Music City Madness: Chapter 74

Crammed in the last row of the standing-room-only section reserved for VIP guests, Melissa maneuvered around a pair of taller gentlemen gazing at the Jumbotron and the swooping television cameras above the sold-out space inside the Bridgestone Arena, where thousands of delirious, screaming fans enjoyed another Brooks & Dunn ballad. Caught in the rapture of live music, her life made sense again. She had her boys. She had an agent who supported her decisions, and she had her career on track for the first time in years. Her carte blanche pass to the best show of 2010 notwithstanding, she embraced the action off stage, an anonymous observer lost in the crowd, adrift in her indecision about the man who stole her heart.

Sid put his hand on Leland’s shoulder. “You’re on in ten minutes,” he shouted backstage above the sound of live music.
Leland picked at the strings on his unplugged guitar while the rest of his band huddled in the staging area amongst the entourage of country acts waiting to grab the spotlight. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“No you’re not. You were born for this.”
“I’ve got a big act to follow.”
“In ten minutes, you won’t remember who played before you.”
Leland shoved his hand in his pocket when his phone vibrated. His heart sank when he read the message from his wireless carrier, prompting him to enroll in paperless billing. “I’m not sure I can do this…”
“Yes you can. Your whole life has brought you to this moment. Right here. Right now. You pull this off, and your career will explode in ways you never dreamed of.”
Leland looked at Sid through sad eyes. “In some ways it already has.”
Sid acknowledged the stage hand who gave the one minute warning. “You’re almost up. Whatever feelings you have for her, you need to put them on hold.”
“What if there’s more to life than music?”
“Music is your life.”
Leland heard the audience erupt when Brooks & Dunn finished their set. “Maybe I’ve been pretending to be someone else for so long I can’t remember who I really am anymore.”
“You need to focus on the here and now. Put your feelings aside. Think about your future. This is your night, Leland.”
“Maybe, but I’d give anything to have Melissa in my life again.”

Brad Siegel studied Leland from the bank of video monitors inside the master control room. Behind him, a sound technician stepped over coax cables protruding from a wall-mounted patch panel. Production assistants and television executives lined the perimeter segregated by racks of equipment, camera control units, video servers, digital effects computers, and other electronic apparatus for the concert.
“He sounds flat,” Brad announced with his eyes on Leland and his band on stage. He pressed a single headphone speaker to his ear to hear the stage manager barking about bad lighting.
“We’re live,” a production assistant commented from across the room. “No one will hear the difference.”
Brad pointed to one of the video operators. “Switch to camera number five.”
The assistant manned the controls for the pan-tilt-zoom heads mounted along the catwalk near the ceiling. “Switching to number five.”
Brad pointed to the video monitor that showed a woman and a girl with an amputated arm standing in the right wing. “Who are they, and what the hell are they doing back there?”

Leland played through the song without incident, well aware of the crowd’s tepid response to the music he’d rather forget than have to play again. Undistracted by the glare from infernal sidelights and the high intensity arc lamps above him, he finished the song note for note with the band he’d inherited from Brad Siegel and the major record label vying for their share of future spoils. When the token applause ensued, he looked out at the sea of bodies packed inside the largest venue he’d ever played, perhaps the only major venue he would ever play. For now, the next few minutes were his to own; a decision he’d made the night before; a decision he hoped would change his life forever.

Brad hovered over a soundboard. He watched Leland slip off his guitar and step toward the piano at the back of the stage while the band made their exit. “What is he doing?”
“Don’t know,” the production assistant replied. “He’s gone off script.”
Brad slid his hand down his face. “Patch me in. I wanna talk to him now!”
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“He took his ear bud out.”
“Then kill his microphone.”
“I can’t.”
“Then go to commercial!”
“We’re not scheduled for another—”
“I don’t give a shit! I want him off the air!”

Leland sat at the grand piano and adjusted the gooseneck microphone in front of him. His heart pounded in his chest. “I wrote this song for someone very special,” his amplified voice boomed through the concert hall. “Someone who means the world to me. If you’re here tonight, you know who you are. I realize I can’t change the past, but I’m hoping this will show you what I’ve been trying to say.”
He played a melodic intro in E flat major, letting his fingers caress the keys before he took a deep breath and started to sing…

I close my eyes and feel your smile
Hoping that you’ll stay awhile, and share your thoughts
In my life I’ve known true love
But still I find I’m thinking of, something more
Something I cannot ignore
I hold your hand and kiss your lips
If only I could make you see… (sustain)

A man like me
Could fill your heart and soul, with all the love you need
A man like me
Could help you live your life, beyond the walls, of recent memories
A man like me…

(piano plays on)

I hear your voice inside my mind
And then I find
An empty space has filled this place and left me here without you
I know our time has come to pass
On faded lines of moon-lit paths
That lead us back to what we had
Reflections, of the time we shared, and thoughts of what could be… (sustain)

A man like me
To help you live your life, beyond the walls, of recent memories
A man like me
To hold you close at night
And never let you go
A man, like, me…

The past is gone, tomorrow’s now
But in my heart I know somehow
I need to set you free
Still, I hope one day, you’ll find a way, to open up and see

A man like me
Would lift you up and fill your heart, with all the love you ever need
A man like me
Would help you rise above this barricade of recent memories
A man like me…
A man like, me! (sustain)

