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Chapter 1

Olivia

 

Saying goodbye to someone you cared about was the worst.

Especially if you knew that goodbye was forever. I think those kinds of goodbyes did something to your soul. They changed you in a way that affected your life forever. Like a tiny little piece of your essence stayed behind when you left.

Well, that’s how I felt when I said goodbye to the small tribe of people I’d met in the Karamoja district that morning anyway. I’d grown so close to each and every one of them over the last six years, they all felt like family to me. My heart had never felt so heavy.

It was something I never thought I’d feel when I first came to Africa. When my parents had packed me up at thirteen and moved us to Uganda as part of the United World Aid Group, I’d been horrified. At the time, we’d been living in Salt Creek, California, and my life, as far as I was concerned, had been perfect. I’d lived right in the middle of the popular crowd, with a guaranteed place in the cheer squad when I reached middle school.

I didn’t speak to my parents for days.

But it only took a week in the impoverished district for me to realize how shallow my life had been, and I can tell you, it had been a pretty hard pill for me to swallow. By the end of my second week there, my priorities had changed completely. Popularity and ranking became something I was ashamed to have wanted, and the thought of deciding someone’s worth based on how much money they made filled me with sadness.

Knowing I was about to return to such a society wasn’t easy for me to accept. If I had my way, I would’ve stayed in Africa indefinitely. I loved what we did there, and I loved helping the people who needed so much. But it was time to head back to the land of the free so I could formally begin my adult life.

The idea of paid work thrilled and terrified me at the same time. I was excited to start making plans for my own future—to go through the process of deciding what path I wanted to take—but the thought of my day being regimented and controlled in so many ways, scared me more than I would admit.

As I stood at the boarding gates at the airport, ready to say yet another goodbye—this time to my parents, I consoled myself with three things: the knowledge that I would be seeing them again in eight weeks’ time; that it was now late June, and I wouldn’t be starting work for another seven weeks; and that I’d be spending that time with my dad’s sister, Aunt Jenny.

Aunt Jenny was thirty-three, unmarried, and had never had any children. As an executive with a company that made games for a well-known gaming console, she lived most of her life in an apartment in Los Angeles. But when she wasn’t busy making a fortune, she spent the rest of her time at her beach house, about an hour’s drive north of the city.

And that was where I was heading for the summer. Over a month of relaxation on a secluded beach in California. I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for it.

“All right there, kiddo?” Dad asked, hoisting my backpack higher on my back for me.

“As right as I’ll ever be,” I said, drawing in a deep breath. This was the first time I was going to be taking such a long trip on my own. Even though I was excited, and I knew I was equipped to deal with the majority of things that could come my way, it was still pretty freaking daunting.

Mom rubbed my shoulder. “You’ll be fine. You’re the toughest nineteen-year-old I know.”

“Really?” I deadpanned.

She held my gaze for a few moments before her expression turned a little teasing. “Okay, well, you’ll be the toughest nineteen-year-old I know in the US. How’s that?”

I laughed. “I’d say that was fair.”

She brushed my cheek with her thumb. “But you really will be fine. You’re going to have a great time with Aunt Jenny. I know just how much she’s been looking forward to seeing you. You’ll be a spoiled little princess by the time we see you next.”

Rolling my eyes, I gave her my best sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, right.”

“You never know,” Dad said with a smirk. “She can be damn persuasive when she wants to be. I recommend not arguing with her.”

A voice cut in through the loud speaker behind us. Emirates flight 7-3-0 is now boarding. Please start making your way to gate 4 with your boarding pass ready—

“I guess that’s me,” I said, my stomach churning.

Mom enveloped me with a bone-crunching hug. “Make sure you call me as soon as you can. Aunt Jenny will be waiting at LAX for you. Be safe.”

Releasing her, I swallowed down the lump that was forming in my throat. “I love you, Mom. Be safe.”

Dad grabbed me and squeezed me tight. “Be safe, kiddo.”

‘Be safe’ was a saying Dad started the week we arrived in Gulu. It was a saying that meant more than we could know at the time, considering the environment we’d arrived in, but it had stuck throughout the years. To us, it had more depth to it than a simple, ‘I love you.’

“I will, Dad. I’ll see you soon.”

Mom pressed her closed fist against her mouth as she watched me back away. I could tell she was smiling by the way her eyes crinkled at the corners, but I knew it was purely for my benefit. The way she grasped Dad’s hand until her knuckles turned white told me just how nervous she was to send me off alone.

If they didn’t have to wait for the new missionaries to arrive and run through the processes with them, they would’ve been right here with me now. But that was just the way it worked, I guessed. These things took time, and I knew I needed as much of it as I could manage in order to get myself into the swing of things back home.

I smiled as best I could, trying to ease their worries. “Don’t scare the new family,” I teased as I joined the line.

“I can’t make any promises,” Dad called back, draping his arm over Mom’s shoulder. It was a seemingly innocent gesture, but I knew just how much his touch calmed Mom’s nerves.

As the line moved forward, and the stewardess checked my pass, ushering me toward the tunnel, I took one last moment to appreciate the people who had shaped me into who I was today. My love for them was without bounds. I would forever be grateful for who they were.

Blowing them a kiss, I inhaled, slow and deep. Then I turned and walked away.

Chapter 2

Josh

 

The crowd was impossible.

“Joshua! I love you!”

“I’m your biggest fan, Joshua. Kiss me!”

“Please, Joshua! Let me have your baby!”

“Sign my poster, Joshua!”

I pushed through the crowd, blindly following Corey as he plowed a path toward the waiting SUV. Cain and Daniel flanked me, taking most of the pressure off me as I moved, scrawling my marker over anything the fans thrust my way. The paparazzi pushed forward, careless of the fans they were crushing in their quest, their cameras clicking and flashing as they yelled out absurdities.

“Joshua, where’s Caitlyn? Is it true you cheated on her with Hannah Bryant?”

“Do you think Willow’s Way will get a nod for an Oscar, Joshua?”

“Is there any truth to the rumors you and Hannah Bryant are engaged?”

Their voices instantly muted the second Cain and Daniel pushed me into the backseat of our Escalade, climbing in behind me and shutting the door.

I exhaled heavily. “Fuck. You’d think I’d be used to this shit by now, but I still feel like punching them all out. I mean, cheating on Caitlyn? How the hell could I be cheating on Caitlyn when we’re not even together?” I growled in frustration.

Corey shook his head. “Dude, you know how it works. To them, if you’re with her on screen, then you must be with her off it. They don’t have the ability to separate fiction from reality.”

I groaned. “Did you hear that dick ask if I was engaged to Hannah?” I said, continuing my rant. “We haven’t even been on a single date. It was a fucking business meeting!” I slammed my head back against the headrest. “They’re delusional. If they left me alone for five minutes, I might actually have a chance at a relationship that lasted long enough to get there.”

I sighed. I might as well admit it. It was never going to happen. I mean, it wasn’t like I was looking for the love of my life, but it would be nice to actually get a girlfriend who lasted longer than a month or two.

“You just need a break, man,” Cain said with a shrug. “You’re burnt out.”

He was right. That kind of shit usually didn’t bother me, but it had been almost fifteen months since I’d had a decent break—six months since the guys had taken a decent break, and it was clearly starting to grate on my nerves.

It took Lance ten full minutes just to get around the hulking paparazzi and out onto the road. It was fucking ridiculous. I mean, what did they expect? They knew they weren’t going to get a money shot with the tinting I had, for crying out loud.

I exhaled in a huff, looking over at Cain’s amused face. Employing my longtime friends, Cain and Corey, along with my other trusted friends, Daniel and Lance, as my full-time bodyguards, was the best move I’d ever made. After a couple of scary moments with my previous bodyguards the year before, I found it hard to trust anyone I didn’t know personally. Knowing it was my best friends who had my back made my life a lot easier.

It didn’t change the fact that I felt guilty about their lack of a vacation, though. They’d worked their asses off protecting me for the last six months, with very little downtime in between. As it was, we only had six weeks before we were off again, this time across the country to Florida. That was why I was determined to give them a proper break this time. We were all heading to the beach house I’d bought specifically for this purpose. It was just going to be us, our boards, and the ocean. Nothing was going to stop us from taking this time out. I was determined.

It wasn’t until we were on the 101, heading north, away from the fans and away from the chaos, that I started to relax. Any remaining tension I might’ve been holding onto, disappeared the instant the Escalade pulled into the underground garage.

Climbing out, I stretched my legs and sighed before making my way up the stairs. A dark-haired woman greeted me at the top, her smile warm and welcoming. I assumed she was the cleaner I’d employed to freshen the house up for our arrival. Mrs. Robinson, if I remembered right. I was glad to see she was around my mother’s age, and not a swooning teenager. I didn’t think I would’ve been able to handle that at this point in time.

“Good morning, Mr. Emerson,” she said, her voice cheery.

“Mrs. Robinson?” I said, returning her smile. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, Mr. Emerson. I was just on my way out. I’ve stocked the pantry just how you asked, and all the beds are made up with fresh linen.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that,” I said.

“You’re welcome, sir. I’ll come back in August, as planned. Do you need anything else before I go?”

“No. Thank you.”

She nodded. “Very well, then.”

Letting Cain walk her out, I made my way to my favorite place in the house. The deck. I loved watching the ocean from there. It was the most calming thing on the planet as far as I was concerned. The first movie I had a paid part in was to thank for that.

As I watched the swell of the ocean rise and fall, I closed my eyes in a long blink and exhaled slowly. Not much was going on in the way of waves to surf, but it was still beautiful. Daniel joined me a few moments later, leaning his arms on the railing. “Life’s good, man.”

I smiled and glanced his way. It was funny. I hadn’t grown up with Daniel. His identical twin brother, Ryan, was the one I’d grown up with, but I had no doubt he would do anything to protect me. The bond I’d formed with him over the last fifteen months was tighter than I had with anyone else.

He was ex-military, with an amazing mind for special tactical services—that’s how he’d managed to become my head of security—but it was the way he’d been able to overcome the horrors he faced while deployed that impressed me the most. He was now a loving husband to one of my closest friends from school, and they had a daughter. He once told me if it hadn’t been for Amy and Mae, he wouldn’t have had the strength to get through captivity, let alone live a normal life after what he’d endured.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I said.

Daniel simply nodded. I liked that about him. He only spoke when he thought it was necessary.

“Are you going to let me teach you a few moves out on the waves?” I asked with a grin.

His answering laugh was soft. The boys and I had been nagging him for months to pick up a board. “Nah, I don’t want to miss any time with my girls.”

I smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. He hadn’t said it, but I knew he was dying for the moment Amy and Mae got here, and damn if I didn’t respect the shit out of him for it.

I mean, here he was, the same age as me, and he was married with a kid. He was settled in his life. He had exactly what he wanted, and his head was screwed on tight. It made me feel like an immature playboy.

“When are they getting here?” I asked.

His smile grew wider. “She’s driving down in the morning.”

Nodding, I squeezed his shoulder. “Good. How’s the room?”

