CHAPTER ONE

 

"So, what do you think?" It was Monday morning and my boss, Parker Deering, was leaning in my office doorway. He beamed proudly as he held up a tiny strip of white cloth. "Isn't it awesome?"

 

I peered up from my desk at the patch of fabric in his hands. "Is that a thong?"

 

Parker chuckled. "No—though, now that you mention it, thongs are a great idea. We could order them to sell at the merch booth. This," he added, twirling the tiny cloth around his finger, "is the new Castle Rock staff T-shirt."

 

"That's a shirt?" My tone was skeptical.

 

"Yep. Came in this morning. I've got a whole box of these babies in my office."

 

I blinked up at him. "Are you nuts? It's November. The bartenders will freeze in those."

 

Parker gave a dismissive wave. "They'll be fine. Both stages are indoors, and the place is always packed with dancing people. Nobody can freeze in all that body heat." He hooked the shirt over his thumb and aimed it like a slingshot, sending it flying toward me. It soared in an arc above my desk before landing in my lap. "And they're not just for the bartenders. That's yours."

 

I picked up the sleazy shirt between my thumb and forefinger and dropped it into the small wastebasket beside my desk. "I am not wearing that."

 

"Aw, come on, Amelia. Be a team player." Parker gave me a wry smile, clearly enjoying my reaction to the tiny tee.

 

"Nuh-uh. I'm the booking agent and venue manager. I bring in the talent and make sure they don't burn the place down. Wearing a G-string for a shirt isn't in my job description."

 

"But you'll look hot in it," he said, his eyes flicking briefly below the neckline of my crimson top.

 

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. Though I wasn't especially well-endowed, I was pretty sure the girls wouldn't fit under the strip of fabric he was trying to pass off as a uniform. "Castle Rock is a concert venue, not a strip club. People don't care what we wear—they come here for the music…and the booze."

 

"And now they'll come for the chicks too." Parker walked over to my trashcan and fished the shirt back out. He set it on my desk and slid it towards me. "We've got the sex and rock n' roll. Now all we need is the drugs." He winked.

 

"I'm starting to think you're already on something," I said. "What possessed you to order these in the first place? The ghost of Hugh Hefner?"

 

"He's still alive—just really old." Parker shrugged. "I just think we need to spice things up a little around here. Sex sells."

 

"Yeah—if you're a prostitute," I grumbled.

 

Parker's grin faded. "Just wear it for one night, Ame," he said, suddenly sounding tired. He gave me an imploring look. "Please."

 

I studied my boss more closely. There were worry lines around his brown eyes, and the tendons in his neck were as taught as piano wire. He looked stressed. "Is everything alright?" I asked.

 

Parker's worried expression evaporated, replaced by his usual lazy grin. "Of course," he said, shrugging. "I just want you to give these shirts a shot. If they don't go over well, we'll scrap 'em. I got them at a pretty large discount, so we won't be out too much money anyway."

 

"Fine." I sighed. "You're the boss. Just remember this next week during my review." My annual evaluation was coming up, and this week was my last chance to show Parker I deserved a promotion. If that meant sucking it up and donning one of these skanky shirts for a night, then so be it.

 

Parker's face brightened. He rapped his knuckles on my desk. "Done!"

 

"And one more thing."

 

He nodded. "Name it."

 

"You have to break the news to Kat." My best friend, the Promotions Director at Castle Rock, wasn't going to be thrilled when she saw the new change to our work wardrobe.

 

Parker smirked. "I can handle Kat," he said, turning to my office door.

 

"It's your funeral," I muttered as he disappeared down the hall. My phone rang, and I scooted my chair closer to the desk to answer it. "Castle Rock, Amelia Grace speaking." The man on the other end of the line demanded to know where he could pick up his tickets for the show that night. I bit back a snarky retort and politely told him our box office hours. Doesn't anyone check the info on our website anymore? I thought moodily as I placed the phone back into the receiver. That's why it's posted. It was the day of a big show, and seven people had already called to ask the same question.

 

I picked up the shirt Parker left on my desk and eyed it warily. The white tee was at least three sizes too small and had "Castle Rockettes" screen-printed across the chest in swirly black letters. "Parker, you're smoking some pretty crazy stuff if you think the rest of the staff is going to go for this," I said under my breath.

