The air sizzles when a country music star and renowned playwright meet; but can opposites fall in love?
The instant Sherry Valentine and Carston Hewlett meet, there’s desire and fascination in the air…but they’re complete opposites. Smart-talking Sherry fought her way up from poverty to stardom as a country music singer. Now, she’s ever in the limelight, ever surrounded by clamoring fans, male admirers and paparazzi, and her spangled cowboy boots carry her all across the country, from one brightly lit stage to the next. A renowned but reclusive playwright, Carston cherishes his freedom, the silence of his home in the woods and his solitary country walks. Any long-term commitment is obviously out of the question: how about a quick and passionate fling? But when their names are linked in the scandal press, Sherry’s plans to become an actress are revealed. And the budding relationship seems doomed.
Didn't he look delicious in that brown silk shirt and elegant tweed jacket; look how those jeans hugged his long legs. He was just the way she'd always imagined a successful playwright should be: cool, intelligent, strong and sexy. As if aware she'd been watching him, Carston turned slightly, caught her eye. She tried forcing herself to look away. And failed. For an eternity, their gaze held over the space separating them. Then, detaching himself from the surrounding group, he headed in her direction. Despite her reticence, her pulse accelerated, and her heart beat a jungle thump. Was this supposed to be pleasure? Something closer to pure panic. She swallowed, tried to summon up some zen-like calm...then realized she didn't have any available. She needed help. Fast. The only thing left to do was run. Except she was incapable of movement. Fool. The reprimand didn't get escape muscles into moving order. Why come over here anyway? What would they talk about? They had nothing, absolutely nothing, in common. She had to stop staring at him like this. Here he was now, tiny inches away, his jaw a hard definite line, his body that tight, sinewy stretch she'd thought about too many times during the night. But it was the expression in his eyes, warm eyes, humorous eyes, that confirmed her instinct: the immediate, deep reaction was mutual. Try as hard as they could to avoid it, something would happen: it was inevitable. And for once, she, Sherry Valentine, a woman with a smart answer, a flippant remark for everything, everyone and every occasion, was tongue-tied.
He was going on the air with a singer of country music?
How could these people expect Carston Hewlett, mature, well-known urban playwright, to sit with some prepubescent pop star and chitchat about broken hearts or lonesome cowboys? And why the hell had Nick Spring, his New York agent, sent him all the way out here to Midville, to participate in this so-called Culture Festival? Carston decided he’d strangle Nick as soon as he got within pouncing distance of the guy.
The nondescript computer music oozing out of the loudspeaker above his head seemed to emphasize the hopelessness of the situation. He looked around the crowded room and tried to locate Emmanuel Warner, moderator of this impending disaster. There she was, beside the coffee machine. He pushed through the throng until close enough to tap her on the shoulder.
“Emmanuel? I’ve been waiting here for almost forty minutes now. Why don’t we do this interview another time.”
“Oh, we can’t do that.” She had the grace to look apologetic. “But I am terribly sorry about the delay. I don’t know what went wrong. Sherry Valentine should have arrived half an hour ago.”
“And if we go on the air without Ms. Valentine?” Carston tried not to sound too hopeful. “After all, country music and contemporary theater don’t have much in common.”
“Don’t you like country music?” Emmanuel didn’t wait for an answer. “This’ll be lots of fun, really it will. People here in Midville just love country music and live theater. Especially the mayor. He’ll be on the show too.” She threw Carston a dazzling smile to cheer him up.
It didn’t work. Sure, she needed to keep her radio guests happy so everything would run like eggs on oiled glass, but he didn’t feel conciliatory. He wanted out. Now. He wanted a drink in his hand—a drink with lots of clinking ice—and a big luxurious bed underneath him, all that in the next five minutes. An unattainable dream…
A very nice bed waited for him back at the hotel, of course, and the very thought of it made him miserable. He wasn’t anywhere near it. No, he was here, killing time in a room that was getting hotter and noisier by the second and waiting for a country music star. So they could talk entertainment. He needed this like he needed hives. Emmanuel added a dose of flirtatious warmth to her voice. “Tell me, Carston, what kind of music do you like?”
“Music?” He didn’t feel like repartee either. “I prefer the Baroque Period: Bach, Handel, Purcell…although I’d never refuse Britten or Holst.”
Her smile faded, and flirtation gave way to astonishment. “Of course you’ve heard Sherry Valentine’s song, ‘Raindrops in Winter,’ haven’t you? It’s been at the top of the charts for months.”
