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I fell in love with a boy whose laughter was the soundtrack of my heart. And I played it on repeat until life’s streetlights flickered on and stole him away.

Riot Blu.
Top 40 fuckboi.
Paparazzi player.
Trashy reality TV trainwreck.

But once upon a time, he was the boy next door.

Once upon a time, he was every note in every song on every mix tape he had ever made for me.

Now he’s back. A lot more arrogant. A little more tortured. And more gorgeous than any memory I held dear could do justice.

I know no good can come from being anywhere near him. But Seattle is only so big, and if I’m going to get the exclusive of my career, I have to swallow my pride, take that dreaded walk down memory lane and agree to his terms.

Move in with him.
Immerse myself in his life—the life he left me to build.
And try not to fall back in love with the man who ripped my world in two.


EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Rhythm & Blu

S.L. Jennings

A brand new second chance romance is available now from author S.L. Jennings, and I have the first two chapters for you!

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Excerpt

Track One

Before two minutes ago, there were three definitive times in my life when I felt more conflicted than I do right now.

The first was when Hazel Figaro, my best friend since grade school, butchered her hair to look like T-Boz from TLC. Somehow, the hairdresser selectively heard, “Make me look like Mr. T.” I spent the remainder of the school year and most of the summer reassuring her that it wasn’t that bad as it grew out.

Oh, hell fucking yes, it was that bad. Hazel looked as if she had been caught in a waterfall instead of chasing one.

The second time was the day I had to break down and tell my parents I wanted to put the kibosh on my plans for med school and pursue music. My very traditional Korean father and West Indian mother, both highly respected MDs in their chosen specialties, were not trying to hear that shit.

“Music is not a career,” they said. “It’s a hobby.”

“But it’s what I love…what I’m passionate about,” I countered, feeling even smaller than my already pint-sized five-foot-one stature.

“Passion doesn’t pay the bills, Roxanne. And neither will we if you don’t finish your education.”

And while I’ll only admit it to myself, on days when I’m feeling particularly self-deprecating, they were right. Because music wasn’t paying my bills. And since they had made good on their promise and stopped funding my apartment, car, and expenses, I had to swallow my pride and get a real job. While it was shallowly related to my passion, it didn’t nourish my spirit and sing to my soul.

And the third time? Well, that’s come back to slap me in the face hard enough to make me taste a decade worth of regret.

As I sit here staring at my laptop, rereading the email my editor just sent, I have to remind myself that rent is due on the 1st. And even though I traded in my ride for public transportation and a good pair of kicks, I can’t damn well survive off of rice and beans for much longer. These hips can’t take it.

He wanted me to do what?

I turn down the music pumping through my MacBook’s speakers,and I pick up my cell to scroll to his number. Surely Bari’s email was riddled with typos,and I don’t want anything else to be lost in translation.

“This is Frost.”

I have to bite down on my snort.

Frost is not Bari’s last name. It’s Feinstein. But…ok. These days, everyone has a moniker.

“Bari, it’s Rox. Can you clarify your email for me?”

“What clarification do you need? I’m certain the assignment details were clear.” I hear the squeak of his worn leather desk chair in the background, and I can almost envision him reclining back in it, imagining that he’s the king of the fucking world and not a prematurely balding dude caught in the hamster wheel of a mid-life crisis. Don’t get me wrong; Bari is a decent boss. He tries to throw me a bone here and there. But he doesn’t hear much outside of his own voice and his own self-indulgent bullshit.

“You know I don’t do these types of pieces. Wouldn’t this be a better fit for one of the Lifestyle writers? Or even Celeb Gossip?”

“Aren’t you our resident music expert?”

“Well…yes, but—”

“And is he not a musician?”

“He is, Bari, but he’s not the type of musician I usually cover.”

He snorts in that condescending prick-ish way that’s always followed by something snide. “What? Grammy award-winning artists are beneath you now?”

“Of course not, but—”

“Look, Rox. You asked for a shot. I’m giving you one. An incredible one at that. This is a huge deal for The Seattle Tea, so take it or leave it. But I promise you—a chance like this won’t arise again. Most writers would be willing to suck their own dick forthis opportunity,so you should be grateful I’m even trusting you with a piece of this magnitude.”

I heave out a frustrated breath. I’m not going to win this one. I could fight this until I’m as bald as Bari, but when it comes down to it, he’s earned that raggedy ass desk chair in his corner office at The Seattle Tea. I’m still scrounging for stories, covering local bands and basement-dwelling artists that I’d hope the public would deem noteworthy. But truth is, the Seattle urban music scene hasn’t been hot since Macklemore. And that’s saying something.

However, beggars can’t be choosers,and my broke ass has been begging for a shot at a featured piece for the past year.

But why does it have to be him?

Of all people. Of all musicians. Why do I have to cover him? He’s not even considered a local artist. Not since he ran off and sold out. But now after a stunt six months ago on one of those trashy reality shows on VH1 that damn near killed him and his career, the prodigal son wants to come home?

Please.

“So what am I supposed to do? Interview him?”

Bari chuckles. He’s fucking with me. He knows how I feel about this assignment and the subject in question.

“Not quite. I want you to fully immerse yourself in his world. He’s moved here to reinvent himself—to reclaim his sound. I want the scoop on his creative process, his goals for this next album, what he does to get inspired. Find out who he’s listening to, what he’s watching on Netflix, who he’s banging. Shit, I want to know what his favorite breakfast cereal is and if he likes it with whole or skim milk.”

I bite my tongue. Because I know he loves Captain Crunch but always picks out the green Crunchberries because he claims there is no such thing as a green berry. And he’s strictly a 2% kinda dude.

