Chapter 1: A Piece of History
"So, which one should it be? The white denim with the studs, or the shirt with the ruffles?"
Sophie considered the two outfits laid out across Alex's waterbed. "The pouffy shirt, babe. Definitely the pouffy shirt."
"You think so?" Alex eyed the shirt dubiously. "It does look rather effeminate, now that you mention it . . ."
"If you donate it to the Hall of Fame, you won't ever have to wear it again."
"Good point. Right--I'll just put it in plastic and have it ready the next time Chris stops by." He glanced back at the denim pantsuit, fingered the long length of black chiffon he'd once worn with it. "I'm tempted to throw the scarf in just for good measure. I caught the end of it in an automated door once, and nearly garroted myself."
"Shades of Isadora Duncan. I can imagine the headlines."
"So could I. 'PoP Star Strangled by Own Neckwear.'" Alex gave a theatrical shudder. "It doesn't bear thinking of. Here, help me find something to put this in."
Together, they wrapped up the ruffled shirt and its accompanying velvet suit in a dry cleaning bag, draping the outfit over a chair for ready access when their manager came over. It must feel strange, Sophie thought, to give away a piece of one's past like this. To think of it being put in some glass case for people to stare at for the next fifty years. She wondered if Alex felt the same, but his expression gave her no clue; the British stiff upper lip was very much in evidence as he hung the other outfit back in his closet behind the rest of his stage clothes.
"I still can't believe PoP's twenty-five years old," she remarked, as they left the bedroom and headed for the kitchen.
"Yes. Our first record actually came out in '81, when we were still at university." Alex opened the cupboard and took down two mugs. "A fairly modest effort. We didn't get our first big hit until a few years later, with 'Pop Goes My Heart.'"
"I remember that, just barely. Rhonda told me she played the single so many times she literally wore it out." Sophie smiled at the memory; more than twenty years later, her sister was still an ardent fan of PoP and Alex. "That's the one you'll be performing at the ceremony, right?"
"Probably." Alex turned off the coffee maker and reached for the pot. "At least that's the song the band will be performing--whether I'm there or not."
Sophie stared at him. "Wait--you're thinking about not going?"
Avoiding her gaze, he poured coffee for them both. "I haven't made up my mind exactly. Given enough notice, I'm sure they could find another keyboard player to fill in for me. And we've been quite busy ever since Cora's concert. There's the revised touring schedule, our new commissions--"
"Alex, this is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!" Sophie broke in. "Chris will have a heart attack if you don't go. And how will it look if you're the only inductee who doesn't show up?"
"Ah, but I wouldn't be," he pointed out swiftly. "According to Chris, the Sex Pistols are also refusing to attend. In fact, they've publicly referred to the museum as a 'piss stain.'"
Sophie rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's classy. Do you really want to follow their example?"
"No, I suppose not," Alex admitted, after a moment. He turned to face her, a faint crease between his brows. "Maybe we should talk about this--do pros and cons?"
"Okay." Sophie took a deep breath and began, "Pros: it's the biggest honor a rock and roller can receive, it's great publicity for the new song, they're holding the ceremony right here in New York, and everyone else from PoP is flying in for it."
Alex's face went as blank as a wiped slate. "That--might qualify as a con, actually."
Of course. Sophie mentally kicked herself for being so slow on the uptake. This had nothing to do with being swamped with work or pressed for time, and everything to do with Colin Thompson, Alex's former partner. The lead singer who'd left his bandmates to pursue solo stardom--and never once looked back.
Sophie understood betrayal all too well. Her former love, Sloan, had deceived and exploited her, but then she'd never really known him. He'd taken pains to conceal major portions of his life from her during their brief affair. But Alex and Colin had a history--they'd practically grown up together. Colin deserting Alex and the band they'd formed--not to mention going off with the last three songs they'd written as a team . . . well, it would be like Rhonda betraying her.
All the more reason, she thought, not to let the past overshadow the present. "It doesn't have to be a con," she insisted. "Look at how well things are going now. 'Way Back into Love' is a big hit, and two more groups want us to write songs for them. Didn't you say that was the perfect time to meet your ex, when you're on top of the world?"
Alex grimaced. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard--or said, in my life. I don't know how you put up with me sometimes."
Sophie smiled, leaning in until their bodies were almost touching. "There are certain compensations."
"Oh?" Alex's brows winged up, his voice dropping to a seductive purr. "Do tell."
She reached around him and nipped up one of the mugs from the counter. "Well, for one thing, the coffee's always good."
Alex sighed, but humor warmed his eyes. "Quite a comedown. Loved only for my coffee-making skills."
"I didn't say that." She sipped from her mug, made a small approving noise. "Though it certainly helps. But seriously, Alex, you and PoP have been recognized as part of rock and roll history. That's such an honor--you should take pride in it, and not let anything or anyone," she emphasized the last word, "spoil it for you."
He was silent for a moment, then his mouth quirked up in a rueful smile. "You can see right through me, can't you?"
"Sometimes." She smiled back at him. "But, in this case, it's not hard to guess what's on your mind. Or who."
His expression grew pensive. "I used to wonder--dread actually--what would happen if I ran into Colin after PoP disbanded. Especially during the first few years."
The years when he'd hit bottom, she remembered, drinking, using drugs, and desperately working on a solo album that had crashed and burned. "Well, you don't have to dread meeting him now," she said consolingly. "In fact, you might even end up enjoying it."
Alex pulled a face. "Let's not get carried away. Honor or no honor, I don't imagine Colin's that thrilled at the prospect of a reunion, either."
"It's just for one night," she reminded him. "Probably less than that. There'll be other bands performing--you may only have to put up with Colin for a few hours, and then you can go your separate ways. You'll have closure. And just think how great it'll feel to have all that negative energy out of your life."
"A lot you know," Alex said darkly, turning away to pick up his own mug. "Lennon and McCartney took jabs at each other for years after the Beatles broke up."
"I heard Ringo Starr still got along with everyone," Sophie countered. She ran her hand along his back, which was looking as stiff as his upper lip; to her relief, she felt him relax a little under the caress. "Alex, there were three other guys in PoP. Weren't they your friends too?"
"I suppose they were, yes," he conceded, after a moment. "At least, we were a band. A unit. We played together for nearly ten years. It's just . . ." His voice trailed off.
"You and Colin were closer," Sophie finished for him. "I understand. But maybe you're approaching this from the wrong angle. Maybe you need to stop thinking about Colin and start thinking about those three other guys."
