Music City Madness: Chapter 88

Melissa glanced out her tinted bus window at the early morning traffic moving south along I-95 toward Melbourne, Florida. Alone with her boys and a driver who took kindly to kids, she noticed the familiar landmarks from the zoo to the Suntree Country Club along the Wickham Road exit heading east from the interstate, past the Maxwell King Center, toward Wickham Park. Years ago, she’d played the same location as a warm-up act for Vince Gill. She’d learned how to pace herself on stage, absorbing pearls of wisdom from accomplished singers and musicians willing to impart their knowledge for the sake of improving their craft. Eventually, her own musicians disbanded as competition escalated among major record labels vying for the strongest talent. Now, thanks to Sid, she found herself attached to an A-list team of professional musicians and seasoned crew members willing to endure the daily grind of back-to-back shows under less than ideal conditions.
She checked on her boys to find them snoozing in their racks when the bus entered the sprawling outdoor venue across from the community college.
“Where is everyone?” Melissa asked her driver.
“Don’t know,” the driver answered while several crew members offloaded equipment from a cargo van. “They must have got a late start.”
Melissa felt the bus shimmy and jerk during slow speed maneuvers within the reserved parking area until it settled in its designated space. She stepped out to find Sid near a black limousine, in a pair of light blue golf shorts and a red Arnold Palmer shirt. “What are you doing here?” she asked, surprised by the unexpected visitor.
“I heard there’s going to be a great show tonight.”
“We deliver a great show every night. Why are you really here?”
“I wanted to tell you in person. Wharton Brothers decided to exercise an early termination clause. Translation…”
“I know what it means,” Melissa acknowledged. “My tour ends here. And so does my career. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Good news travels fast. Bad news travels faster. What about my band?”
“They’ll find work. Brad Siegel has other gigs lined up for them.”
“I should have known he was involved in this.”
“I tried to renegotiate,” Sid explained.
“I get it. What about my new album?”
“You’ll finish it. Just not with Wharton Brothers.”
“What about my duet?”
“I’m still working on it.”
Melissa followed Sid toward the main stage area, where crew members assembled racks of lighting gear. “How long have you known?”
“I got the call the other night. I booked a plane to Melbourne so I could tell you in person. Where are your boys?”
“Still snoozing on the bus.” Melissa strolled toward a patch of shade. “This life’s not for me anymore. The boys took to it at first. Then the novelty wore off. They miss their home and their friends and Tomás.”
“Tomás misses you.”
“Brad Siegel’s a prick,” Melissa vented. “And useless as a screen door on a submarine. I want a label who believes in me. A lot of women succeeded way beyond their prime. Bette Midler. Barbara Streisand. Cher. Celine Dion.”
“Technically, Celine is younger than you.”
Melissa gave Sid a heated glance. “Not funny.” She followed him to a row of folding chairs near the stage. “Where’s my band? I haven’t seen them since we left Atlanta yesterday.”
“They’re around.”
“Their bus wasn’t in the parking lot. They better not be camped out in Cocoa Beach. We have a lot of work to do.”
“Relax. Let life come to you for a change.”
“This from the man who traveled eight hundred miles to tell me I’m fired.”
Sid grinned. “If you could have one wish, what would it be?”
“Anything?”
“Anything…”
Melissa contemplated the question. “A better agent.” She touched Sid’s arm and chuckled. “I’m kidding.” She looked at the stage prepped with drums, guitars, and a microphone stand. “What would you wish for?”
“A new client,” Sid pushed back.
“Then I guess we’ll both be disappointed.” Melissa followed him to a pair of folding chairs near center stage with RESERVED signs hanging off the back. “What are you doing?” she asked when Sid claimed a seat.
“I’m tired of walking.”
“You just got out of your limo.”
Sid tapped the chair beside him. “Flatter me.”
“What is this?”
“A surprise.”
Melissa remained standing with her hands on her hips. “You know I hate surprises.”
“Everyone always says they hate surprises, but people love them.”
“I’m not most people,” Melissa professed as she noticed her band members appear one-by-one on stage with Leland. She looked at Sid, then back at Leland. A moment later, she heard the bass drum pounding in rhythm with her elevated pulse. Her lead guitarist played edgy, up-tempo power chords while the bass guitar added a vibrant, southern-rock melody. The music pumped through her like the blood in her veins as Leland approached the microphone stand.


