“Ma, please, you need to let her breathe,” Xander complained. As soon as I had been led through the door, by the raven hair Lizzie, I was set upon by his mother in a bone crushing hug. I was so startled, at first, I just stood there with my arms hanging limply by my sides. Then, when I realised she wasn’t letting go, I awkwardly lifted my arms and rested them on her back. I shot Xander what I thought might have been a terrified look.
“Alexander Harrison Collins, do not tell me what to do. I still haven’t forgiven you for keeping this girl hidden from me.”
“Ma,” he groaned, rolling his eyes before looking at the rest of his family for support.
A quick glance over his mum’s shoulder told me he wasn’t going to get much support from them, and neither was I. Their faces, ranged from hostile to smug. What I assumed was his youngest brother had the look of a sibling who was constantly under his mother’s scrutiny and was enjoying her wrath being directed somewhere else for a change.
“She’ll never come back, Ma,” Xander grumbled, suddenly reverting to a five-year-old in the face of his mother.
“And whose fault will that be Alexander?” His only response was to stuff his hands deep into his worn jean pockets and rest his chin against his chest. He had been placed in time out, and I was beginning to love the woman currently cutting off my air supply.
“Now, let me introduce you to the rest of the herd,” she announced. She let me go, only to take me by the elbow and lead me around the room. “You’ve met my grand babies. This is my eldest daughter, Claire and her husband Rune,” she indicated towards a younger version of herself. A tall, slender woman with beautiful blonde hair and deep brown eyes like her daughter. Rune was by her side with the hair Lizzie must have inherited.
Claire wore a look of apprehension, unlike her mother, who welcomed me with open arms. She didn’t seem as happy about my presence as her mother had been while her husband wore a welcoming grin as he took me in and shot Xander a strange look. Before I had the chance to analyse them both too thoroughly, we had moved on to her next child, Mark and his partner Mandy. Mark, unlike Xander, had pale green eyes but the same blonde hair in a much lighter shade. I assumed it was from the many hours he spent out on the farm because his skin was also several shades darker than his brother’s and his hands were calloused and his nails filled with dirt. A sharp contrast from Xander’s well-kept nails and smooth hands.
I greeted them all with what I hoped was a warm smile but it was getting harder and harder for me to hide how overwhelmed by all the family members and the easy way they all threw friendly insults at one another. It was a dynamic I was unfamiliar with and had me on edge.
“So, Annie, where has he been hiding you all this time?” Mark asked, turning his disarming pale green eyes on me and sending a nervous spark down my spine. I was suddenly coming to the realisation that I cared what they thought of me.
“I haven’t been hiding her, Mark,” Xander grumbled, speaking up for the first time since his mum sent him to time out and I was grateful for his return.
“Then why is it we all found out about her through the tabloids?” Mark challenged as Xander stood at my side and I felt a relieved sigh rattle through my chest the moment his hand slipped into mine.
“I don’t think you’re one to talk. Mandy was nearly at the second triplet when we found out about you two.” Xander shot back and judging by the look on Mark’s face I knew this was a touchy subject. He was about to launch back at his brother but was thankfully cut off by the sound of another car rolling up the gravel outside.
“Uncle Jamie,” the triplets squealed, storming out the front door with a timid Lizzie on their tail. The adults weren’t too far behind, with Xander and I arriving last to the front yard to welcome the final additions to our merry bunch.
“Terri crushed,” Keely wailed, stabbing her finger at her red-faced brother from her car seat.
“It’s not my fault,” Theo yelled, storming away from the car he had just jumped out of before he was scooped up by his grandma.
“Hey there little man,” she crooned, brushing back some of his light hair so she could see his eyes. The boy was in serious need of a trim.
“Keely is coo coo, grandma,” Theo sighed as he rested his head against her shoulder. She tried to hide her amusement, but it was hard when faced with Theo’s grave tone. She was saved from answering when their father finally got out of the driver’s side and unlatched a wailing Keely from her car seat.
“Terri dead,” she screamed, slamming her little fist in her father’s chest as he wrestled her out of the car. He seemed to be holding on by a thread, and when his eyes found mine, I could tell his little girl had almost defeated him.
“Four hours,” he hissed over his daughter’s cries. “She’s been screaming for four hours.” Instantly jumping into action, I took her from his hands and worked to try and soothe her.
“How about Xander and I take her for a walk? He can show me the place and you and Theo can get some rest.”
“Take her,” Theo grumbled, giving his sister the evil eye from where he sat on his grandma’s hip. I didn’t miss the snort from Mark. He tried to hide it with a cough when Mandy hit him over the back of the head, and he received his own scolding look from his wife.
