Rising Star (A Shooting Stars Novel)

Read the Excerpt

“I haven’t seen a penis in ninety days. Hurry your little heinie up, Charley, before all the good ones are gone.”

Ruby Barnett’s words hung in the August heat like granny panties on a clothesline, and Charley Layton couldn’t help but shake her head. After nearly three months of working with the bawdy woman, she was no longer shocked by Ruby’s crass, if honest, outbursts. As a longtime radio personality, some might think that the older woman would possess a stronger filter than most, but they’d be wrong.

All the same, Charley picked up her pace as the distant sound of singing hopefuls, ever present in this part of downtown Nashville, was interrupted by an unexpected voice.

“I’ll show you mine, Ruby,” offered a deep tenor from behind them. “Come have a look.”

Charley turned to see the incorrigible flirt Trevor Mulligan relieving himself next to his pickup truck in a far corner of the parking garage. The good old boy from Tulsa couldn’t carry a tune to save his life, but he could write a hit song like nobody’s business.

The voice that woke Nashvillians five days a week on Eagle 101.5 replied, “Gee, Trevor, if I’d known you were going to be so accommodating, darling, I’d have packed my magnifying glass before leaving the house.”

The elevator doors slid open, and the two ladies hopped in. Trevor hustled to join them, struggling with his zipper as he shuffled along. Flashing an evil smile, Ruby pressed the button that shut the doors in his face.

“That’s rule number fourteen,” she said, nodding toward the closed doors. “Never tickle the first pickle that comes along. There’s always a better specimen to be had. And in this case, a cleaner, less gnawed-on version.”

Poor Trevor. Charley didn’t know him well, having only met him twice, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. Not very selective, as Ruby vulgarly pointed out, but charming in his own way.

As for the rule thing, ranking at number fourteen meant Ruby had learned this lesson early in life. Charley’s would-be mentor lived by a long list of rules and rattled off life lessons on an almost daily basis. Just this morning, she’d shared rule number thirty-seven—never say “hand-applied” and “express lube” in the same sentence.

To be fair, they’d been broadcasting live from a car wash, and Charley had only been reading the talking points she’d been given.

“Trevor isn’t so bad,” Charley murmured, dabbing beads of sweat from her forehead.

“If you want to wait for him outside, I’m sure he’d happily make you the same offer he made me.”

“I’m not in the market for any pickle, gnawed on or not,” Charley replied as the doors once again opened.

Ruby snorted. “So you keep saying. But a woman needs a man to light her fuse every now and then. If you ask me, a little birthday sex sounds like the perfect way to celebrate twenty-five years on this spinning heap of dirt.”

Exiting the garage behind the saucy redhead, Charley inhaled clean air, hot and heavy as it was. “I’ll celebrate twenty-five with a couple beers and some laughs with friends. That’s good enough.” And safer, too, she thought. Men were much too fickle—and all too likely to leave destruction in their wake.

“That wasn’t cool, Ruby,” said Trevor as he stepped from the stairwell. “I’m already late for the gig at Legends.”

Without missing a beat, she said, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have stopped to take a piss in public.”

Trevor’s parting gesture conveyed his opinion of Ruby’s response.

“I don’t think he liked your advice,” Charley said, laughing.

“I’ll try to recover from the slight,” she replied with dripping sarcasm.

They strolled half a block down Second Avenue, serenaded from every open door they passed, to reach their destination. The line for the popular country venue stretched to the corner at Broadway, where another four blocks of honky-tonks welcomed natives and tourists alike. Eager two-steppers, perspiring beneath their cowboy hats, waited anxiously to sweat even more on the enormous Wildhorse Saloon dance floor.

As Ruby and Charley slipped through the entrance, calls of “We love you, Ruby!” and “Why are they cutting in line?” penetrated the stifling humidity. Being semi-famous to the locals did not mean tourists gave two bits who you were.

