Good Girl Excerpt
• Chapter One •
A week ago, I had my first burrito baby.
I mean, I didn’t know I was even pregnant. Thank God I have the tabloids to tell me these things.
It happens that way sometimes, at least in Hollywood, land of the flat bellies.
See, if your belly isn’t completely flat, if maybe you’ve put on a few pounds courtesy of a penchant for extra guacamole on your Chipotle burrito . . .
Bam. You’re at the grocery store buying tampons and M&M’s and you glance over, and there you are, all over the rag mags. Pregnant.
Or at least accused of it.
Because the tabloids don’t seem to care that it’s been quite some time since a guy’s been near my . . . ahem. Apparently in Hollywood you don’t need a guy. All it takes to get “knocked up” in L.A. is a tortilla the size of a hubcap and an avocado or four.
Let me be clear: I am not pregnant.
I just like to eat. A lot.
To be honest, up until last week, when I naïvely ordered extra sour cream while wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt that apparently accentuated the fetus that wasn’t there, I hadn’t really thought a lot about Hollywood beauty standards.
I mean, for starters, I’m not Hollywood. At all.
I live in the Hollywood Hills, yes. I rent a Hollywood director’s home, yes. Even did a tiny cameo in a movie a few months back.
But I, myself, am Jenny Dawson.
A country singer.
I get that country music can be polarizing, I do, I really do. But I swear I don’t twang about dead dogs and dusty highways. I just write songs about real life. My life. And then I sing them.
Formerly in the shower, and now on the radio.
Where was I going with this?
Oh, right. Hollywood. And how I’m not it.
It’s not that I hate Los Angeles. Sure, the traffic sucks, and the women of SoCal have more than their fair share of silicone between the shoulders, but the city’s got its good points too. The weather. The ocean. The shopping.
But the paparazzi thing has been getting under my skin.
I’m not one of those girls who moved here to get famous. I was already famous, courtesy of All of Me going double platinum last year.
When my agent and label suggested that some time in L.A. might be good for maintaining my “mainstream” popularity, I didn’t really fight it. See above points about weather and ocean.
But I wasn’t counting on being quite so center stage all the time.
I certainly wasn’t counting on the fact that I’d be embracing the homemade smoothie revolution. And actually, embracing is a strong word. Let’s just say I had to actually read the instructions before I knew how to work the fancy blender. And yes, I may have allowed my weight gain, and the tabloids’ notice of it, to shame me into the land of kale and quinoa.
And there you have it. The backstory of why I’m currently standing in the kitchen of a rented house, wearing yoga pants and a pink sports bra, and trying to work up the courage to ingest the green goo in front of me.
Stalling, I snag a piece of organic kale out of the package and drop it to the floor. I’ve never known my orange Creamsicle of a Pomeranian to turn down human food before, but Dolly is not digging the kale. The leaf makes it into her snout, only to be promptly ejected onto the floor.
“You’re supposed to be my healthy-eating coach,” I say, giving her a reproachful look. In response, the little dog gets into her favorite pounce position and squares off with the piece of discarded kale, barking at it twice in that sharp small-dog yip that’s been known to send a grown man or two heading for the hills.
“I know,” I tell her with a sigh. “I wish it were fried too. But if half the country thought you were knocked up, you’d be trying to prove them wrong too. Desperate times, Doll.”
I poke a finger into the blender, scoop out a bit of the green gunk, and stick the finger in my mouth.
I reach for my phone and call someone who will serve up a large dose of tough love.
Amber picks up on the first ring. “Hi!”
“Who was it that told you smoothies taste like milk shakes?” I ask by way of greeting.
“I want their address so that I can deliver them an actual milk shake and make them confess how wrong they are.”
“I believe my exact words were that it tasted like a healthy milk shake,” my best friend counters.
“That’s the equivalent of those cardboard chips that say they’re baked instead of fried. The ones that claim to taste the same or better. Lies!”
“The healthy-eating phase is going well, then?”
I sniff the blender. “Super.”
“It’ll get easier. By the way, I bought you subscriptions to some of my favorite fitness magazines. My treat.”
“Treat’s a strong word there, Am.”
“Sorry, babe. But we’re not nineteen anymore. We’re twenty-two, and gone are the days when we could eat pints of ice cream every day and look like sticks,” she mutters.
“Says the girl who’s still a size two.”
“Because I’m eating a spinach and quinoa salad right now.”
I make a face. The truth is, Amber Fuller, best friend since preschool, is far more Hollywood than me, and she’s never even been here. The girl’s never lived anywhere other than Tennessee, and yet somehow she’s learned to embrace a gluten-, dairy-, and flavor-free existence in the land of barbecue, biscuits, and cornbread.
