Theater District - The Breakers - 7:45 PM
Cooper stepped from his limo, tall and confident, and surveyed the familiar scene playing out in front of him. He’d been here before- it was nothing new. Fans, mostly women, lined the sidewalks hoping to catch the eye of their favorite performer. Flashes from cameras stuttered like strobes as each car drove up and someone emerged from behind their darkened windows.
Ahead of him, a throng of reporters surrounded Blade, their mics thrust in his face. He worked the crowd with his usual arrogant confidence. Next to him was his date. All Coop could see of the woman that stood beside him was her legs, long and ivory-colored, in a pair of 'come fuck me' shoes. Not the tanned legs he'd anticipated seeing. Not Beth.
He released the breath he'd been holding and waited as the crowd surrounding Blade parted. As if she could feel the intensity of his gaze, the woman turned and met it with equal curiosity. Blade, noticing her interest, turned his head, and looked right at him. His expression changed exposing momentary surprise but Blade recovered quickly, nodded once in Coop's general direction before possessively placing his arm around his woman, and swiftly guiding her through the crowd.
The rumors were true— Blade had reconciled with Danica. Hope flooded through him like a tidal wave as Coop turned toward the limo and offered his hand to the young woman who accompanied him. Her fingers wrapped around his arm, Cooper covered it with his own hand before releasing it. He smiled warmly. "You look gorgeous, sweetheart. Come on, let's go make some noise."
Striding confidently along the red carpet Cooper acknowledged fans and waved to the crowd as he escorted Rayne toward the entrance. As Blade entered the theater, Cooper's voice, rough and dark, commanded the attention of the media. "This is my daughter, Rayne...Rainie, come on over here."
Before every awards night he’d attended, Coop always got an adrenaline rush. Not tonight. A sense of calm washed over him. His purpose had shifted, his focus switched to something more meaningful than his music - it rested squarely on family. Win or lose tonight, the only prize he wanted to take home was his wife.
Purposely circumventing the hordes of paparazzi on the red carpet, Duff stood in the shadows, exactly where he wanted to be, and observed. It was not that he minded the attention but this evening he wished to avoid the distraction. He wanted his focus elsewhere— on her.
Cooper Stanfield escorted Rayne through the throng of fans, her hand resting in the crook of his arm while he maneuvered her past the cameras. Duff was pleased with the way she carried herself, just as he had instructed her, tall and elegant, shoulders back, and eyes slightly averted downward. She moved with sensual grace.
Her dress was not what he would have selected for her. Fine fabrics that showed her off to perfection were more suitable. Had he been dressing her tonight, she would have worn a creamy silk that clung to every curve, every peak and valley. When she walked, the fabric would sweep along the length of her legs, and he would have insisted she wear nothing under it. Afterward he would take her home, tear the fabric from her body, and take her against the wall—
"Careful Duff, your hard-on is showing." He grabbed a quick breath, let it go, annoyed with himself for reacting. It was Rob. Rob standing behind him, coming from nowhere, delivering his usual edict. Duff did not bother to look at him, but he knew Rob's attention was riveted to the scene unfolding on the red carpet.
"I assume you haven't fucked her yet which means this obsession will continue."
"Stay out of this one Rob. I know what I'm doing." Duff shifted his stance and continued to watch Rayne. She murmured something to her father, glanced up and locked eyes with him briefly, and he nodded his head slightly in approval. Her mouth curved up, then she returned her attention to Cooper. It was difficult to look away from her, and he waited for her to look back. She did not.
Rob gestured toward Cooper and Rayne. Rob was always wound so tight you could hear the gears grind, but they all thought he would ease up after he finally dumped Syd. He did not seem to miss the woman but neither had he relaxed, looked elsewhere, anything. "He doesn't know, does he. Cooper knows what a depraved prick you are. He will cut off your balls and nail them to the wall, and then he'll rip the rest of us apart on principle. Shooter is finished and wants you out, and I'm not far behind him. We're not taking on Cooper for your sake."
It was an expected attack, not entirely without merit, but he had pulled more than his weight for the band, and he thought it unlikely that Cooper would spend time or energy on him. The man had many other issues. "We carried Alex when he couldn't get his head out of his ass."
Rob glanced back at Rayne and shook his head. "You're not Alex. I have someone I can replace you with, and I'll do it. You'll forget that girl as soon as you take her down. I'm giving you a chance, drop it, walk away."
