Chapter 1: Prologue
It was a Saturday night tradition. Each week Jerrica, the Holograms, and the Starlight girls gathered in the TV room at Starlight Mansion to catch Lindsey Pierce's show before sitting down for dinner as a family.
Ashley vaulted the sofa, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the set as Jerrica used the remote to flip to the right channel. Jerrica had been waiting all day for the broadcast. She and Kimber had filled the rest of the Holograms in on Kimber's plan and while Aja had expressed misgivings, Raya and Shana had been proud of Kimber for standing up for her friend.
Jerrica leaned forward slightly, to hear Lindsey over the excited chatter of the girls.
"The Stingers concert at the Forum last night was white-hot," Lindsey was saying with a smile for the camera, "and not just the performances onstage. In a surprise announcement by Riot, the lead singer of the Stingers and co-chairman of Stinger Sound, it was revealed that the hits climbing the charts by Scandinavian import band Ephemeral were penned by none-other than Mary Phillips, better known as Misfit keyboardist Stormer."
"Hey, look! It's Stormer!" Ashley said as the Misfit bowed before the crowd while Lindsey's voiceover continued. Jerrica started, and then remembered that alone among the Misfits, Stormer had tried to protect Ashley when the girl had run away from home years prior. When Kimber had first begun performing with Stormer, it was Ashley who had come to the youngest Misfit's defence to Jerrica, insisting that she wasn't all that bad. However, when Jerrica had pressed for her details, the girl had mysterious clamed up. Aja had always professed it had something to do with what happened in Las Vegas, but that was sheer conjecture more than anything else.
"No stranger to making headlines, Phillips last year surprised the music industry by teaming up with Kimber Benton of Jem and the Holograms for the double-platinum solo album 'Back to Back.' While Phillips has always written music for her band, the Misfits, her involvement with Ephemeral was kept hush-hush by manager Eric Raymond."
The footage cut to Eric, whose smile for the camera was like a wolf bearing its teeth. The girls immediately groaned, and Raya threw a throw pillow at the set.
"Hey, careful!" Jerrica said with a laugh. Terri scooted forward to grab the pillow from where it had fallen, and handed it back to her with a gap-toothed grin.
"We were testing the market," Eric said smoothly. "The two bands styles and public personas are so different, it was felt by management at Stinger Sound that the public should come to know this hot, new act without any... undue influence the Misfits name might attach to the project."
"Listen to him—spinning the truth so it sounds like this was his plan all along!" Kimber seethed from her place beside Jerrica on the sofa.
"Well, what do you expect?" Raya shrugged. "This is Eric Raymond we're talking about."
"Yeah—at least we managed to beat him at his own game, Sis." Jerrica reached over and gave Kimber a one-armed hug.
"Phillips also wrote both music and lyrics for 'Take', which the Stingers performed live in concert and, according to Riot, will record as their next single."
When Riot came onscreen, Jerrica turned the TV volume up a notch with the remote. Kimber elbowed her teasingly, and Jerrica elbowed her right back.
"To have such talent all under one roof at Stinger Sound, it would be foolish not to recognise and nurture it. Miss Phillips is a remarkable songwriter. And it has been a genuinely pleasurable working experience. One I hope continues in the foreseeable future."
"Stick with Lin-Z TV for more on this breaking story as it unfolds!"
"Good for Stormer!" Ashley said as Jerrica turned off the set with a click of the remote. "Who knew Riot would turn out to be such a good guy?"
"Yeah—for someone who used to be a real creep, he's been a regular pussy cat lately," Raya observed.
"I doubt that cat's been de-clawed," Aja said with a laugh. "Something's gotta be in it for him."
"Aja!" Jerrica's eyebrows rose at her best friend's suspicious nature.
"What?" Aja shrugged, unapologetic. "I'm just saying, the guy isn't exactly known for selfless gestures."
"He helped find Ba Nee's father."
"Only 'cause Jem asked him oh so nicely," Aja reminded her. "I just don't trust the guy."
"I'm with Aja on this one," Shana said, shaking her head. "After the way he treated poor Regine, I hope that girl is prepared for a world of hurt."
"Time for dinner, girls," Mrs Bailey called from the dining room. Ashley, Deirdre and Nancy raced from the TV room, lured away from the latest music news by the promise of Mrs Bailey's chicken and dumplings.
When Kimber had first come to her with the plan to force Riot to listen to the song Stormer had written for the Stingers, Jerrica's first instinct had been to flat out refuse. She'd allowed her sister to cajole her into tailing Riot all over town, using the Jemstar earrings for Synergy to transmit her signal. But as happy as she was that everything had turned out alright in the end, manipulating Riot still bothered her. Even though he had proven himself more than capable of cold, calculated manipulation in the past.
Her sister and friends teased her about the soft spot she had for Riot. Especially after she'd disappeared from the launch party the Stingers had thrown for their first album, staying out all night with him in his penthouse apartment. Aja had flatly refused to believe he hadn't tried to put the make on her, but Jerrica had seen a different side to him that night. All of his mocking arrogance was gone, leaving him strangely vulnerable. Her heart had gone out to him, and nothing had made her happier than when he'd reconciled with his father. Having lost her own parents, Jerrica was glad he'd been able to mend fences with his estranged father. Gladder still that his mother's illness hadn't robbed both of them of the most important person in their lives.
She always thought back on that night, sitting before the roaring fire until the sun came up as Riot had told her his entire life's story, as the first time she'd met the real Rory Llewelyn. Met the man beneath the haughty rock star persona he affected. She always wondered if, when she had tried to kiss him, he hadn't turned away things might have turned out differently. Where they might be now.
Jerrica flushed guilty. She should be thinking of Rio, not entertaining fantasies about what it would be like to be with Riot. After all, Rio was the man she loved—had loved since she was a teenager. And despite how rocky their relationship had become since she'd assumed the Jem identity, she still cared deeply for him and couldn't imagine her life without him.
"Jerrica? You coming?" Shana asked when Jerrica remained on the couch, lost in thought.
"Kimber had better save me some dumplings," she said with a smile as she left to join her family at the dinner table.
Stormer purposely timed it so that she arrived at the Gabor mansion after the Lindsey Pierce show had ended. She figured that if she was going to do this, she might as well do it with flair.
Stormer still remembered what it had been like to first walk through the front door, gaping at the crystal chandeliers and marble floors. Despite the fact that Eric had set Roxy and Stormer both up with apartments near the studio, when he'd first signed them, it had been six months before Pizzazz had actually brought them home to the mansion she'd grown up in.
Pizzazz lived, it had seemed to her and Roxy then, in a palace like some kind of fairytale princess. She still couldn't shake the feeling that she simply did not belong in Pizzazz's world, even though she'd spent more than her fair share of nights in one of the mansion's well-appointed guestrooms over the last four years. Roxy had even moved in, briefly, back in that first year when Eric's money had run out and the lease had been up on her apartment. Now, despite the fact that each of them had their own places—Jetta having only moved in a few months earlier—they still spent most of their time with Pizzazz. If, for no other reason, than the maid service meant they didn't have to actually clean up after themselves. All four of them in one place could get a bit too much to take, and Stormer wondered how Harvey Gabor managed to keep maids, considering how much of a handful his daughter could be even without encouragement from the rest of them.
It was one of the latest crop of maids—a tiny little blonde thing Stormer thought might be named Carole—who showed Stormer to the den where the other Misfits were still gathered before the TV set, the remains of dinner sitting on silver trays on the coffee table. Roxy and Jetta traded glances as she came through the door, but Stormer noted they stayed where they were, anxiously waiting to see what Pizzazz's reaction would be before they made a move. She understood, having been in much the same position herself many a time. But it didn't make her feel any better.
For her part, Pizzazz lounged on the couch, feet up on the arm, one high-heeled shoe dangling precariously.
"We heard about your little coup." Pizzazz tilted her head towards the TV, where the Misfits latest video was playing with the sound turned down low. "Decided to come back, have you?" Pizzazz asked, arms crossed and green eyes narrowed dangerously.
"I only left because of Eric." Stormer squared her shoulders. "You know that. What he did was wrong."
"Why didn't you talk to us about it, 'stead of going off in a huff anyway?" Roxy spoke up, and Jetta elbowed her in the side with a warning glance. But Roxy only glared at her, and moved out of range.
"I talked to Pizzazz." Stormer fixed the band's leader with a glare. "She didn't seem to think it was a big deal—but it was. It was to me. And that should have counted for something. If it would have been any one of you, I would have stood up for you."
The assembled Misfits turned as one to their leader, who was attempting to stare Stormer down with little success. There was a tense moment where Stormer was convinced Pizzazz was going to get up and bodily throw her out of the mansion. But it passed, and Pizzazz sighed and rolled her eyes.
"It's a big deal. Fine. I didn't know you were so sensitive about it," Pizzazz muttered.
"I need to know that if I come back—then we're a band for real." Stormer loomed over Pizzazz, punctuating her statement by pointing her finger straight at Pizzazz. "That we all are here for each other, no matter what."
"One big happy family?" Pizzazz made a gagging gesture. "I may hurl."
"Oh, shut it, Pizzazz," Jetta said, to Stormer's surprise, she and Roxy got up to stand on either side of Stormer.
"Hey!" Pizzazz looked from mutinous Misfit to mutinous Misfit, shocked.
"We need Stormer," Roxy said, her brown eyes trained on Pizzazz, "and I for one want her back."
"You know I'm in, luv," Jetta said, and Stormer gave her a grateful smile. "It's not the same without you."
"What about you, Pizzazz?" Stormer asked, her voice softening a bit, as she waited to see what her answer would be. "Do you... do you want me to come back? Because say the word..."
Pizzazz stood, facing Stormer with a dramatic sigh. "Oh, alright. I want you back, too. Are you happy now?"
"You bet I am," Stormer said, grinning. She gave her a one-armed hug while Roxy cheered and thumped her hard on the back.
"Alright! The Misfits are back!" Jetta crowed, throwing her arms around both Stormer and Pizzazz.
Minx turned off Riot's wide-screen television set, and leaned back against the couch, eyeing Riot with amusement.
"So that's your latest game?" she asked, flipping her long straight pale hair back over her shoulder with one well-manicured hand. "Seducing the littlest Misfit?"
"Our arrangement is strictly a business one," Riot said smoothly.
"I can see why—where's the fun in such easy game?"
Rapture frowned from where she sat in a black leather chair, a book on Astral Projection open in her lap. "I always thought she was a little wet, actually."
"Provincial," Minx added.
"Doesn't seem like much of a challenge," Rapture finished with a shrug.
Riot wanted to tell them exactly how much of a challenge Stormer had been, and continued to be, but chose not to rise to the bait. A fact which unfortunately did not escape Rapture's attention, as she continued.
"Of course, if you had tried and been rejected..." Rapture's tone was light as she met his eyes over the pages of her book, but there was a challenge in her eyes.
"I assure you, if I wanted her, I could have her," Riot said, expecting that to put an end to that. But Rapture seemed anything but cowed, dark amusement continuing to dance in her eyes at his denial.
"Of course you could," Rapture cooed, reaching over to pat his hand in a placating gesture.
"After all, you're Riot." Minx backed up her bandmate's confidence without the guile or mockery, as if that was all the explanation anyone could ever need. "What woman can resist you?"
He gazed at the women who had been his family when his own at forsaken him with mixed feelings. Minx and Rapture had stood by him as they had played for pennies in the street, huddled together for warmth in the back of a tour van when the hostels were full and their busking hadn't got them enough for food and lodgings both. They had been loyal, steadfast companions, worked with him on every song, planned every concert, every tour as they'd clawed their way to the top of the charts in two hemispheres.
Yet right now, he wished he hadn't invited them over to catch the show. As if for once it wasn't the company of his peers he craved.
Their discussion turned to pouring over the previous night's performance, picking apart missed cues, quick recriminations followed with praise for a perfect solo or lyric. They'd been tight—he knew that. Their songs flowing with a kind of energy that had drawn the crowd in, entranced them. That was what he was known for, from the Mediterranean to the West Coast. Riot charmed the crowd. Riot held them all spellbound.
Except Stormer. She'd run away, after he'd kissed her, the timid little girl once again. There had been little or no trace of the hellcat who had, true to her stage name, stormed into Eric Raymond's office and taken him on, on his own territory. Angrily confronted Riot not once but twice—first throwing him out of her home, and then backstage, just before...
What on earth had possessed him to kiss her?
As Minx went on about the inferior quality of their sound technicians, and the levels in the speakers, and Rapture complained about the quality of the catering in the dressing room, Riot wondered at his uncharacteristic behaviour.
He'd enjoyed kissing her.
There had just been something captivating about her vulnerability, caught between despair and fury. Something he'd found unable to resist. She hadn't had time to reciprocate, or even react to the kiss. He remembered vividly the naked shock on her face when he's released her, before diving into the adulation of the crowd.
When he found her asleep in his dressing room, that vulnerability called to him again. Yet he'd let her slip away without complaint. He'd felt a certain charge, watching her come alive before the crowd backstage. Her smile had been so open, her joy at such a simple thing as recognition of her talent by nameless, faceless, insignificant strangers infectious.
He'd stayed, signing autographs, far longer than he usually did after a show. Stayed even after Minx and Rapture had finally made their escape to the dressing room to remove their stage make-up. Stayed until the last fan had been ushered away by the guards, the last groupie hoping to steal for a night the glamour of hanging on a rock star's arm had been hustled off behind the barricades, and he'd walked Stormer to the hired car Adele had called to take her home.
"I know you told me not to thank you," she'd said, eyes downcast as he'd opened the door for her. "But..."
She'd leaned toward him, and he'd felt a momentary thrill of triumph. Then, to his surprise, she'd merely placed a demure kiss on his cheek before she slipped inside the car. As he'd watched the taillights be swallowed by the warm, dry Los Angeles night, that chaste gesture piqued his interest more than her falling into his waiting arms ever could have.
He'd chided her for being soft, yet he had to admit, that softness was somewhat alluring. He'd goaded her, pushed her, manipulated her to see what it would take for the fire inside her to flare hot enough to scorch those around her. But it had never occurred to him that he might get burned by it, once the tinder was lit.
It had never even crossed his mind that he might crave the warmth and light.
What was it about Mary Phillips that made him wish she hadn't turned away from him on that couch? What was it about her, that he had let her go without a fight?
He frowned, tuning out Minx and Rapture completely as he gazed out the penthouse windows at the city lights, like sparkling jewels against black velvet.
He was Riot. If he wanted her, he could have her.
The question was, did he want her?
Chapter 2: Part I
Between the growl of the vacuum motor and the stereo blasting the latest Misfits album, Stormer almost didn't hear the doorbell. Shutting off the vacuum, she peered through the curtains and almost died of shock when she saw who was waiting on her front porch.
"I was in the neighbourhood," Riot said with a seductive smile as she opened the door.
It had been weeks since she'd last seen him. She had told no-one of his stolen kiss in the shadows of the stage. She'd almost convinced herself she'd imagined it, and she'd been steadfastly avoiding him since, arriving early for band practice sessions, and slipping out in the evenings while he was still in his office working, lest there be any awkward lobby encounters.
A little voice in her head told her she was making a mountain out of a molehill. He'd only been trying to goad her—the kiss hadn't meant anything, just another game. But, lying awake at night, listening to the cicadas and the traffic through her open windows, she couldn't help but wonder what someone like Riot could possibly see in her, of all people. What had possessed him to actually help her, with no promise of reward. It wasn't like him. And that made her nervous. Nobody expected something for nothing. Eventually, there was always a price to be paid.
He raised a brow as she stood there, staring, and she found her footing quickly, determined not to let him put her off-balance.
"Yeah, right." Stormer stepped aside so he could come inside. "Pull the other one—it's got bells on."
He looked almost normal in a white dress shirt and black jeans, his only concession to fashion a pair of what she suspected were ridiculously expensive snakeskin boots.
She was suddenly acutely aware that she was wearing a pair of cut-offs and a ratty old Misfits tee-shirt, her hair held back from her face by a bandanna as she cleaned. Not exactly the picture of a chic rock star. But Riot didn't seem to notice as he perched on one of the chairs in the living room, picking up her acoustic guitar and thrumming it absently.
"Actually, my parents live near here. My father was stationed at Fort MacArthur, before he retired."
"I didn't know your folks lived in LA." She knew so little about him, but she found it hard to believe that he'd ever have come from humble suburban roots.
His idle strumming settled into the opening strains of Stairway to Heaven, one of the first songs she'd learned how to play on the guitar.
"They haven't always—we moved around a lot when I was a kid."
"So, what brings you to the 'burbs?" she asked, wheeling the vacuum to the corner of the living room, and powering down the stereo.
"You," he said, setting the guitar aside. "I came to ask you for a favour."
He actually seemed almost sheepish. She was immediately suspicious. "What kind of favour?"
"It's a surprise."
Sure now that this was simply another game, she decided to play along. Whatever he had planned, it was probably better than spending an entire Sunday afternoon with boring housework, in any case. "What if I don't like surprises?"
"You'll like this one. I promise. But—" His gazed travelled from the bandanna to her bare feet. "—you might want to change."
Now it was her turn to raise a brow. If he was going to play with her, she wasn't going to make it easy for him. "What's wrong with what I've got on?"
"Nothing—if I were proposing to take you to dig for clams, or perhaps wash your car. Perhaps something more suited to mixed company?"
"My ball gown and opera gloves are at the cleaners," she pointed out.
"Then I'd feel under-dressed."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. Wait here."
Taking her cues from Riot's dressed-down wardrobe, Stormer chose a red and black striped shirt and short denim skirt. Loosely braiding her hair to keep it away from her face and off her neck, she tied a red scarf around her neck. Very Rizzo, she decided as she stole one last glimpse in her bedroom mirror. All she needed now was a Pink Ladies jacket.
When she emerged from the bedroom, she found Riot studying the potted orchid on her side table.
"It's beautiful," he said, reaching out to gently stroke one of delicate white petals.
"It was a gift. My... my friend, Angus."
Riot's dark eyes sparkled. "What kind of friend?"
"A boy kind of friend," she said coyly.
"I see. What sort of boy?"
"A little on the shaggy side," she admitted. "He doesn't wear shoes if he doesn't have to." It was one of the things that had charmed her about Angus. He existed in a universe completely devoid of hair gel, manicures, and three hundred dollar shoes. His idea of extravagance was buying a vintage coat at a consignment shop.
"We met while I was stranded on a deserted island in the Caribbean," she explained at Riot's raised brow.
"Amazing how often that sort of thing happens." He chuckled. "And where is this Angus now?"
"India, I think. Or possibly South America." She tried to think back to the last letter he'd sent her, and couldn't remember. Upon their return to "civilisation" Angus had spent a few weeks in Los Angeles, unwilling to be parted from his "princess." But although she'd enjoyed his company, her work meant she hadn't been able to spend as much time with him as she would have liked. Like most love affairs she'd had in her life, it had been brief, albeit pleasant while it lasted. They parted friends, no hard feelings, and she'd wondered at the time if she simply wasn't a "happily ever after" sort of girl.
"He moves around a lot," she continued self-consciously. "'Itchy feet,' he always says. He sent me the orchid for my birthday. I'm surprised I haven't manage to kill it yet."
"Beautiful things are so often fragile," Riot said, his eyes resting on her rather than the orchid's waxy petals.
She fidgeted beneath his scrutiny. "I guess I'm usually more of a geranium type."
"Nothing so mundane. The orchid suits you."
She fought the blush, and lost. Suddenly, changing the subject seemed the wisest course. "So where are you taking me?"
"If I told you, then it wouldn't be a surprise, now would it?"
She rolled her eyes, grabbing her purse from the floor next to the couch. "You're impossible."
He held her door open for her like a gentleman, as they stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine. "No. Merely improbable."
"So, where are we going?" Stormer repeated for the fourth time since Riot's Porsche had pulled out onto the 405. Traffic, for a change, was light. However, rather than going into the city as she had expected, they appeared to be headed South towards Redondo.
"C'mon, you gotta at least give me a hint," she pleaded, and he laughed.
"Did you peek at your Christmas presents, too?"
"Always," Stormer said with a shrug. "My brother kept them in the top of his closet."
"Wretched child," Riot chided as he switched lanes.
"You're getting off in Inglewood? What's in Inglewood? Why are you taking me to Inglewood?"
As she peppered him with questions, he finally relented. As they drove past the Forum where young people were already lined up along the sidewalk for whatever act was performing there that night, he finally gave her some clue as to what to expect.
"It's my mother's birthday, and my parents are having a party. More of a backyard barbecue, really."
"Wait—you're bringing me home to meet your parents? Are you insane?" Stormer felt panic well up in her chest.
"Please. I'm rich. I prefer 'eccentric'."
"When you said favour, I was thinking maybe something musically related. Something I might actually be qualified to do." Stormer had her purse in a death grip, and was suddenly wishing she hadn't done her usual Misfits make-up consisting of three red slashes on her right cheeks, and a lightning bolt across her left. While perfectly suited to downtown Los Angeles where outrageous looks were the norm, she now felt completely out of place as Riot pulled onto a quiet residential street.
"I'm not good with parents," she continued, knuckles white. "My own. Other people's. It doesn't really matter. I'm not the girl anyone brings home to meet their mother."
"Nonsense." He took his hand off the gear shift and patted her knee encouragingly. "They'll love you. Well, Mom will, anyway," he qualified, and that did nothing whatsoever to mollify her. "My father is..." he frowned, "...something of a work in progress. That's why I came to you, my dear. I just need someone here to act as... sort of a buffer, between me and my dad," Riot said, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he navigated the tree-lined streets.
Stormer tried to hide her surprise at his admission. She was used to his arrogance which too often slipped into contempt for anyone he saw as inferior to his talent. But she wasn't prepared for this—for him talking to her openly about his personal life. They barely knew one another, hadn't exchanged more than two words until he'd shown up on her doorstep at crack of dawn that Saturday, bearing an envelope with her address and the name "Phillip Ericson." One kiss aside, she was still surprised he was being so open with her.
"Why me?" Stormer asked, suspicious. "Why not Miss Pink Hair Peacemaker? Or did you ask her first and she turned you down?"
Rather than get bent out of shape at the slight, Riot only laughed, as if her slings and arrows tickled rather than drew any blood at all. It was, she noted with some annoyance, a pattern with him. "Has anyone ever told you, you have a real nasty streak when you're backed into a corner?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. I am a Misfit. And you still haven't answered my question."
They pulled up in front of a modest two-story house with a lush lawn and blue shutters, and Riot killed the engine.
"Would you believe me if I told you that you were the first person that I thought of?"
She snorted. "No."
"Are you coming?" he asked he got out, and she continued to sit in the passenger seat, arms crossed, staring at the house like she was in The Amityville Horror and setting foot inside would seal her doom.
"I should have just sued Eric," Stormer muttered as she tugged her skirt down self-consciously. "Living at the Y wouldn't have been so bad. Not once you get past the whole group showers thing."
Riot grinned as he offered her his arm. "Come on—we don't want to miss cake and ice-cream."
Riot walked around to the back of the house, where an older man with thick brown hair was putting steaks onto a smoking gas grill next to an in-ground pool. A small glass table shaded by a green umbrella was set with places for three, and festive torches had been lit around the patio, both to keep away insects and light the party once the sun went down. Stormer could see the resemblance between father and song strongly—from the set of the jaw to the dimples. It was like getting a sneak peek of what Riot would look like in 30 years. The kitchen door opened and a pretty woman in her fifties ran out to greet them.
"Rory!" she cried as she threw her arms around Riot. Stormer started. She was so used to thinking of Riot by his stage name, she wasn't used to hearing people call him by his actual name.
"Happy birthday, Mom," he said into her hair, smiling broadly.
"Good of you to make it, son. Your mother and I were worried. It's getting late."
"I had a stop I needed to make first," Riot ushered Stormer forward with a hand at the small of her back. "Mom, Dad, I'd like you to meet Mary Phillips."
"Is this another one of your rock musician friends?" Riot's father asked, his smile slightly stiff. Stormer knew that tone. She'd grown up with it, as parents and teachers and guidance counsellors all sighed and asked her what skills she had that she could fall back on, once she'd given up the silly dream of a music career.
"As a matter of fact, yes," Riot said smoothly, draping an arm around Stormer's waist as if he could sense she was ready to bolt. "Mary just wrote a song for my band. She's very talented."
Riot's mother clasped Stormer's hand warmly. "Hello, dear. So nice to meet you." Her blue eyes were kind, and contained none of the disapproval she'd been expecting.
"Um, likewise, Mrs Llewelyn. And happy birthday."
"Mom, I brought you a gift." He pulled a gold envelope adorned with a silver ribbon from his pocket.
"Just having you here is gift enough," she said, holding his face in her hands and kissing his forehead.
"Still..." He handed her the envelope, the shiny gold wrapping paper catching the light. "It's a week-end at the best spa in Southern California. Three days of being pampered and waited on. You deserve it."
"Oh, Rory, you don't have to spend your money on me."
"Of course I do. What's money good for, if I can't spoil my best girl?"
He pressed a kiss to her cheek, and she smiled. Stormer was touched by the obviously warm relationship Riot had with his mother.
"And Dad?" Riot turned to his father, obviously making an effort to include him. "Don't worry—they have a world-class golf course, and I've already reserved you a tee-time."
"That's... that's very thoughtful, son." Mr Llewelyn's expression softened somewhat.
"I was just going to make the salad." Mrs Llewelyn glanced back towards the kitchen.
"Why don't I help you?" Stormer asked.
"Nonsense, you're our guest—" she began, flustered.
"I don't mind," Stormer assured her, glad of having something useful to do, so she wouldn't feel quite so much like an intruder on a family affair.
"And besides, it'll give Riot a chance to talk to his father," Stormer said sweetly, and Riot's arm around her waist tightened.
"I'll exact my revenge for this, you realise," Riot said, his mouth close to her ear and voice barely above a whisper.
"You can try..." she whispered back as she patted his shoulder and stepped out of the circle of his arm to follow his mother inside the house.
"It's nice to have company in the kitchen," Mrs Llewelyn said, smiling warmly at Stormer as she handed her a good cutting knife, and then began shredding the lettuce into a colander in the sink.
"You have a real nice house, Mrs Llewelyn."
The kitchen was spacious, with wood cabinets lining the walls, and blue chequered curtains fluttering in the windows. Vegetables were spread out over the kitchen island next to a cutting board, and a pitcher of lemonade practically glowed in a patch of late-afternoon sunlight on the counter.
"Please, dear. Call me Mildred."
Riot's mother lifted the colander of washed lettuce from the sink, and Stormer brought the foam carton of tomatoes over to rinse them. She could see Riot and his father standing together in front of the grill, talking quietly while the steaks cooked. For all Riot's protestations that he didn't get along with his father, he seemed to be doing a decent job at it thus far.
When Riot glanced up and looked over at the kitchen window, Stormer quickly moved over to the kitchen island, out of view.
Once the women had abandoned them, silence had descended on the garden broken only by the crackling and hissing as fat from the steaks his father had laid on the grill dripped down onto the hot coals. But unlike the past, the silence between Riot and his father today, while still awkward, was free of the tension that had marred the last five years.
"So, what happened to the one with the pink hair?" his father asked, poking one of the steaks with a long fork.
"She's still around," Riot answered cagily.
"Were you two—"
"No," Riot said quickly. "No, we're just... friends. She's seeing someone."
Riot watched over his father's shoulder as his mother and Stormer talked at the kitchen sink. He had known instinctively that his mother would like Stormer. They were, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Stormer could be a brat when she chose to be, but she rarely seemed to choose it when she wasn't surrounded by the other Misfits.
For the first time, he wondered what might have happened had their first meeting at the Gabor Estate gone differently. If he had not met Jem and become instantly drawn to her. He quickly dismissed the thought, realising chagrined that Stormer was simply not the kind of woman he usually spared a second glance.
He was glad, now, that he'd taken a second look. As she smiled warmly at his mother, their heads bent over their task, he was glad he'd brought her along today. It was good, to see his mother so happy, her illness and the bad blood between him and his father becoming a thing of the past.
Stormer looked up, and their eyes met through the glass. When she caught him staring, she disappeared from view, and he turned back to the grill.
"Has this one always had blue hair?"
"I couldn't say—we haven't known each other very long."
"Why do all those rock musicians colour their hair?"
"Um, dad? I think the steaks are burning..." Riot said, changing the subject, mentally cursing Stormer for abandoning him.
"How long have you known Rory?" Mildred asked conversationally, as she began crumbling blue cheese into the salad.
Stormer dumped the sliced tomatoes into a large earthenware salad bowl, and spotting a vegetable peeler next to the cutting board, started peeling two cucumbers. She was used to ordering salads in restaurants, usually when she was out with Kimber rather than Roxy, Pizzazz and Jetta, who were given to ordering whatever was the most expensive item on the menu. She couldn't remember the last time she'd actually made one herself. The only green thing in her fridge tended to be the mould on whatever cheese she completely forgot was in there until it sprouted new life and new civilisations.
"Not very long," Stormer admitted. "I mean, we met when he first took over half of Stinger Sound. But we really hadn't really gotten to know each other until, well... pretty recently."
"So, how long have you been seeing each other?" Mildred asked, and Stormer almost sliced off her thumb as the knife slipped from her fingers.
"Oh, we're not—I mean, we're just friends," she said quickly. "Co-workers, really. Actually, technically, he's sort of my boss."
Mildred looked surprised, but recovered quickly. "Forgive me, dear. I just assumed..."
Stormer felt her ears grow pink. For two people who didn't know each other particularly well, Riot acted very familiar, and she could see why his mother presumed otherwise. "It's okay. I was surprised when he told me we were coming today—it was a surprise for both of us."
"It's just so rare for me to meet any of Rory's friends. I'm so glad he moved back to Los Angeles."
"I never knew before today he was from here. I guess I'd always figured he'd grown up in Europe."
"We moved here in '79. Rory was still in high school." She moved to the fridge, taking out a Tupperware bowl of potato salad, and began spooning it into a serving dish. "It was so hard on him, constantly having to pick up and start all over again, every time we moved. I was glad we stayed, once they closed the base. Los Angeles winters are so much more bearable than Pennsylvania."
"You're from back East?" Stormer asked, surprised. In interviews, Riot was always very mysterious about his past. Rapture was always spouting some nonsense about Riot being the descendant of kings—hardly a retired couple in Inglewood.
"George's father was a foreman in a town built on the mining industry. I think George joined the army just to get out of working in the mines. It broke his father's heart. Sometimes, I think Rory and his father are too alike."
"George saw mining as a death sentence. For him, the army was freedom." Mildred sighed. "For Rory, the army was the last place he wanted to be. I don't think he's ever been happier than when he's playing music."
Riot in the army. That was another piece of the puzzle that couldn't quite fit. All of her assumptions, it seemed, were going to be challenged today. "He's really good. Have you seen him play with the Stingers?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. But he came home at Christmas, and we stayed up 'til all hours, playing carols."
Stormer tried to picture Riot chock-full of Yuletide cheer, belting out "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and the mental picture simply would not form. Still, she was a little jealous that he had had family close-by with whom he could spend the holidays.
Last Christmas, Pizzazz had been in a funk when her father had taken off for some big business thing in Japan. To stay out of her way (and out of range of her good throwing arm) until she cooled off, Jetta had gone home, and Roxy had just up and disappeared without ever telling Stormer where she'd gone off to. Craig had been away on tour, and Kimber had gone to New York with the rest of her band. Stormer hadn't had anyone to celebrate with, so she had spent the night at curled up on her couch with a bowl of popcorn, watching It's a Wonderful Life alone.
When she'd been little, Christmas had always been her and Craig's thing. Their mother had worked two jobs and always volunteered for holiday shifts at the restaurant, so she could get time and a half. So Craig was the one who dragged the boxes of decorations and lights up from the basement and decorated the small house they'd moved into, after Dad had left. Craig was the one who filled Stormer's stocking, and made sure that among the socks and underwear, she had at least one doll or fun thing.
Christmas to her meant snowball fights, hot apple cider, and spending time with her brother. The only thing she could usually manage in Los Angeles in December was the cider. She still had a hard time dealing with the sight of girls in bikinis and Santa hats, roller-skating down Venice Boulevard on Christmas Day.
Mildred laid a hand on Stormer's shoulder in warm affection and dropped the final cucumber slice atop the mountain of iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes. "I think this salad is as ready as it's ever going to be. We should go make sure the boys haven't burned the neighbourhood down," she added with a wink.
