"Then you’re lucky. My brother sits in jail for his attempt to take my life."
That unexpected bit hit her hard. "What?"
"You heard me." His voice broke even though she saw no emotion except anger in his expression. "Didn’t you read about it in the papers? For six months, I couldn’t watch TV without seeing his face staring at me from his mug shot."
Since she couldn’t explain why she hadn’t heard it, she simply shook her head "I don’t understand. Why did he try to kill you?"
He gave a dark laugh. "Oh, killing me would have been far kinder than what he did. He wanted to take everything in this world that I’d built. He was trying to blackmail me."
"Nothing more than his own willingness to lie and people’s gullibility to believe it. He said he’d make up everything from I was a pedophile to acts of animal sacrifice to brutality against women and children. He even went so far as to accuse me of mocking my fans and attacking the reputations of other actors, producers, and agents. No part of my life was spared from his lies and he didn’t hesitate to forge documents or to lie to the courts or the police. Thank God, McCarthy-ism is dead or I’m sure I’d have been blacklisted and imprisoned."
That didn’t make sense to her. "But that’s just stupid. Who would believe such ridiculous lies?"
"Everyone who’s ever been jealous because it’s my face in the magazines and not theirs. Every person who can’t believe or accept that someone can reach my level of success without being a total prick. Trust me, it’s not the lies that hurt people. It’s the willingness of everyone else to believe them. And then there are those who come out of the woodwork to back your accuser because it gives them the spotlight for three seconds. They can’t stand the fact that you’ve risen above your past and that they have no excuse for never rising above theirs. In their minds, you need to be taken down a notch and they need to be raised a few, off the lies they tell about you. Because in the end,they know you,they’ve seen the real you, and by backing your accusers, they make other people think that maybe they were close to you-at least that’s what they claim. It’s a sick world and I’m disgusted with it."
She flinched at the fury and hurt that bled from every part of him.
He was right; there was no way she could argue with him. Life could be cruel and people were even more so. There was so much agony inside him that she should be grateful for the strength it gave her.
But honestly, she wasn’t. His emotions were so potent that they were feeding her even in this realm.
And those emotions made her want to weep for him and the hard layer of ice that encased his heart. No one deserved such isolation. No one.
Wanting to comfort him, she reached out and took his hand in hers.
Aidan closed his eyes at the softness of her skin on his. It burned him to his core. It’d been so long since someone had reached out to him in kindness that he wanted to savor the sensation of her gentle touch.
But he knew better.
Kindness today… a kick in the teeth tomorrow.
Don’t you ever forget that again .
No one would protect him. Everyone had shown him that when the fires came blazing down around him. He’d been left alone, bereft of friendship, family, and kindness.
And he was too scarred by it to simply move past it and trust again. The wounds were too deep and damaging.
Reminding himself of Heather, he moved away from Leta to look out the window. Damn the snow. It was still coming down, even faster than before. "You should try the phone again."
"I just did. It’s still not getting a signal."
He’d once considered that a drawback. How many times had he wanted to talk to his brother when the signals went down? He was so far away from everything that the phone company had refused to run a line to his cabin. So he’d relied on his cell phone, which was haphazard in this area at best.
Now he wished he lived in the middle of city so he could toss her out on the very ass that was making him crazy with lust. God, how long had it been since he last smelled a woman this close to him? Heard the sound of a feminine voice inside his house, saying his name?
It was heaven.
And the lowest level of hell.
"Look, I admit you seem like a decent person. For all I know you stop and move turtles out of the road whenever you see one to keep someone from running it over. But this turtle is tired of having his guts spattered on the pavement while other people drive right over him. I just want to scrape myself up and hide in the woods, okay?"
She nodded. "I’ll leave you alone." Clearing her throat, she stepped back from him, and it took all his strength not to pull her closer.
"Just remember, sometimes people will put you ahead of themselves. It does happen."
He snorted. "Yeah, the whole world is just rainbows and puppies. Boy Scouts really do help old ladies cross the street without mugging them and no one ever ignores a trauma victim’s screams."
"Don’t. It’s impossible to believe in the world you describe when your own family sold you out for nothing more than cruelty and money."
He saw the acknowledgment in her gaze before she withdrew from the room.
Yeah, he knew he was a bastard. Just like he knew there were decent people out there. They just didn’t exist in his world. When he’d been poor no one had ever helped him. People had gone on with their lives as if he were invisible and that had been fine with him. He didn’t mind invisibility.
Actually, that wasn’t true. He’d wished repeatedly in his life that he really had been as invisible as other people had made him feel.
Closing his eyes, he could still see Heather’s beautiful face. Hear her laughter. When it had all begun, he’d thought losing her would be unbearable. That it would destroy him.
By the end of it, he hadn’t missed her at all. Not even a little, which made him realize why they’d been able to turn on him without remorse. There was no such thing as real love. The heart was just another organ, pumping blood through his body. There was no magic to it. No spiritual bonding between friends and family.
People were users, plain and simple. Hoping for anything better only led to bitter disappointment.
No, this was his life. He’d be alone until the day he died. But deep inside him was still that stupid, insipid dream of one day having a family. Ever since his parents had been killed by a drunk driver, he’d missed that sense of bonding. Of family belonging. His parents had loved each other dearly and had had mutual respect-at least it had looked that way to his seven-year-old mind.
Who knew what the truth really was. Maybe they’d hated each other as much as his brother hated him, and like Donnie they’d kept it a secret.
