Stephanie dropped the fifteen pound dumbbell she’d been using tone up her arms. Christ, she hated the gym more than life, but not more than flabby grandma arms. She lifted it again and did another set, focusing on her triceps.
She’d thought sweating out some frustration while Richie and Jamie had gone off to enjoy their day off would have made her feel better. For God’s sake, Jamie had stolen out of the hotel like a thief. What, was she afraid she’d want to go out with Jamie and her precious brother for the day? Well she didn’t want to drive out to some stupid guitar shop when they’d driven for what felt like days the night before.
Stupid plane out for repairs again. Stupid tour with the stupid budget that Doc was spending on executives and suits instead of important things like equipment and transportation. They were selling out every single venue, how could they be short on cash? She wiped her brow with the bottom of her shirt and flipped the tape in the cassette deck before she climbed onto the stationary bike.
The sexy kick of Michael Hutchence’s voice filled the makeshift gym at their hotel. She liked the poppy beat and it helped her pound out three miles in half the time that it would normally take.
Ashley ran through the room, a security guard hot on her heels. Her wild laugh and shriek as the guy got closer told her that cuffs would definitely be used for a far different reason when Taz got done with him. And of course, she was busting her ass in the gym and Ash would burn calories simply breathing or fucking.
And man, she tried not to hate her for it, but sometimes she wished she could be that carefree. She wanted to run around the hotel and just play all damn day, but no, she’d been up at six am to do the early-early morning show interview for radio. Like anyone had been listening, but promotion was promotion. She’d gotten a call from the record company pressuring for a date on a second album. They wanted to capitalize on the tour, but writing on the road was one thing, recording was something completely different.
She and Jamie had written a handful of songs over the last few months, but she had no idea if any of them were any good. The minute she focused on anything but getting through the next day, she froze up. One song was haunting her, and she’d seen 3AM before it let her go last night. Add in some eye crossing frustration named Richie Sambora and she was a damn mess.
The last stretch of her third mile ticked on the meter, frustration and anger throbbed in her thighs and calves until her heart rate pounded in her temples and her breath wheezed out. She climbed off the bike, bending at the waist to catch her breath.
Taking the stairs she went to her room and took a shower, dragging on comfortable cutoffs and a pink tanktop. As per usual, she and Ronnie had a crap room where the a/c belched and rattled more than gave out cold air. She propped the door open so she could at least get some air in the room. The suicide windows didn’t allow for anything like real air.
Of course, if you were staying in a dump like the hotel they were, suicide was a factor. Her roommate was MIA, again, not unusual. Ronnie and Mike were getting more acquainted as the tour went on and they’d probably snuck off somewhere together. Disgusted with her options for the day, she snatched her room key and purse on her way out, slamming the door just because she could.
The snap of her flip-flops gave her away, and Al peeked out from his room. “Hey, baby, where you headed?”
Fighting the urge to tell him to shove his baby where the sun didn’t shine, she forced a smile. “Hey, Alec.” When his eyes raked down her legs, she gave up all pretense of polite. “Anywhere away from here.”
He didn’t catch the hint, instead he followed behind her like the Chihuahua he resembled. And his eyes were on her ass. Great. Resisting the urge to pull her t-shirt down to her knees—as if it was an option—she ignored him.
“I’m not doing anything.”
His smile became more brittle but didn’t fade. “C’mon, what’s it gonna hurt if we hang for a bit? I guarantee people will notice.”
Steph bit back a sneer. Yeah, the press would think she was seeing Alec. Then she’d have to break one of the suicide windows and take care of business. “Look, Al. I’m trying to go off and be incognito. If you go with me, people will recognize you,” she said in her best I-can-flatter-your-male-ego voice.
His eyes shifted, then settled. He cracked his knuckles and smiled at her, the Muppets quality of his laugh grated. The boy was getting twitchier every day. “Yeah, you’re right.”
She nodded, patting his shoulder. “You understand, right?”
He bobbed his head on his scrawny neck and held back, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Making her escape, she fled around the corner and down the stairs, too impatient for the elevator.
God, had he changed his mind? With shoulders hunched, she kept going.
Her head whipped around. Definitely not Alec. “Where the hell did you come from?”
Jon hurried down the stairs after her. “My room.”
She squinted at him. “You’re such an ass.”
He laughed. “I heard you in the hall. Boy do you know how to work Alec.”
She stroked his shoulder like a patient parent. “Every boy needs his ego stroked a time or two,” she said and continued down the stairs.
His bark of laughter fed hers and they ended up racing down the stairs. At the bottom, he shook his head. “And the purpose of that?”
She pushed her hair out of her eyes, enjoying this easier, less stressed Jon. He still had too many shadows under his pretty blue eyes, and the hair that had once been a source of pin up drooling, was overgrown and on its way to fried, jammed under a trucker hat. “No purpose, I just like to leave you in my dust every once in awhile, Mr. Famous.”
“I’d kill not to be famous for just an afternoon.”
