Her Country Star Fake Fiancé
Christmas Romance Series
Gracie May Sawyer can’t wait to get home to the Smokies for Christmas to announce her engagement to her dreamy Italian fiancé. Only one thing stands in her way of her happily ever after, and that is the guy she’s had a crush on since the sixth grade, her brother’s best friend and country music superstar, Cash Jackson. When she attends Cash’s concert to gain closure, destiny is not kind when she finds herself accidentally fake-engaged to her childhood crush.
Cash Jackson’s country music tour has come to an end, as will his career if he can’t resurrect his dead muse. His label has given him until the first of the year to come up with new material. When his best friend’s kid sister, Gracie Sawyer, shows up at his last concert in Asheville, North Carolina, they share a passionate kiss, which may just be the inspiration he needs. The only problem is she’s engaged to another man.
“Cash?” Ivy’s melodic voice sang through the dressing room door, interrupting Cash Jackson’s meditation.
Cash’s body tensed. Ivy knew better than to disturb his solitude so close to concert time. He wouldn’t perform well if he didn’t mentally center himself before the concert—not by his standards, anyway.
Three soft taps rapped against the door. “Cash?” she repeated.
By her anxious tone, Cash knew something was up. He pushed himself off the plush red couch and stomped his cowboy boots across the wooden floor, passing a row of large framed prints of old country legends like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash. These were men and women who would go down in the history books for making their unique mark on music. Cash wondered if his face would ever make it onto a wall like that with other legends.
Cash’s mom had had a thing for one of the old legends, Johnny Cash. He never had to guess where she came up with his name. She would tell Cash every chance she got that Johnny was her first love and Cash was her second. She would laugh when she said it, but his father never did join in on her amusement.
Cash stopped a few feet short of the door and took in a deep breath to relieve the anxiety that gripped his chest. Ivy was his opening act. If she couldn’t go on, the entire concert would be thrown off balance. He needed a level head to quiet Ivy’s nerves.
Like many naturally gifted artists, Ivy had a flair for drama, but, unlike so many people who simply sought attention, Ivy’s emotional sensitivities were genuine. Everything about Ivy was real, which was what attracted him to her in college; however, she often required his complete attention, which was why their romantic relationship didn’t work. The physical attraction he had felt for her in college had faded years ago. They had failed as a couple, but they worked great together as fellow country stars, touring the world side by side.
He opened the door to find Ivy frantically waving her hands in the air as her leg bounced uncontrollably. “What’s wrong, Ives?” He wrapped his arms around her small frame in a firm embrace.
She buried her face in his chest. “He’s here.”
Cash scrunched his brow. “Who’s here?” He took her by the waist and pushed her back gently, softening his tone as her eyes turned a teary gray. “Did you look out at the audience?” he chastised her. “You know not to do that. It can seriously psych you out if all those people get into your head.”
“Don’t give me that look.” She waggled a finger at him. “I do it all the time and it usually pumps me up.”
“Until it doesn’t.” He removed his cowboy hat and sighed. “Who is this guy who’s got you all up in stitches?”
She shook her hands out. “Donny, the guy I dated before you in college.” She gave him a confused look when he responded with a blank stare. “The guy who graduated and went off to graduate school with not so much as a see ya. The one who I rebounded off to you.”
Cash crossed his arms. “Ouch.” He’d forgotten that he had been a rebound for her.
“Sorry.” She wrinkled up her nose slightly and made her eyes all pouty—one of her signature looks. “But you said you like me to be honest with you. Your deep blue eyes and wavy golden hair that curls under your cowboy hat really is adorable, but this guy …” She sighed, fanning her face.
Cash braced himself. He had a feeling he was about to hear something meant for a girls’ night out. As Ivy’s touring companion, he also doubled as her BFF, which meant he had to listen to all the girl talk. He tilted his head to one side. “Go on, Brutally Honest Ivy.”
“What do I do?” She looked up at him, taking on the role of an impressionable kid sister.
“Go sing your heart out and he’ll wish he never let you go.” He locked eyes with her and whistled. “But be ready to have that guy down on his knees begging to come back to you. Because with how beautiful you look tonight, and with that angelic voice of yours, he’s gonna be head-over-heels before the end of the concert.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. “But, do you really want this guy’s attention?”
She shrugged. “I like the idea of him wishing he had never let me go.”
Cash broke into a wide grin. “You got this, Ives.”
