Okay, so this is an oldie, but it's one of my favorite short stories. I hope you enjoy a light-hearted break from the Ashwood/Duke drama.
As always, I'd love to hear what you're thinking. Itching for more Duke? Dying to know what's up with Daddy Ashwood? Wondering about Rocket Science? Have a request for an Ashwood backstory?
- - -
Robert Addison's spine stiffened. He tugged the brim of his black baseball cap lower over his eyes. Being an actor was great but the loss of privacy was killing him. All he'd wanted was to enjoy a beer in a bar before meeting his agent for dinner. Was five minutes of peace and quiet too much to ask for? Hopefully, if he ignored the fan and/or autograph-seeker, she would go away.
"Hey!" The sharp feminine voice barked from behind his right ear. Robert jumped when a finger jabbed him in the shoulder. "I'm talking to you."
He kept his shoulders hunched as he turned his head to glare at the woman. The fluorescent lights overhead emphasized the brightest, and angriest, pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. Aside from her striking eyes, the woman wasn't anything special: medium height, shoulder-length light-brown hair, and a slight build. Even her clothes, jeans and a faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, were average.
"What?" Robert relied on his years of training, and self-preservation, to pitch his voice an octave lower.
The woman arched an eyebrow at his gruff tone. She flattened a slender hand on top of the stool beside him. "In case you didn't notice, it's a little crowded in here. You're hogging two stools."
The woman blinked rapidly. Pink lips thinned. "You've got your self-absorbed ass on one stool and your foot on another. I'm going to either take the one under your foot or I'm going to take the one under your ass. I'll let you pick."
Robert didn't doubt for a minute that the woman would make good on her threat. He hastily snatched his foot off the rungs of the stool on his right. The woman offered up a tight smile before she yanked the stool off the ground.
"Wait," he called when she was only an arm's length away. She stopped but didn't turn to face him. "Was that all you wanted?"
She pivoted on the heel of her worn running shoes. This time, both her eyebrows had disappeared up into her bangs. "Yeah. That's it. Thanks."
Robert found himself oddly disappointed. Was the woman not a fan? Had she not recognized him? He shook off the feeling, concentrated on being relieved. If she had recognized him, she would have led a gaggle of squealing girls to his side. He should be thankful for his anonymity.
Four hours later, dinner with his agent over, Robert returned to the hotel bar. He told himself that he was not looking for the rude, stool-grabbing woman. He just wanted a nightcap before heading up to his room.
The bar was as crowded as before. He pushed his way through the throng of people, hoping that his hat, scruffy beard, and bulky leather jacket would still be enough of a disguise. There was only one stool open in front of the bar. Robert didn't bother looking at the patrons on either side as he gratefully plopped onto the stool.
The person on his left shifted, placed a beer bottle on the bar. "Oh, it would be you."
Robert flinched at the familiar voice. Rude woman. Of course. "I promise to keep to my own stool."
"Good." The woman idly twirled her bottle. When the bartender glanced their way, she jerked her head towards Robert. "His next one's on me."
"What?" Robert tugged on his ear. He was certain he'd misheard her.
The woman rolled her eyes. "You say that an awful lot." She tapped the side of her beer to signal the bartender for another. After Robert hesitantly ordered his drink, she spun on her stool. A jolt of electricity shot through him when her knees bumped his. She used a white paper napkin to wipe the condensation off her hand before extending it for a hand shake. "Sorry 'bout earlier. Was a beast of a day. I'm Amy."
Mouth agape, Robert stared at the woman. Either she honestly had no idea who he was or she was one hell of an actress. Only one way to find out. He folded his long fingers around her hand. Her skin was warm and soft. He could feel small calluses on her palm. Few women he associated with had calluses. "R-er- Bobby."
Amy's smile, more genuine than anything she'd flashed him before, was hypnotizing. It started with the curve of her lips, put a hint of color in her smooth cheeks, and made her eyes sparkle. Robert had to tear himself away before he did something embarrassingly like drool or ask her for a date. He still couldn't be sure that she wasn't a rabid fan or member of the paparazzi.
He sipped his Scotch. Since someone else was paying for his drink, he hadn't ordered his usual smooth and expensive brand. The alcohol burned its way down his throat to his stomach. He tried to quietly clear his throat. Something must have given him away because when he turned back to Amy, she was chuckling softly.
"So, er, you had a rough day?" He had to take the attention off himself. It was the best way to avoid blowing his cover. Besides, he was curious about the woman who threatened to knock him off a stool and then bought him a drink to make up for it.
"Rough week, actually." Amy shrugged, sipped her beer. "'S'okay. We'll wrap things up tomorrow. Until trial time, of course."
