Friday, December 6
Tobias Richardson couldn’t help noticing the petite blonde sitting at the old-fashioned counter of the diner—and not just because she was pretty. He was sure he’d never seen her before. With a population of seven thousand, Silver Springs wasn’t small enough that he’d recognize everybody, especially because he’d only been living here for five months. The town seemed to have gotten a lot smaller since the weather turned, though. It didn’t snow in this part of California, but it was the rainy season and the region was experiencing colder than normal temperatures. Tourists weren’t interested in visiting when it was chill and damp, and the same went for the many residents of LA, ninety minutes to the southeast, who had vacation homes here. This month, and probably for the next two or three, he guessed Silver Springs would be limited to the locals.
He blew on his hands, trying to warm them while waiting for the coffee he’d ordered when he first sat down. He’d managed to squeeze in a hike after work. He didn’t care that it was dark and wet by the time he was on his way back. He had a
headlight to guide him to the trailhead and was willing to put up with the rain. But he was chilled to the bone. After such an arduous hike, he was starving, too, and craving a hot shower.
Again, he glanced toward the counter. He didn’t want the woman to catch him staring, but something about her—besides her looks—drew his attention.
She didn’t seem happy…
“Here you go.” Willow Sanhurst, the barely eighteen-year-old girl who worked evenings at the Eatery, stepped between him and the woman who intrigued him, smiled broadly and put his cup on the table with a flourish. “Warming up yet?”
“I can’t believe you’ve been out hiking. It’s December!”
“Little bit of rain never hurt anybody.”
He’d traded out his muddy hiking books for a pair of clean shoes before coming into the restaurant. Other than that, he was only a little damp, so he wasn’t sure why she was making such a big deal of it.
“You must really like the outdoors.”
“I do,” he said.
“So do I.”
He got the impression he was supposed to follow that up with an invitation to go hiking with him sometime, but he didn’t.
Even though they’d already discussed his hike when he’d sat down and she’d brought him water, and the diner was full of people waiting for a chance to order, she didn’t move away as most waitresses would.
Before bringing the coffee to his lips, he looked up to see if there was something she needed.
As soon as their eyes met, she blushed a deep red, wiped her hands on her ruffled white apron and mumbled some remark about being careful not to burn himself—that the coffee was hot—before hurrying away.
Damn it. She had a crush on him. She’d clearly wanted to say something but hadn’t been able to gather the nerve, and that made him distinctly uncomfortable. After being released from prison in July he was committed to making better choices, to building a productive life. He couldn’t have some high school girl staring at him with the longing he saw shining in her eyes. If she started seriously pursuing him, he was afraid he’d end up in a bad situation just because he was so damn lonely.
With a sigh, he took a tentative sip of his coffee. This was his favorite place to eat—the comfort food and Norman Rockwell vibe reminded him of the wholesome existence he’d always secretly admired. But he’d have to quit coming here. He wouldn’t allow himself to be tempted. His brother, Maddox, said over and over that his first year out of prison would be the hardest, and although Tobias acted as though he was doing fine, that he had his life under control, his journey was not as sure-footed as he let on. Sometimes, especially late at night, he felt as though he’d been cast adrift on a vast ocean and might never find safe harbor. And that sense of being so small and insignificant made him crave the substances that had gotten him into trouble in the first place.
Willow kept looking over at him, obviously hoping to catch his eye. While he poured a dash of cream into his coffee, he considered canceling his meal. He could eat somewhere else—grab something to go and head home to shower. But just as he was about to slide out of the booth, his phone dinged with a text from Maddox, asking if he’d like to come over for dinner.
Already ate. Enjoy your night. See you at work tomorrow, he wrote back.
He knew his brother worried about him, was trying to help him adjust to life outside prison and didn’t want him to backslide and become like their mother. But Maddox had recently married the girl he’d loved since high school. He deserved to be alone with Jada, his new wife, who was now pregnant, and Maya, their daughter. The last thing Tobias wanted to do was get in the way of their relationship—again. It was because of him they hadn’t gotten together the first time around, and that had cost Maddox the first twelve years of Maya’s life.
As he slid his phone in his coat pocket, he saw that it was too late to cancel his food. Willow was once again coming toward him, this time carrying a plate.
“You texting your girlfriend?” she asked, flirting with him as she put down his meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
He allowed himself another glance at the blonde sitting at the counter. Her meal had come, too, and yet she held her fork, turning it over and over in one hand, staring at her food without taking a bite.
“Did you hear me?” Willow asked.
Putting his napkin in his lap, he picked up his fork. “I’m sorry. What’d you say?”
