“Women say shit like that to you?”
Ava huffed out a sigh. “All the time. Which is why I love the camaraderie on movie sets. But that disappears after the film wraps. I doubt I’ll remain in touch with any of the actors from Miller’s Ridge, because it was just a job. That’s the other thing. Shooting a weekly TV show is grueling. When we’re wrapped up for the week, I usually fall comatose in my bed because I haven’t been home and the last thing I want to do is to go out.”
“But you do, right?”
“There are events I’m obligated to attend. Those aren’t so bad. It’s the industry after-parties that make me question people’s honesty and their friendly intentions. Like, are they going to a club with me because they like me and want to spend time with me? Or are they going because they know I’ve got money and expect to party on my dime? Or are they hanging out with me hoping to wind up in one of the trade rags? I mean, my celebrity isn’t worth a whole lot, but it’s worth something.”
“And that makes you question your worth?” he asked gently.
“Yeah.” A pause and then she laughed softly. “I know I sound horribly neurotic. Or ungrateful for the advantages I have simply because of my birthright. I’m not that callous or jaded. It makes it hard to blindly trust people. I end up spending a lot of time alone, sort of trapped by my own mediocre success.” Her fingers traced the ridge of his collarbone. “My so-called issues pale in comparison to what most people have to deal with in their lives, and I feel like a big whiny spoiled baby even talking about it. But I don’t talk about it because I’ve got no one to talk to.”
“I’m glad you’re talkin’ to me.”
“So my blathering doesn’t make you rethink being my friend?”
Not in the way you’re thinking. “Nope. I’m glad we’re friends, Ava.”
“Same here. I’m relieved to have a break from all that crap for a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“I start shooting a movie in Mexico in August. I’m on standby for readings, costumes, all that stuff.”
Chase frowned. “What’s that mean?”
“If they call me, I have to go back to LA immediately.”
“So between me waiting for a callback from the PBR, and you waiting for a callback from a movie studio, either of us could hafta leave at any time?”
“Sounds like it. So we’d better make the most of our time together.”
The old Chase would’ve suggested they spend all that time between the sheets. The new, improved Chase…kept his mouth shut.
“What are your friends like in the PBR?” Ava asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t call them all friends. The majority are good guys, for the most part. Then there are the ones who act one way in the spotlight and after the cameras are gone, act totally different. They talk a good game about their religious beliefs and the cowboy way, and then they’re out at the honky-tonks after every performance trying to rack up as many sin points as possible.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Only if their bad behavior gets them more airtime than me.”
Ava lightly punched him in the stomach. “I’m serious.”
“I am too. I think who we are in public, to some extent, should be the real us, or at least the polished version of ourselves the PR people want us to project. But I also think the most private part of who we are shouldn’t be out there. We should save that part so we have something special about ourselves to share with the people who matter most to us.”
She didn’t say anything, just lifted her head and studied him with those big, startlingly expressive eyes.
“What? You think that’s weird?”
“No. I think it’s actually poetic, Chase. And it’s a good rule to live by.”
Relieved she didn’t find him a dork, he kissed her forehead.
That rarely seen shy, sweet smile lit her beautiful face a second before she burrowed back into him.
Man. He liked her. A lot. He could really fall for her. Hard. Even before they had sex.
Not that they were going to have sex.
Keep telling yourself that, buddy.
Chase began to drift off. A cool breeze and a warm woman—sometimes the best things in life were simple.
“I should probably go back to the girls’ cabin, huh?”
“Maybe. I’d hate for you to get kicked outta camp for fraternizing in the boys’ cabin on your first night.”
“True. But it’d be worth it not to be scared.”
“Ava, if you’re still scared, you can stay here. But this is an awful small bunk. It’d be better for both of us if you were on top of me.” Not what he meant. “On the top bunk.”
She kissed his sternum and disentangled from him. “Thanks for the offer. But what kind of adventurer would I be if I let my fear of a mountain lion attack derail me?”
Chase smiled. “You really are funny.”
Ava had just finished her workout the next morning when she heard three raps on the bunkhouse door. “Come in.”
