She's mending guitars and her life. He's trying to forget the war with music. Will one broken instrument make their love a smash hit?
Jenna Olsen isn't sure she'll ever escape her terrible choices in love. Becoming a skilled guitar craftsperson helped with the anxiety, but she dreams of the day when she can trust someone again. When an up-and-coming country star asks for a custom guitar in an impossible time-frame, Jenna falls for the challenge… and the man.
Camden Grace loves his music and adores his fans. His passions help him cope with the physical wounds he sustained in Iraq, but he remains haunted by his fractured family history. After his latest angry outburst leaves an expensive guitar shattered, he doesn't expect to find a strong-willed woman whose struggle echoes his own.
As the instrument and their feelings start to come together, an old would-be flame attempts to sabotage their relationship with increasingly aggressive behavior. Will a jealous rival kill more than their careers or will Jenna and Camden rise above the rage to heal their hearts forever?
Deep in the Heart is a new adult contemporary romance with a melody of music. If you like sizzling chemistry, raw emotions, and wounded heroes, then you'll love Alexa Padgett's compelling novel.
What are readers saying about DEEP IN THE HEART?
Absolutely heartfelt! You'll fall for the characters every bit as much as they fall for each other~USA Today bestselling author Ashelyn Drake
This book packs an emotional punch with raw authenticity and jaggedly broken characters, with all of their demons, trials and struggles conspicuously on display. — Book Addict via Goodreads
Buy DEEP IN THE HEART to strike a chord of love today!
READ AN EXCERPT!
The shop’s outdated brass doorbell tinkled, and I froze, hands hovering over the small black keys of my laptop. Like most of the rest of the shop, the bell was a holdover from the mid-century remodeling done when Austin was just a small town with country music roots. Before South by Southwest—and most of the hot live-music venues—lined Sixth Street, located a mere block from the store.
I strained for another sound. My body tensed further in my seat, unwilling to move, much like a rabbit who’d scented a coyote.
That stupid little bell. Its sweet, tinkling chime remained an unusual occurrence, and one of the reasons I’d agreed to work with my Pop-pop. Interacting for hours on end with people exhausted me still. Even years after I’d been the unwitting—and unhappy—star witness in one of the most significant trials in the country’s history.
Good news: bad people went to jail. I survived. Now, I even flourished. I sighed, still slightly annoyed I’d run back to Austin, a town I’d left, never planning to return.
Footsteps echoed through the front room, tapping a leisurely pace across the hardwood floors. Unfrozen muscles eased. My heart rate sped up as I rose and rounded my desk, cursing Pop-pop’s dental appointment. I was even worse at customer service than I was at idle chitchat. But as the sole employee—correction, co-owner—in the building, my responsibility was to the customer. Didn’t mean I had to like it.
I grabbed one of Pop-pop’s faded red flannel squares and gripped it in my palm. A throwback to the Depression, he said, though why I wasn’t quite sure. Pop-pop was born at the start of World War II, so it wasn’t like the man lived through those days. Yet, even now, the man wouldn’t toss anything—and I mean one little wrapper—if he thought he could reuse it.
I stumbled to a stop and squeezed the cloth, trying hard not to hyperventilate. Of all the days… Of all the people… Dammit, this was why I’d attended college in Seattle. That, and to prove to my family I was strong enough to be on my own.
“Ben,” I said, my voice small. My shoulders folded in.
The look Ben gave me now caused shudders to roll up my spine. He swiveled around to face me, his whiskey-brown eyes widening then narrowing as a smirk drifted over those perfect, sculpted lips.
“Hey, there, little girl,” he said. I hated his drawl near as much as the fact he’d called me “little girl” since high school. “Heard tell you were in some music magazine.”
“Not the first time,” I shot back. The thing about Ben was never to show fear. Never back down. He craved the rush of overpowering me emotionally, physically.
He leaned in. “So I was told. But, see, none of the old crowd knew you were back.”
My heart thumped in a painful, erratic rhythm against my ribs. That was intentional. I didn’t want to hang around Ben or Robbie or any of the other shallow people I’d surrounded myself with all those years before.
I gripped the piece of flannel even tighter in my fist as I threw my shoulders back, giving him my haughtiest stare-down. Not easy to do when he had a good six inches on me.
“Well, here I am. Now, will you please leave?” I asked.
His eyes darkened, and his expression collapsed into an angry sneer. There’s the Ben I remembered.
“Don’t think I will just yet, Princess. I want to see more, and I’m the customer, so you need to help me find what I’m looking for.”
He missed my glare because he glanced around, his lip curling as he eyed the small shop. Of course, Ben, being the preppy baseball player he was—wanted to believe he still was if the gossip I’d heard was true—wouldn’t recognize the quality or value of the instruments surrounding him, either in monetary value or prestige. Just walking into this shop was a privilege many musicians longed for but couldn’t afford.
Ben, like Robbie and the rest of the people I used to hang out with who I used to consider relevant, knew nothing of this world. He lived baseball. Had all through high school and college, too. Both boys’ dedication to the sport meant I spent little time with Robbie, my boyfriend during our senior year.
Robbie’s hard work earned him the starting position at second base at the University of Texas while Ben typically rode the bench. I’d heard through a convoluted grapevine that Ben was cut from his minor league team this year, which explained his sudden interest in me.
He’d always needed someone else to beat up on to feel good.
Why had I ever hung out with this guy?
Because he was best friends with my boyfriend—the only boy I could see, would ever love—all that lame shit so common in seventeen-year-old girls who hadn’t lived enough to know better. Know anything, really.
The years I’d put into this shop, my reputation, mattered. I was proud to work here, proud that people wanted one of my guitars. Proud to be written up in some of the top industry magazines and of the shelf of awards I accrued.
“I can’t believe I once screwed someone who works in a guitar shop,” Ben said, pulling me out of my daydream where I kicked him in the crotch. “I thought, with your parents and your looks, you’d accomplish something with your life, Jenna. These are nice, for instruments. I should get one.”
Ben peered around, then raised his eyebrows and gestured at it. “Why isn’t there a price tag?”
I swallowed back the snort. “Because it’s a custom-made guitar that took six months to build.”
“Are you saying I can’t afford it?” he said. Yeah. That, and, more importantly, my grandfather would never sell one to him.
“Most of these are spoken for,” I said, refusing to be drawn into a verbal sparring match. Those exhausted me almost as much as being friendly to Ben.
The bell tinkled again.
Twice in less than ten minutes. This barrage of people was not okay.
I needed to hire someone to handle all this.
I blinked away the dizziness. I needed to eat. I needed my pills. I needed to get into my workshop and away from Ben and the ugly memories he evoked.
“Look, we don’t have anything in common anymore,” I said. “As you just pointed out. I make guitars, and you want to play pro ball.” Best to pretend I didn’t know he’d been removed from the roster, thanks to his bad attitude and escalating violence toward his teammates. That would just make him meaner. And harder to get rid of.
“We’re like…corn and toads,” I finished. That didn’t make much sense. Half of what I said didn’t make sense, especially when I was stressed.
I finally caught a glimpse of the new customer. Tall. Taller than Ben, and broader, too. His dark hair was short on the sides but tousled on top. His slightly ratty T-shirt hugged him tighter than a jealous lover. Most of the time, tight tees meant men with big egos. Not my thing.
He turned toward me, and I sucked in a breath, squeezing that piece of flannel as if it alone would keep me upright. Holy shit on sugar toast, this man was pretty.
No. That was the wrong word. This man’s eyes, much warmer and a lighter brown than Ben’s, caught mine and held. I’d already cataloged the rest of his face: a couple days of scruff shadowed his firm chin and square jaw, full lips—not as full as Ben’s bee-stung ones, slashing dark brows, and warm tanned skin. The bridge of his nose thickened in the same way my older brother Jude’s had after he’d broken it in a football accident ten years ago.
“Hey. I’m talking to you.” Ben grabbed my wrist.
“I’m done listening.” I twisted my arm, trying to wriggle from his hold. Ben’s fingers tightened to the point of numbing my fingers. He leaned into my personal space and used my captured hand to pull me forward until my chest was practically laying on the wood counter.
Nope, nope, nope.
I gripped the bat—I called him Gerald because…well, no good reason. I just thought my bat needed a name. I’d leaned my bat buddy against the cabinets earlier, and now I hefted the substantial weight as I brought it up, the end shoving hard against Ben’s chest.
