July 8, 2019
Macie Rae Publishing
Among The Stars – A Shooting Stars Novella
Veronica Shepherd thought she was fine. She thought she was over her ex-husband. But now said ex-husband is marrying his high school sweetheart–the only woman he’s ever really loved–and Veronica is not taking the news well. In fact, she’s spending Christmas Eve drinking herself into oblivion, and into the arms of one sexy bartender.
Based on his childhood alone, Cameron Rhodes should either be in prison, in rehab, or six feet under. Instead, he’s spent the last twenty years building a life that no one could have predicted. Now, to his own disgust, he’s been named one of Nashville’s most eligible bachelors—mostly because he’s one of the wealthiest men in town. A rich mortal among the stars.
Cam’s life is turned upside down when a beautiful woman passes out in his arms. With nothing but a dead cell phone and a useless coat check ticket to go on, his only option is to take her home and let her sleep it off in the safety of his apartment. What follows is an adventure he never saw coming.
Before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, Veronica and Cam pretend to be lovers, become lovers, and toy with the possibility of becoming so much more.
“Who’s a girl gotta flash to get a drink in this place?”
The moment the words crossed her lips, Veronica Shepherd realized she might be drunk. Then again, what was a pity party without a hefty dose of alcohol? If she were a sassy little redhead like her ex-husband’s new bride, guys would be flocking to buy her drinks.
This was her fourth bar of the night. Or maybe her fifth. After the phone call from her ex—who also happened to be her best friend—announcing his impending nuptials, Veronica faced a choice. Spend Christmas Eve drinking herself into oblivion alone on her couch, or recruit another friend for a night out on the town. Neither option was the norm for her. Though she loved to throw elaborate and rowdy shindigs throughout the year, Veronica rarely drank and almost never visited the loud, tourist-ridden bars of Nashville’s Lower Broadway.
Tonight had been an exception in many ways.
After downing a rum and Coke at the main floor of this particular establishment—the name of which she did not know—she’d ascended a level to find the music even louder on the second floor. Seeking a more reasonable volume, Veronica climbed another flight to find a more tolerable atmosphere and several empty seats at the bar. Now she needed a libation to go with her comfy barstool. The friend she’d recruited for the night, a minor acquaintance named Melanie Turnbull, had met a guy at their previous destination and refused to continue Veronica’s quest to visit every venue with an open door. Which, for anyone who has never visited Nashville, is every single bar for four blocks.
Undeterred, Veronica had moved on alone. She always seemed to be alone these days.
“No flashing necessary, darling. What can I get you?”
Glancing into the brownest eyes she’d ever seen, her world spun. A possible side effect of her level of intoxication, but something told her this paragon of a manly beauty could make even a sober girl dizzy. Dark brows arched in expectation, and a twinkle danced in his steady gaze. Or maybe that was the neon reflecting off his eyeball. Perfect male specimens of this nature never twinkled, after all. And perfect was the only way to describe him.
Strong jaw shadowed by a day’s growth of scruff. Cheekbones that would make a Victoria’s Secret model weep with envy. And the hair. Veronica sighed as she propped her chin in her hand. One onyx lock dangled over his forehead, tempting her to touch it. She didn’t, of course. She wasn’t that drunk.
“You’re pretty,” she sighed instead.
“Thanks,” the bartender replied. “You aren’t so bad yourself.”
A cheesy and cliched response, but Veronica didn’t care. The timbre of his voice lit a long-dormant fire, and she wanted to keep him talking.
Leaning forward, hoping she appeared more sexy than desperate, she said, “What do you recommend for a girl looking to forget someone?”
Tilting his chin as if truly pondering the question, he said, “That depends. Are you the dumper or the dumpee?”
The divorce had been mutual, but Veronica felt like the one left behind tonight.
Dark eyes narrowed. “Then the dumper is a fool.”
She was the fool for letting Ash go, but she didn’t correct the sexy server.
“Fool or not, he’s getting his happily ever after, and I want a drink.” The last was uttered with a slur so Veronica tried again. “A drink,” she said more clearly, emphasizing the k sound.
The bartender leaned on the bar, drawing attention to strong forearms revealed beneath the rolled-up sleeves of his starched white button-down. Licking her lips, she pulled her gaze upward and spotted a wisp of dark hair through the open collar at his throat. Veronica’s mouth went dry.
“I think you may have had enough drinks for tonight,” he said, the purr of his voice too distracting for the words to sink in. “Where are your friends, and how are you getting home?”
Watching his lips move, she imagined pressing her own against them. “I’m all alone,” she replied. “You could take me home.”
“Do you go home with strangers often?”
Veronica shook her head slowly, her eyes still on his mouth. “Never.”
“But for me you’d make an exception?”
The judgmental tone made her sit up straighter. “Would that be so bad? To have to make love to me all night?”
The chiseled jaw twitched as he watched her with a heated look that did funny things to her girl parts. Veronica shivered.
