"Fox writes some sexy as hell cowboys. No question! They're a danger to panties everywhere."

—herding cats & burning soup


 

 

 

 


 

 

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Chapter One

     June’s hand trembled as she took the microphone at the edge of the stage and gazed out at the crowd of thousands, stretching up the grassy hillside in the late August heat.
    Just a publicity stunt to promote the book, she told herself. Nothing to worry about.
    She gave them her best Hollywood smile, tucked a long, dark strand behind her ear and pulled a small piece of notepaper from her pocket—like she needed a reminder of who was getting ready to take the stage. Carolina Jones was an all-star bluegrass band and half the people at the festival were here to see them anyway.
    She glanced at her notes, gathering up her courage. She had been pushed uncomfortably into the limelight, but wasn’t it what she had dreamed of all along? Before she got the first line of introduction out, the band had taken their places on stage, staring at her with big Cheshire cat grins, and Lucinda, the buxom, redheaded singer called out to her.
    “So June, we here in the band all read your luuuverly book. Hot and steamy that was!”
Catcalls and whistles erupted from the crowd.
    “But we’re dyin’ to know who it’s about. Who was your ‘inspiration’? Not any of these ugly fellers, I hope.” The crowd hooted and Lucinda rolled on. “We promise not to tell anyone. Right y’all?”
    June smirked and shook her head. This wasn’t how her publicist said it would go.
    “I’ll never tell,” June said, a little too close to the microphone. She recoiled as the feedback hit her ears.
    “Well, if it’s all the same to you, we kinda put together a betting pool.” Lucinda took a hundred dollar bill from her pocket, folded it once lengthwise and tucked it at the top of her guitar’s fret board, waving like a little green flag. “We passed your book around the campfire last night and read out the dirty parts. Now we’ve each got some idea of who it is—‘a course Daniel over there thinks it was about him.” The crowd laughed. “Come on over here.”
    “No—no thank you!” said June, a hoarse laugh catching in her throat as she backed away.
    Lucinda waltzed over, stuffed June’s introduction notes in her own pocket, then dragged her to center stage.
    The crowd cheered.
    “You all have heard of Ms. June Cricket, have ya not? Her little bestselling book has gone and brought the sexy back to bluegrass! She’ll be signing it in the autograph tent later, so you go and get a copy for yourself, or your wife or girlfriend. You’ll thank me!”
    June smiled. Maybe it wasn't going badly after all. Now if Lucinda would just let go—
Lucinda pulled her closer.
    “Was it Bo Bentley?” she whispered. Her warm breath billowed into June’s ear, sending a shiver up her spine. “It was, wasn’t it?!” Lucinda's eyes sparkled and June felt a little sick. Why does everyone want to know so badly? She was too mortified to ever tell. It was better for everyone involved if she kept her hero’s true identity a mystery.
    June shook her head.
    “No, it wasn’t. Sorry.”
    June raised a hand to wave to the crowd and turned to exit the stage, but someone else from the band stepped out in front of her and pulled her close. He whispered and June shook her head.
    Then another.
    And another.
    June laughed. What was she worried about? They would never guess.
    Daniel, the banjo player sauntered over.
    “It wasn’t you, Daniel,” June teased, shooing him away. The crowd ate it up. She would be signing books until sunrise.
    Daniel moved in closer, ran the back of his hand down the length of her bare arm and grinned.
     “Coulda’ been,” he said, in a sultry baritone loud enough to elicit whistles from the crowd. Then he leaned in close and lowered his voice, whisky-scented breath blowing hot over her shoulder. “But, it was Nic Taylor.” June froze. A red heat crept up her neck and face.
     Oh God, please don’t…
     “Hot damn!” shouted Daniel, clapping his hands together and strutting over to strip the cash from Lucinda’s fret board. He waved it at the audience. “Ain’t no way Nic Taylor is prettier ’n me, am I right?! You want to tuck this somewhere for me June, baby?”
     By the time he looked back at her, June was gone.





