start reading HEARTSTRINGS . . .

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Every wedding had that point. The pictures were taken, the reception was over, even the bride and groom were gone. A bridesmaid’s job was done. She’d had just enough fun and just enough champagne to find herself standing in the low surf and having big thoughts as the tide rolled in.

Shay was drunk enough to make the effort to hold up the hem on the gown she’d spent painstaking hours on, and sober enough to understand it wasn’t working.

“You’re going to ruin that dress.” The voice came from behind her. From back on dry sand, it rolled over her, deep, masculine, and maybe a little concerned.

“I’ll just hem it. That’s what you’re supposed to do with a bridesmaid’s dress anyway, right?” In fact, she’d designed it to be hemmed and worn again. Not that she believed any of the other four bridesmaids would do that. Even if she hemmed it, even if it were shorter, flirtier, less formal, she still wouldn’t have anywhere to wear it. So she let go of the wad of taffeta in her clenched fist, allowing the beautiful gauzy fabric to swish with the waves at her feet.

She was officially on vacation now.

Ten minutes down. Two more days to go.

“Are you okay to be standing in the waves? I’m afraid one might knock you over.” Definitely concerned.

She smiled and still didn’t turn around. It was good this way. A man talking to her, worried about her well-being. It was probably only a clerk who didn’t want her to get swept out to sea and create negative publicity for a hot Miami Beach hotel that had just hosted the wedding of country star Hailey Watkins. “Oh yes, I’m really good.”

The slightly off answer probably only proved that she wasn’t all there. Oh well.

“You want some company?” The voice was closer behind her now. He was already standing in the waves.

Shay hoped for his sake he’d taken off his shoes. She knew what salt water did to clothes, shoes, more. “Sure. If you want.”

Then he was beside her, though she still didn’t look. She just got a glimpse of a sleek suit, worn well, but she wasn’t ready to give up the fantasy just yet. His hands went in his pockets. “That dress is amazing, but it doesn’t do you justice.”

She laughed. “I’m not that drunk.”

She hadn’t been that drunk in a long time, and she wouldn’t ever be again. Truth be told, there had been a time when a man hadn’t even needed to get her drunk. Just a compliment would do it. Anything she could latch onto and pretend.

Not anymore.

“Good.” He chuckled. “But the dress is amazing.”

“Thank you. Are you saying that because you know I made it?” She turned and caught his surprise at that.

Hailey had always been really good about talking up Shay and her skills, but never about making her seem like the help. Maybe because Hailey had been the help, too, once upon a time.

They’d grown up next door, fed each other when pantries went empty, waited tables together, partied together, and then Hailey left, taking her guitar and heading to Nashville. When she made it, she’d done as much as she could for Shay. Having Shay as her maid of honor was a touching gesture. Shay’s heart had warmed, knowing that Hailey really did still consider her a friend and equal.

She couldn’t say the same of the man beside her.

Craig Hibbets. Bass and backup vocals for Wilder. Despite a few rocket-hot, smash singles off their first album, they hadn’t faded away. Their new stuff was climbing the charts even faster.

She gave a small smile, glad the fantasy held up. Craig Hibbets was a pleasure to look at.

She knew him intimately. The breadth of his shoulders. The length of his leg. The taper of his waist. The distance from elbow to fingertip. Where his tattoos were. He didn’t know her at all.

Shay blinked. She’d made the tie he was wearing. Hailey had requested them as presents for the guys for Christmas. When she’d first been signed, her friend had shared a tour with Wilder, alternating tour dates and allowing each music group occasional breaks. They’d become friends, working under the same label.

Hailey had given her handler at the label Shay’s name for costuming. The handler had given it to other groups. It kept Shay employed. For that she was grateful. But the tie was also a reminder of the distance between them.

“Did you make all the bridesmaids’ dresses?” He asked, still not realizing who she was. That some of the things he’d worn on stage were things she’d sewed for him.


Shay didn’t offer more. It was nice having a stunningly good-looking man standing next to her, while warm water licked at her feet and the hem of the nicest dress she’d ever owned. But she didn’t want him to talk, didn’t want him to ruin it with reality.

He waited a moment, looking at the last of the light on the water as the sun set behind them. Then he spoke again. “You were pretty busy back there. Did you get anything to eat?”

“Sure. About an hour ago.” She smiled as she turned and felt the world tip a little. “What time is it?”

“Almost eight.”