“Seriously, though, you know you’re freaking gorgeous as you are, right?” Amber says. “Is that what I’m doing here? Pep talk?”
“I’m burrito pregnant,” I mutter.
“I hate that you’re letting that bother you,” she scolds as I go to the pantry and grab a bag of chocolate chips. “The tabloids are crap. You know that.”
I do know that. But I’m also human. Reading the not-so-flattering things about yourself sucks. Even more so when they’re untrue. And not being able to go to the hair salon without a dozen paps in your face, not being able to get a manicure without every beauty blog weighing in on the color you choose . . . it gets old.
I know, I know. Poor little famous rich girl, right?
I’ve got zero right to complain, but knowing that doesn’t make me any less inclined to burn every single picture of my belly bump.
Being in the media spotlight, I can handle. I don’t like it, but it’s part of the job. I get that. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine just how much of the stuff you read in the magazines is pure fiction.
I knew I’d be followed, ridiculed, analyzed. I just thought it would be based on stuff I’d actually done.
I dump a handful of chocolate chips into the blender. Chocolate fixes everything.
Tucking the phone between my ear and shoulder, I put the lid on and flick the blender back on, sort of relishing the hacking noise the chocolate chips make as they whir.
“What the heck is that noise?” Amber asks.
“Just throwing some carrots into the blender,” I lie.
“Oh, good call! I love how carrots add that delicious bit of sweetness,” she says.
I roll my eyes. Sweetness my ass. They’re carrots.
“It does make for a sort of ugly color, though,” Amber continues. “Yucky and brown.”
My smoothie is now indeed yucky and brown, although not from vegetables.
I stick my finger into the brown sludge and scoop out another sample, more enthusiastic this time.
The enthusiasm, as it turns out, is not warranted. Chocolate and kale are not complementary flavors. Shocker.
I give up. Grabbing the bag of chocolate chips, I ditch the blender and head into the living room, Dolly trotting behind me with her stuffed chipmunk clenched in her little mouth, pausing every two steps to thrash it.
I sit on the couch, and she hops up beside me, curling into a little ball and resting her head on the toy.
“How’s the smoothie?” Amber asks.
“Good,” I say, popping a couple of chocolate chips into my mouth. “Super good.”
“We’ll make them eat their words,” Amber says gleefully. “Next time they post a picture of you, it’ll be to talk about your washboard abs.”
“I don’t want washboard abs. I’d settle for somewhat flat,” I say, patting my little tummy pooch. The truth is, I have a pretty good-ish body, I think. Not as skinny as Amber, but I’m healthy-looking. Five-seven, medium boobs, good legs. But the belly’s always been a problem area. Every bit of chocolate and, yes, burrito goes straight to the stomach.
“You’ve got to shake it off, babe,” Amber says. “You’re a musician first and foremost. People shouldn’t care if you have hooves and a wart for a face if you can sing great music.”
She’s right. Of course she’s right.
I eat another chocolate chip, but it doesn’t taste good anymore. I toss the bag on the coffee table and flop back against the couch cushions.
When did I turn into this person?
When did Jenny Dawson, small-town daughter of a CPA and a seventh-grade science teacher, start caring about a bunch of jerks with big cameras and petty celebrity bloggers?
Since when did I start eating kale?
It’s like one minute all I needed to be really, truly happy was my guitar, and the next I was shoved onto a pedestal as America’s sweetheart and was living in daily terror of falling off.
“It’ll pass, you know that,” Amber is saying around what sounds like a mouthful of very dry salad. “Everybody loves you. Heck, even the ones that did think you were pregnant started calling your offspring ‘America’s baby’ and began knitting baby booties.”
“That’s just creepy,” I say, running a hand over Dolly as she begins squeaking incessantly on her chipmunk.
“Okay, no more moping,” Amber says. “I’m pulling up my fave site right now so you understand that they’ve already moved on, and tomorrow nobody will remember that you were supposedly preggo.”
I want to tell her not to bother, and that I don’t care. But I do care. I don’t know when I started caring, but I do, and I hate it.
Here’s the thing: do you ever feel like a stranger in your own skin?
I used to think that was the sort of crap they only said in those Academy Award–nominated coming-of-age films, but lately that’s how I feel: like a stranger in my own skin.
I have everything I wanted: a career in music. People pay me money—a lot of money, if we want to get crass about it—to do my dream job. I should be thrilled, and I am. Or at least I pretend I am.
But it came with all this other stuff that I just wasn’t expecting. Or maybe I was expecting it, but I wasn’t planning on how icky it would make me feel.
