Gillian ArcherGillian ArcherGillian ArcherGillian Archer

Excerpt: Refrain

Book 2: Tin Gods Rock Stars

Prologue

Ella Robinson

Los Angeles, California

Ten years ago

Maybe they called it a crush because it was so goddamn painful.

I tried to keep my face blank as I stared across the room of my graduation party to where Jesse was currently flirting with my ‘friend’ Marissa.

I used quotes because no one in high school had ever really been my friend. They all used me to try to get closer to my brother and his bandmates—either because the poser friends wanted to be famous themselves or because my brother’s bandmates were stupid hot.

Case in point, Jesse Mala. My brother’s best friend. Bass player in the Tin Gods. And my lifelong—and painful—crush.

Marissa leaned into Jesse and rested her hand on his chest. Jesse didn’t move her hand, but he did raise his eyebrows. There was something extra in his eyes as they continued to talk. I had to look away. It was just too painful.

Jesse never looked at me that way.

Maybe it was time to accept the fact that he never would.

“Congrats, brat.”

I straightened away from the wall I’d been leaning against as my brother approached with a cigarette in one hand and a carefree grin on his face. “Thanks, Chase.” I rolled my eyes. “‘Cause you know it was so hard to do.”

“Hey, don’t knock it. Not everyone graduates high school. And I remember how tough it was to keep showing up.”

I shrugged. It was hard to accept praise for accomplishing the bare minimum. It wasn’t like I was valedictorian or had a big future planned. I wasn’t going to college. I hated school.

I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do next.

“Just enjoy the moment, El. It goes by so damn fast.” Chase wrapped his arms around me and pulled in for a rare and awkward hug, careful to keep his cigarette away from me. Tears filmed my eyes at the gesture. Somehow my brother always knew when I needed that little something extra. Finally, he pulled back and patted my head in that oh so condescendingly way he had. “No boys and no booze. See ya later, runt.”

And then he walked away in a haze of cigarette smoke, squealing girls, and tough guy air.

I felt so annoyed and loved at the same time.

“Ass,” I muttered at his retreating back.

“Damn, Ella. That’s no way to talk to your favorite guy.” Suddenly Jesse was at my side with that cocky smirk still on his face. It was grating and yet so freaking hot.

“Since when are you my favorite guy?” I retorted with a roll of my eyes.

He had his trademarked cigarette behind one ear and that auburn scruff on his jawline that I couldn’t help but imagine rubbing against my thighs. Not that I knew anything about that. Both guys I’d been with had only been interested in getting me onto my knees or didn’t have the space in their backseat.

“…you okay?” Jesse waved a hand in front of my face. “Shit, don’t tell me you’re on something? I thought you were smarter than that.”

I blinked. “Wait, what? I didn’t take anything. Are you kidding me? I don’t have a death wish. Ma would kill me.”

“You got that right.” Jesse’s shoulders jerked with his laugh. “I remember this one time Chase and I stumbled home from a party. She caught us in the garage and…I don’t think I should finish that story.” He coughed roughly and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Why not? It’s not like much has changed, judging by what I saw backstage at your guys’ show last month.”

Jesse winced. “Fuck, if we’d known you were coming—”

“Chase wouldn’t have been so blitzed? Noah and Xander wouldn’t have been snorting coke? You wouldn’t have had three girls climbing all over you?”

He cursed under his breath.

I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. I know who you guys are. And I know where I fall on the priority list. He sent me tickets, but it was stupid to assume that meant he wanted me to be there.”

“Hey, now that’s not true, bug.” Jesse wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me into him. “You know he didn’t mean the shit he yelled, right? That was the liquor and the drugs talking.”

“Doesn’t make what he said any less true. I know I don’t belong there with you guys. I’m just the little sister. The hanger-on.”

“Fuck that.” Jesse pulled away to stare intently into my eyes. “You belong where the fuck you push your way in. You deserve whatever the fuck you want. Don’t ever settle for anything less.”

