Even with protective earplugs, Nikki Razer thought her ears would bleed from the ungodly decibels generated by the roaring crowd. She stepped away from the piano. Her bandmates, Jaymi Del Harmon and Shawn Davies, had just finished singing a duet, a song that paid tribute to Jaymi’s late mother. It had become their biggest hit since its debut three years ago. The cheers refused to diminish. The fans wanted what they came for: the scorching kiss between Jaymi and Shawn that always happened at least once in the show. They came together and locked lips. Nikki looked away as the noise level increased again.
There was a time when they cheered the loudest for me. She was the lead singer. She was the most popular member. She was the one who garnered the most attention. The one women chased and lusted after. The one who gladly obliged with a night of hot sex when she was so inclined. After Shawn joined the group, the Cinderella story that was Shawn and Jaymi’s relationship took center stage, and Nikki had been pushed into the background to some degree.
Nikki couldn’t blame the fans. They were fucking adorable, those two. Their love for each other was so obvious you could spot the glow from a fucking mile away. She didn’t begrudge Jaymi her happiness. She’d never do that. She loved Jaymi with all her heart. She had to admit, she’d grown fond of Shawn, too.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t deserve the attention. They were both incredibly talented. Shawn kicked ass on rhythm guitar and had recently picked up mandolin and dabbled a bit on the piano. Jaymi could play anything she got her hands on. Lead or rhythm guitar. Fingerpicking classical guitar. Piano. Banjo. Bass. Sometimes she’d even kick Brian out from behind his drum kit to demonstrate how she wanted a part played in one of her songs. And she wrote amazing songs and sang like an angel.
Jaymi looked at her with her beautiful, deep blue eyes and raised an eyebrow. Oh yeah, they were doing a show. A guitar tech ran up to Nikki and slung a Gibson Les Paul over her shoulder. Next song was hers. Focus. She needed to focus. How the hell did Jaymi still do that to her? One look like that, with those soulful eyes so full of sincerity and passion, and anyone would come undone. She’s questioning if I’m okay.Jaymi didn’t need any words to show her concern. After almost a decade of friendship and practically living together 24 / 7 chasing their musical dreams, they knew each other that well.
She walked by Jaymi and gave her a reassuring smile. She stepped up to the microphone at center stage, flanked by Jaymi and Shawn to her right and Kay on bass to her left. Brian drove a steady beat on drums behind them all. She dove into the song and poured out her heart and soul. She couldn’t let her fans down. She owed them everything.
Jaymi came to her side to play the guitar solo. She leaned against Nikki so they were back to back, and Nikki felt the softness of Jaymi’s hair play over her neck. God, don’t do this to me, Jaymz. It was Jaymi’s way of letting her know she had her back if she wasn’t feeling 100 percent. None of them were at this point. Despite how much fun it was to perform, touring was a bitch. One month to go and they would finally take a much-needed break. They fed off the crowd’s energy, and the adrenaline pushed them onward.
Three songs to go until the encore. Nikki never thought she’d see the day when she would feel glad to be counting down till the end of a show.
An hour later, she stepped out of the shower in her dressing room. These larger venues had everything, and sinking into that couch for a few minutes alone to decompress was inviting, but she needed to hurry. They were heading back on the road, and the bus was waiting. She pulled on a pair of drawstring lounge pants and slipped on a T-shirt, not bothering with a bra. She’d be asleep on the bus in ten minutes, so she wanted to be comfortable. She brushed her teeth and slicked back her damp hair.
The mirror wasn’t her friend tonight. Her normally olive complexion bordered on pale. Her eyes drooped and had dark circles beneath them. A lock of hair fell across her forehead. She needed a haircut, but there would be no time for that for God knew how long.
A knock on the door prompted her to throw her dirty clothes into her suitcase and press it shut. It was probably Lance, the band’s manager, telling her to get her ass in gear so they could get going.
“I’m coming already,” she huffed as she swung open the door. Wow. Not Lance. Definitely not Lance.
It was a woman wearing a seductive smile and a low-cut dress so short it should be illegal. “Interesting choice of words, considering I haven’t even touched you yet.”
Nikki opened her mouth to respond, but the stranger swiftly covered it with her own. Her tongue found Nikki’s as she scraped a finger beneath her waistband.
“I’m already late,” Nikki whispered.
“That’s okay. This won’t take long.” The woman pulled the string and slid a hand inside her pants.
Nikki gasped and pulled her lips away. The woman had long, flowing dark hair and striking blue eyes. Eyes like Jaymi’s. Nikki kissed her hard and moved her own hand under the woman’s dress. Oh God, no underwear.
The woman was right. It didn’t take long. As she opened the door and let herself out, Nikki heard her say, “Unbelievable. I just fucked Nikki Razer.”
Nikki snatched up her suitcase and caught her reflection in the mirror. “Yeah. Fuck me, all right. Fuck me.”
She avoided everyone’s eyes as she stumbled into the bus. They knew why she was late. They always knew. Brian was winding down by playing a video game on his tablet. Kay was texting. Probably with her girlfriend, LaKeisha. Lance shook his head in frustration. She caught Shawn’s glare accompanied by a clenched jaw and what she guessed was a battle with her willpower to keep her mouth shut. Nikki said nothing. She begrudgingly took one more look back and locked eyes with Jaymi.
