Xander Kingston woke to the sound of voices in his backyard. His gated, locked pool area and the retreat he valued for its privacy. What day was it again? He’d been up late writing. Tuesday, he remembered. And no good reason for him to be awake yet.
With a groan, he tossed the covers and walked to the sliding glass doors off the family room, pulling on a pair of boxer briefs on the way—but not bothering with pants or shorts. If the overgrown idiots in his pool were going to interrupt his solitude, they could suck up the view.
His golden retriever, Bella, rose at the same time he did, and Xander paused to pet her on the head. “Hang on, girl. Let me just take care of something and we’ll go for a run.”
He opened the door and stepped onto the pool deck, letting Bella rush past the pool to the grass where she did her business.
“Hey! Go home to your place,” Xander shouted at his company.
As he’d expected, his brother Dash and the other members of the Original Kings, an award-winning rock band, loved and beloved around the world, were hanging outside. For Xander, who’d been up late working on his latest thriller, he couldn’t claim the same adoration. Especially since Dash had an equally huge house with a pool and the same amount of privacy a mile down the road.
“We needed a change of scenery to help unlock the muse,” Jagger, the lead guitarist, called from his lounger in the pool.
“Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to wake you,” Dash said. “I just had an idea and had to sing it out to the boys. Listen.” He picked up his guitar and played a riff while belting out an accompanying chorus.
Xander had to admit it was catchy. It also could have happened at Dash’s house.
“I like it. I’m feeling the beat,” Mac, the bass player, said, his hands moving in the air as if he were strumming his instrument.
“Where’s Dominic?” Xander asked of their drummer.
The guys shot each other a look but no one answered.
Xander shook his head. The band wasn’t his problem. At least today’s visit didn’t involve groupies and alcohol. “I hope you brought your own towels,” he muttered, stepping back inside.
He quickly pulled on running shorts, a tank, and socks then laced up his sneakers. After washing up and taking care of things in the bathroom, he headed to the kitchen to find his brother pouring a glass of orange juice, Xander’s morning favorite. He’d already made himself a cup of iced tea.
“Where are the guys?” Xander asked before picking up his drink and swallowing it quickly because he was thirsty. Bella obviously felt the same way, because she lapped at her water, the sound loud in the kitchen.
Dash gestured with his thumb. “They went back to my place.” He took a sip of his drink. “So what crawled up your ass this morning?”
“I was up late.” He leaned against the counter and glanced at his brother. “I didn’t set an alarm and I didn’t expect be woken up by you and the band.”
“Didn’t like being serenaded, huh?” Dash laughed. “Sorry. But you of all people know sometimes a change of scenery helps the creative process.”
“And sometimes you show up because you’d just rather I be the one left with the clean-up.” His brother was incorrigible. Xander supposed it came from their mother allowing Dash to cultivate his artistic talent instead of adhering to structure and rules.
Dash didn’t deny it. “Hey, we still on for the family barbeque?”
“Yeah. Here on Saturday night.” Normally their get-togethers were on Sundays, but since Xander’s movie began filming in the city on Monday, he’d switched up the day.
Xander’s family were a tight group, cared about what was going on in everyone else’s lives, and made it a point to get together often. Linc, the oldest, liked to think he’d taken over the paternal role since their cheating father had been emotionally absent, but the three Kingston brothers, their sister, Chloe, and newly found half sister, Aurora, looked out for each other. Always.
Xander pushed himself off the counter. “I’m going for a run. You sticking around?”
Dash shook his head. “Nah. I think I’ll head back to the guys. See what we can make work in the studio.”
Before Xander could reply, his cell rang and he grabbed it from his pocket. His agent’s name flashed on the screen. “Raye,” he mouthed to his brother.
Raye Douglas, partner at Douglas Talent Management Group, had represented Xander ever since Dash had convinced his manager there to ask the best literary agent to read Xander’s manuscript five years ago. Raye, the daughter of the top agent at the firm, had been curious, poached the script from her dad, and she’d been impressed.
Xander had been equally taken by her unwillingness to settle or take no for an answer. She’d pushed hard for him, and Xander had ended up in a bidding war that culminated in both publishing and movie rights being sold, making him a proverbial overnight success. After a grueling four years in the Marines, that is.
