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Evan's Encore: Meltdown: The Conclusion (Meltdown book 4) by RB Hilliard (1)

CHAPTER ONE

“How’s It Going to Be”

Evan

It was hard to believe my marriage was officially over. Then again, I couldn’t really call it a marriage, could I? It was more like a sham or a joke, maybe even a farce. Farce sounded about right. My marriage was a farce. At least, it was to my wife, Mandy. To me, it was nine years of my life. Nine years of living with a woman I thought I knew, but didn’t. Nine years of wasted time. The sad part was I loved her. At least, I’d tried to. She didn’t make it very easy. Truthfully, she didn’t make anything easy. I no longer loved her. Hell, I didn’t even like her. Now, all I felt was bitterness and resentment. I contemplated this as I carried the last few boxes inside the house and up the stairs to my room. The house really was amazing. Then again, a tent in the Amazon jungle would be amazing compared to the hell I’d been living in. Carefully, I placed the boxes on the floor. My new room was impressive with its pitched ceiling and ornate fireplace. I dropped onto the bed and tried not to think about my pathetic excuse for a life. The mattress felt great. At least I’d gotten that right. With a loud sigh, I pulled out my phone and dialed my brother’s number.

He answered on the first ring. “Are you moved in?”

“Somewhat,” I responded.

“Shit, that was fast.” Moving is easy when you had nothing to move.

“Yep. Listen, don’t say anything. Not to Mom and Dad, not to Elaine, not to anyone. I need time...just to let it all sink in, okay?”

“You could have moved in with me, you know.”

Of my two siblings, I was closest to my brother, Ehren. He was five years younger than me. He was also the peacemaker of the family and an all-around good person. My sister and I had never been close. Elaine was three years younger and the family princess. She was also a spoiled brat. I was the oldest of the three Walker children as well as the biggest disappointment. As much as I loved my little brother, I needed my own space, a fresh start, so to speak. Two grown men living in a one-bedroom condo, especially when one of them didn’t believe in picking up after himself, wasn’t my idea of fun. No thanks. I’d just crawled out of hell—had the scorch marks to prove it. I wasn’t looking to go back.

Trying to keep it chill, I said, “Thanks, but my days of sleeping on sofas are long gone.”

“What’s the latest on bitch face?” he asked. Ehren greatly disliked my wife. He wasn’t the only one. Our sister, Elaine, hated her to the point that four years ago, in a desperate ploy to split us up, she showed up at our house drunk off her ass screaming about how Mandy was cheating on me. The look of hurt on my wife’s face gutted me. I didn’t even question it. Instead, I got pissed at Elaine and kicked her out of my house. I never dreamed she would refuse to speak to me after that. If that wasn’t bad enough, my brother also tried to tell me she was cheating on me over Christmas break. Of course, I didn’t believe him. Just thinking about it made me feel all kinds of stupid. Hell, I was stupid.

“She’s cheating on you,” Ehren blurted. Our eyes met and held, his filled with anger and mine contempt. Not this again.

“Come on, little brother. If it didn’t work the first time, it’s not going to work now.”

“Just listen. A buddy of mine, someone I trust, swears he saw Mandy at a bar in The Woodlands a few weeks ago. She was with some dude. He said they were...together.”

Blowing out a disgusted breath, I asked, “Really, Ehren?”

“I’m not making this up, I swear—”

I held up my hand to stop him. “Were you there? Did you see it with your own eyes? Was your buddy drinking? Did he actually talk to her?” When his face clouded with doubt, I let up on the anger. “I know you want to protect me and I appreciate it, but not like this.” I loved my brother, but he could be dense sometimes.

“You’re an amazing musician, E. You always have been. Anyone who knows you, knows this. Anyone but her!” He’d gone too far.

“Don’t go there,” I warned.

After blasting me with a defiant glare, he said exactly what I didn’t want to hear. “She should have supported you.”

“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have left.”

A snort of contempt shot from his lips. “When are you going to stop blaming yourself?”

“When she forgives me.”

“When she forgives you,” he repeated, his tone filled with disgust. I knew he wasn’t a big fan of Mandy, but I didn’t realize how much he hated her.

“Look, I get that you don’t like her, but to accuse her of cheating? You’re better than that.”

“Will you at least ask her about it?”

I asked, and of course, she lied. Everything about her and our life together was a lie...

“Did you hear me?” Ehren asked.