“Will you come watch my set?” She took his hand and squeezed. “You never do.”
Against his better judgment, he nodded. “Show me the way.” He opened the door and motioned down the hall. Nostalgia warmed his chest. “As I recall, we swore to each other as we sat in those very seats in college that we’d make it up onto this stage one day.”
“And, as I recall,” she said, winking up at him, “that promise was sealed with a passionate kiss.”
They stepped out into the stale hallway, void of any color or pictures on the walls. “Not bad for a rebound, right?” He raised an eyebrow.
She pulled at his arm to stop him. “Cash,” she said in her serious voice. “You’re my closest friend, and I will love you forever.” She did her nose scrunch and pouty eyes at him. “I fear the day when someone claims your heart and I’ll have to let you go.”
And that was where Ivy made up for all her crazy moments.
“A kiss for good luck?” She reached up onto her toes, grabbed his face in her hands, and gave him a peck on the lips. “Thanks.” The smile in her eyes told him she truly cared. “You ground me.”
Ivy’s kisses no longer stirred anything inside of him. They now felt like those from his too-open cousin, Cassey, who greeted all her cousins and aunts and uncles with a wet kiss on the mouth. In his mind, only one person should be wet-kissing you on the mouth.
At the end of the hallway, Ivy and Cash reached the audio station. The station was attached to the sound room located a few feet before the black curtains at the side of the stage. An assortment of earbuds and microphones hung in a steel cabinet. Cash reviewed the audio devices he and Ivy had been fitted with and tested earlier that afternoon.
Cash tried to zone out the clamoring chatter of three thousand excited fans. He’d be okay once onstage, but if he put too much thought into the audience, his stage anxiety would get the better of him and have a negative effect on his performance.
Ivy held up a finger to the female audio technician to give her another minute before the audio devices were secured to her face. That was one of Cash’s least favorite parts of the concert, when they glued the microphone on him.
Ivy turned to Cash with one hand on her hip. “Please tell me you’re not gonna run off after the concert. I need you at the afterparty with me.”
His hands flew to his chest. “Me, not go to an afterparty?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “You pretend like I don’t tour with you.” She paused long enough to glare up at him. He was a good foot taller than she was, but that didn’t stop her from making him feel like he had a much smaller stature. “We’re in our hometown here and they barely know you.” She dug her pointer finger into his chest. “You need to let them in.”
He took a step back. “This isn’t where I grew up. My hometown is almost an hour from here.” It dawned on him that he owned a mansion here in Asheville, and he had led the press to believe that he had grown up here. He had the romantic notion of spending more time in this town where the dream had started for him, but his mansion had been used as more of a free hotel for other rich and famous stars who wanted to visit the area.
With less confidence, he admitted, “Just because I own a house here in Asheville, that doesn’t mean this is my hometown.”
She shot him a look of defiance as she crossed her arms and tapped her finger on her bicep.
“Okay,” he laughed out. “I’ll come to the afterparty. Go knock ‘em dead.” He backed away from the stage, motioning to the audio tech to assist Ivy with the hope that he could skirt away.
“Uh-uh.” Ivy shook her head. “No doin’. You’re gonna sit your behind down right here and watch me perform.” She dared him with a look. “You promised.”
“You can hardly call me nodding my head a promise. Can you?”
“Yes. I can. And I will.” She motioned to the audio tech. “And this here talented technician needs to fix you up with your microphone as well. And you’ll be ready…” She flashed a clever smile. “That is, if you want to. You’ll be ready to come out and join me for a last song. Just walk yourself out onto that stage and we’ll sing that favorite of yours.”
The mention of his favorite song took him back to when they were just kids trying to figure out life—singing in local bars and doing what they loved. “We haven’t sung a duet together in what, eight, nine years? Since college? And that silly song is a comedic song about my best friend’s kid sister and how she crushed on me growing up.”
“I know.” Ivy winked. “I sang her part. Remember?” She said it like Cash was a complete idiot, which he was to even consider singing a song like that on stage.
“My fans wouldn’t know what to think of that song,” he protested.
The audio tech gave Ivy a thumbs-up, giving her the freedom to move around.
Ivy punched Cash playfully in his shoulder. “Come on,” she begged. “It was that song that brought us here today. That’s the song we sang when the agent discovered us in the smoky bar. Doesn’t it give you goosebumps, seein’ how far we’ve come?” She paused, possibly for effect. “And all because of that one song you wrote about a sweet girl crushing on you.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and gave him a soft squeeze. “Please. Consider it, for me.” She gave him those doe eyes and an innocent smile before she turned and walked out to the crowd’s deafening applause. Blinding lights lit the stage, causing Ivy’s jeweled dress to shoot rays across the arena.
