Did something crawl into her mouth and die?
That was only one of the many questions that ran through Sophie James’s mind like the bulls stampeding through Pamplona. Some of the others: Why was the sunshine trying to slice through her eyelids? Who was running the jackhammer inside her skull? Could somebody please give her all the water on the planet, like, right now?
Sophie groaned and laid her arm gingerly across her eyes, wanting to get up and away from the bright and cheerful rays of sunlight that obviously hated her, but the rest of her body didn’t seem to want to move; her legs felt like they were made of sandbags. It took her another five minutes to realize she was on her couch and not in her bed. When that happened, her eyes popped open and a few slivers of memory from the night before began to pierce through her brain.
There had been loud, thumping music.
There had been lots of dancing.
There had been waaaaytoo many shots.
Oh, God. The shots…
It’s funny how, when vomiting is imminent, a body that previously wouldn’t move suddenly does so at great speed. Sophie made it to the powder room toilet in the nick of time, and anything at all that had remained in her stomach as she slept evacuated her body in a hot, putrid rush.
She groaned in exhausted relief and sat back against the wall. The ceramic tile was cool under her bare legs and for a serious moment, she thought about just lying down and going back to sleep right there on the bathroom floor. She was sliding slowly down the wall to do just that when she heard her cell ringing from somewhere in the living room.
Another groan. Why was every part of her body so freaking heavy? Standing was too hard. She crawled instead. Out of the bathroom, down the hardwood hallway, to the leather couch. Once there, she turned herself so she sat on the floor with her back against it, closed her eyes, and blew out a breath. Yeah, that was more than enough exertion for one day. She was pretty much done.
She saw the note when she reached for the phone.
Take the Advil. Drink the water. Call me.
For the first time since opening her eyes, Sophie saw the water bottle on the coffee table, now sparkling in the sun, looking inviting. She grabbed it and twisted the top off, drank greedily as her phone beeped to remind her that she’d been too slow in answering and now she had a text.
No. Seventeen texts, she saw now as she downed the four orange tablets.
That was a lot for somebody who rarely gave out her number.
She sucked down more water, as if hoping it would fortify her against the text onslaught she knew was right there in her hand, and she unlocked the screen.
Four from Andrew, all asking if she was alive. He’d show up at her door if she didn’t respond, so she jotted off a quick text to let him know she did actually open her eyes that morning.
Feel like shit, but I’m breathing, so there’s that, she sent.
Unsurprising, came Andrew’s reply. You and tequila made a beautiful couple last night.
Just the mention of the alcohol made Sophie’s stomach roil in protest, and she grimaced as she waited for it to pass. Andrew said he’d be over later.
Three texts were from Michaela, who had also been out with her and Andrew last night. Before sending her a note like she had to him, she quickly scrolled through the rest of them. Ten more, all from the same person: Vincent D’Angelo. Her agent.
WTF did you do, Sophie?was the first one. The rest were similar in tone. The last one, which had come in while she was crawling from the bathroom like a loser, said simply Turn on Pop!
The feeling that settled in the pit of her stomach as she read that one was different than the overdid-it-last-night-probably-gonna-puke feeling she’d had since she opened her eyes. No, this feeling was something else entirely. This feeling was dread.
With a hard swallow, Sophie grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, switched to the Pop Network. She didn’t have to wait long. It was the top of the hour and Pop always did a quick recap of the top entertainment news of the day then. Brooke Kramer stood there in all her blond Hollywood mannequin glory, looked right at the camera, and said seriously, “Has Sophie James lost it completely over the death of her manager?”
It was like a gut punch. Sophie’s entire body deflated, like it wanted to sink down into the floor and become one with the hardwood. There was grainy video of her, wearing the same royal blue dress she realized she still wore, being half dragged, half carried out of Glitter last night.
“Two months after the death of her longtime manager, Ray Cooper, singer Sophie James was seen last night at Glitter, a hot new Manhattan nightclub. Obviously over-served, Ms. James had to be escorted out by her companions. This is the third time since Cooper’s death that Ms. James has been seen exiting a New York establishment in questionable condition—”
Sophie clicked the TV off with Brooke in mid-sentence. She couldn’t listen to it anymore. In that moment, she didn’t care that she’d been caught on camera doing her best impression of a rag doll. She didn’t care that this was the third time, according to Brooke’s Hollywood sources. Her brain would only focus on one piece of information. Just one from that entire story.
