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Once More With Feeling

Nora Roberts

  To Ran,

  for all the songs yet unwritten,

  for all the songs yet unsung.

  Chapter 1

  He stood out of view as he watched her. His first thought was how little she had changed in five years. Time, it seemed, hadn’t rushed or dragged but had merely hung suspended.

  Raven Williams was a small, slender woman who moved quickly, with a thin, underlying nervousness that was unaccountably appealing. She was tanned deep gold from the California sun, but at twenty-five her skin was as smooth and dewy soft as a child’s. She pampered it when she remembered and ignored it when she forgot. It never seemed to make any difference. Her long hair was thick and straight and true black. She wore it simply, parted in the center. The ends brushed her hips and it swirled and floated as she walked.

  Her face was pixielike, with its cheekbones well-defined and the chin slightly pointed. Her mouth smiled easily, but her eyes reflected her emotions. They were smoky gray and round. Whatever Raven felt would be reflected there. She had an overwhelming need to love and be loved. Her own need was one of the reasons for her tremendous success. The other was her voice—the rich, dark, velvet voice that had catapulted her to fame.

  Raven always felt a little strange in a recording studio: insulated, sealed off from the rest of the world by the glass and the soundproofing. It had been more than six years since she had cut her first record, but she was still never completely comfortable in a studio. Raven was made for the stage, for the live audience that pumped the blood and heat into the music. She considered the studio too tame, too mechanical. When she worked in the studio, as she did now, she thought of it exclusively as a job. And she worked hard.

  The recording session was going well. Raven listened to a playback with a single-mindedness that blocked out her surroundings. There was only the music. It was good, she decided, but it could be better. She’d missed something in the last song, left something out. Without knowing precisely what it was, Raven was certain she could find it. She signaled the engineers to stop the playback.


  A sandy-haired man with the solid frame of a lightweight wrestler entered the booth. “Problem?” he said simply, touching her shoulder.

  “The last number, it’s a little . . .” Raven searched for the word. “Empty,” she decided at length. “What do you think?” She respected Marc Ridgely as a musician and depended on him as a friend. He was a man of few words who had a passion for old westerns and Jordan almonds. He was also one of the finest guitarists in the country.

  Marc reached up to stroke his beard, a gesture, Raven had always thought, that took the place of several sentences. “Do it again,” he advised. “The instrumental’s fine.”

  She laughed, producing a sound as warm and rich as her singing voice. “Cruel but true,” she murmured, slipping the headset back on. She went back to the microphone. “Another vocal on ‘Love and Lose,’ please,” she instructed the engineers. “I have it on the best authority that it’s the singer, not the musicians.” She saw Marc grin before she turned to the mike. Then the music washed over her.

  Raven closed her eyes and poured herself into the song. It was a slow, aching ballad suited to the smoky depths of her voice. The lyrics were hers, ones she had written long before. It had only been recently that she had felt strong enough to sing them publicly. There was only the music in her head now, an arrangement of notes she herself had produced. And as she added her voice, she knew that what had been missing before had been her emotions. She had restricted them on the other recordings, afraid to risk them. Now she let them out. Her voice flowed with them.

  An ache passed through her, a shadow of a pain buried for years. She sang as though the words would bring her relief. The hurt was there, still with her when the song was finished.

  For a moment there was silence, but Raven was too dazed to note the admiration of her colleagues. She pulled off the headset, suddenly sharply conscious of its weight.

  “Okay?” Marc entered the booth and slipped his arm around her. He felt her tremble lightly.

  “Yes.” Raven pressed her fingers to her temple a moment and gave a surprised laugh. “Yes, of course. I got a bit wrapped up in that one.”

  He tilted her face to his, and in a rare show of public affection for a shy man, kissed her. “You were fantastic.”

  Her eyes warmed, and the tears that had threatened were banished. “I needed that.”

  “The kiss or the compliment?”

  “Both.” She laughed and tossed her hair behind her back. “Stars need constant admiration, you know.”