Chapter Two

Ten Months Later
     June tried to remember the men she had slept with before she drove off track and committed herself to the wrong one. It wasn’t that there had been so many—only that it was so long ago. She rolled onto her back, spreading out on the cool sheets of her now too-large bed and stared into the whiteness of her sunlit, ocean front house in Malibu.
     It was one whole year to the day since she had a man in this bed. Not the kind of anniversary a girl wants to celebrate, but there it was. The men she had sex with stood quietly in the shadows of her memory, waiting to remind her of who she once was.
     Italy.
     She remembered that one easily enough—his body, if not his name. Smooth muscled shoulders the color of dark cocoa. She had called her best friend back in the states for advice then. No matter what time of day or night, they had a pact to talk each other out of bad hook-ups. “Fuck him,” Camille had said. “Now let me go back to sleep.”
     He spoke little English. They waited quietly until the shadowy castle ruins were closed up for the night, then sneaked up a forest path and came around to the front entrance. June let him take her there in front of the portcullis, her back grinding into stone. The regret lasted a few months, but no more.
     She smiled to herself. No regrets now.
     In the years between her very first clumsy night of sex and the day she met her husband-to-be, there were others, but the only men that came to mind now were those she  desperately wanted, but turned away out of self-preservation. The ones who were too beautiful, accomplished or rich to want her for anything more than casual sex. At the time, it felt like she was protecting herself, but was that really it?
Saying no to them had been her way of staying in control—the only way, it seemed, to exert power over men who could crush her heart. Men she wanted too much from in the first place.
June had to wonder now. Had she stunted her own sensual development? Maybe if she had allowed herself...?      No. She couldn’t believe that would have been right for her. She would have asked too much, forming attachments like an unwanted puppy.
     She made the right choice for her 20-something self, but now where did that leave her, a woman with a stronger sense of self, not so desperate to tackle a man and drag him into the happily ever after?
June rolled up onto her side and glanced past the stack of books by her bed to the glorious ocean view, consciously avoiding the one at the bottom of the stack. Her book. The one that put her on the New York Times bestseller list and cost her a marriage. Her gaze slicked past it, like so many times before, in an effort to avoid the mixture of shame and pride she felt about her success. She had never meant for anyone to know who inspired that book. Few authors want a reader to see behind the veil—is it really anyone’s business if her stories were based on real experiences or not? Didn’t matter now.
     She got out of bed and reached up for a sun salutation, a series of yoga poses that felt entirely natural when waking up beside the ocean. Buying this place after the divorce seemed smart, though she’d soon have to take in a roommate if she didn’t finish her next book.
     Nic Taylor.
     Her mind stumbled over the name and came to a screeching halt. Meeting him was real enough. But, had she slept with him? No. No, she hadn’t. Though he didn’t fit neatly into the “denied” category either.
June was sure he would have heard about the book by now. She could never, ever face him again, that’s for sure.
     She tried to move on, but her mind refused to let her change the subject. Nic Taylor was the one that got away. She was still single, but he was already married when they met. That kept her physically at arm’s length from him, though there had been no stopping her heart from betraying her. She wept for him as if they had been star-crossed lovers, and not just a couple of people who met at a weekend bluegrass festival. It didn’t help that he was the famous son of a legend.
     “You never stop smiling, do you?” he had asked, his charming Southern drawl melting June to a puddle as she escorted him to the next stage. Meeting the musicians was one of the perks of volunteering at these shows, and though she’d never really listened to his music before, she knew exactly who he was. The Taylors were the quintessential bluegrass family band; their father’s songs were considered standards.
     Listening to them play that festival, she was surprised to hear how many songs she hadn’t known were written by Nic’s dad. She had been hearing them at jam sessions since forever.
     The idea that she had fallen instantly in love with an already-spoken-for bluegrass star was not something June liked to admit. It had been foolish fantasy, and yet she had carried the memory with her for almost a decade when all other schoolgirl crushes had faded away. She had even convinced herself that an unspoken understanding arose between them—they had spent every free moment huddled in conversation, after all. The connection had been instant and natural, and subsequently heartbreaking. At least she had transformed her unrequited love into a bestselling novel.
     June winced. Grant had left her because of that novel—said he couldn't tell if she had actually had an affair, or just wished she had. The story was different from her other novels. He knew her well enough to read between the lines, and he couldn't live with it.
     June started tapping her foot nervously. Nic Taylor was probably still married, the picture of happiness and holidays, leaning against the rail of a cruise ship, one arm draped over his wife’s shoulders and surrounded by charming children.
     She had dreamt of kissing that man many times—first kisses, passionate kisses, sweet Sunday morning kisses. They had an almost-kiss once, on the last night of the festival, drifting out of a late night performance, shoulders bumping, cracking jokes and deciding where to go next. June leaned against a fence railing on a small hill that overlooked the campground, and Nic came up next to her, closer than was strictly necessary. Their bodies barely touched. A static heat filled the narrow space that separated them and hung there like a question, longing for an answer. Another joke, she laughed and smiled, catching his eye for the briefest moment. He was cute and funny. She wanted to kiss him so badly, her lips ached. She looked down, staring blankly at a set of musicians jamming around a campfire below. The banjo kicked off the Clinch Mountain Backstep and June’s thighs had begun to tremble. Being that close to Nic had felt so right, and yet, so very wrong. She gripped the fence for support, resisting the urge to turn, until she could no longer deny what was going on in her peripheral vision.
     He was studying her. She could feel the warmth radiating from his hand, resting just inches away from her own. Her heart was insistent, urging her to yield, to nudge her fingers along the fence rail, closer to his.              Someone stopped to talk to Nic, drawing his attention away, and they never had another moment alone.
     June shook her head at the memory, the festival music and the passionate connection with an unavailable man.
     I seriously need to get a boyfriend.
     How long was it since she’d been to a bluegrass show? Her favorite music was one of those things she shamefully gave up for her ex after they got married. True, there wasn’t enough bluegrass around LA to make it easy to see, but that was just an excuse. She had given it up because her husband didn’t want to go with her, and she didn’t want to go alone. Well, lesson learned.
     June grabbed her iPod and swirled through the playlists. She chose Alison Krauss rather than The Taylors.
The singer’s mellow twang floated out over the room, her fiddle close behind. Ah, now that felt right. She used to love a little bluegrass music on a Sunday morning. It was as natural as that sun salutation, opening up her heart and warming her soul.
     She felt another small part of herself restored. Amazing what music can do, thought June as she threw on her running shorts and yanked up the laces on her sneakers. She popped the ear buds in and scrolled through to find her old running mix of hard driving banjo tunes, then headed for the long stretch of stairs that would take her down to the sand.

