As promised, here is Part 1 of my Starting From The Top short, starring Johnny, Sean and the kids. This will have three installments. Part 2 will be released later this week and the finale will be posted over the weekend or early next week. If you haven’t read Starting From The Top, you’ll definitely want to do that first and save this for later. Johnny and Sean’s story is a true standalone. You don’t have to read the other books in the series to follow this one. But you may want to meet the whole band in the Starting From Series!
*By the way, the audiobook is live too AND has already been Whispersynched! Woohoo!
Happy Reading and Listening! Lane xo
STARTING FROM FAMILY- Part 1
“Hey, princess. How’s my girl?”
Penny opened the door of the Range Rover and gingerly climbed in, setting her pink unicorn bookbag on the floor at her feet before tugging the seatbelt. She whimpered in frustration when it got stuck.
“Need help with that?” I asked.
She shook her head and tried again. “I got it.”
“Awesome and how was school today?”
This was the part of the program where my stepdaughter burst into nonstop lively chatter. If I was a betting man, I’d guess she’d start by reminding me that she was a warrior in training or a warrior princess, but never a plain ol’ princess. She might grumble about sticky seatbelts which could take a side turn into all things sticky…tape, glue, cinnamon buns. Of course, any mention of sweets was a sure sign we should stop for ice cream or make something when we got home.
Don’t ask me to explain. It was just Penny. Her mind worked like a well-oiled pinball machine. Always active, always fun, and always two steps ahead of everyone else.
I braced myself for the verbal mayhem as I pulled into traffic. Instead, I got a tired sounding, “Fine.”
I shot a curious glance in the rearview mirror and frowned.
“You okay, Pen?”
She shook her head and closed her eyes. “No, I don’t feel so good.”
Okay, here’s the thing. I was the adult on duty. Me. That was bad news for anyone who needed serious adult consideration. Although according to my boyfriend, I was better at handling curveball situations than I credited myself and I was good with his kids. I wasn’t so sure about curveballs, but I loved Parker and Penny. They were sweet-natured, smart, and generally well-adjusted. It couldn’t be easy navigating living between their mom’s house and ours, but they never complained.
Then again, they were lucky to have two parents who worked hard to build a stable, loving environment for them. Which, funny enough…included me. The boyfriend slash guy currently in charge. Oh boy.
But maybe there was no reason to panic. Maybe Penny just needed to eat something.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, lowering the volume on a Smiths classic. “We can grab milkshakes from that drive-thru burger shack you like.”
“No, thank you.”
“Do you want make something at home? Parker’s getting a ride after his science lab this afternoon, so it’s just us. Do you have any school work?”
“Yes,” she mumbled.
I waited a beat for her to gripe about math or tell a funny anecdote about her day. Monosyllabic responses weren’t Penny’s thing. She wasn’t a drama queen when it came to friendships and playground posturing. She was a sensible, cool kid, and surprisingly mature for a ten year old. Her only real quirk was that she didn’t like silence.
I stopped at the red light and turned to get a good look at her.
She propped her elbow on the armrest and cradled her chin on her hand. Strands of her long hair fell over her eyes, shading her face from view. I reached back to pat her knee.
“Hey, honey. Talk to me. What’s up?”
Penny flipped her hair over her shoulder and grinned. “You called me honey.”
I raised a brow and shrugged. “Is that okay?”
“Yes, it’s nice.” Her breezy smile slipped a moment later. “But I really don’t feel good, so can we just go home?”
I bit the inside of my cheek nervously and nodded. “You got it.”
I kept up a lighthearted monologue about the adventures of Lullah and Tabby to entertain her on the remainder of the drive. My cat pretty much adopted Penny when I moved into Sean’s house last summer. Lullah had been a little jealous at first so I gave the dog extra attention and unintentionally became her new best friend. Lullah followed me everywhere, sat next to me at dinner, and even conned me into letting her on the sofa when Sean wasn’t home. And yeah, I wasn’t going to tell him I let her sleep in our bed last night while he was away on business in Palm Springs. That wouldn’t go over well.
Sean was pretty strict when it came to house rules. I wasn’t. But I obeyed the important ones. I made sure the kids did their homework, ate a healthy dinner at the usual time, and went to bed when—
Oh…I fucked up last night. I baked rubbery chicken and burnt the vegetables to an inedible crisp then gave up and made breakfast-for-dinner instead—pancakes, eggs, bacon. The kids were happy, which was great, but I hadn’t paid attention to the time. I let them start a movie way too late and now…Penny wasn’t feeling well.
Now I won’t claim that was entirely my fault, but staying up past your bedtime after eating syrup-laden pancakes probably didn’t help. Fuck. Sean was going to kill me.
I cast a wary gaze up and down our street as I waited for the high-tech gate in front of the house to slide open. The security team Charlie had hired would sniff out any crazies before they attempted to aim a camera at the Range Rover’s tinted windows. I was on extra alert whenever the kids were with me. I didn’t care for myself, but I did my best to shield my family from the not-so-fun aspects of living with a dude in a famous band.
Thanks to an incredibly successful tour supporting our third album, Zero was a household name. No…better than that, we were one of the biggest band in the world. No joke. How fucking cool was that? It was amazing! However, Charlie had been right to warn us that life as we’d known it would never be the same. I wasn’t able to do a lot of the “normal” activities I’d always taken for granted—like meet friends at a coffee shop or leisurely cruise the ice cream aisle at the grocery store.
Don’t get me wrong, I could do those things as long as I didn’t mind a security detail on my ass. It wasn’t fun having someone follow me around. I couldn’t help thinking they were secretly judging my choices. “No, not rocky road again. What’s the matter with fucking rock stars?”
