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Wicked White (Wicked White Series Book 1) by Michelle A. Valentine (1)

ACE

This place is a fucking circus. Sure, on the outside it may appear to be a well-oiled machine, but to someone who lives it every day, the music business is a crazy ride.

My band is headlining Summerfest tonight. One of the biggest music festivals in America, held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for eleven straight days. It’s pure insanity here.

I sit on display like a monkey in a cage under a white-topped tent in the blazing ninety-degree weather while a line of fans as far as the eye can see wait to get my signature. I’ll give the fans one thing—they’re dedicated, because this heat is miserable.

Jane Ann, my road manager, hovers behind me as the fans come through one by one to get their thirty seconds with me while I sign whatever crap they just bought from the merchandise booth with my band’s name on it, Wicked White. I hate it when she does that—monitors my behavior. It’s times like these when she’s a thorn in my side. If she wasn’t so damn good at her job, and the reason the band gained the notoriety it has, I’d tell her to take a hike.

“Ohmygod! Ace, I love you,” the busty blond wearing a too-tight tank top squeals as she approaches my table. “Will you sign my chest?”

I fight the urge hard to not roll my eyes at this chick. This is the part of my job that I absolutely loathe—signing another human being’s skin. Most of these women have no shame and will flop their tit out on a dime for the thrill of me touching it with a Sharpie. It kills me that I can’t refuse. Jane Ann has made it perfectly clear to me what my role is as a rock star—I’m to smile and sign whatever they ask me to.

“Never refuse a fan. The media is everywhere. One negative video posted to the Internet can ruin your career and the brand we’ve worked so hard to create for Wicked White,” Jane Ann told me last time I complained.

As much as it pains me, I smile at the blond and wave her in closer. “Sure, babe. Just point to the spot.”

The woman giggles and her friends shove her forward, almost daring her to approach me. She grabs the front of her shirt and yanks one side down along with her bra, far enough that half of her nipple is exposed. She runs a finger slowly over the mounded flesh and licks her lips. “Right here.”

I know it’s an act of seduction, and on most men I’m sure this would get the girl noticed, possibly gaining her backstage entrance from a horny motherfucker looking to score with a groupie. That shit don’t work on me, though. I want a nice girl. Someone who I could take home to a mother—if I had one.

The groupie sighs happily as I etch my name with a black Sharpie across her warm skin. It’s completely illegible, but that’s irrelevant considering she’ll more than likely sweat it off before the day’s end.

The rest of her friends, following suit, have me sign their bodies in different places as well.

“After these three, wrap it up. We’ve got to get Ace backstage,” Jane Ann tells the guy in the yellow security shirt standing next to my table.

Great. Nothing like pissing off a couple hundred fans after they stood in line for an hour to meet me.

Jane Ann needs to implement the ticket idea that I suggested earlier this year, but I know she’ll never do it. Limiting tickets limits merch sales, and there’s no way she won’t squeeze out every penny that she can, so that’s out.

After I finish with the last woman, the guard says, “All right, folks, Ace has to go.”

A collective sound of boos flows through the air as I stand and turn away from the table. Jane Ann waits for me with her flaming red hair tossed casually over her shoulder. The bright red leather pants she’s wearing are about two sizes too small, and the low-cut blouse shows entirely too much skin, but that’s her normal, everyday gear. She threads her arm through mine and stares up at me with her blue eyes as she leads me out of the tent toward the backstage area. “The women are really starting to take notice of you, Ace. You’re well on your way to becoming a true sex symbol. Soon Ace White will be a household name.”

I shake my head, not caring a bit if the world knows the stage name the record label gave me. “I could give a shit about that. You know all I care about is the music. Speaking of . . . did you tell the label I plan on writing the songs for the next record?”

She sighs and rolls her eyes. “I did, Ace, but you know how the bigwigs are. They want to make sure the songs appeal to the mass market, so they want to bring in the same producers you worked with on the last album. Johnny Moses has some terrific songs picked out that really fit your voice.”

