“Disorderly conduct. Public intoxication. Resisting arrest.” Judge Duckett put down the paper, linked his hands, and stared over his reading glasses from his perch behind the bench with a combination of exasperation and fatherly disapproval.
Greer Hadley shifted in her sensible heels and smoothed the skirt of the light pink suit she’d borrowed from her mama for the occasion. “I’ll give you the first two, Uncle Bill—” The judge cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes. “Excuse me—Judge Duckett—but I did not resist arrest.”
“That you recall.” Deputy Wayne Peeler drawled the words out in the most sarcastic, unprofessional manner possible.
She fisted her hands and took a deep breath. The impulse to punch Wayne in the face simmered below the surface like a volcano no longer at rest. But ten o’clock on a Monday morning during her arraignment was not the smartest time to lose her temper, and she’d promised herself not to add to her string of bad decisions.
She sweetened her voice and bared her teeth at Wayne in the facsimile of a smile. “I recall plenty, thank you very much.”
Truth was she didn’t recall the minute details, but the shock of Wayne’s whispered offer on Saturday night to make her troubles go away for a price had done more to sober her up than the couple of hours spent in lockup waiting for her parents.
Dressed in his tan uniform, Wayne adjusted his heavy gun belt so often she imagined he got off every night by rubbing his gun. Giving him a badge had only empowered the part of him desperate for respect and approval. His nickname in high school, “the Weasel,” had been well earned.
Unfortunately, she was the unreliable narrator of her life at the moment and no one would trust her recollections. Judge Duckett, her uncle Bill by marriage until he and her aunt Tonya had divorced, rustled papers from his desk.
The ethics of her former uncle acting as her judge were questionable, especially considering they had remained close even after he’d remarried, but if nepotism is what it took to make this nightmare go away, then she wouldn’t be the one to lodge a complaint.
“A witness claimed you were sitting quietly at the end of the bar until a song played on the jukebox. What was the song?” Her uncle glanced at her over his glasses again, which made him look like a stern teacher.
“‘Before He Cheats’ by Carrie Underwood.” She forced her chin up.
His mouth opened, closed, and he dropped his gaze back to the paper. A murmur broke out behind her.
She would not cry. She wouldn’t. She blinked like her life depended on a tear not falling. Later, in the privacy of her childhood bedroom, she would bury her face in the eyelet-covered pillow and let loose.
Beau Williams, her cheating ex-boyfriend, was only partially to blame for her embarrassing behavior. It was a confluence of setbacks that had had her holding down the end of the bar. Hearing Carrie’s revenge anthem had hit a nerve exposed by the shots of Jack. Rage had quickened the effects of the alcohol, and that’s when things got fuzzy.
“Yes, well. That is a rather … Let’s move on, shall we? The witness also claims after a heartfelt, albeit slurred speech about the vagaries of relationships and how the moral fiber of the Junior League of Madison was frayed, you fed five dollars into the jukebox and played the same song for over an hour. ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline, was it?”
Ugh. She didn’t recall how much money she’d fed the machine, but it sounded like something she would do. “Crazy” was one of her favorite songs. A master class in conveying emotion through simple lyrics. She was just sorry she’d wasted five dollars on Beau. He didn’t deserve her money, her heart, or Patsy.
“No one can fault my taste in the classics.” Greer tried a smile, but her lips quivered and she pressed them together.
Her uncle continued to read from the witness statement, “You proceeded to throw two glasses on the floor, shattering them, and attempted to break a chair across the jukebox.”
She swallowed hard. A vague picture of a frustratingly sturdy chair surfaced. The fact the chair remained intact while she was falling apart had sent her anger soaring higher and hotter. A glance from her uncle Bill over the paper had her giving him a nod. She couldn’t deny it.
He continued, “A patron called 911. When Deputy Peeler arrived, he pulled you away from the jukebox and forced you outside. That’s where, he claims, you kicked him … well, you know where.”