 

"Who's smoking what?"

 

I looked up to find Kat Taylor standing in my doorway. Her light brown hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, and she was wearing a sky blue Foo Fighters tee and jeans.

 

"Hey, " I greeted her. "Talked to Parker lately?"

 

"Nah." She stepped into the room and took a seat in the chair across from my desk. "His office door was shut when I got in. I found this hanging on my doorknob, though. Wanna tell me about it?" She held up another teeny white shirt and looked askance at me.

 

I groaned. I should've known Parker would pull a drop-and-dash. He knew Kat would find the shirt and head straight for my office to get the lowdown. Coward. "They were Parker's idea. He said he wanted to sex up our dress code."

 

Kat raised a brow. "Are you kidding me? Look how tiny it is! For a minute I thought we were selling new merchandise for toddlers." She stretched the scrap of cloth across her chest. "I can barely fit one boob in here."

 

"He wants us to wear them tonight."

 

She scoffed. "If he thinks we're going to wear these, he's lost his damn mind."

 

I pushed my chair back from my desk and crossed one leg over the other. "What's up with him lately?"

 

"What do you mean?" Kat asked.

 

I lifted my shoulder in a half-shrug. "Doesn't he seem a little off? I mean, we kid each other sometimes, which is fine—but over the past couple of days, he's been a little too friendly. I could've sworn he was flirting with me earlier."

 

Kat's eyes went wide, and she leaned forward in her chair. "Flirting with you?" she asked, scrunching her nose.

 

I nodded. "And not just with me—I even caught him hitting on Bertha Walters when she brought the mail this morning."

 

"He made a pass at Butch Bertha?"

 

"He told her he loved her new crew cut. Said it complimented her 'sexy unibrow.'"

 

She cringed. "He didn't!"

 

"Oh, he did—and now, these." I gestured to the shirts. "It's like he wants to turn Castle Rock into the Playboy Mansion."

 

Kat rose and put her hands on her hips. "Don't worry. I'll handle Parker."

 

"Funny—he said the same thing about you."

 

"Is that right?" Her expression soured. Kat turned on her heel, started for the door, and paused in the threshold. "Hey, let's hit up Camila's before sound check. I have a feeling I'm going to need a drink."

 

The thought of an extra-large slice of pizza with melted cheese and pepperoni from Camila's Pizzeria made my stomach growl. "Deal. I've just got to wrap up ticket counts and get the will call list ready for tonight. I'll come grab you on my way out."

 

"You got it." Kat grinned. "I can almost taste the sangria." I smiled back at her as she turned and fluttered off, her ponytail swishing behind her.

I've known Katherine Taylor since we were kids. We grew up on the same street and were super close, even though we had little in common back then. My bombshell bestie was the Homecoming Queen, and I was the shy band nerd. While she was cheering on the football team and running the prom committee, I had my ears plugged with headphones and my nose buried in a book.

 

Kat and I did share some interests, the greatest of which was rock n' roll. We bonded over reading interviews with Dave Grohl and listening to the latest album from The Pixies. After majoring in Music Business at Georgia State, we'd even found jobs in the industry together. Parker Deering hired us both straight out of college to work at Castle Rock, Atlanta's hottest concert venue. At the time, Parker himself was only helping out part-time for his father who owned the event space.

 

At twenty-seven, Kat and I were practically running Castle Rock while Parker reaped the benefits. Kat handled promotions and marketing, and I pulled double duty as the booking agent and general manager. Parker didn't really handle much of the day-to-day business—he sat back and enjoyed a carefree bachelor lifestyle while we hustled to bring in a profit. That was hopefully all about to change. If I could keep everything running smoothly during the busy week ahead, Parker would consider promoting me from hourly employee to salaried business partner. I'd be one step closer to achieving my dream of owning my own concert venue. I spent the next three hours buried in spreadsheets and stacks of tickets. We had three sold-out shows at Castle Rock this week—all before the weekend. The Pop Rock Prince himself, Bobby Glitter, would be in town that afternoon for his first of three shows upstairs on our High Court stage. I was under a major time crunch to organize all of the will call tickets for the box office and look over the logistics for his stage setup. He was shooting his comeback tour video during the week's performances.

