Good Time Bad Boy

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Wade Sheppard was the king of country for nearly ten years. Now he can’t get Nashville on the phone, much less another record deal. When yet another drunken night onstage gets him fired from a casino gig, Wade is pulled off the road by his manager and sent home. Being back in the small town where he was born and raised, his every screw-up fodder for gossip, isn’t helping any. His family knows him too well, and the pretty, sharp-tongued waitress who catches his eye doesn’t want to know him at all.

Daisy McNeil has more baggage than most her age but she’s finally pulling her life together. College classes will be her ticket out of poverty and instability. She doesn’t mind waiting tables for the time being, but she could do without the rowdy rednecks who sometimes get handsy. When one of them crosses the line, she snaps and gives him and his stupid ten gallon hat the telling off he deserves, but causing a scene gets her fired.

Wade didn’t mean to cost Daisy her job. Chastened, he decides he doesn’t want his train wreck of a life to crash into anybody else. He offers the bar owner a summer of free shows if Daisy can have her job back. Now they’re spending nights together trading barbs and fighting a growing attraction. With a sexy smile and a powerful voice that can make any song his, Wade’s determined to show Daisy that he’s more than just a good time bad boy.

Chapter 1

Wade Sheppard looked out from under the brim of his black Stetson at the bored crowd of weekend gamblers, mostly retirees. The video poker and slot machines at the bar beeped and clanged. The sounds clashed against the vamping of the rhythm guitarist at his right, warming up for the performance. This was his third weekend at the Goodnight Loving Showbar in the Wagon Wheel Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. If he could get through the next three nights without showing up late, screwing up the lyrics, forgetting chords, and drinking onstage, he’d only have one more weekend to go of this place. Playing casinos made for an easy gig, but he was ready for a break.

He took a bracing deep breath and stepped up to the microphone. “Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the Goodnight Loving Showbar. We sure hope you’re having a good time here at the Wagon Wheel.”

A feminine voice exclaimed with delight, followed by excited clapping. Wade sought out the source of the outburst. He still had a few fans who hadn’t forgotten him. Maybe one of them was out in the audience. The sound of a slot machine discharging a hoard of quarters disabused him of the notion. Deflated and feeling ridiculous, he went back to his rote introduction.

“My name is Wade Sheppard and these guys behind me are the Goodnight Loving house band. We’re here to play some songs for you tonight.”

The drummer let loose with a flourish of notes.

Wade angled his body sideways and made eye contact with the pedal steel player, who served as the band leader. They exchanged a nod.

“We’re going to start out the night with one of my first hits.”

The band launched into the opening notes of Dancing Under The Bleachers. The light, airy song was the title track of his first album. It was a record full of young love and harmless bravado. That was all he’d had to write about back then, the only kinds of songs he could sell as a singer. Now he felt like a fraud singing it, but it was a damn sight easier to get through the songs from his first two albums than anything from the third one.

The audience gave him a smattering of polite applause at the end of the number. Well, some of them. Several ladies were grouped around the slots, working the one-armed bandits with obscene glee, hoping to repeat the jackpot of earlier. An older man and his much younger date were deep in flirtatious conversation at a table next to the far wall. One couple somewhere between his age and his parents sat front and center. The woman was smiling and had nodded along to the first song, sometimes mouthing the words. Wade pegged her as one of those fans who still remembered him, and thanked George Jones, George Strait, and the Baby Elvis that he had somebody in the audience to sing to. If he had one person, just one, he could make it through a show.

For the next fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, he went through songs from all six of his albums. All, that is, except that third one. Wade avoided playing those as much as possible, though since it was his biggest seller it was hard to do. People expected to hear those songs. This nice lady bobbing her head and tapping her hand on the table in time with the music expected to hear those songs. The casino manager who signed his check expected those songs to be played. Double platinum, Grammy for country album of the year, CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year, numerous other awards and accolades – Empty Rooms was the album that enabled his manager to still book him in casino gigs and state fairs, dates in bars and rodeos, and one time even as cruise ship entertainment, though God knew he never wanted to do that again.

It might slice open a piece of his soul every time he performed those songs, but there was no way out of it. Wade didn’t know how to do anything but write songs, play guitar, and sing. Without music, he didn’t know who he was.

