Lacey Clark was one of those GRITS women—a Girl Raised In The South–and knew all about Scarlett O’Hara and Tara and how to hang on during rough times. Out in L.A. she thought she’d escaped a bottom-of-the-barrel existence, but she was right back where she started, home again–the same way she’d left it, too, with only a few dollars in her pocket.
But she did have Henry, her five-year-old son.
In his tiny cubby of a room, she dutifully got him into bed and tucked him in tight with a threadbare quilt, her heart squeezing with a love so strong she knew she could take whatever craziness life threw at her because she had something bigger and better–the love of this little man. His hand curled in hers, and his lips, puffy and dry from keeping the car window down for three thousand miles, curved like a slice of watermelon, sweet and pink.
“Tell me a story, Mama.” Henry’s husky boy voice sounded like snakes and snails and puppy dog tails—along with jellyfish and horseshoe crab carcasses, his new favorite things.
The rain came down something fierce, but the weatherman said it’d all clear out by morning, which was a good thing. Lacey had a life to build from scratch. “How about the story of the brave little boy who crossed the country in an old ambulance and survived on white powdered doughnuts and hot dogs?”
“Hey!” Henry grinned. “That’s me!”
“Yeah, well”—she smoothed his hair back—“you’d think it was you. But this boy was named Frank. And he was a secret spy.”
“Uh huh.” She wished she’d had spy skills in L.A She’d never have allowed herself to get caught up in the privileged life she’d lived the past five years. She should have known it was all a mirage, a silly game she’d been playing, too good to be true. What kind of mother let her life implode like that?
“Where’s our house, Mama?” Henry’s clear brown eyes were worried. “You said we can’t stay here very long. I wish we could.”
“Home is wherever you and me are together, right?” She smiled at her boy. It was a miracle how her young, naïve self had also apparently contained a deep well of wisdom that had guided her to the best decision of her life: to adopt the infant son of her first Hollywood boyfriend, a wannabe actor who’d cheated on her with a seventeen-year-old runaway and become a father as a result.
But Henry still looked troubled.
“We’ll have six weeks of fun here,” she said, “but after that, we need to move on.”
Here was Indigo Beach, South Carolina, in the ultimate of cool rentals, a lighthouse. Lacey’s name wasn’t on the lease. Nope, Callum, her most recent actor ex-boyfriend had signed off on it. But she and Henry were staying anyway.
Hell, yes, they were staying. Callum—the loser—was madly in love with her former boss Monique, the up-and-coming French actress who’d hired Lacey as her personal assistant. Both of them had roles in the movie being filmed on Indigo, but they’d followed their selfish Hollywood hearts and run off together to Italy instead, to a bigger and better movie, letting their lawyers and agents handle the fallout at work and Lacey to kick herself for being an extremely slow learner when it came to getting romantically involved with actors.
It wasn’t her fault that Callum’s agent—a twice-divorced woman–had pitied her, handed over the key to the lighthouse, and told her to “have the vacay of a lifetime.”
But being here wasn’t about escape for her. She didn’t want to think of all she’d have to accomplish in six weeks: get a temporary job, make some money, enough to go somewhere less expensive where she and Henry could start over being—she had to face it—rootless again.
“I want to stay in this town,” Henry said. “I like it.”
“You’ve only seen the gas station.” She chuckled.
Above the rain, she heard a car door slam shut.
“What was that?” Henry’s brow creased, the same way it had when she’d first held him at the hospital, and he’d looked up at her with those dark brown infant eyes, a lost boy–a boy who had neither father nor mother who wanted him. I want you, she’d thought, shocking herself with the realization that she’d found her first starring role, and it was a doozie. “I thought no one was coming here for a while,” he added, his voice scraping like a plastic kid’s shovel over sand, his nighttime voice.
Lacey stood, her heart pounding like the dance floor at a honky-tonk on a Saturday night. “It’s probably the pizza man delivering to the wrong address,” she said smoothly, but no one came out this way and in this kind of weather unless they had a reason. “Don’t you worry a thing. Just close your eyes and I’ll take care of this.” She leaned down and blew out the candle which stood sentinel in front of the solitary window. “’Night. I promise I’ll finish Frank’s story tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Henry’s eyelids drooped. “’Night, Mama.”
She shut the door, walked briskly through her own connecting bedroom, then raced down the spiral stairs, glad for the loud downpour and her bare feet. Dear God, let him sleep and dream, lulled by the rain. The sea.