"They have names, you know," he pointed out, with a glimmer of amusement.
"I'm sure they do, but unlike Rhonda, I never committed them to memory." She linked her free arm through his. "So, why don't you tell me something about them?"
"Why don't I show you instead?"
"Oh, my God, you look so young," Sophie marveled, staring at the TV. Onscreen, the long-haired keyboard player flashed a delighted, guileless grin at the camera, and she burst out laughing. "Baby rocker! You're actually kind of cute--even with that hair."
"Yes, well . . ." Alex cleared his throat and shifted beside her on the sofa. "As I've said before, that hair was very much in style then." He paused the DVD player. "Okay. That's me at the keyboard, and the blond chap on the left is our bass player, Nick Blakely. The quiet one."
"He looks just a bit . . ." Sophie hunted for the right term, trying not to cause offense.
"Androgynous?" Alex suggested, with a quirk of his brows.
"That's the word," Sophie admitted, flushing slightly.
Alex shrugged. "It's the hair, mostly. Nick was a big fan of Boy George, or was it Annie Lennox? But just in case you were wondering, he now lives in San Francisco--with his partner."
As Sophie digested this, Alex pressed "Play" on the remote and the video resumed. They watched in silence as Colin spun into view, taking center stage with the aplomb of a born performer.
He did have charisma, Sophie conceded grudgingly. While she disliked him on general principle for what he'd done to Alex all those years ago, she couldn't deny he had incredible presence onscreen--a harder, more dangerous edge that contrasted dramatically with Alex's wide-eyed romanticism. But framed in the same shot, the two faces looked startlingly young and untouched. At a guess, neither of them could have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four at the time. Younger than she was now.
She glanced at Alex, whose expression had gone impassive once more. He paused the video again on a group shot of the band. "That's our drummer, Dan Miller. Steady, very solid. He was a little older than the rest of us, and he actually got married a few years after we formed PoP. I think he may have been a bit relieved when we called it quits. His wife was expecting a baby and he didn't want to tour anymore. He does mostly session work these days.
"And the last one, the dark-haired guy in the leather jacket--that's Andrew Wymore, our guitarist. He's the only one of us from a musical family, so lots of connections there. He joined another band, based in London, after PoP broke up. He'd also started a serious relationship by then, but I don't know if it lasted."
He pressed "Stop" on the remote and the screen went to static. "So there we all are, then. The boys in the band."
"Did you ever hang out together--when you weren't performing, I mean?"
"Oh, now and then. Maggie--Dan's wife--had us over to dinner sometimes, especially before we made it as a band. Very nice of her--it can't have been easy having four more starving musicians underfoot. And some evenings, Colin, Andrew, and I would go pub-crawling or watch a sports match on television. Once in a while we even managed to drag Nick along with us." Alex leaned back against the sofa, his expression contemplative. "But when all's said and done, it was music, really, that kept us together so long. I'd had years of piano and keyboard lessons, of course, and then Andrew and Nick taught me some basic guitar and bass."
Sophie nodded, remembering how he'd laid down the various tracks for the demo. "So, you'd have these--what do you call them--jam sessions?"
"We did, yes. In fact, that's usually how an evening out ended up--back at someone's flat, playing, singing, and annoying the neighbors. Andrew or Nick might come up with a riff or a bit of fingering he liked and we'd try working it into whatever I was composing at the time. Now that I think of it, that's one of the things I miss about being in a band," he added thoughtfully. "Writing to someone else's strengths. Playing off someone in general, really. You don't get to do that as a solo act."
"You didn't consider staying together, after Colin left?" Sophie asked. "There were still four of you."
"We talked about finding another vocalist to replace Colin," Alex replied, after a moment. "Preferably one who could also write lyrics. But in the end," he took a breath, "we put it to the vote and decided that PoP had run its course. The rest, as they say, is history."
His tone was light, almost careless, but Sophie knew how hard the break-up had been for him, personally. And how deeply it had affected him for years afterwards. It was only now, she thought, that he'd truly begun to put the past behind him and find his voice again.
"Did you keep in touch with any of them, afterwards?"
From the way his gaze slid away from hers, she could already guess the answer.
"Oh, Dan and Maggie sent cards at Christmas for a few years. So did Nick. And I heard from Andrew once or twice. We talked about hooking up if I ever came to London or he ever came to New York." Alex fidgeted with the remote, still not looking at her. "The timing never seemed to be right, though, for either of us."
And he wouldn't have wanted any of his former bandmates to see him down and out, Sophie realized. "What about Colin? Has he ever contacted you since PoP broke up?"
"No--why would he?"
"To mend fences?" she suggested. "Or apologize?"
"That would mean admitting he'd done something wrong in the first place. I've known Colin since we were both eighteen--taking responsibility for his mistakes isn't one of his strengths."
"Maybe it'll be different now. Maybe he'll want to make amends, even congratulate you on the new song."
Alex shifted irritably on the sofa. "More likely he'll want to claim he wrote 'Way Back into Love' himself."
"I don't see why. If he's such a big star, he probably doesn't care one way or the other. Wait--let me rephrase that," she amended hastily at Alex's expression. "What I meant was, why should Colin grudge you your success? You earned it, fair and square."
"We earned it, you mean," Alex corrected her.
She smiled at him, still ridiculously touched and pleased by the "we." The reminder that they were partners now, in every sense of the word. "We wrote something good, really good--and nothing can take that away from us. So no matter who else is at that ceremony, you can walk in with your head held high. And I'll be there, and Chris will be there, and Rhonda and Gary. You don't think my sister is going to miss the chance to ogle her favorite boy band of all time, do you?" she teased.
Alex regarded her skeptically. "Even if the boys in question are now arthritic, middle-aged geezers?"
"Even then," she assured him.
His face relaxed into a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Then I suppose I'd better put in an appearance. Can't disappoint the fans, after all." He turned to her, sobering abruptly. "Thank you. For reminding me of what's really important."
Sophie kissed him lightly on the mouth. "Anytime, babe. Anytime."
She bought a new dress, just for the ceremony, and spent a little more than she'd intended. But the look on Alex's face when he saw her in it more than made up for the expense.
"Blue velvet." His gaze roved appreciatively over the low-cut bodice, the slightly flaring skirt. "Very nice."
"Do you like it?" Sophie turned in a slow circle. "I thought it was kind of like the dress I borrowed from Gloria, except it fits better--and the color's a little subtler. I wanted to do you proud tonight."