She looked him over, flipped the hat off and spun him around.
“Hey!” He looked over his shoulder. “What are you—“
“Be quiet and face forward, pain in the butt.” She gathered his hair into a tail, surprised when it was actually soft. She scraped it back, unrolling the black hair tie she habitually wore on her wrist until she could get most of his hair into the band.
He stepped forward, pushing at her hands in his hair. “Ow!”
She batted his hands back. “Don't be such a baby.” She plunked the hat on, and turned him to face her. She pushed the shorter pieces from up front into the hat. “Jesus, you’re way to pretty to be a guy.”
Jon crossed his eyes. “Gee, thanks.”
She lightly tapped his cheek and grinned up at him. “Welcome.” His cheekbones were definitely one of those features that screamed Jon, but then again, he usually had his hair hiding most of his face, so he actually looked like a totally different person. “Take off your jacket,” she said and gave him the gimme fingers.
He shrugged off the leather fringe jacket. “And why am I letting you order me around, again?”
She looked over his battered and holey jeans and well-worn grey t-shirt. He looked like any other guy on the street if you didn’t look too close. ““Because you want a normal afternoon.” She flicked the brim of his hat. “And I’m going to give it to you.”
She dragged him out the door, sliding her arm around his hip until he caught on and slung his arm around her shoulder in an easy familiarity. His voice was low in her ear. “If this turns into a clusterfuck of screaming women I’ll have David hold you down while I shave your head.”
Batting her eyelashes, she pulled all her acting skills out of her butt long enough to get them out of the hotel lobby. It was early enough in the day that the fans hadn’t found out where they were staying, so it was smooth sailing until they hit the parking lot. “Richie would kick your ass if you cut my hair.”
“That’s why it would be David,” he said sweetly.
She shook her head and looked around the parking lot.
“So, I’m thinking transportation wasn’t part of your plan?”
“Shut up and let me think.” God, that man brought out her bitch. A black Porsche Boxter, a Suburban, and shuttle bus were parked right near the building.
Jon sauntered to the sleek black car like he owned it and tried the handle. He smiled over his shoulder and slid in. He shrunk down in the seat and twisted a few wires and the car roared to life.
“Holy crap!” Steph ran around the passenger side. “What are you doing?”
“Get in.” He gunned the engine, waggling his eyebrows as he jammed sunglasses on his face.
“We can’t steal a car!” Her eyes darted around the parking lot for a bellhop, but this hotel wasn’t exactly bellhop material. “Jon!”
“Get in! Live a little.”
Her heart slammed in her chest. “Me and jail would not get along,” she whispered furiously. He inched forward and she swore. She threw her bag to the floor. “If you get me arrested, I’ll kill you,” she warned one last time and hopped into the car.
He fishtailed out as he punched the accelerator and the car reved, the short shifter easy in his hand. She shrunk down in her seat, staring at him.
“Do I want to know how you know how to boost a car?”
The corner of his lip quirked. “Misspent youth,” but his words were heavy on the Jersey accent and youth sounded more like yute.
She looked over her shoulder nervously, then back at him, into the side mirror and then faced forward.
“If you keep looking nervous people will think we stole the car.”
“We did steal it!” She shrunk down even lower, her fingernails digging into the super-fine leather as he merged onto the highway. California highways were like NASCAR and she slammed her eyes shut in reaction to him weaving in and out of traffic, finally settling into the fast lane.
His fingers curled and uncurled on the steering wheel, the glee apparent on his face. The little jerk was enjoying being a criminal. “So, where are we headed?”
She slowly sat up, the initial shock wearing off under the sun searing through the windows and the a/c keeping them cool. The radio was up, Belinda Carlisle sung about heaven and just then and there she believed the song. “Shopping and the beach, driver.”
Jon grinned and downshifted as he slid over a lane at the Newport Beach exit sign. A Ferrari roared in front of them and over four lanes of traffic, brake lights lit up like fire all around them. She clicked her seat belt and Jon laughed. “I’m not going to kill you.”
“Considering you’re trying to break the sound barrier, I’ll go with the seat belt, thanks.”
Jon downshifted and his speed dropped from Mach1 to city driving as he pulled off the exit. Immediately the ambiance changed. It felt like home. It felt like the shore. Sand encroached on pavement, bikinis and board shorts were the uniform of choice. She lowered the window and Jon followed suit. The air smelled of brine and grilled onions, and Mexican food from the vendors hocking their wares.
She missed home. It was galling to admit it since this was the dream, but she needed to see her friends, her parents, her cousins and aunts and uncles. She needed the noise of the comforting Loran clan and even her obnoxious brother. She needed her own bed, her mother’s cooking, and her swimming pool. She needed a piece of her old life to feel real again.
He picked a shady spot at the edge of an outdoor shopping center. “Don’t lock it,” he reminded her.
