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by Toni V. Sweeney
Description: Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll...and Demon Worship At first, it seemed like the screenplay of a romance-- A famous rock star disappears?twenty-five years later, a former fan discovers he's still alive. They fall in love and marry and he takes her to the ranch where he's hidden for a quarter of a century, but there the love story degenerates into a tale of horror? Once Travis Brandt, aka Hildebrand, the most famous singer of the '80s, takes Melissa Powers to his ranch in the Nebraska sandhills, everything takes on a sinister tinge. Travis' assertions as to why his former marriage was destroyed, and his decision to disappear at the height of his career sound false to his new wife, as does his refusal to have children. When Melissa discovers she's pregnant in spite of her husband's careful attempts to prevent it, she learns Travis' secret?a tale of rags-to-riches, the story of a youngster from Nebraska who became the idol of millions, but wanted more; of a young man who bartered his soul to the Powers of Darkness in return for fame. Hildebrand wanted it all and got it, and now Travis, Melissa, and their new family must pay for his sins!
eBook Publisher: Class Act Books, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [386 KB]
Reading time: 232-325 min.
No, no, don't even think that Name.
Lurching to his feet, he grabs the leather jacket lying on the floor and staggers to the door, wrenching it open.
The sun chooses that moment to burst from the water, a blood-red globe escaping from the smothering blackness of the waves, blasting the dark of the sky with purifying fire.
Briefly, he's dazzled by the sunlight. For a moment, he cowers before it, hands held out as if in supplication.
His thoughts are a confused muddle of defiance and pleading.
Welcome, Light of God! Come, sear me, burn me, reduce me to ashes! If only I could be cleansed so easily!
With a shudder, he steps onto the porch and pulls the door shut, locks it and tosses the key into the hedge. Let whoever comes out here hunt for it.
The Testarossa is waiting outside the ornamental metal fence. Usually, the car seeks the sanctuary of the garage, its haven against the salt air that pits the satin of its blood-red hide.
Last night, he didn't care about the 'Rossa's welfare. He skidded it into the fence. There's a deep gash in the right fender, ripping through paint and undercoat, a corresponding bend in the guardian chain-link, a dent in the still opened door.
The headlights are still on. Damn it! Battery's probably dead.
He tosses the jacket inside, turns for a single moment to stare back at the house.
One last look.
Goodbye, cruel world.
God, it's so melodramatic. He can hardly keep from laughing, or is that just the pot finally starting to kick in?
Without warning, the wind blows off the water, bitter with early-morning cold. It swirls around him, whipping his long black hair across his face. One strand tangles in the ring dangling from his left earlobe, ruffles the ends of the beaded headband keeping his hair out of his eyes.
He shrugs and gets into the car.
One more joint for the road? Why the Hell not? So he's smoked--how many?--during the night! One more isn't going to matter. He still isn't high enough to bury the pain.
Or the memories.
He takes a deep breath, sucking in the acrid smoke greedily, and holds it several seconds before letting it trickle out the corner of his mouth. Where to go? What to do? What the fuck does it matter? Who's going to care?
All he wants to do now is escape.
He has the answer.
Digging into the pocket of his jeans, he retrieves a quarter.
What a joke! Eight hundred in bills in his wallet and all he has in his pocket is one miserable, little twenty-five cent piece! Is that irony or what?
Tossing the quarter into the air, he catches it and slaps it onto his wrist, then sits there, one hand clasping the back of the other, suddenly afraid to look.
Heads, he'll drive South, down the Pacific Coast Highway.
There are two hair-pin curves between here and the beach. The early morning fog is rising off the water, creeping over the road. Already it's beginning to hide the cliff edge from sight. In a few minutes, visibility will be absolutely nonexistent.
With this much pot and alcohol in him, he'll never make the first curve. He and the 'Rossa will do a beautiful and momentarily exhilarating swan-dive over the Pacific before smashing onto the rocks below and, with a little luck, what's left will be washed out to sea and oblivion.
But there's always Tails. If he should be that unlucky, he'll head East. Away from here, from this life, and just keep on driving until he runs out of money or gas, whichever comes first.
He takes a deep breath and lifts his hand, and begins to laugh, low, shaky, full of relief.
The back of the coin.
He flips the remains of the blunt out the window, and starts the 'Rossa's engine. The spinning wheels toss sand into the air like an obscene parting gesture as he drives away--past the guard at the gate, flicking a finger in greeting and farewell--though the man doesn't know it yet.
