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A self-proclaimed ordinary average girl meets the one larger than life person who will make her yearn for so much more.
Natalie Benton has nursed more than enough heartbreak in her twenty-one years. But she doesn’t like to complain, even though her parents’ marriage might be falling apart, and she’s still mourning her brother, who committed suicide five years ago. On top of that, she was recently ghosted by her lover, an emotionally detached tattoo artist who ran off to California. She’s ready to graduate college in a few months but not sure what her next steps will be. For now, she’ll take each day as it comes, which has become her mantra as an ordinary, average girl in Albee, Pennsylvania where nothing exciting ever happens.
But fate has other plans for Natalie, when a very not ordinary-average girl enters her life. It’s the larger-than-life Gem Grove, one of the most popular singers of the past decade. Gem’s been hiding out in Albee while she tries her best to take each day as it comes, but her addiction to bigger fame and fortune could lead to her downfall. The public may think she’s entitled and spoiled, but she’s ready to prove them all wrong. She’s more than just a singer who performs on demand. She wants to create art with her songs and gain the respect she’s always wanted. Natalie and Gem shouldn’t fit together, but they do. The ordinary-average girl and the larger-than-life diva might be destined for more, but only if they can achieve it together.
My tequila shot matched the one for my brother Conrad in front of the empty stool. Every year for the past five, I’ve ordered a tequila shot, which had been his favorite alcohol. I’d been more of a beer or boozy seltzer drinker since I turned twenty-one in May, but I’d swallow the pee-colored liquid and try not to gag like I usually did. I’d have to drink mine and his soon. Bask’s was getting busy, and someone would want the stool since it was Friday night and there was an hour left in happy hour.
I dipped my finger in the shot, swirling it to ready myself. Someone brushed past me, bumping my arm, making me almost knock the shot over. Part of me wished it had spilled, but then I’d have to order another one. If Conrad was here, he would have already downed it and asked for another. But he wasn’t. He hadn’t had any type of drink in years—five to be exact because he had committed suicide in his dorm room, the weekend before he started his final semester of college.
A hand came down on my head from behind the bar. I would have knocked it off, but it was Jesse, so I allowed it. I expected him to join me as we remembered my older brother, his best friend since kindergarten.
I tugged his hand down, and he held mine, squeezing gently. The man I’d known for my entire life leaned his muscular arms on the bar so he could move in closer.
“Hey.” He pushed away a curl from my forehead. A long time ago, I had a crush on Jesse, mainly because of his high cheekbones and tight blond curls. I always liked blonds, even though his were now on the darker side and in a buzz cut because his hair was thinning out. His eyes also had gold specs in them. My taste in men or rather my girlish crush on them ended as soon as I became a teenager and my attraction turned to other girls. But my blonde hair attraction remained. I ended up contradicting myself because my last failed relationship, if it could be called that, was with the wrong type of woman. A tattoo artist who was far from blonde, and loved adding neon highlights to her hair, even if they clashed with her indie rock style.
“Hey.” I indicated Conrad’s shot, and Jesse grabbed it. He tapped his to mine but waited for me to drink first. I swirled the liquid with my finger again. Once I drank the tequila, my memorial would end, and another year would begin without Conrad.
He set his glass down and clasped my hand in his. He should really have been helping the other bartenders since the place was packed, but he could take as many breaks as he wanted. He was the owner’s younger brother.
“This year is rougher than the last. Damn, where did the five years go?” He frowned at the stool next to me, as if Conrad was there. Whereas the usuals sat at the end of the bar, Conrad always liked sitting in the middle, on that exact stool. He even carved his initials under the seat. The CB was faded but still noticeable on the wood.
“I’m the same age Conrad was when he—” I withdrew my hand from his and wiped under my nose. The only time I’d cried today was when I woke up this morning. I hadn’t when Mom, Dad, and I went to Conrad’s favorite breakfast place, and not at the cemetery or at his grave. Mom broke down. Dad kept it together and held her and recited some prayers.