“I said I’m done.”
He squeezed my wrist tighter and leaned into the bat. “We’re finished when I say—”
Sweet baby Jesus in a peach tree. I regripped the bat, planning to take a swing.
“What’s going on here?” the newcomer asked. His voice, all gravelly and rich, washed over me. “You all right there, miss?”
I yanked my arm, twisting, as I shoved the bat harder into Ben’s chest. Ben let go of me, and I stumbled back. My piece of flannel dropped to the counter.
“You need to leave,” I said.
Ben scowled at my look, so I turned my attention to the second man. My gaze locked on my new customer, trying to place him. He was older than me by a few years—late twenties, early thirties, I’d bet—and his jeans were worn in that sexy, I-work-hard way no type of washing could replicate. Now that he faced me, I saw his T-shirt said ARMY. An excellent look for him, especially when paired with—swoon!—scuffed motorcycle boots.
Who was he? I should know him; I knew I should.
His gaze never wavered from mine but, somehow, I knew he was keeping tabs on the rest of the store at the same time. He stepped forward again, getting between Ben and me.
His gait hitched as if he had a stiff leg. While uneven, he had the tread of a predator. Too young for the arthritis Pop-pop fought off each morning. I shivered with delicious anticipation for his voice.
“Y’all good here?” the man said.
I flinched at the bite in his tone. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Wait, now the stranger glared at Ben.
“Hey, there. What can I help you with?” I said.
“He bothering you?”
I plastered on a smile, deciding to stick to honey instead of the vinegar I wanted to spew all over Ben. “He was, but it’s all sorted now. Everything’s fine. Do you have an appointment?”
“Yep. I’m here to meet with the younger Olsen ‘bout a new guitar.”
“Looking at her,” I said, shooting for the upbeat personality most people expected me to wear.
The guy’s brows drew together tight, and he shook his head. “Huh. Didn’t expect a woman. Got the sense from your…grandfather?” I nodded, and he continued, “That I’d be meeting someone older—and nowhere near as pretty.” He smiled.
“I’m Jenna.” I stuck out my hand, and the man clasped it in his larger one. His palm was rough, almost abrasive. Not that mine were the soft white wonders they’d been while I was at Northern University. No, my hands now were used to cut, shape, and smooth wood, work I found soothing.
He turned my hand and studied the redness on my wrist from Ben’s harsh treatment.
“You do this to the gal here?” he asked in a low rumble that sounded like trouble.
Shocker of shocks, I liked this man’s hand touching mine. Like, a lot. Strange, especially after my rejection of Ben. Ben’s gaze bored into the side of my head, and my cheeks flushed at both men’s continued scrutiny.
“I asked you a question,” he said to Ben. His voice was deep, near as rough as his palm. I liked that, too. Mainly because he sounded nothing like Ben.
“I don’t owe you nothing,” Ben said, sullen but also wary like he, too, was trying to place this man.
“My body guard’s outside,” he said, tilting his head back a little. “Should I get him?”
“You are the country music star, Camden Grace.” Ben smiled like a bright penny. “What are you doing here?”
That’s where I’d seen him—practically everywhere since I’d returned to the city. Camden Grace was Austin’s hometown darling. Born on a ranch just west of Lake Travis, Camden Grace had crooned his way to the top of the country charts by his mid-twenties. His first album had to be…oh…five years ago. Since then, he’d strummed out a dozen multi-platinum singles and two more full-length albums, and, in the last couple of weeks, some bad press.
“Need a new guitar,” Camden rumbled. “J. Olsen’s are the best.”
My fingers tingled as my hand slipped from Camden’s. I clenched my fist, trying to ignore my attraction. To Camden Grace. Pile up the pepperoni and dive right in; I was always attracted to the worst of the male species.
“I love your music, sir.” Ben’s voice took on the excitement of a small, yappy puppy.
“Can’t say I like your treatment of Miss Olsen here much,” Cam grunted. “Why don’t you skedaddle before you get yourself in a heap of trouble?”
Ben’s scowl returned. Uh oh. I knew that look. Ben didn’t take well to being ordered around. He’d always been the Bantam rooster in our circle, needing to preen and peck away at others to keep himself at the top of the hen house. I’d have to watch out for Ben’s retaliation, which would be swift…and cause me more emotional distress. My hand gripped the bat tighter.
“I didn’t see you on the schedule,” I said in a rush, trying to diffuse the situation before Ben could escalate it and cost us business. “But I’m glad to walk you through your options, Mr. Grace.”
He leaned his hip against the counter and crossed his arms over his broad chest. Standing there, he dwarfed Ben. But it wasn’t just the size difference. There was a watchfulness in Camden’s eyes, an awareness of danger that Ben, with his soft, privileged life, would never have.
“Right.” I turned back to Ben. “I’ll need to ask you to leave so I can work with my client.”
Ben’s scowl deepened, his hands clenching into fists.
Cam dipped his head to acknowledge a large man now peering through the glass. Sunglasses covered his eyes, but his crossed arms meant no-nonsense. His brown hair was buzzed short, and his arms showed off well-defined biceps.
The man opened the door and strode in like he owned the place. “You all right?” he asked Cam. He sounded like a bear—even deeper and growlier than Cam and without that melodic quality.
“This man doesn’t want to leave the premises even though the lady’s asked so nicely.”
I dropped my gaze and bit the inside of my lip to keep from smiling. Polite might be as far as I’d take my request. Nice shouldn’t signify—in part because Ben never deserved kindness. Not from me, anyway.
Ben’s expression darkened as he looked between us. “I’m going. I’ll be back.”
“I hope not,” I said. “In fact, I’d prefer not to see you again.”
Ben leaned back into my personal space and said, “We have unfinished business.”
I turned back to Cam, ignoring Ben. “So, what are you looking for, Mr…um, Cam?”
My shoulders unbunched when Ben strode from the shop, the door slamming loud enough to make me jump. Cam’s bodyguard wandered forward, placing himself near the glass door, probably so Ben knew he was being watched.
“Not your favorite person?” he asked.
Man, that rough voice sent shivers up and down my spine. Tingles upon tingles danced across my skin. I looked away to cover my reaction.
“Let’s focus on your guitar.”
“It’s not my business,” Cam said. He ran his index finger over the redness around my wrist. “And I get you don’t want me to pursue him being here further, but he hurt you.”
My gaze slammed back to his, eyebrows arched in shock.
“Fear rolled off you when I stepped in here. You don’t like him.”
I shrugged, unwilling to comment on my nonexistent relationship to a stranger—more, a rich and famous customer. “I don’t.”
“You need anything else, Cam?” the bodyguard asked.
Cam raised his eyebrows at me. When I didn’t answer, he said, “I think we’re okay now, Chuck. Just…keep an eye out, will ya?”
“I’ll hang out here.”
“I’ll get you a chair,” I said as I turned toward the back. I still gripped my bat. I set it down in the corner, trying to be unobtrusive.
“No need, ma’am.”
My steps stuttered at the address—I was twenty-four! I couldn’t be a ma’am yet. Whatever. More significant issues to focus on, Jenna. Like staying calm. Icing my throbbing wrist.
“You sure?” I asked.
Chuck nodded. He turned toward the door and crossed his arms. While he looked relaxed, his eyes continued to rove the parking lot. With his big body, short hair, and all-seeing eyes, I’d bet he was former military.
I ran my hands down my thighs and closed my eyes, taking a moment to realign my world—and my place in it.
“Want to come on back, Mr. Grace?”
“Told you, it’s Cam. And sure. My leg’s not interested in standing today.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry! I saw you limping…”
“Shrapnel. From a bomb in the sandbox.” At my look of askance, he said, “Iraq.”
Golly gee green jelly beans. He played guitar and he was a wounded war vet? I’d missed plenty of details about Camden Grace—probably because I’d never been that into country music even when I lived here during high school.
“You were in the army?”
He raised a brow. “Army Ranger at your service, ma’am.” His scowl darkened. “Medically retired, though, thanks to my bum leg.” For the first time, he appeared uncertain. Lost, even. “Been a long time now.”
I motioned him to the back and he moved slower this time, concentrating on each step from his right leg.
