*Romantic Suspense 17+*
Helen, Georgia, was a town so magical to the tourist’s eye that every year thousands flocked to it like migrating salmon. Some families seemed to come back year after year, taking in the subtle changes, reveling in the history of the small unincorporated town. The town offered so much to the traveler; it would be hard to experience it all in a day trip.
Nikki Evans was no small-town tourist, nor a migrating regional local. She was in Helen on business. Or so she told herself when she pulled her convertible into a parking place just outside the entrance to the County Inn. Pulling her purse from its place next to her, she slung it over her shoulder and walked into the cool interior of the hotel. Approaching the desk, she smiled brightly, tossing her dark hair out of her face with a shake of her head, her heels tapping rhythmically on the tiled floor.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the older lady behind the desk asked, an expectant look on her face while she looked down at the small computer screen before her. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes, it should be under Nikki Evans Promotions. My friend Richard Barrington called it in for me last night.” Nikki handed her a credit card and waited. She didn’t need to know the price; it was a business expense anyway.
The lady typed the keys briskly and smiled, reaching for a registration card. “Here we are, Ms. Evans. You’re in room 204, just up the stairs and to the right. Just fill this out with your car’s information. Will you be needing some help with your bags?”
“That would be great.”
Nikki filled in the information on the card quickly, and smiled at the young man who approached her. She handed him her car keys and pointed to the red Mustang parked in front of the hotel.
“Everything that’s in the trunk, and the laptop case behind the front seat. Thank you.”
“Yes, miss, of course.” He seemed too young to be working anywhere, much less in a hotel as a valet, but it was nice to have someone available to lug her things up the winding staircase. She handed the completed card over to the desk clerk, taking note of her name tag.
“Thank you, Amelia,” she offered, waiting patiently while the lady clicked a few more times on the computer and produced an envelope with a credit-card-sized key card. She reached across the desk and handed it to Nikki, along with a credit card slip for her to sign, which she did.
“Have a nice stay, Ms. Evans,” she said, handing her back her credit card.
“Thank you, Amelia," she repeated, smiling as she turned away.
Nikki had her credit card back in her wallet and was just turning when the young man came back through the door.
“I locked it for you, ma’am. I believe this is everything. Please follow me.”
Happily Nikki walked up the stairs to her room behind the boy laden down with her luggage. It was a nice beginning.
After a refreshing shower, Nikki changed into the base outfit she’d need for the show that evening: black satin pants and a red tank top. When she was through with sound check, before she actually took the stage later, she’d pull on either a black or white silk shirt. Strap on some heels, and she was ready to rock away the night, she decided, giving her hair a final flick. She took a moment to study her reflection in the hotel bathroom mirror. Her hair was usually kept rather short, but her trips out to the West Coast to assist one of her clients with their first music video had her skipping the customary salon treatment. Her hair hung just below her shoulders, easy to toss, and still manageable in the constantly changing weather of the South. Her eyes were dark, and usually sparkled, especially when she was amused. Not bad for mid-thirties, she concluded, giving her flat stomach a loving pat. Pilates and yoga were her latest kick in the health craze. She knew she was lucky, and maybe she did live a little “younger,” as her mother liked to say. But time had been good to her, and success was something that just kind of stuck.
She walked out of the bathroom area, clicking off the light as she moved, then dug her cell phone out of her purse and thumbed down the names in her list of contacts looking for Richard. She thought for the hundredth time she should put him on speed dial, but always decided against it. Finding the number, she tapped the phone, initiating the call. He answered almost immediately, and Nikki could almost see him wearing that Bluetooth headset he loved so much.
“Hey, hey, Nikki girl, you settled in?”
“Yes, darling, nice digs by the way. So where are you…and when is sound check?”
“Driving that way, and sound check is at the Starlight at five. Should be a light crowd then, and hopefully we won’t have too many changes to go through before set time at nine. You rest your pipes and I’ll meet you there. After that, we can get a quick bite and a gab fest. I’m dying to hear about your latest adventures.”
“Looking forward to it, Rick, can’t wait.”
Nikki ended the call and stood in front of the window that overlooked the little Alpine village. She could see the Starlight from her window; mid-day people walked around with bags and packages. The air was still a bit cool in the early evenings, but April was upon them, so there already were those daring people in bathing suits, carrying their rubber rafts and inflatable tubes for tubing the Chattahoochee River. It was one of the things families came to Helen to do.
She took a glance at the clock on the table next to the bed. It was only 2:00 so she could easily lie down for a few hours and relax, if it had been her nature.
Instead, she picked up her laptop bag and within moments had herself propped up on the bed against pillows, checking her messages. Nothing of interest caught her attention, on either her email account or her Facebook page.
Nikki Evans Promotions was her baby, started years ago when she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in marketing, one of her proud accomplishments, and wanted to use her degree to do something fun. She found that her love of music gave her a special insight into the various start-up bands she came in contact with, and she used those abilities, and her new-found knowledge of marketing and promotion, to make them famous. People loved her vivacious attitude toward life, and even though it was her clients who most often found the spotlight, she managed to eke out a bit of the limelight for herself from time to time.
