"She's f'in' up."
That's exactly what he'd said when she got up during that GMA interview. Her career was going down the toilet. Fast. And as soon as she was off screen, he knew exactly what would happen next. He had expected that phone call from his manager. The one that said, "Hey, when you get to Nashville, we have a meeting." And he knew exactly what that meeting would be about. He knew what would be asked. He knew what his answer would be.
He walked into the small meeting room, sunglasses still covering his brown eyes. He wore a proud smile on his face, but it was plastered. But it was the signature smile. According to his label, it was the smile everyone wanted to see. Even though he didn't want to be in this room, he had to wear it. He had to appear happy, because he loved his career. And he did love his career.
"You're late," Glenn commented. The singer passed by his manager's chair, looking across the table at Glenn. The smile remained on his face, but suddenly seemed more genuine.
"Sorry," he said insincerely. "I stopped outside to sign autographs. Somehow, my fans knew I'd be here. Don't know how." He took a seat by his manager. His lead guitarist and best friend sat next to him. He looked across the table, taking a deep breath. His smile faltered for a moment, but he quickly pasted it back on. "Juliette," he said, removing his shades and revealing dark brown eyes. He placed the glasses on the table in front of him.
"Talon," she replied monotonously. He smiled, taking a sip of the water in front of him. Putting it back down, he cleared his throat.
"It's nice to see you again, Talon," Glenn said as if to fill in the blanks. Looked like Juliette Barnes was still messing up. "You've grown up. Doing very well for yourself."
"Thank you, sir," Talon replied with a slight nod. He thought about complimenting Juliette's career, but every sentence ended with "until this recent scandal," so he kept his mouth shut.
"Remind me. Where were you last?"
"Um, as of yesterday, England."
"Boy, aren't you on the move? Last year, no one knew your name. And today…"
"They're calling me the new Justin Bieber. Except I'm of drinking age and don't sound prepubescent," Talon finished. His tone made it obvious that he didn't appreciate the media's comparisons. He heard Juliette snicker under her breath. His dark eyes moved to her crystal blue ones. She stopped laughing, but she still wore a smile. "I also think I have better fashion sense."
"Oh, please. Ripped jeans, sleeveless shirts, beanies to cover that mess of hair. Very trendy," Juliette taunted with that deceptively sweet voice and charming southern drawl.
"Juliette," Glenn warned in a whisper.
"You'd know what's trendy, wouldn't you?"
"Let's get to business," Talon's manager quickly advised.
"I agree. Talon, as you probably know, we're working on a new album for Juliette. In fact, we were working on choosing tracks for it recently. And we realized that having you for a duet would put it over the top," Glenn explained. As he spoke, Talon nodded in understanding as if he hadn't expected this to come up. He looked at Juliette again. Her gaze was cast down, not even daring to look at him.
Talon was silent.
"Well, I think we can work something-"
"No," Talon interrupted his manager. He stood up, grabbing his sunglasses.
"Now, Talon. Let's talk about this," his manager quickly advised, but it was obvious he wasn't happy with the young man's response.
"I'm not some new kid to the business anymore. You can't manipulate me into being your little publicity stunt. Not again," Talon stated firmly. He looked at Juliette. "I need to shower and rest up for my first North American show. I assume you've been invited to come, so see ya there."
Talon put on his shades again, walking out of the room, his guitarist following behind him.
"Well, that wasn't rude at all," his guitarist said.
"I'm not getting sucked back in again."
"Good start to the North American leg," Max said, slinging his guitar around so it hung down his back. Talon chuckled, looking at the older man. As they walked down the hallway, he held out his hand, catching a small hand towel. He wiped the sweat from his face as he attempted to catch his breath. It was like this every night. Talon was the IT pop star of the moment. He could sing. He could dance. And there was so much more he wanted to show people.
"I am so tired. I'm ready to get back to the hotel and crash," Talon said, waving to a few crew members as he passed. He could still hear the crowd screaming in the arena above him. It was an amazing feeling and he felt accomplished every night he heard it. It reminded him of why he suffered through the politics of being a pop star and celebrity. His fans appreciated his talents and most of them had been supporting him since his days as a YouTube singer doing shows in small, no name cafes.
"We still doing that cover before we leave here?" Max asked.
