Mending Heartstrings

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Kane’s a country singer who’s tangled with too many deceitful women. He’s learned his lesson: girls are for flirting and fun; emotions are for his music. But after spending a night with an earnest woman unlike any he’s known, he can’t force her out of his mind. So he goes in search of the woman he knows only as “Elle.”

On her last night in Nashville, the staunchly pragmatic Sabella found herself in a situation more suited to a romance novel than reality. Swept away, she ignored her rigidly self-imposed rules, succumbing to the fantasy just this once. But she knows real-world relationships have nothing in common with their fictionalized portrayals. When Kane unexpectedly shows up at her Portland apartment, she must choose between the practical truths she has learned and the desire for a passionate love she has struggled to suppress.

Despite the distance, Kane’s tour schedule, and their meddling friends, both are drawn to the chance for a romance neither quite believes is possible.

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Books in the Forging Forever series:





Enjoy an Excerpt from Mending Heartstrings:



One


Kane walked out of the private back room of Nashville’s Fiddle and Steel and headed straight for the bar. Every so often, he’d still try out his new material at their open mic nights. But tonight, the initially warm reception of the regulars had fizzled out as he played. They hadn’t really responded to any of his three songs. He needed a beer.

A couple of the regulars greeted him, and Kane paused to exchange pleasantries. The laid-back atmosphere of the bar put everyone at ease, which was the great thing about playing there. The locals who knew him weren’t intimidated by his relative fame, and he wasn’t a big enough deal yet for the occasional tourist to recognize him. He relied on the reactions of this comfortable community. And they sure didn’t mind telling him he had more work to do before his next tour.

When he finally reached the bar, he flagged down Cody, tearing the younger man away from a pretty brunette who was probably underage. He greeted Kane with a subtle lift of his chin.

“How’s it going, man?” Kane asked.

“Just got better,” Cody answered, looking over Kane’s shoulder.

Kane followed his gaze to a group of women who’d just walked in but turned back after barely a moment. He definitely wouldn’t mind a distraction. First, though, he really did want that beer. “Get your mind back on your work, boy,” Kane scolded with a smile.

Cody’s mama hadn’t raised an idiot. “You just want them for yourself.”

Kane grinned. “It’s no competition.”

“Only ’cause those three didn’t hear you flame out tonight.”

“Yeah, well. Some of us can rely on our good looks.” Kane kept an easy smile on his face. The ribbing shouldn’t have bothered him, but he was having an off night. The songs he’d played could have passed muster most anywhere else, but Nashville knew its country music. “Get me a beer, would ya?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah.” Cody slapped a coaster onto the bar in front of Kane then headed to the fridge to grab Kane’s favorite.

Kane rested his forearms on the bar and bent his head down, exhaling. As always, he’d scanned the audience a few times while he played, trying to read the room’s reactions. Tonight, too many people had been absorbed in their own conversations around the bar’s simple wooden tables. Only one pair of eyes had met his. A striking, unwavering pair of eyes. She’d been standing toward the back, alone. He’d felt her watching him even when he’d closed his eyes.

But she hadn’t been standing there when he’d come back out. Probably just as well.

Cody set down a chilled beer in front of Kane. He tipped it toward the bartender as thanks. A couple drinks, a little bit of flirting, and there’d be no more need to think about his songs tonight.

Turning back toward the room, Kane bumped a girl he hadn’t noticed seated next to him at the bar. “Ah! Sorry ’bout that,” he said with a half-smile, ramping up the charm.

She twisted toward him. “I’ll survive.” The corners of her mouth pulled up, but Kane couldn’t look away from her eyes. Hazel, he realized. Unlike when he’d been on stage, her gaze fell, and she started to turn back to the bar.

“Kane,” he offered, shifting his beer to his left hand and offering up his right. A handshake. Smooth. This really was an off night.

Her eyes flicked down to his hand then laughingly back to his face. Her eyebrows drew up in a small challenge as she placed her hand in his. “Like the sugar, or the stick?”

“With a K…” He leaned back against the bar, resting on one elbow.

“So, not Abel’s brother. Good to know.”