“Bad, then? The shrapnel?” I said, gesturing to his leg.
“Took out a chunk of muscle. Never going to win any beauty contests.”
I held out a chair and he settled in, wincing. I wasn’t so sure—he was beautiful. But he was also a customer, and Ben’s physical attack created a severe case of freaking out…which, come to think of it, I hadn’t done any of since we started talking. Huh.
I pulled another piece of flannel from my back pocket and twisted it. I needed to take my pills.
I blinked, then flushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“That’s the second time you’ve gotten that look in your eye. What did that flannel ever do to you?”
I laughed, but it was a flat, hollow sound.
“You going to tell me if I need to beat up that kid who was in here before? What I saw—he harassed you.”
This time, I smiled with actual warmth. “No, but thank you. Ben and I have a history.”
“Got that. What I don’t get is why you didn’t kick him in the balls like you wanted to.”
“It’s not his balls I want to drop kick to Saturn,” I said, mostly to myself. “That leaves too much of him here.”
“Ah. There’s a bit of humor. Sass suits you.”
“Right.” I cleared my throat and settled into my desk, pulling out a paper and pad. “So. A new guitar?”
Cam scratched his cheek, the whiskers making a raspy sound. “Yeah. I busted the last one.”
“Well, if you bring it in, we can repair it.”
The ruddy stain of embarrassment crept up his neck and crested his cheeks. “Not this one. I—ah—smashed it.”
I jerked back, my mouth falling slack. Pop-pop’s guitars were expensive, even for a wealthy country singer. Dropping ten grand—or more—to bust a guitar, especially one as beautiful as my grandfather’s, was a shame.
“Things got a little carried away on the bus, and I took out my temper on the guitar.”
He pronounced it the Texan way: gi-tar. I liked that, too. Oddly. I wasn’t much for an accent of any kind, preferring the men I dated to be as vanilla as possible. Not that I’d dated much—at all—since I’d lived in Seattle. Being a star witness in a trial was hard on anonymity. Being the woman who slept with the drug dealer… I hadn’t known Charles dealt drugs at the time, but that didn’t make me look any better in the media.
My hand shook and I blinked multiple times, trying to keep my mind here in the present.
Pre-pills was not the time to think about love, romance, and the lack of sex in my life.
I dug around in my purse and pulled out my pill case. I dumped the two capsules in my hand before dropping them onto my tongue. Then I opened my yogurt smoothie and drank most of it down along with the pills.
Cam watched me, questions building in his eyes. I ignored them as I placed my pill box back in my bag and then shut it in my desk drawer.
“That bothers you. Me busting the instrument.”
“Yes,” I said.
He rubbed his hand over his lip and swung his left leg forward and back, like a pendulum. I kept my gaze fixed there, unable to meet his eyes.
“I’m not violent. Usually.”
I picked up my pencil and tapped it on my pad in front of me. “This new instrument. Got any idea what you’re interested in?”
“First I need to address your concerns.” He waited until I looked him in the eye. “I found out my father died.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“I handled the news poorly. He and I…” Cam sighed, dropped his gaze and rubbed the back of his neck. “As you said, my father and I had a history. Not all good. If it makes you feel any better, I regret my reaction. I regret busting my guitar, and I regret having to call your grandfather to tell him what I did.”
“Buried my father two weeks ago. Held my mother through the funeral.”
What to say? No words came.
Cam sighed. “All right. Down to business. Something flashy. It’s going to be my new stage guitar.” A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I’ve been asked to perform at Fort Bliss. For the Fourth of July concert they’re putting together.”
I’d read an article about Camden Grace headlining the Soldier Celebration tour. All the proceeds from the event went to war veterans and their families. I approved of that cause. But one of the reporters sniped earlier this week that the performance was supposed to help rebuild Cam’s deteriorating reputation. “That’s in just a few weeks.”
His eyebrow shot up and there was the entitled jerk the world loved to hate. “That a problem?”
I sat up straighter, met his eyes. “Yes,” I said. “I’m booked.”
He leaned in a little closer as he smiled, flashing those damn adorable dimples as his eyes lit up. Confidence. Best aphrodisiac ever.
Of course, he knew he was hella sexy. The man graced magazine covers, billboards.
“Your grandfather spoke highly of your skill, your work ethic. Said if anyone could make me a guitar that sings sweeter than Faith Hill, it was you.”
“It’s not a question of if I can make you a custom guitar,” I began.
“Actually, it is.”
He leaned in a little closer. I smelled caramel as his warm breath slid over my skin.
“Unfortunately, creating a quality instrument is a process,” I managed to say without growling. I’d just dealt with Ben. No way I was letting another man push me around. “My name is attached to your instrument. I only allow the highest quality to leave this building.”
Cam settled back on his stool and eyed my hands. “I understand a need for perfection.” His gaze rose to mine and the heat in his eyes slammed back through me. “Me, I’m all about it. In fact, that drives my team crazy.” He settled his elbows on his thighs and leaned forward again, using that sexy-as-sin face to his advantage. “This is about what your pop-pop said you could do for me. And the fact I’m looking for a perfect-for-me instrument that I plan to boast about at my concert and for the rest of my career. So, question is, can you help me out so I can help you out?”
Her eyebrow shot up and fire leaped into her eyes. Eyes that had been wary when I walked in now screamed confidence, competition, irritation, and…yeah, hot, steamy sex.
This woman was too cute. I mean, she was beautiful with all that thick, silky blond hair and big blue eyes, but she faded from professional and even a bit sassy to unsure, which she covered up with the right amount of composure.
Hell if I wasn’t still a sucker for a gal in need of a thick arm and a strong back. I had both of those and, as my dad liked to point out, I offered them to ladies in distress.
I frowned. Hadn’t worked out well with Kim. I laced my fingers and dropped my hands between my knees so Jenna wouldn’t see them shake. Did a number on me and my family. And fool that I was, I missed all the signs.
Like most of the world, I knew Jenna’s name because she’d been the central witness in one of the most-watched litigations of our times. Talk about notoriety.
The girl who didn’t die. That was the headline I’d hated then and still found disgusting now.
At least my reputation was well-deserved. Sort of. I destroyed a twelve-thousand dollar instrument two weeks ago, so, yeah, I deserved the digs at my character. But Jenna…from the reports that came out in the trial, she’d been a pawn. In military terms, higher-ups called her hospitalization “collateral damage.”
I hated that term near as much as I hated anything that might take the fire, the confidence from this young lady’s pretty eyes. Protective instincts locked into full engagement. This time, my need to keep this gal safe had nothing to do with her stunning looks. Almost nothing.
Dammit. She was too much for me to take in. If I didn’t need this new instrument so bad, I’d limp on out of here. As Chuck said, I reaped what I sewed. Smashing up everything on my bus that night proved damn stupid.
Better than turning to booze again.
Hadn’t tried those yet, though I’d been tempted a few times. Mighty tempted after Kim. Good. Jenna was talking and I could leave my own damn, messed-up head.
“You’re right, your backing will help my career.” She sighed, and I could practically see her counting hours in the day. “I’ll look up the design for your last guitar and start recreating that.”
“Don’t want another one of those. I want something you design and create.” I waved my hand to the main area of the shop where twenty or so instruments hung from hooks or sat in stands.
She narrowed her eyes, probably thinking I was hitting on her. Maybe I was. “Okay. What do you want?”
“You make anything flashy?”
Her lips flipped up like she couldn’t believe I asked the question. “Sure. I just shipped guitars to Hayden Crewe and Asher Smith.”
“Those guys don’t play to your kind of fan, though. Their stage guitars needed to be extreme. Hmm, Dane Klein uses one of my designs. He’s a member of Lummi Nation—an alt-country band that’s closer to your genre.”
“Holy cow,” I said with a smile. “You only named some of the best musicians on the planet.”
Jenna grinned. “There are a few others here in various stages of completion. Jake Etsam asked me to make him a bass. And I have a few other orders, but I’m not at liberty to give out those names or specs.”
This gal didn’t just wake up with that kind of client list. I might not know much about making a guitar, but I knew the process was meticulous and time-consuming. I also knew she hadn’t been back in Austin that long. Less than three years. “Show me some of yours?”