***

     Nic had been in LA for less than a day, and already he was missing Southern hospitality.
     He popped open his laptop just as the barista dropped his order at the table. Nice of her to come out from behind the bar, Nic thought.
     “Beg pardon, Miss. Y’all have a password for the wireless?”
     She tore a sheet off her order pad and scribbled the code, slapped the paper on his table, and walked off. A swirl of coffee splashed over the side of his cup and Nic wondered at how he had mistaken this woman’s surly demeanor for friendliness.
     How could Emily have moved their son out here? Selfish it was, but she is his mother, and the judge said she could go. Nic fought hard, but he knew he’d soon follow. Tough as the move might be on him, he wouldn’t be kept from his boy. And he didn’t hate Emily, after all. They had both lost their way—she had just found hers again sooner, outside of their marriage.
     But so what? Love is love, right?
     His family wouldn't be as forgiving. Best she and Jackson weren’t around Nashville for a while. A lot of people were saying things—shameful things he didn’t want the boy to hear. It was Jackson that needed protecting most. Crazy thing was, they were talking about Nic and that damn book. Nobody even knew about Emily; all the whispers were about him and some affair he never had with a woman he didn't want to admit he remembered. That book had laid him low, and got him kicked out of his own family band. Still, it was a good cover for Emily, and Nic had to believe he would find his way back into Dad’s good graces somehow.
     He had run Emmett Taylor's tirade over in his mind a thousand times.
     “Now my boy's a philanderin' phony and I'm either the fool who didn't see it, or the co-conspirator, lying to everyone but Jesus. I'm a weak man. Couldn't control my own damn son,” he had hollered, the long white cowlick of his perfectly coiffed hair shaking loose over his forehead. Nic smarted. He had never thought of himself as being controlled and didn’t like the sound of it out loud either.
     “There’s one option you’re forgetting,” Nic retorted. “That your ‘own damn son’ is telling you the truth. Some fan wrote a story about me, so what? Ain’t nothing in there that’s true. Not one damn word.”
     Nic paced the room as his father collapsed in his wingback chair by the fire. The lengthy silence had actually given him hope, but when Emmett spoke again, it was to shut him out completely.
     “You got to go, Nic. I cain't see how you're gonna fix this. These people think our family in't what it appears to be. I cultivated the Taylor image, nurtured it for decades—wholesome, honest folk, we are—and you come and mow it down with your selfish ways. Well, I won't let you take down my legacy. You’re on your own now. I got to leave something for your brothers and your sister. You failed me; you failed Emily and your son. You failed us all.”
     Brutal that was. Nic couldn't do much but leave at that point. His mother had chased him out to the moon-swept porch of the elegant old Tennessee farmhouse, begging him to make good, but it was no use.      There was no reaching the man, and Nic had known it.
     People came to see The Taylors to connect to a simpler time, when folks were kind to each other, neighborliness meant something, and a man was as good as his word. Nic had been their golden boy since he was old enough to wrap his fingers around a fret board. The fans were loyal, and according to his dad, Nic had squandered their affections and his reputation.
     Nic shook his head at the memory.
     For most of his life, he had been a stranger to real sorrow, though he sang about it plenty. Lately, he had discovered a kinship of sorts with long gone lyricists who set their pain to music, and he’d play and sing their melodies until he felt a kind of release. Anyhow, his type of personality just didn’t let him stay sorrowful long.      He couldn’t explain it much—he just had a grateful heart and it led him around most of the time, not letting him dwell in sadness.
     Standing before the judge at their custody hearing, the lyrics to Hazel Dickens’ Hills of Home had come to his mind unbidden, but true. He knew then he wouldn’t just let Emily scatter his boy off to California and leave him behind to be a phantom father. Tour dates had kept him away enough through the years, and this would make it worse.
     There wasn’t much bluegrass out here in California, and the fans were always grateful when The Taylors came. He wouldn’t have it as easy as he did in Nashville, but Nic would make his way. He’d be all right.
     Maybe he’d make a name for himself out from under Dad’s shadow. A friendly little coffee house of his own with a small stage… give his boy a place to jam. If he doesn’t turn into a surf punk, that is.
     Nic perused the rental listings on Craigslist. Then again, maybe he'd just stay parked by the beach in his tour bus for a while longer. Hey, it was good enough for Matt McConaughey and he’s from Texas. Why not Nic Taylor from Tennessee?


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