Don’t despair, chicky. Try to enjoy your old stomping ground in the Deep South. You’ll kick some country butt with your bad pink-haired self and be back in NYC before you know it. Meanwhile, think of me in my maternal suffering. Pregnant women are supposed to glow and I’m glowing, all right. I’m glowing like a nuclear power plant right before the accident.
Stargazer Public Relations
Sarah grinned at the e-mail on her phone from Wendy, her supervisor at work and best friend since college. This was the first time she’d smiled since the 4 a.m. call that started her on this journey into the heart of darkness. She only wished she could wrap up business in Alabama and make it back to New York by the time Wendy had the baby. But that didn’t seem likely if Sarah’s information was correct. Country supergroup the Cheatin’ Hearts were in imminent danger of breaking up—before delivering their eagerly anticipated third album—because a love triangle within the band was tearing them apart.
And Stargazer Public Relations had sent Sarah to keep them together.
With a frustrated sigh, she tossed her phone into the passenger seat of her rented BMW convertible. She’d grown up four hours south of Birmingham and hadn’t visited the city since a high school track meet. But the green foothills of the Appalachians were familiar to her, such a different landscape from her hometown on the Gulf Coast. The city lay in the valleys and stretched as far as it could reach up the mountains, setting houses and office buildings gingerly on precipices. It was a shame that in a few hours, she would disturb its lush beauty by driving to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ lead singer’s mountaintop mansion, pulling the band out of their basement recording studio, and slapping them to their collective senses with the threats their record company was paying her to deliver.
The statue of Vulcan looming over Sarah from the mountaintop was familiar, too, though changed. He used to hold up a torch with a green light, or a red light if someone had been killed in a car accident in town that day, which she’d found particularly morbid when she was a teenager. Now he’d been refurbished, and he held up a spearhead instead. He was the Roman god of the forge, echoing Birmingham’s history as a steel town. But holding the arrow, he looked like an overgrown, butt-ugly Cupid.
What wasn’t familiar was the rush hour traffic. While she’d been stuck at a standstill on the highway, she’d had time to read all fifty-five frantic e-mails her assistants at Stargazer had sent her about the Cheatin’ Hearts since she’d left LaGuardia. The news was worse and worse. With this traffic, it seemed less and less likely that she’d arrive at the group’s publicity office in time to grill the staff for secrets about their employers before they closed for the day.
She’d taken this highway because the radio had said the interstate was blocked, but maybe the detour had been a mistake. Just before the intersection on top of Vulcan’s mountain, she pulled off to consult her GPS and phone directions. At least, that’s what she intended. The side road she took kept going up the hill. She inadvertently entered the park surrounding the statue. As she stopped in an empty space in the lot, she glanced up and saw a new view of Vulcan above the trees.
As a teen, she’d seen him only from the front as he presided over downtown. He wore a Roman smithy apron that covered his privates in front. The view from the park was not as modest. It had never occurred to her that he was playing peek-a-boo in back. Like David Lee Roth’s cutout pants from the infamous “Jump” video, but worse, because there was crack. Alabama wasn’t known for its liberal values, and Sarah found it odd that the upstanding citizens of the state’s largest city would tolerate this ten-foot-wide iron moon over the skyline.
Shaking off her astonishment, she studied her tiny electronic maps. This highway would lead to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ publicity office, all right, and so did the interstate she’d abandoned, but there were no other routes. The whole city seemed to be plotting against her. She looked up again and glared suspiciously at Vulcan’s nude booty.
Then she returned six calls from Manhattan Music’s liaison in charge of communications with the band. She’d tried him on her short layover in Charlotte and again when she touched down in Birmingham, but he’d been unavailable, tied up in a series of frantic meetings about the band. This time his assistant put Sarah through.
“Thank God!” the exec cried.
Sarah cringed. In her eight years at Stargazer, she had counseled many celebrities. She’d been sent on these jobs by a lot of exasperated movie producers, confounded book publishers, and record company executives driven to the edge of sanity. When she contacted them and their first words were, “Thank God!” she knew the job would be a challenge.
