A Small Town in Minnesota
Ben thanked the roadie—he’d forgotten the kid’s name already—and hauled his guitar out of the back seat. As the kid drove off, he stood still, savoring a rare moment alone.
He needed one to take in what had just happened.
The crickets created their own version of music, and beyond the meager hotel lights the night was typical small-town Minnesota dark.
He shivered; the sweat he’d worked up during the performance was a distant memory.
He’d already discovered the hotel elevator was slower than a snail, so he headed for the stairs. At least this hotel was clean—unlike the last one they’d been booked in—and he didn’t have to share a room with any of the band members.
Outside room 312, he paused. He was still buzzed from the performance—and even more so from his discussion with the talent scout. CeeCee was no doubt waiting for a full report. Was he ready to give it?
He slid his access card into the slot.
CeeCee Waters—K105 radio personality and his pseudo-girlfriend—was seated in a faux-leather chair, her feet propped on a desk, dangerously close to the ever-present can of Diet Coke. The TV was on, but she was focused on the computer in her lap.
She dropped her feet to the floor when she saw him. “Well?” She set the computer on the desk next to the Coke. “What did the scout say?"
He set his guitar case on the floor. He clasped his hands in an attempt to hold in the excitement coursing through him. Then he gave up and let the grin loose. “He wants to book me for a 6-week ’tester’ tour on the west coast."
CeeCee squealed and launched herself off the chair and into his arms. “The west coast!” She gave him a resounding smack on the lips. “How soon?”
“As soon as this tour ends,” he said.
Ben sat on the bed and bent to unlace his boots. “He said he could get me a deal with a label in Minneapolis in a heartbeat, but he thinks I should try this first. If I like the promoter and they like me, they have the connections to get me an offer from a bigger label.”
“I knew it!” CeeCee bounced on the balls of her feet. “I knew you were star material the first time I saw you play.”
You’re too screwed up to be a star.
Ben pushed the voice out of his head. Tonight was not the time to dwell on the things he’d done wrong.
CeeCee stopped bouncing and studied him. “What’s the catch?”
He rubbed the back of his neck; she knew him well, and she’d push until she had an answer. “I have to give up the guys.”
The idea of leaving everything and everyone behind was both exhilarating and anxiety-producing.
CeeCee gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, Ben. I know you’re tight with the band.”
This tour would also take him even farther away from his daughter. He wanted to be around when—he refused to think if—his soon-to-be ex-wife allowed him to see her. “And there’s Ruby."
CeeCee straddled him right where he sat on the edge of the hotel bed. “Look at it this way,” she said. “The lawyer wants to see that you have a job and can provide for Ruby. A deal with a label—any label—will get you that.”
He slid his hands into her back pockets. “You’re awfully convincing, you know that?”
“Um-hmm.” She kissed him. “I prefer persuasive.” She kissed him again, more passionately this time. “You’re going to kill that tour, Ben.”
His hands wrapped around her waist, his body reacting out of habit more than anything else as he kissed her back.
She rocked her hips forward and dropped her voice to a rasp. “How badly do you want it?”
It was a double-entendre, and he knew it. Her tongue snaked out to trace his lips, then dove into his mouth.
His fingers tightened on her hips. “Oh, I want it,” he said. Performing in front of a crowd always gave him a high he’d never found anywhere else. Not even from alcohol—or even sex.
The kiss turned more urgent as she worked her fingers under his shirt. She spoke between kisses as she yanked it over his head. “You’re going to be so… good… at... it.”
“I thought you didn’t want to screw me,” he murmured.
She smiled at her own words from months ago. “A girl can change her mind.”
CeeCee had changed her mind many times since they’d met at Aces Bar. Ben didn’t mind; their no-strings, friends-with-benefits arrangement worked fine for him. She wasn’t much for booze—she could nurse a single drink an entire night while she chatted up every person in the bar—and the sex helped keep his mind off the bottle.
There was only room for one girl in his heart, and that was Ruby.
He didn’t love CeeCee—not in that way—but he was glad she was here. So, even though he wasn’t really feeling it, he would give her what she wanted.
Six Months Later
Ben peeked out at the audience. Sold out. He couldn’t help smiling to himself; not bad for a guy from a Minnesota Iron Range town of 981.
