Read an Excerpt
A Singing to the Heart Novel
By Sara Walter Ellwood
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Sara Walter Ellwood
All rights reserved.
Seth Kendall parked his Escalade and stared out at the people who had known him all his life. What the hell was he doing here?
With a sigh, he opened the door, and all eyes turned in his direction as he got out. Why hadn't he stayed in Nashville as everyone assumed he would? Why did coming back here seem so important now, after being away for fourteen years?
The answers to those questions had plagued him the entire drive to his hometown of McAllister in the Texas Panhandle. The motivation wasn't his father's death at all. He'd come home because it was time for him to make things right, even if that meant causing a whole mess of hell to get it done.
He shrugged into his jacket. If it had been made of solid iron, it wouldn't have felt any heavier. The mid-August day was hot, but the sweat gathering under his Hugo Boss suit didn't come from the afternoon sun. People watched him all the time. That came with the fame he'd garnered as a country music superstar, but today, he didn't want to be gawked at. He adjusted the knot of his necktie and closed the door of the SUV.
He tipped his hat and nodded toward his father's friends and business associates as he headed toward the old church. None of the mourners spoke to him, but he could imagine what they were thinking. Everyone knew he and his father had despised each other.
Decorum required he remove his Ray-Bans and black Stetson as he entered the church, but he forced his expression to remain impassive. He combed his fingers through his hair and looked around. People chose seats, gradually filling the oak pews, and the low murmur of conversation mingled with the bagpipes playing a mournful rendition of his father's favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. He recognized almost everyone as he made his way to the front.
"Aunt Johanna." He stopped where his father's twin sister and the minister were speaking in hushed tones next to the open casket.
Johanna Kendall looked up at him with blue eyes reminding him of his father's. Dressed in a severe black dress and with her graying red hair pulled into a bun, she stepped forward and wrapped him in a hug. "Seth, I'm glad you finally made it home."
He held on for a moment before letting go. He'd come home for her. "How are you holding up?"
She shrugged and her eyes filled with misty sadness. "I'll be okay." Johanna used a white lace handkerchief to dab at her red-rimmed eyes. "I'll miss him. I never realized his heart was so bad. He always seemed as strong as a bull."
"We may not have seen eye to eye, but he was still my father." Hugging his aunt again, he held her and looked anywhere but at the man lying on the white satin inside the casket. He glanced at the pew behind him. As he sucked in a deep breath, he stepped away from Johanna and dropped his hat onto the seat.
Johanna moved away to speak with Glenda Marshall, the mayor's wife.
Seth held out his hand to the minister. "Reverend Keller."
"It's a shame you were unable to get away from your engagements to come home sooner. How're you doin', Seth?"
"I'm as good as can be expected, I guess." He shook the preacher's hand, then shoved both of his hands into his pants pockets. "I'm glad he didn't suffer." He didn't know what else to say.
He'd been in the recording studio when Johanna had frantically called him three days ago after she'd found John dead on the floor of his study. Unsure if he'd come home for the funeral or not, he finished the last songs for his next album, set for release in the spring. Now he wished he hadn't rushed to get the damned record done. At least then, he'd have had an excuse to escape as soon as this day was over.
Which was complete bullshit. He wasn't leaving here until he settled a score.
A heavy hand touched his shoulder. He turned to look into the rich brown eyes of one of his father's closest friends, and a man for whom he held a great deal of respect. He stuck out his hand and greeted the older man with a warm smile. "Judge Ritter, it's great to see you again."
Retired county judge Franklin Michael Ritter II smiled and shook his hand. He'd always reminded Seth a little of Mark Twain--tall and lanky with white wavy hair and a handlebar mustache. "It's nice to see you, too. Though, I'd have preferred different circumstances. It's been a long time, son."
He didn't miss the quiet censure in the judge's tone. Or the way the man seemed to shake all over. His Parkinson's must have gotten worse.
"Oh, Seth, I'm so glad you made it home," an extremely petite woman said in a soft Georgia accent, and Seth found himself being hugged tightly around the waist. He returned Carolann Ritter's embrace, holding on for a moment. In so many ways, she'd replaced the mother he'd lost to a drug overdose. "We sorely did miss you over the years."
He forced a smile as she stepped away. Guilt needled him when tears shimmered in her brown eyes. Carolann and Frank had never made it a secret they loved him when he was a kid. Lord knew he never heard those words from his old man.
"Aw, Miz Ritter, I've missed y'all, too."
When a woman slowly moved in next to Carolann and Frank Ritter, his heart constricted. He forced the name through his tightening jaw. "Abigail."