I pull back, halting her in place. “Hold up. You’ve heard the writers’ demos already and didn’t send them to me?”

“You’ve just been so busy making appearances that I figured you wouldn’t have time and would be happy with what I chose. Don’t you trust my judgment anymore?” She raises a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Remember, it was me helping you change your style that took you to this new platform. This is the level we’ve been dying to get to.”

I shake my head, my dark hair falling into my eyes. “My music would’ve eventually gotten me there.”

She pats my chest as a look of pity crosses her face. “Keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better, but we both know it was me and the choices I made for you that pushed you to this level, not those sad little acoustic songs you sang to bar crowds of twenty people. This is the big leagues, kid. You’d do best not to throw a fit over something as simple as a song choice. You need to give the fans what they’ve grown to expect from you. They’re what bring in the money. Trust me.”

This should shock me, her treating me like a puppet on the string that she controls, but it doesn’t. It’s true that over the last two years since she discovered me, Jane Ann has morphed me into a million-dollar singer. Fronting a band that Mopar Records created should’ve been a dream job, but it’s not. I don’t get to sing any of the music that I enjoy singing—and writing? Forget it. The label won’t trust me with creative liberties one bit.

That’s what pisses me off the most.

I’m an artist. I don’t want to keep re-creating someone else’s vision for my entire career. I want to be free to express myself and control my own success or failure by allowing the fans to hear my original songs, not ones I’m forced to sing.

But it’s been made very clear to me by Jane Ann time and time again that if I want to continue to have label backing, I have to play what they give me until the record label says otherwise.

I know she’s patronizing me, but if I don’t want to lose everything I’ve worked for, I have to go along.

For now.

“All right, but can I at least listen to the new songs I’ll be recording?” I ask, completely deflated.

A satisfied smile pours over her face. She’s clearly delighted I’m giving in. “Of course, darling. After tonight’s show I’ll play them for you.”

Once upon a time I believed this woman was actually my friend. But that was before the piles of cash were rolling in and I became her primary source of income. She told me our friendship didn’t have anything to do with money.

Having friends has never been one of my strong suits in my last twenty-six years, so I desperately wanted to believe that Jane Ann was someone I could actually trust. She seemed genuinely to have my best interests at heart regarding my music career when I first met her, but now I’m not so sure that she does.

It was lonely growing up as a foster child, bouncing from place to place—never really having a steady home. I never had time to make friends, not real ones anyway. That’s what led me to music. It was the one constant in my life. The one thing no one could ever take away from me. I spent most of my youth alone in my room, learning to play every instrument known to man. Focusing on something other than the fact that my real mother didn’t want me anymore seemed to keep me out of trouble.

I walk next to Jane Ann as we wind our way through the maze of roadies and stagehands working to get everything ready for Wicked White’s set. “Are the rest of the guys here?”

“Yes. Already warmed up and ready. They were waiting until you were done with your autograph session to go over tonight’s set list with you.”

“Good,” I say. “I hate when they’re late and we have to go round them up.”

“I’ve spoken with them about their tardiness and explained just because they were the best the studio could find for the job doesn’t mean they aren’t replaceable. Everyone is replaceable.”

Even me is what I’m dying to say, but know that she’d just laugh and yet deny it. Jane Ann is a label talent scout but has put that position on hold to be my tour manager since this is my first major tour and I have issues with trusting random strangers. Jane Ann also gets a percentage of all my money like an agent would. Last year alone Wicked White grossed over six million dollars from the tour, not counting any of the money made on music downloads and miscellaneous shit that got sold with the band name on it.

Wicked White is not a real band, but a product.

The cell in my back pocket buzzes with the alert of an incoming call, so I grab it and check the screen.

The name that flashes isn’t one that I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s always nice to hear from the one person that I actually care about.

I pull away from Jane Ann. “Excuse me. I have to take this.”

