I wasn’t sure how it happen but somehow I found myself sitting next to Theo in one of the most sought after restaurants in New York City, with one of the world’s current most famous movie stars, feeding his two-year-old niece mac n’ cheese. To say the situation was surreal would have been an understatement and judging by the way Xander’s phone was lighting up, his publicist wasn’t happy with our additional guests.
The restaurant truly was breathtaking, even more than the ones I had frequented in Melbourne.
The seats we plush and elegant in deep sapphires and rouge. Each table was secluded from the other by thin Japanese-style screens, broken up with vibrant green plants and Moroccan style pots.
Keely was sat atop several expensive looking pillows so she could see above the dark wooden table and was currently seeing if she could hit her uncle in the face with some of her macaroni pieces. She was a surprisingly accurate aim.
“Annie?” Theo started, pushing his chicken nugget around his plate until it was fully submerged in his ketchup moat.
The fact that Xander had convinced a restaurant, that typically served food of the gourmet variety, to make his nephew and niece mac n’ cheese and chicken nuggets was a testament to his notoriety. “Can I have dessert yet?”
“Have you eaten all your dinner?”
“No,” he reluctantly replied, his shoulders slumping forward in defeat.
“Only little boys who eat all their dinner can have dessert.”
“But uncle Alex hasn’t eaten all of his dinner,” he whined, pointing an accusing finger at his unsuspecting uncle.
“Yes, but he isn’t a little boy. He’s a big boy.” Glancing at Xander, I saw his eyebrows rise suggestively and I felt my face flush with embarrassment. When I felt a warm hand caress my thigh beneath the table I nearly jumped out of my skin. His amused smirk only caused my embarrassment to grow as the warmth from his hand sent my nerves haywire.
“That’s not fair,” Theo grumbled beside me, pulling me from my thoughts. Thoughts that were best not explored in a public restaurant with two children at the table.
Suddenly, snapped back to reality I levelled the grinning Xander with a disgruntled stare before throwing his hand off my leg and turning to face the pouting Theo.
“Just eat that last nugget Theo and then we’ll go out and get you some ice-cream. How does that sound?”
“Fine,” he sighed dramatically. “But, I want two scoops.”
“Little boys without manners get nothing,” I argued, his brown eyes snapping to mine at his perceived injustice.
“How do you think you should ask me?” I interrupted, ignoring his temper and waiting patiently for him to reply. His eyes scrunched angrily behind his glasses before he let out another angry breath and returned his eyes to me.
“Annie, may I please have two scoops of ice-cream?” He asked sweetly and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Momma, icey!” Keely clapped, sending her bowl careening off the table and into her surprised uncle’s lap. She had been calling me momma all evening and I had long since given up correcting her.
“Keels,” Xander half laughed, half scolded. “What are we going to do with you baby girl?”
“I think we’re going to give her double,” I smirked, already around the table wiping her hands and face before lifting her into my arms. Xander growled playfully as Theo bounced around his chair chanting ‘Ice-Cream’.
Xander, brushing macaroni from his lap, pulled his wallet out and placed some money on the table before taking an over exuberant Theo’s hand.
He thanked the waitress who severed us as we left before he slipped his free arm around my waist.
“So, you think I’m big, do you?” He slyly whispered against my ear. Instantly, I felt shivers run down my spine and I knew he could feel my body tense in his arm.
“Xander,” I hissed, trying to hide my embarrassment. His only reply was a deep chuckle, that did nothing to stave off the heat creeping up my cheeks. I was all too aware of the eyes trained on us from around the restaurant. It seemed even New York’s elite weren’t immune to the superstar in their midst. Most of our night was filled with not so discreet glances and sneaky photos from hidden mobile phones.
I especially noticed the cameras when Xander had leant across the table and pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of my lips. I had been near breathless from laughing at Xander after Keely had managed to stick her finger up his nose when he was blowing raspberries on her face. Once his lips had pressed against mine, the last wisps of breath left me and I was left and dazed and light headed as the smug movie star enjoyed watching me flounder.
As soon as we stepped outside, the car was parked next to the kerb and Harrod was holding the door open as Greg kept the gossip hungry photographers away.
After ice-cream, we took the kids back to Xander’s apartment where we watched a movie and ate the cookies Theo and I had baked earlier. Not even half an hour in Keely fell asleep in my arms and Theo wasn’t far behind.
Silently, we both gathered our respective kid in our arms and walked them over to the guest bedroom. I tucked Keely in with pillows keeping her wedged in place whilst Xander tucked a worn out Theo in on the other side. I watched as he gently removed his nephew’s glasses and brushed some of his wayward hair off his forehead.
