Read Playing Dirty Online

Authors: Jennifer Echols

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #United States, #Romance, #Contemporary Fiction, #American, #Literary, #Women's Fiction

Playing Dirty

Praise for

Star Crossed

“Echols entertains with . . . a tale of dueling PR agents trying to save their clients from themselves.”


Publishers Weekly

“Entertaining, funny, and flirty. . . . If you’re looking for a fun read, check this one out.”


The Autumn Review

“A fascinating setup, a sexy adventure, a hilarious heroine, and the perfect hero!”


USA Today
bestselling author Victoria Dahl

“The heat stays cranked up to scalding.”


Fiction Folio

“Whoa action and nearly heart-stopping tension. . . . Humor, hotness,
drama
, and fun. . . . From the moment Wendy and Daniel collide in Vegas, the story moves full speed ahead.”


Rather Be Reading

“At the heart of any story by Jennifer Echols is a compelling romance, and the constant tension between her lead couple makes
Star Crossed
absolutely engrossing. . . . Frequently hilarious, sometimes stirring, and always enjoyable.”


Single Titles

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Acknowledgments

Heartfelt thanks to my truly brilliant editors, Lauren McKenna and Emilia Pisani; my tireless literary agent, Laura Bradford; my author friends who cheered me on, Louisa Edwards and Erin Downing; my long-suffering critique partners, Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl; and my mother, a Gold Life Master.

1

Don’t despair, chicky. Try to enjoy your old stomping ground in the Deep South. You’ll kick some country butt with your bad pink-haired self and be back in NYC before you know it. Meanwhile, think of me in my maternal suffering. Pregnant women are supposed to glow and I’m glowing, all right. I’m glowing like a nuclear power plant right before the accident.

Wendy Mann

Senior Consultant

Stargazer Public Relations

Sarah grinned at the e-mail on her phone from Wendy, her supervisor at work and best friend since college. This was the first time she’d smiled since the 4 a.m.
call that started her on this journey into the heart of darkness. She only wished she could wrap up business in Alabama and make it back to New York by the time Wendy had the baby. But that didn’t seem likely if Sarah’s information was correct. Country supergroup the Cheatin’ Hearts were in imminent danger of breaking up—before delivering their eagerly anticipated third album—because a love triangle within the band was tearing them apart.

And Stargazer Public Relations had sent Sarah to keep them together.

With a frustrated sigh, she tossed her phone into the passenger seat of her rented BMW convertible. She’d grown up four hours south of Birmingham and hadn’t visited the city since a high school track meet. But the green foothills of the Appalachians were familiar to her, such a different landscape from her hometown on the Gulf Coast. The city lay in the valleys and stretched as far as it could reach up the mountains, setting houses and office buildings gingerly on precipices. It was a shame that in a few hours, she would disturb its lush beauty by driving to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ lead singer’s mountaintop mansion, pulling the band out of their basement recording studio, and slapping them to their collective senses with the threats their record company was paying her to deliver.

The statue of Vulcan looming over Sarah from the mountaintop was familiar, too, though changed. He used to hold up a torch with a green light, or a red light
if someone had been killed in a car accident in town that day, which she’d found particularly morbid when she was a teenager. Now he’d been refurbished, and he held up a spearhead instead. He was the Roman god of the forge, echoing Birmingham’s history as a steel town. But holding the arrow, he looked like an overgrown, butt-ugly Cupid.

What wasn’t familiar was the rush hour traffic. While she’d been stuck at a standstill on the highway, she’d had time to read all fifty-five frantic e-mails her assistants at Stargazer had sent her about the Cheatin’ Hearts since she’d left LaGuardia. The news was worse and worse. With this traffic, it seemed less and less likely that she’d arrive at the group’s publicity office in time to grill the staff for secrets about their employers before they closed for the day.

She’d taken this highway because the radio had said the interstate was blocked, but maybe the detour had been a mistake. Just before the intersection on top of Vulcan’s mountain, she pulled off to consult her GPS and phone directions. At least, that’s what she intended. The side road she took kept going up the hill. She inadvertently entered the park surrounding the statue. As she stopped in an empty space in the lot, she glanced up and saw a new view of Vulcan above the trees.