Ray was gone.
When her phone rang in her hand, instead of cursing the name on the screen, she felt a surge of relief. Anything that kept her from dissolving into a pathetic puddle of emotion these days was welcome. Even Vincent D’Angelo, who was about to lambast her, she was pretty sure.
“Hi, Vince,”she said, surprised by the hoarseness of her own voice.
“What the fuck, Sophie?”Vince’s voice was deep and smooth as silk, like warm melted chocolate. Like always. It was only because Sophie had known him for the past ten years that she knew how upset he really was with her. That and the F-bombs. “I mean, seriously. What the actual fuck?”
“I know. I’m sorry.”It was all she could say. She had no excuses.
“You’re making it easy for the media. You know that, right?”
Sophie inhaled quietly and repeated herself. “I know. I’m sorry.”She hated how small her voice sounded, but she couldn’t seem to put anything more into it. She let her head fall back against the couch and closed her eyes.
“Look.”Vince’s voice softened, veered toward the more fatherly tone he often used with her. Sophie sometimes wondered if he even realized it. “I know this has been hard. I know you miss Ray. We all do. But you have to stop this. Miracle is starting to freak out.”He was referring to Sophie’s record company. “Your audience doesn’t handle public drunkenness or profanity-laden meltdowns well. You know this.”When Sophie didn’t answer, he added, his voice going softer yet, “They’ll only cut you slack for so long. You know?”
There was a beat of silence, a beat filled with so much for Sophie. But all she could do was sit, helpless against the tear that coursed slowly down one cheek. She swallowed audibly, then was pretty sure Vince heard it, as he cleared his throat and spoke again.
“So, listen, Miracle is assigning you a new manager and publicist. One person who’ll handle both.”
That made Sophie sit up. “What?”She swiped at the errant tear and furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”
“Soph, you can’t not have a manager. I know it’s always been Ray, and I know you miss him. We all do. But you have to have a manager. And you need a publicist, especially now.”It seemed like he actually tried to keep the sarcasm out of the last two words. He didn’t quite succeed.
“Already?”This information got her blood moving. A new manager? For real?
“You’re due to meet with the producers for the next album next week, Soph. You need somebody to start handling things, setting the schedule, get you appearances, do damage control.”
“But…”Again with the small voice. “It’s only been two months.”
“I know.”This time, “fatherly”was the only way to describe Vince’s tone. “I know. And I want to give you more time, but…”
“Miracle needs me to do my job.”Sophie’s tone was resigned. She was the number one artist in the record company’s Adult Contemporary category, and they wanted to keep her right there, cranking out the same old ballads, making them reliable piles of money.
“Yeah.”Vince also sounded resigned, and for that, Sophie was thankful.
All right. Maybe getting back to work was the thing she needed. Maybe jumping back in with both feet would help her keep from drowning. She squinted at the metaphors that didn’t quite match up. Damn hangover. She scanned the room, her eyes landing on a framed photo of her and Ray taken in Sydney a couple years ago, and she sighed. “When do I meet him?”
“Her,”Vince said. “Can you be ready tomorrow?”
A small snort escaped her. “Do I have a choice?”
Dana Landon was not thrilled.
It was true that she knew why she’d been assigned to this one. She understood it. She’d handled this kind of thing many times before and she was good at it. The higher-ups at Miracle trusted her implicitly to get things back on track. None of that was a surprise.
But Dana was tired.
Tired of divas. Tired of entitled young artists who wanted the world on a silver platter after they had one hit. Tired of the drama and the rumor mill and the paparazzi. Her curse was her ability to handle all of these things with organized authority and keep everybody happy in the process.
And now they wanted her to handle Sophie James.
Dana sat in her Manhattan office and gazed out the window at the sliver of gray sky she could see between other buildings. It was going to rain; she could feel it. It had been a lovely, crisp and sunny, fall weekend, folks out in Central Park, walking their dogs, jogging, soaking up what may very well have been the last nice day of the season. But it was Monday now, and, as if Mother Nature had decided to make sure people went to work, she took away the nice weather and reminded everybody it was fall, soon-to-be winter. Gray and gloomy and very, very Monday.
The ringing of her cell yanked her attention away from the weather.
