Fear and Laundry 2 Excerpt

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Fear and Laundry 2 Excerpt

The following excerpt is from my latest book, Fear and Laundry 2. It is the sequel to Fear and Laundry and takes place two months after the end of that book. As such, it contains “spoilers.” Just sayin’.

Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Jake Mlinarich and I were alone together in the back of his van, parked behind the club where his band, Good Television, was scheduled to go on stage soon. He touched my hand and looked over at me, a lock of his rust colored hair slipping down over one of his blue-gray eyes. “Nic,” he said, “there’s something I want to give you.”

I smiled because I loved hearing him call me that, ‘Nic,’ instead of Veronica the way everyone else did. It was his special nickname for me and reminded me that I was special to him, too. I was his girlfriend. For almost two months now.

I put my hand on his leg. “What, like a present?” I asked, jokingly, because Jake had never given me any presents before. Well, other than a mix tape once, way back before we’d been dating. He’d even warned me since then that he wasn’t really a “present-giving type of guy.”

So I was surprised when he answered, “Yeah. A present.”

“Huh?” I glanced around the van, hunting for the gift. Jake’s keys were in the ignition and the lights were on, but I couldn’t see a thing aside from my backpack slumped in one corner and the ratty old blanket we were sitting on. “Where is it?” I wondered.

An impish smile touched his lips. “In my pants.”

I drew my hand away from his leg. “Excuse me?”

He pointed at his jeans pocket. “In here. Close your eyes. And put out your hands.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and reached out, feeling him settle something onto my palm. When he told me I could look, I saw I was holding a black velvet box with a rounded, hinged lid. “Oh,” I gasped, and dropped it.

“Hey, watch it,” Jake complained as the box bounced across the floor.

“What is that?!”

“Just a little anniversary present. Two months since we got together.” He recovered the box, dusting it carefully on his jeans. “Technically that’s not until tomorrow, but whatever. Here.”

He held the box out to me again. I tucked my hands behind my back. “Don’t you think it’s a little soon for this type of present?” I asked warily.

“What type?” Jake asked. “You just said you don’t even know what it is.”

He was right, I didn’t; but I could take a guess. I mean, what else could possibly be in a box that looked like that? It had to be jewelry. But it was the wrong shape and size to hold a bracelet. And for some reason, I couldn’t imagine Jake giving me a pair of earrings. That meant whatever was in the box was…some sort of ring. Not an engagement ring or anything. That would be silly after only dating for a couple of months. But for all I knew it might be a pre-engagement ring.

I’d learned about pre-engagement rings from this girl I’d had gym class with the previous year, Janna Hoff. When my best friend, Lia, had asked her about the tiny gold and diamond band she’d worn around her left ring finger, Janna had told her it meant she was “engaged-to-be-engaged” to the guy who’d given it to her. His name was Frank and he was on the Science Bowl team.

Janna had always seemed kind of stuck up to me but hearing her talk about Frank that day had made me think she might not be such a giant snob after all. I mean, she’d seemed to think Frank was a real catch just on account of his being smart and nice and wanting a commitment and everything. She hadn’t seemed to care at all that he was super short and not very cute, or that he was bow-legged and had buck teeth. I’d started to think maybe I was the snob, because I wasn’t sure I could’ve overlooked all that in a guy, no matter how nice he was. Luckily I didn’t have to.

I glanced over at Jake again, marveling at the fact that my first-ever boyfriend had turned out to be such a gorgeous specimen. He was six foot one, had those beautiful blue-grey eyes, the cutest lips I’d ever seen, perfectly straight legs and perfectly straight teeth…

“Hello?” he waved at me. “Nic? What’re you staring at?”

I gulped, gazing at his rumpled Brutal Juice t-shirt and hoping he’d take it off soon. Because he also had an incredible chest. “Hm?” I said. “Oh…nothing. What’d you say was in the box again?”

Jake laughed—he had a sexy laugh, too—and said, “Already told you. Just a little anniversary present. Nothing big. Jeez, why are you so worked up about it?”

“Maybe because I didn’t even know we were doing presents!” I said, my voice hitting a high note. “I thought we’d agreed to celebrate by going to see Evil Dead II at the Maribel tomorrow night-?”

He lifted his strong chin, narrowing his eyes. “So you’re saying you don’t want my present?”