As soon as I decided I was going to bring everyone here for the summer, I knew the little apartment above the garage would be perfect for their little family. It had a small kitchenette and living area, with a spacious bedroom and bathroom. But most importantly, it was separate from the main house. They could just enjoy the time on their own, or join in with everyone else. The choice was theirs.

Daniel lifted his gaze to mine, gratitude burning in its depths. “It’s perfect, man. You didn’t need to do all that.”

I immediately knew he was talking about all the baby supplies I’d had Mrs. Robinson bring in. “Yeah, I did. I want Amy to be able to relax while she’s here.”

He swallowed. It was the only sign of emotion I’d get. “Thanks, man.”

“No problem. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

He nodded politely, but I knew he wouldn’t. It just wasn’t his way. “I’m going to check over the security system. Make sure it’s all up and running properly.” With that, he turned and walked back inside.

Shaking my head with a grin, I pulled out my phone and opened the best app I had—a surf report app. And if it was correct, the boys and I would have some waves to catch by tomorrow afternoon. Oh, yeah. This summer was going to rock.

 

 

Chapter 3

Olivia

 

I woke to the sounds of waves rolling in and out. I would’ve liked to say it was peaceful and relaxing, but it was so different from what I was used to, I found it kind of jarring.

Blinking a few times to clear my head, I sighed and stretched, turning to glance at the clock beside the bed. As my consciousness slowly deciphered the little green numbers and told me it was six fifteen, my eyes widened. Holy crap. I’d been asleep for fifteen hours? How the hell had that happened?

Frowning, I forced myself to sit up. The thought of having no responsibilities for the next few weeks felt more than a little weird. There were no chores waiting for me. No school to get to on time. And no villagers needing assistance. It was just me, and a whole lot of empty time.

Grabbing my toiletry bag, I ducked into my very own bathroom and relieved myself before assessing the fanciest shower I’d ever seen, trying to work out how to turn the thing on.

Lifting the lever on the side as carefully as I could, a nozzle suddenly descended from the ceiling, fanning out and spraying water down like a luxuriously soft waterfall. It was freakishly showy, and I felt as guilty as hell using it, but this was what I needed to get used to, whether I liked it or not.

Stepping under the spray, I closed my eyes and let the cool water wash away the last of my sleep, before hopping out and getting ready for the day. Choosing one of the two pairs of shorts I owned, I paired them with a worn gray tank and stepped into my barely-hanging-in-there flip-flops.

Aunt Jenny was making pancakes by the time I made it down to the kitchen. “Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” she said with a smile. “Ready to hit the shops?”

She’d already warned me during the car trip from the airport that she’d be taking me shopping as soon as possible. She’d said she had six years of birthdays and Christmases to make up for. The thought made me a little nervous. I wasn’t sure if I could ever be a seasoned shopper again after the last six years, but I had to admit, my wardrobe was seriously lacking.

I pursed my lips. “I think so, but please be gentle with me.”

She laughed a huge belly laugh I thought was completely unnecessary, and slid a stack of pancakes in front of me. “I’ll be as gentle as I can, precious, but I saw your suitcase. You’re in desperate need of everything from underwear to shoes, and everything else in between.”

I cringed. “Okay, I’ll admit that, but let’s not go overboard, okay?”

She turned away from me, trying to hide her laugh. “I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.”

We went to a small seaside town, about twenty minutes north of the beach house. I was grateful for the general lack of a crowd. I didn’t think I’d be able to tolerate pushy salespeople and obnoxious shoppers just yet.

There weren’t too many shops to choose from, but the ones that were there stocked everything I needed and had very reasonable prices. After too many arguments to count, I ended up with a few sets of underwear, including (to my embarrassment) a couple of thongs, which Aunt Jenny said was a must for any nineteen-year-old girl, pajamas, sundresses, cardigans, leggings, tank tops, shorts, jeans, blouses, and four pairs of shoes.

I frowned at her with serious condemnation as we lugged the bags to the car. She ignored me, placing the bags in the trunk and closing it with a gentle click. “We have one more stop to make before we head back,” she said.

I glared at her. “No more. I don’t need anything else. Seriously, Aunt Jenny. I’m fine.”

She smiled. “Are you sure about that? What if the ocean calls out to you? What are you going to wear?”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “Oh my God. I haven’t even seen a beach in six years, Aunt Jenny. I doubt I’m going to go swimming.”

All I got from that was rolled eyes. “What about surfing?” she said. “I still have your old board in my garage.”

I rolled my eyes right back at her. “I wasn’t very good at it when I was thirteen and had an instructor, so I don’t think I’m going to improve any on my own.” That wasn’t exactly true. I’d been quite okay at surfing, but I seriously doubted I’d be any good now, and I certainly wasn’t going to embarrass myself trying.

She winked at me. “You never know. A good girl guide is always prepared. Let’s go. This shop has a great range of bikinis.”

I watched her disappear into the shop with my mouth slightly ajar. She really wasn’t going to let it go. I considered being stubborn and staying put because all this spending of money was making me feel totally uneasy, but I’d promised Mom and Dad I would indulge her, and to be honest, I just wanted it to be over with.

Two bikinis and a wet suit later, I was done.

It was just after lunch when we finally made it home, and I was exhausted. I didn’t know how that was even possible. I could cart water and tend to cattle all day without slowing down a bit, but I go shopping for half a day and I’m a wreck? It just didn’t make any sense.

“Damn it,” Aunt Jenny said, staring at her cell phone.

Dumping the bags on the couch, I turned. “What’s wrong?”

She ran her hand through her hair. “Oh, nothing much. Jeremy’s apparently having an issue with one of our promotion managers. I should probably call him back.”

That didn’t sound good, but what would I know? “All right. I might go put my feet in the sand, if that’s okay?”

She stopped what she was doing and smirked at me. “You should put on one of your bikinis. Just in case. The water might call to you.”

As she breezed from the room, I shook my head, the realization that she really wasn’t going to go easy on me finally sinking in.

Call me stubborn, but I deliberately chose to skip the bikini. I did indulge by putting on a new pair of panties, though. That was enough for me. Well, that and a new sundress. I had to admit, it did feel good. Slipping into Aunt Jenny’s library, I grabbed a book off the shelf and made my way down the grassy trail that led to the beach.

The sun was high overhead, and the breeze was soft and cool, making for a pleasant, warm stroll, so, instead of finding a spot to sink down on just yet, I decided to keep going. And when I reached the rocks at the end of the beach, I simply climbed over the top and down the other side, my face to the sky and a smile on my lips. Life was good.

 

 

Chapter 4

Josh

 

With a coffee in one hand and the script to The Silver Gate in the other, I made my way down to the beach.

All the guys, apart from Daniel, who was hidden away with his girls, had been busy setting up the games room with all the new state-of-the-art equipment I’d had delivered that morning. There had already been bets placed and taunts made about who was going to whip whose ass when they got the Xbox up and running on the big screen.

With nothing but the movie on my mind, I gazed out to the ocean. So much was riding on this next movie. Hell, my entire career was riding on it, really.

Prior to filming Willow’s Way, I’d only been cast in a string of romantic comedies. Yeah, they were successful, and had made me the star I was today, but to me, they lacked substance. They were predictable and shallow, and left me feeling dissatisfied, like something was missing. I’d craved an opportunity to be involved in something more meaningful, to test just how far I could actually take my acting abilities.

It had taken a lot of time and hard work for me to get the kind of offers I was getting now, and even longer still for me to be confident enough to take a chance and accept something more challenging.

My manager had been mortified when I’d told him I was going to commit to Willow’s Way. In a rush of harsh words, he’d declared I was going to kill my career, but after reading the script a few more times, I knew it was the one. It was fast. It was edgy. And it made you think. I knew it would make people stand up and start taking me seriously.

It had been a massive gamble on my part. God knows my manager had told me that so many times I thought he’d just recorded it and pressed play each time he spoke to me, but after filming had wrapped, and he got to see it all start coming together, he became increasingly quiet.

When the numbers came out, declaring it a blockbuster success, I’d never been more ecstatic in my life. My gamble was paying off, and today hadn’t been the first time I’d heard someone mention the possibility of an Oscar nomination. My heart seriously raced at the thought.

Did I think Willow’s Way had a chance of an Oscar nomination? Hell yes. Did I think it would win? It was a nice thought, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath. If it did manage to get a nomination, it was definitely going to be up against some heavy weights, that was for sure.

But, at the end of the day, it wasn’t exactly the Oscar itself that I craved. It was the desire to be taken seriously as an actor by my peers. Recognition of my ability by those whom I’d deemed to be my idols. That was what I wanted.

Looking back down at the script to The Silver Gate, my pulse skipped. I hoped against everything that I’d grabbed everyone’s attention with Willow’s Way, and I prayed with everything I had that The Silver Gate was going to make them take serious notice.

I knew the movie had all the makings of success. It had a well-known director, a massive budget, and a stellar cast. I just hoped it all fit together in the end to make it the success it was worthy of.

And that was why I needed this time here in my little haven, on my own, to breathe and get everything firm in my head. I needed to focus, and to get into my character’s head. If I knew what it felt like to be him, it’d become easier for me to slip into role when needed.

I am Jesse McGuffey. I am the quarterback for my college football team, and my best friend lives across the street from me. His father is a monster of a man who regularly beats him, his wife, and his younger sister . . .

It wasn’t too hard to feel the anger and frustration, really. After recently discovering one of my closest female friends from school had been living in an abusive home for years without anyone knowing, I had more of an understanding of how these things worked than I cared for. I was just glad she and her mother were free of it now. Now I just needed to pretend I had an idea of what it was like to be a star athlete.

As I scrolled through my memories of all the interactions I’d had with footballers in the past, I gazed down the beach. But instead of finding a clear image of the kind of man I wanted to portray, I found my thoughts freezing in an instant. A girl was climbing over the rocks, heading my way.

My heart jumped into a sprint. This seriously could not be happening. What the hell was a girl doing on my beach?

Anger simmered under my skin as my mind raced, trying to assess the situation as fast as I could. My first instinct was that my location had been leaked. It seemed like the only explanation. Panic pierced my gut.

I tried to calm my thoughts, put some sort of logic in place. It was telling me she should have no idea I was here, because the only people who knew were people I trusted. So, if my location hadn’t been leaked, that only left one possibility. She really didn’t know. But if that was true, she sure as hell was going to know in a few seconds!

I shifted uncomfortably, my hands tensing on the script. This was definitely going to pose a problem. I’d seen firsthand how quick the chain reaction unfolded once the word was out. If that happened—goodbye, seclusion. And goodbye relaxation for the rest of the guys.

My body coiled tight, ready to run. Experience was telling me to get up and go back up to the house before she got close enough to identify me, but stubbornness told me to hold my ground. This was my fucking house, and my fucking vacation.

My hands clenched tighter on the script as I struggled to make a decision. I thought of calling Daniel to sort it out—it was a private beach, after all, and I knew for a fact that the only other property owner here was a single woman with no children. But that would most likely only draw attention to the fact that someone of interest was staying here.

With teeth clenched, I exhaled through the tension. Why did shit have to be so fucking hard?

Holding the script down in front of me, I lowered my head and pretended to read it as I watched her draw closer. I couldn’t really tell how old she was from this distance, but if I had to guess, I’d say she was about twenty—the perfect age to go fangirl and completely lose her shit. Lucky me.

