Read an Excerpt
You're Still the One
A Country Blues Novel
By Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Rachel Harris
All rights reserved.
"He's not gonna know what hit him."
Arabella forced a smile at her friend's over-the-top confidence, even as her heart thumped beneath the thin blue silk of her gown. Country Roads, Nashville's hottest nightclub, was a maze of familiar faces, complete strangers, and eager journalists laughing and swapping industry secrets, and for once, she was determined to be in the mix. Leaving the cool, comfortable shadows behind.
"That's the plan," she murmured, tacking on a silent from your mouth to God's ears. After all, snagging her crush's attention was Ella's main motivation for coming out tonight. That, and to celebrate another successful release for her father's label. Exchanging a smile with Mr. Tisdale, her future boss and the VP of business affairs for Belle Meade Records, she added, "But if nothing happens, at least I can say I tried, right?"
That response pretty much summed up Arabella's life philosophy. She was a look on the bright side type of girl, a people pleaser to her core, and, for the night at least, a fake it until you make it woman.
What she wasn't, however, and what she would never be, was confident in the art of seduction. Her skill level hovered around basic flirting, and even that left a lot to be desired. She didn't have her best friend's swagger, or her cool, inherent air of mystery. Nope, Arabella Stone was the epitome of the sweet, drama-free, girl-next-door.
Next door, if you lived in the most affluent city in Tennessee.
And if you called Nashville royalty your neighbors.
"Oh, stop it with that devil's advocate crap," Lana hissed, steering them both toward an emptying table near the center of the room. She wrapped a slender arm around Ella's elbow, and a row of thin silver bracelets clanked at her wrist. "I'm telling you, Sexy Charlie's gonna swallow his tongue when he sees you."
At the mention of the bassist's name, Ella eagerly searched the crowd again, hoping for a glimpse of his trademark unruly dark hair. Charlie usually avoided these sorts of events, much to her father's extreme annoyance, but she had it on good authority that he'd make an appearance tonight.
When they came to a stop at the table, Ella slid a high barstool out from underneath. "I'm not trying to be a downer. Obviously, I hope he likes what he sees, but I'm keeping my expectations realistic."
Carefully, she wiggled up onto the seat, trying her best not to accidentally flash sideboob. Between the gown's plunging neckline, the crazy high slit, and the matching peek-a-boo cutouts at the waist, one wrong move had the potential of leading to a serious wardrobe malfunction. Not ideal when one was surrounded by scandal-hungry journalists. Or worse, when one was the daughter of David Stone.
Glancing around the room again, this time to ensure her dad hadn't arrived yet, Ella crossed her legs demurely and felt the slit of her gown creep higher on her thigh. Fighting back a blush, she gave the fabric a covert tug and breathed through another rush of anxiety. Clearly, her fabulous plan had a few minor wrinkles. The main flaw was that with each passing moment, she felt less like a worldly temptress and more like a fraud playing dress-up in her best friend's closet.
Technically that's exactly what she was, but Lana had made a compelling argument for abandoning her usual style. Sensible pumps and retro-inspired gowns wouldn't do for tonight's mission.
Admittedly, the public location wasn't Arabella's favorite. As a rule she avoided making a spectacle of herself, and if her dad found out what she was up to, he'd turn ten shades of red. He and Charlie didn't exactly see eye-to-eye.
Dad's job was to keep country music fans happy, and they wanted their musicians hot, talented, and relatively scandal-free. Charlie was two of those things. They also preferred them to at least appear capable of monogamy, a feat hard to accomplish when you're photographed with no less than a dozen different women in a single month, but for once, Ella wasn't so worried about appearances or her dad's approval. Tonight was her one and only shot. Her internship at Strange Wheel Studios began the day after Memorial Day, and once that was completed, she'd officially join the ranks at Belle Meade Records, thus making Charlie her future employee.
Nope, if she was ever going to follow her heart and scratch the first item off her summer top-ten list, this was the night to do it.
"Realistic is code for boring," her friend muttered.
"No, it's needed for survival. Let's not forget that even if Charlie likes what he sees, it won't change the end of the story."
Lana raised a perfectly shaped brow, and Ella waved a hand, encompassing her father's kingdom. "I'm still a Stone. In this town, that's the equivalent of an iron-forged chastity belt. Guys who want in the music business only slip me demos, and guys already in it steer clear so they don't piss off my dad. After last week's fiasco with the mayor's daughter, Charlie's already on his bad side, which means, at this rate, I'm gonna die a single, dateless, granny-panty-wearing old shrew."
"There's never an excuse for granny-panties," Lana replied, and Arabella shook her head with a smile. Leave it to her bestie to focus on what was truly important. "And what's this about dating? It's a hookup, Ella, not a marriage proposal."