As for who he’s banging? I’m not touching that. No way. No how.

Out of habit, I bring my fingers to my chest, imagining the phantom coolness of metal against my skin. I’d worked too damn hard and for too damn long to bury that ghost. I wasn’t about to resurrect him. But this was the real world,and I had a real job that paid me just enough to pay my very real bills. I had to be an adult about this, haunted memories be damned.

“Anything else?” I ask, cosigning my own demise.

“That should be it for now. First meeting is tomorrow. I’ll text you the address.”

“Fine,” I huff before hitting End. I don’t even bother with the social nuances of a goodbye. That’s reserved for people who aren’t currently planning how to fake their own death just to get out of an assignment.

Car accident? Nah. Too public. And one would actually need a car for that.

Gruesome home invasion-turned-murder? Hazel would kill me if I got blood on the furniture.

Mysterious disappearance? My parents would have my ass on every milk carton in the country if I don’t call at least three times a week.

Dammit. Even my fake death can’t get its shit together.

I’m still staring at the screen when Hazel comes bustling in, arms overflowing with fabric samples in an array of colors and prints. She chucks her purse and keys onto our tiny kitchen island and tosses the swatches on our already cluttered dining table.

“How do we feel about his and hers matching dresses for spring?” she asks by way of greeting.

I shrug half-heartedly. “If Jaden Smith can wear a dress, I don’t think it’s too far off. Although I think matching couple ‘fits in general are tacky enough, but what do I know?”

“Agreed.” She flops down onto the couch and kicks off her Hunter boots, still speckled with rain, before snatching off her beanie. Loose, dark curls tumble down around her shoulders. “Apparently, being boo’d up excuses fashion faux pas. I don’t care how good the D is, if I catch my man rummaging through my closet for something to wear, his ass will be ghost. He’s not about to be stretching out my hard-earned couture with his hairy man-thighs!”

She cackles to herself for a good twenty seconds before realizing that I haven’t budged, still too hypnotized by the words—or better yet, the name—staring back at me from the computer.

“Girl, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“I have,” I deadpan, meaning it. I sigh. “I got a job today.”

“Aw, shit! That’s great, Rox! We should go out and celebrate. I just got a dress so tight that it requires Crisco to get into.” She busts into a shoulder shimmy reminiscent of the Bankhead Bounce circa 1995. Which takes me right back to my current dilemma.

“Yeah. Great.”

“Then why do you look like you’re mentally preparing for anal with a cactus?”

Unable to vocalize my disdain and overall frustration, I merely nod at the screen, prompting Hazel to climb to her feet and sashay her way over to my Ikea work desk. It only takes a quick glance to catch his name amongst the jumble of useless assignment details, as if it’s outlined in bold, blaring neon yellow instead of flat, black Helvetica, 12pointfont.

Riot Blu.

Top 40 fuckboi. Paparazzi player. Trashy reality TV trainwreck.

And heart-crushing life ruiner.

Ruiner ofmylife, to be more specific.

“Holy shit, Rox.” Hazel takes a step back and brings her fingers to touch her lips to conceal a gasp.

“I know.”

“Did Frost know about how he—”

“No. He only knows I don’t care for his music, which is true.”

“But he doesn’t know that you—”

I shake my head. “He doesn’t know anything.”

“Fuuuuuck.”

We both take a beat to reread the name that feels like a shank to my gut with every syllable.

“Well, we can still go out…” my roommate comments quietly.

“Do you not get what this means, Haze? Riot-fucking-Blu. I’m freaking out!” I snap with more venom than I intend.

“I know. I know. But you see…this dress. I was really hoping to get penetrated tonight. And we don’t have to celebrate. It can be a last-night-before-the-end-of-the-world type of occasion, with booze and carbs abundant. My treat?” She bats her fake lashes and smiles in that way that looks like she’s trying to feign innocence and hold in a fart at the same time.

She’s going to get her way. That’s how it’s always been. Everyone gives into Haze one way or another.

Plus carbs and booze sound pretty damn good now that she’s paying.

I roll my eyes. “Fine. Whatever. But I swear to G-o-d, Haze: no scrubs. You are not sticking me with the broke, ugly friend to entertain while you get those cobwebs knocked outta your coochie.”

“Cobwebs?” she scoffs. “Girl, bye. My shit is made of unicorn glitter and rainbow sprinkles.”

I make a face and gag. “Sounds like a yeast infection to me.”

The mood temporarily lightened, I heave out a breath and push away from my laptop. I can stew about Riot Blu later, after I’m properly sauced and am happily slipping into a carb-induced coma.

We shower. Dress. Pre-game.

Hours later, we’re breezing into our favorite nighttime haunt in the heart of Pioneer Square. The upside of rolling with Haze? Always knowing where the party is. The downside? The party is most likely her.

As a fashion blogger and self-proclaimed former hoe (her words, not mine), Haze knows everyone who is anyone in Seattle. And if she doesn’t know them, she isn’t shy about forced friendship. Which is precisely how she foiled me into becoming her best friend of almost two decades.

I was the quiet girl with braces and Coca-Cola bottle glasses that would much rather spend her lunch period with a Walkman and a mixtape. And Haze, all tanned legs and brazen attitude even back then, was the new kid, meaning she was a magnet for attention, the very thing I was hoping to avoid. Apparently, headphones were no deterrent for the California native, because she insisted on talking.

And talking.

And talking.

Until I finally got tired of pretending to read her pouty, pink-glossed lips and pulled off my headphones.

