I love my family and Addison, but there's not a shade of doubt in my mind. I'd be on the first Aussie bird I could find if Jack Henry called and asked me to come back. Maybe I feel that way because I no longer have a career, but I wouldn't even take the time to pack a bag if it meant I could be back in his arms sooner. "He wouldn't have to ask me twice."
"I wish I had your confidence. I'm just so unsure…of everything."
It's easier to be confident in answer to a question I won't hear. Jack Henry will never ask me to return to Australia. I'll never have to choose between him and my career because I have neither. And it's a cruel reality to face.
I wake to the sound of a knock on my bedroom door. Addison slowly eases it open. "Are you awake?"
"Yeah," I lie as I push myself up to a sitting position. Last night was a bad one for me. I tossed and turned most of the night, thinking about Jack Henry. There's no way I've been asleep for more than a couple of hours, but I don't want Addison to feel bad about waking me. "What's up?"
She walks over and sits on the edge of my bed. "I never went to sleep last night."
My contacts are out so she looks blurry, but I can see the troubled expression on her face. "Are you worried about the audition?"
"No way. I couldn't care less about that. It's Zac. I can't stop thinking about us and how bad I want to go back."
I can't believe her. If she loves him the way she says, she shouldn't stick around here and let him slip away. "Then do it. Stop being miserable and go."
"You really think I should?"
I wouldn't hesitate. "Absolutely. You love him and that's not going to go away." I know that much from experience.
She reaches for my hand and squeezes it. "I'm gonna do it, but I want you to go to that audition instead of me."
Has she lost her mind? That's not the way things are done in the music industry. I don't get to decide I'll go in her place. "I can't show up for your audition."
"Yes, you can. Get up and get dressed. You have an hour."
"No. No. No, I can't do that." Can I?
"They're expecting a female vocalist. That's what you are—and a great one. They won't care about the details after they hear you sing. And it's actually a pretty perfect situation, if you think about it. They need a singer who can play guitar. You need a job. Problem solved."
It's been over two weeks since I sang or played. "I haven't rehearsed."
"Choose something familiar like…'What Hurts the Most.' You've been performing that song longer than we've known each other. It's one of your best and you can knock it out of the park without even warming up."
She's right. It's always one of my best performances. It could work.
Gah! Am I really considering this? "We both know this stunt is nuts. Even if they like my voice, this is unprofessional. And desperate. They'll tell me to get lost."
"I'll go with you. We'll act like I'm there for the audition and you're there to support me. We'll swap places at the last minute."
She makes it sound so easy—and so hard to say no. "I'm gonna do it. What do I have to lose at this point?"
She's right. When you have nothing, there's very little for you to lose. "I have to get ready."
We're called back into a studio and I'm nervous as hell. This isn't me trying out for some mediocre band playing small clubs. These guys are doing it big time.
Addison introduces herself and I stand back as she drops the bomb. "I won't be the one auditioning today." She gestures over her shoulder. "She's here to sing in my place."
There's a brief moment of silence before the guy I recognize as the vocalist speaks up. "I don't think so—that's not how things work around here. Addison Donavon is the person we're expecting. That's who our agent lined up, so there are no exceptions. We don't play tag team."
I knew this was a bad idea. I'm on the verge of turning around to walk out the door but Addison isn't ready to cave. "My manager arranged this audition for me before I knew I'd be leaving the country. Doesn't it seem ridiculous to let this audition go to waste when what you need is standing right here in front of you?"
"We're not looking for a second-rate replacement." It's obvious who the leader is here by the spokesperson: Mr. Perfect Blond Locks with earrings and tatted forearms.
"That's not what you have here. She's an incredible vocalist and musician. She plays by ear—guitar and piano." As much as I appreciate Addison listing my virtues, I'm beginning to feel like something of a charity case. I despise it.
"No. She doesn't have a scheduled audition so she doesn't get to play or sing unless her manager arranges it." Fat chance of that happening since David dropped me after the Blake incident.
The arguing continues like that—back and forth—until I finally interrupt. "It's okay, Addison. Let's go."
