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The Bride Star - Chapter One

Chicago, Illinois
July 2009

Feet stomping the ground, voices raised in unison, the crowd roared back to life after a moment of calm. Rayne Green stood backstage and listened to the large mob yell for an encore while her best friend and tour manager, Shaye, talked over her headset, frantically giving instructions to the concert staff bustling around them.

Having just delivered a two-hour sold-out concert to a highly receptive crowd at the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago, Rayne waited backstage for Shaye to give her the cue to perform the encore.

“Rayne! Rayne! Rayne!” the excited crowd screamed to the beat of an imaginary drum.

“Time to go.” Shaye pushed Rayne back onstage.

Sprinting to the middle of the stage, Rayne faced her fans. “Thank you, Chicago! You’re a great crowd.”

The arena erupted in applause. Motioning to her band, Rayne waited for the music to start and launched into her latest number one hit, “You Had Me.” Having slid one of her in-ear monitors out earlier, she was barely able to hear herself above the crowd. She didn’t care and smiled with satisfaction. She lived for this.

All content (c) Tracey Jane Jackson
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As she finished the song, Rayne looked stage right to see if she could do another. Shaye held up one finger, so Rayne turned back to the crowd with a smile. “We’re going to play something brand new for you guys. It’s going to be on my next album and I hope you like it.”

She signaled the band to start the song and smirked as her drummer missed the beat. He recovered quickly, but she couldn’t wait to give him hell later. Her band referred to him as the living metronome and it was rare for him to screw up.

The encore was a slower number and she almost laughed out loud as cell phones, instead of lighters, went up in the air. As the song ended, the crowd went wild, demanding one more, but Shaye motioned it was time to go.

“Good night, everyone. Thanks for coming. I love you!” Rayne ran off the stage as the crowd went wild.

“Great show, Reggie,” Shaye said as she handed her a warm towel. “Time to meet and greet, then off to the hotel.”

Shaye had given Rayne her nickname in high school when she’d found out Rayne was a baseball fanatic and her initials were R.E.G. Rayne had quickly retaliated and called her Shaye Butter.

“What’s tomorrow again?” Rayne wiped the sweat from her face and quickly scowled. “This is lavender scented, Reg.” She held the towel out. “It should be jasmine. Can that idiot never get anything right?”

Shaye pushed the towel back towards Rayne. “Seriously? You wanted lavender, Rayne. You asked Tasha to change it a week ago. Now, get over yourself already.”

Rayne groaned. “When did I ask for lavender?”

Shaye lowered her clipboard with a huff. “Crew meeting, Wednesday, five-fourteen p.m.”

“Right.”

“You said to Tasha that you’d like to see if lavender would be more relaxing—”

“—as a suggestion!

Shaye rolled her eyes. “You don’t suggest, Rayne, and half the staff walk on egg-shells around you as it is. So, give her a break and wipe your precious face with the lavender towel. I will have her change it back to jasmine in time for the next show.”

“Which is?”

“House of Blues tomorrow night, then it’s off to Akron. Here comes Tasha. Be nice.”

“Fine, Butter. What else is on our schedule?”

The make-up girl arrived and fixed Rayne’s lipstick as Shaye confirmed her itinerary. “The foundation wants to meet with you as well if you have time. I can fit them in over lunch tomorrow, but only if that’s okay with you.”

Three years ago, Rayne had started a charity to help battered women and children escape from their abusers, and part of the proceeds of every concert went straight to the foundation.

“Yes, that’s totally fine.” Rayne handed her towel back to Tasha. “Let’s go meet the vultures.”

Shaye led her to the press area. Their head of security, Trevor, followed close behind.

“Rayne, how do you like Chicago?” one of the reporters asked.

“I love Chicago, are you kidding me?” Rayne grinned. “It’s one of my favorite cities, even with the humidity.”

“What’s going on with Shaunessy?”

Without missing a beat, Rayne said firmly, “We’re just friends.”

“So, no truth to the rumor you’re pregnant?” another reporter asked.

Rayne laughed. “Not with him or anyone else.”

“What’s your reaction to the critics who say you aren’t as good as Pink?

Rayne rolled her eyes. “The critics would be correct. Pink’s amazing! She can sing rings around me.”

“What about a romance?”

“With Pink? Didn’t someone just ask me if I was pregnant?”