She wished Jaymi looked angry or disappointed or flustered. No. It was worse. Pity. That’s what she saw in Jaymi’s eyes. Fucking pity. Nikki looked away and ducked into her room. She shoved her luggage into a cubby and closed the door. The engine roared to life, and they were moving.
This was the first tour they’d done with this RV. It was like a hotel suite on wheels, complete with private sleeping quarters, a full bathroom, a kitchenette with a dining table and wraparound cushioned bench, and a lounge. It even had Wi-Fi, a flat screen TV, and a video game system. It still didn’t feel like home.
Nikki crawled into her bunk. All she wanted was sleep. She tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position and a train of thought that would get tonight’s sexual encounter out of her mind. She only let it happen because the woman’s eyes reminded her of Jaymi. Right? Would she have continued if she’d had brown eyes? Or green?
Fuck yeah, you sleazebag. It hasn’t stopped you before. Because all you ever have to do is close your eyes and imagine…
“Hey, you awake?”
That voice. Jaymi’s sweet voice. She rolled onto her side and made room for Jaymi to sit down.
“What’s up, Jaymz?”
“Are you okay?”
She knows. She always knows when I’m not okay.
“Yeah. Just tired, ya know?”
“Me too. It’s been a long trip, huh? One month to go, though. Then we get to play a show at home and relax for a while. I can’t wait.”
“Me neither.” Nikki propped up on one elbow and rested her head in her hand. She fiddled with a loose thread on the blanket. Better keep her hand busy so she wasn’t tempted to caress Jaymi’s cheek. Or anything else. “Any plans?”
Jaymi clearly knew she was trying to divert the conversation. But in true Jaymi form, she didn’t press. “You know, the usual. Spend time with the family. Chill out with Devin and Sara. Catch up on sleep.”
“Yeah. Sounds good.”
Jaymi smiled, but the look in her eyes was still one of concern. “We’re overdue for a movie night, just the two of us.”
“What about Shawn?”
“We can have it at your place. It’ll be good for us to get away from each other for a bit. I wouldn’t want her to get sick of me.”
Nikki smiled and shook her head. “That’ll never happen.”
“I hope not. Anyway, I’ll let you get some sleep.”
“Good night, Jaymi.”
“Night.” Jaymi hesitated at the door. “You deserve better, you know.”
Yeah, sure. At least one person believed that. The one person she didn’tdeserve. “I’m fine, Jaymi. Now get outta here before Shawn misses you too much.”
Jaymi gave her one more “I’m here if you need to talk” look before closing the door behind her.
If only she’d made her move years ago. If only Shawn hadn’t come back from California.
If only if only if only…shut the fuck up and go to sleep. She slapped a hand over her eyes and gripped her temples. Her palm and face were soaked in no time flat. You blew it, and you know it.
Drew McNally beamed with pride at her student. Melissa smiled from ear to ear after flawlessly playing the Bach minuet she’d been practicing for a month. The final chord still resonated from her acoustic guitar.
“How about that? You nailed it! Great job, Melissa. I knew you could do it.”
The sixteen-year-old wiped her palms on her jeans, and her cheeks grew pink. “I have a great teacher.”
“Oh no, I can’t take credit for that. All I do is demonstrate and guide. You’re the one who puts in the hours of practice.”
Melissa shrugged. Drew was pretty sure the teenager was gay, but Melissa hadn’t indicated whether or not she’d acknowledged it yet. Drew didn’t want to encourage the crush but couldn’t help favoring her sometimes over her other pupils. She wanted to be a good role model and someone Melissa would trust if she ever needed someone to talk to. She’d been studying guitar with her since she was nine, and Melissa hadn’t been shy around her until she’d hit puberty.
Melissa packed up her gear and headed out. Drew made her way down the short hall, past the other lesson rooms, the ensemble room, the office, and then on to the sales floor. She loved this place. Most of the time, anyway. Her dad had built the business from scratch, and since college, it had become her second home.
“I just need to close out the register and we’re ready to go.”
Drew turned to her father. “Okay. I’ll get the lights and lock up.”
He grinned. “Melissa seemed pretty excited when she left. How’d she do with that Bach piece?”
“She rocked it, Dad. I’m so proud of her.”
“She’s a talented kid. Reminds me of you when you were little.”
“Don’t insult her. She’s way better than I ever was.”
He finished counting the bills in his hands and looked at her thoughtfully. “Don’t sell yourself short, kiddo. You could’ve made it big if you’d stuck it out.”
“True. But I’m happy with what I’m doing.” And she was, most of the time. She put away a few items that customers had left scattered around the store. “Besides, you know I couldn’t have handled being around all those Hollywood phonies all the time.”
He finalized the deposit and sealed the bag. “Just don’t wanna see you have any regrets, that’s all.”
She saw the usual sadness pass over his eyes and again wondered if he’d settled for less. He thought she didn’t notice, but she always did. Drew circled around the counter and kissed his cheek. “No regrets. I love teaching. The boss here is kind of a pain in the butt sometimes, though.”
