And I love you
I love you true
You make me do
I'm falling through
All my love for you
You're someone new
Nick sucked in a breath and fought the countless urge to cringe at the screeching
soprano that had someone managed to schedule an appointment with himself and the other record executives. Not only were her
lyrics ridiculously sappy, but her voice could use some tuning, and her pert little breasts were nearly falling out of her
tight, sequined top. Good God, and I thought Lil Kim was bad...
He rolled his eyes and began tapping his pencil
conspicuously against his thigh as the song wore on. He hated the days where he was forced to run auditions. He could count
on both hands the number of people he had actually signed in his two years at the company. His own singing was far from impeccable
after four years of no practice, but he could still recognize good music when he heard it, and he was by far the pickiest
of the execs. In his office in Orlando, they had all jokingly called him "Simon" after the brutal judge of American Idol.
Of course, unlike Simon, he had no biases. There were very few artists on the label that he was in any way partial to, and
none of them had auditioned through him.
He stretched his arm out on the granite conference table and propped his head
up against his fist. For some reason, the singer--and he was using the term liberally--was still far from finished, and he
was itching to cut her off.
"Thank you..." he trailed off and glanced down at the resume in front of him, searching
for the name he had forgotten already. "Chrystin. That'll be all for today."
The lady next to him nodded. "Yes. It
was nice to meet you, dear. We'll give your agent a call."
The so-called artist gave a tight-lipped smile and curtsied,
bending low enough that her cleavage was in plain view. "Oh, thank you SO much for the opportunity. I appreciate it more than
For what wasn't the first time in his last few years, Nick was rather thrilled that he was no longer known
for bright smiles and kind words. He had few to spare the girl in front of him. As she shuffled out, he glanced apprehensively
at his co-workers.
Tim, the black man across the table from him, shook his head. "Man, I don't
know, but they've got to be better than that piece of work. How her tape ever slipped past the office is beyond me."
rolled his eyes. "Techno-covering would be my guess. Damn, she'd better appreciate our time. I'm going to need an Asprin after
"I second that," Shawna, the lady next to him, agreed. "There are not
words for how terrible that was." She glanced to the secretary standing at the door and sighed. "So, how many more are we
looking at today?"
The secretary, dressed smartly in a pinstripe suit, flashed a plastic smile. "Only one more today,
madam. It's getting rather late."
"No shit," Nick mumbled, glancing down at his watch. It was nearing nine o'clock,
and he knew that his roommates would probably be home by the time he finally arrived. Of course, he had to crack a smile at
the thought of Aaron and the girls. If anyone could erase his bad mood, they most certainly could.
"The next girl looks to be decent," the secretary offered sympathetically,
and Tim gave a nod.
"Well, go ahead and send her in. I think I speak for everyone here when I say that we'd like to
get out of here as soon as possible."
The secretary nodded her understanding and momentarily disappeared, leaving just
enough time for the record executives to sigh before returning with the latest musical hopeful. The moment she entered, however,
Nick knew that she would have at least a tad bit more substance than the last disaster.
The girl before him ducked
her chin lightly and called "thank you" to the secretary just before the door shut behind herself and her agent, at which
point she turned to smile timidly at the executives. Her hair was long, wavy, and brown, and it accented the brown stripes
on her jeans. Her upper half donned a greenish-brown mesh shirt with long, flowing sleeves and a lace hem. Gracefully, she
lifted a pale hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, and her agent took the opportunity to drop a few copies of her
resume on the table. Nick was the first to speak.
"Good evening. What did you say your name was?"
lightly. "I didn't, but it's Rhine. Like the river in France."
"Rhine," Tim repeated. "Well, it's nice to meet you,
dear. Just go ahead and do your thing, all right?"
She nodded and slid her guitar case from her shoulder. Carefully,
she lifted the guitar out of the case and situated herself on the stool that had been provided.
"The song I'm going
to play for y'all is a piece I wrote on the kitchen table while watching my older brother work in the rain. It's kind of a
sad song, but it's one that I'm rather proud of, and I hope y'all enjoy it."
