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"Wait, you're asking me to marry you?"
Her mouth open, Candace Reid stared into the beautiful, sky-blue eyes that were the dominant feature of the most perfect male face she had ever seen. Thomas Shane, handsomest man on the planet, hottest young up-and-comer in Hollywood, subject of fantasies and object of obsessions, had just said the words every other woman in America would kill to hear from his lips. And he didn't appear to be joking.
"Yes, I am. Marry me, Candace. Say yes."
"But. .but you're a movie star."
"So what? You're a movie costumer."
She grunted. That so didn't count. Her check on their last film was smaller than his by at least four zeroes.
"We've known each other since kindergarten."
"Nursery school. Say yes and I will at last forgive you for stealing my Fruit Roll-Ups during nap time the day we met."
She growled. She hadn't taken the damn Fruit Roll-Ups. "That was Joey Winpigler don't you remember his green teeth?"
"That kid's teeth were always green."
She groaned, realizing they were getting off topicoff this insane topic. "I can't marry you you're my best friend."
"And you're mine. That's why it's so perfect." Throwing her arms up in frustration, she exclaimed, "But, Tommy, you're gay!"
He waved an unconcerned hand. "Oh, that.'''
"It's really no big deal."
"I disagree. I don't have a penis, and they're right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens for you."
"Well, I'll admit they are among my fav-o-rite things."
Of course Tommy would get the show-tune quiphe'd starred in every musical in their high school and could tap-dance his way around a chorus line of Rockettes. Not that anyone who had seen him in his last film, taking out an entire terrorist camp single-handedly, would believe that.
"But really, penises schmenises, most men are jerks," he insisted. "I adore women."
He plopped down beside her on the buttery-soft leather sofa in the living room of his Malibu condo. "Sex isn't everything."
"Yeah, right." For him maybe it wasn't, since his career was his entire focus right now. But for Candace, who liked sex a lot, even if she seldom got it, it was kind of a biggie.
"I think maybe I'll just be asexual from now on."
She snorted and rolled her eyes.
"What? I can love from afar. It'll be all tragic and shit."
"Like the mad crush you had on that guy who played your grandfather in your second film?"
He pursed his lips, looking prim. "Every serious actor has a crush on Sir Anthony Hopkins. He's a God."
"But not every serious actor goes trolling for a little strange cock when he's out of town, away from the cameras."
"Big strange cock," he retorted. "And that's a secret."
"This is nuts. Stop playing around."
"Babe, I've got to keep my personal life on the down-low for now," he said, growing serious. "If I don't, my superhero action-movie days are over. It sucks, but you know it's true."
Part of her wanted to urge him to be true to himself and stop hiding the man he was. She'd known about his sexual orientation for as long as he had, having realized it in middle school when Tommy had gotten pissy about her landing a date with the hottest guy in their class. It hadn't been hard to figure out who, exactly, he was jealous of. The two of them had talked about it, acknowledged Tommy was gay and that was that.
Her sister, Madison, the only person in the world to whom she was closer than Tommy, hadn't figured it out quite as quickly. But once she had, the three of them had become like the Three Musketeers, fighting for Tommy's right to be himself.
And now he wanted to hide who he was for good.
"There have been rumors," he said, not meeting her eye.
She shrugged. "There are always those kinds of rumors about movie stars." Tommy wasn't the first Hollywood celebrity to worry about in-the-closet stories, and he wouldn't be the last.
He rested his head on the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling. "I've also gotten a few veiled threats."
Oh, hell. "What do you mean? Threats from who?"
"Just somebody I had a fling with last year."
"Blackmail?" she said, indignant on his behalf.
"Not yet. But it could get there. He's making rumbles about supposedly having some kind of proof."
Candace glowered at him for being careless. "Tell me you didn't let some dude take pictures."
"Do I look mentally challenged?" He sounded indignant.
"And before you ask if I left DNA on a Gap dress, let me explain. It was just some text messages."
"They can be faked," she said, waving an airy hand.
"Yeah, but look at what happened to Tiger."