Leland admired the gathering crowd and signaled the band to take the volume down a notch. He slipped his arm through the strap on a white Stratocaster and spoke in a confident voice projected through a stack of Marshall amplifiers. “I have so much in my life. More than any man could ask for. More than I deserve. But I can’t stand the thought of living one more day without you, Melissa Hamilton. You mean the world to me. I wrote this one for you. I hope you like it.” He signaled the band to bring the music full force. Then he started to sing…

I believe in heav-en
And a life up above
I believe in des-tiny (hit big symbol hard for emphasis)
And the value of love

I believe in freedom
And the power to choose
I believe in emp-athy (hit big symbol hard for emphasis)
And a life without rules

(guitar transition; new chord progression; uptick in tempo)

We all go astray, but that doesn’t change who we are (drum crescendo)
You are a-m-a-zing!
Like the sun that warms the earth, you warm my heart
You are everything a man could want and more…

(Slow tempo, edgy southern-rock power chords on guitar)

I believe in karma
And the lessons I’ve learned
I believe in hon-esty (hit big symbol hard for emphasis)
When the tables are turned

I believe in valor
And help from above
I believe in des-tiny (hit big symbol hard for emphasis)
And the strength of our love

(guitar transition; new chord progression; uptick in tempo)

We all go astray, but that doesn’t keep us apart (drum crescendo)
You are a-m-a-zing!
In everything you do
Like the faithful who believe in mir-a-cles…

(pause music, vocals only for next line)

I believe in you…

(Continue with slow tempo, edgy southern-rock power chords on guitar)

I believe in you…
I believe…in you…

(music fades)
Melissa ran to the stage amid a cacophony of cheers. Her eyes teared as Leland helped her up. She wrapped her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “I believe in you too.”
Leland lifted her feet off the ground. He pointed at Abby in the flash mob audience and gave her a big thumbs up. “What do you think?” he asked Melissa.
Melissa raised a fist at her band. Then she relaxed her arm and waved at her boys in the crowd. “My boys are fakers!”
“They were all for it.”
“What kind of name is Peter Blankenbaum, anyhow?” she razzed him.
“Irish-German.”
Melissa laughed, her spirits high on love. “I had a dream about Elvis the other day. He was in his seventies, and I swear he sat right next to me on the plane. It all seemed so real.”
Leland marveled at her candid jubilation. “Stranger things have happened…”

