“Oh my goodness, you’re Josh Cannon!”
Shelley had been standing off to the side, watching and listening as Rennie and company did their sound check, when she noticed a vaguely familiar face not far from her. Taking in his boyish good looks, western attire and cowboy hat, she wracked her brain trying to figure out where she knew him from when it finally clicked.
“Yes, ma’am,” the singer replied, an amused grin on his face. “Last time I checked.”
“Sorry,” Shelley apologized, a bit embarrassed by her outburst. “You probably get that a lot.”
“Some,” he admitted. “Though it’s to be expected in a place like this,” he added, gesturing to the state park turned concert venue around them.
“I take it you’ll be performing tomorrow?”
“Yes, ma’am. My band and I will have a set down on Stage C in the morning and then we’ll do a few songs, back up here at Stage A in the evening, as the warm up for Hatchery Road.”
“I’m Shelley, by the way, so you can cut out with that “ma’am” stuff.”
“Good to meet you, Shelley,” he replied with a laugh, shaking her outstretched hand.
“Did your family come with you?”
“They weren’t going to at first, but thankfully Trace Atkins loaned us his RV so Darlene and the kids could come.”
“That’s right! You opened for Trace on his last tour, didn’t you?”
“He would’ve loved to have been here but has some sort of prior commitment with a veterans group in D. C. this weekend.”
“So, is that how you found out about our little concert up here?”
“Who, Trace? No, it was Sarah,” Josh said, nodding his head back to where the woman in question was talking with Ty. “She heard Rennie had written a couple songs for me and called my manager. Once he told me, I was all for it. Rennie’s a great guy to work with and it’s a worthy cause, so here we are.”
Hearing the latest song come to a premature end, the two watched as Rennie made a few gestures to the sound guy backstage and then stepped back up to the microphone. “I think we’ve got the monitors straightened out, how’s the front of the house with that lineup?”
Shelley thought it sounded pretty good and the sound engineer out by them must have, too, because he gave Rennie a thumbs up. The banter between the two of them after that, however, only confused her. Thankfully her current technical advisor was able to put it in plain English for her.
“Some of the band members switch between instruments, so they need to do that now and change the mixes accordingly,” he told her.
“How come they have one sound set up out here and another one back stage?” she asked after a bit, pointing to the two different areas in question.
“Well, the two take care of different things,” the singer replied. “The guy you see backstage there with the Cubs hat on handles what the band hears in their monitors, while the guys out here at the big soundboards handle what the audience hears.”
“So, what’s coming out of those monitors is different than we’re hearing right now?”
He nodded. “Right. Band members need to be able to hear themselves and each other, in that order, but that would sound awful out here. Which is why you need someone out here to balance it all back out again.”
“Something’s not quite right, though.”
Shelley glanced over at her temporary companion, a confused look on her face. “What do you mean?”
“It’s taking too long,” Josh tried to explain. “The transition between instruments seems uncoordinated. It should be much smoother, like clockwork. Plus, the sound’s a bit off.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, they still sound good but can’t you hear it? It’s like someone or something is slightly out of sync.”
Pausing to listen, Shelley’s eyes widened in surprise. “I didn’t hear it before but now I do!” she exclaimed. “How weird is that! What do you think’s causing it? The out-of-sync-ness, I mean, not my not hearing it before.”
Josh chuckled. “Hard to say. Could be any number of things – pre-concert jitters, the fact they haven’t been playing together for very long, an unfamiliar venue, just to name a few.”
“Should we say something?”
The singer shook his head. “No need,” he replied. “Judging from the looks on their faces, I’d say they already sense there’s a problem. They’ll work it out.”
“I sure hope so.”
Around that time, the band wrapped up its sound checks and the individual members began to pack their instruments away. Shelley was about to bid farewell to Josh and head down to visit with the band, when Reba McIntire walked out to greet them from backstage.
Shelley squealed with delight but then quickly spun and glared at her newest acquaintance. “You knew, didn’t you,” she accused him.
The singer’s smile grew quite large and he nodded his head. “We passed her bus on the way up here.”
She lightly whacked him on his arm. “And you didn’t tell me!”
He just shrugged, the huge grin still on his face.
Glancing back, she watched as Josie and Rennie talked with Ms. McEntire. As she watched, however, she caught a glimpse nearby of long, white blonde hair. “Wait a minute! That’s Jenna Wells!”
“Let me guess,” Shelley asked sarcastically, “you passed her tour bus on the way up here, too?”