True. Text messages could definitely come back to bite you. She made a mental note. Next time you're about to break up with someone, borrow his phone to destroy the evidence first.
He turned to face her. "So you see why this is so important? With that tabloid article hinting I was going to settle down with you, I think I can put out the fires for a while. Once I nail this franchise, I can get haughty and walk away to do high-minded indie films."
Haughty wasn't hard for Tommy, although she knew it was a pretense. He was almost always in character. Right now it suited him to act the part of spoiled Hollywood star. But playing the role of her husband? That would take some Oscar-worthy skills.
"Please, Candy, I'm begging you," he said. "Just give me a few yearsfive max. You and I both know it wouldn't be the first five-years-to-hide-the-fact-that-I'm-gay marriage in Hollywood."
Five years. Could she really give up five years of her life? Okay, so she was only twenty-six, she wasn't seeing anyone and had no interest in settling down and having babies until she was in her thirties. Still it was quite a commitment.
"And there'll be no prenup. You'll get half of whatever I earn."
Her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
He saw her reaction and pounced. "You know you could use the money, since you won't let me lend it to you. You can help out your parents and your sister, give your grandfather the money to get that broken-down winery he bought last year up and running."
That was all true. Curse him for understanding her well enough to know exactly which buttons to push.
"And it'll be fun. We'll walk the red carpet together." He dropped an arm over her shoulders and pulled her close. "I'll be all romantic when I give my Oscar acceptance speech and thank the wildly sexy woman who made it all possible."
Hmm. That sounded like fun.
"There is still one big problem," she finally said. "I like sex. Five years is a long time to go without it."
"You don't have to," he insisted.
"Eww," she said, shoving his arm off her. "That'd be like having sex with my brother. My gay brother."
"I wasn't talking about me! You can have affairs."
"Tacky. Besides, that'd really cause some gossip. I'm already on the radar of those leeches."
She hated that, truly. Being the subject of gossip was infuriating, and she doubly hated the idea that some people might have decided she got her start in Hollywood because of Tommy. If anything, he'd gotten his first break through her. He'd come to visit her at work at one of the studios one day, met a casting director and the rest was history.
"Look," he said, "we both know you've got a gazillion gigabytes of internal memory when it comes to sex. You've already stored up experiences that helped you through dry spells in the past."
She couldn't argue that, but did stick out her tongue at him. It wasn't nice of him to point out all those dry spells, usually caused because Candace had a bad habit of going out with guys who were far more focused on material things and their own ambitions than they were on her. "Your point?"
"My point is, I'll send you on a trip to France for two weeks. You can boink your way from Bordeaux to Paris, free from the paparazzi. Once you back up some orgasms on your libido's hard drive, you can come home and we'll announce our engagement."
He always managed to make her laugh. "And what if my vaginal computer crashes? Am I supposed to zip off to a bordello to do an emergency dump onto my flash drive?"
"I bet you'd make it two years. Then, when you're crawling out of your skin, I'll pay for you to go to Australia and you can throw a few shrimp on your barbie."
He said the words in a cheesy down-under accent, and she couldn't help laughing. The whole thing was absurd, ridiculous.
But, craziest of all, she was seriously thinking about it.
Not just because she loved Tommy, or because it might be fun playing Hollywood wife. No, because she could really use the money. Her parents were happy in the Florida home where she'd grown up. But since her dad's heart attack two months ago, they'd been stretched thin financially.
Her sister had just finished grad school and had a mountain of debt. And her wonderful, willful grandfather had, indeed, been struck by some wild notion and bought an old run-down winery in Northern California a year ago. The place had nary a grape in sight, and Grandpa had no clue how to grow them, much less turn them into wine. But he was determined to make a go of it.
So, yeah, the money would come in handy. Tommy had offered to help out, but she wouldn't accept charity. She always earned what she got. And frankly, if she had to give up sex for five years, she would earn every penny. Because, no matter what he said, she'd never risk having an affair after their engagement was announced, a time when she'd be more under the paparazzi spotlight than ever. This sowing-her-wild-oats-in-France thing would be it, the full extent of her sexual activity for five long, lonely, vibrator-filled years.
