Chapter One

 

KASEY TUFFMAN wiped the sweat off his forehead with one of those ridiculous, pristine white towels they gave you at awards shows when you stepped offstage. Used to be he had a hat to soak up the sweat, but this damned haircut his new stylist had given him wouldn’t work with the old summer straw he preferred.

“Good job, Tuff,” said one of the lackeys from the label, a guy with a three-hundred-dollar pair of shoes, and jeans that came from Italy, for fuck’s sake.

“Thanks.” He was just glad it was over. He’d gone out there and sung his just-released sellout song as the last of the nominees for Best New Artist.

Best New fucking Artist. He might have been in Nashville less than two years, but Kasey “Tuff” Tuffman had been playing music in Texas since he was fourteen. Twenty freaking years ago.

His night was almost over. Alan Kingman was walking out on stage, boots clicking away, to announce the winner of the award Tuff was up for. The man would announce that Chase Ryan had won, and Tuff would make a suitably shocked face before walking offstage and out the back to his waiting limo.

Then he’d go to the house he’d been renting, grab a couple of beers, and get in the pool and soak.

He shifted from foot to foot, trying to look calm but hopeful like his coach had told him to. A media coach. Christ. Every little thing was arranged for you when you had a number one single and album.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” Alan said into the microphone. “Lemme get out my reading glasses so I can see that TV they want me to read.”

All Tuff had to do was push through this shit, and then he could breathe for a few days, focus on making a new album over the winter, get off the road, out of the bus, into the studio.

He wanted to go home for a week or two. See his folks and his sisters. Tuff missed Texas like an amputated limb.

“Anyway, whether you’re an eighteen-year-old with a voice like warm honey or a thirtysomething Texan who’s in touch with a more traditional sound, getting your first number one hit is something to celebrate.”

Shit. That had to be him. In touch with a traditional sound? Well, fuck-a-doodle-do. That made him sound like a frickin’ elder statesman.

“Like they say in that old Alabama song about the fiddle,” Alan went on. “If you’re gonna play in Texas….” Alan squinted at the TV, then shook his head. “Whatever that says, screw it. And the winner is….” He ripped open the envelope, and the most comical look of shock crossed Alan’s face. “Kasey Tuffman!”

“What?” The word popped out of his mouth, the surprise immediate and real. Tuff’s heart fell right into his gut.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” The label guy gave him a little push. “Go get ’em, tiger.”

It was supposed to be Chase Ryan. Not him.

Not fucking him.

Someone gave him a shove, so Tuff stumbled out on the stage, his new boots too stiff, and a titter passed through the crowd.

Goddamn it. His label rep had told him the deal. This was just a tribute to someone who’d been around as long as him and had just had his first national number one. No stress. Perform and leave. He wasn’t supposed to win anything or have to make a speech and act grateful for a crumb.

Especially not this. Best New fucking Artist, for chrissake. Like he was some wet-behind-the-ears newbie with a shiny guitar or a boy band bro-country kid the studio had plucked from a vocal program at the University of Tennessee.

Alan stepped away from the microphone to hand him the envelope, blocking the little gal who held the huge paperweight he was getting for selling his Red Dirt soul out to Nashville.

“Congratulations, Tuff. Twenty years of touring and sweating for pennies and it only took a new haircut to get you a fancy award.”

He shot Alan a glare. They’d known each other for years, and he was humiliated this had to happen in front of someone he so admired. “You ain’t funny, old man.”

Alan shook his head. “Not meant to be. I let them kill the music, son. Don’t let them do it to you.”

“Never gonna happen.” Except that wasn’t true, was it? Not really. He already felt like a sellout.

The haircut, the sparkly ass skinny jeans, the four-hundred-dollar Lucchese boots—all of that was the trappings of the label. Jesus, he’d bet this award was too. They’d bought him another few weeks at the top of the fucking chart.

Rage spurted through his veins right along with the blood pounding in his temples as a headache kicked in.

He took the award from the blonde with the fake boobs and capped teeth. Wasn’t her fault, so he gave her a strained smile. Then Tuff stepped up to the microphone, his speech crystalizing in his mind in those few seconds.

“Good evenin’, ladies and gentlemen.” Tuff took a deep breath. “I got to say, I never thought any of y’all would ever vote for me. I imagine I’m not the best of anything, and I figure while I am an artist, I sure ain’t new.” He waited for the camera boom to swing around, the hard focus right on him. Then he smiled, a real Texas-sized smile, holding up the award. “So what do I got to say about this? How about I start with y’all can kiss my….”

 

 


Chapter Two

 

JONAH LITTLEJOHN caught sight of his ex standing there in the wings on that award show, the look on his face pure shock that faded into a dull fury.

“Fuck. Fuck, y’all. Hit Record,” Jonah said, waving wildly at the TV.

“Whut?” Little Jimmy was picking idly, and Ben and Hayley were sitting there notating one of the songs they were laying down in the next couple three days, but Christian and Levain were drinking beers and watching the TV, just like him.

“Hit Record!” He hadn’t seen KT look like that since the day Jonah had left the man, standing in a parking lot in Yankee land. They hadn’t broken up ugly, not really, but it had been a choice for both of them of the music over the love angle.

Lord, KT had been mad then, and he looked like he was about to bust a vein now. Those cheeks were bright red, the pretty lips pressed together tight.

Christian grabbed the remote and hit the red button, the little yellow R appearing on the screen.

Right on time, because KT just lost his shit, telling the whole country academy to kiss his ass before unleashing a string of f-bombs that the censors couldn’t quite keep up with.

All of them stared, mouths open, silent as could be until KT dropped the mic and stalked off, and then they all started howling with laughter.

“Guess he decided today was a good day to commit professional suicide, Jo-Jo.” Christian threw a handful of popcorn at the television, and Levain hit Rewind so they could see it again.

“Guess he did.” Well, he’d be goddamned. Mr. Metrosexual Kasey Tuffman had done lost his collective shits. How fucking fun was that?

Jonah hated the new frosted haircut, the lack of hat, the superpointy boots. KT was a freaking cowboy from Alpine, Texas, not the newest sensation from Georgia or Tennessee. Looked like maybe KT hated it too.

They watched it again. Then again. Then once more, Christian starting to lip-synch along with KT this time.

“Shit, man. Tuff’s done lost it.” Levain’s gold tooth glinted in the light, just bright as all get-out.

“You know it.” Ben waggled his eyebrows, the damn things gyrating madly.

“Yeah, Nashville’ll do that to a guy, I guess.” Jonah couldn’t decide whether he was sad or tickled as a pig in shit. He didn’t wish KT no harm, but he wasn’t sure the big machine was too big for the man.

“You know it.” Levain ought to know. He’d gone there for a pretty little blonde, and when Crazy Town had spit him out, he’d come home to Texas and not touched his guitar for two years.

“’Scuse me, guys.” Jonah climbed to his feet and grabbed his cell so he could head to the kitchen. He keyed up Pam Tuffman’s number, because he had a message to leave for a certain fancy Nashville man.

He leaned back against his fridge, not sure whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt for a second, because he’d managed for ten years not to deal with KT and the drama of Mr. Best New Artist.

Did he want to poke that bear?

Then again, KT had just burned his Nashville deal to the ground. There was no way to spin that rage, which had been so obvious. Kasey Tuffman would need help when he came back to Austin.

There was no doubt this would be where KT landed. This was home. This was where the music happened. KT would go see his momma in West Texas and then come back to where they kept it weird.

Jonah pushed the button. He’d let KT’s momma know his number and that he was interested in chatting. If KT called, so be it.

He’d do like he’d been doing his whole life. He’d fucking wing it.