Cant let you go, p.6
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       Can’t Let You Go, p.6

           Jenny B. Jones
 
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  “Maybe he was just really good at being someone else.”

  “But how do you know?” I pushed my food aside. “How do you really know if someone is honest, genuine, the person they project to the world?”

  Charlie’s serious eyes held mine. “It’s a chance you take.”

  “It’s not worth it.”

  “Isn’t it?”

  “How could I not know he was a loser? That he was lying to me?”

  “He was cheating on you?”

  I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “There was definitely another woman. And then when I broke it off, he put me on two weeks paid leave. He gave my understudy the role.” I swiped at a rogue tear. “They were right. The things they had said about me, had whispered behind my back. They were right all along.”

  Charlie reached out and brushed another tear from my cheek. “Who?”

  “Some of the cast. All along there had been murmurings that I only had the role because I was dating Ian. That I wasn’t talented enough or experienced nearly enough to get the lead.” My voice quivered. “How could I have been so stupid?”

  “Katie, you’re crazy talented. I’m sure you had the role because—”

  “Because I was snogging the director?”

  Charlie stilled. “Are pants worn in this snogging?”

  “All those people were right. I don’t have the talent for London or Broadway.”

  His hand ran up my arm, gently rubbing, as if trying to ease the dark right out of me. “That’s what all of this is about, isn’t it? You’re back because you think your acting career was a lie?”

  “It was.”

  “Your jerk boyfriend was a lie, but your gift on the stage is something you can’t just throw away. Katie, I don’t even like plays. I like baseball, football, soccer. Guy stuff where people win or lose, get hurt, yell at the ref. But when you’re in a play, I can’t look away. You’re. . .amazing.”

  His words spun around me, pulling me in like a trance. I wanted to believe him. But what did I know? My truth-meter was so broken these days.

  “You can’t give up on your dream. Or the Valiant.”

  “Both seem pretty hopeless.”

  “It’s not like you to just pack it up and walk away. The Katie Parker I know is a fiery force to be reckoned with. She’d never just quit.”

  “The things they said about me.” I shut my eyes against the memory, their whispered voices so fresh in my mind. “And then Ian took me out of the play. He just confirmed what they said.”

  “So some of the cast said you weren’t talented enough to land the part and you believed them.”

  “I’m just a girl from a small town in Texas. Home of the fighting Chihuahuas.”

  Charlie smiled, his lips turning up on a face that had an adorable light stubble. “You’re still the girl with incredible talent, who once had the confidence and drive to take on the world.”

  “Sometimes the confidence runs out and reality sets in.”

  “Fight for this, Katie. Believe in you.” His eyes searched mine, and I wondered what he saw. “I believe in you.”

  “And what if they tear the Valiant down? Maybe it’s this big symbolic gesture from God to give up acting.”

  “If you want the Valiant to survive, then fight for that, too. But if Jiffy Co. takes it, it doesn’t change who you are.”

  “How can that company just bulldoze part of our town?”

  “I guess they call it progress. It happens all the time.”

  “At what cost? At the cost of Loretta losing her diner? It’s as much a part of In Between as Friday night football games. Loretta still feeds the team cheeseburgers and shakes after every win. And the Valiant? Did you know in World War II, they had plays and dances as fundraisers, giving the money to war widows and families? An unknown singer named Janis Joplin sang there. Presidents have spoken there. And—”

  “Our first kiss was there.”

  My next words died mid-sentence. “You remember that?”

  He planted his arm beside me and leaned in. “I think about it. A lot.”

  “It was a long time ago.”

  “Remind me how it went.”

  I laughed and put my hands on his chest to push him away, but those hands seemed to have a mind of their own and stayed right there on the curves of his muscles. Someone clearly visited the gym in Chicago. “I don’t want to like you again, Charlie.”

  “What we had has never been resolved. There will always be something between us.” He reached for one of my hands and pressed his lips to the tops of my fingers. “You know I’m right.”

