Rock Strong Excerpt



When Dr. Bronsky handed me my Master of Music diploma from Juilliard in December and said, “You and that cello are going places, Miss Chan,” I was pretty sure he didn’t mean the North American leg of a rock band’s world tour. Needless to say, it’s not what I pictured myself doing either. By now, I was hoping to be playing for the New York Philharmonic, making my way to Principal Cello and shining like the diamond of the string section, as I’d imagined it my entire twenty-three years up until this point.

However, a cellist cannot live on bread alone.

So when good friend, fellow string performer, and violinist Rosemary Bourré told me that Point Break, the rock band on the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone (four guys covered in tattoos and piercings—how original), was looking for an on-tour cellist to replace the one who’d dropped out last week, I forced myself to hear her out. Rose had already auditioned for their string section months ago and had gotten the part.

Join me, Abby! she said. It’ll be fun! she said.

According to Rose, all I’d have to do was play backup to their two love ballads, sleep on a bus from April through July, and collect my paycheck. At summer’s end, I’d return to NYC and hopefully have enough money to pay off some school loans and put down money for my first apartment on the Upper West Side. I could audition for the Philharmonic, make my mother proud, marry a famous conductor, and live the rest of my life in perfect harmony.

Hey, a girl could dream.

So when I’d told her that I hadn’t even had to audition—the manager hired me over the phone based on Dr. Bronsky’s recommendation—Rosemary had squealed, bounced, and hugged me tighter than an E string. I am so crazy for doing this, I’d thought, and Samuel, my boyfriend of four years, agreed, warning me if I took the job, he couldn’t guarantee he’d be there for me when I got back.

Is that right? So be it, I’d thought. In fact, I’d taken the opportunity to do what Samuel had been hedging doing: I’d broken up with him.

Part of me knew I had to do it, if only to see what the world had to offer outside of Samuel Bautista. Part of me was relieved that taking the job had forced an end to a relationship I knew hadn’t been working for quite some time. And part of me, well…part of me just needed eighteen thousand dollars.

So here Rosemary and I were, a week after they signed me on and two days after arriving in LA for the first time, ready to see what the world of rock ’n’ roll had in store for us. After a couple of informal rehearsals sans band, the string section seemed ready. Now, I was about to jump my next hurdle—getting through Point Break’s Feel the Burn kickoff party—a real rock star soirée as far from Brooklyn as one might possibly imagine at the posh Southern California home of their manager, Robbie Levine. Never would I be accused of being a party girl back in Brooklyn. In fact, the most partying I’d ever done was the night after my Strings final exam at Samuel’s parents’ house where Rosemary, Jaromir, Kim Lee, and I all sat around the Bautistas’ living room, laughing, drinking wine, and talking about how we were going to make it big one day.

We’d meant playing for any of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, not following around a screaming front man and his guitar-plucking toadies as they reveled in alcoholic excess and female companionship.

So this house…this was another league altogether, and to be honest, it was scaring the crap out of me. Next to me, however, Rosemary was all fluttery eyes. “Wow, Abby. Did you ever imagine this would be our first real gig?” She beamed, beer bottle in hand, glancing around the partyscape.

We’d been working since we graduated, of course, but that had entailed the occasional wedding. Nothing like this. “I imagined it a little less…LA.” I mean, we were in LA, so that didn’t quite make sense, but even this was beyond where my imagination had gone. I clung to my wine glass like it might keep me afloat in the sea of money and fluff.

“Abby, we’re in Beverly Hills. Beverly frickin’ Hills.”

“Don’t say frickin’, Rosemary. It’s so…”

“Rock star?”


She giggled. Giggling suited the tall, blond, skinny French coquette thing she had going on. Next to her graceful swan self, I felt like a mallard duck.

“Rehearsal went really well this afternoon, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Sure. If you consider the actual band members not participating a success,” I said.

She smirked. “I think it was meant for everyone else. Strings, lighting, sound crew…”

“What kind of musicians don’t need to rehearse?” I scoffed quietly.

She leaned into my ear. “The kind whose songs are all four beats to the measure. So I think the rehearsal was only for us new people.”

“Ah, yes. Please don’t remind me.” I couldn’t have felt more out of place.

In one corner of the mansion’s palatial gardens was a group of Greek goddesses dressed in white and gold bikinis all fawning over a man in red pants and a black T-shirt. The girls must have coordinated their hairstyles before coming, since they all had either streaked curls or severe ponytails pulled up tight, making their eyebrows arch up high. On another part of the patio, sectional sofas abounded with more tanned, glossy-legged women all gathered around a man in black pants and open shirt, knees apart, each of his arms laced around a fine Coppertoned set of shoulders. Wow, LA women took their beauty seriously, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Seeing it front and center somehow drove the point home, however—and made me wonder if I should have skipped the wine, given I was probably one of the only women at this party whose thighs actually touched.

The music blaring from the speakers thumped and pounded. An honest-to-goodness DJ spun real records, pressing headphones to her ears, and dancing to her own mellifluous offerings, all while sporting a tight turquoise minidress.

“How many people do you think are here?” Rosemary scanned the crowd.

