"Next right," the bored, monotone voice of the GPS unit said.
I took the next right as ordered, and the county road ended. My tires thumped over the lip of the asphalt and crunched onto gravel. Judging by the cornfields, cow pastures, and farmhouses, one would have thought I was on my way out to audition for a country band instead of Schadenfreude, my brother and sister's hard-rock band.
A nervous knot coiled in my gut. I couldn't believe I was really doing this. My siblings had persuaded me to come back up to Seattle after the band and their male lead singer parted ways. They were hurting for a replacement, but it hadn't taken much arm-twisting to convince me. In the last six months, my love life had fallen apart and taken my own band with it, right when we were on the verge of being successful too. That and I was sick and tired of Los Angeles. Move back home, start over, and possibly join Schadenfreude? Yeah, that hadn't taken much thought. Even if I didn't end up in their band, it was good to be back.
The GPS chimed in again: "This area has not been mapped. Route guidance will now end."
"You're so helpful." I turned off the GPS. Fortunately my brother, Todd, had given me written directions from this point on, knowing it was far enough out in the sticks that modern technology still couldn't find it. I picked up the printed e-mail with the directions and continued dodging potholes down the bumpy dirt road.
I was only a mile or two out now. Almost there. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. God, I hope I don't blow this.
It was an incredible opportunity, and it didn't hurt that this would give me the chance to see Andre Koehler again. I hadn't seen him or his brother, Bastian, since they were in high school with Todd nearly a decade ago. Back then I'd secretly had a crush on Andre, and just for old time's sake, it would be fun to see him again. Not that anyone else needed to know about that. My sister was the only one in the band who knew, and Todd probably would've killed me if he knew the thoughts I'd entertained about one of his best friends. But what they didn't know wouldn't hurt me, and Andre was straight anyway. Engaged, last I heard.
That didn't mean I couldn't look. I just wouldn't touch, and I'd hope to hell I was what they wanted for the band. They were desperate, but from what my siblings had said, Andre and Bastian were more than a little picky about singers. A few had already auditioned, none warranting so much as a callback. They were getting down to the wire, though, especially for their next gig; as it was, this would be the only chance I had to rehearse with them because the gig was tomorrow night.
Even that wasn't a guarantee. If I wasn't what they were looking for or they didn't think I was ready for tomorrow's show, they still had Elena, my sister, singing lead for half the set. If they absolutely had to, they could do a gig or two without a male lead, and they'd sooner shorten their set than compromise their sound. That alone was enough to convince me I wanted to be a part of this band.
Up ahead, a mailbox shaped like a John Deere tractor came into view. According to Todd's directions, that was the driveway.
"Here goes nothing," I said, turning left at the tractor mailbox. Drumming the steering wheel with my thumbs, I followed the long driveway to a modest farmhouse with an immense detached garage. Todd's car, along with my sister's VW Beetle and another car, was parked in front of the garage. I parked beside the Beetle and got out. Even if Todd's directions hadn't specifically said to go to the garage instead of the house, I'd have had no trouble figuring it out: The music coming from inside rattled my teeth even from out here.
I put in a pair of earplugs at my brother's recommendation and walked into the garage.
Inside, Elena looked up from banging the drums and stopped. She grabbed one of the hi-hats to silence it. She was the other lead singer but also played the drums from time to time.
"Hey, little bro." She smiled, flipping her electric blue hair out of her face. "You found the place without too much trouble, I see."
I laughed. "Yeah, somehow managed to comprehend Todd's directions."
"Oh fuck you." Todd eyed me as he adjusted his guitar's amp. He gestured at a woman fussing with some sound equipment. "Rochelle, this my little brother, Aaron. Aaron, Rochelle." He paused, giving me a pointed look. "And she's Andre's other half, so hands off."
"I'll keep that in mind." I chuckled, exchanging a knowing glance with my sister before I shook Rochelle's hand.
"She's Andre's girl," Todd said, "but we really only hang out with her because her grandparents let us use this place to rehearse."
"Fuck you, McClure," Rochelle said with a laugh. "You seem to be forgetting who writes half your music. Anyway, nice to meet you, Aaron. It's good to see not all the males in the family got the short end of the genetics stick." She and Todd threw each other good-natured glares.
Behind me, the door opened. Todd gestured past me. "Aaron, you remember Andre, don't you?"
"Of course I do." Bracing myself, I turned around, and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Oh dear God, Andre, time has been kind to you, hasn't it?
The Andre I knew back then had certainly grown up. His dark hair was now bleached blond and pulled back into a messy ponytail. He was broad-shouldered and must have spent hours at the gym each day maintaining the physique that was currently wrapped in tight jeans and a tighter black T-shirt. By the looks of it, his arms were as well acquainted with dumbbells as they were with tattoo needles.
"Aaron! How are you, kid?" Andre extended his hand. Time had tempered his thick German accent, but it was still there, adding a slight guttural quality to his voice.
I cleared my throat. "Good, good. Just, you know, getting settled in."
He gave me a firm handshake and that familiar smile that likely earned him as many fans as his music did. A shiver ran up my spine. Jesus Christ. Want.
"Well," he said, "it's good to have you back in the neighborhood."
"Where's Bastian?" Elena asked. "Didn't he come with you?"
Andre gestured flippantly at the door through which he'd come. "He's outside. He was on his damned phone when we got here. Arguing with Bitchy McPsychopath again."
With a cough of startled laughter, I said, "With who?"
"Denise." Rochelle rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue. "Fucking crazy woman."
"Girlfriend, I take it?" I said.
"Ex-fiancee," Elena said. "Thank God he didn't actually marry her."
"Talk about a dodged bullet," Todd muttered. "Only thing I can think of that would be worse than breaking up with a woman like that is divorcing her."
