I want to be part of your Book Club!

  Kim DeSalvo

                                               

               I want to be part of your book club!

W riting is a very personal thing for me, and I want to make it personal for you too!

 

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Incidental Happenstance

I think your book is so good because the characters are believable ... even the one I don't like -- that snotty actress who just won't give up! Any book that transports you somewhere else has to be a winner! I finished last night (sadly), THEN had to go back and re-read starting from the part where he finds her cellphone… I re-read that all the way to the end 3 times!!! I will eagerly be awaiting your next book! Teri A., Homewood, IL

What I liked about the book was that it was very detail oriented. The characters are described as though you feel you know them, the destinations are so descriptive that you feel you have been there, the situations are very real to life, and it is an engaging story. It is an easy read book that keeps you interested and makes you want to read chapter after chapter. 

 Sue N., Valparaiso, IN

 

 The Story Behind the Story

Sometimes, your mind controls you. Some nights, you can’t sleep because there’s something “stuck in your head.” It might be a song, a commercial, a poem, or one of those irritating jingles for carpet stores or auto insurance. The thought consumes you; trumps everything else; until you have to do something to get it out.

That’s how Incidental Happenstance started. It was an idea; part dream, part daydream, part imagination; and it was seriously stuck in my head. Every night, I’d lay awake for hours as parts of the story started to come together in my mind. The characters started becoming real—I began actually hearing their voices and seeing their faces. They developed personalities and quirks and flaws and mannerisms that made them individuals. I began to see how they interacted, and they started having conversations in my mind.

It went on for months, and I found myself actually looking forward to climbing into bed and letting the story progress. There came a point, however, when I had to do something to get it out. It just started getting too big for my mind to hold onto it any longer.

I work a full-time job as a fifth grade teacher, and although many people think that teachers have the easy life, and work nine to three, I can tell you that absolutely isn’t the case. My days are typically nine to ten hours long, and working with kids can be mentally exhausting. But I was on a mission.

I really started paying attention to those voices and images in my head at night. I started to see the characters come together in ways that were perfectly average, and in ways that tested their wills. And soon, I decided it was time to tell their stories.

I’d written books before, one just for the fun of it, and another as a rather large extension on a college writing assignment. I shared one with family and friends, but didn’t go any further. I liked the way this story was progressing though, and felt strongly that it had all the right elements to be publishable novel.  I decided that I was going to go all the way this time—start to finish, and create a complete and polished manuscript.

It took four months of writing every day, often long after my husband had retired for the night; before I had what I thought was a pretty good story. I shared along the way with my mom, whose nearly thirty years of teaching language arts and lifetime of reading made her my best cheerleader, critic, and editor. And she was tough on me, which I appreciate greatly.

I set a goal to have the story polished by the end of Christmas break, and then I did the scariest thing of all—I started to share it with my friends. It was hard putting myself out there for the first time—the story is fiction, of course, but there were bits and pieces of many of my friends in the book, and it was both scary and fun to see them discover themselves within the novel.

The most vulnerable thing was to present my novel as my pick for my book club. I sent copies to all present and former members, and invited others to read it and join in the discussion. One of the things I know about writing, and that I try to instill in the students I teach, is that you should share your stories with people you trust, ask them to be brutal, and take their comments, opinions, ideas, and suggestions in equal measure. Let me tell you, my heart was pounding when we all sat down at the coffee shop—our largest single book club turnout ever, by the way—and we discussed Incidental Happenstance. My book. My story.

I was at first humbled and elated at the positive feedback and worthy suggestions I received, and then had an amazing time sitting quietly while they all discussed their favorite characters, favorite scenes of the book, predictions that had or hadn’t come to fruition, and climatic moments that had surprised them. I couldn’t hide my smile as they talked about scenes that made them laugh, or cry, or cheer out loud. I was thrilled that they loved to hate Penelope, which was exactly what I wanted the reader to feel. I loved that they routed for Tia and Dylan from the start, and that they had definite pictures of the characters in their heads. They argued about whether I needed a prologue, an epilogue, or needed to write a sequel (rolling in my head right now—not sure how it’s going to pan out just yet).  They discussed who should play the characters in the movie version (getting just a bit ahead, eh?) and who would the best singer to turn my lyrics into song (I have my own ideas about that, but that would be getting ahead as well, don’t you think?) They gave me one-liners to describe the book…some of my favorites were, “It’s Pretty Woman without the hooker,” and, “Every woman’s fantasy.”

My heart never stopped pounding, but the reasons for the thumping changed from fear and vulnerability to elation and pride as the evening wore on.

Then came the hard part—taking all those suggestions, opinions, questions, and praise, and tackling the job of editing; a job which never seems to end. That took another few months—I must have read the story a dozen times during that process. The best thing for me was that each time I read it, I found myself really liking the characters and the story…I never got tired of them.

So, I edited, and sent out another round of the ‘semi-final’ copy to anonymous readers through friends, hoping for completely unbiased opinions, took in another round of suggestions, and put on the final touches. My best friend finally told me, “It’s time to just call it done,” and so I did. Sort of. I read it one more time—out loud—and I can’t begin to tell you how helpful that was. Then I called it. Done.

So, there you have it. There are many more side bars I might share later, but that’s my story about how I wrote my story. I hope you read it, I hope you enjoy it, and I especially hope you share your feelings with me and others. Write a review on Amazon. Send me an email. Forward my info to others so they might enjoy the story as well. I have a whole bunch of new ones rolling around in my head right now, and am always working on something , so keep your eyes open for others!

 

Take a look inside Incidental Happenstance...

 

Prologue

 

Tia Hastings stared blankly at the sea of faces that swam in and out of focus before her.  The vast majority were familiar, but the expressions they wore twisted and contorted their faces into alien landscapes that made her want to turn away and avoid all contact. They wanted to comfort her, she knew, but there was nothing they could possibly do or say that would bring her the slightest bit of relief from the hell into which she’d been thrust.

On her right stood her parents, doing their best to hold everyone together and keep the parade of people moving. They forced tight smiles for each mourner, and responded to their condolences when it was all Tia could do to nod her head in acknowledgement. Her mom reassured her every few minutes with a slight touch, a soft pat on the back, or a supportive hand under her elbow. At her left, Paddy and Siobhan, whom she’d called Mom and Dad for the past five years, tried bravely to maintain a stoic dignity.  Directly in front of her, on the couch that sagged sadly from the constant weight of despair, sat Lexi Summers. She’d been Tia’s constant best friend since their awkward teen years, and had been the glue for Tia this past week—it was Lexi who’d stayed at her house and gotten her out of bed each morning, forcing coffee and cereal into her and making her get dressed as if she were a normal person. It was Lexi who’d run Tia a bath this morning, and who’d brushed out her tangled mass of dark hair while she sat unknowing, uncaring. Tia would have been more than willing to pull the shades on the world and never leave her bed, but Lexi forced her to go through the motions. She now sat with a box of tissues, dabbing often at her own eyes, but also making sure that the five of them had a constant fresh supply. She forced bottles of water on them as well, and made sure they were at least choking down enough food to sustain them.

 

But as much as Tia didn’t want to confront the looks of pity and well-intentioned but empty words of sympathy, she couldn’t turn around. Behind her, her future lay crushed—literally and figuratively—in a mahogany box. And as bad as it was to stand there and hear the same monotonous whispers of “I’m so sorry” from person after person, she knew that the coming weeks and months would be even worse. Everyone here would go back to their lives; this day a momentary sad distraction for most; and she would be expected to go on as well. However, seeing that her life would be under six feet of earth and concrete by this time tomorrow, she didn’t see a way that she could. All of her plans for the future involved Nick, and never once, in the past five years, did she even entertain the idea of a life without him. Now, either fate or coincidence had taken that from her. She couldn’t even begin to imagine getting out of bed tomorrow, much less moving forward with a life that no longer had meaning.

As had happened several times already, the finality of it all—the weight of it all—pushed down on her like a physical entity. Tia’s knees buckled and she felt herself begin to sink. Her mom and Siobhan were beside her instantly, and Lexi leaped up to guide her out of the room and into a quiet alcove where they sank into an oversized sofa as Lexi wrapped her arms tightly around Tia.

