Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chapter One from Playing With Fire: The Battle of the Bands (A Starstruck Novella)

It's the Battle of the Bands, but the real battle is in their hearts.

USA Today Bestselling author Mary Hughes brings you an intimate glimpse into musicians' lives in an electric story of music, passion, family, and rivalry, with flashes of her signature humor.

Clumsy but smokin' fiddle-player Shivawn Kelly meets hot bass guitarist Connor Chase and lightning attraction strikes. But their bands are adversaries in the first Starstruck Battle of the bands. Only one can win.

Shivawn fervently hopes it's her family's céilí band, but Connor's rock group might just be better. His music stirs her soul even as his lithe body stirs her interest. But her da forbids her to even go near "that eejit boy".

Connor needs the win for his band to trust him again, but Shivawn and her music light his heart with joy. Yet when he tries to connect with her, she rebuffs him. He respects her need for distance, though it's tearing him up inside.

And then he overhears a rival band plotting—and he's afraid their target is Shivawn. He may have to defy her wishes, her father, and his even own band to keep her safe.

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Crushed by Elle J Rossi is coming March 1 and Desired by Kathy Love is releasing March 8.

Welcome to STARSTRUCK, a showplace for talent, a playground for love. A collection of contemporary novellas that will leave you breathless and craving more.

Enjoy this first chapter from Playing With Fire:

© 2017 Mary Hughes

Line dancing was harder than it looked. Shivawn Kelly had heard musicians were supposed to be more coordinated than most. Not her. Apparently, while the Fiddle Fairy had been fussing over her, the Klutz Fairy had taken a free shot.

“Why are we dancing, again?” she asked as she stumbled into Cousin Margaret a fourth time. “We’re supposed to be scoping out the competition.”

“We are inspecting the competition. Very thoroughly.”

Her cousin’s gaze ran over the lead singer onstage, going all dreamy at his skinny jeans and cowboy hat. Her eyes, the aching blue of a summer sky filled with mare’s-tail clouds, did the dreamy look really well. Maggie had a true Irish lass’s coloring with her translucent skin and rose-gold hair. Shivawn was her mirror image, if the mirror was old and darkened—chestnut-red hair, green eyes, and skin that sort of tanned before it burned.

“Maggie, dear, it’s amazing how much scoping out the competition looks like ogling the singer.”

“Oh, pooh. I don’t always go for the lead singer.”

She cut a disbelieving glance at her cousin, which sent her off-kilter and knocking into Maggie again. But really, this time she deserved it. “Margaret Clancy. You always told me there are only three kinds of band groupies: the ones swooning at the singer’s crooning; the ones dazzled by the lead guitar’s brilliant riffs; and the ones who want to do the drummer for his obvious hand-eye coordination.”

“So, which are you?” she shot back.

Shivawn kept her eyes glued to her feet. “None of the above. I’m surprised you’re interested. Musicians know how shallow the glamour is. Even a flute player is a musician, of sorts.”

“Ha, ha.”

But if I had to pick, give me the bass guitar every time. Not obvious or showy, the bass guitar was steady and relentless and drove the whole group to its climax. Give me that in bed any day over showy or self-absorbed.

Shivawn glanced at the electric bass in this country band. The grizzled blond competently walked fingers up and down the fretboard. Decent enough. But even if her eyes were capable of dreamy, which they weren’t, she wouldn’t have gone gooey over him.

The glimpse distracted her long enough that she grapevined left as Cousin Margaret went right, and she ran into her for the umpteenth time.

Fed up, Shivawn grabbed Maggie’s elbow and pulled her out of line—apparently a mortal sin from the black glares she got. But, really. Just because she didn’t have her cousin’s fairy skin didn’t mean she didn’t bruise.

She hauled them off the dance floor to the nearest bar. Bar—the word usually brought images of a narrow, gloomy space, a band smashed in a tiny corner, a postage-size dance floor, and cramped seating. But this was Starstruck, a combo dance club/concert hall, and everything was huge. Big stage, gigantic dance floor, sweeping balcony, and not one but two bars.

As Shivawn crossed the dance floor to what could’ve been the next county, she managed to finish her thought. “What do you think of the band?”

“As a musician of a sort,” Maggie began, proving she had been listening instead of ogling, or at least listening in addition to ogling, “it’s my opinion that, despite Hotty McCowboy’s many attractions, our band is better.” Her lilting Celtic accent made it sound less like bragging and more like a kindness.

Shivawn had no such lilt. Though her da was Irish, and she’d been born there, her mother was all American. At five, because of her parents’ separating, she’d been whisked to the USA to grow up here with her mother. Now her accent was firmly Midwest.

So, when she said, “Yeah,” it was flatter than a pancake. “So far I haven’t seen or heard anyone who comes close to giving our kind of show.”

Which was important, because Shivawn and her family band were here to compete in the first annual Starstruck Battle of the Bands.

At the east bar, a truly spectacular bartender was handing out drinks and a sizzling smile with equal speed and flair. The man packaged sex appeal like a Ferrari. Within moments, he slid toward them. He wore the Starstruck uniform of a black T-shirt with logo. But on him, it looked like less of a uniform and more of a tribute.

“What can I get you ladies?” The rich timbre of his voice, the lyrical spin he put on his words, caressed her ears. She bet he was a singer.

“I’ll have your best beer on tap,” Shivawn said, then pointed to her cousin. “She’ll have some sissy drink.”