In calm tones, she introduced herself and assured the exec he’d done the right thing in calling Stargazer. She would take care of everything. “But the Cheatin’ Hearts are a little bit of a mess, aren’t they? And they’ve been that way for quite a while.” She opened the Cheatin’ Hearts’ portfolio beside her on the passenger seat and glanced at a newspaper account of their lead singer, Quentin Cox, overdosing on cocaine in Thailand last month. “What prompted you to hire Stargazer this morning?” In the middle of the night, more like it.
“Someone called me,” the exec said. “Someone with inside information on the group.”
“Who?” Sarah asked.
“I can’t say,” he said. “This person swore me to secrecy. You can’t even let on to the group that I got a call. All hell will break loose if you do.”
“Okay,” Sarah said, although it was not okay at all.
“This person said Quentin is about to quit the group because Erin left him!”
“Oh,” Sarah said doubtfully, reaching for a printout of the cover of the group’s first CD, In Poor Taste. The photo showed the lead singer, Quentin, patting the Daisy Dukes–clad booty of the group’s trashy bleach-blond fiddle player, Erin, while the drummer and the guitar player looked on. “I read in my material that Quentin and Erin have been on-again and off-again romantically since you signed them to your label a couple of years ago.”
“They have been,” the exec shrieked, “and we’ve put up with their shit because it was terrific exposure. Not a week’s gone by that they haven’t been in the celebrity news cycle for breaking up or getting back together. But now, Erin has cheated on Quentin with the drummer. She and the drummer claim they’re in love. Quentin is furious. Our source said the band isn’t going to survive this. Sarah, they have an album due in seven days! They have a nationally televised concert event in ten days, on the Fourth of July! Our source said the situation is desperate, and suggested I call Stargazer to ask for the woman who straightened out Lorelei Vogel for us—”
“Wendy Mann,” Sarah said. “She just went on maternity leave.”
“I know!” the exec exclaimed. “When I called and begged her to help us, she recommended you. She said you’re as good as she is at saving stars’ careers.”
This was a lie. Wendy thrived on challenges and confrontations. Sarah got a thrill from figuring out the psychology of famous, creative people and helping them improve their quality of life, but she didn’t enjoy giving tough love. And she definitely wasn’t good at it.
The exec added, “But my boss told me you’re the one who handled Nine Lives.”
At the mention of yet another of Manhattan Music’s acts, a chill coursed through Sarah in the hot car. Only a few days ago, she’d returned to New York after nine months in Rio with rock star Nine Lives. She’d finally pried his album from his emaciated fingers: triumph! And now he was in a Brazilian jail: fail.
The exec went on, “Wendy told me she’s your supervisor, and she’ll direct you in handling the Cheatin’ Hearts. That was good enough for me. Or . . . at least, the next best thing.”
“Thanks.” Sarah took a few more notes from the hysterical executive. After hanging up, she texted Wendy.
You told Manhattan Music you would be giving me directions?
She got Wendy’s reply almost immediately:
No. Well, yes, I TOLD them that, but I’m not giving you directions. I’m on maternity leave. I’m busy glowing.
Sarah squeezed her eyes shut. Wendy had warned her that she’d had a conference with their superiors at Stargazer. Even though Sarah had just extracted an album from a lunatic, they weren’t happy he’d wound up in prison in a different hemisphere afterward, because their client Manhattan Music wasn’t happy. Now Sarah’s job was in jeopardy. Wendy thought if Sarah took on another act that was a perennial problem for the record company, it would go a long way toward smoothing things over. Wendy had said she’d be on the lookout for a job fitting that description for Sarah.
And this was it? Sarah longed for a nice girl group with no worse problem than big mouths, like she used to handle. Romantic jealousies between band members were the worst work for public relations salvage agents. These crises almost always signaled that the band would break up, no matter what the PR agent did. That would be a strike against Sarah, to go along with the one she already had, courtesy of Nine Lives. And nobody at Stargazer—not even Wendy—knew how bad the Nine Lives situation had gotten. Yet. If Nine Lives managed to spring himself from jail and showed up at the Manhattan Music office to enlighten everyone, that would be Sarah’s strike three.
She opened her eyes and texted:
You shouldn’t have gotten me into this. It’s a bad one. I’m not going to be able to get them out.
You will. You’ve just lost confidence. Nine Lives is a superfreak and you worked a miracle getting an album out of him. Do the same with the Cheatin’ Hearts. Just a lot faster. And maybe keep them out of prison?
