it?”

Connor muttered something A.J. didn’t understand, and no one asked him to repeat it.

“Everyone get some sleep.” Kristy started for the door. “We’re on the road bright and early tomorrow.”

She left, and after the door had closed, Connor sagged back against the chair opposite A.J.’s. “This is bullshit.”

“It’s the only option we have,” Richie said.

Connor rolled his eyes. “You don’t think I could go on Craigslist right now and find a desperate bassist who—”

“Oh, save it.” Vanessa shook her head. “Running with Scissors doesn’t need a random desperate bassist. We need someone who knows our music and won’t make us all sound bad. Like it or not, that’s Jude.”

“Connor, please.” Shiloh touched his shoulder. “We all know this is going to be hard on you. None of us are thrilled about the idea either, but we don’t have any other options. Can you guys just, you know, get along until—?”

“We’ll be fine.” Connor shrugged away from her and pushed himself to his feet. “I need some air.” He stormed out of the room and slammed the door so hard it rattled the whole building.

In silence, everyone stared at the door as if Connor might suddenly come back in. Yeah, right. One of the other first things they’d all told A.J. was that when Connor said he needed some air, let him go. He’d be back—eventually—but for the love of God, do not go after him.

Shiloh turned away. Folding her arms, she leaned against the wall beside the brown burlap drapes. “Why am I suddenly hoping they’ll get back together?”

Every head snapped toward her.

Richie’s eyes got huge. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

Shiloh scowled. “Well, if they were fucking again, then they wouldn’t be trying to kill each other.”

A.J. sat up a little. “That might—”

“You’re probably right.” Vanessa pursed her lips. Then she sighed and shrugged. “Part of me wants to choke them if they even look at each other, but I can’t really argue with you, to tell you the truth.”

Richie grunted in agreement. A.J. couldn’t argue either. Connor was easiest to deal with when he and his guy du jour were on speaking terms and sleeping together. But God help them all if there was even the slightest lover’s quarrel. Bringing an ex—especially that ex—into the picture was going to make things interesting.

Vanessa cursed. “Well, Connor’s going to be easy to live with for a while.”

A.J. sat up a little. “Maybe we’d—”

“Can you blame him?” Shiloh asked. A.J. gritted his teeth. Why he tried to interject in these conversations, he didn’t even know.

“Uh, yeah,” Richie said. “Actually, I can blame him.” He sat back against the headboard, lacing his hands behind his head. “He has nobody to blame but himself for this shit with Jude, and he fucking knows it.”

“That wasn’t entirely Connor’s fault,” Vanessa said. “Remember? Wyatt quit, and so did Jude.”

Richie huffed. “Connor brought that on himself—and us—both times. If someone treated me the way he treated Jude, I’d cheat too.”

“Wouldn’t you just have broken up with Connor before things got so ugly?” Vanessa said. “I mean, why bother sticking around until it’s that bad? They were both idiots for dragging it out, just like Wyatt was an idiot for thinking Connor was over Jude.” Rolling her eyes, she added, “And Connor is an idiot for being hung up on that jackass.”

Shiloh scowled. “Enough. Come on. Jude’s not a bad guy, and neither is Connor. They just suck at relationships, and Connor’s super protective of the band. Fact is, we wouldn’t have gotten this far without either of them.”

“Yeah, they got us really far,” Vanessa said. “And that almost didn’t matter since Jude decided to fuck us after he was done fucking Connor.”

“Okay, yes.” Shiloh shrugged. “And Wyatt quit, so—”

“So I’ll smack him if I ever see him again,” Vanessa said, “but I have to work with Connor, and now Jude too. I’m pissed at all of them, but those two are going to be here.”

“True,” Shiloh said. “But the fact is, Jude’s just here temporarily. It was his choice to do what he did, and he knew what was at stake. If he and Connor don’t get along this time, we all know who’s getting the boot.”

A murmur of reluctant agreement rippled through the group.

“Well.” Vanessa stretched her arms as she stood. “Kristy’s right. We’re on the road early tomorrow. I’m going to call it a night.”

Shiloh nodded. “Same here. Let’s go.”

The girls left. Connor hadn’t returned yet, so the tension in the room had eased, at least for the moment. Richie went out for a smoke, leaving A.J. alone with his thoughts.

A.J. sat back and stared up at the ceiling. His fingers kept time with his heartbeat, tapping softly on his leg, and his other knee bounced as his heel tapped out the piece he’d been practicing earlier. Try as he might, he could not get comfortable. Even though the bassist crisis was averted, and things weren’t as up in the air as they’d been since Wyatt’s departure, A.J. didn’t like this. He didn’t like it at all.

