“Look your best—who said love is blind?”
“Bad day, Jackson?”
“Not at all.” I nodded once at Genie Lee, unconcerned that my smile resembled a grimace. She probably couldn’t see much of my mouth seeing as how I currently wore a lemon meringue pie on my face. I hadn’t taken the time to wipe much of it off, wanting to keep my hands as clean as possible should I have need to employ them. I figured I’d either wipe it off once I finally made it back to the truck or just take my shirt off at some point and use it as a towel.
But not right now. Right now, since I was downtown, too many folks milled around. I’d worked hard on changing my reputation. Last thing I needed was stories circulating back to the station and beyond about me running shirtless through downtown.
“Anyone I should keep an eye out for?” Genie asked my back as I jogged past and scanned Walnut Street for Deveron Lawrence Stokes Jr., or as his momma and everyone else called him, DJ.
“No, ma’am. Have a nice day.”
Her chuckle followed me down the sidewalk, and I shook my head, momentarily lifting my eyes to the heavens. When I’d come upon the trio of eleven-year-olds behind Bob’s Bait and Tackle, they’d clearly panicked. I suspected the stolen pie had launched out of DJ’s hand on instinct. That kid had one hell of a pitching arm and a mighty good aim.
I didn’t mind the pie to the face, the discomfort temporary, hardly a blip on my radar. As far as embarrassing situations I’d experienced, this maybe ranked one point five out of ten.
My grimace had been inspired by the fact that they’d stolen the pies in the first place. Stolen pies necessitated a third call this month from Daisy Payton—local business owner and community heavyweight—complaining about a group of kids sneaking into her diner’s kitchen during business hours to swipe fresh baked pies. This time they’d made off with six. Last time they’d only taken two.
Understandably, Daisy Payton wasn’t pleased. And when Daisy Payton wasn’t pleased, she called the sheriff, who also happened to be my father. And when my father wanted to make a show of taking action, he called either Deputy Monroe, Deputy Boone, or me. But if the complaint originated with a Payton—especially Daisy—I was always tapped for the job, regardless of date or time, regardless of whether or not I was on duty.
“I’ve got Jackson on it, Daisy,” he’d say, and that always made her feel better, settled ruffled feathers long enough for the situation to be handled.
But back to now and spending my rare Saturday off chasing down eleven-year-olds wielding stolen pies as though launched by trebuchet.
“Jackson! What happened to your face?” Bonnie Linton called from across the street.
I tipped my head in her direction while power walking, a blob of meringue falling to the steamy sidewalk in front of Big Ben’s Dulcimer Shop. “Just trying out a new beauty regimen, Ms. Linton.”
“Having a bad day, Jackson?” Karen Smith taunted from where she stood next to Bonnie Linton. I imagined she enjoyed this, probably considered it “just desserts” for her DUI arrest last year.
Keeping my eyes forward, I inspected a line of overgrown azalea bushes while slowing my steps. The second bush back from the sidewalk rustled, and it seemed to be having a heated, whispered argument with itself. I heard a harsh Shhh and a Stop pushing!
I stopped, placing my hands on my hips. “I know you’re behind there. I hid in those bushes too when I was a kid. I need you to come out.”
“With our hands up?” came a defiant little voice I recognized as belonging to Mac Hill.
“Sure, if you want. Unless one of those hands holds a pie. If you’ve still got those pies with you, just keep them safe.” I glanced to my right and took a step closer to the bush. A few folks—some I recognized, some I didn’t—had halted their Saturday window-shopping to watch.
“Are you going to arrest us?” Kimmy Mitchell squeaked. I was uncertain if she sounded worried or excited by the prospect.
There was no way I’d be arresting Kimmy Mitchell. Exhibit A, she was eleven. Exhibit B, arresting anybody for pie thievery without violence or breaking and entering didn’t make much sense. At least it didn’t make sense to me. Exhibit C, I was in the process of courting Kimmy’s momma, Charlotte Mitchell.
Although, had Charlotte and I not been courting, even I—a perpetual rule non-bender—would’ve given the law a wee little flex for Charlotte Mitchell and her kids. Around town and among the deputies, it was just understood as fact, different rules applied to Charlotte, a single mom of four kids.
Regardless, I couldn’t come right out and say No, Kimmy. I’m not arresting you ’cause your momma has enough to deal with because Kimmy wasn’t alone. If Kimmy had been alone, I definitely would’ve reasoned with her by bringing up her momma.
So instead, I said, “Now that depends,” while wiping at my left eyebrow with a knuckle. Tossing a fair bit of lemon curd to the pavement, I brought my hand back to my hip. “If y’all come out now, agree to apologize, stop stealing Ms. Daisy’s pies, and figure out a way to make things right, we can avoid a trip to the station.”
“What about my momma?” DJ asked, fear tinting his words. “Are you going to tell my momma?”
I sighed again, noting that the number of spectators had grown. “Can y’all come out so we can talk man-to-man?” The back of my neck prickled. I shoved the heightening discomfort aside, determined to focus on reasoning with the three kids rather than worrying about the good or bad opinions of a crowd.
“Hey! I ain’t no man,” came little Kimmy’s voice just before she stepped out of the tall azalea. Her eyes fierce, she balanced a pie in each hand. From the looks of it, she held a blueberry and an apple.
“Fine then, man-to-woman.” I crouched down on my haunches so that we were now eye level. “And I see Miss Mitchell is the bravest among you.”
The little girl lifted her chin proudly as the two boys still hidden in the bush grumbled.
“Having a bad day, Jackson?” JT MacIntyre’s blustery voice sounded from somewhere behind me. “You need any help?”
“No. Thank you, JT,” I said without turning, keeping my eyes on Kimmy. “It’s a fine day, and we’re just having a conversation.”
In my peripheral vision I saw that a person I didn’t recognize had pulled out their phone, probably a tourist, which was fine. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been filmed while trying to de-escalate a situation, but it would be the first time I’d done so covered in pie.
I licked my lips to keep from laughing my frustration, the lemony sweetness and eggy meringue not at all tasty in the heat of a June afternoon. Funny thing, I’d eaten this very same kind of pie off the breasts of a naked woman a few years back, and it had been damn delicious. I reckon dessert tasted different when worn involuntarily.
Mac climbed out of the azalea next, followed by DJ. As soon as DJ appeared, I locked eyes with him. His cheeks were bright red—maybe from the earlier chase—and he wore a scowl that reminded me of his father. I’d arrested Deveron Stokes at least ten times over the last decade and seeing the familiar petulant expression on little DJ didn’t sit right with me.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” DJ spat, holding a chocolate pie of some sort in his right hand and nothing in his left. “Daisy has plenty of pie. Why can’t she just give us some?”