She never stopped talking, and I admittedly found myself listening. And soon enough, I was conversing with the super cool new girl at school whose parents let her wear eyeliner and baby tees that exposed the tease of her navel.

Not much changed from then. I got a little bolder, she got a lot louder, but the dynamic pretty much stayed the same. I was the Kelly to her Beyonce. The JoJo to her K-Ci.

Until Riot. Then…everything went to shit.

We sidle up to the bar, bypassing the pub tables and high-back chairs that are quickly filling up with patrons. It’s Ladies Night, meaning two-for-one specials and plenty of men banking on cheap well liquor.

“So,what are we drinking?”

I don’t even know why she asks. Since before we were even old enough to drink, our spirit of choice has always been vodka. Tito’s, to be exact. I only have to give her a pointed glance before she turns towards the bartender to flag him down.

“Hey, you!” she coos, batting her falsies and painting on a saccharin-laced, flirtatious grin. “I didn’t know you were working tonight. I haven’t seen you in a minute.”

“What’s up, Haze? Where you been hiding?” Manbun, beard, flannel. Typical PNW kinda guy. The bartender is easy on the eyes, with his emerald-hued irises and fit build, but he is so not Haze’s type.

“Oh, you know. On my grind, always. It’s so funny though…I was just thinking about you.”

I bite down on a laugh and roll my eyes stealthily. Haze wasn’t thinking about this dude. She can’t even remember his name. Hey, youis code for, Shit, who are you again? And I feel bad. I always feel bad for the unsuspecting men that fall for Haze’s charms. Her presence is magnetic and alluringly dangerous. It’s like looking into the endless obscurity of an eclipse, knowing it’ll scorch your eyes. And time after time, guy after guy, she renders them all blind.

She finesses us a couple double tall vodka sodas with lime before we claim a sofa and table set-up nestled on the other side of the lounge. It’s dark enough that we have a veil of privacy yet gives us a view of the whole space. We’re not ready to be seen yet—at least I’m not. By our second round, the place is packed,and the DJ on the ones and twos has the whole crowd vibing to the latest club bangers. Although I usually abhor anything on heavy rotation on the radio, I don’t even recoil when Haze grabs my hand and tugs me towards the dancefloor.

There’s something to be said about that moment when the rhythm slips inside you and sinks its hooks into your soul. Hands in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying and dipping to the groove, I am merely a marionette to the music. A slave to the riffs and melodies that flow through my veins like the liquor sloshing in my cup. This feeling…it’s like a drug to me. I am weightless, boundless. A speck of glitter floating amidst a humid, smoke-veiled universe where each star is a dazzling note that ignites my soul with brilliant beams of rainbow light.

I’m so wrapped up in the moment that I don’t even notice when our little party of two becomes a party of four. However, Haze is already welcoming the intruders—erm—newcomers back to our table. She turns to introduce me to her new friends just as I finish off what’s left in my glass and attempt to flag down a cocktail waitress for a refill.

“Rox, this is Dane and Kaz. Guys, this is my girl, my ace, my bottom bitch, Rox Lee.”

I flash a nervous grin and extend a palm, anxious to get the awkward intros over with and return to the carefree oblivion of booming basslines. But Haze gives me that look…that look that tells me that her dress has lived up to its promise of getting dickmatized tonight, so being anything but hyperaware is out of the question. I should have known the moment I spotted them. Dane is right up her alley. Tall, dark, and tatted up, with enough labels on his body to give Haze a fashion boner. He has skin the color of sunbaked sand and his eyes appear to be clear blue, almost gray under the strobe lights. He reminds me of Jeremy Meeks, the Fine Felonwhose mug shot went viral after he was arrested. He’s pretty, that’s for damn sure. A little too pretty for my taste but judging by the way he’s sizing up my roommate, he’s already spoken for.

“What are you drinking?” the other guy, Kaz, asks. He’s as tall as his friend, a little less muscular, and is much more conservative in denim and a black Henley with the sleeves rolled up to showcase tan, chiseled forearms. He’s got a baby face, clean-shaven, and his golden-brown hair is messily styled, but probably cost few bills to achieve its perfect waywardness. I’ll never understand the notion of paying good money to look like you didn’t do a damn thing other than roll out of bed and rake a hand through your hair, but I have to admit, it looks good on him.

While Kaz is admittedly neither broke nor ugly, I should have specified that I wasn’t down with playing babysitter toanyfriend, scrub or otherwise. I have no doubt in my mind that Haze knew that these guys would be here tonight. She looks way too cozy with Dane while tucked under his arm, close enough to his lips that she could probably taste what he had for lunch.

I hold up my empty glass and shake it, the sharp tinkling of the melting ice cubes cutting into the mellow groove the DJ throws on next. “Nothing now. But…vodka.”

“We’ll have to do something about that.”

Kaz signals the female server, who hurriedly comes over donning a wide grin paired with what I can only describe as a starry-eyed gaze. Her interest is obvious, but Kaz is all business when he orders a bottle of top-shelf vodka and all the appropriate mixers. The cocktail waitress nods and smiles in response, then in a much too obvious way that verges on desperate, straightens her back to make her perky tits even more noticeable in her low cut, midriff-baring tee. However, Kaz politely thanks her and turns his attention back to me. Nice of him, but not necessary.

“So, Rox Lee, what brings you out tonight?”

“My funeral.” He lifts a brow, perplexed as expected, so I tack on, “I got the job of a lifetime, which is ironic, considering it’ll kill me.”

“Sooo…I’m guessing you’re a lion tamer? Snake charmer?”

I shake my head and sigh. “Writer.”

“Huh. Didn’t know words could be hazardous to your health.”