Though it meant potentially opening the door to an awkward conversation, Robert couldn't help but ask what business she was in. She didn't look like a lawyer or a cop. Was she a paralegal?
"I'm a forensic engineer." At Robert's blank look, Amy sighed. She really had to find a better way to explain her job. "Accident reconstruction. Mostly vehicular accidents, but we've done a couple of plane crashes."
"And you work for the NYPD?"
"No. I work for a private company. We get called in by state or city governments and sometimes the feds. A lot of high-profile incidents, too. We pride ourselves on being unbiased and as unobtrusive as possible while maintaining our integrity." Amy broke off with an embarrassed chuckle. "Sorry, I sound like a commercial, don't I?"
"It's okay. I don't mind at all." It wasn't a lie. Robert was fascinated by the judicial system. Like most people, he loved the bevy of fictional and reality forensic shows on television. If he'd had the grades, and the focus, he liked to think he would have gone into a similar field.
When it looked like she was going to ask what he did for a living, he jumped in with, "what made you go into forensic engineering?"
Amy's eyes dropped to the scarred bar surface. She plucked at the label on her beer bottle. "When I was three, my grandmother was driving my oldest sister to a slumber party. They were in an accident. No survivors. Forensics wasn't what it is now. No one could explain why Grandma and my sister were dead."
"And you wanted to know. Have you used your expertise to dig into the case?"
"A bit. It upsets Mom, so I try to keep quiet about it. I don't understand it, but she's almost happier not knowing." Amy shook her head when the bartender gestured toward her beer. It was late and she had a mountain of paperwork to finish up in the morning. "You're a very good listener, Bobby."
Robert flushed at the compliment. After having people constantly pressing him to talk about himself, it was nice listening to someone else's life story. With all his worries about the tabloids and the fans, he'd forgotten that he genuinely liked people. He pressed her for details about her favorite investigation. Though most of the technical details went over his head, he enjoyed the animated way she spoke about her job and her co-workers. He wistfully remembered a time he’d felt that much passion for his work.
"Oh. My. Gawd!" A high-pitched squeal had everyone at the bar, except for Robert, spinning around. A tanned bottle-blonde teetering on spiky heels pressed a hand over her lips. She fanned her face with her other hand. As soon as she regained her composure, she headed straight for Robert and Amy.
Robert's heart sank. This was it. His cover was blown. Bobby, the guy who drank mid-priced Scotch and just talked with people, would soon be replaced by Robert the A-lister.
To his surprise, the woman completely ignored him. She clutched Amy's hands tightly. "I knew it! You're Lily Vaughn! You can’t fool me! The wig's awful and I hate your contacts, but I loved you in Love's Old Song. You are, like, my fave actress. Ever."
Amy wriggled her hands free. She shook her head regretfully. "I'm sorry, but you've got the wrong girl. My name's Amy Lampis. I'm not an actress."
The woman leaned forward so that her nose brushed Amy's. Her breath stank of vodka and, oddly enough, potato chips. "Are you sure?"
Amy bit her lip to hide her smile. "Absolutely positive."
"Oh." Face bright red, the woman slunk out of the bar and into the hotel lobby. Two women, equally tanned and blonde, wrapped their arms around her shoulders and led her to the elevators.
Once the chatter around them resumed, Amy gave into the laughter bubbling in her chest. Giddy with relief, Robert joined in. He playfully bumped Amy's shoulder with his own. "Lily Vaughn, huh?"
"I know!" Amy wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. Her cheeks ached from smiling so much, and her ribs, sore from a fall she'd taken earlier that afternoon, throbbed, but she hadn't been this happy in weeks. "It's flattering, at least."
Robert studied his companion critically. He was willing to alter his original opinion of her. She wasn't one of the drop-dead gorgeous actress or models he worked with, but, with pink cheeks and laughing eyes, she was stunning. And real. He'd worked with Lily on two pictures and knew for a fact that Lily'd had her lips artificially plumped and her hair was not naturally platinum blonde. "Oh, for Lily Vaughn, definitely."
"You're so full of it!" Amy glanced down at her watch. It was after midnight. If she was going to get all her work done in time for her three o'clock flight, she had to be up at the crack of dawn. "I should go."
"Oh. Okay." Robert didn't want her to go. He didn't know if it was because he wasn't used to dates, did this count as a date, leaving him or because he really enjoyed Amy's company.
"It was really great talking with you. Thanks for letting me babble." Amy slung her purse strap over her shoulder. She impulsively leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "I'm glad I met you, Bobby."
