FOREVER YOURS – Out 26 December 2018
After Carmen finds her fiance in bed with another woman, she’s devastated. The only thing she’s got going for her is her singing career, which thanks to her well-connected family, is on the rise. Then she meets devastatingly handsome but brilliant music agent, Jet Anderson, who will be managing her career at her new PR company. Despite their obvious attraction, Jet is lethal with women, and Carmen is determined not to fall under his spell. But will he fall under hers?
Carmen went outside at the sound of car tires on gravel. Her half-sister Floria bounced from the taxi, her face flushed from the heat and the long drive. “God, you weren’t exaggerating. This is amazing.” She looked around her, eyes wide, and took a deep, satisfying breath of mountain air. “I love it.”
The sweaty taxi driver unloaded her suitcase and dumped it on the ground next to her. Floria turned to him, “Gracias Señor,” and handed him some money. He gave a satisfied grunt, climbed back into his cab, and sped off down the dusty lane.
“How do you like my Spanish?”
Carmen laughed, she couldn’t help it. Floria was like a breath of fresh air, and one she sorely needed right now. “It’ll do. Come inside.”
Floria followed her sister into the house. “It’s much bigger than I expected. When you said cottage, I pictured an English country cottage, not this. It’s more like a farmhouse.”
“It’s called a finca,” Carmen explained. “My father bought it off an old farmer many years ago, just after I was born.” She nodded across a wide expanse of weathered grass. “He used the outbuildings for his sculptures and to paint in, while we lived in the main house. It’s fallen into disrepair, I’m afraid. He didn’t have the money to keep it up.”
Floria looked around the interior. The white-washed walls needed a coat of paint and large cracks had appeared in several of the walls. The floor was tiled, but again, the tiles were broken with corners missing. The ceiling was crisscrossed with wooden beams which gave it a rustic appearance. “It’s charming,” she said kindly.
“It needs a lot of work.” Carmen roamed around the room, running her hand along a crack in one of the walls. “Now I’ve got the money, I want to do it up.” She sighed. “It’s just my heart isn’t into it at the moment.”
Floria walked over and gave her an impromptu hug. Carmen fought the urge to withdraw. It had taken her a long time to get used to her half-sister’s affectionate nature, but the gesture was welcome, and after a second, Carmen relaxed and hugged her back. It was weird to think that six months ago they hadn’t even known each other existed. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Carmen had known about Floria, just not the other way round.
“I’m so sorry about Pedro. He’s an absolute idiot, and that tramp Paloma is no better. I couldn’t believe it when I walked in and found them in bed together.”
Carmen’s face crumpled. It had only been two weeks since she and Pedro had split up. The cheating bastardo. She took a shaky breath and tried to get a grip on her emotions. “I’m glad it worked out for you, though.”
Floria glowed with happiness. “Yes, I suppose it was fortunate that it was Josh’s Paloma that he was fooling around with. I’m only sorry it came at such expense to you. I wouldn’t have wished it like this, you know.”
Carmen sniffed. “I know. It’s not your fault. I blame Pedro. He’s always had a wandering eye. Even when we first met I used to see him checking out other models. It was bound to happen one day. Occupational hazard.”
“Yes, photographing beautiful women all day can’t be easy,” said Floria, not without a touch of sarcasm.
“At least you and Josh are happy now?” Carmen steered the conversation away from herself. She didn’t want to pick over the bones of her relationship, not even with her sister. She wasn’t ready to talk about it. It was still too raw.
“Yes, he’s wonderful. He said he fancied me from the first moment we met, but he couldn’t see a way out of his relationship with Paloma. He’s very loyal, you know. So she did him a favour by… moving on.”
“I’m glad.” Carmen smiled sadly. Somehow Floria’s incandescent happiness made her sorrow seem much more acute. “You guys are perfect together.”
Carmen showed Floria her room, then they met downstairs on the terrace for a drink. It was a balmy evening, the heat of the day had not yet dissipated behind the yellow and green hills dotted with trees. This part of Catalonia was still largely undeveloped, another reason why she loved it here.
