Manchester band Sad Fridays is a band on the edge. The edge of breaking up. The edge of making it big. The edge of killing one another on stage. The edge of falling in love when they least expect it. A new rockstar romance in Scarlett Cole’s Excess All Areas series is coming next week, and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
Alex King, percussionist and second drummer in Sad Fridays, woke to the sound of his alarm. A Brazilian jazz samba, played on the drums, with a syncopated surdo played on the bass and hi-hat. He took a deep breath as fleeting images of a beach in Ipanema burst into his consciousness along with the realisation the heat he felt had more to do with the man pressed up against his body than the sunny music playing from his phone.
“Are you going to turn it off?” Ollie turned in Alex’s arms, attempting to kiss him.
“It’ll turn itself off in a minute. I like it. But it also means you have to go.”
Ollie pouted. “Can’t we stay in bed just a bit longer? It’s so early.” His hands slid over Alex’s hip, gripping it firmly.
The front door slammed. Must be Jase, his cousin and the band’s lead singer, returning from his girlfriend, Cerys’s house, just down the street. Which meant he really did have to get up and get moving. “Things to do. People to see. The tour starts today, and I need to finish packing.”
He threw back the covers and climbed out of bed to drag on a pair of loose sweatpants. Ollie groaned as he followed suit, tugging on clothes that had been hastily abandoned on the floor the previous evening. Something that, in hindsight, had felt a little desperate on Ollie’s part. He couldn’t decide if Ollie had just gone overkill on fuck-the-rockstar role play or wanted to leave some kind of lasting impression before Alex went on the road for the next six weeks.
Alex hoped Ollie knew better than to ask to stay for a shower or breakfast or, well, anything. It was the fourth time he’d stayed the night in the last month, something Alex realised he needed to put a stop to. Ollie had become a little too starstruck for it to be real, their relationship convenient rather than special.
Special was something Alex wanted desperately, even if his whole life was built around the image he didn’t.
“I know the tour is super important to you, but I wondered if there was any room for me in it all. Like, I’d love to share it with you and be backstage with the rest of the band. Meet the opening acts. A VIP pass would be so extra if you could get me one,” Ollie said, as if reading his mind.
Alex stepped up to him, cupping the back of his neck firmly. “It was fun, Ollie. But it’s done.”
Eyes the colour of sea glass studied him earnestly. “I thought we had a connection.”
“We did. We wouldn’t have fucked otherwise. But that’s all it was. Sex. Fun.”
Ollie’s shoulders sagged. “I figured you might say that. I wanted to share your rise with you.”
Alex tried not to frown as Ollie’s words confirmed his suspicions. “Not going to happen, Ollie. You’ll make someone a great partner.” He wanted to add something about dropping the slight neediness but didn’t.
“Just not yours?”
Alex huffed. “Not mine. I don’t want a partner. Never have,” he lied.
And therein was the dichotomy.
He’d seen a so-called loving marriage up close. It looked like his mum flinching every time his dad stood up to go take a leak. He saw his friends dip their toes into relationships. Matt, their songwriter, bassist, and Jase’s brother, had hooked up with their drummer, Luke’s, little sister, Iz. It had brought nothing but strife to the band, and they’d almost lost Luke because of it. Hell, at one point, he wasn’t sure the band would even recover. Matt had proposed to Iz on the one-year anniversary of their first kiss.
Luke, who’d been pissed at Matt, had fallen for Willow Warner, the Shamaze app star who’d used one of the band’s songs in one of her videos, catapulting them to their current fame. Now Willow was only a couple of months from giving birth to a baby Luke was now crazy about. Cletus, he called the poor thing, though the baby’s official name would be Zale. But even that brought its own problems, with Luke reluctant to be on tour so close to the baby’s birth.
Then there was Jase, who had met Cerys while they’d been recording their album in Detroit. Even their relationship hadn’t been smooth sailing. No relationship ever seemed to be.
Plus, his own experiences of finding the one had always ended in such dire failure, he honestly didn’t think his heart could take another beating. Better to keep what was left of it protected in metaphorical bubble wrap.
Only his brother, Ben, and he were still single. Well, arguably Ben wasn’t, because Chaya was always around.
They were all trying to make love and monogamy and life and dreams work in a stifling straitjacket.