“Ummm,” I twisted my hands, which had begun to sweat, and asked myself if I wanted a ring from Jake. I was pretty sure I didn’t NOT want it. I was completely, totally in love with the guy—although I hadn’t told him that yet. But what if wearing his ring meant we were engaged-to-be-engaged, like Janna and bow-legged Frank? Was I ready for that? I was only seventeen and I’d never planned on getting married so young. In fact, I’d never planned on getting married at all. My friend Paige, who liked to psycho-analyze people, thought I was “commitment-phobic” and said it was probably because when I was eight my parents had gotten a “messy” divorce. I guessed she was right. When my parents had split, there’d been lots of screaming and yelling and heated visits to lawyers’ offices, and then my dad had left and I’d hardly ever seen him again. When he’d walked out on my mom I’d decided no guy was ever going to do that to me. Because I wasn’t going to give him the chance.

Not that I’d really had to worry about anyone asking me to marry him, though. Guys I’d hooked up with hadn’t seemed very interested in asking me to be their girlfriend, much less their wife.

That is, until Jake had come back to town.

Jake was Lia’s older brother. He’d graduated while Lia and I were still sophomores and moved away from our hometown of Carreen, Texas, to go to college in Austin. A few months ago—the summer before my senior year—he’d surprised everyone by suddenly dropping out of his pre-med program and moving back in with his parents. Lia had just organized a benefit concert to try and save our favorite hang-out, Lynch’s, from going under, and we’d formed a band with Paige called Impressionable Youth to headline the show. Jake joined up as our guitarist. Between band rehearsals and his giving me a ride to school every day, I’d started to get to know him a little better. And to fall for him. Hard. I’d thought it would never amount to anything because he was older, smarter, cuter, and cooler than me—in other words, way out of my league—but then the craziest things had happened: he’d kissed me! And told me he liked me, too. So much so that he’d asked me to be his girlfriend! Now here we were two months later and not only did he still seem to want me around, he was holding out this ring box and looking at me all longingly and tenderly and…

Well, not anymore, actually. Now he just kind of looked annoyed with me.

“Nic?” He pushed the box toward me. “Do you want the thing or not?”

“Ummm,” I said again, because even though I was crazy about Jake, the thought of getting married still scared the bejeezus out of me.

Jake’s face twitched with frustration. “What’re you so afraid of? It’s not like it’s a ring or anything.” Then his eyes widened with understanding. “Oh. Wait. Is that really what you thought-?”

“NO,” I said, feeling simultaneously relieved and stupid beyond belief. Of course it wasn’t a ring! We’d only been together for two months! “Ha, ha,” I said. “Please.”

Jake’s eyes shone with amusement. “You want to marry me.”

“As if.” I shook my head frantically and put my hand out, but he whisked the box away, cradling it against his chest.

“Yeah you do,” he insisted. “You want to marry me and have a dozen fat little babies that all look exactly like me…”

“Oh, God,” I groaned, “whatever.”

He teased me a while longer, holding the box up over my head, but I finally managed to snatch it away from him and thumb it open. As I’d expected, there was a tiny velvet pillow inside, with a furrow in the center where a piece of jewelry would normally be nestled. But instead of earrings or whatever, there was just…a guitar pick. Jake played guitar in Good Television, so this sort of made sense. Sort of.

“Your pick?” I said, puzzled. He touched my hand, tilting the box, and the pick slid aside, letting me see it was strung on a delicate chain along with a thin silver disk about the size of a dime.

“See?” he said. “Told you it wasn’t anything big. Although the chain and charm are ‘genuine sterling silver.’”

I lifted the necklace out of the box, letting it dangle from my fingers. The pick was black and scuffed around the edges, like it’d been used a few times.

“That’s the pick I used at Lynch’s final show,” he said, nudging me. “You remember that night?”

“Are you kidding?” I breathed. As if I could ever forget. The night Lynch’s had permanently shut its doors (because, unfortunately, Lia’s benefit concert hadn’t raised enough money to rescue it) was also the night Jake and I had finally, really gotten together. I say “really,” because we’d made out once before that, but like an idiot I’d told Jake it hadn’t meant anything to me. I’d thought I’d completely blown my chances with him until he’d taken me out on a special date right after Lynch’s final show. The first show he’d ever played with Good Television. Using the very guitar pick I was now holding in my hand.

“I can’t believe you kept this,” I said, my lower lip starting to quiver.

“Yeah, well,” he shrugged like it was no big deal, “I know it’s not a ring, but…you like it?”

“Oh, Jake,” I breathed, “it’s…I love it.”

“Check out the medallion,” he directed, pointing. I examined the silver disk and saw a monogram engraved on it: a J and a V, with a big M in the middle, linking the other two initials together. “Since, you know, both our last names start with an M…hey, are you crying?”

“No,” I said, blinking fast. My hand shook as I held the necklace out to him. “Would you help me put it on?”

“I know we hadn’t talked about presents,” he said, fastening the clasp. “I just wanted…”

I turned and interrupted him with a kiss. “It’s beautiful,” I said afterward. “Thank you.”

