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This morning, I had to get snippy again with another juvenile, conceited Hollywood celebrity. As soon as I left the hotel where I’d delivered a package for a client, I handed my parking voucher to the valet. “Thank you, Ms. Collington,” he said. “Volvo SUV, isn’t it?”
“That’s the one. Take your time.” The weather was sheer LA bliss. Nice breeze with fluffy white clouds. Smogless. No wonder people love it here in the winter.
A minute later, instead of my car, a white limo pulled up, tires scraping the curb. From the lobby, a dozen or so tourists shoved past me with their cameras and cell phones. Previously invisible paparazzi materialized in clusters of two or three, ready to ambush the celeb behind the limo’s tinted glass.
To escape the craziness, I snuck down the sidewalk out from under the awning. Can you blame me? Oh, I remember how it felt the first time I saw a celebrity in the flesh. But after a month or so of standing behind one of them at the Food 4 Less checkout, where they inevitably get the last bag, (my bag), of Cool Ranch Doritos, you barely notice them anymore. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against them. Celebrities pay my salary.
The limo driver got out and opened the passenger door. When the anticipated superstar turned out to be an older woman wearing Donna Karan and a darling pair of Givenchy sling-backs, all mayhem ceased. Disappointed tourists and paparazzi schlepped away.
Something tickled the back of my neck. Only a speck of dust or a breeze, but it gave me goose bumps. But then, I get goose bumps for all sorts of reasons.
While I waited for my car, something rushed past my head. Something from above, that fell in a tangled heap on the sidewalk. I didn’t want to touch it, even though it was only a dark-colored T-shirt. I stepped toward the curb, faced the building, and threw my head back, ready to dodge whatever fell next.
Several floors above me a tall, messy-haired man, and an irate young woman with a head scarf stood on their balcony, her arms flying with chaotic energy, and his folded over his puffed up chest, ready to take on whatever she dished out. I easily recognized him: Ren Spencer, my daughter Shannon’s idol.
The tourists and paparazzi reappeared, now with a mission. With the street-level screams and cheers, I couldn’t hear the dispute details, but for the tourists, it didn’t matter. This was pure entertainment.
The argument continued. The unrecognizable woman, (my guess, a jilted starlet), slapped Ren Spencer hard across his face. I palmed my stinging cheek, whispering, “Ouch.”
With my neck craned toward the balcony, the unhinged starlet picked up a large black object and heaved it over the railing. Ren ducked.
As the object tumbled toward the applauding audience, clothing, shoes, and toiletries rained down in a steady stream. Fortunately, I’m a fast sprinter.
When the balcony performance ended, one of the tourists, a silver-haired woman with hoop earrings, snatched a stray Nike by a shoestring and swung it over her head, squealing like a lovesick groupie. She bolted through the hotel doors, but didn’t get far. A porter stopped her for the shoe, collecting the duffle bag and the remaining contents strewn on the sidewalk.
On cue, the hotel doors reopened. Ren Spencer—in the flesh— hobbled forward. He was wearing one Nike, dark glasses parked on top of his head, and an expression that read, “Mess with me and die.” I was about to inform him where he could collect his stuff, but the porter beat me to it. Relocating his sunglasses to his nose, and clutching his duffle bag and stray shoe to his chest, Ren elbowed the insistent autograph-seekers away.
When the valet climbed out of the front seat of my SUV, Ren Spencer rushed toward the passenger door. He faced me, angled his head toward the vehicle, and gripped the door handle. No words necessary. Exhaling in disgust, I told him to get into the back seat, knowing I’d drive only a block or two and drop him off.
He was difficult to hate. He seemed so pathetic, in an endearing sort of way. Besides, I couldn’t help but notice the air in my car gradually changed from car smell to a more manly scent. He wasn’t wearing any particular fragrance, but he gave off that unmistakable blend of healthy man and warm body that could make a woman run a red light.
