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When country music superstar Harrison Gamble appeared on the sun-dappled sidewalk outside the hotel on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, the crowd roared its approval—everyone, that is, except True Maybank. She'd as soon scream as chase a pig around a mud pen. Maybanks didn't holler. They believed in decorum. Tradition. Using something until it wore out. Keeping up appearances even when the world had gone to hell in a handbasket.
"Well, I swanny," she murmured, her entire body filling with a prickly sensation. She'd never thought she'd see him again.
Behind her late great-aunt Honey's oversized Nina Ricci sunglasses, she watched Harrison take his fans' hysteria in stride, as if it had nothing to do with him, his smokin'-hot body, that sparkling white smile, the bronzed skin, sexy stubble, and those sideburns, which were longer than they used to be—just long enough to qualify for serious bad-boy status.
Move on, girl! You got a wedding dress to get home!
She circled the heavily policed chaos, risking her life in the street for a few seconds, and quickly began walking again, uphill. With her mother's newly repaired vintage gown in her arms, it was as if Mama were walking with her, Mama with all her high expectations and impeccable standards. And here True merely hoped that the double-whammy dreamboat behind her—the first guy she'd slept with and her only one-night stand—wouldn't somehow recognize her.
At the corner, she couldn't resist a glance over her shoulder back down at the scene at the hotel. What a collage that would make. The thought crept up, wily and insistent, and she fought to dismiss it. But it was too wild, too alive …
It kept coming, the image, blossoming in her mind and taking over her body, making her fingertips buzz with the need to arrange. She would collage this memory. She would. It would be her best work yet.
And no one would ever see it.
Harrison signed an autograph and with a quick kiss to the crowd got into the back of a black Humvee. Two Taylor Swift look-alikes scooted inside as well. The car's dark-tinted windows slid up, its front tires angled toward the street, and True's arm began to sweat under the plastic bag.
Change, light, change!
Seconds later the Humvee whooshed past her. Two more scary-looking black SUVs followed behind.
She took a deep breath. There. It was over. Harrison was the Big Bad Wolf to millions of captivated Red Riding Hoods, and once upon a time True had been one of them.
Admit it. You nearly got sucked in again today.
No. She wouldn't think of him anymore. It had been a crazy minute in an otherwise fairly sane week. All she had to do now was get to the parking garage, find her car, and drive the four hours back to Biscuit Creek. Back to Weezie, her sister. To Carmela, her best friend. And to Dubose, the man she was to marry.
Back to the life that was finally falling into place.
A block later, a sporty aqua-blue coupe with darkened windows slowed to a crawl next to her, and the passenger-side window lowered a crack. "Get in, Miss Junior League," Harrison said, his voice ringing out loud and clear.
True's heart clanged like a fire station alarm bell, and she stopped walking.
She was seriously nonplussed. In Biscuit Creek, they'd say she was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But True favored words like nonplussed, probably because she was a big reader. She had a book stuffed up the right leg of her Spanx right now, a dog-eared Agatha Christie paperback that didn't fit into her pocketbook. That minimalist creation—a Target find, a faux yellow leather tote—was actually overflowing with three lipsticks of varying coral shades, a two-inch Velcro hair roller, travel hair spray, a pack of Kleenex, Juicy Fruit gum, her cell phone, a round hairbrush, a black Sharpie, her keys (which weighed a ton), a banana, a tube of Advil, a spare pair of sunglasses, and her ancient Cinderella wallet from Disney World, which had a rubber band around it to keep the cards and money from falling out.
"Well?" Harrison revved the engine. "You gonna get in here and tell me what you been up to all these years or stand there stiff as a poker and pretend you can't see me?"
True pivoted on a heel to face the car. "I see you, all right."
Daddy always said if you couldn't run with the big dogs, stay under the porch. True wasn't an under-the-porch sort of gal.
* * *
Harrison hid his amusement behind a cool stare, the one he dragged out when the higher-ups interfered too much with his creative vision or a fan overstepped her bounds, which was basically getting naked without asking him first.
That wasn't going to happen with True. She was a lady—at least on the surface. But those snapping blue eyes gave her away. Beneath that prissy exterior, a sexy damned hellion wanted out. He'd seen her. He wished he could forget her—he'd written songs trying to exorcise her from his brain—but sometimes he still dreamed her arms were wrapped around his neck and her sweet body was beneath his.
Now she leaned down to peer inside his passenger window, a bulky garment bag slung over her arm. She smelled good, like some kind of magical spring flower in a secret bower filled with singing chipmunks and tweety little bluebirds. "I can't ride home with you, even if I wanted to."
Implying that she didn't. Typical of her. She'd always been too proud for her own good.
"But we can talk," she added. "Lemme buy you a Coke."
Which meant any drink. Everything was a Coke in the South, especially in Atlanta.