At the bottom of the stairs, a cozy brass lantern lamp on the kitchen counter glowed yellow behind its old paper shade. She strode past the plank table and heard a grunt, a clattering of metal against metal. Visions of axe murderers made her turn back and grab the flashlight lying on the counter. A second later she was at the thick wooden arched door. No window, no peep hole. On the other side was a small portico, but it wouldn’t provide much cover for whoever stood out there.
She felt very much like the Cowardly Lion until she thought of Henry. And then she was Dirty Harry and Indiana Jones, all rolled into one. “Who’s there?” she called coolly.
“Can you give me a hand with this door?” a man shouted above the torrent.
The keyhole rattled, but the door stayed shut.
She knew that voice. She did. And she wasn’t scared of it. Annoyed, yes. But…
How did she know that voice?
Adrenaline made her throat tight. “You’re at the wrong place,” she called. “This is a private residence.”
“Yeah, I know. Hurry it up, please. The rain’s coming down sideways, and this Louis Vuitton bag ain’t cheap.”
He said ain’t with all the insouciance of a true Southern male. Whether gentleman or redneck, they knew a guy’s worth had nothing to do with his grammar, how much money he had in the bank, or what his ancestors’ names were. It was about how well he could hold a rifle, drink his bourbon, and tell a good story.
Her guard went up another notch. “I’m sorry you’re miserable, but I’m not letting you in. Only a fool would open the door to a stranger these days.”
Especially when you’re a woman alone with a precious child upstairs.
She held tighter onto the flashlight. If he stormed the door, she’d clonk him on the head with it if she had to.
“You think a psycho killer would bother having this conversation? If you’re the Molly Maid people, you’re going to regret leaving me out here. I’ll be tracking in sand and –“
“I’m not the cleaning service.” Her heart hammered against her ribs. “I’m telling you again, sir. I’m not letting you in. I’m about to call the police. So you’d better skedaddle.”
“Skedaddle, my ass!” He gave a good thunk on the door. “But hey, what’s a little more water? And a little more humiliation? I’ve endured plenty the last couple days. Oh, yes, indeedy.”
She was the one with the sob story, so she wasn’t going to feel sorry for him. But somehow she did. All Southern men could hold TED talks about how to charm the ladies.
Don’t you go soft on him.
“You should get back in your car,” she said. “I don’t care how wet you and your luggage are. When are you men gonna take responsibility for your own choices? I’m so sick of y’all expecting women to be your mothers. Honestly.”
She was breathing a little hard, and her accent was coming back thicker than a Dagwood sandwich.
“Don’t take your man woes out on me, girlfriend. And you can keep my mother out of this discussion, if you don’t mind.” There was a flash of lightning and an almost instantaneous clap of thunder. “Now open the damned door.”
She swallowed hard and ignored her wobbly knees. Lightning didn’t sit well with her. Neither did being responsible for a man getting fried on her doorstep. But she wouldn’t panic. She couldn’t afford to.
“Your key”—she said in her best no-nonsense voice—“doesn’t work because you’re at the wrong place. I have the lease here.” It was a lie, but she was the double-crossed former employee and ex-girlfriend with no place to go. That had to count for something.
“That’s it,” the stranger said. “I’m calling Callum.”
Lacey’s eyes widened. “You know Callum?”
“Of course, I know him. Why else would I be here? You know him?”
“Yes, but—“ Callum lived on the West Coast. A local wouldn’t know him. Unless–shoot. Unless he was somehow involved with the movie. Lacey’s heart sank. She was hoping to steer clear of the movie and all the hoopla associated with it.
“Yes?” She bit her thumbnail, wondering what he would say next to coax her to open the door.
“I’m telling you now.” The man’s tone was softer now, a little menacing. “I’m not going to drive to that crappy Beach Bum Inn and deal with this tomorrow. I have to get to work early in the morning, and I need my sleep. Callum said no one was here and to make myself at home. I intend to do that. With or without your permission. And with or without the proper key.”
Lacey drew a breath. “I’m going to let you in,” she said slowly. “But only for a minute.”
“About damned time.”
With shaking hands—but ready to do battle—she opened the door. A huge crack of thunder split the air.
“You’re in my lighthouse,” he said in toneless greeting and strode past her—whoosh—like a freight train without brakes heading downhill. He wore old jeans, Red Wing boots, a brown quail jacket with the corduroy brim popped up, not for show, it appeared, but to keep off the rain. Beneath the coat was a ratty mustard brown sweater vest with braided leather buttons and underneath that, a faded red Henley open at the neck.
He was about her age, with hard cheekbones and a distinctly pissed-off demeanor which intensified when he turned to look directly at her, water streaming off his high-crowned, wide-brimmed sable fedora.
