From the author of Dictatorship of the Dress comes a new novel about a woman who’s vowed to never walk down the aisle—and the two men who’ll do anything to get her to say “I do”…
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” has suited Danica James just fine…until the mysterious man who crashed her sister’s wedding steals her heart, leaves a slice of groom’s cake under her pillow, and then disappears.
Hoping to forget her unforgettable fling, Dani takes a job as a backstage masseuse for a rock music festival, not expecting the tour’s headlining bad boy to make an offer she can’t refuse. Nash Drama needs a fiancée—and fast…
Mick Spencer is the best wedding cake designer in New Hope and the town’s most eligible bachelor. But despite the bevy of bridesmaids he’s sampled, Mick can’t get the evening he spent with Dani out of his mind.
So when she shows up for a cake tasting at the Night Kitchen—with his former best friend’s ring on her finger—Mick vows to charm the woman of his dreams into choosing a sweet and sinful ever after, with him…
About the Author
Jessica Topper is an ex-librarian turned rock n’ roll number cruncher and author of the novels Dictatorship of the Dress and Louder than Love. She is a PAN member of the Romance Writers of America, and belongs to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Jessica lives in Western New York with her husband, daughter and one ancient cat.
Read an Excerpt
OVER THE RAINBOW
“Winner, winner, chicken dinner! I don’t know how do you do it, Danica James.”
“Easy,” I replied, handing the garment bag over the counter and into Bree’s waiting arms. “I say yes, spend money I don’t have on a dress I don’t want, sashay down the aisle in it, and then I donate it to you.”
“The only hard part for Dani being a bridesmaid,” Laney added, “is not showing up the bride. Otherwise, it’s a piece o’ cake, right, Dani?”
I watched as my best friend selected M&M’s from the candy dish Bree kept on the counter, using a vintage pewter salt spoon. Laney was just as picky about the brown M&M’s as David Lee Roth backstage at a Van Halen concert.
She had to go and mention cake, didn’t she?
I thumbed the tiny silver charm that hung at the hollow of my throat and wondered how the term cake came to mean easy.
Bree laughed. “See? And the hard part for me is not showing up as the bride!” The shop owner held up her hand, fingers splayed to emphasize not only the number, but her latest rock as well. “Let’s hope the fifth time’s the charm, ladies.”
Bree’s habit of “falling in marriage” earned her spots on the local news and was the impetus behind the former fashion model falling into Diamonds & Fairy Dust, her bridal attire consignment business. The tiny Cornelia Street store carried everything from your suburban strip mall off-the-rack dress to the custom couture Vera Wang, which hadn’t moved in the five years I’d known Bree. But once annually, she initiated Operation Fairy Dust, a dress drive for local high school girls in need, and accepted donations of gently used bridesmaid dresses to give away during prom season.
“It’s gorgeous, Dani.” She ran her hand over the ruched bodice and sweeping handkerchief skirt of the brilliant green gown. “We’ve still got a few schools in the area with prom approaching. You are going to make someone’s dream come true.”
Laney popped an M&M about the same hue as the dress in between my lips. “So what does she win?”
“Whatever it is, it had better be small enough to fit in my backpack. Unless it’s a car, which I would totally accept,” I laughed.
“According to my little black book of details, you have managed to donate a dress in every color of the rainbow . . .”
“And don’t forget the ones she brought in that weren’t colors found in nature,” Laney reminded, turning to me. “Like that Creature from the Seafoam Blue Lagoon dress my mother made you wear at her wedding.”
Bree laughed. “Earning the Rainbow Award is no easy feat. For that”—she rummaged under the counter and came up with the fluffiest rainbow Afro wig I had ever laid eyes on—“a picture on my Wall of Fame, if you will.”
“You want me to wear that? I don’t know where that thing’s been!” It looked like a relic from New York’s Studio 54 disco era.
“Trust me, it’s new. No one but you has achieved rainbow status,” Bree assured with a grin. “You take ‘always a bridesmaid’ to a whole new level, Dani.”
Always a bridesmaid and never a bride worked just fine for me; marriage required commitment. Of course, so did insanity. Coincidence? I think not.
Laney just about choked on her last M&M as I stuffed my mass of blond curls under the synthetic skullcap and mugged for Bree’s Polaroid. Then she threw on a wig from the nearby display so I wouldn’t have to go through the humiliation alone. Laney was good like that.
“How do I look?” she deadpanned. The long, black Cleopatra wig was just shy of covering her poker-straight fiery red bangs.
“Ridiculous and lovely. Like Cher.” I plopped a nearby tiara on the crown of her head, and we pressed our cheeks together for one last photo.
“Yeah, you should talk, Rainbow Brite. I think you used to have leg warmers that matched that hair.”
Bree waved the developing print. “For your travels.” She traded me the photo for the Afro, placing the small square into my hands as the image appeared, eighteen years of best friendship rising to the surface and solidifying like magic.
“I’m going to miss your visits, Dani. This one, though”—she reached to smooth Laney’s fake bangs—“I have a feeling she’ll be back. Just as soon as that new man of hers proposes.”
“Hey, slow down there, Five Time’s the Charm.” Laney twined her own tresses with the long hanks of synthetic hair until it resembled a red and black candy cane. “Noah just finished paying off his non-wedding.” The lovebirds had recently celebrated his near miss with Bridezilla by throwing a huge charity event in place of the already-booked reception, and were still recovering. “We’re not in any hurry,” she assured, but her mossy eyes blinked bright with the possibility.
Bree winked, more for my benefit. “Have fun. Be safe.” Smiling, she moved on to help a customer.
Laney pouted and pulled off the wig. “I can’t believe you’re leaving, Dani—again. Just after I got you back. You tease.”
“It’s just for the summer, Hudson. Suck it up.”
Despite all we had in common, Laney’s homebody habits mostly confined her to the tri-state area without complaint. My wanderlust since meeting Mick, on the other hand, had grown insatiable.
As had my sweet tooth.
“For someone who loves to live out of a duffel bag, you certainly held on to that dress from your sister’s wedding for a record length of time. I was getting ready to call the Guinness Book,” Laney ribbed knowingly.
Posy and Patrick were about to celebrate their first anniversary, and I was nowhere closer to figuring out just what the hell had happened to me that night of their wedding in New Orleans. Or why I couldn’t let go of its memories . . .