  “Where’s the star?” a backup vocalist wanted to know.

  Raven tried for a haughty look as she glanced over. “You,” she said ominously, “can be replaced.” The vocalist grinned in return, too used to Raven’s lack of pretentions to be intimidated.

  “Who’d carry you through the session?”

  Raven turned to Marc. “Take that one out and shoot him,” she requested mildly, then looked up at the booth. “That’s a wrap,” she called out before her eyes locked on the man now standing in full view behind the glass.

  The blood drained from her face. The remnants of emotion from the song surged back in full force. She nearly swayed from the power of it. “Brandon.” It was a thought to be spoken aloud but only in a whisper. It was a dream she thought had finally run its course. Then his eyes were on hers, and Raven knew it was real. He’d come back.

  Years of performing had taught her to act. It was always an effort for her to slip a mask into place, but by the time Brand Carstairs had come down from the booth, Raven wore a professionally untroubled face. She’d deal with the storm inside later.

  “Brandon, it’s wonderful to see you again.” She held out both hands and tilted her face up to his for the expected, meaningless kiss of strangers who happen to be in the same business.

  Her composure startled him. He’d seen her pale, seen the shock in her eyes. Now she wore a façade she’d never had before. It was slick, bright and practiced. Brand realized he’d been wrong; she had changed.

  “Raven.” He kissed her lightly and took both her hands. “You’re more beautiful than anyone has a right to be.” There was the lightest touch of brogue in his speech, a mist of Ireland over the more formal British. Raven allowed herself a moment to look at him, really look at him.

  He was tall and now, as always, seemed a bit too thin. His hair was as dark as her own but waved where hers was needle straight. It was thick and full over his ears and down to the collar of his shirt. His face hadn’t changed; it was still the same face that drove girls and women to scream and swoon at his concerts. It was raw-boned and tanned, more intriguing than handsome, as the features were not altogether even. There was something of the dreamer there, from his mother’s Irish half. Perhaps that was what drew women to him, though they were just as fascinated by the occasional British reserve. And the eyes. Even now Raven felt the pull of his large, heavy-lidded aquamarine eyes. They were unsettling eyes for as easygoing a man as Brand Carstairs. The blue and green seemed constantly at odds. But it was the charm he wore so easily that tilted the scales, Raven realized. Charm and blatant sex appeal were an irresistible combination.

  “You haven’t changed, have you, Brandon?” The question was quiet, the first and only sign of Raven’s distress.

  “Funny.” He smiled, not the quick, flashing grin he was capable of, but a slow, considering smile. “I thought the same of you when I first saw you. I don’t suppose it’s true of either of us.”

  “No.” God, how she wished he would release her hands. “What brings you to L.A., Brandon?”

  “Business, love,” he answered carelessly, though his eyes were taking in every inch of her face
. “And, of course, the chance to see you again.”

  “Of course.” Her voice was coldly polite, and the smile never reached her eyes.

  The sarcasm surprised him. The Raven he remembered hadn’t known the meaning of the word. She saw his brow lift into consideration. “I do want to see you, Raven,” Brand told her with his sudden, disarming sincerity. “Very much. Can we have dinner?”

  Her pulse had accelerated at his change of tone. Just reflex, just an old habit, she told herself and struggled to keep her hands passive in his. “I’m sorry, Brandon,” she answered with perfect calm. “I’m booked.” Her eyes slipped past him in search of Marc, whose head was bent over his guitar as he jammed with another musician. Raven could have sworn with frustration. Brand followed the direction of her gaze. Briefly his eyes narrowed.

  “Tomorrow, then,” he said. His tone was still light and casual. “I want to talk to you.” He smiled as to an old friend. “I’ll just drop by the house awhile.”

  “Brandon,” Raven began and tugged on her hands.

  “You still have Julie, don’t you?” Brand smiled and held on to her hands, unaware of—or ignoring—her resistance.

  “Yes, I . . .”

