Authors: Small, Anna
This book is dedicated to CarolynLeister and Julia Zapzic– my real-life heroines!
Thank you for always standing by me, nomatter what.
“Mommy, Mommy, you’re on TV!”
Joely Burbank glanced up from the applesshe was slicing to glance at her seven year-old daughter, Molly, who stood infront of the TV, her finger jangling as she danced up and down. Her own facestared back at her in vivid color; her hand was raised to prevent the paparazzofrom taking her picture. The footage was a few nights old already, and showedher leaving the swanky restaurant after her boyfriend that the media hadaffectionately termed her boy toy broke up with her. She’d thought he was goingto propose, and had bought a new pair of heels she couldn’t afford. Boy, didshe feel stupid when he’d spoken the dreaded, short words right after dessert.
She forced herself to put the knifedown.Deep breaths. But her yoga instructor’s stress relief aid didn’thelp.
“Mommy?” Molly’s little voice cracked.
“I’m ok. Mommy’s ok.” She opened hereyes and smiled brightly at Molly, who’d appeared at her side. She handed Mollya bowl of fruit and took the TV clicker from her. She changed the channel andMolly quickly became engrossed in the cartoon that replaced the trash she’dbeen watching.
Numbness replaced the sickening fearthat had grown in the pit of her stomach since last Friday. How could she havemistaken a break up for a proposal? Wasn’t Matt ready to start a world tour,promoting the next installment of his teen-targeted hot vampire moviefranchise? He would never have considered throwing all that away on atwenty…okay, thirty-something year old soap opera actress who hadn’t even madea feature film yet.
Her agent had assured her dating Mattwas the best thing for her career. All the tabloids wanted the inside scoop ontheir life together, made glamorous by careful styling and invitations to thehottest parties and clubs in town. Still young-looking enough to pass for hermid-twenties, Joely plastered a smile along with her make-up and did her bestto look adoringly at Matt whenever the cameras were rolling. But inside, shesecretly wished she was still in the bleachers, cheering on her high schoolsweetheart; a megastar NFL player in his own right.
“When are we going to Daddy’s?” Mollyasked.
Joely snapped back to the present. “In afew days. I’m waiting to see if Sarah can take you and Ian.” Her assistant hadrecently remarried, and Joely wasn’t sure if the biannual jaunt to Montana hadlost its appeal yet.
“I want you to take us.”
Ignoring Molly’s pout, which was hard todo when the pout in question had a milk mustache, Joely flipped through thecontacts on her phone. “That reminds me, I need to call Daddy. Do you want tosay hello to him?”
Molly shook her head and went back toher cartoon. Taking a deep breath as if she were about to jump off the highdive at the Y where she grew up, Joely pressed the call button.
“Hey.” Ben doled out words with as muchfrugality as he handled money. She imagined he glanced at his phone when hername popped up. How was her number stored? Bitch? or Joely? Baby Mama?
She wasn’t in the mood to pick up wheretheir last fight ended, and steeled herself for her four times a year phonecall to her ex-husband. “Hi, Ben. I just wanted to make sure you had the kids’flight info. I emailed it to you…” “Yeah, I gotit. I’ll be there at 4pm to get them, just like I always do.”
She hated it when he cut her off, butcouldn’t really blame him. Their divorce, when it finally came after five yearsof fighting, had been ugly and hateful and splashed all over the front pages ofevery supermarket tabloid in America. She didn’t understand why the privatelife of a B-actress and a former NFL jock concerned anyone.
Refusing to rise to his tone, shementally nodded. “OK.” She didn’t know what else to say, but added, “Ian andMolly are really looking forward to seeing you.”
“Like I’m the reason they only see theirdad a few times a year.”
Molly was there, or else she’d have useda few choice words. Dammit, but he always knew how to press the right buttons.She wished she could channel her daytime TV character; a supreme bitch who hadthe world eating out of her hand.
“You didn’t have to move to Montana. Thejudge said…”
His whistle pierced through the phoneand she winced. “Spare me your support of that crook! He’s a fan of your inaneshow, and that’s why he took your side.”
“Ben, we don’t have to do this…” Why,after all these years, did tears spring to her eyes the moment she heard theanger and hurt in his voice?
“Right. I’ll get them at Billings. Justlike last summer.”
Her phone screen darkened. She looked upto see Molly’s little red face. “Daddy can’t wait to see you and Ian. Christmasin the snow will be lots of fun.”
