After registering Chloe for day care, Savannah had said nothing else to Max about the whole thing. Barely sleeping that night, she tossed and turned, worried that she’d just sealed her relationship’s fate. When morning came, she waited until Max left to bring Chloe to the day care, her frazzled nerves sizzling under the hot sun. She took the T home alone, and the silence was deafening.
The apartment seemed smaller without Chloe. Savannah sat on the warm couch, the TV off, a full cup of cold coffee in her hands. Biting her lip, she shifted position. Maybe it was time to get up. Without Chloe, though, she didn’t know what to do. No small hands tugged at her shirt. No chatter filled the empty spaces between her thoughts.
“It’s for the best,” she reminded herself. The ache in her heart didn’t seem so convinced.
She needed to put her free time to better use. She had never gone through anyone else’s things before. Even when she tidied up, she merely organized. Max didn’t seem bothered by it, and she could probably throw away his old ATM receipts and scribbled lyrics, but it felt wrong. It felt even more wrong to purposely dig through his belongings.
Perhaps trying to talk to him again would yield better results, especially if she straight-up asked him what was going on. Or he would yell at her some more. Maybe he would even get aggressive. The Max she fell in love with wasn’t violent, but she hardly knew who he was anymore. That Max hadn’t kept secrets, either.
His nightstand was the obvious place to start. Kneeling in front of it, she pulled on the top drawer. As if refusing to betray him, the drawer stuck fast. She yanked harder. Papers crushed against each other. She gave the nightstand a flat look, wondering when it had gotten so full.
Putting all of her strength into it, she wrenched the drawer open. A stack of papers slid into her lap. She gathered them in a rush, then hesitated. If she was going to snoop, she should go all the way.
She fanned the papers out on the floor, eyes skimming each page. Most of them were drawings by Chloe. In the bottom corner of each one, she recognized the date in her own handwriting. She grinned. There was an obvious evolution to each piece. Chloe was getting good, for a little kid. She just might take after her.
“We don’t share any DNA,” she reminded herself in Spanish. There was no way that Chloe would ever be like her. It was probably for the best. She hoped that Chloe would grow to be honest and direct, less of a coward than she was, sleuthing through her boyfriend’s drawers for answers.
The first stack of papers contained nothing else of interest. She put it to the side and reached in for another. The receipts she found were mundane, things like Big Gulp purchases and groceries. One had a phone number scrawled on it, but when she examined it closer, she remembered that it belonged to the cell phone they shared. Neither of them had been able to memorize it when they first moved to Boston, after canceling their individual, more expensive plans.
She put the papers back where she found them. Perhaps there was nothing else to find.
Or, she surmised, she was looking in the wrong place.
She returned to the living room, went to the desk, and woke up the laptop. A twinge of guilt twisted through her as she navigated to Max’s email. His password was easy to guess. Scrolling through the messages, she skimmed the subject lines. Much of it was spam. The rest were from her—reminders to pick up milk after work—or from the other members of South of Forever.
She slumped back in the chair. So far, her search had turned up nothing useful. She started to shut the computer down when a thought occurred to her.
If Max was cheating on her while he was supposedly at work, the best way to find out was to watch the studio.
She snorted, shaking her head. The idea was preposterous, and yet, it made sense. She might be turning into the obsessive, stalker girlfriend.
Rubbing at her face, she told herself that she needed to stop. Whatever was going on would reveal itself in due time. Things like that always came out, she reminded herself. Her abuela liked to say that secrets were like farts.
Savannah wished that she and her own mother were so close. Maybe, when things calmed down a bit and she had a better idea of where she would be living, she could invite her parents and older sister to visit, to try to make amends. There was no point in contacting them if Max was about to break up with her. If that happened, she would have to go back to Connecticut. Though she hated the idea of crawling back to her parents, there was no alternative.
She had nowhere else to go.
Wrenching her thoughts back into the present, she left the computer on the desk and grabbed her keys.
She wasn’t sure how much she could observe in the two hours she had before the art show began. Still, she hopped onto the T and took it over to the studio. More than ever before, she relied on her own two legs since moving to Boston. The city had a romantic, alive feel to it that no other city she ever visited had possessed.
There were plenty of cities all throughout the United States that fostered careers in the business. Something drew her and Max to Boston, though, and that had to count. They couldn’t really be at the end of their relationship. They had to grow old together, first, she mused.