Classic Brooks & Dunn pulsed through the club as they made their way to the bar not far from the entrance. Waitresses in short shorts and well-worn cowboy boots sliced through the crowd, trays balanced skillfully above their heads. Ruby ordered two beers while Charley slipped into tourist mode, gawking at her surroundings.

A swirling design, etched to perfection in the custom floor tiles, drew the eye toward the endless expanse of glistening dance floor. The life-size porcelain equines scattered about, all done up in their most dapper western gear, brought a smile to her lips. And the two-steppers twirling in front of the empty stage, showing off their moves with style and grace, reminded her of weekends back home in Kentucky, when she’d spun away more than one Saturday night at the Barn Dance.

“I’m going backstage to check in,” Ruby said, handing Charley her drink. “You coming?”

“I’ll wait for Matty.”

Matilda Jacobs—Matty to her friends—was stunningly beautiful, terrifyingly brilliant, and unapologetically late for everything. At twenty-nine, she’d been navigating the Nashville nightlife for seven years and had grown disturbingly cynical. That she’d agreed to wade into what she considered shallow waters for even one night signified how much she liked her new roommate.

The depth of the dating pool meant little to Charley. She had one priority—to build her career in radio. A relationship would only be a distraction she didn’t need or want.

“I’m here,” called Matty, platinum locks catching the lights as she squeezed between two burly patrons. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope. Ruby and I walked in a few minutes ago.” Charley had no idea how Matty had skipped the line, but assumed she’d charmed a bouncer while flashing her radio station credentials.

Sculpted brows arched. “Then I’m earlier than usual.” She nodded to the bartender who’d appeared out of nowhere. “Glass of red, please.”

Dimples materialized as the man grinned in response. “Coming right up.”

As usual, Matty didn’t notice the adulation in the young man’s eyes. Though Charley considered herself pretty enough—reasonably sized nose, good natural highlights, tolerable legs—men did not fall at her feet, nor did they hop to do her bidding. Of course, Matty also had the petite thing going for her. Even in four-inch heels, she stood a solid two inches shorter than Charley’s five foot eight. To win in both looks and brains should have been against some law of nature, but as her roommate, Charley knew that Matty shaved her toes and had her mustache waxed every six weeks.

Proof that true perfection did not exist.

“So where is our redheaded wrecking ball?” Matty asked.

Charley grinned. “She’s backstage.”

The bartender returned with her glass of wine, saying, “Here you go, darling.” Matty withdrew a twenty from her clutch purse, but he waved her off. “Compliments of the gentleman down the bar.”

Her perfect features contorted as she shoved the money back in her purse. “I hate this game. Now the idiot is going to come over here and try some stupid line.” She said this without bothering to even glance in her benefactor’s direction. Charley succumbed to curiosity and leaned to the right to find a skinny guy in a ball cap staring at her friend. He wasn’t bad, but he certainly wasn’t anywhere close to being in Matty’s league. She couldn’t help but give him points for confidence.

“He hasn’t left his stool,” she shared, losing her breath when the man next to Mr. Ball Cap turned around.

Black cowboy hat, intense blue-gray eyes, and a scruff-covered chin straight out of a high-fashion magazine topped a slender yet muscled frame. The slight crook in his nose was the only visible flaw, but it added character to what might otherwise have been considered a too-pretty face. As he spoke to the man beside him, full lips parted to reveal straight white teeth, and Charley couldn’t look away. Interest stirred as Ruby’s words floated through her mind.

A woman needs a man to light her fuse every now and then.

Charley’s fuse was good and lit, and the man hadn’t even made eye contact. And then he did, and her mind went blank the same moment her knees threatened to give out. She didn’t smile, and neither did he. In fact, he looked away, showing no interest at all. Ball Cap gave what looked to be a passionate speech, and the Adonis turned once more. This time, he shook his head, and Charley went cold.

Screw him, she thought. He probably sucked in bed anyway.

