All Smoke No Fire

All Cowboy Series, Book 3

Dax Marshall is surprised when country music singer Marilou Roselle calls him out on stage to perform the song he hoped to sell her. But he’s downright shocked when she invites him to ride with her to New Orleans for a Mardi Gras performance. He makes the uncharacteristic choice to take time off from his job on the oil field, and head south with her. But somewhere between South Dakota and Louisiana, he falls for the intelligent, motivated, sensual woman.

Marilou sees great potential in Dax, with his deep, seductive voice and strong, sexy body, but she knows he’ll always stay behind the scenes as a songwriter if she doesn’t nudge him toward a singing career. The attraction between them grows hotter than a Bourbon Street bar on Mardi Gras Day and they give in to their wild desire. But Dax learns he’s not Marilou’s first “project” and heads home, confused and heartbroken. Can she convince him that their bond isn’t like those other times, that what she feels for him is real? Or is what they have all smoke and no fire?


Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Dax Marshall stood backstage at the sold-out theater in Wiley Pete’s Casino in Rapid City, South Dakota, watching Marilou Roselle sing and strum her acoustic guitar, accompanied by her band. The rising star in the country music world and one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen, had left her long, black hair hanging straight as a ruler to the middle of her back. She smiled at the audience, those amazing hazel eyes of hers that tipped up at the outer corners crinkling attractively.

He’d said a quick hello to her as she’d walked past him onto the stage, but their official meeting would happen after she finished the show. Months ago, he’d contacted her people to pitch a new song he’d written for her, but her agent had explained that Marilou was a little old-fashioned. She didn’t like to hear new songs through her headphones, but preferred them live from the writer.

Live from the writer. Dax had never been this nervous in his life. He leaned on his guitar case and took a couple deep breaths, wiping his hand down the thigh of his new jeans. Performing his song in front of an incredible musician like Marilou would be the highlight of his songwriting career. Not that he actually had a career. Yet. Tonight could be the big break he’d been working toward since he first penned a song at age fifteen. Eleven years of honing his craft, and he finally had a song that would get noticed, maybe all the way to Nashville.

Marilou ended the set with her newest song, then handed her guitar to a roadie as she blew a kiss and left the stage.

Dax stood back, leaving her and her entourage plenty of room.

The roar of the crowd coalesced into a chant, “One. More. Song.”

Her floral perfume made Dax take a long, slow breath as she passed. She stopped a few feet away from him, taking a drink from a water bottle before letting her makeup person touch up her face and lips. Her tight sky-blue T-shirt hugged her generous breasts, and her colorful, full skirt skimmed her curvy hips and reached to the tops of her red cowgirl boots.

Her gaze met his, shining even in this subdued light. She gave him a finger wave.

He nodded and gripped his guitar case for stability. She’s a nice person. He repeated the mantra, having been promised that this was true by half the people standing around backstage.

Marilou checked herself in a mirror, then walked toward the stage, but stopped right in front of Dax.

The stage lights shifted and the shouting changed. “Ma-ri-lou, Ma-ri-lou.”

She leaned closer to him. “Guess that’s me, huh?” With the two-inch heel on her cowgirl boots, she still stood a half a foot shorter than his six feet.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m pretty sure it is.” Could he sound any dumber?

She laughed, holding out her right hand. “You’re the songwriter, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He took her hand, feeling a thrill race all the way up his arm.

“Do you have a name?” She blinked, looking innocent.

“Yes, ma’am.” He was definitely not firing on all cylinders right now. “Dax Marshall.”

“All right, Dax. I’m excited to hear what you’ve got for me.”

“Yes…” He didn’t dare say “ma’am” one more time, or she’d think he was part parrot. “…Ms. Roselle.”

She smirked as she walked back on stage to the shouts of thousands of fans. “You really wanna hear another one?”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

Dax ran his fingers through his dark hair then immediately straightened it again. He needed to look the part of a professional, not a wind-tousled roughneck.

The constant activity backstage surprised Dax, and between staring at Marilou and watching everything that kept the road crew busy, the two-hour concert had flown by.

Marilou played her two most popular songs and everyone sang along, including Dax. She had a voice that could melt butter. Soft and rich, but she could hit the high notes, too. He’d never imagined that watching her perform from backstage would be so much more personal than sitting in the audience watching with his friends.

“Can I get another mic stand out here?” She looked backstage, and the crew jumped into action. “One with two mics, please. One down here…” She held her hand at the level of her guitar. “And one up here.” Her hand lifted to about the top of her head. “Thanks, guys.”

Dax stood back as the road crew jumped into action, grabbing stands and testing mics.

She smiled at the audience. “I like to get my money’s worth out of these roadies, you know what I mean?”

The crowd clapped and whistled.

The spotlight narrowed to just her, camouflaging the three crew members dressed in black who rushed out onto the stage and set up the mics next to her while she sang a slow ballad.

After the song and the applause ended, she turned to look backstage where Dax stood. “I’ve got a surprise for you.” She pointed in his direction then looked out at the audience. “We have a local boy, a songwriter, who I want to bring out on stage right now to sing a song he wrote for me.”

