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Playing dirty, p.1
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       Playing Dirty, p.1

           Jennifer Echols
Playing Dirty

  Praise for

  Star Crossed

  “Echols entertains with . . . a tale of dueling PR agents trying to save their clients from themselves.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Entertaining, funny, and flirty. . . . If you’re looking for a fun read, check this one out.”

  —The Autumn Review

  “A fascinating setup, a sexy adventure, a hilarious heroine, and the perfect hero!”

  —USA Today bestselling author Victoria Dahl

  “The heat stays cranked up to scalding.”

  —Fiction Folio

  “Whoa action and nearly heart-stopping tension. . . . Humor, hotness, drama, and fun. . . . From the moment Wendy and Daniel collide in Vegas, the story moves full speed ahead.”

  —Rather Be Reading

  “At the heart of any story by Jennifer Echols is a compelling romance, and the constant tension between her lead couple makes Star Crossed absolutely engrossing. . . . Frequently hilarious, sometimes stirring, and always enjoyable.”

  —Single Titles

  Thank you for downloading this Pocket Books eBook.

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  Heartfelt thanks to my truly brilliant editors, Lauren McKenna and Emilia Pisani; my tireless literary agent, Laura Bradford; my author friends who cheered me on, Louisa Edwards and Erin Downing; my long-suffering critique partners, Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl; and my mother, a Gold Life Master.


  Don’t despair, chicky. Try to enjoy your old stomping ground in the Deep South. You’ll kick some country butt with your bad pink-haired self and be back in NYC before you know it. Meanwhile, think of me in my maternal suffering. Pregnant women are supposed to glow and I’m glowing, all right. I’m glowing like a nuclear power plant right before the accident.

  Wendy Mann

  Senior Consultant

  Stargazer Public Relations

  Sarah grinned at the e-mail on her phone from Wendy, her supervisor at work and best friend since college. This was the first time she’d smiled since the 4 a.m. call that started her on this journey into the heart of darkness. She only wished she could wrap up business in Alabama and make it back to New York by the time Wendy had the baby. But that didn’t seem likely if Sarah’s information was correct. Country supergroup the Cheatin’ Hearts were in imminent danger of breaking up—before delivering their eagerly anticipated third album—because a love triangle within the band was tearing them apart.

  And Stargazer Public Relations had sent Sarah to keep them together.

  With a frustrated sigh, she tossed her phone into the passenger seat of her rented BMW convertible. She’d grown up four hours south of Birmingham and hadn’t visited the city since a high school track meet. But the green foothills of the Appalachians were familiar to her, such a different landscape from her hometown on the Gulf Coast. The city lay in the valleys and stretched as far as it could reach up the mountains, setting houses and office buildings gingerly on precipices. It was a shame that in a few hours, she would disturb its lush beauty by driving to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ lead singer’s mountaintop mansion, pulling the band out of their basement recording studio, and slapping them to their collective senses with the threats their record company was paying her to deliver.

  The statue of Vulcan looming over Sarah from the mountaintop was familiar, too, though changed. He used to hold up a torch with a green light, or a red light if someone had been killed in a car accident in town that day, which she’d found particularly morbid when she was a teenager. Now he’d been refurbished, and he held up a spearhead instead. He was the Roman god of the forge, echoing Birmingham’s history as a steel town. But holding the arrow, he looked like an overgrown, butt-ugly Cupid.

  What wasn’t familiar was the rush hour traffic. While she’d been stuck at a standstill on the highway, she’d had time to read all fifty-five frantic e-mails her assistants at Stargazer had sent her about the Cheatin’ Hearts since she’d left LaGuardia. The news was worse and worse. With this traffic, it seemed less and less likely that she’d arrive at the group’s publicity office in time to grill the staff for secrets about their employers before they closed for the day.