For as long as he could, he focused on that one fan in the room. He smiled for her, looked her right in the eyes as he sang. And he hoped to God that when it was time to open up the floor for requests that she asked for a George Strait song. Maybe some Garth Brooks or Vince Gill.

Shit, he’d even play that God awful Big And Rich song he hated, if it would keep him from having to sing Empty Rooms.

“We’re about to take a short break but before we go, we thought we’d take a request from the audience. Is there something anybody would like to hear?” Wade paused for a moment and looked out over the mostly disinterested audience. “Don’t be shy, now. If you want to hear a song, let us know.”

The woman fluttered her hands nervously, then raised one like a school kid in class. “I’d love to hear Empty Rooms, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Wade had a trick he’d been using for years at this very moment, every time he had to sing that song. He let the room go out of focus for a moment and made sure to keep his emotions off his face. He pasted on a smile he didn’t feel and nodded. “Sure thing, ma’am.”

Pouring his heart out into a song had made him a star, but no one had taught him how to handle reaching back into that well of pain every time he had to sing it. That wasn’t something anybody had ever talked about in meetings with record company people, during studio sessions or concert rehearsals. You were expected to be a professional, suck it up and deal. Wade could do that. He could get through the song. It was afterward that he had a problem with.

The band was silent as he played the opening notes on his guitar.

A blue crib and a white rocking chair

A shelf full of board books

A pile of stuffed animals

Our sweetest dream shattered in a million pieces

We gave him a name and a place to rest

And we tried to say goodbye

But we couldn’t figure out how to live again.

That wasn’t true anymore. She had finally figured it out, and had a new husband to show for it. A toddler, too, and now a brand new baby according to the birth announcement he’d seen that morning.

All these things fill our house

Each one a sacred memory

But nothing can bring the love back

To these cold empty rooms.

Wade didn’t begrudge his ex-wife her happiness. No, not at all. He was glad to know that she’d built the life for herself she’d always wanted.

Pictures on a beach

Of you in white lace

Your smile brighter than the sun

An old pair of boots

My shirt you liked to wear

Mardi Gras beads from that trip to New Orleans.

He’d never met the new husband, but he’d seen pictures of them via mutual friends on social media. The guarded look was gone from her eyes and Wade imagined she never spent nights home alone while he was on the road. Never cried on her own because he put everything into a song instead of sharing it with her.

All these things fill our house

Each one a sacred memory

But nothing can bring the love back

To these cold empty rooms.

All the awards and the accolades hadn’t been enough to fill that space, either.

We talked about painting the walls

We bought a new couch and chairs

We packed up the baby clothes and gave them away

The days crawled by and the pain lingered on

We drifted further apart

And we didn’t even care enough to fight about it.

All these things fill our house

Each one a sacred memory

But nothing can bring the love back

To these cold empty rooms.

That woman in the audience knew every word. She mouthed the lyrics and nodded in time. Did she know the story behind the song? It hadn’t exactly been a secret that the title song and indeed the whole album was all about losing their baby and then the marriage ending. Sometimes he wondered what the hell kind of business he’d gotten himself into, where sharing the most private, awful moments of your life got you a Grammy and a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy.

Coffee cups and a flower vase

Dried petals on the counter

And old magazine

You left your wedding ring and a letter by the bed

You took your clothes and left me with a house full of things

But with your love gone and our dreams in pieces

I’m just a ghost haunting a bunch of cold empty rooms.

Wade blinked against the glare of the footlights. Somewhere deep inside the bleeding had started. He’d be feeling it soon. He couldn’t sing that damned song and not feel it. It was a window to the worst of his past and every time he went through it, he cut himself on the jagged shards. It didn’t hurt that she’d moved on. What he couldn’t handle was the knowledge that he hadn’t been able to do the same.

“We’ll be right back after a short break,” he mumbled into the microphone.

When he took the stage again twenty minutes later, he brought with him a red plastic cup full of whiskey and soda. The night went straight downhill from there.