The way she moved intrigued me, though. It was calm and relaxed as she slowly strolled beside the lapping water, her head tilted out toward the rolling waves.  She seemed happy and content, but as though she was in a completely different world. It was exactly how I felt when I was here. I was almost positive she didn’t even know I was sitting here.

I took a moment to look over her appearance. Her hair was the first thing I noticed. It was long and blonde—the color of the sand, and it shone so brilliantly in the afternoon sunlight, I couldn’t help but think how amazing it must feel to the touch. She wore a little blue dress, no shoes, and had a book clutched to her chest as though it was her most treasured possession.

As she drew closer, I tried to gauge what kind of a fan she would be. It was always hard to pick it, but she seemed like one of the quiet ones. And from experience, I knew they were the ones you had to watch out for the most.

I could tell the exact moment she realized she wasn’t alone. Her body tensed slightly, her footfalls shortening for a few steps, and I saw her teeth drawing over her bottom lip with nerves. My whole body tensed, waiting for the telltale moment of recognition. My breath was drawn, stuck somewhere inside my chest.

A slight panic rose inside me. What would she do when she realized who I was? Could I convince her to keep my presence a secret? Maybe I could bribe her with an autograph and a picture of us together as a memento.

I knew I should get up and leave, but curiosity kept me immobile. She hadn’t even taken one glance at me yet. Her eyes were trained hard on the sand before her.

Please, don’t be a psycho . . .

When she was almost directly in front of me, she finally looked my way. I tried to bury my head back in my script, hide my face to stop the catastrophe that was sure to come, but the second my gaze met hers, I lost all sense of self-preservation.

Holy crap. Her eyes had to have been the clearest blue I’d ever seen. I tried to suck in a breath, stunned by how naturally beautiful she was, but the last breath I’d taken was still lodged firmly inside my lungs.

“Hi,” she breathed.

Her voice came out softly, floating in the breeze, and her lips curved into the smallest of smiles, confirming my suspicions of her being a shy one. Then, before I knew it, her gaze was gone from me and she continued walking away.

I sat, mildly stunned, first at how simply gorgeous she was, and second, at the fact that not one ounce of recognition had flashed in her eyes. She hadn’t even slowed her steps as she passed.

As I watched her retreating figure, I waited for her to glance back, for that moment when her mind put the pieces of the puzzle together and she realized who I was. For some stupid reason, I wanted her to. I really wanted her to look back.

But she didn’t. She just kept on going, right to the end, where the sand met rock, and she turned and weaved her way up the grassy track to the house at the end of the beach.

“I’ve already got Corey stationed out the front, and Lance is manning the monitors.”

I turned to see Daniel standing at the bottom of the trail leading up to the house. How he’d even seen the girl while he’d been with Amy was beyond me, but that was exactly why he was my head of security.

“I’m not sure she recognized me,” I said quietly, still reeling from the encounter.

Daniel just nodded, his eyes narrowed on the top of the trail where the girl had disappeared. We both knew only time would tell.

 

 

Chapter 5

Olivia

 

Of all the experiences I’d had in my life so far, I thought I’d just encountered the hardest. I didn’t how that was possible after some of the things I’d seen, but I couldn’t deny it was a fact.

I was ashamed to admit I’d almost panicked when I first looked up and noticed I wasn’t alone on the beach. But after some quick rationalization, I remembered there was one other house that fronted Aunt Jenny’s beach, so the guy had to have been staying there.

But the closer I got to him sitting there in the sand, the more self-conscious I became. It was strange, but I felt as though he was watching me or something, which was dumb considering the fact that he was reading. I mean, what was I? Some self-absorbed bimbo who thought guys just watched her wherever she went? I was definitely not that girl.

I thought I might’ve had it all under control, but then another realization hit me. What the hell was socially acceptable in this situation? Did I just keep walking and respect his privacy, or did I acknowledge his presence with a greeting? At nineteen years of age, it was the stupidest dilemma I’d ever found myself in. I’d almost laughed.

In the end, I decided I should at least go for politeness. If he looked at me when I passed, I’d say hello. If he didn’t, then he obviously preferred privacy, and I’d respect that.

The nerves that came over me when he met my gaze frustrated me more than I was prepared for. I mean, if I couldn’t handle a simple interaction with one freaking guy on a beach, how the hell was I going to handle a city full of them?

I grumbled as I made my way up the trail to the house. Maybe I should’ve just stopped and talked to the guy to get a bit of practice in. By the way I was acting, it sure wouldn’t have hurt. I’d rather look like an idiot in front of just one guy than a dozen.

My mind lingered on the guy on the beach as I made my way toward the kitchen. I knew I probably wasn’t the best person to judge when it came to appraising a guy’s looks, but damn if that guy wasn’t hot. He had dark, messy hair, just long enough to keep from seeming too clean-cut, but short enough not to be straggly. He wore a pair of worn denim shorts, and a white tee that was fitted just enough to show how incredibly muscular he was. He was definitely someone I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing again, that was for sure.

Aunt Jenny looked up from the food she was preparing at the counter as I walked in. “Hey, how was the beach?”

I took a moment to consider whether I should tell her about the boy. I really didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but I was completely out of my depth here, and a different perspective would be good. “Uh, I saw a guy down on the beach.”

She stopped what she was doing and frowned. “Really? I’ve never seen anyone down there. Is he staying in that house?”

Snatching a piece of carrot, I threw it in my mouth, more to hide my awkwardness than anything else. “I’m not sure. I only said hi to him when I had to walk past. I think he was a little surprised to see someone else on the beach, to be honest. He didn’t even say hi back.”

Aunt Jenny pursed her lips before placing the knife on the chopping board and striding to the deck. “Didn’t he? I hope he’s not an arrogant ass wipe. How old did he look?” My eyes widened when I saw her pick up a pair of binoculars and instantly start spying on the house down the beach.

“Umm . . . I don’t know, maybe my age? And he didn’t really look arrogant. He just looked shocked. Please don’t spy on him, Aunt Jenny.”

She hummed a sound that indicated to me that she wasn’t happy. “Jesus. There’s like a freaking fraternity of guys down there.”

Okay, she really wasn’t making this any easier for me. One was bad enough.

“Maybe it’s not a good idea for you to be down there on your own,” she mumbled. “Oh, wait. There’s a woman there with a baby. That makes me feel a little better.”

“How many people are you talking about?”

I watched her adjust the binoculars a little. “Hmm . . . four guys that I can see. Plus the lady and the baby.”

All right, that didn’t sound too bad. They were just people on vacation. I could handle that.

Aunt Jenny lowered the binoculars and turned to smile at me. “Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. It might be good practice for you. Get into the swing of flirting a little before you come face-to-face with a hundred or so guys who’ll be chasing you when you start work.”

I rolled my eyes at her. Now she was just being ridiculous. There was no way I was going to have that many guys chasing me.

She laughed with an evil little grin that curled her lips, before sauntering back into the kitchen. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Liv. I saw you in that bikini at the shops today. You could be a model if you wanted to. And those boobs? I don’t even know where you got those from. It definitely wasn’t the Maxwell side of the family. We seriously struck out in that department.”

My expression was mortified as I watched her retreating back, but as soon as she laughed, I realized she’d just been teasing me. That was okay. I knew I was no glamour girl. It didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I liked it. After seeing what people had to live through in Uganda, looks had become inconsequential to me. It wasn’t important in the slightest. I was happy with who I was, and I wasn’t about to go into a frenzy trying to become something I wasn’t.

“So, are you going to talk to him if you see him tomorrow?” she fished, going back to her chopping.

My lips pursed with thought. “Maybe.”

“I think you should. Plan your trip when you see them down there already. I’ll come with you. I’ll be like your wingman.”

Oh my God, was she serious? The picture she’d just painted was so bad it made me cringe. This was going from bad to worse. “Uh . . . I think I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

Aunt Jenny’s eyes shone with excitement. “Come on, Liv. It’ll be fun. I can go introduce myself as their neighbor, and then you’ll have the perfect in. It’s a good plan.”

“It is a good plan,” I said, trying not to crush her completely. “I just think I’d rather do things on my own. Go at my own pace, if you know what I mean.”

She pressed her lips together as she contemplated my words. “Okay. You’re right. You should go at your own pace. I can appreciate that.”

I could tell she wasn’t totally happy with me not jumping on board with her plan, but I was not going to use my aunt as my ‘wingman,’ or anything else. “Well, I’m going to go shower and get this salt off me. Do you need help with dinner?”

Any sadness that may have been lingering in her eyes vanished in a heartbeat. “Oh, no. This isn’t dinner. I’m just prepping some snacks for the week. We’re going out for dinner. Dress nice.”

As I started up the stairs, I couldn’t help but get the feeling she was up to something. And after the conversation we just had, I was terrified it revolved around boys.

What the hell was I in for?

Chapter 6

Josh

 

I woke with the memory of my dream still clinging to my consciousness. Pressing the pillow into my face, I groaned, trying to force the image of the girl from the beach from my head. She was going to drive me insane at this rate.

Keeping my thoughts away from her had been more difficult than it should’ve been these past twelve hours. I just wished I knew if she had recognized me or not. Like I said, it was always the shy ones I had to worry about most. They were the ones who went back to their phones and called all their friends to tell them whom they’d just seen. It was always a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Stretching, I rolled from the bed, knowing there was no point in putting it off any longer. If the girl had spread the word, a shit storm would definitely be waiting for me. The thought made me edgy.

Pulling on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I ran my hands over my hair and made my way downstairs to the security room. As expected, Daniel was seated in the main chair, watching the numerous monitors mounted to the wall. Thankfully, I couldn’t see any crowds of people standing outside the gates.

“Hey,” I said, plonking myself down on the chair beside him. “Any movement?”

He sat back and swiveled in his chair to face me before shaking his head. “Nope. Not a thing. But you know as well as anyone that doesn’t mean much.”

As much as I knew he was speaking the truth, and that momentum could sometimes be slow to get going, relief loosened the tension in my chest. I smiled and edged forward in my chair, ready to head to the kitchen. “Yep, but for now, I’m happy, and coffee is calling.”

“Josh,” he said, his voice stern, “even if the girl didn’t recognize you, it won’t be long before she does. She’s staying right next door, using the beach. We need to talk about what we’re going to do about this. What if she invites a bunch of friends around?”

Lance appeared in the doorway, curiosity making his eyes scrunch up a little. “He’s right, Josh. We need to put some plans of action into place.”

Letting my head fall back, I sighed. I knew they were right, but I just wanted my goddamn vacation. I didn’t want to think about security, and watches, and restrictions. I wanted to do whatever the hell I felt like doing. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to think that such a pretty girl could ruin my vacation so easily.

Trying to bite back my irritation, I met Daniel’s gaze just as Corey and Cain crowded in behind Lance. “Fine,” I said, unable to hide how annoyed I was. “Everyone sit the fuck down and we’ll talk strategy, then.”

Corey raised his eyebrow with amusement as he slid into a chair across from me. “You want to go back to your rent-a-cops?”