“Sure thing,” he whispered, looking pleased. Then he cleared his throat and added, “Look, Nic, I, uh…” He held my gaze for a moment, giving me the feeling he wanted to say something else. Something important.

“Yeah?” I prompted.

He lowered his eyes and hooked his finger in the V-neck of my new black sweater. “I like this,” he said. “It looks really good on you.”

“Oh. Cool,” I said, feeling justified in having dropped almost half my latest paycheck on the sweater. Normally I didn’t like to spend a lot of money on clothes. Or on anything, really, because I was saving up to buy a car. But the sweater had been on sale and I’d thought Jake might like it.

“Looks a little complicated, though, with all these buttons.” He tugged at my collar. “Does it come off easy?”

“What?” I said, feeling my face heat up.

“You heard me,” he said, smiling.

“Well…I guess that’s for me to know,” I said coolly.

“And me to find out. C’mere.” He pulled me down onto the blanket with him and rolled over on top of me. His fingers were working deftly, teasing open the second button on the sweater when I put my hand over his to stop him.

“Hey, did you hear that noise?” I asked. “It sounded like footsteps right outside. And voices…”

“You watch too many scary movies,” he admonished.

He was right. Horror movies were my favorites and I probably did spend way too much time watching them. But I was sure I’d heard something. “Maybe we should just peek out and check?” I suggested.

“Nah,” Jake said, “it was probably just the wind.” Then he gave up on unbuttoning the sweater and just slipped his hand straight up it.

“Oh…mmm, ha, ha,” I giggled as his fingers found their target.

“Quit squirming,” he scolded, but in a playful way.

“Well, your hand’s cold!” I scolded back.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “we’ll both be plenty warm in a sec.”

No doubt, I thought, and my pulse sped up.

Then there was a loud knock on the van that made us both jump. “Jake? C’mon, man, open up!”

“Jake, that is not the wind,” I said. “That’s…”

“Caleb,” Jake finished, dropping his head onto my shoulder. Caleb Mendez was Jake’s bassist, best friend, and housemate. He was also, Jake had informed me, under strict orders not to interrupt us tonight unless it was for a very good (i.e., band-related) reason.

“Thought you guys weren’t going on until nine?” I asked, glancing at my watch. It was seven forty-five.

“We’re not,” Jake said. “What the hell does he want?”

The van doors rattled as Caleb pounded on them again. Jake rolled off me, groaning.

“Well, you’d better go find out before he has a conniption,” I said, re-fastening my buttons. “And don’t look so gloomy, huh? You know we’ll just pick up where we left off next time.”

“Next time?” He sat up. “When’s that going to be?”

“Maybe tomorrow?” I said, sitting up, too. “After the movie?” I scratched his chest playfully through his shirt, trying to get him to smile. It didn’t work.

“Your mom’s never going to let you stay out that late,” he groused. “You’re probably pushing it already, just by asking to go to a midnight show.”

“JAKE!” Caleb shouted.

“Would you hold your horses?!” Jake shouted back. Then he walked his fingers inside my sweater and picked at the center of my bra. “Just so we’re clear…where’d you say we were picking up next time? Here?”

“We’ll see,” I said, biting my lip.

“Sorry,” he said, bending closer, “what was that?” He nuzzled my neck, simultaneously tickling me with his free hand.

“Ack!” I shrieked, giggling. “I said we’ll see!”

“Yeah,” he relented, smiling as he gave the bra another tug. “We will.” Then he was at the doors, swinging them open. “What the hell, man?” he demanded.

“Sorry, man,” I heard Caleb answer. I turned, squinting against the bright parking lot lights, and saw him standing out there next to Good Television’s drummer, Keith Lutz.

“I told him!” Keith pointed his drum sticks at Caleb. “I told him when the van was rocking, not to bother knocking. Everyone knows you just don’t do that. They print it on bumper stickers and everything! Oh, hey, Veronica.” He leaned into the van, craning his neck around Jake to peer at me. “Wow, you look great! You oughtta wear really tight sweaters more often…”

Jake thumped Keith in the sternum to shut him up. “Hey. Eyes up here. Now someone wanna tell me what the hell’s going on? We’re not supposed to hit the stage for over an hour.”

Caleb’s massive bicep flexed as he raked his fingers through his thick hair. “The Gas Farmers flaked. We’ve been bumped up a slot. We’re on next, in, like, ten minutes. We managed to get everything set up in a hurry, but…”

“Taylor’s totally freaking out anyway,” finished Keith, rubbing his chest. “We figured we’d better come out and find you.”

“Are you kidding me?” Jake sighed, rubbing his eyes with his palms.