This statement also reminded me of DJ’s father. Deveron was always playing entitled victim, thinking everyone else owed him what he hadn’t earned.
Narrowing my eyes, I gestured for the pie thieves to come closer so I wouldn’t have to raise my voice to be heard. They shared looks with each other and then shuffled forward as a group, looking sour. Between them, they still held five pies. Well, that’s something at least. Five out of six isn’t too bad.
When they were close enough to hear my whisper, I spoke. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to return these pies to Ms. Daisy. Then we’re going to ask her if she has any work that y’all can help with.”
“You mean you want us to do chores,” Kimmy supplied, her face scrunching up.
“In my line of work, it’s called reparations,” I said gently. “But yes. Y’all took property that didn’t belong to you, and so now you need to make that right.”
DJ stepped closer. “But Daisy has—”
“It doesn’t matter if Daisy Payton has a thousand pies. If you want one of those pies, you work for it or pay for it.”
Fire flashing in his eyes, DJ shook his head. “No. No way. I ain’t doing no chores.”
My eyebrow lifted at his defiance, and I had to tilt my head back to keep an avalanche of lemon and meringue from falling into my eyes. “If you have another idea on how to make things right, go ahead. Tell me.”
DJ glanced from side to side and then focused on the crowd gathered behind me. “You can’t touch us, cop. Not now, not here. We’re just kids, and that guy over there is filming everything. You’ll get in trouble. So how’s about you let us walk?”
I felt my mouth curve into a sad smile, my heart sunk, and my thoughts oscillated between This poor kid and You little shit.
“You stole those pies. That means I can touch you.” I kept my tone relaxed, still hoping—despite the crowd, despite the clown filming us, despite the distrust and insolence in DJ’s stare—that I could diffuse his temper. “Here’s the truth, DJ. I don’t want to put my hands on you. I don’t want to force you. I want you to do the right thing, and I think you want to do the right thing too.”
“Fuck off, cop.”
Ignoring that—likely something he’d heard his daddy say—I pulled in a deep breath. “So, the way I see it, y’all got two choices: either you come with me now, on your own, making it your decision, or you spend the rest of the day running while I chase you around town.”
DJ scoffed. “You’re gonna spend all day running after us?”
“As you can see, I’m in my running clothes. I was getting ready to go on a run when I got the call about these stolen pies.” I shrugged. “I need the exercise. Either it’s running on a treadmill or running after y’all. It doesn’t matter to me either way, and I need to get in thirteen miles. You wanna run thirteen miles?”
“Don’t you wanna go chase other bad guys?” DJ eyed me, like he hadn’t yet made up his mind whether I was serious.
“First, you’re not a bad guy. You’re making some real sketch decisions, DJ, but you’re not bad. Second, today is my day off. So, no. I got nowhere to be, nothing to do. I’m’ happy to spend my whole day chasing you.” The first part of what I’d said was true, but the second part was mostly a lie. I did have somewhere to be this evening, namely taking Charlotte Mitchell out on a date.
Rebelliousness and irritation glittered behind DJ’s eyes, his mouth forming an unhappy curve. He looked at me. I looked at him. I waited.
“Fine,” he bit out. But before I could feel relieved, he lifted the pie in his hand. I saw the intent in his eye and ducked to one side just in time for the pie to whiz by my head and miss my face by a scant few inches.
That. Little. Shit.
I bit my lip, doing my best not to glare at the kid. I understood why—in his mind—he’d done it. He didn’t want to spend all day running and he needed to save face in front of his friends. That said, the action, though it might’ve felt good in the moment, was only going to make both his life and mine harder.
Meanwhile, Kimmy Mitchell gasped. “That was the chocolate mousse with chocolate cookie crust, you dummy!”
Mac Hill made a sad grunting sound. “Why’d you have to do that? I still have the pumpkin pie right here. If you were going to—”
“Let’s just go.” DJ held out his arms, as though he expected me to cuff them.
I’d’’d cuffed kids before, not many times, but I’d done it. It was always the last resort and always when the minor was in the process of physically hurting themselves or someone else. Neither of those scenarios were true at present.
“Come on.” I stood, ignoring his outstretched hands and gesturing in the direction of my parked truck. I hadn’t brought the cruiser, not wanting to be the one to give young DJ Stokes his first official ride in the back of a law enforcement vehicle. “Y’all can practice your groveling on the way.”
“What about my momma?” DJ asked, sullenly stuffing his now empty hands in the pockets of his dirty jeans.
“I already called your momma. She knows what’s up, and she said whatever Daisy decides is fine by her.”
His shoulders slumped as he walked in front of me, and I could guess why. His momma was a sweet lady who’d had a hard life, but she was also a screamer. I suspected he didn’t want to disappoint her, but I thought maybe the imminent screaming fit was the true reason for his bowed posture. In my experience, folks screamed and cussed when they felt powerless.
I nodded to JT MacIntyre, Genie Lee, and a few unfamiliar faces as we approached. “You’re in the passenger seat, at the front of the truck, DJ. Kimmy, I got a booster seat for you in the back.”
“You mean you don’t have your cop car?” Mac sounded regretful.
“I didn’t think I would need it today.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same stranger from before still recording. As soon as we were buckled up in the truck, I was going to wipe my face off.
“That’s too bad,” Mac said on a sigh.
I split my attention between the kids and the man with his phone as we walked closer to my truck. “If you want to do a ride-along, I’ll call your momma and get one scheduled.”
“Oh!” Mac sent me a quick grin.
“Can I come too?” Kimmy turned to walk backward. I took one of the pies from her grip.
“I’ll ask your momma next time I see her.” Charlotte hadn’t told her kids about me yet, about us. We’d been together for awhile, but we’d only managed three official dates so far, if you didn’t count grabbing a quick bite for lunch every so often. I understood her hesitation. She needed to be certain of a man before taking that kind of step, and I was determined to be someone she could be certain of.
My eating-pie-off-naked-ladies days were over. Unless, you know, Charlotte brought it up if we eventually got married.
“Y’all are traitors,” DJ grumbled. “He’s not cool, he’s a pig.”
“Hey, the only reason I got food on my face is ’cause y’all put it there,” I said, hoping to lighten the mood. “Once we get in the truck, I got a towel in the back to wipe it off.” Unable to stand it anymore, I used the back of my hand to push globs of pie from my forehead and chin.
Kimmy abruptly stepped closer to me, peering at the onlookers who hadn’t yet dispersed. “Why are so many people watching us?”