“There you are,” Max, Cash’s manager, huffed out from behind him.
Cash turned around to find Max bent over, holding his thighs for support as his middle-aged, nonathletic body wheezed out its discomfort, clearly winded from a sprint.
“You okay, Max?” Cash had to restrain himself from laughing when Max shot him a crusty look under his bushy eyebrows, resembling a Muppet character.
Max pulled up his pants by the waist. “What are you doing out here? I always come get you from your room before a show and we mentally run through the set.”
Cash held up two fingers to a stagehand, motioning to the two director’s chairs hidden between a row of long black curtains. “I decided to watch Ivy perform before I go on.”
Max stuck out his chest like a rooster. “And you didn’t feel the need to tell anyone?”
Anger churned inside Cash’s gut. “What am I, Max? Two years old?”
Max threw his hands up in the air. “Then start acting your age, Cash.”
Cash stepped up and sat in the high black canvas seat, then motioned for the audio tech to place his earpiece in his ear. He wanted to hear Ivy’s voice without all the ambient noise, specifically Max’s voice.
Max wasn’t all bad, and to his credit, he had booked Cash’s tour for the largest cities around the world, and then assured the tickets sold out. Max had helped create Cash’s label and made him a millionaire several times over, but man, could he be controlling.
“As your manager, I need to know where you are at all times, especially when you are due on stage in thirty minutes.”
“You really think I’d skip my own concert, Max?”
Cash cringed as Max wiped the sweat from off his forehead with Cash’s white stage towel, reserved for after his performance.
Max handed the towel to a stagehand. “I’m beyond stressed here, Cash. We were supposed to have had a new demo album to the producers six months ago.” He shook his head. “You can’t have another tour without more songs.” Max rubbed his sweaty palms down his pant legs. “I’m dying here, so can you please stop with the attitude?”
Cash couldn’t think about the rut he was in. His muse had died, and he had nothing—no lyrics and no music. If he didn’t come up with some songs quick, he was in danger of losing his label, but dwelling on his weaknesses and his argument with Max would only distract him before his concert, and he wanted to be on tonight. He patted Max on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Max. You’re doing a great job.” Cash meant every word. Over the past several years of working with his manager, Cash had come to recognize that a simple apology, coupled with praise, went a long way.
Max huffed out something under his breath and nodded.
The audio tech clicked on Cash’s earpiece and Ivy’s dulcet voice rang pleasantly in his ear. It was that same unique, agreeable voice that had stopped him in his tracks one frosty December morning as he’d crossed this very campus.
He glanced down at his watch. December 18th. Nostalgia washed over him, causing his body to break out into a thousand goosebumps. He had realized his dream. If Ivy knew what had just happened to him, she’d be shouting Hosannas. Ivy must have arranged for them to perform here on the anniversary of their first meeting.
He and Ivy had first met walking across campus nine years ago today on the last day of finals before Christmas break. Right off the bat, he’d known that her voice would take her places, and boy, had he been right. He and Ivy had performed all over the world together.
Cash loved traveling, but he was grateful to have some time off. He hadn’t been home in years, and his visits were quick and often impersonal. He was ready to spend some quality time with friends and family. He couldn’t even recall his best friend Patrick’s kids’ names.
Ivy told the audience her next song would be her last. When she started into the most popular song on her recent album, the audience went hog-wild. Ivy had been on the money the entire concert; she held all her notes, and these hometown peers absolutely adored her.
When she finished her set, she bowed, threw a kiss to the audience, and walked off stage with the band. She sauntered up to Cash with a wide grin. “Not bad, huh?”
“You stole the show.” He winked. “Let’s call it good and go home.”
“You ham,” she laughed out as she threw her head back. “Good thing I’m just the opening act and the audience isn’t expecting an encore from me. You, on the other hand …” She poked at his chest. “If you skipped out on an encore, the crowd would eat you alive.”
“Just the opening act?” He grabbed his guitar from Max, linked arms with Ivy, and stepped back toward the stage as he signaled the audio tech to turn on their mics. “I’ll be the one opening for you soon.”
