Archer wanted blood. Hot temper burned in his chest as he stormed down the tunnels of the venue where he and the rest of Suddenly Something had just wrapped up another concert.
He’d absolutely had it.
Catching up with the band’s lead singer, Brandon Evans, Archer grabbed his shoulder, spun him around, and got right in his face. “I’m so sick of your shit, Brandon!” When Brandon snorted and tried to shrug him off, Archer tightened his hold. “No way. You’re not walking away this time, you prick.”
“Archer, now isn’t the time for this,” came a female voice from behind them.
Archer whipped his head around to pin Regina Greene, Suddenly Something’s manager, with a dangerous glare. “It’s never the right time, Regina. Back the hell off.”
Brandon smirked and nodded dismissively at Regina. She gave them each warning looks before clipping away on her ice pick heels in the direction of the security guards manning the end of the long tunnel. Archer figured she was telling the guards to keep anyone from entering the tunnel while his “conversation” with Brandon took place. God forbid word got out to the public about the band members arguing.
“What are you whining about now, Archie?” Brandon asked in a bored voice, leaning negligently against the tunnel wall.
Archer’s already seething temper threatened to ignite over Brandon’s use of the hated nickname. “You know why I’m pissed, Brandon. You stepped all over my vocals tonight. You’ve been doing it more and more and I’m sick of it.”
Brandon rolled his eyes. “Who the hell cares? No one comes to hear you sing. You’re the backup vocalist, Archie. I’m the lead singer. It’s time you got that through your huge head.”
“My huge head?” Archer echoed. “You’re the one who seems to think this group revolves around you.”
“That’s because it does,” Brandon retorted. “I’m the face of Suddenly Something. You’re nothing.”
The barbed comment hit a bull’s eye, but Archer wasn’t about to let Brandon know it. “That’s bullshit. I’ve played a big part in our success. Hell, I’m more talented than you and you know it. That’s why you keep trying to step all over me.”
Brandon’s blue eyes frosted. His nostrils flared. Archer knew how to get his digs in just as well as Brandon did.
“You’re joking, right?” Brandon said, pushing away from the wall. “You seriously think you’re more talented than I am?”
“Then why don’t you go out on your own and prove it?”
Anxiety crept along Archer’s spine. “Don’t tempt me.”
Brandon laughed, loudly and heartily. The harsh sound resonated off the tunnel walls, slapping against Archer’s pride. His hands curled into fists.
Making an exaggerated show of wiping his eyes, Brandon said, “Archie, you’re a talentless, dickless, completely expendable son of a bitch. We’ve had backup singers and guitarists before you and we’ll have others when we finally get rid of you. I dare you to break your contract and try to hack it on your own. Hell, I’ll even convince the rest of the band to sign off on your departure so you don’t get penalized with breach of contract. That’s how sure I am that you mean nothing to us.”
Archer refused to show any of the concern he felt over Brandon’s conviction. “Fine. Maybe I will.”
“Yeah,” Brandon said, shaking his head and laughing again. “Good luck with that. I’m sure it’ll go so much better than the last time you cut a solo album.”
Still chuckling, Brandon turned and headed towards the band’s green room, touching two fingers to his forehead and lifting them in a mocking farewell salute. Regina looked up from her phone as Brandon neared her at the end of the tunnel. She glanced from him to Archer. After a brief pause, she followed Brandon around the corner and out of sight.
Guess it was clear where her loyalty stood.
When he was alone, Archer opened and closed his fists as the argument with Brandon ran through his mind. His anger warred against a heavy onslaught of uncertainty. Why had he gone and mouthed off like that? He’d known it would never go his way. Now he had all but gotten himself kicked out of a band that was making its way up the charts.
Unvented frustration stormed through him. With no one there to shout at, he turned and gave a nearby metal door a swift kick.
“Hey!” yelled a feminine voice from the other side of the door.
“What the hell?” Archer eyed the door. “Who’s in there?”
“My name’s Lily Montgomery. I’m locked in here. Can you open the door?”
He grabbed the door’s handle and attempted to turn it. “No. The lock looks messed up. I think someone tried to use something other than a key to open it.”
“Oh, great. Maybe that’s why the door was propped open earlier.”
Archer looked in the direction of the green room. Although it grated, he needed to go back and make amends with Brandon. Who had he been trying to kid with all of that talk about going out on his own?
“I’ll send someone to get you out of there,” he said absently, turning to head down the tunnel.
“No!” the voice—Lily, he recalled—exclaimed. “Please don’t leave me. It’s dark and cramped in here and I’ve been trapped for hours.”
“I can’t get the door open unless I go get someone.”
“Do you have a phone?”
“Who the hell am I supposed to call?”
“My Uncle Ray. He’s a security guard here.”
Sighing, Archer pulled out his phone. “Fine. What’s his number?”
She rattled off the digits. He entered the number and listened as it rolled to voicemail. Sensing that the trapped Lily wouldn’t be happy with that outcome, he disconnected the call and issued a sharp whistle to catch the attention of the security guards at the end of the tunnel. When they glanced at him, he waved one of them over.
“What’s wrong?” the guard asked as he approached.
“There’s someone locked in here,” Archer told him. “Do you have a key?”
The guard’s brow furrowed. “No, but I’ll find out who does.”
“Thanks.” As the guard headed back to his companion at a jog, Archer said, “They know you’re in there now, Lily. Someone will come and get you out soon.”
“Don’t leave me. Please.”
“But I have to go and—”
“You were right, you know,” she interrupted.
“You’re a much better singer than Brandon Evans.”
He blinked. “You’re a fan?”
