Do you believe? In fairy tales? In happily ever after? In love?
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The Right Man
by Michelle Mankin
“Tell me about Cinderella again, Gran,” the little girl asked Alice as she reached to switch off the lamp. “It’s time for bed, sweetheart.” “Just one more time. Please.” Jewel blinked her big golden eyes. “I’ll go right to sleep afterward. Promise.” “All right.” Alice’s expression softened. Her granddaughter was the apple of her eye, and she could hardly refuse the child anything. Carefully, she tucked the ruffled pink comforter she had sewn for Jewel around her. “But how about a different love story this time?” “Another fairy tale?” Jewel lisped through her two missing front teeth. She was about to start second grade, not yet ready to set aside the happily-ever-after endings of her favorite childhood stories. “Much better than that.” Alice smiled, and nostalgia warmed her heart. “A real love story. The story about how your grandfather and I met.” “Oh, goody.” Eagerness bloomed in the seven-year-old’s peaches-and-cream complexion. “All right. Once upon a time—” “That’s how all good stories start,” Jewel said with a knowing nod. “Yes, you’re right, and this is a good one. The very best.” Smiling, Alice stroked her granddaughter’s silky hair. This nightly ritual was her favorite part of the day. “Once upon a time, there was a fall celebration in our little town, and everyone received an invitation. I just had to go. You see, there was a handsome boy who had caught my eye.” “Granddad?” “Yes, precious one.” She patted the girl’s small hand. “My best friend, Pauline, told me he and his friends were planning to attend. But there was one problem. I had nothing to wear.” “What did you do?” The little girl’s auburn brows knitted together. “Did you wish for a gown from your fairy godmother?” “Wishes are the seeds of desire within your heart. Sometimes to make them come true, you have to plan and take action. I knew Pauline’s sister was my size, so I borrowed a dress from her.” “And you went to the dance in an enchanted carriage?” “Nothing quite so fancy.” Alice chuckled. “I went in a rusty old farm truck.” “Oh.” Jewel frowned, and her bottom lip jutted out. Drawing her granddaughter back into the tale, Alice waved a hand in the air as if to sprinkle stardust. “Nevertheless, the night had plenty of magic. Excitement buzzed in the air. Fireflies twinkled in the field like fallen stars. Streamers fluttered from the barn’s rafters. The tables were laden with delicacies fit for any princess. I brought my mother’s famous peach pie.” “That’s my favorite!” “I know, sweetheart. When I set the plate down, I looked up and immediately found him. Your grandfather stood so tall, head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. So handsome in his crisp white shirt and pressed jeans, he marched straight to me. People cleared out of his way as if he had given them some silent command.” “And then what happened?” Jewel asked. “He stopped in front of me and said, ‘I’m Eli. I’ve seen you around town.’ And I told him, ‘I’m Alice. I’ve seen you around too. I like your blue eyes.’ Then he said, ‘I like your honesty, Alice,’ and smiled at me, a smile so big and bright, it melted my heart.” “Did it hurt when your heart melted?” Jewel asked, her button nose scrunched. Alice laughed. “No, dear. It means it felt warm and happy. So then your grandfather said, ‘I have to confess something. I only came to the party tonight to see you. You’re pretty and sweet, and I’ve been watching you and hoping to meet you for some time now.’ Then he held out his hand, and I took it without hesitation. When his fingers closed around mine, I knew.” “What did you know?” the little girl whispered, her eyes as big and round as a harvest moon. “That he was mine. That I was his. That he was gentle, kind, and everything I needed.” “How could you tell?” Jewel asked. “Because his steady gaze was true, and his grip was sure. Because he was considerate. Because while we danced, he told me his plans for the future, and how he wanted me to be part of it. And then he asked me to marry him.” “After one dance?” The little girl’s expression turned wistful. “Just like Prince Charming in Cinderella.” Alice nodded. “Your grandfather was a simple farmer, just like his father and his grandfather before him. The passing of the tobacco farm from one generation to the next was the only part of his life that resembled royalty. He worked hard from sunup to sundown every day to provide the necessities we currently enjoy: food, clothing, and shelter. But the very best thing he gave me was his love.” Cupping Jewel’s cheek, Alice said, “Through that love came your mother, and then you. Carriages, castles, and crowns are fun to dream about, my darling, but having all that finery won’t make you genuinely happy. Only real love will. Real love will stay by your side, through thick and thin. Real love will make the good times better and the bad times bearable. Use your head to find love like that, Jewel, and trust your heart to do what’s right to keep it.” Jewel nodded. “I know.” Surprised, Alice chuckled. “Is that so?” “Yes, Gran.” The girl studied her grandmother for a moment. “I know because you’ve shown me.” “I hope so, sweet girl. I hope you don’t forget, and that my example is enough. I hope you never have to learn the hard way about how difficult life can be.” “Like my mother?” Jewel’s lip trembled. Alice studied her granddaughter, surprised by the clarity of the child’s perception. She’d mistakenly believed Jewel had been too young to remember the circumstances of her life before her grandmother had adopted her. “Beauty is reflected in honorable actions, not pretty promises, not in what a person has or how they look on the outside.” She took and squeezed her granddaughter’s hand. “And the right man—a good man—is one who will look at you with love in his eyes. He’ll listen. He’ll be gentle. He will show he cares by the changes he makes in his life for you.” Alice smiled bravely, blinking back the tears that threatened at the memory of her Eli, and gave her granddaughter the best advice she could. “A good man’s arms, not a castle, will be the most perfect home you will ever find.”
