“No Ma, I wasn’t keeping her a secret from you,” Xander groaned. Followed by the shrill sound of his mother berating him.
“Ma, it all happened really suddenly. I meant to tell you.” He paused again, pulling out a suitcase from under his bed and dumping it on top. He had come in here twenty minutes after his mum called him and had been attempting to pack ever since. Apparently, he was going on a trip.
“Seriously mom, I’m a movie star-”
“Arrogant much,” I scoffed, jumping onto his bed and causing several of his clothes towers to topple over. It was like a plaid shirt tsunami. I never knew any one person was allowed to own so much plaid. Not to mention in all the times I had seen him I’d never seen him wear one.
“-where do you think I’m hiding these secret girlfriends?” He finished, shooting me an attempt at a scolding smirk.
“A basement?” That comment earned me a purple plaid shirt to the face.
“Of course mom,” Xander was now tugging at the ends of his blond hair with his free hand. “I’m packing as we speak.” He then moved across the room and flung the door to his wardrobe open, again. He pulled out a very suspect looking pair of cowboy boots before tossing them into his open suitcase. These were followed by most of the now rumpled plaid shirts and worn out looking jeans. Definitely, not the wardrobe I would expect of a movie star. Apparently, I was more out of touch with the world of fashion than I thought.
“Yes, she’ll be there too.” My eyes shot back to him at that comment as he started to zip his bag closed. “For the last time Ma, I was not trying to hide her from you. Annie and I have just had a lot to deal with, and the sudden leak of our relationship caught us unawares.” He quickly pulled the phone away from his ear and covered the mouthpiece before he spoke to me.
“You need to go pack.”
“Excuse me?” My eyebrows rose so high I thought they might jump off my face. I stared the movie star down, wondering if I was hearing him correctly.
“We’re going to be leaving-No Ma; I’m still here.”
“Xander, what’s going on?”
“We’ll leave in the next hour,” he continued speaking to his mum, completely ignoring my panicked question. I hadn’t agreed to any parent meet and greet. “I love you too, Mom.” Then he hung up and sat back heavily on his dishevelled bed, completely ignoring the scowl I was sending in his direction.
“Xander, what did you just agree to?” I demanded, shuffling along the bedsheets until I was sat beside him. His hazel eyes were dark brown in the growing shadows of the room, and he kept them downcast and away from mine.
“I need to go and see my parents,” he shrugged, rubbing a hand over his face before he pushed to his feet again and tugged his suitcase from the bed. “And you need to be there with me.” The sound of his suitcase wheels against the floorboards followed him from the room, and he was out the door before I was able to gather enough of my senses to move. But when I did, I jumped off the bed so quickly I slipped on the floor and had to clutch the bed to regain my balance. Then I was stomping through the apartment, my anger rising with each step I took.
“What do you mean, I have to be there?”
“My mom wants to meet you.” The silence after his statement didn’t seem to bother him as much as it did me. He was busy rummaging through the kitchen cupboards while I was busy trying to burn holes through the back of his perfectly styled blond hair.
“Why?” I finally ground out. There was a tension in the room that it appeared he wasn’t phased by but had my blood catching fire.
“You’re my girlfriend.”
“We don’t know each other,” I argued, hating the dismissive way he was treating me as he continued to rifle through the kitchen cupboards. “I’m only staying with you for a month, two tops. I don’t think meeting your parents is a good idea.”
“But it needs to be believable. My parents will see through it easily if I don’t take you home. I take all my serious girlfriends home.”
“How many girlfriends have you taken home?” I frowned, ignoring a sharp pain in my chest before it suddenly felt hollow and empty.
“So, I will be the second serious girlfriend you’ve ever taken home?” He’s insane. But judging from his expression, he isn’t as convinced of my diagnosis as I am. He was watching me with a blank expression, and it was starting to grate on my nerves. “I don’t think this is a good idea.” It didn’t sit well with me to deceive his parents. I was assuming from the brief snippet of the conversation I had heard that his parents cared a lot about their son. Enough to want to meet his new girlfriend, enough to want to be involved in his life. I was under no misconceptions that all parents were like mine and cared very little about their children and their happiness beyond the front they showed the world. Even if I had been the perfect daughter, my parents still wouldn’t have approved of me or my choices. They never had.
Silence again filled the apartment, and when it stretched into awkward, I looked up to find Xander’s eyes downcast and his arms hanging limply by his sides. It seemed he had lost himself in his own thoughts while I was stumbling down the minefield that was my memories of my childhood and early adult years.
“Xander?” In an instant, he glanced up at me, and his face shifted into blankness. Whatever he had been feeling wasn’t there anymore.
“You should probably pack your things. It’s a four-hour drive to my parents.” I felt my nose scrunch at his empty tone, but his downtrodden demeanour was going to stop me from giving him a piece of my mind.
“I am not visiting your parents with you.”
“Would you like to do it alone?” He challenged, something familiar sparking in his green-brown eyes.
“I don’t want to do it at all.” My hands shifted to my hips, and I planted my feet as I stared him down across the kitchen bench.
