Chapter 1



"You are unbelievably dimwitted, you know that?" Carla spit out bitingly, turning to Marc, her leading man, who yet again spoiled his lines. "Is it just me or are you a step closer to being an absolute retard?"

Marc looked ready to shrink away from her biting tongue. The past couple of days had brought about a shrewish Carla that they were all ill-equipped to handle. Jillian, their stage manager, quickly walked up to the stewing young woman and plied her with cool mineral water.

"I said park that attitude at the door, Carla." Tony Banks, who was seated calmly a few yards away, "One more outburst like that and youíll be out of here so fast, your head will spin."

Carla turned and let her temper cool down. She lacked sleep, lacked food, and honestly lacked the patience to handle such unprofessional behavior from people who swear theater was their lifelong love. Carla thought it was probably their lifelong curse.

"Marc, AGAIN. You should be MANHANDLING Carla, not waltzing around her."

The younger man lowered his head in embarrassment. "Sorry."

"And Carla, your knotted brows are pissing the hell out of me. Youíre supposed to be helpless, not Zena, the Warrior Princess. Understand?"

Carla nodded.

"Okay. Letís start from ĎYou must be very scared at night.í"

Carla took a deep breath and took to her position. Delivering her lines with as much ease as she could manage, she barely got through the scene without strangling the imbecilic young actor. An hour later, Banks conceded to letting them go for the night and agreed to resume rehearsals early the next evening.

Dead on her feet, Carla grabbed her bag and headed straight for the parking lot to her little Corolla.

Since it was almost midnight, the lot was very much deserted. Walking briskly, Carla kept her head down, feeling the unrelenting claws of melancholia gripping at her yet again. She hated to admit it but she missed him. She missed seeing him in the morning, missed talking to him Ďtil dawn.

He was probably somewhere over Europe having a blast without her. She was sure heíd forgotten all about her existence the very minute she walked out of his life. Unlike her, he had options lined up as far as the next continent.

She shook her head. Carla of course never had trouble finding and getting replacements. All it took were a few smiles and a few witty comebacks after all, to get them running after you. She had that strategy down to an art.

But why was she terribly lonely without him?

A shadow crossed quickly in front of her. Snapping out of her thoughts, she looked up, but saw nothing marring the empty landscape. Carla frowned as her heart began pounding quickly and nervously. She looked around, her hand already rummaging the inside of her bag for her handy pepper spray.

She waited a few seconds. Silence. Carla took a deep breath and exhaled. Paranoia was probably never going to go away.

It still amazed her though, that in a place like Tampa, sheíd be feeling so unsure and dangerously unsafe.

Pulling her keys out from her jeans pocket, she saw her blue beat-up car illuminated by a street light. Walking quickly, she felt the insistent beating of her pulse throbbing at the side of her forehead. She was too stressed, she thought. She needed to get some decent shuteye or at least an evening of relaxation.

Reaching the small vehicle, she gasped.

Her head started spinning as she looked at the sight that greeted her.

Her windshield was smashed as well as her windows.

On the hood, written in big bold red letters:

POP STAR WHORES DESERVE TO DIE.

YOU'VE BEEN WARNED...

Carlaís knees gave way in shock.


**********


"Are you eating that?" Brian asked his friend Nick, who was staring off into space again, and ignoring the delicious platter of barbecued ribs in front of him.

Brian stared at Nick a while, waiting for an answer, or at least any sign that he was listening.

"Heís probably bust a brain nerve thinking too much," AJ, who was sitting in front of the clueless younger man, said glibly before biting into a juicy piece of rib, "Yo, Nick, you okay up there?"

"Iím guessing heís asleep with his eyes open." Howie suggested, grinning at the comical picture Nick was making: mouth slightly open, eyes devoid of any emotion, and brows furrowed in consternation.

"Howie," Kevin admonished, "Only YOU do that. Donít try to pass that on to Nick."

"Hey, cmon guys, cut the kid some slack." Brian admonished, "Heís heartbroken."

"Iím not." Nick answered, which surprised the rest of them, who thought he hadnít heard the conversation. "And stop talking about me like Iím not here." He picked up his plate and handed it over to Brian.

"What, youíre not eating?" Brian asked in surprise.

Nick pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. "Iím not hungry. Iím going back to the studio to work on that last song."

AJ, with his mouth full, gestured wildly at Nick. "Wait for me, man. Iím going with you."

"Just meet me there." With a wave and a slight nod to the guys, he turned and left the small dining room.

"Is it just me, or is that kid no fun no more?" Kevin said, looking at Nickís retreating back.

"I donít think heís gotten over Carlaís leaving."

"Itís been three months, Bri. He should just, you know, grow up." AJ stated. "And we all knew it was too good to last anyway."

Three pairs of eyes turned curiously to AJís direction.