The reporters laughed.

Shaye put a hand on Rayne’s shoulder, effectively stopping any other answers from the star. “Time’s up, folks!” she interrupted. “Rayne has a tight schedule.”

Amidst disappointed rumblings from the reporters, Rayne followed Shaye from the press box into the hallway, where she shook hands and signed autographs. A group of local contest winners were a little rowdy tonight, so Trevor and his staff were working double-time just to keep hands from grabbing at her.

“It’s a good thing you’re not wearing anything loose,” Shaye whispered. “This crowd would rip it straight off you.”

Rayne’s skintight, patent leather pants sat low on her hips and a black lace bustier pushed her full breasts up and left her navel, complete with piercing, exposed. Her steel-toe, black leather boots stopped just below the knee, zipper and buckles working together as both form and function, finishing the outfit.

The tattoo of Pegasus on her left shoulder blade was the perfect accessory, as was the diamond-studded snake wrap that wound her shapely bicep. She had a small diamond stud in her nose and large gold hoops in her ears.

“I thought you hated what I was wearing,” Rayne whispered.

Shaye smiled. “I don’t hate it. It’s just a bit revealing and something I could never wear.”

Rayne laughed. “You could so wear this, Shaye, you just wouldn’t.”

Shaye scrunched up her nose. “Oh, please! I’d reveal the muffin top from hell in those pants.”

Rayne groaned. “Quit with the fat talk, missie. You have a killer body.”

“Says the woman with zero body fat and the courage to show her belly ring.”

Rayne let out a mock gasp. “You’re such a prude, Shaye Butter. It’s a wonder I keep you around.”

“I’m the only one who calls you on your crap.”

Rayne nodded. “Oh, right. I forgot about that.”

“You might want to hand me those hoops, Reg.” Shaye held her palm out. “Someone could rip them out.”

Rayne removed the earrings and placed them in Shaye’s hand just as an eager fan separated from the group and made an attempt at them. Trevor grabbed the man by the throat and pushed Shaye out of the way simultaneously.

“Shaye! Watch what you’re doing. The vultures will grab you to get to Rayne,” Trevor reprimanded as Rayne grabbed her arm and pulled her closer to the group of bodyguards.

Trevor moved away from the fans and pushed the girls down the hall. People lined the walls all the way to the limos and buses waiting outside.

“Hey! Raining cats and dogs!”

The girls turned and, while Rayne chuckled, Shaye scowled in disgust. The familiar man rushed toward them. Tattoos and piercings covered his body, and his Mohawk was dyed several shades of red.

Trevor moved to grab him, but Rayne stopped him. “Jared? What are you doing here?”

“I followed you, babe. Wanna get out of here?”

Shaye squeezed her arm. “Rayne, we should get back to the hotel.”

“Don’t you have a church service to go to?” Jared sneered.

“Jared, be nice.” Rayne sent him a look of admonishment.

He snickered. “Maybe you’ve got some injuns you need to save.”

“Jared!” Rayne scowled. He held his hands up in surrender. “I’ll be back before midnight, Shaye, I promise. Come with us?”

Shaye sighed. “I can’t. I have work to do. My boss is a slave driver.”

Rayne laughed. “You can always take a break. You might actually have fun.”

“Fun with Jackass Jared?” Shaye retorted. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Ooh, a swear word from my sweet friend!”

Shaye shrugged. “I tell myself that “ass” is in the bible, so I embellish with jack.”

Rayne laughed as she laid her hand on Shaye’s arm. “Seriously, Shaye, I’ll be back soon. I just need to blow off some steam.”

Shaye took a deep breath.

“Come on, Shaye-No-Lay, don’t be a prude,” Jared interrupted, using the name he called her in high school.

“God, Jared. Are you still twelve? Lay off,” Rayne snapped.

Shaye shook her head. “It’s fine. He’s stunted, Rayne.”

Jared snorted. “You wish I was stunted.”

“That was a really good comeback, Jared.” Shaye gave him two thumbs up. “Do you even know what stunted means?” She pulled her headset off and looped it around her neck, drawing Rayne aside, further out of Jared’s earshot. “I don’t trust him, Rayne.”

Rayne smiled. “He’s harmless, Butter. You know that. He’s a blowhard—always has been. Even in high school.”