Her heart nearly stopped in her chest.
It was Beau Wilder. The Beau Wilder. Box office superstar. He’d worked his way up through coming-of-age comedies and slasher flicks to gladiator dramas, legal thrillers, and action-adventures. Hollywood wasn’t putting out many romantic comedies these days, but when they did, he was their go-to leading man.
“Holy bejeezus.” Even as a Hollywood insider of sorts, she was gobsmacked.
“Uh huh, I know,” he said dismissively.
He hadn’t shaved for days—typical behavior for your average macho male celebrity–but he was Ralph Lauren handsome, too, tall and broad-shouldered. A man’s man, for sure, but distinguished—elegant, even–in the way that a sweaty, mud-laden horse with highly muscled flanks is when it wins the Kentucky Derby.
Shock and–she had to admit it—awe—were quickly replaced by indignation. His eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of alcohol. “I’ve got some bad news for you, Mr. Wilder.” Her voice shook just a little, but he was only a man–and an actor at that. “This isn’t your lighthouse.”
“For the next two months it is,” he shot back and dropped his bag with a thunk, managing to avoid the puddle forming at his feet. “I traded Callum four front row seats to a Lakers game to get this place. That’s a business transaction. I have rights.”
“You don’t really expect me to buy that.” She laced her right arm over her left. “You’re in a lighthouse. Not a courthouse. I’m not your perp, and you’re drunk.”
She shifted on her feet, nervous again because suddenly he exuded unholy joy, his eyes glowing the same green golden-brown as the tips of marsh grass caught in a beam of sunlight.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said. “You’re the hot tamale who starred in Biker Aliens.”
Released online-only, five years ago. It had gone viral, too, but in a bad way. Which was why Lacey was no longer a natural blond. She tossed her head. “Don’t get sexist with me, Mr. Stud Muffin.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. It was a compliment.” He lofted a very suggestive brow. “Greta.”
He might be a pain in her backside right now, but, Lord, he drew the eye. And he’d seen her movie. She couldn’t believe it! Her whole body responded to the new energy he put out–at her expense, yes, but she’d always liked bad people. Really bad people. Not pretend ones who rebelled because they needed attention but people who bucked the system because they were too smart to stay bored—too selfish to sacrifice fun.
But she was done. Done with bad people and the excitement they brought into her life. For Henry’s sake, she was willing to learn bored. There had to be something to it.
“You look like I Love Lucy now,” he said. “But you’re still Greta Gildensturm. You can’t hide those eyes, or that—that–”
Despite her warnings, he gazed at her as if she were Cool Whip and he was the spoon—which considering the source, she knew she should find flattering. But she was over all that malarkey and over all the men who did it, even one-in-a-billion men like Mr. Beau Hot Stuff Wilder. And because he must have valued his life, he didn’t finish the sentence.
“Her name was Lucy Ricardo, not I Love Lucy.” She made a duh face. “That was the name of the show.” And she refused to acknowledge her character’s name in Biker Aliens. She’d refuse to her dying day. She’d refuse even after death, if that were possible. She’d come and haunt anyone who tried to put her and Greta Gildensturm together.
“She’ll always be I Love Lucy to me.” He was smug. Still a little drunk. But damned cute. And bad clear through.
Oh, God. The worst kind of man.
And the best kind of movie star.
She crossed her arms over her ample breasts, which she’d declined to have reduced. Her back didn’t hurt. So why should she? Was it her fault that God made her that way? And she was scared of doctors and knives and, oh, anything that had to do with medicine, including Band Aids and Luden’s cherry cough drops, which she’d choked on once when she was five.
So it would be a cold day in hell when she got a breast reduction.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “If you meet someone who looks like Theodore Cleaver, you’re gonna say, you look like Leave It to Beaver? Does that make sense?”
He didn’t seem to be listening. “And you were just in the news. You were a brunette when you did it, but you spilled a whole pitcher of margaritas over Callum’s head at a West Hollywood restaurant with Monique Bonnay sitting right next to him. Don’t tell me you wanted to break up those two lovebirds. They deserve each other.” He lifted a wet cigar to his mouth and clamped down on it, grinning. “Yep, Biker Aliens and Greta Gildensturm both trended on Twitter that day.”
But not Lacey Clark. No one knew her real name because she wasn’t a memorable enough actress, was she? She wasn’t even memorable enough to get on Survivor or any B-list Hollywood reality show. She was on the F list. F for failure. And there was a much worse F word to apply to her acting career, but she was a lady, and she wouldn’t use it, much less think it.