I slowly shook off the memory. “I heard. Bobby’s supposed to call later today or tomorrow. I’ll fill you in once I’ve spoken to him.”

“Okay, well, not to be a dick or anything, but can I just point out that you’re choosing to live with a woman you’ve known for all of three seconds over your own brother. I don’t get it.” That was just it. It wasn’t his to get.

Scowling at the fancy gold light fixture above my head, I informed him that Quinn and I weren’t living together, but that I was simply living in her house, and there was a vast difference between the two.”

“I can’t believe you let Mandy have the house,” he grumbled.

“Good thing I didn’t discuss it with you first,” I shot back.

“It’s just that...I find this whole thing odd.”

“Call it what you want. The fact is, Quinn lives in a house, not a one-bedroom condo. She needs a tenant, and I need a place to live. If you think about it, it’s really not that hard to grasp.”

“Fine. I’ll leave it alone.” He didn’t want to, though. He wanted answers, but how was I supposed to make him understand when I didn’t understand myself?

“Look, I don’t need your opinion on every aspect of my life. I just need your support right now. That’s all.”

“You know I’ve got your back. I just want you to be okay.” I couldn’t help but smile.

“You promise not to tell anyone?” I added.

“I promise, but for the record, I think you should talk to Chaz or Grant.” I planned on calling Chaz, just not yet. When I didn’t respond, he asked, “Now that you’ve moved in, what are you going to do?”

“Nothing,” I lied. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to find Quinn and collect on the free drink she owed me.

The minute I hung up with Ehren, I was out the door. On the drive to Margo’s, I thought back to the first time I met Quinn. It was over that same Christmas break. I’d come home to patch things up with Mandy, and in an attempt to get my mind off my marriage troubles, Ehren, and some friends offered to take me out for drinks. The thought of going to a bar sounded great. There was just one small problem. I was no longer anonymous.

“I’ll have to borrow a baseball cap,” I told him.

“Not where we’re going, you won’t.” Grinning at my questioning look, he explained, “Jason wants to get in some chick’s pants. She works at a gen-u-ine honky-tonk. Get this, it’s called Margo’s.” He laughed at the smirk on my face. “I kid you not. We’re talking, a country bar in the middle of BFE. I doubt they’ll know who you are, much less that you’re even there. So, what do you think? Are you up for a little road trip?”

“Sure, why not?” What else was I going to do? It wasn’t as if I could hang out with my wife or anything. Nope. She had plans and wouldn’t be able to see me until tomorrow.

While Ehren made arrangements with the guys, I headed to the bathroom to get cleaned up. As I made my way down the hall, I couldn’t help but smile. Little brother had done well for himself. After becoming an official member of Meltdown, I called and offered to help him financially. When he declined, I thought it was out of pride. Now I knew better. He was making his own way and I couldn’t be prouder of him.

My heart kicked in my chest when I felt my phone buzz in my back pocket. Mandy? I thought, as I reached for it. When I saw Chaz’s name scroll across the screen, I gave myself a mental slap. You’re going to see her tomorrow. Stop being such a pussy.

Chaz’s text read: You coming to Austin for G’s thing?

Grant and his girlfriend, Mallory, were throwing a Christmas party at their house in Austin. Mallory didn’t know, but Grant was proposing to her. I’d been invited but had declined.

“Hey, E! You ready?” Ehren called down the hallway.

“Be there in a few!” I called back, then quickly responded to Chaz’s text—No. Got shit to deal with here.

As I opened the bathroom door, he responded back. She ain’t worth it, bro. She, meaning Mandy. In a moment of weakness, I’d told Chaz about my failing marriage. To say the guy was opinionated was a gross understatement. Try a relentless dickhead. It was a damn good thing he was on my side.

Have you heard from Nash? I typed in response. Right before we went on tour, our lead guitarist, Nash, discovered his mother’s cancer had returned. The prognosis wasn’t good.

Chaz responded right when I reached the living room. Nah. Gotta run.

Later. I replied.

“All good?” Ehren asked.

“Yep. All good.”

My brother wasn’t lying about my not needing to worry about getting recognized. Somewhere between downtown Houston and nowheresville was a roadside bar called Margo’s.

“You said off the beaten path, not in another country,” I teased as we pulled into the gravel parking lot. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles were lined up across the lot. I heard the music as soon as I opened my car door. Little did anyone know, but I was a country music fan way before I ever got into rock.

