The final bars of music blared through the speakers, guitars screaming, bass booming, and the high-energy beat of the drums, so forceful it could be felt from head to foot. Above it all, the low, true voice of Kimberly Case whaled, ending the song with her own unique, sexy warbling vibrato. Suddenly, it was finished, and she held up both arms, mic in one hand, then bowed deeply, her long, thick chestnut hair framing her face. The crowd erupted in screams and cheers, and cell phones came alight throughout the stadium, as they swayed back and forth, in the darkness, while cries of "More! More!" rang out, reaching Kim's ears over the warmth of the pastel floodlights at her feet.
Occasionally she heard yelled requests for specific songs in her repertoire, ones she simply hadn't been able to fit into the two and a half hour concert. With six hit albums, three Grammies, and a movie soundtrack under her belt, she was no longer able to play all her fan favorites in one evening, lest she lose her voice. Even now, she could feel the tell-tale scratchiness and grabbed a bottle of lemon ice water, taking a long swig. She'd played thirty minutes over, belting out four encore numbers with all her heart. She simply couldn't do one more.
"Goodnight, New Orleans! I love you!" She waved to the loudly-cheering throng. On a whim, she tugged off her sweaty t-shirt, leaving her clad in a black sports bra and faded denim hip-huggers. She whipped it around her head in a circle a few times, then tossed it into the crowd just below the foot of the stage, where new screams erupted as crazed fans dove for it. As she walked across the stage, she bent down a few times to retrieve flowers that landed at her feet, and one teddy bear that was wearing the festive green and purple of Mardi Gras.
She paused one more time near the wings and waved again, blowing a few kisses into the darkness. Due to the lights, she couldn't see past the front row, but the noise was deafening. The minute she was out of sight of the crowd, her personal assistants surrounded her, pressing a lighted cigarette in one hand, and a bottle of Captain Morgan in the other. Kim Case had never been one to make outrageous demands for her backstage set-up. Give her her smokes and her drinks, and she was happy. Even after she'd hit the big time -- the really big time -- that had never changed. You could move the girl to Hollywood, but there was no taking Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, out of the girl.
When the request came in to her manager that she do a concert in the refurbished Superdome at the opening of Mardi Gras week, she'd gone one step further and declared it a benefit, all proceeds going to help the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Two years after the fact, and many were still re-building. Slowly, the city was coming back, but government assistance had been a little too little, a little too late, for many of the poorer folk of the Mississippi Delta.
Her father was a fisherman, and as a child she'd gone with him into the city as often as she could, sneaking away to the little dives in the Quarter while he traded on the docks. On those glorious afternoons she'd sat in the back, in the darkness, and listened, soaking up the music, as fledgling musicians worked their way through sound checks for evening performances. As a teen she'd scraped and saved, and bought her first guitar, and taken what few lessons she could afford, but mostly she was self-taught, a natural musician with beautiful raw talent and a voice like an angel of the night.
Slowly, she'd gained her own reputation, sitting in and playing in some of the smaller clubs of the Big Easy. That low, sexy voice got under people's skin until they couldn't forget the soulful lyrics and the honest open face behind them, and it wasn't long before she had steady work singing in some of the lesser-known establishments in a city full of would-be stars. Finally, she got a break, when the manager of a well-known rock band caught her act on a warm summer night, and asked her to join up as a back-up singer and guitar player.
She'd left home at eighteen, on a whirl-wind road tour that took her first across the country and then around the world. The crowd was addictive, and the music like a drug, and she sang her soul out, often playing alone for the crowd while the rest of the band rested during concert intermissions. The night she was offered her first solo record deal, she'd called home, excitedly telling her parents the news. They'd been happy for her, though they understood neither her life nor her music. All they really wanted was for their baby bird to come back to the nest, if only for a visit.