“They’re looking at me.” I patted her shoulder, making sure I sounded unconcerned. “Ignore them.”
“This is so embarrassing.” She lowered her face, her hair falling forward. “Oh no. There’s Mrs. Smith. She’s so mean.”
“Is that guy still filming us?” Mac was looking over his shoulder at the stranger in sunglasses we’d just walked past. The man was now following us, still holding his cell out.
I opened the passenger side of the cab and handed the pie I’d taken earlier back to Kimmy. “Here, get in. I’ll go talk to him. And be careful with the pies. The more we can return to Daisy, the better.”
Giving the man filming us a hard look that was likely disguised by the remaining sticky residue, I strolled the short distance over and ignored the phone he held. “Hello, sir. Can I help you?”
“Where are you taking those kids? You a cop? What’s your badge number?” He thrust the phone forward and into my face.
Genie Lee, standing nearby, lifted her voice to holler, “Put that phone down, you fool. That’s Jackson James. He’s having a bad day.”
“No worries, Genie. Day’s been just fine, thank you.” Working to make my smile appear more natural, I lowered my voice so only the man—and his phone—could hear me. “I don’t mind if you record me, sir. But these kids are underage, and you shouldn’t be filming them.”
“Is that a threat?” The stranger straightened, peeling off his sunglasses to glare at me. “I know my rights.”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “And it’s not against the law to film in a public place, so I’m not gonna do anything other than point out that you’re scaring them. So, if you could stop scaring the kids, I’d sure appreciate it.”
That done, I turned back toward the truck as a bystander in the slowly dispersing crowd called out, “Bad day, Jackson?”
I lifted my head to offer a friendly retort when something—or rather, someone—caught my eye.
Doing a double take, I spotted Jethro Winston standing among the remaining crowd, his movie star wife next to him, and his three boys. But their faces hadn’t been the source of my surprise or stunned focus. Breath whooshed out of me like I’d been punched in the gut, and my heart hammered between my ears. I stopped mid-stride. I stared.
The woman who, for the last handful of years, had never been far from my thoughts.
Holy fucking shit.
Looking right at me.
And I’m covered in pie.
“Jackson?” A heavy hand on my shoulder brought me back to reality. Shaking myself, I stared at the arm, shoulder, and face connected to the hand, finding Fire Chief McClure giving me a paternal smile. “You got a little something on your face, son.”
I glanced down at the handkerchief he held out. I blinked at it.
“Bad day?” he asked.
I nodded, dumbly accepting the folded square. “Yes, sir.” I spoke around a sudden roughness, my mind wild. “You could definitely say that.”
“Avoid popularity. It has many snares and no real benefit.”
—Attributed to Dorothy Dandridge (but maybe also William Penn)
When my friend Sienna and her husband paused to watch a man in exercise clothes talking to three kids, all of whom were holding pie, I automatically craned my neck to see over the crowd, wondering why the scene held such interest. The man’s back was turned to us and he was crouched on the sidewalk, yet a spike of heat pierced my chest at the sight. The broad shoulders, blond hair, and something about how he held himself felt familiar.
Murmured conversations surrounded me, but I didn’t hear them, my thoughts a tangle of Does he have kids? Are those his kids? They look really tall for—I did some mental math—four-year-olds.
Eventually, he stood and turned, and I sucked in a breath because it was definitely him, Deputy Dreamy from my one night in Green Valley. I thought maybe he wouldn’t spot me, and that was preferable. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I told myself to turn away to ensure he couldn’t see my face in the crowd. Perhaps one or more of those children were his, and here I was, a hussy staring at a married DILF of three exceptionally tall four-year-olds. It shouldn’t matter, I wasn’t in town to see him.
. . . Really? Then why are you here?
GO AWAY VOICE!
Rae, you are a mess.
I didn’t get a chance to argue the case with myself before Deputy James stalked back over and spoke to a man who’d been recording them with his cell phone. He didn’t like that the manwas recording the kids and he told the man so. The sound of the deputy’s voice—all growly with polite, disdainful authority—made my stomach do backflips, and I could not look away.
Then our eyes locked.
He saw me. His face may have been covered in what looked like whipped cream and some kind of yellow-ish goo, but I know for a fact Deputy James looked right at me. Our eyes locked, held, and a million questions I didn’t know I’d been wondering whizzed through my brain.
I hadn’t expected to see him so soon. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually expected to see him at all. My heart tripped all over itself, and I couldn’t quite gather a full breath. Even covered in frosting and goop he was just so . . . sigh.
And then, Deputy Dreamy left. He just up and left. He blinked, looked away from me, talked to an older man briefly, walked to his truck—the same old truck he’d been driving that one night we spent together—climbed inside, and shut the door. My body deflated.
“What does Jackson James think he’s doing? Making a scene like that.” A woman nearby spoke with salty conviction, her words cutting through my daze. Too absorbed by the oddly queasy feeling in my stomach, I didn’t—couldn’t—spare her a glance.
“Are those his kids?” I croaked, wondering at the intensity of my reaction to the unexpected sighting of Deputy Dreamy—my nickname for him—and my disappointment. It’s been years, Rae. Years. Of course he has kids.
“That’ll be the day,” Sienna’s husband Jethro said, his voice tinged with humor. “Jackson James has no kids.”
Another woman nearby tacked on a mumbled, “That we know about.”
The sudden knot in my stomach eased, and I mentally chuckled at myself. What was wrong with me? Why should I be so relieved that a guy I’d spent a few hours with years ago had no children, which reduced the chances that he might possibly be in a committed relationship? Although, by no means did lack of children equal not being married, or in a relationship. Plenty of marriages and committed relationships were completely and totally fulfilling without the addition of—gah! You know what I mean.
Whatever. He probably didn’t even remember our night together. Besides, I really wasn’t here to see him.
I MEAN IT, VOICE. NO MORE OUT OF YOU!
“Those three hooligans are the pie thieves who’ve been stealing from Daisy Payton.” The first lady made a sniffing sound, adding to her friend, “About time they were caught. Menace, all three.”
“Must’ve been pie all over his face.” Jethro ignored the nearby women as Jackson James’s truck pulled away. “And I bet it was that little sh—uh—” he hesitated, glancing at his oldest son and then back to Sienna “—I bet it was DJ Stokes that got him.”
Sienna also laughed. “Did you hear what he said to Bonnie? Said it was his ‘new beauty regimen.’ Hilarious. That line is going to show up in my next script.”
Jethro shook his head of shaggy brown hair, chuckling lightly and taking his youngest son out of Sienna’s arms, then bending down to give her a kiss. “Okay, enough excitement. Nap time. See you pretty ladies later.”
