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Never Say I Love You by Pennza, Amy (1)

1

“You’re dropping me?” Ashley Ann Scobel faced her agent across his black-lacquered desk. Like everything else in his office, it was designed to impress. Carved from a single piece of ebony, it perched above the white marble floor like a giant staple. A sleek laptop sat on one side, a delicate potted orchid on the other. Behind the desk, a large picture window overlooked Sunset Boulevard. Even in January, the Los Angeles sun spilled inside, coating everything in shades of gold.

Ashley saw none of it. Her vision narrowed until the only thing that remained was Rowen Karlson’s slicked back hair and spray-tanned face.

“I like to think of it more as a parting of ways,” he said.

Outrage pounded through her veins. “After eight years, you’re dropping me?”

Rowen leaned back in his chair. “A talent representation agreement goes both ways, Ashley. I bring the jobs. You deliver the talent.” He lifted his shoulders. “It’s been a long time since you delivered.”

“It’s not my fault Bewitching University got canceled.”

His forehead puckered, which meant he’d probably tried to raise his eyebrows. “The show ended two years ago, Ash. You had a good run, but you’ve done practically nothing since.”

Frustration swelled like a balloon in her chest. “You keep trying to book me for commercials, but you’ve always said they’re a step backward. If I go down that path, I might never land a TV role again.”

“The Minty Way commercial was steady work.”

“They wanted a classically trained ballerina.” The casting call had specified pointe experience as a must, since the ballerina was supposed to pirouette across a busy street covered with squished chewing gum. Because that would totally happen in real life.

Rowen sighed. “That’s part of your problem. You’re not willing to try new things.”

The balloon expanded a little more. “Rowen, I’ve never taken a dance class. The director would have laughed me out of the audition.”

“Look, I’m just saying you need to stretch yourself a little.” He spread his hands. “In a sense, our parting ways could be a good thing. You’ve aged out of the youth market. You’re not the first former child star to struggle with the transition to more mature roles.”

“And you think your dropping me will make the struggle easier?”

“I just think a different agency will be better suited to—”

“Rowen, I was the first client you ever signed.” Ashley’s throat tightened. “I opened doors for you. Don’t slam this one in my face.”

He fell silent. For a moment, what might have been doubt shaded his eyes. Then he leaned forward and pushed the intercom button on his phone. “Candace, could you bring some coffee in here, please?”

Ashley let her shoulders sag. How could you, Rowen? She held his gaze. To his credit, he didn’t flinch or look away.

Behind her, the door opened and the sharp click of high heels rang out. Rowen’s assistant stopped next to Ashley’s chair, a cloud of Chanel No. 5 in her wake. “Um, Mr. Karlson? You’re needed in the conference room.” She put her hand on her hip and angled her pelvis to the side. As a red carpet trick, it worked well to give the camera a more slender silhouette. In an office in the middle of the afternoon, it just looked dorky.

Rowen didn’t seem to mind. His brown gaze ran down Candace’s figure like he was measuring her for a dress. Or his bedsheets. “Thank you, Candace. I’ll be down in a minute.” He nodded toward the door.

Candace glanced at Ashley and left.

Ashley waited for Candace’s footsteps to fade, then grabbed her purse from the floor and stood. At five foot three, she didn’t often get to look down her nose at people. The temporary shift in power lent her voice dignity she didn’t feel. “I’ll see myself out.”

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way, Ashley, but this is a business. You understand.”

“I understand perfectly.” A burst of light behind Rowen drew her gaze. Sunlight flashed across a car’s windshield, tossing yellow beams through the office window. Ashley met Rowen’s gaze and forced a smile. “Boulevard of broken dreams, right?” She turned and walked to the door.

“Ashley…” The undercurrent of regret in Rowen’s voice almost made her turn back. Almost.

She opened the door and stopped on the threshold. Over her shoulder, she said, “One piece of acting advice, Rowen. If you’re going to use your old ‘summoning coffee’ trick to end meetings, at least have Candace bring the coffee.”

She shut the door on Rowen’s sputtered response.