With a wistful laugh, Sarah looked up again at Vulcan’s bare behind. This was what her life had been reduced to. Her divorce would be final any day now. She had no boyfriend and no prospect of ever having a family of her own. She’d spent the last three quarters of a year in hell. And now, to top it all off, she was about to lose her job, on a hundred-degree day in the Deep South under a statue’s naked ass.
She called the band’s publicity office and stressed, in her best imitation of Wendy, that they’d better stay there until she arrived.
Back on the parking lot Birmingham called a highway, she dialed up a Cheatin’ Hearts album and plugged her MP3 player into the car. She hated country music, but business was business. She might as well make use of this downtime to familiarize herself with the wildly popular songs that she’d been sent to secure more of.
Despite her dislike of their genre, she’d definitely heard of the Cheatin’ Hearts before her wee-hour assignment. Everyone knew they should have won the Country Music Award for Top New Vocal Group their freshman year but were snubbed because they were an affront to family values. They were also something of an affront to Manhattan Music.
Word around PR circles was that they were conniving as well as raucous. They’d always denied lead singer and bass guitar player Quentin Cox’s cocaine addiction, blaming his frequent trips to the emergency room on asthma or allergic reactions. After signing with the record company two years ago, the band immediately started a foundation for pediatric asthma and allergy research at a hospital just down the avenue from the Manhattan Music offices, as if thumbing their noses under the company’s watchful eye.
By the time the convertible reached the next mountain on the trek toward the Cheatin’ Hearts’ publicity office, Sarah had made it through the group’s first album and was listening to the second, Ass Backwards. She inched the car forward again, then examined a printout of the cover. Erin relaxed in a lawn chair in her Daisy Dukes, considering the muscular backsides of her three nude bandmates. Sarah was surprised Manhattan Music had approved this photo for distribution. Maybe Target plastered a big price sticker over the offending parts.
On the flip side of the cover, each band member was pictured individually, clothed, in a cowboy hat. All were about her age, thirtyish. She shuddered at the thought of thirtyish—her thirtieth birthday was coming up fast—then went back to her examination. Quentin had a piece of hay hanging out of his mouth. Erin winked false eyelashes. Could these people get any more cornball?
As if Erin’s bleach-blond hair and the wink and the cowboy hat weren’t enough to get the point across, she wore heavy eye makeup and a red push-up bra. Owen, the drummer with whom Erin was having her fling, was handsome, huge, and blond. His photo reminded Sarah of the pictures in the football game programs from her high school, with the linebackers trying to appear as tough and emotionless as possible, necks stiff, eyes elsewhere. Martin, the guitar player, apparently the musical genius of the group, looked like a mad scientist in crooked thick-framed glasses, despite the cowboy hat.
Sarah let her gaze return to Quentin’s photo. Dark green eyes glared defiantly from under his hat brim. Long lashes framed and softened those eyes. A few boyish brown curls peeked around his ears under the hat. Surely he would have had those curls Photoshopped out if he’d noticed.
Sarah made a mental note to look up the photo on the Internet when she stopped in at her hotel room, and to e-mail it to Wendy, who needed a thrill. She and her husband Daniel had stopped having sex when Wendy was five months pregnant because they had agreed it was like Daniel was making love to a waterbed. Poor Wendy had only wanted to start a family with Daniel. She hadn’t counted on the waterbed factor, the nausea, or the crippling sciatic nerve pain like a bullet in the butt cheek (she said) that had come to visit in the second trimester.
And Sarah hadn’t been there to help Wendy through any of it, because she’d stupidly volunteered to save Nine Lives. She would have felt better if their friend and former trainee Tom had remained in the office, but he’d shipped off to save a client in Moscow about the same time Sarah left for Brazil.
She still remembered her shock at the way brave Wendy had looked in the LaGuardia ticket lobby when she’d driven Sarah there for the flight to Rio. Overcome with a wave of dizziness, Wendy had sat on a bench by the windows, both arms wrapped protectively around her middle, seeming uncharacteristically lost. She’d called Daniel to come rescue her. And when Sarah had returned from Rio this week, Wendy had been sitting in the same place, in the same position, this time because her feet were swollen, with her arms wrapped the same way around her much bigger tummy.