I stole one last look at the dress as Bree hung it in the store window. Its opulently embellished halter and keyhole neckline had been perfect for the discreet touches and stolen kisses Mick had lavished upon me in public; its wisps of tiered chiffon held every whisper leading us out of the reception and back to my room.
“A wise woman once told me never to let a dress rule my life,” Laney murmured.
The serene girl who stood before me was a far cry from the hot mess who’d been appointed dress bearer for her mother’s cross-country nuptials this past winter. The one who had frantically texted, asking WWDD—What Would Dani Do?—every step of the way, until she had found her own footing. With a hand on my back, she pushed me over the threshold and onto the quaint, one-block city street. “What would she tell you right about now?”
“I’m not as well-adjusted as you think I am,” I mumbled.
“You are wonderful.” Laney dropped a kiss on my cheek and an arm across my shoulder. “And I, for one, will always look up to you from my perch on your invisible psychiatrist’s couch. As well as pay you in brunch food. What do you say?” She nodded toward the red-and-white-striped awning of the Cornelia Street Café. I knew tea and sympathy waited inside, as well as a willing ear if I was ready to talk about my rambling feet and broken heart.
“Sorry, girlie.” I gave her a squeeze. “I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a car.”
I was about to make my biggest commitment yet.
• • •
“So. How does zero interest for twelve months sound?”
My laughter reverberated off the chrome, steel, and safety glass surrounding me on the dealership floor. “Sounds a lot like my love life, actually.”
I reaped the rewards of my own joke before the cavernous showroom quickly swallowed up the sound. It was fun while it lasted.
Kind of like my love life.
“Oh, please! I don’t believe that for a second, heartbreaker.” Jax propped his feet up on the prime Manhattan real estate that was his desk and flashed me a grin. “And everyone says used car salesmen are the scammers and con artists?”
Jackson Davenport was not your typical used car salesman, that was for sure. Upper East Side born and summers-in-the-Hamptons bred. Valedictorian of our high school, Ivy League educated, and handsomeness so rugged, you’d think he stepped out of a Patagonia catalog. But he’d swapped his silver spoon for a ballpoint pen long ago, which he was now tapping against his teeth impatiently.
“Are you going to take the car or not, Dani?”
Summer tour was calling, but it wasn’t going to come to me.
Jax popped out of his chair. “Good. Then let’s get this paperwork signed.”
He spread a tree’s worth of paper in front of me and pointed at the first X. “So what happened to that last guy, Marcus? He was cool.”
“Firefighter Marcus . . .” I signed with a flourish, and relished the memory of those heated discussions we used to have, along with the slow burn of his lips. “He was a nice distraction.”
“How about the bartender?” Jax flipped the page. “Here, here, and initial here.”
“Sam? Arm candy.” I tapped my temple, and then mimed cocking a gun. “Pretty empty upstairs.” I lifted my pen to indicate I had signed, signed, and initialed.
“And Noah’s friend . . . from Laney’s mom’s wedding? Soldier Boy?”
Tim had been a perfect partner in crime for the timeless, torturous bouquet and garter toss at the Hudson-Crystal wedding in Hawaii. After our respective best friends had snuck away from the reception together, Tim and I had been just about the only singles left on the dance floor to endure the humiliation. Tall and agile, he had barely needed to raise a hand to catch the lacy bit. And the flowers had landed right in my hands, despite Lady P, one of the many Elvis impersonators on-site, and her valiant attempt to dive for it in her skintight, rhinestone jumpsuit.
I let a wicked smile slip, remembering how Tim had eased that garter belt up my thigh, fingers climbing so high that I had to smack him with the bouquet to make him stop.
“Soldier Boy was fun,” I admitted. He and I had both arrived in town last week to attend Laney and Noah’s charity soirée for the Kitchen of Hope and had had even more fun. “But now he’s back overseas.”
“Pity. Mona and I really liked him.”
While I had my dalliance du jour, Jax had long-term relationships. Mona—or Bitch’n’Mona, as Laney liked to call her—was his latest ladylove. She had appeared on the scene after I’d moved out of state for my last job, so I didn’t know her all that well. But if I knew Jax, it was serious . . . until the day it wasn’t. My friend was an open-and-shut textbook case of serial monogamy.
Jax leaned over my shoulder and guided me through the last of the forms. His cologne had a hint of chilled cucumber with a citrus bite, and hung from his neck like a scrapbook for my senses. I was seventeen and running along the ocean shore again, not thirty-two and running away from my memories of Mick.
If that was even his real name.
“Tell me you’re not still thinking about Mystery Man from a year ago?”
And I was still dreaming about him, too . . . especially on the nights when I ate dessert after eight o’clock. Mick had been just that sweet, just that sinful, and just that much of an indulgent fantasy.
“Lucky is the thief who steals your heart, Dani . . .” Jax murmured.
Yeah, right. Not to mention the twenty thousand dollars in wedding gifts that disappeared that night.
“Please, don’t start. Posy has finally agreed to speak to me again.” I ran my fingers along the creamy silk ribbon at my throat, avoiding the charm tethered to it, and refrained from saying more.
While I sometimes found it easier to talk about it with Jax than Laney, I still hadn’t been completely honest. The past year had hardly been a cakewalk.
Despite what Mick did to my family, I couldn’t shake him from my thoughts. “But you were the one who pulled the slutty Cinderella, right? Leaving him with a hard-on and a glass slipper at the end of the night?” Jax shuffled, collated, and stapled my paperwork while wearing a frown that either indicated intense concentration, or massive disapproval.
Swallowing hard, I managed, “I just thought . . . he was different.”
“No, you thought he was perfect. And he wasn’t. So your playdar wasn’t working that night? Time to forgive and forget.”
I sighed; during the plane ride home from my sister’s wedding in New Orleans, I had managed to work through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief over Mick’s deception: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Forgiving was in there somewhere.
But forgetting? Kind of impossible. Not when those pale blue eyes haunted me every time I closed my own. His were icy like a husky dog’s; mine were more of the Fiona Apple variety. Our gazes, made more electric and mysterious from behind the vintage masks Pat and Posy had insisted everyone wear during their reception, had locked in on each other the moment he’d stepped onto the dance floor.