She rose and strode from the room. Her eyes dripped wariness, jerking from my eyes to my hands to anything not related to me, but her gait was smooth as warm oil over hot steel. Damn, she could swing those hips. Best part, the grace was innate, subconscious. Sexy as…
“So, here’s one I finished earlier this week. The second one is for Clay Rippey. He’s also a member of Lummi Nation—”
“Band based in Seattle. Plays with Dane Klein, who you mentioned a minute ago.”
She blinked in surprise. “I have a few others if you don’t like these.”
I took the first one she held out, her light blue eyes darkening further to a stormy near gray as I took the instrument. The color of Lake Travis on an overcast day.
Fantastic. I was waxing poetically about this woman. Hadn’t been so interested in anyone since…well, since Kim.
Time to puzzle over my reaction later. For now, I focused on the instrument she handed me. The wood was smooth, the neck formed from a darker tone than the body or headstock, which were still richer than the typical maple. Mahogany or something like that. The guitar itself was more substantial than my current one—scratch that, the one I used to have. Not heavy or clunky but solid. I wrapped my fingers around the neck and strummed. A rich F-chord filled the space.
“The resonance here is amazing,” I murmured. I strummed again, head tilted toward the sound chamber. I nodded my head as I played A, then C.
“Nice. I like this one’s sound. And the heft. What’s it made of?” I traded her the guitar I held for the other instrument. It had a wider body and was made of the more traditional woods. She seemed to brace herself for the exchange.
My chest tightened as I watched her hands shake.
Did she fear me? Because I’d told her I busted my guitar?
Our fingertips brushed. Heat flashed up my arm and coiled tight in my belly. I raised my eyes to hers and swallowed.
Her cheeks flushed and she licked her lips.
Well, now. Much better than fear. This kind of reaction I could work with.
“The first one is alder. With a walnut stain.”
“Basswood with a maple overlay. The sides and back are Madagascar rosewood and the fingerboard inlays are sea glass I found on Alki Beach. That’s in Seattle.”
I studied the small, milky green inlays. A lovely, custom touch that would mean something to the owner. The effort she’d gone to, even if this was a custom guitar, surprised me. “You seem young to be a guitar maker.”
Absolute wrong words to try to ease the tension building between us. Her back snapped straighter than my former drill sergeant’s and her eyes cooled.
“I enjoy the process. It’s soothing and rewarding. I can’t say that about many other jobs.”
“Not many women choose to make guitars. There’s another family place out in North Carolina, I think. She used to be some kind of fancy rocket scientist or something until she got bit by the bug.”
Jenna turned away to settle the first guitar into its stand with inordinate care. “I’m not a rocket scientist.”
“But one helluva guitar maker.” I strummed this instrument. “That sounds mighty fine. You really only been doing this a couple of years?”
“Full time for almost three. But I apprenticed with Pop-pop from the time I was twelve.”
I never planned to tell Jenna her grandfather spoke about her at length one of the times I was in the shop—back before she started. Her grandfather liked me for some reason, and I didn’t mind listening to him prattle on, so long as I could sit and watch him work.
I had a feeling Jenna wouldn’t like that, and I wanted her to be comfortable around me. Better, I wanted her to want to spend time with me.
I was thirty-one. Too old for this visceral, shaking-in-my-boots reaction to a woman.
Jenna offered me an electric model this time, and I avoided touching her fingers because even that minimal contact lit me up like a sparkler on Fourth of July. The guitar’s body was sleek, a streamlined take on the traditional body shape. I smiled at the Swarovski crystals inlaid in an intricate snowflake pattern.
I strummed again, perturbed by the thoughts racing through my head. Yeah, I wanted Jenna. At least the chance to get to know her better. Kiss those berry-red lips and stroke my thumbs down her supple neck.
“Do you have a buyer for this one?” I asked.
Jenna nodded, her cheeks pink.
“Anyone I’d know?”
Her cheeks brightened but she nodded again. “You’ll see her play it at South by Southwest.”
“But you won’t tell me who?”
She met my eyes. I liked looking at her. “Client privilege.”
“Didn’t seem to matter with the other names you dropped,” I said, raising my eyebrow.
Jenna’s smile softened, her eyes brightening. “Kai, Clay, and Dane are good friends. Asher, Hayden, and the rest are willing to let me build my reputation on theirs.”
I nodded as I picked out a song, trying to curb my runaway thoughts. Glancing up I caught Jenna’s wide-eyed stare. Lifting my head fully, I stared at the transformation in her face. She started when I stopped playing, her hand rising to brush a long strand of blond hair back from her cheeks, her eyes shuttering and her mouth snapping shut.
“That’s a beautiful tune.”
I smiled, pride puffing out my chest. “Wrote it during my second tour in the sandbox.”
She settled on the other side of a paper-strewn desk. “Iraq.”
I nodded, pleased she’d remembered.
Jenna leaned forward, watching my fingers work the frets. “How many tours did you do?”
“Too many.” I forced my hands to loosen on the guitar. No need to break her pretty instrument because I had head issues. Even all these years later. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a Werther’s. I popped the candy into my mouth, letting the cool, hard caramel slick over my tongue and envelop my mouth, soothing the growing dread in my stomach that always came when I spoke of those years.
Candy in, I plucked out another tune, losing myself in the melody. Music helped, just like my psychologist predicted. Some days, music was the only defense, the only reason I was still sane. Well, music and sugar—either Werther’s or of the female variety. Both were sweet and satisfying. At least briefly.
“Thank you for your service,” she said, head still bowed.
Lip service. I hated that shit. Not the sentiment. I appreciated that I was a vet of a war people might hate but that they treated us soldiers with dignity. After all, I’d chosen to enlist at nineteen, hoping that choice would finally make my father proud of me. Within a few years, after the mess with Kim, combat was the only thing in my life that made sense. Until it broke me, mentally and physically, and all I had left was Werther’s and music. I bit into the candy, but it didn’t ease the tension building in my chest.
I handed the instrument to her and shifted in the seat. My calf ached from sitting. Hell, it always ached—not that I’d tell anyone. Never had. Didn’t plan to start now. Probably always would. And I was a lucky devil—most of me was still, well, me. Couldn’t say that about many of my former brothers-in-arms.
I didn’t miss the adrenaline or fear like some of my buddies. The camaraderie, sure. Going from bunking with my men to being alone in a dark room at night left way too much time for reflection. And nightmares.
I stood abruptly, needing to do something with the nervous energy building in my legs.
“I like this one.” I pointed to the second one I’d played. The acoustic alder wood. Clay’s.
“All right.” She tapped a pencil against the paper. “And you know our pricing policy?”
“You’re not concerned about the fees?”
“You mean the fact I just held ten-grand worth of instrument in my lap?”
She met my gaze. “That one’s closer to fifteen.”
“But I said I’d give a nice discount because he’s such a good repeat customer.” Mr. Olsen strode in the back door and shot me a stern look. “And this guitar’s for his performance for soldiers. Which he’s promised not to bash against a metal floor or anything else metal. Ever.”
Next to Mr. Olsen was a man about twenty, twenty-five years younger. Mr. Olsen was tall but with the start of stooped shoulders and a thick, shocking mane of white hair longer than mine. Age spots lined his thin-skinned hands and the sagging skin on his neck, but his eyes were bright and sharp. The younger man could only be his son—and Jenna’s father, I’d bet.
Mr. Olsen junior stepped into the shop and walked around me to hug his daughter. After he gave her a quick peck on the cheek, he pulled back and looked me over. Yeah, I got I wasn’t good enough for his precious baby girl. Didn’t mean I didn’t want those lovely lips pressed to mine.
“You coming to dinner this weekend?” the younger Mr. Olsen asked as he stepped back from Jenna.
She nodded and smiled. “Sure, Dad. I’d love to spend some time with you and Mom.”
“Good, good. She’ll like that. How about you text us the best day?”
“I will.” Jenna hugged him one more time while the elder Olsen peered at the guitars next to me, nodding his head as pride lit his rheumy eyes.
Jenna’s father walked back out the door with a last wave to his daughter and Mr. Olsen greeted his granddaughter with a kiss on her cheek. Close-knit family.
“Morning, dove. Glad to see you taking care of Cam here. I didn’t get a chance to tell you about his appointment since he didn’t call me until last night.”