Could she do it? For Tommy? For her family? For the money?
"So what do you say? Pretty please?" he asked, flashing those baby blues and his amazing smile. That grin, that wicked sense of humor and his innate kind streak always made her give in. He deserved the brilliant career within his grasp. No creepy blackmailer should have the right to take it away from him.
"Oh, hell." Farewell penises of the world. "I guess I'm in."
"Yes! You are the best friend ever." He pumped both fists in the air, then dropped to one knee. Taking her hand, he stared at her adoringly, playing the man-in-love character. Put him in a Nick Sparks film opposite Emily Blunt and nobody would ever guess he'd once seduced the star football player of their high school.
"Candace Eliza Reid, will you be my bride?"
"Yes, I will. Now get up, idiot. And get your travel agent on the phone because I am so taking you up on that Paris thing."
"Or maybe Italy for some spicy pepperoni?"
"Dork," she said as he wagged his eyebrows suggestively.
"Wait Ireland! I know you've always dug Irish guys."
"Nope, French will do. I don't want my sex toy to speak English. I don't need him for conversation, and I definitely don't want him talking to any reporters who come around."
She doubted she'd come across an absolutely amazing superhunk who would give her five years' worth of orgasms in two weeks, but it was worth a shot. She'd do her damndest, anyway, and nobody was going to stop her from gorging herself on one last sexual feast before settling in for five hungry years of celibacy.
Before Tommy could make the call, however, her own cell phone rang. She answered, listened and realized that she'd been wrong. Somebody could stop her. Something could happen that would totally change her mind and her plans. Because, when it came right down to it, her need to stockpile some sexual memories couldn't even begin to compete with family, especially when somebody she loved was hurt and needed her. And her grandfatherwhom she adoredwas hurt and needed her.
So, within a few hours, Candace was at the airport, waiting to board a plane, not for France and orgasms, but for San Francisco and family. She'd be by her grandfather's side for as long as it took even if she had to sacrifice any chance she had of meeting a man who might make her most wicked dreams come true.
Lying in bed in the small groundskeeper's cottage that he now called home, Oliver McKean suddenly found himself wide-awake, wondering what had roused him from his slumber. He was exhausted, his body aching after a long day of hard work, followed by an evening in a hospital. After twenty hours on his feet, he'd been totally wiped. When he'd gotten home, he'd showered, hit the mattress and been sound asleep in minutes. Until now.
He lay there in the stillness, blinking, looking up at the ceiling that still didn't look familiar, though he'd slept beneath it for four months now. A long silent moment stretched out, broken only by the faint far-off howl of a coyote. Coming from L.A., he still hadn't grown used to the silence up here in Northern California. Sonoma was known for its famous wines, but its landscape was pretty spectacular, with thousands of acres of untamed wilderness. The estate on which he lived sometimes felt like it was in the middle of a deserted island.
Which was exactly the reason he'd come here, chucking his old life and heading north, choosing the wine country both because of his family's ties to the area and his own love of the region. Being away from the seething mass of humanity in L.A. had sounded like a good way to regroup, regain his sense of self. He also wanted to regain his sense of right and wrong, which had started to slip away as he'd fallen further into the trap of career and ambition. He needed to take a year or so, to drop out of the world, do penance for the wrongs he'd done and to figure out what he was going to do next. One thing was for sureit wasn't returning to the Los Angeles County D.A.'s office.
"Been there, done that, never going back," he whispered. His job as a prosecutor had demoralized him, savaged his optimistic streak and left him with a strong distaste for his chosen profession.
Glancing at his clock and seeing it was almost three, he settled back into his small, lumpy bed, which had come with the furnished cottage. But right before he closed his eyes again, he noted the shadows playing across the ceiling. That's what had awakened him. Not a noise, a light.
When he'd gone to bed at 1:00 a.m., it had been pitch-black outside. The sky had been overcast for a couple of days, leaving the stars and moonusually brilliant up here away from the city lightshidden behind a bank of clouds. He could hear the soft fall of rain now. But there was light coming from somewhere. It was noticeable against the utter blackness, and sifted in through the uncurtained window.