Last week we announced that E.M. Tippetts’ SOMEONE ELSE’S FAIRYTALE was our new Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by E.M. Tippetts
Jason Vanderholt is Hollywood’s hottest actor. Chloe Winters hasn’t bothered to see most of his movies. When they meet by chance, he is smitten and Chloe becomes the woman every other woman in America is dying to be, but it just isn’t her fairytale.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
I stepped out our front door into the frigid, Albuquerque night. The crisp air, tinged with the scent of woodsmoke, flushed through my lungs, and the stars winked distantly in the deep cobalt sky. It was three thirty a.m., way too early to be awake.
A truck turned the corner and rumbled its way over to our house. I watched it parallel park, then go silent as the lights switched off. The driver’s side door opened, and my best friend, Matthew, stepped down. His cowboy boots thudded against the asphalt, then crunched across the gravel that covered our front yard. “Howdy,” he said.
I stifled a laugh. He was the walking stereotype of a Texan, with his muscular build, tight jeans, and flannel shirt. His hazel eyes were smiling, though. Like me, he was a senior at UNM, and he was a source of sanity, something I needed to counterbalance my housemate, Lori, who just then skipped out the front door, jumped down onto the gravel, and struck an action pose, both hands up, ready to karate chop whatever imaginary adversary might be lurking under the giant cottonwood that dominated our front yard. She wasn’t wearing any nylons with her skirt.
“Aren’t you cold?” Matthew asked.
“Yep, but I don’t think this is a cold weather scene we’re in.”
“We’re extras,” I said, for what felt like the millionth time. “Nobody’s going to notice what we’re wearing.”
“How did she talk you into this?” Matthew asked me. The three of us started towards campus, on foot. We’d been told not to drive because there was limited parking.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Come on, just picture it.” Lori waved a hand, setting the scene “-we’re on the set, and Jason Vanderholt walks by.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I tell him how hot he was in the New Light movies-”
“Because I’m sure he never hears that,” I said. The New Light franchise was a trilogy of gladiator movies that I’d managed to avoid seeing, despite the fact that Jason Vanderholt’s long haired, shirtless figure had been plastered on every vertical surface for three years straight while they came out.
“Sarcasm,” chided Matthew.
“You should ask him why his character was named ‘sword’,” I said.
“Gladius,” Lori corrected me.
“Right. That’s Latin for, ‘sword’.”
“It was his nickname. But you’re ruining my narrative here.”
We stepped off the curb to cross the street. Given the hour, there was no traffic, though in the still night air, we could hear voices of other groups who, like us, were headed towards campus on foot.
“He stops to talk to us,” said Lori.
“Then what?” said Matthew.
“That’s it. He stops to talk to us.”
“A girl can dream.”
“Apparently not. That the best you can do?”
“Shut up okay?” Lori stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m a math major.”
“At least come up with something to talk to him about.”
“Ooooh! You know what? I should totally ask him if he remembers Vicki Baca! Remember, she said she had a locker next to him in high school?”
Aside from being the star of the multi-bazillion dollar New Light franchise, Vanderholt was also a local, or he had been before he’d hit it big with a show on the Disney Channel back in his teens. I cleared my throat. “I know about thirty people who claim to have had the locker next to him in high school, which makes me wonder how they do the lockers at La Cueva.”
“I so hope we get to meeeeeet him.” Lori turned a pirouette.
Matthew shook his head. “You’re gonna catch a cold.”
I sneaked in a smile the next time he glanced my way. He chuckled, his shoulders moving silently.
The film set was barely controlled chaos. “Just line up here!” a woman was shouting when we walked up. “We’re still getting the catering area set up for you. Line up here!” She gestured at the walkway that led up to the UNM anthropology building, a wide strip of concrete that bisected the lawn. The pre-dawn light washed the color out of everything, making the world look like a faded photograph. The rounded, stucco walls of the building seemed old and historic.
Matthew, Lori and I found a place in line and stood with our paper cups of hot chocolate that we’d bought from The Frontier on the way. I sidled up to Matthew. “Okay,” I said, “I get why Lori’s doing this. Why are you?” I noticed that he’d combed his light brown curls with water, and a couple of them had frozen.
He smiled. “It’s once in a lifetime, you know?”
“Don’t tell me you’re a closet Jason Vanderholt fan?”
“Oh, and you were being serious just now?”
“Ohmigosh!” Lori shrieked so loud that I had to cover my ears. Not easy with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand.
“Lor-” I said.
