“Is Blake Chamberlain the one with the tiny penis?”
This. This was just one of a million reasons why Ivy Hudson hadn’t stepped foot into her hometown of Rosewood, Alabama, for nearly six years. Standing in her mother’s beauty salon, Ivy wished to God she could disappear.
“Dotty!” Francine Doyle chastised from under the hair dryer, but the other women in the salon just snickered into their hands.
Dorothy Baker was oblivious to the horrified expressions of the five other women around her. Miss Dotty always said whatever she thought, however inappropriate it might be. Her family told people that she’d had a stroke a few years back that eliminated her polite southern filter, but Ivy suspected that Miss Dotty was just old and opinionated and didn’t care what people thought anymore.
She wished she was the same way. Then maybe she could ignore the whispers in the nightclubs, the cruel media coverage of her latest breakup, and the music critics that said her shtick was played out. Kevin, her manager, must agree, because he’d practically forced her back to Rosewood to reinvent herself. Ivy went along with it because Kevin Lynch was a star-maker and she was damn lucky to have him looking after her career. Singers either took his advice or ended up in musical revues on cruise ships.
That didn’t mean she had to like it, though.
Coming off a scandal that had damaged her image as the sweet but unlucky-in-love singer, Ivy supposed it was fate. She needed Rosewood and Rosewood needed her. When Kevin had been contacted about Ivy coming to Rosewood to help raise money to rebuild the high school gymnasium and football stadium—destroyed in a tornado earlier this year—her manager saw it as a feel-good opportunity that could garner her some positive press, get her away from the swarming paparazzi, and save her music career.
At the moment, she’d happily play Maria in West Side Story on rough seas to escape this uncomfortable discussion. Like in any small town, the salon was the center of gossip, and if her mother, Sarah, didn’t own it, she wouldn’t dare step inside. Curls was one of the few safe havens for Ivy. The gossipmongers would have to go elsewhere to whisper behind Ivy’s back for fear that Sarah might turn their hair bright blue. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop them from just asking her flat out about Blake.
Ivy had been in Rosewood for exactly seven minutes, and it only took three of those for Blake to come up in conversation. If she’d had her way, she would’ve just gone straight to her parents’ lake cabin, avoiding everyone for as long as possible, but her mother was using the keys as bait to lure her into the shop. In a town like Rosewood, her dad could’ve just left the cabin unlocked for her, but oh no . . . she had to come get the keys.
That meant she finally had to face what she’d done to the great Blake Chamberlain. The song that launched her career had been written about him after their tumultuous breakup, and it wasn’t the most flattering. The title, “Size Matters,” pretty much summed it up. She’d discussed the subject at length in interviews for magazines and television shows, but she hadn’t had to face the people at home who knew Blake. She also hadn’t faced Blake himself.
Of course, if Blake had been so concerned about his reputation, he shouldn’t have stuck his tongue down that cheerleader’s throat.
“What?” Miss Dotty asked, her hair wrapped in foil. “I’ve heard the song. Everyone’s heard it. I figured if anyone knew the truth, it would be Ivy.”
“That’s not what the song is really about,” Ivy tried to explain for the millionth time. “It’s just what it sounds like.”
A part of Ivy expected a crowd to be gathered in the town square, torches and pitchforks at the ready for the moment she arrived. Her recent breakup with teen idol Sterling Marshall and the backlash that followed was nothing compared to what had happened with Blake. Kevin just didn’t get it. Her manager had never lived in a small town like Rosewood. He could never understand what these people were like. She’d not only abandoned them all to become a rock star, she’d insulted a Chamberlain. The Chamberlain family practically owned the town. It had been named after one of the Chamberlain girls. The place was built on land they’d deeded over from their plantation on Willow Lake.
Blake had been the high school quarterback who took the team to the state championships. He’d gotten a full-ride scholarship to play football at Auburn and led an undefeated regular season as a junior. Terms usually associated with Blake had included “Heisman,” “bowl game,” and “first-round draft pick.” Ivy had been kind enough to add “emasculated” and “laughingstock” to the list.
She’d turned the town golden boy into a joke and made a career out of it. Blake wasn’t the only man she had used as inspiration for her songs, but her first hit, the one she would always be known for, had the entire country singing along about the woes of an underwhelmed woman. Payback’s a bitch.
Pepper Anthony, her mother’s only employee, had just finished cutting Vera Reynolds’s hair when she spoke up. “I know Lydia Whittaker was gloating a few weeks back at Bunco that the song was all wrong and Blake was a big, hangin’ man,” she said, shaking her head and making the flame-red curls of her hair dance around her pale face. “It was a little uncomfortable for everyone. Of course, Lydia is happiest when everyone around her is uncomfortable.”