“Yeah, definitely. Ever get a papercut? Tragic.”

“Oh, the horror. And I bet carpal tunnel is a bitch.”

He laughs, and I notice that he has a gorgeous smile, complete with dazzling white, straight teeth and sensual, full lips. Ok, definitely not the broke, ugly friend.

The waitress brings over our bottle of booze and fresh glasses, and before I can go in for a refill, Kaz begins to fill two glasses. He hands me one and holds his own towards me for a toast.

“To a beautiful funeral for a beautiful woman.”

I nearly choke on a laugh.

“What?” Kaz asks, an alluring smirk gracing his lips.

I shake my head. “Dude, that was…lame as hell.”

“Too much?”

“Hell yes.” I pretend to flag down the waitress and call out, “Excuse me, can we get some wine with all this damn cheese?”

Kaz laughs again, and I find myself just as tickled and feeling less awkward about being obligated to entertain a complete stranger so Haze can get her mack on. And after a few more drinks, I find that I’m really enjoying Kaz’s company and am not at all thinking about the fate that looms just beyond the dawn.

That is, until the DJ cuts the music to make a special announcement. Consider it my eulogy.

“Aw, shit!” he hollers into the mic. “We gotta special guest in the building! Ya boy has returned home! Riot Bluuuuuu!”

On that cue, the DJ puts on Riot’s biggest club hit from his last album, Shades of Blu, but it’s completely drowned out by the raucous cheers and screams from fans storming the dancefloor.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I knew I would have to face him, but I thought I had one more night before it all came crashing down…one more night to prepare myself to confront the person I had vowed to never speak to again. He’s already stolen so much from me already, yet I can’t escape him. He’s on my television, on the radio, in every fucking magazine that I flip open. I can’t even have one last night before Riot Blu intrudes on my life, only to leave it in ruins once more?

This is bullshit.

“Huh? What was that?”

I don’t even realize I’ve said that last thought aloud, so I shake my head. “Nothing. I gotta go.”

Kaz looks confused and turns towards the stage, and I imagine he spies the person that’s currently invoking my overwhelming urge to crawl out of my skin. I’m not certain because I refuse to even look in that direction.

“Rox!” I don’t even notice that Haze has mustered the strength to tear herself away from her new boo. She grasps my shoulders and all but pulls me into her bosom. “I swear, I didn’t know. You ok?”

I nod, but follow with, “I need to get out of here.”

I try to step away, but end up stumbling on my own heels, right into Kaz’s chest. My head is foggy, and I’m not sure if it’s from the vodka or the fact that I’ve just been battered with a past I’ve worked over a decade to keep buried.

“I’ll get her home,” he pipes up. Haze and I both shoot him an unforgiving glare, prompting him to raise his palms as a sign of innocence. “That’s all, I promise. The Square is about to be crazy once everyone finds out who’s here. Neither one of y’all should be rolling alone.”

Haze looks at me. “I can come with you now if you want. Just say the word.” I know she means it, but I also know she doesn’t want to leave. I can’t ruin her night, especially since it took an act of God and a jar of Vaseline to squeeze her into that dress. And just because my love life is pretty much bankrupt,that doesn’t mean I should deprive her of a little momentary bliss.

I kiss her on the cheek and muster a smile. “Have fun, girl. I’m good.” I peer over to Kaz who pretends to not eavesdrop. “I’ll be fine.”

I follow up by simply touching the bridge of my nose, which Haze mimics. It’s been our unspoken signal since high school house parties, telling the other to stay alert, and if need be, use the pepper spray tucked in each of our purses.

Honestly, I can’t get out of there fast enough, and I can tell Kaz is surprised by the way I power walk through the crowd to the exit. The crisp night air tastes of sea salt and impending rain, and I suck in as much as my lungs can take, hoping to sober myself.

“Damn, girl. Not a Riot Blu fan?”

I shake my head without looking up and pull out my phone to call a Lyft. “You could say that.” I start walking towards a well-lit area towards the street.

“I’m surprised,” Kaz remarks, following closely beside me, yet tryingnot to come off as intrusive. “Most women love him.”

“Don’t believe the hype. This woman definitely doesn’t.”

Head down and preoccupied with summoning my ride, I lose my footing on the ridiculous heels Haze insisted I wear to complete my ensemble of tight ripped jeans, lacey black bra top, and coordinating lightweight blazer, which sends my cell flying from my fingertips. Kaz plucks it out of the air before it collides with the pavement while also catching my forearm before I do the same. Clearly, he’s some kinda circus freak with octopus arms and can handle his liquor much better than me.

“Thanks,” I mutter. He hands me my phone then pulls out his.

“What’s your address?”

“For what?” I snap.

Noting my tone, he peers down at me, his expression pinched. “For your ride. They need to know where we’re going.”

“We’re?”

“I told your roommate that I’d get you home, and I meant it. I’m not leaving your side until I know you’re safe.”

Too tipsy to argue, and admittedly a little touched by the chivalry, I tell him. In the few minutes it takes for our ride to arrive, I learn that Kaz is an only child, originally from Colorado, and a Pisces. Over the short car ride, I tell him that I have an older brother who serves as a doctor in the military, grew up in Redmond, and am a Virgo. By the time we pull up to my apartment building, I decide that he’s cool. At least cool enough for me to invite him up for coffee.

I throw on a chill R&B playlist and go to prepare our hot brew while Kaz checks out the cluttered shelves of books and music.

“Holy shit. You still have CDs?” he calls out, his tone touched with mirth. “Do they even manufacture CD players anymore?”