Floria came out and stood beside her. “I could so get used to this. Are you going to crack open the bubbly? I know you don’t feel like it, but we’ve got some celebrating to do.”
Carmen tried to muster a smile. “Yes, it’s chilling in the fridge. I’ll just go and get it.”
She knew she ought to be more excited about her contract with the up-and-coming boutique opera artist agency, Adagio, but yet she couldn’t seem to muster up much enthusiasm. Her heart was so raw from Pedro’s abandonment, that her own good fortune seemed to pale in comparison.
Floria took it from her when she returned and popped the cork, which flew out across the field in front of them. Foam sizzled out of the spout, but Floria grabbed a glass and expertly directed the champagne into it. “Viola.” She handed it to Carmen then poured another for herself. “Cheers,” she said. “Here’s to the start of a long and illustrious career. I’m so proud of you, sis.”
They clinked glasses. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” Carmen admitted.
“Rubbish. It was you who sang at mother’s funeral and caught his eye, it was you who aced that audition in Oviedo last week, despite having a broken heart, and it is you he is salivating over. I heard he told an EMI record exec that you’re the best thing he’s seen since Montserrat Caballe.”
Carmen shook her head. “It’s so overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve processed it yet.”
“It’s not surprising, especially with everything going on in your personal life. When you get over Pedro, you’ll start to feel excited. It’s just going to take some time.”
Carmen nodded. At the moment she couldn’t see past the faded white-washed walls of her father’s house. Ever since the split, she’d been hiding out here, keeping her head down and speaking to no one. The rustic, slightly dilapidated building reminded her of her childhood, a time when she’d felt safe. It was only when she looked out at the cobalt blue sky above the rolling hills lined with trees, that she felt a momentary sense of peace.
“You’re on the right path now,” Floria was saying. “Being with Jet Anderson’s agency will open many, many doors. It’s a bit like Donna getting into the London Philharmonic. I hardly ever see her anymore, she’s so busy with performances and recordings.”
Donna was their other half-sister, a talented violinist, who’d moved to London from Austria, where she was born, to play in the prestigious LPO.
“What’s he like, this Jet Anderson?” Carmen asked. Next week she had to fly to London to sign the papers confirming her contract with them. After that, things would get busy. In a way she was looking forward to it, there’d be less time to mope, but on the other hand, she was terrified. As a professional opera singer, she was putting all her faith in her talent. No more modelling jobs, no more waitressing – only training and auditioning and singing her heart out. What if she couldn’t cut it? What if she wasn’t good enough? No, she mustn’t think like that. Letting her insecurities get the better of her was a bad idea. She needed to suppress them, ignore the voices in her head that told her she wasn’t good enough, she needed to have faith in herself. After all, singing was everything to her. It was her release and her salvation. When she was on stage belting out an aria or a finale, she felt like the world was at her fingertips and everything was dazzling and beautiful and perfect. She needed more dazzling and beautiful and perfect in her life.
“He’s very dynamic and well-connected,” Floria was saying. “He seems to know everybody who’s anybody in the music industry. My contact at EMI said he’s quite dashing too. Can charm the pants off anyone – and does by all accounts. You’ll have to watch yourself with him.” She laughed. Carmen didn’t. The last thing she needed was another womanising asshole making moves on her. Suddenly, the glimmer that had been forming on her new venture began to dim. As if sensing this, Floria said quickly, “But he’s extremely good at his job. His singers are well looked after, and he gets all the best gigs. You’ll be in good hands.”
“I hope so. I hadn’t heard of them until that man, Jet Anderson, approached me at the funeral, but then that’s not surprising living in Barcelona.”
“Have you done any other auditions?” Floria wanted to know. “You know, for Spanish agencies?”
“No, I was waiting to hear the outcome of this one.” Or that was the excuse she’d used. In reality, it was because she’d found the Adagio audition so hard – what with her heart in pieces, and all – that she’d almost faltered and botched the whole thing. After that experience, she’d decided to let some time pass before she sang for anyone again.