 

It was just after two when I finally looked up from my desk. My Felix the Cat wall clock stared down at me with its wide eyes, swinging its tail to-and-fro as it ticked the passing seconds. If I were going to grab lunch before Bobby and his crew arrived, I'd need to leave soon. Maybe a drink would help calm my nerves, too. I'm always jittery on the day of a show, but having a rock icon like Bobby here during the most important week of my career ratcheted up my anxiety a few more notches.

 

I locked my office and started down the hall to find Kat, passing Parker's closed door along the way. An old Kansas song blared from the other side, and I figured he must be in the middle of his afternoon yoga. He'd invited the staff to join him on several occasions, but I couldn't find my center with Def Leppard blasting in my ear. Only Parker could do sun salutations to classic rock.

 

At the other end of the hall, Kat's door was closed. I reached up to knock but hesitated as a man's laugh sounded from inside her office. I paused to listen. His low, gravelly chuckle was somewhat muted by the thick wooden door. There was an exchange of muffled words, and then Kat let out a flirtatious giggle.

 

Hmm. The rest of the Castle Rock staff didn't report until time for sound check. If Parker was in his own office, and no one else had arrived yet, who was in Kat's office with her? Kat giggled again, the ultra-girly trill that she used when she met a new guy she liked at the bar. Does she have a new boy toy in there?

 

I tiptoed back down the hall. A best friend doesn't interrupt a booty call—even if there's pizza or sangria to be had. I thought about waiting for her—there was plenty of work left to do—but my growling stomach had other plans. I'd just have to go to Camila's without her. As I headed for the exit, I pulled out my phone to shoot her a quick text: Sounded like you were having your own happy hour in there. New guy? Join me at Camila's when you come up for air.

 

*  *  *

 

Camila's Pizzeria was nestled in the corner of a strip mall two blocks south of Castle Rock. While the area surrounding the restaurant was a little seedy, the atmosphere of the pizza joint was pleasant, and the food was incredible. Camila's was the best kept secret on this side of Midtown. With its authentic fifties diner interior, cheap and delicious pizza, and short distance from Castle Rock, most of our staff were regulars. In fact, as I ducked through the front door, I could see our bouncer, Reese. He was seated in a booth with Laura, one of our bartenders.

 

The couple leaned over their half-eaten calzones, engaged in conversation. Laura had her arms crossed defensively over her chest, and Reese was red-faced and angry. Great, trouble in paradise again. Laura caught sight of me and smiled, gesturing for me to join them. I shook my head and gave a polite wave, not wanting to get caught in the middle of another one of their arguments. Instead, I grabbed my own table near the front of the restaurant, one that was faced away from the squabbling couple.

 

My waitress, Sharon, greeted me with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. "Amelia! How are you, girl?" Her face lit up. "Today's the day, isn't it? Bobby Glitter's coming to town!"

 

I smiled. "Yep! He should be here in a couple of hours."

 

Every rock fan in the city knew Bobby Glitter. He'd enjoyed great success in the late mid- to late-nineties as the dreamy hip-swiveling front man for British pop sensation, StarStorm. Rolling Stone had pegged them to be the next Beatles, but the band called it quits after only four years. When StarStorm imploded, Bobby embarked on an even more successful solo career, releasing two albums that both went platinum.

 

Sharon beamed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "How exciting! Are you nervous about meeting him?"

 

"A little." That was an understatement. Glitter had taken a hiatus for almost ten years before returning to the spotlight with the announcement of his twenty-year anniversary tour—a tour that was kicking off that night at Castle Rock! I'd landed a contract with Bobby's manager to book our venue for the filming of his live tour video, which was a huge opportunity to boost both our event space and my career.

 

The middle-aged waitress sighed. "What I wouldn't give to be in your shoes right now, getting to meet a fox like Bobby." She fluffed her red hair with one hand and placed the other on the hip of her cotton dress. The wrinkles around her eyes softened as she stared off wistfully. She quickly shook herself out of her reverie. "You're a lucky woman, Missy, " she said, winking. "So, what'll it be today? Your usual pepperoni Super Slice and a Diet Coke?"