Rush Naked and on my side, I was being worked over by three curvaceous women in the middle of my hotel bed. I weighed the supersize tits of the babe in front of me, not sure if they were fake or real, while the chick who pressed into me from behind ran her manicured nails around my nipples. Guys who tell you that isn’t a turn-on? They’re fuckin’ lying. Tension built inside me as the third woman worked my cock. She knew what she was doing. Determined, she kept at me as I lengthened in her hand, not stopping even when I was distracted by a phone call from my drummer, Jack Howard, about another argument between him and my bassist, Benton Kennedy. My bandmates had been at each other’s throats the entire week, ever since Ben had been busted having phone sex with Jack’s wife. I didn’t get the constant competition between them. Maybe the rivalry arose from their different backgrounds. Jack had been raised in an abusive low-income home, while Ben had a privileged upbringing where his physical needs were indulged but his emotional needs were ignored. But why poach another guy’s woman? There was plenty of unencumbered snatch on the road. Groupies at the venues. Groupies on the bus. Groupies at the pre-show hotel parties like this one. A never-ending surplus of them. They threw themselves at us constantly. The last stop on the tour tonight? No exception. Apparently noting my inattention, the groupie behind me pinched my nipples at the same time the one down low fisted my rod like a super-tight cunt. Refocused, I felt a tingle begin at the base of my spine. The chick crouched beside me shoved one of her basketball-sized globes into my mouth, and my body drew taut. Fake or real, tits were tits. I had a pair of fantasies to suck on, two pressed into my back, and two more shadowing my cock. I swirled my tongue around the globe in my mouth and sucked its elongated nipple between my lips, then bit down. Fantasy Chick liked that a hell of a lot. She moaned, and the hand working my steel-hard cock sped up. Finally, inevitably, it happened. Three bodacious babes, naked and writhing on my hotel bed with me? Yeah, that setup had the desired effect. Despite a bump of coke and too much whiskey, I groaned low in my throat and let go. My spine stiffened as I released my load. Spurts of hot cum coated the pumping hand fastened around my cock. “All right, darlin’,” I said as I sat up. Over and done, from the heights of make-believe to the depths of reality I crashed. Disappointment awaited me on the other side. “That’s enough. Hands off my junk.” As my dissatisfaction came roaring back, I didn’t bother pretending I was interested anymore. Because I was an asshole. But also because I knew what this was, and so did they. I got a reprieve from the hubris of my own headspace, and they got bragging rights that they had done it with Rush McMahon, Black Cat Records’ biggest rock star. An even exchange. And now I wanted them gone. Their clashing fragrances filled the air, searing my nasal passages and making my eyes burn. “Nothing personal,” I said as I carefully swept Fantasy Chick out of my way. The down-low chick was already on the floor retrieving her clothes. The ringleader of the trio, she seemed well versed with the fuck ’em and leave ’em drill. “Pick up your cell phones in the other room on your way out,” I said gruffly. “What about our VIP passes?” the ringleader asked, her voice shrill and her calculating eyes narrowed. “Those too.” I whipped the rumpled sheet off the bed and tucked it around my waist. “My manager will see that you’re taken care of. Go on. Move along.” Shuffling them toward the door without allowing them time to finish dressing, I explained. “I gotta get ready for the show.” I clicked the door closed behind them and turned to press my back against it, squeezing my eyes shut as the weariness of the nine-month-long tour slammed down on me. I was so fucking sick of it. Night after night, day after day, it was always the same. Show, long bus ride, hotel, chicks, booze, more chicks, more booze. “Be careful what you wish for, my boy.” My father’s words of advice rattled around inside my skull as clearly as the day he’d spoken them. “Dreams are great things—unless they’re misguided ones.” He’d thought mine were misguided. The way I felt today, I certainly couldn’t argue with his assessment. Don’t, I warned myself. Don’t you fucking feel sorry for yourself. You’re Rush McMahon, on top of the world. Top of the charts. You busted your ass, and you made it. And now you have everything you ever wanted. Yet, as I opened my eyes and glanced around the opulent suite, I knew I had nothing I really needed. Nothing that mattered. And no one in my life anymore who truly understood how I felt. I raked my hand through my hair. Bullshit! Introspection like this was a waste of time. It didn’t change anything. No, what was called for here was self-medication. At the proper dosage, it would suppress the brain’s tendency toward focusing on unproductive matters while keeping it coherent enough to be functional. With that goal in mind, I tugged the sheet tighter around me and pushed away from the door just in time to escape the rising sound of the irritated voices on the other side. Groupies never responded favorably to being forced to sign nondisclosure agreements. No signature? No cell phone. Yeah, I might feel like a loser at the moment, but I wasn’t a fool. No way in hell was I going to let some random chicks I’d just fucked screw me over with a viral video. Returning to the center of the room, I paused at the glossy mahogany table and grabbed the half-full bottle of Jameson I’d abandoned earlier. I lifted it into the air in a toast. “Here’s to you on your wedding day, darlin’. And here’s to me, myself, and I—and the fuckin’ success I am without you.” Fuck, that sounded lame. Apparently, banging groupies hadn’t gotten my mind off anything. Exchanging one rock star’s vice for another, I brought the bottle to my lips and knocked back an unhealthy swallow. My throat warmed, and the chill inside my chest receded. A pleasant numbness settled into my limbs as I snagged my cell from the charging cradle. I loaded some of my music and hit play, needing some fucking sound to drown out the silence. Whiskey in hand, I headed toward the balcony on a mission for some perfume-free air. I threw open one of the French doors and slipped through the gap. The outside speakers crackled as they picked