While cake and ice-cream was being served, Stormer excused herself to go to the washroom. As she walked through the first floor, Stormer's eye was caught by an upright piano in the family room. As always when she found a beautiful old instrument, she was drawn to it like a moth to flame. The ivory keys were yellowed with age, and well-worn. The dark wood shone from polishing, and new brass hinges gleamed. She touched a few keys between middle-G to high C experimentally, and found it in perfect tune.
"I taught Rory to play on this piano," Mildred said from the doorway, and Stormer took her fingers from the keys, suddenly feeling like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
"I'm sorry—I was looking for the bathroom, and got side-tracked."
"That's perfectly alright, dear." Mildred came to sit beside her on the bench, and lovingly ran her fingers over the ivory keys. "Do you play?"
Stormer nodded. "Since I was four. I play keyboards in the band I'm in, but I love acoustic instruments. They have a sound that you just can't duplicate electronically." She ran her fingers over the keys, playing a quick scale. "It's beautiful."
"It wasn't always," Mildred said with a bright laugh. "George bought it from a bar, when we were stationed in Germany. It was in terrible shape, but I loved it so much. We had it carted from base to base, while he was active in the service. Rory had it overhauled for our thirtieth wedding anniversary."
"My mother had an upright like this, while I was growing up," Stormer said wistfully as she picked out a melody she'd been working on absently with her right hand. "We had to sell it, when my folks got divorced. It was just too expensive to move it. I got a Casio for Christmas once, but it just wasn't the same."
"When he was little, Rory would crawl into my lap while I played. While George was at work, he'd sit and listen to me play for hours. I bought him his first guitar when he was fifteen."
"I inherited my brother Craig's guitar when I was about that age, when he left home."
"Were you two close?"
"He's five years older, but yeah. Growing up without a dad, Craig really took care of me. He didn't mind his baby sister tagging along after him like a puppy. God help any guy I went out with, though. Instead of having to pass muster with a dad, they had to meet the Over Protective Big Brother instead. I didn't date much," Stormer admitted with a laugh.
"You sound as if you miss him."
"I do," Stormer admitted. "We haven't seen a lot of each other since he moved overseas—he's playing with a band in London right now."
"Rory used to send me postcards, from all the cities where he played. Even when he and his father weren't speaking, he never stopped writing."
"He's a good boy," she said, her voice filled with a mother's pride and love. "Stubborn, headstrong—like his father. But he has a good heart."
Stormer blushed, sensing what Riot's mother was getting at. Shyly, she reached out and gave Mildred's hand a squeeze.
"I can see where he gets it from."
"You know, you didn't have to do all this," Riot said as Stormer scraped the last of the cake dishes into the garbage disposal.
"Dishes? I don't mind." She shrugged. "No-one should have to clean up from their own birthday party."
"Ready to call it a night?" Riot asked, glancing out the kitchen window. His parents were still outside, sitting at the patio table, their silhouettes visible in the warm glow of the torches.
"What, and miss out on the opportunity to hear embarrassing childhood stories over coffee?" Stormer risked teasing him, and then squealed as he picked up the spray nozzle and threatened to shoot.
"At least then I will know who to blame, when they show up on Harriet Horn's show."
As Stormer washed the plates, he took them from her, drying them with a tea towel before placing them in the rack next to the sink. She stared, giving herself a mental shake to free her from her stupor at the sight of one of the world's most popular musicians caught in a scene of such mundane domesticity.
"You're the one who invited her to the concert," Stormer reminded him, shutting off the tap and lifting the drain so the hot soapy water swirled down it. "She's like a pit bull—you feed her once from the table, and you'll never get rid of her."
"Who is this Harry Corn?" Mildred asked from the doorway of the kitchen.
"Harriet Horn, Mom," Riot said as he took the cloth napkins she'd carried in and laid them on top the place-mats, to be thrown into the wash. "She's a gossip columnist."
"She's a vulture," Stormer corrected, and Riot laughed.
"One of the many hazards of fame, I'm afraid. Being food for vultures."
Mildred smiled, bemused. "It's hard for me to imagine anyone would pay attention to such things."
"Well, she usually likes a juicy scandal, something I'm not currently providing her, or her viewers," Riot assured her.
"Good," Mildred said, giving Riot's arm a squeeze. "I hate the idea of people gossiping about you."
"I don't mind—I like knowing people are talking about me," Riot grinned. "It means I'm worth talking about."
It was late by the time Riot pulled up to the kerb in front of Stormer's house.
"I want to thank you, for coming with me tonight." He opened her door for her, and offered his hand to help her alight. "I know it wasn't what you were expecting—"
"I had a good time," Stormer assured him as they reached the circle of light cast by her porch light.
"Although I may never forgive you for abandoning me to my father."
"I told you, I don't like surprises. And anyway, no-one died, despite the presence of both fire and knives."
"In that case, I call the evening an unqualified success." He grinned broadly. "You and Mom seemed to hit it off."
She smiled warmly. "I like her. She's special."
"Yeah. She is." He reached out to tuck a stray curl behind her ear. "You're pretty special yourself."
There was a moment of awkward silence, as Stormer fished her house keys out of her purse while Riot waited expectedly.
"Would you... would you like to...?" she began, flustered. "I can put a pot of coffee on..."
He smiled. "I'd like that."
She fitted her key into the lock, and was about to turn it when the door opened from the inside. Riot caught her as she stumbled, and his hand on her elbow tightened when he saw a strange man waiting for her on the other side.
"Craig!" Stormer broke into a grin as she threw her arms around her brother. "What are you doing here?"
"Surprising my baby sister," he said into her hair, swinging her in a circle before setting her back down on her feet. Behind him stood the rest of the Blue Bloods: lead guitar Mason, bass player James, and keyboardist Alan, all looking jetlagged but wearing matching grins.
"So... we're not interrupting anything, are we?" Craig asked, looking back and forth between Stormer, and Riot who still stood in the doorway, awaiting introductions. Stormer grabbed him by the hand, and pulled him forward.
"Oh! Craig, this is—"
Mason suddenly pushed past Craig, his features slack with shock. "Jesus God, Rory? Is that you?"
Riot's eyes widened in recognition, and then he grinned broadly. "Mason? Mason Hawthorne?"
"It's Lord Hawthorne, now," Alan said, and James elbowed him in the ribs while Mason laughed and clasped Riot's hand warmly.
"You guys know each other?" Stormer asked, surprised.
"Touring," Mason said, as if that explained everything. "Before Craig here joined the best damn band in London, back when Danny was on skins."
"What happened to Danny?" Riot asked, obviously confused.
"Married—him and Cass live up in Yorkshire now," Mason explained, and Stormer glanced at Craig, who only shrugged. He'd never met the Blue Bloods previous drummer, apparently. "She didn't like him touring. You know how it is."
"Whatever happens on the bus—" James began.
"—stays on the bus," Alan finished with a grin.
Mason grinned broadly. "It's been ages—what, Amsterdam?"
"Copenhagen," Riot finished.
"You were with those twins—God, what were their names? The Swedish air hostesses."
Craig shot Stormer a startled glance, and Riot suddenly looked uneasy.
"I don't really recall..."
Alan frowned, obviously wracking his brain. "Inga and Astrid?"
"It was a long time ago," Riot said quickly, and Stormer raised an eyebrow, enjoying his discomfort enormously, given the circumstances. Rory Llewelyn was almost never at a disadvantage, and yet here she was, watching him squirm twice in one night. Somewhere, the gods were smiling down upon her, Stormer decided, barely able to hold back a giggle.
"No, man, it was Ingrid," James interjected, and Alan shook his head.
"Ingrid was the bird in the band—Don't you remember? The one with the hair, and the legs—Oh, those legs." His eyes went glassy.
"Yeah, they go all the way to the floor," Stormer said wryly.
"She's still in the band," Riot added, glad to change the subject.
"Still? I thought Nirvana split?" Alan asked, bewildered. "We ran into Jerry in a club in Manchester a while back, playing with some poxy cover band."
"Do you live on another planet, Alan?" Mason said, shaking his head at his keyboardist. "Rory here has done made good for himself, he has. The Stingers, man."
"Only the biggest band to hit the States in ages," James added.
Riot seemed oddly uncomfortable. "We do alright."
"Jesus, why so modest?"
"You know Riot," Stormer said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Shy, humble, retiring..."
"Speaking of retiring," Craig said sheepishly, "Would it be okay if we crashed here tonight, Sis?"
"I thought Mason was going to spring for the Ritz?" Stormer fixed him with a look of mock surprise, and Craig had the good grace to blush.
"It's amazing, how much money it takes to maintain a fully staffed manor house in the country," Mason stepped in to rescue her brother.
"Hugh thinks we've honed our act on the road, and we finally cut a demo last month. And Mason's set up a few meetings with A&R at a few different labels for us while we're in town. So," Craig spread his arms wide, "here we are."
"On your doorstep, as it were." Mason dropped his one knee before her, hands clasped to his chest in classic pleading posture. "Please don't turn us out into the street, lady. James is fragile, and Alan can't panhandle worth a damn."
Stormer dragged him to his feet, laughing. "Of course you can stay here—as long as you don't mind couches and sleeping bags. And," she turned to Craig and punching him lightly in the chest, "any groceries you eat, you replace."
Craig grabbed Stormer around the waist and kissed the top of her head. "You drive a hard bargain, Pipsqueak."
James and Alan began carting their gear back towards the guestroom at the rear of the house, while Mason remained, leaning casually against the couch at the curious tableau presented by the Phillips siblings and the lead singer of the Stingers.
"So, Riot..." Craig said meeting Riot's eyes over her head, one arm still around her waist, "how do you know Mary?"
"He's—he's my boss," Stormer said quickly, sensing where this was going. "At Stinger Sound."
"So you were at a business meeting at 9 o'clock at night?" Craig continued.
"Craig, knock it off." Stormer tried to elbow him, but he dodged easily.
"What? I'm just asking."
"Forgive my brother—he's got a terminal case of Big Brother-itis," Stormer said nervously. "But since I'm no longer fifteen, he may want to mind his own business," she whispered fiercely.
"It's perfectly understandable," Riot said, keeping his eyes locked with Craig's and bowing his head slightly. Craig's arm around Stormer's waist loosened, and she wriggled free. "If I had a sister as lovely, I would surely be just as protective."
"Well, we don't want to keep you."
"Craig!" Stormer hissed, mortified.
"It's alright—I should be going."
"Oi, Stormer—where are the blankets?" James called from the guestroom, and Stormer glanced back over her shoulder, chewing on her bottom lip.
"Lemme walk you out," Craig offered, and Stormer opened her mouth to protest, but Craig nudged her with his elbow and said sweetly, "Mare, why don't you give James a hand before he and Alan tear the place apart?"
Stormer shot him a dirty look before there was the unmistakable sound of James hitting his head on one of the shelves in the linen closet, followed by muffled curses.
"I'll help you," Mason offered gamely, taking Stormer's arm.
"I—I'm sorry," she stammered to Riot, who merely smiled and reached for the hand Mason had left free.
"Thank you for the pleasure of your company." Riot brushed a kiss across her knuckles.
"Inga and Astrid, huh?" Stormer asked, teasing.
"It was a long time ago."
"Uh-huh." Turning the screws to him for a change, Stormer decided as she watched him squirm, was refreshing. Her amusement did not escape his notice.
"You're enjoying this."
"Just a little bit," she admitted.
Riot and Craig walked in silence down the walk to Riot's car, and Riot was suddenly struck with the irony of the situation.
He'd taken Stormer to meet his family in the hopes that she might realise that, beneath the costumes and the glamour, he was just like anyone else. And he'd brought her back home just in time to discover that she too had family—in the form of a very disapproving brother as stern as any overprotective father Riot had ever met.
"What are your intentions toward my sister?" Craig asked bluntly as Riot unlocked his Porsche, the car alarm beeping as he deactivated it with a push of a button.
"Well. That didn't take long."
Craig shrugged. "I figure, why beat around the bush?"
"We're simply getting to know one another."
"How well do you intend to get to know her?"
"Is this the part where you tell me if I break her heart, you'll break my legs?" Riot asked as he slipped inside, rolling the window down as he shut the door.
Craig's smile became genuine, but Riot guess that the affection he saw there was purely for Stormer. "You catch on fast."
"Good to meet you, Craig," Riot said, making no move to offer him his hand.
"You too, Rory." Craig patted the roof of the car with his open palm. "Drive safe, now."
Chapter 3: Part II
Stormer arrived early for the morning practice session at Stinger Sound. She was starting to settle into a routine of actually getting up early, aided this morning by four grown men who'd got over their jetlag trying not to wake her, and as a result making about as much noise as a herd of elephants in the jungle. She'd awakened at quarter past dawn it had seemed to the smell of coffee, burned toast, and Craig and James arguing in stage whispers over toothpaste.
Since she hadn't been expecting company, she hadn't quite been prepared—least of all prepared for four guys. Mason and the boys were sweet, but they were still boys, and it was like having an entire house full of brothers. Every towel she owned had been left on the bathroom floor that morning, and she made a mental note to pick up frozen pizzas and bread for sandwiches on her way home. And earplugs. Definitely earplugs, she mused as she unlocked the studio, flipping on the bank of lights and then froze when she saw the flowers.
There must have been two dozen long-stemmed red roses in the vase, sprigs of baby's breath artfully arranged among the blooms, which were just beginning to open. The vase sat in the centre of the table usually reserved for bottles of water and snacks. A cream coloured envelope was leaning against it, the single word "Stormer" written across the front in elegant script.
She was about to open the card when the door behind her opened so forcefully, it bounced off the padded soundproof wall and Pizzazz came through, Roxy and Jetta on her heels.
"...I'm just saying," Pizzazz said, obviously continuing whatever conversation she had been having with the other two, before they'd arrived, "it's so obvious she's had work done. I mean, that brat of hers is what, fifteen, sixteen? No way she's a day under forty."
"Who cares anyway, Pizzazz?" Roxy shrugged. "So Lena Lerner made it into the stupid magazine—her publicist probably bribed somebody."
"Well I want to know why our publicist didn't bribe someone. I am one of the 50 Most Beautiful in the World, after all. See?" She swept past Stormer and picked up the vase of roses. "I'm adored. Who are they from?"
"Um, actually..." Stormer fidgeted, holding the card behind her back. "They were here when I got here..."
She whirled around as Jetta snatched the card from her fingers.
"Check it out—they're not for Pizzazz, they're for Stormer!"
"Oooooh, looks like Stormer's got a boyfriend," Roxy said in a sing-song voice, and Stormer blushed as Roxy and Jetta began to wrestle for the card.
"Who's sending you flowers?" Pizzazz asked, hands on her hips. "It's not that hippie freak again, is it? I thought he took off for Timbuktu, or whatever."
"Roxy, give it back!" Stormer pleaded as Roxy removed the card from the envelope, twisting to keep it out of Jetta's reach.
"'Thank you for a perfect evening,'" Roxy read slowly and carefully, and then flipped it over, frowning. "No signature."
"So who's the mystery guy?" Pizzazz grabbed the card from Roxy, and in turn had it snatched by Jetta.
"Yeah, you holding out on us, Stormer?" Jetta asked, dangling the card tantalisingly.
"He's nobody," Stormer said quickly, grabbing the card back and stuffing it in her purse, regardless of the fact that it was getting crumpled. "You don't know him."
"Well, when do we get to meet him?" Pizzazz demanded, and Stormer blanched.
"Oh, I don't know if that's such a good idea."
"You afraid we'll scare your fellow off, then? Us?" Jetta protested.
"We're harmless," Pizzazz said, bringing her hand to her chest in feigned innocence.
"Harmless as a nest of cobras," Stormer muttered, taking the flowers and moving them to a corner of the practice room, out of harm's way.
"C'mon, guys. Give me a break, okay?" she pleaded. "I don't even know if I even like the guy..."
Jetta grinned slyly, draping her arm around Stormer's shoulders. "Oh, you like him alright, luv. You've got that look."
"What look?" she asked, wary.
"That dreamy 'Oh I hope he asks me to the prom!' look." Roxy put the back of her hand to her forehead and mimed swooning.
"Yeah. You know the one," Jetta continued, teasing. "Same one Pizzazz here always gets when she sees Mr Fancy Dan, Riot."
"Jetta!" Stormer cautioned, and abruptly the focus of her friends' rough teasing shifted from her to Pizzazz.
"Oh, Riot, take me in your manly arms!" Jetta chirped in a fake American accent.
"Cradle me against your perfect chest!" Roxy wrapped her arms around herself and made kissy-faces.
Jetta closed her eyes, and wilted against a mic stand. "Make looooooove to me."
"Knock it off, you two," Pizzazz growled, stepping up to the mic and tossing her violently-green hair. "We've got work to do."
Roxy grinned as she strapped on her guitar. "Aw, Pizzazz is blushing."
"I said, knock it off!" Pizzazz thundered, but Roxy was right. She was blushing beneath her make-up.
"Looks like somebody hit a nerve," Jetta whispered, and Stormer felt something tighten in the pit of her stomach as she picked up her synthesiser.
"The lighting rig is managing, but we really ought to think about replacing it soon. I talked to Charlie last week, and he said it was giving him major trouble during the Fifth Avenue Boys show."
Rio sat perched on the corner of Jerrica's desk, despite the fact that there were two perfectly good chairs on either side. She might be Ms Benton, President and Chief Executive Officer of Starlight Music to anyone else who walked through that door, but to Rio Pacheco, she would probably always be the freckled-faced 12-year-old who had tagged along after him like a puppy from the first moment his family had moved next door to hers.
"Can we afford a new rig?" Jerrica asked, leaning back in her chair, fingers steepled.
"Isn't that something you should be asking Joanie?"
"I can ask her how much we have in concert ticket sales at the auditorium in July. But she won't know how much a custom rig will cost. That's your area of expertise."
"I'll get you some numbers by the end of the week. Me and Charlie and Steve might be able to build a custom rig cheaper than we could buy one."
"Are you sure that's okay?" Sometimes, Jerrica knew that working for her put a strain on their personal relationship, but for the moment, those days seemed far away—a hazy memory, although she could recall all too well how much it hurt her when their arguments over work spilled over into personal grievances. In a way, she had inherited Rio along with her father's company—he'd been working with Emmett Benton while still in high school, and there had never been any question of him leaving once the company had passed into her hands. For all the strife between them, there was something comforting still in seeing him walk through her office door, a welcome break from the usual parade of paper-pushers and music industry execs that frequented her office.
"I've been itching to try out some new ideas, actually. And as for sound, the Midas console can cope, so long as we have the 16-channel stretch board to keep up with Raya's drums. But I took a look at the new Yamaha console and I think after this concert, we may want to upgrade."
"Rio, you're a life-saver. I don't know how'd we'd manage, without you."
"Hey, anything for you, babe." Rio's blue eyes crinkled slightly at the corners as he smiled. It amazed her how easily her heart still skipped a beat, when that happened. "Pretty different from the old days, when it was just the band and a single van full of equipment."
"You ever miss just being a plain old roadie?" she asked, thinking back to when she was still in college, and every week-end he was out with one band or another.
"Only sometimes. Let the young guys do all the heavy lifting."
Jerrica laughed. They were both still in their twenties. "You're an old man?"
"In this business? Sometimes I sure feel old. Especially when half of our current crew are Kimber's age or younger. I've been at this for ten years."
"You're not thinking about retirement, are you?"
"Are you kidding? Look at the work your dad was doing well into his fifties. Engineers, unlike roadies, last forever." He grinned. "I'm here as long as you want me here."
Jerrica smiled, and tried to ignore the tiny voice in the back of her mind that, for the last four years, answered as long as I want you? Or Jem?
"Try this one," Barry said as he handed Aja a vintage 1963 six-string Fender Bass VI with blue and silver body.
Aja was sitting on a tall stool in the back room of Barry's Venice Beach drum shop, which doubled as a practice room where musicians could try out the instruments they were planning on buying. His speciality was drums—from vintage rock and roll sets, to North African doumbeks, to giant Japanese taiko. But his passion was tracking down rare instruments for his regulars. When Shana had Raya had mentioned to him, the last time they were in, that Aja was in the market to expand her collection, he'd seen it as a rare challenge.
"Wow. She's beautiful." Aja held the guitar reverently, admiring the slender neck.
"The strings are so close together that most of the guys who've come in to look at her have a hard time. But I immediately thought of you." He handed her a pick, and plugged in a 50-watt amp so she could test her out. "She's a true Baritone—she plays like both a bass and a guitar."
"Wow. That would be so great for a lot of the stuff we do, even with Shana on lead."
Aja picked out a few bars of "First Love" and whistled at the surprising depth of the Fender's voice. "Sounds fantastic!"
"Now, she doesn't have a lot of power on the low end, so you probably wouldn't want her on stage, even with a fancy modern amp. But she'll record beautifully."
"I'm glad you called. I've always wanted one of these babies." She lifted the strap over her head and placed the guitar back in her case with care. "What are you asking for her?"
"Well, she's in great shape. I was looking for $1100..."
Aja whistled. "She doesn't come cheap."
"The good ones never do," came a familiar voice from behind her, and Aja turned as someone pulled aside the blue curtain which separated the back room from the shop.
"Craig!" Aja threw her arms around him, laughing. His hair was a little longer, and he'd given up his customary polo shirts for a crisp stripped button-down, but he was still her Craig, and she'd missed him. She hadn't actually seen him since New Year's, when she'd gone over to Manchester for a week-end while the Blue Bloods were playing club dates there. It was only the second time in over a year she'd actually stood in the same room with him, and it felt so good to actually have his arms around her, and press her cheek against his chest. A voice over a scratchy long distance phone line was simply no substitute for the real thing.
"Hey, Gorgeous. Thought I'd surprise you. Shana told me you were over here, so..."
"It worked." Aja got up on her tiptoes and pulled him into an enthusiastic kiss.
"Jeez, get a room," Barry laughed, and Aja blushed.
"Hey, Barry." Craig, keeping his arm draped possessively around Aja's waist, shook Barry's hand.
"Good to see you, pal. I better get up front—"
"—and give me some quality time with my girlfriend?" Craig finished, and Barry laughed as he drew the curtain back across the back room. Craig took advantage of the privacy, and tilted Aja's chin up to gaze into her eyes.
"I can't believe it's been eight months..." he murmured.
"Eight long months," she reminded him, drawing him closer for another kiss.
"When did you get in?" she asked when they parted, a little breathless.
"Last night. We crashed at Mary's last night—"
"We? What, there are more Phillips siblings you've got squirreled away?" She poked him in the chest, glad a year and a half later that she could even joke about the secret that had almost torn them apart.
"The whole band's here—we've got some meetings, and we're booked at the Rock Hard Café next Friday."
"Craig, that's fantastic!"
"What's fantastic is five whole weeks in Los Angeles with my two best girls."
"Then we kick off a 12 city US tour." He pulled her closer, hands resting on her hips. "Think you can stomach having your absentee boyfriend around that long?"
"It'll be hard," she sighed dramatically, "but I'll persevere."
It had taken her a long time to understand exactly why Craig had left Los Angeles—and her. At first, she'd been convinced that the "conflict" he'd left to avoid was just an excuse. That she'd moved too fast, or he hadn't meant to get so serious so fast with someone meant to just be a spring fling.
But true to his word, letters and phone calls came every few months, as they got to know one another slowly by the enforced distance of a long distance relationship. By the time she'd turned around at the Unicorn club, and there he was, she was sure that this was the guy she was meant to be with. And more convinced than ever that she was going to mess it up somehow.
She'd never dated much. Not the Chinese boys who had pursued her in high school and couldn't understand why she dyed her hair and played rock music. And certainly not the white guys looking for something "exotic" they thought they would find by dating a half-Chinese girl. Before Barry had introduced her to Craig in this very shop, she'd watched her friends pair off one by one—first Jerrica with Rio, then Shana and Anthony, and Kimber had never lacked for attention from the opposite sex—convinced that there was no-one out there for her. The second she found him, she was sure that it couldn't last.
That paralysing fear, more than anything else, had made her completely lose her cool when Craig had tried to explain how Stormer fit into his life, and why he had to leave Los Angeles. And when that bomb had gone off, trapping Craig and Stormer inside, she was sure it was over. That he was dead, and she had lost him forever. That night, they had become closer than they ever had before, and she'd sworn she wasn't going to let him go again.
She reached up and brushed a lock of hair from his eye. He caught her hand, and pressed a kiss into the palm. She couldn't help but grin.
"I can't believe you're really here."
"Believe it, pretty lady," he said softly.
"If you two are finished making out back there," came Barry's voice from the front of the store, "I've got a guitar I want to sell this woman."
"So, how much do you know about the guy from the Stingers?" Craig asked as he handed Aja her ice-cream cone from a vendor with a cart, and they began walking across the beach. Aja's new Fender was safely tucked away in the back of the van, and they'd decided to go for a walk along the beach. Kids on roller skates snaked around them, and couples held hands as they soaked up the late summer sun.
"Riot?" Aja wondered at the change of subject. "He's usually chasing at Jem's heels like one of those little wire-haired terriers."
She wrinkled her nose. "Those are the ones."
"I take it you don't like the guy?"
"There was an incident involving a swimming pool. And this fashion designer from Martinique. And a town in Greece. And a deserted island. Do you want me to continue?"
Craig winced. "Oh, this guy just gets better and better, doesn't he?"
"He's a total Svengali—women falling at his feet, mesmerised. Jerrica and Kimber are completely taken in by him. But I say a leopard can't change its spots, you know?"
"Why the sudden interest in Riot?" she asked, unable to hold back her curiosity.
"I think he's dating my sister."
Aja stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, her mouth open in shock. "Riot? Riot and Stormer? Are you sure?"
"Well, they seemed pretty friendly when she got home last night."
"Riot. And Stormer," Aja repeated, unable to believe it. "I guess it's good that he's moved on from Jem..."
"Well, not that he's moving on with your sister. But I'm trying to find the silver lining, here."
"Keep it under your hat for now?" Craig asked, taking her hand in his. "Mary swears there's nothing going on, and I want to believe her..."
"If it's true—he's bad news, Craig."
"Mason likes him."
"He's not dating Mason's sister," Aja pointed out.
Craig sighed and cast his eyes heavenward. "I wish Mason was dating my sister."
"I thought you told me Mason wasn't good enough for her?"
Craig had told her that after Stormer had come to London to visit her brother, Mason had been quite taken with the Misfit. But the visit had been so short, and Craig had been glad when Stormer had gone back to California and nothing had happened. He loved Mason like a brother—he just didn't want Mary falling for yet another guitar hero who would break her heart.
"He's not," Craig insisted, and Aja had to hold back a giggle. "But at least then I'd know in five weeks, he'd be out of her life."
Once he'd revealed his big secret—that his baby sister was in the band who had caused so much trouble not just for Aja, but almost everyone she'd ever known—Craig had filled her in on what it had been like, growing up with Stormer. After their father had run out on them, his mother had been gone so much, working two jobs to support them, he'd practically raised his sister. He'd been fiercely protective—and still believed his overprotective nature had been a source of her rebellion.
As soon as he'd gone off to Europe, Stormer had apparently fallen in with a pretty tough crowd, and had dropped out of school to play in bars where she wasn't even old enough to drink. He'd come home long enough to straighten her out—or so he'd hoped—and promised her that if she ever needed anything, anything he could give her, he'd be there for her. But that was a hard promise to keep from overseas.
He'd been so excited for Mary, once she'd signed with Eric Raymond at Starlight Music. Then he'd actually met the Misfits, and seen who his darling kid sister had become, since she'd started playing with them.
He sighed, his shoulders sagging. "She's a big girl. And she'd probably kick my ass, if I stuck my nose in—"
"—but you're her big brother," Aja said, resting her head on his shoulder as they strolled down the beach. "That's what your nose is for."
"Thanks for understanding," he said with a lopsided smile.
"I understand sisters," she said with a shrug. "Some of the stuff Kimber's gotten up to would curl your hair."
"I have to admit, I wish Mary had stuck to playing with Kimber, and left the Misfits behind for good. She's better than that."
"We offered her a spot as a Hologram..."
"Which I appreciate."
"I understand why she turned us down, though. They may not always show it, but the Misfits do need her. Their music would fall apart without her. And I hate to say it, but at least while she's in the band, she can keep the others in check. Keep them from doing any major damage."
"Well... as much as anyone can," Aja conceded the point.
"That Pizzazz can be such a..." Craig shook his head.
"Bitch?" Aja supplied with a sunny smile, and Craig laughed.
"Wow. You really don't pull any punches, do you."
Aja shrugged. "You mess with my friends, you mess with me."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Stormer and Riot, huh?"
"God, let's hope not," Craig said with a sigh.
Jerrica looked up from the ticket sales sheet she was perusing as Aja danced into her office. Joanie had already left for the evening, so Jerrica was alone on the top floor of the Starlight Music offices.
"You're in a good mood," Jerrica noted with an indulgent smile as Aja boogied to a beat only she could hear.
"I'm walking on clouds," Aja confirmed, twirling in a circle. "Craig's going to be in town for five whole weeks!"
"I figured there was more than just a new Fender putting such a bounce in your step."
"Oh my God, the guitar's beautiful."
Jerrica burst out laughing, amazed at her foster-sister's ability to be just as thrilled with a vintage bass as she was the reappearance of the love of her life.
"I'm glad—about the guitar and Craig."
"What about Rio? Have you talked to him lately?"
"We went over the arrangements this morning for our concert at the Starlight auditorium next week."
"That's work—When's the last time you two were out on an actual date?"
"You mean, when did we have a little time to ourselves without Jem?" Jerrica smiled ruefully. "God, it's been so long, I can barely remember."
"Why not invite him along tonight?"
"I tried. But he and the crew are working on a new lighting rig. He didn't think he'd be able to make it in time."
"Is everything okay?"
"It's just that time of year. You know how it is, when we're getting ready for a concert."
"Why not ditch the hologram tonight? Craig should get to know you better—after all, you're practically my sister."
"Craig barely knows Jerrica, and Mason and the band have never met her, so I think Jem," Jerrica said, running her fingertips over one earring as she tucked her hair behind her ear. "But next time. I promise."
"Fair enough. Oh, and just to warn you—Stormer's going to be at dinner tonight."
"Why the warning?"
"Well, she is a Misfit. I say it pays to be prepared."
"She was almost a Hologram, once," Jerrica pointed out, and Aja frowned.
While Raya and Shana had embraced the idea of Stormer spending more and more time at Starlight mansion, Aja had been aloof. Not cold, but certainly nowhere near as welcoming. Stormer may have seemed a sweet kid caught up with a bad crowd, Aja had told her at the time, but appearances could be deceiving. Someone had to keep an eye out, just in case.
Now it seemed impossibly to believe Stormer ever could have been a part of Eric's scheme to get Kimber's Starlight shares, but at the time, it had seemed an all too real possibility. Still, Aja had seemed more than happy to have been proven wrong. Especially once she had found out Stormer and Craig were siblings.
"C'mon, Jerrica. Let's be real. Do you think we could ever have really trusted her with the secret of Jem's identity? That she wouldn't have run straight to Pizzazz and Eric?"
Jerrica bit her bottom lip as she considered Aja's point. Old loyalties did run deep, and it had been one of the aspects of Kimber's friendship with Stormer that worried her—though to be fair, once she knew that Craig and Stormer were brother and sister, she'd never voiced the same concerns to Aja. Aja trusted Craig implicitly, even if that same trust didn't extend to his kid sister. They'd dodged that bullet twice—first when Raya had won the contest and become the new Hologram, and then again, when Kimber had left the band. But it still loomed as a possibility in the back of Jerrica's mind, that one of the Misfits may someday discover her dual identity. It was not something she was comfortable thinking about, and for Kimber's sake, she wanted to give Stormer the benefit of the doubt.
"Eric isn't exactly on her list of favourite people, at the moment, or have you forgotten?"
"I'm just saying—I know Kimber loves her, and she was really nice while we were working on Back to Back," Aja admitted. "But when push comes to shove, she always goes back to the Misfits. Even this last time—Craig tells me she was right back at work the next day, like nothing had happened."
"I think that may have had more to do with Riot," Jerrica said before she could stop herself, and felt a slight blush creep into her cheeks.
Aja shuddered. "Don't get me started on that creep."
"Never mind. I will let nothing spoil my perfect day. Not even that guy. Now I am going to go home and make myself beautiful for my man."
"I've got some work to finish up here—I'll meet you at the restaurant?"
As she pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, Stormer checked her lipstick in the rear-view mirror of her car for the fourth time. She'd rushed home from the studio to change, trying not to cringe at the mess the band had left at her place. She hoped they got signed quickly, and that their label put them up in fancy digs with a maid soon, or else she was going to abandon the bungalow to her brother for the next five weeks, and take up residence with Pizzazz.