Out of the Dream Factory and its make-believe life....
...but not its memory.
* * * *
ABOARD THE CRUISE SHIP CIRCE, BOUND FOR SANTA YSABEL ISLAND IN THE ATLANTIC
* * * *
About two o'clock that afternoon, Melissa realized someone was following her.
She noticed the man shortly after coming on board the Circe, both in the rush of passengers going up the gangplank and again at breakfast the next morning.
He'd been very visible at the mixer later that afternoon; when they started playing those silly games to help everyone get acquainted, he disappeared. Later on, as she was in the gift shop buying a souvenir for Peg, she saw him standing outside. When she exited the shop, he was gone.
At dinner, he was sitting at a table near hers and twice when she glanced his way, he looked away quickly. He'd been watching her, she was certain of it.
In spite of this, she wasn't worried. After all, she was on an ocean liner and bound to see the same people quite regularly for the next three weeks. No need to get upset because she had seen one person three times in the space of a few hours--but when she stepped onto the sundeck, she saw him again, only a few feet away.
He leaned against the railing, his back to the ocean and looked straight at her.
No doubt about it this time.
For an instant, it was a confrontation. He didn't look away and neither did she. Almost as if he were daring her to speak to him.
She felt slightly irritated at his boldness and also a little embarrassed at the way he stared at the skimpy bathing suit Peggy insisted she buy. It left little to the imagination and though Melissa would be the first to admit she looked damned good for a woman her age, at this moment, she thought perhaps she should have gotten something designed a little more for the mature figure.
Forcing herself to look away from the stranger's steady gaze, she removed her wrap a little self-consciously, trying to act as if she didn't care that he watched her. Like it happened all the time. Total strangers staring at her as if she were a chocolate bonbon and they'd just been put on a permanent no-candy diet.
After all, that's what this particular garment is supposed to do, isn't it? Make men stare?
Okay, I admit it! She did feel a slight flutter of excitement knowing that she could interest a total stranger so. Still--
Make up your mind, Melissa. Are you insulted or flattered?
Settling into the lounger, she leaned back and put on her sunglasses. Behind the dark shelter of the lenses, she studied him just as intently as he was watching her.
She liked what she saw, too.
He was tall but not a giant. Well, she certainly liked that. She'd had enough neck aches from dating basketball players when she was younger. Dark, longish hair, a trifle windblown. Just a sprinkling of pepper-and-salt at the temples. The suggestion of a five o'clock shadow on cheeks and chin. About her age, maybe a little older. Too far away for her to see the color of his eyes.
She turned her attention to his clothes.
He wore a light-knit, blue pullover, expensive-looking in its casualness, just right for a cool ocean breeze but not too warm for tropical sunshine. In the vee of the neck, she saw the open collar of a pale blue shirt. Dark slacks-- What's this? With flared legs? Her gaze traveled to his feet and she allowed herself a slight smile.
He was wearing cowboy boots!
Well, well--here I am, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I'm being stalked by a cowboy. Howdy, podnuh!
Maybe he wasn't really there. Perhaps he was merely a figment of her suppressed libido or something. That's a tantalizing thought! Or a really weird side effect of sea-sickness! Although she wasn't feeling the least bit queasy or dizzy or however you were supposed to feel with mal-de-mer.
There was only one way to find out.
"Excuse me." She leaned over and touched the arm of the sun-suited grandmother sitting in the deck chair next to hers.
The woman turned her attention from tying the ribbons of the huge straw hat she was wearing and looked at Melissa inquiringly.
"Do you see that man over there, the one wearing the blue sweater?" She nodded in his direction.
The woman looked toward the railing, picked up the eyeglasses hanging from a golden chain against her ample bosom. Setting them on her nose, she peered directly at the man.
Under her scrutiny, he turned away, becoming very interested in looking across the water.
"Why, yes, yes, I do." She waited for Melissa to say something more.
"Good!" Melissa smiled and pulled a bottle of lotion from her carry-call. At least she wasn't imagining him.
Giving her a puzzled, suspicious stare, as if wondering if a joke was being played on her, the woman shook her head and picked up the book lying in her lap.
Melissa spread the lotion down one slim arm.
Let him stare. She wasn't going to let it spoil her vacation. If he got too bothersome, she'd just call a steward or the captain or someone and have him tossed into the brig, or wherever it was they confined pests on board ship.