“Well, now you don’t have to. Adagio is reputed to be the best in the business, right now. You’ll be a star before you know it.” Her sister beamed at her. Carmen relented and smiled back. This was her dream after all, and she shouldn’t allow Pedro to ruin it for her. Wallowing in self-pity would have to wait. He’d bailed on their relationship, but that didn’t mean she had to bail on her life. Despite her heartbreak, the universe was conspiring to take Carmen on a new path, an exciting adventure, and she wouldn’t let Pedro jeopardise that. He’d already done enough damage.
It was overcast and chilly when Carmen landed in London, despite being mid-summer. The contrast to the stifling heat in Spain made her shiver. Luckily, she had packed a daffodil yellow cardigan into her carry-on case which she wrapped over her shoulders as she exited the airport to call a cab. She gave the driver an address in the upmarket suburb of Primrose Hill where Adagio’s offices were located and sat back to enjoy the ride. It wasn’t an area of London she was familiar with and she marvelled at the neat terraced streets with their pastel-coloured houses, the myriad of small cafes and boutiques, and a beautiful old church surrounded by crab apple blossoms that the cabbie told her was called St Marks.
Forty minutes later, she was dropped off outside an elegant four-storey Victorian building with a smart black awning outside on which ‘Adagio’ was written in gold. At the entrance stood two rows of black rectangular pot-plants with bushy green foliage sticking out of the tops like soldiers in green busby’s standing to attention. It all looked extremely professional and serious.
Carmen hesitated, suddenly feeling like a fraud. What was she doing here? She was a nobody, an unknown. The only reason Adagio were interested in her was because of her famous mother. This was beyond her, and if she went inside she’d make a complete fool of herself. She had a moment of sheer panic when she didn’t think she could go through with it and was about to turn and bolt when the door opened and a smartly dressed lady with short, spiky blonde hair stepped out.
“Good morning. I take it you’re Carmen Levante? I’m Jet Anderson’s P.A. We’ve been expecting you.”
Carmen forced her lips back into what she hoped was a smile, and shook the woman’s hand. “Yes. I–I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Come in.” The woman stood efficiently aside to let her through the glass doors. “Mr Anderson is finishing up with a client, then he’s all yours.”
Carmen exhaled and walked into the building, pulling her suitcase behind her. The waiting room was cavernous, with grey marble floors and twisted, metallic lighting, which made her stomach tense up just by looking at it. There were two leather sofas positioned at either end of the room with a low glass table in the centre. On the table stood a vase containing an enormous bunch of freesias. The flowers offered the only burst of colour in the whole room. Even the walls were a pale shade of charcoal.
“You can leave your suitcase behind the desk,” the woman told her. Relieved not to have to drag it into the meeting with her, Carmen did as she’d suggested, then went to take a seat.
It was chilly in the waiting room. She remembered that from previous trips to England. In summer, the air-conditioning was always on, despite the often cloudy weather. She shivered and pulled her cardigan tighter around her shoulders. Her bare legs squeaked on the leather sofa as she sat down.
“Would you like some mineral water?” Jet Anderson’s P.A. had striking blue eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses that Carmen bet didn’t miss a trick.
“Please.” Warm herbal tea would be better, but at least the water would help soothe her dry throat. She’d run out of lozenges on the plane.
The nervous tension that had been mounting since she’d boarded in Barcelona threatened to rise up and choke her. What if Jet Anderson had changed his mind and didn’t want to sign her after all? Was this meeting his way of letting her down gently? What would she do then? Go back to Spain, her tail between her legs, and carry on singing at local festivals and charity events in obscurity? She couldn’t bear the thought. Floria was right, when she’d put her broken heart aside and considered her options, this was by far the best one. The doors Adagio could open for her were phenomenal, and London was the gateway to Europe as far as opera was concerned. From here she could sing in Italy, Germany and France, and attend the great operatic festivals all over the world.
Her thumping heart drowned out the soft classical music playing in the background. The anticipation was brutal. The receptionist returned with her water, a slimline bottle with bubbles attached to the sides, and a glass. “There’s only sparkling, I’m afraid.”
