Thursday, December 16
Tia Beckett ran a finger along the jagged scar on her cheek as she gazed into the mirror above the contemporary console on the living room wall. She’d taken down almost every mirror in her own house as soon as she came home from the hospital—broken them all and tossed them out. But she couldn’t do the same here. This wasn’t her home, and there seemed to be mirrors everywhere, each one projecting the same tragic image.
She leaned closer. It must’ve been the windshield that nearly destroyed her face.
She dropped her hand. After a month, her cheek was still tender, but she continued to examine her reflection. The woman in the mirror was a complete stranger. If she turned her head to the left, she could find herself again. The shiny black hair that framed an oval face. The smooth and creamy olive-colored skin. The bottle-green eyes with long, thick eyelashes. The full lips, which were her own, not a product of Botox injections. All the beauty that’d helped her land the leading role in Hollywood’s latest blockbuster was still there.
But when she turned her head to the right…
Her stomach soured as she studied the raised, pink flesh that slanted in a zigzag fashion from the edge of her eye almost to her mouth. The doctor had had to piece that side of her face back together like a quilt. He’d said there was a possibility that cosmetic surgery could improve the scars later, but that wasn’t an option right now. After what she’d been through already, she couldn’t even contemplate another surgery. It’d be too late to save her career by then, anyway.
Who was this poor, unfortunate creature?
Her agent, her fellow cast members for Expect the Worst, the romantic comedy in which she costarred with box-office hit Christian Allen, and the friends she’d made since moving to LA said she was lucky to have survived the accident. And maybe that was true. But it was difficult to feel lucky when she’d lost all hope of maintaining her career just as it was beginning to skyrocket.
A knock at the front door startled her. Who could that be? She didn’t want to see anyone, not even her friends—and especially not the press. They’d been hounding her since the accident, trying to snap a picture of her damaged face and demanding an answer as to whether she would quit acting. That was part of the reason she’d readily accepted when Maxi Cohen, the producer of her one and only film, offered to let her stay at his massive estate in Silver Springs, ninety minutes northwest of LA. He and his family would be in Israel for the holidays, so he needed someone to house-sit. That was what he’d said. What she’d heard was that she could hide out for a month and be completely alone. And she wouldn’t even have to pay for the privilege. She just had to care for the houseplants, feed and play with Kiki, the parrot, occasionally drive each of the six vehicles parked in the airplane-hangar-sized garage and make sure nothing went wrong.
She also turned on the lights in the main house at night—Maxi didn’t yet have them set up on a timer, like those in his yard—so that it looked occupied since she was staying in the guesthouse, which was smaller and more comfortable. But that was probably unnecessary. There wasn’t a lot of crime in Silver Springs. Known for its boutique hotels, recreational opportunities and local, organic produce, it was sort of like Santa Barbara, only forty minutes away and closer to the coast, in that there were plenty of movie moguls and the like who had second homes here.
Still, he couldn’t have left Kiki without a caretaker. And safe was always better than sorry. He also owned an extensive art collection that could never be replaced, so she figured he was wise to have someone watch over it, just in case.
Whoever was at the door rapped again, more insistently. Maxi had given the housekeeper and other staff a paid holiday. Even the gardeners were off, since the yard didn’t grow much during the cold, rainy season. The entire estate was essentially in mothballs until Maxi returned. And no one Tia knew could say exactly where she was. So why was someone at her door? How had whoever it was gotten onto the property? The front gate required a code.
“Hello? Anyone home?” A man’s strident voice came through the panel. “Maxi said you’d be in the guesthouse.”
Damn. Those words suggested whoever it was had a right to be here, or at least permission. She was going to have to answer the door.
“Coming,” she called. “Just…give me a minute.” She hurried into the bedroom, where her suitcase lay open on the floor. She’d arrived in Silver Springs two days ago but hadn’t bothered to unpack. There hadn’t seemed to be much point. There didn’t seem to be much point in doing anything anymore. She hadn’t bothered to shower or dress this morning, either, and she was wearing the same sweat bottoms, T-shirt and socks she’d had on yesterday.
Yanking off her clothes, she pulled on a robe so that there’d be no expectation of hospitality as she scurried back through the living room. Still reluctant to speak to anyone, she peered through the peephole.
A tall, slender man—six-two, maybe taller—stood on the stoop. His dark hair had outgrown its last haircut and stuck out beneath a red beanie, he had a marked five-o’clock shadow, suggesting he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, and a cleft chin almost as pronounced as that of Henry Cavill. He was a total stranger to her, but he had to be one of Maxi’s friends or associates, and she should treat him as such.
Bracing herself—human interaction was something she now avoided whenever possible—she took a deep breath. Please, God, don’t let him recognize me or have anything to do with the media.
The blinds were already pulled, so she turned off the lights and cracked the door barely wide enough to be able to peek out with her good side. “What can I do for you?”
His scowl darkened as his gaze swept over what he could see of her. He must’ve realized she was wearing a robe, because he said, “I hate to drag you out of bed at—” he checked his watch “—two in the afternoon. But could you let me into the main house before I freeze my—” catching himself, he cleared his throat and finished with “—before I freeze out here?”
Assuming he was a worker of some sort—she couldn’t imagine why he’d be here, bothering her, otherwise—she couldn’t help retorting, “Sure. As long as you tell me why I should care whether you freeze or not.”
The widening of his eyes gave her the distinct impression that he wasn’t used to having someone snap back at him. So…maybe he wasn’t a worker.
“Because Maxi has offered to let me stay in his home, and he indicated you’d let me in,” he responded with exaggerated patience. “He didn’t text you?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him.” And surely, what this man said couldn’t be right. Maxi had told her that she’d have the run of the place. She’d thought she’d be able to stay here without fear of bumping into anyone. She’d been counting on it.
