Poppy ducked her head into the hall and glanced down the staircase. Soft snores drifted up through the living room. Her shoulders lowered in relief. Both her mother and grandmother were in food comas. She could hear the slow drone of the TV in the background, punctuated by the women’s exhales. She couldn’t have planned it better herself.
She tiptoed back into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Plopping down on her childhood bed, she looked at her phone. All she had to do was tap Griff’s name, and she could tell him that she was in.
Her nerves sizzled. Biting her lip, she slapped the slim phone against the palm of her hand. She’d never called Griff for anything—he reached out to her, or she discussed business with him at practices. Sweat slicked her fingers, and she nearly dropped the phone.
She took a deep breath in through her nose. There wasn’t a shy bone in her body. There was no reason for her to be nervous. She straightened her shoulders and scrolled through her contacts.
Griff answered immediately, as if he had been waiting for her. “Hey,” he said. His voice was a cool purr against her ear, and she smiled. A tingle ran through her body, her limbs going soft. Her brain felt as if it were being stroked, fuzzy static buzzing through her head.
“Hey.” She pressed her lips together as she tried to think of something else to say.
“Hey,” he said again.
A laugh escaped her lips. They sounded like two kids in high school.
“You’re laughing at me?” His voice was playfully defensive.
Crossing her legs, she glanced out the window. Streaks of pink and orange trailed across the sky. She wished suddenly that she had invited him to stay for dinner. They could be sitting on the porch enjoying the sunset together. She pushed the thought away. She needed to focus on work. She was supposed to be a cool, composed professional—not some starry-eyed teenager. Though she supported herself, to him she was just a kid—especially if he ever found out the truth about her age. They could never be together.
“I laugh when I’m nervous,” she blurted. She dipped her chin, fingers massaging her temples.
“Do I make you nervous?” His tone was light and teasing.
He made it so hard to focus. Scooting back on the bed, she leaned into the pillows piled against the wall. She stared down at the nail polish on her toes and willed herself to be as cool as the grayish blue color she had painted them. Instead, she couldn’t help but think how similar the color was to Griff’s eyes. She cleared her throat. “So, this touring business. Can I still get in?”
He hesitated, as if surprised by her question. “Of course,” he said, sounding slightly disappointed.
“Good,” she said. “Where do we start?”
“Poppy,” he said, his voice dropping.
Her heart did a somersault. Her resolve to focus on work withered, and she leaned forward. “Yeah?”
For a long moment, he said nothing. Her eyebrows furrowed. Heart slamming in her chest, she swallowed hard. She gripped the phone tighter, pressing it to her ear. The seconds stretched by. Her imagination ran wild. She saw him sitting in the apartment he shared with Perry. He ran a hand through his hair, bleached to a lighter blond. Her fingers tingled with the urge to run them through that hair, even if only in her fantasy. He took a deep breath. It was almost a sigh. “So, I have a list for you,” he said finally.
Disappointment coursed through her. Composing herself, she leaned farther back into the pillows. She wished they would swallow her. The silly teenage part of her needed to let go of the idea that maybe he liked her. He was professional in almost all of their interactions. In some ways, he was her boss. She needed to focus on being Poppy the band manager, not Poppy the lovestruck college student. She glanced around the room for a pen and piece of paper. Her old desk still sat in a corner.
Kicking off her wedges, she padded over to it. She opened drawers until she found an old notebook and a blue gel pen. Grimacing, she uncapped it with her teeth and poised it over the paper. “I’m ready.”
“Don’t hate me,” he said. “A lot of this is coming from Jett. If you can’t do it all, let me know and I’ll see what I can take care of. It’s not like I have anything better to do.” She heard the smile in his voice. “She wants us to spend these next few days rehearsing but, Poppy, I really think we’re good. So if you need me, just let me know.”
Again, her fantasy wrestled with reality. There seemed to be so much more in his words. She couldn’t possibly be imagining all of it—unless she was totally delusional. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. “I can handle it.” At least, she hoped so.