 

Eating an extra-large slice of pizza wasn't going to make fitting into that tight shirt any easier, but the anxiety tightening my chest told me I needed alcohol and carbs. Screw it. "I'll take the slice and trade the soda for something a little stronger. Got any house sangria today?"

 

"Sure do. Want me to bring you a glass?"

 

"How about a whole pitcher?" I bit my lip.

 

She nodded in understanding. "Coming right up, girl!" She gave me a mock salute and scurried around the corner toward the bar.

 

Ten minutes later I was sipping my second glass of sangria and melting my worries away with a mouthful of hot pizza. I sank back into the booth and chewed a bite slowly, savoring the melted cheese on my tongue. It felt good to relax, even if only for a little while. I still had a long evening ahead of me.

 

After several stress-filled months of preparing for this day like it was the Second Coming, I was just hours away from welcoming the Bobby Glitter to Castle Rock. Even though the day had finally arrived, I was still pinching myself to be sure I wasn't dreaming. I'd booked some killer acts before, but it wasn't every day that I came face-to-face with my first celebrity crush.

 

With his good looks, charisma, and sexy British accent, Bobby had starred in many a girl's fantasies—including those of a braces-wearing teenage moi. Kat had it bad for him, too. Bobby had been our Elvis. In high school, we plastered pictures of him all over our walls and spent hours at sleepovers dancing around like maniacs in front of the mirror, crooning "Baby, We Gel" into our hairbrushes. We blasted his Here's to the Times album so loud and so often that our parents held a joint "Glittervention" for the two of us. Ah, memories.

 

Now that Bobby was back in action, my sense of idol worship came rushing back. In the past few weeks, I'd caught myself fantasizing about cornering Bobby backstage more often than I'd care to admit. I just had to keep my inner fan-girl on a leash long enough to get through this week, and I was home free. Making sure Bobby's performances went off without a hitch was more important than achieving Glitter Groupie status.

 

As I reviewed my mental checklist for Bobby's arrival for a third time, Kat sashayed into the restaurant, wearing her usual broad grin. "Sorry I'm late," she said breathlessly. She slid into the booth across from me. "I got sidetracked. You know how it is on the day of a big show."

 

"Uh-huh." I arched one eyebrow and gave her a knowing look. "So, who is he?"

 

Kat had been reaching across the table to snag a pepperoni from my pizza. She froze mid-grab and looked up at me. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said, but the blush of her cheeks and sheepish tone of her voice begged to differ.

 

"Right." I smirked. "Didn't you get my text?"

 

Kat shook her head and looked down at her phone. "Damn spotty reception! I don't have any new messages." She avoided my eyes.

 

"So, tell me about the new guy! Not just any man could make you late for happy hour. He must be one hot piece of—"

 

My words died in my throat when I saw the look on Kat's face. Her features twisted with an emotion that I couldn't quite identify. Sadness? Anger? Regret? "It was nobody," she said quietly.

 

"Wait a sec." A light bulb flashed in my head. That look had definitely been one of regret, which could only mean… "Oh, Kat, you didn't." I cringed. "It wasn't Bradley, was it? The guy from the bar last week?" Bradley was the creepy guy with a lisp and overactive sweat glands that had followed her around like a puppy when we met up for drinks at The Cavern, our favorite afterhours haunt. She'd ignored him for most of the night—but maybe, if she'd had a few more tequila cocktails after I left…Yuck. "You could do so much better."

 

"Ew! No!" Kat crinkled her nose, offended. "Jeez, Ame, I have standards." She sighed and gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "Look, it's just a little fling. Not worth mentioning." She offered me an innocent smile. "Besides, there are definitely more important things we need to talk about—like the fact that Bobby Freaking Glitter is going to be here in an just over an hour! Can you believe it?"

 

Hmm. It wasn't like Kat to avoid talking about the men in her life. It was usually her favorite topic, yet she'd just shut down my questions twice in the past five minutes. I'd figured with the dating dry spell we'd both been suffering over the past six months, she would be dying to dish about the mystery man. Why was she suddenly so secretive?