up the first track. My guitar chords streaked like a blazing comet through the darkness. It was some kickass ax work, if I did say so myself. And I did. Hearing it brightened my gloom. I set the bottle on a cushioned lounger—not that I wouldn’t hit it again or tag another chick later. I just had a better option for now. With my own voice serenading me, I moved to the edge of the balcony to take in the view. Elbows propped on the iron railing, I surveyed the twinkling lights of LA from fifteen stories above. Jack’s drums pounded the melancholy from my chest. Ben’s snaky bass groove further improved my mood. A breeze gently lifted the layers of hair at my brow, soothing me. My lips curved. My twisted guts unraveled. Liquor and drugs were only temporary fixes. Music was my preferred therapy. The lifeblood of my soul. The rhythm of my heart. My unshakable foundation. Brenda had never fully understood that . . . or me. Like my dad, she’d thought my career was some post-adolescent phase. Even if I hadn’t screwed up with her, she and I would have never worked. On that depressing note of clarity, I finally noticed the cold of the stamped concrete seeping into the soles of my bare feet. The chill spread throughout my body, raising goose bumps on my skin. Sighing, I turned away from the view. At the lounger, I bent and snagged my bottle before reentering the suite. On my way to the shower, I shook my head as an unmistakable ringtone stopped me in my tracks. Shit. I walked back to my phone. My manager’s disapproving image lit up the screen. “Hello?” My gut tightened again as I braced for the inevitable lecture. “You’re not dressed yet, are you?” Bradley Marshall asked, sounding as stick-up-his-ass irritated as he usually did lately. “No, man.” “Pre-show meet and greets are in ten minutes.” “I know. Gotta shower first.” “I’ll bet you do. Hell, Rush, you probably need a hazmat unit to get clean after rolling around with that unholy trinity. The blonde had some video of you snorting coke off her tits. Must have taken it before we confiscated their phones.” “Uh, well . . .” “I deleted it.” “Thanks.” “Not smart.” “I know, it’s just—” Brad sighed. “Yeah, I know. Today’s been rough for you. But you didn’t really think she was going to wait around forever, did you?” “No, man. I lost her. I know the score.” A beautiful, caring woman like Brenda? I’d known it would only be a matter of time before some other guy came along who could give her what she wanted. Things I couldn’t or wouldn’t offer. Fidelity. Reliability. A permanent home. “You send her the flowers?” I asked. Red roses. Her favorite. “Yeah, but I don’t think it was such a great idea. Those aren’t the kind of flowers you send somebody on their wedding day.” “I had to do something.” “You shoulda just called. Told her you’re sorry you screwed up with her. Wished her well. If Randy sees ’em and figures out who they’re from, it’ll just piss him off.” “Too bad. My brother’s marrying my ex-fiancée.” I had been prepared for her to move on. It was who she’d moved on with that had blindsided me. “Doesn’t anyone get that I’m the injured party?” Brad snorted. “You stepped out on her.” “We were on a break! And she’d withdrawn from me emotionally long before that.” So did everyone else back home when I dropped the bomb that I was leaving college to pursue a career in the music business. Everyone except for Brad. “Not an excuse,” he said. Brad didn’t bullshit, just spewed the facts as he saw them. He always gave it to me straight, which was one of his best qualities. He had a lot of them—intelligence, loyalty, honesty. There were a lot of reasons he was my best friend, my only one these days. My bandmates didn’t count. We enabled one another’s dysfunctions. “I know. I get it. I came clean with her and accepted the blame.” I raked a hand through my hair, and my agitated movement stirred up more noxious perfume. The fragrance stung my eyes again, making them tear up. It sure as shit wasn’t the sharp shards of regret. I had made my bed. Gotten laid in it before I ended it with her. But I was good now. Things were better. I’d moved on. So, why did every step I’d taken since then feel like the biggest lie of all?
Jewel “Shit,” I muttered, waking to my alarm blaring. Rolling over, I fumbled for my cell. After swiping off the clock function, I frowned into the grainy gray twilight. I couldn’t believe it was sundown already. “Get a move on, Jewel, my precious gem. Nothing’s worse than time that’s wasted.” Gran’s age-warbled voice was only in my mind nowadays, but hearing it echo in the lonely hallways of the past made tears prick my eyes. “I miss you,” I whispered to the painting of her that hung on the wall opposite my bed. Eyes a golden shade nearly identical to mine, though infinitely wiser, seemed to gaze back sympathetically. If only I’d heeded her wisdom. “I’m sorry, Gran.” Her serene expression radiated forgiveness because that was the way I wanted to read it. But there would never be any absolution. All that remained was the portrait. An amateur one. After all, it had been my hand that had painted it. The lessons to improve my craft that I’d hoped to take when I moved to LA had never come to pass. More practical concerns like food and shelter had quickly taken precedence over art and dreams. Reminded of those pressing needs, I tossed aside my threadbare covers, bolted upright in bed, and threw my legs over the side. I needed to get ready. No one was going to wave a magic wand and make money appear. Swallowing hard, I grounded myself by gripping the edge of the bed—the cot that functioned as one—in my apartment that was barely larger than a broom closet. A translucent scarf thrown over a light bulb didn’t soften the harsh reality. My current accommodations were a far cry from the comforts I’d once enjoyed inside my grandmother’s foursquare home. Here, cardboard boxes served as tables. Plastic cartons stacked as shelves. Foil over the lone window curtained the light during the day. My already sagging spirits sank lower when I noted the other cot beside me was unoccupied. The rumpled sheets provided no clue as to where my roommate had gone. She was probably gallivanting around doing who-knew-what as usual. Camaro Montepulciano had a kind heart, taking me in when I had nowhere else to go. She’d shown me the ropes. But she rode on the winds of her everchanging moods. I let out a disappointed sigh, but I didn’t fault her. Cam had