Shaye frowned. “He’s been accused of some pretty major stuff, Reggie.”

“Come on.” Rayne glanced to Jared. “Who would believe a wimp like him would actually be able to hurt anyone?”

“I just don’t have a good feeling about this,” Shaye said.

“It’s all good, Butter. Seriously. I just want time away from the crowds, you know? Be with a familiar face for a few hours?”

Shaye’s head whipped up. “I’m a familiar face.”

“A familiar but not so familiar face.”

Shaye’s hand flew to her heart. “You’re sick of me already? It’s only been ten years!”

Rayne wrinkled her nose. “You know what I mean.”

“I know it gets old, Reg. But I also know you have a hard time with not-so-immediate gratification.” Shaye sighed as she pulled out a stick of gum and offered a piece to Rayne. “I just don’t want you to do anything stupid.”

“Me? I’ve never made a bad decision in my life.” Rayne popped the gum in her mouth.

Shaye laughed as she shrugged the backpack she’d been lugging around all night from her shoulders. “Okay. Here’s your bag with your cell phone and clothes. Go have fun. Just be careful.”

“Yes, Mom.” Rayne hugged Shaye and then let Jared lead her away from the crowd and into his car.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

Jared started the car. “To a private place close by. You’ll love it.”

The further Jared drove from the concert venue, the more uncomfortable Rayne grew.

Shaye was right, damn it.

“Are you taking me to your school?” Rayne asked with a nervous laugh. “Or your dorm?”

“No.” Jared changed the radio dial and then looked at her. “We’re going somewhere less public. Although, people might join us later.”

“What people?” Rayne’s glared at him. “Forget it, Jared. Just take me back to the hotel.”

“Chill.” Jared glanced at her. “Not really people, per se. Ghosts. The place is haunted.”

Letting go of the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she snapped, “Whatever!”

“No, it really is.”

“Where are we really going, Jared?”

He hit the turn signal and pulled off onto a side street. “My roommate, Kevin, had this friend from New Zealand—”

“Fascinating,” Rayne said sarcastically.

“If you’d let me finish!”

“Sorry.”

“Anyway, Hannah was a law student at the university and taught dance on the side. She had a dance studio in an old building downtown. One day she went there to practice…and was never seen again.”

Rayne shrugged. “So?”

“So...her roommate, Victoria, disappeared like a month later.

She rolled her eyes. “From where?”

“The same place.” Jared pushed in the lighter on his console. “She had a photography studio across the hall in the same building.”

“Seriously?” Rayne pulled the lighter out before it was finished.

“Yeah, the whole university was in an uproar. They condemned the building and boarded it up.”

Rayne narrowed her eyes at him. “No, I mean, are you seriously going to smoke right now?”

“Don’t tell me you’re turning into Shaye?” Jared pushed the lighter in again.

“You’re not going to smoke, Jared. I have a show tomorrow. Live with it.”

“Fine!” he snapped. “I’ll smoke when we get there.”

“And you’re taking me there, now?” Rayne asked, irritated. “To a condemned building where not one but two girls have disappeared?”

“Yes. But it’s cool. A bunch of us go there to drink sometimes.” Jared glanced at her. “Come on, Rayne. You were the one who wanted to get away from the crowd for a while. This is the perfect way.”

Rayne settled against the headrest. “Fine. But I have to be back at midnight.”

“When did you become such a prude? Shaye-No-Lay is rubbing off on you.”

Rayne glared at him. “Don’t call her that! She’s totally cool, and if you weren’t such an ass, you’d find that out.”

Jared pulled up to the curb next to a building that would be the perfect location for a horror movie. “Are you suggesting I get to know the ice queen?”

“You know what? Forget it. Just take me back.”

He turned off the ignition with a smirk. “We’re here. Come on, it’ll be really cool.” Jumping out of the car, he made his way around the front and lit a cigarette as he walked toward the side door, effectively ignoring his passenger.

Disgusted with herself for not listening to Shaye, Rayne eased out of the seat, grabbed her backpack, and followed Jared into the building. As they made their way down the hall, he pointed to a doorway. “Don’t go through this door. If you do, you’ll get stuck. It’s the stairwell, and in order to get out, you have to walk up and then cross to the opposite side.”

Her heart raced. “Okay.”

“This way.”