He accepted the call. “Hey, Raye.”
“Good news. We have an actress to play Amanda,” she said of Xander’s protagonist’s love interest.
His military thrillers were focused on a fictional character, Gavin Steele, a Marine in a special unit. In a prior book, Xander had killed off Steele’s wife, and in the current novel and script, the new character of Amanda would be first an adversary, then Steele’s love interest in what Xander planned to be an increasingly larger part.
The original actress slated to play Amanda had backed out at the last minute, and with filming set to start next week, the studio had been scrambling. They didn’t want to settle but knew it would be tough to obtain a big name. Besides, Xander would be around to help her get into character.
“Who’d we get?” He glanced at Dash, who raised an eyebrow, clearly interested as well.
“Sasha Keaton,” his agent said.
And with those words, Xander’s brain short-circuited, and as he processed the news, his heart beat harder in his chest.
“Fuck no.” He didn’t have final say in casting, but he was allowed reasonable input, and he did not want the woman who’d put her career over their relationship and broken his heart working on his movie.
“Who’d they pick?” Dash asked. He knew Xander had been waiting on this news.
Xander held up a finger, buying himself time with his brother before replying.
“Excuse me,” Raye said. “But are you telling me you’re going to let the past dictate whether or not you accept the hottest actress in the country … screw that … in the world playing this role?” His agent asked a rational question.
Xander didn’t have an equally rational answer. Ending things with Sasha had shattered his world as much as the IED that exploded too close to him in Afghanistan had blown up his military career.
“I need you to think,” Raye said in the face of Xander’s silence. “Sasha is a huge get and her signing will boost your desirability. Don’t forget we’re negotiating an option on your new series to a streaming service. You want the biggest names possible bringing in the largest numbers possible on your current project. And her face sells. Tickets, subscriptions, all of it.”
Xander muttered under his breath. He didn’t like it but Raye was right. Before he could acknowledge that fact, she spoke again. “Don’t let your bruised ego stand in the way.”
This movie was due to shoot in Manhattan, and as a consultant, Xander planned to be on set often. “Fuck.” He ran a hand over his cropped hair and groaned. And despite his past with Sasha, he could be professional. “Fine,” he muttered.
Raye let out a relieved, loud breath. “Catch up at lunch soon?” she asked.
“Okay, take it easy. Remember, this is a good thing,” she said before disconnecting without a goodbye. Typical Raye.
Xander set his phone on the counter, closed his eyes, and mentally counted to ten and back, the method he used to calm down when stressed. When he opened his eyes, Dash was staring at him with concern.
Xander shrugged. “Pissed.”
“I got that. Just as I figured from your reaction they want to hire Sasha for the role?”
He ran a hand over the back of his neck and nodded. “Raye reminded me it will only benefit me and the deals we’re negotiating to have Sasha on board.” His gut churned at the thought of seeing her again. “But I’m not planning on dealing with her on set.” He could be cordial and professional but that was it. He wasn’t required to be friends with the actors. He’d just be there to make sure they stayed true to the characters he’d created.
Dash eyed him warily. “Well, I agree with your instinct to steer clear. She was career driven when you met her, and nothing we’ve seen in the last couple of years shows she’s changed.”
Xander nodded. It wasn’t like he could miss learning about Sasha’s life. Not the way she was constantly splashed across tabloids, social media, and the news. He’d wondered if she’d grown up, changed, and found other priorities, but Dash was right.
Every photo showed her hanging out with her male co-stars, every article and caption insinuating she had a tendency to relationship hop, and eventually Xander stopped paying attention.
Dash placed a hand on Xander’s shoulder before dropping it. “I just wouldn’t want her to hurt you again.”
“She’d have to get close to me for that to happen.” But he appreciated Dash’s concern. “I need that run.” He slid his phone into the armband he kept on his counter and velcroed it to his bicep. His Bose earbuds came next.
“You’ll feel better after you pound out that frustration on the pavement.” Dash slapped him on the back. “Hey, if you want to make Sasha jealous, I could introduce you to someone you can bring with you on set.”
