Meet Tori and Hunter . . .
Who doesn’t love a love song? Especially a love song that’s crooned by Hunter Jaymes, the hottest new star in country music?
I don’t have time for love songs. Now that I’m finally moved off my parents’ farm and ditched my cheating, lying boyfriend, I’m ready to start life on her own terms. Those terms definitely do not include falling in love with the sexy and irresistible Hunter. Yes, he’s the kind of guy who makes me laugh, takes my breath away with a single touch and tempts me to imagine what could be . . . but he’s also not planning to stick around Burton.
When I look at Tori, I see the possibility of forever. The road is my life, but she feels like my home. Unfortunately, convincing this woman to give love a chance will take more than a song. But I’m not giving up on her. Not when I know she sings the song of my heart.
Read the first chapter now!
“C’mon, Tori. Please. I’ll owe you forever.”
Narrowing my eyes, I stared down my baby brother. “You have got to be out of your mind, Matt. No way.”
Matt heaved a huge sigh and flopped back onto my couch. I winced a little; my furniture was second-hand, and it hadn’t necessarily been top-of-the-line even when it was new, but still, it was mine, and I wanted to take care of it. My brother was a good kid, but he was also a fifteen-year-old, and he didn’t care about things like that.
“Tore, you’ve got to take me. If you don’t do it, I can’t go. I’ll miss meeting Hunter Jaymes. You don’t want to deny me my dream, do you?” He sat up and leaned forward. “If I don’t meet him, I’ll probably be so depressed that I’ll give up music. Then I’ll end up having to get some dead-end job to pay the bills, marrying the first girl I date, and we’ll be stuck here in this Podunk town for the rest of our miserable lives. You’ll have to live every day with the knowledge that you’re the one responsible for ruining my life.”
I rolled my eyes. “Drama much, Matty? I think you’ll get over it. Besides, Mason has bands playing at the Road Block almost every weekend. In a few years, you’ll be able to get in on your own and meet them. You don’t have to, uh, give up your dream.” I made air quotes with my fingers. “God forbid.”
“Tori, Hunter Jaymes isn’t just any musician. I’ve been following him forever. Since I first started paying attention to music and what I like to listen to. I know every one of his songs. I can play most of them. I just want to see him in person.”
I exhaled long and heavily through my nose, but I didn’t answer him. Taking that as a sign of encouragement, Matt went on.
“The minute I saw Hunter was coming, I asked Mason if I could work the night of his show. He laughed and said no way in hell was he getting in trouble for having a minor working the bar at night. But then I told him how much I love Hunter’s music, and finally, today he said that if you came with me to the first set, he’d let me in. As long as we leave after and I don’t try something stupid, like getting a beer or whatever.” He frowned, shaking his head. “As if I’d even want to do that. I want to be there for the music, not for the booze.”
“Why did Mason suggest I take you?” I was suspicious about the bar owner’s motives. I’d known Mason Wallace for a long time, and I was friends with his wife, Rilla. He knew how I felt about country music. I never made any secret about it, even though I knew that Mason’s former life had been all about that industry.
“Well, he didn’t say it had to be you, exactly,” Matt admitted. “He said an adult member of my family. So technically, Mom or Dad could take me.”
“Hmmm.” I regarded my brother. “Did you ask them?”
“No.” Matt shrugged. “The thing is, if I asked Mom or Dad, I know one of them would do it, no questions asked. But they’re so tired all the time as it is. Asking them to do something extra like this . . . it would make me feel horrible.”
“Ah, but it’s okay to ask me, huh?” I loved that Matt was the kind of kid who was considerate enough that he realized our parents worked themselves practically to death on our family farm. He was right, too; they were such wonderful parents, it would never occur to them to tell Matt no about something they could do. They’d just get by with a little less sleep the next day.