Plus, he wasn’t sure his perfect person existed. Someone independent in life yet willing to submit in bed. Someone who could shift to accommodate his ever-changing needs and moods. Domineering one day, sensual or playful the next. Someone willing to try new things.
A loud hammering on Alex’s bedroom door made Ollie jump.
“Let’s go, lovers,” Jase shouted from the hallway. His cousin was loud but had always been his biggest cheerleader, allowing him a safe space to express who he was.
Alex tipped his head in the direction of the door.
“Okay,” Ollie said. “But you have my number, right? In case things change.”
“I do. Keep safe, yeah?”
He stood in place until he heard the front door slam, then he stretched his hands over his head, before reaching them down to the floor. Sex followed by a solid sleep always made him feel better. The shitty morning farewells, not so much.
His bedroom door burst open, and Jase danced in. “Mornin’. Are you packed?”
“Are you ever going to knock?”
“I heard the door slam. Knew lover boy had left. Saw the weeping, pitiful look on his face as he trudged down the stairs.”
“A. Not lover boy. B. He was not weeping. C. Knock on the fucking door so you don’t catch me doing something neither of us would want you to see.” He untied the black silk currently wrapped around his bedposts. Two. One for each of Ollie’s wrists. He tossed them into the laundry pile. He’d save cleaning up the sex toys and putting the lube away until Jase had gone.
Jase shrugged. “I’ve heard most of it. The walls in this place are as thin as Liverpool F.C.’s defence.”
Alex laughed at the analogy, not that he cared as much for football as his cousins and brother did. “Yeah well, hearing and seeing are two different things. It would be solved if you persuaded Cerys to move in with you.”
The house was technically rented by Alex, but Jase had moved in several years ago. In hindsight, he’d never asked. Just showed up one day with his shit in boxes and asked if he could stay. He’d never moved out. But when they’d been broke, him working as a barista and Jase working behind a bar, it had helped them make rent and pay bills.
Now, they had more cash than they needed.
“She doesn’t want to bail on Zoe. I’m hoping now Zoe’s got this new job, Cerys won’t feel so bad moving out.”
Zoe, Cerys’s best friend and former college roommate, had been lost of late, unsure what to do with her career after she’d walked away from the one thing she’d always wanted to do. “Zoe got a new job?”
“Yeah. She stopped working as a temp and now has some virtual assistant gig.”
“Not entirely sure. But last night she was working on some graphics for a romance author. Like, her and Cerys were looking at stock photography images of half-naked men. Apparently, they were looking for a dude with tatts who could pass as a billionaire. And then she was putting all these perky slogans from the book over the top. Shit like, ‘she was his, and when he’d finished fucking her, she’d realise it.’”
“That sounds a bit rapey.”
Jase nodded. “Then there was one about how she didn’t want him but needed his money to pay down college debt.”
“She couldn’t just get a job like the rest of us?”
“Something to do with a sick mom, and medical bills. I don’t know. Apparently, it’s a trope.”
“Don’t ask. I did and it’s half an hour of my life I’ll never get back.”
“Were you guys able to persuade her to join us on tour last night?”
Jase shook his head. “Cerys tried one last time because she’s hoping it will get Zoe excited to play again.”
Cerys and Zoe had attended the Royal Northern College of Music together. Cerys, a pianist turned talented music producer, and Zoe, an exceptional percussionist who had dropped out in her final year as her hearing had deteriorated. “Fair enough. I need to shower. Feel like making us breakfast?”
“I’m on it.”
While conditioning his blond curls so they didn’t end up a complete frizz ball, he thought about Zoe. Going deaf right near the end of her music degree was about as tough as it got. But Zoe was strong. She appeared to have navigated it with grace. And if she was angry, she didn’t show it.
Instead, she just got the fuck on with it.
When Zoe and Cerys were both over, they watched TV shows with the subtitles on, and he and Jase were learning sign language. He enjoyed the expressiveness of it, even though it was tough to learn.
But a part of him wondered whether Cerys’s attempts at pulling Zoe back to what had once been her passion was challenging someone to live their best life or just plain cruel. He loved Cerys in a sisterly way, but he wasn’t sure where the line was between being there for a friend, and stepping into an ableist saviour role, no matter how well intentioned it was.
