If you’d asked me two hours ago what I thought about pop star Ryan De Luna, I would have told you that he was an overproduced, talentless, washed-out has-been.
But as I stood here in the crowd of screaming, giddy, exuberant (mostly female) fans, I could admit that I might have been just a little bit wrong.
Especially since the last time I’d seen him in concert had been seven years ago, when I was fourteen. He’d been seventeen at the time, with shaggy bangs, wearing an oversize basketball jersey, and he had lip-synched the entire thing.
The boy I’d swooned over couldn’t begin to compare to the well-groomed man I watched now. He sang live. No more mouthing the words, no Auto-Tune. He wore modified suits and stylish clothes he could move in. He danced less than he had before, mostly because dancing full-out and singing at the same time was pretty much impossible.
And I should know, being the lead singer of my band. I do not dance while I sing.
Even though I had been to approximately a million live concerts, thanks to my love of music, I could honestly say I’d never seen any performer who was so magnetic or so charismatic. Ryan De Luna had the entire crowd mesmerized. Totally in his thrall. He could have ordered them to go out and invade a small country, and I was pretty sure the sobbing, screaming, fainting women around me would have done it.
Heck, at this point I probably would have even joined in.
I was not exaggerating the fainting part, either. It seemed to be worse the closer they stood to the stage. One smile, one hip shake, one high note from Ryan De Luna and they dropped like flies. So far they’d taken thirteen women over to the ambulances to be checked out.
It probably didn’t help matters that he was ridiculously gorgeous. I knew his mom had been Latina, and I’d read something about his dad being Irish. Ryan melded both heritages together perfectly—he had lightly bronzed skin, dark-brown hair, and bright-hazel eyes.
Hazel eyes that appeared to have winked at me. Even though logically I knew that wasn’t possible, my traitorous heart still fluttered and raced in response.
I tried to put that image of him at seventeen back in my head to erase what I was currently witnessing, but my brain refused. I even had to admit that my musical tastes changing from pop to rock music had tainted and altered my memories of him and his songs.
Because there was still one song of his that I really loved. The one I had listened to on repeat over and over again: “One More Night.” I liked it so much that recently I had done an acoustic cover of it on my band’s YouTube channel.
Not that I would ever admit how much I still loved that song. My second-oldest brother, Parker, would probably die laughing if I told him. Or he would after he got rabidly outraged about the general lack of music and soul in today’s Top 40.
The backup dancers kicked it into high gear behind Ryan as his band and the DJ coordinated to play a live club mix of the song. Every woman in the audience broke into absolute hysterics as the first strains filled the arena. Strobe lights flashed around him and the dancers as they moved together. I knew so many guys who had the rhythm of a sea slug. But Ryan De Luna could dance, and it was hypnotically sexy.
Controlled fire burst from the corners of the stage as the massive screen behind him showed the original video for the song. I couldn’t imagine my band, consisting of me and my brothers, Fitz, Parker, and Cole, ever having a show like this. We could barely manage to book gigs at local clubs. Ryan De Luna was one of the few artists in the world who could sell out entire stadiums.
“Maisy! Maisy! Let’s head backstage now!” My best friend, Angie, had to yell this in my right ear, and even then I could barely make it out.
Embarrassingly enough, part of me wanted to stay and watch him sing this song. Another part of me wanted to tell Angie no, to suggest that we head for her car and get out of there before the parking lot and roads got too congested. But I knew I couldn’t. It meant too much to her to meet Ryan De Luna, and I really owed her.
I was probably the only woman in the whole stadium who didn’t care about the All-Access pass Angie had given me. In fact, I was pretty sure I could have staged my own Hunger Games by tossing it into the group closest to the stage.
But not wanting to be personally responsible for starting a riot, I refrained.
Instead, I nodded, and we shuffled through the sweaty, tearful mass of hormones that screamed out all the things they wanted to do to Ryan. Which involved marriage proposals and various other unspeakable acts.
When we cleared the crowd, Angie yelled, “This way!” and then pointed at the same time in case I didn’t hear her.
I snuck one final glance at a grinning, disgustingly hot Ryan. So freaking pretty. I allowed myself that look because it would be the last time I’d see him in person, no matter what Angie hoped.
A burly, scowling security guard with a headset stared us down as we approached him, but one flash of our badges and we were in. Girls without passes would probably have to flash other things to get past. “Down the hall. Take the first left,” he directed us, and we proceeded inside.
I’d been backstage at concerts multiple times. Once even at a Rolling Stones concert, thanks to the A&R rep my oldest brother, Fitz, was dating at the time. I had tried to prepare Angie for the reality of what was about to happen. Ryan De Luna wasn’t doing any meet and greets, which essentially involved fans paying a small fortune, waiting in line for hours to stand next to him and have their pictures taken, and then being ushered out the door to make way for the next person. Pathetic as it was, at least then Angie would have stood a chance of saying hi.