her flights of indulgence; I had mine. Painting, mainly, though I only had the dregs of a few basic colors left to work with and no more canvases. No escaping through the strokes of an imagined reality today. Feet on the floor, I firmed my frown into a determined line and got out of bed. I stood, my fingers curled into my palms. The embers of a once-bright hope flickered uncertainly inside my chest. Wishes couldn’t fan them to a healthy glow, not when blanketed by so many suffocating regrets. I closed my eyes, allowing myself a moment in the meadow in my imagination. A crown of common daisies on my head and a handful of them in my tiny grip. My grandmother beside me, her strong fingers wrapped around mine. Gran had been my firm foundation when the world around me was shaken. It had been eighteen months since she passed, but her loss hadn’t gotten any easier. For me, grief wasn’t just a burden, it was a razor-sharp knife that had carved out a permanent cavity inside me. Opening my eyes, I blinked through the sting of tears and ineffectively rubbed my hand over my aching heart before I shuffled to the shower. Predictably, the hot water ran out halfway through, and I had to rinse my hair in a cold stream. Sliding the plastic curtain back, I stepped over the rim of the tub and placed my feet on the old towel that stood in for a bathmat. Ribbons of russet against my slim shoulders wept rivers that rushed downward over the slopes of my breasts. I grabbed a towel from the rack and draped it around my slender frame. It absorbed the excess moisture from my body, but it couldn’t wipe away the pain. At the cracked pedestal sink, I picked up the comb from the glass shelf and began the time-consuming process of running it through the long strands to untangle my hair. My empty stomach grumbled. I ignored it and the reflection of myself in the rusted mirror. I preferred not to acknowledge the hard-learned lessons reflected in my eyes. Finished with my hair, I set aside the comb and returned to the adjoining room. Maybe I had a leftover packet of crackers in the bottom of my bag. Crouching beside my cot, I removed the slouchy handbag I stored under it. I rummaged through the contents, looking for money and food, but discovered it was as empty as my stomach. Setting it aside, I pulled out the box that contained my clothes. Not the ones I was most comfortable in. The other ones. My work clothes. I laid out the lace and the silk on the bed. Seductive undergarments on one side. All the pieces to the costume that made up my outward persona on the other. It helped to compartmentalize the two aspects of my life. What happened to her, my alter ego, didn’t happen to me. It was a lie, but sometimes I believed it. Lingerie and outfit on, nail polish and makeup applied. I tucked my hair under a wig and arranged its platinum-blond pigtails around my face, avoiding looking at my heavily mascaraed eyes rimmed in kohl as I took a quick glance at my reflection. The white oxford shirt had been too tame before I took a pair of shears to it, cutting off the sleeves and baring the midriff all the way to my bra. The red-and-black-sequined skirt I’d salvaged from the dumpster at Goodwill was so short, it revealed the racy crimson-and-black garters that held up my fishnet stockings. Black sky-high stilettos completed the look. The whole effect was my artistic bent put to practical use. When I was done, my persona was part naughty Catholic schoolgirl and part comic-book villainess. I tugged on a hooded jacket against the night chill and stuck out my tongue at my reflection before I left the bathroom. This chick doesn’t take anything seriously. She doesn’t put up with shit, and she does what needs to be done. Shoulders back, spine straight, invisible armor against reality in place, I left the apartment. The musty corridor was deserted, thankfully, except for a half-naked man lying on the hallway floor. I stepped over him, and he grunted. “Sorry, Terrance.” “It’s okay, Jules.” His wizened face riddled with pockmarks, he peered up at me through his good eye. “You going out?” The idea of that seemed to make him sad. He wasn’t alone in that sentiment. “Yeah.” My gaze slid away. I had no food. The rent was overdue. I had no choice. “There’s always a choice.” Gran’s voice echoed inside my head again. Only she was gone, her bright, shining ideals carried off with her, leaving me alone with no one but myself to rely on. “Watch out for Wanda,” I told Terrance. “She on the warpath?” “If you mean is she on a mission to clear out the nonpaying residents who like to nap for free in the hall, then yeah, that’s what she’s on for sure.” “Shit.” He sat up and reached for the oversized garbage bag that contained all his belongings. “Don’t have no place else to go,” he muttered. “And there but for the grace of God go you.” Gran’s voice. And that small-town upbringing I’d run away from. I sighed. I couldn’t let him inside the apartment. But the shelter on Peach? I had a token for a bed. I’d gotten one just in case I had nowhere else to go. Bracelets jangling on my wrist, I dove my hand into the pocket of my skirt. “Here.” I offered the token to Terrance. “You sure?” he asked, even as he stretched out his thin arm to take it. “I’m sure.” I fought back the wave of trepidation and got my feet moving again. Traversing the remaining length of the narrow hallway, I pushed open the door to the stairwell. I glanced around inside it to make sure it was clear before I started down. At the bottom, I pressed the bar to open the heavy steel door but jumped back when a diminutive black woman with an attitude as huge as the Hulk appeared inside the circle of light from the overhead motion sensor. “Wanda,” I said. Shit. Shit. Triple shit. I wobbled on my stilettos. My retreat was cut off as the door to return inside the building snapped closed behind me. “Jewel Anderson, I thought I might find you here.” In a business suit, her glasses sliding to the tip of her nose, Wanda raked her gaze over me. “Going somewhere?” “Um, yes. I—” “You conveniently forget that your rent is due?” She arched a brow. “No, I’m just—” “Sneaking around. Three days late.” She clucked her tongue. “You’ll pay the late penalty. I’m not floating you a zero-interest loan.” “I know you won’t. I didn’t expect you to. It’s just that we’re a little short this month.” “You two are always a little short. I should’ve kicked your sorry asses out the first time. Girls