Normally he’d have walked away at a line like that, but it wasn’t like he’d been offering conversational gold. Maybe this would help him shake it off before he made his move on the trio Cody’d pointed out. And then there were those eyes… “Go ahead and joke. I’ve probably heard them all.”

“Don’t tempt me.” Her lips curved softly. Mischief glinted in her eyes.

“And how could I do that?” Kane let himself relax, sliding back into the easy feel of the bar. Unlike his performance, this conversation didn’t really matter.

“I’m sure you have a few tricks up your sleeves.” She picked up the glass of white wine she’d been nursing and took a sip, without dropping her smile or taking her eyes off him.

A local girl would’ve been drinking beer. But then, a local girl would’ve known exactly who he was, which could lead to nothing more than a mildly satisfying romp in the sack. He remembered his own beer and took a swig.

“Worried?” he asked, after she set her glass back down.

That got him a bigger smile. “Please, I can take anything you throw at me.”

“Maybe we should test that theory.” He took another sip of beer. This was getting more and more interesting.

“By all means,” she replied, not missing a beat.

He was used to women flattering him, fawning over him. His Southern charm had rarely failed him, and as a singer, he wasn’t hurting for female attention, especially since country music wannabes thought he’d be a perfect springboard for their careers. But he hadn’t met someone who actually intrigued him in a while. Too long.

He turned to face her, leaving his elbow resting on the bar, and set down his beer. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Call me Elle,” she answered, tilting her head slightly, a silent question on the change in direction. Her eyelashes didn’t flutter with calculated coyness, and her direct gaze didn’t falter.

Kane straightened, suddenly inspired. “Pleased to meet you, Elle. Excuse me a sec?” He grabbed the bottle he’d just set down and turned away from her. Another swig and he returned to the back room. This was nothing short of crazy, but he picked up his guitar anyway and walked back to the small stage.

~*~

Sabella had barely returned to her wine when she heard the slight strumming of a guitar as someone settled in front of the microphone. She wasn’t certain what had prompted Kane to leave so abruptly, but she was definitely disappointed. Not that she was star-struck or anything. The fact that she had dressed up to venture outside her hotel room, to the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar, simply because she had heard that Kane Hartridge would possibly be trying out new material at their open mic night, did not mean she was star-struck. If anything, she was underwhelmed by his song choices tonight, and even more so by her awkward attempt at flirting. Men like Kane didn’t waste their attentions on women like her.

She took another sip of the perfectly nice Riesling and silently deliberated whether she would stay past draining her glass. This bar did have a certain, inexplicably innate, country charm that she wouldn’t mind exploring and observing further. After all, she had come to Nashville to learn what she could about the culture of country music.

As far as she could tell, the room around her was furnished with exactly the same style of unadorned, wooden furniture and boasted a similar smattering of booths around the perimeter as any other bar. Nothing about the décor particularly screamed “country.” No posters of country stars lined the walls, and if it weren’t for the distinct twang emanating from the patrons’ conversations and through the speakers, she could have been back home. If she could figure out what exactly made this bar so popular among the locals, the night wouldn’t have to be a complete waste. Plus, her flight the next day wasn’t until the afternoon, so she could afford to stay out awhile.

“Hey, guys.” Kane’s voice carried through the speaker system, quieting the room. Someone shut off the recorded music that had been playing ever since he had left the small stage, his performance intended as the finale of their open mic night. Sabella twisted on her barstool to face the stage. Kane and his guitar once again occupied the unadorned chair set behind the single microphone. His beer bottle rested just behind his leg. “Don’t mean to pull y’all away, but I have a friend in from out of town who is dyin’, she’s absolutely dyin’, to sing for you. Please join me in welcomin’ Elle—over by the bar, there, in the purple, that’s Elle—welcomin’ her to the Fiddle an’ Steel stage.”

Most of the patrons shifted their attention toward the bar, trying to find Kane’s “friend.” Sabella froze, schooling her expression. I can take anything you throw at me, she had said. He was clearly testing her claim. What in the world had she been thinking?