“So is the help. Good thing he’s such a softie and keeps them on the payroll, eh?” He chuckled at her teasing.
“Good thing.” That payroll would be bigger with higher revenues, Dad. For all of us. If you’d only take my ideas seriously.
They parted ways after they locked up the shop, and she made the short drive to her modest, one-bedroom apartment. She couldn’t afford much, but it was home. Every picture or decoration she owned represented something she loved. Classical music. Paintings. Sculptures. The secondhand furniture was in good shape, and most importantly, it was comfortable.
Three cats greeted her and demanded to know why she was working late again instead of staying home to cater to their every need. She scooped up Vinnie, a black and white Maine Coon, who purred loudly and ate up the attention. Next it was Fret, a tiger, but she wasn’t in the mood for lovin’—she wanted her supper. Andres, the oldest, sat aside watching and waiting. He was a big, round, fluffy orange tabby with soulful green eyes. She scratched his head and chin. She set down three bowls before heading to the bedroom to change.
She fixed a sandwich and curled up on the couch. Now Fret was her best friend. She hopped up next to Drew and began rubbing her cheek against her, all the while acting as if she wasn’t trying to sneak a peek at what Drew was eating.
“Hey, you just ate. This is mine.”
Fret didn’t care. She tapped her arm repeatedly with her paw. Drew let her sniff the peanut butter sandwich, and she backed away. She gave Drew a look as if to say, “Why aren’t you eating something I like?” before settling in the opposite corner of the couch. Drew petted her. “Told ya you didn’t want any.”
Andres cuddled up beside her. Vinnie darted into the room and batted around several toys before taking his usual place on the back of the couch behind her. He stretched out, dangled his legs, and rested a paw on her shoulder. He purred contentedly and kneaded her intermittently.
She turned on the TV, but as usual, there was nothing that interested her, so she shut it off. Maybe she’d read for a while. She browsed her bookcase, but she’d read everything at least twice. She couldn’t afford to buy anything new. She loved lesbian romances, but the selection at the library was limited. She usually opted for detective novels if she couldn’t find anything else. Besides, sometimes the romance stories made her sad. It would be nice to have a girlfriend. She laughed at the thought. How was that ever going to happen when she never went anywhere? She closed her eyes and withdrew a book at random.
Being single wasn’t so bad. It made life simple, which was the way she liked it. She had her freedom. Her cats kept her company. She loved her job, and she got to work with her dad—a big plus there. She smiled.
The holidays were right around the corner. Hopefully, the shop would do well enough in the fourth quarter to keep it going. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure what she’d do. She sighed. Worrying about money right before bed was never a good idea. Worrying never solved anything anyway. What she needed was a plan to increase the bottom line. Her father had built a very successful store, but he was stubborn and resistant to change. He repeatedly rebuffed her suggestions to keep up with the new technology and the way things had changed in the retail world. The business needed an upgrade.
So much for not worrying. She reread the same page for the umpteenth time and gave up. She went to bed with her cats, her worries, and the ever-present niggle of loneliness she kept pushing away.
A bright white light flashed through Nikki’s eyelids. What the hell was that? Another one. Damn it. She opened her eyes and was blinded by another flash.
“Say cheese, hot shot.”
The woman stuck a smartphone in her face again and snapped off another picture. “I just wanted a little souvenir of our night together.”
Nikki pulled the covers up over her naked body, realizing her upper half had been completely exposed. And now this stranger had pictures of it. Great. Just great. “Is it morning already?”
“Six o’clock. I need to get to work.” She bent and placed a kiss on Nikki’s lips. “Thank you for a verymemorable evening.” She tossed back her blond hair and smiled. “Even if you did call me Jaymi three times.”
Oh shit.“You said that was your name.”
“Amy. My name’s Amy. Don’t worry. I’ll remember yourname. And our night together.” She scribbled on the notepad on the bedside table. “My number. In case you’d like company again next time you’re in town.” She smiled. “So, what’s the deal with Jaymi and Shawn, then? Is that all just an act, or do you and Shawn take turns with her?”
Nikki bolted upright, clutching the sheet to her chest. “You watch what you say about Jaymi.”
Amy stepped back, obviously alarmed by the ire in Nikki’s tone. She quickly recovered and winked. “Wow. Somebody’s jealous. Does Shawn know you’re imagining her girlfriend while you’re—”
Amy grinned. “Glad I could uh…fill in.Jaymi’s a doll. I can see why you’d want to fuck her. See you later, stud.” She left.
Nikki fell back onto the bed and let out a growl. “I’m done. I’m so fucking done.”
She didn’t realize she’d fallen back asleep until a knock on her door woke her up. She checked the clock. Shit.
She scurried to the bathroom, threw on a hotel robe, and answered the door. Jaymi was red in the face.
“You’re not even dressed? We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.”
“Give me ten to shower, and I’ll meet you down there.”
Jaymi took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was most definitely pissed. “Don’t worry about checking out. Lance is taking care of it.”
Nikki nodded, just wanting Jaymi to leave her alone.
