Melanie caught the gleam in Nikki’s eyes in the public restroom mirror they shared. Oh crap. She knew that look. What was the woman scheming now? Melanie was not in the mood to deal with her drama tonight.
The long drive to Tulsa, followed by a parking nightmare, overpaying a scalper for tickets, and standing in line through high winds for two hours had Melanie out of sorts. Okay, she admitted it; she was downright bitchy. Her hair looked like it had lost a fight with a raccoon—a rabid raccoon with a powerful nesting instinct, and her toes, crammed into highly insensible high-heeled, strappy sandals, felt like they’d were being whacked with tiny pickaxes wielded by miniature coalminers.
Nikki, on the other hand, looked her typical polished self, except for the unsettling extra dose of deviousness in her big blue eyes. Melanie paused with her tube of pink lipstick halfway to her lips, her Nikki-is-about-to-get-us-into-trouble alarm sounding in her head.
“What's that look for?” Melanie asked.
“Tonight's the night,” Nikki said. She tucked a strand of silky chestnut-brown hair behind one ear and turned to catch her good side in the mirror. Both sides were gorgeous, but Melanie had never convinced Nikki of that or that she was worth more than a string of one-night stands with losers.
“That's what you said last night,” Melanie said and focused her attention back on her lipstick application.
Nikki wrinkled her nose at Melanie’s hair and yanked a brush from her purse to try to free the nest of raccoons from the tangled mass.
Good luck with that.
There was a reason Melanie wore it up most of the time. Only the sturdiest of hair clips kept the thick and wavy waist-length tresses under control. Nikki had talked her into keeping it down tonight, saying that it made her look gorgeous. Melanie never looked gorgeous when standing next to Nikki—a simple fact that she’d learn to live with when they’d attended college together. Men flocked to Nikki. Melanie faded into the background. She was used to it.
Nikki went at Melanie’s hair with determination and immediately caught the brush on a tangle of snags. With a sigh of defeat, she handed her brush to Melanie. Melanie supposed she should try to calm the mess into something less offensive. She didn’t want to frighten the band.
"I mean it this time." Nikki rearranged her boobs in her push-up bra, unfastened another button on her skintight white blouse to show off more cleavage, and checked out her bad side. "I almost got back stage last night. If I’m lucky, that cute roadie I talked to in Wichita will remember me. The band had to leave right after the show, or I’m sure Jack would’ve introduced us to the guys last night."
And now they were in Tulsa, trailing after a band like a pair of desperate Sole Regret groupies. Melanie wasn’t a serious fan, but she was positive the cute roadie would remember Nikki. Nikki was the kind of woman men drooled over. Wanted. Dumped.
Melanie guessed the roadie would ask Nikki for a sexual favor in exchange for introducing her to the members of her latest band obsession and Nikki would use sex to get what she wanted. It saddened Melanie. None of the men who used and discarded her friend knew how much they hurt her. Melanie already dreaded having to lift Nikki out of her cloud of self-doubt and despair in the morning. She didn't understand why Nikki continued to put herself in these situations. She was a sweet girl. A pretty girl. A smart girl. Until she found herself in the company of any asshole in the music business, then she acted as if she'd been lobotomized. With only ten lobes to utilize, Nikki had to be running low on parts by now.
"You are not bailing on me again," Melanie said, still trying to tame her hair. She was looking less like a lightning-strike victim already, though her scalp protested each tug. Gorgeous, my ass. More like ridiculous. "I'm not going to wait for you out in the car while you get laid by some guy who won't remember your name by the time he blows his load."
"Of course you're not going to wait out in the car."
Well, at least they agreed on something.
Nikki ran her tongue over her teeth and caught Melanie's gaze in the mirror. "You're coming with me."
"Oh no, I'm not. I don't even like musicians." Especially not the tattooed metal-head freaks Nikki lusted after. Nikki had a serious bad-boy complex. Maybe her father should have paid more attention to her as a child.
