With the worn-to-hell baseball cap pulled low over his face, Jeremy Jameson walked into the bar. At least he assumed it was a bar, based on the lopsided sign out front that simply said "Bar" in peeling red paint and the stench of beer and cigarette smoke that permeated the air. The interior space wasn't any cleaner or hipper than the parking lot.
Jeremy tried to remember the last time he had been in a club or bar or restaurant that wasn't sleek with carefully positioned lighting and well-maintained fixtures. Never. The answer to that question was never. Even musicians who started on the bottom and worked their way up probably wouldn't have come to a dive like this; it was too small, too out of the way, and it didn't have a stage or any room to set up equipment.
Internally lecturing himself for thinking about work when he was supposed to be taking time for himself, he forced himself to stop focusing on music and start focusing on beer. A place like this probably wouldn't have imports or microbrews. Maybe he'd ask for whatever they had on tap and call it done. Easier to blend in that way.
"What can I get you?" the whiskey-voiced bartender asked the second Jeremy slid his butt onto the stool.
"A pint of whatever you have on tap."
"Coming right up."
Tugging the hat lower to make sure his famous green eyes were shadowed, Jeremy glanced around. It was early—seven o'clock on a Tuesday night—so the place was empty save for a table in back where a couple seemed to be arguing. Although for all he knew, the bar could be that empty every night. He'd never find out, because he had no plans to return to Munds Park, Arizona. The town didn't have a concert arena, and Jeremy couldn't think of any other reason to be there.
"Here you go, man." The bartender slid the cool glass in front of him and then wiped his hands on the towel he had tucked into his baggy Levi's. "So what brings you in tonight? Passing through town or looking to hide from the world?"
Both, actually, and the fact that the stranger knew that sent Jeremy's stomach dropping. He jerked his head up, which meant the man could see his eyes, and then he darted his gaze around the bar, fully expecting to find a gang of paparazzi equipped with cameras and microphones. Instead he saw the same grungy brown walls, scratched wood tables, and sticky concrete floor.
"Hey, I didn't mean anything by it," the bartender said good-naturedly. He patted Jeremy's shoulder. "Just shootin' the shit, you know?" He waved his hand around the bar slowly. "It's pretty dead in here."
Realizing his overreaction to the innocuous comment was obvious, Jeremy felt his cheeks heat. His attempt at being normal had pretty much consisted of hiding in less glamorous locations than his usual haunts and sitting in the driver's seat of a rented sedan instead of the back of a luxury car or tour bus or private plane. Same life, different scenery.
Drawing in a deep breath, he met the bartender's gaze, figuring he had either already blown his attempt at going incognito, or the dim light in the space combined with his well-placed hat were offering sufficient cover to keep his face hidden. "Sorry. I, uh, didn't mean to…" He had no idea how to finish his sentence without admitting the reason for his strange behavior.
"No sweat, man," the bartender said easily. He rubbed his hand over the back of his closely shorn brown hair and grinned. "Everyone needs space once in a while." He started walking toward the other end of the bar, presumably to give Jeremy exactly that. "Holler when you're ready for another drink."
The booted feet had taken only two steps before Jeremy inexplicably said, "Both."
His eyebrows arched in question, the guy looked back over his broad shoulder, his brown eyes focused on Jeremy.
Usually he didn't like having people stare at him, but the bartender had seemed genuinely interested in chatting with him. He didn't know who Jeremy was, so that meant his interest wasn't in selling information to the magazines or gathering facts like a scientist examining a bug. He just wanted to talk. It was refreshing.
"You asked if I was passing through town or if I was looking to hide from the world." Lowering his gaze, Jeremy swallowed hard and said, "I'm doing both."
"Yeah?" The man turned on his heel and returned. "Cool. Where're you from?"
A simple question. Relaxing at the novelty of it, he kept looking the guy in the face. "California."
"Northern or Southern?" the bartender asked. "I was in a frat in college, and we had a bunch of guys from Cali." He shrugged. "Guess our out-of-state tuition's lower than your in-state. Anyway, the NoCal-SoCal rivalry was legendary."