“Nah,” he replied, shaking his head. “She was already parked at the RV camp area when we pulled in.”
How he responded piqued her curiosity. “So, who else is here?”
Josh, however, said nothing. Instead, he silently moved his fingers over his lips, as if closing a zipper.
“Oh, come on, Josh! You gotta tell me now!”
He just shook his head again. “You’ll see soon enough.”
Josie had to admit, she was totally surprised – stunned really – when Reba walked out to greet them. Well, greet Rennie really and she got to be included in the deal. Turned out the country music superstar had known him for several years now. They’d connected through his sister, Bella, and worked through a few songs together via email, text, phone, and Skype. They’d just never met in person.
Ms. McEntire also greeted the girls, giving them each a hug before they ran off to their mother. Chit chat with Rennie soon followed as they caught up with each other’s lives. She tried to include Josie, but the younger woman was more than a little distracted. Part of it was Helen’s presence, but that was only a small part. As much as she wanted to talk with Reba, she knew she needed to talk with Rennie more.
Ever since he’d stopped by the RV while she was watching the kids, things had been strained between them. Constantly surrounded by people, she’d not had a chance to try to resolve the issue and now it’d gotten worse. It had affected the band. The smooth flow and sound they’d had back at the barn was gone. Instead, they were off kilter, disconnected, out of sync. It was clear from the looks they’d exchanged, that the other band members were concerned. Rennie, meanwhile, was oblivious – seemingly lost somewhere in his own head. Josie could not let it continue.
“It’s pretty obvious you two have some things you need to talk about,” the superstar declared out of the blue, “so I’m going to bow out at this point.”
Josie turned to Reba in surprise. Rennie did the same.
“What?” she exclaimed looking at the both of them, a sly grin on her face. “You two can’t keep your eyes off each other, not to mention acting all twitchy and nervous when you get close.” She gestured back toward their instruments, now stacked neatly in their cases. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out your earlier problems trace back to this.”
Reba laughed. “Girl, I may be getting old but I ain’t blind, or deaf for that matter!”
Josie could feel the blood rush to her cheeks. “Sorry.”
“Earlier problems?” Rennie asked, clearly confused.
She clucked her tongue a bit and patted him on the upper arm, “Ren, you were so focused on getting the levels right, you didn’t notice how you and the group were off.” He appeared to want to ask another question but she waved it off. “Hey, don’t worry about it. It happens to the best of us.”
Reba then tipped her head toward Josie. “Besides, I think your girl here has the solution. So, with that,” she said, stopping to give them each a hug, “I’m off to do some sort of interview, I guess.”
She took a few steps but then turned around. “Oh, come by the tour bus tonight when you’re all done. A few of us will be kickin’ back and chillin’ out before all the hoopla tomorrow.”
They both nodded their assent and about that time the main video guy, Aaron, swooped in and steered her in the direction of his crew. Seeing them, reminded Josie that the band still had yet to do their interviews – not that they were all that ready to do one, considering the current situation.
Noticing it was now just the two of them, with Helen and the girls gone and the closest other person twenty or so feet away, Josie took a deep breath and turned to face Rennie. She noticed he was about to say something, so she gestured for him to let her start instead. He acquiesced.
“Things have been off between us ever since you came to meet us at the RV,” she began, “and I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out why. All I can come up with is you overhearing me tell Katie that I love you.”
He nodded and went to speak again, but she stilled him with a touch.
“I was scared to death when Bella dropped them off with me after all the mess down at Stage B today. I didn’t want to complicate things further, for you or them, but they looked so lost standing there ... so I sucked it up and tried to be who they needed me to be. We were doing okay for a while but Lena was missing you something fierce and started to cry. It was all I could do not to cry with her.”
Just talking about that moment – reliving it, really – brought tears to her eyes. She quickly looked away and wiped the inconvenient moisture away with her fingertips.
“To try to get their minds off that,” she continued, “I got them talking about that time in the Italian restaurant you told me about when we first met.” A small chuckle erupted from her throat. “Oh my God, Ren, those girls are just like you when they get to talking – their facial expressions and hand gestures, their sense of humor! Pretty soon we were swapping stories about you.”
“Your Katie is one perceptive little girl, though.” A wan smile appeared on her face as she glanced up momentarily and met his eyes. “She saw through what I was doing and asked a question I wasn’t prepared to answer.”
Josie shook her head slightly at the memory.
