by Tracey Richardson
Fame and money rained down on Dess Hampton like a monsoon. She couldn’t imagine needing more—until her golden voice was silenced. Now her quiet days are filled with her guitar and she savors every sunrise. Curious, and as a favor to a friend, she emerges to hear a rumored superstar in the making.
Music pours out of Erika Alvarez through her voice and her fingertips. She’s awed that the reclusive Dess Hampton wants to hear her sing, and then blown away when Dess agrees to sit in for a few gigs.
Dess can tell that Erika is destined for the life that she once had and wants no part of, ever again. But can the magic of the music they make together, and the growing love between them, trump Erika’s ambition and Dess’s fears? How much are they willing to sacrifice for it—and for each other?
… is about finding passion in life. It's about relationships and how what we may think we want isn't always what's best for us. It's a story with meat on its bones and the best kind of song in its heart.
Lesbian Reading Room
...a great story and a sizzling romance. Tracey Richardson has produced another great ‘trad' romance. The characters are well drawn and realistic. The settings varied and interesting and the experience of life on the road gives a great backdrop to the developing emotions.
The Lesbian Review
...was a surprising delight. When I began reading it took me only a handful of pages to become completely captivated by the book. I liked that Richardson introduced personal flaws and fears into the equation because it made everything more believable. Nice work...
Praise for Tracey Richardson
"Richardson gives us strong, yet individual characters..." -- Lambda Literary Review
"Playful and sexy, not silly..." -- Kissed by Venus
"Books that cause the readers to look forward to her next one..." -- Just About Write
Dess Hampton had no idea how she was going to say no to the woman who once—okay, way more than once—had saved her life.
The question—whatever it was—hadn’t been asked yet, and a stammering Sloane Somers was doing her best to stall. Which could only mean she was going to ask Dess to do something she was not going to want to do at all.
Dess sighed loudly into the phone. “Sloane, you know I love you. But spit it out already, will you?”
It wasn’t like Sloane to verbally dance in circles and certainly not with her best friend. Close to fifteen years in the music business together—touring, collaborating, providing each other a shoulder to cry on through breakups, illness, disappointments—had bound them like sisters. They could and did talk about anything and were brutally honest with each other. Which was why the fine hairs on the back of Dess’s neck were now standing on end. Her greatest fear was that Sloane would try to lure her back into the music business. And that was absolutely not going to happen.
“Okay, fine, wait,” Sloane implored, as if reading her mind. “Erika Alvarez. The Latina singer I mentioned a few weeks ago?” Sloane stalled for more time. “Well, she’s not only good, Dess. She’s fucking amazing. You gotta believe me.”
“I don’t gotta do anything,” Dess muttered childishly.
“No, you don’t. But I’d really like you to listen to her sing. And when you do, I really think you’ll want to help.”
Sloane was too cynical by nature, too been-there-done-that to rave about someone undeserving. Sloane being impressed with someone happened about as often as the government deciding it was tapping you for too much income tax. For that reason alone, she had Dess’s attention. But capturing her attention wasn’t the same thing as caring that this Erika-whatever was the next big flavor of the month. Or even the next one-name wonder like Cher, Madonna, Beyoncé. “Okay, fine. She’s fucking amazing. So are at least ten thousand other young wannabe singers out there.”
“No, I’m serious. She really is going to be the next big thing, Dess. I’m not shitting you. I know it. And hell, you know my instinct about these things is fucking bang on. Remember Lori Stanners?”
“Oh God, how could I forget her. And yes, I’m sure her stardom would have known no bounds if she hadn’t ended up in jail for shooting her boyfriend.”
Sloane laughed. “I was right about her talent at least. I just didn’t know she was such a head case. But Erika, she’s the real deal. She’s got nothing but upside. She’s got a voice that could rock the dead, she’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s a phenomenal piano player.”
“Okay, okay, so you’ve picked out a diamond in the rough. But you’re not a concert promoter or a record label mogul, last time I looked.” Sloane’s annoyingly obvious interest in the young talent was puzzling. And she still hadn’t gotten around to what the point of all this was. “Wait, did you forgot to tell me you’re moonlighting with American Idol? Is that what this is all about?”