“Sophie James, huh?”Anya Reeves asked without preamble or greeting.
“Wow. News travels fast.”Dana chuckled, not really surprised. The grapevine in the entertainment management world was less a vine and more a lightning bolt.
“You see the coverage?”
Dana sighed. “I did.”It was surprising, the footage of Sophie James, darling of the Adult Contemporary charts for more than a decade, slurring her swear words, half stumbling, and half being carried by her companions.
“What is that, the third time? Fourth?”
Anya scoffed, then seemed to think slightly better of it. “I suppose I could cut her a little slack. Ray was a good guy and was with her…how long?”
Dana slowly shook her head, even though Anya couldn’t see it. “I don’t know, but Sophie was just a teenager. It’s got to be like losing a father.”
“Or something more…”Anya let the innuendo hang in the air.
“Ew, no.”Dana paused, thought about it. “You think? He was way older. Like, what? Twenty-five years? Thirty?”She shook her head again. “Ew. No.”
“I don’t know,”Anya said, drawing it out like she had information.
Dana didn’t want to think about it. “Regardless. Losing him had to be hard on her. She’s young.”
“She’s twenty-nine. Not that young.”
“How do you feel about taking her on?”Anya knew Dana well. They’d been friends for nearly ten years, started together at Starshine, the talent agency Anya now ran. “I know you wanted to scale back. Repping Sophie James is anything but that. Especially with her recent…escapades. She’s looking like she could be a real handful.”
Anya wasn’t wrong. The Sophie James of last year had a pretty sterling—albeit kind of boring—reputation. Adult contemporary ballads, a few appearances here and there on the occasional late-night talk show, a slew of fans age forty and up. Huge celebrity in Europe. Her star had faded slightly, it was true. A twenty-nine-year-old singing prodigy isn’t quite as enamoring as a sixteen-year-old one. Sure, she continued to sell, but her numbers weren’t quite the same. Still, she made Miracle boatloads of money and Dana knew the business well. Sophie was one of the steady contributors who helped keep the lights on so Miracle could experiment with some new acts and Indie bands.
“I’m not loving this…acting out,”Dana said truthfully.
“That’s why Miracle is giving her to you. I’m sure. You get the problem children.”
Again, Anya wasn’t wrong. “I know,”Dana groaned.
“I bet she’s a diva.”
“Oh, don’t say that. I can’t do another Sheba.”Dana didn’t like to think about the country singer she’d managed for a mere six months. She’d had to ask her bosses to replace her before she murdered Sheba. And cut her up into little tiny pieces. And fed her to wild animals. Or a wood chipper.
“What? You don’t enjoy telling people your client needs a massage therapist at her beck and call, Texas barbecue flown in whenever she wants, only round ice in her drinks, and an endless supply of Gummi Bears, but just the weird yellowy-gold-colored ones?”
“Jesus, right?”Dana could laugh at it now, but God, then? No. She’d seen a lot in her career, met a lot of people who thought they were better than everybody else. But Sheba took the cake easily. She was rude to everybody, was never satisfied, and was just a generally angry person.
“That woman needs to get laid,”Anya said.
“Still does, according to Barb,”Dana said, referring to the manager who’d taken Dana’s place.
Anya barked a laugh. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and Sophie James will be nice and demure.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly the case. At least she’s here in Manhattan.”
“You can work from home for a change.”
“I’ll have to travel with her eventually, but yeah, I’m happy to not have to set up camp in Nashville again.”
“It’s the little things. Dinner this weekend?”Anya asked. “Duncan says he misses your face.”
“I miss his, too. Yes. I’ll bring wine and fill you in.”
They hung up, promising to text dinner details as the week progressed. Right now, she had to get ready to meet Sophie James, who’d be there in half an hour. Dana was not a nervous person. She’d been doing this job for a long time and she was good at it, had several clients she handled at once, and well. She knew that. She was manager of some, publicist for others, but for Sophie, she was going to be both. Normally, that wasn’t daunting to her at all. Dana was not easily intimidated. For some reason, though, she was uneasy about this one…
Shifting in her chair, Dana got her things together so she could go over, one more time, items she’d need to address with Sophie James.
God, why did she feel so unprepared for this?
