Emma Donovan ran off to Nashville when she was young and full of dreams. Now she's back home in Colorado with a little more common sense. And that sense is telling her not to count on Jamie Westland. He won't be around longnot with his big-time career in New York City.
Jamie's never felt at home, not with his adopted family, not with himself. Now, on his grandfather's ranch, the pieces of his life are coming together in a way that feels right. And Emma has so much to do with it. But when an opportunity comes along back in New York, he has to decide between his old life and the promise of a new one with Emma.
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"I heard the bad news about the Philharmonic letting you go. How're you doing?"
James Westland's hand tightened around his cell phone as he tried to shove aside his growing irritation at his friend Connor's comment. What he wouldn't give for a call from a charity asking for a donation or a wrong number. He'd even be thrilled with an obscene call. Anything but a call from another friend or relative asking how he was holding up.
How the hell did everyone expect him to be when his career was becoming a distant spec in his rearview mirror? Of course he was pissed. At first he'd tried drowning his anger in a bottle of Jameson, but all that did was leave him with a bad hangover. Now he'd reached the not-sure-what-the-hell-to-do stage.
"I'm fine. I'm assessing my options." He almost laughed. Right. You've got so many of those to choose from.
Unlike his siblings, Jamie had never excelled in school. He'd studied twice as hard to earn low B's and C's. For their paltry efforts, his sisters had scored straight A's. One now possessed an MBA and the other a degree in engineering. Education that offered them more options, while he'd put all his career eggs into the music basket, leaving him little to fall back on now.
"My sister teaches at a private school in Manhattan," Connor said. "I could see if she knows of anyone who's looking for a music teacher."
"Sure," he said mainly out of ingrained politeness and because he couldn't afford to rule out any ideas at this point.
How could a simple Sunday morning bike ride have ended up turning his life upside down? He still had trouble letting go of the what-ifs.
What if I'd slept in? What if the guy in the parked car had been as concerned about the world around him as his coffee? Would he have opened the door and knocked me to the ground? What if I hadn't tried to break my fall? Would I have hurt my hand so bad?
"I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't play the cello anymore," Connor said, breaking through Jamie's thoughts.
There it was. The barely veiled invitation to spill his guts and say how angry he was or how he was falling apart. If anyone else hinted he was concerned he'd do something stupid like jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, he might throw his phone off said bridge.
His left hand cramped and he switched his phone to his right, staring at the offending appendage as if it should look different. How many people would be thrilled to have the mobility he possessed, and yet for him, it wasn't enough. "It's taking some adjusting to, but I'm managing."
"Maybe you should get away. Take some time to clear your head."
Or at least get away before the well-intentioned people in his life drove him insane. He considered visiting his parents in Philadelphia, but tossed the idea aside. While he loved them, they were planners. They analyzed a situation, determined the risks and probability of success for each option and then acted. That's what they'd want to do with this situationprovide him with a feasibility study. He couldn't take the in-person seminar right now. The phone version had been bad enough.
A picture of his grandfather's small ranch in the Rocky Mountains flashed in Jamie's mind. A simple two-story house straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting with a big old-fashioned porch with rocking chairs perfect for thinking. Going to Colorado was what he needed. There he could clear his head and sort things out.
Mick would understand what he was going through because he'd experienced the same uncertainty when he'd returned from Vietnam after shrapnel from a land mine had torn up his right leg, arm and hand, ending his own musical career. While he'd understand, Mick wouldn't pry. Nor would anyone else in Estes Park, because very few of the town's eight thousand residents knew more about him than that he was Mick's grandson.
Except Emma, but then, last he'd heard she was living in Nashville.
"Jamie, you still there?" Connor asked. "I wish there was something I could do."
Out of patience now that he had a plan, Jamie thanked his friend for checking about the teaching possibilities, ended the conversation and called Mick. When the old man answered, Jamie said, "Mind if I come for a visit?"
"The door's always open to you."
"Great. I'll be on a plane tomorrow."
"You know I'm not one to ask a lot of nosy questions, and tell me if I'm outta line doing it now. It won't hurt my feelings none, but I hear something in your voice so I gotta ask. Is something wrong?"
Unlike when others asked, Mick's question didn't irritate Jamie. "When you got hurt and couldn't perform, did everyone keep asking what you were going to do with your life?"
"Your hand didn't heal right," Mick said in a matter-of-fact voice.