She'd made it back as often as she could, but those trips had been fewer and further between, as her career skyrocketed and her schedule slipped out of her own control. When she wasn't in the recording booth, she was on the road, six tours in as many years, one for each album. With the movie soundtrack there had been yet more non-stop promotion, as her rock-star world collided with the hardcore players of the film industry. She'd been nominated for an Oscar for best soundtrack, but lost out to the latest sci-fi extravaganza. Still, it had given her career yet another boost, as if she needed it, and more and more offers came in, not just for performances, but for advertising deals, television show guest appearances, and now another movie soundtrack deal sat on her desk back home, waiting her decision.
At twenty-seven, she was tired, and numb, and burned-out, and more and more often, she needed the booze and the drugs to get through the long days and even longer nights. Oh, yes, she'd learned a lot along the way, not just about music, but about the music industry. In those early days, she'd not been above a trip to the rock-n-roll equivalent of the casting couch, if it meant a bigger royalty, or a better deal. She didn't need to do that anymore; quite the opposite: she had her own groupies and hangers-on, all of them willing to light her cigarette, buy her booze, or roll in the sack with her, if her fame might rub off on them in the process.
Kimberly Case was a knock-out, with smoky blue eyes, that amazing thick light brown hair, and legs that went on for miles. Despite the hard life, she still had a hard body, and managed to fit in an hour of free weights and thirty minutes of running nearly every day. Only the tiny lines that were just starting to appear around her eyes attested to the nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol that boosted her up when she was just too tired or strung out to go on.
Now she was back home to give aid to people she counted as extended family, but her childhood home in Bay St. Louis was gone, flattened in the hurricane, and her father's fishing boats had been washed away. Her parents had packed it in, unwilling near retirement to rebuild in such a vulnerable area. They couldn't risk their meager savings on it, and so they had found a little spot up in Arkansas, near Lake DeGray. Instead of hopping in her rental car and driving across to Mississippi, her driver took her to the band's chosen hotel, a new high rise at the end of the Quarter, where they had rented out the entire top floor.
The party was about to begin, and she was the host. All she wanted to do was sleep, but a few lines of cocaine or a hit of some prime weed would fix her up in no time. As the car pulled up to the more private entrance at the back of the hotel, her stomach turned a few times and she sighed. "Hold up for a minute."
"Yes, ma'am." The man sat back, his hand falling away from the door handle. He tried not to study her in the rear-view mirror, but it was tough not to. She looked sad, and her fingers trembled slightly, as she lit another cigarette and rolled down the window, blowing the smoke out into the damp bayou-tinged air.
"You got any more booze up there?" She flicked back a lock of hair with her fingertips, feeling the lingering sweat from the concert.
"Yes, ma'am." He'd been instructed that Kim was a friend of the Captain, and magically, the bottle of amber liquid appeared from a cooler in the front passenger floorboard. He started to retrieve a chilled shot glass, when that raspy voice stopped him.
"No need," she chuckled. I'll take it straight up, and go on inside. She took the bottle from him and unscrewed the lid, greedily gulping a few sips and swiping the back of her hand across her mouth as she swallowed. "You wanna join the party?"
His eyebrows flew up in surprise. 'No ma'am. Thank you, but the boss'll be expecting the car back by midnight."
"Suit yourself." She got out of the car, not waiting for him to run around and open the door for her. She leaned in and pressed three hundred dollar bills into his palm. "Thanks. Have a nice evening." Her soft southern drawl washed over him.
He looked down at the offering, speechless until she was almost out of earshot. "Thank you! Thank you, ma'am!" She grinned and waved back at him in response, before a bellman opened the door and she disappeared inside, along with two security guards who had followed in a car behind hers.
As the elevator doors opened to the penthouse suite, she could hear the music blaring and sighed. She loved her own music, truly, but wasn't in the mood to listen to it again after singing it all night. That would be the first thing she fixed. As she keyed her card and entered the room, the energy only increased, as assorted band members, crew, and groupies greeted her in giddy voices, most of them already well on their way to being drunk, stoned, or both. She walked across the room, putting on her party face, and punched a button on the iPod in the docking station, smiling as a heady blend of the jazz and blues of her own girlhood cued up and began to play.
