Poppy twirled a pen between two fingers, her phone pressed between her cheek and a shoulder. “No problem,” she told Jett Costa, front woman of the band she managed. South of Forever’s keyboardist Max Batista had recently gotten out of rehab. Jett wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly. Poppy could understand. The band had been through a lot in a short amount of time. She still wasn’t sure why, but a few months before Jett brought her on, the singer had been hospitalized, too. Poppy had overheard their drummer Griff Whalen talking to Jett about it. No one knew exactly what had happened, but Jett had assured the band that it had nothing to do with her own rehab stint over a year before.
“I’m serious,” Jett said. Poppy started, realizing that, once again, she had let herself get swept away by other people’s drama. “I want everyone’s eyes on him at all times. I don’t want him relapsing.”
Poppy sighed. She hadn’t become the band’s manager to babysit musicians with drug problems. Still, her success depended on how well the band did. If Max started doing cocaine again—or touched anything else, for that matter—her career would be over. Pushing the thoughts away, she did her best to convince Jett that she was thoroughly capable of keeping Max on the wagon. “If you can stay sober,” she said, “so can he.”
A pause stretched on the other end.
Poppy bit her lip. Perhaps she had said the wrong thing. She tossed her long, brown waves over her shoulder and swapped the phone to her other ear. “I mean, I’m sure everything will be fine.” Though Jett couldn’t see it, she flashed the smile that she had once upon a time used to book shows for her brother.
“Yeah.” Jett cleared her throat. “Just keep an eye on him.” Without another word, she hung up.
Grimacing, Poppy put her phone down on her desk. If she kept at it, Jett and the rest of South of Forever would realize that she wasn’t the composed twenty-two-year-old that she pretended to be. She glared down at the open textbook on her desk.
“I’m going on a Starbucks run. The usual?”
Poppy glanced up at her roommate. Dark circles underlined Krista’s blue eyes. Her blonde hair hung limply around her face. Midterms were definitely starting to take their toll. Luckily, Krista had escaped the “freshman fifteen”—the fifteen pounds that most students supposedly gained during their first year at college. Poppy, on the other hand, had gained at least thirty. The last thing she needed was another fattening beverage, but if she was going to get through her study session and babysit Max, she definitely needed the caffeine. She reached for her wallet.
Krista shook her head. “This one’s on me.” She flashed her parents’ credit card, grinning. For a moment, she looked like the cheerful young woman that had moved into their room at the beginning of the semester. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “You got the last one.”
“True.” Poppy tapped her pen on the corner of her desk. She longed for winter break when, for a few precious weeks, she could just be Poppy the band manager. Juggling her classes, work, and keeping South of Forever from finding out that she was a fraud was starting to wear on her. There were bags under her brown eyes, and her once smooth, deep brown skin sported more than a few pimples. She was also pretty sure that she had a wrinkle near her nose. Next up, she thought, she was going to start sprouting gray hairs.
Krista turned and slouched out of their dorm room in defeat. Poppy glanced at the laptop open on her roommate’s desk. The cursor blinked on an empty page. Krista was supposed to be writing a paper for her communications class. At the rate things were going, neither of them were going to make it through their first semester.
It was too bad. Poppy couldn’t have picked a better roommate. Krista was easygoing and had no problem with Poppy coming and going at all hours of the day—even when she crawled into bed in the middle of the night after a particularly long rehearsal night with South of Forever. She was lucky that she woke up in time for her marketing classes most days.
Sometimes, she wished that she had chosen an easier path in life.
She turned back to her desk, her eye catching the framed photo of her and the band. She stood next to Griff, his arm draped across her shoulders. His fair skin was a stark contrast to her deep copper complexion. A tingle ran through her as she thought of that day, how his touch had lingered long after Max’s girlfriend Savannah took the photo. She had uploaded it to their website later that night, proud to be part of the South of Forever family. Her eyes roved over Griff’s face, his eyes slanted to the side. It looked like he was looking at her.
She blinked, peering closer at the photo. His blue eyes were so light, they were nearly gray. He was definitely looking in her direction, but whether or not he was peeking at her was a different story.
She shook her head. She needed to be studying, not worrying about whether Griff liked her. Her cheeks flushed and her heart fluttered in her chest. She should be so lucky. Rock stars like Griff didn’t go for girls like her—especially girls who lied about their age and college degree.
She chewed on her lip and made herself look away from the photo. She just needed to get through the next week. After midterms, she could spend Thanksgiving with her family—just far enough away from the band and all of the stress weighing on her shoulders.
