Yes, I was jilted on the red carpet . . .
Fourteen years later . . .
“Eden . . . over here.”
“Eden . . . who are you wearing tonight?”
“Eden . . . let’s see that sparkler on your left hand.”
The cameras flash as I look from one paparazzo to the next, showing my pearly whites or giving my trademark pout with my more-than-ample lips. They’d once graced a billboard in Times Square, and I’ve had to dispel more than one rumor that I’d had filler pumped into them. If anyone wanted to go back and look at my freshman high school picture, they’d see the same very full lips that actually had been made fun of all those years ago. I used to hate them.
Turns out they were moneymakers, so I guess the joke’s on all those schoolmates who bullied me.
This smile I’m holding and the confident set to my shoulders masks a lot of insecurity underneath. This world of glitz and fame is still hard for me to handle, and I guess I’m still just a small-town girl from Georgia who’s overwhelmed with her life.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade any of it, because my fame and fortune lets me do things I’d never have been able to do. I can really make a difference in people’s lives by being a spokesperson for certain charities, helping them raise money, or volunteering my time. My star power brings great awareness and help to those less fortunate.
My fame also gives me much-needed validation, because there’s no one else in my life who cares about my accomplishments. Certainly not my grandmother, who’s never quite forgiven me for not being a model Goodnight family member.
“Eden . . . has a wedding date been set yet?” someone calls out.
I keep the same smile plastered on my face as I turn toward that camera. I do the practically patented actress pose of one hand on my hip, the other hanging elegantly at my side holding my silver Swarovski-studded clutch. My lips start to quiver at the corners, which is a by-product of holding a smile for too long.
Brad’s arm around my waist tightens as he pulls me in closer. I don’t need to turn to look at him to know he’s melting panties everywhere with his golden blond hair, perfectly chiseled face, and ultrawhite smile. He stands only four inches taller than my five feet eight inches, but in my heels, I’m at eye level with him. It’s beyond weird for me to be talking marriage to reporters, because Brad and I haven’t been together that long and it’s been a whirlwind sort of relationship. He’s the first man I’ve had something real with since my freshman year in college, and that was a long damn time ago.
He tilts his head to murmur in my ear. “You know we make one fucking fantastic-looking couple, right? This will be on the cover of every entertainment magazine tomorrow.”
I chuckle and slip my arm around his waist. I don’t let his comment bother me and accept it for what it is. I know the photographers to our left are able to get a good close-up of the five-carat yellow diamond that Brad surprised me with last week. It will look amazing in the papers, as I’m sure we will too. I’m definitely happy to be engaged to him, but admittedly, he caught me way off guard with the proposal. We’ve only been dating exclusively for about six months and my gut instinct told me the proposal was too soon. But he did it in a public place frequented by other stars and lurking paparazzi, and I didn’t have it in me to tell him that I’d like some time to think about it. I didn’t even want to deal with those headlines, so I fluttered my hand near my heart and nodded my spinning head at him. As expected, the proposal was headline news the next day.
Hollywood’s Golden Couple Engaged
“Tell me something sad,” I murmur to Brad. “Something, anything, to break this smile on my face. I think it’s frozen in place.”
“How about I tell you something sexy?” he says in a low voice, and my belly tightens. “That work?”
I nod my head, turning and smiling for the cameras still flashing.
“When we get home tonight,” Brad whispers in my ear, “I’m going to fuck you so hard you’ll be feeling me for weeks.”
And . . . that did the trick. My frozen smile breaks, softens, and becomes an actual genuine smile that’s not as wide or fake looking. My belly flutters also at the thought of Brad doing that to me, and I feel a flush creep up my neck.
“You’re so bad,” I mutter back to him.
“Come on,” he says as his arm around my waist drops and he takes me by my hand. “Let’s head in.”
I’m beyond grateful for his strong arm around me, because he gives me the security and comfort that I’ve been lacking for so many years being out all on my own. No family, no close friends. No one to share my ups and downs with. Certainly no one with whom to share my accomplishments. Brad gives me all of that, which is why accepting his proposal was the right thing to do.
We’re here for the premiere of Brad’s new film, Code Zero, a highly energized action movie that involves him leaping from buildings and driving fast cars. It’s sort of his thing in Hollywood. He’s relentlessly bugged me about having a cameo in his next film. Sort of like his Bond girl, I guess.
My agent and business manager were reluctant to let me take on such a small role to play a sexpot, but I’d agreed because it made Brad happy. We’re set to begin filming in about five weeks, but because my role is so small, I’ll only be on set for a few days. This is good, because I have the starring role in a seventeenth-century period movie set to film in London just a few weeks after that.
The decision to take this role made my business peeps unhappy with me because I have my thing too. While Brad is an action star, I got my big break about eight years ago when I transitioned from modeling to acting and lucked into the most amazing indie script ever. It was about a woman with split personality disorder who was trying to maintain two separate lives on opposite sides of the country.
It was an emotional masterpiece; a thriller that would be unrivaled for years to come.
Not my words. That was from a film critic.