As he wriggled into his second shoe, a few strands of his freshly-showered shoulder-length hair fell across his forehead. Instead of any pleasantries or “thank you’s,” he began with, “Get me to L-A-X. You know the back way, don’t you?”
I tried my best to scowl at him through the rear view mirror. “Who do you think I am, United Taxi? I’ll be happy to drop you off at the nearest corner.”
“You don’t understand. I’m supposed to meet my bodyguard there in less than half an hour.”
I tried to remain calm, but I do have my limits, and he’d just exceeded them. Pulling to an open space of curb, I turned to face him, elbow on the armrest. I presented him with my cheesiest smile. “On your way out, don’t forget your baggage.”
My job used to be easy. Now, all I can think about is escaping the melodrama of Hollywood. For weeks now, my clients have been sending me flowers and gifts or taking me out to dinner to say good-bye to their personal shopper. I’ve worked for celebrities since Shannon was in elementary school. Far too long.
Even with its challenges, my career has afforded me abundant luxuries. I’ve seen the best hairdressers for my chin-length nearly red hair, and spas for every inch of my fair skin. I’ve enjoyed the services of personal trainers for my physique—I’m short, so every ounce shows on me.
Shannon’s ecstatic about our move. I’m glad she’s taking it so well. I wouldn’t want to destroy my daughter’s life. There’s a world of difference between a private school in LA and a public middle school in central Illinois.
As for me, I can hardly wait. Sure, I’ll miss my friends, but I’m thrilled about what’s to come. Only ten more days.
“Keep it zipped.” The words every son hears from his father. His football coach. The family doctor. As many times as I’ve received this sage advice, why can’t I seem to follow it? I even remember the first time I failed to observe the rule. With Brianna, my senior year sweetheart, who I dropped for a doe-eyed dancer named Candy, with muscles up to here and a noggin full of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate brown hair. Brianna never forgave me, but it had to be done. Besides, sometimes kissing her was about as exciting as kissing your Aunt Martha after she’s pinned up the last curler.
Why is it, when I see a beautiful woman, I forget I’ve got Lisa? Ever since we first met, I knew we belonged together. Except when we’re apart, which has been happening a lot more, lately.
Even worse, for the past few months, I can’t seem to make a decent first impression. Like that cute redhead who rescued me the other day. Do I have a neon sign around my neck that says I’m unreliable? Untrustworthy? She wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Okay, I was wearing shades at the time, but who doesn’t in LA? At least she helped me escape from that curbside groupie circus. But did she necessarily have to flee the scene afterwards like a rocket re-entry? What’s up with that?
Dressed in a new silk wrapover tiger-striped blouse and faded pajama bottoms, twenty-four-year-old Tiffany Bradford shlumped past me, landing in the middle of her unmade king-sized bed. She picked up a mirror. “Judith, do you think I should get Botox for these lines in my forehead?” She stared into the mirror with one hand twisting her blond bangs out of the way. “I have lines. I don’t like these lines.” She lifted her eyebrows and allowed them to relax.
“Tiffany, if you wrinkle your forehead that way, of course you get lines. And no, you don’t need Botox.”
She probably won’t listen. What Tiffany wants, Tiffany gets. After I returned the Ferragamo cap-toe ballerina shoes she decided she didn’t need—I’d spent an hour finding them, finally at Neiman Marcus on Wilshire—I still had to arrange for delivery of the Chantecaille Biodynamic Lifting Cream, at $290 per jar. Tiffany warned me, if I didn’t accomplish all this before her fitting for the Golden Globes next week, she’d lie down on the red carpet and roll herself up in it like a chicken fajita.
Fortunately, I won’t have to put up with Tiffany much longer. In exactly one week, at eight fifty-seven p.m. Central Standard Time, our airplane will touch down in Bloomington, Illinois, where Shannon and I, Judith Collington, will enter a new phase of our lives. Next Friday night, we will officially move into and begin running the Innstead Bed and Breakfast.
But first, I have to inform Tiffany—the last of my clients to receive the news.