“Did you go to DePaul?” she asked.

Jared snorted. “Do I look like someone who’d go to DePaul University?”

“What about Kevin?”

“We lived off campus. His dad had a lot of money, so he totally let me slide on rent.”

“Lovely,” Rayne muttered.

He led her down a dark hallway and into what she assumed was the dance studio. There was a large set of mirrors with a bar on one side of the room and the floor was hardwood.

“Is this where the girl from New Zealand danced?” Rayne walked the room.

“Yep. Victoria’s photo studio is across the hall.”

“Doesn’t seem haunted.” Rayne unzipped her bag and peered inside.

“What are you looking for?”

She moved the contents around inside. “Water.”

“I’ve got something to drink.” Pulling out a thermos from his inside jacket pocket, Jared poured the contents into the cap and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked suspiciously

“Drink it.”

She pushed it away. “I don’t drink.”

“Since when?”

“On tour,” she clarified.

Jared shrugged and handed it to her again. “Right. Well, it’s just water.”

“Okay.” She peered inside. “Thanks.”

Taking a small sip, she was relieved to find it tasted just like water, but the way he watched her made her pause. She didn’t remember him being so intense in high school—he was always the class clown. Heavily pierced and tattooed, but harmless.

After a few minutes, Jared ran his hand down her arm. “I’ve missed you.”

She shrugged him off. “Don’t be weird, Jared.” She stepped away to put distance between them. “You know we’re just friends.”

He dragged his lower lip ring into his mouth and smiled. “But I’ve always wanted you, Rayne. You were the goal.”

“The goal?”

He caught her and settled a hand on her hip. “Yes, the goal. Everyone wanted you. You must know that.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance.” Rayne blinked as the room began to swim. “I’m not feeling so hot.” The cup fell to the ground and the remaining contents spilled across the floor.

“Oh?” he said a little too innocently. “Sit down over here.”

Rayne rubbed her forehead. “What did you put in my drink?”

“Nothing.” He wrapped an arm around her waist. “I would never do that.”

“What did you slip me, Jared?”

“Shhh,” he crooned. “Baby, we’re all alone. I know you’ve dreamed about this for a while.”

Pushing her against the wall, he kissed her neck. Rayne was disgusted, but she was losing her ability to think. Pushing at him, she tried to pull her face away from him.

“Get off me,” she snapped.

“Please. You were always the biggest slut in school.” He slid his finger down her collarbone and slipped it into her cleavage. “Don’t go prudish on me now.” Moving his hand lower, he grabbed her breast and squeezed.

“Stop, Jared, you’re hurting me.”

He wrapped his hand around her throat and painfully forced her face up. A tear slipped down her cheek as she tried to get her emotions under control. “Shhh. Just let the stuff do its magic. You’ll love this.”

“No, Jared. Stop.”

He continued his assault, and even as she felt the drugs pulling her deeper and deeper into their power, she somehow found just the right opportunity and shot her knee between his legs as hard as she could.

“You bitch!” he screamed as he fell, doubled over in pain.

She ran with no idea where she was going, trying to stay upright as the world spun around her. She went through the first door that opened. The stairwell. The door closed with a loud click. She tried the handle—it was locked. “Shit!”

The stairwell was hot, humid, and smelled of old age, compounded with the heat outside. Through the fog of the drugs she vaguely likened it to Shaye’s grandmother’s house, only mustier.

She tripped several times walking up the stairs, her legs growing heavier with every step. At the top, she found herself facing a large room that looked as though it hadn’t been touched in a hundred years. It was a perfect replica of a Victorian Era parlor. She moved forward, running her fingers along the back of a deep-green horsehair sofa. A wave of dizziness overtook her and she grabbed the back of the sofa, its coarse texture rough against her palm. She attempted to dig her cell phone out of her pack, but with her vision blurring, coupled with confusion, she couldn’t manage even this simple task.

She stepped around the sofa, her legs feeling like hundred-pound lead weights being dragged through thick, sucking mud. It grew harder and harder to put one foot in front of the other, and when she made an attempt to sit down, the sofa disappeared and she was staring at a muddy road unfamiliar to her.

Shaking off her confusion, Rayne looked down. The rich oriental carpet swam before her, and as she went down hard, the floor was no longer the floor. Mud and dirt greeted her as everything went black.