“Look,” Cooper said, “I care about Duke as much as anyone. But if we skip out on this gig, we’re screwed. Monetarily speakin’.”
He was right. Maeve sighed as she thumbed the bridge of her nose. “We need to figure out how to calm him down, then.”
“But how?” Sextus asked. “Look at the poor guy. He’s already on the edge of a nervous breakdown as it is.” He paused. “If anyone’s hiding a stash of beta blockers—”
Cooper cut him off. “Singin’ in general usually cheers him up. You’ve seen how he gets when he’s got a mic. Just stall until show time.
As callous as it felt to do, it was the best option they had at the moment. They needed the money, for one, and it was also true that Duke seemed to relax a great deal when onstage.
She sighed. “Alright, but as soon as it’s done and over, we’re having a band meeting.” The two men nodded. “I’ll go tell Jo.”
She turned and made her way over to the older woman. Duke was still curled up, though he had pressed his forehead into his knees and hidden his face from sight. Joanna had stepped away from the sofa, but was still looking at him, concerned.
“Any brilliant ideas?” she asked in a low voice.
“We get out there and play.”
Joanna cocked her eyebrow. “Excuse me?” she asked, crossing her arms. “We’re still going out there despite our front man being an emotional train wreck?”
“Look, I know it’s a crazy idea,” she said. “But we need the money. And besides, you know how he gets once we’re onstage.
“I know very well how he gets, but that alone isn’t going to snap him out of this funk.”
“Please, Jo. Let me talk to him.”
She stared at Maeve a moment more, as if searching her face for any possible hints that she was joking. When she couldn’t find any, she sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Just don’t be surprised if he’s not up for it,” she said, stepping to the side.
Duke didn’t react when Maeve sat down next to him. If it weren’t for the rapid rising and falling of his shoulders, she would have thought he had fallen asleep.
“Duke?” she asked. “Dukey, please look at me.”
Her heart sank when he didn’t respond to her. It was killing her to see him like this, a cold shadow of his usual self. She silently cursed whatever was plaguing his mind. She would give anything in the world to see him smiling like he used to, before he had gotten the note that began tearing them all apart. Just like he had a few hours before when they hugged in her room.
A thought crossed her mind. Right after he had apologized, Joanna had cut him off before he could finish telling her something else. And just a few minutes before, he had tried to tell her something again. If she could get him to talk about that…
She turned to the others. “Could you guys maybe step out for a couple minutes?” she asked.
Sextus opened his mouth, but both Joanna and Cooper elbowed him before he could speak. She took his arm and lightly pulled him out the door, Cooper close behind. He nodded at Maeve before he closed the door, leaving them alone.
Now that they were alone, she slid a little closer to him. He recoiled slightly, but did not move away. Her voice was low, as gentle as she could make it. “Duke? Can you hear me?” There was a slight bob of his head. “Remember earlier today, when you and I were talking in my room?” Another bob. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”
He went rigid. She held her breath as a long moment crawled by, praying to whatever god would listen that she hadn’t upset him more.
Finally, he spoke. “You…you remember that?” he asked. He raised his head enough for her to catch a glimpse of the shock in his eyes through the hair hanging in his face.
A smile snuck its way across her lips. “It was only a few hours ago, silly. Why wouldn’t I remember it?”
He blinked. “I…uh…”
“And a couple minutes ago?” She couldn’t help but giggle as he racked his brain for a reason, looking for the entire world like a confused puppy. “Never mind. What was it you were going to say?”
It was another moment before he responded. “O-Oh! Right,” he said. “Er…well, I…”
To her surprise, his cheeks pinked. “Well, I…” His voice was low, like he was afraid someone would hear. “I just wanted to tell you that…that I…”
He turned away as he trailed off. She stifled a giggle. “Duke,” she asked. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you trying to tell me that you like me?” When he glanced back, his face was redder than a bell pepper. “As…more than a friend?” He bobbed his head several times in succession, each quicker than the last.
While the news was not unwelcome, it made her stomach drop into her shoes and butterflies flutter in her chest. She had always hoped he liked her in that way, but to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth was another story entirely.
She felt her own cheeks grow warm. “Duke,” she breathed. Her smile widened. “Oh, Duke.”
His eyes grew large. “What?”
Without thinking, she placed a light kiss on his cheek. He froze again, staring at her in shock. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked.
His expression grew blank. “I didn’t… I didn’t think that you’d react like…like this.”
“Like what? Surprised?”
“I expected more yelling.”
She giggled again. “When have I ever yelled at you?”
“Uh…” He trailed off again before shaking his head. “Never mind.”
“Are you feeling better?” she asked.
There was a brief pause before he spoke. “Yeah, actually.”
“Better than before?” He bobbed his head. “Good. We really want you to perform tonight.”
“We’re a band, Duke,” she said. “Of course we do.”
Without warning, he jumped up from the sofa and ran to the door, throwing it open. She followed and made it just in time to see him wrapping his arms around Joanna and Cooper, much to their surprise and Sextus’s chagrin.
“Easy, man!” Cooper laughed.
“I’m so sorry,” Duke said. “I’m so sorry for everything that’s been going on, and–”
Sextus clapped his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t apologize, mate. It’s not your fault.”
“We just want to see you better as soon as possible.” Joanna gently wriggled out of his rip. “And if that means we have to take you to a hospital, we’ll make damn sure to clean you up.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“’Course we would.” Duke released Cooper from the embrace. “What’s a band without its front man?”
Duke looked like he was about to say more, but a man poked his head around the corner. “You’re on in five, guys,” he said.
They looked at each other and nodded. Without a word, Maeve filed in behind Duke as they crept toward the stage, staying just out of sight of the crowd. Judging by all the murmuring, there was a larger crowd than expected that night, maybe two or three hundred as opposed to the significantly smaller audience that was expected.
The MC was just finishing his announcements. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…” The crowd started to cheer.
Duke turned. “You ready, Six?”
Sextus grinned. “Hell yeah.”
She rolled her shoulders. “Mm-hmm.”
“Rarin’ to go,” he drawled.
Duke turned to her. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Maeve?”
She smiled. “Of course.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Duke Lethe and the Tangents!”
With that, any sign of the broken young man that had been there but a few minutes before was gone, replaced by the powerful, confident force of nature that was the front man and leader of his band.
Duke grinned. “Showtime.”