The glass slips in my hand, almost spilling Jack all over the floor. “What?”
“Holland’s pregnant,” Herb repeats, and I drain my drink before he continues. Can’t spill it if it’s empty. “Arlen called me ten minutes ago to tell me. Apparently, she just dropped it to the other producers at a meeting this afternoon, and they spent hours trying to troubleshoot a solution.”
After all these years spent thinking my own dick would screw me over, I didn’t even bother to worry about someone else’s. I stride back over to the bottle I stupidly put away and lift my shoulder to cradle my phone against my ear so I can refill. “And?”
“And they don’t have a good one. Her husband is pushing for a recast, but Holland won’t have it. According to her producer credit, she doesn’t have to, and that’s not what the other producers want. Besides, even if everyone did agree to it, they’re not going to be able to find someone of Holland Decker’s caliber on six weeks’ notice.”
Whiskey burns the back of my throat on the way down. “How far along is she? Women work when they’re pregnant, don’t they? Don’t we have time to finish filming before she delivers?” My only real experience with pregnancy was when Jeanie had my nephew, and I was two thousand miles away for most of it. Otherwise, I’ve avoided getting anyone pregnant like it’s my job.
“They didn’t say exactly, only that it was early on.”
“Why didn’t Holland tell me herself?”
“Probably because you’re taking it so well,” Herb snaps back.
“Can’t she just hide it? That’s what they usually do, right? She can just get a really big purse and cover it.” I bite off the desperation creeping into my voice.
Herb sighs heavily. “I don’t know if you actually read the first script or anything else that I sent you, but the show is called Search and Rescue. She is playing a Texas Ranger in the Search and Rescue Unit—the Equine Search and Rescue unit—and will be on horseback each and every episode. Hell, the first episode has her diving on a guy off a horse in the streets of Austin. Do you honestly think she can do that pregnant?”
I did read it, and I know the level of physicality involved, but I’m grasping for straws here. “That’s what stunt people are for. Can’t we rework the schedule around her?”
“Not by much. They’ve already got permits for filming around the Capitol building and in the parks. You’re in the lineup to release next spring, and they want to promote the shit out of this. If anything, they’ll try to speed it up with the pregnancy.”
Gazing out across the dark water, I search for words. It pulls me, beacons me to find repose in it, but I won’t be able to hear whatever bullshit Herb is going to tell me next if I step outside to hear the waves crash.
Speeding up production is better than delaying it, even if it means I won’t have time to finish all the training I have planned. That includes the solid month of riding lessons I desperately need. But that’s still preferable to a delay.
The truth is, I don’t have time to wait. I need the respectability, the buzz, and the paycheck this job promises to bring. The adoring public forgave me for one box office bomb, and they’re trying to forget the second, but tabloid headlines aren’t doing me any favors to push it out of their minds.
My reputation and my bank account can’t afford any more screwups.
“…plane on Monday.”
Monday pulls my thoughts and attention back to what Herb’s saying. “What about Monday?” I ask.
“You’re on a plane to Austin on Monday. They want you out there to get going ASAP.”
The annoyance in his voice keeps me from asking what else he said. I might be the one paying him, but lately, he’s had to clean up more of my messes. No one of his expertise would take me on if he reached my breaking point.
“I’ll be ready.” Another call vibrates my phone, and I pull it away from my ear just far enough to see Janie’s face pop up on the screen. I should deal with it—I need to deal with it. But one dumpster fire at a time is all that I can handle.
“Good. Lori will send over the details tomorrow morning. Plan on staying for the duration.”
“Got it.” I rotate the empty tumbler in my fingers, weighing if I should refill it for a third time.
“Keep your glass empty, your nose clean, and your dick dry while you’re out there, got it? This could relaunch your career if you don’t fuck it up.”
I pour another glass. “Roger that.” I plan on doing exactly as he says—starting Monday.
He clicks off without another word, leaving me staring into the darkness.
The ocean breeze hits me before I close the sliding door of my deck. I sink onto one of my lounge chairs and savor a sip of Jack before knocking it back.
