Ginger Scott has a brand new friends to lovers, second chance romance out this week, and I get to share with you the whole first chapter.
It hasn’t rained like this in years. We’ve had rain, yes. Fire too. But not since I was a kid did the skies open up on the California desert the way they have the past seventeen hours. The coastal cities are already flooding. Mudslides destroying roads, sweeping away compact cars, and uprooting trees from front lawns. I tried to avoid the breaking news coverage, but my mom insisted I turn it on.
“Just look, Brynn!” she begged after I ignored her fifty text messages all begging me to cancel tonight’s showcase music event and stay off the roads.
I’d love to cancel. I’d give anything to cancel. Anything except my job. And if I cancel, I will lose it. Because nobody blows off the Yucca Valley Music Showcase because they might get their hair wet.
Rain or shine. No matter what day of the week October fourteenth falls on. The showcase happens, and our desert valley’s most promising young musicians stand up alongside local legends to get their chance at making it. My mom should know better than to ask me to cancel. Dad never did when he was music director at Yucca Valley North High. And I remember a few torrential downpours over the years that made the event a challenge.
My chandelier quivers, the crystal beads tinkling against one another seconds after a flash of light burns through every window in my home, illuminating the clutter left behind from my manic search for all things weatherproof and emergency centric. The thunder rolls on for several seconds, buzzing the metal-framed photos on my walls. My already pounding heart speeds up its beat a breath, and when my phone rings I leap a good foot in the air.
“Shit,” I mutter, dumping the towels, plastic music-sheet covers, spare umbrellas, flashlights, and the sad, half-eaten granola bar I keep thinking I’ll get to finish, on the dining room table. I grab my phone from my hip pocket and pause at the sight of my black slacks marred by tiny beads of cotton from my towels.
I run my free hand down my thighs while I answer the call coming in from MaryAnn, my teaching assistant.
“Please tell me they have a generator.” My out-of-breath plea goes unanswered, and I stand up straight, abandoning the dream of clean slacks for the evening. “How can they not have a generator?”
“No, Brynn . . . it’s not that. It’s . . .”
My chest tightens.
“Is it flooding?” It’s probably flooding, which again, doesn’t mean we cancel. The crazy people in this valley will endure anything for this showcase. It’s not only the parents with musical prodigies, either. It’s everyone who lives in this hidden dustbin of a county. This damn showcase is like life—like blood for veins, oxygen for lungs, a soul for the soulless. It’s what makes this place feel special, and it’s been that way for years. Since way before I stood on the stage at Pappy & Harriet’s and took my shot.
“Johnny’s here,” MaryAnn breaks in. I blink for a moment, wondering if I imagined her words just now as a way to finish my thought.
“He showed up maybe twenty minutes ago.”
I did not imagine.
Since Johnny Bishop put the town on the map and went on to win every Grammy category he was nominated for the very next year.
“Why?” I nudge a nearby chair out from my table and flop down, my legs suddenly weak.
Since Johnny Bishop left town without as much as a goodbye.
“He’s a mess, Brynn. And he’s asking for you. Like, on the mic. He stood on one of the tables and cupped it as he shouted your name, making it squeal. He laughed, but George did not. People are videoing on their phones, and even though he’s out of his mind, they all want their pictures taken with him.”
My head throbs as MaryAnn paints the scene for me. George has owned Pappy & Harriet’s for years. He doesn’t find many things amusing, so no . . . I imagine an out-of-control celebrity scaring away customers isn’t on his funny list. My eyes flutter shut as my mind builds the rest of the picture. Johnny has always been troubled. It’s not entirely his fault, but at some point, on some level, he has to own his behavior. I knew things had gotten bad. As much as I try to avoid news about him, it’s hard when his busted-up face is plastered on tabloid magazines in the grocery store. The latest headlines were all some combination of DRUG-FUELED FIGHT GETS POP STAR SENSATION JAIL TIME.
But if Johnny’s here . . . if he’s asking for me?
“I’ll be right there. I’m bringing everything I can with me, and my car is packed. Can you ask a few of the students to watch for my car out front so they can carry in everything you’ll need?” I form a fist on the tabletop and lower my head until my forehead rests on it.
“Yeah, but what do you mean by everything I’ll need?” Panic vibrates her words. I swallow down the jagged lump in my throat. I wish I could send MaryAnn to take care of Johnny, but he isn’t her promise. He’s mine.
He has no right to collect now on oaths made when I was naïve and young. And I have every goddamn right to refuse. My gut twists harder on itself at the thought. I won’t refuse. I don’t think a lifetime of therapy will make me strong enough to renege on my promise to him.
