Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Southern Charm

Wages and Gifts styled itself as a hard rock Christian band. The music was about half as hard as Indio liked, and the guitarist he was replacing came from a country and western background. Indio had been hired to replicate that sound, and during rehearsal he’d been doing his best. The rest of the band was grateful to have him, appreciated he was a fast learner, and politely suggested a few times that he not toughen up the riffs like that, or lean quite so heavily on the distortion pedal.

They were supporting Charity Thorne, a rising star with four albums under her belt, playing three dozen dates across the country. Indio flew with the band to Texas with his three favorite guitars. After that, Wages and Gifts would be driving around in a hired van behind Charity’s tour bus.

Charity had been on stage since she was a child, singing at her preacher father’s services. A stunning woman with bleached waves of hair and heavy-lidded eyes, she played down her sensuality in front of a largely teen audience where she became a big sister offering advice about resisting temptation and letting Jesus take the wheel.

Backstage, she turned on the southern charm and Indio never once saw her show anything but respect to her backing musicians and their wives and girlfriends. To the other members of Wages and Gifts—he didn’t think of the band as his band—she was casually interested in their music and their lives and their spiritual journeys, and she remained professional.

Indio had no reason to interact with her at all, but after a while it was hard not to notice that her eyes followed him around the room, and she suddenly had a hundred questions about how much snow western Montana got, how much rain Seattle got, and whether they’d understand her accent up north.

He had no idea what her game was, or whether she was playing a game at all. He was friendly at first, assuming she was just being friendly because, well, her entire reputation was built on being a chaste role model. Then again, she was close to thirty years old and no purity ring had magical powers.

She would put her hand on his chest when she talked to him, when no one else could see. Upon learning he wrote songs, she twice asked him to her hotel room to help her with chord sequences and he had to make excuses. He was not going to get caught up in this. Even if it was innocent, others might not see it that way. And something about her—he couldn’t quite figure out what—made him uncomfortable, and it wasn’t just because he had to work to keep out of her way.

She knocked on his door in New Orleans, when everyone else was at an afternoon church service, and he finally found out what was going on.

“Don’t mind me, darlin’, I’m bored out of my mind.” She came into the room, uninvited, and he had to step back abruptly. “You poor things. This is a prison cell. You fine gentlemen should hang out in my suite sometime. Bring your guitars.”

She shut the door behind her and glanced around the room he shared with Gareth. Housecleaning had been through earlier and it was fairly decent. Not that he should care because she shouldn’t even be here.

“I love the way you play. I mean you, in particular. I listened to Wages and Gifts’ demo tape when we were deciding on our support act, and it’s quite different with that other guitarist, isn’t it?” She brushed her fingers along his forearm as she moved past him. “You play heavier, I think. Is that how you’d describe it?”

“I guess so. I’ve been told to ease up.”

“Goodness, don’t listen to that. You play from your heart, however the spirit moves you.”

She was working her way around the room as she spoke, touching surfaces and clothing. Indio remained near the door, arms folded, prepared to show her out at the first sign. Any moment now.

“You’re not at the service?” Like she’d suddenly remembered where everyone else was.

“I’m not a church-goer.” He didn’t ask why she wasn’t at the service. He was pretty sure he knew.

“Ah, that’s right. I did hear a rumor—not a believer, huh? I’ll bet we can fix that before the tour’s over.”

“I don’t need fixing,” he said, keeping it polite, “but thanks anyway.”

She had reached the window, which put her as far away from him as possible. “You know, I think you’re the first heathen I’ve ever been friends with, or even had a real conversation with. Can you believe that?”

They weren’t friends and this wasn’t a real conversation, but it would be rude to point that out.

“Is that okay, if I call y’all a heathen?”

“I don’t mind.”

“Sweetie, you look so severe over there in the corner. You look like my daddy right before he gives me a lecture. How old are you, anyway?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Lord!” She gave a nervous laugh. “Lord, that’s a surprise to me.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

She sighed dramatically. “I’m at a loose end. Like I said.”

She wandered in his direction, shrugging out of her jacket and dropping it on the far bed. She wore a knee-length spaghetti-strap summer dress, an assortment of bangles and necklaces, and no bra. Indio had faced assertive women before and he loved it—less work for him—but this was different. She was his boss in all the ways that mattered, and she had a reputation to maintain. He wasn’t going anywhere near that abstinence pledge. He fumbled for the door handle behind him.

