I found him smoking and leaning against the stucco walls, just out of the intense sunlight that was steadily building up power by the second.

“Robbie?” I asked timidly.

He managed a smile when he saw me. “Hey.”

I walked over to him, glad I was wearing Keds and not my platform heels—I was just his height. He seemed to notice and straightened up a little more.

“Are you okay?”

He shrugged and gave me a sheepish smile. “Oh, fine. This is normal, just breakfast with the family, and you know how it is on family trips.”

I leaned against the crackled wall too, enjoying the coolness at my back. “The trip just started.”

He puffed on the cigarette then offered it to me. I didn’t smoke, usually, but I thought I’d be polite and have an excuse to stay in case he remembered I was a journalist.

“Yeah. It’s like this when it starts. All of us getting used to each other again.”

I put the smoke to my lips and barely inhaled. “I thought you all lived in the same town. Redding, right?”

Robbie laughed. “Redding. Fuck no, Rusty. You ever been to Redding? I got out of there as soon as I could. We all did, except for Graham who bought a weirdo hermit shack by Lake Shasta. Everyone else lives in Sacramento. Geez, aren’t you a journalist?”

I looked down at the ground and handed the smoke back to him. “I know. I read so much stuff about you before I left, I think it was information overload.”

“Aw, that makes sense,” he said. His eyes watched the cars coming and going on the nearby freeway. “I guess this is a lot to handle for a small-town chick. It’s still a lot to handle for a small-town boy. I still pinch myself, you know? Like this might be taken away at any moment. Like my life has been leased to me.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I asked hopefully.

He shrugged. “If you can remember it. If your brain thinks it’s worthy. That’s why I never do interviews if I’m being taped. I like that you guys have to take notes. When you take notes, you forget the bullshit and remember the good stuff.”

I didn’t even have my notepad on me at the moment and my shorthand was atrocious. But I nodded anyway and tried to store Robbie’s words away in my head. Like my life has been leased to me.

“So you don’t all hang out in Sacramento,” I said, bringing the conversation back around.

He shook his head and blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “No. We used to. Sage and I were best friends. I guess we still are. But he’s been busy. Like, really busy. This last album ate him up from the inside.”

“You can tell. It’s excellent.”

Robbie shrugged again. “I guess. I’m not too fond of it, I think some tracks are too soft, but what can you do. You heard Sage in there. He’s always right.”

“That’s what you said.”

“It’s all I know,” he said sadly. He passed the smoke back to me and flashed me a cover-worthy smile. “But that’s life. That’s part of being in a band and I’m grateful for every day I’m with these crazy fuckers. It’s just hard being in a relationship with five fucking people. I have enough trouble with one relationship.”

“Your fiancé?”

“Cheryl,” he corrected me. “She’s lovely but it’s hard. She doesn’t trust me on the road.”

“Gee, I wonder why!” I stamped my foot.

“Hey, Redwood, we have an understanding. When I’m on the road, I’m a free man. If she had a problem with it, I wouldn’t be…well…you know. Whatever you saw last night.”

“Speaking of,” I began, wondering how much I should say, “are all your groupies so loosey goosey?”

“Hey, they don’t come to our shows for the music,” he joked.

“I don’t mean easy,” I said. I looked around me as if I shouldn’t be talking about it. The parking lot was empty of living souls and the cars on the highway rumbled to and fro. “I mean as in nuts. Crazy stalker type nuts.”

His mouth twitched and he took the cigarette back from me, taking a final puff before throwing it on the ground and crushing the butt beneath his boot. “Uh, well, there are a few girls that…might have mental issues.”

I leaned in closer to him. “Yeah? What do they look like?”

“Well, they’re hot.”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t tell me you slept with mental cases.”

He looked shocked. “No. Look, I don’t need to get involved with a psychopath, and these chicks are clearly psychopaths. But anyway, if you must know, they aren’t after me. They like Graham and Sage. They follow them around on every single tour.”

“Is one of the girls tall and thin with long white hair and purple eyes?”

“I don’t know about her eye color but that sounds like Sonja.”

“Sonja?”

“You’ll know if you met her.”

“I think I might have.”

He regarded me carefully. “Did it feel like you had your soul sucked out of you, like she drained every essence of your being and you were left with nothing but a shell?”

I looked at him askance. “Maybe. The girl I met was in the bathroom, and yeah, I don’t know about the soul sucking per se, but she was very strange. She told me some crazy shit that didn’t make sense, then said she was coming after Sage.”

He nodded. “Oh yeah, that’s Sonja. She’s the crackpot ringleader of the GTFOs.”

“You mean the GTOs?” I was thinking of Girls Together Outrageously, which was a more or less respected and nearly professional groupie outfit led by Miss Pamela, Jimmy Page’s muse (who charmed him, along with Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, and a million other men).

