chapter one

IT'S GONNA BE ME

 

 

“WHAT’S your name?” the woman asked from where she sat behind a long table, clipboard in hand—black shirt, black pants, thick hipstery glasses, bored expression. She’d probably already seen fifty guys just like him that morning, with huge dreams and a tiny, tiny chance. To her, this was just part of the routine.

To Danny Bright, it was everything.

“D-Danny. Bright,” he choked out. Well, that was fantastic.

The woman raised her eyebrow skeptically. She was terrifying. And that was saying something, ’cause even then she wasn’t as scary as the guy in the leather jacket sitting next to her, who stared Danny up and down as if he were some kind of parasite. Every single drop of confidence he’d felt earlier died.

He nearly turned and walked from the room after such a stellar opening, melted into the floor, disappeared into thin air—anything to get the hell out of that room. But then he remembered that it was his chance, and most people didn’t get a lot of chances to do what they really loved. He wasn’t going to let some people he didn’t even know get to him. He was Danny Bright, after all. Star of the theater. Sure, maybe it was just his high school theater, but he was still a star. He’d show them that.

“What are you going to sing, Danny?” It was the scary guy. He had to be Sasha Pulaski, owner of Danny’s possible future.

Sasha Pulaski, it’s time you met Danny Bright.

Danny cocked his hip and blew his bangs off his face. He grinned at the panel of terrifying people and pretended they were just some of his friends listening to him go on and on about a solo in one of their school plays. He took a deep breath and flipped his most saucy smile at the table of industry sharks. Danny refused to be intimidated. Much. “I thought I’d sing ‘Valerie’. I’ve always loved Amy Winehouse.”

“Interesting choice.” No judgment there or anything…. Danny lifted his chin defiantly. “Whenever you’re ready,” the man prodded.

He shook off the last of his residual nerves, looked right at Sasha, smiled one more time, and then sang—for everything he was worth he sang. After all, he’d never find out if he didn’t try. And even if his chances were one in a whole galaxy of stars, one chance was better than none. They’d been told to have thirty seconds worth of music ready and he used those thirty seconds like they’d change his life. If he got luckier than lucky, they would. Danny took up the whole room, walked closer to the table, even leaned on it when he belted out the verse in the strongest voice he had.

The thirty seconds went quickly, far more quickly than it had when he’d been practicing at home in his bedroom. Danny hoped it was enough.

Danny stopped on the last note and took a jaunty bow. He waited for them to tell him to go home, say they loved him, get up and do a polka maybe? Anything but mind-chilling and deathly long silence. It was hard to keep smiling, hard to keep up the show. Danny’d always been good at it, but not that good. Nobody was that good. The four people at the table conferred for freaking ever, then finally turned back to him.

“Good,” Mr. Scary said. “So… Danny. Tell me why I should choose you. There are a hundred other guys in that room. Why should Blue Horizon offer you a contract over them?” He steepled his hands and leaned forward, staring. “What makes you stand out?”

Sweat dripped down his back. The nerves twisted in his stomach, grinding his organs into uncomfortable balls of meat. But Danny had figured they’d ask him something like that. At least he had an answer.

“I know I don’t have Whitney’s voice. Or Mariah’s. But let’s be honest. Most pop stars don’t. I was born to be in front of an audience though. I’m at my best when people are watching me. I like to entertain, I like to be funny. People will remember me.” Danny stopped while he was at least sort of ahead. Enough info, dork. No more talking.

Clipboard lady smiled. “Okay, thank you, Danny.”

The panel turned to mutter at each other for another thirty heart-pounding seconds. Danny clenched his fists. Finally, finally, Clipboard spoke.

“We’d like to have you wait in room two fifty if you don’t mind,” she told him.

“Does that mean I’m still in?” he asked. Calm down…. Calm. Waiting had never been one of Danny Bright’s strong suits, but for this he’d do anything he needed to do.

“You are still one of the possibilities, yes.” The woman gave him another tight smile.

Danny tried not to jump, laugh, smile, anything that would show he was only eighteen and not as experienced as some of the other guys they’d seen.

“Thank you,” he said simply and turned to leave. He did allow himself one small fist pump that he could no longer contain. He was pretty sure they hadn’t seen.

Yes. I’m still in the game.