“Nik, what’s going on with you?”
“Nothing. I’ll see you in a few minutes, all right?” Jaymi stared at her and didn’t move. “Don’t worry, Jaymi. You know better than anybody how quickly I can get ready.”
“Unfortunately, yes I do. It’s a miracle I don’t have high blood pressure.”
Nikki grinned at her. “If you grab me a coffee on your way out, I’ll beg for your forgiveness and be your servant for life.”
Jaymi gave her a playful shove. “Like you haven’t promised that before.”
“Yeah, but this time I mean it.”
“You’re wasting time, Nikki.”
She spun and dropped her robe just before she entered the bathroom—in Jaymi’s full view. She probably wouldn’t even notice, but just in case…
Jaymi’s words echoed in her head as she showered. Wasting time. Ain’t that the truth.
She should have told Jaymi a long time ago she was in love with her. If it weren’t for that damn rule they had about not dating bandmates, she might have. Then again, those boundaries probably saved the group on more than one occasion. Nikki knew in her heart she could never be the kind of partner Jaymi needed. Then Jaymi fell in love with Shawn, and it was clear as day they were meant to be together. Nikki never had a chance.
Wasted time. By the time Nikki told Jaymi the truth about how she felt, it was too late. And now, things were awkward. Not all the time, but sometimes when they were alone, it was all Nikki could do not to reach out and take Jaymi in her arms and…
Shut the hell up. It’s never going to happen, so just forget it.She shut off the water and dressed quickly, with only minutes to spare. She raced onto the bus and slouched into a seat. No one even glanced up to see she was there.
Nikki fumbled with her phone and considered calling her friend Randi, who used to be her favorite “friend with benefits.” Not anymore. Randi had a steady girl now, too, and a new career training police dogs. She was probably busy.
She aimed the remote at the TV and searched for a distraction. She found a football game and muted the sound so she wouldn’t disturb the others. At least they were headed east and would be home in a few hours. She hoped the falling snow wouldn’t slow them down too much.
Home. Where she could spend more time alone with her thoughts.
Nikki hauled her luggage up the stairs and left it in the laundry room. Her luxury condo had all the modern conveniences, including a two-car garage where she housed her Mustang and motorcycle. Not the best set of wheels for New Hampshire winters, but she would be taking care of that problem soon at the Jeep dealership. She had plenty of money now, so why not spoil herself? She’d moved into this place last summer during the band’s break. It had state-of-the-art appliances, four TVs, the best stereo system money could buy with wireless speakers in every room, a spare bedroom where she kept her instruments, and expensive art on the walls. The works.
It was nothing new to have an abundance of possessions, but it felt better now knowing she’d bought them all with her own hard-earned money. Still, they were merely things. She had no one to share them with…yet.
She stripped and settled into the Jacuzzi with a glass and bottle of wine. She sipped and closed her eyes. The tension melted away. She couldn’t wait to sleep in her own bed tonight. Away from the band.
Away from Jaymi.
Away from the fans that followed her and always wanted something from her. An autograph or photo was fine. That kind of attention never bothered her. But for some, it wasn’t enough. For some fans, it seemed as though all they wanted was to get into her pants. It was flattering, and she couldn’t deny that she enjoyed sleeping with all those women, but it was nothing more than sex. They never wanted anything else. No one cared about getting to know her. No one asked what her favorite color was or what she liked to eat or what her hobbies were or what other interests she had besides music. Lately, the sheer emptiness of their adoration was smothering her.
Half the bottle was gone by the time she got out of the tub. She walked to the window and watched the snow continue to fall. She finished off another glass. She turned and looked around. She was surrounded by every possible material thing she’d ever wanted.
She’d never felt so empty in all her life.
“Come on, Dad. Please think about it. If we’re going to keep up with the competition, we’re going to have to make these investments soon.” Drew hated putting her father on the spot. She’d been reluctant to step on his toes—and his pride—by pushing him out of his comfort zone, but she needed to convince him that their livelihood depended on it.
Her dad’s laugh lines creased his handsome face. His body had grown soft. His thick, sandy hair hid his grays well, but they were there. Drew’s would probably look the same when she was his age. She hoped she’d be that lucky.
“It’s not that I’m putting down your ideas, Doodlebug, but we just don’t have the money right now. Even if we did, we’re a small business, and I intend to keep it that way.” He spoke gently, with kindness in his eyes and a patience she’d gratefully inherited. A trait that she knew made her a successful teacher, but one she found increasingly frustrating at the moment.
“I’m proud that we don’t have corporate micromanagers dictating our pricing or policies or highfalutin stockholders telling me how to run my business. That’s why our customers shop here instead of the big chain stores.”
It was hard to stay upset with him when he used her childhood nickname and said things like “highfalutin.”Mom should have appreciated those little things instead of putting him down all the time.
The bells on the door chimed. The rest of the conversation would have to wait while she took care of the customers. “Welcome to DJ’s. I’m Drew, and this is Jerry. Let us know if we can help you with anything.”
The two women said hello, and then the rusty-haired one said, “Thanks. We’re here to check out some guitars.”
