"What is this, an intervention?" I look back and forth between their faces, the four of them lined up on the opposite side of the conference table like jury members about to render their verdict. I'm kidding about the intervention part, but the joke falls flat and for a brief second, I think it might actually be true. But it can't be. I rarely drink, and I've never even tried drugs – I mean, sure, a couple of drags on a joint years ago, but that hardly counts -- so there's no way this can be an actual intervention, right? "I don't understand. "
My mother looks at me through narrowed eyes, her palm on my stepfather's arm. "There's a morality clause in your contract, Addison," she says, her jaw clenched and her voice tight.
The morality clause. Of course. I hadn't forgotten about that – how could I? Everything in my life is about public perception, after all. That's how things work when you're America's country music sweetheart. "So you're ambushing me?"
A man in a suit clears his throat before sliding a sheaf of paper across the table at me. He's obviously someone from the record label, but I don't recognize him, which doesn't make me feel any better about this meeting. He was clearly sent to do the dirty work of making sure I fall in line with what the label wants. "I'm afraid you're bound by the terms of your contract," he says. "And that includes your public behavior. We signed a wholesome country singer, a role model for young girls. One who represents family values. Not someone who twerks in a club at two in the morning. "
"But I haven't been twerking – "
"Drinking and partying," he says. "Do those behaviors ring any bells?"
"Those are hardly illegal. " I leave out the glaring fact that I wasn't actually drinking or doing drugs or anything scandalous at all. I was with people in a club who were doing those things and that's apparently all that matters. God forbid I have a little bit of fun at the ripe old age of twenty-two.
"Legal behavior is one thing, illegal drugs are another thing entirely," my mother says. "You should know better. Once any of your so-called friends is high, you're guilty by association. "
"And then there's this. " My stepfather slides a copy of the newspaper across the table, giving me a look that positively reeks of disapproval. My stepfather is the most buttoned-down person I've ever met, the kind of man who can convey more with a raised eyebrow than most parents can communicate in an entire lecture. He's a retired Army Colonel who runs a private security firm for celebrities, and I'm one of his clients. My mother met him seven years ago on one of my tours -- and the rest, as they say, was history.
I glance down at the page, expecting the headline to have something to do with my boyfriend – my ex-boyfriend, after last night's debacle – and his friends' antics in the club last night. But it doesn't. Instead, it reads Music Star Caught In Compromising Position With Older Married Man: Relationship with Boyfriend on the Rocks!
At least they got the relationship with the boyfriend part right. That's definitely on the rocks; hell, it's already shipwrecked. This headline concerns a completely different scandal. Of course, it doesn't tell you the rest of the story, which is that I had to shove the guy away from me at the party three nights ago. The article really should read Hollywood Mogul Photographed While Attempting to Grope Music Star. Cameras didn't capture that part of the evening.
I don't even try to explain, because my parents would never believe me. My mother thinks I'm a brat, spoiled by money and fame. I may be a bit of a brat, but I'm not spoiled by this life. It's exactly the opposite, actually. I'm exhausted by it. I should be on-top-of-the-world happy, with three platinum records and a Grammy award under my belt. But at twenty-two, I shouldn't feel this damn old -- this damn tired. I should have some fire in my belly.
So I guess fatigue is the reason I don't say anything. Instead, I sit there glaring at them, waiting for their verdict. I tick off the options in my head. Rehab? A trip somewhere? I'll issue a mea culpa for my terrible behavior and promise the record label they won't have to worry about their lily-white singer being tarnished by her no-good friends.
My stepfather finally breaks the silence. "The label has agreed to a solution we think will be amenable to everyone," he says. "With all that's happened, we believe you need someone to look out for your interests. " He says it like we're talking about hiring someone to manage my stock portfolio. But what they're really suggesting – what they're really ordering – is someone to manage me. Page 2
"A new manager," I say flatly, looking at my existing manager – my mother.
"Don't be ridiculous," she sputters, shaking her head.
"What then?" I ask. "Designer treatment center? Press statement saying I've collapsed of exhaustion?" The words come out more bitter than I intend them to sound, but I'm frustrated by the ambush.
Of course, a break might be exactly what I need. In my head, I imagine standing up right now and walking out of the room, packing everything I own and just heading back to Savannah, me and my guitar. Hell, I could play on a sidewalk, no backup singers and dancers and costume changes and a different city every night until I'm so turned around I can't see straight.
The guy in the suit is right, though – the record label would play hardball. They would sue me for breach of contract and take everything I've worked for.
It's funny what happens when you come from nothing. Nothing is the last place you ever want to return.
I'm so preoccupied with my thoughts I don't even hear my stepfather's voice until he waves his hand directly in my field of vision. "Addison. "
"The label agreed to this plan. Hendrix will be your new bodyguard," he says, his voice picking up momentum. "Your old one has been removed. "
"Dan is fired?" I ask. "It's not his fault I went to the club last night. "
"He knows better," the Colonel says, his voice sharp. "There are protocols in place for a reason. He should have pulled you out of there more quickly. "
"That's not fair to Dan --" I start, but my stepfather brings his fist down on the table, hard, and the sound makes me jump.