Music City Madness: Chapter 69

Melissa settled into a booth by herself in the downstairs bar at Robert’s Western World, a place she wouldn’t typically frequent, if not for Leland and the lasting impression he’d made on her.
Live music filled the air from young musicians on upright bass and steel guitar in the self-proclaimed home of traditional country music. The tang of cheap beer, fried bologna, and sweet potato fries barely moved the needle on her appetite, but she wasn’t there for midnight snacks or live music. She wanted the one person she could open up to about anything, without remorse or second-guessing her intentions; a man she experienced an almost soul-mate connection with. Leland Presley brought her joy, and for the first time in many years, she found herself falling in love again.
She flagged a waiter and ordered a drink. When she saw Leland enter the bar, she stood up and received him with an assertive kiss. “What took you so long?”
Leland dragged a chair beside her and settled in. He held Melissa’s hand on the table, ignoring the drunk patron playing grab-ass with the waitress at the booth beside him. “Since when do you hang out at hillbilly diners?”
“Best cheeseburger on Broadway.”
“And the prettiest woman in Nashville.”
Melissa grinned. Her brown eyes danced in the warmth of Leland’s affection. “You mean, Tennessee.”
Leland kissed her. “Yes ma’am.”
“Thank you for meeting me so late. I didn’t think you’d be able to get away. Where’s Abby?”
“At home with a sitter.”
“How’d you manage that at this hour?”
“I tip well.”
“I bet you do,” Melissa baited him. “Sid came to my house to check on me, so I left the boys with him.” She laughed quietly. “Does that make me a bad person? I needed a break, and I wanted time alone with you.” She nestled against Leland’s arm. “Sometimes I wish Martin was the one who drowned in the flood. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but he can be such a bastard at times.”
“What happened?”
“Nothing. It’s not worth your time.”
“I’m here with you. My time is yours.”
Melissa rubbed his arm. “He bought the boys’ horse, Sabrina, from the man I sold her to and towed her back to my house.”
“Did your boys know?”
“They were with him. He picked them up from school without my permission. I made him take the horse back. The boys are devastated. Now they hate me, which is exactly what he wanted all along.”
“They don’t hate you.”
Melissa accepted her bourbon from the waiter. “I know, but now I look like the bad guy. Again. I sold Sabrina and the other horses because I can’t afford to keep them anymore. Now I’ve let my boys down twice.”
“They’re strong boys. They’ll understand.”
“And to think I married Martin in the first place.”
“How long did you know him before you were married?”
“We met in college. I know it sounds cliché. He was a music major. You believe that? We both dropped out to chase the same dream. I wanted to be a singer. He wanted to start a band.”
“What happened?”
“My career took off. His didn’t. He was never cut out for the life. He went back to school when Jonathan was born and changed majors to study history. He started law school a year after Adam was born. He wanted one of us to have a stable career, which was ironic because I was the one supporting our family while he was neck deep in school work. Eventually, I discovered I wasn’t the only woman in his life. I divorced him when he chased his paralegal to California.”
Leland rubbed her hand. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“Nothing I can’t handle. I know this sounds crazy, but I’m thinking I should sell the house to Martin after all. School is over. I can take the boys on the road with me for the summer.”
“You’ll still need a place to come home to.”
Melissa kissed him tenderly. “As long as I have you to come home to…”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You have a big concert coming up. I shouldn’t be distracting you like this.”
“Sid thinks the concert will open doors.”
“He believes in you. And so do I.”
“I’m worried about Abby. She keeps pressing me to spend time with her mother.”
“What did you tell her?”
Leland looked up at the ceiling and across the room before he refocused his attention on Melissa. “I told her the truth.”
“Then you did the right thing.”
“Abby doesn’t understand.”
“She was too young to know what happened. She sees her mom in a different light. Give her space. You can still protect her, but she’s not a baby anymore. At some point, she’s going to know her mom whether you want her to or not.”
“What if I don’t want her to?”
“It’s not about you, Babe.”
“But I’m all she has right now.”
“My boys still wake up from nightmares about the flood. I think they’re terrified of water. They keep asking about their dad. How long is he staying? Is he going to live with us again? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I can’t stomach three minutes alone with their father.”
Leland gave a sympathetic nod. “How do you feel, physically?”
“I’m good. Some days have been better than others. Sometimes I can’t sleep, but I blame my insomnia on you.” She smiled warmly. “I love you Leland Presley. I think I have from the first time I met you. I was just afraid to admit it.”
“I have this affect on women.”
Melissa gently bit her lip. “Do I scare you?”
Leland kissed her softly on the lips and wrapped his arm around her. “I love you too. I can’t imagine my life without you.”
“Come home with me.”
“I can’t stay long.”
“I want you to stay the night.” Melissa kissed him again. “I want to wake up and feel you beside me. Can you do this for me?”
“You make a convincing argument.”
“Have you thought about traveling on tour with me?”
Leland gently pulled his hand away and sat upright in his seat to acknowledge Martin suddenly standing at the table. “I think we have company.”
Melissa moved her chair. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She could tell by Martin’s appearance, he’d been drinking. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“If you’re still mad about the horse—”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.”
Martin gestured toward Leland. “I can see you’re with company.” He mimed the action of tipping an imaginary hat. “I bid you, good evening Mrs. Hamilton and Mr. Presley. Or should I say Mr. Blankenbaum? Mr. Peter Blankenbaum.”
Leland kept his arm around Melissa.
“Well…” Martin continued. “Which is it? Presley or Blankenbaum.”
“The name is Presley,” Leland emphasized. He caught Melissa’s head nod in his peripheral vision.
Melissa laid her head on Leland’s shoulder. “Go home, Martin. I’m too tired for your bullshit.”
Martin stepped back and threw his arms up. “Why don’t you ask him yourself? His birth certificate says Peter Blankenbaum. If it were me, I’d have to wonder why someone with a birth name would go around pretending to be someone else?”
“You’re drunk, Martin. And you’re embarrassing me. Leave us alone, or I’ll have you thrown out.”
“You’re not the one who should be embarrassed. Peter Ryan Blankenbaum. Born December twelfth, nineteen seventy-five. Parents, Lucinda and Ryan Blankenbaum. Both currently residents of Illinois’ Menard Correctional Center. Both convicted for the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine. Should I go on?”
Melissa lifted her head from Leland’s shoulder. “I thought you said your mom died?”
Leland looked at Melissa. “My foster mom died from breast cancer. I never knew my biological parents.”
“So are you Leland Presley or not?”
“I took Leland Presley for my stage name. I legally changed it ten years ago. Always thought it sounded better than the one on my birth certificate. My father was never around. I had no reason to carry his family name.”
Melissa put her hands on the table and drew a deep breath. “So you lied to me?”
“I never use my former name. It has no meaning to me. No connection to who I really am.”
“And who are you? Really?”
“The man you know. The same man I’ve always been.”
“You said your mother encouraged you to follow your heart and pursue your dream.”
“My foster mother. She was all I knew growing up.”
“In Nashville?”
“I grew up in Oklahoma City.”
“You told me you grew up outside Nashville.”
“I did, at one time. After I left foster care. I got married and had Abby. When she was born, we moved back to Tulsa to be closer to her mother’s family.”
“He never went to Vanderbilt,” Martin added. “I checked. There’s no record he was ever enrolled.”
Melissa leaned away from Leland. “Did you ever study there?”
“No. But I know more about music than any worthless degree could grant me. No one learns to sing from a book.”
“Then why lie about it?”
“I wanted to impress you. To find some common ground. A connection. My feelings for you are genuine.”
Melissa glared at Martin in disgust. He’d done a bad thing in a bad way, but he spoke the truth; a truth she wanted to believe was a lie. For the man she’d fallen in love with would have never invented himself and carried such a ruse for so long.
“Ask him about his wife,” Martin gloated. “Go on…”
Melissa touched Leland’s arm. “You mean, ex-wife?” she asked rhetorically.
“Technically, I’m still legally married,” Leland confessed. “But I can explain—”
“Save it,” Melissa cut him off. She stood up from the table and pushed Martin aside. “I knew it when I saw that woman with you and Abby at the hospital. I should have trusted my instincts.”
“That was Nicole.”
“So you’ve been two-timing me with your girlfriend and your wife?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Melissa bristled. “You’re quite the gigolo.”
“Wait,” Leland pleaded.
“You’ve been lying to me all along.”
“I was going to tell you. When the time was right.”
“That time has come and gone. I trusted you. I shared things with you.”
Leland fought the urge to throw a fist Martin’s way, but refrained from a course of violence. “I know… And you have every right to be mad at me. I never meant to hurt you. I’ve been chasing the same dream for so long, I failed to realize what I wanted most in life was staring right back at me.”
“Really?” Melissa stammered. “Then maybe you should stop staring in the mirror.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 64