They looked familiar, and it only took a second or two for her to place them. Jaymi Del Harmon and Shawn Davies of the local band Passion Play were in her store shopping for guitars. She reined in her excitement—this could be good for business. She liked their music, but she didn’t really consider herself a huge fan. She wondered if their success had turned them into snobs like the people her mother associated with.
“Are you looking for acoustic or electric?”
“Both, actually,” said Jaymi.
“Our equipment truck was in an accident last night,” explained Shawn. “Wiped out in the snowstorm and tipped over. Then someone slammed into it, and the whole thing caught fire.”
“Oh my God. Was anyone hurt?”
“Nothing serious, thank goodness,” Jaymi said. “But we lost all our instruments, so we need to replace everything.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry. I’ll do whatever I can to help. What would you like to see first?”
Shawn smiled. “I remember you. You sold me a Gibson SG a few years ago.”
“Yes, I remember. Was that lost, too?” How sweet was that? Shawn’s the one who’s famous, yet she remembered me. How refreshing. Maybe they hadn’t changed at all.
“Afraid so. That was a great axe, too. I’m gonna miss it.”
“You’re in luck. I have three in stock if you want another one.”
“I’m happy to see Passion Play doing so well. You’ve done New Hampshire proud.” She didn’t need to be a fan to know how to treat her customers. Especially when she knew they could afford to spend a lot.
Jaymi said, “Well, thank you, Drew.”
Jaymi’s sincerity melted her heart. She was sure she was blushing. Drew handed Shawn a cable and told her to plug into any amp she wanted. She took down the first guitar Shawn selected. Jaymi said she’d be in the acoustic room.
They were in the store for almost three hours. While they tried out guitar after guitar, they stopped and politely chatted with other customers and gave autographs to everyone who asked for one. At one point, they played an entire song together. It was like being at a private jam session. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and their presence breathed new life into the place.
They left with seven instruments that came to almost twenty thousand dollars in sales. The minute they were out the door, she and her dad hooted and hollered with joy.
The next day, their drummer Brian came in and spent a small fortune on a drum set and several accessories. He said his cousin Jaymi raved about the place, and he was a big believer in supporting small local businesses. The day after that, she sold three bass guitars to their bassist, Kay Burnes. Jaymi and Shawn came in again and stocked up on strings, effects pedals, two amps, and a few other odds and ends. Her dad waited on them this time. Drew was busy teaching, but she couldn’t help but be distracted knowing who was in the shop.
When Melissa came out of her lesson, she got the surprise of her life. Jaymi sat with her and showed her how to play a song. Shawn helped her out with her fingering, and then the three of them played a song together. Melissa floated out of the store on cloud nine. Drew was beyond touched that they’d spent so much quality time with one of her students.
They were now close to making their annual sales goal with two months left in the quarter. She wasn’t about to count her chickens, but now she was anxious to keep the momentum going and find ways to sustain it.
She sailed home with her business wheels spinning. If she could get Passion Play to do regular appearances when they were home, imagine what it could do for sales. Having all of them together might be too much for their shop to handle. She didn’t want to cause mayhem, but one or two of them at a time?
“What do you think, Fret?”
Fret was a music lover. She’d named her that because as a kitten, she would bat at Drew’s fingers while she was playing her guitar.
The juices were flowing now. She’d always wanted to start an after-school ensemble program for kids. Maybe even a scholarship fund so that kids could afford instruments and lessons. The store hadn’t been making enough profit for those things or for the additional employees they’d need. They had two part-timers and a part-time assistant manager, but otherwise, it was just her and Dad. She loved her job, but if things didn’t turn around soon, the shrinking budget might force her into a career change. He was paying her twenty-five percent below her market value. He’d never find a replacement manager at that salary. No one with her level of expertise would accept such a measly offer.
She shook her head. It wasn’t her responsibility to save the business, but DJ’s was her dad’s baby. And there was no one on earth she loved more than her dad. Dad would be crushed if I left. There had to be a way to meet in the middle and move DJ’s into the modern age.
She put on a Brahms record and sat down with a pen and notebook. She spent an hour brainstorming. Too keyed up to sleep, she made some instant cocoa and relaxed into her comfy couch. As her mind relaxed, one thing occurred to her. Why hadn’t the lead singer Nikki Razer come in for new guitars? Surely Jaymi would have recommended DJ’s to her, too.
She shrugged. Maybe Nikki didn’t live locally like the rest of the band. She wasn’t so sure she’d like Nikki anyway. She had a reputation as a player with a big ego. Just the kind of person she preferred to avoid. Probably a partier, too. Just like Mom.
All her mother cared about was her acting career and everything that went with it. The fame and fortune. The celebrity status. The Hollywood parties. The fanfare. She wanted it so badly, she put on an act to attract attention wherever she went. Drew never knew if it was her mother or the actress in her presence.
Poor Dad.He was nothing more than arm candy to her. She could remember her telling him to behave a certain way so she could make an impression on some big-time movie producer or casting director. He just wanted to play in his band and write songs. She wouldn’t even take his name when they got married for fear it would confuse her fans, and she’d have to start over making a name for herself. Margo Hollister was the name on every headline, and she wanted to make damn sure it stayed that way.
