“The camera showed you that?”
“Ava. I don’t need to look through a viewfinder to see you’re upset.”
Damn intuitive man.
“The camera is off. Talk to me.”
“My grandfather commissioned a necklace for my sixteenth birthday. A tiny beautiful Swarovski crystal rose with a gold stem artfully twisted into an ‘A’. The one time I didn’t take it off before I jumped into the ocean? I lost it. I don’t know if the chain broke or what, but I was devastated because it happened about a month after he died.”
“Aw, sugar, I’m so sorry.”
Evidently Chase had enough taping. He returned the camera to the case and faced forward, wiggling to get comfortable.
“Before you nod off, tell me why we’re backtracking. You planned a route through Montana and now we’re back in Cornhusker territory.”
He rolled his eyes. “South Dakota is not Cornhusker territory. The reason I’m not goin’ to the event in Billings is because Ryan told me a former PBR bull rider who switched to the PRCA circuit will be competing. I don’t wanna run into him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“When? Because I’d remember something like that.”
“You were pecking away on your computer, and I told you about it as soon as I got off the phone with Ryan. You said, and I quote, ‘Sounds like a good plan’ so don’t blame me that you tuned me out again.”
Before she could apologize, Chase said, “I’m whupped,” and wedged himself between the passenger door and the seat, pulling his hat down over his eyes.
Ava had just walked out of a truck-stop bathroom, when her phone rang. Her belly tightened at the caller ID: Marnie Driscoll. Her agent. “Hello?”
“Ava, dear, it’s Marnie. I’m so happy to hear your voice. That secretive assistant of yours wouldn’t tell me where you’ve been hiding yourself.”
Thanks, Hannah. “I’m taking a vacation at an undisclosed location. Why? What’s up?”
Marnie sighed. “Well, I’m afraid I have bad news. The movie shoot in Mexico has been postponed indefinitely.”
“Something with illegal permits and the production company’s insurance carrier refusing to cover people and equipment in that part of Mexico due to previous issues. It’s all very complicated, and evidently Lynch is incensed enough to completely rewrite the screenplay with an entirely new location. With as slow as that writing process is for him, you could be in limbo on this project for at least a year.”
She slumped against the concrete wall. “Damn. I really looked forward to that role and working with Lynch.”
“I understand. But to be perfectly blunt, dear, I’m not terribly unhappy about it. I know everyone is vying to work with Lynch because he’s on his way up, but the pay was total crap. You’d signed on for slave wages, with less-than-decent living conditions in a dangerous part of Mexico for several months. And we both know the backend profit deal I negotiated for you wouldn’t amount to much without major distribution, which Lynch still lacks with his small production company.”
Marnie had lobbied hard for Ava not to take the part. But Marnie’s bottom line wasn’t Ava’s—Marnie looked solely at dollar signs. That trait made her a great agent, but caused friction on occasion. “So what now?”
“This is actually very happy news for us. Since you were committed to that movie, I couldn’t suggest you to casting agents for any new mid-season TV productions. Now that stumbling block is out of the way and I can let everyone know you’re available.”
Maybe it made her a diva, but Ava couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for signing on for another series. Yes, it’d been upsetting when Miller’s Ridge had been cancelled, but without being tied to a weekly TV show, she’d finally had the chance to branch out. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say yes. Say you’re excited.” Marnie sighed again. “Look, Ava, I know you’ve mentioned that five years of working on television was enough. But sweetie, that was before this thing happened with Jake. You’ll be lucky if anyone shows an interest in hiring you, even for TV.”
“We need to rebuild your name. It might take a couple of years, but you’ve given your all to your career, we both know it’d be suicide to stop now. I’ll make the rounds. Throw out a few hooks to see who bites. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Yes. Thanks, Marnie.”
“It’s my job. But just so we’re clear, if we do get lucky and land you an audition, I can count on you to be there, right?”
“Meaning, drop everything and fly to LA on a moment’s notice.”
“Exactly. I can’t imagine your little vacation is more important than your career. I’ll be in touch.” Marnie hung up.
And Ava feared this was the beginning of the end of her Wild West adventure.
Hours later Ava’s head was screaming. A thick haze settled behind her eyes, making it hard to see.