“A groupie?” Xander frowned, the idea holding no appeal. His brother’s rock-star lifestyle was not for him, and someday it was going to catch up to his brother. “Thanks but no thanks,” he said, though Dash had raised an eyebrow as if he’d really expected Xander to say yes.
Dash shrugged. “Your choice. Okay, I’m out of here, too. Yell if you need me.”
“Will do,” Xander said and walked out with his brother, Bella trotting alongside them.
* * *
Sasha Keaton folded her favorite sleep shirt and placed it in her suitcase, followed by item after item on her bed. Beside her, Cassidy Forrester, her best friend and personal assistant, sat on the chair by Sasha’s vanity area, her iPad open as they discussed travel arrangements for their trip to New York.
Sasha zipped her piece of luggage closed, ignoring the twisting in her stomach every time she thought about the man whose movie she’d accepted a part in.
“So, we leave tomorrow at nine twenty a.m. and land around six New York time,” Cassidy said, reading off the itinerary. “We’re staying at the Gansevoort, with you in a one-bedroom suite with an outdoor terrace, and I have an adjoining king room next door.”
“Excellent. You’ll have your own space to sleep, and we can hang out in the suite.”
Sasha met Cassidy when she’d answered an ad for a room in a two-bedroom apartment after she’d wrapped a movie in France. She’d returned to LA coming off a breakup she didn’t want to think about now but would have to deal with soon. In Cassidy, Sasha had found both a roommate and a best friend at a low point in her life.
Then, as Sasha’s career exploded, Cassidy had been by her side, using her skills to run Sasha’s personal life and business schedule, something she’d done for her brother, Axel, a drummer, who also lived in LA. But despite Cassidy and Sasha’s professional relationship, their friendship came first, and Sasha felt like she’d known Cassidy forever.
Cassidy left the iPad on the table and joined Sasha, curling a leg beneath her on the bed. “When are we going to talk about it?”
“About what?” Sasha played dumb, but her friend wouldn’t accept her silence about Xander for much longer.
“When I met you, you were pretty broken up about the guy. Now you’re starring in a movie based on a book he wrote and he’ll be a consultant on set? You haven’t said one word about him since taking the part. I thought I’d wait until you were ready, but we’re leaving in the morning so … time’s up.” Cassidy treated Sasha to a pointed stare.
Sasha settled on the mattress near her friend, pushing aside the suitcase and resigning herself to the conversation she’d been avoiding. When she’d moved in with Cassidy, she’d been an emotional mess, and she’d had only herself to blame. She bit down on her cheek at the painful memory. At the time, she’d cried and gorged on ice cream, and Cassidy, even as a new friend, had been there, supporting her.
Sasha had explained everything about her relationship and breakup, and Cassidy had understood. She hadn’t judged her then and she wouldn’t now. Since Sasha intended to see Xander before she walked onto the set, she’d need a plan and some good, solid advice.
She drew a deep breath and slid her hand over the ruffles on her comforter. “You know that when I met Xander, I wasn’t in the right headspace for a relationship. I had goals I wanted to achieve. And I definitely didn’t see anyone like him coming into my life.”
She recalled being at a party at Raye Douglas’ home. Sasha had been invited by someone so low on the totem pole she’d been certain she’d be asked to leave or not allowed in. The house had been huge, a decorator’s dream, beyond anything Sasha had ever seen in her life, and the guests were household names.
She’d felt so out of place, and when the handsome guy with a military bearing strode up to her and began to make conversation, she’d been relieved to no longer be alone. The sparks flew from the moment they’d locked eyes as he’d approached. They ended up in a small corner area, sitting and talking for most of the night. Sasha had grabbed champagne glass after champagne glass off the passing caterers’ trays as they got to know each other.
To her shock, they’d fallen into a relationship, but Sasha had dreams, the main one not to give up herself and her career the way her mother had, to follow her musician father around wherever a gig took him.
And then came Xander.
Knowing she’d gotten lost in the past, she glanced at Cassidy. “I need to see him before shooting starts. To clear the air if nothing else. I can’t show up the first day I have to be in character and have the pressure of dealing with him hanging over me.”
