Older and Far Away
Driving on the other side of the road was going to take some getting used to. She had been blithely heading into town center (on the right side of the road, as usual) when the honking horn of an oncoming car nearly shocked her out of her skin. She swerved to avoid the elderly couple who waved at her—whatever that meant—as they passed.
After that, she slowed to a crawl and kept chanting "Left, left, left," under her breath until she pulled up in front of the market. Her parking was still horrendous, but Mansfield was a small enough town that even if she straddled two stalls, there was usually no one around to be upset by it. So she shrugged, pulled her bag off the passenger seat, and slammed the door behind her.
Two elderly men—farmers, by the looks of it—gave her a long once-over as she stepped into the store from where they sat talking loudly by the store's wood stove. It was the middle of summer, the air bright and hot, but she could tell that the stove was the nerve center of the town and was never deserted. There were places like that in little markets in the South, where she'd spent some time, and the pot-belly stove and the worn, mismatched chairs stood around it seemed familiar and comforting.
Besides, they wouldn't recognize her. Authors were never very famous, though she'd had more than her fair share of brushes with the camera—spots on TV, visits to awards shows and dinners—but no one during her whole drive from Heathrow to Nottinghamshire had recognized her yet.
No; the gaze was simply the idle look of a man at a fairly pretty, unknown woman. After a brief pause in their chatter—during which she selected a basket and started to move through the store—they were back to discussing the disposition of one of their horses.
Their accents were broader and rougher than the tones she was used to hearing in London. Everyone there either drawled or sounded clipped, brief, and academic. These men spoke as though not caring if anyone would hear them; they cracked stupid jokes and laughed loud and long at them. She kept one ear—and more than half her attention—on their conversation as she swept what felt like half the store's stock into her basket.
Moving into a new house was so complicated. The fridge and pantry was entirely bare; no salt, spices, milk, butter…all the basics had to be bought, plus everything else besides. She deposited one basket on the abandoned counter, and picked up another.
She ran over her mental checklist as this basket grew heavy: fruit, vegetables, two kinds of meat, canned tomatoes and beans, milk, eggs, spices, bread, butter, cleaning supplies…
She spied toilet paper and smiled. Couldn't forget that either. She mounded paper towels, sponges, and a few other things on top of that. That was near enough to everything she needed.
Her two baskets took up the entire register space, but there was still no one standing behind it. She glanced around, but besides the two men, the store was empty.
She swallowed and rubbed her sweaty palms on her jeans. It didn't matter how many times she'd been a guest on a talk show or walked down the carpet at some evening gala. She would always hate talking to strangers.
The two men were too old and too broad to be startled by her accent, but they certainly looked round fast enough. She pulled a nervous smile and asked, "Do either of you know where the cashier is?"
They looked around; just as confused as she was. One of them brushed his cap back from his face and scratched his neck.
"He's probably out back having a fag," he grumbled, "he does that a lot. I'll go get him." He shifted his bulk in the complaining high-backed chair, preparing to rise.
"Oh, no," she said, holding her hands out, "I'll find him. Just…through there?"
She pointed towards a curtained entryway that probably let to a storage room and then out to the back of the store. He nodded.
"Right out back. Go on, he won't mind it."
She nodded and stepped quickly into the back room, where her suspicions were confirmed. Winding her way between the shelves that held plastic-sealed pasta and pallets of canned goods, she pushed open the door and descended a rickety three steps down to the store's back alley.
A young man, good-naturedly chubby and curly haired, looked up at her and smiled as he took another puff from his cigarette. Change that cigarette to a pipe, she thought, returning the smile, and you've got an extra from Lord of the Rings.
"Hi," she said, smile growing wider as he started at her American accent, "are you the cashier?"
"That I am," he said, throwing the butt-end of his smoke into the dirt, "Go on in," he said, puffing the last breath from his mouth and nose, "I'll be right there."
She retraced her steps through the storage room, hearing him close the door firmly behind. When she came back into the store proper, there were another trio of older gentlemen in the crowd by the stove. They all looked at her when she came in, and she quickly avoided their eyes and smiles. None of them said a word.
"Go on, what're you all staring at?" the cashier's voice was just as cheerful as his grin, "You never seen a girl before?"
"No harm Charlie, no harm," one replied, tucking his thumbs behind his suspenders, "just wanting to say hello to the new resident."
Her ears were burning by the time she got to the register. She bit her lower lip and held it hard between her teeth. She counted to five as the cashier joked something back to the men, and swallowed twice. Then, she focused on relaxing the major muscle groups in her body: shoulders, back, legs, and feet. By the time the little exercise was done, she was facing Charlie the cashier somewhat more in control.
"Well now," he said, looking with raised eyebrows at her order, "and here I thought they were just joking. But you are planning to stay a while, aren't you?"
"For a few months at least. I'm trading houses with a family a little outside of town." The smile on her face still felt artificial, so she broadened it and added, "Just a few months of peace and quiet, you know?"
"Well, you'll get that out here right enough," he said, slowly tallying her order and putting the items into carrier bags. "We don't usually get visitors, and I can't remember the last time an American came through town. Must have a good job if you can get away for a little while."
The honest curiosity was another thing she remembered from life in Arkansas.
"Well…I guess you could say I work freelance. So it doesn't much matter where I live. Just as long as the work gets done."
He nodded sagely, "That's a nice thing. Love to stay at home, myself, but someone's got to mind the store and keep it safe from that rabble." He raised his voice and smiled at the group—growing larger every time she looked, it seemed—gathered by the stove. "Or they'd have the place down around our ears," he finished, winking.
It had been a long time since anyone flirted with her. In Los Angeles her slightly pock-marked face, fleshy belly and cellulite thighs had kept most men at a certain distance. Though she had never felt ugly during her nearly seven-year residence, she had often felt invisible. But here, she was easily a match (and her vanity said more than) for most of the women, even for those younger than she was. And at thirty-seven—way past prime in LA—it was a good feeling to have.
So she smiled back for a moment before glancing away and letting her hair cover her slight blush. She could get used to this.
"So I'm Charlie, anyway," he stuck his hand over the counter for her to shake. His raised eyebrows coaxed her response.
"I'm Hannah," she answered, "nice to meet you."
"Pretty name for a pretty girl," he said. There was a short break as he had to move some of the bags off the counter to make room for the rest of her groceries. "So what kind of work do you do?"
She tensed, and forced herself to relax again. No one would recognize her, no one would know. "I'm a writer. Stories, books…" she shrugged, "that kind of thing."
He stopped. "You're never Hannah Greene, are you? Who wrote the Skeleton Marcher series and The Hunger Below?"
Crap. Hannah actually recoiled a few steps before catching herself.
"Please don't say anything," she muttered, glancing at the men who had once again turned to their own conversation in the corner, "I don't want anyone to know I'm here."
"Not a word," he promised her. But she'd had promises broken often enough to know that a man's pledge meant nothing. She wondered frantically if she could arrange another house swap before he could contact the press.
And she'd been so close to being home free!
He caught the sour frustration on her face. "Nah, really, I won't say anything. No one around here reads much," he shrugged, "I wouldn't've known you myself, but my niece…she loves you. Makes us sit down and watch every interview and listen to her read every line you've written. Loves your blog. Hey…"
She knew what he was going to say long before it escaped his mouth.
"She'd love to meet you."
Hannah's smile hardened to a grimace. She dug her nails into her palms. This was just what she'd wanted to avoid, why she'd picked a corner of England neglected by most tourists and chosen a house fifty miles from the nearest city! So that she could have herself to herself for once, and not have to pose for pictures or do book signings or read at schools or sit for interviews.