As a teen, she’d seen him only from the front as he presided over downtown. He wore a Roman smithy apron that covered his privates in front. The view from
the park was not as modest. It had never occurred to her that he was playing peek-a-boo in back. Like David Lee Roth’s cutout pants from the infamous “Jump” video, but worse, because there was crack. Alabama wasn’t known for its liberal values, and Sarah found it odd that the upstanding citizens of the state’s largest city would tolerate this ten-foot-wide iron moon over the skyline.

Shaking off her astonishment, she studied her tiny electronic maps. This highway would lead to the Cheatin’ Hearts’ publicity office, all right, and so did the interstate she’d abandoned, but there were no other routes. The whole city seemed to be plotting against her. She looked up again and glared suspiciously at Vulcan’s nude booty.

Then she returned six calls from Manhattan Music’s liaison in charge of communications with the band. She’d tried him on her short layover in Charlotte and again when she touched down in Birmingham, but he’d been unavailable, tied up in a series of frantic meetings about the band. This time his assistant put Sarah through.

“Thank God!” the exec cried.

Sarah cringed. In her eight years at Stargazer, she had counseled many celebrities. She’d been sent on these jobs by a lot of exasperated movie producers, confounded book publishers, and record company executives driven to the edge of sanity. When she contacted them and their first words were, “Thank God!” she knew the job would be a challenge.

In calm tones, she introduced herself and assured the exec he’d done the right thing in calling Stargazer. She would take care of everything. “But the Cheatin’ Hearts are a little bit of a mess, aren’t they? And they’ve been that way for quite a while.” She opened the Cheatin’ Hearts’ portfolio beside her on the passenger seat and glanced at a newspaper account of their lead singer, Quentin Cox, overdosing on cocaine in Thailand last month. “What prompted you to hire Stargazer this morning?” In the middle of the night, more like it.

“Someone called me,” the exec said. “Someone with inside information on the group.”

“Who?” Sarah asked.

“I can’t say,” he said. “This person swore me to secrecy. You can’t even let on to the group that I got a call. All hell will break loose if you do.”

“Okay,” Sarah said, although it was not okay at all.

“This person said Quentin is about to quit the group because Erin left him!”

“Oh,” Sarah said doubtfully, reaching for a printout of the cover of the group’s first CD,
In Poor Taste
. The photo showed the lead singer, Quentin, patting the Daisy Dukes–clad booty of the group’s trashy bleach-blond fiddle player, Erin, while the drummer and the guitar player looked on. “I read in my material that Quentin and Erin have been on-again and off-again romantically since you signed them to your label a couple of years ago.”

“They
have been
,” the exec shrieked, “and we’ve put
up with their shit because it was terrific exposure. Not a week’s gone by that they haven’t been in the celebrity news cycle for breaking up or getting back together. But
now
, Erin has cheated on Quentin with the drummer. She and the drummer claim they’re in love. Quentin is furious. Our source said the band isn’t going to survive this. Sarah, they have an album due in
seven days
! They have a nationally televised concert event in
ten days
, on the Fourth of July! Our source said the situation is desperate, and suggested I call Stargazer to ask for the woman who straightened out Lorelei Vogel for us—”

“Wendy Mann,” Sarah said. “She just went on maternity leave.”

“I know!” the exec exclaimed. “When I called and begged her to help us, she recommended you. She said you’re as good as she is at saving stars’ careers.”

This was a lie. Wendy thrived on challenges and confrontations. Sarah got a thrill from figuring out the psychology of famous, creative people and helping them improve their quality of life, but she didn’t enjoy giving tough love. And she definitely wasn’t good at it.

The exec added, “But my boss told me
you’re
the one who handled Nine Lives.”

At the mention of yet another of Manhattan Music’s acts, a chill coursed through Sarah in the hot car. Only a few days ago, she’d returned to New York after nine months in Rio with rock star Nine Lives. She’d finally pried his album from his emaciated fingers: triumph! And now he was in a Brazilian jail: fail.

The exec went on, “Wendy told me she’s your supervisor, and she’ll direct you in handling the Cheatin’ Hearts. That was good enough for me. Or . . . at least, the next best thing.”

“Thanks.” Sarah took a few more notes from the hysterical executive. After hanging up, she texted Wendy.

You told Manhattan Music you would be giving me directions?

She got Wendy’s reply almost immediately:

No. Well, yes, I TOLD them that, but I’m not giving you directions. I’m on maternity leave. I’m busy glowing.

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