Stung, Duff drew back. He could come back, perhaps he could, perhaps he could find another band. If he could not, then he could not. Ultimately, he'd given more than Rob knew or ever would know, but he would not walk away from Rayne. His voice low, he leveled his eyes at Rob, warning him, before giving in once again, turning to watch her move. "I said stay out of it. She is a consenting adult and she's mine."
The evening stretched out longer than Coop anticipated. Mercury Rising took home nearly every award they’d been nominated for and the band performed their latest platinum hit, a raucous song that had a few of the fans tossing lingerie on the stage. He had to laugh - even at an awards event, the fans managed to turn their performance into a hardcore rock-fest.
Everything after that passed by in a blur for him. He now found himself at an after-party systematically working his way through the crowd. His focus fixed on his destination and only one thing could possibly prevent him from getting what he wanted - the woman’s husband. Cooper was determined to get the answers he needed and she was the one who had them. Not even Rafe was going to stop him. Not this time.
He reached out and took hold of her arm, gently pulling her toward him. “We need to talk.” She turned toward him, surprise showing in her expression. She glanced quickly at Rafe who glared and growled quietly, “You want to take your hands off my wife?” Rafe appeared fully prepared to physically remove not only his hand but his head as well.
“Look, I need a minute, that’s all, just a minute of her time and I promise I’ll walk away. All I need is an answer to one, simple question.” Rafe could agree or not - he wasn’t leaving until he got what he came for. Rafe crossed his arms on the bar counter between a cocktail and a glass of ale, arched one eyebrow and studied him. His wife's knight. The Lombardo family patron. Fuck him.
“I know Hugs is at your house - a sleepover with Autumn right? And I know Beth isn’t here. I’m pretty sure you know where she is and I need you to tell me before your husband has a chance to rip my head off.”
She smiled at him, the way she would smile at a child - patient, maybe a little indulgent, and sympathetic. “I did ask her to come with us. She said no. I don’t know where she is, Cooper. All I know is that she mentioned something about going back to the beginning.”
Back to the beginning. Cooper’s grin nearly stretched from ear to ear. Impulsively, he grabbed Gayl, pulled her into a tight hug, and stepped back. “Thank you.”
He shifted his gaze toward Rafe, tilted his head in a gesture of thanks, and headed for the door. He didn't waste time responding to someone calling his name, wanted to get the hell out of here, but there was one more stop, one more, one he could have skipped, but he wouldn't. Not this time.
She wasn't sure she could ever eat again. Rayne stared at the spread and tried not to think. He could be right behind her. He could be on the other side of the room. He could be downstairs. The desire was an underground fire. She wouldn't let it burn through, but it smoked. It shook her hands and filled her mind and made her stupid; it made her vulnerable. Fighting through it, she tried to focus on the twins. Nate flirting. laughing, every little bit their father's son; Eric standing beside a girl he might be protecting, might like, or maybe not since she could never read him. He had their mother's long pale eyes, and he used them to open a chasm instead of a door. She remembered when they were born. It was right after --
Startled, she turned, looking up at her father. He'd torn it up tonight, and he looked pretty good. He looked calm. "I'm leaving you on your own here, Rainie. There's something I need to do. Will you make sure the boys get back? They were here a minute ago but I don't see them now."
As if they needed help. She was a lot more worried about him but she didn't know how to tell him, and she was struggling to focus. Would he be okay? He would, he had to be okay, if he was going to hunt down her mother, she was probably waiting for him somewhere. He wouldn't do it unless he believed it, and if he believed she was waiting, she was. If she wasn't, she better be dead. The old anger rose in her throat. She swallowed it; she didn't know shit about her mother and couldn't judge. "I will. I love you, Dad."
He held on, whispered, "I love you, too, Raindrop. You make me proud."
Rayne watched him move quickly through the crowd, stepping into the elevator, going somewhere.
And there she was, left with all the after-party people looking in her direction, probably wondering why Cooper brought his daughter and why he was leaving so abruptly, like maybe he had a real date stashed out there in the dark. She recognized most of them: that was Jason Mitchell and that girl he was going to marry, Randi's cousin or something but Randi had a lot of cousins so maybe not, and that other guy...no, she didn't know him. She didn't know the redhead. She might have met the other woman but she wasn't sure and didn't care.
She went out onto the balcony where she couldn't smell the food and leaned over it and stayed there. He knew she was here. She'd seen him looking at her. She'd seen it and now all she could do was look at lights on the other side of the bay because what the hell else could she do but wait.
