“Alanna, I can’t do this anymore,” I said, and my telling her this had nothing to do with the cocaine I just bumped before she came into the green room.
“Blair, it’s gonna be fine,” she said, clasping her warm hands around mine. “This show is no different than all the other ones you’ve done. You’re going to be great. This is what your grandpa would have wanted.”
I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to take my hand back. The more I put up a fight, the worse this whole conversation would be, and I already had been putting it off for a month. Even if her hand squeezed mine in the most nurturing way, even if the dark silver in her eyes sparkled with support, this needed to happen. I couldn’t have a girlfriend right now.
“No, it’s not that,” I said, a knot of emotions tightening in my throat. “I meant us. I can’t do us anymore.”
There. The words slipped right off my tongue and now hung in the open.
Her grip around my hands loosened. “What?”
She took her hand back. “Are you seriously breaking up with me?”
“I’m sorry. I just…I can’t be in a relationship right now.”
“What? I mean, where is this even coming from?”
“I’m going through my quarter-life crisis, and it’s not fair for you to go through it with me.”
She raised a skeptical brow. “So…you’re trying to save me from you?”
“How heroic, Blair,” she deadpanned.
She had every right to be pissed at me and tell me to fuck off. For the past five months since my grandpa was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer, she had stood by my side. She made her shoulder available for me to cry on and went to the hospital with me because I knew I couldn’t handle watching the cancer eat him alive by myself. She was there for me and my mom while we planned his memorial service, cooking us food and doing everything she could to make it a little easier for us. She’d slept in my bed every night since he’d died, spooning me to sleep. She refused to leave me, knowing how much his death crippled me, and how did I repay her? By breaking up with her. It was awful. I knew it was awful, but my gut told me I had to do it. I knew what the right decision was. I needed to focus on me and take care of me, and look how well that was going.
“I’m not trying to be heroic, Alanna. I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“By breaking up with me? After everything we went through?”
“How am I supposed to make you happy when I can’t even be happy? I barely have a handle on my whole life right now. Clearly.”
“I don’t buy that. You’re about to go on tour with the biggest pop singer in the country. You have a record deal. How many hit songs have you written for how many artists? I think you have a perfect handle on your life right now.”
“That doesn’t lessen the blow of my grandpa dying.”
“I was there for you the last five months, getting, like, three hours of sleep some nights because I was at the hospital with you. I took an exam on two hours of sleep the night he died because you needed me, and I wanted to be there for you. I’m very well aware of how shitty things are right now, but they’re going to get better. I told you that you wouldn’t have to go through this alone, and you still don’t have to.”
My dad was never in my life, so my grandparents took my mom and me in. Gramps was the dad I never had. Just five days before, I serenaded two hundred people who came to Gramps’s funeral to my own rendition of “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. He was still fresh in my mind. The clothes hanging in his closet still smelled like him. His last glass of water still sat on his bedroom nightstand. The last record he listened to was still on his record player. With him gone, I could hardly get myself out of bed. I could hardly go through a day without drinking or smoking weed, and most importantly, I couldn’t even sit down at the piano and write a goddamn song. Writing was my therapy. Sitting at the baby grand piano or fingerpicking Gramps’s ’77 acoustic Hummingbird guitar cured me from whatever emotions were weighing me down. Instead of a diary, I wrote songs in my brown leather notebook. But I had felt so much over the past few months; it was like the words congealed into the knot constantly in my throat. I had nothing to contribute to my notebook. My therapy wasn’t even working for me. If I couldn’t even seek out the things I loved, how could I possibly be in a relationship? My life was still toppling into a disintegrated heap.
“Is this because you wanna hook up?” she was gutsy enough to ask.
“Oh my God, no,” I said with a raised voice because her accusation was so ridiculous. Hooking up was the last thing on my mind. Cancer ruining your family doesn’t really make you horny. Alanna and I used to have amazing sex. I guess that was what happened when you chased each other down for four years. All the tension we held in for so long exploded into months of blissful sex until my grandpa got sick, and nothing made me in the mood anymore. So, this definitely wasn’t about hooking up.
“I can’t believe you even think that,” I continued.
“You’re running because this is somewhat serious? Because we’ve been together for a year? After everything we’ve been through, you wanna end it?”
“How can you not see that I haven’t been myself? I’m tired of feeling this way, and I need to focus on myself.”
She got up from the couch as she dabbed her face. “You haven’t been able to sleep by yourself for the past week because you didn’t want to be alone, but now you actually want to be alone?”
All those sleepless nights provided me with clarity. Yes, I wanted to be alone.
“Alanna, you’re not even trying to understand where I’m coming from. Have you really enjoyed our relationship for the past few months?”
“No, I haven’t,” she answered with another eye wipe. “But life happens, and it gets shitty. It doesn’t mean I stopped loving you or stopped wanting to be with you. But clearly, that’s what it means for you.”
“If this is what you really want, Blair, then fine. I’ll leave and set you free.” I rolled my eyes. Nope, she wasn’t going to try to understand where I was coming from at all. “You have a nice tour. I really do hope you find the happiness you’re looking for.” The anger in her voice didn’t convince me that she was sincere. Right as she twisted the door handle, she turned back around with her eyebrows tighter together as if she was preparing for one last punch to the gut. “By the way, you’re not fooling anyone. I know you’re on coke right now. Real nice.”
My stomach dropped. I just broke up with the girl who knew my darkest secret. Not even Miles, my best friend and bandmate, knew about the coke or the other times I did it in my life.
My heart thrummed faster in my chest. “What? How did you—”
“He would’ve been really disappointed in you, you know.”
“Don’t bring my dead grandpa into this.”
“You’ve been self-destructing for months, and I still stayed by you.”
“I never asked you to. I’m not some studying material for your thesis, okay? I don’t need you to save me.”
Things I just learned: breaking up with a girl currently getting her master’s in social work would bite you in the ass.
“Fuck you, Blair.” She wiped her eyes, but the tears wouldn’t stop staining her face. “Seriously. Fuck you. You know, you never drank as much as you do now until your grandpa started getting sick, and now that’s all you do. If you don’t want your life to fall apart, how about you stay sober?”
And then she slammed the door shut. I rubbed out the tension in my face and then downed a shot of Southern Comfort and strapped my blue-green Fender electric guitar around my body as Miles came back from the bathroom. This happened every show. His nerves were like black coffee running right through his body, and even though we’d been performing together since high school, he still had the preshow bowel movement.
“Sorry,” he said, sweeping his brown hair out of his face before he snatched his drumsticks off the couch. “I’m just thinking about how we’re going from playing for two thousand people tonight to, like, ten thousand people in a few weeks, and it’s really getting to me.”
“You need to eat more cheese. We’ll make sure to pack up the fridge with that. And Imodium.”
His honey-colored eyes met mine, and clearly, a breakup showed on my face because his eyebrows creased when he studied me. “Did something happen? I saw Alanna crying in the hallway. She didn’t even say hi to me. She ran past me.”
I plucked a couple of strings on my guitar, making sure everything still sounded in tune, even though I tuned the guitar about a half hour ago. If Miles’s preshow bowel movement was his nervous habit, then overtuning my guitar was mine. “Oh, yeah, I just broke up with her.”
His mouth dropped. “What? Just now?”
“In a green room?”
“Ten minutes before our show?”
“I know it wasn’t ideal.”
“Jesus, Blair, this is a big deal. Are you okay? You sound kind of cavalier about the whole thing.”
I shrugged. “I’m fine. Just kinda numb. She hates me. She doesn’t get why I did it, and she really didn’t want to even try to get it.”
“Did you tell her you’ve been feeling off for a while?”