Jeremy could have gone to college—he'd had the option even though his grades in high school hadn't been great—but he'd never had any desire or seen the point. Music was his life, had always been his life, and he had figured no professor could teach him as much about it as he already knew or could learn from his father's friends. Fourteen years recording albums, touring the world, and winning awards had proven him right. At thirty-one, he was at the top of his game. No degree needed.
"All right, so listen to this," the bartender said, smoothly moving on when Jeremy didn't answer his question. "This one semester, the guy in charge of the pledge class—" He paused and furrowed his brow in concentration. "Feltus was his name, I think. Anyway, he was from Palo Alto, and there were like five dudes in the pledge class from OC." He chuckled. "So one night, during hell week, Feltus takes the pledges out to the desert—this was in Tempe; I went to ASU—and he has them dig holes in the ground. Then he tells the SoCal guys to get in, has the other pledges bury them up to their necks, and makes everyone pile into their cars and drive back to campus." The bartender shook his head. "Fuckin' crazy rivalry, man. I tell you."
People said rock stars were wild, but Jeremy hadn't ever seen anybody get buried alive. Oddly fascinated by the story, he rested his forearms on the bar, leaned forward, and said, "Then what happened? Did anybody get hurt?"
"Nah." The bartender shook his head. "It sounds worse than it was. It's not like the dirt was packed or anything. The guys were able to get themselves out, and right after, a few of the other pledges drove back and picked them up."
"They must have been terrified," Jeremy said, shaking his head.
"It was hell week," he said with a snort. "They were too fucked up to be terrified."
Jeremy chuckled, took a drink of his beer, and sighed contentedly, feeling relaxed for the first time in a long time. It was nice to sit and chat with someone about nothing for no reason.
"I'm Reggie, by the way." The bartender wiped his hand on the towel and then extended it over the bar. "Reggie Moore. But everyone calls me Reg."
After sliding his palm on his gray skinny jeans, Jeremy held it out and shook Reg's hand. "Nice to meet you, Reg. I'm—" He paused, trying to decide if he should stop there, give a fake name, or be honest. He landed on something in between. "Jeremy."
"What brings you to Munds Park on this fine Tuesday evening, Jeremy?" Reg snagged the almost-empty glass, held it under the tap, and refilled it. "You on your way to Flag?"
Jeremy's confused expression must have given Reg his answer.
"All right, that's a negative on the journey to Flagstaff." He leaned over the bar and perused Jeremy, or at least as much of Jeremy as he could see considering the lighting was crap and Jeremy was seated. "No dirt all over your clothes, so you can't be on your way back from the canyon—"
"I am, actually," Jeremy corrected him.
"Oh really? Cool. Did you hike the south rim? I do that trail a few times a year. Did you go to 'Supai Falls?"
"No, I didn't hike. Didn't have time. I just wanted to see it. I've lived one state over most of my life, and I've never been." Raising his hand to drag it through his hair, Jeremy hit the baseball cap, which reminded him to be careful sharing too much information, no matter how minor, with a stranger. People had a way of twisting things around when they sold them to the highest bidder looking for a catchy headline: "Jeremy Jameson Jumps into Grand Canyon in Drunken Craze."
"You look like you're in good shape, man. You've got to hike it next time," Reg said excitedly. "The falls are amazing."
Hopping around on stage night after night required a hell of lot of energy and stamina, which wasn't as easy in his thirties as it had been in his twenties. Jeremy had a concert tour starting in just over a week, so he had upped his normal exercise routine. It seemed the results were evident, which made him puff up.
"I'll do that," he said, more to be polite than because he meant it. The reality was, he didn't know when he'd next have free time, and scheduling a hiking trip would probably give his manager a coronary.
"Cool." Reg beamed. "Let me go check on those guys"—he nudged his chin in the direction of the only other people in the bar—"and then I'll tell you the best spot to camp."
Stopping in for one drink turned into spending the entire evening at the bar, sipping mediocre beer and having a great conversation. People came in and out, having a drink, bending Reg's ear about their concern with the state of politics or what team stood a chance that season or whatever issue they were having with their girlfriend or wife. And in between those conversations, Reg always returned to Jeremy, smiling and chatting, sharing funny stories and asking questions that didn't seem designed to do anything but get to know him. Jeremy was having a better time than he could ever remember.