"Oh, yeah. Yeah. I promised the fans that I'd give them a new one tomorrow," the singer answered. He stopped in front of his dressing room door. The two young men did their signature handshake.
"Meet ya in the green room."
"Hell, yeah," Talon said before going into his dressing room. Closing his door, he began pulling up his black tank top.
"Still got those abs, I see."
Talon stopped, looking over at the couch. He was still for a long moment before pulling the fabric back down over his stomach.
"So, what? You missed the end of my show?" Talon asked, approaching the couch.
"Only your bows. You do like three before you end a show if I remember correctly," Juliette answered, crossing her legs. Talon scoffed, looking away from her. "I wanted to be in here before you were."
"Well, you succeeded. Congratulations. Get out."
"Why don't you wanna do the duet?" Juliette asked, ignoring his demand. They stared at each other with steel gazes. It was something they were so used to. They never wanted to back down. So they would just stare and stare and stare for long periods of heavy silence. Talon took a deep breath through his nose.
"You know exactly why I won't do that duet, Juliette. Don't play me for a clown," he answered. He took off his shirt, turning away from her. Juliette tilted her head slightly, observing him for a moment. Talon went to the rack of clothes and grabbed a black muscle shirt.
"Can't say that I do? Explain it to me," Juliette said. Talon sighed, shaking his head.
"We've done this before, Juliette. The whole using each other for publicity thing."
"What makes you think I'm using you?"
"Oh, please. You're the most manipulative pop star I know. You know exactly how to get what you want. And right now, you want your name out of the gutter. And Glenn thinks I can help you do that. That's why you're here. It's last year all over again," Talon said. Juliette didn't move from her place on the couch. She flipped her blonde curls from her face.
"Last year, huh? You remember."
"Were you expecting me to forget? It's how my career jump started. I went from zero to a hundred in a month, because of you. I remember perfectly. Working on my first album. And my label said, 'Hey, let's get him in the studio with Juliette Barnes for the album.' And I thought, 'Wow. Juliette Barnes. That's insane. That's big time.'"
Juliette looked up at him. Her hard expression seemed to soften a bit, her brows furrowing together. She didn't say anything, though. He took that as a sign to continue.
"And we got in the studio. And we clicked. And I thought you were so cool. My first friend in the industry who understood. The song was released as my second single and all of a sudden my name was everywhere. I had photo shoots all the time. Do you remember how well that single did?"
"Of course. My first gold single," Juliette answered with a nod. "The certification record is up in my house."
"And what did they tell us when we hit gold?" Talon asked sternly. Juliette broke eye contact with him. She took a deep breath, knowing exactly where he was going with this. After a while, Talon stopped waiting for an answer. "'You know what's better than gold? Platinum. And do you know how you get there?'"
"You date," Juliette finished. She sighed, running her fingers through hair.
"Yup. It's more romantic if the song becomes us. And we did. We went out in public. We held hands. We shopped. We kissed. Went to parties, events, award shows," he listed at lightning speed. "We did everything together. And after a while, we forgot that we were pretending. We forgot that our labels were watching our every move. We-" He paused. "I fell in love with you. And as soon as I did, Glenn reminded you that we were a game and that it was time for it to end. And the day before I started my world tour, you dumped me."
Juliette swallowed. Talon was sure he saw tears, but he ignored them. No. He wasn't going to play nice. She didn't play nice with him that night. She didn't play nice during that phone call. She'd come for the slaughter, knowing he wouldn't be able to call her out on it.
"I'm not gonna play this game with you. Not again. That's why I'm not gonna duet with you, because we both know Glenn wants more than a duet to fix your image. We'll do the duet. We'll be gold again. And they'll convince to fake another relationship. He wants the city boy and country girl back together. He wants to play to our fans that I am fixing you. Or he wants me as a distraction from your little scandal. You made your bed, Juliette. Learn to lie in it."
Juliette stood up, closing the difference between them. She looked up at him with hard eyes.
"How do you know that I was playing you?"
"I know you better than anyone. No one knows you like I do. Just like no one knows me like you do. We told each other secrets we don't want the media to know."
"Like how your mom was an alcoholic and your dad basically ignored you until that one phone call after you became successful," Juliette pointed out. Talon bowed his head a bit lower to look at her better. He crossed his arms over his chest.
"Or how your mother's a druggie you ignore and you have daddy issues from never meeting your father," he hit back.