All he’d wanted to do was make a living with his music. He’d never expected to become a famous rock star.
But apparently he was. According to his agent, Benjamin Lawson was the hottest up-and-coming musician in L.A. He’d gone from festivals, to small clubs, to opening for bigger names, to his own tour in less than a year.
Sometimes he couldn’t believe he was the Benjamin Lawson that appeared on the celebrity blogs and magazine covers.
“All ready!” One of the roadies held up his hand to indicate one minute, and a familiar rush of nerves swept through Ben. He glanced at his keyboardist, Chandler—the only original band member he’d managed to talk the label into keeping. Chandler gave him a curt nod, then disappeared onto the dark stage.
The drummer started the beat, and Chandler started the build-up on the keyboard. By the time Ben got on stage, they would have the fans screaming for him…
“That was crazy!” Chandler said as he and Ben threw themselves into the limo. The driver hit the accelerator even before the door closed. As the last two off the stage, Ben and Chandler had to run while security guards tried to hold the fans back. People were streaming out of the concert hall, some even slapping their hand on the limo as it picked up speed.
Across from Ben, his manager had his phone to his ear. “Set it up for day after tomorrow. The sooner we get someone for him, the better.” He snapped his phone closed.
“Ah, Loren, that’s sweet of you, but I can get my own someone,” Ben said, already thinking about all the sexy women at the after-party who could help him come down from his performance buzz. He would have his pick…
Chandler cackled, but Loren scowled at them. “I’m talking about a personal assistant, not a sex partner.” He pointed at Ben. “You’re doing too much screwing around. It’s gonna get you in trouble.”
“Ah, come on, Loren,” Chandler said. “He’s working his ass off. Let him enjoy the spoils.”
Loren’s scowl deepened. “Just stay away from the booze,” he said. “And use protection.”
Chandler howled with laughter, but Ben frowned. Why did Loren have to remind him about the alcohol? “You could just say ‘great job tonight’ and leave it at that.”
Loren sat back in his seat. He folded his arms across his chest. “Great job,” he deadpanned.
Ben’s phone chirped before he could think of a response. He glanced at the screen. “It’s CeeCee.”
“Put her on speaker,” Chandler said.
He did. “Hey, Babe.”
“Ben!” CeeCee’s radio voice filled the car. “Where are you?”
“Atlanta,” he said. “We’re in the limo. Just left the gig.”
“Headed for the after party, baby!” Chandler pumped his fist.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Shower first?”
Ben laughed. When he performed, he often came off the stage dripping sweat—and that was a serious turn-off when it came to sexual partners.
Of course, she knew that already.
She sighed. “I’m jealous. But happy for you, of course.”
“Couldn’t have done it without you.” Ben was thankful they’d been able to remain friends.
“Ah, flattery will get you everywhere,” she said. “Heck, you don’t even need flattery. Do you realize you’re being compared to Rick Springfield?”
He did know. “Crazy, huh?” he said. “Love that guy’s music.”
“You should do a cover of Jessie’s Girl,” she said. “When you’re in concert, you could replace the name Jessie with some random fan name. Make a contest out of it or something.”
“That’s actually a good idea,” Chandler said.
“The PR people would eat that up,” Ben said. “I’ll check into it.”
“I miss you.” He could almost see CeeCee pout over the phone.
“I miss you, too,” he said.
“Ha,” she said. “I doubt that. How many women have you shagged since you left Minnesota?”
“CeeCee, your language shocks me,” Ben said with mock outrage.
“Come on, with your good looks and the cache of being a rock star?” She said. “You’ve got them lined up, I’m sure.”
“Okay, I confess.” He couldn’t help grinning. “I’ve met some interesting women.”
“More than met!” Chandler chimed in.
“I heard that,” CeeCee said. “Ooh, you bad, bad boy!” There was a pause, and then she sighed. “I do miss the sex.”
CeeCee had never been shy about sex, and had always been complementary about his contributions in that regard, but this was a surprise. Surely she wasn’t re-thinking their friend status?
The last time they’d been together that way was in November, when she’d been his date for his brother Jamie’s wedding.
