Catch a Falling Star (Second Chances Book 3) (10 page)

She turned him so he could slump to sit on the bed instead of missing and falling to the floor. “I’ll start the process along, at least.”

She unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it out of his jeans, revealing a plain black t-shirt, then undid his jeans. He fell back when she pushed him—half for dramatic effect, as opposed to genuinely not being able to stay upright. She bent over to slip off his shoes, then lifted his legs and rolled them onto the bed.

“Remind me to hire you as my nurse if I ever end up quadriplegic,” he mumbled.

Before Jo could finish chuckling over the comment, he pressed his face into the pillow and let out a long, heavy breath, falling asleep. She made certain he was as comfortable as he was going to get before tip-toeing out of the room, clicking the lights off and shutting the door as she went. Someone was going to have one hell of a headache in the morning.

Unfortunately, that someone was her.

She sighed as she crossed the hall to her bedroom. 4:35am. There was no point in trying to get back to sleep now, even though there were hours of darkness left. At least she could try to get some work done before dawn and the return of real life. She went to her closet to pull out clean clothes, tossing them on the bed, then heading for the bathroom attached to her bedroom.

What the hell have you gotten yourself into?
she asked as she turned on the shower. Writer’s block, irrational crushes, and a large, sexy—although admittedly not right now—man in her house who she felt responsible for. And the sun wasn’t even up yet.

 

To say Ben had a bad feeling when he woke up—cold, bright light streaming through open curtains in two windows on one side of the room—was an understatement. He had about a dozen kinds of bad feelings. His head throbbed, his body ached, and his mouth tasted like shit-flavored cotton. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

It took a supreme effort of will to push himself into a sitting position. He had one arm still halfway in the sleeve of his rumpled button-down, and his jeans were tangled around his ankles. He blinked at his state of undress, then rubbed a hand over his face. Jo had tried to help him undress.

Because he hadn’t been able to manage it on his own.

He’d shown up on her doorstep in the middle of the night—shit-faced—and puked in her bathroom.

“Way to make an impression, Benjamin,” he mumbled. Even that quiet complaint sent his throat and head pounding.

He sent one more, fond look at the pillow where he’d been passed out for who knew how long. It would be easy to crawl under the covers and hide for the rest of his life. But no, the time for self-pity and wallowing in misery was over. He had a hell of a lot of making up to Jo to do, and that started with dragging his sorry ass out of bed and—

Ben groaned as he tugged his jeans up and scooted to the side of the bed to stand. Somehow he’d grown new muscles in his inebriated state, and every one of them was on fire. He managed to pull his jeans up over his hips and fasten them, but instead of sorting his button-down shirt out, he yanked it off and tossed it on the bed. Good manners dictated that he should make the bed he’d just slept in, but the task was so far beyond him that it wasn’t funny.

He should find Jo, first and foremost. His fuzzy memory of the night before told him he’d apologized a few times, but he needed to do it sober. Squinting, one hand pressed to his forehead, he scooped his coat up off the foot of the bed and tossed it around his shoulders. The house wasn’t exactly cold, but it wasn’t t-shirt temperature either. He pushed his feet into his shoes, then stumbled to the door and out into the hall.

It only took a few steps before his stinging eyes flew wide at the house he found himself in. Spying online at the exterior was one thing, but the inside was beyond his expectations. It had the feeling of another time. The ceilings were high, and the molding and fixtures had an almost art deco feel to them, maybe earlier. The staircase—which he vaguely remembered being pushed up the night before—was made of soft, worn wood, the footsteps of a hundred years worn into indents.

At the bottom of the stairs, he was faced with a long hallway that led to the back of the house. He remembered enough to know that the kitchen was off to his right and the bathroom he’d desecrated was behind him to his left, but what lay ahead of him was a complete unknown.

That unknown turned out to be the most magnificent living room—recessed by a few steps and carpeted with a rug that was as big as the entire floorplan of the house he’d grown up in—that he’d ever seen. The furniture was old and comfy-looking as well. A massive fireplace stood at one end, its mantel lined with framed, black and white family photos. To top it all off, a rustic chandelier hug from the center of the room.

“I’ve stepped into an episode of
Second Chances
,” Ben mused. He regretted speaking as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

It was true, though. While half of each episode of
Second Chances
was set in a modern-day nursing home, the other half took place in the past—usually the thirties, forties, and fifties. Jo’s house looked like one of those sets. The natural lighting spilling in from floor-to-ceiling windows that lifted to a point—almost like a church—was perfect for filming.

Curiosity drew him on through the room. At the far end was another hall. Several smaller rooms let off of that, along with a doorway down a short corridor to his right. He followed that, remembering the aerial view he’d seen of the house, and came to an outside door. That door let out onto the flagstone patio, covered in a dusting of half-melted snow. A scattering of Adirondack chairs was all that filled the space, although if Jo and her brother were at all aware of the gem they had in the patio, there was likely more in the summer.

But it was the view that froze him in his spot, jaw dropping. Never mind the fact that the sunlight on the snow caused his head to split with pain, some things were too magnificent not to see. Ben had been vaguely aware of driving up a hill to reach the house the night before, but the sloping hillside off the back of the house spread out into a wide, winter vista of sugar-coated pine trees and dazzling blue sky. Deep greens and browns peeked out from their snowy coats, forming sharp lines and hazy shadows.

In spite of the pain that threatened to swallow Ben whole—physical and otherwise—he shuffled to one of the Adirondacks, hugging his coat around him, and sank into the chair. Icy cold as the morning was, he closed his eyes and breathed it in, melding with the chair’s frozen wood as every muscle in his body relaxed.