His eyes warmed, blue and brilliant. "You do--and not just tonight, but every night." He cupped her face in his hands, kissed her briefly but thoroughly. "Fantastic dress, love. Now, let's go, before I start thinking of ways to get you out of it!"
Outside, they hailed a cab and headed for the Waldorf-Astoria, Alex's portable keyboard stowed safely in the trunk.
"Are you sure you'll have enough time to rehearse?" Sophie asked as the cab cruised along. "It's only hours before the ceremony."
"We're cutting it close, yes," Alex admitted. "But with five different schedules to coordinate, this was the best Chris and the other managers could do. We're lucky to have got any rehearsal time booked at all, with so many people being inducted tonight."
"Two of your bandmates are coming from London, right?
"Andrew and Dan," he confirmed. "Chris told me they flew in yesterday, which would have given them time to sleep off the jet lag. Nick was expected this morning. The biggest problem seems to be Colin's schedule. He's shooting a film in Chicago and, according to his manager, he can't get away from the set until this afternoon."
"Is this the same manager who convinced him to go solo?" She almost said "leave PoP" but changed her words just in time.
"The very same. Terrifying man, small but vicious--we nicknamed him the Land-Shark." Alex shifted in his seat. "Personally, I think it's just as well the band's only meeting up now. No time to overthink things--we'll just go in, practice the song until it's perfect, and that will be that until the ceremony."
Sophie thought the situation might be more complicated than he described but tactfully refrained from saying so. Despite Alex's relaxed pose, she could feel the tension radiating from him in almost palpable waves. In a matter of minutes, he'd be facing four guys he hadn't seen in fifteen years, but who had been an integral part of his life for a decade. In his place, she'd have been a nervous wreck.
"What would you like to do after the ceremony?" she asked, trying to set him at ease.
"Oh, well, that depends on whether or not we have to talk to the press. But I thought perhaps--if we're not too tired--we might go for a late dinner somewhere, just the two of us."
"Sounds great." The cab came to a halt, and she peered out the window. "We're here."
"Right." Alex took a breath, visibly bracing himself. "Showtime."
At first glance, the rehearsal room seemed full of people running around and setting up microphones and equipment, but once Sophie did an actual head count, she came up with fewer than a dozen, including Alex and herself.
A tall man holding a guitar glanced up at their approach. "Ah, there you are," he said, apparently to Alex. "Set it up over there."
A roadie immediately hurried forward to relieve Alex of his keyboard. And Sophie took a closer look at the three men at the center of the chaos.
With the PoP video fresh in her memory, she had half-expected to find a group of long-haired youngsters in leather pants. The reality was startling--if some degrees short of Alex's pessimistic description of "arthritic, middle-aged geezers." But, without question, the trio gathered in the rehearsal room looked noticeably older. The stocky drummer had cropped his sandy hair short and grown a neat little beard. The bass player's fair hair was closer to grey than blond now; he still looked a touch androgynous but not nearly as much as he had in the video. And the lanky guitarist, now coming forward to greet them, had more than a scattering of grey in his dark hair.
"Alex, mate--good to see you." He clapped Alex on the shoulder with what seemed to be genuine, unstrained affection. After a moment's hesitation, Alex returned the gesture.
"Andrew--it's good to see you too."
The guitarist turned keen dark eyes in Sophie's direction. "And who's this, then?"
"Sophie Fisher--my partner and lyricist," Alex replied. "Sophie, this is Andrew Wymore, our guitarist from PoP."
Smiling, Andrew held out his hand. "Glad to meet you, Sophie. Dead chuffed, in fact."
"Chuffed?" Sophie echoed, confused.
"He means very pleased," Alex told her.
"Too right I do. Heard the new song, by the way--it sounds fantastic." He gave them a sly, sideways grin. "Nice to find out the blonde pop tart can sing, after all."
Sophie choked back a giggle at this irreverent description of Cora, as the other members of PoP approached. Alex quickly introduced Sophie to them; it was on the tip of her tongue to ask where Colin was, but sensing her partner's reserve, she swallowed the question and exchanged pleasantries with the band's former drummer and bassist.
"About time you showed up," Dan Miller remarked to Alex. "And my missus wants to say hello as well," he added, nodding towards a petite, dark-haired woman standing slightly off to one side.
Alex's face brightened visibly, warming into the first unreserved smile Sophie had seen since their arrival. "Maggie May!" He embraced her as she came up to him. "Lovely to see you again."
"And you." She kissed him on both cheeks, then framed his face with her hands for a moment. "Still ridiculously good-looking," she declared, then turned, smiling, to Sophie. "I'm Maggie Miller. And you're Alex's new collaborator?"
Sophie nodded, smiling back. "Sophie Fisher." She found she rather liked this woman, whom she could easily imagine feeding hungry musicians trying to make the big time.
"Dan brought Maggie, so I had to bring my old lady too," Andrew added, motioning another woman forward.
Alex's eyes widened. "Good Lord, you got married?"
"Twice," Andrew confessed with a crooked smile. "The first didn't take, but the second--nearly five years now. Sarah, this is my old bandmate, Alex Fletcher."
Sarah Wymore was an attractive redhead perhaps in her mid-thirties. "So, you're the keyboardist?" she asked brightly.
"Keyboard and vocals," Alex said pleasantly.
She gave him an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid I'm still learning who everyone is. PoP was a bit before my time."
"That's quite all right," he assured her. "We were a bit before Sophie's time too. In fact, I believe she was playing with her Cabbage Patch dolls during our first world tour."
"I never owned a Cabbage Patch Kid in my life," Sophie objected, swatting him on the arm. She smiled at Sarah. "But my older sister was the PoP fan in the family, so this is new to me too."
"Oh, good. We can both be confused together, and let Maggie show us the ropes."
"Any kids?" Alex asked Andrew.
"One sprog--name of Sam," Andrew reported with pride. "Coming up on three years old and staying with Sarah's mum and dad, while we make this trip to the States. I'm thinking of picking up a toy guitar as a prezzie for him."
"You can never start too early," Alex agreed. He turned to the bassist. "So, Nick--how's life in Baghdad by the Bay?"
"Can't complain. Fairly fantastic, actually," he added, beckoning to a thin, bespectacled man with a pleasant face and an unexpectedly charming smile. "This is Paul Stokes, my partner."
Alex cordially shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Paul. Are you a musician yourself, by any chance?"