I replayed his every move in stark, cinematic loops. And I heard his soft, sexy voice in stereo surround sound. I rewound my favorite parts and tortured myself by examining them in slow motion. Mick smiling. Tilting his head back in laughter. Touching my chin. Removing his black and gold Scaramouche mask by its long-beaked nose as he moved to kiss me.
“I still can’t believe I fell for a wedding crasher.”
“You may just have met your match,” Jax gently teased. “Funeral crasher.”
I blushed at the title, thinking back to the day he and I met. I hadn’t meant to attend the solemn graveside service for Jackson’s family’s patriarch. But if I hadn’t, this townie never would’ve met the teen tycoon turned used-car salesman sitting across from her. Rolling his pen between his fingers in thought and absorbing everything around him, even though his imagination was light-years away.
Jax didn’t need the job at the car dealership. But he took any opportunity to study the human condition as fodder to fuel his fiction.
“Maybe you’ll write that story into one of your books someday.”
“Maybe.” Jax came back to earth and smiled at me. “But right now, I want to put you in the driver’s seat. You ready?”
He grabbed my hand, and we wound past the Bentleys and Lamborghinis smugly gracing Jax’s uncle’s showroom floor. The Davenport footprint was stamped all over Eleventh Avenue, where most of Manhattan’s elite car dealerships sat. It had also worn a path down to Wall Street and back with its hard work and success.
Back in high school, hitching a ride with Jax meant showing up at the mall in a vintage Porsche Spyder, and posing for prom pictures in front of the Lotus used on the set of a James Bond movie. Until Laney and her high school sweetheart Allen had decided to reenact a Whitesnake video on the hood of Grandmother Davenport’s Jaguar, resulting in a ban on young Jackson borrowing the keys to the family cars.
June heat rose from the city concrete and licked at my bare ankles as Jax pushed me gently through the automatic door and we left the air-conditioned building behind. Still, a shiver rode up my spine as smooth, cool hands slid in place to block my vision.
“You ready? No peeking, Danica James.”
“How can I peek with your hands over my eyes?”
Jax knew me too well. I reached to pry his fingers apart to sneak a look, just like I’d do when he’d try to protect me from the gory parts in a horror movie.
His hands dropped to my shoulders, mingling with my curls, and we both gazed upon the mustard yellow Volkswagen bus baking in the midmorning sun of the back alley.
“Oh my God. It’s perfect.” I gave his hands a squeeze, then shot forward to run my own down the VW’s flat face. “How on earth did you get it?”
“Mugged a hippie.” I threw him a look, and he laughed. “I put my feelers out. Auction in Michigan. It’s a 1972 Westfalia. Fully restored, with a pop-up top.”
“I see that.” Teetering on the tiptoes of my sandals, I scoped out the camper’s interior through the long side window. “A sink?”
“Yep, along with a few other upgrades. Built-in closet, icebox. Table folds out. Convertible bed, the works.” Jax rocked back on his heels, pleased with himself. “Check out the seats; I think the upholstery is original.”
“Avocado green. So sexy!” I reached through the open window and tentatively touched the wide steering wheel. The cogs in my head were already turning. “How many miles does it have on it?”
Not bad for a car ten years older than me. But still. I was going the distance. “Will it last me all summer?”
“It’s going to get you where you need to go,” Jax said.
I grimaced. That wasn’t exactly the answer to my question.
“Treat you to lunch?” he asked. “We can hit the Rocking Horse.”
“Depends. Where’s your evil twin?”
Dexton Davenport hated me with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. And was often Jax’s lunchtime companion if he roused himself out of bed early enough.
“Midtown. I think he was hitting Sam Ash and a few other guitar stores today. Come on,” he coaxed. “Manhattan’s big enough for the both of you.”
“Dex despises me.”
Jax rolled his eyes. He’d been stuck in the middle of this tug-o’-war between me and his brother for years.
“No, Dex is just in a mood.”
“He’s been in a mood since your grandfather’s funeral.”
Jax laughed. It was a fairly accurate observation; what teenager wouldn’t be grumpy upon learning of a deathbed confession that rocked his cushy little world, threw his family’s inheritance in jeopardy, and forced him to slum it out in the suburbs for the rest of his high school career?
Jackson Davenport, for one. The good twin.
“So . . . carnitas and margaritas?”
His offer was poetic and tempting.
But I really needed to get going while I had the light.
“Rain check,” I promised, throwing my arms around my friend. “How can I ever repay you for this?”
“Make good on the loan,” he laughed. “Gypsy masseuse heartbreakers carry their checkbooks out on tour, right?”
“Always.” My fingers performed a fluttering effleurage down his spine. “And maybe you’ll take me up on that offer of a massage someday?”
“Rain check on your magic fingers,” he managed, pulling away before he allowed himself to melt into me. “Oh, and I took the liberty . . .” He reached through the passenger window and pulled out a pair of custom vanity plates stamped with WWDD.
“Oh, Jax.” Now it was my turn to melt as I watched my friend affix my favorite motto to my ride.
“Listen to that little voice inside your own head for once, will ya? W-W-D-D?”
What Would Dani Do?
The phrase echoed as I navigated Mean Mistress Mustard, my new old van, through the snakes of traffic and into the Lincoln Tunnel with her headlights on.
It was true; my friends always looked to me for that voice of reason. My perfect mixture of level-headedness and levity. Just walk away, I had told Laney tenfold, guiding her through the land mines that came with loving a rock star like Allen Burnside. Live a little, I had urged her, when I knew all she wanted to do was die a little after losing him to cancer. And be open to a grand adventure were my words that helped get her on that plane to her mom’s wedding and move her from heartache to happiness with Noah.
I needed to take my own advice, and taking the job as a backstage masseuse for the Minstrels & Mayhem Festival tour was certainly a start.
The tunnel rose, darkness dashed away by the unblinking eye of the summer sun.
And I would forget Mick.
Starting with no dessert after eight o’clock at night.
The Caged Bird Sings
I had plenty of time on my hands while they rested on the wheel, driving four hundred miles from Manhattan to Hampton, Virginia, for the first stop on the tour. Plenty of time to think about everything, and nothing. And I had come to the conclusion that even the most down-to-earth brides are entitled to their one crazy Bridezilla moment.
