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Brett Taylor stood at the open door, remaining partially concealed while mentally plotting his course from the tour bus to the rear entrance of the coliseum. As usual, it was nearly impossible to sneak past a crowd during a stock show, particularly when you were parked in wide-open spaces in broad daylight.
The sights, sounds and smells of the ongoing carnival resurrected long-ago recollections, memories of funnel cakes fried in oil, candied apples doled out by the dozens, whirring rides mixed with piercing screams. A crazy, carefree atmospherea world away from the life he now knew.
He couldn't recall the last time he'd eaten a corn dog or sat suspended on top of a Ferris wheel. Too long ago to remember. What he wouldn't give to have his arm thrown over his best girl's shoulders, dumping forty bucks in a matter of minutes just to win a stuffed bear so he could earn a sincere smile and a sweet kiss. Unfortunately, he didn't have a best girl, or any girl in his life for that matter. He hadn't for a while now. But he did have a show to put on.
He slid the familiar photograph into his back pocket, the same as he always did before each and every performance. A reminder of what he had lost, and could never recover. Only one of the many sacrifices he'd exchanged for fame.
As soon as he descended the stairs and stepped out onto the lot, the shouting and shoving commenced, sending his security team into action, their beefy arms attempting to hold the crowd at bay.
"Over here, Brett!" echoed from a dozen different places, followed by numerous blinding camera flashes. The normal procedure meant paper pushed into his face, a pen or two narrowly missing his eye. He'd been known to sign T-shirts and cowboy boots, sometimes even legs and arms. He drew the line on certain body parts, including the occasional bare breast.
His height allowed him to peer over most of the crowd and zero in on the targeted entrance while attempting to shake a few of the bobbing hands among the sea of people. A fearless teenage girl shoved her way forward and tried to polish his trophy buckle with her palm, prompting a guard to restrain her.
Fans were good, though. Fans were a part of the life. But some days he wasn't in the mood to be probed and prodded like one of the sideshow exhibits on the crowded midway. Today was one of those days.
He glanced at his watch, and realizing he was already five minutes late, he signaled the guards with a subtle look that he was ready to move on. These fans would have to wait until after the concert.
Then she caught his attention.
A little blue-eyed girl stood at the end of the row just a few feet away from the bedlam, clasping a bunch of red roses in a fist too small to hold them intact, the stems crooked as if they'd been crushed in the human swell of anticipation. She wasn't much more than six years old, looking sweet and hopeful, probably the purest sight he'd seen in a long time. He just couldn't pass her up.
He crouched on her level while random sounds of approval came from the bystanders. Intended or not, pausing to speak to a child earned him a few extra points. It also filled him with regret when he thought about the weathered photo secured in his back pocket. A photo he always carried with him onstage.
"Are these for me?" he asked. She nodded and handed him the bouquet, her smile as soft as the petals.
A proud-looking man offered him a small blue book. "Mind giving my daughter your autograph? You're all she talks about, sunup to sundown."
"No problem." And it wasn't, at least not in this case. "What's your name, sweetheart?"
She twisted a lock of baby-fine golden hair around a chubby finger. "Megan."
Brett's smile came naturally now. "Pretty name for a pretty girl."
She shrugged and returned the smile, revealing deep dimples creasing her cheeks. He could appreciate little-girl innocence, before the little girls grew up and wanted more from him than just an autograph.
He laid the flowers across his thighs, took a pen from the father and quickly scrawled his name on one of the pages.
"Could you date it?" the man asked.
Brett shot him a wry grin. "I'm not sure of the date."
His hand froze in place. March 16. He hadn't even realized it, at least not consciously. Maybe that was his brain's way of protecting his heart.
How many years had it been? Eight? No, nine. Nine years ago his world had come to a halt, ironically coinciding with his big break and the chance of a lifetime. So far he'd been unable to completely recover from the loss, even when he should be counting his blessings. After all, he'd finally realized his dream, at the cost of giving up another.
Shoving the sadness back beneath the surface where it belonged, he handed the child the book of memories and gently kissed her cheek, then straightened and accepted her father's handshake and thanks.
The little girl grasped him around the knees, stared up at him and said in an angel's voice, "I love you, Brett."