Regardless, I got an Oscar nomination for that role, and to everyone’s surprise in Hollywood, I won that coveted award. To those naysayers who doubt dreams do come true, they’ve never met Eden Goodnight. Not only have my dreams come true, but they’ve surpassed anything I could have ever imagined.
And now my life is just about as perfect as could be, or at least I think it is. I really have nothing to measure against, and I certainly never got praise or positive feedback from my grandmother. Most of my movies since have been blockbusters. I can now pick and choose my roles, or choose not to do anything at all for a while. I’m rich beyond measure, have a gorgeous fiancé who thinks I’ve hung the moon and stars, and adoring fans all over the world.
Which makes it really weird that my smile seems so fake at events like these. I try my hardest to look approachable, humble yet filled with confidence to be in the limelight. Truth be told, I hate shit like this. I’m not in it for the accolades.
Brad tugs on my arm and we turn toward a covered tunnel that will take us into the theater. I see Brad’s female costar and her husband take our spots for their round of photos and endless fashion questions.
“Eden,” someone calls out near the tunnel, and I see a paparazzo standing there holding his camera in a relaxed pose near his chest. I start to widen my smile so he can snap his picture, but his next words freeze me in place. “Do you have any comment about the photos that were just leaked to Inside Gossip about fifteen minutes ago showing your fiancé with another woman?”
My head starts spinning and Brad mutters, “Fuck,” under his breath. That makes my head spin even more, because that was an admission to me.
I turn my head to look at him with astonishment and the camera flash goes off from the man who had thrown that question at me. I’m sure he’s capturing the most surprised, stunned look that has ever graced this actress’s face.
But this isn’t a fucking act.
This is real life.
“Brad?” I whisper, and my voice is filled with a begging that I know he hears clearly. Begging him to tell me it’s not true.
Before he can admit or deny, the photographer calls out to me again. When I turn back to him, trying to compose my facial expression, his next question practically punches me in the gut. With his camera in front of his face and snapping pictures, he asks, “And what are your thoughts about the fact it was with his costar for this movie . . . Lilliana Prentice?”
My head snaps around and my body follows so I can focus my gaze on Lilliana. She and her husband are standing there with their arms wrapped around each other, smiling for the paparazzi.
I whirl back around and face Brad, who is now rubbing his temple as if he has the world’s biggest headache, his gaze pinned to the ground.
“You’re fucking Lilliana?” I hiss at him. Hurt and embarrassment rise through me and I begin to feel light-headed.
“Here are the photos,” the photographer offers, and I look back to him to see him leaning over a barrier to hand them to me. I stomp over to him, grab the photos with a snarl, and start flipping through them.
Brad appears at my side, trying to grab them away from me. “Eden . . . don’t. Let’s not do this right here. It’s my movie premiere, for fuck’s sake.”
But I turn my back on him, hastily flipping through photo after photo of Brad and Lilliana in intimate embraces in various locations. None of them are naked pictures, but all of them show them kissing deeply with roaming hands.
Except one . . . and I immediately recognize it as the pool in my backyard. Lilliana is lying on my chaise lounge and my fiancé is bent over her, rubbing oil on her back. Where the hell was I?
Brad takes another grab at the photos, and I spin back to look at Lilliana, who by this time is walking our way with her husband, not even aware of the shitstorm brewing.
She locks eyes with me, and that Hollywood glam smile she’d had on immediately slides off. Her gaze darts to Brad, then back to me, and she knows I know. I take two aggressive steps toward her and she backs up. Her husband—I think his name is Phil—releases his hold around her waist and I take a moment to note the confused look on his face.
“You fucking bitch,” I snarl at her, but my anger’s not just for her. It’s for Brad too. More so for him, actually. I whip around to face the faithless cheater. “You fucking bastard. How could you?”
“What’s going on—” Phil starts to ask, but I don’t answer. I merely thrust the stack of photos into his chest and he grabs them from me.
“Eden,” Brad says placatingly, his arms outstretched. “I’m so very sorry, but now isn’t the time to hash this out.”
“Oh yeah,” I say in a loud voice so anyone within a twenty-foot radius can hear me. I don’t intend to be that loud, but I’m nearly hysterical. “Wouldn’t want anything ruining your movie premiere now, would we? Certainly not breaking news that you can’t keep your dick in your pants with your skank of a costar.”
“Now wait a minute,” Lilliana begins, but I whip around on her.
“Shut your mouth,” I warn her menacingly. “I do mixed martial arts, and this slit in my dress is high enough that I could kick you in the face.”
Lilliana’s mouth snaps shut.
“Eden,” Brad says again. “Honey.”
And that tips me over the edge. I glare at Brad, and then march right up to the photographer who started all this.
“Want an exclusive?” I ask him sweetly.
He nods, practically salivating.
“Brad Wright has a problem with premature ejaculation,” I tell him untruthfully. “And he’s so insecure about it he often wets the bed when he sleeps.”
The photographer turns to Brad. “Brad . . . is it true . . . do you have erectile dysfunction?”
The camera flashes but I pay it no mind. I turn around and walk gracefully but quickly back down the red carpet, breaking into a trot as I get nearer to the street. Reporters call out to me, other actors and actresses I know look at me with worry as tears start to fill my eyes. When I get to the end of the carpet, I turn right and frantically start searching for my limo. It can’t be too far away, as we’d just alighted and were among the last to arrive.
