Leland sat in his truck with the headlights on and the engine running outside the familiar Belle Meade address, where he spied the Sotheby’s “SOLD” sign posted on the sprawling estate. The Thunder Rolls played from a local station airing Garth Brooks’ favorite hits. As the song continued, Leland wondered what his future held with Melissa, a country music diva who could have any man she wanted, yet decided to be with him instead.
He killed the motor and checked himself in the vanity mirror to inspect his blue denim shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose his gold cross necklace. A pink rose occupied the seat beside him, the flower’s natural fragrance muted in the presence of his Chrome cologne.
He left his truck and approached the house to see Melissa appear in heels and designer jeans with a form-fitting top to accentuate her figure. “You look amazing,” he said sincerely.
Melissa adjusted her top. “Are your contacts dirty?”
Leland offered the pink rose. “This is for you.”
“I didn’t know,” Leland said with an apologetic tone.
“Just kidding…” Melissa kissed him on the cheek and took the rose. “You’re too easy, but thank you. How did you know pink was my favorite color?”
“Abby told me.”
Leland escorted her to his truck and opened her door to help her up before he came around the driver’s side. He secured his seatbelt and twisted the key in the ignition. The motor cranked but wouldn’t fire. “This never happens,” he said, baffled by the unexpected result.
Melissa smiled. “That’s what they all say.”
Leland pumped the pedal and tried the ignition again. This time the engine fired.
“Let’s go MacGyver. I’m starved!”
Leland backed away from the house and drove down the long, sloping driveway toward the gate. He liked the scent of Melissa’s perfume, sweet and delicate, yet alluring. He also admired the way her shoulder-length hair complemented her face. “You find a sitter for your boys?”
“They’re at a sleepover with friends.”
“What did they think about going back to school?”
Melissa held her rose by the stem and sniffed the petals. “They’re not thrilled, but considering everything that’s happened, a familiar routine will be good for them. What about Abby?”
“The principal caught her skipping class again.”
“Seriously?” Melissa adjusted her seatbelt. “The gate will open by itself,” she said when they reached the end of the driveway. “Hendrix has been nagging me to meet with her since my boys transferred there. That woman has a rattlesnake temper.”
Leland nodded. “I did my time with her already.”
“For skipping class?”
Leland winced. “Not exactly.”
“Is Abby home?”
“I dropped her off at Sid’s. Figured that was punishment enough. Sometimes I feel like I’m not connecting with her anymore.”
“Give her some space. She’s been through a lot. More than most kids would see in a lifetime.”
Leland waited for the big gate to open and headed east toward downtown Nashville. He liked the way Melissa laughed at his jokes, or at least pretended to be amused by them. The more time he spent with her, the more he enjoyed their time together. He wanted to kiss her but decided to wait for a more opportunistic moment to present itself.
He drove slowly through the moderate traffic, amazed by the magnitude of the ongoing cleanup effort. Determined to give back what the city had given him, he had plans to volunteer his time and effort in support of the marathon recovery the city would undertake in the coming months and years. But tonight was his to own in pursuit of a new relationship with a woman he’d hoped to impress. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said when he reached his destination downtown and found a parking space. “I thought we’d catch some live music and grab a bite, but not necessarily in that order.” He got out to feed the parking meter and opened Melissa’s door.
“You’re such a gentleman,” Melissa offered with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
“You don’t know me well enough.”
Melissa sniffed her rose again. “How did Abby know pink was my favorite color?”
Leland walked her to the entrance of Robert’s Western World. “Lucky guess.” He put his hand on Melissa’s lower back and gently led her inside.
Melissa scoped out the bar. “What happened to me deciding where we eat?”
Leland shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “The man always decides on the first date.”
“Is that so?”
“It’s man code.”
“Does the man hope to see a second date?”
Leland scratched his sideburn. “Point taken. We can go somewhere else if you like.”
Melissa brushed her rose petals against his chin. “I thought the flood wiped out this hillbilly diner.”
“Not yet. Still the best cheeseburger on Broadway.” Leland bumped fists with a bartender who gestured toward an empty table near the back.
“Do you know everyone in here?” Melissa asked.
“I’ve played a few gigs,” Leland offered. He pulled a chair out for Melissa and ignored the tall, blonde waitress who immediately recognized him. “She’s just a friend.”
Melissa took her seat. “You seem to have lots of friends for someone who moved to Nashville recently.”
“I’m a people person,” Leland said blithely.
“So I gathered.”
“It’s not like that.”
Melissa winked at him. She nudged his leg with her foot under the table. “How’s the band treating you?”
“I have my first rehearsal with them tomorrow. Brad Siegel’s going to be there.”
“Are you excited?”
“I’m playing rhythm guitar for a bunch of country-rock wannabes and singing background vocals on lyrics a Girl Scout could write.”
“I was a Girl Scout!”
“Did you hustle cookies door to door?”
“I sold my share.”
When the waitress arrived, Leland ordered a Coors Light for himself and a glass of Chardonnay for Melissa. “The band’s a short term gig.”
“It’s good exposure.”
“Are you done with your album?”
Melissa thought carefully before she answered. She wanted to come clean on a few things, but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. “Not yet.”
