Delaney Matthews watched the press footage on the television screen with dawning horror.
On the screen, large, protective, sexy, alpha Micah Frederickson shot through the door glaring like he’d kill one of the reporters surrounding him with a look if they dared to mess with the five pre-teens in his care. His wide arms protected them as he tried to get them to the limo by sheer will and brute force.
The girls looked terrified.
Micah looked fierce.
Delaney felt sick.
Reporters surrounded them. Light bulbs went off from every direction while reporters yelled questions at him. Cameras and microphones got shoved into his face. It sounded like the click of a thousand or more cameras taking photos.
And then the questions:
“Micah! Laney loves you. How do you feel about her?”
“What’s it like to date America’s most notorious heartbreaker?”
“Can you tell us where Laney’s been?”
“Was she institutionalized?”
“Where’s she been hiding?”
“Will there be a wedding soon?”
She wanted to sob at this violation. Those girls had been at the concert tonight for a fun birthday celebration, and Micah didn’t understand what he’d been walking into.
Because she’d lied to him.
God, she should have come clean before now.
On the screen, several of the girls were crying. Micah continued to hold on to as many of them as he could and made sure they stayed close to the two massive guards’ backs that led them to the limo.
Finally, all five of the girls were in the car. Before crawling in after them, Micah grabbed the arm of one of the security guards and spoke to him, but on the screen, she couldn’t tell what he’d said.
Get in the car, she silently urged. Get out of here before it gets worse.
Not that it could get much worse. The reporters were in a frenzy.
Even knowing that this had happened hours ago, her heartbeat galloped in panic for their safety.
No one was safe when the reporters got like this.
Finally, Micah got into the car and they slowly pulled away from the building. As the limo left the reporters pressed cameras up against the windows. It was utterly crazy and more than a little frightening just watching it. She couldn’t imagine how traumatized those girls were now.
And it was all her fault.
Her lies and evasions had led to this.
She had to fix it.
Three weeks before...
“You need a woman in your life.”
Micah Frederickson choked and coughed on the coffee he’d just sipped. “Are you insane?” He glared at his sister as he snatched up a napkin to sop up the scalding liquid from his lips and beard. “Why would you say that? Especially since you know how bad everything went down with Cynthia?”
His ex-wife had been a nightmare.
She shrugged as she took another bite of pie. “I don’t know. I just think if you had a wife you wouldn’t be over here pawning off your pies on me and I wouldn’t be gaining all this weight.”
His gaze dropped to her large, protruding, pregnant belly. “Um, Alex, maybe you should have a talk with mom because I hate to break it to you, but,” he nodded his head at her stomach, “that didn’t happen because you ate apple pies.”
She snorted around a mouthful of pie. “I know that you idiot, but my doctor says that I should only gain around twenty-five pounds throughout the entire pregnancy. I’m only seven months pregnant and I’ve already gained thirty-four.”
There wasn’t a damn thing safe for him to say to that, especially as she shoved another mouthful of pie into her mouth. He knew better than to go anywhere near her weight gain as a topic of conversation. That would have been off-limits before she got pregnant. Now he put the future health of his balls into jeopardy if he said a word more.
So, instead, he changed the subject. “So, you have your first renter in the house this week, right?”
“Yeah. Matthew Delaney. He arrived a couple of days ago. I haven’t heard anything from him, so the house must be okay. I have to admit that’s a relief because after his hefty list of requirements beforehand, I was a bit worried.” She took another bite and moaned around the chunk of pie before opening her eyes and stealing a bite off his plate, even though she still had over half a piece on hers.
Not going to say a thing.
He pushed his piece over so she could reach it better. Again, he wouldn’t get in the way of a pregnant woman and her food. Plus, he still had two other pies cooling at his place. He wouldn’t go without.
“That sounds great, sis. I’m so proud of you. How long does he have the place rented for?”