“Sorry, man,” Caleb repeated.

When Jake had sent the guys back to the club, he turned to me. “Guess date night’s over, huh?”

“All part of dating a rock star,” I shrugged. “I’m pretty used to it by now.”

“Yeah,” he lifted one eyebrow sardonically, “everyone wants a taste.”

I laughed, knowing he’d meant it as a joke, but it was true. Just like every other band he’d ever been in, Good Television was local and unsigned, but around Carreen, Jake may as well have been famous. It seemed everywhere we went people recognized him and wanted to talk to him. Shake his hand. Buy him drinks. It could get pretty overwhelming. Not that I could blame anyone for being so taken with him. He was an amazing human being. Aside from being so beautiful and talented, he was smart. Funny. Kind. All the reasons I loved him, too, with all my heart. I gazed at him, watching him pull a flannel on over his t-shirt, and felt the overwhelming urge to finally tell him so.

“What now?” he laughed when he noticed me staring at him like a love-struck psycho for the second time that night.

I love you! I thought. But when I opened my mouth, all that came out was, “Uhh…go on ahead, I’ll lock up for you.”

But instead of hurrying off to meet up with the rest of his band, Jake stayed where he was, watching me gather my things. His gaze on me—on the guitar pick hanging from its chain—was intense.

“Something wrong?” I asked, touching my new necklace self-consciously.

“No. Everything’s pretty much perfect, if you ask me.”

“Oh. Good,” I said. “But don’t you think you should hurry and catch up with the guys? They’re waiting…”

Before I could finish, he was gathering me to him again, touching my chin, tilting my face up to meet his. “Let ’em wait,” he declared and kissed me again.

Chapter 2

Ever since Lynch’s had closed back in September, Good Television—or Good TV, as they were starting to be called around town—had had to take gigs wherever they could find them. The place they were playing tonight, The Black Box, was in the seedier part of downtown Carreen and had a bad reputation. Fights broke out there all the time, and the management was known for giving bands the runaround when it came time to pay them. But at least it was all ages. I’d be able to get in without any hassle.

“I should be on the list.” I showed my I.D. to the bald guy in a bowling shirt perched on a stool by the club’s door. “Veronica Montez?”

He marked a line through my name on his clipboard, drew a big X on the back of my hand, and did a quick security check of my backpack. “You here alone tonight, honey?” he asked, poking through my things: a denim jacket, pens and paper, the couple of school books I hadn’t had a chance to ditch before coming here, and the flashlight I’d brought along so I could jot down notes in the dark about tonight’s show for Lia’s zine, The Blank Slate.

I shook my head. “My boyfriend’s inside already.” After our bonus make-out session back at the van, I’d finally convinced Jake to go inside ahead of me and join his friends.

“Well, stick close to him if you can,” the bouncer advised.

“Might be a little tough,” I smiled, tucking my I.D. back into my pocket. “He’s in the band. Why?”

The bouncer stroked his goatee. “Place is sold out and The Gas Farmers cancelling’s giving everyone an excuse to act rowdy. We’ve already had to toss a couple clowns out on their asses and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s just the first of it.” I laughed, but he looked at me gravely. “Just be careful, alright?”

Once inside, I thought I got a hint of what the bouncer had been talking about. The dim club was teeming with sweaty, frustrated-looking people. There was an anxious vibe in the air. I stood on my toes and looked around until I spotted Caleb’s girlfriend, Rylie Mejia and Taylor’s boyfriend, Shane Forillo, sitting together at a high-top table with a great view of the stage.

“Hey, you!” Rylie’s dark eyes lit up behind her glasses when I reached her. She threw her arms around me and then turned to Shane, asking him dryly, “Why don’t you invite Veronica to have a seat, Shane?”

Shane brushed a few sweaty curls away from his temple, flashing her a dirty look and then me a guilty one. “Someone, uh, stole the bar stool we were saving for you,” he admitted to me.

“He means he let someone take it while I went to get a drink,” Rylie clarified.

Shane hunched his shoulders defensively. “Well, I wasn’t about to say no. That guy was huge. And terrifying.”

“You just described almost everyone in this place,” Rylie told him with a shudder.

“I’ll find another seat somewhere,” I assured them. “I need to grab some caffeine, anyway. Will you guys watch my stuff?” I left my things on the table and headed for the bar, keeping an eye out for any empty chairs or stools along the way. There didn’t seem to be any. The bar was crowded, too. I was trying in vain to catch the cross-looking bartender’s attention when Keith sidled up, holding a bottle of beer.