Having decided this, she closed her eyes and leaned back, feeling the sun upon her face and mentally reminding herself not to stay on deck too long. Being blonde and very fair, she was well aware of the dangers of too much sunshine and didn't intend to ruin her vacation before it started by getting a sunburn.
Ten minutes on a side, and I'll be well-done.
When she opened her eyes again, the man was gone.
Got tired of waiting, hmm? Shrugging, she gathered her things and went inside.
* * * *
It was nearly seven o'clock by the time she showered and changed into another of her new outfits. Peg had helped pick out this one also, a pink dinner dress with a pencil skirt, bustier top, and a short-sleeved, double-breasted jacket.
Twisting the long blonde hair into a roll, she pinned it high on the back of her head, then stared at her reflection and wondered aloud, "Supposed Mr. Mysterious will like it?"
She didn't doubt he'd be somewhere nearby.
* * * *
As she looked up from the menu, she saw him sitting four tables away near the little landing leading to the entrance.
He caught her glance and raised his wine glass and, on a sudden impulse, Melissa picked up her own. What harm can it do? Now that we've admitted we're aware of each other? She nodded slightly, acknowledging his gesture.
Abruptly, she wondered if it had been a mistake, for now he was gesturing to a steward, saying something that sent the man hurrying toward her table.
Melissa focused on the menu, becoming very interested in the soups du jour. Let's see--cream of roasted garlic...sundried tomato minestrone....
The waiter arrived at her table.
Melissa continued to read the menu, progressing to the entrees.
"Excuse me, Miss?"
"Yes?" She looked up as if unaware until that moment that he was standing there.
"The gentleman at table number six asks if he might buy you a cocktail."
She looked past him to number six. He was smiling as if secretly amused.
Now, she understood. The raised wineglass was a question and by lifting her own, she'd replied.
Oh, darn! I'm just not up on all this modern flirtation business! Now, he'd probably expect her to tell the waiter to ask him to come to her table.
"Would you tell the gentleman, Mr.--uh--"
"Brandt," the steward supplied.
"--Brandt, that I'm not much of a drinker and I've already had one cocktail more than my limit, which is also one." Why am I going into so much detail? A simple "No" would do.
The steward bowed and turned away.
He stopped and looked back.
"Thank him for me, please."
She saw him repeat the message to Mr. Brandt. There was a slight shrug of the broad shoulders, the look he turned toward her suggesting he'd expected just that answer.
So much for that. He'll probably start following someone else now. She felt a surprising twinge of regret. It had been a little flattering. You can't have it both ways, Melissa. Either you want to be followed or you don't. God, when did you get so wishy-washy?
Sometimes she wished she could be a little more outgoing. Peg always told her she was too shy, should be more modern in her approach to men:
"After all, Mel, this is the Century of Equal Rights, Women's Lib, the Patch--"
"--herpes, AIDs," Melissa finished for her. "No, thanks!"
The waiter distracted her from this mental rehash by appearing with her order, a fantastic concoction of chicken roasted with wine-basted truffles, totally delicious and terminally calorie-laden.
I don't care, she thought rebelliously, picking up her fork. This is my vacation and I'm going to eat whatever I want.
She didn't have to worry. Melissa was one of the lucky few who burned calories as fast as she consumed them, unlike poor Peg who was more than a little on the plump side and only had to look at food to gain weight.
She savored every mouthful.
Soon, the waiter brought the dessert tray.
Melissa glanced past the assorted sweets to the other table.
It was empty.
Her earlier thoughts confirmed, she turned her attention back to the desserts. Fresh raspberries with cream, cheesecake, strawberry tart. Which to choose? Which delectable confection to treat her sweet tooth?
"The Grand Marnier."
She looked around.
There he was, not two feet away, drink and cigarette in hand, so close she could have reached out and touched the sleeve of the pearl-gray Western-cut dinner jacket, and she hadn't even heard his approach. Those cowboy boots could certainly move quietly!
"I beg your pardon?" It came out icy and aloof, totally insulted Southern womanhood, each word dripping with frost. Her reply was automatic, a defense taught from adolescence against unwanted advances, and not what she intended. She really hadn't understood.
"The cheesecake," he explained, apparently not affected by her temperature-lowering manner. "It's made with Grand Marnier. That's a cognac-based orange liqueur. It's not as over-powering as the usual kind."
"All right. I'll take that."
The waiter bowed and whisked the cart away.