Sarah could not involve Wendy in the trouble she’d found for herself in Rio. She had a band to rescue and her job to save, all by herself.
She focused on the music again. The Cheatin’ Hearts’ songs were an odd mix. Erin and Owen co-wrote the overblown love ballads. Quentin probably should have seen a more intimate collaboration between the two coming: that Erin would cheat on him with Owen. Martin wrote the most complex and technically demanding songs, which tended to be minor hits and critical favorites. Two of his songs had won Grammys. He’d gotten into fistfights with the losers at the awards after-parties both years.
But their biggest hits were the ridiculous songs by Quentin. Even Sarah had heard these when they crossed over to the pop charts and became the background music in sports arenas. There was “I Want a Leia,” about Star Wars or sex, according to how much smut your sense of humor could stand. There was “Heavily Sedated,” which unfortunately was autobiographical. And then there was their biggest hit of all, “Come to Find Out,” a colloquial term in Alabama for making an unexpected discovery: “Come to find out you done done it again / Come to find out I got screwed in the end / Shoulda known better there’d be no doubt / You done the mailman” (or “the mayor,” or “all the neighbors,” depending on the verse), “come to find out.”
But every song had that unmistakable Cheatin’ Hearts harmony: Quentin’s strong, lazy voice on melody, Erin’s high voice an octave above him, Owen singing baritone, and Martin anywhere and everywhere between, his voice transforming the chord mid-syllable. They didn’t seem to use backup musicians, and they put out an enormous sound for four people. Sarah turned the car air conditioner down before she realized that it was the music making her hair stand on end.
Finally, finally, she pulled the convertible into the parking deck at the Galleria. Besides an enormous shopping mall, the complex featured Sarah’s hotel and the building that housed the band’s publicity office. She checked her look. Leather bag, ominously organized. High-heeled sandals, strapped on securely. Tight pants, clean and smooth. Cleavage, showing. Makeup . . . She examined her chin in the mirror on the visor. The scar Nine Lives had given her was going to show, but she’d minimized it as much as possible. Hair—
She sighed ruefully as she fingered her hair into place. Hot pink and platinum blond streaks shocked her natural brown. Even now, months after her impulsive makeover that had transformed her from sporty tomboy to vixen, her new look still caught her off guard when she got a glimpse of herself. She had a feeling that, even though her old hometown was a four-hour drive from Birmingham and her mother was rarely in residence, there would be a family reunion during her stay. And her mother would have something dry to say about her hair.
Leaning back against the seat, Sarah tried to relax into the part and channel Natsuko. Natsuko had been the publicist for a Japanese rock band performing with one of Sarah’s clients at the Grammys last year. Everyone referred to her in awed tones by that single name, like Madonna, because nobody could pronounce her last name, or—more probably—because Natsuko was a force of nature. She wore low-cut tops, tight pants, killer heels, and blue streaks through her black hair, never afraid to outglitz the genuine stars. When she barked an order, the ultra-cool hipster rock stars who’d hired her snapped to attention and murmured placations to appease her. She was also something of a ho, having hooked up with two of the band members and a top reporter for Rolling Stone in the few days Sarah had kept tabs on her.
At first Sarah had been jealous of Natsuko. Then she’d fallen in love. Finally she’d had an epiphany. After years of clients pushing her around and Wendy telling her that dressing for work in something other than athletic wear might help, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. A few months later, when her husband told her he wanted a divorce, she’d grown up.
She’d channeled Natsuko for nine months in Rio. The new act had worked better than her old one for threatening rock star assholes, but it still seemed unnatural. This persona was very different from Sarah’s normal one. Natsuko didn’t have a mother, but had leaped fully armed out of the head of Zeus. She was taller than Sarah and infinitely more sophisticated. Her face revealed nothing, no vulnerability. She only arched one eyebrow when calling a bluff. She used her cleavage and, if necessary, sex appeal as a weapon. Consequently, unlike Sarah, she’d had sex with more than one person in her lifetime.
