BARRELED OVER EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

As Ava Grace Landy followed the maître d, the noisy buzz of conversation filling the upscale steakhouse gradually dwindled to murmurs before fading to complete silence. She could feel hundreds of curious eyes on her, wondering if she was the real deal or a look-alike.

 

She was used to the attention … used to being watched and whispered about. Ever since she’d won the TV singing competition, American Star, more than six years ago, she’d been in the spotlight.

 

Usually, she handled the glare just fine, but sometimes—like this moment—it made her uncomfortable. Strangely, she felt more at ease standing on a stage in front of thirty thousand fans than she did walking through a crowded restaurant in downtown Nashville.

 

Conversation sparked again, and as she passed tables and booths swathed in snowy white linens, she caught snippets of the chatter. As she expected, the patrons were talking about her.

 

“She lives here.”

 

“… love her voice.”

 

“She won a Grammy last year for Best Country Album.”

 

“… even hotter than Carrie Underwood.”

 

Tuning them out, she focused on the reason she was here: dinner with Lexington Ross, the new head of her record label. According to his bio, he’d worked for River Pearl’s parent company for nearly twenty years before being promoted to his current position. He’d joined the company right out of law school, working in the contracts group.

 

She was excited to meet him. And just a tiny bit nervous, too. The music business was brutal. Every year, more record labels went under than started, and more and more artists fought to be signed.

 

She wanted this dinner to go well. She’d always been happy at River Pearl, and she wanted to stay with the label. She wasn’t sure how quickly or easily she could sign with another one if something went wrong. It was a lot like finding a job—it was always easier to nab a position when you were gainfully employed.

 

If River Pearl kicked her to the curb, she’d be branded like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Ava Grace would be tainted, and other labels would wonder why River Pearl had severed their relationship. They’d assume she was the problem, even if she wasn’t.

 

Her manager, Wallace Whit, had assured her she had no reason to worry. After all, she was River Pearl Records’ number one selling artist.
 

Wally had planned to eat dinner with her and Lexington Ross. Unfortunately, his return flight to Nashville from Los Angeles was delayed. A computer glitch grounded all the flights out of LAX, so she was on her own tonight.

 

She breathed deeply, catching whiffs of freshly-baked bread and sizzling beef. Despite her nerves, her stomach growled, eager to sample the chef’s specialties.

 

As she moved deeper into the restaurant, she let her gaze wander. Unlike many steakhouses, this one wasn’t dark and formal. It was a mix of modern and rustic with tall, leather-backed booths, walls made of reclaimed railroad ties, and clear pendant lights hanging from the lofty ceiling.

 

Through the windows, she could see the twinkle of the city’s skyline. She easily spotted the AT&T building, colloquially known as the “Batman Building” because of its resemblance to the superhero’s mask.

 

The maître d stopped in front of an L-shaped booth. She smiled at the man occupying it, recognizing him from the photo on River Pearl’s website.

 

“Mr. Ross, I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

 

He didn’t return her smile or respond to her comment. Instead, his dark blue eyes skimmed over her, from her loose blond bun to her raspberry-colored toenails revealed by strappy sandals.

 

She was accustomed to men staring at her—leering, even. But Lexington Ross’s gaze wasn’t admiring; it was judging. And she sensed he found her lacking.

 

She’d put a lot of thought into her outfit for this evening, finally deciding on a royal blue mini dress with a sheer poncho-like overlay. It was sexy without being revealing or unprofessional, stylish and edgy without being trashy. She’d paired the dress with silver metallic heels that showed off her bare legs, a hammered silver cuff bracelet, and chunky silver earrings.

 

Lexington Ross stood, and she struggled to keep her surprise from showing. She towered over him. In her bare feet, she was five-ten, and her three-inch heels made the height difference even worse.

Hastily, she slid into the booth. In her experience, men hated being looked down on—literally. Fingers crossed Lexington Ross wasn’t one of those guys with a Napoleon complex. She didn’t want to deal with a boss who compensated for his lack of height by being overly aggressive.

As the maître d draped a white napkin across her lap, she furtively studied Lexington Ross. Based on her research, he was in his mid-forties, about fifteen years older than she. He wasn’t aging gracefully; he reminded her of a middle-aged guy desperately clinging to his youth.

Maybe it was his obviously fake tan, which was an unfortunate shade of orange. Darker than a carrot, more like a sweet potato. Maybe it was his sandy-brown hair, which hung limply over one eye and brushed his collar. Or maybe it was his colorfully printed long-sleeved shirt with a different design on the cuffs.