Worst-case scenario, I’ll grab a cab.
“Come with me,” I hear a man say, and my elbow is taken in a firm grip. I look up and see Lilliana’s husband there. His face is red and his jaw is set in a hard line. “My limo’s right there. I’ll get you out of here.”
I don’t hesitate. He’s now my comrade in jilted arms. We’ve been screwed over and we’re in this together. At least for now until I can get a ride home.
Phil—again, I think that’s his name—quickly gets me into his limousine and asks for my address as he slides in beside me. I give it to him and he passes it to the driver, and then we’re on our way.
Suddenly a handkerchief is dangling in front of my face, and I realize I’ve got tears streaming down it. Phil gives me a sympathetic smile and pushes the handkerchief at me. I gladly take it and in a watery voice, say, “Thank you, Phil.”
“Actually, it’s Paul,” he says, but his smile doesn’t waver.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur as I soak up the tears from the corners of my eyes. “Please forgive me.”
“Forget about it,” he says with a wave of his hand.
“Guess we ruined their premiere night, huh?” I say with a half sob, half laugh.
“You did make quite a spectacle of yourself,” he agrees.
“Did you have any clue?” I ask him, because I was completely in the dark.
“I suspected something,” Paul admits. “We’ve been having some problems in our marriage.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. But I don’t have that luxury of an obvious doubt. I’d thought my relationship with Brad was fantastic. We had a very healthy sex life, and what Brad lacked in creativity, he made up for in persistence to get me where I needed to go some of the times. And even if he left me behind most of the times, we laughed, we talked, and we loved hanging out together. If there was doubt in us, I thought it was because of me.
I just don’t get it.
It takes us about forty-five minutes to make it from the Fox Theater in Westwood Village to my home in Pacific Palisades. The ride is mostly silent except for my occasional sniffles. Luckily, my neighborhood is gated and thus I won’t have to face lurking paparazzi at my house.
When the limo pulls into my driveway, Paul asks, “What are you going to do?”
I square my shoulders. “I’m going to make sure every belonging he has in my house is waiting by the curb for him after the premiere.”
Even though we aren’t technically living together, and Brad still has his own home, he’s here more often than not and has accumulated a lot of stuff.
Paul chuckles and leans toward me. His voice is low, rumbling, and . . . sexy?
“Want some help packing his stuff up?” he practically purrs at me.
I lean back, not mistaking anything about his offer. “No thanks. I’ve got this.”
Paul’s hand goes to my thigh, immediately slipping under the slit to touch my bare skin. “Come on, Eden. We both deserve it after the way they betrayed us.”
I wasn’t lying when I told Lilliana I could kick her ass mightily. I’ve been doing mixed martial arts for almost ten years. Before Paul can even blink, I have his hand off my thigh and twisted at the wrist so his fingertips point at his astonished face. I put slight pressure on the back of his hand, bending his palm toward his wrist, and he whimpers like a baby.
God I fucking hate this town and the people in it so much at times. No one takes fidelity seriously here.
“I’m thinking you deserved to have your wife cheat on you,” I grit out at Paul, and push down on his hand a bit more. He grimaces even as anger fills his eyes.
“Let go, bitch,” he snarls at me.
Fortuitously, my door opens and the limo driver stands there, shocked to see the positions of his passengers.
“Have a lovely evening, Paul,” I say in a voice that’s anything but grateful as I release my hold on him. “I appreciate the ride home.”
I quickly exit the limo, jogging up to my front door in my four-inch strappy Choos and unlocking it. I turn the alarm off in the entryway, closing the door and then turning the dead bolt. I then reset my alarm, as I always feel safer with it on.
My cellphone rings and I sigh, pulling it out of my clutch. Not surprising, it’s Colleen O’Hearn, my business manager. She’s the best in the business, and of course she’s already up to speed on everything that’s happened. Her network of spies is vast, but apparently not needed tonight.
“It’s all over the Internet and on a few news channels,” is how she greets me. “We need to do damage control.”
“Damage control?” I ask astounded. “He cheated on me.”
“Not the way he’s spinning it,” Colleen says gruffly. “His publicist released a quick statement right from the fucking movie theater confirming that as of tonight you two had split. He’s apparently admitted falling in love with his costar while they filmed Code Zero. He claims you repeatedly spurned him in bed, and what little you did give was not that great, thus leading him into the arms of another woman.”
“He did not say that, did he?” I practically screech in disbelief, and tears start streaming again from both hurt and anger.
“Sorry, kiddo . . . but you said he had erectile dysfunction. Did you think he’d let that go?”
“That’s on the news too?” I ask incredulously.
“Only from about five different smartphones where people were videotaping the entire exchange,” she says dryly. “Of course, they caught Lilliana’s dramatic faint and Brad catching her suavely in his arms, then carrying her inside the theater. The articles are calling him ‘gallant.’ He’s managed to paint himself in damn good light.”