"No! It's not okay." She turns back to the one she's been arguing with. "You're messing up big time if you let her walk out of here."
This is humiliating, and I refuse to stand here being discussed like I'm not present while Addison pleads for me. I lift my guitar case from the floor and walk toward the door. "Gentlemen, I'm sorry for any inconvenience I may have caused and I wish you the best of luck in finding the perfect vocalist." It's my polite way of telling them to kiss my ass as well as code for Addison to shut up and come on. I may be a smidgen on the desperate side, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna beg. I may not have a job or the man I love, but I still have my pride. This band of nitwits isn't going to rob me of that.
"Have a wonderful afternoon," I say with an edge of venom as I turn for the door. And may your crotches be infested with the crabs of a thousand whores.
I stop as I'm almost out the door and look back to see which one of these jackoffs is talking to me. It's the leader again—the tall one with the Keith Urban hair. He's lounging back in his chair and asks the other band members, "Should we let the little lady entertain us?"
Damn, he's smug. "Don't do me any favors." Yeah, I know. I shouldn't get smart with these guys but I can't help myself. They're pissing me off in a bad way, acting like I'm at their mercy.
The guy drumming pencils against the desk starts laughing. "She's a feisty one. That could be a good sign."
Blondie motions for me to come back, but my feet don't move. "Come on and show us what you can do."
I'm not quick to jump at his request. I don't want to look desperate, so I paste on my best poker face and walk casually back toward them. My guitar case thuds atop the conference table and I take out my mom's worn guitar. I slide the strap over my head and move to a vacant stool.
I think it's best that I don't use my real name since I'm in contact with my father now. There's no way of knowing what'll happen when his relationship with my mother goes public—and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before that happens. Those kinds of things don't stay buried forever, and I can't risk an association with him that might identify him as my father.
I'm put on the spot to come up with a name—just like the night Jack Henry asked me who I was. I immediately think of using "Paige Beckett," but that alias would defeat the whole purpose of avoiding a connection to my paternity. "Laurelyn Prescott, but I plan on using Paige McLachlan as my stage name."
I see Addison jerk her head around to look at me. She has to think I've flipped my wig. I'll have to come up with something to tell her. Later. Right now, I have three guys I have to win over with my voice.
"I'm Charlie." He's the lead vocalist, the one I'd sing with. I strum my guitar as he points to the guy with a slick head slouched in a chair, arms crossed. He appears unenthused by my presence. "That's Ryan. He plays keyboards and mandolin." He moves to the pencil pecker and I already know what he's gonna say. "That's PJ, our drummer."
I'm still not feeling like Miss Congeniality after my icy welcome, but I smile as I reply, "Nice to meet you."
"What are you gonna play for us?"
I'm confident in my decision. The Rascal Flatts song is the best choice since it has that crossover country pop sound like Southern Ophelia. "'What Hurts the Most.'"
I begin playing, singing with my eyes closed. Most people think I do so because of nerves, but that's not why. I use the time to feel the music and visualize. I transfer to that place so my audience will feel the genuineness of what I'm singing. Finding that spot in my head isn't going to be difficult; this song has taken on a whole new meaning for me since parting ways with Jack Henry.
I'm keeping tempo with my boot heel on the stool's support rung when I come to the chorus. And that's when I open my eyes. The three members of Southern Ophelia are watching me intently but I know it's do or die; this is where I must go in for the kill, and I choose Charlie as my victim since he's shown himself to be the head of this trio.
My eyes meet his and I expose myself fully, using the lyrics as my emotions. I show him my heart and soul—and the dreadful way it looks without Jack Henry. He sees my dark side but only because I allow it.
When I finish, there's a moment of silence before Ryan and PJ take turns complimenting me. Charlie simply stares. Ryan snaps in front of Charlie's face, and he finally seems to come out of his daze. "Charlie. What did you think, man?"
I gesture toward the door. "I can step out and let you talk in private."
"I'm pretty sure that won't be necessary," he says as he grins.