Stuff like being told that a move to Los Angeles would make me more palatable to the mainstream.
Yes, those are the words that were used.
Stuff like being told that highlights and eyelash extensions and a freaking juice cleanse were nonnegotiable if I wanted to “make it,” and yes, I’m using air quotes right now.
Let’s just say that publicist isn’t around anymore—I haven’t completely sold out.
Don’t be too impressed with me, though.
I mean, I did let my agent talk me into taking a bit part in a movie, although admittedly, I sort of had fun with that.
But then I let my agent convince me that a temporary relocation to Los Angeles might freshen up my sound and save me from the dreaded sophomore slump.
The funny thing is, the album I’m working on now—correction, the album I’m supposed to be working on now—isn’t my sophomore album.
The one that went double platinum, the one that won record of the year, the one that had six number-one singles—that was my sophomore album.
It’s just that nobody remembers the first.
I know twenty-two is probably too young to say this, and ask me again when my albums are numbering as many as Madonna’s or Dolly Parton’s or Garth Brooks’s. But I’m saying it anyway, because it’s my reality: I don’t have favorites among my albums. And while I’m not resentful that the second did better than the first, I am resentful of the fact that people pretend like Just for Now never happened.
Anyway, point is, I think we can safely say I escaped the sophomore slump. It’s the third-album slump I should be worried about.
And worried I am.
Secret time: I’ve been living a lie for the past three months.
Everyone thinks I came to Los Angeles to write my next album, and that’s true.
Everyone also thinks it’s going well and that I’m nearly halfway done.
That’s the part that’s not true.
I haven’t written a single note or a single lyric since I’ve moved here. Or rather, I have, but not anything that I intend to use.
My biggest fear isn’t that the world thinks I’m pregnant, or that Stunning magazine thinks my favorite pink lip gloss washes me out, or that anonymous comments on entertainment sites say that because I took my best friend to the Grammys instead of a guy, I must be a lesbian or completely unlovable.
My biggest fear is that all of those things have gotten into my head so thoroughly that they’ve destroyed the one thing that’s always mattered: the music.
My biggest fear is that I’ve lost the music.
I pause in stroking Dolly’s velvety ears (and yes, you’ve probably guessed by now that my dog is named after the incomparable Ms. Parton) as I realize that Amber’s fallen silent both in chatter and in her quinoa chewing.
Either it’s finally sunk in that her salad tastes like crap or whatever it is she’s found on her celeb gossip site is bad news.
“What is it?” I asked resignedly. “Is it twins? Am I having burrito twins? They run in my family, you know.”
“Sweetie . . . ,” Amber says in a gentle voice that has me tensing.
I love Amber to death, but she’s not usually one for sweet-talking. She’s more the type of friend who will actually tell you that a certain pair of jeans absolutely makes your butt look big.
I go very still, wondering if I’m going to need more chocolate chips for this. “What? Tell me.”
“Have you ever hooked up with Shawn Bates?”
I make a face. “Yuck, no.”
“But you’ve hung out?”
“No. I’ve met him, like, twice. Maybe three times.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
My heart is pounding now, because there’s an urgency in Amber’s voice that I’m not used to hearing. “I don’t know. The Grammys, I guess. We had our picture taken together, I think.”
Shawn Bates is one of those ridiculously good-looking guys who’s also been blessed with a decent voice. He won best pop vocal album three years in a row.
He was up against me for album of the year. I can’t imagine he was thrilled about losing, but he was friendly enough. A little skeevy, but maybe that’s because I only know his reputation. And I, of all people, know not to believe everything you hear.
“Do you have your laptop handy?” Amber asks in that scary quiet voice.
Oh, crap. Instinctively I know this is bad. Really bad.
I stand, heading into the kitchen, where I left my iPad, Dolly trotting along at my ankles, happy and oblivious with her little chipmunk in her mouth.
“Which site?” I say as I turn on the tablet.
“Any of them.“
As it turns out, I don’t even need to go to a celebrity gossip site. I was reading Google News this morning with my coffee, and it’s still up on my browser window.
Only this time . . .
This time I am the news.
I stare blindly, clicking on the top article, my eyes reading the headline about a dozen times before my brain finally registers it: “Does America’s Favorite Good Girl Have a Secret Seductress Side?”
Below the headline is a picture of me and Shawn at the Grammys, both of us with awards in hand. My head is tilted back in a laugh, and even though I know my happiness comes from winning the award rather than my proximity to Shawn Bates, I have to admit that I look semi-smitten with the guy.