 

The maître d took her drink order of sweet tea and then disappeared, leaving her and Lexington Ross alone. As he returned to his seat adjacent to her, he said, “Thank you for joining me for dinner, Ava Grace.”

“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Ross.”

 

“Lex,” he replied before lifting a tumbler filled with amber liquid and taking a deep swallow. “Have you been here before?”

 

She shook her head. She wasn’t dirt poor anymore, but she was still frugal to a fault. For a girl who had subsisted primarily on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and mac-and-cheese for most of her life, spending five hundred bucks on one meal was lunacy.

 

“It’s one of the top ten steakhouses in the United States,” Lex said.

 

This wasn’t the first time she’d eaten dinner at an expensive restaurant, of course. But she was flattered Lex felt the need to impress her.

 

“I conduct all my business dinners here,” he added. “It’s my favorite restaurant in Nashville. The food is spectacular.”

 

Okay, then. So much for me being special.

 

Picking up the menu, she perused the appetizers and entrées. Her gaze alighted on the housemade bacon with black peppercorn and maple cotton candy.

 

What in the world?

 

She liked bacon for breakfast and ate cotton candy at the fair. The thought of those two items mixed together made her feel slightly queasy.

 

Lex launched into detailed descriptions of the menu items. He was so specific she wondered if he’d been a waiter in a previous life. In the middle of his spiel, a dark-haired pregnant woman stopped next to their booth. Her red lips matched her baby-bump-hugging dress.

 

“Are you Ava Grace Landy?”
 

With a friendly smile, Ava Grace answered, “I am.”

 

“Oh, my God!” The woman let out a small squeal. “I can’t believe it’s really you! You’re my favorite singer!” She put her hand on her chest, over her ample cleavage. “I’m Reba Collins. My mama named me after her favorite singer, Reba McEntire, and I’m going to follow tradition and name my baby girl Ava Grace.” She moved her hand to her rounded belly and rubbed. “I’m in my third trimester. Little Ava Grace is due June seventeenth.”

This wasn’t the first time a fan had honored Ava Grace in such a way, but she always was surprised to hear people admired her enough to name their children after her. She wondered how many Ava Graces were out there.

 

Reba gestured toward a guy a couple of tables away. “That’s my husband, Kevin. We’re here for our anniversary.” She clasped both hands over her belly. “We picked ‘Empty Places’ for our first dance as husband and wife. Every time I hear it, I think of our wedding. It’s my favorite song.”

 

“It’s one of my favorites too.” She beckoned the other woman closer. “I’ll tell you a little secret … I wrote that song for my best friend, and I sang it at her wedding.”

 

Lex sighed. Hearing the unmistakable annoyance in the sound, Ava Grace said, “Thank you for naming your daughter after me, Reba. Good luck with everything.”

 

Reba stood awkwardly for a moment before blurting out, “Can I have your autograph?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Realizing Reba had nothing for her to sign, Ava Grace found a pen in her matte silver clutch and wrote a short note to Reba on the restaurant’s menu. After scrawling her name, she handed the heavy cardstock to the woman.

“I’m going to frame this and put it in the baby’s room,” Reba vowed, not even bothering to read what Ava Grace had written.

 

Ava Grace stood and hugged her. “Congratulations on the anniversary and the baby.”

 

As Reba hurried back to her husband, Ava Grace sat down and met Lex’s gaze. She’d felt his eyes on her during the whole exchange with the expectant mother.

 

“I’m sorry our conversation was interrupted,” she told him, smiling apologetically. “I can’t really go anywhere without people asking for autographs or wanting to take a picture with me.”

 

“Your fans are very devoted,” Lex noted.

 

“Yes, they are.”

 

Before she could say anything else, the server returned to take their order. Once they’d made their selections, Lex leaned back in the booth. He idly swirled his drink while he stared at her.

 

“I’ve taken a look at the demographics of your fan base. It skews toward younger women. Did you know that?”

 

“Yes. Most female singers have more female fans than male fans.”

 

He nodded. “That’s true. But your fan base is overwhelmingly female compared to other female singers. Close to ninety percent.”

 

She’d seen research documenting an equal split between male and female fans for the country music segment. But that percentage shifted depending on the singer or band. She was disappointed she had so few male fans.

 

“Do you know why the board fired Jim Healy and asked me to take over River Pearl Records?” Lex asked.

 

She blinked at his unexpected question. “I assume it was because the board was unhappy with him.”

 

“No,” Lex replied flatly. “It was unhappy with the artists on his label.”

 

“Which ones?”

 

“All of them.”

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