Dances Under the Harvest Moon
by Joanne RockStaring into her suitcase, Heather Finley wondered what a twenty-eight-year-old should pack to run away from home.
A lifetime “good girl,” Heather hadn’t tried running away as a ten-year-old, like most kids. As an adult, she knew she needed more than clean underwear and chocolate chip cookies. Although, come to think of it, she definitely wanted both of those. Peeling off her floral headpiece, she tossed aside her last commitment to Heartache, Tennessee.
At least, for a little while.
“Isn’t it supposed to be the bride who packs a bag during the wedding reception?”
Heather turned to see her older sister, Erin, in the doorway of the bedroom they’d shared as kids. Swathed in white and incredibly gorgeous, Erin had her caramel-colored hair pulled back in a loose knot with a vintage rhinestone pin secured to the twist.
Outside, the backyard wedding reception was in full swing. Dinner had been served and guests danced, even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. Twilight had just fallen and the purple Chinese lanterns around the white canvas tents had turned on a few minutes ago. Heather could see the party from the big bay window overlooking the backyard. She’d always loved this room—including the years she’d shared it with Erin. It had been a retreat from the craziness of the Finley household and their mom’s notorious mood swings. Heather and Erin had spent the last two nights before Erin’s wedding to Remy Weldon in their childhood bedroom, enjoying girl time and giggling about Erin’s future as a married woman.
“Have I told you that you are the most beautiful bride?” Heather got teary just looking at Erin today. Not only because she adored her sister and was happy she’d found a supportive, grounded, hunky Cajun partner for life, but also because Heather wouldn’t be seeing her for a while once she left town.
She may have also gotten teary because she was lying about her reasons for leaving Heartache. The guilt was killing her, even if her reasons were excellent.
“You may have mentioned the beautiful-bride thing.” Erin grinned as she twirled her way across the hardwood floor of the old farmhouse, watching her floor-length tulle skirt swirl. “But since I’m so in love with this dress, I don’t mind another compliment.” She stopped beside Heather and clutched her arm to steady herself after the last spin. “That is, of course, unless you’re doling out praise to distract me from my question about why you’re packing when the party is still going strong?”
Erin pointed out the window where two hundred of their closest friends and family danced to the tunes of a popular country band their brother, Mack, had convinced to play. As the owner of a bar in Nashville, Mack had access to great musicians—lucky for him. For all her love of music, Heather was still stuck in Heartache teaching scales to resistant nine-year-olds.
She squeezed Erin’s shoulders, careful of the sheer lace bodice that transformed the dress from fairy tale to sophisticated—and perfect for Erin’s eclectic taste. The cut was simple and sleeveless, the lace’s pattern dramatic with see-through sections. Paired with the simple fall of straight tulle, the wedding gown was unlike anything Heather had ever seen.
“I’m not trying to distract you. Trying to distract myself from my nerves is more like it.” She managed a half smile for a half-truth. She definitely would have been happy to sidetrack her sister from this topic. She was jittery enough without justifying her need to leave town.
Or telling more lies.
“You know I’m going to be rooting for you all the way, right?” Erin plunked down onto the chenille bedspread on one of three matching single beds. They used to play Goldilocks and the Three Bears when they were kids, pretending to try out all three beds lined up in a row, headboards tucked under the eaves.
That third bed—their sister Amy’s—had been glaringly empty. The youngest Finley sibling hadn’t attended the wedding. She hadn’t set foot in Tennessee after leaving home at seventeen because of an argument with their mom. Heather had been out of town at the time. She had been devastated to return home to find Amy filing paperwork to become an emancipated minor. Amy had refused all money from their father and accused the family of enabling their mother’s behavior.
“I know.” Heather was grateful for Erin’s support about her new adventure, especially when Erin had so much on her mind with her honeymoon and the transition to being a stepmother with a teenage daughter.
“You’re so talented,” Erin said. “It’s about damn time you let the world see your bright light shine.”
Heather had sold her share of the consignment store she owned with Erin back to her sister so she could follow her own dreams—finally. As a part-time music teacher and full-time worker with Last Chance Vintage, Heather had always imagined trying her luck at singing, but up until now, she’d found too many reasons to put off stepping out of her comfort zone. Her family needed her. Her bipolar mother, especially, needed her. But there were other things, too. Heather volunteered at the local parks and recreation department, trying to maintain civic ties to the community, which had been important to her father. She had music students who counted on her. She’d also been a driving force getting Last Chance Vintage off the ground. But now Erin had really made the shop her own, expanding it to double the former size. And after a recent health-scare reality check, Heather was done putting her own life on hold.
