Ashe Hunter was normally prepared for anything. If there were a zombie apocalypse, he’d have almost everything ready: food rations, water, a weapon and even a book, preferably about survival, given how dependent he’d become on his phone. It was one thing he’d learned growing up on a farm which had stayed with him, long after he’d moved to London to work as a model and then an actor. Even when he’d moved to Los Angeles to try his luck in Hollywood, he was always prepared. Until now.
For the first time, Ashe had no idea how to impress his girlfriend on their first Valentine’s Day together. It wasn’t as if he’d never celebrated it with anyone before. From his first date with redhead Priscilla Morton when he’d only been twelve and she thirteen to last year’s very public date with actress Isobel Reign, at thirty-two, Ashe considered himself a pro when it came to Valentine’s Day. Yet no one else made him feel like a giddy schoolboy quite like the barista who’d stolen his heart when they’d become trapped in a hotel elevator in Midtown Manhattan.
He’d just finished a full day of press and had been dying to get some fresh air. Riley had wanted to leave the hotel before anyone recognized her and told her older sister, Paige, that she had gone to see her ex-boyfriend even though she’d promised she wouldn’t. It hadn’t happened because Riley had changed her mind the moment she got to his floor, tucked the keycard into her purse and stepped back into the elevator. Who would have thought she’d end up trapped with Ashe Hunter, Hollywood’s latest star? This fact had been lost on Riley, having no idea who he was.
He remembered the way she’d looked at him, so unlike most women. Some would gush while others would look away, only to turn their heads and hold his gaze more boldly. They might ask for a selfie or eye him up; sometimes they’d drop their business card or a napkin with their phone number. To Riley, though, Ashe was just another guy in an elevator.
He’d been caught off-guard by her reaction and had offered to rub her sore feet; he, an Englishman! Her naïveté had charmed him, and when she agreed to let him tag along to dinner, Ashe couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so happy since his younger sister had died. By the end of the evening, when he’d walked her up to her studio apartment on the Upper East Side, Ashe had been smitten, even more so when she’d refused to give him her phone number.
Long after that night, he kept thinking about her. He could have put her out of his mind and recovered from the slight to his ego with any of the women whom Reign Studios sent to his suite each night during the press tour of Europe. By the time he’d got to Paris on the third day, though, he’d made a decision: no more women, not until he’d found her again and asked if he could call on her.
He had done so. For the last five months, whenever he hadn’t been filming movies on location, doing interviews across the globe or sitting through meetings in Los Angeles, Ashe had spent every moment he could with her; and here he was now, wondering how the bloody hell to impress her on Valentine’s Day. What present could he give her, other than jewelry she’d never wear or first editions of her favorite books?
Ashe didn’t need to turn and see who was speaking. Gareth Roman was standing behind him, the ex-boyfriend Riley had intended to visit on the night Ashe had met her. Standing too close, in fact, craning his head to see what Ashe was looking at.
“Stop acting like a child,” said Ashe as he pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the view in front of him. With clear blue skies and no sign of smog, the city of Los Angeles looked beautiful. Once upon a time, he had lived here but now home was New York, where gossip correspondents didn’t lurk at every corner within Hollywood’s ten-mile zone, and most people barely gave him a second glance.
“Lighten up, dude. Man, you really should have taken those women upstairs last night. They were fucking hot for you,” replied Gareth, laughing when Ashe glared at him. Hard to believe the annoying man with the tousled blond hair was one of Hollywood’s hottest actors, ranked in the top twenty earners of the year. He had three other movies coming out over the course of the year, including Alabama Rain, an independent film that Ashe had written and whose songs were owned by his company, Rowan Productions.
They’d already spent the last two days in each other’s company, in talks during the day to reprise their roles in their hit movie, Sentience, and as co-presenters at an award show the previous night. Social media loved them, and PR gave the impression that they were good friends, as they had been before Ashe had met Gareth’s ex-girlfriend. The perfect bromance, the magazines declared.