 

 

THE waiting room was a different kind of scary than the lobby had been. No longer a huge pile of hopeless hopefuls, the guys in the small, plain, white industrial-carpeted room had an actual chance. These were the ones who could take Danny’s spot. The room was kind of a random mix. Danny didn’t see a pattern in the maybes; some looked preppy, some more rocker, even a few probably could’ve fit into the hip-hop category. Danny knew he’d drive himself nuts trying to figure out what Sasha was looking for, so he sat in his chair and observed quietly. There was a dark-haired guy in the corner with pale skin and a bright smile. He was messing around on a guitar and scribbling notes in a notebook. Every once in a while someone would talk to him, and he’d grin or laugh, clearly at ease in a stressful situation. Danny noticed him first. It was hard not to. He seemed to draw people in. His clothes needed work. A lot of work. Maybe that was enough to put Sasha off? Probably not.

I’ll have to watch that one. That guy could take all of this from me.

Danny had to remind himself that he’d done everything he could do. It was out of his control. Picking all the other guys in the room apart didn’t make him a more obvious choice. It just made him petty. More guys trickled in. A few got called to the door by the assistant he’d met earlier and were never seen again. Danny hoped that nobody with a clipboard came to call his name. As long as he was still in that stuffy windowless room he was okay. He was still in.

Finally, the woman from the audition room came in. She had a different clipboard and a pile of folders. In her hand was a yellow slip of paper. Danny could see well enough to notice there were only a few names on it. At least fifteen guys were left in the room, but only three, maybe four names could possibly fit on that small square.

Please let me be one of them. I have to still be in.

“Okay, I’d like to see Reece Beaufort?”

The one with the black hair and the guitar stood. “I’m Reece,” he drawled. His accent was Southern, so thick it was nearly foreign. Danny watched Reece walk over to the woman. He’d obviously been right to pick Reece as competition.

“Webber Jackson?” the woman called. Danny’s stomach clenched. It wasn’t him. Another guy stood quietly. He was just as pretty as Reece, golden-green eyes, hair in loose black curls highlighted with bronze, skin the color of heavily milked coffee, cheekbones like a model. If they were going just on looks—

“Danny Bright?” Me? Danny choked. Despite his earlier bravado, he barely believed it. His legs shook as he stood and joined Webber and Reece at the doorway. They exchanged nervous smiles. It had to be good to have your name called this time, right? It had to be.

“Tate Ryan?”

A fourth guy, sandy haired and preppy in a soccer team kind of way joined them. Danny wouldn’t have picked him as a standout, but he saw the cute “guy next door” appeal. Tate smiled at them, and Danny tried to smile back encouragingly around the massive lump of fear in his throat. If only they knew what the next step was.

“That’s it. Everyone else is free to go. Thank you for your time.”

Everyone else is free to go? Danny’s belly flopped. It was really happening, wasn’t it? They were still in. Holy effing crap. He pushed nervously at the rolled cuff of his jeans with one foot and tugged at the scarf he’d been so sure of earlier.

“You four, please follow me.”

They were led into an office, much nicer than either the audition room or the waiting room. The walls were paneled in shiny dark wood, there were plaques and awards plastered all over, framed posters of bands that Danny had listened to for years, snuck into clubs to see. Just knowing those bands, those heroes of his, had possibly stood right where he was made him feel a bit starstruck.

Danny elbowed Reece. The guy who carried a guitar everywhere had to get it. “Look. That's freaking Shane and Nick Ventura,” he whispered, pointing at a picture of the rock stars reclined on a couch next to the rest of their band. They were just so famous.

Reece's eyes bugged out. “Can you believe we're here?” He muttered back.

“Gentlemen, please have a seat.” Sasha strode in and gestured to the chairs clustered on the other side of the desk.

The scary guy was Sasha. Danny had been right. He was currently folding his tall, lanky frame into the leather desk chair across from them. Danny sat and the other three awkwardly followed suit. He was glad to see that he wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

“I’ll be honest with you guys. You’re the best that I saw today.” Sasha drummed on his desk. “That doesn’t mean I think you have what it takes. I’m honestly not sure yet.”

Danny went in seconds from elation to worry.

“Why’d you bring us back here then?” Southern Reece asked. Danny wanted to kick him.

Sasha smiled though. “You don’t hold back much, do you? I brought you back here because I want to see more from you four. I want to hear how you sound together, what you’ll look like after a stylist gets a hold of you. I think you have potential.”

Potential is good, isn’t it? Wait….

“Did you say together?” Danny didn't understand.

Sasha nodded. “We have elements, but nobody on their own had what I needed. I decided we’re going to try you out as a vocal group.”