“He was just getting on a plane,” he explained. “Maybe he had to turn off his phone.”
“Okay. If you want to give me your number, I’ll text you as soon as I hear from him.”
He cocked his head. “You’ll…what?”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come back later.”
“I don’t want to come back,” he said. “I just drove six hours, all the way from the Bay Area, after working through the night. I’m exhausted, and I’d like to get some sleep. Can you help me out here?”
His impatience irritated her. But since the accident, she’d been so filled with rage she was almost relieved he was willing to give her a target. “No, I’m afraid I can’t.”
He stiffened. “Excuse me?”
“I can’t let some stranger into the house, not unless Maxi specifically asks me to.” Even if this guy was telling the truth, forcing him to leave would not only bring her great pleasure, it would give her a chance to feed Maxi’s parrot before hiding the key under the mat. Then there would be no need for further interaction. He wouldn’t see her, and she wouldn’t have to watch the shock, recognition and pity cross his face.
Pity was by far the worst, but none of it was fun.
“If I have the code to the gate, I must’ve gotten it from somewhere, right?” he argued. “Isn’t it logical to assume that Maxi is the one who gave it to me?”
“That’s a possibility, but there are other possibilities.”
“Maybe you hopped the fence or got it from one of the staff?”
His chest lifted in an obvious effort to gather what little patience he had left. “I assure you, if I was a thief, I would not present myself at your door.”
“I can appreciate why. But I’m responsible for what goes on here right now, which means I can’t take any chances.”
“You won’t be taking any chances!” he argued in exasperation. “If anything goes missing or gets damaged, I’ll replace it.”
What was there to guarantee that? “The art Maxi owns can’t be replaced,” she said and thought she had him. Maxi had told her so himself. But this stranger said the only thing that could trump her statement.
“Except by me, since I’m the one who created most of it in the first place,” he said drily.
“You’re an artist?” she asked but only to buy a second or two while she came to grips with a few other things that had just become apparent. If he was one of the artists Maxi collected, he wasn’t some obscure talent. Yet…he couldn’t be more than thirty. And he certainly didn’t look too important shivering in a stretched-out T-shirt, on which the word Perspective was inverted, and jeans that had holes down the front.
“I am,” he replied. “And you are…the house sitter, I presume?”
She heard his disparaging tone. He wondered who the hell she was to tell him what to do. He thought he mattered more than she did. But that came as no surprise: she’d already pegged him as arrogant. She was more concerned about the fact that Maxi might’ve referred to her as a menial laborer. Is that the way her former producer thought of her now? It was only a few months ago that she’d been the most promising actress in Hollywood. Certainly she’d attained more fame than this snooty artist—when it came to having her name recognized by the general public, anyway.
But what did it matter how high she’d climbed? She’d fallen back to earth so hard she felt as though she’d broken every bone in her body, even though the damage to her face was the only lingering injury she’d sustained in the accident. “I’m house-sitting, yes. But, like you, I’m a friend of Maxi’s,” she said vaguely.
Fortunately, he didn’t seem interested enough to press her for more detailed information. She was glad of that.
“Fine. Look, friend.” He produced his phone. “I have proof. This is the text exchange I had with Maxi just before his plane took off. As you can see, he says he has someone—you—staying in the guesthouse, but the main house is available, and I’m welcome to it. If you’ll notice the time, you’ll see that these texts took place just this morning.”
Her heart sank as she read what he showed her: I have someone in the guesthouse. Just get the key from her.
“How long are you planning on being here?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” he replied.
It did matter. But this was Maxi’s estate, and they were both his guests, so she had an obligation to treat him as well as he was accustomed to being treated. “Just a minute,” she said and muttered a curse after she closed the door. There goes all my privacy.
She got the key from the kitchen drawer before cracking the door open just wide enough to slip her hand through. “Here you go, but I’ll need your phone number so I can coordinate getting inside the house when I need to.”
“The main house? Why would you need to get inside that?”
“I take care of the plants. As easy as that may sound, in a house that’s over fourteen thousand square feet, it’s no small job. And I have to take care of Kiki.”
“Maxi didn’t say anything about a parrot.”
“Well, he has one, and parrot-sitting requires more than throwing a handful of birdseed in a bowl.” Maxi had taught her how to take care of Kiki the day before he left. Then he’d observed her for several hours, just to be sure she could do the job. Parrots could be finicky, and he knew Kiki wouldn’t like him leaving. “I was also going to dust and vacuum once a week to keep things up, since the housekeeper is on holiday. But if you’d rather take over those chores, I can show you how to do it all.”
“Nice try,” he said. “Who are you—Tom Sawyer’s sister? I’ll let you handle the parrot and the rest of it. And don’t worry. I won’t get in your way.”
She continued to hang back so he couldn’t see her face. “You’d rather have me invade your space?”
“I won’t mind as long as you’re quiet. That bird isn’t going to be too loud, is it? Because I typically work at night and sleep during the day.”
She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. The tortured artist was such a cliché. “She sleeps at night, so she should be quiet while you create your latest masterpiece. During the day you might hear her speak or squawk or whatever.”
“She says a few phrases. Maxi used to have a dog, so she learned to bark, too.”
He narrowed his eyes as if he wasn’t quite sure she was being straight with him. “Sounds annoying.”
“It’s the reason he didn’t replace his dog once it passed. But you don’t have anything to worry about. She lives in an aviary in the middle of the house that goes up through both stories. The plants and the glass walls capture most of the noise, so you shouldn’t hear much—not unless she’s upset.”
“How often does that happen?”
“She’s an animal. Emotional episodes aren’t scheduled. If we keep her happy, it might not happen at all.”