“That . . . that . . . that asshole,” I curse, because nothing more creative is coming to mind. In fact, I can feel my entire brain starting to shut down on me. The hurt starts to overcome the anger, and my heart feels like it’s being crushed in a vise grip. I loved that asshole, but apparently he didn’t feel the same about me.
Tonight I was publicly humiliated, lost my fiancé, and I already feel the terrible weight of anxiety pressing down on my chest, wondering what tomorrow’s headlines are going to bring.
I really hate this town sometimes.
I’m not a commitment type of guy . . .
I hang up the phone in frustration and walk over to the whiteboard on my office wall that holds the schedule of all my employees for the workweek. Using the eraser, I remove Todd Crawley’s name from tomorrow’s mulch job at the public library. With a grunt of dissatisfaction, I pencil my name in to take his place. Can’t be too mad at the dude, though. He’s got a stomach bug that’s been sweeping through our little town of Newberry, Georgia, and it’s knocked out practically every one of my staff, which includes four men and two women landscape maintenance workers.
Tossing the erasable marker onto my desk, I sit back behind it and stare at my computer. I’ve got about four more hours of work on these 3-D landscape renderings for a new client I picked up in Athens. It’s a doctor who bought a house on a small lake, and he wants to redo the entire front and backyard. It’s a huge project, with man-made structures and water features. It will come in at close to seventy-five thousand dollars for the entire thing, and while the yard maintenance part of my business yields decent money, I make my really good gravy from my design projects.
My plan had been to complete these tomorrow, as I had a meeting with the client the following day. But now that I’ll be working in Todd’s place on the mulch job, it looks like I’ll be working into the night.
Oh well . . . wouldn’t be the first time, and as the owner of this company, I do what it takes to keep the doors open. Besides, I don’t mind getting out there and working up a sweat under the hot Georgia sun. I’ve been doing it since I was eleven years old, when I’d help my dad with the business. Back then it was just simple yard maintenance: he would cut lawns, trim hedges, and spread mulch in flower beds. But when I came on board after I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in landscape architecture, we sort of bumped the business up a notch. Dad was certainly proud, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him being in this office with me, or outside working with our hands in the dirt. He raised me on his own, and it’s still hard for me to believe he’s gone.
So work comes first, and I’m not all that put out by it. I nab my cellphone off my desk, prepared to call Ashley to cancel our date tonight. I know I should be more upset about it, but I’m not. She’s been getting a little clingy lately.
My jaw drops, though, because before I can even flip through my contacts for her number, the little bell above the door of Mayfield Landscape and Design jingles and Ashley herself is strutting in my door. I grit my teeth, because I do not like social visits at my office, and I can’t imagine what would be so important that she couldn’t have waited to tell me on our date that’s not actually going to happen tonight.
Mayfield Landscape has a small lobby with an empty desk because I really don’t need a full-time receptionist. To the left is my glass-walled office, and to the right, a small break room, and that’s all there is to it. I pay extra rent in this small shopping center two blocks off the main street that runs through Newberry for extra parking spaces for my trucks, trailers, and other daily landscape maintenance equipment. My heavier equipment is locked up at Goodnight House in one of the large barns on the property.
Ashley smiles at me through the glass wall and walks right in with a distinct sway to her hips. She’s wearing a pair of very short shorts today, as it’s blazing hot, and a low-cut V-neck T-shirt that reveals the soft swells of her breasts. I know those tits well, and in fact fucked them three nights ago. No doubt about it . . . Ashley’s hot as hell.
“Hey, sugar,” she says in her thick southern accent. It’s so thick it’s lost a lot the charm and sometimes makes me wince. I give her a pass on it, though, because that mouth is really quite talented in other things.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her, keeping my tone pleasant. Although I don’t like people showing up at my place of business, in fairness to Ashley, I’ve never told her that. Never thought I had to, as we weren’t that serious and had only been seeing each other about a month. And by seeing each other, I mean once, maybe twice a week, because my schedule is insanely hectic.
“I just was walking by on my way to get my nails done,” she says as she leans half of her shapely ass on the corner of my desk. “Thought I’d stop in for a kiss. I know I’ll be seeing you in a few hours, but I just couldn’t wait that long to get me some of your sugar, sugar.”
I wince again, because that right there . . . that smacks of a woman who wants to sink her nails into me deep. Swinging by my place of work for a kiss because she can’t wait two fucking hours to see me? Something like that would have me breaking this off with her, because it’s definitely signifying she’s not maintaining the boundaries we set.
Still, she’s a firecracker between the sheets, so I tell myself to exercise a little patience with her. Ashley knows the deal with me, as I spelled it out about as clear as I could when after our first date she invited me into her house and the minute the door closed, she dropped to her knees to give me a blow job. Had to say I wasn’t expecting it, but I wasn’t turning it down either. After an all-night bender where I swear she almost broke me, I had to have that “serious” conversation with her about the way I am.
I’m not a long-term type of guy, and this is well known in our little town of Newberry not only because the residents have watched me be a playboy my entire adult life, but because I’ve made it very clear to more than one lady that I’m only into casual dating.
“I’d love to keep seeing you, Ashley, but I don’t do relationships,” I had explained to her the next morning as I was leaving. And she had assured me she understood.