“I can’t do it Lex, I just can’t,” Tia croaked as a fresh river of tears cascaded down her face. “I don’t know how I can go on without him.”

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Last Stop? You’re kidding, right? That’s where you decided to go? There have to be at least a dozen places you could go in this city—why in God’s name would you pick that dump?”

“Why not? It’s as good a place as any,” Tia answered, trying her best to sound casual and confident. Going out for a couple beers on a Friday night wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but for Tia, on this night, it was big. It was huge. And although she’d already committed her mind, her body was having second thoughts—a flock of butterflies had settled in the pit of her stomach, and their numbers seemed to be growing exponentially as the clock ticked away the minutes. She flopped onto the couch and plucked a cracker from her plate, added a hunk of cheese, and took a bite. There was no way she could force a meal into the fluttering mass that was her stomach, but she knew that she had to eat something. “Besides,” she continued, “I can be anonymous there. I don’t think there’s any chance of running into anyone I know.”

“Oh Tia,” Lexi moaned. “You really shouldn’t be alone tonight. I should just come with you.” She paused for a heartbeat before her voice came back strong. “I’m coming with you. I’m still at work, but give me an hour and I’ll…”

“That’s sweet, Lex, really,” Tia interrupted, “but you have that fancy lawyer dinner tonight…”

“I could cancel,” she interjected. “You might need me more than Ryan does tonight.”

“I appreciate that, but tonight’s way too important to Ryan. If he wants to make partner, he has to go to these functions—you’ve said that at least a hundred times. And if you’re going to be the supportive wife, you need to go too. Plus, it’s about time the two of you get to be a couple without me hanging around.”

“We love having you around, hon, you know that.” Lexi’s voice softened. “You know I love you, Tia, and I’d cancel in a second if you needed me. Believe me, there’ll be plenty more of these dinners in my future—Ryan would understand if I missed one. I just don’t want to think about you being all alone, especially in that place…oh, it gives me goose bumps!” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “Why don’t you just go to the memorial instead? At least if you were going to Paddy’s I’d know you were with other people who loved you. You know I’m going to worry about you all night if you’re going to insist on going to the armpit of the city.”

Tia grabbed another cracker. Regardless of how she was feeling about tonight, she was determined to put up a strong front for her best friend.  “Aren’t you being a little overdramatic?” she asked through a mouthful of crumbs. “The armpit?”

“Yuh huh,” Lexi continued.  “Have you ever even been by the place? All the guys there have dirt under their fingernails and probably ninety percent of them have shotguns in the back windows of their pickup trucks.” Her voice leveled, got serious. “Listen, Tia. The guys there—the people there—are on a different rung of the social ladder than you and me. They’re also on a different rung of the class ladder, the educational ladder, the economic ladder…”

“That’s hardly the point, Lex…I’m on a different rung of your economic ladder too, remember? That doesn’t mean anything to me and you know it. Actually, that’s what makes it an easier place to go—I don’t have to pretend to be anything or anyone—I can just sit back and observe. Plus, seeing as I’m not planning on holding any hands or getting into any pickup trucks, I think I’ll be pretty safe. It’s a public place.”

Lexi grunted. “Public place doesn’t necessarily mean safe place, Tia,” she said. “That kind of joint can get pretty rough sometimes. It’s a whole other world, sister, and some of the guys that hang out at places like that can be shady characters. When I think about you going there alone—let’s just say that scenes from bad horror movies keep flashing through my head, and I can’t get them out. Plus, you’ve been off the market for a long time now,” she added. “It’s been a long time since you’ve had any…male attention. It might be hard to...” her voice trailed off.

Tia sighed. “Give me a little credit, Lex. It’s not like I’m going to throw myself at the first piece of meat I see just because I’ve been lacking in the sex department.”

“It’s not about giving you credit—I know you have impeccable taste in men and good sense. It’s just that the libido is a carnal instinct, not a case of mind over matter. Your depression turned off your natural instincts, and now that you’ve decided to start living again, it’s going to start rearing its head, maybe at the most unlikely times.” Tia tried to interrupt, but she continued. “I’m not saying you’re going to jump in bed with the first guy you see—of course not. I’m just saying that you might not have as much control over it as you think you do.”

“Oh God, that’s the last thing on my mind, believe me. I’ll say it again—I’m not looking to meet someone—quite the opposite, actually. I’m not even planning on talking to anyone. I’ll probably be in and out. An hour or two, a beer or two, a little people watching, then I can call it a successful night and head home.” She drew in a deep breath and let out another long sigh. “And to answer your other question…no. I really don’t think I can do the memorial. As much as I love Paddy and Siobhan, and Sean and the rest of them—I just don’t know if I can do it. This past year has been a long, hard road, and I’m finally at the point where I think I can get on my own two feet again. Being there—I don’t know,” she whined, trying to put her feelings into words. “I’m just afraid that it’s going to bring all the old sad memories rushing back and that I’m going to lose the positivity I’ve worked so hard for. I have to move forward.”

“Positivity? Is that even a word?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said defensively. “That’s hardly the point.”

“Then what is the point, Tia? I’m still not sure I really get why you feel like you have to ‘put yourself out there.’ You have lots of friends who love and support you, who will help you ‘find yourself’ again if you need them to—and for the record—I don’t think you’re as lost as you think you are. You’re just too damned stubborn and analytical to believe that things’ll just work themselves out in time. I know it’s been a year, but there isn’t a magical formula for grief, you know. There isn’t a timetable that you can follow—you just have to take it day by day.”

“I do know that Lex, but three hundred sixty five days have already passed me by, and I’ve neglected most of my friends the entire time. Shit, if it wasn’t for you and Mom, I probably wouldn’t have even left the house except to go to work. And if I’ve learned anything during my year of seclusion, it’s that life is short and I’ve wasted too much of it already. I can almost hear Nick screaming at me to suck it up and get over myself, you know?”

Lexi’s voice went soft around the edges. “Yeah, honey, I know. But that doesn’t mean that you have to go out to strange places all alone to do it. Besides, we’re going to the concert tomorrow—there’ll be thousands of strangers there. Can’t you wait one more night and find yourself then?”

Despite her strong emotions, Tia laughed. “An InHap concert is completely different than what I’m doing tonight. Tomorrow is going to have its own set of difficulties and I just can’t do it twice.”

“Meaning?”

“Well, obviously the music is going to bring back a lot of memories, and I won’t be able to stop thinking about Nick. That’s part of the reason I’m skipping the memorial. I can’t imagine two nights in a row of being bombarded with reminders of everything I’ve lost.”

Lexi sounded worried. “I’m telling you right now, you are NOT bailing on me for that concert, young lady, even if I have to drag you bodily—and don’t test me, ‘cause you know I will.”

“I don’t doubt that for a second,” Tia smiled, “and you know I wouldn’t want you any other way. It’ll be a great show, as always, and I’m determined to enjoy every minute of it—I will enjoy every minute of it. But for tonight I need noise, and people, and anonymity.”

Lexi groaned into the phone. “There’ll be noise and people at Paddy’s. People who know you and love you, Tia, not like in a smoky barroom full of strangers.”

“I understand why you’re worried; I do. But really—all I plan to do is find a little spot in the corner of the bar and do some people watching. I just need to be part of a crowd and soak up some of the energy. It’s been so long since I’ve been a single girl in a bar—a single girl anywhere—and I don’t even know what they do anymore. It’s hard to imagine it right now, but I’m going to need those skills eventually, and it’s been six freaking years since I’ve needed them. Tonight’s going to be a little training course, that’s all. So you and Ryan go to your fancy dinner, enjoy a night together as a couple, and have a great time without your constant third wheel tagging along.”

“You’re never a third wheel, Tia. Don’t ever think that. Ryan loves you too, you know.”   

“I do know, and you know that I love you both back. You’ve been my rocks this past year, and I could never thank you enough.”

“Jace has been there a lot too, you know.”

Tia snickered. “Yeah, like he’s not sick and tired of having to babysit me.”

“I really don’t think it’s much of an imposition for him at all. I think he likes you.”

