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Reforming the Cowboy
By Marisa Cleveland, Kaleen Harding
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Marisa Cleveland
All rights reserved.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim room, Billy sniffed and perked up. One of the greatest inventions was the scent of fresh-ground coffee, and the cool air was a welcome change to the mugginess outside. To his right was a long, dark bar, and on the opposite end of the room, an empty, dark stage. But what caught his attention was the life-size poster of him with the words Grand Opening with Billy Hardy: July 1st - 4th.
He squinted down at a girl in a tight T-shirt that said Lacey's Cafe, short jean skirt, and cute cowgirl boots, and swallowed against his rolling stomach. Was he actually nervous? "Coffee. Black."
The girl scowled. "You're late."
He almost apologized to the waitress, but Chip, his manager, shoved in front of him. "He's sorry, Lacey. Actually, it was my fault. I'm sorry."
Damn, is this girl the owner?
Lacey aimed a glare at Chip. "Get him on the stage. I'll let my sound guy know we're ready."
Across the room, someone screamed his name and pointed. He waved and grinned, and the familiar feeling of being recognized flooded him. Ten years off stage and away from the spotlight hadn't erased the memory of fame, and even though this café probably held no more than a hundred people max, tonight was his chance to shine. A small steppingstone on his way back into Nashville's good graces.
He swallowed back the bitter resentment he'd held against his ex for what she'd stolen from him. He would not let her deceit ruin this chance. Inhaling deeply, he focused on the future. Play well, act polite, and book gigs that mattered. Chip thrust something toward him, and his fingers reflexively gripped the guitar shoved into his gut. He saw Lacey squeeze into a sound booth in the back corner. The guy in the booth grinned at her and flipped open a wall panel, jabbing at some switches.
Chip made some kind of wild hand gesture at him, and Billy heard the silence of the whole room. Well, hot damn. No introduction. No band. Just a fading round of applause. He tapped the microphone. The familiar thump-thump grounded him. A live mic he could handle. Simple and safe. He licked his lips, took a long, slow blink, and when he opened his eyes, he knew he owed his manager a major thanks for sticking with him. This was what he needed. A shot of adrenaline to jack up his faded career.
* * *
Lacey stared at the stage with the single spotlight on the lone man. He hitched the guitar strap over his broad shoulder and slunk down onto the bar stool. One hand glided over the strings, the length of his fingers catching her attention, and a tingling hit her in the stomach. He cleared his throat.
And then her knees went weak as his deep baritone danced through the speakers.
"Good evening." Applause followed by cat-whistles. "It's great to be in South Beach with you tonight."
Fifteen years ago, he'd opened for a heavy industry hitter playing at her college, and Lacey remembered how, back then, his voice had woven invisible strings around her twenty-year-old heart. It happened again as he patted his guitar and strummed the opening chords to one of his most popular songs about heartbreak and scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Chills danced along her arms and neck as his husky sound poured into the room. His gaze locked briefly on hers, and for a tenth of a heartbeat, he looked vulnerable. But when he tilted the side of his mouth in a wry smile, she assumed it had been a trick of the light. She blinked, their connection broke, and all traces of nervousness vanished. As she blew out a breath, Chip slapped her on the back.
The manager leaned on the bar. "I knew he could do this."
Any other musician without a brush of makeup would looked washed out under the too-bright circle of light, but even with the steel blue of his eyes hidden behind lowered lids, Lacey's body tightened with want. His sandy hair curled a little too long, giving him just enough desperate bad boy to make her think she could fix him ... and alarm bells blared in the back of her brain, screaming for her to run fast in any other direction.
On stage, Billy shifted to another one of her favorites — about not holding back when at the edge of destiny. His long fingers caressed the strings, and as he sang, something intense flared through his gaze toward the crowd. No question, his deep twang-tinted voice wove a spell on her, but even though he was her college crush, she was a business owner, and he was her temporary headliner. She had no time for silly fantasies.
* * *
At the end of his first set, Billy followed Lacey off stage and into the dressing room for a ten-minute break.
"Holy moly! What a crowd!" Her light eyes, the color of a good beer on tap, assessed him.
He laughed at that. "Sure feels good to be back onstage, even if it is a coffee shop." He shrugged out of his chambray shirt, leaving on his black V-neck. Then he collapsed onto the sofa, finding it surprisingly comfy.
"I'm still shocked the Billy Hardy agreed to headline for my grand opening. You know, since it's not a honky-tonk bar."
It was nice to know she thought he could help her little coffeehouse succeed. But in terms of country music, he might as well be on the moon. Not that he had many other offers. Or any other offer. But wasn't that why he was here — to drum up interest and maybe start writing again? He hadn't written a single word in ten years. Dang writer's block.