“Not really,” she admitted, bringing an unexpected smile to his face. “I grew up listening to classic rock. But I just spent the past hour or two listening to you guys perform. You get some interesting nuances in the acoustics down here.”
Tilting his head, he repeated, “Nuances?”
“Yeah. It was easy to pick out the different vocalists. You’re Archer, right? I did some research on you guys before I came to the show with my uncle.”
Deciding that he’d rather spend the next few minutes in the tunnel with a stranger than placating Brandon, Archer moved over and slid to the ground with his back pressed against the door. “You can call me Dane,” he found himself saying.
“The articles I read all said you preferred to go by Archer.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t feel like being Archer right now.”
“Fair enough,” she said with an equable shrug in her voice. “So why are you sticking with this group when the lead singer is such a dill-hole, Dane?”
His lips curved up again. “Because we’re gaining fans every day. We’re on the path to huge success.”
“Largely because of you,” Lily pointed out, mirroring his earlier comment to Brandon. “My research indicated that Suddenly Something has sold more records since you joined them than before. I also pulled up a lot more photos of you than Brandon when I did my searches. You have more followers on social media and a larger fan club. That has to chap Brandon’s ass.”
Archer’s smile widened. He decided he liked Lily Montgomery. His smile faded, though, as he remembered what Brandon had said.
“You may be right,” he said, “but those things won’t necessarily translate into a successful solo career.”
“You cut a solo album a few years ago, right?”
A flush heated the back of his neck, prompting him to reach up and rub it away. “Yeah. It didn’t do too well.”
“It flopped major. The label dumped you like a flaming turd.”
Insult leaped up to join embarrassment. “Gee, thanks.”
“Well, it’s true,” she said pragmatically. “But for goodness’ sake…you were a geeky thirteen-year-old whose voice was still transitioning and it was your first attempt at a music career after years of acting. The press was bound to be brutal with you. You can hardly expect that you’d have the same experience now, especially after the success you’ve achieved with Suddenly Something. Besides, no one said you have to go solo. Just start over with band mates you actually like.”
He considered that. Coming from someone who sounded objective, the words held more power. He wanted to believe her. Part of him, he was surprised to discover, actually did.
“Why did you do so much research if you’re not a fan?” he wondered.
“I’ve been researching an article for my school’s newspaper. My uncle invited me along tonight so I could try and get an interview or two to beef up the piece. I was going to enter it into the school’s journalism contest. Then I got stuck in this supply closet thanks to a couple of your bitchy fans who thought I was backstage to jump you or someone else in the band. Guess they were eliminating possible competition.”
“You’re an aspiring journalist?”
“An aspiring writer,” she clarified. “Not sure if journalism’s the way I want to go, but I’m giving it a shot.”
“Ah. Do you attend a local college?”
“High school. I’m only sixteen.”
His eyebrows lifted. She was nearly the same age as him. “You sure sound older. You speak like…I don’t know. Like a snooty grown-up.”
She huffed at that. “It’s called maturity.”
“I was going to say nerdiness.”
“Well that’s certainly true.”
Her response made him laugh. It was refreshing to meet someone who didn’t take herself too seriously. His attention turned as the security guard strode down the tunnel with a member of the maintenance staff. It didn’t take long for the maintenance worker to confirm the lock wouldn’t open with a key. He hurried off to find the right tools to remove the handle.
Ignoring the few people who started trickling down the tunnel, Archer resumed his vigil on the opposite side of the locked door. “What’s going to be the topic of this article you’re writing?” he asked Lily.
“I haven’t figured out the angle yet,” she replied. “I had hoped something would click after the interviews. It’s pretty hard to think of things to write that haven’t already been done to death.”
He nodded in understanding. “It’s the same in trying to succeed in the music industry. You have to stand out and shine if you’re going to make it big. Not an easy thing to do with so many other artists out there.”
There was a brief pause. “I don’t get it, Dane,” Lily said at last. “What are you so afraid of?”
Archer frowned over the blunt question. “That’s easy enough for you to say. You’re not the one facing the idea of trying to make it on your own after failing so badly before.”
“You’re right, I’m not. And neither are you. What you’re doing is considering making a change while you’re already on the cusp of stardom…a change that could finally push you over the edge into the success you so obviously want.”
He bristled over her pointed statement even though he knew she was right. “You make it all sound so simple,” he grumbled. “What if all that’s waiting for me over that edge is an empty void?”
“Then you make the world crave to be in that void right along with you.”
Lily’s calm and practical responses eased the anxiety and pressure that Archer had carried into the conversation. By the time her uncle and the maintenance worker returned with the tools and removed the door handle to free her, he’d made a decision that would change the course of his future.
The door finally opened and Lily stumbled out, blinking against the light. Archer helped steady her before she turned to give her waiting uncle a hug. It somehow didn’t surprise Archer when Lily then turned back to him and hugged him, too.
Overall, her appearance suited the image he had formed in his head while they talked. Her hair was pulled back into a sensible ponytail. Rectangular dark-rimmed glasses perched on her lightly-freckled nose, framing her highly intelligent gaze. Silver braces gleamed as she shifted away from him and flashed a grateful smile.
The only trait that surprised him was her petite size. With her strong opinions and clear determination, he somehow pictured a much more domineering physical presence. Lily looked more like a woodland sprite than the pit bull he’d imagined.
“Thanks for your help, Dane,” she said. “Now can someone point me in the direction of the closest bathroom before my bladder explodes?”
“Sure,” Archer replied before casually adding, “and after that, how would you like some content for the story you came here to write?”
Her eyes sharpened with what he interpreted as approval. “You’re going to do it?”
“Yep. You convinced me, Lily Montgomery. Let’s go turn the music world on its ear.”