I grab our mugs and make my way over to where he’s inspecting my coveted collection. “Hell if I know. I’ve had the same stereo since ’98.”

“You’re kidding.” His eyes are wide as he takes the offered drink.

I shake my head. “No bullshit. Sure, I’m a big fan of modern technology and all; I’m not a dinosaur. But there’s nothing like opening that CD jacket, reading the lyrics and discography, and remembering the excitement of hearing the new Jodeci or SWV or 112 for the very first time. Then playing it on repeat until every lyric feels like it was dedicated especially to you. And just like that, you’re thirteen again, transported to your very first dance, and the way your date’s hands felt on your body as you rocked and swayed to a slow jam. You relive those butterflies, those sweaty palms and the exhilaration of falling in love. Music is memories. And these are my photo album.”

I don’t even realize I’ve let my eyes fluttered closed until I open them and find Kaz staring down at me, the look on his face so thoughtful yet intense.

“That’s…” he begins, his tone raw. “That’s fucking beautiful.”

I don’t know if it’s the vodka, or the quick trip down memory lane, or knowing that after tonight, my entire life will forever be altered, but I respond, “I think you’re fucking beautiful too.”

And as his hand snakes around my waist to pull me closer into his body and his mouth covers mine so his tongue can lick silent questions and taste my responses, I know that it’s a combination of all three.

Track Two

There’s a fucking car alarm blaring inside my skull, yet it sounds oddly similar to my ringtone. The ringtone that belongs to the phone I can’t find. The phone I can’t find because every time I attempt to move or even peel open my eyelids, a stampede of baby rhinos Cupid Shuffle from temple to temple.

Fuck. Me.

What did I do?

I don’t need to do a body check to know that my pants are missing, which probably means my bra and panties are too. Great. A hangover and a messy hookup with some guy I just met. And where the hell is my phone?

I dare to open an eye and bite through the ache that rips through my head. Surprisingly, the space beside me on the bed is empty. Hallelujah for small miracles. Drunken one-nighters are bad enough. The awkward morning after thing is damn near unbearable.

I manage to move my limbs enough to feel around for my phone, which stops ringing, only to resume seconds later as if the caller really, really needs to get in touch with me. Shit!Bari told me he’d hit me up with the Riot Blu interview details today. But more than that, Haze could be stranded somewhere and need me. I shoot out of bed with a renewed fire under my ass, squinting against the throbbing in my sockets, and rummage through the blankets and last night’s strewn clothing.

“Hello?” I croak into the receiver the second I snatch it from its hiding place under my bra.

“Rox, are you fucking kidding me right now?”

“Shit, I’m sorry, Bari. I couldn’t find my phone. I’ve been searching for it since early this morning,” I lie.

“Never mind that. Your first meeting got moved up to this morning.”

“This morning?” I’m instantly sober.

“Yeah. His camp had a scheduling conflict and needs to get started right away. Jot down this address.”

I grab a pen and the closest scrap of paper I can find, which funnily enough, is a receipt for condoms. Definitely not mine. “I’m listening.”

Bari prattles off the address, but before I can even record a single letter or digit, the pen tumbles from my grip. “Wait. Where am I meeting him?”

“His home.”

“His home? He’s not staying at a hotel?” I was expecting a quick interview in the restaurant at Loews or the Four Seasons. Some place nice and public, yet tucked away from paparazzi.

“Nope. He bought a spot weeks ago, and just moved in. How did you not know this?”

Because I’d rather gnaw off my arm than occupy my thoughts with where Riot Blu lays his head.

“Must’ve slipped my mind.”

“Well, get your game face on, Lee. They’re expecting you in half an hour.”

I glance over at the numbers illuminated on my digital clock display and curse.

“Don’t be late,” Bari commands. “Remember: this story could make or break your entire career.”

We hang up and I jolt into action, sprinting to my closet and damn near tripping over my discarded clothes and shoes. I’m in such a hurry that I almost miss the little scrap of folded paper sitting on my dresser, marked with unfamiliar handwriting.

Rox,

Last night was great, and I wish I could have stayed. Early morning grind. I want to see you again, sooner than later. Call me.

Kaz

His number is scrawled under his name, but I don’t have time to save it in my phone, let alone call him. My focus is entirely singular right now: I’m about to see Riot for the first time in over ten years.

I once believed that nothing could fracture what we had. He wasn’t just the boy next door, he was my first kiss, my first love, my first everything.There was nothing on this earth that I wouldn’t have done for him, including defy my parents to be with him. And I did…more than he could ever know.

Still, he left me.

No goodbye. No note. Not even a phone call.

It was so easy for him too, as if those precious firsts I had surrendered to him had meant absolutely nothing. And being a young fool in love, I even tried to rationalize his disappearing act. He had left me behind to become a star. So I did what I thought was best for the boy who had left his mark on my soul and his music in my heart. I kept our secret so he could shine.

That was easier to do when my only access to him was in the form of MTV appearances and radio interviews. When the loneliness became too much to bear, I had to acceptthat my Riot was gone. Maybe he was never really mine at all.

I don’t know how I pull it off, but I manage to shower, dress, slap on some concealer and mascara, and run a brush through my hair in eighteen minutes flat. Normally, I’d call a ride, but by the time it arrived, I’d lose a good five minutes. Then we’d be battling traffic and detours from endless construction. I can hear Bari’s bitchin’ now.