With another swig from her bottle, she turned and began to groove to the music, dancing and strutting across the floor until she plopped down in a large overstuffed leather chair. She looked out through floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the lights of tourist boats as they floated by on the Mississippi River below. Trays of boiled crawfish and other finger foods were passed her way, and she made quick work of a mini-dinner, her empty stomach sated at last. It had been twelve hours since her last meal.
Jim, her bass-player sidled up and leaned over, intent on giving her a kiss, and she pushed him away. His eyes grew sad, and then quickly angry, and he stormed away into a back room, slamming the door. She sighed in agitation, and looked back out the window, wishing the party was over.
"What's up with Jim?" her wardrobe assistant, Seana, looked up from a suitcase in the corner next to her, where she was carefully folding up a few of the t-shirts Kim hadn't worn during the concert. She usually changed two or three times, but she'd gotten caught up in the music, oblivious to the sweat-soaked clothing that clung to her body. Not that her fans seemed to mind. More than a few of them had a now-famous poster hanging on their wall back home, a concert shot of Kim in a tight white tank top, head tossed back, making love to the microphone as the low concert lighting shone on her sweat-beaded bare shoulders.
"We fucked a few months ago," Kim flipped off nonchalantly. "Mistake. We were both high. It was just for fun." Seana's green eyes flickered and even in her slightly-buzzed state, Kim didn't miss the pain there, quickly masked by the younger woman's usual business-like expression. Hmmm. That was interesting. "It didn't mean anything, but he can't seem to get past it." She sighed again, turning to face her assistant more fully. "I told him last week to back off, or go packing."
"But he's your bass-player," Seana responded in utter surprise. The blonde woman had only been with the band for six months, her sole job to keep Kim in clean jeans and t-shirts, her boots shining, and her leather jackets and vests soft and supple. It hade been a dream job for a girl from the sticks of Nacogdoches, Texas, fresh out of high school. They'd bonded over a few beers in a tiny women's bar just north of Houston, a place Kim had known about and escaped to after a concert.
Seana had driven the two hours to that same concert, a huge fan of Kim's since junior high school. She couldn't believe her luck when her idol came strolling into her favorite bar and sat down next to her. They'd shared a pack of cigarettes and watched a women's basketball game on the small television in the corner. Three hours later on a whim, Kim had hired her, and given her enough money to fly first class to meet them at her next concert in Little Rock four days later.
At nineteen, she was living a fantasy, the envy of all her friends back home at the hardware store where she'd worked as a stocker prior to meeting a tall blue-eyed savior. It had been torture at the same time, as she watched Kim slowly destroy herself, drowning in the booze and killing her vocal chords with smoke. Her eyes looked bad, and more and more often she had the shakes after a concert, her reserves depleted down to nothing. Even more painful had been watching Kim play roulette with people's hearts, often falling into bed with the nearest available beautiful body, male or female, and walking away just as easily the next morning.
The two women had grown close over the six months, talking about anything and everything. Their backgrounds were not so dissimilar. Seana's father had worked in the lumber mills of East Texas. No matter the gulf between their current worlds, Kim and Seana were cut from the same cloth, and understood each other on a level that none of the more sophisticated band and crew members could.
In the bright light of a sober day, it was an easy, comfortable friendship, Kim's eyes sparkling and that smile flashing each time they shared an inside joke. There was no barrier between them then--they were just two friends, not a rock star and her very grateful wardrobe assistant. Strangers and crew alike often shook their heads, smiling in amusement at the antics of two young women who were simply enjoying their very good life.
