Music City Madness: Chapters 77-78

Leland pushed his way through a downtown bistro’s lively dinner crowd to find Sid by himself at a table against the wall with a half eaten cobb salad and a double bourbon. “I got your message.”

“I recommend the shrimp scampi.”

“I’ve eaten.”

Sid poked his fork at the chopped greens and pierced a tomato wedge. “Where’s your sidekick?”

“At home with Nicole.”

Sid chewed the tomato doused in salad dressing. “I can’t figure out what makes their red wine vinaigrette so tangy. They must age their dressing in oak barrels.”

Leland moved a chair and parked himself across from his agent and long-time friend. “Did you look at the papers I sent you?”

“Let’s kick the can on that one for a second. Brad Siegel’s decided to postpone the band’s debut album until Jimmie Lockhorn recovers.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“You grabbed the tiger by the tale. I had to peel Brad off the ceiling. At one point, I thought he was going to spontaneously combust. He’s threatening to sue you for damages.”

“What damages?”

“Relax… I told him you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. I convinced him to terminate your contract instead.”

“You told him to fire me?”

Sid skewered a piece of roasted chicken and hard-boiled egg, maintaining his stony expression with Leland. “I saved your ass.”

“What about my next gig?”

“There is no next gig. Reputation is everything in this town. You can’t fart in the shower without someone hearing about it. And you went rogue on live television in front of ten million people. You might as well have dropped your pants and mooned Brad Siegel on stage. You’re a honky-tonk bull in a China shop. No one in this city’s going to touch you.”

“Have you seen Melissa? Have you talked to her?”

“Melissa has her own problems.”

“She won’t return my calls.”

“I can’t help you there.” Sid poked his fingernail at a piece of bacon wedged between his teeth. “I’m dropping you from my agency.”

“Why?”

“This is a business decision. You made yours on stage in front of a televised audience. I like you, Leland. I always have. But I need to cut my losses and move on.”

“I’m sorry about the concert.”

“Son, you pissed off all the wrong people when you went off script. You should have kept me in the loop.”

“You would have tried to talk me out of it.”

“I would have saved your career. Now you’ll be lucky to land a gig in some backwoods pub in Arkansas.”

Leland waited for Sid to chew his food. “What about my custody case?”

Sid pushed his plate aside and reached for a folder on the chair beside him. He shared the contents with Leland and waved off the waitress who buzzed the table with a water refill. “I’ll represent you. You’re a tough act to manage, but you’re a good father. You deserve good representation.”

“I appreciate your help.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I reviewed the motions. Your wife is making child abuse allegations.”

“That’s bullshit! I would never hurt Abby.”

“I know. That’s why I’m taking your case pro bono.”

“There is no case. Paula tried to drown her! She’s been institutionalized for over a decade, and now she’s out here throwing lies around.”

“In custody cases, the truth is often irrelevant. What matters is what her attorney can convince the court to believe.”

“But she’s deranged.”

“Not anymore. At least according to her psychiatric profile. She’s claiming you left Abby home alone, unsupervised, which placed her in grave danger during the flood. Her lawyer’s subpoenaed the hospital for Abby’s medical records as evidence.”

“She was hypothermic.”

“She was unconscious for two days.”

Leland fiddled with the turquoise spinner ring on his right index finger. “Abby wouldn’t be here at all if I hadn’t found her.”

“And Paula wouldn’t have as much leverage if you’d stayed home with Abby in the first place.”

“Can’t you make this go away?”

“I’m your attorney, Leland, not your fairy godmother. You have to face the facts. Your wife’s lawyer will do everything he can to discredit you and cast doubt on your ability to maintain a stable home and provide for Abby’s well being.”

“You make this sound like I’m the bad guy here.”

Sid followed the waitress with his gaze. “I’ll get you a drink.”

“I’m fine,” Leland lied. “Just tell me what I need to do.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.”

Leland moved his chair closer to the table. “Why not?”

“Abby doesn’t share your DNA.”

Leland propped his arms on the table and leaned toward Sid. “What are you saying?”

“Biologically speaking, she’s not your daughter.”

“Like hell she’s not my daughter! She was born when I was married. I’ve raised her since she was a baby.”

“But you’re not her biological father. I reviewed the DNA results myself. Abuse allegations aside, Paula’s lawyer is going to argue that you have no custody rights. By law, Paula is Abby’s sole guardian.”

Leland slumped back in his chair, deflated. “You can’t be serious. The test results must be wrong. A lab mix up or something.”

“The odds are miniscule.”

Leland put his head in his hands. “This is ludicrous. I’m her father. I’ve always been her father. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“We’ll get through it.”

“How?”

“You do your job. I’ll do mine.”

“Meaning, what, exactly?”

Sid wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I’ll dig into Paula’s case some more. You need to stay gainfully employed. And avoid all contact with Paula or her attorney until I get this mess sorted out.”