I set out on foot, weaving through the morning crowd as quickly as my short legs will take me. Halfway to 2ndStreet, I try to recall if I put on deodorant, since the balmy Seattle summer coupled with my nerves are making for a very swampy situation. This is so not what I need right now, and definitely not how I wanted to present myself on such a huge assignment. Bad enough I’m hungover and my hair probably looks like I was caught in a wind tunnel with all this humidity. And while I’ll only admit it to myself, I’d planned to look damn good the first time I came face to face with Riot Blu. Let him see how I’ve grown up and all that I’ve accomplished without him. Then let him be the one to sweat as he watched me walk away.

But you know what they say when you make plans. God has a sick sense of humor, it seems.

The tower on 2ndthat houses some of the most luxurious (i.e.,expensive) condos in the city looms before me, and I dash to the door with only seconds to spare. The doorman peers at me skeptically.

“I’m a writer for The Seattle Tea, with an appointment to see Mr. Blu,” I blurt, trying desperately to contain my panting and not sweat all over his shiny, black dress shoes. “He should be expecting me.” I even whip out my press ID to show him I’m legit, despite my disheveled appearance.

The door attendant offers a polite smile before turning to pick up a phone stationed on a small podium. He confirms my claim in a hushed tone then turns to me and says, “You’re all set.”

I follow him to the elevator where he punches in a secret code to grant me access to the penthouse. Before the elevator doors close, I extend my palm.

“Thank you…?”

“Harold,” he answers, smiling, which makes the ends of his thick mustache curl up at the sides. He takes my outstretched hand for a shake. His grip is oddly gentle for such a formidable man. “Harold Faulkner.”

“Nice to meet you, Harold,” I manage to get out before the doors slide closed.

And then there’s nothing but twenty-four floors standing between me and my absolute worst fear.

By the time the doors open to the foyer, I’m dizzy and I think I may faint. But I take a few deep breaths and force myself to keep it together. I can fall apart later and definitely plan to, followed by eating enough salted caramel ice cream to slip into sugar shock. But for now, I’m all about my business, and not even Riot Blu will throw me off my game. I refuse to let him take one more thing from me.

However, any hope I had of maintaining my cool is quickly dashed away when I see a familiar form approach to greet me as I step off the elevator.

Oh-my-fucking…

“Kaz?”

“Rox?” Although he frowns, I’m glad to see that he is just as good looking as I thought he was under the sobering morning light. However, I’m not sure he feels the same. “How did you find me?”

“Find you?” Now I’m frowning. “I’m here for an appointment with Riot Blu. I’m doing a story on him.”

“You’rethe writer from The Seattle Tea?” He looks genuinely shocked. He runs a hand through his tawny locks. “Shit. That’s ironic as fuck.”

“What is? And what are youdoing here?”

“I live here. RB is my boy, and I help him out from time to time. And what’s ironic is that you seem to hate him, yet you have to write what I’m assuming is a pretty big piece about him.”

Add in the fact that we slept together not even eight hours ago. But that dirty little detail goes without saying, and hopefully, will never pass either of our lips.

“And you didn’t think to mention that you were friends with him last night?”

“Just like you mentioned you were scheduled to interview him today?”

Touché.

“Sooo…” I look around the foyer and peer over his shoulder into the unit. “Is Riot in or is this a bad time…?”

Kaz’s back straightens, and he answers, “Oh, yeah, sorry. Come in.”

He ushers me through the entranceway, which leads to the lavish living room, I have to force my jaw shut before it falls to the ground. The space is vast and open enough to fit my entire apartment, and it’s tastefully decorated in cool, neutral tones. Tinted floor to ceiling windows serve as walls, allowing warm, inviting sunlight to fill the area. It’s simple, elegant, and not at all what I expected considering Riot’s bad boy persona. Where’s the half-naked video models and empty bottles of champagne? Where’s the grimy, overflowing ashtray of burning blunts and the freeloading entourage?

Better yet, where’s Riot?

“Have a seat; make yourself comfortable,” Kaz says.

I take a central spot on one of the sleek, yet comfortable couches that give me both a view of the entrance and the hallway leading to the rest of the condo.

“Can I get you anything?” Kaz asks. “Water? Tea? Coffee?” He lifts a brow, as if he can smell the hangover on me.

“Sure,I’ll take some coffee. You actually live here?” I ask, trying to fill the empty silence with anything other than what went down last night.

“Yeah,” Kaz replies, padding to the kitchen. That’s when I notice that he’s freshly showered, groomed and dressed in jeans, a white tee, and cross trainers. “Well, I live in the building,but I’m here mostly.”

“So what do you do exactly?”

He shrugs, his focus on the French press before him. “A little of everything honestly. Whatever Riot needs me to do.”

“So you’re like…his assistant?”

A small smile plays on Kaz’s lips,and he shakes his head. “Nah. Nothing like that. We’re friends, and since I’m trying to break into acting, he thinks this will be a good opportunity for me. And in turn, I help him out a bit.”

Acting. Not sure how that has anything to do with fetching Riot’s dry cleaning, but okay.

Kaz comes over to hand me a cup of coffee before taking the seat across from me. I take a sip and scorch my tongue, but it’s better than the alternative. Honestly, the safest bet would be to eighty-six this meeting and reschedule…at a time when I’m not sitting across from my one-night stand.

“Should we shoot for another date?”

Kaz lifts his brow amusingly, prompting me to reword my question. “For the interview. If Riot’s busy, we can reschedule.” Shit. I think Kaz and I had a good time, but now that business has blurred into pleasure, there’s no way I’m putting my professional ass on the line for round two.

Kaz shakes his head. “He should be done soon.”