“C’mon, Elle,” Kane called through the microphone. “Here’s your chance.” His mouth pulled into a half smile, intended to portray solicitous charm, no doubt, not the baiting nature of his challenge.

She took a deep breath, reminding herself she would likely never see any of these people again, and slid off the barstool. Apparently, her customarily rigid practicality had been dislodged the second he’d bumped into her. Not that he was giving her much choice.

The stage was closer than she would have preferred, but the walk over from the bar still gave Sabella plenty of time to admire Kane’s comfortable posture. He wore jeans and a faded, black, button-down shirt, with a few buttons left unfastened and rolled-up sleeves. With his brown hair cut raggedly to slightly above his ears in front, somewhat longer in back, and his stunning green eyes, he really was more handsome than any man had a right to be. Especially one who was trying to embarrass her in front of a bar full of people.

“What exactly do you have in mind?” she murmured as she took the short step onto the stage.

He covered the microphone. “Name a country duet.”

At least he wasn’t going to force her to sing alone. Still, she wasn’t exactly a country music savant. “The only one that comes to mind is ‘Picture.’” That wasn’t strictly speaking true, but she was betting he would be even less thrilled with her choice if she had named one with Kelly Clarkson.

All Kane said was, “All right.” He shifted his chair so it wasn’t squarely facing the microphone then started to play an intro. “Not the newest song in the book, but a guilty pleasure for some of y’all, I’m sure,” he drawled, smiling at the crowd.

His voice captured her as he sang, its purity reminding her why his was the only country music to which she really listened. As she watched him, Sabella almost forgot he had manipulated her into joining him on stage—for a duet. She looked out over their somewhat captive audience, filled with men in worn-out jeans and flannel shirts—even a cowboy hat or two—and some amazingly beautiful women. Maybe this was actually a bizarre dream, and in reality she was sleeping in her hotel room, or even back home in her bed. If only.

When Kane finished the first chorus, he looked up at her in anticipation. Little crinkles appeared around his eyes. He didn’t think she would do it.

To be fair, normally she wouldn’t have. This is simply a more active form of research, she assured herself. Sticky sweat still gathered between her fingers and coated her palms. Sabella surreptitiously wiped her hands on her thighs and stepped marginally closer to the microphone.

She scrambled to remember the lyrics, staring at the floor as she sang. When no one booed by the end of the stanza, she risked a glance out at the room. About half of the tables had reverted to quiet conversation, but others appeared to be listening. At the end of her chorus, she looked over at Kane.

He was watching her, eyebrows drawn slightly together, as if he wasn’t altogether sure what he was seeing. Maybe he was shocked she was still singing, despite the blatant difference in their abilities. She had never been one for public displays of foolery, and the remaining shreds of her rationality were appalled by the ridiculousness of her behavior. Running off the stage would be worse, though, or at the very least more memorable.

She finished their interchanging lines with her eyes on him. The last chord he strummed hung in the air until the murmuring of patrons’ conversations wiped it away. Sabella backed away from Kane and the microphone, then turned to step off the stage, and wove her way toward the hallway that led to the bar’s restrooms and a door with an “Employees Only” sign. She pressed her back to the wall for support and resolutely steadied her breathing. This night wasn’t turning out anything like she could have expected.

~*~

Kane stayed on stage through the applause that started just as Elle left. It was more applause than he’d gotten alone tonight, not that he was surprised. She sang purely, without flourish. She sure wouldn’t be making a career of this, but something about her singing had captivated their audience, and him. It was so…earnest. Unassuming. Maybe that’s what he had glimpsed in her eyes.

Falling back on his ingrained charm, Kane offered a smile and a “good night” to the audience. He followed Elle’s route to the bar’s back rooms, taking his guitar with him. Cody might whine later that he’d left the beer for the boy to pick up, but Kane didn’t care.

He found her leaning against the wall that faced the ladies’ room. “Waiting for a friend?”

Her head jerked toward him. She straightened from the wall and turned to face him. “Did you enjoy the show?” She wasn’t smiling now.

A Southern girl would’ve chewed his hide for that stunt. And if she really hadn’t wanted to sing, she would’ve found a way to bow out, or plain old told him to go to hell.