like you—” “Not a single person is on a waiting list to move into your apartments,” I said, my spine stiffening. “Tiny rooms. A/C and heat that’s always fritzing out. No blinds on the windows. Hot water that barely works.” I put a hand on my hip and lifted my chin. “And you don’t know me or the type of girl I am.” Wanda scoffed. “Girl, I know everything I need to know about you. Cheap-ass hooker, blaming everyone but yourself for the predicament you find yourself in.” She looked down her nose at me, and even though I stood a half foot taller than her in my stilettos, I was the one who felt small. I didn’t like her. I didn’t like her at all. Even when the rent wasn’t due, I avoided her. “I’ll have your money after tonight,” I said, though my stomach churned on nothing but my bravado. “You will, or I’ll be evicting you first thing tomorrow morning.” Once she hit me with that ultimatum, she spun around. Her sensible heels clicked on the concrete as she marched the length of the alley. Probably off to her office to roll around on her stacks of cash and polish her broomstick. Mean. Evil. Spiteful woman. My eyes burned from within their kohl frame as I watched her go. Don’t cry, I told myself, curling my hands into fists and focusing on the bite in my skin from my nails rather than on my fear that my roommate and I would likely be on the streets soon. I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t give up before I even tried. It wasn’t just me. There was Cam to consider. Reopening my eyes, I forced my body into motion, navigating the trash strewn in the alley. Crushed aluminum cans. Broken liquor bottles. I stepped gingerly between them, feeling as used up and empty as the abandoned items around me. At the sidewalk, I slowed my pace and ducked into the shadows beneath the awning of an adult-clothing shop. I glanced over my shoulder. No sign of Wanda or anyone else watching me. I let out a sigh and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate glass. My eyes were wide pools of gold beneath dark auburn brows. If only they were an actual physical commodity I could pawn. I slammed them closed. Fool’s gold. They gave away too much. It was unwise to appear vulnerable outside the apartment. Opening my eyes again, I narrowed my gaze and gulped in a deep, determined breath. Then I reached for the hood on my jacket and pulled it over my wig. Be brave, I told myself, remembering another of Gran’s sayings. “Bravery isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to keep going despite insurmountable obstacles.” Bravery was my choice. One foot in front of the other. My night was only starting; I still had to get on the bus. It would take me two transfers to get to the better-paying side of town. Further, I had to hope that I looked more tempting than the girls who had already set up shop over there. If I didn’t, I was fucked, and not in the way that would get me the money I needed to pay the rent.
Rush “Rush. Rush. Rush.” The chanting of my name echoed in the cinder-block corridor after I left the stage. “They want a second encore,” Brad told me, as if I didn’t already know. “They can’t always get what they want.” I snagged the white towel a stagehand offered me and swiped it across my brow. Narrowing my eyes at my manager, I noticed the chicks we swept past vied for his attention as much as they did for mine. Blond, blue-eyed, barely older than me, Brad was the manager of the ten-million-dollar-a-year Rush machine. He was also catnip to the backstage pussy that went for his Armani brand of boring boardroom predictability. “Life sucks and then you die, right?” “Rush.” His tone was warning as he glanced up from his phone and the glow of platinum profits from tonight’s sold-out show. “Not here.” He lifted his chin to remind me of our audience. “Put a lid on the negativity.” He might have a point about the crowd. My PR rep, the stylist, and the visiting record-label VP had signed nondisclosure agreements, same as the groupies. While my staff was paid handsomely to keep their mouths shut whenever I shot off mine, I held no such sway with the ticket-holding masses. “I’m not making apologies for how I am.” Brad frowned as we entered the dressing room. “You weren’t always this difficult.” I brushed past him on the way to the bar. Out of deference to my company, I poured a tumbler of whiskey. Alone, I would have chugged it straight from the bottle. I threw back the socially acceptable portion, but the fire the amber elixir ignited barely registered. Ditto for the lingering adrenaline rush from the roar of the Staples Center crowd. Get a grip, I told myself, staring at my reflection. The guy within the rectangular frame of bulbs surrounding the mirror looked a little too needy and wrung out. His brown hair was plastered to his skull, and so saturated with sweat, it appeared black. The eyes were the real giveaway. Twin portals whirled with a vortex of negative emotions. “No more drinking.” Brad snatched the bottle of Jameson from my grasp. “You know what happened last time you got trashed.” “I remember. No need to rub my nose in it.” Sales had gone in the shitter after someone posted a video of me going nuclear on an overly aggressive paparazzo. I had zero regrets. Asswipe had it coming for shoving his camera in my mother’s face at the funeral. If my father had been the pillar of strength in our family, she was the pedestal. Only she had crumpled completely when they lowered his casket into the ground. Remembering that day and all that had been lost, the ground rumbled at a Richter-scale magnitude beneath my feet. The betrayal of my ex-fiancée marrying my brother was a minor temblor in comparison. It wasn’t only that my father was gone, or that Brenda had moved on, it was that so much had been left unresolved with each of them. I knew my failure as a man was the common factor with each. As the specter of that truth rose within me, my mouth went dry and my hands twitched. I needed another drink. No, I wanted to drain that entire fucking bottle of whiskey dry. And I knew what that meant. The narrow line I’d been walking with my drinking had gone well beyond a casual thing. I ripped my gaze away from my reflection and glared at Brad. “Is my car washed and gassed up?” I could see no other cure for what ailed me. I needed to get away before I did something ill-advised. Paparazzi were like a plague of locusts, ready to devour my mistakes, and talking