“Arms up,” Savannah said, tickling Chloe’s belly. The four-year-old giggled as her arms shot into the air, begging for Savannah to tickle her armpits. Grinning, Savannah wriggled her fingers into Chloe’s skin. The toddler shrieked with laughter, nearly falling to the floor. Savannah caught her and, in one swift motion, peeled off her pajamas. This had been their ritual for the last two years—for almost as long as she’d known Chloe. She sighed. Chloe wouldn’t want to wear footed jammies much longer.
A door squeaked open on the other side of the apartment. “Daddy’s home,” she told Chloe. “Hurry!” She tugged an undershirt over Chloe’s head, then helped her into a romper and sweater. The floor groaned under Max’s feet as he crossed the apartment while Savannah maneuvered Chloe’s feet into socks and sneakers. The grocery store would be cold inside, their only access to air conditioning all summer.
Max entered Chloe’s bedroom, his delivery bag still slung over his shoulder. He brushed hair out of eyes punctuated by dark circles and gave Savannah a nod. “Gonna take a shower.”
“Wait.” She stood, brushing dried soap from her bare legs. She had shaved for the first time in days, specifically so she could wear shorts. Spring in Boston had seesawed between cool rain and warm rain. She was ready for summer. Crossing the room, she stood on tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips. “I figured I would drop you off at the studio, and we’d take the car to go get some groceries.” She struggled to remember the last time she had left the house that week.
Even though it would be nice to drive for a change, the Taurus wasn’t the same as her BMW. Selling it had been the only way they could afford the move from Connecticut to Boston.
Max ran a hand through his hair. “This early?” He nodded toward the yellow clock on Chloe’s wall. In complete contrast to her pink and purple bedroom in Connecticut, Chloe had asked for yellow when they moved in. “Don’t you think it’s a little early to be dragging Chloe out?” His voice was rough. He stepped away from Savannah.
Frowning, she closed the distance between them. “It’s not that early.” She lifted a hand toward the clock. It was a little after seven.
“If you need the car for later, I can just take the Red Line.” He spun away from her and into the bathroom. The door slammed shut.
Biting her lip, Savannah turned back to Chloe. The little girl watched Savannah, blue eyes wide. “Daddy’s cranky when he’s tired, huh?” Savannah scooped Chloe from the floor and carried her through the apartment. She hesitated in the living room, eyeing the fabric fraying from their couch. Shoulders slumping, she made her way to the kitchen.
“I want waffles,” Chloe told her.
Savannah put her in her booster seat. “No kidding.” She opened the freezer and withdrew the box of store-brand waffles. Pausing, she tapped her finger against her chin, staring at the bread on top of the refrigerator. She could surprise Max with something to eat at the studio. He certainly seemed like he could use it—along with a good night’s sleep.
As Chloe’s waffles popped out of the toaster, Max jogged through the hall. “See you later.” He stopped only long enough to kiss his daughter on the forehead, then swung the front door open and disappeared from view.
“Thanks for the kiss.” Savannah kept her voice low. Max needed more than some rest. Maybe, her mind whispered, he was so tired because he was spending all his free time with another girl. She shoved the thought away and grabbed sandwich meat, mayonnaise, and maple syrup from the refrigerator. She plopped a plate of waffles and the syrup in front of Chloe.
The little girl grabbed the bottle with two hands and squeezed.
“Okay, that’s enough.” Savannah plucked it from her grasp. “Good job.” She kissed Chloe’s cheek and returned to making Max’s sandwich. If she surprised him with some lunch and his daughter, he might be in a better mood later when he got home. As long as it had been since she last shaved, it had been even longer since they had sex.
Boston had been her idea. It was supposed to be an adventure, an opportunity for Max to pursue a career in music. Instead, he came home late from band practice every night and grabbed maybe two hours of sleep before he got up to deliver newspapers. Perhaps they got too hot and heavy too fast, Savannah thought. Her slim, brown fingers flew as she packed the sandwich into a small cooler. Dancing two steps from the counter, she returned to the refrigerator and pressed the button for ice. Even though their Dorchester apartment was one of the cheapest in Boston, it was still expensive. At least they had ice on demand, she mused.
When she turned around, her eyes met Chloe’s. The little girl held out her empty plate. “I want more waffles.”
Savannah snorted. “And I want my BMW back.” She kept her voice light and playful. It wasn’t as if Chloe knew what a BMW was, or why they sold the luxury car Savannah’s parents had given her and kept Max’s beater. She slid another waffle into the toaster and leaned against the counter. Things wouldn’t be so bad if Max wasn’t snapping at her all the time. She was starting to feel like a nanny rather than his girlfriend. A bitter laugh escaped her lips. Even when she had been Chloe’s nanny, Max had never treated her so badly. She was starting to worry that she had made a huge mistake.
* * *
Goosebumps rose on Savannah’s skin. Air conditioning swirled about her bare arms and legs. She clenched the handle of the shopping cart and quickened her pace through the freezer aisle.