Instead, given past experience, I knew we would be shoved into a room with crappy food and radio-contest winners and various music-industry professionals—like label execs with their tween daughters, bloggers, and journalists. Maybe the opening act would show up, maybe a PR person or his manager, but there was zero chance of Ryan De Luna stopping by.
No matter how I tried to warn her, Angie wouldn’t listen. She just kept telling me to trust her.
Before the concert I’d wondered aloud if her goal was to hook up with Ryan or something. After a twinge of sadness in her eyes that made me feel extremely guilty for joking that way, she said, “I’m old enough that I don’t think Ryan De Luna wants to get with me and my mom body. And even if he did because he was either drunk or off his medication, my answer would be no.”
We definitely had that in common. If propositioned by any musician, my answer would also be an emphatic no, but for very different reasons. Although Angie’s definition of “mom body” was probably off, given that she looked amazing and was only twenty-six years old.
“You, on the other hand,” she continued, “are free to say, ‘Ooh yes, baby, one . . . more . . . night!’”
We walked down a massive concrete hallway lit with buzzing, fluorescent bulbs, and I felt the temperature drop. We were underneath the stadium bleachers, but despite all the potential interference (including my currently partial deafness from all the loudness), I could hear Ryan winding down his show. He thanked his band, the dancers, and the crew and then told the women of Los Angeles how much he loved them.
Considering he’d dated roughly half of them, it was probably an accurate statement.
Manwhore, thy name is Ryan De Luna.
The audience chanted Ryan’s name repeatedly, trying to get him to do an encore while we took a left at the end of the hallway. Just as I’d predicted, there was a roped-off area marked “VIP.” It had a catering table set up and a bunch of people milling around, including a hysterically sobbing teenage girl whose face had gone purple. Like she’d cried and screamed so hard she’d burst blood vessels.
“I told you!” Such a waste of time.
“And I told you. That’s not where we’re going.”
Just then I heard yelling and turned to see a bunch of security guards wearing the same black polo that the guard out front had worn, telling everybody to get out of the way. Angie and I pressed up against the wall. Behind the guards, a bunch of guys were carrying guitars and then . . . Ryan De Luna.
A very sweaty Ryan De Luna. Which I should have been grossed out by but instead had some strange, lurid thoughts about.
If I’d thought he was attractive onstage, it was about a thousand times more potent up close.
Kind of like the difference between running your fingers though a candle’s open flame versus hopping on a rocket ship, going into outer space, and then being shoved onto the sun’s surface.
He used a white towel to mop up the (still not gross) sweat from his forehead and then flung his hair back. And I swear, it happened in slow motion.
A drop of his sweat landed on my hand.
I was overcome with the desire to never wash my right hand ever, ever again.
I looked up, and the impossible happened. Ryan locked eyes with me. He smiled. “Hey.”
How was I supposed to respond to a smile and “Hey”? Was there a response? It seemed like there should be a response. An easy one, even.
Before I could figure it out, he was gone, caught up in the current of the security guards pushing him along.
What had just happened to me? I was nobody’s fangirl.
Unlike the purple-faced teen in the VIP area who was currently being revived by a concerned-looking adult.
Disgusted with myself, I rubbed off what was left of his sweat.
“Tell me again about how Ryan De Luna doesn’t affect you at all?” Angie said in a singsong voice.
“The only part of me he affects is my gag reflex.”
Her dancing eyes let me know she did not believe me.
I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t believe me, either.
She grabbed my wrist. “That’s where we’re going.” It took me a second to realize she was following Ryan. She trailed behind the group like a determined little caboose. Some detached part of my brain wondered how this would end up. Which brother would be the least angry when I called and asked them to bail me out of jail? Because obviously we would be prison-bound for trespassing and physical assault after Angie, despite her protests to the contrary, cornered Ryan and flung herself at him. I didn’t know what her plan was. Would some sort of favors have to be performed to even get us close to him in the first place? If that were the case, Angie was on her own. That was not me.
Not that it was Angie, either, but she’d been a little “moonstruck” lately. Since I had been a fan for about five minutes before I got over it, I knew that Ryan’s last name meant moon in Spanish, and his fans would talk online about their obsessive love and how Ryan made them “moonstruck.” As a group they called themselves his “Luna-chicks.” One particularly stalkery branch of fans called themselves the “Luna-tics,” and they failed to see the irony of the name at all. And now I was worried my friend had gone full-on Luna-tic.
As Angie tugged at me, I kept trying to make her stop so I could look at stuff—there were some gorgeous, expensive Mesa Boogie amps sitting in the hallway—but she refused to slow down.
We rounded a corner, and I saw yet another black polo-ed security guard. He stood in front of a door marked LOCKER ROOM. This guard had shaved his hair down to a buzz cut and had wicked burn scars on the right side of his face near what was left of his earlobe. His biceps bulged so much that he had a hard time keeping his arms crossed.