She hated to wake him, but she had no choice. “Chase?”
“Yeah.” He stirred. “I’m awake. We already there?”
“No. We’re about thirty miles out. But I can’t drive anymore.”
Chase was immediately upright. “What’s wrong?”
“Is there a metal spike sticking out of the top of my head? Because it sure feels like it.”
Now silvery fishlike lines were swimming in her peripheral vision, adding a layer of nausea to the pain and dizziness.
“Pull over,” he said sharply.
“I’m sorry. I know you’re hurting—”
“Ava. Ease off the gas and pull over before you cause an accident. You’re driving down the middle of the damn road.”
She slowed. By the time she stopped, her stomach was in full revolt. Ava let her head fall back into the headrest and muttered, “Give me a minute and we’ll switch places.”
Chase hopped out his side and opened the driver’s side door. “Hold tight.” His hands slipped beneath her legs and he picked her up slowly, taking extra care not to jostle her.
What a sweet, attentive man. But still it caused a spark of paranoia, imagining how many times he’d done the soothe-and-calm routine with other women. Ava managed to last fifteen seconds in the passenger side before she bailed out, falling to her knees on the rocky ground and dry heaving. Her belly roiled and she felt clammy sweat plastering her hair to her head.
Chase’s hand rubbed circles on her back. “Better?”
“Some.” She pushed back on her heels.
“Let’s get you out of the heat.” He helped her back into the truck. Once they were moving, he threaded his fingers through hers. “If you feel barfy, lemme know and I’ll pull over.”
Every bump in the road sent a shaft of pain into her skull. Finally, the truck stopped.
Chase said, “Be right back.”
The truck cab heated, her whole body dripped sweat. Then blessedly cool air wafted over her. She opened her eyes and noticed they were in a motel parking lot. “Where are we?”
“A place where you can take it easy today. How often do you get migraines?”
“I don’t get migraines,” she said irritability.
“Ava. Sweetheart. I know what a migraine looks like and you need some damn—”
“I’m hot, sweaty and my brain feels like it’s in a pressure cooker, so please don’t yell at me, Chase, and give me an on-the-fly diagnosis.”
He smoothed his hands up her neck to cup her face in his palms, wiping away her tears. Those blue eyes showed concern, not anger. “Got a great opinion of me, Hollywood, if you think I’d yell at a sick woman.”
“I’m not sick.” More tears leaked out before she could stop them. “I’m upset because I lost my job.” The last word caught on a pain-filled gasp.
Chase went perfectly still. “Run that by me again?”
“My agent called when I stopped for gas. The movie shoot in Mexico has been called off.”
“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry. I know how much you wanted that. No wonder you’ve made yourself sick. C’mere.”
Ava didn’t hold back the sobs. Her thoughts were so muddled, she couldn’t tell him the rest. She’d probably have to leave any day and that made her sick to her stomach.
“Hey, now, come on, let’s get you fixed up.”
Ava gripped his hand as he started across the parking lot. But the shimmering mirage images were back in her peripheral vision and she stumbled. Chase caught her and gently lifted her into his arms. She whispered, “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ve got you.”
Inside the room, Chase settled her on the bed. “Lie back and close your eyes.”
The dizziness didn’t go away, but it didn’t get worse.
The bed dipped. “This might be cold.”
A cool cloth covered her forehead and eyes. She sighed. “You must think I’m a baby for—”
“Ssh. Relax. Breathe nice and slow, yoga girl.”
She focused on forcing air in and out.
“That’s it.” His rough-skinned fingers trailed up and down her arm, soothing her, his touch more effective than any over-the-counter headache medicine.
“Ssh.” The last thing Ava remembered were his warm lips pressing against hers, and his whispered, “Rest.”
Her stomach rumbled so loudly it woke her up. Disoriented, she opened her eyes and saw Chase lying next to her. Her stomach did a little flip, not from sickness, but from seeing those beautiful blue eyes first thing.
“Hey. How do you feel?”
“Hungry. Thirsty. Confused. Like I was in a time warp. What time is it?”
“Seven a.m.” Chase handed her a bottle of water. “This’ll help.”