Fuck knows people tried it on with him all the time.
Once he’d dried off, he grabbed black joggers out of his wardrobe and pulled them on along with his favourite black mesh top. He added a strand of pearls. Pearls Nan had worn on her wedding day, hard-earned by her miner father. She’d given them to Alex on his last birthday. They were his favourite and most precious thing. Too much for a day on the tour bus driving up to Aberdeen to start the tour, but they did wonders for his mood.
When the tickets for the shows had gone on sale, they’d sold out so quickly additional dates had been added. There was a chance it might expand even further. Europe, perhaps. America even.
It was the chance of a lifetime. The tour was a mix of large venues and stadiums. The musician life they’d been leading, only this time done in comfort. Decent tour buses instead of their drummer, Luke’s, battered van. Nicer hotels and no more sharing rooms. Making money every single night to a sold-out crowd. And not having to worry about the logistics.
When he’d thrown his black nail polish, condoms, and lube into his toiletries, he placed it in his luggage and hauled his case and hold-all down the narrow staircase. The scent of bacon filled the air, causing his stomach to rumble. He walked into the kitchen, surprised to find Jase sitting at the table and the person he loved most in the world making food.
“Morning, sweetheart,” she said.
“Morning, Nan.” Seventy-seven-year-old Rhoda Palmer stood in front of the grill. “What are you doing here?”
Nan cracked eggs into the frying pan. “Jase video called me with puppy dog eyes and begged me to come and make you breakfast. Said I couldn’t send you off into the world without one of my famous breakfast baps.”
He turned back to Jase. “You got Nan out of bed at seven in the morning to make us breakfast?”
Jase grinned. “She loves us, Alex. And her love language is making us food. Who am I to deprive her of chances to show us how much she loves us?”
Alex laughed. “You really are a dick.” He grabbed a slice of bacon currently resting on kitchen towel.
Nan smacked the back of his hand. “Get your hands off.”
He munched on the bacon. “You know you love me.”
“But she came because I’m her favourite grandson and she can’t say no to me,” Jase said.
“Don’t think so. She gave me her pearls. You love me more, right, Nan?”
Nan pulled the sausages from the pan and began cutting them in half. “I don’t love you half a penny more, or Jase half a penny less. I love you both exactly the same. And I gave you those pearls because I didn’t want them wasting away in my drawer when I knew you’d wear them.”
Alex watched as she placed two sausages on the floury white baps first, followed by slices of bacon, then she topped it with a fried egg.
“HP?” she asked.
“Please,” they both replied in unison. Alex’s mouth began to water as he watched her load up the brown sauce.
“Are you not having one?” Alex asked as she placed the finished product on the table in front of him.
“Oh, I already had my bowl of Raisin Bran. Doctor said to keep my passages clear I need more fibre.”
“Why did Alex get the first one?” Jase whined.
Nan fluffed Jase’s hair. “Because you need to be put in place occasionally, Jason Palmer.”
When Nan returned to get Jase’s, Alex gave him the finger.
“Fuck you,” Jase mouthed, playfully.
Alex masterfully grasped the well stacked bap and took a bite, groaning as runny egg yolk slid down his fingers.
When Nan brought them large mugs of steaming tea and then sat down to join them, she studied each of them. “You’re both going to be good boys on this tour, right? If I see either of you on the news or in the papers for anything other than great concerts, you’ll be answering to me. Am I understood?”
Alex choked on his breakfast. “What exactly do you think we’re going to get up to?”
“Remember Brighton?” she asked.
When Jase had stormed off stage.
“Or Coventry?” she added.
When Alex had gone home with a couple who had gone to the press about their night together. Nothing quite like your sexual preferences being outed by total strangers. Now speculation raged. Was he bi? Was he a third or in a throuple? A switch? Gay? He’d not felt the need to clarify he was pansexual because he knew it would open him up to a whole other line of questioning.
“Fair point,” Jase said. “But that was B.C.”
“Before Christ?” Nan asked.
Jase laughed. “No. Before Cerys. Detroit was a turning point, Nan. Don’t worry. I won’t be marching off stage.”
Nan patted Jase’s hand. “Good. And you?” She turned to face him.
“I’ll be good, Nan.” And he would, because not only had he become more discrete, but he had a bet to keep him entertained.