"Actually, my mother's living with me right now," she said, her pace increasing. "How about how you hate your neat and clean, little cookie-cutter, pop star box that your label keeps shoving you in?"
"How about the fact that, as much as you hate to admit it, you love my ripped jeans, tank tops, and chains? And you especially love when I don't shave."
Talon remembered those nights when she would come and visit him in the studio. The late nights when she'd walk in at eleven and they wouldn't leave until three or four. Back when his label didn't care if he had five o'clock shadow, because no one knew who he was, yet. When he wasn't recording, she'd curl up with him on the couch and they'd speak into each other's ears as his music blasted through the studio.
Or the late nights when they'd meet up and go out to eat at two in the morning. If they were in LA, they'd go on a two a.m. beach date and stay there all night to the dismay of their managers. And they'd tell each other secrets and their goals. What they wanted from their careers.
Because for those seven months, maybe they were actually in love.
"I like my men to look like men," Juliette whispered, stepping closer to him. He could feel her chest heave when she breathed in.
"Try to seduce me all you want, sweetheart. I'm not going to be your publicity stunt. We've been down that road. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have fans to please. I'm sure you can show yourself out."
Talon stepped back and turned, going to grab his gray jacket off the table. He pulled it on and left Juliette alone in his dressing room.
"And that is Everything Has Changed by Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. Not gonna lie. Two of my favorite artists. Seriously, go buy Red. It's super dope. Well, there's the cover I promised you guys," Talon said into his camera that was set on the table in front of him and Max. "I just had my first North American show in Nashville. Go to my site to get more tour dates. Talon Solis dot com back slash upcoming underscore events. Get tickets before they sell out! I'm coming to a city near you and I really wanna see you. Take care, guys. Be cool and be true to you. I'll have a behind the scenes video for you guys tomorrow. See ya."
Talon reached for the camera and turned it off. He gave Max a high five.
"Good job," Max said, putting down his guitar.
"Thanks," Talon replied. He got up and went to the fridge at the back of the room.
"Talon!" his manager called, coming into the room. Talon stopped, hand on the handle of the refrigerator.
His manager stopped in front of him, an older woman standing next to him. Talon immediately recognized her and his eyes widened slightly.
"This is Rayna Jaymes," his manager introduced. Talon glanced at him.
"Uh, yeah. I know. I'm not brainless when it comes to music," Talon replied. He held out his hand to Rayna. She took it and they shook. "Hi, I'm Talon Solis. I grew up listening to your music."
"Well, isn't that sweet of you to say? You seem to be doing well for yourself right now. What, with all the little pre-teen girls yelling and following you around," Rayna said through gently clenched teeth. Talon cocked his head slightly to the side, eyes narrowing somewhat. She didn't sound too excited to be there. In fact, he recognized that plastered smile. He'd used it quite a bit today.
"Are you implying that I'm some flash-in-the-pan, cookie cutter pop star?"
"I didn't say all that," Rayna replied. Talon gazed at her for a long moment before glancing behind her.
"And these two lovely girls must be your daughters. They're beautiful. Take after their mother," Talon said politely, ignoring the tone Rayna had just spoken to him in.
"Thank you," the older one said. Talon smiled. He liked his younger fans. They were adorable. Besides, never kill a kid's dream about you, right? He'd once been just like them. Just a kid dreaming.
"What are your names?" Talon asked.
"I'm Maddie and this is Daphne," the older answered. The younger one simply smiled up at him.
"Oh, nice names. How would you guys like to hear a song, huh? Hasn't even been recorded, yet," Talon offered. His manager gave him a questioning look, but the younger man ignored it. It was a face he was used to. Some things that Talon did for fans were questionable to his manager.
"Can we, mommy?" Daphne asked enthusiastically. Rayna also looked rather curious.
"Well, since he's offering."
Talon went back to the couch. He gestured to an arm chair for the girls.
"Can I borrow your guitar, Max?" Talon asked. His guitarist handed over the acoustic instrument and Talon adjusted with it. He plucked the strings first before he began to play.
"He plays guitar?" Rayna asked, watching from across the room. Talon's manager crossed his arms over his chest, watching as his client began his song.
