It was hot and humid on the edge of the large clearing where the summer tour buses were assembled. There was a stale breeze that tepidly tried to stir but really in this heat not much was moving. Hudson Scott sank deeper into the lawn chair he was sitting in under the shade of a big oak tree. From his position he could watch the bus area and the pathway that led up to it.
He wouldn’t have thought an aging country music legend would have so many determined fans but he must have turned away at least fifteen people already today.
“Excuse me? Where is Alan Jennings’ tour bus?” a woman asked. She wore a mini-skirt and had a pretty sunburn across the bridge of her nose. She didn’t look like the other women who’d stopped by to try to gain access to Alan. She was about thirty years too young.
But the heart wants what it wants, he thought. Hudson took in the little auburn-haired beauty that asked the question. Her voice was soft, sweet and full of the melodies of the South. She wore a pair of big, black sunglasses that hid most of her face. She had a cute button nose and a mouth that was full and pink.
She had complemented her mini-skirt with a peasant-style short-sleeved blouse and a pair of wedge heels that still only brought her up to his shoulder. She carried a big insulated cooler bag in one hand and a guitar in the other.
“Who wants to know?” he asked.
“Just tell me where he is?” she said.
“I’m his bodyguard.”
“You’re his bodyguard?” she asked, skepticism dripping from her.
“Yeah. So unless you tell me who you are, I’m afraid this is as far as you go,” he said.
“You don’t look like a bodyguard,” she said.
Hudson was a rambler, a bouncer and a cowboy. He’d been travelling around the country since he’d left home at 18, and after an argument with his father that had taken place just after his mother died a couple of years later, he only came home for holidays and weddings. At thirty-one he knew it was probably time to patch things up and when he’d returned to Marietta, Montana earlier this summer for a family wedding, he’d realized that he didn’t quite hate everything about it as much as he’d thought he had back at 18.
In fact, he missed his brothers and wanted to get to know the women they were settling down with. And he had two nephews he barely knew. That wasn’t right. His momma, if she were still alive, would never have let him stay gone so long.
But he was stubborn just like his daddy and being Hudson, he was determined he could outlast the old man. Except when he’d been home in June he’d realized that Jeb Scott really was getting old and maybe it was time to stop running. So he’d taken this job as a bodyguard and horse wrangler for Alan Jennings Farewell Summer Tour. They were hitting county fairs from Tennessee to Montana for the next two months.
“What do I look like?” he asked.
“Trouble,” she said. “Like one of the guys my gramps would drink with back in the day. Except, he’s an old man and not a partier anymore.”
“Would Gramps, the reformed partier, approve of you acting like a groupie to a man who could probably your grandfather?”
She looked at him like he was speaking Chinese.
“I’m not a groupie. I’m his granddaughter.”
“So you are claiming to be Alan’s granddaughter?” he asked. He’d grown up on country music and knew all about Alan Jennings, his talented daughter Maryann who’d gone on to marry Keith Wells. It had been a marriage made in country music heaven that had ended in tragedy.
“I am. Actually I’m a little bit disappointed you don’t recognize me. Being Gramps’ bodyguard and all,” she said. “Surely, he told you I’d be stopping by to stock his tour bus before he left. I do it every summer.”
“You’re a smartass, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Not normally, no,” she said. “Who are you? Really?”
He tipped his cowboy hat back on his head and looked over at her with a steady stare that had been known to make even the rowdiest of drunk rednecks back down. “I’m the bodyguard.”
She bit her bottom lip and then nodded. “Okay, you convinced me with your scary stare. Can I know which tour bus is his now?”
He nodded. “That one over there.”
“Thank you. Why does he need a bodyguard?” she asked. “Is there any danger to him?”
“No, ma’am. I’m here to wrangle the horse for his show and provide some security for him. I guess his record label just wanted to make sure no one got crazy.”
“Why would they? In the last few years attendance hasn’t been that great. I mean his core fans are getting older just like he is.”
Hudson realized that she didn’t know that Alan was retiring. Everyone was pretty sure his retirement tour was going to bring out the fans and like Alan’s agent said, maybe a few crazies. So Hudson was here to make sure nothing happened to the old man or anyone else touring with him.
“He’s retiring,” Hudson said.
“What?” She almost dropped her bag as she stared at him. And he was glad that he wasn’t going to be on the receiving end of that temper.
“That’s what I was told. And why I was hired. It’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand.
She brushed past him without responding, but he wasn’t bothered. He just stood there and watched her walk away. Her hips swaying with each step she took, the bag in her arm swinging wildly.
Summer just got a little more interesting.
“What do you mean you’re retiring?”
Emma Jean Wells couldn’t believe her grandfather the Grand Ole Opry hall-of-famer and country music legend Alan Jennings was serious. Gramps lived for playing live and touring. He’d told her that more than once when she’d tried to get him to come and live with her. “And more importantly, why did I have to hear the news from a man who claims to be your bodyguard?”
“Emma, don’t get your dander up,” he said. “I wanted to tell you in person. And since you were headed up here to spend a few days with me there was no need to go into it on the phone.