"The doctor says everything looks fine, but when I play my hand doesn't work like it used to. My fingers get knotted up. The dexterity and flexibility just isn't there." Jamie explained how music he'd once played without conscious effort now proved difficult. To the untrained ear he might not sound too bad, but unless things changed, he wouldn't be returning to the Philharmonic anytime soon. "The doctor says there's a chance my hand will get better. He says strengthening may be all it needs."
Keep telling yourself that so you can hang on to the hope that your career isn't over.
"Nothing will do that better than good old-fashioned hard work around the ranch and the restaurant, and I've got plenty to do at both places. In fact, I could use a bartender."
"Making mixed drinks is an art form nowadays. That's out of my league."
Mick laughed. "Maybe in New York City, but most folks that come into my place aren't big on fancy mixed drinks. They order a beer on tap or in a bottle. Other than that it's pouring whiskey or making margaritas for the ladies. I can show you how to do that."
"I think I can handle that."
"Good. I'll see you tomorrow. Let me know when your flight gets in. I'll pick you up at the airport."
Jamie thought about telling Mick he'd rent a car, but right now he'd rather avoid the expense. He had some money in savings, but only enough to last a couple of months. Considering his uncertain future, best to be frugal.
"For what it's worth, I know what you're going through, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," Mick said. "It really knocked my feet out from under me for a while."
That's right where Jamie was. Flat on his back trying to figure out what to do once he found the energy to stand again.
"People didn't realize playing and singing were a part of me," Mick continued. "When I lost that, it was like a part of me died, and I had to grieve. Until I did, I couldn't move on. Most people didn't get that. They wanted to help, but their concern most times made it worse."
"Concern I can take. It's the pity that's pissing me off."
"Don't let this get you down, son. I know it seems bad now, but an unexpected blessing can find its way into situations like this."
Jamie shook his head. If there was something good in the midst of this mess, fate was doing a damned good job hiding the fact.
Emma Donovan stared at Molly, the fiddle player in her band, Maroon Peak Pass, standing in the doorway of her office at the Estes Park animal shelter.
There's a woman with bad news to deliver.
"I can't do this anymore, Em."
Emma tried not to cringe. This couldn't be happening again. Every time she thought her musical career would take off and she'd land a record deal, something happened to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
"I'm in the middle of preparing for a volunteer orientation today. Can we do this later, Molly?"
As in possibly never, since I don't think I'm going to like what you have to say. I definitely don't have the energy to deal with it today.
"This can't wait," Molly said. The look in her gaze only confirmed Emma's suspicions of impending doom.
As she tried to quell the unease churning in her stomach, Emma motioned for Molly to have a seat in the wooden chair on the opposite side of her less-than-impressive desk. Ah, the joys of working for a nonprofit agency. Rickety, cheap furniture.
"It's Dave, isn't it?" Emma said. Since Molly's marriage six months ago, she'd changed, showing up late for rehearsals and wanting to leave early. When she was there, she was distracted and unprepared. "He's pressuring you to leave the band, isn't he?"
She knew what that was like. Emma, you need to grow up. Playing in a band is fine for a hobby, but it's not a real job.
"It's not him. He's supportive of my musical career." Molly picked at the strap of the purse sitting in her lap. "It's me. I'm tired of putting my life on hold hoping for a career that's a one-in-a-million shot."
"What're you trying to say?"
"I'm leaving the band."
There was the blow Emma had been expecting, but even though she'd braced herself, it still left her reeling. All she could think was thank goodness she'd been sitting. Otherwise the news would have leveled her. Her mind scrambled to process the chaos Molly's decision created. No, she couldn't go there, refused to accept bad news until she knew she couldn't change it. "You can't quit. We're so close. I feel it. Hold off a little longer. At least until the state fair contest."
This year the Colorado state fair was having a music competition with the winner receiving a consultation with Phillip Brandise, one of the top movers and shakers in country music.
"I want to have kids. My biological clock's ticking so loud I'm going deaf. I'm afraid if I don't make some changes now I'll wake up one day and it'll be too late. I'll have given up everything that really matters, and for what? Nights spent on the stage in two-bit restaurants and bars. I've taken a job as an orchestra director at a private school in Denver, and Dave's requested a transfer. We should be able to buy a house in a few months, and hopefully soon we'll be pregnant. The movers arrive this weekend to pack everything up."
