My latest novel, WHEN STARS ALIGN, is available now on Amazon. It’s a slow-burning second chance romance between a larger-than-life rock star and a former swimmer who needs a reason to dream again.
Read the first chapter below:
“Your last album was good,” Nick said, his hands on the arms of his executive chair, giving him the aura of a Bond villain. “Maybe even great, Natalie.”
Nat sat in an overstuffed, impossibly expensive leather couch across from the president of her record label and waited for the but. After fifteen years of working with Nick Fox – as well as his predecessors – at Golden Child Records, Nat was getting pretty good at anticipating the buts and she knew this was going to be a big one. She glanced at her agent, Clive, who was sitting in a matching leather loveseat and giving her a look she knew well – don’t jump to anything drastic.
We’ll see, she thought.
She gave Nick a small smile, acknowledging the compliment, then took a sip from the caramel latte that Nick’s assistant, Angie, automatically brought her at the beginning of every meeting. Sometimes it was good to be a rock star.
Nick leaned forward, his tie falling across his large mahogany desk, and said, “But you know every artist is only as good as their last album. It’s been nine months since Starlet Express dropped. We need to get you out on tour again, and I’m really hoping you came here to tell me you have a dozen new songs to lay down for your next album.”
Nat set her cup down on a glass coffee table in front of her and folded her hands patiently in her lap. This was far from the first time she’d had this conversation with Nick. It seemed like every time she made the trip up to this ivory tower, it was because he wanted more from her – more tour dates, another album, a hotter single.
After a decade and a half, Nat was getting tired of this old song and dance.
“You know how much I love my fans,” she said. “And I do have some songs brewing.” She glanced at Clive, who gave her a knowing look. After her very public breakup with Zoe Asher, whatever songs came out of her next would most definitely not be mushy love ballads. Nat turned back to Nick, ready to deliver a but of her own. “But I was on the road 315 days last year, and 294 the year before that. You’re running me ragged.”
“That’s the price of fame,” Nick said. “I don’t know what to tell you. If you want to continue being Nat Butler, rock goddess, you gotta get out there and light up those stages.”
“Maybe we can work out a deal where Nat spends the first few months of the new year in the studio,” Clive suggested. He’d been working with Nat since her first album, Dreamcatcher, and he could always spot her moods a mile away. He was in damage control mode already.
“I’m not asking for more studio time,” Nat said. “I don’t want to renew my contract.”
The room went silent as Nick and Clive both struggled to comprehend the bomb Nat had just dropped. The words came out of her mouth more or less unplanned, but as soon as she said them, it felt like a weight had lifted off her chest.
Nat was turning thirty-nine this year and she had more than a few gray hairs streaked through her brunette locks. She loved the music. She loved the adrenaline rush of stepping onstage in a sold-out arena to the deafening roar of thousands of her fans. She loved the pretty groupies. But she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life on tour and the longer she sat in Nick’s fancy office on the twentieth floor, the more sure she was that she wanted out – at least for a while.
“You’ve been with Golden Child Records since you were twenty-four,” Nick said.
“Yeah, that’s kind of my point,” Nat answered. “It’s time for a change.”
“Do you know how much money Golden Child has poured into you in the last fifteen years?” Nick asked, beginning to grow red around the collar. He was clenching his jaw as he leaned across his desk again and asked, “What are you going to do, go across town and sign with Empire?”
“No,” Nat said. “I don’t know what I want to do. I just know I don’t have the energy to go on another world tour right now. And for the record, Nick, my music has earned back every marketing dollar you’ve ever thrown at me. You wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep me right now if it didn’t.”
“Okay,” Clive said, putting up his hands to stop their argument. He put on his mediator’s hat like a good agent and said, “Nat’s contract isn’t officially up for another forty-five days. Why don’t we all take a little time to think about our options and come back to talk about it closer to the date?”
“I’m not going to want to tour any more in forty-five days than I do now,” Nat said.
“And I’m not going to have enough time to start promoting the show if we leave it to the last minute,” Nick objected.
“You know what you haven’t had in a long time?” Clive asked Nat. “A vacation. Do you remember what that word means?”
She smirked. “Barely.”
“I bet it would help,” Clive said. “Why don’t we let Nat reset for a little while, then we’ll come back in, let’s say, three weeks and talk again?”
“Four,” Nat said.
“Fine,” Nick agreed. “Take a month and do what you have to do. But I want to hear some new songs from you when you come back, ready to sign that contract – I’d like to get your next album ready in time for Golden Child’s fifty-year anniversary promotions in the spring.”
He always had a talent for bluntness. A lot of people in the music industry had a way of talking in platitudes and vagaries, obscuring what they really meant and letting it hit you in the elevator down to the parking garage. Nick always let Nat know where she stood, and usually that was a good thing.
“Good,” Clive said, turning to Nat. “Does that work for you?”
They were both staring expectantly at her and suddenly Nat felt like the pop divas that she’d been privately mocking for the last fifteen years. She smiled and softened her demeanor. She’d gotten what she wanted, after all. “Yes, a month sounds like a much-needed respite.”