“But why? And don’t say the road is getting to you,” she warned as she moved around his tour bus putting away the food she’d made for him. Every summer since she was sixteen her grandfather had taken his show on the road to county fairs all across the country. When she’d been younger she’d come with him a time or two but people always wanted her to perform the duet he used to do with her mom—his daughter. She didn’t like the spotlight, having seen first-hand that not everyone could handle it.
She might be like this old rascal—who was definitely up to something—and love the stage. Or she might be like her father and not be able to live without it and slowly drink herself to death. So instead she chose a quiet life teaching school in Capshaw County, Georgia in the tiny town of Winsome right across the border on Florida’s panhandle.
It was where her people were from. There no one asked her about her parents’ tragic love story or tried to get her to sing. They just let her be. She’d traveled all the way from Winsome and would be spending the next week at her family’s Nashville mansion before heading back home to do nothing all summer.
“Well, clichéd or not, pumpkin, the road is getting to me. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Her grandfather looked like he was in his fifties instead of late seventies. He still had a thick mane of silvery blond hair that was more silver than blond these days. His eyes were clear blue like a lake in the Tennessee mountains and nothing got by him. He was fit and trim, a testament to his sobriety and his determination to undo the damage he’d done to himself by living hard at the beginning of his career in the late 60s and 70s.
He didn’t look like someone who was going to retire. He liked the road and travelling. It was in his blood. He liked being away from that big old Nashville mansion where his only roommates were the ghosts of the past. So retiring? She didn’t think so.
“And you’re not dead yet, you old goat. So what’s going on?” she asked.
“No respect,” he said. “After all I’ve done for you.”
“Gramps,” she said, putting the last of the homemade carrot juice bottles she’d made for him away and coming over to sit next to him on the padded bench. “I love you. You know that. But I can tell when something is up. Just tell me what’s going on.”
“The truth is,” he said, strumming his fingers over the old Gibson acoustic guitar that he’d been playing since he was sixteen. “I want you on the road with me. And we both know that if I’m retiring and this is my farewell tour, you can’t say no.”
She looked at him. Was he serious? He’d retire just to get her to come on tour with him. She didn’t want to seem like the bad guy here. She loved her Gramps and would like to spend the summer with him, but he wanted her up on that stage with him and that’s where she drew the line. Singing songs that reminded her of her youth and her parents.
“How about we split the difference and I travel with you on tour, don’t sing and you don’t retire?” she said, picking up her own guitar, the one he’d bought her when she was twelve. It was old and beat up and not much to look at, but Gramps had always made sure it was in tune.
They picked out an old mountain tune together and played along. Gramps sang when he felt like it. She loved playing with her grandfather. The music connected them deeply. It wasn’t just a legacy or her heritage. She remembered what her father had always said. For the Jennings-Wells clan music was their soul.
She knew he was trying to figure out a way to get her to do what he wanted. She also knew that if he announced his retirement the record label would pull out all the stops and put a big push behind his tour. And she’d have to honor the promise she’d made to him ten years ago when she’d stopped traveling with him every summer and moved back to Winsome.
“Sorry, girl, but I can’t take that deal. I already told the record company and they are pimping out the bus and sending a crew to record it. You’re stuck,” he said, with a cagey grin.
“Stuck? I guess so. You sure about this?” she asked. “What about next summer?”
“I’m getting old, pumpkin, how manymore summers do I have?”
She felt a lump in her throat and put down her guitar to hug him. He smelled like Old Spice and licorice. He hugged her tightly back. No one else hugged like Gramps. He always made her feel safe. And she knew in her heart she couldn’t say no to this. He was all she had left.
“Okay, I’ll go.”
He pulled back and kissed her on the forehead. “I knew you would. Told them you’d ride with me.”
“Oh, you did, did you? I didn’t make enough carrot juice for you and me all summer long,” she said.
“You can have mine,” he said.
“No way. You need the healthy stuff more than I do,” she said. And though there was still a knot in her stomach as she thought of going on stage, she was happy to spend the summer with Gramps.
The door opened and a large male silhouette filled the doorway. All she could see was a whipcord lean body in a pair of faded cowboy jeans and a big black cowboy hat that hid his features.
“You about done here, Alan?”
“Just about. Hudson, this is my granddaughter Emma Jean, she’ll be bunking with us for the rest of the summer,” Gramps said.
“Howdy, Emma Jean,” he said.
“Just Emma,” she replied.
Bunking with us? Sharing the bus with Gramps was one thing, but living for the next three months with a man like Hudson was going to be interesting. To say the least.
He was long and lean, so big and tall that his shoulders filled the entire doorway of the tour bus. He stood there making the already tight quarters feel even smaller. But she suspected that was because she was so aware of him.
“Well, just Emma, this sounds like it will be fun.”
“Whatcha thinkin’, girl?” Gramps asked. Whenever he talked all country she knew he had an inkling she wasn’t happy. He did it to soften her up. She loved him but he was pushing it far enough with asking her to be one of his back-up singers, having to deal with the farewell tour and now this—this bodyguard thing.