She just wanted to sit in a well-lit room with the sun shining on her notebook, and tell stories. That was all she'd ever wanted.
"You must be in Bower House, yeah? Place that big, with all the gardens…you must need someone to help keep it tidy. Andy could help with that."
On the master list of all the things she needed, a teenaged fangirl housekeeper was probably three steps up from dead last. Hannah didn't say a word, but Charlie was already spinning his own fantasy.
"Yeah, she could come over some days and help with the housekeeping…she's a fair cook, too, you should taste her shepherd's pie, and then she could actually talk to you and ask all the questions she keeps bothering us with—"
"No," Hannah said, yanking her bags off the counter. "I'm sorry, but no."
"I came for quiet. The last thing I want or need is someone in my house at all hours of the day. I'm sure your niece is a nice girl; maybe we will meet sometime while I'm here," being rude was always exceptionally difficult for her. This fact had actually lead to the whole debacle in the first place. "But please…just don't say anything. To anyone."
He stared at her, as though unbelieving that anyone in the public eye could desire time away from it. Then his open hearted and smiling expression disappeared. It was like the sun had ducked behind a cloud to avoid shining on her face. Hannah swallowed.
"Sure, yeah," he said at last. "Seventy-three pounds sixty."
The smallest bill she had was £50, he had to go to the safe in the back to get her change. Hannah started to load the bags into the trunk of her car, shaking her head as the assembled crowd of gentlemen offered to help. Carrying so many bags her arms shook with the weight, she had packed everything away by the time Charlie came back with her twenty-seven pounds forty pence.
She shoved everything into her bag and gave an awkward smile, which he did not return. Resentment welled up in her throat and tears—always so close to the surface—gathered at the corners of her eyes.
"That's not fair, you know," she spoke to his profile; he was not looking at her. "You…it wasn't fair, what you did. It's not my fault."
Neither of them knew exactly what she was talking about, but Hannah didn't stay to hear if he would reply. She turned hard on her heel and back to the street, where she unlocked the door on the wrong side before getting in and drove home, still chanting "left, left, left" all the way there.
Hannah had cleaned her way through the study, library, living room, kitchen, and downstairs bathroom before she felt her equilibrium return. The whole project took less than an hour; the Attenboroughs had done just as the swap agreement said and left everything occupant ready. She only hoped they'd be as pleased with the slapdash job she'd done in her own home. She knew she hadn't left her shower stall in the same soap-scum free state that they had.
Once that was done, she turned to the cavernous kitchen with its cobblestone floor and soft wood countertops to cook dinner. Traveling internationally always made her absolutely ravenous; she chopped up a huge amount of vegetables (squash, carrots, and potatoes from a farm stand down the road), soaked them in olive oil (which cost more than gold out here), spiced them up, and threw them in the oven. While they roasted, she sliced, toasted, and thickly buttered the heavy, yeasty bread from the store. It was so good, especially with the fatty, salty butter that she ate three slices while the vegetables were still softening.
She took one last slice of bread and the vegetables and carried them and a glass of white wine out onto the patio.
From the back of the three-story Georgian mansion, she had a view of the rolling hills of Nottinghamshire, dotted here and there with patches of forest, but mostly open for grazing animals, enclosed by tangled hedgerows. The front of the house faced south, for the light and exposure, so the sunset was now on her right hand side, casting stained-glass light over the whole scene.
Hannah pulled a lounger into place and lay down, nestling her heavy tray of food on her lap.
Jeremy would never have been comfortable eating this much—especially bread—at one sitting. Unless he was training for a movie (and being a second-string action star, he often was) his diet was surprisingly birdlike. Not that she (often) minded; especially at night, when she'd been free to run her wandering hands over the hard muscles of his arms, chest, and stomach, she'd blessed the self-control that allowed him to maintain that gorgeous body.
But now, separated from Jeremy by more than 5,500 miles (not to mention the emotional distance that was probably even further) she smiled broadly as she speared chunks of carrot and potato with an abandon that he would have frowned upon as undignified. And not a little disgusting.
Whatever. He'd known what she was, and she never in her whole life had pretended to be the LA gold standard. Before they'd moved there, she'd been ten pounds heavier. He ought to have been grateful, really.
Hannah finished her dinner and laid the tray aside, sleepiness washing like the tide over her tired muscles and exhausted mind. The evening was still warm; she was tempted to just lower the lounger and sleep right there, looking up at the country stars that she hadn't seen for years.
But there were gnats. One flew up her nose, and she sneezed.
"Mood killers," she yawned as she picked up the tray and headed back inside, closing the French doors behind her, "Jeremy would be proud."
She did her best to clamp down on those thoughts. She'd come all the way out here to get away from them. Now that they were in mind, though, it was impossible to get them out.
For example, she remembered the way he'd looked, the last premiere they'd attended together. She'd come downstairs in rented diamonds and emeralds and a stunning forest green Vera Wang, the diet and exercise regime she'd stuck religiously to over the past six months finally—gloriously—on display. Her makeup artist, hairstylist, and stylist were all raving over the look.
But Jeremy (and it had all been for him, regardless of how she enjoyed looking that way) had only smiled and offered his arm.
She'd gone to the premiere smiling vacantly, answering the questions as though her responses had been pre-recorded. The moment the movie began, she'd snuck away to stare at her reflection in the glorious marble and gold bathroom. As far as she was concerned, their relationship had ended that night six months ago.
Hannah filled the sink with hot soapy water, sliding the dishes under to soak.
Those thoughts opened the door to others.
How had it come to that? The first time they'd met, she'd been more famous, but only by a hair. They'd each had a string of minor successes, and were at a mutual friend's pool party for other minorly successful people. She'd already been pleasantly tipsy before buying him a drink. For a while, they bonded by laughing at the models, posing artfully around the pool in their tiny bikinis. Hannah had dared him to push one in; he had returned the challenge.
She didn't have the courage to do it, but she did the next best thing. Her cannonballs were a force of nature, and when she jumped in—laughing so hard that water went down her throat—she soaked three of them to the skin; ruining hairdos, makeup, and silk sarongs.
For years afterwards, he'd called her his tsunami.
Major successes came for them both shortly after. She landed a book deal and published her YA Skeleton Marcher quartet and he had scored the leading role in his first blockbuster action flick, Sandman. Accolades were heaped on both of them; she won a Newberry Award, and he got good reviews and scripts started piling up fast.
They worked in separate circles, coming home after their work and parties to tumble into bed together. At home, they both became what they had been the night they met; minorly successful people who couldn't believe that the doors of fame and prosperity seemed to be opening wide at last.
But their circles had grown too far apart. Hannah spent her days at home, listening to music and pounding away at the keyboard, taking frequent breaks to walk or cook as the mood hit. Her friends were quieter, her parties not as wild. Jeremy got used to an entirely different standard of living. Landing among the A-listers at last, he had no desire to fall off their radar; he attended every party, tried things that Hannah knew he had no interest in (cocaine and LSD being two prime examples) and succumbed—though at first he'd assured her to no harm—to the image-obsessed mindset that thrived in LA.
To be fair, she'd known the day she'd met him that he was more shallow than she was. Though he'd mocked those models around the pool, he had still looked them over with lust in his eyes. And she'd always been both shy and snooty; not a good combination for a Hollywood girlfriend. Rather than embracing his lifestyle or making an effort to keep herself part of his newfound world, she'd distanced herself by snarky comments and undisguised scorn.
But the fact that there had been mistakes on both sides didn't make it any easier. She missed him terribly.