Ivy curled her hands into tight fists at her side, digging the keys to her rental car painfully into her palms. She didn’t want to appear outwardly jealous—Blake hadn’t been hers for a very long time—but the thought of him with the wicked Lydia Whittaker set her blood to boiling. As teenagers, she and Lydia had been mortal enemies. Lydia had made her life hell all through school, and when Ivy and Blake became an item her sophomore year, Lydia had doubled her efforts. She’d always thought Ivy wasn’t good enough for Blake. She’d wanted him for herself. And now, it appeared as though she’d succeeded.
“Well,” Ivy said with a nervous chuckle, “I hope she enjoys it while it lasts. Knowing Blake, he’s probably hangin’ in someone else’s bedroom by now.”
The ladies in the salon twittered with laughter once again.
“That boy does know how to turn on the charm,” Miss Vera said. “The single women around town have been falling all over themselves to catch his eye since he moved back. I see him out and about with a different woman every month or so. Pretty soon, he’s going to run out of prospects. If I was thirty years younger . . .”
“He’s a flirt like his daddy,” Miss Francine confided with a disapproving frown. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than just the six Chamberlain kids we know about. Norman Chamberlain couldn’t keep it in his pants. I know because every time Helen caught him, he’d order a big bouquet of flowers from my shop. Not enough to make up for it, if you ask me, but I wasn’t going to turn away his money. He was a bit of a rascal. Like father like son, I’m sorry to say, Ivy.”
“Now where were you and this little insight when Blake and my daughter were dating for all those years?” Sarah asked, her hands planted on her hips.
“Well, I was hoping I was wrong,” Miss Francine said. She tossed her magazine onto the seat beside her. “But even if I had said it, no one would’ve believed me. The Chamberlains’ toilet is gold-plated and their shit smells like my finest roses.”
Ivy suppressed a chuckle beneath her hand. Miss Francine was right—the Chamberlains were the town celebrities who could do no wrong. Every one of them was attractive, successful, and oozed charm. They were like sweet-smelling fly traps, and Ivy had been a willing victim.
At fifteen, she’d had no defense against Blake’s bright smile and baby-blue eyes. The junior football star had approached her after their chemistry class one day and asked if she’d like to go to a movie on Saturday. She couldn’t believe he even knew her name. Her heart started racing, her palms were sweating, and her knees softened beneath her. She’d said yes as calmly as she could, and once he was gone, she’d nearly collapsed into a puddle on the floor.
Blake had that power over women of all ages. A part of her wondered if she’d have the same response when she saw him again . . .
“You’re looking good, Ivy,” Pepper interjected, saving Ivy from the painful downward spiral the conversation was taking. She followed the statement with a knowing wink. “I like the bangs on you. They’re youthful and hip.”
“Thank you,” Ivy said, although more for the saving than the compliment. Pepper was the same age as Ivy, but they’d never been really close in school. Even then, they’d shared a bond forged by being from the unpopular crowd. But Pepper hadn’t had the benefit of dating a Chamberlain to up her social standing. “My stylist gave me a different look for the trip so I could get out of New York without the press or fans following me. It’s been a lot worse than usual lately.”
Ivy turned to look into one of the salon mirrors to check her disguise for the day. Her long dark-brown waves were pulled up into a tight bun. Her stylist had added some temporary extensions to create bangs and done her makeup differently. That, together with big sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around her head, was enough to cause doubt in the average teenager’s mind so they didn’t scream her name and chase her through the concourse.
At the moment she looked like someone who might be confused for Ivy Hudson on the street. That was good enough.
“She’s as beautiful as ever,” Sarah declared, reaching out to put her palm to Ivy’s cheek. “Just as gorgeous in person as she was on the cover of Cosmopolitan.”
“She’s looking a little thin,” Miss Dotty pointed out. “Those Hollywood girls are always too thin.”
“It’s all the sushi and kale chips, Dotty,” Miss Vera chimed in. “What you need is some fried catfish and macaroni and cheese!”
Ivy knew Miss Vera’s macaroni and cheese was the best in the universe. She tried to mentally calculate how many flights of stairs her personal trainer would make her climb to work off a gut-busting feast like that—enough to make her legs quiver like gelatin for an hour afterward, at least. No way. She was already on the larger end of the weight scale for Hollywood, a healthy size six, which of course was about twenty pounds underweight for the rest of the world.
