Chapter 1 Scene 1
“I am not drunk enough for this.”
As truly horrific honky-tonk music slammed into her like a freight train, Emerson wished for a shot of something stout and the silence of the recording booth. Emerson almost turned around to go home to Hamilton as the blonde on stage reached the ear-splitting chorus of “Stand By Your Man.” But her boyfriend had blown their plans tonight because of work, and she’d promised Paisley she’d meet her new man. It seemed a shame to waste all the effort she’d put into her appearance for the cancelled date, so she’d dragged herself all the way into Nashville to Lower Broadway.
Weaving her way through the crowd that didn’t seem in the least deterred by the steady drizzle of spring rain, Emerson scanned the bar for familiar brunette curls. As she edged past too many bodies, her phone vibrated. Fishing it out, she saw Fiona Gaffney flash across the screen. Her goddaughter. One of the lights of her life. It was too damned loud to answer now. She’d get this meet and greet over with and call her back on the way home.
“Emmy!” Paisley’s excited squeal reached her, even over the catcalling toward the stage. She materialized out of the throng and looped an arm through Emerson’s. “You came!”
“You did not tell me it was karaoke night. You know how I feel about karaoke.” She had to lean close to be heard over the noise. Bad music aside, Paisley knew she avoided places like this because she had to protect her voice for work.
But her long-time friend didn’t wilt under the accusatory stare. “Oh, don’t be a fuddy duddy.” She began to drag Emerson through the bar. “You need to hear Dustin sing.”
“Please tell me you haven’t latched on to another country music hopeful.” Her excessively romantic best friend had definitely had a type back in college. They’d attended more than their fair share of open mic nights and karaoke competitions in the name of being supportive.
“God no. He’s just got a gorgeous voice.” Paisley winked. “And a really great ass.”
Stopping at a high-top table with a sandy-haired guy in jeans and an untucked black button down, she waved an enthusiastic hand. “Dustin, baby, this is my dearest, darling bestie, Emerson Aldridge. Emerson, my boyfriend, Dustin Phelps.”
Emerson shook his proffered hand and slid onto one of the chairs, sending up a prayer of sincere gratitude as the caterwauling from the stage finally stopped. Why? Why couldn’t they have picked one of the other venues that had actual good music? There were so many to choose from.
Once the waitress had taken her order, Dustin leaned across the table. “So Emerson, what is it you do?”
Yet again she had to lean too close to be heard without shouting. “I’m a voice actor.”
“Yeah? Like, what? Cartoons? Video games?”
“Sometimes. But mostly I do audiobooks.”
He blinked. “So you read for a living.”
She performed entire casts of characters, giving unique voices to each, such that listeners had a well-rounded experience and felt immersed in the story. But sure. They could just reduce her life’s work down to reading. He clearly wasn’t an audiobook listener. A lot of people didn’t understand, and she was not in the proper mood to educate him, particularly as she suspected he wouldn’t last the month once Paisley had her fill.
Did he even know that Paisley wrote romance? If he didn’t, how serious could this relationship be?
One drink. She’d have one drink and visit for a bit, then the social niceties would be discharged and she could go back home to the quiet. As the next pair of singers took the stage for an extremely drunk rendition of “Beer Run,” she knew that would be sooner rather than later. She was absolutely not in the mood for this. But she did her best to engage in conversation during the lulls between singers, listening to Dustin talk about his job as assistant baseball coach for one of the area universities. That explained the nice ass. Nearly a dozen more tone-deaf performers took the stage, each progressively worse than the last. Emerson wondered if blood was leaking from her ears. Where the hell was her drink?
Paisley studied her face. “You are not in a fun-loving-Emerson frame of mind.”
She definitely was not. But that wasn’t Paisley’s fault, and it wasn’t fair of her to spoil the night. Reeling in her lousy mood, she offered an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I’m disappointed that Blaine’s work schedule ruined what was supposed to be a romantic date night. Again. I know he’s trying to make partner, but I’m feeling a bit neglected lately.” The past few months, he’d been so dialed into work. At first, she’d been fine with it. It had given her time to really dig in and expand her own portfolio, making her name known in the industry. But she missed coming out like this with him. Being third wheel was not what she’d had in mind for tonight.
“That sucks. But it’s all the more reason to come out with girlfriends!”
Emerson slid a look over to Dustin, who was scrolling on his phone.
Paisley leaned closer. “Okay, fair point. But we haven’t gotten together in forever. I feel like I never see you anymore since you started dating Blaine.”
The waitress finally came back with her drink, and Emerson pounced on it in the name of buying herself time to find an answer. She had let her friendship slide in the past year since Blaine had come into her life. To some extent that was to be expected with a new relationship, but she could absolutely make more of an effort.
Before she could say as much, she spotted another familiar face across the room and froze.
Surely it wasn’t him.
But even as she watched, Blaine laughed and loosed that megawatt grin she’d seen him whip out at countless meet-and-greet mixers for work. What the hell was he doing at a karaoke bar on Lower Broadway? This wasn’t the kind of networking his firm engaged in. His arm was around the shoulders of another woman. The same one in cling-wrap jeans who’d been butchering Tammy Wynette when Emerson came in.
Paisley followed her gaze. “Is that…Oh shit.”
Blaine hauled the blonde to her toes and planted a smoldering kiss on her mouth.
Emerson was out of her seat and walking over before she could think better of it. She had to be sure. She dodged around tables, circling the room until she came up behind him. He still had his mouth fused to the blonde when she tapped on his shoulder.
His head came up, and the utter shock on his face was all the answer she needed. “Emerson?”
“You had to work?” How many times had he used that excuse and been doing this?
Blaine released the blonde, opening his mouth to make some kind of an explanation, but Emerson just lifted a trembling hand. “Don’t bother. We’re done.”
She needed to get the hell out of here before the reaction set in because, right now, she wasn’t sure if she’d fall apart or utterly lose her shit, and she wasn’t keen on having an audience for either. Eye on the door, she turned.
“Emerson, wait.” Blaine caught her by the arm and jerked her around.
She led with the drink still in her hand, flinging it in his face. “Let me go, you cheating bastard!”
He released her, howling as the alcohol dripped into his eyes. “What the hell!”
Taking advantage of his momentary blindness, she hustled back to the table to grab her purse. Dustin was throwing down some bills, and Paisley was gathering her own things.
“Don’t bother. I’m sorry. I’m going home.”
“Seriously. Y’all stay and enjoy your date. Don’t let me ruin your night, too.” Not waiting for an answer, she pushed through the throng, dimly registering a few “You go girl”s from some of the women on her way to the door.
Outside, she stopped just underneath the awning, sucking in huge breaths of air.
Blaine was cheating on her. And if he was doing it now, he’d probably done it before. She’d made it so damned easy on him, with her homebody tendencies, so often focused on her work, on the books she loved. Content in her little house outside the city proper, away from all the lights, the traffic, the noise. The pressure of all of it pressed in on her as she trudged through the rain back to where she’d left her car. How much had changed in an hour.
She’d been a damned fool.
Her phone began to vibrate again.
If that son of a bitch was going to try to offer excuses, she’d just have to give him a piece of her mind. But the vitriol died on her tongue as she saw Fiona’s name again.
She could hold it together long enough to talk to her. Hell, maybe talking to Fi would keep her distracted and calm until she got home and could fall apart in private.
“Hey honey. I’m sorry I missed your call earlier, I—”
“Is this Emerson Aldridge?” The deep, male voice was so unexpected, she pulled the phone away from her ear to check the display again.
“Yes?” Delayed concern began to set in, sharpening her tone. “Who is this? Where is Fiona?”
“I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”