“Thanks, honey.” Sienna tossed her long, glossy hair over one shoulder, her dark brown eyes warm with obvious affection as she gazed at her husband. “We’ll be back after lunch.”
“No rush. Take your time. Take all day. I’m sure y’all want to catch up.”
“Are you sure this is okay?” I twisted my fingers, glancing between the two of them. “I know I showed up unannounced.”
Jethro’s grin was friendly and easy, and his brownish greenish eyes twinkled. Then again, they always seemed to twinkle. Whenever I saw Sienna and Jethro at industry events, the man rarely left her side, his hands were all over her, and his eyes twinkled.
He opened his mouth as though to respond, but the oldest of their sons tugged on his cargo shorts before he could. “I’m hot. Can we get ice cream?” The little boy pointed to a sign I recognized from my first visit here, Utterly Ice Cream.
The fat baby/toddler in Jethro’s arms grabbed his dad’s beard with both hands, fisting it and grinning.
“No.” Jethro tried to extract his facial hair from chubby fingers as he steered their three sons down the sidewalk. “We got ice cream at home. And your uncle is coming over.”
“Which one?” the oldest asked, automatically reaching out to hold his middle brother’s hand.
“They’ll be fine,” Sienna whispered at my side, giving me a wink. I sent her a look of uncertainty and noted that her eyes were also twinkly. Perhaps people as in love as they were had perpetually twinkly eyes.
“Does it matter which uncle?” Jethro’s voice carried to us as he juggled his three boys and pushed them toward the parking lot where we’d parked earlier.
I heard the middle son say something like, “Can I drive the tractor this time?” just before they were out of earshot.
Sienna sighed next to me, then whispered urgently, “No one approaches when Jet is around, and I’m not saying anyone will. But just to be safe, don’t make any eye contact with the locals if you can help it. Otherwise, we’ll be swarmed.”
I flinched back in alarm. “What?”
“I’m kidding!” Her wide grin returned, and she nudged me in the ribs with her elbow, laughing. “Totally joking. Everyone here is great, super chill. No one really cares that we’re movie people. I haven’t been asked for an autograph since before Jet and I were married. Tons of friends have visited—Tom, Eva, Juliette—no one pays any attention. So as long as you didn’t bring any paparazzi or stalkers with you, we’re good.”
“Oh.” Relief flooded through me. “Okay.” I hadn’t thought about being recognized by moviegoers, or swarmed by fans, or being approached by one of my stalkers when I decided on a whim to come visit.
Admittedly, leaving without at least one guard had been reckless. But I hadn’t given much thought to anything except escaping Los Angeles. A light application of makeup, baggy clothes, and a hat pulled low had been enough of a disguise in the airports.
“What I’m saying is, you can relax. No one cares you’re here. I mean, except for me. I care. Obviously.” Her hand came to my upper arm, and she gave it a little squeeze. “Feel free to be yourself.”
I laughed at that, and I’m sure it sounded weird and sad. Sniffling, I closed my eyes against a rush of tears.
Rae, you are a mess. A. Mess.
“What? What’s wrong?” I felt her move closer, and she dropped her voice. “What did I say?”
“God, Sienna. If I knew how to be myself, I would. I would be her.” Opening my eyes, I compelled my lips to form something like a smile. “I just feel so lost.”
Ugh! I hadn’t meant to say that. I needed to pull myself together.
Concern wrinkled her forehead and her eyes darted over my face. “What’s going on?”
Gathering a deep breath for boldness—be bold!—I planned to make some joke about their twisty unmarked streets and the backwoods roads my taxi had navigated to her house, but instead I blurted the words I’d been thinking for over a year, “I think I want to retire.”
Sienna stared at me, her eyes wide. “Retire?”
“You know, retire,” I whispered, like it was a secret. Which, I supposed, it was since I hadn’t confessed this to another soul until just now. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
I rubbed at my forehead, feeling ridiculous. “I’m sorry because I dropped in without warning on your doorstep today and ruined your plans with your handsome husband and adorable children. And now you’re not having the day with your family that you planned.”
She continued staring at me, like she was trying to figure me out. “I told you it was fine when you arrived. I mean, I was surprised when you showed up, and especially without some sort of a security detail—that seemed odd—but I would much rather you show up on my doorstep unannounced than continue to ignore my calls.”
“Oh yeah, speaking of, I’m sorry about that too.” Acutely, I became aware that we were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking traffic and forcing people to walk around us. I pulled Sienna to one side and into the nook created by the window display of an antique shop and the corner of the adjacent building. “But I wasn’t technically ignoring your calls. I’m ignoring everybody’s calls.”
She gave her head a little shake. “What is going on with you?”
I watched her, my brain in a riot. Get back on the rails, Rae. Your champagne problems are not Sienna’s problems. They’re not even real problems.
She stepped closer at my silence. “Rae, are you okay?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine. Totally fine.” I laughed, working to slip into the character I usually played at industry events. I hadn’t come here to make her worry. I came here to . . . “I’m not even sure why I’m here, honestly.” Still struggling to smile, I infused a lightness I didn’t feel into my words. “I guess I just wanted to see how country life is treating you, take in the sights, have myself hoedown.”
Have myself a hoedown? Really? Could you be any weirder? Had I been this inept at conversation the last time I was here, five plus years ago? I didn’t think so.
But a lot had changed. I’d gone from rising Hollywood star who was good at faking bravado to an A-list celebrity with a team of people to manage my money, and a team of people to manage those people, and a team of people to manage me.
Which brings me back to Sienna. We hadn’t engaged in more than a quick conversation at a red carpet event since before her wedding. In order to avoid severe-conversation-flail, maybe I simply needed to think of Sienna as a professional colleague instead of as a . . . what? Friend? Were we even still friends? We used to be.
“I see.” Sienna seemed to give my words intense scrutiny, her eyes narrowing. “I had been thinking we could grab some lunch, but based on that odd series of statements, I think we should skip straight to the wine portion of the day. It’s only 11:30AM , but I get the sense we need to have a wine conversation.”
“Oh! Wine. I could do wine. Hey, maybe we could make it a whiskey conversation.” I was only half joking.
“Sure. There’s a whiskey distillery just outside of town.” She pulled out a cell from her little purse. “I’ll call a car and we can just go. Then we’ll have somebody pick us up after so we can drink without driving. You can get drunk if you need to.”
I made a face like whaaaa? and an uncomfortable laugh tumbled out. “Why would I need to get drunk? I’m fine. I’m so fine. I’ve never been finer.”