For my sister, it was the birdcage.
From the minute Posy spied it during a weekend of antiquing in Cold Spring Harbor, she made it her mission to incorporate the Victorian cage into her wedding plans. It didn’t concern her that the thing was tetanus-inducing rusty and large enough to house a vulture. She fell in love with its graceful arches and scrollwork, and paid a mint to have it re-enameled before shipping it to the wedding reception in New Orleans.
It became the silver-stamped motif on her one hundred invitations, and graced the thank-you cards for later. And it had sat, stuffed fat with stiff envelopes for the happy couple, on a long table next to her beautiful hummingbird cake during the entire celebration. All evening long, guests came by to admire both, and to slide their own gifts through the thin, curving slats of the cage. I know, because Mick and I had passed the table at least a dozen times as he swept me off my feet, around and around the ballroom floor. I’d watched the pileup inside, a jumble of pastels and pristine white forming the newlyweds’ nest egg. Assuring their future together was off to a solid start.
• • •
“Tell me you have the cage.”
The tremor in Posy’s voice was in stark contrast to the melodic laugh that had followed her around like a little fairy bell during her wedding. Just as the morning sky outside my hotel window, gray with the threat of rain, had been a world away from the golden sun that had streamed down on the wedding party the day before.
“You were my maid of honor.” Hysteria wavered through the phone line. “I put you in charge of the cage. It’s gone, Dani! It’s disappeared.”
How the hell could someone have walked out the front door with a gaudy two-foot-high birdcage full of gifts, and not one person had noticed?
I clutched the hotel bedsheets to my naked chest; they smelled vaguely of cake and sweet dreams.
They smelled like Mick.
And he had disappeared, too.
The newly blended immediate family had gathered at the police station to wait for any news.
“We’ve never had anything like this happen before,” assured the catering manager. It was unnecessary, as it didn’t make us feel special, or any better. “We are cooperating fully with authorities, and they are reviewing our security tapes now. They don’t think it was an inside job, but there is a . . . person of interest we recognized in the footage.”
“They’re looking at all the cameras, honey,” my mother stressed, turning toward me. “Including the videographer’s and the digital ones from the vendor rentals. Is there anything you’d like to tell us?”
“Yes, how about it, Dani? Starting with the mystery man you were four inches away from fucking in the photo booth!” Posy screeched. Pat steadied her with a hand to her arm, but I saw his fingers shake. His parents discreetly turned their heads from their new daughter-in-law’s justifiable rage. Probably wondering about the questionable morals of the family their son had just married into.
My father’s face was stone, only his eyebrows giving away the one thought that I knew had crossed his mind many times throughout my adolescence: I wish I’d had sons. My mother’s disappointment was mirrored in his. Wondering how my brain and all its bad habits had formed, despite all their careful parenting. And how they could have spawned one child to follow in their sane, staid footsteps, while the other one turned out to be, for lack of a more scientific term, boy crazy.
Remorse had coated the bitter pill of pride I swallowed. “If anything he said can be believed, then he’s waiting for me at the Café Du Monde.”
• • •
I pulled Mean Mistress Mustard into the first rest stop over the Maryland border. Coffee sounded good right now. Wiping my eyes, I sighed. There was no use in rehashing the memories now. Even Posy had advised against it, once she broke her silent treatment. “Abreaction is so nineteenth century,” she joked. Psychologist humor. “Stop beating yourself up about it, Dani.”
Well, if the current school of practice frowned upon reliving past trauma, then I would take the cognitive therapy route—a hands-on, practical approach to changing behavior—and I’d achieve it one massage client at a time. Working my way upward through my chosen professional path, and keeping my mind off my joke of a personal life.
“Will you marry me, luv?”
The most famous man at the festival had an accent that was crisp and delicious, even when muffled by the face cradle of my massage table. “Christ,” he moaned.
I laughed and reached for my revitalizing oil. His wasn’t the first proposal since the Minstrels & Mayhem tour had started a month ago.
“Somehow I don’t think your wife of twenty-two years would approve.” Not to mention he was, at sixty-two, twice my age . . . and a grandfather.
It was so much easier to talk to musicians when they were lying prone and pliant under my hands. Especially when they were as famous as the current client in my tent, who went by one name only and probably had more Grammys lined up on his shelf than I had little amber bottles of essential oils.
I chose two—lemon for energy, basil for clarity—and added tiny amounts to the almond oil I had warming beside me. He had mentioned a dull back pain from sleeping awkwardly during his seven-hour flight over, so I knew my custom blend would work wonders before he had to take the main stage that night.
He was the buffest, sexiest rock-and-roll grandfather on the Minstrels & Mayhem tour, that was for sure.
“My wife doesn’t have your magic fingers.” He shuddered as I worked my way toward the groove between his spine and erector spinae. Using my knuckles, I slid slowly and strongly along the length of the groove, the oil helping me glide with ease as I worked out each knot of tension along the way.
“There you are,” I whispered to a particularly stubborn trigger point, which finally gave under my pressure, and the reward was seeing his strong shoulders release. The platinum recording artist was putty in my hands.
“I want to”—he gasped—“pack you in my road case and”—my stripping technique down his back caused his sentence to staccato—“take you on tour. Good God.”
It was high praise for this influential artist to want to add me to his daily regimen, along with his yoga and macrobiotic diet. But I couldn’t let it go to my head.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, my dear. I’m not nearly old enough to be a sir. I quite like my title of CBE, and I highly doubt the queen will be knighting me anytime soon.”
Earning a playful wink from the Commander of the Order of the British Empire currently lying shirtless on my table made up for the low pay and grueling hours of my dream job. Not to mention the rampant sexist comments, endless “your mama” jokes and insufferable pull-my-finger gags I’d been subjected to since coming to work for the dudefest known as Minstrels & Mayhem.
I loved my work. And getting the chance to massage a legend was the proverbial icing on the . . .
I sighed and dared a glimpse at the clock to the right of my table. One of these days I’d make it through a few blessed hours without the memory of New Orleans.
We bantered a bit more before finishing his hour-long massage in comfortable silence.