“A vocal group?” Reece asked slowly. Danny could practically see the gears turning in his head.

“Yes.” Sasha smiled. “Otherwise known as a boy band.”

The four guys exchanged panicked looks. A boy band? Seriously? A boy band? They’d have to prance around in matching outfits and….

You know what? I’ll still do it. Happily.

Danny wasn’t going to screw with his chance just because the game suddenly had a different name than he’d originally imagined.

“Are you guys still interested?”

Apparently, the other three felt the same way as Danny because without hesitation, Sasha got four very enthusiastic nods.

Sasha held up his hand. “Good. But I think something is missing. And it wasn’t out there today.”

“Something?” Tate asked.

Sasha pursed his lips. “Someone.” He pointed at Tate. “Your voice is lovely but not unique. People will instinctively like you though.” Webber. “You have that sexy R&B quality, but you’re quiet. Perhaps too quiet.” Reece. “You’re a little rough around the edges, but the girls will love your accent. We need to work on the wardrobe.” Danny smirked at that one. He’d been right. And then Sasha pointed at him. “You’ve got personality. We all saw it today.” He smiled a little. “Your voice will be fantastic support.” Sasha sighed. “But we need that….”

“Star?” Reece asked.

“No. Just someone to finish it….” He drummed on his desk again. “I’ll know when I see him. I’m going to have to do this again.”

“What about us?” It was the first time Webber had spoken. His voice matched him, a bit shy but nice. Mellow.

“I need you to give your contact info to Jessica. We’ll be in touch. I’m going to want to run a few rehearsals, see if we can’t make you four into a cohesive group while I look for a fifth.”

Danny hated the uncertainty. Hated the fact that Sasha could easily find two or three other guys better than him while he was out looking for their fifth member. He nodded anyway. Any chance at all was better than being one of those guys on their way home. He was still there. At least for the moment.

 

 

“JESUS, it’s hot. Why doesn’t your AC ever work when it’s really gross out?” Elliot Price’s best friend Sara turned up the fan and lifted her back from the sticky seat.

“’Cause this is a beater?” Elliot shrugged. At least they were almost there. “Isn’t everyone supposed to have a beater in high school?”

“Yeah, but we graduated three weeks ago. Time for something better.”

Elliot grinned into the setting sun. “I’ll let my mom know. You ready for tonight?”

Sara had signed up for a local talent competition, sure that somebody there would hear her sing, and she’d be free of coffee houses and library steps, on her way to the big time. Elliot hated to tell her that stuff rarely worked that way. He may have been naïve, but even he knew that.

“Who’s ever ready?” she asked. “You should sing too. Moral support and everything.”

“Not singing.” Elliot turned to glare at her. They’d already covered the topic many times that week.

“But you have such a pretty voice. I heard you at Linc’s party last weekend.”

Elliot cringed. Yeah, because he’d been drunk. Drunk enough to sing in public, drunk enough to kiss Shelby Turner behind the garage, which was not what he’d planned for that night. He hadn’t even really liked it. It was nice and all, and she was sweet, but it was just… okay.

“What’s up, Els?”

“Nothing.” Please don’t pry. You always pry.

“Did you do something at the party?”

Of course she pried. When does she ever not? Elliot sighed. It wasn’t as if it were some huge deal. High school was over. “I might have made out with Shelby.”

Sara squealed and smacked him. “You slut!” she teased. “Weren’t you kissing Lisa at the party two weeks ago?”

Yeah. And he hadn’t really liked that much either. The girls hadn’t done it for him. He’d kissed a few guys too, and that was better, but nothing to turn his world upside down or anything. Elliot’d had a few crushes but he’d never come across that one. The one who made him feel all that stuff he knew he was supposed to feel but never did.

“Shut up.” He chuckled a little. Sara was kidding… like she could talk anyway. He’d had to pry her lips off some guy from another school and chauffeur her home.

“So what are you singing tonight?” she asked, obviously not ready to give up just yet.

“I’m not. Quit asking.”

 

 

WHY did I agree to this? I must have lost my freaking mind. Elliot gulped and looked out across the sea of faces. There were a lot of people in the audience. More than he’d ever imagined when he’d finally decided to sing just to shut Sara up.