Lifting the phone to her ear, Sienna’s eyes skated over me shrewdly. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you get too drunk.”
“I’ve always just simply seen myself as an actor. And I believe that it serves me well to just think in terms of my craft. If hypothetically, I saw myself only as a sex symbol, or as some other limited stereotype, I think I would feel like a complete failure.”
Sienna took me to a distillery not five miles outside of town. As soon as we entered the brewery, she’d greeted the woman behind the counter like they were old friends, introduced me, then asked for two whiskey flights. The place wasn’t technically open for customers this early in the day, but they were open to her. Unsurprisingly.
Sienna Diaz was a household name, America’s sweetheart, gorgeous, funny, fun, kind, generous, and sublimely happy with her former-criminal-turned-park-ranger-turned-stay-at-home-dad husband. She was the most with-it and together person in Hollywood. And the most genuine. By far.
“Shoot the first shot, sip the rest.” Sienna pointed to the first in a series of shot glasses.
Presently, we sat at a table outside on a flagstone patio overlooking a summer garden of tall wildflowers, tomato vines, and the remainder of spring vegetables.
“Bottoms up.” I picked up the first of the shot glasses in front of me and swallowed its contents in one gulp. Setting it down on the wood serving plank, next to the other full glasses, I breathed out fire and shook my head. “Damn.”
“Whew. Okay. Now we can talk.” Sienna, her nose still wrinkled with post-alcohol burn, leaned forward. “So, tell me, what’s going on? What do you mean you want to retire?”
Reaching for the pitcher of water in the middle of the table, I poured myself a glass, concentrating on it rather than giving my eyes to her. “Just exactly that. I think I want to retire.”
“What? Like a dance move? You’re retiring your dance moves? What do you mean?”
“I want to retire from acting.”
“I’m twenty-eight, and yes. I feel like—like maybe—like, yes. I think it’s time.”
I felt her gaze inspecting me. “Are you thinking about getting into directing? Producing?”
“What? Me?” I snorted. “Like I could do that.” I couldn’t even make my own lunch. And if the lunch came in a paper bag, I probably wouldn’t be able to find it. I’d needed a map of my own house when I first moved in.
“Did you just scoff? It was a serious question. I think you’d be great behind the camera. You basically re-wrote the entire Tabitha Tomorrow script, and everyone knows you were in the cutting room for Starlight Express—and that movie swept the award season for editing.”
“No.” I waved my hands in front of me.
But she wasn’t finished. “AND! And, you have a great eye for picking projects with universal themes, ones that connect with wide audiences. Any studio would be lucky to have you on the development side.”
“No. I want to retire from the business. I want out.”
Her face fell, dropping right into a frown. “Should I say congratulations? Or should I push you to tell me what’s really going on?”
“Nothing is going on.” I twisted a finger in my long hair and looked out over the raised garden beds. They needed to be weeded. “I’m just bored, you know?” If I were Pinocchio, my nose would be a mile long after that statement. “And besides, what am I doing with my life?”
“Let’s put a pin in that last question,” she said almost primly and mimed placing a tack in an imaginary corkboard. “First, do you feel good about this decision?”
“Yes. Of course.” Ope. There goes my nose again. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
“Hmm.” She looked me down and then up. “So, uh, what does Harrison think about this?” The way she said his name told me that Sienna didn’t think much of Harrison.
“This is not about Harrison.” I picked up the second shot glass, its color a lighter brown than the first, and brought it to my lips. I meant to take just a sip but ended up drinking half.
“Yeah, but what does he have to say? Does he know you want to retire?”
“I haven’t talked to him about it.”
“You two are engaged and you haven’t talked to him about it? What am I missing?” Sienna touched her second glass but didn’t pick it up, she was too busy interviewing me.
I squirmed in my seat. Bringing the second shot back to my lips, I drank the rest, then picked up the third.
“Fine!” I set the whiskey back down but didn’t release it. “It’s fake. It is fake. It’s all fake. We are big fakers. We’ve been faking it.” I drank the third shot. It didn’t burn at all. “Sorry, was I supposed to sip that one?”
She ignored my question, her mouth dropping open. “You and Harrison are fake engaged?”
“Yes. We’re not really together. It’s all a ruse, which is a word I say but don’t know how to spell but feel like I should. Does it have a ‘z’? R-O-U-Z?” My mother had always been horrified by how terrible of a speller I was. Sometimes, before I sent her text messages, I typed them out in a word processor first, to check for grammar and spelling errors. True story.
“Spelling lessons later. How long have you been faking it?”
“Since we publicly got back together during the filming of Hard Nights End.”
She shook her head like this made no sense. “That was over four years ago. Why would you—what—whose idea was this? Was this Domino’s idea?”
Domino Bing was both Harrison’s and my publicist and manager. “No. It was Harrison’s idea and my agent’s, John. Do you know John?”
I continued. “They approached me about it before filming started and then we went to Domino together. Only the four of us know—not even Harrison’s agent knows—except now you know.” And I couldn’t believe I’d just told her.
My face must’ve displayed my flare of panic because she held a hand up. “I’m not going to say anything.”
“Thank you.” I believed her.
I . . . trusted her. I didn’t know why I trusted her so much, but I did. Which is ultimately why I’m here, isn’t it?
“But I don’t understand.” She leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms as her gaze skated over me. “Why would you agree to this? With Harrison?”
“It made sense at the time. And it did help me get that part in Tabitha Tomorrow. Our ruse has definitely helped.” Furthering my career was why I’d agreed to do it in the first place and was the excuse I used—like a chant—whenever I felt shitty about the situation.
“You don’t need Harrison to get film parts. You’re hugely talented. And you’re stunning, I can’t think of anyone close to your age that looks like you. Maybe Eva Mendes? A little? You’re what would happen if Raquel Welch and Sophia Loren had a baby. and your eyes give me goosebumps. The pinnacle of Italian and Bolivian beauty.”
“My dad is Cuban.” I fiddled with the azabache bracelet on my wrist, a gift from my dad’s mother and one of the only things I had from that side of my family.
“Oh. My mistake. I’m sorry. For some reason I thought your dad was Bolivian.”
“My grandparents were Cuban, both sets of great grandparents came over from Cuba.” I’d had a better relationship with my grandparents than I did with my father, especially with my grandmother. Every summer before they died, I would spend two weeks in Miami with them. He married someone else by the time I’d reached 10 months, and they welcomed their first baby one year later.
I don’t know if his wife didn’t want me to visit them, or if my father resisted imposing his illegitimate daughter on his perfect family, but during all the visitation time he’d been given in the custody agreement I’d visit my grandparents.