I enjoyed Mr. Olsen’s company because he didn’t ask a lot of questions, didn’t judge me harshly—even when I deserved to be derided. As I did in this case. I’d intentionally set out to destroy one of his hand-made guitars. Rage and pain were no excuse, and I didn’t plan to make any. Nor was the fact I’d run out of Werther’s—not just in my pockets but on the bus.
I’d rather the world believe I was an angry son-of-a-gun than an ex-soldier full of self-doubt in need of sugar confections to get me through emotionally-charged moments like these past two weeks since I learned my father died.
Jenna’s eyes brightened at the sight of her grandfather, and her whole face softened, including those moody eyes. Like the sun coming out after days of cold, gray skies, I felt an answering tug to my lips.
Damn, she had a way about her.
“Hey, Pop-pop. Missed you for coffee this morning. Had to ring the sugar bell alone. Nowhere near as fun.”
He hung up his coat before coming over to shake my hand. His grip was firm, his fingers rougher and more callused than mine.
“My granddaughter taking care of you, son?”
“She’s been showing me the instruments she made. I want one like this.” I pointed to the satin-smooth finished dark wood guitar I’d played second.
Mr. Olsen beamed. “A man of good taste. That’s a mighty fine one. Jen here will make you one hell of an instrument. Clarity as close to the angels as we can get.”
Jenna’s cheeks pinked, but she smiled again. “We do good work, Pop-pop. No reason to go over the top.”
“You’re making better quality instruments than me.” Mr. Olsen raised his hands to show his fingers starting to claw and gnarl with arthritis and age. “She’s got an eye for detail you won’t find anywhere else, Camden, son.”
Mr. Olsen was the only man outside my family to call me Camden. My dad used to, years ago, as he slipped his belt through the loops of his Wranglers. I hated the word—and its association—for years. I popped another candy into my mouth. Thinking about my father’s reaction is what got me into this mess. I needed to let all that shit go.
“Did she show you the detail in it?” Mr. Olsen asked, pointing to the guitar I wanted. “It’s going to a rocker friend of hers in Seattle. He wanted something of home in it, so she found and polished up that sea glass. Took her hours to get each one the same size and smoothness. And look at the back.” Jenna flipped it over. Slight color deviations showed a subtle wave pattern.
“He needs it in less than six weeks,” Jenna said, annoyance threading her voice.
I handed her back the guitar before I shoved my hands in my pockets and rolled back on my heels, ignoring the pain shooting down into my calf.
“No, darlin’, that’s when the concert is. I need the guitar before so I have time to get to know the instrument. Feel comfortable with it and all that.” I swallowed my second piece of candy and smiled, infusing it with all the boyish charm I’d long since lost. But, for some reason, the gals still assumed I had an ounce of decency left in me.
After what Kim did—after I took her deception out on my father, my family—how could I?
Jenna leaned forward enough for her light scent to drift into my nose. I sighed, my tensed shoulders relaxing. The light above shone through the delicate shell of her ear, highlighting the curve of her cheekbone, the plump, red bottom lip.
She was beautiful. Sexy without effort. No wonder the punk kid wanted her—and he did want her—which worried me.
I shifted, trying to ease the ache building in my groin. I wanted Jenna. Bad, if I were honest with myself.
Wrong though it might be, if I could talk Jenna into a roll in the sheets between meetings for my new instrument, I would. Not because I didn’t respect the hell out of Mr. Olsen. I did. Not because I didn’t know he’d never let me back in his shop or purchase another of his amazing guitars when I broke his granddaughter’s heart. Got that, too.
Jenna stood up and met my gaze with those wide, wary eyes. My eyes dropped to her berry-tinted lips. For the first time in years, I yearned for a woman. Might even be compelled to write a song about her.
This zing of anticipation coiled through me, keeping my mind out of the recurring loop: those bad months in the sandbox, off Kim and my father. If Jenna could distill my focus this well just by being in the same room, then what could she do to quiet my mind when I touched her? I might sleep more than a few hours before the nightmares came.
If I could talk her into spending time with me. Hell, I’d take anything she’d give me—even if that were just sitting in the shop while she built my guitar. This moment of quiet was that unusual. More, it was precious.
Time to cut and run.
“Why don’t y’all talk it over? Worst case scenario, I can always play my old guitar.” No way Mr. Olsen would let me play that when his name could flash in the bright lights at this gig. You’re a manipulator, Camden, my father’s voice boomed in my head. A manipulator who doesn’t care who he hurts so long as his vision is met. That’s not just bad behavior, it’ll turn you into a cheat. And I didn’t raise a cheat, boy.
“Oh, we can get you what you need, son.”
Jenna straightened, clearly not liking her grandfather stepping in for her. “I’ll make sure you get a guitar you’re happy with. But I’m going to hold you to keeping it in pristine condition.”
I smiled a little. Smart one, this gal. Maybe she wasn’t all sugar.
“That’s a practice guitar. Nothing too fancy. In fact, I helped your Pop make it. I like to use my hands.” I winked at her, intentionally leaving off the fact I’d been an absolute mess when I first showed up here nearly five years ago. Mr. Olsen took pity on me, telling me stories of his time in Korea, how much he missed Jenna’s grandmother. The changes in his thought process that took years of distance—and therapy via working with wood—to come to peace with.
The guitar Jenna mentioned had a beautiful sound because Mr. Olsen ensured it did, but he’d made me craft the exterior to help me get past the worst of my demons. I came into the shop every day for five months. The final effort wasn’t fit for public consumption, but that guitar was an extension of me—and my struggle to get back to some semblance of normalcy.
“He’s right, dove. Cam and I built that instrument together. We made a deal he’d never perform with it. It’s not…how do I say this?”
“It’s ugly as sin but sounds more beautiful than any angel’s voice.”
Mr. Olsen chuckled and shook his head. “Summed it up well, there, son.”
I smirked, my eyes shifting back to Jenna. “Appreciate it, sir.”
“So, we’ll make you a pretty one fit for the stage,” Mr. Olsen said with a smile.
Still not quite sure why the older man seemed to like me, I smiled back, glad for the approval. One of the hardest realities with being an NCO Ranger team leader at the ripe old age of twenty-one was I was the buck and most decisions for my guys—especially mistakes—stopped with me. But I was no one’s team leader these days, and I was a hella long way from a fresh-faced kid now. The mileage of these past years roughened me up and tired me out.
“Since you live in Austin, we can touch base pretty easily. And now that Jenna has a sense of your style, she and I need to go through our wood supply and develop a timetable for your project. I’ll have Jenna get with you later today to go over all the details.”
Jenna had recovered from my timetable bombshell enough to shut her mouth, but her lips were white with strain. I didn’t like that look on her face. Not one bit. Was it from the meds? The man grabbing onto her wrist earlier? My demands? Damn, I didn’t want to add to this woman’s problems.
Not if I could get her to help me instead. Symbiosis. Mutually beneficial. With lots of orgasms. Once again, that need to hug her tight in my lap and keep her safe from the rest of the world rose in me.
Definitely time to cut out before I lost my ever-loving mind.
“Sure thing, Mr. Olsen. Can you show me some of your instruments on my way out? I’m gonna be talking to George next week and wanted to tell him what you got cooking.”
The older man smiled, a beaming kind of good humor and pride, and motioned me forward. I listened with half an ear though my mind enjoyed the clean lines and quality construction. Took going overseas and ending up in a VA hospital in Washington, D.C. to find out that this place I needed, the people, too, were in my backyard.
The world was a crazy, ass-backward place.
As we neared the door, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Jenna had stayed in the back.
“I need to tell you Jenna had a visitor when I showed up.”
Mr. Olsen smiled. “Don’t get many drop-ins these days. We’re by appointment, but every once in a while, we have some kids from the university wanting to jam. That’s why I set up the security cameras.”
“He wasn’t here to check out the merchandise. His body language was threatening.” Lame finish but I didn’t know how else to explain my concerns to this man, especially about leaving his beautiful granddaughter alone in the place. I shoved my hand in my pocket and closed it around the smooth plastic wrapper of another candy.
Not yet. Three in twenty minutes showed a lack of control.
The older man’s eyes narrowed as his lips pulled down. “You catch his name?”
“Ben. No last name.”
Mr. Olsen’s mouth tightened in disapproval as he shook his head. “I’d hoped he had the sense God gave a flea and realize he wasn’t wanted around here. Never could stand that boy.”