"I haven't played in a honky tonk in a decade." He shoved off the sofa. "In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been that guy in a long time." When the color drained from her face, he toned down his defenses. "I'm just looking for a fresh start, so thanks."
"That's what Chip said." She hesitated. "Look, Billy, I'm just grateful you're here for my grand opening. We all have a past, even if yours is a little more colorful."
He scoffed. "Yeah, women and booze kinda came with the game the first time around."
She squirmed and shoved her hands in the rear pockets of her jean skirt. "I think everyone deserves a second chance. This is mine." She gestured around the room. "And because I believe in you, I guess this is your second chance, too."
Now that was a hell of an answer, and an interesting one, too. He made a mental note to find out why she needed a second chance, but focused on the last part of the answer. "You believe in a washed-up country singer?" he quoted one particularly nasty tabloid.
She scoffed as if he was crazy, and that attracted him more than anything else she could've done. "I knew you'd attract attention. All my customers? They're here because of you."
He remembered that part of being almost famous. The fans fawning over him. Unlike Lacey. Hell, as soon as he'd entered, she'd scowled at him and called him out on being late. And damn if he didn't like that about her. He stepped well into her personal space. She shivered and her lips parted, and he caught the faintest scent of espresso. He wanted to kiss her, but he had to remember this was only a temporary gig in his return to a real country stage.
His mouth gave a half smile as he redirected his thoughts. "You never did deliver my coffee, black, like I requested."
* * *
Damn him for his eyes being so blue. But no way would she mix business with pleasure. Billy Hardy was out of her league. If he slept with even half of the women the tabloids claimed ... She cringed. Those magazines lied all the time. Still, she was a lowly café owner, and he clearly saw her as nothing more than someone to bring him coffee.
She cleared her throat. "Stay here while I —"
"— get that coffee?" He sounded hopeful, not patronizing.
"Find Chip. I need to check on things."
She exited the room and dug out her cell. She had two missed calls from her bank manager. Odd that he would call after bank hours, but maybe it was to check on her grand opening. She shoved the cell in her back pocket. She hoped to report promising numbers, but as she stepped from the wing upstage, her heart plummeted. The café had emptied considerably.
Then she caught sight of Chip. He was by the sound booth and had given the college kid she'd hired a CD to play. With an hour until closing, Lacey wanted to get Billy back onstage before everyone left. Maybe it had been a mistake to open on a Monday.
Then the entrance door opened, and though it was dark outside, the lights from the street haloed around his head, and the most important man in her universe entered her coffeehouse.
Blood whooshed to her face, and Lacey swore her hands went numb. He'd actually come to her grand opening. Simon Dimistar, the head of Dimistar Enterprises, was here. In her coffeehouse. In the same room as her. A billionaire. His sharp gaze scanned the room, appraising her domain. Then he frowned and reached into his sleek jacket pocket, retrieving a cell phone. He pressed it to his ear, bent his dark head forward, cupped his other ear. Realization dawned. He couldn't hear the caller.
Cold panic propelled Lacey forward as Simon turned to leave. Though the rational part of her brain realized he probably intended to step outside for a brief instant, the caffeinated side of her anxiously weaved through the crowd. He was two steps from the door, and she was two steps from him. She stretched her arm to touch his back, to get his attention, to let him know she knew he was here.
Just as her fingers brushed the edge of his jacket, a customer slammed into her from behind. She jerked forward, saving herself by shoving Simon with both hands. Unprepared as he was, he stumbled and his cell phone shot out of his hands and smashed quite loudly on the edge of the bar.
The air whooshed from her lungs as she stared in horror at what she'd done. He whirled on her with annoyance clear in his eyes, and she made several attempts at apologizing.
"Simon, Mr. Dimistar, I am so sorry —"
He cut her off with a raised hand. She stopped talking. He bent to retrieve his phone, checked the device, and without one word, stepped outside.
Lacey groaned. Half-empty café, run-in with her potential investor, and two missed calls from the bank. So far, her evening was not going according to plan.
She didn't know how long she stood there, rooted to the spot, but surprise didn't even encompass what she felt when he reentered. He shot her a disapproving look as he passed her, pausing only to glance at the promotional poster of Billy. She pivoted and followed his movement as he strode to the bar.
Frozen with indecision, she literally squeaked when she caught sight of Billy in her peripheral vision. He moved toward her with purpose, and having shucked his plaid shirt, she thought he looked a little less country and a whole lot of rock and roll in the black V-neck. The fabric hugged his biceps and chest, and his fitted shirt hinted at washboard abs underneath. A little corner of her brain gave a subtle sigh.
"Lacey," he drawled, just loud enough to attract Simon's attention.
She cringed. Damn the man for using her name. If only the ground could open up and swallow her whole. Simon's stoic gaze zeroed on her, and his expression revealed his shock at realizing the woman who'd crashed into him was the same one pleading for his money.