Sophie hadn’t been to the Miracle Records headquarters in years. She couldn’t remember how many. When her first album had gone platinum, they’d invited her to a party. A “meet and greet”they’d called it, but it was really a gathering where the higher-ups could meet her, shake her hand, stare at her. She remembered it well: she’d never felt undressed by so many eyes in her entire life. It was disconcerting and she’d held Ray’s arm the whole time like it had been a life preserver.
She was seventeen then.
Today was different. Ray had always handled this stuff for her. She’d never had to worry, never had to be concerned that she didn’t know what she was doing, who she was talking with, whether she sounded stupid or naive or…young. No, today, she was on her own. Meeting a new version of Ray. The thought made her grimace. She couldn’t think about it that way. There was no other version of Ray. Ray was gone. This was going to be like starting over, and Sophie hated it.
Sophie had agonized over what to wear. She’d called Andrew, made him come over and go through her closet with her. “Not too glitzy. Casual, but not too casual,”she’d told him. “Professional. I need to look like I have my shit together.”
He hadn’t questioned her. Just did his job as her stylist and pulled out dark designer jeans, modest heels, and a relaxed sweater in blue and white stripes. He’d draped a navy blue scarf loosely around her neck, and when she’d looked in the mirror, she felt confident. That’s what Andrew did for her. Every time. The guy was a magician.
“You don’t have to impress anyone,”he’d reminded her. “They’re already sold on you. Remember that. This is just a formality. You meeting the new manager. Just be you.”
Sophie often wondered if other people in her line of work—singers, actors, whatever—had stylists that also doubled as life coaches. Because that’s what she often felt Andrew was for her. More than once, she’d thought about asking him if he had to reassure his other clients the same way he did her. But what if he said yes? What if she wasn’t special? What if they weren’t really friends, she was just part of his job? She wasn’t sure she could take that. Not today. Not now. Not with Ray gone. So she stayed quiet and wondered instead.
This was an introduction, a simple meeting of two people, so Sophie had decided to go alone. She could’ve coaxed Andrew into accompanying her. Or even Michaela, her makeup artist. But she had heard inklings her entire career of how the record executives often looked at her: as a young, naive girl who’d been coddled by her manager for the past decade and a half and who rarely made her own decisions. About anything. And while she would be forever grateful to Ray, it wasn’t a reputation she was proud of…though she’d never stood up for herself with him either.
With a sigh, she took the offered hand of the driver and allowed him to help her out of the car that was stopped in front of the Miracle Records Building, not far from Central Park. Realistically, she could’ve walked. Also realistic was the fact that she would most likely be recognized and her quick jaunt along the Manhattan sidewalks would take much longer than it should. Thus, she’d opted for a car service.
The doorman held the door for her and tipped his hat as if he’d stepped out of a movie from the fifties. Once on the elevator, and surprisingly alone inside, Sophie took off her oversized sunglasses and inhaled deeply.
“You got this,”she whispered to herself, suddenly more nervous than she cared to admit. She never did things like this without Ray. The thought brought a fresh sheen of wetness to her eyes, and she shook her head roughly. “No. No, no, no. You will not cry in front of your record execs. Or your new manager.”Suddenly, as if he were standing right next to her, Sophie heard Ray’s voice. “Stand up straight. Chin up. Head high. Make eye contact. Command attention. You own the room and everybody in it. Remember that.”Words he said to her before every show, before every appearance, before every interview. She took another deep breath, sniffed, dabbed under her eyes with a finger to make sure her makeup wasn’t smudging. By the time the elevator dinged her arrival on the fifty-seventh floor, Sophie James had pulled herself together.
“Miss James,”the receptionist at the desk said coolly, when she saw Sophie. She was probably thirty, her dark hair swept back into a complicated updo that made her Bluetooth earpiece visible, and her clothes were just this side of edgy: black and modern with silver accents that gave her a tiny sliver of flash. Sophie figured she was paid to have no outward reaction to the well-known singers and musicians and various celebrities who passed by her desk, and she was good at it. Her smile was neutrally pleasant as she said, “I’ll let them know you’re here,”then spoke quietly to some unseen person.