Martin followed his GPS directions on I-40 heading east toward a Cracker Barrel exit. He drove through heavy traffic, glancing at the notes in his Steno Book as he made his way toward a low-rent apartment complex nestled behind a Food Lion. He followed the road beyond the leasing office to a shaded, brick-front building with faded white balconies overlooking a picnic area with graffiti-carved tables and a public grill.
He parked in a handicap zone and climbed to the second floor with his black attaché case. He knocked on Paula Presley’s apartment and introduced himself as Martin Hamilton, attorney at law.
“Do I know you?” Paula asked through the gap in the partially open door, where she eyed the lawyer in a double-breasted jacket with wavy blond hair and glasses.
“Is your husband Leland Presley?”
“Yes. What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk with you about him if you don’t mind.”
“What for?”
“May I come in?”
Paula clutched the aluminum baseball bat hidden from Martin’s view behind the door. “How did you find me?”
“My associate contacted someone at your former residence at the hospital.”
“You mean the psyche ward.” Paula opened the door as far as the chain lock allowed. She kept the bat at her side, just in case. “Who sent you?”
Martin pointed inside the apartment. “If I may?”
Paula gripped the bat tighter. She sized up Martin’s stature with his fancy clothes and polite demeanor. Then she slid the chain lock free and opened her apartment. “Just for a second. I have errands to run.”
Martin noticed the bat and moved slowly. He rested his attaché case on a pine coffee table centered with faux flowers in a glass bead vase. “This won’t take long.” He popped the latches and retrieved a folder with copies of legal documents inside. “I’m aware you’ve filed for joint custody of your daughter, Abigail Presley.”
Paula leaned the bat against the wall. “Why do you care?”
“Because I think we can help each other.”
“I’ve reached out to your attorney, and he’s verbally agreed to enlist my help as co-counsel in your custody case. I need your signature to formally authorize my participation.”
“My lawyer never mentioned you.”
“He’s been tied up in court.” Martin handed her the co-counsel agreement. “I understand you had some issues in your past.” He glanced about the sparsely furnished room and noticed the lack of any family photos.
“I tried to kill myself when my daughter was eighteen months old. I never meant to hurt her. I had some problems, but they’re behind me now.” She reviewed the pages of legal jargon while she paced inside the small apartment. “I can’t afford to pay another lawyer.”
“My time would be gratis.”
“Without charge. Free.”
“Nothing in life comes free, Mr. Hamilton.” She scrutinized the legal paperwork, oblivious to the carefully embedded language acknowledging her consent to release Abby’s medical records. “I can read, but I can’t make heads or tails of what this paper says. I’m not about to sign—”
“It’s a standard co-counsel agreement. Basically, it states you would now have two attorneys working together on your behalf instead of one. I can email the signed copy to your attorney this afternoon.” He analyzed Paula’s body language and the strange way she counted on her fingers while she reviewed the legal documents. “Do you have regular contact with your husband?”
“Only when I have to.”
“I would keep it that way. The less Leland knows about our conversation, the better.”
“And you’re certain you can help me with my daughter?”
“There are no certainties with the law, Mrs. Presley, but the odds are in your favor.”
Paula discretely slid a forged ID badge off the counter and secured it in a drawer. “And what about my past?”
“We can’t ignore it, but I don’t believe it will be the deciding factor.”
“How do you know?”
Martin ignored the smart phone vibrating in his pocket. “I’ve practiced law for a long time now. Your case is not unique. People are human. They make mistakes.”
Paula settled on the fabric loveseat across from Martin. An argument erupted in the apartment upstairs, followed by loud stomping on the ceiling. “When the accident happened, I told myself it was God’s will.”
“Maybe. But I suspect the devil had a hand in it.”
“I had no intention of drowning my daughter. Munchausen by Proxy, the doctors called it.”
“I believe you.”
Paula shifted her position on the loveseat with the legal paperwork on her lap. “Do you have children, Mr. Hamilton?”
“Two boys.”
“You seem like a decent man.”
“I try to do what’s right.”
“Amen to that.” Paula reached for a pen to sign the papers and gave them back. “What’s in this for you?”
“A chance to help someone who deserves a fresh start.”
“But why me? How did you even know about my case?”
“Serendipity, Mrs. Presley. Sometimes people cross paths for a reason.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Martin closed his attaché case and stood up. “Thank you for your time,” he said as he let himself out. He descended the stairs to the parking lot and found a blob of white bird shit on the roof of his gleaming BMW. He cursed out loud and tried to clean it with a tissue from his pocket, but the effort only made it worse.
He dropped the tissue on the ground and opened the car to settle in the driver’s seat. He checked his voice mail. Then he left the apartment complex and headed for Music Row to meet the infamous Brad Siegel in person.

Music City Madness: Chapter 61

Leland woke up with Abby standing beside his bed. Still groggy, he rolled over to see his alarm clock flashing 12:00. “What time is it?”
“It’s after 7:30,” Abby informed him in her baggy shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt from the dryer. She wore her hair in a pony tail. “I’m going to be late for school.”
“I thought you hated school?”
“I don’t hate school. I hate being late for school.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”
“I thought you were getting ready.”
Leland threw the covers off and reached for his jeans on the chair beside the bed. “Geez Louise, the power must have gone out again.”
“No kidding.”
“I need five minutes.”
“You’ve got two,” said Abby, holding up two fingers in the air as she left with the cat galloping ahead of her.
Leland rubbed his eyes and stretched his arms above his head. He put his clothes on and splashed cold water on his face at the bathroom sink. He brushed his teeth in rapid fashion and found Abby in the living room petting her cat on the floor. “I’m ready.”
Abby scratched her tabby’s chin. “Why don’t you get an alarm clock with a battery?”
“Because the one I have still works.” He could hear the cat purring loudly.
“Newsflash, Dad. The Civil War called. They want their clock back.”
“Very funny.”
“Why don’t you use the alarm on your phone?”
Leland looked at his flip phone. “What alarm?”
“Are you serious?”
Leland hugged his arm around Abby and kissed her forehead. “Are we good?”
“I talked to Nicole about Mom when you went to the hospital to see Mrs. Hamilton. Nicole agreed you should have told me about Mom sooner, but she also helped me see the issue from your perspective.”
“As opposed to hearing my perspective from me?”
Abby gathered her backpack. “Nicole’s smarter than I gave her credit for. She thinks you have real potential.”
Leland couldn’t decide if he wanted to thank Nicole or chastise her for inserting herself into his personal life again. “What else did Nicole tell you?”
“She thinks my mom has a right to see me despite what happened.”
Leland grabbed his keys and brought Abby outside to his truck. “Nicole should worry about her own problems.”
“I asked her what she thought. She gave me an honest answer.”
“You’re too young to have this sort of conversation with her.”
“She told me you would say that.”
Leland started the motor and backed out of the driveway. “Did she tell you how much I love you?”
Abby checked her makeup in the mirror. “Don’t be cheesy.”
“What’s on your face?”
“Blush. Nicole gave me some of her makeup before she left. I like black eye liner too.”
“You don’t need makeup.”
“I do if I don’t want to look like a thirteen-year-old girl.”
Leland drove through a yellow light up ahead. “You are a thirteen-year-old girl.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I think you’re perfect the way God made you.”
“When do you think I can see my mom?”
Leland bristled at the comment. “I’m not sure.”
Abby leaned back in the truck’s bench seat and zipped her lip gloss in her backpack. “Maybe she can have dinner with us sometime?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want her around you.”
“Are you telling me I can’t see her?”
“I worry about you.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I think you need to move slowly. That’s all I’m saying.” Leland kept both hands on the wheel and drove in silence for the last few miles. He’d been hard on Abby about her mom and about her challenges at school. Probably too hard at times. He wanted the best for his only child. He wanted her to be safe and protected at all times. He also wanted her to accept herself for who she was and be happy with the life she had.
“I want a horse,” Abby announced.
“Save your allowance.”
“I’m serious.”
“Me too.”
Abby’s eyes narrowed. “You still owe me like four week’s worth.”
“I know.”
“Jonathan and Adam had a horse, but their mom sold it. I told them they should get a job and buy it back.”
“Horses are expensive.”
“So are big houses and fancy cars. You don’t hear me asking for one of those.”
“Not yet. Wait ’til you get your driver’s license.”
“I don’t care about cars.”
“Then you’ll be happy to drive this truck.”
Abby looked away and twirled her hair.
Leland drove around a section of damaged roadway under repair. FEMA trailers occupied a parking lot across the street. “I can drop you in front of the school.”
“I’ll walk.”
“What about your ankle?”
“It’s fine.”
“What time should I pick you up from detention?”
“Detention’s over.”
“Your principal doesn’t think so.”
“My principal hates my guts. She wanted to throw me in jail for macing that bully on the bus.”
Leland slowed at the next intersection. “She thinks you have great potential.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you better hustle, or you’re going to be late again.” Leland eased along the curb and stopped.
Abby got out and slung her backpack on her shoulder. She gave her dad a fleeting wave good bye.
Leland drove slow enough to track Abby’s progress in his side view mirror. Regardless of the tragic events in recent past, he’d finally achieved some balance in his life. With the benefit concert looming and the promise of better things to come, he had momentum in his career—and new love in his sights.

