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Sweat dripped into Delaney's eyes, making them sting, but she had to finish the song's complicated drum solo. As the cymbals crashed and faded, Paul strummed a chord on his guitar, the rest of the band resumed singing "In the Air," and the pub exploded with applause.
The microphone stands jiggled as people stomped on the floor. Evenly spaced, the silver poles formed bright bars in front of her, caging her and the drums. Protecting her.
The applause steadied Delaney, made it easier to lose herself in the music. Tonight, she needed that. It had been three years, but she'd never played publicly on the anniversary of Diesel's death.
It was harder than she'd thought it would be.
The lights blazing down on her turned the faces of the audience into dark shadows, but they didn't hide the figure at the back waving an open cell phone in the air. That streak of color, the twenty-first century version of a lighter at a concert, jerked her back to reality.
People were watching her. She shouldn't have let herself get carried away with that solo. She should have reined in her passion for performing, her craving to drum. She should have played a bland, unmemorable riff.
But Diesel wouldn't have wanted her to be bland. He would have insisted on her best.
An ache of misery rose in her throat. She should have told Paul she couldn't make it tonight.
She should have stayed at home and mourned privately.
But she'd convinced herself that performing would help. That the heat of the lights on her face, the sweat running down her chest and pooling between her breasts, the ache in her arms would soothe her. The power of the music pouring through her body and into her fingers, her voice, should have allowed her to forget everything else.
Instead, it brought all the memories flooding back.
Diesel, flashing a grin as they played together, completely in sync, perfectly attuned.
Leading the cheers as she finished a drum solo.
Lying dead on the bed in their hotel room.
The band finished "In the Air" and segued right into "Can't You See." No drum solo in this one. No vocal solo. Thank you, Paul. She wasn't sure she'd have been able to sing right now. She took a deep breath, wiped away the sweat with her sleeve and tried to bury her grief.
Two songs later, Paul stood his guitar on its rack and nodded to the other band members. Fifteen-minute break. Hank set his guitar down and headed outside to smoke. Stu, on keyboards, fiddled with his controls and amplifier for a moment.
When she'd been with the Redheaded Stepsisters, she'd coordinated her drinks with the sets.
First break, first drink. The music always heightened that emptiness inside her. The one only vodka could fill.
Delaney leaned against the window behind her and let the craving wash over her. If she closed her eyes, she could taste the ice-cold Grey Goose. Feel the heat as it slid down her throat. Tonight more than ever she would welcome the oblivion it could provide.
The thirst was always worse on March 20.
Fingering the AA medallion in the pocket of her jeans, she slid off the stool, set her drumsticks on the embroidered seat and wove through the cords and mics and guitar stands toward the bar.
"Great set, Delaney."
"Loved your drum solo."
"Can you guys play 'Landslide' after the break?"
Damn. Someone always asked for that song. She forced a smile at Ian, the professor who showed up almost every Friday night. "I'll talk to Paul. He does the set lists."
As she headed for the bar, Quinn saw her coming and poured coffee into a mug. He set it on the marble surface, and she picked it up and inhaled the rich scent.
She wished it was vodka.
"Made it fresh," Quinn said as she closed her eyes and sipped. He'd ground it fresh, too.
"Nothing but the best for our star." He nodded at the packed room, people sitting at the booths and tables and standing three deep at the bar. "They're getting here early on Fridays to make sure they have a table, and that means we're selling more food and drinks. Everyone wants to hear you."
"I'm not the star," she said sharply. "They want to hear the band." There was a wet ring on the marble surface of the bar. As she held her coffee, she concentrated on soaking up every drop of the condensation with a napkin.
"Don't fool yourself, Delaney. We never had crowds like this until you started playing with Paul and the guys. So would our star like something to eat?"
"Maybe later," she managed to say. One of the pub's chicken pot pies would be good, but after Quinn called her a star, she could barely get the coffee down. "Okay if I use your office? I need to change my shirt."
"Sure, go ahead."