“Yeah, I also think that’s a given with the whole no sex and no writing thing.” I hopped off the couch and made my way to the door. We would be called to take the stage any moment.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Yeah, we’re not playing ‘Finally’ tonight or, like, in the foreseeable future. So tonight, let’s do a cover of ‘My Friends Over You.’ I think it fits my mood right now.”
He placed his hand over his heart. “You know early 2000s songs are my weakness.”
“I know, it’s half of the reason why I chose it. Now, let’s go rock this.”
Miles and I formed our band senior year at our LA art high school. We’d been doing shows for six years, starting with college parties, to local restaurants and venues, to opening acts for smaller musicians, to now shows with a few thousand people packed into them, soon to be sold-out arena shows all over the country. Every show we’d done in the last six years, I was able to step on stage and leave whatever crap was inundating my mind backstage. So, this show was no different. Since Gramps took a turn for the worst, we canceled all of our shows leading up to the Reagan Moore World Tour. It was our first show in four months, and I was determined to give it my all. Nothing was going to hold us back. Not the death of my grandpa, who would have sworn at me if I sulked and sucked because of him. Not because of Alanna. Not because of anything.
The second we stepped on stage and the music we made poured through the speakers, the lights flickering on us and hearing two thousand fans singing along to our songs, it enhanced the high already running through my body. I forgot all my troubles, focused on the thumping music, the crowd, and making sure that the four months of not performing didn’t take its toll on us. If we were going to open for the American leg of Reagan Moore’s world tour, we couldn’t settle for anything less than perfect for our comeback show in Silver Lake.
I worked the crowd more than usual and even crowd-surfed, which was always a thrilling time. It was even better when you were high. When I crowd-surfed during our cover of “My Friends Over You,” I absorbed all the vitality from the crowd as their hands gracefully glided me over them. The warm rush of adrenaline pumped through my body as the music blasted through the speakers and enhanced their singing and cheering. When the show ended, sweat dripped down my face and stuck my shirt to my back. That was how you knew when you had a good show. You felt as if you got back from the gym on cardio day.
Afterward, I powered through the coke comedown while chatting with a few fans by the merch table, taking pictures with them, signing some autographs—and I even signed my first boob, so that was the highlight of my night. With the enhanced high feeling that got me through my performance came the enhanced low feeling. At least there was one thing I learned from my general education classes in high school and college that I could apply to real life. For every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction, and I’m pretty sure that when Newton came up with that, he meant being high on drugs. The high made me weightless and soar, and then when I came crashing down, it made me sink as much as I soared. The past few months squeezed on my chest; Alanna’s cries stung my eyes. The emotions I kept suppressing to satisfy the fans balled up in my throat.
That was my cue to head back to my mom’s. At least we had each other to lean on, and I really needed my mom just to scoop me up in her arms.
I’m not sure how I made it all the way back to Irvine from Silver Lake. I kind of drove mechanically on the 5 until I snapped out of my long daydream as I parked the car in front of the house I grew up in. I rested my head against the headrest; the radio faintly played through the speakers. I inhaled a deep breath to collect a few more moments for myself before I endured walking into a house barely recognizable without Gramps inside it. I let the radio continue to play because pure silence was something I didn’t think my wandering mind could handle at the moment.
“This is WQRD, who is this?” the radio announcer said in the typical announcer cadence.
“This is Ashley. Oh my God, did I win?”
“You are caller twenty-one. Congratulations! You just won two front row seats to the Reagan Moore concert!”
Her screaming brought a little smile to my face. It was a nice reminder, given really shitty circumstances, that people were so thrilled to see the show Miles and I were going to open for. That was a positive I was going to cling on to like a security blanket. It reminded me that excitement was around the corner, that in two weeks, I’d be traveling all over the country with my best friend, performing in front of tens of thousands of zealous fans every night with the biggest name in music. That was something to look forward to. It was enough to twitch a smile out of me, knowing how excited Gramps had been when I told him the news.
“How do you feel, Ashley?” the announcer said.
“Amazing! I’m so excited! I couldn’t get tickets because they sold out so fast.”
“Lucky you and a friend will sit front row for the first show in Las Vegas for the Reagan Moore World Tour with opening act Midnight Konfusion. They’re supposed to be great. You’re going to have a great time, Ashley.”
“Ah! I’m so excited!”
As Ashley screamed off air into a mattress sale commercial, I stared at the Spanish-style house, preparing myself for the vast emptiness that now made up the inside. Walking in and not seeing Gramps drinking a Johnnie Walker neat in front of his bookshelf, which housed hundreds of records, nodding to the music playing through his stereo headphones was still weird to me. It was a sight I’d seen every time I came home at night. It was his bedtime ritual. And for the past two weeks since his death, I hadn’t gotten used to the empty chair and the silent record player.
Actually, it broke my heart every time.
I remembered back when I was a teenager and all those nights I snuck out of the house, creeping out of my window, butt sliding down the roof, and then leaping from the roof to perfect the two-story jump with my worst injury only being a sprained ankle. I was a little shit in high school. I had friends to meet up with and girls to make out with. But only once did I get caught sneaking out. This particular time, I ventured out to a party because this really hot junior wanted to make out with me. She was the kind of girl in high school you lusted so hard after that the lust would never go away, even long after you graduated. Sometimes, Dana Bohlen sprang into my head, and I ruminated about the furtive moments we shared and felt equally nostalgic and turned on at the same time. I was sixteen, and a hot “straight” girl wanted to fool around with me. Sign me right up, which I did. Pronto. But after Dana Bohlen and I used each other to satisfy our needs, I crept back into the house at one thirty in the morning, stopping dead in my tracks in the dark kitchen when I found Gramps in that computer chair, full-sized headphones around his neck as he searched the bookshelf for a new album. The lamp on the end table was the only light on the first floor, casting weak rays up the twenty-foot ceiling.
“Nice try,” he said without giving me any eye contact.
I couldn’t remember the last time Gramps was up past midnight. It was a crazy night if he was up past ten. But sure enough, there he sat, exchanging Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” with Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” with a full glass of Johnnie Walker neat sitting on the end table.
My heart pounded in my chest. Gramps was someone you didn’t want to disappoint, and the sixteen-year-old me thought I was so smart and slick not to get caught by Mom, Grandma, or Gramps, but here I was with a light literally shining on my face.
“I, uh, I…”
“Yeah, you better be stuttering. Care to share where you snuck off to?” He finally gave me eye contact, his brownish-gray, furrowed eyebrows directed sharply at me.
Going down on Dana Bohlen, I answered in my head, and then the memory of my face in between her legs replayed, and God, I couldn’t get turned on again in front of my grandpa.
“Just with friends,” I replied way too quickly to be believable.
“And what kind of trouble were you and your friends up to?”
Alcohol, weed, and orgasms.
“Nothing. Just watching a movie.”
He let out his loud, distinct cackle, and the memory of it pulled a smile from me. His laugh was contagious…except for when he laughed right before he lectured you. “You really think I’m dumb enough to believe my sixteen-year-old granddaughter when she sneaks back into the house on a beautiful summer night, that she just watched movies with her friends? Well, I’m not that dumb, but it’s entertaining that you think I am.”
The man was a genius. An actual genius as a musician, a songwriter, a music producer, and as a father to his daughter and granddaughter. Joseph Bennett didn’t fuck around. I didn’t know why I always challenged him growing up when deep down, I knew the truth.
“I had a wine cooler,” I lied, but I knew what he was looking to get out of me. I had a few wine coolers and several shots of really bad-tasting vodka, but I would rather have admitted I had a Mike’s Hard Lemonade instead of admitting that I gave Dana Bohlen an orgasm before she returned the favor. I was close with my grandpa, but not thatclose. Never that close.