heads were on standby to regurgitate the lurid stories for mass consumption. He scowled at me. “Yeah, but do you really think you’re in any condition to drive?” “I need some fresh air.” “Rush, you’ve got interviews and the VIP meet and greets.” “You said we were through with all the bullshit after tonight.” “After tonight’s obligations. It’s not all about you. Your fans are what keeps the Rush machine cranking out the cash, and you know it.” “Yeah. All right. I get it.” I closed my fingers into tight fists, wishing they were gripping the leather-wrapped steering wheel of my Porsche instead. “They get an hour.” I could do sixty more minutes for him and for my bandmates who worked as hard as I did. But that was it. I was as sick of myself and the arrogant rock-star act as everyone else was. “After that, I’m gone.” “Everyone out.” Brad barked the order to the media reps who had followed us into the dressing room. “Rush needs a shower.” He cast his authoritative gaze around the throng within the claustrophobic ten-by-fourteen-foot space. As usual, when he spoke, people listened. It was an innate ability he’d been honing since I met him in grade school and he convinced our headmaster that after-school suspensions were inhumane. “Interviews will run according to the order on the sign-up sheet,” Brad said, and the already rapidly emptying room cleared out even faster. Everyone hoped to be first in line. When only my entourage remained, he addressed our small crew. “Thanks for all your hard work tonight. I’ll meet you in the green room. For now, I need you to give us some privacy.” They filed out, and as soon as the door shut behind them and we were alone, Brad narrowed his gaze on me. “Been on tour for nine months without a fuckin’ break,” I said quickly, recognizing the impending lecture gleaming in his eyes. “I gotta go off the grid before I go completely insane, man.” “I hear you.” He studied me a long beat. Whatever he saw turned his light blue eyes storm-cloud dark. “I’ve got your back. You know I do. But you aren’t the only one who’s dead tired. If you go underground this time, I need you to stay underground, all right? I’ve been at the center of this whirlwind with you, and I’d like a breather from the chaos too. So, no aspiring actresses during the break. No models. And no more Rock Fuck Club chicks.” “You expect me to be celibate?” I raised my brows. “As a priest.” “After the stunts we pulled in Catholic school, I don’t think they’d allow either of us to become men of the cloth.” “Real wine swapped out for grape juice.” His flattened lips twitched. “Frogs and garden snakes in the sisters’ lockers.” I grinned. “They were prophylactic measures. Our stunts served a purpose.” “Kept those rulers off our knuckles after that, didn’t they?” I nodded, missing those days when we’d not only had each other’s backs, but also confided everything to each other. Simpler days. Simpler lives. Brad’s expression turned serious again. “So, you headed to your condo in Santa Monica?” “Yeah, after I drive around a bit. Clear my head.” “You mean go to a bar, pick up a chick, and get laid again.” “Probably.” “Your standards are appallingly low.” He shook his head. “I’m going back home. I’ll be reachable on my personal number if you need me.” “Bree giving you another chance?” I asked. He’d been practically domesticated by her. Shit, I’d given up on that gig after my one and only failed attempt. Why settle for one woman when I could have however many I wanted each night? “I hope she does.” Brad’s brow creased, and suddenly, he seemed less like the confident business manager and more like my geeky grade-school friend. He knew my issues as well as I knew his. The past year had been tough on both of us. But this girl mattered to him. Giving me a serious look, he said, “Make this break count, Rush. I plan to. Get your head together. We’ve got from now through New Year’s off, then we’re back out on the road.” • • • Stuck at a stoplight an hour later, I impatiently drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. The street sign seemed to mock me, probably because I’d seen it before. At least three times. How the fuck did I end up circling back to the same corner on Wilshire? I glared at my navigation display. Unreliable piece of shit. This wasn’t anywhere near the hotel where my next hookup was waiting. I zoomed in on the map. Maybe I could take Hollywood Boulevard around and then just cut back in at . . . Fuck. That route for whatever reason was all red. A parking-lot standstill. And I didn’t know this part of town well enough to come up with an alternative. My phone rang. The display switched off the map to reveal it was my mother calling. My heart stuttered. Our communication was irregular, especially sparse since the funeral. Her phoning at this time of night led me to immediately anticipate a crisis. “Hey, Mom,” I said. “Is everything okay?” “No, not really.” “Are you sick?” My voice lowered to a strained rasp. An out-of-the-blue phone call similar to this one had broken the bad news about my father. A massive heart attack. Gone within a matter of hours, before I could even say good-bye. Had I come to terms with it? Had she? Hardly. “No, Rush.” Mom’s voice sounded a little strange, as if I’d caught her off guard. “I just had my yearly routine checkup.” “Okay. Good.” Shaky, I steered the Porsche to a nearby curb. Since I was using the Bluetooth connection, I hadn’t taken my hands off the wheel, but it was too distracting to drive while talking to her. “So, what’s up?” A quick glance out the windows confirmed I wasn’t in the best part of town. Porn shop. A couple of skeezy-looking bars. A by-the-hour motel. I clicked the locks. “I’m lonely. Sad. I rarely hear from you anymore. You’re my boy, and I miss you.” Her voice hitched, and my stomach bottomed out as if it had been dropped from a height. “Mom, I’m sorry. It’s just been crazy busy . . .” I pulled in a breath, not knowing what the fuck to say. Even before the rift between us, I hadn’t been any good at the emotional stuff. It wasn’t the way I’d been raised. Life had been rough growing up in the heartland. Dad had been a farmer and rancher, the family livelihood largely dependent on the Indiana weather. Our lives revolved around pragmatism and planning. There wasn’t any thought of getting in touch with our feelings, no understanding for a son who preferred to express his creativity through music. And certainly no neutral