Her stalker, however, still stood there, and other than ignoring him completely--and Melissa was too well-mannered to do that--she'd have to talk to him.
"Please, would you like to sit down?" She said it graciously, gesturing toward the other chair.
"As a matter of fact, I would!" He settled across from her, putting down his drink. His accent was definitely mid-Western.
Almost immediately, the waiter returned, taking away his empty glass as he ordered another.
She knew enough to recognize that as a whisky-based Scottish liqueur. Surely, that wasn't what had been in the wineglass.
He looked at her. "And the lady will have--no, you've already had more than your quota for tonight, haven't you?"
His eyes were hazel, fringed by the thickest lashes she'd ever seen on a man. Briefly, thinking of her own artificially-darkened brows, Melissa felt a stab of envy. At the moment, those eyes appeared very amused.
"Oh, I think I would like another." Her answer held a little defiance, as if rising to his unspoken challenge. "That is, if your offer's still good."
He made an acquiescing gesture with one hand, and she said to the waiter, "A Tom Collins, please."
Oh, God--how prim and proper that sounds. He obviously thought so, too, if the way his eyebrows went up indicated.
"Tom Collins? I would have thought a Shirley Temple or a Virgin Mary!" Somehow he even made that sound slightly suggestive. "Of course, I guess a Collins is as close as you can get and still have it alcoholic."
He was laughing at her now, and not trying to hide it. His mouth was wide and generous, a mouth easy to smile...or to kiss. Where had that thought come from?
"What did you expect me to order? Whiskey, straight up?" Melissa softened her quick retort with a smile.
"That would have been a surprise. I take it you're not a two-fisted drinker?"
"Far from it. A little wine at Christmas, on birthdays, that's about as much as I ever drink."
"Watch out you don't get tipsy, then." The hazel eyes still laughed although he managed to look serious.
Tipsy. Such a theatrical word. It conjured up visions of little old ladies in black lace gowns. Aunt Pitty-Pat from Gone with the Wind.
"By the way," he held out his hand. "I'm Travis Brandt."
"Melissa Powers." She leaned forward and placed her own in it.
A large hand, but not awkward, fingers long and tanned. A working hand. She felt calluses on the palm. He pressed her fingers lightly, then released them.
Is he really a cowboy? Did that roughness come from holding reins, roping steers? Frowning, she studied him intently. "This is going to sound silly, but-- Do I know you, Mr. Brandt? Have we met before?"
"Hey--that's supposed to be my line." He shook his head in mock wonder. "My, how times have changed! No, Miss Powers. It is "Miss" isn't it?"
"Frankly, I find that amazing."
"That you're still Miss Powers. What's the matter with the men back home? Are they all blind or something?" and before she could reply to that surprising question, he went on, "I don't think we've ever met, until now. Although I wish we had."
"You look very familiar," she persisted.
"Oh, that!" He made a vague gesture with the hand holding the cigarette, then stubbed it out in the ashtray. "You've probably seen someone like me on TV. On some Late Night Movie. I'm always being mistaken for one long-faded matinee idol or another."
His expression , both ironic and self-belittling, assured her he was joking, making Melissa smile in return.
"Of course." She dismissed his statement with a humoring shake of her head, mentally admitting he certainly did have movie star looks, in a dark and mature way. Romantic, perhaps just a little...haunted...with those near-black brows and the thick lashes momentarily shading his eyes. "Next question, Mr. Brandt. Why have you been following me?"
One of Melissa's problems. She always got right to the point. No beating around the bush. No playing little games.
"I was pretty obvious, wasn't I?" He ducked his head as if a little ashamed.
"I'm afraid so." She was beginning to like him, and that alternately brash-shy attitude.
"Well, I was walking along the deck when I saw this pretty--no, this beautiful woman--and I decided I wanted to meet her, but I just couldn't get up enough nerve to walk up to her and introduce myself."
"You must not have wanted to meet me very badly. You didn't stick around for the mixer."
"I never was one for party games, or any other kind, for that matter."
Well, that's blunt enough.
"So you decided to follow me?" She couldn't believe he was that shy. Of course, just because he was so good-looking didn't mean he was a lady-killer.
"'Fraid so." He took a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, opened it and asked, "Do you mind?"
"No, go ahead." She didn't mention that he hadn't asked if she minded his cigarette when he sat down and got out his lighter. "Tell me, Mr. Brandt, where are you from? I mean--the cowboy boots, that jacket--you definitely don't hail from anywhere near my side of the world."