"Please." Nikki clasped her hands together in front of her chest and managed to make her already wide blue eyes appear even larger than usual.
"Why would you even ask? You know tattooed guys give me the creeps."
Nikki shook her head at her. “If you’d take the time to get to know them, you’d recognize how hot they are.”
Doubtful. Just seeing men with tattoos made Melanie’s heart race with fear. Her reaction wasn’t intentional. She’d been scared by a group of bikers when she was a teen. Had she been older, she probably would’ve recognized they were only teasing and meant her no harm. But they’d terrified her. Her parents had intensified her fear by saying she could’ve been kidnapped, raped, murdered, or worse. She hadn’t even wanted to know what was worse than being raped and murdered. Her thirteen-year-old mind had associated her parents’ warnings with men who looked a certain way. Men like those bikers who’d cornered her in the entryway of an abandoned storefront.
As she’d been too afraid to actually look at their faces, all she remembered was their body art and their words. The one with a skull tattoo had and told her all the lewd things he wanted to do to her pretty mouth. She hadn’t understood what he’d meant at the time, but now that she was older, she knew she’d had a reason to be uneasy and disgusted.
One with a barbed-wire tattoo around his arm had touched her hair. She’d screamed, and they’d laughed at her, but ultimately had left her alone. She knew that tattoos didn’t make a person bad, but that incident had left a lasting impression. Attending rock concerts was an exercise in keeping her fear at bay. Unfortunately, going to concerts was Nikki’s favorite thing to do, so Melanie’s fears got a fairly regular workout.
“I don’t want to get to know them; I just want to stay away from them.”
Nikki wrapped an arm around Melanie’s shoulders and assessed them in the mirror. "You’ll be fine, Mel. I promise. Besides, I need you to help me pull off my ruse."
Melanie’s inner alarm clanged even louder. "What ruse?"
The crowd in the stadium roared with enthusiasm.
"Sole Regret’s set is starting!" Nikki scooped her cosmetics and hairbrush into her purse, grabbed Melanie by the wrist, and rushed from the bathroom, nearly knocking a tough-looking biker woman to the floor in her haste.
"Watch it, bitch."
"Sorry," Melanie said as she was yanked into the stadium's causeway, her heels clicking rapidly on the cement.
There were many benefits of being friends with Nikki. She was fun. Afraid of nothing. Men liked her. So while they started out at the back of general admission, with several dozen coy looks, a bit of exposed cleavage, and some well-placed hands on the male metal-heads in the crowd, Nikki miraculously managed to work her way to the area just in front of the stage without being punched in the face. Melanie was allowed to join her only because Nikki refused to release her wrist. Along the barrier fence in front of the stage, Melanie purposely positioned herself between two women and turned away from the man hanging over the railing. The thrusting of his fist in the air drew attention to the skull tattoo on his forearm. One glimpse of that bit of body art had the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. Melanie forced her attention to the stage to keep her gaze from straying to the man’s arm.
She supposed she should be excited to be so close to the stage, but Melanie much preferred stadium seats to the pit. She liked to listen to the music, not defend herself from injury. The pit was hot and sweaty: crowded, loud, lewd, and dangerous. Nikki called it exciting. Melanie called it painful. Nikki spent the next forty-five minutes trying to get the attention of the band's lead singer; Melanie spent her time avoiding elbows in the face by two enthusiastic fangirls and keeping the guy behind her from squishing her against the metal bars of the barrier fence and prodding her in the ass with his junk. How could Nikki enjoy this?
Melanie watched the lead singer—the current object of Nikki’s obsession–prowl the front of the stage. He could’ve been a gorgeous man. Tattoos ruined his otherwise good looks. Had he been dressed in a nice suit and discussing philosophy instead of wearing ripped denim and screaming something about descending into Hell, Melanie might have admired the wide cut of his shoulders and his strong, handsome profile. But, yeah, the ink completely turned her off. She wondered what color his eyes were. He had yet to take off his sunglasses. The stage lights were blinding, but she figured the shades were part of his image. He’d worn them onstage the night before, too, and by the way the two fangirls were screeching Shaaaaade every time he stalked in their direction, she assumed he’d been named after his fondness for eyewear. Melanie had a heck of a time keeping the names of the band members straight even though Nikki had gone on and on and on about them on the drive down from Wichita.