“Scandalous,” he said sarcastically. I was surprised by how much his strict Nashville upbringing was stripped from only two years of living in Southern California. “I always said if you’re going to drink, A: tell me, and B: stay put and do not drive. So, you broke two of those rules. Oh yeah, and you’re still grounded for getting brought home by that cop a month ago for pool hopping.”
“No, you’re not. There’s no reason to lie to me, Blair. I trusted you. That’s why I always told you to be honest with me, and you won’t get in trouble. I don’t know why you disobeyed me when I thought we had a pretty fair agreement. You know, your grandma has gotten on my case for being this liberal with you, and now that you’ve proved me wrong multiple times in the last month, maybe I shouldn’t have these lenient rules. If you’re not going to respect them, then you don’t deserve to have them. It’s a privilege, not a right.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, though looking back on it, his words resonated as much as any authority figure’s words could resonate with a hormonal, broody teenager. I think it was because I knew that I was Gramps’s weakness, and maybe because we had such an abnormally close bond for a grandfather and granddaughter that I sometimes took advantage of that. It wasn’t until he was gone when I realized it.
“One day, when you’re finally an adult, I’m going to be gone, and you’re going to remember all these stupid antics you’re up to now, and you’re going to regret them. You’re better than this. Don’t disappoint me. I didn’t raise my granddaughter to be disappointing. I raised her to be tough, independent, and most importantly, a loyal, honest, genuine person.”
“I’ll be honest next time. I’m sorry.”
“Good. Until next time, no phone, no computer, and I’ll finally get that security system installed, and guess what?”
I gulped. Okay, this was getting pretty shitty. “What?”
“I’ll be the only one who knows the code to turn it off.”
Out came the contagious cackle as he spun around to set the Jim Croce album on the turntable.
That memory repeated itself in my head as I stared at his huge house from the driveway. I started crying and then punched the steering wheel as I imagined going inside to see Gramps in that chair, telling me he warped through heaven or wherever the hell he was just to kick my ass for doing coke and breaking up with my girlfriend.
When I finally calmed down and wiped my eyes dry, I walked through the mudroom, and the security system dinged to let Mom know someone stepped into the house. Yes, Gramps was really serious about that security system. He got it the next week and kept his word about being the only one who knew the code. It wasn’t until his final days when he whispered the code to me. It was my birthday. Zero five two three. The whole time, it was my birthday, and after he told me in the hospital, that infamous bellow of a laugh seeped out of him.
He got the last laugh, and I loved it and hated it at the same time.
Walking through the mudroom into the kitchen, I froze when I saw that end table light on, the computer chair facing the bookshelf, and music softly pouring from the record player. I blinked a couple of times, wondering and hoping that this was all a dream, and Gramps was really alive again. Maybe something happened, and I traveled back in time to when I was sixteen and had a chance to take back all the crap my petulant antics put him through.
The chair spun around, and I found Mom holding a whiskey neat in her hands as “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand played. My stomach twisted hearing the song and seeing my mother’s tearstained face and puffy red eyes. It was the song Gramps sang on the piano during Grandma’s funeral when I was eighteen. The vaulted, twenty-foot ceiling echoed the melody of the song in the house that doubled in size without him in it. Mom’s dark brown eyes looked up at me through the gloss of tears.
“I broke up with Alanna,” I said, my voice shaking from processing the scene in front of me.
“What? Honey? Why? Why did you do that?” she said through broken sniffles.
I gave a shrug, and I guess since the cocaine had left my system, all those emotions I buried came out in a cry.
“Oh, hon, let it out,” Mom said. She downed the remains of her whiskey, set the glass on the end table, then opened her arms up for me. I curled on her lap despite being a few inches taller than her. But she took all my weight after letting out a small grunt and tightened her arms around me as if I was a little kid again, rubbing my back as I buried my face in her shoulders. “It’s okay to cry. Just let it out.”
“I really miss Gramps,” I blubbered when I pulled myself away from her shoulder, noticing the tears staining her gray T-shirt. “At first, I thought he was in the chair.”
Mom wiped away my tears. “I’m sorry to disappoint, hon,” she said with a tiny smile. “Now, tell me why you broke up with Alanna.”
“Because look at me. I’m a fucking mess. I’m leaving in two weeks. I need to be on my own.” I ran my hand over my damp face. “God! I can’t stop crying.”
“How about we drink some whiskey and cry together? Let it all out.”
“I don’t need whiskey to cry when you’re playing the world’s most depressing song ever. Seriously, why are you doing this to yourself?”
“Because it’s a great song and reminds me of my parents. Also, I need a good cry.” She tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Gramps and Grandma might be gone, but we’ve still got each other. We’ll always have each other.”
“I’m sorry I’m leaving you in two weeks.”
“Honey, don’t apologize. You’re going on tour with Reagan Moore. I might be in my mid-forties, but even I know that she’s a big deal. I’ll be fine. Now, come on. Let’s have a glass together and maybe turn this off and listen to Jim Croce.”
That garnered a grin from me. “I love Jim Croce.”
“Me too. It reminds me of my dad.”
She kissed my temple, and after fixing us both a drink, she continued to hug me as if I was a little kid as opposed to a soon-to-be twenty-four-year-old, but I let her. After months of taking care of her and Gramps, I needed someone to scoop me up and hold me, and since I snipped Alanna free from doing that, I turned to my mom, my best friend, my rock, my everything.
“Oh my God, my openers are here!” Reagan Moore exclaimed into her mic right as we took in the sight of the Las Vegas arena. In the midst of rows of folding chairs that made up the floor seats stood her enormous stage emerging from the concrete floor.
Her stage definitely proved we were all about to embark on a world tour with how massive it was. It took up the whole width of the arena, extending three-fourths of the way up to the ceiling and at least a quarter of the length of the floor. Plus, behind Reagan Moore and her band was a giant LCD screen for computerized digital effects and to show the close-up of her face while she performed.
This was the kind of stage every aspiring musician dreamed of performing on.
She looked so little in comparison to it, and when she found us soaking in the stage for the first time, she carefully hopped off, which had to have been more than a six-foot drop, but she did it without a grunt. Reagan Moore’s head of wavy light blond hair bounced gracefully as she speed-walked over to us. Man, those magazine covers and billboards didn’t do her beauty justice. That glowing smile of hers pinned me to the floor, and I wasn’t sure if I was experiencing being starstruck or realizing that Reagan Moore had one of the most beautiful smiles I’d ever seen. Her face was free from makeup, her stud nose ring was in the same spot as my hooped one, and she wore a plain black V-neck and aqua track shorts, so the beauty was nothing but pure.
She first pulled our manager, Corbin, in for a hug, and then as she hugged Miles, her dark blue eyes met mine. That was when my armpits started sweating. Her facial features were so delicate, and her eyes were so soft that I don’t think she had the ability to ever hurt anyone. I’d met her once about a year ago at a label party Gramps’s business partner hosted at his house, and I didn’t remember sweating. Even though back then we only exchanged pleasantries, somehow, I made it through that first conversation without armpit sweat.
After greeting Miles and Corbin, she opened her arms for me and took me in as if I was a longtime friend. “It’s nice to see you again, Blair. How are you doing?”
When she broke the hug, her stare held sympathy, and I almost missed it because I was too busy smelling her designer perfume. She smelled as beautiful as she looked.
“Pretty good,” I responded, which was half true. At this particular moment, knowing that in four hours, the place would be packed with roughly thirteen thousand people and Miles and I would perform our first ever show in a sold-out arena, life was pretty good. Gramps would have wanted me to focus on this, not the crap outside, so I would push away my grief for him.