  She’d taken this highway because the radio had said the interstate was blocked, but maybe the detour had been a mistake. Just before the intersection on top of Vulcan’s mountain, she pulled off to consult her GPS and phone directions. At least, that’s what she intended. The side road she took kept going up the hill. She inadvertently entered the park surrounding the statue. As she stopped in an empty space in the lot, she glanced up and saw a new view of Vulcan above the trees.

  As a teen, she’d seen him only from the front as he presided over downtown. He wore a Roman smithy apron that covered his privates in front. The view from the park was not as modest. It had never occurred to her that he was playing peek-a-boo in back. Like David Lee Roth’s cutout pants from the infamous “Jump” video, but worse, because there was crack. Alabama wasn’t known for its liberal values, and Sarah found it odd that the upstanding citizens of the state’s largest city would tolerate this ten-foot-wide iron moon over the skyline.

  Shaking off her astonishment, she studied her tiny electronic maps. This highway would lead to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ publicity office, all right, and so did the interstate she’d abandoned, but there were no other routes. The whole city seemed to be plotting against her. She looked up again and glared suspiciously at Vulcan’s nude booty.

  Then she returned six calls from Manhattan Music’s liaison in charge of communications with the band. She’d tried him on her short layover in Charlotte and again when she touched down in Birmingham, but he’d been unavailable, tied up in a series of frantic meetings about the band. This time his assistant put Sarah through.

  “Thank God!” the exec cried.

  Sarah cringed. In her eight years at Stargazer, she had counseled many celebrities. She’d been sent on these jobs by a lot of exasperated movie producers, confounded book publishers, and record company executives driven to the edge of sanity. When she contacted them and their first words were, “Thank God!” she knew the job would be a challenge.

  In calm tones, she introduced herself and assured the exec he’d done the right thing in calling Stargazer. She would take care of everything. “But the Cheatin’ Hearts are a little bit of a mess, aren’t they? And they’ve been that way for quite a while.” She opened the Cheatin’ Hearts’ portfolio beside her on the passenger seat and glanced at a newspaper account of their lead singer, Quentin Cox, overdosing on cocaine in Thailand last month. “What prompted you to hire Stargazer this morning?” In the middle of the night, more like it.

  “Someone called me,” the exec said. “Someone with inside information on the group.”

  “Who?” Sarah asked.

  “I can’t say,” he said. “This person swore me to secrecy. You can’t even let on to the group that I got a call. All hell will break loose if you do.”

  “Okay,” Sarah said, although it was not okay at all.

  “This person said Quentin is about to quit the group because Erin left him!”

  “Oh,” Sarah said doubtfully, reaching for a printout of the cover of the group’s first CD, In Poor Taste. The photo showed the lead singer, Quentin, patting the Daisy Dukes–clad booty of the group’s trashy bleach-blond fiddle player, Erin, while the drummer and the guitar player looked on. “I read in my material that Quentin and Erin have been on-again and off-again r
omantically since you signed them to your label a couple of years ago.”

  “They have been,” the exec shrieked, “and we’ve put up with their shit because it was terrific exposure. Not a week’s gone by that they haven’t been in the celebrity news cycle for breaking up or getting back together. But now, Erin has cheated on Quentin with the drummer. She and the drummer claim they’re in love. Quentin is furious. Our source said the band isn’t going to survive this. Sarah, they have an album due in seven days! They have a nationally televised concert event in ten days, on the Fourth of July! Our source said the situation is desperate, and suggested I call Stargazer to ask for the woman who straightened out Lorelei Vogel for us—”

  “Wendy Mann,” Sarah said. “She just went on maternity leave.”

  “I know!” the exec exclaimed. “When I called and begged her to help us, she recommended you. She said you’re as good as she is at saving stars’ careers.”

  This was a lie. Wendy thrived on challenges and confrontations. Sarah got a thrill from figuring out the psychology of famous, creative people and helping them improve their quality of life, but she didn’t enjoy giving tough love. And she definitely wasn’t good at it.

  The exec added, “But my boss told me you’re the one who handled Nine Lives.”