“I get how protective you are of them, Ren, I do,” she said, reaching out her hand to touch his arm again. “They’ve been put through the wringer with all Helen’s done and you don’t want anything to make it worse. I don’t either. And right in that moment, I knew I couldn’t lie to her.” She paused, staring up into his eyes again, which were now as watery as hers. “I do love you, Rennie, very much. They love you. I love you. We all love you. That’s all it was going to be. All we need is love, right?”
He nodded, a glimmer of that crooked smile of his starting to peek out.
“Ren, I will never apologize for loving you. The truth is I do love you very, very much. Get used to it, okay?” she said with a sudden fierceness, punctuated by her poking him in the chest with her finger.
She went to speak again, but Rennie stopped it by pulling her into a warm embrace. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she just closed her eyes and buried her face in his shirt. She felt him kiss the top of her head and a sob slipped out from her lips.
“I’ll try, Josie,” he murmured into her hair. “I’ll try.”
Josie stayed there a while until she found her voice again. Stepping back, but not completely out of his embrace, she looked up into his eyes.
“Ren, this whole thing has turned into a bigger problem,” she told him, the concern etched on her face. “You let what was happening between us affect the band. Our problems are not their problems.” She hesitated, took a deep breath, then plowed ahead. “So suck it up, get out of your own head, and be the professional musician and band leader I know you are. Okay?”
“Okay, Josie,” Rennie said with a chuckle. “Don’t hold back. Tell me what the problem is.”
She lightly swatted his chest. “Rennie!”
He leaned down and lightly pressed his lips to hers. The contact was brief but it was what Josie had been thirsting for all day. She reached up with her hands and pulled him down so they could do it again.
“Oh, thank God!”
Megan’s loud exclamation brought Josie back to where she was. With a snicker, she pulled back from Rennie lips and looked to her left, where the redhead was standing with the rest of the band. As soon as Josie’s and Rennie heads turned toward them, they began to clap.
Embarrassed, Josie turned back and buried her face, once again, in Rennie’s shirt. She could feel his body shake with laughter.
“It’s about time!” the apparent spokesperson for group said as she drew closer. “You two were driving us crazy! It is fixed, isn’t it? Please tell me it’s fixed.”
Josie couldn’t help but giggle. “That’s a great question, Megan. It is fixed, isn’t it, Ren?” she asked, leaning back in his arms and looking up at his face.
“Yes, I believe it is fixed,” he replied, laughing.
He was about to say something else when a loud shriek and some yelling pierced the air. It came from up the hill, somewhere behind where the sound engineers had set up their sound and video booth. Within seconds, Josie could hear the call come over a nearby security guard’s radio: “There is a situation at the media tent. Security, please respond.”
It was organized chaos by the time Shelley and Josh made it to the top of the rise where all the media folks were. Chairs were scattered about the grass and one of the poles for the big tent was knocked out of place, causing it to sag. What caught her attention the most was all the men and women in dark blue t-shirts with “security” written on them. It wasn’t simply the number that impressed her. It was the fact that, though she and Josh were pretty close, just down the hill in fact, all these folks got here before they did.
Shelley turned to see Rennie, Josie, and the rest of the band, coming over the crest of the hill from Stage A.
Josh shook his head in reply. “No idea. We just got here ourselves.”
“Where’s Sarah?” Josie asked, the worry palpable in her voice. “I don’t see her and she was just up here a bit ago.”
Shelley shrugged her shoulders. Glancing around, she thought she recognized someone. “Hey, isn’t that Rachel Vargas’ assistant over there talking with that GAC lady?”
“Nina,” Josie chimed in quickly. “Her name’s Nina and she’s been helping Sarah the past couple days.”
“And that’s Lori Owens,” Josh added. “She’s the primary person GAC sends out for interviews and on site reporting.” He shrugged when everyone looked at him. “I’ve been interviewed by her a few times. She’s actually pretty nice.”
With a possible source of information in view, the group started heading Nina and Lori’s way. As they got closer, they could see the two women huddled around what looked to be a monitor of some kind and talking to a guy at a computer workstation set up not too far away.
“All right, roll it back another ten or eleven minutes and start there,” Lori called out to the tech guy.
“Hey, Nina! What’s going on? Where’s Sarah?”
“We had a bit of an altercation up here,” she replied to Josie, shaking her head. “Sarah’s fine, but her boss at Stone Mountain attacked her. After it was over, Ty took her down to one of the hospitality tents.”
Her phone started to ring.