“It seemed like the right time to give it a try now that American Voice is holding auditions in Charlotte.” Heather’s gaze wandered the room in an effort to change the subject. While she knew she had Erin’s support, she hadn’t really talked about how long she would be gone or how soon she planned to ditch town. And she didn’t want to slide into that particular chat right now.
Heather’s friend and former music student, Sylvia, had offered her a place to stay in Nashville for a couple of months if she wanted to knock on some doors in the country-music business. It was a good plan B. “But you didn’t come up here to listen to me talk about my plans. Where’s your suitcase? Can I help you pack for your honeymoon?”
She moved to Erin’s bed—still unmade from the night before when they’d painted each other’s toenails and eaten popcorn while watching movies. Plucking at a corner of the spread where it pooled on the floor, she reached for the handle of Erin’s train case.
“That’s okay. We’re not leaving yet. We’re thinking about waiting around until after the wedding breakfast tomorrow since there are so many friends from out of town we’d like to visit with.” Erin stood and pulled the curtains over the windows, making the room darker. “Right now, I thought I’d change dresses so I can really cut loose on the dance floor.”
“Of course.” Heather let go of the luggage and hurried toward the closet. “Did you decide what to wear yet?” She pulled out a couple of hotly debated options. “The pink lace halter dress or the blue satin pinup-girl number?”
“Remy warned me not to wear the satin one. He says he won’t last ten minutes in public with me in that dress.” Erin’s smile glowed with that “I’m sexy and I know it” brand ofjoy a well-satisfied woman tended to get. Not that Heather would know anything about that. Her last relationship had been with a guy she’d chosen because he’d checked all the right boxes.
No wonder they’d had zero chemistry.
“In other words, it comes down to this. Do you want to torment the groom a lot?” She held up the slinky blue one. “Or a little?” She held up the pink one, which was still a stunner.
Then again, everything looked amazing on a woman who had that “I’m sexy and I know it” glow.
“Maybe just a little.” Erin slid down the side zipper of her wedding dress and stepped out of it. She handed the gown to Heather and took the pink lace. “I still can’t believe I’m a married woman six months after meeting the man of my dreams.”
“When it’s right, you know it.” Heather’s heart had hurt for Erin when her private sister had finally opened up about Mr. Not Right, who had come before Remy—a guy who’d been married to someone else and never let on while dating Erin.
The Finley family had precedents for keeping their private lives on the down low since their mother tended to feed off strong emotions and unhappiness, making them her own until her kids ended up comforting her over their misfortunes.
“Exactly. Why wait to start your future when you know what you want?” Erin wriggled her way into the slim-fitting lace. “That’s why I’m so excited for you to have an adventure of your own. I never knew you were so passionate about singing.”
“Still waters run deep.” Heather winked at her sister and fixed a few strands of hair that had slid free. “Are you going to keep the brooch in your hair or do you want me to take it out?”
“I’ll leave it.” Erin patted one side absently.
She’d never been the kind to spend a lot of time on her looks, even though she wore the most interesting clothes of anyone in town. She had an artsy flare that worked for her, whether that meant she had pink streaks in her hair one day or Goth-girl black strands the next. “You ready to come down and dance? You can pack tomorrow, right?”
Heather had told everyone she was leaving after the wedding. But she’d thought she could slip out as soon as Erin and Remy took off for their honeymoon. Leave it to Erin to party half the night.
“Right. I just wish I was more organized for my trip. You know how I am…always trying to plan ten steps ahead.”
That had been true right up until she had an acute onset of rheumatoid arthritis. When she’d been on a buying trip for the store, she’d had a flare-up so bad she literally couldn’t move. The pain and stiffness had sent her to the hospital for a battery of tests until a doctor had come up with the diagnosis. The disease wasn’t life threatening, but it was a serious immune system disorder with lifelong consequences. Different from regular arthritis that most people experienced as they aged or as a result of old sports injuries, the rheumatoid variety meant a body’s immune system attacked its own connective tissue, pretty much just for the hell of it.
Getting ahead of the problem would mean draining bouts of strong medication until the doctors discovered what worked best with her body chemistry. There was no one drug that worked for everyone, and Heather desperately wanted to investigate some homeopathic remedies, too.