“I’m going to email you the tour schedule,” he said, jumping right back into business. “I need you to do whatever you can to get some publicity rolling. This is a super last minute announcement, and I’m not even sure we have fans outside of Boston. That’s being generous,” he added.
“Stop,” she told him. “We’ve got plenty of regulars coming to our shows.” It felt natural, referring to the band and herself as a collective soul. “And I’m positive that a lot of Perpetual Smile fans have followed you and Jett over.” She smiled. “The blogs and social media are still buzzing about Max, but they do mention Perpetual Smile now and then.”
He considered her words for a moment, comfortable silence lapsing between them. “Yeah,” he agreed. He took a deep breath. “This next thing is big. Are you sitting down?”
A line creased Poppy’s forehead. “What is it?”
“Can you get us a tour bus?”
She blinked. “King Riley’s label isn’t providing that?”
“Not for us. We’re just the support. We’re responsible for our own travel and lodging.”
“Lodging?” she repeated.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “As long as we get a big enough tour bus, everyone will be comfortable.”
Squinting, she tapped her chin. “So we won’t be staying in hotels?”
He chuckled, a gentle sound. “Not this time.” He sighed. “If we were Perpetual Smile status, this would be so easy.”
Shaking her hair from her face, Poppy forced a bright smile. Even though he couldn’t see her, he could still detect her attitude. And, as Grandma Audrey always said, her altitude was defined by it. “Don’t worry,” she told Griff. “I’ll take care of it all. What’s our budget?”
He made a sound halfway between a laugh and a cough. “Right. So, keep in mind that we’re going to need to overnight some merchandise, and since it’s a holiday weekend, we don’t have much to work with.”
“How much is not much?” She had coordinated all of Jay’s touring expenses before he got picked up by L.A.B. Even on their tiny budget, she had made things happen for him. South of Forever had even more money, due to their EP sales. It would be easy to get a tour bus.
“I can give you five.” He sounded uncomfortable.
“$500,000, or five bucks?” She kept her tone light and teasing, but dread pitted in her stomach.
“Thousand,” he responded.
“What?” She laughed. “That might not even be enough for a down payment on a tour bus. Those things are as expensive as houses—more, sometimes.” It had been a couple of years since she and Jay had looked into one, huddled in his slightly finished bedroom in the basement, the laptop they shared flickering as its battery died.
“I know,” Griff said. “Just do your best.”
She wanted to laugh. He was asking her to do the impossible. Even if she had more time, she didn’t have the line of credit needed to put down such a low deposit. She knew that without even calling around.
“I’ve got to go,” Griff said suddenly. “Jett says break’s over.”
Rolling her eyes, Poppy put down the notebook and pen. In some ways, Griff seemed almost married to Jett. She wondered how Koty felt about them spending so much time together. It couldn’t be easy. She wasn’t even with Griff, and she was jealous. “Aye-aye, Captain,” she told him. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” His words held promise.
She licked her lips. Her heart fluttered in her ribcage. “Of course,” she told him, and hung up. She stood in the middle of her old bedroom, wondering how in the world she was going to get a tour bus in just one day, for such little money.
* * *
“What about that one?” Jay pointed to the screen of her iPad.
Poppy tapped the image. The product page loaded, showing a larger photo of the bus. It slept twelve and had a working shower. “We can even cook in it,” she said to her brother, pointing at a photo of a gas stove. The description said that it was used, which had to mean that it was a lot cheaper than the $500,000 tour buses they kept running across. She moved the page down until she found the price. Wincing, she sucked in her cheeks.
Jay whistled. “And that’s the cheapest one we’ve seen.”
She did the math in her head. South of Forever couldn’t afford a $300,000 tour bus. Even if she could somehow talk the seller into accepting a $5,000 down payment, there was no way they would be able to afford the monthly payments—and that was assuming that nothing happened to it. On the road, anything could happen.
“Too bad we can’t just rent one.” She sighed and pushed the iPad from her lap. It slid onto the futon that occupied what had once been Jay’s room.