“I feel horrible for not coming with you guys to the cemetery,” Jesse said. “Especially since your mom asked me to, but I had to drive—”
“Don’t apologize.” I sucked on my finger, thirsty for more than tequila. Tonight would be a great night to get drunk. “You have important family stuff. My parents understand why you can’t drop everything to spend the day mourning with us.”
He lowered his head and tapped the bar. “Conrad was like a brother to me. The least I could do is visit his grave.” He lifted the shot to his mouth and swallowed it. After a few seconds, he cleared his throat and exhaled. “But I hate cemeteries. He did, too.”
“Maybe he should have left behind a letter saying he wanted to be cremated.” I downed the shot and breathed through my nose as my stomach churned. I really hated tequila, but I’d make the sacrifice to honor my brother. “I need a chaser now. Pour me two glasses of some type of sweet vodka drink.”
“Two?” He crossed his arms. “You can barely keep it together after one.” The door opened, and a group of people rushed in. Snow had been forecast for this weekend, but I hadn’t expected it to start tonight and fall so fast.
He shook his head. “Please tell me you didn’t walk here.”
I raised my empty shot glass. “I like walking. If the snow gets too bad, I’ll call a car.” I held out my glass to him. “Want to do another shot?”
He grabbed my glass and poured me a soda instead. “You’re cut off.” A bartender whistled and called his name. He nodded in their direction then sent me a hard stare. “Go home before your fifteen-minute walk ends up taking double that because of the snow.”
I lifted my thigh-high insulated boot on the seat of Conrad’s stool. “I’m dressed for the snow, so you don’t have to worry.” I tapped his nose with my finger. “Let’s compromise. How about you pour me a beer and then I’ll leave?”
He opened his mouth, but then his father called his name and waved him over. “Coming!” He shrugged at me. “Drink the soda and go home before you make me call your parents to pick you up.”
I rolled up my cocktail napkin to toss at his head, but then he did a shooing motion with his hands. As he turned away, I stuck out my tongue. I almost gave him the finger, but his dad waved at me and I returned the gesture.
I check out the packed room, not ready to leave. It wasn’t because I wanted to drink more. I liked being around people. That was why I always ended up here on Friday nights. I could lose myself in conversation with others and the happy atmosphere. I could pretend Conrad was still alive. I reached under his stool to trace his initials and closed my eyes to stop from crying and cursing him for leaving me.
“Excuse me, is this stool free?”
I opened my eyes to see a woman wearing a yellow Alpha Gamma Pi sweatshirt. She smiled as she waited for me to answer.
“Ah, sure.” I patted it, welcoming her to join me. She was vaguely familiar; perhaps I’d seen her on campus. Her auburn hair that looked real and not out of a box, unlike my nice deep-red shade that had faded over time.
“Thanks, Natalie!” She pulled the stool away from the bar. “We’re missing a stool at our table.” She motioned to a table of women, all wearing her sorority letter T-shirts or sweaters. “I volunteered to ask you since we have chemistry together.”
“Chemistry?” I snapped my fingers. “Oh yeah. Sorry if I didn’t recognize you, Maeve.” How embarrassing. She’d been in a few of my science classes since freshman year.
“No worries.” She smiled again and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “You can sit with me and the girls. We don’t bite.”
Was she flirting with me or wanting me to join her friends to convince me to pledge this semester? I wasn’t into Greek life, but it might do me good to surround myself with girls like the ones from Alpha Gamma Pi, who would help take away the pain of not just remembering Conrad but Addison’s rejection. But then a group of guys approached the girls.
“Um, thanks for the invite,” I said, “but I was actually leaving.”
She turned around and waved at one of the guys, who waved back. She gave me her attention again. “Next time, then? But if you’re leaving, can I have your stool for my boyfriend?”
My stomach dropped, and my eyes felt wet. Of course she had a boyfriend. I scooted off the stool and did a tah dah action with my hands. “It’s all yours.”
“I appreciate it.” She waved her boyfriend over to help her with the stools. I stood there watching them walk to their table. When they got there, they sat and shared a kiss. I faced the shelves of bottles and sighed.
