John Forrester is a simple man whose never needed more than his work, his truck, and a small apartment with his flat screen TV. After a bad breakup with his ex-wife John swore he’d never get married again and has done his best to keep to himself. But one woman always creeps into his mind—Arianna Keller.
Arianna Keller had an amazing career, center stage on Broadway. However, her run in New York is over and circumstances have forced her back home to Nashville, Tennessee.
The relationship John and Arianna have forged over the years as friends has always had a romantic spark, which has been ignored. Now they are working together to restore an old theater and their desire for each other can no longer be denied.
It’s only a matter of time before sparks ignite into a passionate fire. But Arianna is keeping a secret which threatens to destroy more than her relationship with John—it threatens the lives of the entire Keller family.
Excerpt from Center Stage:
Arianna pushed down on the suitcase and forced the zipper to close. The rest of her apartment was packed and ready for movers, but she’d need all her clothes before her belongings arrived in Tennessee.
She looked around her small, New York apartment. It had been a good home to her for the past decade. She’d accomplished everything she’d wanted. When she’d moved there, it was to try her hand on the stages of Manhattan. She’d played in some dives and had worked her way up to leads on Broadway. She had a few commercials to her credit and had graced a few TV shows as an extra, but her love was still on stage. But now it was time to go home, back where her family was. Something would come together for her there. It always did.
Arianna looked at her watch. She had barely enough time to get to the airport. If there were any accidents backing up traffic, she’d miss her flight.
Her brother-in-law, Zach, had called and said her sister Regan had gone into labor with the couple’s second baby. She figured she’d arrive just in time to get to hold the bundle of joy. Then in a few more weeks, her brother, Curtis, and his fiancée, Simone, would have their first child. She knew moving back to Tennessee was right, and getting to spoil new nieces and nephews was reason enough to be closer to home.
The flight had been miserable. Leaving New York in a January snowstorm always meant delays and aggravation. It was almost eight o’clock at night by the time the flight landed two hours late. Carlos would be livid if he’d been waiting at the airport the entire time.
She made it to baggage claim, retrieved her two pieces of luggage, and then scanned the area for her brother. There was no sign of him, or any member of her family, anywhere.
“I thought I’d missed you,” the familiar voice behind her said.
She spun quickly to find John Forrester, Zach’s most trusted building foreman, standing there.
“Missed me? Were you looking for me?”
“I have been sent to pick you up. Carlos and Madeline ended up with Tyler for the night.”
Arianna narrowed her stare on him when he’d commented about her nephew. “I thought Mom was watching him while the baby was born.”
“Well, it seems as though your family is going to grow quite a bit tonight. Regan is still in labor, and Curtis just took Simone in. She’s having her baby today, too.”
Arianna gasped. “Simone isn’t due for two more weeks.”
“Babies come when babies want to, and Emily thought she’d better be there for Simone.” He picked up her suitcases, one in each hand. “C’mon, my truck isn’t too far.”
Who would have thought she’d get to be there for the birth of both babies in one night. God had blessed the Keller family—that was for sure. Carlos and Madeline’s kids were teenagers, and in the next few years, they would be off on adventures of their own. Eduardo, their eldest, was already working for Zach after school. Christian, their second son, was an all-star athlete—baseball, she thought. And Clara, well, Clara was a girl after her own heart. She was an accomplished musician on the acoustic guitar. And, boy, could that girl sing.
Regan and Zach’s son, Tyler, was as anxious as any sixteen-month-old child could be for a new sibling. But Arianna figured he’d need the most spoiling from her to make everything just right.
As for her, she’d never wanted children. It just hadn’t been in her plans. Her career had always been more important. She came and went as she wanted, carried on in any fashion she saw fit, and, of course, traveled the world.
But now Nashville, Tennessee called her back home. Perhaps she could share her talent with the world in some other way.
John led her to his truck in the adjoining parking lot. She was comfortable with John, she thought, as she walked behind him. They had been each other’s dates to both of Carlos’s weddings last year, and they had hit it off, as friends of course. They might have hit it off more, but he was very conscious of their age difference, even though she wasn’t worried about the thirteen years between them. His ex-wife had burned him badly ten years ago, and it was clear he didn’t trust any woman.
Not that she’d been looking for a man, but she often thought if John hadn’t been so worried about everything, they might have had something. As it was, they could keep each other’s company comfortably. Coming home with all her brothers and her sister being married, that might just be what she needed—someone to keep her company.
John’s truck was probably one of the most beat up pickup trucks she’d ever had the displeasure of riding in, and she’d been born and raised in Tennessee—she knew bad pickup trucks. But that was John’s character. If it still worked, there was no need to replace it.
