Gabriel McKenna is living the dream. A rising country music star he’s no stranger to fame, money, or beautiful women. Despite his bad boy image, he’s also got a heart of gold, and when his ten-year-old brother is orphaned, he wants to take him under his wing. But the judge on the case is less than impressed by Gabe’s reputation and awards custody to the grandfather Gabe knows firsthand is abusive.
Michaela Finn is no stranger to heartache. Years ago she was engaged to Gabe McKenna, but two days before their wedding he ran off to Nashville with a female talent scout. Now Gabe is back in her life with an insane plan. Marry him, so he can get custody of his younger brother. Michaela can’t bear to think of any child being hurt, but she’s just not sure her heart can carry a happy tune when Gabe is playing lead…
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A Singing to the Heart Novel
By Sara Walter Ellwood
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Sara Walter Ellwood
All rights reserved.
Before Gabe's stage crew set off the final pyrotechnics, the crowd was cheering. The energy from sixty thousand fans hit Gabe McKenna, lifting him higher than any drug or drink ever could. Hell, this might've been better than sex.
Gabe belted out the last words of his first number-one song and finished with a flourish on his electric guitar.
He bowed low, winked, and grinned at the hyperventilating, screaming girls in the front row. A redhead tossed him her panties. They landed on the stage by his feet along with other intimate garments, teddy bears, flowers, and scraps of paper with everything from Will you marry me? to phone numbers on them. He bounced back from the edge of the stage, his arm held high as he waved his tan Stetson in a farewell to another sold-out sports arena.
The tabloids called him "Country's Rock Star," and on nights like this, he believed it.
With one more look at his adoring fans, Gabe headed backstage. He handed his guitar to a crew member, while another, walking beside him, removed his wireless microphone and sound transmitter. After taking out his earpieces, he also handed them to the guy. His road band came off the stage behind him, and several of the members slapped him on his back, encouraging him to hurry. The party couldn't begin until he got there.
His manager, Gary Russell, rushed over to him with a huge grin on his pointed, bony face. "By God, Gabe, if you keep up this momentum, you'll own the CMAs in November."
Gabe took the bottle of water and towel the older man offered him. He wiped the sweat from his face and chugged half of the water. Performing in the Midwest was hot business in early September.
"That's the plan. I really want to be the next Entertainer of the Year." He grinned at the lanky man in poor-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt. "Male Vocalist"--Gabe slanted his glance toward his manager--"and Song, Single, and Video of the Year wouldn't upset me either."
Gary laughed and took the towel from Gabe. "Hell, you might just be the darling of them all: the CMTs, CMAs, and ACMs. Maybe even the Grammys."
"Wouldn't mind having another one of those golden record players in my trophy cabinet." But the competition for the Grammys was tough; beating his best friend, Seth Kendall, would be hard.
"I have to admit, it's been a good year for me too." Gary laughed again.
Gabe didn't doubt the statement. Gary not only managed him but also Seth Kendall and his teenage daughter. Emily Kendall was burning up both the country and pop charts with her first few singles.
They turned down another hall. The noise from the crowd disbanding wasn't as deafening down here. "You get the Billboard ranking of my album yet?"
Several fans and winners of local radio station contests gathered in the green room for a chance to meet him. He and Gary paused at the door. Two security guards waited to ensure no problems at the meet-and-greet.
Gary's smile broadened, splitting his narrow face and nearly taking in his ears. "One Night Rodeo landed squarely in the top spot on the country and number two on the pop charts with over three hundred thousand copies sold the first week out. If you would've sold a few hundred more you would've unseated Emily Kendall's reign on the pop chart."
"Yes!" Gabe punched the air. He would have liked to hit number one on the pop chart, but he wasn't a pop singer. His fans were as country as his Stetson and cowboy boots. It amazed him he crossed over at all, but as Gary kept telling him the genres were blending and blurring.
Hitting number one on the country chart was what mattered to him. This was the first time he had hit the top spot during release week. He hoped the feat proved to the doubters his career was anything but dead.
Gary's management of him deserved all the credit. "Thanks, Gary."
"Yeah, well, just don't party too hard tonight. We have to be in Omaha at seven AM to do that radio interview."
"We'll behave." Gabe flashed another grin.
Hard to believe that only seven years ago his day job was punching cattle on a ranch in central Texas and he was spending his weekend nights singing in honky-tonks.
Back then Michaela Finn had been the most important thing in his life.
Would he ever forget the way her blue eyes darkened to sapphire when they made love?
Gary cuffed him on the shoulder, dislodging her memory and the ache thinking about her always brought. They headed into the green room to meet his fans.
This was what he lived for now, had dreamed about doing since he first saw a Garth Brooks concert as a kid, and he wouldn't ever want another life.
Then why did he look for her in every crowd, hoping she'd be there?
* * *
Micki Finn hated crowds almost as much as she despised Gabriel McKenna. She looked at the woman next to her, obviously a groupie, as were the rest of the frenzied females. All waiting outside the backdoor of the sports center along a cordoned-off path to Gabe's tour buses.
