To Catch a Thief

By: Nan Dixon

CHAPTER ONE


CAROLINA INHALED, CLOSED her eyes and poured her heart into the last eight measures of music. “Baby, baby, I’m in love with you.”

She held the note, riding the vowel. Let it crescendo with the piano.

Applause thundered through the room. People in the back stood.

Raising both arms, she finished with a flourish.

The adulation washed over her. Tonight was her best performance—ever. Each note, each phrase, had emerged exactly how she’d imagined and practiced.

Perfect timing. Her business manager, Gar, sat near the stage, two record producers at the table with him. Gar gave her a thumbs-up, making her smile.

“Good night. You’ve been a great audience.” She waved and left the stage.

In the wings, she grabbed her water, glugging down half the bottle. Then she snatched a towel and wiped under her arms. Good Lord, she hoped the audience hadn’t noticed the sweat. Between the stage lights, August in Nashville and the bar’s half-hearted air-conditioning, she’d worried she would drown in a puddle of perspiration.

“Incredible! You got a standing O!” Ella, her accompanist, pushed into the small backstage and hugged her.

“I’m soaking wet,” Carolina complained. But she hugged Ella right back.

“Stars don’t sweat, they glow.” Ella pulled away, grinning. “Now, say thank you.”

“Thank you?”

“I pretended to straighten sheet music so I could eavesdrop on Doofus and the record producers. They loved your voice. Loved you.”

“Don’t call Gar a doofus.” Carolina bit her lip to contain her grin and sneaked a peek at the audience through the wings. “They really loved it?”

“Oh, honey, yes. And Gar is a doofus.” Ella pulled a water bottle from her bag. “He’s lucky to have you as his talent.”

“He did get the producers here tonight.” Carolina headed to the closet that served as her dressing room. Or maybe it was a dressing room that doubled as a closet. “I was nervous. Thanks for covering when I missed my cue.”

“No problem.” Ella settled on a barstool tucked back with the buckets and mops. “You have to take me with you when you rocket to the top of the charts.”

“If I have anything to say, we’ll do this together.” She’d never worked with a pianist as talented as Ella. When Carolina first moved to Nashville, they’d found each other through a roommate ad. Now Ella was her best friend.

While Carolina wiped off her makeup, she turned on her phone. Three missed calls. All from Mamá. Shoot. After rehearsing this afternoon, she hadn’t turned her phone back on.

Now what? Her mother had returned from a cruise a few days ago, but they’d talked since then.

She checked the time. It was close to midnight. Back home in Tybee it would be one in the morning. She opened her voice mail, but saw no new messages. She sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Ella asked.

“I’m not sure.” She checked whether her mother had left a text, but Mamá never did. She preferred conversations. “I need to call my mother.”

She waited as the phone rang. Once. Twice. Three times.

“Carolina!” Mamá wailed. “Thank God.”

The water in her stomach churned. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s back,” her mother sobbed. “It’s back.”

Carolina swallowed. No. “What’s back?”

But she knew. Her fingers squeezed the phone.

“The cancer. The maldito cancer.”

Mamá’s sobbing gulps had tears filling Carolina’s eyes. She bit her lip. No. No. No. “What happened?”

Ella’s fingers pressed into Carolina’s shoulder. She leaned into her friend’s strength.

“Dr. Laster says I’m dying. The cancer is killing me.”

“Breast cancer? Again?”

“In my head,” her mother wailed. “The tumors are in my head.”

Her mother’s breast cancer had metastasized.

Carolina’s joy slid away. She whispered, “Mamá.”

“I need you,” she whimpered. “Come home. I don’t have much time left. I need my baby with me.”

“Of course. Yes.” Her mind whirled. “I’ll… I’ll come home.”

She wanted to ask more questions about the diagnosis, but couldn’t force words past the lump in her throat. She choked out, “I’ll get home as soon as I can.”

“Hurry.”

Ella handed her a tissue. At Carolina’s confused look, Ella blotted Carolina’s wet face.

“I’ll… I’ll…leave tomorrow.” There was so much to do. “Get some sleep, Mamá.”

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