"You're going to break a nail if you keep that up."
Meredith stared at where her manicured hand had taken on a life of its own and was drumming against the black leather covered handle of the Ford Excursion that had picked them up that morning. "Since when did you become so concerned with my nails Gritty?" she snapped at him, pulling her hand back from the handle to adjust the navy blue thigh length cardigan sweater she was wearing with her jeans and navy blue Adidas shell toe shoes. She had to stand up a little in her seat to pull it out from under her, which was a task with the seat belt on, but a moment later she was settled comfortably again. She normally didn't dress so casually, but since it was just a recording session and not an interview she'd thought comfort not fashion.
Thirty one-year-old Gregory "Gritty" White laughed a little at his younger traveling partner. He'd been her bodyguard since she'd been pulled into the business and was the only one who really seemed to know her these days. He'd become her rock, her friend, her caretaker. Although his job title said security, it wasn't a working relationship. It was more. His role had evolved over the last few months into more of older brother/father figure for her so it wasn't at all out of the ordinary to tease her a little while protecting her. He took a sip of water from the clear plastic bottle in his hand, capped the bottle and placed it into the holder between their seats. "Since I got tired of Whitney bitching about having to do your nails every five minutes." He rolled his eyes at the mention of her make-up woman that had been with them during her recent tour in Europe promoting the movie YellowPages.
"Awe come on Gritty," she sighed out moving her legs a little in the foot area that separated the seat that the driver was in from the seat she'd climbed into at the condo the two of them were staying in. "You can't tell me that I'm not supposed to be nervous about this."
He watched her remove her slim black rimmed, yellow tinted sunglasses from the perch on her head. Her hair fell forward a little hiding her eyes and she ducked her head as she folded the glasses and unfolded them in her lap. It was her classic hiding posture. It made her look shy, but really the posture was taken on to hide the fact that her eyes were watering and her lips were quivering. He'd seen it enough and reacted like he always did. He ignored her childish behavior and got on with the day.
"How long has it been?" he asked with a blunt tone.
Her eyes shot up and an angry look washed over her face her eyes narrowing at him coldly. "You know exactly how long it's been. I can't even believe that this is happening."
"M, calm down," he said firmly, "You have to get through this. It's going to be a good thing for your career--" His eyes widened with his words to show the importance of them.
"I should have canceled this months ago," she said with a sigh and put her hand to her forehead and held it there, "Do you have any Advil on you?"
Gritty reached for a backpack at his feet, fished around for a moment then brought out the bottle. He handed it to her and then handed her the bottle of water that sat in the holder next to the one that he'd been drinking out of. "Don't do this sweetie. Don't freak out on me now," he said softly.
"I can't do this," she said struggling with the cap of the Advil bottle. "I wanna go home."
Gritty put a hand over her shaking ones, "Well it's too late now, so you need to calm down and prepare yourself to deal with him."
"I don't know if I can do this," she said with a shaky voice.
Gritty automatically grabbed a tissue from a box that was in the consul between them and handed her one anticipating her tears before she even felt them coming to her eyes. He took the bottle from her and opened it then popped out two pills for her. "Honey, you have to calm down. If you go in there looking upset at all he's going to see it and he's going to pounce on you," he said, "He did it the last time you saw him and I'm not going to let that happen to you again."
Meredith bit her lip and tried to think of something else. Reliving the past wasn't how she wanted to spend the next two months. She'd moved back into the area and would be living there full time until the album was done, but she didn't want to revisit the life that she'd led the last time she'd been in Orlando. It had been a waste of time to go through it in the first place and it was going to be a waste to relive it.
The car seemed to take the lull in conversation as a sign to slow down and when Meredith turned and looked out the window the white walled, red topped WEG building greeted her. "Here we go," she said and popped the pills in her mouth, swigged down some water and waited for the driver to get out and to open her door. She blotted her eyes for a moment; put away the used tissue then unhooked her seatbelt and grabbed her tiny purse into her lap.
She pulled herself out of the car a moment later looking as calm, cool, and collected as she had when she'd performed her first hit "I'm Ready To Fall" at the Grammy's earlier that month. Her shoulders were square, smile perfect, and eyes alert and as expressive as ever. She thanked the driver then waited for Gritty to come around and take her hand. It was a pattern that they went through every day, hundreds of times a day, and although she was probably too old at age nineteen to be holding someone's hand to go places, it was a comfort for the both of them to operate like that.
"You ready sweetie?" he asked.
She nodded and replaced her sunglasses on her face and looked around a little while they walked towards the door. The neighborhood where the WEG compound was located looked like any other suburban Florida neighborhood. Medium sized three and four bedroom houses lined the streets and the neighbors went about their business seemingly knowing nothing of what was happening behind the walls of the house on the corner.