Receiving the diagnosis while she’d been on the road—in Austin, Texas, and all alone—had made her realize how much she preferred the quiet of her own thoughts as she sorted through what the diagnosis meant for her. She didn’t want the Finley family hubbub around her right now. She wanted to focus on herself. And more important, she wanted to start living her dreams. It didn’t matter if she was tired. If she flared up. Or if her new medicines didn’t agree with her. The health scare had made her reassess. She’d realized she’d been living a safe, boring life and never taking hold of the reins for herself.
She was so done planning ten steps ahead.
“Well, you can organize once I’m in the Cajun bayous with Remy for my honeymoon.” Erin dug in the other side of the closet. “Plus, I think the mayor has his eye on you. You should wear the satin siren-girl dress and see what happens.”
Heather did not want to think about the long looks Zach Chance had been giving her lately. She’d hoped it was her imagination, even if he was one of the most sought-after single men in Heartache. Now was definitely not the time to get involved with anyone.
Besides, Zach was…the mayor. She was putting small-town life behind her, not campaigning for it. He seemed to see her as her father’s daughter—himself a former mayor of Heartache. But Heather was about to change all that good-girl stuff before her body started wearing out prematurely. Who knew how long her window of good mobility would be?
She smiled. “First of all, my boobs wouldn’t hold up that dress in a million years. Second, you’re going to be the star of the show tonight.” She reached for a yellow sundress instead. “How about this for me?”
“Too sweet and not nearly sexy enough. There are hot guys down there, Heather. Come on. Did you see Remy’s brothers?” Erin dug deeper into the closet and emerged with a bright pink jersey dress with cutouts at the waist. “Here.”
“Redheads don’t do fuchsia. And yes, your brothers-in-law are definitely turning heads.” Armand and Landry Weldon were as handsome as their brother, Remy, and their Cajun accents had all the women in town swooning.
Erin tugged the dress off the hanger anyway. “It’s berry, not fuchsia, and don’t argue with the bride.”
“Okay, but keep in mind you’ll have to see this eye abomination in your wedding album for the rest of time.” Heather slid off the simple lavender maid-of-honor dress, which Erin had let her choose for her big day. Laying it on the bed, Heather slipped the bright jersey over her head and pulled the fabric to cover her hips.
It was surprisingly comfortable, even if the diamond-shaped cutouts bared skin on either side of her waist.
“Hoochie mama.” Erin whistled. “Now that’s a dress.” Picking up the discarded daisy floral crown from the bed, she pulled three flowers out of it and tucked the stems behind Heather’s ear. “You ready to have some fun?” Her cornflower-blue eyes roamed Heather’s face.
“I’m ready.” She would have to delay her great escape for a few hours to make her sister happy. She hoped her joints stayed quiet for a little longer. Her right wrist throbbed a little, but she could ice it later. “I’m simply not going to look in any mirrors.”
“Would I send you out into the world unless you looked gorgeous? Give me some credit. I’m kind of a professional at dressing people.”
True enough. Besides her work at Last Chance Vintage, Erin had single-handedly started a hugely successful Dress for Success initiative to help women in tough economic situations find great outfits for job interviews. So many clothes had been donated to the cause that Erin had enough to sponsor a mobile unit that traveled to remote parts of the state where poverty was the worst.
“I know. I don’t always have the same bold aesthetic as you.” But she was going to try harder, right? She’d promised herself that when she left town, she would start breaking a few rules. She had a lot of lost time to make up.
“Once you’re competing on American Voice in front of the whole country, you’re going to have to find your boldness.” Erin swept Heather’s long red curls behind one shoulder. “Why don’t you practice tonight by letting your hair down and shaking your moneymaker?”
Erin swatted her on the butt before darting in front of her and rushing down the stairs, cackling the whole way.
“My moneymaker?” Heather called down, following more slowly. “I’m definitely going to tell your groom to cut off your champagne supply,” she teased as she spotted Remy in the kitchen at the foot of the staircase.
Surrounded by his brothers, along with Zach Chance, the very man Heather had been avoiding, Remy seemed to be involved in a drinking game. All four guys held shot glasses in hand, a dark bottle resting on the open bar cabinet between them.
“Looks like we’ve moved beyond champagne,”
Erin noted dryly, pulling her new husband’s attention from his empty glass.