Regardless, I’m definitely giving her a pass on stopping by for a kiss, mainly because I have to cancel our date tonight. And since I’m a big believer in up-front communication, face-to-face works just great for me.
“Listen,” I say as I get up from my desk and come to stand in front of her. I reach out and tug on her long blond hair, which is a calculated gesture of touch but not too intimate. “I’m going to have to cancel tonight. I’ve got too much work to get done for this design project.”
As expected, Ashley forms that sweet little mouth into a pout. Her hands come to my chest and she sweeps them upward to curl around my neck. She purrs like a cat when she says, “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to get you to change your mind?”
I just stare at her, watching in fascination as she tries to work her magic on me.
“Anything at all?” she adds with enough innuendo that I get what she’s offering.
I could whip my dick out and she’d get me off with that mouth. Or I could bend her over my desk and fuck her hard. But I’m not interested, because it’s too damn easy, and without challenge comes mediocrity. Besides . . . I give in to her, I’ll have to go out with her tonight, and that’s something I cannot do.
Work comes first.
“Sorry, Ash,” I say as I step back from her and go back to my desk chair. “But I’m really swamped. Raincheck, okay?”
“When?” she asks as she stands up from the desk.
I sigh. I know she isn’t going to let me be complacent about our next date. “Maybe Saturday? We’ll eat wherever you want and then maybe we’ll go to Tilley’s and listen to the band.”
“Saturday?” she says, and the whine grates on my nerves. It’s subtle, but it’s there. “But that’s four days away.”
“But I’ll be able to focus all my attention on you,” I say playfully as I reach out and tug on the edge of her shorts.
This pacifies her somewhat, but I can still see the calculation in her eyes. She’s trying to figure out how I could possibly go four days without her golden pussy. Why I’m not entranced enough with her to want to spend every single night with her.
The answer is simple.
I haven’t felt that way about someone in a long fucking time, and doubt I ever will again.
Ashley finally gives me a smile, and my shoulders relax to know she’s heading out and I can get back to work. But her next words feel like a punch in the chest. “Did you see the news about Eden?”
I’m nonchalant. Casual. Don’t care. “Nope. She win another award or something?”
Ashley laughs with clear delight. “Maybe the ‘loser’ award. She found out her fiancé had been cheating on her while she was walking the red carpet for a premiere night before last. It was all on video. Some reporter showed her the photographs just seconds after she got done posing for cozy little pictures with Brad Wright.”
I don’t hear much of what she says, as a loud buzzing started in my ears when she said Eden had a fiancé. And then I distinctly heard Brad Wright.
Eden was engaged to Brad Wright? Like the biggest-action-star-in-the-world Brad Wright?
The buzzing recedes as my mood deflates.
Well, of course she was fucking engaged to him.
She’s Eden Goodnight.
I give a slight cough to clear my throat, the rest of what she said coming back to me. “He was cheating on her?”
Ashley nods and leans in closer to me to deliver the rest of her gossip. “Apparently with his costar, Lilliana Prentice. Eden made a big scene about it, and then later Brad confirmed to the press that they’d broken up, and that he was driven into his costar’s arms because Eden was terrible in bed.”
She finishes that last part with a cackle of glee, then tacks on, “Of course, I’m sure you know all about that.”
Now granted, my time with Eden was many years ago and we were young, didn’t know what we were doing half the time. But she was in no way bad in bed. In fact, I remember her to be very, very perfect. We had been wildly in love—or so we thought, as we were only eighteen—and both of us had been devastated when we broke up. It was mutual, after a very long time of trying to make it work long distance. And you know what happens with time? You move on and you leave that shit behind. It’s what I did, and it’s why I don’t really keep up to speed with Eden’s glamorous Hollywood life. I just really don’t care; not in a mean way, but there’s nothing left there to care about. She left and she never came back. I’ve only seen her once in fourteen years, and frankly, I’m just not that curious about her.
Eden was a lifetime ago, or so it seems, and besides that, I’d never talk bad about any of the women I’ve fucked, and not going to start now.
“So, I’ll see you Saturday night. Pick you up at seven?” I say in a complete change of subject. Then I tilt my head toward the door. “And you better hurry along to your nail appointment. Wouldn’t want you to be late.”
Ashley nods, disappointment filling her eyes because I won’t engage in the gossip about Eden with her. Ashley went to high school with us and she knows how serious we were. I have no clue why she’d feel threatened about that now, but I’m not going to bad-mouth Eden to make Ashley feel good about herself.
No, any bitter feelings I have for Eden will remain my own, and they have nothing to do with us breaking up. Those came much later.
He’s just a gardener . . .
My phone rings as I drive along Highway 142 toward Newberry and I don’t want to answer it but I do. I put on the happiest voice I can manage. “Hi, Colleen. What’s up?”
“What’s up is that you had a meeting with me and Carlos set to start half an hour ago and you’re still not here,” she snapped. “You know we have a life too.”
“Um, yeah,” I say carefully. “About that meeting. I’m not coming.”
“Of course you’re coming,” she says in a tired voice. “I know this isn’t ideal, but you have a contractual obligation and the movie execs want to make sure everything will work out okay. You know Carlos has reviewed the contract and you’re sort of bound to it.”