"Pleasure was mine, Amy Lampis." Like the gentleman his mother raised him to be, he held out a hand to help her off the stool and held the door open for her. To his surprise, she stayed with him all the way to the bank of elevators. He thought for sure she'd stay in the lobby, but she stepped onto the elevator.
"Fifth floor, please."
"You're staying here?" Robert couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. The boutique hotel was one of the most exclusive in the city. Accident reconstruction had to pay better than he expected. Was her client footing the bill for her stay?
"Yep. With a suite, my partner and I can stay together and use it as a temporary office. Saves the cost of two hotel rooms."
The way Amy's eyes wouldn't meet his had Robert believing there was more to the story but he wasn't going to press. He didn't want to ruin what had been a pleasant evening. "Will you be here in the morning?"
"Oh yeah. I'll be slaving away at my laptop long before the sun is up."
"Have breakfast with me." At Amy's arched eyebrow, Robert deflated somewhat. "I mean, will you please have breakfast with me? The restaurant here is great."
"Have you had the blueberry granola pancakes?" Amy's mouth watered at the memory. She'd had to add an extra half-hour to her daily workout thanks to the delicious food in the hotel's restaurant. If she didn't have to fit into a bridesmaid's dress in a matter of days, she wouldn't have worried about it.
"No. I'm more of a bacon and eggs guy myself." Fortunately he was six months from his next project and could afford to eat what he liked. His personal trainer would make him pay for it later, but he'd worry about it then.
"Seven-thirty okay with you?"
"What?" Robert tore himself out of horrific thoughts of all the lunges and cardio workouts he had to look forward to.
"You really need to find a new word. That one makes you sound like a moron." Amy smiled to take the sting out of her comment. "Is seven-thirty okay for breakfast? I know it's early, but I've got a ton to do before my flight."
"Where're you going?"
"Texas. My sister's wedding."
"How many sisters do you have?" Robert restrained himself from asking where in Texas she was going. He was headed to the Lone Star state for a wedding as well. Though it was highly unlikely they were attending the same wedding, it was a nice wish.
"I had three. Only two now. Both older. I'm the baby."
Robert grinned. "Spoiled rotten, too, I bet."
"Not in my family. There was no such thing as a favorite. We all pulled our weight and we were all treated equally." It was one of the things she loved most about her family. Despite all the pressures her parents and siblings were under, they remained close and as down-to-earth as possible.
"If they're anything like you, I'd love to meet them."
Amy dropped her chin to her chest and fought the giggle threatening to burst from her chest. "I'm sure they'd love to meet you, too."
Robert walked Amy to her door. On the way back to the elevator, he kicked himself for not kissing her goodnight. There was no guarantee she would really be there for breakfast. What if this was the last time he saw her? He should have asked her for her phone number or e-mail address.
Worried about being stood up, Robert was pacing outside the restaurant at quarter-to-seven. On his fifth circuit past the amused hostess, he ran, literally, into Amy. He grasped her forearms to keep her from falling to the floor. Her bare skin was damp with sweat and the tendrils of hair that had escaped her ponytail were matted to her forehead. He'd never seen a lovelier sight.
Finally steady on her feet, Amy pulled earbuds from her ears. "I'm so sorry! It's a book on tape. I get so caught up and I am such a spaz."
"It's okay. Really. Are you still hungry?" Robert mentally slapped himself for sounding like such a dork. He hadn't had to try this hard with a woman in years. He'd gotten used to being the pursued rather than the pursuer.
"Worried I was going to ditch you?" Amy teased. She sobered when Robert flinched. Had he really been afraid she was going to skip out on him? "Give me twenty minutes to shower and change. I'll be back in a flash."
"We can eat now. I don't mind."
"R-er-Bobby." Amy sucked in a calming breath. "I just spent an hour on the treadmill. My clothes are absolutely soaked. I stink. I am not doing anything until I have a shower."
Robert backed off quickly. That was the same tone she'd used when taking the stool last night. "Okay."
Amy bit her lip as she considered another option. It was an offer she never made, but she liked Bobby. Trusted him. "Or, I dunno, you could come up to my suite. My partner is sleeping the sleep of the dead and will be out for at least another hour and a half. We could order room service and eat up there."
A minute later, Robert was in the elevator beside Amy. He ordered the food then flipped through cable channels while she showered. He anticipated the wait to be longer than her estimated twenty minutes. The women he worked with never spent less than an hour getting ready. To his surprise, she emerged from her bedroom with five minutes to spare.
He wished breakfast could have lasted all day. Once again, he'd encouraged Amy to dominate the conversation by asking questions about her sisters. He heard humorous tales of three girls sharing a bathroom on family vacations and how they still gathered once a year to remember their late sister's birthday.
