Taking Chances

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Liz Anne is determined to make it in country music—and get away from the judgmental whispers of her hometown. But when she finally gets a shot to play for a successful singer, he’s unimpressed, leaving Liz Anne right back where she started: with an old guitar, a handful of songs, and a mountain of responsibilities.

Carefree guitarist Bobby, however, likes what he sees. And hears. Sure, Liz Anne’s songs are rough, but there’s definitely some potential buried beneath all that tension. So he offers to help her out with some guitar lessons.

Just guitar lessons, she insists.

Because Liz Anne has a secret. And if Bobby ever found out, he’d run the other way—taking with him her chance of building a better life.

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Enjoy an Excerpt from Taking Chances:


The even murmur of the crowd didn’t change as Liz Anne settled on the stool that marked the makeshift “stage” in a patch of grass. Blowing her nerves out with her breath, she strummed the old guitar, grooves in its neck now molded to her fingertips. Ignoring the blurred faces around her, Liz Anne started into her newest song, letting the steady, calm rhythm settle her heartbeat.

“When the sun sinks down low, and the world goes dark; when I’m broken apart, and I’ve lost my spark…” Was it her imagination, or had the conversations around her begun to fade? “Desperate I try to believe, somehow you could hear me.”

She could feel the eyes on her now. Just keep playing. Someone who knew someone had to be among those gathered around this tent, right? She’d tried to time her song early enough that the big names scheduled for the main stage wouldn’t yet pull everyone away.

“And whispered pleas fall from my lips…”

The final notes allowed her a few seconds to steel herself before lifting the guitar from her lap, pasting on a confident smile, and standing to give up the stool to any other interested singers. A smattering of applause acknowledged her performance.

Stepping out of the cleared area, Liz Anne focused only on keeping her mind blank, blocking any intruding hopes that maybe, this time…

A duo had already replaced her, and Liz Anne hovered at the outside edges of the small crowd, pretending to listen like they probably had while waiting their turn. Her free hand snaked through the casual waves of her hair that she’d painstakingly styled this morning. Whatever it takes.


Bobby let out a sliding whistle, his eyes following a swaying set of hips in barely there short shorts that showed off lean, long legs. “I sure don’t get tired of this.”

“Eyes in your head,” Steve said, all too predictably.

But in this sea of flannel, denim, and smiles, Bobby didn’t even mind. And he definitely didn’t plan on listening. “We got some time. Why not enjoy the local talent,” he goaded with a grin.

“At least pretend you care about the music.”

Scraps of melodies floated around them as they meandered around the festival booths. Bobby did care, about their music—playing with Steve and Kane. Scouring the pop-up hopefuls’ showcases wasn’t his thing. Kane had been thinking about adding an opener to their gigs, but finding someone was up to Mitch. All Bobby was good for was playing.

But the women didn’t mind, and the beer was good. What else did a guy need?


A mix of anxiety and anticipation thrummed through Liz Anne, tapping itself out on her well-worn guitar case. Her gaze swept the clusters of people, her lips forcing a pleasant smile any time she made eye contact. An older man with graying hair and a dark suit jacket looked her down and up before his eyes narrowed on her face. Liz Anne’s cheeks tightened with her smile. You never knew who was somebody in this town, even if this festival wasn’t actually in Nashville.

The man smiled in return and headed toward her. She shifted her weight into one hip and flattened a palm on the top of the case standing beside her.

“Not bad,” the man said, planting himself in front of her.

Was he talking about her music or…? “Thanks,” she said brightly.

“Got any more?”

“More?” she echoed.

“Songs,” he clarified, hitching a thumb into one of his jean pockets.

Liz Anne’s lips popped open. No way. “Yes, of—of course.”

Silence fell between them. Was he a manager? A talent scout? He might expect her to know, but not living in Nashville put her at a serious disadvantage when it came to knowing the players. Then again, he might be no one, trying to take advantage of the countless girls here like her, hoping for someone to give them a shot. But Liz Anne had too much at stake to be an easy mark.

“C’mon.” He tilted his head away from the people focused on the impromptu “stage” she’d recently occupied.

“Where’s that, mister…?” Liz Anne asked, not moving.

“Dennings. Mitch.” The corner of his lips tugged up into a smirk. “I’d like to hear another song or two.” Doubt must have shown on her face because he added, “You ever hear of Kane Hartridge?”