Sloane’s laughter bubbled up like a slow geyser. “Oh God. Just kill me now.”
“Ah, I get it. You’re sleeping with this girl, right? You want to help out your little bedmate? You old cougar, you!”
Sloane’s indignant screech was like the protest of nails on a chalkboard. “Of course I’m not sleeping with her! Although…It’s not a bad idea, come to think of it. Ah, Dess. Seriously. She’s a good kid, and my motives are entirely driven by the desire to hear some better fucking music on the radio. Half the shit out there is exactly that. Shit.”
“Good point, but you didn’t answer my question. The one about why you care enough to get personally involved. And you also haven’t explained why I need to know about Erika Alvarez and her endless talents.”
“Can’t I just make a simple declaration about discovering the most talented voice I’ve heard since you?”
Dess sucked in her breath, reeling from the spots mottling her field of vision. More than six years after her involuntary and abrupt exit from the music business, the pain remained every bit as raw and searing in moments like this. Moments when she was reminded of what she once was, of all the promise she’d fulfilled and surpassed and the promises she would never fulfill now. But that special and crazy time in her life was over, and most days that was okay with her. But not right this second. Right this second it was a lance through her heart all over again.
Dess coughed to dislodge the lump in her throat. “Of course you can make a simple declaration about someone’s talent. But you’re not telling me everything, are you?”
They could read each other effortlessly, even now, when they seldom saw each other. Sloane remained busy touring and recording as a very talented and much-in-demand drummer. And Dess, well, Dess was busy doing a whole lot of hanging around her Chicago condo in the winters and her Michigan cottage in the summers, fooling around with her collection of guitars, writing songs that nobody was ever going to hear, going for endless walks with her chocolate Labrador retriever Maggie and reading a quantity of books that would be the envy of any reviewer.
Sloane’s sigh carried the weight of the world. “Okay, look. Erika’s doing a bunch of music festivals this summer throughout the Midwest. I’m drumming for her.”
“W-what?” Dess leaned against a kitchen island that was as big as some people’s living rooms, her shock momentarily causing her to stumble. “Why are you spending the summer drumming for a singer nobody’s ever heard of? And in front of audiences of like, what, four or five hundred people? Did something happen you haven’t told me about?”
Sloane had toured and played session drums for some of the biggest acts—Pink, Katie Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Melissa Etheridge. Playing summer music festivals was bloody amateur hour. Dess had done it when she was young and hungry, and so had Sloane. Playing through punishing rainstorms and mosquitoes the size of small birds, sound systems that sucked and died, audiences that were either really into it or were more into making out under their blankets and smoking pot than listening to the music. But that was years ago, and once you’d done it, you didn’t go back. Not unless you were one of those washed-up old dope-addled has-beens whose records were hawked on television in the middle of the night.
“I lost a bet,” Sloane grumbled. “I was playing poker with a bunch of other studio musicians I was working with last month outside of Detroit. I lost, and this was the bet, because Erika didn’t have a drummer. And I know what you’re thinking. Hell, I was thinking it too. But she absolutely fucking blew me away, Dess. And you know what? I’m glad I lost that stupid bet, because I think things are really going to happen for Erika, and it’s going to be a blast having a front row seat to it all.”
“All right, tell you what. If she’s as good as you say, if she plays anywhere in Michigan or around Chicago this summer, I’ll sneak in and watch.” Even that, Dess knew, was probably a lie. She hadn’t been to a concert in years and had no desire to go to one now. It simply hurt too much.
“Oh no. You can do better than that, Dessy-Do!”
“Oh Jesus, did I ever tell you that you were put on this earth just to make my life miserable?”
“Too many times to count. Look. I want you to do more than watch. I want you to join us on the tour.”
“What? What the hell, Sloane?” Was she kidding? Had she misspoken? Sloane knew Dess didn’t sing anymore—couldn’t sing anymore—and would not go near a stage even if it was jammed with hot, naked women carrying bags of money. She knew damned well this was not something to joke about. “You know you just crossed a serious line with me.”
