SHE PULLED INTO THE lot of the Green Gator an hour later. During the busy holiday season, she waitressed part-time at the popular karaoke bar and nightclub. She scanned the crowded gravel lot for a place to park. It was a Wednesday night, so why was this place so full? She couldn’t remember T.J., the owner, mentioning a Christmas party being held there that evening. Must have been a last-minute event. She turned the van into the last space in the farthest row from the main door and slid on a patch of icy snow. She had to fight to steady the wheel and keep the vehicle from colliding with the SUV parked in the space beside her. She couldn’t put it off any longer. She needed to get the winter tires. At least a crowded bar meant good tip money.
She jumped down from the van and jogged in her heeled leather boots across the slushy parking lot. Her swollen feet ached and the tight leather gripping her calves made her want to cry. The uncomfortable boots were the last thing she wanted to be wearing, but T.J. insisted on a staff dress code. She tugged the door open and halted. There was standing room only, and in fact people were spilling into the entryway. If either of her firefighter brothers had seen this place, they would have had a fit. The posted maximum occupancy for the place was two hundred. She estimated at least four hundred people were crammed inside. “Excuse me,” she said, moving past the crowd and making her way to a frazzled-looking T.J. behind the bar.
“What’s going on?” she asked as she hung her coat behind the kitchen door.
He nodded toward the stage.
She turned. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Brad and the Heartland Country Television crew had set up their filming equipment near the blocked-off stage area in the corner of the dimly lit bar. His back was to her, and she took the opportunity to glare at his cowboy hat, low-riding jeans and tight white T-shirt, which stretched across his broad shoulders.
Country music blasted out of the speakers above them. Since when did they play country music in here? They played rock music, other than the occasional karaoke request for something different. She hated that everywhere she turned she was being faced with Brad and his success.
“When was this arranged?” she asked, taking a bottle of tequila from the wall and filling several shot glasses T.J. had lined up in front of him on the bar. The flirty firefighter Mark Adams smiled at her as he waited patiently for the drinks. Sure, he was smiling now, but that would soon change once one of the local authorities discovered the mess of people in there that evening.
“They called two hours ago and said they left a message last week. I don’t remember getting it.” T.J. shook his head.
“How did everyone find out so fast?” she asked. Turning to Mark, she said, “Eight-fifty.”
“Thanks, Mel.” He handed her a ten and headed back to his table in the corner.
“Apparently Brad’s publicist tweeted the info an hour ago,” T.J. said, pouring a glass of wine and sliding it across the bar to Lindsay Harper.
“Well, if Ethan or Jim...” Melody started, and then stopped. Several feet away Jim was sitting in a booth along the far wall with his girlfriend, Jill, and several of their friends. “Okay, let me rephrase that. If Ethan sees this crowd, he’ll slap you with a fine.” Her older brother, Jim, may have taken his role at the fire station lightly, but Ethan would never have allowed this crowd to remain.
“I said it was okay for one evening,” Mayor Parsons said, to her right.
Melody turned, her eyes wide. “Really?” The mayor of Brookhollow was okay with this crazy fire hazard? And he was here? The mayor and his wife had never stepped foot inside the Green Gator before. In fact, they made few appearances at any of the local establishments, other than the Fireside Grill, the only five-star dining spot in town. They preferred the country club in Newark to the Brookhollow night scene.
“Yeah. This promotion will be great for tourism. We have a local star,” the older man said.
Perfect. Next they would be erecting a Home of Brad Jackson sign near the Welcome to Brookhollow one at the town limits. She looked past the mayor and watched as Brad sat on a stool tuning his guitar. The camera crew was testing various lighting rigs and backdrops and the already too-beautiful Bridget Marilyn was applying pale lipstick to her mouth. People were gathering as close to the staging area as was possible, and Melody could almost swear a group of girls were creating a puddle on the floor from all their openmouthed drooling. All of this fuss for Brad. To her, he would always be the same old farm boy who’d crashed on their couch too many times. He was nothing special to her.
* * *
THE CROWD INSIDE the Green Gator lingered long after Brad had finished his set and the camera crew had retired to the Brookhollow Inn. Stretching his legs out under the table in the corner booth, Brad suppressed a yawn before downing the contents of his soda. He was exhausted, but he was still so charged with the adrenaline he experienced every time he performed live, he knew there was no point in his calling it a night. It was well past midnight, but sleep would elude him for hours yet.
Across from him, Bridget scanned the bar, which was finally starting to clear out. “Wow, you certainly have a lot of friends and supporters around here. I think they were standing out on the deck with the front door propped open toward the end there,” she said, toying with the stem of her wineglass. She’d kicked off her high heels and tucked her legs under her. After the cameras had quit rolling, she’d tied her hair back in a loose, messy ponytail and had washed the excess makeup from her pretty face. She almost looked like she belonged at the local watering hole. Almost.
Brad did have a lot of friends and supporters in town. A lot more than he had suspected. As his gaze fell on Melody, cleaning up behind the bar, he couldn’t help but wish he had just one more. “Yeah.”
Bridget followed his gaze and leaned forward in the booth. “Let me guess. You broke her heart?”
The truth of the statement was a punch to the gut. “Um...” He hesitated, unsure if he was ever “off the record” with the reporter. “Not in the way you’re implying.”
“Go on,” she encouraged, getting out of the booth on her side and joining him on his. The subtle smell of her perfume reached his nose and he wondered if there was anything about this woman that wasn’t perfect. Maybe her unquenchable thirst for information. He’d noticed her perceptive eyes taking in everything and everyone. It was slightly unnerving. A man could never be truly comfortable with a woman like Bridget. Shame, he thought.
