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My latest book baby is out in the world! It was really hard to let go of Amarie and Char—or Chamarie, the ‘ship name my CP gave them. I could’ve written another 75K words about them just living their lives. Fortunately for you, I had a deadline to meet, and didn’t want to upset the Amazon gods, so I forced myself to “be done with it,” as Skye Taylor says.

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Read Twisted Broken Strings for FREE

If she lets him into her band, she’ll have to let him into her heart.

Koty Jackson wanted to be a rock star, not a singer in the boy band ESX. When he finds out that Jett Costa is looking for a new guitarist and vocalist for her band, Perpetual Smile, Koty is determined to get his demo to her label. But his agent thinks he’s crazy, and when he runs into Jett for a late-night television interview, she tells him that she’ll never allow him in her band.

Jett Costa wasn’t looking for love. After losing the love of her life and the man who helped her build Perpetual Smile from the ground up, all she wants to do is get through their tour in one piece. She never thought she would let a boy band singer in her band—and she also didn’t think she would fall in love with him.

But if things stay the way they are, neither of them will ever get ahead in their careers. Somehow, they’ve got to come to an agreement—or they’ll both fall into obscurity.

Twisted Broken Strings is the PREQUEL to the South of Forever series.

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Just One More Minute: Chapter 5

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

The house fell silent all around Rowan. She stood in the entrance, eyes adjusting to the darkness. She’d forgotten to leave a lamp on. Groping for the light switch, she took several deep breaths in through her nose. It was bad enough, sleeping in Katherine’s house, knowing her aunt was dead. Leaving the lights off was like asking for her imagination to run rampant.

She swallowed hard. She knew she was being ridiculous. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Even if she did, Katherine wouldn’t haunt her. Finding the switch, she flipped the light on, bathing the entryway with light. Sighing, she moved toward the stairs.

After leaving Elli’s, she’d driven around aimlessly. The thought of going back to Katherine’s empty house weighed her down. In New Jersey, in her apartment building, there was always someone around. She could count on the squeak of the floorboards above her head or the soft sigh through a wall to placate her loneliness. Katherine’s closest neighbors were visible from any of the windows, but far enough away that Rowan might as well be on a deserted island.

If she kept the house, she was going to have to find a roommate.

Trudging up the stairs, she replayed her conversation with Matt. No matter how hard she tried, he kept slipping into her thoughts. The last thing she wanted to do was analyze everything he’d said to death. Yet his words—Give me two weeks—looped through her mind. It was almost as if he was trying to woo her. Those bright green eyes had burned into hers, charming her, willing her to give in.

Reaching the landing, she went straight into the bathroom, ignoring the bedroom on the left. Katherine’s room. Eventually she’d have to go in there. Once again she found herself thankful that her aunt hadn’t passed away in the house. There was no way she’d be able to even hang out there, never mind sleep.

She still couldn’t believe the house was hers. She turned on the shower and grabbed her caddy from one of the cabinets under the sink. It felt wrong to take her aunt’s shampoo bottle out of the shower and replace it with her own. At some point, she was going to have to get over that, too. Katherine didn’t need to shower anymore.

She burst into tears. Stripping off her clothes, she stepped into the stream. The hot mist sprayed her face, washing her grief and makeup away. Still, she scrubbed at her face for several long minutes, shoulders absorbing the impact of the water. The heat pounded away at the knots in her muscles, loosening her up. When she was clean and all cried out, she shut off the water and stepped out, wrapping a giant fluffy towel around herself.

Her aunt had always had the best towels.

She dried off quickly, then retreated to the guest bedroom. Her long hair sent droplets sluicing down her belly. Shivering in the central air, she dove under the covers. Before she drifted off, she set her alarm for the morning.

* * *

Dawn came too soon—if she could call it that. The sky outside the house was still dark. Rowan groaned as the alarm on her phone pierced the thin veil of sleep. Swearing, she crawled out of bed and turned it off. For a moment, she considered just going back to sleep. Matt couldn’t exactly force her to meet him. She did need to figure out what to do with Elli’s, though. The sooner she wrapped things up in Connecticut, the sooner she could get back to her life.

She sat up. Her hair cascaded down her back as she moved. A frown tugged at her lips. Her life. She barely had friends. Most of them were people she’d met and hung out with in college. Sure, she had Sean. He was more like her boss, though, no matter how much he looked out for her. And just before she got the news about Katherine, she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. It was true that she didn’t want to work at the diner for the rest of her days. Technically, her blogging could support her—and she could take that with her back to Connecticut.

Nothing actually held her down to New Jersey.

There wasn’t much for her in Connecticut either, though.

Give me two weeks, Matt’s voice sauntered through her thoughts. A tingle ran down her spine. If he meant more than training, he could be her reason for moving back home. She squeezed her eyes shut. He’d already hurt her, though. Letting him back in would be reckless. Then again, it wasn’t as if she’d ever really let go. Those green eyes were still haunting her.

Throwing the blankets off, she climbed out of bed. She was being ridiculous, but she owed it to herself to check out all angles of the situation. And she wouldn’t let him get too close, she vowed. If anything, he could be a fun distraction while she figured things out. Maybe she would even find some closure and finally stop thinking about him.

There. Her logic was totally sound.

Traipsing through the guest room to the bathroom, she grabbed clothing. Then she started the shower and got ready for her day. Her makeup became her war paint. She drew her hair into a messy bun and surveyed herself in the mirror. Her tank top, capri leggings, and sneakers were okay for a morning in the bakery, but something was missing. She took a deep breath.

Then, she made herself walk into Katherine’s room.

Ignoring everything else, she marched straight to the closet. She tugged open the double accordion doors. Amidst her aunt’s blouses and dresses, Rowan spotted what she needed. She clutched the pastry chef’s jacket to her chest and fled the room.

Properly outfitted, she left the house.

On her way to Elli’s, she stopped for a hot latte and a bagel. After a moment’s hesitation, she doubled her order. It would be rude to walk in with nothing for Matt, she told herself.

Despite her pit stop, she arrived before him. She didn’t have keys to Elli’s, so she perched on a chair at one of the outdoor tables. Sipping her coffee, she checked the time on her phone. It was 4:55am.

She didn’t wait long. A pickup swung into the parking lot, pulling abruptly into a slot. Matt jumped out, two coffees and his keys balanced in one hand. He strode toward her and her heart skipped a beat. As he neared, he hesitated, glancing from the coffees in his hand and the goodies on the table in front of her.

He laughed nervously. At least, he sounded nervous. Maybe she was projecting. Joining her, he set his coffees down and unlocked the door. “I guess we won’t be short on caffeine.” He pushed the door open, plucked the two styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffees from the table, and nodded for her to go in.

Gathering her own things, she stood. She moved past him, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she dredged up an equally light response. “If you’re trying to sway me,” she said, “you should’ve stopped at Starbucks.”

“I’ll remember that.” He set his things down on the checkout counter and flipped on some lights. Leaning against the counter, he surveyed her pastry jacket. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Well, I’m here.” She opened the paper bag and handed him a bagel. “Cheers.” She tapped her bagel against his, then took a big bite. “So,” she said between swallows, “do you guys still make the ciabatta first?”

Elli’s had the best sandwiches—mainly because of their bread. Some of her best memories were lunch breaks during that first summer working with her aunt.

Matt nodded. Grasping the bagel with his thumb and forefinger, he turned his hands so his palms faced the ceiling. “These hands have rolled out some serious ciabatta.”

Her eyes fell on his hands, square and broad. They were perfect for kneading dough. And other things. Heat flushed her cheeks. She knelt, pretending to search for a fallen crumb. Her bowed head hid her face, thankfully shielding her from his view. Around him, she could barely control herself. She needed to get it together.

Straightening, she took a deep breath. His eyes met hers and she came undone all over again. Those green eyes were bright despite the early hour, studying her. His full lips twitched. Pressing her thighs together, she looked away and focused on finishing her bagel.

“Rowan,” he said, breathing her name.

She dropped the bagel. Annoyed with herself, she glared down at it.

“I’ll get it.” He closed the space between them and bent to retrieve the bagel. Brown curls caressed his forehead. The muscles in his arm rippled as he dropped the bagel into the paper bag. Then, slowly, he stood. Barely twelve inches separated them. He tilted his head down and peered at her through his lashes. With his eyelids drooping, he looked like a sex god.

Her throat made a strangled sound and she pushed past him, breaking the spell. He was messing with her, she realized as she burst into the kitchen. Even worse, she was going to lose this game.

She bent over the stainless steel counter in the middle of the room, gripping its edge. Part of her wished he would come up behind her, arms encircling her waist. She could practically feel the heat of his body. Her breath came out in ragged gasps. She needed to remember that he’d broken her heart. Not to mention the job he’d stolen. Her eyes narrowed as her thoughts cleared. Yes. She needed to harness that anger and wear it like a shield. Otherwise, she was done for.

At least he had the decency to give her time to collect herself. By the time he strolled in, she had already pulled out ingredients for the ciabatta and was sifting flour into the giant industrial mixer. She patted the machine appreciatively. She’d missed having such an appliance.

“I’ll just start on the cannoli, then.” His fingers brushed her arm as he passed. Heat seared through her nerves. She glared daggers at his back.

Forcing herself to focus, she got back to work.

“Did you give any thought to my proposal?” he asked as he added flour, cinnamon, and sugar into the smaller mixer.

Rowan had to admit, she’d missed this world of sweets. Though she loved serving guests at Sean’s, there was something special about working in the kitchen, getting her hands plastered in dough.

“I barely slept,” she confessed, going for honesty. “I just don’t know what to do. This used to be my dream.” Lifting a hand, she gestured to the gleaming kitchen.

“It can be your reality,” Matt said in a low voice. Their eyes met across the kitchen.

She slanted a delicate eyebrow at him. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”

“Then make your case.” He smirked. “What’s so great about New Jersey?”

“My apartment is closer to New York City than Katherine’s house is,” she said, turning the mixer on. “And that means more Junior’s cheesecake.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I should care because . . . ?”

She gaped at him. “You’ve never had Junior’s cheesecake?” Jabbing a bench scraper toward him, she shook her head in dismay. “I thought Katherine took you under her wing.”

He shrugged. “What’s the big deal?”

“Nailing their recipe has been her life’s work,” Rowan chided. “At least, it was when I worked with her.” She frowned. So much had changed.

“I’m sure it was still important to her,” he said gently. A heartbeat passed. She heard him draw in a breath. “What happened between you two, anyway?”

She dropped the bench scrape. It clanged off the table and onto the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tried to calm down. He had a lot of nerve asking that. She couldn’t figure out what game he was playing. Maybe he enjoyed torturing her—on more than one level. “I thought we came here to discuss Elli’s.” She tossed the bench scrape into the pot sink.

“Fair enough.” He finished mixing the dough for the cannoli shells. With a practiced hand, he divided the dough, flattening each into a disk. He swaddled them in plastic wrap and carried them to the walk-in cooler. When he returned, he joined her at the large mixer.

“So let’s talk. What did you decide?” He crossed his arms.

“You act like it’s so easy.” She dumped the ciabatta dough into a bowl coated with olive oil, covered it, and set it aside to rise.

“Isn’t it?” His eyes bore into hers.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” She scowled at him.

Matt’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “No.” He held up both hands, palms facing her. “Well, okay. I’ll lay out my cards.” His arms dropped to his sides. “For me, it is simple. I need this job.”

She crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, but this is the last thing I need right now.”

“So what do you need? Maybe I can give it to you.” His eyes were steady. He meant what he said, she realized.

Throwing up her hands, she whirled around. She leaned on the counter. “I need time,” she muttered. “Everything is happening so fast. I can barely keep up. Last week, I had the whole summer to figure this out, maybe even longer.” More importantly, she’d had a lifetime to make up with Katherine. She’d taken her aunt for granted. Dipping her chin, she closed her eyes.

“You said this used to be your dream.” He indicated the bakery they stood in. “What’s stopping you?”

“My family, for one.” She snorted. “I left to get away from them. Coming back . . . it feels like giving up, you know?” She shook her head. He didn’t know. She’d seen him with his mother at the wake. Without having to hear their conversation, she could tell they were close. At the very least, his mother wasn’t grilling him about his life choices or pressuring him to give a new and especially potent strain of weed a chance. Her entire childhood had been a precarious balancing act of proving to her parents she was a good hippie child and secretly planning her escape as soon as she turned eighteen. Her parents weren’t bad people. They just weren’t her people.

All throughout high school, especially, she’d felt like a weirdo. She wasn’t a prude or goody two shoes. If she hadn’t been constantly bullied into trying different drugs, she might enjoy a joint now and then. In her adult life, she enjoyed a nice full glass of wine every once in a while. She wasn’t twenty-one yet but it wasn’t too hard to buy a bottle. It just depended on which package store she went to.

But no. Her first—and only—high had been a nightmare. She’d had a panic attack and her entire family had just laughed at her, told her to suck it up, and tried to force her to take another hit. She would feel better, they insisted.

She shuddered at the memory.

So no, Matt couldn’t possibly understand. She knew next to nothing about him, but she’d never read any of his family members’ names in the police blotter.

He touched her arm gently, but she jerked away. She’d had enough. She couldn’t run Elli’s with him. It had been stupid of her to even entertain the idea. Her place was in New Jersey, away from the rest of the Ellis family. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life yet, but she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time in Connecticut.