“Hold on a second, I need to take this.” She lifted it to her ear and then turned away a bit. “Yeah ... just come straight up to the media tent ... okay ... that’ll work ... see you in a few ... love you too ... bye.”
“Charlie attacked her, as in hit her?” Josie asked as soon as Nina got off the phone. “But you said she’s okay?”
“Yeah, it was crazy,” she replied, shaking her head. “We’re still trying to piece it together.”
“Several different cameras were recording up here at the time,” Lori then explained, pointing to all the equipment around them. “So, we’re trying to see what they all caught as far as audio and video. We know the Sheriff’s Department is going to ask, so we thought we’d get a head start.”
By that time Shelley’s attention was focused elsewhere. Her eyes were drawn to where quite a few security people were huddled together, some standing and some kneeling, off beside the tent. Straining to see what they were doing, she audibly gasped when several of them moved, allowing her to see past them. There was someone lying there on the ground.
Shelley glanced over at Rennie and then pointed back to where she’d been looking. “There’s a guy in a suit on the ground over there ... and I don’t think that’s ketchup.”
“Who is that?” Rennie asked, glancing around.
“Holy shit, that’s Charlie!” Josie exclaimed when she turned to see who they were talking about. “Who did that to him? Ty? A security guy?”
Lori shook her head no but it was Nina who gave the answer. “Sarah.”
Nina nodded, but the whir of an electric motor and the sound of tires on grass brought a halt to their conversation.
Shelley watched as a pair of EMTs in a modified golf cart with a red cross on it and room for a stretcher, pulled under the tent and over to where they were standing. She recognized the driver. His name was Jason Frohm and he was one of the ones who manned emergency stations for the first responders and volunteers out at St. John where she and her crew had been working.
He didn’t get out but called to Nina. “Hey, babe, whatcha got for me?”
She smiled and pointed over to where the security personnel were attending to the man on the ground. “You’ve got a white male, late 30s, with facial contusions and likely broken bones. The jaw may be compromised as well.” She glanced down at her watch. “He’s been unconscious for two minutes at least but appears to be coming around, so a likely concussion there. He also took a heavy shot to the groin and several kicks to the ribs, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at some serious damage there, too.”
“All right, we’ll take it from here,” he said with a smile. “Are we still on for tonight?”
“If by tonight you mean you’ll be over to cook me dinner and give me a foot massage after the day I’ve had,” Nina replied with a smile of her own, “then yes, we’re still on for tonight.”
“As you wish!” he shot back as he pulled away.
Nina just chuckled and turned to look at the group. “I’ll be lucky to get a microwave burrito and a thirty second backrub.”
“I heard that!” he shouted.
“You were meant to!” she shouted back.
Shelley started to snicker, but then a voice from the video workstation caught everyone’s attention.
“I think I’ve got something,” the tech called out.
The left side of Sarah’s face felt like it was on fire. What made it worse was someone poking at it.
“Ty, would you cut it out!” she exclaimed sharply. “That hurts!”
His face was uncomfortably close to hers, as he held her chin with one hand and gently examined her cheek with the other. “What? This shouldn’t bother a big tough girl like you,” he teased in a soft voice. “Now, hold still. I’m just trying to see if it’s more serious than it appears.”
“And how would you know if it is?” she challenged, as he lightly pressed along the eye socket.
“A degree in kinesiology, if you must know,” he murmured somewhat absently.
He chuckled. Releasing her chin, he momentarily sat back in his chair. “Kinesiology, Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training to be precise,” he replied matter-of-factly, “even interned with the Titans. Now let me see your wrist.”
She turned and reluctantly held out her right arm. “Since when? I thought you dropped out of college?”
“Dropped out of the University of Texas,” he agreed, gently taking her hand in his and lightly pulling against the other that held her elbow, “with a year and a half left to go.”
She felt the pressure from his hands and the tug, but that was it.
“Mom cried when I did that.” Shifting how he was holding Sarah’s hand, he slowly began to tip and rotate it one way and then another. “So, after the second album, I went back. Finally finished two years ago.”
“How come none of that’s in your bio?” So far there were twinges from what Ty was doing but nothing too serious.
“Someone at Stone Mountain thought it wouldn’t fit with my ‘bad boy of country music’ image.”
“Charlie.” She audibly gasped once she said the man’s name, as something akin to fire and electricity shot up her arm, past her elbow.
“Got it in one,” he replied, clearly concerned, “and it would appear you might have a broken wrist.”
Sarah looked down at her arm in dismay. “Well, shit.”