Though her mother still mostly used the basement for storage, her brother used his old bedroom to crash occasionally, and to record demos. She glanced at the microphone on the stand and the mixing board in a corner. The small room wasn’t as soundproof as the studios that South of Forever used, and it probably wasn’t as fancy as the studios that L.A.B. provided, but Jay had a soft spot for it. It was where he had recorded his first EP, and was part of his journey as an artist.
“They don’t rent them?” he asked.
“For a disgusting amount of money, and there aren’t any payment plans.” She slid down from the futon onto the floor, carpeted by a large area rug. Resting her head against the cushion of the futon, Poppy sighed. “I’m screwed.”
Nodding toward the old digital alarm clock that still sat on a nightstand, Jay held out his hands to her. “Come on, little sis. It’s almost two in the morning. Maybe you’ll have some ideas after some sleep and coffee.”
She snorted, but took his hands and allowed him to haul her to her feet. “If I come up with a solution that fast,” she said, throwing her arms around him, “it’ll be a miracle. Goodnight.” Planting a kiss on his cheek, she turned away. She padded out of the room and up the stairs, avoiding the creaky spots so that she didn’t wake her mother or grandmother. She reached the main floor and closed the door behind her softly.
* * *
In the morning, a steaming cup of coffee in front of her on the kitchen table, she started making phone calls. Jay was right. There had to be someone that would give her a good deal on short notice. She Googled “tour buses” again and went down the list, calling dealers from all over Boston and surrounding towns. None of them would take less than $10,000 as a down payment, though one dealer did offer her a four-sleeper tour bus for $8,000 down. She wished she could use part of her student loan toward it, but she had already spent part of it on an iPad and most of the rest on tuition and textbooks.
She put her head down on the table and sighed, the sound of her voice echoing in the empty kitchen. Her mother was at work and Grandma Audrey had gone grocery shopping. Jay snored in the basement. He had always been the type to sleep in.
She was out of options. She closed her eyes, her warm breath bouncing off the wood of the table and hitting her in the face. It smelled like coffee. She stood and went to the counter, refilling her mug from the carafe.
The basement door creaked open and Jay stumbled into the kitchen. “Good morning,” he said, reaching for a mug.
“Bad morning.” She moved out of his way so that he could make his own coffee. Returning to the table, she sat down, heaving into her seat.
“No luck?” He went to the refrigerator for cream.
“We’re out.” She lifted her mug of black coffee in a salute. “Join me on the dark side.”
Grimacing, he sat at the table with her. He took a small sip of his black coffee, the scowl on his face deepening. “Bad morning,” he agreed.
“All of these dealerships want too much money,” she complained.
“Maybe you’re looking for the wrong vehicle.” Jay ran a hand over his hair, patting his springy curls back into place.
“What do you mean?” She tapped her iPad. “It’s not like we can all pile into a Honda and hit the road.”
“Maybe not a Civic, but what about a van?”
She opened her mouth to tell him that was a ridiculous idea.
“Remember Grandpa’s stories of how he followed blues bands around in the sixties and seventies?” Jay lifted an eyebrow at her. “They traveled in those . . . What were they called?”
“Conversion vans.” She tapped her lips. “You might have something there.” Waking up the iPad, she went back to Google and searched. Her eyebrows knit together. She leaned forward. As she scrolled through the results, her hands shook—whether from nerves or low blood sugar, she couldn’t tell for sure. Swiping through the vans on one website, she stopped at a used one. “This one’s in our price range.” Her eyes scanned the listing. “But there’s nowhere to sleep.”
Jay scooted closer to her. He studied the page. Pointing at the four rows of bench seats, he said, “There’s your beds, and you can fit two more people up front. You’d have to take turns sleeping.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Sleep on those? Are you crazy?!” She thought of her bed in her dorm room, piled with memory foam toppers and pillows. She wouldn’t be able to sleep on the hard bench seats, with seat belts poking up at her. No one would.
“It’s in your price range.” Jay held his hands up. “I’m just suggesting it.”
