Lead Me Back Excerpt

Lead Me Back Excerpt

Standing right there in bare feet, white tattoo-exposing tank, white basketball shorts with an orange stripe down the side, with his blond hair so precisely bed-headed it had to be on purpose, and a gold chain that was the icing on the cake of a look every fashion and celebrity magazine called “douchecore” was Justin Beckett.

From the band Sunset Boys. That Justin.

From the cover of GQ. Twice before age twenty-two.

I considered myself too much of an adult to listen to his music, but I wasn’t dead. The Sunset Boys breakup that spring had drowned Twitter in sobs and DMZ in clicks. Justin Beckett, with his ghostly pale-blue eyes, had been the front man who’d thrown it all away for a crazy night at the Roosevelt Hotel. There had been a party at the pool. He’d beaten a bandmate bloody, gotten caught with another bandmate’s wife and a bunch of drugs in a hotel bathroom. It was impossibly salacious. Like watching a car wreck where everyone was fine except the one guy who deserved to get hurt.

The clean-cut, silky-smooth boy in the band wasn’t so silky smooth anymore. Maybe it was the rough night at the Roosevelt. Maybe it was just adulthood, but he’d transformed into a fully muscled, square-jawed man. His size and presence dazed me.

“Weeze,” he said to his grandmother. “Who is this person?”

Louise gathered the smooth stems into a bouquet and put on her glasses.

“You’re such a big deal you don’t even know your own assistant?”

He shot his gaze to me.

“All right.” He snapped his fingers and pointed to the door. “Get the hell out.”

“Wait,” I snapped. I didn’t want to stay, but I wanted my money.

“I mean it. You got this far. Now get out.”

“You don’t have to be so rude,” Louise said, inspecting a stem.

He grabbed my upper arm and pulled me out.

“Don’t touch me!”

Ignoring me, he opened the door and pushed me outside, joining me in his bare feet and closing the door behind us.

“How did you find me?” he demanded, letting me go.

“I wasn’t looking for you!”

“You one of the ones who parked on Laurel Crest?” He pointed to some street over thataway that I was supposed to know. “Because you’re violating an order of protection.”

“No! You stupid jackass!” With my finger pointed and an insult hurled in a decisively unfannish tone, his face softened for a moment. He had a tiny pimple on his forehead. It was so real, so human on a guy so handsome and undeniably magnetic, I almost lost my resolve and smiled.

But he was still the guy who’d gripped my arm so hard it hurt, and that guy could suck it.

“You’re from what paper?” he asked.

“I just got a new phone, and your grandmother dialed the wrong number. She insisted it was you. And I was like, here’s a nice lady who’s not going to have a present for her boyfriend, so I went to get the flowers, which cost seventy-five dollars after I already got a hundred-and-sixty-two-dollar ticket for talking to her in the first place.”

“I like your accent,” he said. “New York?”

“Round it up to eighty.” I held out my hand. “The receipt’s on the kitchen counter.”

“And I’m supposed to believe she just called you?”

“I told you. Wrong number.”

“Louise can’t see shit. She uses speed dial.”

“You change your number recently?”

His mouth twisted, and he looked at me from shoes to hair. I wished I’d showered after the drive from Vegas. Zack never noticed when I was slobbing out, and for a moment I wanted that back.

“So, you’re saying she called my old digits?” he asked.

“Maybe.” I focused on that little pimple, but it was close to his eyes, which were a color no photo did justice.

“Prove it.”

“Are you asking for my number?”

“Give me a break.”

So snide. As if to say, “I only date models, and you’re no model.”

I put my hands on my hips. “It’s eighty bucks to find out.”

“Prove it first.”

He had me. I needed the money more than he needed to know. And all he’d have to do after I drove away empty-handed was look at Louise’s recents.

As I took my phone from my back pocket, his phone dinged with some kind of notification.

Any normal, courteous person would have finished our conversation and looked later, but Justin Beckett’s reputation as an asshole was obviously earned. He looked at it, swiped, curled his mouth in thought, and typed something in.

Then he waited for a response with me standing right there.

Some humiliations weren’t worth even seventy-five dollars, and this was one of them. I got back in my van and slapped the door closed. Justin didn’t even seem to notice when I started the engine and backed down the street.

“Wait!” He ran toward me, bare feet on the pavement, phone to his ear, baggy poly shorts flowing.

“What?” I asked when he got to my open window.

He held his hand out to me. “Give me your phone.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Give me your phone.” It rang again. “Please.”

“Eighty dollars,” I said.

“You’re a raging bitch, but okay.” He took out his wallet and pinched out a hundred-dollar bill as the phone rang a second time. “This is for the flowers.” He missed my hand on purpose and dropped the cash in my lap. “And this,” he said, dropping another hundred, “for the ticket. Here.” He flicked a third at me. “Get Bluetooth speakers. Okay? Good. Now.” He put his palm up. “Give me your phone.”

Bought and paid for, I handed him the phone. He turned away to answer it so quickly he didn’t see me giving him the finger.

No good deed goes unpunished, and getting flowers for Ned the Bed was no exception. Had I known the favor was for Justin Beckett, I would have gotten lunch instead of a dozen red roses. But there I was after seven days driving cross-country, parked in a private driveway I was going to have to back out of, waiting for some jerk to return my phone.

I folded the hundred-dollar bills and put them in my pocket. This was a bad start, but it was my start. The new number was just a symbolic gesture. No more calls from the temp agency with grinding jobs at fashion houses that dried up as soon as they realized who I was. No more cold looks or turned backs waiting in line at 38th Street Diner. No more Zack asking what laundry setting to use before proclaiming his undying love.


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