After a mutual laughing fit about yet another of Reg's college tales, Reg put an end to Jeremy's joy by saying, "Hey, Jeremy, man, I don't want to rush you out of here, but we usually close at midnight during the week, and it's almost one."
"Oh." Suddenly feeling sober and tense again, Jeremy rubbed his hand over his nose and reached for his leather jacket, which he'd tossed over the empty barstool next to him hours earlier. "Sure. Yeah. Sorry about that." He pulled a handful of bills out of his wallet and threw them on the bar, not bothering to count them. "Keep the change."
Keys in hand, Jeremy climbed off his stool, planning to leave the bar. He was surprised when Reg darted his upper body forward and snagged his keys.
"Hold on, man. It's late and you're drunk. Is there someone who can come pick you up?"
Jeremy snorted. "No. I'm in, uh…." He tried to remember the name of the nothing little town. "Whatever Park." He rolled his eyes. "Why would I know anybody here?"
"Wow. I've had people turn into violent shitheads when I cut them off, but snobby diva is new." Reg flung his ever-present towel into the bar sink and locked up the register. "I was going to offer you my couch for the night, 'cause there aren't any motels in walking distance, and I have better beer than we serve here, but you can go ahead and sleep it off in your car, superstar. I'll bring you your keys in the morning."
"Oh." Hearing that Reg hadn't been throwing him out but had, instead, been trying to change locations, vanquished Jeremy's resurfacing tension. With that relief came the realization that he had acted like all the stuck-up assholes he couldn't stand. "Crap." Falling into a nervous childhood habit he hadn't been fully able to shake, Jeremy tugged the collar of his salmon-colored T-shirt into his mouth and chewed on it. "I didn't mean to, uh…" He rubbed his palm over his eyes. "I'm sorry that I…" A thought slammed into him, making him flinch and then gape at Reg. "You called me superstar."
"I also called you a snobby diva." Reg arched his eyebrows. "Are you ready to earn a spot on my couch and a bottle of Kilt Lifter by playing nice?"
"Yeah, I, uh, don't know why I said that. I'm not usually, uh…"
"Stuck up?" Reg grinned while he said the word, somehow making it seem more like friendly banter than an insult. "An entitled prick?" He stepped out from behind the bar, still smiling. With both of them standing, Jeremy realized Reg was at least half a foot taller than him. "Such a douche nozzle?" He playfully bumped his arm against Jeremy's shoulder. "Stop me anytime, man. I'm running out of words here."
"Do you know who I am?" Jeremy asked as they walked side by side to the door.
"Are you being a conceited dick again?"
"No. No." Jeremy held up both hands in protest. "I'm serious. You called me…" He sighed, took his hat off, and wiped it against his brow. "Never mind."
"Purple, huh?" Reg asked, glancing at Jeremy's hair. He flicked off the light and then pushed the door open and held it with an outstretched arm, leaving room for Jeremy to pass. "Looks good. You're into the colored hair, right? I think I remember seeing a picture when it was green."
Standing in the cool night air, Jeremy watched Reg lock up. "So you do know who I am?"
"Man, I don't live under a rock. 'Course I know who you are." He turned around and started walking, twirling the key ring over his finger. "At first I didn't, because it's dark in there, but we've been talking for, what? Six hours straight?" He shook his head. "It's not like I can't see your face."
Following a few steps behind, Jeremy processed the comment. The fact that Reg recognized him wasn't a surprise. In fact, the opposite would have been hard to believe. But he wasn't acting like most—or really any—people did when they met The Jeremy Jameson.
"Why aren't you freaking out?"
"Dude." Reg shook his head and laughed. "You sure do think a lot of yourself."
"No, I don't." Jeremy rushed forward so he could catch up to Reg. "It's just that usually people act different when they meet me."
"Oh." Reg was quiet for a beat. "Because you're famous?"
Famous. Rich. Powerful. Attractive. And, he liked to think, extremely talented. "Yes."
"Yup." Reg nodded, as if in understanding, which made no sense because a bartender from Nowhereville couldn't possibly understand the first thing about what it was like to be a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning recording artist. "People are weird."
Well, that was one thing they could both agree on.
