Fame and Consequences

1 Interview

A year ago, if you would have told me I’d be standing here today, I would have laughed in your face. Even now, as I stand here ready to walk out on that stage, it feels like a dream. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not at this point in my life. Am I?

Gentle hands shake my shoulders back and forth. “Take a deep breath and relax.” Obeying, even though it does nothing to settle my nerves. I open my eyes and peer into Elijah’s hazel-grey orbs.

“I can’t do this.” My voice shakes.

He sighs, in exasperation I’m sure, and rubs his hands up and down my arms. “Sophie, you can do this. You’ll be fine. I’ll be with you the whole time.”

“But, what if I say something I’m not supposed to? This is live TV; you can’t take it back.” I groan as my stomach lurches. I’m going to be sick.

“Mr. Stone, you have two minutes,” a small woman with a clipboard and headset tells him. He nods then turns back.

“Suck it up. You can do this.” The authority in his voice makes me smile.

To the world, Elijah Stone may seem like a quiet and reserved guy, who has everything in his life mapped out and perfect, and he does. But, to those of us who know him well, we realize that underneath that quiet, reserved exterior is a passionate, caring man who would walk through heaven or hell for those he loves. He does have a downfall, he’s exceptionally unorganized without his assistant, and he likes to assume he’s in complete control of his world. We who love him let him continue in his delusion.

“I’ll be okay. You better get ready.” I smile to let him know I’m fine. It doesn’t fool him though.

He rests his forehead on mine as he takes my hands into his, kissing them. “Listen, my little brown-eyed girl, you can do this. You have nothing to fear. I’ll help you. I’m here for you. I’ll even hold your hand out there, if it will help.”

He tucks loose wisps of hair behind my ear and kisses my forehead. I love it when he does that. Forehead kisses are the best and completely turn me into goo. I expect he knows this and uses it to his advantage. No, I know he knows this, his smirk is telling.

“No, we agreed, our private life should be private. We’re hounded enough.” I lean up on my tiptoes and kiss his cheek.

“Mr. Stone, we have thirty seconds,” the same girl says.

“Go, Mr. Stone. I’ll be with you soon.”

He cups my face, then leaves me to head out on stage as he’s being announced by Lesley Winters, America’s number one daytime talk show host. I suppose you could say that this is my debut into the world of television. I wrote a few books recently, and somehow they made it onto the New York Times’ bestsellers list. They were in the top ten for nearly two months. I’ve even won a few awards for them. Suddenly, everyone everywhere wanted to interview me, or ask me about them. I had signings all across America and in other countries as well. It’s been surreal and overwhelming. All of this has brought me here today, my first television appearance. I’m so thankful that Elijah could be here with me.

As these things go, Elijah is the big crowd pleaser, so they have him go on first. After all, he does have a movie coming out soon. When he’s done, I’ll come out, and we’ll discuss my books and them becoming movies, which is Elijah’s first production project. There’s been tons of speculation on our relationship because of this. He had ended a year long, high profile romance with actress Keira Martin not long after he was seen with me, and it was assumed he was cheating. It was, in fact, not due to cheating at all. She wanted a man to shower her with things, and though Elijah is very generous, he couldn’t keep up with her demands. So, they parted as friends. They probably have the cleanest break-up story ever told. Elijah and I have chosen not to say anything on the dating matter, because, I have nothing to do with their demise. I glance at Elijah on stage one more time before heading to my dressing room. I need the quiet to calm my nerves. This is the next step in my journey, comfortable or not, but I know with Elijah by my side, I’ll be fine.

A faint knock on my door precedes a timid voice. “Miss Parker?” says a young girl with brilliant blonde hair standing at my dressing room door.

“Yes?”

“I’m Stacey, I need to do your makeup for the set.”

“Oh, okay. Come in.” We shake hands, and she sets to work.

After a few moments of silence, Stacey says, “I read your books. They’re wonderful!”

I take a steady breath. Not that I’m nervous about speaking to her about my books; no, I do that all the time. I’m so nervous about being in front of a billion people on live TV, talking about myself and my work.

“Thanks. I’ll sign them for you, if you want.” I offer.

I don’t understand the whole signing thing, but I do it. It blows my mind that people want my signature or that having my little Jane Hancock on my books might make them more valuable one day. Fame & Consequences

“Oh, really? That would be so awesome! Mr. Stone signed my makeup kit. He’s so sweet. You guys make a great couple. I don’t care what anyone says, you’re way better than that other chick.” Her hands work wildly through my hair as she speaks. Her mannerism reminds me of someone talking with an old friend, not a stranger one has just met.

“Um … Stacey, I’m not comfortable talking about Mr. Stone, or his relationships.” I do try to be polite.

“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. Forgive me, that was terribly unprofessional.” She looks abashed, and I feel bad for crushing her mood.

I clear my throat. “It’s okay.”

It doesn’t take her long to finish up and leave me to fret until it’s my turn. I catch the tail end of Elijah’s interview on the small TV screen in my dressing room. He looks great out there. Elijah is gorgeous, tall, great hair, perfect doe brown eyes. To me, looks aren’t important. He’s a natural with people, and has Lesley Winters eating out of his hands.

I can see now why he suggested her for my first interview. She’s friendly and funny with the perfect amount of seriousness. Plus, she has a genuine interest in me. She had contacted me not long after my books hit the top ten for an interview, but I wasn’t ready. She wanted my life story, more than to promote my books. I didn’t want the tragedy in my life to be what pushed me to fame, not that it would. I wanted my work to be what people considered when they read my name, not the tragic tale of an orphan girl. However, to some degree, my life circumstances have pushed me into the limelight anyway.

I stare back at the screen where Elijah is sitting, listening to Lesley explain about his new movie before they watch the clip. His dark hair flops into his face and he brushes it away. His hair is one of my favorite features. It’s long on top, and slightly wavy and dark, with a bit of a white skunk spot on the top left side of his head. He hates it, but it’s him. It plays perfectly with his lightly tanned, complexion.

“Miss Parker, we’re ready for you,” clipboard girl tells me. I nod and follow her to my place behind the curtain.

Stacey checks me over again, squeezing my arm lightly. “You’re going to do great.”

“Thanks.” I smile warmly. She is sweet even if she rambles about things that are none of her business.

I barely hear Lesley announce me before clipboard girl shoves me out into the spotlight. I did a walk-through before the show so I know where to go and what to do. However, I didn’t ask how I should greet my boyfriend. We’ve not confirmed or denied anything to the public. It’s not that we are trying to hide anything; it’s just not their business.

I walk over to Lesley, she gives me the customary hug and kisses my cheek. I do the same, then smile uneasily at Elijah. He’s clapping and smiling brightly. Lesley motions me into position beside Elijah.

He must sense my unease, because he wraps his arms around me in a slight hug and says, “You’re doing great. You look beautiful.” He kisses my cheek then we settle into our seats. I feel more relaxed sitting. Everyone is cheering. I know they’re told to, but it still makes me more at ease.

“Thank you, thank you. Let’s get this show on the road,” Lesley says, laughing, waving the excited audience to sit down. She takes a sip of her water, crosses her legs with flare. “Sophia, nice to meet you.”

“You as well,” I say, smiling. I adjust my skirt, crossing my left leg over my right. Elijah is sitting close to me on the couch. I can feel his warmth, but he’s not touching me. It’s comforting.

“You look gorgeous. I love your outfit!” She waves her hand to my form, several people in the audience cat whistle.

I blush. “Thanks.”

“Who’s the designer?” she asks.

I glance down, embarrassed, and smooth my skirt out a little. “Um … me?” I don’t know why it comes out as a question.

“You? You designed your outfit?” Lesley asks. I assume she’s genuinely impressed.

I nod. “Yeah, my grans was a seamstress, and she taught me everything she knows. I’ve been making a lot of my clothes since I was a teenager.”

“Wow! Multi-talented. I’m impressed. It looks beautiful.”

“Thank you.” My skirt is black with a lace overlay that comes to the bottom of my thighs, with a silver, glittery belt, and a ruffled purple sleeveless top. My brown naturally curly hair is left down and flat-ironed stick straight.

“Well, I for one am excited to have you on the show today!” She turns to the audience. “Who else is excited?” The audience cheers, and I blush. Elijah chuckles. Lesley settles them down, then turns back to me. “As you know, I’ve been trying to get you on here for a while.” She raises a perfectly groomed eyebrow at me.

I raise my hands in surrender. “I know,” I say, faux wincing.

She grins. “Well, you’re here now, and it seems like I have even more info to get out of you.” She throws her head back laughing.

I chuckle, but my insides are doing somersaults. I know what she’ll ask, as the whole thing is scripted, but Elijah warned me that sometimes they go way off script, and it has me worried.

“Oh, no,” I murmur nervous. Elijah brushes my hip with his finger; I relax slightly. He won’t let her get far without stepping in on my behalf.

“I want to talk about your book and subsequently the movie, but I’d like to start with telling everyone a little about you.” I nod. “You did a magazine interview recently, where you talk about your family.” I nod again as I listen. I’m forgetting about the audience. It’s more like I’m having a conversation with a friend. “Tell us a little about yourself.”

I smile, feeling the telltale sign of a blush rising on my cheeks. “There’s not much to tell. I grew up in Mississippi with my twin brothers, my grandparents and great uncle, all my family really. We’re a pretty close-knit group. My mom and dad were teen parents, but passed away when I was young.”

“That’s terrible. What happened to them?”

“Car accident. There was a flood and their car was washed into the river,” I say, trying to suppress the tears I feel forming. It was a long time ago, but it still hurts. I avoid thinking about it as much as possible. Elijah moves his hand and gives mine a gentle squeeze. I smile at him in appreciation.

“Oh my. And your grandparents raised the three of you?”

I nod. “They did, along with my grandpa’s twin brother. He moved in when I was probably eight. His wife passed, and he didn’t like living alone, his kids were grown and out of the house by then.”

