Authors: Elena Brown
Copyright © 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Copyright © 2015
Table of Contents
Amber looked around Studio A, her gaze wandering over the cozy, comfortable confines in the thick silence that hung over the space. It was so strange to her; one moment, the whole studio was alive with sound—so full of music, metronome, and back-and-forth between the sound engineers and session musicians that it didn’t seem like it could ever be truly quiet. The next, as soon as everyone left for the day, it was so silent that the lack of sound seemed to press in on her ears. She should be happy; she should be absolutely thrilled to be at SugarHill studios, in Houston—where music greats from blues, country, and rock and roll had made their mark.
Amber took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The worn rug on the floor made her smile slightly to herself, briefly imagining all of the musicians and singers whose feet had traversed the soft red and black nap of it. She reached a bare foot out and touched her toe to the subtly fringed edge, her smile twitching at her lips, faltering into a frown. She should be happy, but she wasn’t.
Glancing up from the floor to look around at the soundproofed walls, Amber’s thoughts turned to the reason she was at SugarHill to begin with; it wasn’t simply an expression of how far she had come in her music career. There were historic studios all over the United States; she could have gone to one of many—and gained almost as much prestige. But she’d had to come back to Houston. She swallowed against the convulsive tightening of her throat. She wouldn’t be back in Houston at all if it weren’t for Kobe.
Amber closed her eyes, feeling the tingling burn behind them. She had been so happy with Kobe; she had thrown herself utterly into helping him improve his career. Stepping back from the spotlight she had vaulted into herself, she had used her own star power to give him credibility, to give him some clout in the industry. She had added her vocals to his songs, had given him the headline position on their tour together, she had done everything she possibly could to push him into success.
And he’d repaid her by sleeping around. The sight of Kobe on TV, shrugging off the interviewer’s questions about their public—and ugly—breakup, flitted through Amber’s mind. She had taken the high road, restrained herself from howling to the press about how her boyfriend had done her wrong; but the paparazzi were relentless. As soon as news of their fight in a hotel room in Chicago came out, they followed her everywhere, asking if she was going to stand by her man, if she had anything to say, if this was going to be the end of their working life together as well as their romance. She had tried to let the furor pass over her; she had hoped that if she held herself composed for long enough and refused to talk about it, it would just all go away. But it hadn’t.
Instead, she had finally had enough of the pressure and spilled it all when she lashed out at a particularly persistent reporter. She had stared furiously into a camera and unloaded all her feelings about the paparazzi, how they were no better than the low-down dirty cheat Kobe was and walked away, still on fire from head to toe with anger. The next day, she had been kindly told by her publicist and management that it was “time for a break.” It was suggested that she should get away from where the press would be likely to follow her, that she should “rest and recover” from her ordeal. Amber was perfectly aware of what those phrases meant. They were worried about her becoming another Lisa Lane, a fallen star whose name was splashed across the news only when she did something impulsive, rash and angry.
So Amber had gone home to her mother; to the apartment she had bought for her when she had been first coming into fame. Amber wasn’t poor—not yet. She wasn’t even broke. But she hadn’t done anything to promote herself in years, ever since she had started focusing on kick starting Kobe’s career. It was easiest to live with her mom. If she had moved into her own place in Houston, that would just call more attention to herself; she would be a magnet for paparazzi again. After moving in with her mother, the pests finally started to dwindle after a few weeks, and Amber settled into what she considered her new life as a developing has-been.
Amber’s phone buzzed, ripping her away from her thoughts. She picked it up and glanced at the screen; it was Kobe. Amber made a face. As much as she missed him, she was not at all prepared to talk to him. She wasn’t sure whether she missed him or hated him more. She tapped the “decline” icon and set it down. She was alone and it was time to leave. Everyone else had left the studio almost an hour before; Amber had stuck around simply because the idea of going back to the apartment felt too lonely to her. Her mom would be there—but somehow that wasn’t quite enough for her.