Which might explain why she liked fudge so much. And they made a lot of it on Indigo Beach. That was one good thing about being here.
“You can go to hell.” Lacey angled her chin at the open door. “And lose the cigar while you’re at it.”
His grin disappeared, and he threw the cigar outside. “Wow. You really are a buzz kill.”
“Apparently guys like you have nothing better to do than point that out.”
“Guys like me?”
He might think he was one of a kind. But he wasn’t. There were plenty spoiled, rich, handsome, charming men—many of them actors, a word she could barely say anymore without seeing red–who’d been blessed with a confidence they hadn’t earned. But she wouldn’t bother to explain. His kind was too arrogant to get it.
“Callum may be a jackass,” he said, “but I’m not Callum. So lay off the I-hate-men routine, please, until you see the guy—or guys—who’ve actually done you wrong. ‘Kay?”
“Fine.” She felt a small stab of guilt–but not on his behalf. Oh, no. He’d merely reminded her that she’d let Callum off too easy. “I’ll overlook your general lack of sensitivity and make you a cup of coffee.” Maybe she’d find out how he knew Callum. “But then you’re leaving. If you’re not sober enough to drive thirty minutes from now, I’ll call the sheriff to pick you up. Now that’s a Tweet that would trend! Why don’t you get on there right now and let everyone know you were driving under the influence?”
The rain fell steadily but with less force. It had wimped out, something she wasn’t going to do anymore.
“I didn’t drive,” he said, “and I’m not going anywhere. Nor do I Tweet. My assistant does.” He went to the door. “Thanks, doll,” he called to someone and blew a kiss.
There was the honk of a horn, and then the loud, sputtering sound of a car engine starting up.
“Wait!” Lacey pushed past him. “Was that your assistant?” From the light of the small sconce on the portico, she caught a glimpse of a silhouette of big pageant hair in the driver’s seat of a white Ford pickup truck. It spun up some sand and took off, its oversized tires and raised chassis rocking like mad over the uneven surface of the drive as it sped away. Lacey recognized monster truck rally mania when she saw it.
Over her shoulder, Beau Wilder murmured, “You could call her that. For the past twenty-four hours.”
He shook his head, a ghost of a smile on his lips as he watched her go. “I love a woman who can drive like a bat outta hell. Cooks up a storm, too. Homemade biscuits and ham this morning, along with her mama’s own peach jam. Suh-weet.”
And he didn’t mean about the jam, either. That much was obvious.
Lacey had had enough. “You’ll have to walk or text your one-day assistant for a ride. If she’s not here in half an hour, I’m calling the police.”
He pulled out his phone. “I don’t think so. You’re trespassing. Not me.” He dialed a number and held the phone to his ear.
“Who are you calling?” Her heart pounded.
“Sheriff’s office.” His face was serene.
“No.” She swiped at his phone.
But he swiftly lifted his arm. “Why not? You’re about to call them anyway.”
“We can solve this,” she said, realizing too late that he’d never dialed, “without contacting the authorities.” She stared him down like a viper hypnotizing its prey.
Mr. Wilder cocked his head. “Whoa.”
To intensify the effect, she put her hand on her right hip and turned her left foot out.
But all he did was send her a searing look—he was good at that—and tuck the phone back in his pocket. “Were you ever an evil first-grade teacher in another life? Because I swear you’re channeling Mrs. Biddle right now. She’s why I hate naps and milk in little cartons to this day.”
“You were the non-stop talker, weren’t you? Or the sly boy who hid on the playground at the end of recess.”
“Don’t change the subject. I thought you were all about getting the police involved.”
A flush of heat spread across her chest and up her neck. “Why should I? I’ve got a lease. You don’t. Your consolation prize is that cup of coffee, and then you’re outta here. Deal with it.”
“Little lady”—he opened his jacket and pulled out a plastic grocery bag with an oblong square shape inside—“since I’m actually where I’m supposed to be, and you might be kinda cute when you’re not frowning–I’ll try to be patient. I’ve got a steak, and I’m about to cook it. And then I’m going to sit back and enjoy my new place, me and Jim Beam, since the liquor store was all out of Jack.” He tossed the steak on the table, pulled a silver flask out of another pocket, twisted off the cap, and took a swig. “Sorry, but you’re not invited, although I could be persuaded to change my mind.” He arched that famous brow at her.
“Are you sure?”
Their eyes met, and for a split second, she thought he saw everything she’d been trying to hide.