Smoothing her red and black dress down over her hips as she got out of the car, she smiled. Tomorrow, she would deal with the mundane details of living with four men. Her brother was back, she had a brand new contract, and tonight, she wasn't going to let anything spoil her mood.
The Maître d' showed Stormer to the dining room, and she breathed a sigh of relief when Kimber sprang up from her chair and dragged her to one of the empty chairs next to her.
"Sorry everybody had to wait on me," Stormer said sheepishly as she draped her purse over the back of her chair.
"That's my sister," Craig said from where he sat next to Aja, "always causing trouble."
Stormer stuck her tongue out at him, and Kimber giggled.
"We've only just arrived," Mason assured her as he handed her a menu. She knew the place was fancy when she saw that her menu lacked prices—never a good sign.
"Is Jem coming?" Alan asked Craig.
"I'm not sure," Aja answered for him. "Jerrica said she'd try and get a hold of her. I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
"Where is Jerrica?" Stormer asked, surprised at the Holograms' manager's absence. She'd always got the impression that Jerrica and Aja were very close—almost as close as the Benton sisters.
"She was at Starlight when I left—something about mountains of paperwork," Aja said with a shrug. "I don't know if she can make it."
"Should we wait for them, before we order?" Mason asked.
"Yeah, I'm starving," James said as he grabbed a breadstick from the basket at his end of the table, and Alan elbowed him in the ribs.
"See? I'm not the only one causing trouble," Stormer couldn't resist adding, and Craig tossed a dinner roll at her.
Aja smacked Craig's shoulder. "No food fights!"
"Yeah, you're as bad as the Starlight girls," Shana laughed.
"Or my brothers," Raya added with a shudder.
"Or the Misfits," Stormer finished with a wink, and Kimber groaned.
"I didn't think they'd ever get the dining car on the train cleaned up."
"Hey, I didn't start the food fight," Stormer said in her own defence. The food fight in question had been almost a year earlier, and she still felt bad about her part in delaying the Holograms concert in Mesaville. It had seemed a harmless enough prank—until it had nearly cost them all their lives. Which, come to think of it, was a description that could apply to most of the Misfits' bright ideas.
"No, but you sure finished it, alright," Kimber laughed. "You guys were a mess."
Stormer poked her in the shoulder with a fingertip. "You try jumping from a moving train, and see how well you manage."
"Moving train?" Craig asked, looking a little pale, and Stormer fussed with her napkin, looking away. She tended to keep some of her wilder exploits from Craig, knowing he'd only worry. He'd always considered her his responsibility, and as much as she adored him, she hated being treated like a wayward child.
"It's a long story," she muttered, suddenly sorry she'd brought the whole thing up.
"Actually, it did turn out alright in the end," Kimber pointed out, obviously trying to help. "If you hadn't started the train, we might have lost all that charity money to that fake security guard."
"Maybe it's a good thing I'm back in town for a month," Craig said from his end of the table, "to see if I can't keep my baby sister out of trouble for a change."
Stormer rolled her eyes, and was sorely tempted to lob a dinner roll at his head, but she'd already buttered the one he'd thrown at her and was too hungry to give it up. "Do you always have to say 'baby' sister?"
"Yeah—Mary seems awfully grown up to me," Mason said, giving her a wink. She started, and then gave him a tentative smile in return.
Kimber leaned toward Stormer conspiratorially, her voice pitched so that no-one else could hear. "I think he likes you."
"Oh, I really doubt that..." she whispered back.
"I wouldn't be so sure," Kimber whispered back in a sing-song voice, and beneath the table, Stormer began twisting her napkin in one hand.
When she'd gone to London, she'd spent more time getting to know James and Alan than Mason. He'd rushed off to his family's estate, while it was the rest of the band who'd stayed behind to make sure she and Craig were okay following the destruction of the Unicorn Club. Craig and Kimber both had asked her to come to the benefit at Hawthorne manor, but she'd been so embarrassed by Jetta's role in Mason almost losing his inheritance, she hadn't attended—choosing instead to stay in the flat in Chelsea that Craig shared with James until her flight back to the States.
The flight back to Los Angeles had been a tense one, as Pizzazz and Roxy had been angry with her for ditching them, while Jetta had been nervous as a cat, convinced that she was on her way out of the group once Roxy saw Stormer had actually been injured. It had blown over, but Stormer was glad that she was here with the Holograms tonight, even given their rocky history, and that the rest of the Misfits were nowhere to be found.
"So what have you been up to?" Kimber asked, jolting Stormer out of her reverie. The waiters had brought a round of water, along with several pitchers, and Stormer was trying to keep her eyes on the menu and make a decision on what sounded better—the broiled salmon, or the chicken Marsala, but she couldn't seem to focus.
"What do you mean?" she stammered, a blush rising in her cheeks.
"C'mon, I haven't talked to you since Lindsey's show aired. How did everything turn out?"
"Everything?" Stormer echoed, running her thumb across her bottom lip absently.
"Your contract, silly."
"Oh. It—it turned out great. Really great."
She was saved from elaborating by the waiter arriving with Jem in tow. Instantly, the focus shifted to the pink-haired pop-star, and for once, Stormer was glad.
"Hi, everybody! Sorry I'm late."
James jumped up so that Jem could take the seat beside him. One seat—Jerrica's, Stormer supposed—was left vacant. Stormer saw Aja frown for a moment, but it was so quick she wasn't entirely sure she hadn't imagined it.
Following Stormer's gaze to the empty chair, Jem added, "Jerrica sends her regards—she had a mountain of work to catch up on Starlight Music."
"That's too bad," Craig said, sounding as if he meant it. "I was really looking forward to seeing her tonight."
"You were?" Stormer asked, surprised. She didn't think Craig knew her all that well, even though they'd met during the contest to find the Holograms new drummer.
"Hugh suggested we talk to her about the possibility of recording with Starlight Music."
"That's a fantastic idea!" Aja beamed.
"Give Jerrica a call in the morning, to set up a meeting?" Jem suggested. "I'm sure she would love to talk about signing the Blue Bloods. We told her all about seeing you guys in London last year."
As the discussion turned to business, Stormer let her mind wander. Never in a million years had she pictured she would be sitting down to a family dinner with Jem and the Holograms, yet here she was. It helped, having Kimber there beside her. And as Craig laced his fingers through Aja's, she realised that this might be just one of many dinners to follow over the next five weeks. Especially if Jerrica signed the Blue Bloods.
It looked like, no matter which way she cut it, Stormer was tangentially a member of the family. The thought filled her with a curious mixture of joy and trepidation, and she studied her menu, trying to figure out which one would come out on top.
Stormer had finally relaxed by the time the main course arrived and the table had broken up into multiple groups. She was almost dizzy, keeping up with all of them. Mason and Kimber were sharing tour horror stories, Jem, Craig and Aja were talking about Starlight Music, while Raya was filling James in on the details of her cousin Mercedes' upcoming Quinceañera.
"So it's like a big bash, then?"
"Sort of," Raya explained in that lilting accent of hers. "You start by going to the Church, and there is a special ceremony. Then there is a huge party for your family, and your friends—you wear a fancy dress, even a tiara, just like a princess. Mercedes and my Tía Olivia are arguing about dresses all this week. Olivia wants Merche to wear a pale pink ball gown, but Merche has her heart set on a dark turquoise dress that is perhaps a bit too old for her, you know? Less ball gown, more—"
"Las Vegas?" Shana suggested.
Raya laughed. "Yes. Mamá and Abuelita were there all day, to referee."
"That must have been something."
"My father gave me this at my Quinceañera," Raya pulled a thin gold chair from around her neck so she could show James the small gold crucifix that hung around her neck.
"That's wild," James said when she had tucked the cross back beneath her blouse. "I mean, when I turned 15? Me mum kicked me out, and my Uncle Bernie took me down to the pub and got me drunk."
Raya blinked, and Stormer had to stifle a giggle. "How... festive."
"Look who's here," Mason said, and Stormer looked up to follow his gaze and almost dropped her fork.
The Maître d' was showing Riot to a table for one at the front of the dining room.
"What's he doing here?" Aja said, frowning.
"He's all alone," Jem said, and it was true. There was no sign of either Minx or Rapture. "Maybe we should ask him to join us?"
"No!" Craig and Aja chorused before Stormer could say anything. The Holograms looked panicked, but the Blue Bloods, with the sole exception of Craig, were only perplexed.
"We've got room," Mason said, gesturing to the empty chair next to Stormer. "I don't think Mary would mind, would you?"
Stormer flushed as every eye at the table turned to her. "He probably just wants a quiet night..."
"Riot?" Raya laughed, and Shana not so surreptitiously kicked her under the table. "Oh yeah, a quiet evening. Absolutely."
"How about we keep this a family affair?" Craig suggested, and Mason gave him a puzzled look.
"But I thought—" Mason began, glancing back and forth between Stormer and Craig.
"Yeah. A family affair," Stormer echoed weakly, and pushed her chicken around on her plate self-consciously. She glanced up, but Riot was staring at his menu, completely oblivious to her presence.
"How do you know Riot?" Jem asked Mason, confused.
"Met him on tour, ages ago when he was still with Nirvana," James explained. "Hadn't seen him in forever and a day, until yesterday when—"
"—when we found out he was Mary's boss," Craig broke in. "Isn't that right, James?"
"I guess it really is a small world," Jem said with a polite smile, her eyes straying to Riot's table. Stormer sneaked a peek out of the corner of her eye, and then turned away when Riot raised his wineglass in silent toast.
"Riot's staring at you," Kimber whispered as the dinner plates were whisked away, and the waiter placed a dessert menu in front of her.
"What?" Stormer lifted her own menu, hiding behind it. "No, he isn't," she whispered fiercely. But she could feel his eyes on the back of her head, had been ever since he'd first made eye contact with her across the crowded restaurant. She'd been petrified he'd come over to talk to her, but so far, he'd stayed on his side of the dining room, despite Jem's frequent glances in his direction.
"Yes, he is," Kimber whispered back, glancing over her shoulder. "He looks like a man who hasn't eaten in three days, and you're a big, fat, juicy steak."
"You're imagining things," Stormer muttered, trying to concentrate on the dessert list, but the words kept swimming in front of her eyes.
"I've got a pretty active imagination, but even that has its limits."
"I—I have to powder my nose. Excuse me." Stormer pushed away from the table, giving Riot's table a wide berth as she fled to the ladies room, Kimber on her heels.
Kimber caught Stormer's arm, confused. "Stormer, what's going on?"
Stormer dragged her into the far corner of the ladies lounge, peering under the stall doors first until she was sure they were alone. When she was satisfied, she turned the deadbolt on the bathroom door, and leaned heavily against it.
"Kimber, you can't tell anybody—"
"Tell anybody what? What's with all the cloak and dagger stuff?"
Stormer sat down on the gold velvet couch in one corner of the ladies lounge, her shoulders slumped in defeat. "Riot sort of... kinda... kissed me."
Kimber's mouth dropped open in shock. "No! When?"
"At the Stingers concert, backstage. One second I'm giving him a piece of my mind, and then next thing I knew, he kissed me."
"Outrageous!" Kimber squealed, like they were in six grade study hall, and Stormer had passed her a note in math class. "Then what?"
"What do you mean, then what?"
"Well, did you like it?"
"What? Did you?"
Stormer frowned. "It all happened so fast, and I don't know, I guess it just didn't feel real. Then the other day, he showed up at my place, and he just seemed so... not Riot."
She couldn't think of any other way to explain it. He'd been kind, approachable, he'd done dishes, even. The man she'd spent the day with was as different from the arrogant, obnoxious bleached-blond self-declared rock star royalty she had been introduced to the day Eric had offered up the Gabor mansion as temporary lodgings, as night and day. She'd actually enjoyed the evening at the Llewelyn's. And when she'd looked up and saw Riot take the table across the crowded restaurant, the smile that had almost lifted the corners of her mouth scared her.
"He actually took me to meet his parents," she confided in a low whisper.
"You met his parents?" Kimber almost shrieked, and Stormer clapped a hand over her mouth, wincing.
"Seriously—he took you home?" Kimber's voice was muffled by Stormer's hand, which she removed guiltily.
"It was his mom's birthday—"
"Oh my God, you met his mom?"
"Kimber, it's not like that."
"Then what is it like?"
"I don't know!" Stormer whispered fiercely, then froze as someone knocked on the bathroom door. She and Kimber stared at the bathroom door, frozen in place, scarcely daring to breath as whoever it was tried to knob twice, before giving up and walking away.
Stormer waited until the footsteps had faded before daring to speak again. "I thought—I thought it was just business, but...."
"But?" Kimber raised a brow. If Stormer didn't know any better, she'd say her friend had an evil glint in her big blue eyes.
"He kinda sorta sent me roses," she mumbled, feeling an unwanted blush beginning to burn her cheeks.
"Oh, he's got it bad," Kimber said with a low chuckle.
"Don't say that!" Stormer said, panicked. She'd managed to convince herself that it was some kind of fluke—that Riot had just been exacting a favour in return for furnishing her with a new contract. That the flowers had simply been a kind gesture of thanks—no strings attached. The very last thing she wanted to hear from her best friend was that he had any genuine romantic interest in her.
"Well, it sure looks like it to me," Kimber said as Stormer reached up to touch the petals of the rose in her hair. "Are you going to go out with him?"
"No! God, no."
"Why not?" Kimber asked slyly.
"Do you want a list? He's arrogant, egotistical, manipulative—"
"—really, really hot—"
"—and with my luck, probably still hung up on Jem," Stormer finished, resting her chin in her hand.
"I think she's made it pretty clear that she's not interested."
"Like that's ever stopped him before," Stormer sighed. Riot's obsession with Jem was legendary. They'd been stranded on a deserted island together for two months, for heaven's sake. There was no-one on the planet left who truly believed there was nothing at all between them.
"Well, in case you haven't noticed, it wasn't Jem he was watching like a hawk tonight," Kimber said, patting her shoulder affectionately. "Stormer, if he likes you, and you like him, why not?"
"I never said I liked him."
"You never really said you didn't," she pointed out with a grin. "You just said he was arrogant, egotistical and manipulative."
"Kimber, I'm serious! It's complicated. I mean, we work together—well, we work in the same building. And Pizzazz... She still has a thing for him..."
Pizzazz hadn't said another word about Riot for the remainder of practice that morning, but every time Stormer had caught sight of the roses out of the corner of her eye she'd felt the knot in her stomach tighten. Intellectually, she knew she shouldn't feel guilty. Riot had made it quite clear that he had no designs on Pizzazz, no matter how she hounded him. But it still felt wrong, even entertaining harmless fantasies about a guy the leader of her band had set her sights on.
"Well, her tough luck is what I say. So what if she still has a thing for him? Obviously he has a thing for you."
"You're reading too much into this."
"Stormer, you just said he kissed you!"
"It's just a game. You know how he is."
"I thought I did. But I don't know. Maybe he's not so bad after all?"
"Just misunderstood?" Stormer said, sceptical, and Kimber gave her a one-armed hug.
"Hey, not so long ago, I had to convince my sister and best friends that you weren't the devil incarnate, remember?"
"That was different."
"Maybe he just needs the love of a good woman to turn him around?" she said with sugary sweetness, and Stormer gave her a playful shove.
"Maybe you can just bite me."
"Hey, I'm only trying to help here. No need to go all Misfit on me," Kimber said with a laugh. "Now c'mon. I hear this place as great tiramisu, and I for one do not intend to miss out—Riot or no Riot."
Stormer let Kimber steer her back to the table, purposely blocking Stormer's view of Riot's table with a wink and a giggle. Having shared her deep dark secret, she felt better—even light-hearted as they giggled like schoolgirls. This, she reflected, was part of why she loved having Kimber for a friend. She could never have had the same conversation with Roxy, not without opening herself up to the possibility of ridicule.
As Stormer and Kimber took their seats, a waiter approached, carrying a silver covered serving dish, which he placed before Aja.
"But I didn't order dessert," Aja said in confusion.
"If you don't want it, I'll eat it," Craig said with a shrug as she lifted the cover.
Shining at the heart of a cluster of dark chocolate roses was a 2 carat diamond ring. Stormer could only gape as Craig took it and, getting down on one knee, offered it to her.
"Aja Leith, will you marry me?" Craig was gazing up into Aja's face, looking happier than Stormer had ever seen him.
"Outrageous…" Kimber breathed beside her.
Tears standing in her eyes, Aja nodded, and Craig slipped the ring on her finger.
Mason whooped and James pounded the table as the two kissed while the Holograms clapped and whistled. The entire restaurant turned to see what the ruckus was, and Stormer stole a glance at Riot's table. But he was gone, the busboy clearing away plates and glasses.
Chapter 4: Part III
"So, have you run the quarry to ground yet?" Rapture asked as she dropped her armload of shopping bags in Riot's office and threw herself down dramatically on the leather couch, propping her feet in knee-high leather boots up on the glass coffee table.
"Good morning to you, too." Riot looked up from the paperwork he was perusing. "Why so interested?"
"Are you kidding? It's been weeks. I'm getting bored. What's taking you so long?"
"Patience, my dear. Everything worth having in this world involves some element of risk, and comes at a price."
"Is that your cryptic way of telling me you haven't gotten into her pants yet?"
"Must you be crude?" Riot frowned. Noting for the first time that Rapture was alone, he asked "Where's Minx?"
"She and I were supposed to go shopping, but Techrat called her, going on and on about some new circuit board design and she abandoned me. And don't change the subject."
Riot sighed. Obviously Rapture was not going to be put off as easily as he had hoped. "We shared a pleasant evening that was interrupted, that's all."
"So she's resisting your ample charms?"
"Nonsense. I'm simply taking things... slow," he insisted, as if he was convincing himself as much as her. "But make no mistake, I will get what I want, in the end."
"Such a relief." She began picking through the shopping bags, and came up with a grapefruit-sized crystal ball, her upside down reflection distorted by its depths. "I was worried for a minute there."
"Well, first Jem dumps you for that boring little Rio. And then getting the cold shoulder from that little drab, Stormer?" She shrugged, holding up the crystal so it could catch the light. "I thought perhaps you were losing your touch."
"Nothing of the kind," Riot assured her. "I've hardly made a serious effort."
"And do you intend to?" she asked, placing the crystal on a small stand in the corner of his desk. "Make a serious effort, I mean."
Riot clamped his teeth down hard on his intended answer. Any other time, he would be joining in willingly with whatever game Rapture wished to play, but this was not one of those times. "I intend to play this particular game out to the end, if that's what you're asking. Now, if you do not mind, there is work to be done."
Riot turned back to his papers, steadfastly ignoring Rapture's pouting and after a few moments, heard Rapture gather her things and go. Once she was gone, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. The crystal ball twinkled and shone, and he picked it up, staring into its depths.
Perhaps, he decided, letting the sphere roll across his palm, it was time for a more direct approach.
Stormer balanced the paper bag of groceries on her hip as she dug through her purse for her keys.
Since Aja had accepted Craig's proposal, Stormer hadn't seen much of him as he'd been spending every waking moment by her side. Having been abandoned by their drummer, James had talked Mason and Alan into heading off to Burbank for the day to go on some studio tours. So for the first time in days, Stormer had her place all to herself again. She was actually looking forward to having a little time to herself before she had to meet Roxy and the rest of the Misfits at the Gabor mansion.
The agenda for the evening was to watch Starbright on tape with the sound turned off, and make up their own dialogue. Jetta had never done it with them before, and it was something of a Misfit tradition. The first two times they'd done it, Stormer had ended up spending the night. It had been like a slumber party, except for Pizzazz's penchant for having the servants make pitchers of margaritas, which Stormer was pretty sure most 13-year-old girls weren't in the habit of consuming at sleep-overs. She'd told Craig and the boys not to expect her back until morning, but knowing Pizzazz, she probably wouldn't even get out of bed until 2pm.
Between finishing their latest EP, whipping new songs into shape to be performed at their next concert, and trying to squeeze in time to spend with her brother and the band, she was feeling like she'd crammed a lifetime into the last week. As tired as she was, there was no time for bubble baths and ice-cream. Despite Craig's promises to replace any groceries the guys ate, her cupboard had been bare when she'd got up that morning so, feeling like a den mother, she'd gone shopping for essentials.
The groceries began to slip as she finally got the keys out of the tangle of lipstick, hairbrush, guitar picks, and credit card receipts that were the bottom of her purse. She was about to give up and just set it down when the weight was lifted off her hip. She whirled in surprise to find Riot taking the bag from her slack fingers. She'd had her head buried so deeply in her thoughts she hadn't even heard him come up the steps.
"What... what are you doing here?" she stammered, stumbling backwards and jarring her elbow against the doorknob.
"Nice to see you, too."
"Are you going to make a habit of this?"
"Of what? Rescuing comely damsels in distress?"
"No, showing up on my doorstep unannounced."
"Well, if the mountain will not come to Mohammed..." He touched the rose tucked behind her ear. "I see you got the flowers."
Her hand flew to the silky petals, which she'd forgotten she was still wearing. The roses, which she'd brought home much to Craig's dismay, had begun to bloom and she hadn't been able to resist cutting a blossom to wear in her hair that morning. She flushed, embarrassed at her lack of manners. "Thank you. I mean it, they're beautiful."
"You deserve beautiful things," he said as he leaned forward fixing the flower more securely among her blue curls.
"You're just saying that," she said softly, suddenly intensely uncomfortable.
"Would I lie?"
That prompted a genuine, full-throated laugh. "You don't want me to answer that."
She fitted her key into the lock and opened the door with her hip. He followed her to the kitchen, still carrying the groceries. Dropping her keys on the counter, she took the bag from him and began unpacking the them, glad that the bag contained only food, and not items she'd rather no-one else see. That would be all she needed, she mused as she opened the freezer door and set two cartons of chocolate ice-cream in the door. Riot coming over just in time to help her unpack feminine hygiene products.
"And I suppose it was just coincidence that you were at the restaurant where Aja decided to hold my brother's welcome home dinner?"
"It's a free country," he said with a shrug. "I'm free to go where I choose, am I not?"
Stormer raised a brow. "And you just happened to choose the spot where Jem happened to be?"
"Was Jem there?" he said airily, and leaning his chin in his hand, gazed at her adoringly. "I didn't notice."
Stormer snorted. "Now I know you're toying with me."
"Have dinner with me," he asked as she lifted out a loaf of Wonder Bread and a plastic baggie of cold cuts from the deli. She hesitated, squishing the bread slightly before she chucked it in the breadbox.
"No," she shook her head, and jerked the fridge open a little too forcefully, making the jars on the inside of the door rattle. "No, I couldn't—"
"Why not? Everyone needs to eat." He handed her the gallon of milk.
She pushed aside leftover cartons of Chinese food and set the milk down on the top shelf. "Riot, I can't."
"You have plans."
"That's not it."
"Come now, you've had dinner with me before," he said smoothly.
"Only because you tricked me into it," Stormer pointed out, grabbing a box of microwave popcorn from the bag and setting it next to her car keys on the counter so she wouldn't forget to take it with her.
"But you enjoyed yourself."
She flushed, remembering how she had invited him in for coffee after his mother's birthday. She had enjoyed herself—more than she thought she was capable of, considering her prior opinion of him. "That's not the point."
"Certainly it is. We should all do things we enjoy."
She closed the fridge door, leaning against it heavily. "Riot, I'm not going to have dinner with you."
"Alright. Have coffee with me."
He was perched on one of the stools around her kitchen counter, looking ridiculously out of place next to a stack of unopened mail, three cans of tuna, and a yellow plastic pencil cup bearing a happy smiley face. Yet, if he noticed, it didn't seem to matter to him. He acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world to help her unpack groceries while wearing a Yaki Tori silk shirt and leather pants. Really, really tight leather pants.
"Come now, I know you drink coffee. I've seen you do it. You add a ridiculous amount of milk and sugar to it, but you do drink it."
She grabbed a can of tuna, one in each hand, and threw them into the cupboard. "No."
"What is so dangerous about coffee?"
"Coffee is not dangerous." She pointed to him with the third can of tuna still in hand. "You are dangerous."
Stepping out from behind the counter, Riot took the tuna from her, and set it carefully on the shelf. "I am tame as a kitten."
"Yeah, and I'm the Queen of Sheba." Stormer balled up the paper shopping bag, and stuffed it into the trash. When she turned around, he was right in front of her, so close she could smell his after-shave.
"Why don't you like me?" he asked, head cocked to the side as he studied her.
"Because I don't like the way you treat people," she said simply, "and I don't like the way people treat each other when they're around you."
"I can hardly be held responsible for the way others act," he said with a sigh, and she bit her tongue to keep from giving him a laundry list of instances where she'd watched him revel in the attention of having two women fighting over him.
"I treated you well," he pointed out.
"But not entirely out of the goodness of your heart, remember? You had to protect your perfect reputation."
"You'll live." She pointedly stepped around him.
"I love it when you play hard to get," he purred.
"I'm not playing hard to get," she snapped. "I'm playing impossible to get."
"I think I liked you better when you were begging for my help."
She whirled on him, not needing to feign the outrage that burned through her, banishing the last of her shyness. "I never begged."
"You asked so nicely."
"I called you names. I threw you out, remember?"
"You came to the theatre," he countered. "If you really didn't want to see me, you could have simply sent the coach away."
"I was using you," she said coolly. "Against Eric. You were nothing but a... a pawn. In a game. That's all."
To her utter fury, he only smiled at her fondly. "What's the expression? Ah yes. I remember now. Never play a player. You don't use people, my dear. The last thing you can possibly expect me to believe is that you played me."
"Well, I did. And I got what I wanted, and now I don't need you anymore. So there's nothing to discuss." She tried to move past him, but he stepped into her path, blocking her escape.
"I seem to remember a kiss which says otherwise."
"I didn't kiss you!" she cried, so frustrated she thought she would scream. "You kissed me, you jerk!"
He reached out and touched the flower still in her hair, stroking a petal between thumb and forefinger. "Admit it. You're attracted to me."
She backed up until she felt the edge of the kitchen counter with her hip, but there was nowhere else to run. He had her pinned. She lifted her chin a fraction, defiant. "I am not attracted to you."
"Really? Then prove it."
She blinked in confusion. "Huh?"
"Kiss me," he said simply, a challenge shining in his eyes.
Her jaw dropped. "No!"
"If you're not attracted to me," he said with a shrug, "then what does it matter?"
Stormer could feel a muscle twitching in her jaw at his arrogance.
"Fine." She leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the mouth. "See? Nothing. I told you. I am not—what are you doing?" she asked as he closed the few inches left between them.
"Making it a fair contest." He tipped her head back, brushing the backs of his fingers across her cheek gently.
She closed her eyes, feeling his breath soft against her mouth. Balling her hands into fists, nails digging into her palms, she stood stock still as he brushed her lips with his teasingly. She was determined not to give him the satisfaction of any reaction, even as every nerve in her body was screaming for her to move towards him rather than away. He threaded his fingers through her hair, as if he thought she might escape but there was no chance of that. Not with the entire length of his body pressed against hers, pinning her against the counter. Her heart pounded in her ears as slow warmth began to spread through her at his nearness, making her knees weak and her face warmed with a blush.
His mouth moved against hers, the pressure of his lips gentle at first and then more insistent. What broke her was the soft sound he made somewhere between a moan and a growl in the back of his throat when her lips parted beneath his. She found her fingers uncurling finally so she could grip his shoulders, her resolve slipping away like a breath. His hand slid from her shoulder to the small of her back, fingers splayed as he pulled her even closer. She felt the heat of his hand through the thin fabric of her tee-shirt like a brand, and when his fingers brushed the inch of skin between the hem of the tee and waistband of her jeans, a shiver made the hair at the base of her skull prickle. She made a small sound in the back of her throat as he gently sucked on her bottom lip, her hands tightening on his shoulders.
She opened her eyes when he pulled back, pressing one last kiss to her swollen and tender mouth before he smiled down at her, for once without a trace of mockery.
"Fine. I'm attracted to you," she admitted petulantly. "Happy?"
"Very." He leaned in for another kiss, his hands drifting down to her hips, gripping them through her jeans. She opened her mouth beneath his and he swallowed her gasp as he lifted her up onto the counter. Her tongue slid against his as she hooked a leg around his waist, pulling him closer.
It had been a long time since she'd done this with anyone—and never in her own kitchen before. Angus had been sweet, and she'd enjoyed the time they had spent together, but there had never been this kind of heated attraction between them. Riot's touch reminded her what it was like to be wanted, what it was like to feel desirable, even sexy, not because she was dressed provocatively, or putting on a show for the audience. But because he wanted her.
She'd never really felt powerful just being herself, Mary Phillips. Any power she'd ever felt she had came from living safely in Pizzazz's shadow. His lips grazing her neck, tongue tracing the curve of her jaw, his teeth finding her earlobe reminded her what it was like to be desired. Reminded her what it was like to want to completely lose control.
She sucked on his bottom lip as she twined her fingers in his thick blond hair. Her breath came in short, panting gasps as he ran his hand along her thigh, hitching her leg higher so that her ankle rested at the waistband of his leather pants, denim sliding against the silk sheen of his shirt. His other hand was buried in her hair, fingers curled around the base of her skull.
His fingers dislodged the rose from her hair, scattering petals as it fell to the kitchen floor. The sight of it, red gleaming against the white linoleum like blood, finally penetrated the haze of passion that fogged Stormer's brain, and she pulled back.
"I can't," she said softly as she brought her hands up to his chest, pushing him away. "I can't do this."
"You were actually doing it quite well." Riot chuckled, then grew serious when he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes. "What is it? Is there... is there someone else?"
"Pizzazz..." she began, shaking her head.
"You're in love with Pizzazz?"
"Pizzazz is in love with you." She slid off the counter and fled into the wide open space of the living room like the devil himself was at her heels.
"She's hardly in love with me," Riot said dismissively as he followed her. "It's a schoolgirl crush, nothing more."
Stormer sank down on the couch, pulling knees up to her chest protectively. "How can you be so cold? She actually cares about you."
Riot knelt at her side, fingers finding the bit of naked skin between the hem of her jeans and her high heeled shoes. "My darling girl, the only person on this Earth Pizzazz cares about is Pizzazz."
"That's not true!" Stormer insisted, batting his hand away. "She's not that bad, once you get to know her."
"I have no desire to get to know her better. I find her obnoxious."
"Okay, so she's abrasive—" Stormer conceded.
"—and maybe a little spoiled."
"A little?" Riot's voice rose on the last syllable, and Stormer sighed.
"—but she's a human being. If you took the time, you'd find out there are reasons for Pizzazz acting the way she does," she said, her voice tinged with desperation. She knew if she could just somehow make him understand. Make him realise that as much as his over-the-top arrogance was a part of his public persona, Pizzazz's hard shell could be just as much a fiction.
"I don't understand why you are so protective of her feelings when it's quite plain she doesn't treat you with the same care."
"The Misfits are my family," Stormer said with a shrug. "You put up with stuff from family you wouldn't from strangers, because they're the people who are there for you when it matters."
"And when you needed her, was she there for you?"
Stormer flushed as Riot managed to hit on the kernel of truth she had been trying to deny for weeks, the one thing that undermined her once rock-solid belief that the Misfits mattered to Pizzazz more than her own ego.
"She apologised," she said weakly.
"Did she?" He raised one pale brow. "Did she come to you? Or were you forced to go to her?"
Stormer could feel her cheeks burning, and turned the question aside. "Look, I wasn't exactly a star, when Pizzazz found me. But she made me one. She gave me and Roxy so much, when we started out. Gave us jobs and a place to live. She didn't have to, but she did. No-one forced her. She's my friend. She may not always act like it, but she is."
"And how has she earned your unswerving loyalty? By protecting you from leeches like Raymond? By putting your welfare above her own lusts for fame and power?"
"You make her sound like a monster!" Stormer protested. "Her mother ran out on her when she was just a kid and instead of love, all her dad ever gave her was money. Deep down, she's just a scared little girl, craving love and attention. It's sad."
"Pathetic, you mean."
"Riot!" Stormer smacked him with a throw pillow from the couch at his insensitivity.
With a sigh, he sat down on the couch, tucking one leg up while the other trailed the floor. He reached for her hand, thumb brushing hers hypnotically. "Look, I know what it's like to chase after a father's love and approval—"
"Then maybe you can cut her some slack, huh?" Stormer tried to tug her hand out of his, but he held on tight.
"Slack," he repeated, sounding dubious.