Tia laughed and let the comment roll off her back. “Not likely. He just feels sorry for me, like everyone else at the Club does. I can feel their pitiful eyes on me all the time and it’s getting really old.” She curled her legs under her and massaged her temples. “Look. For the past year I’ve done nothing for myself except to drown in self-pity, and it’s way past time to knock it the hell off.  I have to discover who I am now; just me.”

“Oh, all right,” Lexi conceded. “I can see I’m not going to talk you out of this. But I want you to call me the minute you get home, understand? I don’t care what time it is, you call me. I’m going to be worrying about you all night.”

“No need to worry,” Tia said confidently, but inside, her nerves were starting to gnaw at her.

“And no picking up any guys unless you carefully inspect their fingernails. And their wallets. Understood? Actually,” she added, “no picking up guys at all. Yeah, I like that idea better.”

“Yes mother,” Tia groaned sarcastically.

“Hey,” she said. “Not funny. You know I could call your mother and tell her what you’re up to tonight. You know she’d be just as thrilled about it as I am.” It was an empty threat, Tia knew, and when she didn’t respond Lexi said again, “Just promise you’ll call me.”

“I will.”

“And consider going to the memorial. It would mean a lot to Paddy and Siobhan, and I really think you’ll regret it later if you don’t go.”

“I’ll think about it, but no guarantees.”

“Fair enough. And be careful.”

“I will. Love you, Lex.”

“Right back at you, girlfriend.”

Tia tapped the end call button and walked to the sliding glass door that led out to her little deck. Spring had slipped in, and new life was blossoming everywhere. Green once again tinted the stark branches of trees, daffodils and bluebells sprung from the ground, and the birds were starting to sing again. The robins and the hummingbirds were back; and the world around her was being reborn. It was about time that she started living again, too.

She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then went into her room and sat on the bed, contemplating the significance of the evening. Letting go of the past, starting a new chapter in her life, discovering her own identity—it was a lot to ask from one night at a little hole-in-the-wall pub, but she had to start somewhere. It had been a year since she’d been out in a crowd of strangers and Lexi was right—Last Stop wasn’t her kind of place, but then again, that was the reason she chose it. If she made a fool of herself, or started crying in her beer, she could write it off with her standard vacation mantra that she’d never see these people again, so what did it matter? There was almost no chance she’d run into anyone she knew—and that was the way she wanted it—she just wanted to be a fly on the wall, an anonymous spectator rather than a participant.

She’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that a big part of her was terrified at the idea of joining the world again. She readily admitted that getting involved in another relationship at any time in the near future was more than daunting, it was downright frightening. The thought of starting over with someone new, going through the motions of first kisses, first dates, uncomfortable silences—she shuddered to think about it. Right now there was still a lot of pain associated with Nick, but she was learning to push it back and get on with her life. He would have wanted that for her, she was sure of it.

So get on with it, she thought, getting up to stare into her closet. She pulled out a pair of weathered jeans and a blousy top. Not too form fitting, not too low cut, not too flashy. She grabbed a pair of simple tan pumps with a low heel, and considered her outfit complete.

Sitting down at her vanity, she contemplated her image in the round mirror. It had taken many months, but the dark circles had finally disappeared from her below her eyes. She didn’t cry nearly so much anymore and actually had some good days once in a while. There was her work…God she loved her work…her ten year old students never failed to make her feel loved and she knew she made a real difference in their lives. She had her friends—and good ones at that, especially Lexi, and she was fairly confident that once she got back in touch with the rest of them; the next part of her plan to take back her life; they would forgive her blatant avoidances of the past year. Her parents, although they could sometimes be major pains in the ass, were always there for her and had really helped her through.

What she didn’t have was Nick, and a sense of individual identity. After being one half of their couple for so many years, she just didn’t know how to be without him. That was what she needed to get back, and her most prominent reason for venturing out tonight. She was still young, after all, and couldn’t spend the rest of her life longing for something that would never be, could never be. She had to find out who Tia Hastings really was.

It wasn’t going to happen tonight, but at least it was a start. Getting back in touch with the world, especially the single world, was going to take a concerted effort on her part. She didn’t know if she remembered how to flirt, how to flash a smile that sent a message in the level of the eyes, the toss of the hair, or the tilt of the head. She didn’t know if the old pick-up lines were replaced by new ones, or even if it was still acceptable to refuse a kiss on the first date. What she needed was to get out there and relearn what it was like to be young, single, and ready for whatever the future held.

She applied some clear gloss to her lips, a brush of gold shadow over her green eyes, and pulled her long dark hair back into a simple knot. The clock read 7:00 and she grabbed her small bag, keys, and cell phone from the table by the door. “Time to start living again,” she said aloud as she stepped out into the unseasonably warm May evening and headed for Last Stop; the first stop on her journey into her own future.

 

 

 

 

 Chapter 2

 

It was early when she arrived, but she still had to park more than a block away. She had hoped to slip in when the place wasn’t too busy and grab a seat in the corner somewhere, but obviously the clientele here was already celebrating the start of Memorial Day weekend, a three-dayer, and the official start of summer in the Midwest. Inside, gratefully, the place was dark enough that she slipped in unnoticed, and the bar area was nearly empty. Most of the patrons were playing pool or darts, or were sitting at round tables in groups. Tia ordered a Sam Adams, the only beer on the menu that didn’t have some form of ‘Light’ in its name, and settled in to observe.

The bar was a horseshoe shape, and she perched on a stool closest to the door. Shania Twain crooned from the fuzzy-sounding speakers of the jukebox, and a trio of tattooed girls in skin tight jeans and tank tops stuffed bills into the machine and argued over their next selections. There were three pool tables, and each hosted a testosterone-filled good-natured match. Most of the men wore baseball caps, faded jeans, and t-shirts advertising sports teams and various brands of mostly cheap beer. One proudly labeled its wearer as a member of the FBI—Female Body Inspector. There were a couple of cowboy hats and plenty of flannel shirts, and, as Lexi had predicted, most of the guys looked as though they’d put in a hard day’s work. They were rough around the edges without a doubt, and certainly not the sort that hung out at the country club. That was the point, though, and she sipped her Sammy and watched as a group of girls sauntered over to the pool tables to flirt with the men. Feeling a bit voyeuristic, she settled in to watch the interaction, which quickly turned to giggling, hugging, and one girl plucking the eight ball off the table just as a pretty decent looking blonde struck the cue ball.

She let her gaze wander around the room as Keith Urban’s Some Days You Gotta Dance came blasting out of the jukebox. What could only be described as a whoop and a holler rose up out of the crowd as most of the women and a few of the men flocked to the empty spot of worn wood that doubled as the dance floor, formed a line and started to dance.  Although she wasn’t really a fan of country music and had never done so much as the Electric Slide, she found herself caught up in the sounds and the way the bodies moved to the beat. There was a comfort level, a camaraderie between the dancers as they switched partners, swung and twirled, and their boots stomped a rhythmic beat into the floor. She found herself tapping her leg with her fingers to match the rhythm. When one of the pool players wandered over and asked her to dance, she smiled, thanked him, and politely declined.

Suddenly, the hair on the back of her neck prickled and she felt eyes on her—the sense that someone was staring. She swept her gaze across the bar, and then she saw him. He was sitting alone on the other side of the bar sipping what could only be a martini. The fancy glass with the floating olive was definitely out of place amongst the Miller Lite mirrors and sports paraphernalia adorning the dark walls. He held her glance for just a moment and then quickly turned his gaze away. A flicker of recognition passed over her, and she tried to place the face—hoping it wasn’t someone she knew from school. She looked over again to find him turned away from her, watching the dance floor behind him.  Her quick glance was enough to see that he was good looking, but he desperately needed a new hair style and a shave. He had a dark brown mullet, circa Billy Ray Cyrus—did people actually still wear their hair like that? She thought that fad died when Bono finally cut his off back in the 80’s. But when he turned his head, something else caught her eye, and she noticed a much lighter tuft of hair waving out just over his ear. He was wearing a wig; she realized—is that what you called it on a guy? She found herself intrigued. Why in the world would any man, who obviously had at least some blonde hair, choose to: A) wear a wig and B) make it a mullet?  And why was there something so familiar about his face? Well, she decided, she was here to observe, after all, and he was as good a candidate as any. She watched without being too obvious as he studied the dance floor.