He blew the smoke away from her before he answered.
"I'm from Nebraska, a little town called Sonderlind, in the panhandle."
"I thought the panhandle was in Texas." So he's a real cowboy. Yes, she could definitely see him in chaps and sombrero a la John Wayne. Strong and silent. Yep, nope, aw shucks, ma'am.
"That's the other one. I've got a ranch there. Raise quarter horses."
"What do you do with the other three-fourths?"
For the briefest instant, he looked puzzled before breaking into laughter. "That was awful!"
"Sorry." She didn't look apologetic at all.
At that point, the waiter brought their drinks, and Melissa took a sip of her Collins before saying, "I'm afraid I'm geographically ignorant. Where's the panhandle?"
"In the western part. A place called the Sand Hills."
"Is it near any city I might recognize?" She set down the glass and leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands folded together with her chin resting upon them, a coquettish little pose that was completely unintentional, although its charm wasn't lost on the man opposite her.
"Ever hear of Alliance?"
"Ogallala?" She shook her head. "North Platte...Lincoln...Omaha?"
"Omaha! Now there's one I've heard of before."
"Then you've got a head start on the rest of the world. Sometimes I think Nebraska is the Undiscovered Country."
"What's someone from Nebraska doing on an ocean liner? Vacation? Business?"
"Convalescence." As she let her surprise show, he began to explain, "I got sick this past winter. Nebraska weather's a fickle thing, Miss Powers. The sun was shining and we were bringing in the horses--all four-fourths of them--when it started to blizzard. One of the mares had an early foal and he was too weak to walk. When she saw me trying to get the little guy across my saddle, she panicked."
"Boss! Look out!
Max's cry had been the first hint of danger. Then the mare's heavy body hit his horse's side. With a smothered grunt, it staggered, attempted to right itself, and, overbalanced by the combined weight of rider and foal, toppled into the icy water.
He sighed slightly, as if telling the story exhausted him.
"I got out, rescued the foal and remounted, but by the time we got back to the ranch, the legs of my jeans were frozen and there were icicles hanging off my stirrups." He paused to flick the cigarette at the ashtray. "To make a long story short, I got a roaring case of double pneumonia and spent the next four months in the Sonderlind Community Hospital with an oxygen tube stuck up my nose. After I was dismissed, my foreman and the doctor ganged up on me and told me I had to get away from the ranch completely for at least another month. Go somewhere warm and pleasant and not think about horses at all."
He didn't add that Max had given him more explicit instructions. Find yourself a beautiful woman, Boss, and get laid.
"How about you?" As he stubbed out the cigarette, the smoke curled upward in a single, thready spiral. "I hope you're not a convalescent, too?"
"You're from Georgia, aren't you?"
"Why, yes. Savannah. I guess it's obvious, isn't it? My accent, I mean."
"I've got a pretty good ear for accents, although yours isn't as thick as some I've heard."
She decided to take that as a left-handed complement.
"I'm a librarian. I...well, my mother died recently, and--I lived with her. The typical spinster-daughter story. My best friend suggested I get away for a while, to help me adjust to Mama being gone."
"I'm sorry." He sounded as if he really meant it. She wondered if he'd recently lost someone, too.
"Don't be. Mama wasn't the kind to want people to mourn too long. She was more like a big sister, really. She was only sixteen years older than I. One of those early Southern marriages." With dismay, she realized she was rambling.
She wasn't usually this frank about her private life, especially when talking to strangers, but somehow, she couldn't stop. It was as if she wanted him to know everything about her as quickly as possible. Abruptly, her entire face felt warm.
"You're very pretty when you blush. Did you know that?"
Now, she was embarrassed.
"I don't generally talk so much, because if I do, I usually end up telling more than I mean to. My friend Peg says I should learn to lie a little."
"Don't be ashamed of telling the truth. Sometimes it's best to be blunt rather than let it stay hidden and hurt you. There are times when I wish I had. How did it happen?"
She had to think a moment before she understood his question.
"S-she was coming back from a Golden Singles dance and lost control of her car and hit a tree. Bye-bye, Mom." She blinked quickly, picked up her purse and searched in it, producing a tiny white lace square. "Excuse me, got something in my contact."
He didn't answer, allowing her to think she had fooled him with that old excuse, and while she wiped her eyes, he took out another cigarette and lit it.