Stokes shook his head. "Only on weekends. I play some sax, but I'm nowhere near in Nicky's league. The rest of the time I'm an accountant."
"One of the best in the city," Nick said staunchly.
Andrew glanced at his watch. "Time's ticking by, mates. Let's get a move on."
"Do you want us all to clear off, then?" Sarah inquired.
"Well, you could stay and be supportive," her husband suggested.
Sarah raised her brows. "Does being supportive involve screaming, fainting, and flinging our knickers at the stage?"
Andrew grinned down at her. "The knicker-flinging would be a nice touch. Might get us in the right mood for tonight."
She rolled her eyes and gave him a quick kiss. "Dream on, love. But we'll stay and watch at any rate."
"Don't get any ideas about me flinging my knickers either," Sophie warned Alex.
"It never crossed my mind, I assure you." The glint in his eyes gave the lie to his words.
"This how you want it, Mr. Fletcher?" The roadie who'd taken charge of Alex's keyboard called to him from across the room.
"Yes, thanks--I'll come and have a look." He kissed Sophie briefly and loped over to the stage.
Sophie watched him as he bent over his instrument, sounding keys and adjusting switches. So serious and intent, she thought with an inner smile. This was the Alex Fletcher she'd fallen for. Not the famous pop star, not even the "happy has-been"--the persona he'd worn like armor for more than a decade, but the man underneath it all: a little insecure, a little vulnerable, and more passionate about music than he was comfortable admitting.
Speaking of comfortable, his reunion with the band seemed to have gone pretty well. Of course the acid test would be Colin's arrival. It was odd, she realized suddenly, that none of the other PoP members had so much as mentioned their famous ex-bandmate . . .
Strange and familiar all at once, to be practicing with the band again. To be engaging in the same sort of give and take that had characterized their rehearsals in the past.
"I'm thinking we should at least be able to do better than the Police in '03," Andrew remarked, picking up his guitar again.
"I didn't catch the ceremony on telly that year. What happened?" Nick asked.
"They hadn't played together in about a decade before their induction," the guitarist replied. "It showed."
"Any idea where we fall in the schedule?" Dan inquired, settling in behind his drum kit. "I've heard Black Sabbath's leading it off."
"I think we're playing one of the earlier sets," Alex told him. "After Blondie and before Lynyrd Skynyrd, I believe. We can double-check before the ceremony, see if there's been any change in the queue."
"Are the Sex Pistols really not coming?" This, from Nick.
"Apparently not. They've been quite rude about it on their website, I understand." Alex paused, not wanting to ask the question that had been hovering on his tongue since his arrival. But if they were about to rehearse in earnest, there was no avoiding it. "Anyone heard from Colin yet?"
"I think he's still in the air right about now. Knowing him, he'll probably breeze in with ten minutes to spare, claiming he rehearsed on the plane." Andrew slipped the guitar strap over his head, settled his instrument into place. "He's got a bit lazy about warming up, if you ask me."
"Too much on his plate," Dan theorized. "He's trying to start a new line of clothing, as well as record a new CD and shoot this film."
"You've stayed in touch with him?" Alex tried to sound casual.
Dan and Andrew exchanged a glance. "We're both still in London, so we cross paths with him now and then," the drummer replied. "Not that he has much to say to us when we do."
"Does he ever talk about the break-up?" Nick asked, much to Alex's secret gratitude; he'd have bitten his own tongue in half before asking.
Dan shook his head. "Doesn't mention it. Dodges off. He probably wants to pretend it never happened."
That sounded about par for the course, Alex reflected morosely.
"Anyone know what sort of picture he's making?" Andrew asked.
"It's an action flick," Nick reported. "Called 'Deadly Force' or 'Lethal Danger'--something like that. I read about it in Rolling Stone. Colin's playing a rock star."
"Must be quite a stretch for him," Alex said dryly, adjusting the controls on his Roland.
"The plot's pretty basic. He's traveling with his entourage when his jet gets hijacked by international terrorists."
"Sounds like two hours' worth of shite," Andrew remarked, tuning up his guitar.
Alex cleared his throat pointedly. "Look, chaps, if we don't want our performance tonight to sound like two minutes' worth of shite, I suggest we get down to business."
The edge in his voice surprised him almost as much as it did the others; Andrew recovered first. "Too right. Sorry, mate," he added with what sounded like genuine contrition.
Alex received the apology with a nod, then turned back to his keyboard. "Okay. 'Pop Goes My Heart.' Andrew, would you cover Colin's part of the vocals? Leading in on four--one, two, three . . ."
They paused after three complete run-throughs, cracking open bottles of room-temperature spring water to clear dry throats.
"Well, what do you think--better than the Police?" Alex inquired, before taking a swig from his bottle.
Andrew nodded. "Hard not to be."
"There's one problem, though," Nick demurred; the others turned to look at him. "If we only do 'Pop Goes My Heart,' we'll have the shortest set of the evening. Every other band is doing at least two numbers."
"So you think we should add another song?" Alex asked. "Before or after 'Pop Goes My Heart'?"
"I'd say before," Andrew replied. "Save our signature hit for last. We could start off with a ballad--'Meaningless Kiss' or 'Dance With Me Tonight.'"
"Ah." Alex paused; traditionally, he had sung the lead vocal on both numbers. "You know, Colin might prefer something else," he pointed out. "Something of his."
Andrew shrugged. "You're here. He's not. So, which would you rather do?"
Alex weighed his options, then smiled as a recent memory rose in his mind: of a crowded amusement park and Sophie waving her cell phone aloft as he sang. "'Dance With Me Tonight,' I think. It provides more of a contrast with 'Pop Goes My Heart.'"
"Roger that." Andrew took a last swallow of water. "Let's give it a go, mates."
No doubt his years on the nostalgia circuit had something to do with it, Alex mused, but performing "Dance With Me Tonight" felt as comfortable as slipping into a pair of well-worn trainers. Sophie--deep in conversation with the other rock and roll "wives"--looked up and smiled at him when he played the opening chords. His spirits lifted, and he sang the song for her, doing his best to convey its wistful appeal. To his relief, the other three backed him smoothly, without any serious mistakes. A second run-through would improve the performance, of course, but this was a commendable first try after fifteen years.
He was about to suggest they rehearse one more time, when he heard a commotion in the hall--and a familiar voice rising over the excited babble of fans and paparazzi alike.
The missing member of PoP had finally arrived.
Chapter 2: Return of the Prodigal
While I've tried to do as much research as I could on the 2006 R&R Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I'm aware it's not quite the same as being there. So any errors are entirely my own.