“Good to know. I’ll make you a copy of the key.” He turned to go but she spoke again.
“You don’t feel it would be presumptuous to copy someone else’s house key?”
“Not if I’m going to be staying for a few months. I consider it a practical matter. Why? Would you rather try to pass it back and forth between us?”
Her heart sank at learning he’d be living on the premises for more than just the weekend, but she tried to focus on the coordination sharing a key might require. “No. A copy will be fine.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said and cracked the first smile she’d seen him wear. He was getting in the house right away and would have his own key, and she’d be taking care of the bird. That he was gloating annoyed her, but she had to admit that his smile absolutely transformed his face. He was much more handsome than she’d wanted to acknowledge—in a dark-lord-of-the-underworld sort of way. She thought of all the beautiful people she’d encountered in Los Angeles and believed he could easily hold his own.
She’d been able to compete in that arena once, too. As far back as she could remember, people outside the tight-knit Mennonite community in which she’d been raised had gushed about her beauty, even though her parents had done everything they could to downplay it. They and the other members of their church believed it put her at risk of losing her soul through the sin of vanity. But she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. She’d lost all the beauty she’d once had.
“Welcome to Silver Springs,” she said, her voice as frigid as the wind whipping at his clothes. He hadn’t bothered to put on a coat before climbing out of the car. Getting the key hadn’t been as quick as he’d obviously expected.
Instead of being offended by her response, he chuckled as he strode off. She didn’t even know his name. But that was fine with her. If he did anything wrong, Maxi could deal with it. She didn’t plan on interacting with him again.
His presence only meant there was now someone on the property she’d try to avoid.
“There’s something wrong with that woman,” Seth Turner grumbled as he stalked back to his car to get his luggage. She’d acted so strangely. Instead of opening the door wide enough to introduce herself, she’d hung back so far he couldn’t even see her face. Maybe having a stranger come to the door had frightened her. But she hadn’t acted frightened, exactly. He’d gotten the feeling it was something else. And she’d kept up the odd behavior even after he’d proven himself a friend of Maxi’s. What was up with that? When Maxi told him there was someone on the property who could let him in, he’d thought it would be a good thing. He’d assumed this person would be a caretaker, someone who would watch over the place while Maxi was gone, allowing Seth to focus exclusively on his work and what he’d come to Silver Springs to accomplish. He hadn’t expected to share the property with one of Maxi’s friends, especially not one as prickly as himself.
How long are you planning on being here?
He’d heard the disappointment in her voice. Neither of them wanted company. That was apparent.
But even with her living only fifty yards away, he didn’t have a better option than to stay here while he could. He didn’t want to be in a hotel for an extended period. He didn’t want to stay with his brothers. Two of them owned homes in the area, but they each had a wife and kids. How could he squeeze in with them? He’d have no place to work. And he certainly didn’t want to go home to his mother’s house, not with everything she did to celebrate the holidays. He’d be faced with the scents of pine and gingerbread, the unrelenting cheer of Christmas carols and the sight of an elaborately decorated tree every time he came into the house. There’d be no way to avoid those things. He’d agreed to help out at New Horizons Boys & Girls Ranch, the boarding school for troubled youth Aiyana had founded, but he refused to get involved with anything else. He especially didn’t want to be available to his mother 24/7: that would come soon enough, when Maxi returned and he had to move home. Aiyana was too worried about him right now, and feeling the weight of that concern only made life more difficult. He’d cope with this Christmas like he had every Christmas since Shiloh’s death, by doing all he could to avoid the festivities that made her loss that much more poignant.
At least he’d have the main house to himself.
Most of the time, anyway.
His phone signaled an incoming call. After unlocking the house, he dropped his luggage in the entryway so he could see who was trying to reach him.
It was his mother.
He punched the Accept button before he could miss Aiyana’s call. He loved her more than any other person in the world—since Shiloh had passed away—which was why he’d agreed to come home and mentor several of her students. She felt strongly that a special few had the talent, as well as the desire, to do what he did, which was all fine and good, but he had a sneaking suspicion she’d scheduled it at this time of year on purpose, so that he wouldn’t spend Christmas alone.
That should’ve bothered him; he didn’t like it when she meddled in his life. But he was sort of glad she’d done this. Closeting himself away in his house, where he had a studio that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, was starting to get to him.
Maybe Aiyana could tell he was sliding into a dark place. His mother was nothing if not attuned to the needs of others. She always seemed to know when he was in trouble, even when he denied having a problem.
“How close are you?”
“What do you mean? It was only a six-hour drive.”
“That may be true, but the way you run yourself ragged, I had no idea if you’d even slept before starting out.”
He didn’t comment on the sleeping aspect of her statement. He’d always struggled with insomnia. It’d been several days since he’d had more than a few hours of sleep, so the drive had been much more difficult than he was making it sound. “I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’m going to nap for a few hours before you come over.”
“Good plan. By the way, I have the art supplies you shipped to my house. Cal and I will bring that stuff over to you in his truck.”
“I really appreciate it. There was no way it would all fit in my car.”
“You barely fit in that car,” she said, joking. “Anyway, it’s not a problem. Cal’s an old cowboy. He’s used to hauling things.”
“Cal’s a good guy. I’m looking forward to seeing you both tonight.”
“Eli and Gavin and their families are coming, too.”
“I’ve missed you—and I’m excited to see the house.”
It was a gloomy, overcast day. He flipped on the light and found himself standing in the middle of a giant marble entryway with twenty-foot ceilings. A huge chandelier hung over a pedestal table featuring a soapstone sculpture he’d created himself, and two flights of stairs made with black iron railings, one on each side, curved up to a second story. The aviary that housed the bird was on the other side of his Young Man Dreaming.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I can’t believe you’ve never been here.”