A car crashed across a seam in the pavement somewhere in the echoing parking deck, and Sarah started around. Then she berated herself, because Natsuko was never startled. Sarah was deathly afraid that Nine Lives would finagle his way out of prison and report to Manhattan Music about what she’d done to him. Worse, he would bypass going after her job and come after her. But projecting strength she didn’t possess would salvage her job and—maybe—keep her safe. She dragged her bag out of the car, kicked the door closed, and walked to the office building entrance with the gait of a no-nonsense bitch used to high heels, humming “Come to Find Out.”
The guitar dropped out of “Naked Mama.” Quentin glanced up from the strings of his bass to see what was going on. Martin had stopped playing and was reaching to a nearby music stand for his cell phone. Now that the rest of the band had stopped playing their instruments, too, Quentin could hear Martin’s phone beeping “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
With a groan, Owen hurled his drumsticks at Martin and the phone. Quentin jumped backward in reflex, nearly dropping his bass guitar. The sticks narrowly missed Martin and Quentin, flew over Erin’s head, and clattered against the glass wall of the sound booth. The album technicians in the control room ducked instinctively.
Quentin was fed up, too. The track had sounded great until they were interrupted. “What the hell,” he protested. Then, realizing he’d cussed in front of the elderly couple watching from the control room, he said, “Pardon me, Mr. and Mrs. Timberlane.”
The Timberlanes were Quentin’s next-door neighbors. Occasionally, when Quentin let them know he’d be home from tour for a few weeks, recording with the Cheatin’ Hearts in his basement, the Timberlanes sent their butler to complain about the noise. It was impossible they’d actually been disturbed. The sound booth was so well insulated that the music could hardly be heard in the kitchen upstairs. So Quentin always invited the Timberlanes over to sit in the control room.
Seems he guessed right that they just wanted in on the action. Instead of looking offended at his language, Mrs. Timberlane smiled serenely and Mr. Timberlane winked at Quentin: Thanks for letting me take my chick on this hot date.
“It was Rachel,” Martin said. As Quentin turned, Martin was straightening his glasses, which immediately fell crooked again, as always. He returned the phone to his music stand. “Our esteemed record company hired one of those crisis management types to keep the band from breaking up. She’s at the PR office right now.”
“To keep the band from breaking up,” Quentin repeated, hoping he sounded incredulous. He lifted off his bass guitar, set it in its stand, and circled his stiff neck to pop it. For the past month, he’d worried constantly about the band breaking up. But that would happen only if the other band members knew what he knew—and that was exactly why he didn’t want some specialized public relations consultant poking around.
Erin told Quentin, “This is your fault.”
Quentin reached to the wall and turned off the sound into the control room before he challenged her. “Why is it my fault? The record company checks on us once in a while.”
“This is not a regular record company check-in,” Martin said ominously. “She honestly thinks the band is breaking up because you two are doing it”—he gestured between Erin and Owen—“and you’re jealous.” He pointed at Quentin. “You took it too far this time, Q.”
“I did not,” Quentin protested. After two years, he knew exactly how far to take the band’s antics, gaining them the new fans he loved and frightening the record company he hated, without the record company sounding the alarm and sending an agent to spy on them.
At least, he’d thought he did. Now that the band actually had something to hide from Manhattan Music, maybe they should have behaved themselves for once. But he’d figured that would seem even more suspicious than their usual debauchery. So he’d set up all sorts of mischief for them in the past week.
He’d gambled and lost.
And he’d lost more than this wager. He was losing his edge. His near-death experience in Thailand must have affected him more than he’d thought.
“You fired our manager,” Owen yelled at him from behind the drums. “You made us delay production on the album. You engineered this thing between Erin and me. It’s too much at one time. Now we’ve got the Evil Empire up our ass.” He stood.
Quentin made a fist, ready for anything.
But Owen passed Quentin without taking a swing at him. He stomped out of the sound booth, slammed the glass door behind him with a sickening crack, and jogged up the stairs toward the kitchen.
“That broke something,” Quentin said.
“If that didn’t,” Erin squealed, “this will.” Too late, Quentin saw her moving toward him with her hand out. He was used to the sting of her slap, but this time it jammed his glasses painfully into the side of his nose.
Martin came around the drums to catch Erin from behind and pull her crashing into the cymbals.
The Cheatin’ Hearts suddenly looked more like professional wrestlers than country music superstars. Which was appropriate, since they’d practiced these moves a thousand times.