One more reason she had to get out of Rosewood as soon as she could. Folks might be annoyed with her, but that wouldn’t trump their sense of hospitality. The women in town would make a beeline to her cabin with casseroles and cakes, feeding her until she picked up an endorsement for a weight-loss product or had to moonlight on Dancing with the Stars to shed the pounds.
“She’s not too skinny!” her mother protested. “She’s beautiful and perfect as always.” Sarah leaned in to hug her and plant a kiss on her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re home, even if it’s just for a few weeks.”
“It’s good to see you, Mama.” Ivy hadn’t seen her parents since the holidays. Life had been so crazy. Her spring and summer had been spent touring. She’d had a break over Christmas, so she’d flown her parents to Manhattan to spend it with her. They’d enjoyed the lights and excitement of the city decorated for the holidays. It was nice. But as always, it was short. They went home and she went back into the studio.
Sarah smiled, her eyes a little moist, and then she turned away to walk over to her station and get her purse. “Now, I know you’re going to be busy with all the town events, but maybe you can come over this afternoon to watch the Alabama game or tomorrow after church for Sunday dinner.”
“Roll Tide!” Pepper yelled with a smile as she swept up around her chair.
“Roll Tide!” Sarah responded, and then continued on as though her sentence hadn’t been interrupted. “Your daddy got a new grill and he’s keen to fire it up.”
“Sunday dinner sounds good. Maybe I’ll be able to make the game next weekend.” Ivy didn’t know how much free time she would have while she was here. She wasn’t given many details about what she was doing to help raise money for the high school, but the organizers would be fools to schedule anything on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Everyone would be parked in front of their televisions, cheering for their college team of choice. Her father had been a Crimson Tide fan her whole life. There was even a baby photo of her in a University of Alabama onesie. It was a good thing they had a good music composition program there. It might’ve broken her daddy’s heart to send his money somewhere else.
“I went to the market and stocked the fridge with the things I know you like. They didn’t have any of that fancy carbonated water at the Piggly Wiggly, but I found most everything else.” Sarah handed over the key to the cabin.
“You didn’t have to do that, Mama. I can buy my own groceries.” As Ivy spoke, she could hear the familiar lilt of her suppressed southern accent creeping back in. In California, it was easy to drop the melodic speech. But the minute she got around someone from the South, she had to fight not to start y’alling.
“We can’t have a Grammy Award–winning star roaming around the Pig looking for Greek yogurt.” Sarah smiled. “Anyway, it was nice to be able to do something for you for a change.” Her mother’s dark eyes met hers when she spoke. There was a lot of meaning behind her words.
They hadn’t ever had much money when Ivy was a child. Her father was the band teacher at the high school and her mother ran this shop. Every penny they had went into getting by, so there wasn’t much for extras. Even then, when Christmas or her birthday came around, they always managed to surprise her with something wonderful and expensive, like a new acoustic guitar.
Money was not much of a concern for Ivy now. She had plenty, and she was happy to spend it on her parents. When her first album went platinum, she had paid off their mortgage and bought them both new cars. When she wrapped her first world tour, she’d bought them a cabin by the lake so her daddy could fish and her mama could sit on the screened-in porch with a tall glass of sweet tea.
What she couldn’t give them in face time she tried to make up for with vacations and much-needed cash infusions now and then. She liked that she could help them out and give them things they wouldn’t have otherwise. They had given her so much, it was the least she could do.
“Thank you. Although eventually, you know I’m going to have to buy food and go out in public. It’s not like everyone won’t know I’m here the minute I walk out of the salon.” Ivy eyed Vera specifically as she spoke. The woman was about to explode waiting to spread the news.
“I know. I just figured the longer you could go without running into you-know-who, the better.”
That was true, but maybe the Band-Aid approach was best—do it quickly and get it over with. She sighed. Either way, their reunion would sting.
“I saw you on SNL last week!” Miss Dotty announced, related to nothing in the current conversation.
Normally, Ivy would be thrilled to hear it. Last week’s show marked her second appearance. She even got to do a little acting this time. Given her reputation for doomed relationships, she’d marched out during the host’s monologue and slapped him for breaking her heart, threatening to write a song about him. Then she’d slapped one of the other stars. And a cameraman. And a random actor planted in the audience. Everyone got a good laugh out of her pathetic relationship track record.
Ivy tried to be a good sport about the whole thing. It was better she made fun of herself before others had the chance. She really needed to come up with a new source of inspiration for her songs. And maybe try to find a relationship that would last longer than an oil change.
“You were funny slapping that actor at the beginning. You haven’t really slept with him, have you?”