Without a word, she shrugged out of the pastry jacket and dropped it into the laundry bin. Her sneakers squeaked on the floor as she strode across the tiled kitchen. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. The front end—and the door—felt so far away. Suddenly she thought she would just leave Connecticut that day. No need to wait any longer.

“Where are you going?” Matt called after her.

Ignoring him, she sprinted through the front end, weaving around tables. She burst into the hot summer morning. Despite the muggy air, she felt better at once. She slowed as she neared her car, pulse thrumming in her throat. A quick glance over her shoulder told her that Matt hadn’t bothered to follow her.

Good. She’d had enough of him.

She slipped into the car. Though the vents almost immediately pushed cold air into her face, she shut the air conditioning off and rolled down the windows. She needed real air. Guiding the car out of the parking lot, she relished the feeling of the breeze on her skin.

She may have botched her weekend home, but from this moment on, she was going to do better. She owed it to herself.

A plan formulated in her mind. She’d stop at Katherine’s, pack her things, and lock up. There wasn’t any real tidying that she needed to do. The place had been spotless when she arrived. Her aunt had never let the house get even slightly dirty.

Then she’d make for New Jersey, stopping for nothing. As soon as she got back to her apartment, she’d call Sean and find out when she could pick up her next shift. She’d get in touch with her aunt’s lawyer later in the week and find out what she needed to do to sell the house and Elli’s.

She nodded to herself.

As she stopped at the first red light on the way to Katherine’s, though, she wondered when she would stop running.


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A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

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Just One More Minute: Chapter 4

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

Matt pushed open the door to Elli’s and slipped inside. Usually, on a Monday morning, they opened much earlier. That morning, though, he’d attended Katherine’s funeral, and now he had only a few minutes to himself before the post-burial reception.

He was still trying to sift through his feelings. He’d spent the night before and part of that morning before the funeral prepping for the gathering. Mostly, though, he’d tried to figure out how he felt about Katherine leaving Elli’s to him.

He had no idea how to run a business. Since hiring him, Katherine spent less and less time in the kitchen, and more time on the administrative end. She’d taught him how to make mini cheesecakes and perfect bread for sandwiches, but she’d never showed him how to order ingredients or balance Elli’s bank account. After all, he was only a baker—and not even a trained or safety-certified one, at that. He’d been lucky to get the job at all.

Walking through the dining area, he straightened tablecloths and double checked that every setting had flatware. Realistically, there was nothing else for him to do, but standing around and waiting would only put him more on edge. He leaned against a wall and loosened his tie. The suit he’d worn to Katherine’s funeral had been his father’s. It felt more than weird to wear his dad’s clothing, but his own suit hadn’t fit in years. Daniel Sr.’s suit fit him like a glove—more testament to just how much had changed.

It made sense that he was thinking so much about his dad, he mused as he gave the room a final once over. What wasn’t fair was that he’d lost two people in almost exactly the same way. The familiar burning sensation ripped through him, his chest growing tight. Clenching his fists, he turned toward the wall, meaning to hammer one against the cool, smooth surface.

The bells on the door jingled. He turned, eyes widening in surprise as Rowan stepped inside. He should’ve had a few more minutes to himself before everyone arrived.

“I ditched the procession,” she explained. “Took a shortcut.”

A smile tugged at his lips. He would’ve done the same, in her shoes. He started to say so, then stopped. After their last conversation, he should probably say something to smooth things over. There wasn’t anything he could say, though. She was right. He shouldn’t have kept Katherine’s secret. Though it seemed not to bother the rest of Katherine’s family, it had definitely hurt Rowan. If they were going to work together, they were going to have to find a way to put it behind them.

“So what did you make?” she asked, crossing the front end and glancing around.

Or maybe he didn’t need to say anything. Maybe they just needed to keep moving forward. “A bunch of sandwich platters.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “No cheesecake?”

Matt smiled. “Do I look like I want Katherine to come haunt my dreams?” He motioned for her to follow him, and led her to the walk-in cooler. Opening the door, he pointed to a cart stocked full of Katherine’s favorite recipe, Elli’s famous mini cheesecakes. He gestured to another cart. “And some of the staples.” He mentally ran through his checklist: cannoli, cupcakes, and cookies. Combined, they made up Elli’s top-selling items—what Katherine referred to as the Super Cs.

Rowan stepped past him into the cooler. She lifted the lid of a tray of cookies and stole a peanut butter blossom. Taking a bite, she gave him an approving nod. “She’d be proud.”

“Thanks,” he said softly. Taking a deep breath, he surged forward. He wasn’t going to get another chance. “Look, about last night—”

She held up her hands. “I was totally out of line.”

“No,” he said firmly. “You were right. It wasn’t fair of us to keep you out.”

Hugging herself, she looked away. “I probably deserved it.”

Matt frowned. “You? No way. Katherine loved you.” He drew her out of the walk-in and shut the door behind him. “Why would you say that?”

Her lips parted, and the front door opened.

His shoulders slumped. It was show time. Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he moved past her into the front end. He recognized all of the faces from the funeral, except for his mother’s. She’d probably decided that she’d had enough. Still, he wished she’d come to Elli’s. It would ease his nerves to have an ally. Then again, his mother hadn’t been anyone he could rely on in years. His job was to take care of her, not the other way around.

Steeling himself, he let habit take over. He guided people into seats and rolled out the carts. He spent an hour alone hopping from table to table, serving coffee and replacing finished goodies. It wasn’t until he stopped to brew more coffee that he realized he was exhausted. He wished Katherine had hired some more help before she died.

Tears pricked his eyes. He blinked them away angrily. He shouldn’t feel guilty for thinking that. It was the truth. He needed help. If he and Rowan actually took over Elli’s together, the first thing he was going to suggest would be to hire a couple of high school kids for the afternoons and weekends.

Rowan.

He glanced around, but didn’t see her anywhere. Moving toward the front, he peered through the double windows. Her car was still parked outside. He rubbed at his cheeks, freshly shaved that morning but rapidly becoming more stubbly as the day dragged on.

He made his rounds again, refilling cups of coffee. Then he filled two mugs and slipped into the hall.

First he checked the office. It sat dark and empty. His shoulders relaxed. Maybe she’d just gone to the bathroom. But no, he hadn’t seen her since she first came in. Something told him that she was hiding. Suddenly he realized that Noah Ellis and the rest of Rowan’s family hadn’t come. He shook his head. They were strange people, he mused. Just like he wished his mother had come, he was sure Rowan could use her family’s support.

After determining that she definitely wasn’t in the walk-in cooler or freezer, he found her in the much warmer store room. She sat on an upside down milk crate in a corner, her elbows resting on her knees. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When she saw him, she buried her face in her hands.

“Go away.”

Matt hesitated. He was by no means an expert on women, but he didn’t think she actually wanted to be alone. Maybe she just didn’t want to be around him, he mused. If he left her, though, there was no one else. He pulled up another milk crate and squatted in front of her. “Thought you could use this.” He held out a mug of coffee.

Lifting her hands, she peeked out at him. The redness in her eyes made them startlingly blue. It was probably totally wrong for him to think so, but she was so pretty when she cried.

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked in a low voice.

She accepted the coffee and sipped slowly. After a few moments, she shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” Her eyes remained on the floor, though.

Taking a sip of his own coffee, Matt watched her. Maybe it was because he’d already let her down, but he felt compelled to cheer her up. He supposed it was the “fix it” male genes in his DNA at work. Stretching out a hand, he lifted her chin until their eyes met. “Your parents didn’t come.”

She snorted. “Of course they didn’t. They’ve made their appearances. It was time for them to go back into their dark living room and spark up, maybe snort up a couple of Percs while they’re at it.”

His eyebrows lifted. Stifling the urge to comment, he took her hand in his. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said, but she squeezed his hand back. “It was dumb of me to hope they’d changed.” Sighing, she glanced away, withdrawing her hand.

“So they’ve always been like that?” He was starting to understand exactly why Katherine didn’t get along with her brother.

“Aunt Katherine told me it’s family tradition. Their parents were the same way. She used to say she and I were the ones who broke the cycle.” Rowan’s lips twisted wryly. “Not really, though.”

He tilted his head. “Why do you say that?”

“She didn’t have kids, and I won’t, either.” She set the coffee mug down and started dabbing at her face with a tissue.

Unable to help himself, he blurted, “Why not?”

“Because it would be totally unfair to subject them to this.” Rowan pulled her hair up into a messy bun at the top of her head.

He watched her, mesmerized. The scent of her hair floated to him, a subtle hint of coconut. “This?”

She rolled her eyes at him. “My family.”

“You could always cut off all ties with them.” He thought of his own mother and little brother. He couldn’t imagine never speaking to them again. Then again, his and Rowan’s families were very different.

“They would love that. I’ve always been such a disappointment.” She reached for her coffee.

“You’re not a disappointment to me,” he said before he could stop himself. Immediately he wished he hadn’t said anything. The tops of his ears burned. It was such a cheesy, rom com thing to say. Her face darkened and she looked away. He bit his lip, perplexed. He felt embarrassed, but she seemed almost angry. Running a hand through his curls, he tried to figure out how to save the conversation. If it could be saved. He cleared his throat. “So, Elli’s. What are we gonna do?”

Exhaling through her nose, she continued avoiding looking at him. “Good question.”

“You live in New Jersey, right?” He took a sip of coffee.

“That’s half the problem right there. I have a job. I have friends, sort of.” She muttered that last comment under her breath. His heart twisted in his chest. She really had no one left in the world.

He needed to convince her to run Elli’s with him. It was the only way he could keep a roof over Danny’s and their mother’s heads. By doing so, though, he would be tearing Rowan from the only thing she really had. It was selfish, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He doubted she would be moved by his situation. Still, he hated the thought of suggesting she leave her life behind and move back into close proximity with her family.

He ran his fingers back and forth over the stubble on his chin. Anything he said to convince her would be manipulative, and he didn’t want to be that guy. With barely a high school education, though, he’d never be able to find such a good job. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Katherine trusted us to take care of this place.”

Rowan nodded. “I know. I can’t bear the thought of letting her down, but I don’t think I can do this.” Dropping her gaze, she drained the remains of her coffee. “I guess we could sell it, split the profit.”

His gut clenched. The money might take care of his family for a little while, but eventually he’d need to find something. “She’d hate that,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

“She would,” Rowan agreed. She sighed. “Maybe I could run the place remotely, like a long distance relationship.” Her cheeks reddened and she stared at a spot on the floor far away from him.

His eyebrows furrowed. Something teased at the back of his mind, then slipped away the second he tried to chase it.

“But I’d burn out really quickly. I’m a waitress and a blogger,” she explained.

“Oh, the dessert blog?” He grinned. “Katherine said you’d invented some of the recipes we use.”

She nodded. Tapping her chin, she finally looked at him. “Maybe you could run most of it and I’d just take less profit?”

Matt felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’d run the place into the ground.” The only solution was for her to stay. She had to see it. He gritted his teeth together, silently imploring her to figure it out.

“What if I teach you? I’m here for another day. It can’t be that hard.” She frowned, glancing toward the hall and Katherine’s office. “She taught me a lot of what she does. I’m sure her lawyer could fill in the blanks after I’m gone. He’s a business lawyer.” She shrugged.

Absorbing her words, he stared into his empty mug. He didn’t think he could just wing it. Make the recipes, sure. He’d been baking for Katherine for two years. Keeping the lights on and making sure they had enough on hand was a totally different story.

He needed Rowan. She’d gone to business school and she was a baker. She’d worked with Katherine for four years. No one in the world was more qualified. Actually, he surmised, he was lucky she wasn’t fighting him for the place.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. His mind whirled. He needed to come up with a much better argument than that. She knew all of this, though. He needed to give her a reason to stay.

If things were different and she didn’t hate him for whatever reason, he could probably seduce her into staying. He smirked. He’d never had any trouble snagging girlfriends in school. His mother still chided him all the time for the phone calls she’d gotten, when he was in kindergarten, about him trying to kiss girls on the playground. And in high school he’d been somewhat of a player. He’d never taken any of it seriously, but he still occasionally got emails from his exes, offering to “Netflix and chill” next time they were home from college.

He wondered if he could actively seduce a woman who hated him.

Then again, she didn’t hate him entirely, he realized. That magnetic attraction he’d felt—she had to have felt it too. It would explain her rapidly alternating warm and cool attitudes toward him.

“Give me two weeks,” he blurted.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m leaving after tomorrow. I only asked for a couple days off—”

“I’m sure your boss will understand. Tell him you’ve got family business to take care of.” He stood and, taking her hands, pulled her to her feet. Though he had to duck his head a bit, he leveled his gaze with hers. He willed his eyes to smolder, to do whatever sexy trick they’d been doing his whole life. He wasn’t completely sure he could do it on command.

She yanked her hands away. “Excuse me?” Putting her hands on her hips, she cocked her head at him. Her eyes glinted, burning into his.

He fought the urge to kiss her.

“Spend two weeks with me. You’re going to love working with me. I can juggle balls of dough and I make a mean cupcake.” He brushed a stray curl off his forehead. “So? What do you say? Do you accept my challenge?”

Rowan stared at him. Several heartbeats passed before she answered. Tilting her head back, she lifted her chin. “Cocky, aren’t we?” she asked quietly. Pain flickered in her eyes. His hands twitched. He wanted to take her face in his hands and kiss the hurt away.

