If life had been fair, Colin--or rather, Sir Colin--Thompson would have had a paunch and a visibly receding hairline. Alex was accustomed to life being unfair.
His former partner looked marvelous: trim, fit, and dressed to the nines in a suit that was a masterpiece of Italian tailoring and probably cost as much as a small principality. He still walked--swaggered--with that easy assurance Alex remembered, certain as ever that he was the center of attention wherever he went. And, of course, he was usually right.
Alex straightened to his full height, schooling his expression into something he hoped was suitably bland, pleasant, and opaque. What he'd come to think of as his PoP face . . .
Sophie, who had gravitated to his side, murmured in his ear, "I have this sudden urge to sing Carly Simon."
It took a moment for the reference to hit, and then amusement rippled through him. You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte . . . you're so vain . . .
Not an inaccurate description of Colin, who had paused on the threshold and was now surveying the rehearsal room with the air of one determined to make the best of these somewhat plebeian surroundings. His gaze finally alighted on his former bandmates.
"Hullo, chaps. Sorry to keep you waiting." His jaunty tone rendered the apology perfunctory, a mere matter of form.
"About time you showed up," Dan said.
Alex blinked. The drummer had said exactly the same thing to him, but the tone couldn't have been more different. The calmest and most even-tempered of them all, Dan sounded curt, even a bit cold now.
"Couldn't be helped, Dan-O. But I reckon the jet couldn't have flown any faster." Colin came further into the room, followed closely by another man who must have been six-four in his stocking feet. Nearly as tall as Chris, Alex observed with astonishment. But where his manager was gangling, this guy was built like a barn, with a blunt-featured face that reminded Alex of a boxer's.
"My bodyguard, Reg," Colin explained. "He goes wherever I go." He paused again, smiling at all and sundry. "Together again. Just like old times, isn't it?"
Alex wondered if Colin had noticed the constraint that had settled over them all since his grand entrance. Then Colin looked directly at him and his own thought processes ground to a halt.
"Alex." Was it his imagination, or did Colin sound just a touch--uncertain? "Heard about the new song, mate. Congratulations."
Mate. It had been years since Colin had called him that--and even longer since he'd meant it. And he probably didn't mean it tonight either, Alex reminded himself. Performance instincts honed over more than two decades came to his rescue--and this was a performance, on Colin's part as much as his, he realized. "Thank you." The response came out colorless and cool, but he was just relieved to be able to form words again.
Fortunately, Colin had turned his attention to Andrew and Nick. "Great to see you guys. And I see you've brought some of your biggest fans along," he added, turning a winning smile on the women and Paul. "Good evening, ladies--and gent. Maggie, you look lovelier than ever."
"Thank you, Colin." Maggie's tone was polite rather than cordial. "You're looking quite well yourself."
Sarah only nodded in response. Colin's glance fell on Sophie. "But who's this little stunner? I don't believe we've met."
Alex felt Sophie stiffen imperceptibly at being called little. "This is Sophie Fisher, my partner," he said evenly. "Sophie, Colin Thompson--PoP's former frontman." He took an admittedly petty satisfaction in leaving off the "Sir."
Sophie appeared to be taking her cue from Maggie and Sarah. "It's very nice to meet you," she said politely, but without warmth.
Colin didn't seem to notice the omission. "Charmed, I'm sure." He took her hand and bowed over it with an extravagance that would have elicited giggles and blushes from a more susceptible audience. "So you're with Alex? Some blokes have all the luck," he added, tipping her a jovial wink.
Sophie reclaimed her hand and, to Alex's surprise and amusement, slipped it rather pointedly through the crook of his elbow. "Yes, I suppose they do."
For just a moment, Colin looked slightly flummoxed. But he recovered almost at once, turning to exchange brief introductions with Paul.
Andrew cleared his throat. "Right, shall we get on with the practice, then? Time's a bit short."
Colin turned to face him. "So, what have you lot got planned?"