I snort. “Carlos wants his fifteen percent. It’s what agents do. And I know the contract well, as I had an attorney review it.”
“Damn it, Eden,” Colleen huffs. “This petty shit needs to be put aside and we need to talk this out. Brad’s camp is willing to talk.”
The meeting that Colleen is so peeved about is to discuss my ability to work with Brad in the movie we were set to start shooting next month. Contracts have been signed, advances made. It’s expected that I’ll be on set with the cheating, lying, bastard douchebag, ex-fiancé, Brad Wright, and I’ll do so with a professional smile on my face.
Of course, he’s been spouting his mouth off to every entertainment news station and magazine that will listen, making me seem like an arrogant bitch who was too demanding on him and was cold as ice in bed. His lies are just lies, but as of last night, I’d fucking had enough of them. People were believing him. Most articles were slanted in his favor. While some of my fans defended me, apparently Brad’s legion of female fans were absolutely vicious in their attacks. I was also tired of my business manager and my agent harassing me, I was sick of reporters calling me and paparazzi ambushing me, and there was no way in fuck I was going to work with Brad on that film.
I fluctuated between burning-hot anger at Brad for not only cheating on me, but continuing to twist the knife more, and being tremendously hurt by someone I thought loved me. Brad has been only the second man in my life that I loved, and while it may have been a different kind of love, it was real to me. I thought it was real to him. The thing that hurts the most, though, is learning that the reason he cheated was because I just wasn’t satisfying him enough, and that causes my insecurities to flare up hard.
What I needed was an escape, and I needed it to be somewhere no one would think to find me. And that place would be Newberry, Georgia, as I hadn’t returned but once in fourteen years, and that was for my grandmother’s funeral ten months ago. I wasn’t even back in my hometown a full day then. The paparazzi would never look here when they couldn’t find me at my home in Pacific Palisades and instead would be buzzing around either my vacation home in Vail, Colorado, or the getaway condo I kept in Miami. But more than hiding out, what I really needed was some peace and quiet. I needed time to lick my wounds before I ventured back out in the public eye. I could hide myself away at Goodnight House, and if I was lucky, I wouldn’t be found.
But I also felt Newberry calling to me. Over the last few days, I’ve latched on to the good memories of my life here, particularly the first fifteen years of my life before my parents died. I missed the small-town camaraderie and safety of being with my peeps. While I don’t really expect that to be the case now, because I’ve been gone too long and haven’t kept up with anyone, I do imagine just being at Goodnight House will be a balm for my soul.
“Just get your ass in gear and get over here,” Colleen says impatiently. “This problem isn’t going to go away.”
Oh yes it is, I think. At least for a little bit longer while I’m in Newberry. In fact, I might not come back at all. I’ve got more money than I could possibly spend, and the thought of telling Hollywood a big old fuck you is very appealing.
“I’m not in Los Angeles,” I tell Colleen, and I hear her gasp.
“Where are you?”
“None of your business. I’m taking some time away for myself and I’m really going to try to figure out what I want to do.”
“What you want to do?” Colleen practically screeches into the phone. “There is no ‘want’ in this industry. You’re under contract to film a movie next month.”
I see the long gravel drive to Goodnight House in the distance flanked by large magnolia trees on each side. I slow down and put my turn signal on, even though there’s no one behind me. “That’s next month. This is now. I’m taking some time off and I’ll let you know when I’ll be back.”
“But Eden—” Colleen starts to argue, but I cut her off.
“For fuck’s sake, Colleen. I’ve worked my ass off for fourteen years with hardly any time off. It’s been really hard accepting the fact my fiancé cheated on me, I was publicly humiliated, and I’m being made to look like the bad person for it. A little empathy would go a long way here.”
As I turn into the driveway, which to my surprise has been paved since my grandmother’s funeral, I hear Colleen backpedaling. “All right, Eden. Of course, take some time off. Relax. I know it’s been stressful. And when you come back we’ll figure out how to make it work to suit you. Fuck Brad, okay?”
“Okay,” I say on a soft laugh. For all of her blustering and pushy ways, Colleen has always had my back. Before I disconnect, I say, “Talk later.”
Tossing my phone into my purse, I bring my car to a stop and stare down the long driveway. It’s lined with massive oaks dating from before the Civil War. Their long, thick branches extend and form a shaded canopy so dense the sunlight can hardly breach it. And at the end of the driveway, I can see Goodnight House. I have a love-hate relationship with it, but as I take in its magnificence and grandeur, I decide to love it for a little bit.
In fact, I’ll love it the entire time I’m here.
The home is a Greek Revival, built in 1860, just before the Civil War started. It was the centerpiece of a massive cotton plantation built with the blood and sweat of slaves. I’m not sure who owned it then, but after slavery was abolished, the owners couldn’t make ends meet with the new sharecropping arrangements they had to make with their former slaves and they went into bankruptcy. The house passed through another set of hands before my great-grandfather Court Goodnight bought it. He was on the lookout for a nice home for his family, as he’d just opened up the South’s largest textile mill a mere seven miles outside of Newberry, and the Goodnights always lived in the best homes.