"What?" AJ frowned.

"We ALL knew?" Howie repeated, "Since when?"

"Oh come on. Donít tell me you guys expected those two to stay together for long."

"Why not?" Brian prodded.

"Why not? Theyíre both too perfect for each other, thatís why not. And did you think Carla would have time to handle a relationship with someone like Nick while her own career is taking off?" Aj shook his head. "Donít think so."

"I donít think you know Carla that well." Brian looked at the other man with wary eyes. "You donít know that for sure."

"Hey, I calls Ďem likes I sees Ďem." AJ munched yet again on his ribs. "Nothing against Carla or anything. Sheís my friend too."

"Nick still hates her though." Then Brian shook his head. "Nah, hateís too strong a word. Pissed, probably. Royally pissedÖand impossibly angry."

"Thatís true enough," Kevin agreed with a sigh. "Heís killing himself working this hard, and Iím thinking heís only doing this so he wouldnít think about Carla."

"Heís lost a lot of weight."

"And he donít smile no moreÖ" AJ commented, sighing, "Dang, that smile was getting us places."

"Hey, guys, I got it!" Brian exclaimed, "You guys, I have the perfect cure for that Nick attitude."

"What?" Howie asked, interested as he leaned over, "Címon, spill."

Grinning, Brian leaned over the table and motioned for the rest of the guys to do the same. Whispering conspiratorially, Brian told them his plan.

After a few seconds, all four men were grinning like fools and quickly made their way to the studio to abduct Nick.


**********


"Carla, Carla, calm down." LeighAnne soothed as she plied her friend with cool water as they sat on her living room couch. "Are you alright?"

Carla sighed as she collapsed on the sofa. "Leigh, this is crazy. I donít understand whatís happening. Weíve been broken up for two months and itís still coming."

"Itís just some crazy fan messing with you, Carla. You know that. I know that." LeighAnne ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. "God knows how much backlash I got from those obsessive fans Brian has."

"But smashing my windows? Leaving notes like that on the hood of my car?" Carla cried out, "Itís too much. This is scaring me."

LeighAnne leaned over and gave the younger woman a hug. "Carla, please, tell me youíll stay here as long as you can. Youíll be safe here. Brianís got me nicely locked up tight. And besides, Chaz is coming back tomorrow. Weíll have better security then." She looked at Carlaís tear-stained face. "Alright?"

"Iím sorry for spazzing out on you like this. Iím justÖ" Carla took a deep breath to control her tears. "Everythingís been crazy lately, with all the schoolwork, the modelling and the play Iím doing, and now thisÖ"

"Does Nick know?" she asked quietly.

"What? Oh no." She shook her head vehemently, "Donít tell him, either, please. I can handle this."

"Sweetie, heíll find out sooner or later. Why not tell him now?"

"I canít talk to him right now."

"Canít or wonít?"

Carla just shrugged, deciding not to answer.

"So can I tell him?"

"Leigh." She was becoming exasperated. "I thought we were friends."

"Okay, okay." She concurred, grumbling, "But if this whole thing blows out of proportion, donít say I didnít warn you." LeighAnne stood up. "Iím fixing you some dinner. A tuna melt alright?"

Carla nodded and started to stand. "Iíll help you."

The other woman put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Sit. You look exhausted. Iíll just be a minute."

Carla watched her friend walk out of the room and thanked the powers that be that LeighAnne was home when she made that call. She would be forever in her debt.

The phone rang shrilly as Carla was about to close her eyes.

"Cal, can you get that?" Leigh called from the kitchen, "My hands are full."

Leaning over to the side of the sofa, she snatched the receiver off its cradle.

"Hello?"

"Baby, you sound sexier every time I talk to you." A husky voice at the other end of the line said.

Carla had the uncontrollable urge to laugh. Brian sounded constipated, not horny. "B-rok?" she asked, stifling a giggle.

"Whaówhoís this?" Carla could almost see him frowning.

"Itís Carla."

Relieved, he said, "Damn, Cal, you got me going there a second."

Carla laughed. "Darn, and I thought you were seriously talking to me."

She could tell he was grinning ear to ear. "So, whatcha doing there, Cal?"

"We, uh," Carla grasped for words, "were just about to have dinner. Howís the new album going?"

"Oh itís going pretty great," he bragged proudly. "Nick and I are working on a few songs together and KevísÖwell, heís got something up his sleeve."

The mention of Nickís name sent butterflies up her stomach. "Hey, thatís great. Hold on, Iíll go get LeighAnne now." Putting the receiver down, she called out to Leigh. "LeighAnne, itís Brian."

A few seconds went by before Carla heard LeighAnneís "Got it!"

Carla put the receiver back to its cradle and just leaned on the sofa, the claws of a humongous headache claiming the remainder of her sanity. Closing her eyes, she wished everything were just easier to deal with. Not different, but easier.

