by Heather Again
The apartment door slammed, and Alton started awake. Keys dropped noisily on the kitchen table. Bags landed on the floor. The TV was still on. His brain was foggy and his head ached—thanks to an empty six-pack of London Pride—but the memory of his recent discovery was clear.
The magazine featuring his doe-eyed girlfriend kissing another man had fallen to his chest. He sat up on the couch and rolled it tightly in his hands, waiting for the sound of sandaled footsteps to reach the living room. His stomach turned as Sophie appeared in the doorway. He felt disgusted, betrayed. Anger boiled in his veins. She turned the lights on, and he squinted in the sudden brightness. Her brown eyes narrowed; her normally-luscious lips formed a thin line. He was revved and ready for a confrontation.
"You were supposed to pick me up at the airport," she said.
Alton shook his head and laughed. She must have been on the plane when the headline was released. She still didn't know she'd been caught.
Her cheeks flushed angry red. "What the hell is so funny?"
He unfurled the magazine and held it up so she could see the cover: Sophie Desmarais caught smooching lighting director—Alton Daniels left in the dark! Her hard expression failed immediately, replaced by a look of horror. She brought a hand to her mouth and shook her head. Fat tears welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
"How did they…Oh, God. I'm so sorry. It was a stupid mistake."
"How many times was it a stupid mistake?"
She didn't answer. Maybe she couldn't. Alton watched, expressionless, as his former lover broke down, struggling and failing to keep from sobbing. Her body shook and she fell to her knees in the doorway. She buried her face in her hands.
Much to his chagrin, Alton felt a pang of sympathy. Until a few hours ago, he'd loved her more than anything. She was a gorgeous French model who had made a cameo in one of his movies two years ago. Their affair was passionate, all-too-obvious to the public. He even believed she was sorry, but it just wasn't good enough. She'd betrayed him in the worst way. How could he ever look at her the same? Love her the same? He knew himself, and he thought she had, too. He couldn't give her a second chance. It wouldn't be fair to either of them.
Unlike Sophie, he knew right from wrong.
"How can I fix this?" Sophie asked.
Alton laughed again, without humor. He didn't know what else to do. How could she not understand that it was over between them when her actions seemed so final to him?
"Stop laughing!" she screamed.
He shut his mouth. He knew exactly what she felt—the gut-wrenching agony, like a poison moving slowly through her veins. The difference was, she'd done it to herself. He hadn't even seen this murder-suicide coming, and that hurt in its own special way. She'd played him for a fool and now had the gall to ask for compassion.
"There is no fixing this," he said flatly.
"But…Please. Please don't do this. Don't leave. We can work it out."
Alton's stomach turned again. Between her begging and the alcohol, he thought he might be sick. He didn't want to hear this. She didn't deserve to cry like this, to be in as much pain as he was. She didn't deserve to still be making him feel something. He needed air. He needed a cigarette. He needed to get away from her.
"I'm not leaving. You are."
"What?" Her brown eyes were wide, but he refused to let her innocent expression faze him.
He stood, pulling a cigarette from his pocket and tossing the magazine on the floor in front of her as he made a move to exit the apartment. But her small, earnest voice stopped him.
"What do you mean?"
Anger spiked in Alton's veins. He'd done everything right. He'd been loyal, trusting, and trustworthy. How could she still be trying to manipulate his feelings? And how had he never noticed this side of her before? Blind love. Stupid love. He rounded on her.
"You know exactly what I mean."
"Give me a chance—"
"I love you!"
"I'm not stupid, Sophie."
She was almost pouting now. "I know. I know that. I was stupid. I love you so much. I don't want to lose you. I was just lonely."
"And what happens next time you're lonely?"
"I don't know. But I won't do this again."
"Good. The next man you commit to should be able to trust you."
"Alton!" She made a move to stand, but he gave her a scathing look, and she sat back down. The last slivers of hope slipped from her brown eyes and trailed down her cheeks. "It's going to take some time for me to pack my things. And figure out where to go."
He gestured to the overfull bags from her recent trip. "Looks like you've got a head start."
She didn't seem to know what to say, and he didn't give her a chance to figure it out before walking through the door to freedom.
He wasn't sure where he was going. The paparazzi were sure to be crawling close by. The first step to evasion was getting lost in a crowd, and he stepped into the flow of foot traffic, inhaling smoke as he went.
He hoped Sophie would be gone by the time he got back from wherever he went, but he knew she wouldn't. She often confused desperation for determination. He let out a heavy, smoke-laced sigh, crushed his cigarette, and veered off to duck in a rundown bar.
No one under twenty-one would bother him, and no one over twenty-one would expect to find him in this kind of dive. There were five middle-aged men watching college football on a tube TV. He sat down on a corner bar stool, away from the group, still trying to keep a low profile.
"What can I get you?" the bartender asked, one eye still on the TV.
"Jack and Coke."
The older man nodded, poured, and slid the tumbler across the worn bar top. Alton took a gulp and tried to get engrossed in the game, but all the cigarettes and alcohol in the world couldn't give him back the ignorant bliss he'd had just hours before. He downed the rest of the drink and signaled for another.
As the cold glass hit his palm, his phone vibrated. He'd been dodging calls from his publicist, his parents, and numbers he suspected were reporters just begging for a restraining order. He didn't want to hear how he should react or have any deep, heartfelt conversations, and he especially didn't want to blow up at the media and give them one more thing to talk about.
He didn't have many people he'd call a good friend in this town, but as he sipped his drink and glanced through missed calls, one stood out: Madison Avery. The older blond had played opposite him in a romantic comedy three years ago. She was married with a kid now, but they'd kept in touch and her door was always open.