Yes, my family is wealthy. Textiles was the game and it did well for us. Still does, for that matter.
I lived my entire childhood in Goodnight House, and it was the stuff girls’ dreams are made of, if she has a romantic bone in her body. The house is what every princess dreams of. It’s done in white stucco that’s been restored and stands three stories high. There’s a wide sweeping staircase to the main landing, with wrought-iron balustrades across the long front porch. There are matching full-length balconies on the second and third floors, also bordered with iron. White pilasters extend from the ornate molding at the roofline down to the first-floor porch, and set back on either side of the main area are two rounded wings with balconies on the first, second, and third floors. When my great-grandfather bought the home, he’d had the right side circular wing converted into a two-story master chamber, with the third floor housing a plush library and sitting area to relax.
It was a monstrous house occupied by four people. Me, my mom, my dad, and my grandmother, Valeria Goodnight, although she wasn’t around much. As a perennial globe-trotter, she was gone far more often than she was at home. Valeria Goodnight loved spending her money on extravagant travels, wild adventures, and looking for that next perfect husband. Well, that is until my parents died in a sailboating accident and she was forced to return to Goodnight House to take care of me when I was fifteen. That was a hard three years living with an emotionally distant woman who didn’t like her wanderlust being tampered with. It is, after all, how she met her best husbands.
Coming under my grandmother’s rule was an extremely difficult transition, especially since I was so lovingly close with my parents. They were the type of parents who gave me enough freedom to let me spread my wings, and did so because they believed I had a good head on my shoulders. They trusted me, and I didn’t abuse it. On top of that, my parents were just cool as hell, and funny and warm and everything you’d want a parent to be. I always wanted to be around them. I desperately missed my mom’s southern cooking and the times when my dad and I went fishing. Going from a secure, inclusive, and interactive family environment to a sterile sort of relationship didn’t make for the best years of my life. It’s the main reason I never returned to Newberry after I left except for her funeral.
Stepping on the gas, I start the quarter-mile drive to the house, which grows bigger and bigger the closer I get. The line of oaks ends about a hundred yards from the front of the house, with an expansive green lawn spreading out to the left and right, encompassing about five acres. The entire property is only about forty acres, as much of the land had been sold off, since the Goodnight family didn’t need it for anything other than privacy. Past the lawn area is thick, dense forest that has grown wild, since the land isn’t farmed anymore. There’s a small trail that my father had cleared out that leads down to a bubbling stream, which is an offshoot of the Satilla River that leads out into the Atlantic Ocean about twenty miles east of us.
It’s hard to take my eyes off the house as I turn into the circular driveway that will bring me right to the front steps. The house is so big it’s always made me feel like a little girl, and yet at the same time there’s a level of comfort there that I haven’t felt in a long time. That was the hate part of my relationship with the house . . . it didn’t feel like home once my parents were gone and my grandmother ruled it.
I remember our first Thanksgiving after she’d come to live with me. My mom had always gone all out with the turkey and many different side dishes, plus three different types of pies. I wanted to re-create it, hold that specialness close to me.
“I was thinking if you give me your credit card, I can run to the grocery store tomorrow and get everything we need for Thanksgiving dinner. I can make all of Mom’s favorite recipes,” I’d told my grandmother one day as she drank her morning coffee and I was eating toast and some of my mom’s homemade strawberry preserves.
“I won’t be here,” my grandmother said tersely. “I’m going to fly to New York City for a few days.”
I just stared at her openmouthed. How could she not want to spend Thanksgiving with her granddaughter, who had just lost her parents three months prior?
But I didn’t argue with her, because she was never around, and I didn’t know her all that well. I’d spent that Thanksgiving eating some macaroni and cheese from a box while watching TV in my bedroom.
It was the first of many trips she would take, leaving me home by myself quite a lot. I didn’t mind, though, because she provided me nothing of value. She had no interest in my school activities, and outside of making sure I had money for food, she didn’t think she owed me anything else. She’s quite possibly the coldest person I’ve ever known, and it boggles me how my father could be so loving with her as his mother.
Now that she’s gone, I can open my heart up again to my home.
I stop my rental car, place it in park, and start to open the door, when movement on the west lawn catches my eye. A man on a lawnmower is cutting long strips of grass on the diagonal. I get out of the car, shut the door, and peer harder through my sunglasses. The man is wearing a baseball cap and is too far away to see any details, but I’d recognize the height and brawn of that body anywhere, not to mention the posture infused with confidence bordering on cockiness as he sits atop his John Deere.
I try to ignore the fluttering in my stomach, pretty damn sure its indigestion at the sight of him and nothing else. Our breakup caused a lot of emotional upheaval between the two of us, and while ultimately we parted on friendly terms, we both went our own ways and didn’t look back. I’m not sure why Coop never made any effort to keep in contact with me, but I know I didn’t stay in touch because it was too painful. I didn’t want to be reminded of the wonderful guy I’d left behind on a roll of the dice for my new career.