“No, don’t do that.” Her voice was breathless and desperate, freezing his action. The door remained closed. “I only want to talk. Can we talk?”

She sat on the edge of Gareth’s bed and leaned forward to pat his bed, inviting him to sit. He did, but only because her sudden vulnerability made her seem innocent.

“I do love the way you play. There’s a song you guys do—The Brave, I think it’s called? I’m gonna have my manager ask your manager if I can make a special appearance during your set and sing that one with you. Do you think your singer would mind? Benny, Bobby… what’s his name?”

“Ben.”

“I’m terrible with names. What does your name mean?”

The random, irrelevant question was surely a warning sign…

“Ask my mother.”

“I’ll bet she’s a sweet lady, to raise a sweet boy like you.”

“Jesus, Charity, I’m not a sweet boy.”

She gave a low, throaty chuckle. “I know, sweetie. I asked around.”

They were back to games again. He hated this, hated it when they didn’t get to the point.

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to tell you I’m not a sweet girl.”

Indio stood abruptly and she rose with him, stepping forward as he stepped to the side. She gripped his wrist and looked up with a steady gaze that was no longer innocent.

“I think deep down you’re a very sweet boy, and you’re afraid of doing the wrong thing. The dishonorable thing. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Her free hand stroked firmly down his t-shirt, over his chest and stomach, and flattened against the ridge in his denim. He was, despite himself, aroused. Her eyes flashed with pleasure and she tilted her face up, expecting a kiss.

“It’s okay, sweetie. No one will know.”

He was twelve years old and Harry’s girlfriend had him pinned in the corner of the garage. He’d been sanding the wooden guitar rack he’d made. I only want to talk. No one will know. Zoe had used a dozen variations of those same lines, in her Texan twang.

How old are you, anyway? Such a sweet boy. That feels good, doesn’t it?

Indio twisted his wrist free and set Charity away from him. She pouted, unashamed. To his relief, when he let her go she didn’t move forward again. She smiled with that southern charm and adjusted the strap that had slid off her shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it, darlin’. I really am just bored to tears.” She folded her jacket over her arm. “I was hoping maybe you were bored, too. I won’t hold it against you. You come on over to my suite if you change your mind. I’ll let myself out.”

She was gone. Indio sank to the bed, leaning all the way forward to drop his head between his knees as he breathed slowly, deeply. Dragging air in, pushing it out.

That feels good, doesn’t it?

It did feel good. There in the garage, where she laughed afterward because she broke a nail. In the car, when she picked him up from basketball practice and waited until the parking lot emptied before reaching over. Earlier, it had been little touches to his chest, a finger down his spine, ruffling his hair, holding his hand when no one was about. And before that, when it was smiles and kind words—he’d liked that. He thought maybe that’s what having a mother was like. When it turned into something else, something he was pretty sure mothers didn’t do, he didn’t like it anymore.

Even at twelve years old, he knew it was messing with his head—the terror and excitement and confusion all mixed up but he never once said no. He put up with it because it meant a home cooked dinner almost every night. It meant someone to keep Harry happy so he drank less, someone to make Jesse laugh as she danced to his crazy drum beat. Someone to help with his homework while her hand stroked his thigh under the table.

Someone to keep Caleb off his back.

This wasn’t the same, even if the two women talked the same way. Indio was pissed at Charity for singling him out, right when he’d taken this job to avoid temptation. She’d picked the one guy in her sphere who didn’t “walk with Christ”, as they liked to say, on the assumption his morals were sufficiently deficient. And they were, if this was even a question of morality. When everyone knew what they were getting into and no one got hurt, which was the way he’d always played it, what did morality have to do with it?

In Birmingham, Alabama, Charity had a slight headache and stayed in her suite while the others went on a tour of historic churches. Indio wouldn’t have minded going, for the architecture, but one of the stops included a prayer meeting with some famous pastor or other, so he backed out. He went down to the foyer early to wait for the evening buffet to appear. She found him and acted like she’d never put her hands anywhere near him two days earlier. For a few minutes he thought it was all forgotten, over and done.

