Chapter One

“The Agency has released you from your contract—”

“No!” Jade shrieked, rising from a white leather chair. Clutching her head, she stumbled backward as the walls pressed in from every side. The air suddenly seemed stale and bereft of oxygen. She could scarcely draw a breath into her lungs.

“What did you say?” she stammered.

“I’m sorry,” Dixon Reed asserted, his tone forceful. “I wish I didn’t have to say this again, but the agency has released you from your contract.”

Frustrated, she crossed her arms and stumbled to the heritage windows, soon gazing through thick panes of glass. “Why?” she pleaded, watching the rain spill from gray swollen clouds to West Hastings Street, seven floors below.

The pain was immediate. She grieved the loss of her career, the songs she’d never sing, Nashville, and the Grand Ole Opry. A country music stage and a circular swath of wood; she might never stand on its history again.

“Why are you doing this to me?” she pleaded, turning to Dixon, edging to anger.

“It’s a business decision and nothing more than that. The agency cares about your wellbeing, cares about your health, too. But with the impossibility of performance, the negative publicity, and the lack of engagements, maintaining our agreement is impossible. We must release you.”

“I can’t believe this is happening.” She took a deep quivering breath, shaking her head. Her fingers twitched; she couldn’t control the movement. She longed for a cigarette to massage between them, or something stronger and more liquid to hold.

“I am nothing without my career. I can change, Dixon. Truly, I can beat this thing.”

Sighing, he rose from his black leather chair and walked toward her from a sleek mahogany desk. “You can overcome your addictions, if you want to.”

“Do you think I haven’t tried?” she shouted, meeting his eyes. “I’ve been at a rehabilitation center for three months learning how to do just that.”

“Let’s not belabor the point. We’ve been down this road before.” Approaching her, he touched her arm, but she brushed off his contact. “Your substance abuse has changed you,” he warned, stepping away. “Transformed you into a bitter and spiteful woman. The ugly truth is this: the agency can’t market a singer who cannot maintain her commitments.”

“But, I’ve attended every single performance.”

“Sure, but you arrived late to the venue, and while on stage, you forced the audience to suffer through your rants, bouts of moodiness, bad temper, and ill focus. Disappointing your fans is not keeping your commitments.”

“Thanks for labeling it so clearly for me.”

“Even now, you don’t understand,” Dixon ground out, appealing to her with both hands. “You need to hear what I have to say. You’re a drunk!” he emphasized. “A woman consumed with drugs and alcohol. The audience pays to hear you sing. No one wants to listen to drunken rampages about your life. I’m saying this for your own good. Listen to me! Pull yourself together. Save yourself before it’s too late.”

Jade had to be dreaming. Or having a nightmare. Dazed, she slid her fingers through her hair. She looked at her palm, considering the ginger strands that escaped from her scalp. Shame caused her to stare downward, unable to face his nut-brown eyes. “I’ve been released from rehab, Dixon. I’m clean right now. I can beat the addiction. I’m trying; I’m fighting the cravings with everything that’s in me.”

She saw where his attention wandered, to the bright red strands that lay against her fingers. “Take this pause in your career to get well. Go away. Take a vacation. Heal whatever demons that are encouraging your downfall.”

“With what paycheck?” she snarled, tears slipping from her eyes. “I’m a star. I’ll die without my fans.”

“Jade Carter—” He grabbed both of her shoulders, shaking her roughly, staring earnestly into her eyes. “If you don’t recognize the cost of your addiction soon, you’ll pay a much higher price than losing an agency contract. You’ll die.” He paused then, as if searching for wiser words. “Leaving your body for some poor young maid to find. I’ve seen stars succumb to death before, and I know, I’ll witness their demise again.”

He grasped her hand. “I care about you,” he murmured, squeezing. “More than you know. I want to see you get well, not slip into an early grave.”

Jade’s voice broke; she earnestly began to cry. “Please, give me another chance.” She sobbed, begging. “I can change. I truly can. I promise—I won’t let you down again.”

Dixon released her hand. “I tell you what,” he sighed, stepping away. “I see your hands shaking. I know the hell you’re fighting through. I’ll make you a promise. It’s a risk, but I’ve taken risks before. If you’re still clean in say, six months’ time—we’ll talk, we’ll consider a new contract.”

Jade gazed at Dixon, hoping that he might keep his promise to her. “I can do it. I promise you that I can.”

“And let me tell you,” he grated, pointing his finger. “I’ll know if you’ve fallen off the wagon. Liabilities show up in abundance on TMZ. If I see so much as a high-shriek giggle on that show, a ramble of speech impediment to anyone in the media, or even a high definition photo from the paparazzi, the offer is off the table. Don’t even waste my time by showing up here again.”

Jade gulped in a breath. “I promise,” she retorted, hoping she’d be able to. “I won’t disappoint you this time.”

“Don’t disappoint yourself, Jade Carter, bestselling country music artist.”

She nodded, not knowing what else to say. She supposed they had reached the end. “Goodbye, Dixon. I’ll see you in six months.”

Leaving his office, Jade walked along a corridor of offices partitioned with glass to the front reception area. She reached for a tissue from the box on Patty’s desk and dabbed the soft tissue against her eyelids.

“I have something for you,” Patty stated with an uncomfortable calm. “I’m sorry. I have a final remittance, and I do apologize that it isn’t much. There’s also some mail, which I presume is from your fans.”

Jade watched Patty rise from her swivel chair to collect a yellow manila envelope. “If I still have fans, Patty.”

“There’s something else.”

“What more could there be?”

“The penthouse suite.” Patty sighed, leaning against her desk. “You’ll need to vacate it within sixty days. Dixon wanted to give you some time to find a new place to live.”

The news came as a shock; Jade didn’t know what to say. She swallowed, placing her fingertips on her lips. “That’s not much time.”

“It’s the best we could do.”

She frowned as Patty passed the envelope over a white enamel counter. “I don’t know what to say,” Jade mumbled, accepting the envelope. “I’ve let so many people down. What will my fans think?”

“Don’t despair. Fans never give up on their heroes, so you shouldn’t give up on yourself, either.”

“Thank you for your kindness. I didn’t expect it.”

Sighing, Patty walked around the reception desk, her arms soon hugging Jade with a compassionate regard. “Aw darling,” she whispered into her ear. “I will pray for you.”

The tears began again, but Jade quickly wiped at the seepage, stepping away from the embrace.

“Thank you. I don’t deserve your kindness.”

“Don’t be silly,” she affirmed as Jade reached for the knob to the exit door. “I am confident that this agency will see you again. A star as bright as you won’t soon fade away.”

“I hope your logic proves true.”

Anxious to leave, Jade pulled the heavy mahogany door open, but paused when she glimpsed a fashionable young woman sitting in the waiting area. A slim brunette, the girl wore the latest in Kate Spade fashion. She stared at her cellular device, scrolling up and down with pretty painted fingers. Maybe, the next star waited in the wings of the reception room.

Jade sucked in a breath, remembering her younger self and her first appointment with her former agent, Dixon Reed.

The first real rise in her career, that appointment seemed like it had happened a long time ago…

Heaven help her, she considered as she left the agency, walking to the elevators to retreat into the depressive rain. She hoped she’d be able to keep her promise, and return. She’d die trying.