“Um, hi,” he mumbled into the microphone. The low hum of the crowd grew excruciatingly quiet. He wanted to puke. “I’m Elliot Price.” His voice echoed, painfully loud in the sudden silence of the room. Elliot smiled at the crowd. He tried not to look as nervous as he was, probably came out looking like an eighth grader instead of eighteen. “I’m going to sing ‘Wonderwall’. O-oasis.”

He took the few steps over to the very center of the stage and sat on the stool that was there, not sure if his legs would hold him through a whole song. Elliot was grateful for the stool. His hands trembled and he gripped the mic stand. A short nod to the guitarist and it was too late to back out.

Way to badger me into stuff, Sara.

He’d been there to see her sing, not the other way around. Yet somehow it was him on the stage about to perform in front of way more people than he’d ever sung in front of before—sober or not. Seeing as how his audience was usually himself and a bottle of shampoo, that wasn’t saying much.

Still, he’d signed the sheet, and two stomach-clenching hours later he was on stage about to make the biggest idiot of himself he’d ever made. That was saying something. One of Elliot’s best skills was making an idiot of himself. He’d really outdone himself this time.

 

 

THE first few notes were rough, his voice was low and a bit rocky naturally and nerves made his breath catch. Elliot thought he might pass out from sheer humiliation. He nearly quit right there, sank to the ground, and rolled clear off the stage where no one would ever see him again. But then somewhere around the second line something magical happened. Elliot forgot the shuffling crowd, the “talent scouts” who Sara had assured him always came to these sorts of things. He even forgot about his sweaty palms and the fact he’d never done anything even close to performing on a stage, and he simply felt it. By the time he sang “You’re my wonderwall…,” he looked up at the audience, smiled again, and realized he was actually having fun. That he… really liked singing for people and maybe even making them happy. Shocked the hell out of him, to tell the truth. Elliot had never pegged himself as a performer.

The rest of the song passed in a blur. He was in his own little world, looking out at the darkened high school auditorium and living a moment that most likely would never come again. When he finished there was silence, echoing and painful, for a good five seconds. Then the people burst into applause. He thought he might be imagining that the applause was just a little bit louder for him than for the last few singers. Or the fact that it got even louder when he smiled and waved as he walked off the stage.

It was official. Elliot was in love.

 

 

“I HAD no idea you were so good! That was way better than at the party,” Sara exclaimed from where she was waiting for him at the side of the stage. She reached out and ruffled his mop of unruly brown curls. He’d tried to tame them before he went on stage but it was useless.

“I was good?” Elliot asked. His stomach was still full of the rush of adrenaline. Part of him was sure he’d throw up at any second.

Sara smacked him on the arm. “Yes. I swear when you smiled there was some swooning going out in that audience. This chick that was practically my mom’s age giggled and swatted her friend.”

“Shut up,” Elliot murmured. But he smiled again anyway. It felt nice that Sara thought he was good at something other than making his father happy. He was planning to go to college in the fall and major in economics to do just that. Elliot didn’t love economics though. He loved music. If this was the one night he’d ever do anything about it, it had been worth it. He was grateful to Sara for prodding him. “You were good too, by the way. Amazing. Sorry I was too nervous to say it before.”

“It’s okay.”

“You wanna head out? We can grab some ice cream on the way home.”

They had at least an hour drive ahead of them. It was probably best to get on the road.

“Sure.” Sara linked her arm through Elliot’s and turned them toward the exit.

They were near the back door of the auditorium when a man stepped in front of them.

“Can I help you?” Sara asked. Elliot elbowed her.

The man looked official, if official was a look. He was tall and a bit intimidating. Black hair, black jacket, expensive-looking jeans. Elliot wondered if the guy was told he looked intimidating a lot.

“I’m Sasha Pulaski.”

Am I supposed to know who that is?

“Um, nice to meet you.” He held out his hand and smiled even if he had zero idea of why he was talking to this guy.

Instead of a handshake, Sasha handed Elliot a business card. “Can you be at that address tomorrow at one?”

Elliot looked at the card. The address was right in downtown Los Angeles. The card said Blue Horizon Records. Wait… Blue Horizon Records? Was this Sasha guy an actual freaking honest-to-goodness talent scout? At a local talent search? That kind of thing didn’t really happen, no matter what Sara said. It was a myth, right? It was. Except… well, it seemed like this one time it wasn’t.

“He’ll be there,” Sara answered. She grinned at Elliot cheekily.

“Yeah. Yes. I’ll be there. Of course. One. Can I ask what this is about?”

Sasha smiled. “There are a few other boys I’d like you to meet.”