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Like A Song

The Dallas White Series, Book Two

Smashwords Version

Susan Rodgers

February 2019



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Find out more about Susan Rodgers on Facebook under Susan Rodgers, Writer

And at www.susanrodgersauthor.com

Twitter: srbluemountain

fatcat@pei.sympatico.ca

***



All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author or publisher except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles or reviews.



This is a work of fiction. Names, places, businesses, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events or locales is purely coincidental.



Edited by Kathryn E. Gillis and Stephen Reaman.

Cover design by Alanna Munro.

All rights reserved.



***



Join the Drifters / Dallas family by signing up at www.susanrodgersauthor.com.

As a welcome gift, I’ll send you a free bonus / deleted chapter

from book one of the Drifters series, A Song For Josh. Happy reading!



***

Seen my share of broken halos,
folded wings that used to fly.
They've all gone wherever they go,
broken halos that used to shine.



Don't go looking for the reasons,
don't go asking Jesus why.
We're not meant to know the answers,
they belong to the by and by.



- Chris Stapleton


***


Like A Song


Chapter One


Nights like this, Matt Kelly could melt right into the door frame, he was so relaxed.

Indulging in the luxury of letting his shoulders sink a little lower and his breath exit in a nice, easy exhale, he took a few seconds to reflect and slow his breathing even further before taking the time to survey the space around him. Not that he really needed to lay his eyes on anyone in order to get a sense of what was going on and how people were feeling - the nearby laughter alone was enough to coax a genuine, bashful smile from his lips, although after his scan Matt was careful to focus his restful gaze on the perfect polished cap toes of his Salvatore Ferragamo Oxfords so nobody eyeballing him would suspect him of letting his guard down.

Letting himself 'chill,' as the kids would say, was not always easy for Matt. Most times, on the job and often not on the job, he was meant to be alert. Lives depended on him - not just the talent he was contracted to watch, but also the talent's closest loves - spouses, children, babies. And pets too, he thought with a cringe, remembering a day a few years back when protecting a child and the child's mother meant having to let a beloved puppy go. That terrible choice was necessary, but it resulted in great despair for a long time afterwards.

Matt's job was not always easy, not on the nerves and most certainly not on the heart. Yet the heart was why he stuck with it. For better or for worse, Matt was good at his job, and hell, these people - the talent - needed him.

He looked up from his spit-shined shoes when a chorus of guffaws and easy laughter echoed from the spacious dressing room to his left. Clinks of glasses and footsteps added to the happy voices within. The first person Matt spotted when he looked inside was the woman he'd saved instead of the puppy back in the dark days of watching over her full time. A superstar the world cherished for her music and for her acting, Jessie Wheeler was, at this very moment, nestled into the corner of a deep, soft couch, leaning into the relaxed curve of her husband's arm while holding lightly to his hand, laughing at something someone across the room said.

People of all shapes and sizes dotted the dressing room, sinking into soft white leather couches or sitting on the arms, as was Jessie's husband, Josh, who smiled and quietly took in his wife's joy as she nuzzled into him from her corner nest.

Someone was at the big bar fridge in the corner. The drummer, Matt thought, craning his head nonchalantly to take a closer look at the long haired, jean clad guy clearly rooting around for beer. Back by the clothing racks on the far side, two guys and a woman were digging into chip bowls on the craft table. Matt recognized them as the fiddler (the woman) and tonight's keys and bass players. The far end of Jessie's couch was occupied by Jessie's manager and pseudo-mother, Deirdre, aristocratically poised, her Christian Louboutins delicately balanced around crossed ankles.

There were more adults in the busy room too - Deirdre's husband, Charles, deep in conversation with a wiry guy Matt knew as Phil, a talent manager known for taking country singers to the top ranks of the biz. Jacob, a pop singer, and his pretty blonde dancer wife, Kayla, Josh's sister, were snuggled into an oversized matching white leather love seat positioned perpendicular to the couch.

At their feet, their young daughter Lily played on a bright Navajo rug, driving a plastic car up and down a jagged black line. Juggling for space on the rug, Lily let go with an occasional piercing shriek when another small child sharing the rug continuously crashed her car into Lily's. Micah, Jessie and Josh's youngest, was at the adults' feet too, constantly wiping straight long Josh-like chestnut hair away from his eyes. Micah adored his slightly older cousin and was helping Lily out by driving interference against the car that kept getting in her way.

Matt lingered a long time on the second child, the one ruthlessly shoving a miniature handheld car, a red one, into Lily's blue one. This child, a bouncy blonde, required more than an occasional glimpse from Matt's direction. The pretty wide-eyed youngster had been one of Matt's responsibilities for the last three months, and before then from time to time as well depending on the schedule of her very busy country singer father, the much loved Dallas White. At only three years old, Jade was written into Matt's contract for the entire duration of this tour. He'd had eagle eyes on her over the past few months, which led him to believe that, now, Micah and Lily would not win their mini-car battle. Jade had a stubborn streak. The child had long ago proven to her tired parents, and to her tense security, that she was not one to give up easily.

As supervisor of the other security on the tour - some here in the dressing room and some outside the room, hands folded in front of their muscled bodies and eyes carefully scouting the space around them despite the lighthearted air - Matt had done a lot of scheduling and surveying and discussing and organizing. Tonight's concert marked the last of it, of this exhausting round of touring, at least. Tonight the country singer who always chose to employ Matt when their schedules coincided, was celebrating.

Dallas is on his third beer, Matt counted as, in the back of the room, Dallas' drummer's hand finally emerged from the fridge, a cold beer staunchly gripped in the fingers. Matt watched as, with an air of sneaky pride, the drummer made a show of tossing the unopened wet bottle into Dallas' jubilant hand by spinning it end over end, the same way he'd spun a stick on stage earlier. Matt smiled openly while everyone inside the room cheered. Dallas is celebrating, he thought, watching the singer laugh and rag at his drummer before haphazardly screwing the cap off the beer and putting his lips to the foaming end of the bottle. He's relieved because tonight was the last of the tour, and he's exhausted. Dallas needs a break.