Tilting her head back, Poppy glared at the ceiling in frustration.
“At least call them and talk to them. Who knows? You might even be able to get it for less.” He brought his still hot mug of coffee to the sink. “You could even get air mattresses and sleep on those, on top of the bench seats.”
“Don’t pour that out,” she said, holding her hands out for his mug. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to need all of the caffeine I can get.”
Jay passed her his mug. He ambled toward the stairs. “I’m taking a shower,” he mumbled.
She wondered how much later he had stayed up. L.A.B. was putting a lot of pressure on him to complete and release a full-length album right away. In some ways, she wished that he had never signed the deal with them. For the next five years, he would be almost completely out of her reach. She longed for the days when it had just been the two of them, drinking coffee to stay up late and strategize his next move.
Those days were over, though, and she had her own problems. Her insides felt coiled, a rope tightening around her neck. If she couldn’t get a vehicle for South of Forever to tour in, then she was finished. She wouldn’t be going anywhere but back to campus. Anxiety roiled in her stomach. Maybe she wasn’t ready. Maybe she needed to call Griff and call the whole thing off.
On such short notice, though, they could never go on tour without her. They needed her. “No pressure,” she told herself in the empty kitchen.
Waking up her iPad, she scrolled through the search results until she came to a dealer that was close by. It was about thirty minutes away from her neighborhood with traffic.
If she ever told her family that she chose Northeastern University because she knew she could easily find a job managing a band in the city, they wouldn’t know what to make of her.
She dialed the number slowly, fingers shaking. If the dealership didn’t have the van anymore or, even worse, they wanted more than $5,000 for a down payment, she was done.
“Ace Pre-Loved Auto,” a crisp male voice answered.
“Hi,” she said slowly, immediately wincing at her uncertain tone. “I’m interested in the conversion van that’s on your website.” She gave him the ID number.
“Just a sec.” He tapped the number into a keyboard.
“Is it still available?” She leaned forward and held her breath.
“I believe so,” the man told her. “I’d have to visually confirm, but the system says it’s still on the lot.”
“Great.” She stood from the table. “Hold it for me.”
The man laughed. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary. It’s from the seventies.”
Blinking, she tilted her head. “What kind of a salesman are you?”
“I’m not,” he said, dropping his voice. “This is my uncle’s dealership. Since I took this semester off, he’s got me manning the phones for him.”
“Well, hold it for me anyway.” She hung up. Dropping her phone onto the table, she raced up the stairs. Her feet pounded up the steps. Skidding to a stop in front of the bathroom door, she pushed it open. “Jay, we’ve got a van!”
Her brother shot her a cool look. He wore a towel around his waist and held a razor in one hand, his face covered in shaving cream. “You do know this is awkward, right?”
“Well,” she said, tapping her chin, “I don’t have it yet. I need a ride to the dealership.” She gave him her best little sister smile. “Please? I’ll give you gas money.”
Shaking his head, he put the razor down. “Out, Poppy.” He shooed her out of the bathroom.
She backed up until her feet touched the carpet of the hall. “Is that a yes?”
Jay rolled his eyes. “Just give me a few minutes.” He closed the door.
“Yes!” Pumping both fists in the air, Poppy bent down and sprang back up. Her hair bounced with her. “You’re the best!” She darted into her room to get ready. As she yanked clothing out of her closet, though, she hesitated. Even though Jett and the guys were pretty laid back, there was a chance that they wouldn’t like the van. She didn’t even know if it would fit all of their equipment.
She bit down on her lip. “You can’t start down that path, girl.” She forced a smile onto her face. Even if she had to fake it until she made it, there was no way she was letting the doubts creep in. She dressed quickly, choosing a bright pair of floral patterned pants and a bright top to match. Cupping her curls, she flashed a smile at herself in the mirror. “You look good. You’ve got this!” Still, as she said the words, doubt crept back into her conscious. She frowned.
The second Jay opened the bathroom door, Poppy sprang back into the hall. Anxiety thrummed through her system.