“Sounds like you had a loving family. Did they support your desire to write?”

“Yes, actually. My uncle Cliff, he’s the one who lived with us, was a writer. He stuck to poetry, but he told the best stories. I guess that’s where my love of writing started.”

“Well, we are certainly glad you pursued that path. Your stories are fabulous. Am I right, guys?” The audience cheers and screams.

I smile and mouth a ‘thank you’ to them all.

Lesley turns to the camera. “We’ll take a short break and be back in a moment to talk to Elijah and Sophia about their upcoming movie project.” We go to commercial.

Elijah leans over and whispers in my ear, “You’re doing great, baby.”

I glance at him and smile. “Thanks. I don’t feel as nervous.”

“You’re doing wonderful!” Lesley confirms. We chat about nothing important, and before I know it, the cameras are rolling again.

“We’re back with Elijah Stone and Sophia Parker. Now, I’ve heard that you two had an interesting ‘Meet Cute’. Will you tell us about it?” Lesley asks.

I peer at Elijah and laugh. He smiles. “Go ahead, tell the world how head over heels you were for me.” He laughs then winks at me.

I giggle and straighten my skirt nervously. I hope I don’t mess up. “Um, I like to refer to our meeting as a ‘Meet Stupid’ not a ‘Meet Cute’,” I say.

Lesley’s eyes grow wide. “Oh, do tell!”

I laugh again and the crowd cheers loudly. I can’t believe this. It’s absolutely nuts. “Oh, okay.” I look out at the couple hundred people who have come for today’s show and shake my head. I lean in a little closer to Elijah. “I can’t believe they care.”

“I know. I know,” he says, chuckling.

“So, we were both on the same flight to Australia about a year ago. I was running a bit late and was rushing to get to my seat. I’m terrified of flying.” The crowd laughs. “So, of course, I trip and fall. I’m not sure how I managed it, but my laptop bag bonks Elijah on the head and my overnight bag goes soaring off in front of me as I sprawl in the aisle. The attendant helps me up as I hear him,” I point to Elijah, “ordering two tequilas. I think nothing of it and finally get settled in my seat. I don’t bother looking at him or anyone. I’m mortified by this point. So, I ignore everyone and start breathing real deeply, counting, and chanting to myself that I’ll be all right, to calm myself. Elijah is laughing beside me, but I pay him no attention, until he sets the little bottle of liquor in front of me and tells me to drink.”

“I don’t drink!” I say offended.

“Just drink it,” he says, encouragingly.

“I can’t. I don’t drink.” I’m adamant.

“Why, are you pregnant?”

I huff, offended. “What? No, of course not. I don’t like how it makes me feel.” I push the little bottle back to him.

He pushes it back in front of me. “Trust me. It will help. Unless you have Valium.”

“No.”

“Then drink it. It will help you calm down. I don’t think I can listen to thirteen plus hours of you chanting.”

“Fine.” I grab the bottle.

I shake my head and grin at Lesley. I still can’t believe how it all went down. “I have nothing to lose at this point. I’ve already embarrassed myself to the max. So, I chug the little bottle. After about three little bottles, I’m loose and relaxed. Okay, I was drunk,” I laugh as does everyone in the audience.

“Go on,” Lesley encourages, enthralled.

I blow out a breath and continue with my tale. “So I kind of lull my head to the side and say, ‘Hey’.”

“Yeah?” Elijah answers with a smile.

I look at him then down to the tray in his lap. “That’s my book.” He looks at me puzzled and picks the book up, examining it.

“Um, no. I’m pretty sure this is mine. I bought it in the airport bookstore.”

I laugh. “No, silly. I wrote it.”

“You’re Sophia Parker?”

“Yep!” I pop my ‘P’ dramatically. “But call me Sophie. Sophia is too formal. Makes me think of my grandparents when they’d yell at me.”

He puts his hand out to shake mine. “Nice to meet you, Sophie. Hey, would you mind signing this?” he asks.

I shrug. “Sure, I guess.”

He laughs. “I don’t mean to put you out.”

I wave him off. “No, it’s nothing. I don’t understand why an autograph is so important. I mean, yeah, to sign checks and stuff, but to sign something for a stranger is weird to me.” I have his book on my tray and it’s open to the first blank page. I sign my name as I sarcastically say, “You want my phone number too?”

“Yeah.” I can hear the laughter in his voice as I write not only my phone number but my address, parents, brothers, and animals’ names. My height, weight, and measurements, and a little blurb about how I think autographing is ridiculous. I close the book and hand it back to him. He’s amused by my antics.

“There you go, tiger,” I say with a wink. “What do I get for my troubles? You gonna sign something for me?”

His eyes crinkle with laughter. “I thought you said it was ridiculous?”

“I did, but, you know, tit for tat and all that.” My words may slur, but I still know who he is.

“Why would you want my signature?” he asks.

“You’re famous. Why not?”

“So you know who I am?” I nod, but with exaggerated movements.

“’Course, I do, everyone does. That’s you on the screen, right?” I point to the in-flight movie.

I can’t help but grin. It’s the movie that sent him to stardom, ‘Shift’. He plays a high school student with the ability to shift his form into anything he touches. He’s kept his family secret his whole life, but when he meets someone, that all changes. She has secrets of her own, and soon chaos breaks loose. He was good and people everywhere loved it and him. He’s been a household name since.

“Yeah,” he groans.

“Doesn’t it annoy you? I mean, all the fans and paparazzi hounding you? It must be exhausting. I don’t know how you handle people prying into your life. You know, the other day I was on social media and there were like ten posts about you in a row. It gets old. I don’t know how you do it. And to top it all off, they pry into your private life. I mean, come on, how many times are they going to post the same pictures and speculate about something they know nothing about? I feel so bad for you.” I ramble. He sits there amused as he listens to my slurry mantra.

“It gets old, but I signed up for this job. I knew what could happen.” I notice he has a faint Scottish accent. I’d noticed it on TV interviews, but in person, it’s different. He hands me a signed napkin, and I lay it on my tray.

“Yeah, but I bet you didn’t realize it’d be like this, though.”

“No, not really. I never expected to make it as well as I have. I’m grateful,” he tells me.

I sit up, with great effort, and look at him. “You know what? I think you’re an all right person. Not a stuck-up jerk like others I’ve met.”

He laughs. “Thanks. I think.”

“Hey,” a voice comes from beside us, and I look up.

“Crap on a cracker, you’re big,” I say to the man, looming over us. He’s very tall, with dark blonde hair and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. His muscles look like they’re trying to rip their way out of his shirt.

He looks down at me and smiles. “You want to trade seats?” the big guy asks Elijah.

“No. I’m good. Thanks, Hutch.”

“Okay, boss. Just let me know.”

“Sure,” Elijah says as Hutch leaves us.

My head lulls back over to Elijah. “Does he think I’m harassing you?” I ask.

“Probably. But you’re not. It’s refreshing to find someone honest for a change. Most people try to suck up to me. I like someone who seems to view me on borderline hatred.” He laughs.

“I don’t hate you. I told you I felt bad for you,” I defend myself.

“But not bad enough to want my signature.” He points to the napkin he’s signed. The condensation from my drink has ruined it.

I laugh. “Oops, I guess my napkin’s worth went down.” I take an exaggerated breath. “Isn’t it stupid if we sign something, it makes the value of the item increase?”

He nods. “It’s pretty crazy.”

“Do you use a fake signature?” I ask him in a conspiratorially low voice.

His amusement grows as he laughs again. “I do. How about you?”

“No, not really. I’m pretty lazy about signing my name, anyway. It never looks the same twice,” I say with a wink.

I chuckle again and grin at Lesley. “At some point, I drift off to sleep, only waking when the flight attendant informs me that I need to buckle up. I also realize I’ve been asleep on Elijah’s shoulder and drooled down his shirt. Now sober, I’m absolutely horrified.” I shake my head as the laughter echoes in the studio. “After assuring me it’s all right and signing a new napkin for me, Elijah and I depart the plane.”

“So, do you still have the napkin?” Lesley asks excitedly.

I smile. I haven’t told Elijah this before. “Um, no. I don’t,” I confess.

Elijah snorts and Lesley gasps.

“Did you throw it away?” she asks in shock, putting her hand over her heart, with an exaggerated pout.

I shake my head. “No. As I was waiting on my bags, he and his group walked by. A little girl, maybe ten, started freaking out, saying he was her favorite actor. So, I gave her his signed napkin, and told her I sat by him on the plane. I thought she’d faint, she was so happy.” Lesley gushes about how sweet that was, and Elijah squeezes my hand.

“So the rest is history and you guys are in love and getting married,” she says laughing. We both chuckle but say nothing. She holds up her hands in surrender and continues, “I know, not on topic. So, we all know Mr. Stone here is notoriously private. Have you adopted the same philosophy?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it a philosophy, but I think your personal life, to a certain point, should be separate from your work life.”

“So you wouldn’t tell us if you had a boyfriend or who he was?” she tries.

“Probably not. Not that I’d be ashamed or anything. I, like I said, think work and home should be separate.”

“Oh, honey. I totally understand. So let’s talk about this new movie! Where are you in the process?”

I glance at Elijah, hoping he’ll take it from here. He moves his left arm to rest on the seat behind me. He’s still not touching me, but I feel like he’s wrapping himself around me. I wish I could sink into his side.

“We’re still in the early stages. We have the studio in the works, and Sophia and I will be producers. Once the studio is secured, we’ll start the rest of the process.”

“Any preferences on what actors you’d like to play the parts of Marshall and Alyx, Sophia?” Lesley asks.

I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts. “No, not really. I’d like to have someone who’s relatively new, or maybe on TV at the moment. I like the idea of helping someone further their career.”

“A pay-it-forward effect?” Lesley says.

I nod. “Exactly! I am so incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, and I don’t know if I’d have it had I not been on that plane to Australia at the right time.”