That said, she strummed a few chords to
tune, launched into a slow rhythm, and
began to sing.
The tears, they fall from your eyes like rain again
And as they fall
I know you're caving in
My fingers graze your face and you pass me by
But if I close my eyes I can still see you smile
funny how we've all come to love rainy days
The thunderstorms seem to wash pain away
I've got a jar on the counter and
I gather water from the sky
If I turned it upside down would I see you smile?
You're kicking dreams around the yard
fairy tales can seem so far
And you're still nursing hope that they'll begin
You're carving lines into your face
hold out your tongue for drops of grace
You used to love to watch the sun ascend *
As opposed to tapping his pencil in impatience, Nick found himself tapping
along to the rhythm of the song as he got lost in the words. The lyrics were real, and as Rhine sang, she closed her eyes
and leaned into the guitar so that the effect of the song on her was readily apparent. Of course, he'd be lying if he were
to say that the song didn't have the same effect on him. Her voice was soft, but self-assured, and there was a jagged edge
to the delicacy of her tone that reminded him of the female rock stars that had graced the charts in the early 1990s.
could count on both hands the number of people he had signed in his two years at the company, but he'd be damned if he didn't
want to sign this one. She wasn't excellent, but she spoke to him in ways that nobody had in years.
Oddly enough, she reminded him mildly of Cara.
He shook his head
and signaled to Rhine to stop playing, ignoring the flustered looks from his colleagues.
"That's enough, thanks." He
stared at her a moment with his brow furrowed in thought before speaking again. "That was absolutely beautiful. How long have
you been playing?"
The girl shifted slightly on the stool, trying to conceal the blush that was creeping up her cheeks
as a result of his compliments. "About eight years, I think."
"You've got a lot of talent," he told her seriously,
and the other executives nodded. "I'd have to discuss this further with others of my stature here at the company, but I'd
like to offer you a chance to sign with us."
Rhine's amazement was rivaled by that of Nick's co-workers, who had never,
ever seen him offer someone a deal so quickly. He was known for his rough exterior, and his spiteful comments and ready criticism
were famous throughout the company.
"Are you serious?"
He laughed, which caused his colleagues' eyes to widen
further. "Yes. I'm serious. You remind me a lot of someone I know, and she's pretty talented herself. You've got a lot of
stage presence, and your lyrics are real. That grabs at me, and I think that the others around this table would be hard-pressed
The others were too stunned to nod at him.
Rhine gulped. "So you're seriously offering me a job?"
nodded, cracking a small smile. "Yeah. I'm offering you a job. Of course, we're going to have to talk with you and your agent
later about the details, but I'd like to present you with a contract within the next month."
Her eyes glazed over at
the prospect of a dream come true. "Oh, wow..."
He thought with some reluctance that her delight reminded him of his
own experience in the business. Dammit, it shouldn't be as far away as it is now.
Before he could think any
further on the matter, however, she was shaking his hand across the table. "Thank you so much, sir. You have no idea
how much this means to me. I've always wanted a chance to share my music with people, and the thought that such a dream could
actually be a reality is just...just...oh, wow..."
The others watched the scene with bewilderment and fascination.
They'd never seen Nick smile at, let alone be so generous towards an aspiring musician.
He shook her hand awkwardly,
and the traces of his smile disappeared completely at the human contact. "Uh...you're welcome."
She smiled warmly at
him. "You've made my life, you know."
In the back of his head, a flirtatious comment was forming, something that he
would have spouted easily only half a decade ago. Instead, he merely shrugged.
"You've worked hard, and it's obvious."
Tim spoke up. "Rhine, I agree with Mr. Carter over there. It's late, so we're going to try to get out of the office, but we'll
give your agent a call in the morning and schedule a time that we can discuss the details of your contract, all right?
could only nod. Within minutes, she had shaken everybody's hand, left through the double-glass doors, and Nick was riding
to the parking garage in an elevator that had probably cost more than his car.
