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CHAPTER ONE

 

Another night, another city. Cole Hanson hardly knew where he was, and it didn’t matter. He was fairly certain it was late October, but he could be wrong. Ever since this tour started, places and dates had blurred together. That wasn’t uncommon while they were on the road, but it was worse this time.

The roar of the crowd at the end of the song brought him back to the present and the concert he was performing with Emporium, the band he’d started in high school. It was the third time in as many days he’d zoned out during a show. If he didn’t know the words and the music so well, his mental disappearing act might have been noticed, but so far no one had mentioned it.

Screams continued from the fans. “I love you, Cole,” he heard from someone in the front row, where a girl was reaching for him, tears streaming down her face. There had been a time he’d found that exciting. Now, it was… boring. He’d seen that look on the face of thousands of girls over the course of eight tours in twelve years. He used to let himself get lost in the adoration and attention, in their willingness to do whatever he wanted for a night. He never dreamed he’d tire of it.

He caught the eye of Paxton Jones, their lead singer, and she gave a nod, signaling him to start their last song. On this tour, they closed with the final track from their newest album, a rock ballad that had topped the charts and was likely to earn them their next Grammy nominations in a few weeks.

The song opened with his short solo on lead guitar and as soon as the crowd heard it, the cheers erupted again, making it nearly impossible for Cole to hear what he was playing, even with the earpiece he wore. As she had at the last few concerts, Paxton put a finger to her lips. He stopped playing, and she waited for there to be near silence. He’d been amazed the first night she’d done it. The room went almost still, and Paxton held everyone in the palm of her hand. And he’d come to love those beats of quiet. Finally, as the fans seemed to hold their collective breath, Paxton sang the first words of the song, and he and the band resumed playing. This time, the crowd remained quiet until she finished with a flourish.

The ear—splitting cacophony returned moments later. Cole kept from wincing at the sound as they joined Paxton at the lip of the stage, took their bows together, waved to the crowd, and left.

Within an hour, he’d showered, changed, and gotten on the tour bus to wait for the others. It would be a while before they joined him. They would meet and greet fans, maybe talk to some local press, but he was fine being alone and having the space to himself. In fact, it was probably better if he was alone.

When had he started to hate his life?

That was the question plaguing him since this tour started three months ago. Even writing the songs for this album, usually his favorite part, had been a struggle.

He made himself some tea with honey to soothe his throat — wouldn’t fans be shocked to know this is what most rock stars did after a concert — and sat at the table of the bus’s kitchen area. As he sipped the warm drink, he pulled out his phone to check his email and see what he might have missed in the hours since he’d arrived at the stadium. Two new texts, one from each of his brothers.

He opened the one from Nick, his younger brother, first. Finally got a puppy! The text included a picture of Nick and two dogs, one big enough to be a pony and the other not much bigger than his forearm. Cole had to smile at the ridiculous grin on Nick’s face. Nick had turned thirty a few months before, but looking at the image, Cole saw the boy who had begged for a dog when he was nine.

It thrilled him to see Nick so ecstatic, but the image brought with it a wave of longing he didn’t want to think about. He sent a smiley face and thumbs up before reading the next one, wondering how this one would make him feel.

Theo, his middle brother, sent a video. When Cole hit play, he saw Theo with Eden, the woman who’d stolen his heart back in high school. Theo held up her hand to show him a ring and exclaimed, “She said yes!” Cole watched as they kissed. He couldn’t be happier for them. They deserved this joy and so much more. Theo went on to say he was flying out to California for a company meeting in a few weeks and noticed he’d be in the same city as Cole’s band. “I hope you can find some time for us to get together.” Cole typed his congratulations and said he’d make the time. It had been too long since he’d seen either of them. Work kept all three of them busy and in different parts of the country.