“Wayne dragged me down the stairs—”
“Deputy Peeler, if you please.” Wayne sniffed loudly.
“As Deputy Peeler escorted me down the stairs, I lost my balance and fell. The heel of my shoe jabbed into his crotch. Sorry.” Greer didn’t make an attempt to mask her not-sorry voice with fake respect.
If she accused Wayne of misbehavior on the job, he would deny it and spin it somehow to make her look even more irresponsible. Lord knows, she’d embarrassed her parents enough for a lifetime. Anyway, seeing him rolling on the ground and cupping his crotch had been sweet payback.
“I sustained an injury where that spike you call a heel caught me.” Wayne half turned toward her.
Instead of playing it smart and soothing his delicate male ego, she batted her eyes at him. “I’m sure that’s left the ladies of Madison real upset.”
Wayne took a step toward her. “You are such a—”
The gavel knocked against the bench and her uncle stood, looming over them. “I’ve heard enough, Deputy. Sit down.”
Wayne turned on his heel and left Greer to face her uncle Bill. This was where she would promise such a thing would never happen again, and he would give her a stern warning before dismissing all charges.
“I’m striking the resisting arrest charge. It was an accident.”
Greer forced herself not to look over her shoulder and stick her tongue out at Wayne. That left only two misdemeanors, which her uncle could expunge with a swipe of his pen.
He settled behind the bench and picked up his pen, his gaze on the papers. “You will pay for any damages.”
“I’ve already reimbursed Becky.” Technically, she’d had to use her parents’ money, considering she’d crawled home from Nashville broke. “And apologized profusely. You can be assured there will not be a repeat performance. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Good. As for the other charges…”
Her deep breath cleansed a portion of the tension across her shoulders, and a smile born of relief appeared.
“You will perform fifty hours of community service.”
Her smile froze on her face. It sounded like a lot, but she’d been stupid and immature and deserved punishment. “I understand. Clean roads are important.”
“Litter pickup? Goodness no.” He took his glasses off and smiled at her for the first time, but it wasn’t the jolly-uncle smile she was familiar with. “You have talents that would be wasted on the side of the road picking up trash, Ms. Hadley. You will spend your fifty hours working at the Music Tree Foundation.”
“I’m not familiar with it.” She swallowed. The mention of music set her stomach roiling. “Highway 45 was in terrible shape on my drive in last week.”
“The foundation is a nonprofit music program that focuses on helping military veterans and their families cope with the trauma they’ve endured serving our country. They’re in need of volunteer songwriters and musicians.”
“I can’t write or play anymore.” Her dream of hearing one of her songs on the radio had died. Not in a blaze of glory but from a slow, torturous starvation of hope. At thirty, she was resigned to finding a real job and cobbling together a normal life in the place she’d tried to leave behind.
“My decision is final. As far as I can determine, your brain—despite this lapse in judgment—is in fine working order. You can and will help these men and women heal through your gift of music. Unless you’d rather spend thirty days in county lockup?”
Would her uncle actually throw her in jail? For a month? “No, Your Honor, I don’t want to go to county lockup.”
“Good. Once you turn in your log with all your hours signed off by the foundation’s manager, your record with this court will be cleared.” He handed her file to a clerk. “Case closed. Next up is docket number fourteen.”
She stood there until he met her gaze with his unflinching one. “Go home, Greer.”
Her parents were waiting at the door to the courtroom. While they’d faced the horror of having to bail their only child out of jail stoically, her mother’s embarrassment and disappointment were ripe and all-encompassing. Greer wilted and trailed her parents out of the courthouse.
She felt like a child. An incompetent, needy child living in her old bedroom and dependent on her parents for emotional and financial support. She thought she’d hit rock bottom many times over the years, but her situation now had revealed new lows.
The silence in the car built into a painful crescendo.
“The tiger lilies are lovely this year, don’t you think?” Her mother’s attempt at normalcy was strained but welcome.
