I look back at my reflection. My scalp is itching beneath my towering updo. I wish I had a pen or a chopstick or something I could use to poke in there to scratch it.

I hear a low whistle from the doorway and turn my head to see Cooper standing there. He’s wearing a tux, to blend in with the other male judges . . . namely Jordan.

“Ay, caramba,” he says, his gaze on my reflection.

“There’s that insouciant wit I love so much,” I say. “You don’t look so bad yourself, big guy.”

He spins around. “Big Ted’s House of Tuxedos.”

Tania looks dismayed. “I told your dad to make sure they sent you an Armani. I never heard of a designer named Big Ted.”

“He’s joking,” I tell her. “It’s Armani.”

“What’s taking you guys so long?” Cooper asks. “You both look great. And the audience is getting a little cranky. They booed my soft-shoe routine. I don’t know how much longer I can keep them entertained.”

“You don’t have to entertain them,” Tania says, still looking dismayed. “We’re doing that part.”

“He’s kidding,” I say to Tania.

“Oh,” she says, and smiles a little shyly. “I get it.”

“Done,” Ashley says and pats Tania’s last curl into place. Her hair looks exactly the same as it always does. I’m perplexed as to why a flatiron was used to make dozens of spiral curls, but there are some mysteries to which I guess I’ll never know the answer.

“Thank you,” Tania says politely and lifts Baby from her lap as the hairstylist pulls off her smock. I see that, besides her matching black-sequined clutch, she’s also been keeping Miss Mexico underneath it.

Cooper notices the doll at the same time and raises a questioning eyebrow, but knows better now than to ask.

“Where’s Jordan?” he asks.

“He went to say hi to your mom and sisters,” Tania says. She’s reading a text from her cell phone. “He says Nicole is upset because she wants to sing one of her songs. I’m not changing the rules, though, just for her.” Tania tosses some of her ringlets. “The only people who can perform tonight are the girls from camp. And me, of course.”

“Of course,” Cooper says gravely and holds his elbow out to her. Tonight he’s her escort because he’s also her bodyguard. “Shall we?”

“Thank you,” Tania says, handing Baby and her clutch off to me. She hangs on to Miss Mexico. “We shall.”

Cooper and Tania start down the long white corridor to the stage door. It’s lined by Tania Trace campers—their chaperones are out in the audience, eagerly awaiting their performances—dressed in their Rockrrr Girl chic, either thigh-high boots and face paint—like Mallory—or crystal-studded evening gowns, like Cassidy. As we pass by, the girls murmur, admiringly, “You look so nice, Ms. Trace,” and, “Oh my God, so pretty.” A couple of them take pictures with their cell-phone cameras.

“Break a leg, girls,” Tania calls back to them when she gets to the stage door. She throws them a kiss. “Remember, I couldn’t be prouder of you!”

Emmanuella makes a heart shape out of her fingers and holds it up. “We love you, Tania!” she shouts.

Lauren, speaking into her headset, says, “Ready? He’s on his way? Great.” She looks at us. “Jordan’ll meet you in the wings, okay? It’s showtime.” Then she pulls open the heavy stage doors.

Chapter 28

Welcome to the First Annual
Tania Trace Rock Camp
Rock Off

Please turn off all mobile devices
so that everyone may enjoy the show

It’s dark—as it always is—backstage. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust enough to the sudden dimness to see that we’re standing in a small space beside numerous levers and pulleys that operate the thick velvet curtains, which are already open to reveal a scrim that bears the projected message: WELCOME TO THE FIRST ANNUAL TANIA TRACE ROCK CAMP ROCK OFF! Behind the scrim is stacked scenery from the various shows that the drama classes are working on . . . chunks of chain-link fence and ancient couches and streetlamps made of plywood. The audience can’t see these, however. Only we can, because we’re standing to stage right of the scrim.

A few feet away and down a narrow flight of stairs is a door marked EXIT. That’s the door the crew uses to get backstage quickly from the main auditorium, which is quite large for a private college.

In the center of the stage is the podium where Tania has to stand when she makes her introductions. It’s lit with some flattering rose-colored gels, and the clear teleprompter screens from which we’re to read are already set up. A professional crew from Cartwright Records Television is running the light and sound board. Grant Cartwright isn’t leaving anything, even the words we’re to speak, to chance tonight.

“Ooooh,” Tania says when she peeks out at the packed house from behind the thick blue velvet curtains. “That’s as many people as I got in that one place in Quebec. Cute.”

I realize then that, to Tania, filling a thousand-seat auditorium is “cute.” To any other performer, it would be “amazing.”

I can’t resist stepping up behind her and taking a peek as well, even though my mother always warned me when I did this, “If you can see them, they can see you.” There are camera operators roving the aisles. These belong to networks other than CRT.

For the first time, I’m starting to feel nervous. Thank God I’m not singing. I always thought I had a good singing voice—definitely better than a lot of so-called pop stars—until I heard Tania’s.

“Oh look,” Tania says. “There’s that boy from your building. The tall one who always gets so dressed up around me. He looks like he’s wearing his father’s suit. How funny.”

“Gavin?” I look where she’s pointing, shocked not just by hearing this odd description of him, but also by learning that he’s in the audience. “How did he get in?”

“I made sure that all the staff of Fischer Hall got invitations,” Tania says casually. “You have to do things like that when you’re in my position, you know. Image.”

When she says the word “image,” she waves her hand like a royal—with no movement of the wrist—to show that she means “image” as in You have to look out for your image.

Source: www_Novel12_Com