He’d been at the recent meetings where they’d all panicked over what to do now that Wyatt was gone, but he was fairly sure there’d been conversations behind closed doors too. This group had been friends since they were kids, and Kristy had been their manager since the band’s early days. A.J. had been part of the group for a year and a half, coming in on the heels of Jude’s departure, but he still felt like an outsider.

What if the band settled their drama and decided to keep Jude after all? And what if they decided he was better behind the drums than he was on the bass, and decided to—

Easy, A.J.

He slowly released a breath. Jude was coming back temporarily. He wasn’t going to replace A.J.

He screwed them over. They’re not going to boot me out and keep him.

I hope.

***

Three days later, Running with Scissors arrived in Omaha. While Schadenfreude prepared to take the stage without their opening act, Running with Scissors settled into a shithole motel on the other side of town. Hopefully their crappy tour bus would be repaired soon—in addition to a volatile lead singer and a missing bassist, the band had been dealing with a bus with no running water for the last week and a half. Because they weren’t at each other’s throats enough already. And yes, they were lucky to even have a shower and a toilet on their bus, but God help them when those things quit working.

Kristy came into the guys’ room, where everyone was hanging out, and jingled a set of keys. “I’m going to get Jude from the airport. Anyone coming with me?”

Connor smirked. “He can’t get a cab?”

“He could, but since he’s saving our asses, I thought picking him up myself was the least I could do.”

Connor’s lip curled, but he didn’t argue.

A.J. shifted and then stood. “Do you mind if I come with you, Kristy? Since I’ve never met him?”

“Not at all.” Kristy smiled. “Let’s roll.”

He thought he felt some invisible daggers coming his way, but didn’t bother checking if Connor was glaring at him. Or if any of the other band members were. He just followed Kristy outside to the parking lot, and they climbed into a black Ford Explorer.

“His flight is on time,” she said. “So we shouldn’t have to wait long. I’m going to park, though, instead of waiting for him on the curb. In case he needs a hand with his stuff.”

A.J. didn’t protest. Neither of them said much while Kristy’s phone directed them from the motel to the interstate. When the first sign for Eppley Airfield came into view, a nervous feeling twisted in A.J.’s stomach. This was it. He was going to meet the legendary Jude. And hopefully—hopefully!—he wouldn’t get replaced by the guy.

He drummed his nails on the armrest. “So, you really think Jude’s going to be able to perform?” His cheeks burned at the accidental double entendre. “I mean, he hasn’t played in ages.”

“If it were anyone else, I’d be concerned. I’m not sure I’d trust any other musician to get onstage after so little rehearsal time, but he’s . . .” She was quiet for a moment, and A.J. marveled at how still her hands were on the wheel while she seemed so lost in thought. “Jude was born to be a musician. No two ways about it. He plays by ear, too. Once he hears a song, he only needs to run through it a couple of times before he nails it. He was one of those child prodigies, and if his parents’d had their way, he would’ve gone to Juilliard or something. And if I have my way, he’ll be back in Running with Scissors permanently.”

A.J. gulped. “As . . . the bassist?”

“What else would—” She glanced at him. “Oh honey. I’m not looking to replace you.”

“He’s a drummer, though.”

“Drumming is his passion, yes. But he’s a musician. In every sense of the word. He could easily fill the shoes of any member of that band except vocals, and even then, he could pull it off in a pinch. The thing is, whether he’s on the drums, the bass, the keyboard, or the damn cowbell, he’s amazing. And personal drama aside, the band is better with him than without him.” She sighed. “I just hope he’ll stay with us this time.”

A.J. pressed his lips together. If he’d been nervous about Jude before, he was a wreck now. He was good, and he knew he was good, but he wasn’t child-prodigy good. It was just as well the band was still pissed at Jude. Apparently he’d walked out days before a major festival—one that had been teeming with people from record labels—and they’d had to bail on the performance. A.J. couldn’t say he blamed them for the grudge.

Kristy reached across the console and patted his arm. “Listen, hon. You have nothing to worry about. I promise.” She withdrew her hand and put it back on the wheel. “You’re a rock-solid drummer, and quite honestly, you’re one of the saner members of that band.”

