The room spun.
Breathe. Just Breathe.
Lucy Johnson, aka pop diva, Celeste, to her adoring fans, stumbled into the wall of her small dressing room. Flattening a hand against the cool white paint, she sagged against it. Her heart beat like sporadic gunfire. She was dying.
What had her therapist said? No one has ever died of a panic attack. That thought loosened the vice that gripped her chest.
Focus on breathing. Slowly.
Using another relaxation technique her therapist taught, she imagined herself sitting by the ocean, listening to waves, feeling the breeze on her face. Her muscles relaxed slightly until the image in her head filled with paparazzi storming the beach, cameras clicking. Before the picture faded, she saw herself hiding under her beach chair digging in the sand to get away from the ceaseless questions and pictures.
Her heart hopped and skipped like a frog on a hot skillet.
Lurching to a chair covered in sequined stage costumes, Lucy perched on the edge, wrapped both arms around her stomach and rocked back and forth. Waves of panic rolled through her body. She fought the urge to run. Go anywhere. Now.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Self-talk. Another technique. It worked a little because she knew it was true. She’d been to seven doctors and specialists. They’d all pronounced her in excellent physical condition. The anxiety and random panic attacks that came with no obvious trigger were simply the warnings of her body that she’d pushed it too far. They’d said she needed to rest. As if she had time for that.
Lucy jumped at the voice; she hadn’t heard anyone come into the opulent dressing room. She gave Madison, her public relations director and best friend, a flimsy nod as she pulled air into her lungs. Slowly. Pushed it out through pursed lips even slower. Finally, her arms loosened from gripping her waist as the intense fear faded.
“Ah, honey.” Madison placed a soft hand on her shoulder. The panic had dissipated enough that the contact didn’t feel claustrophobic. “Have you changed your mind about the resort?”
“No,” Lucy whispered. She forced the lingering fear down. “I’m fine.” If she said it enough times, she might eventually believe it.
“They’re getting worse.”
True. Stronger and more frequent. “I can’t disappoint my fans.”
Plus, she couldn’t step out of the spotlight for a second. Not in today’s world of microscopic attention spans. Especially not in the middle of a tour.
“You know I care about your career. Keeping you hot is my job.” Madison wrapped her arms around Lucy. “But you’re also my friend, and I love you. I want you healthy.”
Lucy returned the hug.
“I care about you, too.” Lucy stepped back and trailed one hand down a bright purple, sequined outfit hanging in order with the rest of her costume changes for the pending show. “Which is why I don’t want to cancel the tour. Any hint of a health scandal could easily cut revenue in half. My career might never recover.”
Madison pinched the bridge of her nose as though warding off a headache. “On one hand, I want you to rest. On the other, I want you to be the one everyone is talking about. In a good way.”
“Plus, if I do go away, it won’t be to some paparazzi encrusted celeb rehab/detox place. I want somewhere no one would think to look for me. Somewhere they’ll not automatically think I have issues.” Lucy straightened her shoulders. She couldn’t be weak, and she would beat the panic attacks on her own terms. She just didn’t know what her terms were yet.
Lucy pushed her hand through her short multi-colored hair, filling her lungs with deep, slow breaths. The scent of flowers from the dozen or so bouquets scattered artfully around the room should have been relaxing, but it felt smothering instead. Her body still trembled and she hadn’t quite gotten the emotional armor back up, but the feelings had reached a controllable level when she looked out the window. “Brock is here.” She kept her tone level, even though her stomach fell.
“Your boyfriend. Great.” Madison’s bracelets jangled as she swiped an apple wedge from the fruit tray on the table.
“My hired boyfriend. Who I’ll dump any day.”
Madison’s smile faded as she adjusted a life-size teddy bear among the gifts from Celeste’s fans which would be donated to a local shelter after the show. “No. Not yet. It was only last month that Liam dirty-dumped you for that porn star, Tingle, or whatever her name is.” Madison waved a hand in the air. “They’re everywhere on social media. You have to have a counter attack.”