“Bloody amazing,” he murmured as my hands finally came to rest, signaling the end of our session. I took my leave outside the tent to give him privacy as he dressed, feeling equally exhilarated.
Stretching my arms toward the sun, I observed the festival grounds waking up around me. From the second stage came the muted thump of sound check. Security was checking wristbands as fans flowed from the lots through the venue gates. One of the younger Marley brothers’ brand of reggae jingled cheerily over the PA, a perfect summer soundtrack. Blankets and lawn chairs already dotted the hill where music lovers would spend the day, and evening, watching the rotating lineup of bands.
I smiled and squinted, allowing my eyes to fully adjust. Out of the calm, cool shade of my massage tent, I could tell the day was going to be a scorcher, both musically and meteorologically. Stagehands were already scaling the scaffolding like tanned monkey gods, while others took respite from the sun in bright-striped hammocks swinging beneath the main stage.
Music and massage. This was where my worlds collided.
I had found my calling.
All the kids I knew in young adulthood had had clear visions of what they wanted to be when they grew up, and noticeable talents. Laney was creating her own comic books before I even met her. Allen had never been without a pair of telltale sticks in his back pocket as a teenager, drumming his way through high school marching corps, garage bands, and into the hearts of millions with his group, Three on a Match. Jax could craft paragraphs that produced laughter, tears, and demands for more in the short time it took to ride the Montauk line of the LIRR from his house to mine. And Posy had followed in our parents’ footsteps, PhD in hand and on a tenured university track before the age of twenty-five.
Other than providing my friends with my own quirky brand of pop psychology, I hadn’t known what my skill sets were. Until the day I walked barefoot across a boyfriend’s back on the dusty floor of his college dorm room, and the innate therapist in me was truly born. I had no idea that type of massage had a name (Ashiatsu) and its own equipment (wooden bars installed overhead) and that there were actual schools devoted to the ancient Asian practice. But I knew that I wanted to, and I could, help people both mentally and physically through massage.
“You’re a little overqualified for this job, aren’t you?” Maxine, who ran artist hospitality for the festival, had frowned at my credentials and glowing recommendations. “I guess doctor of physical therapy wasn’t enough for you, then?”
My Ivy League–educated parents weren’t about to let me go half-cocked out into the working world, so I came armed with my BA in psychology from Hofstra and my graduate coursework from Columbia. It took me two more years, on top of my original seven, to gain the additional hours of education and hands-on clinical experience required to become a board-certified massage therapist. But being stuck practicing in an office had never been on my agenda.
“Here’s what I expect: dependability, respect, and the utmost professionalism while you work with the artists.” Maxine had held my Working laminate backstage pass close to her face, forcing me to stare her down while keeping my eye on the prize. “And here’s what you shouldn’t expect: Glitz. Glamour. Tips. An easy ride. Got it? You’re not here to get your drugs on, be a groupie, find a husband, land a recording contract, or any of the other rock-and-roll fantasies. You are here to work, is that clear?”
“Crystal,” had been my reply.
Now, tilting my face to warm it in the sun, I smiled. I was here to work right through the summer. Music had never failed to help me, heal me, and hold me up over the years, so it was only fair I returned the favor. This was my next big adventure, right here and right now. No looking back, just facing my soul forward, like the lyrics from my favorite Shonnie Phillips song.
Go through it, darlin’. Not around it.
It was the perfect place to lose oneself. And no one was hiding behind pretty masks and false promises here.
Riggs Munro was standing in my sunlight.
It was hard to believe this guy was the mover and shaker behind one of the hottest bands in the industry today. The guys in Go Get Her might’ve been lean, mean, rock-and-roll machines, but their tour manager stalked around the festival grounds half the time like a pissed-off Pillsbury Doughboy.
“Wanted—how?” I asked. “Dead or alive?” Riggs smirked, as if he didn’t care either way. “Elaborate.”
“You’re needed. How’s that?” His smirk diminished, and I saw the tension he was holding around his eyes soften. I imagined the job of a tour manager was not an easy one, only hard-asses need apply. “He’s in a lot of pain, and asking only for you.”
I rolled my eyes. There could be only one “he” Riggs was referring to, and it was current “it” guy, Nash Drama. And he and I hadn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot. The late-night incident on the Go Get Her tour bus had happened a week ago, and I had been steering clear of backstage during his set times ever since.
“I can’t massage on his bus, Riggs. I could get fired. Your star player’s going to have to come here.”
Riggs turned and nodded politely toward my last client exiting the tent, then did a double take.
“I’m still levitating! Cheers, Dani.” The most famous man at the festival flipped down a pair of shades and took off in a slow jog, back toward catering.
“Was that . . . who I think it was?” Riggs was temporarily derailed.
“Yep.” I smiled. “Wow, even jaded tour managers get tongue-tied in the presence of true greatness, huh?”
“Holy shit, he looks good for his age. Better than when I saw him perform at Live Aid like, thirty freakin’ years ago.” He seemed to remember his mission once again, pulling himself up straighter. “Listen. Nash isn’t on his bus. He’s in a trailer in the artist compound, right over there. Come on. You owe him one.”
Maxine’s decree echoed in my head: Dependability, respect, and the utmost professionalism while you work with the artists.
You’re here to work.
I sighed and dipped back into the tent to grab a few essentials. True, I may have owed Nash Drama a favor. But he owed me a major apology for insulting my intelligence.
One for the Road
Of course my van had broken down two weeks into the tour. Mean Mistress Mustard had given a shudder and a sigh as I coaxed her toward a hilly stretch along Route 321 between Boone and Charlotte, North Carolina, as if to say, “Girlfriend, you want me to do what? Please, bitch. I’m forty-two years old.”
I had stood by her bumper, cursing Jax and his entire unborn line of privileged progeny. And swore at myself for passing up the chance to caravan with my fellow masseuse, Jade, and her family. Her husband Travis was on the tour as well, selling and blowing beautiful glass in vending, while tending to five-year-old Delilah until Jade’s massage day ended. We often rode in tandem between shows for safety and for socializing. If Travis couldn’t stand one more go-round of “The Wheels on the Bus” in their family Subaru, he would jump into my VW and we’d belt out “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” for the next hundred miles. Or Jade would ride with me so we could gossip about our workday, away from the eagle ears of Maxine.