“They’re not sissy,” Maggie objected. “They have flavor.” She turned her brightest smile on Mr. Tall, Dark, and Drinksome. “I’ll sample whatever you’re mixing up tonight.” A bump of her strawberry brows gave “mixing” a bit of added steam.

“Well. For you…” Hands spread on the bar, he leaned toward them, chest and arm muscles bulging appealingly as he added his own bit of steam. “We’re having a special on margaritas.”

“Sold.” Maggie mirrored his tilt, plumping her considerable assets in her V-neck sweater. “Margarita is like my name, you know. Margaret, margarita.”

“Mine’s Ben.” As he tapped his name badge hanging from a blue lanyard, his gaze stayed on Maggie’s.

Shivawn gave him points for that. Her cousin had a flutist’s truly spectacular chest.

“Done with singers?” she murmured, and Maggie shot her an I-will-shortsheet-your-bed look. Shivawn smiled innocently.

“As far as beer goes,” Ben spoke to her this time while his hands nimbly prepared the margarita. “All our beers are the best.”

“What’s your favorite, then? I’ll have that.”

“One dopplebock coming up.” He smoothly slid a jumbo margarita before Cousin Margaret then retrieved a glass and frosted beer bottle, uncapped, and expertly poured.

As Ben moved off to serve other customers, Shivawn cast her gaze around the large space. On the main stage, the country band twanged its last number. Another band was setting up on the smaller, temporary stage across the dance floor from the first, tucked in beside the bar where Shivawn sampled a truly lovely dark beer. The two stages were alternating hopefuls of all genres in the four days of open auditions. Her family’s band was scheduled for the final night of preliminaries. Three judges, currently anonymous, would pick the top bands to go on. Things would get cooking with the first bracket playoffs Thursday.

“Where do you think the judges are?”

“Maybe in the balcony?” Margaret turned away from the bar and leaned back on her elbows, surveying the exposed second floor to her right. Her gaze wandered to the temporary stage, where the new band, lots of leather, skin, and studs, finished setting up. As the country band struck its final chord, she went on, “Or maybe the judges are dancing—”

“Weren’t they good?” A blond guy on the second stage grabbed a mic and broke into the dying chord. “Put your hands together for Country Boys and Cowboy Boots.” He raised his arms over his head and mimicked clapping.

Shivawn knew it was mimicked because if he’d really clapped, the amplified thud-thud-thud would’ve burned out their eardrums.

Applause like a brief rain spattered an instant before the guy said, “Now get ready to rock your body down with Taboo Soul.”

He flipped his long blond hair back, and Shivawn would have sworn she heard three women around her sigh.

Onstage, the lead guitar dashed off a riff that could’ve made Jimi Hendrix cry, a virtuoso run of tangling fingers, accompanied by muscular poses worthy of a superhero. He ended on a dramatic, dominant seventh chord that poised them all at the top of the song’s cliff.

And then the bass guitar came in with a glide from sol to do, so smooth and perfect it ran along Shivawn’s flesh like silk, leaving her skin rumpled and aching. When the drummer hit the first beat, everyone was hooked.

But for her, she’d been hooked by that bass slide.

The singer started rasping out lyrics as the crowd cheered. Shivawn’s feet carried her away from the bar, out to where she could see past the blond throwing his long hair around as he deep-throated the mic. Past the shaved-skull lead guitarist jumping around the stage like a stringy Hulk. Past the biker-styled rhythm guitar stalking in his wake. She wandered, almost hypnotized, out to where she could see the man laying down that dark, thrumming, pelvis-churning bass.

After the rest of the band, she was expecting leather, tats, and metal makeup. But no, the bass player was a mysterious contradiction. He wore an ordinary black tee, but it stretched across his broad chest and bowling-ball-muscled shoulders like paint. His pants were regular jeans, not leather, and a bit white with wear, but molded to his legs like silk. His axe was nothing special—black body, maple fretboard, silver bridge and controls. But something, the unusual tuning pegs or inlays or bridge pickup, told her this instrument was finer than it looked.

Cousin Margaret’s voice, calling her name, fell muffled on her ears as her feet brought her closer yet. She’d expected leather, and certainly those powerful arms and strong legs would look great encased in lots of buttery black…or better yet, nothing at all.

He was intent on his music, gaze on his bass as his long, artistic fingers glided easily along the fingerboard. While the lead singer vacationed on an ego trip, and the lead guitar put so many riffs in inappropriate places he began to sound like aural tinsel, the bassist hung out in the back—controlling the pace and shape of the music. Steady. Sure. Never changing.

No, scratch that. He was, ever so slightly, pushing the beat, slowly increasing both tempo and volume, but almost unnoticeably. The audience would feel it as a rising temperature in the room, a quickening of heartbeats. Without fanfare, but as sure as the dawn, he brought both music and audience slowly and inevitably to their feet.

Shivawn stood there, swaying, letting his music stir her. She didn’t understand her reaction, as he seemed mostly ordinary. Yet his notes reverberated deep inside her, where nothing else could touch. Her heart. Her soul. His hands were as capable on the guitar as they’d be on a woman’s body. On her body.

Then he looked up.




His jet-black eyes burned with all the tightly leashed passion that he was pouring into his music.

Her breath left her. Her heart paused, on the brink of recognition.

His gaze focused entirely on her—and connected with her with an almost physical force.

Electricity surged through her, her whole body going haywire. Her heart beat a new, hummingbird’s rhythm.

She swallowed hard. Ordinary? He was in no way ordinary.

But more…here was the band that could beat them.

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