The soap bubbles had all burst in the sink, and the olive oil from the plate made a rainbow swirl of grease on the water. She scrubbed the dishes quickly and set them to dry, then stood listening to the draining water gurgle away through the pipes as she thought.
Did he miss her? She hadn't given him the chance to stop her, but it had been over 24 hours now. He must have realized by now that something was wrong. After five years together, including a six-month engagement…he must. He must feel the emptiness of these quiet hours in their shared apartment, even as she felt the emptiness now.
Her hand went to the chain around her neck and felt the bump of the five-carat engagement ring under her sweater. She'd been so happy. Everyone—even her parents who had never cared for him—had been. But even then…
They had grown too far apart. It happened to lots of people; it was a fact of life! But the knowledge of that universal truth didn't make any of this any easier.
The doorbell rang and Hannah nearly screamed. The house had grown dark and silent around her and the sounds of the fields and meadows outside were muted; she fumbled for the light switch as she made her way to the front of the house. Panic beat at her heart; panic, and a certain dread for what she knew she would find. She shouldn't have been rude to him; the minute she'd left the store, he'd probably gone straight for the local paper.
And now she'd have to deal with the tabloids in rural Britain screaming "Jilted Fiancée of Action Star Found in Hiding!" What joy. And all after going to so much trouble to escape those headlines in America.
But it wasn't the papers. It was just Charlie.
He looked as awkward as she felt.
"Hi," she replied, keeping her body half-hidden behind the door.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Then Charlie seemed to remember the bag in his hand.
"This is for you," he said, holding it out with both hands. "I just…ah…I just wanted to say sorry for how I acted this afternoon. It was really rude of me to expect you to jump at the chance to talk to my niece—especially since none of us want to talk to her," he chuckled weakly and looked hopeful that she might join him.
She did not.
"Ah, so anyway…it's treacle tart. I made it myself, but don't be scared to eat it. I'm a fairly good baker, everyone says so."
Hannah hesitated, then took the bag. The tart smelled heavy and sugary, almost like pecan pie in its gooey, dark sweetness. Another thing Jeremy would never have eaten. That fact alone made her keep it.
He hesitated. "Well," he took a shuffling step back, "I guess I should…leave you to it then. Sorry."
She nodded, stepped back, and closed the door.
He wasn't lying about being a good baker. She had one slice of the tart, then another, before going to bed. The silence of the countryside was going to be a curse, she could tell, because in the darkness her thoughts buzzed like swarming bees. But she was still weary down to her very bones, and her troubles faded away along with her consciousness.
Cold treacle tart with a tall glass of milk made for an excellent breakfast. She took a good quarter of the pie out to the patio with her and ate it one heaping, sticky spoonful after another, washing it down with gulps of milk. That done, she stretched out on the lounger and basked in the late morning sun as the flies gathered above the sugary remnants left on the plate.
She felt at ease with them, herself, the cows that roamed in the fields beyond her hedgerow, and the bugs that shrilled in the grass. Though she'd slept for ten hours, she was still tired, and the sunlight and rich smelling grass wrapped a comfortable veil over her senses. Hannah felt not uncomfortably alike a caterpillar tucked inside its cocoon. This was peace. After so many months of feeling her muscles tense the moment after opening her eyes in the morning, this lassitude was just what she had been seeking. After a few days of this, she thought, stretching from fingertips to toenails, she might even be in the mood to start writing again. The study—with its huge windows and rows of bookcases—was the perfect writing room, though it was nothing like the minimalist office she'd crafted in her LA home.
No, ignore that thought, she told herself; don't think of the past, there's just the present. Sugar on her lips, sun on her face, and relaxation in her body and mind.
Hannah started to feel a bit better. So much better that she wanted another slice of tart.
She wandered slowly into the kitchen, returning to the pie pan left on the counter. As she was helping herself, she realized that the pan was not a disposable one. It was a heavy-duty glass pan, obviously well-used and not meant to be kept. She frowned. Had he planned it that way, knowing that either she would have to return it or he would have to come back for it? Or had he just not wanted to buy—or take, since he worked in the town's only market—a disposable pan instead?
Hannah sighed. She'd have to give it back and deal with his awkwardness. Oh, God. He'd done it so she'd have to come and meet his niece. She'd have to go into town, find out where he lived, and meet his niece.
"It won't be that bad," she said, attempting to reassure herself. Though she hated meeting strangers, talking with people who enjoyed her books was pleasant after the initial greetings were over. But if this girl was as intense a fan as Charlie had seemed to imply, then she would know all about the breakup and there would be some very uncomfortable questions. Teenagers, she'd found, had no filter around the famous; she'd been around Jeremy often enough when he'd had a fan-run Q&A session to know that.
Some of the things they'd asked had made her blush…and filled her with more than a little bit of proprietary anger.
"Oh, God," she muttered, stuffing her mouth with tart, "it will be that bad."
The thought got her so tense that Hannah had to flee the house. So she put on shorts, a tank top and light sweater, and slipped on her sneakers before locking the door behind her and heading down the road. The street—actually, road was a better word for this one-and-a-half lane tunnel through the trees—was lined with flowering bushes and paved in gravel, worn to two deep, muddy ruts by the traffic over the years. It reminded her vaguely of the street her grandma lived on in upstate New York farm country, and she set off walking with a good will.
As the honking car drew up beside her and she recognized Charlie's goofy face through the window, she groaned.
"Is there a way for you to not startle me every time you show up?"
"Sorry; but good morning to you too," he said, smiling. "I take it you didn't have the best night?"
Hannah kept walking. "I had a fine night," she said, glancing over her shoulder to see that he was keeping pace with her in the car, "and a decent morning. But then I realized what you'd done."
"Yeah," he said, wincing, "I realized it too. That's why I came back. Didn't want you to think that I'd planned it all out and was trying to make you do something I know you don't want to do. So, I mean," he chuckled uncertainly, "you can keep the pan if you're not done with the tart, and just drop it off in the store…or you can take my number and call, and I'll come pick it up…"
"Or you can take it right now," Hannah turned around and started back towards the house. "I was almost done anyway; I'll wrap the rest and wash the pan. Won't take five minutes."
"Uh, could do," he hurried to turn the car on the narrow road, but Hannah was already back up the drive by the time he pulled up and parked.
She had nearly shut the door in his face when he jogged up the steps to meet her.
"Oh," she said, "I guess you'd better come in and wait."
He followed her down the hallway towards the kitchen. Nervous prickles ran up and down her back as she pulled the pan from the fridge and levered the remaining pie onto a plate, wrapping it in foil. She plugged the sink and filled it with hot water.
"I can wash it at home," Charlie said, "Don't want to make you bother."
"It's fine," her back was still to him as she let the plate soak for a moment. Her good mood of the morning was already evaporating. She caught sight of her face in the kitchen window, framed by cheery blue and yellow curtains, and sighed as she saw her mouth settling into its frown lines. Any more of that, her stylist had chided her, and you'll get wrinkles. Smile more.
I'll smile when there's a reason to, she had shot back during one of her black moods. I'll smile when he stops hiding me at home like some kind of embarrassment.
Lindsay hadn't refuted the idea. She had just reminded her to moisturize, wear sunscreen, and drink a lot of water. Best way to prevent wrinkles.
She picked up a sponge and started working away at the stubborn crumbs of tart, biting her lip, trying not to cry. This whole trip had been such a bad idea; instead of being miserable at her parents' home, where she could have spent whole days curled up in her familiar sheets and blankets like a grub, she had decided to come to England…a country she'd been waiting to explore all her life. And now, instead of being able to go out, sightsee, and enjoy…she was crying over a stupid pie pan while a stranger stood twisting his hands in this strange kitchen.