“You surprised me,” he answered honestly. “You have a nice voice.” And gumption.

“That’s somewhat patronizing coming from you, don’t you think?”

He smiled. “A fan, are you?” he teased, though she obviously wasn’t. But that suited him just fine.

She raised her eyebrows. A second later her shoulders shrugged, and she looked down. He was pretty sure he saw a hint of a smile.

“C’mon,” he said then turned toward the private room to put away his guitar. Maybe this night had potential yet.

~*~

“Shouldn’t you be getting back out to your adoring fans?” Sabella asked as she followed Kane through the “Employees Only” door. Probably not her wisest move, reminding him of the significantly more enchanting company he could be keeping. She couldn’t compete with the leggy, sleekly styled beauties she had overheard him and the bartender discussing earlier. Apparently, though, her tenacity in staying through the whole song despite her lack of talent meant she held his attention for at least a bit longer.

Kane ignored her question, focusing instead on placing his guitar in a solid, somewhat beat-up case. A knotted, Native-American-style bracelet on his right wrist drew her attention to his hands and his long, skilled fingers. “Elegant” sprang to her mind—not that she would ever describe them that way to him.

With his guitar safely put away, Kane sat down on a comfortable-looking leather couch and gestured for her to join him. Sabella remained standing, absorbing her surroundings: cozy chic furniture that had undoubtedly found its way here naturally, not from the pages of some magazine; flyers from past Fiddle and Steel Guitar events on the walls overlapped with autographed posters of country stars; and boxes of extra bar supplies that were stacked as out of the way as possible. Her eyes stalled on a poster of Kane, hanging slightly slanted toward the corner on the wall behind him. She was in the private, back room of a country bar with Kane Hartridge.

The reminder prompted her to return her attention to where it belonged. He looked back at her with good-humored eyes, set under slightly arched eyebrows. His bowed upper lip rested in a sharp line over a barely rounded lower lip, as if his mouth was the result of the swift swipe of a knife, though she had already seen those lips soften as they curved into a smile, simultaneously rounding the otherwise sleek lines of his cheeks. Painfully handsome.

She had to stop watching him, or he might think she was an obsessed fangirl. “So how did you know I was from out of town?” She hadn’t thought she stood out quite so blatantly, and there were plenty of people in Nashville without Southern accents, so that couldn’t have given her away.

“You don’t act like a local girl,” he answered, relaxing back into the couch. His hands rested gently on his thighs, and he sat with his ankles crossed. He looked so perfectly comfortable that she felt even more self-conscious, standing in the middle of the room, thumbs tucked into the pockets of her jeans.

“And how do local girls act?” she asked curiously, shifting her weight to one hip to appear more relaxed.

“Confident. Assertive. They know exactly what they bring to the table, and exactly what they want to take away.” He paused. She felt herself swallow but continued to watch him. “But they rarely take any real risks,” he finished.

Kane stood and stepped forward, which brought him a touch closer to her than would have been casual. Sabella could see the stubble beginning to grow over his angled jaw and slightly rounded chin, his hair brushing over the tops of his ears and down to the back of his shirt collar, the thin scar that angled from right above his lip toward his left cheek, and the slightly flattened line of his nose that told her it had been broken at least once. He smelled faintly of wood with an overlay of beer, a combination she never would have imagined to be alluring.

She shifted moderately closer to him. If his assessment of these women was accurate, she definitely had little in common with them. Maybe it was her natural curiosity, but she almost never knew well enough to avoid taking risks, though she relentlessly attempted to impose sensible limitations on herself. Clearly that wasn’t working so well tonight.

Over a foot remained between them, yet their stance felt oddly intimate. Until the door was opened by an older woman in a jean skirt, black halter top, and well-worn leather boots.

Sabella took a hasty step back, but the woman was looking at Kane. He hadn’t reacted as sharply as she had, but rather did a slow half turn toward the door.

“Amber Lynn,” he said by way of greeting and smiled somewhat crookedly.