"And the crazy beast is holding up rehearsal again," Andre muttered. He went back to the door, leaned out, and shouted something in German. The response was terse and also German.
Andre shot something back in the same language. Then in English, "Get in here and say hello to Aaron."
From outside the door, approaching footsteps crunched on the gravel and a familiar, accented voice growled a few curse words. Then, "Can't a man finish a phone call without--" He appeared in the doorway and halted in both speech and step when he saw me. His breath caught.
So did mine.
When I came in that night, I thought I wouldn't be able to get Andre out of my head. Now that Bastian was here, I couldn't think at all.
In high school, he had been a scrawny kid with unruly dark hair and a gaunt face that probably didn't need to be shaved more than once a month. That kid and the man standing in front of me now were worlds apart. His cheekbones rose prominently above a stubbled jaw that made my fingertips tingle at the mere thought of touching. Both sides of his head were shaved, with the top left long and flipped to one side in a fringe that fell into a perfect curve to draw my attention straight to the gold ring in his left eyebrow.
That and his vivid blue eyes. Oh my God. Had they always been that blue?
His shoulders weren't as broad as Andre's, but they certainly weren't lacking. Judging by the way his T-shirt pulled snug across his abs, he wasn't lacking anywhere, at least not above the belt.
He hadn't worn his teens well, but he wore twenty-nine-almost-thirty like a fucking dream.
I suddenly realized I was staring. Then Bastian's cheeks colored. He cleared his throat and looked away, setting his case on one of the tables at the side of the room. I doubted more than a few seconds had passed, but it may as well have been ages, and it still wasn't enough time to drink in the sight of him.
"You remember Aaron, don't you?" Andre said.
Bastian snarled something in German, flicking his eyes toward his brother. To me, he said, "Good to see you, kid." His accent was less pronounced than his brother's, but it was there. He extended his hand. "So you're here to bail us out?"
I shrugged with one shoulder and shook his hand. "I certainly hope so."
"Guess we'll see, won't we?" He gave me a quick, tentative smile--Is that shyness on your face, Bastian?--before turning his attention to his bass, leaving me with my heart in my throat and my hand tingling from his touch.
I surreptitiously watched him shrug his jacket off his shoulders, and hoped to God no one heard my breath falter when that jacket fell away and revealed the toned, tattooed arms beneath the tight T-shirt. He turned around and pulled his bass out of the case, and I had to force myself to look away from the muscles of his shoulders and back, or the way his belt sat just right above his narrow hips.
I'd never given Bastian a second thought when we were teenagers, but the grown-up Bastian was the very epitome of sexy. Andre who?
"Okay, Aaron," Elena said, mercifully drawing my focus away from Bastian. "Let's show 'em what you've got."
Andre, Rochelle, and Bastian sat back to watch while Todd and Elena played backup for me. I'd done okay singing solo in front of people without the company of percussion or a guitar in the past, but tonight, even with their backup, my nerves almost got the best of me a few times. It wasn't that I was nervous about my singing ability. I knew I was good, and I didn't pretend to think otherwise.
I also knew the songs well enough to hold my own. I'd rehearsed with Todd and Elena while they were in LA to help me move, and we'd probably kept a few people awake practicing in the seedy motels along I-5 on the trip from Cali to Seattle. So I knew the songs inside and out, but what I hadn't anticipated was Bastian.
His arrival--or rather, my reaction to his presence--had thrown me completely off balance.
Every time I met his eyes, my pulse jumped. When he leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head and crossing his boots at the ankles, the grooves of his abs showed through his shirt and I forgot the chorus to "Heaven's Demon." I fucking nailed "Terra Firma," one of the more difficult songs in the set, until he leaned on an armrest and absently ran his fingertip along his lower lip, and I completely bombed the second verse.
By the end of the half dozen songs my siblings had suggested we play, I was sweating like I'd just performed an entire set under hot stage lights. Aside from the nerve-induced fuckups, it was a good audition. Not one of my best, but judging by the nods the brothers exchanged, it was good enough. And fortunately I'd avoided getting a hard-on while I was in front of them. Nerves were good for something, at least. I made a mental note not to wear such tight jeans around the band for a while, though. Not until I was used to being around Bastian.
Todd clapped my shoulder. "Nice job."
"Thanks." I smiled.
"So," Todd said to the Koehler brothers. "What do you think?"
Andre looked at me and nodded slowly. "I think you'll be a great fit for the band, Aaron."
"Agreed," Bastian said. "Though a lot will depend on how you do onstage tomorrow night."
"Right, I know," I said. "Rehearsals are nothing compared to the real thing."
"We need to cut 'Terra Firma' from tomorrow's set, though," Bastian said. "Don't get me wrong, Aaron, you're good, but I'd rather hold off on that one until we've rehearsed it more."
I nodded. "Fair enough." Pride wanted me to argue that I did, in fact, have that song down, but I bit my tongue. That would only lead to questions about why I couldn't get it right tonight.
"What about 'Heaven's Demon'?" Elena asked me. "You didn't have that much trouble on the chorus when we practiced before, but..." Her eyebrows lifted.
"I think I'll be okay," I said. "Just...nerves."
Andre thumbed his chin. "Will that be an issue onstage?"
I shook my head. "I don't get stage fright. Auditions fuck me all up, but I'm good onstage."
"Good to know." Bastian smiled, doing crazy things to my blood pressure in the process. The chair creaked when he pushed himself to his feet. I had to force myself not to take a step back to counter the one he took toward me, and his eyes were so intense I was sure he could see right through me to all the impure thoughts I had about him.
If he did, he didn't say anything. He just extended his hand and grinned. "Assuming all goes well tomorrow night, welcome to Schadenfreude."