Hunter Jennings sat in his luxury tour bus, his phone pressed to his ear. “Come on, Rob, can’t I just send an autographed CD with the tickets and backstage passes and call it good?”
“No!” His manager was emphatic. “I landed you a top sponsorship; now you have to come through with your end of the bargain.”
“My end of the bargain? I never agreed to this promotion. It was all your idea.”
“And a personal appearance is what clinched the deal. So buck up. It will only take an hour of your time, two at the most.”
“Two!” Hunter shot up from his custom cowhide couch, ready to chuck his phone down the hall. “You said I would be in and out. Come on, Rob, I hate this, and you know it. For cryin’ out loud, it’s awkward.”
“Hey, if making millions of dollars and having women throw themselves at you is awkward, then sign me up,” Rob chuckled.
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re just the manager who comes up with these stupid promotions and divvies out the cash. You don’t have to deal with psychotic or truly desperate women.”
“Hang on now, I take exception to that. Getting Desperado—one of the largest manufacturers of boots, saddles, and gear—to sponsor your tour was a stroke of genius. You said so yourself.”
“Yeah, well, that was before I found out I had to hock their goods at every major city along the tour. You’ve turned me into a glorified delivery boy.”
“You can whine all you want, Hunter, but you’re doing it. The promotion clearly states the winner will be presented with a saddle, tickets, and backstage passes by none other than yours truly. So get on board. The car will be by to pick you up in an hour. Be ready. And make sure you check the crappy attitude at the door.”
When the phone went dead, Hunter tossed it on the couch, plopped down beside it, and swore under his breath. Raking his fingers through his hair, he massaged his scalp and leaned back against the overstuffed pillows.
“I need a new manager.”
Charlie had just finished lunch and was putting her dishes in the sink when there was a knock at the door. Startled, she dropped the plate and juggled to right the glass. Luckily, nothing broke. “Come on, get your act together,” she scolded.
It had been six months since moving to Connor, Tennessee, but the paranoia she carried around like baggage was never far away.
Looking through the peephole on the front door, she took a step back, shocked by who she saw.
It can’t be.
Taking a breath, she looked again.
Sure enough, country music star, Hunter Jennings, was standing on her front stoop.
Walking away from the door, she stood in the middle of the living room completely mystified.
What in the world?
Then she remembered.
Hunter Jennings was in town for a concert. The feed store had been promoting it for months. A flyer was even stuffed inside her bag when she bought Goliath’s hoof dressing. It advertised not only the concert, but a giveaway that included concert tickets and a gorgeous Desperado saddle.
But what does that have to do with me? I never put my name on anything.
Her mind whirled with possible explanations, but there were none.
Another heavy knock on the door reminded her she needed to do something and had better do it quick. So, with a cleansing breath, she reached for the deadbolts and slowly disengaged all three of them.
Hunter’s agitation was growing by the second. He saw someone approach the peephole, but that same someone refused to open the door. He was about to knock for the third time when he heard the click of a lock being released, then another, and still yet another. Finally, the door eased open.
He was not at all prepared for who stood on the other side. A beautiful brunette, wearing faded jeans, worn boots, and a simple plaid shirt. Except on her, it looked anything but simple. Everything about her was amazing, except for her eyes. Though they were rich brown, captivating, and mysterious, they communicated one thing: Back off.
But I can change that. He gave her another glance. So maybe this gig isn’t that bad after all.
He took a step forward, removed his hat, and flashed the seductive smile he had perfected over the years. “Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m looking for Charlie Foster. Is he home?”
“Is this about the contest at the feed store?”
“Well, let’s see,” he glanced at the man with the store logo on his shirt. “We have a store owner with a saddle in his arms, a couple of photographers, and I’m standing here with a pair of concert tickets and backstage passes in my hand.” He put his hat back on and chuckled. “I don’t think I’m selling Girl Scout cookies.” He smiled again, but it was obvious she didn’t appreciate his humor. Her already frigid look cooled a few more degrees.
“There must be a mistake. I didn’t enter the contest. I’m sorry.” She took a step back and started to ease the door shut.
“Wait a minute! You’re Charlie Foster?”
She stopped, clearly annoyed. “Kind of looks that way.”
