Fiction

Star Turn

If you want to be great, you have to take a chance.

Typical. It was just so typical. Just when all of Hollywood was finally going to devote their undivided attention to Gabby for a change.

She’d been so ready to perform. The dress the studio had “loaned” her was a sickly baby pink, as always, but was significantly lower cut than usual, which might actually convince the assembled moguls that the juvenile property known as Gabby Preston had cleavage that might be advantageously displayed on a more regular basis.

She’d come up with a way to deal with Eddie Sharp—whom she had still not met, let alone rehearsed with. She, Jimmy, and Walter Gould, the musical director of their production unit, had put together a list of songs she’d do and the keys in which she’d do them, and if Eddie gave her any trouble when she presented them to him, she’d say, “My way or the highway,” just like James Cagney did in that old flick she’d watched in the Main Street cinema on the studio lot.

She’d never been in better voice; her low notes were rich, her high notes were soaring, and everything in between was pitch-perfect and full. Best of all, the green pills for once were working the way they were supposed to. Mixed with the champagne, the little green darlings were giving her the feeling that she was invincible, that she could—and would—do anything she set her mind to.

And then Diana Chesterfield had to come back from the dead and steal the whole goddamn show.

Suddenly she felt a hand on her elbow. She turned to find a man in the red uniform dinner jacket of the Biltmore Hotel. “Miss Preston,” he said, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve been asked to fetch you. It seems you’re needed immediately backstage.”

“By who? ” Gabby asked.

“By Mr. Sharp,” the man said. “I can see you’re busy, but I’m afraid I really must insist. He said it’s most urgent.”

Gesturing her through a side door, he led her down a long corridor and a flight of stairs into the orchestra greenroom beneath the stage. A large, windowless room with a dirty linoleum floor, it bore a tableau virtually identical to the one in the rehearsal room at Olympus, sans the Viola-repelling gorilla at the front door. Musicians in matching midnight-blue tuxedos stood around smoking, noodling on their instruments, swearing cheerfully as they searched for matches and mouth reeds in untidy stacks of monogrammed instrument cases.

A voice yelled over the din. “Preston! Over here!”

Following the voice, Gabby got her first look at the great bandleader Eddie Sharp.

It’s the right name for him, she thought. The long, thin nose, the dark brilliantined hair scraped cleanly back, the square shoulders of his fitted jacket—everything about him seemed angular and exact, with two visible exceptions: the undone bow tie draped carelessly around his neck, and his full, sensual mouth.

A trumpet player’s mouth, which turned down at the corners in a slight pout that seemed a little bit arrogant, a little bit mean . . . and undeniably sexy.

Get a grip, Gabby ordered herself. So he’s not terrible-looking. Big deal. You’ve got to keep it together. Show him who’s boss. “Mr. Sharp,” she purred. “I hope that’s not how you play.”

It was a good opening line, one she’d thought of beforehand, and the twinkle in Eddie’s eyes told her he knew it. “Only if you sing flat,” he said.
He was holding in his hand a rubber ball with a kind of funnel-like spout sticking out the top. This he suddenly thrust up his nostril and squeezed, inhaling deeply.

“Amphetamine spray. You want some? ”

“No, thank you.”

“You sure? It opens the lungs and sinuses. Very good for singers.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Suit yourself.” Still squeezing the rubber ball, Eddie raked his shrewd black eyes over her, lingering, Gabby was pleased to note, on her décolletage. “Say, you look older than in your pictures.”

“Funny,” Gabby said smartly. “I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of you at all.”

Eddie laughed. “All right, kid. I got your number. Now, whaddya say we run through this sucker a time or two before they throw us to the lions? You know Ella Fitzgerald? ”

Gabby smiled witheringly. “Rings a bell.”

“Well, I just played a week with her up at the Savoy in Harlem.” He smiled wistfully. “She was practicing all the time. Never joked around, never sat around with a flask drinking with the boys. You needed her, you had to go find her in a corner somewhere where she was running through scat, trying out changes, making up harmonies. Finally, I said to her, ‘Ella,’ I said, ‘you’re great. Better than great. You’re a genius and you’re going to be a big star. What do you need to practice so much for?’ She said to me, ‘Eddie, it doesn’t matter if I’m better than everybody else. I have to be better than me.’ ”

He looked at Gabby expectantly, as though he’d just said something deeply profound. Well, she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means if you want to be great, you never give up a chance to rehearse.” He gave her a challenging look. “Now, are we going to stand here all night or are we going to run through ‘Ballin’ the Jack’?”

Here we go. “Oh, we can run through it if you want,” she said airily. “But we’re not going to perform it.”

“Really.” Eddie’s tone was carefully amused, but his face was not. “Don’t tell me, you don’t deign to learn music sent over by arrangers.”

“Please,” Gabby sneered. “I didn’t have to learn it. I knew it, just like everyone else and their mother.” And I do mean mother, she thought. That song had to be at least 20 years old. Viola knew it, for God’s sake. “But I looked at your arrangement, and I’m telling you, it’s not going to work.”

“Is that right? ” Eddie sneered right back. “Hey, Dexter!” he called to the man sitting at the scarred rehearsal piano, softly thumping out a vamp “C’mere for a second.”

Reluctantly, the piano player tore himself away from the keyboard. “What is it? ”

“Little Miss Maestro here doesn’t think your arrangement is going to work for her.”

“Really? ” His tone was cool, but Gabby thought she saw a flicker of what seemed like genuine concern in his dark eyes. “What’s the matter with it? ”

“Oh, it has nothing to do with the arrangement!” Gabby exclaimed. “The arranging is fine, musically.”

Dexter raised his eyebrows. “Fine?”

“No, it’s good,” Gabby amended. “The problem is the song itself. ‘Ballin’ the Jack’ is a dance number.”

Eddie shrugged. “So let them dance.”

“Don’t you ever bother listening to the lyrics? ” Gabby rolled her eyes about as far back in her head as they could go. These jazz guys might know an awful lot about musicianship and notation and all the things that made her practically throw up with boredom when Walter Gould went on and on about them, but none of them had the faintest idea what it took to put a song across. “It’s not that kind of dance. It’s a lyric dance for me to do. An . . . instructional lyric, if you know what I mean.” Eddie shook his head. Oh brother, Gabby thought. This was going to be even harder than she thought.

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