Stepping off the T, she headed toward the studio. The scent of burnt coffee from a nearby stand pressed down on her. Dread pitted in her stomach. Her mind reeled. The muscles in her shoulders tensed with each step.
Stopping outside the building that housed The Den, she paused. For the first time in her life, she wished that she was a smoker. Then, at least, she would have something to do, rather than standing outside idly.
She stared at the entrance and debated whether to go inside. Doing so would put her at risk of being seen. There wasn’t much she could observe outside, though. Hoping that she wasn’t about to make yet another mistake, she slipped inside the entrance to the stage. Before heading up the stairs, she glanced around to make sure that no one from the band was around. The coast clear, she bounded up two steps at a time. When she got to the landing, she paused.
Her heart thudded in her chest.
Other musicians occupied the hall. She ducked back into the stairwell. She couldn’t tell if anyone from South of Forever was out there. If they saw her, she would have a lot to explain. Drawing a shallow breath, she crept back into the hall. Her eyes darted from face to face. None of the musicians looked familiar.
Her own heavy breathing echoed in her ears.
The room adjacent to South of Forever’s, she remembered, had a one-way window into their recording booth. It was mainly for videography purposes. Now and then, The Den was used as a space to film music videos. More than likely, the room stood empty at the moment. She tiptoed toward it as if the door was about to burst open. Putting a hand on the knob, she paused for a second. It could be locked. Muttering a silent plea, she twisted the doorknob. It turned easily. She pushed the door open.
Darkness greeted her. Letting out a sigh of relief, she eased into the room. Her heart continued to pound, her mouth dry. She used her tank top to dry her sweaty palms, then walked toward the window.
No one occupied the booth at the moment, but the door was open. She saw Jett head to head with Koty as they pored over a notebook that was full, she assumed, of lyrics for their EP. Perry leaned against the couch, an arm slung over the back, his fingers brushing against Poppy’s hair. She scooted away from him, her chest rising and falling as she sighed.
Griff joined Jett and Koty. Though Savannah couldn’t hear him or read his lips, his body language and hand gestures told her enough. Poor Perry wasn’t getting the message that Poppy was off limits.
Her view was only a fraction of the room, and it didn’t include Max. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. Spying on him was stupid, especially if she couldn’t see him.
Opening her eyes, she took a step away from the window when movement caught her eye. Max sat on the other side of the couch. Poppy turned toward him, more out of gratitude, Savannah suspected, than actual want of conversation. The booking manager’s body language was purely professional, and Max didn’t seem interested in her, either—at least, not on a physical level. He looked as if he was going to drop, though.
Dark circles wove around his bloodshot eyes like stage makeup. He pushed his hair out of his face, and Savannah made a mental note to trim those locks later. He had a notebook balanced on his lap where he scribbled something down every so often. Savannah couldn’t tell whether he was taking notes on what Poppy was saying or not. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to her, other than a polite nod every few sentences.
Deciding that she had seen enough, Savannah turned away. Max was at work, where he was supposed to be. She needed to get to the gallery, or everything that she had done to get Chloe into day care would be for nothing.
Suspicion still tugged at her, though. If he wasn’t cheating, she needed to find out what was going on.
* * *
Savannah took the T to Seven Deadly Brushes, the painting tucked under her arm. Her nerves popped and sizzled, a frazzled mess under her skin. Even with the air conditioning on the T, her hair plastered to her forehead. She looked down at her sneakers and shorts, debating whether she was underdressed for the occasion. She suddenly wished that she had thought to call her father. Despite their lack of communication, she probably could have talked him into sending her the money to order a dress with overnight shipping. Begging for their help might be a little like cheating at adulthood. Her shorts would have to do.
Before she knew it, she stood in front of the gallery. She smoothed her hair and, taking a deep breath, forced herself to go inside.
She glanced around. Zachary hadn’t told her where to go once she got there. Eyes scanning the art on the walls, she noticed all of the paintings were Latina-themed. She searched for a blank space to hang hers. There was nothing available.
As she turned to go, a hand caught her arm. She gasped as she met Zachary’s eyes. “Well, hello there.” She held out her free hand.
Instead of shaking hands, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek, his warm lips lingering. It had been a long time since someone greeted her with a kiss. His scent teased her nostrils. It was a combination of, perhaps, whatever cologne he wore and his own natural scent—spicy, matching the heat of his lips. “Glad you came,” he said. His lightweight, button-down shirt clung to corded muscles.