As she focused in on her target, Tia wove ridiculous stories in her mind. Maybe he was an undercover FBI agent on a surveillance mission just waiting for his mark to slip up. She glanced around the room at the pool players, dart throwers, dancers and drinkers. Could one of them be a fugitive from the law? Or maybe the guy was just going horribly bald, and was trying to delay the inevitable, or to look younger for the ladies. Yeah, right, she thought, smiling to herself—as if any self-respecting woman in this day and age would be seen with a guy sporting a mullet! She settled back into her stool and sipped her beer. Suddenly, this observing was getting a bit more interesting. But then, Lexi’s warnings started creeping into her mind and her thoughts grew darker. Maybe he was in disguise because he was a fugitive. He could be a serial killer stalking his next victim, hoping that the nationwide manhunt would be focused on a guy with a really bad hairdo—he’d commit the crime, and then dump the wig and be walking around with a luxurious head of long blonde hair…she shivered then at the idea that he had been watching her.

Getting a grip on her own mind she laughed at herself and her sudden bout of paranoia. What were the chances, really? But then she thought about her car, parked over a block away on a dark and deserted street lined with closed businesses and crisscrossed with unmarked alleyways. A tingle ran up her spine, and she suddenly realized how alone she was here amongst all these total strangers. She decided then that she wouldn’t leave the bar alone; she’d ask the bartender to recommend someone who could walk her to car or, if she chickened out on that and she needed to, she could always call someone to come and meet her. It would be one more thing Lexi would hold over her head and gloat about forever, but Tia knew Lexi would come if she asked. In the meantime, mysterious mullet man was a curiosity, and if someone did come up missing tomorrow, she could at least give a good description of him—and foil his mullet ploy. 

She started taking notice of the details, glad to have something on which to focus. His shirt, she noticed, although just a standard button down in a solid color, seemed a little too fitted and nice for this place—duh, she thought, it was about the only one in the place that wasn’t flannel. And as he rested his elbow on the bar and leaned his head into his hand (was he trying to hide his face?), there was no tell-tale sign of dirt under his fingernails. He looked too clean—too put together—for Last Stop. He was drinking a martini, obviously out of place in a joint like this, and he wasn’t interacting with anyone. No game of pool, no dancing, no hitting up girls; he was just sitting alone, like she was, at the opposite corner of the bar. Another observer, perhaps? Another lost soul looking for something in anonymity? Then, as she watched, he reached around for his martini glass and she saw the tattoo on his hand.

The Chinese symbol for younger sister looks something like a one hundred degree angle intersected perpendicularly with a wishbone, followed by a sweeping vertical line with a sort of skirt near the bottom and two more perpendicular lines crossing the top. An unusual choice for a tattoo, but one that obviously held some sort of sentimental meaning to the bearer. She realized suddenly that she’d seen that tattoo before, in an issue of Rock’s Finest magazine. A name popped into her head instantly—Dylan Miller—mega-star, two time Grammy winner, actor, Sexiest Man on Earth as chosen by the readers of Person to Person magazine, rock’s hottest bachelor according to Rock’s Finest.  She had tickets to see his band; Incidental Happenstance or InHap, to fans; play tomorrow night, and it was the summer’s hottest show—both the Saturday and Sunday shows had sold out in less than an hour. It was likely that he was already in town, and he was known to make random appearances around the city when he was. No way, she thought—it was impossible that one of the most popular performers in the world was sitting across from her at a cheesy country bar out of town…wearing a mullet which was sure to have girls avoiding him and men ignoring him…

“Whoa,” she whispered to herself, her heart suddenly pattering a little irregularly in her chest. She shook her head slightly and tried to get a better look at him. She was sure the mullet wasn’t his real hair, and she was pretty sure about the tattoo as well, the one Dylan Miller had done after his younger sister died of leukemia. She thought that the symbol was right, and it was certainly not the typical place to put a tattoo; on the back of the hand, just below where the thumb and index finger meet. But he had turned away again, and she couldn’t get a good look at his face. The lighting wasn’t good here, either, and the shadows hid his features rather effectively.

Finally, the song on the jukebox ended and Carrie Underwood’s mellow voice flowed in, slowing the crowd. Much of the group left the dance floor and only a few couples remained, wrapped up in each other and swaying to the seductive rhythm. Finally, the man turned back to the bar.

She tried to watch him from the corner of her eye, looking at him without actually looking at him. If it wasn’t Dylan Miller, she definitely didn’t want him to think she was checking him out. And if it was, then what? He was obviously hoping not to be recognized, wanting to blend in with the crowd, not unlike herself. She couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to never be able to go out for a simple drink without being mobbed by fans. If she called attention to him everyone in the bar would surround him, wanting autographs, pictures or begging him to perform. That wouldn’t be fair to him, and, on a more selfish note, her quiet night of people watching would be over as well.

She watched with sideways glances as the song on the jukebox ended, and the notes of the next selection drifted from the speakers. It was Untangled, an InHap song with just enough southern influence to have spent some time on the country charts. The man’s head rose alertly and he stiffened for a moment, his eyes quickly spanning the room. A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and he relaxed again, watching the exchanges on the dance floor as more and more couples slid in to sway with the melody. Tia watched his interest with her own, and as he lifted his glass again and drank she looked intently at the tattoo. Despite the shadows, she felt more confident that it was the right symbol. Just then, the bartender leaned in and said something to him and he smiled—and then she knew.

She had never been star struck—rarely watched the tabloid TV shows or read the magazines, except for an occasional issue of Person to Person when she went on a trip and needed something mindless to read in the airport. But here she was, ninety eight percent certain that she was sitting across from one of the biggest stars of the day—a singer/songwriter/actor whom she’d admired since her college days. She’d seen dozens of his concerts—Incidental Happenstance had been a part of much of her adult life. His band was one of Nick’s favorites too; in fact it was at an InHap show that they first met, introduced by her old college roommate. She and Nick knew all their songs—Nick had played guitar and sung every one of them. She sang harmony, sometimes just the two of them, and occasionally at the pub. It was to one of InHap’s songs that they would have had their first dance as husband and wife.

Memories of Nick flooded her suddenly, and she was quickly overwhelmed. How many nights had he played his own guitar and sung Dylan Miller’s songs? She saw Nick’s face for an instant, and knew that he would be furious with her if she passed up an opportunity to tell Dylan Miller just how much his music had impacted her life—their lives. But should she? What would she say? How could she do it without blowing his cover? And why was she having such a hard time catching her breath? She glanced over again and saw that his martini was nearly empty. Emboldened by the story she would whisper to Nick later that night and boast to everyone else in the morning, she hailed the bartender with her index finger and ordered another martini for the stranger across the bar. As he mixed it, she made her way nervously around to where he sat. Her heart pounded in her chest—she couldn’t believe that she was so nervous.

She slid into the bar stool next to him just as the bartender delivered the martini. “A drink from the lady,” he said, tipping his head toward the stool Tia had just occupied.  Then he quickly turned away to take another order.

Dylan Miller looked at her. Before he could speak, she whispered, “Listen, I know who you are. I’m not going to blow your disguise or anything, you’re obviously here incognito and I respect that. I just couldn’t pass up the chance to say thank you. Your music has been a huge part of my life and I’m a big fan. Your songs…”

“Sorry, Miss,” he interrupted, looking down at the bar and avoiding eye contact. “I don’t know who you think I am, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken.” He glanced up at her briefly before quickly averting his eyes again, plucking a pair of glasses from the bar and sliding them on. Nice try, Tia thought, but I’m not fooled. She’d caught the quick flash of surprise in his eyes when they met hers; he was obviously flustered at being recognized. Plus, she heard the touch of his blended Australian/British accent, which she thought sounded more British, and that made her ninety eight percent jump up to ninety nine point five, at least.

“Oh, I’m not mistaken,” she said confidently. “But I can easily see that you’re looking for privacy tonight, and I’m sorry to interrupt that. I’m not going to try to hang out with you, or ask for an autograph or anything. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity…”

He looked down at the fresh drink. “Yeah, well, thanks for the drink; it really wasn’t necessary. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not anybody, and I did come here for some alone time tonight, so if you’ll excuse me…”

“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to intrude, really. I’m not a crazed fan or anything; I just … anyway, thanks for the music. It’s kind of been the soundtrack of my life, and I think you’re incredibly talented. Thanks for sharing your gift with the world—it’s meant a lot to a lot of people, and I’m one of them.” She slipped off the stool and turned to go. “I’ll leave you alone now.”