While Waylon and Willie warned mamas about letting their babies grow up to be cowboys, we waited for my brother’s friends to arrive.

“Why here?” I asked.

“I told you, Jason has a crush on one of the bartenders,” he replied, right as his friends pulled into the lot. We waited for them to catch up to us before going inside.

“Holy shit!” Jason shouted. “We thought you were kidding when you said Evan was coming.” He turned to me with an expression of adoration on his ugly mug and I couldn’t help but feel like a bug under a microscope. Jerking his hand out, he gushed, “Fuck, you’re like awesome, man.”

“Thanks.” I had a feeling this would never get any easier. Not for me, at least. I shook both his and Mike’s hands. Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime” was just starting up as we stepped inside. At first glance, the place seemed smaller than it appeared from the outside. A long, dark wooden bar took up the entire right wall, large metal booths filled the left, and in the middle sat free standing hi-top tables surrounded by barstools. Beyond the tables, bar, and booths, the floor opened up into a decent-sized dance floor. In true honky-tonk fashion, the floor was covered with straw and peanut shells.

Several sets of eyes watched as we wound our way past the hi-tops toward one of the empty booths. I held my breath, waiting for the onslaught. First would come the gasps, followed by the whispers, and last the shrieks. When none of the above occurred, I slowly released it.

“Told you,” Ehren muttered as we slid into an empty booth. A giant mason jar filled with peanuts sat on one end of the table. While reaching for it, I became aware of a mouthwatering aroma.

“What’s that smell?” I asked.

Jason’s face split into a smile. “Sam’s cooking.”

Staring down at the cup rings on the table, I fought back a cringe. “Well, Sam sure could to do a better job of cleaning off his tables.”

“Quinn’s the owner,” Mike informed me. As far as I was concerned, a dirty table was a dirty table, no matter who it belonged to.

“Well, then Quinn sure could use a new busboy,” I corrected.

“Sorry, but Quinn is up to her eyeballs in customers right now,” a sexy, throaty, very female sounding voice replied.

As I shifted my gaze to the woman standing at the head of our table, the apology dangling from the tip of my tongue stalled beneath her light blue stare. No, scratch that. They were light gray. Exotic. Striking. Gray. The face they belonged to was delicate...femininity at its finest. Both of these attributes were almost outdone by a wild, untamed mane of brown curls streaked with gold.

“What can I get you boys to drink?” she asked. Her gaze touched on my brother before moving to Mike and then to Jason. This gave me a moment to take in her tight black T-shirt with the Margo’s logo in bold, red letters across her chest. Shifting my focus from her chest back to her face, I tried to place her age. Her body said early twenties but the way in which she carried herself said she was older.

“We’ll start with a pitcher of Bud,” Jason answered. “Oh, and some of those amazing nachos.”

Two finely shaped eyebrows rose in question. “You sure? The nachos are good, but our burgers are better.”

“Sorry, but nothing beats your nachos.”

“I’ll tell Sam you said so.” Her eyes slid from Jason back to me and her mouth shifted into a smile. In a teasing tone, she said, “I’ll also make sure to get my busboy over here pronto.” It wasn’t the sarcastic cut of the words that caught my attention, though. It was her smile. It lit up her whole face. It felt like an invitation to something deeper...something more.

“Uh, is Alex-Ann here?” Jason asked, his voice an octave higher than usual. My eyes sliced to my brother’s friend. Someone needed to give the boy his balls back.

“She’s off tonight, darlin’,” Quinn responded. “but I’ll be happy to tell her you stopped by...errrr—”

“Jason,” he squeaked.

“Jason,” she repeated in her sexy southern drawl. Then, winking at me, said, “The busboy will be right with you.”

Five minutes later, long enough for us to properly harass Jason, Quinn returned with a pitcher of beer, four mugs, and...a wet hand towel. As I watched her clean our table, I felt like an ass.

“Sorry about the earlier comment,” I muttered before she could get away.

“No worries, sport. They were just words.” She hit me with that gorgeous smile before walking away. She wasn’t wrong. They were just words, but if anyone knew the damage that words could inflict, it was me.