The end of the tour. Hence the presence of Jessie Wheeler and Jacob Ryan and their entourage, who were sharing in the celebration tonight. Hence Matt's frequent secret smiles down at his cap-toed shoes. Hence his glance now from the persistent three-year-old who was driving Lily crazy on the rug, up to Jessie on the leather couch. He watched her tuck a lazy light-auburn curl behind an ear before leaning her tall, slim body forward to softly scold Micah, who'd yanked on one of Jade's many baby-soft blonde ringlets when his car got smashed instead of Lily's, this time. Jessie had been Matt's main charge for years, starting long before Dallas. In her early forties now, Jessie was a busy, happy, married mom of four. Discreetly watching her, Matt let himself sink into the bliss of knowing she was his soul mate. Their mutual adoration stemmed from years of shared pain. From the deep kind of love that came from knowing one another from the inside out. Their connection was a soul-to-spirit kind of thing. Josh was aware; hell, even the kids all knew just how much Jessie and Matt meant to each other.

As if she could feel his gentle eyes on her, Jessie turned and treated Matt to a peaceful smile. It was a long time coming, that kind of peace between them. Having Dallas around to often watch over these last few years was a sincere and welcome relief for Matt, most times.

The country singer might be a newish friend, if one considered the decades Matt had spent with Jessie, but Dallas had become a good and trusted presence in Matt's sometimes lonely life. Cassie, Dallas' petite, elegant wife of four years, and the mother of feisty little Jade, was more acquaintance than friend. Reserved at the best of times, she was hard to get to know, and Matt knew his serious, guarded work ethic was intimidating despite his attempts to engage her with kind eyes and careful smiles. She had a surfer blond son from a previous marriage. Ry, barely a teen, worshipped Dallas for far more than his ability to bring an audience of thirty-thousand to its knees. The security team called Cassie's son 'Shy Ry.' But from Matt's perspective, the kid - already a skilled guitar player, thanks to Dallas' patient lessons - was far easier to engage in a chat than Cassie.

At least she was around. At least, for the most part, she took time off work in theatre management to accompany her husband on his tours. Matt's celebrity actress wife, Shanda, was at the mercy of her work. She bounced in and out of his life like a rubber ball.

The last few months - hell, the last few years - were often lonely. When Dallas wasn't doing sound check or performing or just plain delighting the media, he was behind closed doors with Cassie and their two children. Hence why tonight was special for Matt. Hence why tonight was surreal, to him, a man who'd stood in the wings during a gazillion shows over the last many years. He'd practically drooled with a stoned kind of joy earlier when Jacob and Jessie, two people for whom he cared deeply, took the stage as guests of his current boss. They were logical choices for Dallas in this age of genre-hopping music because Dallas' tour was ending in their home city of Vancouver, Canada. Still, it was a huge coup for Dallas' team to snag the duo. Jacob and Jessie were busy celebrities. It was no secret that the reason they said yes was because of their mutual affection for Matt.

Hence Matt's profound joy. Tonight, the usual numb loneliness was replaced by sheer bliss. Here, under his watchful eye, all in one place, were most of the people he loved.

Reflecting on this, a grateful light settled into Matt's hazel-grey eyes. He looked up at Jessie again, probably for the millionth time since he'd taken up his post at the doorway. Dallas noticed and grinned carefully at Matt, who caught the look out of the corner of his eye but since Jessie was actually blushing sweetly back at him, he ignored his current boss and kept his eyes on his old one.

Yep, this was it - pure joy.

It might be temporary, but it sure as heck was sweet.


***


Chapter Two


A low strum wafting upwards from a collection of lazy couches in a wide part of the hallway caught Matt's ear. It was coming from two guitars, his experienced ears told him, but he didn't look away from Jessie to see who was playing. One of the more trusted members of his security team was over there, watching over the older kids, who were 'too cool' to hang out with the grownups. Big Dan was what the kids (and sometimes the adults, too) called the tall, robust Scandinavian man whom Matt and Charles had hired to help watch over Jessie back when superstardom first came calling.

They were all aging, these watchful men who dedicated their lives to keeping others safe. Thankfully, the kids kept them young. Like Matt, Big Dan practically raised Josh and Jessie's children. Like Matt, Big Dan suffered for it. Matt had an older daughter in her twenties, who he raised until she shut him out after he and his first wife divorced, so although it hurt, he could at least recall the best parts of raising a daughter. Dan and his wife were childless. For all intents and purposes, the Sawyer children filled a lot of holes in the lives of the toughened men who watched over them. No doubt Dan was in his glory right now, hanging out with Josh and Jessie's oldest, Emily-Grace, her brothers David and Dylan, and Dallas and Cassie's Ry. All musically talented, the kids were on a high after the show, no doubt in part because Ry had sung his first big song on stage with Dallas tonight.

Dan didn't have his hands full with ornery kids in the widened part of the hallway. Nope, he was being treated to brand new tunes in that small lounge at the far side of the hall.

The kids. Yep, Matt was feeling his age these days. In the old days, it was nothing to work the late shows with Jessie, hit the sack well past midnight, and rise at the first light of dawn for a run or an hour at the gym. Sometimes they'd board Charles' gold-trimmed private jet after a show, fly to a new city on only a few hours' sleep, and settle into a hotel for a few more hours if they were lucky. Bright and early, Matt'd be up supervising the security in a new venue, which was often a large stadium.

It got harder when the kids came along. Hell, everything got harder. Jessie's acting gigs were a little less nerve-wracking for Matt but often were the reverse of the stadium gigs. Sleep was still a luxury most nights, but heck, the film shoots were boring. Watching multiple takes of a scene was like watching a kettle come to a boil. Now, Matt would gladly take any private time at all with Jessie if he could get it, even just a shared run in the morning with maybe a stop afterwards for coffee. Hell, Matt'd run as far and as fast as Jessie wanted, despite the inflamed knees he'd have to suffer through afterwards; despite seizing pain that sometimes accosted his tired lower back.