Strange, foreign sounds whispered in his ears—the song of birds echoing in the trees, the creak of branches swaying in a gentle breeze, the murmur of the wind as it caressed the snowy hills. It was a riot of sound, and yet it was silence. No cars, no construction. No chatter and vicious laughter. The drawl of venomous questions was gone, and the high-pitched whine of industry sharks, hungry for a story, a part, a leg up, vanished.

He opened his eyes. The stunning wilderness vista was still there, untouched, brilliant. It hurt, but still he looked. A large shadow moved between the trees within a clear line of sight, easily half a mile away. It stepped into the sun. A moose.

Ben’s gasp caught in his chest. He thought he might laugh. He thought he might cry. Twenty-four hours ago, his world had come crashing to a stop because of the malicious minds of two men determined to tear everyone down for a few bucks. Now, his biggest problems were the cold seeping through his coat and a moose half a mile away.

He closed his eyes again, resting his head against the back of the chair, as if he were lounging on the beach in the middle of August. So this is what life after death felt like.

He wasn’t sure if it was minutes or hours later when he heard the side door open.

“Ben? Are you okay?” Jo asked, soft with concern.

“I’m fine,” he said, his voice rumbling low in his throat.

He heard the door shut and footsteps come toward him. “Because it’s twenty-seven degrees out here. You’re looking a little pink. I don’t think that coat’s doing much for you.”

He opened one eye to peek up at her. Jo had dark circles under her eyes, but her cheeks were rosy. She wore a thick sweater that looked hand-knit, and loose jeans. Not like the ones she’d been wearing at the coffee shop and not wearing in his bedroom. She was still beautiful.

He shut his eyes and faced forward. “My head is pounding, the parts of me that aren’t frozen are aching, my career has just fallen off a cliff, and I’ve made a colossal fool of myself in front of the one person who I thought to turn to for help. I’m pretty sure I deserve to sit out here and freeze to death.”

There was a pause, then Jo tumbled into laughter. It was the gentlest, happiest sound he’d ever heard.

“Come on.” She extended a hand to him, and villain that he was, he took it and let her help him to his feet. She even snaked an arm around his back and hugged him close as she walked him back inside. “Yes, you made a fool of yourself, and maybe your career took a hit, but I’ve got coffee inside, and we still have some of the bread that Nick made the other day.”

Food. Good idea or bad idea? He’d better eat and find out.

As it happened, food was a brilliant idea, especially the homemade soup Jo heated up for him. He was about to make a crack about soup for breakfast when he noticed the clock over the kitchen stove read 11:56am.

“I hope you were able to get back to sleep after you tucked me in,” he said, savoring a spoonful.

“No.” she looked down, scratching at the tabletop. “I wasn’t sleeping well last night anyhow. This book is keeping me up nights.”

The way she avoided looking directly at him sent a knife of guilt through Ben’s gut. He had kept her up too. “What’s the book about?” he said to deflect his part in the whole fiasco.

She met his eyes with a sharpness that said she was on to the fact that he was on to her. Good. One less thing to discuss openly and make him feel like a tool.

“I wish I knew.” She flopped back in her chair, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’ve written about eight first chapters in the last few days, but nothing is sticking.”

He frowned. “Is that usual?”

“No.” She took in a breath. “So did you leave New York because you’re afraid to show your face after all those stories about those people and the awards?”

Damn.

He shook his head, deserving every stab of pain it caused. “I left New York because I was beyond drunk and must have given the cabbie your address.”

Because it had been the only safe place he could think of at the time.

She didn’t believe him. “Did you do it?”

He forced himself to meet her eyes. “I did not share any sensitive information about anyone I may or may not have slept with. With the Feds or with anyone else.” She continued to stare at him. He could feel himself shrinking by the second. “I am nothing if not discreet.”

She didn’t trust him. That much was written all over her face. And yet, seeing that killed something tender and hopeful inside of him. What would it take to win back her trust? He would do anything—
anything
—to have Josephine Burkhart, Romance Novelist, trust him again.

As if in answer to a prayer, she smiled and reached out to squeeze his hand. “As my mom always used to say, this too shall pass.”

Yep. He would do anything for her. That included murder and community theater.

“So this is our mystery guest?”

Ben’s warm, fuzzy, and far too vulnerable mood was popped by the broad-shouldered man with long hair and a beard who sauntered into the room.

Jo got up. “Ben, this is my brother, Nick. Nick, this is Benjamin Paul. Be nice.”

“As if I would be mean?” Nick shot a teasing look to Jo, who returned it with a sisterly scowl. Nick chuckled, then stepped over to the table and held a hand out. “Hi. I’m Nick.”

“A pleasure.” Ben took the offered hand, making sure to put some strength into his grip. No sense giving Jo’s brother the idea that he was a loser. Although these days, most media outlets would tell him that much.

“Hey, Nick,” Jo started, tipping her head to the side. “Do you think you could loan Ben some clothes?” She turned to Ben. “I noticed that you didn’t have any luggage with you, or if you did, that cabbie has it now.”

“Sure,” Nick agreed readily. “I’ll take you up and show you what I’ve got.”

“Any cast-offs you’re willing to throw my way will be fine.” Ben stood and followed Jo’s brother as he started out of the kitchen.

“You can use my bathroom to clean up too,” Nick went on. “I’ve got a few disposable razors in the medicine cabinet, if you can stand to use one of those.”

“I’m sure anything will work.”

As soon as they were out of Jo’s sight, Nick rounded on him, backing him a few steps toward the wall.

“I don’t know who you are, other than a big shot director,” he said, full of outright threat, “but if you cause my sister any trouble or hurt her in any way, I’ll tear your balls off.”

Ben blinked. There was nothing like being threatened with castration while still suffering the effects of a hangover brought on by career implosion.

“Sorry,” he drawled. “My balls were torn off yesterday. You’ll have to check with 42
nd
street if you want to find them to tear off again.”

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