In the evenings, and especially after the concerts, it was tougher, Kim's loneliness and confusion manifesting itself in a need to be the life of the party, and an even greater need for the chemical tools that kept her going. Even now, the bottle of spiced rum was half-gone, and a pile of cigarette butts was slowly growing in the nice marble ash tray the hotel had provided. Seana watched as Kim took a long drag off a joint passed her way, the beautiful blue eyes closing as she slowly exhaled in utter pleasure. They opened slowly, and she focused, but already her face had that dreamy expression she got when she was teetering on the edge of lucidity. "I have a dozen hopeful bass players lined up, all eager to take his place."
"You'd let him go, just like that?" Seana sat back on her heels and snapped the suitcase closed.
"Yep. Just like that." Kim turned as one of the crew approached her with a small black case. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, and she frowned for a very long moment, considering something. "Alright," she answered slowly. "Why not? Other stuff has lost its edge anyway."
The man, Chris, opened the case and took out a long stretch of rubber strapping. He took Kim's arm and thumped at her inner arm a few times, in the crook of her elbow, then wrapped the band around her upper arm, the skin turning ugly red above and below it. Kim watched him with detached curiosity, her eyes slitted, as he took out a long clear hypodermic syringe and studied its contents closely.
"No!" Seana leapt from her corner, stepping between them and pushing Chris out of the way.
"Seana!" Kim sat forward, her face contorted in anger. "This is none of your business. Outta the way."
"No." Seana answered softly, holding her ground. "Have you done this before?"
"No." Kim looked down, long bangs obscuring her eyes. "It's just one time. No biggie." She looked up. "I just need a little extra kick. He said it would help me come down after the show." She held out a shaking hand. "See."
"Please, don't go down this road," Seana pled anxiously, oblivious to the silently-watching observers all around them. "What you need is a shower, and a tall glass of cold milk, and a good night's sleep. Please." She took Kim's arm and the taller woman willingly held it out, while Seana untied the rubber constriction, rubbing the indented mark it had left around Kim's biceps.
"Come on." Seana stood, tugging at Kim's hand. "Get up."
Miraculously, Kim obeyed, allowing Seana to lead her out of the main room into the private master bedroom suite at the back of the penthouse. Wordlessly, she sat down on the edge of the bed while Seana busied herself about the room, tuning up soothing music on the stereo, and finding the promised cold milk in the mini-bar. "Here." She handed over a chilled glass. "Drink this while I get your shower ready."
Kim sat back against a pile of pillows, kicking off her leather boots in utter relief. She heard the shower start up, and soon the bathroom door opened, emitting fragrant steam into the room. Seana motioned to her and she set the empty glass aside, entering the room and allowing the shorter woman to tug off her t-shirt and jeans, followed by her sports bra and underwear. It wasn't the first time Seana had helped her into the shower, nor was it the first time Kim was aware of her presence, filling her senses with temptation.
As Seana stood, Kim reached across, threading her fingers back through the short, blonde hair. It was soft and she already knew it smelled sweet and clean. "Thank you."
"I couldn't let you do that." It was Seana's turn to reach across, cupping a high cheekbone and watching as those blue eyes closed and Kim leaned into her touch, turning her head and briefly kissing her palm. "You're my best friend, now, Kim, you know?"
"I know." She opened her eyes and reached down, pulling at the hem of Seana's t-shirt. "Join me?" She nodded toward the pattering shower. Green eyes grew wide in surprise, and Seana's nostrils flared slightly, a mixture of fear and passion etching her features. "I promise not to jump you, okay? I just need you close."
"Okay." Seana swallowed as for the first time, Kim helped her undress. It had been tough to hide her crush on Kim, and she halfway suspected Kim was well-aware of it. But they had never acted on it, and she wasn't sure what to expect. She stepped out of her panties and they both stepped under the shower, the hot water pounding against their skin.