“I mean it, man,” persisted Gareth as Ashe’s phone beeped. He lifted his index finger to request silence and answered the call.
“Did you like it, petal?” he asked, turning away from Gareth even though he knew his deep voice carried far. He could hear the sound of people talking in the background, the familiar whizz of a coffee grinder and Riley’s laughter.
“What are you doing, sending me photos of sunny days when it’s freezing cold over here, and there’s a snowstorm coming? That’s just mean,” Riley said. “And you know I have an employee policy of not using phones at work.”
“But you’re not an employee. You’re the boss.”
“The boss should set a good example. Anyway, you’d better not be sending me pictures of you by the pool.”
“Is that a hint? A request, perhaps?”
“Well, maybe you should. It’s been four days since you went away and I’ve missed you. I bet you’re surrounded by gorgeous women wherever you go over there.”
Ashe chuckled. She wasn’t too far off, but her timing was terrible. “I don’t know about that, but right now I’ve got an annoying friend whom I suspect to be eavesdropping on our conversation.”
As Ashe spoke, Gareth made no effort to hide the fact that he was eavesdropping, leaning toward him to hear more. Ashe walked away, lowering his voice as he continued. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. But shouldn’t you be working?”
“I’m waiting for reporters to arrive, then later I’ve got meetings.”
“Well, I won’t keep you but thank you for the picture. I would have preferred a selfie, though. I hate it when you make me wait.”
“You’ll have the real thing tomorrow night,” Ashe murmured, glaring at Gareth who reappeared next to him.
“You’re bad, Ashe.”
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll wait for the real thing.” Riley paused, listening as someone said something in the background. “I have to go. We’re getting slammed.”
As Ashe said goodbye, he imagined Riley in her signature vintage T-shirt and jeans underneath a Library Café apron, her long blonde hair secured in a neat ponytail. Tonight she’d stay past her regular work hours, leading her monthly book club meeting at the coffee shop. She wouldn’t return home until after ten, which meant that he probably wouldn’t get another chance to talk to her; he had engagements until midnight, and she’d be asleep by the time he was finished.
“I was serious about that, Ashe,” Gareth spoke from behind as Ashe tucked his phone into his jacket. “Spoil her for Valentine’s Day.”
“You don’t give up easily, do you?” Ashe returned his attention to the view outside the windows as they waited for reporters to arrive. Though Sentience had been out in theaters for the last three months and promotions had ended a month earlier, the science fiction movie had just been nominated for two technical awards, which meant a few more weeks of promotions and campaigning. With Ashe headlining the Broadway staging of Coriolanus in the coming weeks, most of the promotions would land on the shoulders of Gareth and Isobel Reign.
“Besides, why would I listen to you? You’re the one who abandoned her in New York and let your manager—”
“Correction: our former manager. We fired her together, remember?”
“For the next three years, Riley watched you become famous and date every actress within a ten-mile radius of the Hollywood sign, wondering what the fuck she’d done wrong that you’d just left her without a word of explanation or the decency of a phone call.”
Gareth shook his head. “Just hear me out, all right? I fucked up, okay, but she’s with you now, and I know you’ll treat her right.”
“And your point?”
“Just spoil her for Valentine’s. I could never afford anything back then, and unless she had another boyfriend after me, she—”
“—then she probably just bought herself roses. Sunset orange ones with reddish tips. If you ask her what she wants, she probably tells you that you don’t need to do anything for her or give her anything special, but that’s only because she’s not used to receiving anything; especially after her mom died.”
Ashe knew about the roses but not enough about her mother because Riley rarely talked about her without retreating into herself afterward.
“What can you tell me about her mother?”
“She was amazing. Riley was her little princess, and Mrs. Eames would have given her the world if she could. She made little things for her. She loved to make stuff by hand until she couldn’t manage it any more. She even made a book, complete with illustrations. It was called The Adventures of a Little Girl Named Riley. She used to read to us from that book every night when I used to stay over—when my dad would come home drunk. Riley had bunk beds in her room, and I took the top bunk.”
“How old was she then?”