No wonder their marriage hadn’t lasted. Her own relationship with her mother had dwindled down to obligatory niceties exchanged during holidays, special occasions, or otherwise “big deals” in their lives. Their definitions of what qualified as “special” or “big” differed drastically, something that was clear as day when a last minute “big” audition trumped a flight east for Drew’s college graduation. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother, but the bond between them barely scratched the surface of Drew’s heart.
She readied herself for bed and paused at her dresser, picking up the framed photo of what used to be a happy family. She was five. Her parents were still young and in love, with their whole lives and dreams ahead of them.
Different dreams, it turned out. Different means. Different directions. Different motivators. Just…different.
She set down the picture and crawled into bed. How frustrating that a picture could last forever, but a moment could not.
Drew went over the figures again. Even with their recent big sales, it wasn’t enough. They’d been struggling for so long and were so far in the red that the money had simply allowed them to get back into the black but only just. She needed to do something and fast. She had a few special promotions in mind for the month of December. Most of her Christmas shoppers were parents buying starter kits for their kids. Although they always did well with those deals, it didn’t generate the profits that the more expensive gear did. Musicians were fussy shoppers when it came to buying instruments, and rightfully so. A guitar not only had to have the sound they were looking for, it had to feel right in their hands. Looks and brand name mattered, too. Finding that perfect combination could be difficult. That was where she came in—to make sure their customers didn’t leave without finding what they needed.
She crunched the numbers again. She’d already cut every expense she could possibly cut. She loved her father dearly, but he’d relied too much on his old-school approach when it came to advertising and marketing. He barely knew how to use a computer, much less the internet.
She slammed the accounts register closed and blew out an exasperated breath. The office walls were closing in. It should’ve been neat as a pin with all the spare time she’d had this year with the slow business. She’d lost interest in her annual spring-cleaning, and here it was November, and it was still a dump.
A light knock on the door interrupted her misery. Dad knew he didn’t have to knock, but he always did anyway.
The door opened, and he poked his head through. “There’s a customer in here asking for you. Said her friends recommended you personally.” He smiled wryly. “She’s quite a looker, too.”
Drew knew what that meant. He was always keeping an eye out for “a nice girl” for her to go out with, even though she’d told him a thousand times she hated fix-ups.
“Okay. Be there in a sec.”
She followed him down the hall and saw a black-haired woman with her back to them, looking at a guitar on a stand. Her dad slinked away and made a fuss over straightening some merchandise.
“Hello. What can I do for you?”
The woman turned around slowly, and Drew’s jaw dropped. Nikki Razer, in the flesh. Not ordinary gorgeous but holy shit gorgeous. In fact, she may have been the sexiest thing she’d ever laid eyes on. In the dead of winter, she wore a waist-length black leather jacket, tight blue jeans, and black leather boots. Not very sensible attire for this time of year. She must be more interested in attracting attention than staying warm. A bit of a turnoff, but nonetheless, she’s definitely easy on the eyes.
Drew quickly collected herself and hated that she was nervous. Nikki was just a person. A human being who was no better than anyone else.
Nikki smiled, and Drew saw a twinkle in her large, dark eyes. Get a grip!
“Yes. What can I do for you?” Idiot. She’d already said that once. Nikki was probably used to people being nervous around her. Drew didn’t want to be one of them.
Nikki continued to look her in the eye, making her even more uneasy. “Wow,” Nikki said softly.
“I’m sorry for staring, but you have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”
They hadn’t even exchanged names yet, and the woman was already flirting and smiling at her as if she were used to getting whatever she wanted with her looks and fame alone. Just like Mother.
“Do you use that line on everyone?” She hoped her smile and the raised pitch in her voice would come across light-hearted even as she was fighting the impression that Nikki thought she was God’s gift to women. Nikki was a customer, after all—one who could potentially spend a lot of money in her shop. She should be playing along to generate more sales, but doing so would just make her feel like a greedy, ass-kissing salesperson who only cared about landing a sale.
Nikki smiled widely. “If I have, I’ll never have to use it again.”
Drew stepped back, shaking her head. No chance in hell was she falling for something like that.
“What? You think I don’t mean it?”
It’s kind of hard to think so with your reputation, Ms. Razer.She almost said it out loud and realized how rude it would sound. Instead, she just shrugged.
Nikki looked down momentarily. “Whether you believe me or not, it’s the truth.”
Drew wasn’t sure if she was sincere or if this was just another method she used to charm her way into someone’s bed. Either way, she needed to do something to ease the tension so she wouldn’t lose her as a customer. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t assume things about you when I don’t know you.”
“No, you don’t. But I don’t know you, either. I shouldn’t have assumed you would enjoy being complimented.”
Ouch. Okay, maybe she deserved that.
“So, how about we forget about all this and start over?” Nikki extended her hand and smiled. “Hello, Drew. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Nikki,” she said with exaggerated dramatic flair. “You were highly recommended by the most talented musician I know, Jaymi Del Harmon. I need two guitars, one acoustic and one electric. I would be forever indebted to you if you could help me with that.”