“Nah, you’d still have it. Your work is awesome,” Elijah tells me. The audience ‘awes’. I blush, but thank him for the compliment.

“You guys are so sweet together! Aren’t they the sweetest?” Lesley asks the audience, they agree, clapping and cheering.

Elijah pulls me closer to him and kisses my hair, causing the spectators to go off again. I peek up at him and shake my head, smirking. Even though it was a gesture any good friend might have done, to the viewers, it’s as good as outing our relationship status.

“So, how has it been working together so far?” Lesley asks as the crowd settles.

“It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot about the business. I couldn’t do this without him.” I point to Elijah.

She smiles. “What about you, Elijah?”

He chuckles and scratches his chin. “It’s been … an experience,” he says teasingly. I elbow him in the ribs lightly, sending the audience into laughter again. “Okay, okay.” He holds his hands up in surrender. “Seriously, it’s been great. She has a brilliant mind. Even though she doesn’t have formal experience in the movie business, she has incredible ideas I expect will translate to film well.”

I smile and mouth ‘thank you’ to him. He winks at me before looking back at Lesley.

“Do you think all of your books will be made into films?” she asks.

“I hope so. It is a series. I think my fans would love to see them all put to film, but there’s always a chance it won’t translate well enough.” I shrug. It is a big worry, but Elijah is confident they’ll do well.

“I have every intention to see they are all put to film. The series is great and will make a spectacular movie franchise,” Elijah says.

“Wonderful. Thank you both so much for being here. Good luck on your projects. I can’t wait to see Marshall and Alyx brought to life. Thank you, viewers, for tuning in and please be back here tomorrow to see the cast-off from Teen Idol and the cast of the new hit movie Turbulence. Have a blessed day, America!” She blows a huge kiss and we’re off the air. She turns to us as stagehands rush over to take our mics. “Thanks, guys. This was great,” Lesley says, her voice returning to her normal pitch.

“Thanks for having us,” Elijah replies. His microphone is off so he stands and offers me his hand. As soon as my microphone is off, I take it and stand. He kisses my cheek. “You did great, sweetheart.”

“You guys are so stinking cute together. You’re quickly becoming America’s new ‘it’ couple. Even if you refuse to admit you’re together.” Lesley finishes with a wink.

I cringe. “I hope not.” We don’t need any more unwanted attention.

Elijah chuckles. “I’m afraid they’ll be disappointed once they realize how utterly boring we are.” I nod my head in agreement. We exit the stage, gather our things, and head to our waiting limo.

2 College Friend

“Where to, boss?” Mike Hutchins, or Hutch as he is often called, asks as he opens the limo door. He is Elijah’s driver and bodyguard

“The Dave Hartley Show, lot 24,” Elijah replies. Mike nods and closes the door behind us.

“Little Miss, do you need to be dropped off somewhere?” Hutch asks as he takes his seat behind the wheel. He always calls me Little Miss, but I don’t mind. Mike is really sweet, he has a dry sense of humor, which reminds me of my brother Liam.

“No, thank you. I’m going with Eli today.” I wink at my boyfriend. Most people call Elijah, Stone, but his mom and I call him Eli. He absolutely hates it. He would prefer I call him Stone, but I just can’t do that unless I’m goofing around, or when he calls me Parker. I’m not completely sure what this group’s thing is with calling people by their last names, but it seems to be the trend.

Elijah leans in and kisses me right behind my ear, a spot he knows drives me crazy. “Missed you,” he whispers

I turn to face him slightly. “I’ve been with you all morning.” I playfully roll my eyes.

My overly affectionate boyfriend sighs, pulling me close to him, and says in a low husky voice, “You know what I mean. We’ve had no time for us.” He kisses behind my ear again.

I blush and my breathing deepens. “Whose fault is that?” I tease.

“My incompetent manager’s.” He chuckles huskily. “He sent me to New York for a whole week. I only needed to be there for two days.”

“Hmm, well let’s fire the creep and run off to a private island; then no one can bother us,” I murmur, before turning in the seat some to catch his lips with mine.

“Baby.” He pulls me closer to him, his fingers tickle the back of my bent knee.

“Close the partition,” I whisper. There’s a faint chuckle from Hutch as the window rises.

“You were so confident and in control out there talking to Lesley, baby. Just thinking about when we met … You drove me crazy on that flight. I didn’t know whether to kiss you or have your feisty little behind thrown off the plane.” I trail kisses from his lips down his jaw and neck.

“You like me feisty,” I tease, biting his ear lobe lightly.

“No, honey, I love you feisty. I love you in every way.” Suddenly the teasing atmosphere changes to a soft but serious one.

“I love you so much, Eli.” I cut off his response as I press my mouth to his in a heated kiss. His hand trails up my thigh, grabbing my waist, and pulling me sideways into his lap, grabbing the hair at the back of my neck and deepening our kiss.

“Baby, we need to stop.” His breathing is ragged as he pulls away.

“No, just a little more,” I say. He kisses me again, but I know it won’t go any farther, the control this man has is unreal. I huff as he pulls back.

He smiles at my reaction. “I have to be on set in twenty minutes.” I can see the regret in his eyes, but I huff again and flop back in my place and right my skirt. “I’m sorry.”

I wave him off. “No, you’re right. This isn’t appropriate behavior for the car, anyway. Plus, we agreed on our boundaries. You just make me push them.” I’m teasing, and he knows this.

He chuckles. “Someone has to make sure your virtue is maintained.” I cross my arms petulantly, which makes him laugh. He takes my hand in his and kisses the back of it. “I’ll make it up to you.” He brushes my hair from my eyes and kisses my lips softly.

We pull up to the curb and Hutch exits the car. He taps on the window and Elijah lowers it about three inches. “The crowd has already started to gather. Let me get security to handle them and then we can enter.”

“Okay. Take Soph through the back,” Elijah orders.

“Yes, sir.”

Hutch disappears through the crowd. I peek out the window and notice Daniel Brody, Elijah’s other bodyguard, stationed toward the back of the car. I hadn’t realized he had been following behind us, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Daniel, or Brody as everyone calls him, is almost the same build as Hutch, but where Hutch has thick blonde hair and blue eyes. Brody is bald with dark brown eyes and skin. He’s handsome, but the permanent scowl on his face and the tattoo on his head makes him appear a little intimidating. He’s a sweetheart, though, and loves me to death. I’m not being conceited, he’s actually told me that I’m as close to a little sister as he’s ever had.

Elijah squeezes my hand, and my eyes trail back to him. “Are you staring at Brody again?”

I blush. “No. Of course not.” I object defensively.

He laughs. “You so were. I’m going to fire him just so I can get more of your attention.”

“Mr. Stone, my attention is yours more than anyone else.” I lean in and plant a sweet kiss to his lips.

“I love you, Miss Parker.” He kisses me again. “Will you be all right waiting for me?”

“Of course! I told you my college roommate works here. It’ll be nice to catch up.”

“That’s right. What’s her name?”

“Krystal Whitaker.”

“Makeup artist?”

“Right. Remember I told you we lived in an apartment together in college?” He nods. “We’ve been in touch on and off through the years. I’ve been trying to see her since I moved to Los Angeles., but everything’s been so crazy,” I explain.

Krystal’s a lively, energetic person who talks way too much and has one too many tattoos on her body. She’s not like anyone I’ve ever met. Up until her, I hadn’t really had any girlfriends to speak of. I never cared for the drama they seem to bring. We were and are complete opposites, but we somehow made a great pair of friends that has lasted through the years. We used to talk almost every day, but it’s gotten less and less over the last couple of years, because of how busy I’ve been. I’m looking forward to being in the same place for a little while.

“Crazy because of me,” Elijah teases, bringing me out of my thoughts. I can see that he really believes this.

“Eli, my life would be boring without you,” I tell him. He opens his mouth to reply, but the car door swinging open stops him.

“We’re ready,” Hutch tells him.

“Good luck. See you in a few.” I smile and give him a little wave. I watch as Hutch escorts him into the building. He stops to sign a few autographs and greet his fans. He’s such a good guy, his fans absolutely adore him.

Brody climbs in the driver’s seat and we pull off into traffic. “How are you today, Danny?” I ask.

He looks into the review and scowls. He pretends that he hates when I call him Danny, but I can see that sly smile he gives me. “I’m fine, Sophia.”

I grin. “Good. Are you coming along with us to Mississippi?” Eli and I are planning to go visit my family soon. I haven’t seen them in over four years. I’m well over due for a visit.

“Yes, ma’am! Reynolds should be back before we head out.”

Josh Reynolds, my bodyguard, is off because of an injury to his knee. Brody has been filling his role even though I insisted I didn’t need a bodyguard. My overly protective boyfriend insisted I did, and the great Elijah James Stone always gets his way.

“I’ll get your door. We shouldn’t have any problems getting you in, though,” Brody says.

We’ve pulled to the back entrance of the building. He helps me out and escorts me inside. A small woman with blonde hair meets us in the long hall just inside of the doorway.

“Hi, I’m Anna, follow me, and I’ll take you to Mr. Stone’s dressing room.” She shakes my hand then abruptly turns and heads off toward Elijah. I quicken my steps to keep up with her.

She opens the door where Hutch is stationed on the outside, and ushers me in, leaving the guys in their guard post. “Hey, baby,” Elijah says as he stands to greet me. He kisses my cheek, then thanks the girl for her help. She leaves us, and Elijah turns his attention back to me.

“Your change of clothes is hanging up. I had them press it for you.”

“Thanks, you didn’t have to do that,” I tell him. He locks the door so I can change then sits on the sofa with his hands behind his head.

I stare at him for a moment and laugh. “Are you expecting a show?”

He winks. “Would you like music?”

I roll my eyes. “I don’t need music, baby.” I slowly start to unbutton my shirt, then smirk and move behind the changing partition set up in the room.

“Tease.” Elijah grunts.

