Troy Bennett is a man fighting the demons who tell him he is worthless every day of his life. Demons his mother conjured. He quiets them with alcohol and casual relationships, never allowing any woman to get close enough to him so he will never have to disappoint one. Then on the spur of the moment trip to Panama City Beach with his Ranger buddies, he sees the future he’s always been afraid to pursue exit a Jeep Wrangler at a local donut shop.
Just as Troy and Crystal are finding their footing, she gets the call she never thought she would earn: Crystal Davis is going to Hollywood to be a contestant on America’s Next Chart Topper. What started as a way to honor her murdered friend has now become her dream. Chasing her dream means leaving Troy behind for a bit, and she wonders if her absence will cause what they’ve built so far to come crashing down.
Chasing her dream also means she’s put herself in a place where she’s vulnerable to the side of Hollywood that no one wants to acknowledge. A place where people only care about her and Troy’s story for the audience while behind the scenes, evil, selfish people work to tear them apart.
Crystal’s nerves were fraying after some nut job had run Kevin and Rin off the road earlier. Kevin also informed them some strange guy had followed the Crew around all day. He did not know if it was the same man who had done both things, but Kevin was confident a connection existed between the stalker and the accident. Kevin feared the stalker had links to human traffickers. Words did not usually fail her, and she had a feeling she was worrying Troy with her silence since they got in their Uber. Kevin’s plan had been for the eight of them to pair up and go in different directions once Rin left the hospital. She and Troy were one pair.
“Crystal?” Troy asked. She could hear the implied are you OK in there.
“I’m all right, Troy,” she responded with a tremor in her voice. “Or I will be. Do you know how, after an intense event happens, you can get all shaky? That’s me right now. You’d think I’d been the one in the car accident.”
“I do know about that shaky feeling. You’re having an adrenaline dump. Try taking some deep breaths. When we get to the hotel, if you can stretch a bit, it might help, too.”
“Good advice,” she replied after trying one of those deep breaths. “How do you know about dealing with shock?”
“Adrenaline dumps are an occupational hazard for us.”
Right, she thought to herself. It has to be intense to be an Army Ranger.
The Uber arrived at their humble abode for the evening, and they exited the car. As Troy placed his hand on the small of her back, walking them into the motel, a small smile tugged at her lips, and a sense of calm overcame her. His presence reassured her.
“Crystal, don’t be afraid,” Troy said, seeming to sense her mood. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, OK? My brothers and I will keep you and the Crew safe and see you home in one piece.”
“I know you will,” she replied with conviction. “I believe in you.”
She would have missed the shock on his face if she had not been looking. It was there and gone in half a second and had her wondering why he would be surprised by her words. Was she coming on too strong? Too much too soon?
Once they were checked in and at their room, she readied herself for bed while Troy stood outside the door. An awareness hit her that she had changed. Crystal generally flirted for practice and fun. Her interactions with Troy felt utterly different. Less lighthearted playfulness. More ‘can we see where this goes?’ Her intentions were breathtakingly new. She hoped he felt the same connection with her that she felt with him. If he did not, he would be a hard man to forget.