“He’s in serious trouble, MaryAnn. You know we’re old friends.” I’ve told her stories, though I’ve never shared much beyond the surface of our past. Class hijinks, a duet or two during the showcase, movie nights at my house. Johnny and I were friends, at least according to MaryAnn.
Since Johnny Bishop stole my dreams and broke my heart beyond repair.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s the showcase. And this weather is nuts! And the parents who are already here—”
“Are nuts! I know!” I shouldn’t yell at her. She’s stressed. And I basically fed her to the wolves in the matter of a phone call.
I take in a deep breath and march to my pantry to get a fabric grocery bag for this last batch of emergency items.
“Look, I’ll make an announcement and I promise that as soon as I am done with Johnny, I’ll come back.” Never mind that it’s apocalypse-level raining for the next who-knows-how-many hours.
“The parents are going to hate me.” Her meek confession tugs the corner of my mouth up.
“Yeah. But they hate everyone unless their kid wins, so don’t worry about it.” I scoop the pile from my table into my Charlie’s Foods bag and tuck my phone between my shoulder and chin so I can lock up and rush to my car.
“I know this sucks, and I’m sorry. But I will write the review of a lifetime for you if you can manage that place for an hour. Two tops.” We both know it’s a lie. I’ll be lucky to get back here in time to tally the judges’ results. “I’m heading your way. Ask Jade and Malachi to wait by the door. They’re the most responsible seniors.” AKA their parents won’t be hovering like the others will.
“Okay, drive safe.” I end the call before I can answer her and instead chuckle to myself as I look at the smeared glass reflected in my rearview mirror.
“Safe,” I echo with a punched out laugh.
I shift into reverse and glance back down at my black pants, now soaked and sporting flecks of terry cloth. My gray turtleneck is stifling, but there’s no time to change. I wasn’t expecting to spend the night weaving through the desert foothills back to Palm Springs so I can check my high school boyfriend into rehab. Maybe it’s good that the world is ending all around me. It’s a good distraction, and the only reason I’m not bawling my eyes out right now—or throwing up in the gravel alongside my driveway.
“What are you doing, Brynn?” I don’t talk to myself often, and when I do, I rarely listen to the advice my better self—the voice inside me—gives. This time won’t be any different, but I think if I don’t yell at myself, at least a little, I run the risk of getting caught in Johnny’s web.
I’m right. He doesn’t deserve me. He hasn’t earned the right for me to keep my promise. Besides, I was coerced into that promise a little—wooed by the cutest boy I’d ever seen staring into my eyes. I would have promised him the world. Instead, I promised if he ever really needed someone, needed me, I would answer his call.
So here I go, clocking a whole ten miles per hour down the highway toward Pioneertown, through Armageddon, to answer Johnny’s call.
MaryAnn and a handful of students are waiting by the open door as I pull up. I park on the curb since in some places the water is creeping onto the sidewalks. The parking lot is full, and a part of me wonders how many of those cars will get stuck in the loose gravel after three hours of music. I have doubts as it is about my own off-road wagon.
Jade, my favorite student—because yeah, teachers have favorites—meets me first, taking the bag from my arm and hooking it across her body before holding out her arms for me to load up with a box.
“Is it true?” Her eyes are wide, and her lips play with a timid smile.
I’m not sure which it she’s referring to, but I can guess.
“Yeah, I know Johnny Bishop. He’s not well, so do me a favor and try to chill any rumors about me and him that might come up tonight, yeah?” I grab the box of ponchos from my passenger seat and twist around to hand them to Jade. Her expression is still childlike, star struck. I get it. I once saw Keanu Reeves surfing in Malibu and when he walked back up the beach and nodded, my face looked as frozen as hers.
“Jade.” I snap her out of her trance.
“Yeah, umm, sure. No problem, Ms. Fisher.”
I nod in thanks but cringe inwardly at how she said my name. It makes me sound like a schoolmarm. Such emphasis on that Ms. I’m twenty-eight. I have many prospects, as they say in the Austen novels I relish. I’m simply enjoying my independence. Granted, the black slacks, turtleneck, and slicked-back brown hair pulled into a tightly-bound bun don’t exactly scream young and hip. But it’s pouring, and I didn’t want to spend hours doing my hair only to have it end up looking like a dirty mop. And I wasn’t exactly planning to see such an important ghost from my past.
The rest of the students clear out my car quickly, leaving me to stand alongside MaryAnn underneath the portico as the door to the rugged western restaurant-slash-makeshift concert venue closes.
“He’s in the back, by the stage—”
“Shh,” I hush my coworker and friend, my finger to my lips. The weight in my chest is too much right now. I need a minute.
