I tightened the strings on my bass guitar and made sure the amp was plugged in tightly. Holding my pick tight between my fingers, I plucked a string and heard a low-pitched thrum from the speakers.
Too low. I adjusted the peg and tried again.
A streak of aqua-dyed hair fell over my eyes and I brushed it back. The seven hoops I wore in each ear chimed whenever I turned my head. In my lime-green pleather miniskirt and shredded purple top, you’d never think I was a middle school teacher.
But then, that was the point.
“Ready to go, Liv?” Across from me on the small stage, my best friend, Kelly Nunez, was tuning her guitar as well. Her curly dark hair was tucked under a bubble-gum pink wig, and her leather corset top was studded with chrome buckles.
“Oh, I’m ready,” I grinned back at her. “I had to listen to way too many recorder recitals this week. I need to blow off some steam.”
On the drums, May Lee pushed her dark bangs out of her eyes, impatient to begin. Rhea Harris, Sugarvenom’s lead vocalist, was waiting offstage for the signal that we were ready.
Loud rock music pumped from the overhead speakers. People milled around the crowded, dimly lit bar, waiting as we warmed up our instruments. We’d been playing every other Friday night at Terry’s Place for the past three years, and had gained a small but loyal following.
But soon it would all be over. We only had a few shows left. And I was determined to enjoy every minute of it.
Finally, our instruments were set up and in tune. I nodded to Terry, the burly, tattooed bar owner, who killed the music. The crowd began to gather around the stage, clutching beers and colorful cocktails.
I grinned at Kelly and May, who both nodded back.
Let’s do this.
Plucking the pick over the steel strings, I began playing a low, rhythmic bass line. On the guitar’s neck, the fingers of my other hand moved in various patterns, pressing into the hard callousses it had taken me years to build.
As I repeated the riff, Kelly came in with a high, echoing note on her electric guitar. May crashed in on her drums. Then Rhea entered the stage, her short blond hair spiked into a series of triangular points like a stegosaurus, her curvy figure accentuated by a skin-hugging blue minidress. The crowd began to cheer, and I almost had to blink back tears.
God, I was going to miss this.
Rhea came to the microphone, her red-glossed lips almost kissing its surface as she launched into the first song.
“I don’t remember the time or plaaaace
I just remember the look on your faaacce.
And I know that was the night I was looooossst!”
Kelly’s fingers flew over the strings, blending effortlessly from chord to chord. Behind us, May’s ponytail was doing a wild dance of its own as her entire body moved with the effort of pummeling the drums.
Rhea finished on a long, high note that got roars of approval from the crowd. Giving them a wink, she launched into the second verse.
“Now your eyes are all I seee.
Every touch—burned into my memorieeees!
And I know that you are where I am foouund!”
Rhea’s voice soared above the audience. I grinned, continuing to move my fingers in a simple but ever-changing rhythm. All the members of Sugarvenom were pretty skilled, but Rhea really had the pipes. Between my lyrics and her vocals, I’d always thought there was a real chance we could have made it to the big leagues.
I hard-rocked my head to the rhythm as we finished “Lost and Found”, and immediately went into our second song, “Brainfreeze”. The floodlights over the stage were burning hot, and sweat was already pouring down my forehead. I wiped it away, looking out over the crowd.
That’s when I saw him.
Actually, I could barely see anything through the blinding lights. It was more like I could sense him—like my body had been jerked forward by an invisible line.
He was tall, I could make out that much, his broad-shouldered silhouette completely blocking the door near the back entrance.
For no reason I could tell, my heart began to hammer. My fingers shook, and I had to focus not to lose my place in the song. A high, discordant note rang out as my pick slipped and I hit the wrong string.
Kelly sent a surprised glance my way. I shook my head at her, fumbling to get back on cue.
I looked back out over the audience, my pulse pounding in my throat.
He was closer now, close enough that I could make out his short dark hair, his sharp cheekbones, the golden-tan shine of his skin. He wore a faded leather jacket and torn jeans.
His eyes were a dark and depthless brown. And they were fixed on me, widened in what looked like shock. Or anger.
I stared back, unable to take my eyes off him.
My head snapped around to see my bandmates glaring at me.
I had stopped playing midsong, and was standing at the foot of the stage with my instrument half-lowered at my side. A few members of the audience snickered at me from behind their beers.
Heat rushed to my face. I felt lightheaded, like I’d just plummeted from a very great distance only to miss the ground by an inch. Hurriedly, I repositioned my bass and gave my bandmates a firm nod. They went right into “Melancholic”, our third song.
My heart thundered as my fingers stumbled along the strings.
But when I glanced back, the dark-eyed stranger was gone.
“Dude, what was up with you? You totally spaced out,” Kelly said with a chuckle, handing me a gin and tonic.