"Guitar, piano, drums, ukulele, saxophone. He sings. He dances. He writes songs. And he finds time to keep in impeccable shape. I swear there's nothing that kid doesn't do. And just look at that face. He's a heart throb. The ultimate package," his manager answered.
"Why's the label putting him in this box then? He's obviously more talented than most singers today."
"We're trying. I've been talking to the label. If Talon has things his way, he'll be writing and playing a lot of his own music this album, but the label is reluctant. They're afraid his music may not be appealing. He may not know what sells, yet."
"You walked out that door and left me here, sitting on the floor, holding back my tears. They say real men don't cry, but I doubt that's true. I think I'm more of a man, 'cause of what I feel for you. So tell me just what you need. I'm right here; I'm down on my knees," Talon sang the second verse. He looked up, smiling at the young girls' enthrallment with his song. That's all he wanted. Affirmation that his music was good.
As his gaze moved back to the strings of his guitar, he noticed Juliette step into the room with Glenn and her assistant. He kept his fingers strumming and moving along the frets and his voice continued to sing his own words.
"And I would walk a thousand miles just to reach you. And I would sail the ocean blue. I would do anything you asked of me as long as it would lead me straight back to you," he sang his chorus, that natural rasp of his voice stronger than on any other song of his. He strummed the strings a bit harder where the bridge would go. He sang the chorus one more time, slowing down the melody before finishing the song.
"So, what do you think?" Talon asked, avoiding everyone else's eyes.
"I like it," Daphne answered.
"Oh, yeah? Good enough for my next album?"
"Yeah. You should do it with the guitar, though, instead of adding synthesizers and making it upbeat. It's sweeter," Maddie said. Talon chuckled, looking at Max.
"You hear this kid?" Max nodded, smiling. Talon looked back at Maddie, leaning forward. "I totally agree with you and I will tell my label you said that, because what my fans want is what I want. Thank you."
"Alright, kids, it's late. We gotta get going," Rayna said.
"Ahh, man!" Maddie complained.
"Can we get Talon and Juliette's autographs first?" Daphne asked. Talon put down the guitar and grabbed one of his CDs off the coffee table. He'd had to sign one hundred of them before the concert to sell as merchandise. He opened the CD and pulled out the lyrics jacket. He signed the cover before putting the CD back in order. He handed it to Daphne.
"Thank you both for your help."
"Get Juliette's so we can go. You two have school in the morning."
The two girls gave Talon a hug before running off toward Juliette who seemed to still be staring at him. Talon handed Max the guitar and stood up.
"You're talented, kid," Rayna said, walking up to him.
"Not so cookie cutter, huh?" Talon teased.
"Not so cookie cutter. My kid's right. Don't change that song one bit. I can hear you mean every word of it. Don't let your label corrupt it, take out that heart. And you keep using that heart to write," she advised sincerely, gazing into his dark eyes. Talon nodded.
"Try my best."
"And one more thing."
Talon's eyes widened slightly, waiting to hear what more she had to say to him.
"I saw you looking at Juliette. You obviously wrote it for her. Were you in love with her?" she asked in a low voice so no one else would hear her. Talon glanced behind her at Juliette. He sighed, returning his gaze to the older woman.
"Jury's still out on that one."
Rayna chuckled, patting him on the shoulder.
"You start that next album, call me. I might be able to help you with your artistry," she said, her voice in a normal tone again. She backed away towards her two daughters.
"Tha- That would be so cool. Thanks," he said with a smile. A real smile. The boyish one that his fans loved to see.
"We gotta get out of here, too. The crew's cleaning and packing up. Let's go. Got your stuff, Talon?" his manager announced.
"Yup." Talon went to the coffee table and stuffed his camera back into his backpack. He closed the bag and swung it onto his shoulder. Max tossed him his trademark gray beanie and Talon put it on, covering his messy dark hair.
Rayna was already on her way out with Maddie and Daphne. Talon and Max walked toward his manager. Juliette cut off Talon's path, though. He stopped and looked down at the country-pop star.
"How about a late dinner?" she asked.
The room seemed to go still. Talon stared into her blue eyes for a long moment. Was this another one of her schemes to get him to do what she wanted? He couldn't be too sure. But he kept thinking of all the other late nights he'd spent with her. Thought of the sweeter moments they shared together. The secrets they bonded over. The hours they spent cuddled up together. And he wanted to trust her. He really did. And he didn't know if he could.