  “And what if you’re just another bad decision on my part? What if you’re not who I think you are.”

  He studied our joined hands. “We all make mistakes. I’ve made bad choices, too.”

  “I don’t want to be one of them.”

  He shook his head, then kissed my temple. “Right now you’re all that’s right in my life.”

  “Charlie—” As his mouth moved to my cheek, trailing a tingling path, I struggled to recall all that I had wanted to ask him. “We should. . .we should talk about what’s going on with you.”

  But his arms pulled me in close, and his hands cradled my face. “You.” His lips hovered. “Just you.”

  “Katie! Charlie!”

  A bucket of cold water could not have startled me more, so deep was I in Charlie’s trance. Red-faced, I jumped up from the blanket and turned toward the sound of Frances’s call.

  “Do you think she saw that?” I asked Charlie between stiff lips.

  “The whole town just saw that.” He stood way too close behind me.

  “Hey, guys!” Frances all but skipped to us, a giant ice cream cone in hand, a knowing grin on her face. “What’s going on here?”

  “Katie won’t keep her hands off me.” Charlie had the nerve to throw a chummy arm around my shoulders. “Her attempts at seduction would weaken a lesser man, but so far I’m staying strong.”

  Frances hid her laugh behind her uneaten double scoop. “Very gallant of you.” Her phone chirped, and Frances extracted it from her purse. “Joey’s here! Katie, I’m so excited you can hang out with him!” With dreamy-eyes, she fired a text in response that probably included lots of X’s and O’s, some “No, I love you mores,” and little kissy emojis.

  “I haven’t seen him in weeks. This long-distance thing is really hard, you know?” Without waiting for a response, Frances turned on her heel and began scanning the town square. “We should all do dinner tomorrow night. What do you say?”

  “I think I have this—”

  “We’d love to.” Charlie sent me a slow wink.

  “Aw, that will be great, won’t it?”

  I shot an elbow into Charlie’s ribs. “Just terrific.”

  “There he is!” She waved her free hand like she was bringing in a 747. “Joey!”

  My friend handed me her ice cream, then with a girly squeal, tore off in Joey’s direction. Charlie and I stood there and watched the reunion like two people viewing a car wreck—slightly dismayed, but unable to look away. As if in a synchronized ballet, Frances ran into Joey’s waiting arms, laughing as he spun her around, her short floral skirt twirling.

  “Ah, young love,” Charlie said dryly as his brother kissed my best friend silly. “Want to show them how it’s really done?”

  I took a lick of Frances’s dripping ice cream and mumbled something barely civil.

  “I’ve never seen my brother like this.” Charlie’s fingers snaked around my wrist, and he brought the cone to his lips. I watched him take a slow, generous bite.

  Little electric currents whipped from Charlie’s hand through my system, and I struggled to focus. “Joey hasn’t won me over.”

  “Why so cynical, Parker? You don’t think they can make it?”

  “Your brother’s a player. Do you know how many times I saw his name scribbled on the bathroom wall in high school?”

  His lips curved upward in a rake’s
grin. “Was my name ever on there?”

  “Are you even listening to what I’m saying?”

  Whatever Charlie was about to say would have to wait, as Frances returned with her fiancé, her face lit up brighter than the performance stage.

  “Katie, you remember Joey.” Frances leaned into his shoulder. Joey stood a few inches shorter than Charlie, but still towered over his petite fiancée. His hair was darker than Charlie’s, and he had his father’s brown eyes. Like his brother, Joey made jeans and a t-shirt look good, and with the two Bensons side by side, it was enough to cause more than one passing female take a nice, appreciative inspection.

  “So you just got back from London?” Joey asked. “Great place.”

  “Yes, it is,” I said. “Lots of culture and history.” Too much of my own history was there.

  “Joey painted a car that was on a TV show last month,” Charlie said.

  “It was so cool.” Frances patted Joey’s chest and smiled. “His name was even on the credits.”