“I’m thinking that we are going to need a juicer, I definitely didn’t bring enough carrot juice.”
Gramps laughed and Hudson—what the heck kind of name was that anyway—shook his head. She’d have to call her neighbors and see if they’d keep an eye out on her place while she was gone for the summer. She’d turned off the air conditioning when she’d left and emptied the fridge but she had planned on a week away not the rest of the summer. But she smiled because she knew that was what her grandfather wanted and if this really was his farewell tour she wanted it to be perfect.
Hudson had to go and track down Emma Jean. Alan had said to let her have her head, which his dad had said a time or two about his mom so Hudson knew it meant give her some space to sort things out. But he knew that she was ticked off. He was already talking to the other people on the second tour bus but frankly, there wasn’t room for another person. So they were going to be roommates with her grandfather this summer.
He followed the directions that Alan had given him to find the mansion where Emma had gone to park her car. Since he was towing the horses for the show he had his truck and Alan thought that he would be the perfect person to go and retrieve Emma.
Somehow he didn’t think she was going to be as thrilled. He had the radio tuned to a classic country music station and heard George Jones’ Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes as he pulled to a stop in front of Alan’s mansion. It made him wonder how the face of country music would change as the older generation retired.
He’d grown up on artists that were mostly gone now, and their music had shaped him. Men like Alan Jennings and Keith Wells. Keith had had a soulful voice that had made the listeners feel like they were going through the pain he was feeling when he sang.
He got out of the truck but as soon as he climbed the stairs to the front porch, he noticed Emma sitting on one of the large rocking chairs watching him.
“Hey. Alan sent me to collect you,” he said. He hadn’t been this awkward around a woman ever. What was his deal?
He knew that part of his problem was the thought of going home to Marietta had been lurking beneath the surface and seemed to be working its way up with each passing day that drew him closer to being there. He hadn’t really talked to his dad, though his brothers were all excited by the prospect. He wasn’t too sure what his father’s reception would be. He tipped his cowboy hat back and thought that Emma seemed to be in the same pensive boat.
“Thanks. I’m sorry I was sort of bitchy to you. That’s not my normal way but summer tours and country music bring out my prickly side.”
“All country music?” he asked, ambling over to her and sitting down in one of the rockers near her. He pushed the chair in motion trying to look at ease when every hormone he had was on full alert.
There was something about the way her long auburn hair blew in the gentle breeze created by the ceiling fan above them, blowing strands across that face that he couldn’t tear his eyes away from. His gaze fell to her lips and he realized he was obsessed with her mouth. What would it be like to kiss her?
Whoa, boy. She’s Alan’s kin and he was Alan’s friend. Sure he’d signed on as part of the crew, but really he’d become friends with Alan while working in a Nashville bar where country stars came to try out their music in front of a live audience. Alan frequented the club part but didn’t drink.
“Not all of it,” she admitted. “Just my family’s songs.”
“I get that.” He truly did. Her legacy was one of the legends and tragedies. He’d listened to Keith Wells’ last CD about a million times growing up. Sweet Baby Girl was one of his favorites and in it he heard all the fears that Keith had about watching his daughter become a teenager and get ready to leave home.
He knew the story of her life, as did anyone who’d listened to any of Keith’s songs or even Alan’s. Yet for her they weren’t just country hits, they were chronicles of her life, reminders of her past. Songs he’d listened to when he’d been lonely on the road and missing his momma and home.
“So you’re the bodyguard?” she asked.
“Does Gramps really need protection?” She shifted her position on the chair curling one leg underneath her body. “Should I be worried?”
Hudson shook his head. “Nah, we’re friends and he invited me to come along this summer since I was planning to head back to Montana.”
“What’s in Montana?”
“Why aren’t you there now?” she asked.
“That’s a little personal.”
“Fair enough.” She rocked and the sound of the wood rockers against the porch soothed her.
“The real reason he wanted me along was to be a horse wrangler for him. I grew up on a ranch and have done some amateur rodeoing in my day. Alan’s got it in his head that when he sings Lonesome Range I should ride across the stage.”
“That will be interesting. I hope you don’t ride anywhere near me,” she said.
Clearly, she was good at keeping people at arm’s length. But he was good at sneaking in and when he was ready he’d make his move.
“Um…I think Alan plans to have you riding at some point too.”
“Not a big fan of horses?”
“Not really. They’ve always seemed too big and more than a little scary,” she said.
“I guess to a little bitty thing like you that would be the case,” he said. “But the horse your grandfather has is gentle. You’ll do just fine.”
“Of course I will. I’m not going to be the reason Gramps’ farewell tour fails. I mean of course it won’t fail. But I will do whatever I have to—”
“Do I make you nervous?” he asked. She was rambling and from what he’d observed earlier that wasn’t her normal way.
She wrapped her arms around her waist and tipped her head to the side to stare up at him. She had eyes that were sort of cinnamon brown colored.
End of Excerpt