When it was time to go, he had a plane to catch and she had work to finish, he was reluctant to leave. He lingered at the door, asking for her phone number and e-mail address, for as long as possible. He made a show of slipping the plain white business card into his wallet. This time, he didn't forget the kiss. She tasted like blueberries, coffee, and syrup. Like forever.
"What's gotten into you, man?"
Robert glanced over at his close friend and fellow actor Nick Rudd. He understood the reason behind Nick's question. He'd had a silly grin on his face all day. Meeting Nick's future in-laws, the Vaughn's, had been a treat. Lily Vaughn was the typical nervous bride, but her younger sister and parents were refreshingly down-to-earth.
He even enjoyed being relatively isolated in the Vaughn compound on the Guadalupe River. The view was perfect and the water, though cool, looked inviting. As a bonus, the private road was guarded by a well-known security company.
"I met a girl." Robert's cheeks flushed as he made the admission.
"Oooh! Come here, Lil, and get a load of this. Our boy's met a girl."
Lily laughed at the deer-in-the-headlights expression on Robert's face. She slung an arm across his shoulders and pinched his pink cheek. "A girl like that Swedish model two weeks ago or a girl like that Australian pop singer last week?"
"Neither. She's... she's nobody."
"Robert!" Lily slapped his arm. She couldn't believe a friend of hers would say such a thing.
"I didn't mean it that way." Robert rubbed his stinging arm. For someone as delicate looking as Lily, she slapped pretty damn hard. He’d seen a news report about one of the three Vaughn sisters punching a notoriously pushy actor in the nose. Had it been Lily? "She's not in the biz. She's a forensic engineer."
Lily leaned around Robert's back to raise her eyebrow at Nick. Nick shrugged his shoulders. This was the first he'd heard of Robert's forensic engineer. He quickly tried to remember where Robert had been hiding out for a week and where...
"Her name's Amy. Amy Lampis," Robert continued, oblivious to the wordless conversation going on behind his back. "She's wonderful. Brilliant. Dry sense of humor, but I like it. Doesn't take any crap from anyone, either. She berated me in the middle of a bar for hogging an extra stool."
Lily forced a bright smile. The only thing keeping her from racing back into the house and grabbing her cell phone was knowing that the person she wanted to call was currently on a plane. "She sounds great, Robert. Is she a fan?"
"No! That's the best part about it. She has no idea who I am. I told her my name was Bobby." Robert blew out a heavy sigh. He missed Amy already. He should have asked her to be his date for the wedding. "You're taking this very well, Lily. I knew you and Rose were hoping I'd hit it off with your youngest sister."
"It's okay. Probably best this way. The old best man and maid of honor cliché never works out well. Trust me, I’ve been in those movies." She linked her arm with Robert and led him down the worn path to the water. She jerked her head towards the house, hoping Nick would get the hint and share the gossip with her sister Rose.
"Tell me more about Amy," she prompted.
"We were at the bar in the hotel and a woman walked in. She swore Amy was you. Poor girl was embarrassed." Robert chuckled at the memory.
"How did Amy take it?"
"She found it funny. Strange thing is, it seemed like she'd done that before." Robert paused to ponder that thought before dismissing it. It was a one-off. Amy just had more patience than most people.
"Oh, I'm sure," Lily muttered under her breath. She was definitely going to have a long, long talk with her sisters.
"You don't want to hear me go on and on about another woman, though. I know nothing about the bridesmaid I'm going to be teamed up with for the week. What's your sister like? I think I've only seen a few pictures of the three of you out in public." Robert congratulated himself on a smooth topic transition. He could go on for hours about Amy, which was amusing considering he'd only known her for a few hours, but didn't want to bore or offend his dear friend.
"She's made it a point to stay out of the papers as much as possible. Most of the mags forget about her. The Invisible Vaughn, she's been called. It's good for her, though. She never liked the spotlight." Lily stopped a few inches from the edge of the water. She slipped off her flip-flops, brushed off the concrete ledge, and sits with her feet in the cool river. She absolutely adored growing up near New Braunfels. She and her sisters used to run wild up and down the incline to the river. Afternoons and weekends were spent floating and soaking up the sun. She missed those lazy days so much it was a physical pain.
"What does she do, then?"
Lily waved a hand airily. "Something science-y. She's a nerd. Always was. Rose and I would be trying on Mom's make up while she'd be analyzing it with her junior chemistry set. Lissie liked to break things down."
Robert joined Lily on the ground but pulled his knees up to his chest. He didn't want to go through the hassle of pulling off his socks and shoes then rolling up the cuffs of his trousers. "Lissie, huh? I suppose your mother ran out of flower names."