Ah, another wrinkle in her mission. Lana believed that tonight was mere wish fulfillment, a celebrity crush that Ella wanted to scratch. But the feelings she had went so far beyond a simple crush they weren't even in the same conversation.
Charlie Tucker had starred in Ella's dreams ever since she was fourteen years old. Back then, she'd been flat-chested with a mouth full of braces, and he'd been six years older, which meant she'd barely even registered on his radar. If anything he'd seen her as a gawky little kid.
No, she thought with a rueful smile. Not little kid ... Little Bit.
The loathsome nickname proved just how hopeless her situation had been, how pathetic, but neither the name nor the glaring age difference had deterred her heart, because with one playful wink and one slow smile, young Arabella had been a goner.
Sadly, twenty-two-year-old Ella wasn't that much better.
"As long as you get your flirt on and skedaddle before your old man shows up," Lana continued, flicking her wrist to flag down a waiter, "your dad will never have to know."
Her distracted gaze shifted to the dance floor, no doubt on the hunt for tonight's victim. She was always on the prowl. Then, without warning, Lana's eyes zinged back with a snap. "It ... is just a hookup. Right?"
In lieu of responding, Ella studied her fascinating pink nail polish, and the future prosecutor inhaled a sharp breath. "Oh, honey." From the sympathy coating those two words, you'd think Arabella had lost a puppy. Here comes the opening argument.
"Ella, you know I'm all for you letting loose and having a wild night. You deserve that more than anyone I know." Reaching across the table, Lana placed a gentle hand on her arm. "But Charlie Tucker doesn't do serious. You, of all people, know his reputation."
Ella almost laughed aloud. Of course she knew. She'd read the stories like everyone else, saw the published photos, and probably knew more about the bassist's checkered past than his band's bulldog publicist. But did any of that change her feelings one bit? Nope.
It was because of her observation — which sounded so much better than obsession — that her crush had intensified. Unlike everyone else, she saw past Charlie's bad-boy image, looked beyond the scandals and women, and what she found was so much more than the player the media presented.
Charlie's love for his family peppered every interview he gave, although the media never seemed to focus on that. His contribution to the band, also left unheralded, was every bit as vital as Tyler Blue's. The front man wrote the band's lyrics, but Charlie was the one in charge of Blue's music — and anyone worth their salt in this business knew words without melody were nothing more than poetry.
Most importantly, Ella recognized in him a secret longing to prove himself. To stretch beyond his limits and make a difference in the world. The need wasn't blatant. He quickly shut it down or guarded his expression whenever it slipped out, but it was there, in glimpses, in glances, and in offhand, wistful remarks. That was the Charlie Tucker who consumed her thoughts.
Admitting that to the queen of self-preservation, however, was pointless. Lana believed hookups were fun and men were great companionship, but both were only ever temporary. A transaction of sorts. The product of a messy divorce, she deemed romance to be nothing more than a marketing ploy for Hallmark.
So, Arabella looked her best friend in the eyes and gave the only honest answer she could. "I'm not a moron, okay? I have no romantic delusions beyond tonight."
What she did have were a bunch of silly fantasies, ones that involved Charlie kissing her outside their giant tour bus and declaring his love in front of a stadium of thousands. Luckily, Lana was too focused on delivering her closing thoughts to press the point.
"Good," she said as her gaze flicked to the left. "Because the hot waiter headed this way is damn near devouring you with his eyes. Have your fun tonight, but never forget there's always another man waiting in the wings, and none of them are worth losing your heart on."
Before Ella could comment, the waiter appeared.
"Welcome to Country Roads. I'm Kurt and I'll be serving you lovely ladies tonight."
Arabella raised her eyes and then did a double take, shocked to find the cute blond's stare solely focused on her. Normally when she and Lana went out, guys barely noticed her unless it was to ask if the seat next to her was taken.
He leaned close to be heard over the music, and the scent of sandalwood tickled her nose. "Can I interest you in a drink from the bar?"
"Umm." This was uncharted territory. If she had been Lana, she'd have acted coy and ordered something sexy, but Ella couldn't pull off coy ... and she was a freaking lightweight. "Amaretto and pineapple, please?"
That it came out as a question did not bode well for her confidence level, which made the need for a drink even more vital. A hint of liquid courage certainly couldn't hurt at this point, and the sugar rush might even compensate for her foot bob bob bobbing beneath the table.
"You've got it, gorgeous."
Kurt smiled into her eyes, and Ella's belly fluttered at the compliment. Over the years she'd been told that she was attractive, that she had her mother's famous smile (if not her smoky voice) and her father's coveted olive complexion, but she didn't exactly stop traffic or inspire men to cross rooms. Those sorts of things were Lana's department.
