Nik peered out from behind the heavy velvet curtains, straining to see the audience. What a rush! Every time he looked from the sidelines into a packed auditorium he remembered his first time—when he was seven years old and looking out from behind the legs of his famous father. It brought back memories that ran the gamut of emotions from fearful to euphoric.
"So what do you think, kid?" his father had asked.
What did he think? Did his father really want to know? How should he respond? Nik never knew what to say to his father—what would set him off. He had looked out at the crowd of screaming girls and found it both fascinating and frightening. Without question, being admired seemed thrilling; but then he recalled the fight his parents had had the night before and knew it wasn't always good.
Nik brushed off the memories like he would unwanted lint from his Armani jacket. Tonight, the crowd was here to watch him perform his Grammy-nominated song—not his father. Tonight, millions of viewers around the world were watching an annual telecast known as "Music's Biggest Night," broadcast live from the Staples Center in the heart of Los Angeles.
Activity backstage was frenzied, something the TV viewing audience never saw and the thousands of attendees sitting in the auditorium couldn't care less about as they did their best to gawk without appearing to gawk at the celebrities sitting among them.
From the moment he'd stepped out of the limo and onto the famous red carpet, Nik had but one thought on his mind: how to begin his acceptance speech. He wasn't concerned about his live performance; he'd do great. It was the speech that weighed heavily on his mind. Every time he'd rehearsed it the past several weeks he'd altered the first sentence—never feeling quite comfortable with his choice.
"Oh, darling, you'll be wonderful. Whatever you say will be wonderful." Everything was wonderful to Candy, and it was driving him nuts. He could hardly wait to break up with her. It had been coming for weeks, but he couldn't risk the bad publicity of dumping her before the Grammys.
"I don't care what you have to do," his manager told him sternly, "but don't even think about giving her walking papers until after the ceremony. Do you hear me?"
Nik had heeded the advice from Arnie. He'd grown up with the media lurking over his shoulder—waiting for some screwup they could blow out of proportion. As a kid it had really ticked him off that he always had to be on his best behavior because of his old man's career.
Now, following in the footsteps of the famous Cristoff Prevelakis, Nik fully understood the power of the press—and how his every step was vulnerable to public scrutiny. So he'd walked on eggshells the past few weeks—behaving himself, staying out of trouble. For him that meant staying home. At least Candy had made the self-imposed exile somewhat tolerable, but he was sick of playing house.
At this very moment Candy was sitting in the audience with Arnie, waiting to hear Nik's name announced in the category of Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance.
"This is your year, Nikky," his mother had slurred sweetly at dinner last night, fishing the lone olive out of her Waterford crystal martini glass.
Nik started to agree with her. His fellow nominees were dinosaurs in the business; he couldn't believe they were still performing— let alone touring, as some of them were. No doubt about it, it was time the Grammy in this category went to a hot young talent.
"I don't know," replied the Great Cristoff, a multiple Grammy Award winner himself. "Could be Bruce's year again. It's anyone's guess with this lineup. The Vegas odds are all over the board."
Leave it to his father to throw ice water on the smoldering fire of desire that burned in Nik's heart.
As if being nominated alongside Bruce Springsteen wasn't enough, Eric Clapton and Neil Young were also on the nominee roster. Still, Nik thought his old man could feign some encouragement on his behalf.
Turning her attention toward her husband of thirty-plus years, Isabella Prevelakis had turned on the charm that, even after several Van Gogh vodka martinis, was as precise as a finely tuned Stradivarius violin. quot;Cristoff, you know as well as I do that this is Nikky's year. He's earned it, and he deserves it. Now be a good puppy and get me another drink, please?"
Only Nik's mother could get away with calling Cristoff Prevelakis a puppy. Large pit bull was more like it. At almost seventy, he was still a formidable presence—exuding sophisticated sensuality like Ricardo Montalban. Cristoff had been a Hollywood heartthrob for more than five decades, but now he was nurturing a slight paunch. He didn't sing in public anymore. The media frequently suggested that his voice had been trashed by years of hard living and was no longer as strong as it had been when he came on the scene with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin. Nik guessed the reason had nothing to do with his voice and everything to do with his poor memory—he didn't want to embarrass himself by forgetting the words, but how would it look for the Great Cristoff to use sheet music?
Following in his father's footsteps was a journey prescribed to Nikolai Cristoff Prevelakis—known as Nik Prevel to his fans— long before he took his first step or sang his first note. He'd often wondered how his relationship with his father would have been different if Nik had not been gifted with an exceptional voice. But Nik didn't dwell too much on that because the fact of the matter was all the critics agreed that his talent far exceeded Cristoff's. That had made for some tense years as Nik's star was rising and his father's was sinking quietly into the twilight of his career. Only the fact that Nik sang rock and roll while Cristoff specialized in love ballads had eased the simmering animosity between them.
Tonight, when he held the long-awaited Grammy in his hands, Nik would thank his fans for making him number one on the charts. He'd thank his mother for her unconditional love and support. He'd thank his manager, Arnie Shapiro, and his band. He would even thank Kitty Thomas, his hairdresser. Through it all, the nation would wait with anticipation to hear what he had to say about his famous father. He would surprise them all by saying nothing. It wasn't because of his father that Nik had achieved success—it was in spite of him.