“You know him, then?” I asked, curiosity rising.
Mr. Olsen raised his bushy, graying eyebrow. “He was best friends with Jenna’s boyfriend back in high school.”
“But she’s gotta be—”
“Twenty-four, almost twenty-five. So, this was more than six years gone. That boy’s always been selfish and needy,” Mr. Olsen mumbled, turning away.
I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, thinking about the raised, red marks on Jenna’s wrist. “You think he’ll hurt her?” I asked.
The older man’s shoulders sagged forward further. “He already has.”
My hands clenched around nothing and I missed that small piece of red flannel in my hand. Taking pills in front of Cam lacked professionalism, but their needed calm became vital as I slid further into the past.
Ben’s visit upset me more than I wanted to admit. More than it should.
Pop-pop settled his hand on my shoulder, squeezing before his usual three pats. That continuity was one of the best traits in my grandfather. My expectations always met with reality. I breathed out a sigh, letting some of the tension drain from my shoulders.
“I’ve asked you not to set up appointments when I’m here alone. What if Cam was looking to steal from us? Or…” I racked my brain trying to think up something worse.
“You know I had those surveillance cameras installed a couple years back,” Pop-pop said as he settled himself into his chair.
He winced and my anger dissipated in a cloud of concern. Before I could open my mouth to ask about his doctor’s appointment, he continued.
“We’ve got cameras in the parking lot, the front room, back here, and in the workshop. Nearly a hundred of ‘em. Figured if I was going to do it, might as well do it up right.” His sharp gaze held mine. “Which is why I want to talk about the visitor you had before Cam showed up.”
For the second time this morning, my mouth worked before my vocal cords. “H-how did you know?”
He pulled out his cell phone. “They created an app for everything.”
I snorted at that truth. J. Olsen—the company or the man—never stood on history simply for its sake. While the traditional ways of crafting a guitar brought my grandfather to prominence, upgrading his process—and patenting it—made him wealthy.
“Want to tell me why Ben was here before nine this morning?”
“He stopped by to say hello,” I said, proud my voice remained level.
“Jenna.” My grandfather’s voice filled with censure. “It’s not like that young man to do much of anything that doesn’t directly benefit his ego.”
I smiled, but it was bittersweet. Pop-pop had never liked any of my boyfriends. If I’d gone with my grandfather’s gut instinct and never said yes to that first date with Robbie, I’d be carrying a lot less emotional baggage around.
Up in Seattle, with Abbi, I had a bad experience once with drug-laced chocolates—put me in a coma and nearly cost me my life. That experience had humbled me to the point where I needed my family, wanted their advice before I stepped out on my own again, but that didn’t mean I planned to follow every bit of it. That would be like putting socks on a cat. I’d spend all my time trying to shake off the warmth only to realize it was keeping me from frostbite.
“Did he threaten you?” Pop-pop asked.
“No. Mainly, he wanted to laugh at how pathetic my existence was.” I winced, realizing too late that I was talking to my business partner as well as my grandfather.
“Because, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, you’re the co-owner of a multi-million-dollar business?”
I squeezed my grandfather’s age-spotted hand. “Because I wasn’t his—or Robbie’s, or some other successful athlete’s—arm candy. Me, being part of something successful on my own, never occurred to him. His brain can’t comprehend such miracles as independence.”
Pop-pop leaned forward and braced his elbows on his thighs. “You don’t need a man, Jenna-dove. You got your two hands.” He rubbed his thumbs across the back of my hands, his rough skin catching on my own. “A great mind.” He smiled. “And more creativity in your pinky finger than most people have in their whole bodies.”
I threw my arms around his neck. “Thank you for believing in me,” I whispered, head against his shoulder, unable to get my vocal cords to do more.
“That’s the easiest part of all. I’m proud of you.”
For him, maybe. But to my father, I’d always be a disappointment. In part because of my gender, in part because of my fall-apart my senior year in high school when the pressure for perfection all became too much.
After a quick squeeze to my sides, Pop-pop pulled back. “Now. We have a guitar to make.” He grinned. “Rather, you have a guitar to make for that country music legend.”
“You think he will be?” I asked, something in my throat catching at the thought of Cam surrounded by adoring fans. “I mean, his voice is distinctive. His speaking voice. I didn’t hear him sing.” I sealed my lips shut. Time to stop talking before the cat and her litter of kittens was out of the bag.
The twinkle in my grandfather’s eye proved not only was the whole passel out, but Pop-pop approved of my crush. While part of me thrilled at the idea, to finally have his approval with someone I wanted to get to know better, the other part—still traumatized by my last foray into the world of romance—trembled and wanted to hide.
I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend since Robbie. That relationship burned in a pileup of hurt and flames more intense than any country song. And the last man I chose to hook up with was an accessory in my would-be death.
I made the face my mom called “sour lemon”. My history with men looked worse than Al Capone’s rap sheet. Thankfully, not as long.
“Well, Cam’s got the looks, the talent, and he writes songs that aren’t stupid or cheesy or forced on him by an idiot executive I see so often nowadays. He’s already scored multiple platinum singles and has a couple Grammy nods. That boy’s someone to reckon with, and he wants you to work with him.”
My heart fluttered but in a good way. “So fast! I took four months on Clay’s.”
“While you worked on six other projects. But you’re almost finished with those now.” He tapped my nose. “Deadlines are good for you. Makes you plan out your time and focus your energy.” Pop-pop stood, slapping his knees. “You got that and then some, Jenna-dove. Come on. Let’s go pick out the wood you’ll need.”
I trailed behind him, my body beginning to ache with fatigue from the weight I carried around in my head. I was just me, a girl who was too scared, maybe too scarred, to return to university and finish my degree. That’s part of how I ended up here. And that’s why building my reputation meant building a lot of guitars. The best guitars. Instruments worthy of Pop-pop’s workshop.
Not an ideal solution, but then, three years ago I almost died. Shocked by the experience, thrilled to still hug my mother, my siblings, Pop-pop, and my friends, the euphoria of taking a deep breath didn’t leave me for months. Neither did the obsessive fear that ingesting food or drink from anyone’s kitchen but my mother’s—and sometimes even then—would lead to my demise. Leaving the house took more courage than I’d anticipated. Eating out again caused me to break out in a cold sweat and hives.
My grandfather saw a young woman fighting for a future.
Me? When I looked in the mirror, I saw the same blue eyes and golden hair he did. But with a shit-ton of determination to be better than any of them expected because of all the failures I’d accrued before I hit twenty-one.
I cradled the phone between my ear and my shoulder, mainly because my hands shook too hard for me to hold the device in place.
“Hello?” Cam’s deep voice caused a pleasant ripple through my belly. Not caring about my dates the last few years made the situation both easier and harder—I didn’t know how to deal with my flutters or the heat sweeping through my torso.
“Hi. Cam?” Breathy Marilyn Monroe and I had never met before this moment.
“Speaking. Is this Jenna?”
Much as I wanted to clear my throat, that seemed worse than going with the breathy version of my voice. “It is.” Wrong. I cleared my throat. “I’ve picked out some samples for you to approve. After you have the wood chosen, we can go over the schedule for the build out.”
“I’m tied up until five-thirty, maybe a little longer. Want to meet up then?”
Pop-pop liked to take off at four for his weekly bingo game. The thought of spending another hour or more in Cam’s company, sans supervision both thrilled and terrified me.
I drew in a deep breath through my nose.
This was a sale. Another instrument I’d create, get credit for. That thrill proved stronger than the fear.
“It may take a couple of hours,” I said. “Maybe it’d be best—”
“I don’t have anywhere else I need to be this evening, and I got the sense you wanted to jump on this project fast.”
“True. I’ll need every minute of the next few weeks to get this right. In fact, that’s one of the details I’d like to go over with you.” I pressed my lips together to stop more words from pouring out of my mouth. Cam waited, as if knowing I wasn’t finished. “So, Pop-pop’s packed up by four. Why don’t you call me to let me know you’re out front? I can unlock the door and disarm the system.”
“Glad to hear you’re taking precautions. See you then.”
My grandfather looked over and smiled, dipping his head in approval. What had I just agreed to?
I wandered back to the studio, inhaling the sharp tang of fresh cut wood, sawdust and the wood protectant Pop-pop developed and patented back in the sixties. While the guitars were a source of joy and creativity, the three patents my grandfather held were the main source of the business’s income.