He nodded and murmured something unintelligible, turning back to his drink.

She started to walk away and then turned back. “Oh, one more thing.”

Here we go, Dylan thought. He looked irritated, but glanced patiently in her direction, lifting his eyebrows in question. “Yes?”

“You really need to fix your wig,” she whispered. “There’s kind of a big hunk of your real hair sticking out on the right side. Other than that, pretty good disguise, by the way.” With that, she walked away and returned to her own seat. She looked over once to see him tucking the stray locks back into the wig, then purposefully turned her attention back to the pool players once more.

It was all she could do not to look at him again as her heart settled back into a normal rhythm. Wait until she told Lexi about this encounter! She would never believe that Tia had (sort of) met Dylan Miller, and at Last Stop of all places! They’d actually (kind of) had a conversation! Lexi would absolutely freak out, and Tia looked very forward to telling her that her choice of venue tonight had been exactly right.

But she of all people knew what it was like to have unwanted eyes on you constantly, and she’d respect his need for privacy. For her, it had been the looks of pity she got after she lost Nick—she couldn’t even imagine being a superstar and never being able to go out in public without being accosted. She didn’t want him to feel that some fan was staring him down, and she thought he might leave if he felt uncomfortable. It was stupid, she knew, but she felt a certain sense of excitement just knowing that he was sipping the drink she’d bought for him, even if they weren’t drinking together. She ordered another Sammy and tried to focus on the interactions between the sexes, but her concentration was gone. Unconsciously, she glanced at him again and he tipped his glass toward her. It wasn’t an invitation, but at least it was an acknowledgement. She tipped her bottle in return and smiled. He smiled back, wryly, and turned away.

Shit, Dylan thought. He didn’t think there was any way anyone would recognize him in a place like this, a dive bar far enough out of the city to be a local hangout and dark enough to conceal identities. All he’d wanted was a simple drink, some noise, and some people—to be one person in a crowd and not some rock star seeking attention. He thought the mullet would be the perfect disguise—he looked like some 80’s throwback and knew he wouldn’t be attractive to women, and figured the men would just ignore him. It had worked until the woman across the bar somehow recognized him.

He took a sip of his martini and glanced over curiously at the woman again. The cheap gin burned his throat and reminded him of the old days, when a bottle of Boodles was a prized possession. She was pretty, the woman. She had dark hair that was pulled into a casual twist, and he’d just caught a glimpse of the green of her eyes. Nice eyes, he thought. She was natural, good looking even without a lot of makeup, which was pretty much the polar opposite of the rest of the women in the place. Although it seemed that she tried to blend in to the crowd, it was obvious that she was an outsider here too. He wondered what it was that made her seek refuge in this little dump of a bar, alone, and obviously not looking to meet anyone. He’d noticed a couple of the boys from the pool tables checking her out, and one had even approached her and asked for a dance. She had politely but firmly declined.

He reached for his martini again and felt a pang of guilt. He’d been pretty rude to her, he thought. He was the one who made millions of dollars, and here was a girl, all alone, buying him a drink, thanking him for “sharing his gift with the world,” and he’d asked her to leave? She’d caught him completely off guard and he hadn’t even asked her name or thanked her for the compliment. That wasn’t the kind of person he was at the core, and he felt badly about it. But hey, he deserved to be able to sit at a bar and have a drink alone, didn’t he? And he’d learned from far too many past experiences that you couldn’t trust women. They all wanted something from him—the spotlight, a record contract, their faces on TV and in those damned tabloids…plus, opportunities for him to be anonymous didn’t come along very often, so he had to take advantage of them when he could.

But, he thought, almost sadly, if he wasn’t recognized and hassled by fans everywhere he went, if he was ever allowed to just be himself, she was the kind of girl for whom he might buy a drink. Oh hell, should he buy her a drink? It would be the gentlemanly thing to do; he could at least reciprocate the kindness and not leave her thinking that he was some kind of rich asshole megastar who couldn’t be bothered with ‘regular’ people. But that would mean opening up conversation, and that wasn’t what he wanted to do tonight. He looked her way again. She was trying very hard to concentrate on the pool players without looking obvious.

What was her deal, anyway? Part of him had difficulty believing that she was going to accept their meeting as a random event and walk away without so much as a request for an autograph or a picture. That alone puzzled—and surprisingly—intrigued him. 

He wondered if maybe he should go—find a different place to be anonymous—but he hadn’t thought to bring any of his other disguises along and the ridiculous mullet wouldn’t fit in anywhere else but a place like this one. He glanced at her again and smiled at how intently she was trying to avoid looking at him. It really didn’t look like the mystery woman was going to blow his cover, or bother him again. In fact, it looked as if she were working awfully hard to look everywhere else but at him. As a man with manners, however, he couldn’t just let things go as rudely as he’d left them. He focused his gaze on her until she looked over and caught his eye and he tipped his glass in her direction, smiled, and looked away. It would have to be enough.

 

 

  Chapter 3

 

Behind her, the door crashed open. Tia jumped in her stool and turned to see over six feet of cowboy lurch into the bar in faded jeans and a dirty work shirt. Her first thought was that this was exactly the guy that Lexi had in her mind when she joked about checking under fingernails. He was obviously a regular, and just as obviously had already started partying before stumbling into Last Stop.

“Happy Friday Everyone! Three day weekend, so let’s get the party started!” he bellowed. Every head turned in his direction—he had just successfully become the center of attention. His loud announcement was met with a few cheers and the raising of more than a few bottles and glasses in his direction. He raised his arms, anointing them as his subjects, and approached the bar.

“Hey barkeep! Let’s go Lester; I’ve been standing here for over ten seconds now! Don’t keep a thirsty man waiting for his first brew on a Friday night!”

“Gotcha, Bud,” the bartender replied, already twisting the cap off a Miller Lite. “Glad to see you haven’t lost the virtue of patience—you have heard of the virtue of patience, haven’t you?”

“Hell, my daddy taught me to grab life when I wanted it, and right now I want that beer!” He swept the frosty bottle from Lester’s hands, turned, and looked straight at Tia.

“Well, now,” he smiled, flashing crooked, yellow teeth. “Speaking of grabbing life when you want it…isn’t this here a pleasant surprise—somebody new in my bar tonight—and a pretty somebody new at that. Must be my lucky night. How’re ya doin’, sugar?” He moved in closer to Tia and held out his hand, pressing his large body against the back of her bar stool. 

Tia was frozen in her place. She could still smell the day’s work on him; grease and gasoline, mixed with a splash of whiskey that seemed be emanating from his pores. She was caught off guard, and didn’t know how to react. In all the time she’d spent pondering this night; taking the first step in reclaiming her life; this was a scenario she hadn’t considered, and she wasn’t prepared. Her first thought was to quietly make her exit, but he stood firmly between her and the door and directly behind her chair, preventing her from sliding it back away from the bar.  She was essentially pinned, and a slight panic rose in her. Quickly, she tried to calm herself. After all, if she was going to get back into the world again, she would have to deal with people like this guy Bud. His kind was found in every bar and at every party in the world.

“Name’s Bud,” he said with a crooked and tobacco stained smile. “And you are…?”

She ignored his hand, but not before noticing a healthy dose of dirt under his fingernails. Lexi’s words rolled in her mind; public place doesn’t mean safe place…shady characters…She replied coolly, “Just about to leave. If you’ll excuse me…” She pushed back on the stool, but it didn’t budge.

Instead of making way, he moved in even closer, and she got the distinct feeling that taking no for an answer was not something he considered an option. “Now come on, don’t be that way, honey. Night’s young, weekend’s long, and you certainly can’t leave just yet… not before we’ve even been properly introduced.”

“I’m afraid I really have to be leaving.” Tia kept her voice calm, but his intrusion into her personal space—not to mention her anonymous evening—was making her uncomfortable. She made another attempt to push back the bar stool, but he stood firmly behind it. Tia shivered in spite of herself, and Bud was close enough to feel it—use it to his advantage.