Music City Madness: Chapter 59

Leland met up with Sid in the emergency room at Vanderbilt Hospital. Slightly winded from his jaunt through the parking garage, Leland caught his breath and asked, “How is she?”
Sid motioned for Leland to follow him. “This way.”
“What happened?”
“The doctor said Melissa suffered a small myocardial infarction.”
Sid moved aside for a team of paramedics to wheel a gurney past him. “They’re running tests.”
“What about her boys?”
“They’re with her now. She’s been asking for you.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s stable.”
“Thank God.”
“Thank Adam. He found her on the floor at home and called for help.”
Leland rubbed a knot in his shoulder. He could only imagine what Melissa’s boys were going through. “This is crazy.”
“She’s behind the last curtain on the left. Go see her. I have another call to make.”
Leland stood alone for a moment to compose himself before he ventured through the ER and opened the privacy curtain to find Melissa’s boys half asleep standing up. He gave a curious nod to the tall, slender man with sandy blond hair and glasses who stood between them. He approached Melissa slowly. “Sid told me you were here.”
Melissa touched her face. “I look like crap.”
“I got here as soon as I could.”
“No worries,” Melissa assured him. She laid on her back with her head propped up on pillows. A bevy of medical equipment monitored her heart rate and pulse oximetry. “Where’s Abby?”
“At home with a friend.”
Melissa pointed to the man with her boys. “This is Martin. The boys’ father.”
Leland extended a handshake and received a vice grip from Martin’s bear paw in return. “Leland Presley.”
“Martin Hamilton, the Third.” He gripped Leland’s hand for several seconds before he finally let go.
“Good to meet you,” Leland offered.
“Likewise. What brings you here?”
“Why don’t you take the boys for a soda,” Melissa intervened.
“You sure?” asked Martin.
“It’s okay.”
Martin looked at Leland through pinched eyes. “I appreciate what you did for my boy. Mel told me what happened in the storm.”
“It was nothing.”
“I’m glad my boat was there to help.”
“Me too.”
“I heard you went to Vanderbilt?”
“Long time ago.”
“So did I,” Martin added. “What year did you graduate?”
“What was your major?”
“Same here. You ever have Doctor Blackman?”
“I don’t recall.”
“You don’t remember your professors?”
“It was a long time ago.”
Martin nudged his glasses on his nose. “So you said.”
“Give us a minute,” Melissa prompted.
Martin diverted his attention from Leland in the three-way conversation. “I’ll take the boys to the cafeteria.”
Leland waited for the room to clear before he leaned over to kiss Melissa’s head. “I was worried about you.”
“Don’t be. I’m fine.”
“You had a heart attack.”
“More like bad indigestion.”
“Sid told me you passed out.”
“For a couple seconds. No big deal. Sid exaggerates.”
“What happened?”
“Nothing.” Melissa swallowed. “My prescription ran out for my pain meds. My doctor wouldn’t sign another refill, so I had Sid explore alternative options.”
“You could have died.”
“But I didn’t.” Melissa reached for the pink water pitcher by her bed. “I’m out of here tomorrow morning.”
“Let’s see what your doctor says.”
“I have a hair appointment.”
“Your hair can wait.”
“You’re sweet. No guitar?”
“Not this time.”
“I was hoping you might play for me,” Melissa quipped, her sense of humor tapered by the buprenorphine in her system. She held Leland’s hand for comfort. “Thank you for coming. It means a lot to me. You mean a lot to me.”
“Wait ’till the drugs wear off.”
“I’m not delusional, Leland Presley. I know exactly how I feel.” She kissed his hand. “Do I scare you?”
“I see I’ve got some competition.”
“Martin is an ass. I’m sorry you had to meet him like this.”
“Don’t be. He’s part of your life.”
“Was part of my life. He wants to buy my house.”
“Martin doesn’t know how to live alone. His girlfriend left him, so he’s decided he misses his boys.” Melissa let go of Leland’s hand and brushed her hair back with her fingers. “My boys barely know him anymore. He was a very different man before I married him. Before he went to law school and decided music wasn’t his thing anymore.”
“Does he play?”
“He used to play guitar. At least he thought he did. He was never much of a singer. Tried to start his own band.”
“What happened?”
“He bombed.” Melissa sipped water from her plastic cup. “I don’t regret my boys for one second, but if I could do it over again, I would.” She touched her hair again. “I didn’t want you to see me like this, but I’m glad you’re here.”
Leland helped her adjust a pillow. “I think you’re an amazing woman.”
“Your concert’s coming up.”
“Three days.”
“Are you ready?”
“I’m good.”
“What about the band?”
“Brad Siegel has a lot of faith in them.”
“Well I have a lot of faith in you! This is a great opportunity.”
“I suppose.”
“What does Abby think about you singing live in front of millions?”
“She doesn’t know yet.”
“Why not?”
“She never asked.”
“She’s your daughter.”
“She’s driving me nuts.”
“She’s a teenager girl. That’s part of her job description.”
Leland refilled her water cup. “Does your back hurt?”
“I’ll deal. I’m not spending the night in here. This place is a germ factory.”
Leland studied her expression. He could tell something bothered her, a deeper pain, more emotional than physical. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Melissa glanced at Martin when he entered the room. “I’m tired.”
Leland acknowledged the boys’ father again. “It was nice to meet you.”
Martin typed a message on his phone. “Likewise,” he said without looking up.
“Take good care of her.”
“I will.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 53

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’m allergic.”
“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.”
“Smart girl.”
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.”
“You’re human…”
“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?”
“I’m good.”
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.”
“Yes ma’am.”

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.”
“It’s beautiful.”
“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…

(piano plays softly)

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…

(piano plays softly)

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…

(piano plays softly)

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

(piano plays softly)

A stiff lip breaks, a soft one bends
When you blur the line between…
Lovers and friends
Between lovers and friends
Lovers…and, friends…

(piano fades away)

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.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 46

Melissa adjusted a framed picture of Tomás on her wall while her doleful guests hovered around her home. “I still can’t accept what happened,” she confided to Sid while she claimed her third glass of Chardonnay from the catering tray. “I feel like I’m stuck in a bad dream.”
Sid put his hand on her shoulder. He wore a dark blue blazer with a solid red tie, and an aura of genuine sadness about him. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Tomás deserved better.”
“What about my boys? How are they supposed to forget Tomás is gone?”
Sid stepped aside for a guest to pass through. “It’s not about forgetting as much as learning to accept what happened and move on.”
“The boys don’t want me to sell the house.”
“Your boys don’t pay the bills. You’re doing the right thing.”
“Then why do I feel so bad?”
“You buried a best friend today. No one’s judging you.”
Melissa sipped her wine. She acknowledged the familiar faces in her formal living area. “What would Tomás have wanted?”
“In terms of what?”
“Everything. This funeral. My boys’ future. This house.” Melissa tried to smile through her barren expression but couldn’t tap any positive vibes. “I miss him so much.” She finished her drink and passed the empty goblet to Sid when the doorbell chimed. “I’ll get it,” she said as she moved toward the open foyer to greet Leland in his black Wranglers and a wide collar cowboy shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She glanced over her shoulder to see a dozen women intrigued by the tall, rugged gentleman with a Stetson in his hand and their undivided attention. “I didn’t think you would come.”
“I wanted to be here.”
Melissa motioned for him to leave the foyer and the bevy of prying eyes.