They had stayed on to camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the off day, while I had been more interested in the creature comforts in town. A much-needed night’s sleep in a real bed, followed by a busman’s holiday of a full-body massage and sugar scrub.
“Take the scenic route,” the locals at the gas station advised when I’d inquired about the two-hour journey to the next stop on the tour. “The sun will set over the forest and there’s so much less traffic than on the interstate.”
Yeah, well. No traffic meant broken down and stranded until well after the sun had set. My cell phone dropped two calls to AAA before I was finally told a tow would arrive “within” ninety more minutes.
A bus had wound its way around the curve and had begun to slow. NO ONE YOU KNOW, the destination signage above the windshield proclaimed. I had seen the same bus idling back behind the stage at the last four shows, but wasn’t sure which artist occupied it.
Had I known, I might’ve taken my chances with the side of the road.
• • •
The tour bus door had burped open a few yards up from my broken-down van.
“Kylie, get yer ass back up here and let me take a look!” Half a body leaned out the door; I glimpsed a bare foot and long leg, followed by the teased-up hair of a smiling girl, before whoever was fighting for rights to the narrow stairs won out. “You okay?” demanded a hipster with graying muttonchops and an impatient twitch to his right eye.
“Not hurt. Just broken down.” Thunder grumbled from somewhere over the treetops. “There’s a tow truck coming, supposedly.”
He eyed my laminate. “Well, come on then. Unless you want to waste your day off sitting in some Podunk town, waiting for a repair.”
Given the age of my vehicle, I had a feeling the fix might take longer than a day. After quickly surveying my options, I grabbed my duffel bag.
“My daddy always says to fly something white from your mirror!” It was the girl again, squeezing past Mr. Twitchy.
I looked back at poor Mean Mistress Mustard, looking dark and dejected by the side of the road. I couldn’t even get her flashers to work. And as much as I made fun of Laney for always wearing drab colors, I realized I was no better. What was in my duffel looked a lot like what I currently wore—black tank top and dark jeans. Dark and neutral were a massage therapist’s go-to attire, best for not distracting clients or showing stains.
“Here!” The girl peeled off her white lacy camisole and tossed it to me. The bra she revealed was about as minimal as two postage stamps and some Silly String, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I’m fixing to get naked anyway.”
Wow. So not something I would say within the first three minutes of meeting someone, but to each her own. “Thanks.” I dashed back to the car. The wind was picking up in the hills, and the flimsy garment whipped at my face as I went about securing it to my side mirror. The first slashes of hard rain began to fall, just as I hauled myself up the steep steps and onto the climate-controlled quiet of the bus.
“Welcome! I’m Kylie!” The girl threw her arms in the air like she was hosting a surprise party. “We’re the Dramettes!”
She hugged me to her almost bare chest, and I knew the saying “give you the shirt off their back” would never be the same for me again. The two other girls lounging on the couch behind her gave bored waves.
“Cool. I’m Dani. I massage, backstage. Are you an all-girl band?”
“They’re groupies.” The guy made himself heard over their peals of laughter. “Riggs Munro. I tour manage Go Get Her.” He turned to the bubbly trio. “Let’s not wake the sleeping giant, ladies.”
“He’s not sleeping,” complained one of the girls. “He passed out on me.”
“Power nap,” Riggs insisted. “He needs one after—and before—drinking.”
“My daddy says you should always eat a greasy meal before you go drinking,” Kylie informed everyone. “Fatty foods stick to the lining of your tummy.” She rubbed her bare, flat abs in thought. “Maybe someone should’ve given Nash a burger when Go Get Her got offstage.”
The band name I certainly recognized, as they were the summer’s darlings of the main stage. The festival’s four headliners all took turns closing out the shows, and these guys must’ve hit the road right after their set. I peeked over Riggs’s shoulder toward the curtained-off section of the bus, amused to think the rock stars were cradled in there like babies in their bunks while the “grown-ups” up front carried on.
“Kylie, didn’t your daddy ever warn you about hanging around backstage doors?” Riggs cracked.
She cocked her head to the side like a bemused poodle. “Come to think of it, that’s one bit of advice he never gave me.” She shrugged her shoulders happily, like that explained everything. “Oh well!”
“I’d better go check to make sure he’s still breathing,” Riggs muttered, lurching toward the back of the bus and disappearing behind a door at the end. “They don’t pay me nearly enough for this.”
Now that the curtain was moved, I could see all the bunks on either side of the aisle, and they were unoccupied.
“Where’s the band?” I asked the girls.
“Probably in Charlotte already. They ride separate. We stayed back to party with Nash.”
“Why does one guy get his very own bus?”
There was a ruckus coming from the lounge at the back of the coach, and the girls all exchanged glances.
“Because I can?” roared a voice, slurred with alcohol.
“Because he’s an asshole?” Riggs chimed in from behind him.
“But admit it, I’m only drunk when I’m an asshole. Right, Riggs?” Six feet, four inches of intoxicated rock star filled the front cabin. He seemed proud of his logic, which probably made more sense to anyone past the legal limit. “Helllllloooo, ladies.”
The bus hit a pothole and he lurched to grab hold of something solid. In this case, it was me, and down we went, into the cozy dinette space. Awfully convenient how his hands pinned themselves between my ass and the cushioned leather bench I landed on. Two packaged condoms fell out of his bowling-style shirt pocket and onto my cleavage.
“Hot damn, you’re gorgeous. All blond and big-eyed, with those pouty blow-me lips . . . just like a little blond china doll. Wanna move this to the back of the bus?” he stage-whispered.
“You need a shower.” And a toothbrush.
Not exactly the most memorable first line I’d shared when given airtime with a celebrity. Or the most flattering.
He shook his shaggy blond hair into his eyes with exaggerated effort. “So you wanna do me in the shower, then? Tight quarters, but I’m game.”
“I think you mean gamey.” I didn’t have much range of motion, but was able to fan my face with my hand and pluck his condoms off my skin. “I’m not doing anything, or anyone, on this bus.”
He freed one hand to inspect my laminate. “This one you give a pass to, Riggs?” he complained. “And not . . . not . . . whatsherface . . . you know, the chick with the big j—”
“Jailbait,” Riggs dismissed.
“I’m not a groupie. No offense,” I added, nodding to the girls.