“Can’t you just do me this one favour?” His tone was exasperated, and I barely restrained the urge to roll my eyes.
“Sorry, I’m still working on your last favour.” He seemed to like that answer even less because within seconds he was around the counter and charging across the apartment to the guest bedroom. Within a minute, he had my overnight bag in hand and placed it neatly beside his as he tapped a message out on his phone.
“Where are my things?” I frowned, his phone a subtle reminder that he was still holding mine hostage. “My phone, my wallet?” I continued when he remained silent.
“They’re here,” he answered cryptically, causing my eyes to narrow at his back. He was still tapping out a message on his phone.
“Where exactly?” I swear sometimes it was like talking to the seven-year-old boys in my grade two class. My former grade two class, I reminded myself only serving to increase my irritation.
Without another word, he reached into his pocket and pulled out my phone before he looked back at me with a sheepish smirk.
“Why is it in your pocket?” I all but growled. The maturity level on this man was so low I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned around and told me he was still in his teens, not his late twenties.
“If I give it back to you, will you come to my parents with me?”
“No,” I scoffed. I’d rather buy a new phone. If he ever gave me my wallet back.
“What about if-”
“Xander,” I began, cutting him off and taking several steps in his direction. Finally, he turned to look at me, and I continued. “Why are you pushing for this? I’m fine lying to the public and journalist because really, the last thing they want to hear is the truth, but I’m not okay lying to your family. This-” I gestured between us. “This is temporary.”
“I’ve already told them you’re coming.” He answered. His shoulders started to hunch, and his eyes flickered from me to the hardwood floors. “I can’t let my mom down. She wants to meet you.”
“It’s not right Xander.” I sighed, taking a few more steps to bridge the distance between us, only to see his shoulders hunch even further.
“She’ll believe it.”
“Is that what you want? To deceive her?” He answered with a non-committal shrug before he surprised me by taking the final steps between us. Suddenly, his hands were holding mine, and I felt a breath lodge in my throat. Instinctively, I made to take a step back, but the look in his eyes made me pause.
“Please, do this for me, Annie.” His words somehow made a path directly to my heart and before I knew what was happening my mouth was spitting out words that were making him beam with happiness. Then his arms were wrapped tightly around my waist, and my feet had left the floor. My startled cry filled the apartment as he spun me and even when my feet touched the floor, and he was shuffling me out of the apartment I couldn’t seem to dull the smile blooming on my face.
“What has you frowning like that, sweetheart?” We had been travelling for over an hour now and the majority of that time I had been sifting through the countless messages that had built up on my phone. Thanks to a certain movie star taking my phone hostage, I had missed calls from what appeared to be everyone who had ever known me in my entire life. Not to mention Facebook which I immediately had to deactivate to stop the continuous flow of notifications. However, that wasn’t what had me glaring at my phone and wishing it would catch fire in my hands.
That honour was reserved for the one number I never wanted to see in my call log ever again. I didn’t even know how they got my new number. I was very careful with who I gave it out to, but I guess when your name suddenly starts getting splashed across every newsstand in New York City and I assume the world you make time to find your daughter’s number.
“Sweetheart?” I was jolted from my thoughts but a warm hand on my knee. My eyes shot to his to find a concerned look staring back at me, and it only caused my frown to deepen. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” and judging from the look on his face I could tell I had answered too quickly to be convincing and I hastily tried to compose myself. “I guess I’m going to be very popular from now on.” He nodded, but he still seemed unconvinced as he turned to look back at the highway. We had left the outskirts of the city a while ago, and despite my unwanted callers, I was happy to be away from the oppressive buildings and dull greys of the city.
When we had left the apartment, I had assumed that Harrod or Greg would be driving us, but instead, Xander had taken us to the underground carpark and led me over to an obnoxiously yellow and horrendously low sports car. He treated it almost reverently as he had sat the bags in the boot before he opened my door and helped me inside. I didn’t miss his moment of hesitation before he closed my door as if he were deciding on something and then ultimately chose not to do it.
When he sat beside me, and I asked why his security team wasn’t driving us he proudly informed me that his sports car was his ‘baby’ and he only gets to drive her when he visits home. He was never able to drive in the city because of all the fans but out wherever his family lives was apparently safe. Which was four hours west of the city, in a small town called, Hallsville.
“I’m going to shut my eyes for a bit,” I muttered, shutting my phone off after sending Sarah and Teddy a text about where I was going to be over the weekend.
“I’ll wake you when we get there, sweetheart,” I nodded and rested my head against the window, shutting my eyes against the rapidly changing scenery.
The next time I opened my eyes, there wasn’t a skyscraper in sight. In fact, there were barely any buildings in sight. There was nothing but rolling, green hills, broken up by clusters of leafy green trees lining what appeared to be paddocks. There was livestock roaming about the grass, eager to lap up the late autumn sunshine.
“Nice of you to return to the land of the living, sweetheart.”
“Are we nearly there?” I ignored his amused chuckle, keeping my eyes firmly on the rapidly moving landscape.