"I'm not asking you to date her, just..." She sighed. "Just be a little nicer to her?"
He frowned slightly, still holding her hand captive.
"And if you really don't like her, then for Pete's sake, stop toying with her," Stormer said sternly, and he smiled, bringing her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the sensitive skin inside her wrist.
"For you, my dear, I will be the soul of chivalry where Pizzazz is concerned."
"That's all I'm asking," she said with a shaky smile, and he reached out to cup her cheek in his hand.
She laughed. "You never give up, do you?"
"Not until I get what I want."
"And you always get what you want."
"Not always," he conceded.
"Okay, okay, I'll go to dinner with you. But someplace... private? At least until I can talk to Pizzazz..."
"Is my penthouse private enough? Minx discovered a Franco-Japonaise restaurant in Beverly Hills with an excellent duck and mango salad—I can have their chef come over to prepare it this evening."
"I can't tonight," she shook her head. "I promised Pizzazz and the other Misfits I'd come over tonight. It's—" She almost said Starbright Night and that would be too hard to explain, so she stopped herself. "It's something we've been planning for a while. They're all expecting me. If I cancel, there will be too many questions. Tomorrow?"
It was Riot's turn to frown. "The Stingers are performing on the Lin-Z show, and then Yaki Tori is having a gala unveiling of his new line, which, may I add, will be very, very public. Friday?"
"The Blue Bloods are playing at the Rock Hard Café and it's doubling as an engagement party for my brother and Aja."
He dropped his head to rest on her knees in mock defeat, and she grasped handfuls of his shirt, tugging him up so he would meet her eyes.
"He's my brother. I hardly ever see him and this is so important to him—please say you understand," she pleaded. "Please? He's all the family I've got left."
"Fine. But I will collect a rain check," he promised, pulling her into a kiss.
Stormer pulled up the long driveway of the Gabor mansion and cut her engine just outside the circle of light cast by the porch light. As she'd driven past Starlight Mansion—close enough for Pizzazz to spy on Jerrica and her foster girls via binoculars, which, Stormer was embarrassed to admit, they had done quit a bit when they'd first moved in—she'd wondered if Craig was inside.
The past few days, her brother had been like a ghost—gone before she woke up in the morning, coming home long after she'd gone to bed—if he was coming home at all, she noted with a smile. It wouldn't be the first time he'd visited and she'd found his bed hadn't been slept in the next day. But ever since he'd met Aja, he'd been a one-woman man, and she didn't think she'd ever seen him happier. She couldn't even be mad at him for not filling her in on his plan first—after all, Craig was a grown-up, and he hardly needed to clear every major decision with his "baby" sister. Still, at least if Craig and Aja got married, that would mean they'd probably settle in Los Angeles, and for all he occasionally drove her crazy, she did miss him terribly.
Tilting the rear-view mirror towards her slightly, Stormer checked her lipstick for the fourth time, trying to see if, at a glance, she could tell she'd been thoroughly and repeatedly kissed by someone who definitely knew how. Her lips were still sensitive and slightly bruised, but she hoped that no-one would noticed—especially not Pizzazz. Not tonight.
Stormer nervously adjusted the rose in her hair. It was only slightly the worse for wear, and she blushed as she remembered how Riot had gently replaced it among the thick blue curls before he'd left.
She wasn't looking forward to telling Pizzazz about her and Riot. Especially considering she wasn't even sure about it herself. But she couldn't go forward with this relationship—if it could even be called that—without telling her the truth. She didn't like slinking around behind her band's backs, and the thought of trying to keep something like this a secret made her stomach hurt. The longer she tried to hide it, the worse it was going to be, and the more betrayed Pizzazz would feel.
She had vivid memories of Lindsey Pierce's first Celebrity Beach Bash. If it hadn't been for Minx almost drowning, she had no doubt that Pizzazz and Jem would have gone at it, complete with hair-pulling, scratching, and—knowing Pizzazz—kidney punches. Pizzazz had shoved Stormer around enough over the last four years to know that Phyllis Gabor was perfectly comfortable of lashing out physically when words just wouldn't draw blood. And to tell the truth, she'd never seen Pizzazz so torn up about a guy. Not even when Kimber had started dating Sean Harrison, who had previously been a notch on Pizzazz's bedpost. Pizzazz had reacted like Sean had been the love of her life, and it had been just one more reason for her to hate Kimber. But her thing for Sean paled in comparison with her obsession with Riot.
"You faced down Eric in his own office," she murmured to her reflection. "You can do this."
The girl in the mirror looked sceptical, and Stormer didn't blame her.
Roxy answered the door, half the fingers on her right hand painted black, and she blew on them as she grinned.
"You're late. Show's about to start."
"Show?" Stormer frowned, confused, as she followed Roxy through the marble foyer. "I thought tonight was Starbright Night? I brought microwave popcorn, and everything."
"Channel 9's been running ads all day for the Harriet Horn show, and Pizzazz is making us watch it."
"Who knows?" Roxy shrugged as they got to the TV room, where Jetta was lounging on one of the couches, deeply engrossed in the latest Vogue. Pizzazz had kicked off her high heeled shoes and was perched on the edge of the sofa, scanning the TV Guide while Roxy flipped through the channels using the remote.
"Can I talk to you?" Stormer asked Pizzazz, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Is this about that song thing again? I already said I was sorry."
"No, that's not it—there's just, there's something—"
"Ooooh, it's time!" Pizzazz jumped to her feet, completely ignoring Stormer, and grabbed the remote from Roxy.
"It's really important—" Stormer began again, but was drowned out by the opening music of the Harriet Horn show.
Horn, with her blonde hair teased into something halfway between a helmet and a beehive and fixed with so much Aquanet it wouldn't move in a hurricane appeared on the screen, sitting behind a desk, a fake LA skyline backdrop behind her set with twinkling lights that Stormer remembered close up were just tiny bulbs which poked through the painted velvet. She took a seat on the couch next to Roxy, who scooted over to make room for her.
"Well, kids, looks like Cupid's been working overtime in the rock music world this week!"
A graphics box appeared next to her head with a close-up of Jem and the Holograms from their last concert. Stormer could barely hear Horn's voice over the jeers and hisses of her fellow bandmates.
"Wedding bells are ringing, as Jem and the Holograms' bass player is to wed Blue Bloods' drummer Craig Phillips. You remember that hunk, don't you? He was in the running to become the Holograms new band member—looks like he may have lost the contest, but he definitely won Aja's heart."
Roxy tossed a throw-pillow at the set. "Oh, gross!"
"Gag me," Pizzazz added, miming putting her fingers down her throat.
"Hey, that's my brother you're talking about!" Stormer reminded them, giving Roxy's arm a playful punch.
"I wonder how that Holotwerp feels about having a Misfit in the family." Roxy lifted a brow as she rubbed her arm where Stormer's punch had landed, pretending it had actually hurt.
Jetta leaned towards Stormer flipping her black hair back over her shoulder with a wink. "Maybe we ought to be asking Stormer how she feels, stuck with a Holohag for a sister, eh?"
"Aja's not so bad..." Stormer said softly, despite her own misgivings. Of all of the Holograms, Aja had accepted her working with Kimber the least. Even after Craig had finally told her his secret, Aja had politely kept her distance.
"Please," Roxy rolled her eyes. "She can't stand you."
"But that's not all!" Horn continued. "A little bird tells me the dishy lead singer of the Stingers has something cooking."
Pizzazz grabbed the remote from the couch where she'd dropped it and cranked the volume. "Quiet, you three! I want to hear this."
"Not this guy again," Roxy whispered to Stormer, who found she suddenly couldn't move as a clip of the Stingers in concert began to play while Harriet Horn smirked smugly at the camera.
"Word is, he's given up on a certain Miss Popularity, and instead has set his sights on one of those naughty, naughty Misfits. Will Pizzazz finally get her man? Only time will tell, kids! Stay tuned, we've got juicy titbits on the Limp Lizards latest tour, Luna Dark's million dollar New York shopping spree, and Dominic Lerner's been thrown out of yet another boarding school—"
Pizzazz clicked off the set, and dropped the remote to slip between two couch cushions. "Did you hear that?"
Stormer swallowed, feeling Jetta's eyes on her as a blush rose in her cheeks. "Pizzazz, I—"
"Don't you see? Obviously, Riot has finally seen the error of his ways and is dumping Jem for me! Me!"
Stormer swallowed, a cold sweat breaking out on her forehead. "But Pizzazz, she never actually said—"
"I have to see if Clarice has an opening for me tomorrow at the spa," Pizzazz continued as if Stormer had never spoken, laughing delighted as a small child on Christmas morning who'd just got Barbie's dream house and a pony. "I need a make-over and a whole new wardrobe."
Stormer's resolve wavered in the face of Pizzazz's glee. "Don't you think... Don't you think maybe you shouldn't get all worked up? It's just a rumour."
"Fashion! That's it! Riot's sure to be at the Yaki Tori show tomorrow night—that's perfect."
"We're not exactly invited," Stormer reminded her, trying to keep her desperation from tingeing her voice.
Roxy laughed. "Like we've ever needed an invitation."
"It's not a party until we crash it, ducks," Jetta added with a wink.
"Do you really think that's such a good idea?"
"Stormer, why are you being such a buzz-kill?" Pizzazz frowned.
This was it. This was the exact moment that Stormer should put an end to this charade. Now, before anyone got really hurt. But Pizzazz was just so happy, and Stormer's resolve drained away as all three Misfits turned to stare at her.
"I just don't want you to get hurt, that's all," she said, knowing it was as bad as lying outright, but unable to stop herself.
Pizzazz's green eyes glittered dangerously as she smiled a predatory smile. "The only one getting hurt is poor little miss Jem, left all alone while Pizzazz wins the prize."
"Well, kids, looks like Cupid's been working overtime in the rock music world this week! Wedding bells are ringing, as Jem and the Holograms' bass player is to wed Blue Bloods' drummer Craig Phillips. You remember that hunk, don't you? He was in the running to become the Holograms new band member—looks like he may have lost the contest, but he definitely won Aja's heart."
"I swear to God, that woman has spies everywhere," Aja muttered.
The Harriet Horn Show was not the weekly tradition that Lindsey's rock music news series was, and Jerrica preferred the foster girls skip the gossip show. But as one of LA's top bands, Jem and the Holograms, on the other hand, needed to stay tuned in.
Jerrica was in the centre of the couch, Raya and Aja on either side. Kimber was perched in one of the overstuffed chairs, the younger girl's feet tucked up under her and a bowl of popcorn in her lap.
Lindsey had called Jerrica in the middle of the day, that afternoon, which was surprising though not entirely common. She'd been slightly puzzled when the V-jay had told her to watch Horn's show tonight, and when pressed, she'd just said that there would be publicity for Jem and the Holograms. And they'd better be prepared for which kind.
"But that's not all! A little bird tells me the dishy lead singer of the Stingers has something cooking."
"Ack! Quick, switch the channel!" Raya made a grab for the remote but Jerrica laughed and hugged it closer to her.
"No, wait—I want to hear this."
Shana rolled her eyes. "Jerrica, don't tell me you still have a thing for the guy."
"Of course not..." Jerrica insisted, though a blush had risen in her cheeks. "I'm just curious, that's all."
"Sure you are," Shana teased.
"Word is, he's given up on a certain Miss Popularity, and instead has set his sights on one of those naughty, naughty Misfits. Will Pizzazz finally get her man?"
"Not likely," Kimber said beneath her breath, earning a sharp look from Aja. Kimber flushed and looked away.
"Well, that's certainly an interesting development," Shana said as Jerrica clicked off the set.
"Looks like Riot's finally moved on from Jem," Raya observed with a shrug. "That's good, isn't it?"
"Of course it is," Aja said, giving Jerrica a pointed look.
"Of course," Jerrica echoed, confused by the way her stomach had dropped down into her shoes at the news.
"Yeah, but Pizzazz?" Raya shook her head. "I almost feel sorry for the guy."
"I don't think we need to worry about Riot and Pizzazz," Kimber said cryptically around a mouthful of popcorn.
Jerrica turned to her sister, frowning. "Kimber?"
"Nothing," she mumbled, suddenly self-conscious.
Raya pounced on her immediately. "You know something."
"Forget I said anything."
"It's too late now, girl," Shana teased as she grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bowl. "You better spill."
Kimber shook her head. "I can't, I promised."
"Promised who?" Jerrica asked, half afraid of the answer.
"Stormer," Aja said, and every eye in the room turned to her.
"How do you—" Kimber began.
"Craig told me," she said quickly. "He... he asked me to keep it under wraps. Apparently, the night he got into town, Stormer and Riot were coming back from a date. Or something. Frankly, I didn't ask."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Jerrica asked quietly.
"It's none of our business," Aja said with a shrug. "You're with Rio, remember? So it doesn't matter who Riot does or doesn't go out with."
Jerrica flushed. "Of course. It's just... I didn't realise he and Stormer had gotten so close."
"Word is, he's given up on a certain Miss Popularity, and instead has set his sights on one of those naughty, naughty Misfits. Will Pizzazz finally get her man? Only time will tell—"
Riot clicked off the television set, frowning. Rapture and Minx had appeared that evening, ostensibly to discuss their upcoming appearance on the Lindsey Pierce Show. However, when Rapture had insisted he turn on Horn's show, Riot had begun to suspect his bandmate had ulterior motives.
"Pizzazz will gut her like a fish when she finds out." Rapture laughed, obviously delighted.
Minx chuckled. "That'll be fun to watch."
Riot got up and began to pace, obviously upset.
"What's the matter?" Rapture asked from the armchair she had draped herself over.
"I had not planned for this to become public so soon." There was steel in his voice as he started pointedly at Rapture, arms crossed and scowling.
"You're the one who invited Horn to our last concert, remember?" Rapture reminded him sweetly. "You're the one who made such a great show of fawning over little Miss Stormer. Honestly, I'm amazed it took Harriet this long to sniff out the truth."
Minx looked back and forth between Rapture and Riot, obviously confused. "Are we still playing this game? I thought you had simply bored of her, and moved on."
"I told you that I was handling it—discreetly."
"And I have been discreet," Rapture refused to be cowed. "And anyway, why are you so sure I'm the one who fed dear Harriet this particular titbit? Maybe your little songbird leaked it herself, for the publicity?"
"There's only one little bird singing this tune, Rapture. Don't think I can't recognise your hand in this."
"Riot, it's just a game," Rapture sighed.
"Yes, Riot. A game. Isn't it?" Minx asked, appearing genuinely confused as to the source of his anger.
Truth be told, he was surprised he was being so cross with her as well. But this was one instance where Rapture's penchant for mischief was neither appreciated nor tolerated.
"I'm not in the mood," he said, turning his back on them. He could see Rapture's puzzled frown reflected in the glass. Rapture stared at him, her expression unreadable, before she slipped on her coat.
"C'mon, Minx. This isn't any fun any longer."
After the girls left, Riot found himself staring out the window, unsure of how he was going to proceed. He was not, normally, the brooding type. He was more of a man of action, never content to simply let things fall where they may, but always striving to set wheels in motion in order to achieve his goals. Usually he acted with self-assuredness which others mistook for sheer arrogance. But the difference was, he almost always knew exactly what he wanted, and had no qualms about simply going after it. If he was arrogant, then he would not change—why cloak his motives in false modesty? Better to be honest about his desires, even if many despised him for it. Normally, he simply didn't care.
Suddenly, he found himself caring. Because for the first time in a long time, it mattered to him whom he hurt.
He had been unprepared for how she had taken over his thoughts, the image of her—blue eyes half closed and lips swollen and bruised after he'd kissed her—appearing in his mind's eye unbidden. He'd been unable to concentrate all day, as his mind had gone back to that afternoon, as they'd carefully and cautiously danced around one another. The fear of discovery mixed in with the excitement of having leave to taste and touch, to explore this new closeness growing between them. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so affected by the chase.
Jem had been his obsession ever since he'd come to Los Angeles. She was perfection—unmarred by the encumbrances of mundane details such as a real name, a real past, anything tangible which might spoil her perfection. She was a dream—one from which he'd been content never to wake. He'd pursed her with dogged determination, up until the day she'd forced him to mend fences with his father. Then, suddenly, that obsessive need to posses perfection had someone seemed... less important.
He'd been reminded by his mother's illness that dreams were all well and good, but you couldn't hold onto them. They couldn't be touched and held and cherished at the expense of reality. What had mattered to him more than he'd ever realised was his father's acknowledgement. He was still waiting for approval, but for now, the simple acknowledgement was enough. Knowing that his mother could listen to his records without having to hide them from her husband of 30 years was so much more precious to him than winning a pop star from the arms of her road manager.
So, just as he was banishing one obsession, was he chasing another? Rapture was, in her own way, correct about one thing. Months ago, he wouldn't have spared Stormer of the Misfits a second glance. Had barely been aware of her existence.
Now he would not stop until he possessed her completely. And he would let nothing stand in his way.
Not even his own bandmates.
Chapter 5: Part IV
"We made the news," Aja said as she slipped her hand into Craig's. The air along the beach was muggy, but a cool breeze blew off the ocean, tinged with salt and seaweed and the memory of day. The full moon had risen low over the waves, and at the far end of the beach, she could see kids gathered around a bonfire. They'd left Craig's rental car parked and Aja had kicked off her shoes, relishing the feel of sand between her toes as they walked.
"I heard," he said, his breath stirring her hair. "There's no backing out now, not without considerable public embarrassment."
Aja sighed dramatically. "I guess we'll just have to go through with it now."
He laughed, grabbing her around the waist and swinging her in a circle.
"Craig! Put me down!" She giggled as they teetered off balance.
Still laughing, he set her on her feet. She continued down, sitting on the sand, and he stretched out beside her. She closed her eyes, relishing the warmth of his arms around her.
"Are you happy?" he asked.
She leaned over and brushed his hair from his forehead. "Yeah. I am. Happier than I've been in a long, long time."
He smiled a self-satisfied smile. "Good."
She leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder as they watched the waves crashing against the shore.
Aja had been ten years old when she'd been called out of class and summoned to the principal's office. Her dad had taken the day off, to drive her mother to an appointment in the city. At her dad's urging, she'd kissed them on the cheek as she'd rushed out to meet the bus to school. She'd never guessed, as she'd eaten her bagged lunch in the cafeteria, or played four-square in the yard at recess, that she was never going to see her parents again. She never would have guessed in a million years.
She still remembered the social worker's face, as she'd told her that her parents had been driving along the coast when the semi had hit their car. She's sat there, tugging her skirt down over her knees, waiting for someone to tell her it was all a joke. A mistake. Mr Charles had been an older man in a cheap suit who had seemed so genuinely sorry, that she'd believed him when he told her they'd died instantly. That there had been no pain.
She'd spent the next eight months shuttled from foster home to foster home, still waiting for her mom and dad to drive up, knock on the door and collect her. It didn't matter that she'd been to the funeral. That everything she owned had been packed into three suitcases, and she'd been driven by Mr Charles to the first group home, along with two other girls. She hadn't stayed there long. Just long enough to realise that it wasn't a joke. That Henry and Mei Ling Leith were really gone, and weren't coming back for her. But she still ran to the door every time she heard a car drive up, a lump forming in her throat. After eight months, she still couldn't stop waking up in the middle of the night expecting to see her teddy bear nightlight glowing against the far wall, smell her mother's perfume, or trip over a stack of her father's magazines next to the coffee table. Her old life was gone—like a dream she'd been roughly awakened from, and there was no way to slip back into it, no matter how hard she'd tried.
She'd changed schools twice, and was living in a state home when Jacqui and Emmett Benton had come to visit her. She'd watched younger girls get adopted, while the older girls grew more desperate every day. No-one wanted a gangly ten-year-old if they could have a baby to adopt—least of all one who couldn't even pass for one of their own children which, even with blue eyes, Aja never would. She'd been terrified she'd either stay a ward of the state until her eighteenth birthday, or worse, end up in some group home where the foster parents were just collecting the cheque and didn't give a damn. She hadn't expected anything, when she met the Bentons. She'd learned not to get her hopes up with every couple Mr Charles brought to meet her. She'd been surprised when they had asked her if she wanted to come live with them and their two daughters.
She remembered Mr Charles like a spectre in the corner of the room, still rumpled and well-meaning. She remembered thinking "it can't be any worse than any other home" as she'd nodded, and let the slender blonde woman fold her in an awkward hug which she wished she could melt into, but didn't.
She remembered the long drive to a house that reminded her of the Addams Family house, where a old tire-swing hung from a tree branch like something out of a picture postcard. She remembered Emmett Benton taking her hand as they walked up the drive, and how big his hands were, and how small she felt in comparison. She remembered feeling terrified and hopeful all at the same time as they climbed the wooden porch steps, because this was a second chance at a real family.
She remembered when she was almost 13 years old, and she'd asked Jacqui if she and Emmett had known, when they came to see her that day, that she would love them. She remembered Jacqui smoothing her hair back from her forehead before pressing a kiss to her hairline, and saying "Of course."
She remembered how long it took for her to feel like she actually had a family again. And how fiercely she had fought to keep her family together, weathering both Jacqui and Emmett's deaths, her heart breaking the same way it had when her parents had gone to a doctor's appointment in the middle of the day and never returned.
And when Craig had slipped that ring on her finger, she'd had that same thrill of terror and joy that she'd felt as the Benton's car had pulled into the driveway. That this was her chance at having a real family. That she had to hang onto it tightly, because nothing good can last.
"Can I ask you something?" Aja asked as the gulls swooped in lazy circles overhead.
"Did you know, when you came back, that you were going to propose?"
He nodded, not hesitating for a second. "The second I saw you at Barry's."
She turned in his arms, so that she was facing him. "Why?"
He was quiet for a moment, gathering his thoughts the way he sometimes did, when he was being serious. She'd only seen it a few times, but enough to recognise what he was about to tell her was true.
"Because I couldn't picture my life without you in it, any more," he said with a smile, and pulled her closer against him, resting his cheek against her hair. "I'm serious, Aja—the last couple of years, I felt like there was something missing in my life. Something big. And when I met you, it was like the piece of the puzzle I'd always been looking for was staring me in the face. I'd be a fool to let you go."
Aja blinked away sudden tears. "Hey, I'm not going anywhere."
"No chance." He leaned forward, cupping her cheek in his hand as he brushed her lips with his. "I'm never going to let you go."
"I can't believe she threw us out," Roxy muttered as she followed Stormer out to the garage, Jetta tagging along behind her.
Once Pizzazz had got the idea of crashing Yaki Tori's show in her head, the rest of the Misfits might as well have been on the moon, as she obsessed over what to wear, how to style her hair, even which perfume she was convinced would drive Riot wild. It made Roxy feel queasy just thinking about it. She would never forgive Eric for signing the Stingers, and turning their lead singer into a pile of goo whenever that annoying Eurotrash loser was around. Pizzazz had promised them up one side and down the other that she wouldn't let Riot screw up the band, when they'd welcomed her back. But that promise, it seemed, had been short-lived. The second Riot beckoned, Pizzazz ditched Roxy and the rest of them like nerds at a prom. And the last thing Roxy could stand was being left out in the cold.
"Can we do it at your place?" she asked Stormer as they reached the cars—Stormer's beat up old Volvo parked alongside Roxy's bike.
Stormer fished through her purse for her keys. "I wish we could, but I've got the Blue Bloods crashing at my place..."
Jetta made a face. "Spend a night with the Lord Hawthorne and his cronies? Think I'll pass, ducks."
"Yeah, well, who do we have to blame for that mess, huh?" Roxy elbowed Jetta, who shoved her right back. She was never going to let Jetta forget exactly whose fault it was they'd spent an entire night up to their elbows in dishes, all because Jetta couldn't stand to be caught out in a lie.
But in the year since, it actually hadn't been so bad having Jetta around. Especially since Stormer spent more and more time with the Benton brat, and Pizzazz was mooning over Riot. Having Jetta around gave Roxy someone to commiserate with. Still, sometimes, Roxy wished things could go back to the way they'd been that first year after Eric had signed them—the three original Misfits together against the world, when they weren't on top of it.
"C'mon, Stormer. I've got a VCR at my place. Who needs Pizzazz, when she's got her head all turned around by that Riot slime? We're better off without her. We can order some pizza, and I think I've got a six pack—"
"I actually—I forgot, there's something I need to do..." Stormer wouldn't meet her eyes, which was weird.
"You ditching us too?" Roxy couldn't keep the whine out of her voice. Usually Stormer was the first one to suggest a girls' night in. Even if most of the time it was because she hadn't had a date since the Stone Age, and treated Roxy like the sister neither of them had ever had.
"Just this once," Stormer said quickly, giving her a quick hug before she got into her car, rolling down the driver's side window. "I promise, we'll do Starbright Night for real soon."
"Fine." Roxy sighed, and tossed the spare helmet on the back of her bike to Jetta. "C'mon, Jetta. You can crash at my place."
Jetta watched Stormer's car as it disappeared down the long driveway, her grey eyes tracking the orange tail lights, lost in thought.
"You know... that queen bee gossip hound never did say which Misfit Riot supposedly has his eye on."
Roxy shuddered. "Don't look at me, sister. I can't stand the creepy bastard."
"And I wouldn't spit in his direction if he was on fire," Jetta added. "So don't you think it's just a wee bit suspicious?"
"You know—Stormer getting a new beau and all, right at the same time the rumour mill's churning 'bout Riot having his eye on some Misfit tail?"
Roxy laughed. "Oh, please. Stormer and Riot? You've gotta be kidding me. I mean, come on! It's Stormer. And anyway, she hates the guy."
Jetta clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. They were awfully cosy, what with him going on about her on Lindsey's show. You know, about their 'genuinely pleasurable working experience' and all. Maybe she gave him a little... pleasure?"
Roxy almost choked. "Stormer?"
Roxy shook her head, incredulous. "I've know her longer than you have. She's had exactly one guy in the last five years, and they barely got past hand holding. I can't exactly see Riot going for that."
"Do you really think he's come 'round to Pizzazz's charms, then?"
"Well... no." Roxy frowned. "Actually, that doesn't make a lot of sense either. I mean, she's been after him for over a year, and never gotten anywhere... But Riot? Stormer's smarter than that."
"What are you hinting at?"
"Well... just that I'm awfully curious where she's all hot to get to, all of a sudden."
"You want to follow her?"
Jetta shrugged. "You got any better plans for the evening?"
"Now who is showing up on whose doorstep unannounced?" Riot asked as he opened his door and found Stormer on the other side. She was dressed casually, a light jacket over a tank top and jeans, and her hair was pulled back, part of it held away from her face in a loose bun, the rose still tucked behind one ear. Aside from a trace of lipstick, she wore no make-up, and though there were only a few years between them, he was struck once again by how young she looked without it.
When the doorman had called to tell him he had a visitor, he wished he'd been surprised. But he'd half been expecting her ever since he'd kicked Rapture and Minx out. As predicted, she didn't look happy. In fact, she looked downright furious. As dismayed as he was, he couldn't help finding her beautiful in her anger—the defiant lift of her chin, the way her blue eyes flashed.
"Did you know? About Harriet Horn's show?"
"Not until I saw the broadcast."
"I thought you liked knowing people were talking about you," she snapped, eyes narrowed dangerously, reminding him that for all she appeared to be sweet and tractable, when backed into a corner she did in fact have teeth and claws.
"I do," he admitted, stepping aside so she could enter. "But I also gave you my word."
The fury went out of her all at once, and she seemed to shrink in on herself as she perched on the edge of the couch.
"Assuming the worst, I guess. I should have given you the benefit of the doubt."
He hesitated, wanting to tell her that while he had promised to keep their affair a secret, his bandmates had made no such promise. But sensing that would only undermine his position, he remained silent.
"Pizzazz wants to crash Yaki Tori's show tomorrow night," she continued, toying with her purse strap rather than meeting his eyes. "She's convinced you're finally in love with her."
He was so startled that he laughed, which only caused her to scowl at him.
"It's not funny! You should have seen her. She was so excited, so happy..."
"So, you're asking me to... what? Lead her on?" Riot prompted.
She looked horrified. "No!"
"Then you want me to rebuff her?"
She cringed. "Not exactly?"
He sat down next to her, the couch cushions dipping beneath his weight. "What exactly are you asking?"
"Just... take it easy on her tomorrow? Be nice?"
"I've already promised—"
"I know. Just be... extra nice."
"Without actually leading her on."
She nodded, and not for the first time, he wondered how exactly he had let her talk him into this vow of silence. He was seeing her—he wanted to actually see her. Sneaking around like he was a criminal did not sit well with him, and he could see based on just the last few hours exactly how poorly equipped for deception Stormer was. This was not a good long-term plan, and he knew, from the panicked look in her eye, his misgivings must be showing on his face.
"You'll have to forgive me if I sound confused. I'm not used to the women I'm seeing asking me to court other women while I'm seeing them."
Stormer sighed, her eyes suddenly shining with unshed tears. "I just don't want her to get hurt. I know... I know it may be hard to understand, but she's one of my closest friends. We may fight, and she can say and do things that seem just so awful. But so much of it is an act, you know? Like, if she acts tough, acts like nothing can hurt her, then... then nothing can. But this will. I just know it will, and I feel sick, thinking about it."
"No matter what happens, she is going to be hurt," he said gently, noting the flash of pain that crossed her face at his words. "There is nothing you can do to stop that. Even if what there is between us—this—did not exist. It would not matter. I would never return her affections."
"I know. I know that. I can at least try to, I dunno... Make it not hurt quite as much."
She looked utterly miserable, and he pulled her close to him, pressing a kiss to her hair with a tenderness that surprised him.
"Does your Pizzazz have any idea how loyal a friend she has in you?"
"I don't feel very loyal right now," she admitted, her voice muffled slightly as she spoke into his shirt. She shifted her weight, and he could feel the warmth of her body where it touched his—her shoulder tucked beneath his arm, thigh resting against his. "I should have told her tonight, before it went too far. But I just couldn't. I chickened out. If I had just said something—but she was just so happy. And every time I tried to get a word in edgewise, she just steamrolled right over me. The next thing I knew, she'd thrown the lot of us out, so she could get ready for tomorrow night."
"The broadcast never mentioned you by name," he said, earning a watery smile.
"No. That's something, at least." She sighed, leaning back against the couch, eyes cast up at the vaulted ceiling. "But Pizzazz assumed it was her. I mean, can you blame her? I don't think it could have crossed her mind for a second that... that you could ever... That she could ever lose anyone to me."
"You can't lose what you never had to begin with," he pointed out. "And why not you? You're a young, beautiful, talented rock star one can actually have a conversation with."
That earned a genuine smile. "C'mon—be real. Until a month ago, you didn't even know I existed."
"I was aware of your existence," he protested.
She gave him a look. "You weren't exactly beating a path to my door."
"Not at first, perhaps. But upon second glance..." He traced her jaw line with a fingertip, dipping down to follow the line of her throat bared by the open jacket. He stopped at the scooped neck of her tank top, and she blushed. He was amazed at she blushed so easily, and he believed he would never tire of seeing it.
"In case you haven't noticed, not a lot of guys stick around for second glances. I'm not the girl any guy spots across a crowded room and makes a beeline for. I just... fade into the background."
"It's difficult to fade into the background with hair like this," he teased, wrapping a lock of blue hair around one finger.
She frowned, but the sparkle was back in her blue eyes. "Now you're just making fun of me."
"You have such confidence where your music is concerned. But nowhere else in your life. Why is that?"
She shrugged. "I guess it's just easier, keeping your expectations low. Not getting your hopes up. That way, you can't get hurt."
There was something in her casual admission that made him suddenly furious. Angry at whoever had ground the fight out of her, and convinced her that she wasn't worthy.
The day he'd discovered "Phillip Ericson" was in fact Mary Phillips, he'd read all the interviews, pulled all the tapes from the archive Eric Raymond kept at Stinger Sound. He'd been curious as to the woman who had angrily thrown him out of her house at his accusations that she'd made her own prison. Watching the coverage of Stormer and Kimber's burgeoning solo career, he'd seen her discuss music with supreme confidence. Watched her smile and blithely announce that where music was concerned, "no-one does it better." Yet that easy confidence evaporated completely the second the subject strayed outside of her song-writing talents.
He'd seen his share of hardship, growing up. Every time his father had chastised him for his love of music, insisting that it made him less of a man, he'd felt despair. But he'd kept pursing his dream, certain that it was worth having, no matter the personal cost. He'd attacked every challenge in his life the same way—sure to his bones that he deserved to be happy. He deserved to have his talents recognised. He deserved more than he was willing to settle for.
