Author’s Note: Apologies, but this hasn’t been proofread yet.
“How’ve you been, honey?” Magnus Butterfield asked.
“Just fine, sugar, thanks for askin’.”
Savannah Summers pasted on a smile, even though she inwardly seethed.
Magnus treated her like a stripper at a bachelor party.
Thankfully, she’d practiced slathering honey all over her words when necessary, or “sugar coatin’ as her momma called it. It was all part of her public persona, a bubbly, sassy Southern belle, and it worked like magic on men.
Savvy, Magnus, and his son, Nathan, were in her dressing room backstage. Nathan stood beside his father’s chair, awkwardly sneaking glances at her beneath his lashes.
She could hear the low rumble of the crowd in the distance, like a gathering storm. It sparked a thrum of excitement in her as well, and Savvy was eager to get on the stage.
Performing for a crowd was an addiction, a drug, and she was a junkie. Savvy craved the spotlight. Performing was everything to her. Better than the very hottest sex she’d ever had, the tastiest meal, or even the blackest, richest cup of coffee.
Nothing stimulated her senses in the same way.
Savvy wanted to push Magnus and Nathan out the door so she could have a few moments to collect her thoughts. This was the first night of her European tour, and she needed to focus. Before she sang, Savvy had to get her head straight and slide into the zone. A concert was like an athletic event, or running a marathon, only she had to sing and play the guitar the entire time.
Unfortunately, Magnus had other ideas.
Magnus leered. “I’m goin’ to Greece next week, why don’t you come with me? All you need is your bathin’ suit.”
While he played grab ass on his yacht in the Mediterranean Sea? Gee, no, thanks.
Unfortunately, Magnus was a big deal in the music industry, an executive with a lot of power and influence and she couldn’t afford to make an enemy of him. He was in London vacationing with his son and asked for last minute tickets to her show, so her manager had gotten him a pair of choice seats. Her tour manager held a few back for VIPs, so it hadn’t been a huge deal, but it made Magnus feel like a big shot.
“I’d love to, but I’m completely booked for the next three months.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Ain’t it, though?”
“Well, don’t be so standoffish like Nathan over here. Let me give you a squeeze.” He patted his knee, as though expecting her to climb on for a horsey ride like a little kid. “I ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays.”
Before releasing her first album, she’d sung at his wife’s birthday party. Savvy had been new to the industry and laughably naïve. Since then, Mrs. Magnus #4 had divorced him, probably because the man couldn’t keep his hands, and other body parts, to himself.
After she’d finished performing, he’d cornered her on the back porch. Thank God, her manager, Adam Campbell, had interrupted them. And now Magnus was like a flea, she just couldn’t shake.
Magnus was in his late fifties with thinning gray hair and a sizeable girth. As her momma would say, Magnus would eat anything that didn’t eat him first. And he was old enough to be her grandfather, but the look in his eyes wasn’t familial.
“Dad,” Nathan said, his eyes rounding.
Nathan was only 19 years old. Nathan was thin and stood an inch or two over five feet. His mother was Magnus’s third wife. Savvy couldn’t remember the woman’s name. They came and went so fast she couldn’t keep track.
He had a trust fund larger than the annual budget of most states. Last year, he had dropped out of college after only one semester. If he’d ever held a job, she wasn’t aware of it.
Then again, he didn’t need to work. Must be nice.
Nathan had asked her to go for coffee a few months ago, and she’d obliged him to be polite. Although Savvy had just turned 30 years old, she’d felt like a cougar. Savvy supposed he was nice enough, but she wasn’t interested in him that way. He’d asked her repeatedly to go for coffee again, but Savvy said she was too busy. Eventually, he’d gotten the hint.
Besides, business and personal affairs don’t mix. She’d blended the two before and put her career in jeopardy. Savvy learned from her mistakes and refused to make the same one again.
“Aww, don’t worry, Nathan, he’s only bein’ friendly.” She ran a hand down her sparkly blue dress. “I don’t wanna wrinkle this, so let me hug your neck instead.” She looped an arm around Magnus in a loose embrace.
Savvy wished could tell him to take a flying leap off the nearest cliff. Evidently, #metoo hadn’t reached Nashville yet.
Before she could squirm away, Magnus planted a hand on her ass. She removed his big paw and stepped a couple feet away. Nathan lifted his shoulders, in a show of silent sympathy.