“Okay, look, calm down. I’m not asking you to sing. I’m asking you…Shit. I’d like you to tour with us as Erika’s lead guitarist, okay? The guitar player she was supposed to have broke his wrist three days ago and…”
“Absolutely fucking not! Jesus Christ!” Anger and tears throbbed in Dess’s throat like a second heartbeat. How could her best friend in the world even suggest something as painful, as horrifying, as her getting up onstage again? Sloane knew damned well what it would do to her, what it would cost her. Christ, she’d be the laughingstock of the entire country! The tabloids would have a field day mocking her. The audiences would dismiss her as a joke, or, worse, skewer her with cruelty. The legendary Dess Hampton strumming a guitar for some nobody in the backwater of the Midwest was a preposterous idea. It was a dignity shredder. Well, Sloane could forget it, because it was never going to happen. And it hurt like hell that she would even think to ask something like this.
Dess ground out the words like they were broken bits of glass. “This is the worst thing you’ve ever suggested to me, Sloane. And I’m dead serious. I can’t believe you asked me this.”
“Aw, Jesus. I’m not trying to piss you off or hurt your feelings, okay? I’m sorry, Dess. I really am. But Erika’s in a jam, and I—”
“Erika! What about me? You don’t even know this girl, and you care more about her feelings than mine?” Dess’s incredulity rushed out of her in an angry stream. “How could you even think I would do something like this? How could you even ask?”
“Oh, shit. I’ve really screwed this up, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you royally have.”
“Okay, how about this. I’m going to email you a link to her on YouTube. Just watch it. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”
“Sloane, forget it.”
“No, please. Just watch it and then we’ll talk again.”
No, Dess thought, we won’t talk about this again. She could hear keys tapping in the background. Fine. Sloane could send her all the goddamned links she wanted. It didn’t mean she was going to watch a single second of Erika Alvarez. Or anybody else performing. That part of her life was done. Over.
“There was a time,” Sloane said quietly, “when you used to want to help young musicians. You felt you owed it to the universe to bring others along, remember?”
Sloane was right, but that was a long time ago. Before cancer annihilated her career. “I’m not that person anymore, all right? I don’t have anything to give. Look, Sloane, I gotta go. But good luck with the tour and all that. And I hope Erika Alvarez makes it big some day. Tweet some photos or something, okay?”
“There, done. The link should be in your in-box. Dess honey, I know you’ll forgive me when you see how good she is. I’m not letting you off the hook yet.”
Sloane’s arrogance was legendary, but this! This took the cake.
“’Bye, Sloane. Keep in touch.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll be in touch real soon,” Sloane answered before ending the call.
Dess set her cell phone on the counter, reached down to pet Maggie’s head and cast her eyes toward the six-foot-high window in her dining room that looked out on Lake Michigan and Chicago’s Gold Coast. While the cobalt blue of the water looked cold, a reminder that winter had only recently released its grip on the city, spring was creeping up on Chicago with its budding trees and shoots of sprouting grass. It wouldn’t be long now.
“One more month, Maggie old girl, and we’ll be on that lovely island, and you can swim as much as you want, and I can lie around on the screened porch reading novels and writing some songs. What do you think, huh? Doesn’t that sound perfect?”
Maggie licked her hand in response, and Dess smiled. Life was simple, but good. She was healthy again—knock on wood. She had more money than she could ever spend in her life. She had wonderful friends and a loving extended family, and she still had music in her life. Not the way it used to be, for sure. She wasn’t on magazine covers anymore, wasn’t the hottest concert ticket in the land, didn’t trend on Twitter. She couldn’t get a recording contract anymore even if she wanted one. Which, of course, she didn’t. Music had left her behind, but she hadn’t left it behind. She listened to it every day—mostly folk, jazz and blues—and she played guitar two or three hours a day. It was simple, unglamorous, but it was enough.
Until her sudden illness a little more than six years ago, Dess hadn’t realized how exhausting, how soul-killing the demands of the music business had become. There was the constant pressure of producing hit song after hit song, of recording a new album every year, of enduring the grueling weeks and months of touring, giving interviews and making appearances, attending constant meetings with agents, managers and executives, fulfilling the endorsement contracts, the endless wall-to-wall ass kissing. Oh, and trying to have some kind of personal life at the same time, which she’d failed miserably at. It was a merry-go-round that never stopped, never gave you a break.
