Chapter Fourteen: Cracks

The Arena was buzzing with people by the time Diablo's car pulled onto the forecourt and a fine drizzle had begun to come down, spattering across the windscreen of the vehicle as it found somewhere close to the entrance to park. Seperated from screaming fans only by a white cord, the group were escorted onto the premises and ushered into their dressing room by efficient, smartly dressed security officials, who wished them a good night's performing and then withdrew to their own quarters.

Madeleine paced across the carpet restlessly, pausing every so often to glance up at the clock on the wall.

"Are you going to do that all night?" Stefana demanded. "Maddy, relax, will you? We're going out there to play in front of a sell out crowd. This is a big deal gig...don't blow it for the rest of us!"

"I'm not going to blow anything." Madeleine snapped. "I'm just not really in the mood to sing, that's all."

"We all know you're on edge at the moment, Mad, but let's not turn this into World War Three before we go on." Clay said evenly. "We're all aware how big this concert is - we've got to try and be professional. Once it's over, well, then it's behind us and we can try and focus on helping you nail the moron who's harassing you. But for now..."

He spread his hands.

"Unless you want to take it up with Rory, I'm afraid duty calls."

"And you're wearing a hole in the carpet, as well as one in my nerves." Stefana added darkly.

Madeleine sighed, sinking down into a vacant chair.

"I'm sorry." She said wearily, rubbing her temples. "I'm tired and I'm crabby and I haven't slept all week. I've got a headache and the last thing on my mind are song lyrics. I'm scared, you guys. I feel exposed. Like any minute someone's going to burst in that door and..."

She sighed.

"And I'm being paranoid." She acknowledged at length. "But I can't help being worried. It's a big deal to me."

"We realise." Marissa said gently. "But dwelling on it all the time isn't going to help. You should go out there and perform, show them you're not afraid of them and what they can do to you. We believe you can do it. You've always been a professional, ever since I've known you."

Madeleine was silent for a moment. Then she raised troubled brown eyes to Marissa's soft blue ones.

"Not tonight." She confessed. "Tonight I'm barely holding it together. I had another letter this morning."

"What?" Luca stared at the singer. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"Because you'd freak out." Madeleine ran agitated fingers through her thick wavy hair. "Look, there's nothing you can do about it. He wants more money, and I'm going to have to pay him. He wants it tomorrow night...midnight, at a derelict school south of the city. If I don't go, he's going to sell me out to Cool Trash...but this time he wants twenty grand. He says his silence is worth double this time."

"Can you do it?" Marissa asked softly. Madeleine shook her head.

"I don't have twenty grand to my name at the moment." She admitted. "What money I do have from Diablo is tied up in accounts that I can't access for another twelve months, and I only got hold of the last payment because Rory came through on our last performance bonuses. I really don't know what I'm going to do...and getting out on stage in front of a bunch of fans is the last thing I'm ready for."

"Our offer of financial help still stands, Mad." Clay reminded her. Madeleine shook her head.

"How could I ever look any of you in the eye again, if I took your money to pay some creep off?" She whispered. "I can't, Clay. I really can't. But I have no idea what I can do to raise the cash in twenty four hours. I thought about selling my car, but I don't have time...I just..."

Her voice wavered slightly and she faltered, swallowing hard.

"I feel so trapped." She murmured.

"Well, there must be something we can do."

Marissa pulled her friend to her feet, hugging her tightly. "Listen, Maddy, none of us will let you go through this alone. And we will loan you the money, if you need us to. We care about you, and none of us want you hurt."

"Even though I haven't told you why he's doing this to me?" Madeleine looked ashamed. "It wouldn't be right."

"Well, you could just tell us." Luca suggested. "It can't be so very bad."

"I can't tell you." Madeleine shook her head. "And this is a pointless conversation. I'm sorry. I'm getting emotional and it's not helping, not when we have to go out there and wow the audience. I need get into costume, have my make up done and get over myself - worry about this later."

"Then let's go get ready." Stefana said quietly. "Mari, you coming?"

"Sure." Marissa nodded her head. She linked her arm in Madeleine's. "We'll go get glammed up. You guys go get ready and we'll see you back here in a while."

Stefana pushed open the door, leading the way into the corridor. Exchanging a greeting with one of the security men on duty, they made their way down the hallway to where their stage costumes were waiting for them to arrive. For a while they walked in silence but, as they reached the end of the corridor, Stefana paused. She grabbed Madeleine by the hand.

"Don't pay him." She said quietly. "He'll only make you pay out double next time if you do."

"What would you do, Steffi, if it was your secrets that were going to be tomorrow's news?" Madeleine demanded. "I have to. Somehow."

"I'd deal with it and move on." Stefana said frankly. "And whatever it is, you have to do it too."

"I can't." Madeleine raised a humourless smile. "It's not like that. It's not that kind of secret. It's not over, Steffi. It never will be. It's just...there."