“Sure.” She nodded to back up the lie. Much as she loved her music, she didn’t exactly have the spare time to keep up with every new singer or band trying to make their way. She stuck with her favorites, or whoever caught her ear on the radio.

“Well, he’s looking for an opener,” Mitch Dennings said. “Think you got what it takes?”


Shoot. Slimy shoot on an extra-stale cracker. Mitch Dennings stood talking something over in hushed tones with another man, both of them sending glances Liz Anne’s way that she pretended not to notice. There was plenty to fake-focus on—people strolling by and colorful booths and a breeze that played with anything that moved. But their conversation didn’t look like good news for her. She shouldn’t have let the stranger get her hopes up, even if it did seem like he might really be a manager.

The men stopped talking and turned toward her, and Liz Anne shot them both her friendliest smile. One good thing about being a waitress: you learned to smile no matter what mess of emotions was churning in your gut.

“Kane Hartridge,” Mr. Dennings said when they reached her, “this here’s Liz Anne…” His eyes widened a fraction as he trailed off.

“Layton. It’s a–an honor to meet you, Mr. Hartridge.”

The singer’s—Lord, please let him really be a singer—eyes crinkled at the corners. Was he laughing at her? She forced her smile to tick up another notch.

“You a fan?” he asked. Younger than the manager, he still had a good decade on her.

Liz Anne’s answer came out as half–affirmation, half-hum. “You bet,” she added.

Hartridge’s eyes narrowed, losing their edge of humor. Whatever he’d wanted her to say, that hadn’t been it.

She sighed, dropping the false smile. Sweat slickened her grip on her guitar case. “No, I’m sorry, I’m actually not. Not that I don’t like your music,” she added quickly. “I don’t rightly know. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any of it, to be honest. But I’m sure it’s great—you’re…great.” Her head shook as her mind caught up to her rambling. “I’m awfully sorry to waste your time.” She managed another tight smile then lifted the case, focusing on the trampled grass below her boots.

“Hold on, now,” the singer said before she’d managed to do more than turn around. So much for a pain-free getaway.

She hitched her shoulders back and twisted around to face them again.

“You write your own songs?” he asked.

“I do.” Any second of spare time she could scrounge up was devoted to scribbling down lyrics or working out melodies.

“All right.” Hartridge scanned behind her for something, and Liz Anne held her breath, not moving, like a scared little bunny. Her heart was pounding something awful, too. With a nod, he gestured behind her, a bit to the left.

Inhaling, she spotted a couple fold-up chairs behind a booth with scarves and hats, out of the way of the main path. A pinch of tension left her stance as she picked her way over, followed by the men. Good thing she’d decided on jeans instead of her cutoff shorts, or her legs would’ve burned up on a metal chair left out in the sun.

After watching her take out the guitar and start to tune—near impossible under their scrutiny—the men took a few steps away and resumed their hushed conversation. It took them a few moments to notice when she’d finally gotten the instrument ready. Hartridge took half a step back toward her, his attention politely if distantly trained on her.

Liz Anne strummed a couple chords, willing her heart to stop beating so hard it’d throw off her rhythm, then flexed her fingers for good measure. Her breath blew out steadily over the opening chords. She made a last-minute decision to ditch the song’s first few lines, then started, “I walk the line of wrong or right, and I know where I stand. Holding true to my values, you may not understand. But I don’t care.”

Humming the next measure, she risked a glance at the men currently deciding her future. Or maybe having a laugh. The manager was looking over her shoulder, back toward the booths. Hartridge was frowning.

“Under the Good Lord’s watchful eye, don’t dare—” Her fingers hit a wrong note, and now Hartridge was shaking his head.

Liz Anne palmed the vibrating strings and stopped singing.

The singer watched her a moment before speaking. “It’s just not ready.” A thread of pity underscored the words.

Liz Anne nodded quickly. “Okay.” Her lips defaulted to that professional smile. “Thank you for your time.”


Bobby elbowed Steve, then jerked his chin in Kane and Mitch’s direction. Or more accurately, in the direction of the girl sitting in front of them holding a guitar. He could get behind another singer joining them if they looked like her.

“Wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Steve said.

Bobby scowled. “Why not?”

“’Cause Kane makes his decisions with a different part of his anatomy than you do.”

“Maybe she’s good.” Though now that they’d gotten closer, she looked more terrified than talented. Real pretty, though, with her long blonde hair—and even longer legs.