One of the young guitarists in the hall cut into his wistful reverie with a holler. "Matt! Matt, come here! You need to hear this."

It was Emily-Grace. She lived life surrounded by three younger brothers, so hanging out with her occasional friend Ry was not something to get nervous about. To her, having another boy around was as simple as adding another bump on a log. She was a child who lived an insular life right from the get-go; she was used to being hauled around from place to place. She, Ry, and her brothers were used to the kinds of friendships that started on the road and that continued on the road, often picking up exactly where they'd left off.

Emily-Grace was gifted with her mother's musical talent. Her brothers were equally blessed. Ry was not Dallas' biological son but he may as well have been; the kid could write songs far beyond the ability of most kids his age. His ability to pick out melodies on the guitar was awe-inspiring.

There were essential differences between what Ry wanted to do with his talent and what Emily-Grace wanted to do with hers - they had to do with the stage. Ry wanted to conquer the world. Emily-Grace preferred to play privately.

Because of everything she's been through, Matt caught himself thinking as another holler forced him to finally break his lock on Jessie, who had long ago turned a subdued kind of attention back to the folks in the dressing room.

Pushing himself away from the door frame, Matt signaled one of his security minions to watch over the dressing room. A dark-skinned woman who kept trying to stuff the wild ends of her frizzy hair into a not so tidy bun took his place at the door. Matt thanked her with a formal nod before starting to saunter casually over to the small group of kids huddled around two guitars.

Dan met him halfway. "Blows my mind what these kids can do," the big guy mused as he took up pace next to his boss. "Ry picks out a melody and Emily-Grace chimes right in with harmonies. They're perfectly in sync and they haven't even seen each other since the Grammies. Even then, they only played together that one night at the hotel, the night before the awards. They remind me of somebody."

He broke out into an easy grin that might've come with a wink if Dan felt more grounded in Matt's daunting presence. The nervous vibe wasn't just because Matt was his boss. Everything about the man was intimidating. Hell, his polished shoes and finely cut blazer unnerved Dan, who stuck one set of large fingers in the pocket of his own droopy blue blazer, absently wondering as they walked whether he should ask how the tour with Dallas had gone overall. Despite the small light Dan detected in Matt's eyes, it was plain to see that the man just looked beat.

Maybe it was because Matt was walking away from Jessie. Matt was like a puppy, he lit up the closer he got to his old friend, and faded as they parted. Dan could never hope to crack whatever shell it was that encased the two; all he knew and needed to know was that they'd been through hell and back together, that Josh was as grateful as Dan to have Matt in their lives, and that what held Matt and Jessie together was a sacred, impermeable kind of magic.

Matt was just that kind of guy. The enigmatic, larger-than-life sort. The dependable, loyal, smart kind who practiced the gospel every day by putting everyone else before himself.

Dallas was already finding that out about Matt. And Dallas, Dan could see from short times in his presence, was as captivated by Matt as was everyone else in the man's circle. Why else would Dallas hire an aging security chief to watch over the most precious people in his life - his wife, Cassie, plus shy Ry and their busy little daughter, Jade?

Matt was the kind of man who saved lives. He'd saved Jessie's physical life twice - even taking a bullet for her - and for sure he'd saved her ailing spirit many times too, when Josh's addictions got the best of him and he went off the rails back when their family was being stalked.

Matt wasn't just the kind of man who watched over people. Matt was the kind of man who healed people.

Dan stood back and grinned widely as Emily-Grace, once so shy and scared, exuberantly reached for Matt's deeply trusted hand and pulled him closer. "You can be the first to hear this song all the way through, Matt. The very first!"

Unable to help himself, Matt chuckled and snuck a sideways look over to Dan, who tossed his head back and laughed outright. Emily-Grace was a mini Jessie, right down to the dusty old cowboy boots she'd worn special for tonight's big country music show. How many times had the two men heard Jessie say the very same thing? The first to hear my new song. You can be the very first. Years of experience had taught them that every time Jessie got excited about a new song, the whole world soon got to know it.

Magic. That's what this whole music-making thing was. That's what being around these talented people was all about. It was pure magic.

Emily-Grace was more confident than Ry. As her younger brothers watched - Dylan with his dark curls bouncing as he nodded in time to the catchy tune, and quiet David with his soulful brown Josh-eyes lit from within in awe of his sister's talent - she counted them in and started to play.

Ry was alight. Exuberant and jittery with adrenaline after his successful big-time stage debut, and still just a kid, he knew from being under Matt's care that the man was the kind of person you were meant to shut up and listen to. Not just kids, but adults too, always bowed to Matt's almighty word. But as Ry looked up from his perch on the top back of the big chair and planted his feet more securely, nervously, on the cushion, he looked closer at Matt and was surprised to see something he wasn't used to seeing on the man's face. It was closely guarded emotion, a less demanding expression than usual in the kind but often distanced eyes. It was soft. Tender, even. It struck Ry as odd to see Dallas' hardened security chief let his guard down. A happy, peaceful aura seemed to wash over Matt, which helped Ry relax and settle his feet more comfortably into the cushion of the big chair.

Ry let the corners of his lips lift just slightly and glanced shyly at the pretty young teen beside him. He couldn't help but tremble just a little at the way her light chestnut hair kissed her shoulders; it landed there the same way her famous dad's hair landed around his shoulders, depending on the part he was playing and on what was expected of him, looks-wise. Emily-Grace resembled her dad in a lot of ways, although the highlights in her hair were more auburn like her mom's than chestnut like her dad's. Her big curls moved when she did, which would have passed under the radar of most folks, but which delighted Ry, who was finding himself more and more devoted to all the little things about his musical friend that added up to make Emily-Grace unique and special in his young, star-crossed eyes.