At least someone did.
When she released him at her dad's insistence, Brett strode past the remaining fans and into the back entrance of the arena, working his way past the catch pens containing massive, snorting bulls, the railing lined with cowboys spitting the occasional stream of tobacco onto the ground. Several of the menstars in their own rightgrunted greetings. Others shook his hand as he passed by. He fought the urge to borrow a horse and ride away like an Old West hero. But he wasn't a hero. He was only a man, and a flawed one at that.
The guards pushed open a heavy metal door, led him down a corridor and then up the stairs into a wire jungle, huge speakers and intricate sound equipment the wildlife within. Dust from the rodeo arena, blended with smells of smoke and manure, settled into his nostrils. He coughed and traded the roses for a bottle of water offered to him by one of the crew. Sweat beaded on his forehead that he swiped away with the back of his arm before readjusting the black felt hat.
After fitting the guitar strap over his shoulder, he walked to the outskirts of the stage where he could see a few eager faces. He attempted to draw energy from the spirited roar, the passionate applause. It should have been enough to sustain him, but lately, it wasn't. He felt restless, as if something big was brewing inside his soul. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. But as sure as he knew every word of his songs by heart, he somehow knew his life was about to take a turn. That prospect worried him. Change wasn't always good.
He tucked away his intuition and drew a deep breath, prepared to give it everything he had in spite of his sour mood. They expected the best. He had sworn from the day he'd publicly performed for the first time in a run-down Texas dive, he would be the best. His music, the only part of himself he was willing to share, forced him to play dual roles in the scheme of thingsthe man and the performer. Tonight he was the performer.
That thought thrust him on the stage to work his magic like an illusionist as he willed his all-too-human persona to disappear. In its place came the reluctant superstar.
Destined for greatness. Undeniably gifted. Many a woman's fantasy.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Give a big Houston welcome to one of country music's finest, Brett Taylor!"
The massive bus loomed majestically before her, a black raven with distinctive blue eyes and outstretched wings spanning one side. An appropriate greeting. For Camille Carson, this particular vehicle symbolized long-awaited freedom.
After the taxi driver deposited her bags on the lot and drove away, she lugged her oversize duffel to the entrance, the black nylon tote thrown over her shoulder bumping against her ribs in time with her pounding heart. Her head kept telling her to settle down; she'd seen buses before. Driven so many she'd lost count. But none had been quite as fancy as this.
The top half displaying the raven was bronze, the bottom black with a bronze stripe swirling a path over the division of the two tones of color. And in the corner above the dark rear window, the initials of the owner etched in beige block text: B.T. Just seeing the letters sent a succession of tingles down Cammie's spine.
She could blame those tingles on the weather, but the Texas spring morning was warm, sunny and clear with no real wind to speak of. A good day for driving. After a quick mental pep talk to restore her composure, she rapped on the heavy door.
When the latch released, Cammie's heart skipped into her throat. She wasn't sure who she might encounter, but the face before her looked familiar and welcoming.
"Hey, kiddo," Bud Parker bellowed as he hurried down to the pavement and swept her off her feet with a roughness that belied his gentle nature.
After he put her down, she tugged at her shirt and laughed. "And hello to you, too. It's been way too long, Bud."
He grinned. "You're mighty right about that, little girl."
Cammie stepped back and studied his face. Still the same Bud, except for a bit more visible gray tingeing his brown hair and goatee, his face a little fuller. Over time, a kinship had developed between the two, bonding them like siblings for more than fifteen years. And now he seemed incredibly happy.
"I believe impending fatherhood suits you, Parker," she said. "So how's Jeanie feeling?"
"She's restless as hell and ready for our kid to make an appearance, which is scheduled to happen in a week if it doesn't happen before then. My being home should help." Bud affectionately patted her cheek. "I think you've gotten even prettier since the last time I saw you."
Cammie lowered her eyes and twisted a tress of hair into a spiral, a habit she'd long since abandoned in childhood. Oddly, Bud had a way of making her feel like that shy, all-knees-and-elbows kid from years past. "Are you going to let me in now?"
"After you," he said with a bow, moving aside so she could climb the three steps into the interior cab.