“If you’re wondering why you’re not having any luck getting a drink,” he said, picking up my hand, “it’s ’cause you’re branded.” He traced his thumb over the ‘X’ the bouncer had drawn on me. “Minors only order free Cokes. It’s not worth the bartender’s time. Especially not when it’s this busy and she could be raking in big money from the really hardcore drunks like me.” He smiled, showing me the single dimple in his right cheek, and I couldn’t help but smile back.

Keith was an old classmate of Jake’s and the third drummer Good Television had hired in as many months. They’d lost their first one to another band that had gone out on tour, and his replacement had been kicked out because he’d spent more time in jail than at rehearsals. Keith, who’d been bumming around Austin for the past year or so, had just reappeared in Carreen when the guys had run into him at Rick’s Records and offered him their gig. He was always at least mildly drunk and had what Jake referred to as a “smart mouth,” but he was an excellent drummer. And he was cute. He had that dimple, and his nose was crooked, like it’d been broken before. His hair was a light, sandy brown and his dark green eyes tilted down at the corners, giving him a sweet (and, Jake would say, deceptively) innocent puppy-dog look.

“That actually makes a lot of sense,” I said, slipping my hand out of his. “Maybe I should just forget about it?”

“I’ll get it for you,” he offered, lifting his beer to show me it was nearly empty. “I’m about to need another hit myself anyway. What’s your poison? Wait. I was right, wasn’t I? You just want a Coke?”

I gave in. “A Diet, actually.”

He flashed the dimple again. “Wait here.” He turned and snaked through the line, somehow maneuvering right up to the bar and immediately getting the bartender’s attention. Amazed, I watched him chat with her and even get her to crack a smile. Moments later, she followed him back to where I stood, sliding a fresh beer across the bar to Keith and a red plastic tumbler over to me.

“How’d you do that?” I asked him when the bartender had scurried off again.

“I’m irresistible,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed?” Before I could respond to that with more than just a nervous smile, he laughed and pulled out his wallet, flipping it open to show me a driver’s license that said he was from Oregon and was twenty two years old. “I’ve been ordering—and tipping excellently on, I might add—real drinks from her all night.”

“With a fake I.D.?” I said.

“I know. I feel terrible about it.” His rakish grin brought the blood rushing unexpectedly to my face.

Mortified, I picked up my drink and turned away, pretending fascination with a big, beefy guy standing next to me instead. I stared at the back of the big guy’s head, trying to make out the tattoo just visible beneath his buzz cut. Surprisingly enough, from this angle it kind of looked like a delicate purple…butterfly.

“So, uh, how are things going for you?” I asked Keith, still not looking directly at him. “Jake told me you were living with Taylor-?” I didn’t mention he’d added that Keith was only crashing with Good TV’s singer because he’d been thrown out of his parents’ place almost immediately upon moving back in—for what was probably the tenth time since seventh grade.

“It’s cool, I guess,” he said. “Taylor’s a good cook. But Shane’s a pig. Seems no one’s ever taught that poor child how to hang up a wet towel. And he leaves his socks and underwear lying around all over the place. Still, it’s better than putting up with my dad’s bullshit. And at least Taylor’s mom comes by every week to do all our laundry and help us pick up after Shane. You know, she usually brings us a pot pie or a casserole or something. Guess I can see where Taylor learned how to cook so good…”

While he was talking, the guy next to me scooped his drink off the bar and lumbered away. Keith quickly eased into the space he’d vacated, forcing me to look at him again. “So, Veronica,” he said, gazing at me intently, “I’ve been in the band for weeks now and feel like we’ve hardly gotten to know one another yet. Which is a shame ’cause I’ve heard you and I have a lot in common.”

“Oh, yeah?” I sipped my soda. “Like what?”

“Like that you’re a kick-ass drummer, too. Weren’t you in a band a while back? With Jake and that hot sister of his? What’s-her-name…?”

“Lia,” I supplied.

Keith nodded, flicking his tongue lightly across his upper lip. “Yeah. Lia. Man…guess it’s obvious who got the looks in that family, huh?”

I swatted his shoulder. “Hey!”

Keith chuckled and raised his beer, knocking back what remained of it before swapping it out with his new one. “Seriously. I’ve been thinking of shopping for a new kit soon. You ought to come with me. Share your expertise.”

I shook my head. “I’m no expert.” I’d only played drums—if you could even call it that—for about five minutes and I’d been terrible. Now I was done playing rock star, and perfectly happy to be back on the sidelines where I belonged, writing about shows for The Blank Slate instead of humiliating myself by trying to participate in them.

“You could come along with me anyway,” he decided. “I’m sure we’d find some way to pass the time.” As he said this, he shot a peek straight down the front of my sweater, not even bothering to pretend he wasn’t. Far behind him, near the stage, I spotted Jake at Rylie’s table, talking to her and Shane.