Dax’s heart thudded to a halt, then he relaxed. It couldn’t be him. It had to be someone else. He pulled at the stiff collar of his new blue-plaid shirt, then tugged the sleeves down over his wrists. He looked around but everyone backstage stared right at him. “Oh, shit.”

Marilou put her hand beside her mouth and leaned close to the mic. “He didn’t know I was going to do this, so be kind to him, okay?”

The audience erupted in applause.

She flung her hand in a grand gesture toward Dax. “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever, live and on stage, Dax Marshall.”

“Oh, shit.” His face heated and he gripped his guitar case tighter.

Shouts and whistles came from the crowd.

A guy grabbed Dax’s guitar case and set it on the ground, opening it, and removing the guitar. “Pull yourself together, buddy. This is your big break, right here.”

Dax stood staring at Marilou, who smiled at him from under the bright lights. “I’m not sure I can…”

“Sure you can.” The man slung the guitar strap over Dax’s head and handed him a pick. He turned Dax toward Marilou and gave him a mighty shove out onto the stage.

“Oh shiiiiit.”

She must have heard what he said because she laughed, winking at him, and held out her hand to him. “Here he is.”

He somehow stayed upright as he forced his legs to propel him across the stage. Taking her hand, he gripped her fingers like a lifeline. Dax forced his gaze out toward the crowd. With the stage lights in his eyes, he could barely make out people in their seats. Okay, maybe this wouldn’t be too bad.

“Go, Dax!” Harper, his roommate Shaw’s girlfriend, cheered.

“Yeah, Dax! Kill it, boy!” It sounded like one of the brothers, Pete or Huck, with whom he and Shaw shared the apartment on the oil fields of North Dakota. His three buddies, Harper, and Pete’s girl, CJ, had come with him to the concert.

Hell, now his stomach was back to jittering. Five friends here to witness him make an ass of himself.

Marilou pulled her hand from his and tucked it behind her back, flexing her fingers. Damn it, he’d been squeezing the bloodflow out of her. Not an auspicious start.

“Dax, you know my song River of Intentions?” She smiled up at him, waiting patiently.

“Yes, ma’am.” He swallowed. “It’s one of my mother’s favorites.” Fuck, why had he said that?

A few people in the audience laughed.

“Son…” She strummed her guitar. “I know you think I’m probably a lot older than you, but I don’t know if I go all the way back to your momma’s generation.”

More laughter from the crowd and he felt his cheeks warm. At thirty, Marilou was four years older than him, but she looked closer to twenty. “Ms. Roselle, I know you’re not my momma’s generation. I doubt that you could even get into the casino without security asking you to prove you’re over twenty-one.”

Laughter erupted from the audience.

“A compliment? Thank you, Mr. Marshall. I like that you’re trying to butter me up.” She gave him an almost imperceptible nod. “Now, getting back to my song, you’re sayin’ that your momma likes it, but you’re not a fan?” Her lips curved up into a little smile.

“Not at all, ma’am. It’s a great tune, but you’ll have to admit it’s a bit of a…chick song.” He found the nerve to smile back at her, hoping to soften the words and praying she wouldn’t haul off and smack him.

She laughed, which got the audience laughing again, too. “Very true, so let’s see what a male voice will do for the song, shall we?” Her brows shot up as her hazel eyes stared into his.

“I’d love that.” What he loved was how kind it was of her to let him warm up with this song instead of insisting he play his own song cold. Watching her fingers on the frets, he copied the chords, playing a rhythm pattern. Her band jumped in, and she sang the first verse. He harmonized on the chorus, then she nodded for him to take the next verse. He sang it as it had been recorded, but with the last line, he took some liberties.

Marilou’s eyes opened wide and they sang the chorus together. When they finished the song, she faced him, clapping. “Very well done for a big ol’ cowboy singing a chick song.”

The audience laughed and applauded.

“Now, I’ll let Dax take over, and y’all listen up good, because we’re going to vote at the end of this one to see if I should buy the song from him or not.” She nodded to him. “Show us what you got, Dax.”

His left hand shook as he set it on the strings at the guitar’s neck, but he wasn’t nervous, not really. He knew this song, had been practicing it every free minute he had for the last few months, to the point where his roommates would see him with his guitar and leave their apartment.

Dax played the intro, slow and easy, emotional and deep, then stepped up to the mic.

You know I’m not the cryin’ kind
Most of the time I keep it locked in my mind
The tears are rollin’ down my face
And the walls are closin’ in all over this place

Marilou joined in on her guitar and the band played softly in the background.

Then he hit the chorus and let it all out.

I know it ain’t an easy life
People can tell you that
But to ask for a little bit, just a little bit back
Ain’t too much to ask

Dax glanced at Marilou, whose eyes looked glazed as her mouth quivered. He knew he’d written a mournful, touching piece, the type of song she seemed to sing often. Songs born of life’s pain, just as his song came from his sorrow.

