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Hot!_ A Charity Anthology
Author: Michelle Mankin

 

PROLOGUE

 

Jack

“He’s asleep, Mom.”

My ear pressed to my phone, I pulled back the curtain and looked out at the panoramic view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I winced as a gong clanged inside my head.

The sun too bright for my post-hangover eyes, I squinted at the Hudson River seventy-five stories below me. Inside the penthouse of a luxury hotel, I should have felt on top of the world. But I didn’t feel on top of anything. I felt disconnected from everything in my life that had once given it meaning.

Zelda Howard clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “It’s three in the afternoon, Jack.”

“It’s that time in Anaheim.”

I released the heavily lined satin curtain and trudged away from the window. My feet felt leaden on the cool hardwood floors, and my shoulders sank beneath the weight of my responsibilities. Looking at the water in New York City didn’t have the same buoying effect on me that the sight of the Pacific Ocean did.

“It’s only noon here,” I said, my tone gentle as I reminded her of the time difference.

“He should answer the phone for his mother.” Her voice had an edge that sliced through me like a carbon-steel blade.

I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. I respected and wanted to please her more than anyone else in the world. My brother, Micah, loved her just as much as I did. She’d been a shield for us as we grew up with an abusive alcoholic father.

But we were on our own and on tour now, and she was on the opposite coast. Twenty-seven hundred miles was too far away to shield us, and that wasn’t her role anymore. I was the eldest. Watching out for Micah was my job, but I was failing at it spectacularly.

“You know our hours.” Frustrated, I raked a hand through my hair, relieved that she couldn’t see me or the condition of my hotel room.

The ashtrays were full but the liquor bottles were empty. Trash littered nearly every flat surface. Pink and lime lingerie was scattered like colorful snowdrifts on the dark wood. The two women who had worn those undergarments last night were sleeping naked in my bed, but I couldn’t recall their faces or names. I didn’t want to recall them. The morning after, they were a regret like the overindulgence on the alcohol.

These days, I had a lot of regrets. Micah wasn’t the only one with a life spiraling out of control.

“I’m familiar with them, and I don’t approve.” Mom sighed. “I don’t like your new manager. He needs to take a stronger hand with the label, get them to leave more downtime between your performances. You’re in one city one day and then another the next, tour after tour. You need more rest.”

“You signed off on the paperwork giving them the control they have.” My brows drew together, creating a vertical crease between them that felt like the Grand Canyon.

Micah and I had been underage when Zenith Productions offered us a five-year deal. With my brother fourteen and me sixteen, Mom’s signature had been required. Micah and I assured her the deal contained everything we wanted, but she could have vetoed specifics like touring schedules if she’d wanted to.

“You know why I did,” she said with a sigh. She had regret that weighed on her too.

“I know, Mom. It’s okay.” I nodded somberly.

There were worse situations than owing your soul to a record label. We’d been in one.

A dark cloud in the shape of my father hung over my entire childhood. Black eyes, cuts, bruises, and broken ribs from the time he’d kicked me with his steel-toed work boots, there weren’t many parts of my body that hadn’t endured the aftereffects of his rage.

“Dad’s not coming around and hassling you anymore, is he?” I asked.

“No.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Not since the last time.”

The line went silent, and I knew she was remembering injuries of her own.

Carl Howard was a worthless husband and a piece-of-shit father. A mean-ass drunk, he’d laid into his sons with a vengeance. We were extra mouths that he bemoaned having to feed, but Zelda made it her mission to shield us from him.

Zenith Productions might own our souls, but they didn’t own all of us. Our hearts belonged to our mother.

“He didn’t much care for the accommodations at Los Angeles County Jail,” I said grimly, recalling his profanity-laced displeasure in the courtroom when the cops had dragged him off to jail. Micah and I had stood beside Zelda that day after testifying against him.

“He never liked the accommodations anywhere,” she said. “Never met a man more uncomfortable inside his own skin.”

I nodded, though she couldn’t see me.

Nothing was satisfactory to Carl Howard. Never a word of approval to his family, no matter how hard we worked in the fields. No matter how obedient we were. No matter how many times we went without food so he could have his booze.

“Do you have everything you need in your new place?” I asked, trying to refocus on the brighter here-and-now rather than the darkness of the past.

“It’s too much, a three-bedroom house for one woman. You and Micah should save your money. Get places of your own.”

“We’re on the road most of the year.”

We didn’t need a house. The couple of weeks a year that we were free, we usually spent with her. The record label took care of our food, clothing, and just about everything else. Their advance paid for the attorney who negotiated her divorce.

I wasn’t ungrateful. Before we signed, we were sleeping in the bed of Carl’s truck. We were nearly starving except for the strawberries we popped into our mouths, hoping the foreman wouldn’t notice.

Micah and I had worked in the fields from sunup until sundown, then sang at a local bar where the owner was willing to bend the rules about our age until the morning. If a Zenith rep hadn’t seen and signed us, I don’t know what would have become of us.

“That won’t always be the case,” Mom pointed out. “One day, you’ll have wives and families of your own.”

“Never marrying, Mom.” I gripped my phone tighter.

The thought didn’t appeal, though she touched on it often. I think she hoped Micah and I would succeed where she had failed. But I was never going to make myself vulnerable to the whims of another human being like she had been to our father.

“You say that now—”

I cut her off. “Micah’s the one to pin those sorts of hopes on.”

My brother had put a humongous ring on his fiancée’s finger. I’d thought it was too soon. He was only nineteen, and Carrie had made a play for me before she’d settled on him. But he dismissed my concerns and wouldn’t listen to me about her drug use or his.

Micah used to hang on every word of advice I gave him. Now he brushed me off, and we argued constantly. Before the record deal, we’d been best friends and in sync creatively. I would pick up my guitar and lay out phrasing just so he would rhyme them. It was how we’d come up with most of our material. But nowadays, he was too trashed to care about anything.

“Yo, Jack,” Toby Jennings called out as he entered the penthouse using his key.

Toby was the third wheel in our boy band after the label had saddled us with him to make up the aesthetic they wanted. Though alone now, he hadn’t been after our sold-out show last night at Madison Square Garden.

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