Trip's best friend and band leader is dead. Now Trip is on trial for criminal negligence. Although the court does find him innocent, his fans and conscience scream otherwise. Guilt and social media are tearing him apart, until a new songbook speaks to him as though the songs were written specifically for him and his internal struggles. And they were.
Aya Rose also knows what it's like to carry the burden of guilt. Powerless to change an outcome or sway a public opinion. Her empathy and heart cries out to Trip. When he responds to her, she wonders if she can afford to get involved. To take a chance that her secrets will not only be exposed, but also threaten her freedom.
Will guilt by association destroy Trip and Aya, or will it lead to something they never dreamed possible?
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Trip Vincent scrubbed his palms across his eyes. They itched and burned from the dry, recycled air. Under the pads of his fingers, the thick, worm-like scar that ran from the edge of his eyebrow along the contour of his eye to end at his cheekbone reminded him why he was there. The heat and odor of the mass of accumulated bodies crowding the courtroom caused acid to roll in his stomach.
He glanced behind him. Straight-backed, his sister, Evangeline, sat stoically in the front row. Shoulders squared, face pale but determined. The straight-edged nose and dimpled chin a mirror of his own. Despite her almost oppressive shyness, she had never wavered in her support, however much he had tried to shoo her away from the debacle.
When she caught his gaze, her eyes glistened in the fluorescent light. Still, she smiled. He tried and failed to return the gesture. Instead, he nodded and swiveled to face front.
"All stand, for the Right Honorable ..."
Trip's bowels clenched, and his hands fell to the table top. All attention narrowed to focus on the rear of the dais. The remains of the bailiff's announcement were lost in the shuffle of people rising from the packed benches, their eagerness for the kill like a pheromone scent. An almost mystical hush descended, then a heavy cough echoed off the domed ceiling. Trip didn't need to hear the rest. He knew the routine well by this point of the trial.
A moment later, a stern-faced judge swept into the room from the alcove at the back of the raised stand. Cloaked in traditional legislative black robes and white cravat, he looked every inch the part. Wavy gray hair complemented the neat beard as he sped across the landing with a regal air. In the half second he took to regard the courtroom, the man's small, deep-set, penetrating gaze controlled without an utterance. Unquestioned authority permeated every pore. No nonsense would be tolerated.
Then he sat. His robes billowed like a cloud before settling around him while he shuffled some papers on his desk. Justice Moore's presence seemed to suck the oxygen from the room. A shifting of his gaze to the bailiff, followed by a nod, and everyone obediently resumed their seats.
Everyone except Trip Vincent and his lawyer.
Tremors rippled the length of Trip's legs, and he swore if he looked down, his knees would be knocking. Clenching his jaw, he suppressed the chatter of his teeth. Never had he been so frightened. His long fingers splayed across the surface of the polished wooden table while he forced his joints to lock. Be a man. A flutter twitched under his right eye, and he squeezed both shut. None of this mattered. His hands balled into fists. All over soon.
Whatever the verdict, the punishment would never bring his best friend back. To the marrow of his bones, he knew this to be the truth. No one cared that he hadn't been driving. They assumed, and in his grief, he hadn't corrected them. Trip opened his eyes to face the magistrate, willing himself to wake from the nightmare.
The judge signaled Trip's lawyer. "Be seated," he said. The crisp voice carried across the room. Each syllable struck Trip like a hammer in expectation.
Trip stared at Moore, whose prominent feature, a pronounced lower jaw, seemed to amplify every word. The trim goatee did little to soften the effect. Yet Trip remained grateful that today would mark the end of the debacle. Months of media frenzy, prosecution via the social mob, where no one seemed to care for the real story.
Except his family. And that was to be expected, wasn't it? He'd asked himself many times this last year, wavering between self-doubt and loathing. Yet he couldn't subject his grandparents to this media fiasco and had begged they stay away. For his sake, they'd agreed. To see them criticized for his choices and mistakes would have been too much.
Yes, he'd managed to keep family away, except his very stubborn twin. There were few things he could control at the present, and if he could shelter his family from exposure due to association, he would do all in his power to accomplish this. Though they didn't make even this task easy.
He'd been the brunt of bad jokes on late-night television. A media constant in prosecution entertainment while he tried to prepare for trial. The blame and shame hype had long since zapped Trip's zest for this life in the spotlight. Had he really craved the limelight as a youth? So much like his parents — his father a forgotten figure, never present and his mother still the starlet. He should have known better. Now, there seemed no safe harbor. No place to hide. Nowhere to escape. And he lacked the courage to even look.
His ears seemed deaf to the preamble of the judge. A buzzing, like bees gone mad, threatened his teetering sanity as he tried to concentrate.
In an unreality, he argued, pleaded, and fought the ghost of Kurt Davidson. Guilty, not guilty. In every debate, he won — and lost. Who had the keys that night? Who'd been in control? More importantly, who released the information that came as a total surprise to both his lawyer and the prosecution?
The name echoed in his brain, owned his memories, and stole his sleep. Kurt Nathanial Davidson. A name capitalized in every newspaper headline today. A name etched on a gravestone Trip had not had the audacity to see.