“Terri dead,” Keely wailed in my ear as I took her from her father. I bounced her gently on my hip trying to soothe her, and she instantly buried her face in my neck.
“Thanks, Annie,” Jamie sighed, leaning heavily against his dusty car. Theo had already wriggled his way out of his grandma’s hold and was chasing after the triplets. They were covered in dirt still, and I had a feeling they were headed for the muddy pigsties to get their cousin equally as dirty.
Xander’s mum, came over to kiss the hiccuping toddler in my arms before she made her way over to her eldest son and wrapped him in another of her bone-crushing hugs. Despite being over six feet tall, she somehow made her son look smaller than he was.
“Come on, teach. I’ll show you the best places to hide,” Xander murmured, taking the now drowsy two-year-old from my arms and curling her against his shoulder instead.
“Why am I not surprised you know the best places to hide?” His only reply was a sly smirk as he slipped his hand into mine and started to lead me away from the rest of his family.
Xander had walked me all over his family’s farm. Showing me all the barns and stables and all the animals his family raised. He never released my hand once, despite there being only the two of us and a comatose toddler gurgling on his shoulder.
I was familiar with farms, despite spending most of my educations in the city of Melbourne. I was selected in a leadership program that sent you to a working farm for nine weeks over our summer holidays. It was better than rattling around my parent’s Toorak home, hoping they would be home for Christmas.
The first place Xander showed me was above the old barn. He told me it was one of the places he used to come as a child to get away from his chaotic family. He told me his favourite place was in the lofty spaces in the eaves of the barn. He had me climb the ladder first, and I couldn’t help but feel like his eyes had found their way to my arse, and when I glanced down at him to find a smug look on his face, I knew my assumptions had been correct. He didn’t even have the decency to act guilty about it. I climbed a little faster after that and I didn’t miss his amused chuckle. When I reached the top, I stayed crouched down and immediately wondered how an adolescent Xander had fit.
I had felt him before I heard him. He was close to my side and his eyes locked on me as I took in his secret place. He had somehow managed to carry his sleeping niece up the ladder with him.
Smiling despite myself, I looked over at his hideout. In the corner was a collection of rumpled blankets that seemed as if he had just left it yesterday, not years ago. I also noticed there was a pile of books stacked up neatly at the back of his little nest of sorts and I was eager to see what he had been reading before the fame hit.
“I thought you bought a house for your parents in L.A.?” I frowned remembering what I had read that first day after he had picked me up.
“So, you’ve been reading about me?” He smirked, and I felt my cheeks heat up, and my embarrassment could be easily heard in what I said next, no matter how I tried to hide it.
“I always do my homework.”
“I bet you do, teach.” His lips were cool against the heat of my cheek, and I reeled back from his touch, but he was already moving forward towards his hideaway. “My parents moved back after a year. They hated being away from the farm. They sold the place and used the money to build Mark’s house out the back of the property.”
“That must have been hard.” There was an edge to his voice that almost hinted at a vulnerability. It squeezed my heart. Just like when one of my kids in class would tell me their parents wouldn’t be able to make it for their performance in the school play or they were backing out of coming on an excursion with us. New York parents were very busy.
“I spend most of my time in New York anyway. It’s not that far.” He shrugged, settling himself among the blankets before he laid his niece down. He was so tender with her I couldn’t help but stare at him and the sweet smile as he tucked a blanket around her.
“Are you going to join me or just stay over there staring at me?” Instantly his sweet smile turned into an arrogant smirk, and my frown had returned. Without replying, I walked as best I could over to where he was sitting. I sat on the very edge of one of the blankets as far away from him as I could manage without making it obvious but from the look on his face, he knew exactly what I was doing.
“Come here,” he grinned and I barely held in the yelp of surprised as he grabbed my hand and pulled me across the space between us until my side was pressed into his. I tried to push him away and put some distance between us, but he quickly wrapped an arm around my shoulders to keep me close.
“Do you know how many hours I spent up here, practising lines?” He reminisced, and I realised we weren’t going to discuss how close we were.
“What was your favourite?” I asked, reaching over to his stack of books and leafing through the titles. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet maybe?”
“Actually, it was a little less poetic than those. I always came back to Twelve Angry Men. It questions what truth is and how in our minds it can be warped. You know...” He trailed off, rubbing at the blond stubble growing on his chin and his eyes focused on his lap. It made sense he would be drawn towards something that pulled apart the truth and made you see the lies we can weave through it. His whole life was built on what others saw him as. We were in this position because of how others saw him. He wasn’t even willing to share the truth with his own family.