“None taken.” Kylie blew me a kiss.
“And just because I am wearing a pass doesn’t give you license to touch my ass.”
“Oh look, everyone. A poet! So talented. Is that an Artist pass? No? Just the hired help?” He stared me down. “You do know who I am, right?”
“Yep. A drunk asshole with his own tour bus. Color me impressed.”
“Let her up, Nash.” Riggs sighed, as if this was something he had to remind his charge of daily. “She works hospitality.”
“Well, she’s not being very hospitable.” Emphasis on the spit.
“Still touching my ass.”
He slowly slid his hands out from under me, sitting up and holding them, palms out, at his chest with an innocent “who me?” pout. I shimmied up to a seated position, but he still kept me trapped on the wide bench.
“You’re awfully touchy for someone who doesn’t like to be touched. Whatsyername, China Doll?”
He may have been drunk, but his watery green eyes channeled depths that, on a normal day, I might’ve taken a plunge into. But it wasn’t a normal day; it was almost midnight and I was bone-tired from working, hands-on, for hours straight. And while employed by the same festival, Nash Drama and I lived in very different worlds. He would get his crazy-dollar-amount guarantee, no matter if he crawled onstage and played the same one note for his entire ninety-minute set.
And me? I would get fired if I so much as looked at Maxine or one of the artists the wrong way. Her words of warning boomed louder than a stack of Marshall amps onstage. Dependability, respect, and the utmost professionalism.
“What’s . . . your . . . name?” Nash repeated, obnoxiously slow and loud as if I were new to the language, or hearing impaired.
“And how did you end up on my bus in the middle of the night, Dani?”
“My van broke down, and your tour manager was nice enough to stop and give me a ride.”
“Pfft. Riggs isn’t nice. Is he, girls?” The Dramettes all giggled and flashed their legs and lashes Nash’s way, but his eyes stayed on me. “Riggs has to play the bad cop. I get to have all the fun. Now let me show you a real ride.” He proffered up the condom packs again, with a crooked grin. “I won’t break you, China Doll.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
So much for respect and professionalism. But at least I still had dependability on my side.
He dropped the grin, and the condoms. “Good thing you”—he took a swipe in my general direction with a pointed finger—“won’t remember any of this in the morning,” he announced, swaying slightly. Before I could say a word, his head hit my lap, long legs splaying into the aisle. Out like a light . . . and trapping me in the dining booth.
The groupies groaned, any possibility of being his runner-up for the night obliterated. They didn’t seem to hold it against me, however, as they said their good-nights and made their way to the empty bunks in the belly of the bus.
Riggs set a pillow on the table in front of me and plumped it with a meaty paw.
“You’re welcome.” Riggs had finally cracked a smile. Kylie grabbed his arm and they jumped over Nash’s long limbo-stick legs.
Looked like the bad cop was going to get lucky.
• • •
Whether he was recalling the same memory or not, Riggs wasn’t smiling now; the tour manager’s mouth was a grim, crooked line as he led the way out of the VIP tents on quick, bowed legs. We passed rows of luxury coaches, their generators purring and windows discreetly darkened, until we reached the artist compound. The inner sanctum of the festival was surprisingly vibeless. Its courtyard was a ghost town, fashioned out of single-wides that were way too nice to ever end up in a real trailer park. Riggs muttered his usual mantra as he held open the flimsy door of the hospitality trailer for me.
“They don’t pay me nearly enough for this.”
Thorn in the Side
A blast of sweet, cool relief hit me. So this was where the promoters were hiding the air-conditioning! Dang. What the trailers lacked in vibe, they certainly made up for in climate control.
The tour’s headlining bad boy was on the thin mattress of the hospitality trailer, shirtless and writhing in agony. His hair tufted in peaks that either obscured (or accentuated) the devil horns that were no doubt lurking under there. Despite the comfortable temps, a thin sheen of sweat rode high on his forehead as he rolled his eyes in my direction, then back up at the ceiling.
“What on earth did you do to yourself?”
I set down my massage gear and tried to assess the situation, but it was hard to get a good vantage point, especially with him jerking around. The bed took up the entire back space of the RV, leaving me no choice but to climb on and kneel beside him.
“Didn’t you hear?” Riggs spoke for him.
“Sorry, I don’t subscribe to the Nash Drama fan club bulletin.”
Deciding to keep him supine, I found two pillows in the cabinet above the bed, still in their plastic, and slid them under his knees. The bolster allowed his lower back to imprint against the mattress, and he let out a trembling hiss. Good thing the mattress was still encased in plastic, too; we were gonna get greasy. I grabbed my Biotone gel.
“I slipped last night,” he managed through gritted teeth. “Came down on my hip.” His right hand fluttered alongside his body, “And shoulder. Spasms from hell.”
Riggs added, “It was that damn whipped cream.”
I raised a brow. “Let me guess. You slipped on whipped cream and . . . fell into a pit full of bikini-clad Jell-O wrestlers?”
“Very funny, China Doll. I fell onstage.” He bit his lip and winced as I slid my hands under his shoulders and went to work on his upper back. “The singer in the time slot before us got a pie in the face. It’s a birthday tradition among the band members, apparently.”
Riggs was pacing, which wasn’t easy to do in the small space of the trailer. “I’m going to hand that crew their asses on a platter. They had ample time to make sure the stage was cleaned up.”
“Kill me,” Nash moaned. “Fuck me, just kill me now.”
“No one is going to kill you, or fuck you, on my watch. Just try to relax.” My fingers continued their light stroking. Compared to the loose, drunken puppet I had met parading down the bus aisle, today’s Nash was a bundle of tender, tight muscle groups. I gently worked my way along his upper back, from the center and out.
“Does this hurt?”
“Like a bitch.”
I was barely applying any friction. Something didn’t seem quite right. My hunch wasn’t to go deeper.
“Find a focal point,” I advised, knowing that it could help take his mind off the pain.
He zeroed in on my chest above him like he wished he had X-ray vision. “I’ve seen those breasts before,” he pronounced confidently. “Cannes, right? We were in a hot tub. On Kid Rock’s yacht.”
“In your dreams,” I muttered.
Although I had to admit, I had always wanted to go to the south of France.
