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"Aubrey James is the holy grail of celebrity interviews. Whoever gets her to sit first wins."
--Beth Rose, Inside NashVegas
On a warm June night, I stand stage left among a swirl of activity--the stage crew, band members, and music artists coming and going--waiting to go on. Closing my eyes to rehearse my entrance, I have an odd sense of suspension, for a moment unable to determine time or place.
Ladies and gentlemen, Aubrey James . . . Run out smiling. Grab the mike. Wave and greet the fans. Hear the opening bars of "Borrowed Time."
Done it a thousand times. All over the world. Before queens and rednecks. Tonight is no different.
Except I'm utterly exhausted.
You're the CMA Fest's closing performer, Aubrey. Don't let the fans down. Don't do it.
Opening my eyes, I expect--I hope--the fans' excitement will jump-start my adrenaline, washing away the cloak of weariness.
It always has.
But tonight, the electric excitement charging the Titans Coliseum fails to touch me. My thoughts wander, and my heartbeat fires like a worn piston. Tiny beads of sweat prickle under my arms and across my forehead. I try to focus on the opening number again.
Walk out . . . Drummer counts down "Borrowed Time," bass comes in, then the electric. On the downbeat, I sing. Engage the crowd. Find the sweet spot.
Six months on the road with my all-girl band.
Hear the smooth call of the steel guitar, the whine of the fiddle, the exquisite, elegant harmony of my background singers. Can do this . . . By pure grit and grind. Come on, Aubrey.
Tonight's performance also ends my eleventh tour--sponsored by a hip new bottled-water company, FRESH!. A brilliant partnership orchestrated by my business manager. Music, I've had to learn, is as much about business as it is art.
Rolling Stone magazine put me and the band on the cover of their January edition with the headline "Aubrey James Gets Fresh!"
The swirl of activity around me increases. Roadies and techs finalizing the stage before we go on. CMA Fest cameras moving in. The show is being taped for television.
Are there half as many people in the coliseum as there are back here?
My drummer hurries past with her cymbals and snare. "I'm late."
"You have time," I say, watching her step up to the drum stage. From the corner of my eyes, I spot my manager, Zach Roberts, observing me with an inquisitive expression, his arms crossed over his lean chest. "What?"
"You're sweating, and don't tell me it's the Nashville heat. You have dark, puffy eyes, a frog voice, and you're pale."
"What's your point?"
"I'm going on, Zach." Six months on tour, a hundred cities, can't end with a sore throat, fever, and puffy eyes. Besides, the fans deserve their final CMA Fest performance.
Zach rubs his forehead, doubt shadowing his brown eyes. "You look like a bag of bones, Aubrey. Did you lose weight on the tour?"
"Haven't you heard? It's all the rage. The Tour Diet. I'm writing a book about it this summer." I pat his cheek. "I'm fine. Trust me."
The stage manager passes by, flashing his palm. "Five minutes, Miss James."
Five minutes . Where's the familiar rush of preshow adrenaline? Without it, I'm not sure I can manufacture enough energy to carry me through the set.
Zach curves his arm around me. "This is your last performance. Then you're free as a bird for the summer."
"Free. Right. Besides this little gig here and that little gig there. A new photo shoot for the FRESH! campaign . . ." I lower my chin and gaze at him from under my brow. "Not to mention concluding the renegotiation with SongTunes and finishing my next album, and wanting to sleep until fall."
He smiles. "We're working with SongTunes, and if you have to cancel a few appearances to get rested, then do it. Besides, if you're sleeping, I can work with some of my other clients for a change."
"Oh, please. I'm your favorite and you know it."
"Some things go without saying." He winks, but his merriment fades. "Hard tour, wasn't it?"
"At least the tabloids have backed off."
How could one tour have so much controversy? Stolen equipment and personal items like jewelry. Missing money. A bus fire. The fired bus driver, who is now threatening to sue.
Worst of all, I parted ways with my musical director, Melanie Daniels. Midtour she announced she wanted more control, more money, and a solo spotlight. We argued. She left.
A few days later, the tour arrived in Dallas amid the swarming media. Frustrated, tired, and hurt, I just had to make a pithy remark about Mel to a nosey journalist, didn't I? The B-word slipped out. Along with a few other choice phrases. Once the tongue gets loose . . . This is why I never do interviews. Never. Words get said, ideas twisted.
My comment about Melanie leaving the band made celeb magazines and tabloid headlines around the world.
Remembering causes my pulse to pound and my middle to constrict. I fall against Zach.
"Aubrey, you can't go on," he says, pressing a fatherly hand to my forehead. "You're burning up."
"I'm going on." The rest of my band emerges from a dark corner of the stage, and I move away from Zach, forcing my lips to smile. "All set?"
Vickie Campbell, my bass player, puts her hand on my shoulder. "Let's do it."
"One minute." The stage manager passes again, flashing a finger in our faces. "One minute." Rascal Flatts is performing on stage two and coming to the end of "What Hurts the Most."
I breathe deep, shaking out my hands, stretching my neck, wiggling my legs. Tom Petty sang it right--the waiting is the hardest part. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath, and . . .
A firm hand slips over my shoulder, and soft lips nuzzle my neck. My heart races as I whirl around.
"Car, what are you doing here?" Nervous energy fires through me. "I'm about to go on."
His smile fades as his expression darkens. "I thought you'd be happy to see me." He pulls me to him. "Surprise." Then, Brown "Car" Carmichael the Third kisses away my lipstick.
Gently, I struggle free. "Car, honey, I thought we were meeting at the house later."
"This isn't the welcome I expected, Aubrey." His tone is clipped.
The stage lights go up and the crowd's rumble deepens.
"Car, what did you expect? I'm thirty seconds from a performance." Stepping backward toward the stage, I hold my expression, pressing the corners of my lips upward. "Can we talk about this later? I'll be all yours then."
He props his hands on his belt, the sharp edges of his handsome face softening. "Sure. Knock 'em dead, Brie."
The announcer is on the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the queen of country soul, Aubrey James!"