He backed out of the parking lot and headed toward the highway. Also common with John, he didn’t have much to say unless you started the conversation.
“So, how is the construction business?” she asked.
“Zach keeps me busy. That’s for sure.”
“I’ll bet. Do you think he’ll take some time off after the baby is born?”
John laughed. “Sure he will. He will work from his office at home.”
Arianna followed suit and laughed too. That sounded like her brother-in-law.
She watched as John merged lanes. His tanned skin showed the many years that he’d worked in the elements. The deep lines around his eyes never made him look old, she thought, only distinguished. Arianna liked her men distinguished. Age on a man had never bothered her. Oh, if her parents knew about some of the men she’d dated in New York, they certainly might have had an opinion on the matter.
She must be feeling the pang of needing someone to connect with, she decided, because the thought of running her fingers through John’s salt and pepper shaded hair was almost irresistible. But she denied herself the pleasure. He probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the lunatic sister-in-law of his boss making a move on him.
The long flight and drive out to the hospital must have worn her out more than she’d thought. She woke to John’s hand on her arm.
“We’re here. If you hurry, you might not miss the show.”
She rubbed her eyes. “Aren’t you coming in?”
“Not my place to be. But I’ll drop your bags off for you. I assume you’re staying at your place?”
She nodded. One of the perks of keeping your house when you moved away, especially if you knew you’d be back. “Yes. Of course.”
“That was a sound business decision to keep the house and rent it out. Benson, Benson, and Hart keep good care of it.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything different. I know I have a renter in the basement, too. Hope they don’t make too much noise. I’m a day sleeper.”
John smiled. “Oh, he’s a good guy. He won’t bother you.”
Arianna nodded and looked up at the hospital where her brother worked as an emergency room doctor. “Guess I’d better go meet the newest members of this crazy family.” She slid across the seat and placed a kiss on John’s unshaven cheek. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll take you out for pizza and a beer.”
“Never could turn down a woman who offered up pizza and beer.”
She opened the door and climbed out. He was just her kind of man.
The waiting room was full of Kellers, including Carlos and Madeline, who held a sleeping Tyler.
Carlos stood and greeted her with a hug when she walked into the room. “I thought you were babysitting him so he didn’t have to hang out here.”
“C’mon, what’s better than meeting your baby brother or sister in the middle of the night and knowing this is the kid you get to beat on for the rest of your life?”
Arianna laughed as Clara rushed over and hugged her. “Auntie, I have a new song for you. I wrote it myself.”
“And I bet it’s the best song ever.”
Arianna pulled her niece to her side. This was just what she’d needed—her family.
John opened the door to Arianna’s house. He supposed he’d have to relinquish his key now that she was home. He shut the door and carried her bags to the bedroom at the top of the stairs. He didn’t open the door. He knew it was empty, but still, it was her bedroom.
The house was dark and quiet; he’d miss that too. There hadn’t been a renter upstairs for months; he’d had the house to himself. Oh, he kept to himself downstairs in the little apartment in the basement, but he’d enjoyed using the front door access and the kitchen from time to time. There was a grill on the back porch, which offered the perfect view of the sunset. He was sure Arianna wouldn’t mind him cooking a steak or two for her, just for access to the porch.
John grabbed a beer from the refrigerator as he passed through the kitchen. He figured he’d better get his plugged in downstairs. It had been a saver on electricity since the one he had in his kitchen was old, and Arianna’s kept the beer colder.
He started down the stairs to his little apartment. The door locked from her side, which kept the renters out of the house. He’d taken liberty with that since the house was empty, but certainly he wouldn’t disrespect that rule when she came back home.
His small apartment was just the right size. He was a simple man who didn’t need much—and who didn’t have much since his ex-wife took everything he’d ever had. Ten years after she’d left him for another man, he still wondered what he’d ever seen in her. Well, he’d never make that mistake again. Women just weren’t worth it. Most women, he corrected himself. His mind had been preoccupied with one woman in particular for months. And now he faced the dilemma of knowing she’d be living only feet from him.
The last thing he wanted was a relationship—platonic or just sexual. Relationships had never brought him anything but grief.
John sat down on his Lazy Boy recliner and turned on his big screen, flat panel TV. A man had to have his luxuries. He pulled from his imported beer and thought life was good.
But only a moment later, his mind wandered to Arianna. With her hair piled atop her head, her eyes dark from lack of sleep, and her ripped jeans, she’d still stirred him up more than he’d have liked.
Beer and pizza sounded like a great idea, but he wouldn’t take her up on the offer until he knew they’d cemented their relationship as landlord/renter and friends—only friends.
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