As I tried to grab the attention of a bartender to close my tab, and perhaps ask for one last shot, my cell vibrated and pinged a text. I pulled it out of my pocket and snorted.
You’re cut off.
I glanced at the end of the bar where Jesse mouthed, go home. I saluted him with my cell and stepped back. Within seconds, my space was filled with others ordering drinks. As I zippered up my coat, I caught the eye of Maeve, who waved enthusiastically. One of her friends stared at me and then asked her something. Not wanting to appear nosy or needy, I spun around and walked to the door to leave.
People poured in even though the snow came down hard. Instead of pushing through them, I waited and was rewarded by a guy holding the door open for me. If I was in a better mood, I would have winked at him to make him smile, but I wasn’t. As soon as I was outside, it was quiet, the type of quiet the snow brought. If I was home, I would have lain in my bed, watching it fall outside my bedroom window. Instead, I was in the middle of a possible snowstorm with no ride home. I took out my cell, going back and forth whether I should order a car. I could always call Dad if I was desperate or even my best friend Israh, but he was working. Not wanting to bother them because the snow wasn’t that bad, I’d walk like I did a few hours earlier.
I drew my hood over my head, and, slipping my hands in my coat pockets to keep them warm because I forgot my mittens, I walked. Surprisingly, the sidewalk wasn’t too snowy or slippery, although the street had an inch or two of snow. If the snow continued at this rate, there would be closer to a foot, and I’d end up shoveling the driveway.
“I should have asked for a snow blower for Christmas.” I trudged along, questioning how long I’d walk before I—
A bright-red car zoomed by, making me wince because the speed racer might end up slipping and not be able to brake before it smashed another into car. But then, with a squeal, the car stopped hard. The driver’s side door opened and someone—a woman in the brightest sequined pink coat I’d ever seen screamed— “Oh no! I killed it.”
Killed what? I ran toward the sports car, glad my boots gave traction. At the front of the car, lying half under the bumper was a small scruffy terrier. Its head was on its paws, and it was shivering. I bent down and held out my hand. The dog lifted it’s head and sniffed my hand then licked my fingers.
“Is it okay? It’s not bleeding on my car?” the woman said in near hysterics.
I ran my hands over the dog. Noting how the woman appeared to be more worried about her car, I took a calming breath before I answered. “The dog looks okay. No bleeding. I don’t see any dents on the pup or on your car.”
“That’s a relief. Killing a dog and damaging my new car would have ended the perfectly shitty week I had.” Her knees bumped my back, and she moved in closer.
I finally got a good look at the nervous driver and lurched back. Holy shit! It was Gem Grove, one of the biggest pop stars of my generation!
She made baby noises at the dog, who wagged their tail happily.
“This dog is too cute!” She lowered her face to the dog. “Are we a boy or a girl?”
“Ah, I…” I might have been tongue-tied for the first time in my life. I felt under the dog to find out their gender. A female. “She’s a she, I mean, the dog who’s a female is a girl.”
The woman who I believed to be Gem looked up at me and gave me a huge smile that showed her blinding-white teeth. I found myself running my tongue over my not-so-white teeth, more than uncomfortable because I’d never been this close to a celebrity before.
The woman I would call Gem in my head for now lost her smile. “You’re shivering. Is it the snow, or are you not telling me the truth about this baby?”
“What?” I snuggled the dog closer. “No, the dog seems fine. I work for a vet, so I’m not just somebody from the street who’s pretending to know what I’m talking about to impress you. I mean, to calm you.” If I had a free hand, I would have slapped my forehead.
Gem rested her hands on her chest, her long nails almost the color of her coat. “What do we do now? We can’t let the dog go, especially in this weather.”
“I can take her to our vet, I mean my parents’ practice. It’s a short walk. I can do a more thorough examination and keep her there overnight.” The dog drooped in my arms, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was tired or had some damage from being hit.
“Screw that. I’ll drive.” She hurried to the driver’s side and waved me over.