I couldn’t help the little hitch in my breath as I absorbed his words. And that look in his eyes. It was even more intense than the moment I’d peeped on earlier with Marissa.

Jesse opened his mouth like he was going to say something more, but nothing came out. His eyes glittered, and I could feel the intensity that was all of him focused on me. His gaze darted down to my lips, and he licked his own.

It was this amazing, huge moment that felt suspended in time.

Jesse saw me.

Jesse finally saw me and wanted more.

Holy shit, was he going to kiss me?

“Jesse!” My brother hollered from the other side of the room. “We’re ready to roll. You coming?”

And the moment was over.

I tore my gaze from his and stared down at the heels I’d thought made me look so grown up. I knew what he was going to say before the words even left his mouth.

“Fuck yeah! Let’s go. Congrats again, bug. We’re all proud of you.”

I nodded without looking up at him. I could feel him hovering next to me for a moment, no doubt waiting for me to acknowledge him.

But I couldn’t. I knew it would hurt.

Of course it hurt even more when I saw him walk out the door with one arm wrapped around Marissa Mccoy.

Fuck my life.

Chapter 1

Ella

SoFi Stadium

Los Angeles

Now

I’d been backstage at my brother’s concerts dozens of times. Might be over a hundred at this point. And yet I was nervous. I didn’t expect to be nervous. I mean, this was my brother and his friends. I’d known most of the guys as long as I could remember. It shouldn’t be a big deal.

But it felt huge.

It was the usual chaotic scene—roadies running everywhere, guitar and drum techs carrying instruments, people pushing dollies and carts loaded with equipment. Everyone knew where they should be, where to go. Everyone but me.

I just stood there, staring at the scene in bewilderment.

Usually I was the fake-it-until-you-made-it girl, all full of brash attitude and confidence. All that was missing today. This was too important. I was finally going to have a job that I wanted—that I ached to do—and I didn’t want to screw it up.

I might also be known for that too.

Catching the eye of a road-worn roadie, he leered at me, licking his lips exaggeratedly. Yeah, not happening. Ever. But it goosed me into action. I all but ran in the opposite direction while fiddling with my camera like I had a purpose.

I had no idea where I was supposed to go.

“Ella!” Someone shouted behind me.

I jerked my head up from my fake inspection of my camera and found Wes standing a few feet away with a slight smirk on his ridiculously attractive face. I never thought I had a daddy fetish, but Wes Tippmann could convert me. Wes had that whole late forties, tinge of gray, slightly wrinkled attractiveness down pat. Unfortunately for me, the tour manager was also happily married with two kids.

But a girl could dream.

“Ella?” Wes stepped closer to me with a frown marring his delicious features. “You okay?”

“I, uh, what? I mean, yes. I’m okay.” I let my camera hang from its strap around my neck and straightened my shoulders. “Just a little nervous. I wanna do a good job, ya know?”

“Relax. You got this.” Wes smiled winningly at me, and I was a little bit ashamed to admit I felt butterflies.

Probably nerves, and not at all due to Wes’ handsomeness.

“I’ve seen some of your pics. Chase has that one of his wife up in his office and points it out to everyone. You got skills. Don’t let the insanity of all this—” He gestured to the chaos around us. “Make you doubt yourself. I believe in you, and I know your brother and the guys do too.”

I ducked my head. “Thanks, Wes. That means a lot.” After taking one last gulp to fight the nerves and butterflies, I tilted my chin and stared back at him confidently. “So where are the motley crew? I was hoping to catch some of them for a few candids before soundcheck later.”

Wes laughed. “Your guess is as good as mine.” Placing a hand on my shoulder, he gently guided me to the side of the hallway and away from a cart zooming up behind me. “How about I introduce you to Kiefer Brash, the studio’s photographer, and he can show you a few of the ropes?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Great. Last I saw he’s in the main greenroom over here. I’ll lead the way.”

I tried to nod confidently. I doubt it looked that way though.

“This your first tour?” Wes asked me over his shoulder. “I mean, I know it’s your first photography job, but you’ve never gone on tour with the guys before?”

