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Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …

Windy City Stories by Dave & Neta Jackson



Book #1 in the Windy City Neighbors series

By Neta Jackson and Dave Jackson
Copyright © 2013 by Dave Jackson and Neta Jackson

Chapter 1

The last note of her signature song hung in the cavernous space like the echo of a songbird … and Grace Meredith knew she’d “stuck it.” Like those agile Olympic gymnasts on their flying dismounts from the uneven bars or balance beam. The final moment, a breathless hush … and then beyond the lights, applause thundering from the front-row seats clear up to the balcony.

            In spite of the sore throat she’d been battling all week.

            “Thank you,” she called out over the applause. “Thank you so much. I love you! God loves you! And remember, you’re worth the wait!”

            With a smile, a wave, and a few kisses thrown to her excited fans, Grace backed gracefully off the stage of the huge Nashville auditorium, her royal-blue chiffon dress fluttering after her until the heavy, red stage curtains hid the audience from sight.

            “Grace! That was awesome! They love ‘You Are Special to Me.’” A young African American woman, clipboard and water bottle in hand, was the first to meet her backstage. “Here’s your water … Do you want to go back to your dressing room before the meet and greet? … You should rest first … Here, this way.”

            Grace nodded, grateful for her assistant’s firm grip on her elbow as they threaded their way over electrical cords, around ladders and props, and down the stairs to the dressing rooms. “Thanks, Sam,” she breathed, sinking into the padded lounge chair. “I just need a few minutes.” Hopefully, merchandise sales in the lobby were going well. It was going to be tight meeting all the expenses from this New Year, New You tour—her first independent tour—but sales of her new CD always seemed to skyrocket after that last song.

            Sam poured a cup of hot tea from a thermos into a mug and handed it to her. Grace had been drinking honey-lemon tea and sucking Slippery Elm Lozenges like an addict just to keep her throat from giving out. She sipped the hot, sweet liquid, sighed, and closed her eyes.

            Behind closed lids, she heard Sam—Samantha Curtis, five years her junior, recent graduate of Fisk University’s music program, and Grace’s personal assistant for the past three tours—answer a knock and send whoever it was away. Thank God for Sam. The adrenaline rush of the concert was quickly seeping out the bottom of her feet. If she stayed in the lounge chair much longer, she’d lose whatever energy she had left. But she couldn’t stop yet. The meet and greet was important. She’d promised to be there …

            Swinging her feet off the lounge chair, Grace sat up. “Uhhh, let’s do it. Spritz me up, will you?”

            Samantha frowned. “You don’t need to rush. They can wait another five minutes … okay, okay.” Grumbling under her breath, her assistant grabbed a hairbrush, gave Grace’s long dark hair a quick brushing, and spritzed it with a styling gel. “Just one more sec,” she murmured, freshening Grace’s cheeks with a flick of powdered blush. “Okay, you’re good to go.”

            Grace caught a glimpse of the two of them in the dressing room mirror as Sam ushered her out the door and smiled at the contrasts. Her own pale face and amber eyes, perked up with artfully applied eyeliner and peachy makeup, were framed by layered lengths of rich brunette hair creating a casual shag that hung past her shoulders. Samantha had honey-brown skin, large dark eyes, and tiny black twists all over her head. She looked “cute as a button,” as Grace’s mother would say.

            But looks weren’t the only differences between them. Samantha had the more outgoing personality, the chutzpah Grace wished she could muster in everyday life. Only when she walked onto the stage did Grace feel the certainty, the boldness, that enabled her to “sing her guts out”—as one reviewer had described her performance—and speak confidently to her thousands of young fans about the virtues of waiting till marriage for physical intimacy.