She smiled at the houses and the lake. One thing that was nice about this trip was that she wasn't stuck in New York or LA working on the album in some office building. WEG had been her home away from home all those months ago and for the time being would be her temporary home again.
Justin set down his large McDonald's cup on the counter and leaned back in the chair that had been pulled up to the control board, still holding the phone to his ear. "Yes mom, I understand. I make her cry you kick my as--you get on me about it," he said with a sigh.
"Justin I swear to the lord above that if you talk like that I'm going to ground you," she said.
"Whatever," he yawned tapping his hand on the counter to the beat of the last song that had been on the radio when he'd pulled up in his Mercedes.
"She called me this morning worried about her daughter and I promised her that you two wouldn't brawl like you did last time," his mother said.
"Why are you getting involved?" he asked removing his sunglasses to put them in the pocket of his T-shirt, "This is between the two of us."
"No it's not," his mother said, "As her manager I'm responsible for my client to be comfortable in everything she does."
"Mom, it's Meredith," he said.
He heard the noise of his mother pulling in a huge breath of air in shock. "What is that supposed to mean Justin Randall?"
"Nothing," he said with another sigh and moved the phone to his other ear, grabbed a drink then put the cup on the counter again, "I promised you that I would be civil and I'm going to be civil."
"Fine," she said, "I'm not going through this again. I'm not going to be stuck in the middle so either you guys interact like adults or you don't interact at all."
"It wasn't me who threw the fit!" he said. "She was the one who threw the vase at the window and she's the one who almost wreaked her car. All I did was--"
"All you did was get caught cheating on your girlfriend."
"You're still on her side?" he asked.
"No honey, I'm staying out of it. I was merely reminding you of the facts. You and Meredith haven't gotten along since that MISUNDERSTANDING and I don't want you to have a repeat of that incident," his mother said.
"Look ma, I got go work on this track a little more," he said, "I'll call you tonight when I'm on the way home and we can talk about this later."
"Justin Randall don't take that tone with me," she said, "I'm still your mother and--"
"I'M SORRY," he said to stop her rambling and said, "I love you ma and I'll be home after dinner so don't get anything for me."
His mother took a breath. "I love you too honey," she said, "Have a good day."
"Always," he said.
"Bye," she said.
"Bye," he said and pulled the phone from his ear; pressed the end button then flipped the phone closed and shoved it into his pockets. It was then that he noticed the note on the control panel from JC telling him to load the second CD player and play the CD that was already in there.
"If you say so," Justin said and pulled the headphones off the front stand near the glass window that was between the sound studio and the control room. He slid the headphones on and leaned against the counter then pressed play on the player.
A new version of the song they'd be recording that day came through his head phones, with Mikaila singing the lyrics to Perfect World instead of Meredith.
I can't believe all the games you played
You had it all and then threw it away
Maybe I'd still be your girl, huh
If we were living in a perfect world
Justin ripped off the headphones and took a deep breath as if the lyrics had begun to suffocate him. "Gonna pull a Gwen Stephani on me Meredith. Cute, just cute," he mumbled then slammed back some more caffeine before he pushed the headphones back onto his ears and tried to block out some of his past while he tried to think about the song and the work ahead of him.
He needed to be professional and act like what he was now becoming: a producer. He was at a pivotal point in his career and if he could get through doing this album with someone he didn't even want to see, let alone work with, he knew that it would bode well for his future. Besides, Meredith was going to be a star and he wanted part of that.
He had been there when she'd started...he'd been the one to start it all and he was going to make sure that it didn't get messed up, not only for his own benefit, but for hers. When it came to her personal life he could care less, but her professional life would set her up for good and he wanted to make sure that it still happened the way that he promised her it would.
"Five more minutes," he said.
"Justin," she said again.
"Five more minutes, Mere," he repeated not looking up from his work.
Before he knew what was happening Meredith was standing on the other side of the glass from him, inside the studio.
"What are you doing?" he asked speaking into the microphone.
Meredith stepped up to the mic and spoke, "I'm gonna sing this because you don't seem to be hearing me when I speak."
"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to ignore you. I just said that it was going to be five more minutes."
"That was almost an hour ago," she said pointing at the clock on the wall behind him. "I know that you're busy with the new album and stuff and I know that this is important, but your brothers have been in town since yesterday and it's getting hard to be with those two and try to explain that you're coming home soon."
"Fine," he said.
"Good," she said.
Meredith stopped before she moved away from the microphone looking as if she might hit into something or break something if she moved, "What?"
"Sing for me," he said.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"Sing for me Merebear," he said, "Please. It's my birthday."
"Oh no," she said, "Some of us are born for that kind of thing, but this little songbird has no voice."
"Whatever you," he said, "Just sing for me."
"No," she said again.
"Please," he said and began to pout.
"You're not going to let this go are you?" she asked.