A smile briefly broke through his grimace. “I think you’re right.”
I kept my pressure steady and my pace slow, watching his face for signs. His jaw was in a permanent jut, as if he was just waiting for me to hit the spot that was going to send him howling toward the ceiling. But little by little, I felt him melt into my touch and his face went slack, eyes fluttering closed.
Riggs was back in the doorway, leaning in to survey the progress.
“You know what they call you, right?”
“The chick that runs backstage.” He snapped his fingers, trying to recall her name.
“Yeah. And the others working hospitality. They call you Doc Ivy.”
I blushed approximately two shades darker than my coral paisley sundress, according to the mirrored wall across from me. I hardly felt doctor-like, with my skirt and Nash’s skull tucked between my knees. Or with my cleavage in his face. But there was no ideal way to work on him in the confined space, unless I had him rotate his body toward the one side of the bed that wasn’t flush with the trailer walls. And I really didn’t want him moving at all.
“I’m not a doctor,” I murmured, crawling off the mattress and positioning myself at Nash’s feet. Gripping one of his long, denim-clad legs under the calf, I carefully brought it up and propped his bare foot against my shoulder.
“I’m going to call you Doctor Feelgood anyway.” Nash let out a groan, his hands falling useless against his broad chest. “Much better than the pill pushers trying to”—his breath labored as I laced my fingers around his knee—“numb me up and send me back out.”
“Pull your knee away from me,” I instructed, as I provided the counter-resistance to work his hip flexors. “What kind of drugs? Pull for ten, nine, eight . . .” I kept counting down, but my brain was whirling through the info he huffed out in small doses. A stockpile of narcotics, anti-inflammatories, and analgesics over the years, not just from this incident.
“The last doc he saw told him it was sciatica,” Riggs supplied. “Pumped him all full of stuff.”
“I don’t think he has sciatica.”
“Good,” Riggs laughed. “That’s so not a rock star disease. More like a little old lady disease.”
Not exactly accurate, but I let it slide, concentrating on the areas of concern. There were more to them than met the eye, and my experienced touch. After working both left and right sides, I had him switch to pushing against me.
“What the hell are you doing, prepping him for childbirth?” Riggs asked.
“I’m pulling the muscles to let the joint relax,” I explained. I turned back to my client. “Push for ten, nine, eight . . .”
“Relax? Nash Drama doesn’t relax. He drinks. He passes out. That’s his idea of relaxing.”
Riggs wasn’t helping matters any. The trailer was small enough without him throwing his weight and his two cents around.
“How about some privacy, please? I think he’ll relax more without you breathing down his neck.”
“Yeah, dude. Her breath smells better than yours any day of the week.” Nash sputtered a laugh as Riggs stomped down the stairs, but the teeth embedded in his bottom lip were a dead giveaway to the discomfort he was experiencing.
“Think you can roll over for me?”
“Of course.” He winced as he changed position. “I can play dead, too.”
At my request, he pulled his knees up to his chest, facedown on the bed, prayer-style. I had spied Nash shirtless and careening around on the stage, but it was a fascinating flip of the coin to witness him at rest. Passed out in my lap on the tour bus hadn’t counted. I ran my hand up the column of his spine, letting his body speak to me. His entire dorsum, from broad shoulders to tapered waist, rose and fell under my touch. The lone tattoo that rode high on his shoulder was a bluebird in flight.
“What?” he asked, hearing me suck back a gasp.
“Your bluebird tattoo.”
“It’s a swallow. What about it?”
“Nothing, I—I’ve just seen a similar one.” So many fine points of my night with Mick in New Orleans were etched deep enough to leave a mark. A sharp memory of my fingers tracing the shape of his tattoo while cradled in his arms as he relayed its meaning rose painfully to the surface. “That’s all.”
“Spontaneous decision with my best buds. We all got them, one crazy night when they came to see me on my first big tour. It was something to commemorate how far I had gone. You know, like a sailor, when he’s sailed ten thousand miles.”
“I’ve heard . . . it was for the hope of a safe return home.”
Mick had sounded so wistful that night, yet so full of hope at the prospect. And I had obviously been so caught up in him that I ignored every other warning sign.
“For some? Maybe. Not me.” Nash cast a glance at it, frowning. “I should get a matching one; God knows I’ve logged enough miles to earn a flock of them.”
I moved along his strong shoulders, kneading in long, gliding strokes. We settled into a quiet rhythm, while outside the small trailer window, the festival continued on at its own frenetic pace. My mind began to thumb through the pages of my mental textbooks, thinking about various possibilities. “Little old lady diseases” be damned, there were a hell of a lot of debilitating conditions that tended to strike a patient when they were young, bulletproof, and thirty feet tall. Although the right side of Nash’s body had taken the brunt in his fall, his entire sacroiliac joint seemed to be a hot spot.
“Does this area always give you problems?” I asked, my fingers barely ghosting over where his spine met his pelvis.
“Stiff as a motherfucker most of the time,” he hissed. “Since I was a teen. Some mornings I can barely get out of bed.”
I began a series of circle strokes, massaging over the muscles and not the joints. His shoulders relented in small increments, and a sigh of relief pooled from deep within him.
“So,” he started, when breath and speech came easier to him. “You got a boyfriend waiting for you back home?”
“Home?” I began, my fingers snaking up to knead the back of his neck. “I left home broken down by the side of the road last week.” Mean Mistress Mustard was still out of commission, sitting south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Jade and her family had generously made room in their six-person tent for me, and I was happy to take turns behind the wheel for them when we pulled up stakes after each gig. But I felt bad constantly crashing their family time. I knew one phone call back to Jax would remedy the situation, but I didn’t want to have to rely on him to bail me out. “No boyfriend.”
“Swinging the other way, then?” He turned his head to one side and I could see the lascivious grin beginning. “I could see you putting the l-l-lick in lipstick lesbian.”
“Sounds like you’re dreaming again.” God, was this guy incapable of sustaining a normal conversation for five minutes? Laney sat like a devil on my shoulder, telling me to give him a good old-fashioned Vulcan nerve pinch. Instead, I worked my fingers up the base of his skull, satisfied when I saw the goose bumps rise on the flesh of his bare arms.
“I’ve got a guy who could probably fix your van. Gimme a few days, okay?”
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