When It's Real by Erin Watt

Chapter One

Him

“Please tell me every girl in there is of legal age.”

“Every girl in there is of legal age,” I dutifully repeat to my manager, Jim Tolson.

Truth is, I have no clue if everyone’s legal. When I came home last night from the studio, the party was already raging.

I didn’t take the time to card anyone before grabbing a beer and chatting up some eager girls who proclaimed that they were so in love with my music that they sang it in their sleep. It sounded vaguely like an invitation, but I wasn’t interested. My buddy Luke took them off my hands and then I wandered around trying to figure out if I knew even a quarter of the people in my house.

I ended up counting seven, tops, that I actually recognized.

Jim presses his already thin lips together before taking a seat in the lounger across from me. There’s a girl passed out on it, so he’s forced to perch on the end. Jim once told me that the biggest hazard of working with a young rock star is the age of his groupies. Sitting this close to a bikiniclad teenager makes him visibly edgy.

“Keep that line in mind in case TMI asks you about it on the street today,” Jim warns.

“Noted.” Also noted? Avoid any celeb hot spots today. I have zero desire to be papped.

“How was the studio last night?”

I roll my eyes. As if Jim didn’t have the studio tech on the phone immediately after I left, replaying the track. “You know exactly how it was. Crappy. Worse than crappy. I think a barking Chihuahua could lay down better vocals than me right now.”

I lean back and stroke my throat. Nothing’s wrong with my vocal cords. Jim and I got that checked out with a doctor a few months ago. But the notes that were coming out yesterday lacked…something. All my music seems flat these days.

I haven’t recorded anything decent since my last album.

I can’t pinpoint the problem. It could be the lyrics or the rhythm or the melody. It’s everything and nothing, and no amount of tweaking has helped me.

I run my fingers over the six strings of my Gibson, knowing my frustration must show on my face.

“Come on, let’s walk a little.” Jim dips his head toward the girl. She looks passed out, but she could be faking it.

With a sigh, I set the guitar on the cushion and rise to my feet.

“Didn’t know you liked walks on the beach, Jim. Should we start quoting poetry to each other before you propose?”

I joke. But he’s probably right about putting some distance between us and the groupie. We don’t need some yappy fan talking about my music block to the tabloids. I give them enough to talk about already.

“Did you see the latest social media numbers?” He holds his phone up.

“Is that an actual question?”

We stop at the railing on my wraparound deck. I wish we could walk down to the beach, but it’s public, and the last time I tried setting foot on the sand in the back of my house, I came away with my swim trunks torn off and a bloody nose. That was three years ago. The tabloids turned it into a story about me getting into a fight with my ex and terrorizing young children.

“You’re losing followers at a rate of a thousand a week.”

“Sounds dire.” Sounds awesome, actually. Maybe I’ll finally be able take advantage of my beachfront property.

His perfectly unlined face, courtesy of some of the best

Swiss knives money can buy, is marred by irritation. “This is serious, Oakley.”

“So what? Who cares if I lose followers?”

“Do you want to be taken seriously as an artist?”

This lecture again? I’ve heard it from Jim a million frickin’ times since he signed me when I was fourteen.

“You know I do.”

“Then you have to shape up,” he huffs.

“Why?” What does shaping up have to do with making great music? If anything, maybe I need to be wilder, really stretch the limits of everything in life.

But…haven’t I done that already? I feel like I’ve drunk, smoked, ingested and experienced nearly everything the world has to offer in the past five years. Am I already the washed-up pop star before I hit my twenties?

A tinge of fear scrapes down my spine at the thought.

“Because your label is on the verge of dropping you,” Jim warns.

I practically clap like a child at this news. We’ve been at odds for months. “So let them.”

“How do you think you’re going to have your next album made? The studio’s already rejected your last two attempts.

You want to experiment with your sound? Use poetry as lyrics? Write about things other than heartache and pretty girls who don’t love you back?”

I stare sullenly at the water.

He grabs my arm. “Pay attention, Oak.”

I give him a what the hell are you doing look, and he lets go of my arm. We both know I don’t like being touched.

“They aren’t going to let you cut the record you want if you keep alienating your audience.”

“Exactly,” I say smugly. “So why do I care if the label drops me?”

“Because labels exist to make money, and they won’t produce your next album unless it’s one they can actually market. If you want to win another Grammy, if you want to be taken seriously by your peers, then your only chance is to rehabilitate your image. You haven’t had a record out since you were seventeen. That was two years ago. It’s like a decade in the music business.”

“Adele released at nineteen and twenty-five.”

“You aren’t fuckin’ Adele.”

“I’m bigger,” I say, and it’s not a boast. We both know it’s true.

Since I released my first album at fourteen, I’ve had unreal success. Every album has gone double platinum, with my self-titled Ford reaching the rare Diamond. That year

I did thirty international tour stops, all stadium tours, all sellouts. There are fewer than ten artists in the world who do stadium tours. Everyone else is relegated to arenas, auditoriums, halls and clubs.

Were bigger,” Jim says bluntly. “In fact, you’re on the verge of being a has-been at nineteen.”

I tense up as he voices my earlier fear.

“Congratulations, kid. Twenty years from now, you’ll be sitting in a chair on Hollywood Squares and some kid will ask their mother, ‘who’s Oakley Ford?’ and the mom will say—”

“I get it,” I say tightly.

