Ryan downed the soda she'd ordered at the bar. They were in Hartford, Connecticut. She felt the stage fright creeping up but ignored it. Once they'd gotten through the first couple of shows, her anxiety had eased a lot, even if it hadn't faded entirely. Word was getting around about the tour as well. Old fans and new were posting to the band's Facebook page which was like free publicity as people reviewed past shows and noted upcoming ones.
They'd all been surprised and excited to see links to some of their performances show up on the page as well. Most of the videos uploaded were lacking in either sound or video quality, but a few were crystal clear in sound and focus. Their manager, Jocelyn, was working hard to get them some attention. Ryan had no idea what would happen, but was enjoying the ride.
"Hey, Ryan, you okay?" Lara slid onto the stool next to her. She touched edge of the bar and made a face. "Ew," she said under her breath. "If my mom was here, she'd go at this place with bleach. And then a flamethrower."
Ryan tried to smother a laugh. "No kidding. So where were you?"
"Stepped outside to call Trout."
"How is he?"
"He's good." Lara smiled. "He's been working on our website. I feel bad it got kind of lost in the shuffle with other things, but he's got the time now."
"That's great. Tell him we appreciate it."
"I will. How's Brody?"
"Good. I haven't talked to him in a few days. Since the Scranton show, I guess. I think he's playing tonight, I'll have to check."
"Everything okay?" Lara asked.
"Yeah, sure." Ryan was puzzled. "Why?"
"I don't know. You guys were talking and all almost every day but it seems like it kind of fell off. You haven't said anything but I just wanted to make sure nothing was wrong."
"Yeah, everything's fine." Ryan blinked. "Wait, you think something's wrong because we're not talking every day?"
"No, no. I was just wondering."
"Well, I mean, it's fine. I think. It's just that we've been busy and so has he. With the games and the shows the same nights sometimes it's hard to find time to talk. Plus we're traveling during the day and he's practicing and—"
"Ryan, Ryan, relax." Lara patted her friend's shoulder. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. There's no right or wrong time to talk to him. Why don’t you call him now?"
Ryan checked the time. "He's probably playing now." She turned to Nate. "Hey, Nate, do the Caps play tonight?"
"Nope. Tomorrow." He looked up from his phone. "I was just checking baseball. The Nats are really hot right now."
"Good to know. Thanks," Ryan said.
"Do you want to call Brody now?" Lara asked. "We're not going on for another half an hour or so."
"I'll try later or tomorrow." Ryan stood and stretched. "It's late and if he's not playing, he's probably sleeping. I don't want to bother him."
"Okay. I'll be back in a few minutes, I just need to fix my hair and all."
"You look fine." Ryan smiled.
"Thanks, but you know I can't go on without taking one last look and brushing my hair."
Ryan laughed as Lara walked away. It was true; Lara had her pre-show routine just as Ryan and the others did. Ryan always did a last-minute check on her computer and stuck two or three guitar picks to her mike stand. Lara insisted on checking herself in a mirror. Since she was the singer, and out front more than the others, Ryan couldn't hold it against her.
She was about to ask for another Coke but opted for a Sprite instead. The last thing she needed was more caffeine.
The talk with Lara had her wondering: was everything okay with Brody? As far as Ryan knew it was. She did miss talking to him but the last few days had been pretty hectic with all the traveling. Brody had sent a couple of texts, and she'd replied, but he was busy, too. She didn't expect to talk to him every day. Wasn't it a good sign, she thought, that they didn't have
to talk all the time? Or did it mean that instead of absence making the heart grow fonder, it just made things fade away?
"Crap," she said out loud. "I don't need to be thinking about this before a show."
"Thinking about what?" Mitch asked.
"Yeah, what?" Nate looked up from his sports scores.
Ryan turned to them. "You really want to know?"
Mitch shrugged. "Sure. We need everybody on the same page. If something's bothering you, either let us know or put it away until after. So what is it?"
What the hell, Ryan figured. They were guys; she'd throw it out to them. "I can't decide if I'm calling Brody enough. What do you think? Should I be calling him every day? Or is it okay to go a few days between calls? I don't want to drive him crazy, you know? But I've never done the long-distance thing. Is there a set number of days between calls or what? What do guys think about that?"
Mitch stared at her, then scoffed. "You have got to be kidding. You're asking me that before a show? And expecting an answer?"