But I was cut off by more shrieking up and down the line. I turned and saw that the girls on the other side of us had collapsed. One of them sobbed. The other just shook. “I love you!” someone shouted.
Lori dropped to her knees.
“Uh,” said Matthew. He knelt down next to her. “You all right?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks and she shook like a leaf in a windstorm.
“Yes, hi,” said a deep, male voice behind me. “Hello. Yep, sure. How do you spell that?”
“Ohmigosh!” shrieked Lori again.
“You really gotta stop that,” said Matthew.
I turned around, and found myself face to face with Jason Vanderholt. He was just like his publicity shots, blue eyes, tanned skin, toned physique. He looked at me, one eyebrow slightly raised. Around him were several guys with cellphones out. An entourage.
“Yeah, hi,” I said.
“Hey. How are you?” He was wearing a t-shirt and holding a paper cup in one hand, which he raised to his lips. I watched him shake something into his mouth, which he then crunched between his teeth. “It’s ice,” he said, with his mouth full.
The sun wasn’t up yet and it felt like we were standing in a giant refrigerator. This guy was crazier than Lori.
He gave me a wry smile. “You want some?”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“Freezing. Gotta do this between scenes so my breath doesn’t steam when I say lines. See?” He was right. His breath did not steam as he spoke.
“Fascinating,” I said.
He chuckled. “You look really familiar.”
“Never met you in my life.”
“What’s your name?”
His eyes popped wide with recognition. “Like Chris and Beth! Okay, okay, now I know why I recognize you. You’re… what? Their cousin? You gotta be related.”
My pulse edged up a notch and I wrapped my jacket more tightly around myself, as if its insulated fabric were an invisibility cloak. “You know Chris Winters?”
“Heck yeah. He was in my class in high school. His dad was my dentist.”
“He was?” My pulse edged up another notch. I felt stupid. I’d gotten after so many other people for making up tenuous connections to this guy that I’d overlooked the fact that he really was from town. Had grown up here and known people.
“Yeah. When I was a kid… Something wrong?”
“No.” I said it too fast. “No, it’s just, I don’t really know him, his family. I’m not a close relative.”
“Really? But you look so much like Beth.”
I shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it.”
One of his team of guys put a hand on his arm and said something into his ear. “Okay,” he replied. “Chloe, right?”
He held out a hand. “Jason. Vanderholt.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He grinned as if that was a clever, witty reply. We shook. His hand was like ice, his skin dry. I let go and he moved on down the line.
As soon as he turned his back, I sank down to the ground and gulped the rest of my hot chocolate, which was now almost cold. Lori stared at me with wide eyes. “He knows you?”
“Who’s Chris Winters?” said Matthew.
I looked at him, then at Lori, then at him again. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m sorry. My family’s a little messed up and-”
“Say no more,” said Matthew.
“Just, tell me you didn’t fall for that Mr. Charming act he pulled?” He nodded in the direction of the actor’s retreating figure.
“Was he charming? I guess he knows how to work a crowd.”
Lori cursed. “I didn’t get his autograph! Ohmigosh! I can’t believe it.”
“What do you want his autograph for?” said Matthew. “What would you get him to sign anyway?”
“He coulda signed this.” She held up her cup. “And what do you mean? It’d be a souvenir.”
“It’d be a dirty cup with writing on it.”
I loved how literal Matthew was.
“What?” Lori snapped.
But by now the line was moving. The woman who’d yelled at us to line up, was now yelling at us to move into the anthropology building. “We’ve got food set out for you in the first room on the left,” she announced.
Lori pulled out her compact and checked her makeup.
I drained the last dregs of my hot chocolate and tossed the cup into the nearest trash can.
This is what I did for my big film debut. I stood around in short sleeves at five in the morning with a bunch of other people next to the anthropology building. And I did that for over an hour. Every little while someone would shout, “Quiet on the set!” and several minutes later, “Cut!”
We could start talking after every “Cut!” and at least they didn’t make us chew ice. Goosebumps stood out all along my arms and I wished I hadn’t had my hair cut the week before. I could’ve used more warmth on the back of my neck.
The camera and crew were a good thirty yards away, as were the actors in the scene. I wasn’t near the front of the crowd, so I couldn’t really see what the actors were doing, or who they even were. Besides Jason Vanderholt, the film starred Corey Cassidy, a blond, former model turned actress. Supposedly the two were a hot couple, involved in real life. Lori had told me this. I didn’t read tabloids.
“I really feel like I’m growing, artistically,” I said to Matthew.