“No,” he muttered with dreary patience. “I’ve never heard ‘Raindrops in Winter.’ ” He didn’t think he’d missed much either: the title alone made him think of leaky faucets.
“Well, ‘Raindrops in Winter’ is just a great piece of music. The lyrics are meaningful, and the tune’s so catchy everyone’s humming it.”
He could just imagine. Sarcasm got the better of him. “You weren’t, by any chance, planning on me singing a duet with Ms. Cherry Valentine?”
“Sherry. Not Cherry,” Emmanuel corrected. Then blinked. “A duet?”
“That’s bad enough.”
She blinked again. “What’s bad enough?”
Carston sighed. Sherry Valentine or Cherry Valentine: either way the name was so...so saccharine and so fake. But why bother explaining? He didn’t need to. A technician across the room signaled to Emmanuel.
Exhausted, he watched her go with relief. All last week, the week preceding the New York opening of his play, had been stress on wheels, and last night’s celebration had gone on until five this morning. Then he’d only managed to catch a few hours sleep before setting out on the long drive to Midville, to this Culture Festival.
Carston looked over at the entrance—and exit—of the radio station. So near, yet so far. But the wild urge to sneak over to that door, edge out, disappear, avoid the impending ordeal, rolled through his mind. Became an overwhelming need. If he did escape, what could they do? Shoot him?
Probably, he thought with a certain joy. It was definitely a risk worth taking. Slowly, discreetly, he began crossing the room.
Even in the dark, the painted words Sherry Valentine and Her Boys gleamed on the side of the bus now rolling down Midville’s main street.
“War paint all in place?”
Charlie Bacon’s rasping snarl slammed into Sherry’s thoughts and sent them scattering. She groaned. Charlie might well be her agent, road manager, and closest friend in the whole world, but he still exasperated her no end when he chucked out those hackneyed phrases and treated her like a twelve-yearold.
“War paint?” She dragged the words out, as if hearing them for the first time.
“You got it, chicken. We’ll be at the radio station in less than one minute.”
“Cool down, Charlie-boy. This one’s a radio program, not live television.”
“Got that too.” Charlie gummed the smelly cigar Sherry forbade him to light in the bus.
“Well, this’ll shock the spurs right off those sneakers of yours: you can’t see what people look like on the radio, not even these days, and certainly not in Midville.”
Charlie grunted. “So what if the public can’t see you. The journalists and the disc jockeys at the station can. And they talk, sweetheart. You don’t want them saying you look like something the cat dragged in. Or like a has-been.”
“Keep heaping on the flattery,” Sherry snapped. “See where it gets you. First stop: the bread line.”
Not that Charlie Bacon, top agent, ruthless manipulator, and infamous busybody, ever took offense. Now, he snorted with derision.
“War paint,” Sherry muttered. “Contemporary Martian, that’s what I call it.” She sincerely hated her green contact lenses, dyed orange corkscrew curls, forever-red wet-look lips and clothes so flashy, all and sundry gawked. And pointy cowboy boots made her toes ache.
“You know what the public’s like,” Charlie continued, imperturbable.
“Boy, do I ever.” Her voice took on a high, mocking tone. “That’s Sherry Valentine? I never knew she’d be so fat. Or so thin. Or so short. Short? She’s too tall. And she’s much older than she says she is too. Much, much older. Of course, those boobs can’t be hers. I know implants when I see them.”
Charlie shook his massive head. “Big deal. It’s all publicity for you. Your concert here is sold out as usual, so just give the public what they want. Show your appreciation.”
She sighed. “I give the public all I’ve got all the time. I’ve given so much for so many years now, I don’t even know if I exist when I wake up in the morning.”
“Boy oh boy. Look how you’re talking. You’re the one who wants a new career as an actress. If you think being a singer is rough going, just wait and see what a rat race the film industry is. You’ll be wishing for the dull, relaxed days as a country star in no time flat.”
“It’s possible.” Although she hated to agree with Charlie on anything if she could help it. “At least the film world will be a brand new rat race instead of this old familiar one. Besides, if I loathe being an actress, I can pack my bags, go home to Dog’s Pass, and marry the boy next door.”
“Oh, sure. The boy next door’s been married to someone else for the last thirty years.”
“Come on, Charlie. Keep in touch with the times. The boy next door has been divorced three times by now. He’ll be thrilled to have me knocking on his door.”
Charlie snickered, a know-it-all sound. “Fine. Just keep on dreaming. Besides, you’re too tough and too much of a rebel to live the easy life. You’re also too ambitious to stay home baking cupcakes.”