With Zoe Atkins. If he could just get her on the damn bus.
Jase’s phone rang fifteen minutes later, just as they’d sent Nan on her way with hugs all around. “Hey, sunshine. Miss me already?” There was a pause, then he shoved the chair back. “It what? Stay out of there. I’m on my way.”
Alex stood. “What happened?”
“Their kitchen roof just collapsed.”
Zoe Atkins looked up at the ceiling of the kitchen that was now a giant hole. Yellow insulation, cracked plaster, the dangling wires of the lights, and beams that ran the length of the house were all exposed. Chunks of plasterboard adorned the island and the floor. Plasterboard which had grazed her shoulder as it fell.
The still-steaming coffee cup was on the counter across the kitchen where she had left it. But the path to it was treacherous given her bare feet and shaking knees. Her reflection in the microwave door revealed wide eyes and dust-covered hair.
Water dripped, which, combined with the electrics was not a good thing.
And her heart raced faster than the notes in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
“Jase says to get out of the kitchen. He’s on his way,” Cerys signed. Then she sneezed because the air was filled with…well…they couldn’t tell.
“Holy shit,” Zoe signed. “It almost landed on my head. Go let Jase in.”
From the safety of the small dining area, Zoe looked up at the ceiling again as she took a quick picture to send to their landlord. Were there more cracks? How did they miss it? Would it be safe to even go into the bathroom directly above?
We have a small problem, she typed and attached the image.
Within moments, Jase and Alex ploughed into the room.
“Jesus. What the hell happened? Are you hurt?” Jase asked Cerys. She watched Jase’s lips. Between her hearing aids and lipreading she caught enough. He tugged Cerys into his arms and kissed the top of her head.
“I’m good,” Cerys replied. “Just a little shook. It caught Zoe.”
“I was making coffee and went to grab milk out of the fridge when the roof collapsed,” Zoe said. When it was just her and Cerys, they would sign. But having only gone deaf while at university, she could speak just fine.
Alex brushed some of the dust off Zoe’s shoulders, the contact more violent than she was ready for after finding herself in the middle of a ceiling collapse. “You okay?” he signed.
Zoe held her hand out to show how it was shaking. “Not the best of mornings.”
“Come here,” he said, tucking her against his chest. He smelled good; she could never quite pin it down. It was earthy, never floral. The kind of scent you could just keep inhaling and it would never give you a headache. He wore a delicate knit top with holes between the stitches. She could make out his ink, but not the designs.
Carefully, Alex eased Zoe back a fraction and picked a piece of fluff out of her hair. “You were lucky you weren’t standing beneath it. It’s wet. Looks heavy.”
Zoe nodded. “And it came between me and coffee.”
Alex grinned. “Well, I can fix that.” Carefully, with one eye on the ceiling, he stepped through the debris, tipped her coffee into the sink, rinsed the cup, and then poured her a fresh cup. “M-i-l-k?” he fingerspelled.
“Please,” she signed.
As Alex grabbed milk and Jase inspected the damage, Zoe looked over to Cerys. “How did we end up hanging around rock stars?” she signed. “Like, there are two of them in our kitchen right now.”
With a shrug, Cerys grinned. “I don’t know, but I licked Jase so he’s mine,” she signed. Cerys looked immediately over to Jase and laughed. “He lovingly said to stop signing about him behind his back.”
“Sorry, Jase,” Zoe said, not remotely sorry.
In the seven months since music producer Cerys had fallen in love with Jase, Zoe had gotten to know the band well. They were related for the most part. Jase and his brother, Matt, were cousins to Ben and Alex. Matt’s best friend, Luke, was their drummer. But more than lines on a family tree, they were close. The kind of staggeringly close Zoe couldn’t comprehend. With no siblings and only her parents still alive, her family was small. But the Sad Fridays? Their family was big. Loyal. The centre of everything they did. They lived near each other, surrounding their nan. They worked together. Toured together.
Sometimes it was overwhelming when they were all together. It was impossible to keep up with the conversation.
But she also envied them. To have all that family and feel so thoroughly accepted for who you were, to have so many people back you up, must feel wonderful.
Maybe it was being from a small family, or perhaps it was a result of the bullying she’d endured as a child at school which had left her isolated, sometimes she felt overwhelmed around them all.