I gave him a dry look, only just refraining from giving him the bird. “Yes.”

Cain laughed. “Fuck off you do.”

Groaning, I huffed like a petulant child. “I just want my fucking vacation. I bought this fucking house because it was secluded.”

“You bought this house because it has a beach,” Lance said, not willing to take any of my bullshit. I wanted to tell him I paid him to take my bullshit, but I knew I’d only cop more shit from them if I did.

“A private beach,” I said, matching his dry tone. “A beach that is shared with only one other house. A house that is owned by a single woman in her thirties who’s hardly ever there. There’s not supposed to be young girls walking around out there where I want to be relaxing.”

“But there is,” Daniel said, his tone firm and not at all forgiving. “And we need to work out what we’re going to do about it.”

“One of us could always go down there and speak to them. We could ask that they only use their half?” Cain suggested, scratching his chin.

“And what?” I asked. “Draw a fucking line in the sand? What do we do if they cross it? Shoot them?”

“Jesus, man,” Cain said, his eyes narrowing. “I’m just making a fucking suggestion. You don’t have to be such a dick.”

Daniel rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I think the first thing we should do is talk to Ms. Maxwell, the owner of the house,” he said, sitting forward. The fact that he knew the woman’s name when I didn’t, reminded me why I’d hired him. “Amy and I could go down there and introduce ourselves as friendly neighbors, and we’ll try to get an idea of how long they’re planning on staying there. Who knows, maybe they’re only there for a few nights. If that’s the case, then we can just lay low for a while.”

The other guys nodded, seeming happy with that for a start. I had to admit, it made sense. For all we knew, they could be leaving today and we were all arguing for no reason. “All right. If Amy’s good with that, that’s a start. You find out what we’re looking at, and we’ll talk again when we know. In the meantime, I need coffee. And then I’m going to sit on my beach—regardless of whether the girl is out there or not.”

Before I got any arguments about whether that was a bad idea, I strode from the room, my nose following the smell of coffee.

Once I had a coffee firmly in hand, I grabbed my script and moved out onto the deck. As much as I wanted to go down to the beach, I knew it wasn’t the smartest of moves just yet, so I wouldn’t until we had some sort of plan in place. Yes, I was pissed I was being restricted, but I wasn’t stupid.

Sinking down onto one of the loungers, I put my legs up on another and crossed my feet at the ankles. I’d been over the script a couple of times now, and I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what drove my character. I could feel the pain he had to endure, having to stand by and watch the people he loved be hurt, time and again, by an ugly man. I could feel the love that drew him to the pretty young girl who was his best friend’s sister, and the raw need he had to protect her.

As I sat there, I tried to place a picture of Hannah Bryant, the actress who was set to play the sister, in my mind, to form some sort of connection, but frustratingly, my mind kept dredging up images of the girl from the beach instead.

Sighing, I dropped the script into my lap and looked up at the ceiling. Yeah, because that wasn’t an inconvenience at all. What the hell was it about this freaking girl? Why was I letting her get under my skin so much? Was it just the fact that she had the outcome of my vacation in the palm of her hands? Or was it something else?

 Instead of fighting it, I let my mind wander, allowing the pretty girl with the shy smile to invade my thoughts. I wondered what she was going to do when she figured out who I was. I would’ve liked to think she could be cool, but it was an unfortunate fact that people who weren’t in the industry went a little silly when they found out they were in the company of a ‘celebrity.’ I was used to it now, but that didn’t mean I liked it.

“Yo, Josh!”

I turned to see Lance down the other end of the deck, a grin stretched wide across his face.

“Surf’s up!” he yelled before dashing back inside.

Excitement pulsed through my veins despite the stress of the last day. A surf was just what I needed. Nothing had the ability to calm me down like the waves did.

A chorus of hollers sounded out from downstairs, and a second later, Corey and Cain burst from the house, boards tucked under their arms as they skipped down the trail.

“Fuck yeah.” This was what it was all about. Tossing the script onto the table, I darted down to the wet room to grab my board, finding Lance already there, waxing her up for me.

Dropping the wax back into the box, he handed my board over with a grin. “Let’s go check out those sets,” he said, rushing out the door.

I took a second to just appreciate the moment, then, with a loud whoop, I ran after him.

 

Chapter 7

Olivia

 

It was just before 5:00 AM when my cell phone rang. The sound jolted me from my sleep like someone let loose with a blood-curdling scream. It scared the absolute crap out of me.

Fumbling for it on the nightstand, I pressed the button to answer it without even taking note of who it was. “Hello?”

“Hey!”

The duo of voices that sang through the speaker made me smile, despite my heart still wanting to leap right out my mouth. “Hey, Dad. Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, kiddo,” Dad said brightly. “You sound a little sleepy. Have you already fallen back into the teenage life?”

Glancing at the clock, I groaned. “People generally are a little sleepy at four fifty in the morning, Dad.”

“Warren!” Mom admonished. “You told me it was seven!”

Dad’s booming laugh came through the speaker instantaneously. I could just picture the way his eyes would crinkle at the corners when he laughed like that. The thought made me giggle right along with him. It was at least once a day that Dad pranked someone—usually Mom—and the amusement he got out of it was priceless.

“She should be up anyway,” he said. “It’s practically five.”

I could hear the teasing lilt to his voice, so I knew he was just stirring, but it still made me feel a little guilty. If I was there with them, I’d be up, helping everyone get going for the day.

“She’s on vacation. Leave her alone,” Mom said. It was probably right about now that she would nudge him with her shoulder, smiling all the way. The love my parents had for one another was one in a million. I could only hope I’d be so lucky when my turn came.

“So, how’s Cali?” Mom asked. “Is the weather nice? How’s Aunt Jenny?”

I laughed. She always talked a mile a minute when she was excited, but I knew it probably also had to do with the fact that international calls had to be kept to a minimum. Mostly because they usually dropped out anyway. “Cali’s just as beautiful as I remembered. The weather is perfect, and so is Aunt Jenny. Has the new family arrived yet?”

“They’re coming today, kiddo,” Dad said. “We’re meeting them in Lira in a couple of hours.”

I calculated the travel time in my foggy brain. “Then shouldn’t you be going?”

Mom sighed. “We will soon, baby. We just wanted to hear your voice first, and make sure you were all good. It feels weird not having you here. Everybody misses you like crazy.”

A pang of sadness spread through my chest. “I miss everyone so much. Tell everyone I said hi. And give them all a hug for me.”

“One love fest coming right up!” Dad announced. “We’ll be hugging all day with that order.”

Oh, the amusement they would all get out of that. “Good! There’s no better way to spend the day.”

“It might have to wait until we get back from Lira, though,” Mom said.

“Yeah, we better get on the road, kiddo. We’ll call you again in a couple of days. We just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

My heart sank knowing they had to go, but I was still glad I got to speak to them—even if it was only a quick call. “I’m better than great, so you can stop worrying. I hope the new family fits in well. Be safe!”

“You know we’ll never stop worrying,” Mom said. “It’s a parent’s right. Be safe, baby. We’ll talk to you soon!”

“Bye, guys. I love you.”

The line crackled, distorting their voices, before it went silent altogether. Pulling the phone away from my ear, I stared at the now blank screen, a heaviness settling on my chest. Knowing I’d never be able to get back to sleep, I climbed out of bed and into the shower, determined to make good of the day. I would start with a nice, cooked breakfast.

It wasn’t until closer to eight o’clock that Aunt Jenny finally came down the stairs, dressed for work. Loading her cell phone and purse into her handbag, she grabbed a protein shake out of the fridge and came to kiss me on the cheek.

“Morning, precious. I’m sorry I have to duck out on you like this. I really don’t know why Jeremy couldn’t do it. I’ll be home before dinner, though, okay?”

She hadn’t stopped apologizing since she’d gotten the phone call from Jeremy the night before. He’d informed her that there had been a snag with the latest game’s release or something, and she needed to come in to take care of it.

I smiled, letting her know I was perfectly fine. “It’s no problem at all. I’m just going to take my book and lie on the beach.”

She smiled wickedly. “Is the book to read, or for a prop?”

“It’s to read, thank you very much!” I said, giving her my best indignant look.

“Well, make sure you get some sightseeing done as well, okay?” she said with a wink.

I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a good thing we were in practical seclusion. I could only imagine what she’d be like if we were around a few more guys my age. She’d probably drag them over to me and demand they take me out or something equally as embarrassing.

As she ran out the door in a blur, I shook my head and laughed. I didn’t know if she actually ever stopped. Since I’d been here, I hadn’t seen her sit down and relax for more than the length of a TV show.

Filling the sink with hot, soapy water, I started the process of cleaning the breakfast dishes, then moved on to the bathrooms. They were barely dirty, but it gave me something to do, and made me feel useful. When that was done, I hung out the towels I’d washed earlier and tidied up the linen closet before declaring my duties done.

Deciding there was nothing left to do but attempt to relax, I slipped into my bikini and a sundress, grabbed my book, and headed for the beach.

The weather was incredible yet again. As I walked down the trail, I lifted my face to the sun, feeling the warmth fall over me like a soft caress. It was beautiful.

I was about halfway down when I noticed someone out surfing. Well, it was actually more like four someones, but it still surprised me. I knew one of them had to be the boy I’d seen yesterday, but I wondered who the others were. Were they his family, or were they just friends? And who did the girl with the baby belong to?

Scanning the muscled bodies in the water, I tried to figure out which one was the boy I’d seen yesterday. Two guys were paddling to catch a wave, one was lying belly down, watching and waiting with obvious eagerness, and the other was just sitting out past the breakers, staring out to sea.

I wasn’t sure why, but I immediately knew the guy just sitting was the one. The curve of his shoulders fell low, giving me the impression he was incredibly relaxed. I wondered what his face looked like when he was relaxed like that. Was he watching the ocean swell as she prepared a wave, or did he have his eyes closed with contemplation? I could just imagine his soft, full lips, curved up at the corners—

My thoughts came to a sudden, screeching halt. Whoa! What the hell was that? I really needed to get a grip.

Shaking myself out of my daydream, I rushed the rest of the way down the trail to the beach before pausing when I reached the bottom. I didn’t know which way to go now I knew the other house was filled with guys.

The sun was already beating down, stinging my skin. If I didn’t want to burn to a crisp, I needed shade, but the trees down Aunt Jenny’s end of the beach didn’t really give any out until the afternoon. The best bet for shade at this time of the day was a place I saw on my walk yesterday, just past the rocks down the other end. Past his house. It wasn’t too close to the house, but I felt awkward having to walk past it to get there.

Knowing Aunt Jenny would call me a sook for avoiding them, I decided I needed to be brave and just do it. It wasn’t like they were on the beach anyway. Taking a deep breath, I clutched the blanket and the book to my chest and strode off.

When I finally reached the large outcropping of rocks I’d climbed over the day before, I found a nice patch of sand half surrounded by a few rocks that were large enough to block out a bit of the sun, and spread the blanket out. Shedding my dress, I plonked myself down and opened my book, and without the distraction, I was finally able to get into the story. Who would’ve thought you could write a romance about a boy and a ghost? That, right there, was a bright idea.