The character of Billy Mack is borrowed from the film Love Actually (which also starred Hugh Grant). Irreverent, washed-up pop stars should be allowed to meet, even if they have to cross fandoms to do so.
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?"
Chapter 3: Back-up
Mild warning for some adult language. Song lyrics by Eric Clapton. Thanks again to Anthea for helping me push this one through to the end. Happy New Year to all.
Half an hour later, a sweating, cursing Colin had been helped to an ambulance, followed by several members of his entourage. A scowling Reg covered his exit, fending off several avid members of the press, who had to content themselves with snapping photos of the injured superstar.
"It's been one hell of an evening," Chris remarked, materializing beside Alex in the corridor outside the ballroom. "Blondie snubbing two of its former members, the Sex Pistols blowing off the ceremony, and now Colin getting hurt. You couldn't make something like this up!"
Alex ran a distracted hand through his hair. "After tonight, I'm starting to think we should rename our signature hit 'Pop Goes My Hip.'"
"How's your hip, by the way?"
Alex rotated the joint experimentally. "Fine, as far as I can tell. But then, I was safely behind my keyboard, not jumping about the stage like a maniac. Speaking of which, who's up now?"
"Lynyrd Skynyrd. Can't you hear them?"
Alex paused. Sure enough, the strains of "Sweet Home Alabama" were beginning to drift from the ballroom.
"They're about the only band who hasn't had some sort of difficulty tonight," Chris reported.
"Given their history, I'd say they've earned a calm evening." Alex felt an unexpected rush of gratitude for PoP's relatively minor problems. So, fifteen years ago Colin had dumped them and they'd fallen apart in the aftermath. But at least they were all still here.
He looked up to see Sophie hurrying towards him, her brown eyes wide and anxious. "Baby, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, darling." He reached out to draw her close. "Colin's the one who was injured."
She put her arms around him in turn. "Yeah, but it must've been pretty upsetting for you, seeing him go down like that."
"A little, yes," he admitted. "There but for the grace of God and orthopedics go I. Well, they should be able to look after him in hospital."
Chris glanced at his watch. "I'd better get back to my date. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay back here."
"Everything's under control," Alex assured him. "Now, go and have a lovely time with the good doctor."
"I will, thanks." Chris laid a hand briefly on Alex's shoulder before turning to go. "Great show, by the way. You were terrific tonight."
"He's right, you know," Sophie said, when they were alone together. "You were amazing--your speech and your performance." She touched his cheek. "I'm so proud of you."
Her praise warmed him, but he felt obliged to point out, "It was the band, really. Everything just came together--at least until the last few seconds." He leaned his forehead against hers for a moment. "My God, what a nightmare."
"It could have been a lot worse," she consoled. "It would have been, if the rest of you hadn't kept your heads. I don't think anyone really caught on until you had to practically carry Colin off the stage."
"Well, it's bound to be in all the papers tomorrow," a new voice observed, from behind them. "Right along with the Sex Pistols not showing up."
Startled, Alex and Sophie turned to find Andrew had joined them in the corridor; he gave a wry smile. "Just came from the press room--they asked about Colin, mostly. Thought I'd clear out and let 'em go chase his ambulance or try phoning his hospital room instead."
"Very wise," Alex agreed.
"So I reckon the evening's just about winding down," the guitarist remarked. "Why don't we round up the others, stow the instruments somewhere, and go out to dinner? Alex, mate, you probably know some decent restaurants in the area."
Alex glanced at Sophie, who gave a small nod of consent. "Right. Everyone okay with Italian?" he asked.
Firenze, one of Alex's favorite restaurants, managed the rare feat of being upscale without being pretentious. Even better, its atmosphere still retained some intimacy, possibly because the place was new enough not to have shown up on everyone's radar just yet. And there was just something inherently comforting and convivial about Italian food, Alex reflected, watching his bandmates and their partners give their orders and relax visibly around the table.
They were about halfway through the antipasti course, when Nick suddenly asked, "Should we have gone to hospital, with Colin?"
Eight forks paused in mid-air, and an uncomfortable silence reigned for several moments. Then Andrew shook his head. "Don't think we were needed. That bodyguard of his went with him."
"That's right," Dan agreed with obvious relief. "Colin's got staff."
"As opposed to mates," Maggie said, a little tartly.
Silence descended over the table again, to be broken again by Nick. "They'll probably keep him overnight at least. Why don't we all chip in and send him a wreath or something for his room?"
"Something loud, garish, and slightly inappropriate? He'll love it," Alex predicted.
"Any idea what's wrong with him?" Dan asked, helping himself to more bread. "Couldn't see much from where I was sitting."
"From the looks of it, he might need a hip replacement." Sarah gave her husband a pointed look.
Andrew grimaced. "I had to have one of those myself, last year. Tricky things, hips--you never know when they'll give out on you."
"I had one two years ago," Nick confessed.
They exchanged a glance of commiseration. "Wouldn't go through that again if you paid me," Andrew went on. "The surgery, then the therapy after. And I'm three inches shorter than I used to be."
Alex raised skeptical brows, and made a point of examining the guitarist's long legs.
"Lifts in my shoes, mate," Andrew said, without missing a beat. "How's yours holding up?"
"Fine. And that's the second time someone's asked me tonight."
"So far, only you and Dan have escaped PoP hip syndrome. And Dan's only managed because he couldn't dance for shit."
"Still can't," Dan reported without rancor. "Just ask Maggie."
His wife flicked him an affectionate glance. "Still hopeless. But having two left feet might not be such a bad thing, after all."
"I suppose mine's held up through constant practice," Alex admitted. "Not that I don't feel the odd twinge sometimes. But so far, so good." He smiled at Sophie, sitting on his other side. "Of course, it helps having someone round to look after you, now and then."
Andrew stifled a yawn. "Speaking of which, what time is it in the Caymans? We really should call Colin's latest dolly bird and let her know what's happened."
"Who, Pandora?" Dan asked.
"No, he broke up with her months ago. This one's a supermodel, Eden--she's off on a photo shoot."
Dan looked at his watch. "Bit late now--she's probably in bed. Why don't we call her tomorrow?"
"It is tomorrow, technically speaking, but I reckon you're right."
The entrees came then, and when they resumed the conversation, Colin was no longer the main topic of conversation, much to Alex's relief. There was so much else to talk about--Dan and Maggie's family, now consisting of twin girls as well as the boy she'd had six months after PoP disbanded, Andrew and Sarah's marriage, Nick's involvement in the San Francisco music scene, and, of course, Alex's new association--personal and professional--with Sophie.