"It's not fair to me, to employ a bodyguard who is so remiss in his duties," he says. "This is done. You need a bodyguard who will not be lax. Especially after the issue with the stalker. I trust Hendrix to not be lax. "
"The stalker," I repeat numbly. There was hardly a stalker, merely an obsessed fan who sent me a few overzealous letters. There are always obsessed fans. That's not new. I'm so preoccupied with that piece of what he says that it takes my brain a minute to catch up to the more important part.
I repeat the name I haven't spoken in years. "Hendrix who?"
Hendrix who, indeed. I know exactly who he's talking about. Is there really any other Hendrix?
Has there ever been?
My stepfather clears his throat and opens his mouth to speak, but the door behind him swings wide and as if on cue, Hendrix walks inside. Immediately, it's like all of the air is sucked out of the room.
I sit there, my heart pounding so loud I think my chest might actually explode as I stare at him.
I was seventeen when he left to join the Marines just as soon as he turned eighteen. That one year age difference between us was everything -- a gulf a mile wide. He was one year older than me and a million times more superior, with dyed hair and piercings and total disdain for authority. He only joined the Marines to piss off the
I couldn't stand Hendrix from the moment I met him. I hated him on sight. And then, later, I wanted him, with all the wild lust and longing of a teenage girl. He walked into my life when I was fifteen years old, and at that age, he was the most irresistible thing I'd ever laid eyes on.
I'd like to say I haven't thought about him since he ran off to join the Marines, but that would be a lie. I've definitely thought about Hendrix. But in my thoughts, he's still the irritating, sexy-as-hell teenager I used to know.
This is…something else entirely. Five years has changed Hendrix. He's not a sullen teenager anymore. Now he looks like the freaking poster child for the Marines. Except with tattoos. Lots and lots of tattoos. They run up the length of his arms, disappearing under the sleeves of the t-shirt that stretch across his biceps, the same t-shirt that pulls across his very well-defined chest. I'm suddenly reminded why, five years ago, my heart would race every time I was near him.
Hendrix stands there, his broad shoulders squared back, looking at me like he dares me to object to any of this. The way he gazes at me sends a shiver up my spine. It's the same way he looked at me the day he walked into my life. "Hey, Addy," he says, one corner of his mouth pulling up slightly in his trademark cocky grin, the one that used to give me goose bumps. "I'm back. Did you miss me?"
I stand so quickly my knees go weak and I feel dizzy. I don't get weak-kneed. I've been in the spotlight for as long as I can remember. Hell, I've performed at Madison Square Garden. I don't get nervous in front of people. I sure as hell don't get weak-kneed over some guy. Especially some guy I don't even like. Hendrix was a total asshole to me when we were teenagers, and he might look different -- hotter, to be sure -- but that doesn't mean he's changed. "I'm not doing this," I say, imbuing my voice with a steadiness I definitely do not feel. I clear my throat. "Fuck this. I'm out of here. "
The suit from the agency stands and buttons his jacket. He doesn't look at me, just turns and addresses my mother before he leaves. "This was a concession on our part," he says. "Get her in line. "
"Addison," my mother hisses. "Do not ruin this. "
"Of course. I wouldn't want to embarrass you, or God forbid, stop the flow of money coming your way. " My hands are shaking, and I steady them on the surface of the table. Why do I feel so light-headed? I pointedly ignore the look Hendrix gives me from the other side of the table. His eyes are on me, and I feel naked under his gaze.
Hendrix has always had a way of making me feel that way.
Nothing ever happened between us, but Lord knows I thought about it back when we were teenagers, before he left for the Marine Corps.
"Addison Stone," my stepfather bellows. "We are trying to look out for your best interests. "
"Bullshit," I hear myself say, the words echoing through the stillness of the room. They sound stronger than I do, like they're coming from someone else, someone more sure of herself than I am. I step around the other side of the table and walk toward the door, all the while refusing to make eye contact with Hendrix. I'd rather go to some fake rehab for thirty days than have Hendrix escort me everywhere. "You're looking out for your own interests. "
"Goddamn it, Addison. " My mother stands up, shrugging off my stepfather's grasp when he tries to get her to sit down, and rushes toward me, her face contorted with anger. "I've put too much work into you to have you blow this off like it's no big deal, just so you can party all night and act like a little slut, do you understand?"
"A slut? Really, mother?" I hear myself say. But I feel light-headed, and my voice sounds weak. The room begins to sway, and I totter, regretting my choice of high heels. My mother grabs my arm, her fingernails digging into my skin, and I want to smack her, but I suddenly feel paralyzed, like I'm stuck in quicksand. I shouldn't have skipped breakfast, I think. Did I eat dinner last night?
Then Hendrix is standing in front of me, positioned between my mother and me, his hands on my arms. When he speaks, his voice sounds muffled, like he's talking to me from underwater.