“No, that wouldn’t be bad for either of us,” he drawled. “But I’d rather a woman ask me to make love to her because she wants me, not because she wants to forget someone else.”
Well, damn. He had a point. What the hell was she doing? Drinking Ash away wasn’t working so she’d screw him away instead?
Gathering what little dignity she had left, Veronica tucked her tiny clutch beneath her arm and slid from the stool, but the spinning from earlier intensified, and she swayed. The bartender caught her hand, a lifeline in the storm.
“Get back on the stool until I come around,” he ordered, the casual drawl all business now. “Trina, announce last call. I’ll be back in a few.”
With one butt cheek on the seat, Veronica leaned on the bar and tried to remember when she’d last eaten, but nothing came to mind. There’d been a bagel for breakfast. A small Cobb salad right before Ash’s call. His voice played back in her mind. Full of excitement and love. For someone else.
“I’m pathetic,” she mumbled as a warm body drew up behind her.
“You aren’t pathetic. Just drunk.” Lifting her chin, the bartender searched her eyes. “Think you can make it outside?”
Veronica nodded slowly, careful not to intensify the vertigo, and rose to her feet once again. She made it a step before swaying this time, and strong arms kept her upright. Embarrassed that she’d let herself get this bad, she caved to the inevitable and leaned into his solid frame. In her heels, Veronica stood at an even six foot, but the bartender was still half a head taller. Instead of leading her to the stairs, he headed for a black door in the corner.
In a moment of clarity, she understood that allowing a stranger to lead her into an unknown room in her current condition wasn’t the most prudent decision. He’d already turned her down for sex, so the odds of him assaulting her seemed low. If not a rapist, he could be a killer masquerading as a bartender waiting for a drunk woman to fall helplessly into his clutches.
As the scent of his crisp, woodsy cologne filled her senses, Veronica accepted her fate. If this was how she died, so be it. They slipped through the door into a bright hallway, and she raised an arm to shield her eyes.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I should have prepared you for that.”
Halfway down the hall, her eyes adjusted in time to see him press a button beside elevator doors. Still drunk enough for filters to be disengaged, she said, “Are you going to kill me?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” The doors glided open, and he helped her inside before pressing another button.
“If this place has an elevator, why did I walk up three flights of stairs in these heels?” Veronica teetered as she stepped out of the shoes and bent to pick them up. “God, that feels better.”
“I wouldn’t step outside on Broadway in my bare feet if I were you.”
“Of all the bad decisions I’ve made tonight, going barefoot won’t even make the top ten.”
“At least I’ve kept you from making one more.”
Veronica eyed him suspiciously. “What? From falling down the stairs?”
He sighed. “Two then.” Before she could get clarification, the doors opened. “Do you have a ticket for coat check?”
Opening her clutch, she drew out a small green ticket. “Is this it?”
“Ours are red.”
Well, damn. “Then I must have left my coat someplace else.”
Seeming put out now, the bartender leaned her against the wall and said, “Stay here.”
Since Veronica had no idea where she was or how to get out, she obeyed. As her annoyed escort disappeared down the hall, the sounds of pots and pans knocking together traveled through the wall behind her, and the smell of something deep-fried, made her stomach growl. Feeling queasy, she slid down the wall to land inelegantly on her bottom, literally and figuratively hitting a new low.
“No napping,” admonished the bartender, returning with a black coat thrown over his arm. “Back on your feet.”
Taking her hands, he hefted Veronica off the floor. Her stomach protested the sudden change in altitude. “I don’t feel good,” she murmured.
Brushing the hair from her eyes, he examined her face. When her body convulsed, he muttered, “Damn it,” and whisked her through a narrow door she hadn’t noticed before.
Veronica didn’t have time to worry about where he was taking her as the moment they reached the toilet, she heaved what felt like everything she’d ingested in the last month into the bowl. The bartender held her hair out of the way while keeping her upright with an arm around her stomach. By the time the horrifying incident ended, tears were streaming down her face, and she’d never been so mortified in her life.
Without a word, he handed her a paper towel. Shivering now, Veronica tried to put space between them.
“Relax,” he whispered. “I’ve got you.”
The words did little to ease her embarrassment. Veronica took two deep breaths and used the towel to dry her cheeks.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
She nodded, and together they returned to the hall, but they’d barely made it back to the elevator doors when the edges of her vision began to fade. A second later, the world went black.
# # #
This was not how Cameron Rhodes saw his night going.
Lowering the mystery woman gingerly to the floor, he propped her against the wall and gave her cheek a light tap.
“Anyone home?” Cam waited but nothing changed. She was out, and by the smell of her breath, for the rest of the night.
First, he needed a name. Next to his coat that he’d dropped in their rush to the bathroom, he found her purse and searched for an ID. The tiny clutch held the coat check ticket she’d flashed earlier, a dead cell phone, and a purple guitar pick.
Great. Unless he wanted to run every patron through this hall hoping someone could identify her, Cam had only one option.