Perhaps it was why she’d once hoped to find her place and gain respect within an orchestra, but somehow her world was still small.
Alex mindlessly stirred her coffee as he chatted with Jase about the water pipe, and she realised that despite the fact they were world-famous rock stars, they were just normal men.
She knew Alex had no shame having the last serving of anything, Jase would dance while he cooked, Matt hated rom coms, Luke was the worst person to sit next to on the sofa because of the way his leg jiggled constantly, and watching Ben around his best friend, Chaya, was a study in unrequited love.
It was weird to feel wanted, to have so many people in her business. Yet, for some reason, the band had adopted her. Their girlfriends had adopted her. Their nan had adopted her. It felt uncomfortable, yet exquisitely precious. Something she wanted badly but struggled to cope with.
“It’s a sign,” Cerys signed.
“Of what?” Zoe replied.
“You have to come on tour with us now. You can’t live here while it’s like this. It’ll take an age to fix it.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. Cerys and the band had been trying to persuade her to join them since the planning stages of the tour. At first, an informal offer had been on the table for Zoe to help Cerys, who would be the tour’s sound engineer. But it had quickly become apparent at rehearsals she was surplus to requirements.
So, Zoe had extricated herself from the offer by continuing to build her freelance career so she had a valid excuse to stay home.
A career she didn’t love but could do to avoid being around a career she loved but couldn’t do anymore.
Okay, it was a flimsy excuse. The majority of her work was virtual; she could do it anywhere.
“Hey, guys,” Cerys signed and said. “I’m just saying Zoe now has a reason to come.”
Jase put his arms over Cerys’s shoulders. “Yeah, come with us, Zoe. You can work from anywhere.”
“I don’t have hotel rooms booked.”
“I can share with my brother or something until we can sort that out,” Alex said.
“Or we can sleep on the bus. It’ll be like camping,” Cerys said. “Please, Zoe. Don’t miss out on this.”
The feel of all their eyes on her was so overwhelming. Zoe stepped into the living room out of everyone’s intense gaze.
Cerys was right in one way. Their landlord was terrible for organising workmen to come to the property. When the boiler had broken, it had taken three weeks. The water would need to be turned off. Probably the electricity.
She could go stay with her parents, but her mum would only try to pressure her to return to her percussion career.
She fiddled with her earrings. They were her favourites, but Zoe tried not to overthink why. The silver and black ceramic talon earrings had been a gift from her parents for passing her A-Levels and landing a place at The Royal Northern College of Music. Her life and career path had been so clearly laid out. Graduate top of her class, take her Music Masters at Royal Holloway where she’d focus on percussion and writing for ensemble. Blaze her own trail, taking her lead from pioneering percussionists like Mino Cinelu and artists like Sheila E.
Her favourite had always been Dame Evelyn Glennie, but now her very existence was weaponised against her. Like Zoe, Dame Evelyn was deaf. “If she can, you can,” had become the motto of just about everyone she knew. Her mum and dad liked to remind her frequently. They’d send her links to articles about her, or videos to motivate her to continue the same path.
Zoe knew intellectually how it worked, and at many levels already felt it. The vibration through the floor, through her bones, and hairs on her arms and neck and forehead. It allowed music to play on in Dame Evelyn’s head.
She’d once watched a TED talk given by the drummer of Preload, Lennon McCartney, talking about how his prosthetic arm made his drumming better and had made him a better person. But he’d acknowledged at the time of the accident he’d wanted to shoot every single person who brought up Rick Allen from Def Leppard, who also played with one arm.
She just wasn’t ready for it.
She might never be ready for it.
And the people around needed to get used to the idea. Especially her mum.
Alex stepped into the room and finally handed her the mug of coffee. “Come, Zoe. It’ll be fun. And…” he leaned closer to her hearing aid. “You hear this okay?” he said, his voice low.
Zoe nodded. Lower tones, nearer her aids, meant she was most likely to hear him.
“I can deliver on our bet.”
Another reason she hadn’t wanted to go on tour.
She thought back to the day of the album release when Willow had thrown them a party to celebrate. He’d slid into the chair next to her to encourage her to go talk to an attractive looking server. Dark hair, lean build.
They’d bickered. She’d told Alex to go flirt with him given Alex seemed to have no gender preferences and an exceptionally keen eye for an attractive human.