Done with what?Or with who? Any other columnist would be chomping at the bit for just a taste of the tea on Riot Blu, especially after his very Kanye-esque meltdown just months ago. But any other columnist didn’t suffer the most tragic of all heartbreaks at the hands of the enigmatic, bad boy singer either. Granted, I’m unprepared and don’t have a damn thing written down to ask him, so pressing Kaz for info wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, but then I’d have to confront the consequence of truth. And yeah, I could handle seeing him on TV, strutting the red carpet with thethottie of the moment hanging off his arm, but seeing that shit in person? I was woman enough to admit that I wasn’t quite ready for that.

“You look worried,” Kaz comments after a few silent moments. Well, silent for him. I was having a full-blown summit in my head.

“I’m not. It’s just…”I don’t want to be here.

“You’re worried about last night. And how it will reflect on you professionally.”

Ok, let’s go with that.I nod. “You know how this business is. Reputation is everything. And for a woman, especially one of color, it’s easy to get labeled as someone who sleeps her way to success. And that’s not me.”

Kaz nods thoughtfully. “I get that, and I hope you know I don’t see you as that type of person.”

“Thanks. So…keep it between us?”

“That goes without saying. But if you need me to say it, I won’t tell Riot.”

“Won’t tell Riot what?”

I hear him before I see him, and somewhere buried deep inside of me, a piece of me feels him too. The heat rushes to my cheeks. Needles prick the back of my neck. And even my nipples tighten beneath the lace and cotton of my bra.

He steps into view and my breath catches. He’s bare-chested and barefoot, with only low-slung joggers to hug the V of his chiseled hips. His usually golden hair is wet and slicked back, the darker hue making the blue of his eyes even more radiant. A towel straddles his neck to catch any stray droplets of water from his nape. He’s older, harder, but I see him…I see the boy I once knew resting upon those high cheekbones, slicked across his bowed lips, dusted over his nose that was always a little crooked, yet endearing. I see him laying next to me on the floor of my childhood bedroom, a shared pair of headphones the only thing between us. I hear his voice echoing in my head, so sweet and smooth like liquid sin, and I feel the effect it had on my young, trembling body as it flowed through me before finding its home in my heart.

That’s what we were to each other: home. He was the boy next door who needed to escape his controlling stepdad’s temper. I was the girl who just wanted to give him a soft place to land. And now that I look at him—all ripples of muscle, ink, and swagger—a part of me still wants to be that for him, even knowing that he’s so far gone from the scrawny teen who once needed the refuge of my arms.

When Riot’s eyes find mine, he pauses, as if a distant memory has scratched against this new, broader, shinier version of my old friend and first love. But he quickly blinks it away and smiles. Not the goofy, bright smile I had dedicated songs to. But the one he used in TV interviews. Polite, nonchalant, yet seductive enough to make you want to see if there was more to the man behind the platinum voice.

“Roxanne Lee,” he says, my name rolling off the tongue as if he’s said it a thousand times over the years.

He strides over to me, and in a panic, I jump to my feet, nearly spilling hot coffee all over my blouse. Fuck, I’m nervous. And, of course, he seems more than comfortable in his skin as he wraps his arms around me, pressing his naked chest against my breasts, and bear hugs me so tight that he lifts me right off my feet. I go rigid, not knowing what the hell to do with my own limbs. Don’t you dare fucking smell him,I tell myself. At least my nose complies when the rest of my body has decided to completely betray me.

“Damn. How you been, girl? It’s been a minute,” he murmurs, setting me down.

I straighten my clothes and peer up at him. He’s always been tall, but now he’s got at least a foot on me. And every inch of his frame is all man.

“I’m good. Thanks for asking. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me on behalf of The Seattle Tea. I know you must be busy, so I won’t take up too much of your time.”

He steps back, looking me up and down like he’s a fat man and I’m a buffet. “Damn, girl. You grew up.”

I nod, irritation pinching my lips. “You did too. Shall we get started?” I reclaim my seat to show him that I’m here for a purpose other than allowing him to ogle me like I’m up for auction. Realizing that I have no intention of running into his arms to complete this little reunion, he takes the couch across from me, sitting in the same space that Kaz quickly evacuated when Riot hugged me, disappearing in the direction that Riot just came from. So much for wanting to remain professional. Pretty sure I’m looking all kinds of fraudulent right now.

Stillingthe tremble of my fingers, I fish out my small digital voice recorder from my bag and set it on the sleek wood and glass coffee table between us.

“So…” I begin, trying to collect my thoughts.

“So.” Riot leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You really do look good, Roxy.”

“Rox,” I correct him. “I go by Rox now. It’s better to be a little ambiguous in my line of work.”

“I’d say, especially looking the way you do. A music writer…bet your parents love that.” He ends his statement with a throaty chuckle as if he can almost imagine the fit they pitched. Still, I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’s right.

A shrug. “They’re proud either way. Yours?”

He scrubs a hand over his face then leans back into the couch cushions lazily, slinging an arm over the back. “How long have you been writing for The Seattle Tea? I honestly thought you’d be working for a major label by now. You always were a better lyricist than me.”

I don’t miss how he swerved that question, but I’m too annoyed to pretend I’m interested in his personal life, although I am curious about his family. My parents told me that his mom and stepdad split some years back, and while I was sympathetic, I didn’t want the conversation to merge into speculation about Riot. And his was a name that hadn’t been uttered between us for several years.

Determined to get back on track, I plaster on a tight, polite smile and ask, “There’s been some early buzz about your upcoming album, The Riot Act. Is it finished? When can fans expect to hear the first track?”

He shakes his head, and I’m surprised he even answers me, although his tone is clipped. “Not yet. Soon.”

“Can we expect your signature sound, or will you be hitting us with something completely unique of the Riot Blu we’ve heard in your last five albums?”