She closed her eyes appreciatively as she appeared to roll the pie around in her mouth. “He wanted to leave it open-ended,” she said around the big bite of pie, “but hopes to be here through Thanksgiving at least.”
“Wow, that’s a big chunk of time.” Since it was only mid-October now.
She nodded, but then her face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears like it was actually a tragedy.
Uh-oh. This was the problem dealing with her pregnancy hormones. He had no idea what these tears meant. It could be the whole weight gain thing again, or they could be happy tears for the good occupancy of her rental house, or she could just be thinking about a sad commercial she saw on TV.
He had to tread lightly here.
“Yeah.” She sniffled. “It’s just so sad. I don’t think he has anyone with him. He’ll be spending the holiday alone. How miserable would that be?” Then she burst into full-body sobs.
As he gathered her up in his arms and tried to figure out how to surreptitiously text his brother-in-law for help, it occurred to him that alone for Thanksgiving might not be such a bad thing. At least Mr. Delaney wouldn’t be dealing with a highly emotional, very pregnant, irrational woman for what could already be a stress-filled family day.
Delaney Matthew’s throat grew tight as she took in the beauty of the quaint little town, filled with cute little gift shops with awnings over the windows, lanterns on poles lining the streets, and huge old-growth trees turning all the shades of red and gold of the autumnal season.
All of it combined to make her misery seem all that worse. How could there be this much peaceful beauty when her life was in utter chaos?
Talk about first world problems. She was drowning in them today.
Maybe all her haters had it right. The world might be better off without her.
Oh, god, had she just had that thought? She internally rolled her eyes.
Get over yourself, Delaney!
And now she was acting like a freaking drama queen, proving all the haters right. That’s why she’d come to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. She needed a dose of real life, not the insane dramatic chaos her life had become over the last ten years.
Living in the public spotlight since she’d turned fifteen had warped her sense of the world. That year she’d hit number one with her hit single, Love Me, and every single album released since then had debuted on the Billboard Pop charts.
She’d forgotten what normal looked like.
Peace and quiet and normal...this is what she’d needed.
Someone across the street yelled. She didn’t hear the words, but that didn’t matter.
Her heart rate ratcheted up in panic and she dove behind a bush, frantically searching for some place to hide, to escape. She ducked her head, praying they couldn’t see her. She ignored the branches cutting into her exposed skin. Her security was more important.
“Whoa, whoa there, little filly.” A gnarled hand covered with age spots reached into the bush, grabbed her, and tugged her away from the camouflaging foliage.
She immediately ducked her head, hoping the black long hair of her wig combined with her hat would conceal her identity from the paparazzi that had found her.
Why hadn’t she hired bodyguards? “Please don’t,” she pleaded with the man tugging her. “I’m not her.”
She gazed up at the elderly, kind-looking man tugging her from the bush and realized he didn’t have a camera or a phone shoved at her.
But that didn’t change the danger. “They will see me,” she hissed at the man still holding her arm as she tried to escape from his grip.
He glanced around the town square, a deep furrow in between his eyebrows. “Someone’s chasing you? I don’t see anyone who isn’t normally around.”
Slowly she lifted her head and searched in the direction from where the person had yelled. Two men stood there hugging and laughing like they hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Nobody else was around and nobody looked their direction.
Her face heated. “Sorry. I thought it was someone else.”
The old man focused his rheumy eyes on her. His frown deepened. “No harm, darling.” He stroked her arm, trying to soothe her. “I can’t help but notice you’re still shaking like a leaf, though.”
He wasn’t lying, and suddenly her throat tightened with tears. Maybe she should have followed her manager’s suggestion and checked herself into a clinic.
She’d thought a few weeks alone would settle her stress levels, but she’d been here two days already and she felt even more on edge than she’d been when she’d arrived.
She expected paparazzi and crazed fans to be around every corner. She couldn’t live like this. Her life had become a nightmare and the constant fear had left her with a diagnosed case of PTSD. How about that for ridiculous? She had PTSD from her legions of fans.