THE END

Music City Madness: Chapter 85

Leland waited inside a construction trailer with his tool belt around his waist. The smell of burned coffee and cigarettes permeated the portable office wallpapered with building plans and a motorcycle calendar advertising topless women on custom bikes.
He acknowledged the foreman, who entered in his orange safety vest and yellow hard hat with a pair of leather work gloves and a dented Stanley thermos. “You wanted to see me?”
The foreman set the metal thermos on a file cabinet and unlocked the top drawer to retrieve a thin stack of envelopes. He parsed through the first few names before he found the one he wanted. “This is yours,” he told Leland.
“My advance?”
“Severance.”
“For what? I just started this job.”
“We’re over budget. Last to hire, first to fire. You know the deal. Other guys have seniority.”
“Then put me on a different site.”
“Not my call.”
Leland tore open the envelope and scrutinized the dollar amount printed on the company draft. “This will barely fill my truck.”
“There’s FEMA work in the city.”
“It pays half.”
“More than you’re getting now.”
Leland followed the foreman outside the trailer and beat a path toward his truck. He unbuckled his tool belt and threw it across the seat. Then he climbed inside and contemplated his paltry earnings. With his rent in jeopardy and an empty refrigerator at home, he prayed for the daughter he sorely missed, for the woman he loved, and for the strength to press on. He prayed to endure what he knew was only temporary hardship; to look beyond the small setbacks and see the bigger plan.
He’d played more gigs on the honky-tonk circuit than he ever imagined he would. He’d also tasted his five minutes of fame and opened his heart to thousands of country music fans who’d listened to him perform, blissfully unaware of the pain that drove him to end his career.
He reached in his pocket when he heard his cell phone ring and noted Sid’s name on the flip phone’s display. “I left you three messages this morning.”
“I’ve been busy,” Sid replied over the phone.
“I just got shit-canned from a job I can’t afford to lose. If you’re calling to kick me when I’m down, get in line.”
“I wouldn’t worry so much anymore.”
“What about Abby?”
“That’s why I’m calling…”
“Did you talk to Paula’s lawyer? I think Martin Hamilton’s involved with her somehow.”
“I’m working on it.”
Leland moved the phone to his other ear. “I’m getting tired of the waiting game.”
“Let’s talk in person.”
“Where are you?”
“Look up.”
Leland checked his rear view mirror to see a black Escalade in his field of view. He climbed out of his truck to meet Sid in a swirl of dust and diesel from a convoy of heavy equipment. “What’s going on?”
Sid covered his mouth with his hand and pointed to the construction trailer. “Let’s talk inside.”
Leland followed him. “Is Abby okay?”
Sid entered the single-wide trailer on blocks and filled a paper cup from the water cooler. “She’s fine.”
“Where is she?”
“South Carolina. Myrtle Beach, to be exact.”
“What is she doing there?”
“She ran away from the home in Nashville.” Sid finished the water and crumpled the cup. “I just found out.”
“How did she—”
“She lifted a credit card from someone’s wallet and bought a bus ticket online. Melissa’s boys emailed her their location.”
Leland ran his hand through his hair. “Is she okay?”
“Melissa’s escorting her back to Nashville. Their flight lands this afternoon.”
“Then what happens?”
“You take her home.”
Leland scratched his head. “To her foster home?”
“No, Dummy. Your home. You’ll need to go downtown and sign some papers first. I’ll come with you.”
“What about Paula’s case against me?”
“Her lawyer withdrew the case. Paula’s returning to where she belongs. So is Abby.”
“How?”
“I made some calls.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“What if Paula tries to come after Abby again?”
“Paula needs long term care. By the time she’s ready to even think about mounting another case, Abby will be of age and no longer a minor, free to choose with whom she lives.”
“What about the test results? If I’m not her biological father—”
“You’re her father, Leland. DNA doesn’t change your commitment to your daughter. Paula’s agreed for you to maintain full custody. Her falsified abuse allegations have been dropped. Child services will want to talk with you to make sure everything’s above board at home and work.”
Leland hugged him. “I can’t thank you enough. But I need to find a new job.”
“I would focus on your music instead.”
“Music’s not exactly in my future anymore.”
“A few million people beg to differ. Your little stunt went viral. A Man Like Me has been blowing up the Internet. You’ve got three million hits on YouTube already. I have two major labels competing to sign you. Both are talking seven figures. Country Weekly wants an interview.” Sid smiled wryly. “You’re going to need a good agent.”
Leland choked on his words. “Are you serious?” Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Your time has come, Leland. Lord knows you’ve earned it.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Believe it. You touched a lot of people that night. Before the concert, no one outside of Nashville, hell, no one in Nashville, knew the voice of Leland Presley. They do now.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 80

Melissa locked herself in her tour bus, physically depleted from the rigors of endless preparations and daily rehearsal schedules at the start of her East Coast festival tour. After struggling to reclaim her career, she finally found her stride, regardless of her looming regrets about selling the house to Martin and uprooting her boys from the only home they’d ever known. In her haste to end her relationship with Leland, she had candidly dismissed her own addiction issues and her self-centered views. Now she found herself alone on a custom coach with more accouterments than a five star hotel. She knew the demands of life on the road; how the lure of fame and fortune overshadowed any notion of an honest conversation about the unsettling monotony of the music business mired in poor judgment, bad taste, and chronic indulgence in illegal drugs. She had everything she wanted and more, with no one to blame but herself for feeling rejected at a time when she needed Leland the most.


