“You’re doing great, Nikki,” Sydney said, both speaking and signing the words in American Sign Language. “You’ve got the alphabet down.”
She had spent the better part of the past thirty minutes helping Nikki brush up on her ASL. They were killing time on The Void’s tour bus awaiting the return of the band from a last-minute press conference. The band’s manager, Christopher Donahue, had arranged the conference in response to the release of the first House of Archer trailer the day before. It was taking longer than Sydney figured it would. At least she was making productive use of the time.
She hadn’t been sure Nikki would take her up on her offer to teach her ASL. She had mentioned it several times over the past week during some of the downtimes that she and Nikki had together while the band fulfilled their various commitments. Up until now, Nikki had blown her off. Then earlier that day she had asked Sydney if her offer still stood.
Sydney had immediately said yes. She was always eager to teach people new things. It was what she did for a living, after all.
She had started by getting a baseline of Nikki’s knowledge of ASL to gauge where to begin their lesson. With Sydney’s guidance, Nikki had completed a rather slow run-through of the alphabet. They were now at the point where Nikki was signing all twenty-six letters fluidly. So Sydney wasn’t sure why Nikki looked frustrated after she praised her.
“The alphabet won’t really help me,” Nikki complained. “I’ve seen Keith signing to his sister on their video chats. He doesn’t use letters much.”
Keith Connors was Nikki’s boyfriend and The Void’s bassist and backing vocalist. His sister, Lex, was hearing impaired so Keith, of course, communicated with her by signing. That was why Nikki was trying to learn it herself.
“It will help, trust me,” Sydney said patiently. “Just by knowing the alphabet, you can communicate effectively with ASL. Have you learned any other signs yet?”
Nikki shrugged. “I’ve learned ‘How are you,’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘What’s your name,’ and ‘Thank you,’” she said while signing.
“That’s a good start,” Sydney said, though she privately wondered how Nikki had learned so little if her boyfriend was fluent in ASL and communicated with his sister every day. “A couple of tips before we move on. It can be hard for someone to understand what you’re saying if your hands and arms move too much, so try to keep your movements more focused and deliberate.”
Nikki made a face that conveyed irritation. Sydney had noticed that the other woman didn’t like to sit still, so she guessed her tip had hit a nerve. That didn’t change the facts.
“Also,” Sydney continued, “it’s considered shouting or emphasizing if you push your hands out towards someone while signing. So it’s important to keep your hands closer to your body. Like this.” She ran through the phrases Nikki had just shared. “Do you see the difference?”
Again, Nikki shrugged. The action looked abrupt and resentful.
No matter. Sydney worked with students with special needs. She was used to resistance. There were always ways around that.
“Are there any particular phrases you’d like to learn?” Sydney asked.
Nikki’s eyes shifted to her and sharpened with a look Sydney couldn’t interpret. “Yeah. How about ‘I want to blow you?’”
The crude words were surely meant to jar Sydney, but she showed no reaction. She just stared at Nikki in the calm way she had perfected with her students…a look she had learned from her mother. Within a minute, Nikki was averting her gaze and squirming in her seat.
“What does it matter anyway?” Nikki blurted. “It’s not like Keith will ever introduce me to his sister. Learning this is a waste of my time.”
Ah ha, Sydney thought. Finally a breakthrough. This was why Nikki hadn’t bothered to learn more ASL than she had. The other woman’s unhappiness was clear, even if masked in anger and impatience.
“Why do you feel that way?” Sydney asked.
Nikki’s gaze was intent on her hands as she fiddled with the numerous thin bracelets lining her wrists. She gave another of her shrugs. “Keith hardly talks about Lex with me. Whenever I bring her up, he changes the subject. I know we haven’t been exclusive for very long, but I’ve known him for a couple of years. Shouldn’t he be including me more in that part of his life?”
Yes, Sydney thought. He should.