No, she thought with satisfaction. She’d left her mark, reached the very pinnacle of fame and fortune and success. Now it was her time to enjoy life. To breathe. To play around with music in a way she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. To write songs, to work seriously on mastering the guitar. To maintain her health, to enjoy nice dinners with friends and family, take long nature walks with Maggie. Make a serious dent in the hundreds of novels and biographies that lined her bookshelves. Maybe she’d even start work this summer on writing her autobiography.
Her laptop on the little desk alcove between the dining room and kitchen chimed another reminder. Sloane’s email with the YouTube links. Jesus, Sloane could be a pain in the ass sometimes. An obsessive pain in the ass.
Dess stalled, wiped down the countertops for the third time that day, refilled Maggie’s water bowl, then washed and dried her hands. Okay, fine, she thought. She’d take five minutes and look at the stupid YouTube video so that at least she could say she had. She owed Sloane that much.
Five minutes turned into fifteen. Dess watched the video, then watched it again, then viewed a second video of Erika Alvarez singing in a coffee house. Many things struck Dess at once as she watched, mesmerized. Erika was attractive. Okay, more than attractive. Dark, thick below-the-collar wavy hair—tamed and wild at the same time. Her cheekbones were high and sharp as rock cliffs, and her eyes flashed black and mischievous. Her skin was rich and golden, her lips full and kissable. She was gorgeous—stunning—in an authentic, natural way.
Dess leaned closer to the screen to better study the luscious cleavage exposed by the open leather vest, her lasciviousness giving her a pang of voyeuristic guilt. But only a brief pang. Sex appeal oozed from Erika’s sensuous strokes of the microphone and the subtle swaying of her hips in time to the song’s slow beat. A beat that matched the rhythm of sex, it occurred to Dess. Erika knew how to use her sex appeal without flaunting it or debasing herself, and the combination of sexy and wholesome was something money couldn’t buy.
Her voice too was like nothing Dess had ever heard before—gravel and silk, deep and rumbling, then soaring high and sweet. It was pure, clear, powerful—a light summer breeze one instant, a ripping, thunderous storm the next.
“Goddammit, Sloane.” Dess whistled softly and wiped the fine film of sweat from her forehead. Sloane hadn’t been kidding about Erika Alvarez. If anything, she had understated her talent.
Dess knew exactly what having a voice like that meant, not to mention having the looks that accompanied it. If Erika played her cards right, the sky was the limit. And then some. With a voice like hers, she could sing any style of music she wanted. Well, except maybe opera, but Dess wouldn’t even put that past her. She had a face and a body that cameras and audiences would instantly worship. She was the full package, the real deal, as far as Dess could see. Good enough that she should have been discovered by now. But fame and success were fickle. Dess had known countless talented people who went undiscovered or quickly faded away when they were on the brink of greatness. There were others too who, based on their musical talent alone, had no right to the success they enjoyed. None of it was fair.
She wondered how badly Erika wanted this. What her motives were. What lengths she would go to and how hard she was willing to work. And how she would handle it all if she got there.
Dess once thought she knew exactly what she wanted, and she couldn’t wait to get there. Of course, in the beginning, she’d only fantasized about the highlights—the adulation, the mammoth and joyous crowds she would sing to, the money, the other artists clamoring to work with her. But there’d been so much more she’d never considered. Things that, had she not been strong and singularly determined, would have broken her. There were the obvious things, but there were more insidious things too, like questioning the genuineness of people and what lay behind their motivations, whether they liked you for yourself. The kind of nagging questions that ate away at the fringes of your life until you began to question everything, to doubt everything, until you withdrew, trusting no one.
If her life-threatening illness hadn’t halted all the craziness her life had become, Dess had no doubt she would have self-destructed by now. No one could sustain that level of fame and success without a spectacular fall, and Dess knew, in that regard, that she was no different than anyone else. No, she thought with conviction. She would not watch, let alone help, this young woman drown in the soul-sucking, parasite-infested, exploitative, drug-, alcohol- and promiscuity-infused business that had destroyed so many others.
If Erika Alvarez was even half as good as she appeared to be in her videos, she was a shooting star who was destined for exactly that charming fate. And Dess had no intention of being there to see it happen.