###

“Dude, she’s going to cut you off at the knees,” Dylan Monroe assured his drummer. “That blonde wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”

Casey Flanagan remained undeterred. “Come on, man. She’s the best-looking woman in here. Go big or go home, right?”

“You’ll be going home alone if you shoot for that one. Why not try for the brunette?” he asked. “She’s a bit tall for my taste, but her eyes are nice.”

Her lips were nice, too. And the loose waves draped around her shoulders probably smelled good. Subtle and soft, unlike the women Dylan often encountered in the clubs. The ones with teased-out hair who considered musicians collectibles instead of real people. He’d ventured down that lane long enough to grow tired of meaningless one-night stands.

Casey spun his hat around backward. Never a good sign. “I’m going in, buddy. You distract her friend.”

“I’m not going to help you go down in flames,” he declared, despite a sudden urge to make the brunette’s acquaintance.

“You owe me, bro. We wouldn’t have anything to celebrate if my girlfriend hadn’t given you the scoop on Shooting Stars.”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Dylan corrected. “Now she’s your hostile roommate, as well as mine. Which means she would have told me about the new label looking for acts with or without you.”

A tip that had led to a new record deal and now his first single released to the world. Two realities that came with more pressure than he’d expected, though he’d done his best to keep the mounting anxiety at bay.

Dylan’s eyes strayed to the dark-haired woman once more. An air of confidence shone in the set of her shoulders. Not the typical bravado of a pretty face mixed with liquid courage, but true grit. The type that would challenge a man and make him earn her time and attention. The kind of girl he’d started to believe didn’t exist.

“What do you think Pamela is going to do if you bring a chick home?” Dylan asked his friend.

“A woman like that has her own place,” Casey countered. “Besides, Pamela doesn’t get a say in who I sleep with. Not anymore.”

No matter what his friend said, Dylan knew the truth. Casey loved Pamela, and she loved him. A simple conversation would straighten out the misunderstanding that had led to their breakup, and they’d be back to boffing like bunnies in no time. Too bad neither would drop their pride long enough to listen.

“You don’t want to do this,” he warned half-heartedly now.

It wasn’t as if Casey had never been shot down before. He was a big boy. He could take it. And Dylan would have a few minutes with the woman now eying them suspiciously. When she caught him looking, one slender brow arched high, serving as both a dare and a warning, he couldn’t help but smile at the possibilities.

“You don’t see that every day,” he mumbled, unaware that he’d spoken aloud.

“You’re telling me,” Casey agreed. “I bet those lips taste like heaven. Dollars to doughnuts she smells good, too.”

“Honeysuckle,” Dylan guessed.

“Nah,” his friend replied. “Something expensive. Something better than Pamela’s wildflower stuff.”

The comment broke the spell, and Dylan glanced to the man beside him. “You’re already comparing her to Pam, and you haven’t even met her. Why don’t you give up and admit that those pictures weren’t for you?”

Casey shook his head. “If she doesn’t trust me, there’s nothing to talk about.”

Dylan rolled his eyes. “A woman finds pictures of a naked woman on her boyfriend’s phone, she’s going to assume he’s up to no good. What else was she supposed to think?”

Green eyes turned his way. “She was supposed to ask me about them and then believe me when I told her the truth.”

“But you didn’t tell her the truth,” he pointed out.

“She didn’t give me the chance.” Shaking off the topic, the drummer focused on the blonde once more. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got my eye on something better.”

“Buddy, that woman is a ten. You’re a five at best. Maybe a six if she’s had enough to drink, and she doesn’t look the least bit tipsy.”

“You distract her friend, and I’ll handle the rest,” Casey said, rising off his stool. “Come on.”

Dylan followed with a resigned sigh, keeping his own enthusiasm in check. After all, he could be wrong about the taller woman. In the last year alone, he’d been mistaken on two other occasions, resulting in two failed attempts at real relationships. But then, neither had intrigued him with a single look. His gut said there was something here. Something worth pursuing.

And if not, then he and Casey would crash and burn together.