Jay raised his eyebrows at her. “You gonna make it, little sis?”
She started to tell him that of course she was, but bit her lip. She had never been able to lie to her brother. Swallowing hard, she led him down the stairs. “I’m just nervous,” she said as she reached the landing. She turned and forced herself to meet his eyes.
“What are you nervous about?” His tone was gentle, but he crossed his arms.
She could tell he was confused. She normally didn’t let anything get to her. “Well,” she said slowly, “if I don’t get this right, then they won’t let me come on tour with them.”
Jay nodded. He motioned for her to go outside to the car. “You can’t let yourself get caught up in that black and white mentality,” he said from behind her as they filed out. “It’s not all or nothing, here.”
“But it is,” she said, turning around. She forced her hands to stay at her sides. Tightness locked her shoulders, though. “They think I’m a professional.”
He snorted. “You are a professional, Poppy.” He slid into the driver’s seat.
Poppy got in on the passenger’s side and buckled up. “Not really,” she mumbled. “I’m just pretending.”
Backing out of the driveway, Jay slanted her a look. “You got me to where I am. How does that not make you credible?”
“Maybe it was luck.” She sighed. Before they got to the dealership, she needed to pull herself together. She had to think positively. Going in with a negative attitude would only get her a bad deal, and she needed the dealership to work with her. The more confident she felt, the more likely they would accept her small deposit.
They rode in silence, the cool whisper of air from the open windows caressing Poppy’s skin. Winter was fast approaching, but she couldn’t blame Jay for wanting the fresh air. She missed the simplicity of summer. It felt like ages had passed, when really only months had slipped away. She was no longer the confident seventeen-year-old girl fresh out of high school who lied about her age so easily and made South of Forever think that she was experienced. Somehow, in the short time that had passed since Griff told her about the tour, she had lost her edge.
The pressure was on.
She thought of the way Griff’s gray-blue eyes went far away to a bright future when he talked about the band, all of his hopes and dreams reflected in them. His confidence was sexy and infectious. If she could hold onto that, wearing his personality like she wore her clothes, she could handle a little tour.
Jay pulled into the dealership. Balloons bordered the driveway and sidewalk, a friendly cordon. Fresh, bright blue paint brought the building into bright focus. Most of the vehicles available were conversion vans. Poppy wondered how many people still used them. She couldn’t recall ever seeing any on the road. Then again, she rarely drove, and was usually oblivious to other vehicles.
“Want me to come in with you?” Jay navigated the car into a parking spot.
She wanted to tell him yes. Having her brother at her side would definitely alleviate some of her anxiety. It wouldn’t look professional, though, she decided. She needed to convince the salesman that she was all business. In order for that to happen, she had to stand on her own. She swallowed hard. “Keep the car running, in case I embarrass myself and we need to make a fast getaway.” The smile she gave her brother was wooden.
He squeezed her hand. “You’ve got this.”
Poppy stepped out of the car. The autumn air swirled around her bare toes. Sooner or later, she was going to have to trade her wedges for boots. She shuddered at the thought of keeping her feet trapped all winter. Cold weather was coming, though, and she was going to have to dig out her winter gear soon.
She marched toward the building, squaring her shoulders. She forced herself to keep her chin up. As she pulled open the door, she put a confident smile on her face. She made herself walk up to the only salesman she saw without faltering. “I’m here about a conversion van.” She recited the number for him, her words crashing together.
The salesman’s lips tugged into a smile. “You must be the one my nephew spoke to.” He ran a hand through salt and pepper hair. “It’s still on the lot.” He waved for her to follow. “Come on. I’ll show it to you.”
She hurried to keep up with his long strides, almost tripping in her wedges. She bit her lip, forcing herself to walk with more grace. She’d never been a clumsy person, and she couldn’t afford to start, ever.
The salesman led her back outside, holding the door for her. He bent his head against a gust of wind. Poppy frowned, shivering in her blouse. “They’re calling for snow,” he called over his shoulder. He led her around the building. The vehicles got older and older as they walked deeper into the lot.
