Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
He was clearly disheartened by the news. “I know,” he finally admitted.
“But I’m not going for Drew,” I reiterated. “And no matter what he says or what he does, I’m not going to walk into another buzz saw. The blinders are off. I know he never cared about me, no matter what happened between us in the past. And no doubt he’ll have Olivia Guest hanging from his arm like a
new watch. She’ll get his attention now, and rightly so. She’s just a better fit.”
The teapot began to whistle, so I finished making his tea for him. He studied me thoughtfully as I
added some lemon and some honey, just the way I knew he liked it. “He’s an idiot, you know,” he said softly as I handed him his cup.
I smiled. “I know.”
His eyes met mine over the brim of his cup. I stared into them as long as I dared, before I finally broke free from his gaze and headed to the safety of my office, where I could stay suitably distracted by busywork.
With one absentminded click of the mouse,
I ended up signing into Alex’s profile by mistake. I was struck silent by the screensaver on his desktop. It was a family portrait of Alex, Nina and Max shortly after he was born. The man who stared back at me from the computer was not the wounded shell of a man I had begun to discover. He looked happy, at peace, as though he was privy to a secret the rest of the world didn’t know.
That man was gone now. In his place was someone colder and more guarded, who stared at the world through crystal blue eyes, constantly evaluating risk and threat.
I glanced at the door, but it was safely closed. My heart raced as I positioned the cursor over the “Photos” folder on the desktop. I perused through Alex’s past, a sneaky voyeur as I clicked through photo after photo. There were some photos taken right there at the ranch when he was a little boy, with Drew and without. I held my breath as I scanned through their past, watching the playful young Drew, who smiled easily for the camera and threw teasing bunny ears up behind his brother’s head as a joke, slipped away frame by frame.
Not so coincidently, the smiling Alex did likewise. By the time his brother had been edged out of his life, the spark in Alex’s eyes was gone.
It didn’t return until the photos taken in Europe, when he was joined in every photo with a beautiful brunette whose figure was generous and smile was warm.
This was Nina, and Alex’s love for her was evident in every single picture. It showed their wedding on the back lawn
of this very estate, and while Elise was present, Drew was noticeably absent.
There were pictures of t
he newlyweds backpacking and horseback riding, camping and sailing on the ocean. In every single shot they were smiling, happy and fulfilled.
He was a different man. He was whole
again. It showed on his face every bit as much as the happiness he wore when his photo was taken with his beloved mother.
Like Jonathan, Alex was a lost little boy who needed to belong to someone.
I clicked onto a video, where Nina was proudly showing off her pregnant tummy. “Six months today,” Alex said from behind the camera. “And still a supermodel.”
She laughed. “You’re blind as a bat but I love you,” she said as she cupped her swollen tummy with great affection. “I hope he has your charm.”
“I hope he has your everything,” Alex said in a warm, loving voice that made my heart melt.
n photo after photo, I watched her tummy grow until Max was born, and then I saw her waste away. Right up to the end, when she was a wisp of a woman engulfed by a hospital bed, he looked at her like she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Because she was loved, she never lost her smile, even at the bitter end.
The last photo
of Alex showed him looking out over the ocean, where he had just spread her ashes. Every photo after that had shown everyone else but him, as if he stopped existing the moment she did.
I wiped a tear from
my eye as I saw the man he was turn into the new Alex I had so despised, and suddenly it all made sense. He was pushing everyone away to protect himself, and God only knew how I understood that.
It made me feel even worse that
I had misjudged him.
“I’m the idiot,” I mumbled aloud before
I signed out of his profile and turned off the computer. All the way up to my room I could see those haunted eyes in the way he had looked at me in the kitchen. They were the same eyes that had followed me into my dreams and tortured me for months. And the bitch of it was I could no longer tell whose eyes they were. And neither could my traitorous body, as it reacted to the memory of their piercing blue intensity that melted my insides just like a microwave.