            She was at home on the stage—and at the meet and greet time she always scheduled afterward. Like now, as twenty randomly selected fans gathered in a lounge to meet their favorite contemporary Christian music artist. Grace took time to speak to each one, asking about school or friends or favorite activities. And answering the inevitable question asked by her female fans, usually accompanied by self-conscious giggles: “Miss Grace, do you have a picture of your fiancé?” To which she happily showed a little “brag book” of photos of Roger Baldwin, the love of her life, including pictures of the two of them, laughing, holding hands—one of which also included Oreo, her black-and-white cat, cuddled in her arms. Prodded by starry-eyed teenagers, she would then make a show of modeling the silver princess-cut diamond engagement ring with the tiny rubies Roger had slipped on her finger the previous year.

            “I love your song!” … “Can my friend take our picture?” … “Are you going to sing at your own wedding?” Grace laughed at the fun questions, ready with easy banter.

            But sometimes the comments got personal. “I want to be just like you,” one teary girl whispered. “I’m going to wait to have sex until I get married too. Thank you.”

            Grace cleared her throat. That “just like you” thing always made her uncomfortable. She opened her mouth to say, “Oh, sweetheart, don’t be like anybody else, just be yourself”—but the girl had already scurried away. Grace swallowed the words and turned to the next fan eagerly waving a CD for her to sign.

            As the room emptied, Grace realized just how tired she was. It had been a particularly grueling tour—nearly four weeks through six southern states. Many of the concerts had been scheduled back to back, which meant travelling at night in a chartered tour bus with her small band of dedicated musicians, singing to packed houses four or five times a week—and that wasn’t counting the Sunday morning performances in various churches. Touring had always been exhausting, but without the support of a record label, she was doing twice the work, and feeling every bit of it at the end of the day. 

            Hopefully the band had already broken down the set and was loading the tour bus so they could get on the road soon. They were heading for Memphis tonight, where she and Sam would be able to stay in a hotel. Just two more concerts left in her New Year, New You January tour, and then home to Chicago for a much-needed break.

            And to see Roger. She could hardly wait.

            Half an hour later, Grace collapsed on the queen-size bed in the private compartment at the back of the tour bus and took out her cell phone. Roger usually waited up for her call, though sometimes it went to voice mail and she had to wait till the next day for his return call. Like last night. There’d been no answer, and she hadn’t heard from him today either. He must’ve had a busy day at work … though she wasn’t sure why a financial consultant with a prestigious Chicago firm couldn’t find ten minutes to return her call.

            She tried to ignore the laughter and joking going on in the rest of the tour bus as the phone rang in her ear. The band was letting off some steam. They’d settle down as soon as the bus got on the highway—

            “Hey there, Grace.” Roger!

            “Hi, honey! I’m so glad I got you tonight. Missed you last night.”

            “I know. Sorry about that. I had some international calls …”

            Yeah, yeah. She knew the song and dance. It had to do with time differences in China and India and the Middle East or somewhere else on the other side of the world.

            “I was hoping you’d return my call today.” The moment she said it, Grace wished she could take it back. She didn’t want to sound like a nag.

            “Figured you’d be busy getting ready for tonight’s concert, and I had back-to-back meetings today.” He sounded matter-of-fact. “So how’d tonight’s concert go? This was Nashville, right?”

            Her tone softened as she told him about the wonderful auditorium the sponsoring churches had rented. “Some of the great Opryland stars have sung there,” she said with a laugh. “I thought that would make me nervous, but it … I don’t know, it inspired me. One of my best concerts, I think.”

            No response. “Roger? Are you still there?”

            “Yes … sorry. Uh, that’s great. Glad it was a good one.”

            Was she talking to the wall? Guess you had to be there. Which gave her an idea …

            “Roger? I’d really like you to hear one of my concerts from this tour. I think it’s my best tour yet—which is saying something, since it’s the first one I’ve done on my own. Is there any chance you could fly to Memphis for the final concert on Saturday? I know it’s short notice, but it’s the weekend. If you came, we could fly back to Chicago together on Sunday. Memphis is Sam’s hometown—she’d probably love the chance to stay a few extra days once the tour is done. It’d be just us—”

            Beeping in her ear cut her off.