“No, the GTOs are lovely ladies. We call these chicks the GTFOs—or Get the Fuck Outs.”

I had to smile at that, despite being riveted to everything Robbie was saying. “So who else is in this, what was it, crackpot group?”

He listed off his fingers. “Sonja The Soul-Sucker. Terri the Know-It-All, who, by the way, pretends she’s a music journalist too. Don’t fall for it. She’s not. And Sparky. She’s the short round one. You’ll see them again, unfortunately.”

“And they’re stalking Graham too.”

“Yep. And for some reason, I guess cuz Sparky’s all pro-Satanic cult, Graham likes to have them around. Keeps his damned and needy soul feeling wanted. He usually goes off with them and they leave us alone, though I shudder to think what they’re doing.”

I made a disgusted face, not wanting to think about it either.

“Graham’s a bit of an odd one, isn’t he?”

A dark expression momentarily clouded his face. “Odd is an understatement. Sometimes he can get a little scary…”

I frowned at that, ignoring the skin prickling feeling at the back of my neck and was about to ask Robbie what he meant when we were interrupted.

“What are you guys doing? Get your arses over here!” Jacob boomed, poking his ginger head from around the corner.

I shot Robbie an apologetic look. “Sorry if I got you in trouble with the boss.”

“Oh whatever, we pay his salary,” he said dismissively. “I’m glad you talked to me. And again, I’m sorry about last night. I’ll try to do my, um, wheelings and dealings in private.”

“Thank you,” I said, and we made our way back to the bus, feeling like a couple of kids who sneaked off of school property.

***

The bus ride was ripe with tension. You could feel it coming off the ugly walls and bouncing on the fake wood cabinets. Sage and Robbie weren’t talking. Actually, Sage wasn’t talking to anyone, and had decided to go lie down in the back.

I decided to get cracking on my journalist thing and get some interviews down before we arrived in Kansas City, but my results were as flat as the passing landscape. Noelle was back to being a pissy, spoiled brat, Mickey was trying to coddle her and gain her forgiveness, and kept shooting me a look as if I was the one who forced him to hook up with a groupie the night before. I felt I got enough out of Robbie that morning and didn’t want to push him, and Graham flat-out told me I could only interview him between 2AM and 3AM. Total bullshit but he was sticking to it.

“It’s the dark hour, when my mind is at my sharpest,” he told me with total lack of irony in his voice.

I heard Robbie groan to himself and knew the rest of the band was pretty fed up with his faux-Satanic ways but Graham seemed to fully believe it.

We pulled into the auditorium around noon and I was relieved to see Chip and the rest of the roadies there, having traveled in two large Astro vans. I was also relieved to see a stack of payphones outside of the building. I had forgotten to call my father the night before to let him know I landed okay, and I was itching to make a call to Mel and fill her in on everything that was happening. Not talking to someone other than a band or crew member was killing me inside.

My father didn’t answer so I left a quick message telling him and Eric that I was fine and the band was taking good care of me. I called Mel next, plunking in the last of my stack of coins, but she wasn’t home either. Her mother seemed glad to hear from me though and said she’d pass on the message that I was fine and that I missed her. It was true, too. I did miss Mel and her snarky attitude on life. Not that I wasn’t capable of sarcasm myself, but it was nice when you felt like you had someone else on your team that you could compare notes with. I didn’t have that with Hybrid, and that was something I was just going to have to get used to, hopefully sooner than later.

When I hung up the phone, I spied Sage leaving the Astro van with one of his guitars in hand. It was black, sleek, and sexy, just like the man himself, and his intricately tattooed forearms bulged as he handled the musical beast. I shook my head lightly, snapping out of my strangely lustful daze, and decided to take my chances with him.

“Sage?” I ventured carefully, walking toward him. He had seen me coming and seemed to be forming excuses in his head already.

“What is it?” he asked, barely glancing at me, walking off toward the backstage doors leading into the building.

I trailed after him. “How are you feeling?”

The question surprised him and he slowed down a bit. “How am I feeling?”

“You seemed a bit snappish at breakfast,” I said. “Last night too. Thought maybe you have an object lodged up your ass or something. Something a doctor should remove.”

I couldn’t believe I just said that. Neither could Sage. He didn’t just slow down, he stopped and gave me an incredulous look. “Excuse me?”

Way to go Dawn, I thought. As if he couldn’t hate you more.

I licked my lips and tried to smile. “Well, do you?”

He seemed speechless. This probably wasn’t good.

But then, he did something I hadn’t expected.

He smiled.

And then he laughed. It was short and brief, but genuine and made the dimples stand out on his scruffy cheeks. It was the best sound I’d heard all year.

***

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