"Oh no. No one was spared. Poppy, daughter of BellaDonna, gave birth to Dahlia, Lily, Rose, and Amaryllis." Lily laughed and tried to splash Robert. "It's a tradition that ends with my generation. The girls and I have vowed to give our children normal names."
The sound of the back door swinging open then slamming closed had Lily pulling her feet out of the water. She scooped up her sandals and rose to feet. "We should head back in. I need to iron out the final details for tomorrow afternoon with Nick before going in to pick up Lissie."
"Can I go? I flew into San Antonio. I've never been to Austin before."
"No!" Lily winced at her own vehemence. "I mean, no. Rose and I are going to go. We haven't seen Lissie in a couple of months and..."
"I get it. You want to spend time together. I think it's great that you three have stayed close. I know Rose's tour keeps her busy, and you've got the most amazingly busy shooting schedule I've ever seen." Robert thought of his own family and how rarely he saw them. He'd bought his parents a mansion, new cars, and anything else they desired but that didn't make up for never visiting.
"That's what you get when you've got a family full of entertainers and workaholics."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Lil. You're not a workaholic."
"I wasn't talking about me." Lily patted Robert's cheek before going off in search of her fiancé. She hoped he'd had a chance to speak with Rose.
Robert wandered through the dining room and into the kitchen. He liked the house's open floor plan. All the rooms flowed together and maintained a universal cheeriness. Not even a lack of family photos detracted from the warmth. He hoped his own house, whenever he decided to settle down, was just like it. It helped that he had an in with the 'designer to the stars' Poppy Vaughn.
"So, Roberto. I hear a slip of a girl in New York City has stolen your heart. Don't you know there's going to be thousands of heartbroken teenage girls?" Rose Vaughn popped her head around the open refrigerator door. A bottle of water in each hand, she kicked the door shut with her bare foot. She handed one bottle to Robert then perched on top of a padded stool.
"News travels fast in this family."
Rose's lower lip jutted out in a pout. "Not always true. Someone's been keeping secrets." Catching Robert's confused look, she dismissed it with a flick of her delicate wrist. "Never mind. Sister thing. You wouldn't understand."
Knowing she was probably right, Robert leaned back against the kitchen island and crossed his ankles. He'd heard of Rose, hard not to have heard of the former teen TV idol turned pop princess, before he'd met Lily. He was delighted to discover that, despite the media's portrayal of her, Rose was just as levelheaded as her older sister.
"Rose, you'll have to forgive me, but I've been dying to ask you -."
"Do I really go out to parties without panties on?" Rose chuckled at the fierce blush that darkened Robert's face. He really was too cute for words. "Hate to break it to you, but that was a doctored photo. My mom would kill me if I ever did that for real."
"Yes, I would," Poppy Vaughn agreed, amusement coloring her tone. She bestowed a warm smile on Robert as she lightly smacked the back of her daughter's head. "You'd better not forget that, young lady."
"Of course not, Mom. Is Lils done playing kissy-face with Nick? We've got to get a move on. You know how Lissie gets if she has to wait for too long." Rose twisted the cap back on her empty water bottle before tossing it in the recycle bin.
"Oh, Rose. She was ten when she did that. Your sister's matured since then."
"Not much," Rose snorted. She beamed at Robert. "When Lissie was ten, she spent a week with friends in D.C. She flew home by herself. We were fifteen minutes late picking her up, but she was nowhere in the airport. Dad practically had the place shut down. I think they were ready to call a state-wide manhunt."
"Did you find her?" Robert knew that David Vaughn, a wealthy fourth-generation real estate mogul and state politician, had the clout to pull off such a thing. He imagined he would do something similar if a child of his ever went missing.
"Yep. She was about two miles from the airport dragging her suitcase. She'd gotten tired of waiting and decided to walk the entire way home." Rose shot her mother a scowl. "She got ice cream afterwards."
"She was grounded for a week," Poppy protested.
"After you bought her ice cream."
"What're you two arguing about now?" Lily appeared in the doorway with Nick at her side. She was dressed in the same floral sundress from earlier but had slipped on a pair of high-heeled sandals and tied her hair back with a ribbon. Her soft, feminine appearance was a startling contrast to her sister's vamp-ish tight pleather pants and halter-top ensemble.
"Nothing. Geez, Lils. Mom and I don't always argue." Rose grinned impishly. "We were just telling Robert about the time Lissie tried to walk home from the airport."
"Oh! Everyone was so mad and she couldn't understand why. She just asked for ice cream because she was hot. You guys took her out for sundaes!" They joked about it now, but Lily could still remember that terror-filled hour. Her mother had been so sure that she was going to lose another daughter.
