The last set dragged on much longer than Owen cared for, but he got through it one note at a time. He distracted himself from the dull horror of playing by being irritated over Erin’s touch of his shoulder. Erin hadn’t touched him before.
Whatever. He didn’t care if Erin never looked at him again, so long as he could get the hell off this stage.
Soon enough, he managed it part of the way, stiffly half bowing with the quartet before abandoning his instrument and disappearing behind the curtain to join the rest of the bachelors, including Jared.
Jared waved at him and patted a space beside him on the wall. “Good job, Crankypants. You made it through. I warned people not to compliment you, but feel free to snarl at anyone who doesn’t listen.”
Owen shut his eyes. “Can I go first and get this over with? I want a drink.”
“Unfortunately they’ve assigned us numbers. I’m number eight. You’re number seventeen.”
“Hell.” Owen shrank into a crouch.
Jared reached into his jacket, lowering himself to Owen’s side. “Here.” He handed Owen a bottle. “I thought it was overkill, but after interrogating Simon and me to figure out why you were behaving the way you were, Jack wrote this script for you and had the hospital pharmacy fill it, making me bring it just in case. It’s a handful of Xanax. Don’t take enough that you’re too stoned to stand, but maybe enough so you can remain upright without sweating.”
Owen checked the dosage, popped the lid, and dry swallowed a tablet. He hadn’t taken a short-term anxiety med in years. He was pissed that he needed to, annoyed Jack had noticed he was so off his game he required medication, but he was also grateful.
Jared grimaced. “Jack regrets making you play.”
Owen rubbed his thumb over the top of the prescription bottle. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Trust me, the message has come through loud and clear. All I’m saying is, don’t worry, we’ve got you, okay? You’re not going to have to do anything more tonight except stand on the stage long enough for Jack to pay up. I’m chipping in too if it comes to it, but I can’t imagine it will.”
“Just pay for the booze.” Owen willed the Xanax to work faster. “Why didn’t Jack give me this before we played, anyway?”
“He was afraid you’d fuck up.”
Owen snorted. No, idiot. I’d have played ten times better.
Whatever. It was over now, and he was never touching a violin again. For tonight, the damage had been done. He’d put the instrument down, but he still felt it in his hands, heard it in his head. Stirring up things he’d buried for good reason.
He could see her. Hearher. He hadn’t spared his mother a thought in years, and now she reverberated, starring in the memory that made him want to curl in a ball and vomit. It didn’t end there, though. Older ones began, tinged with the darkness of that day. All the times he trudged across the snow with the violin case clutched in his hand, his house in the distance, wondering if he’d hear her at the piano or hear his father shuffling across the kitchen, searching for another beer. He saw her profile at the piano bench as he played beside her. He saw himself crouching underneath it as he watched their arguments from between the legs.
Broken glass. The broken legs of the piano bench. The jarring discord of her back as it hit the keys, the crunch of his first violin when it slammed against the wall.
The day he’d come home from high school and she’d been sitting at the piano, waiting for him, her back in profile at the bench as she played, then stopped. Come here, Owen. I have something to tell you.
Owen reached for a second Xanax. He could push most of the memories away, but his mother sitting at the piano with her back to him lingered like something out of a horror film. If she turned around and gave him that haunted smile, he was a dead man.
Jared held out his hand. “Give me the bottle.”
Owen tucked it deep inside his interior vest pocket. “Go to hell. And never let anyone ask me to play again. Not if it’s the only way we keep the world from ending.”
By the time the auction kicked off, so had Owen’s drugs. He didn’t have any more memories playing on repeat, and he didn’t feel haunted any longer. He still felt raw and peeled back, but he was more objective about it, as if observing himself on a hospital gurney. Adult male, age thirty-four, acute anxiety attack brought on by unwanted remembrance of bullshit past. Vitals are stabilized, but recommend patient be placed in front of a bottle of Scotch and more Xanax and left alone until he forgets he ever knew how to play violin in the first place.