“Now don’t be scared, sweetheart. I’m just your good old-fashioned southern gentleman.” He raised his voice to address the patrons. “Friends, tell this lady here that I am a perfect gentleman, will you?” he prodded.

Most of the guys raised their bottles in Bud’s direction, but said nothing. Several of the girls, Tia noticed, looked away.

“See?” Bud continued. “No need to worry. Let’s just have a beer and get to know each other a little bit. But first, be nice and tell me your name why don’t you?”

His voice dripped honey and sugar and he made a pathetic attempt at a puppy face, but his glassy eyes were anything but friendly. He lifted his hand and in one quick swoop tugged Tia’s hair out of its knot with his filthy fingers, brushing the fallen strands behind her ear and smiling down at her. Repulsed, she slapped his hand away, and he laughed. He felt in perfect control of this situation, that much was obvious. This man was used to getting what he wanted, Tia thought, and right now, it seemed that he wanted her. She was physically trapped by his huge body; she needed to use her brain to get herself out of this. Her serial murderer scenario flashed through her mind again, and suddenly she was no longer interested in finding herself. All she wanted to do was to get out of here, chalk it up as a hard lesson learned, get in her car, and go home to the safety of her own little house.

“Leave her alone, Bud, the lady obviously ain’t interested,” Lester said weakly from behind the bar.

Thank you, Tia’s mind whispered, but Bud just scowled at him. “Mind your own goddamn business, Lester,” he barked in reply. “I’m just tryin’ to buy the lady here a drink, is all. I ain’t hurtin’ nobody.”

To Tia’s dismay, Lester turned away and busied himself washing glasses at the small sink under the bar, obviously not willing to go any further with the big man.

She took a slow breath and hoped that she radiated a calm she most certainly didn’t feel. “That’s a very kind offer, Bud, but I just stopped in for a quick beer, and I have somewhere else I need to be, so I really need to be going now. If you’ll excuse me, please.”

Now he was really irritated. “Listen to that fancy talk, ‘I have somewhere else I need to be, please excuse me’” he mocked. “Geez, honey. All’s I wanted to do is to buy you…” he picked up her bottle and spun it in his hand. “…one of your fancy beers here and make some general conversation. No need to be a bitch.”  He put his hand on Tia’s arm, and she could feel the pressure of his fingers digging into her flesh. Shit, she was in a little trouble here, and she wasn’t quite sure how to get herself out of it. Dealing with unwanted attention from men was just one more thing with which she hadn’t had any recent experience. She looked around the room to see if anyone was going to step up and help her out, but they all seemed suddenly very focused on everything but what was going on in her little corner of the room.

Bloody hell, Dylan thought, taking in the scene across the bar. The obnoxious cowboy had the poor girl trapped, and he was looking at her as if she were a goddamn ice cream cone that was begging to be licked. Not good. He looked around the room, hoping that someone would come to her rescue. Most of the guys had gone back to their pool games or their conversations, and the girls were trying unsuccessfully to avoid the scene unfolding; watching out of the corners of their eyes or stealing short glimpses from the dance floor. It seemed everyone in the place was concentrating very hard on not seeing what was going on. He turned back and saw the girl’s wide eyes scanning the room, looking for a savior. She was trying to look calm, but he could almost feel her discomfort from where he was sitting.

Shit. It was pretty obvious that no one else in this dump was going to go to her rescue, and he’d been raised to be a gentleman. He couldn’t stand guys like Bud who thought they could treat women like objects, and couldn’t stand to see her so obviously uncomfortable. Besides, she was a fan, had already recognized him, and furthermore she’d bought him a drink. His response to that kindness had been to be rude and ask to be left alone. Damn it, he had no choice really; he was going to have to go to her rescue. But how to do it? He could whip off his disguise—it was horribly itchy anyway—get the attention of the whole place, and create a diversion so she could escape. Once he was recognized, though, he’d never get out of here, so he put that aside as a last option. But then he reconsidered. The absolute last option was to confront the guy and possibly start a bar brawl. He had a show tomorrow night, and the next, and frankly, the dude looked like he did heavy lifting for a living—confrontation was out of the question.

An idea occurred to him then, and as her eyes swept in his direction, he caught her glance. He put a finger over his lips to indicate secrecy, then walked his fingers through the air with his right hand while pointing to himself with his left,  mouthing, ‘follow me,’ to her. He didn’t know if she understood, but she seemed to calm a bit; her eyes at least lost that deer in the headlights look. He made his way around the bar and stood behind Bud.

 He cleared his throat loudly, then belted out, “Excuse me…Bud is it?”

Bud turned and faced Dylan. “What do you want, partner?” There was no friendship in his tone.

He cleared his throat again and ignoring Bud’s question said, “Come on Francine, let’s get out of here.”

Tia couldn’t see him behind the behemoth of a man, and the slight southern accent wasn’t his own, but she’d know that voice anywhere.

“I said, COME ON, Francine,” he repeated, more urgently. “You were right, as usual, and I’m sorry for what I done. Can we just go home now?” She twisted her upper body in the stool so she could see past Bud and saw Dylan standing there with his hand extended toward her. She wanted to grab at it like a life raft, but it was still out of reach. Bud saw it as well, and turned his head toward Dylan, keeping his large body firmly planted behind Tia’s stool. 

“What are you DOING, stranger?” he sneered.

“That’s my woman there, Bud. My Francine.”

“Oh, is that so?” There was something that sounded like a dare in his voice. “She looks pretty alone to me right now.”

“Yeah, well we had a bit of a falling out earlier. We been staring at each other across the bar, trying to patch things up.”

Bud fired a look at Lester, who was quick to confirm. He nodded, and said, “Yup, they was talkin’ earlier—she bought him a drink. Looked like they was tryin’ to patch things up, alright.”

“Really. Well maybe Francine doesn’t want to patch things up. Maybe she’s ready to move on to bigger and better things. Maybe what she needs is a real man; not some moron with a goddamn mullet who leaves a pretty lady like her sittin’ all alone in a bar full of willing men.” He took a step back to face Dylan, leaving Tia with just enough room to scoot the stool away from the bar and slip off.

Tia had already caught on to Dylan’s act, interpreting his ‘follow me,’ and joined in immediately, grabbing at the opportunity to escape. Ignoring Bud’s comment, she focused all of her attention on Dylan Miller. “Do you mean it, Chester? I’m still your girl?” She tried to sound surprised, simple, natural.

“Hell, Francine, we been together too long to call it quits now. I’m sorry for what I done. Can you forgive me?”

Tia dashed around Bud and threw her arms around Dylan enthusiastically, hoping she was playing the right part. “Oh Chester,” she said, swooning. “You know I just hate it when we fight.”

Dylan smoothed her hair, releasing the strands Bud had touched. “I know baby, I know. We won’t fight anymore, I promise. Now can we please just get out of here and go make up proper?”

“You must be reading my mind!” Tia said as he nudged her toward the door and she gladly let him lead her.

“Yeah, whatever,” Bud relayed loudly from behind them. “I’m here every Friday night, Francine, if you decide you want to try a real cowboy.” He dismissed them, and loudly ordered another beer as they reached the exit.

Tia didn’t acknowledge the comment, and pushed through the door with her arm around Dylan Miller. They walked away from the bar, and once they’d passed a couple buildings, they simultaneously burst into laughter. Tia bent over and put her hands on her knees, catching her breath and exhaling a huge sigh. She was shaky, but she felt relieved, thankful, and safe, and she burst into more nervous giggles. “Holy crap, you just saved my life!” She stood up and looked at the man who’d saved her. Dylan Miller.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he said modestly. “But that guy was a real asshole, and he wasn’t going to give up until he got what he wanted.  I just couldn’t stand to see the look on your face for another minute.”

She leaned against the side of the building for support, still not sure of her own legs. She was still trembling a little bit, but could definitely see the humor in the situation, now that she was safely away from it. “Yeah, but the look on his face when we were walking out the door was better—am I right?”

Dylan smiled, and Tia felt her heart skip a beat. “I must admit, his was pretty good too. It was awfully close, though, I wouldn’t want to have to take bets.”

She slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Wait though,” she giggled. “Francine? When you had to make up a name, that’s the one that popped into your head?” she joked, still breathing heavily but at least able to stand on her own two legs again.