Leland charged inside the Nashville recreation center to find Principal Hendrix engaged in conversation with a Davidson County Deputy. “Where’s my daughter?” he vented loud enough to draw the principal’s attention. “Abby’s supposed to be here.”
“Mr. Presley—”
“I want to see Abby now!”
Principal Hendrix maintained an aggressive stance with her large frame physically obstructing Leland’s path. “Mr. Presley—”
“Where is she?”
“Abby’s safe. Let’s go somewhere private and talk.”
A vein in Leland’s temple throbbed. “I’m not going anywhere without my daughter. Bring her out here now, or this is going to get ugly.”
Principal Hendrix waved off the deputy sheriff who took offense at Leland’s fighting words. “Mr. Presley, I’m on your side. I realize you’re frustrated. I promise you, Abby is safe.”
“It’s not her safety I’m concerned about.”
Leland followed Principal Hendrix inside a small equipment room. “Whatever it is you think you’re doing to protect my daughter, it’s not helping.”
“Mr. Presley, I’ve worked in education for more than thirty-five years, including most of my summers spent with youth programs like these. I’ve seen a lot in my tenure, and there are two things I know as certain truth: first, I don’t believe you pose any threat to Abby; and second, I wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise.”
“I’m taking Abby home with me.”
“Right now that would do more harm than good.”
“I disagree!”
“You’re not hearing me, Mr. Presley. I’m on Abby’s side. She has issues, of which I am well aware, but abuse at home is not one of them.”
Leland drew a deep breath. “I’m not leaving here without her.”
“Child services has a court order granting the state temporary custody until a hearing can be held to determine—”
“This is wrong! They have no right.”
“They have the law.”
“No law gives them permission to come in here and threaten to take my daughter!”
“It’s not a perfect system.”
Leland lunged for the door when he saw Abby emerge with a sheriff’s deputy and a man in a tie with a government ID around his neck. “Abby!”
“Dad!” Abby screamed.
Leland approached the officer. “My daughter’s coming home with me.”
The officer reached for his taser gun. “Sir, I need you to step back.”
“You said no one would take me away!” Abby cried.
“I’m sorry,” Leland pleaded. “I’ll figure this out. I promise!” He followed Abby and the officer until Principal Hendrix intervened.
“Mr. Presley! You’re no good to your daughter in jail.”
“This isn’t right.”
“You’ll have your day in court.”
Leland stood helplessly as the men ushered Abby from the building to a government sedan outside. He wanted Paula in a straight jacket, and the judge who sided with her case, in jail.
“Go home, Mr. Presley. Meet with your lawyer. If there’s anything I can do to help, I will.”


Sid entered Leland’s house and followed the sound of acoustic guitar played at a heated tempo. “Leland?”
“In here,” he heard Leland call out.
Sid stepped around unpacked boxes and a curious orange tabby who jumped on a window sill for a glimpse at the squirrel festivities outside. “I’m sorry about what happened. I tried to get there before child services arrived.”
Leland stopped playing when Sid entered the room. “They took her away from me.”
“They had a court order.”
“How soon will I get her back?”
“I’m working on it.”
Leland picked at the guitar strings indifferently. “I feel empty inside.”
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“I blame my wife!”
“The burden of proof falls on her attorney. Their case is flimsy. I’ve already filed a motion to dismiss.”
“How long will that take?”
“Depends on the court’s schedule. Maybe ten, twelve weeks at most. But there’s no guarantee they’ll grant it.”
“I’m not waiting two months!” Leland set his guitar in the case. “There has to be something more you can do. This is my word against hers. There’s no way the courts would side with Paula. You know she’s lying.”
“Only if we can prove it.”
“You said the burden of proof was on her attorney.”
“And her attorney will make a strong argument that you’re not fit to be Abby’s father.”
“But I am her father.”
“Not biologically, which makes the situation more complicated.”
“Abby needs me.”
“She’ll be safe in the state’s care.”
“Bullshit! I’ve been in the state’s care.”
“We’ll get her back,” Sid assured him.
“How?”
“I’ll worry about that. You stay close to your phone.”


Leland reached for the bottle of bourbon stashed in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Behind him, the orange tabby sauntered from the hallway to Abby’s room and howled. “She’s not here,” he told the cat and unscrewed the cap. He took a swig and left the open bottle on the counter. He retrieved his guitar and played through a new chord sequence, hoping to find the words to match the music. But every string played sharp or flat, out of tune and out of touch with every melody he composed in his head. Instead of solace in his music, he found emptiness, an emotional void where fear transformed into sadness, sadness devolved into anger, and anger appealed to apathy.
He clenched the guitar neck in both hands and raised the prized possession above his head. Rage swelled within him until he slammed the vintage instrument to the floor, again and again, pounding the handmade Gibson into a pile of splintered wood and broken strings.