Quentin pressed his fingers to his skin to stop the bleeding, wishing the fake fight was a little more fake. Later Erin would claim she’d put on the show for the album technicians in the control room. It was always someone like a technician, supposedly on their side, who was the unnamed source in the tabloid story about the band’s behavior. Feeding stories to the tabloids was almost as important to their careers as putting out new music, in Quentin’s opinion.
But he suspected that this time, Erin had just wanted to hit him. It had been a hard month.
“You could let me take my glasses off first,” he growled at her. Of course, he shouldn’t complain. Whenever he fake-fought Owen, he really let Owen have it. Good to get some aggression out. Lord knew they had plenty.
Pulling away from Martin, Erin mouthed behind her hand at Quentin, “I’m sorry,” and stuck out her bottom lip.
Quentin laughed and mouthed, “S’okay.”
“Let me go fetch Owen and make up for our lovers’ quarrel or whatever that was supposed to be.” Erin passed Quentin and pulled the door. It didn’t budge. She turned to Quentin and said, “The dumbass actually broke it.”
With a sigh, Quentin stepped forward to try the door for Erin. It was stuck. He gave it a good jerk and heard glass breaking. One of the technicians got up and was able to open it from the outside. Several shards of glass and a loose screw fell onto the floor.
Erin jogged up the stairs after Owen. Despite the stories they’d leaked to the media, Owen and Erin’s brand-new romantic relationship was fake. Even Quentin and Erin’s long-term affair was fake. In reality, Erin and Quentin had broken up for good two years ago, before the group had signed with the record company. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the sight of her running up the stairs in very short shorts.
After she disappeared, Quentin remembered the Timberlanes and hoped they weren’t horrified at the band’s fake violence and real damage to his house. He punched the intercom button. “Mr. and Mrs. Timberlane, would you like some more iced tea?”
They shook their heads. Mrs. Timberlane was smiling and patting Mr. Timberlane’s knee like she was thoroughly enjoying this date. Mr. Timberlane kissed her forehead.
Erin led Owen downstairs by the hand. Owen closed the door to the sound booth behind them and unsuccessfully tried the handle, like he didn’t believe he’d broken it (typical). The Cheatin’ Hearts resumed recording, but the session was ruined because their concentration was lost. They all anticipated Martin’s phone playing “Stars Fell on Alabama,” signaling more bad news. Finally the call came, and Quentin reached over to turn off the sound to the control room again.
Martin’s eyes were wide behind his crooked glasses. He unclapped the hand over his mouth to announce, “The PR chick is enormous and scary, with pink hair.”
Owen said, “She sounds like a girl Wookiee.”
“She’s headed this way,” Martin said ominously.
Quentin took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, touched the wound on the side of his nose, and slid the frames back on. “I guess I’d better go put my contacts in.” Part of his job as the band’s front man was to look as studly as possible. He hoped his glasses didn’t make him look as nutty-professor as Martin, but he knew they made him look nerdy enough, which was why he never wore them when meeting with record company representatives or starting bar fights that would be photographed for the tabloids.
“It’s more serious than that, Q,” Martin said angrily.
Quentin quickly looked around on the floor for something non-electronic that wouldn’t cause a fire when he ripped it up and threw it at Martin. Martin had no right to lecture Quentin about the band’s serious troubles.
Luckily, before Quentin could bust up more of his house, Martin was saying, “Okay. Love you, too. Bye.” He clicked the phone off and informed the others, “The Wookiee used the word imbroglio in conversation.”
“What does that mean?” Erin asked.
“She’s onto us,” Quentin said.
“It’ll be fine,” Erin said soothingly. “We’ll do the burly hick act.”
She was right, of course. They couldn’t turn on each other with this PR she-monster approaching. They had to face her head-on. Quentin turned the intercom to the control room back on just long enough to dismiss the technicians for the day. Then he stepped around the piano and over a mass of cables to huddle with the others. “Okay, we’ll show her that we’re tight-knit, so she’ll be satisfied that we’re not breaking up, and repulsive, so she’ll run screaming from the state and leave us alone.”
“Sounds like she doesn’t scare easily,” Owen said.
“Whose turn is it to get drunk?” Martin asked.