Relaxed and relieved by the way the evening was going, he never suspected a thing when Paul left the table to make a phone call "to someone back home" and the women all went to the powder room a few seconds later . . .
"So I've barely heard of PoP and I'm certainly not the starfucker type, then one day, this lanky bloke in a beat-up leather jacket comes into my shop to buy flowers for his mum. Two days later he comes back to ask me out--eventually I said yes," Sarah finished, to a chorus of laughter.
"What about you and Alex, Sophie?" Maggie asked. "How did you meet?"
Sophie checked her lipstick in the mirror of the ladies' lounge. "Well, it was kind of indirect. I've got this friend, Jane, who takes care of people's plants. She had to go away for a few days, so she asked me to fill in for her. So I happened to be watering Alex's plants while he was trying to write this new song, and I got drawn into that instead. Turns out I'm better with lyrics than plants," she added, smiling. "Alex wrote another song claiming I'd killed all of his."
"And you still hooked up with him?" Sarah shook her head in mock astonishment. "Amazing."
"Well, it's plain to see you're happy together," Maggie declared, taking out a comb to tidy her short, dark hair. "I'm so glad--I've always felt a bit like a big sister towards Alex. And Nick as well. They were the babies of the band."
Sophie blinked, trying to reconcile that idea with the reality of the Alex she knew. On further reflection, it wasn't too hard to believe he'd been one of PoP's younger members. "Did you--feel sisterly towards Colin too?" she ventured.
"Sometimes. All right--more often than that," Maggie amended. "The truth is, I was fond of all of them. Which was why I was so disappointed in Colin--not just for what he did, but the way he did it. And how he treated the others." She set down her comb, her pleasant face hardening. "I said before he left them in a lurch. I should have said he left them in the shit."
Sophie raised her brows, noticing that Sarah also looked surprised. "Just how bad was it?"
"Bad enough. He walked out on them," Maggie said simply. "Just shrugged them all off like an old jumper, without a word of thanks. Or even a proper goodbye--after ten years together."
"Wow." Maggie's account was dramatically different from what Sophie had envisioned, but in its own way, it was just as shocking. And it explained the chill in today's rehearsal. "That's pretty cold."
"I thought so. And Dan too, though he wasn't half as close to Colin as--some of the others were."
Sophie took a breath. "You mean Alex."
"Dan worried about him. I think they all did. He and Colin had been best mates, or so everyone believed. But Alex was as surprised as anyone by what happened. Shocked, really."
Shocked and devastated, Sophie thought. She remembered the keyboard player with his guileless smile and felt a rush of protective anger on behalf of the man he'd become.
"Andrew told me some of what happened, when we got together," Sarah remarked. "He hasn't had much good to say of Colin, then or now."
"Dan hasn't been too pleased with him, either." Maggie put away her comb. "Well, I try not to go about wishing harm on others, but looking at it a certain way, one could say that Colin got a bit of a come-uppance tonight."
Karma, Sophie thought. Or more accurately, payback, though neither Alex nor the other members of PoP had had anything to do with Colin's accident.
Sarah replaced her compact in her purse. "Sophie, I was wondering. That smaller room we passed--the one just off the main dining room--was there really a fountain in it? And a flowerbed?"
"Um, yeah. Firenze has this kind of small dining parlor you can reserve for special occasions." Alex had actually done so on their first date as an official couple. "I don't think it's being used right now. It is pretty late."
"You don't think anyone would mind if we just stopped and had a closer look? There's no need for us to hurry back. Our chaps need some band time--Andrew and Dan were talking about it on the plane. They thought we were sleeping," she added to Maggie, who looked as surprised as Sophie felt. "And," she looked directly at Sophie now, "they want to have a word or two with your lad."
Sophie felt a twinge of alarm. "Alex isn't in some kind of trouble with them, is he?"
"Not in the way you think," Sarah assured her. "But from the sound of it, this has been a long time coming. I suspect Paul's been told to keep away too. Don't worry--we can keep an eye on them from a safe distance."
"Okay, but if anyone starts crying or bleeding, I'm going out there," Sophie declared roundly. Alex might be more than ten years her senior, but he needed her as much as she needed him, and she wasn't about to let anyone damage him.
Sarah smiled at her. "Of course, love. We'd do exactly the same."
"So how have you been, then?"
Alex swallowed a yawn, fought off a wave of post-prandial drowsiness. "Told you, Andrew, the hip's fine."
"Wasn't talking about your hip." Some change in his bandmate's voice cut right through Alex's fatigue, and he sat up a little straighter. "Heard you had a rough go of it after Colin did his flit," the guitarist added.
"Yes, well . . ." Fully awake now, Alex looked away, embarrassed as he always was to recall that period in his life. "I went through something of a bad patch, but I got past it."
"A bad patch." Dan's mild face was suddenly stern. "Interesting way of putting it."
Alex blinked at him. "Sorry?"
"Sat in on a session a few years back with a mutual acquaintance," Dan went on. "Nigel Trent, drummer for Soho Fields. Said you did a stint with him in rehab."
Oh, Christ. Busted. Alex felt his throat close up, whether in response to the drummer's words or his own memories he could not tell. After too many nights of finding him passed out with a bottle or a vial of pills, Chris had insisted that he clean up his act. "Keep on like this, and you're gonna end up another rock and roll statistic," his manager had said, his expression as stern and uncompromising as Dan's was now. "I'm not gonna stand by and let that happen."
Chris had been the one to find the clinic: a small, private one with a reputation for results and discretion. Alex had had cause to be grateful for both. But he hadn't been the only musician in residence, or the one with the most serious problems; Trent had gone there to kick a cocaine and heroin habit that had nearly killed him. They'd talked from time to time; it had never occurred to Alex that the news of their joint stay would ever get back to anyone. More fool he.
Andrew's voice, unusually harsh, broke into his thoughts. "Why the fuck didn't you tell us things were that bad?"
This was the way they'd worked sometimes, Alex remembered with painful clarity. Dan and Andrew, good cop and bad cop. Dan was the older brother who'd bail you out of jail at two in the morning, Andrew was the one who'd kick your arse when you got home. "Wasn't there that long," he said at last, forcing words past the constriction in his throat.
"You shouldn't have had to be there at all! You could have called any one of us, mate. You should have."