She looked over her shoulder in the direction he’d been looking and lowered her voice. “I see you’ve noticed Harper.”
“Harper?” he repeated.
“Yeah, Harper Devlin—Axel Devlin’s wife. She’s been in here before.”
“Who’s Axel Devlin?”
“Are you kidding me? He’s the lead singer of Pulse. They’re, like…the biggest band on the planet!”
He’d heard of Pulse, was familiar with their music and liked it. He’d also heard the name of the band’s lead singer many times. He’d just never dreamed Willow could be referring to that Axel Devlin—although there was no good reason why she couldn’t be. A lot of celebrities came to artsy, spiritually focused Silver Springs. Quite a few, especially movie people, retired here. And he often interacted with Hudson King, a professional football player, at New Horizons Boys Ranch, where he worked doing grounds and building maintenance. Hudson did a lot to help the troubled teens who attended the boarding school—both the boys’ side and the recently built girls’ school on the same property. He’d donated the money to buy an ice-skating rink both sides could use. “Do they live in the area?”
“No. She and her two kids are staying with her sister for the holidays. I overheard her talking to the owner.”
“She looks a little…” When he let his words trail off, Willow jumped in to finish the sentence.
“I was going to say ‘lost.’”
“Probably is. I watched an interview with Axel a few months ago. He said they were splitting up. Maybe that’s why.”
It was none of his business, but Tobias couldn’t help asking, “Did he give a reason?”
She seemed to like that they’d found something to talk about that wasn’t so strained and awkward for her. “Blamed it on the travel. He has to be gone too much. Yada, yada. What else is he going to say? That he’s cheating with a different girl every night?” she added with a laugh.
Tobias felt bad for Harper. It couldn’t be easy to be married to a rock star. She wasn’t that old, likely hadn’t been prepared for that kind of life. If Tobias remembered correctly, Axel was from a small town in Idaho, and he and his band had become famous almost overnight. Now he was sitting on top of the world.
But where did that leave her?
“You said they have kids?” he asked.
“Yeah. Two little girls. I don’t remember their ages—maybe eight and six? Something like that.”
So Harper had married Axel before he’d become a big success, and they’d started a family. That indicated she’d married for love. “Where are the kids?”
“With her sister, I guess.” Willow lowered her voice. “It would suck to be her, right? I mean, she has to see his name and his face everywhere, can’t escape the constant reminder.”
Now that he wasn’t paying as much attention to Willow’s hopeful smiles and nervousness when she was around him, Tobias could see others in the restaurant nudging their companions and pointing to Harper. Apparently a lot of people knew who she was—or word was spreading fast.
Poor thing. He understood what it was like to be the talk of the town. He’d been only seventeen when he’d been prosecuted as an adult and jailed for thirteen years. Returning to Silver Springs after his release this past summer had been like being put under a microscope. Suffering privately was one thing. Suffering publicly was something else entirely. That took what she was going through to a whole new level.
“Shouldn’t be too hard for her to find someone else.” He said it as though he wasn’t particularly invested, but Harper had caught his eye, hadn’t she?
“Are you kidding me?” Willow responded again. “How will anyone else ever compare?”
She had a point. It would be tough for a regular guy to match Axel, financially and otherwise. “True.”
“You’re not interested in her, are you?” Willow looked slightly crestfallen.
Apparently he hadn’t been as careful to hide his feelings as he’d thought. But he was an ex-con, making a modest wage working for a correctional school. He’d never known his father, and his mother was a meth addict, constantly in and out of rehab. He knew when he was out of his league. “No.”
“Good.” A relieved smile curved her lips. “Because I’ve been watching you for a while and…well… I hope there’s someone else in this restaurant you might be interested in.” She finished in a rush, couldn’t quite look at him and then hurried away—only to return with a slip of paper that had her number on it when she brought the check.
Harper shoved her garlic mashed potatoes from one side of her plate to the other as she listened to the hum of voices in the diner. Although surrounded by people, she’d never felt so alone.
“I’ve got a number five,” the cook barked out for the waitresses.
Harper checked the menu, which she’d left open at her elbow so she’d have something to look at. It was difficult to go out in public right now. After the documentary she did with Axel last year, trying to remove the stigma of depression and using a therapist when necessary, people often recognized her, so she had little privacy.