His pulse quickened in his throat. “More like confidence,” he whispered, not breaking eye contact. For a moment, he had a vision of hoisting her up onto the stainless steel table and kissing her until the moon rose in the sky. Screw the crowd of people in the front end. Forget the fact that he needed to convince her to stay. He wanted her to stay.

From the way she looked back at him, she might not even resist.

She looked away abruptly. Turning her back, she picked up her mug. “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. How about we revisit this tomorrow?”

His shoulders slumped. Maybe he should have just kissed her. So far he was doing an awful job of convincing her. Then again, she hadn’t said no. “Sure,” he said with a sigh. “What time?”

Rowan crossed the room, pausing in the doorway. “You guys still come in early to start baking for the day, right?” He nodded. “I’ll see you at five, then.” She turned to go.

“Wait.” He had no idea how long they’d been in the store room and whether anyone had noticed their absence. “If we walk out of here together, people will probably think . . .” His ears and the nape of his neck burned. He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you don’t need your name in any more people’s mouths. Wait. I just realized how that sounded.” He held a hand up. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant.”

She stared at him, an amused expression crossing her features. He noticed that the slight dimple in her chin deepened when she smiled. If he remembered correctly, she hated her chin. The cleft was subtle, though, and he thought it was more endearing than anything else.

She laughed softly. “What makes you think we’re walking out together?” With those parting words, she turned on her heel and left him in the store room, gaping after her.


JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
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A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

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Just One More Minute: Chapter 3

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

Rowan only had a millisecond to recover before the next guest took her hand and murmured an “I’m sorry for your loss.” Blinking, she gave the woman a nod. Presumably she was a friend of Katherine’s, maybe from high school. She glanced over the woman’s shoulder, looking for any sign of him.

There.

He disappeared through the entrance. She pressed a hand to her chest, heart pounding against her breastbone. Pain twisted her soul. She hadn’t seen him in over six years, but she was sure he was the same guy. Tears filled her eyes. The entire evening had officially gone to hell.

Breaking formation, she darted toward the nearest bathroom. No one would follow her. Her family was too stoned to notice, and all of the guests would chalk it up to grief. They had no idea.

She barred herself inside a stall just as the tears broke loose, spilling down her cheeks. Knees buckling, she sank onto the toilet seat. Years had passed, yet he could still evoke the same feelings in her. She curled her hands into fists. She’d thought she was over him. The revelation that he was also the same person who’d stolen her job—well, it was all too much.

Closing her eyes, an involuntary memory took hold. His warm lips on hers, the tall shelves curtaining them from view. Her hushed giggle. The susurrus of voices on the other side of the library. Her heart beating wildly in her chest as the cutest boy in school kissed her—her very first kiss.

Rowan’s eyes opened. She pressed shaking fingers to her lips. She could still taste him, even after all those years. It was ridiculous. She knew. They’d been kids in middle school, barely teenagers. Clearly it’d meant nothing to him, because he’d disappeared soon after—not even a text or Facebook message. In fact, he’d deleted himself off the internet entirely. Not a trace of that boy had remained. Until now.

A bitter laugh escaped her lips. If she’d taken the time to visit the bakery in the last couple of years, she would have known sooner.

That kiss had meant everything to her. It was a culmination of years of shy glances, months of quick smiles, weeks of flirting in class. She’d been convinced that, after the kiss, he would ask her to be his girlfriend or at least invite her to the dance. But he’d turned away, almost coldly, and left the library. And then she’d never seen him again.

She’d had a few boyfriends in high school, but none of them even compared to what she’d felt for Matthew Hayes.

It was stupid. She’d been twelve years old. It was time to move on. But the pounding in her chest and the tears burning her eyes said differently. The heart was an entirely different organ than the brain.

She shook her head at herself. Seven years later, and her body still reacted to him. It was a deep, ingrained magnetism. Every cell of her longed to be wrapped in his arms, connected to him. She yanked a length of toilet paper from the dispenser and dabbed at her eyes.

He’d disappeared without a trace and stolen her job. Her heart was a traitor.

Rowan eased out of the stall and went to the mirror to assess the damage. Her eyes were red and swollen. That was to be expected. Her mascara, however, was a complete mess. It ran in tracks down her cheeks and left dark smudges. She’d have to fix it.

She winced. She’d have to go outside, and he was out there.

For the first time in her life, she wished she carried a purse just like every other normal woman.

Mopping up the mess as quickly as she could, she kept an eye on the door for intruders. The babble of voices outside was a steady stream. She had no idea how long she’d been standing in that line before Matthew Hayes showed his face, but the wake had to be at least halfway over.

His face.

Her heartbeat stuttered. Those brown curls still fell into his green eyes. Her traitorous fingers had wanted to brush them back. Though they’d been kids the last time she saw him, she would recognize those eyes anywhere.

His face had matured, growing only more handsome with age. She had detected a hint of cheekbones that her fingertips desperately wanted to trace. And he’d grown into his nose. It was narrow and straight, Grecian. It suited him. Then there was the light beard that swept across his jaw and upper lip. He was tan and muscular, his arms strong enough to hold her up while their mouths crashed together, tongues intertwining—

Rowan clamped her thighs together, her cheeks red.

She needed to stop.

She needed to go fix her damn mascara.

Shaking the thoughts away, she lifted her chin and marched out of the bathroom. No one even noticed her. Katherine’s mourners stood in clusters or occupied the seats, speaking in hushed tones. Probably they had moved past reminiscing and were now catching up.

Her own family still stood at the front of the room, receiving a thinning stream of guests. None of them appeared to miss her.

It was just as well.

She sifted through the crowd with relative ease. An usher with kind eyes held the door open for her and she emerged into the summer evening.

Glancing around, she breathed a sigh of relief. He’d left. Or at least, she didn’t see him anywhere.

She walked straight to her car, keeping her eye on the prize. She’d left the door unlocked and her keyring hidden in the console. Slipping inside, she shut the door behind her and cranked the AC on. Then she retrieved her makeup bag from the same console and got to work.

As she touched up her mascara in her handheld mirror, movement behind her car caught her eye. She glanced up into the rearview mirror. Two figures moved in a grassy area directly behind where she’d parked. She didn’t recognize the smaller one, but she would recognize Matt’s build anywhere. She sighed.

So he hadn’t left.

Glancing at the digital display on the dashboard, she breathed a sigh of relief. The wake was almost over. Avoiding him for the next forty-five minutes shouldn’t be too hard.

Replacing her makeup bag, she shut off the car. She hid the keys again and climbed out. She paused just to adjust her dress. It kept riding up along her thighs. She hadn’t owned anything funeral appropriate until that morning. After talking with her aunt’s lawyer, she’d called Sean at the diner, and explained the situation. Then she’d gone home, packed a bag for a few days, and immediately left for Connecticut.

She’d met the lawyer at her aunt’s house. He gave her the keys, patted her arm, and left her to privacy. She respected that he hadn’t hovered around trying to comfort her. The only thing he’d said about her aunt was that she’d passed away peacefully in the hospital. Katherine hadn’t died at home. Still, it’d been weird to be in her house without her. And Rowan would have to return shortly. She had no desire to spend any more time with her parents and siblings.

“Ms. Ellis,” a rich, smooth voice said, interrupting her thoughts.

She jumped, but recovered when she realized the lawyer Damien Ward stood a few feet from her. “Hi,” she said, voice cracking. She bit her lip, wishing she’d grabbed a cup of water before rushing outside.

“I was hoping I could speak to you privately,” the attorney said.

Right to business. She sighed. She supposed she’d have to deal with it sooner or later. She’d mentioned to him that while she appreciated the house, she had responsibilities in New Jersey. Sort of. He’d told her they would discuss it later. With a wry smile, she guessed “later” had come.

She followed him back inside and into a private room several doors down from the viewing room her aunt currently rested in. The lighting was dim and the shades were drawn. Cool air swirled about her arms and bare legs. Rowan tucked herself into a seat and the attorney sat down behind a desk.

“It’s not my office,” he said, almost apologetically. “The Albini family was close with my parents, so they let me have the run of the place.” He winked.

Rowan smiled politely.

“Well, I’ve got to admit, Katherine was a bossy lady,” he said.

She smirked. That was true.

“She told me that I was to take care of all this right away. She didn’t want to waste any time. Ya’ll know how she was.” Damien smiled, shaking his head.

Rowan’s brow furrowed. He’d said ya’ll. She suddenly realized that she wasn’t the only one in the room with the attorney. Her heart dropped into her stomach. Matt occupied a chair in the corner, partially hidden by the shadows. She suppressed the urge to howl in frustration.

“What is this?” she asked, seething. Surprisingly, her voice sounded calm.

Damien motioned for Matt to join them. “Why don’t you scoot on up here?”

Matt obliged. He didn’t, she noticed, so much as look at her.

“The Ellis Cafe and Bakery,” the lawyer said, “also known as Elli’s.” He smiled, straight white teeth contrasting the deep brown of his skin.

When Rowan was still in high school, Katherine had finally given in and ordered a new sign. The local sign company took weeks to deliver it, and when they finally did, it hadn’t taken long for Katherine and Rowan to realize that the graphic designer had added an apostrophe.

Katherine had laughed, though, and the name Elli’s stuck. She’d never gotten around to officially changing her business’s name, but it became something of an inside joke.

Matt, apparently, knew nothing about it. Good. Rowan smirked.

Damien leaned forward. The dim lighting caught in his gray hair. Suddenly Rowan wondered just how old he was. Wrinkles mapped his face, and his hands were gnarled and wizened. “I’m sure you’re both wondering what’s going to happen to Elli’s now,” the lawyer continued.

She stole a glance at Matt. He sat with his square hands gripping the arms of the chair, his gaze intent on the lawyer. He seemed more invested than she was. She bit her lip, trying to sort her feelings. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she decided. It was just that the bakery was an old chapter in her life.

She’d moved on.

Still, she could still hear her aunt’s voice, echoing from the summer before she’d started high school. “Do you want to help me out at the bakery?” Rowan had nodded. “If you finish high school,” Katherine had promised, “I’ll give you a job as a baker.”

Her aunt’s lawyer cleared his throat. He opened a folder in front of him that Rowan hadn’t noticed. “This is Katherine’s will. She didn’t have many last wishes, but the ones she did have, she was very clear about. The house,” he said, nodding to Rowan.

She shifted in her seat. “Yes, about that—”

He went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “She left Elli’s to the both of you.”

“The thing is,” Rowan said, “I live in New Jersey. My job is there. I can’t take care of her house—” She froze. “Wait. What?”

Damien nodded. “She wants you two to carry on Elli’s. She was so afraid that without her, the bakery would close. This isn’t just her last wish. It’s her legacy.”

Rowan struggled to find her voice. “Elli’s? I can’t run a bakery.”

“Nonsense.” The lawyer smiled kindly at her. “You have a degree in business. You spent all four years of high school helping out. You know that place almost better than anyone else.”

Rowan shook her head.

Next to her, Matt stirred. She stole a glance at him. His large eyebrows slanted, eyes wide. “Why me?” he said in a low voice.

Damien cocked his head. “Katherine wouldn’t leave you out in the cold, son. She knew how important Elli’s is to you.”

“Okay, but I live in New Jersey,” Rowan interrupted. Confusion, awe, and shock swirled through her. Her hands smoothed the skirt of her dress almost compulsively. It made no sense. Her aunt hadn’t so much as mentioned any further involvement in the bakery after Rowan learned she’d given the job to someone else. Katherine had been completely offhand about the whole thing. It’d felt impersonal, as if Rowan had applied for the job with a stranger. Never had her aunt said anything like “But in case I die, you’ll be the one to inherit the place.”

Katherine’s lawyer raised his hands, palms out. “Hey, I’m just the messenger. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do.”

Rowan frowned. She wasn’t so sure that she could just walk away. Even if her aunt’s actions two years earlier had completely baffled her, she still loved Katherine. And Elli’s. She owed it to her aunt to at least try. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced at Matt.

She couldn’t work with him, though. Maybe she was being petty, but working with the guy who’d broken her heart twice would be like scraping her wounds open every single day. She’d never get over him.

Matt turned to her abruptly. Those green eyes searched hers.”So I guess this makes us partners, huh?” Something flickered in his eyes. Relief, she guessed. It puzzled her even more. He remembered her. She knew it. It made no sense for him to feel relieved, though.

Standing up, she shoved her chair back. No. She couldn’t do it. She needed time to figure things out. Maybe she could give her half of Elli’s to him. Or they could sell the place. She didn’t care. Legs wobbling, she darted out of the office and into the hall. People filtered out of the viewing room. She joined them and burst outside.

Feeling numb, she lurched toward her car.

“Wait,” a voice called. His voice.

Against her will, she stopped and turned around. One of her eyebrows lifted like a political debate moderator. She put her hand on her hip.

“We should probably talk about this.” He rubbed at the back of his neck.

“There’s nothing to say.” She crossed the last few feet to her car. Instead of climbing in, though, she leaned against its side. Despite the heat of the night, she hugged herself.

Matt joined her. His arm nearly brushed hers. Electricity crackled between them. She drew her arm away. “That guy’s pretty pushy, huh?” He chuckled.

“About as pushy as Aunt Katherine,” she agreed. She stole a glance at him. He gazed back at her. She swallowed hard and tore her eyes away.