They were the same way with me, and that’s why I realized that I really didn’t have a choice here. I had to take Matt to the Road Block, if not out of love for him, then out of compassion and gratitude toward my mom and dad. And seriously, I reasoned with myself, was it that big a deal? Sure, I detested country music, but I could grit my teeth and get through one show.
The truth of the matter was that there was a bigger and more compelling reason for me to avoid doing this favor for my brother. I hadn’t been back to the Road Block in over six months, not since the night that I wanted to forget had ever happened. Maybe I was making too big a deal over it, and maybe no one else would even remember, but I did. I gave a little shudder and opened my mouth to tell Matt no way, no how.
But I made the mistake of looking at him before I spoke, and the earnest, pleading expression on that sweet face took my voice away. This kid . . . he’d been wrapping me around his little finger since the day he was born when I was nine years old. I’d never been able to deny him anything that I could give, and I realized now that today wasn’t going to break that streak. It might be hard, and it might be unpleasant, but dammit, I was going to end up taking the kid to see his idol this weekend.
“What time should I pick you up on Friday?”
“Tori!” He yelled so loud, I was pretty sure the glasses in my cabinet reverberated with the sound. “Oh, my God, you’re the best sister in the entire world. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Yeah, and don’t you forget it.” I pushed my finger against his adorable nose, the same way I used to when he was a toddler. “I’m going to make sure you won’t.”
He rolled his eyes, but I could see his excitement there anyway. “Whatever. I don’t even care, as long as I get to see Hunter Jaymes. I can’t believe I’m going to actually meet him.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” I frowned a little, concerned. “Buddy, you know, you might not get the chance to meet him or talk to him. I know the Road Block is a pretty small venue and all, but still—Mason might not want you stalking the talent. He’s kind of protective of the acts he books.”
Matt shook his head, impatient. “Tori, Mason told me I could meet Hunter. He said if I get there early enough for the first set, I could help with soundcheck. And he promised he’d, like, actually introduce me to him.” He grabbed my hands. “We’re going to hang out with Hunter Jaymes.”
“Whoa, there.” I disengaged my fingers. “I’m not hanging out with him. I’ll sit in the car until Mason says I have to be inside with you. I don’t need anyone thinking I’m a fangirl.”
“No one would ever think that about you.” His voice was dry. “But you can’t sit outside. That would be weird.”
“I’m okay with weird.” I sent him a sunny smile. “Cut your losses here, bud. I said I’m willing to drive you to the bar, and I’ll go inside during the show so that Mason doesn’t have to worry about you. But that’s it. Once he’s off the stage, you and I are out of there. Got it?”
“Yeah, okay.” Matt reached down for his backpack, which was on the floor next to his feet. “Whatever you say.”
“And now, I suppose, you’d like me to drive you home.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I assume that you missed your bus and walked over here to my house.” My tiny cottage was only about five blocks from the high school, and it wasn’t unusual for my brother to drop in if I happened to be home.
“It was more the other way around.” He cast me a winsome smile. “I walked over here so I could talk to you, and so the bus left without me. I didn’t really miss it so much as it missed me.”
I gritted my back teeth. Lord, save me from teenage boys. “Semantics, Matty. You need a ride home. Get your bag, and let’s go. I have work to do.”
He frowned as he stood up and hefted the backpack over his shoulder. “But today’s your day off.”
I scooped my keys from the small primitive antique bowl that sat on the table by my front door. “It’s my day off from the boutique, but I have blog work to do.”
“You’re always working.” Matt’s tone verged on whining, but I pretended I didn’t hear that.
“Yeah, I am.” I swatted his arm. “That’s how I got this sweet crib and all my killer threads. Not to mention my bitchin’ ride, yo.”
“Tori.” He looked pained. “Please don’t try to sound . . . you know. Like you’re cool. You’re using all the wrong words.”
“I know. I did it on purpose to annoy you.” I grinned widely. “Now let’s get moving, bud.”