Bud took Cammie's three bags and piled them on the passenger seat, then scaled the remaining step leading into the living area of the elaborate home on wheels. "Come on up. The guys will be back in a minute."
He showed her to a plush white leather sofa that took up most of one interior wall. As soon as Cammie lowered herself onto the cushions, Bud dropped down beside her, his kind expression fading into a blanket of concern. "Are you sure you want to do this, Cam?"
Good question. "I have to. Until the business picks up again, someone needs to make some money."
"Jeanie and I have a few dollars put back"
"Yeah, Bud, that would go over real well with Granddad. He considers charity blasphemous. He won't even go to the bank for a loan, hardheaded man."
"Jed's like a second father to me, Cam," he said. "Hell, you're both like family. I'd do anything for you guys."
Uncomfortable over the course of the conversation, Cammie took a look around, amazed at how so much could be crammed into such a small space. The place was relatively neat with the exception of a thin layer of dust and a few water rings etched into the side table to her right. The bus held all the amenities of a small apartment, decorated in a way exclusive to an owner with good taste, and a lot of money.
The far wall housed a recessed liquor cabinet displaying a couple of bottles of top-grade whiskey. An intricate stereo system, two flat-panel TVs and DVD player were built into the inlaid paneling next to that. Underneath, two white leather-covered benches framed an oak table where a pile of pennies and several crumpled beer cans sat adjacent to abandoned hands of cards.
The scent of a driver's most important staplestrong coffeewafted from the galley kitchen to her left, barely masking the residual odor of cigars. Stainless-steel appliances sparkled without any sign of wear and tear, leading Cammie to believe they'd rarely been used. Nor would she be putting them to use. Driving the bus, yes. Cooking, no way.
She leaned forward and glanced down the corridor, nodding toward the closed door at the end of the hallway. "Is that where he sleeps?"
"Yeah, his stateroom." Bud stood and walked past the refrigerator to a division equivalent to the bulkhead on an airplane. "There's only one berth in this middle compartment right here, which is where you'll sleep. It's got a TV on the wall and it's pretty comfortable."
"As long as it has a mattress, I'm good." She pointed at a remote control set in a bracket hanging from the wall.
Bud smiled. "That's high tech at its best. It controls the two slides that expand the front cabin, and all the stereo equipment. It's pretty easy to operate."
Easy was good. "The bathroom?"
"It's opposite your berth and there's a washer and dryer next to that. The shower's kind of small, but it's workable."
"Who needs a large shower when you have the means to wash clothes?" She did have one major concern. "Do I have to share the bath with the star?"
Bud shook his head. "Nope. He has his own, along with a fancy steam shower. He might even let you try it out if you ask nicely."
Not going to happen. "I assume the band members have their own bus."
"Yeah, lucky for you. Sometimes they travel together on this one, but they sack out on their bus."
"Who drives for them?"
"His name is Dennis, but don't expect to see him too often. He's kind of antisocial. I think it's because he gets tired of the guys. They can be kind of crude, but basically they're a pretty decent group."
Having spent most her life around tactless men, Cammie definitely related to crude behavior. She strolled toward the driver's quarters and studied the high-backed seat she would be occupying for the next month. "How does he feel about having a female driver?"
"I'm not sure he's figured that out yet."
She faced Bud and frowned. "You didn't tell him?"
He sent her a sheepish smile. "I told him your name's Cam Carson."
Cammie leveled a hard stare on him. "So help me, Bud, if my boss thinks a woman's place is anywhere but behind the wheel, you're in deep"
A noisy commotion filtering in from outside suspended Cammie's tirade just when she was about to get going. The door released and a sudden flurry of voices invaded the territory, including a few common curses. Cammie stepped back into the main quarters, Bud following behind her. A literal band of merry men tromped up the entry steps, but by the time the last one stepped into the bus, the once-jubilant atmosphere had grown silent, interrupted only by the steady hum of the idling diesel engine.
Cammie regarded the disconcerted group now gathered in the small space next to the driver's quarters, looking like confused clowns crammed into a phone booth. They seemed somewhat perplexed over why this woman was on board.
Alone. With Bud.