Gareth shrugged, his brow furrowing as he tried to remember. “Maybe seven or eight. It even looked like a real book, you know, with front and back covers. It was really cool, and she loved it. I mean, who wouldn’t? She was the star of her own book, and that little Riley had major adventures all over Manhattan. Her mom was amazing. I wish you could have met her; classy lady.”
Behind them, a woman told reporters to take their seats around a conference table and set up their recording equipment.
“Do you know where can I find this amazing storybook?” Ashe asked, knowing that if Riley had it, he’d have known about it by now. Everything that had belonged to her mother was on one shelf in her apartment, treasured classics that still smelled of smoke and mildew.
“Glad you asked,” Gareth replied, chuckling. “I was just talking to my dad this morning—oh, and get this: he says paps are sniffing around the neighborhood again for stories about me and—”
“Stick to the point, Gareth.” Behind them, Ashe had noticed that the reporters were almost ready.
“He told me Ri’s old man is retiring and so he’s taking his stuff out of the office, and he said there was some picture book in the filing cabinet that had Ri’s name on it. That’s got to be it. There’s the catch, though; you’ll have to ask her dad.”
At the mention of Riley’s father, Ashe looked out the window. He shouldn’t feel the way he did about Sid Eames, but he disliked the man. Riley was only ten years old when she and her mother, who was in a wheelchair, had been trapped in their apartment during a fire that had started next door. By the time the firefighters found them, they were unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Riley had managed to drag her mother down the steps, but they’d both passed out when they’d reached the first landing. While Riley recovered from the effects of smoke inhalation and a burn along her arm, her mother died from complications caused by her long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Now, years later, Sid Eames still blamed Riley for her mother’s death. It didn’t help that he was drunk most of the time and that his rages made no sense; Ashe knew how much his words still hurt her. The last thing he wanted to do was to pay Mr. Eames a visit, though he’d made up his mind that for her he’d do anything.
“Gentlemen,” said the woman behind them, snapping Ashe back to the present, “they’re ready for you.”
Both men nodded and turned to look at one another as if they’d just shared some private joke. Ashe and Gareth had become friends while filming Sentience the year before and had maintained that friendship even though there’d been a few tough moments. Thankfully, they had mostly happened away from paparazzi lenses.
“Look, why don’t I call him?” Gareth said as they turned away from the window.
“Her dad; ask him about the book.”
“No, thanks. If I’m going to inquire about the book, I’ll ask him or Paige myself. Thanks for letting me know,” Ashe replied as they made their way to the conference table.
“Oh, and Gareth?”
“Yes?” Gareth asked absently as he ran his fingers through his hair, creating the signature ‘Gareth Roman’ look that reminded people of a modern James Dean.
“Let Riley go.”
Ashe knew that the two reporters behind them were watching their exchange carefully. Maybe they’d begin their articles about how the two men’s relationship seemed cold or professionally distant, reinforcing the rumor that both men hated each other’s guts for taking the other’s ex-girlfriends. After all, Isobel Reign, their costar in Sentience, had dated Ashe for a year before they’d broken up and was now Gareth’s girlfriend. But Ashe couldn’t complain. Rumors not only sold newspapers and advertising but it also kept them in the news, kept them ‘fresh,’ as their former manager used to tell them.
“You know I can’t do that,” Gareth said, exhaling. “I’ve got to make it up to her somehow.”
“You don’t have to. Let her go.”
Thirty minutes later the interview was over, and as the reporters filed out, Ashe pulled out his phone. With two more meetings and an industry party at Reign Studios, he knew he’d be too occupied to think of anything else but work. He texted his florist and ordered an arrangement of long-stemmed red roses to be delivered to Riley at the Library Café and typed a reminder about the picture book into his Notes app. He smiled, a feeling of satisfaction washing over him at the thought of the book still existing and in good condition. True, there was only a faint hope that the book really did exist; after all, Gareth’s father could have seen any old picture book. Still, he had to try.
After all, Ashe Hunter was always prepared.