When Owen chuckled, Jared poked his arm and held out his hand insistently. “Seriously, give me the fucking bottle.”
Owen did, mostly because at that point he had no need for it. She wasn’t drifting through his mind anymore, but if she did, it wouldn’t matter. God bless alprazolam.
Jared made him stand to prove he wasn’t going to act drunk on stage—it was going to be a near thing, but he could fake it. “You’re a mess,” Jared said as he went off to be auctioned, and then it was Owen alone, glaring at the other bachelors for fun except when he wanted to laugh at them instead. He was freaking them out, so he stared at the wall, which thanks to the drug had become suddenly interesting.
At last they called his name, and honestly Owen thought someone should give him a medal, because instead of stomping out like a cloud of doom, he sauntered onstage with a cheeky salute. Jared, seated by a beaming elderly woman in the front row, gave him dirty looks, but Owen didn’t care. He rocked on his heels and waited for them to finish his introduction so the bidding could get over with and he could get out of here.
“Bachelor number seventeen.” The middle-aged woman Owen recognized as Mimi Roberts, the wife of one of the clinic doctors, gave an annoyingly knowing and theatrical wink to the audience. It would have bothered Owen normally, but he was too spent and high to care. She lifted her card and read, “Dr. Owen Gagnon, local boy through and through, who left Copper Point to get his degree, then returned to be our first and only anesthesiologist. He may be short on charm at times, but he’s long on loyalty, and he’s always ready to help a good cause.”
Cripes, who wrote these intros? He cast an eyebrow at Simon, but his friend was too busy staring at the emcee, paddle primed. Owen relaxed.
Oh, and there was old asshat John Jean Andreas, sitting with the other stuffed shirts from the board. Owen was surprised the jerk wasn’t tormenting his son, or at least keeping him on a short leash. Must be in the middle of greasing the old-white-man society wheels—
Owen’s blood chilled, curdling when Christian West leaned over to speak to John Jean, smile glinting in the dim light. After shutting his eyes on a long blink, Owen dove deep into the sheltering embrace of the Xanax and averted his gaze.
Mimi beamed at the audience. “As with all our bachelors, we’ll start the bidding at one hundred dollars, but I’m sure we can get—”
“Two hundred,” someone called out, and it wasn’t Simon or Jack. Oh hell, it was a clutch of drunk nurses with their pooled money on the table. Shit, this was exactly what he’d been afraid of—
Simon’s paddle whipped into the air. “Four hundred.”
The crowd erupted in murmurs, and Mimi clucked her tongue. “My, my. What an exciting beginning. It’s so good to see bidders enthusiastic, but as a reminder, we don’t need to jump up with quite so much drama this quickly—”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
Now the room was a wall of sound and a sea of chaos, people standing and trying to figure out where the bidder had come from. Owen recognized the voice, but he was sure he had to be wrong. He hadn’t heard someone bid ten thousand dollarsfor him.
Except someone had, and once again, it wasn’t Jack or Simon, who were pale and conferring with one another desperately as Jared extricated himself from his date and rushed to their table.
“Well.” Mimi laughed nervously into the microphone. “Someone certainly wants a date with you, Dr. Gagnon. I can’t see who it is, but I can’t imagine anyone else is going to top—”
“Um, eleven!” Jared’s voice broke as he held up Simon’s paddle and arm at once. Visible sweat was running down his face, but Simon and Jack nodded at him, their jaws set in determination.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars. I bid twenty-five thousand dollars for a date with Dr. Owen Gagnon, and I’m prepared to go muchhigher if need be.”
This time there was no mistaking the voice. Owen had known it before, but his brain had issued flat denials. He couldn’t get out of reality, though, when Erin Andreas walked down the aisle, holding his paddle high as the room whispered and gasped around him. Jack and Simon argued, panicking, and Jared shook his head. They were out of the running.
Owen collapsed on the edge of the stage, staring at Erin as he calmly closed the distance between them.
Well. Owen didn’t know what the hell was going on, but he did know he was going to need the bottle of Xanax back.