* * *

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Ashley looked up from her magazine. Her roommate, Pia, sat across from her on a row of cheap plastic airport chairs, concern clouding her warm, brown eyes. She’d insisted on waiting in the terminal until Ashley’s flight left.

She’d also spent the past hour questioning Ashley’s decision to return home.

Ashley rolled her eyes. “We’ve been through this, P. It’s only temporary.”

“Ash, you hate Prattsville. You’ve never had anything nice to say about it.”

“That’s not true.”

Pia raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. “Oh yeah? We’ve been roommates for four years. Want me to remind you how you feel about that place?” She ticked items off slender, beringed fingers. “It’s forty-five minutes to the nearest mall. The football team is the main source of entertainment. The only thing people care about is money. The kids are stuck up—”

“I don’t think I ever said that.”

Pia leaned forward. A lock of smooth, brown hair spilled over her shoulder. “They called you Trashley.”

Ashley tensed. It had been a long time since she’d heard that name. She tossed the magazine onto the seat next to her. “That was high school. People change.”

“Maybe.” Pia folded her arms. “But you still haven’t named one good thing about Prattsville.”

Ashley gazed out the terminal window over Pia’s shoulder. A sleek corporate jet taxied slowly past on its way to the gate. Name one good thing about her dinky Texas hometown? The one she’d left at seventeen without a backward glance? The jet’s tail slid out of view. Ashley looked at Pia. “The cost of living is way cheaper than L.A.”

“That’s true for just about everywhere.”

“Pia…”

“Can you really find work in San Antonio?”

Not a chance. At least not acting work. But Pia didn’t know that. Her modeling career kept her so busy she didn’t have time for acting. With her flawless olive skin and sylphlike figure, she was a photographer’s dream. She spent most of her time flitting from one exotic location to another. Her schedule also made her an excellent roommate. She and Ashley could go days without seeing each other—a good thing, since it helped Ashley conceal just how little she’d worked over the past two years.

“Ash?”

Ashley sighed. Pia was also the daughter of L.A.’s top prosecutor, as anyone who’d ever attempted to argue with her could attest. Once she warmed up to a cross-examination, she was like a dog with a bone. The only way to “beat” her was to redirect the conversation. Ashley plastered a smile on her face. “I’ve worked since I was a kid. It won’t hurt to take a break for a little while. I might even take a couple acting classes at UTSA.” Never mind she’d never even visited the University of Texas San Antonio campus, let alone looked into their theater program. She wasn’t even sure they had one.

“What about your refinishing projects? You’ve worked on that dresser for Mrs. Miller for three weeks.”

Thank you, Pia. Without realizing it, she’d just provided the perfect diversion. “I finished it last night. Mrs. Miller is sending her grandsons to pick it up on Saturday. I told them to call before they stop by. And since you mentioned it, that’s another reason why I want to spend some time at home. My mom’s house is over one hundred years old. My grandmother was born there, and she was a notorious pack rat. The attic is filled with old furniture and antiques. I’m sure I’ll find plenty of old treasures tucked away.”

She didn’t have to work to seem excited at the prospect of discovering new antiques to refinish. What had started as a hobby was now a tidy little side business. When acting work had dried up and her savings had dwindled, she’d started shopping at secondhand stores and flea markets. She’d soon discovered that L.A. was a goldmine for vintage furniture, especially for someone willing to fix it up. A neighbor had admired an old sewing table she’d turned into a desk and had offered to buy it. Word had spread, and eventually she’d had enough work to keep her busy—and her bank account stable.

Pia tilted her head. “What does your mom say about you coming home?”

Dammit. Right back into the fire. “I…haven’t talked to her yet.”

“You’re going to surprise her? With an extended visit?”

“I’ll call her when I get to the gate.” A trill of anxiety fluttered in Ashley’s stomach. She’d put off calling as long as she could, but Pia was right—she couldn’t just show up and announce an open-ended stay. Her mom might be a free spirit, but even free spirits appreciated a little warning before house guests appeared on their doorstep. The anxiety climbed higher, and a dull throb started in Ashley’s temples. “She’ll be okay with it,” she said, but she wasn’t sure if she said it to reassure Pia or herself.