He smirked at me. “Working on your irony?”
“How do you know I’m not serious?”
“This is so cool,” said Lori.
“If you say so,” I said.
“Quiet on the set!”
I looked over at Matthew again, who was smiling down at me. He didn’t look cold. He’d had the foresight to wear long sleeves.
“Cut. That’s a wrap!” someone shouted.
“Okay, okay, okay!” yelled the woman who’d been herding us all morning. “Everyone I’ve asked to stay, please stay. The rest of you are free to go.”
I tromped with the rest of the crowd back inside. “That was really glamorous,” I said. I glanced at my watch. It wasn’t even seven yet.
Standing at the doorway of the catering area was a guy with spiky blond hair and all dark clothing. At the sight of me he said, “Chloe Winters?”
“Come with me.”
I glanced around. The yelling woman had made it crystal clear that we weren’t allowed to wander.
“It’s okay,” the guy said. “Just come with me.”
Lori and Matthew and I exchanged glances. Matthew frowned at the guy, but didn’t say anything.
I stepped away from the crowd and followed Mr. Spiky Blond Hair back out of the building. “I’m Dave,” he said.
“So did you have fun this morning?”
“You been an extra before?”
“Dave!” Someone called out.
We both turned, to see a guy standing at the far corner of the building, but Dave pointed at me and the guy put up both hands and turned away, as if amused. “He need you?” I asked.
“No, it’s fine. Come on.”
We cut across the lawn in the direction of the parking lot, where row upon row of trailers were parked. The sun was just over the horizon, washing the campus in pale, gold light. The stucco walls of all the surrounding buildings glowed as if lit from inside.
“It is a pretty town,” Dave agreed. He’d seen my wistful gaze.
Another woman in a headset stepped out from between the trailers, saw me and Dave, and smirked, as if to herself. When she caught me looking at her, she shook her head and kept walking.
Dave and I stepped into the shadow of the trailers and walked around the first one to the door. “Go on in,” he said.
I looked askance at him.
“It’s fine.” He pulled it open.
I stepped up the stairs and inside, seated on a couch with his feet up, was Jason Vanderholt, reading a magazine. “Hey,” he said. “Come on in.”
I looked around again. He’d just summoned me here? Alone? Dave hadn’t come in with me and I had the feeling he’d shut the door behind me once I took another step forward. The amused looks from the other crew now took on a new context.
“No thanks,” I said. I turned to leave.
But a crowd of men cut off my path and boxed me in by the stairs. It was Vanderholt’s entourage from this morning. They made a wall of black t-shirts and muscle that stood between me and freedom. “Let me go, please,” I said. I tried to elbow through, but one of them grabbed my arm in a grip like a vise.
“Miss?” said one of the men to me. “You can’t just walk around-”
“I’m not trying to wander around the set,” I snapped. “I’m supposed to be back with the extras. Do you mind?” I tried to push past again and the grip on my arm tightened. “Let me go!” I shouted.
“Guys, guys!” That was Jason Vanderholt, stumbling down the steps behind me. “Back off.”
“Look,” I rounded on him. “I don’t know you. I don’t know why you summoned me like this, and this-” I gestured at his goons “-is not okay. Let me leave.”
“Right, sorry.” He spread his hands. “Guys, back off. Come on. Don’t block her in like that. Give her space.”
“Is there a problem, Mr. Vanderholt?” Another woman in a headset appeared in the crowd that had gathered. “Is this woman-”
“No,” he said. “No, and call me Jason, will you?”
My outburst had caused a flurry of commotion. More people were pouring into this lane between the trailers. The sky was pale blue overhead and the sound of traffic on the main road had picked up.
“Is this woman causing problems?” another man asked.
“No,” said Jason. “This is Chloe. She’s a friend and I was just going to walk her back to… wherever she needs to go.” He looked at me, one eyebrow raised.
“I just need to get my things from where the extras were, and then leave,” I said.
“Okay, let me walk you. It’s okay, everyone, move along.” He came over to put a hand on my arm, turned me back in the direction of the anthropology building, and we started on our way.
The crowd stayed behind. I could feel their gazes boring into the back of my skull. Now that all the excitement was over, the embarrassment set in. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I hope I didn’t just get you in trouble.” My face burned hot. I’d just behaved as if he’d propositioned me, when he hadn’t even said two words. He probably thought I was the most presumptuous, ridiculous girl he’d ever met.
“No, I’m sorry.” We rounded the trailer. “I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh.” We reached the open parking lot.