"It's just there?" Marissa frowned. "I don't follow."

"No, and we weren't going to talk about this any more." Madeleine got a grip on her composure. "We have a show to get ready for, after all, and I don't want to let you people down."

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"This place is amazing."

Nancy stepped into the big Carrowville town hall, glancing around her at the milling people and the spacious surroundings. Across the far wall, a banner hung with 'Happy Fiftieth Birthday Charlotte' painted across it, and despite herself, a smile touched her lips.

"Your Mom is a real someone in this town, Rob, isn't she?"

"Don't know about that." Robin grinned. "But she's never taken crap from anyone. People respect her or they love her - they know it's not wise to hate her, because noone's ever come off best in an encounter with her in the whole time I can remember."

"Sounds kinda like my Mom." Nancy looked amused. "Though she'd have the hides of anyone who posted her age up on the wall for all to see."

"Knowing Jetta, I can imagine." Robin laughed. "Well, we made it. What do you think, now you're here? Still scared?"

"Petrified." Nancy nodded. "Nobody's noticed us yet, Rob, but when they do, I'm going to come in for a whole lot of staring."

"Most likely you are." Robin agreed. "But that's only because you're the prettiest girl in the room right about now."

"No I'm not!" Nancy blushed. Robin shrugged.

"To me you are." He said unrepentantly. "Come on. I want to introduce you to some people...and we must say hi to my Mom."

"All right." Nancy bit her lip doubtfully, but she allowed herself to be led across the floor to where Robin's mother stood, sipping her drink and chatting with a man of about fifteen years her senior. She offered a smile at the sight of her son, which widened as she took in Nancy.

"Well, aren't you all pretty tonight." She said. "Have you actually got my son to dress up smart for once? You'll have to tell me your secret."

"It wasn't really me." Nancy owned, shooting her discomfitted boyfriend a grin. "Mary Jane nagged him. Happy Birthday, Mrs Sheppard."

"That does sound like my girl." Charlotte acknowledged. "And you must stop with this Mrs Sheppard nonsense. I'm Charlotte and you're Nancy - unless you want me to call you Miss Pelligrini and be all old school about it."

"No!" Nancy flushed red. "I just...well..."

"It's quite all right." Charlotte cut across her objections with a warm grin. "You'll get used to me, I promise. Won't she, Robin?"

"I'm sure." Robin drawled. "You're an acquired taste, Mother."

He turned his attention to the older man, who had been watching the exchange with a mixture of uncertainty and amusement. "Evening, Peter. It's been a while."

"That is has, Robin, my boy." The man spoke in rumbling tones, reaching out to pat Robin on the back. "But I'm glad to see you looking so well. Will you introduce me to your companion?"

"Of course." Robin hesitated for a moment, then, "Peter, this is Nancy Pelligrini. She...well, we've been seeing each other for a little while now. I met her in Los Angeles...she's a musician, like me."

He squeezed Nancy's hand.

"Nance, this is Peter Mulhavy. He's the Mayor of Carrowville...and an old friend of the family."

Nancy raised her gaze to the Mayor's, meeting the enquiring green eyes with sober brown ones.

"I know this must be difficult for you." She said quietly. "It's difficult for me too...knowing what happened and how much everyone thought of her. But I'm not trying to displace your daughter, sir. I want you to know that."

The Mayor's eyes softened, and he put a hand on Nancy's shoulder.

"My dear, I appreciate that more than you know." He said quietly. "Sian would want Robin to be happy. And so do I. Welcome to Carrowville. I hope it hasn't proved a disappointment to you."

"" Nancy shook her head, offering a smile. "Actually, the more I'm here, the more it's growing on me. I never came to Arkansas before, so it's been interesting for me to see Robin's world. And nice, too. He's seen a lot of my world, and he's met my family - it's been good to return the favour."

"Well, I hope you enjoy tonight." Charlotte remarked. "Get a taste of real Carrowville hospitality before you go back to your big city lights again."

"Shall we go grab a drink?" Robin asked. Nancy nodded her head.

"That sounds good." She agreed. "Lead the way."

As they crossed the room, Nancy spotted Anton in a far corner. As she looked, he met her gaze, and then turned his back. She faltered, then set her teeth, sliding her hand into Robin's.

"I'm going to have a good time tonight, no matter what people think of me." She said aloud.

"What brought that on?" Robin looked startled.

"Nothing." Nancy looked sheepish. "Just a mini pep talk. Ignore me."

"Where'd the fun be in that?" Robin laughed. "What are you drinking? Non I right?"

"Yes, please." Nancy nodded. "Then you'll have to tell me what the plan of action is for the evening. Your mother sounded interesting - Carrowville hospitality? Something I need to know?"