“Why did I think your dad was Bolivian?”
“Raquel Welsh is Bolivian—well, partially—and we share a name, so I think that’s why there’s confusion. And it’s okay. I don’t talk about my dad much. No biggie.” I shrugged, mentally side-stepping around the tenderness I felt about this subject, which was why I rarely talked about it.
It’s hard to talk about something you don’t even want to think about.
“My point is still valid. You’re brilliant. So, I’m confused why you’d consent to this arrangement with Harrison.”
“Why are you confused?” I fingered the fourth and final shot of whiskey, glancing between her remaining three full glasses and my three empty ones. Was it too late to pace myself?
“Harrison cheated on you—for real—when you two were actually together. I know he hurt you.”
“That’s all in the past.” I waved her statement away. “And we’re—I’m not angry or hurt. I’m not at all angry with him about it anymore.” Finally, a truthful statement.
“This sounds complicated.” She sipped her second shot of whiskey, but actually sipped it. Not like me and my sudden insatiable thirst for lowering my inhibitions.
“It’s not that complicated.” I threw my hands in the air for some reason, the big movement feeling good. “We’re friends. We love each other as friends. The end.”
“Rae. He cheated on you and now you’re friends? You came home early from shooting halfway around the world, found him in bed with two men, and you’re telling me you’re over this?”
Hmm. Maybe I trusted Sienna so much because she was the only other person—other than me, Harrison, and his two boy toys—who knew the truth about that night, and she hadn’t told anyone. His cheating being the reason for our split was well and widely known, who(m) he cheated with was still a secret. The debacle had happened when Sienna and I were shooting our one and only film together, and she had been the person I stayed with that night after walking in on the threesome.
“I am over it because, in retrospect, I can see now that I loved Harrison only as a friend. We were—are—friends.” God, it felt so good to discuss this with someone who wasn’t Harrison. I’d been keeping this secret for years and it just felt good to talk about my ex, our non-relationship, and my thoughts on the subject.
“You think he prefers men?”
“Yes. I do. Sexual orientation is a spectrum of course, but I think he prefers peen and pecs, and I get it. I prefer peen and pecs. What do I want with boobs and beavers? So many parts, so many holes. Why do we have so many holes? Women are basically golf courses.”
Sienna made a short snorting sound of both humor and surprise, her shoulders shaking with laughter, and she lowered her attention to the table. After a moment, no longer laughing, she cleared her throat and asked, “Okay, what makes you think Harrison is lying about liking women?”
“I don’t think he’s necessarily lying about liking women. But I do think he wasn’t super attracted to me. My breasts do nothing for him, they never did. It was actually one of the reasons we got together in the first place. He looked at my face when we spoke.” Despite our table being shaded by a mighty oak, I felt hot. I started to unbutton the linen shirt I wore over my tank top.
“You started dating him because he looked at your face when you spoke? That’s as high as you’ve set your bar?”
I gave her a flat look. “At the time, it made him special, unique. He was different than everyone else and seemed genuinely interested in me and my career. We shared the same goals, we wanted the same things. Plus, he’s Harrison. Funny, charming, sexy Harrison.”
“If tall, dark, and handsome do it for you.” Her admission sounded reluctant.
“Since we’re in a fake relationship there is no actual cheating anymore. I mean, other than sanctioned cheating, which I guess is what he does now. But it’s my turn to cause a scandal and I just—I’m just out of energy.” I plopped both of my elbows on the table and released a noisy breath.
“Cause a scandal? What do you mean sanctioned cheating?”
“Alright, so per the agreement, to ensure we stay in the public spotlight, we’re engaged, right? But it can’t be smooth sailing. We’re back together, on again, off again, on again, off again. Everybody loves it, they follow it, constantly trending everywhere. Hashtag Harriquel, hashtag TeamRaquel, blah, blah, blah. And so he created the last scandal. Now it’s my turn.”
“You mean when he was photographed last month making out with Sabina Ureil?” Her question sounded salty, like she’d been harboring resentment on my behalf. It warmed my heart.
“Yes, the soccer player. And it’s fine because I knew about it. I guess we have an open relationship, except we can have sex with everyone but each other.” I hadn’t been with anyone, but I knew Harrison had. “We’re not romantic or touchy-feely at all unless we’re in public.”
“Now you have to. . . ?”
“Oh! Yes. Now it’s my turn to cheat and get photographed ‘accidentally.’ We got a guy who’ll tip off the right paps whenever I decide to give the go-ahead.” I used air quotes around the word accidentally because, apparently, I’d had enough whiskey to use air quotes. “But time’s a tickin’ and Domino is worried that if I’m not photographed being sexy with someone soon, then I will look pathetic getting back with Harrison yet again. I forgave him for the soccer player, therefore Harrison should forgive me for something. You know how it is.”
“I don’t.” She shook her head, her eyebrows pulled together in a frown. “I honestly do not know how it is.”
“Well, this is how it is. On and on.” I stared at my last whiskey, still untouched. “Now that I explain it out loud, you’re right. It sounds twisted.”
“I didn’t say it sounded twisted.”
“But it’s crazy, right?”
She took another sip of her second whiskey, saying nothing, her expression giving nothing of her thoughts away.
My brain felt warm, fuzzy, which made me inclined to add, “It’s like we’re playing these roles for the public. And I didn’t mind at first. I mean, it’s just like playing another part, right? But that means my personal life has become another acting job.”
“And I should be fine with that, as long as it gets me to where I want to be in my career.”
“Where exactly are you wanting to go with your career? You’re already at the top.”
“You’re right. My career has never been better since we’ve done this.” I smacked the table. “And I’m considered for roles I wouldn’t usually be considered for even though I‘m tempted to turn them down.”
“I find this hard to believe. Last I heard, you’re considered for every role.”
“Not every role.”
“The new Scortez film.”
“Oh! I wanted to read that script. I heard it’s excellent.”
“Depends on which character you play. I think the male part is great, strong.”
“But yours isn’t?”
“It’s. . .” I made a face “See, the whole angle is that I, Raquel Ezra, actual woman scorned by the ‘love of my life’ Harrison Copeland—” more air quotes “—am pouring my heart and real feelings of betrayal into the role, leaving a man who is no good for me, only to come full circle and have an affair with said cheater at the end. Like, we can’t escape who we are, we can’t escape our destiny, even if our destiny is bad for us. It’s a whole tragic the heart wants what it wants theme.”
“And you’re taking the role?” She eyed me over the rim of her shot glass. “Or are you retiring?”
“I have no idea. I’m just—my agent wants me to take it, so does Harrison.”