He paused and turned me around to face him. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just… guess I got up too early this morning. My head’s not clear.” I looked down at the asphalt.
“You can look at me, you know?”
I lifted my gaze to that face I’d seen on countless movie posters and tugged my arm out of his grasp. “Sorry.”
He dropped his hand and smiled. “No, don’t apologize. I just… I don’t know what kind of instructions people gave you. Sometimes they tell the extras not to look at the actors and with me, it’s fine. You can… Okay… no one told you that, did they?”
I shook my head.
“I must sound like the most arrogant person ever.” He ran his fingers through his hair, and I noticed it stayed perfectly styled. Weird.
“Well, if everyone behaves the way they did in line-”
“Right, yeah. It’s to prevent stuff like that, but… anyway. Listen, I didn’t get a chance to really talk to you. Since I know your family-”
“No, you don’t.”
“Well, some of them at least. I’ve spent some time over at Dr. Winters’s house, hanging out with Chris.”
“Were you friends with the Winters?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“So, yeah. I should go-”
“Whoa, wait a minute.” He put his hand on my wrist again. His skin really was dry, even the palm was a little scratchy. If he was Chris’s classmate, he was twenty-eight or so, but his skin was older. “Who are you, then?” he asked. “A cousin?”
“Something like that.” I pulled out of his grasp once more. I’m not a touchy-feely person, especially not with men I’ve only just met.
“Something like that? You can’t be any more distantly related. Come on.” His gaze scanned my face. I’d always assumed that his blue eyes were airbrushed, but no, they really were that shade of dreamboat blue lined with thick, dark lashes. Just then, they looked puzzled. “Am I asking something… wrong?”
“No… it’s just…”
“You don’t really want to know who I am.”
“I am totally and completely confused right now. Please. Enlighten me.”
I pushed a stray strand of hair back from my face. I didn’t see a graceful way out of this conversation, other than to say I didn’t want to talk about it and leave, and I wasn’t entirely sure he would leave me alone if I did. He was genuinely curious. Which, I figured, was his prerogative. If he really wanted to know, I’d tell him. The sun was up now, and it was getting hot. I didn’t want to stand around all morning.
“I’m Chris’s half sister.”
“His… he’s got a half sister?”
“Wait, how old are you?”
I watched while he did the math. “So, your mother…”
“Had me out of wedlock with Dr. Winters, who was married with kids at the time. More than you want to know about their family, I’m sure.”
His eyes widened with surprise and he shifted his weight. “The Winters still married?”
“As far as I know. I don’t keep track of them. Just living my own life, here. Anyway.” I made as if to leave.
“Okay. I’m really sorry.” He put his hand on my arm, only to let go when I flinched. “I shouldn’t have pried.”
“You just didn’t think you’d turn up something like that? It’s okay. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just that most of the Winters’s friends don’t want to know about me and their other issues.”
“I’m not a friend of theirs anymore. I haven’t talked to them in over ten years.”
I shrugged. “I should go.”
“Can I get your phone number?”
At that I just smiled and held out my hand. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too.” We shook.
“Hope the rest of the filming goes well.” This time I really did leave, and he let me. When I glanced back over my shoulder, he still stood there, watching after me.
The following morning, I woke up to the sound of the doorbell. I glanced at the clock. It was seven a.m., and I was nowhere near ready to wake up. The early morning yesterday coupled with a late night at work had taken its toll.
The doorbell chimed again.
I pawed my sheets away from my face and dragged myself out of bed. The thin carpet was rough under my bare feet as I stumbled out my door and down the hall to the front room. “Lor?” I croaked.
“Who is that?” was the irritated reply from her room.
“No idea.” I reached the front door, put my hand on the cool metal knob, and waited. Maybe the person had gone away.
“It better not be the Mormons,” said Lori. “Or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s seven freaking o’clock.” She emerged from her room, looking rumpled and disheveled. Her hair was still up in a messy bun.
Whoever it was outside, knocked.
I sighed and opened the door. Harsh sunlight streamed in, and I blinked while my eyes adjusted.
“Honey?” said a voice from the blinding brilliance.
It was my mother, holding a newspaper. She wore a skin tight mini skirt and a tank top under a denim jacket. Her leopard print bra stuck out from under her shirt and her hair was done up in a French twist. She smelled like lavender body wash. “Hi,” I said to her.
“Let me in, honey.”
I stepped back from the door and she bustled past, her high heels clicking against the concrete, then going silent on the carpet inside. “Oh, hello,” she said to Lori. “I’m Karen.”