Matt noticed the awestruck look Ry gave his singing partner. Rocking onto his right foot, he dropped his hands under his blazer and rested them on his hips, over the expensive black pants he'd worn for this reunion-like show. Studying Ry, he wondered what Jessie would think of the boy's obvious affection for her cherished daughter. It didn't seem to go both ways - Emily-Grace was still immune to the power of boys since she was so used to being around them, and she had a predisposition as to how annoying they can be.

Also, she was like her mother. When Jessie was tuned into her music, nothing and nobody got in her way. They were all there, anyway, all of the people in Jessie's world - inside the lyrics and imbued in the melodies. But nobody really got through to Jessie until she was ready to let them back in. Music was her safe place, and it guarded her well - it provided better security than Matt ever could. Music was Jacob's sacred place too, and Dallas' as well. A sad little pang rocketed over Matt as he considered that. It hit him that music was also Emily-Grace's safe place, and likely David's and Dylan's as well. And, by the shy look of Ry on stage tonight and here with the children of Jessie Wheeler, music clearly also gave him a place to hide as well.

Matt thought it was sad that they all needed a place to hide in the first place.

He had to bite his tongue to keep from ordering the kids down off the furniture. He focused on the music. The kids' song was, as Dan had alerted Matt, special. Matt's shoulders straightened and he had to force down a concerned frown before the kids even got the song to its second verse. He focused on Dylan's hands. Jessie's third child could take any instrument and make it sing, but his musical toy of choice was a set of drums. And like every drummer Matt had ever come across - and he'd come across many - Dylan couldn't keep his hands still when someone nearby was urging chords from a guitar. Like Ry, he was perched on the top back of a large stuffed and upholstered chair with his sneakered feet on the seat cushion below. Unlike Ry, whose hands were busy with a guitar, Dylan's hands were free. And so his thighs became drums and his fingers held invisible sticks.

Emily-Grace's harmonies nudged themselves quite contentedly underneath and over Ry's vocals. Sometimes both kids hummed, as it became apparent the song was so new that neither had decided on all the lyrics yet. It was rusty. A few times they stopped playing and giggled instead, before starting right up again.

Anyways, Matt decided as he lifted a set of fingers to slide them through his stylish, tidy, side-swept hair, it's not about the song. It's like Dan said. It's about the singers.

He almost groaned.

It was easy to picture where this friendship was going to go, especially when the kids looked up at each other after they brought the simple tune to a satisfying, exceptionally pleasing finish, and lost themselves in each other's eyes. It took Dylan jumping off the back of his chair and hopping up and down in excitement before Emily-Grace looked away from Ry, likely surprised at the intensity of the affectionate feelings that passed over her. Matt wasn't sure Ry would have averted his eyes from her at all if Dylan hadn't thumped him on the forearm and begged him to play another song.

"It's beautiful," Matt croaked finally, the lump in his throat hard to swallow. "Really special, Emily-Grace." He glanced at Ry. "Nice job, Ry."

Ry's cheeks blazed red. Averting his eyes from Matt, he shyly picked at a tuning peg on the guitar. Emily-Grace wiped a loose strand of hair off of her cheek and started to twirl it in one finger.

Like mother, like daughter, Matt thought, his heart doing a little hop-jump thing. Jessie had twisted her hair like that since the day he first met her.

"Do you think Momma will like it?" All four kids stopped moving and looked hopefully at Matt. None of them cared what Dan thought. Matt was a God in their eyes and he definitely, without a doubt, ranked well above any normal human in their mother's eyes as well. His opinion mattered.

"She will." Matt buried himself in Emily-Grace's pale blue Jessie-eyes. He had to push an icy spear of fear down deep into the darkest recesses of his chest. Don't change, Emily-Grace, he breathed inwardly. Do not take your music to the stage. It was not lost on him that he didn't concern himself with the wishes and dreams of the boy he'd been hired to watch over these last few months. Always, always, always, Josh and Jessie (Wheeler) Sawyer and their children were Matt's first priority to keep safe, not that he'd always done the best at that sacred job. Still - always. The Sawyer children were, as far as their parents were concerned, never to be lured to the sometimes false charms of the spotlight. Ever. Over the years, Matt took extra caution to ensure the kids were protected from cameras and from prying eyes in general. But this music...

He looked over at Ry. The boy's cheeks were a soft, healthy pink. His eyes, pale mirrors of the calmest, most serene water, were glowing from within. Like the Sawyer kids, Ry was not immune to pain. As a toddler he'd lost a father to a tragic fire. After, Ry lived a quiet life with his grieving mother until the day Dallas met Ry and Cassie at a Prince Edward Island campground and took a chance on love. Ry dreamed of taking his music to the big stages. He worked hard at it. Tonight he had charmed a whole lotta folks who were still talking and tweeting about a young prodigy they saw on the world stage for the first time. Matt had a feeling Ry was setting his sights on bringing Emily-Grace to those big stages with him. Matt knew. He just knew. Because Matt knew love, and hell, what he was seeing in these kids' eyes might be puppy love right now, but there was a trust there that both needed in their crazy lives, and from this point on it could only grow.

Nodding politely at the kids, Matt managed one last smile in Emily-Grace's general direction, then pivoted slowly around, hoping against hope that Big Dan didn't hear his tired knee crack when he turned. Hoping against hope that Emily-Grace didn't see worry streak across his face.

He moved one shiny shoe in front of the other, able only to give Dan a cursory half-lift of his lips as he passed. Beckoned by happy laughter, he headed back towards the open doorway of Dallas' dressing room. Not that Matt would go into the room. No, he knew his place. He belonged on the line between the older generation and the new; a line marked by a hard wooden door frame and a digital sign next to the door that, tonight, relegated the luxurious space with its comfy white leather couches and sublime atmospheric lighting to Dallas White and friends.

From inside, Dallas watched Matt take up his usual post again. Something had changed in Matt's eyes. Raising a beer to his lips with one hand, with his free hand Dallas touched his wife's elegant fingertips. Cassie raised her eyes and followed her husband's curious gaze over to Matt. Sometimes the sadness in Matt's eyes was profound, and both Dallas and Cassie wondered what had brought it to the surface tonight.