Chapter 2

Daisy McNeil pushed her shopping cart through the aisles at a leisurely pace. Mid-morning on a Sunday was the best time to shop for groceries in the small town of Brittain, Tennessee. She made the effort every week to get up early enough to make it to Walmart before the churches started letting out. She ticked off items on her list without much thought, most of her concentration on the conversation she’d had with her college advisor a few days earlier at the end of the semester.

At twenty-six, she was older than most of the students she went to school with. There were others like her, people who either got a late start or went back to finish a degree. Even some who worked full time as she did. Daisy didn’t carry a full course load, though. She never had. Money wouldn’t allow for that. She took advantage of whatever grants she could get but the idea of loans scared the hell out of her. With every semester she moved one step closer to graduation, but that was no guarantee of a good job that would let her pay back student loans. So she did the best she could with her job at the Rocky Top Bar and Grill and the occasional side job of tutoring for cash. She still had rent to pay, and groceries damn sure weren’t getting any cheaper.

A twenty-eight cent difference between generic spaghetti and a brand name should not have made a difference to her. She didn’t want it to make a difference to her. Her gaze ping-ponged back and forth between the two price tags for nearly ten seconds before she finally put the generic in her cart. Pasta was pasta. She’d spend that twenty-eight cents on decent sauce. Maybe one of these days she’d try making her own sauce, with tomatoes from the farmer’s market and whatever the hell else went in spaghetti sauce.

Generic labels and dented cans, birthday cupcakes bought from the red tag sale cart full of stuff about to go out of date. Boxes from the food pantry. Fast food burgers if her mother had a little money for a change. That’s what Daisy grew up on, and that’s why she was working her ass off going to school so she could buy some fucking brand name groceries without having to skimp elsewhere or debate whether it was worth it or even look at the price. She didn’t need to be rich. She didn’t even need to be full-fledged middle class. She just wanted better than generic spaghetti and a rusting rental trailer.

Another cart bumped hers and she jumped, nearly dropping her list and pen, then relaxed when she saw who it was. Her best friend and former roommate Megan Hollister was pawing through the items in her cart. “This is way too much salad. What have you done with the real Daisy McNeil?”

Daisy rolled her eyes. “Damn right I got salad in there. Got to do something to make up for eating supper at work too often.” The owner of Rocky Top had a long standing policy of allowing every employee one free meal per shift, as long as it wasn’t steak. Daisy loved the chicken tenders and French fries way more than her waistline did, so she was trying to find some balance.

“This is making me feel guilty.” Megan picked up a head of lettuce and turned it over as if she’d never seen such a thing. “I’m considering putting my frozen pizzas back.”

Daisy leaned over to peer into the other cart. Three frozen pizzas, a jug of sweet tea, and a bag of chips. “You’ve really got to stop eating like a stoner. Your metabolism won’t be your friend forever.”

Megan dropped the lettuce back into the buggy. “Bitch.”

Daisy laughed and leaned her elbows on the front of the cart. “Where were you last night? I thought you and your date were coming by Rocky Top?” She wagged her eyebrows. “Things go better than planned? Were you a slut last night, Megan Louise?”

Megan wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Don’t call me that. You know I hate my middle name.”

“But slut’s okay?” Daisy grinned, hoping her friend had lived up to the insult last night. At least one of them should be getting laid.

“If the shoe fits.” Megan’s expression turned melancholy. “No, I had to call it a night early. Mrs. Huston called.”

Daisy’s grin faded. Mrs. Huston was Megan’s next door neighbor. She kept an eye on Megan’s father while Megan was at work or otherwise out of the house. In the past that just meant a friendly cup of coffee or a passing hello, but more and more frequently that meant Mrs. Huston having to be in the house with Jim Hollister. If she had to call Megan, that meant Mr. Hollister had gotten agitated, as Megan called it.

Daisy said, “How bad was it?”

“He just…he got confused.” Megan shook her head. “He’s fine this morning. I dropped him off at church and came to get groceries. Come on, I need hamburger. I’m making meatloaf for him tonight.” Megan hated meatloaf but she loved her daddy.