The redhead beside her was trying for that naturally tussled look with her hair, but the spray glue holding it in place ruined the effect. Compared to some of the other women and girls gathered, Red was overdressed in her skintight, barely there tank dress. Micki's faded jeans and T-shirt made her regular nun material.
Security held the throng back and the crowd became louder when the doors of the arena opened. Red bounced, her extremely large breasts nearly dislodged from the flimsy constraints of the tank top. She pushed past a pair of women old enough to be Gabe's mother. The yellow ribbon appeared ahead of the redhead, and Micki followed her, shoving her way around Red to get to the line. Women yelled obscenities and scowled, but Micki ignored them and focused on the man heading toward the waiting bus.
She hated the way her heart skipped a beat before it galloped off like a horse out of the pen after a pistol shot. He was surrounded by men, but he outshined them all. His smile was cowboy handsome as he winked and tipped his hat at the groping women.
Gabe stopped along the line and signed autographs, but when some of the groupies became too daring and grabbed at his black T-shirt or lower, he withdrew to the center of the security guards.
A tan Stetson sat over a shock of raven hair that brushed his collar. Micki wasn't ready for the sudden desire to run her fingers through the black silk. She fisted her hands until her nails bit into her palms.
The entourage drew closer under the harsh lights, which brightened the area to almost daylight intensity. Micki ducked under the yellow ribbon.
"Hey!" called the security guards and the women behind her at the same time.
She ignored both and got the response she wanted. Gabe stopped and pushed the Stetson back over his high forehead. He peered at her for a beat before dark brows rose over golden-brown eyes, set in a broad, angular face suggesting some Native American genetics. His full lips twisted into a smirk. "I'll be damned. Never figured you'd become one of my groupies." When a security guard grabbed her upper arm, Gabe said, "It's okay, Chuck. I don't think Miz Finn means me any harm."
Micki shook off the big man's grasp then adjusted her own hat. Gabe's blatant gaze traveled over her scuffed cowboy boots all the way to the Stetson on her head. When he met her gaze again, the heat flowing over her had nothing to do with the temperature of the early September night, her hatred of him, or her anger. She shouldn't have been affected at all, considering the reasons she'd driven half the night and all day to confront him.
Taking a deep breath to steady the nest of hornets in her stomach, she squared her shoulders. "We need to talk."
A minute later, Gabe and a lanky man holding an incensed conversation on a Bluetooth ushered her onto the first bus. They left the security folks to deal with the crowd of jealous women jeering behind them. When they entered the common area of the bus, the seven members of Gabe's band looked up from the couch and restaurant-like booth. They all held longneck bottles of beer and two of them held cigarettes, the smoke of which clung to the cool, conditioned air and made her throat burn.
A burly man she recognized as Gabe's lead guitarist stood and smiled at her. He went to the refrigerator, pulled out a beer, and raised a brow at Gabe. "Not your usual type. I like."
After he returned to the couch, Gabe reached into the fridge then pulled out two Budweisers. He handed her one of the longnecks. "This is Michaela Finn." Using his unopened bottle, he pointed to the men and the lone woman, going clockwise. The lead guitarist was first. "Brian, Chris, Jessica, her husband Caleb, Joel, Robby, Kenny. My band. And the man on the phone is my manager, Gary Russell."
Gary nodded his head once and grunted, then turned away and sat beside Robby at the table. He booted up a laptop as he lit a cigarette. Gabe got another beer out and set it on the table beside Gary. No word of thanks, no acknowledgment came from the man now tapping on keys and talking on the phone at the same time. No doubt, Gary would be dead from a coronary by the time he was seventy.
At least he was here and not that woman. Before Micki could let Gabe's betrayal bog her down any farther, she tipped her hat at the motley men and the woman of the band.
"Hello. Most people call me Micki. Gabe's the only one who's ever really called me Michaela." Her smile was stiff as she grasped the beer bottle with a death grip and tried to not stare at the man taking up more than his share of space beside her. She shouldn't drink, she had a long drive back to Bluebonnet Creek, Texas, but she needed it more now than ever.
Joel, Gabe's bassist, pushed his long black hair from his face and looked her up and down from where he lounged on the couch. "You're not a groupie. You're the ex."
Taken aback, Micki glanced at Gabe, who took a big swig of his beer. They hadn't been together since Gabe decided he was tired of cowboying and singing in honky-tonks and then hightailed it to Nashville only two days before their wedding seven years ago.
With another woman.
"You were married? How'd you keep that secret?" The bright light over the table turned Robby's spiked bleached blond hair white. A cigarette dangled between the fingers of the drummer's left hand. "I'm surprised Andrea didn't let the world know you were married before her when you broke up."
"Never quite made it to the altar." Gabe took another pull on the bottle before he sat it on the counter of what passed for a kitchen of sorts. He peered at Micki with narrowed eyes. "What did you want to talk about?"
Micki downed a quarter of the beer, trying to get her bearings. It was impossible. She'd already had the eleven-hour drive to Kansas City to figure out how she was going to tell Gabe the news. She sat her bottle beside his. "Can we ..."--she glanced at the men and woman watching her with amusement and curiosity--"go somewhere ..."