Hannah finished washing and reached for a towel, drying her hands and the pan at the same time.
"Thanks," he said as she handed it to him, eyes bent to the floor. She watched his hands as he hesitated.
"You're not happy."
She scoffed, stepping back until she leaned against the sink. "No shit."
It was embarrassing how easily the tears slipped down her face. Blindly, she grabbed the towel and swiped at her eyes.
"Aw, shit," he swore. In her cottony darkness, she felt a rough hand graze her shoulder in a clumsy caress. "I'm…I'm so sorry. I'm an idiot. It's just…you shouldn't be so unhappy. I'm mad that someone made you upset."
"You made me upset," she jerked away from his hand. She could feel how red and puffy her eyes were and avoided glancing at her soggy reflection in the window. "So I think you need to leave now." He opened his mouth to object and she cut him off with a sharp gesture, "Please. Leave. Now."
He backed away, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed up his words. Hannah dropped her face back into the towel and tried not to sob.
"There's just one more thing,"
"God damn it, Charlie!"
"One more thing, and I'll go," he held out his hands, "Every Wednesday we get together at the village center and play games, music, dance, that kind of thing. Everyone asked me to tell you that you're welcome to come, any time. You belong to the village now."
"I belonged to Jeremy for five years, and now I'm the property of Mansfield, England. What if I just want to belong to myself, for a change?"
"You'll always do that," he seemed genuinely confused. "I'm just saying…you're welcome to come. We don't often get new people in town, so everyone's curious. And…it's fun, sometimes."
A weary truth fell together in her mind.
"Charlie," she sighed, rubbing her forehead, "I'm flattered and everything, but I didn't travel all the way out here to start a relationship with you, or anyone. So if you're trying to ask me out on a date—"
"Oh, no," he interrupted, flushing. "I—no. I've got a girlfriend."
Hannah had not thought it possible to be more embarrassed than she was, but the fire raging in her brain and the sick coldness swirling in her gut told her otherwise. She couldn't look at him as he stammered on.
"Yeah…Sandy. She's a great girl. I just wanted to ask you because you seemed so sad…and I thought this could help. Get your mind off things, you know? Sometimes it's easier to put bad things out of your head if you have things to distract you, yeah?"
"Okay," he backed down the hallway and practically ran out the door. She heard his car churning up gravel as he backed down the drive. Hannah stood, eyes closed, then slid slowly down to her knees and placed both palms flat on the stone floor. For a long time, she was silent and still.
Two Wednesdays passed by before she ran out of groceries and had to go to town. Over the past few days, Hannah had recovered to the point where she felt comfortable leaving the house and roaming the countryside, a novel and notebook in the deep pockets of her dress, a wide-brimmed hat shading her shoulders and face. She had flopped underneath spreading trees standing in decorative clusters, writing a sentence here and there and reading just as sporadically.
Equilibrium returned, hope—cautious hope—sniffing in its wake. Maybe the train wreck of the last year was not irreparable, maybe she could rebound into new life and love. She called her parents and talked for hours, brushing off their concerns about the long-distance charges. She even called her brother and had a few hurried, encouraging words. He was too busy with his three-year-old son for their lengthy chats of old, but she could hardly grudge him that when she could listen to her nephew tell her all about the snail he'd found in the yard that morning.
As thoughts of others returned, thoughts of Jeremy faded. Well, faded was not quite the word. They pulled back, as foam-edged waves drift back to rejoin the surging ocean. At times, they would rush forward again and overwhelm her in reminisces about his voice (roughened from the cigarettes he smoked) his smell (cotton, smoke, and sweat, masked with Old Spice) and his smile (assured and cocky in public, shy and self-aware when they were alone).
All Hannah's thoughts of him were so double-edged that she hardly knew how to feel when they occupied her mind. She was angry still—and would be for a long time, that was inevitable—but she was sorry for him. They had known each other for years, grown into fame together…it was impossible to forget those nights when he had turned to her and begged her never to let him disappear, subsumed under the character his publicist and agent fitted over him like a wrought-iron exoskeleton.
It was impossible to forget because she had promised that she would never let that happen.
I'll be here, she'd told him, and if I'm here they can't make you forget me.
Sometimes the longing to know what was happening to him was so great that Hannah almost logged onto the fan websites to read through the press columns. Had he started dating again? Was he making excuses for her not being at his side at the premiere of Back Lot? Was she being gracefully erased from his image…or was she a gaping scar?
On Wednesday, tse questions were particularly pointed. She'd been browsing through the channels, eating popcorn on the antique sofa, and a trailer popped on for Back Lot. Before she could flip away, she'd heard his name…and the wave of thoughts dragged her down in the ocean of self-recrimination.
Hannah turned off the TV and stood. There was no way she was going to spend all night going over every single memory, unable to escape into her unsullied imagination. There were no groceries in the house, and maybe Charlie was right. Maybe it would be fun.
She went through her closet with as much care as she had before her first (official) date with Jeremy. She didn't want to come off as too LA with a floaty dress, sunglasses, and a scarf. Maybe the casual route was better. Maybe…
"Enough!" she barked at herself, "Stop thinking."
Jeans. Jeans were comfortable and well fitting. Throw it together with her favorite shirt, a mint-green button down with three-quarter sleeves and a loose peplum, bright blue-and-white enamel earrings, and brown ballet flats. It would be enough. This was Mansfield, after all…not Fashion Week in New York. God. She still had nightmares about that. Even the thought of the bright lights reflecting off the brilliant runway made her shudder in hindsight.
"Would you give it a break," she sighed to herself, turning away from the stand-alone mirror that parroted every wrinkle on her anxious face, "Why do you always do this to yourself?"
A question she'd struggled with for years, to be sure. And one to which she had no satisfactory answer.
The sky outside, already darkening into the now familiar blue-violet of an English twilight, gave her a reprieve. If she didn't hurry, the store would be closed by the time she got into town.
"Hey, the hermit emerges!"
Those four words made Hannah reconsider every resolution about friendliness and team spirit she'd made on the short drive into town. Charlie's grin was unrepentant as he shifted his cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other. The group of regulars sitting in their chairs by the stove mimicked his tone as they smiled and nodded greetings to her. She did her best to make her smile seem genuine as she nodded back, but she glared at Charlie. He knew better, after all.
"Now, it can't be a coincidence that you're here on a community night, is it?" he went on, eyes following her as she made her way through the too-short stacks of product. She studiously avoided his gaze as she contemplated the three brands of cereal on display. "You can't be meaning to leave before everyone's had at least one gander at you."
Everyone was waiting on her answer. She picked Cheerios and moved on to her choices for cookies—biscuits, rather.
Between reading the descriptions for HobNobs and Jammie Dodgers (seriously?) she answered, "I was thinking of looking in for a bit. Mansfield's been a," she glanced up and paused just long enough for him to see her smile, "generous host to me, after all. And," she went on heroically in the face of Charlie's downright indecent grin, "I did hear that someone's niece might want to talk to me. I guess I owe her," she picked both biscuits and tossed them in, moving on to canned soups, "since her uncle did bake me a fantastic treacle tart."
Charlie's smile softened as the taunting humor left his eyes. "She'll love it," he said softly, nodding to her, "small towns can't keep secrets, you know. She's been wild to come over and fling herself at your feet for days."
"Small towns can't keep secrets?" Hannah had to bite down on her flash powder anger and remind herself that she was trying to make friends, "As I recall, only one person in this town knew who I was."
He threw up his hands. "Guilty, guilty," he said, having the good grace to look a little ashamed, "but you're damn near a religion to her. Wouldn't've been right, you being here without her knowing it. She ever got wind, and I'd never see her again. She's had a hard time forgiving me as-is."
