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The First Family of Rodeo: Book 3
April 2019 from Harlequin Desire
"It’s a good crowd tonight," Kyle Morgan said as he slipped down the narrow hallway that qualified as the backstage of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee. He winked at Brooke Bonner. “But I don’t think any of them came for me.”
Brooke gave the older man a shaky smile but didn’t stop humming to herself. The Bluebird was usually full—it was a small space where songwriters and singers came to test out new material. She'd been coming here for a decade now—first as a patron, then as a performer. She hadn't been back in almost a year and a half, though.
She hadn't been anywhere since she'd had Bean. This night marked the beginning of her official comeback. After almost seven months of what felt like house arrest, she was walking back out into the spotlight. True, it was a small spotlight. The Bluebird held about seventy people. But she was done hiding.
Mostly done, anyway. No one but a few select people knew about James Frasier Bonner—who she still called Bean, even though he definitely had grown. At three months, Bean was already smiling and cooing at her.
He had his father’s smile.
Kyle wasn’t in the know. Which made her feel bad because the Kyle was almost a father figure to her. He’d been at the Bluebird for her very first show and had taught her more about songwriting than anyone else. At every step of Brooke’s journey from “girl with a guitar” to “country music phenomenon,” Kyle had been a cheerleader, giving her advice and gentle pushes forward.
“Missed seeing you around,” Kyle said. “Been quiet without you.”
If she could’ve picked a father, Kyle might’ve done the trick. Sadly, Crissy Bonner would never tell Brooke who’d sired her. And the fact that Bean was now close to four months old and they were still keeping his father a secret was a huge problem for Brooke. But what choice had she had?
She wasn’t going repeat the same mistakes her mother had made. She was going to do better.
Starting with getting back out into the music scene. “Going for a more bro-country sound with the new stuff?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It’s what sells. I’d write with you again in a heartbeat, honey, but...”
“Yeah,” Brooke said, going back to humming. She was well-known for writing all her own songs. “I learned from the best, though.”
Kyle’s smile crinkled the lines around his mouth. It was a damn shame he refused to even talk to Mom—they could’ve made a good couple and Kyle was rocking a silver-fox thing. Plus, if Mom had had a boyfriend or a husband, it might’ve taken some of Crissy Bonner’s laser-like focus off of Brooke. But the few times Brooke had managed to get them in the same room, the barely concealed hatred had been enough to crush any dreams of an instant family.
Of course, if Kyle and Crissy had hooked up, that might’ve meant that Brooke wouldn’t have a Grammy and a couple of chart toppers to her name. And it also might’ve meant that she’d never have been performing at that All-Stars rodeo where Flash Lawrence had been riding, which would’ve meant no Bean. And she loved her son with her whole heart.
“Does this mean you’re off hiatus?” Kyle asked as he packed his guitar up.
“Yup. I’d been touring for almost four years straight before I hit big last year. It just wiped me out.” That was the official position her record label and family had cooked up. Brooke had needed a break to work on her new material. There might have been something in there about resting her vocal cords, she couldn’t remember.
It’d all been a load of crap. No one rested during the last three months of her pregnancy. New mothers with fussy babies didn’t rest.
Not for the first time, Brooke wished they’d just announced she was pregnant and dealt with the issue head-on. Yeah, the press might’ve been brutal—but there was no such thing as bad P.R. and she’d argued that her surprise pregnancy might’ve taken her second album, White Trash Wonder, from double to triple platinum. After all, an unexpected pregnancy was on-brand.
She’d been overruled because of one fact and one fact alone—she wouldn’t tell anyone who Bean’s father was. Not that it was any of their business, because it wasn’t. Her mother hadn’t forgiven her yet for sitting on that particular secret. So she was stuck lying. Which she hated.
Kyle stood and wrapped an arm awkwardly around her shoulder. “Welcome back,” he said, giving her a friendly squeeze before he headed out to the Café to watch. “You need anything, you just give me a call. I mean it, Brooke—anything at all.”