After I take a couple steps, I press the green button. “Hey, Mom. How are you?”

“Ace Johnson?” The deep voice on the other end is one that I don’t recognize. It puzzles me how this strange man knows my real name, and why is he calling from my foster mother’s home number?

“Yes. Do I know you?”

“No. I’m afraid not. I’m Officer Butler with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, and I’m afraid that I have some upsetting news. Ms. Sarah Johnson was found in her home unresponsive moments ago. She’s been transferred to Grant Medical Center in critical condition. As you’re listed as her son in her address book, we thought you would like to be notified.” His tone is very businesslike as he rattles off the specifics on where the hospital is located, but I’m barely registering what he’s saying.

I swallow hard as I’m faced with the hard reality that the one person in the world that gives a shit about me may not make it. I need to be with her. I have to get there. Now. “Thank you, Officer. I’m on my way.”

When I end the call, I stuff my phone into my back pocket and turn to find Jane Ann staring at me with narrowed eyes. “Where exactly are you on your way to?”

I square my shoulders. I know she’s not going to like what I have to say, but it doesn’t matter. Not Jane Ann, or anyone else for that matter, is going to stand in my way of getting to Mom. “My mother is sick. She needs me.”

I turn in the opposite direction of the stage, but Jane Ann is quick to follow on my heels. “You can’t leave now!”

“Watch me,” I say.

“Ace, wait!” Jane Ann grabs my arm and jumps in front of me to halt me from going any farther. “Let’s think reasonably. You’re on tour. There are fifteen thousand people out in that crowd tonight that have paid their hard-earned money to see you. Just go out and do the show, then we’ll talk about you driving to Ohio tonight. You can’t make the fans suffer. It will kill your career if you stand them up.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. A huge part of me wants to tell her to fuck off and just go, but there’s a part that hates the idea of losing my career. I’ve worked so hard to get to where I’m at, so I’m torn.

After a few moments of debate, I sigh, deciding that I can just jet after our set. “Fine. Let’s get this show on the road.”

Jane Ann smiles, her white teeth sparkling, when she’s figured out that she’s gotten her way. “You’re making the right decision, Ace.”

Anger boils within me that I’m stuck here, unable to leave like I want for fear of what I’d lose.

Jane Ann hooks her arm through mine and leads me toward the stage again. Once we make it to where the rest of the guys in my band are standing around waiting to take the stage, they all glance up in my direction. The guys have on their standard 100 percent white stage attire, a corny gimmick Jane Ann thought would be good as our signature look on stage.

JJ’s blue eyes meet mine, and then he quickly glances in the opposite direction. He always looks pissed off. The dark hair and tan complexion he has just increase his menacing appearance. JJ Kraft, known as JJ White to the world—another ridiculous demand by the label for us to all use White as our last names on stage—is the lead guitarist for Wicked White, but that job isn’t the one he really wants. It’s been difficult becoming a cohesive unit with the guys in the band, namely because we never knew each other before the label slapped us all together and told us if we wanted a deal, we needed to get along and be professional. Money and fame are two things that are difficult for any band to struggle with once they come their way, but it’s even harder when you have no personal connection with one another.

JJ has always had his eye on my job. He wants to be the front man so bad he can taste it, and I guess having to follow my lead is enough to set him off every damn day. It’s like he’s just biding his time, waiting for me to screw up so he can jump in and take my spot.

“I’m glad all you guys are here on time,” Jane Ann addresses the band as we stand in a circle. “I see my little warning of imposing fines for tardiness has made a difference.”

“Not all of us have you as our personal fucking wristwatch,” Tyler, our drummer, answers snidely, a piece of his dirty-blond hair falling into his eyes. “Why don’t the rest of us get the same coddling that Ace gets? You always take it easy on him.”

Luke, our redheaded bass player, laughs beside him, obviously in total agreement that I’m babied.