The rosebud lips quivered. “I don’t wantto see Daddy. I want to stay here, with you.” She threw herself into Joely’sarms. Joely stroked her hair from her face and patted her back.
“You always have fun up there. Daddyprobably has some new horses and calves. You can play in the barn with thekittens, too.”
“The kittens are all grown up.”
“There will be snow. Daddy can make asnowman for you.”
“I hate snow. It’s too cold. I want to stayhere. You won’t have anybody for Christmas.”
Joely forced a happy face. “I have Sarahand…and George from the show, and…you know, all those people I work with.”
“Why don’t you and Daddy love each otheranymore?”
It was the same question every time a visitto Montana came around. It served both to send Joely on a guilt trip and coddleMolly.
“Sometimes parents can’t live with eachother anymore. It has nothing to do with love.” Ian’s mocking tone reached herfrom the den where he was glued to his game console.
“Ian…” Joely pulled Molly onto her lap.“Molly, honey, Daddy and I aren’t together anymore, but that doesn’t mean wedon’t love each other.”
“That is what it means. That’s why it’scalled divorce.”
She closed her eyes and forced herselfto remain calm. “You’re not helping, Ian.”
“That’s okay,” Molly said, cuddling onJoely’s shoulder. “Maybe you can take us, instead of Sarah.”
“Maybe.” She rubbed her eyes with onehand and hugged Molly with the other. “Maybe I will.” It wasn’t as if she had ahundred reasons to stay home. Matt was already in London, and had probablyforgotten her the moment his plane landed to an airport full of screaming fans.The hot lump of tears in her throat began to melt. “Maybe I will take you guys.I can do some shopping up there. I always wanted a bearskin coat.”
“Mommy!” Molly shrieked with laughter.In the other room, Ian snorted. Joely sighed and slid her legs beneath her.
“Tell me about this cartoon again,honey. Who’s the cat with the crazy teeth?”
Molly’s descriptions of the charactershelped soothe Joely’s worn spirit. Catching a glance of palm trees rustlinggently in the warm breeze, she almost looked forward to the trip north. If onlyshe were going for pleasure, and not having to face the man who broke herheart.
If only SantaClaus were real, and divorce was only a fairy tale. A sad, twisted fairy tale.
“That snow will be coming down all day,”Ben remarked, ruffling Ian’s hair. “We’ll be able to make a big snow forttomorrow and throw some snowballs. Would you like that?”
Ian’s shoulders twitched noncommittally.“I guess.”
Joely turned away so Ben wouldn’t seethat she’d heard. Ian was taking Matt’s leaving too hard. She hadn’t thoughtthey were very close, but Matt had been part of their lives for a year. Theywere standing in Ben’s kitchen at the ranch. He’d been waiting at baggage claimfor them, and she almost didn’t recognize him, but the kids did, of course. Itwas a shock to see him in a shearling coat and cowboy boots, until she realizedhe looked like almost every other man there. Except they didn’t have broadathlete’s shoulders like Ben, or that hard, steely look in the eyes whenevershe was around.
He’d been polite, but distant. She wasglad she’d prepared him that she was escorting the kids and not Sarah. He’deven held the door to his massive truck open for her, and waited until she wasseated before closing it. That he hadn’t spoken a word to her but conversedwith the kids the hour and a half it took to reach the ranch didn’t bother her.Well, it did, but she told herself it didn’t, which was almost the same thing.
She listened to the hold music in herear and jumped a little when the airline agent’s shrill voice came back on tooloudly.
“I still have Buster and Lilly,” Ben wassaying to Ian. “We can ride in the woods. Last time you were too young, but wecan do it now, if you want.”
Again, the shrug.
Wait a minute… “What wasthat? I’m sorry; did you say my flight was cancelled?” Joely turned her backslightly to Ben and the kids and twisted a long tendril of hair around herfinger. She was supposed to go back the next morning, after spending the nightat a nearby hotel, which suited her just fine. Anymore stares from the Ice Manand she’d be frozen through. “When is the next one?” She ended the call a fewseconds later and slipped her phone back into her purse. Ben and the kids werelooking at her. “They’re closing the airport. A big storm, or something.” “Probablyanother blizzard.” The animosity in Ben’s eyes was gone. His excitement athaving the kids to himself for a month had replaced his anger at her. “When canyou leave?”
“They said to call back once the stormpasses. How long will that take? Two, three days?” She could only hope that ahotel other than the Rancher’s Roost was available. They’d passed it on the wayto Ben’s place, and she’d nearly shivered at the idea of sleeping there.