“What do you want?”
“It would be good for my career.”
“That’s not what I asked. I asked what you want.”
“I have no idea. God, I’m a mess.” I released a tremendous breath, Sienna blurring in my vision.
If I were being honest, I didn’t actually want the Scortez part. Yes, it was more serious and artier than my usual projects, but nothing about the role felt new or interesting to me. I used to enjoy the work I was offered, grateful for any chance to improve my craft. Making an actual paycheck from acting felt like hitting the lottery.
And yet, after playing the victim of circumstances and/or bad choices over and over again, just once I wanted to be someone who made their own destiny and knew exactly who they were—good, bad, didn’t matter. My heart twisted, lodging itself in my throat as I released an aggrieved sigh.
I’d actually found the perfect part six months ago. Over the objections and concerns of my agent and basically my entire team, I’d signed on to an indie film that paid peanuts with a location shoot in Cuba!
I couldn’t wait. I was excited about a role for the first time in ages just to have the part taken away from me at the last minute and recast with my best friend—scratch that, FORMER best friend.
Sienna and I sat quietly for a long moment and my mind went blank, which might’ve been why when I broke the silence, random thoughts gushed forth. “I feel like I don’t have anything real in my life. My relationship with Harrison is fake. Obviously my LA friendships are fake. My career is real. But then again, it’s not. I play the same part over and over, and it’s not what I want anymore. Plus, how am I helping people? What am I doing that’s making any kind of difference? And I need a new bra. This one itches.”
“Let me ask you this.” Sienna patted the table, as though to get my attention. She waited until I gave her my gaze before continuing, “If you could pick one real thing that you want—just one thing—what would it be? And I don’t mean a career goal, or a part, or an award. I also don’t mean something you can buy. What is something real you want, maybe even something selfish, just for you?”
I bit and chewed on my bottom lip, staring at her and considering the question. “I guess. . .”
I have no idea.
None of the typical responses applied in my case. Not a vacation. Who would I go with? Not a spa day. In LA, I had a team of people who took care of my skin and hair, gave me massages, guided me through meditations and yoga, directed my daily workouts, dictated and prepared what I ate whether I wanted them to or not.
I was so tired of their company, of being watched, of being told what was best for me, of being surrounded by colleagues and employees, and yet isolated because none of them were truly my friends. And the answers came to me all at once: Privacy. Freedom. Anonymity.
But more than all that, I wanted a real friend.
A friend who wasn’t using me—like Harrison—or one who pretended to be my friend but wasn’t—like Lina. A person I could talk to without worrying my statements would end up in a gossip magazine, provided by “a source close to Raquel Ezra.”
“Something obtainable,” Sienna pressed, cutting into my sad thoughts. “Something you’ve wanted for a while.”
Wanting to ask Sienna to be my friend and feeling utterly pathetic at the thought, I shrugged. “I don’t know, eating a whole chocolate cake?”
She gave me a patient smile. “We can do that while you’re here, I know of an excellent bakery. But I’m trying to get at something else. Something good, something healthy.”
“Healthy,” I parroted, leaning back in my chair and crossing my arms under my chest.
While I debated how to address her question without giving the real, pitiful answer, a server approached. He placed his hand on the back of a vacant chair at our table and grinned down at Sienna first and then I felt his attention move to me. “Hey ladies, how are we doing?”
I tilted my head back to look at him and found his gaze resting on the neckline of my tank top and the swells of my girls. Ah, girl power.
“Hey Damon. We could use some privacy.” Sienna’s tone sounded unmistakably wry with the barest dusting of irritation. “I’ll come get you if we need anything.”
“Sounds good.” He licked his lips, his eyes still on my chest. “Please, do not hesitate.”
I righted my head as he walked away, looking at Sienna and finding her wearing an apologetic expression. “I am so sorry about that.”
“Uffda, I’m used to it. I developed at ten. By the time I was twelve I’d learned to ignore men’s stares.” Lifting my heavy hair off my neck, I shrugged. “It’s also a good way of weeding out assholes. If a guy makes lasting eye contact, they’ve passed the first test, ya know?”
“Yes. I know.” Sienna chuckled, flashing her winning smile. “But I’m sorry all the same. I know you didn’t come here for that.”
“Actually, I kinda did. Remember? I need to be photographed making out with someone.” I groaned inwardly at the thought. The last time I had to “cheat” on my “boyfriend” for the benefit of a camera, the random guy I’d chosen had been incredibly grabby. I’d ended the short encounter with bruises all over my arms and sides, and a super painful hickey on my neck.
“Hopefully, you’ll be doing this with someone you’re actually interested in.” Concern flickered behind her gaze.
“Hopefully.” A vision of Deputy Dreamy from our night together years ago flashed through my mind, him sitting on the couch just before I’d straddled him, just before we’d kissed. My neck heated and a twisting warmth curled low in my belly. He’d given me plenty of eye contact that night, and he hadn’t been at all grabby. I tried to recall the last time a man had looked me in the eye longer than in the chest.
Deputy Dreamy was the last.
As though poking around in my thoughts, Sienna asked, “When was the last time you were with someone you were actually interested in?”
I worked to make my small smile look sincere, but knew I failed when Sienna’s neutral expression became a frown.
Wanting to disarm her worry, I let the whiskey do the talking, “It’s actually a funny story.”
“Is it?” She sipped her second shot, finishing it, her gaze direct and disbelieving.
“Remember your wedding?” I asked, and then rolled my eyes at myself as soon as the words were out. “Of course you remember your wedding. Sorry. Anyway, there was a guy at the wedding, and we kind of hooked up.”
She sat up straighter. “What? Who?”
I picked up the last whiskey shot and sipped it, rolling the liquid around on my tongue to delay responding. According to Sienna and Jethro, Jackson didn’t have any kids, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t married or in a serious relationship with someone.
“Rae. Why am I just hearing about this now? Who was it? Do I know him?”
Nodding, I took another sip. Please oh please let him be single.
“Oh my God. It wasn’t one of Jethro’s brothers, was it?”
“No! No, it wasn’t.”
“Oh, good. That might’ve made things awkward.”
“I’ve decided you’re staying with us in our carriage house, and you’re staying as long as you want—hopefully two weeks or longer, if you can spare the time. Jet’s brothers stop by pretty frequently.”
I forced a smile to hide the abrupt pang of bitterness. “I can stay two weeks, thank you.” The truth was I could stay months if Sienna wanted. The movie I was supposed to begin filming—the one I’d been excited about—had dropped me a mere three days ago, replacing me on the project with my once and former BFF. I now had a gaping hole in my schedule for the first time in years.