Her father’s hands squeaked along the steering wheel as an answer.
Greer huddled in the backseat and stared out the window, the clumps of flowers on the side of the road an orange blur. As a teenager, she’d chafed at her parents’ protectiveness and had wanted nothing more than to escape to Nashville, where she’d been convinced glory and fame awaited. Now she was home and a disappointment not only to her parents but to herself. Even worse, she hadn’t come up with a plan to turn her life around.
“Ira Jenkins is back in the hospital. I thought I’d run by and check on him. Since Sarah passed, he seems a shell of the man he once was.” Her mother turned to face the backseat. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure he’d be happy to see you.”
“He won’t remember me, Mama.”
“I’m sure he will.”
Greer scrunched farther down in the seat. The last thing she wanted was to make small talk with a man she hadn’t seen in years.
“You’ll have to get out eventually and face the music.” Her mother’s smile wavered and threatened to turn into tears. “So to speak.”
Her mother was trying, which was more than could be said for Greer at the moment. Her parents deserved a better daughter. Someone successful they could brag on at the Wednesday-night potlucks at church. Not a daughter they had to bail out of jail.
“I will. I promise. Just not to see Mr. Jenkins.” Greer leaned forward and squeezed her mother’s hand over the seat, needing to give her something to hope for even if Greer wasn’t sure what that might be.
Her father cleared his throat. “You need to think about the future.”
He ignored her mother’s whispered, “Not now, Frank.”
“A job. Or back to school. We’ll put you through nursing or accounting or something useful.” He shifted to meet her gaze in the rearview mirror. “But you can’t keep on like you’re doing. You need a purpose.”
“I’ll start looking for a job tomorrow.” School had never been her wheelhouse. She’d been sure she’d make it in Nashville and had never formulated a backup plan.
They pulled up to her childhood home, a two-story brick Colonial on the main street of Madison, Tennessee. Oaks had been planted down a middle island like a line of soldiers at attention. They had grown to shade both sides of the street. It was picturesque and cast the imagination back to a time when ladies lounged on porches with their iced tea and gossiped with their neighbors to escape the heat of summer. Air-conditioning had altered that way of life.
At one time, as a kid, she’d known every family up and down the street well enough to knock on their door for help or run through their backyard in epic games of tag. Now, though, the houses were being bought up by people who used Madison to escape the bustle of an expanding Nashville. They built pools in the backyards and fences and weren’t outside except to walk their trendy dogs.
The march of progress through Madison added to her melancholy sadness. There was a reason not being able to go home again was a recurring theme in books and songs.
“We love you, Greer. You know that, don’t you?” Her mother’s voice was tight with emotion, but she didn’t turn around, thank goodness.
Her mother never cried and if Greer witnessed tears, she would burst into sobs herself and embarrass everyone.
“I know. Thanks for everything. I’m going to do better. Be better.” It seemed a wholly inadequate promise she wasn’t even sure she could keep, but it was all she could manage. She ducked out of the car and skipped around to a side door of the house that was always unlocked.
Her room was both a haven and a mocking reminder of the state of her life. Posters of album covers papered the wall behind her bed, the colors faded from the sun and the edges curling with age.
In high school, she’d gravitated toward indie folk artists and away from the commercially driven country-music machine located a few miles south. Joan Baez was flanked by Patty Griffin and Dolly Parton. Even though Dolly veered more country than Greer, no one could deny the legend’s songwriting chops. The guitar Greer had hocked for rent money had borne Dolly’s signature like a talisman. Sometimes Greer ached for her guitar like a missing limb.
The flashing glimpse of a woman in a pale pink suit stopped her in the middle of the floor. She turned to face the full-length mirror glued to the back of the closet door. God, it was like glimpsing her mom through a time warp.
Greer touched the delicate pearls that had been passed down to her on her eighteenth birthday. They were old-fashioned and traditional and stereotypical of a Southern “good girl.” Not her style. She’d left them in her dresser drawer when she’d left home the day after high school graduation.