ground for reconciliation after I left them and chased after my unlikely dreams. And now the man who had modeled the values of strength and silent stoicism was gone. Far beyond my reach. The chance for us to explore those feelings was taken with him. “It’s my first Christmas without your father,” she said, and the reminder stole my breath. “The house is too quiet. Like a tomb with your brother and Brenda away on their honeymoon.” Randy had never moved away from home. The ever-dutiful son, he’d taken over the management of the farm after Dad died. But with my brother out of town, it wasn’t surprising that Mom had reached out to me in a low moment. I didn’t much like the idea of her being all alone in the big empty farmhouse, miles away from the nearest neighbor. Worry and guilt wrapped a tight band around my chest. I hadn’t been out to visit her in months, not since the funeral. “I was going through my old photo albums after the Johnsons stopped by to check on me,” she said. “Do you remember the year Thunder climbed up the Christmas tree?” “Yeah, Mom,” I said, fighting back a smile. I’d forgotten about that cat. “He was just a kitten. He was so small, he looked like one of the ornaments.” “Yes, that was before he got fat and mean.” “He slept in my room at night. But he used to bring you mice whenever he caught ’em. He left them on the front doorstep so you couldn’t miss them. I think he wanted your approval.” The cat. Me. I got the ironic parallel, but did she? Would she ever see value in the choices I made? “Yes, I think you’re right. He also used to lie in wait to pounce on anyone who walked by. Those claws of his were sharp.” She sighed, her breath heavy with remembrance. “You were so attached to him. You got attached to all the animals, wanted to name them all. It’s hard to send them to the slaughterhouse when you think of them as pets. I guess your father and I should’ve seen the writing on the wall.” Was she trying to say she understood why I left? Why I went my own way? Maybe even that she was sorry? Or was I just wishfully reading between the lines? “Why are you really calling, Mom?” I said, putting it out there. “I haven’t heard from you in months. I don’t understand. You’re going to have to tell me straight out what you need from me.” She sighed, and the line fell silent for a moment. “Just that I don’t want there to be long stretches without us talking to each other anymore. That’s all.”
Jewel “You look hot.” My roommate clattered toward me at a precarious pace in her skyscraper heels. “Thanks, Cam.” I stamped a hand to my hip and posed for her as the bus door closed behind me, and she stopped and twirled to show me her backless dress. Her long black hair swished the exposed skin above her ass. “You’re not so bad yourself.” “Digging the cartoon-character-slash-schoolgirl vibe.” Her dark red lipstick framed an approving smile. “Thought it might sell well with the older guys on this side of town.” “Sick bastards acting out their underage-girl fantasies. You’re probably right.” She unwrapped a piece of gum, split it, popped half in her mouth, and offered me the other. “Appreciate it,” I said as I took it. “You’re late.” She narrowed her olive-green eyes at me. “You stop to take a client on the way over?” “Nah.” I shook my head. “Just another run-in with Wanda.” “Bitch.” “Yeah.” I agreed readily, my empty stomach twisting. “You made your half of the rent yet?” “Nope.” She shook her head. Glossy ebony hair spilled over her delicate shoulders. “But I thought you had most of it saved already.” “Had most of it.” She slowly blinked her pretty eyes at me. “What do you mean, had?” My stomach didn’t just twist, it knotted. “I gave it to Lori.” “Oh no.” I squeezed my eyes closed for a second, but there was no shutting out the shitty reality. “I had to.” My roomie donned a pleading expression. “She was sick. She had the shakes and was puking her guts out.” “She’s a heroin addict, Cam, and needs to go to rehab. She’ll just use that money for another fix.” Bright pink neon lights advertising a triple-X show blasted my gaze. A reminder, not that I needed one, that the harsh world we lived in couldn’t be remedied with kindness. “You don’t have your part either?” she asked. I shook my head. “We’re fucked.” Frowning, she touched my arm. “I’m sorry, Jewel.” “It’s okay.” Kindness might not change much, but I couldn’t blame Cam for it. I covered her fingers with mine. Even through the worn cotton of my jacket, I could tell her skin was freezing cold. “Two softies is what we are.” I gave her a warm smile. “I probably would’ve done the same thing. What are the odds we’d end up rooming together, huh?” “You regret moving in with me?” Her crimson lips trembled uncertainly. “No. And anyway, it was your apartment to begin with. Lucky for me, you took me in. I had no job. Barely any money after my boyfriend screwed me over. You took a chance on me. Rescued me.” I squeezed her hand and frowned. “You’re freezing.” I removed her fingers, unzipped my jacket, and shrugged out of it. Goose bumps erupted on my exposed flesh, and there was a lot of it, more than Cam revealed in her slinky slip. A guy in a passing car let out a piercing whistle and gave me a leering look, and then he was gone. “Put this on,” I said. “I’m okay. It’s seventy degrees outside. I’m hardly freezing.” “It’s damp. There’s a chill in the air. Take it.” I shook the jacket at her. “I was just going to tie it around my waist, but it messes with my look.” “All right.” She frowned at me, but put it on. “You make any money tonight?” I held my breath for her answer as we moved into our usual position by the streetlight closest to the curb. Best to flaunt our attributes in the light while we could. The longer we kept on making our living like this, the sooner we would wind up falling back into the shadows to hide the toll it took on us. “Fifty bucks.” “That’s something. Good for you.” “One blow job.” Her brow creased. “That’s hardly rent.” “It’s a start.” I bit down on my plump, often-abused bottom lip. “Maybe we can convince Wanda to let us pay what we owe in installments.” “Maybe,” she said, but we both knew there was zero chance. No excuses. No exceptions. Wanda was a total hard-ass. “Hey.” Cam lifted her chin to point at a sleek sports car idling at the curb. “Would you look at that.” “What?” I swiveled to glance in the same direction. “It’s a Porsche 911 GT2 RS.” “I know what kind of car it is.” She