He advanced toward her, his tread slow, careful. She wasn’t in physical danger. That she knew. His was the careful walk of a man who was either still drunk or hung over—hardly aggressive. But it was more than that. He approached her the way he’d done that poor lame horse that had to be put down in the only Western he’d ever made.
She stuck her chin up. No need to feel sorry for her. She was A-okay. She had a head on her shoulders, and she’d been through the wringer in the craziest town on the West Coast and come out on the other side not totally crushed. And, man, had she seen some people out in L.A. plowed over, innocents like her who’d gone out there to find themselves and lost themselves instead.
But Hollywood crazy had nothing on Southern crazy. Therefore, she told herself as she exhaled through her nose, I can handle anything, including this man.
When he was a mere foot away, he stopped. “If you’re hoping Callum’s gonna show,” he said in that velvety-rough Southern drawl that had melted millions of women’s hearts, “I hate to tell you this—he’s not coming. But you can keep me company for a couple hours instead. If your heart’s broken, that is.” He chucked her chin softly. “Maybe that accounts for your ornery attitude.”
She pushed past him, her hands trembling, and straightened the placemats on one side of the table. Dancing blue crab and shrimp. Henry loved them. “I’m not heartbroken.” She looked up. “And you’re obviously a womanizer, a trait I find a complete turn-off. How do you know Callum anyway?”
“He accidentally on purpose runs into me all the time at the gym. He says he wants to lift weights with me, but he’s too busy kissing my ass to be a good spotter. He’s after my agent and wants an in.”
“Is that why he gave you a key to this place?”
“Probably. I threw in the Lakers seats, so I don’t owe him a favor. No way am I referring him to my agent. What are you doing here?”
He had her there. “He owes me.”
“Didn’t you get your revenge at that restaurant?”
“You know what?” She sent him her best withering look. “I really don’t need any actors around here.”
Understatement of the century.
She needed sleep, salt air, wind, and Henry. She needed a job, too.
“It’s a moot point,” he replied. “You’re not staying.”
“Yes, I am.” Her words might as well have been hammered into rock by a big, sweaty hand gripping a chisel, they were so solid. “You may be a big star, but I got here first. That counts for something under the law. You’ll have to pry me outta here by my fingernails, you hear? Or spend weeks trying to evict me. Your publicist won’t appreciate the news stories that’ll come out of that.”
The corner of his mouth crooked. “Here’s your problem, Greta. You overact. All Southerners do. It’s in our blood to live larger than life. Doesn’t matter if we come from a trailer park or a mansion. It’s our thing. But here’s a secret: if you want to make it big in Hollywood, you gotta bury your own heart. It’s easy for me. I don’t have one.”
“Look at you,” she said, “throwing drama right back at me. Of course, you have a heart. You couldn’t have played all those roles without one.”
“You saying I’m good?”
“No.” She gave another short laugh. Was he kidding? She wasn’t going to say that, not when he was trying to throw her out on her ear! “I’m just saying I see why maybe you make the big bucks. Maybe.”
She winced. It was not intended to be a smile in any way, shape, or form, so it annoyed her when he chuckled.
He pulled down a frying pan hanging over the sink, released it with a quick twirling motion through the air, then caught it right above the stovetop, and set it down on a burner. “I’m not used to sharing, Miz Greta.”
Big baby. Which didn’t jibe with his knowing his way around a kitchen, but that was probably a fluke.
He flicked on the gas, and a bright blue flame appeared beneath the pan. Over his shoulder, he said, “This lighthouse is out of the way, and it’s big enough for just one person—me. Now in Casa Wilder, I fry up a steak the night before I start work on a movie set. I also give damsels in distress breaks if they cooperate, at least until morning. You’ll be packed and ready to go.”
He sprinkled salt in the pan. Then he unwrapped the steak—just held one end of the paper and let it roll out into the pan. It was probably the way women unwrapped themselves for him all the time.
The sizzling smell made Lacey hungry. She’d been going light lately to save her food money for Henry. Tonight she’d made him scrambled eggs, but there were only three left, so she’d saved them for tomorrow and had eaten a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich instead.
“Well,” she huffed. “I can tell you think the sun comes up just to hear you crow, Mr. Wilder. But I’ve had enough of your talk. If you insist on staying, I’m going up. But don’t you dare smoke inside, leave the stovetop on, abandon dirty dishes in the sink, or walk around naked. I’m armed with a Colt .45, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
She turned on her heel, hoping he believed her lie about the gun. She wouldn’t tell him about the Heinz 57 sauce she’d found in the cupboard yesterday, either. He could eat his dadblasted steak without it.