One glance through the window told him he might need to take her up on that. A photographer in sunglasses peered through the thick layer of dust and dirt on the glass pane. Someone must have tipped him off, or maybe he'd seen Alton enter the place himself. He would be found out soon.
"Could I leave out the back?" he asked the bartender quietly as he threw down a fifty.
The older man scrutinized him for a moment, looked to the window, then jerked his thumb toward the back door as he pocketed the money. Alton exited into a narrow alley and managed to get moving on the sidewalk before the photographer could figure out for sure he'd been there at all. Rain began falling, but he walked another block before hailing a cab, just to be sure he wouldn't draw any extra attention.
Madison lived just outside Beverly Hills in a house that was small for the area. To Alton, who had grown up in a tiny London apartment, it was a mansion. Five bedrooms, five baths, a set of twin spiral staircases in the foyer, and a baroque fountain on the front lawn. Madison would be the first to admit she enjoyed the high life but never at the expense of warmth and family. Inside there would be a log fire burning and little Xan's toys strewn over the living room floor.
The taxi dropped him off and he pressed a button at the front gate. A camera whirred. The gate opened. Alton squinted through the setting sun and rain to see the porch. An outside light came on, and Madison bounced down the front steps to meet him. She hugged him tightly.
"Oh my God, Alton, I am so sorry. Xan got a hold of the remote and switched the TV to TMZ. That picture was the first thing I saw."
"Am I interrupting anything?" he asked, letting her grab his hand to pull him onto the porch, out of the rain.
"Of course not. You couldn't if you tried. You look awful. How long have you been out in this?"
"Thanks," he said dryly. "Not long."
"Come in! Change your shirt. You and Will are the same size."
Alton lifted his hand in a wave to Madison's husband, who sat on the couch in front of the TV, sipping a beer and keeping an eye on the blond two-year-old looking at board books on the hardwood floor in front of him. "Tough break, man," the graying graphic designer said, glancing up. "Want a beer?"
Alton took the bottle gratefully before Madison ushered him upstairs for a new shirt. She promptly took the bottle away and rested it on a coaster on the hall table. "You've already been drinking."
Alton checked his breath.
"You smell fine. I just know you."
Alton stood outside the bedroom while Madison grabbed one of Will's shirts.
He wouldn't go in there. He had too much respect for Will. It had to be hard for him—knowing Alton had seen, held, and kissed his wife's naked body while at the same time having to accept the truth that they were only and had only ever been friends. He'd seen on-screen sex scenes rip plenty of friendships and relationships apart.
But Will had never questioned Alton, never brought it up, never been anything but kind and fair to the younger man. Alton was grateful for that. Madison was his best friend in the States. She'd been in the business longer; she understood the pressure of the constant scrutiny and handled it beautifully. He had a lot to learn from her.
She returned a moment later with a plain black t-shirt. Alton peeled off his wet button-down and let her take it from him.
"So do you want to talk about it?" she asked as he pulled the dry shirt over his head.
Alton rubbed his hands over his face and shook his head. "I don't know."
Here, in this safe place, he felt tears sting his eyes for the first time since his discovery, but he forced them back. He wouldn't give Sophie that much, even if she wasn't here to see it.
"Let's go to the sitting room," Madison suggested, grasping his arm and gently guiding him down the hall.
She flipped on a light in the cozy, book-lined lounge and turned on a single-cup coffee maker. Alton sat on a dark leather sofa.
"So how did you find out?" she asked.
"I went to get a pack of cigarettes this morning, and there it was."
"That is exactly what I didn't want to hear. She didn't even have the guts to tell you herself?" Madison handed him a steaming mug of tea and sat with him.
"I don't think she ever planned to tell me. I still don't know when it started or how long it lasted or if it's still going on. I don't know if he was the first. Guess I should read the article," he said dryly as he took a sip.
Madison tapped her own mug thoughtfully. "I was involved with a guy about ten years ago who was arrested for embezzlement. I woke up one morning to reporters banging on my door. My career was just starting to take off, and I was devastated. I just had to get away for a while. I think that would help you, too."
"That's why I'm here."
"Farther than this. It's hard enough to breathe out here when the media isn't trying to suffocate you. I don't have to tell you they'll be all over this and all over you. Why don't you go stay at Applewild?"
Alton stared at his diminished drink, considering the idea.
"I have a commercial shoot tomorrow," Madison continued, "and Xan just started swim lessons. We won't be heading out there anytime soon. You'd have the place to yourself except for staff."
"Is it safe?" he asked.
"I'm not saying the paparazzi would never go to the boondocks of Virginia for a story, but it's way less likely than here or in New York."
"And you trust the staff?"
"Implicitly. I handpicked the housekeeper and the cook, and the housekeeper hired the part-time stable hand. He'd never have a reason to be at the house. The full-time hand checks out just fine. They've all signed confidentiality agreements and had extensive background checks. We've owned the ranch for two years with no trouble."
"Who picked the full-time hand?"
"She came with the house."
Madison shrugged. "It was a condition of the house. We had to keep her on if we wanted the place."
"You've seen the place. It's beautiful. Totally worth it."
"How old is she?"
"You want to know if she's in your movie's demographic?" Madison clarified with a smirk. "She's twenty-five. But she's never asked for an autograph or special favors or even tried negotiating her contract for a higher salary. She's never leaked my private information. I'm sure she knows who you are, but I can't see her spending her evenings poring over gossip magazines and doodling hearts around your face. She spends most of her time at the barn, with the horses. If it makes you feel better I can make sure she stays there."
"If you trust your employees that's good enough for me."
"Then it's settled. I'll give you a ride back to your place and someone from Applewild will pick you up at the airport tomorrow."