Release Date: February 18, 2015
Winning the United Kingdom’s favorite singing contest is a challenge for half-Afghani Pasha Trueman. He doesn’t have the best voice, but success would be life-changing. His strategy is simple—he’ll make the British public love him.
Ed Britten is an ex-soldier with a different agenda. Winning means he’ll keep a promise made after a deadly Afghan ambush. His voice is his weapon, but he leaves his heart unguarded.
Ed and Pasha’s discovery that the contest isn’t a fair fight calls for creative tactics. Staging a fake love story could bring victory, only there’s more at stake than the prestigious first prize. If winning means surrendering each other, they could both end up losing.
“You see him yet?” The tinny voice in Pasha Trueman’s ear crackled with a sharp hiss. “He should be in your sights by now.”
“I’m looking.” Pasha rubbed his damp palms dry on his jeans. Tracking a soldier who hid in shadow was a whole lot harder in real life than it was in Call of Duty. Maybe he should give up on these contact lenses. It was difficult to pick out anyone from this distance, let alone someone dressed head to foot in camo. His headset picked up another burst of static. It was worse than useless as well. “Give me another minute.”
“You haven’t got a minute, Pasha,” the faint voice warned. “You haven’t got thirty seconds to waste in this game. You’ll have to start without him. Get ready to go on my signal.”
“Wait!” Fleeting movement caught Pasha’s attention. “I’ve got a visual on him.”
“Talk about cutting it fine. On my count, remember?”
“On your count.”
This was it—a clear shot. The whole of Britain would have to focus on him. Not bad for a shortsighted half-Afghani who, if you listened to his critics, had no right to be here.
A nerve-fuelled spike of adrenaline dampened his palms again.
“Five, four, three, t—”
Pasha made his move and preemptively went for the kill. With only a month left until the final, there wasn’t a moment to waste. He swung around to face the cameraman behind him in the control box of a central London venue.
“Hello, Great Britain!” he said, affecting a soft Scottish burr to smooth the shake of his voice. “This is Pasha Trueman, your favorite BritPop! contender. This week, we’re singing about our day jobs. But remember who to vote for. I’m the brightest star of this show!”
The cheeky grin that voters said they loved stretched wide as he turned a dial on the light desk. Behind him, stage lights surged from dim to extraordinarily bright white in less than half a second.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed the contestants gathered for rehearsal covering their eyes against the glare. Pasha turned back to the camera with a fake contrite expression. “Oops.” He winked, and dialed the brightness back, wondering if he looked half as dazzled right then as his competition.
Tough shit if they didn’t like it.
Getting singled out like this to open the show was a big deal any of them would kill for. It had to be a good sign. Management must think he was destined to go far.
“That was great, Pasha.” A production assistant got up from the spot where she’d crouched. “We’ll use that segment at the weekend for sure. The viewers love it when you don’t follow orders. You’re their favorite joker.”
Pasha certainly hoped so. He banked on making them laugh. No way would his voice alone get him to the final.
“Stay here,” she commanded. “We need to film another contestant too, but you can feature in his segment as well.” She turned before leaving. “You know, turning the lights up that far gave you a halo for a moment.” A door opened behind her, and a harried sound and light technician pushed his way into the confined space, followed by his young assistant. The older guy had spoken into Pasha’s borrowed headset, and his expression was now pissed off. It sure didn’t look as if he saw Pasha as angelic.
It had been a rare chance to make a memorable impression, and Pasha would do just about anything it took to stay in this competition.
It was difficult to focus when sudden emotion pricked at his vision. Below the control box he stood in, the venue lights dimmed very gradually, spilling only a few feet beyond the footlights. Pasha squinted when a spotlight shone directly on a small X taped to the stage.
That was the spot he fought for.
It would change his life to stand there.
Next, a huge screen on the back wall came to life in a blaze of red, white, and blue. The opening sequence for Britain’s favorite singing competition started with a montage of the acts still in the running. It played out in complete silence, headshots of the remaining participants appearing in turn over a Union Jack flag background. Even without the familiar theme tune, the sight had visceral impact. Emotions lodged low down in his gut: Excitement, relief, and terror. They roiled, twisting as the door opened again and more people shuffled into the confined space.
“So, Pasha.” The production assistant had returned and now held a microphone toward him. “You’ve been in the running for six weeks, but what are you thinking right now?” She spoke quietly, as if she was the only person who would hear his answer rather than millions of viewers across the UK.