“This is my mother,” I explained to Lori. “Mom, Lori. My housemate.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Mom. She plonked herself down on the couch and dragged the coffee table up to her knees. “So have you seen this yet?” She spread out the paper.
I rubbed my eyes and went to look, only Lori beat me to it. She snatched it up. “Ohmigosh, Chlo. When did this happen?”
“When did what happen?”
She turned it around with a rustle of paper crumpling. It was a large picture of Jason Vanderholt talking to me in the parking lot. I’d turned my head, so they’d gotten a clear shot of my face. “Vanderholt and a female companion,” read the caption.
“Oh,” I said, “that.”
“When did this happen?” repeated Lori.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get his autograph for you. I forgot.” The kitchen tiles were cool under my bare feet as I retreated to the sink.
“Chloe?” said Mom.
I filled the coffeemaker with water and grinds. “It was yesterday, after we did our extras thing,” I said to Lori.
“When that guy came and got you?” she asked.
“Wait, explain,” said Mom.
“We were extras on the set of his movie yesterday, Mom. I ran into him. We said, like, twenty words to each other. It’s nothing.”
Lori shook her head. “But-”
I shot her a silencing look. I did not want to have to explain to anyone, least of all my mother, what yesterday’s conversation had been about.
“So are you going to see him again?” Mom asked.
“What?” I said. “No. Gimme a break. Lots of people met him yesterday. All of the extras did. I don’t know why they used that picture.”
Mom sat back, deflated. “Oh.”
I rolled my eyes as the coffeemaker hissed and spewed steam.
“Well, this is a nice place.” She looked over our sitting room. “How long have you lived here?”
“Since I gave you the address. Last year.”
“I didn’t know you lived in town, Ms. Winters,” said Lori.
I winced, but Mom only giggled. “Just call me Karen. I’m not a Winters.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, dumb of me to assume,” said Lori.
“It’s fine. You known Chloe long?”
“Since freshman year,” I said.
Lori, sensing that I was about to lose my temper, put the newspaper down and said something about needing to use the bathroom. She beat a hasty retreat.
Which told me I needed to calm down. I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger and took a couple of deep breaths.
“What is it, honey?” said Mom.
“Nothing. Just that… I’ve lived here almost a year. I’ve been going to UNM with Lori and all my other friends you’ve never met for three years, and the first time you come visit me is when I get my picture in the paper with some random famous guy?”
“Well, I just wanted to know what the story was,” she said.
“I know, but there are much more interesting things going on in my life.”
“Really? Have you got a boyfriend?”
“No, but I have a 4.0 with a double major. That mean anything to you?”
“Well of course you do. Well done.”
“No,” I said. “Not of course. I work hard on that-”
“I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t.” She picked up the newspaper and folded it carefully. “But you were always very smart. You’ve got those Winters genes.”
“Of course, it’s genetic.”
She frowned at me, as if I’d been the one to say something offensive. “Well, fine. I can see I’m not wanted-”
“No, come on. You want some coffee or something?”
“I’ve got to get to work.” She got to her feet.
“I don’t want anything,” she snapped. “You have a nice day.”
“Come on, Mom.”
But she’d already crossed over to the door and was letting herself out. “Bye now.”
I watched her leave, then grabbed a mug down from the shelf. I desperately needed coffee just then.
My shift at Flying Star started at ten, and I spent an hour pouring coffee and ringing up orders before someone came in and slid a copy of the newspaper, with my picture exposed, across the counter next to the register.
I groaned and looked up. It was Matthew, a questioning smile on his lips.
“We had an affair. Really short one,” I said. “It was torrid.”
“When did this happen?”
“Put that away, all right? I don’t want anyone to see it.”
He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm.
“You want coffee? Cupcake?”
He shrugged and started to dig in his pocket.
“No, I’ve got this,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Just coffee, black.”
I looked over at Abby, the strawberry blond who shared the shift with me. “Okay if I go on break?” I asked her.
“Okay, you find us a seat,” I told Matthew. “I’ll be right there.”
“He’s cute,” said Abby.
“Yeah,” I agreed. Matthew had a slight swagger in his walk, due to the fact that he wore his cowboy boots everywhere.
“Too bad he’s married,” said Abby.
“No, not married.”
“Huh? No.” I set out two cups on a tray and poured the coffee.
“He’s got a ring.”
“No it’s a… what do you call them? A purity ring.”
“Oh, religious and Texan.”