Alex had been adamant she should try.
She’d asked why she would want to do that. And Alex had called her out on not dating or hooking up. It had been hard enough finding a half-decent guy on a dating app before. Being introverted made walking up to a guy in a bar impossible. Add relying on sign language, lipreading, and transcription apps and it felt like it was more effort than it was worth.
When she’d tried to deflect, Alex had doubled down.
He’d made her a bet. A hundred quid he could hook her up before the end of the tour.
“Who said anything about a boyfriend? Hook ups. An amazing night of sex with a stranger. No strings attached,” he’d said.
“No. I don’t remember any bet.” She sipped on her coffee.
“Hotel. You and me. You all tongue-out-drooling over the Italian server. You thought I was suggesting some friends with benefits arrangement you called bleak.”
Zoe smirked. Even though she didn’t catch every word, she understood the gist of it. She had said that, although she hadn’t been as outraged as he’d assumed.
“Still don’t remember,” she said.
Alex pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. “I told you I should be offended the idea of sex with me would be so horrific because I’d been told on numerous occasions I’m pretty good at it. And you told me my flirting needed work.”
“Ha,” Alex shouted, the force of his breath so strong it lifted the ends of her hair. “I knew you remembered.”
“We’re doing it.”
“You promised. And I promised no beards because it makes lipreading hard, and no weirdos. Just come and have some fun, Zoe. Your best friend wants you there.”
“You’ve got an hour before we head to the tour buses at nine-thirty.”
An hour and a half later, Zoe stepped onto the tour bus with Alex, mentally running through everything she’d packed. Her alarm clock and the attached vibrating pebble she usually kept beneath her pillow. Being vibrated half to death was a unique way to wake up, but it was better than sleeping in because she’d missed an alarm she couldn’t hear. Her own pillow. Sensible sleeping attire given the proximity of the band while on the bus. Her laptop so she could work. More notebooks than she probably needed. A buffet of chargers and plugs for her gadgets, and spare batteries for her hearing aids.
On their left was a dinette style table for four people. Six at a push. Next to it was a long sofa. Everything was in shades of beige and brown. Wood and leather. With splashes of orange from bright cushions and curtains. The kitchenette was simple but stocked. A sink on one end, a kettle and a toaster on the other.
“This is fancier than I expected. But it also has a weird prom limo vibe with the blue LED beneath everything,” she said as they passed the downstairs bathroom to head up to the second floor.
“Yeah, it has,” Alex said.
When they reached the top, she paused for him to reach her.
“Sorry,” he said. “I said “Yeah it has” on the way up the stairs then realised you likely didn’t hear.”
“I did. Bizarrely, because of where the hearing aids sit on your ear, you can often hear what’s being said behind you easier than what is being said in front of you.”
Alex glanced at her hearing aid. “Huh. Makes sense.”
“It’s my superpower…being able to hear people when they make snide comments behind my back.”
“Hopefully that doesn’t happen too often.”
She looked at the curtained cubbies. “You’d be surprised how mean people can be.”
Alex shrugged. “You’re looking at the guy who was walloped with a cricket bat and told to man up by his dad when he came out. Been dealing with that shit ever since. I get how people can be mean.”
“Alex,” she said, touching his forearm. “People are dicks. I don’t particularly like them as a general rule.”
“I try to believe in humanity and its capacity for good.”
“Are the bunks assigned?”
He shook his head. “Luke and Willow are having the bedroom given she’s only ten weeks from giving birth. And there’s only one set of bunks this side of the stairs. The other side has two sets before the sofa at the end. So, I’m guessing this end would be less busy.”
Alex threw his bag, pillow, and phone onto the upper bunk on the right of the corridor. Then he slipped her bag off her shoulder and placed it on the bunk to the left for her. Footsteps thundered through the bus, and it wasn’t long before everyone had claimed a bunk.
Ed appeared. “Is everyone settled?” he asked, and everyone nodded.
“We’ll hit the road, then. I’ll be on the crew bus, but you can call me if you need anything. Otherwise, see you in Aberdeen.”
She didn’t catch every word, but it was enough. They were off.
She was going on tour with a rock band.
She had a rock star wingman.
And despite her reservations, she was going to try her damnedest to enjoy it.