|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"I have good news and bad news," Ralph Weston said. "Which do you want first?"
Of all the ridiculous questions Destiny Hart had been asked since she moved to Nashville to try and make it in the country music business—and there were many—that had to be her least favorite.
Leaning her guitar case against the dingy white wall in the employee break room, she pasted on a smile and turned to face her boss.
"Go ahead—hit me with the bad news," she answered, just as his cell phone beeped.
"Hang on a second." Ralph flipped open his phone.
Waiting for him to check his text messages, Destiny held her breath, though she could pretty much guess what he was going to tell her.
Shouldn't you be used to bad news by now? she asked herself wearily. Lately, it was one thing after another, capped off by—
No. Don't even go there.
Every time she thought about what Billy Jackson had done to her, she felt sick inside.
Ralph looked up from his phone at last. "Listen, Destiny, Mandy called a few minutes ago. She's feeling better and she'll be able to perform, so we don't need you to sing tonight after all."
Destiny deflated. "Oh… okay."
Yep—she'd been right. Mandy Mason pulled this stunt all the time.
Destiny longed to ask why Ralph why he put up with such unprofessional behavior, but she already knew the answer. All Mandy had to do was bat her big brown eyes and flip her blond hair, and she had Ralph—and countless other red-blooded men—eating right out of her hand.
Watching Ralph sneak another peek at his text messages, wearing a goofy grin, Destiny couldn't resist saying, "So she's feeling much better, huh?"
"Yeah, this text here says she's making the effort just for me."
Destiny swallowed a groan. She'd done some crazy things in an effort to catch a break in this business, but flirting with her middle-aged boss was one horse she wasn't willing to ride.
She cleared her throat loudly.
"Sorry, Destiny." Ralph glanced up and had the decency to show a little bit of remorse.
Maybe Destiny couldn't bring herself to flirt, but she had no problem pouncing on Ralph's guilt. "Well, since I came in, do you think I could sing a song or two? You know, to warm up the crowd for Mandy?" she added with a smile that felt more like a wince.
"Mmm…" He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Last time we did that Mandy wasn't none too happy 'bout it."
"Oh… really? I wonder why. As I recall, I really had the crowd rockin'. You know, for her benefit, of course."
Ralph scratched his salt-and-pepper beard. "Mandy said you had the crowd too wound up for her style of singin'. Said you're too rough around the edges to open for her again."
Trying not to choke on her anger, Destiny managed to say calmly, "Mr. Weston, it's Friday night in Nashville. Getting fired up is what it's all about."
He didn't like being called Mr. Weston, but she'd been brought up to respect her elders. She just couldn't call her boss Ralph or, heaven forbid, Ralphie, as Mandy called him.
"I know you like to get people up on the dance floor a-hootin' and a-hollerin' and that's all well and good, Destiny, but Mandy likes her performance to be all about the music and her voice. You might want to make note of that for future reference."
And you might want to make a note that Mandy is playing you like a fiddle.
Destiny dug deep for a smile. "I will do that. Now, what's the good news?"
"The good news is we need you on the floor tonight, so your trip here wasn't for nothin'." He eyed her Western-cut fringed shirt. "You've got your uniform, I hope?"
"In my locker," Destiny said glumly. While she needed the money—desperately, thanks to Billy Jackson—she wanted cash from the tip jar, not from waiting tables.
"Good." Ralph absently checked his phone once more, then added, "Oh and, Destiny?"
"You might want to pull back that hair of yours."
"Yes, sir." Destiny touched the light brown curls tumbling over her shoulders.
"Now get your tail on out there." Ralph jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "We're packed."
She started toward her locker, grumbling under her breath, "Well, isn't that just great."
"I… uh…" She gave him a tight smile. "I said that I just can't wait."
"Remember, Mandy likes sweet tea to wet her whistle while she sings. Make sure you keep her glass full with lots of ice and a slice of lemon, okay?"
With Ralph safely out of earshot, Destiny yanked her locker open. "Make sure you keep her glass full with lots of ice! Blah, blah… blah!"
Catching sight of herself in the mirror attached to her locker door, she saw tears threatening to wash away the smoky gray shadow she'd painstakingly applied to bring out the blue for tonight's performance, along with a soft pink gloss on her full lips.