"Well," Hannah sighed and loaded her purchases onto the counter, "you can show your gratitude by taking these out to my car, escorting me to community night, and not being too much of a jerk when we get there. Please," and her joking tone slipped away entirely, "please don't make me out to be some sort of trophy."
He rang her purchases slowly, bagging each one with—to her—unnecessary care.
"Are you sure you're from LA?" he said, shaking his head as he finished the order.
She dug out the necessary bills and avoided his gaze as she answered, "No one's from LA. And I sure as hell never pretended to be. But the two of us…we never got along."
"I guess not," he said, shrugging as he made change. He took all four bags in his meaty palms and hoisted them off the counter, "You glad to be gone?" he tossed the question over his shoulder as she trailed him from the store to her car.
It took Hannah a moment to consider her answer. In fact, she didn't find the words until he had slammed the trunk shut on the groceries.
"I don't miss the town," she hesitated, "Some of the people…I miss them."
He nodded, finishing the ever-present cigarette and tossing it to smother between the rough gravel of the parking lot. "Your boyfriend?"
She could have hit him. The look must have shone on her face because he quickly backpedaled.
"I don't mean to pry," he said, "but you can't expect me not to do any research on the celebrity in our midst. No one knows why you split from him and no one knows where you've gone. The fanboards are excited, of course. Little 'tween girls thinking they can finally get with your man."
Hannah shut her eyes and swallowed hard, feeling the corners of her thinned lips tremble. Whether they shook from repressed laughter or sobs she didn't know.
"What're you doing here?"
She shook her head. How many hours of how many days had she spent contemplating that very question, turning it upside-down and inside-out? Was she running? Hiding? Angling for a breakup, or fishing for more attention? Showing Jeremy what their lives would be like…apart?
You will not cry, she lectured herself. He doesn't deserve it.
She had no idea which "he" she was thinking about.
She swallowed again, feeling black bile retreat down into her stomach where it prowled her gut, a vengeful animal still looking to bite.
"Don't you know?" her voice was rusty, but grew stronger as she went on, "I just heard that Mansfield's community nights could be fun, sometimes," she opened her eyes and managed a smirk, "Gotta explore that kind of crazy rumor for myself."
For once, Charlie didn't smile. But nor was he at a loss for words. As usual.
"Well," he chuckled weakly, "let me just shut up shop and kick those bums out," he jerked his thumb towards the old-timers who nearly had their faces against the glass, staring at them, "and we'll go."
"Fine," she said, leaning against the car. Then, recklessly, "Give me a cigarette before you go."
She exhaled the familiar, bitter smoke towards the sky in long plumes, watching the stars twinkling at her resolutely even behind the thin gray veil. Silently she asked them the questions that tortured her, but neither they, nor the sparking, overactive neurons in her brain, could give her any answer. The guilty pleasure of the cigarette may not have been able to spark her intuition, but at the very least the nicotine soothed her nerves so that she could smile at Charlie when he returned, and nonchalantly grind the butt under her heel as he offered her his arm.
"Won't Sandy be offended?" she breathed the last of her smoke into his face and set off alone, following the faint laughter and scraps of music that floated through the air of the quiet village.
Hannah swigged the last of her fourth glass of wine, waving goodbye to Andy—the refreshingly smart thirteen-year-old who loved her work—and smiled as her exasperated mother finally took her by the arm and dragged her out of the building. Charlie sidled back over to her, though two hours before he had been banished to the farthest reaches of the community center so the two of them could enter into the finer subtleties of The Skeleton Marcher: Iridoon's Wasteland in peace.
"Not bad, right?" he said, subtly (not subtly at all) refilling her glass with the dry, bitter red, "I tell you," he shook his head, "even when she drives us all loony, we're still proud. D'you think she could make it as a writer?"
"Sometimes it feels like more luck than skill," Hannah drained half the glass and muffled a burp as she answered, "but it doesn't matter if she never gets published. She'll always be a writer. It's like a disease you never quite shake. Sometimes," and she smiled, finishing the rest of the glass and waving off his offer of another, "you get rid of it for months, even years…but it's always there, and someday you'll wake up at 3 AM with a story clawing its way out of your brain."
He hissed, "Sounds painful."
She shrugged. "Only if you don't let it come out. And speaking of coming out…or out," she paused, thinking, "whatever. I think I'm about done. Gonna go home."
"Not alone you're not," Charlie said, "I happen to know you've had too much to drive."
"Then drive me home," she said, swinging her leg over the chair where she'd been leaning her elbows on the backrest. "Now."
"Bossy boots when you've been drinking, eh?" he put the wine on the table and waved to his appropriately sandy-haired girlfriend across the room. Through some rather insulting pantomime (during which Hannah glowered to the best of her tipsy ability) he told her that he was taking the newbie inebriate home. Considering the truth of being the newbie inebriate though, she decided not to take any revenge at that particular instant in time.
"Keys, please," he said, grinning as she slapped them into his palm. She scorned his outstretched arm and held her head high as they crossed the square to where her car squatted like a beetle under the faint starlight. She had to remind herself to go to the correct side (US driver's side) and slipped into the passenger seat with a gusty sigh. It felt good to be in the darkness after the noise and scrutiny of the center, but she had to admit that it had been pretty fun. It had been a long time since she'd talked to anyone like Andy, anyway. Most fans were just interested in the result of her fame, rather than the years of torturous work it took to produce a good book.
Charlie exercised more restraint than she'd thought him capable of as he silently guided the car down the few miles to her house. It was only when they'd pulled up outside and were sitting in silence for a few minutes that he looked over at her and said:
"You had fun tonight."
It wasn't a question, but she answered anyway. "I did."
"You should do that more often."
She was too tired to manage a cynical laugh. What was meant to be a quip came out sadly honest. "It's on my to-do list."
Her eyes refused to focus behind a sudden sheen of tears. Oh for Christ's sake, the exasperated sober chunk of her brain howled, would you please stop spilling your guts to strangers?
With a vicious bite to her inner lip, she cleared up her tears and briskly opened the door. "Thanks for the ride," she tossed back, not looking to see how Charlie took her sudden dismissal. Then, "How are you gonna get back?"
She had to look at him now.
He'd gotten out too. He gestured back down the shadowy drive. "I'll walk," he said, backing up a few paces.
"You sure? It's a few miles back to town center."
"Be good for me after all that sauce," he patted his belly. "I'll see you, Hannah."
They walked in opposite directions, but she waited at the door until the sound of his footsteps on the gravel drive faded into the distance. Then she unlocked the door and shut it firmly behind her.
The house was now so familiar that she wound her way to the study without stubbing her toe on the raised board between the hall and the kitchen, or banging her elbow on the bookcase nearest the door. Her laptop's buttons glowed ghostly in the dark room, and she brought the machine to whirring life. She should probably get the fan replaced sometime…or just get a new computer. It had been four years, after all. Jeremy updated his tech every six months at least.
She had to shut her eyes against the near gush of tears that spilled out at the thought of his name. God, would she ever be over the heart-stab of pain that rushed her at the very idea of him? You shouldn't drink, her harridan sober-side reminded her, things always seem worse when you drink.
"Fine, fine," she sighed, sliding into the chair to check her email. It was easier with the time difference to check it before she went to bed rather than first thing in the morning (her usual habit), since she could delete all the junk mail and just read her business and personal correspondence when she actually got up.
She sent forty-eight pieces of junk to the proper folder and sorted the rest of the mails. There was one email from her brother that she read right away—assorted pictures of the nephew being adorable—and finally yawned, deciding to deal with the rest of it all tomorrow.