Jessie, Dallas thought, watching Matt. It's because Jessie is in the room. Jessie, with her pain and her scarred past and her cherished husband, Josh. Josh, who Dallas knew Matt respected and liked but who would always be Jessie's number one.

Settling back against the door with a sigh, Matt refocused on his shoes. This time his body telegraphed exhaustion. The earlier joy had disappeared into a haze of remembrance and loss.

Helpless, Dallas looked away and tipped back his bottle for another drink.


***

Chapter Three


It was well after midnight when the families started to gather up their children and say happy-sad goodbyes. Small children were folded tightly against warm, tired bodies, and older ones, grouchy now because the overtired bug was also nipping at their droopy eyes, were corralled in the direction of the backstage exit.

Matt was watching the melancholy parting of Ry and Emily-Grace with concerned interest when the venue's stage manager approached with a brisk walk and called him aside. The forty-something woman, a crusty gal named Lydia, skipped over any small talk. She held a cellphone out in front of her black low-cut Rolling Stones T-shirt. Like a trophy, it hovered between her and the man who held all the cards when it came to gatekeeping the stars in their midst.

Matt knew the look. He'd been about to say, "We'll be out of your hair within the half hour," when Lydia's wide brown eyes stopped him short. Fear - there was fear inside those eyes, darting back and forth across their watery surfaces like a sea serpent.

"What?" he asked, his voice brusque and deep. It was a forgotten voice, one he buried long ago. Fear had entered Matt's life many times. It came and went in relentless waves like fire and left its unforgiving mark in the eyes of frightened children, in the nightmares of the woman he'd watched over for so long, and in his own broken, charred, somewhat healing heart.

This new nightmare predator, as yet unknown, was not welcome.

He took a backwards step.

"Is it Jessie?" he barked at the harried, thin woman in front of him. Everyone knew about Jessie's turbulent background. The lone stalker, first; then the man who would do anything for his wife, even try to find her a new family...

Matt sighed heavily. That was old news. What could this harrowing look in Lydia's eyes possibly mean to him, to them, to...her?

Lydia blinked back rare tears and, at the same time, shook her head. "No," she managed. "This doesn't concern Jessie." She was a tough cookie, she never crumbled, not at the cruelty of unfeeling audio or lighting techs or because of the heartless managers of stars who tossed out orders the way they handed out off-colour, sexist jokes.

Although sometimes the sad videos of abandoned animals that populated social media got to Lydia.

But this was different. Tonight Lydia had, like Matt and everyone else present, been on the inside track of something real special. Dallas White's last concert on this tour had, here at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, featured beloved guest stars Jessie Wheeler and Jacob Ryan, and Lydia had ridden high atop the thrilling crest of it all by stage managing the event. Shows like this were a breeze. These stars were the epitome of kindness - no egos got in the way. Not even the hangers-on were troublesome. The managers were terrific, and even the stars' kids were well-mannered and sweet.

And Josh Sawyer - oh Lordy, Josh Sawyer had ridden in on his Harley after a workday on a movie set on nearby Burnaby Mountain. Lydia herself had witnessed the man casually strolling in to greet his wife and kids, unzipping his classic red and white leather motorcycle jacket as he walked, a black half-helmet dangling from his strong fingers. Lydia saw his famous churlish grin lift the corners of his mouth the second his wife danced out of her dressing room to greet him with their youngest, Micah, too big to be in her arms, but there anyway. And the music - the onstage stuff? Hell, it was surreal. Guitar solos and ballads and up-country rock tunes galore! The music could have gone on forever. Nobody wanted to leave the arena, not even the crew. Three standing ovations and multiple bonus songs were the reward. Lydia was on such a high she almost forgot to call 'go to black' for the light technician at the end.

And Dallas White. Lordy, when he sauntered off the stage at the end to shake Matt's hand and then wandered over to his petite, elegant wife for a hug and a kiss, Lydia thought she would just have to melt then and there. She'd worked some pretty big shows back in the day when Dallas was romantically linked with his Georgia singing partner, Deborah, but never was joy apparent on the man's face in those days. Nope, not ever. Tonight Lydia saw the look of a contented man in every move Dallas made. Lydia'd watched him affectionately tousle the hair of Ry, the boy she'd heard he'd taken on as his own, before reaching over to take his young daughter from his wife's arms. Lydia'd had to force back a tear when Dallas, a beloved country star whose faltering career rocketed back to the top after he found true love, bent to leave a lingering kiss on his pretty blonde wife's head.

"You need to tell me what's up," Matt demanded, curling his hands into fists at his side, which worked to call the usually crusty stage manager back to him. "Lydia? Talk."

She couldn't. Lydia could not say the words that she knew would destroy the peace these people had found tonight in music and in each other. She'd come to the one man who, over the years, had proven his worth to all of them - to the stars, to their families, and to the crowds who came to the big shows in the hopes of leaving their own worries behind. She trusted that Matt Kelly would know what to do, would know how to handle this new darkness, but still, she couldn't bring herself to speak.

Instead, she flipped her phone around and held it out higher in front of Matt. A tear annoyed her by slipping past her guard and sliding down a cheek. Glistening in the lights of the bright hallway, it was followed by another in a tiny rivulet.

Nearby, Dan had Micah in his arms. The little boy was snoring contentedly against his shoulder. Concerned at the brisk interchange that had Lydia in tears and Matt on guard, Dan, his eyebrows raised in an arc, glanced at Jessie behind him before he faced Matt, whose stare was locked on Lydia's phone, eyes darkening and lips curling downwards.

"What?" Dan prodded, at the same time wishing with a vengeance that he didn't have to know, that he would never have to know. "Jessie?" he gulped. Always, their collective fears were based on Jessie. What might hurt Jessie, what might send her spiraling into bed for days, what might catapult Josh back into addictions, what might endanger the Sawyer children.