“This isn’t Malibu, princess. Itmight take a week for the storm to pass, and then another week or so for thesnow to melt. You’d better call your agent and tell her to inform Spielberg.”
“Mom doesn’t work with him,” Ian said.Joely smiled inwardly at Ben’s humbled look.
“I know. Sorry.” He looped his thumbs throughhis jeans pockets. “Well, we should settle the kids and I’ll call Mrs. Gomez tobabysit. Then I’ll drive you into town…”
“Nooo!” Molly’s wail split the air.“Mommy, stay with us!” Molly jumped up and down. Ian gave her a brief, hopefulglance before turning his attention to his piece of pie Ben had waiting for himthe minute they entered the house.
“I…I can’t stay here, sweetie.” Sheavoided Ben’s eyes, concentrating instead on her daughter. “I’ll stay in town,and then hop on another plane once the airport opens.”
Molly buried her face in Joely’s skirt.“Don’t go! Please, don’t go! Daddy will let you stay.”
Her helpless tears only made thingsworse. Joely tried not to notice the flush spreading across Ben’s face. He wasprobably embarrassed the kids didn’t want to stay with him alone, but that washow they acted when it was his turn to drop them off with her.
“Daddy, please!” Molly abandoned Joelyto grip her father around his waist.
“It’s just for a few days,” he said, notlooking at Joely and smoothing back Molly’s ringlets.
It wasn’t as if the house wasn’t bigenough. There were at least six bedrooms and enough space so she wouldn’t haveto be in the same room with him if she didn’t want. She hesitated beforeresponding, but some look of relief in Ian’s eyes confirmed her decision.
“OK,” she said softly, giving Molly aquick hug. “Mommy will stay.” “Yay!” Mollycried, then tugged her hand. “Sleep in my bed! Sleep in my bed!”
Ben’s look told her she sure as hellwasn’t sleeping in his bed.
“I’ll sleep in the guest room. You kick toomuch,” she replied.
“Come on,” Ben said resignedly. Hepicked up Joely’s overnight bag as easily as if it weighed a pound. “I’ll showyou the guest room.”
Ben headed upstairs, with Molly dancingin the lead, excited at the prospect of having both parents in the same houseafter years of separation. Joely glanced over her shoulder at Ian, whose thinshoulders were hunched over his pie. Maybe it was a good thing she’d be stuckat the ranch for a while.
“We eat pretty plainly when it’s justthe kids and me,” Ben said later, emptying a pack of hot dogs into a pot ofboiling water. She’d almost tiptoed back out of the kitchen when she’d comelooking for something to munch on when she’d discovered Ben alone. Her lone bagwas unpacked and the kids were settled upstairs.
“I’m sure I can rustle something up.”She opened the pantry door and flinched when Ben closed it firmly.
“I got this.”You’re in my territory,his set jaw told her.
“Do you…would you like some help? I canset the table.”
“We just need some napkins. Hot dogs andchips don’t require flatware.”
“Do you have any salad?” She held up herhands a moment later at his scowl. “Okay, okay! I’ll leave you to it.”
He mumbled something under his breathwhile she walked out of the kitchen. She wanted to stop and ask him what he’dsaid, but didn’t want to provoke him. As she passed the kitchen window, shestared at the gray clouds rumbling overhead. Her cute little bungalow nestledin the Hollywood Hills seemed so far away.
She climbed the stairs to freshen up andmet Molly in the hallway. Molly took her hand. “Come see my room, Mommy.”
“Wow! I didn’t know you liked fairies.”The room exploded in multitudes of green and pink fairies. There was a fairylampshade, fairy posters in white frames, and a fairy bedspread on a whitecanopy bed. Toys and dolls Joely didn’t recognize were displayed on shelves andspilled from a toy box shaped like a dollhouse.
“I like fairies at Daddy’s house andprincesses at your house.”
The innocent words cut to Joely’s heart.She’d never been to the ranch once the house was built. Had never asked thekids about their rooms at Ben’s because it hurt too much to realize that thekids were now part of a statistic. She wondered if he ever thought about whattheir rooms looked like at her home, a place he’d never seen.
“It’s a very pretty room.” She walkedaround, pausing to glance at the framed photos on the dresser. There was one ofher with Molly, tucked slightly to the back and behind other pictures, but atleast it was there. She’d sent it with Molly the first time the kids came up toMontana shortly after the divorce. If she could have packaged up her heart andput it on a plane, she would have.