Or it used to. In the last few months, Cole’s brothers had done something they’d never expected—moved back to their hometown of Fable Notch, New Hampshire, where among other things they’d both reconnected with the women they loved when they were young. Had he ever seen his brothers so happy? If so, it had been a long time. All he’d wanted since the day their father had left was to make sure his brothers were safe and taken care of. It had been his priority in one way or another for over twenty years. He was glad all he’d done for them through the years had paid off.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Cole almost jumped when Paxton took the seat across from him. He’d been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t heard her get on the bus. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’ve been phoning it in for the last few weeks. Tonight, I thought I was going to have to shake you to bring you back.”

Guess his phasing out hadn’t gone unnoticed. He was about to deny it, but Paxton knew him too well. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.” She gave him a look that said she wasn’t buying it and was waiting for the rest of the story. They’d come so far from when she joined the group and replaced their original lead. He’d hated her then, but over time they’d grown close, and she was like the sister he never had. He scrubbed his hand over his face and said, “I don’t know.”

“Does this have something to do with what you said at the press conference in New York?” He’d been waiting for someone to ask him about that slip-up.

During a live group interview a few months before, a reporter had asked their bassist about what it was like to be on the road with his wife and new daughter at home. Cole had winced at the question. It had been Hugh’s first tour without his wife since they’d met, and being away from her and the baby had been hard. Hugh, who had joined the band after their original bassist left to go to college on the west coast, responded he was glad the fans still wanted to see them, and he’d have a break to be with his family during the end-of-year holidays. When a follow-up question was asked about how he planned to handle it in the future, Cole had interrupted, saying, “We don’t even know if they’ll be another tour. No group lasts forever.” The comment was so unexpected there was total silence from everyone in the room.

Cole surprised himself when the words slipped out. Wondering about how much longer he wanted to do this work had been there for a while, teasing at the back of his brain, but he hadn’t let himself think about what it meant because the benefits were too good to walk away from. Usually, he kept his feelings to himself, especially in public forums, but that day he’d forgotten to install his internal filter.

But worse than what he said were the surprised looks he’d gotten from the other members of Emporium, which gave the reporters even more ammunition. Paxton had shifted the conversation, but the damage had been done. It must have been a slow entertainment news cycle because the next day word of his “dissatisfaction” spread and was fodder for social media across the globe. To fix the damage, the label’s press people put out pictures of them having fun backstage and images of Hugh talking to his wife and daughter via Zoom. The gossip moved on, but Cole’s bandmates had looked at him a little differently ever since.

“Do you want to talk about it?” He’d forgotten Paxton was waiting for an answer.

Their fans would never recognize the woman sitting with him, wearing a loose shirt and leggings, her face without makeup, and her red hair in a single braid down her back. Stage Paxton was put away until the next concert. His friend was asking him a question. He trusted her, but once he said what he was thinking, things would change. As the silence continued, Cole let his feelings speak for him. “I want to go home.”

“The tour only has a few more weeks before the holiday break. You’ll be back in Colorado before you know it.” She thought he was referring to his place outside of Colorado Springs, which had been his base for years. The house was nothing special, but the studio he’d built on the land was where he wrote and composed most of Emporium’s songs, and he loved being there. Most of the time.

But it was Fable Notch he was thinking of now. He’d made a promise to someone to stay away, but that was twelve years ago. She wouldn’t hold him to it after all this time, would she? Theo was engaged, and Nick was expanding his family. Okay, it was a dog, but someday it would probably be a baby. And where would Cole be when he got the video of Nick holding his child?

No, he was not missing any more milestones.

“New Hampshire. I want to go home to New Hampshire.”

Paxton must have heard something in his voice because instead of replying, she took his hand and gave it a squeeze. After a minute, she got up, kissed the top of his head, reminding him of Millie Sinclair, the woman who’d practically raised him, and said, “Then that’s what you should do. We’re behind you, whatever you choose.”

Cole wondered if that was true. Once his brothers were on the right track, his concern about taking care of them had morphed into doing the same for the members of the band. Over the years he’d held Paxton through a series of broken hearts and public break—ups, gotten Brian off the pain pills he’d become hooked on after a backstage accident, and, most recently, helped Hugh set up his finances so that no matter if their next album did well or not, he’d never have to worry about his family. Cole had been glad to do it and loved seeing each of them be successful in and out of the group.