It bothered him, to see someone so obviously deserving simply accepting defeat.
"You may avoid being hurt—but you also avoid anything that makes life worth living. Passion. Joy. Love."
She flushed, eyes downcast. "Love's never exactly been easy for me."
"Everything worth having in this world involves some element of risk," he said, the meaning of the words changing as he spoke them to Stormer, as opposed to Rapture in his office days earlier, "and comes at a price."
"Sometimes the price is too high."
He slipped a finger beneath her chin, lifting her eyes to meet his.
"I never said it was easy. But you can never win, if you don't play the game."
Roxy gazed up at the towering apartment building. The windows shone from within in a patchwork pattern, and they'd already got dirty looks from the old guy in the red doorman's uniform with its gold braid, as they'd pulled up. She guessed not too many folks who lived in digs like this drove a run down Indian.
She'd seen Stormer get out of her car with her own two eyes, handing her keys to the doorman to valet park for her, but she still couldn't wrap her mind around it.
"This doesn't make any sense," Roxy said as she removed her helmet, and behind her Jetta did the same, running a hand through her crest of black hair which had been flattened somewhat by the helmet.
"You're telling me."
Roxy frowned, desperately clutching at straws, in the hopes that this was all just some big misunderstanding that they would laugh about the next day. "Are you sure this is his place?"
Jetta nodded. "Don't you remember the piece in Cool Trash?"
Roxy hadn't actually read it—but she remembered Pizzazz gushing over the article on Riot's lavish penthouse, and how she'd fumed when she hadn't been able to buy a condo in the same building, no matter how much money her father had. They'd driven past it a dozen times one night, as she'd ranted and railed at the unfairness of it all, while she and Jetta and Stormer had rolled their eyes at each other.
"I don't like this. Bad enough Pizzazz gets all... weird about the guy. But Stormer..."
Roxy shook her head. They may joke about how Stormer was soft—but the truth of it was, out of all of them, she was the least likely to survive getting her heart stomped on in golf cleats by some asshole. Pizzazz would moan and groan, but she'd get over it. Sean Harrison had been proof of that. And Roxy could hold her own. Jetta she couldn't imagine ever letting any guy give her shit. But Stormer? She'd been a wreck after that scruffy guy from the island had taken off—all weepy and mopey, even though they'd only really been on a handful of dates. Roxy could only imagine the shape she'd be in, if Riot started messing with her head.
"This is not good," Roxy said darkly. "Seriously."
Jetta nodded, for once her expression without a glint of mockery. She owed her position to Stormer, who had insisted they check the Tinkerbillys out, and had pushed Roxy and Pizzazz into adding a fourth member to the band in the first place. Roxy had regretted it at the time, but it had been Jetta and Stormer who had convinced Pizzazz to take her back, after she'd stormed out of the band. Stormer was the one who'd taken charge when Pizzazz had first gone nutso over Riot, her house in Sherman Oaks turning into Misfits Central while they'd regrouped and tried to form a plan of attack. Stormer was the lynchpin that held the Misfits together, a fact they'd all discovered the hard way when they'd pushed her too far and she'd gone off to play with Kimber.
"What can we do about it?" Jetta asked, and Roxy secretly felt pleased that Jetta was asking her opinion. It was nice to feel like her opinion mattered, for a change.
"'Member when we tried to talk to Pizzazz, the three of us?" Roxy mused. "When Riot first showed up?'
"I say we do that," Roxy said with more confidence than she felt. "Only this time, we do it right. So that it actually takes."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Then we head for the hills—because when Pizzazz finds out, the shit is gonna hit the fan. And I don't know about you, but I'd like to live to see my next royalty cheque. Especially if it's my last, because the lead singer murdered the chick who actually writes everything we record."
"You know, I don't think I've actually ever made out in a parked car before."
Craig laughed as Aja leaned over and using her fingertip drew a heart in the condensation on the window. Rather than picking one of the teenage hotspots like the singing harp or the Hollywood sign, they were parked in the long circular driveway of Starlight Mansion, and had been for some time. Long enough for the windows to have fogged up, and there had been one dodgy moment when Aja's elbow had hit the horn. But since Mrs Bailey, Jerrica, and the Starlight girls hadn't come out in full force, Aja figured they were safe for the moment.
The moon had set, and the interior of the car was dim. She could just make out his smile in the glow of the lights from the windows of the mansion.
She shook her head. "I can see why this is so popular."
"Though the gear shift is a problem," Craig managed to say with a straight face.
"Well, yes," she agreed. It hadn't been so bad at first, but had proven a major obstacle at one point which had prompted them to switch from the front seat to the cramped back seat.
"You know, you can always come inside," Aja said coyly.
Craig stared up at Starlight Mansion, most of the windows dark except for two rooms on the top floor. "Wouldn't it shock the girls?"
"They're all asleep by now. Way past their bedtimes."
"I don't want to get you in trouble."
"That's a sentence that can be taken a variety of ways."
"I mean with Social Services. I'm sure they frown on single men spending the night in a house with a dozen teenage girls."
"I don't plan on telling them. Do you?"
"Aja, I'm serious."
"So am I. Look, when Shana and Anthony go out, half the time she doesn't show up until breakfast. And it's not like Rio hasn't spent plenty of nights here."
"Okay—on the couch. But it's not like anyone's going to have a coronary at the sight of a guy."
"Are you sure?" he asked, and she read the question underneath the question easily. She kissed his nose before planting a light kiss on his lips.
"Never been surer of anything in my life."
"What?" Riot asked, at the bemused smile that crossed Stormer's face as he handed her a steaming cup of coffee. She'd stripped off her jacket, which now lay across the back of the couch, and sat with her stocking feet tucked up under her.
"It's just weird—watching you make a pot of coffee like a normal human being," she said with a grin as he set his own cup down on the steel and glass coffee table before settling down next to her. He'd built a fire in the fireplace, despite the heat outside, because it seemed the thing to do. He liked how the firelight limned her pale arms with gold. He was momentarily distracted by thoughts of a most ungentlemanly nature as to how the rest of her might look, bared to the firelight.
He shrugged. "I am a normal human being."
"No, you're not," she laughed, and it was good to hear her laugh. "You're like a human being turned up to 11. I mean, look at this place. It's amazing."
As she gazed around the apartment, Riot saw it through her eyes. It was spotless, and packed with every modern convenience. Framed tour posters took up one wall of the living room, another with floor-to-ceiling windows that displayed a spectacular view of Los Angeles by night. No personal photos graced the walls or the mantle. He had a single framed picture of his mother, which he kept on the dresser in his bedroom. It was an old photo—her hair and clothes twenty years out of fashion, but he'd always loved it because she'd been smiling in the photo. It had been a long time since he'd seen a genuine smile grace her features, and he'd worried that the photo might someday be his only proof that his mother had ever, once, been happy.
He rarely entertained here, choosing instead to use Stingers Sound for most of the release parties he planned. Aside from Rapture and Minx, the only other person he'd invited into his home had been Jem, that horrible evening his mother had been hospitalised. If he had trysts, they were generally conduced in hotel rooms, where there would be no awkward mornings after the night before.
When the Cool Trash photographers had done the shoot for the "Lavish Rock Star Haunts" issue of their magazine, he'd taken such pride that he'd come up from busking in the streets to owning a condo in the most expensive building in downtown Los Angeles. But now it seemed impersonal when he mentally compared it to Stormer's quaint little bungalow in the suburbs. A showplace, but not a home.
"Not all rock stars live in mansions and penthouse suites," he observed as she added heaping spoonfuls of sugar to her mug.
"You'd never know it, from the people we hang out with," she said with a chuckle as he handed her the silver pitcher of cream. Thinking back on Harvey Gabor's antiques-filled mansion, and even Jerrica Benton's home for foster girls, Riot could see her point.
"And anyway," she continued, taking a sip from her mug, "I like my place. I've paid off the mortgage, and I've got a soundproof studio in the basement, and how many girls my age do you know who own their own houses?"
"Few of the girls I know have an album that went gold, let alone double platinum," he pointed out.
She blushed, as if she wasn't aware just how successful she was. He wondered, idly, if her band appreciated just how good she was, or if they chalked up her solo career's success to Jerrica Benton's marketing strategy. If she had any idea just how much she had accomplished on her own.
"Anyway, it's not like I'm here all that much. When we're on tour, all I ever see is the bus, or hotels. It's nice to have a place of my own to come back to."
"You've never wanted a butler or a maid?"
"I have a cleaning lady who comes in twice a month. I don't know." She shrugged. "I guess I get enough of that at Pizzazz's house."
Her smile faded at the mention of Pizzazz.
"There's one easy way to resolve the situation with Pizzazz," he said, hating to bring the subject up just as they'd moved past it, but hating how her glow visibly dimmed even more.
"It's simple. Tomorrow evening, when she arrives, I shall tell her about us."
"You can't!" Stormer cried, shaking her head.
"It would have been one thing, losing you to Jem, and even... even to me, so long as it wasn't front page news, and she could pretend she didn't care. But everybody saw tonight's broadcast. For the first time in ages, she actually thinks she has a chance—she's got her hopes up. Riot, she'll be publicly humiliated. It'll destroy her."
"I think you've overestimated her affection for me. Mark my words, any day now that little magpie's eye will be caught by something shiny and new, and she'll forget I even exist."
Instead of being relieved, Stormer looked stricken. She set her mug down on the table, and reached for her purse.
"What is it?" he asked as she got up from the sofa and pulled on her jacket.
"I think I should go."
"Stormer—" He reached for her, but she side-stepped him.
"I'm serious, Riot." She stepped into her boots, bending down to zip them up. He was at a complete loss as to what had prompted the 180 degree shift in her, and hated being at a disadvantage.
"What did I say?"
"Am I just something shiny and new?" she asked him, and he found himself falling into her clear blue eyes as she bit her bottom lip. "Right now I'm new and exciting. But what happens when you get bored with me? What's to say you won't ditch me for a shiny new toy? Or that the second Jem and Rio have another spat, you won't drop me like a hot potato so you can be there to pick up the pieces?"
"I say." He framed her face in his hands, running one thumb lightly over her cheek. "I am with you because I choose to be. Not Jem. Not Pizzazz. You. And not because I settled for second best, can you understand that? Right now, you are the only woman in the world that catches my eye and holds my attention. Any other woman would be flattered—"
She curled her fingers around his. "I am flattered. But I'm also smart enough to know that this infatuation, obsession, whatever this is—it can't last."
There was something final about the way she said it—resigned, and sad, and accepting. It made him want to show her that life didn't have to be about keeping one's expectations low to avoid pain. That there was more to living than that. It made him want to prove her wrong.
"I say it can. I can make it last. I can make this," he kissed her neck, relishing the shudder that passed through her slender frame at the touch of his mouth, "last indefinitely."
She tipped her head back, and he was lost in the intoxicating scent of her hair as he felt her pulse beat beneath his lips. As in her kitchen that afternoon, he could tell she was holding back, almost trembling with the effort. She wanted him—needed him. He knew that. He just had to convince her it was alright to have him. That it wasn't a betrayal. It wasn't something to be ashamed of. That sometimes the only way to have something you want was to take it, consequences be damned.
His lips grazed her collarbone, and her hands tightened on his shoulders. Her breath came short as he nipped lightly at the sensitive skin where her neck met her shoulder, and he found her reaction gave him a profound sense of satisfaction. Her purse slipped from her fingers to land with a musical jangle of keys at her feet as she twined her fingers in his hair, dragging his mouth to hers. With each small sound she made as he teased her, he found himself falling further, until both of them were gasping for breath, still standing in the entryway of his apartment.
She broke the kiss, resting her forehead against his as she sighed. "When I'm with you, it all seems so simple."
"It can be simple," he said softly. "If you let it. If you let go."
She swallowed, trembling slightly within the circle of his arms. "I don't know if I know how."
"I can teach you," he said solemnly.
This time, she was the one to kiss him fiercely as if, once she'd made the decision, she was fully committing to it. His hands had slipped beneath her jacket, sought the warmth of her skin beneath the flimsy cotton tank top. His thumbs traced her outline of her ribs, and she gasped into his mouth.
He slipped her jacket from her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. She brought her hands up to tangle in his hair as they stumbled backwards towards the couch. He caught her around the waist, lowering her carefully to the cushions, bracing one leg on the floor so as not to crush her with his weight.
He pulled back for a moment, gazing down at her. The blue irises of her eyes were almost completely swallowed by the pupils, and her lips were parted as she licked them. He smoothed the hair back from her brow tenderly, and she arched her back, bringing her mouth back to his.
What had surprised him about his reaction to Rapture's taunts earlier that evening was very close to the truth they had been. And how much that had bothered him, to hear her put the truths he'd been avoiding into words. Hearing Stormer echo them only clarified matters further.
It had begun as a game. Always a predator, he had enjoyed the chase. The sport. The more Stormer resisted his charms, the more determined he had become, to seduce her.
What he hadn't counted on, in the past week, was how mutual the seduction had become.
Chapter 6: Part V
"You'll never make it out alive."
At the sound of Aja's voice, Craig froze in the act of putting on his shoes. His blue hair was still sleep-tousled, and a glance at the bedside clock told her that it was barely past sunrise.
"I didn't mean to wake you," he said apologetically as he sat down on the side of the bed and leaned down for a quick kiss.
"I live in a house with a dozen teenage girls. I sleep light. And if you think you're going to sneak out of here without anyone noticing at this hour—"
He raised a brow. "You're the one who moved the Olympics from outdoor events to indoor."
"If anyone asks, I'll just tell them you came over early this morning."
"You don't think they'll suspect?"
"It's not like you're planning on walking down the hall in your underwear—you're not actually planning on walking down the hall in your underwear, are you?"
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "No."
"Good. Because I don't like to share." She reached out and dragged him back down for long, wet kiss.
"You're incorrigible," he murmured when they finally parted.
"Wow. That's a big fancy word, for a drummer." Aja laughed. "Relax. In about two hours, Mrs Bailey will be making waffles. Waffles will occupy their attention."
"Are you saying I don't compare to waffles?"
"To a 12-year-old girl?"
"Point taken. But I should really be getting home. Mary'll be getting back soon—"
"Back from where?"
"Something called Starbright Night."
"I didn't ask—it seemed the wisest course."
"Considering how Raya and Kimber reacted the last time The Misfits Hit It Big came on late-night cable, yeah. Probably."
"And apparently, it's a tradition that involves her crashing with the rest of her band. But I should really be there when she gets home—"
"—so you don't have to do the walk of shame?"
Craig blushed, something which she couldn't help but find adorable. "Mary knows that we're... I mean, I've never exactly told her, but she figured it out in London."
"Speaking of Stormer, I meant to tell you—we weren't the only item on the menu on Harriet Horn's show last night."
"What do you mean?" Craig looked stricken.
"She was dropping hints about Riot and Stormer. Nothing concrete—but it doesn't take a lot to add two and two together."
"Who else knows?"
"Stormer told Kimber, who let it slip to Jerrica, Shana and Raya."
He sighed. "So much for keeping it under wraps."
Aja sat up, resting her folded arms on her knees as she tossed her dyed blue hair back over her shoulders. "It wouldn't have stayed buried forever. She has to live her own life. And in our line of work, that means people poking their noses into your business, whether you want it or not."
"I know. I just had hoped it was just a phase she was going through."
"Like playing in a rock and roll band?" She smiled, but it seemed Craig would not be teased out of his sudden dark mood.
"You know what I mean."
"Are you always this optimistic?" Aja asked, deadpan.
"You don't understand—Mary has the worst luck with guys known to man. I just hate seeing her get hurt yet again."
Aja chewed on her bottom lip. She certainly had no warm and fuzzy feelings, where Riot was concerned. And while Stormer was the least bothersome of the Misfits, she didn't share Kimber's unconditional love for the girl. But she was Craig's sister, and she loved that he cared so much.
"Maybe this time you'll be wrong?" she suggested, trying to be Pollyanna about the situation.
Craig only continued to frown.
"Maybe," he said half-heartedly as he bent down to finish tying his sneaker. She ruffled his hair.
"It'll all work out, you'll see," Aja tried to assure him, even though deep down she feared he was right.
Riot awoke to sunlight streaming through the open blinds of his bedroom. Rolling over onto his side, chin in hand, he gazed down at the woman sleeping beneath the crisp white sheets. Her hair fell over on shoulder and in a tangled spill across the pillow, sunlight outlining the slope of her back until it disappeared beneath the blankets.
It had been a long time since he'd woken up next to a beautiful woman. Longer still in his own bed, as opposed to a hotel room. Given the circumstances it was, he decided, a very pleasant sensation.
The morning after the night before was usually a disappointment to him. In the past, once he'd got what he wanted, the chase concluded, he had simply looked to the horizon for the next challenge. This extended to every aspect of his life—from romantic entanglements to business deals.
But since moving back to Los Angeles, things had changed. Rapture and Minx had seen his acquiring of half of Eric Raymond's company as a mere status symbol, he knew. Winning, while Jerrica Benton crawled off to lick her wounds. But he had surprised himself with how quickly he had taken to the business. Rather than boring him with tedium, he actually relished the daily challenges of running half of a successful recording studio. At first, he had concerned himself merely with the Stingers themselves. But soon he found himself captivated by the industry—and he thoroughly enjoyed beating Raymond at his own game, truth be told.
He'd told Stormer that he had helped her merely to exercise his control over Raymond, and while that may have been how the game had started, the stakes had changed. He realised as he watched her chest rise and fall with each breath as she slept that rather than feeling as if the game had been won, an ending, he felt like it was instead some new kind of beginning.
Her eyes opened a crack, and she reached out with one hand lazily to trace his smile with a fingertip. He captured her fingers with his, lightly sucking her index finger.
"How morning is it, anyway?" Her voice was still slurred with sleep, her hair falling in tousled blue curls around her face.
"Just after nine."
She stretched, and he was reminded of one of his mother's cats lounging in the sun as her fingertips brushed the headboard, toes curling. She was, he decided, very like a cat. Aloof one moment, craving attention the next, and a veritable wildcat when it suited her. He had the marks, he mused, to prove it.
She rolled over onto her side, mirroring his pose, eyes just inches from his. "Just so you know, I don't usually put out on the second date."
"Technically, we have yet to have an official date," he reminded her.
"Which makes me technically the sort of girl your mother warned you about," she said in a breathy whisper, then giggled as he rolled on top of her, pinning her hands above her head.
He was delighted that her fears and worries of the night before seem to have evaporated in the warm morning sunshine. The frightened little girl had vanished, replaced by a vibrant, confident woman. He hoped the change might be permanent—but even if only temporary, it was a rare pleasure seeing her smile so freely.
"My mother likes you. She asked me to bring you home more often."
He neglected to add that Mildred Llewelyn had spent an hour with him that morning, asking patient questions about how he'd met Stormer, how long he'd known her, what sort of family she had come from. All of it had been couched in terms of simple curiosity, but he knew his mother too well. While not openly playing match-maker, she had let him know in no uncertain terms that she wholly approved of Miss Mary Phillips.
On that point, they were in agreement.
Stormer flushed. "I told her we weren't seeing each other."
"I know. She also asked if you had plans for Thanksgiving." He kissed her jaw line as she squirmed beneath him, laughing.
"What have I gotten myself into?" she wailed in mock-dismay.
"My bed," he answered with a sly smile. And my life, he thought, but didn't say.
"Mmmmmm, waffles," Aja said as she drifted into the Starlight Mansion kitchen still in her bathrobe.
The other Holograms were gathered around the counter, their plates containing smears of syrup and crumbs only. Raya was there as well, despite the fact that she didn't actually live there. The drummer had spent so many nights at the mansion in the last two years, Jerrica was thinking of asking her if she wanted to move in permanently. After all, they had plenty of room, and it was no trouble. Plus it would be nice for the Alonsos, who were still close enough to visit.
"Don't tell me you guys already ate them all."
"Oh ye of little faith," Jerrica said, pointing to the microwave, which Aja opened to find the plate of waffles left there to keep warm by their stalwart housekeeper Mrs Bailey.
"God bless Mrs Bailey," Aja said with feeling, spearing a waffle with her fork. Since Aja was the Hologram who seemed to burn the most calories—whether it was jogging, aerobics, or simply breathing—she consequently seemed to require the most fuel. Mrs Bailey had always fussed over Aja, ever since she had moved into Starlight House after Jacqui Benton's death and was greeted with the vision of a skinny, rapidly growing tomboy whom she was convinced needed fattening up. Where once as a child Jerrica might have been jealous of the attention, in this case she was right there with Mrs Bailey, and had avoided a second waffle herself to make sure that Aja got her share.
"Someone's in a good mood, this morning," Jerrica teased, eyes dancing as Aja began piling her waffle high with fresh strawberries.
"Wouldn't have anything to do with a certain someone I saw sneaking out of here at crack of dawn, would it?" Kimber asked, and Aja almost choked on a swallow of coffee.
"What?" Kimber giggled. "You thought you guys were being subtle?"
"Would you believe me if I told you he came over early this morning?"
"Not a chance," Jerrica said sweetly. "And anyway, I'm going to see him later today. Mason and the band are my 11 o'clock."
"Are you really going to sign them?" Kimber asked she refilled her coffee cup.
"I'm going to make an offer," Jerrica said coyly. "The Fifth Avenue Boys sales have dropped off since Jay and Joe's voices changed—it can't hurt to expand Starlight's talent pool. And I've been looking for an act, ever since Eric snapped the Stingers up. But it'll be up to Mason and Sir Hugh, and Mason told me they're fielding offers from several companies since they started circulating their demo. All I can do is make what I hope is a fair, competitive offer and sit back and wait."
"It'll be nice to have to not fight Eric for new talent, for once." Shana's eyes sparkled. It was hardly a secret that Craig didn't trust Eric Raymond as far as he could throw him, and Jerrica suspected that, combined with Mason's dislike for Pizzazz, Roxy, and Jetta in particular meant Stinger's Sound wouldn't be on their list.
"Speaking of Craig," Kimber said to Aja, spearing a piece of her waffle with her fork, "have you got big plans for tonight?"
"You mean with my fiancé?" Aja said with a grin.
Raya poked her in the shoulder. "You just love saying fiancé."
"Fiancé, fiancé, fiancé," Aja practically sang, and Jerrica couldn't help but smile at her friend's joy.
"Hey, I've had one. I know what it's like." Kimber laughed.
"Let's hope my wedding goes off better than yours," Aja teased.
"To tell the truth, I never thought I'd be the first of us to get married," Aja admitted, her cheeks pinking slightly.
"Why not?" Jerrica asked, surprised.
"You and Rio have been together since high school. And Shana, it's been, what? Almost four years since you started going out with Anthony? And Kimber—"
"I know. I know." Kimber held up her hands in defeat. "Two fiancés at once."
"Actually, doesn't surprise me one bit," Shana said with a warm smile. "Girl, I've never seen you so serious about a guy as you are about Craig."
"Speaking of weddings, have you set a date?" Jerrica asked as she downed the last of hr orange juice.
Aja made a face. "I've been engaged for less than a week!"
Shana raised a brow. "So, not a lot of talking in the last week?"
That dissolved the entire group into giggles, and Jerrica thought back to the old Starlight House days, she and Aja and Shana in sleeping bags up in the tree house, pretending they were camping. They'd stayed up half the night talking about boys, school, music, and yet more boys. It seemed like a lifetime ago, yet in moments like these, it was as if they were all still thirteen years old.
"There is one thing we ought to talk about," Jerrica said seriously as she got up to close the kitchen door, lest Mrs Bailey come back early and overhear. She had left to drive Krissie, Ashley, and Deirdre to Haven House where they had been helping Danse out for community service before school started up again. Summer always saw an influx of kids at the centre, and Jerrica suspected some of Deirdre's enthusiasm might have something to do with one of the new peer counsellors, sixteen-year-old Danny. With the older girls out, and the younger girls at summer day-camp, the Holograms had the mansion to themselves for a change.
"Uh-oh," Aja said at her tone. "The dreaded 'we'."
"If Craig's going to be part of the family—" Jerrica began.
"—do we let him in on the family secret?" Aja finished for her.
"You would have had to tell him if he'd become a Hologram instead of me," Raya pointed out as Jerrica sat back down on the tall stool opposite her.
Raya's loyalty to Craig, Jerrica noted, was almost as strong as her loyalty to the Holograms. They had bonded during the Talent Search, and Raya had been the Hologram least upset by Craig's revelation that his sister was one of their sworn rivals. Of course, by that time, Raya's only real contact with Stormer had been during the time she had spent with Kimber as they produced "Back to Back" and she had been more kindly inclined towards the youngest Misfits than the rest of the band, who had more history with the group. But Jerrica couldn't discount the truth of Raya's statement.
"Yeah, but we didn't know he was Stormer's brother, then," Shana reminded her.
"Well, we know he can keep a secret," Kimber joked gently, trying to keep the discussion light. But Jerrica could tell even her sister's light touch wasn't going to make this any easier.
"Well, would you have told Jeff," Aja asked, "if you two had actually gone through with the wedding?"
"Don't forget Sean," Shana added.
"Or Sean," Aja amended.
Kimber rolled her eyes. "You guys are never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"Kimber, Sean proposed to you the morning of your wedding to another guy." Shana patted her shoulder affectionately. "That's not something anyone could ever live down."
"Well, I intend to have exactly one fiancé, total," Aja said with a smile. "And you still haven't answered my question."
"I guess it's something we really do need to think about," Kimber said apologetically. "I guess I never really thought about telling Jeff—or Sean, for that matter."
"I've thought about Anthony," Shana admitted, and all eyes turned to her in surprise, Jerrica's among them. "I mean, he's been with us since the beginning. I think he'd understand, but..."
"But it's never been our secret to tell," Aja finished for her with a glance at Jerrica. "It's Jerrica's choice—Jerrica's neck on the line. It's not our secret to share—it's hers. And I think the choice has to be hers."
It had never occurred to Jerrica that Shana might have told Anthony—or even thought about it. She flushed guiltily, thinking suddenly that as she had spent years struggling with her decision to keep Rio in the dark and obsessing over the relationship problems this had caused, she had no right to expect Shana had not gone though any kind of similar dilemmas. Just because on the surface Shana and Anthony appeared to have a perfect relationship Jerrica had always envied, that didn't mean her friend didn't have misgivings about carrying on a close personal relationship while keeping her lover in the dark about a vitally important part of her life. And she supposed in a way, it wasn't fair of her to force her friends to share her burden, just because she doubted Rio's ability to accept the truth.
However, at the same time, she knew it would hurt Rio even more—if and when she told him—to find out he had been the only one of their close inner circle who hadn't known about Jem. That, she thought, would destroy their relationship even more than the revelation of the lie. Because it would mean that she trusted someone like Anthony or Craig more than him.
Still—this was Aja's life and Aja's marriage they were talking about. Did she have the right to jeopardise her friend's happiness, for the sake of her own fragile love life?
"I don't want you guys to suffer because of the choices I've made..." Jerrica began, trying to keep her voice level. "It may be my secret, but we're all in this together. And just because I haven't told Rio—"
"Sis, it's okay," Kimber said quickly, laying a hand on her sister's shoulder. "We understand."
"No—it's not okay. I guess it's time we really gave this some thought. Because it's one thing to keep something from a friend. But a husband..." Jerrica frowned. "That's different."
"Well, I don't know if this helps or makes it worse, but I don't think Craig would betray us," Aja said, trying to be the voice of reason per usual, even thought this was her fiancé they were talking about. "Trust me, he hates Pizzazz and Eric as much as we do. Maybe even more."
"I know," Jerrica assured her. "I guess... I guess we'll have to think about this. Widening the circle of people who know about Synergy increases the danger. In the end, it isn't just about me. It's most of all about her."
"Jerrica, whatever you decide—it's okay." Aja's blue eyes held hers. "It's your choice. I'm okay with that."
"Now, you'd better scoot—or you'll miss your 11 o'clock with your future brother-in-law!" Kimber said, giving her sister's shoulder blade a firm poke.
Jerrica sighed as she paged through the invoices Joanie had left in her inbox. Some days, it seemed like for every dollar they brought in, they spent three. But she knew that the state of Starlight's finances weren't the source of her lousy mood. The truth was that while she couldn't help but be happy for Aja, she was still feeling a tiny pang of envy. And Harriet Horn's "scoop" hadn't exactly helped matters. She hadn't said anything about Riot since the broadcast, but she suspected Aja and Shana could tell it was still bothering her, even if Kimber and Raya seemed oblivious.
She and Rio had been together for almost ten years, but they had never talked of marriage—not seriously. Sometimes she took it for granted that they would grow old together. On bad days, she wondered if she was simply fooling herself—and they were together out of habit, and he would finally get tired of the lies her double life forced her to tell, and leave her for good. Those thoughts had become more common, once Rory Llewelyn had entered the picture. It had been one thing, sharing Rio with her alter-ego. Quite another for him to have to fight for her attention as Jem.
No matter how tempted she had always been by Riot, she had always returned to the safe, comforting embrace of Rio Pacheco. She'd told herself that was what truly mattered. But as Riot had changed—gone from egotistical, arrogant, manipulative rock star she'd first met into a business rival, and genuine friend—she'd found herself thinking of him more often than she should. He was by no means perfect—far from it. Shana had been right to voice concerns for Stormer taking up with him given his track record. But Jerrica still hadn't been able to completely bury the twinge of jealousy at the thought that Riot had completely abandoned his relentless pursuit of Jem.
Of me, she reminded herself. Even if Riot had no idea Jem was really workaholic Jerrica, she knew. And somehow his rejection stung even more badly, since she was used to not exactly being the centre of attention as Jerrica. But as Jem? That, she admitted, was a first. And as much as she hated to admit it, it stung.
When Kimber and Aja had confirmed that something was going on between Stormer and Riot, Jerrica had fought to hide her reaction, but she knew she hadn't entirely succeeded. Aja and Shana had taken her to task in the past for playing with Rio's feelings where Riot was concerned, and it was galling to get first-hand experience at watching someone she had feelings for—however confusing those feelings might be—moving on. Now she was in the uncomfortable position of feeling the same jealousy that Rio had been subject to for the past year. And it wasn't pleasant.
She felt a pang of remorse for how badly she'd treated Rio the last few years. Ever since her father's posthumous birthday gift had arrived, nothing had ever been the same. Some days, she wished she could simply go back in time and hand the Jemstar earrings to Kimber—allowing her more outgoing younger sister to front the band. But deep down she knew that the Holograms probably would never had survived past the Battle of the Bands with Kimber at the helm—let alone gone on to the international stardom that allowed Starlight Foundation to continue. Kimber was an amazing musician, but she didn't have the kind of discipline and drive Jerrica did. The kind of passion and energy it required.
But if she had never created Jem—if she had never lied to Rio in the first place... Jerrica sighed. She knew chasing What Ifs and Might Have Beens was useless, but she couldn't help wonder what her life would be like if the only hats she wore were Starlight Music's CEO, and Rio's sweetie. No more Jem. No more lies. No more secrets. Would he have proposed long ago? Would she be thinking of her own wedding, instead of wistfully thinking about Aja and Craig?
As if summoned by her thoughts, Rio knocked lightly on the open door of her office before stepping inside. "This a private party? Or can anyone join in?"
"Rio!" Jerrica forced herself to smile brightly, and tilted her head back for a kiss.
"I've missed you," he said as he moved the stack of invoices aside and sat on the edge of the desk.
"Things have been so crazy lately, between the concert prep and Aja and Craig's engagement."
Rio shook his head, and sigh. "I can't believe Aja and Craig are getting married."
"Why?" Jerrica asked, surprised.
"They just seem to be moving awfully fast."
"They've been seeing each other for over two years," Jerrica pointed out, thinking how her own parents had met and married all within three months, and her father had loved her mother fiercely and without pause until the day she'd died, and beyond.
"That's just it—they haven't seen much of each other in the last two years. Letters and phone calls aren't the same thing as actually spending time with one another, don't you think?"
Jerrica tried to hide her ire at his doom-and-gloom outlook. "I think it's romantic."
"Romance is one thing. But there's more to a happy marriage than hearts and flowers. It's about commitment."
"You don't think Aja and Craig are committed to each other?"
"Whoa—that's not what I'm saying." He held up his hands. "I'm happy for them. I'm just being overly cautious, I guess. I was the one who ended up carrying Sean's proposal to Kimber's wedding, remember?"
"How can I forget?" She sighed. "I almost had a heart attack, when I thought you were proposing to Kimber."
"I guess I just hope that people get married for the right reasons—at the right time. I've known Aja since we were kids too, you know. I just hope she's making the right decision."