We both climbed into my ancient truck, and I patted the dash before I started her up, mentally whispering a prayer of gratitude when she turned over without issue. Matt buckled his seat belt and leaned back.
“Since you’re raking in all the dough now, pretty soon you’ll be getting a new car, right?” He patted the worn molding on the door of the truck. “When you do, I get the old hussy, right?”
I smiled. My grandfather had bought this truck new when I was a baby, and he’d taken good care of it, the way he had everything in his life. He’d been proud to hand me the keys when I was sixteen, telling me that it was mine for as long as I needed it, but that when I was ready to move on, the old hussy, as he called his truck affectionately, had to come back to the family.
“We’ll have to see, Matty.” I swiveled in my seat to look out the window as I backed out. “It’s fine with me, but really, it’s up to Mom and Dad.” Shifting into first gear, I shot him a look. “And you know, you have to keep your grades up and be able to cover your car insurance on your own. Just like I did.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I can do that. Well, the grades, I mean. But I don’t know what kind of job I could get to afford to own a truck. I don’t make much at Mason’s.”
“You’ve got time to think about it. Another two years, anyway.” I turned onto the main street of our town. Burton wasn’t a bustling metropolis by any means, but still, all the shops along here were pretty busy this afternoon. It was spring, and people were thrilled to be outside again. More than a few of those strolling along the sidewalk waved to me. The old hussy was familiar to just about everyone in Burton.
Matt and I didn’t talk much on the fifteen-minute ride out to the farm. I could make the drive on automatic pilot as I’d been taking this route since I’d been seventeen. Once we were out of Burton proper and on the rural highway that meandered through the surrounding farms, we rolled down the windows, and I turned up the radio, blaring Ed Sheeran as we sang along.
“You’re so weird, you know that?” Matt shouted to be heard over the wind and the music. “We’re in a pickup truck on a country road in Georgia. This scene is just begging for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or Miranda Lambert!”
“Nooooo!” I yelled back. “No country music!”
He laughed at me. “You were totally adopted.”
It was an old joke in our family, a ridiculous poke at the fact that my coloring was identical to my father’s while Matt looked just like my mom. But my brother wasn’t wrong about me being the anomaly, in that I was the only one of us who wasn’t a huge country music fan. Growing up, I’d been dragged to festivals and forced to endure hours of twanging songs about heartbreak, Mama, apple pie, dogs, and pickup trucks. The minute I’d been deemed old enough to stay home by myself, I’d seized the opportunity.
Happily, by that time, Matt had been old enough to go—and he’d enthusiastically embraced all things twangy. Not only did he love our parents’ favorite tunes, he actually had a gift for playing just about any instrument he picked up—and he possessed an incredible singing voice.
When I still lived at home, he used to harass me about being the oddball when it came to music, and I’d taunted him for being a stereotypical good ol’ boy, a camo-wearing redneck. There was very little we agreed on. But then I’d found Ed Sheeran, and even though he couldn’t be classified as even remotely country, Matt had decided that he respected the man for his amazing musical abilities—and that he enjoyed his songs, too. That’s why we always played Ed when we were together. He was our demilitarized zone.
Slowing as the truck approached the driveway that led to our farm, I felt the familiar sense of pride in the weathered wooden sign that my great-grandmother had originally hand-painted over a century before.
Westin Family Farm
Over the years, the lettering had been touched up by various family members—most recently by me—but none of us ever changed the design. In the dining room of the big old farmhouse where I’d grown up, there was a framed photo of Great-Grammy next to the sign, and I’d always thought that her wide smile was a little like my own.
“You coming in?” Matt glanced at me as we bumped up the drive. “Mom’s probably getting ready to make dinner. She might even make fried chicken if you stay.”
“That’s mighty tempting, honey, but I need to get home so I can—”
“Work,” he finished for me. “Right.”
I held my foot on the brake and reached over to tousle his sandy brown hair. “Hey, I need to make sure I’m caught up, because it turns out I have this hot date on Friday night, and I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.”