In the kitchen, LeighAnne was telling Brian Carlaís encounter earlier that evening.

"Dang." Brian whispered softly on the phone. "This has gone from bad to worse. Where is she sleeping tonight?"

"I told her sheíll be staying here a while. Is that okay?"

"Absolutely. Sheíll be safe there. What about her car?"

"The police are checking it out. Hopefully, weíll hear from them tomorrow." Hesitantly, LeighAnne continued, "Honey, I was wondering, since Carlaís car isnít covered by insurance, and she has no way getting to and from school and stuff, I was thinking we could lend Chaz and the Beamer to her while this thing dies downÖI mean---"

"Sweetie, of course itís okay! You took the words right out of my mouth. I was about to suggest the same thing." Then he paused. "Just make sure you two stay there til we get home. Just a few more days."

"Okay. You got it." LeighAnne answered, grinning.

"Baby, I want you to be careful, alright? Whoever this loony is, he or she is out to get someone. He may be a fan or some random lunatic, but I donít want you taking chances. Just chill at home a few days. Can you do that for me?"

"Bri, Iím a big girl. I can take care of myself. And besides, my brotherís coming over tomorrow. He could be my bodyguard for a few days."

"Good. Iíll call you first thing in the morning, alright? And make sure you lock the doors."

"I will, Dad." She laughed. "You sound adorable acting so paternal."

"Hey, one of the perks of the job." Then his voice lowered to a whisper. "I love you."

"Love you too," she sighed. "Come home safe. I miss you."

"Iíll dream about you, you know that donít you?"

"I bet my dreams are worse." She giggled. "Iíll tell you about it sometime."

Brian groaned. "Oh torture me why dontcha."

"Oh, and Bri, donít tell Nick, alright?"

"Why not?"

"I kind of promised Carla I wouldnít tellÖsheís still totally in denial. About her feelings for Nick anyway."

"I donít know, Leigh. This is something that invloves Nick. He has to know."

"Just, not right now, alright? I promised."

Brian reluctantly agreed. "Alright, if you say so."

"I have to go now. Carla probably passed out from hunger in the living room."

"I doubt it, but go ahead. Iíll call you later."

"Love you, baby."

"Love you more, if thatís possible." Pause. "Sweet dreams."

Putting the phone down, LeighAnne grabbed the plate of sandwiches and a tall glass of milk before heading back out to the living room.


**********


"Aw, man, donít tell me you caught it too." AJ groaned when he saw Brianís sullen face.

"Caught what?"

"The Nick bug, man." He answered grumbling as he sat down on the sofa, "You guys could pass for twins now, you have the same mad-at-the-world look on your faces."

"I just got off the phone with LeighAnne."

"Problems in Paradise AGAIN?"

"No, not that. Itís Carla."

AJís interest piqued. "What about Carla?"

Brian looked around to make sure no one else was listening in. Nick and Kevin were huddled in conference by the piano and Howie was a few yards away, his ear stuck to his phone yet again. Satisfied, Brian turned his attention back to AJ.

"Someone thrashed Carlaís car earlier tonight."

"Thrashed? What do you mean?"

"Smashed windows, totalled windshield, slashed seat covers, the whole mombajahomba."

"The hell you say." AJ said in disbelief. "Is she alright?"

"Sheís fine, just a little shaken up. Sheís staying at the house for a couple of days while this thing blows over. The police are looking into it."

"Good." AJ answered, reassured that his friend was safe. "Was it some random loony? Where was she parked anyway?"

"She was parked on campus, and no, it wasnít some random lunatic."

AJ looked at him expectantly.

Brian sighed. "It was some obsessed fan."

"One of Carlaís?" AJ asked confused.

"One of ours." Brian paused as he thought of an easier way to explain the situation. "Basically, he, or she, whoever that sick person is, left a note on the hood of the car, which goes somewhere along the lines of Ďpop star whores deserve to die.í"

"Whoa, you're serious?" AJís eyes widened in disbelief.

"As a heart attack." Brian murmured with conviction.

"Does Nick know?"

"No. She doesnít want to tell him. LeighAnne says sheís still in denialÖwhich I completely agree with by the way."

"Geez, Nickís got to know about this. This is way too serious to leave for Carla to handle."

"I completely agree. But," Brian had the grace to look sheepish. "I kind of promised LeighAnne I wouldnít tell Nick."

"Bad move man." AJ was shaking his head. "This could get pretty dangerous for Carla, and the least that kid could do is protect her from it."

"I know, I know, but I promised." Brian ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. "And Iím taking care of it. I just hope whoever this is wouldnít find his way to LeighAnne."