“Shit.” She regretted the word as soon as it flew out of her mouth. “I had probably one of the appetizers?”

“That was not an hour ago.” He grinned, his eyes lighting up. “Let’s get you some food.”

She shook her head to protest right as a wave hit her shins. The water had gotten higher while she’d watched the ocean. That wasn’t as much of a problem as the fact that the whole lower third of her gown was soaked and wafting with the tide, pushing her to land then pulling her out to sea.

She stumbled, grabbing onto his arm as he caught her. So when she righted herself and stood on her own, Shay agreed. “Okay. I do need food.”

He took her hand firmly, probably just to keep her upright and they began the slow trudge of getting her gown out of the water. Finally on dry sand, he leaned over and picked up both their pairs of shoes, not handing her the sandals that were so gorgeous she’d never have a place to wear them again either.

“I’m good.”

He didn’t let go. “Let’s get something to eat.” He gestured to the restaurant tables on the patio looking out over the ocean.

Shay could not afford to eat there or anywhere near the posh hotel. But Hailey had booked the room for her as long as she wanted. Covered all the bills, including anything she charged to the room. Even encouraged her to get her sister to babysit so she could stay a few extra days and have a real vacation while Hailey and Adam went off on their honeymoon. Still, Shay refused.

“I have to change. I have sand on my feet. My dress is wet.”

He shook his head. “It’s a beach-front hotel. You’re supposed have sand on your feet when you eat on the terrace. You look stunning. Join me.”

He didn’t let go of her hand.

“Okay.” It was a small concession. One she hadn’t made in a very long time.

Shay didn’t know if the hostess recognized him, but they were seated quickly at the railing, putting each of them parallel to the beach. The light had disappeared, and though the night was warm, her dress made her chilly.

At the first sign of a shiver, Craig peeled his suit jacket and draped it around her shoulders. She was pulling it up when the server came by, offering wine.

“Maybe just water for us.” Craig said, then had her choose appetizers.

“I’m not a lush.” She commented. Who was he to order for her?

“You didn’t eat.” He shrugged. “You can order what you want. You want a glass of wine, a margarita, get it.” He grinned at her, redeeming an action that had seemed heavy-handed. “But I want to ask you something later, and I’ll only ask if you’re sober.”

“What is that?” She frowned at him.

“Not until later.” He became evasive, hiding behind the water glass as it was filled.

He asked her how she knew Hailey, and she explained that the two had grown up together. She didn’t tell that their ‘houses’ had been trailers. Or that Hailey had finally saved enough to get out of town. She answered as evasively as he did, then turned the tables and asked him about Wilder, about touring, about playing on stage.

“You recognized me?” He tipped his head.

Of course she did. She had a file on each of the four guys. Measurements, favorite color, fabric preferences. She didn’t say it, just let him talk about what it was like to become a star. Shay compared it to Hailey’s story, finding some similarities, some differences.

They ate appetizers while he talked. Then they dug into beautifully plated entrees that couldn’t have been enough food for him.

Shay commented.

“I ate at the wedding. You didn’t. I’m good.” He cleaned the plate with gusto, a second dinner not beyond him.

When she finally sat back, sated, she sighed. On the tail end of her breath came his question.

“Do you want to come up to my room with me?”

Startled, she looked at him.

Craig held the glass of water casually, his big hand drawing her attention. He looked at her through surfer-blond hair that kept creeping over his eyes.

“Was that your ‘later’ question?”

He nodded, but didn’t ask again.

She was completely sober now. She’d heard him.

He waited for nearly a full minute, then asked a follow-up. “Is it that hard to answer?”

She laughed. He wasn’t mean or pushy about it. He seemed sincerely interested in having her up to his room. Instead of yes or no she tested the waters.

“You just looking to snag a bridesmaid?”

Despite the catch in her voice, he managed to keep the mood light with a charming grin. “Nope. There were other bridesmaids and single guests that would have been easier to catch.”

That was true. The champagne had flowed, the bar had been open, and after the bouquet had been thrown more than one single lady had tried hard to not be single for the night. Shay had not been one of them.

She really hadn’t considered this. “And tomorrow?”

“We each fly home. You go your way, I go mine.” He was open about it at least. Not leading her on.

They’d only had a few hours together. Could she trust him?

He seemed to catch on and held his arms out to his side openly. “Ask me anything.”

She didn’t. “Yes. Let’s.”


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