Lucy eyed a tempting display of chocolate covered strawberries before smoothing a hand down her tight leather pants. She wanted to say that she didn’t need a man to be successful, but in this case, she actually did.
Leveling her gaze at Lucy, Madison said, “Unless, of course, you want Liam to win.” Her tone softened. “You’ve spent enough time with Brock in the last month, and especially with practices this week, surely you’re comfortable with him?”
Lucy swallowed a sigh and nodded. She was comfortable, but she didn’t like him. She couldn’t get over the idea that he was using her as a stepping stone for his own career.
Another man in jeans and a plain, dark green button-up got out of the car beside Brock’s. Shorter than Brock, his blond hair hung in one layer by his ears, looking as if someone cut it with a knife. A diamond stud winked in his right ear.
“I’ve never seen him before.” Lucy nodded out the window.
Madison’s brows furrowed. “Hmm. Me, either.” She whistled low. “Look at those shoulders.” The man spoke to Brock and clamped a hand on Brock’s arm. “And his hands are as big as dinner plates.” Madison snapped her fingers. “I totally forgot. Brock asked if he could have an old friend who owns a farm Brock is interested in buying meet him for the show. I told him to give his name and info to security.” Madison shrugged. “I figured he was a fan.”
Lucy nodded. People in her crew brought friends backstage to meet her all the time.
Brock and the stranger laughed and headed in the back entrance of the Midtown Arena, the Buffalo, NY venue where her tour was playing tonight’s sold-out show.
“Lucy.” Madison put one hand on her hip. Her long, chrome painted nails clicked as she pulled up social media photo. “There’s your ex. And Tingle.” She flashed the screen, although Lucy had already seen the picture. The whole world had already seen the picture. “They’re obscene.”
“I know. I know.” Lucy closed her eyes and looked away. “I know what I need to do. And I’ll do it. It’s just…” Madison saw it as necessity. And to a certain extent, Lucy did, too. But the whole transaction, necessary as it was, also made her feel…less.
Madison narrowed her eyes. “Now, remember, the doctor told you to stay calm. Relax.” She did an in-and-out breathing motion with her hands, like the cool-down on an exercise video.
Lucy took a deep, slow breath and tried to push her personal drama aside. The burn in her chest eased as she blew the long breath out. She followed Madison out of the makeshift dressing room and through the back corridors.
After a few turns and twists, Madison stopped and knocked on a thick, brown door.
Brock opened it, his slicked back hair shone stark against his pale face. His teeth flashed in a grin. Like a shark. “Hey, how’s my girlfriend? Wink, wink.” Brock leaned in and slipped one eye closed.
Lucy slapped a friendly smile on her face. “Nice to see you, Brock.” Skimming past Brock, her gaze landed on the man she’d seen in the parking lot. Sky blue eyes studied her. She shivered with sudden goosebumps and tugged her cropped top down.
“This is a friend of mine. Judah Martin.” Brock’s soft hand gestured toward his friend.
Lucy held her hand out to Judah, whose brilliant blue eyes contained mild curiosity and were not filled with the usual hero worship. He didn’t gush about her albums or pop star status. Or even seem to have any clue of it as his mammoth hand casually consumed her own.
“That’s a different name. Judah.” She rolled it off her tongue. Odd. But it fit him.
“Yeah. Great to meet you, too, Ruthie.” His voice rumbled with some sort of accent. He gave her hand a perfunctory pump then dropped it, looking over her shoulder as though he expected the real pop star to walk in behind her.
“It’s Celeste,” she said with mild astonishment. Usually people stumbled over themselves to tell her how much they loved her songs, or how much one of them had changed their life. Judah didn’t act as if he even knew that she was world-famous.
His gaze landed back on hers, while his wide shoulders moved in a semi-shrug. “Sorry. Celeste.”