“Thank you, Las Vegas—see you next tour! Goodnight!”
Wrapping our arms around each other, the members of my band and I took our final bow of the tour before turning to head backstage. Viktim of Prey was one of the hottest rock bands in the world right now, and some nights it felt like we couldn’t get any more successful.
I grabbed a towel from my guitar tech and wrapped it around my neck. I was drenched in sweat and high on adrenaline, like always after a big show, but tonight was different. We’d been on tour nonstop for nearly three years now, and the idea of actually taking a break was daunting. Though I could tour forever, the rest of the band had begged for a break, and if I was honest with myself, we all needed it. We’d been playing, traveling, and partying for too long. It was time to regroup, plan the next album, unwind a little. Not that I had any idea what to do with myself if I wasn’t playing music.
“I need to talk to you guys.” Nick Kingsley, our bass player, as well as my best-friend-with-benefits, spoke in such a somber tone it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“I just want to go home and sleep for a week,” Jade Simkowski, our lead singer, moaned.
“It won’t take long,” Nick said, bypassing a few fans with backstage passes and our road crew.
Jade and I exchanged a look but followed him, our drummer, BJ, pulling up the rear.
Nick climbed into the tour bus and collapsed on one of the lounge chairs, grabbing a bottle of water.
“What’s going on?” I asked, settling next to him.
“I don’t want to do another album,” Nick said quietly.
“What?” I gaped at him.
“Tabby and I are getting married,” BJ blurted out, referring to his girlfriend. “She’s pregnant.”
“Really, you guys?” Jade made a face, shaking her head.
“My dad wants me to work at the hotel,” Nick spoke softly, not meeting my eyes. “And the truth is that I’m not really good enough to do this. The only reason I’m here is because you and Jade are so good. I’m a mediocre bass player who doesn’t write music. You’d be better off with someone who can pull their weight.”
“And I’m tired,” BJ admitted. “It’s been fun, but I’m ready to stay put for a while, get married, be a dad.” BJ was the oldest member of the band at thirty, while I was twenty-two, Nick was twenty-three, and Jade was twenty-four.
“That’s a cop-out,” Jade said. “I’m a mom, and I’ve been on tour for almost three years.”
“Your daughter is older,” BJ pointed out. “She’s wasn’t a newborn when we started. She also has a father who’s happy to split parenting duties.”
“She’s seven,” Jade responded testily. “Still really young, but this is how I afford to give her nice things, make sure she’s taken care of.”
“Okay, let’s take a deep breath.” I needed to take control of the situation sooner rather than later, because this band was my life, and Nick was essentially talking about ending it. “We should all go home, get some sleep, relax a little. We can have a meeting next week, take some time to digest and—”
Nick reached out and took my hand, cutting me off. “I’m not going to change my mind, Casey. I did this because you wanted it so much, and we got so big so fast…but being a rock star was never on my radar.”
I bit my lip to keep from saying something that would end a lifetime of friendship.
“I know you’re mad.” Nick sighed, squeezing my hand. “Go ahead and say what you want to say.”
“What is there to say?” I muttered, looking away. “Without you and BJ, Jade and I can’t do this.”
Nick reached for me, forcing me to look at him. “Casey, you’re going to find another band, another group of people to share your gift with. It’s wasted with me. I don’t have your talent or your drive. Besides, our agreement was one album and one tour. It’s been two albums and a continuous three-year tour. Even if I wanted to keep doing this, we all need a break right now.”
“He’s right about needing a break,” Jade added softly. “I need to be at home with Alyssa for a while, doing mommy things. I love music, but my kid needs me, too, and Kirk shouldn’t be raising her alone.”
I sighed, nodding. They were right. I hated it, but we were all tired.
“I have to get going,” Jade said, standing up and pulling me into a hug. “I’m taking the red-eye home so I can be there to surprise Alyssa when she wakes up in the morning. I’ll call you in a couple of days and we’ll regroup, okay?” She turned to the guys and smiled. “I love you guys, even if you’re a pain in my ass.” She hugged them both, grabbed the backpack she always traveled with, and got off the bus.
“Tabby’s waiting to take me home,” BJ said, getting to his feet. He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Love you, Casey. Don’t be mad.” He high-fived Nick and went in the direction Jade had gone.
“Are you going home?” Nick asked, his blue eyes finding mine in the semi-darkness.
“Where else would I go?” I asked, frowning at him. “Tour is over, and we live here.”
“You could come home with me if—”
“Come on, don’t.” I shook my head at him. “It’s not like we’re a couple. And, frankly, I need a break.”
“From me?” Nick actually looked hurt, and I managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“From you, from music, from everything. As much as I love being on the road, now that we’re home, I need some normal too. I want to hang out with my parents and see some friends. Hibernate for a while.”
“You can’t stand hibernating,” Nick said, eyeing me suspiciously. “That’s your least favorite thing. If you’re not in the spotlight, on the go, guitar in hand, you’re miserable.”