Leland followed Melissa to an adjoining room partitioned behind French doors. Autographed photos of celebrity singers lined the walls. A French country sofa with exposed wooden feet and padded arms anchored the other end of the room. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. I know the roads are still a mess.”
“I can’t stay long.” Leland stood hat in hand, squeezing the brim between his fingers. “If there’s anything I can do to help you with the house.”
“You already have. I’m sure Tomás is delighted you’re here.” She lifted her head slightly and caught a whiff of Leland’s enticing cologne. “Any word from Brad Siegel?”
Leland motioned with his hat. “Sid knows more than I do.”
“Would you like a drink?”
“I’m good.” Leland cleared his throat. “How are your boys?”
Melissa aired a mischievous smile. “I sent them outside to burn off energy. They’re probably setting something on fire.”
“Have you seen the news lately?”
Melissa toyed with her hair, her smile morphing into a serious, introspective stare. “I haven’t, but from what I keep hearing, we’re the best kept secret. The national news has mostly ignored us. The media’s more concerned about the Gulf oil spill and some New York City car bomber than they are about our natural disaster.”
“I suspect that will change.”
“Do you really think so?” Melissa challenged him. “People are hurting. They need to know they’re not alone in all this mess, even if they really are. If that makes sense.”
“I heard Anderson Cooper’s in town today with his crew.”
“Don’t tell Sid. He’s had a crush on that man forever.”
Leland grinned. “The city will pull together.”
Melissa opened a portable liquor cabinet and fetched a thirty-year-old bottle of Highland Park. “You sure I can’t get you a drink?” She poured two glasses. “Don’t tell Sid I hide the good stuff in here.” She offered one to Leland.
“No thanks.”
“You shouldn’t let a woman drink alone.”
Leland took the glass and sniffed the single malt scotch, the bottle of which cost more than his rent. “You always get what you want?”
“Depends on who I want.”
Leland swallowed his first sip. The warm burn lingered at the base of his throat. “You have good taste.”
Melissa followed Leland to the sofa, her eyes heavy from the wine and a restless night. “I liked the song you did for Brad. You sing from the heart.”
“I sing what I feel.”
“And what do you feel right now?”
“Like I should probably be on my way.”
Melissa leaned against the sofa’s padded arm rest. “If you’re worried about Abby, I’m sure she’s in good hands.” She downed her scotch and set the empty glass on the window ledge. “I came by the hospital the other day. You were singing about a four-part harmony, comparing your daughter to a Beethoven symphony.” Melissa looked away. “Might have been one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I saw a woman with you and Abby. Your ex-wife?”
“My ex-girlfriend.”
“Does she know that?”
“It’s late,” Leland proffered, instead of fumbling with a complicated answer to a very simple question.
“It’s seven thirty.”
“I hate to wear out my welcome.”
“The only thing you’re going to wear out is me.”
Leland choked on the scotch, coughing with his hand on his mouth. “Wrong pipe,” he said nonchalantly, convinced he’d misinterpreted the flippant comment; although he wondered if Melissa was naked under her curve-fitting dress. “I just came to pay respects,” he said without thinking before he spoke. Torn between dismissing himself again or advancing on an overt invitation, he played his best poker face in a room alone with a beautiful woman who stoked a fire within him.
Melissa slipped off her heels and locked the French doors with a flourish. “People die every day. Doesn’t mean we stop living our lives.”
“I think I should—”
“Don’t think. Feel. Like you do when you sing.”
“You seem, vulnerable.”
Melissa reached behind her back and unzipped her dress. “Like you’ve never taken advantage of a vulnerable woman before?” She moved slowly toward Leland while she unfastened her bra. “Do you think I’m attractive?”
Leland set his hat down and cupped his hands to her hips with his arms bent in a futile effort to keep her away. “Very much.”
Melissa stepped back and peeled down the top of her dress to expose her bare breasts—firm, yet supple and inviting. “I find you very attractive, Mr. Presley. In more ways than you can begin to imagine.”
Leland moved closer and raised his hand to frame her face, his thumbs caressing her soft facial features. He found her intoxicating. “What are we doing?”
“Whatever we want,” Melissa whispered demurely.
Leland kissed her softly on the mouth. When her breasts pressed against him, he dismissed any reason he should leave.
Melissa broke off the kiss and stepped out of her dress altogether. “How does this look to you?”
Leland kissed her passionately this time. Then he gently bent her over the sofa arm and slid his hands along her hips to feel her quiver from his touch. He opened his pants and penetrated her slowly from behind.
Melissa gasped between short breaths, indulging her fervent desire.
Leland kept an eye on the door, certain one of Melissa’s guests would burst in at any moment and find their host in flagrante delicto.