“You say those like they’re bad things.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell him you said that.” I headed over to the table he’d staked out, Abby’s giggles fading behind me. Flying Star was a restaurant and coffee lounge. The décor was bright, primary colors. A large, glass case of pastries dominated the serving counter, and one whole wall was magazine racks. The place had power outlets and wifi, so a lot of students hung out here to study during the school year. Otherwise, it was a very popular lunch and dinner spot. The traffic was already picking up, and two other employees had just shown up to help.
“So when did this happen?” Matthew held up the paper as I sat down.
I slid into my chair, set his coffee in front of him, and dismissed the newspaper with a wave. “Ran into him after we finished yesterday. How exciting was yesterday? Two whole hours of the Hollywood experience.”
He gave me an odd look as he sipped his coffee. “You never did say what happened after that guy came and got you.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing how? Did Vanderholt proposition you or something?”
“No. Of course not.”
But Matthew just sipped more coffee and said, “I saw the way he looked at you in line.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He noticed you. Take it from another guy. I saw.”
“He did not proposition me and we didn’t really have a torrid affair. It was a different kind of embarrassing.”
I dumped two sachets of sugar into my coffee and stirred. “Can you keep a secret?”
“You know I can.”
“My mother, when she was sixteen, had an affair with her married boss. She had me when she was seventeen, and carried on with this affair for over a decade. The guy was Dr. Winters, the dentist. Jason was friends with Chris Winters, Dr. Winters’s son, and so when he asked me if I was related…”
Matthew blinked once, twice.
I sipped my coffee, which was still a little bitter, despite all the sugar. “Ye-ah.”
“I had no idea.” He leaned closer.
“Yeah, well. It doesn’t matter anymore. Not to me. I don’t live at home and-”
“Chloe, you’re on track to be valedictorian.”
“I never knew you came from a background like that.”
“You knew I went to Rio Grande High School and had a single mother. You got the gist.”
“I don’t know high schools around here.”
“Rio Grande’s in one of the poorer areas. I mean, it’s not a bad high school… well, some would say it is. It’s not La Cueva, okay? That’s where Jason Vanderholt and my half siblings went. That’s up in the Northeast Heights where the property values are higher. It’s got this weird, eighties look to it, kind of built like a shopping mall or something, but anyway. It’s one of the nicer schools and about as opposite as you can get from Rio Grande.”
“Okay. Well, dang, that musta been an awkward conversation.”
“Yeah. The Winters are well known. I mean, you can hear ads for Dr. Winters’s dental practice-”
“On the radio. I never thought about you having the same name, though I guess I should. This whole state’s like a small town.”
“Doesn’t mean we’re all related.”
Matthew took a big gulp of coffee. His purity ring glinted in the sunlight. “Well,” he said, “I knew you were cool. Just didn’t know how cool.” He winked at me.
The winking thing was new. I shrugged in reply.
That Friday was slow at Flying Star, which was odd for a Friday, but business was like that. Some event at some other restaurant was probably funneling customers away. I had time to stand and page through a magazine behind the counter. I always liked pictures of next season’s fashions, not that I could afford any of them.
A small knot of customers whooshed in the glass doors and I put the magazine aside and moved to the cash register. Rather than pause to look at the pastries and read the menu, like most people did, this group came straight up to me. They were all men, and the guy in front wore a baseball cap and sunglasses. I hated when people did that indoors.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
The guy right in front of me took off his sunglasses to reveal sky blue eyes. “Hi.”
I blinked. It was Jason Vanderholt. “Oh, hi.”
“You ever get to take a break?”
“Um…” I looked over at Abby who stared, open mouthed.
“Go,” she said to me.
“Sounds like a yes?” said Jason.
I looked around at the other guys surrounding the cash register. They prevented anyone in the dining room or outside from seeing Jason, but Jason glanced around at them and said, “They don’t have to sit with us. You sure you don’t want coffee or something?” He looked unsure of himself, like he was afraid he’d crossed a line. But the restaurant was open to the public. He was as welcome here as anyone.
“Sure,” I relented. “That what you want? Coffee?”
“Yeah, and a biscotti.” He tugged one loose from the jar on top of the pastry display with a crackle of cellophane. I rang up his order, but he shook his head. “You’re not having anything?”
“I can get-”
“Put it on.” He nodded at the cash register.
I paused. He was just being nice, but I didn’t really want to be taken out for coffee by this guy. I didn’t want to create an awkward moment either, so, reluctantly, I added a second coffee and let him pay. His people fanned out across the dining room and staked out a table. “Shall we?” said Jason.