Cash held his breath. He said his usual prayer that his stomach would settle and his feet would carry him to the center of that stage before his nerves got the better of him. He needed extra help today after not doing his normal prep routine. The audio tech gave Cash the hand signal that they were live. Ivy, glancing at the audio technician, pulled at Cash’s arm and mouthed the words, “What the …?”
The stage lights warmed Cash’s face as the screams of the audience warmed his soul. His anxiety quieted with the encouragement of his fans. This made up for all those plane rides and long nights at the recording studio. The roar of the crowd bolstered him up and made him feel invincible. There’s no business like show business, he thought as he grabbed Ivy’s hand and raised it high in the air.
“Let’s hear it for Ivy Nichols!” he screamed above the encouraging applause.
Cash peered down at Ivy. Her smoky gray eyes released tears that slowly moistened her cheeks.
He continued, “This campus, and today, are significant for the two of us. Many of you have heard the story of how Ivy and I met, but what you haven’t heard is the song that made it possible to be here with y’all tonight. Nine years ago, this very night, I first heard Ivy’s beautiful voice belt out across this campus a stone’s throw from here.”
Ivy squeezed Cash’s hand and gave him a smile that could’ve melted the North Pole.
He nodded to her, then returned to the audience. “We would like to share that song with you now.” He glanced back to verify the band members had returned to their instruments before he and Ivy sat on two chairs placed at the edge of the stage, within touching distance of the VIP concert-goers who had paid top dollar to stand for several hours.
“This song is about my best friend’s kid sister. I hope y’all like it.”
As Cash began plucking his guitar, a platinum blonde left her VIP spot at the front of the pit and turned her back to him. Her blonde head bobbed away from the stage. No one left his concerts. He started into his song but kept his eye on the blonde. She had a familiar bop to her step, one he had seen several times a day growing up.
“Gracie?” he interjected into the song in an odd place, but the audience didn’t seem to notice.
Correction: No one in the audience noticed—except the platinum blonde. She turned at his mention of her name and stared straight at him. When their eyes met, it was as if the moon collided with the stars, or perhaps they aligned perfectly. Her green eyes with those golden streaks penetrated deep in his chest. Gracie was no longer a string bean; she was a woman with the curves to prove it, and, from the determined look she gave him, she had an attitude to rival her beauty.
Gracie held his gaze for a moment—as if trying to figure him out—then turned and walked toward the upper left-hand corner of the stage, where hired police officers allowed people to exit the pit unscathed.
Cash took the mounting anxiety he felt at having lost sight of Gracie as a sign that he needed to find her. “Thank you!” he screamed into his mic. He lowered his guitar and motioned to Ivy. “Y’all want to hear another song or two from our talented Ivy Nichols?”
Roaring applause waved through the audience, which gave Cash an opportunity to exit the stage to find Gracie. The fact that the crowd allowed Cash to leave the stage without an uproar testified to Ivy’s rise to stardom.
For some reason, Cash’s songs had always done better than Ivy’s, until now. Things were starting to change due to Cash’s writer’s block. Ivy had several new songs out that were taking off—and tonight’s concert proved her rise to stardom.
If only Cash could resurrect his muse. This past year, Max had put pressure on Cash to get a new album together to pitch to the producers, or even buy some songs from established songwriters. Max had argued that half the country songs on the radio had been written by professional songwriters, but Cash wanted a personal connection with each song he sang. Unfortunately, his explanation never satisfied Max, but Cash had to be true to himself. If he didn’t feel the songs originating from his soul, how could he sing them with any real passion?
Cash stepped out into the moonless night. The cold air took his breath as an icy breeze blasted his face. Security followed him outside and handed Cash a coat, which he took with an appreciative nod.
As he turned back to the walkway, Cash caught sight of Gracie. He followed her with his eyes as she stomped along the side of the building, then into a forested trail toward a parking lot. “Can you give me a minute?” he asked the security detail.
“Yes, sir,” said the bodyguard, taking a reluctant step back. But Cash knew his bodyguard wouldn’t leave. His security detail never allowed him out of their sight during a concert.
Cash broke into a jog. He only had a few more minutes before he needed to be back onstage, but he couldn’t miss this opportunity.
Why did she leave my concert? He had no idea, but he was about to find out.
The cold, dark night reminded him of good times. He smiled inside, remembering the Ghost in the Graveyard game they’d played as kids where they’d grab each other by the waist and yell, “Gotcha ghost!”
Cash’s gut stirred with excitement as he neared the girl next door in stealth mode. This was gonna be good.