“We should be there within the next half hour,” and I finally looked over to see a serene look on his face. He appeared to be excited to return home, and it was a sentiment that I couldn’t relate to, no matter how hard I tried. Returning home always filled me with inescapable dread.
“So do you think maybe you should tell me something about this family of yours? All I know is that you have many brothers and sisters.” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, my neck protesting at the position it had been in. Xander’s car was definitely designed for speed and not comfort. I was busy trying to shake the pins and needles out of my left foot when Xander started talking about his family.
“You’ve met Jamison and his two mini-monsters,” he began, and I glanced at him only to get distracted by his bunching muscles beneath his too-tight plaid shirt as he shifted gear. I quickly turned my head reminding myself that it was impossible for me to find any man dressed in green plaid attractive, ignoring the racing of my heart and the heating of my cheeks. “Then there’s the most handsome and talented of all the Collins children.” He beamed, sending me his megawatt smile before I had to look down at my lap to keep my heart from jumping right out of my chest. No wonder this man sold-out movie theatres all over the world. His smile was like liquid gold. “Clare is next with her husband Rune and their kid, Lizzie.”
“Is she as adorable as Keely?”
“More, she’s got these eyes so pale blue they’re almost grey and a wicked sense of humour just like her momma. Her laugh is something else.” It wasn’t hard to see the love he had for his niece and all of his family as he spoke about them. He was very proud of his other sister, Zoe, who was working in Africa as a nurse for a non-for-profit medical clinic. He hadn’t seen her in two years and I could almost see the longing in his eyes as he spoke about her.
Then there was the baby of the family, Mark. He lived on the farm with their parents, raising his triplets with his partner Mandy. They had accidentally fallen pregnant with them in high school and despite only being twenty-two his triplets, Coleen, Cameron and Cally, were already six years old and tearing up the local primary school with their mischievous antics. Only last week the three had somehow broken into the art room and covered the floors with paint before rolling in it themselves.
Xander was busy telling me about the time the triplets had visited him on set and managed to create a small fire in the costume department when he turned down a narrow dirt road with orange and red leafed trees lining the edges. Before I knew it, we were bumping towards a large farmhouse that looked like something out of a history book. There was a wrap around porch, and the entire front garden was filled to bursting with the last of the flowers before winter truly struck. It was filled with purples, blues, reds and yellows filling me with warmth despite the nervous flutters growing in my stomach.
Xander pulled up alongside a giant deep blue truck that instantly made his sports car look out of place. Not that the bumpy ride down the dirt driveway hadn’t done that already.
I was still gawking at the breathtaking house when Xander came around to open my door and offered his hand to pull me out of his impractically low car.
“You grew up here?”
“Three generations of Collins’s grew up here,” he said, proudly before moving to the boot and taking out the bags. I tried to reach for mine, but he quickly moved it out of my grasp. He was holding both in one hand and took my hand with the other. I was about to protest and pull away when the screen door was flung open, and four very excited looking children raced out. All were barefoot and covered from head to toe in mud as they careened down the stairs, and spear tackled the man to my left to the ground.
“Uncle Alex,” they chorused, climbing all over him; his booming laughter drowning out their voices.
“What have you four been up to? It looks like you’ve been rolling around in the mud with the pigs.”
“We have,” the only boy beamed proudly from where he sat on his uncle’s chest. “Coleen wanted to race them.”
“It was your idea, Cam. I wanted to race on horses, but daddy said no.” The one named Coleen pouted. From what I could see under the dirt, she had inherited the same blonde hair as Xander, and bright green eyes that were shared by her brother Cameron and their sibling I assumed was Cally. The fourth contrasted the three with raven hair and grey-blue eyes that were big and round as she looked down at her jubilant uncle.
“Have your parents seen the state of you four?” Xander chuckled, pushing up onto his elbows to look at the terrible trio. The fourth, I assumed was Lizzie and she had somehow manoeuvred herself to my side of her uncle and was watching me with her wide, curious eyes.
“Grandma said we had to come outside so she could hose us down,” Cally grimaced before casting a nervous looked at the fly screen door.
“But she won’t do it now that you’re here. Right, Uncle Alex?” Cameron asked, his eyes wide and hopeful. I had a feeling he was probably going to be crushed when his grandma inevitably followed through with her threats. I had only heard snippets of her conversation with Xander, but I could tell she was a woman who didn’t give in easily.
Xander’s only response was to laugh and push to his feet. Scattering his nieces and nephew all over the gravel driveway before they scrambled to grab his only available hand. The one that had been holding mine before the triple terrors had attacked.
I went to follow after the boisterous group when I felt a gentle tug at my sleeve. Looking down, I saw Lizzie watching me.
“My name’s Lizzie,” her sweet little voice spoke. “You’re really pretty.”
I smiled warmly as I bent down in front of her before saying, “My name’s Annie, and I think you’re beautiful.”
Xander and the triplets were already on the porch when Lizzie slipped her hand into mine, leading me into the house. As I climbed the steps, I felt my stomach swirl and drop. In that moment, it didn’t matter that everything between Xander and I was a lie because I was about to meet his parents and I had just turned into a nervous wreck.