"Not thirsty," Harrison said back. "Gimme your keys. I'll get my manager to drive your car all the way home." Harrison had always wanted to show Dan around his old stomping grounds anyway.
True shook her head. "The last thing I expect you to do is come back to Biscuit Creek."
No one expected him back. Ever. Which had always been fine with him. He went to LA. Aspen. Tropical islands.
"I don't have all day to argue," he said. "The paparazzi are hot on my trail. I gotta keep moving. So let's drop the polite chitchat and get down to business. Knowing you, you can't dillydally, either."
True never sat still.
"I might as well stop by and say hello to Gage," he added. "It's been a while since I've seen him." But he'd make the visit to his brother short. Harrison was due in the Hamptons at the beachfront home of an equally famous singer, a sexy, single woman who wasn't looking for a serious relationship but wouldn't mind the occasional fling and the publicity that went with it.
True hesitated. "There's a lady about to cross the street, and she has a tattoo of you with a guitar in your hand walking down her belly into her pants."
"My first album cover. People do all kinds of things with it."
True carefully laid her garment bag on his car roof, then dug through an enormous purse and managed to pull out a huge set of keys tethered to a pink rubber ball with pink rubber spikes all over it. "All right," she said. "I'll ride with you."
"That's the ugliest key chain I've ever seen," Harrison said to cover up how awesome he felt about her actually getting in his car.
"But I can see it, and feel it. It's gushy."
"Gushy?" Such a True word. He lowered the window farther.
She dropped the keys in his palm, but even so the tips of her fingers brushed his, and he had an instant memory of those fingers trailing over his naked back, curling into his hair. "Only you would want a gushy key chain."
She arched one eyebrow. "Lots of people like them."
"Is that so? How would you know?" Teasing her had always been his go-to diversion when wild sex fantasies intruded. Of course, now she had a big rock on her finger. A really big one.
"They have a huge barrel of them at Walmart."
Always the authority on things. She hadn't changed one bit. But when had she started shopping at Walmart? And who'd given her that ring?
"Was the barrel empty or full?" he asked her.
"Full. There were hundreds. Different colors, too."
"It would have been nearly empty if everyone liked 'em, though, right?"
"Maybe they just restocked." She sighed. "Look, Harrison, could you let me in? Preferably before the rest of the world figures out you've escaped your guards."
He unlocked the car door. "Like King Kong?"
"Something like that." She yanked the door open, grabbed her garment bag, and slid inside.
"Let me." He took the bag off her lap and laid it behind them. It was heavy and said CARR'S BRIDAL across the front.
Damn. She was getting married soon, from all appearances. Not that he'd ask.
"Thanks." She had two little spots of pink on her cheeks when she pulled her door shut.
The window on her side hummed upward and shut—his doing. "I'll drop the keys off with my team, and you and I will be on our way." He caught a glimpse of her tanned calves and tapered ankles. Bad idea. Heat flooded his belly. "What're you driving these days?"
"Really? You're a loyal customer. Did you get a convertible this time?"
She gave him a sideways glance. "It's the same car I drove in high school."
Whoa. That surprised him. "Good for you, keeping it up so long. How many miles you got on it?"
She shrugged. "A hundred eighty thousand."
"Still got some juice, then." When his truck finally bit the dust, it had 245,000. "Nothing better than a reliable car."
"Honey taught me how to look after things."
He noticed that her hair was flipped out on the ends, the same way it used to be. "She still alive?"
True shook her head. "She passed on six years ago. Mama thought she was a liability, but that woman had game." She sang the song "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" quietly in a husky-sweet voice:
Harrison could listen all day long.
"It was her favorite," True said. "That and ‘S Wonderful.'"
"I'm really sorry." He was tempted to put a hand on hers, but he didn't, just in case she got all jumpy about it. "She was the coolest person in Biscuit Creek. She could work out a ukulele something fierce."
True chuckled. "Yes, she could." She looked down at her lap a moment, then back up. "You know how to get to I-40 from here?"
"I think I know my way around this part of the world." He grinned at her, and for a minute he was eighteen again. "Damn, True." He soaked her up, all that creamy skin, platinum-blond hair, wide blue eyes, and that pale mole near her mouth. "You're still gorgeous."
She fiddled with her sun visor. "You're not so bad yourself, as you well know. Although I'm not crazy about the hair gel."
He laughed and pulled out onto the street. "Me, either." He made a right turn and waited for the bodyguard to catch up with him so he could hand him True's keys. A few instructions later, and they were on their way. "My makeup girl insists on the gel. She was one of the women who got in the car with me today."
"You don't have to explain anything to me." True squirmed in her seat.
Damn, she was nervous.
"I know I don't," he said, and put on his blinker. It felt good to drive. "I'm just talking. Gotta break the ice somehow."
"Not really. We have no business talking to each other." Her voice was soft. Almost sad.