Our set had ended twenty minutes ago, and we were all sitting together at a cushioned booth near the back of the bar.
“Yeah, you totally ruined the end of ‘Brainfreeze’, and that’s one of our best songs,” Rhea added, sounding annoyed. A total perfectionist, she loathed when any of us made mistakes during a gig.
“I just…blanked out for a sec. I don’t know what happened.” I sipped my drink, not wanting to admit that I’d lost my concentration because of a hot guy in the crowd.
Somehow, I’d managed to make it through the rest of the gig without screwing up too badly. But even now, I couldn’t get him out of my head.
And what I couldn’t figure out was why. I’d seen the man for all of ten seconds before he’d vanished. There was no reason why he should have affected me like that.
Except he did, and even now I could still feel a rush of heat in my veins at the very thought of him.
I’d spent the remainder of our set scanning every face in the crowd, my heart skipping at every tall man with broad shoulders. But none of them had provoked that fierce, dangerous reaction.
It had felt like seeing someone I’d known all my life, but hadn’t seen in a very long time.
Except I had never seen him before. I definitely would have remembered the intensity of that dark brown gaze.
“Uh…Liv? You’re doing it again,” Kelly said, raising an eyebrow.
My head snapped up, and I realized I’d been gazing absently into my drink. “What? Sorry!”
“Seriously, what’s up?” May asked with a sideways grin.
I busied myself with drinking half my gin and tonic in one gulp.
“It was nothing,” I said, trying to change the subject. “Anyway, I’m sorry. Especially when we only have a few shows left.”
Their teasing looks faded. “I know,” Kelly said. “We’ve been playing together so long.”
“Since freshman year,” Rhea said wistfully, swirling her drink.
Their attention off me, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Have you figured out where you’ll be living when you get to Seoul?” I asked May.
She nodded. “Yeah, I have tons of extended family in Korea, so I think I’m staying with a cousin until I get my own apartment.”
“That’s so exciting! I can’t wait until we can come and visit you,” Rhea said excitedly.
“That might be awhile. I hear you’re quite busy, Miss Soon-To-Be-Doctor,” May chimed back.
Rhea rolled her eyes. “That won’t be for a looong time. First it’s four years of nonstop med school. Woooo!” She made devil’s horns with her hands, shaking them wildly.
I laughed along with the others, but my heart gnawed painfully at my ribs. In the first week of our freshman year, the four of us had bonded over a shared love of punk-rock music. And as it turned out, we’d all played instruments—except Rhea who’d been a choir star in high school. And so Sugarvenom had been born, and we’d been inseparable ever since.
But now that was all about to change. We’d all graduated from university the previous spring, and after a year-long internship here in Denver, May had managed to score a junior position in the research division of Samsung. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for her, but it did mean leaving her friends and everyone she knew behind to move to a new country.
And Rhea was beginning med school in the summer, where she’d been working nose to the grindstone for the foreseeable future, leaving no more time for rehearsals and gigs.
Even Kelly was planning on moving in with her boyfriend in a few months, meaning I wouldn’t have her as a roommate anymore.
Our little band was breaking up. And I was trying hard to pretend that it wasn’t breaking my heart.
“I’m gonna go grab another round,” I said, holding up my empty glass. Without looking at my friends, I grabbed my purse and headed for the bar.
“Can I get another gin and tonic?” I asked Terry, who nodded and reached for a fresh tumbler.
I sighed, feeling like an ass. I truly was happy for my friends, who were moving on with their lives, establishing careers, going on international adventures…
I just wished that something exciting would come along for me. But there weren’t a lot of whirlwind, daredevil opportunities for seventh-grade music teachers.
It was strange—after working for four years to get my degree in education, it had only taken me only one year to realize it wasn’t what I wanted.
I was ready for something more than my normal, everyday life. Something bigger.
Out of nowhere, the dark eyes of the stranger from the show flashed into my mind. My pulse raced as I remembered the fierce intensity of his gaze.
He’d looked like one of the boys my father was always warning me away from.
The boys he'd said would break my heart.
But I often wondered if he was just worried that they would break his heart. By taking me away from him. By leaving him alone.
Just like my mother.
I sat with my elbows on the bar, chewing on my lip.
I’d dated plenty of guys in the past. Nice, polite, respectful young men who had taken me on nice, polite, respectful dates. But none of them had ever sparked any deep fire within me.
Not like that gorgeous stranger had managed to do with just a flick of his eyes.
I’d never felt a pull like that. I could still feel it now, a deep, tingling ache in my gut.
I sighed and took a sip of my fresh drink.
My friends were all getting ready to embark on new adventures in life.
And I was eager for some new experiences of my own. Some excitement. Some danger.
I smiled to myself, lost in visions of the dark-eyed stranger.
Little did I know that he would soon give me exactly what I thought I wanted.