“What am I thinking?” Pasha took a deep breath. “I’m thinking that my name will be the only one left soon.” It would be his name filling TV screens up and down Great Britain. He visualized it happening, the image sparkling as brightly in his mind’s eye as finale pyrotechnics. His sight blurred again as if the explosions he pictured were real, and his eyes stung. He hadn’t intended his voice to come out sounding choked and gritty, but the assistant clearly approved. She encouraged Pasha to come closer.
“And how does that make you feel?”
The glow far below them dimmed as the other contestant she’d brought up took a turn playing at the light desk. They flared brightly again, and Pasha blinked a few times before answering.
“Proud.” He cleared his throat, lifted his chin, and looked directly into the camera. “I’m so proud that being British means I get to take part.”
The assistant turned to ask the other contestant a question. Pasha didn’t listen, busy wrestling emotion all over again. He’d told the production team last week that he planned to take the crystal first-place award home just as soon as he could. They’d loved the family slant to his plans. Loved it. And the clip of his eyes visibly welling behind the black frames of his glasses had saved him from elimination. He hadn’t sung well last week. Getting the highest number of votes couldn’t have been coincidental.
No way could he get caught with tears in his eyes again so soon in the competition. Once was heartwarming and human. Twice would suggest weakness. Another deep breath, and he’d be all right. If the crew asked awkward questions about him having red eyes, he’d blame these contact lenses. Anyway, another moment with his back turned wouldn’t hurt exactly. After all, there was no way that a contestant as boring as Ed Britten could steal any thunder from him.
A quick glance to his left confirmed it. The ex-soldier was far too serious for this show, asking the younger technician tedious questions about how the sound system functioned. He could be revealing something unique about his talent or showcasing his physique. The wide glass panels curving around the booth acted as a mirror, but all it reflected was Ed’s concentration. According to his bio, he wasn’t even thirty, but he came across as so much older. Those lines furrowing his brow wouldn’t help him win the teen vote, and talking about electronics was a sure way to lose most young mums’ interest.
Rugged, fair-haired, and blue-eyed, he should have been a voters’ favorite, but he didn’t seem to have the first clue, neglecting to flex the muscles he was packing or to stare deeply into the camera to make visual connections. Even when his broad shoulders eclipsed Pasha’s slimmer frame completely, blocking him from the camera, it seemed accidental. The big guy gruffly apologized right away and then tried to draw Pasha into his technical discussion.
Who gave a shit about the Auto-Tune software that made shaky performances sound pitch-perfect? The voting public couldn’t care less about the mechanics of staging the show. It was human engagement they wanted—tears, or fights, or passion—so they could live and breathe being famous for fifty minutes every weekend. These filler segments were meant to offer glimpses of that. The live stream from their shared house did so as well. Ed’s questions would hardly make a lasting impression. Like the uniform he wore tonight, he’d fade into the background.
The production assistant clearly thought the same. She interrupted Ed with barely any excuse.
“That’s very interesting, Ed, but how do you feel about having Pasha as your competition?”
That question came out of nowhere.
Pasha pressed his lips together rather than smile at the way Ed floundered. Ed could have played the nice guy by complimenting his choice of songs, or he could have been strategic by pointing out that Pasha often forgot lyrics and made up his own instead. But he wasted his one chance.
“I… I don’t feel anything about him. What do you mean exactly?”
That was a lie.
Ed clearly didn’t like him. He sat at the far end of the dining table each night and left the room if they were alone together. Still, he was no threat to Pasha, unlike the teen boy band—getting to the final would be one hell of a battle if that threesome stayed in. It didn’t matter that none of them could sing for toffee. Shedding their shirts each week kept them high in the ratings.
The production assistant asked Ed another question. “I mean, you were last stationed in Afghanistan at Camp Bastion, weren’t you?” she probed, although she must have known the answer. Then she spoke directly to the camera. “Ed survived an ambush during his last weeks stationed in Helmand Province.” She swung to face them again. “Your best friend wasn’t so lucky, was he? So how do you feel about being up against an Afghan like Pasha?”
“I…. He’s… he’s British.”
Ed spoke before Pasha could wrap his head around her implication. Was she really casting him as some kind of killer?
“But—” she persisted.
“No buts.” This time Pasha spoke first, pissed off that this shit still came up so often. “Why is my heritage an issue? I was born and raised here. In London, in fact, before I ended up in Scotland. You can’t get much more British than that.” He took a breath and shot a bleak look in Ed’s direction after his brain caught up with his mouth. Was this why Ed was so weird around him? Words spilled out, raw and honest, before he could stop them. “I’m so sorry about your friend.”