The door swung open and Krista entered their room, cradling four lattes in a tray. Behind her, the hall stood empty. It seemed as if the entire campus was burrowed in, studying for exams. It was easy for everyone else to focus so early in the semester. Poppy wished it could be the same for her.
* * *
Poppy stood outside her dorm, her rolling suitcase parked in front of her. Shifting from foot to foot in her wedge sandals, she watched as yet another Honda Civic entered the complex. Instead of cruising past her to the line of visitor parking spots, though, it rolled to a stop in front of her. A tinted window rolled down.
Heavy bass poured out, punctuated by lyrics she hadn’t heard yet. Her brother Jay leaned out of the window and nodded to her. “Get in.”
Poppy snorted. She had expected Jay to come in a limousine or maybe even an SUV driven by someone from his record company. “Why a Honda?” She tossed her suitcase into the trunk and hurried around to the passenger side. Her fingertips barely brushed the seatbelt as Jay peeled out of the dorm parking lot.
“You blend in,” he said, whipping around the corner.
She lifted an eyebrow at him. “And this isn’t standing out?” She could hear a bit of Grandma Audrey in her voice, even though it had been months since she last saw her grandmother. A soft smile touched her lips. She couldn’t wait to be home.
“Come on, I’m just having fun.” Jay maneuvered into traffic, slamming the brakes as the light turned red at the bottom of the hill.
Poppy rolled her eyes. She nodded toward the iPhone plugged into the dashboard. “New song?” Reaching for the dial, she twisted it until the entire car rocked with the bump of the bass.
Jay slapped her hand away and turned the music down. “It’s not finished yet.” He slanted her a look. “I’m not ready for the public to hear it.”
Poppy blinked, wondering whether anyone on campus would recognize her brother. Until just a few short months before, she had been J-SON’s manager. Only he had been surprised when, at a show she had scheduled, someone from a label approached him and invited them to dinner to discuss a recording contract. She, on the other hand, had always known he’d make it. He hadn’t been with L.A.B. Records long, but he was already one of their more promising artists. The two singles he had released were doing well.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, relaxing back into her seat as he pulled onto the highway. “I expected more fanfare, now that you’re all big and stuff.” She grinned at him.
“Incognito,” he said, putting sunglasses on against the morning glare of the sun. As he urged the Honda to the standard eighty miles an hour that the rest of traffic adhered to, he glanced at her. “How did finals go?”
“Midterms,” she corrected, “and they were a bitch.” She wanted to forget the last week of her life as quickly as possible.
“And how’s the band?” He gave her a sly smile.
Neither their mother or grandmother knew what she was doing, but Jay knew everything. They had always trusted each other with their secrets. “Running me ragged.” She bit her lower lip. “You heard about the scandal, right?”
“You kidding me? Everyone knows about it.” Jay switched off the song and tucked his phone into the center console. He punched buttons until he found Hot 93.7, an old school rap song trickling into the car. “It’s all everyone at L.A.B. can talk about.”
“Eventually,” she said, “Mom and Grandma Audrey are going to find out that I’m managing South of Forever. It’s inevitable.”
“Is he still sober?”
The abrupt change of subject made both of her eyebrows nearly touch her hairline. “Why do you ask?” She crossed her arms, twisting in her seat so that she could face her brother full on.
“Did you know that Koty Jackson is from L.A.B.?” Jay took off his sunglasses and regarded her with somber brown eyes.
She almost giggled. Of course she knew. Up until very recently, she’d had an ESX poster in her bedroom at home. When Koty left the boy band to join the rock band Perpetual Smile, she had migrated with him. If she thought about it too much, it was all just too crazy. In a million years, she had never dreamed that she would be managing the Dakota Jackson and Jett Costa.
Then again, things were much different with South of Forever. They still had ages to go before they achieved the kind of success that Perpetual Smile had known. She could get them there. She wouldn’t accept anything less.
Jay cleared his throat. “Daydreaming again?”
The Honda slowed as I-95 clogged, the morning commute just beginning.
Poppy groaned. She waved to the traffic. “Your people can’t do anything about this?”
“I’m not that famous yet.” He chuckled.
“I know exactly where South of Forever stands,” she said. “Does L.A.B. really talk about them that much?”
Her brother nodded. “Scott Woodrow is on double duty. He manages ESX, but still keeps tabs on Koty.” Switching lanes, Jay urged the Honda to go faster. Traffic slowed again, and he stomped on the brakes. “This is bullshit. I thought we’d miss this.”