“Didn’t sound like the song you played earlier,” Mitch was saying when they got in earshot.

Kane nodded to them, but the girl bristled, her gaze bouncing between the four of them before landing on Kane.

“Uhm, yeah,” she said. “If you don’t mind, I could try that other one?”

“Sure.” But it didn’t sound like Kane expected much.

Steve shot Bobby a “what’d I tell you?” look. How bad had whatever she’d already played been? Oh well. Maybe she’d need some comforting after hearing Kane’s decision. It wasn’t like Bobby had anywhere he had to be for the next couple of hours.

The girl’s gaze swept the four of them again, and Bobby shot her a smile for good measure. She immediately focused all her attention on her guitar, blowing her breath out between pursed lips as her fingers twitched lightly above the strings.

She strummed a chord twice, switched to another, then switched back before starting to sing a soft ballad. “When the sun sinks down low, and the world goes dark…”

Bobby looked to the other men, but they were watching the girl. Not that he blamed them, but what was he missing here? She sounded pretty good. Could use some work on the guitar, maybe, make the line more interesting than the basic chords, but still. It didn’t make sense, Kane looking so uninterested.

“Desperate I try to believe…somehow you could hear me. Quiet pleas fall from my lips, fly from my lips to heaven.”

She was definitely on to something there, about her lips and heaven. Bobby shifted his weight onto his right leg. As she moved into the second verse, Kane held up a hand. She stopped mid-word, her lips still parted.

“All right. How about we find a time, better place, so we can listen properly,” Kane said.

Those lips moved into a tiny smile before she asked, “Really?”

“Boys,” Mitch said, half-waving at Steve and Bobby, “this here’s Liz Anne. Steve’s our drummer,”—Steve ducked his chin toward her—“and Bobby’s on bass guitar.”

“Pleasure,” Bobby said.

Liz Anne smiled more broadly, nodding back toward them.

“Talk it over with Mitch, find a time.” Kane pulled his phone out, glancing at it briefly. “It was good meeting you. Excuse me.” He didn’t stick around for Liz Anne’s response, which probably meant it was Sabella calling. Nothing short of a show could make Kane miss his wife’s calls, not that she called when they were on stage anyway.

Liz Anne and Mitch started talking schedules, and Bobby turned to Steve. “Told ya.”

“What’re you so excited about?” the drummer asked.

“Did you see her?”

Steve shook his head with his “I’m so much smarter than you” smirk. “Two ways this can go. He says no, and she heads on home with her hopes and dreams crushed, with no mind for anything else. Or, by some miracle he says yes. And then she’s off limits.”

“Well, shoot.” Bobby started to frown, but Steve wasn’t seeing option number three: all that time before she played for Kane again. “Ain’t no harm in being friendly in the meanwhile, is there?”


Once they’d agreed on a time for Liz Anne’s second semi-audition, the men went off to work, or enjoy the festival, or more than likely to look for someone better to play for them. Only the bass guitarist stuck around as she snapped the latch closed on her guitar case.

“Looks like we both have a bit of free time,” he said with a confident smile when Liz Anne straightened.

Curly hair and a lanky build, infinitely comfortable in his own skin, and a smile filled with carefree mischief. Exactly the kind of guy who could get a girl in trouble. “Only kind of playing I’m interested in is music, all right?”

He splayed his hands out in front of him. “All right. Maybe I could help you out, then. For when you play for Kane again.”

“How’s that?”

His smile ticked up a notch, and his head tilted toward the bustle of the fair. “You hungry?”

Not in the least, with all the nerves twisting her gut up into a tangled mess. What she really needed to do was find somewhere to listen to Kane Hartridge’s music. Maybe it’d help her figure out what song to play for him, if she had something that matched his sound. But she couldn’t exactly afford to alienate one of his band members, either. Any little thing could tip the scales against her. “Sure. Why not?”

“You could sound a little more excited at my generous offer,” the guitarist said as they headed toward the picnic area and its surrounding food booths.

“You really want to help me? Tell me about Kane’s music.”

“What about it?”

She shrugged, then passed her free hand through her hair to resettle it back away from her face. “Anything.”

He stopped mid-step, swinging around to look at her, confusion just under the surface of his expression. “You ain’t never heard of Kane?”

