"You're the photographer, huh?" he rumbled, his voice as deep as Barry White's. "Didn't expect you to be..." he paused meaningfully, "...young."
I grinned at him. "A lot of people find that startling," I said, letting what was unspoken hang in the air.
He nodded briskly in understanding and I knew all at once that I had made an important ally in Tanner's bodyguard. I drew myself up to my full height, which even in heels got me only as high as his armpit. "Monique Williams," I smiled, craning my neck to look him in the eye.
"Leo Willams, USMC retired."
"Nice to meet you, Leo."
"You as well, Miss Williams, and may I just say, you're a sight for sore eyes?"
I flashed him a megawatt smile and he clutched his heart in mock relief. "It's a real sausage factory around here, if you don't mind my saying so."
"I've heard way worse, Leo."
"And you're gonna. These boys? They're a handful."
I flashed to Tanner's lips and hoped the sallow airport lighting would hide my blush. "So I hear," I demurred.
"Now, don't get me wrong now," Leo hedged, holding up palms as big as dinner plates. "Mr. Brock is the best boss I've ever had. As far as celebrities go, he's a different breed." He smiled, showing blazing white teeth. "Can't say I care for his music though. I'm more of a jazz fan."
I laughed. "You sound like my Daddy," I said.
"Gee thanks," Leo grumbled, reaching down to grab my suitcases. "She says I sound like her daddy..." he said to himself, shaking his head as he lifted all three of my heavy suitcases as easily as if they were packed with powder puffs. "Showing up here, all of twelve years old, big shot photographer..."
"You sound like my Daddy again," I called to him. "Talkin' to yourself so I can hear you."
Leo chuckled and opened the van door for me. "I'm gonna be taking you right to the venue. The boys are all set up for a secret show to kick off the tour."
We chatted amiably on the ride from the airport, but the closer we got to the center of town, the more my heart jackhammered in my chest.
When I told Tanner it wouldn't work, it was because I thought there would be no way I would ever see him again.
And here I was, about to see him again.
Only problem was, so were about five hundred other people in what Leo was calling an "intimate gathering."
I couldn't pin down how that made me feel, so I tried to talk myself out of my feelings. This is strictly business; I'm going to be working this whole time. I informed myself. But the tingling excitement would not let go.
But the time Leo pulled up to the venue, I had worked myself up in to a sweaty dither. My head was bobbing around on my neck, trying to look everywhere at once.
"Lemme introduce you to the boys," Leo told me as he led us across the dusty parking lot to a huge tour bus behind the building.
As I stepped on to the bus, I pulled my camera from my back and clutched it close. If I was behind the lens, I was working and if I was working then I could have a prayer of keeping my cool.
Four white guys were lounging in the bus, as normal as anything. No reason for me to be as jumpy as a scalded cat. But no sign of Tanner and that meant that he was all I could think of. I missed the introductions entirely, laughed when it seemed appropriate and all the while my mind and body screamed out in unison. Tanner, Tanner, where the fuck is Tanner?
We tromped into the VIP section of the venue, a converted barn by the looks of it. When we were all seated, I leaned over to the longhaired guy on my right and finally gave voice to my obsession.
"Is Tanner coming?" I asked anxiously. I felt like I was ready to jump out of my skin.
"Yeah, he'll be here." The guitarist shot me a knowing grin and I flushed figuring he must hear women asking the same question all of the time. I wanted to protest, that I was different, that I wasn't just another girl who wanted to get at what Tanner Brock had in his pants, but before I could, the chatter in the place died down at once.
Electricity crackled in the air, and my own hair stood up from excitement...or fear...I wasn't exactly sure. It was like everyone in the club was as one, one single organism holding its breath in anticipation.
A long shadow moved across the stage. A tall, broad shouldered man striding across, his guitar slung over his back, nothing more....
That was all it took to make the room explode.
I exploded too. I couldn't help it. I whooped and hollered and shouted his name as he gripped the mic and stared out into the crowd. The longer he was silent, the louder we cheered and when the cameras zoomed to project the dimpled smile on his face onto the big screen, the screams grew higher in pitch. A pair of panties flew through the air.
"Tanner! Tanner!" I screamed his name, but was drowned out as the rest of the crowd took up my chant. "TAN-NER! TAN-NER! TAN-NER!" they screamed, drowning out my own calls.
"Hey everybody," he finally drawled. "Thanks for coming out tonight." He looked happy, and for some reason, that made me incredibly happy to see. Seeing him this way after the lonely intimacy of the ranch was like having a wonderful secret. He belonged to everyone else right now, but those moments at the ranch belonged only to me.
That is, before I told him no.
I clutched my camera and began to fire off shot after shot, losing myself in my work as Tanner sang his heart out. I got shots of his face, the way his body curved around his guitar like a lover, the reactions of the rapt audience and almost religious awe in the room.
Tanner Brock held us all in the palm of his hand, squeezing every drop of emotion out of us with only the power of his voice and guitar. After a long while, I found that I had lowered my camera and was just watching him.
The song was a crowd favorite. Everyone sang in one voice and when he ended it with a ringing chord, the house lights came on and we all cheered.
And Tanner Brock turned right to me.
We had gone over the lighting cues in rehearsal, but I never expected it to be so perfect. The crowd knew every word of "Everwild." Hearing your words sung back to you...that never fails to lift me up. I looked out on the fans, finally able to see every individual face with the house lights up, and felt a moment of such rapture that I could have taken wing right there. And right in that moment....
I saw Monique.
It wasn't a surprise. I knew she'd be in the audience tonight. But seeing her face so clearly was a jolt I hadn't expected. She looked at me and I looked at her, and all the electricity that had been crackling between us before suddenly unleashed like a thunderstorm overhead.
"Thank you and goodnight!" I croaked into the mic. "Come backstage," I begged her with my eyes and bolted for the wings.
Carter and Blake were already there, clapping me on the back. "Fuck, I think you just put us out of a job, didn't you?" Carter growled.
"If you're wanting to start a solo career, just say the word and I'll get the fuck out," Blake laughed. "You can just mail me monthly checks to make sure I keep my mouth shut..."
"Hey, shut up a sec," I barked. "That girl sitting with you, where is she?"
"The photographer?" Carter asked, with a meaningfully raised eyebrow. "The one you made us all agree to take on without mentioning the fact that she's smoking hot?"
"Yeah, her," I snarled.
"Mo went to the bus, I think," Blake piped up. I bristled to hear him calling her a nickname already. "Said something about grabbing her flash?"
Smart girl. I bolted for the door. "All right boys, guess we're drinkin' in here for a spell," Carter guffawed.
Whenever I'm onstage, I lose track of time. Twenty minutes might have gone by, or a whole week. I lose myself in the music and when I emerge into the real world again, it's with the jarring confusion of a man waking from a coma. Or a dream.
But if seeing Monique Williams outside of my tour bus, biting her beautiful plump lips nervously, was a dream, then fuck me if I ever wan
ted to wake up.
I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her coming. I wanted to tell her how much I wanted to set things right between us. I wanted to tell her how beautiful her dark skin looked in the Virginia twilight. I wanted to write her poetry, set it to music and play her a love ballad right the fuck now.
But, like an ass, I said the first thing that came to my mind. "You're here."