Emma stared at the other woman, someone she thought she knew fairly well, as if she'd said she was going to take up brain surgery. "How can you give up now?"
"I've found something I want more. I'll still have music in my life. It just won't be the center of my universe."
Now that Emma's shock had subsided, her anger kicked in. How dare Molly bail on the rest of the band? People who had counted on her, who thought they'd shared the same goal. "We've got appearances scheduled and the state fair is less than a month away. What're we supposed to do? Do you know how long it will take to find a replacement?"
"I meant to talk to you when I applied for the teaching position, but the time never seemed right."
"Really? I seem to remember a lot of opportunities that would've been perfect. How about when we talked about signing up for the state fair contest, or when we were planning career strategies for next year to increase our visibility and presence on social media? Those would've been pretty good times to mention you were thinking about quitting."
Molly nodded and clasped her hands in her lap. "You're right. The truth is I didn't want to face you. I didn't think you'd understand."
She was right about that. Emma didn't understand how someone could let go of a dream she'd spent years working toward, especially when they were so close.
How could they find another fiddle player, integrate that person into the band and be ready for a performance at a major contest in less than a month?
She'd manage that because she had to. Sure, she enjoyed her job at the shelter, but she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as a volunteer coordinator. Music was her life. Playing the guitar, singing and writing songs wasn't what she did. It was a part of who she was, but playing in local bars and at weddings wasn't enough. She wanted more, and no way would she let this opportunity pass her by. She'd do whatever was necessary to keep her dream alive. Nothing else mattered.
"I won't lie. I don't understand how you can say teaching music to children will be enough for you, but if you think that'll make you happy, then that's what you have to do."
I just wish your decision wasn't throwing my dream into a tailspin, but if you don't want this as much as I do, then it's a good thing you're leaving.
As she watched Molly leave, Emma thought, six months. That's all it would take before Molly called to say she'd made a mistake leaving the band. Life could sidetrack people with dreams. Parents got sick. Keeping a roof over their heads or wanting to eat food other than ramen noodles got in the way, but ambitions like theirs never died.
She glanced at her notes for her volunteer orientation and training but couldn't focus. As day jobs went, hers as volunteer coordinator for the Estes Park animal shelter was a pretty good one. It had its perks, the biggest of which being on tough days like today she could hide in the kennels and play with puppies until she could face the world. Yup. A little puppy therapy was the only thing that kept her going today.
Twenty minutes later Emma looked up from her spot on the kennel floor when her best friend and boss, Avery Montgomery, walked in. "You're playing with puppies. What's wrong?"
"Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed unless you cuddle puppies." Emma pulled the wiggling black bundle closer to her chest as she gave Avery a quick rundown of her conversation with Molly. "Unless we find a new fiddle player, last weekend's performance may have been Maroon Peak Pass's swan song."
"What're the chances you can find a replacement relatively quickly?" Avery asked as she settled onto the floor beside Emma. One fluffy, roly-poly pup crawled off Emma's lap and waddled over to her friend.
"It's harder than you think. Talented musicians who are serious about their craft are already in bands and most aren't looking to change."
"Can you go on without a fiddle if you can't find someone else in time for the state fair contest?"
"It's hard enough to stand out among all the country acts. Adding Molly helped define our sound. Now all of our arrangements and the new music I've written are for a band with a fiddle. I don't want to think about how long it would take to rework everything. We'd definitely have to cancel our upcoming engagements."
"I'm sorry, Em. I know how much the band means to you." Avery scooped up a pup and scratched him behind the ears.
Avery was one of the few people in her life who truly understood how her need for a career in country music drove her. Emma wished her family understood better. They couldn't grasp why she wasn't content with her job at the shelter. It was stable and provided her with a paycheck every two weeks. She could play musician on the weekends. Why did she want more? She couldn't put her need into words. She only knew she couldn't settle for less than giving a music career her best shot. Not now, when she was older and wiser than when she'd dashed off to Nashville at eighteen all full of hopes and dreams but not much common sense.
"I wish Molly had waited a little longer to quit. Even a day. I could've handled it better. Why did she have to tell me today?" Emma bit her lip and tried to ignore the ache spreading through her. "He turns seven today. Between that and Molly's bombshell, it's too much to take."
Seven years ago she gave birth to a son and watched the nurse walk out of the room to hand him to someone else to raise.