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Hiding out in the gents' toilets backstage at the London Arena was not one of Sasha Sweet's personal highs. VIP toilets they might have been but, gold taps be damned, she wanted to go home. I'll kill you, Cassie.
Bad enough she'd let herself be harangued into this ridiculous exercise, but ducking into the men's room in a moment of rare claustrophobic panic? All kinds of embarrassing.
A whoosh of air and a wall of encroaching noise announced the arrival of someone else in the room. Thank God she'd found an empty cubicle.
She checked the state of the wall before she slumped against it. Grateful to be in an empty cubicle? In the men's room? Could my life get any worse?
She held her breath to listen, knowing if she was discovered in here, flouting all security rules, she'd never achieve what she'd set out to do. And the dreams of fourteen kids would literally go down the pan, along with her professional reputation.
Plan A should have worked just fine: approach someone in authority, ask politely, make an appointment. Not hide out like a weird stalker. In a cubicle. While thousands of fans charged the backstage corridors wanting a piece of the notoriously damaged, famously over-sexed rock deity, Nate Munro.
Where was Plan B when she needed it?
A deep American accent bounced off the tiled walls. 'Quick, Nate. In here. Give us five minutes 'til they've been herded out. There's a car on its way to pick you up out the back.'
No. Sasha's shoulders crept towards her jaw, tightening the muscles around her neck like a noose. Not Nate. Not here. Not in this bathroom.
'What happened to Security? They're crazy out there.' Sure enough, it was Nate's voice now, much deeper, richer than she remembered, but unmistakably his. Tinged with his working-class roots and a smattering of amusement, but refined by maturity and years of stateside living.
The American voice responded with an air of glee, 'Crazy for you. They love you. The world loves you, Nate. You are gold.'
True enough. Aeons ago in Sasha's smitten seventeen-year-old eyes being with him had felt as if she'd been sprinkled with gold dust. Nathan Munro. Her eyes fluttered closed at the storm of innocent memories. A young singer desperate to be heard. Night after night of listening to his songs, songs he'd written about her.
He'd scaled the heights against the odds. She'd watched his life spiral out of control, as Chesterton had turned its back on him. And she'd been as scathing as the rest.
But now Wild boy turned out-of-control rock star. Sold out across the globe on his five continents Hall of Fame tour, catapulted to the top of the charts with his husky sultry songs and edgy dark style. The devil with a god's voice.
And powerful too. What he wanted he got and to hell with the consequences.
So what the heck she thought she'd achieve by asking him for help now, she didn't know. But Sasha inhaled, renewing her resolve. It had been for ever ago. Ten years. He'd probably forgotten about her, about them. Or hated her, still.
No matter. She would find a way to ask him for help, and make good on that promise to her kidsthat was what was important, not their past history. But she couldn't face him here, after all this time, not in a loo. Even she wouldn't be able to take herself seriously surrounded by pipe work and the cloying smell of pine.
No, she was a music professional and she had standards. She'd find another way: phone his agent, bribe him into submission. Beg. Something.
So just leave. Please.
The American spoke again. 'You want me to find you someone for tonight? There're plenty of women out there. Your usual? Blonde? Tall? Big'
'I'll get the guys onto it.' The crackle of a walkie-talkie split the room.
'But only for an hour or so. I've got a date later and I don't want to be late.' Nate's voice was laced with irritation.
What? Sasha's shoulders hiked to her ears again. He was planning a one-nighter and a date? Well, the man had stamina. And no morals.
And that was none of her business.
She'd got over him a long time ago. Hard not to with his colourful love life splashed front page most days of the week. Supermodels, actresses, singers hung off his arm at every opportunity. She just hoped he wasn't planning on entertaining in here; she had things to do.
'So you're not going to the afterparty?' the American asked. 'Twelve months of non-stop touring and you're going on a date instead of getting loose? She must be special.'
'I'll come along to the party later.'
'So who is it this time? Not Cara again? She's trouble, you know. Two stints in rehab. Possession. You've got to steer clear from girls like that.'
'But she did my sales a heap of good. She was good value.'
'Nice thinking, Nate. Point well made. Keep your options open. A pretty lady on your arm keeps the rest of your fans hopeful. But remember, don't do anything stupidstay away from the two cardinal sins: drugs and marriage. Drugs bring their own problems, pal, but cosy is the kiss of death to your career.'
'I had a lucky escape with that fiasco of an engagement. I'm never going there again.'
Sasha's frown deepened. Did she detect a tinge of boredom in his voice? Something not right in Nate's opulent successful world? And since when was marriage part of the axis of evil?
He'd clearly changed beyond anything she remembered. The Nathan she'd known at first had been sweet and kind and hadn't thought of women as good value. But then, she'd witnessed the beginning of that change: the way he'd morphed from sweet teenager to brooding, angry young man.
Seemed that downward trajectory hadn't stopped.
Suddenly the shrill blare of a text message made her jump.
Shoot! No. No! She clamped a hand to her mouth. Had she said that out loud?