“What about your step-dad?”

“They got a divorce.”

Pia’s gaze widened. “What? When?”

“A little over a year ago. Husband number four.”

“Four marriages… How does your mom keep track of her last name?”

Ashley shrugged. She’d given up trying to understand her mother’s love life years ago. “I don’t know why she keeps changing it. This last time, she switched back to her maiden name, so it’s Cheryl Thompson now. She says it’s easier to spell.”

“So it’ll just be you two in the house?” Pia’s expression was a mix of worry and disbelief. “Ash, are you sure you can handle living alone with your mother?”

“Of course. I’ve done it before.”

Pia looked like she might disagree, but a woman’s smooth voice sounded over the airport’s loudspeaker. “Flight eight-seven-four with direct service from L.A. to San Antonio is now pre-boarding at Gate B. All passengers in group A, please report to the gate.”

Ashley stood. “That’s my flight. I should get through security in case it’s crowded.”

Pia unfolded her long body from her seat, and her loose peasant dress dropped to her upper thighs. Before Ashley could say anything, Pia wrapped her in a tight hug and spoke in her ear. “I don’t know what’s going on, Ash, but I know you’re not telling me the whole story. My dad always told me to look at people’s eyes and not their mouths when they speak.” Pia pulled back. “And your eyes are sad.”

Ashley stepped out of her embrace. “I’m not sad. Just…tired.” At least that part is true. She was tired of hearing “no” at auditions. Tired of getting emails from production assistants that started out with “unfortunately…” Tired of sitting at casting calls with fifty girls sizing each other up. Tired of directors telling her she was almost—but not quite—right for a role. Tired of watching her savings dwindle. Rowen’s voice echoed in her mind. “You’ve aged out of the youth market.” At twenty-five, she was already approaching the age when struggling actresses threw in the towel. For two years, she’d been stagnant—her career like a cork bobbing in the frantic L.A. current. Life swirled around her now…how much longer until it passed her by?

She met Pia’s gaze. “I just need a little time away from the pace of life here. Things move more slowly in Prattsville.”

“Just promise me you’ll call.”

“Of course I—”

“Excuse me?” A twenty-something man in a baseball cap hovered behind Pia, a black messenger bag slung across his body. He had all the hallmarks of an airline traveler: baggy running pants, comfortable shoes, and a jaw shadowed by a day’s worth of scruff. He also had the unmistakable look of someone who’s spotted a celebrity and decided to approach them. A mix of confidence and mortification played over his features. Two spots of color burned high on his cheeks. He was a little old for a Bewitching University fan, but the show had aired for six years. Maybe he’d started young.

His gaze bounced between Ashley and Pia.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “It’s just that I saw you from over there, by the coffee place, and you looked so familiar.”

Ashley braced herself to answer a bunch of questions about the show. She arranged her features in what she hoped was a patient smile. Please don’t ask me to cast a spell…

“You’re Pia Giacomo, aren’t you?” he asked. “I saw your Sports Illustrated cover.”

Ashley’s smile froze. Pia glanced at her before nodding. “Yes, I am.”

His face split in a broad smile. “Aw, man, I knew it! My buddies are going to be so jealous when they hear this. Hey, do you mind if we take a selfie?” He pulled a phone from his back pocket and slid his thumb across the screen.

Pia tossed Ashley a long-suffering look while he fiddled with his phone’s camera settings.

Ashley held out her hand. “Here, I’ll take it for you.”

“Really? That’d be great!” He handed her the phone, then wrapped his arm around Pia’s shoulders. He gave a thumbs up with his free hand.

Ashley snapped a few photos and returned his phone.

“Sweet!” He faced Pia and held out his arms. “Can I get a quick hug? I swear I’m not a creeper.”

Pia gave Ashley another wary look, then gave him a side-hug that was more a meeting of chins than bodies. The blush on his cheeks deepened. He released her and walked backward a few steps. “Thanks, Pia! You made my day.” He waved and headed toward the baggage claim.

