Authors: Karen Templeton
Something like a tiny spark flickered in the center of his chest. “Then we don’t have any pressing engagements.”
“Good,” she said, then started toward the large living room, the tile changing over to bare wooden floors. A doorway at the far end opened into what was probably a converted garage, through which he glimpsed a few pieces of exercise equipment. The dog plodded beside her, her new BFF.
“Don’t know about ‘nice,’ but it met the main criteria—right location, all on one level, easy access to the outside. It took surprisingly little to retrofit it for my needs. I know the furniture’s goofy, but that’s what happens when seventies’ kitsch—my mother’s stuff from our old ranch—meets I-don’t-really-give-a-rat’s-hiney. And, yes, the torture chamber vibe—” she nodded toward the exercise gear “—adds a nice touch, don’t you think? Seriously, I have absolutely no style sense whatsoever. Nor do I care. And please, sit. Since I am. Of course, I always am, so there’s that. Or we can go take a tour of the grounds, if you’d rather? I doubt Mama’s gonna let your boys out of her clutches for a while.”
Zach wondered if she always prattled like that. If he made her nervous. Although he could only imagine all the people she’d met over the years. Worked with. Why a country vet like him should discombobulate her, he couldn’t imagine. But if getting outside put her mind at ease...
“Sure. Josh asked if I’d check out the stable conditions for Waffles, anyway. He’s pretty protective of the horses that leave his care.” He grinned as she led him through a glassed-in sunroom and onto an obviously new deck that looked over a small pond. “And every bit as bad as your mother.”
She belted out a laugh that made him smile. “You saying we’re doomed?”
“That’d be my take on it, yep.”
“Family,” she muttered as Benny collapsed in a patch of sunshine on the deck and promptly passed out. “Can’t live without ’em, can’t kill ’em. Aw...poor guy. He’s not exactly a pup, is he?”
“Nope. In fact, he’s closing in on fourteen.”
“Get out!” she said, chuckling when the dog released a deep, contented breath. “He’s in fantastic shape for an old dude. You’ve obviously taken great care of him.”
“Actually I’ve only had him a few months, since his owner passed away. She made me promise to take Benito if anything happened to her. Since she was in her nineties, it was touch-and-go which of them would leave first. And she was worried about what would happen if he ended up in a shelter.” Squatting beside the golden, Zach gently stroked the warm fur. “Not many people want to adopt older dogs.”
His eyes still closed, Benny lethargically thumped his tail, then lifted his head to give Zach’s hand a quick slurp before drifting back to sleep. Zach stood, smiling for the old dude. “So how could I not make whatever time he has left as good as possible? And he and the kids are inseparable.”
“I can see that. Then again, dogs and boys are a match made in heaven.”
He looked over to see a gentle smile creasing Mallory’s face as she watched the dog. “You’ve got a pretty soft spot for them, too, I’m guessing.”
“I was raised on a ranch, remember? We always had dogs. Four or five, at least.”
“But Edgar’s your mom’s?”
“He is. We had three pups, back in LA. Rescues, all of ’em.”
“Mixed. One big, two medium. They’re with my ex. Or more to the point, with Landon. Because no way was I going to separate them. Poor kid’s been through enough, he can keep the dogs. Well. On to the stables?”
Her shoulders bunched under the sweater as she navigated the gently sloping ramp leading to what looked like a recently poured cement path, the autumn sun turning her hair nearly the same color as the early-frost-kissed sycamore leaves overhead. “I actually closed on the place three months ago. Took some time, though, to get this all done. And my Realtor was a jewel, supervising it all.”
“It looks like it was always like this.”
“That was the idea. You ever been here before? For the previous owners, maybe?”
Zach shook his head. “Property’s been vacant for years. Twenty, at least.” He stopped short of the stables—four stalls, what looked like a good-sized loft—to take in the spacious dog runs, a sturdy chicken coop. And beyond them, a small orchard. Tart cherry trees, probably. Several types of apple. Whatever might actually produce fruit at this altitude.