This was not a man you’d want to physically restrain you while waiting for the police to arrive.
Imagine my shock when he broke out in a huge smile that softened his entire appearance. “Heya, Angie.”
Even more surprising, Angie launched herself at him, and he engulfed her in a hug, the top of her head just reaching his shoulder. “I’m so excited to see you again, Fox!”
He let her go, and she stepped back. “Thanks so much for everything—for the passes and the tickets. I can’t tell you what it means to me.”
“Anything for you. You know I’m only a phone call away.”
“And a flight away, considering you’re on tour with the biggest pop star on the planet.”
Was I imagining things, or was that a flirtatious tone in her voice? I’d never seen her do that before, and we’d been out together tons of times. Well, we went out whenever she could wrangle up a babysitter for her two-year-old. But even then, she spent all her time shooting guys down. She did not encourage them.
What I didn’t imagine was the interest in Fox’s eyes. He was definitely attracted to Angie, which he obviously should have been because she was beyond amazing.
But it didn’t seem like she knew he liked her.
“Have a good time,” he said as he opened the swinging door for us and gestured inside. “And don’t do anything that will force me to haul you guys out.”
He was teasing, but I was still worried about what Angie might do.
Because there was no greenroom or dressing room in a stadium, somebody had hung up a bunch of thick blue-gray curtains to cordon off certain areas. One of the curtains swung open, and I had a brief glimpse of brown-leather couches and a massive big-screen TV. Angie marched us straight ahead, and despite the fact that she was half my height, I had a hard time keeping up with her.
“How did you manage this?” I asked. I knew Angie was resourceful, but what she had pulled off was seriously impressive.
“Fox was in Hector’s . . .” Her voice caught, and I knew from experience she didn’t want me to comfort her. Her husband, Hector, had died in combat a little over a year ago. IED. Angie still couldn’t say his name without getting emotional. She wanted to be able to talk about him without that happening. “He was in Hector’s unit.”
That explained the burn marks on Fox’s face and why he was doing this for Angie. After Hector died, the other soldiers in his unit and their wives had basically adopted her. She became their family, and they would do anything for her.
Including unfettered access to Ryan De Luna.
Although Fox hadn’t been looking at Angie in a particularly familial way.
Here we were.
She pushed the curtain aside, and I quickly glanced around the room, noting the two guys playing a video game on the big screen and a bunch of groupies talking to each other and twirling the ends of their hair. The other women sized us up and immediately dismissed us as possible competition.
I could see why. We were not from the groupie/pop-star girlfriend mold. Like, my clothing covered my body and stuff.
Them: Outfits that, if they sat down or bent over, revealed the parts that made them female.
Me: Black, ratty jeans and a worn (but soft) black Beatles T-shirt that had once belonged to my mother. (I worried sometimes that I was too much of a clichéd “lead singer in a rock band” with my choices but then decided if I was actually cool, I wouldn’t care what anybody else thought about my clothes. I was still working on that part.)
Them: Mostly various shades of blonde, with perfect waves and hair extensions for days.
Me: Unwashed, naturally long brown hair with scarlet streaks that I’d recently added.
Them: Enough makeup to properly audition for clown college.
Me: Okay, I liked to look quasi-nice and wore some makeup, especially when I performed, as the lights tended to wash me out. But I was not giving the scary thing from Stephen King’s It a run for his money.
Basically, we were total opposites in every way possible.
But then my brain stopped working entirely.
Ryan De Luna had entered the room.
He’d been in the middle of putting on a new shirt while walking around the curtain farthest from us to join everybody. He pulled the white jersey material down over some lightly tanned abs. Despite my telling Angie not two days ago that they must have been airbrushed on for photos, I could now see that those hard bumps and ridges were very real.
No airbrushes of any kind were harmed in the forming of that deliciousness.
Then Ryan De Luna winked at me with a little smile, letting me know he understood exactly what I’d just been looking at. I forced myself to turn away from him. I would not worship him with excessive adulation.
Even if every part of me wanted to. Which was kind of a problem, given that I planned on staying abstinent until marriage. I couldn’t let myself think these kinds of things.
The air-conditioning must have been on high, as the room was extremely cold. At least that’s what I told myself to explain my shivers.
“I’m going to say hi,” Angie announced, apparently unaware of my inability to form coherent thoughts. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”
“So sure,” I finally managed. Even if my bad opinion of Ryan had slightly bettered after seeing him perform, he still represented everything I hated about the industry. Mass-produced, soulless, tuneless, synthesized dreck.
Ab ogling aside, I really wasn’t interested.
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and went over to introduce herself to Ryan. He’d better be nice to her, or else.