“So what do you want to do?” he asked softly.

Shaking her head, she watched people trickling out of the funeral home. They got into their cars and headed home. She wished she was doing the same. Home, for the time being, was Katherine’s house, though. She hugged herself tighter. The thought of spending the night in one of the last places her aunt had been alive pressed down on her. She didn’t want to be alone, she realized. If New Jersey wasn’t so far, she would call one of her friends. Not that she really had anyone who would be willing to drive to Connecticut on such short notice. All of her New Jersey relationships were more like acquaintances, really. Drinking buddies at best. The realization and the sudden loneliness that came with it pressed in on her. Her eyes darted to Matt involuntarily. Heat blazed across her cheeks. She looked away.

“We’re having the reception at Elli’s,” he offered.

She had to admit that he was trying. Maybe he felt bad about how he’d treated her. Maybe she should give him a chance. “I know.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Are you ready?” The question could be interpreted in several ways, she mused.

He laughed. “For the reception? More or less. I did the prep before I closed up today.” He ducked his head. Curls fell into his eyes. “But the funeral . . . No, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”

She knew what he meant. “I didn’t even know she was sick,” she whispered.

His arm brushed hers as he turned to look at her. With a touch as light as a butterfly’s, he stroked her cheek. “She didn’t want anyone to worry.” His hand dropped to his side and he looked away.

Her skin glowed, aching for his touch again. Then his words caught up to her. She rounded on him. “You knew?” Of all people, Katherine had told him. Not her or even her father.

“Only by chance.” Matt looked off into the darkness.

“Why? Why would she tell you?” Rowan put her hands on her hips. She tried to see things from her aunt’s point of view, to understand why Katherine would hire a stranger over her own niece, why she would tell him before her own family. Granted, Katherine was about as close to the rest of the family as Rowan was. But she and Katherine had always had a special relationship. Never once during any of their occasional phone calls had her aunt even hinted at being sick.

“She didn’t.” A pained expression crossed his face. “I guessed.”

“But why didn’t she tell me?” Rowan pulled at a strand of her hair. “I would’ve come. I could’ve helped her.”

“There isn’t anything you could’ve done,” Matt said gently. He touched her shoulder.

Her nerves tingled as their skin met, the sensation zipping through her body like lightning. Suddenly she wanted more of his skin on hers. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to focus. Thoughts tumbled through her mind, conflicting feelings tearing at her heart. A thought slipped into her head. Opening her eyes slowly, she studied him through slitted lids. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He stepped back, as if she’d slapped him. “I—” He shook his head. “She asked me not to say anything.”

“So you knew and you chose not to tell her family?” Tears blurred Rowan’s eyes. “I mean, I can understand not telling my father.” She thrusted the word out as if she was spitting. “But me? What did I ever do to her? To you?”

Matt fell silent. He shook his head.

Of course he didn’t have an answer, she mused. All these years later, he still avoided conflict. He hadn’t changed at all, and she needed to remember that. Wrenching her car door open, she climbed inside, forcing Matt several steps away. Gunning the engine, she peeled out of the parking lot without looking back.


JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
Now Available

A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

BUY NOW

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Now Available: Just One More Minute

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November has been a complete jerk so far. October too, if I’m being honest. But where last month I was able to keep up with everything, I’ve fallen completely behind this month. 🙈 Needless to say, between release day jitters, life-y things, the election, and chronic pain, I’m a blob of anxiety. Usually, pre-release, I sit down and write up an organized marketing plan, complete with deadlines. I kept up with everything until just about two weeks ago. I’ve barely promoted the Facebook release party and I’m honestly really bummed about that. Only Thursday night did I remember to email everyone who signed up for ARCs to remind them to post their reviews. Le sigh.

But the show goes on. That’s what we do. We pick ourselves up, find our place, and keep marching forward—even if we need to take frequent breaks for rest.

The theme of Just One More Minute, in a nutshell, is that life blows up. It’s not pretty. Plans change. But there are always people around us who help us get back on our feet, and we always find more strength within ourselves. There’s always a chance to start over.

My inner strength reserves are kinda shot at the moment, but I’d like to give a shout out to, in no particular order: my husband Mike, my work wife and fellow author J.C. Hannigan, my crit partner and fellow author Molli Moran, and my best friend Sandy. I also want to thank my family for doing really nice things like showing up with groceries and helping wrestle my air conditioner out of my super scary 100+-year-old windows. And a major thank you to everyone who’s helped via my GoFundMe page. Thank you also to Sarah J., who read an ARC of Just One More Minute and told me it was the one bright spot in an otherwise crappy week. Honorable mention goes to Michelle H., a lovely reader and soon-to-be-published author who has lifted my spirits several times this week just by chatting with me on Facebook.

Even when life gets sassy, there are a lot of things to be grateful for.

My fingers, hands, and wrists are especially stiff and achy, so I’m just gonna end this with the Just One More Minute blurb and some buy links.

Happy release day to me—and to you, my lovely readers!


Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth BaroneA down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

Rowan left Connecticut to escape her indifferent family the second she graduated high school, but when her loving aunt dies, she drops everything to return for the funeral. All Rowan wants is to say her goodbyes and get back to her life—until her aunt’s lawyer tells her that she’s inherited Elli’s Bakery, the last straw that sent her running to New Jersey.

Even worse, her brand new business partner is Matt—the guy who stole her dream job at Elli’s and crushed her heart. Is she really supposed to just forgive him and run Elli’s by his side?

For Matt, Elli’s has been a safe haven, a way to take care of his heartsick mom and fatherless little brother. When the woman who took him in passes away, Matt has no idea what he’s going to do next. Until Rowan returns to their small town and becomes his new business partner. But after everything that went down between them, it’s clear that Rowan resents him.

Digging up the past will only be painful, and Matt needs to keep the bakery in business. Can Matt convince Rowan to stick around long enough to work things out between them?

Just One More Minute is a standalone small town bakery romance.

Buy Now

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I’ve decided to leave the book at $0.99 just a bit longer, so grab your copy now!

Still not convinced? Read the first two chapters here.

Just One More Minute: Chapter 2

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

Matt slumped into a chair in Katherine’s office. After hearing the news the other night, he hadn’t even wanted to open the bakery for the next day. There was no point. The place was lifeless without her. But she’d made it abundantly clear to him that she wanted him to keep the place going if anything happened to her. Her lawyer was definitely making sure sure that he followed her last wishes, too.

So he’d opened up Elli’s on Saturday and accepted a steady stream of customers mourning Katherine. He spent the day serving them coffee and pastries, pushing his own feelings aside. There was no choice. If he thought about his mentor too much, he would break. Katherine had been more than that, really. She’d been like a mother to him.

He’d closed early and fallen into a heavy sleep, resolving not to open on Sunday. But the lawyer had given him a friendly wakeup call that morning, imploring him to get to work. Matt didn’t know what to expect, but nothing had changed. People continued to flock to Elli’s, offering him their condolences and treating the weekend as a memorial service in and of itself.

He dragged a hand through his brown curls, sighing. He’d made it through most of the weekend, but he had no idea what would happen next. Without Katherine, he had no job. It was only a matter of time.

The smart thing to do would be to skip the wake that evening and spend the night figuring out what he was going to do. He’d graduated high school only by the skin of his teeth. College hadn’t even been an option. If it wasn’t for Katherine, he and his family would be homeless. And he would never be able to thank her for what she’d done for him.

There was no way he could miss her wake, though. The thought of seeing her in a casket simultaneously made him nauseous and sent pain searing through his chest, but he had to pay his last respects. He owed her at least that—even if it would cost him dearly.

Matt rubbed his face with his hands. The whole situation was all too familiar. He’d been one of very few people who had known Katherine was sick. She hadn’t even intended to tell him, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew the side effects of chemo. He’d watched her get weaker and weaker, once again powerless to stop the inevitable. On its own, his grief for his father was unbearable, but losing Katherine was like ripping a scab off a large, still raw wound. The anger, sadness, and helplessness enveloping him were familiar, but that didn’t make dealing with those feelings any easier.

Shoulders slumped, he stood from his seat. On his way into the kitchen to clean up, he paused in the hall. The front end needed a run-through, too. His limbs felt frozen. Without any customers, the place felt too empty. Katherine would kill him if he left the place anything less than spotless, though. Torn, he glanced back at the kitchen, then at the cafe. Normally he wasn’t so indecisive, but he felt reluctant to clean either room. All he wanted to do was go home and collapse into bed. Maybe then he’d wake up and discover it’d all been a bad dream.

Danny and his mom were waiting at home for him, though. The thought of his family jolted him into action. They depended on him. He needed to stay strong.

It didn’t take long for him to clean up, even though he took his time. Once he started, he relaxed easily into the familiar ritual. He was suddenly all too aware that the sooner he locked up, the closer he’d be on his way to the wake. There was only so much procrasti-cleaning he could do, though. Squaring his shoulders, he put the mop away and grabbed his keys from the office. He set the alarm, then slipped out into the hot afternoon.

His pickup didn’t have air conditioning. He’d parked in the shady corner of the parking lot earlier that morning. Though it’d been dark when he arrived, the truck rested underneath a sprawling oak. Even though he’d left the windows wide open, when he opened the door, steaming hot air rushed out at him. The sooner he got it moving, the better.

He took the long way home—not that there was really a long way in Watertown. He crossed the small town into the even smaller town of Oakville within just a few minutes. Parking in front of the three-family house where he and his family lived, he shut the engine off. He needed to compose himself before he walked in and Danny saw his face.

The wake would start in just a couple of hours. Everything was happening too quickly. He needed a moment, but life was unrelenting. The best he could do was stop fighting and let himself be carried.

The problem was, he had no idea which direction he should float in.

Steeling himself, he pushed open the car door and got out. As he walked toward the door that led to his apartment, he felt eyes on him. Casually, he glanced up to the third floor. His upstairs neighbor Burton glared down at him through the blinds.

“That old fucker blocked me in again.”

Matt turned toward the door to the first floor apartment, shoulders tense. He did not feel like dealing with Maureen at the moment. If he brushed her off, though, she would take it personally. She and Burton had already dragged him into their war, each trying to force him to pick sides. He had no idea how Switzerland always remained so neutral. Juggling neighbors was hard. Besides, he was inclined to get along with Maureen because she frequently looked after Danny for him.

“What else is new?” he asked, keeping his tone light.

Maureen nodded toward the other side of the house. “So I knocked his garbage over.” She smirked.

Great. Burton would, without a doubt, blame Danny. Every time Matt’s little brother played outside, Burton made an effort to intimidate him back inside. The old fucker was territorial and mean. Matt opened his mouth, then shut it. Reminding Maureen that she had other neighbors would do no good. He’d have to remember to clean up the mess as soon as she went inside. He climbed the steps to his door and put a hand on the knob.

“Want a cigarette?” Maureen asked, holding out the pack to him.

He considered it. A cigarette would help soothe his nerves. But he’d promised Danny he would never smoke again, and he intended to keep that promise—even if his mother didn’t. “I’ve got a wake to get to.”

Maureen’s lips twitched to the side and her eyebrows slanted. “Sorry to hear that.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “I’ll catch you later, then,” she said, exhaling smoke as she spoke.

Closing the door behind him, Matt climbed the flight of stairs that led to the final door to his apartment. They were steep, creaking and groaning beneath him. He still thought the placement of the stairs was odd, but he was glad that there were two doors separating him from his neighbors.

As soon as he opened the door, Danny flung himself into his arms. “Matty,” his little brother said affectionately. The kid hadn’t hit puberty yet, and his voice was still childlike. Soon that would change, though.

“Is Mom . . . ?” Matt let the question hang in the air.

Danny nodded. “She said to get her up before the, well, you know.” He looked down at the floor.

Matt knelt in front of him. “You don’t have to go, if you don’t want to.” He considered for a moment. “But you’d have to hang out outside the funeral home—unless you want to stay with Maureen.”

His little brother shook his head rapidly. “I’ll bring my Gameboy.”

Matt smiled. The Gameboy Advance had been his, from his own childhood. Despite its age, Danny loved the Pokemon Red and Super Mario Bros. games that Matt had played at his age. He was glad he’d held onto it. Neither he or his mother could afford to get Danny the latest Nintendo handheld device, and definitely not something as expensive as an iPad. But if the kid knew the difference, he didn’t let on. Danny was a good boy.

Straightening, Matt glanced around the kitchen. Cereal bowls from that morning were still on the table, soggy Os floating in probably rancid milk. He sighed. “You’ve got to remember to clean up, Danny.” Though he hated that his little brother had joined the Take Care of Mom club, eleven was old enough to put a dish in the sink.

After he rinsed the bowls out and set them in the sink to soak, Matt headed into the bathroom. “I’ll be out in a few. Wake Mom up,” he called over his shoulder.

* * *

He pulled into the funeral home’s lot and followed one of the usher’s directions into a parking spot. “Danny,” he said, turning in his seat. His little brother sat bent over his Gameboy. “It’s too hot to stay in the car while we’re inside so go sit in the shade over there.” He pointed to a grassy area. A bench sat underneath a tree. From there, engrossed in his game, Danny probably wouldn’t even remember that he was at a funeral home. Or so Matt hoped.

