Lani spent the next couple of days cheerfully snubbing Marcus. Not that Marcus had been bad in bed, exactly. Although Lani thought her one and only boyfriend prior to being with Marcus had been better. Of course, they’d had more than the one time to work out the fine details.
But Lani had no delusions about—or any particular interest in—making Marcus her boyfriend. Or in ever letting him touch her again, for that matter. He’d scratched an itch, and she’d gotten in a little jab at the blatantly-obvious womanizer. She’d figured she could count on him to go away, after that.
Oddly, the less encouragement she offered him, the more frequently she caught him staring at her butt. Or her boobs. Even after she’d voted against him.
Lani joked and laughed with him. Then, as soon as he tried to turn it into something else, she shut him down.
She did that several times. Intentionally.
And she enjoyed it.
I am a bad person.
“Yeah, no,” was what Patrice said, after Lani gave her the entire scoop. “You don’t seriously think Marcus doesn’t play that same game with every girl ever? Taste of his own medicine.”
“Maybe.” Lani hesitated. “But did I mention how much I like making him suffer?”
Patrice rolled her eyes. “He got exactly what he went begging for. He’ll get over it.”
In her peripheral vision, Lani glimpsed Jeremy wandering past.
Maybe it was her imagination, but it looked an awful lot like Patrice was checking him out.
“So which guy do you think we’ll end up with?”
Patrice’s attention snapped back to Lani. She blinked. “What?”
“The competition. I think it’ll be you and me. But which of them do you think will wind up with us, Marcus or Jeremy?”
“I don’t… I don’t know.” Unflappable Patrice looked mildly flapped for a moment. Then she shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
“Voluptuous,” Marcus was saying, although Jeremy was trying very hard not to listen. “And you wouldn’t believe what she—”
“I don’t need to know.” Jeremy half-lifted his hands toward his ears, just in case Marcus chose to keep over-sharing anyhow. “I just… I really don’t need to know.”
Thankfully, Marcus broke off what he’d been saying. He grinned and slapped Jeremy on the shoulder. “Ah, right. Sorry, man. I suppose you haven’t had any in a while.”
Patrice chose that precise moment to stroll past. Jeremy’s face heated, but he managed to not look toward her. Not so much as a glance.
“Yeah,” he said to Marcus. “I mean, no. Right.”
Marcus’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
Jeremy pointed toward the studio. “You know what? I’m just going to go play guitar for a while.”
Rehearsal sessions on Sunday were… different. Everyone showed up for every session, even Marcus. Everyone played—and not just played but played well. Together. They sounded good. The music felt good. The studio seemed filled with a sense of calm and centeredness, as if the walls themselves were aware that the people inside weren’t there for any competition or to show each other up.
They were there for the music. The music was real, and so were they.
Jeremy got up early Monday morning–the day of the final elimination round. His intention was to get in a little more practice time before everyone gave their final appraisal performance just before the voting.
But Phillip had gotten up even earlier and was working on technical stuff in the sound room. Or maybe, given his barely-kempt appearance, Phillip had been up all night. Jeremy recalled hearing something about recovering addicts and insomnia.
At any rate, Phillip was in the sound room. So Jeremy went back to the kitchen.
And Patrice was there.
“Hey,” she said, with a nonchalant cheerfulness. Just as if she hadn’t practically thrown Jeremy against the wall and had her way with him a few nights ago.
“No strings,” she’d said at the time. Jeremy hadn’t argued with her, so he couldn’t complain. He wasn’t complaining, really. He barely knew Patrice, after all. But he felt vaguely guilty, anyhow. He didn’t typically subscribe to the Marcus Greer Use ‘Em and Leave ‘Em School of Dating. So he wasn’t exactly sure what to say to Patrice, when the only time he’d really talked to Patrice, they hadn’t exactly been… talking.
“Hey,” Jeremy replied, attempting to follow her lead. He poured a bowl of cereal and dumped some milk on it.
“Do you want to win?” Patrice asked as Jeremy sat down.
He slopped some milk over the side of his bowl. “What?”
“This competition. OK, let me change the question. What would you do if you don’t win?”
Jeremy wasn’t sure what she was really asking. He shrugged. “Finish school. Collect my college degree and get a job. I guess.”
The thought draped a despondency over his shoulders. Patrice was watching him with narrowed eyes, and Jeremy recalled her original question.
“Yeah,” he said. “I want to win.”
She smiled. “I want you to win, too. But Jeremy.” Patrice leaned forward. “If you don’t win? I don’t want you to give up. I mean, yeah, finish college or whatever. But if you want to make music…”
Patrice leaned even closer, a more serious expression on her highly-freckled face than Jeremy had ever seen.
“Then, kid… Fucking well make music.”
Jeremy had spent the past week trying his best not to think beyond the current day. Honestly, he hadn’t expected to still be here at all. He wasn’t convinced that he should be. What he’d expected was exactly what his aunt had suggested when she pushed him at this competition.
One last blast.
A gray veil had continued to hang over the light at the end of the tunnel, woven from Jeremy’s assumption that he wouldn’t win, that he’d do exactly what he’d just told Patrice he’d do. He’d lose and then go back to his real life. All this? Nothing but a pipe dream.
Abruptly, Jeremy thought about the persistent sadness that had wreathed Del Sykes’s face the whole time he’d been with them. The man had never believed he had a chance. He’d give up before he’d even gotten there.
Jeremy leaned across the table toward Patrice and grinned. “I’m fucking well going to make music.”
Whatever happens tonight.