“I saw the sign in your yard. Your place sold quickly.”
“A cash buyer from out of state made an offer. He’s flying in to close the deal.”
“You don’t sound enthused.”
“I’m bitter sweet. My boys grew up in Belle Meade. It’s all they know.”
Leland reached for his beer when the waitress backtracked toward the table with her shirt unbuttoned to expose her cleavage. “If you need help moving, I know a guy with a truck.”
Melissa reached for her wine. “If you could date anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be and why?”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
Melissa blushed. “I’m serious. You must be crushing on someone.”
“Maybe Wonder Woman. I always liked Linda Carter. She wore that stars and stripes outfit with her magic lasso and red boots.”
“You must have been like five when her show came out.”
“I was old enough to appreciate her… accessories.”
Melissa sipped her wine. “Ed Ames.”
Leland laughed beer through his nose. “The Jimmy Crocket guy?”
“Daniel Boone. He played Mingo, a Cherokee Indian.”
“So you’re into Native Americans?”
“My great grandfather was Native American Cherokee. They dressed him for the part on the show.”
“Your great grandfather?”
“Stop…” Melissa smirked. “Ed Ames. His voice always struck me. So soothing and powerful. I grew up listening to him on the radio. My mother liked to play his RCA records.” Melissa sipped her wine and studied Leland’s expression. “You probably don’t remember those. The big plastic discs you had to drop on a rotating platter.”
Leland kept his attention on Melissa. “I have some vinyl of my own. Mostly classic rock I listened to in high school. Some of the jackets got flooded in my garage.” He sipped his beer, casually admiring Melissa’s soft facial features with every passing glance.
“What are you thinking?” Melissa asked. She crossed her legs at the knee and put her hand on Leland’s arm.
“You have any hobbies?”
“Between work and music and Abby, I don’t have much free time. What about you?”
“Just two: peace and quiet.”
“I can relate.”
Melissa traced her finger along the cross tattoo on Leland’s arm. “You ever think about acting?”
“I have a face for radio.”
“I think the waitress with her tits spilling out of her shirt would disagree.” Melissa sipped her wine. “A lot of singers got into acting. David Bowie, Harry Connick, Jr., Justin Timberlake, Tim McGraw.”
“I can’t see myself in movies.”
“Think about it.”
“Maybe after I win male vocalist of the year.”
Melissa tapped Leland’s hand. “And you’re modest, too.”
“Do you like to cook?”
“I can think of better things to do in the kitchen.” Melissa blushed. She gulped her wine. “Forget what I said. Sometimes I speak before I think.”
“I like that in a woman.”
“What about kids? You ever consider having more?”
“One teenage daughter is enough for me. Speaking of which, Vanderbilt told me her bill was covered.”
“You must have good insurance.”
“I don’t have any insurance.”
Melissa looked away to avoid Leland’s probing stare. “Maybe there was a clerical error. I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“For fifty thousand dollars?”
“Sometimes good things happen to good people.”
“I’m going to repay you. Every penny.”
Melissa reached into her purse for her pain medication. “You don’t owe me anything. And don’t read too much into it.” She fumbled for the prescription in her purse, unable to unscrew the top one-handed. In her haste, she dropped the bottle on the floor.
“I got it,” Leland offered before Melissa could reach it. He glimpsed the label.
“It’s not what you think,” Melissa explained.
Leland gave her the meds. “None of my business.”
“I have back pain.”
“I’m not judging.”
“But you’re curious?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“It’s what you’re not saying.”
Leland lowered his voice. “Did I say something wrong?”
Melissa unscrewed the lid and took two pills out. She gave the hovering waitress an evil eye and swallowed the black market tablets with the ice water on the table. “A few years ago, my tour bus was hit by a tractor trailer as we were coming off the interstate. The driver was speeding and didn’t slow down in time. When he hit the back of the bus, I went flying and slammed into a table. The impact ruptured two discs in my lower back. Six months and three surgeries later, I could finally walk without a cane. They replaced the damaged discs with synthetic ones, but my lower back still hurts. My doctor says the pain is psychosomatic.”
“What do you think?”
“It didn’t help my career. My driver died in the accident. One of my backup singers suffered a permanent neck injury. I had to cancel the tour. My album tanked. I’ve tried to put it behind me, but it’s hard sometimes. On a good day I can touch my toes. Other days, it hurts to get out of bed.”
“I never realized.”
Melissa finished her wine. “To be honest… it’s been a rough ride for me the last few years. Since the accident, I haven’t exactly been at the top of my game. I’ve had to make some lifestyle adjustments, as Sid would say. Sold my horses. Let go of most of my staff at home, and put my boys in public school. No offense.”
“No worries. I’m sure those weren’t easy decisions.”
“On top of that, Sid discovered my accountant was stealing from me. The bastard took most of my life savings.”
“I’m really sorry.”
Melissa frowned. “I should have been more careful. I was so hell-bent on rebuilding my career, I took my hands off the wheel. I trusted him.”
“My new album is more of a fantasy than anything I expect to finish, let alone promote on tour.” Melissa pinched her wine glass stem and tipped her drink back. “Sorry. Bet you didn’t see this coming. I guess I’m not really the woman you thought I was.”