I never noticed what an odd shade of blue his eyes are, I think, feeling strangely detached from everything. They're the color of the sky before a storm. That's what my grandmother would call it. There's a storm-sky rolling in, Addy, she'd say, taking my hand in hers. In the south, the sky turns this gray-blue, almost black, right before the heavens rip open and unleash a torrent of rain.
I wonder what Hendrix is hiding behind those eyes.
That's the last thought I have before everything goes dark.
SEVEN YEARS AGO
"This is not the time or place for your bullshit, do you fucking understand me, Hendrix?" My father stands in front of me, his voice low and deep in his throat, speaking in hushed tones so that his new wife and her perfect little brood don't accidentally overhear him. He wouldn't want them thinking that anything less than the ideal father and son were becoming part of the family.
"Whatever. " I roll my eyes, speaking the word under my breath. My father, with all his rigidity and goddamn propriety ("There's a reason protocol exists, Hendrix, a reason for a chain-of-command; life needs order" and all that blah blah blah bullshit), decided that it would be perfectly fucking appropriate to marry the mother of a damn teenage country music star. They eloped. Didn't tell anyone. He went and did it two weeks ago, while I was still at military school. They didn't even have the courtesy to wait until I was on summer break or anything.
It's not like I wanted to be involved in some stupid wedding anyway.
The Colonel didn't even bother showing up to the academy in person to tell me, not that I'd expect him to. He called to drop that bombshell over the phone. And since I got kicked out of military academy last week – none of the Colonel's bluster and blather could get them to keep me after I screwed the General's daughter – now I've been carted to Nashville fucking Tennessee, which I think must be redneck capital of the United States, to meet my new family.
"Whatever?" The Colonel stands in front of me, his face contorted with rage. I know he wants to hit me right now, more than anything. But we're here in the entryway of his new wife's mansion, this ridiculous place that's so suburban-new-money it makes me want to vomit. So he wouldn't dare slug me, not here in the middle of everything. I'm sure she doesn't want bloodstains on her fancy tile.
"Sir, yes, sir," I say, my tone mocking. I'll rile him up and not feel a damn bit of guilt about it. Why should I? He's the one who's dragging me along for the ride, inserting me into this new family life.
A small voice cuts through the tension. "Are you Hendrix?"
I turn around to see her, walking down the marble monstrosity of a staircase that curves up to the rooms upstairs.
When my father told me who he was dating – the "dating" part was a lie, by the way, since he'd already married Addison's mother, Wendy Stone -- I didn't recognize the name. Then I did a little internet research. Addison Stone was some kind of media sensation, discovered on one of those reality singing shows two years ago.
Now she has an album and she's touring and shit. She's younger than me. Which means it's only a matter of time until the comparisons begin: "Addison has made a million dollars already; what are you going to do with your life?"
Addison is definitely hotter than she looked on the videos I watched of her online. Her long blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail that swings as she bounces down the stairs in her jeans and bare feet with her perfect little pink pedicure. She's wearing lip gloss on her perfectly pouty pink lips. I watch her walk across the marble floor -- she practically bounc
es as she moves -- and then she flashes her perfect, gleaming white teeth in a perfect little smile and holds out her hand. "I'm Addison Stone," she says, her cheeks pink as she grins like an idiot.
I look at perfect little Addison in her perfect little house and I decide I fucking hate her.
Addison's eyes pop open and she makes an expression that falls somewhere on the spectrum between surprise and horror. "What the –"
"You fainted. " I don't add that she probably fainted because she looks like she could stand to get a good night's sleep and to eat a meal other than salad. I haven't seen this girl since she was seventeen, but she has to be smaller now than she was then. She feels fragile in my arms.
At least, until she starts flopping around like a fucking fish out of water.
"Why are you – " she starts, and slaps my arm, hard. "Put me down. "
If it were any other time and any other person issuing the directive, I would. But because it's Addison ordering me around, I can't in good conscience listen. On principle, you know. "I don't think so. "
She struggles harder, which makes me laugh. And makes her obviously angry. "You're a Neanderthal. I'm not going anywhere with you. "
"You heard my father," I say. "I'm going to be your new bodyguard. Or whatever. Shit, stop squirming, or you're going to fall on your head and I'm not going to feel the least bit sorry for you when you crack your skull open on the damn ground. "
"People are looking at us," she says. I'm carrying her down through the hall of whatever-the-hell building this is, and she's right. There are offices in here and someone comes to the door to gape openly at us. "I'm sure someone has called a photographer already. "
"Then I guess you better get ready to smile for the cameras, sweet cheeks. "
"Unless you want the story to be about how you're hooking up with your own stepsister, I suggest you put me down. "
"What the hell?" Her words catch me off guard and I let go. Somehow, she manages to land with her feet underneath her, like a cat, although how she does it on those ridiculously high heels of hers boggles my damn mind. Hooking up with her? "Why would you say something stupid like that?"