“Hey, uh, Keith?” I said and quickly set my drink on the bar. “Shouldn’t you be on stage by now?”

“There was some problem with the lighting holding things up over there,” Keith informed my chest. “I’m sure I’ve got a few more minutes to chat.”

I brought my hand to my neckline, trying to obscure his view. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said. I knew if Jake saw Keith talking to me he wouldn’t be pleased. He’d told him enough times to stay away from me and vice versa—and I thought I was beginning to understand why. The thing was, Keith said inappropriate things to Rylie all the time, too, but for all his hitting on her and all her grumbling about it, her boyfriend was unlikely to do anything to stop it. As ripped and intimidating-looking as he was, Caleb was shy about confrontation. Unlike Jake, who would’ve eagerly snapped Keith in two if he was bothering me. Or if Jake decided he was bothering me. I was contemplating whether Keith was unaware of this fact, or if he was fearless or compulsive or maybe just a little dumb when someone hurrying by elbowed me right in the back.

“Oof!” I said as I lost my balance, tripped over my own foot, and landed squarely against Keith’s chest.

“Oh, hey. Hello,” he said.

“God, I am so sorry!” I put my hand on his chest, trying to push away from him, but he wrapped his arm around my waist and held on.

“You okay?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” I nodded, trying to ignore the way his breath tickled my ear. And how good his neck smelled. And how firm his chest felt beneath my palm. “I’m totally fine.”

“No kidding.” I looked up at the same time he looked down. Our gazes met and I noticed his irises weren’t actually green but hazel, shot through with flecks of gold. I gulped.

“Come on, Keith,” I said halfheartedly, “Jake could walk up any second…”

He sighed, his hand sliding to the small of my back. “Jake, Jake, Jake. What do all you girls see in him, anyway? Is it the van? ’Cause I drive one, too, you know. It’s newer and nicer, and I’ll bet the back’s comfier than his.”

“Keith.”

He smirked, his fingers massaging a small circle onto my back. “Or is it his pansy-assed, perpetual five-o-clock-shadow? I heard that was your fault. But guess what? I can stop shaving just as easily as he can…”

“Keith!” I wriggled out of his grasp and backed away, straightening my clothes. “I have to go. I don’t think Jake would like it if he saw us talking to one another. In fact, I know he wouldn’t.”

Keith raised his eyebrows, smiling mischievously. “Well, what’s he going to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed, finally giving up because now it was too late, “but I guess you could ask him. He’s coming up right behind you.”

Keith turned around slowly, a sheepish grin spreading across his face. “Hey, Jake! Veronica and I were just talking about you. Have I told you how much I like your new beard? It’s very, uh…manly.” When Jake advanced toward him, glowering, he continued, hands in the air, “We were just talking, man. Having a nice, friendly conversation…C’mon, man, calm down.” Backing up, he pointed at the glass I’d recovered from the bar. “I was just helping her get a drink!”

Jake reached him and shoved him aside, sending him stumbling into a nearby table. The girls sitting there all jumped up, shrieking and cursing as Keith toppled their glasses, emptying their drinks into their laps. “Get to the stage,” Jake commanded as Keith righted himself and started apologizing. “Everyone’s waiting on you.” Then he put his hand on my arm and led me away.

“Was that really necessary?” I asked. Jake didn’t answer. “He really was just trying to help me out,” I continued, holding up my soda. It sloshed dangerously as we sped through the crowd back toward Rylie’s table.

“By putting his arm around you?” he snapped.

I immediately blushed. “Yeah, actually. He caught me,” I explained. “Because someone else pushed me over. Speaking of which: I mean it. You didn’t have to knock him down!”

Jake was unmoved. “Not my fault that bum leg of his keeps him from standing up straight. Besides, you don’t have to go to the bar to get drinks. I’ve told you a dozen times, I can have whatever you want sent straight over to your table.”

“I know, but…”

“In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the friendliest place. I don’t want you getting hurt or into any trouble. So do me a favor, huh? Stick close to Rylie and Shane and try not to talk to anyone else.”

“But…”

We’d reached Rylie’s table. Jake took the glass out of my hand and set it down so hard a few drops of soda did slosh out of it. “Veronica, would you please listen to me?”

The sound of my full name coming out of his mouth startled me. I looked up, alarmed. “Jake, what’s wrong?”

He closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath and then exhaling through his nose. “I don’t know…I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight. First The Gas Farmers cancel. Now everything seems to be going wrong backstage. The crowd’s so pissed off, we’ll be lucky to all get out of here in one piece. I don’t want to have to worry about you, too, okay?”