Chapter 8

Josh

 

If I ignored the rough start I’d had to the day, I would say I was having the perfect morning. The sets weren’t huge, but they were surfable, and that was all that mattered. Hell, I thought I could probably stay out on my board all day if the waves kept rolling in.

Watching a wave swell toward me, I started to paddle, all too ready to carve it. As soon as the peak started forming, I kicked it up another notch, until she was taking me with her and I was sailing down her curves. Pushing myself up, I snapped to my feet, leaning my weight into the rolling mass of water, feeling the spray against my face as she curled over the top of me.

Bending my knees, I pushed into her, shrinking myself as she closed into a perfect tube. As I burst out the other side, I dropped further, pushing her harder, before twisting out a bottom turn and carving higher up her face. Closing my eyes, I smiled, feeling the wind against my face as I rode her all the way to the end and kicked out.

“Yeah!” I shouted into the breeze.

As I started paddling back through the breakers, I couldn’t stop grinning. Now this was fucking living. It was exactly what I needed. Duck diving under the crashing waves, I surfaced near the guys and shook the water from my hair. I was just about to holler out how fucking awesome I was feeling right now, but was stopped by the intense look on their faces. If any of them had ‘work faces,’ these would be it.

Instinct had me turning to see what was going down on the beach. Part of me was expecting to see a crowd of fans gathered on the shore, screaming, but instead of fifty screaming girls, there was only one oblivious girl. Sunbathing. Just past my house.

I immediately knew it was the girl from yesterday. She was stretched out on her stomach, facing up toward the trees, her knees bent and her feet swaying in the air. From what I could see, she was either reading a magazine or a book.

The image of her walking past me the day before flashed in my mind, reminding me of the book she’d been holding to her chest, so I decided it was a book.

“Is that the same girl you saw yesterday?” Corey asked.

Spinning, I saw all three of my friends gathering close. I knew they’d been skeptical this morning when I’d told them I didn’t think she’d recognized me, but I guessed that was what I was paying them for.

Nodding, I glanced over at the girl again, considering the threat she implied. Like Daniel had said, until we knew how long she was going to be here for, and could work out a strategy, I needed to lie low. But how was I supposed to do that if she kept coming so close?

A wave swelled under me, jolting me out of my thoughts. I shook my head. “It’s fine, guys. Whatever happens, happens. Let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Paddling farther out, I tried to take my own advice and just chill the fuck out, but after finding myself watching the girl as often as I watched for incoming waves, I cursed, ready to pack it in. The only thing that stopped me was my uncertainty about why I was watching her in the first place. As much as I tried to tell myself it was for security purposes, I couldn’t deny the fact that she intrigued me in some way. As much as I loved what I did, the carefree innocence I saw in her body language was something I would never have. And I envied her for that.

But then I saw her push herself up onto her knees and start tying her hair up into some sort of knot on top of her head, and all concerns of security were lost to me. The slim lines of her body were very much noticeable—even from this distance, and the soft blue of her bikini made her skin gleam bronze in the sunlight. Yeah, I was a little more than intrigued.

“Whoa.”

I looked back to see all the guys watching her too, and for some reason that made me question my sanity, it annoyed the fuck out of me. “That’s enough,” I barked at them. “She’s just sunbathing, all right?”

Forcing myself to look away from their confused faces, I attempted to catch some more waves to distract myself from whatever the fuck was going on with me, but after face-planting it more times than I can remember ever having done in one session, I decided it was time to quit.

“I’m out,” I said, already paddling for the shore.

Dragging myself from the water, I trudged up the sand toward my house, deliberately keeping my eyes on anything but her. I could do this. I just had to keep walking. Easy.

So not easy. Just before I was about to reach the top of the dune and lose sight of her, my eyes betrayed me, swinging her way. She was right where she had been before, head down and face turned away from me, not even noticing I was there. My gaze slid over her bikini-clad body, her slim figure curving in all the right places.

Sighing, I cursed under my breath and forced myself to keep moving. If I could just keep reminding myself of the destruction she had the potential of creating, I’d be all right.

Thankfully, the smell of the grill drifted into my senses as soon as I started up the stairs, and my stomach took charge of distracting me. Amy and Daniel were both standing at the grill, while Mae slept soundly in the little portable crib close by. I stopped and peered down at her as I passed. She was eight months old now, but she was still the size of a newborn. It never ceased to amaze me just how tiny she was. She was a true miracle, and a born survivor. Just like her dad.

“She see you?”

I looked up to see Daniel on the other side of the crib. For a minute, I thought he was talking about Mae, but my senses soon caught up, and I realized he was talking about the girl on the beach. I shook my head. “No.”

He gave me one swift nod. “Good. Amy and I went down to the house, but no one was home. We’ll try again tonight.”

Tension tightened my shoulders. I didn’t want to think about it right now. “Smells good,” I said, nodding toward the grill. “What’s cooking?”

Amy turned with a spatula in hand, giving me a crooked smile. “I’m making y’all hamburgers.”

I chuckled at her use of words. It was something that had just stuck with the guys since our trip out to Texas six months ago. We’d gone to help out a friend, and came back with a new love of all things country. For someone like me, the solidarity of friends and relaxed lifestyle they had out there was something I admired a lot.

As the guys each started appearing up the stairs, Amy began handing out the burgers, ordering us all to go take a seat down the end of the deck. I tried to ignore the girl on the beach as much as I could, but my gaze refused to stay away from her for too long. It was obvious the guys were having the same trouble. They kept alternating between watching her and watching the incoming storm on the horizon. If either was work-related watching, I wouldn’t have minded.

Daniel, as expected, was keeping a strict eye on the monitors, still not one hundred percent convinced our location hadn’t been compromised, but I had a feeling it was for nothing. I was confident the girl hadn’t recognized me.

“Who’s up for some GTA?” Cain said when we were all done with lunch.

Stretching, I picked my script up off the table. “You guys go ahead. I’m going to get a little work done.”

“You sure, man?” Corey said, a worried crease forming between his brows. “You need some downtime.”

I really did appreciate his concern. It made me feel good knowing they were all looking out for my best interests. “I’m good, man. Believe it or not, I actually like reading this shit.”

He laughed. “Okay. That’s why you’re rich and I’m not.”

As I watched them all slowly disappear inside, I looked out to the ocean and smiled. Before I could tell myself it was a bad idea, I curled the script in my hand and headed for the trail down to the beach.

“Josh,” Daniel said in warning.

I paused my steps and sighed before turning back to meet his gaze. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just trust me.”

He exhaled heavily, his eyes narrowing, but he didn’t say anything. Turning, I continued down the trail before I told myself I was being an irrational fucktard and to get the hell back upstairs. Climbing over the dune, I dropped down to the sand, forcing myself to keep my eyes away from the girl, and opened up the script to the second scene.

It was hard to focus on the words with her lying practically naked within my peripheral vision, and as much as I still tried to tell myself not to look, my eyes eventually betrayed me.

I stared at her still figure for a while, my eyes running over the soft curves of her body as she rested. She really did have an incredible body. All the girls I’d dated lately had been actresses or models, and even though they were beautiful and slim, they were a little too slim for my liking. Too many hard lines and artificial parts. They didn’t have the soft roundness and sex appeal I thought a woman should have. But this girl . . .

Damn it! I really needed to stop this shit. Forcing my eyes back down to the script, I pushed myself into work mode. I’d almost finished reading the scene through for the second time when I heard a soft curse float through the air. I smiled.

 

 

Chapter 9

Olivia

 

“Shit!”

I woke, dazed and confused, wondering why the hell I felt so damned cold all of a sudden. Flipping over, I stared up at the sky, my mind pathetically trying to work out where the hell I was, and why I was wearing so little. It took longer than it should have for me to remember I was on the beach, and when I did, I was left trying to figure out what had happened to the sun. It was nowhere to be seen.

I shook my head, scrambling to find my dress. I couldn’t believe I’d actually fallen asleep. Who even does that? Shivering, I fumbled like a useless idiot as a cool wind wrapped itself around me. “Holy Hell!”

Finding my dress, I struggled to find the right way to get it to go on. My hands didn’t want to cooperate with me, and the damn dress didn’t seem to want to, either. The wind wasn’t freaking helping. I thought the place I’d settled on between the rocks must’ve had some form of tunnel capabilities going on, because the wind sure was blowing through there. “Oh, for the love of God!” I growled, tugging at the stupid lightweight material.

Looking out at the ocean, I saw the reason behind the sudden change in temperature. A storm was coming. Great.

As the dress finally slid into place, my hair tumbled out of the loose knot I’d put it in, falling over my shoulders and warming me at once. I breathed out a sigh and straightened the dress. Feeling slightly better now I wasn’t so cool, I grabbed the blanket off the ground with my book, giving it a little shake, before turning to leave.

I paused all movements the second I saw him. The guy. Sitting in the same place he was yesterday. His eyes were cast down on a bundle of papers in his hands, and his lips were curved up into a pleasant smile. My cheeks burned. Either he found what was on that piece of paper funny, or the little exhibition I’d just put on amused him no end.

Closing my eyes, I lifted my face to the sky and sighed. Oh yeah, I was so going to have all the guys chasing me. I was a real catch. Biting my lip, I smirked at the idea and shook my head before starting for home. Again, I waited until I was practically in front of him before I let my gaze wander his way. “Hi.”

His smile grew wider as he caught my eye, leaving me with no doubt he’d been laughing at me. “Hi. Did you have a nice rest?” he asked. There was more than a hint of amusement in his voice, so I knew he was teasing me.

I turned to face him, but I kept moving just the same, choosing to walk backwards instead of stopping. “It was perfect. Right up until the part where I woke up feeling like I was in the Antarctic.” I laughed at myself under my breath. I knew I must’ve looked like an idiot, so I wasn’t going to pretend I didn’t.

He laughed in response, his eyes sparkling with something I didn’t quite understand. I was so out of my depth. Giving him one last smile, I spun around and kept going.

Shaking the sand off my legs and feet, I stepped into the wet room, and turned on the shower, washing myself off as best I could. When I was done, I wrapped one of Aunt Jenny’s massive bath sheets around me and headed up to my room to change. I was about halfway up when I heard my cell phone ringing.

“Crap!” Dashing the rest of the way, I scooped it off the nightstand and pressed it to my ear. “Hello?” I said, my breath coming fast.

“Hey, precious. It’s just me.”

I recognized Aunt Jenny’s voice immediately. “Hey. How’s work going?”

She groaned. “It’s a complete fuck-up. Sorry for swearing, but it really is. I’m going to be super late. There’s a menu for Chang’s Chinese on the fridge. Order whatever you want. They’ll charge it to my card.”

“It’s okay. I can make something.”

“All right. You decide. If you can’t be bothered, just order in. I don’t mind,” she said in a rush. The phone crackled a little before I heard her muffled voice. “Jeremy, just archive it. It’s not that hard. Oh, for crying out loud.” She sighed into the phone. “I’m sorry, Liv.”

“It’s okay, but things sound a little stressed there. If you’re running too late, just stay there tonight. I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to leave you there alone, precious.”

