“On the road again,” Autumn sang, reaching for the knob on the car radio and turning the volume up. “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.” She didn’t need the directions to Magnolia Mansion lying on the seat; this was her twenty-second visit this year alone. “Sing it, Willie.”
She turned off the Interstate and headed for the rows of oak trees that lined Anderson Lane. Large leaves dressed in crimson, vibrant yellow and radiant orange met her eyes. "Stunning, as always."
No matter what time of year she headed to the mansion, the trees welcomed her as they bowed to each other, creating a tunnel of branches reaching toward one another across the road.
Autumn’s cell phone rang. She answered, “I’m not supposed to drive and talk.”
“Where are you?” Chad asked.
“Couple miles from the mansion. Where are you?”
“Dad’s. I just got a call from Melanie. She said the groom’s got cold feet. The bride thought it might help if you stalled ‘em. She said she tried to call you.”
“But I’m not supposed to be singing for an hour and a half. For once I was extra early. I wanted to spend time with the trees. Odd, I didn’t get a call from her.”
“Better ditch the trees and get to the mansion.”
“Okay. How’s Dad?”
“Beatin’ the pants off me at Cribbage.”
“I hate that game. He always wins.”
“That’s why he plays it. Is that Willie Nelson I hear?”
“There are a lot of good current country singers, you know?”
“Willie is a good current country singer.”
“Even his braids are gray.”
“Having gray hair doesn’t make you not current.”
“He’s old, Autumn. No wonder you can’t get a record deal, you’re stuck in the past. Why don’t you…”
“I’m losing you. Bad reception. Trees and hills. Bye.” Autumn snapped the phone shut and tossed it onto the seat. “Old! What do you know about good music? You think Justin Bieber is better than Johnny Cash.”
Autumn cranked the volume up until the speakers were crackling under the strain. “The life I love is making music with my friends and I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
She rounded the bend and Magnolia Mansion came into view with its imposing six-story height. Ivy crawled up the left side of the structure. Lilacs greeted visitors with a warm welcome around the double wooden entryway doors. And then there was the magnolia tree, dead center in a circular garden.
Autumn pulled around to the service entrance. She had planned on walking the grounds a bit while she ran scales. “Stupid groom ruined everything,” she grumbled as she got out of the car, reaching behind her to retrieve the garment bag housing her performance clothing and heels.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Melanie Atwater said, rushing out to meet her. “Did Chad call you?”
“Yes, he told me you needed me to sing early. I just need to get changed and I’ll be ready to go.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Autumn.” Melanie directed her to a room on the second floor. “The only band member here is the guitarist. You can work something out together, can’t you?”
“Sure. Who is it?”
Don’t say John Ericson. Don’t say John Ericson. Don’t say John Ericson.
“John Ericson. Do you know him?”
“Yes. We’re very well acquainted.”
Kill me now.
“Oh, good. I’ll leave everything in your more than capable hands.”
Autumn watched the wedding planner leave, wishing she was anywhere else, even back on the Interstate with a flat tire.
So, Johnny, it’s going to be you and me, huh?
Autumn pulled back the sheer curtain on the window. Sure enough, John was there looking ruggedly handsome in his tuxedo. The only sign of his rebellious nature were the cowboy boots peeking out from under his trousers.
It was his caramel eyes that always did her in. A blend of chocolate and butterscotch that made her equally hungry and filled with a desire to pull off his whiskey mask.
What’s under that western façade you like to hide behind?
As she changed clothing, Autumn warmed up her vocal chords by singing musical scales. She checked her appearance in the mirror before heading down the stairs.
She had three black dresses she wore for professional appearances. Today’s choice was a sleeveless body-hugging number with a sweetheart neckline. It was both tasteful and alluring without being indecent. Flirty, yet respectable, three-inch black pumps with black bows around a pearl center covered her feet.
Her long, auburn hair was pulled back in a chignon; pearls laced her neck and adorned her ears. Dark brown eyes took center focus with extra coats of mascara and a smoky eye shadow and liner. Her full lips were the color of pomegranate.
“Practically perfect in every way,” Autumn said aloud, mimicking Mary Poppins with a smile.
She tucked her belongings in a low cupboard and made her way to the rose-covered trellis.
“Melanie said you’d be singing today. Must be your lucky day,” John said.
“You get to perform with me.”
“Yeah. Lucky. What songs do you have in mind?”
“It Had to Be You, Unforgettable, What a Wonderful World or Bless the Broken Road.”
“All those are good. What about When I Fall in Love?”
“Sure. We could throw in Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off for good measure.”
“Somehow I don’t think the bride and groom would appreciate that.”
“Let’s start with When I Fall. We can segue into Unforgettable and It Had to Be You.”
Autumn turned on the portable microphone as John began strumming his guitar. Her smooth voice sliced through the conversation as heads turned in their direction. Guests made themselves comfortable as their focus was drawn toward the duo.
Lessons Autumn learned from her vocal coach kicked in automatically. Stand tall. Breathe from your diaphragm. Don’t fidget. Hold the microphone steady. Look into people’s eyes. Relax your face. Don’t sing the words, connect with the emotion behind them. If the note is too high, bring it down a notch and gesture with your hand to divert attention briefly. People don’t care how well you sing, they want to be touched, to feel something deep in their marrow.
Autumn listened for the chord changes as John moved from one song to the next effortlessly. She hated to admit it, but he was a great guitarist. If he would just knock that chip off his shoulder, he could have his choice of artists to work with. He was so damn stubborn. It was his way or the highway.
Unfortunately, that meant he had gotten kicked out of every band he’d been a part of. Now he was going solo. That meant weddings, birthday parties, memorial services, anniversaries, engagement parties and other special events, as well as the occasional bar or night club.
When they were halfway through It Had to Be You, Melanie caught their attention with a wave and gave them a thumbs up. John and Autumn exchanged a glance indicating they both had seen the sign. The wedding was back on as scheduled.