Melanie did enjoy watching Shade and the other band members interact with the crowd and each other. The bassist was surprisingly popular with the audience; Melanie found most bass players to be obscure by default. This one had a softer look than the two guitarists— handsome, even features, a normal haircut sans black dye, a perpetual smile, and gentle eyes. Had he not decorated his every inch of his hard-muscled arms with tattoos and bore piercings in his eyebrow and lip, Melanie might not have crossed the street if he’d approached her in public. Why did these men insist on destroying their looks with permanent accessories? It was a damn shame.
The lead guitarist, who had an inordinate fondness for black, was big on chains and trying to upstage the vocalist. They competed for the crowd’s affection with an active rivalry. The rhythm guitarist, who had a gorgeous mane of long, straight hair and no shirt—much to the delight of any female who didn’t mind a fully inked torso—mocked the competing stage hogs behind their backs. The bassist found his antics so hilarious that he had to pause a few times to catch his breath from laughing so hard. Melanie doubted she would’ve noticed the nuances of their dynamic from stadium seats, so at least she had something interesting to watch as she tried to convince the guy behind her that her ass was off limits and not designed as a pincushion for his boner.
Near the end of the final song of their set list—the same set list they’d played the night before—the lead singer hopped off the stage and walked the narrow path on the other side of the barrier fence, slapping hands with fans in the front row as he passed them. Nikki used Melanie for leverage so she could stretch her body into Shade’s path. She got a hand on his skintight T-shirt, but was unable to keep her hold as he blazed past. He returned to the stage just as the song ended on a long, wailing guitar note.
“I touched him,” Nikki squealed excitedly and covered her mouth with her rock-god-blessed hand.
“Congratulations,” Melanie said.
“God, I want him.”
“What about the rest of the band? They’re all totally your type.”
“They’re my backup plan, but Shade is the one I really want.” Nikki’s eyes rolled upward, and Melanie suspected she was in the throes of an orgasm. Melanie took a deep breath and shook her head at her friend. What was the appeal?
When the band pretended their set was over and the crowd began to chant for an encore, Nikki started tugging Melanie toward the side of the stage. Melanie accidentally stomped more than one toe in the darkness. She spouted a litany of sorries as she was given no choice but to follow her determined friend, who had an iron grip on her wrist. The crowd was bathed in darkness to excite them for the final song as well as let them know the show wasn’t actually over: Sole Regret’s biggest hit was yet to come. Even Melanie had noticed they hadn’t played “Instigator” and they’d blown the roof off the stadium with their high-energy rock anthem the night before.
Melanie had no idea how Nikki managed to see well enough to slip past security, but they were suddenly free from the crowd and standing next to the stage. They were so going to get caught. Melanie clung to Nikki’s hand, hoping they didn’t get chewed out too severely when one of the distracted security guards noticed them. In the darkness, Nikki managed to find the cute roadie she'd been talking to the night before. Melanie wondered if Nikki was wearing night vision goggles. Her own eyes were still trying to adjust to the lack of illumination after she’d stared up at bright stage lights for almost an hour.
"This is her," Nikki said. She tugged Melanie against her and kissed her on the mouth with heated, seeking lips. It wasn’t one of those you're my bestie and I've had a too much to drink, so I'm feeling affectionate kisses. It was more a we go down on each other, wanna watch kind of kiss. Melanie was too shocked to do anything but breathe. And even that was a struggle.
What the fuck? Was this the ruse Nikki had mentioned?