See? You shouldn't have bothered, she told her reflection.
She'd never been big on primping. But tonight she'd gone all out—not just makeup, but perfume, too, and instead of the flats she usually wore to play down her height, she wore her ruby-red designer heels. They'd cost her a week's paycheck and a diet of cheap canned soup for a month, but she'd always thought they were worth it.
Never mind her overdue rent, overdrawn checking account, and maxed-out credit cards. As she glanced down at the sexy red shoes peeking out from beneath her boot-cut Levi's, she knew her dogs were gonna be barkin' by the end of her shift.
After carefully angling her guitar case to fit into the locker, she reached for the extra T-shirt and apron she kept there as insurance against the spills and smears that Destiny could never seem to avoid.
Her daddy, who'd taught her to always be prepared, would be proud.
Destiny swallowed a wave of homesickness. Even now, four years after leaving Wilmot, she still had her moments when she wondered whether she'd made the right choice in defying her parents' wishes.
They'd never gotten over her decision to come to Nashville instead of going to college—a plan she'd hatched on a whim after winning the Kentucky Idol competition, thanks to Cooper's dare.
How could she expect her parents to understand what it was like to perform? How could they grasp that the crowd's approval, in that brief, shining moment, somehow fulfilled a need that Destiny didn't even know she possessed? Even she hadn't understood the fierce calling.
Sometimes, I still don't.
Especially on nights like these.
She only knew that while her family traveled all over the country, moving from base to base, she had never developed a sense of belonging. Every new school, new air force base meant trying to fit in all over again, needing so much to be liked… accepted. Grace had her tumbling and her cheerleading and always found an instant group of friends.
Destiny had to work harder at it. Yes, she'd made good, solid friends when her family finally settled in Wilmot, but graduation was going to take them in separate directions, and that had unnerved her. Everyone else seemed to know where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do.
Everyone but Destiny.
Then she stood up there on that stage and sang "America the Beautiful," and she felt acceptance. It was such a tingling, trembling rush of instant gratification, as if all her life she'd been drifting and had finally found dry land.
She knew right then that, God willing, performing was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She simply wanted to sing and make people happy.
Her father had made it quite clear that he wasn't going to fund what he called her crazy whim. In all fairness, most parents would have protested.
But most parents probably would have gotten over it by now.
Not Daddy. Things between them had never been the same again.
She didn't need his money, though—nor his blessing. Not in the beginning.
The Kentucky Idol prize was three thousand dollars and a chance to compete against forty-nine other state idol winners for a recording contract with a major label.
Destiny honestly had believed she had a shot at the grand prize. But after a grueling competition, the winner was a fresh-faced thirteen-year-old from Utah. Destiny was second runner-up—after a twenty-something New York stud-muffin who'd been on Broadway most of his life and knew how to charm the judges.
In the end, the runner-up prize money—combined with what she'd won earlier—was enough to pay the rent on a Nashville apartment for a year. She promised her parents that if she hadn't made strides in the music industry by the time the year was up, she'd move back home and go to college.
Once she'd gotten a good taste of life in Nashville, Destiny knew there was no turning back. She'd decided she had indeed made strides—by her own definition, anyway—and she was here to stay. Her parents had no choice but to live with her decision.
In the tiny employee bathroom, she slipped out of her fringed shirt, tugged the hunter-green tee over her head, and tied on her apron with its Back in the Saddle Bar and Grille logo stitched in bold black letters beneath a cowboy sitting on a bucking bronco.
Ralph might be clueless in other ways, but he knew how to run a restaurant. The restaurant wasn't even located on the famous Honky-Tonk Row, yet tourists, locals, and the occasional celebrity poured in daily for the juicy burgers, hand-cut French fries, and of course, the music.
Legend had it that Tammy Turner, one of country's all-time greats, had been discovered on the stage right here at Back in the Saddle. She still came in from time to time, Ralph claimed, although Destiny had never caught a glimpse of her.
Back at her locker, she hung up her shirt and quickly pulled out her cell phone. Her sister, Grace, had called twice today, leaving messages both times. Destiny had been so busy preparing to go onstage tonight that she hadn't yet called her back.
She'd better do it now, though, before her shift started.
Quickly, she dialed Grace's number, wondering what was up, suddenly missing her sister desperately.