Again the phrase first world problems flitted through her brain. No wonder she’d become constant fodder for the late-night comics.
Fame had turned out to be nothing like her teenage dreams. Instead, it was a nightmare, one that she couldn’t seem to escape.
“Where are you from, girly?” the old man asked.
“California,” she whispered, hoping he wouldn’t get a good enough look at her to recognize her, although he sure didn’t fall into her typical fan demographic, so maybe she’d be safe.
“Well, no wonder you’re shivering. You aren’t used to these cool fall temperatures. I know just what will fix you up. Let’s head on over to Brewster’s and I’ll treat you to some of their specially made hot chai tea.”
“No, I couldn’t—”
“Nonsense. I insist. Come on. Give this old guy some pretty eye candy for my arm. You’ll help me build my rep.” He winked at her.
She found herself unexpectedly charmed. It had been a long time since someone had approached her for honest reasons. He seemed like the exception and that made her trust him.
Please don’t let me be wrong. Her mental stability couldn’t handle the blow that another betrayal would level.
When he waggled his eyebrows at her, she couldn’t help but giggle. She also couldn’t turn him down, not with those blazing blue eyes gazing at her so earnestly. “With such a charming invitation, who am I to refuse?”
He hooked his arm through hers and patted her forearm. “Good. Stick with me, girly, and I’ll show you all the secrets of what Appleton offers.”
“Secrets? That sounds intriguing.” She’d come to this little quiet area of Pennsylvania because some of her best childhood memories—before fame had occupied every moment of her time—had come from visiting the Poconos with her family.
He gave her a mischievous eyebrow waggle. “You have no idea.”
She couldn’t resist letting loose with the wide smile that spread over her face. When her face muscles strained with the move, she realized it was the first time she’d truly smiled in months. This might be fun.
“Okay, but first things first.” She reached a hand out to him. “I think I need to know the name of the handsome gentleman taking me out on this date. My name’s Delaney Matthews.” It was her real name that she never used, not her stage name, Laney Starr, so no one should recognize her from it. “What’s yours?”
“You are exactly right, Ms. Matthews. Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself.” He shook her hand with both of his wrapped around it, making her feel like this meant more than it did. “I am Eustis P. Montague, the Third.” Then he kissed the back of her hand.
“Charmed, Mr. Montague.”
“Pshaw, call me Eustis. Everyone does. We aren’t formal here in Appleton.”
“Then you must call me Delaney.”
“Excellent.” He re-engaged his elbow inside hers and guided her down the street. “Now I think you promised to accompany me to Brewster’s,” he said.
“Lead the way. I am in your hands.” And as they leisurely strolled down the scenic sidewalk, it occurred to her that for the first time in a very long time she didn’t have that itchy feeling crawling under her skin, as if someone would jump out and take her photo at any moment.
She felt...free to breathe.
God, this was what she’d been hoping for when she decided to visit here.
“I think it’s a very good thing that I met you today, Eustis P. Montague, the Third.”
He winked at her. “Aww, now you’ll give me a big head and make all these young bucks around here jealous because I have the prettiest girl in town on my arm.” He stopped walking. “But wait, you may already have a beau. Tell me, Ms. Delaney, are you attached to some hot young stud...or studette?” He frowned. “I understand that’s a thing nowadays, not that I’m judging. I’m definitely not.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.
She laughed. “It is indeed a thing for some people, but not for me. If I were attached, it would be to a stud, but alas...my luck with love has not been very kind to me.” In fact, it had been about as bad as it could get—from getting left at the altar by one man to being left with crippling debt by another. There’d been countless cheaters and abusers. Somewhere karma had decided she should be a doormat. Either that or she just had deplorable taste in men.
Luckily, heartache made for great songwriting. She’d made a career out of her many, many, many tragic breakups. In fact, that was the thing she was most known for. Nothing like being infamous for being unlucky in love.