She glanced down at her dress with new eyes. Could a wardrobe change really make that much of a difference? Maybe Charlie would notice her after all.
"I'm sure you get this all the time ..." Kurt trailed off and Arabella lifted her head. He was digging in his apron, and if the overhead lights weren't playing tricks with her vision, a slight blush warmed his high cheekbones. She'd watched this exact thing happen tons of times, servers and random guys stopping to ask Lana for her number. Is that what's happening now? Lana grinned, confirming her hunch.
Kurt shifted his weight and closed his eyes as if seeking courage. Then he raised his head. "Would you give this to your dad?"
It took a moment for the words to compute.
Arabella followed his hopeful gaze to where he held a small flash drive in his hand. "Belle Meade's our dream label," he told her, urging her to take it. With reluctance, she did. "We know everything about them, and a buddy of mine took a class with you at TSU. I can't believe you sat in my section tonight. It's like fate or something."
Lana's mouth tightened with anger, though her eyes held nothing but sympathy. Just that quickly Arabella had forgotten the times that she didn't simply fade into the woodwork ... whenever guys found out who she was and wanted to use her to get to her dad. Normally she tried to play it off like it didn't hurt while Lana went off on the guys, but tonight was important for Belle Meade, and Ella didn't want to make a scene. She was stressed enough as it was. Subtly, she shook her head, silently begging Lana to stand down, and her best friend huffed a breath.
Narrowing her eyes at their waiter, Lana spit out, "Scotch on the rocks."
An oblivious and still smiling Kurt swung his gaze in her direction. After taking in Lana's severe ponytail, smoky eyes, and show-stopping display of cleavage, his lips curved in a smile, a genuinely flirtatious one now that Arabella could see the difference. Had her self-esteem been hanging on by more than a thin thread, she probably would've laughed aloud. Or, you know, cried.
Lana sneered and shot him a look that said, are you for real? "Better make it a double," she muttered, dismissing him with a flick of her wrist, and Ella shook her head.
Lana Mabry exuded confidence and challenge, and she could drink a trucker under the table. The combination proved irresistible for mere mortals, but she rarely used her powers for evil. In Kurt's case, she didn't even encourage it, not that it mattered. He was yet another bug caught in the web, and as he turned on the charm and ignored Lana's stone-faced signs of disinterest, Ella collapsed against her seatback with a sigh.
Men, some would say, were the one thing that didn't come easily for Arabella. Those same people believed her life plan involved riding her dad's coattails to the top of the label's ladder with nothing but a sweet smile and a box of rocks for a brain. No matter what she did, what she accomplished, she was always seen first and foremost as a Stone, an heir apparent to a music label dynasty and the daughter of a beloved late Grammy winner. The prim and proper princess of Nashville.
Real life was far from a fairy tale, but it did teach her humility, and for that, she was grateful. Thanks to the calculating eyes tracking her every move, judging her before she could even say a word, Ella had discovered that if she wanted the industry's respect, she'd have to earn it.
That truth prompted her to hold down two part-time jobs while busting her ass at Tennessee State University, where she recently graduated with honors in commercial music. Come August, she was more than prepared to take her rightful place in her father's company. Not that anyone, especially her former classmates, ever saw it that way.
Arabella had an incredible job waiting for her while so many of her friends struggled to even get an interview, and she knew she was blessed. But the constant scrutiny and second-guessing was what led to her secret application at Strange Wheel. Scoring the internship under her mother's maiden name had been the first true validation of her talent — and a giant first step in proving she was more than a brainless legacy.
Ella blinked away the memories. Kurt was gone, their drinks were on the table, and a napkin with what suspiciously looked to be digits scrawled on top rested under her friend's tumbler. Le sigh.
Lana waggled a finger at her face. "You've got that glowing look again. You're thinking about New Orleans, aren't you?" She set her elbows on the table and leaned in with a scowl. "Ever stop to think you're being selfish, chasing your dreams and leaving your poor roommate all alone?"
Ella rolled her eyes as she took a long pull of her drink. "It's only for the summer," she vowed, grateful that Kurt had at least gotten her order right. "Between texts, calls, and Skype, you won't even know I'm gone. Besides, I'm still hoping you'll join me for the fourth." Stirring her straw, she added wistfully, "Fireworks, a couple of Hurricanes, and a crowded Bourbon Street? Imagine the damage you could do."
Lana's eyes twinkled with mischief, her bout of impending loneliness forgotten. "Hmm. I don't know. Think they can handle me down there?"
"Sweetie, no one can handle you. We just try our best to keep up."
Excerpted from You're Still the One by Rachel Harris, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Rachel Harris. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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