Running off stage, Matt Taylor snatched a towel from their tour manager and scrubbed it over his face. The crowd was on their feet. The applause rattled the wrap-around pews and the vintage red, yellow, and blue stained glass that comprised the back walls of the Ryman Auditorium.
He sucked in a breath. The Ryman. His band had just debuted their new album at the mother-fucking Ryman. Reserved for the likes of Elvis, BB King, and Emmylou Harris, this wasn’t where a five-man country a cappella group, like Storyhill, performed. This is where Johnny met June. And yet, here they were—with a sold-out show.
He stared out at the dark silhouettes filling the seats, their rhythmic clapping a wordless request for more music. Had it only been eight months since the label threatened to drop the group if they failed to write an all-original album? He sighed. That would have been the perfect time to tell the guys about the songs he’d written. But he kept quiet. He knew the songs were good, but they exposed raw and painful parts of his past. A past that didn’t match his present.
“You ready to wrap this up, Mattie?”
Matt turned to Storyhill’s manager, Brad Rodgers, and bit his bottom lip. Was he ready? Not really. Matt loved performing, but sometimes it was exhausting. He was literally the face of Storyhill. The charmer. The grown-up version of the class clown. The guy who introduced everything—and everyone else.
He was always ‘on.’ There was never a down moment.
So when Andrew came up with this harebrained idea, everyone assumed Matt would take the lead. No one asked. No one even contemplated someone else doing it.
No one imagined this would be the last thing he wanted to do. But he couldn’t admit that. He didn’t dare signal he was uncomfortable or anything but entirely confident.
“Never mind,” he muttered to himself. Matt Taylor didn’t sulk. He didn’t grimace. He didn’t do anything that broke from his image. Ever.
He shook the thoughts from his mind and plastered on an all-too-practiced smile. “I’m ready,” Matt said to their manager, “but is he?”
The two men glanced over at Andrew, the group’s bass. He was standing at the edge of the wings, head dipped, fingers jammed into his hair, looking green around the edges.
Blake, the group’s tenor, stepped up behind the men, pointing at Andrew. “I got five bucks on Andrew leaving his dinner all over the stage.”
Matt laughed. “No way I’m taking that bet. He looks like he’s going to pass out.”
Brad nudged their shoulders. “It’s time. Go give that crowd what they want. Knock the encore number out of the park. I’ll make sure Andrew makes it out there.”
Matt nodded, tapped his microphone against his thigh, and ran onto the stage. His oversized belt buckle jangled as the heels of his boots hit the well-worn pine floor. The boots, the buckle, the jeans, all carefully chosen. An industry insider would call it ‘personal branding.’ He knew the truth. It was a costume, a disguise. The outfits. The jewelry. The $100 haircut. The smile. They were nothing but a mask.
He’d become a caricature, a sum of every wink, every smile, every forced bit of southern charm. He wanted more. He wanted to show everyone there was more to him than pretty packaging. But he understood what people wanted from him and, much as he craved more, he didn’t dare mess with a winning formula.
A shrill whistle yanked Matt from his thoughts. How long had he been standing there? His eyes flashed to the other men on stage. Couldn’t have been too long, Andrew was just wobbling into his spot between Blake and Nick. Blake threw an arm around the bass, steadying him. Andrew didn’t look great, but he managed a weak smile, nodding at Matt.
Matt turned back to the crowd. “How about one more song?”
The crowd roared in agreement, and Blake blew into the pitchpipe. Matt had eighty-one bars to lose himself in a song they’d performed hundreds of times. Three hundred and twenty-four beats before having to emcee tonight’s addition.
Three bars. Four bars. Muscle memory took over and he stepped to the left and turned—and ran into Andrew. Andrew tapped his chest and mouthed, “My bad.” Matt nodded and pushed a finger into Andrew’s shoulder, directing him back into step with the other members of the group. Seemed Andrew’s rare mistakes only happened when there was a woman involved. That’s why tonight’s little post-encore plan was a bad idea.
Sliding into perfect four-part harmony, the closing notes of the encore number floated over the rows of clapping fans. And on cue, Matt raised his microphone to his lips.
“Hey y’all,” Matt called out. “Thanks again for coming to our CD release concert. You’ve been an incredible audience.” The crowd quieted but remained standing. “Before we go, let’s give credit where it’s due.”
He turned and motioned Andrew forward. “Y’all know this guy, right?” he said, slinging an arm around Andrew’s shoulders. “Sexiest voice east of the Mississippi—hell, west of it, north of it, south of it.”
A decidedly female cacophony of ‘whoops’ filled the historic auditorium.
Andrew shot him a look and wheezed, “Get on with it.”
Matt nodded. He hoped Andrew knew what he was doing. “If you liked tonight’s songs,” he said to the audience, following the script in his head, “then give this man an extra round of applause. He’s responsible for writing eleven of the twelve songs on this album.” The crowd erupted in cheers, and Matt yelled into the microphone over the uproar. “Well, he co-wrote the songs, along with one of the best songwriters in the business.”