She had slowly begun to reconnect with some of the people she had known in the city before she had started to gain fame. A lot of her friends had moved on, and Amber couldn’t really blame them. She hadn’t been a very good friend as more and more engagements, events, tours, and work came up. She had barely had time to keep in touch with her own mother. But it hurt to have to come back with her tail tucked between her legs, metaphorically speaking, and find that she had lost most of her circle of friends. It wasn’t that any of them hated her, just that they didn’t have anything in common anymore; most of her friends from school were into their careers, had gotten married and started families.
Amber picked up her phone and slipped it into her purse, telling herself that she was going to gather her things and just go home. It had been a surprisingly nerve-wracking session. Amber pressed her lips together, cringing. A year ago, two years ago, the producers whose help she was seeking now would have jumped at the chance to work with her. They would have put aside their work with other artists to get the job of her next album. But now that she’d lost some of her prestige, now that she was working on new material that wasn’t exactly in keeping with what had made her famous, all of the producers she had gone to or called up were less than fully interested. “Look, Amber—I’d love to work with you, but I’ve been swamped with requests since last June.” “Amber, baby, you know I’m all about helping a sister out, but I just can’t get behind this.” “What are you doing with this stuff, Amber? You’re all over the place. Take some time and really figure it out, and talk to me then.” It seemed like nobody was interested in helping her make the album that she hoped would be her comeback.
Amber’s phone buzzed again and she frowned, pulling it out of her purse. If it was Kobe again, she’d answer it just to tell him to leave her the hell alone. She turned the phone over and looked at the lit-up screen; it was Cara—one of the few friends who had stood by her all the while, who had done the work to keep in touch when Amber had gotten famous. Who was still with her now, still interested in being her friend instead of being interested in spreading gossip about her. “Hey! Care-bear!” Amber smiled as she answered the call.
“Am-bear! Where are you at, sweetie?”
Amber laughed. “Still hanging at the studio. What’s good?” Amber could hear wind rushing on Cara’s end of the line; a sure sign that her friend was out and about, not gloomily sitting in a climate-controlled cavern like she was.
“You need to get your ass out of there and come out. I’ve rallied a bunch of Houston’s finest to drink our cares away and it will not be the same without you.”
Amber shook her head; she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend her Friday night getting drunk with her former classmates, but it wasn’t as though she had anything else in mind. No one other than Cara had spent much time with her since she got back to her hometown. She might as well go along with the program. “Let me close up shop here and I’ll meet you. The usual place?” Sometime before Amber had moved on in the world, she and her friends had gotten used to meeting at Pub Fiction—men and women alike. She could only hope that they hadn’t drastically changed venues.
“Of course. I won’t even tell everyone you’re coming; you can be my surprise guest. Don’t let me down, Am-bear.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Care-bear.” Amber finished the call and slipped the phone in her purse, standing resolutely. If she was going to be meeting up with her former classmates and friends, even as Cara’s “surprise guest,” she was going to look on point.
Amber hurried out to her car and drove quickly back to the apartment she shared with her mother. A day in the studio, for her, called for minimal—or no—makeup, her hair as comfortable as possible, shoes that were easy to slip off, and clothes that didn’t get in the way of singing and moving around. A night out was an entirely different situation; and a night out among people who had mixed feelings about her was even more important.
“How was the session, sweetie?” her mother asked as she walked in the door.
Amber sighed. “Same as usual; lots of nice things to say but no real interest.” Amber shrugged, plugging her phone in at the wall and putting her purse down. “I’m meeting up with Cara and some other folks at the bar, so I gotta get my act together fast before they forget I exist.”
Amber’s mother grinned. “Just make sure you call a cab if you’re too drunk at the end of the night,” she said—as she’d told her to do ever since Amber had had her first night out. It was the same advice, and while Amber generally kept a fairly tight rein on her drinking, she always followed that advice and called a cab. It was easier to get someone to drive her back to wherever her car was parked the next day than to risk driving drunk and killing someone.