Her hand landed on my shoulder. “I’m glad. And I just want to say that I’m so sorry to hear about your grandpa’s passing. I was fortunate enough to have met him a couple of times, and he was always so kind and funny.”
“Thank you. Yeah, he was a pretty amazing guy.”
“I’m glad you’re doing okay, though. I’m so excited to have you guys come on tour with me. I think you both are absolutely brilliant.”
“And we feel the same way about you,” Miles said. “We can’t wait until we get on that stage.”
“Well, I’m done sound checking, so she’s all yours now. Oh, and after your sound check, we’re having a feast. Come hungry. There will be champagne.”
“You don’t need to ask us twice,” I said.
“I’m gonna go shower up, but I’ll see you two in an hour!”
Reagan Moore wasn’t lying when she said they were having a feast. It made sense because she had to feed her opener, her band, her dancers, and all of her crew. And that meant about fifty people. Yes, fifty people, which made sense when I saw the fleet of buses that came with her. Reagan Moore came with a stage that took up practically half an arena floor, eight sleeper buses, four tractor trailers, and a whole army.
Four long tables of every single kind of food I could imagine stretched across the entire wall. Sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, salads, and cases upon cases of water. Her manager, Finn, informed everyone to grab a flute of champagne for a toast. Her army separated into cliques, her dancers in full concert makeup and coifed hair circled around each other with small plates of food since they were about to endure an hour and a half of dancing. The stage crew in their black T-shirts loaded up on sandwiches after all the hauling and setting up they already did for the day.
As Miles, Corbin, and I fixed our plates, my eyes fixed on Reagan Moore as she entered the room and eyed all the food in front of her. I couldn’t control myself from scanning her head to toe. Her blond hair with loose, natural waves cascaded down to breasts that were slightly revealed by the dip in her long-sleeved, sparkly black bodysuit that ended right at her bikini line. And if that revealing black bodysuit wasn’t enough to kick-start impure thoughts, she wore black knee-high boots to highlight the toned legs her bodysuit accentuated. The blue in her eyes popped even more from the dark dusting of her eye makeup. My lips parted as her beauty swept me up in a hazy cloud, and once I realized my mouth was open, I closed it and swallowed.
And then without warning, she turned around and met my gaze, and that was when I realized Miles and Corbin weren’t beside me anymore.
“You skipped out on the salad?” she asked and looked up at me with a teasing grin. I stood there, heat attacking my cheeks, forgetting what I even put on my plate despite the fact I was just at the food table thirty seconds before. “What?”
She pointed to my plate, free from any sort of vegetable but loaded up with tiny sandwiches, fruit salad, and a nice handful of potato chips. “No salad. I caught you.”
“Oh, yeah, I kinda hate vegetables.”
“Seriously?” She acted as if I told her I hated ice cream, which was way more shocking than someone hating vegetables.
“I mean, carrots are cool.”
“Carrots are cool? I didn’t know a vegetable could be cool.”
Who said vegetables were cool? God, how she repeated my lame comment made it seem as if she really thought I was lame. And I didn’t blame her. But the grin still firmly intact made me wonder if she found my dumb carrot comment endearing.
“Yeah…I didn’t know that either until I said it,” I said shamefully.
She laughed. “Wanna go join Miles and Corbin at the crew table?”
We ate with a handful of guys from the crew, all built as if they could do some heavy lifting. I caught Miles eyeing one of the guys who had to be around our age: styled brown hair, a scruffy five o’clock shadow, with long, thick eyelashes and gray eyes. I knew exactly where his mind was.
“Down, boy,” I whispered to Miles.
He snapped his attention to me. “What?”
“I see you drooling.”
He wiped his mouth as his cheeks turned pink. “I’m not drooling.”
But he was. He went back to eating his salad, but I still caught him ogling. When I moved to LA, Miles Estes was the first friend I made. We had first period history together, and I’d smelled the remnants of stale weed emanating from him, which I didn’t expect coming from this skinny kid with a kind, fresh face, rocking black skinny jeans and a gray sweater over a white collared shirt. He looked too straight edge. I asked him if he had some, and he told me to meet him under the football bleachers during lunch. That was how our friendship started. But then once we were comfortable enough to ask about each other’s dating life, I found out Miles was bi at the same time he found out I was a lesbian, and both of our eyes lit up as if we had just found our person. At fourteen, we didn’t know a lot of people who were out, so knowing that we were queer really solidified our friendship.
His eyes lit up with the bearded crew guy the same way they lit up when he found a gay friend.
“Okay, maybe a little,” Miles admitted when he took a sip of water. “He has really nice eyelashes.”
After we all ate, Reagan grabbed her champagne flute and stood on her chair. “Hey, guys! I’d like to make a toast,” she said over the chatter.
But my gaze went straight to those sexy legs and black knee-high boots. She circled her attention around the room. “So, tonight is the big night,” she said, and everyone in the room “wooed” and clapped. “Ten months of planning this tour and working tirelessly to perfect every note, every dance move, every light, the stage, and it’s finally here, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have all of you by my side. This tour wouldn’t be possible without you. This show is sold out, over thirteen thousand people are going to be in that arena tonight. Take in all the sights and sounds. Live in the moment because we’re so lucky that this is what we do for a living. We’ll look back on these days when we’re older and wish we could relive all of this. We’ll remember the friendships we made on this tour, the smiles on the fans, the energy running through us. Don’t take this for granted. Enjoy every second of it. And to my wonderful opener.”
She turned to us with a full smile, and her stare caused my stomach to do backflips again, something I’d never felt until Reagan Moore stood in front of me with that glowing smile; piercing, dark-blue eyes; and those damn boots practically waving hello. It was so hard to look at her eyes instead of her long, built legs that begged for my attention. “I’ve been a fan of you guys for quite some time, and I knew once I heard your EPs that I wanted you guys to open for me someday. So badly. The fans are going to love you just as much as I do, I know it. You never forget your first arena show, so enjoy it. It’s one for the record books.” She raised her glass. “And, everyone, today is Blair Bennett’s birthday, so that means we have to sing and embarrass her.”
Her manager, Finn, came to the table with a giant chocolate cake, the number two and four candles already lit, and in white icing, it said “Happy birthday, Blair.” She was definitely right. I was embarrassed that all those people looked at me and sang “Happy Birthday,” but it was a good embarrassment. I only expected some beers with Miles and Corbin on the bus ride to Vegas, which had happened, and then my birthday would go completely unnoticed in the shadow of the excitement of the first show of the tour and the fact that this was my first birthday with Gramps gone and no family around me.
But the gesture was really sweet, given the fact Reagan Moore and I hadn’t exchanged more than ten sentences up until that point.
An hour and a half later, Miles and I consumed our preshow shots of Patrón and Southern Comfort. We stood in the darkness of the side stage, calming our pounding hearts with deep breaths. Miles drummed on his black skinny jeans as I plucked each string of my Fender to make sure they were perfectly in tune, then wiped my clammy hands on my faux leather pants. Miles and I practiced at least four hours a day, and being confined to a bus while traveling all over the country, I was eager to go out and take the stage, strum my first chord, use my looping station, and play all the other seven instruments I brought to wow the fans. As much as I was excited and bursting at the seams to get out there to play, I also felt so hollow knowing that Gramps wasn’t alive to witness this. When I told him that Reagan Moore wanted us to open for her, his smile took up his whole face, and his dark brown eyes sparkled in the fluorescent hospital lights. The first round of chemotherapy drugs ran through the tubes into his body, and it was only a matter of time before he started to feel the awful side effects of it, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He reached for my hand, clasped it tightly, and said, “I haven’t been prouder of you than I am right now. My little Piglet is going to be a rock star.” And his voice repeated that same comment from wherever he was in the universe, bringing tears to my eyes that I forced back down in my throat because I couldn’t afford to have mascara run down my face.
