Authors: Ruby Laska
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Table of Contents
BLACK GOLD Copyright 2013 by Ruby Laska
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
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The girl singing on stage was nearing the end of her set. Sweat poured down her face, taking what remained of her eye makeup with it. Her cheap tank top had lost a few sequins during the performance and there was a long, ragged thread hanging from the edge of her skirt. Only her boots looked like they'd come from anywhere other than a thrift store: fire engine red with swirls of fancy stitching on the side.
Regina McCary hung on to every note, imagining that the familiar adrenaline rush might be what a natural-born predator felt as it closed in on its prey. She drained the last of her weak gin and tonic and forced down a bite of her sandwich. It wouldn't do to let hunger or dehydration slow her down, not this close to the score.
"Not bad, is she?" a familiar voice grated in her ear when the song ended. The small audience clapped enthusiastically, especially a group of drunk guys taking up most of the back of the bar around the pool tables, and Regina could barely hear him. But she'd know that voice anywhere. Her heart sank and she squeezed her eyes shut and prayed: not here, not now. Surely, he wouldn't have followed her all the way here from Nashville, not when this was supposed to be her first vacation in six years.
But when she finally opened her eyes, it was Carl Cash who had slid into the chair across the small table from her. He pushed her plate out of the way to make room to set his familiar canvas knapsack on the table.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Regina demanded.
"Following up on a hot tip. But, honey, you don't want to talk about work, do you? Not while you're on vacation."
"How do you know I'm on vacation?"
But Regina could guess, and her heart plummeted because there was only one person who could have told Carl where she was, and the betrayal stung: Meredith Jester wasn't just her boss, she was supposedly her friend.
to be your friend to do this," Meredith had said the day she told Regina she had two choices: take a vacation, or find another job. "It would be easier to just cut you loose. Or let you work yourself to death."
Meredith had always had a soft spot for Carl, who had worked at her talent agency before striking out on his own. Never mind that Carl had become her number one competitor. Meredith was loyal to all of her former employees. That had worked out well back when Regina had been dating him, and even better when she’d been engaged to him. Meredith had even helped plan their wedding, when she wasn't busy running her talent agency.
When Regina and Carl broke up, Regina suggested it would be a good time for Meredith to let go too. But Meredith replied that there were enough rising country music stars to keep both Cash Professional Management and the Jester Group busy, and besides, she enjoyed the competition. She and Carl continued to try to poach each other's hottest clients while trading friendly barbs and gossip about Regina.
"Okay," Regina said, taking a deep breath. "Look. I suppose Meredith told you to come up here and keep an eye on me. But I do know how to take a break from work, Carl. I'm on vacation, nothing more."
"In a bar," Carl said, raising an eyebrow, "with live music."
"There aren't a whole lot of entertainment options in Conway, North Dakota," Regina hedged. "Haven't you noticed?"
"Which makes it seem like a very odd choice for a vacation."
"No, wait, there's hiking—"
"Yeah, Meredith told me about that. Miles of unpaved trails with views of... nothing. Come on, Regina, there's way better hiking around Nashville. And besides, you don't even own a pair of hiking boots."
"And there's rafting on the Little Yellow River. And there's a historic fort around here somewhere—"
"Right. Maybe Meredith fell for all of that. But I think I know you just a little better than she does." Carl tugged the leather laces of his knapsack and reached inside, pulling out a sleek top-of-the-line laptop.
The knapsack, like so much about Carl, was part of the disguise he had cultivated. He never actually came out and
the rumors that he was Johnny Cash's nephew, but he made damn sure to cover up the fact he was the one who started most of those rumors. Regina was one of the only people who knew he'd been born Carl Bettendorf from upstate New York, and gotten himself a fancy East Coast education before coming to Nashville and transforming himself.
After a few taps of the keyboard, Carl spun the laptop around and Regina found herself looking at a publicity shot of the same girl who'd exited the stage only moments earlier. Underneath were the columns of data that Carl was so good at digging up: the handful of venues she'd played in the last few years, the few minor acts she'd opened for, the unknown bands she'd belonged to before they broke up.
Exhaustive research along with relentless determination was what Carl was known for. Just as what Regina was known for was discovering indie artists who were sure to become critics' darlings—and earn next to nothing.
"You wouldn't," Regina breathed. "She's mine. I found her." After a lot of hard work and almost as much soul searching, Regina had discovered Stiletta through an obscure blogger and recognized her commercial potential. Regina was determined to finally land a client who'd be a financial success, someone who'd attract the big labels and land the sort of contract that would finally make her colleagues stop treating her like an intern.
"Oh, yes, I certainly would," Carl said. "That was a very expensive wedding we cancelled, Reggie. I've got to recoup those expenses any way I can."
"I told you I'd pay you back for every cent!"
"Yeah, that would be kind of hard to do on your income, unfortunately," Carl said mildly, closing the laptop and putting it away. He signaled for a passing waitress—the same one who'd ignored Regina for the first half hour that she'd sat at the table—and the woman made a U-turn and headed their way.