“You drive?” I walked to the other side of the car, stunned I not only would sit in what was surely an expensive sports car, but Gem would drive.
She leaned into the car, and there was a clicking sound that caused the door on my side to open. “I haven’t had a drink in almost six months, and I’ll be very careful.”
“Unlike a few minutes ago?” I snuggled the dog closer to my chest.
“Get in, and we can talk more at the vet.” She got in and closed her door.
The dog whimpered, making the decision for me. Once I closed the door, Gem started driving.
I quickly clicked my seat belt. “You could have waited until I put on my seat belt and gave you directions.”
“I wanted to drive before other people saw me. You never know when the paps might pop up, even though there haven’t been any here since last summer.” She stopped short at a red light, making me wonder if she was still agitated or a bad driver in general.
“After the light, make a right on the next street, and then another right into a parking lot next to a brick building.” The falling snow wasn’t a blizzard yet, but it might make things difficult for Gem. I really didn’t want to be in the car for too long because her driving made me nervous.
She nodded and looked both ways and then behind us.
“I don’t think you have to worry about being followed. There are no cars around with these…paps, or whatever they are.”
The light changed to green, and she drove more carefully. “They’re better known as the paparazzi.” She made a right and then slowed down as I pointed to the building where my parents’ practice was.
She parked in the spot closest to the door. It was a handicapped spot, but since we were the only ones here, I wouldn’t make a big deal about it.
She came to my side and opened the door. “I’ll hold the dog while you get the keys ready. I don’t want to be out in the snow longer than I have to. This weather is doing a number on the hair I spent a car payment on to get cut and styled.”
I pressed my lips together and handed her the dog. She hurried up the steps. I closed the door, wondering if she was going to lock it, but then I heard a beep and the lights went out. Grabbing my keys from my bag, I walked up the steps and unlocked the door. The wind had picked up and blew the snow around. She walked inside and tried to open the interior door.
“It’s locked. I have to shut off the alarm.” I did and then unlocked the door.
She rushed in and glanced around while I turned on the lights. “Can we hurry? The dog is shivering. I think she might be frostbitten.” The dog lifted her head and Gem brushed her nose on the pup.
My animosity toward her disappeared. She really did appear concerned for the dog. I waved her over to the first examination room. “The dog isn’t frostbitten. Perhaps cold and shaken up but nowhere near frost bitten.”
“How do you know?” She gently placed the dog on the exam table. The dog started wagging her tail and let out a soft woof.
“She’s wagging her tail, which is a good sign, and she’s not lethargic.” I unzipped my coat and laid it on a chair. “I’ll examine her to make sure she’s not hurt.” I grabbed an ophthalmoscope and stethoscope from the cabinet to check the dog’s vitals. “Go ahead and take off your hat and coat. Make yourself comfortable.”
She unbuttoned her coat and pulled off her hat. Her hair fell like a cloud around her shoulders. I was dumbstruck, for lack of a better word because she had the lightest-blonde hair I’d ever seen on a woman. Pinkish highlights also framed her professionally made-up face. I found myself touching my cheek, which felt the opposite of smooth. Even though she wore a light-pink sweater and simple black jeans, she had an aura that made you want to stare at her.
“What?” She tossed her coat and hat on a chair behind her. “Please tell me I don’t have dog blood me.”
I coughed to hide a laugh. “No blood.” I lifted the dog’s face and checked her eyes with the light. “You really like the color pink.”
“The color is my signature.” She indicated a highlighted strand. “I always wear some shade of pink when I’m in public since I was twelve.”
“Unlike your brother who switched to black and gold?” I felt the dog’s belly for any bumps or contusions.
Gem lowered her face and a smile appeared. “So, you do know who I am.”
“I knew who you were the moment I picked up our friend here.” I concentrated more than I had to on the dog because my cheeks were warming, meaning I was blushing.
“Since you know who I am, why don’t you tell me your name?” She glanced up with an impish impression.
“Nat…Natalie.” I moved the dog onto her side and, as I checked her head, she licked my face.