A number five was a chicken breast with lemon-dill sauce, steamed vegetables and a gluten-free corn muffin. She’d ordered a number seven—peppercorn steak, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, which had sounded good at first, but the only thing she’d been able to make herself eat was part of the dinner roll. She doubted it was gluten-free. Axel had made a big deal about staying away from gluten, but he was allergic to it, not her. And although she thought it was probably wise to avoid it, she didn’t care about her diet right now. She didn’t care about much of anything since her marriage had unraveled. It’d been all she could do just to hold herself together for the sake of her kids, and now Christmas would be here in only three weeks. It would be her and the girls’ first Christmas without Axel. He was touring Europe and wouldn’t be back until after the first of the year, since his last big concert was scheduled for New Year’s Eve.
Now that everything had changed between them, they wouldn’t have spent the holidays as they had in the past, anyway.
He might’ve asked to take the girls, however.
She could only imagine how lonely she would have felt with them gone, and yet…she sort of wished he had taken them. She didn’t feel capable of holding up her end, of putting on a brave face and telling their children that everything was going to be okay when it felt as though the ground had given way beneath her feet. She had no interest in decorating, putting up a tree or buying presents, which was why her sister had insisted she come
for an extended visit, even if it meant having the girls transfer schools for a couple of months. Piper and Everly were at a church Christmas party tonight with their cousins—twin girls who were older than Everly by four years. But Harper needed to be ready to face them with a smile when they came home.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket, but she didn’t bother to get it out. No doubt it was her sister. They’d had an argument before Harper stormed out of the house. Karoline had grown angry when Harper told her how little she was getting for child support. According to her sister, she was letting Axel off far too easy.
He was making a fortune, but Harper didn’t want to fight. She was still in love with him. As soon as he’d made it clear that he didn’t want to be married to her anymore, that he was no longer willing to try to work through their differences, she’d settled for the first figure his lawyer had thrown out. Otherwise, she was afraid the media would start to claim they were going through a “bitter” divorce. As she’d told Karoline, she’d make it on her own somehow, even though she hadn’t worked in an official capacity since the first three years of her marriage, when Axel was trying so hard to get a start in show business and he’d needed her to cover their basic living expenses.
Maybe she was a fool to be so accommodating. But she couldn’t imagine Axel would consider keeping the family together if she turned into a bitch. Besides, she didn’t even know who he was anymore, he’d changed so much. She couldn’t decide what she had a right to demand. Had she let Axel down? Or had he let her down? He’d always suffered from anxiety and depression. Maybe she hadn’t done enough to help him—
“Is everything okay?”
She forced herself to look up. The waitress working the counter had paused in front of her, obviously wondering if there was something wrong with the food.
“Fine,” Harper mumbled. She hadn’t really come to eat. She just needed some time alone, couldn’t face going back to her
sister’s quite yet. As nice as it was of Karoline to provide a refuge during this difficult month, being with her only sibling wasn’t much easier than being alone, because now she had to constantly explain and justify her actions. And with her emotions zinging all over the place, she wasn’t being consistent, couldn’t be consistent. Most of the time, she wasn’t even making a whole lot of sense.
Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” came on the sound system as the waitress moved on to her other customers.
Harper took a sip of her coffee and braved a quick glance around. Although she liked this restaurant, she didn’t feel she belonged in Silver Springs. Why wasn’t she in Denver, where she and Axel had lived after their college days at Boise State?
Because as much as she and Axel had once believed that they’d be the exception to the rule, that nothing could come between them, they’d been wrong. Slowly but surely, Axel had lost all perspective and started caring more about his work than he did his family. Fame had destroyed their relationship like so many celebrities before them.
With a sigh, she took the bill the waitress had put near her plate and paid at the register. She owed her sister more respect than to make her worry. She had to go back and face Karoline whether she wanted to or not.
Harper hadn’t put on makeup for weeks, hadn’t done anything with her hair, either, other than to pile it in a messy bun on her head, so it didn’t bother her that it was raining. She was cold, though; couldn’t seem to get warm. Tightening her oversize coat—a castoff of Axel’s from the good old days when they were first married—she pushed out of the warm café into the bad weather.
Putting her head down, she stared at her feet, bracing against the gusts of wind that whipped at her hair and clothes while stepping over two or three puddles to reach the Range Rover
Axel had let her keep when they split. If she got desperate, she supposed she could sell it. It had cost a pretty penny.
She was opening the driver’s door when she noticed a tall, lanky man with longish dark hair crossing the lot toward her.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, lifting one hand in a gesture intended to show he wasn’t being aggressive. “I just… I saw you inside and…”
Prepared to rebuff him, she set her jaw. She was not in the mood to be hit on. But when she met his eyes, something about his expression told her that wasn’t what this was about. Taking a long-stemmed white rose from inside his coat, he stepped forward to give it to her.
“Hang in there. It’ll get easier,” he said. Then he walked off before she could even ask for his name.