This performance was for Gramps, the man who raised me, the man who always encouraged my love of music, the man who taught me everything about life, and the strong, intelligent, caring person I hoped to one day be.
This is for you, Gramps.
The lights of the arena hid us in darkness until my Fender ignited the lights for our opening song. It was our job to warm up the crowd for Reagan Moore. In three years, our band made three EPs and we were currently working on our first full-length album. Our song “Tomorrow”—a song about procrastinating and drinking on the beach instead of dealing with the real world—never failed as the opener. And it didn’t fail that night in Las Vegas either. Just a few measures in with the wailing of my Fender, the lights burst on and revealed the thirteen thousand people exploding into a cheer I knew I’d never forget. I remembered Reagan’s pep talk and took in the sight of the faces in front of me and the bodies extending to the far back of the arena, phones in the air, glow sticks bouncing around in the low and high levels; all of it only encouraged me to run up and down the stage to hype up the crowd, encouraged the adrenaline to pump faster, and my fingers to push harder on the strings for extra oomph.
By the end of the seven-song list, I found myself hammering away at the Fender on top of one of those five-foot speakers on the end of the stage, teasing the crowd on the floor and the lower level as I improvised some riff, feeding off their energy and loudness that pierced my in-ear monitors. The crowd on the floor shifted over to me, their hands in the air, sweat sticking to their foreheads a tad less than mine, and their cheers begging for more. As the last chord rang out, I thought, damn, this is fucking amazing. Now this is a high.
That night in Las Vegas, I realized that my love for music and performing might be the cure I needed to sew my life back together. The energy the crowd gave off was addictive. It was even more addictive when they sang the words to our songs right back at us. As an opener, I kind of assumed many people out there in the audience used my stage time as a buffer between bathroom and beer breaks and the main show. And sure, plenty of people did that. Seats were still empty around the arena that slowly filled up the further into our set list we got. But with about three-fourths of the seats already filled with fervent fans, the sounds of them singing to us was a magical cocktail of all the right emotions for me to feel hopeful about the next year on tour. As much as it hurt to know that Gramps was gone, and he wasn’t here to witness the biggest show we had to date, I knew that he would kick my ass if I didn’t take every detail in or fully bask in the glory that was performing in front of people.
And that was what made me smile when I fell asleep in my bunk that first night. This tour? I knew it would save me and put me back on track for this little thing called life.
Boys. I hated them.
Corbin and Miles were velociraptors when they slept. Miles would say it was because of his deviated septum, but honestly, I was sick and tired of people in Southern California blaming everything on a deviated septum. It was liberally self-diagnosed as with doctors diagnosing kids with ADD in the nineties. Deviated septum or not, the dude kept me up at night and really needed to go to a Walgreens to find some breathing strips. Or a sleep clinic. He needed to go to the sleep clinic.
The cadence of their snoring refused to be in sync, and it was the hellish version of the Jurassic Park theme song in the bus. How our bus driver, Tony, was able to even drive through those snores was beyond me. I guess if you lived life as a hippie in the sixties, going on tour with all the rock ’n’ roll greats, you learned to live through any kind of madness.
The sun was my enemy in Salt Lake City. For someone who only had four hours of sleep, that bright, strong Utah sun felt as if I was being smote in a Catholic church.
I opened the storage door on the side of the bus to grab as many instruments as I could. My Hummingbird, mandolin, ukulele. I almost had the electric violin when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped straight up to find Miles’s crew crush with the nice eyelashes laughing at my flinching.
“You’re doing my job,” he said with a smile, pointing to the gear.
He held out his palm to save me from carrying any of my instruments. I guess we really weren’t in Kansas anymore. Gone were the days of me and Miles shoved in a hand-me-down white passenger van with all of our equipment to load and unload, and hello to the days Reagan Moore hired two full sleeper coaches of roadies to do it for us.
I handed him the instruments. “Right, sorry about that. I’m still getting used to this.”
“I’ve been with Reagan since the beginning, and I’m still getting used to it.”
“Just be careful with this one. Most prized possession.” I pointed to the Hummingbird case.
“I’ll handle it with all the love and care. Promise.”
Then Miles’s beau walked away, and I almost felt bad that Miles was still on the bus, missing his chance to gawk at his dreamboat. But then speaking of dreamboats, out of nowhere, Reagan’s blond hair grabbed my attention more than the bright summer sun. She smirked at me with her eyes hidden under her black Gucci glasses, and she clutched a steel coffee container in her hands. My scowl must have given something away because when she looked at me, she laughed.
“Late night?” she said, and I could hear the caffeine humming through her perky voice.
She was decked out in yoga attire that could definitely serve as a shot of espresso for me. The mandala, ocean-printed yoga pants hugged every muscle of her quads and calves while her black racerback tank top showed off those arms. Now I understood how she seamlessly jumped off that enormous stage without a grunt.
Any remaining moisture in my mouth was sucked up by Reagan Moore in her yoga outfit. How did I sign up for that yoga class?
“Yeah, uh, I guess you could say that,” I answered through my arid throat.
“Too much Southern Comfort?”
“Oh, no. More like Corbin and Miles make it sound like we’re living in Jurassic Park in there.”
She laughed. “Yeah…sometimes I have FOMO with no bus mates. And other times—like this one—I’m totally glad that I don’t. Especially boys. They’re loud.”
“And they smell,” I added.
“And they sweat constantly.”
“And they never put the seat down.”
Reagan laughed and tucked a stray hair that didn’t make it in the ponytail behind her ear. “If you ever need to escape the snoring, I have a noise machine that I don’t use because well, not to brag or anything, but I have a whole bus to myself. Don’t really need it.”
“Ouch,” I said and threw a hand over my heart. “Rub it in a little more, will you?”
“Hey, I’m just saying. Oh, and coffee. I have more coffee.” She jiggled her travel mug, and I could hear the coffee sloshing around in it.
“Oh my God, coffee. I need some.”
She offered me her mug. “Take the rest. I don’t need any more. It’s my second mug.”
“Really. It’s yours.”
I gladly accepted. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“Swing by after the show, and the sound machine is all yours.”
She winked and headed back into her bus.
With that wink and the blazing sun, I melted right in my spot.
I went and got that noise machine the next night after we finished our Denver show, where we took full advantage of the legalization of weed. Miles set aside his “deviated septum” card for the “I smoked too much” card when it came to providing an excuse as to why he sounded like a T. rex in heat. The ceramic llama cookie jar that we carefully wrapped in a blanket for extra padding and stored on one of the three empty bunks was now filled with edible gummies, suckers, and plenty of buds, like a stocking on Christmas morning. The only downside to all of the weed was that Corbin’s and Miles’s bodies really reacted well to it when it came to sleeping. And that meant a cacophony of snores.
So, when the meet and greets were over and while the crew packed up the stage, I decided to take advantage of Reagan’s offer. I knocked on her bus door, and Martin, her driver, called to her somewhere in the back of the bus that she had a guest, and I watched her messy bun make its way over to me. She’d already changed out of her concert attire into her more comfortable pj’s, a loose Bonnaroo Music Festival T-shirt from last year and neon green track shorts that showed off those damn legs.
It was a struggle to look her in the eyes.
“So, I’ll make you a deal,” I said and held up an unopened bottle of rosé and a pan of homemade lemon bars I baked for my bus before the tour. “These delicious treats for that noise machine?”