“Were you a dorky teenager?” I mocked, trying to lift his mood.
“I spent most of my teenage years on a set. I had tutors, so I never got to experience regular high school. Never even went to a Prom, apart from the fake one on the set of the show I was working on at the time.”
“If it makes you feel any better I have never been to a Prom either,” I consoled nudging my shoulder into his side.
“No one asked you?” He frowned, looking back at me with his warm hazel eyes. In the dim light of the loft, they looked almost brown, but if you looked close enough, you could see the green flecks. “I don’t believe that.”
“We don’t have Proms in Australia. School dances aren’t very popular.”
“I would have asked you if we went to school together.”
“Whatever you say wonder boy,” I smiled, falling deeper to his side.
“I bet you were a cute little nerd in high school. Adorable little skirts and always clutching your books to your chest.”
“I went to a private school.”
“No,” he groaned, tightening his hold around my shoulders and I looked up to see a pained look on his face. “Did you have a uniform?”
“Yeah, plaid skirt, knee high socks the whole shebang,” I answered, confused by his reaction.
“Have a little mercy, sweetheart. I did not need that image in my head.” When he opened his eyes I wasn’t ready for the smouldering look in them. Instantly, it sent a wave of heat through my body.
“Do you still have the uniform?” My cheeks were blazing as I stared up at him in shock.
“You’re adorable when you blush,” he murmured before dropping a sweet kiss on my nose and brushing some of my hair out of the way. Thankfully, at that moment his niece decided to return to the land of the living, and I was saved from trying to salvage my melting heart and form a coherent thought.
After Keely woke up, I announced I wanted to see more of the property and descended the ladder before Xander could object. We walked around until he showed me his second favourite place on the farm, a lush, green pond. Surrounded by trees that looked older than the house and an abundance of late blooming flowers. He settled us under one of the ancient trees to hide us from the afternoon sun that surprisingly still had a little bite despite winter’s fast approach. Keely was content to play in the mud pile among the tree roots, so it again left Xander and me in the ever-growing silence.
“I’m curious,” he began and slowly I drew my eyes away from the serenity and stillness of the water. “How did you end up in New York?”
I frowned at his question and turned my gaze back to the pond, watching as a family of ducks broke the calm and were gliding across the water’s surface. I didn’t like discussing the reasons for my coming here, and the truth was there was nothing that drew me to New York other than a deep desire to escape, to begin again.
“The school I was fired from,” I began, shooting him a snide look before continuing, “was the first one to get back to me out of all the ones I applied. Seemed like as good a place as any.” I shrugged, picking at the grass beside me before opening my palm and letting the blades get caught in the breeze.
“So it was all just luck.”
“I guess so,” I shrugged, dusting off my hands and looking back over at his calm expression. “Although considering the current situation I find myself in, I’m not sure I’ve been that lucky.”
“Come on sweetheart, it hasn’t been that bad,” he smirked, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling me into his side. I weakly attempted to push him away, but my heart wasn’t really in it. If I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t really sure where my heart was at anymore. Especially when he was running his hands up and down my arm before he tucked my head neatly beneath his chin.
“You’re a lot to handle.”
“You’re no walk in the park either, sweetheart,” he smirked, leaning down and placing a gentle kiss on the tip of my nose and it was fast becoming one of my favourite things.
“Lucky for you, you only need to put up with me for another month or so.” I reminded him, pulling out of his hold and trying to put some distance between us.
“Right. Just a month or so...” he trailed off, and I looked over to see him watching me with a strange expression.
I quickly distracted myself from the throbbing of my heartbeat in my ears by standing up and picking up a very muddy two-year-old. “Come on miss. Let’s get you cleaned up before dinner. I don’t think your grandma will be too impressed with the state of you.” I began walking back in the direction of his parent’s house assuming Xander would follow, but when I looked back, I realised he was still sitting looking out at the little pond. “Xander?”
I watched as he shook his head as if to clear it before he pushed up to his feet and jogged over to my side with an easy grin.
“Don’t think you could get rid of me that easy, did you sweetheart?” his arm slipped around my waist again, and it was quickly becoming a habit.
“No,” I frowned, looking down at my feet. “I don’t think losing you will ever be easy.”
“Alexander, get in here and set the table. Just because the world thinks you’re some big movie star doesn’t mean you can’t do the same jobs like the rest of us.” His mum was on his case as soon as we walked through the back door of the farmhouse. We came in through the kitchen and were immediately assaulted by the smells of a home cooked meal.