“Maybe you don’t know everything about me,” I shot back, annoyed that he knew me so well.
“But maybe I do.” He reached out and tugged a lock of my hair. “Come on, don’t be mad. Wanna share a cab?”
I gathered a few of my things and threw my bag over my shoulder. “After your little bombshell, I honestly need some time to myself.” I leaned up and pressed my lips to his cheek. “I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
“You’re pretty mad, huh?”
“I’m not mad, Nick.” I paused and turned to look over my shoulder at him. “I’m lost.”
Meetings with the royal family went on forever. As sixth in line to the throne of Limaj, I’d never understood why I had to be at these meetings every six months, but my father and uncle both seemed to think it was necessary. There was a weird vibe today, though, and as I strode through the halls of my country’s Parliament House, no one was making eye contact. The idea that I was in trouble briefly flitted across my mind, but I shook it off. My position within the family was mostly that of an ambassador, with no real duties to speak of since almost everything I did included getting the world’s best education and making appearances at this charity or that sporting event. I showed up at dinner parties I was told to attend, went out with women who would make good potential wives, and generally kept to myself.
I spotted my best friend/cousin, companion and bodyguard, Sandor, and breathed a sigh of relief. I joined him by the doors that led to the royal family’s private conference room and leaned against the wall.
“What the hell is going on here today?” I muttered under my breath. “Did someone die?”
He grimaced. “No, but apparently your sister has everyone on a tear.”
“Fuck. What did she do?”
“She’s getting a divorce.”
“A divorce?” I stared at him as if I’d never heard the word before. “But…”
“Yeah, I know.” His eyes met mine, and sudden understanding washed over me.
“Sonofabitch. Did he hit her?”
Sandor nodded. “She’s in the hospital. He did a number on her.”
I whirled around, searching for my father. “Where’s my father? For that matter, where’s the king?”
“Calm down, my friend.” Sandor tried to grab my arm, but I was already moving, heading toward the king’s office, even though he rarely used it. If nothing else, his assistant would be there and would tell me where he was.
“Erik.” My father’s voice froze me in my tracks, and I turned, gearing up for an argument.
“He hit her? Omar fucking put her in the hospital?” I was pissed and didn’t care who heard me.
“Calm down,” my father replied, eyeing me with a warning look.
I didn’t back down, though, meeting his gaze without flinching. “Where is he?”
“At home, I assume.”
“I’m going to kill him.” I turned, but my father grabbed my arm and held fast.
“You’ll do nothing. The council is about to meet, and we’ll decide what to do as a whole.”
“Seriously? The council? With their antiquated legalities and old-school morality, they’ll probably pat him on the back!” I didn’t have much power, but I had a voice and while I rarely spoke up when it came to matters of state, this was my sister.
“Nice to know you think so highly of your old uncle.” My father’s brother, King Isak, gave me a fond but wry smile as he approached us.
I respected him but rarely agreed with the policies of our country. One of many reasons I hated these meetings. “I apologize, Your Majesty, but you know how I feel about this topic.”
“Indeed, I do. Believe it or not, I agree with you. But we have rules of law we must follow and a process that’s been in place—”
“For so many years no one even remembers how it works anymore.” I refused to look away, even when everyone around us averted their eyes.
“Let’s continue this discussion in the conference room, shall we?” This time his look was more meaningful, and I nodded, understanding that these types of conversations needed to be held in private, no matter how upset I was.
We filed into the conference room where a veritable breakfast feast had been set up, and everyone made their way to the food. I held back, going to the coffee bar instead and having the barista my uncle employed for these meetings make me a cappuccino. I took it and sank into my usual place next to my father, who sat on the king’s left side. We always sat in the same places, with my father, me, my cousins Daniil, Sandor, and Albert to the king’s left. The king’s sons—my cousins Anwar, Yusef, and Rafael—sat to his right, in order of their birth, and our cousin, Vardan, next to Rafael. It was usually a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit, but something was different today. I exchanged a look with my dad, who didn’t look happy.
“Good morning.” King Isak didn’t stand on ceremony at these meetings. We were all immediate heirs of the royal family and since nothing much ever happened at these meetings, most of the time we shot the shit for a while, went over our official duty schedule for the next six months, and then discussed random laws and other boring matters of state. At some point, they brought in a fabulous lunch, and if we were lucky, we’d be out on the golf course by five. Sometimes, it was more like three.
“We’ll start today’s meeting by discussing the situation with my niece, Skye.” King Isak looked down at some papers and made a face. “Our laws allow for a husband to punish his wife, so we’ll have to tread carefully if we’re interested in filing any charges.”
Anwar, the king’s oldest son and heir to the throne, rolled his eyes. “She probably deserved it.”
I tensed, but my father gripped my forearm under the table, the force telling me he would handle this.