“Wow, wine and lemon bars? Did you make those?”
“I did. I like baking and thought I’d give the headliner a stash, so they’re all yours. We ate some of them, but I also made a lot, so these ones are yours.”
She accepted the pan with a grin. “Thank you, Blair. That’s really sweet of you. I might have one right now.”
“Go for it.”
“And the wine? I’ll be honest, I’m kind of shocked that you have rosé.”
“What’s wrong with rosé?”
“Nothing at all. I just expected you to offer, like, tequila or weed or something else.”
“Oh, I totally have all those things if you want me to get some—”
She raised her hand. “I’m kidding, Blair. I would have never taken you as a rosé chick. Or a Southern Comfort gal, more importantly.”
“Janis Joplin always drank SoCo before her shows,” I explained.
“So SoCo is rock ’n’ roll?”
I paused for a moment to think about it. “Well, I don’t know. Janis Joplin liked it, so maybe.”
“Your sleeve tattoo?” She gestured to my right arm, which was designed with textured black flowers and geometric mandalas coiling from about an inch from my wrist up to my shoulder. “Pretty rock ’n’ roll. Your nose piercing? Pretty rock ’n’ roll. Your Fender? Definitely rock ’n’ roll. SoCo? Not in the slightest.”
“The fact that Janis Joplin didn’t fall into any rock ’n’ roll cliché or stereotypes makes SoCo rock ’n’ roll,” I said.
“Whatever you say, SoCo girl. Come on in.”
When I stepped in her tour bus for the first time, I inhaled cleanliness. I almost forgot what that smelled and looked like because living with boys meant that man musk would quickly take over. And man, did man musk quickly suffuse. I found myself spritzing perfume at Miles’s and Corbin’s bunks every morning as if splashing holy water on a possessed body. But Reagan’s bus smelled like the inside of a candle store and looked like a Beverly Hills mansion on wheels. Mahogany cabinets in the kitchen, tiled floors, LED lights lining the path to the master suite. A sectional couch in the front. Two matching recliners next to it. A kitchen table with loveseats serving as the booths. A freaking electric fireplace.
I was afraid to walk on the tile because my flip-flops probably had specks of dirt caked on them, and her bus was so clean and beautiful. I noticed ocean breeze-scented air freshener beans on the granite countertop as I twisted the cork out of the bottle. Though she appeared to act like a normal twenty-three-year-old, it was the little things that reminded me she was anything but. Little things meaning her designer glasses, roadies to carry all of her tour equipment, and twelve-bus tour parade on the highway. And now her sumptuous set of wheels. Yup, her tour bus was exactly what I would expect an A-list celebrity tour bus to look like inside, and I definitely wasn’t worthy enough to be in it.
“Is that a Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo?” she said and gestured to the back of my left tricep.
I poured us some wine into the plastic wine glasses. “Winnie and Piglet to be exact.”
She laughed and took a generous sip of her wine as if she needed it for fuel. “That’s pretty adorable.”
“My grandpa used to sing ‘Return to Pooh Corner’ by Kenny Loggins to me every night when I was little. He always called me his Piglet. It was my first tattoo. He wasn’t a fan. So, it’s not a surprise he wasn’t a fan of the sleeve or the nose ring.”
“Okay, that’s actually pretty adorable. But not rock ’n’ roll.”
“Man, you’re giving me a beating tonight. And here I thought you were nice.”
“I am nice. You just have to go through initiation. I like to blame it on my brothers. All they did growing up was tease me, so it’s a sign of endearment.”
She gestured for me to sit down. So, I opted for one of those recliners as she took a lemon bar and then stretched out on the sectional. She bit into the dessert, closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and let out the soft moan that activated my brain.
“God, Blair, this is amazing,” she said in mid-chew behind her palm. “The crust on this…perfection.”
Could she take another bite and moan again? Talk about perfection.
“I’m glad you like it,” I said and pulled a large gulp of wine to wash away all those carnal thoughts.
“You bake a lot?”
I nodded. “Yeah, my grandma got me into it. She owned a bakery for the longest time when we used to live in Nashville.”
“Yup, up until I was thirteen, and then I became a California teen.”
She put her hand on her heart. “Aw, we’re both going to have the same hometown shows.” She took another bite of the lemon bar. “Hmm, God, between this and your birthday cake, I’m really gonna have to do some serious yoga tomorrow.”
“Thank you for the cake, by the way. It was really sweet.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, please. It’s your birthday! Everyone deserves a cake on their birthday.” She swallowed. “And a crowd of thirteen thousand people.”
“It was quite the birthday to remember.”
“We’re three shows in, and everyone loves you guys. Like, I’m completely amazed by you guys. You know how long I’ve been a fan?”
I blushed and hid my cheeks behind my wine glass. It was pretty great being complimented by the most popular musician in the music business. “How long?”
“For at least two years. Isaac Ball got me into you guys.”
“Oh yeah, Isaac. I cowrote with him on his last album.”
“I know. When it came out, we grabbed some dinner, and he raved about you. The very first song, ‘Tomorrow,’ had me instantly hooked. And I had no idea that you played, what, eight instruments?”
“Right on the dot.”
I looked up. “Piano and guitar. Learned from my grandpa. Played violin all throughout school. First chair violin in the symphony orchestra right here.”
She laughed and took another sip of wine. “So rock ’n’ roll.”
“Hey, let me bust out the electric violin I have, play a couple loops, and then change your mind.”
She grinned. “Please do. That actually sounds intriguing. What about the other ones?”
“Well, my grandpa started giving me instruments to learn so I would stay out of trouble, and I became obsessed with them and taught myself. So, I learned ukulele, mandolin, harmonica, drums, and the bass guitar. Hoping to learn the banjo next.”
“Wow, you’re practically a musical prodigy. It’s no wonder that you’re Joseph Bennett’s granddaughter. You inherited all his talent.”
Who needed wine as a pick-me-up when I heard Reagan Moore relishing my music?
“Oh, well, thank you. That means a lot.”
“And where did you learn to loop?”
“Honestly, I saw a street performer doing it in West Hollywood when I was a teenager. I stopped and asked him what he was doing, and he told me everything. I asked for a station for Christmas, and the rest is history.”
We both took another liberal gulp, our eye contact never breaking, and because it never broke, my stomach did another backflip. Seriously. What was up with my stomach lately? Her stare drew me in to catch a closer look at the depths of her eyes. At one glance, I’d just catch a beautiful pair of blue eyes. But at a closer look, I almost caught a glimpse of a million stories she tucked way back in those depths. Stories of joy, sadness, hope, and heartbreak. I wanted to know them all.
“You look like you’re in deep thought,” Reagan said with what looked to be curiosity forming a half smile.
She caught me in deep thought about how beautiful her eyes were. I wasted a moment to think about what to say next.
“Just thinking about how I need another glass of wine.”
From Denver to Santa Fe to Tampa to Miami, it was a lot of driving. A lot of music playing. A lot of fans singing back to us. A lot of fans we met and signed autographs for. The excitement of touring didn’t get old. We hosted a party in a different city and venue every night. Drank and socialized with Reagan’s dancers and crew after. I wondered if people ever got sick of touring because I didn’t think I would. No part was boring. Not even all the driving. The driving days, Miles and I drank beers while writing songs, recording demos, and purposely annoying Corbin because it was easy and fun to do. We hadn’t written in months due to my intense writer’s block from Gramps’s cancer and death, and though I still didn’t feel one hundred percent back in it, I felt as if I was on the right path.