Close enough in age to be peers, Destiny and Grace had been the best of friends throughout their childhood. In a family constantly on the move, all they'd really had was each other. They shared everything from bedrooms to worry about their father whenever he was on active duty to a longing to settle down in one place and never have to move again.
Oddly enough, when that finally happened, the sisters drifted apart. Over the past four years that Grace had been in college and Destiny in Nashville, they'd seen each other only on rare occasions when they both happened to make it back home for the same holiday. Even then, Destiny never stuck around more than a night or two—not because she had anything urgent to rush back to, but because she wanted her family to think she did.
Now that Grace had graduated and was living back in Wilmot, she seemed at loose ends for the first time in her life. Her old friends had scattered, her local job hunt wasn't going well, and her long-distance relationship with her college boyfriend had had more downs than ups.
She'd called a couple of times recently, offering to come visit Destiny in Nashville.
"That would be great," Destiny told her, but kept putting her off about a date, saying she was too busy working on her demo.
Ha. Look how that had turned out, thanks to Billy Jackson and her own gullibility.
Anyway, she wasn't too busy for visitors—she was too ashamed to admit that her dreams were a long way from coming true. She couldn't bear to disappoint her family and friends; it was bad enough having disappointed herself.
Grace answered on the first ring, sounding so grateful for the returned call that Destiny instantly felt guilty.
"How have you been?" Grace asked. "Have you been working on branding yourself, like I told you?"
Destiny sighed. Her sister the business major had urged her to come up with a tagline of sorts—a short description of her music that encapsulated the unique style that set her apart from other artists.
"Not yet. I've been busy."
"I'm sure you have. Have you gotten a record label deal yet?"
"Um… not yet."
"I know it'll be any second now."
"I sure hope so." But that would be a miracle, considering that Billy Jackson—and the truckload of demos he had allegedly produced for her—had vanished into thin air.
She quickly changed the subject. "What's new with you, Gracie?"
"Hmmm, let's see. I broke up with Jason."
"No, and don't say it was about time. I know he's a jerk."
"I wasn't going to say it." Destiny opened her purse to look for a ponytail band.
"Yeah, but you were thinking it. Apparently everyone was, but that's another story. I guess I was just blinded by his charm."
Cute, blond, and petite, Grace would have no problem replacing Jason, as far as Destiny was concerned.
"How's the job search going?"
"About as well as my love life. Apparently, a marketing degree doesn't hold much weight here in Wilmot."
"Maybe you should move to a bigger city," Destiny suggested, knowing Grace would never take her advice. She was a hometown girl through and through, as eager to put down roots as their mother had been through all the years of air force wandering.
Destiny and Grace had gone to nine different schools before their father retired and moved the family to Wilmot. They'd been so happy not to have to move anymore…
And then I did.
She'd never forget her first day in Nashville. Cooper and Annie had come to help move her into her dumpy apartment. She'd refused to let them see that she found the place less than inviting, or that she was on the verge of tears the whole time they were there.
After they'd driven off into the hot August night, the dust settled and an eerie silence crept into the apartment. Unnerved, Destiny climbed out onto her fire escape. In the distance, in some honky-tonk down the street, she could hear someone singing a cover of "Friends in Low Places." Even now, whenever she heard that song, it took her back to that night, and the good hard cry she'd had on the fire escape.
Her own reaction to the move caught her off guard. She'd been so used to moving because of her daddy's military career that it never occurred to her that the move to Nashville would be traumatic. But she'd forgotten one important thing: This time, she'd be totally alone,leaving not just her friends, but her family behind. She was suddenly on her own for the first time in her life, without the support of her parents. They weren't there to hug her hard and wish her well the way they would have if she'd gone off to college.
But now that she'd lived longer here in Nashville than anywhere, including Wilmot, she was starting to feel restless. Maybe she didn't even know how to live in the same place or understand the concept of roots.
"Maybe I should."
"What?" Destiny asked, not because she wasn't following the conversational thread, but because she couldn't believe what Grace had just said.
"Maybe I should move to a bigger city, like you said."
"But… I thought you wanted to live back at home with Mom and Daddy."
"I did—until I got here and realized they're barely speaking."
Destiny stopped fumbling in her purse. "What do you mean? Did they have a fight or something?"