I did a quick calculation of the patio and pool deck and estimated another fifty or so inside the house, more in the rooms upstairs, I was sure. “A hundred fifty, at least.”

“You think they do this before every tour?”

“Jaromir said they do this before every show. And every night in between.”

Rosemary’s eyes widened. “Are you serious? How would he know?”

“He said he’s a Point Break fan. Rose, there’s money in this business. It’s all showmanship, album covers, women-filled videos, self-inflated promotion… Real musicians don’t care about stuff like this. Real musicians just want to play, even if it’s to an empty auditorium with three cats listening.” Even as I spoke, I mentally winced. I sounded like a ripe old snob, and a bitter one at that. Real musicians shouldn’t diss other musicians, period. I knew that. And normally I didn’t. But now…here… I needed to hold on to some semblance of confidence. If I was overcompensating, I was only doing it in front of Rosemary, who hopefully wouldn’t hold it against me.

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Rosemary downed her beer. “But it’s still awesome to be a part of it. You want something to eat? I’m gonna go get something.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” I wasn’t so sure there was anything awesome about this. In this world, music was a means to a lavish lifestyle. In my world, the lifestyle was a means to the music. Losing yourself in the music was all that mattered. Which was why I’d made it a point not to get sucked into Point Break pics, gossip, and drama before coming. I read only what I needed to know about the band—recording history and discographies.

Wikipedia—nothing more, nothing less.

“By the way, you look really hot in that dress.” She winked and slinked away.

In this? I fidgeted with my pearls, glancing down at the only cocktail dress I owned, a black A-line more at home at a Manhattan shindig than a party in the Hills. “Thanks,” I said, not entirely convinced.

Before I knew it, Rosemary skittered away, leaving me alone with my so not-hot self. I should have gone with her, but I’d been following her around the whole night, clinging to her skirt like a little girl behind her mama, hiding from scary boys. Which wasn’t too far off from the truth.

In retrospect, now that Rosemary had left me alone, I wished I would have perused Point Break’s online pics before coming, so I would at least know what they looked like. But between my mother’s life lectures, packing for the trip, and fighting with Samuel, I didn’t have much time. Plus, I’ll admit I hadn’t wanted to look. I told myself it didn’t matter who my bosses were or what they looked like. It didn’t matter if I liked or respected them. This was just a temporary job, one I had to get through to make my own dreams come true. However, I’d started to think I’d been unprofessional by not doing more homework. I should at least introduce myself to my new bosses and thank them for the job. That’s the main reason I was here.

Looking around, however, I tried guessing who the band members might be, hoping no one would notice the solo cellist standing by the potted tree. Much to my dismay, it was a bigger call to attention than I’d feared.

A pair of smiling eyes zeroed in on me from the opposite end of the pool. Wearing loose jeans, a leather vest over his strong, bare chest, a cowboy hat, and a big, silver belt buckle, the guy looked like a punk cowboy who’d lassoed himself a few ladies. Flanking him were…one, two, three, four, five girls in bikinis. Although, upon closer inspection, it appeared that two of them were topless. They played with his hat, laughing and taking it off, passing it around. His heavily tattooed right arm was wrapped around a girl’s waist. His other hand held his phone. He raised it, aimed it in my general direction, snapped a shot, then tucked it back in his pocket.

Did he really just take a picture of me when he was surrounded by all those nearly naked  girls?

I tucked my hair behind my ears, feeling more self-conscious than ever, fingering my pearls some more. No, that didn’t make my awkwardness any more obvious to him, of course not. I wanted to hide, call it a day, and run back to my hotel room to the safety of my big, fluffy Hilton Hotel comforter.

Two guys careened by me just then, loud, obnoxious, holding each other up in their inebriated stupors. “Oh, sorry,” one said. If I hadn’t stepped out of the way just in time, he would have knocked me into the pool. He had a stubbly, short beard, intense brown eyes, and a rascally smile when he flashed it at me.

In the illuminated blue water, a bevy of bikini angels laughed at them. “Jacob! Throw Corbin in!” one of the girls cried.

Corbin! I recognized the name. Was the cutie with the short beard part of the band? And what about his friend Jacob? Was there a Jacob in the band? No, I was pretty sure the band members were Liam, Wes, Corbin, and…one other one.

“Yeah, we’ll take care of him!” The other girl laughed, boobs bouncing up and down, beach ball in her manicured hands.

I watched with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was annoyed that anyone could laugh so outwardly, without shame and pure confidence, while wearing strings and flaps of fabric for swimwear. Who gave them the right to look so perfect? On the other hand, I envied them—not just the girls and their beautiful bodies, but the guys, too, the way they managed to get the girls’ attention and be so at ease while goofing around.

It was baffling to me. I would never fit into this group dynamic, not in a million years. But I didn’t have to fit in. I was just here for background noise, literally, and only for a few months at that.

If Samuel were here, he’d tell me they were all drunken buffoons, Neanderthals, devoid of intelligence or class. However, since Rosemary and I arrived, everyone in this production had been super nice. Catered meals throughout the day, a car to go anywhere, whenever we needed it… Apparently, money either made you act incredibly stupid or incredibly generous.