Matt lowered the microphone and whispered in Andrew’s ear, “You ready?” Andrew nodded, and Matt turned to the wings.
“Grace O’Connor, come out here and join us on stage.” Matt chuckled at Grace, who was madly waving her hands and mouthing, “NO!”
“C’mon Nashville, if you loved our music tonight, put your hands together for the woman who made all this possible.”
Grace slinked into the stage lights and waved weakly to the crowd. “What are you doing?” she hissed, sidling up to Matt.
“Baby, it ain’t what I’m doing, it’s what he’s doing.” He turned her one hundred and eighty degrees to Andrew, who was down on one knee.
Grace gasped, and Matt felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Instantly, the applause and flashing cell phones faded away and a memory as fresh as if it happened yesterday dragged him back to the single moment, nine years ago, that blew his future into a million tiny bits.
He’d been down on one knee—just like Andrew—and snapped open a small black velvet box. The woman standing across from him had frozen and for a single moment her beautiful hazel eyes filled with joy before clouding over, closing off.
He’d waited for the happy tears, just like the ones flowing down Grace’s cheeks right now. They hadn’t come. What had come was a terse, “No.” After six years of dating—and planning a life together—she had walked away, leaving him confused and heartbroken. He’d been over that moment—the unexpected no—a million times. Two letters shattering his heart and sending shards into his future, hidden landmines just waiting to be stepped on. He was never sure when they would explode.
He backed out of the spotlight that captured Grace and Andrew in its golden halo, trying to regain his equilibrium. He could not be Matt Taylor, rhinestone cowboy, right now. He could hardly stand. The memories kept ripping through him, washing over him with the subtlety of a tidal wave.
He bumped against a waist-high speaker and reached to steady himself. Focus, Mattie. One of your best friends just asked the biggest question of his life. This is not about you. He was thrilled for his friends. And gutted by the memories. The sadness coursing through him mixed with the happiness, poisoning it.
No. No. Just no. He squeezed his fists and willed away the messy memories.
He stepped toward center stage and caught the tip of his boot in the speaker’s power cord. He lurched forward, trying to regain his balance, failing miserably and landing in Blake’s arms. He felt five sets of eyes land on him. He forced a smile because that’s what people expected of him, wasn’t it? He was always the happy one, the easygoing life-of-the-party dude.
“Got a little carried away in the moment,” Matt said into his microphone. “Blake, will you marry me?” The audience laughed on cue.
“And disappoint the legions of people in line to get a chance at marrying you?” Blake quipped. “No way. I’d fear for my life.”
Matt didn’t care about the legions. There was only one woman he’d ever wanted to marry, and she wasn’t interested. “Storyhill’s resident commitment-phobe,” Matt said, pointing at Blake.
Cue the laughter. Again.
Matt shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
He needed to get off the stage. Now.
He looked down at Grace’s hand. Had she said yes? A twinkling diamond, triple the size of the tiny one he’d purchased on his college student budget, danced on her finger. Yes, then.
Swallowing, he turned back to the audience and dialed his smile up another level. A move so practiced it hardly took effort. “In the immortal words of Porky Pig, that’s all, folks. Really. There’s no music that can top a proposal like that.” He waved at the audience. “Good night Nashville!” To his ears, his voice sounded even. Nothing like the tsunami raging in his chest.
The house lights came up and he nearly ran for the wings. He hit the darkness and his smile fizzled and faded.
“Whoa, hold up,” Andrew said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks for your help, Mattie.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Matt said, waving off Andrew’s gratitude. “Congratulations,” he forced out.
“It’s time to celebrate,” Andrew said, addressing the band. “Grace said yes, and Mattie kept a secret. I had good feelings about the first. I was less confident about the second.”
The four other men of Storyhill laughed and Matt tried to join in, but a tepid chuckle was all he could manage.
“I think I’m out for tonight.” He could be happy for Andrew and Grace and still not want to celebrate. That just made him human and not a total jerk, right?
Six sets of eyes turned to him, incredulity plastered across their faces. Shit. Talk about off-brand. He needed a plausible excuse for why the party king was begging off, and fast.
“No way,” Grace said, sliding an arm through his. “It’s your rule that post-concert drinks are not optional.”
Matt pulled a face. “It’s not nice to throw a man’s own words back at him.”
Grace laughed. “C’mon Mattie, it won’t be the same without you.”
Matt softened at her kind words. Joining his friends sounded more appealing than skulking home to a dark, silent apartment. He wasn’t that twenty-two-year-old kid anymore. He should have a beer with his friends, not let the Ghost of Proposals Past dictate his present.
“Plus, you can’t expect me to believe that you’re going to deny the ladies at the bar the opportunity to enjoy your pretty face?” she added with a wink.
And there it was. The truth of what everyone thought of him. All flash, no substance. Good for a flirt and maybe a fuck, but nothing more. It was the reason for so many rejections in his life, including his marriage proposal.