"It's not Jessie," Matt managed. A twinge of guilt that this new hurt wouldn't directly wound her ripped up his spine and landed in his throat so that his next words emerged gritty and low. "It's Dallas."

"Dallas?" Dan moved lithe, chestnut-haired Micah to his other shoulder and gave Lydia a questioning, sympathetic look as he asked. The usually composed stage manager was outright sob-choking when Matt handed her back her phone.

Matt reached for the words. They hurt like hell to say, even though in his bones he was screaming with gratitude that Jessie and Josh would remain for the most part unaffected despite the awful news that Matt would have to deliver to Dallas in just a moment's time. "His brother. He died."

"Dale? Dale's dead?" Dan whispered back to Matt while Lydia turned away. Too many folks in the hallway were starting to notice her raw emotional state.

Taking a deep breath, Matt looked over at Jessie, who started to tiptoe towards him. Years sharing each other's lives meant they could read each other. Words were almost not even necessary. The pain and accompanying guarded relief in Matt's usually gentle eyes were enough to raise alarm.

"Suicide," Lydia choke-whispered to Dan just before she walked away. "They're saying it was suicide. And it's all over the Internet. For God's sake please tell Dallas before he checks his phone."

Jessie touched Matt's elbow while Josh watched, his liquid brown eyes narrowing. She didn't speak.

"Get Dan to take your family home," Matt ordered simply. "Tell Josh to watch the puddles on that monster bike of his. The city's sopping wet tonight." Pushing past her, he stopped suddenly. Josh's eyes were on him, no doubt of that. Josh was always reading Matt and Jessie and their unspoken words, but all was well between the men these last few years. The connection Matt and Jessie shared was old stuff now, entrusted to the history books and to occasional cuddles when they found themselves overseas together, which was more and more rare these days while Jessie mostly stayed at home to focus on her family.

Turning back around, Matt slipped his fingers into Jessie's and pulled her close. "Beautiful," he whispered. "You, on stage tonight. Just beautiful, as always," he breathed as he let her go. After a few precious seconds more, her warmth melding into his, he started to back away.

She grabbed his arm. "You need to tell me, Matt. What is it?" Insistent, Jessie vice-gripped him, squeezing tightly and not letting go even when he tried to pry her away.

"Circle of life stuff," he told her finally, his eyes misting over at the grand, precious mystery of life and death and the finality Dallas would have no choice but to accept. Allowing a finger to touch Jessie's cheek, Matt smiled sadly. "It's Dallas this time, sweetheart," he murmured. "I need to tell him."

"Someone in his family?" A low bubble of pain started in Jessie's gut.

Matt leaned in and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "His brother. Dallas' brother is gone."

"Aw, hell. Jesus, Matt. I'm so sorry."

"Me too, sweetheart."

She sighed heavily and let go of him. "You're that guy, Matt. You know - the one who has to pick everyone else up. All the time, it falls on you. The weight of it all, it always falls on you."

A small, sad smile wriggled its way forth. Matt crooked his head to one side. "I'm okay, Jessie. Don't worry about me."

"You big lug. I always worry about you." Taking hold of his shoulders, Jessie started to turn him around to face the others. Watching them, Dan sighed quietly, put a big hand on Micah's small back, and stole away. "I'm here for you, Matt," Jessie continued. "Call me if you need me. K? Now go be you. Go be there for Dallas."

"You bet. Nite, sweetheart."

"Nite, Matt." Folding her arms, Jessie frowned as Matt, shoulders hanging low, limped tiredly towards Dallas.

Passing Josh on the way, Matt spoke with a quiet reverence. "Get your family home, Josh. And watch the goddamn puddles on that big bike."

Swiveling at the waist to watch him go, Josh exhaled slowly before turning a confused eye back to Jessie.

"Let's get the kids," she said softly, approaching her husband. "We need to go home."

Josh slipped his hand in hers. Together, they headed over to a yawning Dylan and a weary Emily-Grace and David, who were hovering around Charles and Deirdre. They all referred to the Keatings as the kids' grandparents, even though Charles and Dee (as they affectionately called Deirdre) played that role by virtue of history and not of genes. With Micah in his arms, Dan followed close by.

Dallas was just pulling his phone out of his pocket, while cradling his daughter in his other arm. He held the phone up to Matt. "It's always a thrill to see what the fans have to say after a show like that. The energy out there was off the charts tonight, eh Matt? Don't you think?"

Cassie was at her husband's side. Unlike Dallas, she'd had little to drink at the dressing room after-party. Her eyes widened. She was about to ask if everything was okay when Matt did a quick air-snatch and grabbed the phone right out of Dallas' hand.

"What the hell?" Dallas retreated by stepping back a foot, which jarred his sleeping daughter.

"Let Cassie take Jade," Matt insisted, reaching for the delicate child so he could hand her over to her mother.

"What? I stopped drinking after four brews," Dallas shot back, alarmed at the sorrow he discerned on his friend's face.

"S'not that. Give her to me."

Reluctantly, Dallas let Matt take Jade and ease her into her mother's arms.

Nearby, Ry watched with a growing nausea. Something was wrong - he could sense it. Matt was intimidating as hell at times, but Ry had never seen him take Jade from either parent, nor had he seen him shove Dallas forcibly into a room, as he was doing now.

Cassie followed the men, with a frightened look back to her son first. "Go to Jessie for now, Ry," she said. "Give us a few moments."

The door closed in Ry's face. Slowly, he teetered around and leaned against it. Emily-Grace was watching him. He shrugged, and hoped he looked less scared than he felt.

Shortly, the door opened and Matt came out, closing the door behind him. He stood next to Ry for a few seconds before he spoke. His eyes were moist. Nervous, unsure, he touched his nose a few times before he looked sideways and locked Ry in a steady gaze.

"Son," he said quietly. "Dallas will need a little time. He's just had some tough news."

Steeling up his shoulders, Ry prodded him. "What kind of news?"

Matt hesitated. "The kind that hurts, son. The loss of someone you love, kind."