It was how she wound up in Helen, Georgia, in the early days of spring, just before the hectic days of the many festivals were about to start. The band of her longtime friend, musician Richard Barrington, was down a female singer. He called, and she hopped in her car and drove down non-stop from her last job in Nashville. Singing for the weekend with her friend was almost like a vacation to Nikki, and after the last few months of non-stop travel, a vacation was just what the doctor ordered.
A few hours later Nikki was seated on a stool behind a keyboard, adjusting the sound in her ears with her foot. She loved the ear buds, and the way they gave her the sounds of just the instruments she wanted. She would sing melody most often, or sometimes harmonize with Richard. It seemed she knew every song the man had ever written, even the newer stuff.
Richard sat on his own stool, center stage, his turtle shelled acoustic guitar on his lap, moaning out the last few chords of “Strange Love,” a song he’d written back years before. Nikki filled in the bass line on her keyboard, adding a flourish to the ending, just to see how it sounded. His cowboy hat bobbed up and down enthusiastically at the riff, and Nikki made a mental note to include it when they played the song later that night.
“Got everything you need, girlie girl??”
“Sounds good,” Nikki said into the microphone, and then turned her glance toward Terry, who always manned the sound board in the back of the room. “Terry, how does it sound out there?”
“Marvelous,” he murmured, making a few notes on his ever-present clipboard. He took his earphones off and held up his hand in a thumbs-up gesture.
“That’s a wrap then, boys,” Richard said, easing himself away from the microphone stand and putting the guitar in its holder by his stool.
Darrell Hargrove, the drummer, jumped down and quickly went to the corner where Richard’s chair was folded up against the wall. He brought it up to Richard, setting the locks on the wheels, while the singer shifted his weight from the stool to the arms of the wheelchair. In one smooth motion he swung himself down into the the chair, and turned quickly on the stage to face Nikki with his teeth blazing white in a smile. “Like you never left me,” he said to her, half teasing, half serious, a testament to her ability.
“Thank you, darling,” she said, smiling as she pulled the ear buds out of her ears, disconnecting the wire from the sound feed. She draped the earphones around her neck like a scarf, and bent to give him another hug. She held on to the warmth of her friend for a moment, and then started toward the door that led to the deck outside. “I’m going out for some air, and whatever else I can find, see you in a bit?”
“Absolutely,” he returned, gliding his way off the stage toward the bar.
Nikki set up her laptop at a table near the porch rail. She wanted to watch the little town coming to life, as she went over the song lists a few more times, familiarizing herself with the order of the sets.
Satisfied that she had it down, she turned her attention to her laptop, again checking her emails. There was finally new mail in her inbox. She smiled at the irony of the new email address from her longtime college friend Margo: ML4ever. Her brother’s relationship with her best friend was tied up in such a simple way in that username.
How awesome was it that her brother and his wife, Margo, had found such happiness after so many years apart? The romantic notion that true love never ends was never truer than in the story of Larson and Margo, and it made her a bit misty just to think about it.
She opened the email eagerly with a smile, excited to read the latest word from Boston.
Her cell phone began ringing, the tune “Moonlight Serenade.” She reached for it absently, knowing it was her mother, but still answered in her businesslike manner.
“Nikki Evans Promotions,” she declared brightly.
“Hey baby, did you hear the news?” her mother Sylvia enthused happily.
“What news, Momma?” she murmured, still scrolling the email she’d gotten from Margo.
Sylvia was the type of mom who got equally excited over an A on a test or a grandchild’s first tooth. Nikki was halted, however, when she saw the news that her mother was probably so excited over. Amongst the weather reports, her niece Lexie’s excitement over starting her senior year, and the new bookstore’s flourishing business updates was one line that stopped Nikki cold.
“And you’ll never believe how surprised I was to find out I’m pregnant!”
Sylvia prattled on about the impending birth for several minutes but Nikki barely heard her. She ended the call with a promise to come visit soon, and sat back in her chair, staring at the screen blankly.
She and Margo met in college. They were roommates by chance the first semester, by choice the rest of their stint. By the end of their time at university, Margo had chosen to marry her brother Larson.
Seventeen years later two successful business women led two completely different lives.
Nikki had never questioned her choices. She loved her role as the doting aunt at holiday gatherings, and while she had had romantic encounters, no one of consequence had ever come into her life and turned it upside down. She wistfully wondered if at the age of thirty-six she had unwittingly set herself up to live alone.
As she had lived her life vicariously through the lives of her clients, she’d seen many marriages and children. Happy occasions where she’d taken time to sing the happy couples across the dance floor, or even set her sights on a bit of limelight for herself; but she had remained steadfast, guarding her heart against romantic strings.
It was time for her to take time to wonder, as she watched the sun set behind the hills of Helen, was she missing something after all?