But what about him? Sure, he was set financially, but he didn’t have much else. And he’d been so damn numb for the last year or so. He was already dreading having to write the songs for the next album after the struggle he’d had on this last one. His creative well was drying up. Could being with his family refill it?

When Hugh and Brian got on the bus, their driver soon followed and announced they’d be leaving in a few minutes. Once they hit the road, Cole said good night to his friends and made his way to the bunks where everyone slept. Maybe he’d dream his way into an answer.

* * *

He woke disoriented and groggy. After years on the road, Cole was used to waking up and not knowing where he was, but when he opened his eyes, he expected to see an unfamiliar hotel room with the afternoon light trying to get through the curtains not a stranger hovering over him shining a light in his face.

What the fuck was going on?

He tried to move, but the man holding the light put a hand on his shoulder and kept him pinned. “He’s coming around. Sir, do you know who you are?” That was an odd question. Of course he did. And why was this person calling him sir? He tried to answer, but only croaked out his first name. “Yes, that’s right. Cole Hanson. Do you remember what happened?”

That was a much better question, and one he couldn’t answer. He remembered the concert, the messages from his brothers, and talking to Paxton. As he tried to recall anything after that, his eyes darted around. He saw red and blue flashing lights, heard and saw people moving around him, and realized he was cold. He was outside. Where was the bus?

He must have mumbled something because the man said, “Right. The bus was in an accident. From what we can tell, some idiot jumped the median. Your driver tried to swerve out of the way but ended up going off the side of the road. Don’t try to move. We’ve got a collar on you until we’re certain about your neck, and we don’t know where else you’re hurt.”

He must have been asleep when it happened. “Where is everyone?” And why couldn’t he take a full breath?

“I don’t know. I think they pulled everyone out alive.” Think? Someone could be dead? He tried to get up, but the paramedic put a hand on his shoulder and kept him in place. “Sorry, sir, but you can’t get up. We need to take you to a hospital. You’ve lost consciousness, which may mean a concussion, and I can see some serious cuts, probably from broken glass and things flying as the bus went over. Your blood pressure oxygen levels are low.”

“And hard to breathe,” Cole said, or at least thought he did because a second later, the world went dark again. He woke next as they pulled the stretcher from the back of the ambulance. He felt the air go from the warmth of the ambulance to the cool of October for a few seconds before they wheeled him into what he assumed was a hospital emergency room.

Now instead of a small light in his eyes, the room was painfully bright, and instead of two attendants, there was a crowd of doctors around him trying to figure out what had happened and what needed to be taken care of first. They asked him more questions about his blood type, medical history, any medication he was on, and he did his best to answer. They brought in two different machines, and a nurse explained they were going to do an ultrasound of his abdomen and an x—ray of his chest.

He appreciated the nurse’s calm voice. She had a kind face, warm eyes. She reminded him of someone else who was a nurse. He wished she were here. No, couldn’t think about that. What about the band? “Do. You know. About. The others?” Talking hurt. Staying awake was hard.

“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Hanson.” He almost shuddered at the name. Mr. Hanson made him think of his father. He never let anyone call him that. “I can find out, but you need to focus on yourself and let us help you.”

If he had the strength, he would have laughed. Focus on himself. Let someone help him. When was the last time he’d done that?

The beeping of the machines around him was maddening. They were out of tune and keeping different beats. He tried to take a breath deep enough to calm his racing heart. It wasn’t working. He was about to ask a question when the nurse came into his field of vision. She hesitated before speaking. That couldn’t be good. “Mr. Hanson, you have a broken rib, and it’s punctured your lung.” She used several big words to explain what was wrong with him, but he couldn’t concentrate. The increased beeping told him his heart rate had jumped. “We’re worried that there may be other complications. Is there anyone we should call?”

He thought of Martin and Millie Sinclair, but he didn’t want to worry them. Images of Theo and Nick came into his head. God, he loved them so damn much. When was the last time he’d told them? Was he ever going to see them again? As the darkness threatened to come back, his deepest regret surfaced. There was so much he wanted to say to… “Mia.”

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