"No," he said and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Fine," she said.
"Ok," he said, "Just take the headphones off the stand, put them on and I'll play the song and you sing."
"What?" she asked, "You aren't going to record this are you?"
"You sing Kareoke all the time at Joey's--"
"Hey, that wasn't my fault and that was only once--"
Justin held up two fingers.
"OK fine, two fingers, but I was drunk and I didn't mean to get that into it."
"You were on the table," he said.
"Do you want me to sing or sit here and argue with you?" she asked.
"Hold on a second, I want to get these settings right."
"You're not going to show this to anyone are you?" she asked.
"Maybe," he said, "You never know when I might need to get a new job," he said.
"Is Pest a job description?" he asked.
"I'm gonna be a producer Merebear," he said, "And you're going to be the next pop-star."
"Yeah right," she said rolling her eyes. "Don't hold your breath."
Justin felt the draft in the room and the scent her vanilla lotion wash over him. It had been almost six months since he'd seen her in person and no matter how he wanted to turn around and stare at her he waited for her to come to him. If he was going to get through this he was going to have to keep things in control.
She slid into the studio's control room without letting the door slam and stood there for a moment taking it all in. Before her lay her post prized possession and her worst nightmare. Justin sat, slumped over the control panel, wearing headphones over his newly acquired shorter hairstyle as he bopped his head to the music that was playing in his ears. His black "House of Blues -- Diversity" T-shirt stretched over his broad shoulders and back and his jeans hung loosely from his legs. He wore black Nike sports flip-flops, with no socks and his toes tapped the beat out to the song he was listening to.
She whipped around to find that the swinging door had been pulled outwards and JC was standing there, coffee cup in hand, baseball hat pushed down over his eyes, smiling at her. He wore a Hawaiian print collared button down shirt that hung open to reveal a wife beater that went along with his bleached out jeans and well worn flip flops. He looked more like a beach bum than a producer or performer. It was a nice look for him, though. He seemed way more relaxed than he had the last time she'd seen him.
"Hi," she said nervously.
She was pulled into a tight hug, her arms folding over his shoulders to pull him close and he held her too long. "I was getting worried about you," he said with a low voice then kissed her cheek, "I almost thought you disappeared."
"I did," she said, "At least that's what people think when you go to Europe." She stepped back and smiled at him trying not to show the worry that had settled on her shoulders when Justin had appeared before her.
"The six or so months has done you good," he said and stepped past her into the studio, "You look tan."
"It's fake," she whispered, "Now you know all my secrets."
"I'm sure," JC said, "Come on in and grab a seat."
He walked over to Justin, touched his shoulder then when Justin looked up JC looked over at Meredith and Justin looked at her for a moment then leaned his head down and pulled the headphones off his ears and placed them on the counter.
Before he acknowledged her again he stood up, stretched a bit, took a deep breath and finally looked at her again. "Meredith," he said shortly with a nod then moved across the room to sit on the couch while JC took his seat at the boards and motioned or her to sit down.
"Where's Gritty?" Justin asked as he thumbed through a copy of Rolling Stone Magazine with one hand and drank out of a huge McDonald's cup with the other.
"Getting breakfast," she said softly and took her purse and put it under the coffee table that was between her and Justin, "He'll be back in a while."
"So how've you been?" JC asked as he looked at her, at Justin, then at back again.
"Can we get started please?" Justin inserted throwing the magazine back onto the table.
JC nodded and turned in his seat to grab up a stack of papers, "I know you heard the tapes, but we did a little work on these this week so we're redoing them. The tracks are new so we need you to sing off these sheets."
Meredith nodded and kept her eyes on JC. He would only be there for a week of her six-week stay, but she prayed that he'd reconsider and not leave her there with Justin. Having Justin as an Executive Producer should have been an honor, but at the moment and with his cold reception she wasn't sure that she was going to make it to the end of the first week let alone six weeks.
"Start with the one on top and we'll run through it all the first time then cut it up into parts to fill in," JC said and sipped his coffee.
Meredith nodded mechanically and moved to stand up. JC stood up at the same time and walked with her into the sound proof room that she would stand in while JC and Justin would stay in the other room and work the boards.
"Are you ok?" JC asked.
She nodded. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
"If you're going to call me an asshole or something then do it already," Justin's voice said.
They both whipped around to see him sitting at the boards now, leaning to speak into a microphone.
"Get it over with so we can work," he said.
"Asshole," she breathed out and started at him in defiance then turned towards JC, "I'll be fine."
JC nodded and moved to leave.
"Thank you JC," she said.
"For what Mere?" he asked, "We haven't even started yet."
"For just showing up," she said.
He nodded and left her alone in the room. It was going to be a long day and an even longer two months, but from the way Justin was starting off her recording session she knew that she needed to make it through just because he didn't want her to make it.
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