“Dinner’s ready,” Ben called upstairs.Joely went to a half-opened door and knocked.
“Ian, are you coming down?”
He was lying across his bed, reading abook. Unlike Molly’s different decorative scheme, Ian’s room echoed what he hadat home; football pennants and memorabilia she recognized from Ben’s collegeand early pro days.
“I’m not hungry.”
She hesitated. He’d been a littlewithdrawn all day, even on the plane. “Are you feeling ok? Tummy hurt?”
“I’m fine.” He turned a page with enoughforce that it creased the paper.
“What’s the matter?”
She almost laughed at the stock answer.“Do you want to talk about it?”
He flipped the book closed and foldedhis arms, making a pillow wherein he buried his face. “I don’t want to behere.”
She sat on the edge of the bed andrubbed his back, but he rolled away from her, his freckled face wearing ascowl. Remarkable how much he looked like his dad when he was mad. Her handremained frozen in the air.
“It’s just a few weeks, Ian. I thoughtyou wanted to come….”
“I want all of us back home, where webelong.”
“I know you miss Matt….”
“I don’t miss that jerk! I hate him! I’mglad he dumped you.” His lip quivered. She was about to say more, but Ben’sheavy footsteps coming upstairs stopped her.
“Ian, what’s the problem? Dinner’sready.” Ian pushed off the bed with a grunt and walked past Joely before shecould say another word. Ben eyed her suspiciously. “What’s going on?”
She bit her lip to stop it fromtrembling, but didn’t know why she bothered. He could always see through her.Rising, she brushed the hair from her face and tried to act natural. “He’s justa little moody, I guess.”
“Oh.” His gaze penetrated hers. “MaybeI’ll take him for a walk later.”
“Good.” Her stomach flipped. All sheneeded was for Ian to rant about Matt all night to Ben, or beg his dad to movehome. Worse, ask Ben if he could live with him from now on. Her stomach almostflipped.
“I noticed you only brought an overnightbag. Do you need to borrow some clothes?”
“Why, do you have a size two wardrobestashed away in your closet?”
He didn’t seem to be in a humorous mood.“You can borrow some of my things. I don’t have any frilly underwear, though.”
Was his old personality actually tryingto crawl through the concrete blocks of his attitude?
“That’s okay, Ben. I don’t wearunderwear.”
She hadn’t meant to flirt. Good god, thatwas the last thing she wanted to do. It was too late to pretend she hadn’t saidit, and she could only hope he thought she was joking. He only shrugged, andfollowed Ian downstairs. Despite his nonchalance, she couldn’t help but noticethe edges of his ears had turned pink.
Ian was mostly quiet at dinner, butshowed interest when Ben outlined all the fun things he’d planned for theirChristmas vacation. Molly was content to sit between Joely and Ben, and kepttaking drinks from Ben’s soda can when she thought Joely wasn’t looking.Normally the kids ate a healthy dinner of lean meat and lots of veggies, butshe didn’t want to criticize. Ben didn’t look like was in the mood to hear it,even if she did.
“You guys have a lot to do thisvacation. Sounds exciting,” she said to Ian.
“Mommy, you can make a snowman with us,too. Can’t she, Daddy?”
“No, no, Molly,” Joely said with anuneasy laugh. “This is Daddy’s time with you and Ian. I’ll stay out of yourhair. Besides, I’ll be gone in a couple of days.” She could only hope.
“Daddy, is Chrissy going to visit us?”
Joely looked up with interest. “Is thata little girl around here?”
Ian poked Molly in the arm. “Don’t talkabout her in front of Mom!”
One look at Ben’s scarlet face told hereverything she had to know. She was glad she was holding a hot dog in her handbecause it gave her an excuse to take a bite and not have to talk for a while.
“I was just asking,” Molly said in asmall voice.
Ben cleared his throat. “Maybe we cansee the horses after dinner. You both can come.”
He wants them out of the house so Ican’t ask them about his…what, his girlfriend? Even though she’d been with Mattnearly a year and had never kept it a secret, Ben had obviously lived a life hedidn’t want her to know about. Pictures of the mysterious Chrissy flooded herimagination. Was she a busty blonde, like the girls who used to chase Ben incollege? Or a cool brunette, exotic maybe, with luscious red lips…?
“Get your coats on and we’ll take a walkto the stable.” Ben avoided looking at her, which was just as well. “Do youwant to come, Joely?”