He wouldn't thank Candy. No way was he going to give her any credit in front of millions of viewers. She was pretty, yes— pretty useless. After the ceremony, and the after-parties, he could send her packing.
As expected, his song went off without a hitch. The applause afterward affirmed what he already knew.
"Good luck, bro," said Bono, last year's winner for Best Male Vocalist, as he walked past Nik backstage on his way to open the envelope and announce his successor.
"Thanks, man," Nik replied, trying to remember the name of the woman at Bono's side who was presenting with him. Norah somebody? He'd made a pass at her a few years back, when she first came on the scene. She was a pretty package with a modest voice, so he'd been surprised the year she won Best Female Vocalist.
As Bono and the woman made their way to the podium, Nik once again cleared his throat and, waiting in the wings, mentally practiced his acceptance speech.
"And the winner is ..."
"Don't shout, Valerie. I heard the doorbell," Ursula said with a laugh, handing her daughter money. "Here. Make sure to give him a tip."
"Get a decent job—that's the tip I've got for him," Victor opined, grabbing paper plates and napkins from the cupboard. "Where's the Parmesan cheese?"
"In the refrigerator, where it always is. And might I refresh your memory, dear son, to the years you delivered pizza?"
"My point exactly. It's a crummy job."
"It's honest work, and there's nothing crummy about that—you've turned out okay in spite of the hardship," Ursula protested as she grabbed his face between her hands and kissed his cheeks in the way only a mother could.
Her children had turned out better than okay. With a desire to teach, Victor had decided to get his Master of Music Theory and was about to head off to U.C. Berkeley, no longer her little boy. Out of high school less than one year, Valerie had been accepted as an intern for the Youth With a Mission organization and would be leaving for a short-term missions trip in Australia later in the month. They were partnering with a Doctors Without Borders group, and Ursula suspected that was Valerie's calling—medicine. Time would tell.
"He was cute, the pizza guy," Valerie sang. "A definite McDreamy." She entered the kitchen balancing the large pepperoni with extra cheese and mushrooms high above her head on one hand like an Italian chef in a TV commercial.
"Everyone's cute to you, oh-ye-of-little-discernment," Victor mocked, taking the pizza from her hand and distributing it onto paper plates.
"That's not true. Mom, do you think I think everyone is cute?"
Ursula shook her head. "You and your brother keep me out of your arguments. Now, come on. It's almost showtime. Hey, bud, don't be stingy with the pizza. Give me another slice."
Grabbing a soda pop, Ursula made her way into the living room. Grammy night at the Rhoades house was an annual party—along with Oscar night, the Super Bowl, the Miss America Pageant, and the Olympics.
"This is so cool," Valerie oohed, checking out her ballot form. "Thanks for printing these out, Mom."
"You're welcome, honey." Earlier that day, Ursula had downloaded the PDF ballot form from the official Web site for the Grammy Awards. Everyone had a copy on a clipboard along with an ink pen.
"Is Dad gonna be here?" Victor asked to no one in particular, paging through his ballot.
"You know your father doesn't share our sick obsession with award ceremonies," Ursula replied, settling with a swoosh into the ultrasoft Bernhardt leather sofa and pulling up a lap blanket. "Maybe we'll convert him one day, but not tonight."
"I've got my choices picked out." Valerie checked off boxes one by one.
"Yeah, I'm sure you do. Nik Prevel, Nik Prevel, Nik Prevel. Do you seriously think he's gonna win over Bruce Springsteen? I highly doubt it. What do you think, Mom?"
"I don't know what to think about music these days. I'm out of touch."
"Yeah, right, like you could ever be out of touch with music," Victor replied, throwing a piece of popcorn that landed in Ursula's copper-colored hair.
Ursula tossed the popcorn back at him. He was right. After her family, music was Ursula's life. Every Tuesday and Thursday she taught voice and piano lessons from her home, tutoring students referred to her by local public and private schools, as well as an occasional student sent her way by Philomena Petrovia, a client of Don's firm and a well-known opera singer who frequently came across young talent not quite ready for her tutelage.
There had been a time when being a member of the Metropolitan Opera was all Ursula had dreamed about. She'd been working on her Master of Fine Arts when she met Don and dropped out of school—and she'd never really looked back. If it came down to holding a degree or the heart of her beloved, there was no contest.
She gave private lessons because she loved it, not because she needed the money. Don's salary as an attorney, combined with their real-estate investments, allowed them to live more than comfortably in Bel-Air.
"Earth to Mother." Victor interrupted her reverie with another airborne kernel of popcorn.
"Enough of the food fight, children. Can we get serious?" Valerie scolded.
Serious was the last thing Ursula wanted to be. She wanted to bask in these final days of enjoying her children while they still lived at home. It always amazed her when she overheard her friends talking about communication problems with their kids. Ursula couldn't relate—the bond she shared with her family was a gift from God, and she'd never once regretted the decision to give up her youthful dream of singing professionally. Thank you, Lord, for giving me these precious years with my children. She could hardly believe that soon the kids would be gone, pursuing their own dreams.
That was what made the Grammys so exciting—seeing people's dreams come true.