"See!" Rose laughed at her mother's indignant frown.
"That's enough girls. Go on and pick up Lissie. She's smart enough now to try hitchhiking rather than walking."
"Yes ma'am," both Vaughn girls chimed. They each dutifully kissed their mother's cheek.
"I know you're going to have a good time tonight, but please don't stay out too late. And call your father if you need a ride. The last thing I want to do tomorrow is bail any of you out of jail. I'd be tempted to leave you there. Please keep the embarrassing photos to a minimum. You girls get to fly off when this is over, but your father and I have to live here." Poppy watched her daughters nod in agreement before dashing out of the house while arguing over who got to drive and betting on which wig Lissie had chosen to wear for the evening. They'd grown up so fast. It seemed like only a few years ago she'd been baking cookies for bake sales and pitching a tent on Girl Scout camping trips. Where had the time gone?
Nick crossed the room and slapped his friend on the shoulder. "Come on, man. You and I have dinner reservations."
"But, I thought -." Robert glanced back and forth between Poppy and Nick. He'd assumed they were going to have dinner at the house. He'd actually looked forward to a big, boisterous family meal.
"Tomorrow night. Triple Trouble won't be in until late. Girls' night or something like that," Nick explained.
"Oh, Triple Trouble. I like that," Poppy commented. She was grateful that she had daughters who got along so well, but she could attribute every gray hair on her head to her girls.
"See you in the morning, Mrs. Vaughn." Robert grabbed the keys to his rental car off the hook near the door. Rose and Lily had undoubtedly taken the car Nick had rented.
"It's Poppy, please. You boys have fun!"
By the time Nick and Robert returned, the rental car was back but the lights were off. Robert slipped between the crisp sheets on his bed and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He'd worry about meeting Lissie Vaughn in the morning.
Robert woke to bright sunshine streaming through the window over the bed. He blinked, rubbed his aching eyes, and swung his feet to the floor. Pulling on a pair of drawstring pants, he stumbled out of the bedroom. Where had Lily said the bathroom was? Taking a guess, he pushed open the first half-open door he came to.
It wasn't a bathroom. The walls were painted a soft yellow color. A laminated periodic table was taped to the back of a closet door. A sleek laptop rested on a cherry desk. The queen-sized bed wasn't made. Clothes were strewn all over the floor.
"That's Lissie's room," Rose spoke up. She lightly grasped his shoulder and turned him around, pulled the door shut. "Bathroom's over there."
"It's okay. Lissie's down in the water, and I won't tell anyone. Dad bought doughnuts this morning. Grab one and some coffee then join us down by the river. Mom gave us most of the morning for fun time." Rose opened the bathroom door then, with a cheeky wave, thundered down the stairs.
Robert treated himself to a long, hot shower. He'd had a few more drinks than he should have. Nick had toasted everything from his upcoming wedding to his in-laws, to the color of the bartender's tie. Hair still damp, Robert dressed in red swim trunks and an old white t-shirt.
He stuffed two chocolate glazed doughnuts in his mouth before grabbing a third and a soda out of the refrigerator. On the countertop, the newspaper was folded so that a large color photo was prominently displayed. He instantly recognized two of the women in the picture. He assumed that the third woman, face turned away from the camera, with blonde hair a shade darker than Lily's platinum blonde and without Rose's red highlights was the infamous Lissie. A glance at the caption confirmed his suspicions. The Vaughn girls are back in town! Pop diva Rose teamed up with Oscar-nominee Lily and camera-shy Lissie for a bachelorette party to remember. Along Sixth Street, there's sure to be a trail of broken-hearted admirers and well-tipped waiters.
Chuckling to himself, he followed the chattering voices down the slight hill. Poppy and Rose were sprawled out in lawn chairs on the water's edge. Lily had her toes in the water. David and Nick were in the water facing the house. A thin woman with light-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail stood, wobbled, on an inner tube held in place by the two men.
Robert swallowed the sugary pastries clogging his suddenly-dry throat. Though last time he saw her she'd been wearing a conservative blue blouse and pinstriped pants, he recognized the woman in the denim cutoffs and pink bikini top.
The woman slowly, carefully, turned around to face Robert. A wide grin split her face. Green eyes twinkled merrily. She wriggled her fingers in greeting. "Hello, Bobby."
Robert blinked to clear his vision. When he looked back at the river, he still saw Amy Lampis, his favorite forensic engineer, standing on a tube surrounded by his best friend and the rest of the Vaughn family. What was she doing here? How had she figured out his identity?
Poppy, ever the peacemaker, swiftly rose to her feet. "Get off that tube before you break your fool neck, Amaryllis Clover Vaughn."