I glanced at her nightstand, where several websites were open on her laptop: Today’s Reflexology, Herbal Body Wraps, and one called Benefits of Colon Hydrotherapy.
“Tiffany, there’s something I need to tell you. Please, put down the mirror. Alright, now listen. You know I’ve enjoyed every minute of shopping for you. But Shannon and I have given this a lot of thought, and well, we’ve decided to leave LA.”
She stared at me with her un-Botoxed wrinkled forehead. “Like—exactly what do you mean, leave LA?”
Why does guilt have to grab hold of people at the worst times? I thought I’d be able to do it, but twangs of remorse got wedged in my throat. “What I’m saying is I’m sorry, but you’ll have to make other arrangements for your shopping. Shannon and I are moving. Next week.”
Aside from her acting ability, Tiffany is world-renowned for her three-octave range. “I can’t beleeeeve it! Oh my God, Judith. I’ll be like… so lost without you.”
She must have rehearsed that whine. In an instant, Tiffany was no longer sitting up in bed. She catapulted herself back into the pillows, kicking her feet on the mattress, and shaking her head side-to-side.
Next, I expected green pea soup.
“Calm down. You’ll be fine. Isn’t your mother flying out in a couple of days? Maybe she can help you.”
Tiffany stopped kicking. “But you know everything about me. You know what I like. All my tastes.”
“Your mother will learn.”
Was that a teardrop on her cheek? I handed her the Kleenex box.
Tiffany sat up again, glared at me, and shook her head. “I can’t rely on my assistants, either. They’re ... they’re much too busy,” she said, pitching the Kleenex box across the room.
I’m not a bad person. I obtain no pleasure from witnessing someone’s emotions implode like a high-rise demolition because of news I’ve given them. To be honest, I felt sorry for Tiffany. Still, I could’ve planned things better. And she could have handled it in a more mature manner.
She sniffled again. “Where are you going, anyway?”
I clipped the price tag from Tiffany’s new three hundred dollar sequined tube top, and told her about the historic bed and breakfast, complete with everything from English Ivy creeping up the brick walls to bright, delicate azaleas bordering the wraparound porch. Far from Hollywood. About my plans to take over the operation after the current manager, Mrs. Winnie Walsh, retires. A few years ago, one of my best friends had a small wedding there, and I fell immediately in love with it. And Winnie was as charming as the property, with her little dog, Thumper. Fluffy and petite.
“How can I get you to change your mind?” she asked.
“Sorry, Tiffany. My mind’s made up.”
The plane tickets had been purchased, arrangements had been made with Shannon’s new school, and most of all, I wanted it. Wasn’t that enough?
This really sucks. I wish we didn’t have to move to Illinois. Mom wants me to grow up away from Hollywood. I’m already grown up enough, so I don’t see how this’ll make any difference.
I hate Mom for taking me away from Keenan. I still don’t see why she wouldn’t let me be his girlfriend. I don’t care what she says about actors, Keenan’s not even gonna start shooting until June. Plus, she said he was too old for me, but I’ll be thirteen in a few months, so what’s the problem? Mom thinks just because she “feels” things with her goose bumps, she knows what’s gonna happen before it happens. That’s B.S.
There’s no way she’ll know ahead of time what I’m planning to do.
Phase two for the Collington girls was officially underway. As Shannon and I sat together in first-class, she turned her laptop screen away from my curious eyes. I assumed she was adding to her computer journal. She never lets me see it.
I twisted my upper body to ‘crack’ my spine.
“Mom, I hate it when you do that. I can hear your spine make that—that noise.”
“I’m sorry, I get so cramped in these seats.” My spine has always benefited from a good crrrack. I can be having a rough day, and that little twist can make all the difference.
Shannon opened a folder on her laptop, and I took a peak. In big, bold letters: “REN SPENCER”, with a collage of various pictures. I wish my daughter could find someone else to idolize. I hadn’t mentioned the balcony incident. As arrogant as Ren Spencer had been that day, I’d been successful in forgetting it.
“Shannon, what’s the big deal with Ren Spencer, anyway?”