"No." Robin grinned. "Just you're going to know all about how we make visitors welcome in this town by the time the evening is done, that's all. And it's not in the way Anton Mulhavy thinks to do it, either. I want you to go back to Cali with a good memory of my hometown!"

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"That was one weird show."

As Diablo left the stage to cheers and shouts from the crowd, Stefana voiced the observation of the whole group aloud. "Surreal. Not quite...all there. Anyone else feel that? We didn't play badly - actually, we were pretty cool. But it didn't seem...real."

"Like we weren't really thinking about our music, for once." Luca said gravely, casting Madeleine a sidelong glance. Madeleine frowned.

"My mind hasn't been on music since Tante Regine was robbed." She said quietly. "I'm glad that's over with. I'm feeling bad enough without having to dance up and down and sing. I swear I thought I was going to throw up in the middle of the last song. That red light was so hot and my head was pounding fit to burst. I never thought I'd want you to shut up playing, Luca, but in that last track your bass was driving me mental."

"I wasn't any louder than usual." Luca pursed his lips. "Was I?"

"No...I'm just edgy." Madeleine sighed. "And hot and tired and headachey and in need of a drink. Lack of sleep taking its toll in a big way. It was bad out there...humid and dry and I was afraid to drink anything on stage in case I did throw up. As a singer, you can't really clamp your mouth shut and hope for the best."

"You should have said you were feeling sick." Marissa said softly. Madeleine shrugged.

"I'm all right." She said flatly. "It was just a hard show, that's all."

"But we pulled it off." Clay observed. "Sure, it wasn't the best Diablo performance we've ever given, but we were still pretty damn up to speed. Rory won't have much to complain about and the fans seemed to like it."

He twirled his drumsticks absently between his fingers. "And I've been thinking of ways you could raise your capital, Maddy. There's one thing that you haven't thought of exploiting yet...but what if you were to exploit it?"

"Pardon me?" Madeleine shot him a surprised look. Clay grinned.

"You want to avoid publicity for whatever it is you've got locked up in your closet." He said carefully. "Right?"

"Right. So?"

"So how about you schedule an interview with Cool Trash for tomorrow? You know they love Diablo, and any interview from us they lap up right away." Clay shrugged his shoulders. "You tell them nothing about this, of course - just spill them some secrets about our show tonight, our plans for the tour, a few personal remeniscences. Mention your lyrics and writing...basic interview stuff. Magazines like that pay out big bucks, especially if they think you're doing them a favour. Maybe they'd pay you the money you need to pay off your jerk blackmailer."

Madeleine pursed her lips.

"It's a thought." She owned. "I'm pretty desperate right now, so I'm willing to consider everything. But if I phone them, won't that be suspicious?"

"You won't." Clay shrugged. "Luca can do it, and pretend he's Rory. Say it's because you wrote the words to the new song, and everything. They'll eat it up."

He looked sheepish.

"I'd do it myself, but my accent rather gives me away."

"I still don't think you should be paying anyone, anything." Stefana said frankly. "You're giving in to them. They'll just make it worse."

"I know, but I don't have much option." Madeleine sighed. "Luca...would you do that for me? If...if I decided to go along with Clay's idea?"

Luca frowned.

"Yes, if you needed me to." He agreed. "Though it would be much easier just to borrow the money from us and pay it back later. It'd save you a whole lot of hassle and you're already piled under with stress over this. Mad, you're pale and you look tired. You need to get some rest. Worry about this tomorrow - Clay and I will help you, if we can...but you need to let it go for now."

"I wish I could." Madeleine swallowed hard. "But it's kinda always on my mind right at the moment."

She raised a hand to her head.

"If everything would only stop spinning..." She murmured.

Before anyone could react, she had stumbled, reaching out a hand for the wall. As she felt her finger tips touch the plaster, she was vaguely aware of someone calling her name, but they seemed very far away. As blackness hurtled into her line of vision from all angles, she found herself giving up the fight.

There was the sensation of falling, and then, nothing.

Prologue: Flashback: University of Connecticut, Winter 2009
Chapter One: Starcrossed
Chapter Two: Tante Regine
Chapter Three: Flashback: University of Connecticut: Winter 2011
Chapter Four: The Poem
Chapter Five: A Shock
Chapter Six: Nancy Confesses
Chapter Seven: Flashback: Break Up
Chapter Eight: Blackmail
Chapter Nine: Conflict
Chapter Ten: Flashback: Assanti Meddles
Chapter Eleven: Pay Off 
Chapter Twelve: Stefana Gambles
Chapter Thirteen: University of Connecticut: Finals Week
Chapter Fourteen: Cracks
Chapter Fifteen: A Tiny Piece Of Truth
Chapter Sixteen: Flashback: Forever Changed
Chapter Seventeen: Secrets Will Out

Chapter Eighteen: Fall Out

Chapter Nineteen: Flashback: A New Life

Chapter Twenty: Darren Admits

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