She indicated the full lobby. “These people are all here for your show?”
“No, beautiful. They’re all here for you.” He lifted a hand and directed her gaze to an easel standing alone in the center of the clean, brightly lit lobby.
She lifted an eyebrow at him. “What’s that?”
“That,” Zachary said, “is where we’re displaying your piece.” His eyes gazed into hers. Warmth shot down into her pelvis. Her grip tightened on her painting.
“Whoa. There’s no way I can do that.” She avoided his eyes. If she looked into them too long, she feared, she would be sucked in.
He put his hand lightly on the small of her back and steered her toward the easel. “This is my gallery, and I can feature whoever I want.” He lifted the painting from her grasp and began peeling off the paper it was wrapped in. “Ladies and gentlemen.” His voice boomed above the chatter. “Welcome to Seven Deadly Brushes, where you can view and buy Latina art and, if you’re feeling crazy, get inked.”
Polite laughter rippled through the group, though no one seemed particularly interested in getting a spontaneous tattoo.
Setting her painting on the easel, Zachary stepped to the side. “Please welcome our featured artist, Savannah Santos.” The way her name rolled off his tongue made her slightly dizzy. Applause undulated through the crowd, and people pressed closer. Leaning down, Zachary whispered in Savannah’s ear. “I have to go mingle now. This is going to sell. Just stand here and chat with people. I guarantee, you’ll walk out of here with money.” He gave her another kiss and sauntered away, raising an arm in greeting to someone she couldn’t see.
Though she wanted to wrap her arms around herself, she made her hands hang limply at her side. She tried to look inviting, though she had no idea how she was supposed to do that.
“That’s beautiful.” A woman in her forties stepped closer. She pointed at the painting. “How long did it take you to paint?”
Savannah glanced at the filigreed skull eyes and the pouting lips. She returned her gaze to the woman. She thought of Chloe, of the tiny hand that was currently missing from hers. Guilt pulsed through her, but she shoved it down. She could feel guilty later. “A couple days.”
“Amazing.” The woman nudged the slightly older man who escorted her.
He nodded. His gaze drifted across the room. “Ah! Let’s go look at that one.” He led the woman away, but she winked at Savannah over his shoulder.
“You might want to start tracking your time.” A thin woman in her early thirties stood at Savannah’s elbow. She wore purple lipstick, a stark contrast to her dark skin. Her long black hair was piled in a bun, and she spoke with a light Mexican accent.
Savannah turned toward her, switching into Spanish. “¿Por qué?”
“Altagracia,” the woman said, pointing to herself. She leaned in and air kissed Savannah. “I did that one over there.” She pointed to a black and white painting of a woman dancing in traditional Campeche dress, long red skirt fanning out around her.
Savannah gasped. “She’s beautiful.” She started toward the painting, a hand outstretched. She air traced the long, flat nose and round, dark eyes, picturing how the woman in the painting would look tattooed on her shoulder. Altagracia drew her back.
“To answer your question, it helps you price things better. Stick by this.” She touched Savannah’s painting. “It’s going to sell fast.” Altagracia nodded toward the crowd milling around.
Everyone kept saying that. She wanted to believe it. Savannah bounced on the balls of her feet. Anticipation thrummed through her. The second that she could get away, she was going to check out the rest of the artists. Glancing at the rest of the paintings, it seemed as if she had fallen into her own personal heaven.
“It’s true.” Altagracia patted her hand and ambled away, her black skirt swirling about her ankles as she moved.
Most people passed by, giving Savannah a smile or nod. There was no mistaking the interest in their eyes, though. She had no idea that Boston had such an affluent Latina culture. She supposed that it made sense, though. The people fleeing conditions in South and Latin American countries wanted to get as far away as possible. For a moment, she wondered how many of the artists in the room were legal American citizens. She decided that it didn’t matter. They were safe from the violent gangs, and that was all that she needed to concern herself with. She had enough worries on her list.
Still, the thought of children and their families fleeing such violence often weighed heavily on her. A young man stood in the corner in front of a scene painted on cardboard with acrylic. In the painting, a teenager lay on the ground, blood gushing from a gunshot wound in his chest, hand outstretched. In the shadows, his shooters walked away without a second glance.