"We're doing 'Dance With Me Tonight' before 'Pop Goes My Heart,'" Andrew said, with a firmness Alex could only envy. But then, Andrew had been a year older than Colin and himself; there had been times, Alex suspected, when the guitarist had regarded them both as troublesome younger brothers.
If the announcement fazed Colin in any way, he didn't show it. "Brilliant. No problem with my singing harmony with you on 'Dance,' is there?" he inquired of Alex. "I rehearsed on the plane," he added with the smile that reduced whole stadiums of fans to quivering jelly.
It had somewhat less effect on his former bandmates, but Alex couldn't help remembering a time when Colin's charm had seemed warm and genuine. Perhaps it even had been, then. He'd talked the band out of a number of tight spots, usually involving hotel rates or overdue rent money. Wheedled extra food from susceptible waitresses during the years they were young and hungry, persuaded music executives to grant them more recording time while they were trying to break through.
There were other memories too--even more personal. Of long nights, composing together, over the crumpled wrappings of fish and chips or empty take-away boxes of Indian or Chinese. Endless mugs of stewed tea or muddy coffee to keep themselves awake. Scribbling on napkins when they ran out of notepaper, the bickering when they couldn't get the music and lyrics to gel, and the exultation when they finally did. Arguing the merits of favorite singers and songwriters. Discovering during their first full practice with Andrew, Nick, and Dan that they had the makings of a damned good five-piece band--and their euphoria after, at knowing their dream was about to become reality . . .
When had the friend he still recalled so vividly turned into a self-serving bastard? Or had he always been like that, underneath, and Alex had been too stupid, too gullible to notice?
Enough of that. There'd be time for navel-gazing afterwards, if he were so inclined. But for now, they had a performance to concentrate on. "I think we should run through both numbers one more time," he said, trying to match Andrew's firmness. "Before Lynyrd Skynyrd comes along and chases us out."
"Right you are," Colin said easily. "Just show me where to stand, okay?"
"Well, that was--awfully polite," Paul remarked in a low voice, as the band members returned to the stage area, this time with Colin in tow. The bodyguard, Reg, took up a position just inside the door, his watchful gaze fixed on his employer.
Sophie nodded agreement, having had a similar reaction to what she'd just witnessed. While no one had attacked Colin physically or verbally, he had received none of the warmth or even cordiality that had been extended to Alex on his arrival. Instead, everyone had been scrupulously, unfailingly courteous--and the mean temperature of the room must have dropped at least ten degrees. In fact, the more charm Colin had exerted, the more formal and distant his ex-bandmates had become. It was like watching a pulsar shooting out magnetic rays that were promptly swallowed up by a quartet of black holes. British black holes, Sophie amended; she'd never been more aware of how English Alex and the other members of PoP were than at this moment.
Of course, she knew what Alex's issues with Colin were, but what about the others? Was it just that he had deserted them at the height of their fame?
"Oh, no one does civilized disapproval quite like us Brits." Maggie sounded dryly amused.
"Nicky doesn't talk much about Colin," Paul ventured. "I couldn't help wondering . . ."
"He left them all in a bit of a lurch fifteen years ago," Maggie explained briefly. "Surprising if there weren't some ill-feeling, even after all this time." She paused, as if considering whether to go on, then shook her head as the first notes of "Dance With Me Tonight" issued from Alex's keyboard. "Let's give our chaps a good listen now, eh?"
Several hours later
The Grand Ballroom was packed, Alex observed as he waited in the wings with the other members of PoP. The veteran pop star Billy Mack inducted them, which was rather like having one's black sheep uncle do the honors. But Mack appeared to be on his best behavior tonight, making only a few sly references to the band's "over-styled hair and lamentable fashion sense"--Alex considered that a bit rich in light of some of the older rocker's past wardrobe choices--and generously praising their composing and performing skills. The pairing of "Colin Thompson's clever, unexpected lyrics" and "Alex Fletcher's irresistibly catchy melodies" received particular attention as being pivotal to the band's enduring appeal.