Lex was the center of Keith’s life. Sydney had gotten to know the sweet girl through her best friend, Lily, who had brought Sydney along to a number of visits with Lex over the past few years to assist with signing as Lily was learning ASL. Sydney knew that Keith doted on Lex and that he was just as important to her. The twelve-year-old worshipped the ground he walked on.
Sydney supposed that was how she first started to fall in love with him.
She had come along on this summer tour to support Lily and to try and expand her own admittedly narrow horizons. Secretly, though, she had also come along to try and do something about the unhealthy obsession she had developed for the sullen bassist. She was certain she had built him up to some godlike status because of Lex’s towering love for him. And how could she not have a soft spot for a guy who loved his little sister as much as Keith did?
But Keith Connors was everything Sydney had been raised to avoid. First, he was a recovering addict with an unstable past. He was also tattooed, foul-mouthed, aggressive, and more than a little dangerous.
She had been certain that meeting him would squash what she told herself was a harmless crush. Instead, he had pinned her with his cool blue eyes and she had instantly felt the connection like a missing piece of her soul snapping into place. It was unexplainable, baffling, and the opposite of what she had hoped and expected. It was also completely inappropriate seeing as Keith was in a relationship with Nikki.
A very small, catty part of Sydney wanted to rejoice that Keith hadn’t yet introduced Nikki to Lex. That part of her brought the heat of shame to her cheeks now as she registered Nikki’s misery.
“Well, maybe you should consider doing something for Lex,” Sydney hesitantly suggested. “Don’t you think Keith would appreciate that?”
“How the hell can I do that if I’ve never met the kid and Keith never talks about her?”
Sydney desperately wanted to drop the subject. She wanted Nikki to give up on trying to win Keith over. She wanted Keith to lose interest in her and break up with her, then realize how much he loved Sydney.
And because those thoughts weren’t only absurd but revoltingly sinful, she said, “Lex loves crafts. She enjoys seeing something come together that she creates herself. You should look for kits for kids between the ages of six and eight, especially kits with colorful beads.”
Nikki stopped fidgeting and gave Sydney a considering look. “How do you know that?”
“Through Lily. I’ve been out to visit Lex with her a few times to help with signing and I noticed Lex’s craft projects.”
She didn’t explain that she was in touch with Lex and Lex’s teacher nearly as frequently as Keith was. Not even Lily knew that. She was sure Nikki wouldn’t appreciate it.
Oddly, Nikki didn’t react to Sydney’s explanation. She just studied Sydney in silence.
Her behavior puzzled Sydney. Didn’t she want help connecting with Lex?
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin with something like that,” Nikki said eventually. “Crafting really isn’t my thing.”
Nibbling on her bottom lip, Sydney glanced across the bus at the bags she had placed on the small couch after she boarded. She and her other best friend, Aria Simpson, had gone shopping that morning. Sydney had carried her bags onto the bus with her to make room in the SUV for the other items Aria was bound to pick up on her continued spree. In those bags were several gifts for Lex.
She wrestled with herself. Why should she help Nikki? It wasn’t her job to foster Nikki’s relationship with Keith. All Sydney would get for it was another scar on her heart.
But Nikki seemed to be making Keith happy and she was reaching out for help, which Sydney knew wasn’t easy for her. And the gifts Sydney had gotten for Lex would please the child no matter who gave them to her.
She heard her mother in her head lecturing her about her Christian duty. Issuing a small sigh, she slid out from the banquette seat she was on and stepped over to the couch.
“She also loves Donatello,” she said, riffling through the bags.
“Donatello,” Sydney repeated, pulling out the Donatello T-shirt she had bought and discreetly removing the price tag. “You know, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? He’s the smart one who does all of the tinkering…” She trailed off when she looked up and noticed Nikki’s expression. “Um, well, anyway, you can give her this T-shirt. I’m sure she’ll love it. You can say Lily gave you the idea or something. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
Nikki slowly rose from her seat, her gaze not moving from Sydney’s. “You bought that for Lex?” she asked.
“And you happened to know her size?”