"So, uh, you live nearby?" Jeremy asked when they started walking along the side of the road, leaving the parking lot behind.
"Uh-huh. I'm right over there." Reg pointed at a tiny house. "I'm on the right side, and my landlord and his wife are on the left."
At first the description didn't make sense, but when they got closer, Jeremy noticed two front doors and realized the small house was actually a duplex.
"Why'd you move back here after college?" Jeremy asked, hoping the question didn't come off as judgmental but wanting to understand why someone as vibrant and personable as Reg had decided to settle down in a nothing town. "I mean, I know you said your mother and your brother are still here, but Phoenix is close, right? You could live there and see them all the time."
"Yup. But it costs more to live there, and I wanted to save up, so I came home." He unlocked his door and stepped aside, letting Jeremy walk into the house first.
The inside looked like the outside: dated, flat, and nothing to write home about. Reg had told him he'd gotten his degree in accounting. That had to pay more than whatever he made tending bar in an all-but-empty dive.
"But you could probably find a job in your field if you lived in a bigger city. Then you'd make more so you could save more."
"I tried that." Reg followed him inside and kicked the door closed. "I worked at one of the big accounting firms after graduation." He walked over to the fridge wedged into the corner of the room that served as the kitchen. "I didn't last there two years."
"Why not? You seem pretty smart."
"Summa cum laude," Reg said as he pulled out a couple of beers.
"Never mind." Chuckling, Reg knocked the beer caps off by slamming them against the side of the counter, and then stepped over to Jeremy, holding one out. "I left accounting because I'm not a morning person, and being holed up in an office all day fucking killed me." He tilted his bottle against his lips and took a long swallow. "So I ran back home with my tail between my legs, got a job at the bar, and started saving up so I can go backpacking somewhere. That was a year and a half ago. I figure in another few years I'll have enough to take off for a while and wander." He flopped onto his couch, making the springs squeak.
"Where do you want to go?" Jeremy flicked his gaze around the room, settled it on a brown plaid armchair across from the couch, and stepped over to it.
"I don't know yet," Reg said with a shrug. "Alaska, maybe. I've heard it's cool, lots of great hiking. I've got time to figure it out."
Jeremy sank onto the chair and took a pull of his beer. "This is good."
"Yup. Their IPA's awesome too. I have some in the fridge when you're ready for another bottle."
He looked at the label. "Four Peaks? Haven't heard of it."
"They're local, out of Tempe." Reg ran his thumb over the top of the longneck. "How about you?"
"How about me what?"
"Do you like what you do?"
"Most of it," Jeremy said honestly, settling into the chair and stretching his legs out. "The music part, I love."
"You're a musician," Reg pointed out. "Isn't all of it the music part?"
"Nah." Jeremy shook his head. "I mean, the music comes first, yeah? But there's also all the publicity crap. Interviews, events, photographers everywhere." He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It sucks."
"Not a people person, huh?" Reg said, the sideways grin that was starting to look familiar making a welcome appearance.
There was no denying it. "I'm really, really not."
"I was kidding, man." Reg dropped his head against the back of the couch. "You're totally cool."
"Cool, yes," Jeremy agreed. He held the neck of the bottle between his pointer finger and his thumb and swung it from side to side, watching the remaining liquid slosh. "But as a rule, people piss me off, which is probably a good thing, because then I don't get mad when they take off." Whoa. That was more bitter and more honest than he'd intended on being.
"What do you mean?"
Reg didn't push. Looking relaxed, he took another swig of beer.
Suddenly, Jeremy felt like sharing. It was probably all the alcohol, the late hour, and the fact that Reg had one of those bartender personalities that made people want to unburden themselves. "What I mean is that I'm never in one place for long. I'm supposed to be seen at all sorts of events, and I have to meet with photographers and print journalists and TV people. Women enjoy that for a little while, especially if they're trying to get noticed, right? I mean, if they're with me, they figure their pictures will turn up places, and then they'll get their big break. But then they realize it isn't really that cool. Mostly they have to stand around waiting for me to finish what I'm doing, and, unless they're already well known, people ignore them. Or if they do get photographed, it's when they're not expecting it and someone catches them without makeup or on a fat day—whatever that means—and they flip out and blame me."