Delaney closed the door to the office behind her. The air was cooler than in the pub, and she shivered in the damp T-shirt that clung to her skin. She shucked it off and slipped into a dry one from the bag she'd left therea ritual between sets. Just like the sweaty one, the clean shirt billowed around her body and hung to the middle of her thighs. Paul had asked why she was camouflaging herself, but she'd ignored him. She needed room to move when she drummed.
More comfortable now, she sank into Quinn's chair to drink her coffee and try to manage the memories. Once they escaped, it was hard to shove them back into their box.
Three minutes before the band was supposed to start playing again, she left her sanctuary. On the way to the front of the pub, she veered toward the bar. Quinn had the coffeepot ready before she reached him.
"You're good," she said as she held out her mug.
"Some people think so." He glanced toward the corner of the pub, where his wife, Maddie, was talking to one of the patrons.
Delaney rolled her eyes. "God save me from people in love." Her stomach settled and she took a deep breath. This was exactly what she neededto talk and joke with Quinn just like she always did. To remind herself that this was just another Friday night. "Don't think much of yourself, do you?"
"Maddie thinks I hang the stars, and that's all I care about." He pulled a beer and slid it to another patron, then added, "Lots of new faces in here tonightprobably the ice fishing tournament. You should sing a few more songs in the next set. Maybe they'll come back tomorrow."
"I don't need to sing more," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "Besides, where else are they going to go? The Harp is the best bar in Otter Tail."
"The best pub," Quinn said automatically.
"That's what I meant." She hid her smile. She'd spent enough time at the Harp to know how to distract Quinn.
"There are guys here from all over the country," he said, passing a basket of pretzels to another customer. "They love you. It's a huge potential audience."
Guys from all over the country? God help her. She sank onto a bar stool. "Our Otter Tail fans are plenty for us."
She thought about the custom furniture business she was nurturing, the friends she'd made in town. She felt safe in Otter Tail. She'd managed to bury her past, but if someone recognized her as Chantal, former drummer of the Redheaded Stepsisters, everything would come crashing down.
She could forget about her placid, peaceful life. She'd be lucky if she could stay in the small Wisconsin town.
Deep breath. Calm down. The chance of anyone recognizing her was slim to none. She wiped her sweaty palms along the sides of her jeans. "I think Paul is getting ready to start."
Quinn nodded as she hurried away. When she reached her drum set, she put the coffee on the floor beside her, then sat down and made herself think boring thoughts. Bland thoughts. That's what she needed to do for the rest of the night.
As she adjusted her snare drum, the door of the pub opened and a tall man walked in. He sat on a stool and talked to Quinn for a few moments, then leaned against the bar.
He checked out the decor and the other patrons before he looked at the band. Something about his eyes reminded her of Diesel.
Damn it. Everything reminded her of Diesel tonight. It had been stupid to try to perform.
No. She could do this. She wasn't going to let a stranger rattle her.
And despite that flash of familiarity, he was a stranger. She would have remembered if she'd met him before. His dark, wavy hair brushed the edge of his collar, and his narrow face was all angles and planes. He had to be a fishermanthe lines around his eyes hinted at days spent squinting in the sun.
Most women would be intrigued by that face. Challenged by the air of mystery and tension swirling around the man.
She didn't get involved with strangers, even ones with intriguing faces. She wasn't Chantal anymore.
Whoever he was, he didn't live here. His jacket was battered leather, and his jeans were faded and white at the stress points. She couldn't tell what color his eyes were, but they scanned the room, assessing one person after another.
The people in this town were mostly open, trusting, easy to read. Not this guy. No one from Otter Tail could slice through a room with his eyes like that.
When he focused on the band again, Delaney wanted to duck behind the bass drum and hide. She didn't want those eyes on heras if he could ferret out anyone's secrets.
"Okay, are we ready to go? Any additions to the playlist?"
Paul's voice drew her attention from the stranger and Delaney was grateful. The four of them conferred quickly, agreeing on the next fifteen songs.
"And 'Landslide'I got three requests for it," he added.
"Fine," she sighed. She'd managed to steer them away from songs that featured her. But it was too much to hope that she could get away without singing at all during the set. "Not the first one, though."