"Say, you're really a chain-smoker, aren't you? All that smoke can't be good for someone who's recovering from pneumonia."
"It's probably not, but it's the only habit I can't break." He set the cigarette in the ashtray and picked up his glass again. For just a moment his eyes met hers in a frank stare. "Booze, women, drugs, those were easy to let go, but cigarettes--"
He shook his head.
She wasn't certain whether he was teasing or not. The off-handed way he said it held a ring of truth.
The waiter brought her dessert, a beautiful wedge of cheesecake with three perfect sections of tangerine adorning the top, and Melissa began to eat, agreeing that Mr. Brandt's assessment had been correct. The cheesecake wasn't as rich as she found most to be. She usually couldn't eat more than two bites before feeling full, but this slice? She intended to devour it completely.
"It's the Grand Marnier. Gives it a more mellow taste," he explained. "But you have to watch it. It also has more calories."
He raised the cigarette to his mouth, tilting his head back slightly, and Melissa frowned.
That gesture. It's so familiar.
He blew the smoke into the air.
As it swirled about his head, that disturbing sense of familiarity returned. I've seen him before. I'm certain. A younger face, hair much, much longer and less tamed. There was a memory of burning, haunted eyes, and fog whirling about him like white wings.
"Oh, my God!"
She dropped her fork. It clattered against the dessert plate and bounced onto the tablecloth, the morsel of cheesecake dropping onto the floor. At a nearby table, a couple looked toward the sound.
The most famous actor of the 80's, raising the horror movie to a fine art, before turning the most financially successful acting career in the history of Hollywood into an equally profitable one as a rock star, and then, in 1988, disappearing... Completely. Totally. Without a trace.
He looked uncomfortable. No, more than that.
My God, he's terrified!
It should have been ridiculous. She'd never seen such an expression on a grown man's face before. His skin had lost its tan, becoming alarmingly pale.
"Yes." His voice was low, as if he were admitting something shameful. For just a moment, his gaze shifted toward the floor. "I was."
Melissa retrieved the fork, digging into the cheesecake again. Taking a bite, she chewed, swallowed, and forced herself to say carelessly, as if she met supposedly long-dead movie stars every day, "Don't worry, I'm not going to scream and faint or anything."
"Thank God for that, anyway." He looked a little calmer, now. At least his color was back to normal.
"Although--" she went on, eating another bite of cake. "Since I was one of your biggest fans--if not the biggest--it's going to be difficult. My God, this is like running into Elvis in the supermarket or something!"
"Not so loud. Please."
"But it is. I mean, Hildrebrand was declared dead in 1995 and now--"
"He is dead," he interrupted. "He died on July 15, 1986."
He said it with an odd determination, as if stating it so flatly would make it true and refute the fact that he was sitting across from her, very much alive.
What had happened on July 15, 1986? Melissa's memory supplied nothing.
"Unfortunately, it took him another two years and one month to accept the fact."
"Well, I, for one, really missed him...you... I've seen every one of your movies."
"All eight of them?" He sounded amused. "On television, you mean."
"Of course not. Three of them have never been released to TV. I mean in person--at the theater."
"You couldn't have." He shook his head, puffing on the cigarette and unconsciously evoking a similar scene of denial from his second film, The Hunt. She could see it clearly. The young psychopath disavowing his crimes. "You're not old enough."
"I'm as old as you are."
He winced slightly. "I'm fifty-one."
"Well, not quite that old. I'm forty-one, and I can name them all, and the year each was made."
She couldn't know that he'd never understood his fans, found their so-called adoration, idiotic and completely boring, and, paradoxically, a little frightening, and Melissa would have been dismayed if she could have heard Travis' thoughts. Please, God, don't let Melissa be like that. Don't let Hildebrand spoil her for me, too!
"I guess you don't want to hear that." Melissa interrupted his tangled thoughts. "You probably got tired of that sort of thing. Is that why you ran away?"
She didn't wait for an answer, took another bite of cheesecake and went on, using her fork to punctuate what she was saying.
"I used to pretend that we were dating a-and I'd dream up all sorts of conversations for us to have, and now, I'm not going to repeat any of them."
Silently, he thanked her for that decision.
"I'm not really like my screen character, I assure you." He said it earnestly. "As you can see, I'm barely articulate. Hildebrand--and Damien--had three writers, all Oscar winners, to put words into their mouths."