Nikki hadn’t let go of her hand. It was warm and soft. Strong. Long, nimble musician’s fingers enclosed her hand. Fingers that she was sure held talents beyond tickling the ivories. I’m pathetic.
Drew pulled away. “I can definitely help you with that. What would you like to see first?”
“Follow me.” Drew led the way to the soundproof acoustic guitar room, hoping its construction didn’t amplify her out of control heartbeat. “Any particular brand?”
“I’ve been playing Ovations mostly, but I was thinking of changing things up and going with something with a richer tone.”
Drew pulled open the glass door and gestured for Nikki to go through ahead of her. “I have several I can recommend. These Martins and Takamines have warm tones.” She pointed to them as she mentioned them. “I also have a few Taylors that sound really nice.”
Nikki grinned and made no effort to hide a look that traveled the entire length of Drew’s body and back up again. She slipped off her jacket, revealing a beautifully shaped body in a heather-black quarter-zip sweater. “Okay.”
“Okay, what?” Drew barely hid her contempt, which was as strong for Nikki as it was for herself at the moment.
“Okay, I’ll try them all.” She withdrew a guitar pick from her hip pocket, held it up, and smiled crookedly. “I came prepared.”
I bet you did. She took down a guitar with a black finish and handed it to her.
Nikki thanked her and sat down on the padded bench in the middle of the room. She looked it over and strummed a few chords. “How’d you know I’d like the black one?”
Drew shrugged. “Other than your jeans, it’s all you’re wearing. I doubt you’d wear a color you don’t like.”
“Smart sales technique. I’m impressed.”
“I don’t think of it that way. I’m just observant.”
“Either way, I’m impressed. I like this one, but I’m thinking I need a change. What else do you have?”
Drew rehung the Takamine and perused the wall. “Take your pick.”
Nikki stood and looked over the selection. “This one’s beautiful.” She lifted a deep brown and gold sunburst Gibson off its hook. “The colors remind me of your eyes.” She sat down with it and began to strum. “Warm. Soulful. Pure.” She locked eyes with Drew. “Just like it sounds.”
And then, Nikki began to sing. Her alto voice was smooth and clear and without the edge and occasional rasp that Drew knew from the few Passion Play songs she’d heard on the radio. The rich acoustics of the room only enhanced how beautifully it blended with the tones of the guitar. That’s the one she should buy.
The enclosed space suddenly felt too small. Drew pulled her gaze away. The woman’s ego perturbed her, but she couldn’t deny that Nikki was as talented as she was beautiful. She looked out into the store. Her dad was busy signing for a delivery. Perfect. “Listen, I need to check on that shipment. Try anything you like, and I’ll be back shortly. Just holler if you need anything.”
She slipped out the door before Nikki could reply. After a few minutes of assisting with sorting out the merchandise, she saw Nikki step out of the room with the Gibson.
“I’ll take it.”
“Good choice. I’ll go grab the hard-shell case that comes with it and hold it for you behind the counter. Jerry will keep an eye on it.”
“Thanks, Jerry.” They exchanged smiles, and Nikki turned her attention back to her. “Now, I’m going to check out your electrics. Are you free to assist me, or do you trust me to help myself?”
“Whatever you’d like. I don’t want to crowd you.” She hoped Nikki preferred to be left alone. “There are cables in there so you can plug into any of the amps, but if you want to try anything that’s hung up high, I’ll have to help you with that.”
“What if I want your professional opinion?”
“Don’t worry about this stuff, dear,” said her father. He smiled at Nikki. “She’s at your service, miss, for as long as you need her.”
Drew gave him a scolding look and escorted Nikki to the electric guitar area.
“He’s my father.”
“Ah. That explains the matching hair color and striking good looks.”
Drew fumed. Nikki was a relentless flirt. She knew what she was doing, and she was shameless in doing so. Her confidence bordered on arrogance. Yet she was so goddamned beautiful it was no wonder women fell all over her. Drew supposed being a rich and famous rock star didn’t hurt, but there was no way she was going to let herself become another notch on Nikki Razer’s bedpost.
“Your mother must be stunning.”
Drew cringed. Nikki and her mother would probably get along splendidly. Nonstop flirtation with an endless supply of charming compliments designed to get whatever they wanted from people. It was sickening how well it worked. It wasn’t going to work on her. She’d appease her while she was here—she couldn’t very well be rude to a paying customer—and then she could go back to her normal life.
“I’m sorry. I said something that upset you,” Nikki said softly, tilting her head.
Drew tightened her jaw and stared at the wall of guitars. “You didn’t upset me. My mother is…well, it’s…never mind.” Her mother was none of her business. “So, what other colors do you like besides black?”
Nikki followed her line of sight. “Whatever you call that shade of blue.” She took down a Paul Reed Smith solid-body with dual humbucking pickups. It was a brilliant cobalt blue with black tiger-stripe streaks through it. Nikki held it up by the neck and scanned it over. An unreadable expression crossed her face. “On second thought, I think I’ll try the dark red one instead. It’s the same model, right?”
“Yes, identical other than the color.”
Nikki tried out five other guitars but kept going back to the red PRS. “I think this is the one—oh boy.” She looked over Drew’s shoulder.