Trip ground his teeth and tried to distill the meaning of Justice Moore's words. To reengage in the here and now. To dig himself out of the void of black despair. A general gasp drew him back. Then his shoulders slumped, defeated before he even began. He hung his head. What's the use? Every day he relived the night his world tipped on its axis. Didn't anyone in this room realize he'd gladly welcome the cell if it would only allow him to escape the jail of his own memories — the iron smell of gushing blood, the gurgling sounds of the last rattled breaths, the vacant look that settled on the eyes alive no more?
He squirmed under the scrutiny and balanced on the edge of his chair. His foot bounced up and down as though a disembodied part. He couldn't help it. On his right, his lawyer, Cole Harvey, ever the cool cucumber, relaxed into position, an elbow hanging loosely from the back of his perch, fingers fanning. Every so often, his nose, bulbous as a turnip and the same purple hue to match, would flare — a sure sign Trip should pay attention. An accompaniment to the lawyer's lead, Trip would nod to the justice being meted out. Did that mean they were winning? How could they? Was Moore speaking English? Trip couldn't understand a word.
According to Harvey, this case warranted no jury. Trip's fate instead — his future — remained entirely in the hands of a judge — a man whom Trip referred to as "Jaws" whenever he recounted the events of the day to his sister during their daily debriefs.
With a flip of his wrist, Jaws focused on Trip. "Would the defendant, Travis Michael Vincent, please rise?"
Trip understood the motion and obeyed, forcing his body to unfold from the seat. His heart slammed against his ribs, and the urge to urinate almost overcame him. Then the pat from a heavily furred hand brought him back from the brink. "Ah, what?" Trip asked, turning blankly to face his lawyer.
A wide grin split the lawyer's face, revealing chemically altered, unnaturally white teeth, a stark contrast to the color of his nose. "We did it. You're all but free."
Trip shook his head. The rattle of bees intensified. "What ... how?"
"Come on." Harvey's linebacker build towered over Trip's lithe frame. He tugged Trip by the elbow to thrust him forward. "Let's get out while we can. I've called for the car."
Spots blurred his vision. "How?" He shook his head, but the hallucination of Kurt remained fixed and fused behind his lids.
"How?" his lawyer parroted. Then Harvey turned his black, almost shark-like glower on Trip. The obsidian stare made his insides quake further. Trip couldn't comprehend any kind of good news. "Because I'm the best goddamned lawyer money can buy," he returned in a loud whisper next to Trip's ear. "And some secret admirer out there loves you enough to have found our golden bullet."
Trip had the sensation of swimming against the current. The pull of the ocean tugging him under. "But ..."
An arm flung forward, Harvey parted the crowd. "Never mind," he said, tossing his head and forcing Trip to follow. "We'll go through the next steps in the car. We're near the finish line now."
The best money could buy. Where had Eva gone? Her seat was empty. Trip's focus fell to his business manager, Arnold Switzer, who sat unmoving in the front row. With a slight pivot of his head, he gazed in Trip's direction as though on autopilot when they scooted past. The corners of Arnold's lips lifted under the barrel moustache but fell far short of a smile. The crease between his eyes deepened, and his stare remained unfocused.
Trip ached to reach out to Arnold and ask him what this all meant. But Arnold's dark, lived-in face looked as mystified as Trip felt.
He shouldn't have forbidden his family from attending. Again, he searched for his twin. Perhaps a friendly face — someone who actually loved him — would help make sense out of all the confusion.
When had life become so chaotic? Certainly, long before the trial.
Bailiffs held the heavy mahogany doors while they exited. Eva stood just outside waiting, her face warm. Camera flashes assaulted his vision. The flare rendered him momentarily blind. Still, he strode on, dimly following his lawyer through the gathering crowd, Arnold bringing up the rear.
On the periphery, jeers and catcalls resonated off the stylized stone walls. He opened his mouth to speak, but what could he say? He clamped his jaw together. No easy comeback popped into his vacuous mind. Easy had died. He couldn't muster enough anger at the insults to make an impression. Even the teenaged girl who threw broken pieces of his band's record at him, Iron Clad's Grammy-nominated fifth release, couldn't get a rise. Former fans ripped pictures of his face from magazines and tossed the crumpled pages at his feet while he walked on. And everywhere, smart phones recorded the scene to spread across the multitude of social channels. He continued to be a broadcast sensation. Now, for all the wrong reasons.
He thought he had long since given up paying attention to the armchair juries. They weren't saying anything he didn't already know. He, Trip Vincent, had killed the lifeblood of the band, their soul and future, and by the way, had gotten away with the evil deed. What they didn't know, didn't care to ask, was if this had been accomplished long before the crash that took Kurt's life.
Inaction, not a tragic car crash under the influence of drugs and alcohol, had taken Kurt. A ghost had sung the songs and answered mundane questions and accepted the awards and accolades. Only when Trip had decided to do something — anything — finally addressing the unaddressable, had his best friend's body joined his long-gone soul.
Suddenly, the red-tipped claws of an attacker pushed against his chest.
