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“She’s really special, isn’t she? I’ve never met someone as special as she is. She genuinely cares about the well-being of others. She’s saved me during some of the hardest times over the past five years.”

“I’m hoping she can help do the same for me. The other day, she asked me what I wanted to do for that day. Not what I wanted to do in the next five years, or what I wanted to do in the future, but she asked me right then and there what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have the answer. But if she asked me what I wanted now, I’d know what to say.”

“What do you want to do today, Oliver?”

“Be around you.”

She smiled the warmest grin my way, and I wished I had enough nerve to tell her how much I wanted to kiss her too. How much she stayed on my mind. How much I loved being around her.

We stopped at a farmers’ market to pick up some fresh vegetables and fruits—per Emery’s request—and my stomach knotted up the moment I saw a paparazzo tailing us a bit. I looked over to him and frowned, but I realized he was lowering his camera the minute he saw me.

Emery didn’t even notice that we were being followed. She was too excited about being in fresh fruit and vegetable heaven.

“I’ll be right back, all right?” I said. “Just going to go check out that stand over there.”

Emery agreed and squeezed my hand before she turned back to the sweet potatoes in front of her. “I’ll be here, feeling up the eggplants,” she joked.

I walked around the corner, noting the guy following me like the snake he was, and when he grew close enough to me, I finally snapped.

“Can we not today, man?” I asked, almost in a begging tone. For a few seconds with Emery, I’d almost forgotten that I was famous.

He grimaced and nodded. A flash of embarrassment filled his cheeks. “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. I was just trying to help.”

“Help?” I huffed. “How so? How is this helping me?”

“I wanted to show you in a good light, you know? In good spirits. I’ve seen all the bullshit that Cam has been putting out about you, and I know it’s all lies.”

I arched an eyebrow at him, confused by his confession. I never engaged with the paparazzi, because for the most part I saw them as annoying vultures, but something about him seemed . . . genuine?

He shifted in his shoes and cleared his throat. “I lost my brother earlier this year too. Cancer,” he muttered.

In that moment my distaste for him lessened.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “It’s not easy.”

“No. Not at all.” He scratched at his wild blond hair and shrugged. “Listen, I know what we do for a living is shit, but honestly I’m just trying to feed my family. We took in my brother’s kids, and things have been tight. I’m not proud of this, so I was trying to do something good, you know? Maybe help you. I was hoping to use these pictures to spin your story into a good light. I’m a fan, after all.”

I didn’t know what to say, because I never looked at people like him as being human. With families. With struggles. With pain. “What’s your name?”

“Charlie,” he said, nodding slightly. “Charlie Parks.”

I held my hand out toward him. “Nice to meet you. But don’t worry about me. I’m good. Just take care of your family. If selling these pictures helps you, go for it.”

He grimaced and shook my hand. “I know it might not seem that way, but a lot of us are rooting for you, Oliver. You got a team of silent supporters.”

He headed off, leaving me a bit in disbelief at what had unfolded.

“Is everything okay?” Emery asked, walking closer to me after seeing the interaction that had taken place.

I took her hand into mine and kissed her palm. “Yeah. Let’s head to our next stops.”

As we walked into the grocery store, I tossed on my cap and sunglasses. I knew it was a terrible disguise, but the more I could avoid people spotting me, the better. Emery pulled out her shopping list, and I gladly added as much junk food to the cart as possible when she wasn’t looking.

Everything was going smoothly until I heard a gasp take place. “Oh my gosh!”

I looked up to see a woman staring directly our way, and my chest tightened at the idea of being recognized. That feeling settled away pretty quickly when the woman clapped her hands together. “Emery Taylor, as I live and breathe!”

For the first time ever, it wasn’t me who was being recognized—it was Emery.

The woman darted over to Emery and pulled her into a tight embrace. “Jeez, how long has it been? Five years or longer?” she said.

“Eve, hi. Oh gosh, it’s been so long. Since I left Randall, I guess. What are you doing here in California?”

Eve held up her hand, showing off her sparkling ring. “Kevin and I are honeymooning! We got married last week and came to California to do Universal and Disneyland. It’s a cheesy honeymoon, but it’s who we are. Wow. How have you been? What have you been up to? I cannot believe it. Emery, you look good! Real good.” Her eyes moved over to me and danced up and down my body before she nudged Emery. “You got a cute one on your arm, too, I see. Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Alex Smith? You two are an adorable couple.”

Emery nervously laughed. “Oh, no. We aren’t—”

Eve cut her off, and it was clear that she was one of those people who talked a lot and listened very little by the way she went on and on. “Oh my gosh, I gotta text Sammie and let her know that we ran into one another.”

Emery’s eyes widened. “Wait? You’ve been in touch with Sammie?”

“Are you kidding? Of course. I see her every week at Bible study. She even stood up in my wedding. I figured you knew. Anyway, I’d better get going before Kevin wonders why I’m still in this store. I was just meant to get a few snacks. If you ever make it back to Randall, let’s have a girls’ night! It’s been too long!” She paused and looked over to me and raised an eyebrow. She snapped her fingers. “No! Not Alex Smith. Michael B. Jordan. That’s it! You look like Michael B. Jordan. Well, okay, good seeing you, Emery! See you soon!” Eve hurried away as if she hadn’t rocked Emery’s world upside down with the information she’d just revealed.

I walked over to the pale-faced Emery, who was staring forward as if she’d seen a ghost. “Are you okay?”

“My sister’s been back in Randall all this time? No. That doesn’t make sense . . .”

The longer we stood in the store, the more I noticed people staring our way, and this time I knew they were staring at me, based on the cell phones in their hands as they snapped photographs.

I placed my arm around Emery’s and leaned in to whisper. “We need to get going.”

She didn’t say anything but simply took steps forward as we abandoned our cart in the store. I got her into the car and drove for a few blocks before pulling over to talk to her, to make sure we were far enough away from paparazzi or fans snapping pictures of us.

“It doesn’t make sense. She told me she was off finding herself. My mother said she hadn’t seen Sammie when I called. Why would they lie?”

I didn’t know what to say to her, because it was a messed-up situation.

“I have to go back to town,” she muttered to herself. “But I can’t take Reese to talk to them, and I definitely can’t leave her alone. But I need answers. Oh my gosh.” Her eyes watered over as she began to become overwhelmed with every word she spoke. “What does this even mean? Why would Sammie go back to Randall?”

“I can go with you, if you want. I can watch Reese in town as you confront the situation.”

“What? No way. I can’t ask you to do that, Oliver. Besides, you need to be focused on your album. I don’t want to take your time.”

“Emery, please.” I took her hand in mine and squeezed it lightly. “Take up my time. I want to do it for you. You deserve answers after all this time. I want you to get those answers. We can go as soon as possible.”

She hesitated for a moment before agreeing. “Okay, and I’ll head home tonight with Reese and pack our bags. Do you want to pick us up in about two hours from my place, and we can hit the freeway? I’ll book us two rooms at the bed-and-breakfast in town.”

“Sounds good.”

I drove us back to my place, Emery picked up her car, and then we went our separate ways.

As I packed, I felt like a damn fool for being somewhat excited about a weekend getaway with my girls.

My girls.

Fuck, they weren’t mine, but that thought felt good in my head.



Five Years Ago

“I can’t do this,” Sammie sighed as Reese screamed her lungs out at two in the morning. “I can’t do this, Emery. I can’t,” she cried along with the little one as she aggressively rocked her daughter in her arms.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. Here, hand her over.”