It was his turn to shrug. "How's everyone doing at Maybank Hall?"
"Ten years have gone by. Hasn't Gage kept you informed?"
"Of course not. He's too busy making crossword clues."
"That's a lot of catching up, don't you think?"
"Well, why not? We'll do it on the plane. Do you mind getting home a lot faster than you anticipated?"
Her eyes flew wide. "Please don't rent a jet for me."
"Rent-a-Jet. I like the sound of that." He grinned. "It's for me, not you, if that makes you feel any better. I gotta be in front of a TV before the Spurs game."
"So you can do that? Just get someone to fly you wherever you want to go for whatever reason?"
"It comes with the territory. Country music's been good to me."
She stared at him long and hard. "I'm glad for you, Harrison," she said quietly. "Mighty glad."
He snuck another peek at her. "Are you?"
She nodded. "Of course. Think how proud you've made Biscuit Creek. Why, you've put us on the map."
"Most certainly. The water tower has your name on it."
"Did you see to that?"
She blushed again. "Of course not. It was the mayor."
"But you always were the civic-minded citizen," he reminded her.
"Oh, I still am." She looked straight ahead. Her earlobes had tiny pearl studs in them.
Harrison held back another grin. There was always something about True that put him in a good mood. Maybe it was how transparent she was. That was it. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and wary and practical as that heart was, it was a good one.
"Hey." He leaned over to her. "Do me a favor. At the airport, put on a hat." He pointed to the glove compartment.
She opened it, revealing a stack of sunglasses and two nylon baseball caps. "What?" A wrinkle formed on her brow. "Why?"
"A disguise, of course. Look out back. Someone's on to us. Probably the National Enquirer."
She twisted her neck to look, and hell if he didn't enjoy seeing the swell of her breasts in that fuddy-duddy dress against the cream leather seat.
"How can you tell?" Her voice was a little breathy, and he felt a response in his jeans, which was wrong, considering who she was, but entirely understandable from a biological standpoint. So he wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.
"Easy." He sped up and switched lanes. "Watch what happens."
She kept her gaze behind them.
"Did a black Volvo follow us?" he asked.
"Well, I'll be," True murmured. "It most certainly did."
He switched lanes again, taking an odd satisfaction at hearing the wonder in her voice when she exclaimed that once again, the Volvo was keeping track of them, right on their bumper as a matter of fact.
Yep. Harrison really was famous. Although why he felt the need to make sure she knew, he had no idea.
"He should be ticketed!" she exclaimed. "Where are the police when you need them?"
"I don't know." It was fun playing a martyr, especially in a $160,000 sports car.
"It must be hell to be you," True said.
"I suppose it is." Harrison enjoyed her pity. "So you listen to my advice and wear that disguise, all right? Otherwise, my wife will be pissed when she sees a picture of us together."
True whipped around to face him. "Your wife?"
He laughed out loud at the drama he'd stirred up, then suddenly felt sheepish. "I was just kidding. There's no little missus. You ought to know better than to think there would be."
"Of course I knew better." True frowned at him. "Still, that wasn't very nice."
"Why?" He swung the car over to the airport exit. The black Volvo stayed with them. "What difference would it have made if I was married?"
There was a second of taut silence.
"It wouldn't have made any," True said. "It's just that friends don't tease friends."
"They don't? Who made that rule?" He followed a service road around to the back of a yellow Butler building, a hangar for a couple of Learjets. "You got a lot of rules, True. And the truth is, I don't recall us particularly being friends anymore."
What the hell. Let her feel a little embarrassed at dumping him. This was an opportunity he'd no idea he'd been seeking, but now that it was here, it felt good to get some things off his chest.
She pursed her lips. "I thought that by now—"
"I am over it," he said, and pulled the car into a parking space. "Which is why we can talk about it. You're never gonna leave Biscuit Creek, and I'm never going to tie myself down." He shut the engine off. "Got it."
He ignored her and opened his door. The photographer had already exited the Volvo, camera ready, the bag still on his shoulder. "Take a picture of me and my old friend together, Charlie, and I'm going to make sure my team puts you in the back row of every single press conference I give from here on out. And about the rock on her finger, it's not from me. I'm trying to get her home to her beloved, whoever the poor sap may be. Is that clear?"
"Got it, Mr. Gamble." Charlie didn't look the least bit fazed. He was a real pro.
"Dubose is not a poor sap!" True said from behind Harrison at the same time, right on cue. "And I resent you for saying so."
"You resent me? So what's new?" Harrison kept his eyes on Charlie and winked. "And you're kidding me about Dubose Waring, aren't you? He's a putz."
"No, he is not," she slammed.
He looked back at her in all her quivering, self-righteous glory. God, it turned him on. "When are y'all getting married?"
"None of your business!"