My phone buzzes with a voicemail from Jeanie. I’m not sure why she bothers when she knows I don’t listen to them. A text would be quicker. It’s probably only an update that remains a repeat of what I already know, more confirmation of things left unchanged instead of new information. Calling her back isn’t something I think I can stomach right now.
Instead, I’ve got to deal with figuring out how I’m going to be in Texas five weeks before I was originally scheduled to be and how I can help save the show that was supposed to be saving me.
Kelsey would have had me packed and ready to go in a matter of hours. She was great in a crisis. Not for the first time, I regret screwing her. She was a great assistant before my moment of weakness when I got into her panties. After that, she thought she had a shot at being the next Mrs. Shaw, and I ran her off pretty quick when she found the redhead in my bed shortly after. Things went downhill fast after that.
Maybe I can talk Herb into hiring someone to keep me straight and out of trouble while I’m out there. And get me transportation.
Until then, I’ll manage on my own, even it if does stress me the hell out. I might still have a joint in the kitchen drawer to help with that. Then again, maybe I should save that for Texas, where I won’t have the smell of salt and the crash of waves to keep me level.
I click open my phone to check the surf report for tomorrow morning, when the slide of the glass door scares the shit out of me.
My head swivels to the brunette wearing the T-shirt I took off when we got here. “Hey, Tenn, you coming back?”
Fuck. I forgot she was in there. And her name.
Nothing I can’t smooth over with some Tennessee charm. “Sure, angel. Why don’t you go ahead and start the shower for me?”
Her lips spread to reveal a bright white smile. “Sure.”
“Good girl.” My gaze follows her toned ass cheeks, peeking out from under the hem of my tee as she saunters back inside.
She rounds the dining table that collects my mail and is out of my sight before I turn back to my phone. The surf will be high in the morning, and it’ll be the perfect cure for the hangover I have coming. It gives me an even better excuse to be out of the house so she can see her way out in the morning. Then it’s balls to the wall until I’m on the plane.
I close the surf report and go to my recent calls. My thumb hovers over Jeanie’s at the top.
Instead of tapping it, I click the screen to black and empty the rest of the glass in my hand. I stand and cross over to the railing to look out across the black expanse of the Pacific.
The day I closed on my Malibu house was the proudest of my life. It was symbolic. I’m no longer the landlocked loser I had been growing up. I have a slice of sand to call my own in one of the most exclusive zip codes in the world. I made it. Actually made it.
And now, thanks to someone else’s dick, I’m in danger of losing it all.
“You didn’t have to go with me, you know.”
They’re the first words Milla’s said to me since we left Tradition. She’s still pouting in the seat next to me, scrolling through her phone in an attempt to act disinterested. In reality, I know the nerves are eating at her.
“I wasn’t going to let you come to a job for a body actress by yourself. Or take my car and drive yourself right into some kind of porn setup.”
“It is not porn setup—it’s reputable! And this is supposed to be a big deal. Filming will be around Austin for a few months, so it’s not just a one-off. This could be my big break.”
“I’m sure that’s what they want all the beautiful college girls to believe before their auditions for the next edition of Girls Gone Wild: Austin City Limits.”
“It is legitimate! I’ve seen it on all the sites I frequent.”
“Sure,” I offer, still entirely unconvinced.
There have been productions like Friday Night Lights and Fear the Walking Dead that have filmed on the outskirts of Austin in the past, so there was a possibility these auditions had an air of legitimacy as she claimed. Nevertheless, Milla had a tendency to get herself into trouble. And in her excitement, she could very well be headed straight to a human chop shop, where they’ll kidnap her for their trafficking ring. Why else would you need to recruit young, blonde-haired, Caucasian wannabe actresses of a certain height to appear in masses for a project with no working title on such short notice?
My parents and brother didn’t seem as concerned that she might get auctioned off to a Saudi prince as his tenth wife, so, once again, I’m left babysitting my semi-grown baby sister.