“Gimme a sec. I’ll bring the coffees.”
“Okay.” He headed across the room with his biscotti and I poured a cup of regular for him and decaf for me. His visit had given me the jitters.
“Oh. My. Gosh,” said Abby.
“Not you too.”
“You know him?”
“He knows my family. It’s nothing.” I crossed over to the table in the far corner where Jason’s people had seated him, his back to the dining room and windows. Several members of the entourage got coffees and pastries and sat at nearby tables. It was all very over the top, as if they feared a group of ninjas would break into the restaurant and take Jason away. Which I’d seen happen, in the theaters.
But, I had to admit, if his fans usually behaved the way the extras had in line, this wasn’t over the top. I slid into my seat and passed Jason his coffee. Jason broke the biscotti in two and put one half in front of me. The other he dunked in his drink.
“So how’ve you been?” he asked.
“Fine. How’s the film?”
“Oh. So you’re leaving town soon?”
“Yeah, in a few hours. I just wanted to track you down and say sorry. I was way too nosy about you and your family and all that.”
“It’s fine. How did you find me?”
He tugged his phone from his pocket and held it out to me. It was sleek and hi tech and displayed a web page with a picture of me grinning. That, I knew, was on the Flying Star website. I’d been employee of the month last month.
“Oh,” I said.
“I love this place,” he said. “It’s the old Rainbow Cafe, right? Started over on Juan Tabo?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m pretty sure it is. Used to go there when I was a kid.”
“Did you Google my name?” I asked.
I frowned. “Anything else come up?”
“I didn’t look, why?”
“Um… never mind…”
“I’m really sorry if I dug into your privacy again-”
“If it’s on the internet, it’s not private.”
“Yeah, but sometimes it should be. Believe me, I know.”
I shrugged. “Um, okay. Things with the Winters got ugly sometimes, so… yeah. Kind of embarrassing what might be still around in old news stories.”
“Gotcha. Okay.” He put his phone back in his pocket. “So tell me about you?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Where’d you grow up?”
“Near the South Valley.”
“And now? You at UNM?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be a senior.”
“What do you study?”
“Archeology and biology.”
“Nice. UNM’s a top archeology school, right? Got a really good department?”
“Yeah, that’s why I majored in it. Figured it’d give me the best shot at a good graduate school.”
He nodded, munched some more biscotti, and washed it down with coffee. “You going to be an archeologist?”
“No, forensic science. Which I learned last year requires a hard science bachelors, and not everyone considers archeology a hard science, so that’s why I took on the second major.”
“Oh, so you’ll be like Bones– did you ever watch that TV show?”
“No – yes, I have seen it – but no, she’s a forensic anthropologist and I just want to be a forensic scientist. She deals with dead bodies, and I just want to do stuff like fingerprinting, munitions testing, DNA evidence. Stuff like that.”
“Right. Without as much funding.”
“You probably think it’s stupid that I’m citing television shows to understand what you do.”
“I dunno. It’d be a little more disturbing if you had real life experience.”
“Okay, true.” His blue eyes twinkled. I could see why millions of women found him dreamy. I just found him odd. He was too perfect looking. His teeth were pure white and even. His tan was bronze and fake. At least with the baseball cap on, his hair stuck out around the edge like a normal person’s. His hands and nails were manicured and flawless.
As if sensing my scrutiny, he went quiet, as if it mattered to him what I thought.
I tried to fill the silence. “I guess I don’t know much about you. Other than that you went to La Cueva.”
“I did, for two years. I mean, I graduated from there too, but I had to transfer credits back to do it. Loved that school.”
“And my housemate heard in an interview that you do martial arts?”
He gave a wry smile. “Maybe I said that. I don’t know. I don’t bother to tell the truth in interviews.”
“You just lie?”
With a shrug, he drained his coffee. “People don’t watch interviews to get to know me. They don’t want to know the real me. They just want to be entertained, and I don’t want to share my personal information with a bunch of strangers, so I just make up stories and stuff. I don’t think I ever said I knew martial arts, though. I try not to claim to have skills that I don’t. I might’ve made up some story about a karate fight or- yeah. Yeah, I did. Karate fight on set where I broke my little finger and cried over it while all the stunt guys laughed at me. Didn’t happen, though I probably would cry like a baby if it did.”
This guy had a seriously strange life.
He looked up at me again, as if unsure what to say next. “Look, can I get your phone number?”
“Not to be rude, but why?”