I didn’t have the heart to point out that she kind of already had. “I’m a big girl, Aunt Jenny. I know how to lock a door. Trust me. Besides, I’ll be practically living alone soon anyway.”

She laughed a little, but it was strained. “All right. I’ll text you later and let you know what I’m doing. Love you.”

“Love you too. Go whip everyone into line.”

“Oh, I will be. Don’t you worry about that!” she said. “Talk soon. Bye.”

As she ended the call, I shook my head and tossed my cell onto the bed. As much as I thought Aunt Jenny had done well for herself, I would never choose to have such a high-pressure job. Writing was my style, and I would be happy if I made enough from it to put a roof over my head and food on my table.

My mind ran over lunch possibilities as I changed into some dry clothes. I knew there was some rice in the fridge. I could whip up some fried rice for myself, no problem at all. My stomach grumbled with agreement, settling it.

Hanging my bikini in the bathroom, I skipped down the stairs, and tossed the rice into the microwave. As I swung around the counter to fetch some eggs, the doorbell rang.

I frowned. I didn’t know why the thought of someone being at the door freaked me out, but it did. Cautiously, I made my way to the oversize door and peeked through the peephole, my heart rate slightly faster than usual. The sight of a guy and girl with a baby in her arms confused me, until I remembered Aunt Jenny’s spying on the house next door.

Opening the door, I gave the couple a confused but pleasant smile. “Hello?”

The guy smiled. It was warm and friendly, and immediately relaxed me. “Hi. I’m Daniel, and this is my wife, Amy. We’re staying next door,” he said. “We just wanted to say hi, seeing as we’re sharing a beach and all.”

“Oh, of course,” I said, extending my hand out to shake. “I’m Olivia. Nice to meet you.” I smiled at the little doll in Amy’s arms. “She’s so adorable.”

Amy beamed. “This is our daughter, Mae.”

“She’s beautiful. How old is she?”

“She’s almost eight months, but she was a preemie, so she’s small for her age,” Amy said, smiling down at her daughter. It was obvious she adored her.

They were the cutest little family I’d seen.

“Are you here for long?” Daniel asked as he placed his finger in Mae’s tiny hand.

“A month or so,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I’m just staying with my aunt until my parents get here.”

“Nice,” Amy said. “We’re not sure how long we’re staying for yet. I hope it’s that long. I love it here.”

“Yeah, it sure is beautiful,” I said in full agreement.

The microwave screamed out a beep from the depths of the kitchen.

“We won’t keep you,” Amy said. “Hopefully we’ll see you around. It was nice to meet you, Olivia.”

As they stepped away from the door, a little voice in my head was yelling at me to ask them what the other boy’s name was, but I knew I’d left the question way too late for that. “Thank you for coming to say hi. I really appreciate it,” I said instead.

Daniel nodded. “No problem, Olivia. See you around.”

I watched them disappear up the drive before closing the door and smiling. If I had a chance of talking to the guy on the beach more from now on, my summer just got a hell of a lot better.

 

 

Chapter 10

Josh

 

The rain started not long after I made it back up to the deck. It was the first thunderstorm I’d experienced here at the beach house, and I had to say, it was the best damn light show I’d seen in Cali so far.

As I sat, feet up on a lounger and beer in hand, I stared out at the flashing sky, losing myself in thought. I was only here for another five weeks before I’d be making a quick trip home to Sacramento for Mom’s birthday, and then I was off to Florida. Ian, my manager, had already planned a few things for me to do while I was in Florida, but if I managed to get any free time, I really wanted to go surfing. There were a number of spots I’d yet to try along the East Coast, and I thought it was time I gave them a workout.

Tipping the beer up, I sipped as I wondered, yet again, about the girl on the beach. I was almost positive she hadn’t recognized me. Her carefree attitude and easy smile were just too calm and relaxed to indicate otherwise. So, either she really didn’t know who I was, or her acting skills surpassed mine.

A wave of discomfort went through me at the thought. It definitely wouldn’t be the first time a girl had tried to use me to get her acting career underway. I’d been through a couple of rather public break-ups because of it. These days, I was less inclined to date any girl with acting aspirations. Even the more established ones were more of a headache than it was worth.

This girl, though . . . I probably wouldn’t mind playing opposite her. I’d never been more intrigued by a girl in all my life, and I had no idea why that was. What the hell was it about her that made me want to risk exposure, just to talk to her? I thought it might’ve been the fact that here, away from the spotlight, I almost felt like a normal person, and I knew without a doubt that if I was a normal person, I’d be doing a whole lot more to get to know her.

Taking a sip of my beer, I tried to work out how I could get her to have a proper conversation with me, then I laughed at the thought. Who would’ve thought I’d ever have to worry about how to get a girl to talk to me? It seemed so ridiculous that it was funny.

As the sound of the front door slamming closed pierced the air, I paused my thoughts, waiting. A second later, Daniel and Amy appeared.

“Oh my God,” Amy said. “We seriously only just made it back in time.”

I was confused. Where did they go?

Daniel sat down and met my gaze. “We met the girl.”

That’s all it took for him to have my complete attention. I hoped he wasn’t going to give me any bad news. “And?”

He rubbed his chin, worry creasing his brow. “She’s here for at least a month.”

I tried to feel the disappointment his words should bring, but it was overshadowed by the happiness singing in my veins. I was a glutton for punishment, apparently.

“Jesus,” Amy said, rolling her eyes. “You have no sense of self-preservation, do you?”

“What do you mean?” I said, doing my best to look innocent.

She narrowed her eyes at me. “I mean, you’re not going to be so excited when the street is crawling with hundreds of screaming girls, and you can’t go out surfing because there’ll be a dozen creeps with telescopic cameras clicking away at your every move.”

I knew she was right, and I should be concerned about the possibility of that happening, but that was my everyday life. I was used to it.

“Do you want to know what Mom always says to me?” I said softly. “If I stressed about every moment being destroyed by the public, then every moment would be destroyed by the public—regardless of whether they were there to see it or not.”

Her gaze searched mine as she allowed my words to sink in. “Your mom’s pretty smart.”

I smirked. “She has her moments. But don’t tell her I said that.”

Daniel sighed. “So, what do you want to do?”

Dropping my feet to the floor, I sat forward and rested my elbows on my knees. “I don’t know, man. I really don’t think she’s going to be a problem. Call it a gut feeling if you want, but there’s just something about her that makes me think it’ll work out.” I shrugged. “Let’s just take it a day at a time, all right? I know we’ve all been looking forward to this vacation, but this is just a part of my life. I can either let it piss me off, or I can go with it.”

I watched him press his lips together. I knew he didn’t like not having a plan in place, but this wasn’t something I wanted to label and categorize. I wanted to experience spontaneity for a change. It just felt like the right thing to do.

He nodded his acceptance and pushed himself to his feet. “All right. But, just so you know, I’ll be making a plan in case the worst happens.”

I grinned. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

As they disappeared inside, I felt content with my answer. I didn’t know what was going to happen any more than the next man, but I refused to stress about it any more. Whatever was going to happen, would happen. And I would roll along with it.

Chapter 11

Olivia

 

The night after Aunt Jenny came home, we decided to stay up and watch old movies in her small home theater. She’d been a massive fan of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn her whole life, and regularly felt the need to instill some respect of the classics in me whenever she got the chance.

It was close to dawn when we finally managed to get ourselves into bed, so neither of us made it up until eleven o’clock the next morning. I was a little horrified about the time, but Aunt Jenny just laughed. We sat quietly eating our breakfast—or maybe it was lunch—like we were both seriously hung over or something. It was my first real taste of how different life on my own might be like.

When I finished off the last bit of my fruit salad, Aunt Jenny took my plate and rinsed it in the sink. “So, what do you want to do today?” she asked.

I raised my eyebrow at her. All I’d heard when she got home from LA, was how much shit she had to do to fix what Jeremy had stuffed up. “Don’t you have to work?”

Her lips pressed together as she drew in a long, slow breath. “Yes,” she said cautiously. “But you’re on vacation. I should be doing stuff with you.”

“I’m okay. Dad told me you’d have work to do while I was here. I feel lucky just to be in such a beautiful place and not have any chores to do.”

She eyed me dubiously for a while before answering. “All right. If you’re sure.” I nodded to reassure her, but she still looked as though she was struggling with the whole thing. “Okay. I’ll just go get ready.”

I sat in the living room after she left, listening to the sounds of the ocean outside. The sky outside the window was a soft icy blue, with barely a cloud in sight. You really wouldn’t have known there had been a storm here the night before. The trees were mostly still, except for a slight flutter of a leaf every now and again. It was the perfect weather for a walk.

The new denim shorts Aunt Jenny had bought me were wonderfully soft, like they’d already been worn for years, and sat low on my hips. They fit very snugly, which I’d been a little worried about, but Aunt Jenny had reassured me it was the way teenagers liked to wear them these days. As much as I didn’t care about trends anymore, I also didn’t want to stand out like an oddity.

Grabbing one of the tanks we’d bought to go with them—a baby blue one that Aunt Jenny said matched my eyes—I ripped the tag off and pulled it on. I didn’t worry about shoes. Barefoot was always the best option for the beach.

Leaving my cell on the table beside the bed, I wandered down the grassy trail to the beach. The sand was cool between my toes, but it felt nice as I made my way along the golden stretch to the rocks at the other end. When I was almost directly in front of the other house, the boy came walking down the trail, surprising me. He stopped when he reached the spot where the grass ended, and just stared out at the ocean, a frown on his pretty face.

I slowed when I got close enough to talk. “No surfing today?”

His gaze flashed my way and he smiled, but the curious crease to his brow, and the way his head tilted to the side a little, made me think he was assessing me for something. “I think my board might get broken if I tried to take on those dumpers,” he said, his eyes darting back out to the ocean.

I looked out at the waves, trying to determine how they might’ve looked different from the waves I’d seen yesterday. They did look a little more explosive when they broke, I guessed. Meeting his gaze again, I decided it was time to at least know his name. I wasn’t sure how much his friends would’ve told him, if anything, so I just went with the whole story.

“Um . . . I’m Olivia, by the way. I’m staying with my aunt until my parents get back from overseas,” I said, gesturing toward Aunt Jenny’s house.

He searched my face for a while, looking for something I didn’t know the answer to. His hands were buried deep in the pockets of his cargo shorts. He looked like he was trying to make a decision of some sort. Eventually, he took a breath. “Ah . . . I’m Joshua.”

Joshua. Hmm . . . I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head to the side, trying to fit the name with the face. I just couldn’t see it.

“What?” he asked.

My cheeks flushed a little. God, what was I going to say? I’m sorry, I just don’t think your name suits you. “Nothing.”

“Just say it,” he said, his voice a little forceful, although more resigned than anything else.

“It’s just . . . you don’t really look like a Joshua.” I pursed my lips as I looked him over again. His face seemed to have changed into one of surprise. “Josh, maybe. That suits you better.”

He stared at me for a while longer with the same surprised look on his face, then he burst out laughing. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you?”

I frowned, biting my bottom lip, and shook my head. God, could I be any ruder? “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Joshua’s a nice name. I like it. I’m not sure why I said that.”