“J-SON, traffic in Boston is ever present,” she said in her best Southern belle accent.
Just as he had when they were little, Jay dissolved into giggles. “Oh, Poppy.” He squeezed her hand for a second. “I’ve missed you. It’s not the same now.”
“It used to be us against the world,” she said. “Now we’re both in separate corners, kicking ass and taking names.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” He put both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m proud of you, girl.”
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Poppy nodded. If she could survive Thanksgiving break without her life imploding, she would be proud of herself.
* * *
The carving knife clattered to the floor. Poppy darted back, the blade missing her toes by inches. She glanced at her grandmother. Their eyes met, then they both dissolved into giggles.
“Quit throwing things at me,” she told Grandma Audrey. She wasn’t sure why she and her brother addressed their grandmother by her first name. Their father’s parents had passed away before either of them had been born, so there was no need to differentiate. Her grandmother had been Grandma Audrey for as long as she could remember, though.
“I’m just crazy like that.” Grandma Audrey stooped to retrieve the knife, and then ambled over to the sink. “Thirty-second rule,” she said, rinsing it off.
Poppy settled an elbow back on the counter, texting her dad a quick “Happy Thanksgiving” with one hand. It’d been years since she or Jay had spent a holiday with their father. After James and Yolanda separated, Poppy’s dad moved out of state. Last she knew, he’d taken yet another odd job. Even though he no longer owed her mom child support, he still sent Yolanda money every month. Poppy treasured their few visits and occasional FaceTime chats. Her dad worked hard and had a great sense of humor. She hoped that she’d inherited his work ethic.
Watching as her grandmother resumed carving the turkey, she sighed. She definitely hadn’t inherited that particular gene.
“What’s wrong, sugar?” Grandma Audrey dropped a slice of turkey onto a platter. Steam rose from the meat.
Poppy’s mouth watered. “I’m just thinking about how I’ll never be as good a cook as you.”
Tucking her chin into the palm of her hand, her thoughts again strayed to South of Forever. Jay’s words haunted her. She had tossed and turned in her sleep, unable to stop visualizing Scott Woodrow stalking Koty. She felt naked. From what Jay told her, L.A.B. had a lot of resources—both financially and in the music industry. Maybe it was unnecessary to worry about such a thing, but she couldn’t help but wonder how far L.A.B. would go to get back their prized pop star.
“Honey, you can’t even boil water,” Grandma Audrey replied. She nudged Poppy with an elbow.
“Exactly.” Poppy forced herself to be present. She hadn’t gotten to spend time with her family since she’d started college. “I’m practically starving at school.”
Plunking down several more slices, Grandma Audrey turned to look at Poppy. She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look it.” She poked Poppy in the ribs.
“Hey, it takes work to look like this.” Poppy put a hand on her hip.
Grandma Audrey winked. “You look fine. You’ve got all the right curves in all the right places. You’re no size zero, but you’re far from being overweight.” She popped a piece of crispy turkey skin into her mouth. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”
“Thanks, Gran.” Picking up the platter, Poppy carried it to the table. At any moment, her mother would be home from work. Even though it was later than most families ate Thanksgiving dinner, Yolanda had to work at the hospital. Emergencies didn’t take holidays, she often said.
“I’m just glad you’re in school,” her grandmother continued, “unlike your fool of a brother.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“Jay is doing so well, Gran.”
Grandma Audrey rolled her eyes. “He’s not getting an education.” She pointed a finger at Poppy. “You better stay in school.”
Pressing her lips together, Poppy nodded. She sat down at the table. Her grandmother sat across from her. Indicating the potatoes, turkey, and the rest of the Thanksgiving spread, Poppy tried to change the subject. “Everything smells great.”
“Don’t bullshit me, young lady. Your brother’s a fool and I’m not changing my mind. Your mother is still heartbroken.” Grandma Audrey crossed her arms.
As Poppy opened her mouth to respond, Jay burst into the kitchen. He’d been in the basement, working on his new song. She gave him a grateful look. Even though she loved spending time with her grandmother, her spiel about the importance of a college education was getting old. No amount of lecturing was going to eject Jay from his path. Poppy was pretty sure that her mother and grandmother resented her for helping him get there.
Jay gave her a sly look, his eyebrows wiggling. “Someone’s here to see you, Poppy.” A smile played on his lips.
Shaking her head, Poppy remained sitting. “Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that one.”