Gemma poked her head in. Her gaze dropped to the yoga mat and the big balance ball. “Am I interrupting?”
“No. I just finished. Come in. Maybe downwind from me since I reek.” Ava wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Thanks for letting me stay here. I hope it’s not an imposition.”
Gemma sat on the straight-backed chair. “We’re happy to have you. Although I’m sure it’s not what you’re used to.”
Ava mopped her chest and debated her answer. Gemma knew who she was. “It’s like going to camp, which I never had the opportunity to do.”
“So do you mind if a snoopy old ranch woman asks a question about your life as a Hollywood actress?”
“As long as you don’t mind if a clueless Hollywood actress asks questions about life on the range.”
“Deal.” Gemma grinned. “Is it hard livin’ your life the way you want when you have to worry that people are watching your every move?”
Ava pulled out the other chair and the table and sat across from Gemma. “It wasn’t an issue until I landed the role on Miller’s Ridge. Then I was this ‘hot, new actress’, even though I’d been doing bit parts on TV for a few years. The first time the paparazzi yelled ‘Look this way, Miss Cooper’ and snapped my photo? I thought I was freakin’ cool. I could not understand why other actors complained about photographers following them everywhere. It seemed I’d hit the big time when trade rags sent a photographer to trail me as I was out running errands.
“I made a few missteps. Doing the walk of shame, which naturally, the paparazzi captured on film. Getting pulled over for a broken taillight, which the tabloids twisted into me being under suspicion for DUI. I started dating an assistant director for the company that produces the show. He insisted we keep our relationship on the down-low since he was a really private guy. So we got…amorous on the patio at my place, not thinking anything of it because it’s secluded, right? I was in my own home, right?”
“This ain’t gonna end well, is it?”
“No. Some douchebag photographer ignored the Private property warning and snapped pics of us getting naked and wild. The pictures were plastered all over the tabloids the next day. Granted, you couldn’t see his face, but you could see mine. He broke up with me immediately. Said being with me was too much work.”
“And don’t get me started on the Jake debacle. I had to leave California to get away from it.” When Gemma didn’t ask specifics, Ava knew the bad press had even made it to rural Wyoming.
“Do you love acting so much you’ll put up with that ugly part of the business to get to do what makes you happy?”
Ava sighed. “I thought I loved acting, but I’m not even sure of that anymore.” Why was it so easy to blurt this stuff out to a stranger? She smiled at Gemma. “Enough about that. What about you?”
“I love my life. I’m truly blessed. I’m married to the greatest man in the world, we have the rugrats we both always wanted,” she smiled softly, “and we get to raise them around family on the land we love.”
Footsteps pounded across the wooden planks and a dark-haired girl and a younger dark-haired boy burst into the bunkhouse. “Mama, come on. Daddy’s got the training bull out. Says he might need your help.”
Gemma stood. “All right. Tell him I’ll be right there. You comin’ to watch Chase practice?”
“I’ll be there in ten.” Ava ditched her sweaty yoga clothes and slipped on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. With her messenger-style camera bag, notebook, sunglasses and ball cap, she was good to go.
The wind blew like crazy, which lessened the sun’s blistering rays. Chalky dust covered her shoes and clothing. She’d arrived in time to see Chase get whipped off a piece of equipment that resembled a gymnastics vault—except a gymnastics vault didn’t spin and tilt.
Chase picked himself up off the thick gym mats.
“Five point nine,” Cash called out. “Better. Go again?”
Ava moved next to Gemma and draped her arms over the top of the metal fence. “What’s going on?”
“Cash is workin’ Chase on the mechanical bull today. When a rider hasn’t been on a bull for a few weeks, it helps to regain the movement and sense of balance.”
“Is it like being on the real thing?”
“The guys talk about it bein’ similar. Guess the machine is smoother, even set on random intervals.”
She watched as Chase used the rope wrapped around the center of the machine to hoist himself up. “Why is Chase wearing a vest, chaps and spurs just for practice?”
“Because the weight and constriction of clothing needs to be constant. If he gets used to practicing without, it’ll change his balance and movement when he wears it during competition. They try to keep every practice session in line with the real thing.”