  “If you’d have blinked you’d have missed the car,” Joey said. “No big deal.”

  We stood there and talked for another hour, and I watched Joey closely. He barely spoke, and when he did it was a paltry few sentences. Frances was her usual animated self—hands in motion, face showing her every feeling, and quick with a story. They seemed like such opposites. She was soon leaving to pursue her PhD, while he had skipped college to paint and repair cars. How compatible were these two? I wanted the best for my beloved friend, and this rushed wedding had me on alert.

  “We should go,” Joey said. “We have that huge to-do list you wanted to tackle.”

  I hugged Frances and made myself say something positive. “Let me know what I can do to help.”

  “You’re the best maid of honor,” Frances said. “Dress shopping next week?”

  I pushed some enthusiasm into my voice. “Sounds fun.”

  I watched the couple walk away, arm in arm, uncertainty clanging in my head.

  “Let’s hear it,” Charlie said.

  “What?”

  “Your take on my brother. You were watching him like a scientific specimen.”

  “He’s very nice.”

  “And?”

  I had to tread carefully. This was Charlie’s flesh and blood. “He’s not who I see her with.”

  Charlie’s amiable smile slipped as he settled his hands on my shoulders. “You know what I think?”

  “That it’s time to get me that funnel cake?”

  “My brother isn’t that Ian guy.”

  “I know that.”

  “Do you? Just because Ian hurt you doesn’t mean my brother will do the same to Frances. If he says he loves her, then he loves her. Stop projecting your own fears onto your friend.”

  “He proposed after ten weeks. It doesn’t take a broken heart to think that’s moving way too fast for a life-long commitment.”

  “Is that what you have?” Charlie asked. “A broken heart?”

  “What Ian did to me has nothing to do with how I feel about Frances getting married.”

  “And what about us?” Charlie’s eyes held me captive. “Does what Ian did have anything to do with what you feel for me?”

  “What is that supposed to mean?”

  “You’re running scared from a lot of things right now.” Charlie moved until he was but a breath away. “It would be nice if one of them wasn’t me.”

  Chapter Eight

  Just being near an airport made my head ache and my left eye twitch.

  On Monday morning, Maxine and I drove my parents to the airport for their very long sojourn to Haiti. I knew that they were going to do some good work in an orphanage, but I was feeling a little orphaned myself. I had only been home a week, and already James and Millie were leaving.

  “You’re sure you’re feeling okay?” Millie asked, as I pulled her carry-on behind me through the sliding doors. People milled about like ants, zipping here and there, talking on cell phones, staring blankly at iPads, hugging family members.

  “I’m fine,” I said. “Not a thing wrong with me.”

  “Actually,” Maxine said, “you have panty lines.”

  We stopped near a self-check in kiosk, and I tried to look my fill of my parents. I wanted to remember this moment, recall their faces, the sound of their voices. They could get on that plane and never make it back. I knew very well how precarious life was once you hit the clouds. The sky was a dangerous place to travel, and I wouldn’t rest until I knew James and Millie had safely landed.

  “Call me when you get to your connecting flight,” I said. “And right before you takeoff. And when you land in Haiti. And after you deplane.”

  James chuckled and pulled me into a warm hug. “Don’t worry about us.”

  “Are you sure you won’t reconsider driving?”

  “Too many toll roads.” James kissed my cheek. “I’ve left all my notes on the property buyout in my office. Look over those. It will give you something to do.”

  “I’ll pore over them.”

  “I’m sure you will,” James said. “But it’s just to be informed. This isn’t your fight. The property owners have an attorney, and Millie and I will be back in three weeks. I’m not going to let them take the Valiant without giving it all we’ve got.”

  “This is my theater, too,” I said. “My hometown.”

  “One way or another, it will be okay,” Millie said.

  But would it? I couldn’t lose that theater. I had poured my very life into it, and so had James and Millie. And at the moment, it was my only job plan.