“Dotty!” Miss Francine exclaimed again.
“No, Miss Dotty. I think his wife would have something to say about that. And since she’s an action star with a black belt who does her own stunts, I’m keeping my distance.”
Sarah came forward and gave her another big hug. “You go get some rest. I know traveling can be so exhausting. I’ll make sure Daddy doesn’t pester you to go fishing, but you know he wants to take you out on the new bass boat you got him for his birthday.” She pressed a kiss against Ivy’s forehead. “Don’t be a stranger, baby.”
“I won’t, Mama. Thanks for letting me use the cabin while I’m here. See y’all later,” Ivy called out to the room, wincing as she heard that word slip through her lips.
A chorus of good-byes sounded as the ladies waved and returned to their grooming procedures. Ivy turned and headed for the door, looking both ways for anyone she didn’t want to run into. Nowhere in town was safe. There were Chamberlains everywhere, including the bakery next door, where Blake’s sister Maddie worked.
The coast was clear. As she stepped out of the shop and onto the sidewalk, she heard the loud voice of Miss Dotty behind her.
“What the hell is Greek yogurt, anyway? Is regular old yogurt not good enough for the Greeks?”
“I don’t know if this is going to work, Kevin,” Ivy grumbled into her cell phone as she drove down the winding road that led to Willow Lake.
Before he worked with Ivy, Kevin had put no fewer than seven singers on the top of the charts. He had an ear for singles, a brain for management, and a level personality that could counteract even the biggest divas in the music business. Rarely, if ever, did one of his artists disagree with him. But she had only been in Rosewood for an hour and she just knew he had to be off the mark this time. Everyone missteps now and then. This could be his bad idea of the decade. She could forgive him this one time.
“You need the good press, Ivy. Your fans love you. They always have. They’ve cheered for you through every relationship, hoping you’ll find the one. But this whole thing with Sterling has been blown way out of proportion. Public opinion has turned on you. You tried to slaughter a sacred calf and the focus has shifted away from your music and your talent. But we can fix it, and Rosewood is your best chance.”
Ivy sighed and turned off the main highway to the lakefront drive, cursing the day she decided to go out with Sterling Marshall. She had toured with his boy band, Perfect Harmony, the previous summer. Every teenage girl in America was begging her parents for tickets to the show. Sterling was after her from the beginning, and eventually, she gave in to him. He wasn’t exactly her type—too young, too clean-cut Tiger Beat for the bad-boy angst she craved. At least, that’s what she’d thought. Despite his flawless smile and dreamy pictures on every teen magazine cover, Sterling was bad news.
For one thing, he was a skeevy little tweaker with a heroin problem, but no one knew about that. He was also an ass when he was sober, prone to lashing out physically at anyone in his path. His every indiscretion was swept under the rug by his commando management team. Dating him exposed her to the gritty truth they kept hidden. He’d been in rehab twice. He was arrested at least three times for assault and possession. He had to wear long sleeves on tour and have his track marks Photoshopped in pictures. But by the time his public relations squad was done with him, Sterling was shiny and new, ready for his close-up in the next music video.
It was hard to believe she’d actually dated him, but Ivy hadn’t known any of this up front. She liked her boys bad, but she drew the line at toxic. She just wanted the kind that would charm her and break her heart. That’s what she went for in men. She supposed it was her own fault for dating bad boys with no serious relationship potential. It wasn’t the best way to settle down, but she wasn’t interested in all that. She’d had her heart broken once, and that was enough for her. Her one true love was her music. She just needed the men for inspiration. Only firsthand heartache would do for great singles, so the more unsuitable, the better.
When her relationship with Sterling imploded and their tour ended, she had enough material to write a whole album. But she settled for one song. Just one—“The Sweetest High.” It cut to the bone, though, accusing him of loving his drugs more than her and calling him out for singing to little girls while he was high. It was the first piece of bad press to get past Sterling’s handlers.
At this point, she almost wished they’d been able to stop the song from coming out. It had done well at first, but when people realized who it was about, the backlash had been brutal. Instead of seeing her as a truth teller, his legion of tween fans revolted against her. They would never believe such vicious, bitter lies about their dear, sweet future husband.
Sterling’s management jumped on the bandwagon. They put him on every talk show they could to proclaim Ivy lied about him because he broke up with her and she was madly jealous. It snowballed from there. His eleven million Facebook fans were calling for a boycott of her album. Some bookies were taking bets on how long it would be until she had a breakdown and checked into rehab.