“Yes, ma.” Xander was already moving into another room to follow his mother’s orders, leaving me in the kitchen with what appeared to be the rest of his family. They were all gathered around a centre island bench, working on the wooden bench top. Mark was mixing something while he appeared to be settling an argument between his two girls over a pink teddy bear. His wife, Mandy, was putting the final layer of pastry over an apple pie under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. Rune, Claire’s husband, was sat at the counter with a bottle of beer in hand and a sleepy looking Lizzie on his lap. She was trying to stay awake to watch her mum as she sliced the vegetables. Behind them at the stove was a man I hadn’t met yet. From his greying hair and broad shoulders, I could only assume this was Xander’s father.
“’scuse me,” there was a light tugging at my shirt, and I looked down to find Cam looking up at me with his glowing green eyes. Theo stood just behind him, looking very shady as he glanced around the room. I noticed there was something hidden behind his back, but I couldn’t get a good enough look at it to determine what it was. “Where is Uncle Alex?”
“Setting the table...” I answered suspiciously, glancing between the pair as they whispered something to each other before shouting out a high-pitched thank you and barrelling through the door Xander just walked through. I glimpsed something green in Theo’s hands just before he disappeared.
“Thanks for watching her Annie,” I was stopped from following the boys when Jamie came up to me and took Keely from my arms. “I needed the break.”
“I could tell,” I smiled, brushing some of the dirt from Keely’s blonde hair. “Sorry, about the mess.”
“It’s fine; I’ll quickly take her to get cleaned up before dinner.” Then he disappeared out another door that led off the kitchen.
“Where’s this Annie I’ve heard so much about?” Came a booming voice and I looked over to see the man at the stove making his way swiftly over to me. Before I realised what was happening he had wrapped his arms around me and lifted me off the floor in a hug that almost rivalled his wife’s.
“You can’t be my son’s girlfriend,” he frowned setting me back down. “You are far too beautiful and much too intelligent to tricked by his charms.”
“He can be very persuasive,” I smiled.
“Well, I’m glad he finally won you over. I’m not sure I could have sat through another family gathering with his last girlfriend. I could only hear so much talk about her new fancy shoes.”
“George,” his wife scolded, snapping at him with a tea towel before he reeled her into his embrace.
“Oh sweetheart, you know as well as I that, that woman was an airhead. Our son was lucky he caught her cheating before they were married.” Jennifer, I was sure, was about to scold her husband but was interrupted by a deep shout from the other room and the crash of plates before two very guilty looking boys ran through the doors and out onto the back porch.
“Mark,” Mandy nodded to the door, and Mark quickly set down his bowl and followed after the boys. Colleen and Cally took their argument over the bear back up with both of them tugging on one of the arms and arguing over whose turn it was.
I heard another crash in the other room, and I quickly pushed through the door to find a very strange sight.
“Xander?” He had somehow managed to get on top of a set of heavy wooden shelves and wedged himself into the corner. I noticed his eyes were wide and tracking something in the room and judging from the rapid movements of his eyes, the something green I had seen in Theo’s hands was alive.
“Get it out,” he breathed, and I was worried his bulky frame was going to bring the whole set of wooden shelves down. Including all the plates and cups stacked up neatly inside.
“Get what out?”
“The frog! Get the frog out!” He yelled, pointing to what I assumed was the offending creature. By now, Jennifer and George had joined me, and I was already trying hard to contain myself.
“Oh son,” George sighed, shaking his head and moving to where Xander had pointed.
“I really wish Jamie hadn’t told the boys about Alex’s fear,” Jennifer frowned. “I’m running out of my good plates. Why can’t they put it in his bed? There’s nothing he can break in there.” That was the moment I lost my battle to keep my composure. Jennifer had walked back into the kitchen, followed quickly by George who had managed to wrangle the creature into one of the china teacups and all I could do was hug myself as my silent laughter wracked my body.
“I’m glad one of us is enjoying this, love,” he huffed, clambering down from his perch with very little grace. Which really wasn’t helping me because I was laughing so hard there were tears leaking from my eyes.
“Frogs,” I gasped, and he just sighed as he started to straighten out the mess he made.
Xander spent most of dinner dodging insults from his family. Mark was intermittently throwing green beans at him while Theo and Cam croaked at him. He took the insults like a trooper. He only yelled at the kids twice, and he only threatened Mark once with his steak knife before his mum confiscated it, and I had to cut his steak up for him.
While I spent most of the dinner ducking and weaving the barrage of questions Xander’s mum and dad had about our relationship. They wanted to know when we met, the dates he had taken me on, and what my plans were in the future now that my career was “circling the drain”. As Xander’s sister, Claire, had so eloquently put it after I explained the countless job interviews I had been turned away from. Judging by the sour expression on her face whenever she spoke to me it was clear I didn’t have a friend in her.
