Chapter 7

Orlando, Florida

        His headphones were on, his eyes were closed, his notebook was open, his pen was uncapped and stuck behind his ear. The only thing that spoiled the image of a dedicated, passionate musician was the fact that there was no music. None in his head, none on his paper, none coming out of his portable CD player.

        A hand descended on his shoulder, and he jumped at the contact.

        “She’s here, JC,” Joey said.

        He pretended to push the stop button and tugged off his headphones. He stood up beside the rest of the guys as the door creaked open and a tiny girl filled the door frame.
        She could feel the eyes on her, and wished she could pretend she didn’t notice. But this wasn’t one of her celebrity appearances, these people were celebrities too. Besides, she was going to be working with these guys for months. She couldn’t ignore them…at least not yet. She hated this awkward moment. She didn’t want to be there.

        Luckily, she didn’t have time to say anything. One of the guys, she wasn’t quite sure which one, ran over and shook her hand. “You’re Gray?”

        She managed a smile. “Yes.”

        “I love your work. I’m Chris Kirkpatrick.”

        “Thank you,” she said softly, dropping his hand.

        Another one took his place. “Lance Bass. Welcome to Orlando, you’ll like it here!” he said, smiling.

        She smirked, forgot that she didn’t know these people and said, “What, are you the city welcome wagon? I’m sure it’s fine.”

        Mouths dropped, and she felt a little guilty for being rude, when he was only trying to be nice.

        To her surprise, he laughed. “Do you think that’s a future career option? I mean, if this singing thing doesn’t work out…”

        She smiled at him. She liked this guy. He reminded her of Mouse, back home. Another guy came over, and towered over her. She looked up at him.

        “Justin Timberlake,” He said professionally.

        She raised an eyebrow. “You’re the youngest, right?”

        He nodded, defensive. “So?”

        She shrugged. “You’re tall.”

        “You’re short,” he retorted.

        She rolled her eyes.

        “Are you a clubber?”

        The question came from a guy she hadn’t met yet, shorter than Justin but taller than Chris. She looked at him sharply. “Yes,” she answered. “You can’t live in New York City and not be one,”

        He grinned, making his face look more boyish. “I knew I’d heard of you somewhere. Word gets around.”

        She smiled. “You must be Joey Fatone.”

        He grinned again. “At your service.”

        Justin groaned. “That was SO cheesy, Joey.”

        He shrugged. “She doesn’t mind, do ya, Gray?”

        She shook her head no, and looked around the room. “Aren’t there five of you? That’s what my manager said.”

        “Yes, there are five of us. You haven’t met me yet. JC Chasez.”

        The voice was strained and distant, different, but so freakishly familiar. She whirled around. There he was. Jesus fucking Christ. It’s him. Who would have thought…god, I didn’t know he was in this little group. “Hello,” she said, forcing her voice to remain neutral. It wasn’t hard, but it was hardly a triumph. It was pathetic, how in control she was over her emotions.
        He’d known it was her. Seen her in magazines and on billboards, after it was all said and done. Well, not said and done. Over. Abruptly. But she hadn’t known it was him. So he had been expecting it. She had not. And he was wondering what she was thinking. She hadn’t used to be that in control. She had changed, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing. She was more beautiful, if that was possible. Thinner. She had always been skinny, but now she looked slimmer. He wondered if she had been sick, but banished the thought from his head. She wasn’t worried about him. Her hair was lighter. Her skin was tanner. All artificial changes. Even the eyes had changed. Still that magnificent, enticing chocolate brown, they were weary and tired. Ragged. The sparkle was gone. He wondered how she had been pushed to that point. But still so very beautiful. It was all her fault, he supposed. All her fault that there was no music in his head, in his heart, in his ears. But he was focused on one thing and one thing only. Making sure none of the guys ever found out.