Grayson Wagner is a classical pianist who was unemployed, hungry, and on the brink of being homeless until he's hired by a big-hearted former country music star as her new piano player. Gray loves his job but his new life is threatened when a near fatal accident delivers him into the brawny arms of Jacob Kent, a reclusive park ranger. Their physical attraction quickly turns into much more. But can their love survive Jacob's secret? Or, a shocking revelation that threatens to tear down the very house that love built?
The little red light next to the speedometer had turned on fifteen minutes earlier. Grayson didn't know what it meant. It said Engine. Did it mean it's time to change the oil? Get a tune-up? What did it mean? He knew next to nothing about cars. He mostly just knew music.
His 2003 Honda Accord's odometer had just passed the two-hundred-thousand mile mark and in the two years since he'd bought it from a used car lot, he had not taken it in for service. He couldn't afford it. Heck, with rent, food, and the price of gas, he could barely make the monthly payments he'd just finally paid off--at a loan shark interest rate because of his nonexistent credit.
And now here he was, smack in the middle of some two-lane state highway somewhere in the hills of eastern Tennessee.
Rain or sleet or snow or all of the above began pelting his windshield. About the same time, the engine hum made a distinctive change in pitch from a slightly flat g-major to a decidedly sharp e-major. Something unknown inside the hood began to click-tap-click with a rhythm that wavered irritatingly between four-four and three-four double time.
He pressed on the accelerator but nothing accelerated. Instead, the car began to falter and slow as he started up yet another steep incline. Lurching forward with jerking gasps now, the car finally stuttered to a stop. Something smelled odd and vaguely scary like a cross between burnt rubber and a lighted match before the discordant engine surrendered with a final loud bang of protest.
He tried to restart the engine.
Nothing. Dead. He had no idea how to fix it or who to call for help, even if he could. His cell phone was inoperable; not because of an uncharged battery but because he'd been unable to pay the bill.
What the hell do I do now?
That morning when he'd left Milwaukee he thought he had finally caught a break and that maybe his luck was changing. He'd landed a steady gig as the piano player for a show at some resort hotel in a tourist town called Pigeon Forge. The only things he knew about it was that it was next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and across from Dolly Parton's big amusement park called Dollywood.
He'd never been there, had never wanted to go there, and knew next to nothing about country music. But he needed this job. Desperately. An old friend from school who was now based in Nashville had gotten him hired sight unseen on her recommendation because apparently the need was pretty desperate. All she had told him was to show up in Pigeon Forge by the next day, keep an open mind, and it might eventually lead to bigger things. Presumably in some place, any place other than a hillbilly tourist trap named after pigeons and whatever the heck a forge is.
He tried starting the car again. The engine briefly turned and then belched a loud pop. Smoke immediately began bellowing from under the hood.
Oh shit! Shit! I see flames creeping through the cracks! Gotta get out. Gotta get my stuff. Oh God, please don't let it explode!
God did his or her part for the moment. The trunk release still worked. Gray leaped out of the car and ran to the back and began tossing his suitcase and packed cardboard boxes far onto the shoulder off the road. He ran to the back seat door and opened it. His entire wardrobe â€“ every stitch of clothing he owned â€“ hung on a pole that stretched from one door to the other.
Holy Christ! The flames are coming through the vents in the front dash!
Trying to control his fear, he grabbed fistfuls of clothes still on hangers and ran to what he thought was a safe distance before hurling them onto the muddy side of the road. He went back for another load and then another until he'd cleared the entire rack.
A panicked thought occurred. My safe box! All my valuables, and--oh my God--all my money. Where the hell did I hide it? Where?!
Flames now consumed the entire front seat area and were moving into the back seat. The spare tire. I hid it where the spare tire goes! He ran back to the still open trunk of the almost fully engulfed Honda and lifted the carpet covering where the missing spare tire was supposed to be stored.
There! Dear God, don't let this mother blow up yet!
Grayson grabbed the already hot-to-the-touch metal box and ran as fast as his legs would go to the same hopefully safe spot on the other side of the road where he had tossed every worldly possession.
The car didn't explode as much as it seemed to implode. With a whoosh, it collapsed into one giant Honda bonfire, complete with its own small mushroom cloud rising into a late afternoon January sky. He remembered that the gas tank was almost empty and he had been hoping it would be enough to get him to his destination. Now, his pinching of the few dollars remaining to his name had accidently stymied the big explosion he'd feared.
The sleety drizzle began again but not heavily enough to even coax a sigh of steam from the burning heap of his car. Just enough to wet and chill him and remind him his only coat had been in the front passenger's seat. It was now cooked like a down-stuffed goose.
Shivering in his t-shirt and jeans, he began gathering everything he had tossed into a single pile. Most of his clothes were drenched in muddy water but at least they could be cleaned. He found a dry hoodie in one of the boxes, put it on, and remembered there was a Milwaukee Brewers ski cap in his workout bag. He grabbed the hat and put it on under the hoodie as a temporary barrier against what now was mostly coming down as heavy wet snow.
And on top of all jokes on this joke of a bad luck day, it was his birthday. He hadn't even been able to call his folks, nor vice versa.