Maxi was one of Aiyana’s biggest benefactors. He donated huge amounts of money to help keep the school running, which was how he’d first become aware of Seth’s work. Seth also contributed to the yearly fundraiser. His mother auctioned off a piece of his work at the end of the night as the grand finale, and Maxi had bought several of those pieces, as well as others—some paintings, too—directly from him.
“Why would you be surprised? Maxi and I talk on the phone occasionally, and we’re always friendly if we see each other in town, but I don’t know him quite as well as you do.”
Seth didn’t know him all that well, either. Maxi emailed him or called once in a while. He was always interested in what Seth was doing next. But their relationship mostly revolved around Seth’s work. They’d never hung out together. Since Shiloh’s death, Seth hadn’t really hung out with anyone.
He didn’t correct her, however. He just hoped she wasn’t offended that he’d chosen to stay here instead of with her. He hated the thought that it might make her feel bad, but he’d known he wouldn’t be able to hold out for the entire three months she needed him if he didn’t have a place where he could retreat. Being around his family, seeing his brothers so happy and busy with their wives and children, only made him feel empty by contrast. And last year he’d learned just how much Christmas could exaggerate that effect. “You’ll love it.”
He thought of the woman staying in the guesthouse but decided not to mention her. He’d run to the store, before he slept, and have a key made. Then he’d walk it over and forget about her—as much as he could.
“Okay. Eli and Gavin are eager to see you, so call me when you get up.”
“Sounds good.” He had seven brothers he’d grown up with since he turned fourteen, but none were genetically linked to him. The one thing they did have in common was that they all came from tragic backgrounds, and Aiyana had adopted each one of them after they’d first been a student at her school. Only Eli and Gavin, the two oldest, still lived in town. They worked at New Horizons with Aiyana. The rest were spread out, pursuing their own interests or going to college, but most would be returning for Christmas within the next two weeks. “I’ll see you soon.”
He could tell by the change in her tone that she had something serious to say. “Yes?”
“I ran into Shiloh’s mother the other day.”
His throat immediately tightened. “And?”
“She asked if you were coming home for Christmas.”
He suddenly felt exhausted, as if he’d spent the entire day fighting an intense battle instead of driving a car. Maybe that was because every day was a battle for him.
Closing his eyes, he drew a deep breath. “I’ll have to pay them a visit.”
“That would be nice.” There was a slight pause. “Would you like me to go with you?”
Definitely not. That was something he had to do alone. But it wasn’t going to be easy to face his late wife’s parents. Because they’d wanted her to finish her degree and marry someone else, someone with less baggage and more potential—not a penniless, struggling artist with no plans of going to college—they’d been furious when she’d dropped out and moved to San Francisco to be with him. At the time, he’d been determined to prove that he was the best thing for her. But they’d been right. Had Shiloh remained in school, she’d probably still be alive.
“That’s okay.” He didn’t need his mother complicating what would already be a difficult visit. “I’ve got it.”
By the time Shiloh died, he’d achieved some success in the art world, which had enabled him to build a decent relationship with her parents—decent enough that he felt obligated to see them.
But he almost wished they still hated him. It would make things easier now. “I got it,” he said.
* * *
Tia parted the drapes and craned her neck to be able to see the driveway. The Porsche Taycan driven by her new property mate was still parked where it had been since he’d knocked to say he was leaving the key on her doormat.
Damn. She’d been hoping Maxi’s new guest would go out again—for groceries or something—which would give her the opportunity to traipse over to the main house. She had to take care of Kiki. Maxi had said the bird needed daily company. He was afraid his beloved pet would fall into depression without consistent companionship, and Tia was supposed to make sure that didn’t happen.
But she didn’t want to run into the man who was staying there now.
She bit her lip as she tried to decide what to do. Maybe she could slip inside, take care of Kiki and get out without being heard. It wasn’t just her face. She didn’t want to be recognized, didn’t want to field the questions that seeing her would inspire. And she didn’t want him telling anyone she was in town, because then she’d feel like she had in LA: that there were people lurking around, trying to get a photograph they could sell. It made her feel besieged, unable to escape or move about freely.
How could Maxi have invited someone else to stay? She’d felt safe from the curiosity of the world here, but that security had lasted for only two days.
Was she making too big a deal of it? The man she’d spoken to didn’t seem the type to care too much about fame. If he was that popular, he was famous himself, at least in some circles. Maybe who she was and her connection to Hollywood wouldn’t matter to him, and he wouldn’t tell anyone about it.
After the success of Expect the Worst, she doubted it would go that way, but one could always hope…
She checked the clock. Nearly seven. She needed to get over there. She’d already put off Kiki’s care as long as she felt comfortable.
She went into the bathroom and covered her scars with bandages as though she’d just come from the hospital. The big white gauze squares were unsightly, but not as unsightly as what lay beneath. And the bandages hid how much her face had changed, so if Maxi’s friend did recognize her and he decided to say something to someone, he couldn’t reveal too much.
If she were lucky, she wouldn’t even encounter him. That was the goal.
But when she stepped out, she found three more cars in the drive: a Cadillac Escalade, a Ford Explorer and a pretty Tesla. What was going on? Was this guy already throwing a party?
Maxi should be more careful about the people he allowed onto the property while he was out of town. But because she’d already gone to the trouble of covering the damaged part of her face and she needed to take care of the bird, she didn’t turn back as she was tempted to do. She told herself that it was a good thing her new neighbor had company. If he was distracted, she had a far greater chance of getting in and out without being noticed.
Pulling her sweater tighter around her body—she’d been gaining weight with all the emotional eating she’d been doing—she hung back behind the vegetation until she could confirm there wasn’t anyone in the yard. Then she hurried along the path leading to the main house and tried her key at the back door.
