(Real Love #5)
by Jessica Lemmon
Ballantine / Loveswept
Release Date: 2nd October 2018
Old flames burn bright. When a disgraced starlet returns home to lick her wounds, she discovers that her high school sweetheart is just as tempting as ever.
Allison: When I left for California, I gave myself a new name and never looked back. Now my carefully crafted good-girl image is getting torn to shreds in the press thanks to my Oscar-winning A-hole of an ex-boyfriend. So I escape to the only safe haven I know and trust—my hometown—to take a breather while I plot my triumphant Hollywood comeback. However, when I arrive at my parents’ house, Jackson Burke answers the door instead. And suddenly the past comes rushing back . . .
Jackson: First kiss. First time. First love. Yep, Allison Murphy and I shared a lot of firsts back in the day. When she left, she took half my heart with her. Now she’s back in town, and even though I swore I’d keep my distance, her parents hired me to remodel their house, and I’m going to finish the job. But one hot kiss later, suddenly the press is calling us the next big celebrity couple. Sure, I’ll play the part, for Allison’s sake—but I refuse to let her close enough to break my heart all over again . . .
After a quick trip downtown, I arrive at the Murphy household Monday afternoon. I’m carrying two milkshakes, one strawberry for Allie and one chocolate–peanut butter for myself. I’m not sure if she wants one or if she’s on some weird Hollywood diet that prohibits her from drinking it, but I want to apologize and flowers seem . . . wrong.
I hesitate at the door before knocking. Tommy and Daryl are on another site today, since we’re still waiting on lumber for the deck here. We need to paint the closet, too, but I wanted to check with Allie’s schedule before filling the house with paint fumes.
The door swings aside, revealing the future receiver of a milkshake. Allie is wearing a short, short miniskirt, her legs temptingly bare. She’s given a few inches of height thanks to a pair of tall sandals, and I absolutely do not linger on the hot pink toenail polish. I jerk my eyes north, encountering several thin gold bracelets and necklaces on the way. Her hair is swept up on top of her head, a pencil jutting out of the sloppy bun.
Wide brown eyes take inventory of me—but I can’t tell if she approves of my uniform of well-worn Levi’s and a white T-shirt or not.
“Milkshake?” I offer awkwardly. We’re not what we used to be to each other and we’re not interested in being anything else. It’s an odd limbo.
“What flavor?” Her eyebrows arch with interest.
“Strawberry. It’s from UDF. Your favorite.” I frown in thought. “Or it used to be, anyway. There’s a smoothie shack in town, but I wasn’t sure if you were a shot-of-wheatgrass kind of girl or if you liked fruit.”
Yep. Definitely not getting any less awkward.
“So you bought me a milkshake,” she states.
“It’s not like I’m preparing for a part anyway.” She holds out her hand and I place the cold cup in it. Our fingers brush and that subtle touch stirs some unnamed thing between us. For me, anyway.
She shuffles aside and invites me in. “I didn’t think you were working today.”
I step into the foyer. The A/C is cranked and it feels fantastic.
“My guys aren’t, but there are things I can do. We’ll need to paint here in the next week or so. If you can arrange to be away for a day, it’d probably be better than breathing fumes.”
She puts the straw to her lips and sucks the pink milkshake into her mouth. Her eyes close and she lets out an Mmm that borders on orgasmic.
“It’s been forever since I’ve had a milkshake. Like, a real one.” Her gaze softens on mine, her smile easy. She used to look at me like that all the time. And when she did, I never was able to resist pulling her close, bending low, and kissing her mouth.
“Live a little. Or a lot. It’s your vacation.” I clear my throat to dislodge the lust clogging it. “Or whatever this is.”
“Hiatus.” She quirks one eyebrow.
“What’s with the pencil?”
She reaches up and plucks it from her hair. “Oh, right. I forgot about that. I was having trouble typing out my ideas, so I found a pencil in the junk drawer and went on a search for paper. I thought maybe changing my medium might help the ideas flow better.”
“Yeah.” Shyly, she looks away. “I had this idea for a screenplay. I don’t know. It’s probably stupid, but I need something to do besides sit around and read articles about myself.”
A shrill beep, beep, beep comes from the kitchen.
“My oven fries are done. Want some?”
“With my milkshake? Hell, yeah.” We share a smile and I wonder if she’s remembering the many, many fries she’d dipped into one Wendy’s Frosty or another during the summers when we went out.
Positioned at the stove, she scoops the fries from pan to plate and serves them on the island with a bottle of ketchup riding sidecar. We dig in, each pulling the lids off our shakes and dunking a hot fry into the ice cream, reserving the ketchup for later. Or maybe not at all.
“Strawberry’s still my favorite.” She smiles up at me.
We both reach for another fry.
“I’m not sure where I stand with you,” she says. “We used to be great friends, and then . . . you know, boyfriend and girlfriend, and then we broke up. Now we’re something else. Not strangers but not friends.”
I don’t comment since there’s nothing to say. She’s right. We’re not strangers and we’re not friends.
“Do you think we could be? If not friends, then friendly?”
“Friendly.” I grunt the word. It’s unflattering and makes me sound like a golden retriever.
“We’re capable of amicability if the milkshakes and fries are any indicator.” She gestures with a fry. “And I’m going to see you on and off with this project you have going on for Mom and Dad. It would be nice if we could coexist.”
“Have you talked to them yet?” I ask rather than weigh in on the are-we-or-aren’t-we conversation she spearheaded. It’s too loaded. There are a lot of variables.
“I texted my dad to tell him to have fun and tell Mom I love her. I asked her if she was worried and he said yes, but he assured her that I was a big girl and everything would turn out fine. I hope he’s right about everything turning out fine.” She presses her lips together as if turning over how much more to share. Finally, she says, “I mentioned I was staying here. He said they felt better that you were around so that I wouldn’t be alone.”
Basically what my Mom had hinted at. Allie was home and upset and she needed a friend. All eyes are on me. Evidently I am a golden retriever.
“It’s bigger than I realized,” I admit. “The media attention on you.”
Her eyebrows jump.
“Did you do it?”
“Are you asking if I stole the Oscar from Millie?”
“You want to know if I showed up at her party, at her house where I’ve never been before, and snatched an Academy Award off her shelf? Haven’t you heard the news? Seen the photos? I’m carrying it under a coat on the way to the valet at Millie’s house. It was Nina in the den with the Oscar!”
I could do without the smart-ass comments.
“It doesn’t matter what happened,” she continues, somber, “only how it’s being perceived. In Hollywood you’re guilty until proven innocent, and if you’re proven innocent later the damage to your reputation is already done. There’s a reason the saying ‘You’ll never work in this town again’ exists.”
I’m beginning to think that my mom was right. Maybe Allie didn’t do it.
“Friendly,” I say, looping back to our earlier conversation. It seems safer than this one. “Surely we can manage that.”
A former job-hopper, Jessica Lemmon resides in Ohio with her husband and rescue dog. She holds a degree in graphic design currently gathering dust in an impressive frame. When she’s not writing about super-sexy heroes, she can be found cooking, drawing, drinking coffee (okay, wine), and eating potato chips. She firmly believes God gifts us with talents for a purpose, and with His help, you can create the life you want.