As I drifted off to sleep that evening, I felt lonelier than I had in a very long time.
I had once again secured the lock on my gilded cage, hiding my key from the inside… much like the man who slept right down the hall from me.
I remained emotiona
lly off-kilter, especially after Jonathan returned to his mother’s that Thursday evening. The following week was the party, and the closer we got to it, the more it intimidated me. Alex decided we needed a distraction, so he invited some friends for dinner Sunday night for a casual get-together. He insisted we both needed to unwind with good food and good company.
I was reticent to help him host a di
nner party for his friends. It felt a little too intimate for the hired help… a title I felt compelled to retain at all costs, especially after the confrontation with Jonathan. But Millicent thought it was a fine idea, continually pointing out that Alex hadn’t opened his house to his guests in ages and it was long overdue. After spying in his photo folder, I knew that was true. And Max was likewise excited. I opted not to be a buzz kill, and even offered to make a decadent Mississippi Mud Cake after Max laughed and laughed over the name.
“We’re going to eat
?” he said with a wrinkle of his nose.
“Not just any mud.
Mud. Can you spell Mississippi, Max?” I asked as I rumpled his hair. He shook his head and I scooped him up into my arms. “Em eye, crooked letter-crooked letter, eye, crooked letter-crooked letter, eye, humpback-humpback, eye!” I tickled him until we both giggled.
Alex grilled seafood and steaks on the veranda while Millicent and I worked on all the side dishes. I made a southern potato salad, devilled eggs and my cake, while she prepared a quinoa salad full of tomatoes, olives and feta. We had a veritable feast for eight set on the formal dining room table when the doorbell rang that Sunday evening a few minutes shy of seven o’clock.
“Come on,” Alex coaxed as he headed toward the door. I smoothed my colorful summery maxi dress with one shaking hand as I followed behind.
He swung open the door to greet our first couple, Jake and Shannon Dalton. Jake struck me immediately with his rugged good looks. He looked like he had just stepped off the cover of a romance novel. He could have been a model, and in fact looked very familiar. So did his wife, Shannon. She had cropped chestnut hair and a generous figure, much like me. Alex greeted both of them with a big, familiar hug.
“Hey, guys! So glad you could make it!”
“How could we not?” Jake teased as he slapped Alex on the back. “You
r hosting a dinner party is a bit like spotting Big Foot in the woods.”
“Or Elvis at the local fast food restaurant,” Shannon teased as she reached up to kiss Alex on the cheek.
“What can I say? I felt like celebrating,” Alex said before he turned to me. “Shannon, Jake, I’d like you to meet Rachel Dennehy.”
Shannon reached for a friendly hug in greeting. “So nice to meet you, Rachel,” she said. Jake followed suit with a full-body hug that nearly lifted me off my feet.
“It is so nice to meet both of you,” I replied, unable to shake the feeling that I had seen them before.
“Rachel is helping us with
the family,” Alex said, as if ‘the family’ warranted no further explanation.
“Then you’ll need this,” Jake teased as he produced a bottle of wine. “In fact, I may owe you five or ten more.”
I laughed. “Don’t think I won’t take you up on it!”
Alex led us all through the house into the family room, where Max and Millicent waited. They greeted our guests with warm familiarity, indicating that the Daltons were family friends that went way back. Jake confirmed this by sharing that his family and Alex’s grandparents got acquainted decades ago thanks to their mutual ranching experience. “We grew up together,” Jake said, referring to Alex. I assumed he also knew Drew, but he was too polite to introduce that touchy topic into conversation.
“I thought you were bringing your friends,” Alex said to Shannon. She just grinned with a shrug of her shoulder.
“They’re Hollywood folk,” she explained. “They’ll likely be fashionably late.”
Hollywood, I thought. And suddenly all the pieces fell into place. “
Love Plus One
,” I exclaimed suddenly. “I knew I knew you both from somewhere. You were on that dating show!”