Oh, sugar honey iced tea. How big a deal was he? “Let’s just say I don’t make it out all that much.”

“Now I see. You’re using me for a crash course, get the inside scoop.” A cheeky smirk accompanied the accusation.

Liz Anne chuckled, shaking her head as they resumed walking. “Nothing a quick Google search wouldn’t be able to tell me.”

“Well, shoot. Reckon I can do more for you than that.”


There was something intense about Liz Anne. Focused, like every move she made was the most important thing in the world. Even now, as she listened to some songs Bobby’d pulled up, her hand resting protectively on her guitar case, her eyes were focused on something abstract in the distance, lips pinched like she was analyzing every second of the music.

Usually Bobby had no problem getting a girl to relax. But this one was barely paying attention to him. Or to the great, sunny day around them. “You know what,” he said, standing up from the picnic table, “I’m gonna get us a couple beers.”

She pulled one of the buds out of her ear, but barely glanced at him to say, “No, thanks.”

“I don’t mind.”

She fixed him with a no-nonsense look, pulling the other ear bud out. “I don’t drink.”

“You’re kidding.” Unless… “You are over twenty-one, right?”

She rolled her eyes rather than answer. “There’s more to life than alcohol.”

“Yeah.” He braced his hands on the table, leaning toward her with his foolproof smile. “There’s also music. And fine women like you.”

She didn’t move, but a new tension filled her posture, a wariness sharpening her gaze.

Bobby straightened, hitching his weight into one hip and tucking his thumbs in his pockets. “You all right, there?”

She blinked quickly, that odd stillness fading away, like she’d just started breathing again. “Right as rain. If you want that beer, don’t let me stop you.” She held his phone back out to him.

“If you say so.” He could tell when he wasn’t wanted. Plenty other fish, and all that. Plus Steve might’ve had a point about unnecessary complications. “See ya ’round, then.”


“Oh I’m free, free without you.” Liz Anne let her last chord sound for a couple of seconds, then pressed her palm to the guitar, silencing it. She waited another beat before raising her head to look at Kane Hartridge and his manager. His bandmates had also wandered into the “backstage” area as she played, but they weren’t the ones who mattered, not now anyway. Dennings looked like he’d lost interest in whatever made him approach her. Kane was frowning. Not outright, but there was that hint of the edges of his lips being pulled down. The hope that had been trickling through all her attempts to block it out finally stopped fighting reality. The rejection was even worse now that she knew his music was good—really good.

Kane sighed and took a step toward her. Much as she wanted to cower behind her guitar, Liz Anne lifted it away, resting it on the ground as she stood.

“Listen,” he said, “you have a good look, a fine voice. Your songs aren’t bad, they’ll get there. But you’re just not ready.” He paused, pity deepening that frown. “It’s nothing personal, all right?”

“To you.” The words slipped out on accident, but there was nothing for it now. Liz Anne pulled her shoulders back and notched her chin up. It was still true.

“What’s that?” he asked.

She could almost feel the other men staring at her, shocked. Expecting her to take it back. “It’s nothing personal to you. This is incredibly personal to me.”

Kane’s severe expression didn’t change as he took in her stance and stalled on her face, staring her down. But if he thought that’d be enough to make her back down, he was sorely mistaken. She had years of practice handling worse. And the worst thing he could say to her was another “no.”

“Kane,” the manager said from behind him.

The singer’s jaw shifted, breaking the tension built between them, letting Liz Anne inhale. She bit down, clamping her jaw shut to stop herself from blowing the breath out and showing all of them just how nervous she was.

“All right,” Kane said, taking a minute step back. He half-turned to glance at his manager before adding, “One show. Three songs. Next one’s out in Evansville. Mitch’ll give you details. Prove me wrong.”

She’d barely nodded before he turned his attention to his bandmates. “Time?” he asked them.

She didn’t hear their answer because Dennings had stepped closer, saying, “All right, then. Evansville’s next Friday, you can be there?”

She couldn’t not be there. But was there something planned she was forgetting? She’d just have to make it work. “Uh—yeah. Yes,” she told the manager, a bit too late.

“You sure, now?”

Kane had already said no twice, but even one real show opening for him was better than the nothing she’d done ’til then. The bass guitarist paused in his tuning, shooting her a smile behind the manager’s back, but Liz Anne focused on the older man who’d helped make this happen. “Absolutely.”

Taking Chances
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