Right then, there was a knock on the door, and Adam slipped into the room, along with his new fiancée, Emerald Price. They’d been dating a bit over a year and had gotten engaged on New Year’s Eve.
“Sorry to interrupt, but Savvy should be gettin’ ready for the show.” Adam gave her a conspiratorial wink, behind the Butterfields’ backs. “However, we’re havin’ an after party at the Regent, if y’all wanna drop by.”
“We’d love to.” Nathan stood and grasped Savannah’s hand. “I’m so glad we got to see each other again.”
Savvy hugged him. “Yeah, it was nice to run into you both.”
“Maybe we could go for coffee after you get back to the States?” His brows rose hopefully.
“It sounds like fun. I’ll give you a call when I’m back in Tennessee.” It was a vague response, but polite. Savvy was proud of herself.
“I love hearin’ you sing.” He’d come to a lot of her shows in the surrounding area—Tennessee, Indiana, and West Virginia.
“Could you save me a dance tonight?”
“Of course, sugar.” After she did a show, Savannah was always wired. They danced and sang, partying until dawn.
“I’ll see you later, Miss Savannah.” He surprised her by bowing low and kissing her fingers like a courtier, flirting with royalty. It was a southern custom to call someone Mr. or Miss coupled with their first name, as a show of respect.
“See you later, enjoy the show.” She patted his hand fondly.
Magnus stood, balancing on his diamond-encrusted pimp cane. “I’ll catch you later, young lady.” He leaned down to kiss her, and she pivoted, so his lips landed on her cheek, instead of her mouth. He grunted with disappointment but shuffled out the door with his son.
As soon as they left, she sagged against the wall in relief. Savvy hastily swiped at her cheek, as though trying to get the germs off.
“They seemed nice,” Emerald said.
Are you freaking kidding me? Savvy glared at Emerald.
“Yeah, they’re both real characters,” Adam said agreeably.
With a roll of her eyes, Savvy took another sip of her chamomile tea, laced with honey. She drank it to soothe her throat. Savvy refused to lip-synch numbers on stage. She believed in putting on a live show, even though it took a toll on her vocal chords.
Adam had brought Emerald along with him on this trip, and the woman was getting on Savvy’s nerves. Savvy thought Emerald sounded like a hooker’s name and the woman’s outfit proved her point. She wore a skin-tight black dress with a marabou feather collar. There were even matching feathers on her spiked heels.
Emerald was a tall redhead in her mid-thirties with a fantastic body and a killer rack. Her family came from old money. Her granddaddy had built up a multimillion-dollar construction business.
Like Nathan, Emerald had never done an honest day’s work. Privately, Savvy thought she was only after Adam for his music contacts in this town, but it wasn’t her business, so she kept her mouth shut.
“Yes, well, they insisted on comin’ back to pay their respects.” Adam rubbed his hands together. “Are you ready? Do you need anythin’?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Savvy sat at the brightly light makeup mirror, taking in her reflection. There had been dark circles underneath her blue eyes, but the makeup artist had done wonders with a tube of concealer.
Tour were grueling affairs—one city, right after the next, without any stops in between. Most of the time, Savvy was too jetlagged to know whether she was coming or going.
Savvy was pretty, but she was far from a great beauty. She had long blonde hair which came down to the middle of her back, a heart-shaped face, and she was cute. Savvy was only five feet three, so most folks were much taller than her.
She glanced at the door expectantly.
Unfortunately, Adam didn’t take the hint. He stood there staring at her, as though about to say something. Adam was handsome with sandy blond hair and brown eyes. He was just over six feet with broad shoulders. He had a thing for expensive suits, and he wore a blue silk one tonight.
She wasn’t even sure why Adam had gone out on the road with her in the first place. He was her manager, not her tour manager. There was a significant difference in responsibilities.
Maybe he was just worried?
Savvy was the highest earning star he represented. Or, at least she had been, until her current album, Saturday Night Sparkle, nosedived on the charts. Savvy still couldn’t figure out what it happened. The record label had put a lot of promotional effort behind it, but it hadn’t taken off.
He tilted his head to one side. “Feelin’ rested? Ready?”
“Yeah, I got this.”
She had a case of butterflies, but it was a nervous sort of excitement, like waiting in line to ride a roller coaster. She couldn’t wait to get started, and the anticipation was a bit nerve-racking.
Emerald yawned loudly.