Jake cuddled Shannon closer where they sat on the sofa. He grinned at his wife with adoration I could feel from where I sat three feet away. “
Best four months of my life,” he agreed before planting a lingering kiss on her lips.
Max hopped in my lap to give me a noisy peck on the lips to mirror the adults. Everyone laughed, a
nd Max settled happily in my arms.
“I keep trying to get Alex to sign up,” Jake teased.
Alex laughed. “No way. No more trips down the aisle for me, thank you very much.”
Millicent playfully slapped her son-in-law
on the shoulder. “Don’t be a bitter old Scrooge,” she frowned. “This house is way too big for a bachelor.”
“It’s filling up,” Alex said as he slid a glance my direction. I looked away. “Rachel moved in so she could teach my nephew Jonathan, so we have a full house most of the week. We cook together, we ride together. We even camp out.”
“Boy, that takes me back,” Jake said with a nostalgic smile.
Alex turned back to me. “After Drew stopped coming to the ranch, Jake spent almost every summer here until we graduated high school. He was my brother from another mother,” he added with a wink. “We should totally do that again,” he suggested to his childhood friend.
“I’d love to,” Jake agreed. “But Shannon is going to be tied up with
I turned back to Shannon. “You work on
?” I asked, referring to the nation’s new singing show that spotlighted talent over some cookie-cutter pop star image. A few of the last finalists had been a war amputee, a transgender female and a size-20 diva right out of high school. I, personally, had been rooting for her to win.
She nodded with a proud smile. “Season Two starts on Memorial Day.
You guys should come down. We’ll give you the tour.”
Max clapped his hands excitedly. “Can we, Rachel?” he asked.
“The boss has spoken,” I told the Daltons.
As it turned out, the other couple who arrived nearly a half hour later also worked on
, as the hostess and the makeup artist. Dominique Prejean was a Creole goddess with skin the color of creamy mocha and eyes a piercing shade of green. Her companion was equally striking. The lithe Jorge Navarro wore black better than any runway model, and that included his carefully applied eyeliner. He had tattoos and rings on every finger, along with some metal bling around every wrist. When those dark eyes sparkled as he met me for the first time, I couldn’t help but blush from his unexpected attention.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of me all through dinner. Finally he murmured, “I could so much with you,” as he looked over my outdated hairdo and my minimal makeup.
“Don’t do too much,” Alex replied as he, likewise, assessed my appearance. “We like Rachel just the way she is.”
“We love Rachel!” Max corrected with a big smile.
Jorge laughed. “Well, if you ever want to shake things up a bit, let me know. I’ll be happy to help.”
“He’ll transform you,” Shannon agreed.
“We do have that soiree next Friday at Drew’s house,” Alex said. “Maybe you can make my brother eat his heart out for letting her go.”
I glanced at Alex, who looked back down at his plate to spear a piece of steak with his fork.
“Honey, by the time I’m done with you, every straight man in the joint will stand in line just to be rejected by you.”
I grinned. “Now that would take some magic,” I said.
“You doubt the master?” Jorge challenged. “You come to the studio next week. I’m going to show you a whole new world.”
By the end of the evening, I felt like I had known Dom, Jorge, Shannon and Jake for a lifetime. We stayed up late talking or playing games, and I whipped all boys soundly at pool. As much as I thought this party would be uncomfortable and innately inappropriate, I felt like I was in a group of kindred spirits. I didn’t feel weird, or broken, or strange. We all had so much in common it was like stumbling upon long lost family. I didn’t think twice when I agreed to go to the studio that following Friday, so that Jorge could wave his magic wand and transform me into the belle of the ball in time for Drew’s highly publicized fundraiser.
After they left, I took a bottle of beer onto the terrace where Alex worked cleaning the grill. He gave me that trademarked lopsided grin. “Hopefully that wasn’t too painful for you,” he teased as he pulled off his gloves.
“It was great. They were great. I can see why you would be friends with them.”
“Jake helped fill the hole left when Drew decided to disengage. I don’t know how I would have made it through summers here without him. He’s a good guy.”