“Me too.” Ed’s words were a quiet rumble. “He wrote the song I’m going to sing in the final.”
Pasha jumped on that change of focus. People remembered the last thing they heard. No way could his last words in this segment be downbeat and depressing. “The final? Now, that’s real fighting talk.” Forcing his lips into his trademark grin was hard when Ed looked like someone had punched him in the stomach. “But I’m still going to beat you.”
The assistant shook her head like they’d wasted a chance to add some entertaining fireworks. She raised a hand to the earpiece she wore. “Okay.” She brushed past the cameraman. “Keep rolling. I’ll be right back.”
The younger of the two technicians spoke before Pasha had processed what just happened. He couldn’t be more than nineteen, and he sounded nervous. Maybe the crew had set him up to have one of the staged conversations they favored. Pasha made the most of this chance to claw back some votes that awkward moment with Ed might have cost him.
“It’s Pasha, please.” He turned to fully face him. “I’m twenty-two, not a hundred and two like Ed here.” He aimed his wink right at the lens of the camera. “In fact, all my friends call me Pash, so why don’t you do the same? And thanks for letting us up here to play at being technicians. I hope I didn’t break anything important. Your job sure beats mine for excitement.”
“No way. I’m just a trainee. You’re a real pop star.”
His enthusiasm helped Pasha get back into his groove.
“Not yet. I’m an out-of-work call-center operative, unless the public votes to keep me singing.” He picked up a headset similar to the one he’d hated wearing for his old day job, and he waggled it before setting it down. “That’s why I had this on at rehearsal. We’re all wearing our work gear for this week’s group performance.”
“Yeah,” Ed quietly joined in, one big hand smoothing over the front of a too tight uniform that left nothing to the imagination. “You’ll never guess what I am.” That was almost a joke. Pasha narrowed his eyes when Ed added a hurried, “What I used to be, I mean.”
This was no time for Mr. Strong and Silent to come out of his shell. Pasha angled himself slightly so Ed was out of his field of vision. “Anyway, it’s been so cool to see the stage from this perspective.”
“Oh.” The technician’s blush of pleasure was visible. “It’s no problem at all. Come up any time, Pash. I just wanted to let you know that I voted for you last week.” His gaze flickered to the camera, and his tongue tip darted out to wet his lips.
“Thank you so much!” It was such a buzz every single time someone told him they’d picked up the phone and voted. “Now promise that you’ll keep the spotlight on me during the show.” He teased just like the production crew usually loved, lowering lashes so thick his auntie said they belonged on a girl. He’d flirt with anyone if it bought him extra screen time. His smile widened when the cameraman jostled Ed out of shot to focus fully on him.
“I’m not above bribing you to black out all the other spotlights.” Pasha made a show of fumbling through the pockets of his skintight black jeans before reaching into his jacket. “What have I got here to bribe you with? Oh, look. I found some photos.” He signed one with a flourish, then looked into the camera once again. “Plenty more where that came from. E-mail me via the BritPop! website if you’d like me to sign one just for you.”
Behind the technician, Ed Britten put on the headset Pasha had abandoned as if he couldn’t bear to listen. He rolled his eyes at Pasha as soon as his ears were covered.
“Okay, that’s a wrap.” The production assistant had returned, and she looked pleased. “It’s time for us to get going, guys. We’ll catch up with you two later.” She left with the cameraman and the older technician. Pasha relaxed the moment they swept out of the confined space, but the younger technician hesitated by the door instead of following. His question caught Pasha off guard.
“Is it true what they’re saying about you in the newspapers, Pash?”
Ed might have the headset on, but his head inclined like he was nosily listening.
“That depends on what you’ve read. Was it something like you just heard?” With the camera long gone, he didn’t self-censor. “Is it true that my father is an Afghan terrorist?” Pasha ignored the sudden stiffening of Ed’s shoulders. “Or that I’m a radicalized Muslim out to convert as many British kids as I can?”
Those were the two rumors he read most often. So ridiculous. It wasn’t like he’d ever known his real dad, and he couldn’t tell one end of the Koran from the other. All he had to show for his roots was skin-deep and superficial.
“No.” The technician shook his head. “That’s all made-up crap, isn’t it?” As soon as Pasha nodded, he added, “But what about the other thing? Is that true?”
This time Pasha adjusted his stance so he could see Ed clearly before he answered. No one ever asked the big brave British soldier questions like this, but for some unknown reason, they’d asked Pasha the same question several times this week already. “Are you asking if I’m gay?”