“It’s fine.” Carmen took the bottle and poured the water into the glass. It hissed and sprayed her face with vapour as she took a thirsty sip.
“He shouldn’t be long,” said the woman, before disappearing behind the large desk just inside the entrance. It was very quiet in the waiting room, apart from the music, which she now recognised as Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor. Where were all the other clients? She glanced at her watch. It was ten past eleven.
At quarter past, a large man with a barrel chest and a tastefully trimmed beard walked in. He had a word with the receptionist, laughed loudly, then sat down on the sofa opposite her. He immediately took out his phone and began tapping away on it.
What was taking Mr Anderson so long? Inactivity had never suited Carmen, particularly when she was nervous. It was hard not to fidget, but every time she shifted position, the couch would creak and the man would look up.
Oh, for goodness sake! If she didn’t go in soon she was going to have a full-on nervous breakdown right here in the waiting room. She pictured the bearded man opposite giving her mouth-to-mouth and shuddered.
Finally, a door opened and the sound of laughter drifted down the staircase. Shortly afterward, a busty blonde in four-inch stilettos and a tight leather skirt clacked her way across the waiting room.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” she called in a sing-song voice as she exited. Even from where she was sitting, Carmen could smell Dior.
“Mr Anderson will see you now,” the receptionist told her, coming into the room. “Just up the stairs and it’s the first door to your left.”
Carmen ascended the stairs feeling like she was going to the doctor, unaware of what the diagnosis was going to be. Her heart, which she’d managed to get under control in the waiting room, suddenly began beating frantically again, so she forced herself to take two slow, deep breaths like she did before she went on stage. It helped take the edge off her panic, and she took a moment at the top of the stairs to run a hand through her hair and compose herself.
This was it.
Her future awaited her inside that room.
She knocked on the door. A deep baritone voice said, “Come in.”
Carmen twisted the brass knob on the door and went inside.
Jet Anderson had known many beautiful women in his life, but none of them were as stunning as the one who had just walked into his office. At almost six-foot with luscious dark hair, slanting green eyes and an exquisite bone structure, Carmen Levante was made for the stage. The camera would love her too. He thought of all the cinematic broadcasts the Royal Opera and The Met were doing these days. Opera was finally becoming more accessible to the general public, thanks to digital media. No longer did fans have to buy expensive theatre tickets, they could watch the shows at their local cinema, or even streamed onto their smartphones and devices.
He remembered thinking the same thing when he’d first heard her sing at her mother, Dame Serena Levanté’s funeral, but it wasn’t just her looks that had attracted him, it was her raw talent. He knew she’d just completed her Master’s Program in Opera Performance at the Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona, but other than that, she had no real experience. Despite this, her resonance and the clarity of her soprano voice was astounding. There was no doubt she was her famous mother’s daughter. When she’d sung Ave Maria in the church, the hairs on the back of his neck had stood on end, a sure sign that he had to sign her.
“How was your flight?” he asked, making conversation.
“It was fine.”
He nodded, studying her in more detail. After the funeral, he’d only had a few minutes to speak to her before she’d been whisked away by her famous family, barely long enough to thrust his business card into her hand. But now she was here in his office, sitting only a few feet away, he could really take a good look at the famous opera singer’s daughter. Her eldest, illegitimate child born to a Spanish sculptor twenty-eight years ago, when Serena Levante had been on tour. The national papers had been filled with the story after the famous opera diva had passed away so tragically several months back. Murdered, no less, in her country house in Surrey. The case had gripped the entire nation and if he were honest with himself, he was still riding that PR wave now. Dame Serena’s illegitimate daughter, the rising opera star, walking in her mother’s footsteps.