Finally, after more poolside wrestling, Jacob and Corbin faltered and sank into the pool with a huge splash, eliciting cheers from the partygoers. The bikini girls flocked to them, hanging off their shoulders. Short Beard started making out with one of them.

“Nice!” Standing near me, a guy with incredible green eyes lifted his drink high into the air, his arm wrapped in a tribal tattoo much like Punk Cowboy’s. Like most of the men at the party, he was easy to look at, though not as easy on the ears. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he shouted, bending over to laugh. Then he straightened and walked past me, surveying my side of the pool. Suddenly, his eyes fell on me, and the man literally turned on his heels to head my way. Oh, God… Where was Rosemary when I needed her?

He sauntered over and paused in front of me, one hand on his hip, the other lifting his square glass of ice and clinkiness to his lips. His eyes, face, and brain took in every inch of me from head to toe, not that I had much on display for him to ogle. “Helloooo, Asian Persuasion.”

Ugh, no. He did not just say that. “That’s not funny.” I gave him a deadpan glare.

“You’re right. I apologize. Sort of, but not really. Can you, um…” He grazed his cold glass along my arm. He smelled like vodka…I thought. “Wear a kimono for me later? I promise I’ll make it up to you.” Eyebrows danced over those bright green, but mischievous eyes.

“How about I kick your balls in instead?” I said before I could calculate a more refined response.

His eyes flew open for a moment. “Ha!” Then, he closed them and shook his head in silent laughter. “A feisty one, I love it,” Vodka Breath said, holding on to his stomach.

Meanwhile, my stomach sank. My heart pounded. I was about to get away from him.

But then…

“Tucker…” The scent of sweetness and sun-warmed skin wafted by me at the exact moment my mouth was open and ready to send this idiot back to his cave. It was Punk Cowboy from across the pool. He had light brown eyes, and was over six feet tall, well-built with strong hands shoving the green-eyed douchebag in the shoulder. “Shut up, bro. What the fuck’s wrong with you?” He towered over me and my five-foot-two frame, scowling at my aggressor.

Vodka Breath—Tucker, I guessed—was shorter than Punk Cowboy, but still a lot taller than I was. He held his arms out wide. “I’m just talking to her, dickhead. What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

“Bro, have some class. Don’t you see you’re clearly out of your league here?” He gestured to me, side-glancing with a tiny smile that made me think perhaps this was an act and the two were in cahoots in a chick-pickup scheme. Not that they needed me to hit on at a party full of silicone goddesses. “I’m sorry if he’s bothering you.” Punk Cowboy placed a gentle hand on my lower back.

Though he was certainly taking liberties, the small gesture felt nice, and I wasn’t about to object. He was hot, though I normally did not check out a guy’s physique before his personality. Then again, he was being a gentleman, too, compared to his friend.

“I wasn’t bothering her, bro, but look at her. Tell me she doesn’t look like that chick from the happy massage place that was here earlier today.” Tucker pushed his drink tumbler in my direction. “Am I right?”

Great, high school jokes all over again. I clucked my tongue. The last time I clucked my tongue, Samuel’s friend, Nicolas, earned himself my handprint on his face. Enough was enough. I didn’t need any more Asian jokes when I was already feeling like an idiot for being here. “Say it again,” I prompted.

“Say what again?” Tucker pressed a hand to his chest. “You’re not mad, are you? Sweetie, I’m just paying you a compliment. You are, without a doubt, the finest Japanese princess I have ever laid eyes on—”

“Dude…stop.” My defender shoved Tucker’s chest and simultaneously pulled back on his shirt, throwing him off-balance.

Which was actually helpful, given I’d just shot out my wine glass and dumped its contents down his hairless chest at that precise moment. The liquid created a shiny trail down into his pants. “I’m not Japanese. I’m American, of Chinese descent, if you must know. We’re not all alike. Unlike assholes. I heard that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”

Punk Cowboy scoffed a laugh, and I turned to walk off, find Rosemary, leave the party—at this point, I didn’t care—but I wasn’t going to stay here and take this. The people next to me broke into cheers over my display of bravado, but I couldn’t focus on them. I’d come here for one thing and one thing only—not to party, not to bond with my fellow tour mates, not to experience a Beverly Hills party for the first and last time in my life.

No, I’d come only to meet my bosses, wherever they were, if they were even here.

“Hey…” Punk Cowboy’s hand reached into mine—warm and strong—and he spun me toward him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry about Tucker. Not to defend him, but he’s just drunk. Normally, he’s a stand-up guy.”

“I hadn’t counted on harassment being part of the job.” Guess I already had something to report to my boss. “Can you tell me something before I go? You seem a decent enough guy.” I took my hand back and gripped my purse strap instead.

“Sure, anything.”

“Can you tell me where Liam Collier and the other guys are? I just came to say hello then get going.”

He studied my face carefully, as though maybe I was kidding, as though I was some clueless fish that just flopped out of the water. “I’m Liam Collier.” His hand, covered in silver rings, extended toward me. “Pleased to meet you. And you are?”


Abby “Mortified” Chan.