I nodded. “I can tell. I’m glad his relationship with Shannon is everything it appeared to be on TV. Most times you can’t trust what you see when it’s edited and packaged for the masses.”
He laughed. “Truth, sister. That’s pretty much why I’ve thumbed my nose at the PR machine most of my life.” He tipped the bottle for a long, cold, bubbly sip. “You know, if you don’t want to go through any kind of makeover for the party, you don’t have to.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “I have no illusions, Alex. No matter how much makeup he slaps on, I’m still the same girl who grew up on a farm and grades papers for a living. I’ll always be second best to the likes of Olivia Guest.”
Alex set the beer on the grill’s shelf, before he walked over to where I stood. Our bodies didn’t touch, but I still felt him as he stood over me. His eyes darkened as he stared down into my face. “That depends on who you ask,” he said softly.
He lifted his hand and traced the curve of my chin. My tummy tightened from the contact, and the deep look in his eyes. “Alex,” I said softly.
His mouth broke apart in another cockeyed grin. “Sorry,” he said softly. “Guess Jorge left a little pixy dust behind.” He ran a finger down the slope of my nose. “There. It’s gone now,” he teased before he turned back to finish the grill.
I took a deep breath and escaped inside.
The next day was business as usual. Jonathan arrived by nine o’clock in the morning, and I could tell he was watching both Alex and me for any clue that we were about to disappoint him once again. Max inadvertently let it slip about our dinner party the night before while Jonathan and I took a lunch break from our classwork. Max bounded over his cousin to tell him all about our leftover Mississippi Mud cake. “Em…eye… crooked letter, crooked letter, eye… humpback, humpback eye!” Max grinned with a mouthful of decadent chocolate and marshmallow crème.
You forgot a couple of letters there,” I teased with a sideways glance.
He proceeded to spill the beans of our friendly get-together, and Jonathan listened silently as Max chattered on about all the fun that we had. He explained how we had big plans that Friday to head to the
set, to meet the crew and allow me to hang out with all my new friends.
I couldn’t figure out if Jonathan felt left out, or if he suspected that once again I wasn’t being completely forthright with him about the nature of my relationship with Alex. It made my interaction with Alex all the more awkward that week, especially when I suspected that Jonathan was texting Justin once he retreated once again behind his phone and his ear
buds. He did his work, but interaction between us ground to a halt whenever it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Dinners were silent and tense, though Max seemed not to notice. Whenever he spoke up, we all smiled and engaged with him, so he never felt the awkwardness that filled the room whenever Alex, Jonathan and I were present.
I knew that the party Friday night would be the ultimate test, and as it drew closer I got more and more stressed. I stayed in my room more than usual, hiding behind my books. If Millicent or Max weren’t part of the equation, there seemed no point. Alex was distant, Jonathan was sullen, and I was too afraid to make one wrong move and send Jonathan into another tailspin.
I almost breathed a sigh of relief when he left that Thursday evening. I had spent the entire week under his microscope, and it didn’t help anything at all that I harbored guilt for some of the questionable moments that had passed between Alex and me. I barely looked his direction all week because I feared Jonathan would read too much into my current state of confusion.
By the time we headed to Burbank that Friday, I was in desperate need of the distraction. Getting a backstage glimpse at the inner workings of Hollywood promised to be just that. Shannon met me as I approached the massive soundstage that housed the
“Rachel!” she greeted with a big hug. She released me only to scoop Max up into her arms, as he was hopping up and down excitedly waiting for his turn. Even Millicent got the star treatment as we headed into the soundstage to meet the major players behind the scenes.
Graham Baxter was a handsome, sophisticated man who greeted me warmly as we headed down the aisle toward the darkened stage. I had seen photos of him before. He was the West Coast’s prominent media mogul, and until recently one of entertainment’s most eligible bachelors. I was charmed from the moment he held my hand to his lips and murmured, “Hello.”