“Looks like I’m taking you home after all.”
This wouldn’t be the first time he’d taken a beautiful woman home, but his previous guests had all been conscious, willing visitors. Tonight would be a new experience for at least one of them. She might need this type of assistance on a regular basis for all Cam knew. Drawing the cell from his back pocket, he placed a call that was answered on the first ring.
“Kyle, please bring my car to the rear entrance.”
“Yes, sir. Be there shortly.”
Phone in hand, Cam stared at his current dilemma and shook his head. What woman went out alone, got herself blackout drunk, and didn’t even carry ID? Since every club along Broadway—including his—carded at the door, he assumed she’d lost hers somewhere on the premises.
He sent off a quick text to the lead servers on all three floors and watched as each response came back with the same answer. No IDs found.
Accepting his fate, Cam wrapped her in his heavy overcoat and lifted her into his arms. Her blue eyes remained closed, and a honey-blond curl fell over her cheek.
Those eyes had been the first thing he’d noticed after she’d called out for a drink. Though half closed, Cam had caught a sadness there. When she’d shared her dumpee story, that sadness made sense, but his sudden urge to console her had thrown him off balance. In his line of work, encounters with drunk women were the norm. A compulsion to take care of them was not.
“What’s your story?” he whispered as he carried her down the hall.
In response, she curled against him, tucking her head beneath his chin and sighing against his throat. Cam’s arms tightened, and the rest of him reacted instinctively. Not what he needed right now. Stepping out into the cold night took care of the erection, and true to his word, Kyle arrived in Cam’s black BMW seconds later.
Climbing out of the car, the lanky valet blinked in surprise. “Is she okay?”
“She’ll feel like hell in the morning, but otherwise she’s fine. There’s no ID so I’m going to let her sleep it off at my place.”
The valet stepped around to the passenger side. “Do you want me to see if Trina or Shanáe can put her up?”
Cam considered the question. Taking an unconscious woman home opened the door for complications. She’d said she was alone, but what if someone was looking for her? Or what if when she woke, she went psycho, accusing him of kidnapping or worse? He was about to suggest Kyle call Trina when slender arms snaked around his neck, and his cargo purred with contentment.
“No need,” he said, nodding for the valet to open the car door. “I’ve got her.”
Kyle waited as Cam buckled his passenger in. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Rhodes,” he said once his employer stepped back and closed the car door.
“Thanks, Kyle. And thanks for working tonight.”
The young man shrugged. “Only seemed right that folks with families have the night off.”
Like Cam, Kyle didn’t have family close by, and he’d never asked for time off to visit wherever it was he called home. The same went for much of the Rhodes Tavern staff. While working his way up through the restaurant ranks, from washing dishes in a dive in Chicago at age sixteen to opening Rhodes Tavern nearly twenty years later, Cam had encountered countless lost souls.
Outcasts, stragglers, and drifters all navigating life with no tether to family or home. These were his people. Cam understood them because he was one of them, and when it came time to staff his own establishment, those deemed disposable by the rest of society were welcomed into the fold.
In the two years since the tavern opened, circumstances had changed for several employees. Cam had lost track of how many weddings he’d attended in the last year alone, and budding families abounded. He’d even had a brief engagement of his own, but the relationship didn’t last long enough to reach the altar.
“Maybe that’ll be you next year,” Cam said. Kyle and Trina had been dating for several months. Both were hardworking and deserved a good life.
The valet crossed his arms. “I don’t like to think that far ahead.”
Cam didn’t blame him. He knew only a fraction of the young man’s story, and little about it had been positive. Maintaining any kind of hope after a lifetime of disappointment was difficult at best.
“You and Trina have a good holiday.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Kyle gave a quick salute before trotting down the alley and disappearing around the corner of the building. Cam’s white button-down offered little protection from the cold as he hurried around to the driver’s side. After cranking the heater, he put the black sedan into motion and made a left onto 4th Avenue headed toward Korean Veterans Blvd.
Cam supposed that if there was ever a night to play good Samaritan, Christmas Eve was it. Though a glance at the clock on the dash reminded him they’d rolled into Christmas Day two hours ago. Would Janie be at his place? His much younger half-sister had her own key and made occasional visits, always unannounced and never for long.
Last he’d heard, she was in Colorado working at a ski resort, but as they were the only family either of them had, the nomad might make an appearance. Janie wouldn’t be surprised to find him bringing home a stray. Cam had done so many times over the years, though never a grown woman wearing a slinky red dress revealing legs that went on for miles.
Someone has to be missing her.
He entered the roundabout and veered off onto 8th Avenue, curious about the man his passenger was trying so hard to forget. Had he cheated on her? Too many douche bags did shit like that, making life more difficult for the rest of their gender. Then again, maybe she’d run him off. Been too needy, too bitchy, or too unfaithful in her own right.
Cutting his eyes to the sleeping beauty beside him, Cam’s instincts told him she’d done none of those things. But he’d been wrong about a woman before.