“Well, I didn’t get your name, so I had to come up with something quick.”

“Yeah, I get that, but why not ‘Sue,’ or ‘Mary’—something more common?” She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “And please don’t tell me that I look like a Francine,” she joked, “I don’t think I could take it.”

Dylan smiled with one half of his mouth, a look that made him appear mischievous and sexy at the same time and one that had often appeared on the covers of  magazines. “I’ll have you know,” he smirked, “that Francine just happened to be the prettiest girl from the wrong side of the tracks when I was growing up. I had it something bad for her when I was fourteen. No offense, but you seemed like you were sitting on the wrong side of the tracks tonight.” He shook his head and smirked again. “Besides, it’s better than Chester! Where did that come from? You knew my real name.”

“Did I?” Tia asked slyly. “I thought you said I was mistaken.”

Dylan half-smiled again and looked at her from dropped lids. “I didn’t think you believed it.”

“I didn’t. Not for a second. And, just to clear the air, I never had it bad for a guy named Chester. He was the janitor at my elementary school. The smell of that guy Bud made me think of him—he was all grease, gas, and moonshine.”

“Your elementary school janitor smelled like moonshine?” he joked.

“Only on Tuesdays and Fridays,” she joked back.

They were almost a block away from the bar now, nearly to where she’d parked her car, and they stopped on the sidewalk.

“Listen,” she said, her voice getting serious. “I really can’t thank you enough. I was way out of my league in there, and I was more than a little freaked out.”

“I could tell,” he said. “What in the world were you doing in a place like that, anyway? There are some rough characters in those kinds of places, and you don’t exactly look rough around the edges.”

“Thanks, I think,” she said shyly. “You’re right though, that is definitely not my usual kind of hangout. I was just looking for some solitude, some noise, some…well, anyway,” she said, sure he wasn’t interested in her life story, “now you have personally had an impact on my life, aside from your music.” She put her left hand over her heart, bowing her head slightly, and held out her right. He reached out and shook it. “I appreciate it so much. Thank you again.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s the least I could do. You’re a fan, after all. Plus, you bought me a drink, and I was feeling bad about the way I treated you.”

“Oh,” she added sadly, “but now I feel bad that I ruined your evening. You were obviously looking for some solitude yourself, and now you can’t go back in there.”

“No, I’m definitely not going back in there,” he chuckled.

“It’s still pretty early for a Friday night though,” she said glancing at her watch, “and I imagine you don’t get too many chances to be alone, and I just would feel horrible if I ruined your night out. So, if you’re still looking to have some fun—well, I wouldn’t have called that place fun, but whatever—if you go down this road about five miles to Central Avenue,” she pointed, “and hang a right, there’re a few places there where you could disappear into a crowd, especially this time on a long weekend. There’s a Dick’s Sports Page, a karaoke bar—called, of all things, Sing-Along-Cassidy’s—a kind of a biker bar called Crowbar, and a very nice Irish Pub called Paddy’s.”

“OK, well thanks,” he said, bowing his head appreciatively. “It is early yet. Maybe I’ll try that—Central Avenue, you said?”

“Yep. Turn right. The bars start about a mile and a half down the road, and they’re all kind of bunched together so you can’t miss them.”

“Appreciate the advice,” he said with another polite bow.

“It’s definitely the least I can do,” she gushed. “I’m so sorry I messed up your evening, but I’m also so glad you were there. You’re my hero, Chester.” She grinned at him then and shook her head. “Damn, no one’ll ever believe this story! I don’t know if I even believe it!”     Although she thought it would be really amazing to stand around and have a conversation with Dylan Miller, she didn’t want to push her luck hanging around Last Stop and didn’t want to sound like a blathering idiot. She was painfully out of practice when it came to talking to men, and this was not the kind of guy you practiced on. She felt a blush rise in her face, and decided it was time to go and let him have his peace. He’d already done more than he needed to do, and she of all people understood the need for solitude. “Listen, it was…really amazing to meet you. And I meant what I said inside—your music has done more for me than you can ever know. Thanks for that, too. Now I’ve taken up entirely too much of your time and I should…” She turned and motioned toward the other side of the street.

He reached out impulsively and put his hand on her arm. She felt her pulse quicken just at the light touch. This was Dylan Miller! He’d just saved her from who knows what, and they were standing out here on a deserted street having a real conversation—Lexi would freak! She’d have to call her as soon as she put this awful place behind her—she’d been so adamant that Tia avoid Last Stop, but once she heard about this chance encounter, she was going to be positively green with envy. Right now though, she should really just get out of here and let him be. He was probably sick of people constantly wanting to be around him, hence the disguise.

“At least let me walk you to your car. I wouldn’t want Bud to pop his head out to see if you’re still around.”

“Actually, it’s right there,” she said, motioning across the street to her Mini, “so you already have.” She made it to the curb and then turned back. “Hey—thanks again, I’m sorry again, and I’ll see you tomorrow!”

Dylan stopped. “What’s that?”

“I said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’” Dylan looked confused, so Tia continued. “At your concert? I’ve had my ticket for weeks. I’m really looking forward to it. You guys always put on an excellent show—I go see you every time you’re in town.”

He smiled. “Really? Well, I appreciate that too.”

“I’ll wave to you,” she laughed.

This woman had personality, he thought, taking the bait. “And where will you be,” he asked, “so I can be sure to wave back?”

“Second pavilion, section 209, row 14.”

“Pretty crappy seats.”

Tia put her hands on her hips and nodded. “I thought so too. I would have thought that being a member of the fan club would warrant me better. I’ve been a member since it started, and have never once gotten any really good seats. You should really look into that—the lottery system sucks.”

He did this thing where he raised just one eyebrow—it made him look inquisitive and incredibly sexy at the same time and it drove the girls wild. “I’ll have to look into that. You’re right, loyal fans like you should do much better.”

“How about this, if I could be so bold?” she suggested. “Maybe, say at the beginning of the third song, you could give me some kind of signal, like a peace sign, or two fingers pointed in my direction, and I’ll know it’s for me.”

“A peace sign?” he smirked, that one eyebrow rising again. “I think maybe I can do a little better than that. How about I dedicate the third song to you? Then everyone’ll know it’s for you. I’ll play it for Francine.”

“I like that even better. It’ll certainly make my story about tonight a little more believable, although I’m still not sure I even believe it. What a crazy night! It couldn’t be more different than I expected.”

She skipped across the street, opened her car door and turned back.  “Listen, Dylan Miller, I can never thank you enough for what you did for me tonight, but I’ll never have another chance so I’m going to say it one more time. Thanks.” She put her hands together below her chin as if in prayer and bowed slightly. “And have a good rest of the evening. Try to keep that tattoo covered so you don’t get mugged by girls at the next bar.”

Dylan watched as the light from the car illuminated her. She really was a pretty girl. Away from the shadows of the bar he could see her high cheekbones, her creamy skin, her pouty lips. As she slipped into the car he stood there for a moment, amazed and confused. After the crazy experience they’d just shared, she’d really just been thankful. She didn’t ask for an autograph, or a picture, and didn’t whip out a cell phone to get a picture of the two of them together. She didn’t ask to join him, and didn’t ask for front row seats or backstage passes for her and her friends. It was kind of unheard of in his world, and it caught him off guard. It always seemed like everyone wanted something from him; it was the nature of the beast. He stood there, surprised as she closed her car door and started the engine. She really was going to just drive away. Suddenly, impulsively, he didn’t want that to happen. He didn’t meet real people very often, and the bizarre conversation he’d just had with her was the most normal one he’d had with a stranger in a very long time. 

He sprinted across the street and knocked on her window just as she was pulling away. She jumped in her seat and put her hand to her chest; not an unexpected reaction after the chaos in the bar. She hit the brake, threw the car in park, and rolled down the window, a question on her face.

He leaned casually against the roof of the car and slouched in front of the window. “Hey. I still didn’t get your name.”

She looked up from her seat at his carelessly easy pose. He emanated manliness, she thought, and her stomach turned a little flip. She smiled up at him. “Tia,” she said. She stuck her hand out the window and he shook it again.

“Nice to meet you, Tia.”

