It was all true. I swam closer to her and lowered my voice, hoping it wouldn’t carry. “That press protected me. That’s what you don’t understand. You think I ran out to the paparazzi when I was five because I wanted my picture taken?” I could see her now, the damp cling of her hair, the droplets of water against her lips. “I ran to them because I saw them as protection. Around them, my mom was all smiles and laughter.” I swallowed. “In front of them, she hugged me instead of hurting me.”
She looked at me warily, and I swore to God, if she called me a liar, I’d swim for shore and leave her out here to catch pneumonia and die.
“And what about your brother?”
That wasn’t the reaction or the question I had expected. I glanced toward the shore, then back to her. “What about him?”
“Was she bad with him?”
There was a reason that Wesley was at the Ranch instead of in that mansion. There was a reason that I dove into this business before I was out of high school. And both of those reasons pointed to my mom.
“No,” I said carefully. “She wasn’t bad.” The one time my mother laid a hand on Wes, I threw her across the room, and she broke her arm. We suffered for three months on solitary confinement in a house of horrors while we hid her cast from the press. “She is…” I tried to find the right words to describe the unemotional robot my mother turned into when she interacted with Wes. “She avoids him. Is ashamed of him. He craves attention and affection, and she refuses to give him that. Almost enjoys punishing him by withholding it.”
“I’m sorry I said those things, on our date, about him.” Her leg bumped against mine, and I was torn between giving her space and having her back in my arms.
I stayed in place, still able to touch, my height giving me a stability advantage over her. “You said what everyone thinks. It’s why it pissed me off.”
“Have you thought about him living with you?”
I didn’t want to talk about Wesley. I knew all about Wesley. I wanted to talk about her. I didn’t know anything about her or why she was doing this show, why she was even in this life.
“I mean, I’m sure he likes the Ranch, I just figured he’d be happiest with you.”
“My life is too chaotic. My friends are mostly assholes. And he hates the flash of cameras. It triggers him.”
“If they’re assholes, why are you friends with them?”
Great question. Emma was the first to ever ask me it. I didn’t have a logical answer. I was friends with them because they were all I knew. Everyone was screwed up in Hollywood, so you picked the best of the worst and stuck with them.
She shivered and I was willing to risk another swollen jaw to put my arms around her. Warm her up. Hold her. Kiss her. And I could do it out here, away from the cameras, without the scripts.
“Come here.” I pulled on her arm, bringing her closer.
She laughed. “What? Why?”
“I want to kiss you.”
She let me bring her forward, then sank a little in the water as she tried to find footing and failed. I lifted her.
“Put your legs back around me.”
She did, but there was a hesitation, a wariness that seeped through her beautiful features. I studied her face and tried to understand where it was coming from. “What? You don’t want to kiss me?”
“It was complete bullshit. We couldn’t hear or see from the beach, and I was cursing my decision to shoot at the beach. The cameras couldn’t go into the ocean, and the assistants were acting as if they were too good to wade in up to their chins and hold up a mic. We wasted ten minutes, sitting there like useless idiots, while someone fetched a dingy. We didn’t know what was going on out there in the water. They coulda come back pregnant or chewed apart by sharks.”
Dana Diench, Producer, House of Fame
Did I want to kiss him? Of course, I did. My head pounded with the need. Every fantasy I’d had for the last five years involved kissing me. And now, here, he wanted to kiss me.
I needed it, but my heart was still stuttering over what he had just said about his mom. I couldn’t understand how anyone could avoid Wesley—or punish him by withholding affection. What had it been like for Cash, growing up with a mother like that? The knowledge redefined every assumption I’d ever had about his life and upbringing. It made me respect him, and I felt a sudden and fierce gratefulness for everything he must have done to protect and care for Wesley.