He shook his head at the thought and
stepped out of the elevator. With his head down and his coat held tightly around him, he trudged through the lobby and out
in the cold, New York air. He flagged a taxi with ease and slipped inside, grateful to be going home.
At that thought,
he stopped. Home. God, it's been a long time since I've thought of anywhere as being home.
A small smile surfaced
as he continued to ride through the streets of the city.
* * *
"So, believe it or not, I actually feel like cooking tonight."
don't believe it."
"You don't have to. You just have to tell me want you want."
The response was immediate.
"Full Southern dinner."
An arched eyebrow entered the scene of attempted domestication. "You do realize that I'd give
Nick a heart attack by doing that, right?"
Aaron gave Cara an over-exaggerated breadbox look. "And I would care because...?"
laughed. "Good point. I don't think he even realizes that I can cook."
Aaron shrugged. "That's okay, though. Lately,
we've all been too exhausted.
Today was a good rehearsal, though, you know?"
A wide smile surfaced at the thought.
"Yeah. It was a really good rehearsal. Made me wonder if Cal suddenly decided that Prozac is a good idea."
Theresa muttered, coming into the kitchen. "He was practically slap-happy. I mean, hell, I could count on one hand the number
of times we've ever gotten compliments as a cast, and the majority of them happened today."
"It makes me want to smile
a whole, whole lot, though," Aaron laughed. "I mean, I'm not absolutely exhausted today."
"I'm telling you," Cara began.
"It was that practice we had yesterday night. Everyone was on target today."
"Yeah, that really did do us a lot of
good," Theresa agreed. "It was a hell of a lot of fun, too, if I do say so myself."
Cara eyed her friend with amusement
as she pulled the chicken out of the freezer. "Even though you got teased?"
Theresa chuckled at the memory. "Yeah,
even though I got teased. Much as Rob annoys me sometimes, he really is a riot."
"He's a riot with a crush on you is
what he is," Aaron countered. "He spent most of practice last night with his eyes in your lap."
"Yeah," Theresa agreed
with a sigh. "Believe me, I noticed."
Cara looked over in interest as she prepared to fry the chicken. "Are you planning
to do anything about it?"
Theresa looked up with a relatively sheepish smile. "Truth?"
Cara rolled her eyes.
"No, Theresa, I want you to lie to me..."
"I promise I'll believe," Aaron crooned in true Sheryl Crow fashion, and
Theresa couldn't help but smirk at him.
"No offense or anything, A, but you're nowhere near strong enough to be my
He laughed. "No offense taken. T, I dont think anyone is."
Theresa glanced out the window above the sink
and stared at the skyscrapers next to them for a moment before sighing. "Some days, I think that there's got to be someone
out there who's hardass enough to handle me. Other days, A, I'd probably agree with you. Which is exactly why I wouldn't do
anything more than be friends with Rob. I'm a beast in the dating world."
Aaron's laugh echoed loudly through the kitchen.
"Yeah, trust me, Terry, we know."
She tried to glare at her friend, but realized that she really had no reason to.
"So you know that, if I were to ever date Rob, I'd tear him to pieces within a week or so. I mean, he really is a nice guy,
and he's a great friend, and I wouldn't want to take things any farther with him because itd just screw him up. Hell, it would
screw me up. I'm not used to dating nice guys."
"Yeah, we know that too," Cara agreed, wrinkling her nose as she recalled
some of the more recent disasters her best friend had managed to bring home. Aaron, on the other hand, was paused in reflection.
know what, T?"
Theresa frowned in apprehension. With Aaron, thoughtful questions like that one never yielded good answers.
He chuckled. "I think you're the only girl I've ever befriended who requires that I talk to all her
dates not to protect her, but to protect them. There hasn't been a single time I've ever worried about how well you
could handle protecting yourself around a guy, but there have been lots of times that I've worried to death about whether
or not your poor date could handle you."
Theresa groaned at the thought. "Normally, I'd laugh and smack you, but I
know you're not kidding."