That statement made Melissa frown. She couldn't know that he'd always referred to his screen image as it if were another being, a separate entity from himself. In reality, Hildebrand--dark, sensual, dangerous--was nothing like the youngster from Nebraska from whom he had evolved, but for a period of nine short years, the actor and his screen persona the vampire Damien, had seduced the heart of every American female over the age of twelve, and a good many in Europe, also, and that was before he turned to rock and roll.
"I think you're doing pretty well." She speared another piece of cheesecake. "Why do you say it like that? Hildebrand. As if he's another person?"
"Because he was. In a way. Hildebrand wouldn't have followed you because he didn't know how to start a conversation. Do you know how much courage it took for me to walk over here tonight?"
She shook her head.
"Hildebrand wouldn't have been so timid. He'd have waited outside and when you came on deck, would simply have pounced."
The way he said it sent a sudden shiver trickling down her spine.
"I'm sorry to act like a fan but, every few years, on the anniversary of your disappearance, they run one of those Whatever Happened to Hildebrand? Specials. Well, now I know where you've been. My question is why?"
For a moment, he didn't answer, finished the cigarette and unconsciously reached for a fourth, thought better of it and stopped, replacing the pack in his pocket.
"Come on," she urged. "Inquiring minds want to know."
"If you're really the fan you say you are, Melissa, you know that when I went to Hollywood, I was married."
"Yes, you were married to Kassandra Morgan."
A blurb from a news article popped into Melissa mind: Kassandra Morgan, accompanying her college student husband to California, becoming a singer in her own right, with one gold and five platinum records to her credit.
"I also know that, seven years later, you were divorced... Oh, my God! August 15, 1986--" Unexpectedly, the memory surfaced. "That was the day the divorce became final."
"That's right." It was as if he were admitting a shameful secret, although the fact had been common knowledge, supplying movie magazines and tabloids a subject for many issues, in fact.
Again he made that one-handed wave, but this time it was a slightly helpless gesture as if the reasons were too difficult to explain.
"I...We...Kassie and I had been married four years when we went to California."
Melissa did some rapid mental calculation. He'd been married at eighteen then, right out of high school.
"We decided to delay having a family until we graduated from college. Then, I was discovered," his laugh was a short, deprecating sound, "and, soon after, so was she! When the money started rolling in, she decided she was going to drop her own career and start being just a wife and mother. Well, I was at a point in my life when I didn't want to settle down, didn't want responsibility like that. In fact, I'd decided I didn't want a family at all. I mean--rug rats, ankle-biters, who needs that? Why spoil a good thing?"
Melissa didn't answer. The look on his face belied what he was saying.
"One thing led to another and it ended with her telling me that if I didn't want children, she'd find someone who did. End of marriage, end of story."
"And you let that ruin your career?" Something wasn't right. He wasn't telling her everything. If only she could remember the magazine stories and just what that something was. "Why? Other stars have gotten divorces, some of them dozens of times, and they've survived."
"They weren't married to Kassie," he answered. "Everything I did--going to Hollywood, becoming Hildebrand, starting the rock band, was for her, to provide for her, and make certain she never wanted for anything."
Travis Brandt, the thought came to Melissa with a twinge of dismay, even at this late date, you're carrying an Olympic-sized torch for your ex.
Picking up his glass, he finished the remains of the Drambuie before he went on.
"Anyway, she went through two more marriages before she found the man she wanted. They've been together ten years now and have four kids. I guess it's going to last!"He laughed, a little sadly.
"And me, what?"
"Did you find someone else?" She couldn't remember the newspaper making any mention of future liaisons after the divorce.
"Nope. Not ever."
The waiter appeared at the table. "Excuse me, Miss...Sir?"
They both looked at him.
"The dining room will be closing in ten minutes, although the bar will remain open."
"Goodness! What time is it?" Melissa looked at her watch. The tiny digital face announced that it was one o'clock. She stood up, picking up her purse. "I hadn't realized it was so late." She held out her hand. "Thank you for a most interesting evening, Mr. Brandt."
He clasped her hand but didn't release it and suddenly, she didn't want him to let go. Didn't want this cowboy riding off into the sunset.
"What I wouldn't give for just one scriptwriter right now."
The hazel eyes looked into hers with that disconcerting Hildebrand stare.
"What do you mean?"
"How do I tell a beautiful lady that I'd like to go to bed with her?"
The smile faded--in surprise, and just a little shock--then lit up again.
"I think you just did."
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