That was also the last time he’d seen his daughter.
It had been Ruby’s second birthday. Even the icy reception from his ex-wife couldn’t dull the joy of seeing Ruby.
As it often did when he thought of his daughter, his chest started to ache. Ignoring Chandler’s look, he took the phone off speaker. “Surely you’ve got your own pick of the litter there in Minneapolis.”
CeeCee had moved on, too; their partnership had helped her make the move to a radio station in a much bigger market.
She sighed. “It’s not the same.”
No, it wasn’t. As much as he enjoyed the sex he was having now, it had been more… comfortable… with CeeCee. Perhaps because he’d never felt like she was with him because of his name or status…
He turned his head toward the window. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Just getting used to a new place, you know?”
“Yeah.” Boy, did he did know.
“Anyway, my peeps just got here, so I gotta go,” she said. “We’re going to a late show at some place called the Underground in downtown Minneapolis.”
“Have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
She laughed, sounding like her old self again. “Ditto!”
Los Angeles, California
Danielle was running late. It didn’t help that Derek’s date had commandeered the bathroom for twenty minutes this morning. Shoot, she might as well be rooming with another woman instead of her twin brother!
That wasn’t really fair; Derek didn’t bring women home all that often…
She reached for her purse and dropped the keys. “Darn it!”
“Easy, sis,” Derek said. “You can’t drive if you lose your keys.”
She bent to pick up the keys. “I’m late thanks to… what’s her name again?”
“Helene.” Derek slid onto one of the bar stools that lined their kitchen island. He was dark-complected like she was, but he’d inherited the wild Italian hair of their father, while she had the kinky hair of their African-American mother.
“Will you see her again?” she said.
“I doubt it.” Derek yawned; no doubt Helene had kept him up half the night. “Another job interview?”
“Sort of,” she said. “One of Uncle Antonio’s friends works for Majestic Studios.”
“Oh yeah?” Derek said. “That sounds promising.”
She shook her head. “Not in video production.”
Derek’s face fell; he knew how much she wanted a job in her chosen field.
“It’s for a personal assistant,” she said.
His brow wrinkled, and she answered his question before he asked it. “It’s a lot of money.”
“For a personal assistant?” he said, looking doubtful.
“There’s travel.” She shrugged. “I figured it was worth checking into at this point.”
“How long has it been?” Derek said.
She sighed. “Seven weeks.”
With the recent upheavals in the entertainment industry, there were too many other recently “released” professionals competing for a smaller pool of jobs.
“We need the money,” she said, knowing she was pointing out the obvious. “We can’t get behind on payments.”
He frowned. “Maybe I should see if I can pick up another job.”
“No!” she said. “That would be too much with your water polo.”
In addition to being a software whiz and consultant to the biotech industry, Derek had recently joined a semi-professional team that entered tournaments all over the US. He’d been happier than she’d ever seen him.
Now, however, his look was serious. “Maybe I shouldn’t do the Trials.”
“You have to do the Trials!” she said.
Derek looked down, and she knew what he was thinking thanks to that spooky twin thing. She grabbed his elbows, turning him toward her. “Remember when you took that nine-month job in South Dakota?” she said.
“Of course,” he said.
“You hated it,” she said. “But you stuck it out anyway. You did it so I could finish school.”
He sighed. “Yeah.”
“We always get by,” she said. “We will again. You can’t give up the Trials. The team needs you.”
And he needed his teammates. Friends who were as driven as he was. People who didn’t know their family history, and probably wouldn’t care if they did. “Besides, maybe I’ll actually like this job.”
He shook his head, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Go get ‘em.”
“I don’t want to be a babysitter for some spoiled rock star!” After all that tough talk with Derek, Danielle couldn’t exactly go home to him and complain about the job she’d just been offered.
That’s why she’d gone straight from the interview to her aunt and uncle’s home in Torrance.
“Assistant.” Her uncle’s frown was so deep, his eyebrows nearly met in the middle of his forehead.
Danielle scowled. “But—”
He held up a hand. “He’s a recovering alcoholic, Dani,” he said. “All you have to do is keep him company, keep his mind off the booze—“
“What makes you think he’d even want my company?” she said.