“I’m serious. Some white boy with a blond faux-hawk.” Jay crossed his arms. “Do I need to read him the riot act?”
Pushing her chair back, Poppy stood. Her knees wobbled. “No, because there’s no one here.” She stepped gingerly toward the living room, heart pounding in her chest. It couldn’t be who it sounded like. Jay had to be making it up. She froze in her tracks as she entered the living room.
Griff stood in the entryway, his hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket. He leaned over a table, studying photos of Poppy and her family.
Her mouth hung open. The Griff Whalen was in her house. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Mind whirling, she fumbled for a cool way to greet him. Instead, her lips sagged even farther apart.
He turned around, his gray-blue eyes settling on hers. “Hey,” he said. He removed his hands from his pockets and jerked a thumb toward a photo of her first day of kindergarten. “You’re so cute.”
She gaped at him. She was pretty sure her legs were going to give out from underneath her. Aside from the fact that Griff stood in her childhood home, he was also complimenting her baby pictures. Her life couldn’t be real. She wished that Krista had come home with her. Her roommate didn’t get along with her own family, and had stayed on campus. Poppy had tried inviting her along, but Krista had declined, saying that she needed the veg time.
She needed to say something, she realized. If she continued gaping at him, he might think that she had hit her head. Still, she couldn’t think of a single thing. Thank you sounded too egotistical, and it was too late to say hello. “What are you doing here?” she blurted. Smooth, Poppy, she thought.
Before he could respond, the front door swung open. He moved to the side, and her mother strode in.
Yolanda did a double take, eyes darting from Poppy to Griff. “I didn’t know we were having company.” A strange, bright smile took over her face. She held her hand out to Griff. “I’m Yolanda, Poppy’s mother. It’s so nice to meet you!” Her eyes danced.
“Oh Lord,” Poppy muttered. Her mother thought she had brought a boy home for Thanksgiving. Heat striped her cheeks. She glanced around for a place to sit down, but the couch was several paces away.
“Griff Whalen,” he said, shaking her mother’s hand. He didn’t mention the band.
Poppy breathed a sigh of relief. Let her mother think that she had a boyfriend. Grabbing Griff’s arm, she pulled him toward the door. “We’ll be right back.” She tugged Griff outside and into the bright November afternoon.
The door closed behind her, but she swore she felt her mother’s eyes on her as she led Griff down the street.
“Sorry to show up like this,” he said.
She realized that she still had his arm. Releasing him, she stumbled away. “What’s going on?”
Suddenly, she realized that, for all she knew, something awful had happened. She needed to put her band manager hat on. Whatever had happened, she could handle it. At least, she hoped so. She hadn’t planned on working at all during the long weekend at home.
“Everything is okay,” Griff said as they rounded a corner.
Poppy halted at the stop sign. She shook her head, jerking a thumb toward the sloping hill that dipped down from her street. “Not down the hill. It’s kinda sketchy down that end.” She led him deeper into the neighborhood, toward the nicer side. “So Max didn’t relapse or anything?” She clapped a hand over her mouth. Again with the word-vomit, she scolded herself.
Chuckling, Griff shook his head. “Nope. I have good news, actually. I wanted to tell you in person, so I could see your face.” He stopped, a grin breaking across his face.
Blushing, she wrapped her arms around herself. Though the sun was still out, the evening was growing cool. “Tell me what?” His words replayed alongside her pulse, the perfect beat. She wondered whether he actually meant what he said, or if he was just there because Jett had sent him. She bit down on her lower lip. No, that didn’t make any sense. Though South of Forever was Jett’s baby, Griff handled all things administrative. Whatever he was about to tell her was either really bad or really big and, since they’d already ruled out catastrophe, she had a feeling her world was about to change. Perhaps things were going to change in more ways than one, she realized as her eyes settled on his.
“So, I’m just gonna say it.” He bounced on the balls of his feet, the grin still on his lips. “King Riley—they’re another big band in Boston, with a sound similar to ours—is going on tour.” Eyes dancing, he took a step toward her and grabbed her hands. “I know this is usually your area, but they contacted me and I already said yes.”
“Yes to what?” Her eyes darted from his hands to his face. His skin was warm, and she shivered, delicious heat flooding her body at his touch. There was definitely something at work, pulling them together. Part of her wanted to yank her hands away, though. She had to be very careful.
Tipping his head back, he laughed—a content sound that thrilled her to her toes. He dipped his chin, gazing at her.
“King Riley invited us to open for them on their national tour.”
South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.
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