“I want to stand out here for a few seconds and pretend everything’s going off without a hitch. It looks nice through the window, doesn’t it?” I nod toward the blurred scene before us, framed by the black trim of the heavy wooden door, a warm glow of lights above and on tables flickering with the movement of bodies inside. Chaos ensues on the other side. Families are battling over the best seats in the house while the waitstaff is shorthanded and overworked. The usual scent of charred beef and burning wood and coals isn’t here to lull everyone into submission, which means people are probably hungry and disappointed they won’t be getting their favorite ribs or filet. Beyond the thick crowd is an older gentleman on a stage, wrestling a mic away from a man my age who has always thought he deserved the spotlight and attention. And as hard as I try to block out the sound emanating from inside, that mic makes it impossible not to hear him calling my name, or some variation of it.
“Brynnie Winnie Pooh!”
My shoulders hike up and my neck sinks into my spine.
“Like I said, he’s really messed up.” MaryAnn isn’t throwing an I-told-you-so at me, but rather offering me an excuse for feeling embarrassed right now. I’m not the one on the stage acting like a fool, but somehow, my skin is burning and the desire to bury my head in a hole is strong.
“I know he is. He came into this world that way. And here I am, taking him to get fixed.” I turn to meet MaryAnn’s eyes and blink once, my mouth a hard, resolute line. Johnny’s been through rehab once before. He came out worse. At least, according to everything I’ve read. It’s not like I’ve actually talked to him in years. With a sigh, I walk toward the door and yank it open. The barrage of shouting blasts my face.
I’m caught by needy parents within moments, but MaryAnn is quick to step in and handle concerns for me so I can stay on target. He’s singing, and not well, which is weird to hear from his throat. His back is to me by the time I’m a dozen feet from the stage, but I swear to God he senses I’m close. The hand holding the mic drops to his side, and his head slumps forward, giving me a view of the crunchy curls peeking out of the back of his beanie and the long tag from his T-shirt flipped out from the collar. His hair isn’t wet, but it was at one point. Which means he’s been standing in here shouting for me long enough for it to dry.
Johnny twists his head a hint, finding me in his sideways glance, and as messed up as he is—as our history is—the slightest glimpse of his fucking perfect blue eyes, even when they’re framed by red, stops my heart for more than a beat.
“Brynnie Winnie—” He trips over his own feet before he can croon the Pooh part into the microphone—thank God!
Johnny stumbles on the stage, losing this grip on the mic and sending it rolling in the opposite direction until it disappears off the edge. My only clue that someone finds it is the loud screeching sound it makes as they struggle to figure out how to turn it off. With a bloody lip thanks to the crash landing on the hardwood planks beneath him, Johnny lifts his weary head and stammers out my name one more time while dragging himself toward me in an army crawl.
“Brynn. I need you.”
My gut sinks.
This is why I came. Why he is asking for me. He knew I’d say yes. I have to. I promised.
“I know, Johnny. Come on, let’s get you to my car.” I hold my hand out toward him and he spends a few seconds staring at it. It’s not that his eyes can’t focus, though it’s a shock that he can, given how wasted he is. This lingering stare is more painful than that. It’s full of our past and what should have been.
Finally snapping out of his trip through our busted potential, Johnny drags his body to the edge of the stage and grips my hand while running the sleeve of his disheveled and dirty flannel along his bloody lip.
“Don’t do that. You’ll make it worse,” I chastise, pulling his hand away from his face. Mothering him. Taking care of him.
Sitting on the edge of the stage with one hand clinging to mine, the other gripping the stage, probably to keep the room from spinning, Johnny’s entire frame slumps as his bloodshot, broken eyes lock on mine. It hurts, seeing him this way.
“I’m sorry, Brynn. I’m so fucking sorry.” He throws up on the floor between us, and my grip on his hand is the only thing keeping him from tumbling from the stage to land in his own mess. He smells awful. His vomit smells awful. This entire place is dank and probably populating tenfold with mold spores as the inches of rain stack up.
I don’t have to survey the room to know that most of the parents are glaring at me with disgust. See, Johnny is this town’s pride and joy. He’s famous. The entire country—no, world!—adores him. He shot to stardom the minute he opened his mouth and sang in front of a few thousand screaming college girls all filming with their phones and instantly making his videos go viral. Nobody cares that he’s an alcoholic drug addict with massive baggage he desperately needs to sort through. All they see is me, navigating him through this saloon and out into my car. It’s my fault he’s here. I mean, after all, he clearly came for me. And I know what assumption is in most of their minds.
It’s probably her fault he’s like this.