His eyes never left my face as I spoke. They gazed at me with what looked like suspicion. I didn’t understand it at all. And this was why Aunt Jenny was so very wrong. “Um . . . it’s nice to meet you anyway, Joshua. I’ll be on my way now, so I don’t embarrass myself any more.” I flashed him a bright smile as an offer of apology and turned to leave.

“You can call me Josh,” he said, halting my escape. “I don’t mind. Most of my friends do.”

I smiled in response, still poised, ready for a quick getaway.

“Would you mind if I joined you on your walk?” he said suddenly.

Okay. Not what I was expecting. “Oh, um . . . sure, I guess that would be fine. I didn’t really have a destination in mind, though. I was just going to enjoy the peacefulness.”

“Sounds perfect.” He smiled at me, then came to stand beside me, nodding his head in the direction I was heading.

I blinked, realizing I was just standing there like an idiot. Taking a step forward, I started slowly walking as he moved beside me. Glancing back at his house, I was startled to find the guy who’d come to my door yesterday staring down at me from the balcony. I was about to wave, but the intense expression on his face didn’t look anywhere near as friendly as it had the day before.

“So, where are you from?” he asked casually, interrupting my worrying.

“Oh, I’m originally from Salt Creek Beach, but I’ve been living in Uganda for the last six years.”

He stopped walking altogether and turned fully around to stare at me. “In Uganda?” he asked with a touch of incredulity.

I laughed at his shocked expression. “Yeah, my parents joined this World Aid group when I was thirteen and decided we should go help out as a family. We were stationed in a remote area in the Karamoja district. It was a pretty wild experience.”

He was still staring at me, disbelief coloring his expression. “You were living in remote Africa?”

I didn’t laugh this time. The memory of the people I’d met, and come to love, who lived in that district, made me too emotional. “Mmmhmm. I worked with them, went to school with them, helped them with their cattle and to cultivate the land to feed them, gave them medical relief, tried to encourage the girls to stay in school. I even entertained them.” I laughed at that last part. Some of those girls had become some of Taylor Swift’s biggest fans.

Josh was quiet for a while as he watched me, then he cleared his throat softly. “Entertained them how?”

I gave him a knowing glance full of self-importance. “With my musical prowess, of course.”

He looked taken aback for a second, but then I laughed, and his expression turned to confusion. “You’re a singer?”

“Oh, God no,” I said quickly. “I learned the guitar when I was a kid, so it was just a way to help keep spirits up. The younger ones liked it. Some of them even learned to play a bit themselves.”

He shook his head. “Wow. That’s . . . incredible. I think I’m a little speechless right now.”

I blushed. I didn’t really see it that way, so I didn’t say anything in response. We started walking again, this time in silence. I guessed he was trying to wrap his mind around it all or something. After a while, he cleared his throat again. “So, six years. I’m assuming you came home for vacations and stuff?”

“Oh, no. We never felt the need.”

He frowned a little, as if in thought. “So, what about your own entertainment? Did you get to go to the movies, or read the typical girly magazines? You would’ve kept in contact with your friends, surely?”

I laughed a little at that. “Nope, nope, and nope. We did put on movie nights every now and again, but they were from an old video collection left from the many people before us. VHS and all. I’m pretty sure everything in there was pre-millennia. And girly mags?” I gave him a withering look. “The last thing I wanted to do was look at the rich and famous in glorious locations, while I was getting a dust bath from cranky cattle.”

“And friends?” he asked.

I sighed. “I tried. We used to e-mail and text, but after a while our contact grew less and less, until it just stopped altogether. And to be honest, I think I was actually glad, you know? All they ever wanted to talk about was which boys they thought were hot, who I was missing out on drooling over, and which celebrities they’d like to do. After spending the day trying to convince a fourteen-year-old girl that it would be better for her to come to school than go sleep with some AIDS-infested forty-year-old for ten dollars, I really couldn’t stand listening to them.”

He stopped walking again, so I did too. I gave him a questioning look, wondering what he was doing. He was just standing there, staring at me. I couldn’t even decipher his expression, but it gave me a chance to gaze at him unabashedly. He really was very good-looking.

Suddenly, Aunt Jenny’s idea of a little holiday fling didn’t seem so ridiculous. If only I could be bold enough to follow through with it.

 

 

Chapter 12

Josh

 

I was honestly speechless. This girl had actually rendered me mute.

Taking a minute to gather my thoughts, I gave her a warm smile. “Wow. I think I’m actually a little in awe of you.”

Her cheeks filled with a soft pinky color. It was just beautiful. She was just beautiful. Without makeup, without her hair styled or set, without any sparkling accessories. She was simply perfect the way she was.

She shook her head and laughed. “I’m not special, Josh. I’m just an ordinary nineteen-year-old girl. That’s it.”

I inhaled deeply. Fuck. She had no idea. And that threw my emotions completely off kilter. And as for being ordinary . . . she was no more ordinary than I was, but her uniqueness was much more remarkable than mine. Much more.

Without any words between us, we both turned and started the slow walk back again. “So, what brings you back?” I asked.

She groaned a little. “My parents decided it was time I carved my own path in life. To be honest, I think they’ve just had enough and wanted to come help with things in their own backyard, so to speak.” She inhaled deeply. “So, after the summer, I’m off to my first paid job.” She threw me a withering look, then laughed. “Wish me luck.”

I laughed at her carefree view of the situation. God, she was so easy to talk to. “Where are you going to be working?”

Her eyes sparkled. “Dad got me a job at a magazine called World Aid Matters. It’s a humanitarian magazine that mostly focuses on the work U-WAG does.”

I frowned. “U-WAG?”

“Oh, sorry,” she said, laughing. “United World Aid Group. I’ve always just called it U-WAG for short.”

“Ah, I see. So is this something you’re interested in, then? Journalism?” I asked.

She wobbled her head side to side. “Not really. I love writing, but I’m a daydreamer. I love fiction. This is just a job until I can get a full-time writing gig.”

Her smile was contagious. I could instantly tell that writing was her passion. “That’s great. Have you written anything yet?”

“Heaps. I write all the time. I’ve had a few short stories published in a couple of magazines, so that was a big thing for me. What about you? Do you live here, or are you just vacationing?” she asked.

Her expression was so blasé. She had no idea how complicated her question was for me. I didn’t want to lie to her, but I really didn’t want her to know who I was, either. For the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I was just a guy. Having a normal conversation. With a girl who looked at me with just kindness and curiosity. “I’m just on vacation for a little while before I have to go back to work.”

She nodded. “What do you do?”

I inhaled a deep breath. “I’m actually an actor.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Really? I hear that’s a hard industry to crack. Do you get much work?”

I tried to keep my expression neutral. “It’s regular enough, I guess.”

She laughed then. “I’d ask if you’re in anything I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen anything new in six years.”

I laughed, a little relieved she wasn’t pushing the issue.

“Who’s your idol? Who do you aspire to be like?” she asked, her head cocking to the side as she looked at me.

That was an easy question. “Tom Hanks or Robert De Niro.”

She nodded, her face thoughtful. “Yeah, I can see that. I think it’s great that you’re doing what you love. My parents have always told me to do what I enjoy—that it doesn’t matter about the money, because what’s the point in having a lot of money if you’re not happy, right? I think that’s a pretty good motto.”

I pursed my lips, trying and failing to hide a smile. “It is.” And I was. I loved what I did. The whole lack of privacy thing was a definite downside, but I didn’t think it overshadowed my love of acting. As we climbed over the rocks and back onto our beach, I smiled. When did it become our beach?

When we reached the stretch of beach that fronted my house, she slowed, but I wasn’t ready to let her go yet, so I kept walking with her.

“I met Daniel and Amy yesterday,” she said, looking up to the house, where all the guys now stood, pretending not to be watching my every move. “They seem really nice. Are they friends or family?”

“Friends,” I said, purposely keeping my gaze away from them. “I went to school with Amy and Ryan, Daniel’s brother.”

“Their baby is adorable. She’s so tiny.”

“Yeah, Mae’s precious. She was a preemie. She’s lucky to be here. Of course, she gets spoiled ridiculously.” I laughed at how true that was.

“That must’ve been hard for them,” she said, concern darkening her eyes. “She’s a lucky little girl in more ways than one, though. Seems like she’s got a very loving extended family.”

I nodded. “She sure does.”

The guys’ gazes almost burned me as we passed the house, they were that intense. I knew they weren’t going to be happy with me when I got back, but I didn’t care. In this moment, I was happy.

Focusing back on Olivia, I watched her happy smile as she gazed out at the ocean. “You mentioned you were waiting for your parents to get back from overseas. Are they still in Uganda?” I asked.

She nodded emphatically. “Yeah, they’re just getting everything sorted. Our family was the longest permanent aid workers there, so we kind of accumulated a lot of crap. They want to hand most of it over to the new family coming in, as well as get them up to speed with where everything’s at. I wanted to stay and help, but Mom thought it’d be good for me to come back and get used to the Western culture again before I have to start work.” She said the last part like it was a bit of a joke.

Her steps slowed before they stopped altogether. For a second I wondered what she was doing, but then I realized we’d reached the end of the beach, and we were now standing at the bottom of the trail that led up to her aunt’s house.

“Did you want to come up and see Aunt Jenny’s house? I could show you some pictures of what we did in Uganda, if you like? I mean, I know looking at other people’s pictures can be boring, but if you just wanted to see what it looked like . . .” She trailed off, suddenly looking self-conscious.

I smiled at her pink cheeks. “I’d really like that.”

Her sigh was filled with relief. It was cute. “Cool.”

Yeah, the guys weren’t going to be happy with me at all. Pulling out my cell, I tapped out a quick text to Daniel, apologizing, before following Olivia up the trail.

Chapter 13

Olivia

 

I couldn’t believe I was actually taking a guy up to Aunt Jenny’s house. And a really cute guy at that. My heart flittered around nervously inside my chest as we walked up the trail. I took him in through the living room, and brought him to the kitchen.

“Do you want a drink?” I asked.

He looked so amazing standing there. I actually had trouble keeping my thoughts coherent. “Thanks,” he said.

I could feel his eyes on me as I moved through the kitchen. It seriously made my heart do weird things. Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm myself down a little as I opened the top cupboard and reached up to take out two glasses.

When I turned back around, his eyes were directed down, as though he’d been looking at something on my butt. Oh my God. What if I had something stuck on me? I felt my face flush at the thought. Maybe the tag was still on the back pocket or something.

Placing the glasses on the bench, I tried to discreetly brush my hands over my backside to check. Nope, nothing there. Damn it. Why was I feeling so self-conscious? Telling myself I was being stupid, I shoved the feelings away, and went to get the juice out of the fridge. “Orange okay?” I asked, holding up the container for him to see.

“Sure.” He turned away as I filled the glasses, looking around the kitchen and dining room. “This is a nice house,” he said.

I let my gaze roam around. “Yeah, I love it. It has a nice feel about it. Although it’s absolutely huge.”

He nodded in agreement. “Has your aunt owned it long?”

“I think she bought it about eighteen months ago.” I passed him his drink and picked up mine. “What about you? Is that your parents’ house?”

“Uh . . . it belongs to the family . . .”