Alex shrugged, still avoiding the guitarist's gaze. "Not fit company for anyone."
Andrew's cuff caught him squarely on the back of the head. Startled, he glanced up to find all three of his former bandmates staring at him with stony disapproval.
"Prat," Andrew said succinctly.
Alex resisted the urge to rub his head, feeling twenty-two again. "You were all moving on, making your own plans," he argued. "You didn't need me ringing you up and whinging about how pathetic my life was."
"You always did have more pride than sense," Dan remarked.
"At the time, I felt it was all I had left." Alex winced inwardly at the curt, clipped sound of his words. That bloody public school accent seemed to emerge whenever he was feeling most defensive. It had always got short shrift from his friends--and what were Andrew, Nick, and Dan, if not that?
"Take the poker out of your arse, mate," Andrew said, unimpressed. "Know better now?"
"Yes," Alex said on a sigh. "I suppose I do."
"It was the songs, wasn't it?" Andrew said, after a moment. "The ones Colin nicked--that's why you bolted, all those years ago."
Alex stared at him. "I--didn't realize you knew."
"We didn't, at first. You fucking disappeared. We couldn't reach you at your flat, your mum couldn't tell us where you were. We didn't know if you were secretly in cahoots with Colin, or had your own solo career planned. But when you didn't resurface, with or without Colin--"
"And they didn't fish your body out of the Thames," Dan interposed.
"We wondered if you'd decided to chuck it all and go live in a commune on the other side of the world. And then about two months later I heard it on the radio--the first single off Colin's new album." Andrew paused. "That guitar solo in the middle--you said you wrote it for me. And there was a second song you'd played for us, remember? So I bought Colin's solo album, had the others in to listen." Andrew glanced at Nick and Dan. "They recognized it too, even though he didn't give you so much as a credit in the liner notes."
Nick nodded. "We'd have spoken up for you, Alex, if you'd decided to take it to court."
Alex exhaled shakily. "Couldn't have proved anything. He took it all--notes, demo, everything." Memory washed over him again--thick, swamping, and bitter as gall. Colin stopping by his flat one evening with a briefcase full of sheet music, some talk about doing a few classic covers on their next album. "Alex, mate, could you get me a beer?" And then, later, when he'd gone to look for the file containing the pages on which they'd written their last three songs, and the rough demo he'd put together . . .
When the truth had finally sunk in, he'd gone out and got thoroughly drunk for the first time in several years. The next day, head still pounding from a massive hangover, he'd caught a one-way flight to New York and never looked back.
A hard grip on his shoulder recalled him to the present. He looked into Andrew's eyes, saw anger there but understanding as well. "Look, Alex--no one blames you for freaking out about Colin. You were his best mate, and he fucked you over good and proper. But you weren't the only one. Just the one who took it the hardest."
Startled afresh, Alex stared at his former bandmates; Nick's fair complexion gave him away within seconds. "Good God, you?"
"Lost my flat," the bassist admitted.
"What?" Alex's voice came out louder than he'd intended, and a few diners at a neighboring table glanced over at them.
"Bought a new ax while I was on holiday after our last tour. Cost an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. A Fender Precision Bass Deluxe." Nick's voice lingered lovingly over each word. "When we broke up, I couldn't make the rent." He shrugged. "Moved in with Andrew for a while. Lost the flat, but I wasn't losing the bass."
Musicians. We're all insane, Alex thought, putting his head in his hands. "Nick, I had no idea. I'm sorry."
The bassist gave him a crooked smile. "Got through it, with a little help from my friends. I even got a bit of session work to tide me over."
"We'd have done the same for you," Dan said. "If you'd just let us know."
"Too right we would. We still would." Andrew met Alex's gaze steadily. "All you ever had to do was ask."
Alex's throat was tight again, this time for a different reason. All those years ago, there'd been a support system he hadn't known about. Had been too proud--and too afraid, he admitted to himself--to draw upon. After Colin's betrayal, his ability to trust had been nonexistent.
"But," he began, feeling his way through the potential minefield, "you voted to end the band, all of you."
"That was just after Colin dropped his bombshell," Dan pointed out. "We were all pretty bruised at the time. It's easy to say let's hang it up when you're feeling low. I do remember Andrew suggesting we try meeting up again in a month, see if we still felt the same way."
"And a month later you'd gone off to parts unknown, so there seemed no reason not to make the break-up official," Andrew said, with less rancor than Alex had expected; he sighed. "Reckon we all gave up a little too easily back then--on the band, and on each other. Not about to make that mistake again. I'd hoped," and for the first time, the confident guitarist sounded just a bit tentative, "I'd hoped you lot might feel the same."
The door was open, Alex realized. Not for PoP to re-form or go on some overhyped reunion tour--they'd all grown past that, even him--but . . . they could be part of each other's lives again. Visiting each other's homes now and then, sharing news and advice, and talking about music, the thing that had bound them together for ten years.
"Keep in touch, you mean?" He kept his tone deliberately casual. "I'd like that."
Across the table, Nick murmured some kind of assent as well.
"Maybe we could even get together for a proper jam session, next time you're in New York."
"Or when you come to London?" Dan suggested. "We could put you up in our spare room."
"Or ours," Andrew added. He flicked Alex the edge of a grin. "Bring your bird with you--we'll be sure to knock first, even Sam."
Alex didn't know whether to laugh or groan at the image that rose in his mind--of a miniature Andrew, complete with sunglasses and leather jacket, hanging about outside his bedroom. "Very considerate of you, thanks."
"You should all come to San Francisco," Nick said. "Weather's a treat most of the time, and there's just enough fog to keep you lot from getting homesick."
"Why don't we ask the ladies what they think?" Dan said, leaning back in his chair.
Following the line of the drummer's gaze, Alex saw the women were coming back at last. Sophie was slightly in the lead, her "worried eyes" visible even from several feet away. He sent her a reassuring smile. "Yes, why don't we?" he agreed, sitting back in turn.
At some point during the cab ride back to their apartment building, Alex began to sing. Not loudly or raucously but continually: sentimental snatches of PoP songs first, then bits from older standards that Sophie did not always recognize. He was in the middle of something that might have been Eric Clapton when they finally got off the elevator. "And then she asks me, 'Do you feel all right? And I say, 'Yes, I feel wonderful tonight . . .'"
"You may not feel all that wonderful tomorrow," Sophie warned, opening the apartment door. "In fact, you might want to have some aspirin or antacids handy when you wake up."