Matt unbuckled his seat belt and slid out of the car. At some point, he’d have to stop babying his little brother. He knew that. But he’d never forget the look on Danny’s face when they first walked into another room in another funeral home, six years earlier. Matt hadn’t even been prepared for how their dad would look, the once tan skin ashen and flat. Their father had looked like a sleeping statue, a parody of himself.

Shaking the memories away, Matt went around to his mother’s side of the car. He opened her door and offered her his arm. She glanced up at him from beneath thinning lashes, her eyes somber.

“You can hang out with Danny, if you want,” he said gently.

Relief flickered across her face for a moment, then she shook her head. She lifted her chin. “Katherine did so much for you—for us,” Emily said. She clasped his arm and climbed out of the car, grimacing in pain at his touch. Grief had not been kind to her. Where she’d once been strong, Fibromyalgia wracked her nerves, the stress of losing her husband aggravating her illness.

Still, he was able to lead her into the funeral home without much trouble. He started to guide her to a seat, but she shook her head. Nodding, he led her toward the line. It was long.

While they waited, he tried to look anywhere but the casket. The room was crowded with people, many of the faces familiar. He glanced at the line of family members receiving condolences. He’d only met Katherine’s brother Noah once. He could only assume the woman standing next to him was his wife. He knew Katherine hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye with her family, but he’d never learned why. He was pretty sure that, if Katherine could have it her way, none of them would be at the wake or funeral.

The line of mourners moved forward, rapidly passing time shoving Matt closer to the casket. He forced himself to focus on something else as he moved his feet.

Next to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis stood their daughters and son. Their oldest daughter, he knew, was a relatively successful theatre actress out in New York City. Their son was a teenager who regularly got into trouble, though. He’d barely graduated high school, but only because he preferred to smoke pot and snort pills in the school bathroom. Katherine was not fond of either Mia or Leo.

But she’d loved her other niece.

Matt’s eyes fell on the young woman named Rowan. He’d never met her, but he felt as if he knew her. As he took in the sight of her, his breath caught in his throat. The dress she wore hugged her curves, its pencil skirt shape falling to just above her knees. Though the neckline reached her collarbone, parts of the dress that stretched across her breastbone were tastefully cut out in three diamond shapes. Light brown hair fell in waves down to her waist. She was stunning—much more so than the photos on Katherine’s desk hinted at.

Pale blue eyes met his from across the room. Recognition flashed across her face. Her eyes widened. He smiled, starting to lift a hand. Rowan’s eyes narrowed in a hard glare. Her lips twitched in distaste.

Turning around, he glanced about for the object of her anger. No one in the vicinity seemed to even notice her, though. He glanced back at her. She was definitely glaring at him.

And she wasn’t happy.

Matt took an involuntary step back. The line moved forward—Murphy’s Law. He realized that his mom was eyeing him expectantly, one brow lifted in question. For once, his mother was more possessed than he was. He shook his head at himself, then joined her. Throwing a glance at the casket, he tried to decide what he was going to do once up there.

People knelt, bowed their heads, and after a few seconds, made the sign of the cross. Then they stood up. Though his father had been raised Jewish, Matt’s parents had basically raised him Protestant. All that came to an end six years before. He knew Katherine’s family was far from religious—never mind Catholic—so the ritual seemed even more impersonal to him.

What he really wanted to do was shake her awake and take her out for a coffee, escaping from the too warm room and all the formalities. The thought was absurd, but there it was.

Suddenly it was his turn.

He hadn’t noticed his mother go ahead of him. She stood off to the side, waiting for him.

Matt wiped the palms of his hands on his worn black Dickies. He stepped forward. Swallowing hard against the dry knot in his throat, he knelt down in front of the casket. He found himself staring into Katherine’s arm. Quickly he bowed his head.

He didn’t know how to pray, or if he should even bother. He had no idea what happened after life. Heart thudding in his chest, he tried to think of what he’d want to say to Katherine if he’d had the chance.

I’m sorry, he blurted into the spaces of his mind. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—

Someone in the line behind him cleared their throat. Matt’s head snapped up. With a final nod, he jumped away from the casket and joined his mom.

She gave his arm a squeeze.

Together, they turned toward Katherine’s family.

“I’m so sorry,” Emily said, clasping Noah’s hand.

The man nodded his thanks. The bitter, sticky scent of marijuana oozed off of him. His eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. In fact, Matt noticed as he moved down the line shaking hands, the entire Ellis family smelled like weed. A smile tugged at his lips but he forced his face to remain blank. Part of him wished they’d invited him to spark up. The scent was so strong, it almost knocked him over. All of them were engulfed in it—except for Rowan.

He stopped in front of her. She smelled clean, a light fragrance hovering around her like an aura, enveloping him in soothing warmth. Standing next to her family, she was a complete contrast—in more than one way. Her father and brother, for example, wore rumpled jeans. Rowan stood out in her funeral black. And while her family’s eyes were bloodshot, relaxed smiles painted their faces. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her mouth tugged down in a frown.

So maybe she hadn’t been glaring at him after all. Her family appeared almost jovial. No wonder she looked so pissed.

He held out his hand to her. “I’m Matt,” he said.

She wrapped her arms around herself. “I know who you are.” Her tone was sharp.

He blinked. Okay. He wouldn’t take it personally. She’d just lost her aunt, after all. “Katherine really loved you,” he offered. “She talked about you all the time.”

For a moment, Rowan’s face softened. A smile lit up her face. Then fresh tears filled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly.

She gazed at him, a mixture of emotions playing off her face—feelings he couldn’t read.

He stood there, feeling more awkward with each second that passed. His feet felt rooted to the floor, though. Something about her drew him in. It was familiar, almost as if they knew each other. But he’d never met her. Only through Katherine’s stories did he know that she made delicious pastries and that her face turned bright red when she swore. But still. He felt an almost relief in her presence, the same kind that came from being reunited with someone you love and haven’t seen in a long time.

It was ridiculous. He didn’t believe in instalove. The crazy thing was, though, that for a second, she looked like she felt something too.

Then the mask slipped back over her face. Her eyes narrowed, guarded.

He needed to say something. People behind him pressed closer. He was holding the line up. He should tell a funny story about Katherine, bring that smile back again. Give her something to carry with her. Blank static filled his mind, though. He’d spent the last two years working with Katherine, yet he couldn’t recall a single moment. His pulse echoed in his ears. He realized that he might just be having a panic attack. The wake was proving to be too much for him.

Resolving to find her again before he left, he mumbled another quick sorry, then hurried away. He retreated to a seat at the back of the wide room. Then he cursed himself.

He’d had a chance to pay it forward, to spread some of Katherine’s kindness toward him to her niece. And he’d botched it—completely. Bringing his hands to his face, he bent over. Suddenly, he needed air. He stood and headed toward the exit.


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What Happens On Tour: Chapter 5

Exhaustion tugged at Poppy. She glared at Jett. She wanted to say something equally snappy. Instead, she brushed past Jett into the condo.

“Well?” Jett spun on her heels. She put her hands on her hips.

“To think, I actually missed you guys,” Poppy muttered. Her eyes met Griff’s. Heat spread across her cheeks. Her eyes flicked around the room. The whole band was there. She nodded to Max and Perry in greeting. They each gave her nods back.

Jett tapped her foot on the floor. “Hello?”

“What’s the problem, Jett?” Griff asked, his voice low. The sound of it caressed Poppy.

She closed her eyes for a moment, bathing in that sound. She could listen to him talk all day. She wondered whether she was bordering on infatuation. Opening her eyes, she met Jett’s gaze.

“That thing out there.” Jett jabbed a finger at the conversion van. Cold air rushed into the condo.

“That thing is our transportation for the tour,” Poppy said. She folded her arms across her chest.

Jett’s eyebrows flew toward her hairline. “Our what?” Her voice took on a dangerous edge. Poppy wondered whether the band had spent the whole day rehearsing. They were probably just as cranky as she felt.

Keeping her tone light, she gestured toward the van. “It was the cheapest thing I could find.”

“Jett,” Griff said, standing. He put a hand on Jett’s arm. “We don’t exactly have the time or money to be picky.”

Whirling on him, Jett stopped within inches from his chest. Next to Griff’s tall frame, the band leader looked even smaller. It was amusing, Poppy thought, how someone so small could be so feisty. She knew exactly why Koty had fallen in love with Jett. The other woman glared up at Griff. “Do you not care about our image?”

Jett’s voice was laced with a dangerous tone that only a woman could inflect. Poppy glanced from Jett to Griff, positive that things were about to get ugly.

Rising lazily from the couch, Perry stretched. He ambled across the room and peered through the door at the van. “Boss,” he said, stretching the word out. “Are we really going to tour in that thing? King Riley is going to have a tour bus.” He turned to Poppy. “Why don’t we have a tour bus?”

Before she could respond, Griff slammed the door shut. “What are you all, a bunch of princesses?”

Max held up a finger. “For the record, I’m good with whatever is out there. Cheaper is better sometimes, anyway. Plus, now we’ll be able to afford hotels.”

Griff shook his head. “No hotels.”

“We can take turns sleeping on the bench seats,” Poppy told them all. They stared at her. “Or not.” She put her hands behind her back.

“Hotels aren’t in our budget, guys. Things are really tight. We don’t have a label backing us, remember?” Griff spread his hands.

Poppy wondered whether he was coming to her rescue on purpose, or if he really didn’t care what they toured in. Her heart fluttered at the thought of him defending her. A smile touched her lips, despite the argument taking place around her.

“Hold on.” Koty held up his hands. “Let me take care of this.” He took Jett’s hands. “I can get us a tour bus and take care of the hotels.”

Jett wrenched her hands away. “Why do you always have to throw money at everything?” She ran a hand through her long, dark hair. “We’re an independent band. We don’t need big-label money.”

Though Koty’s eyebrow twitched, he said nothing. He stepped back, giving Jett room.

Poppy sat down on the couch, slumping back into the pillows. It felt good to relax, even with everyone arguing around her. Part of her felt like an outsider. She had come into the band late, and the relationships between each of the members were already formed. She wondered sometimes where she fit in.

Dating Griff—if it ever were to happen—would mean, in many ways, dating Jett. His job often seemed to entail keeping the lead singer happy. Griff and Jett spent a lot of time together, ironing out details and haggling band business. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle that. Then again, she was probably getting ahead of herself. Besides, she reminded herself yet again, she needed to keep things professional. Straightening in her seat, she pushed a stray curl out of her face. “I already put a down payment on it. I drove it over here. For better or worse, it’s ours.”

Griff nodded in agreement. “Come on, Jett. Don’t be such a hard ass about this. We’re going to be up to our eyeballs, dealing with King Riley.”

To that, Perry muttered an “Amen.” He straightened his dreads, pulled back into a ponytail. “They’re not the easiest to deal with.” His eyes dropped to the floor.

“What do you say, Jett?” Griff asked, his voice gentle.

Jett sighed. “I guess it’s better than nothing.” She flicked a glance toward Poppy. “Thanks for bringing it here.” She jerked a thumb toward the window. “How were the roads?”

“Awful.” Poppy grinned. “It was kind of fun.”

Perry gave her a sideways glance. “Fun? Girl, you must be new.”

Ignoring his teasing, she stood from the couch. “I’m beat, though. I need to get back to . . . home.” She swallowed hard. She’d almost said “the dorm.” No one seemed to notice, though. They each mumbled in agreement. They had definitely been rehearsing all day, she decided, glancing at Max’s messy hair. “Get some sleep, everyone,” she told them. “I’ll be back in the morning.” With a smile on her face, she moved toward the door. “We’re going shopping.”

Jett frowned. “What the hell for?”

“We don’t have anything left in the budget,” Griff said, the space between his eyes creasing.

“This one’s on me.” She still had a tiny bit of financial aid leftover. “You’re all going to need something to wear on stage, right?”

Jett raised her eyebrows. “We usually just wear our own stuff.” Koty wrapped his arms around her, and she melted into him, visibly relaxing.

As different as they were, Poppy mused, they were perfect for each other. “You guys need an image,” she said. “If you’re going to play bluesy, catchy rock, you’ve got to look the part. I have some ideas.” She thought of the sketchbook on her desk in her dorm room. She would be up all night sketching outfits, she realized.

“That’s a great idea.” Griff stretched, yawning. From across the room, he winked at her.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Jett said, “but I’m too tired to care anymore.” She stifled a yawn.

Poppy’s own eyes burned. “See you in the morning.” She lifted a hand in parting, then headed toward the door. As she stepped back into the frosty snow storm, she hoped that the band would like whatever she came up with.

* * *

“That one’s good. I like it,” Krista said, tapping the sketchbook with a finger.

Early morning sunlight streamed through the window. Poppy was positive they were the only ones awake on campus. “Do you think she’ll wear it?” she asked, remembering the attitude Jett gave her over the van.

Her roommate nodded. “Based on what she wore when she was with Perpetual Smile, I’d say you nailed it.” Krista’s finger traced the camouflage green joggers, black heels, and loose white tank top that Poppy had sketched the night before.

“And what do you think about Griff’s outfit?” Poppy asked, her cheeks reddening.

Krista turned the page. She studied the blazer, plain white T-shirt, and jeans. “It’s definitely him,” she said, “but I feel like it needs something.” She flipped to Max’s page. “You’ve got Max wearing a denim chambray shirt over a white tee and khakis, but his hair is styled. You’ve got Jett’s hair in a pinup style. What about Griff?”