Dame Serena, it was divulged at the time, had three illegitimate daughters in addition to her biological daughter, the socialite Floria Levanté. Two of them, Mimi and Donna, were twins, born in Austria and adopted at birth. Carmen, however, had been born in Barcelona and had worked as a model while she’d put herself through the singing program at the Liceu. He knew all this thanks to his contact at The Mail, but also due to the thorough research his P.A., Yvonne, had done on Miss Levante before he’d offered to sign her. Due diligence was essential in his industry and he did it on all his prospective clients. You never knew what skeletons people had in their closets, and singers had more than their fair share. He knew that from personal experience. In his opinion, if someone had a dark secret, it was better he knew about it up front, that way he could decide how and when it was released to the press rather than him waking up one day and getting a nasty surprise. In most cases, they could put a positive or sympathetic spin on the rumours, which served to enhance his client’s profile, rather than demean it. The loveless relationship that had resulted in an affair, the starving artist forced to break the law in order to survive, the illegitimate children reunited with their famous parents…
He’d seen it all.
Carmen was eyeing out the contract on the desk, her teeth gnawing gently at her lower lip, her hands folded tightly in her lap. She was anxious. That surprised him. She must have had hundreds of offers from other agencies. Why at the funeral he’d practically had to clamber over music industry scouts to get to her. He decided to feel her out before he put her out of her misery.
“So, we’re really excited to have you on board,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “I thoroughly enjoyed your performance in Oviedo, although I thought the tenor was a little lackluster.” She had undoubtedly been the star of the show. Although it was a reasonably minor Spanish festival (by world standards), it was one of the hunting grounds for opera agency scouts, and he made a pilgrimage there every year to size up the Spanish singers – and he knew Carmen would be singing as he’d seen the program. And she’d known he was going to be there because he’d mentioned it to her sister Floria at an industry event the week before with the sole purpose of feeding the information back to Carmen. He wanted her best performance. He wanted to let her know this was her audition. She hadn’t disappointed.
“Thank you,” she replied, her back ridged and her eyes looking anywhere but at him. She had her mother’s eyes, that exotic emerald green that looked like she might be wearing contact lenses, but he’d studied photographs of a much younger Serena and could vouch for the fact that they were natural. Carmen was the spitting image of her mother.
“So before we go ahead and sign the contract, there’s a couple of things I want to discuss. Is that okay?” So far she hadn’t been particularly forthcoming and he would have much rather signed her on the spot and got it over and done with, but he was duty-bound to ask these questions because if she couldn’t commit one hundred percent, then he couldn’t do his job and they wouldn’t have a successful partnership. He had to make sure she understood that.
“What things?” Her concerned gaze swung in his direction.
“Nothing to worry about.” He leaned forward. “I need to know you’re ready for this level of commitment, that’s all. Most artists I work with are so keen to start earning that they forget there is so much more to being a professional opera singer than the performances. I am obligated to tell you that in addition to the performances, of which we will try to secure one or two a week, there will be vocal training, auditions for the opera houses, a stylist you’ll have to work with for costumes and gowns, and that in itself involves countless fittings, language coaching, rehearsals… It’s a grueling schedule. I need to know you’re a hundred percent committed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I am.”
“Your sister tells me you’re relocating to London,” he moved on, trying to gauge if she really meant it. She wasn’t the most communicative of people, which might be a problem. He could tell she was nervous, so he needed her to loosen up a bit. Perhaps talking about something else would help her relax.
“Yes, I am.”
Again, a few words as a reply. He sighed inwardly, she was hard work. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“Not yet,” her gaze flickered to the window and he got the impression she was fantasizing about escaping through it.
He decided to be direct. “Look, Carmen – may I call you Carmen?” At her nod, he continued, “I am trying to ascertain if we’re going to be able to work together so I need you to be a bit more forthcoming. I know you’re nervous, but please don’t be, the contract is right here ready to sign.” He patted the wad of papers in front of her.
“I’m ready to work,” she said, her gaze falling on the contract. “I am a hard worker, I want to train, to improve. I will do anything you say to further my career.”
He got the impression she was telling him what he wanted to hear, not what she really felt. She was like a closed book, and he couldn’t even prize open the cover.
“That’s good to know. Obviously, I value your input as well. You’re the artist, and we have to make sure you’re happy. So will you agree to work with me on this?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
Back to monotone responses.