Brooke’s eyes stung with unexpected emotion at Kyle’s thoughtfulness. Of course, all emotion these days were unexpected. Stupid hormones. How did people go back to work with a newborn? She’d written a few songs since Bean’s birth but frankly, they sucked. Most of what she was singing tonight was stuff she’d written before he was born. There was a small part of her that was worried that, adorable as her son was, he’d permanently sucked away her ability to compose.
Brooke forced her shoulders down and started humming again, keeping her vocal chords warm. She was not going to start fretting. Her mother had assured Brooke that it’d come back, especially once the baby started sleeping through the night. And besides, Brooke had almost two albums worth of material she’d written in a flurry after discovering she was pregnant. And if she had to, she could always collaborate with Kyle or someone else to fill out the albums until Brooke got herself back together again. So this was fine.
Alex Andrews, her bodyguard and friend, squeezed her big frame into the hallway and handed Brooke a mug of hot tea. “They found some honey,” she practically growled.
Brooke gratefully accepted the tea and took a sip. Ah, the perfect temperature. “Thanks, hon.” Alex was big and gruff and butch, but underneath her tank-like exterior she was a softie with a heart of solid gold. They’d been friends since junior high, back when Brooke was a band geek just starting to perform and Alex had been the first girl to play offensive lineman on the football team. Long before White Trash Wonder had hit big, Alex had been right besides Brooke in every dive bar and county fair, doing her best to keep grabby, drunk assholes away from Brooke.
Thirteen months ago, Alex had stayed home because her girlfriend had the flu instead of joining Brooke in Fort Worth for the All-Stars All-Around Rodeo. If Alex had come…would Brooke and Flash had spent that white-hot night together? Or would Alex had been the voice of reason, keeping Brooke far, far away from cocky cowboys who were good in bed? And against the wall? And on the floor?
Brooke must have been frowning because Alex asked, “Worried?”
Damn it—it was hard to get anything past that woman. Especially since Alex was one of the few people who knew about Bean. "It’s fine. He's home with Mom," she said, stretching her facial muscles to loosen them up.
"They’ll do great. She only wants what's best for him," Alex replied, which was probably supposed to be reassuring. Except it wasn’t and Alex knew it. Her eyes widened as she realized what she’d said. "Oh, crap—I didn't mean…"
"It's fine," Brooke repeated, taking this opportunity to test out her fake smile. Crissy Bonner’s favorite saying was that it was for the best. Brooke starting singing lessons starting at the age of five was for the best. Guitar lessons starting at the age of six was for the best. Hours of practice every day were for the best. Slumber parties, birthday parties, pets or boys—they weren't for the best. Knowing who her father was? That definitely wasn’t for the best.
Brooke kept humming. She was the last act of the night and she was surprised to realize that she was nervous. It had been almost seven months since her last public appearance. Seven months since cleverly cut dresses and long, swingy cardigans hadn’t been enough to conceal her baby bump. Seven months since she’d sang in public.
After years of constantly touring, starting with bars on Nashville's Music Row and then to county fairs to state fairs, to being the opening act for some of the biggest names in country music—Brooke had paid her dues early and often. And it’d all paid off last year when White Trash Wonder had hit. Suddenly, sold out rodeos like the All-Stars had led to sold out arenas. Years of lessons and performances and navigating the business world as a teenager had suddenly paid off and Brooke had officially been labeled an overnight success, country music's Next Big Thing.
And she'd ruined it by getting knocked up by Flash Lawrence. She’d had to miss the Grammys, for crying out loud. She’d been in labor when she’d won Outstanding New Artist.