His eyes are locked on my cleavage, his smile far more intimate than it has a right to be considering that our conversation lasted only a split second longer than the picture itself.
At the time, I’d thought the shimmering pink dress the perfect combination of sweet and sexy, but looking at it now, with this headline, it seems garish. My smile’s too wide, my posture too open, my smoky eye makeup too much . . .
“Jenny. Talk to me,” Amber says.
“It’ll pass, right?” I say, still unable to look away from the photo to actually read the article.
Amber doesn’t reply, and Dolly lets out a sad little whimpering noise before sitting on top of my foot as though trying to shield me from what’s to come.
“It’s just another stupid rumor,” I say. “The tabloids are getting exceedingly bold. I can sue, right? And Shawn can sue, and we’ll—”
“Shawn confirmed it,” Amber says.
My ears buzz. “What?”
“This morning. Coming out of the gym, the vultures were all over him. Instead of keeping his mouth shut, Shawn said, and I quote, ‘Look, I’m not proud of my actions, but I can’t be the first guy to get pulled into Jenny Dawson’s vortex, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. At this point, all I can do is look forward and try to make amends.’”
“What is he talking about?” I squeak, my eyes closing as I pull hard on my ponytail in frustration. “Make amends for what? My vortex? Is that a thing?”
“It gets worse,” Amber says, her voice miserable.
“I don’t know how that’s even possible.”
“He’s not the only one who’s confirmed the story.”
I blink. “Someone else is also delusional?”
“Yeah. His wife.”
“Oh my God,” I whisper.
I don’t know much about Shawn Bates’s wife, but pretty much everyone knows their story. Childhood sweethearts who started dating in middle school, they got married right out of high school, shortly before Shawn got famous.
There are always rumors that he’s cheating, but like I’ve said, I don’t put much faith in rumors.
One thing I know for sure is that if he is cheating, it’s not with me.
“She posted a tearful selfie on every single social media platform along with a big old statement about how she and Shawn are going through a rough patch, but their love is stronger than any country-singing home wrecker.”
“I’m not a home wrecker.”
“I know that, J. But you have that song, and there’s that picture—”
“The song was euphemistic!” I say, referring to my first hit single, a song I wrote about all the things that can come between a couple once the honeymoon period’s over: the TV, bills, iPhones, work. Those are the home wreckers.
My phone buzzes with an incoming call, and I pull it away from my face to check the name. When I see who it is, I decline it.
“Candice is calling.”
“As she should be, as your publicist.”
“I don’t want to talk to her,” I say, my voice panicked. “I don’t want to talk to any of them. I want this all to go away.”
“And it will,” Amber says in a soothing voice as Dolly licks my shin. “But J, this one’s going to have some staying power, I think. It’s not just the tabloids, and you know everyone loves a good cheating scandal.”
“I didn’t cheat,” I whisper as tears threaten. “I don’t even know this guy. I don’t understand why this is happening.”
“I know. But it is.”
See what I mean about Amber being the tough-love kind of friend?
“It’s happening, honey, and here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to bring in the cavalry. You hang up with me and call everyone. Candice, Barb, the label. Have them bring in the attorneys who can start screaming defamation, and—”
“I don’t want to play the game,” I interrupt.
“The he-said/she-said game,” I say quietly as I scroll through the rest of the article with a new sense of calm . . . until I find the tearful selfie of Shawn’s wife.
She looks sweet. That’s the crappy part. Kayla Bates looks sweet and heartbroken, and my heart aches for her too, even though she’s sort of just ruined my life.
“You have to,” Amber argues. “You can’t just let them walk all over you.”
“You know how this works,” I say. “People like to believe the worst. It won’t matter what I say.”
“Okay, true, but you can’t just ignore this, Jenny. This one’s not going away on its own. Not for a long time. You saw the headlines . . . America’s good girl just went bad.”
I wince. I hate that label. I hate that a halo’s been thrust atop my head simply because someone somewhere decided that I have an innocent-looking face.
I hate even more how easy it is for that halo to be knocked off.
“Los Angeles will eat you alive,” Amber says, trying again with that unfamiliar gentle tone.
“I know,” I say as I turn off the iPad screen with quiet purpose as the reality of what I need settles in. “I’m not staying.”
“Thank God,” Amber says with feeling. “Come home. Stay with your folks or with me or with Kelly—”
“I can’t go home to Nashville,” I interrupt. “They’ll find me there. Heck, they were camped outside my parents’ house after the burrito baby incident, and this is bigger.”
“Where will you go?”
I smile grimly as I begin to formulate a plan. “Let’s just say that it’s off the grid. Like, all the way off the grid.”