“Unscripted” by Jayne Denker
Around what felt like an hour later, I reached civilization. That is, some scrubby grass and sidewalks, with people on them. I was sure I’d left a few toes behind, and my shoulders had burned to a crisp, what with the parking lot pavement frying me like a strip of bacon in a skillet, but I’d survived. Bonus: I’d be able to find my way back to my car using the trail of blood from my feet.
I couldn’t believe I was doing this . . . and my bloody feet were also feeling a little cold. Time for some moral support before I chickened out. I dug my phone out of my bag and hit my most frequently used contact. Luckily Jaya answered her own phone for once; I didn’t have the strength to deal with Ashley at the moment. “Babe. You will never guess where I am.”
“Tell me you’re on a chaise lounge by a reflecting pool in Istanbul.”
“Similar chaise, similar reflecting pool, Vietnam?”
“At least gimme a beach scene.”
“How about lots of beach, no water.”
“Very brown, very dry, three-hundred-and-fifty-degree open-oven, gates-of-hell-type heat. G’wan, guess.”
Jaya laughed. “Not on vacation, then.”
“Definitely not. I am working.” I took a deep breath. “I’m in Moreno Valley.”
There was a pause, then an incredulous, “Why?”
“Because here be Alex.”
Jaya let loose a little squeal. “You found him?”
“What did he say?”
Another deep breath, this one shakier. “I haven’t seen him yet. On my way there now.”
“What’s he doing in Moreno Valley? And—sorry—which is where, exactly, again?”
“An hour and a half, two hours inland from the coast . . . ish. I don’t know; I just followed my GPS.”
“And what’s he doing there?” she repeated.
I limped up the wide, shallow steps of a squat building that looked like all the other squat buildings surrounding it, except it was round instead of square. I heaved open one of the heavy glass doors and practically fell inside.
“I’m here. I’ll have to talk to you later.”
“But where’s here? And why couldn’t you just text him?”
“Later, my pet. All things will be revealed later.”
“I hate it when you build suspense.”
I clicked off. I was in the lobby of the arts building of the esteemed Inland Empire Community College, est. 1969, according to the poking about I’d done online yesterday. I couldn’t see a thing, still blinded as I was by my time in the searing sunshine, but I wasn’t interested in the sights. I only wanted to collapse on the floor and absorb the air-conditioning for, oh, about three days or so.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw a couple of shabby benches with worn checked upholstery and metal legs squatting in front of some narrow, floor-to-ceiling tinted windows on either side of the doors, a couple of modest abstract sculptures on pedestals, and the open doors to the theater proper, straight ahead, where voices, and random clunks and clanks, echoed. I dropped onto the nearest bench, lifted my hair, and let the cool air hit the back of my neck.
What was I doing here? This was a stupid idea. It was stupid of me to drive all the way out here. And where was here? Stupid Tatooine, felt like. I had never been to Moreno Valley before, even though it was only a couple of hours from L.A., but my first impression of it wasn’t all that positive: hot, brown, dry. It might as well have been another planet as far as I was concerned.
Maybe I should have texted Alex . . . but no. I knew I had to do this face to face. He could ignore a text, but he couldn’t ignore me, right in front of him.
So after a few seconds, when I was feeling almost human again, I hoisted my bag back onto my shoulder and headed farther inside. The theater itself was even darker than the lobby, the house lights low, throwing the lit stage into high relief. Alex should be here. I scanned the people scurrying around for some sign of his familiar face. Was that him there? Or maybe—
Thwack. Suddenly something was in front of me, and I walked right into it. The something was hard and soft at the same time, and a slightly pained noise came out of it. My face was between two shoulder blades, and my purse had just swung forward to whack their owner in the kidney. I jumped back as the person turned around.
“Sorry,” I muttered, stepping to the right to go around. “Dark in here.” And I made for the stage again.
But a limb shot out and barred the way as effectively as Bea’s studio gate arm, blocking me right at boob level. Was this person trying to cop a feel? But no—he jumped, apparently as alarmed as I was at where his arm had landed, and removed it quickly. “Can I help you with something?”
I craned my neck to see past him, keeping my eye on the people on the brightly lit stage. “Yeah, you can get out of the way. I need to get—”
Before I could say anything more, someone from down near the foot of the stage called, “Mason?” and a young woman in a ribbed tank top, cargo shorts, and hiking boots, with a headset around her neck, loped up the aisle from the foot of the stage. When she got to us, she pushed some stray hairs away from her forehead, smoothing them back toward her sleek, dark ponytail, and gave me a really good Who the fuck are you? look. Kudos, kid. Nice territorial vibe.
“Can I help you?” the fierce little thing asked.
Oh, so much help offered around here. Too bad I got the feeling they were offering to help me find the exit. I decided to play dumb. “I hope so,” I said. “I’m—”
“Faith Sinclair,” the guy supplied.
Oh great. Recognized. Now the question was, would that be a help or a hindrance? I looked at the guy, scanning him from his old-fashioned sneakers—what would probably have been called tennis shoes back in the day—up his “I’m a grown-up” khakis and his dark plaid button-down shirt, past those impressive shoulders I had walked into, to the top of his shaggy head.
He was staring back at me, scritching the bit of scruff under his chin.
“Oh, seriously?” It just popped out of my mouth, and I still wasn’t sure if I was pleased or dismayed. I passed a hand over my forehead. “Weren’t you—”
With a quick, sidelong glance at the girl, he cut me off with, “Right. In L.A. I’m, uh, Bea’s friend.” Quickly changing the subject, he turned to the pit bull of a tech next to him. “Uh, Kaylie, why don’t you get Ms. Sinclair some water. She looks hot—uh, thirsty.”
She didn’t move, just kept her narrowed eyes on me.
“Kaylie?” he prompted.
Reluctantly, she headed back down the aisle, ponytail swinging, occasionally glaring at me over her shoulder. I kept waiting for her to do the two-fingers-up-to-the-eyeballs “I’m watching you” thing, but to her credit she didn’t. I turned my attention back to the pleasant, and familiar, specimen of manhood in front of me.
“Sorry about that,” he murmured.
“So. Dusty Toyota. Isn’t this a coincidence.”
“Good character name. But—hate to let you down—I’ve washed the car since then.”
Jayne Denker is the author of three contemporary romantic comedies, By Design, Unscripted, and Down on Love, and is hard at work on a fourth. She lives in a small town in western New York, USA, with her husband, son, and one very sweet senior-citizen basement kitteh who loves nothing more than going outside, where she sits on the front walk and wonders why she begged to go outside. When Jayne’s not hard at work on another novel (or, rather, when she should be hard at work on another novel), she can usually be found frittering away stupid amounts of time online.
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