“On the contrary,” Leland reassured her. “I think you’re amazing.”
Melissa circled her finger along the rim of her empty glass. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We haven’t eaten.”
“I’m not hungry anymore.”
* * *
Melissa rode home in Leland’s truck, lost in her thoughts about what she should have said but didn’t say as the night went on. She’d taken Leland country dancing and saw how God never meant for him to dance. She’d seen him eat meat on a stick from a roadside vendor. He had to eat, she’d reconciled, feeling guilty for depriving him from the cheeseburger he’d ordered from his favorite dive bar. Aside from his rugged good looks and his southern charm, she found something undeniable about his character and his family bond. Moreover, he’d risked his own life to save her son, and for that, she would always be grateful. He accepted her for who she was: a washed-out vocalist whose spotlight faded years ago in a town full of singers half her age and twice her talent.
She held the rose on her lap, diverting her eyes from oncoming headlights and the reassuring smiles Leland cast upon her. She knew he liked her. That much was obvious. What she didn’t know was where she wanted the evening to go. And as she rode through her gated entrance along the winding driveway toward her soon to be vacated property, she wanted the evening to end without an awkward goodbye.
“Thank you for driving,” she offered when Leland rolled up to her house.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” Leland replied. “I enjoyed spending time with you.”
Leland put his arm around her and leaned closer for a kiss.
Melissa shied away. “I had a nice time tonight. I hope I didn’t say anything to offend you.”
“Aside from stepping on my toes when we danced the promenade—”
“I did not!” Melissa retorted. “You were the one dancing like a donkey in heat.” She laughed at her own analogy. “I didn’t mean the way it sounded.”
“So now you’re calling me an ass?” Leland needled her.
“Are you sure you’re safe to drive?”
Melissa held up her pink rose. “I should get going.” She touched the door latch. “Would you like to come inside? I make a mean cup of coffee.”
Leland rested his arm on the steering wheel. “I should probably head home.”
“Just for a few minutes? I have something I want to show you in my studio. And don’t get any ideas. This is not an invitation to sex.”
* * *
Melissa entered the kitchen and filled a twelve-cup carafe with tap water. “I’ll start the coffee.”
“Can I help?”
“I’m pouring water, not serving a five course meal.” Melissa powered the Cuisinart Grind & Brew and poked her head around the corner to see Leland venture toward her music studio. With his attention focused elsewhere, she ran upstairs to retrieve a small guitar case from her closet. When she carried it back to her studio, she found Leland at the piano. “A band member gave this to me as a gift.” She placed the case on the floor to open it. “A nineteen sixty-seven—”
“Daniel Friedrich,” Leland finished her sentence. “Very nice.”
“How did you know? Never mind. I thought you might like to play it.”
Leland took the guitar and rested it on his knee. He brushed the strings with his fingertips and played several bars of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, the sound warm and lush with every note from the elegant guitar made of European spruce. “Thank you very much. How long have you had it?”
“Almost ten years.”
“I thought of all people, you would appreciate it the most.”
Leland gave the guitar back and diverted his attention to the grand piano. He played chopsticks while Melissa put the vintage instrument away. “I learned this when I was five.” He tapped the keys until Melissa parked herself beside him.
“Cute. Maybe you should stick with guitar.”
Leland paused to crack his knuckles. Then he let his fingers fly across the keyboard. “Remember this one?”
“Only the Good Die Young!” Melissa blurted, flabbergasted by Leland’s ability to pump the piano like Jerry Lee. “I love Billy Joel!”
Leland played several bars then stopped to think of a different tune. This time, he played “Walking in Memphis.”
“I met Marc Cohn by accident in a New York City diner,” Melissa recalled. “He’s a very handsome man.”
Leland worked the foot pedals and slowed the tempo to play a different tune, a slow, methodic melody in F minor. “I can’t compete with Marc Cohn or Billy Joel, but this one belongs to me. Sort of a work in progress.”
There was a time in my life
When I thought I held all the answers…
What happened to love?
What happened to reason?
And where do we go from here?
One heart breaks and one heart mends
Where new love starts and old love ends, in a moment of time…
Along a nebulous line, somewhere
Between lovers and friends…
You tell me to stay but you want me to go
You can’t decide…
Make up your mind
Or let it ride, and take it slow…
One heart breaks and one heart mends
Where new love starts and old love ends, in a moment of time…
Along a nebulous line, somewhere
Between lovers and friends…
We’re flyin’ blind without a net
To live our lives and not forget
The long goodbyes and no regrets
Somewhere between… lovers and friends
A stiff lip breaks, a soft one bends
When you blur the line between…
Lovers and friends
Between lovers and friends
Lovers… and, friends…
Melissa slipped her heels off and lifted her sundress over her head. She unfastened her white lace bra and laid it on top of the piano in stark contrast to the black lacquer finish. She shimmied her panties to her ankles and stepped out of her French-cut lace. Completely naked, she moved slowly and deliberately onto Leland’s lap, straddling him face to face. She kissed him softly on the mouth and whispered, “I dare you to play it again.”