Her hand was hovering over the "sleep" option when another email pinged into her inbox. Muttering, she opened the window again and stared, her tired brain and addled senses taking a longer moment than usual to comprehend the "Jeremy Thwaite" in the sender line.
She almost threw up.
The only reason Hannah had gotten any sleep after reading those three lines from him was that she'd been drinking, and drinking—besides making her melancholy—always made her tired. Still, she woke up the next morning feeling as ill-rested as though she'd stayed up all night reading the words backwards and forwards and backwards again.
Where are you? I miss you. Please call me.
As emails go, she reflected, taking her sweet time in the shower by carefully washing her hair, pumicing her feet, and cleaning the dirt from her nails, it had less…recrimination than she'd expected. After all, she'd basically packed up a good chunk of her clothes and left, not telling him or any of their friends where she was headed. Her parents knew enough of the situation to not tell him a thing if they called, and she hadn't let a word slip to her publicist or publisher about her whereabouts. Only her housekeeper and agent knew, and that was to avoid a panic when the Attenboroughs showed up.
The unavoidable fact about the email was that it had been so long in coming.
She'd been in Mansfield for nearly three weeks, after all. And not once in all that time had he tried to contact her. Maybe, she corrected herself, standing against the cold tiles while the hot water sluiced down her belly, he had tried calling. But how many times can you get a "this number is out of service" message before wondering that something could be wrong?
Someone must have told him something. Maybe Lindsay. Lindsay had known that she was looking into house-sharing programs, after all. She might have—for the first time in her life—made the right assumption about something.
It was all irrelevant. The fact of the matter was he had finally noticed that she was gone and cared enough to find out if she was still alive. That put the ball in her court.
Did she want to tell him where she was and what she was doing, or just ignore him?
Her first instinct was to ignore it. Who wanted a boyfriend who only cared after three weeks of no communication? She twisted the knobs of the shower with more violence than necessary and wrung out her soaking hair.
Were they even still together? She'd left, he'd let her (albeit unknowingly), and…and she was mad at him. He'd ignored her, made her feel unwanted, unloved…
She swallowed hard, and paused as she stood dripping on the bathmat.
The thing she had never known was this: had he meant to make her feel that way?
She swallowed harder, and reached for a towel, slowly wrapping it around her and only vaguely taking pleasure in its thick, soft fibers.
For months, she'd been sure he'd been pulling away from her. Partying on his own, spending evenings at friends' houses without even inviting her, mornings when he'd risen and been gone for the gym without so much as a note. She'd reacted by making their apartment nicer, by spending more time at the gym herself…but not once had she spoken to him.
Jeremy was nice, but he was a bit…well, he had never had her problem of overthinking things. "Slow" would have been too strong a word to describe it, but he was not quick on the uptake.
Had he pulled away because she had?
No. She toweled herself off roughly and shoved herself into the day's skirt and blouse. She wasn't imagining those slights; his ignoring the home-cooked meals she'd made in preference of a meet-and-greet, his not remarking on her efforts to please him (in all arenas), or any of the other ways he'd made her feel inferior. Bringing his costars around the house, all lean, leggy, indistinguishable blondes and brunettes, was not just an ignorant mistake. It was a clear advertisement of the fact that he could always and easily have better.
His email was just a ploy, a way to get her to come back so he could be seen dumping her. He'd slummed enough by giving years of his prime to her; being dumped by the nothing-special author would be an embarrassment too great to smile away.
Probably, she thought, stomping downstairs and almost bruising her heels on the steps, his publicist had to tell him to get me back. Probably he didn't even know I was gone until the press clippings said so. Probably it didn't even occur to him that my leaving him was embarrassing until the latest Angelina or Cameron wouldn't give him the time of day.
She nursed a dash of resentful pride in her heart over that idea. Let him keep trying, she'd be a stone wall for him to beat his hammy fists against. Let the press say what they would; no one who read those rags read her books, and the stain would linger around his name for far longer than it would on hers. Maybe he'd even lose a movie or two over it, maybe he'd be too emasculated to play the latest gun-toting special agent or super spy.
She stopped then, pressing her hand to her chest as her heart jabbed her with her own resentment. It wasn't true. She would never hate him enough to want that. There had been too many afternoons, walking together in a haze of satisfaction, because his agent had called to tell him he'd landed a new role. When that news came, Jeremy always paced like a caged panther, back and forth across their living room, until she could finally get on her jacket and shoes and go out with him.
Those afternoons were etched in her memory; walking nameless, unknown streets together—sometimes in silence, sometimes in babbling joy—until he finally sat down, breathless, smiling at her with a grin that never failed to make her lean over, take his head in her hands, and kiss him slow and deep.
Hannah knew she had to speak to him. Whatever had happened, whatever she or he had done…she couldn't dishonor the memory of what they'd had. Even now, she thought of him, calling her phone and getting the same message over and over. If he had tried to call her parents to trace her whereabouts, they would not have told him; she'd told them not to. She thought of his face, pinched in desperation, trying to reach her and not knowing where she'd gone.
That child's cry into the dark digital void: where are you? I miss you.
I miss you too, she might have said, there in the stairwell of a house thousands of miles away. But she had come there voluntarily, for very good reasons, and she had known desperation just as much as he. Hannah straightened up, and bit her lip. She had to keep her head.
The head in question tingled with a tiny hangover headache. So she nursed it with a few glasses of water and a palm's worth of painkiller, then sat in the kitchen over a bowl of soggy cereal and considered her reply.
Unattractive and introverted she might be, but no one she knew could beat her when it came to a matter of words. Unfortunately, Jeremy had left her very little to go on.
She considered the straightforward approach: England. I don't. No.
Harsh, but not cutting enough. If this email was going to break things off between them, she needed him to know why. But…did she want this email to break things off?
Hannah sat back, gave a final stir to her lumpy Cheerios, and abandoned the bowl. She would never have considered writing a character with such conflicted motivations, but that was why her adult fiction fell flat and she stuck with fantasy YA. Things were so much more black-and-white when her plucky heroine was hacking her way through reanimated skeletons to save her menaced village.
What was she trying to save? Her relationship, which was perhaps beyond repair? Her peace of mind, shot to shit by nine words sent by the right hand? Her pride, which still screamed that she shouldn't return to see him surrounded by bimbos?
Or was it her own fear that if she tried to put things back together he would finally realize he didn't and had never wanted her?
Her wandering eyes drifted out the window, over the patio, and to the rolling fields beyond. This house, her clothes, the freedom to be in a place like this with no worries about money or time…all of that would have been a miracle to her twenty years ago. Hell, even ten years ago. Back then, she'd been free. Independent, proud, making her way through the world under her own steam and with no entanglements. She remembered how happy, how proud she had been of every little achievement, and how furious she would have been if someone else had had a share in creating her joy.
Was one man and seven years really enough to make her this desperate? Was the thought of losing one person in her rich life really enough to bring her down?
And yet…she felt hamstrung. Cut down and left to bleed, with no one around to notice or care.
"Enough," she said, slapping her palms hard against the countertop. They burned, and the pain cleared her head. That email—probably carelessly tossed off from his iPhone when he had nothing better to do—would not make her question herself. If he had brought her to this pathetic state, too afraid to move forward or look back, then she was better off without him.
She almost ran to her computer, fearing that another moment's thought would trap her in indecision. The moments it took her machine to revive after its sleep were agony, and Hannah danced on the spot, digging her fingernails into knuckles and palm to keep herself from noticing that niggling voice in her head that begged her to stop.