Since we broke up, I’ve only seen him once, and that was at my grandmother’s funeral, but I didn’t talk to him. I was there for the service out of a sense of duty only and I made a hasty exit back to my car and off to Atlanta to catch the next flight back to LA. At that point, Newberry was as much of a stranger to me as my grandmother had always been, and I felt no affinity for it. I was anxious to leave and get back to the familiarity of Hollywood, which wasn’t always comfortable for me, but at least it I knew what to expect.
I knew Coop was going into the family landscaping business, and since they’ve always maintained our property, it’s no real surprise to see him here now.
As if he senses my stare, his head turns toward me slightly, and I can see the way his body stiffens that he recognizes me as well. I can almost hear the sigh coming from him as he stops the mower, disengages the blade, and then turns it off. He hops down and, when his work-booted feet hit the grass, he takes off his cap briefly to wipe his forehead with the long sleeve of his shirt before putting it back on. It always amazed me how yard crews would wear long-sleeve shirts even on boiling hot summer days to protect their skin. Even so, Coop never had pale arms. He spent plenty of time outdoors, particularly at the beach, working on a great tan.
Coop in board shorts. At the beach. An absolute panty dropper.
Or at least I seem to remember.
As he gets closer, I feel my heart rate start to pick up and my palms begin to sweat. Because I’m wearing sunglasses and I can get away with it, I check him out as he nears. Age seems only to have enhanced his handsomeness. His body has filled out with more muscle and he carries himself with a certain swagger he didn’t have when we were eighteen. Even with his ball cap pulled down, I still get sucked into those aqua blue eyes that seemed to hypnotize me. His hair is a little longer and it curls out from under his baseball cap. His jaw is stubbled as dark as his nearly black hair, and even though he’s only thirty-two, I can even see a few silver hairs glinting in the sun just above his ears. His father has lovely silver at his temples, and I know when that comes in on Coop, he’s going to go from gorgeous to devastatingly beautiful.
Because he’s not wearing sunglasses, I don’t miss Coop’s gaze as he lets it wander down and then up my body. His jaw hardens as he takes in my designer linen pants in lavender with a sleeveless silk blouse in a contemporary print of orange, lavender, and buttercup yellow splotches, all of which is set off by a pair of cream-colored Stuart Weitzman pumps. I reek money and sophistication, and not that it ever bothered Coop back when we were younger, I think it’s a pointed reminder of why we broke up.
“What are you doing here?” he asks gruffly as he comes to a stop in front of me. There is no welcome to his tone and I could be a virtual stranger off the street to him. Let’s face it . . . we spent two wonderful years together and experienced our first love, and then we broke up and haven’t talked to each other in fourteen years. We’re strangers actually.
“Um . . . I . . . well, I came to stay for a bit,” I stammer, because I get a little sidetracked by those blue eyes that are just north of frosty at this moment.
“For how long?” he says curtly.
“I don’t know,” I tell him honestly, a little put off by his tone. “I’m taking an impromptu vacation.”
“And you chose Newberry for that?” he asks suspiciously. “Isn’t that a little dull when you could be jetting off to Paris or something?”
My hackles immediately rise, because I’ve had just about enough of people attacking me lately and that is so untrue, but he wouldn’t know what I like to do anymore. “My vacation plans aren’t any of your business.”
“That’s true,” he says as he leans in toward me. He smells of hardworking man and sweet grass, and that really shouldn’t smell that good to me, but it does. I blink my eyes hard as he adds, “But if you’re staying here in my home, it is my business how long you’re staying.”
I blink again.
“Excuse me?” I ask, and then blink again. “Your home?”
I actually turn my head to look at Goodnight House to make sure I didn’t imagine it being there, and then turn back to look at Coop. He grins like a Cheshire cat. “Yeah . . . my house.”
“This is my house,” I say, although it’s without confidence. He has me rattled.
“Yes, and it’s my house too,” he returns as his eyes glitter with amusement. “And I’m guessing you really didn’t look too hard at your grandmother’s will, or you’d know that.”
“No way,” I say adamantly as I shake my head, my dark brown hair flying. “There’s no way she would have given you part of Goodnight House. It’s a family home and you’re not family.”
“Closer to her than you were,” he says pointedly, and I admit . . . it stings. I have no clue what, if any, relationship Coop had with her, but I had absolutely nothing to do with her, and she didn’t want anything to do with me.
Coop continues to explain. “And she gave me a joint life estate along with you. For the remainder of my life, I can live here. At my death, it goes to you.”
“You’re lying,” I grit out as a headache starts to brew right between my eyes.
“I’m not,” he says smugly, then nods his head toward my rental car. “You can jump in that car and drive to Edward Pearce’s office. He administered Valeria’s estate after she died. I’m sure he sent you the documents.”
I vaguely recall getting mail from him, as Colleen had brought it to my attention. I knew I’d inherited from her, and I just instructed Colleen to make sure the taxes were always paid and the property maintained. Past that, I didn’t think about Goodnight House too much.
I spin away from Coop and I can hear his mocking laugh behind me as I get back into my car.
I’ll be damned if I’ll accept what he’s telling me. There’s no way in hell my grandmother made it so Coop could live in that house. He was just . . . just . . . well, he was just the gardener as far as I was concerned.
There’s just no way he’s anything else.