He pulled himself back into the song.
I bruise my knees when I’m prayin’
And if I knew the words I’d be sayin’ ‘em
Just tryin’ to make it day to day, day to day
I know sometimes you felt that way

Marilou joined in with vocals on the chorus and their voices blended like coffee and cream. Chills rolled down his spine and he smiled at her.

She nodded, a sad smile on her face.

He came to the bridge and sang it like he absolutely meant it.

Lord now you know, you know what I deal with in my mind
So I’ll be here waitin’ right here
When you finally find the time
I just want a little bit

They sang the chorus together, then she stepped back from the mic, set her hands on her guitar, and bowed her head.

Dax finished the song, his voice strong despite the exhilaration running through him that threatened to make him choke up.

Aw just a little bit back
If it ain’t too much to ask
I just want a little bit
Aw just a little bit back
If it ain’t too much to ask

Playing the last note, he stepped back, waiting. The crowd stayed silent.

Marilou reached out and grasped his forearm. “Dax. Amazing.”

Then the audience went crazy, shouting and clapping, some chants of “buy-it” starting, but Marilou held up her hand and the audience quieted. “I’ve never been touched by a song the way this one has moved me. And while I would love to add this one to my next album, I don’t think I could do it justice.”

He turned to look at her, hoping she was teasing him.

The crowd let out a few “aws,” and a “You’re crazy!” came from a woman in the back, who was probably Harper.

Marilou looked dead serious.

Dax’s chest contracted and his throat seized up. She was turning him down? Publicly? So much for the backstage crew’s assurances that she was a nice lady.

“No.” She smiled at him. “I think Mr. Dax Marshall needs to get into a studio and record his own album.” Turning toward the crowd, she cupped one hand behind her ear. “What do you think?”

The crowd got very loud for a few minutes, then as they settled down, Dax heard Shaw’s voice. “I been telling him that for years!”

Dax coughed out a laugh. This was not what he wanted. The laid-back life of writing songs appealed to him more than the manic world of the music business.

Marilou smirked at Dax, leaning away from her mic. “So it’s settled, then.” She winked. “Wait for me in my dressing room?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He waved to the audience as he walked offstage, his knees shaking a bit. He reached the curtains and sent up a prayer of thanks that his legs hadn’t buckled on stage.

“Dax Marshall, everyone.” She shouted the words. “Remember that name. He’ll be famous one day.”

The man who’d helped him get his guitar out earlier clapped him on the back. “You must have something special, for her to call you out on stage like that. She doesn’t do that often.”

Often? Dax tucked his guitar in its case. “I’m just glad I didn’t wet myself out there.”

The guy laughed. “That’s a sure sign that you may be cut out for this. C’mon. I’ll get you into her dressing room. She’s just got two songs left.”

They walked to a door guarded by a uniformed casino employee who let Dax into the small room. A couple of cushy chairs sat in a corner, a table held some bowls of iced soda pop and water bottles, along with a bowl holding a variety of protein bars. An open door at the back led to a tiny bathroom,

He set down his guitar case and paced the room. Had she been kidding about his recording the song himself? She had to have been. He was no singer. Of course, the guys had commented that his voice sounded better lately. But he didn’t have that stage personality, the one it took to keep a room full of people entertained. And the roadie backstage, what did he mean by, “she doesn’t do this often”?

Marilou burst into the room. “Dax.” She stormed right up to him and pulled him in for a hug.

Her soft curves and sweet floral scent hit him on a physical level, sexy, hot, and sensual, but his mind stayed where it should be: on work. “Thank you for letting me perform with you, Ms. Roselle.”

She stepped back, holding his upper arms in her firm grip. “It’s Marilou, and thank you for bringing that song to me.” Shaking her head, she walked to the table and opened a bottle of water. “It’s an incredible tune, emotive and heartbreaking.”

It was all that and more to Dax. He’d written it after his little sister had died.

Dax worked up his courage. “You’re…interested in buying the song?”

With her mouth full of water, she shook her head and swallowed. “No, but I have an idea for it.” She pointed to the two chairs in the corner. “You want something to drink?”

If she’d been offering him a shot of whiskey he’d have taken it just to settle his nerves.

“No, thank you.” He waited for her to sit, then took the chair next to her. “What’s your idea?”

The way she smiled, her eyes twinkled in the light.

He’d be real busy trying to seduce this beautiful woman if he wasn’t so nervous.

“Dax, I want you to ride to New Orleans with me tonight.”

He blinked a few times as the words took their time registering in his brain.

“I’m from Louisiana.” She put the cap on her water bottle. “I’m riding on a parade float a few days before Mardi Gras, plus I have a gig on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras day.”

“What are you saying?” Did she want him to ride with her to—what—talk? Write songs?

She sat on the edge of her chair. “Sorry, I’m just rambling on too fast. I want to sing your song with you on the float, introduce you to the people of Louisiana. We’ll sing some of my songs too, of course, and we can work on arrangements on the way down there.”

It felt like his head filled with helium and hovered a foot above his shoulders.


Special thanks to Jackson Young for permission to use lyrics from If it Ain’t Too Much to Ask (Written by Jackson Young, Adam Elston, and Johnny Neel)
www.JacksonYoungCountry.com

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