Then he glanced over at the stables, and she said, “Yes, I’ve already checked them out. They’re fine. Although I probably won’t bring the horse over until closer to when Landon gets here. Since Waffles needs to be ridden. And it’s not like I can simply hop up on the saddle and take off.”
For the first time, he heard in her voice, if not exactly fear, at least apprehension. A stark contrast to the persona she otherwise presented. To him, anyway. But not only was it none of his concern whether she got back up on a horse or not, he hardly knew the woman. Still, he was surprised how mad it made him, that she’d let fear get in the way of doing whatever she needed, wanted, to do.
Like he had room to talk.
He let his gaze roam over the property, which seemed to go on for a while. “How much land you got here?”
“About twenty acres. After LA, I wanted some space.
“You miss Texas.”
“More than I wanted to admit, yeah.”
“So why didn’t you buy a place there?”
“Didn’t miss it
much,” she said, and he smiled.
“What are you going to do with all of this, though?”
“Haven’t decided. Doubt I’ll entertain much, so I don’t feel any pressure to spiff it up. Although the landscaping could stand some tending. You know anybody who could do that?”
“I’ll get you some names.”
“Good. Thanks.” She paused, her hands folded in her lap. “But I’m sure you’re not the only one who wonders why I chose to buy up here.”
“Because of what happened, you mean?”
She smiled. “Let me guess...your brother?”
“When we were discussing the horse, yeah. As for other people wondering about it...” He shrugged. “None of their business. And if anybody gets up in yours...ignore ’em.”
* * *
Looking back, Mallory thought it was almost scary how naive she’d been when she’d first arrived in LA. How easily she’d trusted people she’d later discovered did not deserve that trust. Twenty years on, she was far more cautious. Far less likely to take anyone at face value.
But something about this man resurrected all that old...innocence, she supposed it was. She knew in her bones she was safe with him, that he was as honest and pure as the landscape that had wrapped itself around her soul from the moment she’d seen it.
“I bought a house here,” she said, “because I fell in love with the area fifteen years ago. The accident didn’t change that.”
“Was that before or after the first Transmutant movie?”
A laugh burst from her chest. “After. By several years. But oh, Lord, what I wouldn’t give to expunge those from my history.” She cocked her head. “So you’ve seen them?”
He smiled. “Only one, when I was a teenager. Although I’d apparently expunged it from mine,” he said, and she laughed again, then sighed.
young. Barely legal. But both Russell—”
“Eames. My ex. The director?” Zach shrugged, and she smiled. “Anyway...he and my agent swore it was a good deal. And by the third release, it was a
good deal, money-wise.” A hawk fluttering overhead made her look up. “Although by rights I should’ve been pigeonholed as The Hot Chick and my career would’ve been over before I was twenty-five. Russell’s taking a chance on me beyond that, that I could do something different... I was extraordinarily fortunate.”
“No wonder you married him. If he had that much faith in you.”
A smile pushing at her mouth, Mallory looked out over the wooded ravine dropping off twenty feet from the path. “He really did.” Because that much, at least, was true. “And yes, I suppose that was a major reason why I did marry him. Even though everyone thought I was nuts, what with his being only a couple years younger than my father and all. But for a long time, Russ was everything to me. My champion, my protector, not to mention my acting coach...” She released a breath. “For that much, I’ll always owe him a great deal.”
“So what happened?”
She shrugged. And hedged. “Ultimately we couldn’t adjust to our new roles. As simple as that.” Her mouth twisted. “Russell’s new wife is even younger. Gorgeous. Ridiculously smart. Not in the industry. And Landon likes her. You know, now that I think of it, I think I hate her.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Zach said, and she snorted. Then her eyes met his. “It was a damn good run, you know? I had a career most people can only dream about, and God knows I never expected.” Half smiling, she squinted back at the forest. “And no matter what happens from here on out, nobody can take that away from me.”
After some moments, she heard Zach sigh. “I know what you mean. All the good stuff...it really is ours forever, isn’t it?”
“It really is,” she said softly.
“Do you miss it?”