On her way out of the office, Nat handed her empty coffee cup to Angie. The girl was a blonde, in her early twenties, always humming a new tune under her breath, and she fangirled big-time whenever Nat came into the office.
“The caramel latte was good,” Nat said with a wink. “Thank you.”
She was in a good mood and today she couldn’t help playing into the doe-eyed looks that Angie always gave her. It was hard to tell if there was anything more to it than simple musical admiration, but Nat had, on occasion, enjoyed the fantasy of seducing Angie.
Of course, she would never actually do it – part of the reason Nat had enjoyed such a long and successful career was her strict policy of never shitting where she ate, and that included flirting with her label exec’s administrative assistant.
“You’re welcome Miss Butler,” the girl said, batting her lashes at Nat. Yeah, she wants me, Nat thought as Angie added, “I’ve had a lot more practice with the espresso machine since the last time you came for a meeting.”
“Your talents are wasted here, Angie,” Nat said. “Maybe one day Mr. Fox will realize you’re good for more than just lattes.”
Nat had had plenty of conversations with the girl while waiting for her appointments. Nick always liked to keep her waiting for at least a few minutes, and Nat was always blown away with the depth of Angie’s musical knowledge. She knew all Nat’s favorites, from Janis Joplin to the Velvet Underground, as well as all the new bands burning it up on YouTube – from the Frequent Flyers to The Hero’s Journey.
Angie’s cheeks colored and Nat wondered if the look she’d given her had been a little too suggestive. Time to reel it in.
“You ready?” Clive asked as he walked with her to the elevators at the other end of the lobby.
“Yeah,” Nat said.
Clive called the elevator and they stepped inside, and as soon as the doors slid shut behind them, he snapped, “What the hell was that?”
Nat shrugged. “I was just having a little fun with her. I do think Nick is wasting her talent by making her answer phones and get coffee, though.”
Clive rolled his eyes and said, “I wasn’t talking about Angie. Could you not have given me a heads up that you were going to try to drop your contract before we walked into that meeting?”
“I’m sorry,” Nat said. Clive was right – she’d practically ambushed him, but it hadn’t exactly been a planned maneuver. “I didn’t go in there meaning to cause trouble. You know how tired I’ve been, with the last tour overseas and everything that happened with Zoe. You’re right, though – I do need a break.”
“I just wish you’d given me some indication you were going to do that,” Clive said, irritation still edging all of his words. “I’m your agent and I can’t help you if you keep me in the dark.”
“Did you know that Dick Dale is eighty-one years old and still touring?” Nat asked. “The man is the king of the surf guitar and he can’t stop touring or he won’t be able to pay his medical bills. I don’t want that to be me, Clive.”
“You’re thirty-eight,” Clive said. He let out a sigh as the elevator came to a stop on the parking level, then asked, “So, what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know yet,” Nat said thoughtfully. “But thanks for the vacation.”
“You’re welcome,” Clive said grudgingly. “You’ve got some serious soul-searching to do this month, girlie. I’m always just a call away.”
“Thanks,” Nat said. Then they parted ways and she practically floated to her Lexus parked at the end of the row. She was scared and optimistic all at once. Nat couldn’t remember the last time she’d had more than a couple of days off, and now an entire month stretched before her in which she would need to figure out her next move.
The Lesfic Book Club had its seventh monthly book discussion on Sunday and Monica McCallan joined us to talk about her novel, Back to the Start. If you weren’t able to make it, check out the transcript below! Continue reading “Lesfic Book Club: Back to the Start by Monica McCallan”
My latest novel, CINDERS, is available now on Amazon. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Cinderella with a hot firefighter and the high-society princess she’s been pining over for years. When a fire breaks out in the princess’s garden, Cinders finally gets the chance to make her move.
The painting was one of those abstract deals.
He’d been standing in front of it for the last thirty minutes and he’d be damned if he could make anything out of it. There were colorful paint splatters and a few geometric shapes. For a minute or two, he thought he saw a duck in the bottom right corner, but it was just a bunch of nonsense shapes. Pieces of paper cut and pasted randomly onto the canvas, then splattered with more gobs of meaningless paint.
The longer he stared at it, the more certain it seemed that the artist was mocking him and his fruitless search for the hidden message within the painting.
Sure, let me waste half an hour of my day looking at this fucking thing, he thought, trying to figure out what you’re saying to me. Really, it’s just a great big middle finger pointed directly at me.
The tiny foam board plaque hanging on the wall at the bottom right corner of the canvas seemed to prove his suspicions. It had the artist’s name and the title of the piece printed on it.
Anthony Rosen. “Two Lovers at Dusk,” 2018. Enamel on canvas.
Yeah, as if that clears things up, he smirked, looking again for anything even remotely resembling a pair of lovers… or anything humanoid at all. Lovers, my ass.
There was nothing there. It was all inside the charmed mind of Anthony Rosen, and yet here he was, with his so-called artwork hanging in the Grimm Falls Museum of Art. Anyone could make something as unintentional as this. It was a Jackson Pollock with a few extra scraps of paper glued on for good measure.