The look he had in his eyes as he looked down at Theo had my heart melting into a puddle of mush. I couldn’t help but think that he was a completely different man from the one I had been exposed to until now.
Where had he been hiding this side of him and why was he only an arse when he was talking to me? Was something about me that brought the worst out in him? It seemed to be my hidden talent.
When his eyes glanced up at mine, I felt myself flush. Judging from the smirk now on his face, I knew he had caught me staring and I couldn’t say with certainty that my expression hadn’t given away my thoughts.
Busying myself with straightening the covers, I quickly ducked my head before I all but ran from the room. I didn’t miss his whispered laughter as he followed me out. Nor did I miss the sensation of his eyes watching my every move as I stood in the centre of the living room clutching my arms tightly to my chest. Lost about where I should go next or what I might say. Somehow, his kindness to his nephew had thrown me completely off centre and my heart was suddenly beating louder than the thoughts inside my head.
Suddenly, I realised that the silence wasn’t going to be broken and I glanced back to see him standing beside the guest room door, still watching me.
“Thank you, Annie,” he finally spoke, a strange smile spreading across his face. It did peculiar things to me, causing my eyes to fall away from his again. I didn’t want to feel the emotions I was eager to deny developing inside of me. “My brother has been going through a tough time. He loves his kids but he needs a break sometimes. Thank you for letting them come with us tonight.”
“I don’t mind.” I shrugged, all too aware that he was getting closer to me. His steps loud against the silence of the room. “They’re beautiful.” I was curious about their mother but I didn’t want to push him further on the topic. He seemed so private with his family and I guess he had to be in the career he had chosen.
He didn’t owe me anything. I was nothing more than a stranger to him and once this was all over we would forget the other even existed. There was no point in getting attached. He wouldn’t.
“None of my previous girlfriends would have agreed. They wouldn’t have taken kindly to my attention being divided. Especially, if their competition was a two-year-old hellion with a strong arm.” He continued in a low, rumbling voice making it almost impossible for me not to look at him.
“I-I’m not your girlfriend,” I stuttered, the noise in my mind still subdued by the pounding of my heart.
“Hmm,” he hummed and I could almost feel his body heat brush against my skin. It felt like it was mere moments before my entire body caught alight. How was he having such an effect on me? We weren’t real but apparently my heart hadn’t received the same message.
“It’s not real,” I muttered unconvincingly. I just didn’t know who I was trying to convince. He was so close and there were no cameras around. Why was he doing this?
“I still wanted to thank you,” he murmured, my nerves catching fire as he gently pulled my hands from my middle. He held them tightly between us.
My breath caught and my heart all but stopped. I didn’t want to let him know how he affected me but it was becoming more and more difficult to hide my body’s reaction. “Did I ever tell you how breathtaking you looked tonight?” Numbly, I shook my head. “You were the most beautiful woman in the room.” He released one of my hands to run if over the soft folds of my pale lilac dress before it came to rest just above my knee where the dress ended. It trailed back up again, gripping my waist in what I could only describe as a possessive hold.
“There were actual supermodels in the room,” I frowned trying desperately to remain unaffected and hide my wobbling voice.
“Then that should give you a pretty good idea of how beautiful you are.” His breath kissed my cheek as he leant impossibly closer. My heart felt as if it were about to beat clean out of my chest in anticipation.
“Xander...” I breathed and felt the smile on his lips as he pressed them to my cheek in a lingering kiss.
“You did good, teach,” he whispered. Suddenly, he pulled away from me and was halfway across the room before I realised he was gone. My body instantly felt chilled from his absence and something deep inside of me felt hollow. A place that hadn’t been there before or had gone unnoticed until now.
I needed to get myself under control. I couldn’t let him affect me in such a way. I needed to remember that at the end of this we would both be walking away and if I was to keep my heart intact I needed to keep it as far away from him as possible.
Xander had moved to the kitchen now and looked as if he was making himself a coffee. Giving me the perfect opportunity to calm my racing heart and bring my breathing under control.
Slowly, when I felt my legs wouldn’t crumble beneath me I sat on the stool at the countertop watching him gracefully move around his homely kitchen.
“Dee is reluctantly reporting that the public loved our little outing.” Xander filled the silence before setting a coffee in front of me which I clutched tightly for something to hold. I had never enjoyed coffee but he had been thoughtful enough to make me one so I kept quiet.
“The public is well on it’s way to believing our story. The domestic abuse stories seem to have vanished from the news.”