“Really nice to meet you too, Dylan,” her smile literally seemed to brighten. “Really nice.”

He held on to her hand, and hesitated only for a second before extending the invitation. “So, I was thinking. No sense both of us having our evenings cut short or being alone on such a beautiful night. What do you say we continue the evening, together but anonymous, at a different location?”

She hesitated for a second, and he saw the brief flash of doubt in her eyes. Again, she surprised him—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a woman not instantly jump at the chance to be with him, and he was sure that a good number of them only wanted to be able to tell their friends that they had been with Dylan Miller. Instead of irritating him, however, her indecision intrigued him more.

“Wow,” she breathed. “Wow.” She’d never have a chance like this again, she thought, spending time with a guy like Dylan Miller. But more than that, she thought, how many chances would she have to just talk with a man who probably wouldn’t remember her after tonight, even if she made a total mess of things with her complete lack of practice in dealing with the opposite sex?  God knew she needed the practice, but certainly an international superstar was not what she expected to use to brush up on her flirting skills. Still, how could she pass up a chance like this? She was petrified and excited at the same time and once again, thoughts of Nick flashed in her mind. She could almost physically feel him pushing her, and knew that he’d be absolutely furious with her if she passed up the chance to spend time with one of their shared idols.

She hesitated before she spoke, and her words faltered. “There’s a big part of me that wants to take you up on your offer, and another part that says that I’ve already had more than my share of excitement for the evening.”

Her answer knocked him back, made him more determined. “But the part that wants to come out with me is bigger, right?” He smiled the smile that made him famous, another one that graced the covers of many a magazine. It lit up his entire face and made his blue eyes flash like deep water.

She smiled back and lowered her eyes. “Yeah, that part’s bigger,” she admitted shyly.

Dylan’s mind reeled. He couldn’t believe he’d have to convince her, and he kind of liked doing it. In his world, he never knew if people were being straight with him. Most people just tended to agree with every word he said so as not to fall out of his good graces, and it drove him absolutely mad. He welcomed the opportunity to have a real conversation with a good-looking woman who didn’t seem to want anything from him except his company—and only part of her even wanted that. His manhood had been challenged for the first time in a long time, and he rose to meet it.

“What could happen?” he shrugged. “I’m your fearless protector, remember? And since I’ve already saved you from one evil cowboy tonight, you should feel completely safe. Besides, I owe you a drink, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pay my debts. Especially to damsels in distress.”

“Believe me,” she said, “it’s not about feeling safe. I’d feel perfectly safe with you.” She pondered for just a moment longer. What the hell?  How could she pass up this opportunity? “And I guess I can’t be responsible for giving you a guilt trip.” She smiled up at him and nodded her head. “OK, let’s go. Hop in.”

“Great!”

He grinned at her again, and she could see the superstar in his smile. Even with the horrible hair, he was an incredible looking man—tall, sexy, confident—and the hint of British accent in his smoky voice was smooth enough to spread on bread. She smiled to herself as he ran around the front of the car and jumped into the passenger seat.

He climbed in and wondered in the back of his mind if she’d eventually get around to asking him for front row seats. In the front of his mind, he hoped she wouldn’t.

 

Chapter 4

 

Penelope Valentine stood and examined her naked body in front of the long mirror. Not perfect yet, but another couple months with Jean Phillipe and she’d be back in movie shape. It had been a long hard six months—her latest film a flop at the box office, bad press, that bastard Jason Whitten dumping her for that wanna-be Italian supermodel, more bad press—then a few months of seclusion where she refused to take any calls and ate whatever she wanted. Oh, and she drank way too much. It was going to take another minor procedure to get rid of the little red veins that streaked across her cheeks.

But she was on a comeback, and her luck had finally turned. It was time to get back on the fast-track again; time to make her grand entrance back into the Hollywood limelight. She was lucky to nab the starring role as Anastasia in Ambient Rain—she knew two other actresses had passed on the role because of prior commitments—but she didn’t let that bother her. Well, maybe a little. She hadn’t read the book or the script, but knew that it had spent quite a few months on the New York Times Bestseller List. Plus, when she found out who her co-star was, she knew it was the perfect role for her comeback. Dylan Miller wasn’t the biggest actor in Hollywood, and spent much of his time touring with his band, but he was good, and his last two movies had gotten rave reviews, as had he. He was just what she needed to get back on her feet—successful, adored, and incredibly good looking. He was on the cover of the Sexiest People on Earth issue of Person to Person last year—she was also in the issue, although a little further back. Dylan was much better looking than that rat bastard Jason, as a matter of fact, and with a little work on her part, they could be the perfect Hollywood couple.

It didn’t hurt, either, that they’d be filming in New Zealand with a little hop over to Bora Bora. They couldn’t be further from Hollywood there, and Bora Bora, in her opinion, was the most romantic place on the planet. After a few months together, they could be the next hot thing—Dylanope, or some stupid mix of their names that the tabloids could put on their covers, and she’d be back on top of her game.

She ran her hands over her nearly flat stomach. Jean Phillipe was a miracle worker, that was certain, but it hadn’t been easy. A private chef, daily workouts, stress management—it was all part of the plan. She’d follow it to the letter, though, because it was her ticket back to the fame and adoration that she couldn’t live without.

Her mind ran back to Dylan Miller. Sexiest Man on Earth, she thought, and if her memory served her, he was on tour right now with his band. She slid into a silk kimono and sat down at her desk. In the deep side drawer, she kept her extensive collection of magazines in which she’d appeared so she could pull them out and look at them anytime she wanted. She pulled out the “Sexiest Stars” issue with Dylan on the cover, and another magazine graced by her own face. It was a picture taken on Oscar night, three years ago, and if she did say so herself, she was stunning. Her dress was a DeHoya, made exclusively for her, and it perfectly accentuated her figure and the new breasts she’d splurged on six months earlier. The neckline plunged daringly, and she dripped in borrowed diamonds. They’d given her ‘best dressed’ honors that night and although she hadn’t won the Oscar, she’d been the darling of the after parties. She held the two covers next to each other to see how they’d look as a couple. He oozed masculinity--the faint scruff on his chin and cheeks, the longish, wavy, carelessly unkempt blonde hair, the incredible blue and expressiveness of his eyes rimmed in long dark lashes, a firm jaw line. He wore what could almost be called a pout and his lips looked made for kissing. They would look good together, and as a couple they would knock Jason and that Italian slut off the covers of the magazines. She flipped through the issue until she came to Dylan’s photo spread. Great smile too, she thought, and the picture of him singing on stage clearly showed the passion he had for music. She held up several combinations of the two of them together, and liked what she saw. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait to get started on reclaiming her place at the top.

She booted up her computer and checked out his web site, scrolling through more photos and reading his bio. She had to do her homework, know a little about him, so that when they met they’d be able to slide effortlessly into a relationship. That’s how things work in Hollywood she thought, relationships were more about appearances than they were about love. Love was overrated, anyway—it was all just an act, really, and she knew how to act. A guy like Dylan Miller would be easy enough to wake up to every morning, and everyone seemed to love him. He never got bad press, and being attached to someone like him would soften the hard edges she’d acquired over the years. Her excitement mounted as she read—they even had a few things in common besides acting.

She checked their tour schedule, and figured, why wait? Let’s get this party started as soon as possible. One call to her assistant Angela and the arrangements were already being made. Chicago wasn’t too bad at this time of year. Not warm yet, but a few sessions in the tanning booth and she’d have a healthy glow that would look great against the fish-belly-white Chicagoans who’d been covered up all winter.

She’d just show up at the concert and surprise him with the news that she’d be his costar. The studio wasn’t planning to make the announcement until the following week, so he’d hear it first from her, and it would be a valid excuse to show up at his concert unannounced. Obviously he’d show her the professional courtesy of meeting her, and then the romance could begin.

She drew herself a bath, pinned her long blonde hair on top of her head, and slipped into the luxurious salts harvested straight from the Dead Sea that Jean Phillipe had insisted she buy. Good for the skin, he’d said in his obnoxious French accent. Rid your body of impurities. Hell, she’d just rid her life of impurities, and she was ready for a fresh start. Just a few days to primp, and then it was off to the Windy City, and her new lease on life.

 

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