She laughed. "You said you wanted to know." She hadn't expected an answer—a useful one—from either of them.
"It was rhetorical," Nate said. "You know, like when people ask 'how are you?' We didn't think you'd really tell us."
Ryan laughed. "Yes, well, my mistake. Come on, guys. Lara's back; let's get ready."
Nate nodded and scanned the club. "Yeah, let's do this. I hate to say it, but I kind of want to get it over with."
Ryan agreed, although she said nothing as they went to get their instruments. This club had a rougher feeling than the others they'd been to so far. While she wanted the show to be successful, she would be glad when they were done and back at the hotel.
The show started well enough with "My Last Mistake" the first number—as usual—and they segued into the next song with no break. The crowd was polite, if not enthusiastic, but that was better than active booing, she thought.
Two songs later, she changed her mind: she would have preferred booing. There was some drunk guy with a bunch of friends yelling out whatever came to mind, alcohol having removed any brain-to-mouth filter. She rolled her eyes as she heard him yell out "Free- biirrrrd!" As if no one had ever done that in the past forty years.
Ryan wondered if it was the same group that went to every bar, or if there was some kind of franchise where clubs or bars could order the Annoying Drunk Customers. At last Freebird Guy managed to shout out something coherent.
"Hey, babe! You with the mike! Let's see your tits!"
Lara and Ryan exchanged glances and Ryan knew what her friend was thinking. They'd had their share of this as they'd been learning the performing ropes at various college gigs. At first Ryan had been confrontational about it, which sometimes was the best course. This didn't seem like one of those times.
Lara grabbed the mike and smiled, waving a finger back and forth in the air. "Sorry, guys, no wardrobe malfunctions tonight. Janet Jackson is not in the house." That got some laughter, whistles and applause and Ryan let out a quiet sigh of relief, but it wasn't quite over.
"Hey, you with the guitar! Come on, baby! Show us whatcha got!"
Ryan smiled and decided to indulge herself. "You want to see what I got?" In response to the shouting and whistles, she stepped back and let loose with a short but searing guitar solo. She slammed into it and her fingers raced over the neck of the guitar, then finished with an abrupt chord. There was more cheering and she turned to Mitch and signaled him to count them into the next song.
Nate stepped over to Ryan afterwards. "Jesus, I can't wait until this is over," he said.
She grinned. "Jealous no one's hitting on you?"
He scoffed. "Are you kidding? I'm out of their league and they know it."
Ryan snorted and then nodded at Mitch. She was glad they'd defused the tension, but she wanted to leave, too, and the only way to do that was to finish the set.
Brody listened to Ryan, and then sputtered. "He said what?
Are you serious?"
"Oh, yeah. He was an asshole." She flopped on the hotel bed and stared at the ceiling. There was a big watermark, which she hoped didn't mean the ceiling would collapse any time soon.
"What did you do?" Brody asked.
She told him and had to wait until he finished laughing to continue. "It's not big deal, really. We went through worse when we played in college. Trust me, few people have anything on frat guys for sexist insults."
"I'll take your word for it."
"Yeah, well. There are jerks like him everywhere. He just happened to crawl out of the woodwork the night we were there. But we handled it and the set went pretty well, all things considered." She covered a yawn. "How's everything going with you? Nate hasn't given me my daily update."
"We lost." Brody huffed out a breath and she could imagine him rubbing a hand over his face. "We were out of sync last night. If it wasn't for Rizzy in goal, it would have been a lot worse."
The Caps were mired in a tight series with the Montréal Canadiens for the second round of the playoffs; they were tied at two games apiece. Montréal had finished in eighth place, snagging the last playoff seed, but they'd already knocked off the first-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals had no intention of underestimating their opponent.
"I'm sorry, Brody. Don't be—I mean, everybody—" She shook her head. "Sorry, never mind. Anything I say is going to be a total cliché, and I know that's the last thing you want to hear."
"I don't know. I'd rather hear a cliché from you than anybody else."
She laughed. "Thanks, I think. I was just going to say everyone has an off night, but I know that's not what you want to hear."
"No. It's true, but no. We should have had them."
"You'll get them next time, buckaroo."
"What the hell?"
"Sorry." Ryan giggled. "That's what my Uncle Pete would say when my brothers lost a game or I was off on my music."
"Remind me never to talk sports with your Uncle Pete."