For the first time in years, my heart rate picked up at the mere thought of a man. My body ignited at the memory of our one touch. I settled back onto my stool, forcing Camden Grace’s gravelly voice, those thick biceps and luscious brown eyes from my mind. Which meant I must stop dwelling on the fact I wanted to spend more time with Cam. I pulled my hands from the table and balled them into fists.
I had work to do. Work that required focus.
Desiring Cam was one thing. Acting on it another.
I would not act on my newfound crush. Because Cam might well turn out to be another Robbie. Or, worse, another Ben or Charles.
Then, he’d be one of the long line of men who screwed me over.
Been there, done that. Not looking for a repeat.
I checked the door first. Locked, as promised. I sighed in relief.
Maybe I was overreacting to the ex-frat boy this morning, but I didn’t think so. He was trouble with a capital T.
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts until I got to Jenna’s tiny, smiling picture. Her arm slung over Kai Luchia’s shoulder and another attractive woman. Jenna used to be close with Kai, the lead singer of Lummi Nation—at least according to the details I’d read about her today. Yeah, I spent way too long on Google searching for more information about a young woman I had no business stepping out with.
Once again, as it had when I saw the original pictures earlier, jealousy gnawed at the back of my throat. Not something I wanted to inspect too closely. The idea of anyone brushing their lips over Jenna’s lush, red mouth had me ready to punch a wall—or better yet, the asshole doing the kissing—square in the throat.
“Hey,” I said, pulling myself out of my daydream. “I’m out front.”
“Be there in a sec.”
I clicked off when Jenna appeared through the glass-fronted window. This morning I’d scoped the shop as I left, noting its cameras as well as the double-paned glass door and windows. With the cost of the instruments in the space, Jenna and her grandfather should have more security measures in place.
Not my problem. Except I’d made Jenna my problem. As soon as I stepped in the door this morning and my mind slowed to a reasonable rate, uncluttered and focused for the first time in ages, I’d known I was going to come back for another hit of her mind-clearing medicine.
Until I sucked Jenna dry and had to move on, heartbroken I’d destroyed her just as I had the trail of women in my past. My very own Trail of Tears.
But, no…I wouldn’t do that again. I wouldn’t. I’d made a point the last couple of years to stay uninvolved, unencumbered, as I tried to sort through all the bad in my life. Then, my father up and died and didn’t give me the satisfaction of clearing out the guilt.
After letting me in, Jenna pulled the door shut and locked the bolts again. I didn’t miss her gaze drifting up and down the street. Worried about the man here earlier, then. The faint stirrings of guilt I felt at telling her grandfather dissipated.
“Let’s head back into the workshop. There’s something I want to show you before we talk about the detailing.”
I gestured for her to lead the way and I enjoyed the view. My brain didn’t know where to settle: her hips swinging; those long, luscious legs; or even the bright bounce of her thick ponytail that played peek-a-boo with her sleek neck. She had a freckle on the back of her left ear.
Just one. At least the only one I’d noticed, which made me wonder if there were more under her clothes. I wanted to nibble that spot, wrap my tongue around the tiny, dark blot and suck until she moaned.
“After hearing about your quick turnaround, I thought maybe we could find a good fit with one of the instruments I’d started making to build up inventory. It’s no one’s commission—just a personal project I wanted to take on.”
“You mean you’ve done more than the commissions? I thought those kept you really busy?”
“They do. But when I work, I don’t have to think… I like to stay busy.”
Well, now. She might want to fall back on the workaholic aspect—that sounded awful familiar—but her unintentional slip of work keeping her mind off the war in her head. Yeah, that I got all too well. Not unlike how I came about with my practice guitar.
She glanced back at me, and I shoved my hands in my pockets so I didn’t try to soothe the worry from those thick-lashed eyes. Brown, not black like most women’s. After watching Kim’s makeup routine enough times, I’d learned the black came from a tube. Same as Kim’s golden curls. I’d bet money none of Jenna came from bottles.
I frowned, thinking of the pills she’d taken this morning. Maybe more of her did than I wanted to acknowledge.
Jenna pulled the skeleton of a guitar’s body toward her. The bell was wide like the one she’d shown me earlier but sleeker. She passed it to me and I turned it to the left before flipping it over.
“Why did you do this?” I asked, pointing at the wider sound chamber.
“I wanted to see if I could get the same resonance in a sleeker body.”
“Did it work?”
She nibbled at her lower lip. “Mostly. The sound’s a little different. But I thought, with the music you sing, your distinctive voice…maybe it’ll be an asset.”
“You’ve listened to my music?” I mean, sure, I had millions of fans and lots of hits, thanks to years where I buried myself in work after Kim’s death, but Jenna listening was different somehow.
Jenna dropped her eyes, busying herself with another piece of flannel. Her cheeks flushed red. “I downloaded a few songs today.” She met my gaze and her face flushed again. “Erm, actually, I downloaded three of your albums.”
This woman grew up in a world of talent—the highest echelons of it—so for her to like my music buoyed my ego. Better than I’d received from my father, who’d hated every one of my career choices.
“Ranching’s been in this family for more than two hundred years. That’s a sight longer’n most people hold onto much of anything. Only one who didn’t follow that path was my brother, and he died at twenty-seven, doing just what you want to do.”
“What?” I asked.
“I tried to hand you that legacy, but you want to throw it away to drop out of aeroplanes? Just like Jensen did.”
“Jensen?” I paused, recalling the name. “I thought that was your first name.”
Dad glared harder. “Where’d you see that?”
“On my birth certificate. The Army asked for it.”
Dad crossed his thick arms across his chest and squinted into the fading summer sun. “Just when your mama’s finally done worrying about you splatting in some place we can’t pronounce, you’ve gone and decided to take up something foolish like music?” My father, his thick brown mustache bristling with frustration, shook his head and turned away. “First career choice and you coulda died. This go-round is about vanity. I don’t have anything else to say.”
And he hadn’t, not about Jensen—the man’s name on my birth certificate or my brother’s disappearance—since Kim’s death. When I enlisted at nineteen, I thought he, like my mother, worried about my safety. But after that “conversation” four years ago, I’d realized I was simply a disappointment. One my father couldn’t abide, not even for my mother. Which was why I’d recorded everything I could after Kim’s death and before my separation from the Army. In those many long months of desk-work—no more active combat for this grieving Ranger—I honed my songwriting and recorded songs for my thousands of fans, thanks to my Army buddy’s YouTube skills.
Which meant my next career, in part, fell into my lap. One that paid way better than Army wages and gave me a way to hire and protect many of my brothers-in-arms.
“Do you want to play it?” Jenna asked, bringing me out of my reflection.
“How? There aren’t any frets.”
Jenna picked up a finished neck and clamped it to the body of the guitar. “This isn’t the fretboard for this guitar, and the clips will distort the sound a little,” she said. Her hands moved with speed and grace to attach a set of strings. “Okay. See what you think.”
I took the partial instrument from her, turning it over to look at the wood she’d used. It still needed a finished overlay and all the pretty dressing, but the instrument was well-crafted with tight joints. In fact, unless I looked closely, I couldn’t see any seams.
My frown deepened as I settled the instrument against my thigh. I’d never considered the pressure of telling a beautiful woman I hated her design before. Sweat beaded on my forehead and my hand shook almost as much as Jenna’s had this morning when she handed me some of the guitars she’d made.
I strummed a D-chord, my favorite, with tentative fingers. The sound, as Jenna said, was shallower than the instruments I’d played this morning, but still imbued with a richness that mass-produced instruments couldn’t replicate.
I tried a C chord, then B. Glancing up, I began the melody to my favorite song, watching Jenna’s face as I picked out the tune. Her eyes flitted from my fingers on the frets down to the body and sound chamber before her brows tugged low. She picked up a small notebook and wrote a few words before setting it down and re-focusing on my finger work.
I startled. “What?”
“While you play. Sing. That way you get an idea of how your instrument—” she patted the front of her throat “—works with this instrument.”
“You just want a free concert, sugar.”
She laid her pen and notebook down and reached for the guitar, but I jerked it backward.
“Which I’m more than happy to oblige.”
She frowned, adding a scathing look as I continued to pluck out the melody. I waited until she picked up her pen and notepad again.