In that moment between one thought and another thought, she knew he was there. He was so close, if she breathed, she would breathe on his skin. He didn't move. He waited. She let him wait while she kept looking out over the balustrade at the restless water in the bay, her pulse racing. He didn't like it when she took the lead, he might not agree just on principle, but she turned and looked up at him. It was a simple thing, after all. "I want to go home, and I need a ride."
Duff took her hand. He'd been on stage. She could smell the sweat, and she felt the heat in his skin as he tightened his grip on her hand. Somebody changed the music, somebody called her name, it didn't matter, nothing mattered but what he would say. He smiled. "I could be persuaded to offer one."
Old County Beach - 12:21AM
Cooper pulled up, slowing, kicking the brake back with the heel of his boot, settling the bike in the rough sand. He knew this place. The place with the blue roof and the red doors, the wind coming in hard from the west, the split rock, the land falling down to a long uneven spit of beach. She'd parked her car in the overgrown drive behind the house and turned on the porch light: she was here.
He'd been there burning a campfire, running chords on his guitar, Slim bringing the booze and Aidan bringing the pot and there had been girls, always the girls. Thunder in the air, and a girl walked out of the scrub on the south side and looked at him.
They were just kids but the impact when their gazes locked that first time had been profound. So much had passed from then until now and for the longest time, he didn't remember. He'd moved on, had many women since then, and even loved one other. But his dreams, always in his dreams, he went back to her. She was his heart and soul, the one who grounded him, the one who allowed him to soar, the one who pulled him up out of the darkness.
He heard the hinge on the screen door, the rusty squeak as she forced it open and then let it bang shut behind her. Hesitating a moment, he was certain she was here alone, but he waited, watching her walk down through the tall grass to the beach. She didn't look back.
He ran through what he wanted to say. There wasn't anything left to say. Fuck it. He didn't need words with her. He was not leaving here without her. Shoving the brush aside, boots sinking into the deep sand, he followed her down the slope to the shore.
She heard him. She grabbed something, driftwood probably, brandishing it, reminding him of the way she'd attacked McDermott with the pipe. If there was any justice in the universe, that son of a bitch would wear that bruise the rest of his life. The stack of wood at her feet was unlit; she'd never mastered lighting a campfire.
"Beth." He called softly to her, whispering her name, knowing she would hear him. She turned, startled, alarmed,then her face lit up when she recognized him. She smiled, tried to suppress it, failed, and stood there open and vulnerable and waiting for him. God how he loved her.
"Cooper? What are you doing here? I thought...why aren't you at the RMA's?"
He knelt, found the lighter she'd dropped in the sand and lit the campfire. The flame ran through the dry grass, caught, held, burned, and he watched it for a few moments before he sat down and looked up at her though the flying fire. "I was there. I missed you. I left, and here I am."
She smiled but didn't answer. Getting to his feet as the wind lifted her hair, he reached out, took the length of it, fisted it, tightening his grip and pulling her close. She touched his face. Her hand trembled but it was warm and Coop turned his face into it and placed a gentle kiss into her palm. His lips moved softly against her palm. "You hold my heart, baby. Always."
She didn’t pull away but her eyes closed briefly as if she struggled to maintain her control. "I'm poison to you, Coop. I love you, I love you so much but I just can't hurt you anymore."
He pulled her into his arms and held on tight. "Yeah, you are poison, my poison. You hurt me, you burn me, but I don't want the cure. I'm not leaving you out here hurting as damned much as I'm hurting. Take me baby, take me home."
176 Shore Drive, Bayview: 2 PM
Two o'clock in the afternoon, and Cooper finally pulled up, parked, and started toward the door. He didn't get far before Hugs came hurtling around from the back piping Daddy Daddy! It had been a long night. The girls hadn't slept; Autumn's bird got out and scared Hugs; Randi called before he'd had his second cup of coffee, needing money for another camera.
Rafe leaned into a quick, tired embrace. "I thought he'd never show up. The man must sleep all damned day long. What was all that about hunting for Beth at the beginning?"
"It was a chance for both of them."
He knew better by now not to push it; they'd agreed to disagree on Cooper and Beth years ago. Still, unable to resist poking at her a little, Rafe chuckled and shook his head. "Doesn't look like it worked, babe."
Rafe drew a long, uncomfortable breath. Nothing about that couple made any sense, but he was, once again, proved wrong. He had never believed it would work, and still did not, but he hoped, for her sake, that being wrong would be right for her. "It looks," his wife said with soft satisfaction "as though it finally did."