“Kane,” she responded, with a voice so husky she must have spent years shouting to be heard. “Not your best night,” she said casually then turned toward Sabella. “Now you must be why the boys keep on askin’ me for a karaoke night.” Her eyes took in Sabella’s silky purple top, manicured hands, casual sandals, and loosely waved hair, which didn’t accurately reflect the fact that it had taken almost an hour to style. She took her time, as if her eyes moved through the same honey that dripped from her voice—though that’s how Sabella thought of most country accents she had heard in her brief time in Nashville.

“Amber Lynn here’s the owner of the Fiddle an’ Steel,” Kane explained. His drawl was actually not as thick, with only a hint of flattened vowels and that light softening to some of his consonants.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Sabella offered politely.

“Welcome to Nashville,” Amber Lynn replied. “What’re you hidin’ in here for? A lotta them boys would sure love to get to know ya better after that little show y’all put on.” The last few words were directed at Kane. Amber Lynn narrowed her eyes a bit and pursed her lips, as if trying to discern Kane’s motives.

“Give ’er a chance to recover, Amber Lynn.” Kane’s innocent smile never wavered.

Amber Lynn considered him for a moment, glanced again at Sabella, and turned back toward the door. “Behave yourself, boy,” she threw over her shoulder as she walked out.

“You know me!” he called after her, grinning. “So.” He turned back to Sabella, and his mouth settled into a half smile. “Can I buy you a drink?”

~*~

One drink quickly turned into a few. In a corner booth that was somewhat secluded from the majority of the bar’s patrons, Kane regaled her with stories from his childhood in eastern Oklahoma and of his road to relative fame. He was charmingly down-to-earth, understating how far he had already come in his career. She in turn described to him how she had recently experienced a turnaround in perspective on the country music scene, which inspired her idea for a series of articles on the various cultures of different genres—the reason behind her research trip to Nashville.

All too soon, the bar had nearly emptied. Kane, the paragon of Southern charm, offered to escort her back to her hotel, and Sabella found herself accepting. By then, the city that had been throbbing with music mere hours ago had fallen mostly silent.

The DoubleTree hotel where she was staying was less than a couple blocks from the Fiddle and Steel Guitar, but Kane led her on something of a detour. Sabella stifled the rational voice that insisted wandering around an unfamiliar city at night with a virtual stranger was a horrible idea. What better way to see a new city than with a local?

Kane took her first past Nashville’s City Hall. It hadn’t been particularly interesting when she had explored the city during the day, but at night, with both the building and the fountains in front of it alight, not to mention Kane’s company and a few drinks in her, it was transformed.

From there, he led her by the edge of the Cumberland River, doubling back past the bar, until they reached the iconic Shelby Street Bridge. As she looked out over the city, Kane stood protectively behind her, hands braced around her on the railing, sheltering her from the wind.

They hadn’t talked much since leaving the bar, but the silence felt comfortable in the night’s darkness.

“Beautiful,” she whispered, looking out over the lights of Nashville’s skyline.

“Absolutely.” His voice was low, coming from right beside her ear. He placed his hand on her arm, gently. His touch was warm through the bell sleeves of her top, and she turned to face him. All the lights of Nashville twinkled at her back, but they weren’t nearly as mesmerizing as Kane’s eyes.

She would always remember the swell of his biceps under her hands, the heat of his palms when they came to rest slightly below her waist. She looked from his eyes to his mouth a heartbeat before he kissed her.

The kiss was soft, starting with a brush of their lips and growing into a slow taste of each other. In writing it, she would have claimed time stilled, but in reality, wind whipped her hair around them, and she shivered under its onslaught.

Kane broke their kiss and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Occasionally commenting on their surroundings, he led them off the bridge, meandering through downtown, past the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Convention Center, until they reached the abstractly decorated, and intensely red, DoubleTree lobby. He kept his arm draped over her shoulders until they came to the bank of elevators.

Sabella knew they should part ways, but she didn’t want this fantasy night to end quite yet. An elderly couple joined them in the elevator, and they all remained silent. When the doors opened, she walked ahead of him to her room, acutely aware of him behind her. At her door, she turned to face him, and to say goodbye.

The fingers of his right hand grazed hers as his left came up to cup her jaw.