"Billy," she said through gritted teeth.
Billy directed his attention to Simon. "I must apologize profusely, sir. I'm always stumbling in my boots, and tonight's no different. Lacey, I'm sorry for bumping into you like that, but I just wanted to know when you wanted me back onstage?"
Bless his late, low-down, sexy-ass heart. Billy Hardy just made himself the fall guy for her stupid clumsiness. At that moment, Lacey would have kissed him if her whole world didn't hinge on Simon and his potentially unwritten check.
"Uh ... um," she stammered. What had he asked?
"Lacey Durant." Simon gave a curt nod as she swiped her sweaty palm on the side of her jean skirt and shook his outstretched hand.
"Simon. Mr. Dimistar." Damn, she hated being flustered. He was probably no more than ten years her senior, didn't look a day over forty, and she didn't know how to address him.
"Simon is fine." His gaze scanned the room as he extended the same hand to Billy. "Billy, did I miss the show?"
Lacey cringed at the implication that her café was almost empty.
Billy pumped Simon's hand once and then grimaced. "I've got one more set."
Lacey waved to a waitress and offered Simon the choice of a long-necked beer or shot of espresso. "Yeah, it was pretty full in here a little bit ago." She slammed her mouth shut. Then, before she could figure out what to say without sounding awkward, she caught sight of her lawyer weaving her way toward them. "Beth!"
Beth tossed her blond curls over her shoulder, a smile pinned on her face as she greeted Simon. "Simon, I'm so glad your assistant received our invitation. Is Tish here?"
"I believe she mentioned stopping by tomorrow afternoon."
Billy touched Lacey's shoulder, and shots of awareness tingled up her arm. In his sexy baritone, he told her, "I'm going to start my final set." He turned to Simon. "Simon, great to meet you, and I apologize again about your phone."
"No harm, no foul." Simon inclined his head in an almost regal way before turning his attention to Beth. "You must be the lawyer Tish met at the spa."
Beth cracked a sly smile. "You must be the guy about to make my friend's dreams a reality."
Simon cleared his throat. "That remains to be seen."
Lacey wanted to cry. Simon had shown up at the least opportune time. Even after Lacey miraculously managed to secure the loan for the coffeehouse, Beth never gave up researching opportunities, and Dimistar Enterprises was known for helping local businesses thrive in South Beach.
Lacey tried to think of something impressive to say, but when she opened her mouth, she blurted, "I can't believe you came." Alone. She had a billionaire standing in her café, giving her lawyer his full attention. At nine o'clock on a Monday night.
"I was on my way home from work," he explained smoothly.
"Oh." Which served as a reminder that if she wanted to succeed, she should expect twenty-hour days.
On stage, Billy adjusted his strap, ran a hand through his hair, and hitched his booted heel on the rung of the stool. With the guitar balanced on his thigh, he shot one heated glance around the room and opened his mouth.
And once again, Lacey's throat clogged and tingles crept up her neck. If she planned to prove she was a solid investment, she needed to put thoughts of her college crush on the back burner. And sleeping with Billy would only make her another notch in his shiny belt buckle.CHAPTER 2
"Welcome to Lacey's Café." Lacey smiled first at Billy, then at Chip. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you boys, but have you seen this?" She slapped the newspaper — an actual paper newspaper — next to Billy's silverware, and he blinked out of his sleep-deprived stupor.
He picked up the paper and frowned. "Crooning for coffee."
Lacey slid into the booth in the back corner of her café. "If only your crooning is what made the headlines. How will my lawyer explain to my potential investor that I'm a reputable business owner? That my café is a solid investment?"
Chip snatched the paper from him. "Don't read trash. I knew we should have eaten breakfast at the hotel. Remind me again why you dragged me here? I could be enjoying eggs Benedict by the pool right about now."
Billy shook his head and breathed in the dark roast. "No. I don't think I slept at all last night, and I'm not chancing another encounter."
"Why not?" Lacey asked. "What encounter?"
"Cheerleaders," Chip said. "Really loud cheerleaders."
Billy swallowed the burning liquid. "Practicing in the hallways all night long."
Chip smiled. "Front desk said it was some college cheerleading camp."
Billy spread cream cheese on a bagel. "And when I tried to order a coffee this morning at the restaurant, some of the girls recognized me. I guess they were here last night. Caught some of my performance."
Lacey's face brightened. "That's wonderful!"
He took a huge bite and chewed, sending the you-tell-her look to his manager.
Chip corrected her. "They hit on him in a major way. Didn't even know him as Billy Hardy, just knew he played here last night."
He swallowed. "So right now I'm a little desperate for some peace and quiet. Which is why we're here."
Excerpted from Reforming the Cowboy by Marisa Cleveland, Kaleen Harding. Copyright © 2013 Marisa Cleveland. 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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