"I wish they would. Anything would be better than the stone-cold silent treatment they're giving each other."
"I have no idea. That's just how it is, I guess."
"Is that why you called? Are you worried they're going to…"
Destiny couldn't even bring herself to say the words. It was unthinkable that could happen to her parents, who had been high school sweethearts and seemed to have an idyllic marriage.
Especially since Daddy's pension had allowed him to retire young, and their children were grown. The world was waiting at their feet; now was the time when they should be making up for years lost while John Hart was on his tours of duty.
"Actually, Destiny, I called because—"
"Destiny!" Ralph shouted.
"Hang on a second," she told Grace. "I'll be right there, Ralph! I'm coming!" Her fingers closed around a rubber band in the bottom of her purse. "Grace," she said hurriedly, "I've got to run."
"Okay, but let me just—"
"Seriously"—she tried to pull her hair up while holding the phone, but it was impossible—"my boss is going to kill me if I don't get… out onstage," she lied. More guilt. She couldn't wait to get off the phone.
"All right. But—"
"Destiny! Quit lollygagging, get your apron on, and get out here and start taking orders! We're swamped!"
"I know. Call me back as soon as you can, though, Des, because there's something—"
"I will. Promise."
She quickly hung up and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. Before long, stubborn curls would escape captivity to tickle her cheeks and neck, but for now they were tamed into submission.
And so am I.
Grace must have heard what Ralph said and figured out that Destiny wasn't performing; she was waiting tables.
I'll explain when I call her back…
But what was there to explain?
She tucked away her purse and closed the locker door with a quiet click instead of slamming it shut the way she wanted to. For a moment, she rested her forehead against the cool metal in an effort to get her emotions under control.
With a sigh, she pinned on her gold name tag and headed out, knowing that despite her red heels and extra makeup, this Saturday night was shaping up to be just like any other.
Busy but boring.
In other words—dangerous.
Boredom had always made Destiny restless and edgy.
Now, as she entered the crowded bar, she wistfully eyed the still-empty stage in the corner of the room.
"Miss?" A customer waved an empty longneck at her. "We need another round over here."
"Be right there." She chewed the inside of her cheek, wondering where Mandy was.
"Excuse me," called a disgruntled-looking woman from a table filled with disgruntled-looking women. "We need menus!"
"Sure thing, just a sec."
Again, Destiny looked at the vacant stage, then cast a glance around the room.
No Ralph, either, though he must be lurking nearby.
You'd better get busy, Destiny told herself.
Yet she was fixated on the microphone, sitting there like a silent beacon.
"Excuse me," the woman called again. "Our menus?"
Destiny nodded politely. She meant to head toward the stack of menus over by the hostess stand… yet somehow, her pretty red shoes seemed to have taken on a life of their own, carrying her toward the stage instead.
What the heck are you doing?
I'm taking charge of my life for a change—that's what.
For a change? Come on, you've been in charge of your life ever since you left home, and look where it's gotten you. Lying to your family about being successful—
Tuned in only to the voices in her own head, Destiny kept right on walking and wrestling with her conscience.
Dreams don't come true overnight, and you know it.
Right. That's why you can't sit around waiting for someone else— someone like Billy Jackson—to make things happen. You have to make it happen.
Yeah, but there must be a better way.
Oh, come on, this is a golden opportunity. What can possibly go wrong?
Surely once her voice filled the room everyone would forget about eating and drinking. And Ralph would be grateful that she stepped in for his magnificent little Mandy who still hadn't graced the stage with her presence. Right?
Maybe in your dreams.
Undaunted by her own better judgment, Destiny moved on toward the stage, pulled by some invisible music magnet. Her heart thumped harder when she reached the first step and suddenly her heels were glued to the floor.
Feeling very alone in the crowded room, she looked again at the mike and the tall oak stool beside it. Then her gaze fell on the guitar propped in the corner. It wasn't hers… but it would do.
If only Cooper were here to dare her…
"Hey, just what do you think you're doing?" Mandy Mason shoved past her with a loud huff.
Destiny staggered backward and felt herself falling…
But instead of hitting the floor she landed on something human.
"Uh, sorry, but this seat is taken," a familiar male voice said low in her ear as a pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist.