Chapter Twenty-Two

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Emily stood at the top of the valet parking garage ramp behind the Hotel Café, a knot growing in her stomach. She could see small groups of men and women entering the bar from where she stood, about a hundred feet away from the Hotel Café's entrance. They looked happy, she thought, or at the very least relaxed and at ease. For them, it was a night out to enjoy a few drinks while watching Cory perform a rare acoustic set in an intimate setting. For her, it felt more like throwing herself to the wolves.

A car horn blared in front of her. She panicked, thinking one of Cory's more irate fans had spotted her and was honking out of anger. Then she realized that she was in the way of the car being able to get up the ramp to the parking garage.

Calm down, she told herself.

A few people had already passed her on their way into the bar, and Emily knew it was only a matter of time before someone recognized her. It was almost guaranteed her appearance at Cory's solo gig would make headlines at Wally Hood Goes Hollywood either late tonight or early in the morning. But then, that's what she was counting on.

She took a deep breath and tried not to cough when the air hit her throat. Her mouth had already gone dry.

I've been ripped apart by the media, told off by strangers in public, and am watching my website and career fall apart in front of my eyes, she thought. So why, of all things, is it my attempt to climb back into the good graces of the tabloids that has me scared?

She smoothed her hair with shaky fingers, then put one foot in front of the other. It was now or never.

The bar was crowded with people who'd come for Cory's show. Emily felt her chest tighten when it hit her that most of the people in this room were either one of his fans or one of his friends. At best, they'd glance or stare at her but leave her alone. At worst, she'd have another scene like the one she'd had at the coffee shop with Shelby on her hands.

The tiny stage in the middle of the room was empty except for a microphone stand, a stool, and a vintage Gibson acoustic guitar that stood upright in a stand. She'd been in Cory's living room the last time she'd seen that guitar, snuggling with him on his sofa.

She looked around for a place where she could hide out. The prospects in such an open room weren't promising. The small tables close to the soundboard at the back of the room were already occupied, as was the space in a darkened corner of the room. That left the bar near the entrance, where she could try to blend in with the people who leaned against it.

She approached the bar and stood at the counter, waiting for the bartender to become free. He finished with the customer he was serving and nodded at her. "What can I get for you?" he asked.

"Just water, please." He filled a glass with ice and water and set it in front of her.

She picked up the glass, then looked for an empty barstool to sit on. She couldn't see one, so she settled for leaning back against the counter until a few people came to buy drinks.

"Excuse me," a young girl said, then did a double take. Her eyes narrowed. "Hey wait, aren't you—"

"Leaving," Emily finished. She quickly got out of the girl's way. The last thing she needed was an altercation with a devoted Cory Sampson fan. Unfortunately, the only free spot she could see in the room that was far enough away from the bar to escape the girl and her friends would place her almost directly in front of the stage. She weighed her options, knowing that close to the stage was the better choice. She was careful to avoid making eye contact with anyone else in the room as she made her way there.

The loud chatter in the bar suddenly stopped and was replaced by applause. She looked up to see Cory walk onto the stage. A smile spread across his face while he waved at the crowd and lifted his guitar out of its stand.

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