I could try to defend myself—tell these guys to fuck off because I don’t get any special treatment, but I can’t. I know I get treated differently. Time and time again when I ask Jane Ann to stop making a fuss over just me all the time, she tells me that I’m the true talent of this band—the rest of the guys are a dime a dozen. But me, I’m the star—the one people pay good money to see.

“So what’s our set list like for tonight, Your Highness?” JJ asks mockingly.

My nostrils flare as I attempt to rein in my already boiling anger. “Same set as last night, but we’ll be canceling the next couple of shows on the tour.”

“What?!” Jane Ann and JJ ask in unison.

I flinch, completely flustered as to why Jane Ann acts like this is news to her. We just talked about me leaving a few minutes ago, so this shouldn’t shock her. Now JJ, on the other hand, I knew he’d be pissed. If we don’t play the dates booked, we don’t get paid.

“What the fuck do you mean we’re canceling?” Luke asks, his fiery tone matching the color of his hair. “We’ve booked enough dates to be set for a long time. We can’t go canceling shit now.”

“Look, guys, I’m sorry, but my mother is sick—”

“That’s horseshit. You don’t even have a mother. You were a fucking orphan.”

“Shut your damn mouth before I shut it for you,” I fire back.

JJ takes a step closer to me. “That sounds like a threat.”

“You bet your ass it was.”

My pulse races under my skin as JJ and I stand almost toe to toe while we stare each other down. I’ve got him by at least two inches with my six-foot frame, but he’s got about sixty pounds on me. He’s a gym rat, where I pride myself on speed and agility with running.

I don’t like to fight. It goes against the mellow life I want to lead, but I’m not afraid to defend myself or anyone else that may need my help.

Jane Ann wedges her small body between us when she sees that neither of us plans on backing down anytime soon. “Both of you knock this shit off right now. I won’t tolerate physical violence of any kind. This isn’t going to happen if you want to stay on Mopar’s payroll.”

JJ takes a step back and raises his hands in surrender. “Fine. Just keep Boy Wonder here out of my face.”

I tense and begin to lunge forward, but Jane Ann’s hand on my chest stops me. “Cool it, Ace. This is neither the time nor place.” She turns to the rest of the guys. “You three, go wait side stage.”

I take a deep breath and blow it out through pursed lips as the guys walk away from me. Never did I imagine a music career being this full of utter bullshit. Not only do I constantly have Jane Ann up my ass about doing what’s best for Wicked White, but the label and the band love to jump on me every chance they get.

I fucking hate it.

I wish I’d never signed that deal.

I wish I still played to small crowds and lived in the land of obscurity.

Jane Ann whips her head back in my direction. “What in the hell were you thinking telling them you’re canceling shows? You don’t have that kind of authority.”

“But you just said that I could go after the show tonight,” I argue. “Why wouldn’t I tell them I’ll be gone for a couple days?”

She shakes her head. “I never said that you could go. Do you know how much money we’ll lose if you don’t show up at those next two shows? You aren’t going anywhere.”

I open my mouth to protest, but Jane Ann begins shoving me in the direction of the stage the moment Wicked White’s name is announced. “Now get out there.”

Flabbergasted and almost in a dreamlike state, I allow her to keep pushing me until I’ve got one foot on the stage. Tyler, Luke, and JJ begin playing the first song in our set list, and I stare at Jane Ann.

This woman isn’t my friend.

I turn and take in the faces of each of my bandmates one by one. None of them are my friends. They could give a shit less about me. I just told them my mother is sick and they all blow me off like my feelings don’t matter.

I thread my fingers into my bronze hair as it hits me hard. I hate these people just as much as they hate me, and I can’t be around them for one more second. I don’t care what I’m losing. It’s nothing compared with my sanity and the self-worth I’ll lose by sticking around and continuing to be used.

To make sure they get my message above the deafening music that’s playing around the outdoor stage, I raise both of my hands to the guys and flip them the middle finger before I storm off stage.

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