Her better judgment squashed it without pity. That overpowering influence sent orders straight from her brain to her fingers, and without consulting her heart, it composed a brusque reply and hit send.
The only thing her heart stood firm against was blocking his messages. It forced judgment to concede that it would be best to hear his reply, so she could find some closure in his token attempts to win her back.
Hannah had to bite down hard on her lip so she could reread the email quietly. It made sense, got the point across, hit the tone she wanted…but she still saw his face in her head, and couldn't bear imagining the way it would look when he saw her words.
It's become obvious to me that we've been drifting apart for months. I didn't want to point it out to you—I know you've been bringing your coworkers around to show me that I'm no longer necessary in your life. Now you know that you're no longer necessary in mine. I don't care what kind of story you tell the press about us. Your public image has always mattered more to you than mine has to me, so save it, if you can.
Despite these last months, please know that the majority of our relationship has been very much enjoyed and will always be a pleasant memory for me. I hope it was the same for you. I wish you nothing but the best now and in the future.
It wasn't right. She knew that. It wasn't right, and it wasn't fair, not to either of them, but it was out now and she could not bring it back. Her judgment replied that she did not want to, but the greater share of her knew she would have been much happier just deleting his email and trying—however futile the effort—to just let him quietly fade from her mind.
A few quick paces took her back to the kitchen, where she stood, looking aimlessly from side to side until she remembered that she had both bacon, eggs, and hot chocolate at her disposal. Nothing but cholesterol and fat, her LA sensibilities whispered, but the country-bred girl inside stuck out her tongue and started the pan heating to fry the bacon.
Five minutes later, eggs scrambled in bacon grease and seasoned with a hint of pepper and a dash of salt were just done to fluffy goodness, and the microwave pinged with the hot water for her chocolate. Hannah set down a lovely plate on the counter, smiling at the lovely image of three fatty strips of bacon, two scrambled eggs, and a slice of toast dripping with a pat of melted butter.
But the moment her fork touched it, she knew that a good breakfast was not what she wanted. It wasn't even close. She ate anyway, determinedly packing eggs onto toast and taking huge mouthfuls, scarfing down the bacon in two bites per strip, and burning her mouth with cocoa. The meal brought her nothing, save for the momentary pleasure of tasting forbidden foods. Already she could feel the calories pooling at her trouble spots (tummy and underarms, always a bit saggy no matter what she did), and the anguish inside (will he, won't he; would she or wouldn't she?) surged forward with new vigor now that there were no distractions to keep it at bay.
The house was silent; she could have filled it with her screams. Hannah had never felt this much anger; not at anyone in her life, and never before at herself. This was her own damn fault, and she had seen it coming. Jeremy…she should never have had him. He was too different; so much better in some ways, so much worse in others. Had she been really careful about herself, she would have dumped him the moment he landed his first major role.
That must have been when it all started. He'd had a sex scene with Alana Masters, for God's sake. How could she have been stupid enough to think he'd still want to come home to her at the end of the day? He had never understood her qualities; he laughed at her jokes because she teased their friends, he read her books because he had to maintain the appearance of a caring boyfriend. It was all image, and nothing deeper.
Except that wasn't true.
Hannah needed to break something. She needed to throw something and hear it shatter. Something had to give.
The beautiful pink-and-gold floral plate broke into triangular shards as she hurled it into the sink. The matching teacup (and saucer, the mark of her pretend gentility) followed suit. It wasn't enough. Gasping, as her lungs constricted with panic, she whirled to the phone, charging in the outlet by the counter. Dead end; it was too early to call home. But she needed to talk to someone, or she was going to crawl out of her skin.
"Oh, no," she said, as realization set in. "I can't."
He was the only person she knew. And she knew his mobile number.
"I can't," she repeated, but by then it was just token resistance. Halfway through saying it, her hand was already reaching for the phone.
Charlie ground out his third cigarette in the gravel under his heel and whistled long and low. Hannah hadn't looked at him through the whole scattered recital of her story; it was too embarrassing. That this brazen, teasing, almost-stranger now knew more about her relationship's slow erosion than her mother was humiliating. The fact that she didn't have the fortitude to keep it to herself for another few hours was even worse. Now that it was out, she felt better…but Charlie was still silent.
Hannah considered just making a run for it—and packing up and leaving Bower House—when her heretofore silent companion cleared his throat.
"That's rough," he said, "I get why you came out here."
"Crown yourself the king of understatement," Hannah growled, staring at her shaking fingers holding a burnt-down cigarette. She flung it away and brushed the ashes from her skirt.
He didn't reply. Hannah drummed her fingers against her knee, and then stood up, almost knocking Charlie on the chin with her outflung hand.
"You know what?" she fumbled for her bag and spoke quick, "Forget it. I shouldn't have told you anything, I just, just—"
"Hey," he grabbed her arm, "If you think I'm going to tell anyone about any of this, just relax," a quick glance showed his rueful smile. "I learned my lesson. Not wild horses—or my rabid niece—could drag it outta me. You needed someone to talk to; you picked me. I'm not gonna run to the press."
"Well," slowly, "thanks. But I'd really prefer if you'd just forget the whole thing. I just want to forget the whole thing."
"But you can't," he said, letting her go. "You spent years with this guy, and one email isn't gonna get him out of your head. Let me ask you," and something in his voice made her really look at him for the first time, "If he told you that he didn't mean any of it, that he'd always include you and never bring his costars around anymore…would you go back?"
At the sight of her grimace and shaking head, he rephrased. "Fine. But would you want to go back?"
A denial danced at the tip of her tongue. It would be so easy to say…but she had tried to make herself believe it all day, and was spilling her guts to a stranger in consequence of the lie's corroding poison.
"I wanted to go back the moment I left," she said, "but…I don't know…" she sat down and tried to breathe through the sudden tightness in her throat, "Am I just afraid of being alone? Am I still in love with him? It's been seven years…" she took a rattling breath, "what if I don't get another chance at…at what I had with him?"
Then there were tears on her cheeks, and she put her head on her knee, and sobbed softly, the same sobs she'd given alone in the bathroom at the premiere six months ago. In her mind, she was back there again, feeling the green silk of the Vera Wang under her cheek and pressing toilet paper in thick wads against her eyes to keep her tears from staining the dress.
Her hands were shaking now as they had then; it had been screaming frustration, trying to redo her smeared mascara. The same prayer was running through her mind, now as then: please God, don't let anyone see me like this.
But her pride was already gone. Charlie's hand, heavy and rough, was warm and comforting though the thin material of her blouse. Silently, he patted her back, letting her cries fade to hiccups, hiccups that finally trailed off in soggy, uneven breaths.
"I'm still in love with him," she cried, digging her nails into her knees, "and it hurts. And I don't want to be. If I could erase the last five years…" the thought was too horrible to finish, "No. I wouldn't. But I always knew this would happen. I saw it coming, years ago. Why didn't I walk away then?"
"You were in love," Charlie sounded so solemn Hannah couldn't believe he was the same man as the one that harassed her on her first day. "What else were you gonna do?"
"Nothing," she said, a sudden numbness shielding her from the pain of knowing she'd always been destined for this. "Nothing."
It took another few minutes for her to feel strong enough to sit up, but she was still weak enough to mourn the loss of Charlie's hand when he clasped them together on his knees. No one had touched her since she'd left LA…strange how quickly one could grow to miss a handshake, or a hug, or lying stretched against the warmth of someone on a quiet, sunlit morning.
"I'm not going back," she said.
"I can't. If it hurts this much now…" she sighed, clasping her hands together under her chin, "So what if we could put things together? So we'll have another few good months, maybe even a year or two. But what happens after that?" Hannah swallowed, and started to pack her hopes away, "We'll just fall apart again."