The artist didn’t look a day over seventeen. With his dark skin and haunted eyes, he could easily be a refugee. The painting was probably based on a real event. She made a mental note to figure out a way to ask him without sounding insensitive. She spent so much time wrapped up in her own problems that she often forgot about the suffering in the rest of the world.
“This is gorgeous. How much is this one?”
Turning, Savannah came face to face with a man wearing a shabby suit. Glasses sat askew on top of his head, and crow’s-feet etched the corners of his eyes. She held out a hand and introduced herself.
“Derek Galloway, songwriting professor at Berklee.” He shook hands with her, his grip cool but firm. “I walked in, and your piece drew me right over.” His voice was gentle, soothing in a grandfatherly way. “I try to bring color to my office, to inspire my students. I have to have this. How much is it?”
Her mouth opened, then closed. She gasped a sharp laugh. “How much is it?” she repeated. She looked around for Altagracia, but didn’t see her. “Excuse me, one moment.” She slipped away, eyes scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Her heart pounded in her chest. Someone wanted to buy her painting.
She found Zachary first. He stood talking with a man in a crisp suit. When he saw Savannah, he put an arm around her and drew her into the conversation. “Here she is, my star artist.” He introduced the other man as an art acquisitions manager for a local museum, but Savannah barely heard his name.
“Can I steal you for a second?” She hoped that the other man wouldn’t be offended.
“Of course.” Zachary led her to a less crowded spot, a hall that appeared to connect the lobby and gallery to the tattoo parlor. “What’s up? Is everything okay?” His eyebrows knit in concern.
“Someone wants to buy my painting.” She tugged at the hem of her shorts.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Zachary hugged her with one arm, and she was once more enveloped in the heat of his scent.
She backed away. “I don’t know how much to ask for, though.”
“Ah.” He drew her farther into the hall. The voices from the lobby drifted away slightly. “Here’s my advice. You don’t want to lose them by going too high, but you don’t want to cheat yourself, either. Let them make you an offer.”
Her brow furrowed. “What if they go too low?”
Zachary snorted. “Trust me, they won’t.” He indicated the well-dressed crowd. Her glance flicked to Professor Galloway, though, eyes roving over his worn suit. He ambled toward the young man with the painting of the dying youth.
“The tragedy of this one!” Professor Galloway lifted his arms.
“Just let them make you an offer, okay?” Zachary released her and sauntered back toward the crowd. Her knees wobbled in his wake.
Tilting her head back, she closed her eyes. She needed to get a grip. It didn’t matter how chiseled his chin was, how warm his eyes were, or how solid his body appeared. But, apparently, it mattered to her body. She wished he would stop touching her. Collecting herself, she walked back into the fray.
An elderly woman with her long white hair woven into a braid tottered toward Savannah. She leaned on a cane. “Are you the artist of the two sugar skulls?” she asked in Spanish.
“How much do you want for it?” The woman limped back toward the painting. “I want to give it to my granddaughter.”
For a moment, Savannah thought of telling her that she could have it for free. The woman’s braid reminded her of her own abuela. But she could use the money toward fall and winter clothing for Chloe. She took a deep breath. “It’s up for negotiation,” she said, keeping her voice light. Her heart thundered in her chest.
“How about a thousand?” The old woman’s eyes glinted.
Savannah’s own eyes widened. “As in, a thousand dollars?”
“Or $1,500?” The woman swung her braid over her shoulder. It trailed down her back. Gnarled hands gripped her cane.
Savannah shook her head. “No, a thousand is fine.” Her voice came out in a squeak.
“Sold. I’ll go see Zachary.” The woman tottered away. “Don’t you go double-crossing me, selling to anyone else while I turtle my way over there,” she called over her shoulder.
Savannah looked for something to lean against. Her legs felt like jelly. She wanted to laugh. Blinking in disbelief, she glanced around the room. The youth in the corner shook hands with Professor Galloway. It was a firm sold handshake. Altagracia threw another number at the art museum’s acquisitions manager. He nodded. All around her, the other artists haggled with buyers. She watched as various forms of signs went up on paintings, marking them as sold. She wished she had thought to bring her own.
A short time later, she walked out of the gallery with $850 in her pocket. Humming to herself, she hopped onto the T. She couldn’t wait to tell Max.
Savannah’s forever has a secret that could destroy them—and the band.
Savannah’s Song, Book 2 in the South of Forever series, is now available.
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