It didn’t work. Of course.
With a sigh, she ducked her head and marched purposefully toward the front.
“Activity at the front door.”
She froze the second the computerized voice of the security system announced her presence. But no one came to find out what was going on. She could hear voices in the kitchen/living-room area, and the conversation didn’t even pause. Either no one had heard the security system, or they couldn’t be bothered with it.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she moved swiftly to the aviary and entered through the small side door by the elevator—the only part of Kiki’s home that wasn’t glass.
Although she was an animal lover, she’d never even seen a live parrot, not up close. Being responsible for such a large and expensive bird made her a little nervous. She’d read on the internet that parrots had a strong bite, especially this breed, but Maxi had assured her that his macaw was tame. He’d insisted that as long as Kiki received the care she needed, she wouldn’t get aggressive.
Tia could only trust that was true. It would be just her luck to be attacked by the darn thing.
She searched the trees. When she didn’t spot Kiki right away, she nearly panicked, thinking the man who was staying here had accidentally—or on purpose—let the bird out. But then she spotted the bright red plumage and the yellow and blue feathers of Kiki’s lower wings. The parrot was perched on one of the highest branches of the center and largest tree, which was surrounded by thick bamboo shoots, vines and ferns. Along the ground, there were boulders and even a small pond. Maxi had spared no expense.
“Uh-oh, here she comes,” the bird said, startling Tia. It was almost as if Kiki was outing her for being in the house.
“Shh.” She put a finger to her lips.
“Shh,” the bird mimicked. “Be quiet.”
Apparently, this wasn’t the first time she’d ever been shushed. Maxi had probably told her to be quiet a thousand times when she was barking like a dog.
Tia glanced around to make sure no one had heard the noise. Kiki sounded loud inside the atrium, but Tia knew the sounds were somewhat muted beyond the glass. Maxi had seen to that when he planned the enclosure.
Seeing nothing alarming, she crouched behind the foliage and filled Kiki’s bowl. “Here you go. It’s time to eat.”
“Time to eat,” the parrot responded, punctuating those words with a squawk before repeating them a second and a third time.
When Tia stepped away from the feeding dish, Kiki flew down to enjoy the fruit, nuts and seeds that were her dinner. Maxi had said she ate ten to fifteen percent of her body weight each day and, for the most part, could have anything healthy that humans could eat, but Tia wasn’t going to take any chances. She planned to stick strictly to what Maxi had provided.
As Kiki pecked at her food, she watched Tia out of the penetrating small eye on the left side of her head. Kiki knew Tia was a stranger, so Tia wasn’t planning to get too close. Not yet, anyway.
While waiting for Maxi’s pet to finish eating, Tia remained huddled in the corner in case someone in the house decided to peer into the aviary. She couldn’t see any faces pressed to the glass, but the aviary had been built such that it could be seen from many rooms. Even if it hadn’t provided a home for such a spectacular pet, it would be an awesome sight with the way Maxi had brought the outdoors into his house.
Maxi had given Tia a Koosh ball to toss to Kiki. He said she played fetch like a dog and that retrieving it would help keep her stimulated. Tia hadn’t brought it out yet, though. Maxi had said Kiki loved it so much, she wouldn’t eat her dinner if she saw it.
“That’s a good girl,” Tia said.
This time Kiki didn’t create an echo, and Tia shifted to sit cross-legged in an attempt to get more comfortable. When Tia learned she’d be caring for a parrot, she’d done some studying and learned that these birds could live to be fifty years old. That was surprising, but it was equally surprising to read that it was difficult to determine the sex of a parrot. Physical examination didn’t make it obvious; it required a DNA test.
Had Maxi ever had Kiki tested? Or had he decided—from her beauty or something else—that he’d simply assume she was a female?
“Are you really a girl?” she whispered to the bird.
“Pretty girl,” the bird responded, adding a sharp whistle. “Pretty girl.”
Shoot! Again, Tia looked around, expecting the man she’d met earlier to be peering in at them.
But she didn’t see anyone. Maybe whoever was at the house had already looked their fill and they were doing something else now. She was pretty sure they were eating.
She stayed in the atrium with Kiki for over an hour. Maxi said ninety minutes would be ideal, but she was too nervous to hang out any longer. She played fetch with Kiki, gave her some pumpkin seeds, which Maxi said she’d love, and decided to get out while she could. But the bird started to whistle as soon as she got up.
“Pretty girl. Pretty girl,” Kiki said, over and over.
Tia guessed Kiki could sense that her playmate was about to leave and didn’t want that to happen. She was making so much noise that Tia was hesitant to open the door.
“Shh,” she said again, but that only started the bird saying, “Be quiet. Be quiet.” Squawk. “Be quiet.”
Tia tossed the Koosh ball to the other side of the atrium and let herself out as the bird swooped down to get it.
“Shh, be quiet,” she heard Kiki say as she closed the door.
Tia had just reached the front door when she heard voices—and they were getting louder.
She hadn’t wanted to be seen before. But she definitely didn’t want to be seen now, for all the same reasons and one other—she’d let herself in without knocking. They hadn’t set up a routine, and he’d given her the key, so she felt as though she had a way to justify her actions. But she was still loath to run into him, so she ducked into the first room she could reach without making any noise.
It was a bedroom suite, but it wasn’t one most people would choose if they had their pick of all seven bedrooms in the house, which was why she was so surprised to find a suitcase on the floor.
Oh, no! She’d chosen the room where Maxi’s friend was staying.
She could hear the man she’d spoken to earlier tell his visitors—a collection of adults and some children, judging by the jumble of older and younger voices—that it’d been great to see them.
She’d been right to get out of the entry hall even if she had ducked into his bedroom. They were leaving—she would’ve run into them, no question.