"Who?" Ry gulped. "Who did Dallas lose?" Ry had grandparents on Dallas' side now that they were all a family. There was a ranch and animals and cousins and...

"His brother, Ry. Your Uncle Dale."

"Oh." Ry took that in. Uncle Dale was not someone he knew well. But Uncle Dale did have kids - two boys - and that was sad, because Ry was once a kid with no dad. And that plain sucked. The loneliness memory choked him, and he took a deep breath to make it go away.

He looked back up at Matt, who was watching him. "So I suppose we'll be going to Alberta instead of home, then."

"Yes, Ry. I'll be helping Phil get that sorted out tonight." Phil, Dallas' longtime manager, had left hours ago in a limo with a backup singer he was soft on. Matt would have to call him right away.

Shifting his weight, he contemplated the need for sleep and the impending absence of it. And then he considered something he hadn't thought of before, at exactly the same time Ry said it out loud.

"At least Alberta's close to, uh, B.C. Right?"

"Ah. Yes. Yes, Ry, it is." Matt glanced over at Jessie and allowed himself a small smile. He couldn't be with her the way he wanted to be, but at least this way maybe he could get Dallas' family settled in Alberta, help with the security for any funeral arrangements, and then jet back to Vancouver for a while, or visit Josh and Jessie at their ranch near Canmore, Alberta, if they went there as he'd heard them consider. It'd be a better option than Matt flying to Ontario to meet with Phil at his office to plan the next phase of Dallas' busy life, as had been the plan. Even a few extra days would be nice to have. Maybe Shanda, Matt's wife, could get some time off so they could be together.

Emily-Grace stole up alongside Ry. She took his fingers in hers. Matt raised his eyebrows. "Ry? Did I hear you say you might be going to Alberta?"

"We might." Ry tried to act tough. And awake. Both were hard this time of night. He stared at his fingers, the ones now interlocked with Emily-Grace's. His spirit started to soar, which seemed entirely inappropriate, considering Dallas' bad news. "Dallas' brother died. He lives, uh, lived there."

"Oh. That's sad."

"Yeah."

"It's almost summer. We're going to our ranch soon. It's in Alberta. We need to fine-tune that song."

"We do," Ry agreed, giving Emily-Grace's fingers a squeeze. "We really do."

Suppressing a grin, Matt turned towards Jessie and nodded at the small intertwined fingers beside him. Apparently she had already noticed and was trying to suppress a giggle at a suddenly nervous Josh, who was unable to move over to the kids because Jessie had a vice-grip hold on him.

The door behind Ry, Emily-Grace, and Matt swung open. Dallas emerged, which instantly sobered everyone up. Cassie was at his side, one hand resting on his lower back.

"I called my dad," Dallas announced, sucking in a breath for courage. "There's a kid. A little kid. A boy. I think he's maybe four, according to some social worker?"

Ry straightened. Matt tensed.

Another breath. Dallas swiped lanky fingers under his nose and inhaled yet again. Adrenaline made his words almost run together. "Nobody knows a thing about this kid. He just got dropped off by that social worker about an hour ago, at my dad's new place, a touristy sort of ranch my dad bought not all that long ago. It's near Sundre. Nobody wants him, this kid. His mother dumped him on Dale, I guess, and Dale bailed."

Cassie closed her eyes.

Dallas deflated. "I mean, like, Dale really bailed. The ultimate all-time bail."

The hall went silent. Nobody spoke. The only sound was from Lydia, the stage manager, who was crying softly in the corner for the country singer she adored but whom she would never really know.

"I gotta get to Alberta," Dallas suddenly declared. "I gotta go see about this kid."

After a few quick seconds to digest the news about the boy and how his unexpected appearance might change things in Dallas' world, and therefore also in his own world, Matt spoke to Cassie. "Your ride's waiting outside."

With a nod, he signaled to the security gal with the frizzy hair, who was waiting to jump in and help. "It's time to go."


***


Chapter Four


"Your mother's late. She should have been home two hours ago."

Dallas barely heard his worried father. Seated on a worn floral couch in his parents' small bungalow with his father kitty corner to him in an unmatched overstuffed chair, he was focusing on an image peering out from a worn photograph clenched between his strong fingers. Staring at it, he announced, "I know her."

The snapshot in Dallas' hands was faded and creased. He ran a callused fingertip over the image, over the serene face of a young woman sitting casually next to a teen version of his brother Dale - Dale, handsome and tanned, brown hair a little too long over the ears, jean jacket open, plaid shirt peeking out. Alive. Vibrant. Just bursting with life, Dallas thought, although Dale was not smiling in the photo, and looked about as serious as Dallas ever saw him.

Dale's arm was slung overtop the woman in the photo; he was leaning into her, his eyes were locked on her. Her hair was pulled back in a long ponytail that set off dark eyes and an aquiline nose. Most striking of all was an eagle feather, hanging loosely on her right side, just in front of her ear. Although the photograph's colour had long lost its vibrancy, it was easy to make out that the long-ago woman staring up at Dallas had Indigenous blood. Cree, he thought, trying to pull up a vague memory of her from what seemed like a lifetime ago. Or from many lifetimes ago.

"Maria. I dated her until - " Dallas fell silent.

His father picked up the story that, for all intents and purposes, was aired for Matt's benefit but really meant for Dallas. "Until she decided hard muscles earned on the farm were the real deal. Not fake like the kind manufactured in a gym for the benefit of the girls at school."

Dallas cringed. "I didn't go to a gym back then. I lifted hay bales same as Dale did."

"Ten times slower. You were a skinny runt. Useless on a working ranch."

Hovering at the doorway, Matt straightened.

In the three days since Matt had accompanied Dallas, Cassie, Ry, and Jade to J.I. Outfitters in the mountains an hour from the small farming town of Sundre, Alberta, he'd learned a few things worth noting about Dallas' father. Initially the older man had reluctantly come forward, shaken Matt's hand, and introduced himself as Boone White, saying White like Whoo-ite. His overt reticence caught Matt off guard. Also, Boone spoke with such a gentle tone that when Matt remarked on it to Dallas, he was told all cowboys out here speak that way. Oddly though, Boone's quiet manner did nothing to hide the sometimes caustic comments he tried to roll over his son like stones.