  At the mention of yet another of Manhattan Music’s acts, a chill coursed through Sarah in the hot car. Only a few days ago, she’d returned to New York after nine months in Rio with rock star Nine Lives. She’d finally pried his album from his emaciated fingers: triumph! And now he was in a Brazilian jail: fail.

  The exec went on, “Wendy told me she’s your supervisor, and she’ll direct you in handling the Cheatin’ Hearts. That was good enough for me. Or . . . at least, the next best thing.”

  “Thanks.” Sarah took a few more notes from the hysterical executive. After hanging up, she texted Wendy.

  You told Manhattan Music you would be giving me directions?

  She got Wendy’s reply almost immediately:

  No. Well, yes, I TOLD them that, but I’m not giving you directions. I’m on maternity leave. I’m busy glowing.

  Sarah squeezed her eyes shut. Wendy had warned her that she’d had a conference with their superiors at Stargazer. Even though Sarah had just extracted an album from a lunatic, they weren’t happy he’d wound up in prison in a different hemisphere afterward, because their client Manhattan Music wasn’t happy. Now Sarah’s job was in jeopardy. Wendy thought if Sarah took on another act that was a perennial problem for the record company, it would go a long way toward smoothing things over. Wendy had said she’d be on the lookout for a job fitting that description for Sarah.

  And this was it? Sarah longed for a nice girl group with no worse problem than big mouths, like she used to handle. Romantic jealousies between band members were the worst work for public relations salvage agents. These crises almost always signaled that the band would break up, no matter what the PR agent did. That would be a strike against Sarah, to go along with the one she already had, courtesy of Nine Lives. And nobody at Stargazer—not even Wendy—knew how bad the Nine Lives situation had gotten. Yet. If Nine Lives managed to spring himself from jail and showed up at the Manhattan Music office to enlighten everyone, that would be Sarah’s strike three.

  She opened her eyes and texted:

  You shouldn’t have gotten me into this. It’s a bad one. I’m not going to be able to get them out.

  Wendy replied:

  You will. You’ve just lost confidence. Nine Lives is a superfreak and you worked a miracle getting an album out of him. Do the same with the Cheatin’ Hearts. Just a lot faster. And maybe keep them out of prison?

  With a wistful laugh, Sarah looked up again at Vulcan’s bare behind. This was what her life had been reduced to. Her divorce would be final any day now. She had no boyfriend and no prospect of ever having a family of her own. She’d spent the last three quarters of a year in hell. And now, to top it all off, she was about to lose her job, on a hundred-degree day in the Deep South under a statue’s naked ass.

  She called the band’s publicity office and stressed, in her best imitation of Wendy, that they’d better stay there until she arrived.

  Back on the parking lot Birmingham called a highway, she dialed up a Cheatin’ Hearts album and plugged her MP3 player into the car. She hated country music, but business was business. She might as well make use of this downtime to familiarize herself with the wildly popular songs that she’d been sent to secure more of.

  Despite her dislike of their genre, she’d definitely heard of the Cheatin’ Hearts before her wee-hour assignment. Everyone knew they should have won the Country Music Award for Top New Vocal Group their freshman year but were snubbed because they were an affront to family values. They were also something of an affront to Manhattan Music.

  Word around PR circles was that they were conniving as well as raucous. They’d always denied lead singer and bass guitar player Quentin Cox’s cocaine addiction, blaming his frequent trips to the emergency room on asthma or allergic reactions. After signing with the record company two years ago, the band immediately started a foundation for pediatric asthma and allergy research at a hospital just down the avenue from the Manhattan Music offices, as if thumbing their noses under the company’s watchful eye.

  By the time the convertible reached the next mountain on the trek toward the Cheatin’ Hearts’ publicity office, Sarah had made it through the group’s first album and was listening to the second, Ass Backwards. She inched the car forward again, then examined a printout of the cover. Erin relaxed in a lawn chair in her Daisy Dukes, considering the muscular backsides of her three nude bandmates. Sarah was surprised Manhattan Music had approved this photo for distribution. Maybe Target plastered a big price sticker over the offending parts.