Jerrica backed down, trying to see the situation from his point of view. Ever since they had been kids, he'd spent more time with the Benton family than his own, and while she had met his parents on many occasions, he'd never been forthcoming about their relationship. When his folks had divorced once he went off to college, he hadn't seemed surprised.
She had long suspected that his parents had stayed together for as long as they had for his sake, and she wondered if they might not have been better off apart—for their sake's, and their son's. She wasn't sure what would hurt more—seeing his family fall apart as a child, or being forced to watch them try and hold it together without love.
Still, whatever his own family situation may be Jerrica didn't think it was fair for him to project those issues onto Craig and Aja. "Have you ever known Aja to rush headlong into something?"
"Love makes people act differently than they usually would," he offered as explanation, and she knew there would be no budging him on this. Not for a while, at least. And to be fair, Rio hadn't seen Aja and Craig together as much as she had. Not in London, and not since he'd come back to the States. Maybe once he saw how utterly devoted Craig was to Aja, he'd change his mind and lighten up.
"So... does that mean you won't be joining us for the engagement party at Rock Hard, this Friday?"
"Aja's like a sister to me," Rio said, sounding slightly offended at the suggestion. "Of course I'll be there."
"As my date, or Jem's?" Jerrica asked before she could stop herself.
"Yours, of course!"
"I'm only teasing. And anyway, I might be late—so you can dance with Jem as many times as you want, before I get there. But once I do, I expect your dance card to be filled, mister." She kept her tone light, but she could already see she'd bungled it, as his blue eyes had darkened as the suggestion. To his credit, he shook it off quickly.
He gave an elaborate bow, and kissed her hand. "My dance card is all yours, Ms Benton."
"I may have to come back here tomorrow," Stormer announced as she came out of the bathroom, towelling her hair dry. She had pulled on her jeans and tank top, and spied one of her socks poking out from under the bed.
"Really?" Riot was sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing jeans and a white shirt, his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Two steaming cups of coffee sat on the bedside table, next to a water glass which held the rose that had been in her hair. It was looking a bit bedraggled, the full red petals drooping.
She snagged the socks, and began pulling them on. "The acoustics in your shower are amazing."
He pulled her onto his lap, arms locked loosely around her waist. "So, you're not using me for sex, you're using me for my Italian marble bathroom?"
She considered this for a moment, and then gave him a quick peck on the mouth. "Both."
His hands sneaked under her tank top, tracing her ribs. "In that case, we could always combine them." He waggled his eyebrows, and she laughed.
"Maybe. But not today. I have to go."
He flopped backwards on the bed, miming being shot in the heart. "So soon?"
She lay on her side beside him, toying with the open neck of his shirt. "Big day, remember? I'm supposed to meet Roxy and Jetta at Pizzazz's the afternoon."
He wound a lock of her hair around his finger, leaning in seductively. "Wouldn't you rather spend the morning here, in clothing-optional careless abandon, with me?"
"Didn't they teach you to share in kindergarten?" she teased.
"You're hardly the red crayon."
She bit her lip, sorely tempted. Part of her knew that they were moving too fast—that she was moving too fast. But it had been a long time since she'd felt this way about anyone, and when she was with Riot, she could pretend that nothing else mattered. Going back to the real world meant dealing with Pizzazz, and that wasn't exactly a confrontation she was looking forward to. However, putting it off would only make it worse.
"I do. I have to go. But you'll see me tonight, at the party."
"Then, after the party?"
"You are nothing but a wicked, wicked tease," he groaned.
"Would have me any other way?" Stormer said with a wink, amazed at her own boldness as she dodged his grasping arms and scooped up her purse. She blew him a kiss from the door of his apartment, and took a deep breath.
Big day, she thought as she punched the down button on the elevator. Now all she had to do was survive it.
Stormer pulled up to her house, noting with alarm that Craig's car was sitting in the driveway. It was later than she realised, and she tried to calm herself down, remembering that he was expecting her to have spent the night at Pizzazz's . Still, as she fitted her key into the lock, she couldn't help but feel like she was sneaking around behind his back. He was her brother, she reminded herself sternly, not her father. Where and with whom she chose to spend her nights was none of his business.
Yeah, she frowned. Right. Since when?
Mason was sitting at the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee when she opened the door, and he waved. His brown hair was damp and pulled back in its usual pony tail, and she could smell fresh coffee, which reminded her that she'd left Riot's without having her habitual three cups.
"Where is everybody?" she asked, dropping her jacket on the back of a chair.
"James and Alan are downstairs in the studio, and Craig's in the shower."
Now that he mentioned it, she could hear the sound of the shower running. Breathing a sigh of relief, she surveyed the scene with a critical eye. The kitchen wasn't quite so much of a disaster as she'd fearing it might be. A few pizza boxes were stacked on the counter, but at least all of the dishes were in the sink, and the counters had been wiped down.
"You boys do okay on your own?" she asked as she opened the dishwasher and began removing the clean dishes, cups, and mugs to make room for the dirty. It amazed her that you could train boys to actually put dirty dishes in the sink, but not to run the dishwasher.
"Yes, 'Mum'," he assured her, dark eyes twinkling. "Nothing broken, nothing spilt—I assure you, we were practically respectable."
Stormer giggled. She found that, one-on-one, she rather liked Mason. Her reverie was interrupted by the tromp-tromp-tromping of James and Alan up the basement stairs.
"Mary—I'm madly in love with your deck," Alan said without preamble as soon as he reached the top of the stairs. "You say you do all the percussion tracks?"
Stormer laughed, and wondered if Alan had slept at all the night before. She still remembered the first time she'd taken Kimber down into her studio. It had taken hours to pry her away from the mixing equipment.
"At first we tried having a real live drummer for the stage shows," she explained, "but Eric never could find anyone who could keep up with—or put up—with us. Same goes for session musicians. So yeah, I ended up covering most of the percussion, though Roxy plays on some of the studio tracks sometimes." She smiled fondly. "Roxy likes to hit things."
"Madly, passionately in love," Alan repeated, grabbing a mug from the cupboard and pouring a cup of coffee.
"So we'll have a double wedding," Craig said as he entered the kitchen wearing jeans and a tee-shirt and towel-drying his hair. "Me and Aja, you and the Akai."
"What time did you get in?" Alan asked as Craig took the chair next to Mason at the counter.
Craig's eyes darted to Stormer's. "Um... late," he stammered.
"Early, you mean," Mason teased.
"Looks like someone got some last night," James said with a laugh as Craig shrugged.
Stormer dropped the mug she had been poised in the act of replacing in the cupboard. She swore as it shattered on the tile floor.
As one, the Blue Bloods turned to her, and then back to Craig, who looked like he was about to explode once it sank in that she hadn't reacted to his exploits of the previous evening, but her own.
"I thought you were with your band last night," Craig said, his voice tight.
"I was," Stormer began. "I mean, I started out with them."
"You spent the night with him?" Craig's voice rose, and Stormer flinched.
"We were careful."
"Look at the time!" Mason said loudly, "We ought to leave soon, if we're going to make our meeting with Jerrica. Isn't that right, Craig?"
Craig ignored him. "I don't call sleeping with a guy you barely know 'careful'."
"Well, then, luckily for you, you didn't sleep with him," Stormer snapped, suddenly furious.
"Mary—what the hell were you thinking?" Craig continued, using that condescending 'I know what's best for you' tone she'd really come to hate. "Everything I've heard about this guy says he's bad news—"
"Well maybe you should actually get to know him, instead of listening to rumours," she growled as she yanked the broom out of the closet and started fishing around for the dustpan.
Craig's expression darkened like rain clouds on the horizon before a storm. "Don't try and turn this around on me—"
"Craig, mate, maybe you ought to—" Alan began, and James grabbed his arm, whispering in his ear.
Stormer's knuckles were white where she gripped the broom handle. "I'm sorry if you think I made the wrong choices, but they were my choices to make. Not yours. Mine."
"Well, maybe if you made better ones—"
"I can't watch this." Mason stared at Craig, who refused to turn to even look at his bandmates. "Ah, Craig? We'll be outside."
"Craig, you can't just come waltzing back into my life and treat me like I'm a little kid again, and your responsibility," Stormer pleaded with her brother as his band headed out onto the porch.
"But you are my responsibility," he said, trying to lay his hands on her shoulders. For the first time in a long time, she ducked away from his touch, determined not to let him play the "I'm older and wiser, kid" card with her this time.
"No, big brother—I'm not. And I haven't been for a really long time now. But you haven't been here to notice that. You haven't been here, period."
Craig's eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "So this is my fault?"
"Nothing is anybody's fault!" Stormer cried, furious. "Why do you keep acting like I've made a mistake?"
"Maybe because you have?" His voice rose to match hers.
"Oh—so it's okay for you to stay all night with Aja, but God forbid poor little Stormer stays out past curfew, is that it?"
"That's different. I'm older."
"That's bullshit, and you know it. You think I didn't know, when we were kids, where you were those nights you never came home from a gig?"
"I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did, and end up ruining your life—"
"For the last time, I am not ruining my life!" Stormer cried, hating the tears that sprang to her eyes. "For the first time, I've found somebody who looks at me, and sees something more than just a backup singer, or a pushover, or somebody they can use and throw away."
"But that's exactly what he's doing!"
She shook her head vehemently, blinded as the tears got caught in her lashes. "It's not like that."
"How do you know?"
"How the hell do you?" She was shaking with anger. Any hopes she'd had of him actually treating her like an adult had fled the second he'd started chiding her like a wayward 12-year-old in front of his friends. "You made up your mind to hate the guy the second you laid eyes on him, and now you're being stubborn. Well, I've got news for you, Craig. You left, and I learned how to get along just fine without you. And I'm sorry if that sucks, but it's what I had to do. No-one else was going to take care of me, so I had to learn to do it for myself."
Craig opened his mouth to make some quick reply, but then closed it again, his blue eyes still narrowed dangerously. She stared him down, trying to will her back straight and her hands to stop shaking.
"You can't fix all my problems, and you don't get to decide who I spend time with," she continued, feeling her cheeks burn and her eyes prickle with traitorous tears. "If I want to be with Riot, then you can't stop me."
"No, I can't," he finally admitted. "If that's what you want, I can't stop you. You just remember I tried, before it all went to hell. Okay, Mary? I tried." He turned on his heel, and stalked out of the kitchen.
She heard the front door slam, followed by the sound of footsteps on the wooden deck, then silence.
Chapter 7: Part VI
Craig had sped away from the house so fast, he'd left burned rubber tracks on the asphalt. Mason sat in the passenger seat of the rented sedan, with Alan and James in the backseat, quiet, but trading glances as they navigated the suburban streets at a speed that unnerved all three of them. A light rain was falling, and the squeak of the windshield wipers was the only sound in the car.
Mason knew the smart thing would be to hold his tongue, and let Craig's anger burn itself out. In the last two years, he'd seen how the normally easy-going elder Phillips sibling could let his pride get in the way. Craig's temper rarely flared, but when it did, his bandmates usually just got the hell out of his way until he'd cooled down. But he genuinely liked Craig's sister Mary, and the memory of the look on her face made it impossible for Mason to just let it go.
As Craig merged onto the freeway, Mason finally turned to him and voiced his concerns.
"Look, man. I love you like a brother. But what you did back there? That was a crap thing you did."
"Thanks for the insights into my character. I don't know how I'd get along without you." There was a rare nasty edge to Craig's voice.
"You treat her like a kid, Craig."
Craig's scowl deepened, and he pressed the accelerator even further down, zipping past other cars at an alarming rate. "She is a kid."
"No, she's your kid sister," Mason said, annoyed that what was so plain to him eluded his friend. "But the lady's all grown up."
"In all the right places," James said softly, and Alan elbowed him to keep him quiet.
"Now you're taking her side, too?" Craig said darkly, glancing at Mason out of the corner of his eye.
"There are no sides," Mason said, exasperated. "So you don't like Rory. No-one's asking you to. But Jesus, would it be so awful to be happy for the girl, if she fancies him?"
"Mason, she slept with him," Craig said, as if Mason was simple.
"Oh, and you've never spent the night with someone, then?" Mason snapped. "Or loved any of the girls you did?"
Craig sighed. "Look, I know you like the guy—"
"Doesn't matter what I think. But the thing is, Mary obviously likes him. And you just rained on her parade."
"Rained? Hailstorm, I'd say," James muttered, and Mason shot him a look that said Would both of you please stop helping me? and the bass player went back to staring out the window as the palm trees lining the freeway flashed by.
"So she's young," Mason shrugged. "So it might be a mistake. But it's her mistake to make."
"Now you sound like Aja," Craig snapped.
"Has it occurred to you that we're all saying the same thing because it's within the realm of possibility that we might be right, and you might be wrong, you complete prat?" Mason's voice rose on the final word, as he resisted the sudden urge to deck his drummer. The only thing stopping him was the sure knowledge that they'd die in a fiery car crash before they even had a chance to release a single album.
"And we say 'complete prat' with great affection," Alan said dryly from the back seat.
"And love," James added.
"I wouldn't go that far," Alan said quickly.
"Carry on, Mason. Carry on," James said as Mason turned around and glared at him.
"Nice to know my own group won't back me up," Craig muttered darkly as he changed lanes so recklessly Mason's hands tightened on the armrest and he had to briefly close his eyes. He thought driving in Germany had been terrifying. However nothing had prepared him for Craig on California highways while furious.
"Craig, you're a good guy," Mason said slowly and carefully once his pulse had dropped back down to a normal staccato inside his chest. "And of course we'll back you up. But not when you're being an ass. And believe it or not, you are being an enormous ass."
"And an complete prat," Alan added helpfully.
Craig laid off the gas pedal a bit, much to Mason's relief. "So you think I overreacted?"
"I think you made a real pig's breakfast of it, and I think you owe Mary an apology. That's what I think."
Craig glanced at the backseat in the rear-view mirror. "How about the rest of you?"
"I think James and I would have to say we're in complete agreement with Mason on this one, old chap," Alan said in an affected accent. "Only I would have said 'dog's dinner' instead of 'pig's breakfast' because I quite like the alliteration."
"Right. Now you're being a prat," James muttered, and Mason was instantly glad he was an only child and had never taken long car trips with siblings.
"And you rousted us before we had breakfast," Alan muttered piteously. "I'm hungry."
"If you hadn't spent all morning, fooling around with that damned mixing board—" James groused.
"I wasn't going to go and have a whole cooked breakfast. But eggs and maybe a bacon sarnie would have been nice, yeah?"
Craig ignored the bickering behind him, and gave a long deep sign of resignation. "Fine. I'll apologise. After the meeting, okay?"
Mason scratched the side of his nose, glancing at Craig out of the corner of his eye. "Yeah, um... about that."
"Well, we've got more than one. Same neck of the woods, one right after the other, actually—"
"Mason." There went the gas pedal again.
"We've got a lunch meeting across the street."
"Across the street from Starlight?" Craig repeated, perilously taking his eyes off the road to gape at his band leader.
"Yeah," Mason said, reaching out to straighten the wheel nervously. "Don't worry—it's not with Eric Raymond. I know how much you—"
"Rory Llewelyn? After all this, you're actually going to sit down and talk about recording an album with Rory Llewelyn?"
"We are all going to die," Alan said softly from the back seat.
"I wish I'd called my mum and told her I loved her," James added.
"It's just business! Jesus, Craig—the man owns half of a very successful recording company! Why the hell wouldn't we set up a meeting with him? Hugh spoke with him last night. It's all arranged."
"Why didn't you tell me?'
"I would have told you, but you didn't roll in until after ten, and there wasn't time," Mason pointed out.
Craig's jaw twitched, but he said nothing.
Mason sighed. "I'm not saying we're going to sign with him. I'm just saying we'll be there to listen. Just as with Ms Jerrica Benton, right?"
"Fine," Craig snapped, and Mason closed his eyes, held on, and prayed for his life.
After the argument with Craig, Stormer's first instinct had been to call Riot. She'd picked up the phone twice before she'd realised she had no idea what his home number was, and she didn't want to have to go through the Stinger Sound switchboard to reach him. Not to mention, she had no idea what she would say.
My brother and I just had a big blow-out because he found out we slept together, and now I need my hand held. So can you just drop whatever you're doing and come right over?
Somehow, Stormer didn't think that would be the right move, no matter how much she just wanted to be told that everything would be alright. She got tired of defending her relationships all the time. She felt like she always torn apart by the people she cared about who hated one another. Kimber and the Misfits. Craig and Riot. Pizzazz and... everyone. She was sick of being in the middle, playing peacemaker. Sick of having to justify herself all the time.
Life seemed so much simpler before. Prior to striking up a friendship with Kimber, she had spent all her free time with the Misfits. Considering the fact that they all worked and played together, it had been a miracle that tempers hadn't become frayed. But the truth was, she'd loved those days. She'd never had close female friends growing up, and it had almost been like having sisters. Complete with teasing, hair-pulling, and sibling rivalry. But also just hanging out, all three of them, or in pairs.
In particular, Stormer had loved going shopping with Roxy, the two of them cutting a swathe through Los Angeles boutiques and resale shops, looking for the perfect leather jacket, or vintage shoes. Roxy had a real fetish for old movies, and favoured clothes that looked like they'd come straight out of a Marilyn Monroe picture from the 1950s. Too slim for those sort of bombshell styles to work for her, Stormer had always preferred loose belted dresses in bright prints, and jeans and sweaters.
They'd given designers fits in the early days, trying to get them to come up with matching outfits that nevertheless flattered their individual styles. Pizzazz had, of course, always dictated their look. Whether it was flashy, or austere, depending on her mood that week, Stormer's closet had been packed with the sort of clothes she never could have afforded before becoming a Misfit. She loved the feathered boas, and patent leather boots, and outrageous costumes they wore onstage. It had been like playing dress-up all the time.
As Stormer had got older, she'd discovered she'd developed her own tastes. The three of them stopped wearing identical costumes, sometimes even taking the stage in completely disparate outfits—Pizzazz in her cropped tops, Roxy in finger-less lace gloves. By the time Jetta had joined them, her black-and-white monochrome look had proven a startling counterpoint to the colourful ensembles Roxy wore.
The last time she'd played dress-up hadn't even been for herself, but helping Kimber expand her wardrobe with edgier, "tougher" clothes than the pastels she usually wore, back when they'd first starting playing at The Scene. She'd loved some of the pseudo-Misfit ensembles Kimber had come up with, and had enjoyed playing onstage in softer, more feminine dresses herself. It was as if they'd traded places, for a while. Given each other the chance to play in each other's skins.
Sometimes, Stormer felt guilty for spending so much time with Kimber. She knew Roxy in particular saw it as a betrayal. Especially considering she'd lost Stormer as a cohort, and had been forced to spend more and more time with Jetta, as Pizzazz had lost interest in a lot of the pursuits they used to share as a band. Stormer didn't know if it was Pizzazz's obsession with Riot—distracting her—or simply that, after so many years, they were tiring of each other's constant company. But where once something like Starbright Night would have been a common occurrence, now it was rare and as like to be cancelled or cut short as it was to actually come off.
Sometimes, she missed the old days. Other times... Kimber was just so easy to be with. Stormer never had to worry whether or not she could keep up. She didn't have to be a follower, holding her tongue, and praying they didn't get in trouble. Kimber never saw her that way. Most of the time, they didn't even go out, but hung around Stormer's bungalow, listening to music or watching tapes. Just talking, about anything that came into their minds. Kimber almost always had some story about a guy. She'd been seeing both Jeff Wright and Sean Harrison on and off for years, and there had been that brief "We're sorta kinda dating, only not really" relationship with her old high school friend Switch, who worked at a local college radio station.
With the exception of Angus, Stormer had never really dated since she'd become a rock star. Not seriously. When the Misfits were together, Pizzazz usually took up most of the spotlight, and by the time Roxy and Jetta had had their pick of their male admirers, Stormer was usually left as designated driver or trapped with some nebbish-y sound tech guy who ran out of things to say once the relative merits of the new Yamaha had been discussed.
For once, Stormer was the one with relationship woes. Picking up her cordless phone, Stormer decided to see if Kimber was free for lunch. Turnabout, she decided as she swept the shards of the mug into a pile, was fair play.
Rochelle was sorting the morning trades when the glass doors opened and Riot swept into the room, smiling broadly. "Good morning, Rochelle."
"G-Good morning Mr Llewelyn," she stammered, unnerved. She wasn't used to either of her bosses being in such good humour lately. She was even more surprised when he leaned on the smoked glass counter, reaching out to stroke the petal of one of the cut flowers in the vase.
"It's a beautiful morning, is it not?"
Her eyes strayed to the dark clouds through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the lobby. "It's raining, sir."
He shrugged, the smile not dimming for a second. "This is Los Angeles. It will stop."
"You asked me to remind you, sir—your one o'clock is Mason Hawthorne." She picked up a pink message slip from the corner of her desk. "And the Pierce show called—they'll be sending a car for you, Ms Krueger and Ms Ashe to take you to the studio at four."
"Excellent." He turned on his heel towards his office, and then stopped and came back to the desk. "Rochelle, have my florist deliver two dozen red roses—no. Not two. Three. Is three too extravagant?"
She wasn't used to Mr Llewelyn talking to her—let alone asking her questions beyond what his schedule would be for the day. "Um... sir?"
"No, wait—no roses." He shook his head, and then grinned again. "Orchids. Yes. Perfect. Have my florist order the rarest orchid he can find."
"Orchids?" she echoed.
"Yes, orchids—no. Dammit, what am I thinking?"
He leaned on the glass again, and she found herself falling into his dark green eyes. "If you associated a particular someone with a flower, would it be in poor taste for another man to send a similar gift, albeit one that costs ten to one hundred times as much?"
"I don't know if I can really help you here," Rochelle answered honestly.
"But you're a woman, are you not? What is the most romantic bloom anyone could ever send you? In your honest opinion."
She frowned, arranging the stack of trades on the corner of her desk for Eric to pick up when he got in. "The last guy that gave me flowers was a prom date."
Taking a deep breath, she decided to go with her gut. "My honest opinion is that flowers and chocolates and all that are great—but what a girl really wants is ice, to prove it's for real. And anyone who says different is probably lying. Um... sir."
He appeared to ponder this, and inwardly, she seethed with jealousy for whatever girl was going to get a package tonight. Because that girl had never, ever been her.
"You have exquisite taste. 'Ice' it is. Have someone from Van Cleef & Arpels bring me a selection."
"Yes, Mr Llewelyn."
He gave her another dazzling smile, and then turned back towards his office.
"Sir?" Rochelle called after him.
"I'd still send flowers."
He gave her a jaunty wave before he stepped into his office, and she shook her head, chuckling beneath her breath.
"Somebody obviously got some, last night."
By the time Mason and the band arrived, Jerrica had managed to bury her worries of the morning, mainly by concentrating on the matter at hand: expanding Starlight Music's talent pool. She'd listened to the Blue Bloods demo, making notes about their strengths and weaknesses, and analysing their potential.
The label had never been strong in terms of scouting new talent. Joanie had often suggested to Jerrica that she hire a full-time A&R Manager, instead of trying to wear both hats herself, but Jerrica feared that bringing an outsider in at that high up in the company might put her identity as Jem at too much risk. Starlight was a small label, and since she'd taken over following Eric nearly running her father's company into the ground, she'd been very aware that without the money Jem and the Holograms brought in, both Starlight Foundation and Starlight Music would be done for.
She was still recovering from her loss of the Stingers to Eric Raymond, and to be fair, she'd had little to do with the success of The Fifth Avenue Boys. Anthony Julian had brought them to her, and she'd signed them on the spot. They had done very well for themselves in the first two years they had been with Starlight, but as the boys had begun to grow up, so had their audience. The back catalogue still brought in marginal sales, and since taking over Starlight, she had signed several groups and performers who did well—but no breakout stars.
Starlight needed fresh blood, new talent that wouldn't just keep them in the black, but help build their reputation. So far, Jem and the Holograms was the only Starlight act that had managed to crack the European and Asian markets. She knew that Sir Hugh Ridley had a good eye for talent where the European market was concerned, and she thought that signing the Blue Bloods would be a good first step, to making solid connections overseas.
As her secretary showed the band into the conference room, Mason, Alan, and James were all smiles. But she couldn't help noticing that Craig seemed withdrawn. As the guys pulled chairs up to the table, he seemed to barely register her presence.
"Jerrica, I want to thank you for seeing us," Mason began as he pulled his chair up to the table.
"It's my pleasure—though I want to stress that whatever happens today, I'd suggest you have any contract you're offered looked over by a lawyer."
"Hugh's lined up Stacey Marcus from Rosehip. She's an entertainment lawyer who specialises in music law. Don't worry—we're not going into this blind."
"I'm glad. I know Stacey—she's good people. In my father's day, deals were negotiated with a handshake. But today..."
"Today people like Eric Raymond can fleece my sister," Craig muttered, and Mason shot him a look.
Jerrica stiffened. "I promise you, I don't do business the way Eric Raymond does."
"I'm sorry, Jerrica," Craig said quickly, "I know you'll give us a fair, honest, unbiased offer. Unlike some people."
"Jesus, Craig, would you lay off already?" Alan said sharply.
Jerrica looked from Craig to Mason, and wondered what exactly was going on. "Look, if this is a bad time, we can reschedule."
"No—no, Jerrica, it's fine," Mason said quickly. "Look, I have to be honest with you. You're not the only label we're meeting with today."
"I expected as much. Hugh told me your demo was making the rounds, and that you were meeting with several A&R managers in town."
"What Mason means to say, is that we're going straight from here to Rory Llewelyn this afternoon," Craig said, his voice tight with barely controlled anger.
"You're meeting with Riot?" Jerrica was taken aback.
Mason flushed, eyes daring back and forth between Jerrica and his drummer. "Look, it's more of a courtesy than anything else. He rang me yesterday, and we used to know each other back in the day—"
Jerrica held up a hand to stop him, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. "Mason, there's no need for explanations. Riot's a very savvy businessman. I'm not surprised he'd recognise strong, new talent when he hears it. And I'm prepared to make a competitive offer. I trust you to make the right—the fair—decision, based on the offers themselves."
"Thanks. I appreciate that."
Jerrica frowned. Obviously, something more was going on here than just business. After Aja's revelation that morning, she suspected it had to do with Stormer and Riot's relationship. Whatever it was, Craig's mood was positively black, and it seemed to be a sore point with the rest of the band. But whatever it was, it had no place at this table.
She took a sip from her water glass, and then opened her portfolio. "Okay, then. I guess we should get started."
The Scene may not have been the trendiest spot in Hollywood by far, but Stormer and Kimber had a history with the owner, Christine. She was in her late 20s, and had bought the place when it was a failing ice-cream parlour. She'd bought the adjacent storefront, knocked down a few walls, and added a stage and dance floor. It was popular with teens and college students, and the Limp Lizards had been the house band until Christine had spotted Kimber and Stormer arguing at the counter one day and coaxed them up on stage.
They'd had a steady gig, playing three nights a week for two months, and every once in a while, Stormer missed those days. They were as far away from the Misfits large-venue concerts as could be, but they were also different from the dingy dive bars she'd played with a variety of bands before Eric had signed her. Playing with Kimber at The Scene had been a dream come true—testing new material for loyal fans who didn't care that they'd once been rivals and even enemies; just kids out to hear good music.
Stormer had always felt indebted to Chris. She never would have become friends with Kimber if the owner hadn't singled them out and for all intents and purposes blackmailed them into taking the stage together. Even though she'd offered to pay Kimber and Stormer for playing there, they'd gladly done it for free.
Chris was behind the counter, arguing with the new counterman, when she arrived. Rocky, the kid who'd worked there for as long as Stormer had been coming, had gone away to college that fall and each successive attempt at a replacement had, according to Chris, been worse than the last. Stormer secretly though Chris just missed the gawky kid with the squeaky voice and too-big hands who made the best sundaes and shakes around.
Stormer noted that Chris had ditched her multi-coloured stage magician's outfit, and was now sporting a Charlie's Angel's tee-shirt, cut off shorts, and roller skates. She waved as Stormer came up to the counter.
"Kimber's at your booth already, kiddo," she said, rolling across the wooden floor, her blonde hair feathered in a very close approximation of Farah. "How are you doing? It's been ages!"
"I've been better, and I've been worse," Stormer admitted as she gave Chris a quick hug.
"Aw, honey, isn't that always just the way?" Chris gave her a sympathetic smile. "You want the usual?"
Stormer's "usual" was a banana split with chocolate ice-cream, and Chris always gave her extra jimmies. However, in her haste to get home that morning she'd skipped breakfast, and dinner the night before had consisted of a handful of pretzels at the Gabor mansion before Pizzazz had booted them all out. Her stomach rumbled at the thought.
"Actually, I'm really craving a cheeseburger."
"Say no more!" Christine laughed, and pushed off from the counter, and did a spin on her way to the kitchen. "One cow-on-cow with fries, coming up!"
Kimber was sitting in a booth in the back corner, a BLT in front of her, sipping a peach shake. She jumped up to give Stormer a hug as she approached the booth. "Are you okay? You sounded pretty frazzled when you called."
"I've really made a mess of things," Stormer said, gloomy as she slid into the booth.
"Oh no. Things didn't work out, with—" Kimber glanced around, suddenly aware that anyone in the club could overhear them, "—you-know-who?" she finished.
"Things worked out, alright," she said with a sigh, and began filling Kimber in on a very abbreviated version of the last few days. When Stormer got to the part about spending the night at Riot's penthouse, the Hologram's big blue eyes got round as saucers, but she held her tongue, waiting for Stormer to finish.
"When I got home, Craig and I had a huge fight," Stormer said just as Chris arrived with her cheeseburger and a chocolate shake.
"Man trouble?" Chris asked as she set the plate down, and Kimber reached over and snagged a french-fry which had fallen to the table-top.
"Big brother trouble," Stormer said, cupping her chin in her hand.
"Ouch." Chris winced in sympathy. "Lemme know if you gals need anything else, okay?"
"Thanks, Chris," Kimber said with a sunny smile, and Chris skated back towards the bar to give them a little privacy.
"He acts like I'm still a little kid," Stormer said with a frown as she stirred her milkshake with a long-handled spoon. "It just makes me so mad, you know?"
"Trust me, I understand how much it sucks to be the 'baby sister'. Jerrica does the exact same thing. God, the first time I went out with Jeff and stayed out late? She flipped. We just went to see a double-feature at the drive-in, those old monster movies Jeff loves, you know? And lost track of time. When I got home, I thought Jerrica was going to have a seizure. And we weren't even doing anything!"
"You didn't do... anything at all?"
"Okay—not anything, you know... major."
Stormer stifled a giggle. Kimber had more experience than she let on, but even she seemed old fashioned next to someone like Pizzazz, who practically carved notches in her bedpost. It seemed amazing to Stormer that two women so different could both have relationships with the same guy. Then again, it wasn't like Stormer had much in common with Jem—yet she was the one who had woken up in Riot's bed that morning. Not squeaky-clean Miss Pink Hair.
"Jerrica's always complaining that I act like a kid, but she's the one who never lets me stand on my own two feet. Remember how mad she was, when you and I first started playing together?"
"I remember." Stormer licked the spoon and set it atop her napkin. Chris had even remembered the extra malt. She wondered what she'd done, to deserve such good people in her life, sometimes.
"I just kept thinking, if we could make the record and prove to her that I really did know what I was doing..." Kimber sighed. "But then we ended up having to go to her for help anyway. So she's got this complex, that she's always having to clean up my messes."
"Exactly! It's, like, no matter what I do, I'll never be able to prove to him that I'm all grown up, and can make my own choices, and don't need him to come rescue me like some knight in tarnished armour."
"So, what are you going to do?"
"I'm not going to stop seeing you-know-who, just because Big Brother doesn't give me his blessing. That's for sure."
"Good for you!"
"Yeah—but I still need to tell Pizzazz..." Stormer's eyes dropped to her plate, and she moved her pickle around with one lacquered fingernail. "I should do it tonight, after the Yaki Tori show. Before anything else can go wrong."
"How do you think she'll take it?"
"Honestly? I'll be lucky to get out alive. And I may end up on your doorstep, begging you guys to give me another shot as a Hologram."
Kimber whistled lowly. "That bad, huh?"
"Well—think about it. How do you think Jerrica would react, if Jem ever really made an actual play for Rio?"
Kimber fidgeted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. "Um... Jem and Jerrica kinda have an understanding, where Rio's concerned."
Stormer's mouth dropped open in shock. "What, they share? Like he's a condo in Florida or something? No, wait—forget I said anything," Stormer said with a wave of her hand. "I don't want to know."