Her heart pounded as they made plans to see each other tomorrow and finished their goodbyes. They seemed to be relatives of some sort, but she wasn’t focused on deciphering the specific connections between them. She was trying to figure out a way to escape.
There was a door that led into a private garden. She remembered that. But she also remembered it was enclosed with a high wall and no gate.
She was deliberating on whether or not she could make it to the back entrance when silence fell, but then footsteps began to cross the marble entryway, once again coming in her direction.
No way would she be caught in his bedroom! With nowhere to go to escape and no time in which to find a good hiding place, she dropped to the floor and slid under the bed.
Seth’s eyes slowly scanned the room. She was in here somewhere. After he’d heard the computerized voice of the alarm system announce that someone had come into the house, he’d seen movement in the atrium. He’d assumed it was the woman he’d met at the guesthouse—who else could it be?—and thought she’d eventually come out and say something to him. But when he’d nearly encountered her in the entryway while walking his family to the door, she’d darted away, her long black hair flying behind her. And he knew where she’d gone because his bedroom suite was the only room close by.
What could she possibly want in his room? And what was Maxi thinking, having someone so strange take over the care of his property?
He was about to call out to let her know the jig was up. He had no idea if she was in the bathroom, had snuck out to the private garden—although the alarm would probably have notified him if she’d used a door to the outside—was hiding in the closet or what. But just as he opened his mouth, he glanced in the full-length mirror next to the TV and saw the bottom of her sneakers.
She was under the bed.
Rather than let her know he was on to her, he decided to teach her a lesson by trapping her under there for a few more minutes. And just to make her as uncomfortable as possible, he got his razor from his suitcase and stripped down to his boxers before sitting on the end of the bed to watch TV while he shaved. This was what he’d be doing if she weren’t around. If she was going to hide in his room, she had to understand that she might see more of him than she ever cared to.
He liked imagining how much it must’ve made her squirm when she heard the plop of his clothes hit the floor and could barely hold back his laughter. He was diabolical. The skittish creature he’d met had to be dying to escape. He thought the noise of his shaver might make her feel safe enough to crawl out and try to sneak back into the entryway, at which point he’d let her know she could come over to take care of the bird and the plants at designated times but could not invade his privacy by sneaking around the place.
Pretending to be searching for a good show, he flipped through television channels while he shaved and continued to keep an eye on the reflection in the mirror.
Her feet moved as she inched toward the edge of the bed closest to the door. She was getting ready to make a dash for it. He smiled to think how easy it was going to be to catch her.
But when she didn’t dare to try and he was finished shaving, he grew tired of the game.
Having earlier hauled the sculpture he’d created all the way up to the gallery/office on the top floor, along with some canvases and other painting supplies, he wanted to grab a shower before he started work. So he put his razor away, turned off the TV and left the room as though he was going into the kitchen.
Surely, she’d bolt now, he thought and hid on one side of the doorway.
He didn’t have to wait long. She came out of the room almost immediately. But when he stepped over to confront her, she was running so fast she barreled right into him.
* * *
Tia felt like she’d just hit a brick wall. Pain exploded in her right cheek, which wasn’t fully healed to begin with, and she stumbled back. She would’ve crumpled to the floor if Maxi’s new guest hadn’t caught her by the shoulders.
“What were you doing in my room?” he growled.
He was so much taller, she found herself staring at his bare chest and, somehow, through the fog of pain, remembered him taking off his clothes. She was afraid to look down for fear he’d taken off everything. But it was hard to be too concerned about nudity, his or anyone else’s, when her face felt like it was on fire. She struggled to blink back the tears that sprang up while trying to get some of the bandages, which had come loose in the collision, to stick like they had before. “I—I came over to take care of Kiki. You know…you know that’s my responsibility.”
“Is it your responsibility to sneak into my bedroom, too? Why’d you do that? Are you some kind of thief? What’s wrong with you?”
She tilted her head back to look up at him—and that was when the bandages and, probably, the tears registered. She knew because she could see the shock that came over his face.
“Oh, my god!” he exclaimed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Are you okay? What happened to you?”
“N-nothing!” Still rattled from the unexpected blow, she jerked away and stumbled to the door, leaving it standing open as she fled.
* * *
“Holy shit.” Seth stared at the square of pale yellow the porch light formed on the marble floor. He felt like a total jerk—and sort of ridiculous standing there in his underwear. The game he’d been having so much fun playing suddenly just seemed cruel. No wonder she’d hung back in the darkness when he appeared, unannounced at her door. No wonder she’d tried to slip in and take care of the bird without notice. She didn’t want to be seen. And he could understand why. Something terrible had happened to her. Before she’d managed to cover her cheek, he’d caught a glimpse of the red, angry scars underneath those bandages, and he knew her injuries hurt, because he could see the tears filling her eyes.
“I’m such an idiot,” he said with a groan. But…why hadn’t Maxi warned him? All the man had to do was send a quick text.
Tempted to go after her, he took two steps toward the door. He wanted to make sure she understood that he really was sorry. But he doubted she’d talk to him. He couldn’t imagine she would ever want to see him again.
After shutting the door, he returned to his room, where he found his pants and dug his cell phone from his pocket. He hadn’t heard from Maxi since he’d been told he could stay on the property. He needed to talk to him.
Drawing a deep breath, he hit the Phone icon. It’d been long enough since they’d communicated that Maxi should’ve been able to fly halfway around the world by now.
But what time zone would he be in? Would he be awake and available?
Seth paced at the foot of the bed while he waited for the phone to ring.
Relieved that Maxi had answered, he stopped moving. “There you are.”