She was obviously bored and played around with her phone. Savvy didn’t understand the attraction. Emerald was a real piece of work. She had the newest iPhone and carried a leather bag worth $25,000.
Who would spend that much?
“I’m glad to hear it. In the next couple of days, I’d like to sit down and have a talk with you.”
She nodded. “Sure, I’ll make time.” It was a bit like going to the principal’s office. At least, he didn’t want to discuss it now. “And I know what you wanna discuss.”
Adam surprised her, by cupping her cheek. “Don’t worry about it. Everything is gonna be okay, I promise. Just focus on the show. I want you to knock ‘em dead.”
Their relationship might be antagonistic at times, but it was always constructive. They’d had arguments about everything, concert venues, the content of her albums, the clothing she wore to events. The push and pull between them had a purpose.
She grinned. “I will.”
Emerald cleared her throat loudly, looking pointedly at Adam’s palm on her cheek. Adam dropped his hand, as though he’d been burned.
Okay, time to wrap this up.
“If you don’t mind…” Savvy began.
“Right, of course.” He clasped his hands together. “Is if okay, If I send Gloria in, to touch base with you.”
Gloria Andrews was her new backup singer. She replaced Angela Walker who’d fallen and broken her leg during rehearsals. They’d hired Gloria couple of days before going to the United Kingdom. Gloria was a studio musician and sang backup vocals on Savvy’s very first album. Savvy didn’t know her very well, but she never missed a cue, had a clear voice, and a positive attitude, which went a long way with her.
Adam walked to the door and motioned. “Gloria, come on in.”
Gloria headed inside and leaned against the wall. She was five and a half feet tall, with a riot of dark brown curls, which framed her rounded face. She had mischievous dark brown eyes and a small frame. They were roughly the same age.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Adam glanced at Emerald expectantly.
“I’ll be there in a minute, honey.”
“Sure, I’ll check in with the band, baby.” Adam disappeared down the hall.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Emerald got in Savvy’s personal space, standing behind her, and placing a hand on each shoulder.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” Emerald spoke quietly, but her voice was laced with venom.
Gloria watched from the corner of the room, wide-eyed, but quiet.
“Excuse me?” Savvy raised a brow.
“I know the two of you used to fool around, but it’s over.” She flashed her sparkly diamond engagement ring. “Got it?”
Her cheeks reddened, but not from embarrassment. Savvy worked hard to keep her name out of the gossip pages, and she was furious with Adam for sharing the information.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” Savvy stood and whipped around. She only came to Emerald’s chin, but Savvy did her best to look intimidating. “But we’re agreed on one thing, Adam is your fiancé, and my relationship with him is strictly professional.” She smiled, as sweet as her momma’s pecan pie. “Now get your bony ass out of my dressin’ room.”
Gloria coughed, but it sounded suspiciously like a snicker.
“Well, I never…Adam’s gonna hear about this!”
“Fine by me.”
In a huff, Emerald stomped to the door.
“Oh, and another thing?” Savvy drawled.
“If you ever speak to me like that again, we’re gonna have a serious problem.”
She sashayed out of the room, presumably to find Adam.
Savvy slammed the door shut behind her. “Ugh. Have you ever met such a raging bitch?”
Gloria licked her lips. “Um, she’s…”
She sighed. “I’m sorry for puttin’ you on the spot.”
After all, I’m her boss. What do I expect her to say?
“Well, I don’t wanna speak out of turn.” She paused, evidently searching for the right words. “He doesn’t seem so bad, but she’s…” Gloria trailed off, too polite to finish the sentence.
Fortunately, I don’t have the same problem.
“A pain in the ass?” Savvy supplied.
Gloria laughed. “You said it, not me.” She placed a hand on her hips. “Did you see her bag?”
So, it wasn’t just me. “I know, right?”
“I could put the money to better use.” Gloria shook her head. “I could pay my rent for a year, buy groceries, use the cash for utilities. You name it.”
They both laughed.
Gloria seemed real, down to earth. Savvy never wanted to turn into one of those famous people with a terrible reputation. She tried to keep herself as grounded as possible. A lot of people in Nashville had carefully crafted a persona, a squeaky clean public image. But they rarely lived up to those lofty expectations.
Savvy had sticker shock when it came to finer things.
