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Shepard Lake sat on a granite boulder, cradled his guitar close to his chest, and idly strummed. A small leather-bound journal lay open, blank-faced but for the date. Waiting for something that may never again come. He closed his eyes, shutting out what was considered to be one of the most spectacular views in the eastern part of the United States. Dumb move—like so much of his life, he’d come to realize since he’d stepped away from his career and dedicated this past year to so-called self-discovery.
He’d come for the view. He’d come to find his music again.
He’d given himself a year.
But after two months volunteering on an animal preserve in Kenya and nearly a year rebuilding damaged homes and businesses with a nonprofit in New Orleans and later Puerto Rico, he still didn’t feel any closer to finding his music. And as far as the man he wanted to be, who knew? If he didn’t have his music, he had no idea who he was.
He’d deliberately not touched his guitar while he’d volunteered and hadn’t even tried to play until two months ago. He hadn’t picked up a pen to write a song in over a year. Hadn’t sung a note in longer. He didn’t even hum in the shower anymore. He no longer dreamed in music.
He’d hoped the silence would heal him.
He’d imagined the birds’ songs would inspire him.
So for the past three-plus months he’d hiked along the Appalachian Trail heading toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Returning to his roots so to speak, even though he no longer had family anywhere near Tennessee. A trip of discovery. Only he still didn’t know who he was or what he wanted to do next.
No. Not entirely true.
He wanted himself back.
Whoever he’d been, or would have been if his mother had never posted so many videos on YouTube of him when he’d barely been a teen that had improbably shot him into the stratosphere, spun him around challenging gravity until gravity won, spit him out, and crashed him back to earth.
Another child star burned out, lost, supernovaed into oblivion.
And, in a way he couldn’t quite explain to himself, relieved.
Ten years of a wild, crazy, breathless, confusing, and soul-battering ride on a train where others were driving. Ten years of tearing off pieces of himself publicly and privately until he wasn’t sure what was left. Ten years of trying to please so many people who could never be fully pleased. Ten years of cranking out hits, each one expected to drop bigger and better, than the last.
Ten years until he couldn’t take one more second in his skin or his head, and he’d walked out of a recording session that no longer had resembled what he’d written or wanted to create.
He’d needed to be alone.
Because thinking for himself had been so actively discouraged, and he’d stopped trying—comforting himself that at least the music was his. Only that lie had no longer worked. And then there was the betrayal on so many fronts. But what was worse was how humiliatingly dumb and trusting he’d been—how easy he’d made it for his mother and his team to throw him under the proverbial bus, run over him and drive off to the next party.
Shepard abruptly stood. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t dwell or get bitter. He wouldn’t be like his mom. Only after nearly two years of being away from the business and being alone, he still sometimes stumbled.
Shepard wanted peace. He wanted to feel useful. He wanted to respect himself. But some days it was hard.
And the music—even after months of walking alone in nature, opening his heart up metaphorically to the universe—still wouldn’t come.
After a month of hiking, he’d picked up his guitar at the end of every day. Old songs came easily but nothing new, and now that November had closed, he had to make a few choices.
It was getting cold, and he’d hit the Smoky Mountains National Park. The hike through the park generally took a week, and Tennessee had been his vague goal.
Today just before the dawn had streaked purple and orange across the sky, he’d packed up his gear and hiked to the peak of Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain in Tennessee, but so what? Not like he had a social media account anymore.
And his “friends” had run at the first hint of his descent and rumored bankruptcy.
The smile that curved his lips felt a little odd and painful. He might as well admit it: without music, he sucked at self-reflection.
He shouldered his pack and guitar again. On the hike up, he’d decided to leave the trail and walk toward Gatlinburg. He needed supplies. And a shower. And a few nights in a real bed. And who knew, perhaps seeing the town where it had all started for him as a kid would jog something loose.
As he walked down the narrow summit trail, another idea occurred to him. Sweet Tea was near Gatlinburg. He’d heard that country music star Sutter Knight had married and returned to her hometown. If he could screw up his courage, perhaps he’d detour to Sweet Tea to see Sutter. Maybe she’d have some advice. Sutter was a true artist—wrote her own lyrics and arrangements and took charge in the recording studio.
She’d kept the control he’d let bleed away.
Sutter had shared busking corners with him. She’d also shared food from a bakery where she worked, tips, advice, and gigs when she could. They’d even worked on a few songs together while waiting for performances. Not many eighteen- and then nineteen-year-old girls would have been so sweet and generous to another teen, who’d been four years younger. She’d been more maternal than his mom, now that he had perspective.
Making up his mind, Shepard veered off the small trail he’d been on to join the large trail that led to a parking lot where locals and tourists parked so they could walk the trail toward the peak. He felt a frisson of anxiety. He wasn’t ready to face possible recognition yet, but neither did he plan to spend his life hiding in the woods and becoming more feral.