"It's the sad truth," Cara agreed with a mischievous gleam in her eye. "Our precious T is
Theresa smiled. "Hey, C, look on the bright side. We've never had my exes come knocking on the front
door now, have we?"
"Okay, I'll give you that," Cara laughed. "We've never had trouble once you've politely mutilated
Finally, Theresa saw reason to protest. "I do not mutilate them!"
"No, you just distort them
to the point that they can't remember who the hell they were before they met you," Aaron retorted sarcastically. "Maybe mutilation
is a bit harsh."
"Or maybe it's an understatement," Cara laughed. "I mean, I've known T to make grown men
"When they're not drunk," Aaron added.
"No, they save that for after the break-up," Cara quipped,
and the two immediately burst into fits of giggles. Meanwhile, a rather humorously belligerent Theresa was standing with her
hands on her hips in the middle of the kitchen.
"I really don't see why you guys find this so funny."
you don't," Aaron answered in between giggles. "And you don't even see that you do it!"
"Oh, I see it," Theresa contradicted.
"I definitely see it."
"She just doesn't care," Cara finished. "Because most of the men she dates are such assholes
that they could stand to be taken down a notch."
"Well, shit, C, when you put it like that," Theresa began, "I don't
know whether to laugh at my love life or cry!"
"At this point?" Aaron chuckled. "I think I'd just be thankful for the
recent lack of it."
Theresa folded her arms across her chest and jumped onto the counter. "You two are just mean."
Aaron agreed, "but it's fun being mean. It makes me feel..." He trailed off, adopting a very Hyde face as his voice lowered.
"Oh, gosh, no," Cara began from her position by the stove. "The rehearsal wasn't that great, A."
joke," Theresa agreed. "We definitely don't need a replay."
Aaron's face immediately formed the famous Carter pout,
but both girls waved him away with a laugh.
"Doesn't work, Aaron," Cara informed him with a bemused smile. "We're immune,
Aaron rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers in false detriment. "Damn."
"So, Cara," Theresa started
with a curious frown. "Since you finally decided to cook tonight, do you mind telling us what's going on the menu?"
laughed at the hint of fear in Theresa's eyes. "Not at all, T. Aaron insisted on a Southern dinner, so we're going all out
with chicken-fried chicken, white gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans."
Theresa's face immediately bloomed into
a full-wattage smile. "Seriously? Oh, C, you're my hero...that would SO make my day..."
Cara couldn't help but smile
as she returned Theresa's grateful--albeit a bit exaggerated--hug. "You're welcome. I just hope that we don't kill Nick with
all of this extra food."
"Well, he might faint with surprise upon seeing you cook," Theresa agreed, "but I doubt you'll
kill him by clogging his arteries."
"Yeah, he used to have a pretty big sweet tooth," Aaron informed them with a nostalgic
grin. "Trust me, if all of that sugary stuff didn't kill him, I doubt anything will."
An interesting expression crossed
Theresa's countenance as she pondered the new information. 'You know, I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing..."
Cara laughed, "it'll depend on what kind of mood he's in tonight."
"And whether or not he makes any more snide remarks
about me being on pitch and together when I perform," Aaron muttered bitterly. Lately, he hadn't had the benefits of concentrating
on altering Cara's opinion of Nick. Instead, he had been given enough time to recognize the older man's every fault, and his
opinion of Nick had lowered greatly as a result.
Cara's voice, however, brought him out of his silent tirade.
we not make this an evening where we're all full of bitterness because of the older Carter brother?" she asked hopefully.
"I mean, seriously guys, he's trying, and that's really all we can ask for right now." She turned to Aaron with a stern expression.
"A, don't get me wrong, okay? I know you've got every right to be angry with him, and I don't mind that, but it doesn't do
anyone any good to express it through backhanded comments whenever Nick's in the room. If you want to rant, you can do it
while pacing my bedroom. Otherwise, you've got to trust that T and I will put him in his place when he gets out of line.
After all, we did it with you."