Luckily, there were a few places I didn’t notice them at all. I could still pick up the kids from school and even have a drink at the Zebra Den with my buddies. The kids went to private schools that already had security measures in place and the Zebra Den was so damn dark that it was hard to see anyone clearly.
I appreciated our fans’ enthusiasm, but I was well aware that I’d introduced a level of crazy into Sean’s life that he might not have been fully prepared for. Hell, I wasn’t prepared for it. I knew this wasn’t how normal people lived. I’d give it all up in a heartbeat to keep my family safe. Their safety and well-being were my number one priority.
Health kind of mattered too, though. And…I was obviously not doing such a great job there. I glanced over my shoulder at my almost-step-daughter then pulled into the garage and checked my watch. I had three hours to nurse her back to health before her dad got home from his business trip.
I hopped out of the SUV and flung the rear door open. “We’re home, Penny-pie. Let’s go inside and get some homework done. Then you can fix my nails. I smudged them on a towel last night.”
She sat up gingerly, inspected the state of my nails with a solemn nod…and then threw up.
Yeah, I was not cut out for adulting.
All right. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t a total disaster. My brain kicked into a gear I didn’t know I possessed. I moved Penny into the house quickly and led her directly to the bathroom. I held her hair back, assuring her in my softest voice that everything was going to be okay while she alternately dry-heaved and sobbed. On the outside, I was Mr. Cool, Calm, and Collected. On the inside, I was a hopeless wreck on the verge of stupendous breakdown.
I must have been a decent actor. After a few minutes, Penny stopped crying and let me fuss over her. I picked out her favorite Wonder Woman pajamas and set them on the bed while she brushed her teeth, then waited in the hallway for her to dress. When she handed me her puke clothes, I didn’t flinch at all and better yet, I didn’t panic. I held her hand, led her downstairs to the chaise end of the sectional sofa and set up a makeshift bed for her.
“Here you go…remote control and art supplies.” I set a blanket over her lap and inclined my head toward the kitchen. “I’ll get you some water then I’m gonna clean up the garage and wash your clothes. Lullah and Tabby will keep you company, but just holler if you need me. I’ll leave the door open so I can hear you, okay?”
Penny shivered and closed her eyes.
Fuck. This wasn’t good.
I hurried back with water then pulled out my cell on my way to the garage. Please answer, please answer.
“Hi, baby. How are you?”
Sean’s deep masculine voice moved through me like a magic elixir. I felt the worst of my panic ebb and subside as my subconscious sighed in relief, happily acknowledging that we’d finally found the guy in charge.
“Terrible,” I choked.
“What’s wrong?” his tone was sharper now. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but Penny’s sick.” I filled him in on the last awful thirty minutes of my life as I gathered old beach towels to clean the mess beside the SUV.
Sean let out a ragged sigh. “Fuck, I’m sorry, baby.”
“You’re sorry? It’s my fault. I did this.”
“I fed the kids crap, let them go to bed later than usual, and I even felt pretty okay about it until Penny yacked all over the garage,” I confessed, holding the gross towels away from me while I tried to decide what to do with them. “Don’t worry. I’m cleaning up now.”
“Johnny, relax and—”
“Relax? I can’t relax! She’s sick, Sean. Sick. On my watch. The house is crumbling around my ears as we speak,” I added theatrically.
“The house?” he repeated dubiously. “What else is going on?”
“Well, nothing. Except I’m going to throw away your towels. I’ll buy you new ones and—”
“Just leave it, honey. I’ll take care of it when I get home. Now listen to me. Are you listening?”
“Yeah, but I’m still throwing the towels away,” I grumbled.
I leaned against the doorjamb and stared unseeing at a box labeled “Christmas” on a high shelf. I’d never had a Christmas tree or owned a single ornament until I moved in with Sean. I’d never had anything sentimental worth storing and bringing out for special occasions. I’d lived in this house for almost a year now and sometimes I wondered if I was worthy of all of this. I couldn’t rationally explain my reasoning. See, I worked my ass off and knew I deserved the accolades associated with Zero’s success. But sometimes, I still wasn’t convinced I deserved to be part of a family.
“You’re not throwing anything away,” Sean scolded, pulling me from my reverie. “Either rinse it or leave it. Take a deep breath, Johnny.”
“I can’t. I’m saving my energy for Penny. I don’t want her to see me freak out.”
Sean chuckled. I could practically feel the warm of his smile through the phone line. “You’re a good nurse.”
“I’m the worst,” I corrected with a huff. “She has a fever and she’s trembling. I gave her some water and a blanket. I’ll see if she can handle electrolytes when her stomach settles. Should I do anything else?”
“Sounds like you have everything under control. Let me talk to her.”
I stepped into the great room and paused beside the sofa where Penny was fast asleep with Lullah cuddled on one side and Tabby on the other.
I moved out of earshot and whispered, “She’s sleeping.”
“Good. She probably needs the rest.”
“Yeah.” I pursed my lips and massaged the bridge of my nose, unsurprised that my voice cracked when I added, “Fuck, I’m so sorry, Sean.”
“Hey, kids get sick. You didn’t do anything wrong so quit blaming yourself,” he said gently. When I didn’t respond, he continued in a no-nonsense tone, “I’m not kidding, Johnny. Cool it. Look, I’m in the car now. I’ll be home in a couple of hours. Sooner if traffic cooperates. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I slipped my phone in my pocket and moved to Penny’s side. Her eyes fluttered open when I picked the cat up and sat next to her.
“Hey, kiddo. How are you feeling?” I whispered.
“Better.” She reached for my hand and inspected my nails. “Can I paint them pink?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
Her sweet grin faded when she met my eyes. “Why are you sad? Does your tummy hurt too?”
“No, I’m just worried about you,” I admitted.
“Yeah.” I pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes and smiled. “Rest your eyes, little one. It’s gonna be okay.”
To be continued…