The waiting area was such a stereotype, Sophie allowed herself to smile over it. Gold, silver, and platinum records in frames lined the walls, boasting musical acts from well before Sophie was born up to last month. It was impressive, she had to admit, though she did note the abundance of new bands and new individuals. She strolled slowly along and stopped in front of Gemma Day’s debut album from two years ago. It had gone platinum a couple times over and was still generating singles. Gemma Day was not much younger than Sophie, but she was hot and sexy and in demand, and Sophie felt a pang of jealousy she didn’t expect roll through the pit of her stomach.
“Miss James?”The receptionist’s voice startled Sophie back to the present. “Follow me, please.”
Sophie was led down a long, carpeted hallway, those walls also covered with various framed albums in different shades of metal. At a doorway on the left, the receptionist stopped and held out an arm, gesturing Sophie inside.
With a nod of thanks, Sophie stepped into what turned out to be a conference room. Long table surrounded by many ergonomically correct chairs, and a bevy of food and drink laid out on the surface. Fresh fruit, baked goods, cheese and crackers. Along one wall was a sort of sidebar that boasted wine, beer, sparkling water, champagne, soda, and Sophie was willing to bet she could choose the most obscure beverage possible and it would show up in this room within a few minutes.
“Sophie! How are you holding up, babe? You doing okay? It’s so good to see you.”Davis Silverstein was all huge grins and boisterous greetings and familiarity, his arms outstretched like Sophie was his niece and it was his job to comfort her over Ray’s death. Didn’t matter that they’d only actually met maybe four times in all the years Sophie had been making money for Miracle. She allowed the hug, the too-damp kiss on her cheek, tried not to stiffen at his large, meaty hand on the small of her back as he turned her to face the other three people in the room. “Sophie James, I’d like you to meet Brooks and Kettle, two of our terrific producers.”
Sophie knew the names, knew they served as both producers and songwriters, and they’d been with Miracle probably longer than she had. They were older, looked like middle-aged dads instead of what somebody might picture a record producer or songwriter to look like, and they regarded Sophie with a small hint of interest, as if she were a stray cat that they weren’t sure what to do with. She dutifully shook their hands—Damon Brooks and Tim Kettle—and smiled.
“And this is Dana Landon, your new manager and publicist.”
How Sophie had entered the room and not seen this woman was a mystery, because when her eyes landed on her, weird things happened to Sophie’s body. Her heart rate picked up speed. There was an unfamiliar flutter in her stomach. Her mouth went instantly dry.
“Hi, Sophie.”Dana Landon held out a hand, her blue eyes not cold, but cool, like she was assessing things before relaxing completely. She was blond, her hair hanging in soft waves just past her shoulders. She wore an expensive dress—Sophie could spot specific designers the way Michaela could identify brands of makeup—in a soft blue that made her eyes stand out. Dark lashes and eyebrows said maybe the blond was artificial, but Sophie didn’t care. It was perfect. “I’ve heard so much about you. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
Sophie put her hand in Dana’s and suddenly the only thing she could focus on was the softness of Dana’s skin, the warmth of her touch. After a beat or two went by, Sophie realized she’d held on a bit too long, hadn’t said anything, so she scrambled to do so. Clearing her throat, she managed, “It’s nice to meet you as well.”A complete sentence. Thank fucking God.
Dana’s smile only faltered slightly, and Sophie figured she was probably used to self-absorbed musicians acting like idiots in her presence.
“Dana’s one of the best in the business,”Silverstein said, pulling Sophie’s attention away from the slight embarrassment that had set in. He rattled off half a dozen names, all people Sophie knew, and spent the next five minutes singing the praises of her new manager and publicist. Dana sat quietly and Sophie wasn’t sure why, but she got the distinct impression that Davis Silverstein annoyed her no end. But he was the boss, so she smiled politely and let him talk. Then he moved on to the two producers and gave them the same treatment. Sophie did her best to listen and nodded where she thought she was supposed to. “So, I’m going to leave you to it,”he said finally, after what felt like a good half hour to Sophie but was probably only about ten minutes. “Help yourself to whatever you’d like to eat or drink. If there’s something you don’t see, Dana can buzz Raquel and she’ll get it for you.”Plastering another wet kiss on Sophie’s cheek, Silverstein bid them adieu and was gone.
A moment of quiet passed before Dana, her eyes on the closed door, broke it with, “Thank God. That was painful.”
Tim Kettle laughed. “I mean, I like you a lot, Dana, but that was a bit much, even for him. He so wants you to be his next conquest.”