He grinned. “Okay. Can you pick me up by six on Friday?”
“You got it, buddy.” I watched him maneuver the handle to open the door, which often stuck. As he swung his legs out and hefted the backpack from the seat, I added, “Give Mom a hug from me and tell her I’ll be home Sunday for dinner. Oh, and tell Dad I’ll be here early enough to watch the Braves play.”
“Sure.” He slammed the door—which he had to do so that it wouldn’t fly open on the road as I drove back to town—and gave me a quick wave over his shoulder. I watched him jog up the steps of the wide porch that wrapped around our family home and then round the corner, heading for the kitchen door. We never used the front entrance except for company, weddings, or funerals.
As I drove away, I pictured the scene that probably greeted him once he’d gone into the kitchen. Mom would be there because it was a point of pride that she never missed greeting us after school. Even during the busiest planting or harvest season, my mother was waiting for us, always with some kind of snack and a drink. No matter what else was going on in her life, she paid careful attention to our chatter and looked over our homework and other school papers.
I didn’t know if I would ever have kids, but if I did, she was the kind of mother I wanted to be.
Thinking about kids and family and parents made me a little lonely and wistful. I loved my new independent life here in town; at twenty-four, it was time for me to be on my own, and I’d worked hard to make it happen. Still, I missed the easy camaraderie of my family, the meals around the table, the steady dependability of my parents, and the fun of being with my brother. My little cottage was adorable, but it was also quiet.
Growing up on the farm, I’d come into Burton for school, and of course, I’d made friends. But most of those people had either moved away or were occupied with their own busy lives. In the six years since graduation, we’d all changed, and I wasn’t in touch with anyone from high school.
But that didn’t mean I was a big old lonesome loser now. With that in mind, I took a left instead of the right turn that would’ve taken me back to my house and pulled up in front of a small shop with lighted windows.
The sign on the door read Phoenix: Beauty from Ashley. That door opened as I hopped out of my truck, and two women, one about my mother’s age and the other a few years younger than me, stepped outside. Both smiled when they saw me.
“Hey, Tori. How’re you doing?” The older woman called over. “You going in here, honey? Ashley’s with a client, but she’s about done, I think.”
“Hey, Mrs. Hyles. Hey, Donna.” I leaned against my truck for a moment. “Yeah, I was just stopping in to chat a little. Thanks. I’ll wait for her in reception.” Taking the door Mrs. Hyles held for me, I added, “Y’all have a good evening.”
I slipped inside the salon, inhaling deep. I loved the scent of this place. Phoenix didn’t smell like most beauty parlors. There was no lingering sulfuric odor from old permanents or the overwhelming cloying hairspray. Somehow, Ashley’s place was all relaxing and pleasant scents. She swore it was a matter of excellent ventilation, but I wasn’t sure about that. I was pretty sure she had some kind of magic voodoo that made the difference.
“. . . but I told her she was out of her mind.” Ashley’s voice floated out to me, and I heard the click of her heels on the tiles. “I mean, who does that? It was—” She appeared in the doorway that connected the main salon with the reception area and spotted me. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. How long have you been out here, sugar?”
I shrugged. “Not long. Mrs. Hyles just let me in as she was leaving.”
“Oh, good.” Ashley turned to face the tall, good-looking man who’d followed her out. He had a square jaw and dark hair that clearly had just been cut. He stood a good head above my friend, and the eyes he turned to me were light blue and friendly.
“Zane, this is my friend Tori. Tori, this is Zane, my favorite client.”
He reached over Ashley’s shoulder to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you, but I’m pretty sure she tells all her clients the same thing.”
Ashley gave us both wide eyes. “No way! Some of them I can barely tolerate. Ask Tori. She hears all my horror stories.”
I nodded. “It’s true. Some of the people she takes care of are crazy demanding and downright mean.”