At least he didn’t catch me checking out his very firm butt. “Is it that obvious?”

He tipped his head in an unspoken yes.

Great. Apparently, I did have newbie tattooed across my forehead.

“You just have that eager gleam of someone who doesn’t know the grind that’s coming. You know, under all that fear.”

I laughed weakly, but I had a feeling that wasn’t a joke.

Yay.

“This is the main greenroom. Everyone with a backstage pass has access to the space. So there’ll be celebrity guests here, media, and our opening band all hanging out here before the show.”

I nodded as I looked at the space. I’d been in countless similar places before with my brother’s band. Only as a family member and not an employee. Somehow it felt different. More intimidating.

On the far wall there was a bar, where everyone would no doubt be getting free drinks later tonight. A few well-worn couches lined the scarred white walls, and a few small tables were placed haphazardly around. One large table butted against the end of the bar with all kinds of food laid out—sandwich platters, boxes of pizza, candy, and chips.

Roadies still zoomed past, but a few guys stood around the food, talking and laughing.

Wes led me straight to them.

“Kiefer, my man. How’s it going?” Wes asked before doing that whole hand slap, bro hug thing.

Kiefer, a skinny guy with a long goatee, juggled his pizza back into his right hand now that it was free. “Good, good. Just fueling up before it gets crazy and the food disappears.”

“Smart. Have you met Ella?” Wes turned and gestured to me, lurking nearby. Like a weirdo.

I raised a hand and gave the guys an awkward wave.

Kiefer lifted his chin, and I could’ve sworn his ice blue eyes grew even colder. “Haven’t had the pleasure.” His smile made me shiver in a totally different way from Wes’. Kiefer held his free left hand out to me palm down. “Kiefer Brash. Stolly Records and Tin Gods’ official photographer.”

Of course he didn’t do the pizza juggle for me. And what was with the odd way he held out his hand? Was I supposed to kiss his knuckles or something?

I settled for a bro head tip. “Nice to meet you. Ella Robinson.”

I could all but hear the pissing contest about to begin.

“Right.” Wes cleared his throat. Apparently, he could hear it too. “Ella has been brought on to handle the band’s social media pictures and posts for the tour. Take some of the load off of my assistant and promote the tour. I thought maybe the two of you would wanna meet, trade some advice or whatever. I’ve gotta go take care of…everything really. So yeah. I’ll leave you two to it.”

I raised my eyebrows as Wes beat a hasty retreat.

Awesome.

“Yeah,” Kiefer drawled. “Let’s trade some advice like Wes said.”

I turned back from watching Wes’ stiff legged run and found Kiefer and I all alone at the snack table. The other guys had disappeared too. And so had all the hustling roadies.

All righty then.

Kiefer shoved the pizza into his moderately attractive face and stared me down while he chewed exaggeratedly.

“So, uh.” I cleared my throat and shrugged. “How many tours have you been on?”

Kiefer rolled his eyes and reached for his energy drink. “So many I can’t even count.” He paused, took a long slurp of his drink, and then tilted his head. “So many that I don’t have to go on tour anymore. Stolly flies me in and out for only the top concert locations. Fortunately, after our LA shows, we won’t see each other again until New York.”

So much underlying hostility bubbled up during his soliloquy, it was hard to break it all down. But the gist was that Kiefer was important while I was a peon. Check.

Kiefer was a douche.

And he kept talking.

“Very few of us can have our über famous brother invent jobs for us. Most of us had to hustle and hone our craft. Put our time in in the trenches. Do the work. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t have time for a little girl who batted her eyelashes and got her family to pull strings for her. I got shit to do. I don’t have time to hold your little nepo baby hand. We clear?”

“Crystal.”

“Great. And if you even think of running back to your brother and telling him—”

“Let’s get one more thing clear here,” I cut in, glaring at the asshole in front of me. “You don’t like me, and I sure as hell don’t like you. But I’ll be damned if I ever let my brother fight my battles. I’m a grown ass woman. I can stand up for myself.”

