Authors: Margaret Madigan
Copyright 2016 by Margaret Madigan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead are purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Jaxon Caine stared out the window of the Raising Caine tour bus as the scenery whizzed by, and wondered for the millionth time where his muse had taken off to.
On the highway somewhere in America’s Heartland heading homeward toward Houston, withered August landscape and lazy blue summer sky echoed his dried-up creativity.
He usually wrote new songs on his computer, or even his phone, while jetting across the country between gigs. He could often generate a whole album in a few hours as the words flowed. Fresh material was the lifeblood of music. Without it, artists became irrelevant in a heartbeat.
Writer’s block could be a death sentence.
Which only frightened his skittish muse even more. Assuming the bastard hadn’t abandoned him completely.
Marco Woods flopped into the seat across the table from Jaxon, tapping out a beat with his ever-present drumsticks. “For God’s sake, man, why are we in this freaking bus? We would have been there yesterday if we’d flown.”
Jaxon dumped the spiral notebook and pencil on the table and ran his hands through his hair. He wanted to scream,
because there’s no music in my head anymore, asshole
“Because we have plenty of time before the next show and I wanted to slow things down a little.”
“Where’s the next show?”
The band usually had a crazy-ass schedule. Band manager Mike Adams kept them busy because he said they needed to keep the public’s attention while they were hot. They’d been in Seattle at the beginning of last month, but Jaxon had flown home for his brother Damian’s wedding, then flown back out again to meet the band in Colorado for a gig there. They’d driven a route through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri, playing a range of venues from speedways to concert halls and auditoriums.
“We have a show Dallas, then we’re heading to Atlanta,” Jaxon said.
“Please tell me we’re flying,” Marco said.
Just thinking about the schedule they’d just played exhausted Jaxon. His brain buzzed with fatigue. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful given how hard so many musicians struggled for the kind of success Raising Caine had achieved, but even at twenty-seven his body didn’t tolerate the breakneck pace the way it did at twenty-two. Didn’t really matter. He’d vowed to ride their success as long as it lasted, and since it hadn’t let up yet, neither had he.
Marco jerked his chin toward the blank page of the notebook. “Writing?”
The weight of failure hung like an anchor around his neck. Despite his breezy, playboy reputation, Jaxon was painfully aware of being a leader responsible for the livelihood of his band and crew. What they did supported a lot of people, and it all depended on him.
If he’d had any leftover inspiration, the thought of the entire Raising Caine operation hinging on his musical output dried it up.
“Fuuuuuck,” Jaxon groaned, dropping his head back against the window in defeat.
“Give him a break, Marco.” Mike said, dropping the book he’d been reading to his lap. “He just needs a change of pace.”
“That’s the reason for the mind-numbing road trip?” Cory Willis asked from his favorite swivel chair. Both a genius with a guitar and Jaxon’s oldest friend in the band, Cory’s opinion carried more weight with Jaxon.
“Just a little slump,” Jaxon said. “I thought changing things up from flying to driving would help.”
“How’s that working out?” Cory asked.
Marco reached across the table and grabbed the spiral. Thumbing through the empty pages, he said, “Doesn’t look good, so far.”
Jermaine Greer’s shuffled footsteps approached from the back of the bus. “Jesus. If this drive lasts much longer I’m going to gain fifty pounds.”
His Beats hung around his neck, and despite the bleary eyes and bed head, he clung to a family-sized bag of crunchy Cheetos like a lifeline.
“I’m sure it’s the drive making you gain weight,” Cory said.
“Hey, I eat when I’m bored. It’s a condition.” Jermaine frowned as he stuffed a few Cheetos in his mouth. “What are we talking about?”
“Jaxon has writer’s block,” Marco said.
“I do not.”
“All evidence to the contrary?” Cory asked, pointing to the blank pages.
“If any of the rest of us could write, you know we’d be all over it,” Jermaine said. “All I know is rhythm.”
Jaxon chuckled at Jermaine’s modesty. Jaxon had never met a more talented bass player.
“Simon writes,” Cory offered, referring to the band’s keyboard player.
“He writes weird, angry, acid shit,” Marco said. “Nothing we’d play as a group. Or anyone with any sense would pay to listen to.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Mike asked.
“Sleeping,” Jermaine said, gesturing toward the back of the bus.
“Does he ever do anything else when we travel?” Marco asked.
“Nope. Doesn’t matter if it’s a plane or bus, or just the limo from the airport. Get him in a vehicle of any kind and he’s asleep,” Mike said.
“So what’re we gonna do about Jaxon?” Jermaine asked, taking a seat on the couch next to Mike.
“We don’t need to do anything about me. I’m fine. I just need to shake the cobwebs loose.”
Marco snorted. “You sound like an old lady.”
“Maybe all he needs is a feather duster and an apron,” Cory said, snickering.
“You guys are hilarious,” Jaxon said, not meaning a word of it.
“Get yourself laid and you’ll be golden,” Marco said.
The thought of it fell flat, which lit a new kind of panic for Jaxon. If he couldn’t even generate any enthusiasm for getting laid, he really was in deep shit. He tried to remember the last time he’d had sex. It had to have been their last stop, wherever that had been. There were always groupies fighting to get into his bed, jamming their hotel keys or notes into his pockets, grabbing his ass. Usually the adrenaline of it all got him hard, but sitting on the bus with American countryside flying by, he couldn’t remember the last woman in his bed. Had she been blonde? Brunette? Redhead? Short? Tall? They’d all turned into a long line of warm, wet, holes.