He laughed halfheartedly. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. And that sanity, it helps the morale for the whole band. Even Connor. Hell, especially Connor. When he gets pissed off, almost everyone involved in this group just pours gas on the fire, but you’ve got a calming effect on all of them.” She glanced at him again. “I’ve seen you stop Shiloh and Vanessa from getting into catfights, and Richie’s just mellower all around when you’re there. Musicians are volatile creatures, honey. Anyone who can keep them from killing each other is worth his weight in gold.”

“I do my best.”

“In fact, with Jude in the band?” Kristy whistled. “That calming effect of yours is going to be even more crucial than ever. Trust me, A.J. You’re not going anywhere.”

Great. His life’s ambition—to be the second-best drummer in a band, but to be kept around because someone had to keep them all from killing each other.

But at least he wasn’t getting kicked out of Running with Scissors anytime soon.

***

Inside the tiny airport, Kristy and A.J. loitered in baggage claim by the escalator. She alternately scrolled through emails on her phone and looked up at the escalator. A.J. did the same, though his nerves were holding his attention more than Facebook or Twitter. A few fans had tweeted at the band, and a handful had messaged him directly. He’d reply to those when his brain was functional. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind the wait.

Beside him, Kristy straightened. “There he is.”

A.J. turned around, and his heart went into double time. There was no mistaking who this man was, coming down the escalator with the guitar case on his back and the elaborate sleeve of ink covering his right arm, but he looked a hell of a lot different than he had in the photos and videos A.J. had seen. Either those images hadn’t done Jude a bit of justice, or a year and a half had been enough for him to quantum leap from good-looking to holy shit.

As the escalator brought Jude closer, A.J. stared. Jude’s nearly black hair was cut short now. Instead of hanging in sweaty strings over his face and falling over his shoulders, it was cropped like he’d walked into a barbershop with a copy of GQ and said, “That’s what I want.” A hint of five-o’clock shadow dusted his sharp jaw, and though they looked exhausted as all hell, those dark eyes were just spectacular.

Jude must’ve seen Kristy right then, because a tired smile spread across his lips. A moment later he stepped off the escalator, oblivious to the effect he was having on A.J.’s blood pressure, and embraced Kristy.

The manager hugged him tight. “It’s good to see you, baby.”

“You too.”

As they separated, Kristy gestured at A.J. “Jude, this is A.J. Palmer. He’s—”

“My replacement.” Jude studied A.J. His comment hadn’t been laced with any malice. Just an observation, it seemed. “Jude Colburn.”

“I know.” A.J. extended his hand. “Good to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Jude started to return the gesture, but hesitated. “I, uh . . .” He glanced down, and A.J. followed his gaze. At first, A.J.’s attention went to the elaborate tattoos going from beneath Jude’s T-shirt sleeve to just below the heel of his hand, but then he realized what was making Jude hesitate—his fingers were wrapped in white tape. They’d even bled through in a few places.

“Oh. Shit.” A.J. withdrew the offer. “Don’t worry about it. I understand.”

Jude smiled faintly. “Thanks. I’ve been, uh, practicing. So . . .”

“Good.” Kristy’s lips quirked. “Are you going to be healed enough to play?”

He shrugged. “I’ve played through worse.”

“Just don’t wear your fingers off, okay?”

“Promise.”

Behind them, the baggage claim belt groaned to life.

“I’d better get my bag.” Jude adjusted the bass on his shoulders.

“Okay. Why don’t I go get the car?” Kristy gestured at the door. “I’ll meet you two outside.”

“Perfect.”

She left, and suddenly A.J. was alone with the unexpectedly hot incarnation of Jude Colburn. All six foot something of him. He only had an inch or two on A.J., but it felt like much more. Even standing there, tired as fuck and waiting for his luggage to come down the belt, he had a larger-than-life presence about him.

Or maybe A.J. just hadn’t been laid in way, way too long.

He cleared his throat and turned away before he made an ass of himself.

A moment later, Jude hauled a drab green duffel bag off the belt. “All right, that’s everything.”

“Just the one bag?”

“Well, and . . .” Jude tapped the bass still slung over his shoulder. “I travel light.”

“So I see.” A.J. gestured at the duffel bag. “You want me to carry that?”

“You don’t mind?”

“Nah, it’s fine.”

“Cool.” Jude handed it over. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” A.J. returned the smile as he hoisted Jude’s bag onto his shoulders.

Outside, as they waited on the curb, Jude turned to him, his expression blank. “So how’s the tour been going?”

“It’s been awesome. Beats the hell out of playing in clubs.”

A barely perceptible wince flickered across Jude’s face. “Glad to hear it.”