I giggle. Eli and I have made an unpopular decision in waiting to have sex until we are married. We’ve set standards on what we are willing to do, and really no one knows about our choice. Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I’ve had this image in my head since I was a little girl, of giving that special part of myself to my husband. Surprisingly and luckily, Elijah is okay with that.

I step out from behind the partition fully dressed and smile. “You love it.”

He takes my hand and pulls me to sit on his lap. He kisses my cheek. “You know what I love?”

“What?” My voice is soft matching his.

“You. I can’t wait until we can have some time for ourselves.” The love I see in his eyes makes my heart squeeze. I love this man so much more than I ever thought was possible.

“Me too, and we will, but first we have to get this interview out of the way. Maybe tonight we can cookout and hang by the pool,” I suggest.

“That sounds wonderful.” He smiles, kissing me. Suddenly the serious atmosphere changes as an evil glint in his eye appears. I try to move away, knowing what he’s about to do, but I’m too late as he starts to tickle me relentlessly. “No, no! Stop!” I laugh and shriek, kicking and wiggling as I try to get away to no avail.

“Tell me I’m the most amazing actor in the world.”

“No!”

“Say it!” He grabs the back of my thigh and squeezes, knowing it’s my most sensitive spot. I scream out a startled laugh.

“Stop! I’m going to pee!

“Say it!”

“Fine! You’re the most amazing actor in the world.” He laughs as he rights me in his lap, kissing the side of my face.

“I knew you’d see reason. I’m sure they heard you through the door and probably think I’m doing all sorts of depraved things to you.”

I swat at him. “I’m sure some tabloid will leak that we were having very loud intercourse in your dressing room right before you went on the show.”

He throws his head back and laughs loudly. “You know, you can say sex, or evening fu …” I cover his mouth with my hand and glare at him. He laughs and pulls my hand from his face. “Sex, at least, isn’t one of your no-no words, but you’re probably right, if someone heard us, I’m sure gossip would ensue. But, you know what? I don’t care.” I just roll my eyes at him.

I know sex is not a bad word, but I’m a girl from the reserved south. You can take the girl out of Mississippi, but you can’t take my grandma’s voice out of my head. As for the ‘other’ word … well, if Grans heard that, she’d wash his mouth out with soap.

I stare up startled as the door flings open. “Lord, are you killing the poor girl?” Krystal asks as she marches into the room, paying no-mind to her favorite actor. Elijah chuckles, but doesn’t say anything as I jump up and into my friend’s arms.

“Krys!” I scream. We jump around like complete idiots in our embrace.

“You better be glad it was just me and your boys outside that door. I think anyone else would have tried to sneak in and get a picture of whatever was going on in here.”

“He was tickling me, that’s all,” I say in defense.

Krystal quirks an eyebrow at me then says, “Right.” Dragging her ‘i’ out.

“He was!” I exclaim.

“Uh huh. What’s that right there?” she asks pointing to my neck. I touch it and feel nothing, so I look in the mirror. “Gul-li-ble!” She sounds out the word in a singsong voice. I glare at her. She laughs. “Yeah, yeah. Hate me later. Right now, I need to be touching your boy.” She turns to Elijah. “Mr. Stone, pleasure to meet you. I’m Krystal Whitaker, but everyone calls me Krys.” She sticks out her hand to shake his.

He takes her hand, smiles, and says, “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Peering over her shoulder toward me, she says, “Oh, I see how it is. You’ll talk to him about me but not to me about him. Heefer,” Krys turns back and continues speaking to Elijah. “I know it was nothing but good things, as I’m the epitome of grace and class. Please have a seat.” She points to the make-up chair and he sits.

I burst out in laughter. “Oh, my side hurts.” I clutch said side as if there was a pinch there. “I’ve never heard such a line of malarkey come out of your mouth before.”

Krys sighs and shakes her head. “Your vocabulary is in serious need of some updating. Why is it such ‘malarkey,’ sweetie?” She bats her long fake eyelashes at me.

“Epitome of grace and class? If grace and class means you ride a Harley and have tattoos on eighty percent of your body.”

“Hey! My tattoos are very classy, and who says you have to be a nineteen-fifty house wife to be classy?” she defends with a smile as she works on Elijah’s face. Krys is wearing a tank top that has a low scoop neck that gives him the perfect view of her more than ample tattooed cleavage. Jealousy spikes through me.

“Close your eyes, Eli,” I tell him.

“What?” he asks confused.

“Thing one and Thing two are in your face. Close your eyes,” I tell him. I’m only half joking.

His eyes move to look up at me. I wink so he knows I’m only teasing, even though I’m kind of not. He rolls his eyes, but then closes them with a sigh. “Ruin all my fun,” he pouts.

“That’s okay, sugar. You can come by anytime. I can show you my other ink.”

I scoff. “Over my dead body you will, hussy.”

She pauses, looking down at Elijah. “You see how she treats me. It’s no wonder she’s never had girlfriends.” She tsks at me then continues her work.

“Are you two always like this?” he asks.

“Yes,” we answer in unison.

“When I met Miss Thang over there, she was this scrawny bookworm with black-rimmed glasses. I helped her become this fabulously hot woman she is today, although, I was never able to persuaded her to get some ink.” Krystal sighs, shaking her head dramatically.

“I have a tattoo,” I defend.

Krystal stops and turns to me. I plug in my curling wand and pay her no attention. “Shut the front door! Where?” she asks. “Show me, heefer.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? I’ve seen every inch of you, I don’t care where it is,” she says, putting her hands on her hips.

“Wait? What? You’ve seen her naked?” Elijah asks.

Krystal laughs then looks at him. “We lived together for almost four years.”

“When you say lived together and girlfriend, do you mean …” he stops, trying to think of how he wants to word this. I take pity on him and help him out.

“No. We weren’t girlfriends like that. We were platonic, you should know that.” I roll my eyes. It’s like he doesn’t know me at all. Besides, I’m a virgin for crying out loud. Plus, her seeing every inch of me is a gross over statement, in panties and bra maybe, but not naked.

“So she says,” Krys adds in a cryptic tone.

Elijah looks at me in surprise, opening his mouth to speak, but luckily the intercom interrupts us. “Krys, we need Mr. Stone in two.”

“Yeah, okay. He’s ready.” She rolls her eyes in an exaggerated fashion as she finishes up his stage makeup, then his hair. She declares him done, and Elijah stands. “I love this skunk spot, very hot,” she tells him, tugging it slightly.

He snorts. “Thanks.” Anna returns to fetch him for his interview and Krystal and I are left to ourselves.

She picks up my styling wand and tells me to sit in Elijah’s now empty chair. I obey, and she begins to curl my hair. “You should go ombre purple, it would look good on you,” she tells me.

“Ombre? Seriously? Everyone is doing that. Remember in college I had that look, and you made fun of me.”

“Yeah, but in college it wasn’t in style. It was just that you didn’t want to recolor your hair after your highlights started to grow out. It’s not like it was a bright rainbow color.” She rolls her eyes.

“So. I don’t want to look like everyone else.”

She looks at me sardonically. “Seriously? You could have fooled me. Look at how you’re dressed, and you know you were planning to do the beach-y curl look, like every other female in Hollywood.”

I blush. “That’s not true.” I pause and look at her in the mirror. “Fine. I like to be stylish, but I don’t like my hair lighter. You know that.”

“Yes, yes. I think everyone knows how much you hate light-colored hair.” She rolls her eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” I tell her, smiling at her through the mirror. She hugs my neck and places a kiss on my cheek.

“I’ve missed you, too. So, have you told your man about Carter yet?”

I groan. “Yes and no. Yes, I told him he was my best friend, and that we dated in high school, but no, he doesn’t know why we broke up.”

“Does he know you’ve started talking again?”

My face turns blood red. “No.”

“Does he know you’re a virgin?” I open my mouth to speak but she holds up her hand. “I know you were raised in a very strict environment and have your beliefs. I’m not belittling you for that at all. I respect them, you know that. I’m just worried because this is Hollywood, guys here are … different.”

“I know, and he does know and respects my wishes. I’m not a nun, and I do things that maybe I shouldn’t, given how I was raised, but he says he likes that I want to wait.” She gives me a look that screams ‘yeah, right’ and, I’ve worried about that a lot myself, but I have to trust him.

“I hope that none of this blows up in your face. You should tell him about Carter.”

I stare at my fingers. “I know. I will.”

Our topic switches to my upcoming trip home, and the excitement I have to see my family after such a long time. Of course, that also makes me think of Carter, but I push those thoughts away and keep it light and upbeat. Before I realize the time, Elijah is coming back in with Brody in tow.

I smile brightly at him. “How’d it go?” I ask, as I wrap my arms around Elijah.

He kisses my forehead. “It went well.” He pushes me back, getting a better look at me. “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you. I’m glad the interview went well. So, are you all done for today?”

“Yep, let’s go get some groceries and veg out at the pool.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I turn to grab my things, but find Krystal and Brody standing closely together talking. Her hand is on his forearm and he’s smiling down at her.

I nudge Elijah and point over to my friend. Eli smiles. “I see you two have hit it off.”

Brody straightens up and rubs the back of his neck. “Uh, sorry, boss. I just couldn’t help myself.”

“No worries. I’m ready to go if you are.”

Brody nods. “I’ll call you later?” he says to Krys.

Krystal winks. “You better.”

I give her an excited face as I follow the men out, and she actually blushes. In all our years as friends, it’s a sight I’ve never seen, but I couldn’t be happier; he’s a great guy.

 

3 Insecurities

Back at Elijah’s house, we put the groceries we purchased away, then he heads to his room to change, and I to the guestroom. I throw a cover-up over my swim suit and pull up my hair. I hate to ruin what Krystal has done, but I need it out of my way. I head toward the kitchen where I hear Elijah tinkering around.

“Are we going to eat first?” I ask, it’s a quarter after two and we’ve not had lunch, but I wouldn’t mind waiting until dinner.