Throughout their friendship, the one topic Stormer had never broached was the question of Jem's identity. It was an unspoken, silent pact between them. But when she'd spent so much time at Starlight Mansion, it had always confused her—the fact that Jem would suddenly appear out of nowhere, but didn't seem to live in the house with the rest of her band.
"It's really.... complicated." Kimber folded her arms and dropped her head to them with a muffled thump that rattled the sundae glass next to her plate. "Oh, the drama. You have no idea."
"I understand drama," Stormer said with a wry laugh. "I'm a Misfit, remember? We have our own share of drama. I must be out of my mind, adding to it."
"So you're really gonna tell Pizzazz?"
"I have to. I mean, I can't keep sneaking around behind her back. I wanted to wait, but that was before... Before last night. It's one thing, possibly dating him. But it's something else now. It's not fair to him, it's not fair to her—"
"—and it's not fair to you," Kimber pointed out, gesturing with a French fry.
"Was it worth it?"
"Yeah." Stormer's cheeks grew warm. "Yeah, it was definitely worth it."
Mason waited until the elevator doors slid closed on the lobby of Starlight Music, before he turned on Craig. "What the hell was all that about in there, eh?"
Craig merely shrugged. "What? Was it supposed to be some big secret? That you're just humouring her, while you wait to see what sort of plum deal your old buddy Riot offers us?"
"You just heard Jerrica say he's a businessman—it's just business, Craig. That's all."
"I know Jerrica Benton. She's just not the type to bad-mouth the competition. Doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it."
"Why do you have it in for this guy? Other than the fact that he's taken up with your sister?"
"Isn't that enough?"
"Yeah, if she was still in diapers, and you were still practically raising her. But wake up!
"For Pete's sake, Mason—"
"Alan and James and I are alright with it, and you're bloody well out-voted three to one."
Craig backed up until he had his back to the elevator wall. "Mason—I'm sorry, but I don't want a record contract because Riot is banging my sister."
"But you would want one because you're marrying the adopted sister of the head of Starlight Music?" Alan snapped.
"Yeah—because no-one would actually give us a goddam contract because we're any good, or anything." James turned on Craig, hands balled into fists. "No, it's all about you, Craig. The whole bloody universe revolves around you."
"Right—all of you, knock it off!" Mason stepped between Craig and James, his hands hovering over their chests in case he had to actually stop them for going for each other's throats. "We've worked really hard to get where we are, and I for one am not going to let petty arguments break us up before we even have a chance to put out our first album, alright?"
"He started it," Alan muttered.
"Enough!" Mason snapped. "Craig, I think maybe you ought to sit this one out."
"What are you saying?"
"That you either ditch the attitude—or ditch the meeting. We're not going to sign anything. Not today. Take some time to cool down, and then we'll talk this through. Together, as a band. Alright?"
The doors slid open and Craig pushed past Mason angrily.
"Fine," Craig managed through clenched teeth. "I'm outta here."
He turned on his heel and left the Blue Bloods standing in the steel and glass lobby of Starlight Music.
Chapter 8: Part VII
Rapture and Minx were waiting for Riot in the practice room when Riot entered. Minx was running through the tracks she'd laid for the percussion section of "Take", which they were performing that afternoon on the Lin-Z Pierce show, and Rapture was picking out the bass line on her black Hamer.
"Where have you been?" Rapture asked, tightening a string. "We've been waiting all morning."
"Yes, Riot—you want us to make the best possible impression on the Lin-Z show, yes?" Minx said, not even looking up from her keys. "That means working on this song your paramour concocted for us. We've only performed it a handful of times, and it must be perfect on the air."
Riot could tell that Minx was still pouting over his decision to release "Take" as their next single, rather than the song she had written as the third cut on their next album. He would have to find some way to mollify her, he decided as he lifted his custom BC Rich Mockingbird off its stand. It wouldn't do for their performance to be affected by Minx's hurt feelings.
Given the press and public's reaction to "Take", it had been more logical to strike while the iron was hot. And there was no question that releasing Stormer's song as their next single was the right move at this juncture. Not just for his burgeoning personal relationship—but the band as a whole, no matter how hard it was for Minx to accept. While he knew performing material they had not written themselves was not to his bandmates' taste—indeed, was normally not his own choice either—no matter how Rapture and Minx might feel about Stormer as a person, even they could not deny the song was perfect.
Lindsey Pierce had asked them specifically to perform it live on her show, squeezing them in at the last minute. In her own way, the VJ was striking while the iron was hot as well. And Riot had no qualms about accommodating her, since it was in their mutual best interests. It was no great secret that Pierce made or broke acts in this town. If she hadn't tipped Jerrica Benton off to the Stingers performance at Le Klub Kool, he might not be in the position of power he was today, equal partner in a major record label. After all, it was the rivalry between Jerrica Benton and Eric Raymond that had led to Riot being offered half of Misfits Music. Had Eric not been biologically incapable of losing to Jerrica, Riot was certain he never would have thrown the partnership into the pot, to sweeten the deal.
Pierce also seemed more than willing to promote the Stingers on her show without the need for pesky kick-backs, like some radio stations and television stations had demanded when the Stingers had been an unknown quantity still working to prove themselves. While her long-standing relationship with director Anthony Julian meant she was more than friendly with Benton and by extension, Jem and the Holograms, he'd been gratified to learn that no matter how she personally felt about a group, she judged the music on its own merits. Even the Misfits got considerable airplay on her network, regardless of the number of times Pizzazz had made a spectacle of herself, crashing tapings and occasionally trashing sets.
Riot had never even had to charm his way into the VTV star's good-graces. Pierce was frank almost to the point of bluntness around him, but it was all good-natured and strictly business. She was, above all, a consummate professional. While there had been rumours for years about her and Julian, he suspected their friendship was strictly platonic. And not just because the noted director had been dating, if the gossip rags were to be believed, Shana Elmsford of the Holograms for four years. Unlike Harriet Horn, who had dogged Riot with phone calls for a week after the Stingers concert, Pierce had been content to take hold of the story as it broke. As a result, he was more likely to keep her in the loop than the notorious gossip hound.
"I had a meeting," Riot said as he settled the strap of his guitar over his shoulder. "Mason Hawthorne's band, the Blue Bloods."
"I vaguely remember them," Minx said as her fingers danced across the keys of her synthesiser. "They opened for us in Manchester that one time, didn't they?"
"Manchester?" Rapture frowned. "I don't remember playing Manchester."
"It was when Minx and are were with Nirvana, my dear. I didn't even know they were in the States." Minx shrugged, and Riot could feel Rapture's eyes as he turned towards the keyboardist.
"They've only just arrived. I'm thinking of signing them. That is, if they don't sign with Jerrica Benton's company first."
"Ugh. Jerrica Benton." Rapture shuddered. "What can she possibly offer them that could compare?"
He grinned. "Exactly my thoughts."
"Why meet with them yourself? Don't we have... people for that?" Minx asked, referring to the A&R department.
"Mason is, as much as one can be in this particular business, an old friend," Riot said with a shrug. "I believe a... personal touch would be more effective."
"I barely remember him," Minx said, dismissive. "We played the same venues, what? Twice? Three times, a lifetime ago?"
"They're really very good, actually. They're Hugh Ridley's house band at his club in London, and they've quite the following in Europe. I think they're poised to really break into the American market."
"Riot—you sound like a typical businessman! Just another boring American music executive like the cold fish, Raymond." Minx pouted.
"Have you ever known me to be boring? Or typical?"
"You have an angle," Rapture said with a sly smile.
"Don't I always?" Riot raised a brow, and his flip answer seemed to satisfy them both.
Only he knew the truth.
Certainly the Blue Bloods were talented—there could be no denying that. But Minx was correct. They were hardly the sort of group he personally would go after, rather than leaving such mundane details to the company's representatives. Yet he had contacted Hugh himself, made all the arrangements without consulting Raymond. There was nothing in his contract which stopped him from signing new talent. So he would do as he pleased.
He couldn't help but feel pleased with himself as he began tuning the Mockingbird.
The meeting had gone well—although he'd noted the Blue Bloods drummer had opted not to attend. Mason had just said Craig had personal commitments, and left it at that. But the entire band had become uncomfortable when Riot had asked after Stormer's brother. They'd gone on with the meeting, but Craig was present through his absence. Given how Craig had reacted to Riot's presence at Stormer's house the evening the had arrived, Riot wasn't surprised that Phillips had bowed out.
Still, he hoped the Bloods would take the deal. It would please him. But more than that, it would please her. And that, today in particular, was reason enough for him to do something.
The mellow sound of the bass guitar bounced off the soundproof walls of the studio in the basement of Starlight mansion, as Aja's fingers danced up and down the neck. She skipped from some of the Holograms' old standards, and then slipped into a track off the latest Cure album—not the style she usually played, but she'd been impressed with the sound Smith had coaxed out of his own Fender VI. He'd called it the most perfect sound he could think of—the equivalent of a cello, and as she closed her eyes and felt the music, she had to agree.
As she stilled her fingers on the strings and the last vibration died, she opened her eyes to the sound of clapping. Turning on her stool, Aja saw Craig leaning against the door of the studio, hands still together.
"She sounds great."
"She? Or me?" Aja quirked a brow.
"Both. Are you going to use her onstage?"
"I haven't decided yet. Shana's been playing bass ever since Raya joined the band, so it's not like we really need two, but this baby's a baritone, so..." She frowned, noticing how stiffly he was holding himself, the frown line between his eyebrows that looked like it was permanently etched there. "You didn't come here to ask me about my guitar. What's wrong? Did something happen?"
Craig's shoulders slumped. "I think I really blew it this time."
"Was it your meeting with Jerrica?"
He shook his head. "Jerrica was—is—great. It went really well."
"Then what is it?"
"Mary spent the night with Riot."
Aja winced on his behalf. She remembered how Jerrica had been, when Kimber had got engaged to Jeff. In public, she'd been supportive. But as Kimber's surrogate parent, Jerrica had confided in Aja that she couldn't help but feel she'd failed, somehow. Failed their parents, and failed Kimber, because she hadn't been able to stop her sister from making what had all the earmarks of a spectacular mistake. And that was with Kimber marrying a guy Jerrica actually liked.
"I got on her case about it this morning," Craig continued. "It got ugly, and it was my fault that it got ugly. I totally lost my cool."
"Have you talked to her?"
He shook his head. "Not yet. Mason and the guys think I was too hard on her."
"What do you think?"
"Maybe..." He pulled up a chair, straddling it. "I was all set to apologise, and then Mason dropped the little bomb on me that he and Hugh had arranged a meeting with Riot over at Stinger Sound."
"Oh no. What happened?"
"I didn't go to the meeting. I couldn't stand the idea of sitting in a room with the guy who is taking advantage of my sister, and pretending I don't want to rip his head off. Because I do, babe. God, I just want to beat the crap out of him. How can I sit there and pretend it's all just business?"
"Have you thought about what will happen if the guys sign with Stinger Sound?"
"I just don't know. I love playing with Mason, Alan and James. I really do. And it wouldn't be fair to them, ditching them on the eve of a 12 city tour. But I don't know if I could stay and work with that son of a bitch."
"Well, to be fair, it's not like you'd actually have to work with him."
"Just for him? Thanks. That makes it so much better."
She sighed. "You know what I mean. And anyway, it's not a done deal, right? I mean, Jerrica will make a fair offer—"
"C'mon, babe. You and I both know Riot's not going to play fair." He rested his chin on his crossed arms, and she resisted the urge to muss his hair, as she didn't think he'd particularly appreciate it at that precise moment.
"Mason's not gonna sign with somebody just because they were drinking buddies back in the day," she assured him as she laid the bass in her guitar case and flipped the catches.
"I hope you're right. I may have really blown it, this time. It's not like the guys are kicking me out. But Mason's pretty angry. I guess I don't really blame him. My own personal soap opera could cost the band their shot at a high-profile label. It's not fair."
"You're right. It's not."
"Gee. Thanks." He scowled at her.
Aja took a deep breath, and decided to just dive on in. "Craig, I know you practically raised her. But she's a big girl. And you have your own life to live. You can't keep trying to live hers for her. It's not fair to Stormer, and it's not fair to you."
Aja sighed, and setting the guitar case aside and moved to stand in front of him. She lifted a finger beneath his chin to lift her eyes to hers gently.
"Look, I've seen Jerrica torn up for years over mistakes Kimber has made. Because Kimber is Jerrica's baby sister—and Jerrica hates seeing her hurt. But there comes a point at which you gotta just step back, and allow your siblings to make—and learn from—their own mistakes. If she gets hurt, she gets hurt. And you'll be there for her if and when that happens. But you're right. It's not fair to Mason and the guys, caught in the middle of family stuff."
She watched his face, waiting for the storm-cloud to break—either in thunder, or sunshine. She breathed a sigh of relief as he smiled ruefully and wrapped his arms around her, the back of the chair still between them.
"I'm one lucky bastard, you know that?" His voice was muffled slightly by the fact that his face was pressed into her midsection, and she laughed, giving in to her desire to run her fingers through his hair.
"Yes. And you don't deserve me." She laughed as he turned and pulled her down onto his lap.
"I really don't," he said, planting a soft kiss on her nose. He sighed, his arms tightening around her. "God, sometimes I just can't wait to get back to London. Everything seems so much simpler there."
Aja froze. "London?"
"And there's so much to look forward to," Craig continued. "I've spent the last year thinking 'I can't wait to show Aja...' every time I've passed a street corner café, or a statue in a park. I know you'll love it."
"Craig—I don't know what to say. I can't—I can't move to London."
He looked at her blankly for a second, confusion written across his face. "Well, I don't mean right away. We've got an album to cut, and a tour—"
She shook her head. "No, I mean... I can't move to London. I can't leave the band."
"Aja, I'm not expecting you to pack up and take off tomorrow."
She pulled herself out of his arms, which had felt so welcoming just a moment ago but now seemed too confining. "But you are expecting me to pack up and take off. And I can't do that."
He stood and laid his hands on her shoulders. "Look, we don't have to decide this today."
"Well, we have to talk about it eventually. I mean, we got engaged, but we've never really talked about it. And we need to. Especially if it involves our futures with our bands."
He shrugged. "It's just a job. We're musicians. We can work anywhere. All that matters is we're together. Whether that's LA or the UK—"
She stepped away from him, feeling a painful tightness starting in her chest. "That's not the point. It may be 'just a job' for you, but Craig, I'm not just in this band for fun. Or fame. I've got people who rely on me—the money Jem and the Holograms bring in supports Starlight House. Those kids count on us."
"Aja, if we went back to London, the Holograms could find a new bass player. It's not like you'd be running out on them. Jerrica would understand. We could talk to her about it, give her plenty of time to hold auditions—"
She shook her head, fighting the panic that was threatening to engulf her. "It's more complicated than that."
"How? When Shana left, you auditioned for a new drummer. If Shana can go off and do her own thing, then so could you. If you wanted to."
She swallowed, feeling her universe start to crumble at his words and his tone. She couldn't tell him why without going back on her promise to Jerrica. They had to be so careful who knew Jem's secret, and it wasn't her decision to make. But she could feel Craig pulling away from her, and it hurt like hell.
"It's more than just the responsibility—Craig, I love playing with the Holograms. They're my sisters. I can't just skip out on them."
"For some guy." The storm she'd feared moments before had finally hit the shore, and he turned away from her, hurt and anger coming off him in waves.
Aja laid her hand on his shoulder, and tried to get him to face her. "That's not what I'm saying. You're not just 'some guy'. You could never be just some guy."
"Then why are you treating me like one?" he snapped, and she had to force herself not to step back, out of reach.
"I'm not! Look, we can talk about this, figure something out—
"Why bother talking? You've obviously already made up your mind. Being a Hologram is more important to you than being my wife. I get it." He shrugged off her hand on his arm.
"Craig..." Aja blinked back sudden tears, her throat so tight she felt as if she couldn't breathe. "Craig, please. Dot be this way."
"Hey, it was fun while it lasted, right, Gorgeous?" he said from the doorway, before he turned and left Aja all alone in the practice room, tears sliding down her cheeks unchecked. She was frozen for a few seconds in shock, before she took off after him.
Jerrica was pulling up to Starlight Mansion in the Roadster just as Craig's rental car pulled out of the driveway. She waved, but he didn't even seem to see her.
"Craig!" Aja called after him from the doorway of the mansion, and Jerrica hurried out of her car as she saw the tears streaking her cheeks. "Craig, wait!"
"Aja? What's happening? Are you okay?"
Aja, who was always so sure of herself and so strong, fell into her arms crying.
"I've lost him. Oh, Jerrica, this time I've really lost him."
Even with Kimber as her own personal cheerleader, Stormer was still a basket-case of jangled nerves as she pulled into her driveway. Now that she'd made the decision to come clean, she should have felt relieved. As if a huge weight had been taken off her shoulders.
Instead, she was becoming more and more apprehensive about facing Pizzazz. She mentally went over the scene in her mind, as she dug through her purse for her keys.
It just happened. I wasn't trying to hurt you. Hurting you is the last thing I ever wanted...
Sometimes, you find yourself in a situation where something you never could have pictured in a million years suddenly just seems so right...
It's just sex. Really, really fantastic sex.
Almost all of the various scenarios ended with Pizzazz, please put the gun down.
The sky above her was grey, as if to match her mood. The morning's rain still pooled on the asphalt and moisture hung in the air like a curtain. She frowned as she turned the key, but the door wouldn't budge. It always stuck when it rained, and one of these days, she was going to have to get it fixed. But up until recently, she hadn't had much of a budget for repairs. It was just one more thing low on her laundry list of priorities. In truth, she'd rather be holed up in the studio composing than having to deal with mundane realities like utility bills and contractors. She felt like she was too young to have to be a grown-up all the time, even if she was inordinately proud of her grown-up achievements and financial independence after years of ramen noodles and sleeping in cheap studio apartments or on someone's couch.
She sighed, giving the door a solid push with her hip. It swung inward, and she froze at the sight which greeted her.
Her living room was full of flowers.
Red roses, to be exact. She stood in the doorway, gaping for a moment. Long-stemmed roses overflowed from cut glass vases and bowls, mason jars and plastic pitchers scattered on every available surface. The air was thick with their perfume.
"They started coming about an hour ago," Mason's voice came from the couch, and Stormer nearly jumped out of her skin. A book lay open in his lap, and the coffee table held a few empty beer bottles and an ashtray.
"Where're the guys?"
"James and Alan went over to Rock Hard, to check on the set-ups for Friday. Then afterwards, I think they were going out to dinner with Raya and Lela and some of the kids. I just wasn't much in a party mood."
"We, ah... fell out. Had a huge row in the lift at Starlight, actually. I haven't seen him since. He's probably over with Aja, staying out from under our feet for a bit. Having a sulk. You know Craig. He's got a temper, but he'll come to his senses, just you see."
"Come to his senses about Riot, you mean?"
Mason ran a hand through his hair and smiled sheepishly. "Truth? I don't think he's ever going to think any guy you date is good enough for you. Present company included." He winked.
Stormer blushed. "Mason—"
"We fell out over the way he treated you, and frankly, the way he treated us." He sat forward, his expression suddenly serious. "Craig's one of me best mates, but he's got to learn he can't just offer up ultimatums to people. Not if he wants to keep them as his friends."
Stormer felt her stomach lurch with dread. "You wouldn't... you're not gonna kick him out of the band, are you?"
"Course not, he's family. Only family I've got. I'd never do that," he assured her. "This is important, this trip. For all of us, not just him. He needs to remember that, is all I'm saying. And before I forget..." He reached over and picked up a creamy white envelope from the kitchen counter. "This came with the flowers."
She ripped the envelope open, holding the card close to her chest so Mason couldn't read it, feeling heat flood her cheeks.
These blooms cannot even compare to your beauty.
"You really fancy him, don't you," he said softly.
"Yeah. If you'd asked me, this time last year, if I'd ever even give him the time of day, let alone... But yeah. I think I really do."
"Then it doesn't matter what Craig thinks about him. You do what makes you happy, and who knows? Maybe Craig will figure out that Rory makes you happy, and that's all that matters."
And you take, and you take, and you take, and you take
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
As the last few notes of the Stingers' song faded, the camera pulled in close on Lindsey Pierce's bright smile.
"That was the Stingers at Studio B, performing their latest single, 'Take'. Remember, you heard it here first, VTV fans!"
"Cut!" Lindsey's director Kyle called.
"Great work," Lindsey grinned at Riot as a PA helped her remove her body-mic. "I think this single's gonna be the hottest thing yet. Any idea when you'll have the music video out?"
Riot bussed her cheek with a quick kiss. "I'd love to stay and talk shop, but I'm afraid I have a pressing appointment."
"What appointment?" Minx asked, surprised.
"I have to see a man about some 'ice'," Riot said absently as he checked his watch. "I'll meet you back at the studio, before the party. Don't worry—I'll have Rochelle send the car back for you."
"Riot!" Rapture called after his retreating back, but he just held up a hand and continued striding through the studio's double doors.
"So, any truth to the rumour that you plan on another collaboration with Stormer of the Misfits?" Lindsey asked as she escorted Minx and Rapture back to the green room so they could take off their stage make-up.
"Hardly. We usually write our own material," Minx said, her tone cool.
"And the only 'collaborating' Riot's interested in has nothing to do with music," Rapture said with a bitter laugh as she closed her eyes and let the make-up artist swab her cheeks with cold cream. "I'm sure once he gets what he wants, that little partnership will be over—" she clicked her fingers, "like that."
"Rapture," Minx hissed.
"Hey, I'm into rock news, not gossip." Lindsey's tone was friendly, but her smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm more than happy to tell the world when the ink's dry on a contract, but what happens behind closed doors or between the sheets—that's not my bag. I'm more than happy to let Harriet Horn host that particular barbecue."
Minx waited until they were safely in the back of the Stinger Sound limo before turning on Rapture, her manicured fingernails digging into her bandmate's arm.
"What do you think you're doing back there?"
"Please." Rapture's voice dripped scorn. "Like I care? I'm getting really tired of Riot's little infatuation with that... that Misfit at the expense of his own band. It's bad enough he has us recording her little ditty. But now all anyone wants to hear about is will she be writing our entire album for us? Will she be joining the group? Stormer this and Stormer that. I'm sick of it, Minx. I want the old Riot back."
Minx sighed. "Look, I'm not any happier about having to record it than you are, but the song's good. You heard the crowd at the concert—they loved it. It's got us a lot of good publicity right now. And it's just a one-time thing."
"Oh, you think so, do you? You don't think tomorrow, or next week, or next month he won't be pushing some other song on us that his new pet has penned for us? Don't you remember how miserable we were, when we had to play with the Misfits?"
"This isn't like that. He hasn't left us."
"Hasn't he? Where is he now? Running off to buy trinkets for her. This is supposed to be our big day. But all he can think about is her."
"Riot's our leader."
"So we just blindly follow, is that it?" Rapture wrenched her arm from Minx's death grip. "Wake up, Minx. If this is all just a game, then why are we being left in the dark while he has all the fun, hmmm? It's Jem all over again. It's just a matter of time before we wake up and find he's taken off, panting after this new bitch. Again. And leaving us to fend for our own. Just you wait and see."
"What's got into you? You're going on like some jealous harpy. And frankly, Rapture, it's getting a bit boring." She hit the intercom. "Stop the car."
"Where are you going?" Rapture asked as the driver eased the stretch Lincoln over to the closest sidewalk.
"I'll walk. I need the fresh air. And if you know what's good for you, you'll stop all this nonsense before word gets back to Riot."
She slammed the car door, breathed in a lungful of smog-filled air, and wished she hadn't given up smoking.
"I hate Los Angeles," Minx muttered beneath her breath as she made for the closest taxi stand.
Through the bedroom door, Jerrica could hear Aja's muffled sobs, and she leaned against the wall, tears pricking her own eyes. Jerrica knocked on Aja's door lightly. "Aja, it's me."
The door opened, and Jerrica saw her best friend's tear-stained face for a second as Aja turned and threw herself back on her unmade bed, her light-blue tinted hair falling to cover her face as she buried her face in the pillows.
Jerrica perched on the edge of the bed, reaching over to gently rub Aja's back. "I know Craig has a temper, but he'll come around. He always does."
Aja rolled over, still clutching the pillow to her chest. Her blue eyes were red-rimmed and puffy from crying. "Not this time. I think it's really over. He wouldn't even look at me."
"What set him off?"
"He was so upset—he had a huge fight with his sister this morning over Riot."
"A fight with Stormer?" Jerrica couldn't keep the surprise from her voice. "But why—"
"Why do you think?" Aja asked with a bitter laugh. "Stormer slept with Riot."
Jerrica tried to hide her reaction, but she needn't have bothered. Aja was staring at the coverlet, her hands tracing the pattern of the bedspread absently.
"Craig was feeling pretty lousy over the way he reacted. He was so upset, when he came over. I thought it would just blow over, but then... then he started going on about how everything would be different once we moved back to London."
"London?" Jerrica felt all the blood drain from her face, and her hands suddenly tingled with cold. She couldn't imagine the Holograms without Aja. She realised with a start she hadn't really come to terms with what Aja's marriage to Craig would mean.
"He just thinks I can pick up and go—just like that. When I told him I couldn't, he just completely lost it." Aja drew her knees up to her chest, and wiped away fresh tears with the heel of her hand.
"Have you thought about going?" Jerrica asked, trying to keep her voice level. Of course Aja would leave, to start her new life with her husband. It had just been a mythical "someday" that Jerrica had avoided thinking about precisely because she would miss her adopted sister so much. It hadn't occurred to her someday would arrive so soon.
"I don't know—it's all just happened so fast. I was just starting to get used to the idea of marrying him. We never really talked about the future. And you know how Craig is—it's all or nothing, with him."
Jerrica frowned. "Handing you an ultimatum—that isn't fair."
"Maybe he's right," Aja said softly, resting her chin on her knee. "Maybe I don't really love him enough. I mean, this fantastic guy—better than anything that's ever happened to me in my life. And I just gave him the brush off."
"Aja, that's not fair. He put you on the spot. He had no right to do that, and then to storm off without evening listening to what you had to say—"
"What could I have said, Jerrica?" Aja cried, and Jerrica flinched from the sudden anger in her voice as Aja uncoiled her legs and slid off the bed, pacing in the narrow space between the bed and the desk. "That we can't just find another bass player, because my best friend uses a space-age hologram to hide her identity?"
"This isn't about Synergy—"
Aja turned away from her, her shoulders shaking. "Yes it is. It always is."
Jerrica stood, one hand gripping the bedpost because she was worried that her legs would buckle under her. "I had no idea you felt this way," she said quietly.
"Well, now you know." Aja turned back to face her, and Jerrica recognised the determined set of her jaw, the inflexible stance. "I'm loyal to this family, Jerrica. But you can't ask me right now if that loyalty is worth losing him. Okay? Just don't ask me, 'cause right now, I'm not so sure."
Jerrica mirrored Aja's posture, arms crossed, head held high. "So you want me to go public? Is that it? Open up my father's legacy to the world, so Synergy can be used as a weapon?"
"You could have told Craig. You would have, if he'd won the contest instead of Raya. This was never about Emmett's work. Or Synergy being safe. It's about you protecting your secret from Rio."
Jerrica drew back from the accusation in her voice as if she'd been slapped.
"I never asked you to lie to Craig."
"You lie to Rio every day, and you just expect us all to back you up. But I'm tired of it, Jerrica. I'm just really tired of all of it. And I want to be alone. So I think you'd better go now, before we both say things we'll regret."
Jerrica got up, numbness spreading through her chest as she stumbled to the door. "Aja, I'm sorry."
"Just get out."
The plan was for the Misfits to rendezvous at the Gabor mansion, and take a hired limo to the show. Pizzazz wanted to arrive in style. Since Stormer was pretty sure her little orange hatchback wasn't what anyone would call stylish, she had no issues leaving it at the mansion overnight. Roxy's motorcycle was already parked in the garage, tucked between two of Mr Gabor's vintage cars, sleeping beneath their tarps when Stormer pulled into the driveway, and killed the engine.
Pizzazz had asked the Misfits to wear black, no doubt so she would stand out in whatever dress she wore. Stormer didn't mind. The idea of blending into the background was very appealing. Plus, she thought with a rueful smile, bloodstains wouldn't show nearly as much on black. She had chosen a black sheath dress cut low in the back, pairing it with a tailored cropped jacket, and pumps. She checked her make-up in the mirror one last time and was gripped by a sense of déjà vu. Her fingers strayed to the rosebud tucked behind her ear, wondering idly how the rose she'd left at Riot's that morning was fairing.
Blood rushed to her cheeks as she remembered what it had been like to wake up in Riot's bed. It had been years she had actually spent the night with a man, and it had been very different to roll over and find Riot staring at her, than it had been with Angus. Angus had been sweet, and she never regretted going to bed with him because they had genuinely cared for one another and he had probably been the sweetest guy she'd ever fallen for. They had been friends, and they had been lovers, but she knew she hadn't really been in love with him. She had just wanted so badly to be loved, and Angus had held her almost in awe. She had basked in his attention because it made her giddy to think someone actually wanted her for her. Having spent years on his island, Angus hadn't known her as Stormer of the Misfits—a world-renowned rock band. He had just seen her as a beautiful girl he wanted to get to know better, and that had been a feeling she hadn't wanted to let go of.
They had had some good times, and a lot of fun, but when Angus had told her he wanted to head out again, see more of the world, she hadn't been shattered. Far from it. She'd seen him off at the airport with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she'd expected to fall apart in tears on the drive home but instead was surprised to admit that while she had enjoyed being with him, and would miss him as a friend, her feelings went no further than that.
It was different with Riot. Part of it was the danger—the fear of being found out added an edge that she knew she shouldn't find so attractive, but couldn't deny. Craig had accused her in the past of falling for bad boys who used her, and she had to admit that some of the jerks she'd dated in high school and afterwards, before she'd become a Misfit, sure fit that bill. But there was something different about the way Riot was with her. He pushed her to be more independent, more self-reliant, stand up for herself and her music. He wasn't the first person to do that—Craig and Kimber certainly in the last year. And it was true, in ways she wasn't always comfortable, but the truth was he wasn't using her. It was almost as if he was encouraging her to use him.
"Nobody's using anybody," she told her reflection. "And nobody's going to get hurt. Not if I can help it."
She had barely touched the doorbell when Jetta jerked the door open.
"Hey, am I late?" Stormer asked, confused, as Jetta grabbed her by the arm and instead of the two of them heading up the marble stairs to Pizzazz's room, steered her into the empty dining room.
"What's going on?" Stormer asked as Jetta pulled the door firmly shut. Roxy was leaning against the table, her white-blonde hair held back from her face with a stiff coating of hairspray and a black scarf tied in a knot behind one ear, the ends trailing over the sheer sleeves of her tight black dress.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Now, Roxy, let's not deviate from the plan," Jetta whispered fiercely, touching Roxy's shoulder.
"Screw the plan!" Roxy shook her off angrily, and turned on Stormer. "Jesus, Stormer, Riot of all people?"
Stormer felt all the blood drain from her face, and she practically swayed on her feet.
"I don't—I don't know what you're talking—"
"Can the bullshit. Me and Jetta saw you last night. At Riot's building." Roxy crossed her arms and Stormer almost flinched from the force of her glare.
Jetta sighed, and carefully got between the two of them. "Saw you go in, ducks—and not come out. We're concerned, that's all. Aren't we, Roxy?" she prompted.
"Yeah. Mainly concerned that if Pizzazz finds out, she'll kill you."
Stormer licked her dry lips, eyes straying towards the door. "I'm going to tell her. Tonight, after the show."
"What?" Jetta's mouth dropped open in shock, just as Roxy chorused, "Are you suicidal?"
"I—I'm going to tell her," Stormer repeated, backing up a step from the murderous look in Roxy's eyes. "I already made up my mind, and Riot and I talked about it and—"
"You can't tell her, you idiot," Roxy said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Just dump the guy, and pray she never finds out."
"What? No. No, I'm not going to dump him."
"It might be for the best," Jetta said, touching Stormer's arm sympathetically. "Swan off, make a clean break. Before anybody gets hurt, yeah?"
"Before you get hurt, you mean." Stormer flinched away from her touch as if it burned. "You don't care about me! You just want to make sure Pizzazz doesn't find out!"
"Damn straight," Roxy growled. "The band's finally got its shit together. But no. You have to go and fuck everything up by sleeping with the enemy—"
"He's not the enemy!"