  “I’d like to see her again. I’ll come by around four. I know the way.” He grinned, then kissed her again, a quick, friendly brushing of lips before he released her hands, turned and walked away.

  “Yes,” she murmured to herself. “You know the way.”


  An hour later Raven drove through the electric gates that led to her house. The one thing she hadn’t allowed Julie or her agent to thrust on her was a chauffeur. Raven enjoyed driving, having control of the low, sleek foreign car and indulging from time to time in an excess of speed. She claimed it cleared her head. It obviously hadn’t done the job, she thought as she pulled up in front of the house with a short, peevish squeal of the brakes. Distracted, she left her purse sitting on the seat beside her as she sprang from the car and jogged up the three stone steps that led to the front door. It was locked. Her frustration only mounted when she was forced to go back and rip the keys from the ignition.

  Slamming into the house, Raven went directly to the music room. She flung herself down on the silk-covered Victorian sofa and stared straight ahead without seeing anything. A gleaming mahogany grand piano dominated the room. It was played often and at odd hours. There were Tiffany lamps and Persian rugs and a dime-store flowerpot with a struggling African violet. An old, scarred music cabinet was filled to overflowing. Sheet music spilled onto the floor. A priceless Faberge box sat next to the brass unicorn she had found in a thrift shop and had fallen in love with. One wall was crowded with awards: Grammys, gold and platinum records, plaques and statues and the keys to a few cities. On another was the framed sheet music from the first song she had written and a breathtaking Picasso. The sofa on which she sat had a bad spring.

  It was a strange hodgepodge of cultures and tastes and uniquely Raven’s own. She would have thought eclectic a pretentious word. She had allowed Julie her exacting taste everywhere else in the house, but here she had expressed herself. Raven needed the room the same way she needed to drive her own car. It kept her sane and helped her remember exactly who Raven Williams was. But the room, like the drive, hadn’t calmed her nerves. She walked to the piano.

  She pounded out Mozart fiercely. Like her eyes, her music reflected her moods. Now it was tormented, volatile. Even when she’d finished, anger seemed to hover in the air.

  “Well, I see you’re home.” Julie’s voice, mild and unruffled, came from the doorway. Julie walked into the room as she had walked into Raven’s life: poised and confident. When Raven had met her nearly six years before, Julie had been rich and bored, a partygoer born into old money. Their relationship had given them both something of importance: friendship and a dual dependence. Julie handled the myriad details attached to Raven’s career. Raven gave Julie a purpose that the glittery world of wealth had lacked.

  “Didn’t the recording go well?” Julie was tall and blond, with an elegant body and that exquisitely casual California chic.

  Raven lifted her head, and the smile fled from Julie’s face. It had been a long time since she’d seen that helpless, ravaged look. “What happened?”

  Raven let out a long breath. “He’s back.”

  “Where did you see him?” There was no need for Julie to ask for names. In all the years of their association only two things had had the power to put that look on Raven’s face. One of them was a man.

  “At the studio.” Raven combed her fingers through her hair. “He was up in the booth. I don’t know how long he’d been there before I saw him.”

  Julie pursed her lightly tinted lips. “I wonder what Brand Carstairs is doing in California.”

  “I don’t know.” Raven shook her head. “He said business. Maybe he’s going to tour again.” In an effort to release the tension, she rubbed her hand over the back of her neck. “He’s coming here tomorrow.”

  Julie’s brows rose. “I see.”

  “Don’t turn secretary on me, Julie,” Raven pleaded. She shut her eyes. “Help me.”

  “Do you want to see him?” The question was practical. Julie, Raven knew, was practical. She was organized, logical and a stickler for details—all the things Raven wasn’t. They needed each other.

  “No,” Raven began almost fiercely. “Yes . . .” She swore then and pressed both hands to her temples. “I don’t know.” Now her tone was quiet and weary. “You know what he’s like, Julie. Oh, God, I thought it was over. I thought it was finished!”