"Nope. Everyone needs another jolt of energy. We'll save 'Landslide' for later." Paul strummed the first chord of "Rockin' in the Free World," and Delaney closed her eyes as her hands banged out the rhythm.
As she lost herself in the music, Diesel's laughing face flashed in her memory. She forgot about the man who'd just walked in. She forgot about her vow to hold herself back, to try to keep herself separate from the music and the rhythm.
All she wanted to do was get through the evening so she could go home and mourn privately for her lost lover.
The woman behind the drums couldn't be Chantal. Sam shifted on the bar stool and leaned forward, trying to see her more clearly. This woman was a petite blonde with short hair, no visible tattoos and a face of delicate beauty and strength. She had absolutely no resemblance to the notorious rocker with black, spiky hair tipped with pink, and tattoos covering her upper arms. She didn't have Chantal's self-indulgent expression and hard eyes, either.
His source must have been mistaken.
But the P.I. who'd directed him here hadn't been wrong yet. Every lead Sam had gotten from the guy had panned out, from the town where she was born to the name she was using now. Sam had paid more money than he could afford for the P.I.'s services, but if this woman was Chantal, it would be worth every penny.
He'd come to the little pub in this town with the stupid name, confident he would find her here. Certain he would recognize her the moment he saw her.
How could he not? Chantal had ruined his brother's life. Was responsible for his death.
The blonde sat behind the two guitar players, her face almost hidden by the microphone. The drum set concealed the rest of her body, but when she moved, her shirt flowed around her and he saw a hint of curves. Her arms were those of a drummer, toned and firm, but the baggy shirt was the complete opposite of the tight, provocative outfits she used to wear when she performed.
The three men played a few chords, adjusted their microphones and put their heads together for a moment. Chantal, if it was her, sat with her back against the window, sipping from a mug.
According to the gossip magazines, she'd always drank from a mug during a show. It had held Grey Goose, ice cold. Chantal had expensive tastes.
Sam wondered if the bartender kept her vodka bottle in the freezer.
"You here for the tournament?" the man asked from behind the counter, and Sam swiveled to face him. "What tournament?"
"Hell, no." Sam shuddered. "Sitting on my ass in a little shack on a frozen lake? No, thanks."
The bartender's mouth quirked. "Got it. Not an ice fisherman. Welcome. I'm Quinn Murphy."
He held out his hand, and Sam shook it. "Sam McCabe."
"Nice to meet you, Sam. What can I get you?"
"How about a beer?" He'd have to drink something or the bartender would wonder why he was here. But he'd have only onehe didn't want the woman watching Rennie and Leo to smell the alcohol on his breath. He'd told her he had to work tonight.
"Whatever you have."
"How about a local beer? We've got a pale ale from a Green Bay brewery, called Hopasaurus Rex, that's good."
Hopasaurus Rex? He sure as hell wasn't in Miami anymore. "Why not? I'll give it a try."
As Murphy pulled a glass of pale gold beer, he said, "If you're just passing through town, you picked a good night." He nodded toward the musicians. "They're our most popular band."
"They have a name?"
"We just call them Paul's band."
"Are they local?"
"Mostly. The keyboard player comes in from Sturgeon Falls."
Sam glanced at the group and saw Chantal take another drink. That much hadn't changed. "How often do they play?"
The bartender studied him a little more closely. "Once a week, usually. This weekend, they're covering tomorrow night, too. How long are you going to be here?"
"Awhile," he said easily. "I've got business in the area. If they're as good as you say, I'll come to hear them again."
Quinn nodded. "They're that good." He filled another glass for a customer several seats down. "Maybe we'll see you around, then."
Sam settled back against the counter. He hadn't wanted to come after Chantal. All he'd wanted to do was forget about her. Forget what she'd done to his brother. To his niece and nephew.
Sam had failed his brother, and Chantal was a reminder of that.
Guilt swept over him again, and nothing could make it go away. When child protective services in Miami had called to say the kids were alone, their mother in the hospital, he'd told the social worker he'd hire someone to take care of them. Her voice had gone from friendly and sympathetic to cold when she informed him he was the emergency contact their mother had listed. He had custody of them now.