A tug of recognition of the women who had come before her had her clutching the strand in her hand as if something lost were now found. Was it her circumstances or her age growing her nostalgia like a tree setting roots?
She turned around to break the connection with the stranger in the mirror, stripped off the pink suit, and pulled on jeans and a cotton oxford. Her mother would appreciate seeing her in something besides the frayed shorts and grungy concert T-shirts she’d lounged around in the last week. She reached behind her neck for the clasp of the necklace, but her hands stilled, then dropped to her sides, leaving the pearls in place.
She stepped out of her room and was enveloped in silence. Her father had returned to his insurance office and her mother must have set off for her hospital visit. The house took on an expectant quality, as if waiting for its true owners to return. She was no longer a fundamental part of this world. Not unwelcome, perhaps, but a loose cog in her parents’ lives.
She tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen and made herself a ham sandwich. May was too early for fresh tomatoes, but in another month or two her mother’s garden would make tomato sandwiches an everyday treat.
Craving an escape, Greer grabbed a book and settled in her favorite window seat. The rest of the afternoon passed in the same expectant silence. The chime of the doorbell made her start and drop her book. If she pretended no one was home, maybe whoever was on the front porch would go away. The last thing she wanted was to face one of Madison’s gossips masquerading as a do-gooder.
The creak of the door opening had her bolting to her feet.
“Greer? I know you’re home. Are you decent?” Her uncle Bill’s booming voice echoed in the two-story foyer.
She propped her shoulder in the doorway of the sunroom. “Letting yourself in people’s houses is a good way of getting shot around here.”
“While your mama would have liked to have shot me during the divorce with her sister, I hope we’ve made our peace.” He closed the door behind him and Greer did what she’d wanted to do in the courtroom—she threw herself at him for a hug.
He lifted her off her feet and spun her once around. Her laugh hit her ears like a foreign language. It had been too long since she’d laughed from a place of happiness.
“You could have just come out to the house. You didn’t have to get arrested to see me.” Bill let her go, and she led him into the sunroom.
“Do you want something to drink?” Greer asked, already turning for the kitchen and the fresh brewed pitcher of sweet iced tea.
“No, thanks. Mary has fried chicken ready to go in the pan, so I can’t stay long.”
Bill had divorced her aunt Tonya more than a decade earlier and married the choir director of the biggest black church in town. A scandal had ensued not because he’d married a black woman, but because he, a long-standing deacon in the Church of Christ, had converted to a heathen Methodist.
“How is Mary?”
“Always singing.” He shook his head, an indulgent smile on his face, as they settled into their seats.
His comment sprinkled salt on an open wound. She’d begged off going to church with her parents because of the questions she was sure to face and the hymns she couldn’t bring herself to sing. Some of her earlier happiness at seeing him leaked out. “Good for her.”
“I came to make sure you weren’t mad at me.”
“Why would I be mad?”
“I got the impression you expected me to dismiss the charges.” His smile turned into a wince.
“I wouldn’t have been upset if you had, but I get it. I was an idiot and deserve punishment.” She picked at the fringe on a decades-old needlepoint pillow and cast him a pleading glance. “I’d rather pick up trash, though, if it’s all the same to you.”
“It’s not the same to me.” He crossed his long legs and tapped a finger on the cherry armrest of the antique chair that looked ready to surrender at any moment to his bulk. “Do you remember Amelia Shelton?”
“Mary’s daughter? She was a couple of years ahead of me in school. We didn’t hang out or anything, but she seemed nice.” Greer couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Amelia. Greer’s side of the family had skipped Bill and Mary’s small wedding ceremony; the acrimony between him and her aunt Tonya hadn’t faded at that point.
“Amelia is the founder and director of the Music Tree Foundation and is desperate for qualified volunteers. You’ve been playing and singing and writing music since you were knee high. It was meant to be.”
“It’s not meant to be. I’ve got to get a real job.”