I was thankful when we reached Miami, a bustling city with a backdrop of tropical waters, beautiful people, and lots of booze and dancing. The bright blue waters were a wonderful sight after driving through the cornfields of Middle America for the past week.
Miles and I were so ready for the beach…and to be anywhere besides a bus. I got the hint that everyone else on the tour felt the same way because every time we landed in our next destination, we spilled from our buses, formed our cliques, and went off to sightsee if we had even two hours to kill before we had to start getting ready for the show. Everyone except for Reagan, who went straight to her hotel room to do God only knew what until she emerged again at the arena.
I hated that she never went out while all of us bonded, formed inside jokes, and took in the different sights of each city while she locked herself a hotel room, which I’m not sure was drastically different from her bus. She spent a lot of time being alone and cooped up. I don’t know how she did it.
Miles made progress with the cute bearded guy during our adventures with the dancers and crew. Turned out, the bearded guy had a name. Ethan. A political science major who didn’t want to do anything political science related, so he joined Reagan Moore’s tour as a guitar tech. And when Miles, Corbin, and I decided to storm South Beach for some fun in the sun, he invited Ethan. Since Miles would be too busy flirting with a guy who might or might not be into him, I decided to take a risk by texting Reagan about our plans. I knew she would reject them given her history of all the other stops we made in the first week and a half. But even one of the most famous people in the world deserved to enjoy the fresh air, the fun, and to feel included on her own tour. It was worth a shot.
So, I texted her. Miles, Corbin, and I are going to the beach at 11. Come join and have fun with us.
She responded about a minute later. That does sound really fun. I wish I could join but I can’t.
Me: Oh, come on. It’s beautiful out.
Reagan: Last time I went to the beach I got chased off it. True story.
Me: Wear a disguise. We can go find one of those fake mustaches to put on you.
She texted me a smiley emoji, followed by, I would love to, but I really shouldn’t. I don’t want to ruin your fun. Plus, I have a book I should finish.
Me: No! You never come out with us. I refuse to let you be a grandma at 23.
Reagan: Hey! There’s a reason for my madness. It’s called a stampede.
Me: We want you to come out! You deserve to have fun. Try it for a little, and if it’s too much, then we head back. Promise. Enjoy the sunshine and the water. You know you want to.
Reagan: I really do. It sounds wonderful.
Me: Then join. Pretty, pretty please.
I didn’t get a response until two hours later when I heard a knock on my hotel door. When I opened it, I found Reagan in the worst possible disguise. Celebrities and their disguises. Did they really lose all perception of concealing identity once they got their million-dollar check and Twitter verification? The top half of her face was swallowed by a white floppy hat and those oversized black sunglasses, and the rest of her body hid underneath an aqua cover-up dress.
“Ready to hit the beach?” she said with a smile popping through her costume.
“Wait, is that your disguise?”
Her smile dropped. “What?”
“I mean, you look wonderful. No one will ever know it’s you. You’re just a regular gal in Gucci glasses underneath a cloud, I mean, floppy hat,” I said and smacked the brim.
“Are you making fun of me?”
I laughed because she was actually dead serious, as if she legitimately thought it was a good attempt to disguise herself.
“No, why would I do that? It’s not like you made fun of me on your bus, so that would be so cruel and unfair. Now, let’s go. We’re missing prime sun time.”
We made it to one of the last open spots on South Beach without anyone recognizing her. Walking from our hotel to that spot, it felt as if we were helping a prisoner sneak out of jail. But as we laid our towels down, we were still safe. Miraculously.
“See, my disguise worked,” Reagan said and dropped her designer bag down in the sand.
“Yeah, but how are you gonna get in the water with the hat?”
“Why do you keep going after the hat?”
“Um, because you went after my tattoo and alcohol choices.”
I pulled out my sunscreen and attempted to apply it. Miles already was on it with Ethan. By the time I got my sleeve lathered up, he was rubbing sunscreen on Ethan’s back, the two in their own little world and poor Corbin the lone man out, just waiting for a bottle.
“You need help with your back?” Reagan asked.
Miles and Corbin exchanged amused looks and then roared with laughter. Both of them knew better than to offer to help me with sunscreen. It freaked me out when people massaged the lotion into my skin. I didn’t want their grimy hands touching every inch of my body the same way I’d use sensual oils to arouse my partner right before sex. Nope, it felt too intimate. I always did my own back. Also, if someone did your back, it was an unwritten rule that you did their back, and I really didn’t want to lather someone up with sunscreen. Nope, I didn’t want to touch their zits, hairy moles, or back hair. I kept my hands to myself, thank you.
But all that changed when I turned around at the sound of Reagan’s question. There she stood in a white string bikini. My stare went right to her flat stomach and the lines that curved around her abs, probably from yoga and the dancing that was part of her set. And then my gaze fell to her very small bottoms and her muscular legs and then wandered up to her chest. The curves of her breasts were even more perfect than when they appeared in the dip of her black, sparkly bodysuit.
And there I stood, forgetting how to talk, frozen on South Beach on an early June day.
“Huh?” I meant to say, but the sound ended up coming out as an inaudible noise.
“Do. You. Need. Help. With. Your. Back?” Her question was filled with sass, but she eased it with her smirk.
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
I held out the sunscreen mechanically, as if my arm was controlled by an unknown force. That force being her white string bikini. She grabbed the bottle, eyeing me suspiciously, and I hoped that it wasn’t because she noticed my scanning every inch of her body. She squirted the lotion in her hand and motioned me to turn around. Right before she put her hands on me, she stopped before saying, “This is beautiful.”
I sucked in my breath when her fingers touched the black dream catcher tattoo on the side of my ribs. As she traced along the feathers hanging down to the top of my obliques, this electricity hummed from my ribs straight down.
I suddenly needed to guzzle the water bottle I brought in my bag.
“Thank you. Second tattoo.”
“Out of how many?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I lost count when I got this done.” I wiggled my right arm.
That was when her hands landed on my shoulders, shocking me with the cold lotion and the wonderful, gentle touch of her hands massaging that stuff into my skin. Slowly, gently, and methodically. It was almost as if she was purposely trying to make skin care sensual. And it worked because I inhaled from each touch, closing my eyes and basking in her hands wandering all over my back.
“Oh, so Reagan’s allowed to put lotion on you, but you get creeped out when anyone else offers?” Miles whined.
I opened my eyes and found Miles standing there with crossed arms. Sunscreen painted his shoulders that hadn’t been rubbed in by Ethan yet. He was also staring with a crooked grin.
“Okay, Miles.” I tried to shut his trap, knowing the next words to follow.
Reagan laughed behind me as she squirted another round on my arm. Yup, there was no saliva left in my mouth when her boobs leaned into my back as her arms wrapped around me. “You don’t let people help you with sunscreen?” she asked, and her question tickled the back of my neck.
“No, she doesn’t,” Corbin added and was too dumb to notice me shooting daggers right at his flapping mouth. “She thinks it’s too sexual.”
“No, I don’t—”
“Last summer, when we went to Huntington Beach,” Miles continued, “you refused to let us help you with sunscreen. You even turned down Alanna when she offered—her girlfriend, for the record,” he informed Ethan and Reagan, “and then you got that giant-ass burn on your back that had you bedridden for four days. Remember that?”
“Wow, you really don’t like sunscreen, do you?” Ethan said as he returned the sunscreen application to Miles, whose smug smirk grew even wider when Ethan resumed.
“She doesn’t,” Miles said. “And then she begged her ex-girlfriend to put aloe all over her back after that.”
“Remind me to kick sand in your face when she’s done, okay?” I said.
Reagan playfully slapped my shoulders. “All done, SoCo girl. I’m honored to have been allowed to help you prevent skin cancer. Now, do you mind returning the favor? Or is that too weird?”