“Good. It’s two bedrooms with tons of privacy, you’ll love it. Now, who is he? Who is the guy?”
“Ah, yes, the hookup.”
“Who was it?”
“He’s—uh—the deputy. From today.” I braced myself, watching her, holding my breath.
Why are you holding your breath, Rae? And why is your heart beating so fast?
Sienna didn’t frown, but her eyes grew impossibly large. “Jackson? Jackson James?”
All pretense of self-control lost, I drank the rest of the fourth whiskey and smacked my lips together. “Yep. That’s the guy.”
“Are you serious?”
“As serious as a Botox shortage in Beverly Hills.”
“Wow.” Her gaze lowered to the table, losing focus. “Wow.”
“Do you know him?” I picked up the last shot glass, but then I remembered it was already empty. “Is he a bad guy? Is he married?”
“No, he’s not a bad guy. He’s a good guy, I think. I like him! Though I honestly don’t know him as well as I should. Sometimes he babysits for us, when we’re in a crunch.”
“He babysits the boys?”
“Yes. They love him. What I know about Jackson’s personal life is mostly just what I hear about him from others when I’m in town between location shoots. Small town gossip, that kind of thing. And he’s definitely not married.” She said the word definitely funny, with a strong intonation that made me think maybe there was more to the story. “And he doesn’t date.”
“Wait, what does that mean? Is he gay?” My heart sunk while my brain raced to and then jumped off the cliff of hasty conclusions.
“No, no. I mean, as far as I know, he’s not. But I didn’t know Harrison liked men until he cheated on you that first time. And it’s not like I’m going around asking people where on the sexual orientation spectrum they fall. But, if I had to guess, I’d say Jackson is firmly and vigorously heterosexual based on his—uh—history. With women.”
Selfish relief mixed with suspicion, and I narrowed my eyes at her. “You’re babbling. Why are you babbling?”
“Sorry.” She laughed, looking like she wanted to say so many things. “You just caught me off guard.” Sienna picked up her shot glass and sipped it, watching me closely.
I glanced down at my shirt to make sure I’d hadn’t spilled something on myself. Finding my tank top free of liquid, I asked, “What?”
“Yes. Jackson.” Jackson James. I’d always liked the way his name sounded. He had a great name.
“You know, I’m kind of related to him.”
“Does that make him off-limits?” I blurted.
Another smile curved her lips, a slow, sneaky looking one. “No, no, he’s definitely on limits. My husband’s brother Duane—one of the twins—is married to Jackson’s sister, Jessica.”
“That’s a lot of J names.”
“Indeed. Duane and Jessica just had a baby last year.”
“Let me guess, Jarvis?”
“No. Liam. Anyway, I guess Jackson is my brother-in-law, in a roundabout way.”
Parched, I reached for my water glass and took a big gulp. Sienna fiddled with her whiskey shot, her stare what I would call speculative, that secretive smile still on her lips like she had thoughts.
She was making me nervous. “What? What is it?”
“Nothing.” She shrugged, clearly lying. “So, what happened? Did you two keep in touch?”
“No. It was just a one-time thing. You know me.”
“Yes. I know you.”
“What is that supposed to mean? I’m feeling judged.”
“You shouldn’t. It’s not like it’s any secret that you don’t take home your leftovers. I’ve never seen you with the same guy twice, except Harrison of course.”
“Of course.” Blah.
“Hey, so.” Sienna shrugged, her tone excessively casual. “If you want me to set something up with Jackson or help you figure out how to approach him, I will.”
“You will?” I couldn’t keep the enthusiasm out of my voice. Oh man, this was great. So great. I had no idea how to approach him. What does one say to a man that one wishes to snog after five plus years of silence?
Hey, so, I know I said I’d never contact you again after our one night together, but do you maybe want to play golf. . . with my holes?
“Yes.” She inspected me for a quick second before asking, “Is he why you’re here? You need to be photographed with someone—to continue the Harrison ruse—and so you thought of Jackson James?”
I opened my mouth to respond, but no words arrived.
Be honest, Rae, if only with yourself. Is Deputy Dreamy the reason you’re here?
Looking toward the garden again, I tilted my head back and forth as I debated how to answer and ended up speaking the truth out loud. “Partly, yes. It’s been impossible these last few years, meeting someone, and I know that’s my fault. I used to not care. Work came first, always. But recently, I don’t know. It would just be nice to have a person who I didn’t have to pretend around, someone trustworthy who didn’t go running to the tabloids to sell an insider story. I meant what I said, I’m tired of having nothing real in my life. It’s . . .”
“Exhausting. Pretending all the damn time.” I peeked at her, gauging how weird I might make things if I continued talking and were actually 100 percent honest.
As I’ve mentioned, Sienna was, by far, the most genuine, real person I knew in the business. She never faked anything. Or if she did, she was just that good of an actress and she made her life look authentic. Since her wedding, I’d seen her with her husband at red carpet events and they always looked so happy, so in love, and they stood out from the crowd because of it. Where others—like me—were airbrushed and arduously determined to exude effortless perfection, Sienna and her Jethro were effortless perfection.
“You came here so you wouldn’t have to pretend?” she said after a while, her smile faint and shaded with concern. “And you think, with Jackson James, you won’t have to?”
“Why do you look worried?”
“It’s just—” she sucked in a breath, her eyes moving between mine “—he has a reputation in this town. He is a good guy, but he’s not . . .”
“Boyfriend material?” I pressed my lips together to keep from grinning because this news felt like good news for me. “I’m not here to go steady with him, remember?”
“Yeah, well, then Jackson is perfect.” She chuckled. “What happened that night? Between the two of you? He must’ve made a big impression.”
“More like, he’s the last guy I’ve felt any actual attraction to and with,” I hedged. “If I have to get caught making out with someone, it would be nice to enjoy the experience.”
“I see.” Her eyes moved over me and narrowed, grew thoughtful as her smile flattened.
“Don’t worry, I won’t mack down on him at your house. It has to be public. And I promise, I’ll be out of your hair by Friday.”
“Stay as long as you like, I mean it.” She sipped her whiskey, but her eyebrows told me she was troubled. “I’d be more than happy to host you all summer, if you want.”
Oh man, I wanted to accept her offer. But I wouldn’t. I wasn’t a freeloader. That said, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been as tempted to break my own rules as I was right now. Whatever Sienna’s secret for happiness was, I wanted it. But I couldn’t say that either. I didn’t want her to think I was needy.
So I said, “Thank you, you are very kind, but I probably should get back to LA,” because it was the truth.
Just not all of it.
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