"Since when?" Roxy demanded. "From the second the guy hit town, he's been nothing but trouble for us. And last time I looked, he still looked at us like a piece of shit he was scraping off his shoe. So what the hell has changed, huh? What the hell did he do that suddenly you're his biggest fan?"
"How 'bout he believed in me," Stormer shot back. "When Eric sold me out, and Pizzazz just laughed at me, Riot was the one who made me stand up to Eric. Who got Eric to renegotiate my contract. A fair contract. And there was nothing in it for him."
"Except some free Misfit tail apparently." Roxy's lip was curled in a sneer.
"That's not what it was like!"
"Then what was it like? Champagne and flowers? Unicorns and rainbows? Jesus, Stormer, we're talking about Riot here!"
"I didn't plan it—I didn't! It just... happened. And I'm not sorry it happened, and you can't make me." Stormer threw up her hands in a gesture of utter frustration. "Why can't anybody just be happy for me? Just this once?"
"Oh, I don't know. Could it possibly be because the guy's an asshole who almost tore our group apart for good? Could that be it?"
Roxy crossed her arms and glared at Stormer, and beside her Jetta mirrored her posture.
"C'mon, you guys. He's not like that. I mean, not anymore. He's... different."
"Riot is as he ever was, ducks. Looking out for number one. And if you were smart, you'd do the same."
"Jetta's right—even if Mr Perfect doesn't mess you up? Pizzazz will, when she finds out you're poaching."
"I'm not poaching!"
"If you're so okay with this whole thing, then why'd you keep it a secret, huh? You coulda told us. You could've told me."
Stormer blanched. "I was going to—you have to believe me. I was."
"Yeah. Sure. Does Kimber Benton know?"
"That's not fair."
"I thought so."
"Roxy!" Stormer stepped towards her, but Jetta stepped between them.
"Keep it down, you two," she whispered fiercely at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
"You're always talking about how we gotta hang together, how we are a family and all that mushy crap. But you've got new friends now—who needs Roxy when you've got the Benton brat? Why don't you just join the Holograms, while you're at it? One big happy fucking family."
"Roxy, it's not like that—" Stormer began, but Jetta's grip on her arm became painful.
"Muzzle it," she whispered as Pizzazz threw open the doors to the dining room, framing herself in the doorway dramatically.
"How do I look?"
"Like a freaking geisha on a bender," Roxy said before Jetta could stop her.
Pizzazz's hair was shellacked into something approximating a giant cinnamon bun, adorned with plastic cherry blossoms and a pair of clear plastic chopsticks. The electric green kimono barely came to the top of Pizzazz's thighs, but trailed a long stiff drape of silk behind her. The red sash wound around her waist held the deep V neckline closed—barely—and Stormer could see her zebra-print bustier beneath when she moved. Topping off the garish ensemble were platform heels that looked like they belonged on a drag queen.
"It's a Yaki Tori original."
"It's original alright," Jetta muttered beneath her breath.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Pizzazz growled, oblivious to the anger coming off Roxy in waves. "The limo's outside. We can't keep Riot waiting!"
"Oh no, we can't keep Riot waiting." Roxy stomped outside, slamming the door so loudly it echoed through the marble hall.
"Maybe I should sit tonight out," Stormer said weakly.
"Oh no. You're going. And the second we get there, you are telling Himself this charade is over, you hear me? Before Pizzazz finds out. And maybe we can get out of this mess before it all goes pear-shaped."
"Jetta—I can't. I won't."
"Oh, you will." Jetta's grey eyes were flat and unforgiving as she steered Stormer towards the door. "You know what happens when Pizzazz has to choose between us and him. You think it was bad before? We might never recover from this."
Chapter 9: Part VIII
The rooftop garden at Stinger Sound was transformed for the night. A long runway draped with purple satin ran the length of half the roof, ending in the fountain where lotus blossoms floated gently amid tea-lights like fireflies. The morning's rain had washed away the smog, and far above the bright glow of the city lights hung a scattering of stars.
Like all of Riot's gatherings, the party was thronged with celebrities. Actors, producers, designers and fellow musicians warily circled one another like predators, baring their teeth in smiles that never quite reached their eyes. At the centre of it all, Japanese fashion designer Yaki Tori held court. The models were behind a curtain, primped and sprayed and corseted as they waited for their cues. No-one was going to start the show until their host was there to witness it, in the hopes of catching his eye and possibly entering his orbit.
But Riot stood in his office, the sounds of the party shut out by the soundproofed doors as he regarded the velvet box resting in the centre of his desk. What a girl really wants is ice, to prove it's for real, Rochelle had said. Riot had taken her words to heart, choosing the best piece the jewellers had to offer as a perfect expression of his devotion.
A platinum bracelet lay nestled in the satin bed of the jewellery box, row after row of perfect 2 carat diamonds catching the light as if they were alive. It was extravagant, but he could afford it. As he had told his mother on her birthday, what was the point of having money, if not to shower those he cared about with gifts?
He closed the box with an audible snap just as his office door opened and Rapture sauntered in. Her long blonde hair was piled high atop her head, and her gold and white cocktail dress left little to the imagination. Her dark lipstick stood out against her pale skin, making her mouth seem cruel.
Rapture draped herself across the sofa against one wall, her long legs stretched out before her, ending in wicked-looking stiletto heels.
"Rapture, my dear, why aren't you enjoying our little soiree?"
"Everyone's just milling around like sheep. It's boring. Are you ever planning on coming out to liven things up?"
"In due time. Where's Minx?"
"I have no idea," Rapture said airily. "We left the studio separately. I haven't seen her all afternoon. Once she began hanging out with that creepy little geek, Techrat, she stopped returning Yaki's phonecalls. I'd be surprised even she even shows up tonight. She and Yaki split up, you know."
Riot shrugged. "Hardly surprising, given it is Minx after all." In all the years he'd known Ingrid, she had never had any serious affairs du coeurs. Merely enjoyed the chase—both as hunter and as prey. But her true thrill was the pursuit itself. Once she'd had what she wanted, she tired of lovers quickly. Since they had arrived in California, the only man who seemed immune to her considerable charms was Rio Pacheco. And even that was, given their last few encounters, debatable.
"I'm surprised you put up with Yaki, actually. He's such a wretched little sycophant, and his designs are so passé."
"Yaki serves his purpose. When I tire of him, I'm sure he will move on to other pursuits," Riot said with a slight shrug. Yaki wasn't big enough yet to unveil his couture line at Fashion Week in New York alongside designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld, and the Comtesse DuVoisin. But Yaki was considered one of Los Angeles' luminaries—almost entirely due to Riot's influence. Every award and accolade the designer garnered brought Riot acclaim as his patron.
"But for tonight, we are to allow Yaki to dazzle us. He's causing quite the stir on the Paris fashion scene right now. It's good publicity for the Stingers."
"It's good publicity so long as we are still the only American rock group to wear Yaki Tori originals," Rapture pointed out. "You know he met with Eric last week about designing something for that little girl from Ephemeral for the Music Awards, don't you?"
Riot frowned. Usually such a thing would not have escaped his notice. Of course, he hadn't spoken face-to-face with Eric since they had renegotiated Stormer's contract. It would be just like Eric to try and get back at him through Yaki. Too cowardly to face me, he stoops to sway my underlings, Riot thought with a sigh. Eric Raymond had seemed for a moment, when they had first met, a true equal. But since, he had proven himself to be a mere opportunist who let Phyllis Gabor lead him around by the nose, little more than a dog on a leash.
"I'll have Rochelle schedule a lunch meeting with Raymond tomorrow," Riot said with an unconcerned shrug. "Go. Enjoy the party."
"It's your party. You can't hide in here forever, waiting for her to come to you. It's ridiculous."
"I don't know what you're—"
"Oh please. I know you asked the valet downstairs to call when your precious Stormer gets here," Rapture said with a brittle laugh.
I am not bribing the staff well enough, if they cannot be discreet as well as obedient, Riot thought, but hid his displeasure as best he could with a false smile. "I merely wished to speak to her alone about recording the single. Preferably without the rest of the Misfits. They can be such a distraction, don't you agree?"
"It's a wonder you can get anything done, the way Pizzazz runs after you like a bitch in heat. Anyway, she's already here. With her entire entourage."
Riot schooled his expression, but slipped the velvet box into his desk drawer as surreptitiously as he could.
"Pizzazz looks like a street-walker, and is sucking down free champagne at the bar like there's no tomorrow," Rapture continued, getting up and smoothing her dress down over her hips. "Funny, I don't remember them being on the guest list."
"Nonsense. We're all one big happy Stinger Sound family."
"Maybe I should have invited Harriet Horn, then, to witness the festivities. Every game needs its spectators, after all."
Riot's smile was gone now, and his dark green eyes were cold. "You have no idea what the stakes are in this particular game."
"Don't tell me you actually are developing feelings for the girl?" Rapture put a hand to her heart melodramatically, her voice oozing false sentiment.
"My feelings, whatever they may be, are none of your concern." At the startled look on Rapture's face, he felt a slight twinge of regret at his harshness. "Join the party," he suggested, "Have fun. We'll discuss this at a more appropriate time, later."
"Anything you say, Riot." Rapture's tone dripped honey, but as the door closed behind her, Riot could tell a storm was brewing.
Stormer scanned the crowd, trying to pick out Riot among the throng. Behind her, Jetta had a hand on her lower back, keeping her in line and preventing her from making her escape. Judging by the throng gathering at the edge of the stage, Stormer guessed they hadn't missed the evening's main event. Or at least what most of the assembled guests would have considered the main event. As far as Pizzazz and the other Misfits were concerned, Yaki was just the pre-show. A warm up opening act that filled time until the true stars arrived.
The entire trip in the limo, Stormer had sat squeezed between Roxy and the passenger-side door. The second they pulled away from the Gabor mansion, Pizzazz started a steady stream of one-sided conversation. She asked her what she thought of her outfit, what she thought Riot would say when he saw her. Where Riot would spirit her off to, to make his declarations of love. And how much the wedding would cost, and where they should honeymoon.
The inside of Stormer's left arm was sore, from where Roxy had pinched her—hard—when she almost opened her mouth to answer.
In the end, Stormer had given up and just stared out the tinted window and watched the streetlamps flash by as they neared downtown. Jetta had kept up a stream of chatter, trying to deflect Pizzazz's attention, but it had been useless. Unless the sentenced started with "Riot" or ended with "you're right" it was as if the other Misfits simply didn't exist. It was a relief to step out into the muggy smog when they reached the kerb at Stinger Sound. However, that breath of freedom had been short-lived.
Roxy had glared daggers at Stormer as they'd ridden the elevator up to the roof, and when the doors opened and Pizzazz made her grand entrance, Roxy held Stormer back. Her lacquered nails dug into her forearm.
"You gotta fix this, you hear me?" she hissed in Stormer's ear.
"Shaddup. I don't want to hear it. You made this mess—you clean it up. Tonight."
Pizzazz had made a bee-line for the bar, expecting as always for the other Misfits to follow in her wake. With one last glare in Stormer's direction, Roxy followed. Jetta's grey eyes flicked between Stormer and Roxy before she too headed to the open bar, leaving Stormer adrift in the sea of strangers.
Pizzazz didn't seem to notice Stormer hanging back. Tottering slightly on her platform heels, she elbowed Hollywood's latest starlet out of the way and demanded attention. And being Pizzazz, she got it. Instantly half the journalists on the rooftop had formed a semi-circle around her, hunting for juicy gossip. Stormer could hear her laughter carrying on the warm night air as she accepted flutes of champagne and drowned them like water. Watching her, Stormer felt trapped. Her stomach pitched and rolled like she was at sea, and she was on the verge of turning and bolting when the warmth of a hand on her lower back stayed her.
"So glad you could make it," Riot said, feigning courtesy but the words that fell from his lips didn't match the message she was getting from his dark green eyes as his touch lingered for just a fraction of a second too long on the exposed skin of her back, beneath her jacket.
"Riot, darling!" Pizzazz trilled from halfway across the roof, and Stormer flinched.
"I need to talk to you," she said so softly she worried he'd have to read her lips. "Alone."
The only outward sign that he'd heard was his hand tightening on her hip, before sliding away. Aware of Roxy and Jetta's eyes on them, she followed Riot to where Pizzazz was holding court, having cornered Yaki and his latest Brazilian model girlfriend next to the ice sculptures.
"Pizzazz, you look lovely." Riot made a show of kissing her hand, and Pizzazz beamed at him.
"It's a Yaki Tori original."
"Last year's collection," Yaki muttered over the rim of his champagne flute. "Prêt-à-porter."
"A timeless classic," Riot said smoothly, before her feathers could begin to ruffle. He kept the full focus of his attention on Pizzazz, who positively glowed in response. But whenever her bandmate's eyes strayed from Riot's, he would flick glances at Stormer that would have made blood rush to her cheeks had Jetta not been watching her so closely.
"Yeah. Our invitation must have got lost in the mail," Jetta added, not even attempting to keep the scorn from her voice.
"You're always welcome at Stinger Sound, you know that," Riot said smoothly.
Roxy's reply was to snag a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and down it in one swallow. "Swell party."
"Yeah, mate," Jetta added, flanking Pizzazz, arms crossed. "Rooftop never looked so good. It's funny—I never come up here. Too much bird shit, usually." Her eyes slid over Yaki and the model, her lips quirked in a smile. "You have to practically wade through the crap."
Stormer flinched. Riot may have had Pizzazz fooled by his flattery, but Jetta seemed to see right through him. But Riot's smile never wavered as he continued as if her words held no double meaning.
"Yes, it is amazing, how we've transformed this place for tonight's festivities, is it not?" Riot sipped champagne, green eyes dancing as he gestured to the milling crowd of the great and the good assembled beneath the partially full moon.
"You'd almost never remember what it was like," Rapture said as she sidled up to join them, "back in the old days when Harvey Gabor owned Misfits Music."
Pizzazz laughed, oblivious to Rapture's slight. "Oh, Daddy never did know what to do with this place. Eric nearly ran it into the ground." Pizzazz laid a hand on Riot's arm, batting her eyes. "Everything's so different, now that you're here. Everything."
"Oh, you have no idea," Rapture said with a smile, and Stormer saw Riot's hand tighten on the stem of the delicate champagne flute. She worried for a second it might crack, but then he was all smiles again.
"It has certainly been a year for changes. I was just telling Yaki how invigorating his designs are, compared to just a year ago."
Yaki gave a mock bow. "I am inspired by the company I keep."
"Wow, you must spend a lot of time in the Figueroa Corridor," Roxy said, jerking a thumb towards one of the impossibly tall models circulating among the guests and pausing every few seconds to pose for photographs.
Yaki flushed, and the girl on his arm snickered. Stormer had to admit, the Day-Glo orange wig and thigh-high vinyl boots did resemble a slice of "Urban Los Angeles" more likely to charge by the hour.
"I would love to stay, and catch up—but the show is about to start. And as gracious host, I can't be seen neglecting all my other guests." He turned to Pizzazz, who had sidled closer to him and was now practically leaning on his arm. "I insist you take a place of honour in the front row with Rapture, so you can truly marvel at Yaki's creativity close-up."
Stormer didn't miss Rapture's flash of teeth that bore only superficial resemblance to a smile when Riot all but unloaded Pizzazz on her. But blinded by his charm, Pizzazz seemed unaware she'd just been neatly manoeuvred into a position where it would have been impossible for her to notice, as the spotlights came up on the stage and the crowd began clapping, Riot slipping away from the crowd to disappear back into the building.
Jetta, however, didn't miss a trick, and mouthed Go! at Stormer, who backed away slowly. It wasn't hard to slip away—all eyes were trained on the stage as Yaki bounded to the centre of the stage, the sequins on his tuxedo lapels practically blinding as they caught the light.
"Welcome to the gala unveiling of the Yaki Tori Spring 1990 Couture collection..."
Stormer took the elevator down to the executive offices, and before she could even rap lightly on Riot's office door it swung inward. Before she could say a word, he had pulled her inside the darkened office, downtown Los Angeles shimmering in a sea of coloured lights beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.
"Yaki will keep them distracted for at least an hour," he said against her neck, before he pulled her into a hungry kiss.
"Riot—" she said against his mouth as his hands slid down to her waist, gripping her hips and pulling her flush against him. She felt light-headed as he backed her towards the mahogany desk.
"Couldn't wait to get me alone, could you—" he said against her mouth, his lips curved in a smile.
"Stop." She reached up and covered his mouth with his hand, and drew in a shaky breath. "Roxy and Jetta followed me last night to your place. They know. About us. They want me to end it tonight—before Pizzazz can find out. And Craig knows I spent the night with you—and we had this huge, huge fight this morning. I don't even think he's speaking to me."
Riot reached up and took her hand in his, pressing a kiss into the palm.
She frowned. "Are you even listening to me?"
"Riot, I don't know what to do. Everything is happening so fast."
"What do you want?" he asked, cupping her face in his hands. His smile was gone now, and she looked up into his dark green eyes. "Forget Pizzazz and her ego. Forget Roxy and Jetta's threats. Forget your brother's disapproval. Forget everyone in your life who is telling you what you ought to desire. What do you want? For yourself. What do you want?"
Stormer bit her bottom lip.
If someone had asked her, a month ago, if she'd thought she'd ever have had the courage to face down Eric Raymond at his own game, she would have laughed in their face. If someone had asked her a year ago if she ever would have counted Kimber Benton as one of her best friends, she'd have laughed and spit in their eye. Four years ago, the idea of not just asking, but demanding that Pizzazz and Roxy treat her like an equal and a partner would have given her the shakes. And the fifteen year old baby sister Craig left behind when he went to Europe never would have dared to say half the things she had finally said that morning in her kitchen.
And never in her wildest dreams would she have thought a guy like Riot would ever be a part of her life.
Craig may have dismissed him as yet another in a lifetime's list of loser bad boys she'd fallen for, but she'd seen the man behind the ego. It had taken time, and she'd been as surprised as anyone by the Rory Llewelyn he rarely showed anyone else. He was arrogant, but he could also be tender. He didn't suffer fools gladly, but he also was dedicated to his music. He didn't settle for second best. If you wanted to be a part of his world, you had to bring your A-game. He demanded nothing less of everyone around him.
And he had chosen her.
When he looked at her, she felt wild, and strong, beautiful and invincible. He made her feel like she could do anything she set her mind to; like anything was possible. Unlike Roxy, he didn't ask her to choose between him and the Misfits. It wasn't all-or-nothing. Unlike Craig, he didn't expect her to be anyone other than who she was, whoever that may be, even if it didn't fit his idea of her. And even Kimber turned a blind eye to the side of Stormer who liked a little bit of chaos now and then, because she still liked to pretend to be "the good girl".
Riot wasn't just a little bit of chaos. He was a maelstrom. When he touched her, feelings she didn't know burned through her like a brushfire. She knew that was dangerous. She knew the smart thing—the sensible thing—would be to cut her losses, and run before she got in too deep.
But then, Stormer had never exactly been sensible.
She wasn't who she used to be. And she didn't want to be someone who couldn't stand up for herself, or fight for what she wanted. She'd come too far to back down now. She'd done too much to go back to letting her life be controlled by everyone else, and give up her say in her own future.
"You." Her eyes burned with sudden tears. "I want you."
He brushed her cheek with the pads of his fingers, smoothing her hair away from her face.
She leaned forward, meeting him halfway in a kiss. His hands slid down her shoulders, her jacket following to land on the floor soundlessly. Stormer gasped as his lips found the sensitive spot where her neck met her collarbone.
A shiver ran down her spine as she dragged his mouth back to hers hungrily. In a single fluid motion he lifted her onto the edge of the desk. He pulled away from her mouth just long enough to slide her jacket off her shoulders. She began unbuttoning his shirt, popping two of the buttons in her haste to get it open.
"This is an original Yaki Tori," he said, lips curved in a smile as the jet buttons clicked on the polished floor.
"Get him to make you a new one," she growled.
For right or wrong, this was what she wanted. And she wanted it more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.
As Yaki's finale took the stage—a white wedding dress with geometric cut-outs in strategic places, and a train covered in sequins—the press went crazy, and the flashes from their cameras made Roxy shield her eyes.
Pizzazz was staring it at, a dreamy smile on her face that made Roxy's stomach turn, since she was pretty sure their fearless leader was currently making up the guest list for the wedding of the century (and auctioning off the exclusive rights to the photos to the tabloids) in her head already.
"Maybe sending her after him wasn't such a good idea," Roxy whispered to Jetta as everyone except the Misfits and Rapture stood to give Tori a standing ovation. They drifted toward the back, where they wouldn't be overheard. "But maybe we shouda gone with her, you know? You know Stormer—she'll go in all good intentions. But the second that sleezeball lays on the charm, she'll go all mushy."
Jetta's grey eyes narrowed. "She's gotta choose, Rox. Him, or us. It's the only way."
"I know, I know, I just..." Roxy bit her lip. What if she doesn't choose us?
hung in the air between them. Roxy couldn't even say the words. If she said them, that might make it real. And she wasn't ready for it to be real.
"Look, Pizzazz hasn't noticed they're gone. Keep your head on straight." Jetta seemed relaxed and confident, and Roxy wished she could shake the dread that made her palms sweat and feel like she was going to toss her cookies in the koi pond. "With luck, she'll never even know what happened, and things will go right back to normal."
"Yeah. Normal." Roxy scowled. Jetta might blame Stormer falling for Riot for all the weirdness lately, but for Roxy it went a lot deeper than that. Things hadn't been "normal" since Stormer had first left the band and starting hanging out with Kimber Benton.
"C'mon—cheer up, mate. Stormer's a Misfit, right? Misfit to the core. Blokes come and go, but we've got history. She won't throw all that away. Even Pizzazz didn't, not when it really mattered. You'll see."
Roxy sighed. "Maybe if we get Pizzazz drunk enough, she'll pass out and this nightmare'll be over."
"Now you're talking!" Jetta winked at her, and they turned back to the milling crowds who had rushed the stage as all the models had come up to take their bows. "Hey, where is Pizzazz?"
Stormer stood in the executive bathroom, examining her reflection in the mirror as she tried to repair the damage their little tryst done to her make-up. Her cheeks were still flushed, her eyes bright. It wouldn't take much to guess what they'd been up to. Stormer decided for once, she didn't care. Roxy and Jetta were going to be angry—furious, even. But better they take Pizzazz aside tonight and end this charade, then allow them to continue to hold it over her.
That just left Craig. But right now, she felt as if she could handle anything. It wasn't as if her situation had changed at all—but she felt as if somehow, everything would be alright. Somehow. It was a renewed sense of hope that made her feel giddy and breathless, and she'd recovered some of her good humour of the morning at last.
"You look beautiful." Riot came up behind her, carefully affixing the rosebud in the curls behind her ear before sliding his arms around her waist. She leaned back against his chest, tilting her head to the slide so he could press a kiss to her neck.
"Careful," she hissed at the light pressure of his teeth. "It'll totally blow our cover if I leave your office with a hickey I didn't come in with."
"What if I want to mark you?" His voice was a low bass rumble against her skin. "What if I want every man here to know that no-one else is allowed to touch you. Not like this."
She gave a low, throaty laugh. "Wow, somehow you manage to make that sound totally sexy instead of creepy. How do you do that?"
"Practice," he said, nipping lightly again even as she swatted his shoulder playfully. "I have something for you."
"Oh really?" She raised a brow, and was delighted when she saw a flush creep up his neck.
"Brat." From his mouth, it was an endearment. Taking her by the hand, he brought her back over to the desk. He pulled open the drawer and with a flourish, handed her the black velvet box.
Puzzled, she opened it and gasped when she saw the tennis bracelet. "Oh my God. Are these real?"
"Of course they're real," he said with a chuckle. "I have it on very good authority that when a man wants a woman to know his feelings are genuine, diamonds are appropriate."
"Riot, it's beautiful. But I can't—"
"Yes. You can." He removed the bracelet from the box, fastened the clasp around her wrist. "Because I say you can."
He brought her hand to his lips, brushing a gentlemanly kiss across her knuckles. His gesture of Old World charm was completely lost on her, however, as she continued to gape at the string of 2 carat diamonds winking in the light.
"But it must have cost a fortune!"
"And worth every penny."
She had a guilty twinge when she thought about how the Misfits had tried to bribe her with expensive gifts, back when she and Kimber were working on Back 2 Back. But this was different—and she knew it. She remembered the joy Riot had taken in presenting his mother with the perfect birthday surprise. She saw that same gleam in his eyes now, as she turned her wrist this way and that, watching the yellow diamonds caught the light. It reminded her of Angus, when he'd given her her first orchid. Not so much bribery as wanting to impress her and make her feel special. And she had to admit, she was impressed.
"I don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything." He slid his arms around her waist, and pulled her closer. She wound her arms around his neck, and smiled against his mouth, deciding showing her appreciation was going to make them even later to the party.
Unfortunately, that was when Pizzazz opened the door.
Pizzazz simply stared open-mouthed at Riot and Stormer, who flew apart like guilty teenagers.
"Oh look, here he is," Rapture said from behind Pizzazz, blue eyes wide in feigned innocence. "Riot, we've been looking absolutely everywhere for you."
"Riot?" Pizzazz said quietly, as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing. She looked back and forth between Stormer and Riot in shock and disbelief.
Stormer had expected fury. She'd expected screaming, and cursing, and to be thrown out of the Misfits for good this time. Or perhaps off the roof. What she hadn't expected was Pizzazz looking so lost and betrayed.
"Pizzazz, I can explain." Stormer glanced at Riot, who for the first time since she'd met him looked as shocked as she felt. She'd never seen him caught off-guard before, and somehow that made the entire situation that much worse.
However, he recovered quickly, deliberately reaching down and lacing his fingers through Stormer's.
"Stormer and I are seeing each other. We had planned to tell you after the party." Riot's dark green eyes were cold with a kind of anger she'd never seen before that made her flinch as he glared at Rapture. "When it would cause the least disruption."
"Oops," Rapture said with a giggle. "Pizzazz was looking for you, and I offered to help, that's all. I had no idea you were... busy."
"You... and Stormer? " Pizzazz had gone pale beneath her garish make-up, and her bottom lip trembled. Then her face went still, and then she turned on her heel and storming out of Riot's office.
Stormer started after her, but Riot still held tightly to her hand.
"Riot, let me go." Stormer wrenched her wrist from his grasp. She stumbled out into the hallway just as the elevator doors slid shut. She could hear Riot calling her name as she pushed open the fire door to the stairs and took them two at a time up to the roof.
She came through the French doors leading to the garden just as Pizzazz marched up to Roxy and Jetta, and took their drinks out of their hands and slammed them down on the bar. "Grab your stuff—we're leaving."
Stormer caught up to her, reaching out to touch her shoulder. "Pizzazz, I was going to tell you—" she started, keeping her voice low so not to attract attention.
With no warning, Pizzazz's open hand caught Stormer across the cheek. The force of the blow spun her around, and she stumbled against a table, taking it down as she fell.
All the laughter and conversation on the rooftop stopped at the sound of glass breaking. Shards glittered in the light from the lanterns bobbing in the perfumed night air, and crunched beneath Pizzazz's feet as she advanced on Stormer.
"So this is how we stick together?" Pizzazz snarled. "This is your idea of one big happy family?"
Everyone stared at them, mouths hanging open in shock. Behind Pizzazz, Stormer could see Jetta and Roxy take uncertain steps toward her, only to freeze in their tracks when Riot grasped Pizzazz by the arm to pull her back. Stormer hadn't even seen him arrive from downstairs, but she realised he must have been right behind her.
"Don't you touch her!" Riot growled as he flung Pizzazz backwards.
As if in slow motion, Pizzazz's calves hit the edge of the fountain and she flailed backwards into the shallow water, tea lights sputtering out as she fell. She surfaced with a cry of rage, the ornamental chopsticks in her hair going flying as she shook her wet hair back from her face.
After a horrible moment of hushed silence, the partygoers began to laugh.
It started with nervous titters, and then built until it was gales of laughter, accompanied by the sound of flashbulbs popping as Pizzazz tugged crushed lilies from her hair and clothes, and struggled to her feet, the sopping wet kimono sleeves tangled around her arms.
Riot didn't seem to notice or care. He knelt at Stormer's side, cradling her face in his hands, and then gingerly helped her up. "Are you alright? Did she hurt you?"
She looked around at the horrible spectacle, and then at Riot, so concerned while behind them Roxy and Jetta helped Pizzazz out of the fountain.
The laughter continued, drowning out everything else, and Stormer stumbled backwards out of Riot's arms and turned and ran.
She could hear him calling her name, but people crowded around him, reporters with their microphones out, and all she wanted was to get out of there.
Riot fought his way through the crowds to the elevator and saw it was already headed toward street level. Rapture leaned against the wall as he pressed the call button three times in quick succession, as if that would summon the second lift that much faster.
"Wow. Minx is gonna be sorry she missed all the fun."
The doors finally slid apart with a "ding", and he pulled her into the elevator with him before the doors closed.
"Ow!" She rubbed her forearm where his fingers had closed around it, pouting. "What is with you tonight? God, you never used to be like this."
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" he snapped as he jabbed the lobby button angrily. "The damage you've caused—"
"The damage I've done? Are you serious? It's just a game, you said so yourself." Rapture said unapologetically. "One you used to enjoy. When Minx got it into her head to become a goody-goody, weren't you the one telling her to snap out of it? Since when do you care about other people's petty feelings, and miserable little mundane lives?"
"Perhaps I have changed."
"Don't be ridiculous," Rapture said dismissively. "Stormer's a flavour of the month—you'll have her, and you'll tire of her, and you'll find some new challenge. I know you, Riot. This isn't you talking. It's one thing, to chase after Jem. She at least is almost worthy of you—"
"Enough!" he said sharply. "You do not get to tell me who is worthy of me. That is my choice. And if you know what's good for you, you'll never show your face here again."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you've gone too far this time. And I won't spend my life cleaning up your messes. It ends now. You're finished."
All the colour drained from Rapture's face. "You're kicking me out of the Stingers?"
"You did this to yourself, Rapture. I told you time and time again not to muddle in my affairs." The doors slid apart with a ding, revealing the steel and glass lobby. "You've defied me for the last time."
"But we're... we're closer than family. We're closer than blood," she said, a desperate edge to her voice as she followed him out of the lift. "We're meant to be together. It's destiny."
Disgusted, he scowled as he laid one hand against the security door leading to the street. "Rapture, you live in a dream world. And it's time you woke up. If I have a destiny, as you so charmingly put it, it does not involve you. Not any longer."
A light summer rain began to fall and the smell of wet asphalt filled the air as Riot scanned the streets in both directions, desperately searching for a glimpse of blue. There were few pedestrians on the streets as the rain began to fall, and he finally spotted her briskly walking along Olive, trying to wave down a taxi.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Anywhere. Away from here."
"At least let me take you back to my place to get dry— "
"Riot, I can't."
"Nonsense. Of course you can."
"No, I can't." She waved frantically at a Yellow Cab. It flashed its lights, and pulled up to the kerb as she pushed her damp hair back from her face. "Pizzazz—"
"I don't care about Pizzazz—" he snapped, exasperated.
"But I do. Riot, she was completely humiliated. It'll be all over the tabloids and trades. Every trashy rag in town. And it's my fault. Because it didn't matter to me who I hurt, if I got what I wanted. If we got what we wanted. Everything's a game to you. But I don't play games with people's feelings."
She tried to turn away from him, but her caught her arm, gently taking her chin in his hand so she faced him.
"This isn't a game." He kissed her, tasting the rain as she trembled in his arms. When he pulled back, her blue eyes were brimming with tears. He looked down to see she had pressed the bracelet into his hand.
"You don't get to kiss me and make it all better. It doesn't work that way."
"How do you know, unless you let me try?"
She shook her head. "We went too fast—everything just happened too fast."
"So we'll slow down."
She shook her head. "We need to stop."
"Too many people are getting hurt—"
He frowned. "So you'll hurt me."
"Isn't it? You get a say in this relationship, but I don't, isn't that what you're saying? You get to make all the decisions, and I have to just sit back and take it?"
"You only want what you can't have!" she blurted out, unconsciously echoing Rapture's words from the lift.
"But you forget—I did have you," he snapped, and she slapped him hard across the face. It was so quick, neither of them seemed to realise what had happened until the cabby leaned on his horn.
"Hey, lady—meter's running!" the cabby called out the window.
"Stormer, wait. I didn't mean—"
"Good-bye, Riot." She got into the taxi. He watched the cab's tail lights until they disappeared into traffic, the diamond bracelet cutting into his palm as he made a fist around it.