“Nah, well, I am going to grab a light lunch, but I wanted to marinate the steaks. I thought we could eat around five or six. Is that okay?”

“Of course. I’ll make a salad for now.”

“Mind making me one too?” he asks as he stands over at the counter rubbing the marinade over the steaks.

“Not at all.”

We busy ourselves with our individual tasks. I like the normalcy of the situation. When I’m finished, I take our salads out to the patio so we can eat in the shade, while Elijah washes up and grabs our drinks and takes a seat beside me.

“It’s beautiful,” I muse as I stare out at the valley and mountains before us. The sun beats down on everything creating a golden glow on the valley that flows seamlessly, a cloudless sky of the most prefect blue.

“Yes, you are.” I glance over to Elijah and smile.

“I’m talking about the scenery.”

He nods. “So am I.”

He holds out his hand and gives mine a squeeze before he continues eating. Once we are done, I take the dishes into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. The marinade on the steaks smells fantastic; I can’t wait to eat dinner. Outside, Elijah has already dived into the pool and is swimming laps in the deep end. I pull off my cover-up, a little nervous since I chose a two-piece. I’ve only worn one in front of him once before. In general, I’m more comfortable in shorts and a tank-top, but I’ve tried to loosen up a little, though I won’t be wearing a two-piece in front of anyone else anytime soon. I ease myself into the water on the shallow end. I can swim, quiet well actually, but I’m feeling very lazy today so floating is preferred.

Elijah pops up beside me, scaring me and making me fall below the water. He scoops me up quickly as I cough and sputter. He chuckles. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I was in my own little world.”

He pushes the wet hair that’s hanging in my face out of the way. “What’s on your mind? New story?”

“Uh, not really. I need to talk to you about our trip. There are some things I neglected to mention, well not really neglected, just forgot.”

He grabs his sunglasses, and two floating chairs from the side of the pool and passes one to me. They are the kind that let you sink down in the water, which is good, because I would feel over exposed telling him this in what could easily pass as underwear.

“What’s going on?” His brow is pinched together as a worried expression spreads over his handsome face.

“You’ve said before that my family seems perfect, but that’s not true. It’s nothing horrible, but I’m afraid I’ll be embarrassed at some point on this trip.”

“Don’t be embarrassed on my account,” he reassures me. “You know my family is messed up. My parents are divorced and hate each other. I’ve spent my life traveling between here and Scotland just so they wouldn’t see each other.”

I bob my head, knowing the story. I should have shared more about my family when he did, but it didn’t work out that way. “It’s actually two things. The first is the easiest to tell. My cousin Clarissa, we are days apart, our moms were best friends. Bonnie, her mom, is my dad’s cousin. So naturally we were expected to be best friends, but we are more enemies than anything else. She’s a bully.”

“What did she do?” I shrug. “Soph, it’s in the past.”

Exhaling, I peer up to the cloudless sky. “It’s not really in the past, though. Gran says she’s jealous of me. I won a lot of awards in school for creative writing, sports, music, stuff like that; she barely passed,” I say with a sigh. “Then there was Carter. He was my best-friend, and later my boyfriend, and she wanted him. He hates her, not only because she has a horrible personality, but she was so cruel to me growing up, even going so far as making fun of my parents being dead. Once I went off to college, I thought things would change, but they didn’t.” I pause and take a deep breath.

“She’s still awful to you?”

I shrug. “I haven’t talked to her in a few years, but Gran is planning a get together with the family while we are there. She will try to start something with me, I know she will. She’s married and has a family, but she’ll still do something, and that worries me.”

He takes my hand. “I’ll be there for you, and I do have some pretty capable bodyguards. I’m sure they could take her out.” He winks.

I chuckle. “Probably.”

“What is the second thing?” he asks.

“Carter.”

“What about him?”

He drags a fingertip over my arm. His face is calm, loving, but traitorous tears spring to my eyes, which is stupid. Carter is a bit of sore subject for me at the moment. I’m so glad I’m wearing sunglasses so Elijah can’t see my eyes.

“He’ll probably be there.”

Elijah is quiet for a moment too long, but as I’m about to speak, he does. “Should I be worried?”

I shake my head. “No. Not at all, we’re friends, only friends, and I mean that. I told you that we weren’t on speaking terms.” He nods his head. “Well, that’s not exactly true. We spoke before you and I met on that flight to Australia. It was slow going in rebuilding the friendship, but a few months ago he called me out of the blue and we finally got over the awkwardness that’s been plaguing us. I mean, I forgave him before that trip, but it took time to get us back.” I glance over at Eli. He looks like he’s thinking, maybe perplexed, but not angry.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I haven’t said anything because I didn’t want you to worry, and for most of that time, you were on location filming, and we barely spoke.”

I’m still feeling a little raw from dealing with my feelings for Carter, not that I pine for him or anything, it’s the whole situation and having lost my best friend for years. And yes, I feel guilty for not telling Elijah, which has made making up with Carter a little harder.

He’s quiet for a long time, so long that I worry he really is angry. “Are you mad?” I ask.

He looks over at me with hurt in his eyes. “Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“Honestly, it wasn’t intentional. Like I said, you were away, and I was busy working, I kind of forgot.”

He snorts. “That’s a big ‘forgot’.”

“I really did. I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner.”

“You should have,” he says, with slightly furrowed brows. “Do you talk every day?”

“No. Just random texts, or on social media messenger, but we’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times. He wants to Skype, but I haven’t yet. I wanted to tell you before I talked to him face to face.”

“It’s fine.” He seems dismissive, but after a few seconds he continues. He’s driving me a bit nuts with all the pausing. “I wish you would have told me sooner. It makes it seem like you’re hiding something from me, but I trust you and don’t think you’d purposefully hide anything.” He looks up at the sky then back at me. “It’s hard for me, because he hurt you. He was supposed to be your closest friend, your boyfriend. Plus, he did something awful, so awful you haven’t told me. I don’t understand how you can still be his friend.”

I knew he would understand if I told him. He was cheated on a couple of relationships ago, but they weren’t friends for their whole lives before that happened. That makes a difference, doesn’t it? I should’ve told him. I was being stupid. It was painful to talk about when we first started dating, and as time passed it seemed like a moot point.

“I wasn’t for a long time,” I finally say. “But, we have been friends since we were five years old. His mom is close to my gran, it’s inevitable that he’ll be in my life, but I promise you, he is just my friend and will only ever be that.”

He pulls me to him and gives me a quick kiss. “I believe you, but don’t get mad if I get a little jealous.” He gives me a wink which he knows makes me swoon. “I get crazy when I think some guy is even looking at you too long, but with him…” His eyes look down for a moment before finding mine again. “You’ve been his before. If he wants you again …”

I press my finger to his lips to stop whatever else he was going to say. “It’s not happening again. I don’t want him like I want you. I love you, Elijah. Carter is my best friend, or at least we are trying to work back to that, but we will never be together as a couple again.”

He nods. “I get it. Be patient with me?”

“I will,” I whisper before kissing him.

“Will you tell me why you broke up?”

I sigh. “I should have told you before. I was so embarrassed for so long. I couldn’t even think about him or what happened.”

“I get that.” He holds my hand as we float side by side, facing each other.

“I walked in on him having intercourse with my roommate. I was absolutely humiliated. We’d promised to be each other’s first. We were going to get married after we graduated.”

I’m surprised to find that I don’t have that pain or embarrassment like I thought I would in telling him this. Elijah smiles sadly at me, but there’s an underlying smirk. I’m sure because I said ‘intercourse’. Silly boy. He doesn’t comment on that, for which I’m grateful.

“I understand what that’s like. You know the girl I dated before Keira cheated on me with my friend.”

I nod. He told me that story a few months after we started dating. I should have told him then about Carter. I don’t know why I didn’t. That’s not true. The pain of losing what I had always dreamed was still a little too real. Besides, at that point, I wasn’t exactly sure that Elijah and I would last. I couldn’t be that vulnerable in front of him.

“It was awful,” I finally continue. “I’ve never felt so unhinged before, but I’m totally over it now. I keep thinking that, I’m just as human, I could have made the same mistake. I may even be somewhat responsible.”

He scoffs at me. “How in the world are you responsible?”

This time I do blush. “Well, at that time I didn’t do anything physical other than hold hands or a light kiss on the cheek. If I would have at least done something, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to find it elsewhere.”

Elijah balks, splashing water as he sits up swiftly. “Whoa, whoa! Sophia Elizabeth Parker, it is in no way your fault. You have standards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If a guy loves you, he’ll respect that. I respect the hell out of you.” I glare at the curse. He holds up his hand. “I’m sorry, but I do, Sophie. Is that why you kiss me and let me touch you?”

I groan and sink down into the water, but before I can get all the way under he pulls me up. “Is it?” He asks again.

I shake my head, nod, then shake again. “I really don’t know.”

He looks at me with what I’ll describe as exasperational pity. Yes, I realize it’s not a word, but it explains his face perfectly. He pulls me onto his float. “Sophie.” He squeezes me to him tightly. “I’m so sorry if you’ve felt forced to do things you aren’t comfortable with.” I shake my head, traitorous tears roll down my cheeks. Elijah removes my sunglasses and wipes my face. “Baby, talk to me.”

I lean in and kiss him softly. “I don’t feel forced into anything we do. Carter and I kissed in high school. He even touched my breasts a few times,” I sigh, snort, and shake my head at my own stupidity. “But we went to this church camp the summer before college. It was like every message was about saving yourself to save your soul. I was so worried that I’d already condemned myself that I cut Carter off to everything except holding hands and a peck on the cheek. I feel like I drove him to cheat. So, that may have influenced my decisions with you to begin with, but I like what we do.”