Sydney finally clued into the menace underlying Nikki’s words. Belatedly she registered that Nikki wasn’t looking at Sydney’s offer the way she had intended.
Nikki’s cell phone rang, saving Sydney from replying. She watched as Nikki pulled her phone out of her pocket and answered it, her eyes still steady on Sydney’s face.
“Hey, hon,” Nikki said, the upbeat words belying the steel in her eyes. “Yeah? That’s great. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
When Nikki disconnected the call, Sydney hoped to change the subject by saying, “The press conference is over?”
“Yep,” Nikki replied without inflection, putting her phone back into her pocket. She reached out and took the T-shirt from Sydney. “Thanks for this. I’m sure you’re right that it will help set the right tone with Keith.”
Though there was little sincerity in Nikki’s words, Sydney attempted a smile. “Sure.”
“Actually,” Nikki said, walking down the bus’s aisle to a small storage locker and stashing the T-shirt inside it, “there is a phrase I’d like to learn since we have another couple minutes.”
“Of course,” Sydney said, relieved that they had moved past the awkward moment.
Returning back to the front of the bus, Nikki asked, “How do you sign ‘I love you’?”
The request nicked Sydney’s heart. She got the sense it was exactly the reaction Nikki had been aiming for. Forcing herself to regroup, Sydney stood a little straighter and plastered a nonchalant look on her face.
“No problem,” she said. “Just combine the letters I, L, and Y like this.” She lowered her two middle fingers and gave her hand a little wave to demonstrate.
“Ah.” Nikki held her hand up and mimicked the gesture. “Is this right?”
“Great, thanks. I can’t wait to sign it to Keith.”
She held Sydney’s gaze for another beat before turning and walking to the bus’s door with a sway of her hips. Sydney waited until Nikki had exited the bus before lowering herself back onto the banquette seat and dropping her head into her hands.
Pain waged a war with guilt in her chest. She hated the stewing jealousy she felt towards Nikki. It wasn’t like Sydney could actually enter into a relationship with Keith even if he was single. Her family would all have one massive coronary. It really didn’t matter whether it was Nikki or some other woman who held Keith’s affection. Sydney should just be happy that he was happy.
So why couldn’t her head and her heart get on the same page?
She couldn’t ever remember feeling this wretched. She was seriously wondering if she was going to be able to survive almost two more months of watching Keith with Nikki. If it wasn’t for Lily, she would have fled back home days ago. But she knew Lily needed her support now more than ever after the House of Archer trailer had painted her in such a harsh light. The trailer was going to bring Lily all kinds of unwanted attention, never mind the press conference that just confirmed Lily’s romance with The Void’s much-coveted front man, Archer.
Thinking of Lily, Sydney took a couple of centering breaths and lifted her head. Her focus needed to be on her friend.
The sound of shouting drew her attention. Glancing out the window, she saw the press lined up along the metal barricades leading to the bus. They were snapping photos and shouting questions at The Void as they approached. Leading the way were Archer and Lily. He had his arm over her shoulders in a familiar way Sydney had seen many times over the past couple weeks. They looked happy and natural, even though Sydney knew Lily hated every moment of being in the spotlight.
Nikki, Sydney couldn’t help but notice, was the exact opposite. She ran up to Keith and threw her arms around him. Unlike some of the other scenes Sydney had witnessed between them, Nikki stopped short of stuffing her tongue down Keith’s throat. Somehow, though, the sight of Nikki wrapping her arm around Keith’s waist and leaning into him with an adoring look on her face was even more painful to watch.
Pulling her attention from the window, Sydney closed the notebook she had brought with her to make notes during her session with Nikki and got up to place it in her purse. She was still standing as Lily and the band all boarded. She made a conscious effort to push her negative feelings aside and greeted Lily with a smile.
“How did it go?” she asked as Lily reached her.
“Pretty well, I think,” Lily said. “It should keep people wondering whether or not I’m a villain in The Void’s story.”
“Well you did steal Archer’s heart,” Sydney teased.