  On the flip side of the cover, each band member was pictured individually, clothed, in a cowboy hat. All were about her age, thirtyish. She shuddered at the thought of thirtyish—her thirtieth birthday was coming up fast—then went back to her examination. Quentin had a piece of hay hanging out of his mouth. Erin winked false eyelashes. Could these people get any more cornball?

  As if Erin’s bleach-blond hair and the wink and the cowboy hat weren’t enough to get the point across, she wore heavy eye makeup and a red push-up bra. Owen, the drummer with whom Erin was having her fling, was handsome, huge, and blond. His photo reminded Sarah of the pictures in the football game programs from her high school, with the linebackers trying to appear as tough and emotionless as possible, necks stiff, eyes elsewhere. Martin, the guitar player, apparently the musical genius of the group, looked like a mad scientist in crooked thick-framed glasses, despite the cowboy hat.

  Sarah let her gaze return to Quentin’s photo. Dark green eyes glared defiantly from under his hat brim. Long lashes framed and softened those eyes. A few boyish brown curls peeked around his ears under the hat. Surely he would have had those curls Photoshopped out if he’d noticed.

  Sarah made a mental note to look up the photo on the Internet when she stopped in at her hotel room, and to e-mail it to Wendy, who needed a thrill. She and her husband Daniel had stopped having sex when Wendy was five months pregnant because they had agreed it was like Daniel was making love to a waterbed. Poor Wendy had only wanted to start a family with Daniel. She hadn’t counted on the waterbed factor, the nausea, or the crippling sciatic nerve pain like a bullet in the butt cheek (she said) that had come to visit in the second trimester.

  And Sarah hadn’t been there to help Wendy through any of it, because she’d stupidly volunteered to save Nine Lives. She would have felt better if their friend and former trainee Tom had remained in the office, but he’d shipped off to save a client in Moscow about the same time Sarah left for Brazil.

  She still remembered her shock at the way brave Wendy had looked in the LaGuardia ticket lobby when she’d driven Sarah there for the flight to Rio. Overcome with a wave of dizziness, Wendy had sat on a bench by the windows, both a
rms wrapped protectively around her middle, seeming uncharacteristically lost. She’d called Daniel to come rescue her. And when Sarah had returned from Rio this week, Wendy had been sitting in the same place, in the same position, this time because her feet were swollen, with her arms wrapped the same way around her much bigger tummy.

  Sarah could not involve Wendy in the trouble she’d found for herself in Rio. She had a band to rescue and her job to save, all by herself.

  She focused on the music again. The Cheatin’ Hearts’ songs were an odd mix. Erin and Owen co-wrote the overblown love ballads. Quentin probably should have seen a more intimate collaboration between the two coming: that Erin would cheat on him with Owen. Martin wrote the most complex and technically demanding songs, which tended to be minor hits and critical favorites. Two of his songs had won Grammys. He’d gotten into fistfights with the losers at the awards after-parties both years.

  But their biggest hits were the ridiculous songs by Quentin. Even Sarah had heard these when they crossed over to the pop charts and became the background music in sports arenas. There was “I Want a Leia,” about Star Wars or sex, according to how much smut your sense of humor could stand. There was “Heavily Sedated,” which unfortunately was autobiographical. And then there was their biggest hit of all, “Come to Find Out,” a colloquial term in Alabama for making an unexpected discovery: “Come to find out you done done it again / Come to find out I got screwed in the end / Shoulda known better there’d be no doubt / You done the mailman” (or “the mayor,” or “all the neighbors,” depending on the verse), “come to find out.”

  But every song had that unmistakable Cheatin’ Hearts harmony: Quentin’s strong, lazy voice on melody, Erin’s high voice an octave above him, Owen singing baritone, and Martin anywhere and everywhere between, his voice transforming the chord mid-syllable. They didn’t seem to use backup musicians, and they put out an enormous sound for four people. Sarah turned the car air conditioner down before she realized that it was the music making her hair stand on end.

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