“Anwar, you disappoint me.” My father, Prince Benjamin al-Hassani, spoke in a bland, almost bored voice. “This is the twenty-first century, not the middle ages. Is this how you plan to treat your wife?”
“My wife will know her place. You’ve lived in America so long you’ve forgotten that we still enforce boundaries.”
“I’ve got a boundary that keeps me from kicking your ass into the middle of next week,” I responded with a smirk, since I’d done it before. “You want to try me?”
Anwar narrowed his eyes. “Remember who you’re talking to, cousin.”
“That’s the only reason you’re not on the floor.” I wasn’t a big fighter, but Anwar had always been an asshole. Because of my position, I’d been trained in the martial arts, boxing, and wrestling. Friendly competition among the cousins always went wrong for Anwar, no matter how hard he tried. There were six years between us, his thirty to my twenty-four, but I’d been taking him on since I was fifteen. And winning.
Anwar seemed ready to get out of his seat, but his father grunted something under his breath and Anwar settled back down. I wanted to laugh, but that would just piss off my father, so I held it in and smirked instead. I got along with all of my other cousins, but the heir to the throne had a stick up his ass, and I figured someone had skipped over the lube.
“It’s time to move past laws of the past,” King Isak was saying in his stately voice. “Our country has sat precariously balanced between the east and the west, Europe and Asia, old and new, for too long. We must, for the sake of our people and our future, move into the modern world.”
“We have some of the best technology and infrastructure in the world,” Anwar protested. “Fiber optics, satellites—”
“Yet we do not have respect, prestigious universities, or even much tourist trade,” his father interrupted him. “We remain firmly seated in the past while much of the world moves on without us. We cannot continue to focus on the old ways when it leaves us looking weak.”
“Weak?” Anwar scowled at him. “Our military is strong, our weapons growing, and the scientists say we’re within three years of nuclear—”
“Nuclear!” King Isak pounded his fist on table, making all of their dishes bounce slightly. “This, above all, will destroy us. Our history, our people, our children’s futures. Have you learned nothing from me, Anwar?”
“How can you not see that the world has gained so much freedom, so much power, it’s imploding on itself!” Anwar shot back, leaning forward.
“And it’s up to small, rich countries like ours to do what’s right and help guide it back to where it should be.”
“You’re a foolish old man!”
“And you’re an insolent embarrassment.” King Isak shook his head. “To think you will someday replace me worries me, my son.”
Anwar threw up his hands. “Because I follow the old ways? Because I believe our ancestors had it right?”
“Our ancestors would have you living in a tent in the desert!” his father snapped. “I don’t see you giving up your Ferrari or your condo in the city.”
“All right, enough.” Ben spoke up quietly, though the authority in his voice was hard to miss. Technically, he was the firstborn son of the previous king and should have succeeded him, but he’d fallen in love with a commoner from Sweden and had abdicated the throne to be with her. Though his brother, the current king, had allowed him to keep the title of prince, he and his heirs no longer had any power in the bloodline, and I preferred it that way.
“You have no right—” Anwar began.
“He has every right behind these doors,” King Isak said sharply. “Were it not for him, you would be a distant cousin relegated to ambassador duties.”
It went on for another hour. I got up twice to refill my coffee, once to get some food, and another time to use the bathroom. By eleven thirty they’d made no decisions about Skye other than to remove her from the country, no plans to finalize their schedule of appearances for the next six months, and Anwar was as petulant as a three-year-old who didn’t want to take a nap.
“I’m fucking done,” I muttered to my father as servants served lunch. “What’s wrong with everyone today?”
My father sighed, glancing in his brother’s direction. “There’s a lot going on. The country is at a crucial point in our history, on the verge of civil war.”
“We’ve been saying that for years,” I protested.
“Yes, but it’s coming to fruition, and Isak is struggling with how to deal with it.”
“What of Skye?”
“I’ve got a plan in motion. As soon as it’s safe to move her, I’m having her air lifted to Las Vegas. She can recover with her mother and I there. Once she’s physically able, she can decide where she wants to go, what she wants to do.”
“She’ll just go back to him.”
“I don’t think so. Not this time. At least, I hope not.”
“He’s done this before?” My mouth fell open, but I was so shocked I didn’t care.
“Not this badly, but yes, he’s hit her before. This time, he broke her nose, her collarbone, and two of her fingers. I think her eyes are finally open.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you’d be in prison on a murder charge, which wouldn’t help anyone. Trust me, I’m on top of this.”
I wanted to strangle him, and her, but since I couldn’t, I cut a piece of steak and stuck it in my mouth. Maybe a good meal would improve my mood. Probably not, but there was always a chance.
“So, are you in?”
“In?” I looked at him in confusion. “In what?”
“The rescue mission, of course. Omar’s not going to agree to a divorce without a fight, so he’ll try to stop us from taking her out of the country.”
“Sure.” What the hell was there to say?