Holding a box of cereal, Chloe seemed not to notice the subzero temperature of the grocery store. She traced the character’s face with a small finger. Savannah grinned, stepping away long enough to grab a package of mini waffles from one of the freezers.
“I swear, they make you go through the freezer section last just to torture you.” Savannah glanced down at her list. She almost had everything they needed. She was getting to be a champion at grocery shopping. She pushed Chloe out of the frozen foods section, hurrying toward the warmer bakery.
Chloe stretched her arm out, fingers smudging the glass of a freezer door as they passed. Letting out a squawk, she turned and pointed, her eyes locked.
Savannah followed her gaze to the ice cream and popsicles in the case. Her lips formed an O. She laughed. Before she could stop herself, she found herself saying the same thing her mother used to say to her in Spanish. “Ay, dios mio.” Chloe watched her, an eyebrow raised. “Lo siento, nena. Food stamps don’t cover extras.”
“What does ‘lo siento’ mean?” Chloe’s feet kicked against the cart.
Savannah pushed the cart into the bakery, practically running past the cupcakes. Her lips twisted into a frown. For all of Savannah’s efforts, Chloe wasn’t picking up much Spanish. “It means sorry.” She supposed she only had Max to blame. If he tried to learn Spanish and spoke it in front of Chloe, too, his daughter would pick it up much faster. She glanced down at Chloe. “You might as well be my daughter,” she mumbled in Spanish.
Chloe pressed her lips against the bar of the cart.
“Chin up.” Savannah turned away to examine the reduced loaves of bread.
“I’m bored.” Chloe resumed kicking her heels against the metal.
Savannah withheld a snort. Her back still to Chloe, she squeezed a loaf and turned it upside down. Squinting at it for mold, she righted it again.
“Your daughter is beautiful,” a deep voice murmured in Spanish.
Turning, Savannah nearly dropped the bread. The guy beside her stood at least a foot taller than her. Muscles bulged in his arms. A light beard covered his face. He was handsome in a rugged way, with a slightly crooked hairline. She pegged him in his thirties, judging by the occasional gray hair that she picked out in the florescent lighting. Despite the grays, he was a young thirty, she decided.
He held out a hand. “Zachary Acevedo.” Warm brown eyes met hers.
Swallowing hard, she shook his hand. “Savannah Santos.” She gestured to Chloe. “She’s beautiful, but she’s not mine.” The Spanish rolled off her tongue easily, wrapping around her heart like a long lost lover. It felt good to converse with someone in her mother tongue.
Zachary stooped until he was at Chloe’s eye level. “Hi, there.” He wiggled his fingers.
Chloe watched him with dubious eyes.
“She’s shy.” Savannah switched to English as smoothly as he had. Nodding to the basket he carried, she said, “I’m guessing you don’t have any kids.” Only a bachelor would shop at a grocery store for body wash and protein powder.
He shook his head. “Not yet.” His eyes roved over her body, and she didn’t miss them stopping at her sleeve of tattoos. Though somewhat covered by her chambray shirt, the bright dots and filigrees of her Día de los Muertos sugar skulls screamed to be noticed. Though they were benign in nature, most people mistook them for something sinister. Zachary only nodded at them. “Nice ink.”
Licking her lips, she blinked. “Thanks.” She gave his tattooed arms a quick once over, wondering what lay beneath his T-shirt and shorts. A squid’s tentacles wrapped his forearm and stretched up, coiling around his bicep.
“If you ever want more work done, I’ve got a shop not far from here.” Digging into his back pocket, he plucked out a wallet and handed her a business card. When his skin touched hers, she drew back as if she had been shocked. He seemed not to notice.
“Thanks.” She tucked the card into her own back pocket. Heart pounding, she gave Chloe a nod. “Well, I’ve got to get going. This one won’t sit still for much longer.” Nodding toward Chloe, she threw him a wink and turned away. As she hurried toward the checkout, she wondered if winking could be considering flirting. She grimaced, then shook her head. Even if she was flirting, there was no harm in it.
Urging the cart into a line, she felt the card as if it were burning a hole in her shorts. It would be amazing to get another tattoo. Chloe’s arm stretched toward the candy in the checkout line. Automatically, Savannah guided her hand away. She missed being around artists and, she thought with a pang, she missed painting. She couldn’t remember the last time she had picked up a brush.
She glanced down at Chloe and pressed a kiss to the little girl’s head. She wouldn’t trade her sort-of-daughter for anything in the world, though. Even if art was no longer her life, she served a larger purpose. Her mother once said that raising children was the best gift one could receive.
The last person she should be thinking about was her mother, she chastised herself. Her parents didn’t appreciate art or tattoos. Though they spoke Spanish, they didn’t appreciate her mother’s Mexican heritage or her father’s Puerto Rican lineage—not the way she did.