Gabe nodded and led her though a door at the end of a narrow passage. A burst of panic zinged through her at the sight of the bed taking up most of the space. How many women had he had sex with in this room? Had Andrea been one of them? Of course she'd been. When the door clicked closed, she jumped and turned to him. She didn't care about his private life. Couldn't care.
"What's going on, Michaela?"
She wrung her hands together. "I've come to--to tell you Sam and ... and Frankie ..."
"If this is about Dad and your sister, I don't care."
She sniffed back the sudden burn of fresh tears. "Oh, Gabe ..."
When she wobbled on her feet, he was there in a heartbeat and guided her to sit on the edge of the bed. He quickly withdrew his arm, but sat next to her. Their thighs touched. Her heart leapt and her breath caught. How could she want him to wrap her up in his strong arms? She never wanted him to touch her again, did she? Mustering all of her strength, she pulled her shoulders up, breathing air scented with leather, sandalwood, and Gabe.
No amount of pretending she was strong would stave off her overwhelming grief. How could she have any more tears left to cry? The last thing she wanted to do was bawl in front of him, but she detested the news she was about to break. Even if he didn't care.
"What's going on?"
His face was a blur through a watery haze. She used her hands to wipe away the tears and sniffed again. "Sam and Frankie were flying from Dallas to Brownwood and Sam's plane crashed. They're gone, Gabe. That's all I know."
* * *
Gabe let the news sink in. When it did, the shock quickly gave way to ... nothing. He wanted to feel grief for the man who'd given him life, but in the end only numbness and hatred penetrated his heart.
His hand fisted against his thigh. Micki reached out, and after a brief hesitation laid her hand over his fist. He sucked in a breath at the buzz of awareness zipping through him at her gentle touch. All too fast, and yet not soon enough, she withdrew and folded her hands together in her lap.
Gabe despised his father for cheating on his dying mother with Micki's older sister. She was half his age, but Sam married her three months after Gabe's mother died from breast cancer. Frankie had been five months pregnant.
As Gabe met Micki's shimmery blue eyes again, fear twisted his gut. "Where's Jesse?"
"He's with Momma, and Mary Nelson is looking in on them."
Her words eased the fear a little. He wanted nothing to do with his father or his father's wife, but he didn't hate the product of their union. Somehow, their ten-year-old son had stolen his heart. His baby brother was safe.
"Momma and me are ..." She hiccupped and shook her head. "We were watching him while Sam and Frankie went to Dallas for one of her art shows." From her back pocket, she pulled a red and white handkerchief to wipe her eyes and nose. "I knew you'd want to know."
He stared at her. Despite everything that went wrong between them, she'd brought him the news instead of him hearing it through other channels.
Don't read too much into it. Michaela never cared about him before, or she'd not have broken their engagement two days before the wedding. She'd have believed in him when Andrea took him to Nashville, and she would have trusted him.
"Thanks for telling me." Gabe stood and leaned on the doorframe. His father was gone. What did it all mean for him? Loud music sounded from the main room, drawing his attention. The drivers of the two busses would be anxious to get moving; the production crew would follow with their semi-trucks and another two busses. They had another show in Omaha tomorrow night. Jesse's being alone was all that mattered now.
Gabe jerked when a knock sounded on the door. As he straightened, the panel cracked open and Gary said, "Gabe, we need to get rolling."
"I've got to go. I have to get back home. Momma is taking all of this hard." Micki stood by his side. "And I can't leave Jesse with her too long."
He focused on her red-rimmed cornflower eyes. She'd been crying for a while. "Michaela, I'm sorry."
She sniffed, close to tears again, and nodded stiffly. "I loved my sister. Despite all of her bad behavior and her marriage to your daddy, I loved her."
"I know." He wanted to touch her wet cheek and take away the tears.
Gary shattered the impulse. "Is the girl staying or going? We've got to move."
"I'm leaving." Micki headed out the door as Gary moved to the side in the narrow passage. She glanced over her shoulder. "I'll take care of the arrangements. If I can have your number, I'll call you with the time of the service. That is, if you're interested."
"Yeah. Call me." Gabe dug in his wallet for a personal business card. "My cell number's the last one listed."
Micki nodded again and took the card with a shaky hand.
"What's going on?" Gary asked after looking from Micki to Gabe.
Gabe stopped at the door of the second bedroom, drawing the attention of the guys in the common area. "My father and his wife were killed in a plane crash."
"Oh, man. I'm sorry, Gabe."
Gabe caught up with Micki before she exited the bus. Someone turned down the music and the band waited in silence. He never talked about his nonexistent family or much about his personal life, so this was all news to them. The world only knew about the messy split between exciting new star Gabe McKenna and his wife and manager Andrea Rose less than a year after they'd eloped, but even the guys didn't know all the facts. He wanted to keep it that way.
Excerpted from Heartsong by Sara Walter Ellwood. Copyright © 2015 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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