Charlie might be right about all that too, she thought. Unfortunately.
The bus hissed to a halt in front of the brightly lit radio station.
“End of the line, chicken. I’m counting on you. Charm them off their feet.”
“Don’t I always?” muttered Sherry. She leapt out of the bus and stormed up to the door. She felt as charming as a stoat creeping up on a fluffy bunny.
His escape route cut off, Carton’s heart sank, descended into a bottomless sea. This gaudy showbusiness cookie walking into the station had to be the country music singer, no question about it. If she wore twinkling neon lights around her neck, she couldn’t have looked flashier. Okay, no young kid…she had to be somewhere around his own age—in her forties? Fifties? Who could tell these days? But take the way she dressed: a red stretch mini-dress displayed every soft inch of her curves and the high white cowboy boots more than emphasized the long slenderness of her legs. Not only that, she’d smeared so much shiny lipstick on her mouth, you couldn’t see how finely drawn it was… or you almost couldn’t see. Clearly she wanted to look as sexy as hell.
Okay, okay. Had to give her credit. She was sexy as hell. And aggressive. Certain of her power. He knew the type: a tough, experienced woman who expected men to fall at her feet. Other men. Because his interests excluded banal chitchatting or mindless flirting.
Carston watched the mayor of Midville push his way toward the singer, puff himself up like a rubicund blowfish, and bellow: “Welcome to Midville, Ms. Sherry Valentine!”
As if Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Queen Elizabeth, and Superwoman all rolled into one had entered the studio, everyone burst into enthusiastic applause. Everyone except himself, of course. He stood aloof, observed the glowing faces around him, and let his resentment build. When he’d walked into the station, he’d received nothing more than a few polite handshakes. He, one of the most prolific, brilliantly talented playwrights of the moment (according to The New York Times), was considered less important than a country music star. The world had taken a turn for the worse…or in Midville it had. He turned away, headed for the refreshments table, but even here, he couldn’t help overhearing the whispered comments Sherry Valentine provoked.
“She’s skinnier than I thought,” muttered a young female technician.
“Fatter,” someone else muttered back. “She even has wrinkles.”
“And I know a silicone implant when I see one,” said the technician with smug confidence.
Really? Carston forbade himself to turn around again and stare.
“Carston?” Emmanuel Warner stood beside him again. “Why don’t you and Sherry get to know each other a little? That way, when we go on the air, our discussion will be smoother, more natural.”
He grimaced. Thought about the sort of “natural” conversation you could have with a country music star: chart and audience ratings, fan magazines, business deals, contracts, the ins and outs of the entertainment business. He turned, took another look at Sherry Valentine. Okay, okay. Maybe he was being unjust. Perhaps it was the long legs and glamour that reminded him of screaming fans. Yet her face, well…he had to admit something in her eyes provoked, even danced. Her high, almost austere, cheekbones hinted at discipline, but smile lines around her mouth and eyes indicated humor. So he let Emmanuel lead him, lamblike, to the slaughter.
He hadn’t managed four steps before a heavy fat paw clapped him on the shoulder. Carston fought down a violent wave of hatred: he despised people clapping his shoulder.
A jovial-looking, cigar-chewing individual grinned into his face. “I’ll bet you and Sherry have a lot to say to each other, seeing both of you are in the same line of business.”
Life looked ugly again. “Line of business?”
“Sure. Entertainment. You know what I mean.”
Carston knew, instinctively, this man was tenacious and would never be warned off by a frigid look or icy tone of voice. Still, he had to try. “Being a playwright is not a line of business.”
The man ignored him, of course. His fat paw waved in the air to attract the attention of the country music singer. “Come over here, chicken. Come chew the fat with Carston Hewlett. I told him you have a lot to say to each other, both of you being in show business.”
Carston caught her wince. Did it mean she had no more desire to “chew fat” with him than he with her? Not that he cared. Still…why didn’t she want to talk to him? And why be irked by her indifference?
Without much enthusiasm, she sauntered in his direction and stopped in front of him. Boldly, she let her eyes slide up and down. Carston almost laughed. She was evaluating him, sizing him up like a chunk of roast beef or a steak, calculating how tender he might be. Well, he had nothing to be ashamed of. He had a trim body and easy grace. Women loved his gray eyes, his silvered mahogany hair, and weren’t physical attributes a more immediate magnet than intelligence? But this singer giving him the once-over didn’t look so pleased about the physique. Or his reputation. Who did she think she was?