“I really don’t know what to say about all that, Sophie. It’s way out of my realm. I grew up in two countries with very liberal parents. My mom gave me a box of condoms for my sixteenth birthday and told me to have safe fun. But I do know one thing, and that’s that I respect you so much. You aren’t like anyone I’ve ever met. You completely beguile me, and I mean that as the sincerest of compliments. I love, honor, and cherish the fact that you want to save yourself for your husband. It’s such an old fashion tradition, but it’s an honorable one, and honestly it’s so you.” My face must show a great deal of confusion, because he gives me a small smile before explaining further. “I mean, you don’t conform to the societal norms in general, so why would I expect you to in this. Actually, I don’t want you to. I love you exactly how you are.”

I’m bawling by this point. Oh, Fiddlesticks, my mascara! He hugs me to him, peppering kisses on my forehead and hair. “You really know how to charm a girl.”

“I just want to charm you.” He lifts my chin and kisses me, maybe a little too deeply, but I allow it after that declaration.

We swim, play, and relax in the pool all afternoon, and then make our way to the showers before having dinner. After we eat and watch a movie, he takes me back to my hotel for the evening. I hate living in a hotel, but I haven’t gotten up the courage to spend any of the money I’ve made from my books or movie deal. Of course, I do use my money for necessities, but I mean a huge purchase like a home or a car. Though, a car will probably be my first purchase. Elijah has insisted that my guard, Josh, uses his car for now, but I’d love the freedom to just get in my own car and go. Maybe after the interest and speculations of Elijah and I wears off, I can.

As I’m opening the door to my room my cell rings. Grinning, I answer, “I literally just left you.”

He chuckles. “I hate being away from you. Did you get in your room okay?”

“Yep, just did.”

“Good. Sleep well, and I’ll see you in the morning. Love you, Sophie.”

“I love you, too. See you in the morning.”

~*~

I go through my nightly routine then settle into bed with my laptop. I don’t know what possess me to do it, but I search for photos of Keira, Elijah’s ex. They dated for about a year and ended on good terms. She’s super nice, and what my gran would call ‘high falutin’. You can tell she has more money than sense, but she’s sweet. I’d even go as far as to say we’re friends. I know Elijah cares for her and likes her, as a friend of course, but I can’t help feeling jealous. People used to comment all the time on how in love they were and how they wished their man looked at them the way Elijah looked at her. No one has said that about us.

I stare at one of the last pictures that was taken of them before their breakup. They were at an opening of one of her movies. He’s staring down at her, and people are right, he did gaze at her like she hung the moon. I pull up a picture that Eli’s mom snapped of us a few weeks ago. We are both looking at each other, much like Keira and Elijah were. Is he looking at me the same way? Would people say he’s looking at me like I hung the moon?

Another stupid whim hits me, and I text the two pictures to Elijah with the tag line: What were you thinking in each picture?

Less than a minute later my phone is ringing. “Why are you asking me that?” he asks before I can even say hello.

I sigh, running my hand through my hair and feeling totally stupid. “I … I don’t know. Just forget it.”

“No, babe. I’m not forgetting it. Did someone say something to you?”

“No one said anything. I was just trying to … I don’t even know what I was trying to do. I’m dumb and insecure. Just forget it please?”

He blows out a heavy breath. “Sophie, the way I feel for you doesn’t even hold a candle to my feelings for Keira.”

“Okay, that’s good enough for me. I’m sorry for being insecure. I’m going to go to bed.” I feel totally stupid and want off the phone to end my embarrassment. I don’t know how I’ll face him tomorrow.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m just really tired. We have a lot going on tomorrow.”

“Okay. I love you, Sophie.”

“I know, and I love you.” We end the call and my humiliation.

I put the laptop away, and head into the living area and pull out a yoga video. I need a distraction. I’m in Balasana or Child’s pose, when there’s an urgent knock at my suite door. Exasperated by the interruption, I slowly lift myself from my position and pad over to the door and the incessant knocking. I rip the door open quickly, and the next second, hands wrap around my face and lips close in on mine. I’m startled, but not afraid. The door is kicked closed and what seems like the next second my back is being pressed into the couch cushions as his heavyweight settles on top of me.

When his lips move to my neck, I gasp for breath. “Eli.”

He pulls back eyes looking wild. “You are everything to me. I would die without you, Sophia.”

I cup his face as tears spring to my eyes. “You’re everything to me, that’s what scares me so much. I’ve never felt this deeply for anyone.”

“Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. I’m in this with you. I promise you my feelings for you are deep and true. Please don’t read or believe anything on those stupid gossip rags.” I pull him back to me, but as always, before we get too carried away he pulls back, bringing me with him as he sits up. “Promise me you’ll stop reading them.” He runs his hands over my hair, smoothing it.

“It wasn’t that. It’s just my stupid brain.”

He smiles sadly at me. “I hate that who I am causes you pain.”

I tuck my hair behind my ears before responding. I really don’t know what to say, because his job does hurt me sometimes, even though I try hard to ignore everything. “You’re worth it.”

“I’m not so sure, but I’m too selfish to let you go.”

I crawl into his lap, hugging him tightly. “Please don’t let me go.”

His arms wrap tightly around me as he buries his face in my neck. “Never,” he whispers.

We sit wrapped up in each other for a long while until my yawn breaks our bubble. He kisses me softly. “I should let you get to sleep.”

I pull back some and peek at him. “Will you stay?”

He nods. “Sure, I’ll sleep on the couch.”

I shake my head. “No, sleep in my bed. I just want you to hold me.”

“You sure?” I nod. “I don’t want to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.”

“We’re both adults. We’ve talked about our boundaries. I just feel very … I don’t even know how to explain it. I just need you close.”

“Say no more. I’m here for you no matter what.” I move to get up, but he holds me tighter and stands up with me in his arms.

“You’re going to hurt yourself.”

He scoffs. “You are insane. You barely weigh one-hundred pounds. I lift more than that when training.”

I roll my eyes. I weigh one-twenty, but I won’t be telling him that. He kind of throws me on the bed, making me bounce and giggle. “Boxers and a tee-shirt okay?” I nod, and he undoes his jeans as he stares at me. Maybe this is a bad idea. “Soph?” I meet his eyes. “If you keep staring at me like that, especially while you’re biting your lip, we won’t be holding true to those boundaries we’ve discussed.”

I shake my head and stand. “I’ll just go get ready …” I trail off as I point to the bathroom. I hear him laughing as the door clicks shut.

I give him a few minutes as I piddle around since I’m already dressed for bed, and I hadn’t gotten much done in yoga to warrant a shower. Drawing a deep breath, I open the door to find him under the covers on the bed. He throws back the blankets on my side and motions for me to come to him. Once I’m settled, he shuts off the light and kisses my head as we snuggle together. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I jerk awake when a loud nasally British voice meets my ears.

“Sophia! Wakey wakey,” she calls.

I groan. Elijah yawns and stretches, releasing me from his hold. “I’ll get rid of her,” I mumble as I fall out of bed and pad heavily to the bedroom door and fling it open. “What are you doing here so early?”

She just stares at me with an expression of contrition on her pinched face. “Sophia, I’ve tried ringing your mobile for the past two hours! It’s ten am. We need to discuss the details of your upcoming tour. I’ll be leaving today to return to New York, and you will be leaving for your little trip down south. I couldn’t simplify the info in a text. You know how I find electronic communication.” She fusses.

“Yes, it’s simply dreadful,” I say in a mocking British accent. “So, where’s my itinerary, Amy?”

She glares at me. “It’s Amelia, thank you!”

“It’s Sophia, thank you.”

“Touché.”

She opens her messenger bag and hands me a stack of papers. I’m just sitting down with them at the little table in the kitchenette, when Elijah comes out of the room, yawning and scratching his belly. He’s still wearing his tee-shirt and boxers. Amelia’s eyes grow wide.

“Mr. Stone, I didn’t know you were here. I’m sorry to have wakened you.”

He looks at her with a raised eyebrow. “No worries, Amy. Tea?” He asks holding up the kettle.

“Oh, that’s very kind of you, but I have some.” She lifts her cup to show him.

He nods at her then turns to me. “Hot chocolate, baby?”

“Yes, please. Thank you.” I blush.

Amelia eyes me, but I pay her no mind as I continue to peruse my schedule. My eyes grow wide. “Oh, Mylanta!” I gasp, placing my hand over my chest.

Elijah, chuckles. “Uh oh, it must be something big. He sets my cup of hot chocolate in front of me. I point to the paper. His smile broadens. “That’s fantastic, sweetheart.” He kisses my head.

I look up at Amelia. “How in the world did you get me booked on Wake Up America?”

“Your talent alone got you on there, babe. I’ll be right back.” Elijah sets his coffee on the table then jogs to the bedroom.

“They want to talk about your book and the movie. I told them any talk of Mr. Stone is forbidden.”

I shake my head. “This is crazy.” Never in a million years did I think I’d one day be on this show. They only have the best of the best.

“Hey, looks like I’ll be in New York shooting some second takes,” Elijah says as he returns with his jeans on and phone in hand.

“I can be sure to get with Adam to make sure there are no conflicts and have you in separate hotels.” Amelia picks up her iPad and starts to tap away.

“No!” She jumps startled at Elijah’s loud defiance. “No, I’m tired of all the sneaking around. We were on Winters’ show. We did fine together. People are going to speculate all they want. I don’t care. I’m not hiding anymore. You can book us in the same suite.”

“Eli …” I start, but he interrupts.

“We can get a two bedroom suite, if that’ll be more comfortable for you.”

“That’s fine, but that’s not what I was going to say. Are you sure you want to out our relationship officially? I mean, I know you kind of already did at the show, but this is not actions, this is in words.”

He nods his head. “Yes, why hide?”

I smile broadly at him. “I don’t know.” I stand and wrap my arms around him. It makes me ridiculously happy to know that I can just be with him and not have to constantly watch what I say and do.

“Then it’s settled. Amelia, tell Adam the news and get us a two-bedroom suite at the best hotel in New York.”

“Of course, sir.” She carries on working as I pick up my drink and my itinerary and walk over with Elijah to the sofa.