"Will do." She was quiet for a minute. "Okay, I have to get a little sappy. I miss you. I got used to it being easy to see you. I may just forget what you look like."
"Oh, you're funny. But if you're serious, why don't we try this on Skype or something?"
"I hadn't thought of that." Ryan sat up and got her computer. "Hold on, let me get this set up. I'll buzz you in a minute, okay?"
Ryan cut off the call and opened the program on her computer. She couldn’t believe she was looking forward to this so much and that she hadn't thought of it before. Brody answered on the first ring.
"Hey, rock star."
"What is that thing on your face?" Ryan stared at him, shocked.
"What?" He stroked his sandy-colored beard. "Don’t you like it?"
"I don't know. I've never seen you with a beard." She studied the picture, laughing as he posed in profile. She knew players grew playoff beards, but hadn't thought about Brody having one. "I guess it'll do. How long will you keep it?"
"As long as necessary and as long as possible. I'm keeping this baby through the whole playoffs."
He wiggled his eyebrows. "I thought I'd let you decide."
"Ah, no. Take a picture for posterity, then you can get rid of it."
"Come on, sweetheart, give it a chance. You might like it." He leered at her, making her laugh again.
"I'd rather see you with one than not at all." Ryan sighed. "I do miss you."
"Yeah, I know the feeling." He gave her a wistful smile. "I can't wait until you're back."
"It'll be nice to stop traveling," she admitted. "And I never knew how much I appreciated thick walls until we started staying in these, um, places."
He laughed. "What kind of place are you in tonight?"
"I don't know. Something like the Sea Angel Hotel, which is hilarious because I don't think there's a lake, let alone a sea, within a hundred miles of here. Look at the décor." Ryan slid her chair back and turned the computer so he could see the faded wallpaper and the garish paint-by-number seascape on the wall.
"Christ, stop!" Brody covered his eyes. "It's burned into my retinas!"
Ryan threw her head back and laughed. "Sorry. Here, it's okay now."
He peeked through his fingers and heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief when he saw her on the screen. "You should have warned me. That is horrid. How will you sleep knowing it's there?"
"The light will be out so I won't have to see it."
"I think I'd wear a blindfold during the day." He paused. "You know, you could try that when you get back. I'd be around to make sure you didn't bump into anything."
"Jesus, you're terrible. A one-track mind. And no."
"Won't you let me live out any of my fantasies?"
"Maybe, but not the ones that involve me being blindfolded."
"Hmmm. I'll work on that." He stifled a yawn. "I'm sorry, Ryan. I'd better go."
"Okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you up too late."
"Nah, I was kind of wired. I couldn't sleep when I first got back, I would have just been up watching something anyway."
"All right." She smiled and found herself wishing she could kiss him good-bye. "Get some sleep. And don't worry about the game, I—nope, never mind. No more clichés."
"Fair enough. And you guys be careful."
"We will, don't worry."
They said their good nights and Ryan yawned as she switched off the computer. She needed some sleep as well and looked longingly at the bed, but first she had to brush her teeth. Armed with a sneaker, she went to the bathroom and flipped on the light. She fell back then relaxed when she saw nothing scurrying on the floor or counter. As she brushed her teeth, she debated whether they should keep the light on all night. She didn't like the idea of getting up in the middle of the night and encountering any six-legged roommates.
She left the light on and went back into the room. Lara came in just as Ryan pulled on one of the long t-shirts she slept in.
"Hey, how's Trout?" Ryan asked.
"Good, good." Lara covered a yawn. "He says hi, and check the website tomorrow around ten o'clock. I called my mom, too, she says hi. And your stuff is fine."
Ryan laughed. "Tell her thanks. Can't wait to see the site."
"Me either. So, did you talk to Brody?"
"I did, and oh, my God." She told Lara about the beard and her friend made an approving noise.
"You can't tell him to shave it off. At least, not until you have a chance to experience it for yourself."
"How does one 'experience' a beard? And when have you?"
"Trout had a beard for a while once. It was . . . fun."
Ryan winced. "TMI, Lara, TMI. I do not want to know any more about this. Just—just—no. No no no. I'm going to bed."
"Wuss." Lara chortled on her way to the bathroom.
Ryan laid in the bed and closed her eyes, trying to make the icky feeling of the guys at the bar go away. She concentrated on Brody instead, smiling at the memory of his beard. Too bad he wasn't there, she thought as she turned over. Maybe it would be an interesting experience.
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