“He’s wanted that for the past five years,”Damon Brooks added.
Dana seemed to find the whole thing amusing. “I’ve got a built-in deterrent.”Her voice was matter-of-fact, and she shrugged to punctuate her point.
“Please. You think the fact that you dig chicks is gonna keep him from trying?”Tim chuckled his apparent enjoyment of that.
Damon snorted. “That just makes you more of a challenge.”
Sophie watched the entire exchange, fascinated. She’d learned so much already. That Davis Silverstein was a huge creeper. That Brooks and Kettle were a bit hipper than she’d originally thought. That her new manager and publicist preferred women.
Thatwas interesting information and it caused a weird tingling in Sophie’s body. What’s that about?
“So,”Dana said, and Sophie realized she was talking to her. “That was all terribly unprofessional and I apologize.”Her concerned expression seemed genuine to Sophie.
“No big deal,”Sophie said with a shrug. And it really wasn’t. She didn’t care who thought what about Davis Silverstein. She’d formed her own opinion. “I’m a big girl.”
“Good,”Dana said. “That comes in handy.”
Sophie smiled at her. There was an instant comfort around Dana Landon and it confused Sophie. She’d come here expecting to hate her new manager simply because he or she wasn’t Ray. Ready and fully prepared to hate her. But there was something about Dana…
“All right then.”Dana woke up the tablet Sophie just noticed on the table in front of her and scrolled. “You’re scheduled to start working on the new album in two weeks.”She looked up from the screen, her blue eyes suddenly much softer than when Sophie had first walked into the room. “Are you up for that?”she asked, her voice quiet.
Sophie didn’t have to think about her answer. She gave a curt nod. “Absolutely. I think getting back to work is a good thing.”
“I agree.”Dana seemed to study her screen for a moment, but when she asked her next question, Sophie realized she’d just been formulating how to say what she needed to say. “And…are you done with the…clubbing?”
It was a very diplomatic way to say “public drunkenness”or “acting out”or “embarrassing yourself,”and Sophie appreciated the effort. She inhaled deeply, let it out slowly, and noticed Brooks and Kettle suddenly pretending to be engrossed in their laptops.
You own the room and everybody in it.
Ray’s voice was clear as day. Sophie sat up a little straighter, a little taller, did her best to command attention. “I lost somebody very close to me and it’s been…difficult. To say the least.”She nibbled on the inside of her cheek as she thought about how legit terrified she was by the thought of carrying on with her career without Ray. But she was not about to give these people the satisfaction of seeing that weakness. “I cut loose. I think any regular person would do the same.”
“But you’re not any regular person.”Dana kept her tone gentle, but there was a firmness to it that Sophie could feel more than she could hear. Not scolding, but not far from it.
“That is the happy and the sad truth of it, isn’t it?”
Dana nodded, gave her a small smile.
“I can tell you with all honesty that I’m not planning on cutting loose again.”
“But it could happen.”
“But it could happen.”It was as honest as Sophie could be.
“Understood.”Something about Dana seemed to…shutter then. It was the only word Sophie could come up with. Like a sheer blind came down in front of her and obscured her just a bit. Took her slightly out of focus. Which was a shame because Dana Landon was fun to look at. That was a fact. “All right. I’m going to go through some emails here, some appearances people are asking about, and I’ll get them all lined up for us to talk about. While I’m doing that, why don’t you talk to the guys here about the upcoming album?”
Damon jumped right in and Sophie tried to tamp down the disappointment at having her attention pulled from the beautiful blond woman across from her—a disappointment she didn’t quite understand. “Okay, we’ve got a couple of great ideas for the next album, sort of a theme.”
“Desire and unrequited love,”Tim chimed in, and it was amusing to watch the two men merge onto one page. “An entire album devoted to it. It tells a story, from beginning to end.”
The idea was an interesting one, Sophie had to admit. She’d never done any kind of a theme around her albums. She’d jumped to a conclusion about these guys and she felt guilty about that now. At the same time, they went on about this ballad and that ballad and Sophie listened for a while before holding up a hand.
“What if we went…a little edgier?”
Both producers stopped what they were doing and stared at her. Really stared. Blinked. Looked at her as if a third eye had popped out on her forehead. As Sophie moved her gaze from one guy to the other, she suddenly realized that Dana Landon had also tuned in. Sophie could feel her eyes. Feel them. Which was so weird.