A lot of her Nashville peers had fancy bags, expensive shoes, and enormous mansions. She’d grown up poor and parting with a big chunk of money bothered her on a fundamental level. Savvy worried one day the windfall would end, and she’d be left with nothing. So, she spent wisely, saved a lot of her earnings, and invested a lot of it.
“Now you think I’m a diva, don’t you?”
“No, not at all. And, if you are, then I’m one, too.”
It was nice to have someone to talk to. Savvy spent a lot of time surrounded by an entourage. It was easy to be lonely, even in a crowd. There was always someone around—backup singers, members of the band, assistants, you name it.
And yet none of them were her friends, they were employees or colleagues.
Although she felt like an ass for whining about it. After all, she’d signed up for fame, and she had to accept the whole package. If she didn’t want to deal with being a celebrity, she should’ve stayed a waitress at The Spicy Spot, slinging hot chicken, a local delicacy.
She’d come to Music City with stardust in her eyes, convinced it would only take her a few months to get her big break. Then again, she’d been eighteen and thought anything was possible. During the day, she worked at the diner, and every evening she played at open mic nights. It had taken two years of barely scraping by before she caught a break.
“I suppose we should get down to business, Gloria. How are you feelin’ about the show tonight?”
“Great. I’ve been studyin’ the sheet music, gettin’ up to speed.”
“Wanna go through the openin’ number again?”
Savvy started singing her debut hit, What He’s Done. Gloria joined in, and she had a smooth alto tone, which blended perfectly. They swayed together, keeping time by tapping out a rhythm against their legs.
She sang from the diaphragm to give her voice more power. She prided herself on how long she could hold a note. Savvy had a wide vocal range, and she could hit the higher registers like a soprano, as well as lower alto tones.
“Excellent. You’re ready to crush this concert,” Savvy said, once they finished.
“Thanks.” Gloria headed for the door. “Well, I should head out and give you some privacy.”
“You can stay if you want.” Savvy was enjoying her company.
“Sure, if you don’t mind.”
Gloria took a seat next to her at the lighted mirror and brushed some powder on her nose.
And then there was a knock on the door. “Ms. Summers? I have a delivery for you.”
Savvy sighed. “Who is it?”
“Davis Flower Delivery. I have a bouquet for you. Security waved me through.”
Had her record label sent flowers?
“Want me to let him in?” Gloria asked.
A man in a pair of khakis and polo shirt, embroidered with his company name on the pocket walked in. He had a clipboard under one arm along with a bouquet of forsythia and sunflowers in a glass vase, which he set on a nearby table. Those were her two favorite flowers. There was a thick envelope on a plastic holder, attached to the container.
“I need a signature, confirming they were delivered.” He held out his clipboard.
Savvy glanced at Gloria. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all.” She hastily scribbled her name.
“Okay, thanks.” Savvy reached into her purse and handed him a tip. “Any idea who sent these?”
“Let me see.” He flipped through some pages. “Mr. Smith. I can’t tell you any more than that. He paid cash.”
Hmm. Sounds like an alias to me.
“Good luck tonight.”
The delivery guy shuffled out.
“Wanna see the card?” Gloria asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
Savvy opened the envelope to reveal a card with a large heart in the center. It was the type of thing a man might give his sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, and it wasn’t signed.
The interior of the card was filled with a hastily written scrawled. Savvy tried to read it, make sense of the note, but the sentences were dense and floated from one topic to another. She snatched a phrase here and there: love you so much, why haven’t you responded, I need you.
Savvy dropped the card, and it fluttered to the floor. Gasping, she pressed a hand to her mouth.
Suddenly, she thought about John Lennon being gunned down outside of the Dakota in New York. And Selena was murdered by the president of her fan club.
She stared at the flowers as though they were a nest of vipers. Savvy had the urge to tip them right out of the window.
Gloria frowned. “Savvy, are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” She shook her head, to scatter the dark thoughts.
Savvy couldn’t afford the distraction right now and needed to keep both their heads in the game. If her focus was split, she’d do a terrible job, and she didn’t want to disappoint anyone, least of all her fans.
She tucked the card into her purse for safekeeping. After Adam talked her about the terrible sales numbers, she’d have a serious discussion with him about security at her events. The deliveryman shouldn’t have been waived through the line.
But what if some crazy obsessed fan is out there in the audience? Just waitin’ for me to step on stage.
No. Don’t think about it. You’ll work yourself into a panic.
“Savvy? Are you positive nothing’s wrong?” Gloria searched her face.