Seana looked around, trying to gather her wits, and settled on what she was comfortable with, being a good assistant. She grabbed up a fresh mesh sponge and poured a healthy amount of floral-scented shower gel onto it, lathering it up and carefully washing hours of concert sweat and grime from Kim's tired body. Next, she washed that long, thick hair, feeling Kim return the favor, as she washed Seana's back, reaching around her with those long arms, filling Seana with her warmth and heady scent.
Seana bent down to set the shampoo bottle aside, and heard a sob. She turned and Kim fell into her arms, her body shaking silently as the water continued to pour over them. "Shhhhhh. It's alright," Seana soothed. "I've got you."
"I've lost myself," Kim whispered in agony. "I don't know who I am anymore, or how I got here."
"I know." Seana kissed her cheek, and hugged her close, trying to ignore all that nice, clean smooth skin pressed against her own. "We're gonna find you again, okay?"
She got no answer, and so she pulled back, just enough to tilt Kim's chin up. Those sad eyes broke her heart. "Okay?" she asked again, much more forcefully. Kim nodded, looking every bit like a lost puppy.
"No matter what it takes," Seana whispered, and hugged her close once more.
They exited the shower and grabbed thick, fluffy towels, and set about drying each other. Somewhere in the process they ended up wrapped in the same long bath sheet. Kim trembled and reached across, taking Seana's face in both hands while she leaned down, finding her lips and kissing her for a timeless moment. It was soft and gentle, and then she ratcheted it up a notch, deepening the kiss and feeling the smaller woman press against her, eagerly returning her affections.
Kim still felt fuzzy around the edges, but not so fuzzy she didn't recognize what was happening between them. She'd been aware of it for a while now. This was different, and she had to make sure Seana understood that. She slowly toned it down and pulled back, studying Seana's face and smiling at the flushed passion on her cheeks, and the warm sparkle in those sea-green eyes. "Sleep with me?"
Seana looked down and Kim captured a tear as it trickled down the younger woman's cheek. "Hey. Look at me." Slowly, Seana looked up, her face a study in confusion. "Just sleep, okay?" She winked. "For now."
"I . . ." Seana looked back down again. "I couldn't take it if I'm like Jim." She looked back up. "Maybe I should go to my own room."
"You've never been like Jim." Kim swallowed, pressing her forehead against Seana's. "There's been something between us from the day we met. Can't you feel it?" Seana nodded in agreement, trembling as Kim's arms circled her. "Will you give me a chance to prove myself to you?"
"Yes." Seana ran her hands down Kim's arms, taking them from her waist and holding both capable hands. She smiled, tracing the guitar-player's calluses on her fingertips. "But . . ."
"I'm going to go see a psychologist as soon as we get back to LA," Kim cut her off. "I know I need help. I don't want to place my rehab on your shoulders." She leaned over, kissing one of the shoulders in question. "Not that I haven't been grateful to have them to lean on, more than I can ever express."
"Promise?" Green eyes bore into blue, daring them to lie to her.
"Promise," Kim answered, honest to the bottom of her heart. "Sleep with me, please? I don't want to be alone tonight." Seana nodded again, following Kim in a haze as the woman of her dreams led her to an impossibly large, soft bed. They fell into it, scrambling under the covers as tired bodies relaxed in relief.
Seana reached over and turned out the lights, before she settled back down beneath the thick comforter. Kim pulled her close and they kissed again for a long while, as much to comfort each other, as an expression of passion. At last, Seana lay back and felt Kim's head pillowed against her shoulder. She reached up and stroked Kim's hair, feeling a kiss to her collarbone. "Everything is going to be alright," Seana whispered, then kissed her head.
"I know," Kim smiled against her skin in the darkness. "Now."
Seana listened, as Kim fell asleep, clutching at her like a child. There were a lot of unanswered questions between them, and a much more to discuss. Kim had a long road ahead of her, one Seana was willing to walk at her side. She wasn't sure where it would lead them, but at that moment, she was certain of one thing. Nothing had ever felt more right than holding Kimberly Case while she slept.
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