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.
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. She hadn’t found it 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, she changed her mind.
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, remaining 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.