“Holy fuck,” he said, horrified. What kind of piece of shit asshole had he become? Yeah, he liked sex. A lot. But somewhere he’d stepped over a line if that’s how he thought of women. An image popped into his head of the way Damian had looked at Elena at their wedding last month. He’d worshipped her. This from a man who went through women like Jaxon did. When he thought about it, both his brothers Hunter and Xander adored their new wives, too, and they’d had healthy sex lives before getting married.
Jaxon had scoffed at his brothers at Damian’s wedding, claiming he’d never succumb to marriage. But what if they were right? What if giving himself over to one woman turned out to be better than having all the women he could ever want? Just the thought produced a shudder of fear. Still, his brothers appeared to be happier than they’d ever been. Giving up his independence seemed like a drastic step, though.
“What?” Cory asked.
Jaxon scrubbed his hands down his face. God, he was just so tired. “I don’t need sex.”
Maybe he needed to take a break from women altogether. If he stopped the parade in and out of his bed, maybe he’d appreciate them again.
“What did you just say?” Jermaine asked. “Did those words really come out of Jaxon Caine’s mouth?”
“Shut up,” Jaxon said.
Jermaine pulled his phone from a pocket and made a show of tapping the screen. “I gotta mark the calendar, man. Never thought I’d hear you say that.”
Jaxon glared at Jermaine. He seethed, his nostrils flaring, his heart thundering, his stomach roiling. “I said shut the fuck up,” he growled.
“Jeez. Sor-ry,” Jermaine said, holding up a hand in mock surrender. “What crawled up your ass?”
Doubt. Self-loathing. Fear of failure. Crushing responsibility. Adulthood. He tried to remember the joyful freedom he and Cory had experienced when they started the band, when they’d grown and added members, and the jazzed excitement when they’d first started taking off up the charts. He’d written some pretty good shit back then. He’d been energized.
Now, he just wanted to find a quiet corner and curl up for a month. That or find the hole his muse had fallen down and dig the jerk-off out.
“Maybe a better question would be, if you’re struggling to write new material, what can the rest of us do to help?” Mike asked, changing the subject. Or at least redirecting it.
“I don’t know,” Jaxon said.
“It’s too bad we can’t just fill him back up with inspiration the same way we gas up the bus,” Cory said.
“You know,” Mike said, his face taking on an I-have-an-idea expression. “That’s not a bad idea, Cory.”
“Oh?” Cory said.
Mike pulled out his phone and started messing with it. “Okay, so after Dallas and Atlanta, we have a couple of months off, then you’re supposed to hit the studio to record new material at the beginning of October.”
“That doesn’t help the pressure, Mike,” Jaxon said.
“Hear me out. I’m going to send you on a retreat.”
“I think we’ve established that a change of venue doesn’t help. It doesn’t matter where you send me, I still won’t be able to write anything.”
“The retreat isn’t to write. It’s to unwind. Refresh. In fact, I don’t even want you to think about writing.”
A tiny bit of relief washed over him at the thought. That load on his shoulders lifted a little. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.
“My taking off won’t affect the band?” Jaxon asked.
“Nope. It’ll be fine.”
If Mike didn’t anticipate any problems, Jaxon trusted him.
“Okay, so where am I supposed to retreat to?”
“I have a friend who owns an estate outside Houston. He’s been out of the country for a while on business. It would be a perfect place. I’ll call him, if you’re interested.”
They were headed back to Houston anyway. The thought of taking a break sounded amazing. From the expectant looks on everyone else’s face, they agreed.
“Go ahead and call him,” Jaxon said.
Mike poked at his phone, then held it to his ear. While he waited for his friend to answer, he said, “One thing. His niece is the caretaker at the property, and she’s a little, I don’t know, I guess you’d call her kooky. But the house is big. You can stay in the opposite wing and you’ll never even see her.”
Lily Dixon’s to-do list played on a loop in her head as she drove home. Weed and water the garden, check in with the food pantry to see what they still needed, prep jars for canning, donate fruits and veggies to Summer when she showed up with her truck. The list seemed endless.
She was so busy planning the rest of her day, she didn’t even notice the shiny black Audi in the driveway until she almost ran into it.
People didn’t visit the estate often, especially since her uncle had been out of the country and she’d been caretaker. She liked her solitude and having free reign over the property, so guests—primarily the unannounced variety—made her jumpy.
Even more suspicious, the car was empty. Where’d the driver go? She climbed out of her Ford Ranger and sauntered to the driver’s side of the Audi. Only a man would drive this kind of car, park right in front of the door like he owned the place, then take off to explore—or whatever he was up to.
On the other hand, it didn’t seem likely a burglar would drive an expensive car and park in plain sight. Either way, she didn’t trust uninvited strangers.
Circling the front of the car, she climbed the few steps to the porch, scanning the property as she did. Everything looked like it should—long loop gravel driveway, trees, meadows, fountain and flowers. Not a hint of intruders, other than the car.
She selected the house key from the bunch of keys in her hand and slid it into the deadbolt—but it was already unlocked. She always locked the door when she left, which meant the missing man had to be in the house.
Lily dug into her purse and fished out her pepper spray. She had no idea who he was, but if he’d broken into her house, she’d rather be safe than sorry.