The hysterical voices behind her told Drew all she needed to know.
“My God, it’s true! Are you…”
“Ahh! It’s her!” the other teen squealed, then more quietly said, “It’s Nikki Razer!”
Nikki handed Drew the guitar. “Excuse me a minute.” The gaggle of girls swarmed her before Nikki could approach them first. “How’s it going, ladies?”
Amidst the spouts of praise and “we’re your biggest fans” were requests for autographs.
Nikki looked at Drew. “Drew, keep these darlings entertained for a moment, will you?” She stepped around them and added, “I’ll be right back, I promise.” Nikki winked at them and dashed out of the store.
The groupies’ faces fell harder than boulders to the floor. “You think she ditched us?”
If she did, it was a rotten thing to do. Although she doubted it. Celebrities thrived on this kind of thing. She’d seen her mother soak it up a million times. They got their answer when Nikki raced back in with a stack of photos in her hand.
“Who’s first?” Nikki asked as she uncapped a black Sharpie. “What’s your name?” She personalized each message, taking time with each fan, asking their favorite Passion Play song, joking that it had better be one of hers, and none of them let her down.
How convenient that she carries photos with her wherever she goes, as if she knows she’ll need them. The other members of Passion Play hadn’t done that when they were there. They’d simply signed whatever was available.
The mob finally left—without making a single purchase, of course. Drew crossed her arms and waited. Perhaps nowshe could get back to selling the egomaniac her damn guitar.
Nikki spun around with a smile. “Now, where were we?”
Drew pasted a smile on her face and retrieved the guitar.
“Oh yeah. Sorry about the interruption. I guess word got out we were all shopping here.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You know.” Nikki leaned in and spoke quietly. “Believe it or not, sometimes I wish people didn’t recognize me.”
What a bunch of malarkey. Drew tried to smile sympathetically.
She sighed. “But I can’t complain. I wanted success, I got it, so it goes with the territory, right?”
There are other ways to measure success, Ms. Razer. Fame wasn’t at the top of that scale. Not by a long shot. “So, have you decided?” She needed to get back to business.
Nikki gave her a questioning look, probably for not answering her question. “I’ll take it.” She handed the guitar back to Drew. “Where can I find your straps?”
“Yes. New guitars deserve new straps to go with them, don’t you agree?”
Good Lord. Of course Nikki meant guitar straps. They weren’t in a lingerie shop, for crying out loud. She shook off the brief curiosity about what kind of bra Nikki was wearing beneath that tight sweater and led her to the accessories department.
Trying to ignore the way her legs felt like jelly, she walked to the stock room and found the case for the PRS. Nikki was at the checkout when she returned.
Her dad rang up the sale and placed both guitars in the cases. “Thank you for the autographed pictures. That’s a great idea to give them away with purchases over fifty dollars.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Nikki responded.
Actually, that wasa good idea. She might as well capitalize on Nikki’s popularity. The business needed all the help it could get these days.
“Thank you both for all your help today. This was fun. I haven’t shopped for guitars in years.”
“Drew, help this young lady out with those, will you?” He rushed out from behind the counter and held the door open for them.
“Of course.” She picked up the electric and followed Nikki out the front door.
Jerry said, “Be careful out here. It might be a little slick. It’s been snowing for the last hour or so.”
Oh shit.At least three inches of snow covered the only customer car in the lot. Judging by the shape, it was some sort of sports car that sat very low to the ground.
Nikki pressed the remote on her key and pried open the passenger door. A pile of wet, heavy snow slid off and dusted the interior. Nikki released the seat forward and placed the guitar she was carrying into the rear.
“Let me take that from you,” Nikki said, reaching for the other instrument in Drew’s hands. After she had them situated the way she liked, she emerged with a snowbrush in her hand. “Thank you again for your help today.”
She trudged around the front end of the car and disappeared inside. The engine roared to life. A few measures of rock music blared from the stereo before she cut the volume. She hopped back out and began clearing off the snow. It was a gorgeous red Mustang. Great for summer cruising. The worst thing to be driving in this weather.
“Will you be able to get home okay?”
“I grew up in Massachusetts. I know how to drive in the snow.”
“Yeah but…are you saying you grew up in New England, and you don’t know any better than to drive a sports car in the winter?”
Nikki stopped brushing and glared at her. “For your information, wise guy, I bought a Jeep Wrangler yesterday.”
Drew choked down a laugh. “So, where is it?”
“They didn’t have the model I wanted in stock. It’s being delivered from another dealer on Monday.”
“Maybe you should have waited to go guitar shopping after you picked it up.”
Nikki leaned toward her. “I couldn’t wait. We have a show tomorrow night. Besides, I wouldn’t have had such an enjoyable afternoon today.”
Drew felt her face grow hot. Nikki was flirting again. If it was anybody else, she might’ve been flattered.
“Glad we could help.”
“I better get going before the roads get any worse.”
“I will.” Nikki climbed in and lowered the window. “I’ll be back again. I may need to pick up something else.” She winked and pulled away.
Drew knew exactly what Nikki wanted to pick up, and it wasn’t something she could buy.