Poppy scrunched up her nose. “I didn’t even think of that.”

“That’s why you need me on this tour,” Krista said. She turned the page to Perry’s outfit. Color appeared high in her cheeks.

Poppy narrowed her eyes slyly, a smile tugging at her lips. “You like him,” she teased.

Her roommate’s blush deepened. “I just didn’t know what he looked like until now. You always talk about him like he’s a huge pain in the ass, but he’s hot.” She traced Perry’s broad nose and arched eyebrows. Covering his dreads with a finger, she giggled. “If he cut his hair, he’d be like a whole new guy.”

Poppy squinted at the page, trying to imagine Perry without dreads. “But they’re so him,” she said.

Krista nodded. “And that beard stubble,” she said with a dreamy smile. She moved her finger, exposing the bandana that Poppy gave him for the stage. “Does his face really look like this? Is he really that muscular?” She touched the rippling muscles in his arms.

“Girl, you need to get laid.” Poppy took the sketchbook out of her roommate’s hands. “I tried to get his features, but you better meet him before you set your sights on him. He’s trouble.”

“What about Griff?” Krista asked innocently.

Surprised by the sudden change in subject, Poppy turned away. “What about him?” She bent over the sketchbook.

“Is he trouble?” Krista’s voice was gentle. “He’s a lot older than you.”

“So what?” Poppy shrugged. “It’s not like I’m going after him.”

Her roommate leaned into her. “The look on your face says otherwise.”

Poppy pressed her lips together. She couldn’t be that readable. Besides, she had decided not to pursue him—mostly. Between the tour and juggling school, she had way too much going on to throw dating into the mix. Still, she was surprised that Krista had picked up on her thoughts.

“You were moaning in your sleep about him,” her roommate said.

Her jaw dropped open. “I was not!” She twisted in her seat, facing Krista. Her cheeks burned.

Krista nodded, an eyebrow quirked. “You tossed and turned for a good half hour, and you kept saying his name.”

Poppy’s eyes widened. She definitely didn’t remember having any sexy dreams about Griff. She wished she did. Her dreams were the only sex she was going to have anytime soon. “That’s not even possible.” The words caught in her throat. She swallowed hard. “Krista, you know I’m a virgin. How could I be dreaming about sex?”

“Your subconscious seems to know exactly what you want.” Krista winked. “Or need.” She gave Poppy’s hand a squeeze. “It doesn’t have to be a serious relationship, you know. It can just be for fun.”

Shaking her curls, Poppy stood from her desk. “No way. That would jeopardize the band.” She moved to her closet. Her eyes roamed over her clothes and shoes, looking for something appropriate to wear. Though the snow had stopped, the temperature was still low. She hoped she would remember to buy a pair of boots while they were at the mall.

Krista snorted. “Everyone else is dating in that band. Why not you?” Poppy turned to look at her friend. She put a hand on her hip. Before she could say anything, though, Krista grinned mischievously. “The first thing I’m doing when we go on tour,” she said, “is hooking up with Perry.”

Poppy grabbed a shirt from its hanger and tossed it at Krista. “You’re killing me.”

Shrugging, Krista held the shirt up. She studied it. “I might wear this today.”

“You’re more than welcome to,” Poppy told her, selecting her own outfit. She dressed quickly, casting aside her usual blouse and skinny printed pants for a sweater and pencil skirt. She wanted to look as good—and professional—as possible for the band’s shopping trip. She picked through her shoes until she found a pair of ankle boots. They weren’t exactly made for winter, but they would work.

Turning away from Krista, she dressed quickly. After throwing on some makeup and touching up her hair, she grabbed the keys to the van. “Do you want to come with me?”

Krista shook her head. “I’d love to, but I need to update the blog with the tour schedule.” She smiled. “Thanks for letting me tag along, by the way.”

Poppy smiled back. “Thank you for coming. I have a feeling I’m going to have my hands full.” Lifting a hand in departure, she strolled out of the room.

The drive to Jett and Koty’s condo didn’t take long. She recognized Griff’s car parked out front. It seemed as if everyone was already there. Smiling and checking her hair a final time, she slid out of the van. She walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

She expected Jett or Koty to answer. When the door swung open, though, Griff stood on the threshold. His gray-blue eyes met hers, and heat pooled in her belly. “Hey,” he said.

For a moment, she just stared at him. Her eyes roved over his smile, the crinkle at the corners of his eyes. Her gaze dropped down to his jeans, then whipped back up to his face. Maybe Krista was right. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to pursue him—for fun, if nothing else. She licked her lips. “Good morning.” She eased past him inside.

Jett sat curled up on the couch under a throw blanket, her head resting on Koty’s shoulder. Three mugs of coffee sat on the coffee table, steam rising into the air. Jett yawned, wiggling her fingers at Poppy in greeting. “Morning,” she said, voice husky. Poppy wondered whether she had slept.

“Want some coffee?” Griff asked.

Glancing around for the rest of the band, Poppy nodded. “Please.” Just as she was about to ask about him, Perry emerged from the kitchen, a mug in his hands.

“Morning, gorgeous,” he said, leaning in close to her. He pressed a kiss to her cheek, his freshly shaved face caressing hers for a moment. He smelled like cool scented soap and cologne. He hadn’t spoken to her like that since she first joined the band, and he had definitely never kissed her.

Blinking her eyes, she took a step back. Heat spread across her cheeks.

“Easy,” Griff rumbled to Perry.

She held up her hands. “It’s okay,” she said, still flustered. Krista, she decided, was going to fall head over heels in love with Perry—and she wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing. On one hand, her roommate could whip him into shape. On the other, he could just as easily break Krista’s heart. “Just don’t let it happen again.” She looked at Perry, eyes narrowed. “I’m your manager, not a contestant on The Bachelor.”

Though he nodded in response, a flirtatious smirk danced on his lips.

She glanced around the room. “Where’s Max?”

“Late, as usual.” Jett yawned again. She snuggled into Koty’s arms. “Why are we doing this so early?”

Trying not to glance at Griff, Poppy wished she had someone to hold her like that. “Because we don’t have a lot of time.” She thought of all the arrangements she needed to make with the college. Pulling her phone out, she tapped a quick email to her advisor asking what she would have to do to switch to online classes temporarily.

Someone cleared their throat. She looked up. Everyone in the room was staring at her, as if they expected her to say something else. “What?”

“I asked if you could help me with merchandise orders tonight,” Griff said. His eyes glinted, a smile curling his lips.

“Of course,” she said without giving it a second thought. She swallowed hard and sent the email before anyone could ask her what she was doing.

“Are you managing any other bands?” Jett asked, eyes narrowed at her suspiciously.

The front door opened, saving Poppy from having to explain. Max lurched inside, his eyes wide and his hair springing in all directions. That was nothing new.

“Sorry I’m late,” he blurted. The top two buttons of his plaid shirt were undone. He closed the door behind him and strode farther into the living room. “What did I miss?”

Jett glared at him. “Would it kill you to be on time?”

“Probably,” he replied. A grin burst from his lips.

“Looks like someone got lucky,” Perry crooned. He flashed Max a thumbs up. Griff snorted.

Poppy put her hands on her hips. Though she wanted to laugh along with everyone else, they had work to do. She exchanged eyerolls with Jett. “Can I remind you gentlemen that we kick off this tour in less than three days? Max, next time you’re late, we’re docking your pay.”

Max’s jaw dropped open. Jett nodded in approval. Perhaps Poppy could forge a bond with her, after all. She bounced the keys to the van in her hand. “First order of business,” she said, eyeing everyone’s tired faces. “Coffee.”

She drove them to the mall in silence. Parking crookedly, she jumped out of the van and led the way inside, straight to the Starbucks on the mall entrance floor. The members of South of Forever filed in behind her, Jett on her heels.

“Nice work, Hampton,” Jett said. “You shut them right up. You’re a girl after my own heart.” She nudged Poppy with an elbow, then took the lead.

Pride thrummed through Poppy. With Jett’s approval, her confidence bolstered. She didn’t even mind waiting behind Jett for her own caffeine fix. She hung back, letting the other members of South of Forever go ahead of her. She watched as they ordered coffees, glad that they were listening to her.

Griff joined her in line. “What are you getting?”

“Some frap or other,” she said, struggling to keep her tone light. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well,” he said, putting his hands in the pockets of his jeans, “I’ve got it.” He stood so close to her, she could feel the heat from his body.

Swallowing hard, she lifted a shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s a business expense for me.” She gave him a wink, but her heart fluttered in her chest.

Griff nodded. “Okay. Maybe later we can get a non-business coffee, then.”

She blinked. “What is this?” she blurted.

Stretching his shoulders inside his leather jacket, Griff glanced at the others. They stood off to the side, sipping coffees. The barista watched him expectantly. He was next. He turned his gaze back to Poppy. “Well, I’m asking you out,” he said in a low voice.

She stared at him, unable to believe her ears.

“It’s a simple question,” he told her. “Yes or no?”


South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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What Happens On Tour: Chapter 4

Poppy ducked her head into the hall and glanced down the staircase. Soft snores drifted up through the living room. Her shoulders lowered in relief. Both her mother and grandmother were in food comas. She could hear the slow drone of the TV in the background, punctuated by the women’s exhales. She couldn’t have planned it better herself.

She tiptoed back into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Plopping down on her childhood bed, she looked at her phone. All she had to do was tap Griff’s name, and she could tell him that she was in.

Her nerves sizzled. Biting her lip, she slapped the slim phone against the palm of her hand. She’d never called Griff for anything—he reached out to her, or she discussed business with him at practices. Sweat slicked her fingers, and she nearly dropped the phone.

She took a deep breath in through her nose. There wasn’t a shy bone in her body. There was no reason for her to be nervous. She straightened her shoulders and scrolled through her contacts.

Griff answered immediately, as if he had been waiting for her. “Hey,” he said. His voice was a cool purr against her ear, and she smiled. A tingle ran through her body, her limbs going soft. Her brain felt as if it were being stroked, fuzzy static buzzing through her head.

“Hey.” She pressed her lips together as she tried to think of something else to say.

“Hey,” he said again.

A laugh escaped her lips. They sounded like two kids in high school.

“You’re laughing at me?” His voice was playfully defensive.

Crossing her legs, she glanced out the window. Streaks of pink and orange trailed across the sky. She wished suddenly that she had invited him to stay for dinner. They could be sitting on the porch enjoying the sunset together. She pushed the thought away. She needed to focus on work. She was supposed to be a cool, composed professional—not some starry-eyed teenager. Though she supported herself, to him she was just a kid—especially if he ever found out the truth about her age. They could never be together.

“I laugh when I’m nervous,” she blurted. She dipped her chin, fingers massaging her temples.

“Do I make you nervous?” His tone was light and teasing.

He made it so hard to focus. Scooting back on the bed, she leaned into the pillows piled against the wall. She stared down at the nail polish on her toes and willed herself to be as cool as the grayish blue color she had painted them. Instead, she couldn’t help but think how similar the color was to Griff’s eyes. She cleared her throat. “So, this touring business. Can I still get in?”

He hesitated, as if surprised by her question. “Of course,” he said, sounding slightly disappointed.

“Good,” she said. “Where do we start?”

“Poppy,” he said, his voice dropping.

Her heart did a somersault. Her resolve to focus on work withered, and she leaned forward. “Yeah?”

For a long moment, he said nothing. Her eyebrows furrowed. Heart slamming in her chest, she swallowed hard. She gripped the phone tighter, pressing it to her ear. The seconds stretched by. Her imagination ran wild. She saw him sitting in the apartment he shared with Perry. He ran a hand through his hair, bleached to a lighter blond. Her fingers tingled with the urge to run them through that hair, even if only in her fantasy. He took a deep breath. It was almost a sigh. “So, I have a list for you,” he said finally.

Disappointment coursed through her. Composing herself, she leaned farther back into the pillows. She wished they would swallow her. The silly teenage part of her needed to let go of the idea that maybe he liked her. He was professional in almost all of their interactions. In some ways, he was her boss. She needed to focus on being Poppy the band manager, not Poppy the lovestruck college student. She glanced around the room for a pen and piece of paper. Her old desk still sat in a corner.

Kicking off her wedges, she padded over to it. She opened drawers until she found an old notebook and a blue gel pen. Grimacing, she uncapped it with her teeth and poised it over the paper. “I’m ready.”

“Don’t hate me,” he said. “A lot of this is coming from Jett. If you can’t do it all, let me know and I’ll see what I can take care of. It’s not like I have anything better to do.” She heard the smile in his voice. “She wants us to spend these next few days rehearsing but, Poppy, I really think we’re good. So if you need me, just let me know.”

Again, her fantasy wrestled with reality. There seemed to be so much more in his words. She couldn’t possibly be imagining all of it—unless she was totally delusional. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. “I can handle it.” At least, she hoped so.

“I’m going to email you the tour schedule,” he said, jumping right back into business. “I need you to do whatever you can to get some publicity rolling. This is a super last minute announcement, and I’m not even sure we have fans outside of Boston. That’s being generous,” he added.

“Stop,” she told him. “We’ve got plenty of regulars coming to our shows.” It felt natural, referring to the band and herself as a collective soul. “And I’m positive that a lot of Perpetual Smile fans have followed you and Jett over.” She smiled. “The blogs and social media are still buzzing about Max, but they do mention Perpetual Smile now and then.”