She saw Keith roll his eyes as he passed them in the aisle and strolled back towards the bunks. She rather expected the reaction from him. She had learned early on that he wasn’t a romantic type.
At the same time, she observed that Nikki wasn’t with him. She glanced around the band’s huge rhythm guitarist, Xander Phillips, as he also headed down the aisle, and saw Nikki through the window talking on her phone. There were still flashes going off from the nearby cameras. It seemed a little coincidental to Sydney that Nikki just happened to get a call keeping her in front of the press a little longer.
“That’s what I said,” Lily laughed, giving Sydney’s shoulder an appreciative shove. “They seemed to eat it up.”
“We’ll have to feed them more soon,” Archer said, turning from the conversation he was having with Christopher a few feet away. “You know how the press is.”
Lily’s amusement faded. “Yeah. I actually wanted to chat with everyone about that.”
The band’s drummer, Noelle Foxx, exchanged looks with Sage Strickland, The Void’s remix and sound specialist, as they walked past. Sage reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He removed a five dollar bill and handed it to Noelle, who blew him a kiss.
“They bet you wouldn’t wait until after lunch to pow-wow,” Archer explained to Lily when she gave them a confused look.
Lily couldn’t seem to decide whether to be affronted or amused. “I know you’re all going to sleep on the drive to San Diego,” she said loud enough for everyone to hear. “It makes sense to talk now during lunch. Don’t you dare get into that bunk, Keith Michael.”
Keith paused halfway into his climb up to his bunk and looked back at Lily with raised eyebrows. Xander, who was standing beside him, winced.
“Damn,” Xander rumbled. “The middle name call-out.”
“Guess she’s serious,” Keith replied, returning to the ground. “Where are we meeting, Your Highness?”
Sydney supposed the words would have seemed scornful or mocking if one didn’t know how much Keith and the other band members cared for Lily. They were like one big family, only more functional than most actual relatives.
Lily grinned at him. “The back of the bus.” As everyone headed that way, she looked again at Sydney. “We’re not leaving until Barney gets back with Aria. She texted and said they were about twenty minutes out. Why don’t you join us for lunch? Trey’s bringing sandwiches.”
Sydney kept her reluctance to herself. “Sure.”
Ten minutes later, they were gathered in the bus’s rear seating area. It wasn’t big enough for all of them even with Noelle and Sage sitting on the floor, so Sydney sat on the edge of Noelle’s bunk, which butted up to it. Nikki had returned to the bus when Archer’s bodyguard, Trey, climbed on with the band’s lunch. Sydney had been sure Nikki would insist on sitting with Keith, but after the couple exchanged a few words, Nikki had settled in the front of the bus watching TV. Sydney sensed her bitterness even from a distance.
“We’ve discussed the need for more compelling footage to make House of Archer successful,” Lily said from her position in the middle of the seating area. “And we all know that Elijah wants the footage sooner rather than later so he can get some episodes together quickly. So I’ve come up with some ideas.”
Sage glanced around. “Should we be talking about this with the cameras on?”
Lily waved the carrot stick she was holding. “They’re not on right now. I told Elijah he really wasn’t going to want this recorded.”
Sydney had wondered why there weren’t any House of Archer camera operators on the bus. Lily had told her the bus had cameras in the common areas, so Sydney had thought maybe the operators were taking a break. Apparently the show’s production manager had taken Lily at her word and decided against recording for the duration of this meeting.
“Anyway,” Lily continued, dipping her carrot into some ranch dressing, “I spent some time last night typing up some story ideas. I’d like all of you to read through them and let me know your thoughts. I want to tweak them so everyone is comfortable.”
Sydney’s gaze moved to Keith, who was sitting on the end of the curved seat almost directly diagonally from her. His expression darkened.
“How can it be reality TV if it’s planned out?” he asked.
“I’m not planning it out,” Lily explained. “I’m just throwing some ideas out there for future content. You saw how the editors manipulated the footage they gathered organically from the past couple weeks. Imagine what they could do if we introduced some genuinely interesting content of our own.”