After dinner, Xander and I helped clear and cleaned the dishes before excusing ourselves. I was more than happy to escape and find a cosy bed to hunker down in for the night. It had been a long day, and there was nothing I wanted more than sleep.
“This is us,” Xander announced at the last door in the corridor.
“Please tell me your parents didn’t keep your room as a shrine,” I sighed, afraid of facing Xander’s childhood room.
“No,” he chuckled. “They redecorated the house a few years back. This is just one of the guest rooms.”
He opened the door and allowed me to walk through first. It was a quaint little country room with a floral bedspread and flowers on the bedside tables. Someone must have brought in our luggage while Xander was touring the farm with me. They sat neatly at the end of the black metal framed bed.
Xander shuffled into the room after me and shut the door. I suddenly realised we hadn’t discussed the sleeping arrangements at all. He was already unbuttoning his plaid shirt as I stood rooted to the hardwood floors. Was I ready to see his million dollar abs in person?
His shirt hit the floor, and I had a front row seat as Xander stretched his hands above his head, flexing all the mesmerising muscles on his back. I almost let out a groan at the sight knowing I would probably melt from the heat of seeing his front.
“Sweetheart?” No. He had spun around, and before I could get too close a look, I bent my head, so I was staring at my sock covered feet. I had to say something or do something, but I couldn’t seem to turn my thoughts into action. I was afraid any words that left my mouth were going to be a garbled mess, and I could barely breathe through the heat that was burning through my body at just the thought of the certifiable Greek god standing mere metres away from me. “Annie,” he began again, and I didn’t need my eyes to know he was wearing another of his smug smirks. He knew. Bastard. “Love, were you checking me out?” I wanted to die. Surely if I got any hotter, I would self-combust. Was that wish too much to ask for?
“I-I...we need...is it warm in here?” Smooth.
I heard him take a step towards me and I threw my hands out in front of me. “Stop.” I almost shouted, my eyes mistakenly landing on his well-toned waist before I let out a frustrated groan and shut them tight.
“Sweetheart,” he chuckled, and several more steps were headed in my direction. “What are you doing?”
“It’s not fair.”
“What’s not fair?” I peeked through my left eye to see him barely a metre away, but I didn’t really need to look to know that. I could feel the heat from his skin already brushing up against me.
“How’s a girl meant to be indifferent when they’re faced with all...that,” I gestured, finally opening my eyes and openly ogling his torso now. There was no point trying to resist it. He already knew I was affected by it, may as well enjoy the show while I could.
“Sweetheart, if you want to look, I’m more than happy you do,” he smiled. I breathed a frustrated sigh before I leant back on the door until my head knocked against it and I was looking at the white ceiling.
“Just put a damn shirt on.”
“Language, teach,” Xander scolded playfully before I heard him walking across the room and the sound of the suitcase opening.
When I was sure it was safe, I glared across at him in his plaid pyjama pants and plain blue v-neck. “You’re sleeping on the floor.” I quickly opened my overnight bag and pulled out my pyjamas and then pointed at the door. “Now, get out.”
“What? You get to watch me, and I don’t get to watch you?” He smirked, and the only response he got from me was silence. “Okay, I’m going.”
As soon as the door was closed, I got dressed as quickly as possible in case he decided to come back in without warning.
When I was ready, I called out to him that I was finished. I was already getting a pillow and an extra couple of blankets from the cupboard for him to sleep on as he walked in. When I turned back to him to start setting up where he was going to sleep, I noticed he was looking at me with a strange expression.
“What?” I bit out defensively. I had a feeling he was judging my pink flannel pyjamas.
“Nothing,” he sighed before his eyes flashed and I knew I was going to like what was going to come out of his mouth next. He had another of his irritating smirks and rather than set out his makeshift bed neatly like I planned I just threw it not the floor and marched over to the bed. “I was just hoping you packed something a little more-”
“If you even dare finish that sentence you’ll be sleeping outside.” I hissed, throwing the covers back with a little more force than I had meant.
“Come on Annie,” he chuckled. I was already slipping beneath the covers and eager to put this day behind me.
“Go to sleep Xander.”
There was rustling of blankets for a few minutes before I heard him sigh dramatically and when I didn’t respond, he did it again.
“You aren’t really going to make me sleep on the floor, are you sweetheart?”
“Better believe it, frog boy. This bed it off limits to all spoilt movie stars.” I shut off the light, knowing he was still standing at the end of the bed.
“I’m not spoilt,” he pouted, and I bit back my retort as I heard him start to lay out the blankets.