She’d given him some lame mumbo-jumbo about not wanting to be married to a man who’d be traveling for a living. But he knew the truth. He lacked substance. He wasn’t enough for her.
Why couldn’t anyone see past the surface?
Maybe because you don’t let them, a little voice whispered.
What was with him tonight? Matt Taylor didn’t do pity parties or whatever this was. “You’re right, Gracie-girl, that would be a darn shame. Let’s go.”
He could fake his way through this. That was his specialty, after all.
“Matt, before we go,” Brad called after him. “I need a minute.”
Matt turned back to their manager and mentally shook off the last dregs of his melancholy. “Yeah?”
“I need a favor.”
Matt arched an eyebrow. “From me?”
Brad nodded. “Ever heard of the Avery Lind Show?”
A billboard flashed through his mind. “That’s the big deal country radio morning show, right?”
“That’s the one. And it’s about to be an even bigger deal. The station just penned a syndication deal, and the show goes national tomorrow.”
“And this has something to do with me?”
Brad’s lips twisted and tightened. “I’m in a bit of a bind. Addison May was scheduled to be the first guest on the show.”
Matt pushed his hand through his hair, watching his friends leave through the stage door. “Was?”
“She has laryngitis, and I told the station I’d get another one of my clients to fill in.”
Matt’s eyes widened, understanding dawning. “Radio’s not really my medium.” Matt sighed. “It’s been mentioned once or twice that I’m only helpful if you can see my face. Why not one of the other guys?”
Brad laughed, clearly taking Matt’s sarcasm for self-deprecating humor. “You’re the best on your feet. You can make conversation with anyone.”
Not exactly praise. “And I don’t have a wife, fiancé, or child to deal with? Why can’t Blake do it?”
Brad’s eyes narrowed. “This couldn’t come at a better time if I’d planned it myself. A feature on a nationally syndicated show the day after Storyhill released its first all-original album at the Ryman? The promotion gods have laid a golden egg in our laps. Plus, Andrew’s proposal will be all over social media by tomorrow morning. All things to capitalize on.”
“Great,” Matt grumbled. “Talking about someone else’s love life sounds awesome.”
“Are you okay?” Brad said, his brow squeezing into taut lines. “You’re acting so . . . un-Matt like.”
How was he supposed to react to that? If he answered honestly, Brad would think he’d lost his mind. I had no idea that the minute Andrew got down on one knee I’d be transported to the exact moment, nearly a decade ago, when I was unceremoniously dumped. Yep, that made him sound crazy—even to his own ears.
He gave his head a tiny shake. Enough. “I’m fine. Just a little more tired than usual.” That was only a half lie.
Brad flipped his wrist, checking the time. “What do you say? Station manager needs an answer tonight.”
Matt’s stomach tightened. Could he do this? All his other jobs from high school to college to now—busking, summer stock, modeling, performing—were all face dependent. Radio was faceless.
But isn’t that what he so desperately wanted? To do something more than sing melodies and smile in all the right places?
“Fine,” he said, meeting his manager’s questioning stare. “Tell him I’ll do it.”
“The station manager is a woman. Making you an even better choice. Never seen a woman unaffected by the Matt Taylor charm.”
Matt rubbed a single finger over a throbbing temple. That made him sound like a trained golden retriever . . . and wasn’t exactly flattering to women, either.
But if this was his chance to prove himself, to bury the specters of the past, he needed to show Brad he would take this seriously. “Any prep I should do?”
“Station manager’s name is Celeste Yoon and”—Brad consulted his phone— “she’ll meet you in the lobby at 5:00. She’ll give you the info you need before taking you to the studio to meet Avery.”
Matt’s eyes went wide. “Five A.M.? Whoa. I’m not sure I can talk at that hour.”
Brad smirked. “Celeste assured me she’d have coffee waiting. And you don’t go on until a little after six.”
“Then why do I have to be there at five?”
“It’s my understanding that Avery is particular and wants to prep all her guests personally.”
Matt grunted. He had no problems with high maintenance at noon, but exacting and demanding before sunrise? Didn’t sound like much fun. “I thought you said Celeste was prepping me?”
“Better over-prepared than under, I guess.”
Matt pushed a hand through his hair. “I’ve done media before.”
“And they’ll understand that as soon as you go live. Until then, just play nice.” Brad swiped back to his home screen. “I’ll email you the station address and some links to previous shows. If you’re not a regular listener, it’d be good to listen to a couple.”
Matt flipped the watch dangling from his wrist. “In the next seven hours?”
Brad grimaced. “Better make the beer a quick one.”
“Quick and free,” Matt said, slapping a hand on Brad’s shoulder.
“Free?” his manager asked.
“Yep, you’re buying.”
“How do you figure?”
Matt smiled—the first real one in over an hour. “I recall you saying you were in a bind—and I just helped you out.” A deep knowing quivered in Matt’s chest. If he played this right, he’d be helping himself out too.
The past didn’t matter. It’s where he went from here. He’d grab this opportunity by the horns and show everyone he was more than a pretty face.