At that moment his mobile phone blared out The Marriage of Figaro making both of them jump. Flushing, he reached for it to shut it off. “Sorry, I thought I’d put that on silent.” He laid it on the desk where it continued to vibrate. He saw Carmen’s gaze dart to the screen which had Bibi emblazoned across it. He turned it over.
“Is that your wife?” she asked. There was something in her gaze he couldn’t read. Surely she’d know he wasn’t married. Her sister Floria must have told her something about him, but then on the other hand maybe not. He didn’t know how close they were.
“No, I’m not married.” He cleared his throat. “Look, I know several reasonably priced hotels you can stay in until you find somewhere more permanent. Our foreign-based artists often need accommodation in London. If you like, I can give you a list, or Yvonne, my P.A., can book you in somewhere?”
He saw her shoulders relax a little. “A list would be great, thank you.” She’d obviously been concerned about where she was going to stay.
He smiled. “No problem. Now, shall we get down to business.” He saw her nod eagerly, which was reassuring. Perhaps she wasn’t such a hard nut to crack, after all.
He came round the desk and leaned over her left shoulder to open the contract. As he peeled back the first page he was struck by her warm, sensual aroma. Vanilla, was it? He forced himself to focus on the details. “As you know this is a two-year contract, the reason why we make it that long is that the opera houses typically offer you a repertoire for more than one season, if you’re any good. That means you’ll be expected to sing for them in a myriad of roles throughout the season, with a release clause should another house offer you a role and you are not currently involved in a performance. But I’ll handle all those negotiations.” He went on to explain the other ins and outs of the contract, pointing out the detail as he went. She listened with rapt attention, although her hands were still clamped tightly together in her lap. The only time she loosened them was when she asked a question, and pointed to a clause in the contract. When they were done, he rather reluctantly went back to his chair on the other side of the desk. “Now all that’s left is for you to sign on the dotted line.”
He tried not to show how eager he was. He wanted her to think she needed him far more than he needed her, however, the truth was he was desperate to land someone of her calibre. Ever since he’d bought out the previous owner of the agency, he’d promised his opera houses an excellent stock of talent, and Carmen was by far the most naturally gifted singer he’d come across in at least a decade. Possibly ever. With the right training, she’d be a phenomenal star.
Carmen signed the contract and breathed a great big sigh of relief. It was done. She was now a bona fide professional opera singer. Jet Anderson leaned back in his chair, a satisfied grin on his handsome face. Oh, he was all charm with his molten voice and ready smiles, but she wasn’t fooled. She knew his type. First the lady before her, then Bibi… how many more women was he stringing along? Anyway, she wasn’t interested in his manly prowess. He was reputed to be a brilliant agent and she was here so that he could turn her into a star.
She meant what she’d said about doing everything he wanted her to do. Vocal training, language coaching, rehearsals, auditions… none of it was too much. Anything to help her forget about Pedro and the sadness that had enveloped her heart ever since they’d broken up.
She stood up. “Well, thank you Mr Anderson. If there’s nothing else, I’ll be going now.”
He rushed to his feet. “Please, call me Jet. And actually, there is one more thing.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight?”
At her astonished look he clarified, “It might give us a chance to get to know each other better. I maintain a good working relationship with all of my artists since I ask a lot of them and I need them to trust me. I want you to trust me too, Carmen.”
She frowned. It was on the tip of her tongue to refuse, but then she thought about the empty hotel room she’d have to go back to with no one but the television to keep her company. How depressing. Of course, she could always go out for dinner with Floria and Josh, but seeing them together didn’t do her heart any favours. They were so blissfully happy, so in love, that it hurt to be in the same room as them.
The pause dragged out.
“Why not?” she eventually said. Jet’s face broke into a warm smile.
“Great, I’ll pick you up at eight.” He gave her his business card. “My mobile number is on the back, let me know which hotel you’re in.”
She nodded and slipped his card into her handbag. Did he scribble his mobile number on the back of every card, or was that reserved for women he took out to dinner?
“Yvonne will give you that list of hotels.”
“Thank you.” She shook his hand. His grip was warm and firm, and was it her imagination or did he linger fractionally too long before her let go?