“You seem really cool. Real down to earth. Talking like this? It’s been nice.”
“And you seem very nice.” I looked past him at his security guys– that’s what I assumed they were –all trying to look like they weren’t with us. A group of girls headed in our direction and one of the men got up to block them. “You also have one of the weirdest jobs on the planet. Sorry, that’s-”
He laughed. “The truth? Like I said, you seem really cool. I’m in town sometimes to see my family. We should hang out.” He pulled out his phone.
It seemed rude to say no, so I gave him my number, and keyed his into my beat up little flip phone. More women and girls were streaming into the restaurant.
Jason turned and surveyed the scene. “Maybe this’ll be good for business for you?”
“I can disarm the alarm so you can go out the back door?”
“That’d be great, but in a few. I can sign some autographs and stuff. Get them to buy food, I hope.” He got to his feet.
“You don’t have to-”
“It’s cool.” He and his guys all rallied together and turned to face the growing crowd.
I stole away. It was cowardly, but I had the feeling that if these women noticed me sitting at his table, they might lynch me. Besides, it was past time for me to get back to work. I ducked behind the counter and tied my apron on. Abby was wrestling with the Red Stuff machine, which dispensed a mix of cranberry juice and red tea that was very popular in the summer.
“Here,” I said. I grasped the handle and twisted it back so that the machine would work again.
“Okay, so spill. How do you know him?”
Everyone behind the counter looked at me. “Shh,” I said. “I don’t want to get beaten up by a bunch of fans.”
“Are you involved with him?” Abby asked.
“Um. No. He’s dating Corey Cassidy, right? I barely know him. Like I said, he kind of knows my family and recognized me when I was an extra in his movie. He grew up in town.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Abby. “I have a friend of a friend who had a locker next to him at La Cueva. Junior year.”
“Oh,” I said. “Cool.” He’d just told me that he hadn’t been there for his junior year, but whatever. I felt a little sorry for anyone who felt the need to make up a claim like that. Surely they’d done something more interesting in their life than have a locker next to a guy who now pretended to be other people for a living?
The crowd surged as people mobbed Jason for autographs, and we sold four hundred to-go orders for coffee in an hour. It was insane. What was also insane was the number of girls who were crying and shaking as they paid, as if they were in the presence of divinity. Jason was “sooo sexy” and “sooo nice”. I let him and his crew out the back door when he texted me to explain he needed to catch his plane to LA.
“I’ll see you, Chloe,” he said as he put his sunglasses on and stepped out into the brightness.
Usually I walked to and from work, but that day I’d driven. Big mistake. I walked around to the parking lot at the end of my shift and found the tires on one side of my car had been slashed. It listed to one side, like a sinking ship. I called my insurance company, then the police – their non-emergency number. “I need to file a report,” I told the woman who picked up. “Someone vandalized my car.”
“Do you know whom?”
“Have you got any enemies or-”
“You know, this is really stupid, but I vaguely know Jason Vanderholt. We had coffee this morning and, maybe I’m paranoid but-”
“One of his fans vandalized your car?”
“No. There’s a cruiser that should be there any minute.”
“You really know Jason Vanderholt?”
“What’s he like?”
I shut my eyes and turned my face skyward. The sun still shone down, scorching hot. I got a detailed view of the blood vessels in my eyelids. “He’s nice. When did you say the cruiser would get here?”
“Should be there any second.”
Much to my relief, a shiny silver police car rounded the corner right then. “Okay, here it is. Thanks!” I hung up.
“So you’ve got celebrity connections?” the cop said as he stepped out.
I just pointed at my car. “Need to file a report. I didn’t see it happen. Don’t know about any witnesses.”
He took off his sunglasses and looked at me. He was middle aged, graying black hair, wrinkled skin. Kind, brown eyes. “I’m Officer Baca. You probably don’t remember me.”
I shook my head.
“I was a rookie way back when. Helped them airlift you.”
“How are you?”
He looked down at my leg. I was wearing a skirt, so he could clearly see the little silver scar on my calf. “I’m glad to hear it. Have a daughter your age.”
“How long did he get put away? The guy who did that to you?”
“Twenty five years maximum or something? It was a few consecutive sentences, but I don’t know how all that works with parole or whatever.”
“Not long enough.” He started scribbling away on his notepad. “Okay, this is your car?”
“You got insurance?”
“Yeah. Tow truck is coming.”
“Just gimme a sec to write this up.” He looked up at me again. “It really is good to see you. Had nightmares about that incident for years, but you look great.”