She blinked. Her name sounded odd comingfrom him. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d used it. “Uh, sure. I mean,no, that’s okay. I’ll clean up in here. You guys have fun.”
“You can go in my room and scrounge upsome clothes if you want,” he said, pushing away from the table and helpingMolly. He sponged off her face with a napkin. A wistful feeling touched her. Hewas always a good dad. He’d never shied away from dirty diapers and used to givethe kids their baths when she spent long hours at the studio.
“Thanks.” She lingered over her sodauntil they were gone, then hurried upstairs to his bedroom. She had never beena snoop, but now seemed obsessed with scouring his room for any traces of themysterious Chrissy. A strange feeling overcame her when she entered his room: aroom she had never shared with the man she’d once vowed to love forever. Thekids’ laughter rang from outside, and she hurried to the bureau, rememberingher task. Just as she opened the third drawer and found no evidence of women’sclothing, she sat back on her heels and let out her breath.
Why should she care if Ben had one orten girlfriends? He was single, and, by the looks of the sprawling ranch,successful in his second career choice. He’d always been frugal with his money,socking away his massive paychecks from the NFL because, as he’d always toldher, “my knees aren’t going to last forever.” Sure enough, after his very firstSuperbowl win, his right knee blew out, ending his promising career.
He hadn’t seemed too upset at the time,and now she realized he’d been relieved. They’d bought the Montana ranchtogether with one of his first checks, and he’d spent whatever time he could,first putting up the large but cozy house and then securing paddocks and fencesfor the horses he wanted to own one day. She’d hardly visited in those earlydays, leaving all the decisions to him. Her acting career was too important forher to care about Appaloosas or Palominos, or what kind of feed and hay to buy.She’d almost been grateful he had somewhere he could go alone. It made it seemless like moving him out of her life and more like his choice.
She rifled a drawer with carefullyfolded t-shirts and realized it was the work of Ben, and not another woman.He’d always been meticulous, and his sparsely decorated bedroom was obviouslynot chick bait. Even the bed looked utilitarian, with its navy blue and brownquilt and only two pillows on the bed. Not a lacy bolster in sight.MaybeChrissy is a dumpy rancher, who bakes brownies and pies for the bachelors inthe area. She can come by tomorrow, for all I care.
An irritating suspicion told her thatChrissy was not a dumpy rancher. She pictured a svelte, young model withswinging long hair and a dimply smile just for Ben. As Joely left his room withan armful of clothes, she couldn’t help but realize she hated Chrissy very,very much.
Screams and laughter echoed in her head.Confused, Joely blinked her eyes open and took in her surroundings. She wincedas her back objected to the hard mattress, and slowly sat up. Memories of thenight before flooded her, and she swung her legs out of bed and padded in hershirt and underwear to the window.
Winter wonderland was an understatement.She hadn’t paid much attention when they’d pulled into the driveway in theprevious evening’s fading sunlight. Her nerves had been too on edge to noticeanything beyond the interior of the truck. The mountains in the distance wererolling white blankets of snow, and the pine trees and bushes edging the frontentrance to the ranch were covered in jagged icicles.
Molly was making snow angels in thespacious front yard while Ben and Ian alternately ducked and threw snowballsfrom opposing fortresses. Ian’s fort was bigger and better than Ben’s, whichfilled Joely with a toasty feeling that Ben had gone out of his way to ensuretheir son had a fun time. Molly looked up and waved at her. She waved back andopened the window a crack. A blast of icy air nearly froze the breath in herlungs.
“Good morning!” she called. Ian and Benignored her, but Molly sat up.
“Come down and play!”
“I have to get dressed first.” Sheclosed the window and scanned the room for her clothes. All she had was jeansand a sweater, and a coat that was more ornamental than practical. Benshouldn’t mind too much if she borrowed another sweatshirt, and she walked downthe hall to his room.
She yelped when she opened the door, andpulled the edges of her shirt past her underwear. An elderly Hispanic womanglanced up from Ben’s bed. She had just spread the quilt, and was smoothing it.
“Good morning,” the woman said. Joelygulped, then held out her hand.
“Good morning. I’m Joely Burbank. Areyou…Chrissy?” She could only hope.
“Chrissy? You mean Miss Harrington?” Sheshook her head, her face crinkled in a smile. “I am Mrs. Gomez. I keep housefor Mr. Ben.”
Miss Harrington. How hysterical. She wasbecoming a regular laugh riot. “It’s nice to meet you. I was just looking for asweatshirt or something.”