“Alright, already,” I said. “Sheesh. I’ll wait for you here.”

Relief lightened his expression. He kissed my temple and said he’d see me after the show.

“Good news,” Rylie told me as Jake headed back to the stage. “Jake wrangled a seat for you.” She patted an empty stool next to hers and I sat down. Across the club, Keith was still talking to one of the girls whose table he’d almost upended. As I watched, he picked up a napkin and tried to pat her down with it.

“Don’t sweat it,” Rylie said. “Whatever it was that made Jake send him flying like that, I’m sure Keith deserved it.”

I turned to her. “You saw that, huh?”

She pulled the straw partway out of her drink and stabbed it back down into the ice. “The other day at the guys’ rehearsal Keith told me I had a nice set. Can you believe it? He just came right out and said that. In front of Caleb and everybody!”

Across the table, Shane snickered, and Rylie smacked his arm.

“A nice set of what?” I said, confused.

She looked at me over her glasses. “What do you think?”

“Oh,” I said and giggled although I knew I probably shouldn’t.

“Yeah, ha, ha,” she said as I tried to stifle my smile. “Sexual harassment is so hilarious. You’re just as bad as Caleb. You know what he said to me when I complained to him about Keith? Well, he’s not wrong, babe, you do have a nice set.”

Shane and I both burst out laughing.

Rylie flapped her hands at us. “Screw you guys! At least Jake’s got some sense of propriety. After that classy little comment he seemed about ready to bust Keith’s jaw for him.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Jake for you,” Shane smiled softly. “A real stand-up guy. Hey, where’s Lia?” he wondered as I unzipped my backpack and started taking things out of it. “Is she singing tonight?” Now that Impressionable Youth was defunct, Lia sang lead for this other band called The Grubby Mitts.

“Not tonight,” I said. “She’s with Jonathan. Helping him film a horror short for some movie-making contest he wants to enter.”

Rylie flicked on my flashlight and held the beam under her chin. Her glasses cast a shadow on her forehead, giving her a ghostly unibrow. “And I suppose Lia’s the leading lady of this aforementioned masterpiece?”

“But of course,” I said. “I think she’s also half the crew. She’s been so busy helping Jonathan prep costumes and props and stuff, it feels like I’ve hardly seen her these past few weeks. That’s why she asked me to take pictures of the band for her tonight…Oh, crap!!” I clapped my hand over my mouth.

“What’s the matter?” Shane, startled by my outburst, dropped the paper coaster he’d been picking into shreds.

“Lia’s camera,” I groaned. “I forgot to bring it with me!”

Shane and Rylie looked at one another and then at me, as if trying to figure out what the big deal was.

“She’s going to flip when she finds out I didn’t get any pictures tonight,” I explained. “She’s already been griping that I don’t take The Blank Slate seriously anymore and now I go and do something like this…ugh, I can’t believe it!”

Rylie flicked the flashlight off. “Why would she think you don’t take the zine seriously anymore?”

I slumped in my seat as I recalled the withering look Lia had shot at me from behind her desk at Blank Slate headquarters—a.k.a., her bedroom at her parents’ house—a couple of weeks ago. “Vee,” she’d reprimanded me, “what kind of garbage is this? I mean, are you trying to make me regurgitate my Corn Pops here or what?”

“What’re you talking about?” I’d asked, pausing in the midst of a flagging campaign to dissuade her cat, Clyde 2, from using my calf as his personal scratching post. “What’s wrong with my article?”

Instead of answering Lia’d tapped the typewritten pages I’d given her against her desk and held them up, laying her other hand over her heart. “The audience stood, enraptured,” she’d read in a mockingly dramatic voice, “as guitarist Jake Mlinarich, drenched in sweat, his t-shirt clinging to his well-chiseled chest, crouched on the stage, holding the guitar between his legs. His biceps flexed and the veins stood out in his forearms while his fingers scaled nimbly up and down the fretboard…ughhhh…” she’d trailed off, pretending to gag as she tossed the pages onto her desk in disgust. “Am I reading a concert review here or a romance novel?”

“Well, it’s all true,” I’d defended. “Jake looks great these days. He’s been lifting those weights in Caleb’s garage. And running with him in the mornings sometimes. I think he’s been eating better, too, because…Okay, okay,” I’d finished when Lia’d groaned and dropped her face into her hands, “I’ll write it over.”

“Too late,” she’d informed me. “The new issue goes to press tomorrow—as you well know. Your review will just have to wait until next month.”

I’d thought about pointing out to her that there was no reason we couldn’t postpone running the issue until the following week, seeing as how it was her zine and the two of us were in charge of everything related to it, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Lia had this weird thing about punctuality. She was pretty hung up on all her little schedules and things. So instead I’d accepted my pages back from her and agreed to “try and write at least a line or two” about something other than my “sick obsession” (her words) with “Jake and his, ahem, instrument.”