She crossed her arms and followed him to the central hub where a fountain gurgled swimming pool blue water, bored teenagers milled around, and the grating sound of skateboards on pavement vyed with a boombox blasting out Metallica. It was mid-week, but they were in high summer and the beach butted up to the shops with California’s version of a boardwalk. They ducked into a kitchy tourist trap and found flip flops, a beach bag and cheap bathing suits along with a cover up, sunblock and two straw hats.
Jon dug for his wallet and pulled out plastic, but she grabbed his arm. “Do you want the world to know that you-know-who is in Newport Beach?”
He looked at his credit card, then at her. “I don’t have enough cash for all this stuff.”
Steph rolled her eyes and pulled out her card. “You have fake names for everything but credit cards, huh?”
His eyebrows lifted into the shade of the brim of his hat. “That’s a great idea. I should totally do that.”
Jon snickered as she paid. No one gave them a second look. Of course he kept his shades on even in the store and played pack mule without complaint. “Can we use the dressing room to change?”
The bored teen behind the counter nodded, blowing a purple bubble before going back to his comic book. Jon grinned and steered her to the back. She slipped into the pink bikini, a little more conservative than she would normally buy in deference to their incognito status. With the white mesh cover-up and straw hat, Jackie O shades, she looked like every other twenty year old on the beach.
She met Jon outside the dressing room and laughed. Lime green shorts brushed his knees with his hairy monkey legs and furry chest on display. He had a white, lightweight cotton shirt open for comfort, but not showing off his body. His hair was out on his shoulders again and she pushed him back behind into the changing room.
“It doesn’t fit under the hat.”
“Where’s that rubber band?” He shrugged, and she rolled her eyes. She turned him around in the mirror. “Those shorts are seriously hot.”
“It was either lime green or pink.”
She stood on tiptoes and met his eyes in the mirror. “You’d look sexy in pink.”
Laughing, Steph quickly plaited his hair into a french braid.
He jerked away from her. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m braiding your hair.”
“That’s for girls!” He batted her hands away yet again.
Amused by his Italian sensibilities coming out loud and proud, she tried not to laugh. “No one’s going to see it under your hat, stud.” And sure enough the little braided tail was easy to tuck up under the hat. Again, he was all cheekbones and sunglasses, his skin already tanning up with the few days off that they’d had while in the midwest states.
She tugged him out of the dressing room and out to the food court. “I’m starving.” They ate hot dogs that were supposed to be like Coney Island, and as far as she was concerned they were an epic failure. They walked their sham of a boardwalk and drifted in a companionable silence.
His shoulders relaxed the longer they were out and no one recognized him. They found a pier full of fisherman and the lulling hiss of water lapping. The tide was coming in and the crashing waves reminded her of August and the shore with the Samboras. She must have tagged along a dozen times through her childhood and the smell of bait and saltwater, even if it was the Pacific, unknotted some of the loneliness and frustration she’d been drowning in.
“Why do you do this?”
They both leaned on the weather beaten rail staring out into the horizon. His eyes were unreadable behind mirrored lenses, but she honestly had to know. Sometimes she wondered if Jon was even happy on tour anymore. He was quiet for a long moment then he took off his aviator glasses and turned to her. “I love it, Steph. I know you guys don’t think I do, but I honestly do. I can’t be anything, or anyone else than a songwriter. I need to get on that stage, I need to make music. I just wish I could do it without the other crap.”
He squinted at the fiery sun that sat in the middle of the sky. It wasn’t even noon and they had an entire day ahead of them. She propped herself on her elbows, looking down at the waves as they pounded at the legs of the pier. “Is it worth the other crap? You seem so on edge lately.”
He tipped his hat back and closed his eyes. “I ask myself that every morning that I do an interview—the same interview, over and over by the way—and pose for one more picture, sign one more tour program, pretend that I like some suit that’s only backstage because he wants the story to tell his buddies at work the next day. But then I get on that stage, and all of it goes away.
She understood that, and turned back to the sea, shoulder to shoulder they went quiet. There was no need for words or conversation right then. The forty minutes Devotion was allotted each night made it worth it for her too. Impatient to grow, to have more time on the stage she would steal another five minutes some nights, but Jon seemed to understand her hunger because he never said anything.
Kindred spirits, as hard as that was to believe, that’s what they were. She looked up at him, shading her eyes with her hand. “So, think we can kick the depressing shit and go lay on the beach and bake for a few hours?”
He smiled and his face transformed into the man that made women follow the band to the ends of the earth. It held its own power and she was very glad she was immune. This man would not be an easy man to love.
She hooked her arm in his. “We have to find something a little more private though. You go flashing that chest and we’ll be attacked.”
His shoulders went back and the preening peacock came out. “It’s an impressive chest.”
“Yeah, if you’re a sixteen year old boy.”
Laughing, he slung his arm around her neck and led her back down the pier. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a ball buster?”
“Jamie taught me.”
His smile froze for just a moment before the laugh was back. “You learned from the best.”
Steph hiked the beach bag onto her shoulder, instantly suspicious. “Something I should know?”
Why didn’t she believe him?