After a few beers and some of the best nachos I’d ever tasted, Jason and Mike led us off to a hidden corner room where we played pool and threw some darts. Ehren and I called it quits around midnight. With back slaps and handshakes, we said goodbye to his friends. On the way to the door, I searched for Quinn and found her standing next to a table with a pen and order pad in hand. She glanced my way and acknowledged my departure with a slight lift of her chin. I responded with a smile of thanks. For a brief moment I’d forgotten that my marriage was falling apart. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be able to hang with friends and be myself. It felt good to forget...

It was hard to believe that was eight months ago—back when life seemed rough but actually wasn’t—back before the rug was jerked out from under my life.

Only two cars and a motorcycle were in the parking lot when I pulled into Margo’s. Quinn wasn’t kidding when she said Sunday was a slow night. I paused to roll up my windows before turning off the car. Music greeted me as I opened my door and stepped out into the night. As I made my way across the gravel lot, the hopelessness I’d been feeling began to lift. That’s what music did for me. It soothed the raw edges. Fuck knows there were plenty of those.

Singing along with the Avett Brothers, I headed for the front entrance. “Satan Pulls the Strings” was the name of the song. Satan sure as hell pulled my strings when he led me to Mandy James. If only I’d known. Willing myself not to go there, I pulled open the door and immediately spotted Quinn standing behind the bar. Our eyes met and her lips turned up. Even though I shouldn’t, I felt that smile. I felt it deep in a place that, surprisingly, hadn’t been tainted by Mandy’s betrayal.

“Hey, Rock Star,” she greeted in that smoky tone of hers that made me think of dirty things.

Ignoring the rock star comment, I dropped down onto a stool in front of her and asked, “What’s up, Country?”

Waving her hand in the air, she said, “Take a look around. As you can see, absolutely nothing.”

“You weren’t kidding when you said Sundays were quiet.”

“Yeah, I’m seriously considering closing the place and giving everyone Sundays off from here on out.”

“So, why don’t you?” Her answer was a shrug.

One thing I’d noticed about Quinn, was her lack of sharing. The woman was locked up tighter than a bull’s ass in fly season. Hell, a few weeks ago, I stopped by to ask if she was still interested in renting out a room and all it took was three drinks before I was spilling all kinds of shit about my life.

“You look sad, sugar,” she’d said in her sexy, southern drawl, and like a dumbass, I blurted that my marriage was over. We got to talking, or more like, I got to drinking which led me to talking, she asked about what had happened, and that was all it took.

“It all started last year, when I kind of lied to my wife and told her I was playing a gig in Austin, when, in fact, I was auditioning for Meltdown. And before you judge, I knew if I told her, she would try and talk me out of it.”

Her brow shot up in surprise. “Why? Your wife doesn’t like music?”

“My wife, though we shouldn’t really call her that, kind of likes music, but what she really likes is control.”

Quinn nodded in understanding. “Ahhh, one of those.” See? I knew she would get it.

I explained how our life together was steady. We both had decent jobs and I got to see my buddies and indulge my “little musical hobby,” as Mandy liked to call it, at nights after work or on the weekends. Everything was all good as long as I was toeing the line. Mandy’s line, that is.

“Wow, that sounds so...not fun,” Quinn muttered.

“It wasn’t, which was one of the main reasons I decided to audition.” I went on to explain how, in all the years we’d been together, Mandy had never understood my love of music. She more than enjoyed the attention it garnered, but the rest she could live without. “To be honest, I didn’t actually think I would land the job, so no harm, no foul. Mandy would never know and life would carry on.”

“Only, you got the gig.”

“Yep, not even a week after my audition, Grant called to offer me the job.” Just thinking about it made me smile. “When he explained that the band had chosen me, I thought he was joking, but then he started bombarding me with dates and times and shit, and I realized he was serious. He warned me that it was only for the tour, but I didn’t care if it was temporary or not. To me it was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance for me to prove myself, to make my wife and family finally understand that this was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. There was just one problem.”

“Your wife didn’t know,” Quinn finished for me.

Nodding, I said, “The moment the call was over, reality set in. Mandy had no clue as to what I’d done. I should have talked to her first, but I was so damn pumped and honored...beyond honored they’d chosen me. Finally, I was getting the break I’d been searching for. If it panned out, she would be able to quit her job.”

Sliding another beer my way, Quinn asked, “What does she do?”

“She sells pharmaceutical supplies to doctors in four different states.”

“I take it she was less than thrilled with the idea?”

“She was madder than hell.”

While Quinn made her rounds, I drank my beer and thought about my soon to be ex-wife.