"You should date another famous person," Reg suggested. "She'd be used to all that already."
"Tried it," Jeremy said. "More than once. I never saw them. I was busy doing my shit; they were busy doing their shit." He shook his head and drained his beer. "It was hopeless." Flinging his forearm over his eyes, he sighed. "It's fine. Whatever. Just gets lonely sometimes, is all. And I'm about to go on a big tour to promote the new album, which is the worst. This one'll be for more than six months."
"You don't like touring?" Reg asked incredulously. "Don't you get to go to a bunch of new places and see new things?"
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, I do."
It was hard to explain. At his level, tours didn't consist of grungy busses and cheap motels. He stayed in great places and flew most of the time, especially for international tours, which was what he was about to launch. And even though there wasn't a lot of downtime, he could take in the sights before a show or between shows. But whatever he did, he had to do alone.
"You're lucky," Reg said wistfully. "That sounds amazing."
"You should come with me," Jeremy joked. "I'll tell everyone I stopped dating starlets, and you're my new arm candy."
"Man, I wish." Reg got up. "Want another beer?"
"Sure." He handed Reg his empty. "It sounds good now, but trust me, you'd hate it." Everyone he'd tried to take with him hated it. Last time he toured, his girlfriend of eight months, who had claimed to love him, had broken up with him after two months and started dating an up-and-coming actor.
"No way. How could anybody hate traveling the world?" Reg handed him his beer and sat back down.
"Going from place to place. Having to sit around while I'm on stage. During the day, there's time to do some sightseeing or whatever, and sometimes we have dead nights in between shows, but most nights I'm performing, and then, after, I'm beat, and all I want to do is veg on a couch, drink a beer, and—"
"Shoot the shit?" Reg offered. "Kind of like we're doing now except in more exotic places?"
"Yeah, but I'm not usually this fun."
"It's true. I'm annoying in longer doses." He tried to remember words his exes had used. "Needy. Whiny. Grouchy."
"You're cool, man. And you're dating the wrong girls if they complain about getting to hang out with you and see the world."
"Seriously? You think that sounds fun?"
"Like I said, sign me up." Reg got up, walked over to the window, and wiggled it open. "Sorry, man, no A/C." He grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked it over his head, exposing a sculpted six-pack, cut arms, and a striking tattoo that started on his left shoulder and moved down to just above his wrist. With a body that ripped, a handsome face, and the ever-present smile, Reg could easily be in a magazine. "It usually doesn't get hot like this until June." He tossed his shirt on the couch before collapsing on it with another loud bounce. "Barely into May, and it's already sweltering."
"You ever consider going into modeling?"
Reg rolled his head to the side and gave Jeremy a look that clearly indicated the answer was no.
"Don't look at me like that." He pointed the bottom of his bottle toward Reg. "You have the body for it."
"I have the body for hiking, climbing, spelunking, and spending my free time at the gym."
After taking another appraising look, Jeremy had to agree. Reg wasn't slender like the men who modeled high-end clothing, or wiry like him. He was broad and thickly muscled. Any kind of modeling he did would probably involve a minimum amount of clothing, like some of the swimsuit models Jeremy had dated.
"It isn't a bad idea," Jeremy mumbled, the thought taking root.
"Dude, I don't want to be a model. Let it go."
"No, not that." Jeremy shook his head and straightened his back. "I'm talking about bringing you on tour. You want to travel, and you have no trouble making small talk with anybody, drunks included." Jeremy had witnessed that firsthand at the bar. "I'm sick of going on the road alone and having to take whatever girl my manager sends over to premieres and shit." He beamed. "It's perfect."
"Wait." Reg sat up, his eyes wide. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, ehm, Reggie Moore, will you be my pretend boyfriend for the next seven months? The gig pays whatever it is you're making now at that bar, and it comes with free travel, room and board. In exchange, all you have to do is smile pretty if I have a public event, make nice with a bunch of people who think they're really important, and, in our downtime, get drunk with me or teach me how to rock climb or cave dive or whatever other cool stuff you do. What do you say?"
"As a heart attack." Feeling light and happy, Jeremy smiled broadly. "And I won't even make you suck my dick."