Music City Madness: Chapter 42

Leland sipped black coffee in the hospital cafeteria with the morning paper open in front of him. Familiar headlines cited widespread devastation across middle and western parts of Tennessee. Photos showed desperate homeowners plucked from their roofs by helicopter and a pregnant woman airlifted from the highway. Another story covered a Belle Meade police officer swept away in his patrol car. More photos showed ravaged neighborhoods lined with mounds of damaged goods piled high along the curb.
Leland flipped the page to see the image of a house torn away from its foundation with the entire basement contents visibly destroyed by the flood. Another home marked with a giant “X” reminded rescue workers to check for bodies. Downtown, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center suffered $40 million in damages to property, concert grand pianos, and numerous orchestral instruments trapped inside their flooded basement. Statewide, various shelters gave storm victims safe haven from thousands of evacuated homes and apartments.
Leland analyzed the news. The catastrophic damage and the city leaders’ pledge to rebuild not withstanding, the impact from the meteorological anomaly seemed almost insignificant from his perspective. The more he fought the urge to compose new music, the faster the words poured forth—as if the greater the tragedy in life, the more focused his creative mind became. So many lyrics came to pass, mostly junk he threw away until he found the right words to continue.
He sipped his coffee and folded the newspaper in half. “You sure you don’t want something to eat?” he asked Nicole when she returned from her car.
Nicole hung her purse on the chair and slid a house key across the table. “I meant to give you this.”
“No worries.”
Nicole rubbed Leland’s forearm. “Abby will wake up when she’s ready.”
“I hope so,” Leland mumbled, his head low with his eyes focused on the silver house key. “When do you need to be at work?”
“No rush. I’m sort of in between jobs at the moment.”
“You should have kept the one you had.”
Nicole slid her hand away. “We were good together.”
“Yes, we were.”
“I liked the song you wrote for me.”
“I write a lot of songs.”
Nicole crossed her arms. “I should have been home with Abby when you were gone. If I hadn’t bailed on you, she wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Not your fault.”
“Then why do I feel so bad?”
“Because you care for her.” Leland twirled the key on the table. “I can’t think about us right now.”
Nicole opened the newspaper and scanned the employment section. “Does her mom know about her condition?”
“Abby’s not her concern.”
“You have to tell her. She’s Abby’s mother. She has a right to know.”
“She gave up that right a long time ago.”
“People make mistakes, Leland. You can’t hold it against her forever.” Nicole shied away, debating her willingness to confess a truth she should have expressed weeks ago. “My mother died from breast cancer.”
“I know.”
Nicole let out a deep breath. “What you didn’t know is that I thought I had it too.”
Leland moved closer to his side of the table and leaned forward. “What are you talking about?”
“I should have told you before. When I left. I was in a bad way. I found a lump in my right breast.”
“I didn’t know.”
“My doctor kept running tests. I thought for sure I had cancer.”
“But you don’t?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was scared. Confused. I didn’t want to become another statistic.”
Leland sat back in his seat. “I could have helped you.”
Nicole toyed with a napkin on the table. “There was nothing you could do.”
“I would have listened.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not sure why I’m even telling you this right now. I know you have a lot on your mind.” Nicole skimmed the employment section. “This is all minimum wage crap.”
“Maybe you should look out of state.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I want you to have a job.” Leland finished his coffee. His flip phone rang on the table with Sid’s name in the small display. “Hey,” he answered in a scratchy, sleep-deprived voice.
“How’s Abby?”
“The same.”
“How are you holding up?”
Leland switched the phone to his other ear. “Like ten pounds of shit in a five pound sack.”
“I got a call from Brad Siegel at Capital Country Records. He wants to meet with you tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t.”
“I know the timing sucks.”
“Abby’s still in the hospital.”
“Where she’s going to recover. Brad wants you in his studio by ten. Bring your guitar.”
“Tell him I need to reschedule.”
“There is no reschedule, Leland. You won’t get another chance like this with Brad.”
“Then I’ll take a chance with someone else.”
“I’m well aware of Abby’s condition. I feel for you and for her. But you have to put things in perspective.”
“That’s your job,” Leland mumbled into the phone. He looked at Nicole when he talked. “Mine is taking care of my daughter.”
“You’ll be gone a couple hours. Abby would understand.”
“Abby needs me. The last time I left her alone—”
“But she’s not alone. She’s the reason you’re committed to this.”
Leland laid his head in his hand and rubbed his temples. “I’ll think about it,” he said before he ended the call.
“Who was that?” asked Nicole.
“No one.”
“I can stay here with Abby if you need me to.”
“What I need is for my daughter to wake up and start her life again.”
“She will. But you can’t stop living yours.”
“Abby is my life.”
Nicole leaned over to touch Leland’s arm. “You’re not alone in this. I hope you know that.”
Leland forced a smile. Nicole’s hand felt warm. Soothing. He focused on the good memories, and any notion of a meaningful future he might construct with her. But despite her comfort in a time of grief and uncertainty, his attention remained focused elsewhere.

Leland paced inside the hospital, deep in thought about Abby and oblivious to his surroundings or the entrance to the children’s chapel he’d passed three times already on the second floor. The marvels of modern medicine aside, Abby’s fate came down to waiting and hoping for the best.
He wandered back to her room with his guitar, the same music playing over and over in his head; a sad melody he’d conjured the night after he hauled Abby from the shadows of the briny deep.
He opened his guitar case on the chair beside her hospital bed and whispered, “I’m proud of you.” Then he took the guitar out and slung the strap over his shoulder. He strummed slowly and said, “I know you can’t hear me, but I wanted to play another song for you.”

So many years have come and gone
Harder to tell where I went wrong
Caught in the fear of the great, be-yond

Now I can’t bear, to see, your pain
My life will never be the same
If I could change, one, thing
What I would give for one more day

One more day…
To hold you in my arms
One more day…
To wrap my heart around you
One more day…
To find our way, back, home
One more day…
Please don’t leave me all alone…

(guitar plays on)

All I want… is you, to know, I love you…
And I will always be, at, your side
So close your eyes
While I bow my head and pray
Please, Lord, let me hold her one more day

One more day…
To take away the fear
One more day…
To find our way, back, home
One more day…
To show you what tomorrow, will bring

Please, Lord, let me hold her one more day
Don’t take my girl away
I need her with me…one more day…
One more day…

Leland kissed Abby’s forehead. Then he set his guitar in the case and wiped his eye. He left the room for a drink at the water fountain. Sunlight shined through a bank of windows in the multicolored pediatric critical care ward overlooking the city vista.
He sipped from the stainless steel faucet and thought about his conversation with Nicole. He could have done more for her had he known about her cancer scare. But his life always centered around his music. And his relationship with Nicole—like so many before her—always ended in a state of denial and regret. Disavowing his own shortcomings made it easy to cast blame on his partner. But music wasn’t something he produced out of obligation; it was the center of his life. Only Melissa understood his deep reverence. She, more than anyone he’d ever met, had achieved enormous success in a business where most people fell short. Now he questioned if his connection with Melissa was rooted in something deeper or whether he wanted a future in music at all anymore.
He loped to the end of the hall away from a group of medical students flocking room to room under a doctor’s supervision and dialed Sid’s phone. “It’s Leland,” he said as soon as he heard the connection go through.
“Can I count on you tomorrow?”
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I’m going to pass.”
“Did something happen? Is Abby—”
“Her condition is the same.”
“I know you’re dealing with a lot right now. But you’re making a huge mistake. Brad Siegel’s offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You need this Leland. More than you know.”
“I need my daughter, Sid. That’s what I know. If she dies, my life dies with her. All the music in the world can’t fix what’s happened.”
“Record companies sell the dream. They never talk about the struggle. I know you. And I know you’ve struggled. You need to get right with this and push beyond the pain. If you don’t, you will live to regret your decision.”
“I gotta go,” Leland said when he saw Abby’s nurse rushing toward him from down the hall. He stuffed his phone in his pocket. “Sorry if I was playing too loud again.”
“I need you to come with me,” the nurse explained.
“What’s wrong?”
“Your daughter regained consciousness. She’s breathing on her own.”

Leland entered Abby’s hospital room with mild trepidation. He’d been strong for days, but now his false bravado vanished. “I knew you’d come back to me,” he said, standing over Abby’s bed with his arms at his side.
“How long have I been here?” Abby asked. Her voice cracked when she spoke.
“A couple days.”
“What happened?”
Leland ran his hand through her hair. “You’re safe now.”
“I remember a storm.”
“It’s over.”
Abby coughed. “Where’s Jonathan?” she asked, her voice scratchy and hoarse.
“At home with his mom and brother.”
“What day is it?”
“I have detention…”
“I saw tornado. So loud. My leg was stuck.” Abby pointed to her dad’s guitar case. “I heard singing.”
“You were dreaming.”
Abby swallowed dryly. “Nice try. At least you didn’t bring the ukulele.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 25