After accusing me of betraying our marriage and abusing her trust, Mandy shut down. As in, she wouldn’t even hear me out. She didn’t care why I’d done it or that it was only temporary. She just wanted me to call Grant back and decline the offer. When I refused, she packed a bag and moved in with her parents. It took me a week to get her to speak to me. Needless to say, the conversation didn’t go well.

“Are you still going?” she asked.

“Babe, just listen—”

“Are you going?” she slowly repeated, her voice tinged with bitterness.

“Yes,” I finally answered. Her reply was to hang up on me. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t want to lose my marriage, but I also didn’t want to give up my dream.

When Mandy finally realized she wasn’t going to talk me out of going and that her silent manipulation wasn’t getting her anywhere, she moved back home and immediately took up residence in the guest room. By refusing to acknowledge my presence and making me feel like a ghost in my own home, she only helped to strengthen my resolve. Finally, I gave up trying to appease her. She’d drawn the line in the sand. I was no longer interested in stepping over it.

I only told Quinn part of the story. What I didn’t say was that the night before I left to go on tour, my wife paid me a little visit. Like a thief in the night, she slipped into bed with me. I woke to her working me over with her hand. Once she had me where she wanted, she took without giving, and trust me when I say she was quick about it. We’re talking night shirt still on, three pumps and done kind of quick—so quick that I almost missed the finale. When she dismounted and scurried back to the guest room, I almost wished it hadn’t happened, because now, instead of being left with the few memories of how good our life had once been, I was left with the bitter taste of what it had become. In choosing music over our marriage, I’d irreparably damaged the bond that held us together. Did that stop me from going on tour? No, but it should have.

Quinn let out a snort. “Let me get this straight, your wife, who isn’t really your wife—whatever that means—wanted out of your marriage because you went on tour with a famous rock band? Wow, it must have been pretty tough to watch you make it to the top and all.” Her words and the way they so carelessly flew from her pretty little mouth, sounded...judgmental. Judgmental enough for me to want to change the subject.

“Awww, Country, if I’d known you were feeling neglected, I would’ve let you go first. Now, what has you singing the blues this evening? Did someone skip out on their tab?” And just like that, her smile vanished and her eyes dulled...Quinn had shut down. I watched her move up and down the bar, full of smiles and fake platitudes for the handful of customers, and wondered what a woman like her had to be unhappy about. I knew I shouldn’t care. I told myself I didn’t care, but I was definitely intrigued.

By the time she finally made it back to me, I was seven beers in and done. Handing her my card, I said, “If the offer still stands, I can move in next week.”

She stared at me for a long moment. “You’re kidding.”

“You said you needed help. Well, here I am.” That I needed out of that house and wasn’t quite ready to have my life splashed all over the tabloids, was irrelevant. Quinn needed a housemate and I needed a place to live. A place that was completely off the grid. That’s what mattered.

Without a word, she snatched the card from my hand and disappeared to the back.

“That went well,” I announced. The guy sitting on the barstool next to me gave me a strange look. I thought about saying more, but then Quinn was back with my card and her answer.

“Here’s my number. Call and let me know what day you want to move in.”

A week later I called, and now, here we were. I wouldn’t exactly call us friends, but that would come with time.

“Are you all moved in?” she asked, handing me a beer. I watched as she pulled another from the cooler. She popped the top, lifted it to her lips, and took her first sip.

Ignoring the tightness in my lower gut, I asked, “Do you normally drink on the job?”

She smiled and that tightness increased. “When it’s dead like this, I do.”

“To answer your question,” because that was easier than acknowledging the unwelcome boner in my shorts, “I’m more or less moved in. I hope you don’t mind, but I kind of went exploring and noticed that the pool house is empty.”

“Yeah, my mother was kind enough to clean it out when she left.”

“That sucks, buuuuuut, since it’s empty and all, I was wondering if I could use it as a music room?” She hesitated for a moment and I knew she was going to say no. “If you let me use it now, I’ll buy new pool furniture when I leave,” I coaxed.

“Well, shit. How can I say no to that?” Grinning, she took another sip of her beer.

“You can’t,” I told her, and we both laughed. I raised my bottle in the air. “Here’s to new adventures.”

“To new adventures,” she repeated, and leaning over the bar, she tapped her bottle to mine. My eyes instantly dropped to her chest. Yes, I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t attracted to Quinn Kinley. I shouldn’t be...but I was.