“Oh yeah,” the cute roadie said when Nikki ended her plundering assault on Melanie’s lips. “That’s totally hot, tater tot.” He reached into the front pocket of his mega-baggie jeans and pulled out a backstage pass on a lanyard. He draped it around Nikki’s neck. “I only have one left.”
“But what about my friend?” Nikki directed her morose-puppy look in his direction. The guy didn’t stand a chance.
“Show Tony what you just showed me, and he’ll let you both backstage. Trust me.”
The stage lights flashed on and the band started their encore with a hard and heavy drum progression. Melanie covered her ears with both hands.
“It’s loud,” she yelled.
Nikki grabbed Melanie’s wrist again and led her behind the stage to where a man stood guarding a door. Nikki flashed her pass at him and he opened the door, but stuck out his arm to bar Melanie’s entry.
“Jack said you’d let us both in,” Nikki said. “He only had one pass for us to share.”
“Why should I believe you?”
Melanie was secretly hoping he refused to let either of them in. What in the world was Nikki thinking? Kissing her on the mouth. Letting that guy think it was natural for them to make out. Just so she could meet some weird lead singer who called himself Shade, of all things.
“Because we want to see Shade,” Nikki said. “Both of us.”
And the next thing Melanie knew, her best friend had her tongue in her mouth and her hand on her ass. Melanie jerked away. She’d been shocked the first time. Now she was just pissed.
“What the fuck, Nikki?”
“She doesn’t like to do it in public,” Nikki explained to the security guard. She cupped Melanie’s breast and gave it a squeeze. The guy groaned and shoved them both into the backstage area and shut the door behind them.
“What is wrong with you?” Melanie slapped Nikki’s hand away from her breast.
“I knew you wouldn’t agree with my plan if I asked.” She shrugged. “Last night, I sorta told that roadie guy that I was into threesomes and I had this hot girlfriend I wanted to share with Shade.”
“You sorta told him that?”
“Yeah, he thought it was sexy and knew Shade would be interested.”
“But I’m not interested, Nikki.”
“Duh. I know that. That’s why it’s a ruse. I didn’t think you’d actually want to sleep with him. Or me.”
Nikki’s bottom lip jutted forward, and she gave Melanie her please forgive me, bestest best bestie look, her I can’t help but be impulsive look, followed by her you know you love me look. The bitch. She knew Melanie would forgive her because Melanie did love her and worried about her impulsiveness getting her into big trouble someday.
“I can’t believe you’d use me just to meet some rock star, Nikki. I’m not sure why I’m friends with you. All you do is cause me grief.”
“But I’m a good kisser, right?” Nikki winked at her and laughed. “I never realized what great tits you have, Mel.” Nikki lifted both perfectly manicured hands and made squeezing motions in front of Melanie’s boobs. “Can I suck on them?”
Melanie crossed her arms over her chest. Nikki was always making stupid remarks like that. Good thing Melanie didn’t take her seriously.
“Don’t be mad.” Nikki dropped her hands and released a heavy sigh. “I got us backstage didn’t I?”
“I didn’t even want to come backstage.”
“Sure you did. Let’s go find some alcohol. I’m going to need a little liquid courage to approach Shade.”
“Go by yourself. I’m going to go wait in the car.” Melanie turned to find the nearest exit.
“No, you’re not.” Nikki wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “You’ll just end up worried about me in here with a bunch of—what do you call them again?”
Nikki laughed. “Among other things. Just do this one thing for me, Mel, and I’ll never ask you for anything ever again.”
Melanie snorted. “Uh huh. Yeah. Sure.”
“I won’t.” Nikki hooked Melanie’s pinky finger with her own. “Pinky swear.”
Melanie released a frustrated sigh. “Where’s the booze?”
Gabe climbed out from behind his drum kit, both thighs weary with fatigue. He stretched his aching back, wincing as he twisted to one side. Thirty years young and he could safely say he was getting too old for this shit. Jack tossed him a hand towel, and Gabe wiped the sweat off his face.