“You look starving, darlin’. They won’t put out the food for another hour. Come on up with me and we’ll order a feast from room service.”

This wasn’t the same. This time he had a clear head and a choice.

He went on up with her and they never did order room service.

In Nashville she gave him her room key and told him he’d better be waitin’ for her when she finished up at an after-gig after-party press thing. He wanted to check out the Nashville nightlife with Gareth and some of the other guys. Instead, he let himself into her room and sat on the floor playing her very fine twelve-string Gibson Hummingbird until she showed up at 3AM. She scolded him because someone might’ve heard, and he shut her up for a while and then scolded her because someone might’ve heard. He didn’t much like her but he did like making her moan.

In Columbus, Ohio, they were a little too close to his former university for comfort. He called Turk, home with his family for the summer. Turk had planned to come to the gig that night anyway. Indio persuaded him to drive up a few hours early so they could hang out. He used to tell Turk almost everything, but he didn’t tell him he was screwing the main act as revenge against a forty-year-old woman who’d given his twelve-year-old self hand jobs when all he’d wanted was a cooked meal and a kind smile.

The truth was, the more time he spent in Charity’s bed, the less she reminded him of Zoe. Underneath the tarnished purity ring, away from her adoring teenage fans, she was a regular girl with daddy issues. She talked about that quite freely. On one level it was fascinating and on another level he didn’t give a shit, especially when she expected the same from him. He wasn’t letting her inside his head for one second.

After another week playing in Pennsylvania and Michigan they headed west and his feelings about the situation spiraled lower. Know your endgame, Caleb would say. Well, he knew it would end, thank god, but he didn’t know how to get there in one piece. He was sure her personal assistant and her manager knew what was going on. He was fairly sure her band didn’t know, but the wives sometimes looked at him askance. He wondered if Charity herself had told anyone. Her reputation depended on her being a good girl, and her livelihood depended on her reputation.

In Minneapolis he called Caleb.

“I think I need to quit this tour.”

Caleb muttered a curse. Then, “Are you using?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

Some irrational impulse had led him to believe he could confess everything to Caleb, even the part about how Zoe was somehow a part of it. Now he couldn’t do it—hardly surprising. He rarely confessed anything to Caleb. He made something up.

“I feel like a hypocrite. I hate being up there while Gareth or Ben starts into a rant with these kids about the evils of the world and the battle for their souls. I don’t believe a word I’m singing.”

“You’re on backup vocals, for chrissake. Suck it up. You made a commitment.”

He felt like an idiot for making that call. Caleb’s reaction was entirely predictable, and as always he was right. There was no way out of the tour short of breaking a finger. He could live with the religious screeds and he didn’t mind singing words he didn’t believe, because he was playing with talented musicians who cared about what they were doing. For one hour on stage every night he absolutely loved his life.

No way out of the tour, but there must be a way out of the situation. And he needed to get out. He’d taken responsibility for his crimes, he was repaying his financial obligations, and he’d done right by the family by showing up for Wynter, and by talking to Patricia. Now he had to take responsibility for himself and end this habit that was destroying his self-respect.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, at 5AM when he needed to get back to his room, he told her, “I think I may be using you to work out some issues, which isn’t fair to you.”

“Oh, please. We’re having fun, aren’t we?” Her fingers made lazy circles on his chest. “Don’t give me it’s not you, it’s me.”

It was fun, but not that much fun, given his state of mind and the possible consequences.

“Okay, I’ll give you something else. This is fucking ridiculous, Charity. You’re putting your entire career on the line.”

“You think this is the first time I’ve done this?” She raised herself up, cupped his cheek, kissed his nose—an uncomfortably intimate gesture given he didn’t feel connected to her on any level beyond sex. “My career will be just fine. People see what they want to see. They believe what they want to believe. Especially when everyone around you reveres faith over their own lyin’ eyes. Everyone has faith in me, I assure you.”

He’d just spent several weeks seeing that this was true.

“Sweetie,” she said. “we can keep having fun a while longer or we can stop now. Like I said at the start, I won’t hold it against you.”

Indio imagined playing in Seattle in a couple of weeks with Caleb and Jesse and Wynter and Joy—no, probably not Joy—watching, while Charity sang The Brave during their set, sidling up to him like she sometimes did.

He decided to stop now, and she didn’t hold it against him.

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