It bothered Matt, the way Boone couched his aggression with an easy cowboy lilt. It was obviously getting to Dallas, too, who right now was making a point of avoiding Matt's stare.

The tension in the room was as thick as the layer of dust on the lid of a long-forgotten shoebox Dallas' mother had dug out of storage. Sitting still wasn't working for Dallas. He stood and laid Dale and Maria's photograph on top of a pile of pictures tumbling out of the thin cardboard box. "It's for the photo board," his mother whispered when Dallas found her going through the cherished, faded photos at three in the morning during his first full night at the rustic new-old ranch. "The one they always put up in the lobby at the wake."

The picture with Maria in it had not made the cut.

Pointing at the photo, Boone sliced the sudden quiet in two. "It's her boy that was dropped off here the evening we got word of Dale...that Dale..." He coughed back sudden emotion. Covering for it, but not fooling either of the two men in his company, he added, "The boy's the government's problem now."

A kindly distant neighbour dropping off apple pie had taken the child under her wing and driven him to the police station in Sundre late on the night he was dropped off to the grieving parents. In the neighbour's mind, neither Doris and Boone nor their daughter Dawn and her husband, Johnny, were in any state to care for a mystery child, especially one too traumatized to speak. The neighbour figured she was doing everyone a favour. It seemed the right thing to do, especially when Dale's brand new widow, Jenny, landed at the ranch with her two sons and had to promptly eyeball her newly dead husband's supposed love child.

Dallas went to the window, and looked out over a dusty, dry property spotted here and there with forsaken looking trees in need of a drink, and about a half-dozen moldy plastic white lawn chairs scattered haphazardly on the bank of a mostly dried-up riverbed. Three of the chairs were tipped forward. One lay on its side a good fifteen feet from the others, a dead branch caught up between its back rungs. A neglected fire pit sat in the middle. Its main feature was a rusty metal barrel re-purposed from a derelict clothes dryer, meant, Dallas thought absently, to help keep a tall stack of firewood burning.

"Is there a fire ban?" Dallas asked, hands on his hips, eyes locked on what he thought was a poor excuse for a campfire pit. His words emerged dusky and low as if he had no real care or concern if anyone actually answered. "If there isn't, there should be. It's dry as a bone out here."

His father, stooped and weary, dropped an arthritic hand on the arm of his overstuffed chair, a behemoth Dallas remembered from his childhood as his father's favourite. The right arm's best feature was a bald spot with tufts of stuffing showing through, thanks to some serious chewing by one of the family's dogs, Corky, one Sunday while the family was at church when Dallas was ten. Boone raised himself slowly. Watching from the doorway, Matt had to talk himself into not launching forwards to help the older man. That would have been frowned upon - even after just a few days, it was clear the only person Boone ever allowed to help him was his longtime wife, Dallas' mother, Doris.

"We want a fire, we'll have a fire," Boone answered roughly, his usually quiet voice the texture of sandpaper. "Don't matter what the government says." Grasping the shoebox lid with his left hand, he clamped his fingers onto it and shoved it on top of the photos. He stared at it long after Maria's much younger face disappeared from view.

"I don't get why she'd say it's Dale's kid if it's not." Dallas turned around and faced his father. The room was small and dark. Its only other window was blanketed against the day, which made it easier for late afternoon naps, Dallas figured, when the old man got tired and needed to close his eyes. Squinting in the dim light, Dallas added, "Dale wouldn't have turned a blind eye to his own kid."

"Who says he did?" Picking up the shoebox with both hands, Boone hovered next to a shelf filled with dog-eared books about the old west. Poking at a few of them, he made space for the shoebox and set it on top, so it teetered at an angle. Again, Matt had to restrain himself from vaulting forwards. He figured the last thing either of these men would want to do is get down on their hands and knees to pick up pictures of Dale from happier days. The day they could do that - together, at least - would be a long day coming, given the tense nature of the last few days.

It seemed the favoured son was the one who died. Not the wealthy star revered by country fans the world over.

Matt cleared his throat. An older model sedan was rumbling down the short, earth-packed driveway. Both men turned to look at him. He trained his eyes on Dallas. "It's your mother. I'll go see if she needs a hand with the groceries."

Doris had insisted on going into distant Sundre alone for the groceries, despite the overwhelming reams of food dropped off by neighbours near and far after word spread of Dale's passing. They'd be eating lasagna and apple pie for a year. Johnny'd had to sit on the deep freeze's lid to get it to close, and even then they had to put a tattered trunk on top of it to get it to stay shut.

Dallas acknowledged Matt's gesture with a quiet mumble before addressing his father. "So you think the boy is his."

"The social worker says so. Papers say so," Boone answered brusquely. "Your brother used every excuse under the sun to go into Calgary. If he wasn't actively involved in the boy's life, then I think he at least knew he existed. Maybe this woman thought she could get some money from him. From you, I mean, indirectly. Everyone's motivated by money, ain't they? Maybe that's why Dale did what he did. To get out of it. Cause he couldn't fight it anymore. Or to get out of feeling like he was less than you. Ranch work is hard. And our rinky-dinky little tourist operation don't always pay all the bills."

Outside the small living room, Matt stopped his trek to the door and twisted around to look behind him. Dallas was three-quarter on to Matt from this perspective, and there was no mistaking the lowering of his shoulders as he exhaled in one long breath. A garage full of sports cars, women sending panties through the mail, a beautiful wife, sweet son and daughter, a new album skyrocketing up the charts, sold out arenas - and here he was a high school kid again, one who, he'd once explained to Matt over expensive whiskey, was a facade at home. Who couldn't wait to escape the ranch he'd grown up on in Cochrane, just outside of Calgary. So he could be who he always felt he was meant to be - a songwriter. A singer. Someone who lived and breathed music.


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