"That we did," Theresa agreed, casting a maternal smile in Aaron's direction. "And
would you look at him now? He's perfect!"
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Cara laughed. Aaron playfully
glared at her, though, and she finally conceded. "He comes pretty damn close, though."
"Damn right I do!" Aaron crowed.
yeah," Theresa began, arching an eyebrow skeptically. "Like, let's not get an ego about it, okay?"
"Oh, God," Aaron
muttered. "She's turned all Valley Girl on us."
"No, she's just getting an attitude because she had to be passive all
day," Cara replied knowingly. "Isn't that right, T?"
"No, her hunger is getting to her," Theresa pouted. "She can smell
the wonderful smells of home, but she can't eat because it's not done yet, and it's driving her nuts."
"With all due
respect, T," Aaron cracked, trying to hide his smile, "I think you were already crazy."
"She does have a point though,"
came another voice from the doorway. "It smells delicious in here."
Cara almost dropped her stirring spoon in surprise
upon hearing his voice in the doorway. Shit, and we were talking about him not five minutes ago...
We didn't hear you come in..."
"Obviously," he laughed, setting his coat on the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen
table. "You guys were a bit too engrossed in teasing Theresa, I think."
"Oh, they're always engrossed in teasing me,"
Theresa sighed, waving her hand in dismissal. "You'll notice that."
"I'm sure I will," he agreed, and Aaron continued
to watch in amazement as his older brother cracked a smile. My God, it's almost like it used to be...
broke the spell when she decided to be cordial, however. "So, Nick, how was work today?"
"Yeah, you're usually not
this late," Aaron chimed in, watching his older brother carefully for any signs of the person he used to be.
surprise at Aaron's comment was clearly evident. He notices when I get home? He cares? "Yeah, I had to run auditions
today, and we were stuck in there until we got to everybody that was scheduled."
Aaron's question came rapidly. "Anyone
worth listening to?"
"Actually, yes," Nick said with a smile. "Of course, it had to be the last girl of the day, but
it's nice to end a workday on a good note." He turned to Cara, who was leaning over the stove. "Actually, Cara, she kind of
reminded me of you."
"Really?" She sounded curious enough, but her attention was obviously on the task at hand, so
he left her alone for the moment.
"Yeah. Her name was Rhine, and she played this really sweet, really sad song about
the rain. Her talent grabbed at me, and we agreed to sign her on the spot."
"Wow," Theresa intoned, clearly
impressed with the situation. "I bet that doesn't happen often."
"Nope." Nick shook his head. "Especially not with
me. I'm known as the pit bull of the group of execs."
"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me," Aaron mumbled. Nick looked
over at him with a curious expression, but decided immediately not to press the matter. It had actually been a semi-decent
day, and he didn't want to ruin it by arguing with his younger brother. Instead, he changed the subject.
what's for dinner?"
Cara smiled down into the pot of gravy that was starting to thicken. "Chicken-fried chicken, white
gravy, green beans, and mashed potatoes."
Nick's eyebrows hiked considerably high on his forehead at the thought. "Whoa.
What's the occasion?"
"A good practice," Theresa answered with a grin. "Well, that, and C here is getting back to her
Nick looked at Cara in surprise. "You grew up in Tennessee?"
Cara nodded. "Yup. I'm Memphis
born and bred."
"I would've never guessed."
Aaron laughed, swinging a casual arm around Cara's shoulders. "Ya
mean ya cain't hear the Nashville in her?"
Cara gave Aaron a reproachful look, brushing his arm off of her with a tinge
of disdain. "Funny, Aaron."
Theresa had to bite back her laughter in order to console poor Cara, who hated being teased
about her birthplace. "C, he was kidding..."
"Yeah," Cara agreed, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. "But he's about
as good at geography as his brother over there. Nashville and Memphis are two different cities, Aaron."
He folded his
arms petulantly across his chest. "I knew that."
Nick, however, was reeling from the shock of having Cara mention a
detailed part of his past. "What are you talking about, Cara?"