Alex made his none-too-steady way inside. "Are you suggesting that I'm somewhat the worse for drink?"
Taking his elbow, she guided him towards the sofa. "I hate to say this, but the phrase 'three sheets to the wind' is coming to mind."
"I resent that implication. I am most assuredly not three sheets to the wind." He sank down on the sofa and closed his eyes. "One and a half, perhaps."
Sophie shook her head and sat down beside him. On closer inspection, she thought his present haziness was less attributable to alcohol than to weariness and nostalgia. "Can I get you anything?"
"No--thank you. Just stay with me a while, okay?"
She toed off her shoes and tucked her legs beneath her, settling in. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Thank you." He rested his head against the back of the sofa. "Not just for staying, but for all your support tonight."
Sophie reached out, lightly stroked his hair. "Did you enjoy yourself, at the ceremony?"
"Yes. Yes, I did--surprisingly." His mouth softened into a smile. "The music was the best part, of course."
Sophie smiled as well, remembering his obvious pleasure. "You looked really into it, at rehearsal. And in performance too."
"I'd forgotten how much fun it could be, playing with them all."
"Even Colin." He was silent for a moment. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Well, it's like you said--you were a band, a unit. And no matter what happened between you and Colin, he was a big part of that." Sophie rubbed his shoulder. "I enjoyed meeting the other members of PoP."
She nodded. "And I liked them all. Well, okay, with one notable exception, but then Colin liked himself enough for both of us, so it didn't really matter."
Alex stared at her, then, as her meaning sank in, began to laugh. "Oh, God," he managed at last, "I haven't seen a woman give Colin the brush-off like that in years. Priceless, love."
"I wasn't leaving with anyone but the man who brought me," Sophie retorted. "So even if I'd liked Colin . . . wasn't going to happen." She paused, studying him thoughtfully. "Maggie told me a little--about how PoP broke up."
Sophie nodded. "I was kind of surprised. I mean, I'd imagined there was this big, you know, blow-up with everyone yelling at each other and Colin storming out."
"No, no--not at all. It might've been better if there had been. Cleared the air, in a 'Piss off, bastard, I'm better off without you' sort of way." He lapsed into silence, staring into the past. "We'd come back from our latest tour, everyone had gone off on separate holidays--three days later, Colin's in all the papers, talking about leaving PoP and starting a new career as a soloist. He let his manager do the dirty work, tie up the loose ends. It was all rather bloodless, actually."
Sophie suspected Alex had bled plenty, but she stayed quiet, letting him talk.
"Caught every one of us flat-footed. I don't think it hit me until two weeks later when I found out he'd taken the songs, the same ones we'd been writing on tour. I remember telling him I was looking forward to working on them after our break." His mouth twisted. "Damned stupid of me, not to guess what he was up to."
If Colin's defection had been a kick in the teeth, his calculated appropriation of those songs was a knife in the gut, Sophie realized. "You trusted him." She laid her hand on Alex's shoulder. "You loved him."
For a moment she thought he'd deny it, then he looked at her, his eyes clear and stark. "Like a brother, for more than ten years. And then--I hated him for nearly that long. And then, for the last five years or so, I've tried not to think of him at all, except as someone I used to work with." He exhaled. "I don't know what makes someone go from being a decent bloke to a bastard who'd stab you in the back first chance he got. Don't suppose it matters, really. Colin's made his choice--and so have the rest of us."
They'd chosen to go on being decent, Sophie thought with a fierce little tug of pride. I would never in a million years use someone else's work, Alex had told her, not long after they'd met. And he'd held true to that. Colin might be the bigger star, but there was no question in Sophie's mind about who was the better man.
"Turns out they knew about the songs," Alex went on. "They put it all together after Colin's solo album came out." He took a breath. "And they told me they'd have been there for me--if I'd only let them."
"You've got them back," she said softly. "Andrew, Nick, and Dan--they still care about you."
"So I've been reminded--rather forcibly, by Andrew." Alex gingerly felt the back of his head. "He hasn't lost his touch over the years. And I learned something else as well. If I'd been the one injured tonight, and you or Chris hadn't been on the scene, I know at least one of my bandmates would've come with me to hospital. No one even offered to go with Colin."
"He's got that bodyguard, Reg," Sophie pointed out. "But, then, that would be just a job to him," she added, remembering Maggie's comment about Colin having staff rather than mates.
Alex nodded. "That's it, exactly. As far as PoP goes, Colin's burned all his bridges. And I didn't see any of his current back-up group at the ceremony, either--cheering him on." He paused, frowning slightly. "You know, I don't think I realized until tonight how isolated he is. How isolated he's made himself. Bit sad, really--though I doubt he spends much time crying over it."
"Does that mean you forgive him?"
"I don't know that forgiveness enters into it. But I don't need to resent him anymore--not when I have so many good things in my own life now. Love, for one." He touched her hair in a fleeting caress. "A new hit song, for another. Standing invitations to visit London and San Francisco--"
"And two hips in working order," she finished for him.
He chuckled, a little shamefacedly. "Right--I've got a little confession to make. When Colin's hip went out onstage . . . I'm not proud of this, but for a few seconds I thought I was going to disgrace myself by laughing hysterically."
"Under the circumstances, I think anyone could be excused for experiencing a little schadenfreude." She studied him again, relieved by how relaxed and at peace with himself he seemed. "Alex, would you go back--if you could?"
"I might have said yes, at one time," he replied, after a moment. "But now . . . well, we have new songs to write. And I'm looking forward to every one of them."
Sophie smiled. "Let's go to bed. It's been a long night, and you should really get some sleep."
"Sleep." His eyes took on a speculative gleam. "We could do that--eventually."
"I haven't finished my song yet," he informed her with the careful dignity of the not-entirely-sober. "And the lyrics are very apposite, I'll have you know. You'd approve."
Sophie rolled her eyes as she stood up. "Whatever you say, babe."
"It's time to go home now, and I've got an aching head--"
"I'm not surprised." She offered him a hand up from the sofa.
He took it, climbing to his feet. "So I give her my car keys, and she helps me to bed--"
"So you can sleep, remember?" she reminded him, though she strongly suspected she was about to lose this argument.
Alex only smiled, draping an arm over her shoulders and steering them both towards the bedroom. "And then I tell her as I turn out the light, I say, 'My darling, you were wonderful tonight." Closing the door behind them, he drew her to him, tilted her face upwards for his kiss. "Oh, my darling, you were wonderful tonight . . .'"