"Because something that seemingly effortless can only be the result of bloody hard work!" Mack finished to a round of hearty applause. "Ladies and gentleman, I give you PoP!"
Showtime again. PoP face firmly in place, Alex followed Colin to the podium. His former partner had been buffed and polished to a high gloss by a small but fervent cadre of make-up and costume people who had descended on him immediately after rehearsal. There was literally not a hair out of place on Colin's head. Hard not to feel a bit scruffy by comparison, though Alex knew his black suit and white shirt still looked fairly sharp. There was less than half an hour to be got through in any case, as far as he and PoP were concerned. And then--freedom.
Standing at the microphone, Colin turned the full wattage of his smile on everyone assembled in the ballroom: Alex was sure he could hear women's knees and loins liquefying from twenty feet away.
"Thank you, Billy," Colin began, draping himself with casual grace over the podium. "It's quite an honor to be inducted by one of the legends of pop music. When Alex and I first formed PoP as a pair of scrawny, ambitious kids at uni, we could never have imagined we'd end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame someday. So I can't tell you what a thrill it is to be here tonight, performing with the band that gave me my first big break." He paused, turning towards the other four. "So, let me just say, 'Thanks, chaps. I wouldn't be where I am without you.'"
Interesting choice of words, Alex mused. But there wasn't time to contemplate them now; Colin was stepping back and it was his own turn at the mike. He took a slow, calming breath before speaking.
"PoP was a dream Colin and I both shared as youngsters," he began, "and we were lucky enough to have it become a reality. Which might not have happened, if we hadn't also been lucky enough to find Andrew, Nick, and Dan to chase that dream with us." He paused to let that sink in, then continued, "With so many talented and deserving artists out there, I am surprised and flattered that PoP has received this honor during our first year of eligibility. In any case, I would like to thank all our fans for their loyalty and support over the years."
He quickly yielded the microphone to the others. Andrew succeeded him first, thanking his family as well as the fans, Nick kept his own thanks brief and gracious, while Dan mentioned his "wonderful wife, Maggie" and made a joking reference to the next generation of PoP, as represented by his and Andrew's kids, that elicited some indulgent laughter.
Their speeches finished, they trooped onto the stage, where their instruments awaited. Positioning himself behind his keyboard, Alex glanced out at the ballroom for the first time and felt his heart skip a beat.
Table for five, down in front. He saw Sophie first, her glowing smile, the little wave she sent him as their eyes met. Then, next to her, Chris with Gloria, the therapist he'd started dating recently, and rounding out the party, Rhonda and Gary.
His own personal rooting section--how could he possibly go wrong with that? And at a neighboring table, he glimpsed the other PoP "wives." Cheered, he glanced over his shoulder at his bandmates, saw that they too were in place, their instruments at the ready. Colin stood at center stage, microphone in hand. Turning back to his keyboard, Alex played the slow, slightly melancholy lead-in to "Dance With Me Tonight."
It ought to have felt strange, singing with Colin again after so many years, but it didn't. The whole song went with an almost preternatural smoothness, and for Alex, there were more recent associations that made performing it an unalloyed pleasure this time.
They waited for the applause to subside before Alex adjusted the controls on his keyboard and began a completely different introduction, to be joined seconds later by Dan on drums. And here came Nick and Andrew, bass and guitar, as sure of themselves as if they hadn't gone fifteen years without playing together. Alex sensed rather than saw the recognition rippling through the room, the growing anticipation as he launched into PoP's breakthrough hit.
His music, Colin's lyrics--the song that had first put them on the map. He felt the sudden rush of excitement as the music poured out in pulsing chords from his fingers to his keyboard. This was what mattered, what had always mattered--and he let it sweep him away like a rising tide.