AJ was quiet, contemplating on what they were going to do. This past year had been the most successful year for the group, fully exceeding their expectations. In the process, they were exposed to thousands of press people constantly invading their already non-existent private lives, as well as fans who were constantly on their trail. Stalkers were a familiar fixture on the guysí lives and they dealt with it by using big bulky security people as well as state of the art alarm systems in their homes.

But they never counted on having to protect the people they loved from the claws of obsessed fans.

"This is too crazy, B. We have to get home as soon as possible. Iím worried about Carla."

Brian looked over at their two friends who were engrossed in arranging a song.

"What about the album?"

"We can shelf it for a few weeks. Weíre ahead of schedule anyway."

"And Nick? Heís dead set on finishing recording in a week."

"Yeah, well, tough." AJ stood up and went to the phone. "Iím calling the hotel to change our plane schedules. You tell the guys weíre busting out of this joint."

Brian nodded, thankful they would be going back to Florida sooner. The thought of two women he loved being alone and unguarded in his house was making him too queasy.


**********


"Marcie, really, Iím alrightÖ" Carla said over the phone to her manager, "The police called earlier this morning, though, and they havenít found a match for those fingerprints on the dashboard." She shivered slightly. "But Iím sure something will come up. Really."

"Why donít I come by there and pick you up? You can stay here with me and the girls. Dana already asked the agency to give you extra protection."

"No, itís alright. Iíll be okay here for a few days. Leighís been extremely helpful. And besides, if I stay with you, I'll be too far from school." She smiled slightly. "Thanks for offering though."

"Honey, Iím worried about you." She stated, concerned. "Youíve been working yourself to the ground the last couple of weeks. If it werenít for Dana, I wouldíve stopped giving you jobs a long time ago."

"You wouldnít want me to starve, would you?" Carla replied jokingly. "Youíre too uptight, Mars. Loosen up. Iím a big girl. I can take care of myself."

"Iím still worried." Then a gem of an idea popped in her head. "Why donít you stay with your Aunt Becky?"

"Are you kidding?" Carla exclaimed, incredulous, "Aunt Beck will have an apoplexy when she finds out whatís been happening. And besides, " She aimed to sound nonchalant, but somehow fell short, "Nickís coming home any day now. I have no desire to be thrown out of his house, thank you very much, no matter how close Aunt Beck and Nick are."

"I never did understand why you two broke up." Marcie sighed, "You two were so in love with each other."

Carla was quiet for a while, her heart slowly sinking down to the soles of her feet. She never explained to anyone why she walked out on Nick that day three months ago. It was a miracle his friends were even talking to her.

She had her reasons. Of course she did. Really.

"Iíll keep in touch, Mars. Thanks."

"Are you still up for that commercial tomorrow?"

"Sure. Seven AM right? Iíll be there."

Marcie sighed. "If youíre sure. Iíll confirm everything by this afternoon."

"Okay. Thanks honey."

When she put the phone down, she spied Chaz lurking about the living room doorway.

"Chaz, I can see you. Youíre losing your touch."

The big black man frowned and disappeared into the next room.

Carla leaned back on the sofa and stared at the window thoughtfully. She had to find a way to get to school for her rehearsals...Mr. Banks would kill her if she were late again, excuses or no. Then, she started chiding herself for being a scaredy cat. She was made of stronger stuff. Where was all that stored up courage she was so proud of?

Just then she spied a limousine entering the driveway. Surprised, she stood up and peered through the window. The long black vehicle stopped right by the front door.

"LeighAnne! I think Brianís home!"

LeighAnne came out from their upstairs bedroom and was running down the stairs.

Carl, their big bulky man of a bodyguard, emerged first while taking a discreet visual survey of the area. Next out came a ragged looking Brian who waved to Carla.

"I thought you said theyíll be home by the end of the week?"

"Apparently not." LeighAnne surmised as she walked to open the front door. Smiling, she opened her arms to greet the younger man. "Welcome home baby."

Brian walked in thankfully, dropping his backpack and enveloping his girlfriend in a big hug. Carla smiled, feeling a bit melancholy as she watched the two lovers.

"Oh get a room already, you two." A surly voice commanded, "Iím ready for bed."

Turning to the source of the dictum, Carla gasped audibly when she saw Nickís frowning face.

"Ow, Nick! Can you warn me if youíre braking? I hit myself with my luggage." AJ whined.

"Bone, just----" Nick whipped his head to address his friend but stopped when he caught sight of Carla standing by the window, silhouetted by the fading sunlight.

Carla just stared at him, forcing herself to remain emotionless and unfeeling. His gaze levelled with hers, his accusing and angry, and hers unbelievably bland.

The static electricity in the room was almost palpable. Even the others could feel it.

"Whatís she doing here?" Nick asked harshly.

"ErrrÖ" AJ started, looking at Brian, who was at loss for words as well.




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