            “Grace? Grace, I’m sorry. I’m getting a call from Beijing. I need to take it. Uh, look, we’ll talk tomorrow night, okay? Sorry, darling, gotta go.”

            The line went dead. Grace held the phone out in front of her and just stared at it. Argh. Good thing she was going home this weekend. She and Roger needed some real time together, not these frustrating long-distance calls.


* * * *


Sam woke her up at eight the next morning. “Don’t know how you do it,” Sam said, pushing the bus’s room-darkening shades up to reveal the parking lot of the Embassy Suites Hotel. “We got in at four, and the band has already unloaded their equipment at the church. How do you sleep through all that?”

            Grace didn’t answer. It had taken her an hour to fall asleep and she still felt exhausted.

            “I checked us in already,” Sam went on, starting to gather articles of clothing tossed here and there. “Thought you’d rather shower and dress in your hotel room instead of here. I ordered breakfast to be sent up at nine, time to eat before sound checks at ten. Management said we could use the side door, go right up to our suite.” She held up a burgundy velour lounging set—pants and top. “This okay for now?”

            “Thanks.” It came out as a croak.

            “Uh-oh.” Sam frowned. “We’ve got to take care of that voice. Two concerts to go before it can take a vacation. I’ll fix a hot salt-water gargle …”


* * * *


By the time the taxi dropped them off at the church, Grace was feeling better after a steamy shower, gargle, and a good breakfast. A church staff person met them at the front door and ushered the two women into the large sanctuary, where the band was tuning up their instruments on the wide stage and Barry Fox, band manager and all-around sound technician, was standing at the back, hands on hips, hollering, “Move that amp more to the right … no, no, too far! Back six inches … okay!” He glanced at the two women. “Oh, hey, Grace … Sam. Not quite ready for sound checks. Give us fifteen, okay?”

            “No hurry.” Grace smiled at the fiftysomething band manager, already sporting a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard to match his steel-gray hair. “You ever get those guys to sleep last night?”

            Barry rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I feel like a glorified nanny to a bunch of twentysomethings. But we got a few hours … you?”

            “Not enough,” Samantha butted in. “She’s sleeping in the hotel tonight. And only once through both sets this afternoon. Her voice is on the edge, and we don’t want to push it over. Can we tell the guys to take the chord down at the end of ‘Pure Heart’ during practice instead of going up?”

            Barry chuckled. “Be my guest.” He gave Grace a playful poke as Sam hustled down the carpeted aisle toward the stage. “Now she’s got the nanny thing down pat.”

            Grace laughed and dropped into a pew to wait until Barry was satisfied with amps, plugs, wires, lights, and tune-ups—all the mysterious details that had to be cared for before she stepped out on stage. How serendipitous that her Denver-based booking agency—Bongo Booking—had rounded up this gem of a garage band in Chicago, her hometown, and hired them to tour with her. No, that wasn’t serendipity—it was a God-thing. Their sound and her voice had fit like the proverbial hand in glove, and the guys were fun to work with too.

            She watched and listened, amused, as Petey, the saxophonist, shaved head glistening, jammed with red-headed Alex and his electric guitar. Hefty Reno, the keyboardist, was still pushing amplifiers around, while Nigel—ponytailed and tattooed—set up his drums, and Zach, sporting his “African knots” hairstyle proudly, joined the jammers on his electric bass.

            Her fingers itched to take out her cell and try Roger again before things got busy … but she resisted. No, he’d promised they’d talk tonight. Maybe he could still get a flight to Memphis tomorrow and take in her last concert.

            “Grace! We’re ready!” Barry called from the front.

            She smiled to herself as she headed down the aisle. Tomorrow, hopefully, she’d sing for Roger too.

* * * *

Grounded—available May 2013, preorder now.

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© 2013, Dave & Neta JacksonCastle Rock Creative