“Yeah, absolutely. I was just thinkin’ I’m overdue for some fun. You can totally say no, but do you wanna hang tomorrow?”
Sometimes, she snuck away from all the madness. Savvy tucked her hair underneath a baseball cap, pulled a hoodie over it, along with some shades, and blended into a crowd, as best as she could. Although, she looked a bit like the Unabomber.
Gloria nodded. “Yeah, that sounds fun.”
“Excellent. We could sit at a café, have some coffee and order pastries, maybe watch the world go by.” Savvy couldn’t remember the last time she’d just enjoyed herself, sat still, present in the moment, instead of thinking ahead, worrying about her to do list or the next item on her agenda. “If we’re feelin’ real adventurous, we could sightsee a bit.”
“I’d love to. I’ve never been to London before.”
“Then it’s settled. We’ll sneak away for a couple of hours tomorrow.”
This was the third time she’d been to the UK, and Savvy hadn’t seen anything besides the venue and her own hotel room, and she’d love to go sightseeing. Savvy wanted to visit Big Ben, London Bridge, the tower, and Buckingham Palace.
A guitar riff sounded in the distance.
“Well, I gotta go, there playin’ my song.” Gloria pointed to Savvy. “Or actually, they’re playin’ yours.”
They hurried down the labyrinth of hallways backstage until they waited in the wings for their cue. Once again, excitement crackled in the air.
She put the demented fan out of her mind. The music filled her head, pushing away all the doubts and the fears. Music had always been a comfort, the place she’d turn to when the world roughed her up. Nothing else mattered. Not stalkers, and definitely not the amount of money in her bank account.
“Are you ready?” Gloria asked.
“Hell yeah.” Savvy grinned. “Bring it on.” I’m gonna blow the roof off this place tonight.
Gloria walked onto the stage, to join the other backup singers and the crowd cheered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Savannah Summers!” The announcer said, and her fans erupted into enthusiastic applause. It was like being enveloped in a wave of warmth, and the love was a welcome balm to her soul.
Savvy stepped into the hot glare of the spotlight, and the beam followed her as she moved across the stage.
She waved to everyone. “Thank you, London! I’m so happy to be here. How y’all doin’?”
They clapped and whistled in response. Behind her, the band started up, and the audience shouted, ready to get started.
Savvy focused on the joy.
She grabbed a guitar from a stagehand and played her opening number, Baby, I Can’t Quit you. The audience sang along with her, and they knew every word by heart.
When Savvy reached the chorus, the other singers crowded around Savvy, and they danced together. The moves were carefully choreographed and went off without a hitch.
Now, it was a matter of muscle memory, and she did the steps without thinking.
After three up-tempo numbers, she moved into a slow song, a ballad, it was so sweet and gentle, it could be a lullaby. The audience quieted down, lifting their cellphones to illuminate the sea of faces smiling back at her.
She stood beside Gloria. They crooned, harmonizing, taking the song to the bridge. And then the fiddle player took over, playing a tender tune.
Savvy tugged the microphone away from her mouth, and Gloria did too.
She bent to whisper in the other woman’s ear, “What a fantastic group. They’re eatin’ it up.”
“Yeah, they love it.” Gloria’s eyes danced. Evidently, performing gave her a high, as well.
She surveyed the crowd, drinking in their reaction, filing away the mental picture for later, making a memory.
And then came a muffled dart-like sound.
It had been so close, but Savvy thought she must’ve imagined it.
Savvy turned to see a red dot between Gloria’s brows, almost like a laser beam.
And then Gloria fell to the ground.
The rest of it happened in agonizing slow motion.
There was a gaping hole in Gloria’s skull, right between the eyes. Her head had cracked open like a ripe watermelon.
Savvy was startled to see red droplets all over her hands and face, dripping down her arms. The blue sparkles on her gown illuminated the crimson, gave it a gruesome sheen. For a moment, she stared, not really processing what she was seeing.
The audience scattered like ants at a picnic.
Like an idiot, Savvy didn’t run or hide. Couldn’t move.
No, this can’t be happening. I was just talking with her.
Another shot rang out.
The next thing Savvy knew, she was squashed beneath a bodyguard as he tackled her. Three more of them surrounded Savvy, dragged her to her feet, and then carried her into the wings.
Savvy glanced behind her to see Gloria’s bloody body abandoned on the stage.
And she screamed.