"Hello, Seth." Dressed in a simple navy blue dress, Abigail Crawford Ritter stopped before him. She stared up at him with widened almond-shaped eyes the color of brandy. The naturally tan complexion she'd inherited from her Native American mother went pale and taut over her high cheekbones. She fiddled with the purse strap over her shoulder and pulled her long dark brown hair over her other shoulder. "We didn't think you'd be here."
He easily discerned the real meaning: We don't want you here.
The past slammed into him with blazing force, transporting him back to the manmade beach of the McAllister Reservoir. Returning him to the night he and Abby let their attraction turn into uncontrolled lust, and under the stars on a deserted stretch of weedy sand, she'd given him her virginity.
"Uh ... I wasn't sure ... I would be," he stammered and tried to shake off the memory of a passion he hadn't been able to forget. He forced himself to look beyond her.
"Sorry about your father." Mike Ritter stepped forward. His brown eyes were as hard as the bricks making up the walls of the church. Not quite reaching six feet, Mike was four inches shorter, and lanky like Frank. Mike was dressed in a suit as expensive as Seth's, if not more so. Since when was the county paying its sheriff enough for him to afford an Armani suit and snakeskin boots? Not to mention the Resistol hat in his hand.
Then Seth noticed the obviously pregnant brunette holding Mike's hand. An heiress to a fortune made from the railroad, oil and banking. "Tammy Jo McAllister?"
She smiled and slipped her arm around Mike's waist, while she rested her other hand on her baby bump. The gray dress she wore had designer written all over it. She must still have more money than King Midas and spent it like there was no tomorrow. "Hello, Seth. I'm now Tammy Jo Ritter."
An icy weight settled in his gut as he looked at Abby. She averted her eyes to the floor. "Mike and I were divorced two years ago."
The weight grew larger and radiated into his arms and legs. He couldn't keep coldness from leaking into his words. "Well, isn't that interesting? How's Emily?"
Abby's face lost all color as she looked at Frank and Carolann. Damn, they'd never learned the truth.
Mike's voice held an unmistakable warning not to push the issue. "Thanks for asking. She's fine."
He met Mike's glare with one of his own.
"I think we should sit down," she said in shaky voice before he could respond.
He snapped his gaze to Abby. Her eyes blazed with anger. She clenched her hands so tightly her knuckles bleached white against the dark blue of her skirt.
"I didn't realize you knew our granddaughter," Frank said without the least bit of curiosity. He obviously didn't catch any of the byplay.
I should know her. He'd keep up Abby's charade. For now.
"He met her at a concert in Amarillo." Mike's tone left no room for discussion on the blatant lie. "I think we should catch up on old times. After the service."
Seth glanced away from the cold eyes of the man who'd been his best friend growing up. Abby's dark eyes held no welcome either, which was a sucker punch in the gut. He wanted to see fire in Abby's brown eyes, but not from hatred.
"Yeah." He mentally shook himself. What was he thinking? She'd betrayed him. He looked back at Mike. "I think it's time to talk about those old times."
* * *
Abby had feared this encounter since the moment her mother-in-law had called her with the news of John Kendall's death. She took her seat behind the Ritters and fisted her hands in her lap.
Mike had promised this day would never come, but she knew it would. How could she have been so stupid? She opened her hands, and cooling air hit the fine sheen of moisture coating her palms. Cold perspiration beaded on her forehead, and she resisted the urge to wipe it away. She had to control her emotions. If she wasn't careful, someone would notice her anxiety.
Mike glanced over his shoulder at her. He'd always been the solid one, her rock. He grounded her while Seth had been her dream. Her flight of fantasy. The one thing she could never really hold. Even now, even after their sham of a marriage had long ago dissolved into nothing but friendship, she had faith Mike would make everything all right.
Mike had stood by her when Seth left town to chase his dreams in Nashville. Seth had promised her he'd come home, he'd always be here for her, but he hadn't stuck around. He'd left and never came back.
Tammy Jo leaned against Mike's shoulder, and he shifted his focus to his new wife, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
As Revered Keller began speaking about the kind of man her neighbor had been in life, she sensed Seth's attention on her and couldn't concentrate on anything the pastor said regarding John Kendall. Halfway through the service, she dared to look across the aisle at Seth. His gaze seemed to bore into hers, and the bitterness in the green depths of his eyes seared deep into her soul.
There had been a time when she was his second-best friend. She knew his secrets, and he knew hers, even things Mike hadn't known about them. She'd believed in Seth's dreams, had encouraged them when his father degraded and beat him for having them. In return, Seth had always been there for her when she'd needed someone to take her away from the reality of her life of living down her parents' sins.