“Stupid Herbie and his breakdowns.” She bows her head further, looking like the little girl I helped raise, who’s more my second daughter than my younger sister.
“Serves you right for going for the Bug over a vehicle with more stability,” I scold.
“He’s still cute.”
“Yeah. Cute parked in front of the café.”
That earns me a huff. “I wish this would have happened last week when I was still in Austin instead of now, when I’m stuck in Podunk-Tradition until he gets fixed. I need this so I can get the hell away from there for good.”
Her frustration at being trapped in our tiny hometown pierces like an arrow to my heart.
I felt the same in what seems like a lifetime ago. The need to run away, to escape, to live a life bigger than the humble one our parents worked their asses off to build for us.
Now, I treasure nothing more than my little Podunk town where I can raise my daughter in peace with the same values I grew up with and our family close by. Tradition is my home—the only one I allow myself to want anymore. It was my refuge, my haven when I needed it most, and understanding exactly how Milla feels doesn’t mean her rejection of it hurts any less.
My fingers tighten on the steering wheel. “You’re not much further,” I tell her.
This time when she sighs at my words, it’s from a different frustration. “You know what I mean, NeNe. I’m just really nervous about today.” Most of our arguments over the past few years have ended similarly. One of us—typically me—gets our feelings hurt, and we both retreat with half-felt apologies and insincere words. “Thanks for taking me. I know you’re busy.”
Busy was my constant state of being. I try not to think about the shift at the café Stella’s covering for me or the mountain of tasks I need to knock out when we got back tonight. I’d even brought my laptop to work in the car if this took too long.
“Not a problem. I really hope that you do well today.” It was better than saying I hoped she got it, because that was an outright lie. My desire to keep her as far away from show business in any way, shape, or form remained firmly intact.
“Thanks.” She remained too absorbed in preparing for her audition or whatever the hell else she was looking through on her phone to note my insincerity.
I turn the radio up with commercials about saving on my car insurance before I flip it over to Bluetooth and my Fleetwood Mac playlist. Maybe with some background noise we can make it the remaining fifteen minutes to Manor without fighting. Maybe.
If only I can ignore the dreamy vocals of “Go Your Own Way” as a karmic screw you that my only sister might be headed a direction completely away from Tradition and me.
How much longer could she possibly be?
I stare at the red columns on the spreadsheet, willing them to turn into the black numbers I need so I can afford to buy the gym building I currently lease for myself. Not to mention, Leni’s gymnastic camp this summer, and her growing desire for a horse I can’t meet.
I’d already called to check on her once to make sure she was still okay with my brand new sister-in-law for the day. Not that I needed to check. She would spend every spare moment she had out at Healing Haven, the equine retreat where Alexandra worked.
The rocky start Leni had with her new aunt has recently given way to a growing mutual affection. Not to mention, her new cousin Dale is off with her.
Fourteen-year-old Dale is still in the process of having her adoption finalized by my brother, Ambrose, and his new wife, Alexandra, after being a homeless teen who’d found her way out to Healing Haven for equine therapy. They’d taken her in at the beginning of the summer not too long after they found out they were having twins and got married in a whirlwind romance after sneaking around for months. I’d never seen my brother happier, even if all of them—especially Dale—still had some rough edges to smooth out.
Given Alexandra’s current pregnancy with my niece and nephew, she appreciates having the extra body to put in the miles on horseback while she’s out of riding commission. At least, that’s what she assured me when I asked if Leni could spend the day with her instead of being trapped at the café with my mom.
I suppose I should be grateful she’s getting all the saddle time she wants and a cousin as a sibling substitute—both things I haven’t been able to offer her.
I snap my laptop—and mind—shut on the thought and look around.
Milla was right about one thing—this has every making of a real production. Trailers are set up along with a ton of official-looking people walking around on phones with clipboards and tablets. There is a line wrapped around the side of the building with bodies so uniform they look like dolls stamped from a production line.
Another reason I wanted to go into stunts instead of acting—other than avoiding screen time. I knew then what I know now: a pretty face is a dime a dozen without the skills and talent to back it up. I spent my time developing skills on horseback instead of standing in front of a crowd and entertaining them like Milla enjoys so much.