“She won’t do it,” Corbin said. “It’s another part of the reason why she hates people putting lotion on her back. She doesn’t want to rub anyone’s skin—”
I snatched the bottle out of Reagan’s hands before Corbin could finish. “I got this. Nice try, though.”
Reagan welcomed my lotion-covered hands by lifting her beach-curled hair. I applied the sunscreen on her back the same way she did mine. Slowly kneaded it in her skin, making sure the neck that collected all her stress really got protected from the UV rays. Her skin was so soft, and feeling each curve of her upper back created a low burn in my stomach that radiated down to underneath my bikini bottoms.
“I think Blair has a crush on Reagan,” Corbin chanted not so quietly to Miles and Ethan, who rewarded him with teasing laughter.
“I think we’re past the ‘like’ level,” Miles said. “I’ve known her since we were fourteen, and not once have I ever seen her allow people to rub sunscreen on her. It has to be love.”
I lowered the bottle and glared at all three of them. “Stop making this weird. Seriously.”
And I could see the tug of Reagan’s lips from her ears, only encouraging their banter. “Yeah, guys,” Reagan said. “I’m getting a great massage out of it. Plus, I really believe in exposure therapy, so shut up.”
I ignored their banter because the woman who basically owned the radio and the music charts needed to be protected from the strong Florida rays, or she would be too sunburned to perform, leaving thousands of people devastated and their whole summers ruined. So, basically, I was doing the world justice by touching her skin.
Slowly, my oily hands slid down her back, making a pit stop halfway down where her bikini top tied together. I glided my hands underneath the knot and then to the side, sweeping down the curve of her stomach, then to the small of her back. She leaned her head to the side, and I could have sworn she let out a heavy sigh. A similar sigh to the one that escaped her when she tried my lemon bars.
When I was all finished with the best task ever given to me, she let her hair down and faced me, revealing a satisfied smile. “Well, that was probably the best sunscreen application I’ve ever received.”
“Had to make sure your skin was thoroughly protected.”
“Oh, it’s thoroughly protected. Thanks for the massage,” she said and placed a hand on my shoulder for a brief second.
After that low-key, arousing moment, I made it my mission to be by her and her string bikini for the rest of the time on the beach.
I couldn’t believe her floppy hat and Gucci glasses worked like DEET to mosquitoes, but it did. The five of us spent an hour making a crappy excuse for a sandcastle without having any buckets. Miles and Ethan worked on the moat while Corbin, Reagan, and I sculpted the castle. During the whole sandcastle building, no one spotted her. Granted, she still wore her floppy hat and sunglasses, so it was pretty difficult to make out her face, but Reagan even made a comment how wonderful it felt to go unnoticed and do something as simple as building a sandcastle on the beach.
“You know the last time I did something normal like this in public?” she asked. “Two years ago, I stuck my hair up in a beanie and wore a baggy shirt and sweatpants and no makeup and saw a movie. Those two hours were wonderful. I got a large buttered popcorn. A fountain soda. Sat in the darkest corner like a creep. No one bothered me.”
I started to feel bad for her. Part of me didn’t because everything she had going for her in her career was something I’d dreamed of having ever since I successfully played the treble clef part of “Heart and Soul” on the piano with Gramps when I was five. But the other part of me couldn’t fully understand what it was like worrying about going to the beach or the movies or the convenience store down the street. I still had that luxury.
“So, you’re glad you risked it and came out?” I asked.
“Yeah. Thanks for dragging me out. It’s nice being invisible for once all while getting tan.” She winked.
But by the end of our art sculpting, the five of us took a step back to admire our mediocre work with sweat dripping down our faces. It was a hot day in Miami, with only a few clouds shielding us from the sun. When we finished our sandcastle, we were ready to take a refreshing dip in the bright blue water. The only one who was hesitant was Reagan, knowing she would have to leave her invisibility behind when she removed her floppy hat and sunglasses.
“Remember what I told you,” I said. “We can leave anytime. I’ll kick sand at anyone who tries to bother you.”
That pulled a smile from her. She tossed the hat on the towels and joined Miles, Ethan, and me in frolicking to the water like little kids, while Corbin volunteered to stay behind to watch our stuff. Miles and I fully committed by diving into the crashing waves, allowing the water to wash away the sweat from our faces and bodies. Reagan stayed behind with Ethan waist deep, while Miles and I spent the next few minutes challenging the waves each time they curled forward.
Something about getting tossed around by the ocean waves was thrilling to me.
After I popped my head back up after a few dives and blew the salt water out of my nose, I searched for Ethan and Reagan only to find them back where our towels were with Corbin. A group of teenage girls huddled around Reagan with phones extended in their arms. Despite warning me how she couldn’t go out because of this very reason and despite her subtle complaints about always being noticed, she still bent down to appease her fans, wrapping her arms around them. Ethan and Corbin did nothing but take pictures.
Being invisible only lasted so long for her.
“Oh shit,” I said and trudged through the water.
The snickering high school girls spread the word, and by the time we got back to our towels, the sandcastle had been trampled over by at least a dozen fans asking Reagan for her picture. She entertained most of them by taking selfies, but I caught her eyeing other people nearby on the beach, doing a crappy job at hiding their phones sneaking a picture.
“Hey, let’s head out,” I said to her, tugging her arm before the next round of fans stumbled over.
This time, we didn’t make it to the hotel unnoticed. Even with the floppy hat, bathing suit cover-up, and sunglasses, the fans from South Beach had chased us all the way onto the path toward our hotel.
“Reagan! Reagan! Just one picture, please!” the crowd said.
Without permission, people lurched forward to snap a selfie, immediately looked at how it turned out, and if they didn’t like it, they tried it again. They acted as if she was a zoo animal who they could constantly take pictures of until they got it perfect enough for an Instagram filter.
“Okay, I think you got enough,” I told one fan. I didn’t care if she was only sixteen, she attempted a selfie with Reagan about five times, and every time, Reagan tilted her head forward to avoid the camera lens. The girl gave me this heartbroken sulk, but I wasn’t buying it. “I’m sure one of the twenty-seven pictures you took will be good enough for your Instagram.”
“What a bitch,” she muttered to her friends, but I couldn’t have cared less because she backed away from my bite.
“Stalking and shoving your phone in her face. Classy,” I said back to her, and she flipped me off.
When I opened the hotel doors, a few fans attempted to walk in with us. Luckily, the hotel was already on it, and security came running out and pushed them back outside in the heat. As we sprinted to the elevators, I knew the damage had been done. They knew where she was staying and would probably spread the word to internet message boards. I felt responsible for all of it. I was so angry that our good time building sandcastles and the genuine happiness emanating from Reagan about being normal for once was ruined by stalking fans.
In the elevator, she was silent. She held her glasses in her hand, but her eyes were hidden by her floppy hat.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I guess I had no idea how bad it could get.”
Finally, she looked up at me. Neutral expression firm and steady on her face. She seemed just as disappointed as I felt. “It’s not your fault, Blair.”
“But I dragged you out of your room—”
“You didn’t, though. I chose to come, and I’m glad I did. This wasn’t anything for the record books. I’m fine.” She attempted a smile, but I knew it was forced.
The elevator dinged for my eleventh-floor room. As I stepped out, I felt her fingers grab hold of mine, instantly shooting something magnetic into my body. “Can we do wine after the show?” she asked, and when I met her stare, it was like something passed through us. The connection sizzled. “I don’t feel like being cooped up by myself.”
“I think you deserve it,” I said.
With that, she let go of my hand, a satisfied grin etched back on her face, and the doors closed.