It’s said that there’s no such thing as bad press, but she’d lost a good chunk of her fan base when they chose sides. #TeamIvy had a lot fewer supporters than #TeamSterling.
Ivy understood where Kevin was coming from. She needed to lie low for a while and let everyone forget about the thing with Sterling. She needed to go back to dating her usual crop of unsuitable men—rock stars, actors, and athletes. If she wrote a song about one of them using and dumping her, no one would bat an eye.
She wanted to just hole up in her Malibu beach house for a while and work on her new album, but it was impossible with paparazzi camping in her driveway, harassing her every time she went outside. With the state of her career, she couldn’t risk pulling a Britney and having a meltdown as the cameras captured every moment. She needed to get away to someplace no one would expect.
“Is it really so bad, Ivy? You just arrived.”
“It took three minutes for someone to mention Blake. Three. You wanted me to write some new music with a more sophisticated sound and emotional depth. How am I supposed to do that when people are constantly bringing up the thing with Blake?”
Her manager had challenged her to write some new songs for her next album that weren’t the perfect soundtrack for a woman scorned. She was getting older, and so were most of her remaining fans. She may have lost her younger audience, but this was her opportunity for her sound to mature.
“How is that any different than here?” Kevin asked. “You haven’t been able to write the last few weeks anyway. A new environment, a new routine might shake up your creative energy.”
Ivy pulled up outside her parents’ cabin and put her car into park with a heavy sigh. She hated when Kevin was right. He was always so smug about it. She had been struggling to write songs for her new album. She’d stared at blank notepaper, banged her head on the piano keys, crumpled wadded pieces of musical crap and tossed them in the trash. Nothing. Her mind was totally blank. That usually called for a new relationship to refill the well, but she didn’t dare start up something new with all this media scrutiny.
“I’ll do my best, Kevin. I don’t know how much free time I’ll have with this charity circus you signed me up for, though.”
“There’s no circus,” he insisted, literal as ever. “Just a county fair, a concert, and some other things Mrs. Chamberlain didn’t elaborate on.”
“I wonder why.”
At first, Ivy had thought she could get out of this thing. She had been too busy to come to Alabama for the charity concert when they first called. Then Sterling Marshall’s army of adolescents had cleared her calendar. When the grand matriarch of the Chamberlain clan, Adelia Chamberlain, called Kevin and personally requested Ivy, she knew there was no saying no. Ivy explained to Kevin that it would be like turning down a personal invitation to the queen’s garden party.
“Going to your hometown to help out your community looks great. You’ll get a lot of good press for it. It will raise a lot of money. You’ll be a local hero.”
“I want to help. I really do. I’m glad that I can put my music to good use here, but I’m pretty sure the entire town would just as soon spit on me, Kevin.”
She heard him sigh heavily into the receiver. “They might. But they have no room to be picky. They need your help and they know it. If they treat you badly after you help them raise the money, shame on them.”
“I’ll be certain to feel superior as they hurl insults and rocks in my direction.”
“I thought southern people were supposed to be warm and welcoming.”
“Only to your face.”
“Ivy, I guarantee you the two weeks will fly by, your image will be repaired, and we can take your brilliant new songs into the studio when you get back to record your fourth and greatest album yet.”
Well, that was a lot of smoke to blow up her ass. Today, she needed that reassurance. “When is the fund-raiser committee meeting again?”
“Monday morning. That gives you all weekend to relax, work on some songs, and screw on your smiley face for the duration of your stay.”
Ivy faked her best, brightest smile as she eyed the cabin that would be her home for the next two weeks. Hopefully her mama bought wine.
Lots and lots of wine.
Facing the Music
Five years ago, high school sweethearts Ivy and Blake’s relationship imploded and both their lives were changed forever. Ivy became a rock star and Blake lost not only his dreams of a successful NFL career, but his reputation. Ivy’s angry song about their breakup, called “Size Matters,” hit the top of the charts and Blake became a national laughingstock. He’s salvaged his career and returned to Rosewood to be the high school football coach, regaining his status as town hero and leading the boys to the state championships.
When a tornado whips through town and destroys the high school gymnasium and stadium, a committee is formed to help rebuild and plan some charity fundraisers. Blake’s grandmother requests that Ivy return to Rosewood for the events. Forced back together for the good of their hometown and their careers, Ivy and Blake have no choice but to put aside their differences, stop running from their pasts, and finally face the music.
For fans of Kristen Proby and Colette Auclair, Facing the Music hits a perfect balance between small-town romance and big-time success. Follow Ivy and Blake as they fall back in love and figure out what does matter in the end…