He considered her words for a moment, comfortable silence lapsing between them. “Yeah,” he agreed. He took a deep breath. “This next thing is big. Are you sitting down?”

A line creased Poppy’s forehead. “What is it?”

“Can you get us a tour bus?”

She blinked. “King Riley’s label isn’t providing that?”

“Not for us. We’re just the support. We’re responsible for our own travel and lodging.”

“Lodging?” she repeated.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “As long as we get a big enough tour bus, everyone will be comfortable.”

Squinting, she tapped her chin. “So we won’t be staying in hotels?”

He chuckled, a gentle sound. “Not this time.” He sighed. “If we were Perpetual Smile status, this would be so easy.”

Shaking her hair from her face, Poppy forced a bright smile. Even though he couldn’t see her, he could still detect her attitude. And, as Grandma Audrey always said, her altitude was defined by it. “Don’t worry,” she told Griff. “I’ll take care of it all. What’s our budget?”

He made a sound halfway between a laugh and a cough. “Right. So, keep in mind that we’re going to need to overnight some merchandise, and since it’s a holiday weekend, we don’t have much to work with.”

“How much is not much?” She had coordinated all of Jay’s touring expenses before he got picked up by L.A.B. Even on their tiny budget, she had made things happen for him. South of Forever had even more money, due to their EP sales. It would be easy to get a tour bus.

“I can give you five.” He sounded uncomfortable.

“$500,000, or five bucks?” She kept her tone light and teasing, but dread pitted in her stomach.

“Thousand,” he responded.

“What?” She laughed. “That might not even be enough for a down payment on a tour bus. Those things are as expensive as houses—more, sometimes.” It had been a couple of years since she and Jay had looked into one, huddled in his slightly finished bedroom in the basement, the laptop they shared flickering as its battery died.

“I know,” Griff said. “Just do your best.”

She wanted to laugh. He was asking her to do the impossible. Even if she had more time, she didn’t have the line of credit needed to put down such a low deposit. She knew that without even calling around.

“I’ve got to go,” Griff said suddenly. “Jett says break’s over.”

Rolling her eyes, Poppy put down the notebook and pen. In some ways, Griff seemed almost married to Jett. She wondered how Koty felt about them spending so much time together. It couldn’t be easy. She wasn’t even with Griff, and she was jealous. “Aye-aye, Captain,” she told him. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” His words held promise.

She licked her lips. Her heart fluttered in her ribcage. “Of course,” she told him, and hung up. She stood in the middle of her old bedroom, wondering how in the world she was going to get a tour bus in just one day, for such little money.

* * *

“What about that one?” Jay pointed to the screen of her iPad.

Poppy tapped the image. The product page loaded, showing a larger photo of the bus. It slept twelve and had a working shower. “We can even cook in it,” she said to her brother, pointing at a photo of a gas stove. The description said that it was used, which had to mean that it was a lot cheaper than the $500,000 tour buses they kept running across. She moved the page down until she found the price. Wincing, she sucked in her cheeks.

Jay whistled. “And that’s the cheapest one we’ve seen.”

She did the math in her head. South of Forever couldn’t afford a $300,000 tour bus. Even if she could somehow talk the seller into accepting a $5,000 down payment, there was no way they would be able to afford the monthly payments—and that was assuming that nothing happened to it. On the road, anything could happen.

“Too bad we can’t just rent one.” She sighed and pushed the iPad from her lap. It slid onto the futon that occupied what had once been Jay’s room.

Though her mother still mostly used the basement for storage, her brother used his old bedroom to crash occasionally, and to record demos. She glanced at the microphone on the stand and the mixing board in a corner. The small room wasn’t as soundproof as the studios that South of Forever used, and it probably wasn’t as fancy as the studios that L.A.B. provided, but Jay had a soft spot for it. It was where he had recorded his first EP, and was part of his journey as an artist.

“They don’t rent them?” he asked.

“For a disgusting amount of money, and there aren’t any payment plans.” She slid down from the futon onto the floor, carpeted by a large area rug. Resting her head against the cushion of the futon, Poppy sighed. “I’m screwed.”

Nodding toward the old digital alarm clock that still sat on a nightstand, Jay held out his hands to her. “Come on, little sis. It’s almost two in the morning. Maybe you’ll have some ideas after some sleep and coffee.”

She snorted, but took his hands and allowed him to haul her to her feet. “If I come up with a solution that fast,” she said, throwing her arms around him, “it’ll be a miracle. Goodnight.” Planting a kiss on his cheek, she turned away. She padded out of the room and up the stairs, avoiding the creaky spots so that she didn’t wake her mother or grandmother. She reached the main floor and closed the door behind her softly.

* * *

In the morning, a steaming cup of coffee in front of her on the kitchen table, she started making phone calls. Jay was right. There had to be someone that would give her a good deal on short notice. She Googled “tour buses” again and went down the list, calling dealers from all over Boston and surrounding towns. None of them would take less than $10,000 as a down payment, though one dealer did offer her a four-sleeper tour bus for $8,000 down. She wished she could use part of her student loan toward it, but she had already spent part of it on an iPad and most of the rest on tuition and textbooks.

She put her head down on the table and sighed, the sound of her voice echoing in the empty kitchen. Her mother was at work and Grandma Audrey had gone grocery shopping. Jay snored in the basement. He had always been the type to sleep in.

She was out of options. She closed her eyes, her warm breath bouncing off the wood of the table and hitting her in the face. It smelled like coffee. She stood and went to the counter, refilling her mug from the carafe.

The basement door creaked open and Jay stumbled into the kitchen. “Good morning,” he said, reaching for a mug.

Bad morning.” She moved out of his way so that he could make his own coffee. Returning to the table, she sat down, heaving into her seat.

“No luck?” He went to the refrigerator for cream.

“We’re out.” She lifted her mug of black coffee in a salute. “Join me on the dark side.”

Grimacing, he sat at the table with her. He took a small sip of his black coffee, the scowl on his face deepening. “Bad morning,” he agreed.

“All of these dealerships want too much money,” she complained.

“Maybe you’re looking for the wrong vehicle.” Jay ran a hand over his hair, patting his springy curls back into place.

“What do you mean?” She tapped her iPad. “It’s not like we can all pile into a Honda and hit the road.”

“Maybe not a Civic, but what about a van?”

She opened her mouth to tell him that was a ridiculous idea.

“Remember Grandpa’s stories of how he followed blues bands around in the sixties and seventies?” Jay lifted an eyebrow at her. “They traveled in those . . . What were they called?”

“Conversion vans.” She tapped her lips. “You might have something there.” Waking up the iPad, she went back to Google and searched. Her eyebrows knit together. She leaned forward. As she scrolled through the results, her hands shook—whether from nerves or low blood sugar, she couldn’t tell for sure. Swiping through the vans on one website, she stopped at a used one. “This one’s in our price range.” Her eyes scanned the listing. “But there’s nowhere to sleep.”

Jay scooted closer to her. He studied the page. Pointing at the four rows of bench seats, he said, “There’s your beds, and you can fit two more people up front. You’d have to take turns sleeping.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “Sleep on those? Are you crazy?!” She thought of her bed in her dorm room, piled with memory foam toppers and pillows. She wouldn’t be able to sleep on the hard bench seats, with seat belts poking up at her. No one would.

“It’s in your price range.” Jay held his hands up. “I’m just suggesting it.”

Tilting her head back, Poppy glared at the ceiling in frustration.

“At least call them and talk to them. Who knows? You might even be able to get it for less.” He brought his still hot mug of coffee to the sink. “You could even get air mattresses and sleep on those, on top of the bench seats.”

“Don’t pour that out,” she said, holding her hands out for his mug. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to need all of the caffeine I can get.”

Jay passed her his mug. He ambled toward the stairs. “I’m taking a shower,” he mumbled.

She wondered how much later he had stayed up. L.A.B. was putting a lot of pressure on him to complete and release a full-length album right away. In some ways, she wished that he had never signed the deal with them. For the next five years, he would be almost completely out of her reach. She longed for the days when it had just been the two of them, drinking coffee to stay up late and strategize his next move.

Those days were over, though, and she had her own problems. Her insides felt coiled, a rope tightening around her neck. If she couldn’t get a vehicle for South of Forever to tour in, then she was finished. She wouldn’t be going anywhere but back to campus. Anxiety roiled in her stomach. Maybe she wasn’t ready. Maybe she needed to call Griff and call the whole thing off.

On such short notice, though, they could never go on tour without her. They needed her. “No pressure,” she told herself in the empty kitchen.

Waking up her iPad, she scrolled through the search results until she came to a dealer that was close by. It was about thirty minutes away from her neighborhood with traffic.

If she ever told her family that she chose Northeastern University because she knew she could easily find a job managing a band in the city, they wouldn’t know what to make of her.

She dialed the number slowly, fingers shaking. If the dealership didn’t have the van anymore or, even worse, they wanted more than $5,000 for a down payment, she was done.

“Ace Pre-Loved Auto,” a crisp male voice answered.

“Hi,” she said slowly, immediately wincing at her uncertain tone. “I’m interested in the conversion van that’s on your website.” She gave him the ID number.

“Just a sec.” He tapped the number into a keyboard.

“Is it still available?” She leaned forward and held her breath.

“I believe so,” the man told her. “I’d have to visually confirm, but the system says it’s still on the lot.”

“Great.” She stood from the table. “Hold it for me.”

The man laughed. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary. It’s from the seventies.”

Blinking, she tilted her head. “What kind of a salesman are you?”

“I’m not,” he said, dropping his voice. “This is my uncle’s dealership. Since I took this semester off, he’s got me manning the phones for him.”

“Well, hold it for me anyway.” She hung up. Dropping her phone onto the table, she raced up the stairs. Her feet pounded up the steps. Skidding to a stop in front of the bathroom door, she pushed it open. “Jay, we’ve got a van!”

Her brother shot her a cool look. He wore a towel around his waist and held a razor in one hand, his face covered in shaving cream. “You do know this is awkward, right?”

“Well,” she said, tapping her chin, “I don’t have it yet. I need a ride to the dealership.” She gave him her best little sister smile. “Please? I’ll give you gas money.”

Shaking his head, he put the razor down. “Out, Poppy.” He shooed her out of the bathroom.

She backed up until her feet touched the carpet of the hall. “Is that a yes?”

Jay rolled his eyes. “Just give me a few minutes.” He closed the door.

“Yes!” Pumping both fists in the air, Poppy bent down and sprang back up. Her hair bounced with her. “You’re the best!” She darted into her room to get ready. As she yanked clothing out of her closet, though, she hesitated. Even though Jett and the guys were pretty laid back, there was a chance that they wouldn’t like the van. She didn’t even know if it would fit all of their equipment.

She bit down on her lip. “You can’t start down that path, girl.” She forced a smile onto her face. Even if she had to fake it until she made it, there was no way she was letting the doubts creep in. She dressed quickly, choosing a bright pair of floral patterned pants and a bright top to match. Cupping her curls, she flashed a smile at herself in the mirror. “You look good. You’ve got this!” Still, as she said the words, doubt crept back into her conscious. She frowned.

The second Jay opened the bathroom door, Poppy sprang back into the hall. Anxiety thrummed through her system.

Jay raised his eyebrows at her. “You gonna make it, little sis?”

She started to tell him that of course she was, but bit her lip. She had never been able to lie to her brother. Swallowing hard, she led him down the stairs. “I’m just nervous,” she said as she reached the landing. She turned and forced herself to meet his eyes.

“What are you nervous about?” His tone was gentle, but he crossed his arms.

She could tell he was confused. She normally didn’t let anything get to her. “Well,” she said slowly, “if I don’t get this right, then they won’t let me come on tour with them.”

Jay nodded. He motioned for her to go outside to the car. “You can’t let yourself get caught up in that black and white mentality,” he said from behind her as they filed out. “It’s not all or nothing, here.”

“But it is,” she said, turning around. She forced her hands to stay at her sides. Tightness locked her shoulders, though. “They think I’m a professional.”

He snorted. “You are a professional, Poppy.” He slid into the driver’s seat.

Poppy got in on the passenger’s side and buckled up. “Not really,” she mumbled. “I’m just pretending.”

Backing out of the driveway, Jay slanted her a look. “You got me to where I am. How does that not make you credible?”

“Maybe it was luck.” She sighed. Before they got to the dealership, she needed to pull herself together. She had to think positively. Going in with a negative attitude would only get her a bad deal, and she needed the dealership to work with her. The more confident she felt, the more likely they would accept her small deposit.

They rode in silence, the cool whisper of air from the open windows caressing Poppy’s skin. Winter was fast approaching, but she couldn’t blame Jay for wanting the fresh air. She missed the simplicity of summer. It felt like ages had passed, when really only months had slipped away. She was no longer the confident seventeen-year-old girl fresh out of high school who lied about her age so easily and made South of Forever think that she was experienced. Somehow, in the short time that had passed since Griff told her about the tour, she had lost her edge.

The pressure was on.

She thought of the way Griff’s gray-blue eyes went far away to a bright future when he talked about the band, all of his hopes and dreams reflected in them. His confidence was sexy and infectious. If she could hold onto that, wearing his personality like she wore her clothes, she could handle a little tour.