She'd fallen in love with Seth, but she knew they had no future. Maybe if he hadn't wanted fame and fortune, they could have found a way to a happily-ever-after. Keeping him here would have destroyed him. And if she'd gone with him, it would have ruined them both. When Seth won a place on the new talent show America's Rising Star, she'd had to let him go--even if it meant lying to him to make him leave. But the passion they'd shared had haunted her ever since.
At the service's end, she met Seth's gaze across the aisle again. He had no intention of letting her forget what happened after that night on the beach when everything changed.
* * *
The service had been typical and, thankfully, neither Johanna nor anyone else seemed to expect Seth to stand and give a eulogy, or worse, sing. He followed the hearse outside town to the Kendall family plot in a small grove of live oaks on the Double K Ranch where five generations of Kendalls were buried.
He had to talk to Abby. He wasn't the same boy who'd left her standing on her front porch the night he'd left town. But one thing hadn't changed; he'd never forgiven her for what she'd done after that night.
He got out of his SUV, went around, and opened the passenger door for Johanna. She leaned on him to help her out of the high vehicle, then they moved to stand beside the grave.
The scene of the pallbearers unloading his father's casket from the back of the hearse overshadowed his need to confront Abby. The oppressive midday sun beat down on him and glistened off the gray granite of the tombstone marking the grave where his father would be laid to rest. His gaze fell on the name of the woman he barely remembered.
Suzann Harris Kendall, born May 14, 1960, died July 28, 1983. May her voice charm the angels of heaven.
His mother. Dead at age twenty-three. He recalled that day almost thirty years ago when he'd stood here with his father and family. That day he'd wondered if his mother would hate him from heaven for ruining her life by simply being born.
It was a question he still wondered about.
A heavy lump settled in the pit of his stomach.
Dad, will you hate me in death for doing what you denied of my mother? For having dreams that didn't include you and making them come true?
He and his father hadn't had a relationship since he was about ten years old, when John had beat him for sneaking into the barn to play his mother's old guitar. But before then, his dad had been everything to him.
The first wave of regret hit him hard as memories of his early childhood fluttered to the surface, such as the Christmas when he was five and his father had given him his first fishing rod.
"You'll be sure to catch some big ones with that, son."
"Can we go now?"
"Not yet." His father ruffled his hair and grinned. "But as soon as spring comes, we'll go to the lake, and I'll teach you how to fly fish."
"Can Mike come along?"
John chuckled. "You bet. I think Santa Claus brought him the same thing. And if you'd like, we can bring Abby, too." He winked and added, "I'm sure we can find a fishin' rod she can use."
Like the photographs in an album, the snippets of his childhood passed over his mind's eye. So many things from happier times.
"It's my one chance, Dad. Why are you doing this? Ruining my mother's dreams wasn't enough, now you have to ruin mine, too? I'm going to Nashville. I'm going to sing in that competition and I'll win. I'll get that record deal."
"If you leave, don't bother comin' back. You won't be welcome."
The bitterness of hateful words yelled in a fit of rage settled upon him. His back hurt with a phantom sting from all the times the belt had hit him. The shotgun his father fired the time he returned after winning the talent competition blasted his ears. The memory album slammed shut, smothering the spark of grief.
He swallowed the anger and the urge to drive away and never look back.
He looked up to see Abby watching him. No, he wasn't going anywhere.
At least, not until he claimed what his fear of becoming like his mother-washed-up and dead by age twenty-three--had denied him. The one person he'd let Mike talk him out of ever getting to know, by playing on his fears.
* * *
The old Victorian house on the Double K Ranch was packed with mourners from the funeral. The Ladies' Auxiliary served beef barbeque sandwiches, baked beans, potato salad, and chocolate cake.
Abby had no appetite, but she carried her loaded plate out of the dining room with its old over-sized furniture to the wide wraparound porch. Several people milled around in small clusters, holding their plates and doing more talking than eating.
She smiled and greeted those who talked to her--not that many people did, but she didn't stop--and continued searching for Seth. She had to find out what he intended to do now that he was back in McAllister.
"Do you think Seth will stay in town?"
She stopped and took a deep breath before facing the woman behind her. Tammy Jo had never liked her, but then she'd never quite understood what Mike had ever seen in the spoiled heiress.
"I doubt it. He's famous. Nothing in McAllister mattered to him before." She turned to move away from her ex-husband's wife.
"I overheard him talking with his aunt."
When Abby looked at her, Tammy Jo smiled and glanced around at the people on the porch. She could barely keep the disdain off her supermodel face. So, she still considered herself better than the rest of them.
Tammy Jo met her gaze again and her smile widened. "Seth asked her what his father planned for the ranch. Seems to me he's thinking of moving here. How wonderful that would be. He's so famous."
Excerpted from Heartstrings by Sara Walter Ellwood. Copyright © 2013 Sara Walter Ellwood. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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