  “Don’t eat junk,” Millie said. “I left some meals in the freezer for you.”

  Maxine made a little gagging sound. “Seaweed salad and bean balls. Don’t invite me over.”

  After an incredibly long group hug in which Maxine purposely kept blowing in my ear, the family separated, said our “I love yous,” and Millie and James left to get in line for security.

  I blinked back tears as Maxine and I walked to the car, the Texas sun hot on my skin. I’d spent so little time with my parents this year, and now that I was home, they were gone.

  “Are you gonna ignore me forever?” Maxine asked as she slid into the passenger seat.

  “I’m not ignoring you.” I shoved the key into the ignition and fired up the red beast. My car was ten years old and had spent the last year bunking in Millie and James’s garage. It was good to drive again. On the right side of the road.

  “I’ve told you something vitally important three times, and you’ve yet to so much as look my direction.”

  “What was this vital question?”

  “Dairy Barn is having BOGO on hot fudge sundaes ’til noon.”

  “I can’t.”

  She tsked and shook her head. “I’ve heard some people are never the same after a bad concussion.”

  “I have to get back to try on dresses with Frances.” Lord knew I’d rather be eating two-for-one ice cream.

  “Oh. Well, then I want to go.”

  “Not this time.”

  “Please don’t be mad at me, Katie,” Maxine said. “I’m too old to find a new best friend.”

  I gripped the steering wheel as I pulled onto the interstate, knowing I couldn’t stay mad with words like that. She had pulled a lot of stunts in our time together, but scheduling an audition in New York might’ve topped them all. It was even worse than the time in high school when she got me to climb the water tower with her so she could hang a banner declaring her love for her estranged Sam. She had fallen over the railing, held on for dear life, then miraculously been saved by a truck full of hot fire fighters. The woman always landed on her feet. Or on a beefcake in uniform.

  “I’m not mad,” I said.

  “Oh, good.”

  “But I’m not happy either.”

  “I didn’t mean any harm talking to your director.”

  “He’s not my director. We’ve never even met. But harm is exactly what you caused.
Now I have to call him back and explain what happened.”

  Maxine turned the radio to her favorite pop station. “You could avoid that awkward conversation.”

  “By telling him you’re insane?”

  “By going on the audition.”

  “No.”

  “It wouldn’t hurt to just—”

  “I’m done with acting. Done with the stage.”

  “Then what are you going to do? You have too much talent to waste it here.” Maxine tapped irritated fingers on the armrest.

  “Maybe I’ll go to Vegas and be a show girl like you were.”

  “Look, Sweet Pea, I’m being for real here. What’s the plan?”

  I turned the corner a little too sharply, sending Maxine leaning a hard right into her door. She grabbed the overhead handle and shot me a look that would scare misbehaving children and men with any sense about them.

  “I said, what’s the—”

  “When Delores leaves, I plan to take over the Valiant.” I had already informed James of my idea, and while he wasn’t happy I was abandoning acting, he knew I would take care of the Valiant better than anyone else.

  “And if it’s not saved from the chopping block?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I have no idea, okay? It’s not like I knew I’d already need a career change at twenty-three.”

  “Then don’t change. Or at least not ’til you have a good reason to.”

  “Do you want to know how I got the role of Beatrice?”

  “A sassy, smart-mouthed heroine who shoots one-liners like arrows? Can’t imagine why they’d cast you.”

  “I got it because the director liked me.” Note to self, never date your boss again.

  “Well, of course he did. You’re a brilliant actress.”

  “That’s not what I meant.” Though Maxine’s version made for a much nicer story.

  “I don’t know what happened in London,” Maxine said, her voice gentling, “but your incredible gift got you to London in the first place. You were all but plucked from obscurity at that college. How many kids graduated from your university and were invited to work in London?”

  “One.”

  “And how many from the entire state of Texas?”

  “One.”

  “Remind me what her name was?”

 
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