Amy gestured for her father to move out of the way. She shuffled towards the edge of the tube until her heels hung over the edge then fell backwards into the water. She popped up, sputtering and spitting water out of her mouth, on the other side of the tube.
"I'd introduce you to my Lissie, Robert, but I have a feeling the two of you have already met." Poppy grabbed a folded up chair and set it up for Robert. She hoped he'd take a seat and not rush off. From the anger clouding his face, though, it was a good bet that he'd be dashing off shortly. What had her youngest done this time?
"Bobby and I were staying at the same hotel in New York. We ran into each other my last night there." Amy dunked her head back under the water, came up grinning. "It was fate, I guess. Kismet."
"You don't believe in kismet. It’s not scientific enough for you," Rose pointed out drolly.
"Shut up, Rosey-posey."
"No, you shut up, Lissie."
"Why don't both of you shut up?" Lily shouted to be heard over her bickering siblings. What was it about a warm morning by the water that turned her sisters into screaming five-year-olds?
Rose arched an eyebrow at Amy. Amy nodded, smothering a grin. Before Lily could react, Rose leapt off her chair and shoved Lily forwards. Amy grabbed Lily's hands and yanked her sister into the water. Lily's outraged shrieks echoed off the stone cliff on the other side of the river.
"Good job, sis." Amy held a hand out so Rose could help her out of the river.
"Thank you, sis. You did your part beautifully." Rose handed Amy a folded beach towel. Once Amy had the towel wrapped around her shoulders, they stood side-by-side to face Lily. Teaming up on the oldest was still one of their favorite pastimes.
"I hate you both. A lot."
“Was that you in the picture from last night?” Robert blurted. Now that he was over his shock, he could see the similarities between the blonde woman in the newspaper picture and his brown-haired Amy. He could also see why she’d been mistaken for Lily Vaughn. The sisters had their mother’s nose and their father’s chin. He should have seen it before.
Amy’s eyes went wide. Rose shook her head furiously. Lily made shushing noises. Poppy quelled them all with a single glare that was a blend of disappointment and resignation. Her only consolation was knowing that Rose had been wearing pants and her girls hadn’t come home in the back of a police cruiser. Once was enough for any mother.
“Mom, it wasn’t that bad. I promise. It was only one photo. We behaved ourselves,” Amy did her best to reassure her mother. Turning her head, she smiled softly at Robert. “That was me. When I go out as Lissie Vaughn, I wear the blonde wig. Helps with the whole Vaughn Sisters celebutant thing. It also keeps people from hounding me when I want to stay under the radar. Most people don’t look at me twice when I’m just Amy.”
Ignoring the half-curious, half-chastising scowl her mother was giving her, Amy stood beside Robert. She reached for his hand but stopped before making contact. She didn't want to be rejected outright. "We should talk."
Robert nodded sharply. He followed Amy along the bank of the river. He waited until they were far enough from her family to speak. "You lied to me."
"I lied to you?" Of all the things Amy expected to hear from him, that wasn't one of them. So what if she hadn't explained the whole bit about his BFF marrying her sister? She'd been honest about everything else. He'd been the one to keep her completely in the dark about everything.
"When? When I was telling you all about the job I love? When I was telling you about my childhood and about my family?" Amy clenched her fists until her nails drew blood in her palms. "Tell me just when I lied to you, Bobby."
"You knew who I was."
"Well, yeah. I did." Amy shrugged, fought to control her anger. Yelling at Robert would just send him packing. "I didn't know you were staying there. I didn't follow you. Hell, when I first saw you in the bar, I didn't recognize you."
"But you did the second time around." Regret left a bitter taste in Robert's mouth. All his plans for a life with ordinary, normal Amy Lampis dissipated before his eyes. She hadn't been ignorant about his identity, she'd just been good at hiding it.
Amy rolled her eyes. He really was as moody as the papers made him out to be. "Yes. I figured you were incognito and thought it best keep my mouth shut." When all Robert did was grunt, she lost her grip on her patience. "Let's be honest, Bobby."
"Are you sure we should even bother at this point?"
Amy's lip curled back in a sneer. She pictured herself shoving Robert into the water. Hopefully it would cool him down. "If I'd given you any indication that I knew who you were, how fast would you have been out of there?"
That gave Robert pause. He had to admit that if Amy had shown any signs of recognizing him, he would have spent the rest of the night holed up in his room. "You never told me you were Lissie Vaughn. You introduced yourself as Amy Lampis."