 

Not wanting to pry—she'd tell me when she was ready, right? I turned my thoughts back to Bobby's arrival. My inner fan-girl came rushing back with a giddy vengeance. "I'm so pumped!" I gushed, feeling like we were back in high school all over again.

 

Kat clapped her hands merrily. "We're just like Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger in Empire Records!" she squealed, referencing our all-time favorite movie. I did feel a little like Liv's character, Corey, when the day finally arrived for her long-time celebrity crush, Rex, to perform at the record store where she worked. I only hoped that meeting Bobby wouldn't turn out to be as much of a disappointment as Rex was for Corey.

 

"Do you think I can handle a week this huge?" I asked, taking my own turn at changing the subject. "We've got a sold-out show tonight, Wednesday, and Friday. That's three times the chance for something to go wrong." The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and my nerves fluttered like spastic butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I suddenly wasn't hungry anymore. I pushed my plate of pizza across the table towards Kat just as Sharon swooped in to place an empty glass in front of her.

 

"Thanks!" Kat said, smiling at us both. She grabbed the pitcher of sangria and filled her cup, then took a bite of pizza. Her blue eyes locked with mine. "Sweetie," she said through a mouthful of crust, "you've got this. The will call list is ready, and all of the other tickets were mailed weeks ago. The sound and light crews are at the venue setting up right now, and Bobby is gonna freak when he sees the sweet set-up you've got for him in the green room! You've done an amazing job."

 

"Thanks. I needed that." I gulped down the last of my second drink and emptied the pitcher into my glass. I crumpled my napkin into a ball in my hand as I stared down at the table. "It's just that I've been looking forward to this for so long, and with my review coming up next week, the stakes are high. I've psyched myself out, I guess."

 

"Typical you," Kat scoffed. "Girl, you need to relax! By the Grace of Amelia, everything will be fine!" she added, using her favorite play on my name.

"By the grace of me, my ass!" I rolled my eyes and playfully threw my napkin ball at her, hitting her square in the nose as she sipped her sangria. She snorted and splattered the drink all over herself. I cringed as the burgundy liquid seeped into her blue Foo Fighters tee.

 

"Son of a…now I'm gonna have to change!" She swore under her breath as she dabbed a napkin at a few dark circles that were spreading on her sleeve.

"You could always wear the new Castle Rockettes tee," I said, smirking.

 

"You're so funny," Kat said, deadpan. "Not gonna happen. I'll just run home and change." She checked her watch. "Will you cover for me until I get back? If I go now I think I can beat rush hour traffic."

 

"Sure, no problem."

 

Kat grinned. "You're the best! I'll see you back at Castle Rock in an hour—an hour and fifteen, tops." She bolted from the restaurant just as Sharon was rounding the corner with our checks.

 

The waitress raised an eyebrow and inclined her head toward the window, where Kat's black Honda Civic could be seen speeding out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. "Where's the fire?"

 

"She had a wardrobe emergency." I gestured to the purple-stained napkins that lay in a puddle of drink on the other side of the table. Sharon clicked her tongue as she pulled out a stack of extra napkins. I took them and handed her my credit card. "Put both checks on my card, please, Shar. I'll clean up the mess." I began sopping up the remaining puddle.

 

Five minutes later, I smiled to myself as I strolled toward the door. Sharon was a huge Bobby Glitter fan, so I'd stashed away a pair of tickets for her before the first show sold out. I placed them on table along with her tip. She squealed in delight as she spotted them. "Oh, Amelia!" she cried after me. "Thank you so much!"

 

"Enjoy the show." I gave her a wave and then ducked out of the restaurant and into the bright sunlight.

 

I walked back to work at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view of the Atlanta skyline as I climbed the hill on North Avenue. The beams of sunlight breaking through the cityscape gave the buildings a heavenly glow, and the glass windows shimmered like a sea of diamonds in the distance. I love this city, I thought. And I love my job—and dammit, I'm good at it. Kat's right—everything will be fine. This is going to be a week I'll never forget.

 

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To find out what happens next, grab your copy of Murder at Castle Rock!

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017