The temperature had dropped in the few minutes since she had stepped out of her brother’s car. In Massachusetts, the weather was temperamental, changing attitude as quickly as the people who lived there. Poppy hoped that the weatherman, as her grandmother always said, was wrong.
The salesman stopped in front of a white conversion van. Pulling a key from his pocket, he unlocked the door, exposing four rows of bench seats.
Poppy peered inside. She squinted into the darkness, the gloomy light from the threatening sky seeping in. Even with the seats, there was plenty of room in the back for South of Forever’s equipment.
“The seats fold down,” the salesman explained, “so depending on what you’re hauling, you should have plenty of room.”
Straightening her shoulders, Poppy pulled a business card from her back pocket. “I’m the manager of a band.”
The older man took the card, glancing at it. He slipped it into his pocket, and produced his own card. “Tony Vaccarelli,” he said, offering his hand.
She shook it. His grip was firm but gentle. “Is the online price still good?” she asked.
Tony gave her a nod. “I’m a man of my word.”
“And you’ll take a $5,000 down payment?” She flashed him her best smile.
He scratched at his hairline. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word, “it’ll depend on your credit report.”
Poppy’s shoulders slumped. “How long does that take?”
“Depends on whether our system wants to cooperate. Sometimes we get it back right away. Other times, it could take a few days.” He spread his hands. “We’re a small business.”
Her mind raced. She needed that van, right away. “What if I tell you that I have $5,000 on my debit card?” She would have to check to make sure that Griff had transferred the money, but he was usually good about sending her funds for the band quickly. Getting Jett to pay her just as fast was another story, sometimes.
“Well,” Tony said again. He tapped his chin. “If the transaction goes through, I don’t see why not.” He lifted a finger, his eyebrows furrowing. His voice grew stern. “But you’ll have to make your payments on time. I charge twenty-five percent interest.”
Her eyes widened. She swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“Well then,” he said, “let’s go back on inside. It’s getting cold out here.”
By the time they finished the formalities, the sky was dark. Poppy bounced the keys in her hand as she walked toward the van. Griff would have to arrange monthly payments but, for the time being, the van was theirs.
Jay pulled up alongside the van. He rolled down a window and nodded to her. “Do you want me to drive it?”
Shaking her curls, she put the key in the lock to the driver’s side. “I’m going to have to drive this thing on the road. I might as well get used to it.”
The ride home was smooth, and ended all too quickly. Poppy eased the van to a stop in front of her mother’s house, swatting at one of the hundreds of air fresheners swinging from the handle above the van’s door. The van had to be the site of many parties back in its heyday.
She packed quickly. She hadn’t brought much with her from her dorm. After saying her goodbyes, she rolled her suitcase out to the van. As she loaded it into the back, the first snowflake landed on her nose.
She scrunched her face up at the sky. Though she had her driver’s license, she hadn’t driven since before leaving for college. Jay had made sure that she passed her test, but she definitely hadn’t driven in the snow. She swallowed hard. Of course it had to snow on her first solo drive.
Taking a deep breath, she hopped up into the driver’s seat. She found the switches for the van’s defroster and four-way flashers. Hoping that the tires were as good as Tony told her while they filled out her paperwork, she eased forward.
The van glided over the slick pavement, but never faltered. She kept a tight grip on the steering wheel until she reached Jett and Koty’s condo, though, and her shoulders didn’t relax until she shut off the engine.
Her heartbeat thudded in time to the ticking. “Okay, girl,” she told herself. “It’s show time.”
Griff’s car was parked next to Jett and Koty’s. She wondered if the entire band was inside. She closed her eyes for a moment, then steeled herself.
Poppy opened the door and scooted out. Cold snow enveloped her toes, and she swore, cursing herself for forgetting her boots at home in her excitement. She slipped and slid all the way up the front walk. Before she could ring the doorbell, the door opened.
Jett’s eyes met hers, then slid past her to the van.
“What the hell is that?”
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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