"And you told me your name was Bobby." Amy squatted down to pick up a flat rock. With a deft flick of the wrist, she sent it skipping along the surface of the water. "Did you ever think that maybe I like my privacy, too? Before Rose and Lily made it big, we’d been famous because of Dad and Mom and then Dahlia’s accident. My sisters and I spent most of our childhood under the microscope. I changed my name when I graduated from high school. I wanted out of the spotlight. Amy Lampis could be anonymous. Lissie Vaughn could not."
When they reached the edge of the Vaughn property, Bobby dropped down to sit on the concrete ledge. He stretched out his long legs so that his feet hovered over the water. The hot sun felt good on his bare legs. Amy'd made several good points, and they'd stung. He can't say that he would have done much different if their situations had been reversed.
"I liked that you didn't know who I was. I liked thinking that we could just be a guy and a girl out on the town."
"Then quit acting and move to a remote village somewhere in the rain forest. Stop whining about it. Stop bitching. Just learn to deal!" Amy threw her hands up in disgust. “Do what the rest of us have learned to do: pretend it’s just another role you’re playing. Give the media something to print, and keep the parts you want private. Why do you think the three of us paint LA red sometimes? We’re just as happy having a quiet movie night, but if every now and then we let them publish a few photos of Rose dancing on a bar or Lily buzzed or me punching grabby Dahl Rosini in the face, we get left alone for the other nights.”
“And that works?”
“Has for us. You just have to separate it in your head. Kinda like Lily and Nick having the small family-only wedding here at the house this afternoon. That’s personal. That's the real wedding. Thursday’s church wedding with the four-hundred person guest list and dozens of photographers and expensive finger foods is the show for the public.”
“I just… want my life back.” Robert tugged at his earlobe. What Amy was saying made sense, but he didn’t know if he could do that. Should he have to hide who he was or live a double life? Why couldn’t people just leave him alone? Things were so much easier when he was making low-budget movies and only guest-starring on sitcoms.
"I've read a few of the interviews you've given. You make it sound like being famous is such a burden. You hate it. Listen up, you skinny, freckled, floppy-haired prima donna, there are plenty of people who have been more famous than you and lived somewhat well adjusted lives. Get over it or get out of the business."
"You don't understand."
This time Amy acted on her impulse to shove him into the water. One good push to the middle of his back sent him face-first into the river. "Oh yeah, I wouldn't know the first thing about fame."
Robert wiped the cold water out of his eyes. He stared up an indignant Amy in disbelief. "You shoved me in the water!"
"Damn skippy. Come on out of there and I'll do it again, you big whiny baby."
"No one's done that to me in years."
"Yeah. I can tell. You were overdue." Amy draped her towel across a tree limb before lowering herself into the river. She hissed out a sharp breath. No matter how many years she'd had to get used to it, that first icy touch of water always shocked her.
Robert studied the woman in front of him. Yes, she'd deliberately deceived him, but he was also guilty of lying by omission. She'd known his real identity but hadn't treated him any differently. In fact, she'd behaved around him the same way she behaved around her family. His 'star status' didn't impress her in the least, and she wasn't going to fawn all over him. Even knowing who he was, she'd shared large chunks of her life and her past with him. Did he really want to let her slip through his fingers just because he'd had his pride stung?
Making the decision only took a couple of seconds. He stuck out a hand. "Hi, my name is Robert Addison. You may have seen me in movies like Daughter of Deception and The Chaos Child. Perhaps you caught last summer's box office flop Just the Atmosphere. I'm an actor with privacy issues and an over inflated sense of paranoia. I've been called mercurial, diva-ish, and bland. Apparently I need help dealing with a sudden burst of unexpected fame. Would you like to have dinner with me one night?"
Amy shook his hand, a smile curving her lips. "Hello, Robert. I'm Amaryllis Vaughn, but I prefer Amy. My Dad owns most of Central Texas and has his eye on the governorship. My mom was a model when she was a teen but now it’s her designs that can be seen in magazines. I have a sister who is considered America’s latest sweetheart and another who sings bubblegum pop music so sugary it makes my teeth hurt. I spend my time investigating car accidents and am more familiar with the laws of physics than I am with fashion of any sort, but sometimes I have to play dress up and act like the stereotypical carefree rich girl for the tabloids."
"And?" Robert prompted.
Amy's brow furrowed. Was there something she'd forgotten? When Robert's hand started to go limp, she squeezed it tightly. Oh! "And, I'd love to have dinner with you."
Robert tugged her into his arms, swooped down for a celebratory kiss. There were no blueberries or syrup, but he could still taste forever on her tongue. Once the need for oxygen had him pulling back, he cocked his head at her. "What do you mean 'skinny, freckled, floppy-haired prima donna'?"