He turned to face her eager expression, still unsure of how much to reveal. “That’s Melody Myers, the woman you met last night—David and Josh’s mom.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s the same woman?”
“Yes.” He took a gulp of his soda before adding, “She’s also Patrick Myers’s widow.”
“Your former guitar player?”
“Actually I was his former lead singer. It was Patrick who started this crazy ride for all of us. The songs on the first album were all written by him and Mel.”
“She writes music?”
“She’s an amazing songwriter. And an even better singer.” He saw that Melody was now putting on her winter coat.
“Well, why isn’t she in Nashville? She’s certainly beautiful enough.” Bridget eyed her with interest.
Melody turned and both looked away quickly. Well, Brad thought, that wasn’t obvious, not one bit. He let out a breath. “She should be.” All his success should be hers, as well. She deserved it more—she’d worked just as hard for it, if not harder. And he’d taken it from her. He owed her so much, yet she’d accept nothing from anyone, and certainly not from him. If only she’d let him help her in some way. Maybe it would alleviate his guilt a little.
“Bridget, excuse me for a second,” he said, moving past her out of the booth. He was scheduled to leave Brookhollow the following day. This was his last chance to try.
Melody was headed for the front door. Dodging several girls who were looking for autographs, he said, “Sure, just give me a minute.” If he missed this opportunity to talk to Melody, he wasn’t sure when or if he’d get another. He’d have to make an opportunity and, well, he wasn’t sure he was brave enough to do that. She hadn’t exactly been looking at him with the adoring eyes of a fan all evening. In fact, the bar had been so busy he doubted she’d even glanced his way at all. He wasn’t sure which bothered him more—being hated or being invisible. Her cell phone rang as she neared the exit and she paused to answer it. He hung back.
“Hi, Bailey,” he heard her say. “Yes...I know, I’ve just been really busy. I’ll bring the van in tomorrow morning before I go to work, I promise...Okay, thanks, Bailey.” She disconnected the call and stepped outside.
He followed her. “Melody, wait.”
She stopped and turned slowly. She checked her watch. “I have to get home, Brad.”
“Just give me one sec.”
“That’s all you get.” She wrapped her arms around her body and continued toward her van, her head down against the blowing snow. “Talk while I clear the windshield, then I’m out of here.” She struggled with the driver’s-side door, finally pulled it open and retrieved a snow scraper from inside.
“Here, let me,” he said, reaching for it.
“I got it.”
This wasn’t going to be easy. Melody had always had pride and a strong streak of independence. She’d married Patrick against her parents’ wishes, and he knew she’d made a choice back then to never admit to anyone that she and Patrick couldn’t make it on their own. But even when Patrick was so unjustly snatched from her, she hadn’t changed. He suspected the Myerses, as well as her own parents, must have offered financial support to her, which she no doubt had refused. At least they better have. Neither set of parents had approved of their child’s choice of spouse, so maybe their help hadn’t been as forthcoming as Brad assumed. He pushed the thought away before it brought him to anger. He had to get to his point and he had to do it fast.
Following Melody to the front of the van, he started, “Well, Bridget and I were just talking...”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Her voice held an edge.
Not a great start. He tried again. “I had an idea that I think could benefit us both.”
“Not interested,” she said as she lifted the windshield wipers to clear the snow from underneath them.
“You haven’t even heard it.” Man, had she always been this stubborn? No, probably just since you killed her husband, the relentless voice of guilt said in his head.
“Honestly, Brad, I don’t even want to. Look, just because I let you take the boys to a movie last night doesn’t mean I forgive you. It means I was trying to get back into David’s good books.” She’d moved on to the rear window.
Two side windows to go and she was out of there. He knew she wouldn’t afford him any more time than that. He had to talk quickly. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m not asking you to forgive me. I just need you to help me write a hit song.”
She stopped and stared at him. “You have to be out of your mind. Why on earth would I do that?”
“Because you need money,” he said flatly. It didn’t get any plainer or realer than that.
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m fine. We’re fine. Everything was fine until you showed up here as if you owned the town.” She swung the scraper wildly and he ducked to avoid getting it in the side of the head.
“Fine? Really? That’s not exactly the word that comes to mind when I think about your situation, Mel.” If the cold hard truth would wake her up, then so be it. He had nothing to lose at this point.
“What do you know about it? You’re back in Brookhollow for three days and all of a sudden you know something about my life? You know nothing.” Opening the back door, she tossed the snow scraper inside and slammed the door shut.
“I know you’re losing the house.”
She swung around to face him so quickly she lost her footing on the icy patch where she’d parked. She gripped the side of the van to balance herself, and then without missing a beat, she stalked toward him. “How do you know that?”
“Josh told me.” He didn’t want to get the little guy in trouble, but Melody had to open her eyes. She may have been tough, but there were some quagmires even she couldn’t climb out of on her own.
“What are you? A freaking child whisperer?” She stared at him in disbelief.
“Look, I don’t know why children trust me. Maybe it’s because I listen.”
“I listen. The nerve of you to imply...”
Brad held out a hand. “That’s not what I meant.” He took a deep breath and raked a hand through his snow-covered hair. “Melody, I can help.”
“Here’s the thing, Brad,” she said, climbing into the van and jamming the key in the ignition. “My family and I don’t want your help. We aren’t interested in being your ticket to fame and fortune—once again. But, then, I guess you’re using your own family for that now.” She reached for the door to slam it shut, but he grabbed it.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This show, all of this local promotion crap, all you care about is yourself and your career. I bet you’re not even planning to spend the holidays with your family. And I bet you’ve never once considered helping out at the tree farm, giving Troy a break during the busiest month of the year, instead of just showing up and making more work for them.” She knocked his arm away from her door. “Now, move out of the way or I’ll back out over you.”
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