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On the third day, I got up out of bed, staggered into the bathroom, and addressed myself in the mirror.

"Maggie," I told myself, "you are a pitiful waste of God-given talent and womanhood." I stared back at myself. "Look at you! Going all to pieces because your daughter decides to go try life with Daddy! She ain't dead, and frankly, she's been a royal pain in the derriere these past few months." I leaned in closer to the mirror, staring at the woman I'd become. My curly red hair hung in a sleep-tangled mat, my green eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and I was getting pimples from eating chocolate and grease.

"Girl, Mama didn't raise no fools and she certainly didn't raise a whiner. It is time to take the bull by the horns and get a life!" I remembered something else Mama used to say, too: If you tarry on fate's highway, you'll become life's roadkill.

Mama was right. My future was awaiting me, and somehow I knew it would mean a big change. I just didn't know that it would also mean big trouble.

Six months later, I found myself. I turned the day-to-day management of the beauty shop over to my partner, Bonnie. I told her I'd still come in and do my regulars, but she was in charge. Then I took half of the money Vernell reluctantly forked over in the divorce settlement, and claimed what I knew was my rightful place in the world.

Ever since I'd gotten pregnant with Sheila and had to marry Vernell, I'd been pretty much playing it by the rules. My crayon never strayed outside of the lines. But I decided that taking the bull by the horns meant pursuing the one dream that I'd always kept buried in the back of my head. Maggie Reid, thirty-six-year-old divorcee and mother of one, co-owner of the Curly-Que Beauty Salon was about to become Maggie Reid, girl singer for the Drivin' Wheel, the house band at Greensboro's leading country and western bar, the Golden Stallion Club.

I was born to sing. But like Mama always told me, a caged bird can't sing if it's living with a gilded lily. With Vernell across town shacked up with a Barbie doll and Sheila going for the Miss Spoiled Rotten Award, I figured there wasn't much I had to lose.

It's not like I had no experience. I'd sung all my life, one way or another. That's how me and Vernell met. He was dancing with some girl right by the stage at a high school dance. When he swung her around, he looked up at me as I was singing in my little band, and he winked. The rest was history. Bad history.

So, I thought, go for it, girl. What've you got to lose? All my life I'd stood by and watched the parade. It was finally my turn. And that's how I wound up on stage at the Golden Stallion, standing in front of a microphone, ready to make my mark on the world of country music.

I won't ever forget that first night. The auditions were open to the public, with every drunk, bouncer, deejay, and wanna-be cowgirl putting in their two cents worth about who the new lead singer in the house band ought to be.

I remember hearing them call my name over the P.A. system, and someone giving me a little shove. Next thing I knew, I was under the bright lights, walking across that stage like I owned the place, and praying I didn't make a fool of myself by tripping over the cables and wires that criss-crossed the floor.

The band members looked at me. The lead guitar player, a cute fella with a small black beard, nodded and said, "Count it off and we'll come in behind you." He could've said, "Hey, my name's Jethro and we're the Beverly Hillbillies," for all I heard. I was too nervous to think.

I stepped up to the mike, my heart somewhere up around my ears, and looked back at the band. "Fake it 'til you make it," I whispered to myself. "One, two, one, two, three, four." I gave them the count, the pedal steel started to whine, and the rhythm guitar slipped in underneath as I began to sing "Your Cheatin' Heart."

I spent the first verse just trying not to wet my pants with fear, wishing my knees would quit knocking. On the second verse, I began to look out past the lights into the audience and sing to the house. After all, I was going to be a Country Legend. I had to act like a Somebody.

I sang my heart out and as I did, something started to change in me. For the first time in maybe ever, I felt strong deep down inside. I made eye contact with every lonely-looking man I saw, even the cute ones. I unhooked the mike from the stand and started walking and singing. By the start of the third verse, they were mine.

Somewhere in the middle of the third verse, I fell in love. A tall, lanky man was moving through the throng of dancers, his eyes locking onto mine and pulling me to him. He kept right on coming until he stood at the edge of the rail that rimmed the dance floor. He wore a white straw western hat and tight, faded blue jeans. His face was deeply tanned and laugh-lined, like he worked outside for a living. And he had a thick, cowboy mustache, the kind that makes women think about kissing.

He stood there, arms folded, smiling up at me like we were old friends, sharing a secret, an intimate, under-the-covers secret. I looked straight back at him, smiled, and let the music tell this man we had a common destiny. When the song ended, I had a new job and a future.

There was only one casualty that evening. By the time I'd finished singing and talking with the band, my blue-eyed cowboy had disappeared. I looked for him, not in an obvious way, but short of going into the men's room, I was pretty thorough. He was gone, but the gift he'd given me remained. I knew now there was life after Vernell Spivey. I had a new job and prospects on the horizon.

For the next five months it no longer mattered that Vernell was basking in the artificial sunlight of TV cameras, hawking satellite dishes and becoming rich. It even stung a little less that Sheila was now attending the Irving Park Country Day School and hanging out with girls whose first names always sounded like somebody's last name. Life had dealt me an inside straight, and I was happy.

That is, up until the day when fate, in the form of the Greensboro Police Department and Jimmy Spivey, conspired to ruin my fife and take away my newfound happiness.

Chapter Three

Maybe it wasn't entirely Jimmy's fault that I was sitting in a little eight by six cubicle, counting the cracks in the linoleum. After all, I was the one who had mouthed off to those cops. But they deserved it. They came busting in and interrupted me at a very crucial point in my tribute to Tammy Wynette.

Cletus, the Golden Stallion's doorman, tried to stop them. See, he ain't afraid of nothing or nobody. He spread his big, beefy legs, folded his two-by-four arms across his chest, and glared at them with his black, beady eyes. That look'll stop an overnight trucker lit up on speed and spoiling for a fight. But it didn't faze the Greensboro Police Department's finest.

I could tell from the way they were staring and pointing in my direction that it was me they were after, and they weren't looking for autographs. What in the world did they want?

"No," Cletus said, still trying to stop them.

"Step aside," the older one seemed to say. The younger one, hungry for his nightstick, started fingering his belt. Cletus bristled and the older one shot his partner a look.

"We ain't after making no trouble," the older cop said, or something like it. He raised his hands as if placating Cletus and gestured toward me. "We just want Ms. Reid."

"She's singing," Cletus must've said.

"Cain't help that," the cop said, and pushed right on by him.

I saw them coming and it ticked me off. Jake the Snake, local to the Pagan Motorcycle Club, and known to tip big-time when he's loaded, was just about to approach me when he saw the cops and scuttled away like a frightened crab. Any other night, the cops would've been glad to find him, but these two were looking straight at me and they didn't look happy.

The younger one walked right to the bottom of the stage where I was singing "Stand By Your Man," and started yapping like a terrier.