“Are you sure?” I ask as I sit beside him with my knee bent on the couch resting it along his thigh.

He brushes his fingertips along the sole of my foot and up to my ankle. “Yes. I love you. There’s no reason to hide that. The only reason we were silent was because of my contract, then it was because we wanted to be taken seriously about the movie deal, but now … what is there?”

I shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Exactly. We don’t need to hide.” He pauses uncertain. “Unless, you’re uncomfortable.” He frowns slightly. “The attention will probably get much worse.”

I shake my head. “I don’t care about any of that. I want the world to know you’re mine, but if you think it’ll hurt the movie, then we can wait.”

“It won’t mess up anything.” He smiles and leans over to give me a kiss. “I’m yours, one-hundred and ten percent.”

 

4 Leaked

Amelia stayed at my hotel trying to match Elijah and my schedules with Adam, Elijah’s publicist, until well into the evening. Eli and I lounged around and enjoyed a rare day off by lying in my bed watching movies from the eighties and nineties. Around nine, Elijah sighs and clicks the TV off as the movie credits roll.

He turns to me. “I need to head home.” I pout. He pushes my lip back in place. “I’m sorry, but I can’t wear this,” he gestures to his body, “to my meeting in the morning. Plus, I have to pack for our trip, and so do you.” He bops my nose as he stands from the bed.

A sly grin spreads over my face. “I have an idea.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’m supposed to check out in the morning anyway, what if I packed up tonight and stayed at your place? You have that guest room.”

He kisses me quickly. “Sounds perfect. I’ve been trying to get you to stay with me for months.”

I roll my eyes. I refuse to live with him before we’re married. “Yes, but this is just spending the night, just like we did last night. I’m not staying permanently. We’ve talked about that. I’m not living with you. ”

He leans down and kisses me. I can see the hurt in his eyes. He’s using the kiss to distract me from explaining myself again. I know he understands. “You can pack my stuff while I’m at my meeting.” He bops my nose again as he grabs his jeans from the chair and starts to put them back on.

“Hey! I’m not your maid!” I throw a pillow at him.

He catches it easily and chuckles. “I never said you were, but I wouldn’t mind the help. I have a lot to do before my meeting, and I’ve spent all day here. Not that I mind. I enjoyed today. By the way, how do Mississippians dress?”

I roll my eyes. “Normally. Well, for the most part. There is a large portion of rednecks in our area.”

He laughs. “You realize I have a script to review about a guy who is a good ‘ole country boy. Maybe you can read the female lines for me in that cute southern accent you’ve got going right now.”

“What?”

“When you say rednecks, it’s more like rednicks.” He draws out the word. I throw a pillow at him again.

“It’ll only get worse when I go home. I’ve worked so hard to shed that but when I’m around people speaking that way, it will come back out.”

He pulls me into his arms. “I love your accent. I hope it gets really bad during our visit.” I swat his chest as he chuckles.

“Maybe I should call your brother so you can slip back into your Scottish accent.”

“No thanks.” He laughs.

When the two of them are talking, I can’t understand much of what is said, but it’s loud and full of laughter, so I guess they are having fun.

“If you start making fun of me, I will call your brother.” This makes him laugh harder. “I’m serious.”

He holds his hands up. “I wouldn’t dream of making fun of you.” I roll my eyes again, which causes another grin to spread across his face.

We spend about thirty minutes packing up my stuff, before heading out into the main area where Amelia and Adam are working. Well they were working, now it appears they are snuggling on the couch.

Elijah clears his throat, making them both jump. “Hey, Elijah. Uh, we’re just finishing up.”

Elijah smirks as he nods his head. “Uh huh. We’ll you guys can carry on. Soph and I are going to stay at my house tonight since we are leaving tomorrow after my meeting.”

“Oh, okay.” Adam starts to gather his things.

“No, no. Stay,” I insist. “The room is paid for until the morning. Finish your … work, but check me out. Okay, Amy?”

“Oh, sure. Whatever you need.”

She doesn’t even scold me for calling her Amy. She’s got it bad. We say our goodbyes and head to the elevator. As soon as the doors close, we burst out laughing. They are such an unlikely pair, but at the same time, it makes total sense. As we descend, I turn to Elijah.

“Um, how are we getting back to your house?”

“I drove.”

I stare at him in shock. “No giant bodyguards following you?”

He shrugs. “I’m sure they are around, but I drove alone.”

“See, that’s what I want. But my overprotective boyfriend feels it’s a bad idea.” I give him a side eye.

He snorts and shakes his head. He leans close to my ear. “Your overprotective boyfriend is only looking out for your safety. It would kill him if something happened to you.”

“Nothing would happen if those bodyguards of his were following me.”

He opens his mouth to reply, but the doors of the elevator open on the parking garage floor. He grabs my hand as we are greeted by Brody. “Sir.” His clipped tone is followed by a wink to me.

“Brody, we’re headed home,” Elijah says.

“Of course, sir.”

Brody opens the trunk, takes my bags and sets them inside, save for my purse. As Brody shuts the trunk, Elijah walks around and opens my door with a grand bow, making me laugh as I climb inside. He’s so adorable sometimes.

He jogs around and gets behind the driver seat. “What do you think?”

“Of?”

“This car?” Elijah says with an implied duh.

“Um …” He starts to laugh before I respond. “I like it. I don’t have a clue what it is, other than a BMW, but I like it.” It’s smaller than a regular SUV, but still not a car.

“It’s an X5. It’s yours.”

I stare at him. “Excuse me?”

“It’s fully loaded, safe, and reliable.” He nods appreciatively. “It’s yours.”

I have no words. “Eli …”

He holds his hand up. “Don’t say it’s too much. It’s not. I wanted to do something nice for you.”

“This is beyond nice. Flowers are nice. This is …”

“Nice.”

“It is nice. But that’s not a strong enough word. It’s too much. I love you, Eli, but you don’t need to buy me a car. I have money.” He takes my hand and squeezes it.

“I know you have money. It wasn’t about that. Think of it as our anniversary gift. We’ve been together for almost a year,” he finishes with a playful wink.

“It’s still way too much. But thank you. I can’t wait to drive it.”

I give in because it’ll hurt his feelings if I reject his generosity. This is who he is, besides I really do love the vehicle. It’s so pretty and comfy. The color is one of my favorite for cars, Gun Metal Grey. I hadn’t bought a car for myself yet because I wasn’t sure what to get or where to start. This is perfect really. It also proves how well he knows me.

“You’re welcome. When we get back from visiting your family, I’ll take you for a drive.” He kisses my palm.

“Sounds perfect.”

Once back at Elijah’s, I settle my bags in the guest room. One of the perks of living out of a suitcase is that it doesn’t take me long to settle anywhere. Actually, that’s just sad. I think when I finish up this next tour, I’ll start looking for something more permanent. With a sigh, I turn and head out of the room to find Elijah. He’s sitting at his kitchen island on the phone, looking really unhappy. When I walk over to him, he turns his laptop so I can see. I gasp.

“Who took that?”

He moves the phone from his ear and puts it on speaker. “Adam, Sophie is here. Tell her what happened, please?”

“Oh, sure. Amelia and I were checking the dailies for anything with the two of you and came across an article in one of the lower end online magazines. It’s hardly paid attention to, but because it was the two of you, people have started noticing.”

“How did they even get that picture? That was in the dressing room.”

I can’t take my eyes off the photo. It was in the dressing room at the Dave Hartley Show. Elijah is bent over top of my body, tickling me. My head is thrown back, but instead of laughter, it looks like my face is in pure ecstasy. The caption reads ‘Looks like Elijah and Sophia are hot and heavy on the set of their new movie. Will this cause issues with development?’

Adam’s voice breaks me out of my fog. “I’m not sure how the photo was taken, or leaked. We are working on that now. I’ve been in touch with Anna from DHS and she says that all their security cameras are in tack and nothing odd is shown for that room. There’s not an actual feed on the inside, but there is surveillance on the door and hallway.”

Elijah clears his throat and rubs the back of his neck. “Babe, do you think your friend could have done this? She did say something about how we sounded on the outside and joked about a leak.”

I balk for a second. “No, absolutely not. She wouldn’t do something like that.” Would she? I honestly don’t know, I mean, I’ve kept in touch with her, but it’s been less and less since my book took off. My face drops. “I don’t know. I hope not.”

Elijah pulls me between his legs, where he sits on the barstool, and kisses my cheeks, forehead, and nose. “We’ll figure this out, don’t stress. It’s fine. We’re fine.”

Tears that I was desperately trying to hold back slip out of my eyes. “I look like a hussy.”

“Hold that thought,” he whispers to me. Louder he says. “Adam, call me when you find out something.”

“Will do. Later.” The line disconnects.

Elijah lifts my chin. “You do not look like a hussy.” He turns me so my back is to his chest. “Do you know what I see?” I shake my head. “Well, first, I know you were laughing and there was nothing untoward happening, but this photo looks like you are in the throes of passion, and I, for one, can’t wait to see you like that for real one day. I bet you’ll look ten times lovelier than you do in this photo.” His fingertips brush up and down the sides of my arms, sending little sparks of pleasure through me.

“I hate that people have seen this and are thinking horrible things of us,” I answer, ignoring his comments.

Elijah moves back my hair and kisses me shoulder. “I hate that this photo was used against us, but it’s down now. We will find out who violated our privacy and they will pay.” Elijah is so confident in his reassurance that I fully trust him and his team to get to the bottom of this.

I excuse myself to get cleaned up. He kisses me softly, promising me once again that everything will be fine. I don’t respond because I honestly see this as an omen of things to come. In my room, I pace. My mind won’t shut off. How could someone do this to us? Money. That’s all it is, they’d do it for money. The world is an evil and corrupt place.

I grab my phone and face time Krystal. I feel like seeing her reaction will be more telling than hearing. She answers on the second ring. Her hair is mussed and her lipstick smeared. I can see a person’s arm, but I’m not sure if it’s Daniel or not.