She stared at the screen, then opened her mouth to speak. Instead, silence.
“Too hard to put into words?” I asked. “I forgot to tell you what happened the other day. He was in my back seat.”
Her eyes got big and her jaw dropped open. “What do you mean?”
“Ren. He needed a ride. I drove him a few blocks.”
“NO. WAY.” Her ordinarily pink cheeks turned rosy red.
Sometimes Shannon has a tough time believing me, even when I’m telling the truth. In this case, it was better she didn’t believe me anyway. Just knowing the love of her life was inside the SUV…
“Why don’t we talk about the Innstead?” I suggested. Shannon closed her mouth and stared at me with one eyebrow raised.
If things go as planned, I’ll be the new owner, anyway. It makes perfect sense for me to try to get Winnie’s nephew, Rick, to sell. According to her, Rick never comes by or even calls to ask how the place is. He owns it on paper, and is otherwise as uninvolved as a honeybee on a silk flower. Who knows? He might even be happy to say good-bye to one more obligation.
“Mom, am I still gonna be able to fly home to see my friends?”
“This isn’t a dictatorship, you know. Of course you can visit your friends… dahlink.” Shannon no longer giggles when I do my funny accents. She used to. Sometimes I do a Southern belle, and occasionally, to tease her, I imitate Ren Spencer, when he played his most famous role as a born-again quarterback from ‘Joisey’.
Reaching into my bag, I pulled out the wallpaper samples. I laid them on my tray table, trying to imagine the bed and breakfast main floor powder room. With the eight samples before me, I picked up each one individually for a closer look. My breathing quickened. My chest and shoulders became tense, trying once more not to crash and burn in a wasteland of hesitation.
“It’s happening again, isn’t it Mom?”
Fortunately, I was able to keep my secret from my clients. I’ve heard of a similar concern with entertainers. They spend their whole lives on stage, then one day they’re inexplicably terrified, unable to leave the dressing room. As far as my clients knew, I had no problem with decisions. I’d never had any difficulty choosing things for others. After all, it’s easier spending someone else’s money. Choosing for myself, well, that was an altogether different issue.
Giving up, I allowed Shannon to select the wallpaper with the raspberry red and butter yellow marigolds. For a nearly thirteen-year-old, my daughter has exceptionally good taste.
Shannon’s mature for her age. Sometimes, I’m afraid she’s growing up too fast, but that’s one reason we left all those LA temptations and negative influences behind. For me, I’ll just be happy to be away from the Hollywood crowd, where we can settle in around ordinary people in a small town atmosphere. People who don’t throw clothing and toiletries from a hotel balcony.
When Mom was sitting next to me on the airplane, I had to be careful. For one thing, she almost saw this journal. I would die if Mom ever saw my stories about Ren. Jasmine and I are totally obsessed with him. Mom doesn’t even know how much. He rules. Also, I hope Jasmine can still come out for my birthday.
Jasmine says when she reads my love stories about Ren, she gets hormonal. Just like I do when I write them. If I ever met Ren Spencer, I would die. And I would die if he ever read my stories! OMG, that would be the most embarrassing thing ever.
Shannon and I had survived our first six days in Illinois. Winnie apologized for the one hundredth time about our suite. The renovations weren’t completed in time, so Shannon and I had to temporarily move into our own separate rooms, across from the guest rooms.
Winnie and I took a few minutes to relax in the bed and breakfast living room. I gazed at the soaring two-story English style lobby, and behind us, a grand staircase reached to the second floor. The Innstead smelled the way I remembered it. I breathed it in, detecting the faint aroma of eucalyptus in a vase, the charm of well-seasoned wood. Winnie seemed genuinely happy to be retiring. When she talked about it, she grinned, exaggerating her crow’s feet and smile lines. Even so, I think she’ll miss running the bed and breakfast.
Winnie had closed all reservations for the week, so Shannon and I could get used to our new surroundings. My daughter was adjusting like a real trooper. I was pleased she’d already made her first school friend, Katie. A few minutes earlier, she’d left to spend a few nights at Katie’s house. The girls had two teacher’s workdays to get to know each other better.