“She likes you.” Gem lifted the dog’s paw. “You’re young to be a vet. Are you a prodigy or something?”
I did laugh then. “I’m a senior at Maison University, majoring in biology. But I’ve spent too many hours here watching my parents with their animal patients. I learned a lot from them since I was thirteen, like you when you had your first hit song.”
“Right.” She lost her smile and let go of the dog’s paw. “How’s our patient?”
I scratched the dog on her belly, and she licked me again. “She’s perfect. You didn’t hit her, so you don’t have to worry. I’ll have my mom check her again tomorrow when the office opens, as long as the snow tapers off and the roads are plowed.”
“Are you going to take her home with you?” She crossed her arms.
“She’ll stay here overnight. There are cages in the back where we keep other dogs and cats. I can show you the room if you want.” As I put the exam tools back, the dog let out a snore.
“She’s conked out.” She held out her hands for the dog but then tucked them to her chest. “She’ll be here all alone in the dark during a snowstorm?”
“No one is going to break in tonight.” I ran my fingers over her matted fur. “She may have an owner looking for her. She doesn’t have a collar or tags, so she might be a stray.” I was ready to suggest something that might put Gem more at ease in regard to where the dog would stay overnight. “Unless you want to take her home with you and then bring her back tomorrow?”
She lifted her hands and backed away. “I-I can’t. I’m not…I don’t want to hurt her more than I have.”
“You won’t hurt—”
“What about you?” She nodded as if it had been decided. “You have more experience with this type of thing.”
“Me?” I spoke louder than I should have, and the dog whimpered in her sleep. I lowered my voice. “I have a dog waiting for me at home who might get jealous, and—”
“Excuses. You don’t want to be inconvenienced, either.” She glared at me and pursed her lips.
I clenched my fists at my sides, something I rarely did. “Taking in a rescue would help with your PR, since it’s been in the toilet.”
Her eyes widened in shock and she gasped. Her shoulders drooped, and she fiddled with her silver necklace. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me because of what I just said. Not even with Addie—
A cell rang from her coat. She grabbed it from the pocket and answered, “What, Dick?”
The voice on the other end sounded male but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. She cursed, grabbed her coat, threw open the door, and marched out of the room. The door bounced back and shut, leaving me confused. I stood there waiting for her return. She left her white beanie hat behind. Who’d leave behind an expensive brand-name hat? Even if they were pissed and didn’t want to see or talk to the person—meaning me—who insulted them.
At the five-minute mark, I exited into the waiting area. No one was there. Outside, the snow was still falling but the wind had died down. Gem and her car were missing.
Well, shit on a brick. She left me and the dog here. Great. Just great.
There was no way I’d walk home in this weather. I also had to think about the dog sleeping in the examination room.
I went back in, and the baby, as Gem had called her, sat up on the table, wagging her tail. I swore she smiled at me when I approached. I leaned down to let her lick me because I wanted some love. The probability Gem would come back to check on the dog or to retrieve her hat was most likely zero. I lifted the dog off the table and placed her on the floor. She checked out the room, sniffing while I sat and decided what my next step would be. I should call Mom or Dad to tell them what happened. Knowing I had found a dog was more than enough for one of them to drive here. But I hated bothering them because I shouldn’t have gone to Bask’s in the first place. I really should have stayed home this year. Dad would spend most of the night in Conrad’s bedroom or watching old home movies with Mom, especially the last video of Christmas where we all thought Conrad had been doing much better than he had been. He had tricked us all.
I drew my fingers through my hair, suddenly exhausted. The dog I had yet to name trotted over and rested her chin on my knee, as if she knew I was upset. I rubbed her head, not wanting to leave her here alone. I’d rather stay here with her overnight than go home. I could always crash on the couch in Mom or Dad’s office. I texted Mom to explain where I was and why I’d sleep here tonight.
Maybe Gem would come back and keep me company or, in my wildest dreams, want the dog and me to stay the night at her place, wherever it might be.
Silly me to think a popstar like Gem would be concerned about having run away, leaving me and the dog she thought she’d hit behind.