“Soph! What’s up?”

“Did you leak that photo?”

Her smile drops to confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“A gossip rag leaked a photo of Elijah and I. They said it was from the set of our new movie, but it was really from Dave Hartley’s show. The show says they can’t find any foul play, but you joked about us sounding as if we were having intercourse. You joked about it being leaked. Krys, did you do this?”

Her face goes ghostly white. Daniel’s face appears on the screen. “Does Elijah need me back?” he asks.

“I’m not sure. You should call him, but I think we are fine.” He nods, then disappears from view. I focus back on Krystal. “I’d hate to think you’d betray me like this, Krystal, but I don’t know what else to think.”

She holds up her hand in a pledge. “I swear on my Granddaddy’s grave. I didn’t leak anything, Sophie.”

“Okay, I believe you.” I do, she looks completely sincere. “This is so embarrassing. I have to see my family tomorrow. They’ll think I’ve gone against everything I was ever taught.”

“Oh, sugar. They won’t think that. No one pays attention to that mess, anyway. They probably haven’t seen it.”

I nod, she’s right. They probably haven’t. “I hope not. I should go. I still need to help Elijah pack and he has a meeting in the morning.”

“Are you staying with him?” she asks. I can tell she’s looking past me, trying to get a glimpse of the house.

“For tonight. In the guest room.”

She frowns. “You are so old fashion. You better give it up to that boy before you lose him.”

I don’t respond. “I’ll talk to you when I get back to L.A. Night.”

“I’m picking,” she shouts. I know she’s teasing, but I can’t stand it when she picks at me about my sex life. It’s such a sore subject. Especially after what I went through with Carter.

“I’m hanging up!”

“Oh, come on!” she cries, but I’ve already ended the phone call.

The next day after Elijah’s meeting, we are making our way to the airport. This time we are in an SUV with extra dark tinted windows. Brody is driving, Hutch in the passenger seat, and Josh, or as the guys call him, Reynolds, is beside me in the back. He’s been off for two weeks because of a knee injury, but he’s making the trip with us as his official return to work. It’s a cramped ride, but it makes sense, we are all flying out of the same airport on the same flight. I hate flying. I have to do it for work, and don’t freak out anymore, but when Elijah is with me, he tries to either get me drunk, or distracts me in other ways. I prefer the latter.

I blow out a deep breath as Brody pulls up to the curb. Elijah squeezes my hand. There’s a few paps scattered around looking for their perfect celebrity photo, but it doesn’t seem too over run.

“I’ll be in after I park. You guys good?” Brody looks in the review mirror.

“We’ll be fine,” Elijah tells him.

Hutch and Reynolds get out of the car first and grab our luggage before Hutch opens my door. The paps have caught wind that there may be a person of interest in this vehicle and they have cameras at the ready.

“Stay between Reynolds and Elijah, and in front of me the whole time,” Hutch tells me. I nod as he helps me out, handing me my carryon. Elijah joins me quickly, taking my hand.

The paps start to call out, “Elijah, Sophia over here. Are you two really together?”

“Are the rumors true that you’re back with Keira?”

“Who was the girl you were seen hugging yesterday, Sophia? Are you a lesbian?” That throws me for a moment, but before I can react, Elijah wraps his arm around my shoulder and pulls me inside. They go on and on as the doors shut behind us.

“You okay?” Elijah asks.

“What girl? What are they talking about?”

Josh stops and grabs a magazine. “I think this.” He passes it to me.

I stare at an innocent enough picture of Krystal and me. We had hugged, and the picture was snapped as we pulled away, but hadn’t totally let go, smiling at each other. Tears fill my eyes. I hand him back the magazine and keep walking forward on my own.

“Sophie!” Elijah calls as he jogs to me. He grabs my elbow and twirls me around. “Hey, don’t let that crap bother you. We’ve talked about this.”

I nod my head and wipe my eyes. “I know. I’m just nervous about the trip and flying … then to see that. She’s my friend, and we were saying goodbye.”

He hugs me. “I know, baby. Please don’t stress. I’ll have Adam add this on to his investigation, we will figure it out. Let’s concentrate on the flight and our vacation.” I nod into his chest. If it wasn’t for the fear of flying, I’m sure this wouldn’t even be bothering me this much.

I pull back. “I’m fine. I wasn’t expecting … wait, can I see that again?”

“Soph,” Elijah says and shakes his head no.

I look at him and shake my own head, holding up one finger to him, telling him to wait. I take the magazine from Josh. I gasp. “Eli, this was taken from inside the dressing room too. What else did they see?” I start to panic again.

He takes the magazine and looks for himself. “Let’s get to the first class lounge.” He hands the magazine to Hutch and pulls me down the hall and to the area for celebrities. Once we are settled, he gets out his cellphone and snaps a few pictures before sending them, and making a call. “Adam, I just sent you some photos. They appear to be taken inside the dressing room from The Dave Hartley Show, same as the other. I want this resolved immediately. This is a gross violation of our privacy.” He listens for a bit then hangs up.

“He’ll handle it.” He kisses my temple. “We’re okay, right?”

I cup his face in my hands. “Of course we are. This is nothing. I wouldn’t have worried about it if that photo wasn’t taken from inside the dressing room.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop. Don’t get all broody about this. I’m not running. I don’t like it, but you’re stuck with me.”

He chuckles. “I like being stuck with you.” He presses a kiss to my lips. “If your family hates me, will you still keep me?”

“They won’t hate you.” I run my fingers through his hair to the base of his neck, scratching. He closes his eyes and sighs. He’s like a puppy. He loves this. “They’ll love you because I do.”

“Will your brothers try to intimidate me?”

I laugh. “I have no clue what they’ll do. The only boyfriend I’ve had other than you was Carter, and he was like their annoying little brother, so …”

“Great. He’ll be there too.”

“Baby.” He holds his hand up to stop me.

“It’s fine. I haven’t even met the guy. I have no reason to feel jealous.”

I run my fingers through the hair at the base of his neck. “I don’t want Carter. I only want you.”

He kisses me, but when he pulls back, he looks as if he might say something, unfortunately our flight is called and our bubble bursts. He kisses me once more, then grabs our bags before heading to the door that will take us to our plane.

~*~

All things considered, I think I did rather well on the flight, and now that we are in the car driving to my childhood home, I feel a peace settle over me. I’ve been nervous about this trip, but now I feel excited to see my family. My main concern at the moment is Clarissa. My cousin and I have never gotten along, even as babies. She tormented me my whole life. I had no friends in school other than Carter because he refused to let her intimidate him. She constantly brought up the fact that I had no parents. She belittled me until the day I left. This trip will be no different where she is concerned. I worry how it will affect Elijah.

“Sophie?”

I stare out at the scenery, which hasn’t changed a bit in the past four years, not that I’m surprised, small towns don’t exactly change often. They remain the time capsule of our youth.

“Sophie.” Elijah gives me a shake.

I shake my head. “Huh? Sorry. What did you say?”

Elijah gives me a crocked grin. “You need to tell Brody where to turn. The GPS isn’t registering.”

I quickly glance around at my surroundings. “I’m sorry. Um, you see that huge red barn shaped mail box on the right?”

“Yup,” Brody answers.

“Turn there.” I find myself gazing almost unseeingly out of my window as we bypass tress and fields, many of which I ran through as a child. My chest tightens and my eyes burn with unshed tears.

“Babe, are you okay?” Elijah asks.

I nod, shaking off my guilt and nostalgia “I shouldn’t have waited so long to come back.”

“I’m sure your family will be happy to see you.”

“I hope so. I’ve been a terrible sister and granddaughter lately.”

Elijah pulls a monogrammed handkerchief out of his pocket and hands it to me. I smile. “My grandmother sent it to me. She made it.” He shrugs.

It’s cute how at random times there’s a bit of insecurity that flashes through him. “I love it. It’s very you.”

He kisses my cheek. “Keep it.”

“Is that your place?” Brody asks.

I can’t wipe the smile off my face as the excitement builds and the trepidation starts to ease. “Yes!”

“Do you think something is wrong?” Hutch asks.

I snort. There’s two police cars with their lights flashing. “No, I’m sure it’s my idiot brothers. They are both state troopers. They’re probably trying to intimidate Eli.”

Elijah puffs up. “I ain’t skeered,” he says in a fake southern accent. It’s pretty good, and he could probably pass from the area if he tried.

I giggle and kiss his cheek. “I’ll protect you, baby.”

He wraps his arm around me as he laughs. Sighing, I stare back at the house where I grew up. It’s beautiful. A large farmhouse which sits right in the middle of a vast open field. It’s almost five miles back from the main road. It’s secluded from reality and makes me feel so protected and safe. I don’t know why I waited so long to come home.

“That’s a huge house,” Hutch says.

“It is. It was originally the main two-story part, but they’ve added on as the years have passed. My mom, dad, brothers, uncle, and I all lived here with them. They needed the extra room as we grew up.”

“Why didn’t your parents find their own place?” Elijah asks.

“They were sixteen when my brothers were born, and twenty when I came along. They were trying to get through college before, and after they graduated it was easier to stay. My grandparents loved having everyone in one place.”

“Looks like there’s a porch full of people here to see you,” Brody mentions as he starts to pull into the little driveway to the house.

I take several deep slow breaths. “Are you okay?” Elijah asks.

I nod. “I just didn’t expect everyone to be here when we arrived. It’s a bit overwhelming.” I blow out another breath. “Clarissa is here.”

“If your cousin gives you a hard time, I’ll sic my guys on her.” Elijah winks. I realize he’s kidding, but it’s a nice thought. I’d like to see Hutch or Brody throw her down the hill to the creek.

“Here goes nothing,” I say as we park the car.

“I’m always here for you,” Elijah tells me, pressing a kiss behind my ear. I know he is, and that alone helps me drag myself out of the backseat of the car.