“That’s good,” I muttered, feeling reality set heavily on my shoulders. His words gave me the perspective I needed to bury my budding feelings for a man that I should never have.
“I know it’s not good for you, to be in the spotlight,” he began, misreading my disappointed words as regret for my future job prospects. It was the first time he seemed to show remorse for his actions and it did nothing to strengthen my resolve to distance myself from him. “But, I promise we’ll figure it out.”
“It’ll work out,” I shrugged, not wanting to dwell on what I had lost. Wallowing in self-pity wasn’t going to make a job opportunity miraculously appear. No matter how persuasive the movie star was trying to be.
“What, no diatribe about how I’ve ruined your life?” He teased, taking a deep drink from his coffee as I shook my head with a weak smile.
“Not tonight,” I muttered before we both fell into a comfortable silence. Both content to sift through our own thoughts as he drank his coffee and I held mine tightly, simply for something to do.
“Where is Theo and Keely’s mum?” I frowned, remembering the conversation I had in the kitchen with the little-lost boy. I glanced up when he stayed silent, only to find a dark look on his face and I quickly realised I may have overstepped the boundaries. I often forgot to filter my inner musings before I voiced them.
“I’m sorry, that was inappropriate. You don’t owe me any answers.” I muttered, silently scolding myself for causing the tortured look on his face. Another silence stretched between us and I felt his eyes watching me but I dared not look up, afraid of the emotion I might find in them.
“She left,” he finally said and I glanced up in a daze.
“Their mom, she left.” He repeated, his tone completely devoid of emotion.
“After Keely’s first birthday.”
“Did...did she have a reason?” I asked, uncertain of how I was to proceed.
“Does any mother have a reason to leave her children?” He all but growled and my eyes snapped to his in surprise at his tone.
“No,” I began, slowly. “I-I don’t suppose they do. I could never imagine leaving my child behind but every circumstance is different.”
“She was a selfish, fame-whore who was incapable of love for anyone but herself. She left because she realised despite her best efforts she would never have a chance with the prize she so desperately sought.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She was a model. Jamie met her at one of the parties I dragged him along too. She put on a good show for my brother. He was head over heels for her from that first meeting. The rest of the family was sceptical of her. She didn’t seem to love my brother like he did her. What we didn’t know at the time was her career had undergone a dramatic rise because of her association with my brother or more importantly the brother of a famous movie star.
“She would insist that they tag along to all the parties and events I was invited to and he was too blinded to see that she loved the fame and not him. My brother works on the farm back home. The last place he ever wanted to be was on the Hollywood party scene but he did it for her.” He sighed, running his hand through his rumpled hair tiredly as he sipped what I assumed was cold coffee. I said nothing as I waited for him to continue, all too aware that he was reliving the memories in his mind.
“When she fell pregnant with Theo she became even more displeased with my brother. She blamed him for ruining her career. When Theo was born she wouldn’t even look at him. She disappeared for months. Jamie was sick with worry. He barely ate and never slept. He was trying to care for Theo whilst looking for his wayward mother. The family didn’t know she had left until she resurfaced almost a year later. She quickly slipped into the role of doting mother and loved up partner and my desperate brother welcomed her back without question. He ordered all of us to not ask her questions and when we did he took her and Theo away, isolating himself from his family.
“I kept tabs on her through her work but two years in she stopped getting jobs and suddenly my brother appeared on my doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend and three-year-old son. After Keely’s birth, she hung around for a year before she disappeared again.” He shook his head disapprovingly with a sadness about him that hinted there was more to this sordid tale.
“Do you think she’ll come back?”
“Not if she knows what’s good for her,” he growled, turning to the sink and slamming his empty cup in the sink.
“What does that mean?” I frowned. His hands were agitated at his sides and there was a tick in his jaw only confirming that there was another part to the story he wasn’t revealing and whilst I knew it wasn’t my business, my curiosity had gotten the better of me.
“It doesn’t matter,” he dismissed. “I already told you more than you deserve to know.”
“Fine,” I snapped, pushing back from the bench and standing with my arms crossed firmly over my chest. We both just glared at each other for a moment before he let out a shaky breath and turned in the direction of his bedroom.
“Jamie will pick the kids up tomorrow.” He said flatly, running his hand through his hair again before he disappeared into his room without even bothering to say goodnight.
I stood there for long silent seconds, until I finally felt sure enough in my legs that they wouldn’t collapse when I took a step. Why had he reacted that way?
Sighing, I walked in the direction of the guest room only to realise the kids were sleeping in the bed.
“Guess I’ll be sleeping on the couch,” I muttered.