Something that looked like unease flashed in his eyes. Trying to ignore it, I took a sip of my drink. “That’s cool. Is your family here with you?”

He smiled. “No. Not this time. Just friends.”

I smiled back, feeling a little wistful. As content as I was with letting my friends go all those years ago, I did miss the closeness that was possible with a group of good friends. “And I bet you all thought you’d get the beach to yourself. Sorry about that,” I couldn’t help teasing.

“I can’t say I mind.” His eyes glinted with something I couldn’t interpret, but it made my stomach flutter.

With my heart still beating a little too fast, I gestured to the living room. “Come on, I’ll show you around. Obviously, this is the kitchen and meals area. In there is the formal dining room,” I said as we walked. “And this is the living room.” I gestured at the enormous space before us that faced a wall of windows looking out at the ocean.

“Down that hall is the theater, the stairwell down to the garage, and Aunt Jenny’s office.” I continued toward the stairs, showing him the library, bathrooms, and other bedrooms, before taking him up to my room.

“This is the room I’m staying in while I’m here.” I went straight to the doors that led out to the deck and opened them wide, suddenly feeling a little awkward having him there. I didn’t want him to think I was suggesting anything. I stepped outside and put my drink down on the little wooden table.

A few seconds later, he came to stand beside me. “It’s almost as good as the view from my room,” he said with a smirk.

I laughed, my shoulders relaxing instantly. “I’m not sure about that. You seem to have a lot more trees around your house. Can you even see the ocean from your room?”

The teasing smile was still on his lips. “You’ll just have to come and judge for yourself.”

For some reason, I suddenly found it hard to breathe as he gazed at me. His eyes were such an amazing hazel color, framed by thick, dark lashes that gave him a mysterious kind of aura. He had high, defined cheekbones, and a strong set jaw that made me want to just reach out and touch him. It wasn’t good.

But then his gaze was gone, looking out to the ocean, and he was casually taking a sip of his drink. Drawing in a long, slow breath, I tried to calm myself down for the hundredth time since inviting him in, but even I knew it was pointless.

“So, where are these fabulous photos?” he asked, breaking into my weirded-out state.

“I wouldn’t exactly say they’re fabulous. They’re just normal pictures,” I admonished. Reaching inside the door, I grabbed a handful of photos and started flicking through them, trying to find the basics to show him. “This is probably the best picture to show what the town looked like. The houses are pretty basic, but they were practical enough.” I watched him look over the picture, his eyes narrowing as he scanned it completely.

I passed him another picture. “This was where we lived. It looks pretty crappy, but it was much nicer than anything anyone else had. I always felt a little guilty about that.” I didn’t want to bore him too much, so I passed him the pictures quicker than normal. “And this is the recreation center we built. All those kids were my friends,” I said, indicating the group of kids standing in front of the building.

I showed him a few more shots of my parents, me with some of my friends, the school, and the locals working. He looked at me seriously after a while. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask. You were there since you were thirteen?” I nodded. “And you only just got back recently?”

“Monday,” I said in confirmation.

He looked at me skeptically. “Did you date?”

I finally realized where his line of questioning was heading. I laughed, only a little embarrassment washing through me. As much as I felt out of my comfort zone with the whole flirting thing, there wasn’t much I could do about my lack of experience, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. “Does kissing a diplomat’s son, twice, constitute a date?”

His expression was laughable. “Ah . . . no. No, it doesn’t,” he said sternly.

He stared at me as I continued to giggle at him. I really wished I knew what he was thinking. I couldn’t make out his expression. It was such a mixture of emotions. “I know, it’s sad. I’m an adult who’s never been on a date. Do you think there’s a place for that in the guineas book of records? Maybe I could apply—”

He shook his head at me, but his smile was kind. “You’re definitely unique.”

I sighed. Unique—that was one word for it. So was weird. Even if Aunt Jenny was right—which she wasn’t—and boys did chase me, as soon as they realized how weird I was with the whole dating thing, they were sure to run away from me instead. It was hopeless. I was never going to find anyone who would want to take me on a date.

Music started playing from Josh’s pocket, and he swiftly pulled out his phone. He silenced it quickly, but not before I saw a picture of a beautiful girl flashing on the screen.

He inhaled deeply. “I didn’t realize how late it was. I have to go.”

I nodded. Of course he did. He was just realizing how weird I was, and that was probably his girlfriend trying to call him. I tried to hide my disappointment. Why the hell didn’t I think about the fact that he probably already had a girlfriend? “Oh, okay.”

Shoving the pictures back onto the table, I grabbed my glass and walked him back downstairs, to the side door, so it’d be easier for him to get to the trail. He paused in the open doorway beside me, his expression suddenly intense.  “Thanks for letting me gate crash your walk, Liv. I had a good time.”

My stupid breath was getting stuck in my chest again. There was something about the way he called me ‘Liv.’ I forced myself to exhale. “Me too,” was all I could manage.

He was quiet for a little while longer as he appeared to contemplate something. His voice was quieter when he spoke again. “Do you want to do it again tomorrow?”

I had to stop myself from blurting out a loud ‘yes!’ Biting my lip until I could control myself a little better, I smiled. “That’d be nice. What time?”

“How’s nine? Not too early?”

I smiled. I’d get up at dawn if he’d suggested it. “Nine’s perfect.”

 

 

Chapter 14

Josh

 

I was so screwed.

Those damn lips were almost irresistible. The way she would bite down on them when she was embarrassed, bringing the blood rushing to them, making them even fuller than they already were . . .

And those shorts. I knew I was going to go to hell with the thoughts that ran through my head when she reached up into that cupboard. They hugged her ass perfectly, showing off the taunting curves of her hips, molding the soft roundness of her cheeks where they joined her long, shapely legs.

Even her damn neck and collarbones called me in. I wanted to touch and explore every part of her. I used to think that song “Your Body is a Wonderland” was just a corny ploy to pull women in, but for the first time, I could see how the dude could’ve written something like that.

When my cell rang back in her room, I’d never been more grateful for someone to interrupt me before. I had no idea what Hannah wanted, but I couldn’t talk to her about it in front of Olivia, that was for sure. All I knew at that point in time was if I stayed any longer, I was going to kiss her, and I didn’t know if I could actually stop myself once I started.

Why the hell did she have to be so damn innocent?

That was rule number one as far as I was concerned. Never, ever sleep with anyone unless they knew what they were in for. And not only did Olivia have no idea how famous I was, she was not the kind of girl to have sex just for the fun of it. I mean, kissed twice? What the hell was I supposed to do with that?

As I made my way back home again, I pulled out my phone and scrolled through to Hannah’s number. She picked up on the second ring. “Hi, Josh.”

“Hannah. Sorry I missed your call.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, her voice almost singing. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”

I almost laughed out loud. She had no fucking idea. “No, you’re fine. What’s up?”

“Well, I was just wondering if your manager has mentioned anything to you about us?” Her tone was a little uncertain.

I frowned. I hadn’t heard from Ian since Monday, but I was positive he hadn’t said anything about Hannah. “Er, no. Why?”

“Oh,” she said, a slight craftiness in her voice. “My manager called me this morning saying the studio was hoping we could play for a bit of publicity.”

I sighed as soon as she said it. I knew exactly what she was talking about. The studio wanted us to either pretend to date, or date for real. It didn’t matter to them. They just wanted both our faces plastered all over the tabloids, to draw attention to the movie. I wasn’t beyond that sort of deceit. I’d done it before. “Uh-huh,” I murmured, not willing to commit myself to anything just yet.

She sighed. “I know. But maybe we could just occasionally go out sightseeing together or something. That would be better than nothing.”

I glanced up at the sky and tried not to audibly sigh. “I don’t know, Hannah.”

“I know you’re not keen on doing things like this,” she said, pausing. “They just seem as though they’re being very forceful with it at the moment. I can’t help but think there’s more to it, if you know what I mean?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Production troubles? I don’t think so. I was only talking to Greyson the other day. He thinks BayTown is going in, so budget is secure.”

“Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that,” she said, sighing. I had no reason to think she was up to something, but a niggling feeling in my gut was telling me to be careful.

“Yeah, you might want to check with your agent, but it all looks good.”

A soft, breathy laugh came over the phone. “Okay, well, think about it anyway. Extra exposure never hurts,” she said. “I’ll go call Mike and see what I can find out. I guess I’ll see you in Florida.”

“Will do. Bye, Hannah.” I touched the bottom of the screen to end the call and sighed. It was time to face the firing squad.

I raised my eyebrow at the four of them as I stepped onto the deck. They were all glaring at me through narrowed eyes, their postures varying degrees of stern. Corey huffed as I sauntered forward. “We’re just deciding whether we should go on strike or not.”

Grabbing a brew out of the fridge, I cracked the top and went to lean against the railing. “Cool. Which way are you leaning?”

“Striking sounds good,” Cain said. “I’m just not too sure you’re smart enough to understand the reasoning behind it.”

I feigned a grimace. “Ouch. That’s harsh, man. That cuts me deep.”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Come on, Josh. Even you have to know that was a dumb move.”

I took a sip and twitched my eyebrows up at him. “Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you.”

Daniel, who’d been quietly watching me from his chair behind the others, raised his chin. “Okay, what circumstances are you working in?”

I took another sip, biding my time. “She’s got no idea who I am.”

“Fuck off.”

“Bullshit.”

“No way.”

They all spoke at once, and I wasn’t surprised in the least by their reactions. “Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. She’s been living in Africa for the last six years.”

Cain crossed his arms over his chest and deadpanned me. “They do have movies in Africa, Josh. They also have gossip rags and radio.”

I smirked at his apparent knowledge of the entertainment industry in Africa. “She was in remote Uganda, Cain. Not fucking South Africa or wherever else you’re thinking of.” He scowled at me, ready to counter with some other piece of geographical wisdom, and as much as I loved listening to him drivel on, I stopped him with a look. “I’m not saying you can’t investigate the information I’m giving you, but I’m telling you right now, she doesn’t know who I am. I saw pictures. She’s been living in some desolate village in Uganda for the last six years. She didn’t keep in contact with any of her friends from the States, didn’t watch any new movies while she was there, hasn’t been back for vacations, nothing. It’s fucking weird, but it’s real.”

Daniel sat back and assessed me, his mind in obvious overdrive. “So, you’re okay with me running some checks on her?”

Normally, I was all for background checks and suspicion and whatever else they felt they needed to do in order to do their job, but the thought of checking Olivia’s facts annoyed me. I also knew I needed to let it go. Placing my hand out, palm up, I met Daniel’s gaze. “Be my guest. But while you do, I’m not hiding from her. She’s nice. I like her.”

“Dude,” Corey said, his gaze sending me a warning. “If she really doesn’t know who you are, you can’t go messing with her like that.”

Irritation crept into my veins. “I know that. I never said I was going to do anything with her.”

“You didn’t have to, bro. It’s written all over your face,” he said, sitting back.

Taking another sip of my beer, I tried to cover up the fact that I knew he was right. I just needed to convince myself he wasn’t, and then I might have a chance of keeping things platonic. In the back of my mind, I think I already knew I had no chance. But I was stubborn as shit with things like that.

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