“It’s my turn,” Quentin said, “but you know me. I’ll blow our cover. Let me get drunk at something that doesn’t matter so much, like the Fourth of July concert. That means it’s Erin’s turn.”
Erin shook her head. “We were going to record ‘Barefoot and Pregnant’ tomorrow, Q. I don’t want to be hungover when I’m recording something with that much fiddle in it.”
“It’s for the greater good,” Quentin told her.
“It’s your turn,” she responded with more heat than he thought this issue deserved. “You can get a saline IV in the morning and be okay. I’ll be sick for two days.”
“Fine.” He shrugged.
“But don’t start laughing and crack us all up,” Owen warned him.
“I’m telling y’all,” Quentin said, “if I’m getting drunk, you have to be prepared for certain things.”
“And remember Rule Three,” Martin added.
“You think I’m going to sleep with the PR rep sent by the record company?” Quentin exclaimed. “She’s a Wookiee.”
“Let’s get to it,” Erin said impatiently. “I don’t think I have any alcohol in the house. Do y’all?”
“We have a six-pack,” Quentin said. “Not enough.”
“Do we have time to go to the store?” Owen asked.
Martin said, “She’d already left the Galleria when Rachel called.” He glanced at his watch. “Traffic’s died down. She’ll be here any minute.”
Quentin said, “Owen, take the Timberlanes home, and ask them if they have some liquor we can borrow. Martin, find cards and poker chips.”
Owen pulled the glass door of the sound booth, which didn’t budge. Mr. Timberlane rose from his seat in the control room in slow motion to open it. Then Owen followed Mr. and Mrs. Timberlane up the stairs at a glacial pace. Martin, in a show of forethought that had been rare for him lately, waited with his foot propping the broken door open until Quentin put his own foot in the space.
Quentin watched Martin climb the stairs, then turned to Erin, who was packing her fiddle away. “I’ll go put in my contacts.” He paused. “You should take your bra off.”
“You wish.” She sashayed toward him with her fiddle case. “If I take something off, everyone else does, too.” She snapped her fingers. “That’s it! Strip poker. That’ll scare this lady away.”
“Excellent,” he said, and kissed her forehead. Then, because they were alone now, he added, “Let me see them.”
Unperturbed, she batted her eyelashes at him.
“I can’t catch any kind of break today,” he said dejectedly, holding open the sound booth door until she walked under his arm, then mounting the steps to the kitchen after her. It really was disturbing. No one in the group was allowed to have sex with Erin—that was Rule Two. But she’d pretended to be his girlfriend on and off for the last two years. That had made for a lot of very pleasant PDA. Even in private, if he teased her and asked to see her breasts like he used to when they were dating, she would at least flirt back. After Thailand, he’d told her to pretend to break up with him and choose Owen instead, but he hadn’t foreseen that she’d take her fake flirting with her.
They all met a few minutes later on the back patio in the evening heat. Quentin and Martin had taken off their shorts and thrown them in the pool, and Erin had stepped inside the house to take off her bra, by the time Owen arrived with a wooden crate he set on the outdoor table.
He pulled out a small box and tossed it to Quentin. Over-the-counter sinus medication, expired ten years ago. “Mrs. Timberlane is worried about your allergies,” Owen explained. Next came a dozen tomatoes from the Timberlanes’ garden. Finally, in the bottom of the crate, Owen reached several dusty bottles of tequila. “The Timberlanes took a trip to Mexico in the seventies.” He handed one of the bottles to Quentin. “Get started, Q.”
Quentin broke the seal on a bottle, unscrewed the top, took a swig, and grimaced. It was for the greater good, he reminded himself, but he hadn’t wanted to get drunk tonight. He’d wanted to have one beer, bake some bread, and retreat to his Fortress of Solitude to read the latest issue of Clinical Immunology and Allergy Today.
Jennifer Echols was born in Atlanta and grew up in a small town on a beautiful lake in Alabama—a setting that has inspired many of her books. Her nine romantic novels for young adults have been published in seven languages and have won the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Aspen Gold Readers’ Choice Award, the Write Touch Readers’ Award, the Beacon, and the Booksellers’ Best Award. Her novel Going Too Far was a finalist in the RITA and was nominated by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and her son. Visit her at Jennifer-Echols.com.