Even if the thought of meeting him face-to-face for the first time since they’d broken up turned her stomach. “Besides, if there’s an author for the story and they’re an on-set consultant, you know I like to get their take on the character I’m playing. It makes it easier to get into their skin.”
Cassidy’s expression grew serious. “Are you over him? Because this can get messy. I worried when you took the role and—”
“I love Isaac Reynolds,” she said of the director. “The last time I worked with him was a dream. They lost their leading actress, and the movie is a guaranteed blockbuster. Every Steele movie is.”
But Cassidy pursed her lips, studying Sasha intently. “You didn’t mention Xander in your reasons, and I don’t believe for a minute that seeing him again didn’t factor into your decision.”
Sasha clenched her hands. “So what if it did?” She’d never forgotten him and had always wanted the chance to make things right.
“There’ll be more Steele movies. This character is a long-term commitment,” Cassidy reminded her.
Sasha’s stomach clenched. “I’m aware.”
“So you wanted to see him again. And again and again?”
Sasha picked up a pillow and tossed it at her friend. “Stop. I just need to know he doesn’t hate me.” And maybe she still wanted him to have feelings for her, too.
She didn’t know and wouldn’t until she saw him face-to-face. Not that it mattered. He wouldn’t want anything to do with her beyond the movie. She’d hurt him badly in so many ways.
The truth was, she’d been all of nineteen, new to Hollywood, wanting to make it big, and had both her agent and her co-star pushing her to do things that would keep the media focus on them. Make them look important. Help them become hot commodities.
It’d been so hard to say no to their ideas and plans. They’d kept her so busy she didn’t have time to overthink her choices or even see Xander often enough to make a relationship work. And she’d also had her mother’s voice in her head, telling her not to make the mistakes she had. Reminding her to follow her dreams, that love was fleeting. And then she’d point out all Sasha’s father’s misdeeds.
And her life wasn’t much different now. Her days were hectic, busy, and she was constantly on the go.
“Hey. What’s going on?” Cassidy asked, interrupting Sasha’s thoughts. “Is it just that Xander stirred up old memories that’s got you thrown?”
Sasha rose to her feet and paced her bedroom. “No. I mean that’s some of it, but I just wrapped up one movie and I expected to have some time off, then this role came up and I jumped at the opportunity.” The chance to see Xander, to work near him, had been impossible to resist. “But if it had been anything else?” She glanced up and shook her head. “I’m tired, Cass.”
Going from one film to the next, moving countries, cities, rarely being here in the home she’d bought and decorated. Her mother lived in a guesthouse on the property, which let Sasha see her when she was around, but it wasn’t often.
Cassidy was in tune with her feelings and obviously sensed Sasha needed to talk, so she remained silent and listened. When the time came for her opinion, Cass never had trouble giving it, even if it was something Sasha wouldn’t want to hear.
“It’s like I’m living a life most people would envy, yet as much as I hate to admit it, I feel … empty. And that makes me feel guilty and ungrateful because look how much I have.” She gestured around to her big bedroom with the most comfortable bed she could own and the décor of her dreams in cream and white with touches of pale pink. She wasn’t living her dreams, she’d exceeded them.
Cassidy rose and stepped over to her. “You set up a charity for kids in the downtown areas. You provide computers to schools and clothes for people who can’t afford it when their children outgrow what they own. You’re doing good with what you have. Stop it with the guilt. But I am concerned about everything you’re saying. If you’re not happy…”
Sasha shrugged and pulled in a deep breath of air. “I’m excited about this role. Whatever happens next, let’s just say we’ll see. Maybe I’ll slow down, take a break, reevaluate.”
“Your agent is not going to take you slowing down well. Neither will your mother.”
Cassidy was correct. Sasha’s mom had already lit into her for accepting a role that brought Xander back into her life, warning her not to get involved with him again, not to let a man derail her career and all she’d worked for. And Rebecca Burton, her agent, was all about keeping up momentum while Sasha was hot.
Sasha groaned, not wanting to deal with their pressure, either. “I’ll worry about them later. How about you? Would you have a problem if I didn’t jump into another movie right away?”
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