THIRTEEN:

 

His back hurt, his legs ached, but his mind was running at a million miles an hour as he stepped off the red-eye flight and looked around for Tiny. He'd worn the appropriate disguise, but being in the Orlando International Airport without Tiny or someone right by him, even with his present hyper state, wasn't a smart thing to do. He'd packed only a backpack's worth of stuff due to the short nature of his trip so when he stepped off the plane he was raring to get to his destination.

"J!" he heard and looked to see Tiny standing there waiting for him.

"You got the car?" Justin asked forgetting the pleasantries that usually were exchanged between him and his bodyguard. He'd make it up to him later, but for the moment he had only one thing on his mind. He needed to get to Johnny and needed to get their fast. If he didn't he knew that the song wouldn't be added to the new CD and he wanted it on there.

"Yeah," Tiny said walking with him. "I still don't understand why you have to have me catch a cab home, but whatever, you're the boss."

"Did you call out to the compound?" he asked.

"Yeah," Tiny said, "She's there with Rodney Jerkins for the day. Gritty said they were packing up and heading out to her parents house in a few days though."

"Great," Justin sighed, "This better work."

They neared the outside of the airport Justin saw the SUV at the curb. He would have told tiny to drive the Roadster, but didn't want Tiny to drive it and also didn't want it left at the curb.

Tiny escorted him to the car, closed him in and Justin sped through traffic to get to 405 to get to the compound.

About half way there he hit some traffic and his mind began to slow. After flying to Florida from the West Coast he realized that he didn't even know if Johnny would be available. He'd known that he was in town, but didn't know if he was working or not.

Quickly Justin moved his hand over to his backpack and pulled his phone and hands-free headset from his bag, while carefully maneuvering through the slowed flow of traffic. "Johnny?"

"Yeah Justin," he said.

"Can I show you something?"

"It's gonna be hard to do on the phone," Johnny said.

"I'm on my way to the compound right now from the airport."

"Airport?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah," he said, "Just got back from LA. I'll explain when I get there if you have a minute for me," Justin said.

"Sure," Johnny said, "Come on over."

"Good, see ya in a few minutes."

Justin clicked off the phone, pulled the speaker from his ear and stared at the CD lying on the seat next to him. He looked up at the road again then glanced in his rear view mirror for a moment to smile at himself. This was gonna be good. He hadn't been this excited about anything in weeks and if he remembered right if his reaction was this big about the song then it was going to be a hit bigger than any of the group's previous songs. The special thing about this time around was the dedication he was going to make with this song. This one meant so much more than anything he'd ever written.

***********

"Have you seen Meredith?" Justin asked leaning into a group of people as he moved across the room, drink in hand, trying to be hospitable while also trying to find his girlfriend. The night hadn't seemed right without her. She'd been there at his side when they'd arrived and the look of happiness on her face had been better than looking at himself in the reflection on the limo's window earlier after they'd gotten the good news.

A female voice came into his ear, a drunken woman pulling him close for a moment to hug him. "I think I saw her go to the ladies room, but that was a while ago."

"Thanks," he nodded not even paying attention long enough to see who had delivered the news.

He was mostly sober, having had a few too many classes of champagne earlier and had switched to seven up knowing that Meredith would get upset if he got too drunk, even if it was a special occasion.

When he came across Joey dancing in the middle of the dance floor he tapped him on the shoulder and shouted, "You seen Meredith?"

Joey pointed across the room, almost in the direction he'd just come from, "Over there man!"

Justin nodded, gave Joey a friendly slap on the back and went back in the direction where he'd been pointing.

He found her sitting at a booth surrounded by people smiling at everyone and telling jokes. When she saw him she looked at him with a worried look. "You ok?"

He nodded and smiled at her, "Can I talk to you for a second?"

She nodded and slid out of the booth and he took her hand leading her out of the hotel's huge ballroom to a quieter corner of the hotel.

"What's wrong?" she asked when she seemed to notice that they were alone.

"Hold on a second," he said, "I have something to show you."

Meredith followed him into the empty room and he shut the door, leaving them in the ballroom that was lit only by a few lamps. She looked scared and he didn't blame her considering that he'd pulled her away from the party to talk to her, but he knew in a few moments that she'd be ecstatic and would forgive him.

Justin set down his glass on the floor and stepped towards one of the lamps, pulling an envelope out from the pocket inside his jean jacket he'd worn that night.

"What's this?" she asked when he handed it to her.

"A present," he said.

"You mean you aren't mad at me?"

"Hell no," he said pulling her into his arms.

"A present?" she asked looking at the envelope still with some suspicion on her face., "I thought this was your night to celebrate...I don't need any presents right now."

"I know you don't need them, but I wanted to give you one...well deliver it really," he said. "Open it up."

He watched as she carefully opened the envelope and read the letter that was inside. He already knew what it said. He hadn't written it, but he knew that standard language that the letter contained.