Melissa tapped her brakes in the stop-and-go traffic crawling south along Antioch Pike off I-24. Runoff water from massive rainfall swelled the normally benign Mill Creek that ran parallel to her location on the jam-packed route outside the rural Nashville suburb. Her navigation display showed less than three miles to the mayor’s residence. “There must be an accident up ahead.”
“Where’s your radio?” Leland asked, pointing at the center console.
Melissa tapped the touchscreen for an AM station and adjusted the volume.
…our weekend forecast calls for heavy rain with two to four inches of accumulation expected by this afternoon over the entire Nashville metropolitan area. The result of unseasonably deep storms originating from the Pacific Northwest and tracking eastward through central portions of Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Cumberland River Valleys. The powerful system brings a low pressure center in the central plains combined with a cold front trailing southward toward the Rio Grande. Expect continued rainfall throughout the day and into tomorrow morning…
Melissa reached for the Percocet prescription in her purse. She opened the lid with the label facing away from Leland and quickly dispensed a pill.
“We’ll get there eventually,” said Leland.
“Sometime today would be nice. We haven’t moved a quarter mile in an hour.”
“No worries.”
Melissa ran her hand through her reddish-brown hair. The pain in her lower back had worsened since she left the house. “For you. I’ve got an album to finish and a tour to plan. This trip is a bust.”
Leland checked his phone for messages and replied to a text from Abby. “I hear teenage boys are easier to raise than girls.”
Melissa cracked a smile. “Did you read that in Men’s Health?”
“Playboy,” Leland confessed with a straight face.
“I’m sure your daughter’s an angel.”
“I love her, but she tries my patience at times.”
“You don’t strike me as an impatient man.”
“You’ve never met Abby.”
Melissa checked her blind spot and signaled to enter the adjacent lane. “My boys fight all the time.”
“How old are they, again?”
“Twelve and eleven. Irish twins born ten months apart. I always dreamed of having girls.”
“Not too late.”
“It is for me. I shut the factory down when my youngest son, Adam, was born.” Melissa tapped the brake to slow with traffic along the road submerged more than three inches deep. “How do you feel about having more children?”
“Is that a question or an offer?”
Melissa blushed.
“One is enough for me,” said Leland.
“What about your ex-wife? Did she ever remarry?”
“Not yet.”
“My ex graduated from the Bill Clinton school of monogamy. Apparently, commitment was a four-letter word in our marriage. Deep down, all men are the same. No offense.”
Leland shifted in his seat. “You just haven’t met the right man.”
Melissa inched forward in traffic. “How long were you married?”
“A few years.”
“A short timer… I guess marriage didn’t agree with you.”
“We weren’t good together,” Leland said with a note of disdain.
Melissa honked her horn in frustration. She steered toward the center line and crept ahead for a better view of the traffic spread in front of her. “This is ridiculous.” She touched the steering wheel controls to surf the stations and stopped on an old Randy Travis hit. “Sorry I dragged you out here on your Saturday.”
Leland liked the way Melissa looked at him when she spoke. The way her eyebrows arched when she emphasized her point of view. The way her lips pursed slightly when she listened. The way her hair caressed her face. “At least we don’t have to worry about a drought.”
“No kidding.”
Leland tuned out the thrum of steady rain and the metronomic rhythm from the windshield wipers. “What inspires you to sing?”
“What do you mean?”
“You never answered my question.”
“What inspires me to sing?” Melissa smiled broadly. “Getting paid.” She gave Leland a sidelong glance. “What? Like you haven’t thought about the money you could make in this business.”
“Money pays the bills,” Leland relented.
“My dad wanted me to go to law school.”
“But you wanted to be a singer?”
“I wanted to be successful at something I was good at. Singing came naturally to me. School, not so much.”
“What did your dad think about you not going to law school?”
“My mom warmed up to it. My dad was always pissed. He thought I was throwing my life away.”
“You would have made a good attorney.”
“Hardly. What about you?”
“Music is all I ever wanted to do. Sounds cliché, I know. But it’s the truth.”
“Nashville can be a lonely place,” Melissa proffered. “It’s all about whom you know and who wants to know you. Speaking of which, how did you hook up with Sid?”
Leland thought to himself. “Long story.”
Melissa motioned at the standstill traffic outside the car. “I’ve got nowhere to be.”
Leland nodded. “He heard me play a small gig in Tulsa a few years back. Thought I could use someone to further my career.”
“Just like that?” Melissa asked incredulously.
“Just like that.”
“Did you grow up in Tulsa?”
“I grew up all over. My parents moved a lot when I was young.”
“What brought you to Nashville? Never mind… I think that’s obvious.” Melissa looked away for a moment, then she cast the gaze from her probing brown eyes on Leland. “I’ve known Sid a long time. I know most of the acts he represents. Funny he never mentioned you before.”
Leland shrugged off the comment. “What was life like on the road? When you were touring with a band.”
“Exciting. Monotonous. Lonely. But I miss it. You know? The energy. The sound of screaming fans who paid to see me. It’s hard to describe. There’s no feeling like it.”
“You must have a lot of stories.”
“A few.”
“Who was the most interesting person you ever met?”
“Tim McGraw. He was the most genuine, down-to-earth person I ever worked with. Not to mention super sexy. He would walk out on stage and draw everyone’s attention to him immediately. One time he told me he never made music for critics. He simply made the record he heard in his head.”
“Did you ever sing with him on stage?”
“No, but I wanted to! I got to meet a lot of incredible people on his team.”
“Maybe I’ll meet some of them today,” Leland said with an optimistic tone, punctuated by a loud thunder clap.
“Maybe…” Melissa stretched in her seat. “If this storm keeps up, we might get there faster by boat.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 21

Leland drove his antique Dodge pickup through the open gate at Melissa’s Belle Meade estate, where a Sotheby’s “For Sale” sign directed buyers to an open house event under overcast skies and the threat of more rain. He followed the long, swooping driveway along the lushly landscaped setting to the front of the majestic property and parked between an Indian red Porsche 911 Turbo and an arctic white Rolls Royce Phantom.
He carried his guitar from his truck and hummed a melody from a song in his head. When he reached the front door, he greeted a tall brunette in beige slacks and a matching blazer with a Sotheby’s stick pin on her lapel. “My name’s Leland Presley. Mrs. Hamilton is expecting me.”
“Were you here for the open house?” the agent inquired.
“No ma’am,” Leland answered. He took off his hat and raised his guitar case. “I’m here for a lesson.”
The realtor blushed at Leland’s handsome features. “Are you the teacher or the student?” she asked before she disappeared inside the residence to find Melissa.
Leland waited in the foyer, enamored by the autographed head shots of famous country singers centered on one wall. He also noticed framed photos of Melissa Hamilton riding horseback in equestrian apparel. He stepped away when he heard the sound of high heels clicking on marble floor and saw Melissa with her hair in a pony bun. Thick eye liner gave her eyes a smoky draw. A pair of white diamond earrings sizzled under halogen lights. “Bad time?”
“What can I do for you, Mr. Presley?”
Leland pointed to the equestrian photos. “Do you compete?”
“Not anymore.”
“You have a beautiful horse.”
Melissa checked the time. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Presley?”
“I brought my guitar.”
“I see that.”
“I have a voice lesson today.”
“I can’t right now.”
Leland smiled wryly. “I showered this time.”
“Good to know, Mr. Presley. Let’s reschedule for next week.”
Leland tightened his grip on the guitar case handle. Lean muscle flexed inside his tattooed forearm. “I left work early and gave up two hours pay to arrive on time. And gas isn’t getting any cheaper.”
“If you’re asking for recompense—”
“I’m asking for you to honor our appointment. I also brought the part for your toilet.”
Melissa motioned for Leland to follow her. “Can you look at my hot water heater?”
Leland set the guitar case down. “I’ll get my tools.”