He pretended to be properly chastened, but from the withering look she sent him, she knew damned well he wasn't.
"How about a couple snaps of you alone, Mr. Gamble," Charlie interjected with a grin, "looking travel-weary. Is there a guitar in the backseat?"
"No." Harrison sighed. "But since you came all this way, you can grab a few shots when I get out—and then you leave." He glanced at True. She was clawing at her dress a little, wiping her palms on it.
It was odd, to say the least.
"Do you—do you have a paper bag?" she asked him in a squeaky voice.
"No," he said, wondering what was going on.
"Nothing?" Her pupils were dilated.
Uh-oh. Not a good sign. Was she taking drugs, his True?
"True, baby, what's wrong?" he asked her, his pulse speeding up.
She wasn't his baby and never had been. But for one night he'd pretended she was.
True shook her head and fumbled for the door handle, her hands shaking. "N-nothing." She got it open, stepped right on her giant purse, and jumped out, leaving the door wide open.
Harrison was already around the front of the car. "What is it?" When he caught up with her, she was shaking like a leaf, walking around in circles. And then a damned book fell out of her dress, a strange event he'd choose to ignore. He knew she liked to read, but this took the cake. "Are you diabetic?"
He held a finger up at Charlie. It meant, Stand by. Just in case this is a real-ass emergency.
Charlie didn't move. His camera dangled from his hand.
True swallowed, crouched on her haunches, and cupped her hands around her mouth. She breathed in, then out. In. Held it. Then out.
Harrison put an arm on her back. "I'm with you."
Her forehead was sweaty. Her spine curled, the muscles in her back trembling.
He pulled out his cell phone.
"No!" she cried.
"Yes." His tone was ugly. He'd never been able to remain cool in a crisis. "We can't mess around. You're pale. Shaking. Something's seriously wrong."
She shook her head. "Let me breathe into my hands," she said into her hands. Loud. So he could hear. Which was awfully considerate of her since he was now out of his mind with worry.
"Give me your camera bag," he yelled to Charlie.
Charlie came running with it and handed it directly to True.
She grabbed it and put her whole face inside.
"What the hell is happening, True?" Harrison's heart slammed against his chest.
"It's just a panic attack." Her face still in the bag, she fell back on her bottom. But it was a controlled fall, as if she was getting herself together again.
Harrison felt a slight—very slight—lessening of worry.
She lowered the bag. "I'm afraid of flying," she whispered and flinched once. Twice. Like a bird that had hit a glass window.
And then she burst into tears.
"Shit," he said. "Why didn't you tell me?" He sat next to her and pulled her close.
She put the bag back to her face. "I thought I could handle it."
Even muffled, her voice did something to him, especially those little hiccups. "You always think you can handle it."
She didn't say anything to that. Her arms looked so skinny, and her neck was just a twig, dammit.
"That's right," he said roughly. "It's about time you just shut up and breathed, Maybank. Let the world run without you for a few minutes."
Charlie backed away, his shoes making gritty sounds on the rocky asphalt.
Harrison rubbed his hand up and down True's arm, which was warming up a little, and waited. Waited for her to perk up. Waited to feel remorse that he'd reconnected with her.
But it didn't come.
Here he was comforting a woman who didn't think he was all that special. In fact, she was sure he was the opposite. She believed he—Harrison Gamble, number one right now on the iTunes country chart—had major flaws.
Who'da thunk it?
"Don't let my book get away," she ordered him from inside her camera bag house, then added, "Please."
But it was a feeble please. She was getting back to her old bossy self.
A jumbo jet coasted in for a landing above their heads, its wheels locked into the down position. Welcome back to real, Harrison thought, the smell of diesel in his nostrils. He might write and sing about the ordinary, the substantial—the stuff of life—but he'd been running from all that reality crap for a long time.
Funny how it managed to find him anyway here on a hot gravel parking lot with a mixed-up bookworm named True. He was sure after their effed-up good-bye ten years before that he'd be glad never to see her again. But he didn't want to leave her this time, either.
Damn, that surprised him.
He cast a sideways glance at Miss Priss with her knees hitched up, ankles touching, and eyelids closed. Her arm was tanned, her knuckles white as she gripped the camera bag. But her lashes lay thick on her cheek, like the old days, the really, really old days, when she'd join him on the trailer park dock and tilt her face up to the sun to bask in its warmth.
He remembered the first day she ever caught a crab on that dock. She got so rattled, she tilted the net and the crab dropped out. It ran sideways, a little tap dancer, straight over her feet. "Ooohhhaaghh!" she'd shrieked, and fallen backward into the water.
In the Atlanta sunshine, he chuckled at the memory, threw a pebble, and watched it bounce. Nah. It didn't surprise him at all that he wanted to stay.
Copyright © 2014 by Kieran Kramer
Excerpt from He's So Fine copyright © 201 by Kieran Kramer