He saw and heard the girl at the same time. Fast, light footsteps, and a gorgeous, melodic, rich voice rolled across the silent morning, competing with the birdsong he’d been enjoying during his hike. Her voice stopped him in his tracks. And the song…he’d never heard it before, but the melody flowed like water over the stones in a creek bed. She was pitch-perfect.
His mouth dropped open, and he stood like an ancient maple in the middle of the trail, struck dumb by her tone and the melody and the way her voice cut through the last mists of the mountain morning and javelined into his cold, lonely, anxious heart.
She ran straight toward him, and just as he registered that she wore earbuds and was astonishingly beautiful in a young and natural way, she looked up. Clear, Carolina-blue eyes met his and flared with alarm.
She shrieked, stumbled, and lost her balance. Even as he reached out to try to steady her on this narrow and rocky part of the path, she slipped through his fingers like a breath and tumbled head over heels down the brushy side of the trail.
Fear seized him at the same time as guilt for startling her. And admiration for how fast she must have been running to have fallen so far. And then disappointment that the beauty of the song had been severed short.
Help her, idiot.
Tyler Knight blinked up at the sullen, gray sky.
“Could I be any more of a clumsy dork?” she muttered just as the most beautiful man in the world crouched down beside her.
“I am so sorry for startling you,” he said. His gravelly voice was even sexier than the high cheekbones that thrust sharply above his not so neatly trimmed beard. And his hair was thick, golden brown and waved away from his face like a lion’s mane. Then there were his eyes. Worried and the color of whiskey and warm as if there were a flame flickering in the depths.
Tyler sat up, hoping the movement would A: snap her out of her trance and B: prove that she was not seriously injured, because she was at least three miles from the Jeep.
“I wasn’t paying attention,” she said and flushed because she’d thought there wouldn’t be people on the trail this early. She’d been singing one of her songs she’d been working on for weeks now, and she hadn’t planned on anyone ever hearing it.
Of course the hottest man in Tennessee sees me in my clumsy and sweaty glory and bellowing out “Wind Me Up” like a pissed-off goose.
“Are you hurt?”
“No,” Tyler said automatically, although her ankle was already starting to throb and her knee stung, but she wouldn’t be hurt. She couldn’t be.
“I don’t have time to be hurt,” she said quickly.
“Unfortunately—” he smiled as if to belie the fact of his statement “—life doesn’t cooperate like that.”
Tyler sucked in a breath but still felt a little dizzy. Even his smile was beautiful, although tentative, almost as if he were a little shy or uncertain. Shy she could relate to. And uncertainty she had nailed, but this man? No way.
He looked familiar. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling she’d seen him before, but where? School? She’d left Sweet Tea after fourth grade.
“Do you want help up?”
“No, I’m…umm.” She met his whiskey gaze and forgot how to speak. “Embarrassed.”
She felt the color flood her face. That had not been what she was going to say. “Fine. I’m fine.” She braced herself, straightened her legs, and immediately winced.
A not-so-nice word that her former roommate and business partner in Kinder Knight Singhing—Maya Singh—would often say after the classes with their young students were finished for the day floated through her mind.
She grit her teeth.
“Actually, maybe a boost?” she asked.
“I have a first aid kit on me,” he said, his beautiful gaze on her bloodied knee that poked through her now-ruined pair of running leggings.
Lululemon. A gift. Her favorite she couldn’t afford to replace.
“I’ll clean up when I get home. I have a Jeep down in the parking lot.”
More than three miles away.
And her ankle was no longer throbbing but yelling.
“It’s no trouble,” he said, softly. “But I can give the kit to you and give you some space if I’m making you uncomfortable.” He spread his arms out a little, stood, and then walked a few steps back as if she were a wild animal he didn’t want to spook.
She should be at least a little nervous. But his familiarity and general calm, quiet demeanor soothed her.
“Here.” He’d taken a first aid kit out of his backpack and handed it to her.
“Thank you.” It was hard to open, and she realized that she was shivering. She’d dressed fine for an early morning trail run—leggings and a long-sleeve, high-performance, moisture-wicking shirt—but the adrenaline from the run was ebbing and her sweat was cooling, and this high up in the mountains, the late fall temperature was chilly.
He opened the kit, handed her an antibacterial wipe, and then shrugged out of the thick, olive-colored athletic pullover he wore.
“Wear this, and I’ll walk you down to your Jeep. Sorry about the smell.” He smiled, definitely self-deprecating. “I’ve been hiking for a while, but I did do laundry earlier this week and just put this on this morning. Likely the cleanest of the lot.” He kicked at his backpack with a dusty hiking boot and handed her his shirt.
Tyler noticed three things at once. The guitar case propped against his backpack with faded cursive letters spelling out Winter Heart. Her favorite album ever. Two dimples flashed and then disappeared back into his thick beard. And when he’d shrugged out of his pullover, his shirt had tugged up and she’d seen an inked scroll of music on his right arm that disappeared when he tugged the sleeves of his white T-shirt back into place.
OMG. Shepard Lake is back in Tennessee.
End of Excerpt