Cara eyed him with obvious amusement. "The 'Norway is
in Sweden' comment? Did you think any of us die-hard fans would actually forget that?"
Nick sighed heavily. "I was
young and stupid then."
"Young, no," Cara laughed, "but stupid, I'll give you."
"Now, Cara," Theresa teased,
clucking her tongue, "don't be mean."
"Aww, Nick here knows I was just kidding," she grinned. "How can I not be completely
infatuated with this former heartthrob?"
Nick's breath was coming in short spurts by this point, and he could feel
beads of sweat forming on his brow. God, there's got to be something really wrong with me if I get this worked up over
a fucking joke. "How about I make you a deal?"
"Sure." Cara abandoned the gravy for a moment to cast a concerned
look in Nick's direction. "You okay?"
He sighed heavily again, trying to compose himself. "Yeah, I'm fine, just...can
we not talk about my past?"
Cara's brow furrowed in curiosity, but she relented nonetheless. "Sure. Any reason why?"
just..." Nick trailed off with another measured exhalation. "It's in the past, okay? It's gone for a reason, and I really
don't want to bring it up for now."
She nodded, realizing that he wasn't going to delve into the matter any further
with Aaron in the room. She'd have to save her prying for one of her infamous listening sessions. "Fine with me."
shoulders drooped as he relaxed at last. "Thanks. I really do appreciate it."
Cara shrugged. "Not a problem. Can you
go set the table?"
Nick nodded, too relieved to protest. Besides, Carter, you're trying to be good, remember? This
involves partaking in the family chores. "Sure thing. Mind telling me where the napkins are?"
"They're in the cabinet over the microwave." She turned around long enough to see the surprise on Aaron's face and began searching
for a way to keep him busy. "Hey, A, can you mash those potatoes for me?"
Aaron smiled warmly at her, grateful to have
something to take his mind off of whatever had just occurred. "Sure, C. I'd be happy to."
She returned his smile whole-heartedly,
making a mental note to have a chat with him later. "Thanks. Terry, why don't you put some ice in the glasses? This stuff
is almost done, and we'll be ready to eat in a minute."
Theresa merely nodded before disappearing to work.
sighed heavily, thankful that they had momentarily dispersed. However, she wanted to maintain conversation so as to avoid
the awkward silence that had become all too familiar, so she turned to Nick.
"Nick, are you headed out tonight after
Nick sucked in a breath at the question. Truth to tell, he wanted nothing more than to escape his newfound
happy family so that he could drink away whatever memories Cara had caused to surface, but his vow of the night before haunted
him. Dammit. I'm really going to try and do this.
"Nah, I'm just going to head to bed tonight. No need to
go out and get riled up, you know? I've got a long day ahead of me tomorrow."
Aaron continued to massacre the potatoes,
but decided that he owed it to his brother to be civil. "Are you running auditions again tomorrow?"
Nick shook his
head, thankful for Aaron's interest. "No, but I've got to head to Battery Studios to oversee some of the recording that one
of our artists is in the middle of."
"Sounds like fun," Theresa chuckled, and Nick rolled his eyes.
you know it."
Cara frowned at the sarcasm in his voice. "Do you actually enjoy listening to any of the artists you
guys have on the label?"
Nick shrugged. "Other than the girl today and a small handful, no. I'm too picky."
I thought everyone had an individual sound," Cara countered. "Why be picky?"
Because I remember how perfect we
used to sound together. "I don't know. Just born that way, I guess. I used to be on the opposite side, so I'm cursed
in a way."
"And yet you got Willa Ford a record deal," Theresa retorted in disgust. "Can we say hypocrite, Mr. Carter?"
had to laugh at the memory of his disastrous girlfriend. "Let's just say that love is blind, okay?"
"Sounds more like
love is deaf," Cara muttered. "No offense, Nick, but I think you needed to up the pickiness where she was concerned."
sighed. "What can I say? I've made some pretty bad mistakes when it comes to the music biz."
Yeah, Cara agreed
silently. But the question is how many mistakes, and at what cost?