Pia waited until he was out of earshot, then turned to Ashley. “At least he didn’t ask me to sign his hat.”

“Or his chest.”

“Or my chest.”

They burst out laughing. After a second, Ashley’s throat grew tight. Pia had been a good friend to her in a town where friendships rarely outlasted root touch-ups. Ashley’s eyes burned. Pia’s face grew wavy.

The loudspeaker crackled again. “Now boarding all passengers for flight eight-seven-four with direct service from L.A. to San Antonio. All passengers please report to Gate B.”

Ashley gasped. “Crap! I gotta go.”

“Here, let me.” Pia pulled Ashley’s carry-on upright and extended the telescoping handle. She gave Ashley another quick hug, then waved her toward the terminal. “Go, go, go! Before you make my mascara run.”

Ashley tipped the bag onto its wheels and hurried toward the sign marked Gate B. Just before she turned the corner, she turned and waved at Pia. “Bye!”

Pia cupped her hands around her mouth. “Don’t forget to call your mom!”

Ashley waved again to let her know she’d heard, then rounded the corner and rushed toward the security checkpoint. Her heart pounded as she rolled her bag to the end of the line. It would be just her luck to miss her flight.

Fortunately, the line moved quickly, and she made it through security without getting pulled aside by a TSA agent. The Ontario International Airport was a lot smaller than LAX, which usually meant smaller crowds and shorter lines. She’d also booked her ticket for an afternoon in the middle of the week in hopes of avoiding weekend travelers. It paid off this time, and she arrived at the gate with minutes to spare.

The gate agent looked at her carry-on with a skeptical eye. “Did they weigh that at check-in?”

“Yep.” Ashley reached down and flipped up the check-in tag. “It’s under fifty pounds.” Actually, it was right on the nose, but the gate agent didn’t need to know that.

The woman nodded. “Pick any seat you want, but there’s probably not much left. We’re taking off as soon as the doors close.”

Ashley’s heart skipped a beat. “Oh… I’d hoped to make a quick phone call. Is there any chance—”

“Not if you want to make this flight. The pilots need to make a connection in San Antonio.” The agent’s face brightened. “But you can call from the plane, at least until you start to taxi.”

Only if you have a cell phone. “Right. Thanks.”

The agent waved her through. “Have a nice flight!”

The smell of jet fuel and recycled air filled the jetway as Ashley trudged toward the plane’s open door, the wheels of her suitcase bumping over the dividers in the floor. Buttery-yellow L.A. sunshine formed a rectangular halo where the jetway met the side of the plane. Her heart pounded harder with each step. This is temporary. I can come back whenever I want.

How many failed actors had said that before? She stopped at the plane’s threshold. Ahead, the shadowed interior beckoned. At her feet, a narrow gap between the jetway and the plane revealed a cracked tarmac baked by the California sun. Warm air drifted around her ankles. There was nothing and no one for her in Prattsville—just a past she’d fought hard to forget. If she expected to find a solution to her problems there, she was destined to be disappointed.

Pia was right. This is a mistake.

“Are you looking for something?”

Ashley jerked her head up. A woman in a flight attendant uniform smiled in the doorway. Ashley cleared her throat. “I’m sorry…what?”

“Did you drop something? Although, if it fell down there, I’m afraid we don’t have enough time to look for it.”

Ashley shook her head. “Ah, no. No, I didn’t.”

The woman’s eyebrows dipped in concern, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Nervous flyer?”

“No. Just daydreaming, I guess.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” The woman stepped aside so Ashley could enter the plane. “It’s a short flight, but you can definitely get a good nap in.”

“Thanks.” Ashley tugged her bag inside and found a window seat. Within minutes, the plane taxied backward, and flight attendants zoomed up and down the aisles, closing overhead bins and telling people to fasten their seat belts.

As the plane lifted off and climbed, downtown L.A. shrank to a tiny dot. Ashley put her forehead against the window.

I’m coming back. I’m not giving up.

Maybe if she thought it hard enough, she could convince herself.

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