Fumbling into her bag, she fell against the wall, dropped her phone and then watched in silent Slow Motion Horror. It bounced and slithered across the tiles, under the cubicle door, and out to the other side.
Crouching down, she watched, mortified, as her bright sparkly purple cell finally came to a stop next to a pair of battered black biker boots.
So yes, it seemed her life could get much worse.
Silence reverberated around the room for two long seconds, save for the hard thump of her heart against her ribs. And the shuffle of heavy feet.
'What have we got here?' The American voice deepened as a hand reached for her phone. He read the message out. '"Target located? Is he still to die for? What about that ass?"' He laughed. 'Hey, Nate, either you've cornered the gay military market, or we have ourselves a desperate female admirer.'
A loud hammering on the cubicle door rocked into Sasha's body as a rash seeped through her skin, burning bright and hot. 'Hey. You. This is VIP access only and the men's room. Get out here now before I call the cops.'
No, thanks. Standing in front of an assembly hall full of disenchanted teens was less terrifying than coming face to face with an ex like Nate.
If he remembered the way things had ended between them he definitely wouldn't want to answer her cry for help, but she had to try. She couldn't face the kids on Monday and say she hadn't asked him. In reality, this could be her only chance and it wasn't as if she had any sentimental feelings for himtime had certainly filled that well. Finding her courage again, she inhaled. Maybe asking him in a loo wouldn't be so degrading.
So be a grown-up. Steadying herself, Sasha pulled back the lock. Sometimes, being a grown-up sucked.
Before she could speak the door slammed open and a blur of dark suit brushed against her, jamming her arm behind her back and her cheek against the wall. He patted her hands, her pockets and legs. The voice in her ear was hard and unforgiving. 'There you go, darling. Take it easy.'
'Let go of me. Let go now. Or I call the cops. Harassment. Assault.'
'Of course I'm clean. What is this?' 'Can't be too careful, ma'am. We meet all sorts of weirdoes in this business.'
'And that's just the people who work in it, right?' Shoving out of the bear's hold, she straightened her clothes then turned, slamming body-to-body with Nate.
His jaw tensed, and his stare deepened as he took her in, recognition clearly filtering through his brain as he swept his glance up and down her body.
In response she froze, unable to take her eyes from him. Sure, she'd seen the pictures, had some old grainy ones of her own, she'd even stolen quick glances at the rock magazines' centre spreads, heck she'd just watched him perform two hours of perfect harmonies and slow sexy dance moves in the final concert of his tour. But nothing had prepared her for the real thing up close.
He seemed taller, definitely broader, not the teenager she'd once fallen in love with. He was one hundred per cent man. All sex, with his wavy chocolate-coloured hair dipping lazily to one side. She remembered the soft just-washed feel of it, the faint scent of apples.
Her gaze ran across his face, past those famous soft-caramel eyes, the refined cheeks peppered with his trademark stubble, the perfect curve of his lips.
But she couldn't stop there. After all, he'd always been a feast to her senses. She imagined the ruffled feel of his shirt, and the hard muscle underneath. His smell of leather and man. Remembered the long legs for ever encased in black denim, rough against her juvenile skin. The arrogant stance that told the world he didn't give a damn, when she knew he'd cared deeply. Deeply enough to be hurt by the rejection, to leave town altogether and never look back.
And yes, thank you, Cassie, his ass was still to die for.
He stared right back at her, stepping back, palm up in a question. 'Sasha? Sasha Sweet?'
'Nathan' She started to explain, but suddenly she was grabbed by the bear, who shouted into his walkie-talkie, 'Now. Now. The car's leaving. Go, Nate. You want this one too?'
This one? What was she? A toy? A groupie? 'Wait, no. You've got it wrong. I'm not'
'No?' The minder grinned and shook his head. 'Had a change of heart, sweetheart? There's plenty more who'd take your place.'
Oh, merry hell. The bear really did think she was a groupie. Nate must have muttered something, or nodded, and she'd missed it before he disappeared into the melee outside.
But at that same moment two more security guards burst into the room, grabbed her by the waist and ran her out through the corridor in a blur of clamouring, screaming women tearing at her hair, her clothes. The chant of Nate, Nate, Nate, ringing in her ears.
'Nathan Wait' Her voice mingled with the rest, and got lost. Watching his leather-jacketed back disappear into a blacked-out limousine, she breathed out a hiss of irritation. That was that.
He was gone. And now no result for the school; she should have found her nerve and asked him.
Then she felt someone touch the back of her head and push her into the plush car seat opposite Nathan.
He slowly leaned back and grinned, almost oblivious to the two giggling peroxided semi-naked women who had draped themselves over him and now appeared to be cleaning out his earswith their tongues. The door slammed closed.
And with a jerk the car eased towards the arena exit to the accompaniment of bright flash photography. On the way to who knew where, with the ex she dumped, an audience of twin pipe-cleaners on legs, and a whole lot of explaining to do.