"Is this a joke?" she asked.

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said with a nod.

Meredith stepped away from him, her mouth still open with surprise. "How?"

"I sent the demo in," he said, "Told them that you were someone to look out for."

Meredith held the letter, squeezing it tight as she read it again. "Are you kidding me?"

"No," he said.

"Justin this is...this is," she stuttered out.

"It's a record deal Bear," he said.

***********

A few moments later Justin pulled the car into the empty space grabbed up the tape and jumped out of the car practically sprinting into the building, and up the spiral staircase that led to Johnny's office in the corner of the house.

"Hey!" Gritty yelled at him as he passed.

Justin stopped and waved, "She...she's here isn't she?"

Gritty nodded looking confused at Justin's present hyper state.

"Make...make sure she stays here. I have something to show her in a while."

Gritty nodded and Justin continued on into the office, knocking only once before pushing his way in the door.

 

 

Meredith stared at her own reflection in the window next to her then took a final breath before waving to the sound technician before she opened her mouth to sing.

I won't play the fool anymore
This time I walk out the door
And leave you standing here all alone
This time I find on my own
Someone who loves me
'Cause I,
I won't play the fool anymore

"No. No. No," the voice came into the room and Meredith immediately thought of the way that Justin had yelled at her about the song a few weeks before.

"Meredith sweetie I need some more toughness in your voice. This is supposed to be a tough song here--" He cut off and sang the last line for her with a hard edge to his voice. "--Your voice...well honey your voice sounds like you're about ready to cry or something."

"I'm sorry Rodney," she said softly and took a deep breath, "I know you don't like excuses, but I didn't sleep well last night."

Rodney Jerkins wasn't someone you told excuses to, but Meredith didn't know what else to do. She hated this song, hated most of the ones she'd done in the last few weeks and she was starting to get antsy about leaving town.

The album had finished itself, mostly without Justin's presence. He'd flown home to Tennessee with he boys after the trip to The Keys, only returning twice since then to hear what she had recorded with the other producers that had been brought in to work with her. The other few weeks she figured that he'd been in Orlando, but every time she was over at Lynn's house he seemed to be conveniently gone.

He'd requested specifically that she didn't attend the meetings, so she hadn't. It had been a slap in the face for him to ask her that, especially since the message had come through Lynn and not straight from him. She would have even felt better about it all if he'd just left her a voicemail message but he hadn't.

"Let's break for lunch ok?" Rodney said, "Give ya an hour?"

"Sounds good. I'm really sorry about this." Meredith took a deep breath knowing that even if she didn't eat anything she could take a nap for an hour or something.

As she stepped from the soundproof portion of the studio Gritty immediately came up to her. "He's here."

"Gritty I know you're excited about meeting Rodney Jerkins, but you've already told me about that three times today."

"No," he said, "Justin is here."

"He is?"

"He just went up to Johnny's office and he looked...well he looked like he was on a mission."

"Way too serious expression?" she asked.

"Sunglasses and hat to boot."

"Crap," she sighed, "I wonder what he wants."

"I don't know what it is, but it's important," Gritty said, "I'm supposed to make sure that you stick around."

Meredith narrowed her eyes. "Oh really now? He's trying to order me around?"

"I guess so," Gritty said.

"He has some nerve, disappearing for weeks on end then showing up and telling me that I need to stay put...where the fuck have I been for the last few weeks?"

Gritty tried to calm her down, but Meredith was too hyper already to listen to anything he had to say. Her feet started to walk even before she knew where she was going.

"Where are you going?"

"To find him,"

"What?"

"To find him and have this out. I know that when this album comes out I'm going to have to do publicity with him, but I'm not going to spend the next few months being quiet when he totally acts like a child all the time."

Gritty followed her through the building and up to Johnny's office.

At the door they both stopped and listened to the music that was coming from inside.

So many times I thought I held it in my hands,
But just like grains of sand
Love slipped through my fingers.
And so many nights,
I asked the Lord above
Please make me lucky enough
To find a love that lingers
Something keeps telling me
That you could be my answered prayer
You must be heaven sent I swear

The volume lowered the shut off. Noises came from inside and although she couldn't see she knew that the CD or tape that the song had been recorded on was being returned to its owner. Meredith listened to the conversation inside.

"What's it called?" Johnny asked.

"Something like you," he said.

"So has she heard it yet?" Johnny asked.

"Nope," he said. His voice, even with that one word made her smile, that was until she heard what came next. "I was out in LA to record it, but I haven't let her listen to it."

Meredith's heart sank. It took her only a moment for her to realize who the "she" they were talking about was. It still broke her heart every time she thought about it and although she knew she had work to do that afternoon she knew that she needed out of there.

When she turned around and saw Gritty standing there watching her he seemed to know her pain.

"Take me home Gritty," she said firmly.

He just nodded and followed her back down the stairs and out to get her things.

 

 

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