He teetered back a pace. Spread his stance while his hand groped for the wall to leverage his balance.
"Coward," Janet Davidson screamed directly in his face. Spittle sprayed across his nose.
Her eyes bulged, and foul, cigarette-laden breath gasped, wafting across his cheeks. A round face, near purple under a layer of cement-like foundation, sneered. Creases etched the contours, highlighting the age she tried desperately to hide. Her blood-shot eyes glowed under the incandescent lights. As though viewing the scene from an onlooker's perspective, Trip noted the eyeliner buildup in the corners.
"Community service! Who did you bribe?" Her talons tightened, and the pointed tips raked across his trunk. She leaned in and whispered, her breath hot and unpleasant, "How could you? You robbed him of any dignity he might have had."
Trip knew exactly what she referenced but had no idea where the information had come from. Relishing the pain for bringing him back to reality, Trip laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, remembering the smoothness of her bare skin, the softness of the girl she'd been, who awakened the man in him. How he ached to feel the love he'd once thought they shared. "Not me —"
"Bullshit," she shouted. "You're a coward. Kurt would be so ashamed."
A flurry of movement threw him back to the rough stones of the wall. His hand dropped from Janet's shoulder, and he teetered again.
Then Eva's athletic, agile frame parted the crowd, revealing the path forward. She stood before him like a shield to the onslaught of war. "Get your hands off him," she said. She didn't need to yell. She exuded command. Trip had never noticed that about her before.
Janet glared but didn't budge. Retaining her grip on his shirt, she whirled to address the media, her other arm flung out in denunciation. The queen of the moment. Her theatrics, well documented in the past, had grown to epic proportions during the trial. "My brother's dead from this skiver druggy. My brother's dead, and he ... he ..." Janet released him then, and an accusatory finger shot up to his chin. "Gets community service —"
"Enough." Eva's voice, though not loud, drew attention easily. "Go home. Grieve."
Stubbed fingers with violently painted nails — reminiscent of oozing blood, sequins decorating the tips — pointed. "What do you know of grieving?" She shook her head. Sweat made the strands stick together in spikes. Then she postulated, "Either of you."
Eva reached for Janet's hand. "We all miss Kurt ... like a brother —"
"Don't touch me. Don't you dare." Snake-like, Janet reacted swiftly and pushed Eva.
Heart pounding, Trip caught his sister prior to falling and lodged her behind him, guarding her from Janet's rage. He had thought he lost the ability — the strength, the need — to protect another. But he couldn't see his sister harassed. Not because of him.
Janet represented everything he loathed. She'd altered the truth to influence the media — his fan base. Turned them against him, in her attempt to make Kurt a martyr. Her actions toward him were one thing, but he wouldn't allow her to touch or influence his family.
"No, Janet," he said, filled with a strength he'd thought he lost. "Do you hear me? No."
A squat security officer surged forward and took Janet by the elbow to maneuver her away from the mob.
His upper arm gripped by Harvey, Trip, too, pushed to the exit, losing sight of Eva.
The crowd surged with a cacophony of profanities to chorus Janet's outburst. Their swarming bodies surged against the guards lining the exit. The crush of the horde prevented Trip from even focusing on his shoes as he walked, let alone finding his sister. Looking everywhere but nowhere, he tried to avert his gaze from everyone.
Then a reflection in the glass doors caught his attention. A flash of something not a camera phone. He twisted, stumbling sideways through the mass. He scanned the sea of faces until he locked on another's. A pixie? Surely, a sprite. Small with spiked black hair, she stood to the edge of the room. Dark, with luminously large eyes, not seeming of this world, she dominated his attention. Perhaps the lack of movement, her calm in the sea of chaos, was what forced his notice.
Trip tried to stop the surge by his handlers, but he couldn't turn away. This small woman, dressed in plain, faded jeans and a white T-shirt, should never have been visible in this crowd, let alone gain notice. But she did. Even from the distance of the great entry hall, the dark pools of her gaze held him. In a moment filled with hatred and loathing, she gave him an impression of peace. Hope for a future. An emotion he had no right to sense.
Currents rushed across his skin, raising the hair. His breathing and heartbeat slowed to a temperate pace. Calm descended. More than sympathy etched her expression. A slight tilt of her head, the arched brows, conveyed an understanding. Reaching across the distance, eliminating the distraction of everyone else present, she delivered a message of hope.
"C'mon, Trip." His lawyer tugged his sleeve to keep him moving. "Let's get outta here. We'll work out the details later."
Trip turned to nod acknowledgement to the lawyer. Then the moment evaporated, and his heart faltered. Arching his neck, he scanned the crowd for the woman.
Gone. And with her his moment of grace. He swung around more fully, twisting against the pull, searching for her, grasping to feel again. Something — anything. But pandemonium surrounded him.
On his heels, Janet jerked against the restraint of the guard. "My brother's dead!" she screamed. "Do you hear me? Dead."
He laid his palm on his chest where Janet's hand had provided the only warmth his cold body felt in days. More than her words, the bruise would remind him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "For a Song"
Copyright © 2019 Lori Power.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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