  With something like a moan, she jumped from the stool to pace around the room. She didn’t look like a star in jeans and a simple linen blouse. Her closet held everything from bib overalls to sables. The sables were for the performer; the overalls were for her.

  “I’d buried all the hurts. I was so sure.” Her voice was low and a little desperate. It was still impossible for her to believe that she had remained this vulnerable after five years. She had only to see him again, and she felt it once more. “I knew sooner or later that I’d run into him somewhere.” She ran her fingers through her hair as she roamed the room. “I think I’d always pictured it would be in Europe—London—probably at a party or a benefit. I’d have expected him there; maybe that would have been easier. But today I just looked up and there he was. It all came back. I didn’t have any time to stop it. I’d been singing that damn song that I’d written right after he’d left.” Raven laughed and shook her head. “Isn’t that wild?” She took a deep breath and repeated softly, wonderingly, “Isn’t that wild?”

  The room was silent for nearly a full minute before Julie spoke. “What are you going to do?”

  “Do?” Raven spun back to her. Her hair flew out to follow the sudden movement. “I’m not going to do anything. I’m not a child looking for happy-ever-after anymore.” Her eyes were still dark with emotion, but her voice had grown gradually steadier. “I was barely twenty when I met Brandon, and I was blindly in love with his talent. He was kind to me at a time when I badly needed kindness. I was overwhelmed by him and with my own success.”

  She lifted a hand to her hair and carefully pushed it behind her shoulders. “I couldn’t cope with what he wanted from me. I wasn’t ready for a physical relationship.” She walked to the brass unicorn and ran a fingertip down its withers. “So he left,” she said softly. “And I was hurt. All I could see—maybe all I wanted to see—was that he didn’t understand, didn’t care enough to want to know why I said no. But that was unrealistic.” She turned to Julie then with a frustrated sigh. “Why don’t you say something?”

  “You’re doing fine without me.”

  “All right, then.” Raven thrust her hands in her pockets and stalked to the window. “One of the things I’ve learned is that if you don’t want to get hurt, you don’t get too close. You’re the only person I’ve never applied that rule to, and you’re the only one who hasn’t let me down.” S
he took a deep breath.

  “I was infatuated with Brandon years ago. Perhaps it was a kind of love, but a girl’s love, easily brushed aside. It was a shock seeing him today, especially right after I finished that song. The coincidence was . . .” Raven pushed the feelings away and turned back from the window. “Brandon will come over tomorrow, and he’ll say whatever it is that he has to say, then he’ll go. That’ll be the end of it.”

  Julie studied Raven’s face. “Will it?”

  “Oh, yes.” Raven smiled. She was a bit weary after the emotional outburst but more confident. She had regained her control. “I like my life just as it is, Julie. He’s not going to change it. No one is, not this time.”

  Chapter 2

  Raven had dressed carefully, telling herself it was because of the fittings she had scheduled and the luncheon meeting with her agent. She knew it was a lie, but the smart, sophisticated clothes made her feel confident. Who could feel vulnerable dressed in a St. Laurent?

  Her coat was white silk and full cut with batwing sleeves that made it seem almost like a cape. She wore it over matching pants with an orchid cowlneck blouse and a thick, gold belt. With the flat-brimmed hat and the carefully selected earrings, she felt invulnerable. You’ve come a long way, she had thought as she had studied herself in the bedroom mirror.

  Now, standing in Wayne Metcalf’s elaborate fitting room, she thought the same thing again—about both of them. Wayne and Raven had started the rise to fame together, she scratching out a living singing in seamy clubs and smoky piano bars and he waiting tables and sketching designs no one had the time to look at. But Raven had looked and admired and remembered.

  Wayne had just begun to eke out a living in his trade when plans had begun for Raven’s first concert tour. The first professional decision she made without advice was the choice of her costume designer. She had never regretted it. Like Julie, Wayne was a friend close enough to know something about Raven’s early personal life. And like Julie, he was fiercely, unquestionably loyal.