Hell, he thought, even I could do something this terrible.
What made Anthony Rosen so special?
He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and his fingers found a small cylinder in his right pocket. He slid his thumb along the plastic casing until he found the metal wheel at the top of the lighter. The metal was slick and warm beneath his touch, and even though he’d only just picked it up this morning, he’d already gotten into the habit of rubbing it like a worry stone.
Well, back into the habit.
He hadn’t bought a pack of smokes in three years because everyone knew they were killers.
Not great for job hunting, either – a lot of companies won’t even look at you twice if you show up to your interview smelling like an ashtray. All they see is insurance money going up like so much smoke.
But this morning was different. When he walked up to the counter at the gas station where he stopped for a cup of coffee every day, he pointed to the Winston Lights on the rack behind the clerk. “The gold pack,” he’d told her, and just like that, it was as if he’d never quit. Of course, he needed to buy a lighter to go with the cigarettes, so he snatched one from the Bic display and slid it across the counter to her.
He was tearing the cellophane off the cigarette pack before he was even out of the gas station. He was so itchy for a smoke, he left his coffee cup on the counter and didn’t figure out his mistake for another twenty minutes. But that first, long inhale never tasted better, even if it did make him cough and hack a bit.
And then he’d come to look at “Two Lovers at Dusk” – really look at it, because up until today, he hadn’t been able to see a thing. Now that he was here, the lighter wheel was begging to be flicked.
He looked around, but there weren’t many people in the museum at this hour. It was the middle of a weekday and besides the group of third graders who had marched obediently and disinterestedly through the Grimm Falls Local Artists exhibit twenty minutes ago, he was alone.
He had to admit it was satisfying to see how little those kids cared about Anthony Rosen and his featured artwork. When they showed up, he stepped aside and watched them. Did a nine-year-old give any more fucks about abstract expressionism than he did?
Turns out, no.
They walked past the paintings in the exhibit room in an orderly line that had been orchestrated by a teacher who seemed determined to get this over with. Some of them glanced at “Two Lovers at Dusk,” and some didn’t even bother.
He had a crazy urge to hold out his hand for a high-five from those kids. They knew ego and favoritism when they saw it. Then the kids were gone, moved on to another exhibit hall, and it was just him and the painting again.
And the lighter.
He hadn’t seen so much as a docent in the last five minutes – it was all too perfect. Like the universe wanted him to show Anthony Rosen where he really stood.
He took out the lighter and flicked the wheel once, not hard enough to ignite the flame but enough to let off a thrilling spark. It felt good, like scratching an itch. Same as that first cigarette this morning.
The four he’d smoked since then didn’t taste quite as good as the first, but that was to be expected. How much could you really ask of a pack of smokes?
The itch came back stronger this time. All he wanted was a little taste – a tiny bit of relief. It felt good to buy that pack of Winstons on impulse this morning, and where had he ever gotten by ignoring his impulses, playing by the rules?
He flicked the lighter again, letting the flame catch this time. His heart was pounding and he could feel every nerve ending in his body spring to life, on high alert.
He reached forward and touched the flame to the bottom corner of the canvas, right next to Anthony Rosen’s foam board plaque. He just wanted to singe it, to leave his mark. If a disaster like this got a little bit blackened, nobody would even notice, right?
The flame licked across the bottom of the canvas and he blew on it, but it didn’t go out. The fire really loved the enamel paint and it kept spreading across the front of the painting.
He could have blown harder, or used the sleeve of his jacket to smother the flame. Hell, there was a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall not more than twenty paces away. But as he watched the orange fire bubbling up the paint and eating Anthony Rosen’s smugness, he felt calm. The way the fire danced along the bottom of the canvas frame was almost elegant.
He watched for a minute, entranced, and when smoke began to curl up toward the sprinkler system, he stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and walked away. He ducked into a nearby exhibit on pointillism and a few seconds later, a docent shuffled briskly up the hall.
“Fire!” she yelled, her voice cracking with panic.
Then the museum director ran up the hall, his fingers twisted into his thinning hair as he told the docent, “Call the fire department!”
He heard the sound of the fire extinguisher being yanked off the wall, and the whoosh of chemicals as it obliterated the flames and what was left of the painting. Inside the pointillism exhibit, he slid his hand back into his pocket, stroking the lighter wheel once more. An unexpected smile formed on his lips. Today was a great day to pick up smoking again.
The Lesfic Book Club had its sixth monthly book discussion on Sunday and Elle Spencer joined us to talk about her runaway hit, Casting Lacey. If you weren’t able to make it, check out the transcript below! Continue reading “Lesfic Book Club: Casting Lacey by Elle Spencer”
The Lesfic Book Club had a special additional book discussion on Sunday, August 12th, and Jae joined us to talk about her historical fiction novel, Backwards to Oregon. Check out the transcript below! Continue reading “Lesfic Book Club: Backwards to Oregon by Jae”