“Not like you at all.” She beamed at him and then pointed toward me. “Tori is the most creative person I know. See what she’s wearing? She makes almost all of her own clothes or repurposes things in new ways.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Tell me what you’ve got on today.”
Nice way to put me on the spot. I glanced down at my body, as though I’d forgotten what was on it. “Uh, the overalls came from a thrift shop in Savannah. I cinched the middle and added the sash in this floral cotton from another dress I’d bought, and then I turned up the cuffs and covered them in the same material.” Plucking my shirt away from my chest, I added, “And I bought this shirt at the boutique where I work.”
“She works at a shop in Farleyville,” Ashely told Zane. “Where her talents are totally wasted.”
“Ashley.” I rolled my eyes. “Please. I like my job at Niche.”
She turned to face her client. “You could give Tori an old burlap sack and a yard of ribbon, and five minutes later, she’d have a beautiful dress. She’s that good. And she’s working at a store that sells frumpy suits to old women.”
Zane glanced at me and then back at Ashley, uncertainty in his eyes. “Uh, okay. I guess that’s bad?”
“Of course, it’s bad. She has this fashion blog that has a ton of followers, because she’s so awesome, and she needs to stop wasting her time dressing the elderly and pay attention to growing her own career.” She tilted her head and drilled me with steely, narrowed eyes, daring me to tell her that she was wrong.
The annoying thing was, Ashley wasn’t wrong. I’d been working at Niche since I was sixteen, and the truth was that my original plan had been to quit four months ago. But that had been back when the plan had included Andy the asshole, my ex-boyfriend. I’d assumed we’d be marrying . . . or at least moving in together. Since that was never going to happen now, I’d had to make the decision to stick with my day job for a little longer.
Ashley knew the practicalities of my plan, but she was more impatient than I was. That was the sign of a good friend, I decided, which was why her nagging wasn’t quite pissing me off. Yet.
So I ignored her pointed words and cast a brilliant smile at Zane, who seemed more than a little uncomfortable caught between two strong-minded women discussing a topic he didn’t quite understand.
“Are you new in Burton, Zane? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
He grinned ruefully. “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that . . . yeah, I’m from Charlotte. Just moved here about three months ago.”
“He took over Clark Morgan’s law practice,” Ashley added.
“Well, welcome to Burton.” Hooking my thumbs into the belt loops of my baggy overalls, I leaned into the wall. “Everyone here is nosy, and they’ll give you advice even when you don’t ask . . .” I slid my friend the side-eye. “But they’re also the kindest, most loving folks you’ll ever meet.”
“So far, I’d have to agree.” I didn’t miss the way his gaze lingered on my friend, and instantly, my attraction alert went off. He liked Ashley. Did she know this? She hadn’t even mentioned this guy to me.
If Ashley noticed Zane’s attention, she didn’t show it. “Tori, let me cash out Zane so he can get going, and then I’ll be right with you.” She began leading him toward the desk in the corner. “I hope you want to go eat because I’m famished.”
I stayed quiet, watching her go through the process of ringing up the charge, accepting Zane’s money, and being sweetly surprised when he insisted that she keep the change. When he said good-night to us both, he added that it had been nice to meet me. With one more glance at Ashley, he left, the bell over the door jangling as he did.
“Well, he’s adorable.” I quirked an eyebrow. “Hmmm, funny that I don’t remember you telling me about him.”
“Didn’t I?” Ashley busied herself with something on her computer, running the end-of-day sales report. “Huh. Well, I don’t tell you about every client who comes in here.”
“Sure, but one who’s hot as hell and clearly wants you to take off more than just his hair? I just think it’s, uh, very interesting that you’ve been so close-mouthed about it. I assume he’s single.”
“Yes, he’s single, but he’s not looking for anything with me, I promise.” She sighed and slid the cash drawer closed, turning the key in the lock. “He’s in love with his receptionist.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Why do you think that? And who is she?”