When she left, I wasn’t sure what to do. The surgically enhanced women wearing Band-Aid–size “clothes” flocked around him, cooing at him like presenting peacocks. They literally draped themselves all over him like overgrown leeches. Plastic peacock leeches. Pleeches.
Ryan grabbed what looked suspiciously like the Martin custom acoustic guitar made of Honduran rosewood that I’d been lusting over last month online. I could never afford it, and he had one just lying around. He took the beautiful instrument to a couch and sat down. He held it . . . weirdly. Something felt off.
Through some kind of mental code, his flock of pleeches established a pecking order about who got to sit where. They gathered around him—one on each side, a few sitting on the back of the couch behind him, and the others around his feet. Like he was the Lord Master of Music and would dispense all his worldly knowledge to them.
Poor Angie circled around the group, unable to find a way in.
If she didn’t find one soon, I was going to help by shooing them away. Or pulling some hair. Whatever worked.
I rolled my eyes so hard over his groupies that I saw the inside of my skull. I sat down next to a guy who strummed what looked like another custom Martin guitar. Were they breeding them or something?
“Not a fan?” he asked, surprising me. Because normally I hung out with my brothers, and they wanted to cut off the air supply of any male who looked twice at me.
“What? Oh. Not really.”
“I don’t know who you are.” I’d probably just seriously insulted the guy. While I could tell you the name and preferred instrument of almost every rock guitarist on the planet, I was not up on the pop scene.
I’d abandoned that when I was fifteen.
Right after my father left us.
“I don’t know who you are, either,” the guitar player shot back.
Fair enough. “Maisy Harrison,” I said, offering him my hand. It wasn’t really a shaking-hands kind of place (it had more of an air kisses/fist bumps vibe), but my mother had been deeply committed to proper manners. He gave me an amused smile and shook it. His fingers were calloused on the pads, letting me know he really played.
“Diego.” He paused as if he didn’t want to continue, and I realized why. “De Luna.”
They were family? Brothers? Cousins? I couldn’t help it. I compared the two men. Diego had a darker skin tone, black hair, and the darkest-brown eyes I’d ever seen. He had the same cut jawline as Ryan, maybe the same nose. Diego was cute but not in the ground-beneath-me-has-turned-soggy-due-to-inadvertent-drooling Ryan kind of way.
“Basically you’re living proof that nepotism works.”
That made Diego grin at me, and the similarity to Ryan was even more apparent now. “So if you don’t know who I am, you’re saying you’re not a fan of my cousin?”
Now he laughed, throwing his head back as if I’d said the most hilarious thing ever. His reaction was loud enough that he drew the attention of everyone in the room, including Ryan. And as Ryan watched me, I couldn’t help but watch him back. Like his gaze held me captive and I was too weak to turn away. I forced my eyes down, and it was then that I realized what seemed strange about Ryan and his guitar. He wasn’t holding it like he loved it. Like it was a natural extension of his hands. The way I would have held it. The way Diego currently held his guitar.
Instead, Ryan wielded that guitar like a shield against the women surrounding him, invading his space. Like a kid hiding under his covers, hoping his blanket would keep him safe from the monsters.
I almost felt bad for him.
Diego startled me out of my Ryan-centric thoughts, causing my heart rate to increase. “I have to admit, that’s a first. Usually that’s all the women back here care about. Meeting him.”
Was it obvious I had been staring at Ryan? “Not me.”
“I’m not any kind of groupie. I have an IQ with triple digits, thanks.”
Diego laughed again, and I couldn’t help but smile back. After spending a lifetime with brothers who adored me almost as much as they adored teasing me, it was nice to have a man appreciate my humor and not call me a bed-wetting string monkey.
“Then why are you here?”
I leaned forward and told him conspiratorially, “I was coerced by my best friend, who didn’t want to come alone. I’m here under duress.”
He moved his head toward mine. “Is this like a hostage situation?” he teased. “Blink twice if you need me to call the police.”
Okay, he was cute and charming, but I had two life rules:
- Never date a musician.
- Never have sex with a musician.
My second rule was easily kept by following the first one.
“No need to call out the SWAT team,” I assured him.
“So if you’re not here to hook up with my cousin, does that mean you’re here to hook up with me?” He said it playfully, but I knew that if I said yes, we’d be gone in under a minute.
Because that’s how guys in his line of work operated.
“I don’t date musicians. Kind of a rule I have.”
Speaking of musicians I would not be dating and/or sleeping with, Ryan De Luna appeared in front of me, making my mouth go completely dry. His arms were folded, and he glared down at us. The intense fire in his eyes turned my stomach hollow.
Ryan De Luna had really sexy forearms. I’d never noticed them on a guy before.
“You know, usually when a girl goes to the effort to sneak in, they at least come over and say hi.”
Sneak in? Shivers gone.
Like I was just another one of those girls across the room. So desperate to meet him I’d do anything.
Jerk. I wanted to smack him.