He met her eyes with an equal lack of warmth. Ms. Valentine would learn, very quickly, she was out of her depth when it came to him. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he felt his fatigue and pent-up hostility trickling away. To be replaced by interest. And something akin to desire. Desire? How could his body betray him in this way? He struggled to smother the reaction, nip it in its first, traitorous bud. This country singer was a charmer. She knew what effect she had on men. His mind raced, searched for meaningless conversation to smash the powerful silence, quash the sensations and, above all, to hide his reaction from her.
He kept his tone cool. “Hard to understand why we’re being interviewed together.”
“Just what I thought,” she answered, just as icily.
Carston stared harder. Her voice had taken him by surprise: low, vibrant, it clashed with her flashy appearance. Now he really was intrigued. Very much so.
“We are on opposite sides of the cultural world.” He noted how condescending he sounded. Did it matter? Well, in a way, it did. He had the vague suspicion that condescension might not be the right tactic to take with Sherry Valentine.
A sarcastic smile slid over her beautiful lips. “That’s why you were sneaking out the door?”
Her words pulled him up short, shoved soft, sensual thoughts to the back of his mind. So she’d seen what he’d been up to? He felt himself squirm and sensed he had to justify himself for some crazy reason.
He shook his head. “Fatigue. That’s why I wanted to get away. What I need right now is a nice big bed with crispy sheets, just like the one waiting in my hotel room. Believe me, I know how good those sheets will feel when they slide over my skin tonight.”
He stopped, shocked by his own words. Was he crazy? Talking about a bed, sheets, skin? He’d intended to keep the conversation on neutral ground—then had dropped into the trap. Reacted the way all men would. Did Sherry Valentine now expect him to pull out the big guns? Invite her back to that bed of his for a torrid night?
But she ignored the innuendo. Her lips crooked up into a smile of complicity. “A comfortable bed? Sounds heavenly. Just add a glass of wine and a good book to that picture.”
Carston stared. Had she just suggested they crawl into bed together? With a book? She must be having him on. She didn’t look like the sort of woman who’d spend her bedtime hours indulging in literature. “You read a lot?” He sounded arrogant again.
Her amiable expression faded, became something warlike. “I actually liked reading Eye of the Storm.”
He stared at her with astonishment. “You read my play?” Few enough people even went to see live theater these days.
“Oh yes, Mr. Hewlett.” Her voice dripped sarcasm. “I can assure you we singers do know how to read.” She opened her eyes wide. “Guess what else? Way back when, I even went to school.”
He was ashamed of himself. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that people very rarely read plays.”
She observed him thoughtfully for a few seconds. “You weren’t by any chance thinking that as a singer of country music, I spend all my time posing for gossip magazines and chewing hay?”
He couldn’t deny she’d put her finger on it. He felt like a squirming eel. “I also find my own arrogance intolerable.”
Defiance disappeared from her face, was replaced by amusement. He might be out of the eel category now, but before he could confirm it, Carston felt his shoulder clapped by another over-enthusiastic hand.
“Well, folks. How’s Midville treating you?” It was the mayor again.
Carston sighed. Since arriving in town, some four thousand people had grinned at him and said: “You’ll like Midville, Mr. Hewlett. It’s a friendly little place.”
And then there’d been all those banners strung up across the streets:
Welcome to Midville
The friendliest town this side of the Rockies
Clearly, all the citizens took that message seriously.
The mayor was still leering at them—no, Carston had to revise that thought: he was being ignored. The leer was reserved for Sherry Valentine. “Pleased to have you with us for the festival. You’ll like Midville. It’s a friendly little place.” He slapped Carston on the shoulder again before moving off.
Carston watched him malevolently. “Why did I leave my porcupine quill suit at home?”
He heard Sherry laugh, a rich, throaty sound. His heart grew lighter, left the sea of despair, and began floating. Because he’d made a woman called Sherry Valentine laugh? He felt his skin tighten and his muscles expand. Words vanished; ideas disappeared. The reception room, the crowd, the throb of bad music, all receded. He examined her aquiline nose and arching brows.
She stared back at him in the same dazed way, eyes liquid, pupils widening, and he knew they’d both been snagged by a primitive reaction: the call of male to female, female to male.
“Carston? Sherry?” Emmanuel Werner’s cooing voice seemed to come from a great distance away. “Let’s go. We’re on the air in two minutes. But there’ll be plenty of time after the show for all of us to get to know each other better.
”Carston blinked. Came skiddering back to reality. Slightly embarrassed, he glanced at Sherry, but the sensuality and interest had vanished. Now her expression was neutral.
A Swan's Sweet Song
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