“You’re still young.” He patted the back of her hand. “Enjoy sowing those wild oats while you can.”
Delaney had to bite back the bitter chuckle. She’d learned her lesson, way too many times to count. There would be no more sowing for her wild oats, or rather, normal bland, vanilla oats. She had vowed that from here on out she would live an oat-less life.
Men weren’t worth the heartache.
Eustis drew her to a halt outside a cute little coffee shop, complete with small tables outside under an awning filled with small clusters of happy, smiling people having a good time. She welcomed the diversion from the depressing turn her thoughts had taken. “How have I missed this place? It’s so cute.”
“Just wait until you try their drinks. You won’t want to get your coffee or tea from anywhere else in town.” He held the front door open for her as she entered the bustling shop.
They filed into the back of the line waiting to order.
Delaney ducked her head, hoping against hope that no one recognized her. But everyone around them focused on their own lives and didn’t pay the two of them any mind.
After a moment, when no one screamed her name, she hazarded a glance at the hand-drawn menu above the counter. “Wow. They have everything, don’t they?” They literally covered the wall with writing because there were so many choices.
“Trust me?” Eustis asked.
“Good girl. Let me order. I won’t steer you wrong.”
The line moved quickly and then they stood in front of a tiny pixie of an Asian girl with purple hair that faded to green tips and a jeweled nose ring. She was gorgeous and had used heavy makeup to accent her exotic, delicate features.
“Hey, how’s it hanging, Mayor E?”
Mayor? Delaney had no idea that she’d garnered such esteemed attention. That was the last thing she needed.
The cashier reached across and exchanged a complicated fist bump and a handshake with Eustis. “You haven’t been in lately? Have you been avoiding me?”
“Never, Brewster,” he answered.
This was Brewster? She’d expected an older middle-aged guy with a paunch, not this barely-legal-looking rebel.
Eustis shook his head. “I’ve just been lying low lately. I caught a late summer cold, and it took longer to shake.” He shook his head. “Getting older is not for the faint of heart, but it’s better than the option. And I’m feeling much better now and craving some of your chai for myself and my friend.” He turned toward Delaney with a wave of his hand. “Brewster, meet Delaney. She’s visiting us temporarily so I want you to treat her with your very best brew so she will come back.”
Delaney shot a small closed-mouth smile at Brewster, whose eyes widened when she got a good look at Delaney. Yeah, Brewster may be more rock than pop, but she still fit the core demographic for Laney Starr’s audience.
Even with Delaney wearing the wig, big hat and sunglasses, and an obvious lack of makeup, the coffee barista knew who Delaney was immediately.
But instead of screaming out her name or doing something else to draw attention to Delaney, she composed herself rather quickly and nodded toward her. “Any friend of Eustis’ is welcome here. What can I get you both today?”
“We want to order two of your large nutmeg, vanilla chai’s.”
She nodded and began to punch their order into the computer, but suddenly stopped sending a hard to read look at Delaney. “For you,” she nodded at Delaney, “I’ll add a True Love Tonic, on the house.”
Delaney felt her eyes go wide. “And what is that?”
Brewster laughed. “I’ll let Eustis explain it to you while you wait for your drinks, but believe me, you need it.”
The two of them stepped over to the side to wait and Delaney raised her eyebrows at Eustis. “So, the True Love Tonic? Tell me it’s not some sort of hippie psychotropic drug.” The last thing she needed now was a drug scandal on top of everything else.
He snorted. “No. It’s actually very good for you. A town to the north of us has a natural spring. They say the water from it is blessed and if you drink the water from the spring, you’ll find your true love.”
“So, not psychotropic, just psychotic. Got it.” She eyed the menu again and spotted the True Love Tonic option on it. Wow. They thought highly of that imported spring water, didn’t they? She shrugged. Since she didn’t believe in true love and knew the power of media spin to earn a buck, she didn’t worry too much about it.
True love couldn’t find her because it didn’t exist.