Daisy didn’t push for more information. Megan would talk when she was ready. If things were as bad as Daisy suspected, that would be sooner rather than later. Her best friend was the youngest of four children, a surprise baby, and the only one who’d stayed in town. She’d moved back in with her dad a few years ago for what was supposed to be a short time, after he’d broken his hip falling down the stairs. That short time turned into months and then a year and now there was no talk of moving out. Megan took care of the house and her father while working as many hours as she could manage at a clothing store in the same shopping center as Walmart.

“Sorry your date didn’t work out,” Daisy said. She wouldn’t push, but she would remind Megan that the door was open.

“Eh.” Megan shrugged. “All he did was talk about Nascar and bass fishing. No great loss there.” They came to a stop in front of the meat cooler. “So you never did tell me about that meeting with your advisor. Something up with that?”

Daisy had been enjoying not thinking about that meeting. Is was all she’d been able to think about for days so the respite had been all too brief. “She thinks I declared the wrong major.”

“Isn’t it a little late for that talk?”

“If I were willing to be a professional student and just keep going to school forever, I could change it every year or so.”

“God, who’d want to go to school forever?” Megan overdid a dramatic shudder. “Eternal homework, ugh.”

“There was a guy in my business communication class like that. He was on his third or fourth major by then.”

“Did he have rich parents?” Megan placed a package of hamburger in her cart and led them away from the cooler.

“No, a shitload of student loans. You don’t have to start paying them back until you graduate or quit school.”

Megan snorted. “Sounds like a winner. I bet he had women beating down his door to get a piece of that useless action.”

“Freshman girls liked him. He’d buy the beer if they fronted the cash.”

“See, this is what I missed by not going to college. An extension of high school where the creeps can legally buy me beer instead of having their older brothers do it.” She pointed at an aisle. “I need cream of mushroom. So why does your advisor think you declared the wrong major?”

Daisy made a face.

Megan said, “Oh, was I supposed to forget that part?”

Daisy shook her head. “It was just a bunch of crap about following my dreams and shit. My dream is a decent job and a house that doesn’t have wheels. I can get that with a degree in human resources management. Hopefully.”

“It’s not the sexiest career goal, that’s for sure, but so what? Does she think everyone is supposed want, I don’t know, to be a lawyer or whatever?”

Daisy stared at her list. “She said I’m doing well in my classes, which I know that. I know my grades are good. I’ve got the bags under my eyes to show for it. But she says I seem uninspired by the coursework.”

Megan put two cans in her buggy and moved down the aisle. “What does that even mean?”

“She said I may not be cut out for something that’s practical but boring. That the work may not be challenging enough to keep me happy. That it might not be the right kind of career for me.”

“Even if that’s true, how the hell does she know that about you?”

“I think her Magic Eight Ball told her.”

Megan pulled her phone out of her purse and checked the time. “I need to get going so I’m not late picking Daddy up. Call me tonight and we’ll talk some more about your shitty career goals.”

“And after that, we’ll talk about your shitty love life.”

Megan put a hand to her heart. “I treasure these talks of ours.”

“Put the frozen pizza back, fat ass.”

Megan slapped her ass that was not fat at all as she walked away. “Extra cheese, right here, baby.”

Daisy wheeled her buggy around and went to the far end of the food section to pick up milk and eggs. After that she traveled all the way back to the produce and searched through the flower bouquets until she found one that wasn’t too straggly looking.

Her school advisor wasn’t wrong. That had been the worst part of their whole conversation. Daisy had felt like she was back in high school, listening to a guidance counselor tell her she wasn’t living up to her full potential. She’d sat there biting back angry words the whole time, wanting to tell the woman that she hadn’t lived down to people’s worst expectations of her, either. So she waited tables at a bar, so what. So she lived in a trailer, big deal. She paid the rent, not someone else. She paid all of her own bills no matter how hard it was to juggle things or what she did without. She didn’t let men treat her like crap just so she didn’t have to be alone, something she’d seen every day of her life growing up. Her dreams may have been small, but they were hers, and she would make them come true.

Even if they didn’t really feel like dreams. Even if it felt more like a quest to prove a point more than something to make herself happy. She may have been only twenty-six, but Daisy knew that sometimes the best you could hope for was the privilege of standing on your own two feet.

If that was all she could have, she would gladly take it.


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