“What do you mean?” Maxi asked. “I only just got off the plane. Thanks to some congestion on the runway, we were stranded on the tarmac for hours, and we missed our connection. So now we’re stuck at Charles de Gaulle Airport and can’t get out of Paris for another eight hours. God, I hate flying. They make it as miserable as they possibly can, don’t they?”
“Who’s staying in the guesthouse?” Seth demanded without comment.
After a moment of silence, Maxi said, “I already told you. Tia Beckett’s staying there. Why?”
“You never gave me a name. Who is she?”
“You don’t know?”
Confused by this answer, Seth shoved a hand through his hair, which was getting so long it fell nearly to his shoulders. “How would I?”
“Do you live under a rock? She starred in my last film, Expect the Worst.”
“So she’s an actress.” Seth didn’t get out much, and he certainly wasn’t familiar with what was going on in Hollywood or the movie industry. He didn’t care about any of that. But the title of the film certainly seemed appropriate to this situation.
“Yeah. Why?” Maxi asked. “Is something wrong?”
“We haven’t exactly gotten off on the right foot,” he admitted. “What happened to her face?”
“Oh, that. I thought I mentioned it. She was in a car accident shortly after the film’s release. Ran a red light about a month ago.”
“Was she drunk?”
“No. Alcohol wasn’t involved. But it just about destroyed her face. You can imagine what that would do to an actress. She’ll never look the same, no matter how much cosmetic surgery she gets, and that means she’ll be unlikely to get the parts she would’ve gotten otherwise, which is unfortunate. She’s talented. Really talented. I fully expect her to get an Oscar nod for my film. And I believe she deserves it.”
Seth cringed as he remembered asking her if she was the house sitter. “And this talented actress is here, taking care of your parrot?” No one would expect that, would they?
“She needs somewhere to stay until she can get back on her feet.”
“You mean to hide.”
“You could put it that way, I guess. She’s a big deal right now. The paparazzi have been in hot pursuit, and they’d love nothing more than to snap a picture of her injured face and sell it to the tabloids.”
Seth pictured Tia’s huge green eyes. Together with her dark coloring, they were spectacular. The second she’d met his gaze he’d realized that he was looking at something rare and beautiful.
“I’m providing her with some privacy so she can at least get through Christmas,” Maxi was saying. “The holidays are hard after a loss.”
Seth certainly understood that.
“And it’s nice of her to feed Kiki while I’m gone. My wife feels Kiki will be good for her, too, and I agree. They’ll provide each other with some companionship. It’s not like a bird cares that Tia’s no longer the beauty she was a month ago.”
Seth pinched the bridge of his nose as he imagined what she’d been through. “It would’ve been good to know what I was getting into.”
“I don’t see how it makes any difference to you,” Maxi said. “She’s staying in the guesthouse. You’re staying in the main house. I’d have you switch, so that she doesn’t have to come there to take care of Kiki, but you were excited to have my office for your work. There’s no space for what you do in the cottage. And it’s not as if I can move Kiki. I—”
“Of course not. I would never expect your pet to be put out of her home,” he broke in. “We’ll make it work. Don’t worry.”
“Except that I’m already a little worried. What happened between you two?”
Seth should’ve been more generous in his thoughts and assumptions, should’ve waited until he knew more before drawing so many conclusions. But he’d gotten so little sleep lately and was dreading the holidays so much, he’d taken his frustrations out on her. “I just…bumped into her and accidentally hurt her, and I feel bad about it.”
“You hurt her?”
Remembering the tears swimming in those incredible eyes made him want to kick himself. “Yeah, I thought… Never mind. It was a misunderstanding. But you forgot to let her know I was coming so…could you text her and tell her that…that I’m a friend and not as bad as she thinks? Let her know I feel terrible about our little accident.” It wasn’t actually an accident. He’d caused it. But he hated to own that. “Tell her I’d never purposely hurt her?”
“Okay. No problem. I got caught up and forgot about it, that’s all. I’ll do it right now.”
“Thanks. I appreciate you letting me stay here, by the way. The house is spectacular,” Seth replied, but it was difficult to focus on anything else when he had the image of Tia Beckett’s terrible scars fixed in his mind.
Not many things would be worse for an actress, especially one who was just becoming famous.
* * *
Tia filled an ice pack and held it to her face while lying on the couch. That little episode had been a disaster. Not only had she not been able to get in and out of the main house without being noticed, she’d also made the whole thing worse by attempting to hide. Maxi’s guest had stripped down, and she’d been under his bed like some kind of sick voyeur.
She was embarrassed for not simply stepping up and owning who she was and what’d happened to her instead of sneaking around, but the consequences loomed so large in her mind and she felt so fragile, she probably would’ve taken the same risk even if she had it to do over again.
Her phone signaled an incoming call.
She wasn’t going to answer it. She didn’t even want to look to see who it was. She was sure it would be Maxi wondering why she’d been in his friend’s bedroom. No doubt the artist next door had called right away to report her. She’d seen how angry he was when he caught her; he’d had a right to be angry.
What was she going to tell Maxi, who’d been so good to her? Would he tell her to go back to LA?
Maybe she should. She had no business here.
But she liked Kiki. Having something to care for gave her a sense of purpose that distracted her—for a short time, anyway—from the terrible thoughts that tortured her these days. Thanks to Maxi, she’d been set up in a situation she’d thought she could tolerate.
And then he’d gone and invited someone else to stay on the property…
“What’s happening to me?” she asked herself as the phone stopped ringing. She’d fallen into a nightmare and couldn’t wake up. And yet she’d been so careful to avoid getting caught up in the drugs, alcohol and sex scandals that ruined so many careers, especially in Hollywood. The last thing she’d wanted to do was to prove her family, friends and other church members—all those who’d been judging her for leaving—right. When she’d landed the lead role in Expect the Worst, her father had quoted Mark 8:36: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
She heard a text come in and ignored that, too. But after another thirty minutes, she had to glance at her phone. If it was Maxi, she felt too guilty ignoring him while she was staying on his property.