Chapter78

Leland started his morning shower with his arms above his head, palms pressed flat against the tile above the faucet handle. Hot water sprayed his head and back, cascading down his lean torso and legs toward the gurgling drain at his feet. He lost track of how long he’d been standing in the steady stream, only knew that the water soothed his body and mind. He felt numb inside, a hollow shell nearly void of emotion, unable to process the truth Sid had conveyed to him. This time, no lyrics came to mind; no melody sad enough to follow him along his uncharted path.

He wanted someone to lean on. A partner who knew him better than he knew himself. Someone who could help him make sense of where his life was headed. “You want some company?” he heard Nicole ask outside the bathroom. Before he could answer, he found her naked in the water beside him with a washcloth in her hand. “It’s tight in here,” he complained, hoping she would dismiss herself and leave him to his solitary burden.

“Tight works for me. I’ll wash your back.”

“I’m good.”

Nicole poured shower gel on the wet washcloth and lathered Leland’s shoulders. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Leland dipped his head in the faucet stream when Nicole’s touch awakened his senses. “Me neither.”

“What did Sid have to say last night?”

“Not much.”

Nicole washed Leland’s lower back at the point right above his firm buttocks. “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.”

“I don’t feel like talking right now.”

“Then turn around so I can wash your front.”

Leland maneuvered to let the shower spray his backside. “I can’t do this,” he said when Nicole touched his penis.

“Not all of you agrees.”

Leland cupped her breast and kissed her, an impulsive reaction to a stimulating moment. But this time, he experienced nothing beyond his involuntary physical response. “I’m sorry.” He parried her hand and opened the sliding stall door to grab a towel from the rack beside the shower. Steam covered the vanity mirror above the sink.

“What’s the problem?”

Leland dried himself with a towel. “I’m not in the mood.”

“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

“I have a lot on my mind.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means what it means. Paula’s trying to take Abby from me. My record label kicked me to the curb. Sid thinks I’ll never play a gig in Nashville again.” He put his jeans on and slipped a clean shirt over his head.

Nicole stopped the shower and got out to wrap a towel around herself. “What about your record deal?”

“My contract’s been terminated. There is no record deal.”

“They can’t do that.”

“They already have.”

“Then sign with someone else.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“You’ve paid your dues.”

“The record label owns the band. I was only along for the ride.”

“Then talk to Sid.”

“I already have.” Leland opened the bathroom door to let the steam escape. “He’s dropping me too.”

“He can’t do that!” Nicole draped her towel over the rack and slipped her bra and panties on. “What are you going to do?”

“Fight for custody of Abby.”

“What about your record deal?”

“I don’t care.”

“You can’t just throw your life away.”

“I’m not throwing anything away.”

“Then fight for this, Leland. No one’s going to hand you a better deal unless you get out there and press for it. If Sid won’t help you, then find an agent who will.”

“When the time is right.”

Nicole followed him around the bedroom and put her clothes on. “The time is now! You’ll never be happy swinging a hammer for ten bucks an hour.”

“Twelve-fifty. Plus overtime when I can get it.”

“You can barely make rent.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Nicole snatched her bracelet from the dresser. “So that’s your master plan? Spend the rest of your life playing dirty honky-tonks for free pretzels and beer while some lowlife singer steals your slot with the band.”

“It was never my band to begin with.”

“You’re right,” Nicole said in a sarcastic tone. “I forgot. You gave it away when you blew your shot on a song you weren’t supposed to sing. And don’t tell me you wrote it for me.”

“I never said I did,” Leland replied, immune to Nicole’s mean-spirited response.

“You’re still in love with her.”

“What do you want me to say? Life isn’t some fairytale. You and I live on two different sides of the coin.”

Nicole grabbed her purse. “What happened to the man I used to know?”

“You don’t have to leave.”

“But you don’t want me to stay…”

Leland heard the front door slam. Instead of chasing Nicole, he retreated to his room and picked up his guitar. He played a melody to an instrumental piece he’d written while he ventured through the house to hear the way the notes sounded when they bounced off different walls. Eventually, he stopped outside Abby’s room to listen for signs of movement. “Are you up?” he asked through the door. He tried the knob and felt it turn in his hand. “It’s almost time,” he said before he entered her room and rested the guitar at the foot of her bed.

“I’m not going to camp today,” Abby mumbled with her face in her pillow. Across the room, her orange tabby stretched inside the open dresser drawer.

Leland leaned over the edge of the bed. “I have to be at work in a hour.”

Abby rolled over and brought her covers to her chin. “Why can’t I stay home with Nicole?”

“Nicole had to leave.”

“When is she coming back?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I heard you arguing with her.”

“I thought you were sleeping.”

Abby’s expression went solemn. “Why is Mom trying to take me away from you?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Is it true?”

“No one’s going to take you away from me.”

“Promise?”

Leland hesitated for a moment. “Promise.” He left the room and returned with a long cardboard tube. He opened one end and extracted a poster. “Check this out,” he said, unrolling the glossy photo of Taylor Swift on stage in concert. He smiled at Abby’s reaction when she read the autograph in the corner.

Abby hugged her arm around him and squeezed. “I thought you forgot!”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“Thank you! You’re the best dad in the world!”

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