“Just trust me,” I told Rylie, frowning at the memory, “Lia’s not going to be happy about this.”

Rylie didn’t seem to hear me. Her eyes had locked onto my necklace. “Wow, is that Jake’s pick you’re wearing?” She hooked her finger in the chain to get a better look.

I’d have answered her, but suddenly I was distracted, too. I’d just spotted a short redhead with glasses and about twenty earrings punched through one earlobe slithering through the crowd, straight toward the front of the club. Annalise, I thought, prickling with resentment. Or maybe her name was Annabel. I could never remember. All I knew for certain was that she was Jake’s ex-girlfriend and they’d broken up years ago, but with the way she’d been turning up at all his shows lately and hanging around near the stage trying to catch his attention, you’d think she’d never gotten the memo. I couldn’t believe she was here again tonight.

“Ooh, how adorable!” Rylie squealed when she discovered the initials on my new medallion.

“Hey,” I said to her, “what do you know about Annalise?”

“Who?”

“Or Annabel. Whoever. The redhead,” I pointed. “With the giant boobs and all the tattoos.”

Rylie let the necklace drop and turned, adjusting her glasses as she searched the crowd. “Ariella,” she corrected when she saw who I meant. “Ariella Baker. She played in a band with Caleb in high school. Or junior high maybe, I’m not sure…” She pouted, trying to remember. “You should ask Jake about her,” she finally said. “They used to go out, you know.” I nodded vaguely, struggling to maintain a neutral facial expression, but Rylie didn’t seem to notice. “I gotta hit the little girls’ before the show starts,” she announced. “Watch my drink? Don’t let Shane slip a mickey into it or anything.” She slid off her bar stool, playfully squeezing Shane’s shoulder on her way to the bathroom.

Turning back to the stage, I saw Ariella had installed herself in the front row. She was barely dressed in a tiny plaid skirt and white tank top, with the lacy edges of her black bra peeking out through the armholes. Subtle, I thought. She turned, as if she’d felt me looking at her, and our gazes locked. Her eyes flickered for a second, like maybe she’d recognized me from the one time we’d sort of met before. But then she frowned and I knew she hadn’t. The houselights went down and a spotlight came up. I watched Taylor make his way to the microphone.

“Hello, beautiful people!!” he called, wrapping his nail-polished hand around the microphone. His Dickies work shirt was unbuttoned, showing off his nipple rings and the tribal tattoo encircling his navel. He was tall and wiry like Jake, but a lot paler than him. He had clear blue eyes and beneath his beat up trucker hat, his longish blonde hair was practically white. Lia had once described him in the Slate as looking like “a punk rock ghost.”

“We are Good Television,” Taylor continued, “and believe-you-me, we are eager, eager, EAGER to play for you fine-looking folks too-NITE!”

About half the audience whistled and cheered in response while the other half booed. An empty bottle arced through the air and smashed apart at Jake’s feet. He mouthed a curse, anger flashing in his eyes as he kicked the broken shards away from him, over the edge of the stage.

“Hey, now,” Taylor patted at the air in a “calm down” motion. “We’ll have none of that!” He hopped up and down a few times. Behind him, Jake struck the first chord and the band launched into the only cover in their set, a radically sped up, punkish version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”

It didn’t take long for the crowd’s hostility to dissolve. By the time Good TV was halfway through their set, most everyone was cheering and raising their fists in the air. By the glow of my flashlight, I jotted down a quick account of the band’s triumph over the audience (no surprise to me) and then concentrated hard, trying to come up with something—anything—to describe other than the rigid outline of Jake’s pecs beneath his already sweat-soaked t-shirt.

I was still chewing my lower lip and staring blankly at my notebook when a roar went up from the crowd. I looked up to see Keith thundering through the last bit of a song, rolling his drum sticks faster and faster before finishing with a massive clang of his cymbals. He stood up and chucked a stick into the audience. While people dove over one another to try and claim it, Jake flicked two guitar picks at the crowd, one right after the other. I didn’t see where the first one ended up because it flew too far from the stage lights and was swallowed by the dark.

But the second one sailed right into Ariella Baker’s cleavage.

From my seat, I had a great view of it landing on her sweaty chest and sliding down into her tank top, threatening to disappear forever between those enormous boobs of hers. But then, at the last second, she fished it out and held it up, giving Jake this big, goofy—but undeniably flirtatious—grin. I saw Jake smile, too, and my heart palpitated, not in a good way. Then Good TV launched into their next song.