Her uncle made a scoffing sound. “You’re too much like my Mary. You could never leave music behind.”
“Music dumped me on the side of the road, gave me the finger, and peeled out.” Greer shook her head and touched the string of pearls, her gaze on his polished black dress shoes. “I’m a mess, Uncle Bill. I have nothing to offer. In fact, I’ll probably make things worse for whatever poor soul I get paired with.”
She expected him to argue, but he seemed to be weighing the truth in her words like the scales of justice. His shrug wasn’t in the least reassuring. “Amelia has done something really special with her foundation. It might do you a world of good to focus on someone besides yourself.”
“Dang, that’s harsh.”
He patted her knee. “I’ve seen all kinds come through my courtroom. The ones who turn it around are the ones who quit feeling sorry for themselves.”
“But nothing. Beau is an asshole. Not the first or the last you’re likely to encounter. Don’t you deserve better than him?”
“Yes?” She wished she’d been able to put more conviction into the word.
Beau was successful, nice-looking—even though a bald spot was conquering his hair day by day—and respected in their town. They’d known each other since high school, but had only started dating in the last year.
He was solid and steady and comfortable. Three things lacking from her life. Catching him cheating with the president of the Junior League had been another seismic shift in her world, leaving her unsure and off balance.
“If you can’t believe in yourself yet, then believe me. You are talented, Greer, and you have the ability to help people find their voice.” He slipped a card out of his wallet. When she didn’t reach for it, he waved it in her face until she took it.
A tree styled with musical symbols of all different colors decorated one side of the card. She ran her thumb over the raised black ink of Amelia’s name and an address on the outskirts of Nashville. “I don’t have much choice, do I?”
“Not if you want to stay in my—and the court’s—good graces. She’s expecting you tomorrow at three.”
“No rest for the wicked, huh?” Her smile was born of sarcasm.
Bill rose and ruffled her hair like he had when she was little. “Not wicked. Lost.”
Greer walked him out, brushed a kiss on his cheek, and murmured her thanks. She leaned on the porch rail and waved until he disappeared down the street.
I once was lost, and now I’m found. She’d sung “Amazing Grace” so many times that the lyrics had ceased to have an impact. But, standing on her childhood front porch, having come full circle, a shiver went down her spine, and goose bumps broke over her arms despite the heat that wavered over the pavement like a mirage. Her granny would have said that someone had walked over her grave. Maybe so. Or maybe change was a-coming whether she wanted to face up to it or not.
Copyright © 2020 by Laura Trentham
About the book:
At thirty, Greer Hadley never expected to be forced home to Madison, Tennessee with her life and dreams of being a songwriter up in flames. To make matters worse, a series of bad decisions and even crappier luck lands her community service hours at a nonprofit organization that aids veterans and their families. Greer cannot fathom how she’s supposed to use music to help anyone deal with their trauma and loss when the one thing that brought her joy has failed her.
When Greer meets fifteen-year-old Ally Martinez, her plans to stay detached and do as little as possible get thrown away. New to town and dealing with the death of her father in action, she hides her emotions behind a mask of bitterness and sarcasm, but Greer is able to see past it and recognizes pieces of who she once was in Ally. The raw and obvious talent she possesses could take her to the top and Greer vows to make sure life’s negativities don’t derail Ally’s potential.
After Greer is assigned a veteran to help, she’s not surprised Emmett Lawson, the town’s golden boy, followed his family’s legacy. What leaves her shocked is the shell of a man who believes he doesn’t deserve anyone’s help. A breakthrough with Ally reminds Greer that no one is worth giving up on. So she shows up one day with his old guitar, and meets Emmett’s rage head on with her stubbornness. When a situation with Ally becomes dire, the two of them must become a team to save her―and along the way they might just save themselves too.
About the author:
Laura Trentham in an award winning romance author. The Military Wife is her debut women’s fiction novel. A chemical engineer by training and a lover of books by nature, she lives in South Carolina.