Mallory met his gaze again. “Sometimes. All the insanity that goes with it?” She shrugged. “Not so much. And I don’t only mean what actually goes into making a film. That has its moments, sure. Magical ones, actually, when suddenly a scene comes together...” She smiled. “There’s a reason I kept doing it. Well, other than the fact that I had absolutely no skill for anything else. Aside from barrel racing, that is. But the
of movie-making...it can be hard. And weirdly far less real at times than the make-believe one up on the screen. Even so, I’ll admit to wishing the decision to quit had been mine.”
He leaned one hand against an apple tree trunk, glancing up into the tangled branches before facing her again.
Was it strange, that she understood exactly what he was asking? “It’s funny—at first I worried that after everything I’d worked for, I’d fade into oblivion. That it’d be as though I’d never existed. Then I found myself
people would lose interest, move on to the next thing. And yes, you do start to feel like a
. A commodity. When that didn’t happen, I realized all I wanted was to be left alone to deal with my life in peace. But mostly for Landon to be left alone to live his.”
“That why you left him with his dad?”
There was no censure in his voice. At least none that she could hear. And certainly she saw nothing but compassion in those gentle blue eyes, so calm and steady behind his glasses. Then a short, dry laugh escaped his lips.
“Sorry, what was that I said about people getting up in your business—?”
“It’s okay. And actually it feels good to talk about it.”
“You sound surprised.”
“It’s not something I usually do. Only child and all that.”
“Other than my mother? Not really, no.”
Still leaning on the tree trunk, Zach shoved his other hand in his pocket, his gaze tangling up with hers so hard she lost her breath. “So tell me about Landon. If you want to, I mean.”
At least, that’s what Mallory thought he’d said. Hard to tell through the buzzing between her ears. Jeebus. In a few short sentences, this stranger had offered more of himself, been more accepting of
, than Russell had over their entire relationship. She’d had no idea they even made men like that.
And hellz, yeah, you better believe she was going to take advantage of it.
“Leaving him behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said over the lump in her throat. “But all the attention was really beginning to take its toll on the kid. Especially as he got older. The paparazzi never left us alone. Never. It was ridiculous—I have no idea what they thought they would see, what I’d do that would’ve been even remotely interesting, let alone fascinating. But wherever we went, there they were. No matter how much I tried to evade them.”
“You’re telling me. Even if Landon didn’t say anything, I could tell how hard it was on him.” A huge sigh pushed from her lungs. “What I said before, about only wanting him to feel normal? That’s all I’d ever wanted for him, even before all this. So his dad and I decided it would be best for him if I removed myself for a while.”
“Did you consider taking him with you instead?” he asked gently.
“Of course. But the kid’s life is there. Friends, activities...” She smiled. “His dad. Who can’t leave the scene. Or doesn’t think he can. And directors aren’t sexy from a gossip perspective. Seriously, how often do you see Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard’s picture on the front page of
The National Enquirer
? I was much more intriguing, in a let’s-all-pity-the-gimp kind of way. And I’m allowed to say that, being the gimp and all.”
“And your boy’s happier?”
“I think—hope—he’s at least more...at peace. And honestly? I’m still questioning whether I made the right choice. But it was the only one I felt I could. I’d do anything for that kid. Anything. I’m sure you know what that’s like.”
His lips barely curved. “All too well.”
Mallory smiled back, then released another sigh. “At least Landon knows it’s not permanent, that it’s kind of like when I’d go on location and he’d stay behind, or only come visit from time to time. As much as he remembers that. If all goes well, the sharks will move on to other feeding grounds and I’ll be able to return undetected. In the meantime we talk at least once a day, if not more. I haven’t abandoned my child. Even if it sometimes feels like I have.”
At that, she saw something new in his expression. Almost...annoyance, if she had to name it. Not that she was surprised. No matter how many knots she twisted herself into trying to explain, she doubted few people would understand. Then he reached up and twisted a Gala apple off a nearby tree, holding it out. “Want one? I can’t guarantee it won’t be mealy, this time of year, but—”
So she’d gotten the wrong end of the stick, maybe? “No, thanks, got a whole bowlful inside. And the ones we’ve eaten so far have been perfect. Tart and sweet at the same time.”