Leni has come by her love of horses honestly. I just hope to shape her love into something slightly less destructive than it was for me.
Maybe stretching my legs can keep me from taking a trip down memory lane to the debt-filled road of my future.
After unfolding myself from my Corolla, I reach my arms overhead. I had to park far away from where Milla went in near a makeshift barn of sorts, and I step under the tin roof, seeking shade. The Texas summer is warming up quickly, but it’s still pleasant enough compared to the sweat-drenched days of late July and August that I know are coming. Maybe it will work out in my favor and more bodies will come into my gym to get bikini ready. I’d rather build self-esteem than vanity, but I had to pay the bills somehow.
“Casting is in that building up there.”
A curmudgeonly older man appears from the shadows. I can’t make out his face under the wide brim of his hat, but his posture says get the hell out.
“I’m not here for the audition. I’m just waiting to pick my sister up.”
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he barks.
“I’m sorry. I’ll see my way out.” So much for a distraction.
I resign myself to more car-bound number crunching when a blue roan horse catches the corner of my eye outside the barn.
The name flies through my mind and grips my chest. He looks so much like my old gelding that my feet propel me toward him unthinkingly, my return to my car forgotten.
“Hey, handsome.” I approach and turn out my hand to him.
Kind brown eyes greet me, and he nudges his velvet nose into my palm. I stroke up the side of his face and down his neck as far as I can reach. There’s another big chestnut tied off a few feet away, and I venture over to give him a scratch as well before returning my attention to my new friend. Both horses are saddled and tied off at the fence, likely waiting for someone to return.
I hazard a glance at the group of people working in the pasture next to this one. They seem absorbed enough in helping a guy move around a temporary round yard to notice me petting these two. From the look of it at roughly fifty yards away, he’s someone who clearly doesn’t have any business being on horseback. They’re going to be preoccupied for a while.
I should continue on, but the gray-blue roan beckons me further forward, and I slip quietly through the rails of the fence. The grump inside the barn might not approve, but this fella doesn’t seem to mind, and my intrinsic need to follow the rules doesn’t extend to horses.
Besides, it isn’t like I’m going to ride him or anything. Just give him a little attention.
“Are you a star, handsome?” I stroke down his neck to his shoulder, and he offers a contented sigh. “I would watch you, that’s for sure.”
He flicks his left ear back to listen to my voice, and I keep petting him. Within minutes, I’m perfectly at peace with him. If I understood men half as well as I understood horses, I likely could have avoided most of the messes in my life.
I should join Leni for a ride soon. My friend Katie has offered me her horses on so many occasions I’ve lost count, but I’m normally too busy to take her up on it. I’ll make time this summer.
Looking over the gelding’s shoulder, I see a person opening the gate for the rider in the round yard and leading through the buckskin horse he’s on. They might be headed back over here to grab these two boys.
The backfire of a box truck in the yard sounds like a gunshot, and the horses on either side of me shuffle their feet at the disturbance.
“It’s alright, guys. Just a truck. Not a problem,” I reassure them.
They both settle back in quickly, a sharp contrast to the buckskin with a rider leaving the ring. He goes up on his back legs—not a full rear but enough to startle the man on the ground into letting go of his lead. Somehow, the rider hangs on. The gate swings free as the third person steps in to gain control of the horse, and it hits the horse on the butt, further startling him and pushing him forward until the horse bolts.
And takes off across the pasture toward Highway 290.
Everyone standing around the horse is powerless, as one guy runs a few feet before seemingly realizing that there’s no way he’ll catch the horse on foot. The other person takes off running to a buggy to catch them, screaming for the rider to pull up on the reins. He doesn’t even have the reins in his hands, instead holding on to the saddle horn for dear life as the horse charges toward the heavily trafficked highway.
The scene unfolds before my eyes, and all I can imagine is the horse going through or over the fence and out onto the road to get hit, cause a deadly accident, or both.