“Edgier?”Damon asked, his face genuinely surprised.
“What does that mean?”Tim asked, looking just as bewildered. “You sing ballads. I mean, you sing them amazingly well, but…you sing ballads.”
Sophie sighed quietly, could almost hear Ray agreeing with them. “Yeah.”She felt the determination slowly leak out of her like she was a balloon with a pinhole.
“Miracle has…expectations,”Dana offered quietly, somehow making Sophie feel like she completely understood what she’d been thinking.
She was right. Sophie knew that. She motioned for the guys to continue and they dove right back in as if they’d never been interrupted. Sophie did her best to listen and seem at least somewhat interested. It was harder than she expected, but she managed.
The guys had some recordings on their computer and they played a few for Sophie, gave her a chance to get a taste of what they were thinking.
“Can you email me a couple of those so I can listen again at home?”she asked.
Damon looked surprised, like the idea of her offering opinions was a foreign one, but nodded. “Sure.”She rattled off her address and he hit Send. “Done.”
“I’ll take a day or two and get back to you with any questions or suggestions.”
“Sounds great,”Dana said, smoothly reentering the conversation. “I just emailed you a suggested schedule for the next two months. Take a look. Tell me what you think. If it’s too much or too little or whatever. Let me know.”Her eye contact was direct. Firm…Can eye contact be firm?Sophie’s mind tried to carry her off to the Land of Words, a place she really enjoyed wandering around, but she yanked it back to the table.
Sophie nodded. “I’ll take a look later today.”
Dana smiled at her, a small smile that was pleasant enough but gave Sophie the impression that there was much more behind it than most were allowed to see. Reserved.That was the right word to describe Dana Landon. Sophie felt better having put her finger on it.
“My number, email, etcetera is all in the email,”Dana went on, gathering her things, sliding what little paperwork she’d brought with her into a neat pile, her tablet on top. “Any time, day or night, you call me. We’re a team now.”
A surprising lump formed in Sophie’s throat. Ray used to say that all the time. They were a team, the two of them. Having somebody new take his place was…strange, odd, and Sophie wasn’t sure what to do with the jumble of feelings that suddenly crowded her head, her chest. With a curt nod, she cleared her throat and stood.
Dana came around the table, sidled up close, said quietly, “You okay?”
The guys were oblivious to any change in the mood of the room—or at least they pretended to be—and Sophie was grateful. She could feel the warmth of Dana’s hand at the small of her back—such a shockingly different feeling than when Davis Silverstein had done the same thing—as she nodded. “Yeah. I am. It sometimes just…”
“Comes out of nowhere? Yeah, that happened to me after my best friend passed away.”
“I’m sorry,”Sophie said, startled by the revelation. “That’s awful.”
“Thank you. It was a long time ago, but I remember very clearly how the grief would just sneak up on me when I wasn’t expecting it and whack me in the head with a board.”
Sophie’s chuckle was short. “It feels just like that sometimes.”
“It’ll get better.”Dana grimaced with a cute expression of self-deprecation. “God, that’s such a clichéd thing to say, isn’t it?”
Sophie nodded good-naturedly.
“But it’s true. Just hang in there. I’m here if you need to talk.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.”Never happen, she thought. There was no way she was about to talk about the pain of losing her manager—and friend—to her new manager. That just seemed…almost incestuous. Or something equally unpalatable.
With a pasted-on smile—a look Sophie had perfected over the past three weeks—she bid the three goodbye and was surprised to find the receptionist waiting for her just outside the door to show her out.
Back in the safety of the car, she let out a long, slow breath as her driver inched them into downtown Manhattan traffic.
She’d survived. She’d taken the first step of moving forward in her career without Ray and she’d survived. She was still breathing.
Thank fucking God.
Moving forward in her life, however, already felt like it was going to be a whole different story. But now she had work. Something to focus on. She forced her brain away from thoughts of Ray and toward the things Brooks and Kettle had suggested. A theme album. She could work with that, absolutely.
From her purse, she pulled out the little notebook she’d started carrying everywhere with her a year or two ago and flipped it open, smiled as she read her own handwriting. Yeah, she had more to contribute to this album than her producers expected.
It was time to spread her wings.