“No. You don’t get it. Your existence will have been so fleeting that even that parent will turn to her kid and say, ‘I have no idea who that is.’” Jim’s tone turns pleading. “Look,

Oak, I want you to be successful with the music you want to make, but you have to work with me. The industry is run by a bunch of old white men who are high on coke and power. They love knocking you artists around. They get off on it. Don’t give them any more reason to decide that you’re the fall guy. You’re better than that. I believe in you, but you gotta start believing in yourself, too.”

“I do believe in myself.”

Does it sound as fake to Jim’s ears as it does to mine?

“Then act like it.”

Translation? Grow up.

I reach over and take the phone from his hand. The social media number beside my name is still in the eight digits.

Millions of people follow me and eat up all the ridiculous things my PR team posts daily. My shoes. My hands. Man, the hands post got over a million likes and launched an equal number of fictional stories. Those girls have very vivid imaginations. Vivid, dirty imaginations.

“So what’s your suggestion?” I mutter.

Jim sighs with relief. “I have a plan. I want you to date someone.”

“No way. We already tried the girlfriend thing.”

During the launch of Ford, management hooked me up with April Showers. Yup, that’s her real name—I saw it on her driver’s license. April was an up-and-coming reality television star and we all thought she’d know the score. A fake relationship to keep both our names on magazine covers and headlining every gossip site on the web. Yes, there’d be hate from certain corners, but the nonstop media attention and speculation would drive our visibility through the roof. Our names would be on everyone’s lips from here to

China and back again.

The press strategy worked like a charm. We couldn’t sneeze without someone taking our picture. We dominated celebrity gossip for six months, and the Ford tour was a smashing success. April sat in the front row of more fashion shows than I knew actually existed and went on to sign a huge two-year modeling contract with a major agency.

Everything was great until the end of the tour. What everyone, including me, had failed to recognize was that if they threw two teenagers together and told them to act like they were in love, stuff was going to happen. Stuff did happen. The only problem? April thought stuff would continue to happen after the tour was over. When I told her it wouldn’t, she wasn’t happy—and she had a big enough platform to tell the world exactly how unhappy she was.

“This won’t be another April thing,” Jim assures me.

“We want to appeal to all the girls out there who dream of walking down the red carpet but think it’s out of reach. We don’t want a model or a star. We want your fans to think you’re attainable.”

Against my better judgment, I ask, “And how do we do that?”

“We conjure up a normal. She starts posting to you on your social media accounts. Flirting with you online. People see you interact. Then you invite her to a concert. You meet, fall in love and boom. Serious heartthrob status again.”

“My fans hated April,” I remind him.

“Some did, but millions loved her. Millions more will love you if you fall for an ordinary girl, because each and every one of those girls is going to think that she’s their stand-in.”

I clench my teeth. “No.”

If Jim was trying to think up a way to torture me, this is absolutely it, because I hate social media. I grew up having my baby steps photographed and sold to the highest bidder.

For charity, my mom later claimed. The public gets a ton of me. I want to keep some parts of my life private, which is why I pay a couple of people a fortune so I don’t have to touch that stuff.

“If you do this…” Jim pauses enticingly. “King will produce your album.”

My head swivels around so fast that Jim jumps back in surprise. “You serious?”

Donovan King is the best producer in the country. He’s worked on everything from rap to country to rock albums, turning artists into legends. I once read an interview where he said he’d never work with a pop star and their soulless commercial music, no matter how much anyone paid him.

Working with King is a dream of mine, but he’s turned down every overture I’ve ever made.

If he wasn’t interested in producing Ford, then why this latest album? Why now?

Jim grins. Well, as much as his plastic face allows him to smile. “Yes. He said if you were serious, then he’d be interested, but he needs a show of faith.”

“And a girlfriend is that show of faith?” I ask incredulously.

“Not a girlfriend. It’s what dating a nonfamous, ordinary girl signifies. That you’re down-to-earth, making music for the sake of music, not for the sake of money and fame.”

“I am down-to-earth,” I protest.

Jim responds with a snort. He jerks his thumb at the French doors behind us. “Tell me something—what’s the name of that girl who’s passed out in there?”

I try not to cringe. “I…don’t know,” I mumble.

“That’s what I thought.” He frowns now. “Do you want to know what Nicky Novak was photographed doing last night?”

My head is starting to spin. “What the hell does Novak have to do with anything?” Nicky Novak is a sixteen-year-old pop star I’ve never even met. His boy band just released their debut album, and apparently it’s topping the charts. The group is giving 1D a run for their money.

“Ask me what Novak was doing,” Jim prompts.

“Fine. Whatever. What was Novak doing?”

“Bowling.” My manager crosses his arms over his chest.

“He got papped on a bowling date with his girlfriend—some girl he’s been dating since middle school.”

“Well, good for him.” I give another eye roll. “You want me to go bowling, is that it? You think that will convince King to work with me? Seeing me roll some gutter balls?” It’s hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“I just told you what I want,” Jim grumbles. “If you want

King to produce your album, you need to show him you’re serious, that you’re ready to stop partying with girls whose names you don’t know and settle down with someone who will ground you.”

“I can tell him that.”

“He needs proof.”

My gaze shifts back to the ocean, and I stand there for a moment, watching the surf crash against the beach. This album I’ve been working on these past two years—no, the one I’m trying to work on and failing—suddenly feels as if it’s actually within my reach. A producer like King could help me move past this creative block and make the kind of music I’ve always wanted. And all I have to do in return is date a normal? I guess I can do that. I mean, every artist has to make sacrifices for his art at one point in his life.

Right?


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