“Too bad you can’t find your own jobs too.”

We stared at each other for another beat before the sound of a skateboard of all things cut the thick tension.

I turned and had to laugh as Xander Lang, guitarist for the Tin Gods, came coasting down the hall and into the greenroom. His long wavy hair up in a manbun and his tongue poking out of his bearded mouth, he cruised around the room then over to the empty end. After he did a few board flips, he glided to a stop next to me.

“Ella!” Xander wrapped a sweaty arm around my shoulders in a one arm hug. “I’m fucking stoked you’re joining us on tour. And hey, you already got your camera. You know sound check isn’t for another hour or so, right?”

I could see Kiefer’s sneer over Xander’s shoulder. I blinked and turned my attention back to my childhood friend. “I just wanted to get the lay of the land. Figure out some shots. Acclimate to the venue since we’ll be here for a few days.”

“You’re freaking out, huh?” Xander laughed lightly in that way of his that had me smiling back at him. He knew me so well.

“Maybe a little.” I shrugged, picked up my camera, and blindly fiddled with the buttons.

“Hey, the greats always understand the stakes and prepare like hell. That’s why I’m here and your brother is nowhere to be seen.”

“Pretty sure he’s still home dicking down his lovely muse.”

I didn’t even have to turn around to identify the speaker. But I couldn’t deny myself the impulse of watching the eye candy.

Jesse Mala approached our little group with all the swagger of a bona fide bad boy. His auburn hair was a little longer on top and slightly curly in that way that just made me want to run my fingers through it. Between the stubble on his chin, the cigarette behind his ear, his slightly holey t-shirt, ripped jeans, and leather jacket, he personified a bad boy rocker.

And was the entire reason I’d spent more than half my life more or less in love with him.

Not that he noticed.

Jesse stopped a respectable distance away from me, and unlike Xander, didn’t lift a hand to welcome me. “Hey, bug. Heard you were joining our little dysfunctional family road trip.”

Kiefer snorted behind me, and I cringed.

Jesse’s eyes went flat in a way I hadn’t seen since Ramsay Pearce flirted with me over the chef’s table of his restaurant, Courgette, a few months ago.

Jesse turned to Kiefer and raised an eyebrow. “Did you have something you wanted to add?”

A muscle flexed in Kiefer’s jaw before he turned his eyes on me. He sent this look like what had happened was my fault before turning back to Jesse. “Nope. I think I’m good. See you guys later.”

We all watched in silence as he turned and walked down the hall.

I sighed.

Xander patted my shoulder. “Don’t take it personally, kid.”

“Yeah.” Jesse nodded. “It’s well known that Kiefer Brash is an asshat.”

“I’m just glad that asshat isn’t coming on tour with us this trip. Dude always has this way of making me feel like he is watching me. Judging me. Fucking creepy.” Xander gave an exaggerated shudder. “So stoked that you’ll be touring with us, kid. At least you don’t have any weird issues with any of us. Anyhow, who’s hungry?”

As Xander stepped away from our little huddle to survey the food, my eyes went unbidden to where Jesse stood. He blinked a few times, looking back at me, then turned and joined Xander for some food.

Nope, no issues here. Just a lifelong crush that had been doomed from the start.

A blonde woman I’d never seen before bounced over to the table and snuggled up to Jesse’s side. She said something and he laughed, smiling down at her.

And that was when it hit me.

I hadn’t just signed up to photograph them onstage. I was going to have a front row view of all of Jesse’s hookups and fuck ups. I’d have to watch women fawn all over him, and I might also have to take pictures of some of it for their social media. Backstage pics were huge on socials.

What the hell had I signed up for?

The blonde shifted her weight, and with the movement, she arched her back slightly, putting her very perky boobs on display. A show Jesse was very interested in, judging by his eyeline.

I looked down at my very small chest and sighed. If anything, I guess this tour was going to finally kill my crush on the bad boy bassist.

Yay.

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