Music City Madness: Chapter 76

Melissa paced inside the private conference room of a reputable title company in Nashville. Dull clouds covered the skyline outside the windows overlooking the retail space next door. “What the hell were you thinking?” she grilled Martin, who sat quietly at a long office table with a stack of mortgage papers and a pen.
“I wanted to see the live show.”
“I told you to keep an eye on the boys. After everything they’ve been through—”
“I was only gone a few hours. They were fine when you got home.”
“No, they weren’t. Adam thought something happened to you. Jonathan sent me a text and asked if you were ever coming back.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Sorry is forgetting to put the toilet seat down. I should have never trusted you. I asked you to stay with them for a few hours, not abandon them.”
Martin clicked the cheap ball point pen on the table. “The boys are fine. Nothing happened.”
“I missed half the concert.”
“There wasn’t much to miss.”
“That’s not the point.”
“You’re making a big deal about nothing.”
Melissa sent another text to her realtor. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“My offer’s fair.”
“I don’t care about the money. I care about my boys’ future.”
Martin put his hands on the table and laced his fingers. “So do I. And I’m sorry about the horse. I should have consulted you first.”
“The boys always want what they can’t have.”
“They deserve a better life. So do you.”
Melissa paced in front of the window. “What’s taking so long? We should have been done an hour ago.”
Martin parted his hands and leaned back in his chair. “Sit down and relax. Stress will age you faster.”
“This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“And yet, you’re still here.”
“Like I have a choice.” Melissa stepped away from the window and read her realtor’s reply: running late.
“You’re making the right decision,” Martin reassured her.
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“You’ll be square with the IRS. And you won’t have to defend a foreclosure.”
“I just want to get this over with.”
“You don’t have to move out right away.”
“I’m sending the movers tomorrow. I want my stuff in storage while I’m on tour.”
“What about the boys?”
Melissa read a text message from Sid asking if she saw the concert. “They’re coming with me.”
“What about school?”
“School’s over.”
“Until next fall.”
“I can homeschool the boys on the road.”
“If you call that rolling coffin a home.”
“They’ll be fine. What happened on my last tour was a fluke. It won’t happen again.”
Martin leaned forward in his chair and got up. “I think it’s a bad idea.”
“Says the man who left his family to chase his secretary across the country. You couldn’t take responsibility to tend our boys for one night.”
“Paralegal. And I told the boys I would be home before ten.”
Melissa rolled her eyes. “Whatever…”
Martin took his reading glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Their principal wants them to see a shrink.”
“When did you talk to her?”
“Doesn’t matter. I share her concerns. Our boys are twisted up inside. They need someone to talk to.”
“They have me,” Melissa stipulated.
“They need their father.”
Melissa looked away. “Their principal needs to stay out of our lives.”
“She cares about our boys. She wants what’s best for them.”
“I’ll decide what’s best.”
“They’re my sons too. Don’t act like I don’t care about them.”
“It takes more than sperm to be a father.”
Martin took out his cigarettes. “That’s low, Mel. Even for you.”
“Don’t call me that. And don’t light up in here.”
“How long will you be on tour?”
“Not long enough.”
“The boys could stay in the house with me. I could fly them out to see you.”
Melissa read another text from Sid. “Never going to happen.”
“Jesus, Mel. I figured you might be more amenable by now.”
“You figured wrong.”
“I could take you to court and fight for partial custody. I could block you from taking our sons outside the state without my written consent.”
“You try that, and you’ll never see them again.”
Martin raised his hands in a defensive pose. “I don’t want to argue about our boys. If you think a life on the road is best for them, I defer to your judgment.”
Melissa threw him a steely gaze. She knew better than to trust a man whose moral fabric held water like torn pantyhose. Martin had something to hide. She could smell it on him, but at the moment, she didn’t care. She wanted her old life back and her boys in her purview. She thought of Leland for a moment and then quickly dismissed any notion of a reconciliation. He had his life. She had hers. “This is taking way too long.”
“You got somewhere else to be?”
“Anywhere but here.”

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.”
“When?”
“Today.”
“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.”
“How?”
“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.”
“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.”
“How?”
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?”
“Ninety-eight.”
“What was your major?”
“Music.”
“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.”
“Why?”
“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.
“Nothing.”
“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.”
“Ditto.”
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.”