Sure enough, he’d been trying to reach her, and when she hadn’t answered his call, he’d resorted to a message.
Are you okay? Seth said there was an incident, and he feels terrible about it. He wants you to know he’s sorry and that he would never hurt you intentionally.
Putting the ice pack on the towel she’d gotten to absorb the condensation, she sat up to respond. She didn’t know how much her new property mate had told Maxi, but Maxi didn’t seem to be upset.
Or was that still coming?
Who is he?
Seth Turner. A phenomenal artist. Made the sculpture in the entryway when he was only eighteen. He usually focuses on the stages of a young man’s life, and the way he does it is so insightful. I’ve never seen anyone else be able to use negative space the way he does.
She assumed negative space referred to the parts of the sculpture that weren’t really there but were sort of assumed.
I have a whole series of his work in the library upstairs, Maxi added.
She didn’t really care about Seth’s work. She didn’t care much about anything these days except finding a hole she could crawl into.
What’s he in town for? A gallery showing?
She hoped it was something like that. Then maybe he’d change his mind about staying longer and leave after the show was over.
No. His mother lives in the area. Her name’s Aiyana Turner. She founded New Horizons Boys & Girls Ranch 20something years ago.
Boys and girls ranch? What’s that?
It’s a boarding school just outside of town for troubled kids. Aiyana does a lot of good for a lot of people.
So Seth’s home for the holidays?
Yeah. He said he was going to teach an art class at the school for his mother, so he’s probably home for that, too.
She sighed. Teaching sounded long-term.
I don’t want to get in his way, she wrote. Maybe I should head back to LA.
Definitely not! He won’t bother you. That’s what he wanted me to tell you. And there’s no way I’d trust him with Kiki. He’s a great guy—don’t get me wrong—but I can’t see him taking care of a parrot.
A tear rolled slowly down her good cheek—until she dashed it away. She couldn’t stay here. Not with Seth Turner around. But she didn’t feel as though she could abandon Kiki.
She couldn’t face returning to Los Angeles, either.
Briefly, she considered going home to Iowa. Her mother and father lived on a small farm, like almost everyone else of their faith. She could go back there, but she knew what she’d face. “I told you it was a mistake to go to LA,” her parents would say, and maybe she’d never summon the courage to stand against them and leave again. That community was so closed off from the rest of the world, it was like an alternate universe.
Besides, her sister and her sister’s husband had lost their house and barn in a fire, and her parents had taken in their entire family, which included five kids under the age of ten. Tia wasn’t even sure there’d be a place for her to sleep.
No, she couldn’t go home. She’d shrivel up and die if she had to weather their disapproval—the disapproval of the entire Mennonite community—on top of what she was going through already.
You’ll stay, won’t you? Maxi wrote.
She stared at those words. Certainly dealing with one temperamental artist would be easier than going back to LA, where the accident happened and there was a much greater threat of the paparazzi catching up with her. Easier than returning to her parents’ small farmhouse forty miles outside of Cedar Rapids, too.
Thank you. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but everything’s going to be okay.
She sent a thumbs-up to make him think she believed that. But right now it didn’t feel as though anything would ever be okay again.
After putting her phone on the coffee table, she curled onto her side and put the ice pack on her face. She had a headache from colliding with Seth Turner, and the pain in her face seemed to radiate into her brain, but that was probably more from the nasal pressure and congestion caused by crying.
She was just drifting off to sleep when she heard pounding on the door. “Tia, it’s Seth.”
Her heart skipped a beat as she came back to full awareness. He knew her name and probably who she was—thanks to Maxi. But surely he didn’t expect her to answer. Even if he did, she wasn’t going to get up, let alone let him in. He could stand out there and knock for hours in the cold for all she cared. When she was feeling better, she’d get his number from Maxi and text him to work out a schedule. Then she’d go over to take care of Kiki when he was out of the house or busy working.
There was no reason their paths had to cross, not if they were careful.
“I know you probably don’t want to come to the door, and that’s okay. But I thought maybe you could use a hot meal.” There was a pause before he added, “It’s good old-fashioned comfort food from a little diner in town called the Eatery. I think you’ll like it. I got the fried chicken with twenty herbs, garlic mashed potatoes and gravy and the best gluten-free corn bread you’ve ever tasted.”
She wanted to say, “That’s okay. I’m good.” But she didn’t trust her voice not to crack, and she was afraid responding would only start a dialogue between them.
Besides, he didn’t need to bring her food. She’d had more than enough calories today. All she’d been doing was eating. She hadn’t had the energy to make anything tastier or healthier than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich since she’d been released from the hospital, so it had been mostly snack food, but it wasn’t his responsibility to feed her.
She held her breath while she waited to see what he’d do next. Maybe he’d get mad, take the food and stomp off. She hoped he would. Then he’d know to stay away from her, and their cohabitation would be easier.
“I’m leaving it here by the door.” Surprisingly, he didn’t seem mad. He sounded patient, considering he’d just caught her lurking in his bedroom while he was undressed.
After that, she heard nothing. She listened carefully, but when several minutes of silence passed, she decided he must be gone.
Pulling up the blanket she’d dragged out to the couch earlier, she stared at the painting on the wall across from her. Black and white, with a simple, thin metal frame, it was conceptual, not a lifelike representation, but it appeared to be a woman caught in the throes of a scream that no one else could hear. As if to emphasize the anguish she was feeling deep in her soul, there was a dash of red filling her wide-open mouth.
Yes, Tia thought. I understand you because you’re me.