Antonio gave a long-suffering sigh. “God only knows.”
“You drive him where he needs to go, you assist him with whatever he asks…”
“Yeah, like going shopping for a thousand-dollar gift for his latest bimbo actress girlfriend?” she said sarcastically.
“Danielle…” he warned.
“I suppose I have to cook and clean for him too?” she said.
Antonio threw his hands up. “If that’s the job then you do it—and you do it to the best of your ability!”
That was something she’d heard a thousand times, having mostly grown up in her aunt and uncle’s home.
“Besides,” he said pointedly, “I think you need it.”
Danielle sighed. Her uncle was right; as much as she despised feeling like a servant to the stars, she had to make this work. At least for now.
“Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll go meet this seventh wonder.”
Los Angeles, California
The thud-thud-thud of someone knocking on his door worked its way into Ben’s consciousness. He groaned as he rolled over and peered at the clock; it was past noon, and he was alone in the extended-stay hotel Majestic Studios had set him up in when he first arrived in L.A.
Am I expecting anyone?
The days tended to blur together when he was in L.A., and he couldn’t remember what day it was. All he knew was that he’d been out late.
The knocking became more insistent, and his manager’s disembodied voice came through. “Open up, Ben!”
If Loren was here, Ben must have something he was supposed to be doing today.
“All right, all right, I’m coming,” he called. He fished around on the floor for his gym pants. “Keep your pants on,” he mumbled.
He’d barely pulled his pants up when the door opened.
So much for privacy.
Loren squinted into the dim interior of the hotel room. “Good Lord, boy, this ain’t no bat cave.” He strode toward the window.
A woman followed Loren into the room. Not Marla, his PR person.
This woman was far more attractive. Smooth mocha skin and long dark, kinky hair pulled back from her face with small butterfly barrettes. She wore a short skirt with leggings that emphasized acres of leg. Maybe a model?
Ben blinked in the sudden light streaming through the window. “Do we have an appointment?” he said. “Because in case you missed it, I had a late night.”
“My point exactly,” Loren said.
Ben shook his head. “What point?”
“You, my boy, can’t seem to keep track of where you need to be, and when. It’s about time you had some help with that. So… this is your new personal assistant.”
Loren turned to the exotic-looking woman. “Danielle de Luca, meet Benjamin Lawson.”
“How do you do?” She extended her hand.
“Uh, good.” He took her hand in his; it was as smooth as the rest of her looked. “Great.” He shot a look at Loren. “My what?”
“We talked about this,” Loren said.
“Right,” Ben said. “By ‘talk about it,’ you mean the 10-second mention in the car the other night?”
His sarcasm seemed lost on Loren, although Ben caught a faint smile on Danielle’s face.
“Danielle will keep your schedule, make all your appointments—” Loren stepped over a pile of clothing. “Drive you when Carlos is off duty, keep you fed—”
Danielle opened her mouth—to protest?—but Loren held up a hand. “In short, she’s to stick to you like glue.”
Ben glanced at Danielle; she didn’t look happy about the arrangement. Well, that made two of them.
“And we’re moving you,” Loren continued.
“We can’t have our rising star living in a hotel room,” Loren said. “I’ve rented you a condo. Danielle will take you. I’ve already had all your gear moved there.”
Ben glanced at Danielle. A condo?
Loren turned to Danielle. “You’ll let me know if everything is satisfactory with the condo?”
“Of course,” she said.
Loren glanced at his watch. “I’ll see you both at dinner tonight.”
Dinner? Was that on the schedule before, or was it added for Danielle’s benefit?
Loren left Ben and Danielle staring at each other. After several moments, she spoke. “You should get dressed.”
He glanced down to find he was still shirtless. He smirked. “Might as well get used to it, Babe, if we’re going to be ‘stuck like glue’.”
She frowned, seeming the least bit affected by the naked torso that so many women screamed over each night. “The name is Danielle,” she said. “Or Dani.” Her eyes scanned the room. “We need to get this all packed up.”
He gestured with his hands. “Be my guest.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “Let’s get one thing clear,” she said. “I’m here to help you with everything Loren mentioned, but I am not a babysitter.”
“Humph,” he said.
That was exactly what she was, and they both knew it.