“C’mon, boy. We gotta catch him.” I check the cinch of the roan’s saddle, thankfully still tight from whoever left the horse here, and pull the reins up over his head so I can swing on. With a silent prayer, I hope we’re as good of friends as I think we are as I click him forward from a walk straight to a gallop.
I lean forward in the stirrups and hover over his neck, letting his powerful strides gain ground on the buckskin. I don’t have to turn around to know we’re the only ones with a hope of catching the bolting horse still headed directly toward the fence.
Pushing my gelding on, I steer him to the outside of the horse so we can head it off from the highway. The buckskin is still galloping, but he’s slowed from the frantic pace he took off with, and my horse is fast. We’re gaining on them, and I’m within shouting distance.
“Grab the reins!”
A jostled yell flies back to me. “I. Can’t. Reach.”
“Lean forward and try.”
He doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort, barely releasing the saddle horn he’s clinging to.
My blue roan horse shoots the gap between the fence and the buckskin horse, successfully turning them away from the highway, relief flooding my nerves as we come up beside them. At least if this is going to end horribly, it will be with the four of us instead of a fifty-car pileup out there.
Now I just have to stop the horse.
I hook my foot the best I can in the stirrup of the regular Western saddle—which is much harder to maneuver than the trick riding one I used once upon a time—and I leave the saddle, leaning forward so that my body is dangling in the air between the two horses as I grab the reins. I pull myself back up into the seat and tug the buckskin’s reins enough to slow him.
“Whoa, boy, whoa.” When his steps falter from a full run to a slower canter, I work my way up further to his head, grabbing the headstall of the bridle and tugging as gently as I can while still moving at this speed. Jerking suddenly to a stop won’t do any of us a favor. “Whoa, boys, whoa.”
Taking his cues from my legs and voice, my blue roan slows further with the buckskin following his lead until we’re at a walk and, finally, a stop.
“Hold these while I dismount.” I thrust the reins at the rider who finally releases the saddle horn with one hand to grab them. I swing off my horse and run my hand up to his head, giving him a soft kiss on the cheek. “You did good, boy. Real good. Thank you.”
Keeping the reins of my horse in one hand, I cross to the left side of the buckskin’s head and give him a reassuring pat. The white wild of his eyes has disappeared, and other than the heavy panting from his run, he appears calm again.
“You’re alright, bud. Just a little scare. You’re all good.” I lift my hand for the reins still tightly gripped in the man’s hands. “I’ll hold him for you while you get off.”
“I almost had him stopped,” he snaps.
The adrenaline that carried me across the pasture is fading, and now panic at what could have been so much worse and anger that I put myself—and this horse—in danger for an unappreciative stranger takes its place.
“You could have gotten yourself killed. Get off.” I tug the reins from his hands and keep the buckskin steady.
“You made me look like an idiot,” he mumbles under his breath. “I could have handled it.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, please help me to not yell at this stupid man.
I lift my eyes to his face briefly and follow his gaze to where he’s staring out at the growing crowd of people and the group coming across the pasture in the buggy. He nearly got himself and the horse hurt, made me put myself in danger to prevent it, and all he can worry about is how it makes him look to be rescued by a woman.
Dormant fury I don’t often access soars, and he receives the full brunt of it. “Yeah, you were doing a great job of handling it as you barreled toward a lane of eighteen-wheelers without your hands on the reins. When he gets spooked, it’s your job to stay calm and in control. Now get off the fluffing horse! Or do you need help with that too?”
The set of his jaw hardens, and he eases himself off, head tucked and hands on his hips like he’s a kid getting off a rocky roller coaster and trying not to vomit everywhere so he can maintain his tough-guy image.
If he does puke, my sympathy for him will be absolutely zero. He’s a full-grown man who should know better. Or at least be grateful someone saved him. “You could say ‘thank you for saving my life,’ you know. Now move so I can get your horse back to safety and away from you.”
He finally takes a deep breath and rolls his shoulders back so he’s at full height, his green eyes ablaze.
And I’m eye to eye with Tennessee Shaw.