Melissa showed her agent to the driveway. Underwhelmed by the names in her visitor’s log, she fought the urge to call her nosey neighbors and patronize them for snooping with no intention to buy. The six hour event sent droves of foot traffic through her spotless home, but yielded zero offers—in spite of listing the property well below market value.
She found Leland in the back of the four-car garage, peeking under a tarp draped over a Ranger bass boat on a single-axle trailer. “You find what you’re looking for?”
Leland let go of the tarp. “I was curious.”
“It was Martin’s toy. My ex… He rarely used it. It’s for sale, if you’re interested.”
“Not right now. Won’t fit in my new place.”
“New house?”
“New adventure. We haven’t finished unpacking yet.” Leland diverted his attention to the hot water heater, where a puddle gathered on the floor beneath the base of the eighty-gallon tank. He cut off the water supply line and inspected the pressure relief valve.
Melissa kept her distance. “Can you fix it?”
“I need to figure out what’s wrong first.”
“It leaks.”
Leland examined the copper plumbing for faulty welds, a bad connection, or a crack in the tubing. “How long has it been leaking?”
“A few days. My agent’s home inspector found the problem.”
“I think you’re going to need a new tank.”
“How long will that take?”
“A couple hours with the right tools. And a new tank.”
“Is this something you can handle?”
Leland washed his hands at the utility sink. “I’m a musician who does carpentry. This type of work is not exactly in my wheelhouse.”
Melissa escorted him to the formal living area. “Explains why my toilet still runs,” she murmured under her breath. She poured herself a whiskey from the crystal decanter behind the wet bar beside the wood-burning fireplace and offered Leland a glass.
“I’m good,” Leland politely declined. He scanned the framed family photos propped on the wood beam mantel centered on the stone chimney.
“How old are you, Mr. Presley?”
“You understand the average age of an up-and-coming singer in this town is barely a day over twenty.”
“You’re saying I’m too old?”
“I’m saying your age won’t do you any favors.”
“You seem to be doing fine,” said Leland. “I mean, career wise. Not on account of your age.”
Melissa adjusted a crooked picture frame. “According to the Internet, I’m only thirty-two in biological years. Calendar years don’t tell the whole story. Scientific research supports it.”
“You look great for your age. I mean, not that you’re old.”
Melissa rolled her eyes. “Quit while you’re ahead, Mr. Presley. I lost the baby fat when George W. was in office, but my ass won a second term.” She sipped her single malt scotch. “Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not a trick question, Mr. Presley. You clearly know how to sing. I assume you’re no stranger to guitar.”
“One can always improve.”
“True. But if you think vocal lessons will open doors—”
“It can’t hurt.”
“It won’t help, either. This town doesn’t care about your vocal chops or how well you can play guitar. Half the guys pumping gas can sing as well as most male vocalists on the charts.”
“Yes ma’am.”
Melissa sipped her drink. “Where did you go to school?”
“You think that makes you a better musician?”
“Not necessarily. A lot of successful artists never studied in college. Clint Black, Chet Atkins, Christina Aguilera, Bryan Adams, Taylor Swift…”
Melissa set her glass down. “Anyone with a mouth and two good ears can learn to sing and play guitar. It’s what you bring to the table. How you stand out from the pack that matters.”
“You sound like someone else I know.” Leland opened his guitar case and lifted his acoustic Gibson. “My mother gave me this when I was young. She saved her pennies waiting tables.”
“Does she play?”
“She used to. Before she died.”
“I’m sorry…”
“She always loved music. Said I should follow my dreams no matter how crazy. The whole life is too short thing.”
“What about your dad?”
Leland adjusted the A string to sharpen the note. He strummed through a simple chord and heard the tone resonate. Then he played scales with a classical arpeggio style, his callused fingertips effortlessly transitioning from string to string and fret to fret. “He encouraged me to do what I love.”
Melissa glanced at his empty wedding finger. “Are you married?”
Leland stopped playing. “Never met the right one.”
Leland looked up at Melissa. “Not anymore.”
“Sounds like she ripped the Band-Aid off.”
“Something like that.”
“What do you do for fun?”
“I play music.”
“I meant besides music.”
“I write songs.”
“That’s still music.”
“Music is my life. When I sing, everything sort of falls into place.”
Melissa finished her whiskey and opened the double glass doors to her private recording studio. She dimmed the recessed lighting and sat down at the grand piano. “Play something.”
Leland carried his guitar and tapped the microphone. He heard thump, thump from the speakers. “Anything?”
“You didn’t come here to dance.”
Leland thought a moment and cleared his throat. He strummed the guitar with a slow tempo rhythm. “Nothing’s easy anymore,” he whispered into the microphone.


I’ve been up all night alone
Facing troubles on my mind
What I would give to kiss your lips
And feel you close to me, this time…

(more aggressive on guitar)

But nothing’s easy anymore
I got heartache on my mind
I never felt this way before
I guess a part of me resigned
‘Cause nothing’s easy anymore…

(guitar plays on)

There doesn’t have to be a reason
Time will sort the truth from lies
I want to fall in love again
Throw away this damn disguise

But nothing’s easy anymore
I’ll let you see a better man
You’re the one who I adore
Sometimes you have to take a stand
’Cause nothing’s easy anymore…

(guitar plays on)

My father died alone
A good man gone astray
Left my family feeling empty
Before he finally slipped away

’Cause nothing’s easy anymore
You have to fight for what you need
Pick the pieces off the floor
It ain’t easy to succeed

’Cause nothing’s easy anymore!

Melissa clapped. “Breathe from your diaphragm. And don’t put your mouth so close to the microphone. It distorts the sound. And don’t stand like a mannequin. Move around.”
Leland tuned the strings. “How ’bout this one?” He tapped his boot on the floor to keep the beat. “Love is a state of mind.”

It’s about time…
It’s about space…
It’s a memory… I can’t erase

It’s about then…
It’s about now…
It’s a way to win you back, somehow

So don’t leave…(sustain) me now
Some doors are meant to stay open
A heart can’t be loved if it’s broken
Don’t be afraid, to look inside
You might, be, surprised to find

(fast strum)

Love is a state of mind
Love is a state of mind

It’s a new path…
An about face…
Emotions that we can’t replace

It’s about us…
It’s about them…
It’s about how we start this over again

So don’t leave… (sustain) me now
There’s only so far you can see
Trust in your heart to be free
But don’t be afraid to give in sometimes
You might be, surprised, to find…

(fast strum)

Love is a state of mind
Love is a state of mind

You should try it from time to time…

Love is a state of mind… (slow tempo)
Love is a state of mind… (slow tempo)
Love is a state of mind… (slow tempo)

Melissa rested her hands on the piano bench. “You hold a lot of resentment. She must have been someone special.”
“I play how I feel it.”
“Work on something more upbeat. Something with a positive vibe. A song to show off your range.”
“I have one in mind.”
“Do you dance?”
Leland grinned. “Are you asking me to prom?”
Melissa avoided eye contact with the handsome stranger who reminded her of a boyfriend she had in college. “Mayor Dean is hosting a charity event.” She read Leland’s curious expression. “Our Nashville mayor.”
“I knew that,” Leland said sheepishly.
“I hate going to these things alone. I’m not asking for a date. Just thought you might want to tag along. Big names will be there.”
“I appreciate the invite, but I told my daughter I’d take her fishing.”
“The forecast is calling for rain again.”
Leland reached in his pocket when his cell phone rang. He cringed when he heard Abby’s principal on the other end. “I’m sorry,” he told Melissa. “I need to get my daughter from school before she earns another merit badge for detention.”