“Thanks, by the way.” A.J. shifted his weight. “For bailing us out.”

Jude smiled. “Don’t mention it. Honestly, I’ve been hoping something like this would come along.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. The corporate world is just . . .” He grimaced and shook his head. “I was starting to wonder how much longer I could handle it before I went on a stapling rampage or threw a printer at one of the guys in my cubicle.”

A.J. laughed. “That bad?”

“Worse.” Jude sighed. “Okay, it’s not that bad. But it’s definitely not for me. This”—he adjusted the bass on his shoulder—“is what I was born to do.”

“I know the feeling. I was doing retail before I joined the band.”

Jude wrinkled his nose. “Sorry to hear it.”

“Eh, it was a paycheck. A small one, but a paycheck.”

“There is that. I’ll be fucking thrilled if I don’t have to go back to a day job, though.”

“Yeah, same here.” An uncomfortable knot grew beneath A.J.’s ribs. Jude had been itching for a change. Wanting to get back onstage. What if he liked being back in his old band and stayed indefinitely? Beyond the next album and tour? How long before he started eyeballing the drum set?

No. No. Not going to think about that. I’m part of this band.

Jude is the bassist. The temporary bassist.

I’m not going anywhere.

Please, God . . .

Oblivious to A.J.’s worries, Jude reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled pack of cigarettes. He slipped one between his lips, then patted the pockets of his jeans—front first, then back, then front again—and cursed around the cigarette. “You don’t have a lighter, do you?”

A.J. shook his head. “Sorry.”

“Damn it.” Jude shoved the pack into his pocket but kept the single unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Fucking TSA took mine.”

“Bastards.”

“Right?”

A.J. wasn’t a fan of smoking—it didn’t bother him but didn’t do anything for him either. Still, there was something weirdly hot about Jude with the cigarette. About this whole picture of Jude—clean-cut with some scruff and a hell of a lot of ink, standing beneath a No Smoking sign with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and an elbow on his bass—that did inexplicable things to A.J.’s pulse. It was a damn good thing Jude wasn’t playing his bass just then, long fingers on the strings and narrow hips cocked just so . . .

A.J. shook himself and tried not to pass out from thinking about Jude with a bass across his lap.

Breathe, dude. Get a fucking grip.

A pair of headlights caught his eye, and he waved at the approaching Explorer. “There’s Kristy.”

“Perfect,” Jude said around the cigarette. “Maybe she’s got a lighter.”

A.J. had never seen Kristy smoke, but she’d pulled stranger things from that giant handbag.

When their manager stepped out of the Explorer, though, she took one look at Jude and gave him that ball-withering scowl that kept most of the band in line. “Jude Colburn, when did you take up smoking again?”

Jude smiled sheepishly, his cheeks coloring. “Uh . . .”

She sighed loudly. “Idiot. Well, no smoking in the car. You’ll have to wait until we get to the motel.”

“Motel? They don’t even have a bus?”

“They do, Princess.” She opened the trunk. “But we’re stuck in motels until it’s fixed.”

“Joy.” Jude hoisted his bag and bass into the trunk.

“Hey, you’ve got nothing to complain about.” She wagged a finger at him. “The mechanics are working on the bus as we speak, so you only have to spend one night in a shitty motel. We’ve been staying in them since Little Rock.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah. Ouch. Okay, let’s roll.”

Everyone climbed into the Explorer. While Kristy shifted gears, A.J. settled into the backseat. As it happened, the seating arrangement gave him a perfect vantage point to surreptitiously check out Jude.

So, heart pounding and palms sweating, he fixed his gaze on the ridiculously hot bassist-slash-drummer.

And wondered just how screwed he was.

from Bitten By Love Reviews

I loved how the author was able to draw me in and feel all of the emotions.

from Unquietly Me

[M]oody and upbeat, and tantalizingly erotic.

from Blending Perspectives Book Reviews

I simply love LA Witt's books, and this is going to go down as one of my favorites from her. Boy can the girl write!  This book had a perfect balance of angst and romance, and the intense chemistry between Jude and AJ will downright set your ebook on fire.

from MM Good Book Reviews

I loved everything about this book, the characters, the story line, the angst, the conflict, the love story, the chemistry…I could go on and on and never finish finding things to love. This might be the best rock band love story I’ve read, ever!

from Bookaholics Not-So-Anonymous

Running with Scissors is so much more than a rock star romance and it was one that [I] enjoyed immensely.

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