Standing there, onstage, he had the strangest sense of déjà vu. If he turned his head, he knew he'd see Nick, bouncing on the soles of his feet as he played his bass, and Dan, steady and dependable, keeping the rhythm going on the drums. On his left, Andrew, cool and laconic, strummed his guitar, one foot tapping in time with the music. All of them working together, even Colin, to prove that they'd earned their place here.
And here came Colin, magnetic as ever, ready as always to dance up a storm for the crowd.
"I never thought that I could be so satisfied,
Every time that I look in your angel eyes
A shock inside me that words just can't describe
And there's no explaining-- "
Colin's verse, then his. Alex slid into it easily after their shared fourth line.
"Something in the way you move I can't deny,
Every word from your lips is a lullaby,
A twist of fate makes life worthwhile--"
"You are gold and silver, hah hah," they sang together, and swung into the first chorus.
"I said I wasn't gonna lose my head,
But then, pop goes my heart!
(Pop goes my heart!)
I wasn't gonna fall in love again
But then, pop goes my heart!
(Pop goes my heart!)
And I just can't let you go,
I can't lose this feeling!"
They raced through two more verses and another chorus, then began the long instrumental bridge intended to give each of the boys in the band a chance to shine. It sounded much better in concert, Alex decided; in the studio, the synthesizer tended to drown out all the instruments except the drums. And now here came the final chorus, to put a capper of what was turning out to be a highly successful reunion performance.
He was never exactly sure, afterwards, how it happened. As he played and sang, he was aware of Colin dancing at center stage, strutting and gyrating with his trademark flair, but his own gaze was trained on the audience, seeing row upon row of smiling faces.
Colin's hips thrust like pistons, forward, then side to side in their famous dance move. Right, left, right--and then a dramatic drop to one knee. Alex mentally shook his head--Colin's dancing would win no awards for subtlety--and sang on, "A twist of fate makes life worthwhile--"
"You are gold and silver, hah hahhh--"
Alex looked up at the sudden breathiness in Colin's voice and saw to his shock that his bandmate was still down on one knee, and his face had gone a chalky white under the stage lights.
Something was wrong. Very wrong. Still singing, Alex glanced in Andrew's direction and saw with relief that the guitarist was already moving towards Colin, not hastily enough to spread alarm through the audience but too purposefully for it to be accidental.
Colin was still singing, but there was a definite quaver in his voice now. Had he pulled a hamstring or, worse, a groin muscle with all that leaping about? Alex fought back something that felt horribly like the beginnings of hysterical laughter and made himself keep singing too. Just three more lines to go . . .
Not only Andrew but Nick had come forward to support Colin--literally propping him up on either side, and singing vigorously enough to counter the weakness in his voice. Alex pitched his own voice a fraction louder and swept through to the last chords. "And I just can't let you go!"
Of necessity, their bows were short ones, and by now the crowd had caught on that something was definitely off. Murmurs of concern swelling all around them, the four uninjured members of PoP helped their frontman from the stage and into the safety of the wings.
Colin leaned heavily on his two nearest supporters, his face pale and dripping with perspiration. Damp patches showed through his silk shirt too; Alex hadn't seen that much sweat since the last time he'd attended a Springsteen concert. Spotting a chair backstage, he pushed it over so Nick and Andrew could lower Colin into it. "Where does it hurt?" he asked.
"Hip," Colin got out, between clenched teeth. "Oh, Christ, shit, fuck--it's a bugger!"
Pain. A voice in Alex's head observed mordantly that this was the first genuine emotion he'd seen from Colin all evening. Suppressing that voice, he managed to dredge up some vestige of concern, even sympathy, for the man who'd once been his closest friend. "Just sit still. We'll get someone for you."
Reg came lumbering up, his face thunderous, fists at half-cock. "What the bloody hell--"
Alex cut the bodyguard off with an upraised hand. "Colin's injured himself dancing. Will you go and see if you can find a doctor for him?"