With that, a slight frown burrows between his brows. “Is there something wrong with my sound?”

I blink. Open and close my mouth. Then the words tumble out much less gracefully than I intend. “No, um, no. It’s, uh, great. Obviously. You’ve gone multi-platinum. Won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Your last tour sold out in every city worldwide in less than an hour. You top the charts with every single.”

“You’ve done your homework,” he smirks.

“It’s my job.” It’s not a lie—knowing who’s who in the industry actually is part of my job. But none of that information was retrieved as work-related research.

“Is it?” It’s almost like he knows that I’ve been keeping tabs on him, even when I told myself that I didn’t give a damn about him or his music.

“That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

It’s all I can do to keep from jumping to my feet, leaping over the coffee table like a spider monkey, and slapping that smug smile off his pretty face. He always had the ability to piss me off more than anyone else. Probably because I cared about him more than anybody else. Cared.Past tense.

“Moving on. Will there be any unexpected features on The Riot Act?Rumor has it, you’re working with hitmaker, Nick Wilde, for the first single.”

He shrugs, seemingly bored. “Yeah. Nick’s a friend and a musical genius. But you knew that.”

I did, but I don’t let on. “Fans are still talking about your appearance in the last Marvel blockbuster. What about other projects? Any plans to return to the big screen?”

“Didyoulike it?”

I frown, stunned by his question. “Huh?”

“Did you like my performance? What did you think?”

“Um, I didn’t see it,” I lie. Of course, I saw it. Everyone saw it. And while his part was a short cameo where he pretty much played himself, I have to admit, he did well.

Not that I paid much attention. Or replayed it a couple dozen times.

“Did you, uh…did you…” For the first time since we sat down, he’s nervous. I can tell. It’s the way he chews his lip. I can imagine that he’s wishing it were his fingernails, but that was a habit I helped him kick the summer before junior year.

He drums his fingers against the back of the couch as if he’s running them over ivory keys, another one of his tells. I know where he’s going with this, and maybe it’d be better if I rip the Band-Aid off. He was never good at confronting the hard shit.

“Did I see you on that show?”

He swallows before nodding. “Yeah.”

“I did.” I don’t know why I don’t just lie like I did before and put him out of his misery. But this piece is all about his fall from grace, and his resurrection as the prince of blue-eyed soul. We have to start from the bottom so I can capture him reclaiming his spot at the top.

Riot nods, his eyes low. “Yeah. I thought you might have. So you know how I…”

“I know how you got so high and drunk that you attacked a producer, then later passed out in the pool. How have you been doing since then?”

“You asking for the story? Or because you want to know?”

Another kernel of honesty. “Because I sincerely want to know.”

His lips twitch into a half smile. And a hardened piece of me cracks wide open.

“Better. There were some dark days. Times I just wanted to say fuck all this shit,and disappear. When you’re on top, everybody wants to be you. But the second you slip from that pedestal, those same people will be all too happy to step on you for their come-up. Honestly, I was just tired of it all. Tired of all the expectations and bullshit opinions and superficial shit.”

“Is that why you left LA and came back to Seattle?”

“Yeah, that. And other reasons.” The way his gaze runs over me makes my whole face flame.

“And those reasons are?”

He doesn’t answer, at least not right away. And maybe if given the chance, he would have. But before he can even part his bowed lips, Kaz enters the living room, followed by two other men as big and intimidating as linebackers.

“Sorry to interrupt, RB, but the crew will be here in 10.”

“Cool,” Riot nods. “That’ll give Roxy time to settle in.”

“Um, excuse me?” I pipe up, my gaze going from Kaz to Riot. “Settle in?”

“I’m sure you want to unpack and get a tour of the place,” Riot answers. I would think he’s joking, but Riot sucks at jokes. He always laughs before getting to the punchline.

“I’m not following you.”

“You’re moving in for the exclusive. Dude at The Seattle Tea said it was an expose on the life of Riot Blu. And, seeing as I’m Riot Blu, the smartest and easiest solution would be for you to stay here.”

Oh,hell no. HELL NO.

“Absolutely not.”

“Why not?” Riot even has the nerve to look confused. As if he can’t imagine why I’d be opposed to living with him. Unbelievable.

“Because I have a life and a job and an apartment. I can’t just move in with you for a story. No. That’s absurd! And extremely unethical.”

He shrugs. “Those are my terms. You want the story that every publication in the nation is vying for then you have to agree to them. It’s not like I said you’d be sleeping in my bed…unless you want to.” He waggles his brows which I answer with an eye roll.

“But for real, Rox, you’ll have your own room, your own space. All I’m asking is for a little of your time. All I’m asking is for you to stay.I can’t tell you what my life is like better than I can show you. And I wanna show you. So take it or leave it.”

He climbs to his feet without another word and strides towards the direction from which he came with the two larger gentlemen following behind. No goodbye. No plan to finish the interview. He was leaving the ball in my court.

I look up at Kaz, who peers at me expectantly. I can’t even imagine what’s going through his head right now, and I’m in no mood to guess. Not when I’m seriously considering signing my life away for a paycheck and a taste of success.

“Need a ride to go get your things?” he asks. And while there’s not a hint of annoyance in his tone, I don’t doubt that his opinion of me has changed.

I glance down at the digital recorder on the coffee table. Shit. I don’t have nearly enough to even call this a story. And I didn’t bust my ass for scraps all these years to blow my chance at the exclusive of a lifetime. Not for Riot. Not for anyone.

Deep breath and a long blink to gather my courage, and I climb to my feet.

“Yeah. I’m ready.”

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