Ashley waved her hand. “I don’t know, some girl just out of the community college. Younger than you and me. This is her first job. And I think that because it’s true. You should see him when he talks about her.”
“I think you might be wrong about that, Ash.” I dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs that served as waiting room seating. “I think he likes you.” When she opened her mouth to contradict me, I only shook my head. “I’m not going to argue with you about it. Time will tell. So what were you thinking for dinner? Kenny’s or barbecue? Or Franco’s?”
She came out from behind the desk and leaned against it. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good for me to suggest the Road Block, would it? It’s only Tuesday, and it’s early. It wouldn’t be crowded. We’d bring down the average patron age tonight, eating with the early bird special crowd.”
“Ha, ha, ha.” I stuck out my tongue. “And no, I don’t want to go to the Road Block. I need someplace cheap. I’m broke, remember?”
“Broke has nothing to do with why you won’t go eat at Mason’s place,” Ashley retorted. “You’re still afraid people are talking about what went down there with you and Andy. Get over it, girlfriend. The rest of the town has. They’ve all got better things to talk about.”
“I hope they do because it turns out I’m going to be there on Friday night.” I dropped that little bombshell and waited for her to react. I didn’t have to wait long.
“No way!” Her mouth dropped open, and she pretended to stagger backward. “No way in hell. You’re not only going to the bar, but you’re going on a Friday night?” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you have a date? Who asked you out?”
“No one, and you should know that. The Road Block is the last place I’d take someone if I was interested in making it something important. As for who asked me out, that would be Matt.”
“Awwww . . .” Ashley shoved out her lower lip. “That’s so sweet. He’s taking big sister out?”
“No, big sister is going along as his chaperone, so he can see his musical idol. Mason made my being there a condition of him getting in. And I’m such a sucker for that kid that I said yes, against my better judgment.”
“Oh, you’ll have a great night.” She began making the rounds, closing the blinds on all of the windows in the reception area. “It’s about time for you to go back there, honeybunch. Your boycott has been seriously impacting our social life.”
“Sure, it has,” I laughed. “That’s a nice thing to say, Ashley, but I know you haven’t been staying away from the bar.”
She lifted one shoulder. “Well, I haven’t been able to enjoy it as much without you. You’re my favorite dancing buddy. So a big thank-you to Matty. Tell him his next trim’s on me.”
“I’ll pass on the message.” I wriggled to sit up on the edge of the chair. “Are you almost ready? I’m starved.”
“Yep. Just let me go turn off the lights.”
I watched my friend make her usual end-of-the-day rounds, checking that curling irons, flat irons, and hair dryers were all unplugged, that all the faucets were turned completely off, and that the lights were out. This salon was Ashley’s baby, and she was passionate about both nurturing it and making sure it grew. She was one of the savviest businesswomen I knew, and I understood that her own passion for entrepreneurship was one reason that she pushed me to make my move forward. She was afraid that I’d get stuck in the relative safety of being a paid employee at Niche, where things were safe and secure, if somewhat limited in opportunity.
But I wasn’t going to rush anything. I had a plan, and even if I’d had to tweak it here and there, I knew it was a good one. I just had to be patient for a little longer.
“All set,” Ashley announced as she sailed back into the waiting room. “And I’ve decided I’m craving fried chicken, so let’s go to Kenny’s.”
“Sounds good to me.” I stood up, stretching my back a little. Ashley had the most comfortable chairs in any salon waiting area I’d seen—she said that the pampering should begin the minute a person walked in—but they wreaked havoc on my posture.
“And Tori . . .” She paused next to me, laying a hand on my forearm. “I was teasing before, about you avoiding the Road Block, but it really is time for you to go back. It’s crazy that you’ve let Andy keep you away so long. It’s going to be fine, you know.”
“Sure.” I mustered up a smile. “Of course, it is.”
And maybe if I said those words enough between now and Friday, I’d even start to believe it.
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