Jay pulled into the dealership. Balloons bordered the driveway and sidewalk, a friendly cordon. Fresh, bright blue paint brought the building into bright focus. Most of the vehicles available were conversion vans. Poppy wondered how many people still used them. She couldn’t recall ever seeing any on the road. Then again, she rarely drove, and was usually oblivious to other vehicles.

“Want me to come in with you?” Jay navigated the car into a parking spot.

She wanted to tell him yes. Having her brother at her side would definitely alleviate some of her anxiety. It wouldn’t look professional, though, she decided. She needed to convince the salesman that she was all business. In order for that to happen, she had to stand on her own. She swallowed hard. “Keep the car running, in case I embarrass myself and we need to make a fast getaway.” The smile she gave her brother was wooden.

He squeezed her hand. “You’ve got this.”

Poppy stepped out of the car. The autumn air swirled around her bare toes. Sooner or later, she was going to have to trade her wedges for boots. She shuddered at the thought of keeping her feet trapped all winter. Cold weather was coming, though, and she was going to have to dig out her winter gear soon.

She marched toward the building, squaring her shoulders. She forced herself to keep her chin up. As she pulled open the door, she put a confident smile on her face. She made herself walk up to the only salesman she saw without faltering. “I’m here about a conversion van.” She recited the number for him, her words crashing together.

The salesman’s lips tugged into a smile. “You must be the one my nephew spoke to.” He ran a hand through salt and pepper hair. “It’s still on the lot.” He waved for her to follow. “Come on. I’ll show it to you.”

She hurried to keep up with his long strides, almost tripping in her wedges. She bit her lip, forcing herself to walk with more grace. She’d never been a clumsy person, and she couldn’t afford to start, ever.

The salesman led her back outside, holding the door for her. He bent his head against a gust of wind. Poppy frowned, shivering in her blouse. “They’re calling for snow,” he called over his shoulder. He led her around the building. The vehicles got older and older as they walked deeper into the lot.

The temperature had dropped in the few minutes since she had stepped out of her brother’s car. In Massachusetts, the weather was temperamental, changing attitude as quickly as the people who lived there. Poppy hoped that the weatherman, as her grandmother always said, was wrong.

The salesman stopped in front of a white conversion van. Pulling a key from his pocket, he unlocked the door, exposing four rows of bench seats.

Poppy peered inside. She squinted into the darkness, the gloomy light from the threatening sky seeping in. Even with the seats, there was plenty of room in the back for South of Forever’s equipment.

“The seats fold down,” the salesman explained, “so depending on what you’re hauling, you should have plenty of room.”

Straightening her shoulders, Poppy pulled a business card from her back pocket. “I’m the manager of a band.”

The older man took the card, glancing at it. He slipped it into his pocket, and produced his own card. “Tony Vaccarelli,” he said, offering his hand.

She shook it. His grip was firm but gentle. “Is the online price still good?” she asked.

Tony gave her a nod. “I’m a man of my word.”

“And you’ll take a $5,000 down payment?” She flashed him her best smile.

He scratched at his hairline. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word, “it’ll depend on your credit report.”

Poppy’s shoulders slumped. “How long does that take?”

“Depends on whether our system wants to cooperate. Sometimes we get it back right away. Other times, it could take a few days.” He spread his hands. “We’re a small business.”

Her mind raced. She needed that van, right away. “What if I tell you that I have $5,000 on my debit card?” She would have to check to make sure that Griff had transferred the money, but he was usually good about sending her funds for the band quickly. Getting Jett to pay her just as fast was another story, sometimes.

“Well,” Tony said again. He tapped his chin. “If the transaction goes through, I don’t see why not.” He lifted a finger, his eyebrows furrowing. His voice grew stern. “But you’ll have to make your payments on time. I charge twenty-five percent interest.”

Her eyes widened. She swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”

“Well then,” he said, “let’s go back on inside. It’s getting cold out here.”

By the time they finished the formalities, the sky was dark. Poppy bounced the keys in her hand as she walked toward the van. Griff would have to arrange monthly payments but, for the time being, the van was theirs.

Jay pulled up alongside the van. He rolled down a window and nodded to her. “Do you want me to drive it?”

Shaking her curls, she put the key in the lock to the driver’s side. “I’m going to have to drive this thing on the road. I might as well get used to it.”

The ride home was smooth, and ended all too quickly. Poppy eased the van to a stop in front of her mother’s house, swatting at one of the hundreds of air fresheners swinging from the handle above the van’s door. The van had to be the site of many parties back in its heyday.

She packed quickly. She hadn’t brought much with her from her dorm. After saying her goodbyes, she rolled her suitcase out to the van. As she loaded it into the back, the first snowflake landed on her nose.

She scrunched her face up at the sky. Though she had her driver’s license, she hadn’t driven since before leaving for college. Jay had made sure that she passed her test, but she definitely hadn’t driven in the snow. She swallowed hard. Of course it had to snow on her first solo drive.

Taking a deep breath, she hopped up into the driver’s seat. She found the switches for the van’s defroster and four-way flashers. Hoping that the tires were as good as Tony told her while they filled out her paperwork, she eased forward.

The van glided over the slick pavement, but never faltered. She kept a tight grip on the steering wheel until she reached Jett and Koty’s condo, though, and her shoulders didn’t relax until she shut off the engine.

Her heartbeat thudded in time to the ticking. “Okay, girl,” she told herself. “It’s show time.”

Griff’s car was parked next to Jett and Koty’s. She wondered if the entire band was inside. She closed her eyes for a moment, then steeled herself.

Poppy opened the door and scooted out. Cold snow enveloped her toes, and she swore, cursing herself for forgetting her boots at home in her excitement. She slipped and slid all the way up the front walk. Before she could ring the doorbell, the door opened.

Jett’s eyes met hers, then slid past her to the van.

“What the hell is that?”


South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

CONTINUE READING

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What Happens On Tour: Chapter 3

Krista sucked in a deep breath. “Okay, can I scream now?”

“No.” Poppy glanced at the door to the room she used to share with Grandma Audrey. At any moment, her grandmother could walk in—and it wasn’t like she could demand privacy. She didn’t have the heart to, anyway. Since she had gone away to college, the room had metamorphosed into her grandmother’s personal heaven. Floral curtains covered the windows, replacing the electric blue ones that Poppy had hung. Her old bed still occupied one side of the room, but her grandmother had turned it into a sofa of sorts with plush, extra-large pillows. Poppy had to admit the room looked cute, in a country sort of way.

“When, then?” Krista giggled. “You’re going to go on tour with Griff.” She sighed, a long and dreamy sound.

“I can’t,” Poppy said. “That’s the problem.” If her grandmother knew, she would say that Poppy just didn’t want it badly enough. She licked her lips. “I’m going to lose this job,” she said in a low voice.

“No, you won’t. We’re going to figure something out.”

She could imagine Krista sitting in their room, legs crossed as she sat on her purple bedspread. “Are we? I don’t think it’s going to work.” Scowling, she jumped up from her grandmother’s bed and paced the room. “Unless I drop out. My family would never forgive me, though.” Jay would understand, but she would need her whole family’s support. She loved her brother, but he flew back and forth between New York and Los Angeles practically every week. His support was strong, but it wouldn’t be constant.

“Hmn.” Krista clicked her tongue ring against her teeth. “I don’t think that’s the best idea. I mean, you’re already almost done with your first semester. Why stop now?”

“I know.” Poppy moaned. “But what other choice do I have?” She bit down on her lip. “I’m just going to have to give up South of Forever.” The second the words were out of her mouth, she knew it was the right choice. Her mother and grandmother were right. Without an education, she wouldn’t get very far in the world. Even if South of Forever did really well, if something happened and she had to get a new job, her new employer would expect some kind of degree.

Krista gasped. “Don’t do that. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“I’m tired of playing the game, though, Krista.” Poppy sat down on her old bed and hugged a pillow to her chest, cradling the phone between her face and her shoulder.

“You’ve come so far, though. You turned that band around.”

“They’re talented. They have Jett and Griff. They’ll be fine.” She lifted her chin. She had to stand by her decision, even if it meant saying goodbye to Griff forever. Her heart twisted at the thought. She had known him for barely six months. It seemed crazy that saying goodbye should be so hard, but there it was. She would even miss Perry and Max, as crazy as they made her. She would miss the guys’ banter and Jett’s poise in the studio. She’d miss hanging out with Max’s girlfriend Savannah during practices. She couldn’t call them friends, not yet, but she was close. Give her another six months and they would all be tight. She sighed. Letting go felt like losing a second family.

“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?” Krista asked gently. “I know you’re really attached to this band.” She snapped her fingers, the sound traveling to Poppy through the phone. Krista must be wearing her earbuds, or had Poppy on speaker. “I have a crazy idea.”

Switching the phone to her other hand, Poppy drew her knees to her chest. “Yeah? I’m open to anything at this point.”

“What if,” Krista said, “you took school on the road with you? Admissions told me that you can switch back and forth between online and regular classes. They’re super flexible.”

“What?” Poppy squinted. “That is crazy. It’s kind of genius, though.”

“Right?” Krista laughed. “It’s not too late to add/drop. You could even make up a family emergency if you needed to. I’m sure they’ll be understanding, though. From what the admissions counselor told me, it’s pretty common.”

“Huh.” Poppy tapped her chin. “What would I do?”

“Just talk to your advisor. I bet she could do it really quickly.”

“I don’t know.” Poppy tossed her hair over a shoulder. “I’m already struggling.”

Krista snorted. “Oh, stop. Your GPA is like a 3.9, you perfectionist.”

Twisting her lips, Poppy nodded. “I did buy the iPad with my student loan money, and I’ve already been using it for school and work. It wouldn’t be much of a change from what I’m doing now.”

“You would just pop in whenever you need to, rather than showing up for a physical class. My brother did online classes for a while.”

“You have a brother? Is he cute?” Poppy smiled.

“Ew, keep your pants on. He’s an asshole, anyway,” Krista said. “We really shouldn’t waste time talking about him.”

Poppy considered her options. It was either drop out or go digital. She could handle it. She had to. Not only was her career at stake, but everything she had ever dreamed about was on the line. Once, not so long ago, she and Jay had planned on being a team, with Jay performing and Poppy managing him. When L.A.B. came into the picture, though, they made it very clear that they didn’t want someone still in high school managing their new star. It didn’t even matter to them that she was a senior, about to graduate. She ground her teeth just thinking about it.

“What do you think?” Krista asked. “Are you going to do it?”

“I don’t know. It’s a little crazy. Plus it’s a holiday weekend. No one will be in the offices until Monday, and Griff said that’s when we’re supposed to be leaving.” Poppy squinted, thinking. Remembering the way that Griff had looked at her while they talked, her cheeks warmed. Dipping her chin, she smiled. She couldn’t pass up a chance to find out what might happen between them. It was entirely possible that, during this tour, she would find more than one kind of success.

“I have another idea.” Krista paused. She blew out a breath into the phone. “It’s another crazy one, but you tell me. What if I go with you?”

Frowning, Poppy jumped off the bed. “What do you mean?”

“I can be your assistant!” Krista snapped her fingers again. “You know that music blog I’ve been working on, right?”

“Wait, wait.” Poppy paced the room. “You would do that for me?”

“Of course. You’re my favorite friend.”

“I’m getting the feeling I’m your only friend on campus,” Poppy said.

“Stop. You know I’m your only friend at school, too.” Krista laughed. “We’re freshy besties.”

Groaning, Poppy wished that she was in the same room so that she could throw a pillow at her. “You’re the worst.”

“Seriously, though,” Krista continued. “I can help you with all of your manager stuff and build up my music blog in the meantime. Do you have any idea how much it would help to document a new band on the road? It’ll be like reality TV. People love that shit.”

“That is a good idea.” Poppy tilted her head back. “Okay! Let’s do it.” She clapped a hand over her mouth. If she was any louder, her mother and grandmother would have a lot of questions for her. She glanced at the door, and lowered her voice. “This may be the craziest thing I’ve ever done.” It would surpass sneaking into bars at seventeen to watch her brother’s shows, or the time that she had skipped school to drive to New York with him to meet with L.A.B. She would have to be extremely careful. With Krista by her side, though, nothing could possibly go wrong. At least, she hoped not. “Do we have a deal?”

“Hell yeah.” Krista laughed. “Oh, this is going to be fun. The two of us, a bunch of hot guys, and the open road?”

Poppy giggled. “I think Perry is single.”

“Oh, hell no!” Krista sounded shocked. “From what you’ve told me about him, I’d be better off alone.”

“He seems pretty popular with the ladies. He must be doing something right.” Poppy glanced at the clock. She had been on the phone for over an hour. Jay was probably in the basement, working on his song and dying to know why Griff came to their house. “Okay, let me go,” she told Krista. “We’ll draw up a formal contract when I get back tomorrow.” She giggled, letting Krista know that she was kidding.

“You’re coming back tomorrow?”

“As long as Jay is willing to drive me back.” Poppy grimaced. She was going to owe her brother big time.

After they hung up, Poppy sat down again and pulled a throw pillow onto her lap. With Krista in her corner, she should be able to relax a little bit, but her nerves were as tightly wound as her natural hair. The tour was a huge deal for the band, and her career. If they pulled it off without a hitch, everything would change for the better. Should they fail, though, it could send them back several steps. With Max fresh out of rehab, he might have a hard time being away from his family—especially his daughter Chloe.

She took a deep breath. Things would work out. She would make sure of it.

They had to. There was no other choice.


South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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