Amber kissed her mother on the cheek and hurried into her bedroom. She kicked off her shoes and immediately started stripping off the loose dress she had worn into the studio. Grimacing that she didn’t have enough time to grab a shower, she re-applied deodorant and smoothed some fresh powder where it would do the most good before layering her signature perfume over it, dabbing at her wrists, her neck, her cleavage, and her hips.
Amber moved into the bathroom, her gaze traveling over the scattered assembly of makeup that covered part of the countertop. She brushed her teeth as she considered what she should wear, and how that would affect the makeup she chose. Her hair was a mess. She took a deep breath and decided to start there. Now for the first time, Amber missed the cadre of stylists, makeup artists, and hair people who had followed her around when the record label had begun grooming her to be a star; it was so much easier to look her best when someone else could make decisions about what would show off the curves of her lush body, what colors would make her eyes sparkle, and what hairstyle would give the right impression. Amber combed her fingers through the thick, umber-dyed extensions she had gotten a couple of weeks before, remembering one of the styles that had looked particularly good on the road.
She tucked and twisted and pinned and finally exhaled with satisfaction at the sight of herself in the mirror. It wasn’t perfect—but then she wasn’t, hopefully, going to be on TV or in a video. She was going to be among normal people, people who didn’t care whether she had spent three hours being primped by professionals or ten minutes alone in her bathroom. She wanted to look good, but she didn’t want to look like she was showing off. Amber decided that she was going to wear her soft gold sundress; more than once she’d been told that it made her dark umber skin glow and her eyes gleam. She applied just enough makeup to look at least a little bit like her “famous” self—detailing her eyebrows, applying mascara, just a touch of contour to her cheeks and jaw line, a pop of color at her lips and on her eyelids.
Finally, she slipped into her dress, transferred the contents of her purse to one that would go with the brown leather shoes she had chosen, and looked at herself in the mirror one last time. She was recognizably herself, but she didn’t look like she was a celebrity—none of the hyped-up glamour and intense styling that went along with her former status. It was good enough, and she was determined that she would have a good time. Kissing her mom one last time, Amber left the apartment and headed to her car.
She was nervous as she approached the bar; Amber knew that she shouldn’t be, but it had been a while since she had made a habit of going out regularly. She had mostly lived down the humiliation of her altercation with the reporter, but she knew there were still some people snickering about the situation with her and Kobe; people who thought she’d gotten “too big for her britches,” people who resented her success, and people who had been hurt by the fact that she had forgotten them—not because they weren’t good enough, but because she simply didn’t have enough time in her busy days.
Amber took a deep breath and stepped into the bar. Pub Fiction had been a favorite for her circle of friends since they were first able to legally drink. The bar and club had prepared her for nights out in major cities around the country and the world; the same vibe prevailed at the Pub as it did in the best Chicago and New York City places, the top places to be seen in London, in LA, anywhere she had gone. The food was great, the service was always fast, and the drinks were some of the best that she’d ever had.
Cara had taken over a huge table, and as Amber spotted her friend, she took in the sight of everyone around her. Summoning her courage, she smiled broadly and called out “West-Side?” A half dozen of her former classmates looked up and Amber was relieved that most of them seemed genuinely surprised and happy to see her.
“Best side!” they called back. People shifted around the table, opening up a spot for Amber right next to Cara. One of the wait staff came over while Amber was still exchanging greetings with everyone, her nervousness transforming into giddiness and relief at the warm welcome she had received. She ordered one of the bar’s signature drinks, the Effen Mule, and settled in to catch up with everything that the “home crowd” had been up to in the weeks, months, or years since she had last seen them. Lucy, at the end of the table, was working as an engineer and project manager, with one kid staying at home with her husband, who worked as a freelancer. Keith was working his way up in the hospitality industry.