“We should say good night,” she whispered.

“All right,” Kane breathed against her mouth before kissing her again. This time the kiss was harder, lips crushing together and tongues intertwining as if that touch would be enough to keep the two of them together. He pressed her against the door, stepping closer so virtually no space remained between them. Her hands came up, brushing through his silky hair before drifting to his shoulders. When the kiss broke, the rapid expansion of her lungs mirrored the rise and fall of his shoulders against her palms.

“Don’t leave tomorrow,” she barely heard him whisper. “Stay with me.”

“I wish I could…” she murmured sincerely. But fairy tales too often turned into nightmares in the morning.

Kane nodded, exhaled, and said, “G’night.”

“Bye,” she breathed in return. She watched him walk down the hallway, admiring his naturally fluid movement. He glanced back, and she nearly called out. Instead, she reminded herself to be sensible, certain later she’d be grateful for her strict guidelines, even though right then, she despised them.

When he turned the corner, Sabella let her head fall back against the door and shut her eyes. This was one risk she knew better than to take.


Two


Weeks later, Sabella still couldn’t believe she had spent her last night in Nashville with Kane Hartridge, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it either. Physically, she had returned to her Portland apartment, but her mind kept drifting back to that night of its own volition.

She pulled a mug from her kitchen cabinet and poured herself some freshly brewed coffee. She needed to get back to work, but her ability to focus had gotten lost somewhere in Nashville. Her last few attempts had felt forced, and she didn’t want to pitch poorly written articles. Mostly, she wanted to return to that night, to feel Kane’s arms braced protectively around her and his lips on hers.

She couldn’t regret sticking to her self-imposed rules—they existed for a reason—but that didn’t keep her from picturing what would have happened had she invited him in.

Stay with me. The plea replayed in her mind at least a dozen times a day. Too often, she wished she had agreed, but it wasn’t like she could have simply disappeared from her life back home, putting everything on hold for however long, or short, of a time he wanted her there. For all she knew, he would have come to his senses in the sober light of day, and she would have been crushed by her poor decision-making. At this point, he probably didn’t even remember her.

Not for the first time, Sabella considered finding a way to contact him. Instead, she made her way to her couch, set her mug on the coffee table, and picked up her laptop. Her living room was the only room in her corner apartment that didn’t have a window, but it was home to most of her literary collection. A waist-high shelf placed perpendicular to the couch created separation between her entryway and the living room, and tall bookcases covered the entire wall opposite it. Another bookshelf leveled off the protrusion created by her bedroom closet. She had set a pair of cozy armchairs in that corner, across from the open space that led into both her kitchen and her dining room and allowed for natural light from those rooms’ windows.

No matter where she sat in this room, books surrounded her. Leather-bound collections of works by Shakespeare, Poe, Austen and their like mingled with the writings of Voltaire, Salinger, Molière, and more. Usually, this beautiful literature inspired her as she tried to write; it welcomed her, beckoning. Now, her beloved books seemed to chastise her for reliving one night rather than working on a potential chef d’oeuvre.

Still the memories played on a ceaseless loop.

“Focus, Sabella,” she muttered. She wasn’t about to lose her apartment or anything quite so drastic, but it might come to that if she couldn’t write and sell a few articles or short stories relatively soon, which was the downside of working freelance.

~*~

A couple of hours and a not altogether terrible article on how to choose a career path later, Sabella was interrupted by the doorbell. She shut and set down her laptop and made her way over to the door, stretching as she walked around the shelf. Remembering her disheveled appearance, she pulled out her hairband and ran her fingers through her hair. No matter who was waiting on the other side, she didn’t want to come off as a completely crazy shut-in.

She twisted the deadbolt and pulled open the door, then froze. Either she had progressed to full-blown hallucinations, or… “Kane?”

“Hey,” he said, flashing her an uncertain smile.

“What are you doing here?” she managed to ask, still not quite believing this was happening.

“Ninety percent of life is showin’ up,” he answered with a small shrug. He was wearing a blue tee shirt layered over a white, long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and he was really, it seemed, standing in her doorway.



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