Remembering her mission to bring Max lunch, Savannah paid for her groceries and rushed Chloe out to the Taurus. She tossed the non-perishable food into the trunk and put the milk and eggs on the backseat next to Chloe’s booster. Strapping the toddler in, she wiggled her fingers into Chloe’s ribs. The little girl giggled, gazing adoringly at Savannah.
Those moments, Savannah mused as she got behind the wheel, made everything she had given up worth it. She sped away from the grocery store and headed toward the apartment. She was still learning her way around Boston and rarely left the Dorchester area. Between her and Max, they had one cell phone, and it wasn’t sophisticated enough for GPS. It didn’t even take decent pictures. Slowing, she pressed her lips together, trying to remember the way. If she felt like risking her life, she could jump onto I-93. Snorting, she glanced at Chloe in the rearview mirror. The little girl played with a stuffed animal she had left in the car—her current favorite. Aside from when she and Max first moved to Boston, she had avoided the highway completely.
But Boston was perpetually in rush hour, its streets clogged with pedestrians. Taking the highway would shave precious minutes off her commute. “Now or never, girl,” she told herself. Then, she swung the car onto the on ramp.
Traffic flowed, and she let out a sigh of relief. She made it to the apartment in record time, zipping upstairs with Chloe on one hip and the milk and eggs in her other hand. As soon as the perishable food was in the refrigerator, she tugged Chloe toward the stairs. The little girl’s shorter legs slowed her down, though. Feeling a bit guilty, Savannah scooped her up and raced toward the bottom.
“Why are we going so fast?” Chloe glanced down with wide eyes.
“Do you want to surprise Daddy?” Rounding the corner, Savannah burst out into the parking lot and sunshine.
Chloe pressed her lips together, considering.
“Seriously?” Savannah asked as she tucked her back into her booster seat. “We’re gonna bring Daddy some lunch.” She realized that she could have saved herself from packing the cooler if she had just left the sandwich in the refrigerator and grabbed it on her way back out. Sighing, she moved the cooler from the trunk to the passenger seat and jumped back into the car.
Her heart pounded as she sped toward the studio. She had been there so many times since South of Forever had moved their headquarters from Malden Street a few weeks ago that she didn’t need to think about it. Plus, most of the locals knew where to find The Den Stage & Studio. Once upon a time, it had been a premier recording facility for big-time artists. Lucky for South of Forever, the studio was struggling and had offered them a cheap rate.
Savannah pulled into a parallel spot in front of the studio, its large sign declaring the upcoming weekend’s events. It may not be a popular recording studio anymore, she mused as she lifted Chloe from her booster seat, but it was still a great place to catch a concert. Someday, when she and Max could afford a babysitter, she would have to take him to a show there.
“Can I walk now?” Chloe rolled her eyes.
“Totally.” Though Savannah was in a hurry, Chloe was four—much too heavy for hauling around long distances.
Pushing through the double doors, Savannah turned right and climbed the staircase that led to the studios. Air conditioning whispered across her skin, and she shivered.
Looping the strap of the cooler around her arm, she slowed as she reached the top of the stairs, waiting for Chloe to catch up. Savannah led Chloe to the left of the staircase. She crossed the hall to the door with South of Forever’s name on it.
Knocking on the door in case someone stood just inside, she eased it open.
No one occupied the recording booth. Instead, the guys clustered in a tight knot. The lead singer of South of Forever, Jett Costa, stood at the other side of the small room, an amused expression on her face. Dark hair tumbled over her shoulders. Despite the heat outside, she wore leggings and knee-high boots that Savannah was positive were real leather.
Following her gaze, Savannah’s eyes shot to the cluster of men. She recognized Perry instantly because of the dreads swinging from his head as he flung them over a shoulder. He laughed at something, his guffaw as deep as his skin tone. With his goatee and full lips, he was someone she would have been attracted to, had she not already been with Max.
She picked out Max just as easily. He and Perry were the only band members with dark skin, though her boyfriend was pale in comparison to his bandmate. Max nudged Perry and said something only the other man could hear.
Savannah’s eyes traveled to Jett’s boyfriend. Koty’s blue eyes sparkled, his black hair looking almost red under the studio lights. Secretly, she wondered if anyone else found it weird that the Koty Jackson of ESX was in South of Forever. Though Savannah had never gone through a boy band phase, her older sister Gabriela had been hooked on ESX.
Griff, the band’s drummer and Jett’s right-hand man, cleared his throat. He ran his fingers through sandy hair, then put his hand on the shoulder of the woman standing in the midst of the tangle of men. His eyes crinkled as she said something. All three men leaned in closer to hear her better.
Savannah’s cheeks blazed. The woman looked younger than her, by at least a couple of years. She was probably still in college, Savannah guessed, if even a day past seventeen. As the men fawned over her, she tossed curly hair over her shoulder. Ebony skin shone under the light, supple and velvety. Bright eyes sparkled as Griff touched her shoulder, and she glanced at Max.
Standing in the doorway, Savannah watched as her boyfriend winked at the other woman.
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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