raised a disbelieving brow. “Okay. No, I didn’t. You’re the car expert, Camaro Montepulciano.” “Not an expert. Not like my dad.” “Yeah,” I said softly. “But you have nearly every make, model, and spec memorized like he does.” A love for all things automotive was his one and only legacy to her. After she’d lost her job as a cashier in the auto parts store and her father discovered what she’d taken up as a second career, he completely shut her out. Yet she religiously read Car and Driver magazine every morning as though it were a devotional, just on the off chance that he might one day change his mind and welcome her back. “Special silver-metallic finish,” she said almost reverently as she drank in the sight of the expensive car. “Rear-wheel drive. Six cylinders. Three-point-eight-liter twin-turbo engine. Seven hundred horsepower. That baby can do zero to sixty in two point seven seconds.” “Sounds super sexy.” I snorted, not as impressed by cars. “So, go get him.” “Nah.” She shook her head. “You look way hotter than I do.” “Not true, but all right. I’ll go over and take a shot, if you’re sure. Though I better move fast, since I’ve probably only got two-point-something seconds to snag him if he stomps on the gas.” I straightened my shoulders. She shook her head at me as I took my first step. “Work your approach faster, roomie. He just put his blinker on. He’s gonna get away. And that’s $293,000 worth of sports car, before options.” In other words, if I played it right, I might make rent. I picked up the pace, jogging inelegantly to the vehicle, and bent over to tap on the passenger window. When the driver slowly turned his head, my heart that was hammering from my dash to the curb slammed to a complete halt as his gaze hit mine. I’d never seen eyes like his before, so gray, the shiny platinum finish of his Porsche seemed tawdry in comparison. A long moment passed as I took in his features. Tousled brown hair a little long in the front, strong jaw, chiseled lips, straight nose. He looked me over in return. “Hey, handsome,” I said when he lowered the window. I feigned confidence, though anyone who really knew me would have noticed that my voice was pitched a higher octave than usual. The potential for rejection with the initial approach always made me nervous. This one more than most. He was way too cute to be trolling the streets for a paid fuck. “Want a date for the night?” “You even legal, little girl?” he asked, his sable brows arching higher above his heart-stopping eyes. Okay, maybe I had taken the schoolgirl thing a bit too far. “Twenty-one last March.” Most guys didn’t care about legalities. Was he a cop? I dismissed the idea immediately. Not likely. Not in a $300,000 car. Just cautious, probably. Another factor that made me wonder why he was cruising for sex. I batted my eyelashes at him. “You wanna see my driver’s license, honey?” The guy gave me a bored look. “No, not really. Just wanted to acknowledge your tap on my window.” Lifting a hand, he made a shooing motion. “You can step away from the car now. I’m not interested. Just pulled over to have a conversation on my phone. I mean, do I look like I need to pay a fucking prostitute to have sex with me?” His rejection stung, making my temper flare. I glared at him, spitting out my response without thinking. “With manners like that, you couldn’t possibly pay me enough to put up with you.” “Get your filthy little hands off my car, Harley Quinn.” His gray eyes flashed fiery silver. I planted my fists on my hips. “I’m not going anywhere.” Those eyes of his were second-place silver to my defiant gold. I wasn’t an exotic half-Italian beauty like Cam, but his dismissal triggered my attitude. Attitude I couldn’t afford, but I let it rip anyway. “Get your statusy piece-of-shit car off my corner. I was here first.” Holding my head high, I flicked a pigtail over my shoulder. My bracelets jingled my irritation as I strolled away. Take that, rich guy. He didn’t immediately leave, and I didn’t turn to see what he was doing, even though I could feel his gaze on me. Swaying my hips provocatively, I moved to the car that had pulled in front of his Porsche. Locks suddenly popped behind me. “Hey, Harley! Wait up.” I spun around and froze. He stood next to his vehicle, the streetlight bathing his sculpted form. The breadth of his wide shoulders split open the lapels of his black leather jacket. He wore no shirt beneath it to hide the view of his chiseled pecs and abs. His smooth, golden-tanned skin glistened in the light as he casually propped his elbow on the roof of his car. Narrow hips and long legs in low-slung jeans completed the compelling portrait. A shiver that had nothing to do with the chill in the air rolled through me as I withstood a heavily hooded leisurely scan from him. His verdict? I couldn’t tell. Mine? He was great—if you went for an incredibly handsome guy with arrogance stamped into every single cell of his flawless body. “What do you want?” Not giving an inch, I narrowed my gaze, shooting haughty daggers at him. “How much?” My mouth went dry. There was no mistaking what he wanted. Me. For a price. My mind blanking, I licked my lips to moisten them. Sex with him? I shook my head, but the thought of it only increased the heat that had combusted within me. Pulling in a deep breath, I forced myself to take a mental step back. Methodically, I sized him up like Cam had taught me to do, and discounted his looks and his body. It was the car and the value of his clothing that mattered. “Two hundred,” I said. “Cash.” “You’re joking.” “I never joke about money.” At an impasse, we stared at each other. One heartbeat became one too many. “You’re wasting my time,” I said, deciding for him, and moved toward the other car. “All right, Harley.” I stopped and turned to give him a big smile, and he went completely still. When his smoldering gaze dropped to my mouth, my lips tingled from its intensity. He whistled under his breath. “You should’ve led with the smile. I would’ve agreed to twice that.”
Still here? Be sure and text ROCK BOOK to 345345 so you don't miss the cover reveal and the release alert for The Right Man. Text subscribers will also have a chance to win an autographed book. How about a little insider info. What inspired me to write The Right Man? Music. A song by The Hunna about a guy with a girl for one night and time running out. From NY to LA.
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