"Not if I sign Stiletta! She's solid, Carl. With a little cleanup I'll have her booked solid in Nashville by next month."
"Now that's a funny thing," Carl said. "Seems like Meredith told me something about you swearing on your grandmother's Bible that you wouldn't even think about working while you're up here."
"You can't tell her."
"It's kind of sweet," Carl said, considering her with his head tilted to the side. "Hang on a sec," he added as the waitress sidled up to him, letting her eyes rove over Carl's gym-muscled shoulders straining the seams on his pearl-buttoned western shirt. Carl was a looker, Regina had to give him that much. Too bad all that pretty was only skin-deep. "Sweetheart, I'll have a rye and soda, and something a little more ladylike for my friend here. She's on vacation, so she deserves to cut loose. Something tropical with a pink umbrella, maybe?"
"I could do a Bahama Mama," the waitress purred, "or maybe a Sex on the Beach." She was in her sixties, but she was as susceptible to the legendary Carl Cash charm as every other woman.
"Oh, definitely a Sex on the Beach." Carl winked.
"I don't need another drink!" Regina protested. But Carl had tossed a twenty onto the waitress's tray, and she made a beeline for the bar.
"Anyway, as I was saying, it's kind of sweet the way Meredith trusts you. A few brochures for white water rafting, and she's ready to believe you're actually going to take time off."
"I should never have told her where I was really going," Regina said.
"No, probably not," Carl agreed. "You could’ve said you were going to Cozumel or Key West like a normal person. You know that it only took me about fifteen minutes of searching online to figure out what caught your eye up here, once I knew the name of the town. Buzz is building on Stiletta, but still mostly local. Nice work, Reggie. Got to say, I didn't think you had it in you to sign someone who could go mainstream."
"This is completely unethical!" Regina could feel the familiar sensation building inside her—embarrassment mixed with a profound sense of unfairness. After all, her clients had won over a dozen industry awards, and all of them had received great reviews, but none had sold more than a few thousand copies. Meredith didn't mind. She always said Regina's client list gave the firm cachet. But Regina knew that until she brought in a big breakout, she'd be stuck with the smallest office and worst parking space in the firm.
Stiletta was going to change all of that. "I found her. I'm going to sign her myself!"
Carl was already shaking his head. "All's fair in love and war, Reggie. I think you were the one who said that to me, weren't you?"
"Yes—when I found you in bed with your
"You make it sound so tawdry. She was a full grown woman."
"Oh, right, so just because she made it all the way to
school before she got exploited by her boss, I should overlook the fact that we were supposed to get married? You know what? Never mind. There’s no way I'm going to get sucked into this all over again." It would end with her nearly having another nervous breakdown, and there was no telling where Meredith would send her next. Regina would be lucky to avoid going to Siberia—Meredith might finally make good on her threat to fire her so Regina could find a less competitive profession. Like drag racing, perhaps, or trial law.
Competition among Nashville's talent scouts was fierce. But competitiveness had been ingrained in Regina when she was only five years old, when her parents first sent Regina to the piano teacher who'd taught her two elder sisters, both of whom were now concert pianists. Regina was the only one who didn't have the talent to perform, and she still carried the sting of failure. But those lessons hadn't gone to waste. Regina could spot talent from miles away.
Still, her desire to win—at something, anything—had been honed by time into a fierce and untamable drive.
Which gave her an idea. "Tell you what, Carl. If I sign Stiletta, you forgive my half of the wedding expenses."
Carl rolled his eyes. "Come on, Reggie. I've told you a thousand times that you don't need to pay me back. I'm the one who screwed up. I'm the one who ought to pay for my mistake."
"And if you sign Stiletta," she said, barely listening, "I'll convince Meredith to give you Buckeye Brown."
Carl's eyes went wide. Regina knew that behind them, Carl’s brain was doing feverish calculations. Buckeye Brown had sold thirty-five thousand copies of his first album, enough to make him a hot young star. There was one problem with working with Buckeye, though. He had no respect for women. He'd made Meredith's life a living hell since she found him in an Alabama roadhouse, where she should’ve left him. She’d been considering offloading him for a while now, especially since he was five months late on his new album and spending a little too much time at the racetrack. A problem client, in other words, but Carl didn't need to know that.
"Deal," he said, much too quickly. He tried to cover up his error by grabbing her hand and holding onto it a little too long. "Aw, Regina, we were good together, weren't we?"
On stage, the bespectacled, middle-aged bar owner was adjusting the microphone, causing a burst of static that saved Regina from having to answer Carl's question. "Folks, hope you enjoyed hearing that young lady sing. Name's Stiletta. You can see her here every Thursday. Now while she's resting up those amazing vocal chords, let's give a hand to our good friend Chase Warner who's going to sing us a tune or two. It's his birthday, so let's make him feel welcome, hear?"