When the Fed Ex man came to the door, I insisted Winnie stay put while I signed for the envelope. Then, I handed it to her.
“Can you please open it for me Judith? Arthritis is flared up today.” Winnie wiggled her wrinkled hands and fingers.
“Sure,” I said.
Once the envelope was opened, I handed it to Winnie. She extracted the contents and a moment later, she chuckled with a nervous peep. She handed me the letter. After reading it, I gave no such nervous laugh.
Instead, I spilled my tea on the table.
Nephew Rick no longer owned the Innstead Bed and Breakfast. The new owner was a corporation called Pigskin Investments, and the CEO would be arriving on the afternoon of the 26th. “Oh my God, Winnie, that’s today.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, frowning. “Why would someone buy a place without seeing it first? Without at least visiting once? Unless Pigskin Investments is the headquarters for one of my guests’ companies.”
“That’s a good question.”
Winnie tried for an hour to get her nephew on the phone, but was only able to leave messages. While waiting, she sat on the living room couch, alternating between twitching her foot, and pinching her chin.
A few moments later, with my back to the door and Winnie in front of me, I leaned forward to straighten a stack of magazines. Suddenly aware my goose bumps were the size of golf balls, I stood up, and Winnie’s eyebrows were scowling at something behind me. In a millisecond, I was facing the opposite direction and staring at the most imposing body builder I’d ever seen. I wasn’t able to look into his eyes until he removed his dark glasses. Asian, I thought, with a smidgen of Schwarzenegger. “Excuse me, I knocked, but no one answered. Is this the Innstead Bed and Breakfast?”
Now, I became the spokesperson. “Yes, it is. I’m Judith Collington. May I help you?” I extended my hand and shook his. His hand swallowed mine. I wondered how I could’ve missed his knock on the door.
“Do you have a vacancy? Two rooms?”
“Wait right here.”
The Asian body builder exited the massive carved wooden door, but left it open, cold air wafting inside. I immediately shivered. Compared to California, the February air felt like a deep freeze.
At the curb out front, the body builder opened the door of a glossy, black SUV with charcoal tinted windows. A tall man clad in a ripped, baggy sweat suit, only partially hidden beneath a leather jacket, heaved himself from the vehicle, as if the mere thought of it exhausted him. He also wore dark glasses. His dingy blonde hair was pulled back in a barely-there pony tail. His chin and jaw were covered with something between new beard and old stubble. I know a hangover when I see one, and this was a nasty one.
The body builder did all the talking. “I need two rooms. And is there a Mrs. Walsh?”
“I’m Mrs. Walsh,” Winnie answered.
The body builder introduced himself as Korea Gold. “Where should I take the luggage?”
I didn’t like the way the body builder was speaking to Winnie, but she was holding her own. “Now just a minute, Mr. Gold,” she said. “I’m closed this week, so I’m afraid you can just get back into your fancy vehicle and head for the Red Roof Inn.”
Pony tail’s head swiveled in too many directions, and he swayed, grabbing the back of a rocking chair, which wasn’t what he needed at the moment.
Then, sudden familiarity hit me like a slap on the back. How could I have missed it? Pony tail wasn’t just some drunk looking for a place to sleep it off. He was my worst nightmare.
My first thought was how could Hollywood be following me out here so soon? My second thought: Shannon will never believe this.
I didn’t want him to know I was aware of his identity.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I interrupted, speaking in my best authoritative voice. “We are expecting our new owner any moment, so I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave. Now, we’ve already explained the bed and breakfast is closed to guests, so if you don’t mind....”
Ren removed his dark glasses, and behind me, Winnie sucked in a quick breath. Now we both knew who he was. While he stared into my eyes, he said the words that made my stomach tie into immediate knots—“Ladies, my name is Ren Spencer, and as CEO of Pigskin Investments, I’m here to claim my property.”
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