I bent forward, closer to the instrument. For some reason, singing here in this saw-dust-covered space to Jenna blasted me with nerves I hadn’t felt in years. I’d played packed-out stadiums in some of the biggest cities in the world, so no reason this intimate setting should bother me. This moment wasn’t different from singing to the guys in our bunkhouse. Except Jenna was a beautiful woman and not a scared nineteen-year-old about to embark on his first—or last—mission into hell.
The words tore from my throat. Words of loss and sorrow and frustrated exhaustion brought on by too many missions and too many lives lost.
I stopped strumming as my voice faded.
“Golly gee wonky whump,” Jenna whispered. Her eyes were wide and her mouth popped open. “Your voice.”
She hopped off her stool and walked out of the workroom, fanning her face as she mumbled to herself.
I liked the idea of Jenna getting lathered up with my voice. Yep, I liked that idea.
Until I remembered I used to sing to Kim, too. That’s how I wooed her.
And that action—bringing that woman into my family—was the reason my father and I never mended our relationship. And now he was dead and I couldn’t.
I’d jumped off my chair, spouting nonsense to gain space. Now I glanced back to find Cam’s eyes shuttered, as if he too felt the need to end our time alone. Not that I blamed him. For a man I didn’t know, we connected somehow—through physical awareness but also some deeper emotion that seemed impossible for someone I’d met less than twelve hours before.
I didn’t do this connection thing anymore. I kept people at arm’s length—or further. Bat length more like it. My fingers curled into a fist because I missed the reassuring weight of the metal bat I’d taken to carrying around after some guys threatened my friend Abbi Dorsey.
My breathing escalated.
“You all right, there?” Cam asked.
I nodded, trying to ignore the ringing in my ears.
I was not all right.
My bat sat next to my desk. I needed it. Stupid to put so much faith in a metal cylinder, but then, nothing about my brain’s reaction to these past few years was logical. Normal.
I would never be normal.
“I like this one, and it could work for my concert, but I still want the one you showed me earlier.”
“Two guitars?” I managed to stutter.
He winked all slow and devastating to my crumbling composure. “I’m betting you’ll give me a good repeat-customer discount.”
My lips seemed to swell and my throat dried out faster than the Mojave Desert.
“I guess we’ll have to. So, what did you like specifically?”
Cam’s eyes scanned my face and his nostrils flared.
I folded my arms over my chest, ignoring the hammering beat there. “About the instrument.”
“The resonance was interesting. Seemed to match well with my voice. Like you said. I’d like a different fretboard. Something a bit wider.”
I nodded, flipping back to the page in my notebook and writing it down. “Anything else?”
“If I’m getting two, then I’d like this one to be flashy. More like those instruments you made for Asher Smith and Hayden Crewe.”
I couldn’t help but smile a little at that. Cam definitely understood the need for showmanship. “I used nickel on Asher’s pickguard. We came up with a cool design for it. Pewter inlays in the shape of cats on Hayden’s, along with a deep coffee stain.”
“Coffee stain?” Cam asked, confusion settling into his eyes.
I shrugged. “For his wife. I didn’t need to know the details.”
“Right.” Cam drew out the word.
“So—wider fretboard, metal pickguard. Some interesting design for the frets.” I met his gaze. “Any ideas what you’d like?”
I blinked up at him, surprised. His face paled and his lips thinned. Clearly not something he’d intended to say.
“Okay.” I made note. “Type?”
“Jet,” he rasped. “I’ll get you the model my…a relative flew. Died in an accident involving one when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”
I tapped the pen to the paper. “You’ll have to look at these every day,” I said. I often cautioned my buyers about the strange initial ideas they came up with, trying to steer them away from fads or designs they’d later regret.
“I get it. But this guy…one of the reasons I want them is because…” Cam glanced away. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “His name’s on my birth certificate. I think he’s my father.”
“You think?” the words popped out before I could control my runaway mouth.
He cleared his throat, looking almost as uncomfortable as I felt. “I’ll just head to the washroom then let you get out of here.”
“Why don’t we set up another appointment for tomorrow and we can finish discussing the details then? It can be by phone.”
“Yeah, sure.” He stood and winced, bending down to rub his calf muscle. “Tomorrow afternoon. Phone conference. That’ll work. I…ah…I’m going to be tied up.”
He didn’t lie well, but I let that slide. I watched him walk away, wondering if I should have pushed further. The pain in his eyes, the flat line of his lips made me want to comfort him. A man I didn’t really know.
And a client.
As promised, Cam called the next afternoon. He seemed more hesitant but I didn’t push, assuming he was embarrassed by what he’d told me the night before.
I made some more notes based on his preferences.
“If possible, would you be able to stop by Friday? I’d like to show you the design I’m building in the woods you’ve said you’re interested in. Once we have those finalized, I can start on the finish-out.”
“Sure,” he said without any enthusiasm. “What time works?”
“I’m here all day, but after lunch would be best. That will give me time to finish the initial pickguard design and draw up your fret inlays.”
“I’m in the studio until five. After that okay?”
So much for dinner and my evening run. “I’ll make it work,” I said.
“See you then.” Cam hung up.
Pop-pop looked up from his bench when I wandered into the workshop. “You all right there, Jenna-dove?”
I wasn’t sure, so I smiled and nodded, giving my Pop-pop the response he deserved. In fact, I was still shaken from my run-in with Ben. My wrist still ached and now Cam didn’t want to spend time with me.
Friday morning dragged. I struggled to get the concepts I wanted down on paper—the first step to creating an intricate design.
After lunch, I pulled out the hammered silver I’d decided to use for Cam’s pickguard and set about cutting it down to size, ignoring my grandfather’s searching looks and my heavy heart.
Much later, after Pop-pop packed up his desk and left for the evening, a sound in the front caused me to frown. I picked up my bat as I stepped forward, expecting to see Cam there. Instead, I stared at foam and bits of bottle glass sliding down the spider-webbed glass of the front door.
“Come on out, Jen. It’s time to party.”
The shadow loomed—taller, broader, the biggest asshole I ever had the misfortune to meet.
I swallowed hard and eased behind the counter, pressing the panic button Pop-pop had installed along with all those cameras.
What the hell was wrong with this guy? Why, after all these years, was Ben bothering me like this again?
I heard Cam’s uneven tread behind me, felt the heat from his body just before his hand dropped onto my shoulder. I started, turning with the bat raised to strike.
“Whoa there, slugger.”
I lowered the bat, my heart pounding so loud I could barely hear Cam’s response. “How’d you get in here?” I asked.
“You didn’t lock the back door,” Cam said.
My eyes widened and I bolted around Cam, who caught me by the waist. “It’s locked now. Please tell me the front door is locked.”
I nodded. “I never unlocked it this morning. We weren’t expecting any clients today except you.”
I turned, catching Ben’s narrowed eyes. I shrank back, cowering into Cam, who cursed softly.
“My security detail is out there. I don’t want them messed up in this.”
Ben drew his arm back and threw another bottle against the door, then another and another. I shuddered, hating the sound of glass as it tinkled onto the pavement outside.
Cam brought me closer to him, and I pressed my cheek to Cam’s shoulder, a sharp whimper clawing up my throat as I stared at the boy who’d made my life pure hell for years.
Ben planned to hurt me—the promise gleamed in his eyes. I gripped my bat. It kept me safe.
His cell phone pressed to his ear, Cam guarded me. “You boys on this? There’s another one in the car? Hell, yes, I’m glad you called the police. This here’s personal, and the young buck is more than a little angry. All right. Well, don’t get involved unless you have to.”
Another beer bottle slammed against the fissured glass of the front door. I tensed, preparing to move forward—to do what, I had no clue, but watching this horror show proved more than I could handle.
“Stay back,” Cam barked, dropping his arm to wrap it around me. His cell phone pressed into my hip.
I stopped moving, the authority in his tone not to be ignored. Sirens shrieked into the parking lot.
“You think the cops are going stop me?” Ben snarled. “You owe me, Jenna. You destroyed my life and now I’m going to destroy yours.”
He slammed his fist against the glass. He flattened his palms there when the police pressed a gun to his back, his possessive, angry eyes never leaving mine. Once he was cuffed and hauled back, I dropped to the ground, my knees giving out as blackness tinged the edge of my vision.