Now that the edge of sadness was blunt, Hannah felt her anger rising. "All right?" she shot back, "That's all you have to say?"
"What'd you like to hear? Because I'll say it," he was looking at her with something like amusement lurking around the corners of his tobacco-stained mouth. The sight infuriated her, and she opened her mouth, only to be cut off when he went on, "You seem to hear only what you want to hear, anyway."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Just what it sounds like," he said, smiling openly now. "Listen to yourself. You say you've been headed for a breakup ever since you got together. And then everything you saw your boyfriend doing seemed to play into that. He brings his coworkers around; you think it's to threaten you. He goes to the gym; you think it's to avoid you. So you stop speaking to him and wonder why he doesn't speak to you."
Hannah stood up and tried again to break in, but Charlie had hit his stride now and merely sat there, talking on in the face of her mute fury.
"So if you want me to sit here and tell you that yeah, you should just walk away, I'll do that. But the truth is that you ran away without giving him a chance to tell you how he felt, and if I were him, I'd be just as upset with you right now as you are with him. You owe him a listen; more than that, you owe him the chance to get through your thick skull.
"You owe him some belief," he finished, the smile on his face fading, "To me it sounds like he hasn't been anything but loyal to you."
"You don't know what you're talking about," she snarled, snatching up her bag. She was so angry she could have smacked him with it.
"Don't I? You just spent an hour telling me exactly what I'm talking about. But this is what I mean…you're not listening. And you should, if you don't want to be as unhappy as you are right now."
Hannah shoved past him and blundered through the stock room, shoulder bashing painfully against a tall pallet of flour sacks. The threesome of lingering farmers at the stove stared at her; she glared them down and slammed the door in her turbulent wake.
She was pulling into her driveway before realize that she'd been driving on the wrong side of the road all the way home. She pounded the steering wheel and screamed, managing to hit 50 kph on the short drive before skidding to a stop near the front door.
It was only when she slammed the heavy oaken thing behind her that she realized she had started crying again. She felt the sticky tear-tracks on her neck and pooling under her eyes, and felt filthy. She wanted to take a bath, but couldn't stand still. She wanted to keep driving, but didn't know where to go. She wanted to tear open her skin, and settled for biting her knuckles as she slid down to her knees in the entryway.
Eventually, the silence of the house and its indifference to her suffering overwhelmed her. She sat on the cold flagstones, knees to her chest and fingers tight around them, watching the patches of sunlight trace their way across the floor throughout the long morning.
Hannah slung her arms over the fence, feeling splinters of old wood tickling her skin. The long grass shimmered with cicada song and smelled like hay in the hot midday sun; beneath her wide-brimmed hat, her face was flushed and sweaty. It was her second walk around the property that day, and the exercise didn't help to drive away any of the indecisive doubt that cloaked her like a shroud.
Her unbidden but ever-present thoughts swirled around the email that had dropped into her inbox at 3:22 AM LA time, two days ago. She'd successfully ignored the computer until that morning, when her agent called to tell her that Jeremy had tracked her down, desperate to speak to her. Alyssa had been worried about him, and the unspoken subtext in her voicemail was that Hannah should at least think about answering his messages.
So Hannah went to the computer, and read the sixteen emails he'd sent. Most of them were repeated pleas for her to call, to come home, that he'd never meant to make her feel that way and that he loved her. After reading three, she had to step away. After the seventh, she'd called her parents in tears. But the sixteenth was the one that her treacherous memory had committed to mind and insisted on bringing before her whenever it could.
I knew you wouldn't feel like this if I hadn't done something. And I have. I never cheated, but Megan and I…we got close. The next day I felt awful, but I thought if I told you then I'd lose you. Please don't leave me. Without you, I'll just disappear into this world, and I don't want to. You've always been the one person who reminds me of what's really important. I love you. Please call.
He must have been drunk. His other messages were not nearly as well composed; they were soaked with cliché romantic sentiments and nowhere near as convincing. This one she believed. After all, she'd been there the evenings Jeremy brought Megan Amber (who would change their name to something so reminiscent of a stripper's?) to dinner. The Back Lot costar was just as beautiful as all the others, but she also had a wry, self-aware humor that more than once made even Hannah laugh.
If there was ever a woman to lose Jeremy to, Hannah had thought at the time, it would be her. Finally, the email had given her confirmation of what she'd suspected at the time.
Oddly, his confession leeched some of her anger away. Chiefly, it did so by letting her know that she wasn't crazy, that his drawing away hadn't been all in her head. And at least he'd chosen the best woman for his potential affair. Although, she reflected, tearing at the grass with harsh fingers, how good can she really be if she almost took my fiancé from me?
However, that made it even harder to make up her mind. He hadn't cheated; even with a beautiful, smart woman, he'd held himself back by realizing that he loved her. He was honorable, if guilty of a lie by omission.
Hannah sighed and wandered to the stile, straddling the fence and sweeping her foot through the rustling grass. Back and forth, just like her thoughts. Back to a chastened boyfriend, or forth to a wide-open world of uncertainty?
Sweat trickled down her neck and dampened her silk blouse. A chilly morning had blossomed into a brilliant summer day. Flies buzzed around her arms and crawled between her fingers; she swatted them away and stood, sighing as she began the trek back to the house. The graceful estate had seemed more and more like a prison to her, but it was one she couldn't bear to leave. Her terrible indecision felt branded on her face; it seemed as though every stranger could read her thoughts just as they could read her books. Even walking on the road was painful. Every wave and smile from every stranger felt knowing, mocking.
She couldn't even escape from them in the house. Charlie had called to check in on her at least once a day, and each time he did was a grating reminder of her weakness. Her weakness in running from Jeremy without even listening to him…without even asking him to tell her what was wrong so she could listen. And then her weakness of confessing all her fears to someone who then rubbed his better judgment in her face.
The interior of the house was at least physically comforting; the big rooms stayed cool and the study was shadowed even in the brightest part of the day. She flopped down on the sofa between towering bookcases and huffed out another sigh. For a moment, she managed to slip into a kind of stasis, when even her buzzing thoughts only reached her through a thick veil and soon departed into the ether.
And through the shadows, certainties emerged, like islands rising from a black sea.
"I can't go back," she whispered. "I can't."
As though speaking to another person, she went on.
"I ruined it. If I'd just asked him…" her voice caught, but she pushed on, "but I didn't. Even if I went back, could I trust him? And," she squeezed her eyes closed until she saw brilliant nebulae in the darkness, "could he trust me? No," she shook her head at her invisible audience, and sniffled, "I ruined it."
In accepting the truth, all anger and indecision fell away. The only thing that remained was suffocating unhappiness. Hannah felt she could have stayed there in that silent, cool, darkness forever and not cared. Her arms and legs were limp; she couldn't even remember having had the strength to move them.
The doorbell rang.
She didn't flinch. After a moment (and another two rings), she said, "Fucking Charlie."
The words had no venom.
It took an effort greater than any she'd known (including getting onto the plane at LAX) to sit up, then stand up, then walk to the door. The locks clicked with a shockingly harsh sound, jerking her out of her cocoon. She felt capable of giving Charlie quite a vicious reception, and smiled thinly, teeth bared.
The door swung open and bumped against the wall. Hannah didn't even think to reach out to catch it.
She could have kissed him. She could have slapped him. What she did was stand back, and let Jeremy step inside, all breathless, rumpled, and sleepless six-foot-two of him. He let his bag drop to the floor.
For a long while they stood there in a rectangle of light, facing each other, in the awning of the doorframe.