She wanted to be home with her son, she realized. She wasn’t ready to do this again—the long and lonely nights, the negotiations, the travel and most especially the constant media scrutiny. But she didn’t have a choice. Her uncle and former manager, Brantley Gibbons, had embezzled not just most of her money but a great deal of his other clients’ funds and invested them in the Preston Pyramid Scheme—which had, of course, collapsed around his ears just about the time Brooke was breaking out.
Brooke and her mother weren’t penniless—she still had royalties coming in on her first two albums and had managed to keep the bulk of her profits from the last few months of touring after Uncle Brantley had ‘relocated’ to Mexico to avoid criminal charges. But she couldn’t afford to stay out of the spotlight any longer. She had to strike while the iron was hot and that iron was getting noticeably cool. Getting back out there was for the best, her mother had said. Because of course she had.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the m.c. began. “Our final act tonight is none other than the Grammy and Country Music Association winner, Brooke Bonner!”
Brooke took a final sip of her not-quite-hot tea and locked her smile in place. She’d been fourteen when she had first performed at the Bluebird, just a scared little girl and her acoustic guitar. It seemed fitting to start over where it had all started.
Brooke stepped out of the hallway to an impressive roar of applause. She smiled and nodded and tried to turn her body so that no one would make a grab at her ass as she worked her way to the center of the Bluebird, where chairs and mikes had been set up. As she settled into her chair, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she had the strangest feeling that he was here—Flash Lawrence. Which was ridiculous. In the thirteen months since their one-night stand, she hadn’t heard from him. And she hadn’t contacted him, either. She’d come so close when she’d realized she was pregnant. But she’d Googled him and saw all these horrible headlines about barroom brawls and trials and…
And she’d passed. Her life was crazy enough with her career. A baby would make it crazier still. But a violent, immature cowboy? That was a hard no. She wanted her son to know his father but not at the risk of his health. Or hers.
A shiver raced down her back. She was imagining things, that’s all there was to it. There was no way that her one-night stand was in the audience. It just wasn’t possible. But just to be sure, she turned in her seat to wave at the people behind her who were still clapping.
Oh, shit. There, at the bar—a long, lean cowboy was perched on the last seat, the brim of his black cowboy hat throwing his face in deep shadows. He wore jeans with an absolutely huge belt buckle, with a leather biker jacket over a black western-style button-up shirt. She couldn’t see his eyes but she could feel him looking at her.
Oh, no. Oh, hell.
Maybe she was wrong. It wasn't like cowboys of a certain height and weight wearing black hats and big belt buckles didn't exist around Nashville because they absolutely did. But her blood pounded in her veins and her hands shook and there was no mistaking the flight or fight reaction.
Because she wasn't wrong. The cowboy shifted in his seat, tilting his head back. His gaze collided with Brooke's and even though she hadn't seen him for thirteen months, even though she’d only ever spent one amazing night with him, heat pooled low in her belly and she trembled with want.
Her big mistake was sitting less than thirty feet away. The one time she’d gone off schedule and done something just for herself—not her career or her mother or anyone—and she’d been paying the price ever since. She loved her son but...
She wasn’t ready. Not for Flash Lawrence. Not for any of this.
The lights dimmed and an expectant hush fell over the crowd.
Well. The show had to go on, so Brooke did the only thing she could.
“It’s so good to be back, ya’ll. I’ve been working on new material for my next album—should be out in a few months—and we’re thinking of calling it Your Roots Are Showing.” The crowd laughed appreciatively as she flipped her hair back with an exaggerated toss of her head. “Aw, you guys are great.”
She desperately wanted to turn in her seat for this next part. If that were Flash, what would he think when he heard the song title? But she didn’t. She was giving him nothing to work with and besides—there was a literal audience here tonight. All it took for the wildfire of gossip to catch and burn would be one too-long look, one touch—one wrong move, and her comeback would be forever tainted.
So she didn’t turn, didn’t even acknowledge that there was anyone behind her. She played to the people she could see when she said, “So the first song that’ll be on the new album that I want to sing tonight is called ‘One Night Stand.’”