“I’m not going to be scripted,” Keith argued, shoving his unfinished sandwich back into the bag next to him.
Sydney set her own sandwich down. His annoyance was obvious. She sensed a blow-up was coming.
“I think we need this, Keith,” Christopher said in his pragmatic way. “We don’t have to be scripted, but we need some direction. We all know things have been floundering. If the producers hadn’t gotten enough content featuring Lily to throw together a good teaser, House of Archer might well have been pulled already. It wouldn’t hurt for you to give Lily’s ideas a quick scan.”
Sydney sighed. She couldn’t understand how no one had realized what she had only days after joining the tour.
“Then let’s just hash them out now,” Keith said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Lily gave Archer a look conveying her uncertainty over Keith’s abrasive response. “I haven’t printed them out. I don’t remember them all off the top of my head. Besides, we’d probably be here for another hour going over all of them, and I know you guys want to rest.”
“Yes,” Noelle said, raising a hand. “I vote for sleep over talking.”
“Me, too,” Sage echoed around a bite of his BLT.
“And we really need to discuss the L.A. leg of our trip,” Christopher added. “I’ve managed to schedule some studio time so we can lay down ‘Not Mine.’ Can we make more progress on the songs Archer wrote to cut the entire album while we’re in the city?”
Sydney saw that Keith was about to argue further about Lily’s story ideas. She just couldn’t sit there and watch him flounder anymore. She caught his eye with a quick wave of her hand. Since everyone else was now focused on discussing the songs, dates, and timing, she used ASL to communicate with Keith.
I’ll help you, she signed.
He frowned and shook his head as though he didn’t understand.
With reading, she clarified.
She wasn’t at all surprised by the flicker of shock that crossed his features, nor was she surprised to see the emotional wall that immediately slammed into place, leaving his gaze frosted and hostile.
She may have expected both reactions, but having them directed at her as he rose and stepped closer made her swallow hard. He stopped less than a foot from her, prompting her to rise. His broad shoulders filled the space, blocking her from view of anyone in the seating area.
What are you talking about? he signed.
You know, she replied, praying he couldn’t see her heart attempting to bash through her chest.
You think I can’t read?
She gave him a knowing look that had his glower deepening. I’m a teacher, she reminded him. I’m trained to notice.
God, could he look any more threatening? She felt her knees wobble and locked her stance.
Who have you told? he asked.
No one, she assured him. And no one needs to know. I can meet with you privately.
Just keep your mouth shut and mind your own business.
Geez. He could even freeze the blood with sign language.
Unwilling to let it go, she signed, Don’t you want to help the band succeed?
His eyebrows drew together. I don’t need scripts to do that.
She sensed the hesitation behind the words, though. Much as she had suspected, Keith’s biggest strength—loyalty to those he cared about—was also his weakness.
What about Lex? she persisted.
His gaze moved from her hands to her eyes. She immediately regretted bringing up his sister. He moved so close to her that she couldn’t move her hands without touching him.
“What about her?” he asked so softly that it raised the hairs on the back of her neck.
“Don’t you want to set a positive example for her?” she whispered back. Then, guessing he’d get more worked up over learning about her relationship with his sister, she added, “Lily has told me how much she looks up to you.”
Keith’s strong jaw flexed as he considered her words. Eventually, he nodded once, so subtly that Sydney wasn’t sure she saw it.
“Is everything all right?”
Sydney jumped when Nikki spoke from over her shoulder. Her hand brushed against Keith’s midsection, making contact with his taught ab muscles. She took a guilty step back, nearly colliding with Nikki.
“It’s fine,” Keith said, still looking at Sydney. “Just got up to wash my hands.”
“Then you can spare a moment for me,” Nikki responded, pushing past Sydney to pull Keith down for a kiss.
With nowhere else to go, Sydney stood there and watched them, wondering what in the world she had against her heart that she would sentence it to such a tortuous end.