He sat down on the single large suitcase that had been in the trunk and tried not to cry. How could things get even worse than they already were? He'd been laid off from his day job on the final day before the high school's Thanksgiving break back in November. That had left him with only his night job playing for tips in a piano bar.
Business was slow in the bar and he'd been unable to make enough in tips to pay his January rent. So he had guiltily just cleaned the place, dropped his keys on the counter, and shut the door earlier that same morning, abandoning his security deposit in lieu of the final month's rent.
And, he was hungry. The last good meal he'd eaten had been Christmas dinner at his parents' home in Wausau. But even that was cut short when his father started in on him again while they were still eating.
"If you'd not wasted a hundred grand of my money on a music degree, you'd be driving a Beemer now instead of that beat-up piece of shit sitting in my driveway. I'm ashamed for the neighbors to even see it."
Abandoning his half-eaten dessert, Gray had silently left the table, grabbed his coat, and left without engaging his father in yet another argument. Not on Christmas Day. He kissed his mother goodbye and watched her crying in his rear-view mirror as he pulled out of the driveway to ensure no further embarrassment for his father.
Gray cried most of the way back to Milwaukee.
Watching the fire heap continue to burn, he sighed with sad resignation. I guess Dad was right.
Gray's attention came back to the present and the direness of his situation. What little traffic was on this rural short cut from the Cumberland Gap to the Smoky Mountains was now backed up. So far it consisted of one semi, a big dump truck hauling coal, and a faded old pale blue Ford Taurus. Both truck drivers had come over to ask him if he was all right and when he answered in the affirmative they went back to their warm dry rigs without offering him further assistance. And he politely refused the Taurus's backseat offered by an elderly man and woman when the man mentioned that this tragedy wouldn't have happened if he'd been "right with the Lord."
He finally heard a siren. No, two of them. One modern sounding, the other like some air-raid warning from an old World War II movie. As they came into sight from the rise immediately above them, he saw the former was a county sheriff's department car and the later was an antique-looking fire truck from some place called Bull's Gap Volunteer Fire Department.
The fire engine may have been old but the crew knew what they were doing. By the time the fire was put out, a flatbed truck had arrived to clear it off the road and haul the Accord's charred remains away.
The deputy, who had been directing traffic the whole time finally walked over to take Gray's statement.
"Uh, Mister â€“ uh â€“ Wilhelm G. Wagner. Did I pronounce that right?" the deputy said with a distinct twang. He held Gray's driver's license in his hand.
"Yes, sir, you did," he replied.
"That's a German name. Sure it's not Vilhelm Vagner?"
"I was named after my grandfather. He was German. But I go by my middle name, Grayson or just Gray--which was my other grandfather's name. You speak German?"
"Ich spreche Deutsch nicht sehr gut," the deputy said with a decent accent. "Just two years in high school."
Gray was impressed. "Ich glaube, Sie tun sehr gut."
"Danke. You mind telling me where you were headed?"
"Pigeon Forge, sir," Gray said as respectfully as he could under the stressed conditions, not wanting to get on the bad side of some southern cop.
"You a tourist?"
"No sir. I have a job there."
"And just what might that be?"
"I'm the piano player for Denise Dailey at the Country Legends Dinner Theatre."
"Ah, I know who she is. I saw her at a concert last summer. I'm good with faces, though, and I don't remember seeing yours at the piano. You new?"
"As new as it gets. I haven't even met her. I was just told to show up today and be ready to play the piano for her tomorrow night."
"So you're expected there yet tonight?"
"You got anybody you can call to come pick you up?"
"No, sir, I don't. I don't know anybody here. I drove down from Milwaukee this morning. And besides, my cell phone got burned up in the front seat." He didn't mention that the device didn't work.
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"Yes. They told me I'll have a room at the hotel that's next door to the theater. Do you know how far away that is from here? Could I walk it and come back and get my things?"
"No, Pigeon Forge is a good thirty miles from here. You'd freeze to death just wearing that hoodie and your stuff would be long gone from here by then." He paused, looking up and down at Gray. "Wait a minute. You're from Milwaukee but you don't own a coat?"
"Yes--uh--no, it was in the front seat too."
The deputy nodded as though the answer made reasonable sense. "Tell you what. Pigeon Forge is outside my county and jurisdiction but, what the hell--Christmas was just a few weeks ago. Let's pack up all your things in my patrol car and I'll take you there."
Gray again thought he was going to cry for a different reason. "I really appreciate it, sir. I don't know what else I would have done. I hope this won't get you in any kind of trouble?"
The deputy seemed to relax and gave him a friendly smile for the first time. "It's okay. My dad's the sheriff. He won't mind me helping somebody who needs help. In fact, he would kick my ass if I didn't."
"It's too dark to read your name badge but I'd like to know who's helping me so I can thank you properly."
"The name's Kyle McCoy. And I'd much rather help someone who seems like a good guy having a really bad day than spend the rest of my shift chasing drunks and speeders. Come on and let's get you loaded up. We're both freezing to death in this damn snow."