As for Heather, that bitch was the one who should have an Oscar on her mantel instead of him. Her acting had been exceptional right up until the end.
And right outside his door was the first woman to set foot in his house since Heather had walked out of it…
"So what?" he asked himself under his breath. One woman was as good as another and most likely she was twice as treacherous.
Disgusted with it all, he lay down on the couch and turned on his TV to let his Star Wars DVD distract him from the madness of letting a stranger into his home.
Leta paused as she felt the slight unconscious tugging in the back of her mind. There were really no words to describe the sensation, but anytime a human target went to sleep, a dream god could feel it. As quietly as she could, she made her way back to Aidan’s den where she found him dozing on the couch.
He was leaning back with one foot still on the floor and one arm draped over his face. Cocking her head, she stared at how strangely attractive his pose was. His faded T-shirt was stretched tight over a chest that was absolutely ripped.
The stubble on his cheeks only emphasized the rugged handsomeness of his features. He looked vulnerable and yet at the same time she had no doubt that if she made the slightest sound, he’d jerk awake, ready for battle.
As she closed her eyes to spy on his dreams, she saw the snowstorm outside that she’d started was permeating his subconscious. Kneeling on the floor by his side, she let her thoughts drift until they connected more fully with his.
Here in the dream world she was an observer who followed his lead.
He stood outside a basic Cape Cod house where lights twinkled against a dark snowy storm. She heard the sounds of laughter and music coming from inside the home.
Curious, she moved to stand beside Aidan as he spied on the party’s attendants through a frosted window.
"Look at them," he said as if accepting her presence in his dreams without question. His lips were curled disdainfully.
Leta scowled at the revelers who were toasting each other during a Christmas party. "They seem very happy."
"Yeah, like a nest of scorpions waiting to strike each other down." He jerked his chin toward a thin, pretty woman in the rear of the group. "The blonde in the corner is my ex-fiancee, Heather. The balding guy she’s draped over is my brother, Donnie."
The two were making cooing noises at each other before they drank out of the same wine glass. Boy, Freud would have had a field day with Aidan’s dreams.
"Why are they together?" she asked him.
"That’s an interesting question. After I gave Donnie a job, Heather threw a fit over it. Next thing I knew he’d started snaking on the bitch. The most amazing thing is she always told me she absolutely hated him. She thought he was brainless redneck trash who needed help to tie his own shoes."
He shook his head as he pointed to a brown-haired man at the table across from Heather and Donnie. "That’s Bruce. He was the president of my fan club and a longtime personal friend. My nephew Ronald befriended him and the next thing I knew the two of them were off spreading more lies than even my publicist could counter. What kills me is that I know exactly what my nephew really thinks about Bruce. Man, if he only knew what Ronald said about him the minute he was out of earshot. For that matter, all of them. They never hesitated to insult each other to me because they knew I wouldn’t betray their trust. A more treacherous bunch of snakes never existed. And what really baffles me about them is that after having seen the way they all turned on me for no other reason than simple jealousy, they’re dumb enough to believe that the same people who screwed me over would never do it to them. Unbelievable idiots."
Leta tilted her head as she heard his memories in her mind. As he said, each of the people in the room had said horrible things about one another to him. They’d played against each other and done anything they could to keep their hands in Aidan’s fame while trying their best to alienate him from the others in hopes of hanging on to him tighter. It was frightening to think they would be capable of getting along with each other given the things they’d said behind each other’s backs to Aidan. "I don’t understand. Why would they do this?"
Aidan led her away from the house, through the storm, until they were again inside his cabin. He went to the desk she’d seen just inside his living room. It was a tall, Colonial-style writing desk, complete with leaves and Chippendale trim.
Without a word, he opened a drawer and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. His gaze was dark as he handed to her.
Unfolding it, Leta glanced over the list of names. Some had marks through them while others were marked with stars. "What’s this?"
"Donnie’s list. He’d gone through all my contacts and friends, systematically trying to befriend them. He kept telling me that I had to pay him whatever he wanted because if I didn’t, he’d ruin me since all of my friends were now his. ‘They’ll believe me over you anytime,’" Aidan mocked in what must have been his brother’s voice.
Leta was aghast. "You’ve got to be kidding me."
"Trust me, I’m not that creative. Everyone from my agent to my banker is on that list. The names with marks through them are the friends he couldn’t convert with his lies."
"What happened to them?"
"Donnie and Heather ran them out of my life without my even knowing it. I was off on a trip making my last movie when he ousted my booking manager. Richard had been with me since the very beginning. Apparently something had happened between them and Donnie fired him and threw him out of my house and office. I didn’t even find out about it until I’d gotten back weeks after the fact."
"Did you call Richard?"
"I started to when word got back to me of the lies he was then spouting about me to my so-called friends. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was Ronald’s girlfriend who, at Ronald’s behest, was playing as everyone’s friend, and she’d goaded Richard into it. She was moving between everyone, spreading crap just to watch all of us fight."
"Why would she do that?"
He sighed wearily. "I’ve asked myself that a thousand times over and I’m no closer to an answer now than I was when it began. I think that’s why I always loved movies so much. In a movie, everything has to make sense. The characters always have to have motivation. Good,solid motivation for everything they do. They can’t be a dickhead without reason. If someone turns on a character, they have to have a hardcore, believable reason for it. Unfortunately, in real life you don’t. People turn on each other for anything from catching a constipated look on your face when you had gas and thinking it was directed at them, to not liking the brand of shoes you’re wearing. People are sick."