Okay . . . good looking or not, he didn’t appreciate the woman’s barbed attitude. Not in the mood for games, he shook his head. Just give her the saddle and get out of here. “Well, this card has your name and address on it which means you’re the winner of the Desperado contest. Congratulations,” he said, minus any enthusiasm.
“Then someone must’ve entered me in the contest without my permission because I didn’t fill out that card. I decline.”
She tried to close the door again, but he stuck his custom alligator boot between the door and the jamb.
“What does it matter who filled out the card?” he snapped. “You won. Your name was drawn. Just take the saddle, pose for a few pictures, and we can all call it a day.”
“But I don’t want the saddle or the tickets. Give them to someone who does.” She looked down at his boot, then square in the eye. “Excuse me.”
But Hunter didn’t budge. “Listen, lady, I don’t know what your beef is, but I’m not going door to door like a freakin’ salesman to find a winner. You’re it. Now, let’s just get this over with.”
When one of the photographers snapped a picture, she threw the door open and catapulted out onto the porch. “Hey, you have no right taking my picture without my permission! Delete it. Right now!”
“But when you filled out the entry form,” the feed store owner spoke up, “it stated that pictures would be taken for promotional reasons. Charlie, what’s wrong?” he took a step closer to the woman and whispered. “Why are you making such a big deal out of this? If you don’t want the saddle, you can sell it later. It’s worth over five grand. But, please don’t ruin this for the store. We need the publicity.”
Hunter looked at the owner, then back to the belligerent woman. That’s when he noticed her pale complexion, and the way her clenched fists shook at her side. “Umm . . . lady, are you okay?” His irritation quickly turned to concern. Something wasn’t right. He watched as the woman reached for her forehead, her fingers shaking, her eyelashes fluttering. “Ma’am?” He reached out to her.
“I . . . I’m fine. I just need to sit down for a second. If you’ll excuse me.”
Hunter watched as she backed away from the door and took a seat on the arm of her couch. Resting her hands on her knees, she lowered her head.
“Wait here a minute,” he said to the small entourage flanking him, then stepped over the threshold and approached the woman with caution. “Are you all right, Miss Foster? Is there someone I can call?”
“I’ll . . . I’ll be okay. I just need that picture erased.”
That’s what this is all about? A stupid picture? What a whack job. He had heard of people who didn’t like to be photographed, but hyperventilating seemed a bit extreme.
After a few seconds, she was breathing normal again, and color slowly returned to her face. When it appeared that she wasn’t going to pass out, he decided it was time for him to leave before things got any worse.
“I’m sorry for upsetting you, Miss Foster. I’ll talk to the store owner and have him pick another winner.” He tipped his hat, turned and headed for the door.
“Wait . . . what about the photograph?” she barked. “I want it deleted! Immediately! I don’t want you or anyone else using it!”
“No problem, lady,” he mumbled as he crossed the living room. “They want a picture of a winner, not a crazy dame afraid of her own shadow.”
Hunter heard her stalking toward him but refused to turn around.
“I can’t believe you just said that! You’d think a person with your celebrity status would have a little more decorum than to call someone crazy.”
“Yeah, well . . .” He turned, but quickly took a step back as she stood toe-to-toe with him. He found the situation ironic. Even though his six-six frame towered over her, this woman did not seem the least bit intimidated. It reminded him of the time when he was a teenager and cut across the neighbor’s property on his way home from school. A pint-size terrier chased after him, nipping at his heels. The thing could not have weighed more than ten pounds. But that did not seem to matter to the terrier. His heart was as big as a Rottweiler, and he had the personality to match.
This pint-size woman was all Rottweiler.
“What’s your problem, lady? I said I was leaving. I said I would get rid of the picture. Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”
“Not that it’s any business of yours, but I have my reasons!”
Okay. That’s it. He’d had enough of this woman yelling at him, clearly overreacting. “Let me guess,” he snapped as he crossed his arms against his broad chest. “You’re a mafia princess hiding from the family, slumming it here in Hicksville where no one would ever think to look for you. Or maybe you’re royalty in hiding because you don’t want to take your rightful place on the throne,” he laughed. “Or better yet, maybe you’re—”
“Hiding from a husband who repeatedly beat the crap out of me and threatened to kill me if I ever left him!”
Her words hit him like a blow to the gut, and seeing the tears that slid from her panic-filled eyes, he believed every word of it.